September Books 13) Belfast, c. 1600 to c. 1900: The Making of the Modern City

13) Belfast, c. 1600 to c. 1900: The Making of the Modern City, by Raymond Gillespie and Stephen A. Royle

This only just about counts as a book, but I’ll tally it anyway. It’s a 19-page pamphlet produced jointly by the Royal Irish Academy and Belfast City Council, attached to a gorgeous multi-coloured map illustrating the developing historical streetscape, with today’s map faintly visible in the background. The landscape we live in is a palimpsest; this little publication helps to establish what was there before.

What is most fascinating is that the defensive walls built in 1642 almost precisely map the security zone I remember well from my childhood. There are one or two shifts of a few metres, but on the whole the twentieth century security gates were placed pretty much on top of where the town’s defences had been, a third of a millennium earlier. Extraordinary. (If you consider Dublin’s history, by contrast, the commercial heart of the city has slipped about a kilometre downriver over the last thousand years.)

(Click to embiggen)

The streets are colour-coded by the age of the map they first appear on – the darkest green, Castle St, High St, Ann St, Bridge St, Waring St, North St, Cornmarket, etc all appear on the 1685 map; the next level, Donegall St and the various entries including Pottinger’s Entry, all appear on the 1757 map; Donegall Square and the old Smithfield market (E31) are laid out by 1833, and the lighter yellow streets by 1901-02.

The original thirteenth-century settlement is marked as C3 on the map, the location of the original Belfast Castle, between Castle Street and Castle Lane and east of Donegall Place. It burned down in 1708, and I don’t think there are any visible remains of it. (The current Belfast Castle, 6 km to the north, was built in 1870.) The oldest surviving building in Belfast, dating from 1711, is McHugh’s bar on Queens Square, north of the box marked E11 on the map (the 18th-century customs house, which replaced the original one at E10 on Waring Street and was in turn replaced by the current one a block to the north in 1856).

Anyway, I found it fascinating. Though it missed the charming detail from one of the very early maps of Belfast on display in the Ulster Museum, where the surveyors (presumably brought in by Lord Donegall from elsewhere) recorded the name or “Waring Street” as “Wern Street”. Even back then, the locals were capable of baffling outsiders with their accents.

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The meme of unread books

These are the top 106 books most often marked as “unread” by LibraryThing’s users (as of today). As usual, bold what you have read, italicise what you started but couldn’t finish, and strike through what you couldn’t stand. The numbers after each one are the number of LT users who used the tag of that book (that is, last time that the algorithm was done – when I checked, I found most of them had a few more added to the total).

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (149)
Anna Karenina (132)
Crime and punishment (121)
Catch-22 (117)
One hundred years of solitude (115)
Wuthering Heights (110)
The Silmarillion (104)
Life of Pi : a novel (94)
The name of the rose (91)
Don Quixote (91)
Moby Dick (86)
Ulysses (84)
Madame Bovary (83)
The Odyssey (83)
Pride and prejudice (83)
Jane Eyre (80)
A tale of two cities (80)
The brothers Karamazov (80)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies (79)
War and peace (78)
Vanity fair (74)
The time traveler’s wife (73)
The Iliad (73)
Emma (73)
The Blind Assassin (73)
The kite runner (71)
Mrs. Dalloway (70)
Great expectations (70)
American gods (68)
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius (67)
Atlas shrugged (67)
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books (66)
Memoirs of a Geisha (66)
Middlesex (66)
Quicksilver (66)
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West (65)
The Canterbury tales (64)
The historian : a novel (63)
A portrait of the artist as a young man (63)
Love in the time of cholera (62)
Brave new world (61)
The Fountainhead (61)
Foucault’s pendulum (61)
Middlemarch (61)
Frankenstein (59)
The Count of Monte Cristo (59)
Dracula (59)
A clockwork orange (59)
Anansi boys (58)
The once and future king (57)
The grapes of wrath (57)
The poisonwood Bible : a novel (57)
1984 (57)
Angels & demons (56)
The inferno (56)
The satanic verses (55)
Sense and sensibility (55)
The picture of Dorian Gray (55)
Mansfield Park (55)
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (54)
To the lighthouse (54)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (54)
Oliver Twist (54)
Gulliver’s travels (53)
Les misérables (53)
The corrections (53)
The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay (52)
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time (52)
Dune (51)
The prince (51)
The sound and the fury (51)
Angela’s ashes : a memoir (51)
The god of small things (51)
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present (51)
Cryptonomicon (50)
Neverwhere (50)
A confederacy of dunces (50)
A short history of nearly everything (50)
Dubliners (50)
The unbearable lightness of being (49)
Beloved (49)
Slaughterhouse-five (49)
The scarlet letter (48)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (48)
The mists of Avalon (47)
Oryx and Crake : a novel (47)
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed (47)
Cloud atlas (47)
The confusion (46)
Lolita (46)
Persuasion (46)
Northanger abbey (46)
The catcher in the rye (46)
On the road (46)
The hunchback of Notre Dame (45)
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything (45)
Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance : an inquiry into values (45)
The Aeneid (45)
Watership Down (44)
Gravity’s rainbow (44)
The Hobbit (44)
In cold blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences (44)
White teeth (44)
Treasure Island (44)
David Copperfield (44)
The three musketeers (44)

