Monday, May 31, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Our Man in New York – The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War by Henry Hemming (FP: 2019) [326pp]
It had often been a story told around the family dinner table – how his father had almost drowned age 3 just days before the outbreak of World War Two. Luckily, for both his father and the author, a family friend had been on hand to fish the wandering boy out of the pond and save his life. But who exactly was this family friend?
His name was Willian Stephenson (which turned out not to be the name he was born with) who, in 1939, was a successful businessman with contacts and contracts all across Europe. With war on the horizon Stephenson offered his services and those of his organisation to British Intelligence who turned him down. Impressed with his obvious abilities that had another idea. They wanted him to sail to New York and run the MI6 office there. His remit was an apparently simple one – to report back on American willingness to help Britain’s war effort and to ‘do what he could’ to encourage the US to enter the war on Britain’s side. It was going to be a tough hill to climb. In May 1940 only 7% of Americans thought that declaring war on Germany was a good idea. America had a large German population who either desired neutrality or active support of their homeland. Meanwhile German propaganda had been operating for some time inside the US to ensure that they didn’t join forces with Britain against the Axis Powers. If that wasn’t enough there was a well-funded (again in part but by no means exclusively by the Nazi government) Isolationist movement that had many supporters and celebrity endorsement by the likes of all-American hero Charles Lindbergh. With a limited budget and only a handful of staff in New York Stephenson did the only thing he could – he spent his own money on moving the MI6 operation to better and bigger premises and started a recruitment campaign. His objectives were clear: He needed to accurately gauge US public opinion on the war, he needed to counteract German propaganda, he needed friends in high places, he needed to discredit Lindbergh and he needed to manipulate American media outlets to turn public opinion in the way his boss back in London most desired. Over the next year, despite the forces ranged against him Stephenson waged a campaign the likes of which had not been seen (or honestly conceived of) until then. By October 1941 76% of Americans approved of their President’s foreign policy and stance towards Germany. By November 1941 an impressive 85% of Americans fully expected to be at war with Germany imminently. Mission accomplished.I do love reading around subjects rather than running straight at them. In Britain’s darkest hour after the Fall of France and before the US entered on the Allied side the willingness of America to become the Arsenal of Democracy was vital to England’s survival. I knew that Roosevelt wanted to help as much as he could but his hands were tied by Congress and previous agreements limiting Presidential action and involvement in foreign wars. Roosevelt pushed as close to this limits as he could publically and pushed beyond them in secret. If he had been discovered there was a real possibility he could have been impeached. What I didn’t realise, until reading this GRIPPING narrative, was just how much we manipulated US public opinion in order to support the President’s endeavours on Britain’s behalf so that it wouldn’t look like he was too far ahead of the public mood – he wanted to be seen, at least in theory, as following opinion rather than leading it. It was, to say the least, a risky strategy that could have easily backfired and turned public and political opinion against Britain just when she needed it most. I’m sure, like me, not many people know much if anything at all about this aspect of WW2. It was to say the least an eye-opening and fascinating insight into a side of the war that had previously failed to cross my mind. HIGHLY recommended for anyone interested into why America entered the war when and how it did.
Sunday, May 30, 2021
Saturday, May 29, 2021
Hail to the Chief (1)
Although I have no intention to read biographies of every US President I will naturally, through other endeavours like the World Wars or the Cold War, come across them from time to time. I’m also interested in some of the characters that have filled that post over time – especially people like Kennedy & Nixon – who have become iconic for a number of reasons. So far, as with most things here seemingly, its early days but who knows where such reading will lead, right? The roll call so far is as follows – and as usual I’ll do an ‘update’ every 6 months to see how we’re doing….
