The Threat from Google

From Liz Fuller in today’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty newsline:

AZERBAIJANI EXPERTS ASSESS POSSIBLE INTERNET SECURITY THREAT. The website has asked two experts to assess the possible threat to Azerbaijan’s national security posed by the posting on of photographs of strategic buildings in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities, including the presidential palace and the Defense Ministry, and of fortifications close to the Line of Contact that separates Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. Independent military expert Uzeir Djafarov said those photos indubitably undermine national security and constitute “gross interference in Azerbaijan’s internal affairs.” He expressed concern that the Foreign, Defense, and National Security ministries have not responded to that perceived interference and demanded the removal of the photos in question. Alimamed Nuriyev, a former member of the parliamentary Committee on Security and Defense, pointed out that as Azerbaijan has not yet formally adopted a national-security concept (see “RFE/RL Caucasus Report,” February 3, 2006), it is difficult to define precisely what constitutes a threat. At the same time, he noted that Azerbaijan is “at war,” and that the publication of photographs of strategic facilities plays into the hands of the enemy, according to on October 28.

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The Moonbase

Sorry for the mucho Doctor Who posting this weekend, a combination of not feeling like doing much else and catching up with stuff I’ve watched ages ago and never got around to blogging. Anyway this will be a fairly short post.

The Moonbase was a four-part series broadcast just before I was born in 1967. It is set entirely on the Moon, at a base from which the world’s weather is controlled; the Doctor and his three companions (Ben and Polly from 1966 and eighteenth-century Jamie) arrive in time to avert the conquest of Earth by the Cybermen their second appearance after The Tenth Planet. It’s not easy to watch, because episodes 1 and 3 are lost; in the end I played the soundtrack off my Lost In Time DVD while flicking through the BBC photonovel, and then watched episode 2 and 4 directly.

I have to differ with the fannish consensus that this is better than the Cybermen’s previous outing. I found the Cybermen more difficult to understand, the plot implausible even making allowances for scientific hand-waving – the base commander ought to have been shot for his attitude to security – and the direction seems to consit of lots of actors standing around waiting to say their next line.

On the other hand, the look of the sets is pretty good; two years before Armstrong and Aldrin, they do a decent lunar landscape and setting. The incidental music is great. And Troughton is brilliant, though Ben is annoying, Jamie comatose for much of the story, and Polly is repeatedly patronised – noticeably the only female character, told to go and make the coffee, told she can’t take part in the final attack as it is “men’s work”. I don’t find myself especially mourning the two missing episodes.

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October Books 13-17) Amber, the first series

13) Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
14) The Guns of Avalon, by Roger Zelazny
15) Sign of the Unicorn, by Roger Zelazny
16) The Hand of Oberon, by Roger Zelazny
17) The Courts of Chaos, by Roger Zelazny

I was prompted to relive this early enthusiasm by Lyn Gardner's thought-provoking article in Strange Horizons, "The Solitary Quest: The Hero's Search for Identity in Roger Zelazny's Amber" which fulfilled all that I ask for in a piece on sf – it helped me better understand what I have already read, and gave me pointers to more pieces that I might enjoy. Gardner's basic argument is that the books are about Corwin's journey to his own new identity, and I completely buy it. I would in fact add a few more pieces of evidence which seem to me to support her thesis.

First off, paths and roads are all over the place. There is, most obviously, the Black Road linking Amber to Chaos. The hell-rides, which I've always felt are the most beautifully descriptive passages in the books, are journeys along paths which may or may not be secure. The Pattern itself is a path that must be followed by the initiate. Indeed, if one thinks about Zelazny's other fiction, journeys and roads are perhaps as prominent in his works as, say landscape in Brian Aldiss. In a fascinatingly weird chapter in the final book, Corwin's jouney becomes overtly entangled with concepts of being, where he encounters a philosophical crow, a submerged nihilistic being, and the dancing Spirits of Time while travelling.

Second, while Corwin experiences his goal through the form of a quest, his brother Random undergoes a similar transition, from homicidal little fink to his father's unchallenged successor, basically by being redeemed through the love of a good woman. is hoping against hope that Torchwood doesn't turn out to have that plot but I think it's a perfectly viable alternative, and I think Zelazny thinks so too; but he is telling Corwin's story, not Random's. Lyn Gardner is right, I think, to single out Corwin's conversation with Random's wife Vialle near the start of the fourth book as a crucial turning point – perhaps Zelazny is signalling it by writing himself into the story as a minor character two pages later.

Third, I've reflected before on the role of religion (as opposed to mythology) in Zelazny's work. It is striking that (as Gardner perhaps unwittingly makes clear in her essay) the source of Corwin's character transformation is not love, as in Random's case, but his lengthy sojourn on our planet; and when he draws his new Pattern in the final book, it is memories of Paris (and elsewhere on Earth) that inform him. Zelazny was presumably brought up with some Catholic background (and can hardly have been uninformed about Christianity). Is it stretching matters too far to see some parallels with a divine Son who spent a lifetime on our planet? Of course, the effects and outcome are completely different but I can't help feeling there is something there.

Anyway, apart from those reflections, I enjoyed re-reading the books. There are so many great descriptive passages, and succinct one-liners that I had forgotten. This quote, for instance, from near the beginning:

I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around me. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.

There are flaws as well: the consistency of Corwin's genealogical statements is far from perfect, and the retrospective attempts to work out exactly how he comes to be in hospital at the very start of the story make it rather obvious that the author had no idea how he got there either. The means and motivations of the minor characters – especially Bleys, who allies with Corwin, and Caine, who tries to kill him – are not always convincing. And while Zelazny was generally a master at combining banter in contemporary English style with his fantastic background settings, there are one or two points when it slips. Still, I am no longer reading these books as I once did to strip-mine them for information about the setting, I am just reading them for entertainment, and it is a very pleasurable experience.

