July Books 45) The Female Man

45) The Female Man, by Joanna Russ

Of my recent run of sf classics, this has been the most challenging and satisfying read. (And it's likely to stay that way; the ones I have left are Grey Lensman, Dhalgren and Again, Dangerous Visions.) Russ's ideas of parallel worlds with utterly different relations between the sexes are of course partly didactic, but there is a message I think in the way in which her characters slip from one to the other; perhaps we are meant to ask ourselves if they are really so far apart? The narrative technique is tremendous as well, the kind of thing that many of the New Wave writers were trying for and few of them ever really came close to pulling off. I'd read and enjoyed the Alyx stories, years ago; this was completely different, but really good.

Posted in Uncategorised

Stoned

I used to have a fascination with megalithic monuments. Heck, I still do; it’s just more difficult to pursue in Belgium where very few of them are within easy striking distance of where I live.

Here in Northern Ireland it’s a different matter. There is an iron age fort in our back garden, and the countryside is littered with ancient monuments. Here are three local examples, for your delectation and delight:

The Stone by the Lake

By Loughbrickland Lake is a field owned by the Orange Order, with this stone in the middle of it. (Marked immediately north of the lake in the map at the end of this post.)

The plaque in the gatepost commemorates a relatively recent event in the history of this countryside, a mere 317 years ago:

But the stone itself is much older. One can never be sure, since after all there is only the stone there, but most of these monuments date from within a thousand years of 2500 BC, so at least ten times longer ago than the Battle of the Boyne. Two interesting features of this one: first of all, note the curious hollows in the side – were sacrificial liquids poured into them to fill them? Were they sockets to support long-decayed decorations? We shall never know.

The other thing is that if you sight through the angular cut in the top of the stone it appears to align with the island in the middle of the lake. The island is known to be an artificial crannóg (with its own WikiPedia entry), and is generally thought to date from 500 AD, much later than the standing stone; yet it seems a little too good to be true.

By the way, at the top of the hill visible on the left of that picture is a ring barrow, rather unusual for Northern Ireland (marked on the map as the Water Hill Fort).

The Three Sisters of Greenan

The next stop on my route is the only group of stones with a distinctive name, the so-called Three Sisters of Greenan. Sadly, they are not especially photogenic, sitting as they do in a gorse hedge. Also if you look for them using the map, you may have difficulty as it puts them on the wrong side of the main road; in fact they are just down the lane marked to the west. Two of them at least are still upright, although one of the two appears to have suffered a minor split some time ago:

The third sister has given up and is recumbent a couple of metres to the southeast:

There is some confusion caused by Samuel Lewis’ description of them in 1837: “three upright stones, called ‘the three sisters of Greenan’ apparently the remains of an ancient cromlech: they are situated on a gentle eminence, and near them is a fourth lying in a ditch”. I reckon Lewis was counting the three upright stones as the two big ones and the splinter, and thus saw the one in the ditch as a fourth; whereas local lore has always been pretty clear that only the big ones count, so there are only three sisters. Note also his inevitable assumption that this must have been a cromlech or dolmen, ie that there was once a covering capstone. Myself I reckon that we have now pretty much what we always had, except that the third sister was probably upright at first.

The Standing Stone at Lisnabrague

I explored most of the area’s monuments as a teenager, but don’t remember ever looking at this one – which is odd, as it is right next to the road from Loughbrickland from Poyntzpass, and within a few hundred metres of the linear earthwork known as the Dane’s Cast or Black Pig’s Dyke which I explored thoroughly in those days. At present, the Lisnabrague stone is in the middle of a field of unharvested wheat:

It’s made from a different stone to the others I saw earlier; they, I think, were of the local limestone, but the Lisnabrague rock is more metamorphic (I got my worst mark in my Cambridge career in my geology course, so don’t ask me more).

These are peculiar objects, aren’t they? Placed to commemorate we know not what, but still pregnant with meaning after three millennia. Or four. Or maybe five.

This map shows the three places I visited – the first standing stone just north of the lake (though the words “Standing Stone” are printed some way off to the east), the Three Sisters to the west of the lake (though in reality they are about 100m further west than shown on the map – a big discrepancy!), and the Lisnabrague stone another 3 km further west again. A good day’s exploration.

(Do you need me to tell you that the blue squares on the map are 1 km on each side? If so, the blue squares on the map are 1 km on each side.)

Somewhat dismayed…

…to find that the Queen’s University of Belfast, from which I hold a Ph D and of which I am a Visiting Fellow, could not provide satisfactory answers to the Guardian’s survey on staff maternity and paternity policies published today. As so often, the University of Ulster comes out ahead.

The Guardian doesn’t reveal why precisely QUB fell through the cracks, but explains that the employers were categorised as “out of the running” for “giving insufficient detail on their parenting benefits, failing to respond to requests for information, or declining to contribute. A few flatly said no. Others said they were ‘reviewing policy’ or in the throes of a merger or takeover; others said they could not respond because ‘the HR person is away.'”

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 44) Last and First Men

44) Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon

Another in my list of classic sf to read.

This is an epic story of the future of the human race, starting in the present day (ie about 1930) and ending millions of years from now just before the destruction of the solar system by cosmic catastrophe. I think of Stapledon’s epic yet detached tone as a peculiarly English style of writing; I detect it also in Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest, and especially Stephen Baxter who is in many ways Stapledon’s heir.

The weakest part of Last and First Men for today’s reader is, unfortunately, the first section, where he describes a destructive war between England and France (a peaceful and neutral Germany standing by), followed by a succession of European conflicts which seem improbable to us. (In his foreword he hints that this is really a moral parable, a plea for the success of the League of Nations.) Also his instinctive racialism (I think that is the right word) strikes a sour note today. Still there are a couple of interesting hits, such as the sinister political party which adopts the swastika as its symbol, or the much greater longevity of the communist one-party state in China as compared with Russia.

Then we get onto the meat: the repeated near-extinction of humanity, whether through its own folly or natural disaster, followed by its reinvention of itself; emigration from Earth to Venus and then Neptune, having repelled invasion from Mars in the meantime; huge changes in the human form and lifespan. He achieves very well the epic scale of a few decades in one chapter, centuries in the next, millennia in the next.

Having said that, this is very much a book of telling rather than showing; his excursions into narrative rather than descriptive prose range from the unconvincing to the embarrassing. (I am thinking particularly of the scene where the nude island maiden brings peace between China and America by having sex with the negotiators.)

Yet despite its weaknesses, this deserves to be on the classics list. I think Stapledon’s influence, directly or indirectly, reverberates through the sf of the rest of the twentieth century.

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 43) Brave New World

43) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

After the Plato discussion a few days ago, I happened to spot a copy of Brave New World in a charity shop for 50p, and snapped it up, eager to see how accurately I had remembered it.

Two things I had forgotten: it is a very quick read – less than 240 pages – and the characterisation of the male characters is acute (less so the women). It is also pretty funny in places, although it does bring home to you how sexually neurotic the 1930s were. The final tragedy is entirely believable.

