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Hi. I’m Nicholas Whyte, a public affairs consultant in Brussels, political commentator in Northern Ireland, and science fiction fan. This is my blog on WordPress, which replaced my Livejournal in March 2022. I was able to copy across all of my old Livejournal posts; unfortunately the internal links in old posts will still in general point back to Livejournal, and though I was able to import images, I wasn’t able to import videos, so it’s a little imperfect.

Since late 2003, I’ve been recording (almost) every book that I have read. At 200-300 books a year, that’s over 4000 books that I have written up here. These are the most recent; I also record the books I have read each week and each month. These days each review includes the second paragraph of the third chapter of each book, just for fun; and also a purchase link for Amazon UK. (Yes, I know; but I get no other financial reward for writing all of this.)

As the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging comes closer, I’ve also been revisiting each month of reviews every six days or so, so you’ll see some less recent reviews mentioned.

As well as books, I have been going through the films that won the Oscar for Best Picture in sequence and the films that won the Hugo or Nebula for Best Dramatic Presentation or equivalent.

During the pandemic I developed an interest in family history and have been recording my research here.

Also used for occasional commentary on other stuff, but you’ll find my Facebook and Twitter are more live.

Comments welcome, though sometimes quicker to email me at nicholas dot whyte at gmail dot com.

The Caucasus: an Introduction, by Thomas de Waal

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It is tempting but misleading to see the seventy-year Soviet experiment as just a second Russian imperial project. Ultimate power resided in Moscow and Russia played the role of big brother, but the Soviet Union was much more complex and contradictory. The Soviet state modernized, terrorized, and Russified the Caucasus but also gave it new kinds of nationalism. It also went through radically different phases: from the Bolshevik would-be utopia of international class liberation to the Stalinist authoritarian state of the 1930s to the corrupt, Brezhnev-era multinational state. Modernization meant both the destruction of old traditions and emancipation for women and technological progress. Policy toward the nationalities veered from the implementation of a liberal “affirmative action empire,” which gave new opportunities to non-Russian nations, to genocide. While some small ethnic groups benefited hugely from “nativization” programs, others were subjected to deportation and mass terror.

I have known Tom de Waal for many years, going back to my own intense Caucasus engagement in 2003-06 and again in 2012. He is lambasted by Armenian activists for being too pro-Azeri, and by Azerbaijani activists for being too Armenian, and by all sides in Georgia for favouring their opponents. I think he is generally right. I had been looking forward to this book for ages and attended its Brussels launch in 2019; my memory is that we went for a very nice dinner afterwards.

To get the obvious point out of the way, unfortunately one of the core sections of the book now needs to be updated after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of late 2020. This occasioned one of the few points of disagreement between us, and I actually wrote to de Waal to say that I thought the “both-sides” narrative which was prevalent in the early weeks of the 2020 conflict was obscuring the important fact that Azerbaijan was winning.

But I don’t think he can be faulted for not seeing precisely into the future when writing the book. In any case, he, and I, and many others, had been warning of the likelihood of a bloody denouement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for many years (here’s me and Damien Helly in 2004, and me and Sabine Freizer in Russian in 2006). In 2004 the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan told me to my face that they were saving up their profits from fossil fuels in order to upgrade their armed forces to drive Armenia out of their territory by force, and if he was saying that to me, he was saying it to a lot of other people. This was not a difficult war to predict.

So, could the conflicts in the region have been averted or mitigated? I get the gloomy feeling from de Waal’s narrative that the forces of political gravity generally favoured violent conflict. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard-line nationalists to power in all three countries, and eliminated the political habits and institutions that might have channeled the energy of disagreement away from the precipice of war. I found his analysis of the 2008 South Ossetia conflict particularly interesting, as it happened after my first round of Caucasus engagement. His view (in crude summary) is that Saakashvili decided to pick a fight quite early on, and the Russians decided to give it to him.

It’s fair to say that international engagement with the conflict has often been less than vigorous. It seemed to me grimly appropriate that the OSCE mechanism to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France, was named after a conference that never actually took place. But I know individual officials who have made great efforts, and in any case it’s easy to think of better-known conflicts where huge investment of time and energy in international mediation has failed to pay off.

Anyway, recent developments aside, de Waal’s book is a warmly engaging look at the three South Caucasus countries – Georgia (including South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara), Armenia and Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) – in their historical context between Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the Russia relationship being the most important for all three cases. (Though other powers got involved too – Azerbaijan was briefly a British protectorate, with democratic elections, women’s suffrage and proportional representation in 1918-1920.) He concentrates on the political history, but also explores the rich literature of all of the region, and touches on the cuisine as well (I personally love Georgian cooking). He argues that the important regional context has been lost, with the independence of the three states inevitably making them look inwards rather than at their neighbours. It’s a good and informative read. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on that pile is Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland.

Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee

Second paragraph of third chapter:

On leaving Miss Maxwell’s ‘Academy’, I followed [his brother] Michael to Aldro, a boarding school in Eastbourne. I was about seven and a half and not at all happy at the idea of being so far from home. There was a kind old master there called Mr Craft, who closely resembled Rudyard Kipling; well, he seemed old, but as I received Christmas cards from him for twenty years afterwards, he was probably only about thirty-five at the time. To me he represented kindness. Mr Hill, the Headmaster, on the other hand represented unkindness, for I was often to be caned by him. ‘Go and change into gym shorts and wait for me in the gymnasium,’ he would order. That wait was more terrible than the thrashing. Even at seven and a half, I could take the beating, but the waiting made me sick with apprehension.

First volume of Jon Pertwee’s autobiography, though he did not write much more apart from an out-of-print account of his time on Doctor Who. It’s an entertaining set of anecdotes about his early life, difficult relations with parents (he did not actually know that his father‘s friend was his biological mother), his wartime service in the navy (which takes up almost half of the book), his love of girls and cars. If I had been editing it, I might have taken out some of the exclamation marks.

Lots of names are dropped, many of them of showbiz figures now long forgotten, though a couple stood out; visiting his father’s friend A.A. Milne as a child, Milne’s son “was good enough to introduce me to his toy animal friends, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Kanga’s son Roo, and best of all, his teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.” At the other end of the book, when he is assigned to Naval Intelligence, one of his office-mates is future prime minister James Callaghan. (Callaghan, who lost the 1979 election, is the most recent prime minister to have served in the armed forces and the only one to have been in the Navy.)

But Doctor Who fans like me won’t find much to chew on here. Pertwee did not really have hidden depths; what you saw was what you got, and that personality is on display in his book. You can get it here.

January 2019 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I started the year by taking B for a walk to a castle near where she lives.

We went to Mechelen to see the mysterious Enclosed Gardens, which I must write up some time.

I also went to an exhibition about the legacy of the Dukes of Arenberg at the M Museum in Leuven, in the course of which I bumped into the actual Duke.

“Entschuldigen Sie mir, bitte, sind Sie der Herzog?”
“Ja.”
“Darfen wir bitte ein Selfie machen?”
“Ja, natürlich.”

I had two working visits to London, and in the course of the second one I introduced my uncle to chopsticks.

A couple of days earlier, Scotland House hosted a Burns Night in the shadow of Brexit, with some emotional performances.

Auld Lang Syne
The haggis

I read 17 books that month.

Non-fiction: 2
Blue Box Boy, by Matthew Waterhouse
Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, The Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin, by Paul Hockenos

Fiction (non-sf): 3
Milkman, by Anna Burns
From Here To Eternity, by James Jones
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

sf (non-Who): 8
The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton
Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson
Europe at Dawn, by Dave Hutchinson
“The Queen of Air and Darkness”, by Poul Anderson
Tales from Moominvalley. by Tove Jansson
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander
Avalanche Soldier, by Susan Matthews
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

Doctor Who, etc: 2
The Time Lord Letters, by Justin Richards
Secret Histories, ed. Mark Clapham

Comics: 2
Saga vol 9, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Lambik by Marc Legendre

5,100 pages
7/17 by non-male writers (Burns, Anderson, Jansson, Bolander, Matthews, Adeyemi, Staples)
3/17 by PoC (Adiga, Adeyemi, Staples)

Hugely enjoyed my return to Tales from Moominvalley; you can get it here. Hugely enjoyed Paul Hockenos’ Berlin Calling; you can get it here. Hugely enjoyed vol 9 of Saga; you can get it here. Blaine Anderson’s Heartspell is rubbish; you can get it here.

Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It slid open with a quiet hiss, revealing the main corridor of the starboard passenger deck. Doors to passenger quarters (four bunks per room) lined either side of the corridor. Here and there men in Royal Castakaran Army fatigues lay slumped on the floor, unconscious from the gas. Malcolm saw no corpses and no sign of any possessed men.

I got this in 2016 out of admiration for the author’s decision to decline nomination for the Hugo Awards; his story had been boosted onto the final ballot by slating and he wanted very much to distance himself from it, and not only that, he kept quiet about it until the full results were announced. However it took me until now to get around to reading it. It’s a well-written enough story of horrors lurking between the stars, while humans fight the artificial intelligences they have created, with some interesting narrative twists. I’d still have voted for the winner of this category, “Folding Beijing”. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2016. Next is Zink, by David van Reybrouck.

Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Çerkez

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Judge Raif, although instrumental in helping Rauf to navigate through the intricacies of Cyprus’ politics, hoped his legacy would extend to more than Rauf becoming better informed. He also wanted to instil in Rauf the importance of becoming an active member of the law profession. The dedicated Judge had maintained an almost obsessive stance on the necessity to have educated Turkish Cypriots remaining on home sod. His opinions stemmed from the idea that knowledgeable citizens would not only advocate amendments to the law but also be in a position to challenge and produce effective changes beneficial for the Turkish Cypriot community.

I never met Rauf Denktaş, though I once walked past his car as it was leaving the presidential office in northern Nicosia, and he gave me a friendly smile and an amicable wave; I was on my way in, to a meeting with Mehmet Ali Talat, his successor, and I guess he had just been there for the same reason. I spent four years immersed in the Cyprus issue a few years ago, first with the International Crisis Group and then as an adviser to President Talat with Independent Diplomat; I stay in touch as best I can, though it has frankly gone off the boil in recent years.

This is an unapologetically positive biography of the Turkish Cypriot leader, written presumably on the basis of many conversations with him (he was famously talkative) and with no claims or pretence to objectivity. This is actually refreshingly honest; in Cyprus, as in many other conflicts, many writers feel the urge to prove that their own truth is the only truth, whereas here we are just getting Denktaş’s version of events. He had a remarkable career, a London-trained lawyer who rose to the top of a small embattled community and, for good or ill, created a state for them which still exists, even if unrecognised.

There is a lot of good chewy detail about Denktaş’s early years and family. (The half-way point in the book, page 150 of 300 pages of the main narrative, comes at the end of the 1964 crisis when Denktaş had just turned 40 and had almost another half century to live.) It’s a bit less satisfying once we get into the weeds of Cyprus politics, because the book is only interested in one person, and although he was indeed pretty important, there are other important figures too. Beyond a couple anecdotes of Denktaş arguing or joking with them (or both) we don’t get much of a feeling for Makarios, Küçük or Clerides, let alone any of the Turkish political leaders.

