Peculiar geography

From Miles and Wood’s About Time, vol. 3, p. 23, discussing the fictional British space programme:

… the logical place for launch and landing would have been as close to the Equator as possible, perhaps British Colombia [sic] or Uganda.

I suspect they mean British Honduras, now Belize. The southern end of British Columbia is closer to the Equator than the mainland of the UK, but not by very much!

[ETA: as and point out, British Guyana is more likely being only just north of the Equator. My excuse for not thinking of it is that it had officially become just “Guyana” since 1966 while British Honduras didn’t become Belize until 1973.]

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Ten years back

I slept in an east-facing bedroom in Bosnia, and the late August sun always woke me up far too early in the morning, especially at weekends; I would groggily listen to the BBC World Service to distract me from the fact that I was awake. So I was probably one of the first people in Banja Luka to hear the news. Of course we did not anticipate the craziness that would overtake the UK in the next few days. And I wish I’d kept the copy of Private Eye that I bought before it was withdrawn from sale.

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August Books 13) Darkness Audible

13) Darkness Audible, by Graham Andrews

Graham is a well-known figure in Belfast sf circles who actually lives around the corner from where we first lived when we moved to Belgium. This novel is a collection of short stories, most set in Ireland (esp Northern Ireland), linked by a narrative where they are told by a writer who is undergoing psychoanalysis. They are generally not bad at all, but the ‘stylistc quirk’ of ‘frequently’ putting words and phrases in ‘inverted commas’ annoyed me.

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August Books 12) Talkback – The Sixties

12) Talkback: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Doctor Who Interview Book – Volume One: The Sixties, ed. Stephen James Walker

150 pages of interviews with people who had been involved with the making of Doctor Who in the 1960s. Some are more enlightening than others – the most interesting (slightly to my surprise) are the reflections of designers Barry Newbery, Raymond Cusick and John Wood. I wished others had been a bit more probing, especially since, sadly, many of the interviewees are no longer available. Only two actors are included – Anneke Wills and Peter Purves. Most of Dennis Spooner’s anecdotes are disproved by the footnotes. A useful resource for fans of this period of Doctor Who, but not really a casual read for people not already familiar with the subject matter.

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Doctor Who lore

I reported the other day that I had discovered some further information about the child who supplied the voice for the mad computer Xoanon at the end of episode three of The Face of Evil. Doctor Who lore records that the voice was provided by “seven year-old Anthony Frieze, who had won a Design-A-Monster competition administered through the BBC exhibitions at Blackpool and Longleat.”

Apart from the child’s name, every detail of that statement is wrong. Anthony Frieze has been in touch with me to tell his side of the story:

…as you have worked out I was older than the website records. In fact I was almost 11 in September 1976 (or “1876” as T[om] B[aker] dated a poster of his he asked me to sign). I have also seen references to winning a competition which may have been the way the director of the Face of Evil series explained my selection. In fact the explanation is somewhat more “young boys’ club”, as it were. The director, a chap called Pennant Roberts – if I recall correctly – had a wife who was a teacher at my school (Belmont Primary School, Chiswick) and she suggested my name having heard me read at assembly. No competition, as such that I was aware of. I had to re-record the the “Who am I” as I had the wrong emphasis.

I hope this has corrected some of the Dr Who lore.

As always, I wonder how the story about the competition got started? Frieze himself suggests it came from Pennant Roberts; why would he have needed to invent such a tale? Was this an evasion of regulations or agreements about the use of child actors? Or then again, is the origin of the story really just some fevered invention of fandom, perhaps a throwaway remark in an early issue of Doctor Who Monthly?

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Three Doctor Who audios

I’ve been listening to a few of the BBC cds of stories which are also available on video. Why? Because I have more time for audio than video in my day, and I wanted to see if it made much difference to my enjoyment of the stories. Maybe it’s just the way I watch these things, but I found for two out of three of the stories I found my experience of them enhanced in some way.

