Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Postman’s knock

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(This post is cross-posted from my testing blog, Probe probare. It may interest other readers because of the light it throws on a much-loved British institution.) 

BBC Radio 4 is running a series this week about the Post Office Counters Horizon IT system scandal. System errors (which seem to have arisen after the rollout of new PIN keypads) led to massive discrepancies between the sums of money the post office staff took and the amounts recorded on the system. The Post Office pursued prosecutions; many of the affected staff had their livelihoods and lives ruined; some went to jail.

(For non-UK readers: post office services in much of the UK outside town and city centres are delivered through a network of “sub-post offices” – post office counters set up in local or village stores, often run as a subsidiary business by the shopkeeper. The British Post Office ceased to be a Government department in 1969, instead becoming a Government-owned corporation. From 2001, it adopted a more commercial outlook, including formal share capitalisation, though with a controlling interest and two ‘golden shares’ held by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Treasury Solicitor respectively. In 2011, this was changed to a structure of 90% of shares being issued on the financial markets.)

A campaigning group of sub-postmasters brought a civil claim for compensation in December 2019 after the Post Office settled, with the judge providing some scathing criticism of the Post Office, and Fujitsu, the IT supplier, who had to pay £57.75 million to settle the case (“Fudge-it-for-you” as they were known in other organisations I’ve had dealings with before Horizon). Further, in March 2020 the Criminal Cases Review Commission decided to refer to appeal the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters on the grounds of the Post Office’s “abuse of privilege”. Compensation is liable to be eye-wateringly high, especially if the Court of Appeal decides to make an example of them.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), testing blogger James Christie has written a series of three posts on the subject. I commend them:

(Read this one for the account of “the Dalmellington bug” alone. Let the implications of the bug sink in – it’s a gem. It shows how a system issue can have catastrophic real-world impacts) (This has a lot to say on the subject of risk, and how unsafe it is to try to reduce risk to a set of easily-measurable and assessible criteria.)

This is of interest because it shows the impact of failing to carry out proper regression tests following a change way downstream in the system. Even then, the problem could have been addressed had senior managers not taken the view that the system was infallible and so any cash shortfalls had to be down to malicious actors. Rolling out any system that is manifested in the real world, with real people interacting with real kit, demands the highest possible standards of testing, together with clarity of thought on the part of those administering the business. Sadly, it seems that neither were the case in this instance; and innocent people suffered. Robust exploratory testing, feeding back not only to developers but also to business managers, might have avoided this whole sorry state of affairs.

Written by robertday154

May 27, 2020 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 10

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New readers start here. (Where have you been all this time?)

91- Walt Whitman: On the Beach at Night Alone

I have a couple of collections of Whitman’s poetry, but this one includes The Explorers, which I first encountered as a part of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony. It made a lasting impression on me, so much so that I use a line from it as the title of this blog.

Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

92 – Edmund Wilson: To the Finland Station

The approach Wilson takes in this book (originally dating from 1940) is interesting; the book starts off as a work of literary criticism, looking at nineteenth-century French historians reacting to the French Revolution. As we progress in time, the historians comment less and less on historical events and begin to relate their writings to their actions and the contemporary political scene. By the time we reach Marx and Engels, we are looking at fully-fledged activists. The work is then brought to its conclusion with Trotsky and Lenin, ending with Lenin arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd at the eve of the October revolution.

I particularly liked the description of the events of Lenin’s return to Petrograd; it had a very vivid sense of someone walking into a situation that they were not expecting (Lenin was half expecting to be arrested) and then running with the situation as they found it, and of events taking their own momentum and running away from people who thought they were in control. How much of that is the Soviet accepted history, how much is fact and how much Wilson’s own imagination I cannot say, but it makes quite interesting, even exciting reading!

The strengths of this book are in the pre-history of European socialism, and in the pen portraits of the earlier players. Marx and Engels in particular are sympathetically portrayed, even whilst their faults are not glossed over (at least, as much as you’d expect a non-revisionist work to be). The accounts of Trotsky’s and Lenin’s early lives are also interesting, though I gather that they were compiled from mainly Soviet sources, so it must be expected that they will reflect the Party line (although, of course, by the time of writing, Trotsky was officially an ‘unperson’, so the line there would be the one from the early Bolshevik era). The accounts of the political manoeuvering in the years leading up to 1917 is helpful in giving an overview, though it feels a little journalistic and sketchy in places. Certainly, Lenin’s years in exile are dealt with in very short order. And the book only mentions Stalin and his purges in passing; I had the feeling that Wilson was treating them as a given, but specifically did not want to talk about them. In a way, this is understandable; Stalin and the direction he took the Soviet Union has very little to do with revolution, but it was the end result of the process that started with Marx and Engels, and no historian today would get away with not mentioning it.

There are omissions: others have commented that the portrait of Lenin is excessively kind, having again been assembled from Soviet sources; and Wilson at one point acknowledges gaps in the record caused by Soviet editing of Marx’s correspondence, and but a few paragraphs later excuses this as an act of socialist zeal, enthusiasm and loyalty. And he spends a chapter trying to explain the concept of the Dialectic and just succeeds in muddying the waters further. (I certainly emerged from that chapter little wiser than when I went in.) He also expounds on the Labour theory of value, and whilst he has more success with that, he does seem to spend more time explaining what other people thought of it than examining it himself.

For a Lenin apologist, he is not uncritical of some of the tenets of socialist thought. He does expose flaws in the concept of the Labour theory of value, and has a very good analysis of why there was no socialist revolution in Britain (the ruling class made concessions and the managerial class negotiated with the trade unions, who were more interested in securing advantages for their members than pursuing revolution) or America (there was no ruling class to revolt against). And his explanation of Lenin’s anti-democratic statements – that there is no place for democracy in a revolutionary movement, because once you stop to debate issues and subject them to democratic processes, you lose the ability to plan in secret and to act decisively – makes everything fall into place. That, ultimately, has to lead to the realisation that if you once seize power by force, you can only retain it by force – but Wilson lacked the historical perspective we have nowadays to understand this.

So: a useful book, but it should certainly not be your only source in revolutionary history. And it should serve as a warning. Wilson’s analysis of why there was a revolution in Russia and not in Britain or America needs to be heeded; when political leaders start to act as though they possess absolute power, and when the employers and owners of capital are not prepared to negotiate, or consider the opinions of those who work for them, but consider that they have all the rights and the workers have none, then we are seeing the growth of conditions for revolution, the same sort of conditions that there were in Tsarist Russia. All that the situation lacks is a sufficiently dedicated band of revolutionary leaders; and perhaps it is good that we do not have such people, because such people can make dreadful things happen in the name of their revolution.

93 – P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters

Wodehouse was an integral part of my childhood; his stories were forever being dramatised on television whilst I was growing up; later, I discovered his books. He borrowed some of his stylistic tricks from predecessors such as Jerome K. Jerome, and indeed the whole foolish-master-wise-servant comedic trope goes back to classical Greek and Roman literature; but Wodehouse’s output was far more prolific than Jerome’s. Like Jerome, he had an eye for observation. Lest anyone mistake his naive (and enforced) collaboration with the German hierarchy in World War 2 for whole-hearted support, I would draw your attention to his portrait of the leader of the Fascist Blackshorts, Roderick Spode, in this book and its sequel Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves. Wodehouse pierces Spode’s pomposity and ridiculousness far more effectively than any righteous rage could do.

94 – Gene Wolfe: The Shadow of the Torturer

This book is the opening of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which extended to four novels, a pendent novel bridging to a second series of novels, The Book of the Long Sun, and a final trilogy, The Book of the Short Sun. All are set against a far future background of a world where the Sun is dying and everyday life is carried on in baroque surroundings, littered with remnants of old technology, some of which works and some of which doesn’t.

The story is narrated by Severian, who in the course of this novel is revealed to be an apprentice torturer. This is far from his eventual destiny, and in this book we see the cause of his deviation onto his new path. It is many years since i read this (and it is due for a re-read reasonably soon), but the novel has a sense of strangeness that has always stayed with me.

95 – Jack Womack: Terraplane

Amid all the excitement about the birth of the cyberpunk movement in the late 1980s with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, there were a number of other writers who came to attention: Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan and the author of this book, Jack Womack. Terraplane was his second novel, set in the same dystopian world as his first, Ambient. Both were very high-energy, exciting novels with a lot of weird action in strange societies. But Terraplane introduced an alternate reality to the cyberpunk mix, and I’ve always been something of a sucker for alternate histories.

Jack Womack produced six novels in his sequence relating to a near-future dystopian America, seen through the focus of the Dryden Corporation; and a seventh, Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, set in contemporary, just post-Communist Russia. He hasn’t published a new novel since 2000; but his voice is unique and we need to hear more from him.

96 – Derek Wood: Project Cancelled; the disaster of Britain’s abandoned aircraft projects

This classic book tells the story of how successive British governments of both political colours condemned the British aviation industry to second place in the world, through a mixture of political interference, ignorance, stupidity, blind adherence to political dogma and appeasement of the United States of America. It tells how the British aircraft industry was hamstrung by timidity, a failure to understand the laws of physics and the realities of aviation and wild decisions by Ministers, such that the 1958 Defence White Paper declared that manned military aircraft were obsolete because the next war would be fought with missiles alone. That decision, by the Tory Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, caused the cancellation of a number of projects that would have been world-beating aircraft had they made it to actual hardware, with many export sales in the pipeline.

The 1945 Labour government does not escape criticism, mainly for the cancellation of the Miles M.52, a supersonic research aircraft that would almost certainly have been first the break the sound barrier, had it not been for budgetary constraints (to be fair, Attlee did sink a lot of money into the V-bomber project, working on three different designs plus the Short Sperrin stop-gap aircraft in case none of the V-bombers worked out) and the fact that Air Ministry officials didn’t believe in the science of supersonic flight.

An entire chapter is devoted to TSR.2, the advanced jet bomber cancelled by the incoming Wilson government in 1964. That decision was based on a combination of poor project planning (the RAF kept changing the specification and then moaning when the resultant delays continually pushed back the entry of the aircraft into service and caused the bill to rise), political infighting within the MoD (the Chief of Defence Staff at the time was Lord Louis Mountbatten, who went around publicly rubbishing TSR.2 because, as an Admiral of the Fleet, he had a vested interest in having the Navy become the sole custodian of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, an interest he backed to the hilt), and Realpolitik, as the incoming Labour Government could happily scrap the aircraft because of the massive cost over-runs whilst not realising that not allowing the aircraft to enter service ensured that the whole project became a total waste of money instead of just a huge one. What they didn’t mention at the time was the political pressure from the USA, which became a factor because the Americans considered Wilson to be a dangerous Leftist and probably a Soviet spy, but more importantly because the US military-industrial complex considered TSR.2 to be a major threat to their business interests, so in the interests of “Free Trade” it had to be scrapped and the British would have to buy the General Dynamics F-111 (which was even more delayed and more expensive than finishing TSR.2 would ever have been). In the end, we never got either aircraft, but instead ended up with F-4 Phantoms with Rolls-Royce Spey engines at Wilson’s insistence of some pay-back for British industry – thus saddling the RAF with the quickest variant of the Phantom but also the one with the most maintenance down-time. But that, like the political disaster in the States that was the F-111, is another story.

Reading this book can make one yearn for the smack of strong dictatorship, if only to ensure that real-world decisions are taken for clear reasons and other people’s agendas can be safely ignored. It’s cold comfort to think that that alternative has even greater drawbacks in the form of the dangers that such clarity of political vision can bring. (Think Hitler. Think Franco. Think Mussolini. Think Stalin. All Men with Clarity of Vision.) The only way to avoid such scandalous waste of human time, effort and expenditure is not to do militarism at all – or, given that the same sort of issues arose with civil aviation projects, not to do industrialisation either. Go far enough down this path of reasoning, and you end up wondering, as the late Douglas Adams put it, why we should have bothered emerging from the sea at all. Truly, too much progress can be a bad thing…

So this book is one of the best arguments for pacifism I can think of – probably not its intention, but the only real conclusion that can be drawn from it. But if only this story was restricted to military projects, then we could draw that sort of comfort from the book. However, as the Thatcher government’s attitude to the potentially world-beating space launch system HOTOL showed, blind dogma and stupidity can be found anywhere in politics, at any time.

97 – Michael Young & Peter Willmott: Family and Kinship in East London

A seminal work of British sociology, this book made a massive impression on me when I first read it as a student in the 1970s, mainly because I had family who lived in that part of East London during the 1950s and 1960s, and it painted a detailed and accurate picture of life in Bethnal Green. That world has now gone, but this book is its testimonial.

98 – Yevgeny Zamyatin: We

This novel is set in a future dystopian state where all citizens live regimented lives under continual surveillance. One citizen begins to keep a forbidden diary, in which he details his journey towards dissidence, aided by a woman who he finds captivating. His revolt is ultimately crushed by the state; finally, the narrator achieves a level of personal acceptance of the status quo.

This is not George Orwell’s 1984. Rather, it is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, written in 1921. In We, citizens do not have names, only numbers; and life is lived to a regimented schedule so that all Numbers (as citizens are called) do the same things at the same time each day. The novel is set in a distant future when much of the world has reverted to a state of nature; only the City of the One State survives, cordoned off from the disorganisation of nature, and ruled over by The Benefactor. The One State is working towards launching a spaceship, the Integral, whose objective is to journey to other worlds and to find beings who are to be persuaded of the merits of the perfection and order that the One State brings. Comparisons with Star Trek’s Borg are quite appropriate.

Zamyatin was a naval engineer, and he makes his main protagonist an engineer working on the Integral. The picture painted of The One State is quite idealistic; only as the protagonist begins to query the state’s motives and objectives does he lose faith. There is an element of autobiography in this, as Zamyatin was himself a Bolshevik; arrested during the 1905 revolution, he was exiled to Siberia but escaped. He supported the 1917 October Revolution, but became disillusioned with the direction that the Soviet Union took.

I became interested in this book precisely because it was a different take on the dystopian story well known to us in 1984. Comparing the two novels is an interesting exercise; and with having a more far-future setting, We comes over as a much fresher work than Orwell’s novel.

99 – Roger Zelazny: The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth

This is a collection of short stories by the American writer Roger Zelazny. Many won awards. The stories that stick in my memory are the title story, about big game fishing on a Venus of the imagination (i.e. dating from before we found out what a hostile world Venus actually is); A Rose for Ecclesiastes (love, life and dance on a dying Mars); This Mortal Mountain, (climbing an impossibly high mountain on an alien world); and This Moment of the Storm, (about life on a colonised world with extreme weather).

Zelazny’s prose had something of the hard-boiled noir detective story: in The Doors of his Face… , the narrator walks out of an argument: “I closed the door quietly behind me, and left him waiting for it to slam.” I always found something appealing in his writing, and the fact that the four stories I have quoted are ones I haven’t read in many years should tell you how memorable they are.

100 – J.M. Ziman: Public Knowledge; the social dimension of science

In this slender book. John Ziman wrote about how science is done, how it should be communicated to the public (who after all are paying for it) and how it is essentially the same process as we all use in everyday life to take everyday decisions. He talks at length about how science aims to achieve consensus and why so few scientists actually understand their role in society. The book was written in 1968, long before anyone thought of “fake science” or “we don’t need experts”. This book is a good start on the road to undermining those false views (though a lot of scientists could learn from it too).


