Friday, 26 September 2014

The online home of Dreadnought Books has now moved:
The contents of this blog can also be found at the new site as well as additional information and musings.

Friday, 28 March 2014

In the News

I have been delighted to receive some positive media coverage of the shop despite only having been open for a brief period. 

Firstly a great spread in the Bristol Post weekend magazine, and then featuring in the Guardian's Top Ten Independent shops in Bristol.

I have already had numerous customers visit the shop following on from the Post article and hopefully the same will be true with this Guardian feature. It is satisfying to know the shop is appreciated and is all the motivation I need to strive to keep up the quality of stock on offer.

With the increasingly prevalent view that bookshops (and books for that matter) are passe, such favourable coverage is a great reassurance.

My thanks to Natalie Banyard of the Bristol Post and Sarah Baxter of the Guardian for their part in the publicity.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Settling in Behind the Counter

It has now been a couple of months since Dreadnought Books first opened its doors. It took me a while to settle into my new working rhythm, but now I have got over the initial anxieties I am thoroughly enjoying tending shop.

The start has been encouraging. There is still much work to be done in terms of spreading awareness and generating interest in the shop. Nevertheless takings have been reasonable, and I have already accrued some regular customers. This offers a new, social dimension, largely absent from internet selling. Whilst I am still able to use quiet times in the shop to proceed with listing books online, the intermittent interaction with shop customers provides a good balance to the working day. No longer is the computer screen my only working companion.

I have been particularly pleased with the favourable reaction received from the public. Whilst many have commented on it being a somewhat brave move to open a second-hand bookshop in the current economic climate, both in general terms, and particularly regarding the current state of the book trade. Many are delighted to see a second-hand bookshop opening, in stark contrast to recent years, where Bristol, as in many other places, has seen the number of second-hand bookshops dwindle considerably. This popular good will has further confirmed to me that with plenty of hard work I can make a good go of things and hopefully be here for many years to come.

Adjusting to city life has also been a gradual process, and one that is still in progress, but I am already beginning to enjoy what Bristol has to offer.

Publicity is now the main item on my working agenda. I have been interviewed by a journalist from the Bristol Post for a feature on new independent shops which should hopefully appear in about a fortnight’s time, and am steadily disseminating my promotional propaganda across the city. I have set up a Facebook page for the shop and hope to use this for updates on new stock intakes, event announcements, and brief contemplations on books and bookselling more generally. Whilst continuing to post occasional blog articles should I feel compelled to write more extensively on something.

Please like the Facebook page if you wish to keep abreast with Dreadnoughts’ development:

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Setting up Shop

The last few months have been an exciting time for Dreadnought. At the end of last spring I made the decision to relocate the business and began a search for new premises. Initially I was uncertain as to exactly what form these premises would take. My ideal scenario was always to find a shop space above which I could live. However it appeared more likely that a lock-up of some sort would have to be the first step. I was keeping my options open as to the exact destination of the move, but had Bristol and Cardiff at the top of the list. 

The larger local customer base on offer in a city was a significant factor, as was my desire to live in a more exciting environment. I was also keen not to move too far from Abergavenny as I had built up a series of good book buying and selling contacts in the area that I was reluctant to loose.

Preliminary searching suggested that a shop premises with living accommodation may be as financially viable as a lock-up. Whilst costs would be higher, with a bit more effort, the extra sales capacity could make up for it. My personal desire to run a bookshop was also a factor in channeling my search in this direction.

It was on the Bristol City Council website where I was to find the premises from which I now write this piece. Whilst it was still very early days in my search it seemed like it had some potential. I was also quite keen on the idea of having the Council as my landlords, reckoning they may be more sympathetic toward small businesses than a purely commercial operation.