For The Tenth Planet, there’s a unity-of-form issue: because the fourth episode is missing from the archives (am I right in thinking that this is the only story with precisely one missing episode?), the video reconstruction available with episodes 1-3 is, with the best will in the world, jarring. If you have audio only, with the dulcet tones of Anneke Wills providing linking narration, you do get a sense of Hartnell giving it his all, right to the end.

The Gunfighters both gains and loses. On audio, it is much more difficult to remain unaware of the dodgy accents which are the story’s biggest problem. But this is after all a story done partly for laughs, and told twice over even in the original version, with the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon recapitulating the action. Here we have a further layer of narrative thanks to Peter Purves’ linking narrative, and I found it helped me to follow and appreciate it. The Gunfighters is one of my guilty pleasures.

Nothing can salvage The Dominators, and Wendy Padbury’s narration simply helps us concentrate on the emptiness of the plot; also we miss the visuals which are, I now realise, one of the story’s high points. The one good thing is an interview with Padbury at the end.

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Planet of the Spiders, The Mysterious Planet, Attack of the Graske

Planet of the Spiders was Jon Pertwee’s swan-song as the Doctor, back in 1974. Not as bad as some of the other Pertwee stories I have seen, but as with so many of them it is rather spoiled by the ropey CSO effects, the ineptly chosen cliff-hangers, and the frankly not very scary spiders. Also one of the supporting cast (Jenny Laird, playing Neska) is so wooden in her acting as to suck the life out of any scene she appears in. But the others are good, the Doctor/Sarah Jane chemistry is great (and her grief when the Doctor appears to have died all the more credible), and it’s also good to see (in Tommy) a positive and sympathetic portrayal of someone with learning difficulties. Sadly, as so often for this era, Terrance Dicks’ novelisation is better.

The Mysterious Planet was Robert Holmes’ swan-song, from 1986. He wrote some of the best stories of the original Doctor Who run; this is not one of them. It’s the first segment of the infamous Trial of a Time Lord season, with the action of the main narrative (the Doctor and Peri land on a mysterious planet and must prevent the local bad guys from taking over the universe; also confusingly it may or may not be a far future Earth) frequently interrupted by flashforwards to a courtroom where the Doctor is on trial, the main story being presented as evidence for the prosecution.

The trial sub-plot simply does not work. There appears to be no due procedure that makes any sense; the evidence presented by the Valeyard (at least as far as this story goes) doesn’t do much to prove the case (as even the Inquisitor admits). If you simply tune out these deeply embarrassing bits, you are left with a fairly standard story: a couple of decent performances from guest actors, and a couple of very cardboard-looking robots.

Attack of the Graske is an interactive game on the BBC website featuring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, inviting the young viewer to help him prevent the eponymous Graske from ruining a family Christmas (it went on-line immediately after The Christmas Invasion was shown). The logic puzzles are not terribly taxing but Tennant is at his most charming and chummy, and there is a nicely done (if slightly pointless) scene in Victorian England.

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Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?

…Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek.

(See here from 2:17 on.)

An entry in which may be Taking It All Too Seriously.

I have been wondering a bit about this line. Of course, the main reason Lerner and Lowe chose Norwegian and Greek as the two examples must have been rhythm and rhyme. There are not a lot of alternatives. Other languages with more speakers than Norwegian, whose names both describe the people who speak them and are pronounced as amphibrachs include "Bengali", "Korean", "Somali", but I guess that "Norwegian" fits the cultural context of "My Fair Lady" better. (You could also consider "Ukrainian", "Romanian", "Hungarian", "Albanian", "Bulgarian", "Armenian" and "Mongolian", but a lot of people would pronounce them with four syllables, while I think most English speakers would elide the "i" in "Norwegian".) And the only other language I can think of which would rhyme with "speak" is "Creek". (One could stretch a point for "Arab-eek" or "Amhar-eek", or with a bit more geographical outreach "Tajik", but "Greek" is an understandable choice.)

