Books, and An Unearthly Child

My birthday haul was (mostly) waiting for me when I got back from Sweden, and was much appreciated:

  • The Medieval Cookbook, by Maggie Black;
  • Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi and Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (actually not explicitly a birthday present, but happened to arrive at the right moment)
  • Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The DVD set of Doctror Who: The Beginning

I am going to watch last night’s episode again later on, but Anne and I watched the very first ever episode of Doctor Who from November 1963 more or less as soon as I could got the wrapping off. It is rather surprisingly good.

Did the theme music continue playing over the opening scenes with the policeman, after the title sequence had finished, when it was first shown? An awfully good touch.

Susan’s line about decimalisation must have sounded a bit irrelevant in 1963. In 2006 it is a really palpable hit.

The title character does not even appear until over halfway through the 25 minutes, and unless I missed it, he is never once addressed as “Doctor”. The answer to the question “Doctor Who?” is really given only in the closing credits, when you have to work out that he was the character played by William Hartnell.

Once he is there, though, he totally owns the show. The lines themselves could have done with a little fine-tuning, but are delivered with great conviction:

You have heard the truth. We are not of this race. We are not of this Earth. We are wanderers in the fourth dimension of Space and Time. Cut off from our own planet and our own people by aeons and universes far beyond the reaches of… err, your most advanced sciences.

The “aeons and universes” are at the centre of a dubiously mixed metaphor, in that they are both a mechanism for cutting off the Doctor and Susan from their home, and also potentially within the reach of sufficiently advanced science. But if I hadn’t had the subtitles on, I would not have picked up on this point.

I was actually expecting also the lines, “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be travellers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles?” – and am now wondering if I accidentally watched the pilot episode by mistake. No doubt someone knowledgable on my friends list will put me right.

When I first saw this in 1981, the repetition of the title sequence over the Tardis dematerialising seemed to be tedious and long, but trying to imagine how it would have seemed to a new viewer in 1963 I felt it was pretty memorable and effective.

Some day I’ll read through all this commentary. But in summary, I thought it was pretty good.

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Report on Iraqi insurgents and the internet

Because this is work-related, it’s a locked post; the contents are not especially confidential, it’s just that it would be a bit odd for colleagues to see me writing it; people would wonder why I am pimping this particular report, and also I have some small points of criticism which it would be inappropriate for me to make them publicly. The way our organisation works, of course, I don’t even know for sure who the primary author was (though if it is who I think it is, he modestly cites himself only once, in a footnote).

Our report on the Iraqi insurgency from February is a cracking good read. The main interest for people who see this is that it shows how you can use the internet and the latest in technology to run – and indeed increasingly to win – a guerilla campaign against the largest military power in the world. Absolutely fascinating, and all I can say is go and read the full thing.

A few other points that leapt out at me were:
i) the report comprehensively disproves the idea (advocated, among others, by Stratfor) that the insurgency was planned by Saddam Hussein’s regime before it collapsed. In fact there were only three combat deaths in the first month of the occupation, insurgents generally are very critical of the former regime, and those few insurgent groups with formal links to the Baath party or old Iraqi army are pretty insignificant.
ii) Al-Zarqawi, despite his prominence in the media, is in fact the leader of only one of three or four leading factions among the insurgents, and not necessarily the strongest one of those; and the influence of foreign elements among the insurgents has been exaggerated. Inevitably the media, looking for an easily identifiable Bad Guy, have zeroed in on him, and presumably he is therefore also the focus of much analysis from the international intelligence community. But concentrating on him runs the risk of leading the US into the trap of assuming that if they eliminate him they have won.
iii) I did wonder why the concrete policy recommendations made, for a report so impressive on the analysis, are really pretty scanty, relating only to the US and the wider political process. I suspect this is because it is the main report-writer’s first piece of work for us, and the art of writing the right recommendations is one of the peculiarities of the way my organisation does things. One recommendation that should have been made up front, and is implicit in the report: whoever it is (not looking at the CIA at all) that is crashing insurgents’ websites by denial-of-service attacks should stop it, as it only makes their communications more difficult to monitor.

Anyway, feel free to discuss this in public, just please don’t associate me with the above comments.

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April Books 13) The Moon Pool

13) The Moon Pool, by A. Merritt

Have been reading this adventure story, first published in 1919, on my Palm T|X over the last few weeks, really reminded of it by Charlie Stross’ use of the phrase “moon pool” in The Jennifer Morgue. The plot is classic enough: on an isolated tropical island, the Moon Pool is in fact the gateway to an underground world where the struggle between the forces of good and evil (each led by a beautiful priestess) is resolved by the agency of our narrator and his chums.

