My Book of the Year

And so we come to the Book of the Year round-up. I’m not waiting till the holiday season this time, as I realise that many readers would prefer to hear my thoughts now, just in case it inspires their Christmas shopping. And why not? Buy someone a book for Christmas this year. It’s more fun than socks.

Well, your mileage may vary. Runners-up from my reading this year include the utterly filthy Decadence Mandchoue: The China Memoirs of Edmund Trelawney Backhouse, rescued from obscurity by Derek Sandhaus in a beautiful hardback edition by Hong Kong’s Earnshaw Books. I was left thoroughly depressed by Paradise Found, an informative account of the American ecology on the eve of the arrival of European colonists. Also, sped to me on the day of its publication, Matthew Sweet’s West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels.

Sweet’s previous books changed the way I wrote history; I have come to love his persistence in tracking down testimonials rather than memoirs, a dogged quest that often seems to find him sipping tea in old people’s home while the spivs, movie stars and spies of yesteryear struggle to recall their glory days. West End Front is a carnival of (largely) ghastly people, often described with Wodehousian glee, and Sweet presents a superb angle on the culture of WW2, from the switchboard operator who overheard of the war’s arrival before the rest of the country, to the huddle of ousted politicians listening on a hotel radio to the news of Japan’s surrender. Kings in exile, hookers on the make, and Marxists in search of a bespoke bomb shelter all rub shoulders in Sweet’s vivid account, some under the mistaken impression that the solidly built hotels of London were “bomb-proof.” I would say more, but Simon Guerrier already has.

For the second year running, my fortnight at Scotland Loves Anime found me raiding the Glasgow Waterstone’s, coming away with the wonderful Lore of Scotland and The Faded Map, a run-down of the various kingdoms once found in Caledonia. The focussed, localised Faded Map has been overshadowed somewhat by Norman Davies’ sprawling Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe, which offers potted histories of continental also-rans such as the Byzantine Empire, Aragon, Burgundy and Tolosa. But through no fault of Davies, I was left slightly more satisfied by The Faded Map, partly because it set its sights very small, on Scotland, and hence was able to be far more comprehensive. There is a picky, ungrateful sense of entitlement that comes over the reader of Davies’ larger work, as one starts to wonder about all the vanished realms he’s left out – what about al-Andalus? The Danelaw? The Austro-Hungarian Empire…? His book is popular enough and has made it onto many other best-of lists this winter, so perhaps it will soon gain a companion volume. If it does, may I plead with his publishers to make a better book. For £30, I would prefer one that doesn’t start shedding its pages before I’ve even got halfway in. By the time I finished, it was less of a book than a sheaf of papers.

Lost Colony by Tonio Andrade is an impeccably researched account of the fall of Fort Zeelandia in Taiwan to the “pirate king” Koxinga, a.k.a. Zheng Chenggong, Coxinga, the Knight of the Imperial Surname, etc. Barnacled with grants and fellowships, and aided by four research assistants, Andrade reframes the story of Fort Zeelandia in terms of the popularly-held idea of the inherent superiority of the modern west. He points out that when the Chinese first met with European military might, the Chinese won, and ponders if the victimhood of the 19th century was an anomaly. Entertainingly, Andrade is not above arch comments about the Dutch disaster as it unfolds, and has the odd achievement of including a chart that made me laugh out loud. It’s a list of defectors in each direction between the Dutch and the Chinese, but is set up with such mathematical precision that it allows for the possibility of half a defector. A lower torso, perhaps? For reasons I don’t quite follow, this playfulness also extends to the book’s cover, which shows a picture of Batavia, not Taiwan at all.

When I clicked a copy of Andrade’s book into my shopping basket, Amazon kindly informed me that “people who bought Lost Colony also bought Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty by Jonathan Clements”. This is somewhat ironic, since Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty is entirely unmentioned in Lost Colony, which has the gumption to bill itself as an “untold story.” There’s some half-hearted hand-wringing in Andrade’s acknowledgements about his “scholar’s discomfort” with this claim, but it apparently didn’t bother him enough to actually do anything about it. Which is a shame, because Lost Colony is an excellent book, and now many would-be readers will be confronted its spurious “untold” assertion every time they browse an online bookseller.

It is, one presumes, because academic presses do not wish to dirty themselves with citations from the garish world of commercial publishing, a reluctance which, to some extent, I do understand, particularly if someone has inconveniently told your “untold” story eight years previously – and I, of course, was not even the first. But if you are going to dismiss popular predecessors as beneath your notice, please don’t succumb to the hucksterish allure of misleading, grandstanding titles. Untold, my arse.

