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Category: Review

Butler to the World

Butler to the World, Oliver Bullough, Profile Books, 273pp, £20. How Britain became the servant of tycoons, tax dodgers, kleptocrats and criminals.
The subtitle says it all. This is a very readable expose of the mysterious workings of international finance and how money moves around without any checks or supervision. After Suez, Britain having lost an empire was looking around for a new role, and found one in acting as a ‘butler’, i.e. providing services without asking awkward questions. Bullough describes institutions, structures and personalities with whom the general reader will be unfamiliar but which effect the secret movements of billions of pounds.
Bullough illustrates these murky dephs by means of a number of examples, of which one ‘The Scottish Laundromat’ will suffice here. US-based investigators advised the Scottish police about a crime in Moldova, where criminals had via a scam stolen a billion dollars from Moldovan banks and caused the money to vanish without trace. In turn one of the police tipped oof an investigative journalist, who confirmed that the last known destination of the money was an ordinary Scottish house in Edinburgh, home of a Scottish Limited Partnership, actually controlled by two companies in the Seychelles, where ownership of companies is a closely guarded secret. SLPs (with which few will be familiar) do not have to register their actual identity anywhere, making them the perfect tool for moving money around. The journalist uncovered many other instances of the nefarious misuse of SLPs. An official of the newly empowered Scottish National Party, Roger Mullin, was appalled by these revelations and took up the case. Investigators found that there had been a boom in SLPs, most owned by anonymous offshore companies, evidently used on an industrial scale for hiding stolen money. Mullin found strong indications that the financial services industry and Scottish lawyers would rather SLPs were left alone. So what happened? Nothing, except that by an obscure process the regulations were relaxed even further.
If you are disturbed by this and similar activities, you need to read this book.

The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads – a new history of the world, by Peter Frankopan. 636pp

This is a history of the ‘Silk Road’ region of central Asia and the Middle East from ancient times to the present day. Successive chapters concentrate on different topics such as faiths, particular commodities whether furs or slaves or silver, while filling in the history of the region as the centuries pass. It is not a history of the ‘Silk Road’ as such, but a history of a region.

The second part of the book deals with recent history, and deals with the misdeeds of the British and the Americans in these countries as they competed with Russia in the region, putting their own national interests above the interests of the local peoples.

The critical tone may surprise Western readers, but after reading this you will understand why the inhabitants of Iran, Iraq and other places dislike and distrust the British and Americans so much.

Much space is also devoted to the rivalry between Britain and Russia for control of the region.

Frankopan also has an unusual take on the origin of the First World War, claiming that close to the start of the conflict it was still unclear which country would ally with which, in contrast to the way the war is usually depicted as a result of British-German rivalry. He suggests, controversially, that fear of Russia sparked the conflict, with Germany preparing war with Russia and France aligning with Russia, and that even in 1914, a realignment of Britain with Germany had been discussed in the Foreign Office. Before WWI, There had been tensions between Britain and France, a traditional enemy, and friendly relations between Britain and Germany, who shared an extended royal family.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read. Recomended.

All The Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, 4th Estate, 523pp

A novel which is at once beauifully written and a page-turner which advances its story with short, brisk chapters. It alternates between two characters caught up in the barbarism of the Second World War.  The female protagonist, Marie-Laure, is blind. As the Germans invade, she and her father take refuge in St Malo, a walled city by the sea. The male protagonist, Werner, is a German youth obsessed with radio and electronics.  Also in the story is a diamond so valuable that it has to be guarded from theft with the aid of three replicas. As well as the war the novel describes everyday thoughts and actions, and human kindness.

This is the best novel I have read in the past year. Highly recommended.


First to Fight – The Polish War 1939

First to Fight – The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse, The Bodley head, 344pp

This is an interesting account of the invasion of Poland in 1939 by the Germans and then the Russians. The campaign has been neglected in other accounts of the war, and sometimes mis-represented. Britain and France had signed agreements to protect Poland from aggression, but when the Germans invaded the allies were slow to react, and realising the difficulties of a decisive intervention, they defended Poland with fine words, while the French made a token advance over Germany’s Western border, aiming to cause the minimum of casualties.

The Poles resisted bravely, many of them expecting Allied forces to come to their aid, and inflicted casualties on the Germans, but the Germans had far superior resources in armour, transport and aircraft.  It was impossible to defend the frontiers against attack from several directions, and impossible to make a fighting retreat when chased by fast-moving mechanised columns supported by aircraft.  The German airforce was able to attack at will, attacking troop formations, refugee columns and cities, causing many casualties and much destruction.

