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Review: The Cartel – The Inside Story of Britain’s Biggest Drugs Gang – by Graham Johnson

the cartel

When you see the title ‘The Cartel’ you might immediately imagine a book about Colombian or Mexican drug lords. Yet, this book covers a 30 year history of a homegrown cartel, based in Liverpool. Back in the 1970s a pioneering Fred the Rat grouped together his criminal comrades and they moved from bank robberies and burglaries into drug importation and reselling. At its height the Liverpool cartel was importing 60% of the UK’s narcotics. International expansion took cartel employees into Spain, Turkey, North Africa, The Netherlands and South America. Police were oblivious to much of what was going on and characters such as ‘The Analyst’ had their work cut out, only many years later getting serious results through the hard work of the MCU (Major Crime Unit). The story of notorious Scouse trafficker, Curtis Warren is a highlight of the book, most probably his ostentatiousness proving hiss downfall, after appearing in the Sunday Times Rich List, getting busted by Dutch police and serving a long prison sentence in Holland. The global matrix structure of the cartel meant it operated like a large multinational business. The book’s violence is astounding. From street gangs, doormen companies, professional hits, murders (including links to the Crimewatch presenter Jill Dando’s killing), internecine wars and revenge attacks plus the rip off and advantage-taking of gullible workers further down the chain of command, blood is almost always flowing. The murder of the Cream head doorman by a 20 strong gang in a pub with machetes and baseball bats was particularly gruesome. For me, the highlight of the well woven tale was the ongoing saga of the never caught division featuring Poncho, Kaiser, Scarface and Hector. Based mainly in Amsterdam, these renegades dealt directly with the Cali Cartel and were the first to import a metric ton of cocaine to the UK. I found the tandem ascent of the UK Rave scene and dance music culture to be particularly relevant. The author has done good research and knows how to captivate the reader’s attention. I shall certainly be checking out more of Graham Johnson’s books. This book is only short and is divided into 45 chapters of only a few pages long. Yet after each chapter it takes a polite pause of breath to work out what is going on and to let the information seep in. The tale is traumatic. Definitely a five star, truly entertaining and…

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Review: I Have America Surrounded – The Life of Timothy Leary – by John Higgs

i have america surrounded

Timothy Leary is an acid guru. It was him who truly brought LSD to the masses in the psychedelic 1960s as he turned from Harvard professor and dropped out of society to promote the new wave of LSD hippy counterculture. He became public enemy number 1 and was jailed but launched a daring escape and went into exile. He flirted with the Black Panther movement and in exile counted on the support of the masses to lead a crazed party existence, fuelled by drugs. He had a string of lovers and several children. He was an extreme character and a very influential man. His personality was highly intellectual yet fun. He brought out the best in people. This biography delves into Leary’s life and examines his close relationships that form the blazing trail of real life fiction as he leads one of the most bizarre lives possible. The book flows and it inspires the imagination as to what it must have been like to form part of this amazing guru’s life.

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Review: To End A War – by Richard Holbrooke

to end a war

The collapse of Yugoslavia. Ethnic cleansing on the doorstep of Europe. Richard Holbrooke is the man that the US government under President Clinton, drafted in to deal with the Bosnia crisis. From the bomb-wrecked ruins of Sarajevo to the high diplomacy of Dayton, this is a clearly written account of the efforts that the international community underwent in order to bring peace to tha Balkans region. The list of characters brings in all the major players of the region and Holbrooke gets close to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, Croat President Franjo Tudjman and leader of the Bosnians, Alija Izetbegovic. There is an ongoing hunt for war criminals such as Karadzic and Mladic which undermines a lot of the peace process once it is implemented. For a student of the Bosnian conflict and the Balkans region, this book is an unparalleled insight into the whole conflict and its resolution. The details are factual, well-presented and one gains an insight into the high level shuttle diplomacy and its overbearing physically draining efforts as one of the most serious armed conflicts of the twentieth century is resolved. A five star read.

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Review: El Infierno – Drugs, Gangs, Riots and Murder – My Time Inside Ecuador’s Toughest Prisons – by Pieter Tritton

