Book Review: Buda’s Wagon- A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Buda's Wagon Front cover

The front cover of the 2017 edition of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis.

Mike Davis. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso, 2017. RRP £9.99 paperback.

Among geographers, Mike Davis is particularly well-known for his writing on cities. Books like Planet of the Slums and City of Quartz are staples of undergraduate Geography reading lists. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb is not one I was familiar with, until Verso released new editions of some of his works at the start of 2017. My family can always tell when I’m enjoying what I’m reading because I bombard them with facts and stories from the book. My family have had to listen to a lot of facts about car bombs.

It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city, not the more apocalyptic threats of nuclear or bioterrorism, that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.

Davies, 2017: p. 7

Buda’s Wagon doesn’t have an introduction as such, instead launching into the story of Mario Buda, an Italian anarchist living in New York who packed his horse-drawn wagon with explosives and iron slugs, drove it to Wall Street, and left it there. At midday, the wagon exploded, killing 40 and injuring more than 200. Mario Buda has the dubious distinction of being the world’s first car bomber-sort of. From there, Buda’s Wagon ricochets around the world and through a century of conflict, finishing up in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Davis makes a convincing case for the car bomb as a powerful leveller for terrorists and insurgent groups confronting powerful and well-resourced  governments. He also conveys the human cost of a weapon that is indiscriminate at best. At it’s worst, it is deliberately meant to cause further hatred and violence.

Davis does not explicitly state his opinion on the issues he’s writing about, he lets the statistics he uses and the stories he tells speak for themselves. I like this style, it feels like Davis is trusting the reader to form their own opinion. At some points, it highlights the strength of Davis’ feeling, as you can almost sense his opinion fighting its way out through his non-judgmental language.

There aren’t many pictures in Buda’s Wagon, which some readers might not like, but I think was a sensible decision. It would be difficult to include many pictures without becoming ghoulish. I did find the narrative a bit difficult to follow when it reached the Middle East, but I imagine simplifying the politics in a way that would make them comprehensible for most readers would be a very difficult task.

Buda’s Wagon is a poignant, engaging read, that thinks systematically about the car bomb in a way that is scholarly, but not insensitive. I would recommend it to anyone interested in contentious politics or geopolitics, or anyone who wants to try and understand what can seem like a senseless and inexplicable act.

The Wicked Witch of the West: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers about the musical Wicked.

wicked-logo

The successful musical Wicked has been running in London since 2006 (Photo: Wicked).

A few weeks ago, I went to see Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz at the Apollo Victoria theatre in London. Based on the 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the musical retells the story of The Wizard of Oz, focusing on Elphaba, otherwise known as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Wicked turns the well-known narrative on it’s head, portraying Elphaba as a misunderstood rebel instead of an evil villain. As well as being a brilliant musical, the play is an ideal example of the idea that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and demonstrates the importance of representation and perspective when it comes to dissent.

elphaba

Rachel Tucker as Elphaba (Photo: Matt Crockett/Wicked).

Wicked begins long before Dorothy and Toto arrive in Oz. Elphaba is an isolated young woman, hated by her father and shunned by her classmates because she was born with green skin and strange magical abilities. At university, she becomes concerned with the plight of animals, who are being demonised and suppressed in Oz to the extent that they are losing their ability to talk. The final straw comes when Elphaba’s history teacher, Doctor Dillamond, is fired because he’s a goat, and she uses her magic to rescue a caged lion cub.

Elphaba travels to the Emerald City to meet the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the hope that he will stop the ill-treatment of animals when he learns of their fate. She is distraught when she realises that the Wizard is in fact responsible for the anti-animal feeling, scapegoating them in order to unite the majority of ‘Ozians’. Refusing to participate in this Machiavellian form of government, Elphaba runs away and becomes what we might call an animal rights activist. Determined to prevent her speaking out, the Wizard vilifies Elphaba, transforming her in the public eye into the Wicked Witch of the West. She is only able to escape the persecution by faking her death at the hands of Dorothy, and leaving Oz forever.

