Ghost Map

The sub-title of this book is The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World’. The book comprises two sections: a detailed account of the cholera epidemic itself which struck a part of London south of the Thames in 1851 and raged for 20 months; and then a shorter section on what was learned about the disease and how this knowledge was used later to deal with it. Sound Boring?

Not at all. The scale of human tragedy described here is heart-breaking, as is the scale of the stupdity of the City Fathers in persisting with out-dated explanations of what was the cause of the disease. To be brief, the authorities stuck with the ‘miasma’ explanation which blamed bad air and smells for carrying the disease, even in the face of hard evidence that it was water-borne. This is the kind of explanation which seems just common sense today but back then in the mid 1850s it was a revolutionary concept.

Still sound boring? – Well, I think that if you start reading this book there’s a good chance you won’t put it down until you finish. It is far from being anything like a scientific treatise. In fact, It reads like a detective story – a few dedicated people trying to track down a culprit, all their efforts being spurned and derided by those in power who think they know all the answers.

'Death's Dispensary'
‘Death’s Dispensary’

The common people at that time took their water from neighbourhood pumps. Eventually one of the investigators, John Snow, was able to show proof that a particular pump in Broad Street (Soho) was the source of polluted water and managed to get it closed down. Even then, the authorities were very slow to admit they were wrong and very ready to rubbish the evidence he supplied. Sound familiar?

Another fascinating aspect of the book is its depiction of the parlous state of waste collection in London at that time and the disgusting work the ‘night-soil’ men had to do and the way they had to do it.The vulnerability of the water supply, given these methods, is starkly obvious and reading about them is inclined to make one think of ‘fracking’ its implications for the most precious resource (after clean air) that we have.

Instead of a map you might be able to use Richard Ford’s ‘The Sportswriter’ to getThe Sportswriter around some parts of New Jersey, so topographically exact is his writing. Or maybe it’s all fiction? If so, it’s very convincing fiction indeed. He has a real feeling for place and precise location.

Frank Bascombe (also a major character in Ford’s later work) has something of the Holden Caulfield’s about him: the naivite, the endless introspection, the itchy desire to be always on the move, traits somewhat understandable in Salinger’s young adolescent but a little misplaced, it would seem, in a man of 39.

There are reasons. Frank is haunted by the death of his 12 year old son. It happened some years before the start of the novel but he is still haunted by it when we meet him. In his own words: ‘For a time – this was a period after Ralph died – I had no idea about it myself. and in fact thought I was onto something big – changing my life, moorings loosed, women, travel, marching to a different drummer. Though I was wrong.’ This loss is at the heart of the book and  is achingly at the heart of the novel’s first scene where he and his ex-wife get together on a Good Friday morning at their son’s grave. The other great loss Frank has suffered is his marriage. As we read through the book it is impossible not to like Frank, but it’s also impossible not to see why his marriage broke up.

The book tells  a rather sorrowful story, but is far from being a sorrowful book. It is in fact hilarious in parts, especially those parts where Frank finds himself in situations where he has to deal with people whom he has (unwittingly) upset. As well as this, Ford’s wry humour is a constant undercurrent, as is his wisdom pertaining to humans and the reasons why we do what we do to each other.

And the story is Frank’s story, as told by Frank himself in an almost Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ way, but not quite as strict as with Joyce (thank God: I prefer some filtering). He is always ‘seeing around’ things and getting a good hold on how other people think, and especially as to what they think of him. The book benefits too from being set in a short time span (Good Friday, Easter Sunday) which allows a sharp Joycean forensic analysis of the events.

Certainly one of the best books I have ever re-read.  If you like John Cheever (who gets a mention) and Raymond Carver, you will love this book. Absolutely recommended.

[I met Richard Ford when he gave a series of talks to the participants in a course I was doing in 2012. He is an amiable man with a strong sense of humour who wears his fame lightly. We all liked him very much.]

Red FoxSon of the Sioux and nephew of Crazy Horse, Red Fox was a leading spokesman for the Indian legacy. In his long life (1870-1976) he heard the guns at Custer’s last stand, was only twenty years old when news was brought of the massacre at Wounded Knee, and survived to see the newsreels of the Vietnam tragedy. This book is based on notes he made late in life of what he had witnessed and is fleshed d out into a very readable account by Chas Asher, of whom I know nothing except he was a news reporter and published some books in the 1930s.