This autobiographical account of Brit drug smuggler, Pieter Tritton, is a flowing, page-turning journey that documents his twelve years locked up in Ecuador’s notorious, corrupt and highly dangerous prison system. Tritton is already in trouble back in the UK where he is being sought by police for large scale international drug trafficking. He heads out to Ecuador for a fairly straightforward 2kg cocaine purchase, cleverly melted down and concealed in a tent’s groundsheet, that he aims to transport back to the lucrative European markets. He has been stitched up though and his hotel room is busted and his girlfriend and him start an arduous adventure in the justice system of this exotic Andean nation. From the outset it is clear that the prison system is quite a bit different to that Pieter has previous experienced in the UK. Here. the guards are usually in the command of the brutal gangs that run the prisons. It is a dog eat dog world and murder is rife. At first the lifestyle seems quite liberal within the prison as the cells aren’t usually locked up for much of the time and there is relative freedom of movement and lots of amenities such as shops and prisoners are allowed luxury items and to decorate their own cells. However, the underlying gangs that run the system are in total control. Drugs are very freely available and Pieter gets heavily involved in the business he knows best, dealing both inside the prison walls and also continuing international trafficking through the new contacts he picks up. He earns the respect of most inmates although he occasionally takes high risks that could result in serious calamity. There is a steady stream of high machismo violence and murder. The justice system is obviously corrupt and there are difficulties negotiating this. Later, during his stay in the notorious Guayaquil La Peni prison, he contracts TB and almost dies. The book is a heartfelt journey and the frank nature of the author as he expresses his true feelings and fears and narrates his liaisons with the depraved criminal characters often right at the top of the gang hierarchy, gives us a true life insight into a dark and oppressed system where Pieter survives probably only though his optimistic spirit and entrepreneurial attitude. I really enjoyed this book and it tells of a journey through life that must have been very difficult….

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Review: Cosa Nostra – A History Of The Sicilian Mafia – by John Dickie

cosa nostra

  This is a study on the notorious criminal organisation the Sicilian Mafia – Cosa Nostra – Over the years, Cosa Nostra has become an alternative source of political power in Southern Italian island. The reach of this criminal organisation has spread its tentacles across the globe, becoming a feared and respected multinational criminal organisation. From more humble roots in dealing with cattle rustling, the Cosa Nostra moved into more traditional mafia activities such as protection rackets and later made very heavy profits in drug smuggling. The Cosa Nostra is a difficult theme to research due to the clandestine nature of its activities. It is a secret brotherhood and we learn of its hierarchy and organisation plus its almost religious like entry rituals. It can be bloodthirsty and strict and its internal discipline is its means of maintaining its power. It is in effect a tandem organisation to State power in Italy and its members. even on the run – are able to live clandestinely with few problems. The links between Cosa Nostra and the American Mafia was interesting – Joe Bananas a figure that bridged the gap between both worlds. The two mafia wars of the Twentieth century were bloody and Cosa Nostra resorted to terrorism in its fight amongst itself and also with the state. There has been a very damaging emergence of Pentiti who are whistleblowers who reveal to the authorities the crimes of former colleagues in exchange for immunity or freedom. The Cosa Nostra was brought to the brink of destruction by some of these treacherous characters. The Maxi-Trial led by antimafia judges such as Falcone caused much devastation and meant a change in strategy, leadership and tactics. Falcone ended up suffering a gruesome death, a fate shared by very many enemies of Cosa Nostra. It was interesting seeing some of the dirty political dealings that many leading Italian political figures have with Cosa Nostra, including well known long term President Silvio Berlusconi. The research for this book was often second hand, relying on preceding authors and also details could often be fussy due to a lot of the knowledge of structure of the organisation and its activities come from Pentiti who often are less than reliable sources due to their own bias. I felt that it was an interesting and enlightening study although towards the end of the book the author’s clear antimafia stance became…

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Review: Narrating Narcos: Culiacán and Medellín – by Gabriela Polit Dueñas

narrating narcos

The author is exploring the impact of local culture on the artistic output of Narcoculture in the form of literature and art in two specific par excellence Narco cities in Latin America. We are introduced to the Culichis of Culiacán in Mexicos Sinaloa and they can be contrasted with the paisas of Medellín in Colombia. There are unique linguistic characteristics to each area and each city produces distinct styles in terms of its experience of drug war and wide scale narco-trafficking. Culiacán is the capital of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel territory and faced the brunt of the President Calderon Mexican Government War on Drugs. Medellín was home to Pablo Escobar’s capo rule during the 1980s when he declared war on the State and ran a brutal campaign akin to terrorism, brutalising many of the local population in the crossfire. The rough nature of macho Culichi campesinos, raised in the surrounding rural mountains is portrayed in the natural acceptance of violence and the local landscape is scarred with the memories of narco killings and warfare. Post Escobar paisas are dealing with the world where they had to face paramilitary suppression and the middle classes have been integrated with fast money immigrants from the shantytowns, the home of sicaresca (cultural works about sicario hitmen). Authors may use local dialects such as Medellin’s urban poor parlache in order to express their work. Most of the artists and authors have either suffered directly from the violence or know people killed in the wars. The underlying tone for cultural content from both areas is one of ultraviolence that is socially accepted and ingrained in the conscience and collective memory. The popularity of narconovelas is rising globally. The author of this study does some great work in exposing some perhaps lesser known creators and does a relatively in depth analysis of their works, often drawing on external cultural ideas and philosophies in order to justify her analyses. I found this text to be very enlightening and it opened many doors to this area for future critical study. The often dark subjects prove to be very adept at dealing with their work, often under extreme circumstances that fellow artists across the world do not have to endure. The culture of Medellín and Culiacán is opened to the world by Gabriela Polit Dueñas and I highly recommend her work.