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City of Death

Diehard fan though I am, my family was living in the Netherlands in 1979-80 and so I have never seen any of Season Seventeen (“Destiny of the Daleks”, “City of Death”, “The Creature from the Pit”, “Nightmare of Eden”, “The Horns of Nimon” and what there is of “Shada”). I have now put this right, as far as I ever intend to, by watching “City of Death”, the third Who story to be set in Paris (after “The Reign of Terror” and “The Massacre”) but only the first to actually be filmed there, starring the fourth Doctor and the second Romana, very much on top form.

A great deal has been said about this story, so I’ll just add that I too liked it; while I still have difficulty deciding between “Genesis of the Daleks” and “The Deadly Assassin” as my favourite story of classic Who, “City of Death” is certainly in my top ten, maybe my top five. Paul Cornell, in the panel that I memorably partly chaired in Dublin in March, singled out Duggan’s punch as one of the great moments of Doctor Who, but I’m not sure I can agree: the climactic scenes on the primeval earth actually look a bit naff in comparison to the rest of the story, since they are ostensibly happening outdoors but videotaped rather than filmed. (And as pointed out, “Surely the atmosphere would have been unbreathable then?”)

And while it would have been nice from a purely plot point of view to have sacrificed some of the padding for a little more exposition at the end, the padding itself is just great to watch. We’ll be in Paris next week for a day – looking forward to it!

Edited to add – did anyone else think the incidental music in the first episode had a slight resonace with Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”?

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The Three Doctors

Oh dear. It’s pretty dire. The anti-matter monsters are either laughable video effects or men in not-very-threatening rubber suits. The quarry is a quarry. There is a character who is funny because he is working class. There is a human scientist with glasses and a white coat who contributes nothing except to get zapped by the monsters. The Brigadier is at his most nitwittish. Jo is at her most annoying. The incidental music is at its most cliched and intrusive. The quarry is evidently a quarry.

There are some good bits too. The Time Lords’ control centre, and Omega’s palace, are nicely designed sets which add credibility to the thin plot. The bickering between Two and Three is a delight. Even One, from within his pyramid, is pretty authoritative, though there is one scene where Hartnell has to keep looking across at his cue cards. The scene where it is revealed that Omega has no body left is very good, but fatally undermined by the fact that we have clearly seen Stephen Thorne’s chin in silhouette in the previous shot. The Brigadier does get one good line, when he first enters the TARDIS and says to Two, “So this is what you’ve been doing with UNIT funds and equipment all this time!”

But on the whole it’s pretty dire. John Williams points out, on the excellent Behind the Sofa group blog, that the Target novelisation by Terrance Dicks was way better, especially the dismally executed cliff-hanger to episode 3 where Three rolls around on the ground briefly with a guy in a rubber mask. I think since I started re-watching old Doctor Who series this is the least impressive one I have seen. Best avoided unless (like me) you are a completist. Get the idea by reading this summary.

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I’ve already written several entries about this while we were wacthing it, but it really is fantastic. It’s a 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves’ two novels, I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935), and deserves to be even higher than 12th on the list of 100 greatest British TV shows of all time. It’s almost twenty years since I read Graves’ novels; but I re-read his primary source material much more recently, so some of this was fresh in my mind. And I also vividly remember seeing the “Not my HEAD!” episode when I was 12 or 13 (and living in the Netherlands).

This really is excellent stuff, and it’s a bit of a shame (as with many of these older programmes) to watch it one episode a night for a couple of weeks, rather than one episode a week for three months as the makers intended. It means you pick up a bit more than necessary on the differential rates of aging among the main characters – Tiberius, for instance, shifts well from aspiring princeling to debauched old emperor, but Augustus as an old man just looks like a young man with make-up. And Caligula and Messalina are not quite young enough for the parts (John Hurt was 36 when it was filmed, Caligula 29 when he died; Messalina is clearly intended to be a teenager though Sheila White was 28); while Antonia starts off too old.

But it is easy to suspend your disbelief. In particular, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the two leads (who both won BAFTA awards) – Siân Philips as Augustus’ wife Livia, who poisons her way anguishedly through the first few episodes, and then Derek Jacobi as her grandson Claudius, watching in horror as the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula degenerate, and even more horror-struck when he ends up as Emperor himself. It’s all really good, even some of the minor characters – particular kudos to Ashley Knight who plays Claudius as a young boy, complete with twitch and stammer.

It’s startling to realise how close it is to the source material in places. Suetonius actually records the correspondence between Augustus and Livia about what the heck they were going to do with Claudius – as the imperial archivist a century later, he presumably had access to the original documents and didn’t just make it up. There’s a really good internet resource comparing the TV series with the actual historical facts (as far as they are known) here. My one regret is that I bought the Dutch-language version of the DVDs rather than the English version, which apparently has lots of brilliant extras.

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The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I spotted the two-disc English language DVD version of this going cheap in the local FNAC and bought it about a month ago. I’m one of the diehard fans of the original 1978-80 radio series, and will accept no substitutes, but there are some good bits in this televised 1981 version.

In particular, David Dixon is actually a better Ford Prefect than Geoffrey McGivern was. He confidently conveys a sense of alienness, and he makes the most of the rather boring scenes in the Vogon freighter at the end of the first episode. (Compare Fit the First of the radio series, where even his fans must admit that McGivern starts off sounding shrill and unsure.)

The other thing that works really well is, of course, the Book – the superb animations of the entries in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, backed up by Peter Jones’ narration – the one point where televising simply could not mean pointing a camera at actors reciting the lines in a stage setting. The combination of graphics and cameos – Douglas Adams himself stripping off and disappearing into the sea, the two unspeaking drinkers of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster – are almost without exception brilliant.

There are some tremendously naff bits as well. Rather surprisingly, Simon Jones as Arthur Dent seems to spend a lot of time standing around as if he is waiting to be told what to do. Zaphod’s extra head is simply embarrassing. The departures in script from the radio series (with perhaps the exceptions of the Dish of the Day, and the Disaster Area graphics, both of which had already featured in the novels) are not usually improvements.