But the interesting thing about the line "Norwegians learn Norwegian; the Greeks are taught their Greek" is that in 1956, when the musical of My Fair Lady was made, and in 1964, when the film came out, it was not true. At least, not completely. Both Greece (at the time) and Norway are classic examples of countries in a state of diglossia, where there were actually two versions of the official language. Anyone learning Norwegian even today must choose between Bokmål and Nynorsk (Bokmål is a bit like Danish; Nynorsk is a bit like Bokmål). And until 1974, anyone learning modern Greek had to choose between the nineteenth-century Καθαρεύουσα and the (literally) demotic δημοτική (which is now the only standard). It is ironic that the two languages Lerner and Lowe chose for Professor Higgins' line are the two European languages of which the statement was least accurate at the time they were writing.

I strongly suspect Lerner and Lowe were unaware of this wrinkle. More likely, if there is another reason, they chose Norwegian as a mild homage to Ibsen, whose dramatic influence on Shaw is well attested, and Greek as a reference to the original source of the Pygmalion myth which Shaw drew on for the plot and title of his play.

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August Books 11) Preacher [#5]: Dixie Fried

11) Preacher [#5]: Dixie Fried, by Garth Ennis

Back to the main narrative of this series of graphic novels, with our heroes in a comparatively tightly plotted narrative arc which takes them to New Orleans. I am enjoying the development of the relationship between Jesse (the eponymous preacher), girlfriend Tulip and vampire friend Cassidy, but still a bit squicked by the graphic violence. I wonder if Les Enfants du Sang were a deliberate homage to BtVS: Lie to Me.

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August Books 7-10) Four books about Europe

7) Not Quite the Diplomat, by Chris Patten
8) Missed Chances, by Roy Denman
9) Rethinking Europe’s Future, by David P. Calleo
10) Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, by Mark Leonard

Four books by four people who I know, more or less, representing the takes of different decades – Leonard was born in 1974, Patten in 1944, Calleo in 1934 and Denman in 1924. Leonard and I move in similar parts of the epistemic community, and we last saw each other at a brainstorming session to which he invited me last month; I know his father, a former Labour MP for Romford in the 1970s, rather better as he lives in Belgium and we worked together briefly at CEPS. Patten was someone I had a great deal to do with, mostly indirectly, when he was in the post of European Commissioner for External Relations which is the main topic of his book; subsequently we had more direct dealings when he took over as the chair of the Board of my next employers, ICG. Calleo gave the keynote speech at a conference we both attended earlier this year, and we ended up having a long conversation in the course of the three-hour drive back to the airport down the coast of Maine at the end of the event. Denman died last yearHeath as Prime Minister. The book was published in 1997, and is essentially a call to the incoming Labour government to play the EU game as it is meant to be played. I think that, ten years on, Denman would probably have given Blair a pass mark, but not a very high one; he would certainly have failed Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher and Heath.

Calleo’s book, published in 2001, is strongly recommended for academics and wannabe academics – especially, I think, in Europe; his dispassionate analysis of how the EU got to where it was then, and what the options for its future development really are, are a welcome relief from the euphoria or despondency about it which I tend to be exposed to here. He provides massive amounts of citations for further reading, including extensive reference to himself (the book is an answer to his own 1964 Europe’s Future, in which he claims to have forecast how it would all develop, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true). In particular, I found myself very enlightened by his economic analysis, of how the dollar as a world currency has functioned as a system of indirect taxation by the US on everyone else, and how the single currency was in part a response to that. Calleo rather despairs of US attitudes to the rest of the world, and since 2001 his despair has rather increased (for the 2003 paperback edition he adds a post-9/11 postscript, but he is even more eloquent on the subject in person).

