January Books 21) Starter for Ten

21) Starter for Ten, by David Nicholls. (.co.uk, .com)

I picked this up in Vienna, thinking, oh well, it’s the book of the the film, and I’ll probably never see the film, so it’s a heavily-discounted and thus acceptable substitute. But in fact it turns out the be the source on which the recent film was based. And Dear God, I enjoyed this book.

OK, the plot is pretty thin – as soon as 18-year-old Brian Jackson gets to university in October 1985, you can work out pretty rapidly that of the first two girls he meets he is going to fall in love with one, yet end up with the other. But it is told with such gusto, such humour, such toe-curling excruciating accuracy, that I actually forgot as I neared the end that I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And there are some great lines in it too. For instance:

The DJ is playing ‘Tainted Love’ now, and the atmosphere in the room seems to have got darker, more sexually predatory and decadent, and if it’s not quite Weimar Republic Berlin, the it’s at least an East Sussex Sixth-form-college production of Cabaret


I walk into a university library that’s almost audibly groaning with the huge weight and breadth of human knowledge, and the same two things always happen: a) I start to think about sex b) I need to go to the toilet.

But I guess what really made it for me is that Brian Jackson and I are the same age; he celebrates his nineteenth birthday in late 1985, I celebrated mine in April 1986. As

  was writing earlier today about her feelings for Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’, that really makes it feel more like a flashback to my own life. Thank God, the details are a bit different; but I realised on the train that people were casting wary glances at the way my body was clenching in vicarious embarrassment for poor fictional Brian.

Oh yes, and it all ties in to University Challenge as well. I missed out on participating in the original Bamber Gascoigne series; but I did captain the Queen’s University team in the first year of the Jeremy Paxman revival, 1994-95. We lost our first round match (can’t remember against who, now), but came back as highest scoring losers and then lost again in the second round to Trinity College Cambridge. My fault – at the crucial moment I said “Nasser” instead of “Gaddafi”.

Nell McCafferty wrote in her TV review the following weekend that if she’d been watching in Belfast she would have been out on the streets looking for Cambridge graduates to lynch. (Ironic, given that the QUB team’s captain was a Cambridge graduate.) But I realise now that engaging in it as a lofty postgraduate student I missed out on the true University Challenge experience. I was gratified, many years later, to find out that two of my fellow team members did indeed manage a brief romantic fling while we were in Manchester doing the recordings. But that is enough reminiscing for now.

Top UnSuggestions for this book:

  1. America (the book) : a citizen’s guide to democracy inaction by Jon Stewart
  2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  3. Night. Foreword by François Mauriac. Translated from the French by Stella Rodway by Elie Wiesel
  4. A swiftly tilting planet by Madeleine L’Engle
  5. A wind in the door by Madeleine L’Engle
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January Books 20) The Book of Proper Names

20) The Book of Proper Names, by Amélie Nothomb (.co.uk, .com)

Reading this was partly a result of impulse buying in Vienna, but also partly feeling that I should be getting to grips with the great writers of my country of residence. Especially those who were born in the same year as me.

It’s a very short book (126 pages) that combines moments of some depth with moments of utter silliness. Most of it is a sparse but sympathetic study of a girl who is adopted by her aunt after her parents die horribly, is a bit of a misfit at school, goes into ballerina training and develops anorexia. Which is all OK; a bit wrenching to read in places, but engaging. Then she is wonderfully cured of anorexia, falls in love withe the Right Man, and shoots the author. Yes, that is how the book ends, and I do not apologise for spoiling it; it is such a stupid ending that it deserves no respect.

I see that LibraryThing users tend to also have her Fear and Trembling and Hygiène de l’assassin, her first novel which has not yet been translated into English. Might give the first of those a go some time.

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Thanks and meme

Thanks for the good wishes, folks. On reflection, the thieves have not done themselves a lot of favours, since I had cunningly left the power cable in the office, so they have just a few hours of battery time left, and the keyboard is QWERTY and the system in English, which may not be in huge demand in the Belgian underworld. Also they may not be much edified by the Doctor Who DVD (The Web Planet) I had been planning to watch on the way home.

Meantime here is a meme from


First letter of your name, don’t repeat from mine, don’t use your own name for the name questions, make anything up, or repeat…

1. Actor: Nanette Newman
2. 4 letter word: Nice
3. Street name: North Queen Street (I don’t think it’s cheating to use a street whose name begins with “North”. If it is, I will return to the site of many student pub-crawls, the Newmarket Road.)
4. Color: Navy Blue
5. Gift/present: Nice things Nightgown
6. Vehicle: Nissan
7. Tropical Location: Nigeria
8. College Major: Norwegian
9. Dairy Product: Natural Yogurt
10. Thing in a Souvenir Shop: kNicknack Notebook
11. Boy Name: Nigel
12. Girl Name: Noelle
13. Movie Title: Ninotchka
14. Type of Alcohol: Nikšićko pivo, a beer from Montenegro
15. Occupation: Newsreader
16. Flower: Nettle Nasturtium
17. Celebrity: Norman Tebbit
18. Magazine: New Scientist (“New” repeated from “Newsreader”) National Geographic
19. U.S. City: New York Nashville
20. Band: New Order Nirvana

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One of those days when I really should have just stayed in bed. Kept on missing train connections both going to work and coming home again; and when I stopped for a snack in Brussels North railway station, I went to pick up my laptop after I had finished eating, and realised it was gone.

