Water, Earth and Fire Versus Hot Air – Robert Harris’s Pompeii

PompeiiHarris

Picture a world where nature is seen in superstitious and conceited terms, where people put themselves at the centre of everything, so that natural disasters must be our fault. “The mountain is destroying us –we have not propitiated the gods! It rains too much, it rains too little –a comfort to think that these things are somehow connected to our behaviour, that if only we lived a little better, a little more frugally, our virtue would be rewarded.”

Picture this world led by men projecting a fantasy of wealth and power, all based on the shifting sands of corruption, intimidation and blind faith.

This recognisably contemporary scenario is reflected in Robert Harris’s Pompeii, describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of a Roman water supply engineer, who in the tense days and hours before the eruption tries to repair the Augusta aqueduct. Damaged by ground displacement near Vesuvius, the Augusta supplies water to Roman towns around the Bay of Naples, a society of recognisably modern fragility where just a few hours interruption of supply brings rioting in the streets.

So if we are seeing our own world through the doomed town of Pompeii, does it show us any answers? To some extent you would have to say no. In the shadow of vast natural forces there is a sense of inevitability, as though there is not much an individual can do to change things. On the other hand this is a story championing practical competence and integrity. While nature has the power to swat away the most powerful society in the world, someone who understands and respects the truth, who sees that certain fundamentals apply in Rome, Gaul, Campania, or anywhere else, is able to work with nature to achieve an engineering miracle such as the Augusta aqueduct

Pompeii presents an age old struggle between two styles of leadership, the first based on competence, the second on the power of superstition and unquestioning belief. You can always challenge a water engineer with the fact that water is not coming out of the pipes. But if a Roman official comes along and suggests making an offering to Jupiter to solve the water supply problem – as a pompous town official does at one point – how do you prove this approach is incorrect? It is difficult to prove that Jupiter is not there to listen, or that the official does not have a special relationship with Jupiter, or that Jupiter does not direct the engineer in his work. You are in the slippery realm of spin and interpretation, where a priestess can make a prophecy about the glorious future of Pompeii, surviving long after others have fallen, thronged by visitors speaking in every tongue. It is possible to see this vision as accurate and hopelessly wrong.

In the end, however, the solid ground of faith based leadership slips from under people’s feet. No amount of sacrificing to Jupiter will stop Vesuvius erupting, or make water flow into busy towns full of thirsty people. And no amount of corruption and financial trickery will do this either. Pompeii is a gripping celebration of competence over delusional hot air, and in that sense this is historical fiction with contemporary relevance, even more so now in 2018 than when it was published in 2003.

Miss Jean Brodie – The End of the World Comes Without Intruding on Everyday Life

Jeanbrodie

First edition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published 1961

Miss Jean Brodie is an unconventional teacher at a conventional girl’s primary school in 1930s Edinburgh. Ignoring the curriculum, she gathers her charges under an elm tree in the school grounds, telling them stories of her lover lost in the First World War, and describing visits to Italy. She tells the children how much she admires Mussolini’s fascisti. Hang on, what was that? I went back and made sure I’d read it right, only to realise that, yes, this charismatic spinster is actually a budding fascist. On later trips to Germany she comes back with glowing reports of Hitler’s Brown Shirts.

I had to have a think at this point. It struck me that historically the founder of the German Nazi party was a locksmith. Jean Brodie is a parallel for one of these apparently unassuming but dangerous personalities. She’s not an obvious monster, but is all the more insidious for her apparent ordinariness. She’s like a sunset described at one point in the book, looking like “the end of the world had come without intruding on everyday life.”

The crucial thing is not that Miss Brodie is overtly evil, but that she has her own ideas about good and evil. Her values are focused entirely on herself. She accepts no outside system. As time goes on it becomes ever clearer that she exists beyond right and wrong as judged by society. Jean Brodie decides right and wrong.

Jean Brodie is a shock. But perhaps the biggest shock of the book is the subtle warning that while most people look outside themselves for guidance, whether it’s headmistresses, governments, or religion, all of these sources of authority are created by people. In the end there is no authority beyond people to which they can refer. One of Jean Brodie’s girls takes refuge as an adult in the Roman Catholic Church, an environment which we are told would have ideally suited Miss Brodie. This was an organisation in which there were “quite a number of fascists” who believe what they do is right because it is them doing it.

This is a humorous, beautifully written, frequently charming novel. Fittingly for a story about a teacher, it also has some hard, unsettling lessons.

Echoes of Munich

Munich

The Munich Conference of September 1938 has had a massive influence on subsequent history. Retrospective judgment of British government efforts to maintain peace in Europe has contributed to all kinds of bad decisions, from Anthony Eden’s ill fated attempt to invade Egypt in 1956, to Tony Blair’s military adventures in the Balkans and the Middle East. It has even been referenced in the nationalist politics of Brexit. All of this folly has been supported, to a greater or lesser extent, by the idea that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made a mistake trying to find peace in Munich.

With this in mind it is fascinating to visit an influential moment in history and explore it, via Hugh Legat, Robert Harris’s fictional junior Foreign Office civil servant seconded to Number 10 Downing Street, to answer the PM’s phone and carry around his red ministerial boxes. An old university friend of Legat, junior German diplomat Paul von Hartmann, is a member of a group of German officials determined to stop Hitler. Hartmann and Legat try to smuggle documents describing Hitler’s real expansionist intentions to the British government in the hope that the conference will be abandoned. The idea is that with Britain and France standing firm, Hitler’s position would be weakened, allowing the rebel group to have him removed.

As the Munich conference unfolds, Harris’s story provides an intimate view of the real complexity of the situation; the widespread revulsion of going to war again so soon after the disaster of the First World War; the fact that British forces weren’t ready; the need to buy time so that rearmament started by Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin could continue; the fact that the German rebels wanted to restore the Kaiser, who three quarters of a million British soldiers had died trying to defeat twenty years before; the fact that people could not see the future.

This last point is the most significant. We see the difficulty of making decisions based on what might happen rather than on what is happening. I thought of Tony Blair, so worried about being viewed as an appeaser, misjudging the evidence of supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, dragging Britain into a war investigated ever since in the context of criminality. Blair has claimed that without his decision to stand up to Saddam Hussain, things would now be worse than they are. Well, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, and a whole region plunged into chaos, the alternative Blair saved us from must be bad. And anyway, how can we possibly know? It’s as though we’re being asked to climb into a time travelling DeLoren, to try out different realities. How do we know if Chamberlain would have been viewed differently by history if he had stood up to Hitler, in the face of a population which didn’t want war, with armed forces unready to fight it. No doubt that route would have had its own disasters. As pointed out in Munich, Hitler himself thought a war in 1938 would have been preferable to war the following year, since Germany’s military position was better then.

Robert Harris’s book is a deceptively straight forward account of a crucial four days in European history. There are few philosophical asides, but the events tell their own story. So many later decisions have felt their influence, and so much that is thought provoking can spin off from them.

The final thought I had finishing the book was that people who love the appeasement myth, who love the idea of aggressive resistance, are actually rather close bedfellows of the nationalist dictators that Chamberlain struggled to contain. Munich is a book for our times, a nuanced lesson from history rather than something cooked up to support a sense of resistance during wartime.