Patten’s book is a joy to read, just as Patten himself is usually a joy to listen to. I said above that Europeans may get disproportionately more out of Calleo’s book than Americans, Americans may well get a lot more out of Patten than Europeans. I may be wrong; part of the problem is that I know Patten well enough that I don’t find any of the views he expresses here surprising, and in fact I already agree with most of them. He is more eloquent and specific than Denman on how the British Conservative government screwed up its relationship with Europe (though his assertion that this only really happened after he was kicked out of Parliament in 1992 is at variance with my memory, and with Denman’s account). He is brilliant on the need for the EU to develop a sensible approach to the rest of the world, especially the rising powers of India and China, but also in its own neighbourhood, by integrating the Balkans and Turkey through the prospect of membership. He is also brilliant on the US – writing as a passionate admirer of the American project, but one who is deeply dismayed by the Rumsfeld/Cheney domination of foreign policy.

Leonard’s book is half the length of the others. It is a positive polemic – an assertion that the EU model is not only stable and viable, but that it will prove infectious and beneficial to the rest of the world. He tackles the economics as well, arguing that the demographic crisis is much less grave than some fear, and that the euro will prove a magnet. He writes of the “Eurosphere”, the European, Middles Eastern and African states which he believes will naturally look to the EU as their geopolitical centre of gravity, especially as US influence recedes. It’s an attractive vision, the kind of thing I always chide Commission officials for failing to produce. One can quibble with the details (eg on Macedonia, where in one brief paragraph he doesn’t quite get the sequence of events straight) but the overall thrust of the argument is attractive. Since writing the book, Leonard has been made the head of a new think-tank promoting precisely these ideas.

In summary, the Leonard book is strongly recommended for activists, Calleo for academics; Denman for completists; and Patten for everyone.

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Reading Meme

What are you reading right now?

Just finished four books about the EU which will be the subject of a massive blog entry at the weekend. Meantime, I’m in the middle of Preacher – specifically in the middle of book 5 which is the middle book of nine. I’m also about a hundred pages into volume three of Proust (so about a third of the way throgh the whole thing). Sort-of on the list of books I am reading are two that I lost in mid-read: the complete “Unexpected” short stories of Roald Dahl, which vanished while we were on holiday, and Volume 5 of the About Time books on Doctor Who, which I think I left on the bus last week.

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?

Just picked up the biography of Parnell by Catherine O’Shea and was leafing though it, so it might be that. I have pious aspirations for a few other books as well.

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read?

I really hated Immensee, by Theodor Storm, a dreary nineteenth-century tale of blighted love which was a set text for my German A-level.

“Elisabeth”, sagte er, “hinter jenen blauen Bergen liegt unsere Jugend. Wo ist sie geblieben?”
Well, yeah. Your own bloody fault, mate.

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?

The essential book for career planning, What Color [sic] Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. Changed my life, and could change yours.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they?

No. Our local library is a very small branch of the local Flemish commune. I’m not at home when it’s open on Wednesday afternoons, and I’m too tired when it’s open on Sunday mornings.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer?While you’re having sex? While you’re driving?

Yes. Yes. Rarely. No. No. No. Definitely not.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?

I stayed in bed to have a chance of reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in peace, but that doesn’t quite count. The last one that really kept me awake to find out what was happening was Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay.

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Three short Doctor Who plays

I discovered that I had been missing out on the Doctor Who Monthly CDs issued as companion pieces for the Big Finish sequence of audio plays – I had heard one of them, The Maltese Penguin, but in the wrong place – so have caught up with the first three to take me to roughly the right place in internal continuity.

The Ratings War sees the sinister Beep the Meep attempting to take over the world by brainwashing its population through television, but being thwarted by the Sixth Doctor (companionless, this time). Beep the Meep (from the comic strips) is a one-joke character, and the satire of reality TV has been done to more effect elsewhere, but Colin Baker was really on form.

No Place Like Home has the Fifth Doctor showing new companion Erimem around the Tardis, only to discover that it has been infiltrated by a rodent with super-powers. Didn’t quite work for me – I felt this piece was trying to do too many things at once.