The most interesting thing politically for me was that Denktaş (by his own account) had to lobby very hard to get attention from Ankara to the Cyprus issue in the years up to 1974. The received wisdom by the time that I got involved was that Turkey and the TRNC were in a symbiotic relationship, and there were mutterings about the tail wagging the dog when Denktaş was at the height of his powers. But in fact Turkey did not take its treaty responsibilities very seriously at first, and in the 1950s and 1960s Denktaş was constantly frustrated by Ankara. (This is where a Turkey-focused perspective would have been really illuminating. The received wisdom is that Denktaş got a lot more help from Turkey than he allows here.)

The book skips over a lot of key questions, presumably because Denktaş himself didn’t want to talk to the author about them because he found the topics either embarrassing or boring (or both). What was the extent of his involvement with the TMT’s violence in the 1950s? How did he lose the confidence of both Ankara and his own voters at the end of his career? After everything that happened, was it all worth it?

But in the end, it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; primary material, rather than a primer.

This was the very last book that I had acquired in 2015 that was still on my unread shelf. (Actually acquired rather early in that year, at a memorial service in London to mark the second anniversary of his death in January 2013.)

Last book acquired in 2015, read in November 2022 (Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait)
Last books acquired in 2014, read in October 2021 (The Empire of Time and Crashland)
Last book acquired in 2013, read in October 2020 (Helen Waddell)
Last book acquired in 2012, read in May 2020 (A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese dialogue 2000-2003)
Last book acquired in 2011, read in October 2019 (Luck and the Irish)
Last book acquired in 2010, read in January 2019 (Heartspell)
Last book acquired in 2009, read in December 2016 (Last Exit to Babylon)

That opens up the books acquired in 2016, which I’ll hope to get through a bit quicker than I managed for previous years, starting in this order:

  • Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller – shortest unread book acquired in 2016
  • To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt – earliest acquired unread sf book
  • Faith in Politics, by John Bruton – earliest acquired unread non-fiction book
  • A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg – earliest acquired unread non-genre fiction book
  • Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen – top unread book acquired in 2016 as by number of LibraryThing users who own it

Meanwhile you can get Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait here.

Doctormania, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo,Cris Bolson, Matheus Lopes and Marco Lesko

Second frame of third story (“Transformed”):

The end of Rose, New Who’s first episode, from Mickey’s point of view

Second in the series of Titan Comics graphic novels about the Ninth Doctor, with three stories:

“Hacked”, a very short story with a reference to the Eye of Orion and the Braxiatel Collection, in which the Ninth Doctor, Jack and Rose are kidnapped by an intergalactic criminal who they duly defeat.

The title story, “Doctormania”, has the crew landing on a world where everyone is a Doctor Who fan, an immediately glorious concept. There is a fake Doctor who everyone loves and a fan who gets annoyed with Rose. But it turns out that a familar foe is behind it all. Nicely executed.

The third story, “Transformed”, brings Mickey back into the narrative (though at a point where he has already met the Tenth Doctor). The whole team ends up in San Francisco for an adventure with shape-changing gargoyles with super powers. Nicely done.

Enjoyed it. You can get it here.

Saturday reading

Current
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman
π1
Faith in Politics, by John Bruton

Last books finished
To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt
ξ1
The Danger Men, by Nick Walter
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, by John Toon
ο1 (did not finish)

Next books
Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks
A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney

The World Cup (and Worldcons)

NB: I wrote this before FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s outburst earlier today, and I think I got it right.

There has been a certain amount of discussion in the SF community about next year’s Worldcon, scheduled to take place in Chengdu, China, and about a previous bid to host Worldcon from Saudi Arabia and coming bids from Africa (Egypt and Uganda). Some people argued that the human rights record of these countries should exclude them as potential Worldcon locations. I feel a bit differently. It seems to me that an inclusive fandom should instinctively be embracing and encouraging of our fellow fans in different and challenging political environments, which they did not choose and cannot change; and that there is a limit to how far people should be held accountable for the actions of their governments – normally it is the other way round. (And that’s without getting into the undeniable fact that many fans in Western countries also suffer oppression and discrimination from the governments under which which they live.)

I am even fairly relaxed about state support for these bids. I don’t think it should be considered a crime to mobilise resources from the public sector on behalf of your bid to run a Worldcon; in fact I think it would be good to see more of it in Europe and America. I pushed for a local politician (the late Jyrki Kasvi MP, who had campaigned in Klingon) to award the Hugo for Best Novel in Helsinki in 2017, and helped to get President Higgins to send a welcome to participants in Dublin 2019. I had my problems with CoNZealand, but I had no problem with their obtaining a ringing endorsement from Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern. Some people looked at the sponsorship of Chengdu’s bid by the local government and saw the Chinese Communist Party attempting to annex Worldcon fandom; I don’t think anyone in CCP headquarters, whether in Sichuan or Beijing, was losing sleep over the results of the 2021 site selection count. (Personally, I did lose sleep over it, but that’s on me.)

I was at one point a formal advisor to the 2023 Chengdu Worldcon committee, but I have stepped back in order to concentrate my fannish energies on the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Glasgow 2024. Chengdu Worldcon is doing some things that I do not like. I was deeply dismayed that Sergei Lukanienko, who thinks that Ukrainians are not fully human, was named as a Guest of Honour (though his name is now mysteriously absent from their current English language website). Other Worldcons, including some that I was involved with, have done things I did not like in the past. But I also feel that Worldcons, and fans, will inevitably make mistakes. I won’t go to China next summer, but I wish them well.

So. I have watched every World Cup since 1978 enthusiastically. It’s one of the most fun things in the sports cycle for me. For us numbers geeks, there’s the fascination of the permutations of qualification from the group stage, along with the trivia and lore of 92 years of history. Back in the late 1980s, I knew by heart the result of every match in every one of the twelve World Cup tournaments that had been held up to then. I have special memories of many matches, including the 2018 final, which I watched in a cafe in a small French village as their team won.

Sometimes you make the most of what you’ve got.

I can’t do it this year. The 2022 World Cup is not a group of fans getting together to put on a show. It’s a determined push by the host government to present themselves as culturally significant actors on the world stage. That’s not a crime in itself, of course. But I am sickened by the reports of the human cost of building the infrastructure, and by FIFA’s unrepentant approach to the local human rights situation. A gay friend of mine – not even someone who I know all that well – posted on Facebook that they would unfriend anyone who expresses enthusiasm about this year’s World Cup. I can understand their feelings.

It you want to read some expert perspectives on sport and the Arab world, Reynoud Leenders has recommended the latest issue of Middle East Report, on “Football—Politics and Passions”. I should note that it closes with an essay by five sports fans and political science scholars, challenging the narrative that Qatar has been “sportswashing” its image and warning that some of the commentary is simply Orientalist, based on hostility to non-white people doing something for themselves. It’s a valid perspective, and I think it does apply to some of the critique of the Worldcon bids that I mentioned above.

But in the end I feel that a state-run tournament organised on the deaths of workers, where journalists are already facing harassment for trying to find their own narrative, doesn’t deserve my attention, let alone my enthusiasm. You may feel differently; that’s up to you. But this will probably be my only commentary on the tournament.

December 2018 books and 2018 books roundup

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I started the month at SmofCon in Santa Rosa, California, as previously noted, and went to London twice for work purposes. In the world of politics, the Belgian government collapsed thanks to the dishonesty and opportunism of the N-VA, for whom I don’t think I will ever vote; and sadly, Paddy Ashdown died.

Christmas service in the chapel in the woods:

Decent photo of the whole family on Christmas Day:

I read only 14 books that month.

Non-fiction: 4 (2018 total 50)
Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers, ed. Robert Smith?
Freddie Mercury: An Illustrated Life, by Mark Blake
Factfulness, by Hans Rosling
The Fate of Rome, by Kyle Harper

Fiction (non-sf): 4 (2018 total 36)
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin
The Name of This Book Is Secret, by Pseudonymous Bosch
Finding Time Again, by Marcel Proust

sf (non-Who): 3 (2018 total 108)
Fools, by Pat Cadigan
Destination Moon and Shooting Destination Moon, by Robert A. Heinlein
Perilous Dreams, by Andre Norton

Comics: 3 (2018 total 28)
Saga, vol. 8, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan
A Cold Day in Hell, ed. Tom Spilsbury
Ergens Waar Je Niet Wilt Zijn, by Brecht Evens

~4,200 pages (YTD ~71,600)
4/14 (YTD 102/262) by non-male writers (Nin, Cadigan, Norton, Staples)
1/14 (YTD 26/262) by PoC (Staples)

Hugely enjoyed rereading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which you can get here, and Finding Time Again, which you can get here.

Hugely enjoyed reading Factfulness for the first time; you can get it here.

Totally bounced off Perilous Dreams, which you can get here.

2018 roundup

I read 262 books in 2018, ninth highest of the eighteen years I have been keeping count, so in the middle.

Page count for the year: 71,600 – also ninth highest of the eighteen years I have been keeping count, again in the middle.

Books by non-male writers in 2017: 102/262, 39% – a record high, since exceeded in 2021.

Books by PoC in 2017: 26/262, 10% – another record high, since exceeded in 2019 and 2021.

Most books by a single author: Tove Jansson and Marcel Proust, both with 6.

Science Fiction and Fantasy (excluding Doctor Who)

108 (41%), a comparatively high total, thanks to two new Hugo categories and Retro Hugos as well.

Some very welcome re-reads (Gulliver’s TravelsSnow CrashJonathan Hoagthe Moomin books).

My three top sff new reads of 2018:

3) Provenance, by Anne Leckie – not directly connected to her previous books, but a convincing story of politics and truth. Finalist for both BSFA and Hugo Awards, and I voted for it both times, though it did not win either.
2) In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan – one of the Hugo YA finalists, I thought this was a brilliant look at young wizardry with a bisexual protagonist.
1) The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Clare North – increasingly one of my favourite authors, here with another tale of someone whose interaction with our world is very different, combined with a sinister Facebook-meets-Social-Credit Big Tech conspiracy.

The one you might not have heard of: Anne Charnock’s novella The Enclave, another BSFA Award finalist, which I thought caught a lot of things about Brexit Britain very well.

The one to skip: Second-Stage Lensmen, by E.E. “Doc” Smith – turgid prose from the depths of the pulp era.

Non-fiction

50 (19%) – very slightly but I think not significantly below average.

Top three non-fiction books of 2018:

equal 2) After Europe by Ivan Krastev, and Europe Reset: New Directions for the EU, by Richard Youngs – two takes on the future of the continent, one more pessimistic, one more optimistic, both thorough and also digestible.
1) The last book I fnished this year, and the best book I read all year: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling – a fantastic guide to what is really going on in the world, and how we can think about it more usefully, based just on facts.