Richard M Nixon (37) 20th January 1969 – 9th August 1974
All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
John F Kennedy (35) 20th January 1961 – 22nd November 1963
One Minute to Midnight – Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs
Friday, May 28, 2021
Thursday, May 27, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Our Man in Charleston – Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey (FP: 2015) [327pp]
Even on the journey to Charleston British consul Robert Bunch had yet to decide if his posting was an opportunity or a poison chalice. On the face of it his task was a simple one – although singularly beyond his predecessor’s capabilities – to change a South Carolinian law that was inconveniencing the British crown. The law, brought in to effect after a slave uprising some time before, mandated that all non-white sailors aboard ships entering Charleston harbour would be held in jail – at the ship owners expense – for the duration of the ships visit. The reason was a simple one, at least to the great and the good of that slave owning state – seeing and (heaven forbid) communicating with free men of colour would only lay the seeds of rebellion in the minds of ignorant black folk so everything possible needed to be done to prevent this. The British consul’s first task was to get this law modified (if not overturned) to prevent British citizens from being abused (or worse) in Charleston’s jail system just for having the misfortune of being on a ship that called into that port and for being black. Unsurprisingly Bunch had his work cut out for him but he didn’t stop there. In the years that followed consul Bunch, often way beyond his remit (and sometimes either simply ignored or reprimanded) produced report after report and letter after letter both to his superior in New York as well as to his Foreign Office superiors in London outlining conditions in Charleston and in the South generally and, as Secession and even war approached alerted London as to the mood of the Southern states (and later the Confederacy) as well as their expectations of British intent. Bunch provided, often at great personal and professional risk, vital intelligence about the burgeoning insurrection and detailed assessments that often proved to be both detailed and prescient.
This was quite an eye-opening book on multiple levels. I had no idea that British consuls were even active in the Southern US never mind that at least some of them played such vital roles in informing the British response to the emerging Civil War. I was also rather surprised at the level of opposition to Slavery by the British government. I know slavery was abolished (in the most part) in 1833 across the Empire – with some parts only being added later – but was unaware at just how much effort Britain expended to stop the TRADE in slaves rather than slavery per se. Not only did the British essentially bully other countries (notably Spain) to enact similar legislation in its colonies (Cuba especially) but also stationed elements of the Royal navy off the coast of Africa to interdict any ship suspected of transporting slaves across the Atlantic. This cost the British economy around 2% of GDP, around 5,000 lives lost and existed for SIXTY years. I had zero idea that this was a thing! Inevitably there will be books on the way about this very subject so stay tuned. Taking this into account you can imagine consul Bunch’s views on the Southern idea that Britain would inevitably first recognise the Confederacy post-secession and would probably fight on their side against the North because of – cotton. This was, of course, a complete fantasy. As the future rebellion built intelligence from Bunch and others had already resulted in increased investment in cotton production in both Egypt and India. Even after the war started and cotton exports dropped to almost nothing (which caused great hardship in the mill towns of Northern England) there was never any possibility that Britain would back the South. The whole idea was inconceivable. What was much more likely was a British war AGAINST the South if the Confederacy had gone ahead with the idea of re-opening the Atlantic slave trade to ease its economic woes. If Confederate slavers had tangled with British naval vessels war between those two entities would have most likely followed.
For a whole host of reasons this was one of my top reads of the year so far. Not only did I learn a LOT about the move towards Civil War in the US (admittedly from a fairly low level to begin with) but I also renewed my fascination with 19th century British politics and especially the career of Lord Palmerston (known as “pumice stone” for his legendary abrasiveness!) who during that period was sometimes Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. I think I added at least 3-4 books to my Amazon Wish List because of this book and it has provided me with several avenues of new research to follow – so great stuff. As always much more to follow. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, May 26, 2021
Tuesday, May 25, 2021
Monday, May 24, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The King Who Had To Go – Edward VIII, Mrs Simpson and the Hidden Politics of the Abdication Crisis by Adrian Phillips (FP: 2016) [345pp]
The Abdication Crisis of 1936 is yet another of those incidents in British history that I know of but know very little about. No more! What I ‘knew’ (or more accurately thought I knew) about the events essentially boiled down to the facts that the future King – Edward VIII – had formed a relationship with a women considered to be ‘unsuitable’ because of her prior divorce and chose, for the good of the Monarchy and Country, to give up the throne to his brother (who became George VI) because he couldn’t or wouldn’t give up the woman he loved. All very romantic and only partially true, but it was the story concocted for public consumption. As with most things the truth was rather more complex and a bit more sordid.
