Reading Resolutions 2007

Last year I resolved to read two out of The Brothers Karamazov, Catcher in the Rye, In Search of Lost Time, Mrs Dalloway, Things Fall Apart and The Tin Drum and to finish both Don Quixote and Little Women. Well, I managed three from the top and one from the bottom. I am impressed with

   ‘s efforts on Proust; I resolve therefore either to read In Search of Lost Time, or else finish Don Quixote and read Catcher in the Rye and The Tin Drum.

Last year I resolved to read five out of A Clockwork Orange, The Space Merchants, A Princess of Mars, Tau Zero, Grey Lensman, Again, Dangerous Visions, The Female Man, Last and First Men, Deathbird, and DhalgrenThe Einstein Intersection, Rite of Passage, A Time of Changes, The Falling Woman, The Healer’s War, Stations of the Tide, and The Terminal Experiment – in fact I read them all.

Last year I resolved to read four more of the Time list of 25 must-read comics. I read only one and didn’t enjoy it. I resolve to read another two this year but also to find another list.

Last year I resolved to read a third of the books on my unread list. I came close but didn’t quite manage it (41 out of 135). I shall aim to read another third this year (my unread list is now up to 143). The unread books, in order of Librarything popularity (the ones in italics are only in my catalogue and nobody else’s), are:

The Art of War, Tzu, Sun
Sourcery, Pratchett, Terry
Blindness, Saramago, Jose
Gilead, Robinson, Marilynne
Quidditch through the ages, Rowling, J. K.
The Mill on the Floss, Eliot, George
Wild Swans, Chang, Jung
The Kalahari typing school for men, McCall Smith, Alexander
Dhalgren, Delany, Samuel R.
The full cupboard of life, McCall Smith, Alexander
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence, T. E.
The Prince of Tides, Conroy, Pat
Summerland, Chabon, Michael
Oscar and Lucinda, Carey, Peter
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, Smith, Alexander McCall
Sailing to Sarantium, Kay, Guy Gavriel
The pilgrim’s regress, Lewis, C. S
The Conquest of Gaul, Caesar, Julius
Abarat, Barker, Clive
McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,
The Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges, Jorge Luis
Harpist in the Wind, McKillip, Patricia A
Expiration Date, Powers, Tim
Postwar, Judt, Tony
The Duke And I, Quinn, Julia
Vellum, Duncan, Hal
The Atrocity Archives, Stross, Charles
The English, Paxman, Jeremy
The Road from Coorain, Conway, Jill Ker
The Owl Service, Garner, Alan
The Faded Sun Trilogy, Cherryh, C. J.
No great mischief, MacLeod, Alistair
The embarrassment of riches, Schama, Simon
The Ill-Made Mute, Dart-Thornton, Cecilia
The go-between, Hartley, L. P.
Resurrection, Tolstoy, Leo
Earth is Room Enough, Asimov, Isaac
To Engineer Is Human, Petroski, Henry
The Cornelius Quartet, Moorcock, Michael
City of Illusions, Le Guin, Ursula K.
Peace, Wolfe, Gene
Teranesia, Egan, Greg
The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Wilde, Oscar
Music & silence, Tremain, Rose
Great War Breakthroughs, Turtledove, Harry
Spin State, Moriarty, Chris
Rocks of Ages, Gould, Stephen Jay
The seeds of time, Wyndham, John
Last and first men, Stapledon, Olaf
In Search of the Dark Ages, Wood, Michael
Between the Woods and the Water, Fermor, Patrick Leigh
The Age of Kali, Dalrymple, William
Red Branch, Llywelyn, Morgan
The Child Garden, Ryman, Geoff
Misspent Youth, Hamilton, Peter F.
The Golden Transcendence, Wright, John C.
The Phoenix Exultant, Wright, John C.
Trillion year spree, Aldiss, Brian Wilson
Three to see the king, Mills, Magnus
Variable Star, Heinlein, Robert A.
The Medieval Cookbook, Black, Maggie
Appleseed, Clute, John
Back Home, Magorian, Michelle
Daughters of Britannia, Hickman, Katie
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Second Annual Collection,
National Lampoon’s Doon, Weiner, Ellis
Wilt In Nowhere, Sharpe, Tom
White Crow, Gentle, Mary
No Present Like Time, Swainston, Steph
Cities of salt, Munif, Abd al-Rahman
Jennie, Gallico, Paul
The Devil’s Highway, Urrea, Luis Alberto
Blind Voices, Reamy, Tom
Doctor Who-Caves of Androzani, Dicks, Terrance
The Shore of Women, Sargent, Pamela

The Mabinogion, Gantz, Jeffrey
Seasons of Plenty, Greenland, Colin
The Druid King, Spinrad, Norman
Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders, Dicks, Terrance
Doctor Who-The Aztecs, Lucarotti, John
Doctor Who and the Leisure Hive, Fisher, David
Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, Leonard, Mark
Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, Dicks, Terrance
What Ifs? Of American History,
Visions of Wonder, Hartwell, David G.
Doctor Who and the Deadly Assassin, Dicks, Terrance
The Search for Roots, Levi, Primo
The Wizard Knight, Wolfe, Gene
Earth Logic, Marks, Laurie J.
The Space Opera Renaissance, Hartwell, David G.
The epic of Gilgamesh, George, A. R
Sunrise Alley, Asaro, Catherine
Fortunata and Jacinta, Galdos, Benito Perez
Master of Earth and Water, Paxson, Diana L.
Forbidden Acts, Collins, Nancy A.
Peter Abelard, Waddell, Helen
Wandering Stars,
800 Years of Womens Letters, Kenyon, Olga
Sacred Visions, Greeley, Andrew M.
The Way to Babylon, Kearney, Paul
George and Sam, Moore, Charlotte
Mother of Plenty, Greenland, Colin
Astra and Flondrix, Cullen, Seamus
Once in a Blue Moon, Mills, Magnus
“Interzone”: Anthology: 5th,
The Secret Visitors, White, James
The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen,
The Discovery of the Germ, Waller, John
The Mind of Mr. Soames, Maine, Charles Eric
Analog 6, Campbell, John W (editor)
Shadowkings, Cobley, Michael
The Nobel Prize, Feldman, Burton
The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer, Spencer, Elizabeth
Hotel Rwanda,
England’s Troubles, Scott, Jonathan
Radical Islams Rules, Marshall, Paul
After Dinner Speaking, Boom, Fawcett
The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod,
Kosova Express, Pettifer, James
The Enchanted Isles, Flynn, K.C.
Military Operations Macedonia, Falls, Captain Cyril
The Prisoner of Chillon, Kelly, James Patrick
Endgame in Ireland, Mallie, Eamonn
Islam in Azerbaijan, Yunusov, Arif
Science Fiction and Postmodern Fiction, Puschmann-Nalenz, Barbara
Dreams of the Compass Rose [Extended Excerpt], Nazarian, Vera
Athens-Skopje: An Uneasy Symbiosis, Kofos, Evangelos
Μακεδονία (Macedonia): A Greek Name in Modern Usage,
Democratisation in Southeast Europe: An Introduction to Election Issues, Pavlovic, Dusan

