Review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End


Death’s End

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2016

ISBN: 9781784971649

604 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu

Death’s End is the final part of Cixin Liu’s extraordinary trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem and continued with The Dark Forest. There are some spoilers in this review of these earlier books.

Humanity was challenged by the Trisolarans, whose fleet of seemingly all-powerful spaceships are inexorably speeding through the night towards earth. Advanced technology meant that a Trisolaran presence already existed and it was able to prevent humanity making any new scientific breakthroughs. To keep the alien enemies at bay, those few individuals chosen to lead the defence of their people make public the desperate danger of the Dark Forest – any species that demonstrates the ability to travel in space and allows its location to be broadcast will be destroyed by unknown aliens. It may take some time for the final strike to be made and it may be possible to make some preparations but it does appear that resistance is, ultimately, futile.

This is the situation at the beginning of Death’s End – a tense stand-off with the Trisolarans over an enormous expanse of space. One person has been designated as the Swordholder and he is the one responsible for triggering the death of the enemy’s home planet if their ships stray beyond the agreed limits. However, the Swordholder is just one person and he cannot live forever – he spends his entire life staring at the wall on which the Trisolaran ships are portrayed being ready to pull the trigger at any moment and knowing that his every moment is under scrutiny from afar. Would the next Swordholder prove to be as steadfast?

It is in this way that Cixin Liu injects humanity into the larger philosophical issues in which he seems to be so interested. This involves the comparison between what appears to be required and what the individual can provide. Of course, some part of what constitutes the individual human character depends on the experiences that person has undergone and, hence, it is necessary to show some parts of that experience. This is a slightly roundabout way of saying that this is primarily a science fiction novel of ideas in which human characters are required to tell the story but who are, otherwise, not of much interest. Readers interested in character development, insightful dialogue and so forth are likely to be somewhat disappointed. To some extent, this might be an artefact of translating Chinese into English – Ken Liu does a fine job in providing a lucid, readable text but there are so many cultural and social intonations which are difficult to get across without intrusive footnotes or other explanations that some of that content has had to be omitted. This is something of a pity but it is the action that grips on the macro-level rather than what is going to happen to individuals on the micro-level.

In fact, the initial deadlock is quite quickly resolved and the book goes on in several subsequent sections to investigate additional phases of the story. It is not giving much away to say that the narrative graduates towards the far future and includes some startling observations about the universe – not the least is the source of all the dark matter and dark energy that constitutes the cosmos but what about which we know so little. Despite this, the sense of awe and wonder that readers might have does not fade. There are still plenty of mysteries to consider.

As a trilogy, these books represent an extraordinary journey from the initially fairly small-scale issue of the nature of a bizarre and somewhat threatening video game to the conclusion so far away. While the books do hold together in a sufficiently coherent way, it is tempting to think that the author worked on the series one step at a time and did not, necessarily, have the full vision in his mind as he wrote. If this is the case, then it does not really matter since people write in different ways and the best-laid plans gang aft agley, after all. Besides which, there are such things as editors to take care of any inconsistencies and infelicities. This is terrific stuff.

Review of Anne Rice’s Of Love and Evil


Of Love and Evil: The Songs of the Seraphim

Anne Rice

London: Arrow Books, 2011

ISBN: 9780099556985

176 pp.

In the first book of this series, Angel Time, which I have not read but which seems to be perfectly well summarised in this one, Toby O’Dare has been plucked from his life of government assassin, a soulless terrorist, by a real life angel named Malchiah. The angel sees a better future for Toby, saving lives rather than taking them and things seem to have worked out pretty well for both of them. At the beginning of this book, Toby is in the presence of angels: “I felt love around me in this vast and seamless realm of sound and light. I felt intimately and completely known. I felt beloved and held and part of all I saw and heard. And yet I knew I deserved nothing of it, nothing. And something akin to sadness swept me up and mingled my very essence with the voices who sang, because the voices were singing of me (p.3).”

