February Books 20) Improbable Frequency

20) Improbable Frequency, by Arthur Riordan and Bell Helicopter

very kindly sent me the script for this excellent musical comedy, set in 1941 and concerning the adventures of an innocent code-breaker sent to Dublin by British intelligence, who ends up dealing with John Betjeman, Myles na gCopaleen, Erwin Schrödinger, and Ireland’s secret weapon. Some great one-liners – the staff of the British Embassy sing a number with the title “Be Careful Not To Patronise The Irish”; Schrödinger unsuccessfully pursues a woman who scolds him “Don’t you wave your filthy particles at me”. I do wish I’d been able to see the stage version, and perhaps the sound track will become commercially available some time. Anyway, , thanks for letting me experience it even through the rather flattened medium of dead trees.

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February Books 19) Humility Garden

19) Humility Garden, by Felicity Savage

I can’t remember who recommended this to me or how; for a first novel, published when the author was only 20, it’s pretty impressive, a portrayal of a viciously political city with interlocking dynamics of sex, species and death. It isn’t as good, though, as Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books which have a very similar setting, and although it ends with a massive cliff-hanger I am not in a huge rush to track down the sequel.

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February Books 17- 18): Two Sarah Jane Smith audiobooks

17) The Glittering Storm, by Shaun Lyon
18) The Thirteenth Stone, by Justin Richards

These two audiobooks are both based on the recent TV Sarah Jane Adventures, and are read by Elizabeth Sladen. I have a particular concept of what I rate as a book for the bookblog and what I don’t. I’m counting these two because they are described as “audiobooks” and, crucially, feature only one reader doing the text. I listed the audio autobiographies of Tom Baker and Nicholas Courtney on last year’s bookblog on the same basis. The Big Finish Companion Chronicles, by contrast, have two actors each, so I reckon that makes them plays rather than books.

Yet all the Big Finish plays are listed separately on LibraryThing, so I’ve posted all my reviews of them there, even though they are not tagged as bookblog entries here. An argument could be made that if it has an ISBN number, it’s a book, or at least a review of it is fair game for one’s bookblogging. Another argument can be made that it’s my blog and doesn’t have to satisfy anyone except me. I expect I will come back to this fascinating topic some time.

The Glittering Storm The Glittering Storm is OK, but fairly standard stuff: Sarah’s young friends pick up rumours of dubious goings-on involving locals, Sarah herself is the victim of a mysterious burglary, and it turns out to be part of an alien plan to Destroy The World which is duly thwarted.

The Thirteenth Stone was another matter. The setting is a school trip to an ancient stone circle which, according to legend, is a group of warriors chasing a hostile king. Well, you can guess what happens, but it is done well and Elisabeth Sladen gets to show her repertoire, conveying Sarah’s horror and dismay as Luke becomes the focus of the action and also deftly bringing to life the other characters. The contrast between the ancient stones and the scientific techniques for analysing them is very pleasing too. And anyway I am a sucker for anything involving megalithic monuments.

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The Companion Chronicles, series 2

Having mostly enjoyed the first set of these, I can say that the second set is of the same order of quality.

Mother Russia, the first of the new set of Companion Chronicles takes us to almost the same time as the first of the previous set – 1812 rather than 1814, Russia rather than London, and Dodo rather than Vicki as the companion accompanying Steven and the Doctor. Again, it is by Marc Platt, and again it is the best of the four. The comparison in my mind, however, is not with Frostfire but with Martin Day’s novel Bunker Soldiers, which also features One, Steven and Dodo (though in Ukraine rather than Russia and a few centuries earlier) and indeed is also largely told from Steven’s point of view in the first person. Mother Russia is certainly better. Partly it’s that Platt has yet again gone for a fascinating plot of identity-switching complexity, partly also that Peter Purves is very good – he does a fantastic Hartnell, but also seems generally well engaged in the story.

I’ve seen some rave reviews of Helicon Prime out there; I’m afraid it didn’t especially grab me, as I thought the plot was pretty unoriginal, but I felt that the planet of Helicon itself was well portrayed and that Frazer Hines made a decent effort at catching Troughton.