The one you haven’t heard of: Huawei Stories: Pioneers, ed. Tian Tao and Yin Zhifeng – fascinating stories of Chinese engineers encountering strange cultures, like Iceland, Italy and Africa.

The one to skip: Here’s My Card, by Bob Popyk, useless and outdated advice on networking.

Non-sfnal fiction

36 (14%) – lower than any year apart from the previous two and 2021.

Again, some welcome rereads (ProustKavalier and Clay). My three top new non-sf fiction books:

3) And The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini – a generational tale of Afghanistan and other places which really worked for me.
2) Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters – Waters was my real discovery this year, and Iliked this most of the books by her which I read.
1) Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively – really blown away by this twentieth-century life story, set mainly in England but with other excursions; I should probably read more by this author.

The one you haven’t heard of: Something Like Normal, by Trish Doller – author is my twin (born the same day and year); this was her first novel, about a young American soldier returning fro the wars and finding it very difficult to fit in.

The one to skip: Five Escape Brexit Island, by Bruno Vincent – not so much a one-joke book as a no-joke book.

Comics

28 (11%) – much the same as the last couple of years.

Top three comics of my year:

3) Saga vol 7, by Fiona Staples and Brian K. Vaughan – I’ve been following the series faithfully since the beginning, and I felt that this installment seemed to pick up a bit more dark energy.
2) My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Emil Ferris – was a Hugo finalist; I didn’t think it was actually sf, but I did think it was remarkably good – a story of a little girl in Chicago who discovers more than she really wanted to know about her upstairs neighbour.
1) Weapons of Mass Diplomacy / Quai d’Orsay, by “Abel Lanzac” (Antonin Baudry) and Christophe Blain – brilliant insight into the top levels of diplomacy, which I am recommending to everyone at work.

The one you may not heard of: Ergens Waar Je Niet Wil Zijn / The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens – vivid evocation of two Flemish chaps whose relationship is not exactly what either of them think it is, played out against a background of suburbia, disco and sex.

The one to skip: Dark Satanic Mills, by Marcus Sedgwick – confused near-future English dystopia trying to riff off William Blake and not really succeeding.

Doctor Who (and spinoff) fiction

21 (12%) – a historic low here, basically because I had now read almost all of the Doctor Who books that there are to read.

3) Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories, by 160 Writers, ed. Robert Smith? – much more insightful than the average survey of Doctor Who stories written by a single person or team, includes my brother.
2) A History of the Universe in 100 Objects, by Steve Tribe and James Goss – a gorgeous book looking at internal Who mythology but also drawing linkes bwteen stories in Old and New Who.
1) The Day of the Doctor, by Steven Moffat – the climax of the Moffat era in novel form, telling the story of the anniversary special in an unusual way, incidentally canonicalising the Peter Cushing movies. I hope that future novelisations can aspire to be this good.

The one you may have forgotten about: Time Lord: Create your own adventures in time and space, by Ian Marsh and Peter Darvill-Evans – the 1991 Doctor Who role-playing game.

The one you can skip: The Doctor Who Quiz Book of Dinosaurs, by Michael Holt – an obscure Fifth Doctor era kids spinoff, which contains surprisingly little information about dinosaurs.

Plays

Only four this year. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is the best of course, but was not new. You Can’t Take It with You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, is very entertaining. Everybody Comes to Rick’s, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, is not as bad as people say. Those three were all adapted to Oscar-winning films. I completely bounced off Le Mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Poetry

Great to rediscover Virgil’s Æneid, in two different translations, plus Heaney’s Book VI. Unexpected discovery: Glory of Me, an epic poem by MacKinlay Kantor, about demobbed US servicemen from the second world war. (Note also: Now We Are Six Hundred, by James Goss with illustrations by Russell T. Davies.)

Book of the year 2018

One of the last books I read in December, in fact: Factfulness by Hans Rosling. Strongly recommended. You can get it here.

The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough

Second paragraph of third chapter:

My mind felt as rumpled as my bed and my face was swollen with tears and sleep. I still felt like applying the nearest blunt object to all within this confusing household but was also aware that in doing so I was no doubt sealing my own doom. What galled me most, I suppose, was that in selling myself into this arrangement, I had inadvertently fallen into domestic problems as painful as those I had sought to avoid by evading my mother’s relatives. The gods do not like to have their plans thwarted, I suppose.

An orientalist fantasy, drawing heavily on the Arabian Nights, but subverting it in that the women characters take charge and have to rescue their husband, Aman Akbar, who has been transformed into a donkey. I don’t think the racial stereotypes would really fly today, but I can see what Scarborough was trying to do and it’s (intentionally) quite funny in places. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen.

The End of the Day, by Claire North

Second paragraph of third chapter:

…in a land of rain…

I very much liked four of the previous five books I have read by Claire North – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, The Sudden Appearance of Hope and 84k – and also enjoyed seeing her at Novacon a year ago.

I’m afraid The End of the Day fell into the less good category for me. The writing as ever is good,and there are some lovely vignettes, but I did not quite gel with the central plot concept: Charlie, the protagonist, has been recruited to be the harbinger of Death, who together with the other three Horsemen of the Apocalypse is active in today’s world; bad guys are trying to interfere with Death, and there’s some incidental observations on US politics that didn’t really come together for me. Still, liking four out of six books by her is not bad and I’ll still be looking to buy more. You can get this one here.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Ratlines, by Stuart Neville.

My 3xgreat-grandfather Richard Grafton Belt; and The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

This is another of the volumes put together by my cousin Edward “Wick” Hoffman, drawing on the family letters left by his mother in a vodka box. This time he looks at his great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, Frances Wyatt Belt (1837-1912), and her ancestors – previous volumes looked at her relationship with her husband, Samuel Morris Wickersham, before and after their marriage. This includes Frances’ great-aunt, Elizabeth Bordley Gibson (1777-1863), who was friends with George Washington’s foster-daughter Nellie Custis and featured in contemporary art, but lived long enough to mentor her great-niece, whose grave I recently visited.

The early letters are really social chitchat from the first part of the nineteenth century. But we soon get onto the intriguing figure of my 3xgreat-grandfather, Frances’ father Richard Grafton Belt (1784-1865). For reasons that I will come to, I have been delving into his early life recently. His father, a farmer in the neighbourhood of Baltimore, died when he was 12, leaving him the oldest of five or six surviving siblings. In the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser for 18 December 1807, we find this notice:

I haven’t been able to track this location down directly, but thirteen miles out of Baltimore on the York Road, now Route 45, gets you to the area now known as Cockeysville.

Leaping forward a couple of decades, this page on medicine in Maryland lists Richard Grafton Belt as an “M.D., apothecary and druggist” in 1827, a “doctor and druggist” in 1829, and an “apothecary” in 1833, all at 13 Market St (not Baltimore St) in Baltimore, a really central location. In 1843 he is at 125 Fayette St, not quite as central, listed as a “doctor” and, intriguingly, “Spanish consul”. I have no idea where he got his medical qualifications.

In 1831 he had married Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley, who was at least twenty years younger than him, born around 1805 as far as I can tell. They had half a dozen children, my great-great-grandmother Frances (“Fanny”) somewhere in the middle. Wick’s collection of letters to and from him and his daughters dates from the 1850s. By this stage Richard Grafton Belt had rejected conventional medicine and taken up homeopathy. He completely failed to make it pay (not surprising, since homeopathy is bullshit), and basically had no money at all.

His daughter Fanny started working in a textile factory in Rhode Island at the age of 15 to keep the family going. Her father’s letters are full of the “it’s-really-going-to-work-this-time” narrative to the point that you can feel his teenage daughter shrugging her shoulders; what, again?

As well as being a rabid homeopathist, Richard Grafton Belt was also mawkishly religious and urged his children to get confirmed and attend church regularly in his absence. His grandson, Francis Sims McGrath, reflects on him thus in his book Pillars of Maryland:

So. DNA analysis reveals that there may have been more going on. There is a particular group of people on AncestryDNA who have a common link with me and each other. Most of this group appear to be African-American, or at least to have a large part of their heritage from that source. A lot of them also seem to have ancestry that can be traced back to Annapolis and/or Baltimore in Maryland. The link is sufficiently close that an early nineteenth-century common ancestor is plausible.

I am inclined to think that Richard Grafton Belt had a relationship with an African-American woman in Baltimore, and that the children of that relationship have many living descendants who are cousins of mine. I conjecture that Richard Grafton Belt’s relationship with the mother of his black child or children ended badly, causing him to seek redemption in religion and homeopathy, and leaving DNA that endures in my own body and in the bodies of dozens of Marylanders. (And a few in Alabama, for reasons we can only speculate about.)

There are of course other possibilities. But Richard Grafton Belt had only two sons; one died aged 16, and the other spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia (and is not known to have married or had children), so neither seems likely to have left DNA traces in Baltimore’s African-American community. He had several brothers, and one of them, Thomas Hanson Belt, could be a possibility as he too lived most of his life in Baltimore; his wife, Elizabeth Key Heath, was the aunt of Richard Grafton Belt’s wife Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley. (The other brothers all seem to have moved away as soon as they were adults.) Still, the strength of the DNA connections points to Richard Grafton Belt rather than his brother as the most likely common ancestor.

Anyway, if you want to try your own psychoanalysis, you can get Wick’s book of family letters here.

Love & Monsters, by Niki Haringsma

For my Black Archive write-ups I like to give heavily documented notes of my previous comments on each story and novelisation. This works well for Old Who, but less so for New Who where there are fewer novelisations and I didn’t always write up the stories on first broadcast. So for Love & Monsters, I have only the following note from my Great Rewatch in 2013:

Love and Monsters [sic] is one of the most daring episodes of Who ever. Paul Cornell has written a spirited defence of the story as an episode about fandom, about the show Doctor Who rather than its central character, and he makes a good case. But the fact is that this had not been done before in New Who, and only really in passing in Old Who (most notably in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though talk of fans of the Doctor goes back to The Savages). The episode is doubly daring in that it is the first of the Doctor-lite episodes that we now accept as a regular event in New Who. It is a bit bizarre, and it doesn’t fit with the previous run of the programme at all, but I think it’s OK for Who to be experimental occasionally and that it more or less works.

Watching it again, almost a decade later, we’ve had a lot more Who stories, both on TV and off, that were self-referential and reflexive; Paul Cornell’s The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who is a particular high point for me, but a lot of the Moffat era treated the Doctor as a figure of intergalactically mythic importance. And the Doctor-lite episodes also became the norm for the rest of the Davies era, including my favourite episode of the whole of New Who, Blink. So Love & Monsters now seems less disruptive and more trend-setting. But it’s still unusual.

It’s also striking in that it gets a tremendous performance from Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler. At first the story mocks her obsession with Elton, but it rapidly shifts to heart-breaking as he betrays her. It is very good writing to take a character you have been laughing at, and turn them into an object of sympathy, without missing a beat. Davies actually tries to do this fairly often, but is not always as successful as he is here.