It is easy to have some sympathy with this point of view: why has Toby, of all people, been given this opportunity? Are there no more or less virtuous people who might have had the chance? Are there to be no punishments for vice and no rewards for virtue? The answer to this, I am going to suggest, is Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism. In this Buddhist tradition, enlightenment (i.e. the freeing of the self from attachments to the unlasting things of the universe) can arrive instantaneously as if by a lightning bolt for the mind that is ready to receive it. This is the reason why, in the various versions of the Ramayana, demons and monsters and all kinds of ne’er-do-wells are able to achieve enlightenment while the good guys remain chained to their appetites. Perhaps, then, Toby has the opportunity for a form of spiritual greatness that is beyond the ken of the rest of us, at least for the time being. Such an interpretation would appear to coincide with her vampire books, particularly the later ones. The first, Interview with a Vampire, was a jolly romp with vivid characters and occasional bouts of fast-paced action. Yet as the series continued (and I started to lose interest in it), the books increasingly became involved with the supposedly superior ability of some great souls to be able to suffer and love and suffer again. That Anne Rice then went on to write books about Jesus rather reinforced my idea that her authorial sensibility had disappeared somewhere the sun does not shine.

However, when I saw this little book available at a moment when I wanted to buy and read something quite like it, all misgivings disappeared and I was ready to give her another go. Thankfully, the being in the bosom of the angels thing soon disappears and Toby is dispatched to an Italy of the Renaissance period in which the presence of a dybbuk or golem is suspected. Toby’s task is to find out what is going on and make things better. He will receive some angelic assistance along the way but the angels are not God and so not omnipresent or, indeed, all-knowing. Fortunately, Toby is able to communicate with the local people and can soon get on with his job.

This is quite a nice set-up for a series of books that could be moved in various directories (and probably would transfer nicely to the screen) and do not require that much effort on behalf of the author – in a concluding note, she observes that she used Wikipedia for much of her research. I will be interested to see if any more of these come along or whether she has turned her attention elsewhere.

Review of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm


The Lair of the White Worm

Bram Stoker

London: Collins Classics, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-00-811050-5

VIII + 208 pp.

This is quite a difficult book for me to review – there is so much obvious racism and sexism that it seems extraordinary that it was published in the twentieth century. This is not just the prejudice of the age as it might be argued was the case for H.P. Lovecraft or T.S. Eliot, this is a spray of n-words used about a poor African chap who is associated with all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and attributes. The women, on the other hand, are either virtuous and demure (like Mimi, the young Burmese woman who seems to have been brought up in Siam) or else full of feminine wiles and probably somewhat Satanic with it, like Lady Arabella March, who does not have the decency to stay married and live in her castle like Lady Bountiful:

“… but being feminine, she will probably over-reach herself. Now, Adam, it strikes me that, as we have to protect ourselves and others against feminine nature, our strong game will be to play our masculine against her feminine. Perhaps we had better sleep on it. She is a thing of the night; and the night may give us some ideas (p.125).”

Other novels also published in 1910 include Clayhanger, Psmith in the City, Howards End and The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Well, the book continues to be published and to have, apparently, a favourable reception so what is the positive aspect? It is a work of gothic horror, set in Derbyshire. My experience of Derbyshire, limited though it is, is that the elevation is quite high, it was cold and rather windswept. It is quite possible to imagine, therefore, stone castles pointing like stiff little fingers into the sky and rooted in the rocky hills beneath. Small and remote cottages would dot the estate but be distant from each other and their denizens forced to become reliant on the castle owners. This is, indeed, the case here for the small list of characters have no opportunities to meet or interact with anyone else and there are no telephones or even telegrams to use to apply for help.