As such I arranged to pay a visit to 125 St. Georges Rd, Hotwells, to check the place out. I’d seen a picture of the shop front but was unsure what to expect of its internal state. I feared it would be rather more dilapidated than turned out to be the case. This fear was heightened by the fact that the premises were advertised as open to rental offers, with no indication as to their necessary magnitude. I was rather taken aback then to discover the place to be in rather good shape, with considerable recent works having been done. For the entirety of the viewing I was trying not to get too excited by the prospect of setting up there as in many ways it seemed ideal, but I was fearful it would be rather beyond my means. My enquiry as to the region of expected offers left me more hopeful. I was also pleased to hear that the property would be allocated based on suitability and viability rather than to the highest bidder. I consequently returned home for some serious business planning, and cobbled together my proposal, more in hope than expectation. I knew I was in competition with two others for the lease but had no idea as to the nature or trade of my competitors. I focused on hyping the suitability of a second-hand bookshop for the area. With antiques and retro fashion outlets in the local vicinity it seemed to be a good fit. I also played up the minimal number of second-hand bookshops in Bristol for a city of its size in the hope that these factors may compensate for what I anticipated may be a lower cash offer than my competitors.

And I waited. The longer I did so the less hope I pinned on the place. To the point where, when a response did come I was expecting rejection. This only made me all the more excited when I opened the letter to discover that despite my offer being the lowest of the three it had been accepted.

I then entered a period of frantic preparation. Everyday seemed to bring a new challenge. It was hard going and frustrating at times, with some unexpected financial burdens incurred. But at no point did I regret taking the plunge. There was a somewhat protracted period where it seemed as if I had an unending list of tasks to complete, many of which I was unable to really get going on whilst the lease was still being drawn up. But finally, on October 1st, the day came where I was to take up the lease and I could finally begin to put all my planning into action.

This brought yet more new tasks. I have done more D.I.Y. in the past month and a half than in the entirety of my life prior to taking up the shop. It’s not my natural forte but in the context of the wider project it was enjoyable. The act of making the space my own was a unique experience and seeing the transformation through has been the source of great satisfaction.

During this time I received a lot of support and assistance from friends and family for which I am very grateful. Whether it was donating furniture, building shelves, painting, transporting loads of books or just providing support and advice there are many without whom I would not have been able to reach the point I am at now. I don’t want to reel off a list of names, but I must give a special mention to my parents whose support has been invaluable to launching Dreadnought in shop form.

There is still much work to be done. The walls are still looking somewhat bare and my shop front signage is still in preparation. I am refraining from posting pictures of the front until this work is done, but there are a couple of internal pictures to give an idea of the space. Despite this I was able to open for the first time on Tuesday 19th November and have had a very encouraging first week. With some additional promotion I am confident of a bright future.

I am also excited to be living in Bristol, a city which seems to have a lot of interest to offer. Whilst I've yet to have a great deal of time to explore my new surroundings, I have already been made to feel very welcome by my neighbouring shopkeepers and passing locals, delighted to see a bookshop in the area.

So if you happen to be in Bristol please come down to say hello and browse the stock. I’m at 125 St. Georges Rd., Hotwells, BS1 5UW, just a short walk from the City Centre. I hope to offer a welcoming environment to book enthusiasts of all stripes.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Wandering Book Man (1) – South-East Asia

It is always interesting to note how one’s profession operates overseas. My first such encounter was during a short time I spent in South-East Asia. My perspective was very much that of an outsider, meeting seller’s focused on serving the tourist market. Native language booksellers of course exist in that part of the world, although I did not encounter any, and their presence is certainly muted compared with the apparently thriving tourist market.

Although my travels began in Thailand, it was not until entering Cambodia that the evidence of a significant tourist-driven book trade became prominent. Anyone who has visited Siem Reap and the nearby remains of the fascinating Angkor kingdom will be well acquainted with the army of street sellers who lurk at both entrances and exits of all the major sites. The merchandise on offer is always more or less the same. I have no idea of the specific working conditions and relations of these sellers.  It is quite clearly a precarious and often demeaning existence, and I would guess fairly confidently that the sellers themselves have little stake in the goods they are selling.