The Bessarabian Question in Communist Historiography, Meurs, Wim P. Van
Liberal Democracy and Globalisation, Watson, Graham
Irish tales of terror, McGarry, Jim
Laserlicht, Teng, Tais
Thunderbirds Bumper Storybook: “The Uninvited”, “Brink of Disaster”, “Sun Probe”, “Atlantic Inferno”, Morris, Dave
Talkback: The Unofficial and Unauthorised “Doctor Who” Interview Book: Sixties v. 1,
The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might,
Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, Pond, Elizabeth
Half-life of a Zealot, Hunt, Swanee
From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising, Barton, Brian

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My year in books

In 2006 I read over 200 books – lost count but I think the final tally was 207 – up considerably from last year’s 137. This was partly because I read quite a lot of shorter books, but also I think I did more travelling where it was easy to keep reading. In addition, I had a few attempts at sertting up small reading programmes for myself, such as the Unread Books Project and pursuing a couple of obscure authors, which actually gives you an incentive to read them fairly quickly so that you can get on with the next sf paperback.


I read six graphic novels in 2006 (down from eight in 2005).

Well, graphic novels isn’t quite accurate: the best of them was the sternly non-fictional The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. I was not overwhelmed by any of the others (Shutterbug Follies, Buddha, Vol. 1, Ghost World, Preacher #1 and Preacher #2). I will persevere with the Preacher series, I think, but be more careful with Daniel Clowes in future.


I read 70 non-fiction books, about 34% of my total reading; an increase on both counts from 40 and 29% last year. My reading was more structured than last year; while I read about the same proportion of books about topics related to work, I read seven about Ireland (compared with last year’s one) and did much better with biographies, both in terms of reading more and in terms of enjoying them more. Also I had a couple of small reading projects that developed during the year.

My distant relative Frederic Whyte provided me with one of them: I read three of his five books (the fourth arrived on Friday, and the last is on order). All three – William Heinemann: A MemoirA Wayfarer in SwedenA Bachelor’s London – were published in his retirement in the 1930s and are gentle and gentlemanly reminiscences, respectively biography, travelogue and literary autobiography.

Another family-related project was to get to grips with the first world war’s Macedonian campaign, in which my grandfather fought. I read three books about this, which complemented each other nicely: Ward Price’s contemporary (and mildly propagandistic) The Story of the Salonica Army, Alan Palmer’s more geopolitical The Gardeners of Salonika, and Wakefield and Moody’s voices-from-the trenches Under the Devil’s Eye.

I also read three books about the moon landings, First Man, A Man On The Moon, and Moondust, all good though the last was best.

On more political topics, I read seven books about Irish history and politics, three of which got five stars: Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh, which unpretentiously describes what it says it describes; The Elusive Quest, an exploration of the concept of reconciliation, and Lost Lives, a gut-wrenching account of every single death attriubtable to the Troubles. I enjoyed three other Irish history books, Easter 1916, The Independent Irish Party 1850-9 and Sixteenth Century Ireland but was less impressed with What If? Alternative Views of Twentieth-Century Ireland.

More closely related to my work, I read four good books on more general international topics. The best was Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations, but the other three (The Age of Fallibility, International Governance of War-Torn Territories and You, The People) are all worth reading. I really enjoyed Skeletons on the Zahara, an account of a nineteenth-century encounter between shipwrecked American sailors and the Sahrawi nomads. More uptodate reading on that area: Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, Endgame in the Western Sahara, and Western Sahara: Anatomy of a Stalemate. I read five books about Cyprus, of which the two good ones were Bitter Lemons of Cyprus and Echoes from the Dead Zone (the others were An International Relations Debacle, Disaccord on Cyprus and Everything is about Cyprus, by Hasan Erçakica). Apart from the three mentioned above on the Macedonia campaign, I read seven books about the Balkans, of which the two best were Salonica: City of Ghosts and Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia (my review of the latter was picked up by, and published in abridged form in, an academic journal). The others, none of them bad, were The New Macedonian Question, Café Europa, Peace at Any Price, Kosovo’s Endgame and This Was Not Our War.

The two standout historical/biographical books of the year for me were Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, and Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. I also read good biographies of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, St Malachy, and Joan of Arc and bad ones of Richard of Wallingford and Fanny Kemble. In autobiographies, I was entertained by Zoe Margolis/”Abby Lee” and less so by St Augustine. Other history books read: The Great English Pilgrimage, Ockham’s Razor, Charlotte Brontë’s Promised Land, The Belgian House of Representatives, Mr Belloc Objects To “The Outline Of History”, 31 Days, and the unreadable The Triumph of the West and Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee.

Apart from seven books about science fiction, which I will get to in a bit, I read ten other non-fiction books of various sorts. The two best were Indefensible by David Feige, an insider’s account of the American justice system, and Emma Crewe’s charming anthropological study of the Lords of Parliament. Most of the others (EU’ve got mail!, Does Anything Eat Wasps?, The Economist Style Guide, 22) Critical Reasoning, A Rule Book for Arguments, The Prince and Notes from a Small Island) had their good points. An Intimate History of Humanity did not.


I read 131 fiction books this year, up considerably in number (but not in proportion) from 89 last year. The biggest jump was in non-genre fiction, where I read 37 books compared to last year’s 10. This was partly the outcome of my determination to read more “classics”. Only 14 books were collections or anthologies of short stories (down from 15 last year).

The two best non-sf novels I read were The Warden’s Niece, by Gillian Avery, The File on H by Ismail Kadarë. I also read a few detective/thriller/mystery stories (The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, See Delphi and Die, Eleven on Top, White Eagles over Serbia and Casino Royale), the only other genre I’ve really enjoyed. I read a lot of classics and fairly heavy literature, some of which I enjoyed more than others: Little Women, The Kite Runner, Heart of Darkness, Things Fall Apart, Ivanhoe, The Alchemist, The Red Badge of Courage, Henderson the Rain King, Tropic of Capricorn, The Warden, A Game With Sharpened Knives, Mrs Dalloway, The Brothers Karamazov, Persuasion, The God of Small Things, Beloved, The Lovely Bones, Villette, The Color Purple, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, The Reader, The Crying of Lot 49, Perfume, Crooked Little Heart and Lord Jim. I enjoyed collections of short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell. And I also read a novel by Kosovo political figure Veton Surroi and Brian Aldiss’s first novel.


I read 101 books in the sf field this year, counting seven non-fiction books on sf topics, which is up from last year’s 79 (but down in percentage terms, from almost two-thirds to less than half).