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Review: Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas – by Elijah Wald

narcocorrido

Whilst planning to do a university translation dissertation on some aspect of narcoculture I was drawn to this work (in English – also simultaneously released bilingually with a Spanish version) by American author and folk musician, Elijah Wald. Having been introduced and hooked on the sounds of Los Tigres Del Norte for years, the Narcocorrido is a music form that particularly interests me. The Spanish word ‘Correr’ = to run, gives way to the Corrido form of music, a Mexican musical ballad, originally historically done as the spoken word, but more recently with Mexican folk music of accordions, guitars and harps added. It is a form of Norteño / Ranchera / Mariachi music, very spicy in rhythm, with neatly rhyming lyrics, telling a popular story. A lively, popular music artform, where masculinity and hyper-masculinity can flourish. The traditional Corrido has been superseded by the Narcocorrido, which tells the stories of Mexican and Latin American drug lords and their conquests – their crossborder trafficking, their grisly assassinations, their lovelife, their organisations. The Corrido is an alternative form of news and corridistas may cover any political event, with some controversial writers documenting political scandals and guerrilla uprisings. Elijah Wald takes us on an interesting personal journey as he hitchhikes and buses across every conceivable region in Mexico and also dips into the Corrido communities of North America. We meet the stars of the genre, the well known celebrity figures, from Los Tigres Del Norte themselves and their most famous writers such as Jefe del Jefes, Teodoro Bello. The issues of assassinated star Chalino Sánchez were particularly interesting and displayed the true dangerous nature of these musicians and their controversial cultural work. We head from the Sinaloan narcocorrido heartland, up to Texas and onto rural Michoacan. Not only do we learn more of the drug trafficking inspirations and the gruesome Mexican drug war, but also we learn of other areas of Mexican culture, history and politics. Wald is a man of the people and the rural campesinos are never far from his heart. He is equally at home listening to corridista buskers on the bus aswell as being able to snort cocaine whilst partying with the stars. For me, the translations done by the author about the often unknown corridos are a true revelation and, being an apprentice translator, I particularly found this aspect of the book exciting. The book is a real…

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Review: MI6 – Fifty Years of Special Operations – by Stephen Dorril

mi6

This detailed 800 page book covers fifty years of MI6, the UK’s foreign espionage service. From relatively humble beginnings during the second world war, MI6 grew to become a leading foe of Soviet Russia and its notorious KGB. The book documents in detail issues that affected the service from the beginning and I especially was enamoured by the division of early chapters covering each of the spheres of influence where MI6 were working in the aftermath of World War 2. The book amalgamates knowledge I have of this service from other reading and often due to its sheer volume, will analyse in depth details that were previously unknown. It often is critical of the service’s failures and sometimes questionable morality in its operations. The obvious exposure of the country by moles within MI6 such as Kim Philby were very damaging to our nation. It is clear that there was much frustration during the Cold War with a failure to penetrate the Soviet system properly. Also, as the years have moved on, the critical importance of US intelligence – the CIA and NSA – to UK intelligence services – becomes paramount. Our declining empire has meant that MI6 has had to do all it can to keep our position as a global power propped up in the world. There is a very good section on the often blunderous years of operations in the Middle East, culminating in the Suez crisis which was a clear debacle. Moving into the modern era (Book concludes just before second Gulf War) the author successfully identifies future directions for the service and there is interesting coverage of MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson, who has revealed his life as an operative in a controversial book. I enjoyed this large book and feel that it will be useful for reference in any further research I may do on intelligence services.  

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Review: Asylum – by Eric Ngalle Charles

asylum

This is a play / docudrama written by my Cameroonian asylum-seeker friend. The drama tracks the progress of migrants and asylum seekers as they set themselves up in Wales. One feels the struggle to cope with the system without speaking English and the harshness of the challenges an asylum seeker may face to secure funding from the Home Office and accommodation. One feels the pain of the refugees who are fleeing horrors in their homeland as they deal with the crisis of setting up in a new foreign land. One is pulled to the perhaps lost families and love ties in the native land but at the same time one is drawn to the wonders of Western life in the UK. The book has lots of authentic migrant poems that touch with a raw nerve the adventure and plight of the asylum seekers. I think that the usefulness of this book to any refugee new to these shores cannot be underestimated. The book is full of useful factual information for people to find the necessary outlets and processes in order to settle properly. Well written and with a genuine artistic flair that appeals to readers across the board.

