Welcome

Featured

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 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 FacebookTwitter, Mastodon and Bluesky are more live.

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

The Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren

Looking for culture on the public holiday last Monday, I found that most of the fine arts museum in Brussels were closed, but the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren was open. It was a very long time since we last visited, so I headed off to explore; it’s an hour’s drive from us and I didn’t persuade anyone else to come with me.

I really enjoyed it. It actually starts from the Neanderthals and works through my old friends the Michelsbergers before getting to the Celts and Romans. Tongeren was the biggest Roman town in what is now Belgium and they have a lot of archaeological finds.

As so often, I was especially struck by the three-dimensional representations of the human body. This is Amor and Psyche cuddling, with Mercury looking on from behind – very small figures all three.

Here’s an even smaller but very cute lamp oil holder.

Here is (headless) Jupiter trampling two men with tentacles for legs. I am impressed by the expression on the face of the first tramplee.

Here is a broken vase from a household shrine which would have originally had seven face representing the seven planets who give their names to the days of the week.

Here is a very characterful Venus, on loan from the Vatican collection. You can see that her right arm would originally have crossed her chest to rest her hand on her left arm, and her left hand would have been modestly on her right thigh.

There is also a temporary exhibition making the argument that most of the classical statues were brightly painted, and extrapolating from the traces of pigment left on them. I don’t know how reliable this is, but the results are certainly striking. Here, for instance, is the proposed original appearance of Augustus:

And here is Alexander the Great from the Alexander Sarcophagus:

It certainly made me think about classical sculpture in a very different way.

Outside the museum, the Gaulish leader Ambiorix keeps watch in the town square:

Well worth a return visit; “mérite le voyage” as Michelin would put it.

The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al

Second frame of third part:

This is the first of the three-volume second series of Eleventh Doctor comics from Titan, and I must say it’s a good start. We’ve kept Alice, one of the great comics companions, and we add The Squire, who claims to have been a companion of the War Doctor; and also, of all great comics-only characters, none other than Abslom Daak, Dalek Hunter. Meanwhile the Eleventh Doctor is being pursued by a bounty hunter called The Then And The Now for dreadful crimes apparently carried out by the War Doctor that nobody can quite remember. And there is a twist at the end bringing in another favourite character. Looking forward to next month when I read the next in the series. Meanwhile you can get this here.

Bechdel fail at the first hurdle, I think, it is a very Doctor-centric story where the only female-presenting character is Alice.

The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Then begins a process of learning and adaptation. Each tool will have its own personality and quirks, and will need its own special handling. Each must be sharpened in a unique way, or held just so. Over time, each will wear according to use, until the grip looks like a mold of the woodworker’s hands and the cutting surface aligns perfectly with the angle at which the tool is held. At this point, the tools become conduits from the craftsman’s brain to the finished product—they have become extensions of his or her hands. Over time, the woodworker will add new tools, such as biscuit cutters, laser-guided miter saws, dovetail jigs—all wonderful pieces of technology. But you can bet that he or she will be happiest with one of those original tools in hand, feeling the plane sing as it slides through the wood.

I got this for F a year or so ago, at his request, but it then bubbled its way to the top of my own reading list so I gave it a try. I am not in any way a programmer, so about 60% of it is completely irrelevant to my life and work; but I was surprised at how pertinent the other 40% is – there is lots here about project management, information management, client management, people management and, simply, management. Perhaps the authors should do a shorter version – “The Pragmatic Programmer for non-programmers managers”, maybe? Anyway, you can get it here.

This was both my top unread non-fiction book and my top unread book acquired in 2023. Next on those piles respectively are South, by Ernest Shackleton, and Hard to Be a God, by the Strugatsky brothers.

Chindit Column 76, by W.A. Wilcox, and my godfather’s war record

My godfather was Denis Napier Simonds, known as Toby to the family; he was the husband of my father’s cousin Bunty, and died aged 50 in 1970, when I was 3, so I don’t remember him at all. We lost Bunty in 2000. but their four children are all alive and well. He had one brother, Malachy, who was shot down near Troyes in July 1944 and is buried at Terlincthun near Boulogne.

Denis himself was in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment as a career soldier, and I recently came across his citation for the Retreat from Burma in 1942, where he was trapped with his men on the wrong side of the Sittang Bridge but managed to get them all back to friendly territory after the bridge was destroyed by their retreating colleagues. General Sir John Smyth was sacked for screwing up the defence, and later sat for 16 years as a Conservative MP.

His brigade was the assigned to the Chindits, and I was very interested to find that one of his comrades, RAF man W.A. Wilcox, wrote and published a record of their campaign together in 1944 which you can read for free here. The second paragraph of the third chapter, with the quote it introduces, is:

The Indians came down in single file. They were a small band of sepoys led by a jemadar. Unshaven and unwashed, some of them wounded, they looked a sorry sight in their dishevelled uniforms, but they gave us a cheery greeting as we passed, to which we readily responded with : “Hello, Johnny ! Tikh hai?” They said : “Bahut tikh!” and the jemadar asked if we could spare any cigarettes. The Commandos needed no asking — every manjack stopped and handed over half his small supply, for which the sepoys were truly grateful. We were unable to supply them with food as we only had one day’s rations in our packs and were even now on half-rations in case of a hitch in the supply-drop plans. Shouldering their heavy mortar-cases they said goodbye and set off again down the road that led towards the plains of India. We continued the climb. Two Hurricanes flew overhead, heading for Kohima. We were already five thousand feet above mean sea level and I nodded to the speeding fighters and said :
“I know a quicker and easier way of getting this high than toting a pack and a gun up a mountain.”

In April 1944, Chindit Column 76 was detached from the main body commanded by the legendary Orde Wingate, and sent behind Japanese lines in Nagaland, the easternmost part of India, as part of the 23rd Infantry Brigade. The Japanese succeeded in capturing the local capital, Kohima, but were in the end forced to retreat because the Chindits had successfully cut their supply lines. I must admit that if I ever knew about this part of the war, I had forgotten about it. This is Wilcox’s map which is (with difficulty) matchable to the online cartography of your choice.

Unfortunately Wilcox consistently spells Denis’s surname wrong, but there is no doubt that it’s him. He first appears in Chapter 4:

Major Simmonds, the big, genial, Irish Company-Commander, looked up from his map. He said : “Get me a nice big Dakota — all to myself. I want to go to Calcutta.”

Simonds goes on to establish a crucial fortification, “Ponce Fort”, which the Chindits eventually have to withdraw from, but taking few casualties themselves while inflicting many more on the attacking Japanese. Wilcox at this point has a very bad case of dysentery which takes him out of the war entirely, but he clearly had time while recovering to write this book, which was published in August 1945, only fourteen months after the events it describes.

It’s a vivid first-person account of a crucial but forgotten campaign. There are some beautiful descriptive passages here about the landscape.

The valley was hot and steaming. The river was swollen with the downpour and had oozed over its banks and flooded the paddy-fields, stepped warily on the mud slopes until we reached the paddy-fields where commenced the long wade through the black, smelling water. It wasn’t easy to keep balance. A quelching boot would skid on the clay and down would go some unfortunate soldier into the slime. Almost every one went down at one period or another. To add to the discomfort the rain was doing its worst and the drenched clothes clung to our bodies. A waterfall had to be crossed ; foot and nailed boot clung to the rock as we edged our way, inch by inch, through the stinging spray and blinding floodwater. The man in front of me slipped on the rock-face and disappeared in the swirling waters below. Two of us fished him out and helped him along the smooth- worn rocks. A halt was called and we lay full-length in the filth with our heads pillowed on the wet packs, too breathless and soaked to the skin to smoke a cigarette.