The numerical difference is more than explained by the no less than 32 books on the list relating to Doctor Who. Four of these were non-fiction, ie books about the programme: the best of these was The Discontinuity Guide by Cornell & co, but I also enjoyed the other three The Television Companion, Inside the Tardis by James Chapman and Doctor Who by Kim Newman). Of the fiction books, I think I enjoyed the three Short Trips collections of stories most (Companions, A Universe of Terrors and Past Tense). I read no less than ten novelisations of stories broadcast in the show’s first run, of which the best was Ian Marter’s Doctor Who – The Rescue (the others were Marter’s books based on The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, The Ribos Operation, The Enemy of the World, Earthshock, The Dominators, The Invasion, and The Reign of Terror with State of Decay for a bonus). And I read fifteen Doctor Who spinoff novels, of which the best were Evolution and Managra (the others being Harry Sullivan’s War, Timewyrm: Genesys, Timewyrm: Exodus, Timewyrm: Apocalypse, Timewyrm: Revelation, Goth Opera, Blood Harvest, The Empire of Glass, The Scales of Injustice, The Clockwise Man, The Monsters Inside, The Stealers of Dreams and I Am A Dalek).

The last three non-fiction books of my year were rewarding biographical studies of sf writers – Roger Zelazny, Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft. Another book that is clearly SF but defies further categorisation is Thunderbirds spinoff Secret Files: The Inside Story of International Rescue.

I read excellent collections of stories by four authors: David Langford, Fritz Leiber, James Tiptree jr/Alice Sheldon and most importantly Zoran Živković. Also as usual I read the various Year’s best volumes that I could get hold of: Gardner Dozois, Hartwell and Cramer (and their volume from last year), and Rich Horton (two volumes). The Alternate Generals anthology left me rather cold. I liked one of the three stories in Winter Moon.

That leaves me with 54 sf and fantasy novels, over a quarter of my year’s total of books. Two of my reviews achieved a certain level of notoriety, for different reasons. My attempt to write up Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World in chronologically appropriate style was gratifyingly widely appreciated. (I had had a dry run earlier in the year, writing a review in blank verse of The Compleat Enchanter.) However, my take on the politics of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War provoked much follow-up discussion and, from me, a partial retraction. I still think that the political discussions in the book are not adequately grounded, and that, in my view, is a failure of art on the part of the author. I am glad to hear that these points will be addressed in a concluding volume of the series.

I re-read some old favourites: The Foundation Trilogy, Fahrenheit 451, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the first five Amber books, A Game of Thrones. A couple were reviewed for Strange Horizons (Mappa Mundi, Ghosts of Albion: Accursed). I managed to read all the Nebula-winning novels that had thus far eluded me – The Einstein Intersection, The Falling Woman, Camouflage, The Healer’s War, Stations of the Tide, A Time of Changes, The Terminal Experiment and Rite of Passage – and the other Hugo nominees – Learning the World, and Spin which I thought was a worthy winner. I also read two sf books supposedly written by Ulster journalist W.D. Flackes: Dark Side of Venus and Duel in Nightmare Worlds.

The three other sf books which I had not previously read but enjoyed most this year were Thud! by Terry Pratchett, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and The Wreck of The River of Stars by Michael F. Flynn. Apart from two really awful books (Daughter of the Drow and Galactic Patrol) I enjoyed all the other sf novels I read, some recent and some decidedly less so, to a greater or lesser degree: Anansi Boys, Steppe, A Clockwork Orange, Air, 9Tail Fox, The Space Merchants, Take Back Plenty, Hidden Camera, The Jennifer Morgue, A Hat Full of Sky, The Moon Pool, The Prisoner, Never Let Me Go, The Mark of Ran, The Lady of the Shroud, October the First is Too Late, Southern Fire, Epic, Thunderbird Falls, Pyramids, and Unfinished Tales.

Books of the Year


In no particular order: Robert Cooper’s The Breaking of Nations is a brilliant examination of what international politics is about by a senior practitioner; Lost Lives is harrowing but essential reading for anyone interested in Ireland’s recent past; and Indefensible unexpectedly develops from being a day in the life of a defence lawyer to an exploration of the possibility of redemption. Honourable mentions to Fanny Kemble’s first person account of slavery in the Old South, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, and Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.


Although I read many classics of non-genre fiction this year, the two I enjoyed most were an unpretentious children’s book, The Warden’s Niece by Gillian Avery, a charming children’s novel set in nineteenth-century Oxford; and Ismail Kadarë’s The File on H, a very thought-provoking exploration of Albania and its relations with the outside world.


Only one of my top four sf books was published for the first time in 2006, and that was a compilation of the author’s previous work: Impossible Stories, which pulls together Zoran Živković’s visions (many previously published in Interzone) and makes a satisfying if somewhat mysterious read. I thought that Terry Pratchett hit all the right notes with Thud!, an allegory on sectarianism and bigotry – not in themselves new themes for Pratchett, but done somehow more sure-footedly here. Similarly, of the past Nebula winners, I particularly liked Elizabeth Anne Scarborough’s account of the Vietnam War through a mildly fantastic lens, The Healer’s War. And I can’t understand why I had not previously heard much about The Wreck of The River of Stars by Michael F. Flynn, a superb hard sf story about the crew of a doomed spaceship, with characters and scenes that lingered in my mind for months after I had closed the cover.

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December Book 20) Joan of Arc

20) Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, by Marina Warner

This is another one of those books that has been hanging around the shelves, mutely asking me when I will ever get around to reading it. And I’m glad that I did. I’m not really a Francophile, but I am a lapsed medievalist, and Marina Warner’s meticulous sifting of fact from fiction in the first two-thirds of the book dealing with the actual career of Joan of Arc (not, as she points out, a name ever used by La Pucelle herself) is a beautiful example of how you should take your one major primary source (the transcript of Joan’s trial) and test it against all the other available contextual evidence. (For instance, the only portrait of her that we can be sure was drawn from life is the scribe’s doodle shown to the right, drawn in May 1429.)

Two points in particular stood out for me. First, Joan’s entire career was very short – from March 1429 to her execution in May 1431, about the same length of time separating my writing this from the last U.S. presidential election campaign – and of course the last year of Joan’s short life was spent in captivity. Second, something very special obviously did take place when she first encountered the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, at Chinon in March 1429: she was unable to describe the experience clearly, and nobody else seems to have left a record, but the consequences are quite clear – some kind of mystical event was experienced by both her and Charles, and by enough of his courtiers to establish the legend, but we will never know exactly what they thought had happened.

Warner explores Joan’s significance as a woman, a hero, a warrior, a prophet, digging deep into late medieval ideas of religion, leadership and gender. In the last third of the book she goes on to look at Joan’s influence after her death, on literature, French politics, the church’s claims to authority, and concepts of sexuality in Western civilisation. It feels comprehensive, and I found it fascinating.

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A note for the perplexed

Why Saddam Hussein was not tried in an international court in the Hague (cut-n-pasted from here):

There are in fact five different international courts in the Hague, and none of them has the right mandate for this job.