The characters are utter clichés. The Scandinavian sea-captain is, in fact, a Viking; the Russian is villainous (apparently a German during first magazine publication); the priestesses are both beautiful and nearly nude at all times. Most striking of all is the central character, Larry O’Keefe, with whom both priestesses (and, pretty clearly, also the male narrator) fall deeply in love. He is supposedly an Irishman with strong American connections, but I bristled rather at the cod-Oirishness of his dialogue. The son of The O’Keefe of Coleraine (that well known haunt of the old Gaelic aristocracy), he reminisces at one point:

An’ once I saw an Annir Choille, a girl of the green people, flit like a shade of green fire through Carntogher woods, an’ once at Dunchraig I slept where the ashes of the Dun of Cormac MacConcobar are mixed with those of Cormac an’ Eilidh the Fair, all burned in the nine flames that sprang from the harping of Cravetheen, an’ I heard the echo of his dead harpings—

Carntogher is real enough, and credibly reachable from Coleraine, but the Annir Choille, Dunchraig and Cravetheen are all taken from the works of Fiona MacLeod (real name William Sharp), at least in the first instance.

For all that, Merrit’s descriptive prose has power, coherence, and energy, and you can see his influence on Lovecraft; the first few scenes after passing through the Moon Pool in particular are very reminiscent of Lovecraft’s Land of Dream. There is still something a bit more visceral and twisted in Lovecraft’s writing that I think makes him the superior craftsman, even though his prose is sometimes just a bit more over the top than Merritt’s.

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More interviews

I know I still owe questions to a few people. Anyway, here are my latest set of answers.

From :

  1. Are you worried you’ll get brain cancer from flying so much?!
    I was doing an outside physical labouring job (working on an archaeology site) the week that the Chernobyl fallout dusted the area (in southern Germany) so I think that if I’m destined to go that way, flying’s not going to make much difference. Anyway it’s the cardiovascular system that has tended to kill off my relatives.
  2. Which is your favourite/least favourite airline?
    I have had a very good impression of United in my last couple of transatlantic flights. Comfortable and cheerful service. I hope they can keep it up. As for least favourite, I won’t name them but I’ve had some uncomfortable and horribly catered experiences on the national carrier of one of my Eastern European countries. Having said which, Ryanair are pretty crap too.
  3. Could you see yourself ever standing for election for anything again?
    Yes, once the kids are no longer absorbing so much of my time. I’d very much like to get back into electoral politics at some point in the future. But it won’t be for another few years.
  4. What do you miss most about living in Ireland?
    Second-hand bookshops in English. This would of course apply to the UK as well, or the USA.
  5. What’s with all the carrots? What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?
    I have penetrated your sinister plan, Wall. As you well know, in the next line of the song Anya suggests that it may be midgets. You cannot distract my attention so easily.

From :

  1. If given the opportunity, would you change your children in any way?
    Next question, please.
  2. Does Irish Catholicism really differ from European Catholicism and if yes, how so?
    I think it’s Catholicism in Belgium (and perhaps the Netherlands as well) that is outside the European norm. Fifty or a hundred years ago, Irish Catholicism would have been unusual in that its adherents were attending Mass much more than other Europeans, and were much more conservative than European Catholics. My perception is now that in Ireland, like in most countries, the number who are actually practicing Catholics has dropped dramatically, and those who are left are almost all pretty conservative in their views on what are loosely called “moral issues”. However in the Low Countries the more progressive elements seem to have remained active within the Church rather than leave.
  3. You’re given the opportunity to claim one book as a book you have written. Which one would it be?
    asked me this in a slightly different way – which book would I like to have written, rather than which book would I like people to think I had written! So I think the answer is different, and probably it is The Lord of the Rings.
  4. Would you become the head of the United Nations and if so, what would you change?
    I think I’d rather be a senior political adviser than be the man right at the very top; and that’s a general comment rather than a specific UN feeling. Having said that, the single most obvious thing to change about the UN is the structure of the Security Council, which reflects the balance of world forces in 1945 and not 2006. If I had a clean slate I would give seats with vetoes to the top ten countries ranked by population and by GDP (so USA, Japan and China qualify on both criteria, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia and Nigeria make it on population grounds, and Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Canada, Spain and South Korea [which is just ahead of Brazil and India] get in on the size of their economies). Then you would balance out the geography by having a similar number of elected members. But on top of that, countries who actually contribute troops to peacekeeping missions should have an extra say in how the troops in those missions are used.
  5. The US and Europe go at war with each other. How will the conflict be solved and with whom will the Russians side?
    Hmm. The second bit is easier; the Russians will sit back, and sell oil and weapons to both sides. In a purely military sense, the US is much stronger and of courfse has much better intelligence about where European military assets are than vice versa. But I think they would find that having won the war it would be pretty difficult to stay dominant for long in peacetime.