The world of Who is sometimes quite small. In 1988-89, I was the External Officer of what was then the Clare College Students Association in Cambridge. The Welfare Officer was a more arty chap, who moved in generally different circles to me. About five years later, I caught a very well-made short film on TV called That Sunday, starring Minnie Driver and Alan Cumming. I enjoyed the 16 minutes hugely – I’m a Minnie Driver fan anyway – and then my jaw dropped when the credits revealed that it had been both written and directed by my old comrade from the JCR Committee.

That was as nothing to my surprise when the credits rolled at the end of Love and Monsters, a dozen years after that, and I saw the director’s name. Dan Zeff has gone on to be a medium-to-big name in the UK film industry, but Love and Monsters is his only venture into the Whoniverse. (Incidentally the credits sequence on my DVD copy cuts off before the director’s name is displayed; I hope he’s getting compensated for that. I haven’t checked extensively but it seems to be the case for several other episodes from that season.)

So, let’s go forward another eight years, to one of the first Belgian conventions I attended, the 2014 Antwerp Convention, where guests included Colin Baker. As I made myself comfortable for his presentation, I got into conversation with the fan sitting beside me; we found that our tastes were aligned on a number of points regarding Doctor Who, and have stayed in touch ever since, though I think that is the only time we have actually met. I was delighted when he got the commission to write this book, drawing on his literary studies and fan-writing experience.

Here’s Niki’s own blogpost introduction to the book. He says up front that he loved the episode from the first time he saw it, but also recognises that this is not a universal view. Writing the book helped to work through the reasons for both love and hate, but especially love.

I found a wonderful community while writing this Black Archive. So many people came up to me to say how much they loved the episode. Sure, they could all see the awkwardness and camp, the disgusting rubber-suit monster, the fan characters becoming creepy stalkers, but they still adored the whole thing because it spoke to them. I made so many new friends who helped me with my investigation ‘n’ detection, and my book became a love letter to the comradery of Doctor Who fandom itself.

The first chapter, “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system”, looks at the production reasons why the story was made in the first place, and why it had such a tight budget. It identifies “The Zeppo”, one of my favourite Buffy episodes, as partial inspiration.

The second chapter, “Spaceships and lasers and everything”, looks at how the viewer is estranged from the action by the way the story is told, invoking Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of oстраннение (often translated as “defamiliarisation”, but here as “estrangement”) and its implementation in the works of Bertold Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera. I am not familiar with either, but I found this tremendously interesting. He also looks at the queerness of Elton’s relationship with Ursula after her transformation, and how the dynamics of fandom are portrayed in LINDA.

The third chapter’s title is “This isn’t, you know, my whole life”. Its second paragraph, and the quote it introduces, are:

It was decided that the comic pitch would make a good TV episode instead. The female protagonist became a male one. The reason for this change, according to Davies, was that there had already been too many female characters who fancied the Doctor. He explains:
‘Very soon after drawing this up, I looked at the amount of women in Series 2, especially those arguably in love with the 10th Doctor – Sarah Jane, Madame de Pompadour, not to mention Rose – and I decided that he’d broken too many female hearts! Time for a man! And so Elton was born.’3
3 Davies, ‘Second Sight’, p9.

The chapter looks briefly at Elton as a character, and the unreliability of his narration.

The fourth chapter, “Great big absorbing creature from Outer Space”, looks at the Absorbaloff, about the role of fans in creativity around Doctor Who (including the fact that Davies and Tennant were both long-term fans themselves), culminating in the idea for the monster coming from a nine-year-old fan, and finishes with more analysis of what the Absorbaloff really stands for.

The fifth chapter, “We’ve got the place to ourselves”, looks in depth at Jackie, but reminds us that there are two other mothers in the story as well – Elton’s own mother, whose death is linked with the Doctor, and Bridget, the LINDA member who is looking for her own daughter and is one of the first to be absorbed.

The sixth chapter, “Fetch a Spade!”, examines how the story hints at the darker side of the Doctor’s personality, and quotes Jon Arnold on Amy Pond, before going back to Shklovsky’s oстраннение and also Itō Gō’s concept of キャラ (kyara), instantly recognisable archetypes. as manifested in the characters of Love & Monsters and then meditating on the nature of fandom and the character of the Tenth Doctor.

The seventh chapter, “What he never won’t represent”, starts by asking the reader, “Am I a good fan?” But we are reassured. “If you’re reading this book, chances are you’re not satisfied with just taking Doctor Who at face value. You probably want to dive in a little, poke it, look at it from different angles and see what’s hidden inside. Luckily, there are endless ways to do so.” Haringsma invokes Barthes’ Death of the Author, and goes on to unpack Ursula as a paving slab and romantic partner, taking us in some surprising directions.

A brief conclusion invokes Brecht again, and leaves us with these thoughts:

Maybe as you’re reading this, a text-only Target Love & Monsters novelisation will have seen the light of day as well. And maybe Ursula’s transformation will be obviously queer this time around, or maybe the Abzorbaloff will remind us a bit more of some particularly obnoxious fan. Or maybe not. Because the world is changing and transforming too, making room for new lessons that can be taught, new fannish circles of new geeks hungry to seize the reins. Maybe this strange adventure that’s been absorbed into fandom’s consciousness can be re-imagined to tell another story altogether. But it will always have been this wonderful little side-step in the Doctor’s life. And as fans, we have the opportunity to look beyond the episode’s awkwardness and camp – and to celebrate Love & Monsters for all that it is. Because it’s so much darker…
…and so much madder…
…and, y’know, it’s got a blowjob joke and everything.

It’s always nice when someone I like writes a book I like about a subject I like. Niki is a friend, the book took me to some very interesting places that I had not really considered, and while I’m still not completely sure if I like Love & Monsters, I love Doctor Who. You can get the book here.

November 2018 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

This month started with one of the crazier trips I have done in recent years: a visit to the London office, followed by a Worldcon planning meeting in Heathrow, followed by the congress of the European People’s Party in Helsinki, followed by a conference on civil society in Belgrade, in the margins of which I visited the ancient roman imperial capital of Sremska Mitrovica (Sirmium). I then went to Paris to celebrate the centenary of the Armistice, had another trip to London, and finished the month at SMOFcon in Santa Rosa, California. (I have since discovered that I have distant cousins living there.) I went to not one but two exhibitions about the Peanuts cartoons and their creator, Charles M. Schulz.

People asked me what I was doing in Helsinki. I think it was fairly obvious.
Ready to speak in the Serbian parliament chamber
Roman ruins in Sremska Mitrovica
The Golden Gate Bridge
With David Gerrold at the Peanuts museum.

Despite all the travel, I read only 12 books that month.

Non-fiction: 1 (YTD 46)
52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, by Ruth Padel
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Fiction (non-sf): 6 (YTD 32)
Baptism in Blood, by Jane Haddam
Burr, by Gore Vidal
The Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner
The Prisoner and The Fugitive, by Marcel Proust
And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini
All The King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
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Theatre: 1 (YTD 4)
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
0521094747.01._SX175_SY250_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1].jpg

sf (non-Who): 2 (YTD 105)
Hybrid, by Shaun Hutson
Hardwired, by Walter Jon Williams
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Doctor Who, etc: 1 (YTD 32)
Doctor Who: Twelve Angels Weeping: Twelve Stories of the Villains from Doctor Who, by Dave Rudden
B07FF3SJ5R.01._SX175_SY250_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1].jpg

Comics: 1 (YTD 25)
Brüsel, by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

~5,100 pages (YTD ~67,400)
2/12 (YTD 98/248) by non-male writers (Padel, Haddam)
1/12 (YTD 25/248) by PoC (Hosseini)

The best of these was of course Hamlet, which you can get here; the best new reads were And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, which you can get here, and The Stone Book Quartet, by Alan Garner, which you can get here. Nothing too awful.

Saturday reading

Current
To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt
The Danger Men, by Nick Walter
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Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman

Last books finished
An Eloquent Soldier: The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-14, ed. Gareth Glover
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Çerkez
Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller
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Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee
The Caucasus: an Introduction, by Thomas de Waal
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Next books
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, by John Toon
Faith in Politics, by John Bruton
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2015. It was way ahead at the nominations stage of the Hugos, for reasons that we will get to, and achieved a comfortable victory on the final ballot.

There was an unusually strong overlap between the two awards, as all five Hugo finalists were also on the Bradbury ballot; the other four were Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow and The Lego Movie. The Bradbury Award had one more finalist, Birdman (which won the Oscar, so I’ll get to it next). The only one of these I have seen is The Lego Movie, and I loved it.

769 nominations was the highest number for any Hugo nominee in any category that year. Of course this was the year of the Puppies, when five categories were No-Awarded. Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the only Puppy nominee which actually won. It’s pretty clear that it would have been on the ballot anyway even without Puppy assistance – there were at most 300 Puppy nominators, so even taking them away has it level-pegging with Interstellar, and both of them well ahead of any other nominee, Puppy or not.

IMDB users rank Guardians of the Galaxy 2nd and 7th best film of the year on the two rankings. Interstellar is top of both lists. Might it have won the Hugo without the Puppies? The winning margin was less than 800 votes, and there were over a thousand Puppy voters. We’ll never know.

I found one actor who had been in a previous Oscar winner, one from a previous Hug winner, and one actor who had been in Doctor Who. The first of these is John C. Reilly, Rhomann Dey here, who got an Oscar nomination for his role as Renee Zellweger’s husband in Chicago.

Returning from a previous cameo appearance in The Avengers is Stan Lee, aged 90 at the time of filming.

The Doctor Who crossover is a bit more prominent; villainous Nebula is played by Karen Gillan, fresh from her portrayal of Amy Pond.

So, I have to say that I was not really all that impressed. It’s basically yer usual Marvel superhero film, where a bunch of good guys (and a gal) get together to save the universe from the bad guys (and a gal), with superb special effects and action, shafts of wit in the script, and a couple of cute humanoids – Vin Diesel stealing many scenes with only three words.

But I was not really invested in any of the characters or in their quest. I’m putting it just ahead of The Avengers, for having Karen Gillan, but below The Princess Bride, so just above the three-quarter mark down my ranking of Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury winners (41st out of 56).

Next up is that year’s Oscar winner, Birdman, of which I know very little. The following year the Bradbury went to Mad Max: Fury Road and the Hugo to The Martian. I’ll get to them in due course.

The First World War Diary of Noël Drury, 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers: Gallipoli, Salonika, The Middle East and the Western Front, ed. Richard Grayson

As mentioned yesterday, I have been reading a couple of war memoirs by officers serving with Irish regiments of the British army, written a hundred years apart. Yesterday I wrote up Charles Crowe’s memories of serving in the Peninsular War with my 3xgreat-uncle, Thomas Whyte; today it’s the memoirs of Noel Drury about his service with Thomas Whyte’s great-nephew, my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte.