Polish difficulties were increased by ethnic minorities within their borders – Germans in the west and Ukranians and Belorussians in the East. The Russian invasion from the East facilitated by the Nazi-Soviet pact sealed their fate.  Both the Germans and the Russians behaved with great brutality, committing many massacres of Polish soldiers and civilians.

Postwar Poland remained under Soviet control, and most of the territory seized in the Soviet invasion was never returned to Poland, while to the West, Poland gained large territories, formerly German, on the Baltic coast.

A book worth reading if you are interested in WWII or Polish history.

Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922

Paradise Lost – Smyrna 1922 by Giles Milton.

Smyrna was a city on the western coast of Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. If you are looking for Smyrna on a map, it is now known as Izmir.  Before the First World War, Smyrna was a prosperous city with a varied population comprising Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Europeans and Americans mostly living in their own sectors of the city. The prominent buisnessmen and merchants were often those known as Levantines, families with English names who had never been to England, and the like, who lived lives of great opulence, living in grand mansions on the outskirts and ammusing themselves with yachts and summer houses. The various ethnic groups lived in relative harmony under the Ottoman regime.  At this time, large numbers of Christian Greeks, and also Armenians, lived within the declining Ottoman empire.

Signs of strain emerged during the first world war, which the Ottomans entered on the side of Germany, and as the war progressed, the Ottoman empire engaged in unsuccessful campaigns and edged closer to disintegration. Discrimination against the non-Turkish populations started, spurred by central edicts, though a liberal Turkish governor of Smyrna strove to protect the city’s non-Turkish residents.  By the end of the war, the victorious Allies had occupied parts of the dying Ottoman empire including Constantinople, Smyrna and other parts of the coast, while a nationalist Turkish regime headed by  Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk).was emerging in Anatolia.

The Turks, infuriated by Armenian uprisings during the war, deported hundreds of thousands of them in 1915 in the notorious Armenian genocide. (Why the Turks should expect any loyalty from a people they had already repeatedly persecuted is beyond comprehension.) Milton clearly has no truck with excuses for the genocide and claims that its murderous tactics were sanctioned at the highest level.

Worse was to come. The Greeks. encouraged by the Allies including Britain, embarked on an invasion of Anatolia with the aim of creating a greater Greece.  At first this went well, but the Greeks over-reached themselves in the semi-desert interior, and by 1922 were being driven back with losses, while all the towns and villages fought over were sacked and burnt, and populations attacked, by one side or the other. By September 1922 the victorious Turks were entering Smyrna. At first the inhabitants had little fear of anything dire happening, as a fleet of warships from various nations had gathered in the harbour.  However many Turks wanted revenge for atrocities committed by the Greeks, and the Turkish forces included many ill-disciplined irregulars.

As the disorganised, ragged and half-starved Greek troops flooded into the city, hoping to be taken off from the harbour, the situation deteriorated, with Turkish forces looting, raping and killing, with particular attention to the Armenian quarter. Then sections of the city were set ablaze. According to Milton this was entirely deliberate and carried out by the Turkish forces.  Within days, hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees were crowded on the waterfront with flames on one side, the sea on the other, and subject to random murderous attacks by Turkish forces.  The international ships in the harbour refused to embark any of them lest they offend the new Turkish regime.

Eventually the Greeks, shamed by an American citizen, sent ships to take off many of those trapped on the quayside, but by this time most of Smyrna (except the Turkish quarter) had been burnt to the ground, and eventually an estimated two hundred thousand people had died of various causes – murdered, burnt, drowned, or taken on death marches into the interior. One witness commented that it made him ashamed to be part of the human race.

Those who escaped were left peniless, robbed as they left, and spent many years living in poverty in Greece and elsewhere. The great Levantine families likewise never recovered, with all their wealth and property stolen or destroyed.

Before long, a further, greater exodus of desperate refugees began as Greece and Turkey exchanged their remaining minority populations to create the two monotheistic states that remain today.

This is a powerful account that will be of interest to students of history, and those seeking an explanation for animosities that linger to this day.

As s footnote, Louis de Bernieres novel “Birds Without Wings” is set in the same tragic period and refers to many of the same events.



Aelita by Alexei Tolstoy , Raduga, 219pp, 1923, tr. Lucy Flaxman.