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Review: King Of Clubs – The Eddie Fewtrell Story – by Eddie Fewtrell and Shirley Thompson

King Of Clubs

I worked a lot in Birmingham nightclubs during the 1990s and 2000s. I thought I would investigate the history of clubs in the UK’s second city and Eddie Fewtrell, who began in the nightclub industry during the 1950s, has clearly been the most influential businessman in this sector. From humble working class roots in the city, Eddie, accompanied by his large family, and through dedicated hard work, set up an independent empire of world class venues that had the respect of the very best global artistes as well as the backing of the public, who loved the safety and entertainment value of Fewtrell nightclubs. Eddie was a very feared man, who seemed to thrive on his reputation. Back in the early days, the Krays headed up to Birmingham from London in an attempt to expand their protection racket crime empire. In one of Eddie’s clubs they were just another set of punters and when they tried to get heavy with him they were given short shrift and sent packing. The same also happened allegedly with the Richardsons. Eddie could pack a punch and could be a formidable fighter if called upon. Yet, he was a businessman and not a criminal. He set up venues where ladies were prized assets and protected by his gentlemanly values. His nightclubs were safe environments and due to his reputation only fools would create trouble in his clubs. He had gambling and cabaret entertainment – the very best comedians and music acts. He pushed for changes to licensing laws and always gave back to the communities through charity work. Fewtrell formed lasting friendships with celebrities and star acts. He was very good friends with comedian Bernard Manning, Jazz musician, Bev Bevan, and counted the likes of Tom Jones, Sonny Liston and Shirley Bassey among his friends. The book is full of celebrity anecdotes and endorsements of Eddie’s wide ranging venues. Eddie created a family for his workers and was a loyal man who could always offer a helping hand – although he never tolerated fools gladly. He was a dedicated family man – a very conscientious father figure for his children. He was above all a shrewd businessman whose hard work paved the way for his lasting success. Sometimes the writing in the book is a bit simple and poorly structured, but the invigorating content makes up for this lapse. As a student of clubland…

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Review: The Last Gangster – My Final Confession – by Charlie Richardson

the last gangster

Charlie Richardson was an important figure in the London Underworld during the 1960s. The Krays often overshadow The Richardsons in terms of their notoriety as London gangsters but, as is clear from the revelations in this book, The Richardson family were certainly equally as important in the capital’s underworld. Whereas the Kray twins had fame and used to use a lot of violence, the Richardsons tended to be more business-orientated. The two families met each other and were interlinked, sometimes having nasty fallouts during their periods as rivals. Charlie Richardson begins his book back in his youth, remembering the harsh days of World War 2 and what growing up during the blitz and subsequent years of suffering under rationing etc meant to his character formation. He had an early acumen for business and started off as a scrap metal dealer, something that he built his whole operations around. His reputation as a South London hard man led him to brush shoulders with the rich and famous and very powerful. What struck me was not so much the run of the mill criminal tales but the way he was used by high society politicians and espionage networks. Ultimately, his trumped up 25 year jail sentence in 1966 due to allegedly torturing some of his debtors using an electroshocking ‘black box’ – a crime he still refutes – was probably so severe due to his involvement in a South African spy plot to bug Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Downing Street telephones. The chapter when he dodged out of his military draft ending up in his first big prison spell was interesting. Charlie Richardson was certainly a ladies man and could charm the women, moving through several before finally settling with his final partner, Reggie, on his release from jail. The businessman shows in his overseas mining ventures and it was clear that he can not be regarded as just a tough typical cockney criminal. He was a thinking man and his university studies whilst serving his jail sentence showed how he was certainly of a high intellectual ability. What strikes the reader about Charlie Richardson, in his honest and straightforward autobiographical account, is that, aside from his illicit activities and tough reputation, he was above all a family man with values. It is certain, in particular from the character testimonies bequeathed after his death, that Richardson was held in very high esteem…