My brand new laptop, nicked.


It could have been worse. I think of

‘s experience last year, which was considerably worse – at least mine had only two weeks of work on it, and most of the emails are backed up elsewhere. And in any case, it was not as bad as what happened to me in April 1999, shortly after moving to Belgium, when I was mugged at gunpoint in a different railway station – less material loss, but much more of a shock to the system.



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January Books 19) The Mill on the Floss

19) The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (.co.uk, .com)

This had been the book on my unread list marked as “unread” most often by other LibraryThing users (though since starting on it I have acquired two other books that are higher up that list, Catcher in the Rye and Swann’s Way). I very much enjoyed Middlemarch when I read it maybe fifteen years ago, but

[info]artw warned me that this would be tougher going, and as so often, she was right.

On page 355 of our 495-page edition, the author rhetorically asks the reader, “Had anything remarkable happened?” Well, no, it hadn’t really; and once the actual plot got going in the next few pages, I resented the long long build-up of dysfunctional family background, peasants with funny accents, and stifling society, which could have been much more nicely done in a chapter or two. Then the actual plot bit, where our heroine is torn between the two potential lovers and her feelings for her brother, was reasonably good, and I wished that the first two-thirds of the book had been as well-written. But then the ending is a complete cop-out, and totally betrays the feminist views that Eliot has ever so mildly been subversively trying to hint at in the rest of the book. Generations must have thought that her message is “Women, if you Disobey Your Man, God’s Judgement will Fall Upon You and you Will Drown (or something equally fatal).” I think for most of the book she was trying to say the opposite, but it is not consistently articulated.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Programming Perl, by Larry Wall

January Books 18) The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

18) The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet (.co.uk, .com)

Catherine Millet has sex a lot, with lots of people, in lots of places and in lots of different positions. I have to say that I enjoyed this much less than Girl with a One-Track MindUnSuggestion for this book: Stardust by Neil Gaiman. (Are Gaiman’s fans just not that much into intellectual erotica? I find that a bit surprising.)

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Give or Take a Million

I said to F this afternoon that I would watch his choice of episode from classic Thunderbirds, and he picked one called Give or Take a Million. It turns out to be a Christmas episode (1966), with most of the story related by the International Rescue team to their guest, a child who has won the random draw for Christmas dinner at Tracy Island. The plot, such as it is, revolves around two bank robbers trying to exploit a rocket delivery of Christmas presents for their own sinister purposes.

It is great. There are some masterly bits of Thunderbirds filming, with many scenes cutting seamlessly between someone’s hand picking something up, and then the puppet character holding it; and there’s a brilliant moment when one of the robbers slides through the hole they have cut in the wall on an overhead cable. (I was straining to see – did they lock the puppet in place, and shove him through? Or was the hole in the wall actually open at the top to allow for the strings?)

I couldn’t help but compare and contrast with the most recent episode of Doctor Who, shown exactly 40 years later, which also had a Christmassy theme. And to my delight, right at the very end, Brains pulls the same trick as the Doctor does at the end of The Runaway Bride – he makes it snow!

Checking up on the net to finish this post, I discovered that this was actually the last ever episode broadcast of the original Thunderbirds series. Well, unlike some, they went out on a high.

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Doctor Who: Season 26

Regular readers will be aware that I have been feasting my eyes on much of the early Doctor Who which was broadcast before I was born, or old enough to really take it in, and very much enjoying it. In the spirit of experiment, therefore, I have also started watching the classic Who stories broadcast after I had stopped watching – spurred to do this partly because of fannish muttering about how the final season was really much better than what had gone before, and such a shame the Beeb decided to cancel the series then.

The four stories of Season 26 were broadcast in late 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and revolution swept Eastern Europe. Times were changing, and Doctor Who feels now like part of the old regime struggling to adapt to new demands for a new era. The programme’s makers made a better fist of it than any of the Communist leaderships of Eastern Europe, but it was not enough.

Battlefield (.co.uk, .com) must have been the killer blow which led to the cancellation. It is simply awful. The story is incomprehensible, the direction (particularly of the all-important action scenes) both uninspiring and incoherent, the supposed killer-end-of-the-universe monster is atrocious, and the background music some of the worst of all time. I haven’t seen much late-eighties Doctor Who, but I shall be very surprised if I find another story as bad as this. I am among that minority (even among the small number who have watched it) who thought Ben Aaronovitch’s other story, Remembrance of the Daleks, was bad too, so it comes as little surprise to me.

Surely the programme’s makers must have realised what a risk they were taking with an uneven writer for the opening story of a season where the entire programme faced cancellation? Ye who complain about Torchwood, or about how not quite every story of new Who comes up to the standards you have come to expect of Buffy or Battlestar Galactica, some time please sit down and watch Battlefield, and marvel.

Anyway, I should not be wholly negative. Nicholas Courtney puts in one of his best performances as the Brigadier, and has a great confrontation scene with Jean Marsh playing the chief villain. (The two of them had appeared together in Doctor Who 23 years earlier, playing brother and sister galactic agents in The Daleks’ Master Plan.) But that’s about it; even McCoy and Aldred seem to have little idea of what is going on.