Into this somewhat bleak landscape (my advice is, given the choice, be born into the castle-owning class) comes Adam Salton, newly returned from Australia where, it is suggested, he has done great physical things on the ranch and in the outback (where, famously of course, there are no women to distract a man bent on physical dominance of the landscape). He has been summoned by his great-uncle, of whom he had previously been unaware, so as to be offered the position of son and only heir of Castra Regis, the Derbyshire estate. The only problem with this plan – the great-uncle immediately accepts Adam as his long-lost boy and no more need to be said about the arrangement – is the presence of the aforementioned Lady Arabella and her sinister associate, Edgar Caswall, who is perhaps a mesmerist or some kind of a magician able to have his wicked way with other people purely by the force of his personality. These two are utterly inimical to Adam and his household for no particular reason. The Lady – the front cover shows quite clearly her ophidian nature – is something of a prodigy. She is malignant and repugnant in a sort of quasi-modern way. Described as being very thin and customarily wearing a sheer white dress, she is the antithesis to the maternal or womanly ideal and is compared directly with the two orphans of empire, Lila and Mimi. Their skin colour is not mentioned and, indeed, they are described very little – perhaps imagination is all that is required in this case or perhaps coming to Britain has emphasized their imperial heritage. Clearly, there can be no peaceable settlement.

Despite its shortcomings, this is still an interesting book and it moves along rapidly. It is not surprising that versions have appeared on the screen, for the story is as much visual as verbal in nature. Which is to say, I suppose, that the language and particularly the dialogue used is not very interesting. I cannot, under the circumstances, really recommend the book but I am quite glad to have had the chance to read it.

Review of Tariq Ali’s The Extreme Centre


Ali, Tariq, The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.71-2.

The Extreme Centre: A Warning

Tariq Ali

London and New York, NY: Verso, 2015

ISBN: 9781784782627

200 pp.

I do admire Tariq Ali for his work as editor of the New Left Review, his novels, his media appearances and the air of magisterial outrage he is able to pull off while doing so, together with some of his other books. He makes admirably clear his rejection of colonialism and imperialism in all its forms and is able to articulate the damage that adventurist foreign policy is doing to the world and is just as trenchant in dealing with domestic politics. Both of these arenas are deployed in The Extreme Centre, in which Ali has joined together examinations of life in the contemporary UK, USA and elsewhere to provide a warning about his understanding of the state of the world today. True to Gramsci’s dictum advising the employment of pessimism of the intellect, it is fair to conclude that he does not think things are going very well.

The unifying concept is that of the extreme centre, which is a way of describing the current neoliberal political settlement and the seemingly unbreakable chokehold the forces of the bourgeois establishment have on the levers of power and the national coffers. As things stand, there is no difference between the principal political parties and, in the concluding chapter, he looks to the emerging political movements of Spain and Greece for inspiration. Of course, the book was written before the disastrous Brexit debacle and it would have been interesting to see how he would have incorporated that into his analysis. Both principal political parties in the current USA presidential election cycle have witnessed considerable success by candidates running as anti-establishment outsiders (under false pretences in one case) and the current understanding of the Brexit vote is being cast in the same light. This rather suggests that it is possible at the least to mobilise large numbers of people to protest against the extreme centre and, perhaps, even bring about some meaningful concessions.

The book is organized in six chapters, with an introduction and, as an appendix, includes a poem by Ian Birchall entitled ‘The Seven Ages of a Labour MP.’ The first chapter on ‘English Questions’ and the second on ‘Scottish Answers’ stick to the concept of the extreme centre, although the construction of these chapters is a little strange. He begins with the principal argument:

“We live in a country without an opposition. Westminster is in the grip of an extreme centre, a trilateral monolith, made up of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition plus Labour: yes to austerity, yes to imperial wars, yes to a failing EU, yes to increased security measures, and yes to shoring up the broken model of neoliberalism (p.17).”

This is then supported by a jeremiad principally based on New Labour and its failings and followed by 18 pages of descriptions of some former ministers who have subsequently been employed by companies which they might once have regulated through what Private Eye and others call the ‘revolving door,’ as well as the transcript of an interview with a professor of public health research and policy about the future of the NHS. It is easy to criticize the administrations of Blair and Brown, of course but telling the full story would acknowledge the good work that was done in those years, which often had to be accomplished more or less by stealth because of the relentless hostility of the majority of mainstream media in the UK. Polly Toynbee and David Walker (2001, 2005, 2011) have written a series of books aiming to provide a more nuanced approach by itemizing all the different policies, campaigns and initiatives that were taken to try to improve life for the people of Britain and to try to determine which would have taken place anyway and those which did not have the intended primary effect or suffered from unintended secondary effects. They are cautiously positive about the results and their explanations are persuasive. Tariq Ali sees nothing positive about the Labour government and, in the following chapters, sees little benefit from Labour’s previous electoral supremacy in Scotland and its replacement by the Scottish Nationalist Party and its People’s Vows. I might have expected him to take more of an internationalist perspective.