And from :

  1. How many languages do you speak?
    English (obviously); reasonably fluent in Dutch, German and French. Tourist-level Serbo-Croato-Bosnian and Macedonia, and Italian if I try. Used to be able to read medieval Latin but haven’t tried for a while. Vestigial Russian. Say four for safety.
  2. Please explaing what psephology is?
    The study of election results. I hadn’t realised when I wrote my profile, but it is considered an obsolete and slightly pompous term in the USA, whereas for British and Irish speakers (at least those of us who are fascinated by elections) it is a normal term of conversation.
  3. What are your top 3 criteria when choosing a new book to read?
    I am trying to be a bit more systematic about this, as recent posts show. In general it tends to be “whatever catches my eye”. At present I am attempting to plan against various criteria: i) diminishing the unread list; ii) reading Great Novels; iii) reading Great Science Fiction; iv) this year’s Hugo nominees; v) whatever catches my eye. It is not easy to combine these various criteria into a workable strategy.
  4. Who’s your favourite Bond?
    Oddly enough, Pierce Brosnan.
  5. How long does it take you to get to work and do you take the same route/method every day?
    I almost always head in along the E40, and then down through Montgomery and up the whole length of Avenue Louise, which can take as little as 25 minutes if traffic is clear (ie at weekends) but is more usually about an hour, worse if there is bad weather or worse than usual traffic. One alternative I have sometimes tried is to skip the motorway altogether and go in through Tervuren.
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April Books 12) A Hat Full of Sky

12) A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett

The first I’ve read of the Tiffany Aching series. Obviously meant for young adults but a good read for everyone, I think, with a typically humanitarian message. My favourite line was:

“AAaargwannawannaaaagongongonaargggaaaaBLOON!” which is the traditional sound of a very small child learning that with balloons, as with life itself, it is important to know when not to let go of the string. The whole point of balloons is to teach small children this.

It’s that “as with life itself” that really makes it memorable.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

April Books 10) You, The People, 11) International Governance…

10) You, The People: The United Nations, Transitional Administration and State-Building, by Simon Chesterman
11) International Governance of War-Torn Territories: Rule and Reconstruction, by Richard Caplan

Two books on very similar topics. Don’t really have the energy to review either right now. Chesterman’s slightly the better read, though also less accurately titled in that he deals with post-1995 Bosnia and post-2003 Iraq, neither of which is really UN per se. Both very good and detailed.

The three real killers for international interventions post-conflict are, according to both writers:

i) wishful thinking about conditions on the ground, rather than proper planning for the circumstances of the mission, often driven by domestic political pressures on key players
ii) failure to establish purpose of the mission (and thus conditions for eventually terminating it) right at the very start
iii) failure to establish rule of law very early on in the process, ie police, courts, enforcement mechanisms.

Very useful food for thought, anyway.

While on the plane I also read Spyridon Kotsovilis’ paper on Greece’s policy towards Macedonia, picked up on a Google trawl since he references me briefly in a footnote. An attractive argument about international relations in general, and how the Realists and Constructivists are Both Wrong; unfortunately his English lets him down in one or two key places, but I think I basically agree with what he’s saying and must read more of the writers he references positively (other than myself).

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The Apricot is Erupting

As one often does on birthdays, I’ve been trying to pin down an elusive detail from many years in the past. In the summer of 1989 I saw a play in a London theatre, set on a Greek island. In the first act, set several decades ago, a young American writer had a homosexual affair with a local chap. In the second act, set in the present day, the same guy, much older, is being cared for in his declining years. The play ends with a volcano exploding, and the old man, who has problems finding the right words, uttering the immortal line “The apricot is erupting!”

Well, the power of Google has tracked it down. Just doing a search on “greek island” play homosexual volcano pulls a New York Times review of a more recent production of Michael Sherman’s “A Madhouse in Goa” as the first hit. Investigating a bit further, I find to my surprise that the production I saw starred Rupert Graves and Vanessa Redgrave. I have seen fewer than half a dozen London shows, and am amazed that I had forgotten the star quality of the production. What I do remember is that it really wasn’t a very good play, and at one point Larry Lamb (playing the writer in the second act) started visibly giggling at the end of one of his scenes.

Anyway, just thought you would like to know. The birthday link (which I had also forgotten) is that the second act of the play explicitly references the Chernobyl disaster, which of course happened on my 19th birthday.