Books are not the main stay of the traders who seek shade around the outskirts of the glorious temple complexes. But one book in particular is ubiquitous, Claude Jacques’ Ancient Angkor. I think in the three days spent exploring the various temples it must have been offered to me over fifty times. The minute you arrive, the first seller able to latch on to your crowd appears so keen not to allow others the opportunity to make their pitch, that the price falls remarkably and near continuously if you decline to make the purchase. Now I check to see the book’s availability online it appears it may have been worth me buying up several at these basement prices. The high competition amongst sellers also generates some interesting sale techniques. My particular favourite was a Cambodian who had evidently perfected an Australian twang and proclaimed “Wanna buy my book mate?” as we passed.

There is one distinct aspect to the sellers around Angkor that sets them apart from most street book sellers in South-East Asia. They actually sell original copies of the book. The booming trade elsewhere is sustained by cheaply produced photocopies of various standard works. In clear disdain for any copyright laws these bootleg books are sold freely and publicly. As would be expected from such a venture, the quality of the final product is very varied. All show the clear signs of photocopied reproduction and budget binding. Some have unreadable passages, others are misbound with pages absent or out of place, and the text block is never squarely justified. If you do wish to buy a decent inspection of the text is essential. Although most sellers seem to keep their books in plastic wallets I never encountered one who refused their prospective buyer a browse prior to purchase. The lower quality is reflected in the sale price, although this too is highly variable and often seems subject to the seller’s appraisal of his client. Whilst in South America I was informed by one tout that the practice was to always begin negotiations at double the standard start rate when dealing with Japanese tourists. I’m sure the specifics are different in South-East Asia, but the same general rule applies. The tight fisted can always get a bargain, even if it means initially walking away from the negotiation. Although a high start price can create the illusion of a bargain, so it is always best to shop around if you are really concerned about the best price, which most Western tourists to South-East Asia are unlikely to be, given our purchasing power there.

That being said, original authentically published English-language books are generally not cheap. The prices in the few new bookshops geared to tourists I came across would not have seemed out of place in Britain. Not enough to deter many perhaps, but certainly an encouragement for the budget backpacker to buy bootleg.

Crossing the border into Vietnam I encountered a new phenomena. Whilst my experience of Cambodian book bootleggers was as market stallholders, more common to Vietnam was the roaming salesman precariously balancing a mountainous pile of books on their forearm. Yet this was not the most daring balancing act I was to witness in Vietnam. From a large gas canister resting unhinged on the back of a speeding motorbike, to a cyclist with boxes piled high in his front basket obscuring all vision of the road ahead. Still I can certainly be thankful my work does not require me to carry my wares all day long.

Being constantly pestered to consume is an unfortunate by-product of any visit to Ho Chi Minh City and I can understand the temptation of many a frustrated tourist requesting a perusal of a title sitting dangerously near the bottom of a sellers’ book mound in hope perhaps of causing a cascade rather than locating a new read. A futile hope, for this is an art well perfected by the street sellers.

I got into conversation with one seller whilst browsing his selection and mentioned that I too was a bookseller. He showed little interest and in truth was right to recognise little commonality. I did not pry into the details of his working conditions but it seems highly likely that he and others like him receive only a fraction of the agreed sale price. Whilst I have grievances with the amount of money that goes to ABE each time I sell a book through their site it could hardly be considered a similar relationship.

The selection of books on offer varies little between sellers but includes much of interest, particularly for those with an interest in the history of the region. They offered a good range of titles on the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge and the Angkor civilisation, although little on less prominent periods of regional history. Whilst mostly authored by Westerners there were a few titles written by Cambodians and Vietnamese, for the most part first hand accounts of either the war, or life under the Khmer Rouge. All manner of perspectives are on sale, although those with an anti-imperialistic bent prevail. Not all the books they sell are cheaply available online. I purchased a copy of People’s War, People’s Army. The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries by General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Vietnam People’s Army to read for what equated to approximately £1, and after returning home was able to sell it as a poor photocopy reproduction for £5, half the price of the next cheapest copy and a fifth of the price of the cheapest copy in Britain. Hardly the route to a fortune, but nevertheless indicative of the online worth of some of the books on offer. There is of course an ethical criticism of bootlegging, which I reject, but will perhaps save discussion of that for another piece.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

eBay Promotion (2) - Arab Horses

I was fortunate to recently acquire at auction an interesting collection of books on Arab horses. Being a rather niche subject books on this topic are often hard to locate and in demand. Furthermore the lot included amongst its number several signed items.