This book was first published in 1972, though in his introduction Asher says that he first met the Chief in 1969 and began to talk with him then about his long life and experiences. Any account of the fortunes of the Native American indigenous peoples over the last two centuries is heartbreaking. Red Fox takes us through some of the atrocities perpetrated on them by the beneficiaries of ‘manifest destiny’ and attempts to detail them in a factual, non-emotive way, though this of course is not always possible, given the horrors he has to recount. The Native American journey (or rather, ‘forced march’) from being proud nations to being outcasts in their own lands is well told in a wonderfully brief and to-the-point little book (152 pages!).

Besides being an important figure with his own people, Red Fox also became something of aBuffBill Poster personage among the whites through his involvement with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He got on well with Bill, who understood Indian ways and, whatever about using them for profit, treated them well enough and gave them some much-needed employment. Interestingly, the show did a tour of Ireland around 1905, doing performances Dublin, Cork and Galway.

Of course Red Fox knew that the Wild West Show shenaigans was ultimately little more than the Indian being exploited and exhibited as a ‘savage’, a curiosity from the Wild West past. As regards being seen as a savage, he says: “… that was the only way the White man could justify his acts as he swept across America shooting everything in his gunsights” (p.137)

But he made the best of the situation. What else he could he do? He wasn’t a man to sit and mope in his teepee. In fact he comes across as a pragmatist. He knew the game was up as regards the Native American battle to save their lands. At the same time, he comes across as a man who never lost his sense of his own worth, nor of his people’s worth.

Anyone with an interest in the history of the North  American native peoples should read this book.

 

 

FerraroIn retrospect, and even at the time, Geraldine Ferraro had very little chance of being elected Vice President of the United States in 1984, up against ‘the great communicator’ and the first George Bush. But she gave it her best shot and made history by being the first woman to compete for the second highest political office in the land.

This ‘phenomenon’ of being the ‘first woman, etc’ was both an advantage and a disadvantage. It got her publicity and made her something of a novelty act, but it also brought a type of intense scrutiny that a male contender would not have attracted. On the matter of dress: “… there are things that happen … for instance, if you’re walking along in a parade and you raise your arm and your slip shows, people might be critical of you. No guy has a problem like that …” And those constant boquets of flowers on arrival – “On the one hand, there was Geraldine Ferraro,  a person who loves flowers. On the other hand, there was Geraldine Ferraro, the vice-presidential candidate who was not going to walk around looking like a bridesmaid. So I’d thank the donor very much and instantly  hand the lowers to Eleanor [her assistant].”

More serious was the way her husband and his business affairs were brought into theFerraro2 frame in an attempt to find something irregular. And of course, business being business,  something was found, which although rather minor, was magnified in the context of his wife’s drive for  the VP office. Serious also was her weakness on issues like abortion because, although a practising Roman Catholic, she was, like many American female practising Catholics, pro-choice. Needless to say this brought her into conflict with her Church and seriously damaged her among co-religionists. Hardened two-term congresswoman though she was, she felt personally hurt by this, quoting President John F. Kennedy: “I do not speak for my Church on public matters – and the Church does not speak for me.”

Geraldine Ferraro died in 2011 at the age of 75  after a long battle with cancer. She didn’t make it to the White House but she did make history. This is a well-written account of one of the toughest and most demanding campaign trails in the world. All the tougher when you’re a woman, but Geraldine was up for it. Her fighting spirit and warm personality is well served by this book and the roller-coaster nature of the whole adventure is fascinating. Recommended reading.

Bk Paradise LostWhen one visits a place there is often the urge to find out more about it. So it was with me when I stayed a few holiday days in the Turkish city of Izmir, formerly Smyrna. A wonderful, vibrant city with lots to see (the fabled Pergamon not far away). One often hears about places ‘that have a great history behind them’ and it’s a bit of a truism. However, with Izmir one can sense that it is a place of great deeds and adventures, some admirable, some reprehensible. So I picked up Giles Milton’s book ‘Paradise Lost’ (subtitled ‘Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance’) to get a bit of backgrounding.