So there it is: 100 books that have influenced me over the past sixty years or so. There are many more that I may have forgotten; many that are memorable to me but haven’t made the same impression; and a list of my ‘favourite’ books would be rather longer. But I hope readers  – especially anyone who has made it all the way to the end!) – have found this interesting and have perhaps been inspired to seek some of these books out (or even produce their own list!).

[Previously: John Sweeney to Patrick Whitehouse]

Written by robertday154

April 4, 2020 at 11:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 9

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New readers start here.

81 – John Sweeney: Purple Homicide, or Fear and Loathing on Knutsford Heath

This is at the same time the funniest and the most frightening book I have ever read. It is the account of how former BBC journalist Martin Bell, noted in particular for his front-line reports from the Bosnian civil war and his trademark crumpled white suit (which did not prevent his being wounded in that conflict) stood in the 1997 General Election in the Tatton constituency against the sitting Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who had been implicated – but at that time, not proven to be involved – in a scandal involving taking cash from the Harrods owner Mohammed el-Fayed for asking Parliamentary questions. Bell stood as an independent, ‘anti-sleaze’ candidate, and the other major political parties withdrew their candidates to allow him a clear shot at a major target.

The book details the campaign day-by-day in the constituency, with wry humour and detailed satirical pen-portraits of many of the players. Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine were portrayed in a very unfavourable light, best described as ‘harsh but fair’; and the antics of both their supporters and the British media are by turns funny and shocking. This is the frightening part of the book – that and the expose of Hamilton’s record and his past – and at the time, his involvement in the ‘cash for questions’ matter was sub judice, and was not referred to (by Bell) in the campaign. The story is enhanced by Martin Rowson’s cutting cartoons.

Against the odds, Bell won. Hamilton was exposed. This book tells how. John Sweeney’s career has not been without controversy; but oddly, this book attracted very little of it.

82 – Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky (yes, apparently a distant relative of that Tchaikovsky) had built up a fairly solid track record in fantasy before producing this, his first, stand-alone sf novel. It marks a return to old-fashioned sense of wonder sf with big themes and an almost cosmic span of events.

The basic plot: a human seedship sets out to colonise a new world and uplift simians to sentience as a client race. (Tchaikovsky nods to David Brin for his concepts of ‘uplift’, though as will be seen, things do not go to plan – despite one of the human characters expecting that they have, a deft touch.) However, some political plotting goes badly wrong, resulting in the simians being destroyed before making it to the target planet and the uplifting nanovirus being deployed against a population mainly comprised of spiders and ants. This then causes a major upset when a later human colony vessel arrives expecting to be able to inherit a new planet ripe for colonisation.

Tchaikovsky displays a command of plot development, using relatavistic flight and coldsleep technology to enable his crew of humans to undertake voyages whilst generations of development occur on the spider planet. Through the device of giving different characters in the spider narrative the same names (which works well; the spiders have access to distilled genetic memories of ancestors, and so descendents can easily identify one with another), we are shown the development of the spider society over time through characters with similar traits and so the story moves forward in different eras as though seen through the (eight) eyes of the same dramatic character.

Meanwhile, the human generation starship finds its options getting narrowed down by the vastness of space and the ever-increasing age of their technology. I found the human characters a little less sympathetically drawn but they play their parts well enough. Tchaikovsky interestingly depicts arachnophobia on both an obvious, personal level (in the shape of one particular character) and on a cultural level, where the humans continue to think of reclaiming the spider world after “burning out the infestation” or after a bug-hunt; only slowly – too slowly – do they realise that they are facing sentient beings rather than simple insect pests.

Tchaikovsky makes a good attempt at depicting a spider society, with some clever manipulation of phrase and saying to translate our human experience into spider terms. (For instance, I particularly liked suggesting solidarity amongst spiders through saying “standing knee-to-knee” where we would say “shoulder-to-shoulder”.) Indeed, I came out of the novel knowing more about spiders than I did previously. He takes the opportunity to reflect some human traits back onto the spiders in terms of their matriarchal society and some of its attitudes as that society evolves. Some might see that as preachy; but the spiders only make high-level conceptual breakthroughs in understanding their world once they have evolved to recognise the contributions made by males to their society (and stop eating them after sex – though there is one instance where, having established the cessation of that practice as a badge of societal evolution, Tchaikovsky neatly turns that on its head to show heroism in an arachnid context).

There is a streak of humour dotted through the story; but overall, I was left with an overwhelming sense of the span of time; as the humans spend thousands of years in coldsleep, the spiders pass through major societal and technological change. The sense of the passage of time is almost Stepledonian; in the coda to the novel, an expedition sets out to find the source of new signals from another old human colony, and the atmosphere is almost that of the ending of Wells’ Shape of Things to Come.

Readers should note that I do not suffer from arachnophobia!

83 – Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood

Painting with words. In my mind’s ear, this always comes out in the voice of Richard Burton.

84 – Lavie Tidhar: Osama

A private investigator straight out of Central Casting Noir is given the job of tracking down the author of a series of pulp thrillers. But the world this gumshoe inhabits is not ours, and the thrillers are part of a series entitled Osama bin Ladin: Vigilante

The world-building is intriguing. It’s hard to tell if the world of Joe, the PI, is a “real” world or some construct of the human imagination. It is certainly a timeless setting, any time from the 1940s to the 1990s. Yet at times, “our” reality breaks through into the novel. There are opium dens, and London private members’ clubs, and a disused Tube station, and villains, and a Sydney Greenstreet character, and Bogart, and a fan convention, and people who become transparent and disappear. Is this an afterlife? Which is the fantasy world? Who is the author of the bin Ladin novels, and whose story is he really telling? Is our world fantastic, or just unbelievable?

Tidhar’s perspective is interesting. An expatriate Israeli with a cosmopolitan background, his sympathies are not where you might think they’d be.

The style is economical, the chapters short, but I had the urge to continue reading. This is a book I shall want to come back to.

85 – Peter Tinniswood: Tales from a Long Room

Peter Tinniswood has long been a purveyor of a strange sort of Northern humour that veers between the diverse poles of whimsey, gritty reality, fantasy and pure barking madness. His cricketing tales from ‘The Brigadier’ may lack northern grit but are just as funny – and as barking.

What can you say about the tale of von Himmelweit, the only Zeppelin captain to take up a career in first-class county cricket? “No-one ever knew his Christian name. But then again, I don’t suppose he was the sort of man to have one.” Or the MCC’s Test against a Pygmy XI? Or Queen Victoria’s cricketing career?

Inspired madness.

86 – James Tiptree Jnr.: Warm Worlds and Otherwise

A notable collection of short stories from Tiptree, including The women men don’t see. But this book is mainly notable for the introduction by Robert Silverberg, where he categorically and definitively states that, from the evidence of stories in the collection, the reclusive James Tiptree Jnr. is, despite rumours to the contrary, a man. And indeed, could not possibly be a woman. “…(T)here is, for me, something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing” he says.  Around the same time,   Harlan Ellison had introduced a Tiptree story in his anthology Again, Dangerous Visions with the opinion that “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man.” Within a few weeks, Tiptree was identified as a pen-name of Alice Raccoona Sheldon. Though to be fair, the second printing (which I possess) does include a postscript from Silverberg to say “Well, how wrong can you be? And doesn’t it just go to show?”

87 – Frits van der Gragt: Gute alte Tram; Tramnostalgie DDR [Good Old Trams; East German tram nostalgia]

Pure Ostalgie! Colour photographs from the 1950s – 1970s, showing ordinary life in the former East Germany through the medium of its trams in towns both old and rebuilt. The photographer was a Dutch enthusiast who travelled to the DDR in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Given that photography of transport was generally forbidden, the photographer did quite well in avoiding official entanglements – though it helped that his car was often strategically parked for a quick getaway. Though the fact that it was bright red and carried Dutch plates hardly made it inconspicuous…

The trams themselves are a mixture of pre-war types, post-war East German standard vehicles, and post-1965 Comecon standard Tatra tramcars. (In the middle 1960s, industrial production was rationalised across the whole Comecon bloc. Specific industrial production was allocated to particular works, and tramcars were allocated to the CKD-Tatra plant in Czechoslovakia.)

There are scenes here of trams in medieval streets, in rural zones and in front of blocks of workers’ apartments. All East German life is here, with the authentic patina of towns and cities from that time. Recommended to anyone who knew the time and place (which includes Westerners who were there and regularly crossed into the East before the Wall went up…).

88 – Howard Waldrop: Night of the Cooters

It was hard deciding between which of Howard Waldrop‘s books to include in this list, but in the end I plumped for Night of the Cooters, mainly because of the title story. In the past, people have commented on H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds that it is strange how, when the Martians have conquered London and the Home Counties, the fall of the rest of human civilization is taken as granted. Well, in Night of the Cooters, Waldrop recounts the fate of the Martian cylinder that landed in Texas.

Other notable stories include Fin de Cyclé, wherein the 19th century Parisian Dreyfuss Affair is exposed in film and settled by bicycle duel; and A Dozen Tough Jobs, which translates the mythical Labours of Hercules to the American South. All the other stories in this collection are equally off the wall.

89 – Scott Westerfield: The Risen Empire

A very different space opera, despite the outward appearance of fairly conventional ingredients. Galactic Empire – check. Space fleet – check. Small fighter ships – check. An Undead Emperor – check. An implacable cyborg foe – check. A Senate – check. Suicide rituals – check. Artificial intelligences – check.

But – the first chapter pitches us into the cockpit of a fast fighter ship, or so it seems. Except that by the end of the chapter, we realise that the ship is microscopic and piloted by VR remote control. And everything else that looks so much like ‘by the numbers’ space opera isn’t. There’s not too much hand-waving in the science, and every so often Westerfeld deals us a surprise in some idea that comes at the reader from out of the left field. For instance, the space fleet has something not unlike Political Officers along the old Soviet model – though they don’t enforce any sort of ideology that we’d recognise. And just how implacable is that implacable foe?

We start with a rescue mission for a hostage situation on a distant world which goes badly wrong. The implacable foe has a hidden agenda; but along the way to putting that into action, a greater secret is uncovered. The Emperor’s position is threatened by that secret; and his efforts to cover it up and contain the situation fill the rest of the book.

The story moves between the points of view of various different protagonists, though we quickly realise that there are a handful of important ones – a starship captain; his lover, a Senator; his Executive Officer; and a female commando who is the sole survivor of the hostage situation. Other characters also get their moments in the spotlight; some last longer than others. One character’s situation is reflected in an interesting shift in the point of view. Back histories are told in regular flashbacks that paint in some more of the characters’ motivations.And there’s a house run by an AI who is almost a character in their own right.

The political maneuvering is clever and consistent with the invented society. Characterisation generally is adequate; but this is a 700-page novel and there’s a lot of activity to get in there, so characters are drawn no more deeply than they need to be. That’s not too much of a problem, though, and I did read the last twenty pages cheering for the Senator rather.

The late Brian Aldiss coined the term “wide-screen baroque” for a particular species of space opera, and the term definitely applies here – but the trappings, and the terminology, and the overall thoughtfulness in the way the story unfolds, exceeds all expectations. This may be space opera, but certainly not as we know it.

(Note: in the UK, this novel was an omnibus edition of two books published in the USA, The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, which together comprise a sequence known collectively as Succession. Apologies for any spoilerism, especially as it’s unclear as to where the split between the books occurs in the combined narrative.)

90 – Patrick B. Whitehouse: On the Narrow Gauge

This 1964 book recounted many of Pat Whitehouse’s travels around the world in search of narrow gauge railways. Although my railway interest came out of having a railwayman for a father, and so always travelling by train until he left the railways in 1966, it never manifested itself until 1968, after he had left the railways, when we went on holiday to North Wales. At that time, there were two narrow-gauge railways available to tourists on the Welsh coast, the Festiniog at Portmadoc, and the Talyllyn at Towyn. (Other lines, such as the Vale of Rheidol or the Welshpool were a bit further off the beaten track.) But the landscape was littered with the remains of other lines: the Welsh High;land, especially prominent in the form of the tunnels through the Aberglaslyn Pass, or the Dinorwic quarry lines, all highly visible to even the most casual traveller and making me wonder what else was hidden in the hills and valleys.

I saw this book referred to in various other publications, and eventually tracked a copy down, at Hay-on-Wye, I believe. Pat Whitehouse had been one of the founders of the Talyllyn preservation society (see no.71, Lines of Character, written by Pat and Tom Rolt), but his narrow gauge travels had taken him much further afield than that. By then, we’d made it to the Welshpool line and I’d becomes intrigued by their Austrian rolling stock (donated to the railway by the Zillertalbahn); this book contained accounts of the narrow gauge in Austria, and other places. The last quarter of the book recounts Whitehouse’s exploits in filming the Yugoslav narrow gauge in the late 1950s, often at odds with the authorities, and this story stuck with me for years afterwards.

[Previously: L.T.C. Rolt to Neal Stephenson]

[Next: Walt Whitman to J.M. Ziman]

Written by robertday154

March 20, 2020 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 8

with 3 comments

New readers start here.

71 – L.T.C. Rolt & Patrick Whitehouse: Lines of Character

L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt was a writer, noted for his biography of Brunel, and a founder member of both the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society and the Inland Waterways Association; P.B. (Pat) Whitehouse was also an early member of the Talyllyn society, but also became well known as a photographer and for a while helped produce the Railway Roundabout series for BBC Television. They collaborated on this book in 1952, writing about interesting railways they had visited. It came to my attention because they covered a line local to me when I was growing up: the Cromford & High Peak Railway, which joined the Derbyshire River Derwent with the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge, between Buxton and Manchester. It was originally promoted as a canal, but the engineers quickly realised that there would be difficulty in securing and retaining a water supply on the line’s summit over the Derbyshire High Peak. So instead, they built it as one of these new-fangled “railways”; but they didn’t change the route, so it was engineered as if it were still a canal, with contour-hugging level sections interspersed with inclined planes, substituting for flights of locks, where wagons were hauled uphill by stationary winding engines.

My interest in this line, acquired when I visited it just before it closed in 1967, directed me to this book, where I found much more that was unusual and noteworthy. It fired my interest in seeing more of this sort of thing and also showed me that it was possible to write about such railways in ways that would inspire interest.

72 – Bob Shaw: The Palace of Eternity

Bob Shaw was one of the writers who came up through Irish science fiction fandom. His third novel, The Palace of Eternity, combines huge themes – life, death, stellar engineering, life after death and panspermism – in an economical package. Bob could always be relied upon to cram more ideas into his well-realised worlds than many other writers working at twice his length.

The human race is locked in a long-running interstellar war with an alien race we cannot communicate with. The novel’s hero, Matt Tavernor, helps develop a weapon that isolated colonists can use to defend themselves, but then retires to a world colonised mainly by artists. When the military comes to that world, Tavernor knows that the war will follow. In trying to stop it, he is killed – and that’s only part-way through the novel! A transcendent middle section leads on to Tavernor’s resurrection in the body of his own son. When the aliens attack the colony world, he and his sister/step-daughter are taken prisoner by the aliens – the first time this has ever happened. A resolution follows.