The most interesting and scarce of the titles is A Guide to the Complete Pedigrees of Arabian Horses from United Kingdom (1790-1989). A complete five volume set by acclaimed photographer of Arabian Horses, Wojciech Kwiatkowski. Published in 1994 by Wydawnictwo KAWALKADA, Brwinów, Poland, this edition is limited to 100 copies signed by the author of which the set in my possession is number 36. Whilst a couple of other titles from the series focusing on different countries are available on line, at a quite considerable price, I cannot locate this far more substantial set anywhere. As such I have decided to place it on eBay. The listing can be viewed here, along with further details about the item:

Whilst the content of these volumes would make the average readers eye's glaze over, the extensive compendium of pedigrees could offer vital insight to the enthusiast, and particularly anyone involved in the breeding of Arab horses.

Another item of particular interest is a first edition of The Arab Horse by John Upton, which features the author's signature and a unique illustration to the title page. As Upton, to quote Wikipedia, "has a worldwide reputation as an artist and author, specialising in the Arab Horse" this addition may well be of interest to any collectors of his work.

Upton - The Arab Horse eBay auction

Some other items on Arab horses I have in stock:

Boiselle, Gabrielle (1992), Grace & Beauty. A Study of the Horse (Ted Smart: Godalming). Hardback. Condition: Very Good in Good dust jacket. Size: Folio (over 12"). 191pp. Profusely illustrated. Signed by author/photographer Gabrielle Boiselle to front end paper. Some wear and a couple of tears to dust jacket. Binding cocked. Minor wear to spine.  £25

Collie, Keith (1982), Spirit of the Wind. The Horse in Saudi Arabia (IMMEL: London). Hardback. Condition: Very Good in likewise dust jacket. Size: 4to. 1st edition. 112pp. Profusely illustrated. Slight marking and wear to dust jacket. Minor wear to boards.  £12

Pingitzer, Leopold ed. (1994), Golden Arabians. ECAHO Yearbook 1994. All ECAHO Show Results. Paperback. Condition: Very Good in likewise slip case. Size: 4to. 1st edition. 463pp. Illustrated. Slight crease to spine.  £40

Greely, Margaret (1985), Arabian Exodus (J. A. Allen & Company: London). Hardback. Condition: Very Good in Good dust jacket. Size: 4to. Revised edition. 240pp. Illustrated. Dust jacket worn, with one significant tear.   £6

Sherbatov, A. G. & Stroganov, S. A. (1989), The Arabian Horse. A Survey (J. A. Allen & Company: London). Hardback. Condition: Very Good+, no dust jacket. Size: 4to. 1st English-language edition. xvi + 152pp. Contains frontispiece and 16 illustrations. Slight marking to boards.  £25

Maxwell, Pat (1982), Second Illustrated Guide to the Arabian Horse in Great Britain (Arab Horse Society: Crowborough). Hardback. Condition: Good+, no dust jacket. Size: 4to. 1st edition. 71pp. Illustrated. Slight marking to boards. Crinkling to early pages. Rear hinge just beginning to show signs of cracking.  £35

If you are interested in any of the above titles, or anything else I have in stock, please contact me on the email address provided. Please note that the above prices do not include shipping costs.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Book Review