Living Legend has the Eighth Doctor and Charley turning up in Italy on the evening of the 1982 World Cup final (I remember it well; I was on holiday in Connemara). They discover a planned alien invasion and kill the aliens with their brains, or to be more specific they wind up the aliens so much by claiming (as Time Lords) to be able to see into the future that the invasion fails. It’s very funny, and the chemistry between Paul McGann and India Fisher is great – Eight and Charley are obviously at it like knives in the Tardis bedrooms.

Am revisiting some Old Who soundtracks for the rest of this week’s listening.

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Dear Jeremy Paxman,

Alpha Proximi is not the same as Proxima Centauri.

On the other hand, when you have asked a question about chlorides, “potassium” should be an acceptable answer for “potassium chloride”, and when you have asked a question about potassium salts, “nitrate” should be an acceptable answer for “potassium nitrate”.


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The Dæmons, Resurrection of the Daleks, Robot

Three Old Who stories that I’ve been watching.

The Dæmons, first shown in 1971, is presumably the only Doctor Who story featuring a character in the title outside the standard 26 letters of the alphabet (plus numbers and punctuation). I’m a bit stunned that it is remembered as the peak of the Pertwee era by some. It’s not very good; it’s not very bad either; perhaps that makes it an archetypal Pertwee story, and so those who like that sort of thing will like this sort of thing. Delgado is good; Benton and Yates are good (and this story has clearly provided much inspiration for slash writers); both the Third Doctor and Jo are bad, as usual; and the monster is just awful, as is the final twist (it is destroyed when Jo offers her life instead of the Doctor’s as such self-sacrifice CANNOT COMPUTE).

This does at least mark my pasing the half-way point in Pertwee stories: of the 24 broadcast I have now watched 13 (Spearhead from Space, Inferno, Terror of the Autons, The Claws of Axos, The Dæmons, The Curse of Peladon, The Mutants, The Three Doctors, Frontier in Space, Planet of the Daleks, The Green Death, The Time Warrior, and Invasion of the Dinosaurs) which leaves 11. Wonder how long that will take me.

Resurrection of the Daleks: In keeping with my practice of watching the later Davros stories backwards (see Revelation of the Daleks, Remembrance of the Daleks), I tried the Fifth Doctor’s only encounter with his chief foe, from 1984. Well, its did explain the plot line about there being two different factions of Daleks, which had passed me by completely. Apart from that the story makes little sense. It is memorable for lots of big name actors – Leslie Grantham in his first TV role, apparently – all getting shot (apparntly this has the largest number of on-screen violent deaths of any Dooctor Who story) and running around for no apparent reason. When Turlough reappears in the middle of it I was taken by surprise as I had forgotten he was in it. I did like Rodney Bewes’ performance. (And Sneh Gupta.)

There’s some dire Doctor/Davros dialogue (note alliteration) but some good Davison moments too, like when he remembers the previous companions and incarnations, and his reaction to Tegan’s farewell (and she’s been laid out horizontal for most of the story and so missed most of the gore). Basically, this is one for completists. (But if you’re reading this, you probably are a completist.)

Robot was the first of Tom Baker’s stories as the Fourth Doctor, its first episode shown at the end of December 1974. I should really have watched it before getting the first set of Sarah Jane Smith audios, as they turn out to be a sort of sequel. It is particularly remarkable (even now, when Pertwee’s Doctor is a distant memory) for Baker’s jarring, eccentric performance in the title role. In the very first episode, after the hilarious costume change scene, he mimes the sinking of the Titanic while standing in a jeep. This is why Baker was and remains my favourite Doctor – the sense that he is not only a hero, but an alien hero, which only Hartnell and Ecclestone really have come close to. He turns what is basically a standard Pertwee/UNIT story into a real feast of entertainment. Everyone else is good, including the fascist scientists. (Shame about the tank and the final dodgy CSO of the growing and shrinking robot, but you can’t have everything.

In summary, Robot is recommended; the other two really for completists.