Ghost Light (.co.uk, .com) is an entirely different matter. I approached it with some suspicion, in that I had found several of Marc Platt’s other offerings (Downtime, Auld Mortality, Lungbarrow) tough going. And indeed, Ghost Light is tough going too, but I very much felt it was worth the effort: intricately constructed, well acted, beautifully shot; certainly the best story I’ve seen that was broadcast between Caves of Androzani and Rose.

One of my big complaints of Who of this era is that so little efffort seems to have been put into getting the settings right: Ghost Light does not suffer from this problem – from the beginning, and indeed all the way through, you feel convinced that this is a Victorian mansion, even when it turns out that the butler is a living Neanderthal and there is a spaceship in the basement.

Also the Doctor’s bringing Ace back to the scene of her childhood crimes is, if I’m not mistaken, practically the first attempt ever to link a companion to his or her back story. More on this later.

It is, however, a story very far removed from the normal territory of Doctor Who – surrealist play meets Agatha Christie, perhaps – and despite the quality of the drama it must have further created doubt about what Doctor Who was actually for. Still, apparently this was the last story of the old series actually filmed (although the third last to be broadcast) and it’s nice to feel that that the cast and team must have felt they were going out on a high.

The Curse of Fenric (.co.uk, .com) had been strongly recommended to me by , and I adopted his suggestion that I watch the extended director’s cut version on the DVD rather than the show as originally broadcast (in keeping with the non-sequential traditions of the show, this was actually the last story of the four that I watched, during a three-hour stopover in Ankara airport last Friday).

Well, it is indeed a good story – most memorably, Nicholas Parsons, of all people, playing it straight as the doomed vicar Mr Wainwright; a setting in the second world war that actually looks a bit like it might be the 1940s; vampire villains which now seem an errie foreshadowing of Buffy; secret codes and ancient evils, and the crucial importance of faith. Indeed, of the four last stories, it is the one which most resembles classic Who at its best.

I was not utterly convinced by the plot; I never like stories which crucially depend on some unbroadcast and untold past adventure of the Doctor’s. And although I did like Tomek Bork’s portrayal of Sorin, I was not totally convinced by the behaviour of the Russian soldiers (and to a lesser extent of the British) – as soldiers, that is. However, in general, this was a good ‘un.

Survival (.co.uk, .com), I’m afraid, did not make such a good impression on me. The scenes in Perivale seemed to me oddly flat, including the very peculiar performances of Hale and Pace as a pair of sinister shopkeepers and the young Adele Silva, later to achieve soap stardom in Emmerdale, making a rather unconvincing appearance in the final episode. No doubt diehard fans see this as adding to the mysterious atmosphere but I just thought it was rather crap.

The peculiar choice of using videotape for everything didn’t help either, and made the scenes on the planet of the Cheetahs look naff rather than alien. The evil cats, well, let’s not go there. The story, once again, made very little sense; the links between the Cheetah planet and its inhabitants, and why they have picked Perivale as the one place they can teleport to, never properly explained. I thought Anthony Ainley made the best of a bad job with his performance, but was not really convinced by much else. OK, it is not as crashingly bad as Battlefield, but it is not really very good either.

The final words of the classic Who era are oddly out of place for the story, but fit the spirit of the previous 26 years rather well, I think:

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold! Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!”

A final thought about this final season: the last three stories all revolved to a certain extent around Ace’s character and past – Ghost Light bringing her to the house she burned down, The Curse of Fenric confronting her with her infant mother, and Survival, of course, bringing her back to Perivale. I haven’t seen any of the earlier Ace stories (apart from Resurrection of the Daleks), so I don’t know if Season 26 was a first step in this regard.

It was a brave step – I think this was the first time that the unfolding plot had had such an encounter with the past of one of the companions. The UNIT team, of course, were based firmly in their own time and did not need to be removed from it. Both the contemporary and Silver Jubilee parts of Mawdryn Undead were within the narrative flow of the Brigadier’s continuity, ie after Terror of the Zygons. The Doctor himself, of course, had often been confronted with uncomfortable facts from his past, starting with The Time Meddler; but that is a different matter.

Part of the success of New Who has been that it revolved so much around Rose’s family and friends on contemporary Earth, and Season 26 may, I think, have been trying to move Ace in that direction. I don’t think it worked, for a couple of reasons. Partly this is because it was indeed a departure from the classic Who format, of companions arriving, doing their stuff, and moving on changed by that experience as by nothing else in their lives; and the immensity of the attempted change of treatment of Ace, as compared with her predecessors, would have meant a much more significant restructuring of the way Who conceived of its plots than was possible with the resources (and personnel) available.

Also, it was an attempt to inject back-story into a character who had not been sketched strongly enough to sustain it, and to be honest, I’m not sure Sophie Aldred was up to it; while not my least favourite companion, she doesn’t have many great moments (though there are a couple in both Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric).

Anyway, I guess I shall subject myself to Season 25 next. Though before I do that, I have some more Hartnells, and some other bits and bobs, to write up.

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Citation noodling

Striving for Military Stability in Europe, by Jane M. O. Sharp, cites my “Comment: In Search of a Solution,” IWPR, November 3, 2004.