I was glad that I seem to have remembered correctly the key points of difference with Plato. In fact chapters XVI and XVII, the final confrontation between the Savage and Mustapha Mond, are in places almost an explicit argument with The Republic, especially on the crucial question of aesthetics. Mond actually says, “that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art.” He then goes on to tell the story of what sounds very like an unsuccessful attempt to establish a society along Plato’s principles (in, of all places, Cyprus). So I am satisfied that I Am Right.

Posted in Uncategorised

Latveria and the EU

has an interesting post up on Latveria (and there is more useful background at WikiPedia). As some of you will be aware, I’ve been personally involved in Latveria affairs off and on for the last ten years, especially during the brief Richards regime. I’m a bit more pessimistic than is about the prospects for its Euro-Atlantic integration, at least under current conditions, but we have to remember that things can change politically.

First off, Latveria’s biggest problem is that it sits outside two of the key international fora. Under the Richards regime, it did apply to join the Council of Europe, but through a mixture of bad timing and bad faith that hasn’t yet progressed to the point of membership. God knows, the CoE’s criteria are not as stringent as some would like, but the current Latverian government doesn’t seem interested in supplying even the verbal commitments which would have helped. More importantly, perhaps, it is outside the OSCE system; Dr Doom boycotted the process all the way through from the CSCE conference in 1973 to the present day, understandably since the whole point of the system is strategic security and mutual control. It was noticeable that although Richards made approaches to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, he left the OSCE secretariat in much closer Vienna alone, presumably because he too did not want to risk the country’s key asset.

For these two reasons, EU membership in the near future isn’t on the cards, as Dr Doom has himself stated. For the EU, even a democratic Latveria would be somewhere in the grey area between the western European micro-states, which are not seeking membership, and the smaller Balkan states, whose membership is a long way away. Without a better record on internal governance, there is no way that the EU will tolerate appointees of Dr Doom (or even the current leadership) sitting alongside the representatives of the other member states in its institutions. And his unwillingness to open up Latverian markets to EU goods, let alone adapt Latverian legislation to approximate to the acquis, has ensured that the Commission has sat on the dossier for years.

NATO, however, is a different matter, and I’m grateful to for bringing some of the material on Latveria to my attention; I have always been struck by the different tone of voice adopted by NATO secretariat officials when the subject comes up. When I asked if there were any plans to invite Latveria to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace, the answer was a very definite “no”; presumably NATO made its accommodation with Dr Doom back in the 1970s, at roughly the same time as he made his personal determination on the Helsinki Process, and those arrangements, which I believe have never been ventilated in public, are presumably still in force. It’s notable that Latveria’s diplomatic mission in Brussels is, unusually, out in Evere near NATO headquarters rather than in the EU district or the more fashionable south of the city, and the ambassador’s habit of wearing full body armour is the subject of occasional wry comment at diplomatic cocktail parties. Again, its lack of internal democracy precludes Latveria from becoming a formal member of the Alliance, but it’s clear that its links at least with the Pentagon are pretty friendly in places where it matters.

My personal association with the country, as I said earlier, peaked during the Richards regime, though there were one or two meetings held there during those glorious times when we were all trying to overthrow Slobodan Milošević. There was a hope among civil society in neighbouring countries that a lasting pro-democracy alliance could be forged between Richards appointees and the Zorbist supporters of the former monarchy. Alas, this all came to naught with the return of the servo-robots; it’s notable that Latveria is the one country in the region where the Soros network has never even opened a representative office, never mind set up a foundation, and I understand that USAID and the EU have heavily cut back on their democratisation funding in the country in the last couple of years (certainly my own invitations to go there have dried up of late). I’m not totally certain that I agree with those who accuse the current government of being mere puppets of Dr Doom; in my experience, even puppets may turn out to have their own ideas and agendas, and can turn on their masters. However, this may be a case of expectations creating their own reality; until the government starts dismantling the servo-robots and legalising political parties, Latveria’s pretensions to be a candidate for full Euro-Atlantic integration will continue to ring hollow.

Posted in Uncategorised

The Wives of American Presidents and Vice-Presidents

This is a follow-on from this post, itself a response to ‘s “feminist challenge to your US Vice-Presidential knowledge base”. Compiling this information has been an interesting experience. The title of “First Lady” is now retrospectively applied to whoever the official hostess of the White House was, plus whoever the President’s wife was; the title of “Second Lady” seems to me rather bogus, in that I have never seen it used outside WikiPedia.

So I decided to look at the vital statistics for women who have been married at any time to men who served as President or Vice-President of the United States. I’m aware that this is a heteronormative approach; it is determined really by the available records (which are themselves patchy in places). Many of the men concerned had relationships with women to whom they were not married; in most cases, history does not record their biographical details.

I would have very much liked to include Julia Chinn, a slave belonging to future Vice-President Richard Mentor Johnson; they lived together openly in 1820’s and 1830’s Kentucky, and she bore him two children who took his surname and inherited his property. However her year of birth, and the year in which their relationship started, are unknown, as is the precise date of her death in 1833, three years before he was elected Vice-President (uniquely, by the Senate, as the Virginia electors would not vote for a man who had lived with a black woman). Reluctantly, I have to strike her from my list.

I also considered including James Buchanan and William Rufus King, who served respectively as President from 1857 to 1861 and as Vice-President briefly in 1853. Both were bachelors; they lived together in Washington for fifteen years, and Washington gossip of the time appears to have assumed that they were in a sexual relationship. However, I think I want to look at women here, and also if I have excluded Julia Chinn I guess I have to exclude other partners who were not officially married.

I was able to find years, but not precise dates, of birth for four women married to vice-presidents of the middle period: Evelyn Colfax, born in 1823, whose husband Schuyler served under Ulysses S Grant from 1869 to 1873; Mary Wheeler, born in 1828, whose husband William served under Rutherford Hayes from 1877 to 1881; Cornelia Fairbanks, whose husband Charles served under Theodore Roosevelt from 1905 to 1909; and Dorothy Barkley, whose husband was Truman’s vice-president in 1949-53 (though she had died in 1947). By contrast, the biographical data for the most recent and also the earliest women in my list were pretty easy to track down; if WikiPedia didn’t have them I could usually find another source easily enough.

Anyway, that leaves me with a list of 83 women married at some time or other to the 72 men who have served as President, Vice-President or both. Eleven of those men were married twice: nine of them – Aaron Burr, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Hannibal Hamlin, Schuyler Colfax, Benjamin Harrison, Levi P. Morton, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Alben Barkley – were widowed and remarried, and Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller both divorced their first wives; but I have included them all. I was surprised that multiple marriages turned out to be more common among the women, with fifteen of them known to have married more than once (and there may be more I missed). Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson were already widows when they married George and Thomas respectively; both of Aaron Burr’s wives were widows when he married them, his second wife possibly twice over; likewise Mary Harrison, Edith Wilson and Jane Hadley Barkley; Rachel Jackson, Florence Harding, Jane Wyman and Happy Rockefeller all divorced their first husbands; and Caroline Fillmore, Frances Cleveland, Muriel Humphrey and Jacqueline Kennedy all married again after their husbands’ deaths (Jane Wyman also married and divorced the same man twice after her marriage to Ronald Reagan).