One particularly weird bit of interaction is the chemistry between Trillian and Zaphod. In their first scene, when they hear the radio annoucner quote Eccentrica Gallumbits’ description of Zaphod as “the best bang since the Big One”, he and Trillian exchange what looks to me like a knowing smile. But then at the end of the fourth episode, when it looks like they are all going to be killed by the Magrathean computer banks exploding, Zaphod and Ford shake hands and sing a song, leaving Arthur and Trillian to look aghast and, in her case, very much alone. More could and should have been made of her character; she seems just a clothes-horse for skimpy red costumes. No big criticism of Sandra Dickinson intended – like Susan Sheridan in the radio series, she just isn’t given much to work with.

Still, this was worth the (low) price I paid for it – especially the documentary clips on the second disc, which do add quite a lot.

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The Caves of Androzani

Using the weekend to catch up with three classic bits of TV I have rewatched recently, and never got around to writing up here.

First up is “The Caves of Androzani”, a Doctor Who story first broadcast in 1984. It was the last story to feature the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, and is generally rated as the best of Davison’s 20 televised adventures by quite some way (the dynamic rankings site has it at #7 out of 186 Who stories from 1963 to 2006, with the next best-rated Davison story, “Earthshock”, at #34 and only “The Five Doctors” otherwise making the top fifty).

It’s a story with curious links to the old and the new. The writer was Robert Holmes, responsible also for some of the greatest Doctor Who stories of the Tom Baker era – “The Ark in Space”, “The Deadly Assassin”, and “The Talons of Weng Chiang”; sadly this was the last time he wrote for the show. But the director was Graeme Harper, who came back to direct four of this year’s episodes (the ones with the Cybermen). It’s a dynamite combination.

The story: The Doctor and his new companion, Peri, arrive on Androzani Minor, a planet where a resource-extraction company from Androzani Major, backed by government forces, is under attack from android guerillas. The boss of the company, Morgus, and the leader of the androids, Sharaz Jek, are both villains, but nicely sketched – Jek falls in love with Peri, and is at least fighting for a cause, whereas Morgus, if a bit more two-dimensional, redeems himself by making frequent asides to the camera – it shouldn’t work, but it does.

Two out of three episodes end in brilliant cliff-hangers – the Doctor faces execution by firing squad at the end of ep 1 (as did the Second Doctor at the end of the first ep of his last story, “The War Games”); and at the end of episode 3, as the poisoned and dying Doctor seizes control of a spaceship whose pilot threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t turn it round, he replies “Not a very persuasive argument, actually, Stotz, because I’m going to die soon anyway… I’m not going to let you stop me now!” There’s very nearly more drama in that line than in the rest of Davison’s era put together.

I’ve seen the view expressed elsewhere that this could easlily have been a Fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane, or a Third Doctor/Jo Grant story. I don’t know about that. I think that there is something peculiarly Thatcherite in the relations between Morgus and the Androzani Major government. As far as I remember the only other Holmes story featuring resistance fighters against the capitalist exploiters of resources is “The Power of Kroll”, his last and least impressive Tom Baker story, so it was good to see him revisit the theme so triumphantly here; and I’m straining to think of any other Who story with a twin-planet arrangement, surely a little inspired by Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Anyway, it’s very good, although I think its looks were improved at the time by the fact that the surrounding stories are simply not of the same quality (the story immediately following was Colin Baker’s first, “The Twin Dilemma”, which is currently – and likely to remain – in last place on the Dynamic Rankings scale).

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My new job

I decided when I started blogging that, since I am a public figure (at least in some countries), there was no point in embracing anonymity at the risk of being exposed; so my real name has been clear here from the start. But I also decided that I would only rarely write unlocked (or even locked) entries here about my job, or work-related stuff.

As a nod to transparency, I am now making it public that I am leaving my current job at the end of this year, and joining a new organisation as head of their Brussels office. I have been in my current position for four and a half years, in the course of which I have expanded my area of operations from the Western Balkans to include also Moldova, Cyprus and the three South Caucasus states.

But I have been on the lookout for a role which would involve more of the advocacy activities which I most enjoy about my present job, and less of the grind of production of research reports, which I don’t enjoy doing so much. It also occurs to me more and more that those of us who are working in international politics, and not doing anything about Africa, have to ask ourselves why. I myself became a Balkanist largely by accident.

Thus the move. My new geographical focus will be simultanously more global, but also more concentrated in the countries where I am working; the new organisation currently has a client in Europe and two in Africa, so I am getting up to speed with the literature relating to my new responsibilities. Also on the lookout for office space in Brussels, preferably a bit closer to the European quarter than my current Avenue Louise location.

Come the new year, the number of work-related posts here will certainly decrease still further from the current low level – but that doesn’t mean that there will be none at all!

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OK, we have now watched the first two episodes – “Everything Changes” yesterday and “Day One” tonight – and we really enjoyed it.

I haven’t read anyone else’s lj entries about it except my wife‘s (will now go back and add assenting or dissenting comments as appropriate).

“Everything Changes” – reminiscent of the debut of the new Doctor Who with “Rose”, only a year and a half ago; lots of differences, lots of similarities, but on the whole I thought RTD had learnt from earlier mistakes – no problems with pacing, a more confident introduction of the cast (of course, if you have a team set-up, you can have one of your characters formally introduce the rest and remain within the spirit of it). Cardiff may seem a slightly banal place to have the European equivalent of a Hellmouth, but at the same time, does southern California really seem as exotic to its residents as it seems to me? And I loved the line about how the magic paving stone had been affected by a “dimensionally transcendental chameleon circuit”. Most viewers will have appreciated it just as technobabble; some of us will have got the in-joke.

“Day One” – I have already glimpsed critiques decrying this as a rip-off of the typical Buffy plot-line of the perils of sex, with the supernatural forces of our setting representing the onrush of adulthood. This is most unfair. The perils of sex are something we always have with us from puberty to old age; it’s a universal theme that long predates Buffy and will still be written about long after Buffy and Torchwood are forgotten. The shots of the little piles of dust in the fertility clinic mingled humour and horror in just the right way. Also, both Gwen and Captain Jack are really coming on as simply fascinating people to watch – the camera just loves Eve Myles. Gwen’s relationship with Rhys is clearly destined to implode horribly. And I have to say that I have a pretty good idea whose (or rather Who’s) hand is in the jar…

Well done to my cousin Brian who is the script editor.