As an engineer by profession, Bob Shaw realised his worlds in terms of inventions that seemed fantastic to readers but everyday to his characters. He was always capable of throwing off all manner of ideas in a few words. For example, as a child, Tavernor had witnessed the death of his father in an alien raid, because in getting Tavernor to safety, his father had been unable to shoot accurately at the aliens with an automatic weapon held in one hand only. So in later life, Tavernor developed a gyro-stabilised automatic rifle. Shaw’s deft touch was to say (and I’m quoting from memory) “The military never understood Tavernor’s requirement in the specification, that the gun should be able to be fired accurately with one hand whilst dragging a child with the other…He called it the ‘Tavernor Compensating Rifle’, though only he knew what it was compensating for.” Only a writer of Bob Shaw’s calibre could have told so much of one character’s life story in a few words describing the technical specification of a weapon.

Bob was beloved in the fan community, and most people thought of him as a friend. In later years, he admitted to having struggled with alcohol issues; yet once he started writing professionally, he produced a string of novels and short stories on a regular basis – possibly too regular. Some readers felt that he didn’t devote enough time to his novels and he tried to cram too much into a short space. Yet in later years when he tried writing to greater lengths, he never seemed comfortable, preferring to pack ideas into an economical package to inspire and delight his readers and friends. For me, The Palace of Eternity was a page-turner with new wonders wherever I looked and vivid world-building taking place in my mind’s eye. His better novels do not deserve to fade into obscurity.

For an appreciation of Bob from another author I’ve written about, Christopher Priest, see here.

73 – Robert Silverberg: Dying Inside

Robert Silverberg is probably one of the last “Golden Age” science fiction writers surviving (certainly, he claims that “everyone who won a Hugo Award before me is dead”). He made his reputation in the 1950s as a writer for the science fiction magazines who could produce work to order to meet a deadline. In the 1960s and 70s he re-invented himself as a serious sf novelist, though his work was seriously infused with the period’s zeitgeist.

Dying Inside is the story of a telepath living in contemporary America. He knows he has an unusual talent; but that talent is on the wane. From being someone with a secret power over ordinary mortals, he is in decline and that power will soon be gone. How does someone come to terms with that?

Telepathy and other paranormal powers were major themes in science fiction from the 1940s  up until the 1980s; the growth of the cyberpunk genre, where mind-to-mind communication could be achieved far more realistically using IT, often implanted, rather removed the need for paranormal powers as plot devices. But none of this takes away from the power of Dying Inside as a portrait of an individual facing a life-changing event that no others can share.

74 – Clifford D. Simak: Way Station

Clifford D. Simak evolved a pastoral style of science fiction. His protagonists were usually ordinary people coping with extraordinariness intruding into their lives. This 1963 novel, which was a Hugo Award winner the following year, is perhaps the best example.

Enoch Wallace survived the War between the States, but lost everything. He is approached to see if he’d like a very special job; to be the supervisor of the Earth station of a galaxy-wide system of matter transmitters. Earth isn’t part of the network; and his house, converted to hold the transmitter technology, is impenetrable to outsiders. Inside the house, he doesn’t age. So he looks after his special job, day after day, for a century or more. But try as he might, he can’t avoid the fact that some people are beginning to notice something odd…

75 – Dan Simmons: Hyperion & 76 – Dan Simmons: The Fall of Hyperion

(These two books are considered together as they form one novel, split into two for publishing reasons.)

Simmons had written some well-regarded horror novels before this/these book(s), but Hyperion came as something of a surprise: a well-realised future society, with thousands of inhabited worlds connected together by matter transmitters – ‘farcasters’ – that are as ubiquitous as our mobile phones (though rather less portable). But the farcaster network doesn’t reach everywhere; so we join a group of pilgrims, en route to Hyperion where the fabled Time Tombs will open. All those on the pilgrimage have their own reasons for travelling. But first they will have an encounter with the Shrike, who inhabits Hyperion and is associated with the Time Tombs. Many of them have met the Shrike along their own paths at different times. The Shrike is a bringer of pain and suffering, yet is worshipped by a cult of followers. And hard behind the pilgrims is the vanguard of a distant army, prophesying war.

The universe of Hyperion is massive, all-embracing and very highly Baroque. The reader has to work at the story; there are few expository lumps to explain what is happening, but once you realise that we are in an updated Canterbury Tales, the picture begins to come together. Given Simmons’ background as a horror writer, there is an expectation that there will be explicit violence, though this is no gore-fest. But it was the whole scene-setting that made this pair of books stick in my memory.

There are two further books in what has become known as the Hyperion Cantos; Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. They are set some twenty years after the events of these novels, and the reader is not obligated to continue the series after The Fall of Hyperion. The first pair of books are complete in themselves.

Recently, Simmons has attracted criticism for comments on social media about climate change activists (which he has since withdrawn). The argument about whether you can separate the artist from their work has been going on for centuries; I suppose it’s inevitable that we so often find our literary heroes to have feet of clay.

77 – John Sladek: The Reproductive System

John Sladek wrote surreal, satirical novels and short stories; much like the man himself. (He also wrote at length on the debunking of paranormal beliefs; his best-known work in that field was 1978’s The New Apocrypha). This 1968 novel satirises the military-industrial complex, amongst many other things. A struggling doll company decides that their only route to financial salvation lies through getting a military contract of some sort; indeed, any sort. They enrol a scientific adviser from MIT; unfortunately, they never catch on that the MIT their successful applicant attended was the somewhat spurious Miami Institute of Technocracy. This “expert” designs for them an autonomous electronic system whose sole function is to reproduce itself. Things go downhill from there, rather quickly.

78 – Filip Springer: History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town

One of the less often told stories of World War 2 concerns the cleansing of Silesia and Eastern Poland of ethnic Germans in the weeks following the Nazi defeat in May 1945. This book helps redress that balance somewhat. It concerns the town of Kupferberg, in the foothills of the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains) which today separate Poland from the Czech Republic.

Silesia was noted, in pre-war Germany, for its scenic beauty. After the war, it attracted attention because of its reserves of uranium, which was suddenly strategically important. So the ‘polification’ of Kupferberg – renamed Miedzianka – was followed by an influx of workers who were directed to mine uranium, with little regard for the consequences, either for themselves, for the town, or for the environment. (Uranium can be found throughout that mountain range, which in its westward extension forms the border between the former East Germany and the present-day Czech Republic). Eventually, the town became so undermined by the uranium workings, and the townspeople so affected by the side-effects of working n the mines, that it was evacuated and allowed to fall into ruins. Today, hardly any sign can be found of the town on the ground, and indeed maps do not show the location beyond an isolated church marked in the middle of nowhere.

Springer recounts the story of the town through a series of stories about the families and the people. The stories interlock quite elegantly and you soon begin to build up a picture of the people and families., Over time, we see children grow up and take up jobs in the mines, or in support industries in the surrounding area.

Perhaps the best known product of the area in the West is the beer, Kupferberg Gold. The unique feature of the beer in times past was the local water, infused with radioactive salts that gave the beer a distinctive taste. I’ve actually tasted Kupferberg Gold – the brand still exists – but I do not recollect any unique flavour to it. The area is perhaps better known now for the rumours of German “treasure trains” hidden in secret tunnels; it’s perhaps much more likely that those “secret tunnels” are actually old mine workings, The truth is usually far more prosaic.

I recommend this book to anyone who thinks they know everything there is to know about the wars of the twentieth century.

79 – Francis Spufford: Red Plenty

An interesting book, straddling the divide between fiction and non-fiction. Its premise is the vision of the future that existed in Soviet Russia, which painted a picture where communism would have won and ordinary Soviet citizens would enjoy lives of ease and comfort in the perfect workers’ state. The reality was different, where the internal pressures and problems of running a centrally-managed economy caused the system to fail. Meanwhile, economists battled with ideology, politics and reality – all of which pulled in different directions – to try to make sufficient changes to bring about the perfect society by 1980.

Meanwhile, a selection of Soviet citizens, real and fictional, try to get on with their lives as best they can, navigating their way through the complexities of the system. But there is no perfect society, either capitalist or socialist; and this book is an important object lesson in this. Spufford came to Soviet Russia with hindsight and with no previous knowledge of his subject. Starting without preconceptions, he brings the clarity of new discovery to his work; so he shows us that the Soviet economy was growing faster than the USA’s in the 1950s, even when all the propaganda and double accounting are stripped out; or he explains some of the basics of Marxism that suggest that capitalism has not, as some commentators put it, “won” and socialism “lost”, but rather that capitalism just hasn’t reached the end of its useful life just yet and socialism’s time may still be to come.

80 – Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

This densely-packed, complex novel explores a range of stories centring on cryptanalysis and the fate of Nazi looted gold during World War 2. Action is centred fairly much in the Phillipines, but with excursions to Shanghai, Bletchley Park, North Africa, the north of Scotland, the coast of Norway, the Gulf of Bothnia and West Coast America, as intertwined fates work out their destinies. Along the way, readers will pick up a lot of coincidental stuff about cryptanalysis. The highly mathematical parts can be skimmed (I would suggest skimming rather than skipping, as they are central to the story).

Much of the writing is in a rather circular style, sometimes reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse and almost as funny; other segments have more in common with William Gibson, especially his very near future Blue Ant novels. Some of the wartime segments bear more than a passing resemblance to Catch-22, especially those involving General MacArthur. The action switches between World War 2 and the “present day” (1990s), where two entrepreneurs are trying to establish a data haven and cryptocurrency vault in the Phillippines. Although Stephenson has a reputation as a science fiction writer, this is not particularly a science fiction novel, although Stephenson writes with an sf writer’s sensibilities; he knows the hacker community and their interests and attitudes, and that includes accepting science-fictional ideas as a given.

The technology in this novel is around twenty years out of date, but only in terms of detail. A reader who knows anything about IT will be at home here, and will have a proper understanding of the technological implications of what the characters are trying to do and how they are trying to do it. With all the hype about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it’s interesting to see the genesis of those things in fictional form.

And then, towards the end, there is a stunning scene between two of the protagonists which throws the whole Nazi gold story into sharp relief.

Ultimately, this book is about the foundations of our modern world – power, money, information and the rise of Pacific Rim economies. Plus some hints of conspiracy theories which don’t involve the Usual Suspects…

[Previously: Miyamoto Musashi to T.W.E. Roche]

[Next: John Sweeney to Patrick Whitehouse]

Written by robertday154

March 13, 2020 at 1:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 7

with 3 comments

New readers start here.

61 – Miyamoto Musashi: Go Sho No Rin [A Book of Five Rings]

Back in the 1980s, this book was widely touted as the book that successful, thrusting businessmen were reading everywhere, but especially in the “Tiger economies” of the Far East. Miyamoto Musashi was a renowned swordsmaster in 16th century Japan. In 1600 at the Battle of Sekigahara, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victorious and assumed the title of Shogun (military dictator), exercising rule over the country on behalf of the Emperor, who was considered semi-divine and so above worldly matters of governance.  Musashi was aged 20 at the time, and fought at Sekigahara, on the losing side. Afterwards, he retreated into training and perfected both techniques of swordsmanship and of applying Buddhist teaching to the business of being a successful samurai. Under the new system, samurai were not just military muscle; they also had to manage their fiefdoms on behalf of their feudal lords (daimyo), seeing to it that order was maintained and that everything was harmonious so as to ensure that crops were planted and harvested, and taxes were paid.

In this time, Musashi fought many duels and was undefeated in all. He travelled extensively, had a number of posts with different daimyo as military advisor, trainer and swordsman, and also practised the arts of calligraphy, writing and painting. He started writing A Book of Five Rings in 1643 and finished it a few months before his death in 1645.

Musashi set out in A Book of Five Rings to describe the Way of the Samurai. He set this out in a number of different subtexts, but the overarching one was the Way of Strategy. It had nine principles:

1. Do not think dishonestly.
2. The Way is in training.
3. Become acquainted with every art.
4. Know the Ways of all professions.
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
6. Develop an intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
8. Pay attention even to trifles.
9. Do nothing which is of no use.

In a previous job, my project manager expressed amazement when I spoke of this book, because he said he’d never met anyone else who had read it. But it’s reasonably well-known in the software testing community, and indeed I got a series of posts on my testing blog out of Musashi’s nine principles.

62 – H.W.Paar: The Severn and Wye Railway

A slightly odd choice; one of the specialist publisher David & Charles’ “Standard Railway Histories”, many of these were staples of my early railway reading from my local library. Later, I added many of them to my own collection. They were fairly solidly written, with an emphasis on detail and the minutiae of company minute books and memos from the Chief Mechanical Engineer, and I suppose gave me an idea of what a serious work of non-fiction should look like. Later, I would come across Jim Boyd’s masterworks on the Welsh narrow gauge, but these were my first insight into the writing of history.

Out of all the titles, I chose this one title because in it (together with its companion volume, The Great Western in Dean), I was exposed to a lot of detail of an area, the Forest of Dean, about which I knew little, but came away with a new insight into an area with as rich an industrial past as my own Derbyshire. And that is what a good history book ought to do.

63 – Vance Packard: The Hidden Persuaders

This 1957 book was one of the first works to expose the ways in which the advertising industry uses psychology to influence our purchasing decisions. At the time the book was written, these techniques were expanding into political campaigning. I have not read it in many years but from reading a few recent comments online I suspect that its message remains an important one for our times.

64 – Keith Pattison: No Redemption; the 1984-85 miner’s strike in the Durham coalfield

This is a book of photographs of the 1984-85 miner’s strike, taken by a photographer who lived for that year in Easington, County Durham. It is a stunning record of a seminal event in British industrial history. The stories told by the striking miners and their families bear out the reasoning and background to the strike and show its inevitability. The Thatcher government set out to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers and organised trade unionism in Britain, and these pictures show the front line in that war. But they also show a Britain rarely recorded; look behind the pickets and the riot police, and you can see industrial Britain in its day-to-day life. The grainy black-and-white images have such astonishing atmosphere and an immediacy that we would be hard put to duplicate today.

This is the Britain Thatcher destroyed. She boasted of having beaten the miners; now, twenty-five years later, her political descendants speak of ‘broken Britain’ and never realise that it was they who broke it. That process started with the war against ordinary workers depicted in this book.

65 – Hans Peter Pawlik: Wagners Werk für Wien; Gesamtkunstwerk Stadtbahn [Wagner’s work for Vienna; the City Line as Total Work of Art]

The Wagner in the title is not Richard the composer, but Otto the Austrian architect, who was in the vanguard of Art Deco in the first years of the 20th Century. His masterworks were the buildings and structures for the Vienna Stadtbahn, the inner-city transit system. The authors, both staunch Viennese, have a little joke at the unknowing reader’s expense by referring to OW’s work as ‘ein Gesamtkunstwerk’ (a total work of art), that being the term coined by Richard Wagner to describe his operas which were to combine all the arts in one experience.