The next chapters deal with the European Union, NATO and the USA. In these chapters, the extreme centre concept is dropped (it is reintroduced in the final chapter) and the author is free to rail at familiar enemies:

“If unelected bankers are deciding upon the needs of people in a number of European countries, as they are, how can this move things forward? But this is not something understood today by the uncritical defenders of Europe. For them, there’s nothing wrong, Europe is great, it’s a great idea, don’t do anything to it (p.104).”

These chapters are somewhat unevenly written and some sections, at least, give the impression that they have been imported from other projects. The analysis can be quite superficial, as is notably the case with the treatment of the rise of China, which rests upon an inadequate set of readings. The book’s final chapter, ‘Alternatives,’ allows the purveyors of new political movements in continental Europe to describe their progress in their own terms rather than providing objective analysis of the possibility of such groups actually being able to take power and bring about meaningful change. Then, as previously mentioned, there is the concluding poem, which is really not very good.

I began this review by noting that I do admire Tariq Ali and his work and I will be happy to read others of his books, both fiction and non-fiction. However, this is not his most successful effort.


Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2001). Did things get better? An audit of success and failures (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2005). Better or worse? Has Labour delivered? (London: Granta).

Toynbee, P. and Walker, D. (2011). The verdict: did Labour change Britain? (London: Granta).

Review of Eric Schlosser’s Gods of Metal


Schlosser, Eric, Gods of Metal, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.69-70.

Gods of Metal
Eric Schlosser
London: Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-141-98226-7
122 pp.

When dealing with the military, whether or not in a country unhappy enough to have to suffer their relentless and systematic depredations, it is easy to forget just how ridiculous they are, with their coloured costumes, prancing about according to arcane and archaic protocols and tedious preening in the name of xenophobic nationalism. Hobsbawm (2007) identified this situation: “Separated from the rest of society by a life consisting (in peacetime) of fancy dress, instruction and practice, games and boredom, organized on the assumption that their members at all levels are generally rather stupid and always expendable, held together by the increasingly anomalous values of bravery, honour, contempt for and suspicion of civilians, professional armies tend almost by definition to ideological eccentricity (p.264).”

The second thing it is easy to forget is just how incompetent they are and how poorly they attempt to achieve their goals. The British ship pounding the jungle with cannon fire in Heart of Darkness may be read as a symbol of imperial power shredding the land but it might also be read as the futile attempt of bullies to enforce their way through bluster and chance. The tradition continues with the American drone fliers, who are demonstrably slaughtering citizens around the world in a supposed campaign against terrorism that could scarcely be designed to be more counter-productive. The misery suffered by victims of the military may be no less for the fact that most deaths are categorized as ‘collateral damage’ but it does indicate how poor a solution to complex real life problems violence is.

The incompetence is not manifested only on the battlefield, of course but throughout the whole range of activities. Some, not naming any names, specialize in bullying to death new recruits and enlisted personnel, human trafficking, abuse of power, conspiring to overthrow democratically elected governments, use of state assets for personal gain, money laundering, extortion and the corrupt purchase of bomb detectors that do not detect anything, aircraft carriers that do not float, zeppelins that do not fly, fighter planes that come with additional benefits and submarines that will never be able to be used properly. All of this while making false claims of moral superiority. Meanwhile, Nepalese troops deployed by the United Nations (UN) are strongly suspected of spreading cholera and killing thousands of people as a result. Reports of sexual abuse by other groups of UN peacekeepers are becoming legion. Then there is the case of the USA and its nuclear missiles, which is the subject to which Eric Schlosser has devoted himself in Gods of Metal. One would hope that the missiles, whether one believes them necessary or not, would be kept in good and secure conditions. Unfortunately not:

“For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind (p.36).”