Hobsbawm, Eric (1962 - 1994), Age of... series

Following the death of renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm on October 1st of last year I vowed to make my way through his seminal Age of… series. I had read parts during my time at university, but had always had my eye on reading them fully, and his passing seemed a fitting time to do so. Now, having finished the series, admittedly with a few interludes to read other material, I am most thankful I made the time and effort. As a panorama of the modern era nothing I have read until this point is even close to accomplishing what Hobsbawm achieves both in terms of a wonderfully readable account and in setting out a convincing historical framework through which to understand our modern world and the vast transformations that have forged it. I will not attempt a complete review of the works here. So much worthy of comment is covered in the four titles that to do so would warrant some significant rereading, and a mammoth review to do the works justice. As anyone who has read my first review on this blog, of Richard Baxell’s British Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War will know that brevity is not my strong point, even when dealing with a relatively concise work. So whilst the scope of this piece is rather limited, I felt it worth an entry if for nothing more than to recommend any enthusiasts of history who have not already done so to make there way through Hobsbawm’s epic. I expect very few would come out the other side feeling disappointed they had done so.
            Hobsbawm was born in June of 1917. His life experience was very much intertwined with many of the tumultuous events that comprise the final book in the series, Age of Extremes. Being a Jew living in Berlin at the time of Hitler’s rise to power left Hobsbawm little chance to shy away from the defining historical events of his time. It was this experience which led him into the Communist movement, the most visible and forceful opponent of the Nazi Party. As he is keen to recognize, history is often best written from the perspective of an outsider. Writing on a period through which one lived inevitably draws up sentiments and perspectives coloured by one’s contemporary experience of the event. Hobsbawm deals with this issue extensively in Age of Extremes, and warns that it cannot be taken in quite the same way as the other three titles in the series precisely for this reason. Some critics have also highlighted his lack of distance as a flaw of this final work. A compelling overture in The Age of Empire also tackles this question of a writer’s relationship with the history they are relaying in an insightful manner.
            Hobsbawm’s early commitment to communist ideas became fundamental in shaping his approach to history. Along with other such notable historians of his time like Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson, Hobsbawm became perhaps the most revered of the Communist Party Historians Group, which was to become a significant force in shaping historiographical trends. As would be expected this school placed emphasis on the centrality of social and economic aspects, and were pioneering in the intensive study of the lower social classes throughout history. Whilst in less able hands the Marxist historical materialist analysis can feel overly mechanistic, and at worst dogmatic, in Hobsbawm’s work it appears a wonderful asset, allowing great thematic coherence. The theoretical framework never seems externally imposed, rather its strength emerges as almost self-evident through the narrative. I must add here that I too am inclined to a similar perspective and as such am perhaps lacking the rigorously critical perspective of a sceptic. Nonetheless the high regard in which Hobsbawm is held is near universal in the world of academia. Unsurprisingly it was left to the Daily Mail to wheel out a little-known historian seething with bile to pen a derisory obituary to Hobsbawm.
            The Age of… series can be considered as two parts. The “long nineteenth century” detailed in the first three works, The Age of Revolution, 1789 – 1848, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, and The Age of Empire, 1875-1914, and the “short twentieth century” dealt with in Age of Extremes, 1914-1991. The first three books appear to have received near universal acclaim, Extremes however has proved a more controversial work.
Revolution was first published in 1962 and is centred on Hobsbawm’s concept of the “dual revolution”, its political manifestation in France and economic counterpart in the British industrial revolution. Consequently the work takes a highly Eurocentric approach. However it is hard to find great fault with this as Hobsbawm is seeking to trace the events most fundamental in shaping the modern world and, like it or not, during the nineteenth century at least, these were to predominantly be found in Europe. To quote from the introduction, “Indeed [the dual revolution’s] most striking consequence for world history was to establish a domination of the globe by a few western regimes” (p. 3). As the title suggests this was a period of great instability beyond the dual revolution. Hobsbawm highlights and elucidates three further “waves of revolution in the western world” between 1815 and 1848 bleeding out into South America, although as yet unknown in Africa and Asia (Chapter 6). The impacts of the radical transformations inculcated by the dual revolution are tracked across all layers of society, with particular attention given to the newly emerging dichotomy between rural and urban life. Ample consideration is also given to major trends in science and culture in conjunction with and reflecting the development of economic, political and social change.