Going through them in the order that they were established: The Permanent Court of Arbitration doesn’t take criminal cases; the International Court of Justice takes only inter-state cases; the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal is obviously not appropriate for the job; and the same goes for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The International Criminal Court at first glance seems the most obvious choice – its remit includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. However a) it can only take cases where the alleged offences took place after 1 July 2002, which was less than a year before Saddam was overthrown, b) it can only take cases where the domestic courts are clearly incapable of taking the burden on (which indeed was arguably the case in Iraq, but someone has to make that determination, either the Iraqi authorities themselves or the UN Security Council), and most crucially c) it can only take cases from countries which have signed the Rome Statute setting it up, which notably do not include the United States or Iraq.

For an international prosecution process for Saddam Hussein to take place would have required an ad hoc decision either by the allies who overthrew him (which would have been even more obviously victors’ justice than what we have had) or a decision by the UN Security Council (which would never have happened, as too many of its members, including some with vetoes, would have seen such a move as tantamount to complicity in Bush’s war).

So an Iraqi judicial process was the best we were ever going to get; though it is reasonable to say that this judicial process is not a good advertisement for the idea that you can impose universal principles of justice by force.

Having said that, the verdict was inevitable. The sentence was not. Capital punishment is never right. (Even Christopher Hitchens gets this.)

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More complaints about the state of the world

(This is not as serious a complaint as my previous post.)

I always scan the honours lists to see if anyone I know has got one (and congratulations to Jonathan Cohen on his OBE, and to Geraldine Rice on her MBE, if they read this). But I think I disapprove of the whole process on principle, and the awards this year for entertainment really seem to illustrate why.

While I am delighted that Evelyn Glennie has been made a Dame, I do wonder by what order of priorities her contribution to society is adjudged as of a higher level than Peter Greenaway, Penelope Keith, Alexander McCall Smith, Professor Stewart, Rod Stewart and Colin Thubron (all judged equal to CBEs); and how all of them can be rated above Hugh Laurie and the composer Guy Woolfenden (OBEs); and then they all are rated above the BBC’s foreign correspondent Brian Barron (MBE).

It is better to regard these as the decisions of an 80-year-old woman guided by advisers she has appointed herself, rather than any serious reflection of the nation’s tastes. (And anyway, which nation?) The Irish constitution (40.2.1) forbids the Irish state from establishing titles of nobility, and this has been generalised into not awarding honours either. Not a bad way to go, in my view.

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December Book 19) Unfinished Tales

19) Unfinished Tales, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

Another piece of Tolkieniana, one that I’d been putting off reading for years, fearing that it would be as big a disappointment as The Silmarillion. But in fact, taken on its own merits, there are some excellent bits here. The first half of the book, which is basically three chunks of narrative which didn’t quite make it into The Silmarillion, is especially good, although the very first part, a lovely description of Tuor’s journey to Gondolin, is a bit short on action.

But then we get to the out-takes from the tale of Túrin Turambar, always my favourite bit of The Silmarillion. We get a new insight into Túrin as flawed hero (and what made him flawed), and new details of the story of his life and death. It is a real shame that significant parts of the narrative are left out, with a note that we should see The Silmarillion for the relevant text. Is it beyond the wit of Tolkien’s estate to produce a canonical version of the Tale of the Children of Húrin, pulling together all the relevant material and published as a single volume? There would be a market for it.

The last substantial piece of narrative is the story of an early king of Númenor, whose family disintegrates as a result of his neglecting them to pursue his own personal obsession. Having read Tom Shippey, it’s not too difficult to see this as an expression of the author’s own fears, if you substitute Tolkien’s exploration of Middle-Earth by pen for Tar-Aldarion’s explorations by ship. I can’t offhand think of another example of marital estrangement in Tolkien’s works, certainly not one explored in such depth.

The second half of the book consists of much shorter pieces, some of which are little more than Christopher Tolkien’s attempts to retcon his father’s unpublished notes with the published material on this or that historical point. I found it interesting that in the last years of his life the elder Tolkien was trying to rewrite Galadriel as almost a more feminist figure. The story of the lead-up to the events of The Hobbit, as told from Gandalf’s point of view, was also rather fun. And the pieces on the Woodmen, the Wizards and the Palantírs made for decent extended footnotes to The Lord of the Rings.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Magical Thinking: True Stories, by Augusten Burroughs

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December Books 18) An Intimate History of Humanity

18) An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin

I got this ages ago, as it promised to be an interesting investigation of the history of how humans relate to each other. Unfortunately it isn’t; it is a series of conversations with French women, one by one, with an attempt by the author to draw universal conclusions from each one individually. the translation probably doesn’t help, but it’s a bad idea in the first place. I got through less than a tenth of it before I reached my “Tonstant Weader fwowed up” moment, when one of the interviewees confided that

When someone broke her favourite teapot, she did feel anger for two minutes, but then she said to herself, ‘Everything has a life, everything has an end.’

Well, that was certainly the end for me.


  points out that, sadly, this book is not a translation but was originally written in English, so there is no point in making allowances for the author on that score.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King.

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December Books 17) Casino Royale

17) Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

I’m very grateful to for sending me this – I had read a heavily abridged version years ago (back when my mother was involved in adult literacy schemes, I found it on her desk one day) but there is no substitute for the real thing. And this, not the film, is the real thing. No silly Caribbean escapades to fill in space and use budget, we are straight in with the gambling, the defeat, the bail-out by allies, the victory at the table, the kidnapping, the torture, the escape, the betrayal.

What surprised me a bit is that I don’t think Bond’s amoral, exploitative attitude to women is presented at all in an approving way. He has been dehumanised by his work, and this is his tragedy; one of his colleagues tells him, at the end of a chapter which has had a surprising discussion of good and evil, “don’t let me down and become human yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine.” And indeed when Bond ought to be displaying due care and suspicion in the last chapters, he is distracted by unaccustomed emotion, and misses the clues obvious to the reader.

Anyway, a very good, quick read.

Top five UnSuggestions for this book:
1) The Pursuit of God, by A. W. Tozer
2) Knowing God, by J. I. Packer
3) Stitch ‘n Bitch Nation, by Debbie Stoller
4) Good in bed, by Jennifer Weiner
5) Institutes of the Christian religion, by John Calvin

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December Books 16) Notes from a Small Island

16) Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Bryson is an American who has lived in England for many years. This book was written in 1994, and shows its age in some respects (reference to the excellent railway system, jokes about Princess Margaret, Princess Diana and the Queen Mother) but remains a very affectionate take on England and the English by a near-insider. At times his prose rises to the hysterically funny, as in his comparison of the contents of American and British women’s magazines in the early 1970s (I hope none of the knitters reading this will take offence):

The articles in my mother’s and sister’s magazines were always about sex and personal gratification. They had titles like ‘Eat Your Way to Multiple Orgasms’, ‘Office Sex – How to Get it’, ‘Tahiti: The Hot New Place for Sex’ and ‘Those Shrinking Rainforests – Are They Any Good for Sex?’ The British magazines addressed more modest aspirations. They had titles like ‘Knit Your Own Twinset’, ‘Money-Saving Button Offer’, Make This Super Knitted Soap-Saver’ and ‘Summer’s Here – It’s Time for Mayonnaise!’
There are some other good one-liners too, such as this on a scientifically interesting part of Dorset:
The Studland peninsula is well known as the only place where you can see all seven British reptiles – the grass snake, smooth snake, adder, slow worm, common lizard, sand lizard and Michael Portillo.
(Note for younger and non-British readers – Portillo was a smirking right-wing politician who seemed a real danger back in 1994, but has since both mellowed and faded from view.)