The stations of the Stadtbahn occupy a similar place in appreciation of the Viennese cityscape that the architecture and design of the London Underground does for that city. Otto Wagner’s influence extends beyond the Stadtbahn, as he created many municipal and commercial buildings for Vienna at the beginning of the Art Deco (or ‘Jugendstil’ as it is known in Austria) period; in comparison, Charles Holden, the Underground’s key architect in the 1920s, has little public profile beyond his Tube stations.

66 – Harry Pearson: The Far Corner: A Mazy Dribble Through North East Football

I am not a football fan; but I spent my student days in the North-East of England. At the weekends, I explored some of the odder corners of the region – Blaydon, Spennymoor, Esh Winning, Tow Law, Crook, Quaking Houses, Pity Me, Washington, New York!

Many years later, a Geordie colleague, spotting that I had picked up the local way of referring to the major city in the region as “Newcassel” instead of “Newcastle” lent me this book. He was a football fan; indeed, he was a fan of non-League and obscure football clubs – the only person I’ve ever known to have a Cowdenbeath FC mug for his tea! So this book was meat and drink to him: to me, it was a step back in time some twenty or thirty years to my time in the North East.

Pearson writes with an eye for detail and an ear for accent, and I was transported. It is a book of raucous and sometimes robust humour, much in line with the area itself.

If things had turned out differently, I might have stayed in the North-East after graduating: but times were hard, we were heading for the “Thatcherzeit”, and a depressed area was about to get even more depressed. But I can read this book and again I am in the pit villages of County Durham (so very much like my native Derbyshire), sampling the regional beers (Vaux, Fed Special and McEwans’ 80 Shilling) and listening to blokes discussing the fortunes of Blyth Spartans. Proust for Geordies!

67 – Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth: The Space Merchants

Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth were two of the great authors of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction. They both arose out of the New York fan group The Futurians; but whilst Pohl had a long and notable career, publishing from 1937 up to 2012 (he died a year later at the age of 93 and was writing blogs up until shortly before his death), Kornbluth had a meteoric career and died at the early age of 34 in 1958.

They collaborated on a number of novels, The Space Merchants being the best-known. It is a satire, depicting a world run by rapacious advertising agencies and suffering from over-population and its impact on natural resources. A leading account executive is put in charge of a project to colonise – and then exploit – the planet Venus, but is kidnapped  by evil conservationists with the aim of stopping him – or do they have some other plan in mind?

It’s very much a novel of the 1950s, and yet many of its themes seem relevant today; it is also credited with some interesting coinages, including ‘soyaburger’, ‘R&D’ (research & development), ‘muzak’ and ‘survey’ (used as a verb, as in to carry out a poll).

68 – Christopher Priest: The Prestige

This novel is about a feud between two Victorian stage magicians. In order to out-do each other, they devise stage illusions of greater and greater complexity; and this leads to tragedy. This 1995 book was filmed in 2006 by David Nolan, and there are a number of important differences between the two. In particular, the novel has a framing story, set in the present – a typical Priest narrative device – which the film omits. This detracts from neither; the complexity of the story demands some reduction for film, and the puzzle set up in the framing story would detract from the main thrust of the novel’s core.

For a few years, I spent some time in communication on the fringes of the circus, stage magic and new variety community in the UK. In particular, on a couple of occasions, I was called from the audience as part of the “stage committee” whose role is to confirm the veracity of what Priest calls “the Pledge” – the point at the beginning the trick where the magician shows the object to be transformed and demonstrates “Nothing up my sleeve”. On one occasion, I was asked to confirm that the elements of the illusion were as they seemed. But when looking at those elements, I could immediately see how the trick was done. It was quite simple and straightforward, though a moment’s thought would suggest that it would require a considerable amount of practice to make it run smoothly and look to the audience as though it were magic. So I kept my observations to myself, and merely confirmed on stage that yes, the padlocks were secure, and the rest of the apparatus was solid.

For myself, I felt that I had been initiated into the outer limits of the circle. The illusion was a fairly standard one amongst stage magicians (I will say not more about it to avoid spoilers), but for me, knowing how the trick was done didn’t spoil it for me. Rather, it then meant that whenever I see that illusion performed now, I can judge how well it has been done; whether the magician has made any changes or enhancements that improve the illusion for the audience, or indeed make it harder to perform. For that one illusion, I am now on the other side of the stage; and of course, I keep the secret. Because otherwise, where would be the fun in stage magic?

And that is the point of the book; it’s about the practice of illusion, and the way that probing, obtaining and keeping its secrets can become obsessive. The extent that obsession can run to is also explored, with the two magicians going further and further in their pursuit of the ultimate illusion. Each goes to an extreme that breaks boundaries, one of social norms and the other of science (with the aid of one of the foremost and controversial scientific figures of the day).

The framing story then is shown to be a key part of the whole, rather than just a device – indeed, Priest himself objects to its description as such, because it is an integral whole with the plot of the novel. Nonetheless, it occurs at the beginning of the novel, sets up a mystery, and then isn’t returned to until the end when the puzzle is resolved, so it’s hard to see how it can be described as anything but a framing story. (It would have made an interesting pendant to the film to make the framing story as an independent short film on its own, though the plot changes to the story for the film would make that a little difficult, though not impossible.) In particular, the way the magicians’ feud echoes down through subsequent generations is well described and adds to the air of mystery.

In a way, knowing the film only engaged my interest in the novel more, making me want to get deeper into the story. The magicians’ feud has different origins in novel and film, but again, this seems reasonable given that the novel version needs a degree of understanding of the way that spiritualism was quite common in nineteenth-century London; without that knowledge, it would be an unnecessary diversion in the film.

Overall, this is an unusual and highly engaging story. Priest has written his own account of the writing of the novel and its transformation into a film: The Magic; the story of a film.

69 – Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) made his name in the mid-1980s with some powerful short stories, often on historical themes, followed by his Three Californias trilogy, each volume set in the same location and with some common characters but in vastly different future history scenarios; The Wild Shore (post-nuclear war subsistence economy), The Gold Coast (a highly corporatised capitalist economy), and Pacific Edge (a sustainable, eco-friendly economy with local communitarian enterprises, but with major – and duplicitous – corporates in the background).

His next work was the beginning of his most famous trilogy, Red Mars, to be followed by its sequels Blue Mars and Green Mars. The three novels, plus a volume of connected short stories (The Martians) tell the story of the human colonisation of Mars, starting with the second expedition (which unlike the first, went equipped for a permanent stay) and building up to the establishment of a full-scale human society on a terraformed Mars – that is, a Mars that has been bio-engineered to support human life on the surface unaided.

The novel is highly detailed; KSR is considered to be the High Priest of the “Mars Underground”, and the Mars trilogy is generally considered to be a viable blueprint for settling the planet. Furthermore, the framework he shows in the novel is considered to be a utopian model for the ideal society. Certainly, anyone who has speculated on the challenges of settling a new planet will find KSR’s work amply rewarding.

70 – T.W.E. Roche: The Withered Arm; reminiscences of the Southern lines west of Exeter

Way back in this series of posts, entry 18 (post 2) included a short history of the railways of Britain; how the railways were built by 120 private companies during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and were then amalgamated, first into four companies after the First World War, and then nationalised as one concern after the Second. As you might well think, at the height of railway-building, there might be a number of competing schemes to cover specific routes; and as new railways were promoted as enabling Bills in Parliament rather than, say, the state deciding that a railway was needed in some place for sound economic reasons and then seeking franchisees who would build and then operate the line, the way it was done in large parts of Europe, then there were railways built in Britain that served some out-of-the-way places and only got built because the promoters of the line could curry enough favour in Parliament to get the Bill voted through.

One such group of lines were those built  by a series of companies that eventually became known as the London & South-Western Railway (LSWR), through some of the wilder parts of Devon and North Cornwall. Brunel’s Great Western Railway (GWR) had something of a monopoly on lines in the area, having acquired lines like the South Devon Railway early on; and its wealthy backers were keen to access the Far West to tap into the market for agricultural products being transported to London, and passengers for the Transatlantic boat trains – and later, holidaymakers – travelling “down county”. Bu the Great Western route went through Bristol before turning south-west towards Exeter; the later LSWR route was more direct, and so a rivalry developed.

In those pre-motor car days, to reach your ultimate destination you had to travel almost all the way by train, only transferring to local carriers for the ‘final mile’ So a series of lines were promoted which reached resorts like Lynton, Ilfracombe, Bude and Padstow, all in areas where the GWR didn’t reach. These were the furthest outposts of the company, and the LSWR had major responsibilities for south London commuter traffic and services throughout the south of England that generated more revenue and accordingly took priority for investment. So their lines west of Exeter became known as “the withered arm” and were often outposts where superannuated engines were sent to eke out their final days, though in later years the peace and quiet was broken by a major named train bringing visitors down from “that London”, the ‘Atlantic Coast Express’.

T.W.E. Roche was an amateur historian who was born in the area and returned to it in later life. He wrote a number of books covering local and regional history, but The Withered Arm, which collected together histories and reminiscences of the lines in the area, is perhaps his one book that has resonance beyond the West Country. For me, The Withered Arm was a book that fitted well with my developing trend to take the road less travelled in so many areas of life. British railway enthusiasts are as tribal as football fans, if not more so; and the Great Western Railway commands devotion as much now, in 2020, as it did in 1938, 1948 (when it survived nationalisation almost intact as the Western Region of British Railways) and 1968, when I probably read this book for the first time. Reading The Withered Arm almost seemed like an act of defiance then, and perhaps still does now.

[Previously: Doris Lessing to Bryan Morgan]

[Next: L.T.C. Rolt to Neal Stephenson]

Written by robertday154

March 6, 2020 at 1:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 6

with 2 comments

New readers start here.

52 – Doris Lessing: The Making of the Representative for Planet 8

Part of Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives series of space operas for the thinking reader, this tells the story of a colonised planet under the tutelage of the wise Canopeans which is about to undergo catastrophic climate change. Canopus – a wise elder race that maintains a sort of empire (but which actually owes more than a little to pulp sf writer E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians in the Lensman saga) – does not intervene to rescue the planet’s inhabitants, but instead oversees the transmutation of a group of them into another state of matter, and their transition to a different plane of being.

In an afterword, Lessing sets the story in the context of early Antarctic explorers and their heroic yet doomed expeditions. But for me, the story informed the development of my ideas about representative democracy (probably not Lessing’s expectation of the reader’s reaction!). The characters of the book transcend their existence as members of a planetary society and become the Representative, holding within themselves/itself the essence of all the inhabitants of the doomed planet. They embody (in their new plane of existence) all those they left behind to perish; where the Representative is, all the others are too.

So it is, I feel, with any representative democracy. An elected representative isn’t just a delegate; in what came to me (in the days when I was a trade union delegate) to feel like a very real way they are those members, both individually and in concert. This has become something of a contentious issue in these post-Brexit times, especially as the British Parliamentary system tries to maintain the idea that MPs are not delegates and have to exercise their own judgement (or more often, the judgement of their party’s whips) rather than merely act on the expressed wishes of their constituents. But this ignores a deeper, earlier truth; that in a representative democracy, when a representative is selected, they have the task of representing all their constituents, not just the ones they agree with. Obviously, when faced with carrying through some binary decision, that’s a harder circle to square, and yet it has to be done. Perhaps it needs a greater degree of trust and maturity at a higher, governmental level than we seem to be capable of; or a higher sense of duty in our Representatives, many and one.

Lessing worked with Philip Glass to produce an opera based on the novel in 1988. Unlike many of Glass’ other operas, it has not so far been commercially recorded.

53 – O. Winston Link: The Last Steam Railroad in America

O. Winston Link was an American photographer, who before World War 2 worked mainly in advertising and publicity. In 1955 he found himself on a shoot in Virginia, near to the Norfolk & Western Railroad, at that time the last major American railroad to retain steam locomotives. Link was fascinated by this line; the engines he was seeing weren’t run-down, end-of-life machines but included some crack express engines and the railway was a major transporter of coal. Link brought his expertise to the subject of recording not only the trains but also the life of the railroad, the people who worked for it and the communities it served.

His photographs were meticulously set up and he pioneered night photography of trains. The resulting images, in luminous black-and-white, are striking for their composition and use of light. His images are as much about recording rural 1950s America as they are about the railroad; he has been compared to Norman Rockwell and Dennis Hopper and  is rightly considered one of the great documentary photographers.

54 – Jonathan Lynn & Anthony Jay: The complete Yes Minister; the diaries of a Cabinet Minister

Yes, Minister was a highly successful BBC sitcom of the 1980s. Set within the office of a minor Government Minister, the show told of the misadventures of the elected Minister (Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington) and his battles with the Civil Service establishment, in the form of the department’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Humprhey Appleby (played by Nigel Hawthorne). The series was written by Whitehall insiders Jonathan Lynn  and Anthony Jay and (together with its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister) became renowned for the realism of their depiction of the Civil Service – so much so, it became required watching for anyone wanting to understand the way the British Government works.

The tie-in novels of the series went further, setting the story in retrospect as the memoirs of Jim Hacker’s Personal Private Secretary (PPS), Bernard Woolley (played by Derek Fowlds). Although depicted in the show as being almost the office junior, in practice a Minister’s PPS would in truth be a highly senior civil servant when looked at in relation to the vast clerical army that actually does the day-to-day work of Government. Though that wouldn’t prevent a Permanent Secretary like Sir Humphrey treating Bernard as though he were the office junior. That didn’t prevent Bernard later (in the back story of the memoirs) later rising to replace Sir Humphrey as Head of the Home Civil Service; but that’s outside the scope of the books.

The books also built up the background that would otherwise be missing in the novelisation of a tv series through the insertion of various made-up “found objects” – press cuttings, broadcast media interview transcripts, and – most notably – Sir Humphrey Appleby’s staff appraisal reports to add verisimilitude to the stories.

The picture that the whole assemblage paints of the British Civil Service is so accurate in terms of the personalities, mindsets, attitudes and phraseology that for a number of years it was required watching/reading for anyone who was having to have serious dealings with Whitehall. (I pointed a new colleague to Yes, Minister as part of his education, and he passed that knowledge on when he moved into industry and got involved with negotiations over the siting of a major new manufacturing facility for a multi-national company.) Certainly, the first high-level senior civil servant I worked for was very much from the Sir Humphrey Appleby mold, save for one difference; the person I worked for was deeply competent and the master of his particular specialism (the economic regulation of utility companies). Even now, forty years after their first appearance, Yes, Minister and its sequels remain a very intimate inside view of Government that changes in the political landscape since have not made out of date. It is as intimate a look inside that closed world as any outsider can have, without (directly) naming the guilty parties (though the real insiders will know…).

55 – Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger & Charles Parker: The Ballad of John Axon

Not a book, but sufficiently more than just music to qualify here.

John Axon was a railwayman, to steam trains born and bred,                                                  He was an engine driver at Edgeley loco shed,
For forty years he worked there, and served the iron way,
He gave his life upon the tracks one February day.