The problem was Edward himself. Young, wilful, not too bright and full of his own self-importance and privilege he was determined to have his own way and decide his own life – regardless of his position or his role as sovereign. If he was to be King, he thought, then he could do what he damn well pleased and the fly-by-night politicians would just have to deal with it – and him. Unfortunately for Edward the days of absolute (or even quasi-powerful) monarchy was long gone and the days of a more free monarchy had yet to come. Wallace Simpson was unsuitable for a whole list of reasons. Her previous divorce was one of them. Divorce in 30’s Britain was still difficult, expensive and socially consequential. What was worse in this case was that she had remarried and would need to be divorced for a second time to marry the future monarch. Naturally Special Branch – essentially the UK’s political police force – investigated Simpson and discovered evidence that she was actually engaged in two affairs, on with the future King and another (simultaneously) with a younger man. What made things worse was that Edward refused to hide Wallace in the background (as the Prime Minister expected a ‘respectable whore’ to behave) but entertained her on his yacht and took her to events and official meals. One politician’s wife refused to go to any event where Wallace might be invited because she didn’t want to be introduced to a ‘whore’. You can see a theme here. What made things worse – something that Edward was good at – was his insistence that Wallace became Queen rather than his consort. The Prime Minister was not alone in the idea that the country would not stand for that, indeed some of the Commonwealth/Empire leaders made it quite clear that the integrity of the Empire itself might be called into question if the marriage went ahead and Wallace was crowned. The brewing constitutional crisis might well become an Imperial crisis with the growing clouds of a European war on the horizon.
Told in fascinating detail this is the story of the political machinations that were going on in the background between politicians, civil servants, newspaper moguls and hangers on to either keep the King on the throne, remove Mrs Simpson from the scene (only half-jokingly was the idea of ‘knocking her on the head’ floated) or having his reluctant brother take up the role of monarch so things could blow over. The whole story gives a real insight into late 30’s British society, the coming war (increasingly on everyone’s minds) and the future of the monarchy – still resonating today. As one who is most definitely not entranced by royalty I did find this narrative completely captivating and felt that a gap in my knowledge of British history had been very well closed. Definitely recommended for anyone who has heard of the Crisis and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Sunday, May 23, 2021
Ella Wheeler Wilcox - 1850-1919
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.
Friday, May 21, 2021
Thursday, May 20, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Virus Hunters – Dispatches from the Frontline by Joseph B McCormick & Susan Fisher-Hoch (FP: 1996) [354pp]
It was almost like being a GP – late night urgent requests and neighbourhood house calls, except that the requests came from the CDC or WHO and the house calls could be anywhere in the world. But when the medical emergencies could result in thousands of deaths (or more!) a little inconvenience and some hard travel were all part of the deal. Of course there was never anything little about the job these intrepid men and women undertook.
Looking back into efforts to address outbreaks of multiple potential epidemics in Africa in the 1980’s onwards (from the point of view of the mid-1990’s) the authors alternately tell their tales of travel to places few had heard of – including the authors themselves more often than not – to investigate unexplained illness and, too often, unexplained death. Often the local medics, who again too often at the time where both poorly trained and poorly equipped, were at a loss to explain the origin and spread of a pathogen and had called on local authorities to help when the outbreak had either become too large to ignore or too inconvenient to cover up. Struggling governments don’t like appearing weak – either to the world community, their own population or to their enemies both foreign and domestic – so (again) too often they called for help when all else had failed. With limited resources and staff with the necessary knowledge and experience it was normal for CDC to send a single operative (or rarely two) to investigate and report back. Whilst major cities in the region were usually adequately supplied with electricity and roads the sites of the outbreak were anything but. Few had nearby airfields (even for small craft when they were available) and fewer pilots – even from the country’s military - were willing to fly into ‘hot zones’ fearing contamination themselves. This often meant hours long, back breaking, travel in unsuitable vehicles to villages with only intermittent electricity and few, if any, medical supplies. The CDC medics took what they could carry and used what they found when they arrived.