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Nine more Big Finish audios

Two rather routine stories, followed by four very experimental ones and three stories revisiting old Who themes.

listened to it some time ago. Five, Peri and Erimem, rather incoherent plot with witches and planetary invasion, nice touch with the cat at the end.

The Dark Flame: felt this worked a bit better. Seven, Ace and Benny and a rather complex tale of identities and possession – seemed to borrow bits from Image of the Fendahl and The Hand of Fear, but no harm in that.

Doctor Who and the Pirates: billed as the Six and Evelyn musical story, though in fact the Gilbert and Sullivan songs are restricted to the third episode of the four. Bill Oddie as the pirate captain! But a very successful leavening of the comic overtones with a serious and tragic foundation.

Creatures of Beauty: Another experiment in format, with the plot fragmented non-sequentially across the four episodes, so that the crucial contribution of Five and Nyssa to the very beginning of the story only really becomes clear at the end. Very well done.

Project: Lazarus is a story in two parts, the first of which is (another) tragic tale with Six and Evelyn, and the second featuring Seven and Six together – or is it really Six? Rather on the horrific side for my taste, but well done.

Flip-Flop: Like Creatures of Beauty, requires some intellectual work from the listener. The two discs are alternate versions of the same planet’s history, in each case changed into the other by the intervention of the Doctor and Mel. Really very well done.

Omega: Five on his own, dealing with Omega who is attempting to re-manifest in this universe. Lots of creative playing with the listener’s head, culminating in a brilliant moment at the end of episode three. And an Irish time lord – Professor Ertikus, played by Patrick Duggan. Really liked it despite my lack of familiarity with Arc of Infinity. Despite the serious theme I thought it borrowed more than a few elements from Douglas Adams.

Davros: Alas, despite resurrecting Terry Molloy to play Davros, ex-Gulliver/Time Lord/Thal Bernard Horsfall to play the chief human villain, and the fantastic Wendy Padbury to play his wife, I felt the brilliant cast was let down by the plot, which has an episode of silly office bickering between the Sixth Doctor and Davros and then the predictable mayhem and slaughter.

Master: Again, alas, decent performances by all, rather let down by the plot which is an extended piece of the type of fan-fic we have all read so much of since June. (Except this is Seven/Beevers Master rather than Ten/Simm Master.)

In summary, the middle five of these are all excellent; not so sure about the two on either side, though Davros does have nostalgia value.

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Colony in Space, Death to the Daleks

Two Third Doctor stories to write up here, neither of them particularly outstanding.