Endgame in the Balkans: Regime Change, European Style, by Elizabeth Pond: cites my “Comment: In Search of a Solution,” IWPR, November 3, 2004; my debate with Gerald Knaus, “Does the International Presence in the Balkans Require Radical Restructuring?” NATO Review (Winter 2004); and an interview she carried out with me in 2002.

Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Military Policy by William C. Martel; and Superterrorism: Policy Responses, by Lawrence Freedman; The Uncertain Superpower: Domestic Dimensions of US Foreign Policy After the Cold War by Bernhard May; and The Kosovo Crisis and the Evolution of Post-Cold War European Security by Martin A. Smith and Paul Latawski all cite my article with Marta Dassú “America’s Balkan Disengagement?” Survival 43.4 (Winter 2001)

The Northern Ireland Conflict: Consociational Engagements, by John McGarry, Brendan O’Leary, mentions me by name on p 260 and cites my elections website (at the old URL unfortunately) several times.

“Northern Ireland, Civic Nationalism, and the Belfgast Agreement”, by John McGarry in Northern Ireland and the Divided World: Post-agreement Northern Ireland in Comparative Perspective edited by John MacGarry, cites my elections website (again, unfortunately at the old URL)

Science, Culture, and Modern State Formation, by Patrick Carroll cites my book with Peter Bowler, Science and Society in Ireland: The Social Context of Science and Technology in Ireland, 1500-1950.

Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity through the First World War, by Richard P. Hallion, Ingenious Ireland: A County-by-County Exploration of the Mysteries and Marvels of the Ingenious Irish, by Mary Mulvihill, and Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Ulysses, by Andrew Gibson, all cite Science, Colonialism and Ireland

History of Irish Thought, by Thomas Duddy cites both Science, Colonialism and Ireland and Science and Society in Ireland: The Social Context of Science and Technology in Ireland, 1500-1950.

The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might, by Nancy Soderberg, and International Crisis Management, by Marc Houben, and Cyprus as Lighthouse of the East Mediterranean: Shaping Re-unification and EU Accession Together, by Natalie Tocci and Michael Emerson, all thank me in the acknowledgements

The Balkans in the New Millennium: In the Shadow of War and Peace, by Tom Gallagher, cites my article with Marta Dassú, my debate with Gerald Knaus as reprinted in IWPR, Balkan Crisis Report, No. 505, 2 July 2004, and my commentary ‘The European Parliament flexes its muscles in Albania’, Europe South-East Monitor, Brussels: CEPS, No. 35, June 2002.

Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts, by Thomas G. Mitchell, and the same author’s Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, both cite my article with Stephen Farry, “Don’t Believe Everything that You Read in Other Papers: The Forum Elections Analysed,” Alliance News, June/July 1996

Scholars and Rebels in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, by Terry Eagleton, and Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland 1650-1940, by Greta Jones, and Elizabeth Malcolm, both cite my article “Lords Of Ether And Of Light: The Irish Astronomical Tradition Of The Nineteenth Century”, Irish Review, 17-18, Winter 1995

The Culture of Property: The Crisis of Liberalism in Modern Britain, by Jordanna Bailkin, and Hearts and Minds: Irish Culture and Society under The Act of Union, by Bruce Stewart, both cite my essay “Science and Nationality in Edwardian Ireland” from Science and Society in Ireland: The Social Context of Science and Technology in Ireland, 1500-1950.

Britain and the Balkans, by Carole Hodge, cites my article ‘Getting Real on Kosovo’. IWPR, 21 January 2005.

Cold Peace: Russia’s New Imperialism, by Janusz Bugajski, cites the massively authored paper “Friendly Schengen Borderland Policy on the New Borders of an Enlarged EU and Its Neighbours” by Joanna Apap, Jakub Boratynski, Michael Emerson, Grzegorz Gromadzki, Marius Vahl and me (actually I think I wrote only two paragraphs of it).

Roger French’s article, “Astrology in medical practice”, in Practical Medicine From Salerno To The Black Death by Luis Garcia-Ballester, Roger French, Jon Arrizabalaga, cites my M Phil dissertation.

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January Books 17) From Behind a Closed Door

17) From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising, by Brian Barton (.co.uk, .com)

A Christmas present from , this pulls together the primary source material of the official records of the court-martial trials of the fifteen executed leaders of 1916, with framing and explanatory text by Barton. Reading it in the context of the recent execution of Saddam Hussein and the ongoing war crimes trials in the Hague is an interesting experience: it is almost a matter of course to learn of gross procedural errors, of dubious verdicts arrived at by dubious means.

It has to be said that not only the British, but also the rebel leaders – specifically, those who had signed the Proclamation, and the sectoral commanders – expected that they would be executed. As with Saddam Hussein, while one can query the sentence and the procedure, the verdict was pretty inevitable in those cases. Barton makes much of the half-dozen of those executed who did not fall into that category, and the lack of evidence against them; indeed in one case, that of William Pearse, he seems almost to have been desperate to incriminate himself in order to share his brother’s fate (he was the only one to plead guilty to the charges put to him). I wish he had gone more thoroughly into the cases of the two sectoral commanders who were not executed, Eamon de Valera and Constance de Markievicz; he spends little time on the former and his account of the latter is dubious, as discussed in more detail below. (Roger Casement’s case is also absent.)