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Five from Big Finish

The Rapture: Lots of Who stories begin with the Doctor trying to take his companions to some noted holiday spot to unwind and then ending up somewhere they didn’t expect. This time round, however, they actually arrive in contemporary Ibiza; only, of course, to discover that there are angelic beings, with an evil agenda, running the top night-club, and that Ace’s family history is catching up with her. I had my doubts about the attempts to give Ace some family background in Season 26, but I thought this was working rather well. (Perhaps if I’d slogged through the New Adventures I might have a different view.) All rather well done, with a jazzed-up version of the theme tune introduced by veteran DJ Tony Blackburn.

NB Irish character (first of several this week): troubled Caitriona, played by Anne Bird.

The Sandman: This is another of those Doctor-returns-to-the-scene-of-a-previous-adventure stories, which generally don’t grab me, combined with the Is-the-sixth-Doctor-evil? theme which did so much to blight his years on the programme. Good marks for a complex and detailed alien culture with which the Doctor has to grapple (one of the Galyari is played by Anneke Wills, aka Polly). Poor marks for lots of expository passages and for not really working a plot into the situation. Probably my least favourite Six/Evelyn story so far.

NB Irish character: a slightly improbable interstellar peddler, Mordecan, played by the versatile Robin Bowerman.

The Church and the Crown is a straight historical story, with absolutely no sfnal content apart from the presence of the Tardis crew, and the fact that Peri is the exact double of the Queen of France (a previous Fifth Doctor companion found she had a local double in the last televised purely historical story, and of course this happened to the Doctor himself in France a few decades earlier).

It’s all done rather well, and Caroline Morris as ancient Egyptian companion Erimem is fab (though I thought Andrew Mackay’s King Louis was too demotic and too exaggerated). But there is a basic problem with the plot: the Doctor takes it upon himself to thwart an English invasion of France, purely because he knows it didn’t happen in 1626. In this story, the alien force intervening to alter history is the Doctor himself, which (if this is the same Doctor who would not intervene to save Anne Chaplette in 1572) raises all kinds of issues that are not properly addressed, never mind resolved.

No Irish characters this time (all French or English).

Bang-Bang-A-Boom! ought to be a disaster – Doctor Who trying to satirise popular entertainment usually fails dismally. But it largely works, partly due to the all-star cast – former Goodie Graeme Garden as the doomed but slightly comical professor, former Sheriff of Nottingham Nickolas Grace as the sinister Mr Loozley, and former interstellar vampire Patricia Quinn as an alien princess (so no type-casting there then). There is also an alien which can only crackle rather than talking.

And lots of piss-taking of other sf stories – the space station where the contest is taking place is called “Dark Space Eight”, and the rather colourless station doctor thinks she is in Star Trek – while at the same time the Doctor is trying to solve a murder mystery – one of whose victims is this play’s Irish character, Commentator WLogan, played by David Tughan (presumably the jazz musician).

Jubilee was of course the basis for the superb Ninth Doctor story Dalek. I was surprised, though, by how different it was. There are similarities – the first confrontation between Doctor and imprisoned Dalek, the relationship between Dalek and companion (done more convincingly on TV), the Dalek’s quest for orders (done more convincingly here); but there is a huge difference in setting, the audio play taking place in an alternate 2003 where the world is ruled from London by the villainous Mr and Mrs Martin Jarvis, thanks to the Doctor’s intervention a hundred years earlier. And yet this doesn’t fall into the category of Doctor-returns-to-the-scene-of-a-previous-adventure stories, because the earlier Sixth Doctor is still there. It’s a good one, but the TV version is I think better (not always the case; see Spare Parts).

So, in summary, all good stuff, with The Rapture the best and The Sandman the least impressive.

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August Books 6) Bel Canto

6) Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Novel about a hostage crisis in an unnamed Latin American country rather similar to the 1996-97 hostage crisis in Peru (so the second book about Latin America I’ve read this weekend). Actually it’s much more a relaxed character study of the key individuals among hostages and captors, and their relationships with each other and with music, before the brutal ending that of course we know is coming. Slightly disappointing that all the different nationalities are exactly out of central casting (the Russian is particularly embarrasssing). But quite an interesting read.