I looked around the valley. On every side, where we lay, there was a wild jumble of black water and green sprawling vegetation. It seemed as though nature had gone mad in that out-of-this-world basin where tree and rock and water were thrown together in crazy confusion. The floor was oozing slime but above that, on the walls of the bowl, was greenness of a beauty that was breath-taking. It seemed to me that in our sea of mud we were the slow squirming creatures that lived and had their being in the mess of mysterious darkness that might have been in the beginning of Time. Primitive protozoa in a glutinous mire of afterbirth.

Unfortunately this descriptive gift is balanced by sheer racism in Wilcox’s descriptions of the Nagaland villagers; it’s clear that they were badly treated by the Japanese during the occupation, but with people like Wilcox around it’s surprising that they showed much affection for the Brits. One interesting character, who I’d like to know more about, is:

Private Wertley, batman to Major Simmonds. His accent was guaranteed to make you look twice at Private Wertley, who was a broad-built young English negro, with a crop of short woolly hair and a wide white smile. Wertley never got ruffled and his slow Yorkshire speech was as unconcerned and genial as a farmer “up for the day” at Stokesley Show.

I suspect that “Wertley” was really “Wortley”, just as “Simmonds” was really “Simonds”, but I haven’t been able to track him down other than in this book.

And that goes for the author too, who I find elusive. He mentions sitting with his fiancee, Joan, on the beach at Saltburn at Easter 1941, and that probably means he must be the Walter A Wilcox who I find in official records, born in Middlesbrough in 1918 and marrying Marjorie J[oan?] Mitchell in 1941, also in Middlesbrough; Saltburn and Stokesley are both within 10 km. But I have no idea what happened to him afterwards – I find a Walter and Margaret Wilcox living in Harrogate after the war, but it’s the wrong end of Yorkshire and the wrong name for the wife. Perhaps they emigrated.

Anyway, for what it is, it’s a very digestible first-person account.

Tuesday reading

Current
Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger
Abeni’s Song, by P. Djèlí Clark

Last books finished
The Notes and Commonplace Book of H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Sean Brandy and Andrew Leaman
Witch King, by Martha Wells
My Mama, Cass: A Memoir, by Owen Elliott-Kugell
The Heart’s Time, ed. Janet Morley
The Girl Who Died, by Tom Marshall
The Three Body Problem, Part One, by SFCF Studio
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Next books
Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century, by Robert Kaplan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Syria is not unique. Before Syria, humanitarians in 2011 demanded military intervention in Libya, even though the regime of Muammar Qaddafi had given up its nuclear program and had been cooperating for years with Western intelligence agencies. In fact, the United States and France did lead an intervention, and Libya today is barely a state, with Tripoli less a capital than the weak point of imperial-like arbitration for far-flung militias, tribes, and clans, while nearby Saharan entities are in greater disarray because of weapons flooding out of Libya.

Kaplan is one of those hard-realist conservative commentators on US foreign policy of the old school. This is a collection of his essays from the first part of this century, so it’s a bit jumbled and in places repetitive. I found myself nodding in agreement about as often as I shook my head in baffled dissent.

My biggest point of dissent came as early as page 5, where he predicts the disintegration of Europe as a result of floods of migrants from North Africa, because the Arab Spring of 2012 has caused the downfall of the neighbouring “Muslim prison states”, meaning Iraq, Syria and Libya. This is simply bonkers. It’s difficult to decide where to start with dismantling it, but migrants are coming from all over Africa and western Asia, and the driving force for migration is economics rather than security; and anyway the migration question is but one of numerous factors contributing to economic inequality, which is the really big stress on European systems. Kaplan’s analysis privileges hard security over dull economics, and is the poorer for it.

The most attractive aspect of the book is Kaplan’s acceptance that he was wrong about the Iraq War, and that it’s not just that the aftermath of the invasion was mishandled (which is a line you will still hear from some apologists) but that the war itself was a bad idea. But this has unfortunately tilted him into a closer analysis of failures than successes, and it is noticeable that (Iraq apart) he is more drawn to analysing failures by Democratic than Republican administrations.

Fundamentally, Kaplan believes that geography is destiny, and self-interest should be coldly calculated. And yet there is clearly some room for values in his analysis; he doesn’t explain why, and you are left with the sense that he thinks human rights matter for white people and less for the rest of the world. And by emphasising geography, he loses the nuance of political choice in the countries that he is looking at; and even that is blinkered, as he considers risks to come only from states currently hostile to the USA.

Still, it’s very informative about the US foreign policy mind-set. I often like to say that the difference between Brussels and Washington as policy cities is that the depth of knowledge is often much greater in Washington, but you are lucky if there is more than one point of view to choose from, while in Brussels there is often diversity of opinion based on less profound analysis. This book is a good illustration. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Election 2024: my question to the Belgian political parties

We have elections coming up on 9 June, for the European Parliament, the Belgian Federal House of Representatives, and the Flemish Parliament. For two of these my choice is simple: my old friend Sophie in ‘t Veld, who has been a Dutch MEP for twenty years, is running for the European Parliament again, but this time as the lead candidate in the Dutch-speaking Belgian electoral college for the new pan-European political party Volt Europa, and another friend, Bianca Bäumler, is also on that list. The lead Volt Europa candidate in the French-speaking Belgian electoral college, Suzana Carp, is also a friend, as is Rick Zednik, one of the candidates in Slovakia, but I can’t vote for them.

Volt Europa also has candidates for the Flemish Parliament in the Flemish Brabant constituency, where we live, and one of them is a chap who I know very vaguely back in Livejournal days. He is not in a position where he is at all likely to get elected, but I’ll give them my vote at regional level too. They are a small new party, and their chances in either the European or Flemish Parliaments are not brilliant, but I’m backing them anyway. A sceptical colleague said to me, “Yeah, Volt is a party full of people like you, Nicholas”; personally I’m not sure that that is such a bad thing – people like me deserve to be represented too!

However, Volt were not able to get candidates registered in our district for the Belgian Federal House of Representatives (they do have lists in Brussels and Antwerp), so for what is arguably the most important election, I consider myself a free agent. Back in 2009, my first election as a Belgian citizen, I asked all of the parties about their position on the burka ban, and voted accordingly. I also asked the local parties about local issues for the municipal elections in 2012 (with a late response) and 2018.

