Knee-jerks and books

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph by James Valentine, c.1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury

In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.

In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.

Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands: a Record of Secret Service (1903) — which I reviewed here — describes how secret preparations for the invasion of Britain by the Kaiser were foiled by the alertness of two men sailing along the North Sea coast of Germany and keeping their eyes and ears open. Detailed descriptions and realistic plotting make this seem a very credible scenario, and apparently the novel was instrumental in affecting the government’s response to rising German militarism.

Less than half a dozen years later another novel appeared, ostensibly concerning an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. However, G K Chesterton’s 1908 tale, The Man Who Was Thursday: a Nightmare (reviewed here) for me disappointingly then veered off to become what has been characterised as a metaphysical thriller, merely using concerns about anarchist plotters as background for a Christian allegory.

Published in between these two contrasting titles was Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale (1907). As with the other two novels (and in common with much fiction of the time and earlier) its subtitle is supposed to hint at the content or tone contained within its pages, but in this case the plotline is anything but simple, as my review — to be posted soon — may indicate. Conrad does, however, purport to look fictively at some of the philosophy, motivations and modus operandi of those who espoused anarchism at the turn of the century, and there the subject is indeed complicated by the varied undercurrents, situations, organisations and of course individuals involved.

Generally favourable reviews of Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (2010) support this fictional impression of the complex nature of anarchism in the late Victorian period, as the study’s informative subtitle indicates. Idealists, troublemakers, sociopaths and psychopaths: this list includes not just theorists and terrorists but also policeman and agents provocateurs among its cast list, and we will see these all sketched in throughout Conrad’s thriller.

But you may by now see one of the points I’m making: to help us better understand the how and why as well as the when, where, who and what of modern terrorism and its adherents, whether suicide bombers or cyberterrorists, we have to have some notion of similar movements in the past. After all, terrorism has never gone away in the last hundred years (think Zionism in the establishment of the state of Israel, for example, or the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 60s and the Provisional IRA campaigns in the latter half of the century, up to and including the Islamist outrages in the beginning part of the 21st century). Reading in fiction and non-fiction about how such groups operated in less recent history helps give us a longer perspective, and reminds us that there is no conclusive ‘solution’ to this appalling war of attrition, only temporary ceasefires.

And here is where I return to the late Ray Bradbury and his passionate and lifelong support of libraries and books. If we have no idea of the lessons that the past can teach us (and texts of all types are the preeminent way to learn about them) then we are forced to live in a kind of continuous present, existing from moment to moment, reacting anew to the same old external provocations. Knee-jerks are never a good way to deal with threats to a peaceable way of life.

You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. — Ray Bradbury

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24 thoughts on “Knee-jerks and books

    1. Of course Conrad, with his Polish origins and subsequent globetrotting, was in a good position to make incisive observations about the nature of the immigrant experience in London, the mindset of foreign agitators and the cynical use of such agitation by individuals and the authorities for their own purposes. I’m pleased you found this insightful, Ola? Piotrek? Either way, thanks for reading and appreciating!

      1. Ola 😉 I’m glad you enjoy Conrad – I’ve heard that his command of English wasn’t perfect and was considered rather heavy and tainted by his foreignness at the time, but I really appreciate the Polish translations of his works. I find his insights into human nature still very valid and important.

        1. His vocabulary is quite extensive (much wider than many of today’s native English speakers) but the idiom very often reads strangely to our ears, and no doubt to Conrad’s contemporaries. And of course you’re correct about those insights!

  1. An interesting and pertinent post Chris. Did you see the BBC adaptation of the Secret Agent with Toby Jones in it? It was very good, though you felt little to no sympathy for the main character. It was most interesting in showing that these terrorist acts – small cells or individuals working largely independently, using improvised explosives, targetting high profile sites to destabilise and unsettle society – have been with us for a long time. Only the groups and technology changes.
    A good piece, really interesting.

    1. As seems to be my wont I’d just started reading the Conrad so deliberately avoided watching it — and then promptly stalled on the novel when other things came up! So unless it’s on i-Player I’ve missed it, unfortunately. A shame as I quite rate Toby Jones.