Longevity: 13 of the 83 women are still living. They are, in order of birthdate, Jane Wyman (93), Betty Ford (89), Nancy Reagan (86), Judy Agnew (also 86), Barbara Bush (82), Happy Rockefeller (81), Rosalynn Carter (turns 80 next month), Joan Mondale (turns 77 next month), Lynne Cheney (turns 66 next month), Laura Bush (60), Hillary Clinton (59), Tipper Gore (turns 59 next month), and Marilyn Quayle (whose 58th birthday is tomorrow). Leaving them aside, the average lifespan is 69 years 8 months, and the median just under 72 years 3 months. Apart from Jane Wyman, eight made it past their 90th birthdays: Eliza Bowen Jumel (Aaron Burr’s second wife; more on her in a moment), Caro Dawes (whose husband Charles was VP under Coolidge), Tod Rockefeller (Nelson’s first wife), Jennie Hobart (whose husband Garret was McKinley’s first Vice-President), Ilo Wallace (whose husband Henry was FDR’s second vice-president), Lady Bird Johnson (who inspired this piece of research), Ann Gerry (whose husband was Madison’s second vice-president, and gave his name to the gerrymander) and Bess Truman. Bess Truman was the longest-lived of all, born 13 February 1885, died 18 October 1982, a total of 97 years, 8 months and 5 days. At the other end of the scale is the tragic figure of Alice Roosevelt, who died on 14 February 1884 of kidney problems just after giving birth to Theodore’s first daughter; she was born on 29 July 1861, so was only 22 years and six months old. None of the other women on the list died in their twenties, though at least four died in their thirties – Martha Jefferson, Lucy Morton (whose husband was later to serve as Benjamin Harrison’s vice-president), Hannah Van Buren, Sarah Hamlin and possibly Evelyn Colfax, who was born some time in 1823 and died on 10 July 1863.

Age at marriage: Taking all 83 women here, but considering only their marriages to the men who became President or Vice-President, the average age at that marriage was just over 25 and the median just under 23. (For all the women’s first marriages, the average age is 23.2 and the median 22.6.) Fourteen of the women were married before they turned twenty: Harriet Wilson, whose husband Henry was Ulysses S Grant’s second VP, appears to have been the youngest – just past her sixteenth birthday when they were married in 1840. (She died in 1870, a couple of years before he became vice-president; he in turn died in office in 1875.) The other teenage brides were Hannah Tompkins (whose husband Daniel was VP under Monroe), Eliza Johnson (wife of Andrew Johnson), Mary Wheeler (married to Hayes’ VP), Mary Breckinridge (whose husband was VP under Buchanan), Elizabeth Monroe, Sophia Dallas (whose husband was Pierce’s VP), Sarah Hamlin, Rosalynn Carter, Floride Calhoun (whose husband was VP to both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson), Alice Roosevelt (TR’s first wife, as noted above), Barbara Bush, Mamie Eisenhower and Abigail Adams (John Adams’ wife). In addition, Eliza Jumel (possibly; see below), Rachel Jackson, Theodosia Burr, Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson, Caroline Fillmore, Florence Harding and Happy Rockefeller had all married their first husbands before they were 20. I have not been able to find a date for Jane Hadley Barkley’s first marriage, so she may possibly be in this category too.

The oldest bride by quite some way is perhaps the most exotic story of the lot. Eliza Bowen Jumel is a difficult but fascinating figure to pin down; compare the glaring differences between the two on-line biographies of her here and here. She was born in 1775 (or 1769), and married her second (or first) husband Stephen Jumel in 1804 (or 1801). Her murky background meant that they had difficulty being received in New York society, so they emigrated to France where she became a friend of Napoleon’s, offering him safe passage to America after Waterloo. They moved back to New York in 1828; Stephen Jumel died in 1832, and the following year Eliza, now reputedly the richest woman in America, married Aaron Burr, who had served as vice-president under Thomas Jefferson thirty years earlier. He was 77, she was 58 (or 66). It didn’t work out; they separated after only a few months, and their divorce was finalised on the day of Burr’s death, 14 September 1836. She lived on until 16 July 1865, dying at the age of 90 (or possibly 96). She sounds a much more attractive person than Burr, whose main political achievement was the dubious one of killing Alexander Hamilton. (The oldest first-time bride was Bess Truman, who was 34 when she married Harry in 1919.)

Taking the 83 marriages of the 72 men, the average age is 31.5 and the median 27.8, making the average age gap 6.5 and the median 4.2 (counting first marriages for the men only, the average age is 28.3 and the median 26.3; the average age gap is 4.7 and the median 3.7). The youngest of the men at marriage – and the only teenager – was Andrew Johnson, 18 and 4 months when he married 16-year-old Eliza McCardle in 1827. The oldest President to marry for the first time was Grover Cleveland, aged 49 when he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the White House in 1886, the year after he first became President. John Tyler, Nelson Rockefeller, Millard Fillmore, Woodrow Wilson, Benjamin Harrison, Alben Barkley and Aaron Burr all married for the second time when they were over 50, Burr being the oldest at 77 (as described above). Apart from Cleveland, Presidents Tyler and Wilson married in office (both having lost their first wives since becoming president) and Alben Barkley married while vice-president.

The 33-year gap betwen Vice-President Barkley, born on 24 November 1877, and his second wife Jane Hadley, born 23 September 1911, is the largest for any of the couples here; they were married the week before his 72nd birthday, when she was 38. The biggest gap for a President is that between John Tyler (born 29 March 1790) and his second wife Julia (born 4 May 1820); they were married on 26 June 1844. The biggest gap for a first marriage on both sides is the 27 years between Grover and Frances Cleveland. Ten or eleven of the women in my sample were older than the husbands considered here. The biggest gap was between Aaron Burr (again!) and his first wife Theodosia, who was nine years older than him. Florence Harding was five years older than Warren, Cornelia Fairbanks probably four years older than Charles, Abigail Fillmore almost two years older than Millard, and Tod Rockefeller just over a year older than Nelson. There was less than a year in it for Caroline Harrison (Benjamin Harrison’s first wife, who died the week before he lost his bid for re-election), Pat Nixon, Martha Washington, Ilo Wallace, Lou Hoover and probably Evelyn Colfax.

In office: The youngest woman married to a President was Frances Cleveland, as noted above, followed in order by Julia Tyler, aged 21 and 24 respectively when they married the President of the day. The youngest woman whose husband became President was Jacqueline Kennedy, aged 31 in 1961. The oldest First Lady was Bess Truman, almost 68 when her husband’s term ended in 1953 (though Jane Wyman was 75 at the end of her ex-husband’s term in 1989). Ellen Hamlin was only 25 when her husband Hannibal became Vice-President in 1861. At the other end, Etty Garner was 71 at the end of her husband’s second term as Vice-President in 1941.