Milton desribes a city founded in ancient times and in which a veritable hodge-podge of nationalities lived side by side in tolerance and harmony over the centuries. It is not enough to say that this was due in large part to the fact that it was an important commercial centre and that all latent hostilities were buried under the idea that ‘business is business’ and no ideologies or spiritual beliefs should be allowed to interfere. Doubtless this was one of the reasons for peaceful co-habitation but I believe that living in close and friendly terms with people of different religious persuasion can breed mutual respect, provided there is good will on both sides. The destruction of all this tolerance, and the city itself, makes for sad reading.

Nationalist activist and social advocate, Halide Edib, addressing the protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May 1919

Halide Edib, the great woman writer and social advocate who played such a prominent role in her country’s developing history and she is pictured in one of the book’s photos in fiery pose, high on a balcony, her cloak dramatically flying in the wind, addressing a protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May1919. G

ood book, well written. Recommended.

In a very short review by Robert Gale Woolbert in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’  (Jan. 1947) I read: ‘The author of this informative volume is said to be a lady who was in Rome continuously during the last days of Fascist rule. It is in the form of a diary running from April 1943 to June 1944, and combines a lot of chitchat with some really interesting items.’  Another review in the Spectator by Robert Hale of 1946 makes a few comments on the book but adds nothing about this mysterious ‘lady’.

Flour for liberated Romans
Flour for liberated Romans

I can find little else about the author of this fascinating book. It is well worth reading by anyone interested in the period, or anyone interested in how it feels to living under occupation by a foreign power. These months of living under constant aerial bombardment by the allies and with their country in the hands of their former German partners-in-arms are tellingly chronicled by M. de Wyss, whoever she was. She seems to have have good access to well-placed sources on both sides and a knack of getting ordinary people to talk freely to her. I thought for a while that maybe she made some of it up, but it’s just too full of real situations not to be anything but a true account.

American troops driving through Rome in British trucks
American troops driving through Rome in British trucks

She is obviously very fond of Italy and Italians but that doesn’t prevent her from having a rather jaundiced view of things now and then. She finds it amusing  the way that the Italians, having by now (August 1943) given up the fight, are so very impatient for the English and Americans to invade and finish the job of getting rid of the Germans. She remarks: ” This is a good example of a wide-spread Italian attitude. Responsibility does not exist for them. The Allies are to do all that the Italians need without the slightest effort on their part! But the country and even the people are charming – charming and childish”. Not a comment that would please her Italian friends! But that’s the sort of book it is. One person’s close up view of an extraordinary time in Rome ‘under the terror’ and her unvarnished views on what is going on around her. I am strongly reminded of Victor Klemperer’s book ‘I Shall Bear Witness’ (Phoenix, 1999) in which he describes what it was like living as a citizen in Berlin in the final months of the second world war and seeing it collapsing all around him. As with his book, the privations of ordinary people are described in telling detail and the constant fear of death from the skies or on the ground is everywhere in the writing.

It is books like these that show us how much we take for granted our lives spent far away from war zones.

GTenetThis is the book by the man who was in charge of America’s spy network before, during and after the attack on the Twin Towers. Before: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the attack? After: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the Iraq invasion from turning into such a disaster? These are Two Big Questions that George Tenet sets out to answer in this book. There are a lot more questions besides, and he is concerned to answer them too. However these are two of the Big Ones because they are hugely important for America and, given his position, hugely important to Tenet personally.          

Tenet’s defence for not predicting the 9/11 attack is that he did predict it. That he and his staff were in fact predicting it, or something like it, for some time before it actually happened. Unfortunately, there was so much information coming through from all CIA sources world-wide about possible attacks that it was impossible to ‘join up the dots’, a figure of speech which he uses a number of times to explain how some apparently obvious leads were not followed up. It is a truism that the benefits of hindsight are enormous and so a reader should not rush to judgement on these failures of prediction. It’s also the case that Americans prior to 9/11 had very little notion that they would suffer an attack like 9/11 (or indeed any attack at all, notwithstanding the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing) and on their mainland. Even for the CIA the enormity of what was going to happen must have been difficult to imagine. In short, Tenet makes good case as to why his CIA did not predict the actual attack and therefore was powerless to prevent it. In doing so, he reveals in detail how the CIA was going about its business when he took over as CIA director in 1997 (not very well) and what he had to do before, and after, 9/11 to reform it (quite a lot). The picture of the organisation that emerges here belies the slick presentation often seen on TV and in films.