For the last Belgian elections I used online resources to help me decide. This time I’m going to take a number of factors into account, but one important issue for me is the extortionate charges levied by bpost, the Belgian postal service, on parcels sent here from outside the EU. I have therefore written to all of the political parties who have candidates in Flemish Brabant (except for the extreme right Vlaams Belang, who will never get my vote anyway) as follows – I sent the Dutch version, but am providing the English here for clarity:

Hello,Hallo,
I have been a Belgian citizen since 2008, and I am deciding how to vote in the coming federal elections.Ik heb sinds 2008 de Belgische nationaliteit en ik beslis hoe ik ga stemmen bij de komende federale verkiezingen.
One issue is of particular concern to me. I collect old books – not expensive ones, but usually in English and usually for sale from small businesses in the UK. Many of these businesses are not registered for the EU Import One Stop Shop (IOSS), because they have lost their trade with the EU since Brexit.Eén kwestie baart me bijzonder veel zorgen. Ik verzamel oude boeken – geen dure, maar meestal in het Engels en meestal te koop bij kleine bedrijven in het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Veel van deze bedrijven zijn niet geregistreerd voor de EU Import One Stop Shop (IOSS), omdat ze sinds de Brexit hun handel met de EU zijn kwijtgeraakt.
If the seller is not registered for VAT, then I must pay €18.50 for “douaneformaliteiten” if the value of the book is less than €150, and €39 if the value is more. Usually the value of the book is less than €10, so I am paying almost twice its value just for the douaneformaliteiten.Als de verkoper niet btw-geregistreerd is, dan moet ik €18,50 betalen voor douaneformaliteiten als de waarde van het boek minder dan €150 is, en €39 als de waarde meer is. Meestal is de waarde van het boek minder dan €10, dus alleen al voor de douaneformaliteiten betaal ik bijna het dubbele van de waarde.
Because of EU rules, all EU countries must make some charge for this service, but bpost charges more than any of the neighbouring countries. Post NL charges €13. Post Luxembourg charges €5 if the value of the parcel is less than €22, and €15 if it is more. La Poste in France charges a maximum of €8. Deutsche Post AG charges €6.50.Vanwege de EU-regels moeten alle EU-landen een bepaald bedrag vragen voor deze dienst, maar bpost brengt meer kosten in rekening dan alle buurlanden. Post NL rekent €13. Post Luxemburg rekent €5 als de waarde van het pakket minder is dan €22, en €15 als het meer is. La Poste in Frankrijk rekent maximaal €8. Deutsche Post AG rekent €6,50.
In addition, the service that we get from paying these fees is very poor. I have sometimes had to pay douaneformaliteiten for gifts, although they are supposed to be exempt. One of my parcels was lost between customs and bpost for six months.Bovendien is de service die we krijgen als we deze kosten betalen erg slecht. Ik heb soms douaneformaliteiten moeten betalen voor geschenken, terwijl die vrijgesteld zouden moeten zijn. Eén van mijn pakketten is zes maanden lang verloren gegaan tussen de douane en bpost.
Bpost is now losing my business, because I now find it easier to ship my UK purchases to friends in the UK and pick up from them in person when I cross the Channel.Bpost verliest nu mijn zaken, omdat ik het nu gemakkelijker vind om mijn Britse aankopen naar vrienden in het Verenigd Koninkrijk te sturen en ze persoonlijk op te halen als ik het Kanaal oversteek.
What is your party’s stance on the exorbitant fees charged by bpost?Wat is het standpunt van uw partij over de exorbitante kosten die bpost aanrekent?

Bpost is of course a private company, but its majority shareholder is the Belgian federal government, and even if that were not the case, the Belgian federal government can act to regulate permissible charges. I’ll report back in due course on what, if anything, I get from the parties. (I should add that I complained about this in 2021 to one of our current local MPs, who replied two months later telling me to lump it; her party therefore starts at a disadvantage for getting my vote.)

Incidentally, of the ten parties with federal election lists in Flemish Brabant (other than Vlaams Belang, who I didn’t check), six had central email addresses, three had online forms and one had no means of contact at all. Of the ten lead candidates, seven had public email addresses, one had an online form and I contacted the other two via LinkedIn messaging.

The best known books set in each country: Nigeria

See here for methodology.

This is a case where actual Indonesian writers are much better represented on Goodreads than on LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Things Fall ApartChinua Achebe373,66520,683
AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie372,6467,733
Little BeeChris Cleave242,6908,434
We Should All Be FeministsChimamanda Ngozi Adichie294,1053,988
Half of a Yellow SunChimamanda Ngozi Adichie159,8096,915
My Sister, the Serial KillerOyinkan Braithwaite295,9603,405
Purple HibiscusChimamanda Ngozi Adichie120,9164,538
The Girl with the Louding VoiceAbi Daré150,4181,544

This is a much more satisfactory list than the one for Pakistan last week, though it’s notable that four of the top eight books are by the same author. I haven’t gone back and checked, but I’m pretty sure that more than 50% of Americanah is set in Nigeria; I have not read any of the other three by Adichie, but from online summaries it’s prptty clear that all three are entirely set in the country, as are the two lower down the table. I think this is also the most feminine list I’ve had so far.

I’m disqualifying Little Bee (which I read under the UK title The Other Hand) because as far as I remember a majority of the story is set in England rather than Nigeria. Again, I haven’t gone back and checked. Very lazy of me.

Anyway, at the top, far ahead on LibraryThing and by a whisker on Goodreads, is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I don’t think it’s very good on gender, but it’s definitely a classic for critiquing colonialism, and it’s also nice to see a Nobel Prize winer take the top spot.

Next up: Brazil.

The Angel of Redemption: a 2010s story, by Nikita Gill

Second verse of third chapter:

Trying to find each other,
in the distance they saw
what was a shooting star.
And desperate to see each other
to know themselves,

So, this is very unexpected. It’s a story written in the form of poetry, the internal reflections of the Weeping Angel who is destined to yank Amy and Rory back in time in The Angels Take Manhattan, telling the story of the origin of the Angels, their desperate attempts to feed and deal with a hostile universe, and towards the end their interaction with the Doctor and with the world of the early twenty-first century in England. Doctor Who stories rarely take the perspective of the monster, and even more rarely do it well (though see the Century 21 Dalek comic strips for another example). You can get it here.

A Bechdel fail for an unusual reason. Most stories that fail Bechdel step 1 will also fail steps 2 and 3 (that two female characters must have a conversation, and that it is not about a man). The Angels present as female, and they have many interactions (which can pass for conversations here) about the nature of reality and the fate of their race; but none of them has a name, so while the book would pass the original form of the Bechdel test, it doesn’t get over the first hurdle of the generally understood criterion that there must be two named female characters.

The Monster in the Cupboard: a 2000s story, by Kalynn Bayron

Second paragraph of third chapter:

As soon as it’s light outside, I get up and go to my room to change. I thought I’d feel better if I could be in my own room for a while, but I feel like I’m stuck in a nightmare. Noah should be up, running through the halls, complaining about wanting cereal for breakfast instead of something healthy like my mum would suggest. My mum should be coming in to wake me up and telling me to get ready for school.

Fifth in the set of six Doctor Who YA novellas, and I’m afraid not one of the better ones; young protagonist teams up with the Ninth Doctor and Rose to rescue mum and brother from the monster which, er, lives in the cupboard. A number of implausibilities in the story’s own terms, and I wasn’t very satisfied with the characterisation of the Doctor either. A bit more skippable than the rest. But you can get it here.

Edited to add: I forgot to note that this is a fairly easy Bechdel pass; most of the characters (apart from the Doctor) are women. If you want to be specific, there’s an exchange between Rose and the protagonist at the end of Chapter 8 in which no men are present or mentioned.