I found a 1958 USSR-printed edition of this early SF novel.  By coincidence, I have also seen the 1924 Russian movie, which differs significantly from the book.  The elderly Engineer Los builds a space rocket in his backstreet shed, with the intention of flying it to Mars, and is looking for a second man to accompany him.  Signals have been received from Mars. The ex-soldier and adventurer Gusev shows up and is accepted.  They take off and within hours are approaching Mars and manage to land in one piece.  There follows a series of adventures with the Martians in which they learn something of the history of the Martians, who are descended both from the original inhabitants and from Atlanteans who fled Earth.

They are taken to the country house of a leading Martian, Tuscoob, partly to keep them isolated from the Martian population. Los becomes infatuated by Tuscoob’s daughter Aelita, while the restless Gusev flirts with a servant girl and escapes to the city, where he foments an uprising of the worker class.

Tuscoob meanwhile has a desperate plan to halt the degeneration of the Martians by destroying the principal city and forcing the Martians into the countryside.  Gusev’s uprising is repressed with a considerable death toll, and the city is destroyed.

The science element in the novel is rather wide of the mark, especially the backyard rocket, but little was known about Mars when the book was written.  Of more interest is the political aspect, as the action on Mars is an obvious reference to the Bolshevik revolution, then only a few years old.

The novel is written in an odd style, with short sentences of roughly equal length, but  I have no idea whether this reflects the original Russian or is an artifact of translation.  It is quite a good read and can be enjoyed as a story as well as for its historical interest.  The book appears to be currently out of print in English editions.

Biography of a Serbian Diplomat

The Biography of a Serbian Diplomat, by Lena A. Yovitchitch

This book was one I bought some years ago at a second-hand book fair. It was published in 1939, and covers events from the mid-19th century to the First World War, and sheds a light on long forgotten people and events in countries that may no longer exist.  It follows Yovitchitch’s career through diplomatic postings to London, Rome and elsewhere, and gives a glimpse into the gentlemanly practice of diplomacy, and Yovitchitch’s encounters with royalty.  Diplomatic conversations and correspondence were generally in French. Yovitchitch’s Scottish wife and his growing family are also mentioned.  The book covers a few sensational but long-forgotten events, such as the assassination of the King and Queen of Servia, and Turkish occupation of parts of the Balkans. It also gives an insight into conditions in Servia and the Balkans at the time. The book contains 15 photographs of personages.

This book would be of interest to readers with an interest in history, or maybe authors seeking to write historical or fantasy fiction.

The book is still available from online sellers of used books, but the prices are not cheap.

The Rise of the Robots

The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford, Oneworld, 334pp, £9.99
Technology and the threat of mass unemployment.
Whenever a new machine is introduced to replace human labour, we are told that this is progress, and that the humans displaced will find less deadening jobs elsewhere, that they can be retrained to work in other industries, and so on. Who still believes this? For many people, the search for a job entails hundreds of applications and futile visits to the jobcentre, and for those in work, it means a struggle to make ends meet on the minimum wage or a zero-hours contract. Well-paid jobs for blue-collar workers or for the middle classes are disappearing. Why? What is happening?
Martin Ford’s book provides many of the answers. The replacement of mass employment by automation has been going on for many decades, and the effects have garnered little public attention. It’s only when one is forced to look at ‘then’ and ‘now’ that the differences are apparent. Films of factories taken fifty or sixty years ago show thousands of workers streaming out of the gates in cloth caps and filling the streets. The typical new facility of today is an automated factory, or a vast datacentre in which you’d need a sniffer dog to find an employee anywhere.
As Ford points out, advanced technology systems being developed today have the potential to make almost any routine job, whether in a workshop or at a keyboard, obsolete. Mass production in factories is now largely automated, and a host of other jobs are under attack. Driverless cars are news, and in a few years will be threatening hundreds of thousands of jobs. If you can summon up a driverless car to take you where you want to go, who needs taxi drivers? Or delivery van drivers? Or do you need to own a car at all? If you don’t, the number of cars required to serve the population will be far less. Meaning fewer dealerships, filling stations, car parks and repair shops. The disruption caused by Uber will be as nothing compared with this.
A popular job for newly qualified lawyers is searching for documents relevant to a legal case. This can be automated too.
Do you eat at McDonalds? There is one in Milton Keynes where the row of clerks at the counter has been replaced by rows of terminals where patrons can select and order their meals. Catering is one of the remaining providers of mass employment (admittedly not well paid) but this too is now under attack.
There are statistics that show how while the number of people in the labour market is rising, the number of hours worked stagnates, and the wages and salaries paid remain static or fall.
The trend is clear enough and leads to a future in which a super-rich elite holds most of the wealth and the remainder of the population struggles to find any work or gain any income. And how will this affect the economy? A capitalist economy needs mass consumption, but robots don’t consume, and people on the breadline consume very little. The outlook for the economy is not good.
To put it plainly: No jobs = no spending = no mass market = no economy.
Ford offers a possible solution – that all citizens be given a guaranteed income so that they can feed and house themselves, and carry on participating in the economy, even if they don’t work. the cost of this could be met, Ford suggests, by reassigning the sums spent on jobseekers allowance, housing benefit, disability benefit, etc, and their inefficient administration, increasing the taxes on the rich and making international corporations actually pay some tax. Surprisingly, this has been looked into in a small way in a few countries, but I’m not holding my breath for this to happen in the UK or the USA any time soon. You can easily deduce how Tory politicians will react to this idea, since they have not grasped that Austerity is having the same effect on the economy as the destruction of employment…
Read this book.