The overall point, though, is a valid one. Even if everyone knows the facts of the matter and the inevitable verdict, if the court is not to show itself to be as bad as the abuses it is set up to deter, the accused must get a fair hearing and due process; and the Irish rebels of 1916 got neither, as Barton demonstrates. Indeed (and this is another point I wish he had gone into further) the seventy-five years of secrecy surrounding the records appears to have been extended not by any sensitive practical information in the transcripts, but by their revelation of the scantiness of the process by which almost a hundred people were condemned to death, fifteen of them actually executed. The brutal inequity of British justice has been a mainstay of Irish nationalist propaganda for centuries, but this is evidence of it straight from the horse’s mouth.

However. Even though this is only meant to be an apparatus to illuminate a particular set of source materials rather than a comprehensive analysis of the events of the time, it is still much inferior to Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916, which I read last year. In particular, Barton has (like other authors I have complained about previously) allowed himself to become too fascinated by his particular strand of the source material, meaning that we lose out on the bigger picture. He actually comes to the conclusion that the notion of the rebellion as a “blood sacrifice” was a last-minute stratagem decided on by Pearse to save further bloodshed among his own men and the civilian population, based on the scribbled memos issued from the GPO; but to say this is to ignore the substantial body of evidence about his intentions written by Pearse himself over the years before he went into the Post Office on Easter Monday.

Indeed, in one case I think Barton reveals himself as putting too much credence in his source. This is the case of the trial of Countess Markievicz, who according to W.E. Wylie who prosecuted her and most of the other rebels, “curled up completely. ‘I am only a woman. You can’t shoot a woman. You must not shoot a woman.’ She never stopped moaning the whole time she was in court.” Barton describes Wylie’s account as “fictitious”, as a “wilful and scurrilous distortion”, on the basis that it is not reflected in the official records of the court-martial (which, as Markievicz was not in fact shot, he does not reproduce in the book).

This really isn’t good enough; at other points in the book Barton quite reasonably relies on Wylie’s unpublished memoir as a powerful and convincing first-hand account. I actually went through Wylie’s papers myself in the early 1990s, more because of his important role in the post-1921 evolution of the Royal Dublin Society, but you can bet that I also took the time to read through his unpublished reminiscence of prosecuting the rebels. Also, it’s clear by inspection of the official records that Barton provides that they were not intended to be verbatim transcripts (and in the case of Sean McDermott, the record is visibly incomplete). In addition, the Markievicz verdict itself (“The Court recommend the prisoner to mercy solely and only on account of her sex”) somewhat supports the Wylie account.

I confess I am troubled by Markievicz’s behaviour as described by Wylie, in that her record for most of her life is that of a very brave person who stood up courageously for what she believed in, but who knows what any of us will do if faced with the imminent prospect of execution? I guess we’ll never know exactly what happened in that courtroom.

Finally, I think Barton allows himself to get carried away by the story in places. I suspect that the fifteen executed men were not, in fact, saints; but we are told their biographical details in hagiographical tones. We are also given a list of 60 IVF and ICA members who were killed in action in Easter week (though a different figure, 64, is given in the introduction); but there is no list of the 116 British soldiers, 16 policemen or 250+ civilians who died in the fighting. The problem with focussing your light very closely on one particular corner of the scenery, as Barton has done here, is that the rest of the stage gets distorted, or lost in the shadows. This is an interesting book about an important set of documents, but it does not give us a full picture.

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January Books 16) To Engineer is Human

16) To Engineer is Human, by Henry Petroski (.co.uk, .com)

I remember at one heated political meeting, doing a post-mortem on a particularly disappointing set of election results, a relatively new recruit to the party stopped the show by declaring that, as an engineer, she had been taught that it was vitally important to learn from disaster by doing some serious failure analysis, and the party ought to do that too. Well, she was right, and she’s now Deputy Leader of the party, and from what I hear has been able to put those words into action.

No doubt this was one of the books on the QUB engineering syllabus on the subject. Lots of interesting stuff about why mistakes happen – the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency, etc. Unfortunately the style is a bit repetitive and some of the most interesting nuggets – about Nevil Shute, for instance, or the Crystal Palace – felt rather shoved in at the end. Anyway, thanks very much to

 for sending it to me.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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January Books 15) Tau Zero

15) Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson (.co.uk, .com)

Another of my reading resolutions, one of those sf classics I had never got around to. The fifty-strong crew of a colonisation starship hit a technical problem – they can’t shut the drive off, so the ship will keep accelerating towards lightspeed, where the relativistic factor τ approaches zero (hence the title). Although this is billed as one of the hardest of sf books, I suppose because of the importance of the Bussard ramjets to the plot, I found the treatment of the relationships between the crew members very sympathetic and believable, and indeed it’s really a story about them than about the technology (which to me moves it off the hard end of the sf spectrum). It’s certainly way better than the Heinlein/Robinson Variable Star, which at one point features a similar situation.

Although the crew leave Earth at the very beginning of the book, there too Anderson has designed an interesting background, a post-nuclear war world in which the rest of humanity has agreed to put Sweden in charge (I think he refers also to this setting in There Will Be Time). So the leading members of the crew are Scandinavian and occasionally mutter in Swedish to each other. I would be interested to know if any of the Swedes on my f-list (I know there are at least two of you) has read it, and if you felt Anderson had got it right.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger.