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Review: Fiesta en la Madriguera – by Juan Pablo Villalobos

fiesta en la madriguera

This is a narconovela, a Spanish language work of fiction set in the narco world of drug trafficking. The young Mexican author, Juan Pablo Villalobos presents ‘ Party in the Rabbit Burrow’, a short, fast-moving look at life behind the palace facade of a Mexican drug kingpin, Yolcaut, through the eyes of his young son. Tochtli is shut up in this rabbit warren, living a deluded life of extreme wealth. He only knows fifteen people through his contact with the outside world. He has private tuition at home, where he learns a few relevant facts about the real world. Tochtli is fascinated by sombreros and is proud of his worldwide hat collection. He is fond of the French people due to their penchant for the guillotine. The Liberian dwarf hippos they have obtained from Africa for the palace’s private zoo demonstrate the levels of extreme wealth that Yolcaut has. The violence of his father’s lifestyle and the Mexican drug war reflects upon Tochtli in his craving for Japanese Samurais and obsession with death. He has witnessed some killings at his home and when he guns down some exotic lovebirds it is no surprise. Tochtli exhibits his anger and loneliness through electing muteness, his way of rebelling against the system that he knows. The book is narrated by Tochtli in a childlike flow with plenty of rhythm and decent use of Spanish language meter. There is a lot of repetition of ideas and key phrases and words that enhance the literary beauty of this narconovela. Chapter 1 focuses on an introduction to Tochtli’s world. Chapter 2 is about their trip to Monrovia., the capital of Liberia, in order to hunt down some dwarf hippopotamuses. Chapter 3 returns to the palace. They are betrayed by Tochtli’s tutor, inside details of the King’s life revealed to the media, irritating the kingpin and provoking his mortal anger. There is a clever use of character’s names – the Liberian guides being former US presidents (JFK) and social heroes (Martin Luther King). The hippos are Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. We see the nastiness of Mexican’s über violent social conflict, in a bizarre and extreme mirror, that is never far from violence but has the safety and protection of a secluded fairytale princess life of the ‘Rey’s child. A very good start to me for authentic narconovela subgenre fiction.

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Review: Memoirs of a Revolutionary – by Victor Serge

memoirs of a revolutionary

This is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, a first witness account of some of the most important world events of the first half of the twentieth century, a rich period for revolutionary events and the author, Victor Serge, a Belgian born Russian, is perfectly poised to give detailed personal encounters with many of the key protagonists. Serge is a revolutionary, who participates in the Russian Revolution from 1919 as a core Bolshevik. He meets and works with Lenin and Trotsky and his European roots make him critical to the emerging infrastructure of Soviet Russia. Serge writes often with a critical frankness of the core movements of which he is part, a fact that later endangers him as (correctly identified by the author) the Revolution seeps into Totalitarianism, culminating in the great Stalinist Purges of the 1930s. Initially the book flirts with the rising tide of working class socialism in Western Europe. Paris is a hotbed for leading international figures of the Left. Later, in Barcelona, Serge makes key contacts that will come into fruition for his analyses of the Spanish Civil War. From there he embarks for his never seen before motherland (his family were anti-Tsarist exiles). The post 1917 revolution is enduring its honeymoon, yet the whole survival of the Bolsheviks comes within a blink of an eye as the Civil War almost leads to their destruction in Petrograd as the Whites make gains. Serge, as he moves up the ranks, rapidly becomes disillusioned with the turn that the Revolution is taking. He warns against the Cheka and GPU. He is a peaceful man and holds onto the non-violent tenets of socialism. Later, when the party splits – Serge is a key figure in the alliance against the Party Centre and Politburo, which culminates in his expulsion from the Party and exile in Orenburg. His suffering in prison shows how lucky he was to retain his life, in a period where the executioner’s bullet was only ever a step away and was freely used. Serge’s fame as an author, especially in France, managed, through international outcry, to keep him and his young family away from the true harshness of life as an exile and ultimately secured his freedom back to Western Europe. The outbreak of world war was predicted by this great political visionary. His tracts against Stalinism often made him an enemy of…

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Review: Fragile Empire – How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin – by Ben Judah

fragile empire

This is a very well researched study of Russia under Vladimir Putin. Always concerned with the political angle of this modern day Tsar, Judah studies the rise of Putin from a relatively unflattering career in the FSB through to him becoming an immovable rock in the Kremlin. Putin’s early years are interesting and I enjoyed the reminiscences of his early teachers. His whole calculated rise through the Russian political structure always displays a calculating and cool yet opportunistic politician. His consolidation of power has been very extreme and in spite of United Russia being a new form of one party state apparatus, endemic with corruption, there is no doubt that Putin is a force that is here to stay. What is perhaps surprising is that in spite of genuine mass popularity, the Russian people are now discontent with their leader and although they face steep obstacles, credible democratic opposition is emerging, headed by the interesting internet hero, Navalny. Russia’s move from democracy towards a quasi-Soviet style economy, the empire dominated by Moscow, paints an interesting picture of this huge superpower nation. I found the author’s trips around the hinterland to reveal some fascinating insights into Modern Russia and the problems that it and its people face. This is a very good book, if perhaps a little too biased against Putin, it is a worthy opinion of the situation of this new Russian empire.