Death: The average length of the marriages here considered is 32.7 years, the median being 31.8. The longest married couple in the sample are both in fact still alive: George and Barbara Bush married on 6 January 1945, 62 years and almost seven months ago. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who celebrated their 61st anniversary last month, are not far behind. In between are Caro and Charles G Dawes, married for 62 years and 3 months, and Abigail and John Adams, married for 61 years and 8 months. Ten other couples made it past fifty years of marriage: Joan and Walter Mondale are still alive, the others being Louisa and John Quincy Adams, Ilo and Henry Wallace, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Etty and John Nance Garner, Mamie and Ike Eisenhower, Pat and Richard Nixon, Bess and Harry Truman, Judy and Spiro Agnew, and Betty and Gerald Ford. At the other end of the scale, the briefest union was the three years and two months of Aaron Burr’s marriage to Eliza Jumel, ending simultaneously with their divorce and his death; followed by the three years and three months of Theodore Roosevelt’s first marriage to the unfortunate Alice. Four other couples did not make it to their tenth anniversary; Benjamin Harrison, Alben Barkley and Woodrow Wilson all died within a decade of their second marriage, and Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan divorced after eight and a half years.

On average, the women of my sample outlived their husbands by 5.7 years, the median being 4.9. (This excludes Happy Rockefeller, Judy Agnew, Reagan’s two wives and Betty Ford, all of whom are still living.) Mary Harrison, Benjamin Harrison’s second wife, outlived him by 46 years. She remarried; Sarah Polk, who outlived her husband by 42 years, did not. Of vice-presidents’ wives, the longest widowhood was that of Jennie Hobart, who outlived her husband Garret by 41 years (after 30 yeas of marriage). At the other end, Levi P. Morton lived to his 96th birthday, almost 49 years after the death of his first wife, Lucy, but had remarried. Martin Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson both lived as widowers for over 43 years without remarrying. (Aaron Burr survived his first wife by 41 years.) In the middle, both Letitia Stevenson (whose husband Adlai was Cleveland’s second VP) and Eliza Johnson (married to Andrew) died within six months of their husbands.

Change over time: To a certain extent we are comparing, if not apples and oranges, at least Seville oranges and clementines here. Things have changed for women’s life expectancy quite a lot over the centuries since the future Martha Washington was born in 1731. It is striking, for instance, that of the fourteen couples whose marriages lasted more than fifty years, twelve lived in the twentieth century (and the other two were Adamses). Here is a graph mapping ten point moving averages of age at marriage (to the husbands considered here), difference in age with husband, and age at death as against year of birth.

The big variation is of course in lifespan. Of the seven women on the list who have most recently died, four lived to be over 90 (ie, half the total number of nonagenarians on the list) and two of the other three to be over 80. The low point appears to be the early nineteenth century; of the the sixteen women born between 1815 and 1840, six died before the age of 50 (Mary Wheeler, 47, 1828-1876; Harriet Wilson, 45, 1824-1870; Evelyn Colfax, ~40, 1823-1863; Sarah Hamlin, 39, 1815-1855; and Lucy Morton, 34, 1836-1871) and none reached their 90th birthday.

The average marriage age seems to start at just over 25 and ends at just over 25 as well, but with a dip precisely at the same point as the shortest lifespans. Five of the sixteen women born between 1815 and 1840 married as teenagers, (Harriet Wilson and Eliza Johnson at 16, Mary Breckinridge and Mary Wheeler at 17, and Sarah Hamlin at 18; three of them are also on the list of those who died early in this cohort. 31% of these sixteen married as teenagers, compared to nine of the other 67, 13% of the rest of the sample).

(I plotted the average age gap as well just to see if I got anything interesting out of it, but I don’t.)

Conclusion: This has to an extent been a fun vacation bit of historical number-crunching. But only to an extent. One keeps on running up against stories like that of Alice Roosevelt, mentioned above; of Andrew and Rachel Jackson, taunted about their early bigamous marriage (her first husband having lied about getting the divorce) to the point that she died between the election and her husband’s inauguration; Franklin and Jane Pierce, who saw their only child smashed to bits in front of them in a railway accident just before his inauguration in 1853; Abigail Fillmore, repeating the experience of William Henry Harrison and catching pneumonia during Pierce’s inauguration, so that she died a few weeks later; and all the others who married expecting to have decades with their partner of choice, but found that fate decreed otherwise. If you have read this, and you have someone special in your life, go and give them a hug, and tell them I said so (if you like).

Posted in Uncategorised

The Seeds of Death

I have now seen all of the Second Doctor televised stories (or listened to the surviving audios), shortly after finishing the First Doctor. Two long posts (or perhaps one even longer one) now brewing about their respective performances; but I am glad I ended my exploration of the Troughton era on a fairly high note.

I had actually tried watching The Seeds of Death once before, years ago, and rather bounced off it. I think if you aren't used to Troughton's style, it's difficult to get into him mid-season; I know that when I started listening to the audios last year I found his performance an acquired taste. But once you have been converted it's a different matter.

Also there are two whacking huge problems with The Seeds of Death which may put off a viewer less inclined to be forgiving. One of them can be described before we get to the plot: it is the costumes. The main monsters, the Ice Warriors are fantastic. But the leader of their expedition force, Slaar, is much shorter and has a less ornate costume which unfortunately means he ends up with a close resemblance to Dark Helmet, the character played by Rick Moranis in the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. And the humans – at least the men on Earth – fare little better, with bizarre trousers which look like they are fitted with incontinence pads.

The second problem is intimately connected with the plot. The future Earth depends on a technology called T-Mat for transportation of pretty much everything. The T-Mat is controlled from the Moon, but its Earth-based secretariat shares a location with other sensitive facilities such as weather control. But there appears to be no serious effort to keep these areas secure, so that a single Ice Warrior is able to throw the Earthside complex into chaos. And when the necessity of launching Earth's one remaining space rocket becomes apparent, they turn to three complete strangers to form the crew (the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe). I think that was the point where my implausibility circuits overloaded on first watching.

But if you can swallow these two points, there is a lot to like about The Seeds of Death. All the actors are great. The Ice Warriors (apart from Slaar, and even he makes up for his comical appearance by carrying off the part very well) are pretty scary, and their take-over of the moonbase is dramatically well executed. The action is kept up frenetically to the point that most will overlook the implausibilities of the plot. On the DVD commentary for the last episode, Wendy Padbury apologises profusely for visibly giggling while struggling to open a door, but in fact it's barely noticeable even if you know what to look for and even if you tend to be staring at Zoe every time she is in shot.

And there are killer seeds (as in the title) which produce oxygen-destroying fungi. One of them explodes in the Doctor's face, knocking him unconscious for (conveniently) just over an episode. Others produce lots and lots of foam, the like of which had not been seen since Fury from the Deep. Cue lots of Troughton gurning as only he could; I can't think of any other Doctor who actually looked terrified as often as him.