Old Soldiers was better than the other Third Doctor audios out there, but this isn’t saying much unfortunately. The author can’t spell the German name for the setting – it should be “Kriegskind” not “Kreigskind”, and anyway neither makes much sense as a German name. I am going to add another note of pedantic snark and point out that neither part of Germany joined the United Nations until 1973, so German soldiers could hardly have been integrated into UNIT before then; yet we are told that the Brigadier has been working with his German colleagues for years, in a story set immediately after Doctor Who and the Silurians. Take that as my contribution to the UNIT Dating Controversy.

Havng said that, I think it is saved by the way in which Nicholas Courtney explores deeper levels of the Brigadier than we had seen before, and by the music which carries a great atmosphere of menace and doom. Courtney doesn’t try too hard to ‘do’ the Pertwee voice, instead telling the story almost as if it were an official report, which works fine.

I had been looking forward to The Catalyst a lot, given my recently renewed enthusiasm for Leela. Well, it’s a great story for Louise Jameson, who gets to play lots of different roles (she’s pretty terrible at doing Tom Baker, but I don’t mind) but I didn’t like the plot; I generally hate the ones that depend on previously untold adventures, and here we have the Doctor and Leela visiting Lord Joshua Douglas, apparently a former companion of an earlier Doctor. And it never really became clear what was going on; horrible deaths happening all over the place but we never quite got to the bottom of exactly why.

So, try the first of these, and if you like it, experiment with the rest; good performances from the key actors, not so sure about the story in some cases.

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Four Eighth Doctor audios

I have rather run out of enthusiasm for the Eighth Doctor stories, which seemed to me to start very well and then go into a bit of a drag. These four, from late 2004, were the last “new season” presentation before the TV series was revived; I look forward to finding out if a change of format helped.

The other over-riding problem I have had with the Divergent Universe story line is that, if the entire setting is a put-up job by powerful alien scientists, and if our protagonists are in the habit of waking up to find that it was all a dream, it becomes quite difficult to care about what is happening.

Faith Stealer demonstrates one of the weaknesses of Doctor Who as a framework: it’s not very good at exploring religion. You either get deluded/brainwashed cultists or comic Anglicans in funny costumes. Faith Stealer, to its discredit, has both, and the lame joke about the Doctor and company being members of the Tourist faith is compounded by the inane scene with the Church of Serendipity. Some decent bits of character development for C’rizz, but McGann’s Doctor seems to have lost interest, as had I.

The Last was a real low point in a disappointing run of audios. The idea of a crazed dictator refusing to admit the war has been lost is potentially a good one, but why on earth do her advisors not simply remove her from power (in so far as power is still a meaningful concept in such straitened circumstances)? In the real world that is what happens. In any case, it turns out not to matter, as everyone who dies comes back to life at the end of the story; essentially it was all a dream. McGann sounds really bored here, especially when addressing the shades of Katarina and Adric, and I can’t blame him.

Caerdroia was the best of this run. McGann seems to be back into it, and indeed playing three different versions of his own Doctor is surely a stretching experience. The initial mental battle between Doctor and Kro’ka is a good scene too. The baffling streetscape of the shifting city, rooted in Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka, is also well portrayed. It doesn’t all make a lot of sense, but I found it a welcome up-tick in quality.

I’m afraid I felt that The Next Life was the first miss I’ve heard from the normally excellent Alan Barnes. Not that it was actually all that bad, just really far too long, six episodes of over thirty minutes each. I would have trimmed a lot of the first two episodes, where we have Charley and C’rizz yet again experiencing a dream environment (though with a welcome return from Anneke Wills as Charley’s mother); it seemed to take an awfully long time to get to the point.

I did like Daphne Ashbrook (= Grace in the TV movie) in her role as Perfection, and the instant chemistry between her and McGann brought back memories of the early Eight/Charley days; almost a foreshadowing of School Reunion, with Charley playing the jealous newer companion. And C’rizz’s back-story is filled out adequately, though unfortunately I haven’t come to care enough about the character for this to make a lot of difference (and Paul Darrow didn’t seem to be up to par either). Plus at the very end I liked the fate of Rassilon and the Kro’ka. But really it could have been done much better in half the time.

