Category Archives: book reviews

The year of reading women… starts today

Yesterday  I was looking over my book-a-holic wife’s shelves, hoping she had a couple of early Gillian Slovo novels (nope).

While we were talking about the wonderful Barbara Kingsolver today, the wife suggested today that I spend a year where all the fiction I read is  all by women, (with a bias towards non-Western).  And that I keep at least a tally, or ideally do blog reviews.

It’s a corking idea (and not just because it comes from She Who Must Be Obeyed).

So that’s what I am going to do.  It means that more Reginald Hill (a new discovery for me) will have to wait.  But it also means that I will plough through a lot of stuff that has mysteriously never made it to the top of my to-read pile…

Watch this space.
First reviews will be – Several Deceptions by Jane Stevenson (read it last week. Excellent) and the Hunger Games 2 and 3 (reading now).

Womjep plotholes

What’s womjep?  “Woman in jeopardy,” in which our heroine is beset on all sides by untrustworthy men, and is (usually) saved by her own nous but also seen and unseen heroic men. [I think I may owe it to Christopher Buckley, in his awesome ‘Thank You for Smoking’). The go-to example is the Julia Roberts film ‘ The Pelican Brief’.

I just read a book (when I SHOULD have been working… I feel guilty) called ‘Freefall‘. It’s one of Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels, and of course it is fine – well-written, pacy etc.  But there is a gaping unexplained gap, one shared by the even more enjoyable film ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’.  What happens, at crucial moments, to the guy you’ve been lead to believe would rather go down in a hail of bullets than let harm befall the female?

In Freefall, the baddies get the girl when Joe Pike … well, it’s not explained. Was he getting his arrow tattoos on his deltoids retouched?  Were his sunglasses scratched?  In The Bourne Ultimatum, what happens to Tom?  Does he have to go collect the kids from school, leaving Pam Landy to do all that faxing herself?  Eh?

To be fair, these guys have plotted a few more air-tight thrillers than I have!

Right, back to work…

Book Review: “The Big Score” – Down these Mean Aussie Streets

Corris, P. (2007) The Big Score: Cliff Hardy Cases

bigscorePeter Corris is an Australian author of very very many books (with a relatively small book market, if you want to pay the bills, you have to pursue a high volume low margins strategy). One of his mainstays is the Private Eye Cliff Hardy. Based in Sydney, Hardy is the ‘typical’ private eye- good with the ladies, good with his fists, clever enough and tenacious.
Corris writes well, with rarely a wasted word, and the plots are usually satisfyingly devious without being ludicrous. There have been many many novels in the Hardy series and a few collections of short stories.
Short stories can of course be much harder to write – you have to pack plot, people and punches into ten or twenty pages. Corris is good at this too. The Big Score, a 2007 collection of 11 stories has no dogs and a some stand out stuff. One story “The Worst case scenario” -in which Hardy is ‘responsible’ for something awful – is a retread of a much earlier story, but nonetheless excellent Hardy also tracks down missing children, investigates the mysterious post-tournament behaviour of a rising tennis star and much else.
I whipped through these stories in top speed, but I am heading back to the library for more… My PhD supervisors can wait… 😉

What Australia knew about #climate change… and buried (Book Review)

When PhD candidates review a book in ‘their field’ they face multiple dilemmas. If the book isn’t helpful to their research, they’ll be tempted (fairly or unfairly) to be dismissive. It’s too helpful, they’ll be resentful because someone else has Gotten To Their Topic first. And regardless, they may feel tempted (or scared) to slag the book off, in order to make a name for themselves by cutting down a tall poppy.

taylorcoverI’m a PhD candidate, and my topic covers “Global Warming and Climate Change: what Australia knew and buried … then framed a new reality for the public”, which is the title of a new book by Maria Taylor, published by Australian National University Press.

And… (pause for comedic effect)….

This is a good book, but not too good, and it deserves a wide readership.