Towards the end of Act 2, Elphaba confronts the Wizard, demanding to know how he can be comfortable lying to the people of Oz. He responds with the song ‘Wonderful’, which contains a brilliant explanation of the importance of perspective when it comes to how actions are perceived:

{spoken}: Elphaba, where I come from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. We call it history.
{Sung}:
A man’s called a traitor
or liberator. A rich man’s a thief
or philanthropist. Is one a crusader
or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label
is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease
with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist.

Wicked – Wonderful Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Scapegoating a minority group by blaming them for all of society’s ills is a tactic which unfortunately feels very familiar at the moment. Elphaba’s treatment for refusing to go along with it also has contemporary parallels; Attorney General Sally Yates being branded a ‘traitor’ by Donald Trump for speaking out against his Muslim Ban springs to mind. Others have praised Yates for speaking out- the way her actions are perceived is a matter of perspective. Another real-life example is Guy Fawkes, who’s position as terrorist/freedom fighter I have written about before.

defying-gravity

The London cast of Wicked performing the well-known song ‘Defying Gravity’ (Photo: Matt Crockett/Wicked).

Elphaba is a fictional character, but fiction can make us think about real life in ways that we haven’t before. Wicked is a hugely popular musical; it has been seen by millions of people around the world, and even those who haven’t seen it have heard it’s soundtrack (‘Defying Gravity’ used to be as popular as Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’). This popularity makes it influential. Wicked contains messages of friendship, acceptance, and tolerance, urging audiences to stand up for what they believe in, and not to blindly accept what they are told by those in power-lessons that are just as important now as they ever were.

 

Book Review: ‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London’

'Dynamite, Treason and Plot' by Simon Webb.

‘Dynamite, Treason and Plot’ by Simon Webb.

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press, 2012.

There is a tendency today to see terrorism as some modern aberration, something that has arisen in recent years and might with luck fade away in time. This is unlikely. Terrorism of different sorts has been a constant backdrop in British history for centuries; it is likely to remain so for centuries to come. The notion that increased vigilance on the part of the public, combined with wise and good laws passed by Parliament, might one day defeat terrorism and usher in a peaceful era, where nobody needs to worry about bombs and assassinations, is a chimera.

Webb, p.151

As far as most people are concerned, Guy Fawke’s plot, the IRA bombings of the 1970s and 7/7 are probably the only examples of terrorism in London. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London, Simon Webb sets out to correct that misconception. From the Clerkenwell Outrage, where 12 people were killed in a Fenian prison break gone wrong; to the Tottenham Outrage (not every event is known as an Outrage, I promise!), a chase that lasted several hours and involved the hijacking of a tram and a milk cart, the stories Webb tells range from the horrific to the downright farcical.

Arguably the biggest strength of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is the emphasis on continuity. Humans have a tendency to believe that everything that happens is new, that the problems faced by modern society are unique to our time. Webb proves the inaccuracy of this belief, demonstrating that not only terrorism, but also immigration and xenophobia, are issues that the people of London have been grappling with for centuries. Irish, Jewish, and more recently Muslim; many minorities have been the subject of fear and discrimination in the city, and terrorism has frequently exacerbated the tensions.

Another of the strengths of Dynamite, Treason and Plot is Webb’s approach to terrorism itself. Webb doesn’t condemn the terrorists he describes outright, but neither does he glorify them. The first chapter of the book is devoted to discussion of the theories and motivations behind terrorism. It is not necessarily the mindless, monstrous violence which it is often portrayed as-there are particular reasons why people choose to resort to terrorism-and Webb takes them into account. Terrorism is an emotive subject, difficult to deal with in a sensitive and balanced way, but I think Webb does a good job of this.

Webb’s writing style can be repetitive; he frequently makes the same point twice in quick succession, and he often says how it was “nothing short of a miracle” that more people weren’t killed or injured in the events he recounts. He makes assertions, making a point without providing any supporting evidence, and often overlooks some of the historical controversies and debates. For example, in the chapter about the Suffragettes, Webb mentions the alleged plot to assassinate David Lloyd George by the Wheeldon family. In Dynamite, Treason and Plot it appears there is no doubt that that is what actually happened, but in To End all Wars by Adam Hochschild the event appears much more complicated. Hochschild suggests that the whole thing may have been a set-up, the plot concocted by the government to harm the opposition to the First World War, of which the Wheeldon family was a part. Whatever the truth, Webb completely ignores the debate, and as such misses out on some of the nuances of the story.