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August Books 5) The Shadows of Eliza Lynch

5) The Shadows of Eliza Lynch: How a Nineteenth-century Irish Courtesan Became the Most Powerful Woman in Paraguay, by Siân Rees

I picked this up very cheaply remaindered in Belfast, basically because the only thing I knew about Paraguay was that after fighting a disastrous war with its neighbours in the middle of the nineteenth century, the country had become so depopulated of men that polygamy was madelegal. (I’m not actually sure if this is true, but it seems to be in the lore anyway.)

This book explains how Paraguay got into such a mess, by examining the career of Eliza Lynch, probably Irish, who picked up the son and heir of the Paraguayan president in Paris in 1853 (he was 27; she may have been 18), returned with him to Asunción, and became not only a controversial leading figure in Asunción society but also the single most influential person in her lover’s circle once his father died in 1862.

Rees’ account is basically neutral, and while not totally unsympathetic she doesn’t gloss over the quite outrageous corruption of Eliza’s business affairs; still less over the horrors of the López regime, which began with fairly standard internal espionage and torture of anti-regime conspirators, and ended with blundering into the disastrous 1865-70 war in which the country was devastated by Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina and López turned viciously on his own dwindling band of followers before himself dying in battle. Eliza buried his body herself, and died some years later in obscure poverty back in Paris.

It’s a fascinating story, and unfortunately Rees doesn’t always quite rise to the level required; I’d have liked a bit more reflection on the role of women in politics in the period in Europe, and on the roots and effects of her attempts to bring high culture to Asunción. I see there are a load of other books about her published recently (including a novel by Anne Enright which begins with the arresting sentence: “Francisco Solano López put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854”), but I don’t think I’m sufficiently moved to search them out.

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Spiritual exercise: pray-as-you-go

After I’d had an exchange on the subject of daily meditation with , one of my relatives on Facebook posted a link to the British Jesuits’ Pray-As-You-Go website, which supplies you with daily meditations for the MP3 player, lasting about a quarter of an hour each.

It’s a nice format. They start with bells to get you in the mood (there’s also an option of breathing and meditation exercises to get started properly), then a hymn (not always, even not usually, in English), then a scripture reading, then a reflection on the reading, then the reading again, then the Gloria to finish with. However, I think the content is so explicitly Christian that it probably wouldn’t be much use to someone whose personal preferences were not very close to Roman Catholicism.

The timing fits neatly into the second train journey of the three in my regular daily commute – the sixteen minutes or so from Leuven to Brussels North – so it’s been very easy to integrate into my daily routine. More so than the gym, anyway…)

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Follow-up post #1: ‘s graph

After my earlier musings on the lifespans of the women who have been married to the presidents and vice-presidents of the USA, has had a go at doing a better graphic representation of the data. This is what he came up with by plotting age at death against birthdate for the 83 women in the sample, using a ten-point moving median, presented as a stepped line.

The big jump in longevity at the end of the nineteenth century is still there – accentuated, to be sure, by the very short life of Alice Roosevelt, but even without her it would be pretty clear.

I think that there is still a discernible drop in longevity among the women born in the earlier part of the nineteenth century compared with those born in the eighteenth. is more sceptical. You can decide for yourselves.

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U’s favourite music

Little U is four and a half years old. She cannot talk, and doesn’t understand much of what other people say to her, so she often finds the world a frightening place, especially if her big sister B (who also cannot talk) is being upset.  (Actually, U, a sensitive soul, doesn’t much like it if anyone is upset or shouting near her, but her big sister is particularly frightening.)

U likes music, and she can follow different versions of the same tune through different voices, different musical instruments, even different keys.  Late at night, U can often find a space to curl up on her daddy’s lap when he is playing on the computer, and this is nice and comforting and safe from her scary big sister. 