As Taylor points out

Australia is exceptional amongst countries, thanks to policy decisions to focus the national economy on mineral and coal exports, and ‘cheap’ electricity production for the domestic market and to attract energy-intensive multinational industries like aluminium. With this narrative, Australia was reconstructing its social reality in the 1990s.
(page 3)

Taylor covers the period 1987 (when the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation [CSIRO] got together with the “Commission for the Future” and set up the short-lived “Greenhouse Project”, which educated policy-makers and the public about climate change, hosted workshops for insurers and manufacturers and so on) through to 2001, with the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American exit from the Kyoto Protocol process and the final Australian retreat into recalcitrance, selfishness and stupidity (a stance it has re-adopted, after a brief period of making the ‘right’ noises.).

This fifteen years was an (in)action-packed time, full of high hopes, low cunning and frustration for everyone except the coal exporters and their supporters.  Australian “commitment” probably peaked in October 1990, with the Cabinet decision to aim for a 20% reduction of C02 emissions by 2005 (as long as other advanced industrial states followed suit and the economy wasn’t affected (!)).

What happened in the 1990s? Most dramatically, the fossil fuel and allied industries got into gear. The momentum to support and expand the existing fossil fuel economy was boosted by neo-liberal think tanks and insistent sceptics, in sympathy with free market economic ideology. They mounted a potent and high-level lobbying campaign aimed at federal politicians. Coal, oil, natural gas and other extractive industries, along with other multinational corporations, such as the energy-intensive aluminium smelting industry, got organised and exerted considerable influence on government, particularly after 1995 (Hamilton 2001; Pearse 2007).

Taylor tells the story well, and alongside time in the newspaper archives, has interviewed a bunch of interesting people (journalists, scientists and academics). She seems not to have had access to some of the more interesting ones (Barry Jones, Science Minister until 1990; Mark Diesendorf), or some of the Environment Ministers (Graham Richardson, Ros Kelly, John Faulkner, Robert Hill.)
Nonetheless are some knock-out quotes from her interviewees. Environmental consultant Alan Pears told her that Australia during the 1990s and into the mid-2000s experienced an ‘almost complete policy failure’ in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know how to make cuts in every sector, some demonstrably successful. But there are powerful economic groups and narrow theorists and nervous politicians believing that environmental action will hurt the economy. It’s been a brilliant PR strategy, and it’s left the community confused and disempowered. These beliefs are based on interpretations of crude economic modelling and reinforced by the preconception that you help either the environment or the economy.”
(page 100)

Another Alan: Alan Tate, ABC environment reporter 1990s tells her that “[I]t was the biggest, most powerful spin campaign in Australian media history—the strategy was to delay action on greenhouse gas emissions until ‘coal was ready’—with geo-sequestration (burying carbon gases) and tax support. (page 103) He tells Taylor that the strategy seems to be

“First sow seeds of doubt about the science — make it a nonsense. Say let’s not be part of the Kyoto Protocol — it’s too little anyway. Then say OK we’ve got a techno fix, geo-sequestration and nuclear. Ignore energy efficiency and renewables, why bother, those are green issues, it’s all marginal. The Oz main game is coal and cheap energy. “ (page 122)

Taylor is good on (the lack of) environmental values generally, but could have made more of the Dunlap and McCright notion of “anti-reflexivity” and how it plays out in the Australian context (she comes close to this on pages 80-84). Reference to “Terror Management Theory” and old white conservative types may have helped too. She’s also good on the silencing of Australian scientists, who mostly seem to have retreated from the fray under organised attack from pro-fossil individuals and groups (and are nowadays getting death threats).

What’s missing
Agnotology – “the creation of ignorance” is a missing concept (and while on the missing concepts –  Chomsky gets a citation, it’s not for the work on “manufacturing consent” that he did with Ed Herman.)
* The American connection – links between American denialists (at, say, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Frontiers of Freedom) and the Australians such as the late lamentable Ray Evans, and his boss Hugh Morgan (an important figure who appear on only two pages of Taylor’s narrative).
* Environmental social movements are largely absent. (Australian Conservation Foundation, The Wilderness Society, the Friends of the Earth Australia etc)  For a detailed account of precisely this period see Joan Staples’ very interesting PhD thesis. For an excellent broader overview, see Hutton and Connors (1999) History of the Australian Environment Movement
* Trades Unions. The ACTU’s 1991-2 “The Greenhouse effect: employment & development issues for Australians” is a fascinating historical document, as is the United Mineworkers Federation’s co-sponsorship – along with the Australian Coal Association, BHP etc – of a report saying that doing anything about climate change would cost gazillions of jobs-  (Garran, R. (1992) Suffocating under greenhouse tax Australian Financial Review 6th February)