The first of the BBC’s radio ballads on themes of the life, work, and sometimes death of ordinary people, this remains a classic of the genre. It tells the story of how John Axon, an engine driver at Stockport (Edgeley) depot, went out on an ordinary day in February 1957 with an ordinary  freight train and died when his engine developed a brake fault and ran away on a down gradient before colliding with an empty train in Chapel-en-le-Frith station. For staying with his train under appalling conditions to try to bring it under control, he was awarded a posthumous George Cross (a level of official recognition of the bravery of ordinary workers which happens all too infrequently nowadays).

Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker did more than just re-tell the story of the day’s events; they went out to interview the colleagues Axon worked with, and his widow. Their actual voices were heard on national broadcast radio; the first time this had happened, making The Ballad of John Axon totally ground-breaking, both in terms of documentary sound recording (especially with the primitive equipment available in 1957) and in terms of media.

The actuality recordings were married to contemporary folk songs composed by MacColl; these are in the idiom of the time, and some would sound a bit too refined and “drawing-room” if taken out of the context of the whole programme. However, within the context of the overall sound portrait they work well.

This important recording  is a fine memorial to John Axon and to MacColl, Parker and Peggy Seeger (still with us).

56 – Vivian Maier & John Maloof: Vivian Maier; street photographer

Vivian Maier was an outsider to the world of art photography. Working as a nanny to some well-placed American families in the 1950s and 60s, she quietly photographed a series of street scenes and other parts of everyday life in contemporary New York and Chicago. The resulting images are a fantastic time capsule of urban life, taken at eye level. But they are more than just random pictures; it is impossible to look at Maier’s work and not see the eye of a deeply experienced artist at work.

The discovery of the work of Maier’s took the photographic world rather by surprise, surprise that soon turned to storm. She has variously been claimed by street photographers, validating their art; by historians, who revel in these period images; and feminists, who acclaim her work whilst debating her outward status as a woman in a traditional caring role. Matters are complicated by the woman herself; a loner who carried out her art almost in seclusion. The photographs could easily have been lost without anyone being any the wiser; their rescue, two years before she died, is little short of a miracle. Sadly, John Maloof, the discoverer and rescuer of her work, was unable to track her down before she died.

Of course, the discovery of a body of work like this has caused controversy. Critics and commentators have fallen over themselves to compare her work with others’ (especially Diane Arbus) and find similarities, sparking off debate over whether Maier really did work in seclusion all those years, without contact with or influence from other photographers. It is debatable whether a man could have taken these photographs: many of them are quite intimate, and makes me wonder whether a man trying to take similar pictures might have been interpreted as acting aggressively. Maier’s choice of camera, a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, might also have helped, looking sufficiently old-fashioned to the average person so as not to constitute a threat.

This book merely scratches the surface of the volume of her work – Maloof now has access to over 100,000 negatives, and he also acquired hundreds of reels of undeveloped film, as well as 8mm movie footage. Some of the photographs are fascinating glimpses into other lives of people who have left even less mark on the world than Maier did; others are fascinating views of scenes long gone; still others are interesting or intriguing exercises in pattern, shape and form. Only a few of the photographs in this book have been widely seen before.

There’s another fascinating facet to Maier’s photography; just as she seems to have worked in a vacuum, insulated from other professional photographers, so the fact of her recent discovery means that other photographers worked in ignorance of her work. I was struck again and again in looking through this book of the similarity between her work and the city sequences in Godfrey Reggio’s acclaimed documentary film Koyaanisqatsi, made in the late 1970s. My mind’s ear kept inserting the Philip Glass soundtrack from Koyaanisqatsi as I viewed certain street scenes, or Maier’s pictures of building sites, building demolitions and street people.

In short: this is an important book of important photographs by an important photographer.

57 – Robert K. Massie: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War

This substantial book is a study of the relationship between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War. It covers the political and military personalities in some considerable detail, and takes the reader from the era of Bismarck up to the outbreak of war itself. This is delivered through the medium of examining the rival nations’ navies, their capital ships, their organisation and their strategies.

The studies of individuals are quite fascinating. Not only do we get the movers and shakers of the day, but we also see lesser-known personalities such as ambassadors, second-rank politicians and Admirals. I warmed in particular to Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal Prime Minister from 1905 – 1908, who from this reading appears to have been a surprisingly decent person. And it was intriguing to see how little things have changed in the world: the Liberal party were liable to splinter and defect to the Conservatives (I had not previously grasped that the ‘Unionists’ in ‘Conservative & Unionist Party’ were Liberals who split from their own party on the question of Irish Home Rule and crossed the floor of the House to side with the Conservatives); German foreign policy was dependent on driving a wedge between France and Britain; and the Daily Mail was a xenophobic hate rag in 1905!

The story is one of mounting military and political tension between Britain and Germany, two nations which held each other in high regard and which had close ties through Royalty, Kaiser Wilhelm II being a grandson of Queen Victoria. The first years of the Twentieth century had so much tension that war was almost inevitable; yet on the eve of war, relations between Britain and Germany were as cordial as ever and indeed had improved in the months preceding the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Yet once that act took place, the intricacies of interlocking alliances, and the insistence of each side on sticking to their policies irrespective of what it was actually sensible to do, made war inevitable.

Some more detail on the political situation in the Balkans would have been helpful; we are mainly discussing Germany and Britain, and looking at events from those two countries’ points of view; and then we are suddenly faced with the Austro-Hungarian position vis-a-vis Serbia when this had hardly been discussed. And the relationship between Germany and Austria – who fought a war in the 1860s over which of them should be Top Dog in central Europe, and which Austria lost – needs further analysis. Having defeated Austria, it seems strange to us that Germany considered Austria a major ally. The psychology of 19th and early 20th century German politics also has a great bearing on this; and we forget that at the time, Austria-Hungary possessed a powerful navy of its own. All these are subjects little touched on by Massie. But then again, this book is big enough already!

The ‘Schlieffen Plan’, enabling Germany to contemplate a war on two fronts, is also little discussed, surprisingly. By requiring any war in the East to be prefaced with a war in the west to rapidly knock out France purely on the grounds that it would be dangerous not to do so, is considered by many to be the final step that made war unavoidable, and the German General staff’s insistence that this was the course that must be followed has to be a major contributory factor. Massie explains why it was that the German military establishment came to this conclusion – basically because of everything that had happened up until then – and ultimately that is the subject of the book.

I read this immediately before going on the Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers (see the third instalment of this series of blogs – no.27) and felt that the combination of two hefty histories gave me considerable insight into the vexed question of the origin of the First World War.

58 – Jack McDevitt: A talent for war

Every writer, no matter how pedestrian their work, must have the potential to create one memorable work, or character, or situation. Jack McDevitt struck me as a fairly competent, workmanlike writer; his novels and characters, though inventive, often felt to me like reading the script of a 1980s tv movie or mini-series. Indeed, I even visualised one of the principal characters in another novel as having stepped straight out of such a mini-series, down to a bubble perm and shoulder pads. But then I read A Talent for War and found that this novel really engaged my Sense of Wonder!

The story is OK: an interstellar artefact collector unearths the uncomfortable truth about a 200-year dead military hero. If that was all there was to it, then that would be a dry read and not necessarily very exciting. But somehow, in his very direct and visual story-telling style, McDevitt conveys an incredible sense of the far-flung human society he has set the story in. There have been very few sf novels I have read where the ordinary reality of the extent of the human civilization depicted has come home to the reader; but in this novel, I was there. I felt a part of that society, and I grasped the size and extent of it, a society where Earth, the planet of origin, was very, very distant and not really all that important; and it didn’t matter that that was so.

I have no idea how McDevitt did that, and in his later novels, whilst I have been struck by the televisual style he employs, I haven’t been so transported to a different place. For me, this was real mind-expanding stuff, the sort of thing I started reading sf to find.

59 – China Miéville: October

I was looking forward to reading China Miéville’s ‘October’ because a) Miéville is a writer I admire for novels like Perdido Street Station, Iron Council and The City and the City, and b) he identifies very clearly with the Left. As a leftist writer, Miéville’s position might be assumed to be uncritical; but this is not the case. Reviewers have generally welcomed his book, whilst having some criticisms about the form, or the style. Perhaps the most critical reviews have come from those further to the Left than the author, who take him to task for not being sufficiently dedicated to the Cause, or for not addressing issues which they believe he should have done and which are on their personal list of bogeys, but which are actually well outside the remit of the book.

Miéville’s aim was not to attempt any historical or political assessment of the October Revolution and its place in world history or politics; rather, his aim was to place the story and events of October 1917 before a wider readership and recount that story for those who have heard of it but may not have looked in detail at Revolutionary Petrograd before. After a short piece of historical scene-setting, he recounts the story of the October Revolution on a month-by-month basis, starting with the abdication of the Tsar in February and ending with the overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in October and the subsequent establishment of Soviet rule under the leadership of V.I. Lenin. An Epilogue tells the story of What Happened Next, and there are useful appendices with suggestions for further reading (admirably non-partisan, though Miéville doesn’t hold back from giving his personal view of some historians) and potted biographies of some of the major characters in the story of 1917.

The book is written in a lively, novelistic style, though some level of background knowledge is helpful. I was broadly familiar with the events of October and the broad chronology of the year from books like John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world and films like Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917 (though it should be noted that there was more damage done to the Winter Palace during the filming of October 1917 than there ever was during the actual revolution). And my To Be Read pile includes a number of histories of the October Revolution and afterwards, from a range of writers on all sides of the debate, from Leon Trotsky and Tariq Ali to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Orlando Figes and  Richard Pipes. But Miéville’s book is perhaps the most detailed account of pure events that has been assembled from contemporary accounts by a writer with some degree of overview of and insight into the various factions and fractions involved. And although he writes as a novelist, with a novelist’s turn of phrase at times, the account is scrupulously fair to all concerned (although where history is unreservedly critical of certain individuals, Miéville attempts no revisionism). And even though he leaves his political views (mainly) outside the covers of the book, he sometimes lapses into the jargon of the Left, though that is often the best and most precise way of telling the story.

With our post-Cold War perspective, we find it difficult to understand the attractions that socialism held for the mass of people in Russia. But in 1917-20, conditions in eastern Europe were harsh; the war had taken its toll on societies and Russia in particular was struggling to emerge from feudalism and absolute monarchical rule. Marxism had seized the imagination of both its adherents and opponents; for many, it represented a new way of looking at society which held out hope of alleviating the harsh conditions of the time, whilst for the Establishments of many nations, Marxism represented an existential threat to the established order of things. And Marxism set great store on organisation, education and democratic participation – all exciting concepts to working people around the world. The coming socialist utopia seemed just that: a promise that tomorrow would be materially and tangibly better than today.

For a brief window in time, the October Revolution promised these things to the people of Russia. Not only was the Bolshevik ideology new, but it drew in new thinkers on a range of subjects and it used new directions in film, art and popular culture to appear fresh and exciting. Constructivism led to dynamic forms appearing as posters in the popular environment; at last, art and education would be open to all and available to all. Bringing Russian involvement in the war to an end promised peace; and the aim of building the new socialist state meant that working people could look forward to a brighter future. Indeed, the new state drew on Russian thinkers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, pioneer of spaceflight theory, and the emergent technologies of radio, film and aviation to promise a world of wonders.

Of course, it didn’t last. But Miéville’s thesis, which he suggests in the epilogue to October, is that the Civil War and the involvement of hostile interventionist foreign troops set the new Soviet state on the road towards repression and tyranny in the name of security. Lenin did not necessarily lead to Stalin; but Stalin’s reaction to the Civil War, his paranoia, his feud with Trotsky and the creation of a bureaucracy loyal to Stalin as a consequence did lead to the totalitarian state that the Soviet Union became. It took time; for many, the optimistic dream of the socialist future faded slowly and indeed had a brief rebirth and blossoming in the 1950s during the Khrushchev era as the planned economy briefly started to provide Soviet citizens with the material prosperity they had long been promised.

What October and some of the other books I’ve read tell us is that in the early years of the 20th Century, the time was right for some sort of overthrow, somewhere, of the Old Order. When a society gets thrown up in the air by a revolution, no-one can tell how and where the pieces will land; and all political events have unintended consequences. Had Lenin been arrested at any stage during 1917 – and this could have happened on at least three different occasions – it is possible that the October Revolution might not have happened, or it might have fizzled out in the way that the German Revolution did two years later. But when an idea’s time has come, that idea will take form, if not in one place then in another.

Many people say that the Communist experiment was never followed through to its conclusion, or that full socialism has never properly been tried. Be that as it may, we cannot change the history we have; the important thing is to learn from it. But if we only ever accept one interpretation of that history, we aren’t learning from it at all, simply deluding ourselves that our world-view is the one and only True Account. And that puts us at risk from others who have drawn different conclusions or have a different viewpoint. No ideas should ever be off the table. October is a valuable contribution to putting the events of 1917 in Petrograd on that table with some degree of balance.

60 – Bryan Morgan: The End of the Line

I am blown away by this book. Bryan Morgan was a novelist and a railway enthusiast. His novels are mainly forgotten; but as a writer on railway subjects in the 1960s and 70s, he was never far from the bookshelves. He travelled through Western Europe in the early 1950s looking at secondary railways, and put his experiences and personal likes and dislikes in this book. About half the book is about France, a country I wish I knew better; but his chapters on Switzerland and Austria (a country I know fairly well) are worthwhile, and his coverage of Germany is almost as good and extensive as France. Given that he was unable to access East Germany, Poland or the (then) Czechoslovakia, he gets a lot of mileage out of what he did see. I’ve spent some time cross-referring his German chapter with the excellent Schweers & Wall German rail atlas, and a surprising amount of what Morgan saw in the 1950s is still extant in some form or another, and this has inspired me to think about retracing some of his steps as soon as I am able.

If there is one thing about this book that irritates the modern reader, it is Morgan’s habit of dismissing something that in the 1950s seemed fairly humdrum – he will say something like “On the way there, I passed the Schmalspurbahn Aktiengesellschaft Bad Homburg, but as they only had some nondescript engines and a few ancient coaches of indeterminate origin, I gave them a miss for something more interesting.” How we would love to have access to what he considered boring and humdrum today! And he makes a mysterious comment about there being something dark and mysterious and evil in the Berchtesgaden Alps unconnected with the area’s Nazi past, and which he says is only equalled by a feeling of mystery and ancient terror that overcame him on the Great Western between High Wycombe and Banbury. What could he mean?

Even in the 1950s, there were things which Morgan said he had missed and could no longer see; such a shame. But for what we have a record of, and for Morgan’s erudite account of travels in really odd places, long before Europe was united, modernised or increasingly polyglot (with American English now a common language), we must be truly thankful.

[Previously: Graham Joyce to Patrick Leigh Fermor]

[Next: Miyamoto Musashi to T.W.E. Roche]

Written by robertday154

February 29, 2020 at 12:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 5

with 4 comments

New readers start here.

41 – Graham Joyce: The Facts of Life

Without trying too much to sound as though I’m dropping names, I want to tell you about my relationship with Graham Joyce, because without knowing that, you might not understand why this book means so much to me.