We’ll keep watching.

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Tom Baker post, for no particular reason

Tom Baker and John Culshaw on Dead Ringers

(with thanks to )

I managed to get hold of the 1999 documentary, “Adventures in Space and Time” the other day, which is narrated (in another Hitch-Hiker link) by Peter Jones. Tom Baker’s interview bits, roughly in the middle of it, are hilarious. Transcribed below for your enjoyment.

My trade, such as it is, is to try to be convincing. And the more preposterous the situation or the script, then the more interesting it is to try to be convincing. If youi’re playing a realistic thing, you know a man with a gun, that can’t be difficult – but to play someone from outer space, a benevolent alien, but who still looks like a human being, and who has secrets – how do you suggest that he is alien?

And so I felt that the best way to suggest that I was an alien and came from somewhere else and had secrets, dark thoughts, and wonderful thoughts, I thought, the way to do that is just to be Tom Baker.

[about the wool for the scarf] They gave it to a woman with a wonderful name called Begonia Pope. (I wonder where she is now? I hope she’s happy.) And she was so impressed to be working for the BBC that, so, Jim gave it to her, and he knew nothing about knitting, and so she knitted up all the wool, and because the wool was on the tax-payer, you know, I mean, a whole lorry-load of wool was delivered, or something like that, and when we got to her little house, she could only talk through the letter-box because we couldn’t get into the house because of the scarf…

[On his own religious background] I mean, if you can believe in the Christian religion, you can believe in anything. You know, it’s so utterly preposterous.

When you went to Communion (it’s a big thing about being a Roman Catholic) and you take the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ; and I remember being a difficult child in a sense, always curious and wanting – I said, “Listen, doesn’t that make me a cannibal?”

My mother said, “What did you say?”

“Well,” I said, “I mean, er, if I’m eating the body and blood and soul and divinity of Our Lord, that makes me a cannibal, doesn’t it?”

And then I remember waking up underneath the sideboard, because, you know, she had a tremendous kinda short jab; she didn’t like that kind of, um, blasphemy.

So I would recall those amazing days of my faith and try to do the Doctor Who lines – which I never understood anyway – and people Believed them.

[On the overall effect:] I was very aware that people, you know, that children who were frightened, for example, used to bury themselves in their granny’s bosoms. And so grannies adored me, because when a granny would see me, you know, in Sloane Square, or Oxford Street or somewhere like that, the granny would suddenly see me, and for some inexplicable reason – here’s the power of television – her bosoms would start tingling. Which I think grannies like (I don’t know, I’m not a granny). And so, then she’d say, “Ohh! Hello, dear!” And then she’d realise who I was.

So there were all sorts of things that gave me a sense of power, because, you know, I was drunk on this. I was drunk often on other things as well, but I mean I was drunk on being Doctor Who – drunk on being this benevolent character who everyone found funny. It was amazing, that people found me funny all the time. I couldn’t pass anyone in the street. Everybody knew me. I was like St Francis of Assisi. I was kissing lepers, or, you know, embracing anyone at all. I was always catching lice from neglected children, and then going home absolutely teeming with nits.

But I didn’t mind actually catching illnesses or diseases from them. That’s so pitiful, isn’t it, really? It’s a fearful confession, that’s right. I would embrace the afflicted and the contagious, and the infectious.

Anything, really, for a laugh.

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The answer to the previous question…

Yes, has it right: the answer to my previous question is indeed Calvin Coolidge.

On 1 June 1925, Thomas Marshall, who had been Vice-President from 1913 to 1921, died aged 71. Coolidge had succeded him as Vice-President in 1921 and was now, aged 52, the oldest – indeed the only – ex-Vice-President of the United States. By now Coolidge himself was President, having been elevated on the death of Warren Harding in 1923.

On 4 March 1929, at the end of Coolidge’s term, his Vice-President from 1925, Charles Dawes, who was seven years older, became the oldest living ex-Vice-President. He went on to outlive Coolidge by eighteen years.

A year later, on 8 March 1930, William Howard Taft, who had been President from 1909 to 1913, died, making Coolidge at the age of 57 the oldest (and, again, the only) ex-President. Coolidge is therefore the only person to have been both the oldest ex-President and the oldest ex-Vice-President at completely different times.

When Coolidge died on 5 January 1933, there were no living ex-Presidents; his successor, Herbert Hoover, had lost the election but still had two months of his term to go. Hoover, of course, went on to have the longest retirement of any ex-President, over 31 years.

For my complete workings, see below the cut.