The laxity with which these powerful weapons are kept and which Schlosser documents, means there is a very real fear of accidental explosions – just one of which could be catastrophic in effect – and the possibility that terrorists or other ill-intentioned people could obtain access to one or more of them. These dangers are highlighted by the peaceful activities of protestors such as Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli, who are among many who have more or less wandered into these supposedly high-security sites and enacting their protests by painting walls with blood or symbolically damaging some areas of brickwork that would not pose any threat to the weapons themselves. By demonstrating the vulnerability of the sites to infiltration (if octogenarian nuns can do it, so could large numbers of other people), the protestors have provided a valuable service for the US government and military. This is particularly true of the central event in this book, which is an infiltration of the Y-12 site in Tennessee. Of course, the response to such incidents almost invariably represents the embarrassed bluster of incompetent military forces probably operating under budget constraints caused by the insistence of the American right that putting disproportionate amounts of money into the bank accounts of a small number of the undeserving rich will benefit the country as a whole. At least we can console ourselves that, in the event of a nuclear conflagration, the rich are likely to be caught outside their fall-out shelters and be incinerated along with the rest of us.

Schlosser’s style is journalistic and his prose is readable and lucid. The research he has clearly done is sprinkled quite sparingly in the text. The book is an expression of the kind of long-form journalism that rather went out of fashion as a result of the spread of the online world and the concomitant starving of funds to the traditional media. Indeed, the original form of the text was published in the New Yorker and that has now been expanded for this Penguin volume that will bring a wider audience for it. The story ends with the author in a prison – he notes that he spends a lot of time visiting people in different prisons throughout the USA – where he is visiting one of the protestors who is spending his time teaching others how to read, playing Scrabble and being part of a Bible-study group: “The prison looked like an image on an old postcard, a haunting, uniquely American symbol of state power. And a thought occurred to me: the walls of the penitentiary guarding this pacifist were taller and more impenetrable than any of the fences at Y-12 (p.112).”

John Walsh, Shinawatra University


Conrad, Joseph, Heart of darkness and other stories (Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 1995).

Hobsbawm, Eric, Revolutionaries, revised and updated version (London: Abacus, 2007).

Review of Phongpaichit and Baker’s Unequal Thailand


Phongpaichit, Pasuk and Chris Baker (eds.), Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Nepalese Journal of Management Science and Research, Vol.2 (2017), pp.67-8.

Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power
Edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016
ISBN: 9789814722001
XV + 186 pp.

Inequality has become one of the more urgent issues gripping the attention of the people of the world, especially since it became evident that the Crisis of Austerity was being used b representatives of the 1% to extract even more money from the 99%. Thomas Piketty’s epic Capital in the Twenty First Century (2014) demonstrated that intensifying capitalism strengthened control of money among the rich and the super-rich and prevented social mobility taking place. The importance of social mobility for maintaining a healthy and progressive governance system has been evident since the creation of the imperial examination system in the Han dynasty of China more than two thousand years ago (Min & Xiumen, 2010). In The Spirit Level, Pickett and Wilkinson (2010) show beyond reasonable doubt that those countries most unequal fare the worst in a wide range of societal indictors, ranging from educational outcomes to teenage pregnancies to crime rates. The best way to make any society happier and more stable overall is to reduce inequality and the best way to do that involves a combination of empowering the poor with shining a light on the possessions and lifestyles of the rich. The release of the Panama Papers, leaked from the legal firm Mossack Fonseca, very quickly showed how those who benefited from tax avoidance by using shell companies offshore tax havens could be brought to account when their activities came to light (e.g. Henley, 2016; MacAskill et al., 2016).