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Review: Catalonia Since The Spanish Civil War – Reconstructing the Nation – by Andrew Dowling

catalonia

This book focuses on the study of the important Spanish region of Catalonia in the modern age. Catalonia has a strong claim to being an independent state, dating back to its time as the Kingdom of Aragon. There is a unique Catalan language and the region has a culture of its own, independent to that of the main Castilian Spanish national one. In wake of recent events in Catalonia, that occurred after this book was released, this book becomes ever more important to study in order for us to fully understand the political processes that are now occurring in Catalonia and their causes. Catalonia was a key thorn in the foot of Franco and the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War and during the ensuing Franco dictatorship, he never forgot the Catalan betrayal. Inherent to Francoism was oppression of regionalist identities within Spain. Under Franco, Catalanism went underground. There was suppression of the language and I found it strange how the main thrust of survival of Catalanism was to found within the Catholic church, an institution that, in particular, during the Spanish Civil War, encountered a fierce enemy in the Catalan people and experienced one of the most excessive repressions of the church by any area during its history, with many churches burnt and priests killed. Catalan liturgies and church literature ensured the survival of the language and the culture was empowered by Vatican support. Montserrat and its role in society in terms of Catalan national identity became intertwined. In the post-Franco era, there has been a resurgence in Catalanism. A degree of autonomy has been granted and widespread recovery of culture has developed, with Catalan being taught again and used in schools and an alternative centre of power to the central Madrid government has emerged in the Generalitat, its key figure in its foundation being long term president, Jordi Pujol. In the modern age, immigration of initially non-Catalan speakers from other areas of Spain, and then non-Spaniards, has created issues for integration within wider Catalan society. Catalonia is a powerful and wealthy industrial region that gives away about 10% of its GDP to Madrid with no return. Politically it tends to lean towards bourgeois values although working class organisation and unionisation has played an important role. There has been an ongoing rally for votes within Catalan politics between middle-right Nationalists and Socialists / Communists. The book’s epilogue explores the…

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Review: French Industrial Relations in the New World Economy – by Nick Parsons

french industrial relations

This book focuses on the different components that comprise French Industrial relations, neatly divided up into 8 distinct chapters with a thorough introduction and conclusion. Each chapter goes into detailing a particular aspect of the French Labour movement. It looks at the role of the State, Employers and also Trade Unions and the interactions that, often complicated, form the tenuous bond between each of these bodies. The climax of the book is in the final ‘Conflicts’ chapter which details strikes in France, a country where the population is globally recognised for its propensity to get onto the streets. France has a very strong Jacobin State, weak Trade Union membership and very high Collective Bargaining coverage. The uniqueness of French Industrial relations make this an interesting study and for my ‘History of French Labour’ course that I study at Cardiff University (taught by author of this volume, Dr Nick Parsons), the book is an essential read and a key source of reference. It builds on less comprehensive studies of French Industrial relations that I have picked up from other books.

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Review: A Social History of France in the 19th Century – by Christophe Charle

a social history of france

This is a translation from the original French and as such I feel that sometimes reads a little strangely as an academic study in that it sometimes has an unusual technique for presenting ideas. It is quite rich in statistics and sometimes the data can be overwhelming. The book is neatly broken down into chapters which focus on the different effects during multiple time periods on the individual classes which compromised 19th century French society. It is clear that each of the revolutions that occurred during this period, even though often initially driven by the lower classes, all had a tendency to ultimately favour the bourgeois status quo among society’s political elite. Even though peasants and working class often bore the brunt of society’s effects, it is also apparent from the study that by the end of the century, in particular during the Belle Epoque, living conditions and standards had actually risen. France caught up with the rest of the Western world in terms of its industrialisation and a more cohesive labour movement gradually improved the lot of wage earners. France moved during three major periods during the nineteenth century. We have the July Monarchy, the Second Empire and the Third Republic. There are good regional examples of the different events that form the country’s social history. I particularly enjoyed the details about various industrial regions such as the mining districts and also the variations across the land from North and South. It is a worthy read, even if sometimes this book does get bogged down in detail.

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Review: France 1815-1914 The Bourgeois Century – by Roger Magraw

magraw france

This book focuses on post-revolutionary France, during a period where the bourgeois consolidated their gains from 1789. Three further revolutionary changes of power occurred in France during the studied century and again it was the bourgeois who gained the most from these changes. We see a period of a modernising country, catching up with other industrialised nations. Capitalism endures a fight with the emerging political left which campaigns on behalf of a peasantry and working class whose standards of living are in general on the rise due to new technologies and modernisations. The study goes into each of the classes in depth, during varying periods. Political focuses on anticlericalism, workers’ rights, education and preparing the country for impending military dangers from abroad are varied. Often Magraw will introduce a fairly difficult concept as a topic and through the subtle use of repetition he will develop each of these ideas until by the end of the book the text is fast-flowing and comprehensively understood. I particularly enjoyed the focus on the lower strata of society and the impact of the varied political changes. The book definitely compliments other study I have made on the France of this period.

