Book Review. Holocaust Landscapes by Tim Cole.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Continuum (5 May 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472906888

Frankly I was unsure how to start this review. How does one begin to comment, far less even conceive of critiquing a work on this subject without some sort of deep knowledge base? The answer was given to me by a quote by victim Frtizie Weiss Fritzshall describing the ordeal of being transported via cattle car to a concentration camp. To give context these were dark windowless train compartments, full of screaming infants, unwashed bodies and overflowing buckets of human waste.

“These revisionists that don’t believe, I would like to take them all and put them into a compartment like that and show them what it feels like”

There is nothing quite so low as a holocaust denier. People have told me about them, now and again I’ve seen fringe indications of their presence on social media, (the bridge underneath which these people seem to live), thankfully, (for them) I’ve never actually ran across one. But their very presence in the world, and their activity across the world’s most effective communication networks should almost require everyone who also uses social media to have some knowledge on the subject.

This book offers such knowledge in an original and thought provoking way. Instead of viewing the holocaust as a giant single event it breaks the story down into experiences and places. A Geographical and situational study of the holocaust rooted in the landscapes it happened in. Each chapter describes a given place and situation, ghettoes of Belgium and Poland, Eastern forests, the varied camps, principally Auschwitz, Trains which move through landscapes but present their own dim vision of hell in the form of a cattle car and so on, delving into every conceivable place people might try to escape or hide, and also the places where they would be transported, in what and over what they would be transport in and where they might be killed and buried.

The themes that run through each chapter are essentially; causes & effects, life and death. Each section is seen through the eyes of multiple victims from often various walks of life, and illustrates many commonplace and horrendous episodes from Europe’s darkest hour. The doomed flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews between 1930-39, only to be snapped up and tossed into Ghettos after the Germans occupied new territory. Lucky were they who managed to get to Cuba or America. The progressively extreme measures taken to Aryanise Germany, by detainment, containment and indeed downright assassination by specified death squads. The dull, grey horror of the extermination camps. The image of smoking crematorium chimneys, rising over the inmates going about the day to day task of survival, the smoke carrying the smell of burned flesh to pollute the air, will stay with me I think, no less than the appalling thought of what it must have been like to endure those train journeys only to end up there.

It is a modest book, though I feel unqualified to say wether it brings anything new to the subject I do feel that it that puts a different perspective to the scope and scale of the atrocity. By finding the place and putting the story in it, this a book to make you think. As I write this the last German guard likely to be tried for war crimes in connection with Auschwitz faces 5 years in prison. During his hearing the man apologised for not having done anything to stop the murder, he regretted ever being a part of it. A survivor commented that he was glad he was sorry, he didn’t hate him, he didn’t want him to go to jail, but sorry wasn’t enough. The thought occur’s to me after reading this, what could be?

You will never know why he said this until you read something about the Holocaust. A dual theme threading through each chapter is “Where can I hide/escape?” And “How can I survive?” They occur Interchangeably, some escaping and surviving, some surviving and then escaping sometimes it’s just one or the other. The answers to these questions are oftentimes shocking in the extreme, as you read of people too tightly packed in a boxcar that they can’t sit down, and when they fall down they are trampled because there’s not enough room to avoid them, when two men fall they struggle with each other. The one who ends up on top will live to see the next day.

This is humanity, forced down by an inhuman system, to its most basic instincts. Enduring circumstances that no one should have to go through. Reading this, civilisation will not seem as stable as before. Landscape by landscape through ghetto and countryside, river and mountain story by story these are unpleasant truths, but as we get farther and farther away from the events described, they become necessary ones to learn.


Book Review: Spain by Robert Goodwin.


Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (7 May 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1408830108

In 1813 French troops were fleeing Spain, defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-Hispanic army at Vitoria, their fate seemed sealed, that is until the British pursuers encountered the French baggage train. In the days afterwards the Duke of Wellington visited his wrath on regiments that had participated in the looting. Parades were organised and small fortunes of valuables were retrieved. It wasn’t all coins and diamonds though, in the aftermath of the battle Wellington found himself in possession of one of the most complete art collections in Europe, some of which were totally unknown at the time outside Spain. Masterpieces by Velasquez and Murillo had been observed by the occupying French Marshals and taken back to France and displayed in private houses and the Louvre until 1815. The French had stumbled onto the legacy of a greater Spain than the one they had conquered. One that because Spain was not officially on the Grand Tour, few people in Central Europe knew about, thousands of priceless works of art were carted over the Pyrenees, some were captured like those at Vitoria, but because of this the word got out there was more to Spain than met the eye.

In the pantheon of empires Spain lies quite low down in people’s memory. Especially the British, who think everything begins and ends with their own imperial adventure.
True, on those endless documentaries about the Spanish Armada people get told about Spain being the greatest empire in the world, but this is really only to more highlight the greatness of England, the midget that defeated the giant. Boiled down, most countries in Europe have some nugget of Spanish history, whether it is the armada, or the wars over the Spanish Netherlands, or the rule of the Spaniards in Italy there are few nations in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and America that have not encountered this forgotten empire, and when you tie those pieces together you find a monumental story that puts Spain at the centre of the world.