All in all, then, this would seem to be a splendid time to publish a collection of papers based on original empirical research into inequality in Thailand. After all, as a country that has undergone rapid economic development, urbanization and industrialization, Thailand has begun to embrace all aspects of capitalist development, for good or ill. Further, the country continues to suffer the drawbacks of Thai feudalism and the absolute blanket on any form of political dissent or even questioning maintained by the current junta. Such a book would investigate the roles and influence of powerful institutions set so implacably against progress such as the military, judiciary and network monarchy. It would question the role of the media and media ownership as an additional tool used as an intellectual state apparatus in promoting the concept of so-called Thainess (i.e. obedience, obsequiousness to power and unwillingness to question authority). Innovative attempts to identify the relationship between economic and social capital would have been welcome. However, unfortunately, this opportunity has rather been missed somewhere along the line of production, since too many of the papers veer towards the superficial and to lack firm supervisory guidance. The project was funded jointly by the Thailand Research Fund, the Bureau of Higher Education and Chulalongkorn University as part of the Distinguished Professor Scheme. It is certainly a good thing that only Thai academics were selected for this project, that they seem to have been well-funded and their papers extensively edited and supported for this book by near-legendary editors Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. The problem nevertheless remains that too many of the papers (and some from the original project have been omitted altogether) are just not quite up to the required level.

Some papers do make a positive contribution. For example, Duangmanee Laovakul’s “Concentration of Land and Other Wealth in Thailand” is based on ground-breaking research among the newly digitized records of the Land Department. This research indicates that the ownership of land and other assets is even more highly concentrated than the ownership of income. It is shown that 10% of all landowners own more than 60% of total land. Unfortunately, no useful implications or policy recommendations are derived from this research.

Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichoka have an interesting paper in “Elite Networking through Special Executive Courses,” which itemizes the presence and nature of such courses and identifies those who have participated in them. It is made clear that course-organizers take steps to ensure that network opportunities are maximized at these times and it is very evident that senior-junior relationships are established which are of considerable importance and value to both sides in future careers. The authors conclude that this ‘personal cronyism’ perpetuates elite power by promoting good relations and avoiding conflict among the elite and accepted new entrants, thereby preventing unwanted outsiders entering and “As a result power over the economy, politics and resources is more concentrated and circumscribed within a small elite.”
As a research paper, the outstanding chapter is provided by Chaiyon Praditisil and Chainarong Khrueanuan, who are able to draw upon many years of inquiry to inform their “Inequalities of Local Power and Profit: The Changing Structure of Provincial Power.” This is a fascinating account of how Chao Por networks have developed in provincial Thailand, how they have developed over time and reacted against the threat of outsiders moving in to their territory. It is shown that such networks have diminished in value over time as various elements of globalization have meant that power and resources are generated more from without than within. The conclusion drawn is that “The inequities in power and economic opportunity at the provincial level will diminish significantly only when advances in the rule of law and democratic decentralization make single faction dominance no longer possible.”

Of course, this being Thailand, we wait for the inevitable paper explaining how it is all really the fault of Thaksin and the uppity residents of Isan. Here it comes in the form of a contribution from Ukrist Pathmanand, whose work I have seen elsewhere and thought reasonably sensible. Since I have worked at Shinawatra University for a number of years, it is probably better if I do not comment on this paper for fear of being thought biased. After this, the book peters out with a fairly shambolic look at taxation and possible reforms to the tax system. The editors have done their best to try to remedy the shortcomings exhibited by the authors overall by trying to create an inclusive framework on inequality in the introductory chapter but this is only partly successful. Despite being published in Singapore, the text occasionally veers into American spelling and the index needs attention. Overall, the text is notable more for its omissions than from that which it does include.


Henley, Jon, “Iceland PM Steps aside after Protests over Panama Papers Revelations,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at:

MacAskill, Ewen, Rowena Mason, David Pegg and Holly Watt, “David Cameron Left Dangerously Exposed by Panama Papers Fallout,” The Guardian (April 5th, 2016), available at:

Min, Han and Yang Xiuwen, “Educational Assessment in China: Lessons from History and Future Prospects,” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, Vol.8, No.1 (2001), pp.5-10.

Pickett, Kate and Richard Wilkinson, The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2010).

Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Review of Marc Morris’s King John

Morris, Marc, King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta, The Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.3, No.1 (Jan-Apr, 2016), pp.58-61.