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January Books 14) The Tin Drum

14) The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass (.co.uk, .com)

Part of my reading resolutions. This is the story of a boy growing up in Germany between 1927 and 1954 – in the Free City of Danzig until 1945, then in Düsseldorf – with a couple of fantastical wrinkles: he is able to shatter glass at will by yelling at it, and he deliberately decides not to grow and remains the size of a three-year-old until the war (and even then he grows only to four feet tall).

I found it pretty fascinating. The liminal identities of what is now northwestern Poland are vividly brought to life – various members of our hero’s family are forced to identify themselves as Polish or German, though their roots are in fact KashubianUnSuggestion for this book: Eldest, by Christoper Paolini (the sequel to Eragon).

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Links and memes for the weekend

links to a fascinating YouTube diary presented by a woman with autism. The behaviour patterns she shows to us are very familiar to me.

A Doctor Who fan-vid using “I’m Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers – hilarious and uplifting.

George R.R. Martin’s pizza crawl.

Brian Aldiss is on Desert Island Discs tomorrow.

From : Look at the last three people to post on your flist and think of something nice to say about them-anything you like!

  • provided me with the warmest of welcomes to Irish (and general) sf fandom five years ago. He was also instrumental in inspiring me to sign up for livejournal, shortly after he did, so if you enjoy what you read here, he deserves your thanks.
  • manages to both inject intellectual credibility into sf criticism (and I’m looking forward to reading her latest) and care for cats with deep compassion.
  • Having been there and done that, I’ve watched ‘s engagement with the electoral process with fascination and sympathy. I wish her every success in next May’s elections.

From (and one other who posted it in a locked entry): List three things that you love about the area you live in. Do not contrast with the things you hate.

1) The woods. And indeed the natural surroundings in general. The village is a linear settlement along a ridge overlooking a small river to the west, with the ancient forest to the east. This is densely populated country but you don’t have to walk (or cycle) very far to feel that you’re getting away from it all. Of course, this is a very managed landscape – the river has been ponded and canalised, the forest is managed by the nearby city and is crisscrossed by a rectilinear grid of paths – but it is an ancient and deeply respected one as well – the local church’s tower is a thousand years old, and there are shrines among the trees which have been venerated for centuries.

2) The health system. A tedious rant from those of you who’ve heard it before, but I have never had to wait even 24 hours to see my GP, and never had to wait even a week to see a specialist; compared with having to argue, back in the UK, with the doctor’s receptionist about whether I was ill enough to deserve an appointment in ten days’ time.

3) The education system. For the very special needs of our children, I don’t think we could do better.

Egoboost: What kind of cook am I?

You Are an Excellent Cook

You’re a top cook, but you weren’t born that way. It’s taken a lot of practice, a lot of experimenting, and a lot of learning.
It’s likely that you have what it takes to be a top chef, should you have the desire…

Spectral analysis – green and wavy but also looking at you:

Get your own spectral analysis from Area 23®

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Back home

Back from my travels at last.

Highlight of the trip was this conversation:

Government official: “…and we do have some allies in the British Parliament, but unfortunately they are all Unionists from Northern Ireland, so nobody else in Britain likes them.”
Me: “Tell me about it! I’m from that part of the world too.”
Government official (embarrassed): “Please, Dr Whyte, don’t imagine that I meant them any disrespect…”
Me (reassuringly): “Please don’t worry about it on my account!”

No I’m back, and I see that the people organising the event I’m speaking at on Monday have indeed changed the spelling of my name on the press release as I requested. Unfortunately rather than correcting the first mistake they have added a second one…

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Synthesis post

On both BSFA and Arthur C Clarke shortlists:
End of the World Blues, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison

On BSFA shortlist only:
Darkland, by Liz Williams
Icarus, by Roger Levy
The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow

On Arthur C Clarke shortlist only:
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, by Lydia Millet
Hav, by Jan Morris
Gradisil, by Adam Roberts
Streaking, by Brian Stableford

I am struck by how few of these I would have been likely to read without their being shortlisted. Probably Grimwood and Williams; perhaps I will give Harrison another try, though I was one of the few people left unimpressed by Light

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Icons meme

If you’d like, respond to this and I’ll tell you which LJ user icon of yours I like most. If you want, please post in your own journal (preferably with your own favourite icon) and I’ll ask you to name one of mine.

If you don’t plan on putting this meme in your own lj, feel free to tell me which of mine you like best.

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January Books 13) Caricature

13) Caricature, by Daniel Clowes (.co.uk, .com)

I’ve had a somewhat hit and miss relationship with Daniel Clowes up to now. Some of his work seems to me rather self-indulgent (including the widely praised Ghost World and Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron), but I very much enjoyed both Ice Haven and David Boring.

I rate Caricature as another hit. It bills itself as “nine stories”, but in fact they are more extended character studies than actual narratives. I love the way Clowes takes us into his characters’ worlds, and at the same time using the graphic medium, we can get an idea of how other people are reacting to them. Most of his viewpoint characters are male, though there is one sequence, “Green Eyeliner” with a female lead (from which the frame here is taken).