Robert Goodwin’s book tells that story, not from the outside, showing Spain’s might to heighten the glory of the given nation fighting her, nor only focusing on the conquest of the Americas, but from the inside, as a history of Spain for Spain. In the 16th century the world was increasingly beginning to globalise, and though Portugal was narrowly the First Nation to properly explore and conquer globally, it was Spain that became the first global state, eclipsing its smaller neighbour in its wealth, reach and stature.

The concept of Spain becoming the centre of the world is indeed apt at this time, not just because to the insular thinking Spanish, (a common trait to all empires) all roads increasingly seemed to lead to Saville, and thence to Toledo and Madrid, but because in 1532 they literally conquered a place that was considered to be the centre of the world. Cuzco, the capitol of the Incas means navel in the native language, the place where the four Inca lands connected and it was from Peru where much of Spain’s future wealth derived. In ancient times all roads led to Rome, and to the British Greenwich was mathematically decided to be the place were time begins and ends, Until 1842 Qing emperors of China were convinced that the Mandate of Heaven meant they were the axis on which the world turned. So too did the Spanish of the 16th and 17th centuries believe that the Hapsburg dynasty held the balance of the New and Old Wolds in the palm of their hands.

From Kings to great General’s to priests, cunning bureaucrats and brilliant writers and artists this is the story of Spain’s golden age. The age that the French, who had done their part to bring the golden age down in the 17th century, rediscovered when they invaded in 1808. Spain tells this huge story through the the lives of two dozen Spaniards and their monarchs. Some will be familiar, some not so, but the end result is an impressive and very enjoyable tour, through a catalogue of Spanish history.

Usually seen as a negative force, Goodwin does attempt a more positive view, looking from a renaissance Spanish mindset. The Spain he shows gives light and shade, and it’s true that because of the infamy of the inquisition and the conquista, it is hard to look past to positives. But that suggests that no other country in Europe practiced ill policy, subjugating other states and peoples, or persecuted heretics. This book is about an empire that for a time saw itself as the centre of the world. Opposed to the dour image of sinister Kings dressed in black, attended by sombre clerics presiding over the inquisition’s ghastly auto de fe’s amidst the splendour of majestic plazas, paid for by American gold. We see a culture and society alive and moving around this, often chaotic and troubled but striving always for greatness. Rich in art and literature which would by the 18th century begin influence the world outside Spain.

True, it is therefore not as harsh on colonial matters as some more critical works, but then again there is no shortage of ethical debate when it comes to the good and bad points of any empire. Yet in the first chapter when he aptly described Cortes’ presentation of Mexican wealth as the biggest bribe ever offered to a European monarch, he describes the “Totomac” Indians that accompanied that embassy as “ambassadors”. Seemingly forgetting that the state to which they might have represented had they been given that status, had been destroyed, and that they were not there so much to report back about Spain, but to show Spain what it had conquered.

What made the Spanish empire so great was in part good fortune that literally dropped the riches of Mexico and Peru into the lap of Charles V by a stream of cunning, opportunistic, adventurers. This stream of treasure essentially powered Spain through the 16th century and right up to the end of the 17th before it began to run out. Wasted on costly, dynastic European wars and also on art, for arts sake. This latter half of the book is essentially the world of Perez Reverte’s Alatriste. A character that Reverte invented because so little was being taught in Spanish schools about the golden age. An age of glorious decay, as opposed to the sudden and continuous rise afforded by the Conquistadors.

This is a book I have hoped to see appear for a long time, a clever, well written, accessible and enlightening tour of the Span’s “century of Gold”. A time of contrasts, between an emerging nation, rich, grasping, noble, cruel and unapologetically fervent, catapulted to a global stage, of greed and excess, of war and art. A world shaping story well worth reading.


Book Review: Amazons by Adrienne Mayor.


Length : 536 pages
Publisher: Princeton University Press (9 Sept. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0691147205
ISBN-13: 978-0691147208

It’s a colourful book, yellow with orange arrows symmetrically shooting towards a little Amazon on a horse. In feel it has a sort of magazine consistency. It feels like many American Books I’ve owned, robust and floppy. It’s the type of book that can take punishment, a proper reference book in other words, you could curl its covers back when reading it, leave it splayed and do what you might I feel sure it would recover. Just as easily it can be cared for and will look attractive on a shelf. So much for the cover.

Diodorus wrote that after the Trojan War the great histories of the Amazons, the fierce warrior women of ancient legend, had become so storied as to become nothing but fictions. It is startling, some might say, that ancient historians would write something like this. Arguing as it does by extension that these clans of savage women from the dark fringes of the civilised world, and indeed factual scholarship, were actually real, and not just some invention to spice up heroic poetry and song.
But they did. To the ancient Greeks, and practically most everyone else, the Amazons were or had been real people, part of history to be recorded and passed down. That men such as Diodorus and Herodotus believed in their reality proves that it wasn’t just crackpot writers who thought that Amazons belonged to history as well as to literature and art.
That isn’t how we see them today though. To most people an Amazon is a sort of a feminine ideal, a figment or a creation, and as such the amount of actual scholarship regarding them in an historical or archeological sense is nonexistent. True there are many books about, or that mention the myth, just like Heracles, or Jason in terms of Historiography they are a real part of Ancient Greek and Roman culture. But no one has really taken them seriously enough to devote a proper study to them, which is a great injustice, as anyone who reads Adrienne Mayor’s book will soon realise.