King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta
Marc Morris
London: Windmill Books, 2015
ISBN: 9780099591825
XVIII + 382 pp

King John is perhaps best known among British people for being so bad a monarch that there can never be a John II and for losing the crown in the Wash (part of the sea to the east of the country off Lincolnshire). His representations on stage, screen and printed page are mostly limited to being the bad guy in contrast to Richard the Lionheart and using his proxy the Sheriff of Nottingham to persecute the sainted Robin Hood. Who, really, can quote from Shakespeare’s play? However, much of this is little more than hearsay and accurate information about the life and times of the historical king is comparatively limited, at least for non-specialists. Consequently, a work of popular history on the subject is most welcome.

The value of works of popular history is that they are obliged to tell the actual story in as clear terms as possible. Academic history is required to present the myriad of quiddities and contradictions that appear in the sources and to take various theoretical frameworks of analysis as a means of examining the material in such a way that it is possible for the reader to remain unsure of what, if anything, actually did happen. One of the more notable benefits of the current book is that it is made clear why this confusion takes place: it was so difficult actually to get anything done, while there were powerful incentives to try to broadcast quite the opposite in a world in which significant enemies could respond aggressively to any show of weakness. Indeed, it is not difficult to find evidence of weakness in John’s performance since, during the first part of his reign, he managed to lose possession of England’s (this was the pre-union era) extensive holdings in what is now known as France. As Morris announces (p.5): “Travellers could pass from the border of Scotland to the border of Spain without ever leaving his territories. Millions of people, speaking at least half a dozen different languages, were his subjects. By any measure, his was the most important and powerful dominion in Europe.”

The Norman Yoke had been imposed upon the British people only 150 years before and it had led to the creation of the empire which had become anglicized at the highest-level because of the agricultural value of England. This could have been used for the benefit of all people through such means as more integration of economic and social systems to help create a civilization that would rival Byzantium. Instead, it was used for predatory raids on the working people and frittered away in needless wars and diplomatic failures. John lost France and his influence in Ireland was greatly reduced after a disastrous adventure there. Yet all of this was effected not so much by active misrule as by the inability to get things done. So much effort had to be expended persuading minor nobility to do what was expected of them and acting as the gift-giver able to create and sustain patronage networks that it was almost impossible for a limited monarch like John (whose ascent to the throne was made possible by a relentless plague visited upon his many older relatives in the direct line) to find the time to do anything else. Furthermore, a great deal of what he wanted to achieve was subject to forces beyond his control, notably including the weather. British weather is notoriously changeable and British sea power, its traditional strength in European politics, was limited in the pre-steam era to the prevailing conditions. Any foreign military venture required naval support both for transportation and for bringing needed supplies, reinforcements and information. An inconvenient storm could, therefore, waste months and even years of planning as the gathered troops and their leaders wait in port eating the food and spending the money raised by taxation while waiting for the rain to stop.

However, irrespective of the vagaries of getting things done, what John actually did get done was often quite despicable. A notable example of this was his predatory taxation policy (back to the Sheriff of Nottingham theme), which extended to various ruses aimed at acquiring assets, including people, from those who felt they had a legal claim to them. This was not only wrong for ethical reasons but actively dissolved the bods between monarch and nobility on which the political order of the country depended. The more that John alienated his erstwhile supporters, the closer he came to the creation of Magna Carta, that restatement of the social bonds between the classes that has become so central to the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom. Had John’s reign not taken place or had taken place in a different manner, then the Magna Carta moment would have happened somewhat later. That it would have happened in some form appears to be an unavoidable fact.

Morris is to be praised for producing a clear and readable book that highlights the major themes of the life and times of an important but little understood period of British history. One would be forgiven for thinking, based on popular culture, that little happened between the Norman invasion and the six wives of Henry VIII. This book helps to fill that gap in knowledge. If, occasionally, the reader might hope for a little more information about some of the contextual or background issues, that is beyond the scope of this book and Morris provides enough information in the footnotes and references for that reader to create a personal reading list for further investigation.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University