August Books

19 Aug 2020
Richard Lofthouse

Reynard the Fox, retold by Anne Louise Avery (Bodleian Publishing 2020)

The author and translator lives in Oxford and has helped to co-curate an exhibition called ‘North Sea Crossings’ that will now take place in 2021, delayed like so much else by COVID.

The title of the exhibition relates to the fact that the first English translation (1481) of Reynard the Fox was via famous printer William Caxton, who encountered the original narrative by basing himself in Bruges, modern day Belgium. Ideas readily seeped crossed national borders and language barriers even then, much as we like to forget.

Anne Louise says that the enduring appeal of the fox is that ‘he’s entirely himself’ – that is to say, he’s always a chicken-eating fox and has no air of ‘humbug’ around him unlike everyone he encounters, other animal characters that readers would have readily identified as politicians, nobles and royals, full of sleeze, duplicity and greed.

The basis of the animal fable is that Reynard has been summoned to the court of King Noble the Lion, charged with all manner of crimes. One of the teases of the work is that you don’t know who’s telling the truth half the time, says Anne Louise.

‘One of the big underlying themes here is what is goodness, and what is the authentic self?’

Another underlying question is to what degree civilisation rests on untruth, or at least appearance, extending to protocol, manners and so forth. But the reason that the character of the fox became so popular in Germany, Flanders and France and beyond (consider Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox) is because he became a flexible icon of lively storytelling.

As such Anne Louise has not just translated the original but rekindled the stories and characters here for our own times, she says, to ‘return our vulpine friend to the exuberant and provocative position he once occupied within our storytelling traditions…’

 

Fighting the People’s War. The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War.

By Jonathan Fennell. (Cambridge University Press, PB edition 2020)

The author (Pembroke, 2002, DPhil) is today Reader in Modern History at King’s College London and as such this behemoth of a book (932 pages) is partly a professional calling card and cements Fennell as a leading younger historian of World War Two. What this means is partly a clear-eyed ability to see past the myths and distortions of the past, and partly a willingness to look at the bigger picture, in this case at the imperial dimension of the war and the non-British troops called upon to die for what was then still ‘the British Empire.’

The eminently readable book now in paperback looks very carefully at morale and the motivational side of the war.

To win battles you have to convince a sceptical audience that it’s worth their while to potentially die for the cause. Because Britain was constructed on class inequality reflected by enormous material and social injustices, argues Fennell, the war it fought was executed far less well than it might have been.

Whereas Winston Churchill saw the war as a noble cause in and of itself, the vast majority of men on the ground would have been happier had the government committed to a convincing post-war reform agenda resulting in decent jobs and incomes. No such ideal was promoted and the agenda was handed to Labour.

‘In his obsession with fighting Germany, the British Prime Minister lost sight of the goals and ambitions of the ordinary man, the smallest cog in the ‘machinery of strategy’, but a vital one all the same.’

At the imperial level the counter-intuitive experience was that India offered up millions of male volunteers while otherwise being vastly anti-British. Fennell solves this apparent paradox by noting that there was a point of poverty so extreme that the prospect of a uniform and a meal was inducement enough to volunteer.  

Fennell takes advantage of vast quantities of censorship surveys and other novel primary evidence to consider the state of morale. Step back from it all, and the idea hovers over the book that had Britain been a fairer place to start with, the war could have been won sooner. What happened instead was that victory came to rest on American fighting and it handed the peace to America too. Britain was bankrupted and the empire lost, exactly the opposite of Churchill’s avowed aim.

In Fennell’s words, ‘Put simply, democracies that showed too little commitment to the fair distribution of wealth and opportunity could not expect passionate commitment from their citizens in their defence.’

 

In Black and White. A Young Barrister’s story of Race and Class in a Broken Justice System. By Alexandra Wilson. (Endeavour, 2020).

The author (Univ, 2013) specialises in family law and grew up in Essex and is confidently ‘not posh’. In fact she’s black, which means that when she’s in her pupillage phase she keeps getting mistaken for the defendant by the court ushers despite dressing immaculately as a barrister would. That’s structural racism right there and it’s the starting point for a book that is frankly harrowing in the degree to which it lays bare the inadequacies of the British court system even before racial inequality pollutes the picture further. The result is a gritty narrative told very frankly, yet within every story where the name of a defendant has been disguised and your eyes widen in surprise at the outcome (or at the frequency with which the accused fails to even turn up) there is a sense of compassion and hope too. The author shows that bringing diversity to the Bar is of the greatest importance. It doesn’t even cost money, rather being a reallocation of priorities and resources historically lavished only on privately educated white men and latterly a handful of privately educated white women.

 

Barbarians at the Wall. The first Nomadic Empire and the Making of China by John Man (Transworld/Corgi, 2020)

The author John Man (Keble, 1960) has a fine backlist of books against his name including a biography of Genghis Khan. What he does here is to conjure up the people of the first nomadic empire who drew together the core of what is now China and dominated Asian affairs for four centuries from 200BC. The basis of the book is meticulous research, extensive travel and plentiful new archaeological research, its fruits a reconjuring of a barbarian empire with wealth and power. A fine section of photos further enhance even this paperback edition.

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