* (More) detail and examples of the specific campaigns run by the Minerals lobby (AMIC/MCA) and the ideologues (Institute of Public Affairs). Some of that detail is included in Bob Burton’s masterful “Inside Spin”.
* Hard numbers on public opinion (see McAllister, I. and Studlar, D. (1993) Trends in Public Opinion on the Environment in Australia International Journal of Public Opinion research Vol 5, (4) 353-361; Crook, S. and Pakulski, J. (1995) Shades of Green: Public Opinion on Environmental issues in Australia Australian Journal of Political Science Vol 30, pp. 39-55.)
For example, in November 1997 poll conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald found that
90 per cent of Australians are either “concerned” or “very concerned” about the environmental effects of global warming in Australia.
* 83 per cent believe global warming is a serious threat to humans and the environment.
* 79 per cent feel that Australia should join other developed nations in signing a treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
* 68 per cent say the Government’s concern that a treaty will cause Australia to suffer economically should not stop it signing.  (Hogarth, M. (1997) PM Out Of Step On Greenhouse Sydney Morning Herald 26th November)

Indeed, there seems to be a partial elision in Taylor’s work between public concern and political power, with a lack of the latter being seen as indicative of the former. But given Keating’s decision to tack away from ‘green’ voters back to the ‘heartland’ of Labour support, the silence of the trades unions (other battles to fight – Workplace Relations Act (1996) etc,) the aforementioned weakness/”trees” focus of social movements (something Taylor touches on) it is unsurprising that there is a gap between what the public said they wanted and what they actually got

* Timelines of the ebbs and flows of policy-making, external pressures and internal bun fits.

The biggest “short-coming” of the book (note the quote marks ) is that it doesn’t offer up (“normative”) ideas what to do. Clearly, in the absence of a time machine we can’t change the past. However, we can learn from it, with enough courage and clarity. Taylor begins her book with the observation that

“ If we don’t understand where we have been, how public understanding can be reframed and manipulated and, indeed, how that was the story in Australia and in other Western democracies in the 1990s, it will remain easy to confuse the public and hard to move forward.” (page xiii)

But doesn’t offer up any specific suggestions. While it is true (spoiler alert: closing words of the book) that “Effective action on climate change will start when society decides that things can be handled differently, as they once were” it would have been interesting to hear Taylor’s views on how society might come to decide that, and what things might be handled differently, and how.

Verdict: All Australians who care about how we got “here” (very bad place) after what was a promising start in the late 80s/early 90s, should read this book. And share it with Australians who don’t.  This horrendoma is too big and metastatic to be left to only those who care.


Btw, a selection of resources I find useful (there are other folks too)

Reneweconomy (careful of their fondness for “grid parity” as a panacea though)
The Australia Institute
The Saturday Paper and the Monthly
Anything by Guy Pearse or Mike Seccombe
Guardian Australia – Lenore Taylor has been on this beat for almost 20 years, and knows what she is writing about
Graham Redfearn
Oliver Milman

For perspectives on Australian Climate Policy – Peter Christoff, Hayley Stevenson

Other books people might want to read on this topic
Hamilton, C. (2001) Running from the Storm
Hamilton, C. (2007) Scorcher
Pearse, G. (2007) High and Dry
Chubb, P. (2014) Power Failure

Book Review: “Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy”

innovlowcarbonFoxon, T, Kohler, J. and Oughton, C. (2008) Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy Economic, Institutional and Management Approaches Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

This one is a corker, if you like that sort of thing.

There are nine chapters, including the introduction, and every single one of them is worth some or a LOT of attention.  It’s rare that you can say that about edited volumes, no?

The authors of the various chapters are careful to define their terms, and if you take notes (pro-tip; take notes) then by the time you finish reading, you’ll have yourself a very handy glossary of terms for understanding the vast and ever-expanding literature on innovation, technology, socio-technical transitions etc.