Bryson is particularly good on architecture, and excoriates the concreting-over of city centres and the worst excrescences of the twentieth century. Here he is on the Warden’s Quarters of Merton College, Oxford:

What a remarkable series of improbabilities were necessary to its construction. First, some architect had to design it, had to wander through a city steeped in 800 years of architectural tradition, and with great care conceive of a structure that looked like a toaster with windows. Then a committee of finely educated minds at Merton had to show the most extraordinary indifference to their responsibilities to posterity and say to themselves, ‘You know, we’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let’s have an ugly one for a change.’ Then the planning authorities had to say, ‘Well, why not? Plenty worse in Basildon.’
He’s also very good on hotels, landscapes, food and the general impressions made by a place on the new arrival. He’s not very good at getting sympathetic stories from people; most of the characters described in depth are lunatically unhelpful transport officials or hoteliers.

He’s also not very good outside England. The Scottish section of the book is surprisingly dull, and the Welsh bits actually offensive (remarks about Asperger’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, place names that sound like a cat bringing up a hairball). Thank God he didn’t take in Northern Ireland in his trip.

Anyway, a book that did make me laugh out loud several times, but more in its first half than in its second.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze.

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RIP Gerald Ford

[info]applez alerts me to the sad news that Gerald Ford has died, aged 93 years, and a month more than Ronald Reagan was when he died a few years back. Ford was the oldest ex-President of the United States ever, and the oldest living ex-Vice-President. George Bush senior, born four months before Jimmy Carter in 1924 (and three and a half years before Walter Mondale), now becomes the oldest former holder of both offices.

Ford was the first president whose term I remember in full (I was not yet two years old when Nixon was elected). It’s a scary thought that the kids who were born the year he lost the election to Jimmy Carter have now turned thirty. I am instinctively leftish of the political spectrum, but I retain a soft spot for Ford. He clearly was a more pleasant person than the average Republican candidate – it oozes out of this 1976 campaign commercial – but more importantly, his intervention in the Helsinki Accords process in 1975 made a greater contribution to bringing about the end of the Cold War through the peaceful implosion of Communism than any of Reagan’s adventurist efforts. Any of us living in a peaceful Europe today – especially in Eastern Europe – owe him a huge debt.

Having said that, although as a nine-year-old I cheered for Ford, the one I had heard of, against Carter, the one I hadn’t heard of, I would certainly cheer the other way now. But alas, as of yesterday, we have only Carter left to cheer for.

Trivia point: Ford was the only President since Herbert Hoover not to feature as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year during his term of office. He was also, however, the only President to have featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan as a male model.


 alerts me to a piece on Ford’s progressive position on gay rights.

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The Robots of Death, The War Machines

My Christmas present (well, one of them) from my wife was the DVD release of The Robots of Death, and we just sat down and watched it yesterday after lunch (after watching the other single DVD I got, the 1995 Les Miserables concert – my Christmas haul of DVDs also included the first two seasons of the West Wing, which I have somehow managed to miss completely up to now).

The Robots of Death has worn pretty well. I had seen it twice before – the original showing in 1977 when I was 9, and I think again some evening about ten years ago watching someone’s video when there may have been booze and conversation as distractions. The robots themselves look superb – swisstone has commented on the origins of the design. I had not previously picked up the very interesting tension between Uvanov, the captain of the trawler, and the First Families representatives Zilda and Cass – it is an interesting inversion of racial politics, since Zilda and Cass are clearly of non-European origin, unlike the rest of the crew, but are also deferred to socially.

I had forgotten how good Louise Jameson is as Leela. She doesn’t steal the show – as always, that is centred on Tom Baker’s Doctor – but it’s a very interesting performance, I guess the only seriously physically assertive female companion bar perhaps Ace. My sister-in-law giggled manically at the line, “You talk like a Tesh!” for a reason that is only comprehensible if you know who my in-laws are. Which is why I think we’ll watch The Face of Evil next. (After catching up with Sunday’s Torchwood and re-watching yesterday’s Doctor Who.)

It’s also unusual to see a Doctor Who story which is quite so obvious in its homage to classic sf. As long-time readers of this blog well know, I hate cute anthropomorphic robots. But the Robots of Death, despite being designed to Asimovian specifications (at least as far as the First Law is concerned), are not cute at all, even if they are anthropomorphic. The one person who does think they are cute turns out to be the psychopathic murderer. There’s a moral there; are you listening, Mike Resnick? Also the mining machine on the surface of a desert planet is very reminiscent of Dune (though no sandworms here as far as we know).

The plot, of course, doesn’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny – as ever, the Doctor happens to arrive just at the moment of crisis, and the powers-that-be accept his credentials as a benevolent actor pretty swiftly (though it must be admitted not as swiftly as in some stories); and we find out who the villain of the piece is long before the characters do (though the Doctor seems to have worked it out). But it’s all done with great conviction, and the whole thing just looks fantastic.

Today I have been mostly tending to my poor sick wife and crunching Northern Ireland election results, but out of the corner of my eye I managed to watch the 1966 series, The War Machines, the last story in Doctor Who’s third season. It was remarkable at the time for being the first full-length story in which the Doctor and his companions are in a normal, contemporary environment; even more remarkable when you reflect that roughly half of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor stories have been set in or close to the present day. I love the opening and closing scenes of the TARDIS materialising on Fitzroy Square.

The story has some remarkable concepts for its time – the idea of a computer network covering the entire world, which could be taken over by a rogue artificial intelligence, is a cliché now that we have the internet, but was surely fairly cutting-edge in 1966. One character has to explain to another what “software” is; it’s impossible to imagine such a scene being written now. Of course, the execution is a bit raw; in particular, the War Machines themselves are just cut-price Daleks, the white heat of mid-60s technology being no match for Skaro’s finest. The evil computer WOTAN can speak but needs to have questions typed into it. Hartnell, as ever, makes it all very believable.

It’s also interesting to see the Doctor just fitting in to Britain’s establishment circles, and roping in Sir Charles Summer of the Royal Scientific Society as his automatic ally. Some purists have objected that the Doctor must be an outsider, but in fact we’ve seen him slip in and out of establishment roles right up to the present – the Ninth Doctor is still on the books as a major expert on aliens when the Slitheen arrive, after all. Purists, however, are right to object to WOTAN’s scandalous naming of our hero as “Doctor Who”.