Diodorus really hit the nail on the head. Today the Amazons are so enmeshed in legend and myth that whatever history there was needs to be surgically seperated in order to understand it. And that is where Mayor’s Encyclopaedia Amizonica comes in. A treasure trove of historical, legendary, archeological and historiographical information, a practical Rosetta Stone of Amazon fact and fiction. With the renewal of the Wonder Woman Brand I feel certain that more people will be asking, “So were Amazons Real?” And thankfully now, we have this book to tell us resoundingly, yes!

However the actual reality is more complicated than that. Because essentially amazons of mythic lore were a correlation of practically everything that was known about real warrior women who lived on the Steppes of ancient Scythia. A Greek geographical name tag for a great sweep of land stretching from the Balkans, across Ukraine and Southern Russia, down into the Caucuses and into Turkey and Iran. This Scythia was a land of nomads, horse people, scraping out an existence more ancient and mysterious than Greece civilisation itself. Indeed what Greeks would call Scythians formed part of a much wider, “Nomad Belt” that stretched from Europe to Mongolia and was composed of people and cultures that had adapted to survive in the endless grass prairies and deserts of the steppes, who knew the mountain paths and who were the terror of the civilised world for centuries.

It is no mistake that death rode a pale horse in the book of Revelation. The wild and warlike nomads would constantly strike terror into all the great empires of the lower, more fertile geographic sphere. The Persian empire, that vast melting pot was indeed formed out of a group of horse warriors. It was a collection of horse cultures that brought Rome to its knees, and it was the nomads of Mongolia that conquered the greatest continuous land empire ever seen.
Amazons tells us about these people, the women of Scythia, the real, the remains and the myths, all is examined. The author takes us right to the Hemp rich atmosphere of their campfires, were they share stories of raids, hunts and life with the men of their tribe, illustrating their stories with the tattoos that encircle their arms, that seem to dance in the firelight and come alive as more fermented mares milk is drunk.
Using the legends and the rich archeological evidence uncovered from their homeland Mayor gets to the roots of those legends and reveals some fascinating surprises. Not least of which is how Central the amazons were to Greek culture. They named cities after them, they propped up reputations on the strength of defeating them, they fantasised about them. But the difference between then and now is that the Greeks knew that they were real people, whereas today we don’t.

The real amazons Mayor tells us didn’t look like the scantily clad Greek Ideal, they wore long and beautifully decorated robes and distinctive pointed hats, they may well have invented trousers, and they fought and hunted alongside their men. I can’t actually even begin to say how great it is to have a book like this, because it’s exactly the kind of book I like. Not one that just dismisses old stories as being too tall or made up, but really gives them the benefit of the doubt and tries to correlate and reconcile them with hard evidence. This is brilliantly achieved in Amazons.

The format is encyclopaedic, but it is well written and not dry. There is a great emphasis put on highlighting the freedom, gender neutral role and apparent equality that these women enjoyed & as a result were endowed with by even Greek writers. True unless you are an archeologist or interested in the field, undoubtedly some will find the exhaustive examination of burial finds somewhat dragging. Also because a wide sweep of Amazon legends and stories are examined here, some will find some more interesting than others. By that I mean, those interested in Ancient Greece might not be so bothered with the Amazons of Asia. But to really get to grips with the subject it’s fascinating to read the parallels between the eastern and western Amazons. And it seems that every culture has their own versions, even if they don’t call them Amazons. Indeed the word Amazon here is used loosely to describe both the rigid mythological clans of savage women, and also to refer to any sort of woman warrior within a balanced society. Remember the Nomad belt stretched from the Black Sea to Mongolia, and women capable of fighting and defending themselves is just the most practical solution for a nomadic way of life, and would give such a clan or tribe a huge advantage over their enemies. Reading about the horsewomen of the Middle East and China was no less fascinating to me.

This in many ways is an exhaustive study, every facet that could be thought of has been included, and very little left out. From Ancient Greece right down to the Roman Mithradatic War, and across to ancient China, this is a photo collage of the place fighting women hold on our imaginations, and the truth behind the image. In movies and books today, audiences much prefer a strong, independent woman that can defend herself and pretty much kick ass, to the damsel in distress. That is a preference that goes right back to the Amazons. That the Amazons today are probably ranked up there in popular imagination with Cowboys and Pirates, speaks to the impact they had on the minds of the ancient world. Imagine the effect of seeing these raiders riding through your country, as a Greek used to demure matrons and maids, seeing that the barbarian horde was not just made up of male warriors, but perhaps up to a quarter or more of the fighting force were women, it was a culture shock that would not fade quickly. These women, who killed and hunted and rode, and who would look a man square in the eye without shame and talk to him as if he was just anyone else, held an endless fascination for the Greeks, just as they do today.