Wannabes: a 1990s story, by Dave Rudden

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘Well, that’s a comfort,’ the Doctor said acidly, as a pulse round exploded a bloom behind his head, splattering his cheek with thick, sweet-smelling sap. ‘I’ll tell that to our lungs, shall I? I’m sure they’ll understand.’

A story of the Tenth Doctor and Donna, visiting Dublin to witness the first ever gig of (fictional) girl band the Blood Honeys, only to find that the event has been infiltrated by a trio of alien sisters out to exploit the emotional energy generated by the event. The aliens have a number of near relatives in both Doctor Who (the Carrionites) and Irish mythology (many cases of three sisters).

Rudden, who is himself Irish, gets the feeling of Dublin in the early Celtic Tiger days very well (even though he would have been roughly eight years old at the time the story is set), and you can very plausibly see Donna and the Doctor interacting with the changing entertainment scene. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who the five-member girl band making their debut in the mid-1990s are based on, but a pinch of satire can help a story run smoothly.

I am preparing a post grumbling about the failures of Big Finish to get Ireland right in a recent audio play, but I have no such grumbles in this case. I enjoyed this and you can get it here.

Bechdel pass in Chapter Four, where the three alien sisters discuss their plans for Earth.

The Self-Made Man: a 1980s story, by Mark Griffiths

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Doctor strode briskly from the TARDIS, fedora hat balanced on his thick thatch of curls, long scarf streaming behind him. Romana followed a little warily, still uncertain of her friend’s current mood. She glanced up into the flawless blue sky, shading her eyes with her hand. It was a warm morning, no doubt about to turn into a scorchingly hot summer’s day.

This is the longest of the Six Stories for Six Decades in wordcount (the next one has more pages but fewer words), though the story is straightforward enough. The Doctor and Romana, taking a break between seasons 17 and 18, arrive in a London council estate in 1984 where a local lad is achieving great things with technology. But where is he getting the technology from, and what price are he and his neighbours paying? And can police officer Hazel Harper put a stop to it?

About halfway through, it becomes fairly obvious which classic monsters have turned up and from then on the story runs on fairly predictable if entertaining lines. But I did like the way that the bad guy’s downfall has been triggered by Thatcherite economics, tying the merciless and logical free market to the merciless logic of the SPOILERS. I see a number of other reviewers who didn’t get this; perhaps you had to be there. Anyway, not quite as good as the first two in this sequence, but you can get it here.

Bechdel pass when Romana and Tiger Lily talk about cocktails in Chapter Nine.

Tuesday reading

Current
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Witch King, by Martha Wells
The Heart’s Time, ed. Janet Morley

Last books finished
Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh
Seeds of Mercury, by Wang Jinkang
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Rose/House, by Arkady Martine
Orlanda, by Jacqueline Hartman
Wannabes, by Dave Rudden
The Monster in the Cupboard, by Kalynn Bayron

Next books
The Girl Who Died, by Tom Marshall
Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

The Cradle: a 1970s story, by Tasha Suri

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I don’t love everyone knowing my business. And I don’t love the way you have to run, sometimes, from people who want to bash your head in.

Where the previous story in this series took a fictional town and a timespan mainly in the 1960s but stretching to the present day, The Cradle is set very firmly in 1978 in Southall, at a time of maximum tension caused by the National Front, with the protagonist a gay Indian teenager who is at the front line of racism. I know Tash Suri a bit from our joint stint as guests of honour at the 2022 Eastercon:

I remember an Eastercon discussion a few years ago about places that Doctor Who cannot go – the Holocaust, for example, or indeed Ireland (other than symbolically). 1970s racist London might at first sight seem to be potentially one of those places, but Tasha Suri has found a way of doing it, taking her protagonist and friends on a personal journey mentored by the Twelfth Doctor. At the end of the story everything is not all right, everyone is not OK, but the Doctor has helped and the future looks just a little better than it did. I liked this one too. You can get it here.

Bechdel pass in the first chapter when Seema and her grandmother talk about cooking and the strange lights in the sky.

Imaginary Friends: a 1960s story, by Jacqueline Rayner

Second paragraph of third chapter:

We went to Rome, which is from history and sometimes from Sunday School. There was a lion! I think I mite like lions even more than cheetahs. The Emperer chased Barbrar and the Doctor pretended to play a liar and made it sound silent. I wish Anne would play silent when she does piano practice. There was a lady and her job was to poison people! I thought the police would come and arrest her but they did not.

This is the first in a series of six YA Doctor Who novellas published to commemorate the recent anniversary. It’s a very good start. Young Gerry has dreams of the Doctor, his companions and their adventures together, in a world that is just the same as ours, except that there is no TV show called Doctor Who and strange things happen like the unsolved murder of a pesticide researcher, or the odd goings-on at the Post Office Tower…

Really this is lovely. Jacqueline Rayner on form is one of the best current Doctor Who prose writers, and she’s on form here. She brilliantly evokes the decaying industrial atmosphere of the mid 1960s and the need for escapism, and the changing dynamics of family relationships over the last sixty years, and the universal difficulty of growing up. I loved it. You can get it here.

Bechdel fail, I’m afraid, with tight third around the boy protagonist.

The best known books set in each country: Pakistan

See here for methodology.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Three Cups of TeaGreg Mortenson343,98412,951
I Am MalalaMalala Yousafzai (and Christina Lamb)577,7326,439
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie124,11313,908
Exit WestMohsin Hamid138,9123,617
Home FireKamila Shamsie65,4501,737
I Am Malala (Young Readers Edition)Malala Yousafzai31,7042,433
Stones Into SchoolsGreg Mortenson16,9941,904
ShameSalman Rushdie12,3632,444

Well, this is a bit grim: the top book set in Pakistan among LibraryThing readers is a real White Saviour narrative about a guy who just goes and does good to the people of Paksitan, whether they want it done to them or not. I haven’t read it, and I have seen nothing about it that encourages me to do so. (And the same goes for the sequel, in eighth place on this table, which I suspect may be anyway more set in Afghanistan than Pakistan.)

Malala Yousafzai, who wins among Goodreads users, is a different matter. Although her autobiography is ghost-written by Christina Lamb, it’s a genuine insider story of life in Swat, and I think I will look out for it. It’s noticeable that the young readers’ edition comes in sixth place.

To my dismay, I need to rule out the next three books because less than 50% of each is set in Pakistan. Midnight’s Children and Exit West are both favourite books of mine, but most of Midnight’s Children is set in India and none (as far as I remember) of Exit West is set in Pakistan. Similarly, Home Fire is mostly set in England.

So the top fiction book set in Pakistan is Salman Rushdie’s Shame. I will look out for it too.

The cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast – Chesterton’s ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’

You can read ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, with the original 1911 illustrations, here.

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR A DETECTIVE STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

I have been a fan of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories since I was a child, but one point in ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’, a short story first published in 1911, has niggled at me for almost half a century. I was reminded of this last month when I was staying in a hotel on one side of St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, and giving two lectures at the new Ulster University campus on the other side of it, so that I walked past it four times in the space of a few hours. The passage in question comes just after the halfway point in the story when Father Brown reveals to Flambeau, his French ex-criminal friend, the current location of the broken-off part of the titular weapon.