I was fascinated by the list of the main cities served by T-Mat (as already recorded here and here). They are:

New York – Berlin
Moscow – Oslo
Toronto – Hamburg
Paris – Ottawa
Zurich – Tokyo
Stockholm – London
Washington – Canberra

It is a fascinating insight into where the writers of the 1960s thought the centres of world trade would be in the not-so-far future. Two cities in Canada, two in Scandinavia, two in Germany; but nowhere in Europe further south than Zurich, only one city in Asia and none in Africa. (Including both New York and Washington is excusable, I think; but having nowhere further south or west in the Americas is not.) Anyway, useful material for an article I'm doing for .

All the human characters are white Europeans, but we do at least have two intelligent women (Zoe and Gia Kelly) one of whom is in a leadership position. I'll just also note that Irish actor Harry Towb plays the doomed lunar base commander in the first episode, but does it with an English accent à la David Tennant. (He appears using his native Norn Iron in Terror of the Autons, and with a peculiar Italian accent as the Brigadier's Sicilian uncle in The Ghosts of N-Space.)

In summary, one of the good ones from Troughton's last season.

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 42) Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents

42) Presidents I’ve Known and Two Near Presidents, by Charles Willis Thompson

I got this for a while back, and have taken the opportunity to raid it from his bookshelves.

Thompson was the Washington correspondent of the New York Times and the New York World, and wrote this book in 1929, about the presidents of the previous thirty years – McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge (all but Wilson were Republicans). He also throws in a lot of material about Mark Hanna, the power behind the throne of McKinley’s presidency, and even more about three-times Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan (they being the two “near presidents” of the title).

This is a brilliant book, and I hope that Project Gutenberg have their eye on it (it is probably in the public domain, and will certainly be so by 2016). In those days, the relationship between president and press corps seems to have been a lot more intimate than it is now; these seven character sketches (it should be eight, but he claims it is impossible to describe McKinley) are tremendously instructive about the way in which each man operated, and take pains to demolish the conventional wisdom about each with examples drawn from his own experience.

So, for instance, we have a chapter with the intriguing title “Bryan’s Dark Secret” – which turns out to be that he was very witty and had a great sense of humour, but felt that his political career would be demolished if he ever allowed that side of his character to show in public. Thompson then gives other examples of potentially great politicians let down by their sense of humour (nobody I had heard of, but I suppose that was his point). He add that he thinks a reputation for wit is a particular disadvantage in American politics; I don’t agree that this is necessarily an American phenomenon.

Theodore Roosevelt, clearly Thompson’s favourite of the subjects of the book (120 pages of 380), has the reputation of a brash, impulsive, domineering character. Thompson shows how carefully Roosevelt prepared his public utterances, totally contra his reputation for spontaneity (a habit which possibly saved his life when he was shot in the chest while campaigning in 1912; the assassin’s bullet was crucially slowed by passing through the pages of Roosevelt’s speech in his pocket). He also gives numerous examples of Roosevelt’s personal kindness and loyalty to his friends.

The book is also fascinating on Woodrow Wilson, who gets 70 pages, though Thompson clearly did not like him much. He explains Wilson’s failures of foreign policy as driven by an unwillingness to listen to any information he did not want to hear; he gives numerous examples of Wilson’s volcanic temper, which is at odds with his reputation for glacial intellectualism. He tries to be fair, though; he argues that Wilson had constructed his aloof personality just as consciously as Roosevelt is known to have constructed his own effervescent physical public persona, and gives a charming portrait of Wilson on the campaign trail.

He is less good on Coolidge, whose term had only just ended when the book was published, but makes convincing claims that Coolidge’s reputation as a public speaker is undeservedly low. His short analysis of Harding is devastating (as indeed any fair analysis of any length must be), an he admits he never liked the man; but he also gives a tremendously sympathetic picture of Harding at home in Marion, Ohio, and makes the reader feel sorry that he was plucked from his natural environment and raised to the Presidency, an office for which he was unsuited and which basically killed him.

Of the presidents described, I’m most interested in Taft (who appointed my great-great-uncle as his attorney-general), though here Thompson’s portrait differs least from the conventional wisdom (his most original point being that Taft was not as obese as people think he was). Still, the awful story of Taft’s failure as president is an instructive one, and especially entertaining when told by an eye-witness. Thompson gives numerous examples of Taft simply saying the wrong thing, through inexperience rather than malice; he reckons the rot set in with Roosevelt the day after the 1908 election, when Taft thanked his predecessor, telling him, “I am bound to say that I owe my election more to you than to anybody else, except my brother Charley.” As Thompson points out,

This gives a measure of Taft’s inability to judge how his remarks would sound to a hearer, but it was in private conversation. Now, for four years, his conversations were to be with the people of the United States, and he was to demonstrate the same quality in public that he had often shown in private; and now the effect was to be calamitous, for he was talking to millions who did not know him and would make no allowances.

It takes a special kind of talent to run for re-election in a two-party system and come third, and Thompson illuminates this very well. A really good book, but you would need to know a bit about US history of the period first.

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 41) The Guardians

41) The Guardians, by John Christopher

On foot of my recent Plato musings, kindly offered to send me her copy of John Christopher’s The Guardians, whose setting she felt had some parallels with The Republic. She put it in the post in Cambridge mid-afternoon on Wednesday and it reached my rural Northern Ireland retreat in the next morning’s delivery. As she predicted, I found it a quick read.

It’s actually rather an interesting book. The narrator, Rob Randall, is brought up in the Conurb, the massive urban settlement in the future south-eastern England; he flees a grim boarding school to the County, the rural area where the rich people live, and manages to get adopted by a gentry family. But some among the younger generation believe that the system is rotten and must be smashed.

It must be twenty years since I read any of Christopher’s books, and I’d forgotten how good he is. Three-quarters of the way through I began wondering when the actual plot was going to start; and then within a few pages I realised that it had been unfolding all around me without being obtrusive; that the description of the society and how it is controlled actually is the plot, as much in the telling as in what we are being told. Likewise, his understated prose leaves us to infer the narrator’s feelings about the deaths of his parents, and his divided loyalties to his new family in the County, but also leaves us in little doubt about either.

As for Plato, I’m not so sure. The Guardians are certainly closer to The Republic than to Brave New World, in that they have a specially educated elite, they allow promotion and demotion into their own ranks, they keep industry and manufacturing at arm’s length, and they even have a permanent state of war (with China). But they fail to echo Plato in exactly the same area where Huxley’s biggest difference with him is, in their attitude to the arts. No new literature is being produced; as with Huxley, the purpose of education is dumbing-down and control rather than encouraging the right frame of mind, and dissidents get their brains surgically altered.

Anyway, a good read. Thanks, !

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 40) Coyote Dreams

40) Coyote Dreams, by C.E. Murphy

The close of the first three Joanne Walker novels by , featuring a Seattle policewoman who is also a somewhat unwilling shaman. I think that if you like Buffy, you will like these books; there are obvious parallels in the heroine’s resentment of the way her mystical powers have turned her life upside down, and there is a common thread of wit and not taking the supernatural too earnestly while at the same time doing it seriously enough that we believe the situation. I read the first three stories in the series (Urban Shaman, Thunderbird Falls and a separately published novella) in the wrong order, but still enjoyed them; I wouldn’t recommend starting with Coyote Dreams, though, as it is heavily dependent on what has gone before. But it was the only one I could find in Forbidden Planet in London last week; ‘s books seem about as rare as hen’s teeth on this side of the Atlantic.