Oldest living ex-president
Oldest living ex-vice-president
4 March 1797 – end of terms of George Washington (aged 65) as President and John Adams (aged 61) as Vice-President. Since there are no other ex-Presidents or Vice-Presidents, they are the oldest in those respective categories.
14 December 1799 – Washington dies aged 67; there are now no ex-Presidents alive (Adams still alive, aged 64)
4 March 1801 – end of John Adams‘ term as President; he is now aged 65 and simultaneously both the oldest ex-President and the oldest ex-Vice-President.
21 August 1803 – Adams outlives Washington (at 67 yrs 295 days) and is now the oldest ex-President to date …as well as being the oldest ex-Vice-President to date
4 July 1826 – John Adams dies aged 90 yrs and 247 days. The oldest ex-President is now James Madison (aged 75, President 1809-1817); the oldest ex-Vice-President is Aaron Burr (aged 70, Vice-President 1801-1805 in Jefferson’s first term). If Thomas Jefferson had lived a little longer he would have made the list too, but he died a few hours before Adams on the same day.
28 June 1836 – Madison dies aged 85; the oldest ex-President is now Andrew Jackson (aged 69, President 1829-1837) (Burr still alive, aged 80)
(Jackson still alive, aged 69) 14 September 1836 – Aaron Burr dies aged 80; the oldest ex-Vice-President is now John C. Calhoun (aged 54, Vice-President 1825-1832 under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson)
(Jackson still alive, aged 73) 4 March 1841 – end of term of Richard Mentor Johnson (Vice-President under Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841); he is older than Calhoun (60 rather than 58) and thus becomes the oldest living Vice-President
8 June 1845 – Jackson dies aged 78; the oldest ex-President is now John Quincy Adams (aged 77, president from 1825 to 1829 when Jackson defeated him) (Johnson still alive, aged 64)
23 February 1848 – John Quincy Adams dies aged 80; Martin Van Buren is now the oldest ex-President (aged 65, President 1837-41). (Johnson still alive, aged 77)
(Van Buren already the oldest ex-President…) 19 November 1850 – Richard Mentor Johnson’s death makes Martin Van Buren simultaneously the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President (aged 67, Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, 1833-1837)
24 July 1862 – Martin Van Buren dies aged 79. The oldest living ex-President is now James Buchanan (aged 71, President 1857-1861) and the oldest ex-Vice-President is the rather obscure George Mifflin Dallas (aged 70, Vice-President under Polk 1845-1849)
(Buchanan still alive, aged 73) 31 December 1864 – Dallas dies making his successor Millard Fillmore (Vice-president to Zachary Taylor 1849-1850) the oldest living ex-Vice-president (aged 64)
1 June 1868 – Buchanan’s death makes Millard Fillmore the oldest living ex-President, at the age of 68… …and he is also simultaneously the oldest living ex-Vice-President.
8 March 1874 – Fillmore’s death at the age of 74 makes Andrew Johnson, aged 65, simultaneously both the oldest ex-President (1865-1869) and the oldest ex-Vice-President (for a few weeks before Lincoln’s assassination in 1865)
31 July 1875 – Johnson’s death at the age of 66 leaves no living ex-President, for the second time since the constitution came into force. The oldest living ex-Vice-President is Hannibal Hamlin (aged 65, Johnson’s predecessor as Vice-President under Lincoln, 1861-65)
4 March 1877 – end of Ulysses S Grant’s presidential term makes him the oldest (and only) ex-President, aged 54 (Hamlin still alive, aged 67)
23 July 1885 – Grant’s death at the age of 63 makes his successor Rutherford B. Hayes the oldest living ex-president (aged 62) (Hamlin still alive, aged 75)
(Hayes still alive, aged 68) 4 July 1891 – Hamlin’s death at the age of 81 leaves no living ex-Vice-President
17 January 1893 – Hayes’ death at the age of 70 makes his successor Grover Cleveland the oldest living ex-President (aged 55, President 1885-1889) (still no living ex-Vice-Presidents)
4 March 1893 – Cleveland, aged 55, becomes President again, having defeated Benjamin Harrison who is older (aged 59) and thus becomes the oldest ex-President. Levi P. Morton, who has served as Harrison’s Vice-President from 1889 to 1893, becomes the oldest (and only) living ex-Veep at the age of 68.
13 March 1901 – Harrison’s death at the age of 67 puts Cleveland, now nearly 64, back in the frame as oldest living ex-President (Morton still alive, aged 76)
24 June 1908 – Cleveland’s death leaves no living ex-Presidents, for the third time since the constitution came into force. (Morton still alive, aged 84)
4 March 1909 – end of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901-1909 term as President makes him the oldest (and only) ex-President, aged only 50 (Morton still alive, aged 84)
4 March 1913 – end of William Howard Taft‘s 1909-1913 term makes him the oldest living ex-President, aged 55 to Roosevelt’s 54 (Morton still alive, aged 88)
(Taft still alive, aged 57) 24 October 1914 – Morton outlives John Adams and becomes the oldest Vice-President ever
(Taft still alive, aged 62) 16 May 1920 – Levi P. Morton’s death on his 96th birthday leaves no living Vice-Presidents.
4 March 1921 – end of Woodrow Wilson‘s 1913-1921 term makes him the oldest living ex-President, aged 64; Thomas R Marshall, aged 67, is the oldest (and only) living ex-Vice-President. He and Wilson are the first President/Vice-President team to serve two full terms since Monroe and Tompkins nearly a century before.
2 February 1924 – Wilson’s death at the age of 67 makes Taft, now 66, the oldest living ex-President once again. (Marshall still alive, aged 69)
(Taft still alive, aged 67) 1 June 1925 – Marshall’s death at the age of 71 makes Calvin Coolidge, aged 52, the oldest living ex-Vice-President. Coolidge served as Vice-President under Harding from 1921 to 1923 and is now President having succeeded on Harding’s death (and then won re-election in 1924).
(Taft still alive, aged 71) 4 March 1929 – End of Charles G Dawes‘ term makes him the oldest living ex-Vice-President, aged 63 (having served under Coolidge – who is now 54 – 1925-1929)
8 March 1930 – Taft’s death at the age of 72 makes Coolidge, now 57, the oldest living ex-President. Coolidge is the only person to be both the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President at different non-overlapping times. (Dawes still alive, aged 64)
5 January 1933 – Coolidge’s death at the age of 60 leaves no living ex-President, for the fourth time. (Dawes still alive, aged 67)
4 March 1933 – End of the 1929-33 term of Herbert Hoover and Charles Curtis makes Hoover the oldest (and only) living ex-President at 58; Charles Curtis, at 73, is older than Dawes (who is 67) and thus becomes the oldest living ex-Vice-President.
(Hoover still alive, aged 61) 8 February 1936 – Curtis’ death at the age of 76 makes Charles G Dawes once again the oldest living ex-Vice-President, aged 70.
(Hoover still alive, aged 76) 23 April 1951 – The death of Dawes at the age of 85 makes John Nance Garner, who served in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first two terms (1933-1941), the oldest living ex-Vice-President, aged 82.
20 October 1964 – Hoover’s death at the age of 90 makes Harry S Truman the oldest living ex-President (aged 80, served 1945-1953) (Garner still alive, aged 95)
(Truman still alive, aged 81) 22 November 1964 – John Nance Garner celebrates his 96th birthday, outliving Levi P. Morton to become the oldest Vice-President ever.
(Truman still alive, aged 83…) 7 November 1967 – Garner dies aged 98 yrs and 350 days, making Truman simultaneously both the oldest living President and the oldest living Vice-President (having briefly served under Roosevelt in 1945)
26 December 1972 – Truman’s death at the age of 88 makes Lyndon Baines Johnson, aged 64, simultaneously the oldest living ex-President (1963-69) and ex-Vice-President (1961-63). He enjoys this distinction for less than a month.
22 January 1973 – Johnson’s death at the age of 64 leaves no living ex-President, for the last time to date. Hubert Humphrey, aged 61, is the oldest living ex-Vice-President, having served under Johnson, 1965-1969. (Johnson’s widow, incidentally, is still alive today in 2006, and will celebrate her 96th birthday in December.)
9 August 1974 – Nixon‘s resignation makes him the oldest (and only) living ex-President, aged 61. (Humphrey still alive, aged 63)
(Nixon still alive, aged 63) 20 January 1977 – The end of Nelson Rockefeller‘s 1974-77 term makes him the oldest living ex-Vice-President, aged 68 (Humphrey is 65).
(Nixon still alive, aged 65) 26 January 1979 – Rockefeller’s death at the age of 70 makes Nixon simultanously the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President (having served under Eisenhower, 1953-1961)
20 January 1989 – the end of Ronald Reagan‘s term makes him the oldest living ex-President, aged 77, as Nixon is younger. (Nixon still alive, aged 76.)
(Reagan still alive, aged 83) 22 April 1994 – Nixon’s death at the age of 81 makes his Vice-President in 1973-74, Gerald Ford, aged 80, the oldest living ex-Vice-President.
16 July 2001 – Reagan outlives John Adams, making him the oldest ex-President ever. (Ford still alive, aged 88)
5 June 2004 – Reagan’s death at the age of 93 yrs and 120 days makes Gerald Ford, aged 90, simultaneously the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President.