Which brings me to my actual book of the year, which I doubt very much you could buy even if you wanted to: China on the Western Front, by Michael Summerskill. Untold? No. Unread? Seemingly. Unloved? Absolutely not. It’s an amazing book about the Chinese Labour Corps, nearly 100,000 men who came from China to dig trenches and unload ships in a Europe starved of manpower during WW1. Eight hundred of them died, mainly from the influenza of 1918, although several dozen died in bombing raids and German attacks. It was published in 1982, and is so obscure that the School of Oriental and African Studies library doesn’t have a copy. It’s a paperback of less than 250 pages, acquired for the princely sum of £85 from a second-hand bookseller who knew exactly how much it was worth to me. I bought it because I’m considering writing a book of my own about WW1 in the Far East, and the fact that 100,000 Chinese put a girdle round the Earth in order to drag corpses from the trenches at Verdun is simply fascinating. Summerskill plainly found his obsession so odd, so unique, that no publisher would touch it. He published it himself, in numbers so tiny that I doubt there are three copies left in Europe. But nevertheless, thanks to the interwebs, I was able to find a copy. And if Summerskill’s family ever want to republish it, they could have it available on the Kindle in days. Has its time come? I hope so.

Instead, the most accessible book on the subject is another product of the modern age, an obscure 1919 account by a white officer in the Chinese Labour Corps, brought back into print by the Imperial War Museum, and maintaining its cheerily racist original title: With the Chinks. It doesn’t hold a candle to Summerskill, but was a fun read. [Time Travel Footnote: John Watson points out that this book came out this year.]

We stand on the verge of a sea-change in publishing. Summerskill’s book, still a great rarity in 2011, might easily be a similar print-on-demand or e-Book commonplace by this time next year, easily rushed to your door or to your tablet. I have two books coming out in 2012, and for what is for me the first time, both will be in dual paper and electronic versions as my publishers wake up to the potential of new media. My reading this year has been skewed more than ever by the technology that delivers it to me. Amazon, in particular, reminds me to put money down on books I forgot I once wanted, or hunt down obscurities that might have eluded me in a bookshop. I have also noticed with increasing regularity, the number of books from academic presses that have clearly been printed on demand, to meet my order and not in anticipation of it. Nothing, however, quite competes with the joy of poking around a real-world Foyle’s or a Waterstone’s, where acres of new worlds are waiting to be discovered, analogue style.

I’m not one of the publishing doomsayers. There is certainly a paradigm shift in the way that books are sold and consumed, but if anything it makes the field more financially rewarding for writers, not less so. I have certainly benefited from both paper and e-sales this year. I suspect that within the decade, the default condition of all books will be electronic, and that old-fashioned people like me who want it on paper can pay to have their digibook made real, much as 18th century bibliophiles popped down to the printer to have their papers bound. But there will be a transitional phase when electronica dominates, and when that comes, you’ll have a lot more trouble putting a ribbon around it and giving it to your dad.

So buy someone a book for Christmas this year. Next year you might have nothing to give but electrons.

7 thoughts on “My Book of the Year

  1. Hi All;

    As a more “Refined” Scholar of the History of China and the Far-East.
    I must also point out the following older Publications:-

    Lt Daryl Klein. “With the Chinks!”.
    A Reprint of the (1919) Short Story By;
    It is available for Free in E-Form From Cornell Uni.
    The Monocled Mutineer.
    By: William Allison
    Dated: 01-01-1978
    Has some resonance and insight on the CLC.
    The Much Vaunted And Voluminous Novel By:- Gregory James.
    The Chinese Labour Corps (1916-1920). Published in: 2013.
    A MUST for ant True Scholar!
    Or; the Now Legendary Private Paperback Publication…..
    “China: On the Western Front : Britain’s Chinese Work Force in the First World War.”
    Authored By the Lawyer/Amateur-Writer:- Michael Brynmôr Summerskill
    First Published before the Internet Age: in 25th November 1982.
    However; here is the REAL ‘Kicker’; There is a Single-Page-Redaction; in this ‘MOST’; exclusive of Private Publications! (Find it if U can find a COPY!).###
    Now; we are in the Movies and Dramatization Age:-
    So; I guess most Protagonists of the Genre will no doubt watch the movie version instead by:- Rare Earth Media Group.
    “TRICKS ON THE DEAD” 《潜龙之殤 : 一战中的华工军团》
    First Launched in:- 2015.
    And if U want the Canadian Prospective..
    See the Following:-
    Harry Livingstone’s Forgotten Men:
    Canadians and the Chinese Labour Corps in the First World War: Auth. Dan Black.
    Publication Date: 1st October 2019.
    That is all For Now Troopers!