When facilities allowed the initial diagnosis took place in the field. As technology and knowledge improved throughout the 80’s this became easier but sending samples of unknown pathogens to labs in Europe or back to the States was not unprecedented adding delays and the inherent danger that either the samples were lost, destroyed or had decayed during the trip. Being at ground zero in these circumstances was very frustrating and downright dangerous. A slip with a needle or scalpel, a possible infection with Ebola (which actually happened to one of the authors!) could mean hours or days travelling just to get tested. The stress must have been crushing at times.
Told with real drama these stories of quiet heroism highlighted the activities of the CDC, WHO and others (in this case in Africa) on the frontline of disease control and epidemic/pandemic early warning. Dealing with some of the most dangerous diseases known to man (so far!) these men and women are doing a vital job to protect humanity from our oldest enemy. Although somewhat dated by now this is still an interesting read to understand what was going on at the end of last century in the world of epidemiology and can be used as a deep background study and an aid to understand what has been going on (and sometimes not going on!) during the latest pandemic. Recommended but more up to date books to come.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
Monday, May 17, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson (FP: 2014) [251pp]
This was, as you might expect, an impulse buy. Although I know of (as does just about everyone in the West) the existence of the Illiad and the Odyssey I’ve never read either (although I have of late been dipping into an old – 1950 – translation of the Illiad) and the closest I’ve come to them so far is a few modern interpretations and the epic movie Troy which I honestly enjoyed a great deal. I’d heard that Homer might not be an actual person who wrote these iconic tales of western cannon but that he was, possibly, either a composite of several writers, a generic term for those who told the tales (prior to them finally being written down) or even the name of the first person to translate them from the spoken word to the written text. The author goes over each of these theories and shows on multiple occasions and in multiple ways just how far back in time – literally to the days before History – the tales go, teasing out individual word use, descriptions of weapons and armour and so on to show that the tale existed LONG before the age that finally immortalised it. But that was just the beginning.
I won’t even try to precis this book but will, instead, look at some of the themes the author covered. Naturally both tales are central to the books overall narrative but many questions need to be asked (apart from where they came from and did the Trojan War actually happen for real). When the Illiad is considered the first question that needs to be raised is ‘Which Illiad?’ Not only have there been, over the centuries since it was first written down, many, many translations of varying quality but there are multiple versions of the original text dating back far into antiquity. The Librarian’s at Alexandria tried to produce an ‘authorised’ version but were not wholly successful. Then there’s the question of just how it was possible to remember and ‘sing’ such a long and complex narrative – which naturally leads on to the many quirks and repartitions in the text that allow such a prodigious feat of memory to be achieved.
The thing that jumped out at me most however was not really about the text but about the war itself. Troy was a comparatively minor city – rich as it was – on the edge of an Asian empire. The Greeks, in contrast, were a rabble of squabbling tribes barely out of the Stone Age. Rather than the heroes of the piece, despite thousands of years of propaganda to back their case, they were in fact the bad guys – most literally the barbarians at the gate. That, of course, flips the whole narrative on its head. I wonder if there are books out there telling the siege of Troy as a tragedy from the Trojan point of view?
Coincidentally I have just finished a relatively recent updated narrative about the Trojan War told from the point of view of Patroclus, lover and friend of Achilles. As stated previously I dipped into the 1950 Penguin translation of the Illiad that I’ve had for years/decades and it looks very readable (and is, therefore, probably a rather ‘free’ translation!) so there’s more Homeric texts to come. It almost feels like Fate…. But if you’re a fan of two of the truly great classics of western literature this is definitely the book for you. Starting from an admittedly low base I definitely learnt a lot about the background to the stories and their ongoing importance in the western cannon. Most definitely more to come. Highly recommended.
Longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2014
Sunday, May 16, 2021
Friday, May 14, 2021
Thursday, May 13, 2021
Just Finished Reading: Paris Reborn – Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann, and the Quest to Build a Modern City by Stephane Kirkland (FP: 2013) [292pp]
If there is one thing that History teaches – apart from the fact that we humans do not learn from History – is that things are invariably contingent. There is no Fate, no Destiny and no Plan. Bullets miss their intended target, winds change direction at just the wrong time (or just the right one), and messages are delayed, lost, misread or ignored in the heat of battle. Such things are woven into the fabric of human history and are one of the things that make predicting things such a headache. Looking back, and having a grasp of the minutiae of unfolding events, we can see that things often viewed in hindsight as inevitable are anything but – things could always have been different. This applies to individual lives, countries, battles and cities.
Paris, now rightly regarded as a world city, a city of light and one of the urban wonders of the world, was anything but in the early 19th century. Growing organically without much in the way of planning or foresight it was starting to fall victim to its own success. Small changes had been made over time to alleviate problems here and there and opportunities to upgrade or demolish buildings had been taken in the event of fires or other disasters but it was time for something more radical. But first a vision was required and someone powerful enough to drive that vision forward. Step forward the unlikely possessor of that vision - Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of the more famous Napoléon Bonaparte we all learnt about in history class. Vision he had, but power and influence he most certainly lacked. Luckily for him (and arguably the world) he was about to be ‘used’ by a political fixer by being installed as President of France in 1848 and, after his short and undistinguished term in office, then being replaced by said ‘fixer’. Unfortunately Charles Louis had other ideas and executed a palace coup becoming Napoleon III – Emperor of the French – in 1852. Power, influence were now his along with the vision of creating a city fit for an Empire. Appointing Georges-Eugène Haussmann (later Baron Haussmann) as Prefect of the Seine to co-ordinate the project the wholesale overhaul of the city could begin.This excellent book – a MUST read for anyone interested in either urban development or simply Paris herself – tells of the building of elegant boulevards, opera houses, government buildings, parks and gardens which transformed a mixed modernising and still medieval city into the edifice we see today. The very distinctive, iconic, architecture we see today is the product (unfortunately uncompleted) of the vision and drive of these two men along with some of the greatest urban designers and architects of the age. Paris would have looked a LOT different today without them. Many European cities had the (rather questionable) ‘advantage’ of recovering from bomb damage after WW2 which allowed them to redesign themselves into the modern age. Paris chose a different route in the mid to late 19th century – a truly massive (and hugely expensive) programme of destruction and reconstruction on a scale that amazed and shocked many residents and visitors and, not incidentally, created many enemies for both the Emperor and his frontman Haussmann. Unfortunately for posterity the project died along with Napoleon III’s hopes in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war which he handled so badly. But much had already been achieved and much remains for us to admire and wonder about. This is a delightful exploration of the rebuilding of an imperial capital which became the envy of Europe by the end of the 19th century. Definitely recommended for all ‘urbanophiles’ and for anyone who ever wondered why Paris looks the way it does.
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
Monday, May 10, 2021
Just Finished Reading: The Boxer Rebellion by Richard O’Connor (FP: 1973) [348pp]
It’s sad to say but before reading this excellent history my knowledge (such as it was) of the Boxer Rebellion consisted mostly of snippets from other works and the 1963 movie 55 Days at Peking starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven. Needless to say most of the movie was almost dead wrong historically.
The Boxer Rebellion was, it seemed, a long time coming. China had been attacked, occupied and essentially bullied into economic ‘co-operation’ since the early 1800’s and was getting more than a little sick of it. A big complaint was the activities of Christian missionaries who continued to convert thousands of Chinese subjects to their cause and belief. But really most of it was about power – and money. The Chinese authorities – especially the Empress – knew full well that they could not confront the European Powers directly so when the Boxer Uprising took place they saw their opportunity. The Boxers took great offense to foreign intervention in Chinese affairs and began attacking Europeans and those who worked for them with ever greater vigour. Naturally complaints were raised (and acknowledged) but secretly the authorities either turned a blind eye to Boxer activity or even actively encouraged it – handing over weapons and offering training where appropriate. The ‘foreign’ settlement in the capital Peking saw which way things were going and asked their respective governments for military guards – which duly arrived. These consisted mainly of marine units from the ships in harbour over a hundred miles away plus military band units so hardly the best of the best (back in those days – 1900 – the marines where not yet a countries elite fighting force).
