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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ’emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.

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Links: Revolts.co.uk

23 February 2010

Along with my periodic book reviews, I’ve decided to start posting brief recommendations of various Web sites and blogs I consult on at least a semi-regular basis.

I first came across Revolts.co.uk several years ago, when I was working on research into the delicate powerplay involved in the timing of renewing British oil sanctions on Rhodesia. After coming across information on how initial vote over Rhodesian oil sanctions in 1965 had caused a terrible three-way split in the Conservative Party, I became more interested in looking at backbench dissent and rebellion, and parliamentary voting behavior in general. It was wonderful to come across Revolts.co.uk and explore other instances of backbench rebellion frequency, size, and structure — and all in a way that saved me the trouble of poring over Hansard myself.

The site was in hiatus for a time, owing to a loss of research funding, but I was pleased to read in a recent Lords of the Blog post that Revolts.co.uk is back online and looking at voting patterns once again. So it’s now on my links list to remind myself to check it every so often and see what new developments have been posted. If the forthcoming General Election ends in a hung parliament, or very near to one, the site could prove very useful indeed.

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The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

2 February 2010

I have had this book for quite some time now — a lucky find in a library book sale — but I freely admit that the title was intimidating enough to keep me from really attempting to read it until a few months ago. I still need to get my hands on a copy of First Circle at some point.

The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Shortly before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward was banned from publication in 1966, Solzhenitsyn attempted to respond to criticisms that he had written the novel as a deliberate attack on the Soviet regime. ‘There are too many medical details for it to be a symbol,‘ he said, adding that the manuscript was ‘about cancer…not as it is written about in literature devised to entertain people, but as it is experienced every day by the sick.’ Although One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s novella about the Soviet labour camps, and the short stories ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’ and ‘Matryona’s House’ had been approved for publication during the political thaw that followed the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn’s latest work pushed the boundaries of appropriate literature in a post-Khrushchev USSR. And in spite of Solzhenitsyn’s protests that the intent of The Cancer Ward was to show a more realistic depiction of the physical and psychological sufferings of cancer patients, he made little attempt to disguise the fact that the pain he was writing about went beyond that of tumours and treatments: the cancer, in fiction and in real life, was the Soviet system itself.

The Cancer Ward is set in the men’s cancer treatment ward of a provincial hospital in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, present-day Uzbekistan, a few years after the death of Stalin. The patients on the ward are a mixed lot, young and old, Russians and non-Russians, and range from a former political prisoner in permanent exile to an officious ‘personnel director’ who actively resents being treated in such a shabby hospital with the poor and the indigent. The doctors, nurses, and technicians who staff the hospital do the best that they can in spite of their own set of problems — oppressive bureaucracy and politically motivated meddling, incompetent colleagues who cannot be removed or demoted, and the constant grind of working too many hours with too many responsibilities — that hamper their professional abilities. But as the treatments progress and the patients improve or worsen, bits of strange news begin to filter in from outside the hospital. Why are so many of the old guard Party members, the stalwarts of Stalin’s day, resigning their posts or being replaced in their positions? What is this rumour that thousands of prisoners — people who surely must have done something wrong, since they confessed to all manner of crimes against the State — are to be released and rehabilitated, even allowed to return to their old homes? Something seems to be eating away at the old order bit by bit, and even those who have no love for the Party are forced to wonder whether, in this instance, the cure might be worse than the disease.

The extended allegory of Stalinism-as-cancer makes it very easy to read The Cancer Ward as an anti-Soviet polemic from start to finish. However, Solzhenitsyn himself was a cancer survivor whose illness went untreated until it was almost too late, and his writing brings out the dread, isolation, and uncertainty experienced by cancer patients, who can never be certain whether their discharge from the cancer ward means complete recovery or imminent death. For those who have experienced cancer firsthand, whether their own or that of a loved one, The Cancer Ward will be a painful book to read at times. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s story is not merely a roman à clef or political protest — it celebrates the determination of the human spirit, the desire to live and love and hope and enjoy life in any way possible, whether in the shadow of cancer or in the shadow of the gulag. And even though The Cancer Ward is less well known than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the breath-taking Gulag Archipelago, it deserves to be more widely read.