Second paragraph of third chapter (Grayson’s introduction):

On 9 August, the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers finally got orders to take part in an advance from Hill 50 towards All Bey Chesme. This was Drury’s first real action and he recalled, ‘The firing was worse than I imagined it would be and I felt very scared’, with snipers hidden in trees a particular problem. The attack failed and Drury attributed that to ‘the failure by the staff to work out any proper scheme at the beginning while there was a chance of our getting there without much opposition’ and also ‘the extraordinarily bad behaviour of the 11th (Northern) Division troops and some of the 53rd’.6 Casualties for the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were heavy: 11 officers and 259 other ranks, with 6 of the officers turning out to be dead, which necessitated some reorganisation of the battalion.7 The battalion spent the next few days digging in, struggling to find water but on 12 August were reattached to their own 30th Brigade and sent to a ‘rest camp’.8 Drury felt there was a ‘subtle wit’ at work in naming this a rest camp, noting ‘Anything less like a Rest Camp you couldn’t imagine. It was a bare slope, cleared in the scrub and having tracks of a “hay” crop of hard wiry burnt grass. The sun was beating down with a heat such I have never felt before. There was no shade.”9
6 Diary entry, 9 Aug 1915.
7 Diary entries, 9 and 11 Aug 1915.
8 Diary entry, 12 Aug 1915.
9 Diary entry, 13 Aug 1915.

Second paragraph of third chapter (Drury’s diary):

So we started off for the great adventure. I felt very nervous, as I am sure the others did, about how I would get on when real fighting started, and I think the responsibility of leading the men well, weighed on us.

I was put onto this by browsing around after reading a disappointing book on the 10th (Irish) Division in the First World War. Noel Drury was born in 1883; his family owned the busiest (and at one stage the only) paper mill in Ireland. He had two brothers, one of whom stayed at home to run the mill during the war (and then died in the influenza pandemic) and the other a doctor who joined the RAMC. He left four volumes of war diaries to the National War Museum; Richard Grayson, who I have known for thirty years, has now edited them down by about half and presents them for us here.

My main interest is that Drury served with the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and one of his closest colleagues, who gets more mentions than anyone except the battallion’s original commander Colonel P.G.A. “Paddy” Cox, was my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte, who fought alongside him and succeeded Cox as the battalion’s commanding officer. I never knew my grandfather, who died in 1949, long before I was born, so for me this is a unique insight into the man who contributed a quarter of my DNA.

Bill Whyte was born in 1880, the seventh son (of nine) and eleventh child (of fourteen) of my great-grandfather John Joseph Whyte (1826-1916). He had been a soldier since 1901 when he signed up for the Boer War. He appears on the very first page of Drury’s diary, welcoming Drury to the battalion in December 1914. Months of training then follow before they are sent to the eastern Mediterranean, arriving at Alexandria in July 1915, where Bill Whyte already knows the city, having been there on a previous military mission, and shows Drury around.

Their first (and as it turns out worst) day of actual combat is 9 August 1915, two days after their landing in Suvla Bay as part of the Gallipoli campaign, with no maps and no orders. They are ordered forward to capture a couple of hills, but in the confusion of war nothing seems to go right. Bill Whyte shuttles back and forth from the front line to Colonel Cox to try and sort things out. They manage to hold a ridge for a week, but are finally forced to withdraw to a prepared defensive position by the Turkish army, and Bill Whyte is injured in the neck/shoulder as they retreat. By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, half of the battalion’s men have been killed or wounded, or fallen ill, including 22 of the 26 officers.

The 6th Battalion spends the next month dug in on the Gallipoli front. Bill Whyte comes back from hospital on 21 September, five weeks after he was shot, and the soldiers move out at the end of the month to Thessalonica in Greece, where they spend October. They spend the whole of November preparing to defend the Allied positions just across the Serbian (now Macedonian) border. Eventually, without too much actual combat, it becomes clear that the position cannot be held against the incoming Bulgarian army, and Bill Whyte organises the retreat from the Battle of Kosturino on 8 December.

I knew some of this part of the story, having read up on the Macedonia campaign and actually explored the battlefield a few years ago. But I had not realised that the Allied troops had spent more than a month dug into the freezing Macedonian hills before being forced to withdraw. My grandfather was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia as a reward for his part in the campaign, unsuccessful as it was.

I was startled, when I visited the Imperial War Museum (North) in Manchester a year ago, to find a vivid depiction of the battlefield, “Land Heals, Memories Remain”, a 2018 painting by Jen Gash, at the entrance to the main exhibition hall.

The Battalion falls back to Thessalonica, and settles down to defending the lines and preparing for the next offensive. Meanwhile Drury goes down with malaria in July 1916 and is invalided home, returning only in July 1917 after a year away, to find that the front line in Macedonia has barely moved in the meantime.

In September 1917 there are two significant developments. First, the battalion is sent to Egypt as part of the Palestine campaign. Second, there is a new commanding officer. Colonel Cox is ordered home on 1 September, and Drury notes, “I wonder who will get Command – I’m afraid Bill Whyte won’t, as his deafness was a bar in the past.” (I was well aware of my grandfather’s deafness, supposedly due to overdosing on quinine during a bout with malaria.) But on 17 September he writes:

Great news. Major WH Whyte was in Orders today as Lieutenant Colonel and to command the Battalion. I am so glad as he is a damn fine fellow and a white man [sic]. He breathes the spirit of the Regiment and loves it better than anything. He knows the whole history of it and is always instilling it into the men. One malefactor when brought up at Orderly Room found himself sentenced to learn all the Battle Honours and their dates by heart.

And the next day:

Bill Whyte turned up at Orderly Room today with his crown and star on, amid hearty congratulations from everyone. It’s a huge relief that we haven’t had a dago sent to command.

(Presumably “dago” here means an officer from another regiment; or possibly just a non-Irishman.)

The battalion is held in reserve for the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of Jerusalem, and has a brief skirmish with a failed Turkish counteroffensive at the very end of the year. In January, Bill Whyte wrote a letter to the former chaplain of the Battalion; when I first came across this I had no idea who the people in question were, but thanks to Drury’s diaries I now can identify all of them. This is from our family papers, not part of Drury’s book.

13 January 1918

Dear Padré [Father Murphy, the former Catholic chaplain],

This is to wish you all of the best for 1918 and also to ask why the divil we never hear from you? The boys do be going strong and as you probably have read we have had three successful stunts so we are all wagging our tails hard.
Has been hard work on little food and less drink; absolutely no whiskey! Stuffer [R.C. Byrne, the battalion quartermaster] is perforce a teetotaler and aging rapidly.
John Luke [another of the senior officers], sitting beside me much wishes he was where he last saw you. I gather you fed him nobly with drink in proportion!

Well, here we are in the Holy Land and as [probably mythical] Pat Murphy said “It’s no wonder Abraham was always wandering; sure he would be looking for a better spot.”
I got as far as Jerusalem just for a look at it. As a city most disappointing, incredibly dirty and smelly with a loathsome population. The interest of course is in the association with Biblical and Christian incidents. I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Garden of Gethsemane Mount of Olives etc etc. Had only time for a glimpse at each, and also one or two of the Moslem places. The Mosque of Omar built on the site of Solomon’s temple is far and away the finest thing in Jerusalem or out of it. The whole of this country is full of interest also. We bivouaced under the hill where Christ is supposed to have appeared to the three disciples after his resurrection [meaning the appearance on the road to Emmaus, which was to two disciples, not three]. There is a Latin Monastery there ran by Franciscans. – French and Italian [the monastery at Al-Qubaibeh, which had been founded only in 1902].
Got some bread and oranges out of them when they learnt we were all R.Cs. The Turk had left them pretty bare. The O.C. Monks breakfasted with me next day and was very interesting. They are evidently very industrious people, have transformed the top of a bare and bleak mountain into quite a charming spot. Trees planted, gardens flourishing with vines, oranges, pepper trees, etc. to say nothing of flowers and vegetables. Chapel is very fine and the Monastery and Hospice are very large; all buildings cut stone. We were using Hospice as a hospital. By the way it was here our padre first failed us. Being a holy man I sent him out foraging to the Monastery, as we were short of food, and expected him to return with all sorts of luxuries. However all he got out of the Monks was permission to pray in their Chapel! Not much use to hungry men! I think you or the Canon would not have come away empty handed.
The padre is one of your recruits Fr O’Carroll by name a good lad, but a bit young for the “brutal soldiery”. Next day I took in the job of foraging myself.
Another day we had a small scrap in the same place where Joshua hunted the 4 kings (I think) [actually five kings; the valley of Ajalon, a skirmish also described by Drury as taking place on 1 December 1917]. As far as I remember a terrific hail storm put the wind up them. We were assisted by a fog and sneaked up to the Turk and put the wind up him.
As regards fighting generally we have had a walk over as compared with the Gallipoli days. My company on 9th August lost more in 3 hours than the battalion has lost in all this campaign. Thank God for it. Our last stunt, when we counter attacked during Turks attempt to recapture Jerusalem, was I think our best effort. Anyhow the old Division was let loose as a whole and we fairly wiped everybody else’s eye. Our share of the pick up was more killed, wounded, prisoners, guns, M.Gs. etc. was more than three times as large as all the other divisions put together. [27-29 December, around Deir Ibzia]
It was hard work though. Xmas day was the divil raining like hell and New Years Day if possible worse. All the time we were on bully & biscuit and not enough of either. Indeed to look back now over the country we put the Turk out of it is astonishing an army was ever able to cross it. We went up 4 mountains all nearly 3000 feet high to say nothing of dozens of lower eminences. Men of course were marvelous, so happy and cheery under most adverse conditions and mad keen to get at the Turk. The other day a patrol came back grousing, saying the officer in charge was no good as he couldn’t find them any Turks to kill! With me still or rejoined lately are John Luke and Shadforth (both have done awfully well) also old Dovey Loveband and of course the Stuffer. Wodehouse also here sticking it out well in spite of rheumatism. [John Luke already mentioned; Captain H.A. “Tony” Shadforth; ]Guy Yerburgh Loveband; Stuffer Byrne already mentioned; Arthur Hugh Wodehouse, who had only recently joined the 6th Battalion from the 5th.]
Lots of the “old hands” here also “getting their own back”.
Col Cox [the previous commanding officer] writes he met you in Ireland so he will have given you all recent news. –

We have had no mail for weeks. In this country and under present weather conditions it takes a lot of doing to keep us fed and supplied with lead as a gift to the Turk. –

What is going on in Ireland? Is the convention [the Irish Convention, chaired by Horace Plunkett, in a well-meaning but doomed (and now largely forgotten) attempt to get a constitutional settlement in Ireland before Sinn Fein’s rise became unstoppable] going to put things right or are the Germans going to fool the Irishman into another rebellion? Meantime we are sighing for fresh blood to help us carry on. Only yesterday I had 2 men hit for the 4th time and another hit for the sixth! They will still carry on whilst thousands of able bodied men at home waste time doing nothing but talk rot.
Nothing else matters, except to beat the Hun. When that is done there will be no particular harm in people returning to their petty parish politics. –

Well! Well! God save Ireland anyway!
Have you done any racing lately? And if so I hope you gave Miss May Grehan VAD. better tips than you ever gave me! Give her my kindest regards. [May Grehan’s sister Magda was married to Bill Whyte’s brother George; they were second cousins once removed; May and Magda Grehan had two other sisters, who both married first cousins of the Whytes on the Ryan side; May eventually married an unrelated Englishman in 1922] Also to The Canon [the former Protestant chaplain of the battalion, R.A. MacClean, rector of Rathkeale in Limerick] when next you see him, and the two of you can drink to the health of yours v sincerely

W. H. Whyte

In March the Battalion take part in the Battle of Tell ‘Asur, but the Turkish troops withdraw pretty quickly (as usual at that stage of the war). The battle of Tell ‘Asur brings a particular difficulty as John Luke, one of the most senior officers who was very close to both Drury and Whyte, disobeying a direct order (possibly due to drunkenness) and consequently being court-martialled. (He was ultimately acquitted. Before the war he had resigned from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers after an incident of drunkenness, before rejoining in the war and he was fined for public drunkenness in 1922.)