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The oldest survivor

In anticipation of November 11, when (all being well) Gerald Ford will become the longest-lived U.S. President ever, I have been mulling these statistics.

From the end of his presidential term on 4 March 1801 until his death on 4 July 1826, John Adams was both the oldest living ex-President of the USA and also the oldest living ex-Vice-President. Thomas Jefferson, who succeeded Adams in both offices, predeceased him by a few hours, or he too would have held that (admittedly somewhat obscure) distinction.

The same was true of Martin Van Buren, from 18 November 1850 (when Richard Johnson, who had been Van Buren’s no.2 in 1837-41) died, to his own death on 24 July 1862.

Likewise the otherwise unexciting Millard Fillmore, from the death of James Buchanan on 1 July 1868 till his own death on 8 March 1874; and also Andrew Johnson, from Fillmore’s death until he died on 31 July 1875.

Now we must skip forward almost ninety years. On 7 November 1967, John Nance Garner, who had been Franklin Roosevelt’s first Vice-President, died, two weeks short of his 99th birthday. Harry S Truman, Roosevelt’s last Vice-President (he had three) thus became the oldest living ex-Veep; he was already the oldest living ex-President. Truman died on 26 December 1972, and for the next month, until his own death on 22 January 1973, Lyndon B. Johnson was both the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-President.

More recently, Richard Nixon was both the oldest ex-President and the oldest ex-Vice-President from the death of Nelson Rockefeller on 26 January 1979 until Ronald Reagan’s term ended on 20 January 1989 (Reagan being older than Nixon, Nixon was no longer the oldest ex-President). Since Reagan’s death on 6 June 2004, Gerald Ford has been both the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President.

The question: There is one person who was both the oldest living ex-President and the oldest living ex-Vice-President, but not at the same time. Who was it?

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October Books 12) Star Songs of an Old Primate

12) Star Songs of an Old Primate, by James Tiptree Jr

With all the buzz about Julie Phillips’ new biography of Alice Sheldon, I realised that I am not as familiar with the works of James Tiptree as I would like to be. This pulls together just eight stories in 270 pages, including two which I had already read (“Your Haploid Heart” and the Hugo and Nebula winner “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”). With the exception of the shortest story, a five page stream-of-consciousness vignette, I found them all not only enjoyable but also thought-provoking. Tiptree was really good at not so much subverting the genre’s conventions but more putting subversive material into the framework while none the less respecting it. Will try and find more of her stuff before launching myself on the biography.

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The “I, CLAVDIVS” drinking game

From here.

1 quaff for:

  • Banishments in General
  • Executions in General
  • Suicide in General
  • Adultery in General
  • Orgies

2 quaffs for:

  • Murders & Assassinations in General
  • Poisonings in Particular
  • Incest
  • Omens and Sibyls

3 quaffs for:

  • Assassinations/Poisoning of Emperors (w/accompanying appropriate food if poisoned– see below)
  • Banishment of Julia
  • Starvation of Livilla
  • Livia Becoming a Goddess
  • The Winner of Messalina and Sylla’s Contest

Many quaffs (drain that goblet!) for:

  • That –uh– thing Caligula does at the end of Episode 9 “Zeus, By Jove” (we don’t want to give it away if you’ve never seen the series before.)
  • “Not my head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Eat a Fig for:

  • Poisoning by Fig

Eat a Mushroom for:

  • Poisoning by Mushroom


  • Hum “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” at the first appearance on screen of Livilla and of Nero (Agrippinilla’s son — don’t be thrown off by the many other characters who have Nero tacked onto their name somewhere) You deserve ten gold stars for knowing why.
  • Yell “Make it so” at Sejanus at some point.
  • Brandish Boiled Asparagus for: You’ll know.