Almost all of the stories involve either experiencing or reliving an unhappy and isolated adolescence, and this could get old rather quickly, but I think he rings the changes on the theme with enough diversity to keep you engaged.

The one piece I found I had doubts about was the last, “Black Nylon”, whose protagonist likes to dress up as a superhero; it wasn’t obvious to me if he was a nutter in our world, where there are no costumed superheroes, or if he was a nutter in the standard comics setting where superheroes are a facet of daily life. I think it is probably the latter, in which case the piece jars with the naturalistic setting of the rest of the book. Playing such games with the reader is risky, but usually Clowes does pull it off, and the story (such as it is) often turns out to be about something different from what we first think it is going to be.

Top UnSuggestion for this book is, for once, another book that I own and have read: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. I guess this reflects the very different genres of the two books – people who read comics about small-town life in America are unlikely to want to tackle emotionally gripping literary narratives of war and conflict in Asia. Yet there are strong points of similarity between the two, especially the observations about adolescent angst.

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January Books 11) Who On Earth is Tom Baker? [audio]

Happy birthday to Tom Baker, who turns 74 today!

Coincidentally, my listening on the train yesterday was the abridged audiobook version (.co.uk, .com) of his 1997 autobiography, Who on Earth is Tom Baker? (.co.uk, .com) which I remember frenziedly skimming shortly after it was published on one of my rare visits to England (I was living in Bosnia at the time). I remember the book being rather depressing, as he put his melancholic side very much on display. The audio abridgement has, I think, got a decent balance between humour and morbidity, to the point that I was laughing out loud, to the dismay of fellow passengers.

There’s not a lot here about Baker’s time playing Doctor Who. There is a huge amount about his childhood and early life, hilarious and moving: the Liverpool Catholic education, the years in a monastery, the unwise early marriage, nursing his awful father-in-law through a final illness, the efforts to find work in London; also teenage masturbation, and a failed erotic scene in his first film appearance (playing the husband of the Wife of Bath). And towards the end, reflections on age, celebrity, and the confusions that sometimes arise therefrom: I’ve snipped one such anecdote here.

Anyway, definitely worth picking up if you can find it.

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The progress of Irish as an EU language

It seems that, as predicted back in August here, and despite the protestations of Sean Ó Neáchtain here, there have been difficulties in implementing the decision to make Irish an official EU language. In fact, I hear from a friend who works in the European Commission (and is a fluent Irish speaker) that the EU has failed to recruit anything like the number of sufficiently qualified Irish-language interpreters it needs. Not to worry though, they have identified some candidates who can be trained up to do the job and are at this very moment doing an EU-funded course in simultaneous Irish-language translation. In what part of Ireland, you may ask, is this very useful course taught? Why, it is taught here. Don’t laugh too loud.

Of course, this bears out my observation that the Irish language, in the last 150 years at least, has not done badly under British rule: Conradh na Gaeilge’s hey-day was over long before independence, apart from the revival of recent decades in Belfast. The language’s worst enemies have been Irish nationalists, such as those who ousted Douglas Hyde from the organisation he had founded. Daniel O’Connell, a native speaker himself, said rather shockingly that “the superior utility of the English tongue, as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of Irish.” Not, of course, that he was ever in a position to implement any policies about it.

The real killer blow was dealt by the Rev Timothy Corcoran, the leading educational theorist in the early years of the Irish Free State, whose absurd ideas about enforced rote-learning and countering the fiendish modern notions of Montessori, when implemented on a state-wide level, turned the Irish language into an object of terror and incomprehension for generations of schoolchildren. (I went through Corcoran’s archives in UCD for my doctoral research – fascinating stuff, particularly his unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Royal Irish Academy.)

Well, come the end of the year I shall see if I can get a friendly MEP to ask a parliamentary question about just how often Irish translation services have been required since it became an official language on 1 January.

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The interview that nearly wasn’t

The new job is going fine. Setting up a new office is hassle; planning a foreign trip for next week is hassle. But in a good way.

However, this week another possibility matured somewhat. I had fired in a rather speculative application to a large international organisation back in September, and the interview process took place in three legs, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

On Tuesday, it was a straight-forward writing assignment: one hour to write half a page on this, a page on that, and half a page in French on the other. It also gave me a chance to look at the other candidates since we were all put in a single examination room in the organisation's headquarters. Mostly, I thought, rather dry military types.

On Wednesday, I was supposed to turn up at 7.45 am for the second leg. But we had a lousy night with U on Tuesday night (like many autistic children, she does not really believe in regular sleeping patterns), and at about 4 am I struggled downstairs to the computer to send them an email saying that due to a domestic crisis involving my children's health I would not be able to attend. That, I thought, was that – but when I eventually surfaced a few hours later there was an email waiting for me inviting me to come at the much more civilised hour of 1545 anyway.

So I did, and sat a pretty simple computer-moderated French test – 80 multiple choice questions on grammar (which of these sentences is grammatically correct, which is the right answer to this question, etc) and then 60 on comprehension, where they played a sentence or a dialogue at you through headphones and you had to choose the answer which best summarised what you had just hear. I was gratified that I found the comprehension bit a lot easier – I don't think of myself as using French very much, and the last time I had a work conversation in it was with a Balkan foreign minister last March.