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February Books 16) Matter

16) Matter, by Iain M. Banks

The latest Culture novel by Banks; speaking in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, he said that he felt he is mellowing as he gets older, and the book is strikingly domestic – I can’t think of another Culture book which has such a focus on family. Here we follow the tale of three royal siblings – the sister who ran away from a primitive society to join the Culture, the older brother who is on the run believed dead in battle, and the younger brother who has accidentally become king – as the main set of plot strands. The background for much of the story is the Shell world on which the family originate, a massive nested structure of concentric spheres, more reminiscent of Ringworld than Rama but borrowing from both. I found it not a stretching but a satisfying read; the ending was abrupt, but fitted reasonably well with the accelerating pace throughout the book. If I’m nominating for next year’s Hugos this will probably get a vote from me.

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The Sarah Jane Smith audios, series 2

I wasn’t overwhelmed by the first series of Sarah Jane Smith audios, but the second run is brilliant. Clearly Big Finish have rather hit their stride with the various spinoff series, I Davros also being a pretty unqualified success. And as with I Davros, I reckon the Sarah Jane plays would be fairly accessible to a non-fan, perhaps even more so; the setting is contemporary, and the only heavily sfnal element is in fact Sarah’s own personal history (apart from the ambiguous ending). They form a single story arc, and all of them are by David Bishop, whose novel Who Killed Kennedy I enjoyed last year, and whose Test of Nerve, from the first run of SJS audios, turned out to be rather prophetic in its tale of terrorist attack on the London Underground.

Buried Secrets takes Sarah and her team (wheelchair user Natalie and gormless male sidekick Josh) to Florence, but with a detour for Sarah to meet up with Harry Sullivan’s younger brother Will; a really poignant scene which brought back nostalgic memories of Season 12 thirty years before. Once we get to Florence, there is a certain amount of info-dumping which is necessary for the rest of the plot to develop, but generally it moves along pretty smartly, Natalie’s relations with her archaeological colleagues nicely portrayed, and a suitably dramatic dénouement.

Snow Blind is the one that sounds at first like it’s going to be a straight sequel to The Seeds of Doom, set as it is in Antarctica, but there is a massive twist as Sarah asks the key question about the buried seed pods and nobody knows what she is talking about. Indeed the whole plot leaps back and forth as we wait to see who the traitor is. All stories set in Antarctic bases owe a homage to John W. Campbell and H.P. Lovecraft, and this one wears that genre history proudly.

Fatal Consequences pulls together most of the threads from the first two episodes and resolves them with the presence of Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan!) as the evil leader of the bad guys, and David Gooderson (the least impressive Davros, but better here) as her chief scientist, planning to wipe out the world by biological terrorism. Tremendous stuff, very fast-paced and exciting; and it becomes clear precisely which of the Classic Who stories this entire series is a PS to – luckily for me, I had seen it very recently. And we get horrible deaths including of established characters; all bets are off, it seems.

The pacing of Dreamland is slightly odd, as the first ten minutes are essentially resolving the loose ends from Fatal Consequences, and then we get the revelation about the true background of Sarah’s sidekick Josh. Then it is off to Nevada, for a story which is actually a bit short on plot but makes up for it in characterisation (apart, I’m afraid, from Jon Weinberg whose performance as the spaceship pilot is the weakest of the whole series). And we end on a very ambiguous not: what is happening to Sarah? Killed off or transported to another dimension? As regular fans were soon to discover, the latter was the case as she is now firmly in the New Who canon. There is of course fanfic which bridges the gap.

One of the triumphs of the stories is the way in which families turn out to be important, more important than gangs of conspirators. We have Will Sullivan (played by Tom Chadbon = Duggan in City of Death) and his vanished but adored brother Harry, and the mother and daughter team of protesters, Maude and Emily, in the third story; and the revelation about Josh in the last story as well. And of course we listeners know that there is another family relationship there as Natalie is played by Elizabeth Sladen’s daughter Sadie Miller.

Finally, it is a bit surprising that the same mistake was made three times of giving Sarah a Harry Sullivan-lite gormless male sidekick – Brendan in K9 and Company, Jeremy Fitzoliver in the two Third Doctor audios, and Josh in the first series of Big Finish’s Sarah Jane adventures. Turning Josh into a deeper and more rounded character here was one of Bishop’s best moves. Removing the twittish male side-kick altogether for the new TV series was an even better move.