  “I cannot prove it, even after hunting through the tombs. But I am sure of it. Let me add just one more tiny fact that tops the whole thing over. The colonel, by a strange chance, was one of the first struck by a bullet. He was struck long before the troops came to close quarters. But he saw St. Clare’s sword broken. Why was it broken? How was it broken? My friend, it was broken before the battle.”
“Oh!” said his friend with a sort of forlorn jocularity. “And pray where is the other piece?”
“I can tell you,” said the priest promptly. “In the cemetery of the Protestant Cathedral at Belfast.”
“Indeed?” inquired the other. “Did you look for it?”
“I couldn’t,” said the priest with regret. “There’s a great marble monument on top of it; a monument to the heroic Major Murray who fell fighting gloriously at the battle of the Black River.”

The reason this passage has always niggled at me is very simple. There is no cemetery at St Anne’s Cathedral, the Protestant (ie Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Belfast. In fact, only one person is buried on the cathedral’s premises at all: Edward Carson, the Unionist leader and founder of Northern Ireland. In 1911, when the story was published, he was alive and sinnin’ (he lived to 1935). St Anne’s Cathedral was devoid of tombs, inside and out, at the time when Chesterton was writing.

This is very unusual for cathedrals in Britain or Ireland, either Protestant or Catholic. Most Church of Ireland cathedrals are in ancient ecclesiastical centres which have seen better days. I did a quick check and all of the other Protestant cathedrals in Northern Ireland do have graveyards. Many big cathedrals also have many interments inside the building – St Paul’s in London has Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; St Patrick’s in Dublin has Jonathan Swift. St Anne’s, as noted, has just the one.

But St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast is very new as cathedrals go. It serves two dioceses, Connor (which is roughly equivalent to County Antrim) and Down (which is not equivalent to County Down), each of which also has a cathedral of its own (in Lisburn and Downpatrick respectively). The foundation stone for St Anne’s was laid in 1899 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1904; this is long after the fictional battle of the Black River, which we are told was at least twenty years before 1911. It is located in a city centre site with commercial and residential buildings pressing around it. The south transept was not completed until 1974 and the north transept was not completed until 1981, when I was already a teenager.

St Anne’s Cathedral in the early 20th century. The block immediately north was cleared for the Art College in the 1960s, and the area to the southwest for Writer’s Square more recently.

Chesterton’s Major Murray, if buried in Belfast, would have been interred at the Clifton Street Cemetery if his family had a concession there, or up the Falls Road in the Belfast City Cemetery if not. Though thinking about it, it would be really unusual for even a very senior officer who had been killed in action abroad at that period to be brought back home. Looking at the 1899-1902 Boer War, the two British generals who lost their lives in the conflict, Penn Symons and Andrew Wauchope, are both still buried in South Africa.

We are told that Murray was a Presbyterian, which is unusual but not impossible. In the 1901 census, according to Barry Griffin’s data, although 88.65% of people in Ireland with the surname Murray were Catholics (like my great-grandfather), 5.24% were Anglicans (as the fictional Murray must have been to be buried in the fictional cathedral graveyard), concentrated especially around the shores of Lough Neagh with outposts that seem to be around what is now Newtownbreda and also Carrickfergus.

G.K. Chesterton had never been to any part of Ireland in 1911; he wrote a book called Irish Impressions after his first visit in 1918. (You can read it here.) He was instinctively sympathetic to Home Rule and unsympathetic to colonial wars such as the Boer War, which is clearly the basis for the fictional Brazilian war in the story – the popularity of Chesterton’s Brazilian leader Olivier with the British, years after the war had ended, must be a reference to the shift in the British attitude to the South African leader Jan Smuts at the same time.

I don’t really blame Chesterton for getting Belfast’s ecclesiastical geography wrong. The fictional British Invasion of Brazil is a much bigger invention than a graveyard in Belfast. (There was historically a dispute between Brazil and the UK about the border with what was then British Guyana, but there does not seem to have been any armed conflict and the issue was resolved by Italian arbitration in 1904.) Anyway, neither the graveyard nor the war is what the story is really about.

SPOILER FOR A STORY PUBLISHED IN 1911

The bodies of both General Sir Arthur St. Clare and the Ulsterman Major Murray were retrieved after the battle of Black River – Murray found on the field, and St. Clare hanged from a tree. But the punchline is that St. Clare was a traitor, he killed Murray (who had found out his secret) with his own sword which broke in the process, and attacked the Brazilians, despite it being certain that he would lose with many casualties, so that Murray’s body would be unnoticed in the carnage. He was then strung up by his own men after the battle when they realised what he had done. The secret was kept by the British soldiers, who allowed it to be assumed that St. Clare was lynched by the Brazilians, and the fallen general was honoured as a tragic hero.

The narrative thrust of the story is that Father Brown works out what really happened from scraps of information and his knowledge of human nature. But the point of the story is that we should be wary of spoonfed narratives by the authorities about war heroes, or indeed about anything at all. One wonders if Chesterton had any particular person in mind – Baden-Powell? But he lived. Gordon? But his body was never recovered. In any case, the point is well made.

In the 2015 TV adaptation starring Mark Williams as Father Brown, the main action takes place in the 1950s with flashbacks to Dunkirk. The tableau is shrunk from national delusion to internal (and deadly) barracks politics. It’s nicely done, but it’s longer and less interesting than the original story.

When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But tonight they were not those children. Tonight, they were Sam and Miel, and he was pulling her on top of him and then under him. The way she moved against him made him feel the sharp presence of everything he had between his legs and, for just that minute, a forgetting, of everything he didn’t.

This won the Tiptree Award in 2017; I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have read four of the nine works on the Honor List, Borderline by Mishell Baker, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire and Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Like the Tiptree judges, I liked When the Moon Was Ours most.

The BSFA Award for Best Novel that year went to Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award to Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. The BSFA and Clarke ballots that year shared two novels, Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, but neither list had any crossover with the Tiptree list.

It was my first year as Hugo Administrator, and the Hugo for Best Novel went to The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin, but I myself voted for All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, which won the Nebula. All the Birds in the Sky and Too Like the Lightning were also on the Hugo ballot, and Borderline and Everfair were also on the Nebula ballot.

I really liked this book, and once again kudos to the Tiptree Award (as it then was) for spotting something that others had passed by. It’s set in a world very close to ours, where the protagonists are a Latina girl and an Italian-Pakistani boy in love, but there’s a lot of magic going on (she grows flowers out of her arms; he has a well-hidden secret) and the four red-haired neighbour girls may be witches. It’s an intense exploration of body dysmorphia and the experience of being trans, in a well-realised small town, where the grownups have back-stories too. One of the best novels I have read so far this year, and strongly recommended. You can get it here.

With so many female characters, an easy Bechdel pass.

Next in my list of Tiptree winners (only two left!) is Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin.

