Friday, 24 January 2014

Holiday reading

Every summer for the past 25 years my wife and I have blobbed out in a bach in the backblocks of Golden Bay. We’re still there, doing the things we usually do: long walks along the golden sands of Pohara Beach, a couple of pints of Captain Cooker manuka beer to go with the mussel chowder at the Mussel Inn at Onekaka, lunch at the Wholemeal CafĂ© in Takaka (the new lamb pie is very good), tramping trips up the Cobb Valley (the landscape around the Fenella hut is the prettiest spot I've found in New Zealand), exploring (the Aorere Goldfields Track) and, of course, going to the A&P Show (third Saturday in January, this year graced by the Motueka Marching Ladies).

Mostly we read: we bring some books of our own, and supplement it with our $10 summer visitor memberships of the Takaka Memorial Library. Each year I read, or re-read, one of Charles Dickens’ books: last year I re-read Our Mutual Friend (his last finished novel, and my current favourite), this year I finally finished The Pickwick Papers, which I’d struggled with before but found easier going this time. It was an early work and his first big commercial success, and it’s interesting to see how he was already preoccupied with some big themes of his later novels (the cruel treatment of the poor and indebted, and the injustices of the law).

I'm a bit of a Great War buff, in an amateur way, and with the centenary of 1914 now close upon us there’s plenty of good new stuff out. Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe goes to war is a highly readable account by a prolific military historian, with good pen pictures of the main personalities and a generally poor opinion of everyone (including, gratuitously, economists). He is especially critical of the role of the British Expeditionary Force (the “Old Contemptibles”) in the early days of the war, when (he says) Sir John French was keen to avoid action. And his account, which goes up the end of 1914, is a reminder of the appalling casualties involved: we tend to think of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele as the killing grounds, but the Marne is up there with them.

Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 stays with the diplomacy leading up to the outbreak of war, and as the title hints the general theme is one of unintended consequences – with the exception of Serbia. It knew what it was doing, and was perfectly happy to bring ruin on everyone else if it enlarged an autonomous Serbian homeland (there’s a book still to be written about the misery Serbian ultranationalism caused throughout the whole of the 20th century).

Clark’s also very good at drawing modern parallels, for example noting that in our own day acts of standalone terrorism – 9/11 being the prime example – can have the same geopolitical impact as the Sarajevo assassination did. I've got Margaret Macmillan’s widely praised The War That Ended Peace: the road to 1914  still to go.

I enjoyed Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: the women who ruled England before Elizabeth (Elizabeth I, that is), which you may have seen adapted for Sky’s History Channel, and on a much less serious note, Bernard Cornwell’s 1356, a swashbuckler about English archers in the Hundred Years War, culminating in the Battle of Poitiers. In the notes at the back I found reference to Peter Hoskins’ In the Steps of the Black Prince: the road to Poitiers 1355-1356, which I gather is the author’s personal retracing of the Prince’s war raid route and is now on my short list of things to read next. And while I'm in the mood for historical fiction, Robert Wilton’s Traitor’s Field (England, 1648) looks promising.

Summer wouldn’t be summer without a good wallow in your favourite authors: on the private eye front, there’s Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole series (I'm halfway through Voodoo River) and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (Q is for Quarry up next), and no holiday should miss another visit to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (Small Gods this time). On spec at the library I picked up Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Crocodile, a translation of a prize-winning police thriller set in Naples: it was excellent.

Normal economics posts resume shortly…