Monday, August 9, 2010

The Great Silence: Britain From the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

The Great Silence, a history of the aftermath of WWI as experienced by the people of Great Britain is curiously relevant as we wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issues facing returning soldiers then are the same as the issues facing returning soldiers now: disfiguring injuries, PTSD (called “shellshock” during and after WWI) and a lack of jobs. A significant difference for families is that we are much better at retrieving and returning bodies of our dead soldiers to their families for burial. During WWI, many men were blown to bits or their bodies were lost in the mud of the trenches. Others were buried far from home in cemeteries in France.

"The Great Silence" referred to in the title is the two minutes of silence that was observed nationwide on the first and second anniversaries of WWI. This was in stark contrast to the celebrations marking the Armistice in 1918 and the Peace Parade that was held in July of 1919. Playing an important role in the Peace Parade and the anniversary observance in 1920 was the Cenotaph, a war memorial designed by eminent architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. The book ends with the funeral and interment of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey, an event that was to stand in for all the funerals of all the dead whose families had no bodies to bury.

I was a little confused by the review of this book by Miranda Seymour in The New York Times Book Review. In her review, Ms. Seymour criticizes the author for emphasizing the experiences of the upper class while scarcely mentioning the middle and lower classes. I did not find this to be true at all. English society underwent profound changes in the aftermath of the war. Workers held frequent strikes for better wages and working conditions. The servant class shrank significantly as former chauffeurs, cooks and maids sought better opportunities in hotels and offices. The Sex Disqualification Act enacted in 1919 opened up new career opportunities for single women, many of whom were widows. A popular book, Married Love, advocated birth control and healthy sexual relationships within marriage thereby making marriage more of a partnership of equals rather than the traditional man as supreme head of the household. All of these changes which affected the middle and lower classes are given extensive coverage in the book.

The Great Silence which covers a longer time period and more wide ranging topics is organized similarly to the author’s first book, The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm. This allows the books to be read separately or together. Both offer insight into these important historical eras, the events of which helped define the modern world.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Society

Whenever I read a book that I really like, I always check out the bibliography to see if there are other books on the subject that I might like to read. I pay special attention to books that are specifically mentioned in the text of whatever book I am reading. Lately, one title has come up over and over, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I read it when it was published in 1997. Because so many authors are using it in their research, I decided that it was time to read it again.

Rereading this book was a pleasure. Enough time has passed since my first reading, that I experienced those “aha” moments again. Moments when what the author is saying is so clear and makes so much sense that I find myself wondering why I have never looked at the subject in that light before. His thesis is very simple. The reason that Eurasian peoples conquered and colonized the world was not because they were smarter than the so-called primitive societies that they encountered. Instead, the reason was simply that they had more plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication which led to population increases which led to more people to come up with technological inventions such as the writing and sophisticated weapons.

Peoples lacking enough plants and animals in their environment that were suitable for domestication either got a later start at food production and technology or never moved beyond the hunter-gatherer stage. Which is not to say that they were any less intelligent. My favorite anecdote is about two English explorers who perished while attempting to traverse the outback of Australia, an area where the aboriginal tribes had been able to find enough food and water to survive with no problem for thousands of years.

And while it is true that many conquered peoples died from the diseases that were introduced by Europeans, those same Europeans died of tropical diseases at the same rates until 20th century medicine was able to overcome them.

It’s no surprise that this book has become a classic. Nor should it surprise anyone that it is the Ur text for anyone writing on climate, food and human civilization.