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Book Reviews

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AGEING[image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month’s reviews help you find your way around the Third World — whether you travel there for real or only in your imagination.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Guide to guides

Traveller’s Guides
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UK: IC Magazines
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US distributor: Franklin Watts Inc. (Pbk) £4.95
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Africa Guide
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UK: World of Information (Pbk) £15.00
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Australian distributor: Book Wise. Sydney
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Guide to guides You should choose a guidebook in much the same way as you choose your morning newspaper. Either because it fits your political sympathies, has good sports coverage or offers soft-porn on page three. It’s a question of getting what you need in a form you can trust and grow fond of. Although it still annoys me that the Guardian weather column regularly gives me the temperature in Casablanca but never in New York, I’ll forgive anything for its regular dose of agonising social conscience on the feature pages, plus the Doonesbury cartoon and the TV listings where I can always find them.

With guidebooks you can only — if rashly — assume that the actual information they provide is correct. Hotel ‘phone numbers, exchange rates and opening times of safari parks are only much use if they are right. And it’s the one service that all guidebooks have to offer their readers — like TV listings in a newspaper. Where they compete with each other is on presentation and on the style of that in-depth information.

For my money a good guidebook is one in which facts and figures are up-to-date and accurate beyond reasonable doubt and where the blurb is written with an eye to the kind of detail that interests me. But the way in which these books are usually compiled is not well suited to this goal. Low editorial budgets usually mean little original research, a heavy reliance on official handouts and a desperate struggle to find anyone at all who can write well, on the basis of recent first-hand experience, about obscure countries. The result is a product of uneven quality.

In the four volumes of Traveller’s Guides to Africa (formerly all in one; now divided, they say, to offer pocket-sized regional guides, but carved up so that if you are travelling any great distance you must buy two or three instead of one) you get exchange rates that were already a year out of date when published, six introductory chapters on things like wildlife and medical kits which beef it up in the bookshop but become useless window-dressing as soon as you get on the ‘plane’, and country- by-country guides that range from competent, sympathetic and easy to read, to elitist and boring. The problem is consistency — an art established by newspaper editors, but as yet barely appreciated by the compilers of trans-continental guidebooks. It is annoying to get one section urging that the best way to get to know Africa is to meet ordinary Africans in their homes while the writer on Kenya suggests seeing the ‘other side’ of Nairobi (i.e. people living ‘in a constant struggle for survival’) by a ‘short trip down River Road in daylight’.

What the dedicated traveller needs is less descriptive candyfloss and more practical information on how to escape the package tour straitjacket. As it is, the Traveller’s Guides offer an uneasy balance between sweeping, rather plagiaristic accounts of history and economy and patchy travel information. They would do better to concentrate on up-to-the minute facts wherever possible, plus an honest, consistent guide to getting the kind of non-tourist-trap experiences they advocate.

World of Information’s Africa Guide is a different animal altogether. Weighing in at 1kg, and costing £15, it is designed for the briefcase, not the backpack. ‘Banking and Finance’ heads the cover’s lists of contents. The first 80 pages are devoted to a rag-bag of ‘in-depth’ articles, some by genuine experts with something to say and some unreadable, obscure padding. It has the heavy lacing of corporate advertising you’d expect with an established business publication (which this is). Its bigger budget also means named writers, sometimes authoritative, in the country-by-country section with more emphasis on ‘hard’ political and economic analysis. The facts are also better presented than in the Traveller’s Guides and more convincingly up-to-date. Gone, however, is any pretence of introducing you to the people of Africa. Business, after all, is business.

Ben Macnaughton

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Third World in the classroom

Looking After Ourselves
Core Pack £4.95
Environment/Health pack £2.95 each
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Oxfam Education
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Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations
edited by Carol L. Thompson, Mary M. Anderberg and Joan B. Antell
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McGraw-Hill (hbk) £29.95/$54.95
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Food: choices for the future
by the Jordanhill Project in International Understanding
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£2.75 (incl. postage) from Jordonhill College, Glasgow, U.K.
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Looking After Ourselves is a particularly attractive set of teachers’ aids dealing with family life in a small village in Bangladesk. Aimed at 9-11 year olds but useful for a wider age range, the core pack includes wallcharts, information sheets, photographs, transparencies and a record. Interestingly, all the information is given as though seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Mazeda, the youngest girl of the family.

The text is refreshingly direct: one sheet is bluntly entitled ‘Shah Jehan has Diarrhoea’ (that’s Shah Jehan the infant; no connection with the Taj Mahal). One worry, though: Mazeda and her sister always seem to be merrily washing, cleaning and cooking — while the men demonstrate how to sit on the verandah and smoke. Is this a gentle criticism of Bangladeshi sexism or has the compiler unwittingly repeated his or her own?

Imaginative suggestions for further study range from finding out why Ghujar Ali is always in debt to buying a chapati from an Indian restaurant and trying to describe it. The project’s real advantage lies in its coherence: the children can look through Mazeda’s photo album, listen to her favourite songs and try out her recipe for lunch.

Supplementary packs (‘environment and ‘health’) provide more wallcharts and information sheets on farming, food and village life.

On quite another scale is the Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations, a hefty volume at a hefty price. At virtually £30 (US $55) for 400 pages, with the simplest of maps and no colour, the price has to be justified by the text.