Colony in Space, from 1971, was the first Third Doctor adventure in space, after a sequence of earthbound adventures. The first episode is rather good, with the Time Lords manipulating the Doctor again, and Jo’s surprise at entering the Tardis being one of the better “it’s bigger…” scenes. Then I’m afraid I felt it lost its way in being padded out to six epsiodes. The danger signs are there when part two has exactly the same cliff-hanger as the part one! And, despite the valiant efforts of all actors, the sets and direction really fail to convey a convincing sense of the scale of this planet, of how far it is from one set of buildings to another. The Master gets in some good cackling and there are some tightly-choreographed fight sequences; but apart from that, nothing much really happens, and the moral message of the story is both plodding and muted.

Death to the Daleks, from 1974, also had good and bad points. This is Sarah Jane Smith’s first space adventure (as Colony in Space was Jo Grant’s) and we start off very well with her in a bikini. The set looks properly like an alien planet. The Exxilons are memorable aliens (and I reckon one of them is still wandering around the Tardis). The Daleks are well voiced by Michael Wisher, who was to become Davros a year later. The plot, unfortunately, has huge holes, and the Daleks’ plan (as usual) makes no sense at all. Wood and Miles identify the cliff-hanger at the end of Episode Three as the weakest in the history of the show, adn they have a point.

I see that both were directed by Michael Briant (who also did The Sea Devils, The Green Death, Revenge of the Cybermen and The Robots of Death

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September Books 12) First Lensman

12) First Lensman, by E.E. “Doc” Smith

The Lensman books are sitting on the shelf, looking at me; and every time I feel I need to cut down the “unread” pile by another notch, they look like an easy quick option. I will probably trudge through them all in the end, but this is another whinge: awful style, awful plotting (especially the way in which important concepts and characters are just plonked into the story without introduction), and the political message being that democratic institutions should be taken from the corrupt ordinary humans and handed over to the control of supermen. *rubs his eyes wearily*

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Bad advice

Some people have been chortling about the fact that a script of President Bush’s speech to the UN got onto the internets, including helpful pronunciation guides for the more difficult foreign words. Myself, I’m sympathetic: lots of names out there are difficult. Even some pretty senior people in NATO have difficulty with the name of their own Secretary-General.

But what surprised me is that at least half of the pronunciation advice given to Bush is clearly incorrect!!! While I’m in agreement with the speechwriters on Harare [hah-RAR-ray] and Caracas [kah-RAH-kus], I have serious doubts about three of the other four cases:

  • “Mauritania [moor-EH-tain-ee-a]” – surely the stress is on the third syllable, not the second?
  • “Mugabe [moo-GAHbee]” – surely the last syllable is pronounced more like “bay” than “bee”?
  • “Sarkozy [sar-KOzee]” – surely stress on the last syllable, sarko-ZEE /saʁkɔˈzi/ ?

Finally, “Kyrgyzstan [KEYRgeez-stan]” is a valiant effort (myself, I would stress the last syllable, though Wikipedia disagrees with me) but in delivering the speech Bush actually got it wrong.

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September Books 10) Athens-Skopje: an uneasy symbiosis, 11) Μακεδονία: a Greek term in modern usage

10) Athens-Skopje: an uneasy symbiosis, ed. Evangelos Kofos and Vlasis Vlasidis
11) Μακεδονία (Macedonia): a Greek term in modern usage, [Georgia Daidikou and Anna Pasali]

One of the things about being in my line of work is that people often send you books to try and convince you of the intellectual credibility of their cause. The Research Centre for Macedonian History and Documentation, part of the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle Foundation, sent me these two books some time ago, and I’ve been looking through them this week. My own sympathies for the Skopje position on the Macedonian name dispute are sufficiently well-known that you will find me (and one of the authors from the first of these books) smeared as a fiendish conspirator with the Jews and the Turks to destroy Hellenism on certain nationalist websites.