Posted in Uncategorised

Samuel Pepys gets advice about infertility

Samuel Pepys is not known to have had any children, despite his decades of marriage, his subsequent long-term relationship, and his many affairs with other women. On 26 July 1664 he records a merry lunch at his cousin’s (for which he himself had supplied a substantial amount of booze) and then his decision to talk with the women of the company rather than the men once the meal was finished (he had recently helped his male cousins out of a spot of legal difficulty, but did not especially like them; their wives, who were themselves sisters, were a different matter). The meal was to celebrate the recent birth of a child to one of the cousins, so it’s perhaps easier to understand the context in which Pepys decided to raise the subject, which I imagine people were normally as reserved about discussing in his day as in ours. (It may also be relevant that his wife was away visiting relatives, and he had been making the seventeenth century equivalent of booty calls over the previous few days, with some success.)

I began discourse of my not getting of children, and prayed them to give me their opinions and advice, and they freely and merrily did give me these ten, among them

  1. Do not hug my wife too hard nor too much;
  2. eat no late suppers;
  3. drink juyce of sage;
  4. tent and toast;
  5. wear cool holland drawers;
  6. keep stomach warm and back cool;
  7. upon query whether it was best to do at night or morn, they answered me neither one nor other, but when we had most mind to it;
  8. wife not to go too straight laced;
  9. myself to drink mum and sugar;
  10. Mrs. Ward did give me, to change my place.

The 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 10th they all did seriously declare, and lay much stress upon them as rules fit to be observed indeed, and especially the last, to lie with our heads where our heels do, or at least to make the bed high at feet and low at head.

I love #7; good practice, I think, whether or not you are planning on having children! Not sure about some of the rest, though. (In #4, “tent” means “a Spanish wine of a deep red colour, and of low alcoholic content”, from vino tinto.)

Posted in Uncategorised

Noted in passing

I am fortunate enough to read many interesting things on my friends list. Here are some of them from the last week to share with you all:

John Scalzi is right (about Catcher in the Rye).

in Yemen.

finds wisdom in MASH.

on mild fame, and on online vs printed reviews.

‘s TLS review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (spoilers).

Speaking of which, has been fortunate enough to receive the “Best Fanmail Evar“.

has been reading Norman’s Gor books, and finds that they have no redeeming features.

Top tip from : don’t leave small children within reach of the handbrake, especially if you have parked on a slope.

on tea.

discovers a personal link with Freema Agyeman.

And finally, is worried about Belgium.

It’s only because I am on holiday that I have the time to acknowledge all these pieces of wisdom (and there are a couple more in unlocked posts which I have really enjoyed reading but won’t link to here, including a fascinating piece about the pros and cons of getting married, and a really offensive cartoon from the Daily Mail). Keep it up folks; I enjoy reading you all.

Posted in Uncategorised

Interviews again

As previously seen most recently here and here, and in general here. I still owe some of you questions; will try and get to them in the course of the day.

From :

1. If you had been responsible for the revival of Doctor Who instead of RTD, what would you have done differently?

Let’s be absolutely clear and honest – I would not have done it as well as Russell T Davies. I don’t have that sort of creative mind, I’m not that sort of visionary.

There are a few things, however, that I would have done differently. More writers, I think, for extra variety. More off-Earth adventures. More multi-part stories. (In other words, more like the Who I remember.) But these are minor quibbles.

2. As you probably know, I don’t plan on ever having children. As a parent, what would you say to make me change my mind? Or, if you wouldn’t, why not?

Well, I wouldn’t put it in terms of making you change your mind; whether and when and how to have children is one of those personal decisions that is right up there with whether and when and how to have sex (er, hang on, now that I come to think of it, there may be a connection there).

I would say two things in favour of having children and what it has done for me, even with all the extra excitement we have had. First off, the general: there is really no greater joy than sharing your life with that of a tiny person, watching and helping them grow and develop, seeing your own life and your own personality quirks reflected back at you. I love my wife very much, but I have learnt much more from my children.

Second, the specific, which I suspect may apply to you as well as to me (though please understand “you” in the rest of this paragraph as meaning “anyone” rather than in particular). I used to be a very work-focussed person, judging myself largely by the feedback I was getting, or felt I wasn’t getting, in my professional career. This is basically an unhealthy state of mind. Your colleagues do not love you; they have to be paid to be in the same environment as you. They are fundamentally not a good source from which to draw your self-validation, and your partner if you have one may not be able to fully compensate, as he or she may have problems of their own, or at worst may reinforce whatever messages you are getting at work because he or she, like your colleagues, fundamentally buys into the adult world. Children force a fundamental re-orientation of your priorities, and I think that as a result of having them, I take work (and other things) less unhealthily seriously, and therefore am a happier persona and incidentally a better worker.

3. Do you actively enjoy travelling as much as you do, or is it a trade-off for what sounds like an extremely interesting job?

Oh gosh, yes, on the whole. Of course, you might not pick this up from livejournal; if you are stuck at an airport because the airlines are buggering around, it’s easy to reach for the phone or blackberry and do a quick post asking for sympathy (because, as has put it “reassuring the speaker that she’s right” is the basic emotional transaction on LiveJournal). But it doesn’t reflect the totality of my travel experience, which I normally very much enjoy. I do like the variety of different places I see, and the different sets of people I meet. My wife is not such a keen traveller, so it means I can scratch the travel itch without unduly interfering with her peace of mind. I just hope to cover a few more countries outside Europe soon.

4. How did you find your way to Livejournal?

I had renewed contact somehow ages ago with , who I had known at Cambridge, and was fascinated by the style of his writing (and also that of his friends list). But to be honest I didn’t see how my own life, at least the bits I was willing to write about in public, could become decent bloggin material.

I did try starting a blogspot blog, twice, but found that I didn’t really have the impetus to keep in going on either occasion, and I was also troubled by the anonymity vs real life identity issues (this at a time when I was not as prominent a public figure in certain countries as I am now).

Then in April 2003 , who had been my gateway into broader UK and Irish fandom about a year before, started his livejournal, and I decided I would try it for myself the following month. (I also imported all the previous entries from the defunct blogspot blogs, which is why there are several dozen entries in the archives from before the first “real” entry.) Then the other big decision I made was about six months later, to start logging every book I read. That generates a lot of content that other people are willing to comment on, and my increasing socialisation with sf fandom has also brought many friends – both in the lj sense and in the real sense.

5. I am hugely impressed by the number of books you read. Do you have any other hobbies or leisure activities, or do you just read all the time?

I just read all the time! Though I have been getting into the Doctor Who audio plays recently, particularly during my decreasingly frequent expeditions to the gym.