The last leg of the interview was yesterday morning. It looked fairly straightforward in the information I'd been sent – 45 minutes to prepare a 15-minute briefing on the subject provided, and present it to your interview panel who will be pretending to be members of the Dutch parliament. I was looking forward to boiling down complex sets of information about some topic and making it digestible. Then I turned over the paper and found that the assignment consisted of the one line, "Describe what [potential employer] is doing in [Blefuscu]".

I don't know very much about [Blefuscu], apart from what I picked up from former colleagues (my last employers did quite a lot of work there) and what I have read in the news. I certainly didn't feel I knew enough to spoof my way through a grilling by politicians, or even people pretending to be politicians. I told the personnel people that I just couldn't do it, and would have to leave.

They persuaded me to stay at least for the 45 minutes preparation time, and see how I felt at the point that the interview was due to start; "See how well you can wing it," I thinnk were the exact words used. So I sat and thought about the history of [Blefuscu], its importance to the rest of the world, thought of an anecdote I could tell about each of the neighbouring countries, and by the time I'd done that I had two pages of material.

So I did the briefing, in broad-brush political terms with no pernickety details; and I suspect this may actually have been what they wanted, not a regurgitation of the key numbers of people deployed in [Blefuscu] but someone who is able to take a lead in a more general political debate. (I also, of course, included a few words of Dutch in my introductory remarks; as I suspected, none of the interview panel were in fact themselves Dutch.)

Well, we'll see. I hadn't seriously prepared for the interview process, because I'm pretty content in the new job I have just started. But I'm very encouraged that it seemed to have gone pretty well all the same, despite my actually missing one part of it and nearly walking out of another. And if they do make me an offer, it will confirm to me that I was right in my assessment of the other candidates…

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January Books 10) Machiavelli in Brussels

10) Machiavelli in Brussels: The Art of Lobbying the EU, by Rinus van Schendelen (.co.uk, .com)

This is a pretty comprehensive description of how policies are made and legislation passed in the European Union, and of how an organised group of people can best hope to influence the process. I found particularly fascinating the description of the various semi-official or non-official bodies that are involved with the policy process in most areas where the EU has power; as a foreign policy person myself, a lot of these simply aren’t relevant to me, but it does explain what an awful lot of the people I see wandering past my office or at the next table in the restaurant are doing. I also very much liked his characterisation of the different national styles of operating – the French tendency to concentrate on getting their people rather than their policies in place, the British tendency to be the bad boys in negotiation, the Germans’ difficulty with coordination between different levels of their own government, the Italians’ combination of charm with ineffectiveness, etc. How close this is to reality is of course for the reader to judge.

Van Schendelen’s two main conclusions are, first, that the key to being effective in the EU is to know what you are doing and to do it well – sound advice in any setting, but he explores how you can find out what you should be doing, and how you can do it better, in considerable detail – and second, that EU lobbying is an essential part of European democracy. I think he claims too much on the second point. I certainly agree with his description of the Brussels policy process as being surprisingly open and transparent, provided that you know where to look and who to talk to. But that is quite a far cry from the accountability to the wider public which is surely key to an active democracy.

Unfortunately, the book is written in appalling English. I do not say this lightly. It’s not just the recurrent management-speak of jargon phrases which are used frequently but never explained – “feedforward”, “window-in and window-out”, and most bafflingly “U-turn” apparently used to mean some sort of deceptive practice. It’s not just the irritating habit of italicising one or two words, apparently chosen at random, in the first sentence of every paragraph (curiously reminiscent of that spoof travel guide to the fictional country of Molvania published a couple of years ago). It’s the fact that the sentences are tortuously and often ungrammatically constructed, with frequent irritating use of the word “hardly”, where “amper” would be appropriate in Dutch, but a completely different construction is needed in English. It is a shame that the academic publishers responsible for this volume did not take the trouble to have it edited by a competent native English speaker.

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January Books 9) The Sharing Knife: Beguilement

9) The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold (.co.uk, .com)

Like my wife, I am a complete and total Bujold fan. So a new Bujold novel is a Good Thing whether it be great or merely enjoyable. The Sharing Knife: Beguilement heads towards the “great” end of the spectrum, with a nice clash of cultures between settled “farmers”, who are reminiscent of the frontier spirit of early nineteenth-century America, and the “Lakewalkers” who keep them safe from supernatural nasties, who combine aspects of native Americans – but on the same side as the farmers – and Tolkien’s Rangers. Indeed I thought the geographical references were made pretty strong when we were told of the seven lakes of olden days which merged to form the huge Dead Lake of the story’s setting (OK, so in our world there are only five), and the drowned city of Ogachi, five miles across (shift that last syllable to the front of the word, and add an extra consonant).

So, it’s a compelling fantasy environment, there’s a cross-cultural romance, there’s a mystical Thing which has to be sorted out in the second volume (of, we are told, two). There’s also pregnancy and miscarriage, which I don’t often recall in sf or fantasy novels (the rather mystical interpretation in A Game of Thrones aside). I did like it, though the come-down from supernatural nasties of the early chapters to the bathos of aggrieved potential in-laws at the end was a little odd. Still, I have the sequel on pre-order from Amazon.

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