After that things are fairly quiet, though Bill Whyte has the usual problems of leadership to address, and the soldiers go back and forth to Cairo fairly freely. On one of these train journeys, Drury has an interesting encounter:

When we got to Zagazig, I noticed a peculiarly shabby-looking fellow mouching along in an officer’s tunic but without badges or regimental buttons, unshaved and with long hair. He looked such a disgrace that I was on the point of speaking to him when one of the 10th Divison staff with whom I was sitting said to me ‘Don’t you think you might think first before blazing at him, and don’t you know who it is?’ I said I didn’t and he replied ‘That’s Colonel Lawrence.’ He was probably just back from one of his wonderful stunts with the Arabs and had picked up any old gear to take him to Cairo.

I had wondered if my grandfather ever encountered Lawrence of Arabia. I still don’t know the exact answer but I am satisfied with what I have.

The battalion is sent to France, and then in early September 1918 Bill Whyte is unexpectedly sent for “a rest for a while at home” (I have no idea what was really going on there; was it connected with John Luke’s court-martial?) and replaced with a new CO, Colonel Little, who Drury immediately dislikes. After four years, the war in France is finally going well, and the battalion starts to make major progress against the Germans (the first time that they had actually fought the Germans – previously it was the Turks and the Bulgarians). Then on 11 November everything changes.

About 09.00, Colonel Little came along and after saying ‘Good morning’, casually remarked ‘Well, we stop today’, so I replied ‘Thank the Lord, we could do with a spell of a few days’. So he smiled and said ‘Oh, but we stop altogether, the old war’s finished’. I thought he was pulling my leg so I asked him was I to tell that to the men? He said ‘Yes, certainly, an Armistice has been signed and all fighting will cease at 11.00 exactly’. He then handed me the official order, — ‘OC B Coy 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Hostilities will cease at 11.00 hours today, Nov. 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour which will be reported by wire to Advanced Army Headquarters. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until receipt of instructions from Army headquarters. Further instructions follow’ — 16th Corps HQ, 07.00, 11th November 1918.
I can hardly believe it. I don’t know what I feel, but somehow it’s like when one heard the death of a friend — a sort of forlorn feeling.
I went along and read out the order to the men, but they just stared at me and showed no enthusiasm at all. One or two just muttered ‘We were just getting a bit of our own back.’ They all had the look of hounds whipped off just as they were about to kill.

It’s extraordinary and yet somehow understandable that despite the horrors of years of war, Drury and some of his colleagues would have preferred to press on than to stop fighting; a sort of Stockholm syndrome.

My grandfather lived to 1949, dropping dead in church at the age of 68 with my father, then 20, standing beside him. Noel Drury died in 1975 shortly before his 92nd birthday, leaving most of his estate to a cousin who had been living with him; he never married. He had sold the family paper mill to the Irish state many decades earlier.

So, a few things jumped out at me, partly also as a result of having read Charles Crowe’s diary of the Peninsular War and his association with my grandfather’s great-uncle Thomas Whyte alongside Drury’s memoir. The First World War was a lot more static than the Peninsular War. The soldiers spent a lot of time stuck in one place, sometimes in trenches, sometimes in pleasant Mediterranean cities. Fighting seems to have taken up less than 10% of the time of the campaign – two weeks at Gallipoli, another couple of weeks in France at the end (which my grandfather missed), a few days in Macedonia and Palestine. The Peninsular War was a lot more fluid, though I think the proportion of the time spent fighting was a little higher.

The other striking difference is that women are much less visible. Drury stays in touch with his brother’s girlfriend, who is a nurse and often overlaps with him. He organises a concert for about 50 nurses and other British women in Thessalonica, and helps out a couple of lost Englishwomen in Normandy, but otherwise the first world war army is much more male than the army of the Napoleonic era.

Drury’s descriptions of people and places are vivid, if bigoted. It’s all very clearly presented. Richard Grayson has done a great job of breaking the story up into chapters and clarifying what was going on. And I’ve learned something more about my grandfather. As with Glover’s edition of Crowe’s diary, I wish there had been some maps, but apart from that I recommend it as a nice example of presenting primary source material. You can get it here.

An Eloquent Soldier: The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-14, ed. Gareth Glover

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Officers and men were so fully occupied making good their new billet, that few of them were aware of our arrival, and we waited some little time before the Adjutant came to us, who, to my surprise and delight, proved to be my very particular friend Lieutenant Close* who left us eighteen months before at Danbury Barracks, near Chelmsford. He gave me a most cordial welcome, delivered my animals and baggage to his own batman, and when I enquired for my billet, told me to wait until he had apportioned off the men of our detachment to the different companies. This duty performed, Close gave me another hearty shake of the hand, and taking my arm, said, ‘Come my old boy, I will show you your billet, you are my prisoner. I told the quarter master’s sergeant I should take you into my billet, for, being now Adjutant I am entitled to a good house by myself but we two can be, I think, very snug and comfortable, and talk about our long walks near Danbury. This town is so small that chief of the officers are doubled up, and the juniors are three and four in one house. I am sure you will be glad to get away from that rattle Hambly.’
* Lieutenant Edward Charles Close 48th Foot.

This is the first of two posts I’m doing this year for Remembrance Day. Both are published diaries of officers in Irish regiments of the British Army, from a century apart. My interest in both cases is not so much in the conflict itself but that both diarists served in close company with relatives of mine.

I feel somewhat ambiguous towards the military in general and the British army in particular. Back in 2010 I read through all ten volumes of the Bloody Sunday report, which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in state violence and subsequent cover-ups. At the same time, for many of my male Irish ancestors, joining up was a means of assuring income in a precarious economic situation. There’s a significant Irish component to the heritage of the British army, in both directions.

The earlier of the two diaries I’m looking at today and tomorrow concerns my great-great-great-uncle Thomas Whyte, who for very many years was nothing more to me than a sad little line in the family records, one of my great-great-grandfather Nicholas Charles Whyte’s seven brothers, most of whom died during the Napoleonic wars. A few more details came to light with more research. Thomas was born in 1778, and was a captain in the 3rd Battalion of the 27th Regiment of Foot, known as the Inniskillings because they were originally raised in Enniskillen. But I don’t have much more; in particular, I have no idea what he was doing before 1812..

You may have forgotten about the Peninsular War. In the quarter century of European fighting that culminated in 1815, for most British and Irish people the battles that stick in the memory are Waterloo and Trafalgar. But this was an intercontinental conflict, with action in India, Egypt, the Caribbean and North America. Within Europe, Spain was particularly badly hit, with different governments and their sponsors battling it out over seven long years; proportionate to population, it was twice as bloody as the Spanish Civil War 130 years later. Here’s an animation of the day-by-day progress of the sides in the war to illustrate how complex it was.

Charles Crowe, the diarist whose memories I’m looking at, was born in 1785 in Suffolk, and joined the local militia in 1810, transferring to the regular army in 1811 and setting sail for the war in Spain in 1812, which is when the diary starts. In January 1813 he got transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings; Crowe as a Lieutenant was immediately put in command of one the companies of the battalion.

I was really reading his diary for the mentions of my great-great-great-uncle, and there are about a dozen. When Crowe joins the 3rd Battalion, Whyte is the second in command and welcomes him to the team. It becomes apparent that since the commanding officer, Colonel John Maclean, is a Scot, Whyte has an important informal role as the most senior Irishman in a largely Irish battalion, and Crowe records him as intervening twice to defuse disciplinary issues before they escalate.

In July 1813 the French appear to have been beaten, and are clinging to Pamplona in the northeast of Spain. The British army masses for a showdown with the French forces led by Soult marching in from the North. As the 3rd Battalion prepares for battle, Crowe has dinner with Colonel Maclean and “our worthy little Captain Whyte”, which is literally the only indication we have of Thomas Whyte’s physical appearance.

On 19 July the Inniskillings are near the French border, and Whyte rides up to the pass to take “a peep at France”. A few days later the French come pouring in and Wellington orders his troops to fall back to the valley of Sorauren, north of Pamplona, to make a stand. As the battle starts on 28 July 1813, the Inniskillings find themselves in an exposed defensive position taking very heavy losses and with little support.

I left my men to watch the path and hastened up to report the circumstance to Captain Whyte and stated that I could no longer defend the left of his position, for my company was annihilated. He thanked, and requested me to go and inform the colonel that he must have support instantly. I scrambled up the steep as quickly as possible and found the colonel anxiously watching all our proceedings. I briefly told my tale, he quietly replied, ‘Thank you, my good fellow. Thank you! I have seen what you have been doing. Go and tell Captain Whyte to do the best he can, for I cannot send him any assistance. Lord Wellington has ordered me not to part with another man, but that should the enemy appear on our ground, I am to give them a volley and charge with my three remaining companies.’

‘Oh! Ho!’ thought I, ‘This is very cheering intelligence truly! But we must fight it out!’ … Poor Whyte was not pleased with the result of my embassy, we were talking with Captain Butler about it and what we could do when an aide de camp galloped up with order for us to retire. Each of us most willingly went to muster as many of our men as we could. I could find only eight of the fifty three I had brought into the field!

…Poor Captain Whyte, proud of being second in command of the regiment had advanced on horseback, perchance, but for this circumstance the worthy fellow might have escaped. He was shot through the head as we retired!

I guess the point that Grove is making is that on horseback, Thomas Whyte was more vulnerable (and clearly an officer and therefore a more obvious target for French snipers); if he had swallowed his pride and walked, he might have lived. Grove mourns

the loss of Captain Whyte, the good officer, the brave soldier, the perfect gentleman, the warmhearted friend! No one was ever more beloved by all classes.

The battle continued for another two days and the British eventually won, so they would have recaptured the spot where Whyte was killed while retreating. There is no record of his place of burial – in fact I don’t know of any physical memorial to him anywhere – but it was probably on the battlefield.