Having said that, these are valiant and valid efforts to put forward the Greek side of the story. The first of them is a meaty volume of seven essays on the seven years of the 1995 Interim Accord between Greece and Macedonia agreeing to disagree on the name, and what will happen next (the authors’ prediction, borne out by the facts since, being that things can go on as they are). All seven authors are Greek, and it’s sad but not surprising that I find points of disagreement with most of them. There is a consistent tendency to gloss over the lasting damage done by Greece, both to the newly independent state to the north and to Greece’s own reputation as a responsible international actor, in the early 1990s. It is surely unreasonable to say that Greece cannot look at its own minority issues clearly until “foreign governments stop using minorities and ethnic groups living in border zones for propaganda purposes” (p. 81). It is all very well to state that the Yugoslav state did not officially use the word “Macedonia” to describe its southernmost territories before 1945 (p.191), but to imply that this means nobody did is utterly incorrect, as a quick glance at pages 631-831 of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon will demonstrate. I’m stunned to find an entire essay claiming to describe “The name dispute in FYROM after the signing of the Interim Accord” which takes most of its information about the political situation in (the Republic of) Macedonia from the Greek media. The essay on the presentation of Greece in the Macedonian media and education system actually gives the media a better write-up than I expected, and in its criticisms of school textbooks rather overdoes some reasonable points. The chapter on civil society is OK.

The biggest disappointment of the book is that it doesn’t really examine the reasons for the attitudes of either side in particular depth (though it’s understandable as such research has not always been profitable for the researcher). Oddly enough the second book, Μακεδονία (Macedonia): a Greek term in modern usage, does this rather better, if only for one side: it is a glossy assemblage of pictorial and historical evidence of the use of the name “Macedonia” by Greeks to mean Greeks going back over the last two hundred years or so, the basic message being that the Greek Macedonians are Not Pretending. Which is fair enough; of course, neither are the “Slav-Macedonians”. The introductory text to the last section of the book actually put the situation rather well:

The existence of another Macedonia, which was not Greek, was seen as illogical by those who had forgotten that a part of geographical Macedonia had not been included in the Greek state, as well as by those who had never learned that as a term of geographical origin, the word “Macedonia” was not a Greek monopoly.
It’s an issue which still hasn’t gone away; Greece has certainly lost most of the sympathy of the internationl community on the issue, but retains a number of important cards. It seems unlikely that the newly re-elected Greek government is going to make a lot of difference.

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The answer to the previous question

The country with the memorial of gratitude to Napoleon in its capital city, and with (as a bonus) the grave of a nineteenth-century French ruler, is indeed Slovenia – as correctly established by


, [info]elmyra,





, and most especially

. See it on Google maps here. (Or paste into your mapping programme: 46.0471,14.5028.)

The dead French ruler was the raving conservative Charles X as correctly stated by


 (whose answer to the first half of the question was, er, not so accurate). If you want to see dead Bourbons – one real king, and a few pretenders to the throne – you need to go to the Kostanjevica monastery in Nova Gorica.

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Today’s great international diplomatic misprint

As originally published by the UN (now corrected but Google cache is your friend):

Middle East Quartet meeting gets under way at UN Headquarters

23 September 2007 – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has brought together the principals of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet today for a briefing at United Nations Headquarters in New York from their newly appointed Representative, the former British prime minister Tony Blair, on the latest developments in the troubled region.

Participants at the high-level meeting of the diplomatic grouping – which comprises the UN, the European Union, Russia and the United States – will hear from Mr. Blair on his two visits to the Middle East since assuming his post in late July.

They are also expected to discuss general political issues of the Muddle East, which will be followed by a formal dinner for the Quartet principals, members of the League of Arab States follow-up committee for the Arab Peace Initiative and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

Says it all really.

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Religion as a cause of conflict

I was taken aback by one of the comments to my Belgium post, saying that religion is “the biggest cause of strife in the world”. Even Richard Dawkins doesn’t say that (at least as far as I can tell; he dances jolly close to saying so in what I’ve seen, but seems to pull back from going the whole hog). Christopher Hitchens does appear to say so, at least according to Richard Harries, but he’s a different category of polemicist.