I first met Graham when we were working on an educational resources project in Derby in 1978. He had been studying in Derby, and was already becoming involved in the artistic world and the craft of writing. So when I mentioned that I had connections with the somewhat esoteric world of science fiction fandom and science fiction fanzines – something that in the popular imagination was only connected with punk rock or football – Graham was fascinated. I can honestly claim that I introduced Graham Joyce to the science fiction and fantasy community via fanzines. Little did I know at the time that this was going to be a major part of his professional life.

Our backgrounds were very similar. I was born in Nottingham in 1957 to parents who were progressing up the social ladder; my father was the son of a tenant farmer, whilst my mother was the daughter of a mineworker who was invalided out of Bolsover Colliery in the 1930s through a pit accident. I grew up in Derbyshire, in the semi-rural outskirts of Belper, a small mill town; was educated in a grammar school that was created by a philanthropic mill owner for the children of his workers (even though in later years it aped the manners of more prestigious public schools). I then worked in Derby; later, I moved for my job to Birmingham, and lived in the Warwickshire village of Fillongley, six miles outside Coventry. In more recent years, I changed jobs a couple of times and now live near Leicester, though I work on the south side of Coventry.

Graham was born in 1954 in the Warwickshire pit village of Keresley, the village next door but one to Fillongley. He came from a mining family. After working in Derby (and a brief period spent developing his writing in Greece), he moved to Leicester, where he settled down with a family and taught creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.

In other words, we moved in the same environment, the English East Midlands; our backgrounds were similar; our families were similar; and we moved in the same sort of social, employment and political circles. And that is why, when I opened this book, I was immediately in amongst people, situations and family histories that were familiar to me. Graham wrote this book about the sort of people he lived with, and grew up with, and worked with; and the people I lived with, grew up with and worked with were the same sort of people.

The Facts of Life concerns an extended matriarchal family, making their way in Coventry over a fifteen-year period from 1940 to the mid-1950s. From the outset, I had a vivid picture of the Vine family, their surroundings, the places they lived and the places they went to. Into this commonplace setting, Graham injected an element of the fantastic. The family matriarch, Martha Vine, experiences uncanny messengers who knock on her door and deliver messages that are pregnant with meaning. Her daughter Cassie, youngest of seven sisters, seems to have her own conduit to other realms, other realities; and her son, Frank, conceived on the night of the Coventry Blitz, seems to have inherited that sensibility.

The fantastical elements of the novel are an organic part of the whole; the reader only realises how fantastical they are after they have occurred. Graham drew on his own family experience here; again, I can corroborate this, as my own relatives and friends of my parents would sometimes recount experiences that defied explanation; Graham’s examples seem a little more extreme, but only a little. My grandmother would speak of having lost a brother on the Somme in the First World War, and she always lived in hope of a knock on the door that would bring that brother back to her. It never came, but the hope was there, and if it had happened, it would have been a fantastical encounter wholly in line with those that Graham describes happening to Martha.

Other characters in the book have a similar immediacy and full-fleshed out nature. Cassie Vine moves between her sisters and their own growing families in the years of austerity immediately after the Second World War, and these scenes – a bohemian commune in Oxford, or a farm in the North Warwickshire countryside – are equally well-drawn with characters and situations that I identified with. Whilst at the farm, Cassie’s son Frank encounters a mystical presence, the Man-Behind-the-Glass, which becomes a central part of his life. When the true nature of the Man-Behind-the-Glass is revealed, that revelation rings true and links back to themes of the war, and the land, and yet it is both fantastical and real at the same time. The answer to that identity had, of course, been there all along in the story, and yet Graham hid it from us, the readers, until the time was right for it to be revealed; and I gasped in amazement at how ingenious it was, and yet how obvious from what had gone before; yet it was something that only someone from that area would have really known about.

At other times in this book, I laughed out loud; and at the end, I wept. Throughout, I identified with the characters and the places in the book. Graham Joyce was writing about my people. I am only sad that I never got around to reading it whilst he was still alive, so that I could tell him these things and tell him how well he captured the lives, loves and experiences, both real and mystical, of a generation and a class so very little recognised in English literature.

42 – Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days

I came to the work of Garrison Keillor through my good friend and literary guru Bruce Gillespie in Australia, who raved over Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion having heard syndicated radio broadcasts of it over there. I’m so pleased to have the opportunity to read Keillor’s work – even if his voice is better known in the UK as the uncredited voiceover artist for a series of tv adverts from Honda… Lake Wobegon is the name of Keillor’s fictional hometown in Minnesota, and he writes about the place’s idiosyncrasies with love. The area is known as part of the Swedish diaspora in America; anyone who has seen the Coens’ film Fargo will feel at home here.

43 – Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine

Quite some time before I began to work in the IT industry, I was enthused by the prospects of what was then called “the micro-computer revolution” as something that was going to empower ordinary people. I’d snapped up Dr.Chris Evans’ The Mighty Micro (which I must re-read to see how close it got to reality), which was made into a BBC Horizon documentary and about which questions were asked in Parliament. But it was Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine that stuck with me.

This is the story of the development by Data General of the first 32-bit computer and the associated software that became the standard for every operating system we have today. The writing was such that the tech was kept to a manageable level, and what impressed me then – and still does today – is how much work went into something we all now take for granted. An on-screen button,  or a dialog box, or a drop-down menu are now all implemented with a few lines of code; but to conceive of these things and then code them for the first time in the late 1970s took whole teams of software engineers to create these elements and make them work. Someone had to be first; this book tells their story.

44 – Jürgen Krantz: Zauber der Kleinbahnzeit [Magic of the light railway era]

Colour photographs from the 1950s, 60s and 70s of light railways in Germany and Austria; not so much the tourist mountain railways, but more the workaday branch lines that served towns and villages in the years of reconstruction and beyond. These railways ran between houses, in and out of factory gates and sometimes down the main streets of all sorts of places. Often using some of the most unusual of superannuated engines and rolling stock, steam, diesel or electric, covered in a patina of industrial grot and showing wear from countless thousands of passengers’ hands, the traveller could come across extremely unusual sights almost anywhere.

45 – Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

How change happens. The book that defined “paradigm shift”.

46 – David Langford: The Leaky Establishment

This highly unlikely comic novel about a fictional nuclear weapons research establishment which bears no resemblance whatsoever to AWRE Aldermaston, where the author once worked, is one of the little-known gems of British humourous writing.

David Langford‘s comic writing deserves to be better known outside the circle of enthusiasts who have known about his talent for years. This novel was built out of a number of articles Langford wrote over a number of years relating funny stories from his time in the British nuclear weapons community, and indeed he complains that the episodes that people think are the most ridiculous, farcical and unlikely incidents are the ones that are actually true. As a one-time career bureaucrat in the British Civil Service, I can confirm this.

The plot is simple; a nuclear scientist buys a surplus filing cabinet from his workplace, only to find that a colleague has popped a nuclear warhead core into the bottom drawer for safe keeping whilst he goes to the pub. The problem then is how to smuggle a nuclear warhead INTO a high-security base. Eventually, the solution involves the ultimate piece of swords-into-ploughshares alternative technology..

In case anyone worries about national security, this novel was, of necessity, vetted by Ministry of Defence security staff before publication. Their opinions are not publicly recorded, and indeed will be protected by the stupendous powers and draconian penalties of the Official Secrets Act….

47 – Peter Laurie: Beneath the City Streets

This ground-breaking 1970 book exposed much of the apparatus of the secret state in the UK at the height of the Cold War. Its political subtext was this: how far can the State claim to be protecting its citizens when it has plans for its own survival in the event of Armageddon? Of far more interest to me at the time was the exposure of some of the infrastructure of that secret state; and as someone who has always had an interest in what I’ve sometimes called the “secular occult”, this was a revelation. Later in life, I encountered Government bunkers, though the only one I ever got inside had been decommissioned and is indeed notorious for directing visitors to its gates with signs saying “To the Secret Nuclear Bunker, 2 miles”.

This book has long since been superseded; indeed, English Heritage now publishes a lavish book on Cold War architecture. But this was first and people risked their liberty to try to lift one corner of the carpet that successive governments wanted to sweep this subject under.

48 – Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed

Two neighbouring worlds, one capitalist and the other anarchist, are the setting for a theoretical physicist to undergo a crisis of conscience and move from the anarchist one to the capitalist. Is the grass always greener?

I’m reminded of an old Soviet-era Russian joke: “Under capitalism, man exploits their fellow man. Under our system, it’s the other way around.” (Other genders are available.)

49, 50 & 51 – Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, The Broken Road

A slight cheat; I’ve lumped these three books together for the purposes of this post, because they tell one story.

In 1994, for reasons I still cannot explain easily, I made my first independent trip to Austria. I flew into Munich and then continued onwards by train, first to Salzburg and then to Vienna. It was a revelation. The railway from Salzburg to Vienna roughly parallels the Danube, though at some considerable distance most of the time; the towns and villages were strange to me, yet in some ways oddly familiar. Castles and monasteries dotted the landscape, often occupying lofty heights. I was amazed; nothing I had ever seen in print or on film had prepared me for this. “Zu mir ist alles in Österreich neu” I said to a fellow traveller. “To me, everything in Austria is new.”

Then, about two hours into the journey, we rounded a bend in the track and a stupendous building hove into view, standing on a rocky outcrop just on the other side of a small town. It had domes, and spires, and flying buttresses, and it was gigantic and ornate and I think my jaw dropped open. I was utterly transfixed; why had I never heard of this place before?

This was my first view of the monastery of Melk. Some sixty years earlier, the 19-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor had a similar reaction on first encountering Melk from the banks of the Danube; and like me, he was experiencing the reality of travelling through Europe first hand for the first time. But he was doing it the really difficult way – on foot.

In 1933, Leigh Fermor dropped out of a fairly good public school and decided to walk across Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul). He determined to go on the tramp as an itinerant scholar, sleeping where he could and talking to whoever crossed his path. Within ten years, he achieved some notoriety in the fighting on Crete in the Second World War, operating behind the lines, organising the Cretan resistance, and kidnapping the German general in command of the island and spiriting him away to Cairo on a motor-boat. On the strength of the story that he starts in A Time of Gifts, this was a role he had been preparing for all his life. Certainly his ability to fit in and move, reasonably unhindered, across Europe at a time of political turbulence, well fitted him for masquerading as a Cretan shepherd. Like other British officers, in later life he turned to literary endeavours and had a successful career as a writer. A Time of Gifts was started in the 1970s when Leigh Fermor was in his sixties; it is a reconstruction from his memories and incomplete notes. He continued the story in Between the Woods and the Water; he never completed the third, concluding volume, though it has now been assembled and published as The Broken Road.

He captures well the wide-eyed innocence of his youth; few of his reminiscences are marred by our, and his, knowledge of what was to come, although that is very much a subtext, especially when he explores the streets of Cologne or encounters hospitable and erudite Jews everywhere along his journey. He even maintains that sense in recounting encounters in Germany with the then-new Nazi regime, its supporters and the ordinary people who had little time for Hitler. He also has a (nearly) eye-witness account of what the Austrians call “the Civil War”, the internecine conflict between militias of the Left and Right. If all your knowledge of inter-war Austria comes from The Sound of Music, this will come as a shock.

But there are many pleasures to be had from this book, too. Leigh Fermor’s complete guilelessness enables him to fall in with ordinary workers and peasants as well as members of the aristocracy which he seems to gravitate towards, only partly due to contacts from his family and friends back in the UK. He hitches rides on lorries or on a barge on the Rhine; the description of Rhineland river traffic is timeless, even though so much has changed since.

Leigh Fermor took one other thing with him on his tramp; a classical education, though his own opinion of his school career is brutally negative. Nonetheless, as a minor member of the English gentry, he had that classical education even if he did absorb it by osmosis rather than by scholastic endeavour. His reactions to the art, literature, architecture and accounts of historical personages he encounters on his way shows this, and sometimes the book does divert into detailed and quite florid descriptions of artistic movements, of minor Habsburg nobles, of events and people long since consigned to history. This can make the eyes glaze over a little, but the older Leigh Fermor manages to inject his youthful exuberance and zest for life into the account, even at something like forty years’ remove.

In his journeys through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary), he continually comes across reminders of the only then recently departed Empire as he encounters portraits of Franz Josef in offices and living rooms, or other relics of the k.u.k (Kaiserlich und Königlich, or Imperial and Royal) past. “Alles k.u.k-lich” some Austrians say, even now, “Everything Imperial style”; I have had conversations with old boys in Viennese cafes who are surprised that an Englishman can have an interest in the “old Empire”; it appears I am certainly not the first.

Between the Water and the Woods picks up exactly where A Time of Gifts finished (on a bridge over the Danube outside Esztergom) and sees Leigh Fermor entering Hungary and then travelling through Transylvania before ending this volume at the Iron Gates, the spectacular gorge where the Danube cuts through the Transylvanian Alps in southern Romania. Entering these lands, he comes across the Roma people (then generally called Gypsies) and some of the earliest diversions concern young Patrick’s explorations of the Roma language and its connections with other languages.

Transylvania had been ceded to Romania as a part of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Treaty of Trianon which followed World War 1 in the south-east of Europe in 1919-20; Hungarian and Romanian were commonly spoken in Transylvania, but many of the gentry also spoke German because of their ancestry. Leigh Fermor comes across this much, especially as he continues his journey passing from manor house to Schloss to mansion, all arranged by the friends he made on the way. But his easy lodgings come to an end towards the end of this book as he moves further into the former Ottoman sphere of influence, and the family connections that stood him in good stead across Europe begin to peter out.

We see in this book the older Leigh Fermor getting more into his stride in relating the events of his youth to the future that was yet to be. News such as the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor Dolfuss begins to impinge on his idyllic world, and at one point, he discusses the rise of Hitler in Germany with a Hassidic Jew and his sons in a cabin in a Romanian forest. No-one can comprehend the fate that awaits them; there have been pogroms before and this is just one more, says the older Jew; we shall weather this as we have done all the others. Leigh Fermor reports this without irony, but the pointedness of the encounter is plain for all to see. Elsewhere, he comments that his earlier self was experiencing a way of life that would be swept away within a few years; the older, more experienced Leigh Fermor puts this into the text rather more often in this book than in A Time of Gifts. I think this reflects his increasing experience as an older man in writing his travel memoirs as much as reflecting his younger self’s burgeoning awareness of changing times.

The younger Leigh Fermor also has other changes to contend with. In A Time of Gifts, he mentions meeting various young women on his travels and even talks about flirting with some of them; but these are very much the jolly times of young people. In Between the Woods and the Water, his relationships with women take a more serious turn, only partly due to the influence of one of his hosts in particular. There is an amorous encounter with some farm girls; and then there is a full-blown affair with a particular woman, simply identified as ‘Angéla’. This bittersweet relationship – Angéla is unhappily married and only a few years his senior – presages a later episode in his life, when he lived with another woman in Romania for a number of years before the outbreak of war.

I was a bit worried that I would not relate so much to this book because I haven’t travelled in Hungary or Romania. I needn’t have worried; the echoes of the former Empire mean that there is an historical and cultural continuity between the books and the post-Communist opening up of these countries gives the modern reader a sense of catching up with a history and geography that remains little known in the UK.