Despite the shortfalls I think Dynamite, Treason and Plot is well worth a read. It is an engaging read that deals with some of London’s darker, overlooked history. Webb puts terrorist into political and social context, rather than treating it as an isolated and inexplicable phenomenon to be instantly condemned.

On This Day: The Clerkenwell Outrage, 13th December, 1867

Clerkenwell has been the focus of a large amount of turbulence over its history, even for an area of London. During the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 the priory of St. John was burnt down because of its wealth and connections with Sir Robert Hales, a hated tax collector. Lenin moved into 37a Clerkenwell Green in 1902, and published 16 issues of Iskra, a pre-Bolskevik newspaper from there. The house is now the Marx Memorial Library. The area has also harboured religious nonconformists, such as the Lollards and early Methodists. Clerkenwell Green, historically an open, grassy area, has played host to many political meetings and demonstrations, some more peaceful than others. But on the 13th December 1867, Clerkenwell was rocked by an explosion that shocked even this contentious neighbourhood.

victorian Clerkenwell

A map of Victorian Clerkenwell, drawn by Adam Dant for Spitalfields Life.

The story begins in America in 1858. A group of Irish expatriates founded a secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known to most as the Fenians. Their aim was to free Ireland from British rule by any means necessary, including attacks on the British establishment in Ireland, other colonies, and even the mainland itself. By the middle of the 1860s, there were Fenian groups in Soho and Finsbury. By 1867, they were proving quite troublesome to the authorities. After a failed attempt to steal over 10,000 rifles from Chester Castle in February to arm an Irish uprising and the breakout of two prominent Fenians from a prison van in Manchester that resulted in the death of a Police Sergeant in September, tensions were running high.

Manchester prison van breakout 1867

An image showing two Fenian leaders being broken out of a prison transport van in 1867 in Manchester (Source: Getty Images).

Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was largely thought to be the man who led the Manchester prison van breakout. He was arrested in London in November along with another man called Joseph Casey. To avoid a repeat of Manchester the men were quickly transferred to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, just to the North of Clerkenwell Road. The prison was formidable, surrounded by a wall 25ft high and over 2ft thick. The men obviously had friends in London—every day cooked food was brought to them by a woman named Anne Justice, and rumours of an escape attempt soon reached the authorities.

Extra guards and uniformed police were posted in and around the prison in response to the warning. Despite this, an attempt was made to break out O’Sullivan-Burke and Casey on the 12th of December. A man wheeled a large barrel up the prison wall by the exercise yard, and attempted to light a fuse on the barrel twice before he gave up, and wheeled the barrow off. A policeman watched the entire thing, but did not think it suspicious. The next day, another, similar attempt was made. This time, a firework was used as a fuse, and it turned out to be much more reliable. The resulting explosion was heard all over London. It levelled 60ft of the prison wall, and the front of a row of houses across the street in Corporation Row. 12 people were killed, and 120 others were injured.

Clerkenwell bombing

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the ‘Illustrated Police News’.

“Britain’s first terrorist bombing” (Webb, 2012; p53) was an unmitigated disaster. Because of the failed attempt the day before the prisoners were not even in the exercise yard at the time of the explosion. Which was lucky in a way, as the Fenians had used far too much gunpowder (548lbs of it to be exact), and the explosion would have killed anyone in the yard. It sparked hysteria across the capital; it was said that twenty babies were killed in the womb by the blast, and that the explosion was a signal to begin a whole wave of terrorist attacks across the city. There were calls for new laws and emergency powers which would not be unfamiliar to us today. Any sympathy that there had been for the Irish cause amongst Londoners evaporated, and the government set up the first Secret Service Department, with the goal of gathering intelligence and anticipating future Fenian attacks. It was the forerunner of today’s Special branch and MI5. 5 people were charged with murder, including Anne Justice, but a man named Michael Barrett was the only one convicted. He has the dubious distinction of being the last person to ever be publicly executed in Britain.