Two very different books about Belfast

Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane

I got hold of these two books in preparation for the lecture I gave in Belfast last month about the electoral history of the city, which you can watch here:

These are two very different books from very different times. The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: Approach to Crisis is:

The cause of this increasing prosperity, the greatest that any Irish city has known, was twofold. First, the expansion of the linen industry which became fully mechanised between 1852 and 1862 with the rapid acceptance of the power loom.3 With the coming of the American Civil War Lancashire mills were starved of raw cotton and the Belfast mills soon found a new market for their high quality finished goods.4 The linen trade continued to expand until the 1870s,5 but while the labour force trebled between 1850 and 1875 (from 16,000 to 50,000), the proportion represented by adult male workers never exceeded one third.
3‘In 1852 there was only one power loom in Belfast. Ten years later there were 6,000.’ (Jones in Belfast, p. 109)
4The number of new buildings constructed annually between 1861 and 1864 ranged from 730 to 1,400 – thereby increasing the total valuation by about 20 per cent. (B.N.L., 2 January 1865.)
5The number of flax spindles in Ireland increased from 300,000 in 1850 to nearly 600,000 in 1860, and nearly one million by the end of the 1870s. This peak figure was never equalled – too much machinery had been installed for normal output, cf W. E. Coe, The Engineering Industry of the North of Ireland, pp. 60-61. In 1870 80 per cent of spindles and 70 per cent of power looms in the whole of Ireland were to be found in Belfast and its environs. D. L. Armstrong, ‘Social and Economic Conditions in the Belfast Linen Industry, 1850-1900’, Irish Historical Studies VII (September 1951), 238.

I don’t know Ian Budge (who is now 87) but I did know Cornelius O’Leary, an eccentric colleague of my father’s at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and this book represents good political analysis combined with very poor timing. It has two parts. The first half, more or less, is a survey of the political history of Belfast, paying special attention to the city council (known as the Corporation for most of the period), from the earliest days to the 1960s, when the book was written. I got a lot out of this (and plundered it extensively for my lecture last month).

Until 1832, Belfast was a pocket borough of the Chichester family, but the Great Reform Act opened up its politics to the mainly Presbyterian merchant classes. The first successful political organiser was a John Bates, who managed to combine the roles of main organiser for the Conservative Party (which won all the elections) with that of Town Clerk once the municipal council was reformed in the 1840s. He fell spectacularly from power in 1855 when he was exposed for diverting public funds by a public inquiry. I’d love to see some more about his story.

The book goes in detail through the next 110 years of political history, including a couple more times when the Corporation was suspended and the city was run by administrators. And the second half of the book gives the outputs of an exhaustive political survey of Belfast, including most of the councillors, and many of their supporters and voters in general, along with some comparative research on the attitudes of councillors in Glasgow. The data set is very rich.

The problem is that the research was largely carried out in 1966, and the city collapsed into chaos over the next couple of years, so that when the book first came out in 1973, it was a deep analysis of a political system that had already ceased to exist. The Belfast of 1973 was very different from the Belfast of 1966. The authors do look in depth into the questions of naming the new bridge and the Sunday swings issue, but compared with what happened over the next few years it all looks rather silly. (In fairness, a lot of people thought the swings issue looked rather silly in 1966.)

Really a book only for the most dedicated of Norn Iron politics nerds (and I am proud to count myself among that number). You can get it here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Belfast: The Story of a City and its People is:

Some years ago a friend of the family who stayed with us for a few days proceeded to tell me all about the cranes as soon as they arrived and saw the painting. ‘Hey, nice painting!’ they exclaimed, breezing into the living room. ‘That’s David and Goliath in Belfast, you know.’ ‘No, it’s actually Samson and Goliath,’ I responded – politely but firmly. ‘No, I’m sure it’s David and Goliath,’ they ploughed on. ‘You should check it out.’ I walked out of the room, my face burning with indignation, muttering through clenched teeth not entirely sotto voce: ‘Well I lived under them for nearly two decades so I think I should know what they’re called!’ My partner, her laugh stifled by the fear of a meltdown at the beginning of a social visit, rapidly changed the subject to a less divisive one as I harrumphed upstairs. ‘So let’s talk about Brexit then…’ she said.

This on the other hand is a much more accessible book, rooted in Cochrane’s personal story of having grown up as a Catholic in a mixed but traditionally Protestant area of the city (as I did), reflecting on the early history of the city, where he is keen on the radical political tradition of the McCrackens, the Assembly Rooms (now dilapidated) and the Linen Hall Library (of which I was a Governor back in the mid-1990s), and also looking at culture – music, theatre, poetry, and other parts of the arts. I found the first part more engaging, the second feeling a bit too structured, but the information is all good, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about how it feels to be in or from Belfast. You can get it here.

If I can be excused a second video, this is the percussion section of the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra performing Scheherazade in 1985. I am the third percussionist in view, holding the tambourine. The CBYO is still going strong.

The Devil Kissed Her: the Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson

The demands of her parents, both ill in their different ways, were endless. She was physically drained and mentally wound up. From morning to night, she worked and worried, her daily life encompassing the worst of both worlds – she was lonely, isolated in her burden of work and care – but never left alone to recoup her spirits. All her resources – time, energy, money, skills – were pressed into a struggle to keep the feeble Lamb family afloat. No part of her life was truly her own, there was no minute of her day that was not already claimed in the service of someone else. Even at night, there was no privacy; she shared the bed of an elderly invalid. Insomnia is now recognised as a warning signal in manic-depressive illness and it was impossible that Mary could sleep properly in these circumstances. With sleep deprivation, that peculiarly disorienting and distressing mental state, problems are magnified tenfold and rational thought flies out the window. That year, September was as hot as June – 78 degrees Fahrenheit – and working with fabric in that heat would have been miserable and oppressive. And September was traditionally a bad month for dressmakers. So added to the normal family worries over money, there was a seasonal dip in income.

A short but really interesting biography of Mary Lamb (1764-1847), who is well known for two things: the 1807 collection Tales from Shakespeare, in which she and her brother retold a number the great Shakespeare plays in terms deemed suitable for children of the day; and the fact that in 1796 during an attack of mental illness, she stabbed her mother to death in the family kitchen. I had previously listened to a rather good radio play by Carlo Gébler about them.

There’s a lot more than just those two things to Mary’s story. The Lambs were of humble stock – their father was a servant in the Inner Temple, and Mary was trained as a seamstress at a time when the market for sewing was saturated. Charles was a clerk in the East India Company. But he had a scholarship to a boarding school where he befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and that friendship gave him and Mary the contacts in the literary world, in particular with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, which made them able to establish a literary salon and to get a good reception from publishers for their own writings – and they wrote a lot more than Shakespeare. Their network included William Godwin, widower of Mary Wollstonecraft, who actually commissioned Tales from Shakespeare.

This was punctuated by periods of serious illness for Mary, and less frequently for Charles. To be honest, two centuries of advance in medical science would not have helped them very much. In today’s world, they would have benefited from some medicated relief, but not enough to eliminate their problems entirely; and in countries with a decent welfare system, there would have been perhaps more care available and more respite for Charles who ended up carrying most of the burden of Mary’s illness. Even so, Mary lived to her eighties.

Watson tells the story breezily but sympathetically, and even if you don’t know any of the Lambs’ writings (and I bounced off a collection of Charles’ writings a few years back) the human story is of interest. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next up is Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger.

Tuesday reading

Current
Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh
Orlanda, by Jacqueline Hartman
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths

Last books finished
The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi
Moroda, by L.L. McNeil (did not finish)
Promises Greater Than Darkness, by Charlie Jane Anders (did not finish)
Imaginary Friends, by Jacqueline Rayner
The Cradle, by Tasha Suri
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant

Next books
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Belfast City Hall: One Hundred Years, by Gillian McIntosh
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett

Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In the absence of coffee, I had a shower, and, by the time I was dressed, Dominic had texted me to say that he was on his way. The air was still fresh but the sun was already sucking up the moisture from the fields and you didn’t need to be chewing on a straw to know it was going to be another hot day.