I was sorry to see Dodo go. I realise I have now seen or listened to all of her series except The Celestial Toymaker, and I think Jackie Lane is excellent. She is particularly good here, taken over by the evil computer intelligence at an early stage, completely hoodwinking the Doctor. He is really very angry when he discovers that she is not coming with him at the end of the story. Polly burbles, “She says she’s feeling much better, and she’d like to stay here in London, and she sends you her love.” “Her love!!!” snarls the Doctor, “There’s gratitude for you! Take her all the way round the world, through space and time -” and then Ben interrupts him to ask what he is talking about, and what was looking like an excellent First Doctor rant is cut off. It must be admitted that Ben and Polly slip very comfortably into their roles as the Doctor’s new friends.

It’s fun; you have to make allowances, but it is fun.

December Books 15) Ockham’s Razor

15) Ockham’s Razor: A Search for Wonder In An Age of Doubt, by Wade Rowland

This is the last of the three books that had been staring at me from my shelves for some time, urging me to read them and return them to their rightful owners (the other two being Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and The Elusive Quest). Ockham’s Razor was lent me by the author’s nephew, who was a colleague of mine back in Balkan days and is now in Indonesia, I believe. If you lent me a book ages ago and I haven’t returned it, this is the time to remind me!

It’s a book about philosophy for a popular audience, clearly indebted to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the way it merges deep discussions with the story of a family travelogue. It’s less good in that sense than Pirsig’s book, where there is a definite programme of self-exploration mapped onto the journey, and where we learn more about the narrator and his son as the book goes on: Rowland is transparent in what one might almost consider as a typically Canadian characteristic; he tells us exactly who he is and who his wife and children are right at the beginning, and the learning process is shared between reader and characters in the book. Although he does allow himself some fun in the last chapter.

The discussion of various philosophers’ ideas was very rich and interesting, and pitched well for a popular level. But I was also a bit unsatisfied about the moral we were intended to learn from all of this: we start off with modernism depicted very much as the villain of the piece, yet Rowland also seems to admire the medieval Cathars as the first modernists. The author’s moral framework seemed frustratingly incomplete to me.

Anyway, a fun read for a quiet day in the Christmas break.

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December Books 14) Lord Jim

14) Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad

This took me a while; it is very dense prose, and you can’t skim it. A fascinating tale of disgraced and redemption; the eponymous Jim is complicit, more or less by accident, in marooning eight hundred pilgrims in a sinking ship in the Arabian Sea; fleeing his past, he ends up in the interior of Celebes (or as we now say Sulawesi), where he finds a role as protector and lover; and meets a gallant end.

The portrait of Jim’s own psychological journey is fantastic, told through stories within stories, as if we are delving through layers of narrative to get at the truth. It is very nearly good enough to drown out the colonialist assumptions of the narrative; Jim basically becomes a white god to the natives; the lowest form of life is the mulatto or half-breed (even though this includes Jim’s lover); there are a number of brilliant psychological sketches of other characters, but only white ones. (Having said that, the French officer who found the pilgrim ship, and the German merchant who sends Jim on his final mission, are both great creations – I frequently meet officials who are just like the French guy.)

Not hugely cheerful reading for the Christmas break, but I found I was compelled to finish it once I had started.

Unsuggestions for this book:

  1. Stitch ‘N Bitch Nation, by Debbie Stoller [knitting]
  2. Twelve Sharp, by Janet Evanovich
  3. Incubus Dreams, by Laurell K. Hamilton
  4. Girls in Pants: the Third Summer of the Sisterhood, by Ann Brashares
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*falls over*

My poor wife fainted last night, during one of her brief excursions out of bed (because of her upset stomach), and caught her head a very nasty crack against the furniture. I took one look and thought, “Stitches. Ambulance.” And so we finished our Christmas in the Casualty department of the Heilig Hart hospital in Leuven. Luckily the children (apart from insomniac Ursula) were already asleep, and Anne’s sister was able to stay behind allowing me to go in the ambulance and hold Anne’s hand. All very professionally done, stitched under local anaesthetic (“the bastards never gave me anaesthetic for what they did to me when Ursula was born!”), then heart rate monitored, then X-rays (though she did faint again while being X-rayed), then the all-clear, then home with an impressive bandage covering the stitches.

So we’ll aim to have a quieter day today.

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In pictures:

The tree, with presents and stockings unopened.

…and the blur of opening presents…

F did indeed get the SpongeBob clothing he wanted…

…U enjoyed her new jigsaws (and later, Fimbles DVDs)…

B’s Christmas dinner was her favourite – raw ravioli!

…and the children’s aunt H rejoiced in her new slippers.

I was pleased with the Christmas dinner: a starter of Georgian mint and cheese, followed by snails, and then the boar main course with a Georgian bean stew, Belgian endives and a rice preparation of my own devising.

Unfortunately something in the food disagreed with my poor wife who has spent most of the afternoon and evening horizontal (and I won’t describe where she has spent the rest of that time). Still, in between seeing to her needs, we were able to watch and enjoy Doctor Who. More on that later, and elsewhere.

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Luke 2:1-14 – Δοξα εν υψιστοις θεω, και επι γης ειρηνη εν ανθρωποις ευδοκιας

εγενετο δε εν ταις ημεραις εκειναις εξηλθεν δογμα παρα καισαρος αυγουστου απογραφεσθαι πασαν την οικουμενην
    αυτη απογραφη πρωτη εγενετο ηγεμονευοντος της συριας κυρηνιου
    και επορευοντο παντες απογραφεσθαι εκαστος εις την εαυτου πολιν
    ανεβη δε και ιωσηφ απο της γαλιλαιας εκ πολεως ναζαρεθ εις την ιουδαιαν εις πολιν δαυιδ ητις καλειται βηθλεεμ δια το ειναι αυτον εξ οικου και πατριας δαυιδ
    απογραψασθαι συν μαριαμ τη εμνηστευμενη αυτω ουση εγκυω
    εγενετο δε εν τω ειναι αυτους εκει επλησθησαν αι ημεραι του τεκειν αυτην
    και ετεκεν τον υιον αυτης τον πρωτοτοκον και εσπαργανωσεν αυτον και ανεκλινεν αυτον εν φατνη διοτι ουκ ην αυτοις τοπος εν τω καταλυματι
    και ποιμενες ησαν εν τη χωρα τη αυτη αγραυλουντες και φυλασσοντες φυλακας της νυκτος επι την ποιμνην αυτων
    και αγγελος κυριου επεστη αυτοις και δοξα κυριου περιελαμψεν αυτους και εφοβηθησαν φοβον μεγαν
    και ειπεν αυτοις ο αγγελος μη φοβεισθε ιδου γαρ ευαγγελιζομαι υμιν χαραν μεγαλην ητις εσται παντι τω λαω
    οτι ετεχθη υμιν σημερον σωτηρ ος εστιν χριστος κυριος εν πολει δαυιδ
    και τουτο υμιν το σημειον ευρησετε βρεφος εσπαργανωμενον και κειμενον εν φατνη
    και εξαιφνης εγενετο συν τω αγγελω πληθος στρατιας ουρανιου αινουντων τον θεον και λεγοντων
    δοξα εν υψιστοις θεω και επι γης ειρηνη εν ανθρωποις ευδοκιας

(Thanks to for inspiring me.)