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Review: Marxism and the French Left – by Tony Judt

marxism and the french left

This is an in depth study of socialism in France. The book is broken up into a series of long chapters, each covering a critical period of the political left in France. The emergence of working class political culture in the nineteenth century is explored and we see the development of trade unionism and the creation of socialist parties. The development of the social party, the SFIO is looked at in detail, prior to its rise to power under Blum. We then see the decline in the power of the socialists as they concede proletariat votes to the PCF, communists. The chapter on the French communists looks at the theorists who were so successful at internationalising the ideas and images of French Marxism. Sartre among the most famous, also there is a detailed study of Althusser, who unlike many of the French Marxist writers – was also an actual member of the PCF. The tailing off off Communist popularity as it clung hopelessly to the vestiges of Stalinism, leads to the book’s final chapter, where the rise of the socialists yet again, culminates in the ascendancy of Mitterand at the 1981 French general elections where the socialists swept surprisingly into power. this victory is compared with the Revolution of 1791 and the Paris Commune of 1871 in terms of its relevance to leftist politics in France. I found this book to be very detailed and some chapters were a bit tricky in terms of ideas and specialist vocabulary – but the book, read for a History of French Labour course at Cardiff University – has certainly enlightened me on certain aspects of French working class politics and I feel that the knowledge imparted has been vital.

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Review: Revolutionary Syndicalism and French Labor: A Cause Without Rebels – by Peter N. Stearns

revolutionary syndicalism

This short book, written in 1971, is a study of syndicalism and its effects on the French Labour movement in the twenty years preceding World War 1. French workers had learned the effectiveness of striking to improve their wages and conditions and there was an increase in strike activity which was mainly co-ordinated by syndicalist labour leaders who drew on the ideas of theorists such as Proudhon. Syndicalist Unions organised their members and there was a shift in awareness among the working classes of how to unite and fight a class struggle. Syndicalism mainly avoided politics and focussed on the economic path to fighting for workers’ rights. Ultimately the non-syndicalist unions came to the fore to champion the workers and as wages increased and conditions improved as a result of strike activity, the thoughts and ideas of the syndicalists lost favour and faded away. The book analyses why the conditions were ripe for syndicalism. The artisanship of the workers, the lack of industrialism, and the regionalism of employers and lack of large companies, all meant that France, during this period was ripe for the syndicalist ideas to flourish.

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Review: Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité at Work – by Steve Jefferys

liberté. égalité and fraternité at work

This is a relatively concise look at Employment relations in France. Taken from a contrastive Anglo-Saxon point of view, the author explores the intricacies of the French economic system and how industrial relations are different in France than other Western capitalist nations. In France, strikes, in particular by public sector workers, are notoriously common and tend to make headlines around the world. This study reveals some of the reasons for the French workers’ propensity to take strike action. The government tends to have a major effect on working life and state intervention is common in the French economy. From the effects of Vichy to the Gaullist dirigisme through to the more recent Aubry laws to the present day, the effects of the state, mixed in with the demands of employer and employee associations, there is a complex web of interactions. Trade Unionism in France is relatively undersubscribed but has a large ability to mobilise the workers en masse. There is a myriad of acronyms relating to the various unions and other associations. The CGT, the CFDT, the FO, the employer association Medef. All of these contribute in their own right to forming the employment relations. France has a strong welfare element to its state and has also moved away from its more traditional family-owned patrimonial role of the employer to being more Americanised in its business models with international pension funds being more predominant in the stock market. This book is a great introductory text for my History of French Labour course at Cardiff University and I felt that the author does a very good job of explaining how the French economy operates. I would imagine that over the next year I will be regularly thumbing the pages of this text for reference.