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Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

26 January 2010

This review ended up being more brief than I was expecting it to be, but rather than attempt to pad it out for length I think it makes sense to leave it short.

Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope

In my review of British poet Wendy Cope’s 1986 collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, I mentioned that she has previously expressed a strong dislike of seeing her poems reproduced in full (or in significant part) on the Internet. Once again, I have no problem respecting those wishes, though it does make writing a full review a bit more difficult.

Serious Concerns, published in 1992, is in one sense a direct response to the reviewers and critics of her first poetry collection. Several of the poems address comments that were made about her work. The title poem, ‘Serious Concerns’, skewers a rather banal description of her poetry as being ‘witty’ and ‘unpretentious’ — Cope briefly ponders whether the most appropriate course of action is to try to compose poems that are less witty or more pretentious or both. Jason Strugnell, her literary creation who stands in for any number of contemporary male poets (from T.S. Eliot to Philip Larkin), makes a few appearances with examples of his latest works. But most of Cope’s poems in this collection are not so metafictional; most of them tend to look at relationships, exploring the initial heady feelings of falling in love or being in love, the struggles of trying to keep a difficult relationship going, and even the periods of desperation when it seems like loneliness and solitude are all that is left.

The poems in Serious Concerns usually end up being classified as ‘light verse’, a nebulous description that (as others have said) tends to raise more questions than it answers. Most of the subjects have a deep personal resonance, ranging from the frustrations often felt by the single person at Christmas-time to the uncertainty of what to do with the possessions of a recently deceased elderly loved one. They are indeed serious concerns, described with a seriousness that happens to be hidden or at least partially concealed by the verse. This kind of thought-provoking poetry is what Cope does best — which is what makes Serious Concerns both an excellent continuation of her first collection of poems and a fine selection of verse in its own right.

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Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

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A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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The Constitution of the United Kingdom: A Contextual Analysis by Peter Leyland

15 December 2009

I’ve just returned from the thoroughly enjoyable Fiction and British Politics conference, and hope to post a little more about it once I manage to marshall my thoughts into a suitable post. For now, though, here is another review originally written for Political Studies Review.

The Constitution of the United Kingdom: A Contextual Analysis by Peter Leyland

The Constitution of the United Kingdom is the first book in Hart Publishing’s new ‘Constitutional Systems of the World’ series, and the editors have presented an interesting challenge for the series from the outset. Unlike many other constitutional systems, such as that of the United States, the constitution of the United Kingdom is uncodified, far less rigidly defined than other existing constitutions. Commentators have occasionally spoken of the UK’s ‘back-of-an-envelope’ constitution which depends as much (or even more so) on convention and precedent as it does on formal documents. To include both the written and unwritten aspects of the constitution of the United Kingdom, the book first looks into the historical context of the system, examining the various sources of constitutional authority and the constitution’s underlying principles as they have developed over the course of the country’s history. From the historical background, the analysis moves on to explore institutional structures and divisions of power — including power divisions within the government; among national, regional, and local government; and (in the past half-century) between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Leyland’s work covers the intricate structural framework of the British constitution, setting out sections on the changing role of the Crown, the relationship between Parliament and the executive, the judiciary, and devolved and local government. There are short summaries of notable legal cases and of current constitutional debates, such as the place of the House of Lords as a second chamber, the case for abolishing the monarchy, the recent reformation of the office of the Lord Chancellor, and the ‘West Lothian question’ on devolved government for England. At the end of each section is a guide to further reading, featuring useful texts and appropriate Web sites for those interested in exploring the subject in greater depth.

On the whole, the book provides a compact yet comprehensive analysis of the complexities of the British constitution, and presents the analysis in a straightforward, well-written manner. As the first book in the series, The Constitution of the United Kingdom has set a fine example for the other books to follow, and one can only hope that forthcoming titles will be equally valuable for those who have an interest in constitutional systems of the world.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 384.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.