Location of the battlefield of Saurauren, north of Pamplona

As it turned out this was the last French offensive of the Peninsular War, and for the rest of the diary Grove plays his part in the invasion of France while increasingly suffering from poor health, which he attributes to aggravated sunstroke, though Glover thinks it was brucellosis contracted from infected milk. After Napoleon’s first surrender, the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings was merged with the 1st and sent to America, where they lost the Battle of Plattsburgh, but Grove was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, which had suffered very heavy losses at the Battle of Ordal in Catalonia in September 1813 and went to Ireland to help with recruitment to replenish their ranks. This meant that he missed the Battle of Waterloo, where the 1st Battalion (which now included the survivors of the 3rd Battalion), just back from America, lost two-thirds of their remaining men in the fighting around the farm of La Sainte Haye. If Thomas Whyte had not been killed two years earlier, he would probably have been killed at Waterloo.

After the war, Grove went home to Suffolk and seems to have lived a quiet life, marrying without children and eventually dying at 70 in 1855. Gareth Glover has done a great job of editing and explaining the two volumes of his memoirs, one held by the family and the other originally by the regimental museum in Enniskillen. He was also good enough to clear up a query by email, more than a decade after the book was published.

Fortunately for Glover (and us), Grove was a good writer and gives us some lovely descriptions of the landscape and vivid portrayals of the Portuguese, Spanish and French people who he encounters. He shows (and depicts his fellow soldiers as showing) a fannish devotion to Lord Wellington – not yet the Duke, a title he got in 1814. Every word he exchanges with the big boss is carefully noted and recorded.

I was also struck by how many women were involved with the army. Quite recently I read the memoir of Mother Ross, a genderqueer soldier from a century earlier who served under Marlborough as both a woman and a man; it’s clear from Grove that Wellington’s forces (and presumably the other side as well) depended on women as well as men, and some of the rank and file (especially what we would now call NCOs) travelled with their wives. One night in March 1814, seven of the soldiers’ wives were billeted together in the same house; and that evening, two of them gave birth.

Readers who are more interested in the Napoleonic Wars than me will get more out of this than I did, but I got what I wanted. You can get it here.

Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Some say it’s The Culture War, finally reaching into the realm of geeks, but it isn’t. The Culture War is a struggle between conservatives and liberals, and is more a label on thousands of disagreements than anything definite. That loosely defined war involves the issues held dear by the right wing and the left wing and how each would like America (or England, or wherever) to shift closer to those beliefs. The Puppy Mess isn’t a left/right affair. There are no conservatives trying to conserve anything or liberals trying to be open to new ideas. This is true for multiple reasons, but the main one being there aren’t two sides. This isn’t an us vs. them, left vs. right, good guys vs. bad guys situation, though some will vehemently say that it is as they search to find the illusive other side. This is everyone, and within everyone a small group breaking things. The metaphor of a war doesn’t apply; one of a terrorist cell would better reflect the situation.

A book of essays by Foster, widower of the much-missed Eugie, mostly assembled from blog posts at the time of the Puppy debacle. God be with the innocent days when we did not yet realise that cynically channeling outrage and resentment with no regard for the actual facts could be a viable political business model. He makes and emphasises the crucial point that there were not really two sides in the Puppy dispute; there was a small group of bad behavers who managed to motivate a larger but still small group to support them, and there was the rest of fandom who responded with revulsion. It’s a point worth bearing in mind if anyone ever tries to give you a “both-sides” interpretation of the events of 2015. Other than that, these are really historical primary material now; what will probably be the definitive chronicle of the Puppies has been written in Debarkle, by Camestros Felapton. But you can get Welcome to the Doomsphere here.

This was the second last unread book of all of those that I acquired in 2015. That leaves only Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez.

The Face of Evil, by Thomas L Rodebaugh (and Terrance Dicks)

Next in the excellent sequence of Black Archive books on Doctor Who.

I remember vividly watching The Face of Evil when it was first broadcast at the start of 1977 (the first episode was shown on New Year’s Day). I loved it then and I still like it now. When I rewatched it in 2007, I wrote:

The Face of Evil was broadcast in 1977 between two other excellent Fourth Doctor stories, The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death. It features the introduction of new companion Leela, played by Louise Jameson, a warrior woman of a primitive far-future clan descended from the crew of a crashed spaceship. She had a difficult act to follow, and perhaps it’s as well that we had the companionless Deadly Assassin and a month’s break to help us get over the departure of Sarah Jane Smith (and more about her in a coming post). But she really does seem right for the part from the word go, as a new kind of foil for Baker’s Doctor, a woman confident in her own culture and not afraid to engage with the new and unknown.

The story itself is good rollicking stuff: hinges on one of my least favourite devices, an untelevised earlier adventure, but that aspect is brought unashamedly into the story at the end of the first episode and done well and unapologetically. The name of the other tribe who are enemies of Leela’s people causes some amusement in this household. (I must stop playing the litany when the in-laws are visiting.)

When I got to it in my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

And, even if Sarah Jane is the greatest of Old Who companions, we then hit Leela’s introduction in The Face of Evil. This is the first time we have had a new companion who does not arrive in the the first story in the season since The Wheel In Space; indeed the first time we have had a new companion other than in the first or last story of the season since The Highlanders, so it’s a disruption to the normal cycle of these things, just as Leela herself is a disruption – primitive, instinctual, sexy and violent. Just watch the clash of characters between Jameson the professional method actor and Baker the accidental instinctive actor, as the relationship develops. Last month’s Doctor Who Magazine ran an interview with Louise Jameson, where she reflected that she hadn’t quite realised that Leela was a sexy character at the time. We’ll hold over discussion of that point until next month.

The other thing to notice about The Face of Evil, viewed in the sequence of fourteen years of Old Who, is that it seems rather a riposte to The Savages from eleven years before (a story which was incidentally also followed by a story written by the same author about homicidal machines). I haven’t seen any serious questioning of Chris Boucher on this point, but it seems to me that the parallels of Elders/Savages vs Tesh/Sevateem, the playing around with absorption of the Doctor’s personality, and even the use of a hand-held mirror to reflect a death ray at a critical plot moment are a set of references to the older story. They are both jolly good scripts, and both repay the casual viewer (or, sadly, listener in the case of The Savages) even now.

I am ambivalent about references to unseen adventures; Terrance Dicks dealt with this in the novelisation by explaining that the Doctor went for a spin during the events of Robot and ended up dealing with Xoanon, which isn’t perfectly satisfactory but is better than we get from the screen version. My other reflection, more personally, is that as it happens my wife’s maiden name was Tesh, so certain lines from this story have extra entertainment value in our household. At least for me.

Rewatching it again, I still like it. In these days when people have been getting all upset about Doctor Who continuity (much more so than in 2010 when I last commented), it’s worth bearing in mind that there is a whole unseen adventure here that the story depends on, and the franchise moved happily on.

Though this time I wondered where all the other women are; we see only male Tesh, and the Sevateem have one woman warrior whose voice can be heard in the group chants, played by Barbara Bermel but uncredited. (She also plays the younger of the German women in the famous Fawlty Towers episode, again uncredited.) One of the voices of Xoanon is Pamela Salem, who had a more visible role in the following story.

Speaking of the voices of Xoanon, here is one of my own very few contributions to Doctor Who research. Spurred by reading a now-deleted story that the youngest of the voices was provided by “seven year-old Anthony Frieze, who had won a Design-A-Monster competition administered through the BBC exhibitions at Blackpool and Longleat”, I got in touch with someone called Anthony Frieze who confirmed that it was him and that otherwise almost every part of my source was wrong:

…as you have worked out I was older than the website records. In fact I was almost 11 in September 1976 (or “1876” as T[om] B[aker] dated a poster of his he asked me to sign). I have also seen references to winning a competition which may have been the way the director of the Face of Evil series explained my selection. In fact the explanation is somewhat more “young boys’ club”, as it were. The director, a chap called Pennant Roberts – if I recall correctly – had a wife who was a teacher at my school (Belmont Primary School, Chiswick) and she suggested my name having heard me read at assembly. No competition, as such that I was aware of. I had to re-record the the “Who am I” as I had the wrong emphasis.

I hope this has corrected some of the Dr Who lore.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of the story is:

Leela looked at the box in awe. ‘That keeps away the phantoms?’

When I most recently reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Face of Evil has a couple of interesting differences: Leela is actually portrayed as young, vulnerable and, well, girly in a way that is inconsistent both with the TV story as shown and with the other books. Also, of course, we have the explanation of how the Doctor’s face became the Face of Evil, as the result of a solo adventure shortly after his regeneration.

Not much to add apart from that; it’s one of Dicks’ less adventurous novelisations.

Thomas L Rodebaugh has written one of the more adventurous Black Archive books, however. He is a Professor and Clinical Training, Psychological and Brain Sciences at a mid-western American university, and has brought all of his professional expertise to bear on the story. The result is not really the book I wanted to read about The Face of Evil, but it’s clearly the book that Rodebaugh wanted to write, so I enjoyed it more as a gateway into someone else’s passion than as a stimulus for my own thoughts.

The first chapter, “The Face of Evil and the breakdown of the bicameral mind”, argues that the setup of the story strongly reflects the theories in Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some plausible points are made before he admits that there is simply no way that the writers and production team could have read and absorbed Jaynes’s book before making the story (the scripts were commissioned in January 1976 and delivered before the summer). He then argues for his own preferred personality model (the OCEAN aka Big Five model) and insists that by applying psychological theory to Doctor Who, we learn more about both. It is an interesting argument, but I am not completely convinced.

The second chapter, “Why psychology and why The Face of Evil“, briefly develops this further, calling attention to Christopher Boucher’s other work.

The third chapter has the title, “Ideas of madness”. Its second paragraph is:

If we start with whether Xoanon’s ‘madness’ is accurate, we have an immediate problem of determining what is meant here by ‘mad’. There are at last two different ways that the word is used in popular fiction. It is often used to signal that the person being labelled is beyond reason in a moral sense. This usage is aligned with what used to be called ‘moral insanity’: an affliction in which a person understands morality and the world, but makes choices without concern either for how those choices will affect others or the self1. The very term ‘moral insanity’ suggests that it is not the same as insanity without a qualifier, which historically referred to the condition of having a severe lack of understanding of reality. Thus, a person who kills because it seems fun is morally insane, whereas a person who kills due to a false belief that he or she is being attacked is simply insane.

It goes into some depth in an effort to diagnose Xoanon’s psychological afflictions, concluding that in fact Doctor Who in general is not very good at depicting mental illness and tends to go straight to stereotypes. (Vincent and the Doctor is consigned to a footnote.)