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Review: Still Breathing: The True Adventures of the Donnelly Brothers – by Anthony and Christopher Donnelly (and Simon Spence)

still breathing

Chris and Anthony Donnelly are two likely lads from Wythenshawe, Manchester. Growing up to a backdrop of crime, allegedly part of the the notorious Quality Street Gang, these entrepreneurs became leading figures in the birth of Manchester’s Acid House scene, initiating illegal raves and forging bonds and networks across music from the Hacienda to the launch of their own short-lived crime-ridden Parliament Club, at the peak of The Gunchester headlines when Guns and gangs took hold in Manchester. After heading out of music they entered the world of fashion, launching Gio-Goi. Using a mixture of guerrilla marketing, incorporating their music friends and street buddies, they became a necessity of fashionistas. The brand ultimately became corporate turning over £40 million a year at its height. This tale, interview-style, arranged by Stone Roses biographer, Simon Spence, is a true journey of life’s ups and downs, for a most colourful family. From drug busts, media headlines and jail sentences to filming videos with Pete Doherty and Deadmau5. I especially enjoyed the reminiscences of Old Skool Hacienda DJs, Mike Pickering, Jon Dasilva and Graeme Park. This book has it all. I’m sure that no party is complete without the Donnelly brothers influencing it in some way.

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Review: Kanaval – Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haïti – by Leah Gordon

kanaval

Leah Gordon is a former punk artist from London. She is also a photographer and this book reflects upon her experiences of Kanaval on the streets of Jacmel in Haïti between 1995 and 2010. Haïti was the first black republic in the Western hemisphere, a black slave nation that overthrew the yolk of its French European masters. A core component of the revolution’s power was the African-inspired Vodou belief system and intertwined with politics the Kanaval (Creolisation of Carnival) traces its routes to the clandestine slave gatherings in the upland forests of the island. Gordon takes powerful black and white images of the key Kanaval characters and interviews these characters, capturing a series of oral histories from the poor local inhabitants who invest their energy effortlessly, creating characters, making costumes, designing props, organising dance routines and applying makeup, to create this pre-Lentern annual orgy of street theatre and fiesta. We meet the Lanse Kòd (The Rope Throwers), Jwif Eran (Wandering Jew), Papa Sida (Father of AIDS), Oungan (Vodou Priest), St Michel and also the Satanic Zel Maturin (The Wings of Maturin). These characters act out a fight of good versus evil, they challenge the audiences to raise small amounts of money and to reflect upon the political realities of Haïtian life. There is a series of critical essays throughout the book from key researchers of Haïti, that reflect upon the essence of Leah Gordon’s work. The book is enlightening and the images, that can be very disturbing, project an exoticism and spirituality that gives the reader a true taste of the Kanaval performers’ messages and allows the reader a glimpse of the post-colonial ‘Other’ that is the Caribbean.

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Review: Dirty Combat – Secret Wars and Serious Misadventures – by David Tomkins

dirty combat

David Tomkins has led an interesting life, to say the least. Our swashbuckling protagonist begins his autobiography as a tough safe-cracker, self-trained in explosives. His early adventures lead him to prison life where he swaps tales and picks up skills, leading to further crimes. Moving away from his gangster life, Tomkins utilises his explosive skills to full effect by becoming a mercenary. His military adventures take him across Africa, from Angola to Togo and into Rhodesia. Constantly under suspicion at airports from Special Branch and security services, Tomkins becomes a darling of the Press, a true life mercenary who engages in politics at the highest level. Merging his mercenary work with business interests he becomes an arms dealer, strutting around the world, negotiating some stranger-than-fiction deals with some rather salubrious characters. Eventually his mercenary work comes back tot he fore when he is recruited to fight out in Colombia, first arranging an international special forces brigade to attack the FARC and then later, employed by the Calí drug cartel he is delivered a project to assassinate the head of the rival Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar. Ultimately both the Colombian adventures do not achieve their mission goals and later end our hero up in US custody where he returns to the prison system, detailing the flaws of the US Justice system and ending the tale whiling out his time in jail before luckily being returned to his wife and family in the UK. The book is well written and is truly compelling. David Tomkins’ life is surely a worthy tale to be told and I can’t think of many more varied real life adventure stories out there.

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Review: The Repeating Island – The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective – by Antonio Benítez-Rojo

the repeating island

The Cuban author offers a postmodern view of the Caribbean. It is a sociocultural study that encompasses aspects of history, economics, sociology, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary theory, and non-linear mathematics, incorporating chaos theory. The book’s aims and theories are laid out in a flowing introduction whereby Benítez-Rojo’s notion of the ‘repeating island’ is explored, through the lens of polyrhythms and meta-archipelagoes. Benítez-Rojo sees in all of the Caribbean a repetitive streaming of ideas, of resistance to slavery, of Plantation culture of postcolonialist discourse. The book focuses on a series of Caribbean authors and poets, from Gabriel García Márquez to the author’s poet of preference, the Cuban Guillén. Critical essays explore how a multitude of creative characters have interpreted their lives in the Antilles, and recurring themes of the cult of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre or of the sacrificed slave Mackandal, reverberate in the author’s dissections of West Indian culture. This book gives a valuable postmodernist insight into the supersyncretic culture that comprises the Caribbean.

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