In 1975 The Age of Capital followed Revolution. Ostensibly it covers a somewhat less momentous period than its predecessor, but nonetheless tracks many fundamental developments of a capitalist system finding its feet. Whilst the majority of the world’s population continued to work the land as it had ever done, largely unaffected by the newly emerging dominant social and economic structure, capitalism’s reach extended markedly during the period, with industrialisation breaking its previously British confines, giving indication of the rapaciously expansive nature of capitalism that today has left very little of the globe untouched. Hobsbawm considers this period the first where one can really write of world history as a coherent totality. There were also several developments that reshaped the geopolitical map as nation-building projects led to the reunification of Germany under Prussian dominance, as well as comparable events in the Italian Risorgimento, not to mention the American Civil War. The continuing transformation of class dynamics and the newly emergent workers movement is also covered in much detail. The Communist Manifesto itself of course first saw light in this period following the failure of the 1848 revolutions across Europe.
Hobsbawm’s survey of the long nineteenth century concludes with The Age of Empire, first published in 1987. Following an initial economic depression, this period was typified by a great expansion of the capitalist economy, and with it increasingly rapid social and cultural change. Often referred to as the Belle Époque, the era saw an emerging upper middle class of merchants and businessman begin to rival their aristocratic counterparts in terms of prosperity and lavish excess. This label has been derived retrospectively, a golden age when considered by those enduring the harsh years of intermittent war in the first half of the twentieth century. Not only was it looked back upon as a time of great economic prosperity but also of considerable peace. From our contemporary perspective it is easy to dismiss the general optimism of the period, but there certainly was widespread belief, amongst the emergent middle classes at least, that the new economic order would bring with it unprecedented peace in international affairs. As the twentieth-century was to prove, quite the opposite was in fact true. Looking at the belle époque with what it led to in mind, it is not so difficult to see how entirely unrealistic the contemporary optimistic view was. The rising living standards were matched by growing inequality, and as capitalism continued to engulf more of the globe many of the transformations it wrought were cause for instability.
A look at the collapse of Imperial China under the Manchu dynasty in 1911 is clear evidence of this. It was to create a profound instability that threatened China’s very existence as a cohesive totality. A fear only abated following Communist victory in the Civil War in 1949. It was precisely under the strains of contact with imperialist powers during the nineteenth-century that the fragility of Imperial China became clear. Intellectuals in China became convinced of the need to break from the rigid orthodoxy of Confucianism and embrace certain aspects of Western economic, political and social development in order to prevent being entirely submerged into one or other of the imperialist empires. Fundamentally the Manchu dynasty was unable to balance the necessary reform to exist in this new era with the maintenance of traditional values that validated their rule. Its collapse and the subsequent power vacuum saw China without national central authority for the best part of forty years.
Whilst China’s development in this period has its own distinct form it demonstrates well the predicament many societies that had been on the periphery of the dual revolution faced when its consequences came to bare on them. The outcome was always unlikely to be stability and increased prospect of peace. This was also true for countries at the heart of the capitalist boom in Western Europe. Whilst the details of the First World War are covered in Age of Extremes, Empire tackles the factors that led to it in graceful fashion. Hobsbawm tracks the sinister undertones to the belle époque all generating an inextricable drive toward conflict despite the fact that when it came none of the belligerents desired it, at least not in the form it came. The rising German challenge to British hegemony and the complex array of alliances it wrought created a tension which threatened to turn even the most minor political event into cause for large scale conflict. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to prove just that, and was of little direct consequence to several of the most heavily involved belligerents in the war. The role of the economic order inculcated by the industrial revolution was at the heart of this. Its expansive drive had led Western nations and capitalists to nearly every corner of the globe in search of profit. As Lenin’s famous pamphlet Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917) was to argue, this new international dynamic was a fundamental precipitator of conflict.