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26 April 1967

Happy 39th birthday to:

Trish Doller, self-described “morning radio jock, punk rock mom, high priestess of DIY, bleeding-heart liberal and all-around awesome babe”
Simon Le Roux, South Africa-born architect and set designer for Finland’s Ismo Dance Company
Dominic Jermey OBE of the British Embassy in Madrid
The Reverend Andrew Karnley, Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Monrovia
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, actress (Secrets and Lies, Without A Trace television series) and composer
Glen Jacobs, aka Kane, “professional wrestler”
Rainer Salzgeber, Austrian skiing champion
Monte Warden, country musician
Philippe Bertaud, jazz guitarist
Sascha Draeger, German actor and voice-over artist
Klaus Merk, trainer of the Berman national ice-hockey team
Hindy Najman, theologian
Cornelia Schaub, Zürich city councillor
Ludwig Stefan, mayor of the east German city of Königs Wusterhausen
Tim Moore, member of the Michigan State House of Representatives
Francesco Primo Vaccari of the Italian Institute of Biometeorology
Brian K. Lawson, Michigan lawyer
Petr Šulc, CFO of Zentiva
Toomas Tõniste, Estonian winner of two Olympic sailing medals
Alf Kåre Tveit, Norwegian footballer
Konstantin G. Kozhevnikov, president of the Russian Golf Federation
Randy Patterson, American racing driver (stock)
Wolfram Centner, German racing driver (sidecar)
Lorenzo Ward, defensive backfield coach of the Virginia Tech Hokies
Andy Schmeltzer, midfielder of the Charleston Batteries
Sean Boxall, Scottish snooker player
Milan Dvořák, Czech chemist
Zvi Pasman, biochemist
Swen-Uwe Volker, German journalist
Stefan Wiemer, Swiss seismologist
Renee Maritza Vargas, Peruvian sculptor
Marcel Raaymakers, drummer with Dutch band No Fuzz
Kathy Manners, artist

and me!

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On the radio

Jim Bennett was my supervisor for my M Phil in Cambridge, and then the external examiner for my Ph D; he’s now in charge of the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford, and it was a pleasant surprise to hear his Belfast tones on Radio 4 this morning talking about his new exhibition on Marconi and the early history of radio.

One point he didn’t make, but has always intrigued me, is Marconi’s Irish connection. His mother was a Jameson, of the whiskey family, and his first wife was the daughter of Lord Inchiquin. We tend to think of him in Italian stereotypes (which given his later political activities, and the fact that Mussolini was his best man at his second wedding, is justified to an extent) but when in the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was able to present himself convincingly as a member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and he used both Ballycastle and Mizen Head as experimental bases (the former providing the title for a poetry collection by Medbh McGuckian).

One thing I didn’t hear on the radio this morning was the Radio 4 UK theme. As it happened the alarm went off at the right time yesterday morning, and so I did hear it for the last time. Well, the new format will probably be easier to get up with, but it feels a little strange all the same.

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Being here

Have been pondering the ups and downs of being here, as I often do. On the plus side, no more wrangling with the NHS. Have been following a couple of medical dramas on my f-list, one person with an eye problem which was eventually (and quickly) diagnosed by going private, another simply trying to get a repeat prescription for the Pill from her local GP but being told she had to wait ten days – I mean, what is that about? Enforcing chastity and continence on young British women? I remember having to argue with the doctor’s receptionist in Belfast about whether I was ill enough to deserve an appointment at the end of the following week.

At least here in Belgium, I’ve never had to wait even 24 hours to see the doctor, and never more than a week to see a specialist. It isn’t free at the point of service – you pay about 20 euro per consultation, 80% of which then gets refunded to you – but I think that the defenders of the NHS have fetishised the “free at the point of service” mantra to the point that it obscures the lousy qualities of the free service you get. (And of course the care available to us for our children is way in advance of what we would get in the UK.)

On the other hand, one of the Belgians on my f-list has just been deprived of two months’ worth of state benefits due to a bureaucratic slip-up, with, of course, no information given to her about how she might appeal against the decision. My experience with Belgian bureaucracy is that once you threaten them with the ombudsman they cave pretty fast, but only because most Belgians don’t even think to do that. The Belgian state services may be efficient and generously funded, but they are also paternalistic and rather inhuman.

There are, of course, other upsides of living here. I went for a good long bike ride in the woods yesterday, as the first step in my spring keep-fit programme. (Must go and do it again once I’ve finished writing this.) came over in the afternoon, which was very nice. (She has written her visit up in much detail on her own journal.) We went out for dinner last night, and then came home and watched Doctor Who (having taped it). And the Sky and Telescope page tells me that if this evening is clear – which it looks like it may well be – we have a good chance of seeing the International Space Station in the southern sky at about 2140. Will report back.

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April Books 9) Malachy

9) Malachy, by Brian Scott

Brian Scott was one of those charming academic figures I vaguely knew during my time at the Queen’s University of Belfast from 1991 to 1996, a lecturer in Latin (finally given a personal chair as a consolation prize for being made to retire in 1995) who shared my interest in the twelfth century – indeed, he was best known for his work with F.X. Martin on Gerald of Wales’ account of the Norman conquest of Ireland, and was also good enough to cast an expert eye over my still-unpublished work on Eleanor of Aquitaine. I suppose he is probably still alive, but it’s unlikely we will meet again, so I use the past tense.