Sadly, London is no stranger to terrorism. The Clerkenwell Outrage may have been Britain’s first terrorist bombing, but it was not the first terrorist plot, with conspiracies going back as far as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and beyond.  In light of everything that has been going on recently, it can be helpful to remember that this is not the first time London has faced vague and shadowy threats; the city has always continued to survive and thrive.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso (2012).

Hunt, Nick. “History and Politics.” Plunging into History. No date, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at http://www.plungingintohistory.com/ir-area-historyandpolitics

Merat, Aaron. “Clerkenwell’s Hidden Communist History.” Islington Now. Last modified 11th March 2010, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at   http://islingtonnow.co.uk/2010/03/11/clerkenwells-hidden-communist-history/

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press (2012).

White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. London: Vintage (2007).

Guy Fawkes: Terrorist or Freedom Fighter?

Remember, remember the fifth of November

A portrait of Guy Fawkes (Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/80/Guy_Fawkes_portrait.jpg).

A portrait of Guy Fawkes (Source: Wikipedia).

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason, why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

 

Guy Fawkes, guy, t’was his intent

To blow up king and parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below

To prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catch’d

With a darkened lantern and burning match.

Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, Guy Fawkes Night; there are several names for the celebrations which take place on the 5th of November every year. For most it is an evening of bonfires, fireworks, sparklers, hot drinks and cold noses. Its origins are rather more sinister though. The tradition started on the 5th of November 1605, when Londoners lit bonfires across the city to celebrate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. It is a story familiar to many, largely due to the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night. A group of Catholics had planned to assassinate the Protestant King James I and his Parliament by blowing up the House of Commons. Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the barrels of gunpowder, and has become by far the most well-known of the conspirators.

Bonfires are common on Guy fawkes night. (Source: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/11/pollutionwatch-guy-fawkes-smog)

Bonfires are common on Guy fawkes night. (Photo: The Guardian)

Largely secular now, the annual celebrations became a focus of anti-Catholic feeling. Although Guy Fawkes was executed by being hung, drawn, and quartered, one tradition surrounding the evening is to burn a ‘Guy’ in effigy on the bonfire. It is no longer a common part of the celebrations, but it demonstrates how strong anti-Catholic sentiment used to be. Guy Fawkes was viewed as a traitorous, treasonous terrorist, and treated accordingly.

In the past few decades however, Guy Fawkes has received a new lease of life in the form of the Guy Fawkes mask worn by the main character of the graphic novel V for Vendetta. Set in a dystopic 1984-style future, V is a mysterious man in a mask that sparks a popular insurrection that brings down the fascist, authoritarian government. One of his first acts in the novel is to succeed where Guy Fawkes failed, blowing up the houses of Parliament in spectacular fashion. V dies towards the end of the novel but others take up his mask, and his true identity is never revealed, turning him a symbolic figure of just rebellion. Initially unpopular when it was first published in the early 1980s, V for Vendetta has increased in popularity in recent years, perhaps due to its adaptation into a film in 2006. The Guy Fawkes masks have become a common feature of protests and demonstrations, serving both a symbolic purpose as the spirit of rebellion, and a practical one in helping to hide the faces and identities of protesters from police. In this context, Guy Fawkes is a hero who fought, and won, against overwhelming odds. He is a freedom fighter.

DSCF5728

The ‘V for Vendetta’ mask has become a common sight at demonstrations in recent years (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have been thinking about the phrase ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ a lot recently. ‘Terrorism’ has felt almost ubiquitous in the Western world over the last decade or so of the War on Terror, but it is an incredibly subjective term. The same act can be perceived as mindless violence or just necessity, depending on the attitude of those perceiving it. The changing perceptions of Guy Fawkes proves this. I am in no way condoning the way that some people choose to resort to extreme violence in order to make their point, but I do think we should be aware of the complex and subjective nature of the term ‘terrorist’, and should use it accordingly.