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A child’s plea:

Dear santa, i’m back! i want some
1. spongebob stuoff, and 2.a magic kit. From, Fergal.

P.S. iF you can’t find what it says here in your sack or bag, don’t
worry. i like EVERY present that is for Fergal!!!

Fortunately for him, we do indeed have both some SpongeBob lego, and a magic set. But I will have to have a word with him about using “please” a bit more often!

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Doctor Who Unbound and Shada

Remember when I said that commuting to work by train would mean I did a lot more reading? Not so. Since I bought my MP3 player, I’ve been listening to a lot of Doctor Who – staring with canonical stuff, The Abominable Snowmen, The Web of Fear and The Space Pirates, and then (with so much to choose from) going for Big Finish’s series of Doctor Who audio plays in which the history of the Whoniverse somehow worked out differently. I listened to the seven plays in order, but will review them out of order as they seemed to me to naturally group as follows:

#3, “Full Fathom Five”, and #4, “He Jests at Scars… ” both feature the Doctor not as hero but as villain. In “Full Fathom Five”, we have no back story, just the Doctor (David Collings) and his companion raiding an underwater scientific base where there are Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know, and the Doctor destroys everything that might allow said secrets to leak out. In “He Jests at Scars…”, the Valeyard (played again by Michael Jayston) won the Trial of a Time Lord season, and Mel Bush is sent to investigate by the Time Lords. I was not really satisfied by either. The most interesting thing about the Doctor is that he is a hero; subtract that, and you can have a character study of evil but it’s not as interesting. I felt there was also too little that really added up about the plot of “Full Fathom Five”, and I have (I believe fortunately) seen none of the Trial of a Time Lord stories, so “He Jests at Scars…” made little sense to me.

#2, “Sympathy for the Devil”, and #6, “Exile” both feature alternate regenerations of the Doctor. In “Sympathy for the Devil”, David Warner‘s Third Doctor has been exiled by the Time Lords not to 1970 but to 1997, where he is in Hong Kong and encounters both Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier, whose career never really picked up after the Cybermen, and Mark Gatiss’s Master, who’s been having a fine old time for the last quarter-century. I thought this was really well done; the pairing of the Doctor and Master is balanced by the pairing of the Brigadier and UNIT’s current commander (played by David Tennant!), and there were some lovely bits of dialogue.

I understand fan reaction to “Exile” was pretty negative, but I really enjoyed it as well; after three depressing stories (the two Doctor-as-villain ones, and “Deadline” which is discussed below), I was really relieved to hear one which was a bit more light-hearted. Apparently Time Lords change sex if they commit suicide (this may not be canonical), and so Arabella Weir‘s Doctor is hiding from them on Earth, staking shelves in Sainsbury’s and getting smashed down the pub, having fled Gallifreyan justice. There is much chasing around the countryside by a comedy duo of Time Lord agents. Fun, though with a darker edge.

#1, “Auld Mortality” and #5, “Deadline” both take us right back to the beginning. “Auld Mortality” has the Doctor, Geoffrey Bayldon (=Catweazle), musing about what might have happened if had given in to that impulse he had so many years ago of leaving with his granddaughter, rather than staying at home to become a writer of time-travelling adventure narratives. Susan, still played by Carole Ann Ford, drops by to find out what is up with her half-forgotten relative. The play is by Mark Platt, who is not always comprehensible (see Lungbarrow, Downtime, Ghost Light), and I confess I didn’t quite understand everything that was going on (specifically, I did not get who or what “Auld Mortality” actually was supposed to be), but the ride was fun, the acting is great (Ford’s Susan being particularly memorable) and I loved the way Platt manged to have two endings to the story, having his cake and eating it.

In “Deadline”, Sir Derek Jacobi plays a retired writer who rues the day he failed to get his show, Doctor Who, commissioned back in the early 1960s; there is a very intricate exploration of inner space, families, failure, fandom, and so on, but as I said earlier I found the tone decidedly downbeat. But it makes an interesting pairing with “Auld Mortality”, as both have the same point of departure, if from different directions, and both feature the Doctor as to a certain extent the narrator of his own story. It is by Robert Shearman who wrote the Ninth Doctor story “Dalek”. I must say that if you are thinking of trying out the series, “Auld Mortality” and “Deadline” are the ones to get to see if the concept is to your taste.

#7, “A Storm of Angels”, is a double CD release bringing back Bayldon and Ford as the Doctor and Susan; the Doctor, having decided at the end of “Auld Mortality” to go travelling after all, has been busily changing history and runs into Sir Francis Drake in the middle of the asteroid belt. At first I wondered if there was really much merit in what seemed basically yer standard alternate history, without much apparent need for the Doctor’s alternate history as well. But then I realised that Platt had cleverly built the plot around both endings to “Auld Mortality”, even though they are contradictory; and it finishes rather nicely. As with all long stories (it is about as long in play time as a TV six-parter would have been, though split into only four parts on the CDs) it could probably have done with a bit less padding.

Shada is not one of the Doctor Who Unbound series, but it fits rather well into the overall concept. This was originally intended to be the last story of Tom Baker’s sixth season as the Fourth Doctor, but filming was never completed; Big Finish have remade it, and slightly rewritten the script, with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor instead persuading Romana (by now High President of the Time Lords) and K-9 (mark II, of course) to go and investigate the odd time-slip in Cambridge they experienced long ago (covered, canonically, in The Five Doctors). Douglas Adams’ words still sparkle, a quarter-century later; but McGann – who of course had only one outing as the Doctor on television himself – brings his own nuances to them, and while one can imagine Tom Baker delivering the lines (some of which could easily have been uttered by Zaphod Beeblebrox) it’s good to hear a finalised product. (You can watch a slightly cut version, with animations, for free on the BBC website.)

In summary, then, “Auld Mortality” and “Shada” are particularly recommended, though none of them is bad.

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December Books 13) The Elusive Quest

13) The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, by Norman Porter

Like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, this was lent me by a friend and I have been feeling guilty about not reading and returning it, though in this case only for a year and a half rather than fifteen years.

I admit that I had avoided it for the wrong reasons. Porter achieved some prominence, briefly, in Northern Ireland’s political discourse about ten years ago for his first book, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland (sample chapter). Since I am not a Unionist, I couldn’t get very enthusiastic about his attempts to repackage it, and it seemed to me that while Porter had succeeded in producing an alternative vision which was, indeed, not too far from mine, his project was fatally flawed by insisting on calling this “Unionism” in any form; to my mind, if you aim for a decent civic society, which respects and equally guarantees the rights of all its citizens, that surely is largely irrelevant to the question of whether Northern Ireland should continue to be in the UK, join the rest of Ireland, be somehow shared or become independent (though not irrelevant as to how that issue should be resolved). So for that reason I didn’t bother reading the first book, though I was well aware of its arguments.