This very short book, published in 1976, is really a presentation of highlights from the life of St Malachy (1094-1148) written by his close friend St Bernard of Clairvaux. Malachy was responsible for bringing the Irish church into line with Roman practice; he was involved with much ecclesiastical intrigue and skullduggery between Downpatrick, Armagh, and Bangor, with reflections elsewhere in Ireland (especially Munster); and eventually died while visiting Clarivaux, rather as his eventual successor as Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Ó Fiaich, did in 1990.

The book is written for a popular (and pious Catholic) rather than academic audience (published by Veritas), but even so I was a bit surprised that there was no real discussion of whether the “reforms” were actually so badly needed; I guess 1976 predated a lot of the recent rise of interest in Celtic spirituality. I was even more surprised that, introducing the chapter on miracles, Scott writes of “that mysterious divine power which cannot be pinned down or defined, and which is still working today through men gifted with mysterious powers of healing and counselling.” However I was much relieved that he completely writes off the “Prophecies of St Malachy” about future Popes as a renaissance forgery.

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Interviews again

Leave me a comment; I’ll ask you five questions; you do same on your LJ, if you like. (I still owe three people questions from the last round of this; will do those tomorrow.)

Four sets of questions here:

From :

  1. One of the things I’m bitter about is the political situation in the States has obliterated my love for politics. Do you ever find yourself losing the faith, embroiled as you are in politics?
    I am buoyed up by a basic faith in humanity: that political leaders are, on the whole, not mendacious or even particularly greedy (if you are greedy, there are much better ways of making money than going into politics). And they are therefore susceptible to reasoned argument. Some are obviously more so than others; and some simply have very different world-views to mine. But in general, I feel that it is possible to make a small difference by my own efforts, so I keep on going.
  2. Given Phemonenal Cosmic Powers, or heck, just a chance, which would you be, a superhero or a supervillain? Why?
    Superhero, of course. I am basically a Good Person. Unless total anonymity were assured, and I knew that nobody would ever penetrate my secret identity. Then – Bwa! Ha! Ha! – I could certainly be a super-villain!
  3. You write wonderful thoughtful book reviews. Recommend something for me to read, please!
    Why, thank you. I would heartily recommend Ali and Nino, the great romantic novel of the South Caucasus, by Kurban Said.
  4. It’s the end of the world as we know it. (Do you feel fine?) Is it a thing of poetry or of prose?
    If I am describing it, prose. Have never quite been able to discipline my thoughts into the poetic format.
  5. What one person from history would you like to sit down and have a talk with, and why?
    I have always been deeply and utterly fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine. I don’t think I would learn much from her, but there would be a certain amount of overwhelmed fanboy in my demeanour if I got to talk to her.
From :
  1. Which country do you/would you most love to visit, and why?
    Countries I have visited: I do like Macedonia, a small Balkan state which I feel I have very much got the hang of, and which I have not explored to my satisfaction. The most intriguing place I haven’t visited is Pitcairn Island, because of its bizarre and disturbing human story.
  2. If it were possible to find magically find an equitable and widely acceptable resolution of any three conflicts in the world, which three would you choose to settle? And why?
    Crumbs, only three? Well, I’m leaving out Northern Ireland, and also the Balkans, because I think they are on their way to reasonably equitable settlement without my supernatural help. The three that worry me most are Israel/Palestine, which seems to have a pernicious influence all over the rest of the world; Cyprus, which seems monumentally intractable and has potentially huge geopolitical implications; and Armenia/Azerbaijan, which I think has similar wider destabilising potential.
  3. What do you like the best about your wife?
    The way her eyes dance when she is amused.
  4. What would your perfect weekend consist of?
    Good food, good reading, and a little culture.
  5. How would you define yourself?
    My summary for the blog (actually written in response to an earlier interview question) says “Husband, father of three, Irish, European, UK citizen, liberal, Catholic, political analyst, science fiction fan, psephologist, lapsed medievalist, aspiring polyglot.” I think the Irish and liberal elements are the most important ones in making me who I am.
From :
  1. If there was one book in the world that you could have written, which one would it be?
    Very difficult. I envy all fiction writers. I also envy all writers of great non-fiction. I suppose I really wish I had had the time resources and intellectual application to write Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As it is, all I’ve managed is to read bits of it.
  2. You seem to have gone from our first meeting at Mecon a few years back to moderating panels at Worldcon, a meteoric rise throught the ranks of con-dom. Do you have any plans to go into con-running yourself, and who would be your ideal guest line-up?
    I was not a total neofan in Belfast; I had a certain amount of form already through my website reviewing Hugo nominees from 2000 onwards, and from posting to rec.arts.sf.written since 1995. And I think my decision to start reviewing books on my livejournal, plus my attendance at the first P-Con, and then Pico-Con and a First Thursday last year, all helped. Also the fact that I do a lot of panel presentations at work can’t have done me any harm as an attractive Worldcon panel participant.
    Living where and as I do, I don’t think I will be able to make much of a contribution to con-running in the near future. However, I would like to put something back into the fannish community, and will be thinking about that over the next few months.
  3. Of the authors you’ve met so far, who impressed you most?
    Oh, almost all of them. Special hugs to Juliet McKenna though, who is awfully good fun to hang out with and actually writes decent books as well; I guess she is probably the only one who I got to know in person before reading her works!
  4. And least?
    Now, that would be telling. I must say the one co-panellist whose behaviour really appalled me – turned up late, reeking of his previous night’s activities and made an incoherent rambling contribution to the panel – isn’t especially known as an author.
  5. Is David Tennant (happy birthday to him today, BTW [these questions asked a couple of days ago]) going to be a classic Doctor?
    Ecclestone is a very tough act to follow. But I have hopes of Tennant. As far as I know he is the first actual diehard fan of the series to get the job. He is certainly not the worst so far. But I confess my knowledge of Who is largely based on the Baker and Davison years, and I’m still catching up with some of the rest.
And from :