It is in this climate, with all the great hopes of the belle époque in tatters, that Hobsbawm concludes his survey of the long nineteenth century. Age of Extremes appeared in 1994, with the short twentieth century of 1914-1991 as its scope. Whilst the first three Age of… titles have their critics, these largely seem to be partial criticisms of minor emissions or slight inconsistencies. They are generally held in high regard. Whilst Extremes also has its fair share of admirers it has received some staunch criticism particularly around Hobsbawm’s treatment of the Russian revolution and the subsequent development of the Soviet Union.
It was not until after the Soviet Union had collapsed and the international Communist movement withered that Hobsbawm had attempted to tackle twentieth-century Russian history in any great detail. In a radio interview he suggests this was due in no small part to his membership of and allegiance to the Communist Party of Great Britain. The centralised party structure discouraged public criticism of the Soviet Union, and Hobsbawm felt unwilling to sacrifice his historical integrity by producing a neutered and over-sympathetic history, or his political integrity in breaching party discipline. By the early nineties international political developments freed him of this constraint. According to his critics however, it did not free him of his rose tinted view of the Soviet Union. Having been aware of such criticisms prior to reading Extremes I was actually taken aback by how critical a stance on the Soviet Union Hobsbawm takes throughout. He essentially sees the Soviet project as a failure following the defeat of the German revolution in the early 1920s, and Stalin’s consolidation of power under the ideological banner of “socialism in one country”. What in effect, this failure to spread the revolution amounted to was a transformation of communist politics from a revolutionary project aimed at fundamentally altering the class dynamic of society into a vehicle for centralised, authoritarian power committed to rapid industrialisation. Whilst this manifested itself in quite a different way to free-market capitalism, the working class under “really existing socialism” was no closer to wielding power. Nor was the spread of revolution given much support. Revolutions led by Communists in Yugoslavia, Albania and China were all unsuccessfully discouraged from seizing power by Stalin, whilst developments in Greece after World War Two and during the Spanish Civil War also highlighted a conservative attitude towards world revolution emanating from the Kremlin.
Hobsbawm then is no clear apologist for state socialism on the Soviet model. The harshest critics of Extremes seem themselves to be as locked into the Cold War mentality as they accuse of Hobsbawm of being, albeit from the opposite anti-Communist angle. His more nuanced critics however, do highlight some flaws which ultimately make Extremes less satisfying than the other three Age of… titles. He exhibits a reluctance to give full scope to the atrocities committed in the name of communism, his near life long commitment to the cause being an undoubted factor. The idea of systematically detailing all the wrong turns and unjustifiable actions that he, as a member of the Communist Party, had spent his political life advocating must bare heavy even for someone of Hobsbawm’s clarity of historical vision. As he emphasises, he lacks the historical distance for a more detached view. The debate around Extremes and the history of the Soviet Union is such a vast and controversial topic that to go into it in too great an extent is beyond the scope of this supposedly brief review. In summary, it is unwise to dismiss altogether Hobsbawm’s take on Soviet history, but it must be considered in light of his long held sympathy toward “really existing socialism” and the constraints this has placed on his historical objectivity.
There is far more to Extremes than the Soviet Union, although it is events in Russia which effectively provide the scope for the short twentieth century, and the Russian revolution and its consequences are rightly located as the most significant political developments of the period. Interwoven with this are two world wars, the rise of fascism and the relative international decline of Britain and rise of America, all of which comprise the “Age of Catastrophe”, the first half of the short twentieth century up to the conclusion of the Second World War. It was an era of unprecedented death and destruction, of stark contrast to the belle époque as the contradictions of that period unravelled in conflict.
Even such notable positives as the retreat of imperialism left much uncertainty. A plethora of new nation-states of varying derivation and stability filled the map. For the most part repressive and parasitic foreign elites were replaced by similar domestic ones as the century wore on, and neo-colonialism, or the indirect domination of weaker nations particularly through foreign control over resources, began to replace the traditional imperial dominance. This is not to downplay the beneficial aspects concurrent with the end of traditional empires but to emphasise that the subsequent new structures masked a similar underlying dynamic.
The Cold War was of course central in shaping the parameters under which the post-colonial world came into being. It was the geopolitical backdrop to the post-war “golden age” of the fifties and sixties and the international stability it somewhat paradoxically created was a facilitating factor in this prosperity. This stability did not prevent conflict as the several “hot” wars from Korea to Afghanistan are testimony, but generally speaking the two superpowers had hegemonic blocks of influence that both accepted at least until the 1970s, and by that point the Sino-Soviet split had made the international division of forces along capitalist-communist lines less clear cut. Until this point the fiery rhetoric from both camps actually obscured a more stable reality.