The Bomber War

The Bomber War – Arthur Harris and the Allied Bomber Offensive 1939-1945, by Robin Neillands, 464 pp.

This book is noteworthy in that it discusses both the RAF and the USAAF campaigns in roughly equal detail. Neillands sets out in his book to defend Arthur Harris, the Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, against revisionist criticisms of his campaign. Harris was committed to a policy of area bombing of German cities. However he did not invent this policy, which was sanctioned from higher up the command structure, and was regarded at the time with general approval both by the authorities and the general population.

Countdown to Hiroshima

Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker, 352pp £20
Another war history book, this time with tie-in to Japan and a manga reviewed a few weeks ago.
This is a countdown to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is as far as possible entirely factual, being based on written records and personnel involved in the American program, and survivors on the Japanese side. Even though one knows what is going to happen, this is an account that is hard to put down. In the prologue, two lovers spend some time together in a beautiful garden in Hiroshima, a few hours before the bomb is dropped. Then we are taken to the Trinity bomb test, three weeks earlier. The book describes the personalities of the leading players, both the military officers and scientists on the American side, and the Japanese diplomats, some of whom were trying to secure a negotiated peace. The technology of the bombs and their complex fuzing is described in detail.
The scale of the Manhattan Project and the arrangements for bomb delivery is staggering. It’s often quoted that it cost two billion dollars (at 1945 prices), but when one reads that the 509th Group used up a whole set of expensive B-29 bombers just in practicing bombing runs and the special diving turn, and then they just ordered up a second set, and that they had their own base at Tinian island, one starts to see where the money went. No effort and no expense was spared to get it done as quickly and securely as possible.
As to the morality of it all, it came towards the end of a brutal war in the Pacific, in which neither side paid much attention to the rules of warfare. On the American side, only the scientists entertained any second thoughts about the morality of what they were doing. On the Japanese side, while some officials wanted a negotiated peace, they were afraid of the fanatics in the war cabinet who wanted to resist on the main islands to the end, insisting that death was better than dishonour, and that surrender was unmentionable.
Only when the Japanese cabinet had seen the results of two atomic bombs was the Emperor able to over-rule the fanatics and agree a surrender. Even then it was a conditional surrender, with the Japanese allowed to keep their Emperor, rather than the unconditional surrender the Americans had in mind (and which was imposed on Germany).
The Russians were also an important element. They fobbed off Japanese diplomatic efforts towards a negotiated peace, planning to switch allegiance and grab as much Eastern and Japanese territory as they could, before the war ended. The Americans and British, alarmed by Soviet advances in eastern Europe, were keen to impress the Russians with the power of their new bomb.
The effect of the bomb on the population of Hiroshima was, of course, horrible. One eye-witness describes seeing a stream of blackened monsters with tattered flesh and swollen lips, that had once been human, streaming out of the city. Of the prologue scene, the young man was seriously injured, his beautiful girlfriend was never seen again, and the garden was destroyed.
(As a coda, while it’s not mentioned in the book, a visit to Bletchley Park reveals that the codebreakers had decrypted the cargo manifests of cargo submarines travelling between Germany and Japan. They include neatly a ton of uranium shipped to Japan. The Americans must have wondered what it was for….)