  1. What is the draw of politics for you? You seem to have been interested in it for years in various capacities and still maintain an active interest.
    I want to make the world a better place; and I kid myself that by getting involved I can help to do just that. Also I am fascinated by voting and election results, which does sort of translate into politics fairly readily…
  2. If you could punch a single writer for their works who would it be and why?
    I am generally a non-violent kind of guy, but I was most recently really annoyed by Rebecca Jenkins’ book on Fanny Kemble. Some of the political stuff I read on-line makes me angry as well. But in general it is not so much the fiction writers who irritate me for writing bad fiction as their publishers for inflicting it on the world.
  3. What three discretionary items would you bring to a desert island vacation, you know outside of things like keys, wallet, cellphone?
    1) Lots of books
    2) lots more books
    3) massage oil
  4. Of all the languages that you have heard, which do you think is the sexiest?
    I’ve said before that I love the sound of both Italian and Finnish. But there is something just a bit more earthy and sexy about Spanish! (Which I also do not speak)
  5. Your favourite tv show of all time? And why is it your favourite?
    Hmm. I can’t really pick just one. Doctor Who and Buffy have both been great at different times; likewise, at a much earlier point in my life, Hill Street Blues. Anything with humour, drama, and decent characterisation. But to be honest, television has not been such an important part of my life.

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Shurely shome mishtake

Was surprised to learn from WikiPedia that:

Dominic Green (born 1970), is a British musician and science fiction author. He also writes and edits non-fiction about music and history….

Green is the son of saxophonist Benny Green and the actress Toni Kanal. Dominic read English Literature at St. John’s College, Oxford. After graduation, he worked as a professional jazz guitarist, playing with his father, John Dankworth, Doris Troy, Kym Mazelle and the James Taylor Quartet.

Since 1996 he has been publishing short science fiction, predominately in Interzone.

I think they are confusing this Dominic Green with this one. The one who writes sf went to St Catherine’s College, Cambridge at the same time as I was at Clare, so must be my age or a year younger, not born as late as 1970.

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April Books 7) Secret Files: The Inside Story of International Rescue

7) Secret Files: The Inside Story of International Rescue, by Chris Bentley, Stephen Cole and Graham Bleathman

Simply superb for the Thunderbirds fan in your life.

I do wonder if F will absorb the fact that his role models all have science and technology degrees from well-known universities.

He has already worked out that in less than three years, Jeff Tracy will be born.

(On 2 January 2009. It says so in the book, so it must be true.)

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Genesis concluded

Watched episode 4 last night, and episodes 5 and 6 tonight. Will have to go back and do it all again with the commentary turned on. But it really is very good, after all this time. The whole thing is very much Davros’ story, rather than that of the Doctor or even the Daleks. The last few scenes, where his creations turn on him because they are doing what he made them to do, are superb.

Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank.

I wonder if The Deadly Assassin would hold up as well?