The conclusion of the Second World War had also seen a general shift in perspective amongst the population of West European belligerent states towards sympathy for a more inclusive social structure and in response governments across Europe of both right and left introduced massive programs of reform bringing the modern welfare state into being. This increased living standards, and for a time arrested the seemingly ever growing inequality at least in developed states. Economic growth was near universal and with it a decline in the peasantry and increased urbanisation, although a diminishing but still considerable proportion of the world’s population remained isolated from it. Demographic explosion in the “third world” also added to already considerable strains on their resource distribution, all too often concentrated in very few hands.
Golden Age prosperity could not last and “The history of the twenty years after 1973 is that of a world which lost its bearings and slid into instability and crisis.” (p. 403) This is how Hobsbawm begins the final part of the book and is indicative of the more pessimistic tone of Extremes. Whilst this period saw a serious blow landed against the predominant Keynesian model of the Golden Age, Hobsbawm argues that the free-market ideologues who appeared to benefit from this transition also failed to revitalise the economy to anything like the extent of the fifties and sixties. This transition was fundamental however and its effects are still obvious today, with a general shift away from welfare politics in parties of left and right, a rise in individualist attitudes and correspondent decline of traditional community and worker organisations in the West. The legacy of the Thatcher-Reagan generation is still in the driving seat in shaping domestic economic policy, although its connections to the pure free-market ideology of Hayak, Friedman et al. are tenuous.
Whilst the capitalist world was spluttering through its own crisis, the Soviet model was being more profoundly undermined. In the fifties the pretence of socialism being a superior economic model to capitalism had its sympathisers even in the West. Later developments evidenced just how bankrupt the Soviet system was. Saturated with a self-serving bureaucracy and economically stagnant, not to mention politically repressive and culturally sterile, Hobsbawm argues it eventually fell because, “…hardly anyone believed in the system or felt any loyalty to it, not even those who governed it.” It is perhaps in his interpretation of the post-Soviet world that Hobsbawm most angers his critics. He does not defend the Soviet system but emphasizes the crises its collapse has caused across much of Eastern Europe, with inequality mushrooming to extreme levels and standards of living falling for many. The newfound ferocity to nationalist movements in the region has also caused conflict and confusion. Even now territorial disputes arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union are a cause for tension and instability. It is Hobsbawm’s refusal to accept the predominant rhetoric of the “end of history” and the unassailable dominance of capitalism that is refreshing in a world still beset with all the problems communism sought to solve, despite how catastrophically it failed in its Russian incarnation. Hobsbawm’s final chapter dealing with the consequences of the short twentieth century is fascinating and thought provoking, but is overarched by a great uncertainty of what is to come. It is clear that the free market does not hold answers to the fundamental crises facing the world. The changing role of the nation state, the decaying of democracy, demographic and ecological problems, all seem unsolvable without vast transformations in our social and economic structure, but neither do alternatives seem clear.
Ultimately however Hobsbawm believes the short twentieth century will be viewed retrospectively as an age of great progress, despite it being perhaps the bloodiest century in human history that has concluded with a rising ideological assault on enlightenment principals. The fundamental reason for this is the remarkable forward steps made by mankind in the fields of science and technology. The globe has been transformed to the extent that today so many central aspects of societal operation would cease to function without the science that underpins it. A corresponding social and cultural transformation has also eroded many conservative values held for hundreds of years. It is this rapidity of change that creates such great uncertainty for the future, but seems to guarantee that continued transformation is inevitable.
In brief summary, Hobsbawm’s Age of… series is a must read for any history enthusiast. There is so much that provokes thought in his work, and his command of language is masterful. I feel as though I have gone on rather a lot about the content and controversy of Extremes in particular, yet there is so much more I could write. Perhaps the single strongest aspect of this work is the framework which allows the reader to engage with this great volume of knowledge without being overwhelmed, whilst simultaneously providing the theoretical consistency to understand the modern era in world history as a cohesive but continually evolving whole.