From :

1. Do you feel that your work has a value globally, or do you sometimes feel that it is merely bureaucracy?

It’s funny, isn’t it, how “bureaucracy” is automatically a pejorative term? The answer is definitely the former. We are a small organisation (less than ten full-time staff) so we are not bureaucratic at all, in size or in style. I don’t like the drudge of administrative paperwork, but it would be a mistake to call that bureaucracy; it’s a part of the job.

2. What is your greatest desire?

To have more time to spend with my family and read, while at the same time keep my present pretty reasonable income level!

3. What is your greatest fear?

I am very paranoid about false accusations which I can’t defend against; see occasional posts here about wingnuts, or indeed the automatic way in which I leapt to ‘s defence yesterday. Thankfully it’s never happened to me about something serious.

4. If you had a choice to kill 10 people so a thousand could live, would you?

I don’t know.

5. What if amongst those ten were your own family?

Depends on who in my family!!!

Posted in Uncategorised

The answer to the previous question

The pair of cities which completes this set:

New York – Berlin
Moscow – Oslo
Toronto – Hamburg
Paris – Ottawa
Zurich – Tokyo
Stockholm – London

is

Washington – Canberra

Now, who can tell me why this is the right answer?

Posted in Uncategorised

Jobs

My employers are advertising in this week’s Economist to recruit three exceptional people for the following senior positions:

  • Head of Washington DC Office
  • Head of Africa Office (probably Addis Ababa or Nairobi based)
  • Head of Donor and External Relations (New York)

Full details of the recruitment process are on the website’s employment page. Applications are required by 24 August. Please do alert anyone you think may be suitably qualified and interested.

The ideal candidates for the Heads of Washington and Africa Offices will be serving or former US or African diplomats with 15 years’ diplomatic experience on policy work, and extensive contacts, respectively, in Washington and African capitals/the African Union.

The ideal candidate for the Head of Donor and External Relations position will be an experienced, well organized fundraising generalist with excellent interpersonal and communication skills, an entrepreneurial spirit and an international outlook, together with some press and public relations experience.

A strong commitment to the mission of Independent Diplomat is a pre-requisite for all three positions.

Posted in Uncategorised

Plato/Huxley

My post on Plato’s Republic sparked a number of interesting comments, including a debate between and about education which I will come back to in a separate post. (I have written up over 600 books on this livejournal; I cannot remember another review provoking comments which left me with even one question as interesting as either of the two raised by Plato. Which I guess says something.)

I asked in the original review if any sf novelist has ever tried writing a society constructed along Plato’s lines. This provoked a number of responses, with proposing John Christopher’s The Guardians, suggesting Judge Dredd, and putting forward Ayn Rand’s Anthem. I have only a passing acquaintance with Dredd, and no knowledge of the other two at all, so can’t comment further on them (though WikiPedia, for what that’s worth, says that Silverberg’s A Time of Changes is a response to Rand).

However, both and suggested that I consider a book that I have read, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as an attempt to write a society constructed along Plato’s lines. Of course, I see the similarities: the rigid stratification into classes, the eugenics and abolition of the family, the social control. Both are works clearly in the utopian tradition of literature, if on different wings of it (Plato’s account is not intended as fiction but as a manifesto; Huxley presents his fictional society as a dystopia rather than a utopia). And of course one must concede at the start that Huxley is writing in the shadow of Plato, Sir Thomas More, and H.G. Wells and maybe Fritz Lang (but not, at least according to Huxley, Zamyatin). But I don’t think Huxley is trying to do Plato, or even to update Plato for the early twentieth century. There are some important differences:

The Arts: The question of aesthetics is crucial to both The Republic and Brave New World, and both authors agree that the arts are vital for a good society. But while Plato has good poetry and music at the heart of his educational programme (indeed, his strictures on dealing with bad poetry are pretty censorious), Huxley’s future is utterly dumbed down, with one of the most tragic themes of the book being that Shakespeare has not only been removed from the scene but has become incomprehensible to society. Both authors have constructed their future societies around how they deal with the arts, but they take completely different tacks. I think this is by far the most important difference between the two books, and is enough on its own to demonstrate convincingly that Huxley was not constructing his Brave New World along the lines of The Republic in particular.

War: I have not seen many analyses of The Republic which even mention what for me was one of the most striking aspects of it: that his enlightened philosopher-rulers are also warriors. Indeed, we are led into the discussion of what makes a good defender of the state by a discussion of what makes a good soldier. (I wondered if Sherri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country had drawn from this a little.) The threat of war is ever present in the background of The RepublicBrave New World. Of course, this is partly because Plato sees his Republic as an enlightened citadel in the middle of Greek disorder surrounded by barbarian chaos, while Huxley’s World encompasses most of the globe. But only partly; even a global government can face conflict (as has pointed out), and Huxley’s is unusual in that it doesn’t.

Industry: At first sight a trivial difference, since obviously The Republic was written some time before the Industrial Revolution and Plato can therefore be forgiven for failing to foresee Henry Ford. And one could argue that industry shapes the background to in Huxley’s book as war does in Plato’s. But in fact Huxley is all about mass-production of people as well as machines, and about socialism as a political response to industrialisation. In Plato, the slave underclass is largely though not entirely invisible; the economic structure of Huxley’s society is completely different.

The elite: Superficially a similarity between the two books, in fact there are very big differences between how the elite of the two societies are chosen and function. Plato’s rulers are educated into the role, and although there is a rigid breeding programme, it is also accepted that you can be promoted into the ruling class (or demoted out of it) depending on ability; and once you are in the ruling class, all are effectively equal. But Huxley’s Alphas are chosen before birth and hypnotised into their roles. Huxley is doing a bit of a riff on education as conditioning, but his heart isn’t init: his social conditioning is about closing minds down, while Plato’s is about opening them. (It should be added perhaps that Plato has only three classes, plus the invisible slaves, in his society while Huxley has five, each of which is subdivided.)

Drugs: The use of the recreational drug soma is central to Huxley’s society. Plato’s citizens drink wine, but not too often to excess (apart from the archetypal tyrant); apart from that they are clean-living and healthy warriors as well as philosophers. Again, this goes to the heart of the two projects. Huxley believes that his society is unsustainable without drugging and conditioning the entire population into compliance; Plato believes that enlightened thought will be enough to carry the day. If only it were!

Anyway, this was a very interesting question to consider!

Posted in Uncategorised

Good News

Wikipedia have now unblocked . Not before time. As he comments,

Most people, especially newbies, would have walked away from Wikipedia long before being vindicated. That is not a good thing. Lessons should be learned from this. People are so pissed off at the trolls and socks that they are forgetting to assume good faith.

This may appear twice as Livejournal was on the blink when I first sent it. Meanwhile see Making Light for much sensible discussion.

Posted in Uncategorised

Wikipedia disgraces itself

has been blocked from editing WikiPedia, accused of being a “sock-puppet” on, as far as I can tell, no evidence at all, and certainly without following WikiPedia’s own due procedures. My own evidence, from having known the guy for thirteen years, is that he is very far from being a figment of anyone’s imagination. However, when attempted to point this out to WikiPedia, guess what? He got blocked as well.

