(btw, just a tip—you might want to take the over on the word count on this post)
Now let me just sum up a few books that I have squeezed in around some of the others I’ve recently covered.
Barrow’s Boys, by Fergus Fleming (1998) is part of a subgenre that might be called “exploration disaster nonfiction.” In the early 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars, the British had an excess of naval officers and ships. Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, decided that exploration was the best use for all this extra material and personnel. Obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage and mapping the Niger River, Barrow sent out expedition after expedition, with what could best be called mixed success. A good trip was one in which anyone survived, or at least a journal was retrieved. Despite Barrow’s conviction about the importance of exploration and discovery, he had a knack for sending out huge expeditions that were constantly underfunded, poorly equipped, and based on faulty information; Barrow had his own theories about where and how some places were to be found and even when he was seemingly proven wrong, he would take what evidence he could find from the explorers and push it and shove it until it fit his ideas. When people did insist they were right, he either ignored them or bullied them. All that aside, he did encourage an age of exploration that helped fill in some blank spots on the map (though Barrow didn’t necessarily agree with or appreciate the results). There is much to be learned from this book—for example how to survive an Arctic winter on your ship (essentially turn the ship into a big giant tent, bring lots of canned soup, ward off scurvy with lime, keep an eye on condensation, and put on lots of amateur theatricals to everyone busy during the long, Arctic nights). Or never to ditch your canoes if your making a trek overland, because you never know when you might run into a river that needs to be crossed. Or that eating your boots is a better nutritional choice than lichen. And of course, if you are starving to death, are out of supplies, your expedition has split up into smaller groups in the hope that someone might find help, and you suddenly run into one lone straggler from another group who is somewhat wild-eyed and offers you “wolf meat” from a wolf carcass that he “found” and it tastes funny, well, you might just be a cannibal. Oh, and also, don’t turn your back on said wild-eyed type. In fact, shoot him before he eats, that is, shoots you.
Fleming has great material to work with here—startlingly dangerous conditions and locations, characters both stoic and nervous, humble and vainglorious, and in the fine tradition of 19th century British explorers, diligent journal keepers and letter writers. So it’s good stuff to begin with, but Fleming puts it all together quite well, and most importantly, seems to be having a lot of fun. My only complaint is I would have liked more maps, but then again, don’t I always? This book is light and fun, entertaining, somewhat informative, but in the end definitely a bit of a niche subject. Still recommended. Good vacation read.
The White Nile, by Alan Moorehead, covers British exploration in Africa from about 1850-1900 (don’t ask me how I got on this British exploration kick; I think I was just wandering through the library picking out random books). This book was published in 1960 and therefore still has a bit of the aura of the Empire about it, though that adds to it rather than detracts, giving the book a grandiose confidence in its British explorers and their adventures that would be lacking in a latter day account concerned with such issues as, oh, say, colonialism, exploitation, all that stuff. Anyway, the book has all sorts of good stiff upper lip types from the days of the intrepid explorer—the feuding Burton and Speke, Samuel Baker and his wife (the type who could be raving mad with a fever while heading downriver in a canoe one day then sipping tea and painting watercolors the next), Livingstone and Stanley, of course, and Moorehead’s seeming favorite, Major-General Gordon. Gordon was best known for his exploits fighting in the Crimean War and the Opium Wars in China, and seemed a good choice to take over from the finally sick- of-it-all Baker as governor of Khartoum. He managed for a while, seemed to be a popular governor, did some exploring of the Nile, but after a while conflicts with the ruling powers in Egypt (both Egyptian and British) led him to leave and return to England. When things began to fall apart in the Sudan, though, the British called on him to return in order to try to hold down Khartoum in the face of a gathering storm of Sudanese fighters headed by Mahommed Ahmad, a powerful Islamic leader known as the Mahdi. Khartoum was put under siege, the British didn’t send relief quickly enough (there was something of a feeling that Gordon was a bit of a loose cannon who had already disobeyed his instructions for holding Khartoum), and it all ended with Khartoum being overrun by the Sudanese rebels, with British help just a day or two a day. Gordon was beheaded by the mob of Mahdi’s army, though he did leave a detailed, increasingly melodramatic journal of his life and thoughts during the siege that endeared him to the British public (he was an Eminent Victorian, you know). Moorehead, ever a bit worshipful when it comes to Gordon, says that everyone, even Mahdi’s fighters, regarded Gordon as a “perfect man” (though I don’t know if he ate his boots or anything really cool like that). This supposed admiration didn’t stop the fighters from kicking Gordon’s body around or parading his head around the encampment. What I’m saying is I think Moorehead was projecting his British schoolboy admiration of Gordon onto the Sudanese who I’m sure had less use for that kind of thing; to them he was probably just another British soldier in the way of what they wanted.