I’ve read the previous installments of the Rivers of London series before and enjoyed them (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). In this volume, our protagonist, a London detective who has found himself sucked into magical investigations, is called to Herefordshire with his goddess girlfriend to investigate the disappearance of two girls. There’s lots of rural/urban tension, some glorious but not explicit erotic moments, and a look at how the boundary between our world and Faerie might manifest in the twenty-first century. There’s also a really good sense of place within Herefordshire’s geography. I think you could enjoy this book without having read the previous five books, but you’d enjoy it more if you had. You can get it here.

Not quite sure if this is a Bechdel pass. Plenty of women characters, who talk to each other a lot, but because the narrator is a man he is usually in the conversation too, or else being talked about. There’s a sequence at the top of page 117 where three goddesses are discussing mobile phone technology which possibly passes.

Next up: The Hanging Tree.

The best known books set in each country: Indonesia

See here for methodology.

This is a case where actual Indonesian writers are much better represented on Goodreads than on LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Eat, Pray, LoveElizabeth Gilbert1,746,16922,140
Lord JimJoseph Conrad31,1429,039
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883Simon Winchester20,7784,139
Max HavelaarMultatuli [Eduard Douwes Dekker]9,3061,654
Bumi Manusia / This Earth of MankindPramoedya Ananta Toer19,907762
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of HistoryGiles Milton4,9271,731
Cantik itu Luka / Beauty Is a WoundEka Kurniawan14,764467
Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow TroopsAndrea Hirata30,237224

So, I’m excluding Eat, Pray, Love because less than 50% of the book is set in Indonesia – the Indonesian section is longer than the Italian or Indian sections, but still less than half. In Lord Jim, the settlement of Patusan where the protagonist finds redemption is certainly in what were then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia, but we don’t get there until just over halfway through the book, so it also fails my 50% test. (But it’s a great book.)

I haven’t managed to get hold of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, but it sounds very much like the kind of book that I would like, and importantly for our purposes, most (but not all) of it deals with events in and offshore from the current territory of Indonesia. I am less certain about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, but it seems more likely than not that the majority of its pages are set in the islands.

On the fictional side, Max Havelaar does well on LibraryThing, but three Indonesian works do much better on Goodreads, with Laskar Pelangi / The Rainbow Troops scoring best on GR. It seems to have a real following in other Asian countries as well as Indonesia.

Pakistan next!

Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll

The six-part 2021 season of Doctor Who was produced under pandemic conditions, and by the time it ended, I was myself recovering from my bout with COVID and didn’t feel inspired to write about it. A year later, after the broadcast of The Power of the Doctor, I returned to Flux and wrote:

So. The 2021 six-part story, Flux, was a mess. There’s no kind way of putting it. I actually like John Bishop as new companion Dan Lewis; I love Barbara Flynn, whatever she is in; I was really thrilled by Thaddea Graham as Bel, the first semi-regular Irish character in almost sixty years [of the show’s history]; and there were some good spine-chilling moments, such as the destruction of Dan’s house and the Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel.

But unfortunately the plot made very little sense, and the climax took place largely offscreen. Of course it was filmed under serious constraints due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t excuse the writers from sitting back and thinking about what they were really trying to convey. For all their faults, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffatt generally remembered that they needed to please their audience as well as indulging their own inner impulses. I felt that Chibnall had lost the run of himself.

I rewatched it again for this blog post, and felt very much the same. This time around I had various plot summaries to hand, which helped me make a little more sense of it; but TV science fiction at its best, unlike say opera, is not normally one of those art forms which requires the consumer to follow along with notes. I love Whittaker as the Doctor, but there are far too many moments where she is attempting to carry the full burden of audience interest through facial expressions and body language, and not helped by the dim studio lighting, the lack of other actors to interact with, or (crucially) the script.

Once again, I did like the fourth instalment, Village of the Angels, much more than the rest – a coherent plot which is more than adequately explained, higher production values, and interestingly the only episode of the six for which a co-writer (Maxine Alderton) is credited alongside Chibnall; and it ends with one of the best visual cliff-hangers ever, as the Doctor herself becomes a Weeping Angel. Interestingly, when I surveyed the Internet Movie Database for the top-rated episode of each era and spinoff of Who, Village of the Angels was a clear winner for the Thirteenth Doctor.

In his editorial foreword, Paul Driscoll explains that the fact that there are six very tightly linked episodes provided a challenge for the Black Archive series. What they have done is to commission six essays from six different authors, topped and tailed with shorter pieces by Alasdair Stuart.

Stuart’s introduction reflects on the terror of the time, when Doctor Who became to an extent a pandemic coping mechanism.

James Cooray Smith’s essay on The Halloween Apocalypse, ‘Apocalypse? Now!’, starts by reflecting on Chris Chibnall’s previous career and how different his Doctor Who turned out to be from his previous work, looks also at the importance of Liverpool as a setting and 31 October as the date for the episode, and recognises the weaknesses in the characters of Karvanista, Swarm and Azure; as I like to say, their means and motivation are never made entirely clear.

Emma Reed’s ‘A History in Flux’, looking at War of the Sontarans, examines the role of history (and fictionalised history) in Doctor Who, especially the Chibnall era’s emphasis on women in history. It also explained to me what the Temple of Atropos stuff was meant to be about, a point which had escaped me on both viewings of the story.

In ‘The Primordial Division’, Once, Upon Time is examined by Philip Purser-Hallard. I found it a thoroughly confusing episode on both viewings, and rather hoped that everything would come out right with the rest of the show. Purser-Hallard explains to me much better what is going on than the actual script did. He makes a number of interesting observations also about the role of double identities in the story and the Jungian resonances, but basically he enjoyed and was interested in this episode and I didn’t, and he doesn’t sell me on it. The second paragraph of his piece is:

She’s perfectly correct, as ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ has already shown: in the Ravagers’ introductions, Swarm was confined to a cylindrical energy shield, supposedly ‘since the dawn of the universe’, while Azure was reduced to ‘Anna’, a human woman living with her partner Jón in the far north of Iceland, without recollection of her extraterrestrial past.

Village of the Angels was broadcast on the worst day of my bout with COVID in 2021, and I did wonder when re-watching if it would hold up to re-watching. I’m glad to say that it did, and as noted above it’s my favourite episode of the series. I therefore had high hopes of Oliver Tomkins’ analysis, ‘The Angels Have the Goggle Box’, and they were fulfilled – it’s an in-depth look at the Weeping Angels, where the come from in terms of story and what they mean, why they are frightening and what they do, and how they break the fourth wall. Tomkins also looks at how the Bel plotline integrates into the Flux story.

‘Doctor Who’s Mother’, by James Mortimore, looks at Survivors of the Flux, considering the colonial framing of the Time Lords (vis-à-vis the Shobogans, and the rest of the universe), and looking at Tecteun and representations of motherhood in the show.