It’s all very well having an open system for adding to the compilation of human knowledge, but this sort of harassment and bullying should not be part of WikiPedia’s style and it is disgraceful that the safeguards appear to be inadequate.

I will happily risk my own editing privileges if that is necessary to get off the hook, but I shouldn’t even be in the position of having to make that calculation.

Posted in Uncategorised

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

A Canterbury prologue

Pilgrimages are an ancient part of the human experience. We went to Canterbury on Thursday last week, shown around by local lad

Having whined about the cathedral, the West Gate is much cheaper and great fun; you can even try on a replica helmet, whether or not it fits you:

But Canterbury was not the object of our pilgrimage last week. On Thursday afternoon we girded out loins and headed to deepest Buckinghamshire, to visit the shrines and relics of F’s current favourite author, Roald Dahl.

The Roald Dahl pilgrimage, Phase 1: Great Missenden

We stayed overnight in Missenden Abbey, in the village of Great Missenden, which markets itself as a conference centre and event venue but does B&B as well for £65 per double room – a very decent breakfast, I must say. Before heading to the first of the Roald Dahl museums, F and I decided to do a bit of exploring, and by use of sophisticated intelligence techniques (ie asking the locals) we located Gipsy House, where Dahl lived until his death in 1990. Mrs Dahl still lives there, and prefers to keep her privacy (though opens up her beautiful gardens for fund-raising events a couple of times a year); but again, we can at least prove that we were there:

Then it was time to go to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre on the High Street in the village.

You have to book your time of visiting in advance, and we had opted for opening time; this meant that we had free range around the two big biographical galleries, though by the time we got to the third room we had been joined by a school group (schools in England, bizarrely, have not yet started their summer holidays). It is very beautifully designed and laid out, with each of the galleries featuring lots to look at for both adults and children:


Items on display include Dahl’s childhood correspondence, early drafts of various works including Charlie and the Chocolate factory, his invitation to the White House for dinner with Mrs Roosevelt, and lots of photographs and filmed material. There are, of course, also relics like the very sandal which Dahl sent to Quentin Blake to serve as a model for the illustrations of the Big Friendly Giant:


And you can see film material of Dahl himself, talking about his life and how he wrote, sitting in his special chair in his writing hut in the garden of Gipsy House:

Heck, you want to do more than just see Roald Dahl’s special writing chair?

The theme of the third room is very much about getting visitors to think about how to write (and there are bits of that in the first two galleries as well, but it is the third room that really emphasises it). Doesn’t photograph terribly well, but it’s friendly and stimulating.

Also you can dress up as the Fantastic Mr Fox.

We stayed for two and a half hours, and F would certainly have stayed longer.

The Roald Dahl pilgrimage, Phase 2: Aylesbury

By now the rain was pouring down, but we set off to the Roald Dahl gallery of the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury ten miles away. Most of the museum is free but you have to pay (and again it is advised that you book in advance) for the Roald Dahl parts. There is one corner of the two-storey complex which has biographical material:

But the emphasis of the whole gallery is much more on exploring the world around us (ie basic science), viewed through the themes of Roald Dahl’s books. The galleries are filled with fun things to look at and do, beautifully illustrated:





This is my favourite picture of the lot. Apparently there used to be things called “records”, and if you stick a toothpick through a plastic cup, and hold the toothpick to the surface of a spinning “record”, you can hear a sound! (I suppose they may have built more sophisticated machines for this way back in the old days.)

We stayed for over an hour, and again could have stayed longer (but really needed lunch at that point). I felt the whole day was summed up very nicely by the quote on the wall of the stairwell, taken from Dahl’s last book, The Minpins:

A damp postscript

By now the rain was coming down in torrents, and flood warnings were starting to spring up. I was concentrating on driving, but did manage to get this one picture of a waterlogged junction on our route to Wiltshire:

A lot of people had it worse, and apparently it’s not over yet. But we are now in Northern Ireland, where the weather is pretty good, thank you!

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 39) Albion

39) Albion, by Alan Moore, Leah Moore and John Reppion

Having known Leah and John for a year or so, I thought I should actually read what they have been writing! Albion is a British riff on the resurrection of old superheroes in today’s world, being busted out of the Scottish castle in which they have been imprisoned since their original comics were cancelled the government turned against them. It’s generally good stuff, with some nice touches – how did Margaret Thatcher really survive the Brighton bomb? And one particularly nasty character grumbles, “The world’s gone soft! See where your Teletubbies have led you?!”

It is supported by a good deal of material on the characters, including several complete original stories, as they appeared in Valiant, which I confess I don’t remember ever reading myself (and which ceased publishing before Leah and John were even born). Also this is the second book I’ve written up this morning to have a recommendation from Neil Gaiman, who unlike me is old enough to have read the comics first time round and contributes an introduction.

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 38) Deathbird Stories

38) Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison

One of the sf classics that I am currently working through (not sure where I got hold of that list in the first place); a 1975 collection of stories by Ellison (mostly published elsewhere previously) loosely linked by themes of godhood and religion. Ellison’s sheer pride in his work is a bit overwhelming; he warns the reader not to do the whole book in one sitting, as “the emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting”. I dunno. What I felt was that the style was unrelentingly similar, and that the misogyny was off-putting; also, horror isn’t really my thing anyway. Neil Gaiman says that this collection was a strong influence on American Gods (it “burned itself onto the back of my head when I was still of an age where a book could change me forever”); I have to say that although Gaiman’s book has its flaws, I think he did it better. Perhaps I am just too old, and the genre now too mature, and Ellison’s reputation now too much in decline, to really appreciate this collection.

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 37) Princess of Mars

37) Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The first of the famous series of books revolving around the adventures of Captain John Carter of Virginia on Mars, the first book written by Burroughs (who went on to create Tarzan), first published in 1912. Classic pulp stuff; our hero has to fight off the non-human brutes and deal with treachery from his own race, but has loyal companions and the love of the (mostly naked) princess. One thing that Burroughs does do well is the conscious archaism of the speaking style of the Martian characters, and the sense of a varied physical and human/non-human geography on the planet. He also manages to have a moderately cliff-hanger ending; the original readers would have been very eager to find out what came next. (Myself, I can wait.)

Posted in Uncategorised

July Books 36) Doctor Who: the Visual Dictionary

36) Doctor Who: the Visual Dictionary, by Andrew Darling, Kerrie Dougherty, David John, Simon Beecroft, and Amy Junor.

Back in my day, we had to be satisfied with the almost-all-text The Making of Doctor Who. Kids these days can get this brilliant Dorling Kindersley illustrated book all about the Doctor, and featuring all the monsters from the first and second seasons, plus the Judoon (but nothing else from Season Three as far as I noticed). Perfect gift for the young Who fan; maybe also for the less young Who fan. (And one of the labelled components in the Tardis console room is the “mercury fluid link”!!!)

Posted in Uncategorised