It was not long before ‘blind eyes’ and tacit approval turned into full government support and a concerted attack on European settlements in several locations (not just in Peking) took place and involved Chinese imperial troops as well as Boxer irregulars. The Legation in Peking was very heavily outnumbered and was not expected to last very long. If it had been overrun and the diplomats killed the resultant revenge from all of the Powers would have been devastating to China despite the weak excuse of ‘The Boxers did it’. How the Empress thought she would get away with such a thing is beyond me. If things had gone ahead as planned and the Powers reacted as I fully expect they would it wouldn’t have surprised me if China as a sovereign nation had simply ceased to exist after being carved up and apportioned out to the countries involved. However, as actually hinted at in the ‘63 movie (so kudos there for that at least), the Chinese military commander refused to give over use of heavier artillery to the Boxers knowing full well that the Powers couldn’t withstand that and the number of casualties that would follow. What did surprise me (although maybe it shouldn’t have) was the fact that, unlike the movie portrayal, the Powers not only did not have any kind of unified command structure – so communications were often delayed – but that several countries contingents simply refused to co-operate with others which naturally meant extra work to ensure that certain Powers where not required (or asked to) assist certain others. For example the French refused to help the Germans (ditto) and the Russians and Japanese could barely stand each other. Interesting the film shows the US Marine commander (Heston) and the Japanese commander having good relations (I did wonder if this was in order to back up the anti-communist ‘pact between the two in the 1960’s). What the book relates is that the Japanese commander was not only the most experienced and most able of those available but (I think) also senior in rank so, technically at least, should have been in overall command of the defences. Unfortunately it was decided that it would be unthinkable for white men to be commanded by a Japanese officer – no matter how capable. Despite the brief reference to Ava Gardner playing at nursing (I think as I skipped through most of the ‘love interest’ bit between her and Heston) women played almost no part in the movie. In reality (again quite different) not only did they provide nursing services, cooking and cleaning (again just being the turn of the 20th century) but also produced most of the sandbags used in the barricades. One women (who I think was either French or American) joined the men on the barricades with rifle in hand. She was asked to leave as she provided too much of a distraction to the men. The other thing that the movie completely edits out – understandably as it adds a whole other level of possible confusion – was the fact that a lot of Chinese Christians helped with barricade construction, and much of the more mundane activities of any prolonged siege. The film also failed to show the blatant disregard for the Chinese suffering in a near-by compound despite the fact that the European Powers had offered them protection – at least initially.
The siege at Peking and elsewhere lasted almost 2 months largely due to the incompetence of and arguing between the respective Powers. An initial relief attempt had to be rescued and withdrawn because it was too small, put together too quickly and had grossly underestimated the resolve of Chinese units ranged against them. Only when a properly constituted force was ready – which took an inordinate amount of time – was progress made and the siege of the foreign legation lifted. Again in the movie this was shown as a just in time relief complete with marching bands. The reality was not so neat however. There the movie ended complete with cheering. What it didn’t show was what happened next. As Chinese forces left Peking the victorious (mostly European) armies did what they always do – looted the city, for about a month. Each Power looted in its own way and despite being ordered not to the American’s joined it. Some people made LOTS of money and museums and art galleries, to say nothing of heads of state, acquired choice Chinese artefacts which are still held today. As with previous conflicts the defeat of Chinese forces led to great penetration by the victorious Powers and even more trouble stored up for later.
This was a really fascinating book that had been sitting, unread and unloved, for far too long on one of my shelves. I wish I had read it sooner. I actually re-watched ’55 Days’ the day I finished this (YouTube for the win!) to see just how different the movie version was to the actual reality. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. This was an extremely informative and interesting look at a piece of Imperial history and an important part of the history of Western-Chinese relations that still echoes today. Definitely worth reading if you can find a copy. Highly recommended.