      Glad you found this interesting, I couldn’t help but think of the modern parallels while reading it, but also the differences of course, because then London was a kind of safe haven for all kinds of foreigners agitating against their own countries.

      1. It was good, though the main character was in equal parts weak, manipulative, manipulated, so unsympathetic. And yes, a very different world back then – technology has made a huge difference too, to both terrorists and law enforcement

        1. Yes, that matches up with what I’ve read so far of Verloc’s nature. And that difference I mentioned between then and now is that most of the terrorists (in Conrad’s London, at any rate), foreigners looking to cause disruption at home rather than in England, are known to and just about tolerated by the Metropolitan Police.

            1. I think many agitators were anti-Tsar, and as Britain and Russia were vying for influence in places like Afghanistan and Northwest India (as the near contemporary Kipling novel Kim fictionalised) then anything which inconvenienced the other imperial power was sauce for the goose.

  2. It’s a crazy world we live in. While I, like almost everyone else, do not like (to put it mildly) the efforts of terrorists to affect our society, neither do I much like many elements of that society myself. Also, while enjoying the entertainment of the rebel fighters in Star Wars, would they not be presented as terrorists by the Empire. Without getting into the details, it could be argued that Syria is presenting a similar scenario. Who is right and who is wrong? It is a very complex world and I suspect there is a great deal more time needed (millennia) for evolution to bring us to a place beyond that in which we currently exist, social and mentally.

    1. My own perspective, Alastair, is that any regime that has no place for basic humanity is wrong, and we can point to many of these around the world. I sometimes think our own sharing, caring UK government loses sight of basic humanity in its pursuit of extreme political dogma. I also wish I could believe that evolution might get us to a better place, provided we have already committed some kind of collective suicide.

  3. This reminds me of the wonderful Terry Jones’ documentary on the Crusades. Beautiful, humorous, and insightful, one of Jones’ major points was how it is the past where we see the seeds sown for current conflict. We just have to look back far enough and deep enough to find them.

    1. Ah yes, the marvellous Terry Jones, now sadly suffering from dementia but who will always be fondly remembered. I never saw all of his documentary but have great respect for him; in particular I enjoyed his study on Chaucer’s Knight which argued that far from being a ‘gentil parfait’ example was a mercenary at some of the most bloody battles in the Middle East during the Crusades. Exactly as you say, Jean, the past has made the present and we better not forget it.

  4. “If we have no idea of the lessons that the past can teach us (and texts of all types are the preeminent way to learn about them) then we are forced to live in a kind of continuous present, existing from moment to moment, reacting anew to the same old external provocations. Knee-jerks are never a good way to deal with threats to a peaceable way of life.”

    If this were any other time in the world, I would just agree with you and move on. However, one of the scariest and most difficult attitudes in the US right now is this idea of ‘fake news’ and anyone is an expert because of the Internet. Once you undermine legitimate books/news/media sources as fake, combined with the ‘anyone can put up a website and call themselves an expert,’ society becomes weak and vulnerable. The FACT that the real terrorists (in the US) anyway, are born-in-America-white-men-with-guns who are shooting up schools, theaters, churches, music concerts seems lost on the anti-immigration crowd.

    I wonder how Bradbury would see this push of disinformation coming from the highest ranks of his government? What can the past tell us about what is happening now? And even though the words of young women rang true for many of us before the last presidential election, “Jews against Trump because we have seen this before,” his supporters don’t and will never get it.

    Because we DO know what the past is, but all you need is a Trump who proved you can force a majority not to see it: “It can never happen HERE!”

    Your query is so very timely everywhere in the world right now.

    1. Many of us here in Europe, as in North America, are looking aghast at the terrible situation that has arisen and daily seems to overreach itself, but with apparent impunity.

      Europe has nothing to crow about either what with the Brexit shambles and right-wing governments in Austria, Hungary and elsewhere. The extremists are quite literally calling the shots and the rest of us who believe in the rule of law appear powerless to stop it.

      It’s sad that the real terrorists are the homegrown ones you mention, Laurie, and that some of them are actually in suits. But, in little ways and with a concerted effort we’ll find, perhaps even now are finding, ways to resist. Courage, mon brave!

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