The fourth chapter, “Implicit bias and production design”, turns (thank goodness) away from psychology and looks instead at Leela. Was she based on Leila Khaled? Why did they insist that Louise Jameson wear contact lenses to change her eye colour to brown? Was her skin colour in fact deliberately darkened by make-up so that she would look more savage? To what extent is the story deliberately based on Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe? And where are all the Tesh and Sevateem women? None of these interesting questions is really answered, apart from the Captive Universe one where the answer is “not much”.

The fifth chapter looks a bit more at potential sources for and influences on the story; the films Forbidden Planet and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Harry Harrison’s Deathworld trilogy. Rodebaugh speculates that Brian Aldiss told the BBC about Harry Harrison, though I think BBC executives would have found plenty of his work in any nearby bookshop. Once again, he turns around at the end and says that looking for specific sources (other than Captive Universe) is a waste of time. This rhetorical device annoys me. I would rather be told up front what the author is trying to prove, rather than try and follow an argument for a dozen pages only to be told that the point is something completely different.

An appendix attempts to apply the OCEAN personality analysis to the different Doctors and to other Whoniverse characters.

A second appendix consists of an interview with Chris Boucher, which is really interesting though the key points have already been covered in the main text.

And finally, a third appendix looks at the massive continuity problems within the story. What about the Doctor’s previous visit? What’s the weather like on Leela’s home planet? And, again, where are the women?

It will be apparent that this is not my favourite of the Black Archive books, but I want to be fair and it will likely appeal to others more than me. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Someone had spray-painted “xo” in radiation-tag on each of the houses. An emoticon for a kiss and a hug. Or shorthand for the ecstasy and oxycodone they guzzled every night. And all the while, one question threaded itself around Jonathan’s thoughts: Would David enjoy it here?

As my regular reader knows, I’ve been friendly with Tochi Onyebuchi since he was a Yale undergraduate, so I was very keen to get hold of his first novel for the adult market. It has already won the 2022 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction, and I suspect may do better in the months to come.

In America a few decades from now, white folks have mostly left the poisoned, plague-ridden land to live the high life in space, with people of colour left to scrabble around in the ruins. But there is a lot more to it than that enraging situation (not too different from where we are now); Onyebuchi plays with Biblical tropes, the dynamics of religion, of white folks unwittingly making things worse, sexuality and acceptance, all in rich prose which jumps along its own timeline without ever losing the run of itself. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white writer. Next on that pile is All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award and me, again

Eight years ago I was very pleased to be appointed by the BSFA as one of the judges of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I’m very glad to say that the Science Fiction Foundation has appointed me to the current panel, for the best science fiction novel first published in the United Kingdom during 2022.

This will mean some reduction in book-blogging here. The keen-eyed among you will have noticed that I’ve been coding some recent sf reads by Greek letters rather than writing them up; those represent books which have been, or might be, submitted for the award. However, that still leaves plenty of other books to write about.

As I said last time, Arthur C. Clarke was one of those writers who dragged me into sf, through Of Time And StarsA Fall of MoondustImperial EarthEarthlightRendezvous with RamaThe City and the StarsThe Fountains of ParadiseChildhood’s End20012010, and the various other short stories and non-fiction around the place. His writing style is lucid, ironic, occasionally passionate, usually infused with sensawunda. I’m really honoured to be part of the award that celebrates his legacy.

October 2018 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days, I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

My travel this month was a work trip to London and a Worldcon planning trip to Dublin. At home, we had a nice excursion with the girls. It was impossible to get them both looking at the camera, but at least in this shot they are looking at each other.

My brother visited Brussels, and I persuaded F to come into the city for dinner. As far as I know, we are the only male-line descendants of our great-great-grandfather Nicholas Charles Whyte (1784-1844). He had two younger sons, our great-grandfather’s brothers. One of them never married; the other had four daughters and a son, but the son had no children. Our grandfather was one of nine brothers, but the other eight between them produced only one daughter. Our father had just the one sister. Apart from our own sister, who has kept her birth name, our closest Whyte relatives are descended from brothers of our great-great-grandfather and are therefore at least our fourth cousins.

On the last weekend of the month the local woods had a heitage day, including historical re-enactment of a local court session.

I read only 15 books that month.

Non-fiction: 3 (YTD 45)
Here’s My Card, by Bob Popyk
Seychelles: The Saga of a Small Nation Navigating the Cross-Currents of a Big World, by Sir James R. Mancham
Behind the Sofa: Celebrity Memories of Doctor Who, ed. Steve Berry

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 26)
Sodom and Gomorrah, by Marcel Proust
Gentleman’s Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson

sf (non-Who): 6 (YTD 103)
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Sound of his Horn, by Sarban
Larque on the Wing, by Nancy Springer
The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson
Earth Girl, by Janet Edwards

Doctor Who, etc: 2 (YTD 31)
Doctor Who: The Women Who Lived – Tales for Future Time Lords, by Christel Dee and Simon Guerrier
The Vampire Curse, by Mags Halliday, Kelly Hale and Philip Purser-Hallard

Comics: 2 (YTD 24)
Doctor Who: The Widow’s Curse, ed. Tom Spilsbury
Retour sur Aldébaran, tome 1, by Leo

~5,000 pages (YTD ~62,300)
6/15 (YTD 96/236) by non-male writers (Hobson, Springer, Wells, Edwards, Dee, Halliday/Hale)
1/15 (YTD 24/236) by PoC (Mancham)

My favourite of these was Tiptree winning Larque on the Wing, now much better known for her Enola Homes series; you can get it here. Worst of the month, and I think probably worst of the whole year of 2018, was the vastly out-of-date Here’s My Card by Bob Popyk; you can get it here.

Saturday reading

Current
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Çerkez
An Eloquent Soldier: The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-14, ed. Gareth Glover
Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee
The Caucasus: an Introduction, by Thomas de Waal

(all non-fiction, for once.)

Last books finished
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The End of the Day, by Claire North
The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough
Doctormania, by Cavan Scott et al
The First World War Diary of Noël Drury, 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers: Gallipoli, Salonika, The Middle East and the Western Front, ed. Richard Grayson

Next books
Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller
The Danger Men, by Nick Walter
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman

Gravity

Gravity won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2014. We have the Hugo statistics which show that it had a very healthy margin over the competition.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Pacific Rim were finalists for both the Hugo and the Bradbury Awards; Frozen and Iron Man 3 were up for the Hugo, and Europa Report and Her for the Bradbury. (That was the year of the last UK Worldcon, when Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.) The only one of those that I have seen is Frozen, and that’s “seen” as in “was in the same room as small children who were watching it”.

IMDB users rate Gravity 3rd best film of the year on one ranking but a surprisingly low 41st on the other. The voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were very favourable – it won seven Oscars, the most ever for any film, other than Cabaret, that did not win Best Picture. I’m with the award voters; I really liked it. I’m putting it at about the 40% mark of my Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners list, in 21st place out of 55, below Aliens and above The Truman Show.

There are only two visible members of the cast (a record low, I think, for this sequence of films), and neither had previously been in an Oscar-winning, Hugo-winning, or Nebula/Bradbury-winning film, and neither has ever been in Doctor Who. We do have the unseen Ed Harris, who was the sinister illusory Parcher in A Beautiful Mind and the equally sinister Christof in The Truman Show; here he is the voice of Mission Control, but is not visible, so no photos.

It’s a very straightforward film about two American astronauts marooned in low earth orbit after a disaster destroys their space shuttle. They are played by impossibly cute actors, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Like Aliens, it does just one thing and does it very well, for only 97 minutes. Clooney and Bullock are both very watchable, but to be honest we are really distracted from their good looks by the unceasing momentum of the plot and the steadily increasing danger of the situation.

Incidentally, at the time of writing, the ten astronauts currently in space have an average age of 46 years and nineteen days, and a median age of 45 years and eleven months, so we can call it an even 46. The youngest, Anna Kikina, is two months past her 38th birthday. The oldest, Koichi Wakata, is three months past his 59th. So Sandra Bullock, at 49, and George Clooney, at 51, are realistically in the current age bracket for astronauts. (In the early days of spaceflight, things were very different.)

I commented after watching Twelve Years A Slave that I looked forward to seeing why Oscar voters thought that Gravity had better cinematography and film editing. Well, it does. It’s a masterpiece of technology, for much of the film putting a single actor into special effects and getting the maximum believable performance out of both her and the system. The weightless sequences are simply amazing. We haven’t seen anything like this before. I am sure that Bullock did not have to try very hard to act exhausted at the end; the entire film depends on her.

The music won an Oscar as well; I wasn’t blown away by it but I liked it well enough.

Not a lot more to say about this, but I glad that I finally got around to watching it. Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy, which won the Hugo and Bradbury Awards the following year, and is rated higher than Birdman which won the Oscar.

Lineage, ed. Shaun Russell

Second paragraph of third story (“What’s Past is Prologue”, by David A. McIntee):

‘Are the girls ready?’ Alistair asked.

A collection of short stories in the timeline of Candy Jar Books’ Lethbridge-Stewart sequence, this time looking at the Brigadier’s ancestors and relatives from the seventeenth century to the present day (2018). All good fun, nothing that especially stood out (maybe the Quarks in the last of the stories). You can get it here.

The Bad Christian’s Manifesto: Reinventing God, (and other modest proposals), by Dave Tomlinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Eventually I settled on one of the God channels, the sort my wife scorns me for watching. But, hey, she wasn’t there; I could do what I liked. The show featured a man talking about a near-death experience (he called it his ‘resurrection’ experience). He told how, after leaving his body, he travelled through a tunnel of light and arrived in heaven where an angel greeted him and escorted him into the ‘throne room’ of God for a personal audience with the Almighty.

This is a book for Christians, especially those involved in ministry, and that basically means it is not a book for me. I appreciate the author’s efforts to advocate a more open, more generous and more inclusive Christianity, but it’s not my circus and not my monkeys, and I put it aside after fifty earnest pages. You can get it here.

This came to the top of three lists simultaneously: top unread book acquired in 2015, shortest unread book acquired in 2015, and non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. The two remaining books in my 2015 pile are both non-fiction and both equally popular on LibraryThing (in that I am the only recorded owner of either). I will start with the shorter one, Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster, and then move to the one I acquired earlier, Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez.

La Femme, ed. Ian Whates

Second paragraph of third story (“A Winter Bewitchment”, by Storm Constantine):

“What is it, my lady?” Mimosa asked.

An anthology which I got in 2015, probably because that year’s BSFA Short Fiction Winner, “Honey Trap” by Ruth Booth, was published in it. The stories all have a common theme of women protagonists with agency. It starts strongly with two very good stories – “Palestinian Sweets”, by Stephen Palmer, who I don’t think I have otherwise come across, and “Slink-Thinking”, by Frances Hardinge. I wasn’t as sure about the rest, and unfortunately the last story in the volume is by an author whose personal conduct has put me off reading any of their work. A mixed bag. You can get it here.

This was both the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, and the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2015. Next on the first of those lists is To Rule in Amber by John Betancourt, which I’ll get to when I start clearing the 2016 acquisitions. Next on the second is The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson, which I have in fact also read between finishing La Femme and publishing this review.