The value of the text lies in its focus. This encyclopaedia, unlike most, concentrates on the pressures of development and change being experienced now by the peoples of 93 developing countries. Succinct and reasonably jargon-free articles discuss the economic, social, political and geographic forces currently shaping each nation. (Readers will have to adjust for bias — impossible to avoid in any political analysis — according to personal preference.) Each country gets about four pages to itself, including three or four apposite if unexciting photographs culled mainly from UN photo libraries. A brief historical background and a box of demographic statistics (e.g. population figures, literacy and infant mortality rates) for each country add to the encyclopaedia’s usefulness as a reference book for school/college libraries,

With interest in Third World nations rapidly increasing in the West, it’s a book whose time has come.

Food: choices for the future is a four-part study compiled especially for secondary schools. It covers the problem of food availability, the reasons for its maldistribution, a detailed case study and pointers towards solutions. The project book is enlivened by occasional passages of vivid story-telling and a sprinkling of caustic cartoons. The Food book is one of a worthwhile series on development subjects by the Jordanhill team.

Nury Vittachi


Animal Farm
.being the fable that showed how the
Russian Revolution was betrayed

POOR GEORGE ORWELL. He must turn in his grave each time someone uses ‘the Orwellian nightmare’ to mean ‘the perils of socialism’. The implication is that Animal Farm and 1984 were Orwell’s warning to the world: that however well-intentioned socialism may be it’ll end up as an omniscient bureaucracy. Big Brother has ways of making you conform.

Orwell has been regarded bitterly, as a fallen hero; Orwell, who had bled from the throat on Catalonian fields, fighting against Franco; who had chosen a life of destitution to be at one with the poor, who had lived on scraps of bread (rubbed with garlic to kid the stomach that the last meal hadn’t been quite so long ago). How could such active idealism turn sour in later life?

Chronology suggests it didn’t. Orwell began writing Animal Farm in 1942, a mere four years after Homage to Catalonia, his paeon to equality. Homage set on record how Stalin’s communists had betrayed the genuinely egalitarian socialist groups. Animal Farm continues the line. It’s not a warning against socialism but against Stalin’s alternative to socialism.

Orwell’s essay on James Burnham clarifies the point. Burnham had theorised, in The Managerial Revolution (1940), that old-style capitalism was dying but would never be replaced by socialism. Instead, a new class of ‘managers’ — businessmen, bureaucrats, soldiers, technicians (a fast-talking middle class meritocracy) — would elbow its way into power and form another oligarchy, every bit as oppressive as the last. For Burnham, no motive existed in politics but the struggle for power of one class over the others. High-minded talk of democracy or liberty was always a sham. The ‘managerial class’, like the Cromwellian Puritans and the French Jacobins before them, would woo the masses with visions of Utopia — and then dump them when they had humbugged their way to the top.

It’s easy enough to see how Burnham’s theory is echoed in the allegoric Animal Farm. The parasitic human who consumes what the animals produce (‘he does not give milk, he does not lay eggs... yet he is lord of all animals’) is overthrown just as the Tsar was overthrown by the Russian people. But as soon as the revolution is accomplished, the managerial class (the pigs) take over. Without a moment’s hesitation, the pigs begin swindling the other animals: their first act is to steal the milk.

By stages the pigs dissociate themselves from the others. They do no work, merely supervise; yet they consume more and more while dispensing progressively shorter rations to the workers. They adjust the political rules till all power resides with the porcine oligarchy, headed by the vicious Napoleon. Napoleon rules with the twin weapons of totalitarianism: ballyhoo and brutality. By a combination of slick propaganda (the fast-tongued Squealer) and secret police (killer dogs), he keeps the populace in place.

Napoleon’s resemblance to Stalin becomes unmistakable as he conducts political purges where ‘spontaneous’ confessions are made by ‘traitors’. By the end, the pigs have reneged on all the ideals of the revolution and become indistinguishable from humans.

For Orwell, socialism ‘connoted political democracy, social equality and internationalism’. Russia’s militarism, nationalism and stratified oppression disqualified her, in his eyes, from true claims to socialism. ‘In Russia, the capitalists were destroyed first,’ wrote Orwell, ‘and the workers were crushed later.’

Orwell clung to the belief that ‘our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have’ — and equality was essential to make that happen. The secret of the pigs’ success lay in their ‘all animals are equal but some are more equal than others’ con trick. As soon as the ideal of equality ceases to be sacrosanct, corruption squirms its way in and power begins to accrue to one class at the expense of another.

The impatience for equality never left Orwell. Stephen Spender, old friend and poet, visited Orwell in the tuberculosis ward where he lay dying. Orwell was fuming — because of the Rolls Royces he’d been counting out of the sanatorium window.

A year or so ago, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to ‘the Orwellian nightmare’, and the newsmen loved it. It’s ironical that Mrs Thatcher, of all people, should use Orwell’s name to frighten the electorate. As a grocer’s daughter risen to ministerial power, she should be wary. Orwell’s nightmare oligarchy didn’t rise from the peasantry. They were the businessmen/politicians of the managerial class.

Anuradha Vittachi

Animal Farm
by George Orwell (1945)
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Penguin paperback UK: 70p/Aus: $2.50/Can: $1.95
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New Internationalist issue 112 magazine cover This article is from the June 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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