The Broken Road was left unfinished by PLF at the time of his death, and had in any case been a work in sporadic progress for some thirty years. He was still editing it at the time of his death at the age of 96 in 2011, although much of the final text dates from the early 1960s. This book set out to be the account of the last 500 miles of his journey; but his account of reaching Contantinople is missing, save for a few fragments. He arrived there shortly before New Year 1935; his account suddenly takes up again, this time in full detail, as he leaves Constantinople for Greece, where he has resolved to visit Mount Athos, the ecclesiastical semi-autonomous state that was then and still is a centre for Eastern Orthodoxy, with twenty monasteries which have been continuously occupied for some 1,800 years. Why he chose to do this is not recorded, though it seems to have been part of the process which cemented his love of the Balkans and their peoples in him. The last 80 pages of the book is his day-by-day account of his visit to each of the monasteries, the monks he met and the physical aspects of the Athosian peninsula. He seems to have treated his four weeks on the peninsula as a sort of literary retreat, reading Byron and working at his writing.

Before Mount Athos, though, there was Bulgaria and another excursion into Romania. Bulgaria was a revelation to PLF, as it was a step into the former Ottoman Empire; and the influence of Islam was completely new to PLF. Throughout, he exercised his ability with languages and made connections between the opposed worlds of East and West; in particular, his account of the prejudice shown by Bulgarians to Romanians and vice versa is recounted with humour. His final stretch of his walk along the Black Sea coast seems to have perhaps been the hardest part; it is an area little appreciated even now, and it is possible that he gave up writing his notes out of sheer exhaustion.

In these books, I have found echoes of things I have seen, experiences I have had and the sort of conversations I have had in trains and in cafes between the Channel and Vienna. They speak to me directly.

[Previously: Joe Haldeman to David Jenkinson]

[Next: Doris Lessing to Bryan Morgan]

Written by robertday154

February 22, 2020 at 5:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 4

with one comment

New readers start here.

31 – Joe Haldeman: Dealing in Futures

I’ve enjoyed Joe Haldeman’s authorial voice for many years, as well as his actual comments to the reader that are found in many of his books. But the book of his that has stuck with me is this one, a collection of short stories, on the strength of one story alone: A !tangled web, all about the adventures of an interstellar negotiator and translator, sent to negotiate a deal with an idiosyncratic race of aliens, the !tang (“!” is the accepted typographical form of the glottal stop, or click, used in many non-European languages). But there is a rival trying to negotaiate a better deal with the !tang – better for his employers, that is.

The !tang have many endearing idiosyncracies, but my particular favourite is their way of avoiding answering socially inconvenient questions. They will launch into an elaborate death-related metaphor, which starts “I die” and ends “All die. O the embarrassment.” This tickled me sufficiently to start using it myself, where appropriate. (Well, not the elaborate death-related metaphor bit. But you’d be surprised how often “All die. O the embarrassment” is an appropriate commentary to events.)

32 – Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Švejk and his Fortunes in the World War

A satire on the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army (and, indeed, on the Empire itself), from the point of view of Švejk, a simple man (some would go so far as to say “idiot”) called to the colours in 1914 and whose military career rolls steadily downhill towards the supreme moment when he is captured by his own side. Think of a rather less cozy version of Dad’s Army, set in World War I Prague and Bohemia, written by and starring Billy Connolly.

33 – Zenna Henderson: The People; no different flesh

The first of two volumes of short stories that Henderson wrote about ‘The People’ – a group of aliens with telepathic and telekinetic powers who are marooned on Earth when their spaceship meets with an accident. The stories are gentle, elegiac and yet quite powerful with a sense of loss, the need to conceal their powers from the human population and the powerful sense of community that The People hold within themselves.

34 – Alex Henshaw: Sigh for a Merlin; Testing the Spitfire

There’s a saying: “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” Well, Alex Henshaw did his best to disprove that. Henshaw, who died in 2007, was regarded as one of the great pre-war pilots with a record-breaking flight from the UK to Cape Town and back. At the outbreak of war, he wanted to ‘do his bit’ and he volunteered to go into aircraft production. He ended up as Chief Test Pilot at the shadow Spitfire works at Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham (UK) – a job which meant he flew Spitfires (and other aircraft, such as Lancasters) day in, day out for most of the war. He also survived a number of crashes when quality control wasn’t as good as it could have been!

He wrote with some affection about Birmingham and flying around the Warwickshire countryside; his explanation of navigating using the rising column of steam from Hams Hall power station is quite vivid. He retired to Solihull after the war, ear problems having put a stop to his flying.  Sigh for a Merlin is his account of his wartime experiences, told in a direct and very personal style; a friend of mine who met him said that it was typical of the man, modest but matter-of-fact.

35 – Frank Herbert: Dune

I first read Dune when I was probably 16 or 17; the then-original emphasis on ecology in the story impressed me, and the convolutions of the plot stretched my mind more than a little. The story follows young Paul Atreides, heir to a ducal title in the aristocracy of the Galactic Empire, who falls victim to multiple plots concerning power, privilege, religion and the spice that enables the Spacing Guild to maintain its hold on interstellar travel.

The local library I did Saturday work in had the UK Gollancz first edition, which unusually for them at the time, was not in a yellow dustjacket but a black one, decorated with a design of stylised dunes as if done in scraper board. If I ever see one at a reasonable price…

36 – Fred Hoyle: October the First is too late

A book which revels in eminent practicality. A cosmic disaster fractures time and the contemporary world suddenly finds itself co-existing with the past. In London, it’s 1966; but in France, it’s 1916.

Forget your temporal non-interference directives; the modern politicians decide that they cannot allow the carnage of the Western Front to continue just a hundred or so miles away. They summon the generals of each side and when they refuse to believe the (admittedly fantastic) story they are told, they are ushered into a room where there is a wind-up gramophone playing. Then the modern politicians switch to the same music on a modern hi-fi system. When the generals have picked themselves up off the floor, they are pointedly told that weaponry has made similar advances, and if they don’t call a ceasefire immediately, the modern powers will step in and enforce one by knocking a few heads together. Peace breaks out immediately.

Yes, I know it’s a nice fantasy; but it appealed to my sense of the ridiculous yet rational. That scene stayed with me for years, both for its image and the utter sense of wonder in the situation, and the pragmatic good sense that Hoyle gives his characters. If only real life politicians were so sensible! (Sorry, I forgot. We’re talking fantasy here.)

37 – Victor Hugo: Les Misérables

I’ve never got on with Charles Dickens; his writing always seems to me to have the worst excesses of the paid-by-the-word hack. This is nothing to do with the length at which he writes – after all, I have tackled Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – and when I took on Les Misérables, which was written contemporaneously with Dickens, I found the length not at all offputting. The characters are memorable, and whilst the plot stretches credulity somewhat on the grounds of coincidence, what plot doesn’t at some point or other? Hugo’s picture of the 1848 Paris Commune has all the immediacy of current affairs journalism, whilst all the main characters reach the ends of their journeys and achieve some form or other of redemptive closure. That closure can take some extreme forms, though, such as Javert’s suicide, or Thénardier emigrating to the West Indies to run a plantation, where he apparently dies of an unpleasant tropical disease; a fate which it seems that Hugo felt was fitting for him.

38 – Will Hutton: The State We’re In

This 1994 book caused a sensation when it was first published; Hutton, a leading economist, dissected the British state and identified the reliance of the establishment on its traditional position, its refusal to look any further ahead than the next five years and its resistance to change as the key factors holding the UK back. His solution was to reform capitalism, to make it more responsive to the needs of all its stakeholders rather than placing the needs of shareholders front and centre. It was widely thought that the incoming Tony Blair New Labour government would embrace this plan.

It did not. Instead, whilst it adopted some of the trappings of the modern state – social liberalism, diversity and an interest in scientific and technical development – these things were on the surface only; the deep establishment remained untouched, and indeed seduced some of the New Labour leaders, many of whom abandoned any pretence of identification with their traditional working class base. The 21st century has, so far, shown the fruits of that reversal; yet the issues Hutton identified are still there. The Conservative Party has embraced the same surface values as New Labour, but beneath that surface are still in thrall to the establishment, though with a troubling surface appeal to anti-establishment elements of a resurgent hard Right. We need a new edition and an updating of this book, because it suggests that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

39 – Clive James: Unreliable Memoirs

(My copy is an omnibus containing the first three volumes of Clive James’ memoirs; Unreliable memoirs, Falling towards England and May Week was in June.)

Clive James was one of those people who wrote as they spoke; to read his words is to hear his voice, self-deprecating yet confident, and hiding a lot of erudition, carried lightly. He details his childhood in Australia, his coming to England in the 1960s and living in sone of the more disreputable parts of West London as a part of the Australian diaspora. Many a well-known name gets dropped. James made tv criticism into something of an art form and his dry humour always appealed to me.

40 – David Jenkinson: Rails in the Fells

In the 1860s, the Midland Railway – until then, a regional company based in the East Midlands – felt the need to secure its own routes to London and to the North instead of relying on agreements with rival companies. They started by building the “London Extension” which opened in 1868 with services running into their remarkable station at St.Pancras. Then, to consolidate their bid for the Anglo-Scottish traffic, they planned and built the Settle & Carlisle (S&C) line over the Westmoreland fells to join Leeds and Carlisle. The railway is notable for its dramatic viaducts and tunnels, its upland setting, and for the sad fact that in the years immediately before the First World War, the Midland managed on three occasions to incinerate their prestige “Scotch Express” with considerable loss of life.

The S&C was quite late in the history of railway-building in the UK, and displayed considerable unity in its style of construiction, especially the station buildings. This, in turn, led David Jenkinson to write a very different sort of railway book. Whilst there are plenty of pictures of trains and descriptions of the line, the bulk of the book is an exposition of the geography and geology of the area and how that affected the planning, course and construction of the line. It then takes a long hard look at the contribution of the railway to the local economy, and how that impacted on local traffic patterns. It ends with an examination of coaching stock and locomotives from an operating point of view. There should be more railway books like this that take a serious view of their subject; this is a textbook rather than something for the casual reader to leaf through. And none the worse for that.

[Previously: Francis Chichester to Colin Gifford]

[Next: Graham Joyce to Patrick Leigh Fermor]

Written by robertday154

February 19, 2020 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 3

with 3 comments

New readers start here.

21 – Francis Chichester: The lonely sea and the sky

Francis Chichester was a household name in the mid-1960s. Starting as a pre-war aviation adventurer, with long-distance solo flights to Australia and the first solo crossing of the Tasman Sea from east to west (New Zealand to Australia). After the war, he turned to long-distance yachting, taking part in and winning the first single-handed Transatlantic yacht race in 1960. He came second in the second race in 1964, and published this book at around the same time.

He became famous in 1966, when he made an attempt on the first solo circumnavigation of the globe. After one stop in Sydney, he succeeded, returning to the UK in May 1967 after 226 days.

It’s been very many years since I read this book, but it made an impression on me because of its very traditional sense of derring-do against the elements. The media at the time portrayed Chichester as a fairly ordinary man; in fact, he was from the gentry (his father was a clergyman, though his grandfather was the 8th Baronet Chichester); they made more of his inheritance of the British sea-faring tradition (when he was knighted in 1967, the Queen used the same sword as Elizabeth I used to knight Sir Francis Drake, first Englishman to make a circumnavigation).

22 – Christopher Clarke: The Sleepwalkers; how Europe went to war in 1914

This is a highly detailed book which charts the route to war in 1914. Unlike others, he steps back from the immediate story of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and instead starts with the assassination of the Serbian King Alexandar and Queen Draga in 1903 (which I was not previously aware of) by factions within the Serbian military. He then continues to detail the actions of the Serbian government which was prepared to countenance the presence of extra-legal groupings within the Serbian Army who acted outside of the chain of command. This was only partly because they were pursuing the populist policy of rebuilding ‘Greater Serbia’, they also shared with other European military General Staffs the opinion that they were the sole arbiters of military policy and were not subject to any oversight or control from the civil authority.

He then describes the roles of the various monarchs in Europe, who enjoyed varying degrees of constitutionality but nearly all of whom considered that their opinions carried weight in determining foreign and military policy. As Clark develops his theme, he begins to outline the passage of events as the two major power blocs jostle for advantage, and in the course of the telling, exposes further weaknesses in the political systems of the time. He exposes the jostling for power and influence within the various European governments, though oddly he does not make the final step to highlighting the lack of what we now know as “collective responsibility”; yet this is another causative factor leading to war. Foreign ministers went to confer with allies and whilst abroad would make up policy on the hoof.

This book doesn’t tell the whole story – there’s far too much of it – but it goes a long way towards that. It does expose the way that modern politicians have appropriated the First World War for their own purposes. Anyone who does that only exposes their ignorance on the subject.

23 – Kimberley Cornish: The Jew of Linz: Wittgenstein, Hitler and their secret battle for the mind 

Probably one of the most astonishing books I have ever read. It details the evidence to show that Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, went to school together. In itself, that fact is amazing. But it goes further. Wittgenstein may well have been the focus for the young Hitler’s anti-Semitism; the author draws on evidence from Mein Kampf and other sources to suggest that this was so.

Starting from that premise, the book continues to explore Wittgenstein’s philosophy in an accessible way (and the book is important for that very reason!), its links with the mainstream of European philosophical thought, and the role that Wittgenstein’s thought played in the development of world politics and philosophy over the following fifty years.

24 – Michael Crichton: The Andromeda Strain

This book made a massive impact on me when I first read it at the age of twelve or thirteen. It hardly read like fiction, given Crichton’s peppering of the book with facsimile documents, renderings of computer displays, and scientifically plausible dialogue (and, truth to tell, info-dumps). And four pages of referenced scientific papers! At the same time, it latched onto the zeitgeist of James Bond and Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, with secret laboratories concealed under agricultural research stations and talk of nuclear weapons and biowar.

Today, it still reads as well as it ever did, though that does mean it reads a bit like a government report at times. It is also very much a Cold War product, even though it isn’t actually about the Cold War; but it has the Cold War mindset. Read this and be transported back to the 1960s, that era of great hope alternating with the threat of terrible annihilation.

25 – John Culshaw: Ring Resounding: the recording in stereo of Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wagner remains one of music’s most problematic composers, both for the nature of his music and for his views. Many consider him beyond the pale because of his anti-Semitism; many see him as testing the idea of “separating the artist from their work” to destruction. But many who can make that leap consider his cycle of four operas based on Germanic myth, Der Ring des Nibelungen, to be one of the towering achievements of Western culture. (Some may possibly think that the very fact of such a flawed personality producing a work of such sublimity itself suggests something about Western culture. A subject for another time, I think.)

This book is a blow-by-blow account of the making of the first studio stereo recording of the Ring. Culshaw persuaded the Decca management that the time was right for it to be done, as the advent of the LP record and stereo recording not only made the project viable in terms of packaging, but the new stereo technology would enable Wagner’s work to be properly presented on what we would now call a virtual stage. He then assembled the conductor Georg Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and a remarkable cast of the best singers of the day. The project took six years, from 1958 to 1964, to complete; but the resulting recordings are still considered some of the finest ever made, even now.