I’m very glad to say that my friend who insisted on lending me The Elusive Quest was right to do so. Porter has moved on from Unionism, and here presents a devastating critique of both the Unionist and Republican traditions (he spends less time on more moderate Irish nationalists, though does not ignore them entirely). His refutation of the liberal pretensions of Unionism is clear and comprehensive; his attack on the ethics of both sides utterly convincing; and his dissection of the Sinn Fein/IRA attitude to the peace process, based entirely on showing the flaws in its own internal logic, is the best I’ve read. The book was published in 2003, before it became clear that the UUP had lost the internal battle in Unionism, so some of the commentary on Trimble is now of historical interest only; but his critiques of Unionism in general remain sound.

But this is not a negative book. Those impressive passages attacking both side (near the end) are embedded in a very positive political argument, that the key to building a healthy society is to achieve reconciliation, and that the only criterion worth using to judge the actions of politicians is the extent to which they achieve it. His case is cleverly made, with a thought-provoking matrix of theoretical background and rebuttals of potential opposing arguments. I would have liked a few more specific policy recommendations, but perhaps this is beside the point – the book is about mind-sets, rather than actions.

Inevitably, given my own interests, I’ve been trying to think of how Porter’s arguments could be generalised to the rest of the world. I think the key message is here:

It is too easy to latch on to the idea of the alleged incommensurability of unionist and nationalist discourses, to excuse paltry attempts to work through our differences in a way that lessens divisions and permits the articulation of common purposes. At the very least, it is wildly implausible to suppose that reconciliation is impossible in the North because unionists and nationalists are so mysterious to each other that they find each other’s interpretations or perspectives incomprehensible…

This is not to deny that misunderstandings and misperceptions abound, that divisions continue and that shared commitment to common purposes is hard to engender and even harder to sustain. But these problems are more plausibly traced to a relative scarcity engagement between major sections of our traditions, to the poor quality of the engagements that do occur, and to the fact that unionists and nationalists often disagree. And the crucial point is that these are things we can do something about: disagreements invite further discussion and deliberation, engagements can be increased and their quality improved. Recognising plurality and respecting difference does not have to imply abandoning hope in understanding others or in reaching substantial agreement about how we may together govern ourselves. It is at times a difficult hope to sustain, but that is not because it aims at something that is in principle beyond reach.

Communication is always necessary and appropriate, and that it is wrong, logically and morally, to assume that you already know in advance what the other side are going to say, so there is no point in talking to them. Indeed, it’s a point that is true for life in general, and not just in the politics of divided societies.

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Death and disability

My first day off work since I finished at the old job has been a tiring one.

[info]artw needed the car first thing to get B to her day-care centre, and it being the day of U’s school’s Christmas service and also U’s birthday, the only way to ensure timely arrival of at least one parent at the service (less important) and guaranteed Cake for U and her classmates (essential) was for me to climb on my bike, for the first time in months, and drop by the shop on the way to U’s school. It’s only 7 km, but boy was I wrecked by the time I got there.

The service itself was quite different from last year’s. Then, the school had got all the kids to dress up and play a part, but it was actually a bit distressing to see U marched about uncomprehendingly if beautifully dressed up as an angel. (B, who was still at the school then, vehemently opted out of participating, as is her wont.)

This year, they had got the kids who were able enough from each class to participate to the level of their understanding, doing readings and prayers and a smaller-scale Nativity enactment. It was more chaotic, but, I felt, more compassionate. The sound system was pretty poor and we parents sitting way up at the back of the assembly hall (which used to be the church of a leper colony on the outskirts of Leuven) couldn’t hear much; and those of us whose Dutch is not at that level got even less. But I felt that our barrier to comprehension, in a way, echoed that of many of the children.

I had to cycle home again (and, I admit, there was some walking involved) and then take the car for a mid-day engagement (which I will write about below) in Antwerp, and then zoom off to B’s daycare place in Tienen to collect her, without getting lunch until I finally made it back home at 3.15. Then, [info]artw‘s sister H arrived, and  we have spent the evening helping U to celebrate her birthday; presents include jigsaws which she has done with great determination, and a bouncing and singing Tigger which has provoked both trepidation and fascination.

My mid-day engagement in Antwerp was for the funeral of the wife of a friend (also a B). She was only 34; she suffered a stroke while giving birth to their daughter in February, and never recovered consciousness. I had only met her once, at our work Christmas do a year ago, when she filled me in on her work as marketing manager for one of the big computer game companies. The church (a big one in Edegem near Antwerp, dedicated to the Holy Family) was packed out – she was a local girl; my friend is from New Zealand, but some of his family had flown in for the occasion (of course, we’ve all known for some time that this was likely to happen).

It’s grim to attend such events. The somewhat bemused if inarticulate comments from the ten-month-old little girl were especially poignant. When B, normally a pretty jovial and light-hearted colleague, paid his tribute to the woman he had hoped would be his partner for most of the rest of his life, I wept; and I was not the only one.

For a lot of people, Christmas is not a particularly happy time. My godmother, my mother’s stepmother, died on Christmas Day a few years back. The following Christmas was the time when we realised that our little B had undergone that retreat into her own mostly happy, but somewhat confused world from which she has not emerged, and into which U has followed her to a certain extent. We’ve learned to roll with it, and I’m sure my friend B and his little girl will; but I’ll be thinking of them this Christmas, and next, and after that as well.

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For future reference

I’m fed up of having to google this up every year. Here, for reference, is my Christmas dinner recipe:


(to feed 6 people)

A boned and rolled loin of wild boar will feed about 2 adults per pound, and is delicious eaten hot or cold.

3lbs boned and rolled loin of wild boar

Marinade :
1/3 pt red wine
3tbsp vinegar
2 sliced carrots
1 sliced onion
2 shallots roughly chopped
2 crushed cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
small bunch parsley
few sprigs fresh thyme
few sprigs marjoram
9 whole juniper berries
2 tsp salt

Sauce :
3/4 pt stock
1oz flour
1 1/2 tbsp lard or olive oil

Bring all the marinade ingredients to the boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Leave to cool. Score the fat on the loin lightly across the top, and place the meat in a deep dish, covering with the marinade. Leave for 2 or 3 days, turning the meat twice a day. Remove the meat and wipe it dry. Place it in an oven-proof braising pan or heavy casserole dish over heat, and add the oil or lard. Brown the meat well and remove it from the pan. Bring the marinade to the boil in a second pan. Mix the fat and the flour into a roux in the pan, and strain over the hot marinade, stirring until smooth. Add enough warm stock to thin the mixture. Put back the meat, cover the pan and cook in a low oven (330 deg. F, 170 deg. C, gas 3) for 2 1/2 hours. Place meat in a serving dish. Transfer the sauce into a pan, skim off the fat and bring to the boil.

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Happy Birthday

U is four today. She may not be hugely conscious of the day’s significance, but she will have a good time.

She was born exactly ninety years after Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, who is 94 today.

(And it is the 58th birthday of both Noel Edmonds and Patricia Hewitt, who were born exactly two years before the Bee Gees. And the anniversary of the deaths of Admiral Dönitz in 1980 and Samuel Beckett in 1989.)

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