There are, of course, actual figures available on this. I commend the totally comprehensive datasets generated by Uppsala University, especially as processed by the Human Security Project, for anyone who wants to get into this subject in depth; the figures below are for the latest year they cover in detail, 2005, where they find 17,458 deaths worldwide as a result of all types of political violence, including war, in 34 different countries. I won’t review them all here, but the top thirteen, accounting for 84% of the death toll, were as follows:

Iraq. 3,388. While religion is an element in this, I think that there is just a little more going on as well. ETA: this estimate is way below that provided by other sources. The Iraq Body Count has 14,000 civilian deaths in 2005, not to mention the coalition forces.
India. 1,823. Of these, 80% (1464) relate to the conflict in Kashmir, which certainly started and continues as a conflict about religious identity, though again with other elements involved.
Nepal. 1,474. Only counts as religious if Maoism counts as a religion.
Colombia. 1,438. All parties are from the same religious background (Catholics).
Afghanistan. 1,329. Again, there are religious elements, but as with Iraq there is a bit more going on.
Sudan. 1,015. Almost entirely related to Darfur, where all sides are nominally Sunni Muslims.
Uganda. 997. Yep, this is definitely a religious conflict, in that the repulsive Joseph Kony claims to be receiving instructions directly from God.
Ethiopia. 918. Arguable, in that 641 of these relate to the conflict between the (Christian) government and (Muslim) Somalis in the Ogaden province; but there is more than just religion to this particular situation.
Russia. 668. As with Ethiopia, just because Russians have a Christian background and Chechens an Islamic background doesn’t make this a religious conflict.
Thailand. 490. Once again, the Patani insurgents are Muslims and the government Buddhist, but there is more to this one than religion.
Philippines. 418. This is half and half: 237 due to the conflict with Communist insurgents (see Nepal), and 181 due to the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, where, again, religious identity is a factor but not the only one.
Somalia. 370. No religious difference between the factions; all are Sunni Muslims.
Turkey. 359. Minimal religious difference between the Turkish government forces and the Kurds, both being somewhat non-fundamentalist Muslims.

If you’re wondering what happened to Israel/Palestine, 2005 was a relatively quiet year there with “only” 176 deaths due to political violence. The full list of other conflicts tallied by country for 2005 is as follows: Burundi (353); Myanmar/Burma (260); Algeria (253); Nigeria (217); Indonesia (213); Mexico (180); Israel/Palestine (176); Côte d’Ivoire (141); Egypt (124); Sri Lanka (115); Pakistan (111); Chad (100); Democratic Republic of the Congo (92); Rwanda (also 92); Kenya (68); Jordan (62); Guatemala (54); Haiti (40); Brazil (35); Saudi Arabia (31); Iran (28); Azerbaijan (26).

Basically, in all of these cases apart from Uganda (and just possibly Kashmir), to say that the conflict is caused by religion is misleading and wrong. In almost all cases, the drivers of conflict are competition for resources, fuelled by distrust of the idea of government by or with the other side on the basis of past historical experience. In some of the worst cases of violence (Iraqi locally recruited government forces vs local insurgents, Colombia, Darfur) people are fighting their co-religionists. To blithely say that religion is the worst cause of conflict worldwide is incorrect and patronising, suggesting that the solution is for the warring parties to become enlightened like Richard Dawkins, and that if they won’t there is little to be done about it. It is the excuse that was used for non-intervention in the Bosnian war. It is bad analysis of the problem which leads to (or at least excuses) very bad policy decisions.

As for Joseph Kony, he is surely one of the best advertisements for the international war crimes tribunal imaginable.

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“tombé pour notre liberté”

The discussion over on Crooked Timber of Republican candidate Fred Thompson’s claim that “our people have shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world” reminds me of one of the few monuments I have seen which sincerely thanks another country for fighting for the liberty of the locals. It’s in an Eastern European capital, and the nation thanked are the French (specifically one Frenchman, Napoleon), not the Americans.

The monument also contains the remains of an unknown soldier of the Napoleonic wars; as you see on one side there is an enthusiastic endorsement of Napoleon in the local language, and on the next side is this poem:

Sous cette pierre nous avons déposé tes cendres
Soldat sans nom de l’armée napoléonienne
Pour que tu reposes au milieu de nous
Toi qui en allant à la bataille pour la gloire de ton empereur
Es tombé pour notre liberté

This country’s gratitude for past assistance from France is not well known even in France, let alone elsewhere. I can’t imagine that there is any other capital city where Napoleon is so enthusiastically venerated (certainly not Paris, where I have always sensed a certain ambivalence).