I probably shouldn’t pick a favourite chapter, but one that particularly resonated, because of personal experience, was chapter 7;

Evolutionary Innovation Systems of Low Carbon Electricity: Insights about Institutional Change and Innovation in the Cases of CHP and Wind Energy by Marianne van der Steen, John Groenewegen, Martijn Jonker, Rolf Künneke and Eeke Mast

Packed full of important definitions (they matter) and historical examples (they matter too), this bit – “better to ask forgiveness than permission” – leapt out –

Meanwhile, the small-scale, decentralized wind energy market gained momentum from a bottom-up process of change. In 1972, Riisager, a carpenter, developed a small stall-regulated turbine, which he connected to the grid in 1975 without permission (van Est, 1999). After consulting with his neighbours to confirm that they had had no negative effects in their electricity supply, Riisager went to the local electricity company for official permission. Another important experiment was conducted at one of the Danish folk high schools; an education system designed by Grundtvig to educate the local community. In 1978 the folk high school Tvind built a 2MW turbine together with help of other high schools and volunteers. The size of the turbine certainly was remarkable, especially since this machine was developed as a community endeavour.
Page 191

But, to re-emphasise, there’s great stuff in chapters 1 to 6 and 8 and 9 too.

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg , C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and businessNew York: Random House

powerofhabitThis is one of those books by a middle-class middle-aged American where (Gladwell, Gawande, Hertsgaard etc etc). They interview lots of people, they read lots of academic literature, they write very well (with knowingess that plays a game of tag with cynicism, avoiding the C word, generally [but not in the example below!]) and bish-bosh, you have a 250-ish page book. It will contain, in some ratio, some stuff that is banal, much that is obvious (but was hidden), a little that’s tendentious and two or three killer anecdotes that you can use as they were intended or twist to your own purposes.

Here Duhigg is looking at routines that we live by, at the personal level, the organisational level and the social level. He writes fluently, and is good on Paul O’Neill and how his safety culture transformed Alcoa, thanks to unexpected fringe benefits. Here’s his take on O’Neill’s first speech as CEO.

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke – something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School – then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce courts, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with blizzard of buzzwords – “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” – at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day. Page 98

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, mater more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.Page 100

Duhigg is good on how Starbucks helps employees deal with ratty customers, and he’s excellent on the 1987 Kings Cross Tube fire, a story that they should be teaching in kindergartens everywhere. [Here’s a blog post on that.]

His section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be required for every 21st century facebooker who casually uses Parks and the Black Civil Rights movement to prop up their own sense of self-righteousness and deluded hope for easy social change.

What is missing? A strong sense that we live in a reality distortion field. Power is about making people see just what is needed for them to see. Those who can force others to act (and therefore, usually, ultimately see) in the prescribed ways, end up with the spoils, at least in the short term. Lukes and all that. And the underlying question of what to DO about that is tricky indeed. I fear we are always pack animals, dependent on the tribe for both physical and “psychological” (the term can be misused, anachronistically) safety.

The costs of telling the truth are high, and fall on individuals. It is “safer” to keep schtum, even when everybody knows the ship is sinking, and everybody knows the captain lied.

See also:

Margaret Heffernan Willful Blindness

Geoffrey Martin Hodgson(born 28 July 1946) is a Research Professor of Business Studies in the University of Hertfordshire, and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

Committee on Food Habits (1941-43)

Book Review: “The politics of global atmospheric change” (1995)

Book Review: Rowlands, I. (1995) The politics of global atmospheric change Manchester: Manchester University Press

rowlandsbookThis is one for the geeks only.  If you’re interested in the vicious fights in the 1980s an early 1990s about whether and how “we” would do something about ozone depletion and carbon dioxide build-up, then grab with both ands;  It’s well-written, with a useful format that looks – at both ozone and climate change-  at the Science, Interests, Equity and Catalysts (people and organisations that make stuff happen – or stop it happening). (1)

While it is far too specialised and “out of date” for the general reader, there are lots of useful snippets that help you understand the world.  My favourite is the fact that while scientists got the theory of ozone depletion caused by CFCs, there was an “unnecessary” delay in collecting the evidence.

