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Longman-History Today awards.

Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport (Yale University Press), winner of the 2010 Longman-History Today Book of the Year award, was reviewed in last month's issue by one of the judges, Taylor Downing. Here, two other members of the judging panel--Jeremy Black and Miri Rubin--and History Today's Editor Paul Lay review the runner-up and the three highly commended titles.




Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World

James Mather

Yale University Press 330pp 28 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0300126396

Much of the commentary that has accompanied the recent 'Arab revolts' has focused on Britain's past dealings with the Middle East, especially in the period from the mid-19th century when Britain moved into territories ceded by the fading Ottoman Empire, softening the ground economically and culturally before troops went in. Which is why James Mather's superb study is so valuable, for it shows another side to Britain's engagement with the Middle East, telling the story of the Levant Company.

Tracing its origins to the charter granted by Elizabeth l in 1581 to London's 'Turkey merchants', the company consisted of men 'drawn to the Middle East by the impulse less of conquest than of peaceable commerce'. During the 17th and 18th centuries, with bases in the great entrepots of Aleppo, Alexandria and Constantinople, figures such as George Baldwin and Heneage Finch, armed with curiosity and commercial acumen, 'spoke for an attitude of mind which for a time was commonplace on the streets of London', epitomised by Dr Johnson's comment that there were 'two objects of curiosity, the Christian and the Mahumetan', since 'all the rest may be considered as barbarous.' The universal language of trade was the key to the Pasha's success. Today's observers of the Arab world's interaction with the West will be enlightened by James Mather's erudite testimony to tolerance and cooperation.




Matters of the Heart

History, Medicine and Emotion

Fay Bound Alberti

Oxford University Press 240pp 26 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0 19 954097-6

In late medieval Europe a devotion to the heart of Jesus developed around an image of a heart surrounded by flames and often represented visually outside and apart from his body. During the Counter-Reformation this devotion became particularly popular among ascetics and mystics, men and women alike, and it grew into a global cult through the work of missionaries. Yet this idealised, symmetrical, very red and burning heart is little different from the one we see all around us, on advertising hoardings, on greeting cards, as jewellery and as graffiti on walls. More than any other part of the human body, the heart has remained that emblematic shape, which surpasses its origins in the religious imagination. More than any other organ it has defied reshaping by medicine. Even as cardiology and its surgical feats have remade the heart--transplants, bypasses, stents--we are still attached to a much older notion of it: its shape, its location and its meaning for human identity.

Fay Bound Alberti's short and highly readable book aims to illuminate these conundrums. Her approach is historical, ranging from the Greeks to modern medicine, to demonstrate the changes which have occurred over the centuries in the scientific understanding of the heart. Since the 18th century the heart has been emptied of its emotional content, which modern science associates with the brain and nervous system. Yet, outside the realm of science, people are still attached to the symbol of the heart, with their heartache, heartbreak and gestures towards the left side of the chest as a site of emotion. Matters of the Heart reveals the strong desire to maintain--in the face of knowledge--symbols of emotion that are defiantly unscientific. Despite everything we now know, we still make fools of ourselves when it comes to the heart.




Selling Sex in the Reich

Prostitutes in German Society, 1914-1945

Victoria Harris

Oxford University Press 232pp 55 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0199578573

An interesting and instructive approach to German history in the first half of the 20th century, Victoria Harris' book depicts the interplay between national legislation and the local agencies that sought to regulate a trade that is presented as driven essentially by economic need. Moreover she locates prostitution not in a hidden underworld milieu but as a central part of an economy that included many women, from landladies to dressmakers. Harris argues that prostitutes were not merely victims of male exploitation but, rather, were often relatively strong, independent females, many of whom had made a rational decision to avoid destitution. Both illegal and registered prostitutes appear, in general, to have stayed in prostitution for only a few years. Social welfare and policing were both brought into play by the authorities, for example incarceration in workhouses, a practice that developed in the early Weimar period. The Law for Combating Venereal Disease, passed in 1927, encouraged action. Harris argues that such behaviour continued into the Nazi period relatively unchanged, before pressing the idea of equivalence too far by arguing that 'in many ways, the actions of social workers epitomised the process of repression, marginalisation, and eventual extermination connected with the Third Reich'. Harris' questioning of the extent to which there were significant breaks in social welfare policy in 1933 and 1945 is arresting, though this reader is unconvinced. Nevertheless her book is a well-researched study that raises many interesting issues.




Bomber County

The Lost Airmen of World War Two

Doniel Swift

Hamish Hamilton 304pp 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0-241 14417-6

In this highly original and literary meditation on poetry and war Daniel Swift trawls through British, German and Dutch archives to trace the short life of his grandfather, James Eric Swift of 83 Squadron RAF, whose Lancaster bomber was brought down during a night raid targetting Munster in 1943. From that one terrible incident the author opens his study out in an attempt to understand how poets, novelists and artists tried to capture the experience of living through the Second World War.

Swift makes the point that war and poetry have had a long and deeply entangled relationship, harking back to the birth of civilisation: is there a more violent work than the Iliad, western poetry's starting point? And he traces this tradition through to 20th-century modernists such as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. He also offers affecting insights into the work of three airman poets--Michael Scott, Frank Blackman and John Riley Byrne--lesser in stature and skill, but witnesses to experiences literally beyond words.

Bomber County is a deeply moving, skilful and atmospheric study, which bears comparison in tone and structure with the works of the late W.G. Sebald.


Jeremy Black is Professor of History at the University of Exeter. He has written more than 100 books, the most recent of which is A History of Diplomacy (Reaktion Books, 2010).

Miri Rubin is Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London and the author of Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (Yale University Press, 2009).
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Title Annotation:"Pashas: Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World", "Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion", "Selling Sex in the Reich: Prostitutes in German Society, 1914-1945" and "Bomber County: The Lost Airmen of World War Two"
Author:Lay, Paul; Rubin, Miri; Black, Jeremy
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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