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October Books 11) A Wayfarer in Sweden

11) A Wayfarer in Sweden, by Frederic Whyte

I’m slowly working my way through the works of Frederic Whyte (1867-1940), who was both my first cousin thrice removed and and my second cousin twice removed. In this book, published in 1926, he writes about Sweden; he married a lady called Karin Lilva from Jonköping in 1916, and their only child, Henry, was born the following year. I never met Henry, though and I did meet his wife Ingrid when we passed through Stockholm in 1990, a few months after our father died; Henry himself died not long after that. and I were back in Stockholm earlier this year, and I wrote to Ingrid in advance but got no reply; I see from googling her name now that she died, aged 85, in August, which is sad but not a huge surprise. She and Henry had no children, so that is the end of that branch of the family.

So part of the interest of the book for me is the colour it brings to a few people who are barely even snapshots in the family album. Frederic Whyte writes of himself as being “Irish, though educated in England, and appreciative of England – on this side idolatry!” and as “a somewhat anglicized Irishman”. I certainly know that he spent most of his life in England before moving to Sweden when he married (when he was already nearly 50). He writes of childhood memories of “photographs of my father, a civil engineer in India, moving about on a trolley along the lines of the Bombay-Baroda and Central India Railway”, which is far more than I knew of his father, an earlier Henry Whyte, who was born at some point after 1829, married a Mary Comy or Comyn in 1859, and died in 1883 leaving two sons and three daughters, including Frederic. He writes a lyrically happy page or so about his own little boy growing up in Jonköping; the younger Henry Whyte would have been nine when the book was published, so about the same age when it was being written that my own little boy is now. My own middle name, incidentally, is Henry, as was my father’s, and his father’s.

The family history aside, I think this is an entertaining little book about Sweden. Karin, Frederic’s wife, contributes a couple of chapters, about the Gotha Canal and the region of Dalecarlia (now generally called Dalarna). But it’s Frederic’s writing that really shines. I come away determined that next time I go to Sweden I’ll do a proper tour – apart from passing through en route to Finland in 1990, and my Stockholm trip earlier this year, my only other visit was a very peculiar conference in Åre last year. Frederic doesn’t quite sell me on the northern mining districts, but he does sell me on Gothenburg, and by an odd coincidence I read the two chapters on the diplomatic mission of Bulstrode Whitelocke to the court of Queen Christina in 1655-1656 while waiting in a pub for a British diplomat friend to turn up.

It’s also not lost on me that I have lived in Belgium for almost as long as Frederic had lived in Sweden by the time he wrote this book, so part of its attraction is an encounter with a fellow expatriate. We are in somewhat different situations, of course – he married a local, whereas my wife is an exile like me. Also I’m not sure if he had a career beyond his writing – he must have, surely, since all but one of his books was published after 1925. I see that his son Henry published an article called “Glimpses into a Literary Workshop: Frederic Whyte” in a journal called English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, volume 33 (1990), pages 47-62. Must try and track it down.

One aspect of Swedish culture which I confess I had not really thought of at all before visiting the Nobel Museum in April, and which I have barely thought of since, is the writing of Selma Lagerlöf, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, the first woman and the first Swede to do so. (I confess I have not heard of any of the other Swedish winners either: Verner von Heidenstam, Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Pär Lagerkvist, Nelly Sachs, and Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, the last two of these winning jointly in 1974 despite being on the award panel themselves.) Frederic Whyte is very big on Lagerlöf, devoting a longish early chapter to her hero Nils Holgersson and then coming back to her for a later chapter on touring her house in Värmland. My project of broadening my knowledge of Nobel laureates has so far proved more miss than hit, but it sounds like she may well be worth a try.

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Quiz shows

Mastermind: I thought the HP Lovecraft questions were a little easier than the Agatha Christie ones – though surely it is a bit unsporting to restrict the Agatha Christie questions to the Poirot novels alone? My knowledge of Led Zeppelin and Gustav Landauer is less complete, but I thought the Landauer guy knew so much about him that he must have written the biography.

As for the general knowledge round, no doubt but that the Led Zeppelin guy got the hardest questions – and still won.

University Challenge: Er, yes. I just sent my future colleague who is a Wadham graduate a note of congratulation. I don’t think I’m still in touch with anyone I knew at Robinson, which is probably just as well. I found the questions about flowers completely impenetrable, though had no difficulty in shouting the correct answer each time.

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Has anyone out there read Oracle by Ian Watson? It would seem to fit both my interest in Irish-related sf and my interest in sf at least partly set in Belgium…

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October Books 9) Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land

9) Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, by Eric Ruijssenaars

Enthused by my recent reading of Villette, I ordered this little book from the Brontë Society last week and it was waiting for me on my return from Moldova. I must be in the very small minority of readers who bought it more because of Brussels than the Brontës; in my last job, I often went for a sandwich lunch in the Parc de Bruxelles, and even now I find myself trying to thread my car through the relevant streets a couple of times each month as I head to the north of the city centre. Plus there is something very fascinating about vanished streetscapes; the school where Charlotte and Emily Brontë lived in 1842, and to which Charlotte returned alon for a year in January 1843, was demolished in 1909 as part of the development which has resulted in today’s Palais des Beaux-Arts, built in the 1920s. As well as that, of course, the sense of place in Villette is so well developed that there is a certain fascination in reading more about the reality on which the fiction was based.

One does feel, however, for the unfortunate Hegers, who had taken the unattractive, reserved and disconcertingly intelligent Brontë girls under their wing for a few months as an act of kindness, and then found themselves and their country portrayed in Villette in a way they simply could not have anticipated. Ruijssenaars has attached to his own text a half-dozen glorious accounts from Brontë fans between 1871 and 1916 coming to gaze at the Pensionnat and its inhabitants, reverently plucking leaves from the pear-trees in the garden, and generally harassing the Hegers. That is not to minimise the interest of Ruijssenaars’ own work, bringing together the archives and published architectural history of Brussels with the accumulated lore of a century and a half of Brontëology.

(The one surviving picture of the Pensionnat and the garden, on the left immediately below the cathedral. The Cathedral is still recognisable but all the other buildings shown here have gone.)

(The map from Ruijssenaars’ book, with west at the top and north to the right.)

(This is the map of the area supplied by Windows LiveWriter, usual orientation ie north is up. I prefer the Google hybrid version but don’t know how to post it in an entry.)