Indeed, what made it even more unexpected was that the US satellites that had been gathering data over the Antarctic since 1979 had not detected any significant change in ozone levels. The reason being, tit was discerned later, was that the satellites’s computers had been programmed to discard any data that were outside an anticipated range. When the computers were reprogrammed, with this condition removed, they revealed the same pattern of spring-time depletion that had been discovered by the British ground-based stations. As John Gribbin (2) notes:

“The point is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s atmospheric scientists were increasingly confident that they understood, more or less, what was going on in the atmosphere. Both the chemistry and the dynamics of air movements were being analysed in more detail than ever before, and a coherent picture was emerging. But nowhere in that coherent picture was there even a hint that a dramatic change like the development of a huge hole in the ozone layer could occur.”

Rowlands (1995) Page 55

So, we are so sure of our theories that we misidentify signal as noise on occasion.  #hairlessape #epicfail.

Rowlands also quotes a New Scientist  journo on the subject of (science) policy entrepreneurs

“It could be argued that, if Bob Watson had been hit by a bus in 1980, we would not now have a treaty to save the ozone layer…. Watson did not discover the hole in the ozone layer, calculate how CFCs reach the stratosphere, or write the models that predict the damage. What he did do, however, was to bring the scientists who did that work together to reach a consensus on what was happening.  He then helped to translate what they said into a language that politicians could not obfuscate or ignore.  The result was the ozone treaty.”

Debora MacKenzie, How to use science and influence people New Scientist, 122 29 April 1989, page 69

That’s not Watson’s only service to an indifferent species. He also took over the reins of the IPCC from Bert Bolin in 1997. George W Bush got rid of him as soon as he could.


(1) There’s a super useful chronology of the politics of both ozone layer depletion and of climate change (the two issues overlap in profound ways)

(2) Gribbin, J. (1988) The Hole in the Sky: Man’s Threat to the Ozone Layer (London, Corgi Books, p. 95)

Book Review: Bert Bolin’s “A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change”

Bolin, B. (2007) A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 277 pages

Cover TemplateClimate scientists, despite what you read thanks to the well-funded denialist lobby, are cautious souls.  Probably none has been more reluctant to succumb to the apocalyptic language that now seems accurate that the Swedish climatologist Bert Bolin (1925-2007).   Bolin was present at the discovery.  From the late 1950s onwards he was involved in figuring out what impact throwing huge amounts of previously buried carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would have.   He was there in leading roles at the key meetings in the late 70s through to the mid-80s (especially Villach 1985). When a  safe pair of hands was needed for the role of chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-), he was the logical choice.

Part one – the first four chapters-  quickly covers the “early history of the climate change issue” up to the 1980s.

Part two – the next seven chapters – covers the period from 1988 to 1997, from the first global alarms through to the Kyoto Protocol’s negotiation.   This is the period he was IPCC chair, and he gives good detail on how the IPCC’s assessment reports were  created, and how the IPCC interacted with the preparations for the Rio “Earth Summit” and beyond.  He also covers the shameful attacks on scientists like Ben Santer by the highly motivated (and fossil-fuel funded) “libertarians” of the George Marshall Institute etc.

His book is modest to the point of self-effacement, and chock full of fascinating (and for my PhD v. useful) anecdotes about the gory detail of those attacks and the fair-minded responses that the IPCC gave, to limited effect.  There are, also, as with any historical book on climate change, moments where you gasp and weep at how much we knew, and wanted to do, but then DIDN’T do.  The Angela Merkel cameos (she led the Berlin meeting in 1995) are a good example of this.

There are a couple of typos (e.g. the chairman of the Global Climate Coalition is given as both Shlaes and Schlaes) and points where a fact checker with OCD might have been useful (e.g. the George Marshall Institute was not “recently formed” by the 1990s- it was set up in 1984 to shill for Ronald Reagan’s absurd “Strategic Defence Initiative” – “Star Wars” to you and me). Overall though, if you want to know about how we got into this godawful mess – how the science has been attacked from day one, the constant low-level harassment of scientists (with occasional flare-ups) – then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Also worth reading on this

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart

The Heat is On and Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett

Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth about issues from tobacco smoke to global warming by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Activist Fictions…

The article below appeared in the latest issue of the essential-reading “Peace News.” (subscribe here.)