  2. Hello Gary,

    I think that Gregory James’s huge book, hard to even lift, is the most exhaustive and illuminating work on the Chinese Labour Corps. Its publication pretty much finished off any hopes I might have had of writing one myself, as he said everything I could have said and more. I had every intention of making James’s book my next “Book of the Year”, but that annual feature has been dormant fo a while as other things occupy my time.


    • Then maybe U should start working on the Second-World War Stuff like me….
      Try: “KEW”-National Archives: Unit-371 [Code-10]. (This is the short-cut for many SINO-Affairs!).

      (Another: Caucasian Bloke appeared to have brought the Rights of the story OR something!)
      Since; everything is still classified….

      I donot know whether this is a coincidence OR NOT but; it is a pretty sick joke; anyway….

      But; Unit-371 is the Name given by the Japanese to their War-Crimes Committing Secret Police.
      The: “Butter-Will-Not-Melt-In-Their-Mouth!”; Exemplary Well-Behaved: “Kempeitai”

      Read all about it in the following Wiki-Site;

      Oh; and have I mentioned: 4-Star General; Joseph Warren STILWELL. (Vinegar Joe).
      In the second World War!

      Try the following official biography:-

      Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45
      Official Biographer: Barbara W. Tuchman.

      Not sure if that was Book of the Year Ever?!

  3. Hi JC;

    Long Time No Response;

    After the Tremendous disruptions with COVID-19;

    I hope the following helps for all U avid: “Sino-Observers”; out there like “Moire”;

    But; Credit must go where Credit is due:-

    There were the: “Serious Scholars”: on the Chinese Labour Corp way back before the Internet Age:

    First and Foremost Credit must be given to a Female American Scholar
    Called: Shirley Frey.

    She wrote the Following;

    Auth. Shirley Frey, M.A. (The. University of Texas at Arlington.)


    And Also the following Very Obscure Scholar; Auth: Nicholas. J. Griffin.

    On The Journal of Military History – Volumes 1-58 – Page 355

    Britain’s Chinese Labour Corps in World War I
    Auth: Nicholas John Griffin

    Published 01 October 1976

    His Private quote was:

    And this can be seen on the following British Website:

    “The complete and unlamented disappearance of the Chinese Labour Corps until today’s revival of interest presents a further testimony, this time to the residual resoluteness of the Establishment which disbanded it.”

    ****In other works; the Powers that be (in the U.K.) wanted this story to be buried forever if they could!****

    Mr. Nicholas John Griffin. was a very remarkable man!
    This is the title of his “Buried” Thesis….

    “The use of Chinese Labour by the British Army 1916- 1920”.
    Unpublished PhD thesis: (University of Oklahoma), 1973.


    Now; the whole sorry saga doesn’t end there; at least for the First World War.

    There is also; the Vietnamese: “Tirailleurs Annamites.” and other “Coloured” Races….

    Please; know this; the Vietnamese had an even Rawer Deal…
    With the: “Tirailleurs Annamites.” Actual Soldiers; NOT Indentured Workers!

    They the Annamites:

    (Fully Registered Marine Soldiers) [Authorised to dispatch Deadly Force!]; was also betrayed by the French after the First World War.

    Think About it; why did U think the Vietnam War lasted for 16 Years!


    As; for the Second World War….

    Know the Following;

    Chinese Military Mission (Piccadilly); England. World War II.
    Yes; the Chinese did send some military to the U.K. to help them out….
    See: Photo online…..

    The details of which are still Classified….

    And the Australian Z-Men. Z-Force. Attack Force Z.

    (There is a rather well-know Movie made about them in the Early 1980 with
    the Hollywood Actor. Mel Gibson)

    I have very recently managed to acquire a digitally remaster version of it….
    And the Commentaries by the: ‘Caucasian’ Producers….
    (Who had to re-mortgage his house and had 2 different directors to finish the film!).
    Aussies for U; Eh!


    In 2018; I actually attended in person to 3 out 4; of the “Talks” around the U.K. on the
    C.L.C. And the: “Chair”; of it all was a Bloke Called: Steven Lau.

    I raised my hand-up in the Auditorium of his One-Hour Lecture and tried to mention.
    Summerskills Name; he looked at me for a moment; than looked away as though I was an Insect!….Luckily; I gave away 10 hand-outs to the Lay-People in the Lecture with Summerskill’s name on it; and they twigged!

    There were 4 Ppl; of Chinese Descent out of 300 attendees in the Lecture Hall in the National Kew Archives in London.

    You can Picture the Scene yourself!

    I think I have said enough!

    Bye; All;

    Mr. G. C

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