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April Books 6) William Heinemann: A Memoir

6) William Heinemann: A Memoir, by Frederic Whyte

I chased this down because the author was a distant relative of mine, and it is the most easily obtainable (and the cheapest) of his books, published in 1929, nine years after the death of its subject, the London publisher William Heinemann. I was reading it really for information about the author, and not surprisingly didn’t get much; most of the book in fact consists of letters from Heinemann’s friends, telling anecdotes about Heinemann and Whistler (usually) or some other author, some of whom I have heard of and most of whom I haven’t. There is a chapter on his unhappy marriage; there is very little about his travels in India and Burma except that they happened. Whyte himself does have one really good line:

The Spoils of Poynton was the first of Henry James’s novels, as Mr Percy Lubbock says, “which belong definitely to his ‘later manner'”. There must be a great many people who, like myself, delight in details concerning the personality and the literary methods of Henry James without ever having learnt to appreciate those books of his which in his own eyes and in the eyes of the elect constituted his chief claim to distinction as a writer. I have never read, and shall probably never read, The Spoils of Poynton (the heroine’s name in itself, Fleda Vetch, is enough to deter me)…
Having admitted that I wasn’t very interested in its subject, I actually found it a light and easy read (certainly after Alexander Hamilton). I am dismayed by my own ignorance of the literary culture of the time. Heinemann set up shop in the 1890s and immediately made his name with The Bondman by Hall Caine. I had heard of neither novel nor writer, though apparently Caine was the highest earning author in England. Mrs Flora Annie Steel comes across as a great character and was clearly a best-selling author to boot; similarly unknown to me. But Heinemann did manage to talent-spot the young H.G. Wells and published the Time Machine (1895), rather a risky punt for an unknown author with such an extraordinary subject, and followed up with The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr Moreau the next year, and The War of the Worlds two years after that. Another unlikely prospect who he propelled to success was Joseph Conrad. He also did a lot to popularise foreign writers, and especially foreign theatre, in Britain. George Bernard Shaw tells an anecdote of how Heinemann turned him down, but is sympathetic to the publisher’s plight rather than bitter.

Early on in the book, one of Whyte’s correspondents refers to Heinemann’s “race”, and Whyte protests in a footnote that the family had been Christians for two generations. Uh-oh, I thought, and braced myself for some 1920s anti-semitism. Rather to my surprise, although indeed there are many references to Heinemann’s Jewish background, they are all unequivocally positive (intellectual brilliance, not really so bothered about making money, etc). I think that all stereotypes are regrettable, but not all are negative. In racial terms, the fact that Heinemann had very strong sympathies for Germany clearly did him more damage.

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April Books 5) Alexander Hamilton

5) Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow

Thanks to spending yesterday in bed I have finished this massive biography, which would have taken me otherwise another couple of weeks. As it happens the last book I read I also finished in bed feeling ill, and it was also a biography of a late 18th-century political figure, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In fact she and Hamilton were almost exact contemporaries, he born in 1755 and she in 1757; and both died aged 49, Georgiana of natural causes in 1806, Hamilton killed by the Vice-President of the United States in 1804. They never met – neither ever crossed the Atlantic – though they would certainly have had acquaintances in common – Hamilton’s brother-in-law was an English MP who was in with the Prince of Wales/Charles James Fox set of which Georgiana was the leading light.

Hamilton is unquestionably the more important figure historically. Georgiana was an important cultural reference point and a back-room political player in a not especially important phase of English history, whereas Hamilton was deeply involved in setting up the administrative infrastructure for today’s only superpower. Chernow suggests that “Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency” and indeed it is pretty difficult to think of anyone else who could come close to matching that – Henry Clay? Martin Luther King? Chief Justice Roger Taney (and not in a good way)? Although I wish the book had been a bit shorter, it is every bit as good as Georgiana, and far better than McCullough’s Adams – indeed, I felt I got a better idea of Adams from the few dozen pages Chernow spends on him than in McCullough’s 650.

The start of Hamilton’s life is pretty dramatic: he was born into a white trash background in the West Indies; his parents were not married and he spent his early life wandering around the Leeward Islands, between Nevis, the Dutch possession of St Eustatius, and the then Danish possession of St Croix – now one of the US Virgin Islands; I have to say that between this and The Jennifer Morgue I have come to realise just how little idea I have of the geography of the Caribbean. He lost almost all his family through death (or in the case of his father desertion) by the time he was 14; but fortunately fell on his feet, found himself a wealthy patron (possibly his real father) who recognised his ability, and got sent to New York to complete his education. He never went back.

Hamilton’s achievements are significant, as aide to Washington during the war, joint (indeed main) author of the Federalist Papers, New York political activist, and most particularly as the first ever Secretary of the Treasury. 200 pages of the book are devoted to his term of slightly more than five years in that office, and Chernow makes a very good case for Hamilton’s crucial importance in producing a government of the United States that actually worked by creating a financial administration that was clearly superior to that of the states and (more importantly) that worked; when Jefferson and his supporters took over in 1801, having sworn to dismantle the system, they found it was simply impossible. Had there been no Hamilton, the United States of America could have gone the way of the Leeward Islands federation or the United Arab States.