I must admit that, time and permitting, I would love to do a guide to the Belfast scenes of Sacrifice of Fools. (Isn’t there a book somewhere out there about Philip K Dick’s California?) If I could do half as well as this I’d be very pleased.

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October Books 8) One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

8) One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Somewhat grim reading, but at least very short. It is basically the history of a single day in a Soviet labour camp in 1951. The prisoners are mostly there for no good reason (Ivan Denisovich himself is imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of espionage, after escaping German capture at the front ten years earlier). Conditions are brutal, but unfortunately I have read of much worse, more recently and elsewhere. The most memorable part of the book for me was the portrayal of Tiurin as manager of the squad of prisoners including the protagonist, balancing the brutality of the system against a desire to do his best for himself and his team. Anyway, that’s another Nobel laureate sampled.

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October Books 7) The File on H

7) The File on H, by Ismail Kadarë

I’ve read a few Kadarë books – most recently, The General of the Dead Army – and happened to see this one at Vienna Airport on my way through to Moldova on Thursday. It is short but very deep: the tale of two ethnographers visiting Albania in the 1930s during the rule of King Zog, to record ancient epic poetry (the H in the title stands for Homer). The two ethnographers are supposed to be Irish, but might as well be Japanese for the purposes of the story: the novel is about Albania, not about Ireland. (Perhaps it was in part a response to Andrić’s foreigners encountering Bosnia in The Days of the Consuls?)

But it’s also about the construction of truth, how stories are told, especially when the state tries to regulate knowledge and information. Although the patriotic version of Albanian history – 1878, 1913 – is the only one told here, one senses that Kadarë himself doesn’t completely buy it, and subverts it in the way he tells the story. In the meantime people escape as best they can, the rather ethereal epic poetry souight by the Irishmen in contrast with the erotic dreams of the governor’s wife. A really good book, strongly recommended.

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October Books 6) The Scales of Injustice

6) The Scales of Injustice, by Gary Russell

I think the first Doctor Who spinoff novel I read was Gary Russell’s Invasion of the Cat-People, long long ago. I was so deeply unimpressed that it was years before I read another one. Since then, of course, I’ve become aware of Russell as the host of numerous DVD commentaries and as a talking head on Doctor Who Confidential, not to mention being reminded of his activities as child actor in the Famous Five and editor of Doctor Who Monthly. It’s not always a howling success when someone who writes about the genre turns their hand to fiction, but after my recent bout of Serious Reading this seemed like a relaxing option, snagged from the BBC website in electronic form.

And to my relief the book is OK. It’s basically a boiled together combination of Doctor Who and the Silurians plus The Sea Devils, with flash forward to Warriors from the Deep, plus some back-story about the breakup of the Brigadier’s first marriage and what Liz Shaw was really up to in Cambridge. The book also includes a very nicely done farewell scene between Liz and the Doctor, which of course was not shown on screen. The book could pass as an above-average novelisation of a seven-part TV story, which I think is what the author was aiming at, so can be rated a success.

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The Unread Books Project

Well, I have got through the ten unread books I listed a month ago. I think roughly two of them were books that I would whole-heartedly recommend to others to read: The Color Purple and PersuasionThe Prince if you are interested in that kind of thing, as I am.

Of the others, the one I disliked most was Beloved, a grindingly awful book with no redeeming features; also less than completely satisfactory, for different reasons, were The God of Small Things and The Lovely Bones.

The System of the World, The Brothers Karamazov and Villette were all basically too long. The Brothers Karamazov came close to redeeming itself by having an interesting plot, but, like St Augustine’s Confessions, had too much theological stodge.

I may indulge in this kind of project again. If I do, it will simply be to read the top “unread” books in my LibraryThing catalogue, ranked by how many other users own them, rather than (as I did this time) by how many have marked them as unread; easier to do that way. And I shall do five rather than ten, as it should be quicker.

Now, back to my usual diet of sf and fantasy…

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October Books 5) The Color Purple

5) The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

My Unread Books Project has not delivered me a barrel of laughs so far, and I have to say that my heart sank as the narrator is raped at the age of fourteen on the first page; Oh no, I thought, it’s Beloved all over again. But in fact this turns into a really heartwarming story of triumph against economic and emotional adversity, of love and laughter overcoming the obstacles of gender and racial segregation. It was also (as the last in a reading programme which included The System of the World and The Brothers Karamazov) really short, only 244 pages. In fact, of the ten books I have read as a result of my pledge to make my “unread” list less embarrassing, I think this is the only one I have unequivocally enjoyed. (I did wonder to what extent the African bits were a response to Things Fall Apart.)

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October Books 4) Villette

4) Villette, by Charlotte Brontë

With my ancestral home being near where the Brontë sisters’ father was born, and having trudged through Jane Eyre for my O-level in English Literature (one of my two B grades, along with Religious Education), I have always had a vague interest in them. But this was the first Charlotte Brontë novel I have read as an adult (I did read Wuthering Heights a couple of years back, prompted by the BBC’s Big Read).

Part of the attraction (apart from it being part of my Unread Books Project) is that Villette is Brussels, and the small largely Francophone kingdom of Labassecour (which still retains its impenetrable aboriginal dialect) is Belgium. There’s not a lot of English-language fiction set in my adopted homeland. (Even less sf or fantasy.) The only other bit that leaps to mind is the couple of glimpses in Heart of Darkness. So it was interesting to read the book and try and match description to location. In fact, I have ordered a wee book called Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, by Eric Ruijssenaars, from the Brontë Society website, to slake my curiosity.

Having said all that, unfortunately Villette is not a very strong example of the sisters’ genius. There are too many unlikely coincidences, and I was very uncomfortable with the way in which the narrator reacts to being emotionally abused by one of her axcquaintances by falling in love with him. It was not at all clear to me why she did not end up with the nice doctor chap. In addition, though this is supporting evidence rather than crucial, I don’t think the book does well on the Bechdel Test. Anyway, interesting to see the Brussels of a century and a half ago through someone else’s eyes.

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