          Big Question Number Two: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the Iraq invasion from turning into a disaster? This is harder to explain away. Invasions need accurate intelligence and planning. The deficiencies in CIA intelligence gathering and analysis at that time (and later) are obvious from Tenet’s description of its failures regarding the 9/11 attack. As regards a plan for the invasion, Tenet quotes the old maxim that ‘no military plan survives its first contact with the enemy’ but also has to admit that ’parts of [the] U.S. plan … unravelled long before that’ (p.397).

          What plan? Well, the one in which American troops would be welcomed with flowers and national jubilation, something akin to the welcome for German forces in Austria in 1938 (at least according to those old newsreels of the event the Germans produced). Tenet makes a show of blaming the gung-ho attitudes of certain personalities in the White House and very few will deny that those same powerful personages were in favour of a full-scale invasion, and the sooner the better. He attempts to distance himself from those views, and aligns himself with those who saw no link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq and who were, therefore, reluctant about the invasion. If this was really the case, he doesn’t seem to have made the case forcefully enough at the Oval Office.  On the contrary, in the weeks before the invasion, his attitude and mind set does not seem much different from that of the  war-enthusiasts. It was at one of these meeting that he came out with the phrase that will dog his legacy as a CIA director: ‘Slam Dunk’.

          Apparently, this is a term from basketball to describe an easy shot, one that cannot fail to score. A ‘sure thing’. The context was a meeting in December 2002 attended by most of the White- House-Iraq-War Dramatis Personae in which President George W. Bush was venting his doubts about how the idea of going to war could be sold to the American Public. The decision to invade had already been made and so ‘some might criticize us [the CIA] for participating what was essentially a marketing meeting’ says Tenet (p. 362). He was asked ‘if we [the CIA] didn’t have better information to add to the debate …If I had simply said, “I’m sure we can do better” I wouldn’t be writing this chapter – or maybe even this book. Instead, I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a “slam dunk”… a phrase that was later taken completely out of context and has haunted me since it first appeared in Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack’. (p.362) Woodward, says Tenet ‘painted a caricature of me leaping into the air and simulating a slam dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing.’

          Tenet admits to using the phrase, but in a low-key way, conversationally. Either way, it was an unfortunate choice of words. The need to convince ‘Joe Public’ of the necessity to go to war involved the extraordinary feat of convincing him (Joe) that Iraq had a stock of Weapons of Mass Destruction which could be unleashed on America at any time. The fact that Tenet can maintain that he believed in their existence (p.362) doesn’t say much the competence for the CIA or its chief. And if it were the case that he had serious doubts about their existence, he didn’t share his doubts. It appears he ‘went along’ with the prevailing opinions and was not strong enough in character to oppose seriously the ‘hawks’ sitting beside him in the Oval Office. This lack of forcefulness on the part of the CIA director is in fact a theme that pervades his book.

          It was not a good day for George Tenet, that day he uttered that stupid phrase. Later, during one of those Congressional ‘hearings’, a Congressman whom Tenet describes as a long-time friend of the intelligence community ‘and of mine personally’ (p.339) had harsh words to say to him, telling him ‘We depended on you, and you let us down.’ Tenet comments ’For me, it was one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure, because I knew he was right’. 

          There is a lot of self-justification and attempts ‘to set the record straight’ in George Tenet’s book. There are also a number of important issues barely touched on (waterboarding, anyone?). However, the picture emerges of an essentially decent man, who is not reluctant  to admit his errors and faults (well, some of them at least) and who was a good deal out of his depth as CIA Director and no match for the powerful Oval Office personalities with whom he had to work.

Iraq leaflets