Monday, 22 August 2011

Blood River by Tim Butcher

This account of the author's journey in the early 2000s up the Congo River is educative but fast-paced and genuinely gripping.

I had read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochshild and In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong so I had some familiarity with the terrible, terrible history and current state of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but was for a few years called Zaire by the murderous nutcase then in charge, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Tim Butcher is a journalist and his style reflects that. It is workmanlike rather than artistic or poetic but this is really a documentary account of his journey with brief but well-timed and instructive digressions on history and culture. The framework of the book is based on the notion that he is following the journey made by Henry Morton Stanley in the 1870s, when he became the first white man to travel overland from east to west Africa. following the Congo from Lake Tanganyika to its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean.

The most fascinating thing about the book is its contemporariness. The author made this journey in 2004 and his description of how life is, in today's Congo, is profoundly, heart-rendingly bleak. He describes sharply how times have changed from the Belgian colonial era in a material sense, finding regularly bits of old infrastructure that used to be part of a comfortable western European civilisation transported to the heart of Africa. Of course, it was only comfortable for white people and the crimes against humanity of the Belgians are well documented in Hochshild's book.

But Butcher's central conclusion, depressing though it is, is that Congo is actually one of the very few places in the world that is going backwards, not forwards. People are becoming poorer and more disconnected from the rest of humanity while a criminal elite extract wealth from one of the most fertile and richly-endowed countries in the world.

In the face of such overwhelmingly negative evidence, the author does his best to sound positive. But I was left with the feeling that he concluded his journey with a sense of despair. We should be grateful to him for carrying out this demanding and horrible journey ('ordeal travel', he calls it) and reporting it so well and so clearly. But God knows what the solution to Congo's troubles is or can be. The final word is best left with Conrad's Mr Kurtz: "The horror! The horror!".

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Story of Philosophy by Bryan Magee

This is actually the second time I have read this book. For many years, I have hankered after an understanding of philosophy but have perhaps too much relied on books like this - introductions, summaries, syntheses. I have read Sophie's World and Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, as well as other of Magee's books.

This is good as it has lots of pictures. And he writes beautiful summaries and short descriptions of how philosophy has evolved. But it is curiously difficult to remember the actual arguments and beliefs he mentions. I suppose it must follow that time spent reading, say, Kant will give you a firmer grasp of his beliefs than a nicely written summary. But reading Kant is a bit of an undertaking. After reading this, I thought about reading Nietszche but after browsing a few volumes I realised it would be hard to fit in to a busy life where reading is primarily for pleasure.

So maybe I am condemned to reading digests and summaries of philosophy as a means of self improvement. Hey ho.

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

A nicely crafted little novel. It tells the story of a mysterious priest who comes to stay in a remote Yorkshire village at a time when doubt besets the Catholic congregation and their own, local, priest.

I went to a Catholic school and I suspect some background knowledge of the weirdness and absurdity of the Catholic faith enhances the reader's enjoyment. It is a funny book, with an amusing twist at the end. The narrative is self contained (deliberately, I am sure) and, in that sense, timeless. It does not draw on external events, either of a historical or contextual kind.

But it is short and easy to read, with a nice style. I enjoyed it more than A Place of Greater Safety, which was a bit long-winded for my taste.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Wellington - a personal history by Christopher Hibbert

I have long retained an interest in the Napoleonic period. Not sure why -  the names are somehow evocative and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that it is the only period of history I remember at all from my schooldays.

Wellington is also a figure who has fascinated me. I visited Apsley House a few years' ago, for work of all things, and remember it well. So I decided to read a biography and a quick search on Amazon came up with this one, which I then bought on Abebooks. (I have largely stopped buying new books - Abebooks is a great service. It is the second hand version of Amazon and is part of the same company.)

This subtitled 'a personal history' and it does indeed focus on the great man's private life. But the big historical events are covered, albeit a bit obliquely, as background to the personal stuff. But it is very nicely written and never flags. I enjoyed it a lot and feel I know a lot more about Lord W than I did before, without any sense of having had to work at it.

Mr Hibbert is a bit of a career biographer, so he knows how to keep a story moving while at the same time sticking to the facts. In fact, that is a point worth mentioning - he does not impart his own judgements but lets the material speak for itself. I liked that.