Finally, we get to The Vanquishers. In ‘The Three Doctors… and a Sontaran Stratagem’, Matt Hills is disarmingly frank about its failure to provide satisfactory narrative resolution, and puts this down to Chibnall’s emphasis on surprise. He then looks at the triple-Jodie Whittaker Doctor in the episode as a tribute to The Three Doctors, and reflects on how a fannish show-runner reacts against fannish expectations. It’s a good explanation of what the episode was trying to do, though again I do not feel that it succeeded.

Alasdair Stuart’s conclusion, ‘You are the Universe, Doctor’, defends the whole sequence of episodes, though as will have become apparent, I am not convinced.

Incidentally there are six ways of arranging three different things, and I have arranged the episode title, essay title and essay author’s name differently in each of the previous six paragraphs.

In sum, I did learn quite a lot from this Black Archive, largely because it explained to me what several of the episodes were supposed to be about. I’m afraid that underlines to me that the entire thing was a failure of art. I prefer to understand my TV at the time that I watch it, rather than waiting until I read serious analysis two and a half years later. But you can get it here.

From here on in, I’m switching to doing just one Black Archive write-up per month, as I am catching up with current releases all too quickly.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | The Girl Who Died (64) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Ara Güler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs

Third photograph in book (title: Eminönü, 1956):

I got this coffee-table book as a thank-you for giving a lecture in Istanbul a few years back, and it is really lovely. Although the title is 40 Years of Photographs, they are concentrated in the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, giving a sense of a vibrant and human European city full of change but also of history. Although they are at opposite ends of Europe, a lot of the people in Güler’s photographs look very much like their Irish counterparts. And in any case they are just beautiful compositions. The book has an impassioned foreword by Orhan Pamuk. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Devil Kissed Her: The Story of Mary Lamb, by Kathy Watson.

April 2024 Books

Non-fiction 10 (YTD 25)
All These Worlds, by Niall Harrison
Kinda, by Frank Collins
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll
The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson
Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
Chindit Column 76, by W.A. Wilcox
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt

Non-genre 3 (YTD 14)
The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout
DOOM 94, by Jānis Joņevs

SF 11 (YTD 27)
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
Mammoths at the Gates, by Nghi Vo
Translation State, by Ann Leckie
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
Liberty’s Daughter, by Naomi Kritzer
The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera
Life Does Not Allow Us To Meet, by He Xi
Thornhedge, by T. Kingfisher
The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 6)
Doctor Who: Kinda, by Terrance Dicks
Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

Comics and art books 5 (YTD 11)
Conversion, by Al Ewing et al
Saga, vol 11 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Ara Güler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs
The Witches of World War II, by Paul Cornell and Valeria Burzo
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha and Nicola Scott

7,500 pages (YTD 21.200) 
12/31 (YTD 34/85) by non-male writers (Watson, Chakraborty, Vo, Leckie, Kritzer, “Kingfisher”, Older, McLemore, Jikiemi-Pearson, Staples, Burzo, DeConnick/Scott)
9/31 (YTD 10/85) by a non-white writer (Chakraborty, Vo, Chandrasekera, He, Older, McLemore, Jikiemi-Pearson, Staples, Jimenez/Ha)
1/31 rereads (Doctor Who: Kinda)

314 books currently tagged unread, down 7 from last month, down 75 from April 2023.

Reading now (as of last night)
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi
The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al

Coming soon (perhaps)
Imaginary Friends, by Jacqueline Rayner
The Cradle, by Tasha Suri
The Self-Made Man, by Mark Griffiths
The Angel of Redemption, by Nikita Gill
Wannabes, by Dave Rudden
The Monster in the Cupboard, by Kalynn Bayron
The Girl Who Died, by Tom Marshall
Moroda, by L.L. McNeil
Belfast City Hall: One Hundred Years, by Gillian McIntosh
Black Helicopters, by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Discovering Tudor London: A Journey Back in Time, by Natalie Grueninger
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant
Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Land of the Blind, by Scott Gray
Casting Off, by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Fevered Star, by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Virgin In The Garden, by A.S. Byatt
“Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge”, by Mike Resnick
Our Share of Night, by Mariana Enriquez
The Sol Majestic, by Ferrett Steinmetz
L’Affaire Tournesol, by Hergé
Who Runs the World?, by Virginia Bergin
The Lost Puzzler, by Eyal Kless
The Wonderful Visit, by H. G. Wells
Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse
Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
The Hanging Tree, by Ben Aaronovitch
South, by Ernest Shackleton

Tuesday reading

Current
Starter Villain, by John Scalzi
The Then and the Now, by Si Spurrier et al

Last books finished
The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera
Life Does Not Allow Us To Meet, by He Xi
Thornhedge, by T. Kingfisher
The Mimicking of Known Successes, by Malka Older
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore
Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez, Gene Ha and Nicola Scott
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
Chindit Column 76, by W.A. Wilcox
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt

Next books
Imaginary Friends, by Jacqueline Rayner
Moroda, by L.L. McNeil
When Voiha Wakes, by Joy Chant

Doom 94, by Jānis Joņevs

Second paragraph of third chapter (English text only):

I did well in school, except for physical education. In short, I was a nerd.

This came up in my previous survey of well-known books set in each European country as the top book on Goodreads set in Latvia by a Latvian writer. It’s about the youth culture of the immediate post-Communist years, with the 14-year-old narrator mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, enduring school, failing to comprehend girls, and diving into the heavy metal music and light crime scenes. An afterword set sixteen years later looks at what happened to everyone. It was one of the 2014 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature.

To be honest, I was not blown away; it’s not as bad as Catcher in the Rye, but there is a limit to my tolerance for grumpy adolescent male narrators. Bechdel fail also, due to tight first-person narrative. You can get it here.

This was the non-genre book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Collected Plays and Teleplays, by Flann O’Brien, but I’m holding it until I have cleared my 2018 and 2019 backlogs.

Version 1.0.0

The best known books set in each country: USA

See here for methodology.

So, this is one of two countries which are drastically over-represented on Goodreads and LibraryThing, and the results of my survey are a bit depressing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
The Hunger GamesSuzanne Collins8,680,73064,121
To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee6,132,89978,195
Twilight Stephenie Meyer6,586,59858,102
The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald5,247,50271,884
The Catcher in the RyeJ.D. Salinger3,528,33569,408
Catching FireSuzanne Collins3,686,07348,973
The Da Vinci CodeDan Brown2,354,04670,195
The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green5,146,02026,725
Fahrenheit 451Ray Bradbury2,421,46553,669

I thought quite carefully about whether the Suzanne Collins books qualify as being set in the USA. But they are clearly set in the territory of today’s USA, if in a dystopian future, and as we go on I’ll be accepting books set in territories that are now part of completely different countries to the time they were set. Also we clearly must accept Fahrenheit 451 as a contender, and it’s difficult to make a case for it that does not equally apply to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. So I think I’ll have to allow The Hunger Games as this week’s winner; which is a shame, because To Kill a Mockingbird is a much, much, much better book.

There can be no doubt about Twilight, Gatsby or Catcher, all of which are clearly rooted in the contemporary or near contemporary USA. I have blocked my memories of The Da Vinci Code, but I think most of it is set outside the USA so it does not count? The Fault in Our Stars is the only one of these that I have not read, but I believe it’s mostly set in the USA apart from a climactic sequence in the Netherlands.

Nest up: Indonesia.