Indeed, without Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, it might not have even got off the ground. One part of the story that was wholly new to me was the difficulty of getting New York to buy into the project in the first place. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton was the only one of three New York delegates at all keen on the idea of revising the Articles of Confederation, and his only significant contribution to the debate is described by the normally sympathetic Chernow as “daft”. But once it was over he put all his efforts into getting New York to ratify. Even that might not have worked, if the critical number of nine states had not been reached elsewhere so that the debate in New York shifted from whether or not the Constitution was a good idea in the first place, to whether or not New York could afford to be left out.

New York itself, incidentally, comes across as a major character in the book – Hamilton’s true home, despite having to leave it during the war (when it was under British occupation) and for the remaining time of his service in the federal government after it moved to Philadelphia. It is interesting that Hamilton’s track record in New York electoral politics was pretty poor. He was obviously a man who was great at intellectual argument and wearing down opponents who would engage with him on his own terms. But in New York he was consistently outmanœuvred by the likes of Aaron Burr, who eventually killed him, and even more so by Burr’s successor as Vice-President, George Clinton. Hamilton distrusted the mob and was no good at street politics. But he was fascinated by the city where he was educated, married and died. He had almost no knowledge of the South. (Oddly enough one of Burr’s first refuges after the duel was on the Carolina plantation of his friend Pierce Butler, whose grandson was to marry Fanny Kemble.)

Flawed characters are always much more interesting than saints. Hamilton was at the centre of the first sex scandal in American politics, and paid for it dearly with his political reputation. He had a knack of alienating people at just the wrong moment – Madison, Adams, and then Burr. Chernow concludes that he could never have become President. I don’t know; certainly his political fortunes were at a nadir in 1804. But had he managed to make and keep an alliance with some more stabilising figure, things could have been different. When he died he was still younger than anyone who has come to the presidency except Polk, Garfield, Pierce, Cleveland, Grant, Clinton, Kennedy or Teddy Roosevelt. Richard Nixon was 49 in 1962; Ronald Reagan was still an actor in 1960.

Anyway, this is a great book. It’s just a shame it is so loooong.

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Amusing misprint in press release

Final Results of 2004 Census Made Public

The Republic of Moldova [its Transnistrian region exclusive] is home to 3.4 people. Such is one of the main findings of the national census held here on October 5 through 12, 2004, the National Bureau of Statistics has reported.

It took them eight days to count 3.4 people? That’s not very fast. The Count in Sesame street would laugh at them…

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What happened last night

It started when one of my field staff phoned to complain that our latest report had had an extract from a book about canoeing in the Caucasus inserted at the end as an advertisement. I tried to send emails complaining to the publications people at work from my childhood homes, but couldn’t. Meanwhile I recognised the name of the author of the canoeing book as G, a guy I had vaguely known through the Northern Irish board-games scene twenty years ago. Wandering around the university campus looking for him, I discovered I could fly, or at least lean backwards and hover at low level, and was rounded up by the security staff and brought to their office, where I found G sitting behind a desk. Mysteriously he now had two bodies, one with blank skin instead of eyes which did all the talking, and a mute cyclopean body sitting beside it, slowly blinking its double-pupilled eye, but making all the appropriate facial expressions.

And then I woke up.

Edited to add: I normally find other people’s dreams really dull to read (or listen to) and rarely inflict my own on people, but this was very weird. I notice also that two other people on my f-list felt compelled to blog about their dreams of last night. There was obviously something in the air.

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Am spending today in bed, struck down by some bug. Hopefully just a 24-hour one.

But meantime I have been reminded of an eccentric election candidate of 1995. His posters were white on black, on A3 sheets of paper, mainly as far as I remember posted on the central reservation of the dual carriageway between Belfast and Bangor, so that potential voters would zoom past them at 70 miles per hour. In the end he got 101 votes (just beating the Natural Law Party, who came last with 100). He has stood at a number of elections since and never come close to winning.

1996 Forum election: he and his wife got 49 votes (0.09%, second last) in North Down, and his slate of candidates got a total of 204 votes (0.03%, came 22nd of the 22 slates entitled to a regional tally)
1998 Assembly election: 72 votes (0.2%, second last) in North Down
2001 local elections: 175 votes (2.5%, third last) in Bangor Abbey
2001 Westminster election: 444 votes (1.2% – second last, since he beat Sinn Fein) in North Down
2003 Assembly election: 109 votes (0.4%, last) in North Down
2005 local elections: 141 votes (2.4%, last) in Bangor Abbey
2005 Westminster election: 211 votes (0.7%, second last – again beating Sinn Fein) in North Down

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