Activist Fictions

The absurdly handsome activist bit his lip. The Peace News crew were threatening mil-itary action if the final extended deadline for a 2000 word essay on “Activism and Fiction” was missed. The clock was most definitely two minutes to midnight.
He sighed, ran a hand through his thick shoulder-length blond hair, and thought quickly. His hands flew with perfect acuracy across the keyboard. “The four books under review, all by women, are useful and…”


His 5th generation phone, full of apps about buying fair trade, challenging climate denialism, and the daily homily on intersectionality, beckoned.
He considered not answering. It was probably just Sven again, pestering him to come to Stockholm in December to accept that stupid prize. Or else Noam wanting more help with his grammar homework.
He picked up the phone and read the text.

“Why u writing stupid article? Activists shld be out saving world, not reading poxy made-up crap. U enabling their laziness, u moron.”

The deadline be damned! “Who is this? How u get this number?!!”

Straight away the reply: “Well duh, numbskull. I’m your conscience. Call me Jiminy, or Mr Puritan. Or whatevs. U gonna justify yrself? Y u rite abt novels? Real life 2 scary?”

He buried his head in his hands. That’s all he needed – the fourth wall to break down. He’d been warned that if the article wasn’t in the PN inbox by Monday to expect a visit from some very large and short-tempered quakers. Still, he could hardly ignore himself, could he?

He texted back. “Switching to email.” And he wrote

“There are at least three excellent reasons we activists should read fiction about activism.
First, we need to get ideas and inspiration – and heed warnings – from other people’s struggles. Novels can say things about personal and group experiences that articles and non-fiction can’t.
Secondly, you cannot spend your whole life reading local authority plans and corporate responsibility reports and Amnesty International appeals. Or rather, you can, but you’ll burn yourself to a crisp and become so narrow and boring that you are a perfect advert for NOT being an activist.
Thirdly, if the novel is good, you can share it not just with your activist mates, but also with other people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. It might inspire them to get involved.

The text response was instant. “#Yrsofullofit. Take your first choice – “Mud” by Nicky Edwards. Written almost 30 yrs ago, and full of stuff about World War One! Er, relevant?!”

The activist first thought ‘don’t feed the troll’, then realised he was the troll. He typed: “It’s a brilliant novel. A young woman who has fallen out of love with the intense activism of the Greenham Common protests meets an elderly woman called Ada whose life she wants to write about. This allows Edwards to write about so much that matters; suffragettes, the personal politics of meetings and communal living, history, memory, the trouble with the trajectories of protest, class and the scars of war. Because it’s the only British novel in the four I’ve chosen, it’s the one I’d try to get everyone to read first. Catch this bit, in which the activist explains the end of the affair –

“OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.”
“…. Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day…. Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again.”
“But still she went.”
“Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.”
“And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.
“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.”
“Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.”
Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on.
“And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”
page 123

“Great – so u want people to slag off activism now? That’ll really work! (claps).”

The Brad Pitt-lookalike sighed and typed. “No, not slag off, just understand the mechanisms that can lead us astray. It’s easier to do with fiction than impassioned denunciations of the smugosphere. I think. But the other novels are brilliant too! In “Vida” Marge Piercy explains the enormous personal and political costs of being underground after the 60s. Vida and friends were entrapped by an undercover cop (sound familiar) but got away. There’s brilliant stuff about the politics of the Vietnam War movement, the radicalism, the tensions within it. This bit, on burnout, is just perfect.

“She was always late now- running, running, but never arriving. She never went to bed before three in the morning, and she was seldom allowed to sleep past eight. From the time she crawled out till she collapsed in her clothes, she no longer had time to read a book, bake a cake, listen to music, talk idly- and everything was empty palaver that was not about liberation, not about imperialism or racism or Third World struggles, about the war, the war, the war. If she went to the country, it was for a secret meeting or for target practice. When she ran into an old friend, she could think only what skills or contacts they had that were needed, what kind of speaking or fund raising or organising or liaison work they could do. Yet she had no feeling of accomplishment, because every morning in the Times, every evening on television, the war was stronger, and she was closer to exhaustion. They had not done enough they had not risked enough, they had not tried everything, they had not fought hard enough, they had not, because the proof was before her every morning and every evening the war went on. It was raining blood outside whether she looked out the window or not; the blood was splattering down, and the hot wind that blew across the city smelled of ashes, of burning flesh. Obviously they had not tried hard enough if the war still went on.”