This book is also a picture of a vanished world – post-war central Europe, seen through the eyes of one of the few groups of people to have international mobility at that time, classical musicians. It is also not without humour, such as the account of Brünnhilde’s invisible horse, the duelling Alpenhorns and the Musikverein cat. John Culshaw was at the centre of the action and has remained a major force in the classical music world ever since.

26 – T.K.Derry and Trevor Williams: A short history of technology from the earliest times to A.D.1900

I did a course on the History of Technology back in my student days, intended as an aid to our becoming technical librarians. Well, that never happened: some irresponsible fool came along and invented the Internet, making librarians as a professional group almost extinct. But this compendious book was our textbook for the course, and it covers everything you could need to know. Obviously, jet engines, computers and nuclear energy aren’t covered, but everything else is.

27 – Philip K. Dick – The Man in the High Castle

In his lifetime, Philip K. Dick (1928-82) was a struggling author who churned out science fiction novels and had ambitions to literary greatness. He fell in with the drug culture of Sixties California and went through some very odd places in his head. Then, in the early 1980s, one of his novels, Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?, was made into the film Blade Runner. Although the film was not an instant success, it has become known as one of the iconic depictions of a dystopian future, set as it is in that impossibly distant year of futurity, 2019.

Suddenly, Philip K. Dick was a saleable commodity. Other stories of his were optioned for film and television; his best novels are now considered part of the canon of American literature. (But none of his non-science fiction novels, which were never published in  his lifetime.) The Man in the High Castle (1962) is set in an alternate universe where the Axis powers won World War 2. America is divided between the East Coast, run by the Nazis, and the West Coast, ruin by the Japanese. A neutral state, the Rocky Mountain States, acts as a buffer between the two. The book follows the lives of a number of different characters: a Japanese trade attaché with a penchant for collecting Americana, an impoverished drifter (something of a trope for Dick) who scratches a living in part by making fake American antiques and collectibles; and an Abwehr officer (the intelligence arm of the Gerfman military) who arrives in America trying to contact Japanese intelligence because he has important information about a plot being hatched in Berlin.

The novel is complicated by a sub-plot, where a banned book is circulating in the Rocky Mountain States, depicting an alternate history where the Axis powers were defeated in World War 2. But not our World War 2…

The Amazon tv series took the setting but then made the plot concentrate far more on the espionage and resistance aspects of the situation. Whilst the espionage sub-plot is a feature of the novel, the whole concentrates much more on the characters rather than the plot. It is not a thriller. But it is a highly memorable example of the work of a remarkable author.

28 – E.M.Forster: The Machine Stops

This 1909 short story depicts a dystopian future where the citizens of the world live underground in sequestered individual pods. They communicate with teach other via videophone, rely on the omnipresent Machine for their information, their food and all their other physical needs. Travel is not impossible, but complicated; and hardly anyone bothers anyway.

When the Machine begins to show signs of breaking down, people find themselves unable to cope with the isolation, let alone the interruption to normal services.

I very probably have vague recollections of this story being dramatised on the BBC’s Out of the Unknown in 1966. It seemed fantastic enough in 1966; it must’ve seemed like utter fantasy in 1909. And today?

29 – William Gibson: Neuromancer

The book generally credited with starting the cyberpunk movement, it fitted in with much of the zeitgeist. I remember Bill Gibson saying at a convention that he was writing Neuromancer at he time that Blade Runner came out. He said that he we nt to see it but had to leave the cinema after twenty minutes because “what I was seeing looked too much like the inside of my own head”. Although the technology – “jacking in”, cyberspace decks, and navigating the datasphere via visual representation hasn’t happened, so much of this book remains relevant.

30 – Colin Gifford: Each a Glimpse… and ever again…

Towards the end of steam in Britain, a new breed of railway photographer began to emerge. These young photographers set the steam engine in its environment, and also played with abstract form and a generally higher artistic sensibility when looking at this subject. Colin Gifford was one of this group; his work reflected the end of the steam era, and depicted the dying days of steam in all its grime and glory. Often set against industrial landscapes, themselves unpromising vistas of dirt and disorganization, his photographs were often controversial in their day because they were different.

The heritage railway is now very firmly established in the UK, and every weekend thousands of photographers chase steam engines up and down the country. And so many of them produce the same pictures; a three-quarter front view of an engine, sometimes on its own, sometimes set in its landscape but almost always perfectly arranged and almost posed.

Gifford did produce some three-quarter front views, and set trains in their landscape; but he would employ imagination, and compose his shots according to the land, the sky and the smoke, not just aiming for the clearest view. Foreground or framing elements would also be employed. Other pictures would be close-ups, or views of the urban or industrial landscape. Working in monochrome and in a square format also made Gifford see his subject differently to those constrained by the 35mm oblong frame; and the larger format’s quality advantages show in the book, as some of the pictures will have been considerably enlarged for publication.

Pictures like these are nowadays almost unobtainable, and not just because steam engines are generally pampered museum pieces. Our environment is now cleaner and tidier, and whilst this is doubtless a good thing, it is far less visually interesting. And the modern railway environment is also far less interesting; trains are functional, and colourful – sometimes too colourful! – and have a tendency to all look the same. And the commercial railway sometimes has a problem with random people photographing in uncontrolled locations and situations.

Any aspiring railway photographer should get hold of a copy of this book and look at it again and again. And then, we might just see more interesting photographs.

[Previously: William Blake to Keith Chester]

[Next: Joe Haldeman to David Jenkinson]

Written by robertday154

February 15, 2020 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

My 100 books – 2

with 4 comments

New readers start here.

11 – William Blake: Selected poems

A hangover from my school reading. Once experienced, Blake tends to stick with you.

12 – James Blish: Earthman, come home

This is the third of four novels in a 1950s series Blish called Cities in Flight: the development of a practical anti-gravity device enables whole cities to up sticks and fly off into the galaxy when there is no work for their industrial specialisms on Earth any more. This was perhaps my second excursion into science fiction, and this one certainly invoked my “sense of wonder” at age 14. I re-read the series a couple of years back. and found the first one, They shall have stars, appalling – it consisted almost entirely of characters explaining things to each other. But this one came over better, if somewhat unevenly. It tells the story of the itinerant city of New York, its mayor John Amalfi, and how New York came to stop wandering and find somewhere permanent to settle as economic and political conditions changed. After 45 years, it still delivered vivid imagery and many of its characters’ attitudes had weathered the years well.  The technology, not so much – Bakelite telephones and slide rules are still the order of the day – and yet there was a job bidding session conducted by video link that came up fresh and contemporary. Important to me in its day; perhaps not so much now, but I can still look at it with fondness, which is more than can be said for others.

13 – Don Boreham: Narrow gauge railway modelling

Back when model railways were still mostly toy-like, anything specifically non-mainstream had to be built from scratch. And the narrow gauge, little known in the UK beyond a handful of surviving railways in Wales, was definitely non-mainstream. The British Isles had a lot of narrow gauge (Ireland had an extensive tally of 3-foot gauge lines) and many of these railways had served important roles in the movement of raw materials or the opening up of remote rural areas. Overseas practice, such as was seen in Europe or in the wider world, was even less known or understood beyond traveller’s tales of oddities in the Himalayas, the Balkans or on remote islands (the Fiji Free Train, for example). Don Boreham’s 1962 book allowed a peek into this world, but the writing transcended the mere practicalities of making models.

14 – George Borrow: Wild Wales

George Borrow was a 19th century scholar who travelled extensively in Britain and Europe, mainly for the Bible Society. On these trips, he was able to expand his (already not inconsiderable) knowledge of languages. He had a great affinity with the Romany people and their language, and produced two books on his time with them, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, though there is still debate as to whether they are biographical novels or very elaborated biographies. Wild Wales, published towards the end of his life in 1862, recounted – in a rather eccentric but personable style – a walking tour he made from the north to the south of Wales. The book was dramatised for television in the 1970s; I picked up a copy not long afterwards, having warmed to Borrow’s idiosyncrasies. Only in the appendix to the book does he give us the benefit of his knowledge of what we now call comparative linguistics, and I had my first inkling of the nature of the relationship between most European languages and Sanskrit and the other ancient languages of the Indian sub-continent. Borrow put this down to the underlying truths to be found in the Bible; only later did I begin to understand the complex origins of what are described as the Indo-European languages, which covers every European language with the exception of Basque.

15 – John Bowen: Heil Caesar

This is the script of the 1973 BBC TV production, which was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, updated to a contemporary political and military setting. The production was heavily suggestive of the Greek Generals’ coup and similar regimes in Spain, Portugal and South America; the parallels with ancient Rome and Shakespeare’s original were striking. The production was originally made for schools and was first broadcast in three 30-minute segments; it proved so popular that it was recut and shown at peak time as a 90-minute one-off drama. It is currently not available on DVD, though there are some versions online and the British Film Institute holds the original film.

16 – Stewart Brand: The Last Whole Earth Catalog; access to tools

The Whole Earth Catalogs came out of California, one of the more tangible and useful products of the Sixties hippie culture. In a pre-Internet age, these were intended as compendiums of resources for anything you might need to build a whole new life from scratch, or just survive the existing one. Their format was unique – roughly A2 or larger paperbacks – and their page design very much a product of their time and place. They were in the tradition of the great American mail-order catalogs that allowed homesteaders to almost order an entire farm by post, but in amongst the hippy weirdness of geodesic domes and transcendental meditation was a lot of solid advice about tools, outdoors living and where to track down all manner of oddities – including Soviet surplus military vehicles in the days before the end of the Soviet Union and everything becoming available for a price.

17 – Anthony Burton: Remains of a Revolution

I grew up in Derbyshire, which was the birthplace of so much of the Industrial Revolution; early textile factories were dotted along the valley of the River Derwent, which ran through my home town; and indeed, my school was founded by a family of second-generation mill owners. We were educated particularly in the history of the growth of industry and the stories of inventors and entrepreneurs, and there were so many sites locally which were nationally (or even internationally) significant – in 2001, the Derwent Valley mills were designated a World Heritage Site. This book, with fine photographs by Clive Coote, illustrates many of those sites, and made me aware of the history (almost) on my doorstep.

18 – H.C. Casserley and C.C. Dorman: Midland Album

As with the previous entry, this book also made me aware of the history on my doorstep.

My father worked for the railways for twenty years, the last ten in the signalling drawing office in Derby. He would often take lunch in the canteen of the adjoining locomotive works, which had been opened in 1845, the first dedicated locomotive works in the world; the sense of historical continuity was strong with him. (Of course, those works have long been demolished, such is the nature of our progress.) Britain’s railways were built by around 120 private companies, starting in 1805 and ending in 1923. In the aftermath of the First World War, when the railways had been run by the Government for the war effort, the same Government saw sense in consolidation of the companies into four – the so-called “Grouping”. After the second war, an incoming Labour government repeated the process, this time amalgamating the four railway companies into one, nationalised undertaking, British Railways.

This book was one of a series of titles by the specialist railway publisher Ian Allan that collected railway photographs, in this case relating to the Midland Railway. The main route of the Midland from Derby to the north was engineered by the railway pioneer George Stephenson. Headquartered in Derby, the line was noted for the exceptional quality of paintwork and finish on its trains, and for having abolished 2nd class (out of three classes of passenger accommodation) and made 3rd class up to the standard of second (upholstered seats and heated carriages). The Midland was one of the railways that disappeared at the Grouping, but traces of its particular style and architecture persisted well into the 1980s.

19 – Frédéric Chaubin: CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

The architecture of the Soviet Union was not always brutalist. In pursuit of creating the optimum conditions for a workers’ paradise, Soviet architects were encouraged to exercise their imaginations. As a result, public buildings – theatres, airports, universities, sanatoriums – appeared which displayed outstanding ideas of presentation, setting and facility. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic machinery then often injected that brutalist spin through the choice of materials or finishes. And to add the final touch, what looked exciting when newly minted could quickly come to look dowdy or depressing when deprived of maintenance over the following years.

This book collects photographs by Chaubin of many such buildings across the former Soviet Union, photographed with more love than a first glance might suggest these buildings deserve. But someone sat down and devoted serious time and effort into designing and then building these structures. It’s a book which taught me that even the ugliest of buildings is the product of someone’s skill and imagination, and if that imagination has been curbed by the dead hand of some financial controller saying “Make it cheaper”, that shouldn’t reflect on how we see the building. Workplaces in particular become the centre of communities of workers, and acquire personality through the people who occupy them for a large chunk of their lives. It taught me to see our built environment rather differently.

20 – Keith Chester: The narrow gauge railways of Bosnia-Hercegovina

When friends and relatives started taking foreign holidays in the late 1960s, the more adventurous ones travelled overland to what was then Yugoslavia. Later, stories and photographs began to circulate about the Yugoslav narrow gauge (Pat Whitehouse ended his book On the Narrow Gauge with an extended chapter on the perils of filming there, and I’ll talk about that book later).

The heart of the system was the railway from Bosanski Brod to Sarajevo, a distance of some 270 kilometres, initially built as a military supply line. Over time, this became a full-blown mainline railway on the narrow gauge, running heavy freight, express trains with sleeper cars and dining cars, and even trains such as the special that took the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand from the sea-port at Ploce on the Adriatic to his appointment with destiny in Sarajevo. The routes themselves passed through mighty mountain ranges, through passes and on high shelves above deep river gorges. The main line from Sarajevo to the Adriatic coast, the route that made the Bosnian narrow gauge into a strategic system, boasted a rack-and-pinion section over the Ivan Pass which demanded special working arrangements and kept overall speeds down for many years. Even so, the seventeen hours it sometimes took to travel from the coast to Sarajevo was a vast improvement on the days it took before the railway was built, along roads and tracks that were all but impassible during winter or times of heavy rain. When Bosnia became part of the state of Yugoslavia after World War I, the new government in Belgrade saw it necessary to build an extensive mileage of 760mm gauge in Serbia, Dalmatia and Montenegro to join the railway systems of each country together. This involved very considerable engineering, including multiple spiral tunnels over the Sargan mountain at Mokra Gora on the Serbian side of the border.

This book is the product of ten years’ work, and it shows. Keith Chester not only describes the railways, their history and equipment, but also sets this in the context of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its system of government. Indeed, the ways in which Austria-Hungary was governed – as two separate countries with one head of state and a number of “common” ministries for dealing mainly with external affairs – form the subject of an extensive chapter of their own which is one of the few places where I have seen the governance of Austria-Hungary described in detail. And this is important, because without understanding how the Empire was governed, a lot about the history of this system (and indeed, about the Empire in general) makes very little sense .

It is a weighty volume – I bought mine at an exhibition in Vienna and it very nearly put me over my weight allowance on the flight home! It also got me into an interesting conversation with a couple of old boys at the exhibition who were intrigued that I, an Englishman, should have an interest in the railways of the “Old Empire”.

Many of the names in this book became resonant during the Yugoslav wars – Sarajevo, Mostar, Dornji Vakuv, Dubrovnik. This book is a reminder of better times. That such a book on Yugoslav railways should appear in English from a Swedish publisher should teach us all a lesson.

[Previously: Scott Adams to Daniel Bell]

[Next: Francis Chichester to Colin Gifford]

Written by robertday154

February 12, 2020 at 11:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized