With Napoleon In Russia

by  duc de Vicence Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt.

General Caulaincourt was at Napoleon’s side throughout the magnificent assault and the disasterous winter retreat. When the horses froze to death he walked. As the once mighty French army moved, humiliated, through Poland and as they limped back into Paris, he was there. This is not a history book. It is military history as it should be writ; by an accute observor who, with minimum of gloss and spin, tells the reader how it really was.
Don’t be put off by the archaic lanuage, the translation from the original French is good and after a few pages you get into the swing. He is both admiring and critical of Napoleon. In fact, for stdents of the Emperor this book provide valuable insights into what dove the man and his considerable ego. I found it hard to put down, but then I am fascinated by Napoleon and military campaigns.

The Pax Britannica Trilogy

The Pax Britannica Trilogy: Heaven’s Command; Pax Britannica; Farewell the Trumpets 


This trilogy is not an academic treatise. Morris wrote about “my own empire” in sumptuous language it is a pleasure to read. These volumes are not dry recitations of facts. The Empire of Queen Victoria comes to life and surges with energy. He successfully captures the aesthetics of empire, culling examples from newspapers of the time, explorer’s journals, nabobs memoirs as well as governemnt reports. For me, he captured the essence of empire, and what it meant to ‘be British’ at the time. On one hand “the British Empire was a development agency, distributing technical knowledge around the world, and erecting what economists were later to call the infastructure of industrial progress ..” At the same time “the deepest impulse of Empire was the impulse to be rich.”

The first volume follows the chronology of the getting of Empire from the beginnings of the East India Company through the Indian Mutiny of 1857, to Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. The second volume examines the heart of the Empire at its zenith, 1897. All the ingredients of the Empire are examined, from the spectacluar Jubilee itself, to pioneers and profit, the attitudes of the British to ‘their subject peoples’, the architecture, parks and gardens, the army and Royal Navy, and finally the omens for the future. The final volume follows the decline of empire from the Jubilee to Churchill’s death in 1965.

For anyone interested in the why and how of many of today’s international problems some part of the explanation can often be traced back to colonial times and the events leading to independence. Take India and the tragic events that lead to the formation of Pakistan; or the ‘straight line on a map’ borders of many African counties; and of Palestine. But this is not the best reason to read Morris’s volumes. The best reason is that one can quickly become immersed in another time; from the minutia (of Patrick Doyle, an Irishman, being knocked unconscious by a Russian for singing God Save the Queen) to the major events such as the Boer War; to cricket matches under the tropical glare. Morris captures the rhythm and beauty, the violence and madness, the eccentricities and dangers of the rise and fall of a grand Empire.


The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow

The Unlikely Voyage of Jack De Crow: A Mirror Odyssey from North Wales to the Black Sea


By the time I’d reached page 20 I was hooked on Jack de Crow. Mackinnon’s style is both charming and humorous. The very idea of setting sail in the river ‘at the bottom of the oval’ simply because he found a boat and becuase he could, is what we would all like to do but never actually get around to. Jack de Crow is the perfect antidote to the repetition and obligations of everyday life. When he reaches his target destination he decides to go to the next one, simply because it seems like a good idea – a good definition of real freedom.
His journey through the canals of England are fascinating, particularly as he learns how to handle his tiny sail boat in such a restricted space. One of the best passages, I found, was after London. He decides to cross the Channel – in a Mirror dinghy! Is he mad?
Once in Europe I found the narrative slowed and became occassionally repetitious; until he reaches Serbia. The ending I thought was a bit flat, but perhaps that was because I wanted Jack de Crow to keep sailing.
MacKinnon’s style reminds me of William Dalrymple’s travel books, engaging, informative, adventurous, yet sufficiently plausible that the reader can identify with the author, and enjoy the ride in comfort.

The Invention of the Jewish People


Even though it is a detailed academic study, it is a pleasure to read. The language is crisp (some of the plaudits here must go to the translator). But what I found particularly enjoyable was the progressive building of the argument, citing source after source, evaluating them as adding (or not) to the tower of knowledge he constructs.
What is a ‘nation’? Is there (was there ever?) a Jewish nation? The constuction of myths cast as history, such as the invention of the exile of the Jews.There was no exile, he argues. How Zionist historians often glossed over inconvenient history (including archeological finds) in their deire to ‘prove’ the existence of a Jewish Nation.
Sand is Jewish and teaches at Tel Aviv University so this is no anti-semitic treatise. For anyone interested in the Middle East and Israel’s position in it this should be compulsory reading. Not everyone will agree with his conclusions, however the clarity of his writing and the logic of the argument make it a book hard to dismiss.

Move to Strike


This is an engrossing legal/crime thriller. The gradual development of a truly chilling killer keeps you turning the pages. As defense attorney, David Cavanagh, delves into the ‘facts’ to build a case for his client the level of psychological manipulation slowly emerges. He begins to wonder if he has the right client, and what the true ‘facts’ of the case really are. Tension builds without let up until the climax. If you like Grisham, this is better.

The History of the Arabs


When I first picked up one of the four volumes of John Glubb’s history of the Arab empire I was hooked. I then set out to get the remaining three volumes. Lt-General Sir John Bagot Glubb’s style I (still) find easy to read, and importantly easy to follow and understand. However the one factor that makes these books stand out, head and shoulders above most other historical treatises written by men (and women) who may be far more learned than Glubb, are the maps. In volume one there are 37, and 43, 49 and 51 respectively in the others. Then at the end of each chapter is a list of Notable Dates and key Personalities from that chapter – making a quick refresher easy. To help understand the families, tribes and lineage there are genealogical tables 15 and 31 in the last two volumes.

Glubb begins with the life of Muhammad, in the mid 7th century, and traces the rise of the Arab Empire. The Caliphs ruled most of the Mediterranean region including most of Spain. They were, as we all know, the keepers of ancient knowledge during the so called Dark ages in Europe. Spain was finally lost in the fourteenth century and by the early fifteenth the Empire was no more, only remnants remained.

Reading such a clear exposition can help even today (the series was first published between 1963-67) in an understanding of the middle east. There have no doubt been many other histories written since, but I have yet to see one as clear and easy to follow. Glubb, following in the footsteps of T E Lawrence (of Arabia) fought with the Arabs in W W II. He also went back to original Arabic sources for his facts instead of re-hashing the few English language sources. And, being a military man as well as a scholar, he understood the importance of illustration.

There is a lot written about Israel; this is as good a story of the Arabs (if a little old fashioned in language) as one could hope to find.

John Bagot Glubb – The Great Arab Conquests.Vol 1
– The Empire of the Arabs.Vol 2
– The Course of Empire.Vol 3
– The Lost Centuries.Vol 4