OK, folks, no sneaky googling: which capital, and which country, am I talking about?

(For a bonus: which ruler of nineteenth-century France is buried in this same country?)

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The UNIT audios

A series of five (well, four and a half) audios from Big Finish, featuring the now retired General Sir Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and his successors at the head of the British branch of UNIT, portraying them as a sort of military X-Files, but locked in combat for Britain’s security with the Internal Counter Intelligence Service (ICIS). UNIT’s new commander, Ross Brimmacombe-Wood, is played by none other than David Tennant. I enjoyed them very much.

UNIT 0 – The Coup: an introduction to the series, revolving around the Brigadier and new UNIT spokesperson Emily Chaudhry (played by Siri O’Neal), with also recurring journalist character Francis Currie (Michael Hobbs). The Brigadier expiates his own past crimes by cutting a deal with the Silurians, more of whom have now woken up and started infiltrating London. A very short play but memorable.

UNIT 1 – Time Heals: I felt this was the weakest of the plays, mainly because I didn’t really understand What Was Going On. Stephen Carlile, playing the evil scientist’s sidekick Kelly, sounds unnervingly like Matthew Waterhous as Adric. But even though I didn’t really get the plot, I loved the atmosphere, and the instant chemistry between Chaudhry and her new colleague (after Brimmacombe-Wood’s disappearance) Robert Dalton (played by Nicholas Deal).

UNIT 2 – Snake Head: Chaudhry and Dalton go to the seaside to investigate what turns out to be a heady combination of illegal migrants and invisible Albanian vampires. As a Balkanist myself I was on the lookout for gross errors; I didn’t hear any (though Goran is an unusual name for a Kosovo Albanian, it’s not completely unknown). I thought the story tackled this volatile political issue as well as any story in this genre ever can. My one minor reservation about it is that the invisible vampire turns out in the end to be an invisible vampire, rather than having some scientific explanation.

UNIT 3 – The Longest Night: This turned out to be a truly prescient choice of plot, with suicide bombers striking around London and paralyzing the city – it went on sale in March 2005, just four months before this happened in real life. Big Finish takes on racism and extremism, frankly far more effectively than in their earlier play The Fearmonger. The sense of tension and uncertainty was brilliantly conveyed, and the shock ending of killing Dalton (having already killed off the Deputy Prime Minister) is very effective. This is probably the best of the four-and-a-half plays.

UNIT 4 – The Wasting: Now we have old Who meets new Who meets spinoff, with Lethbridge-Stewart phoning an unheard Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter, alas, not being available), David Tennant appearing at long last as Ross Brimmacombe-Wood, and the whole thing being directed by Nicola Bryant (who also makes an appearance as one of the minor characters). The plot is a bit wobbly – again, going back in history, we have, as in The Invasion, a Russian-launched missile resolving the issue, though not quite as much off-screen as in the Troughton story; and the plague killing off much of humanity was originally the Silurians’ plan, so in a sense they get a bit of closure by helping the unheard Harry Sullivan to cure it. But the acting is superb, especially David Tennant (who recorded this not long before getting the job of the Tenth Doctor), and Nicola Bryant must deserve much of the credit for it all seeming to hang together as well as it does.

So, in summary, these are all good fun; if you want to listen to just one to sample, make it #3, The Longest Night.

One side issue: I was comprehensively spoiled for important plot twists by reading the Wikipedia entry for UNIT, and while normally I don’t especially mind, in this case it really did impair my enjoyment of the plays. Hoping to preserve others from being caught the same way, I deleted the key sentences from the WikiPedia page; they were immediately restored by another editor citing WP:SPOIL: “It is almost never acceptable to delete information from an article because it constitutes a spoiler.” WTF?

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A fishy answer to a fishy question

The full sentence was:

“No other fish is so closely associated with Portugal as the cod.”