Moorehead's personal feelings, though, his admiration for the intrepid, stoic explorers, are what makes the book a fine read. He genuinely believes in these people and is unabashedly astonished by what they accomplished under such extreme conditions (19th century exploration was rarely easy or pleasant). He makes good use of journal excerpts, original memoirs of the expeditions (best-sellers in their day), and letters. The edition I had also had many lovely illustrations from the originals; those alone are worth seeing to get a feel for the time period and how these adventures were perceived. Good stuff though you may want to supplement it with more of an outsider (that is someone who wasn’t so close to the time period and subjects) perspective.
Did you ever read a book and get to the end and feel like you didn’t really read it? Like if you had to take a test on it you’d do just as badly as if you hadn’t even flipped it open and scanned a page? Uh, yeah, that happened here. See, I was thinking one day that I didn’t know much about the Spanish Civil War and felt that I should know more about it. So I went to the library and only found one book on it: The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union, and Communism, by Stanley G. Payne (2004). I had kind of a bad feeling about it just from the title. It doesn’t exactly sound like a dramatic account of war, victory, loss, and cultural upheaval, does it? Things looked even worse when I got home and flipped it open and saw that the abbreviation list ran for four pages. Now I am highly in favor of books including abbreviation lists—it makes life so much easier to have one central place to go to when you run across a couple of letters that haven’t been mentioned for about 45 pages and you need your memory refreshed a little bit. But four pages worth of organizations that need abbreviations? Not a good sign. And indeed, the rarest of occasions, I was right on this harbinger of literary doom. This book is very informative, but it is also, well, really dull. It basically covers the evolution of different communist groups in Spain and their relationship to the Soviet Union in the years leading up to the war and during it. If you have ever read anything about communism during that time period, you may know that there was not exactly a united front; people tended to spend more time forming groups and then fighting about them and dissolving them than actually doing much. They’re kind of like a group of third graders who keep on forming clubs, throwing out members, starting new clubs, rejoining clubs, etc. So reading this book feels a little like this: “And then the FAIA formed as an alternative to the more right leaning PQB, which eventually split into the RMN and OTR which did join the FAIA, forming the FAIA-OTR…the LSY accused the MNO of being too Socialist and the MNO found the TFJ too Marxist, but the TFJ thought they were too Leninist, however, they both refused to work with the PSIH, which was considered a Trotskyite organization, and none of them cared about the fascists because they were the same as the bourgeois democrats, and the DMN, which sent a delegation to meet with the Comintern in Moscow was not leftist enough for the BDLK, but was too radical for some members who splintered off into the BDL, who agreed that the fascists weren’t a problem because they were really just capitalists and if Spider-Man 3 is opening on May 4th, how many days is that? Should we plan to go the first day or wait a day or two?...is it supposed to rain tomorrow, oh sorry, my mind wandered a bit...so there was an insurrection by the leftists and then there was a Popular Front government and then there was an uprising led by nationalist members of the Spanish Army and some members of the left leaning Government wanted to form Workers’ Militias…and I don’t know what that mark on my desk is…how did that get there? And what’s that noise?” Anyway, you get the idea.
So I appreciate the fact that the point of this book is to, as the title clearly state, explicate the role of communism and the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War. It does the job...I guess (like I said, it all went by in a blur). But I just feel that it didn’t have to be this drab. For example, Payne will give the name of a leader of one group. Sometimes he might mention one job the person has had, or maybe what region of Spain he came from. But that’s it. You don’t find out how this leader came to his political beliefs, how he rose in the organization. Payne rarely even bothers to mention how old he is. Would it be so bad to have just a little bit of the personal brought into the story, just to make us understand more about why this is happening and what kind of people are leading this revolution and why? There’s really almost nothing in here beyond the different permutations of the groups. Okay, there is the occasional glimpse of the motivations of the Soviets in their support of Spanish communists, and the evolving plans of the Comintern. You get a little bit of a feel for why Spain became the second most left leaning nation in that time period, instead of France, or China, or Britain, but by the time those theories began to emerge, I was pretty much numb from reading about why the PSE differed from the PSF. Like I said, I managed to get through this book without really getting anything out of it. I still don’t feel like I know anything about the Spanish Civil War. If you’re really into just dry facts about the various permutations of communist groups in Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, or a real fan of acronyms, then this book is for you. If not, you might want to look around for something else.
I guess that’s it for now, but it’s way too much as always, isn’t it?