A few months ago U decided that there was a particular thing to see on the computer that she especially liked.  It starts with a nice man saying what sounds like some comforting words, and then there is music, and pretty pictures to go with the music; and the music changes interestingly and yet remains the same, and the pictures change too but they get prettier and prettier, and are also very interesting and soothing to watch. (Near the end it gets interrupted again by some more people talking, but then it comes back.)  U often falls asleep on her daddy’s lap watching this particular web page.

The web page in question is here.

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Two historical notes

This evening I have had not one but two emails on obscure historical epsiodes, which are worth noting here.

Jeffrey Dudgeon got in touch to urge me to read his article in tonight’s Belfast Telegraph about H. Montgomery Hyde, born a hundred years ago today.  Hyde was the Westminster MP for North Belfast from 1950 to 1959, when he was deselected because of his outspoken support for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, especially after the 1957 Wolfenden Report (published fifty years ago next month).  I replied pointing out that the Belfast Telegraph is in short supply on the streets of Brussels, and Jeff kindly sent me the article which is a fascinating read.  If anyone else would like to see it, I’ll happily put them in touch with him.  (NB I myself was a candidate for North Belfast in 1996; I don’t recall anyone asking me about this issue on the doorstep.)

Humphry Knipe got in touch about the assassination of the Roman emperor Domitian in 96 AD.  Admittedly this was largely in the hope that I would publicise his new novel about the emperor Nero (hey, it worked!) but also to put right a mistake in this essay by Michael Molnar about Domitian’s death on my website.  Molnar puts Mars in the wrong sign (Taurus instead of Gemini) at the time of Domitian‘s assassination (mid-morning on 18 September).  I am very irritated by the facts that that i) this is indeed a crucial difference to the interpretation of the horoscope and ii) I have had both Molnar’s essay and my own earlier analysis, in which I actually got the position of Mars correct, on my website for years, without myself noticing this crucial difference.  I’ve linked to Knipe’s article and website above; judge for yourselves if you want to read his book.

Just thought you would like to know.

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Further update

Thanks, everyone, for your kind words yesterday. It does make a difference.

Today has been a lot better, though still some howling at bedtime. I appear to have the honour of being specially chosen to administer carefully measured dots of toothpaste to her thumb for subsequent sucking.

Further updates as necessary. No big news yet.

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August Books 4) About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, 1975-1979

4) About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, 1975-1979, by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood

I loved the first two books in this series, but felt it would be difficult for the same quality to be kept up for all volumes. This one, covering six of the seven Tom Baker years as Doctor Who, is, frankly, squashed, with fewer than nine pages on average for each story covered, compared to eleven-ish per story for the first two volumes. (Though in pages per episode broadcast it comes out better, at 2.2 which is the same as Vol 1 and a shade more than Vol 2.)

I can forgive it. What’s been cut is the back-stage gossip about the relations between and among the production team and the cast, with enough left in to make it very annoying that you don’t get more; but I felt that the book is as good as the others in the series at looking at the roots of the stories covered, and impassioned in its assessment of the dramatic impact of the programme as broadcast.

Also, it is my favourite period of Doctor Who. This is when I was watching it most assiduously when first broadcast (the second episode of Revenge of the Cybermen was shown on my eighth birthday), and also, frankly, I think it includes a disproportionate number of the truly great stories of Old Who. The Doctor Who Dynamic Ratings Site agrees, with five of its top six Old Who stories dating from this era (The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Genesis of the Daleks, City of Death, Pyramids of Mars and The Deadly Assassin, with The Robots of Death, The Seeds of Doom and The Ark in Space not far behind).

Miles and Wood explain really well how it was that Hinchcliffe and Holmes made it so good, and how and why Williams simply wasn’t able to deliver the same product (and Tom Baker is fingered as a major culprit in that process). There are also the usual enlightening essays about bits of Who-lore, BBC procedures and British culture of the day (of which the best is surely the piece on Top of the Pops). So, while I didn’t learn as much from this book as I did from Volume 1 or 2, I did enjoy wallowing in nostalgia as I read it.

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