I admit, I was completely baffled. But my friends list know better. Out of 40 answers, fifteen of you got it right; so kudos to Belgian Waffle, , , , , , , , , , , and extra extra kudos to , , , and for using the correct Portuguese Bacalhau or some variant thereof. I was completely ignorant of this, I have to admit.

The next most popular answer was sardines, favoured by eleven of you (, , , , , , , , , , , and I suppose a twelfth in that made it her backup option).

and favoured tuna. and went for the anchovy. and backed the swordfish. and (and , on second thoughts) went for the Portuguese man-o’-war jellyfish even though it isn’t a fish.

I fear that the other six answers may have been jesting about this serious question, but I will give them here for completeness: : mullet (no, Michael, that’s your hairstyle): carp; : hake, in a nice cider sauce (Yummm); : The Portuguese haddock; : blue grouper; and : a herring! [sic]

Still, the European Voice wins. The fact that fifteen out of forty of you actually did think of the correct fish, and no other fish had more supporters, proves their point, if only rather weakly.

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Q: Is Belgium an artificial state?

A: All states are artificial, my dears. They are all human constructs.

If you look around Europe for international frontiers that “make sense” on historical, geographical, ethnic and linguistic grounds, you will find that pretty much the only one satisfying those criteria is the border between England and France.

Most European borders are tidemarks in the ebb and flow of empires, and the borders of Belgium are not unusual in that respect.

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September Books 9) Starling of the White House

9) Starling of the White House, by Colonel Edmund W. Starling (as told to Thomas Sugrue)

Starling was recruited to the Secret Service in 1914, and guarded in turn Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt. There is little here about the last two, but his portrayal of work at very close quarters with the first three is vivid, entertaining and at times moving; Starling was obviously much more than a guard, and seems to have had a genuine and deep friendship with both Wilson and Coolidge. (I was moved to tears by the death of Calvin Coolidge – and that’s a sentence I never dreamed I would write.) One can’t, of course, be sure how much of this is Starling himself and how much is his ghost-writer; in the first few chapters, describing Starling’s early life and pre-White House career, you can almost hear the Kentucky twang in his voice, but that seems to fall off as the book goes on. One of the glades at the foot of Mount Rushmore is named after Starling, which seems a fitting tribute.

Thanks to

 for the loan of the book.

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VP trivia

What peculiarity links these more or less obscure Vice-Presidents of the United States? (And no sneaky Googling!)

  • Henry Wilson, VP 1873-1875
  • Spiro Agnew, VP 1969-73
  • Gerald Ford, VP 1973-74

Agnew’s inclusion on the list is less clear-cut than the other two.

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LibraryThing, Jefferson, Plato

Over at Librarything, they are adding Thomas Jefferson‘s catalogue to their stock, along with all his notes on books read. Here is his review of Plato’s Republic, from a letter to John Adams written on 5 July 1814 (two years after their reconciliation, almost exactly twelve years before they both died). He was not impressed:

I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure than than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. But how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato? Altho’ Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, & honest. He could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. with the Moderns, I think it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. Education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and dreams of Plato. They give the tone while at school, and few in their after-years have occasion to revise their college opinions. But fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilites, & incomprehensibilities, and what remains? In truth he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption & incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. His foggy mind, is for ever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. Yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame & reverence. The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from it’s indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power & pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them; and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained. Their purposes however, are answered. Plato is canonised; and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. He is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like the beasts of the field or forest … (TJ to John Adams, 5 July 1814)

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September Books 7) The Prophet Muhammad, 8) The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad

7) The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography, by Barnaby Rogerson
8) The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad and the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism, by Barnaby Rogerson

I picked up the second of these remaindered in Belfast last month, and realised that I had better read the first one as well so ordered t from Amazon. These are two breezily written, enthusiastic books about the early decades of Islam. In both cases, Rogerson spends a good third of the book getting to the starting point – the first gives us a detailed description of Arabia’s geographical and political surroundings in the sixth century, before we get onto the meat of the Prophet’s life, and the second recapitulates the narrative of the first book, though I felt it was still worth having bought both.