“So you get vicarious thrills from wannabe revolutionaries? Really? Weak.”

This Mr Puritan guy was getting tiresome. The activist typed “No, but I can learn from them, no? In the same way I learn from corporate literature of team-building and strategy? And from military techniques for tactics and training? Why not learn from things you don’t agree with? And Piercy isn’t saying Vida is a heroine, just that she’s a human, who has made smart and dumb choices, and sometimes not had space to make choices. The final pages of the book leave me breathless every time I read it.”

“Yeah yeah. What were the other two then?”

“Death is Part of the Process” by Hilda Bernstein. Written during the armed struggle against the Apartheid regime, covering both the 80s but and the 60s, it follows the fates of three different activists – one white, one Indian and one black. It looks at how they are treated differently by the state, how they have different options and how they do – or don’t break – under pressure, what they expect of themselves and others. Again, you will tell me this has nothing to teach about activism in the privileged West. But you’re wrong. And it’s wonderfully written. The scene where one activist has to decide if he stays in the struggle or heads for the door, by simply tearing off a button has stayed with me for 20 years. And then there’s the hardest to find, but in some ways the best. “Local Deities” by Agnes Bushell. Like “Vida”, it deals with the costs of living underground in the United States, and being hunted by all. It’s excellent on race and class too, full of vivid characters who you want to know more about. And, like Vida, it warns against turning anyone into heroes – thus the title.”

“Okay,so this last one – how’d you hear about it if it’s so hard to find?”

The activist wondered if he was winning anyone – least of all his conscience – over. And glanced at the clock. He was almost out of time. He typed. “Well, I read Jennifer Egan‘s “The Invisible Circus”, about a casualty of the 1960s, and checking the Amazon reviews afterwards

“Amazon? And you call yourself a…”

“Chill, I didn’t buy anything! I found mention of Dana Spiotta‘s excellent “Eat the Document” (also on the consequences of violent action for both victims and perpetrators) and a reviewer – rightly – recommended Bushell.

“You done preening yet?”

The activist hit the properties function, and wrote “Still got 300 words. You gonna help?”

“U only wanna write about women? Trying 2 prove non-existent feminist credentials? #shallow, dude.”

The activist grinned. “Men often more into the whole street-fighting thing. But also excellent stuff too. Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, before his books got enormous. Good on the technicalities of nvda sabotage. Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, if you can cope with the casual misogyny, is full of verve and love.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is excellent on strategy and the need for constant re-invention. Just pretend you don’t know about the author’s horrible homophobia, ‘kay?
Cory Doctorow‘s recent Little Brother and Homeland – both set in San Francisco after a terrorist attack, are simply brilliant – great stuff on pleasure, technology, surveillance, courage and politics, with a narrative drive that has you almost devouring the damn books. They deserve a 2000 word review all of their own.”

“Sounds a bit sci-fi. I’ll pass” texted Jiminy, clearly on the back foot.

The activist looked at the clock too. He was winning on both fronts. “Your loss. And sci-fi? How is that a dirty word?? Two must-read trouble-in-utopia novels get that slurred as “sci-fi” should be on the national curriculum. “Woman on the Edge of Time” by the aforementioned Marge Piercy and “The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin. Nobody can call themselves an informed anarchist without having read both, imho. And Le Guin’s short story “The Day before the Revolution” is a brilliant evocation of the cruelty and pleasure of fighting for justice without expecting the day to come.”

“Oh just write the damn article and leave me alone.”

The activist checked his phone. Yep, Sven again. And from Noam four more pleading emails. Time to send this off to Peace News. Activism and fiction indeed.
Disclaimer: Marc Hudson has been called absurd, but never absurdly good-looking. All adverbs and adjectives used in this article should be treated as fiction. And some of the facts. But not the assessment of the novels discussed. Those are good old-fashioned opinions.