Rogerson is clearly a sympathiser, and this means that neither book can be considered particularly neutral. But that’s perhaps not such a bad thing; I am more interested in finding out what the Prophet’s followers believe than in getting the historical “facts”, whatever they are. His narrative is complete enough that I did find myself taken aback at some points. Rogerson appears to expect us to be shocked that one of Muhammad’s wives had previously been married to the Prophet’s adopted son, but in fact while the circumstances are a bit murky this is a process that appears to have been consensual on both sides; I was much more taken aback by the fact that his marriage to Aisha took place when the latter was only nine. And whatever the record of later Muslim regimes for inter-religious tolerance (generally not bad, at least, alas, compared to many of their Christian contemporaries) the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Medina was surely not a good start.

My biggest disappointment, however, is that we don’t really get under Muhammad’s skin; Rogerson is too much in awe of him to make him seem like a human being. This may be unfair of me. The thing Muhammad is best known for, his experience of divine revelation, is a long way outside the range of experience for most of us, and it may well be impossible for a biographer – especially, I suspect, a sympathetic biographer – to make it comprehensible for the general reader. But I actually I felt I had got a better idea of his character from Gibbon.

In the second book, Rogerson’s enthusiasm in the face of the facts is almost endearing. While the first two caliphs, Abu Bakr and Omar, seem to have indeed been gifted leaders – it was under Omar that the really big military conquests took place, culminating with Persia, the Holy Land and Egypt – the caliphate collapsed under the leadership of Uthman and Ali, and Rogerson’s attempts to exalt Ali’s reputation (as indeed it is exalted in both Shia and Sunni tradition) are difficult to sustain given his failure to keep his own regime together.

However. This was a very interesting pair of books for me, filling in a significant gap in my knowledge which I had previously only really read in much detail in chapters L and LI of Gibbon

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That careers meme

Everyone’s been doing this, and with my interest in careers advice generally, I thiought I should give it a whirl.

1. Go to
2. Put in Username: nycareers, Password: landmark.
3. Take their “Career Matchmaker” questions.
4. Post the top ten results.

And they are:

1. Anthropologist
2. Historian
3. Lobbyist
4. Criminologist
5. Professor
6. Curator
7. Activist
8. Writer
9. Public Policy Analyst
10. Communications Specialist

Oddly enough, I studied for my history PhD in an anthropology department, and my current job combines elements of #3, #7, #9 and #10 (though not really in that order). Also it requires a fair bit of writing (#8). And my Visiting Fellowship in Belfast puts me a part of the way along to #5. But I have never taken any career steps leading me in the direction of #4 and #6.

I remember that back in my student days I tried the Cambridge Careers Service’s GRADSCOPE software, which recommended I go for “non-technical research”, which is essentially what I have done for all but three of the years since I graduated (though usually with a fair bit of political activism, either on the side or integrated into the work).

The best possible careers advice I can give is still to read What Color is Your Parachute?, by Richard Nelson Bolles.

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Second week of school is always bug week, and both F and U went down with colds on Wednesday, which was also the day I went to London for two days of work meetings – thanks very much to and for your hospitality!

By the time I was on Eurostar on Friday evening my throat was feeling pretty raw as well, and I got home to find Anne in pretty much the same state. And yesterday B (who returned home a week ago) started the morning by gently puking upstairs. By the late afternoon U was in misery, and her temperature had soared to 40.8 (105.8 in your antiquated counting) so we called the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and suggested we take her to hospital for a lung X-ray if she hadn’t improved by today. (F has recovered fully.)

However; things have improved. I cooked a large chicken curry last night, and B, despite her earlier stomach complaints, dug into it gleefully, with no apparent ill effects (indeed, if anything, the reverse). That cheered me up as well; communicating with B is not easy and I feel that cooking her food she enjoys is one of the special things I can do for her. And by the end of the evening, U had also perked up, helping us watch classic music videos off YouTube; this one sent her into peals of laughter. Which is reassuring, at least on most levels.

My throat is still sore but improving. Why is it these bugs usually hit you at the weekend?

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