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Logopolis, Kinda, Snakedance

Those of you who care will have noticed that I’m working my way through classic Who in vaguely historical order; so since I finished the first three Doctors last year, I’ve been gradually ticking off the Tom Baker stories. The result of this has been that I am now least well versed in the Davison era, so I have been compensating a bit – Logopolis, Tom Baker’s last story, ends with Davison’s first though wordless appearance in the role, and Kinda and Snakedance are an interesting pairing, featuring the only returning monster of the Davison era (guest appearances in The Five Doctors aside). Also, all three stories are, in a deep sense, weird, trying to fit a lot more intellectual concepts into the Who format that usual, with varying degrees of success.

I saw Logopolis (of course) back in 1981 and again when it was repeated later in the year. Its biggest problem is that the pacing doesn’t quite match the amount of Stuff that is Happening; the first episode in particular is alarmingly slow, episode two is incomprehensible in places, and it is not surprising that the ratings for the last two episodes were so low.

But the two million viewers who gave up on it between eps 2 and 3 were mistaken. Things I liked about it: the Watcher works really well, even though we never really find out the details of how he works. It generally looks fascinating – the nested Tardises, the streets of Logopolis. John Fraser as the Monitor is great. Nothing that the Master does actually makes sense, but it’s a great debut story for Ainley who does some high-class evil laughter. Nyssa may pop out of nowhere but it’s good to have her back (and out-acting Adric almost instantly). The music is super – the theme for the Watcher suggesting that he is not the Master (as Adric assumes) but something else, and that final chord sequence as it transforms into the Doctor Who theme.

The biggest problem I have with it now is that the Master’s grand plan simply doesn’t compute. How can he have known that the Doctor was headed for the Barnet by-pass? Or would then head for Logopolis? And how quickly will his message to the peoples of the universe reach them, indeed how will the radio telescope, sending messages at sluggish old light-speed, be able to affect the CVE in time? (And since Logopolis is out of commission, who will do this in future next time there is an entropy crisis?) We’ll leave out the fact that the Third Doctor survived a much longer fall in The Paradise of Death, since that story is of dubious canonicity.

Logopolis is not one of the great regeneration stories – there are four of those, and they are The Tenth Planet, The War Games, The Caves of Androzani and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. But it is no way as bad as either Planet of the Spiders or (stretching a point as there is no regeneration) The Ultimate Foe. Good watching, with emphasis on watching rather than trying to understand what is going on.

The DVD is almost worth the cover price alone for the documentary on the transition between Doctors, “A New Body At Last”, featuring interviews with Davison, Baker (as hilarious as ever) and numerous other cast and crew.

I also saw Kinda on first showing in 1982, and in some ways it is even less comprehensible than Logopolis, though in other ways it is fairly clear what is going on – giant pink snake trying to penetrate Tegan’s inner recesses, and all that. It is one of Doctor Who’s most successful takes on colonialism (a theme the Pertwee era consistently tried and failed with) even though that isn’t really the point of the story. Wood and Miles point to the influence of Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, and while I can see that, I think it may be a more general reflection of the ecological concerns of the day. The deep themes are laid on pretty heavily – the apple in paradise, the reflections of the “real” world in Tegan’s dream, and on the whole we are shown rather than told about it. There are some impressive performances – Janet Fielding as Tegan of course, the three colonial officers (though we never find out what happened to their missing colleagues) the two Kinda women and the Trickster, which means you can almost overlook the cheapness of the sets and how wooden Adric is. Rather fascinating.

Unlike the other two stories here, I missed Snakedance first time round in 1983. It is actually good, perhaps the best Fifth Doctor story apart from The Caves of Androzani. There are two things that really make it so. First, the setting is completely convincing – this really does seem like a planet whose society extends beyond the edge of the camera’s point of view. Not having the same constraints as the TV stories, the Big Finish audios have usually been much more successful at doing this, and Snakedance is a rare hit in this regard (especially for this era). The second strike in favour is the cast: Adric has been disposed of, and the irritating (and ultimately evil) young man of this story is none other than Martin Clunes, later of course one of the Men Behaving Badly. But it’s unfair to the others to single him out; everyone is pretty good (again, special mention for Janet Fielding). The plot is a lot more comprehensible too, if anything almost too much like a standard Who plot, with the notable exception that rather than everyone suddenly agreeing to accept the leadership of the Doctor, who has just appeared out of nowhere, to get them through the crisis, they sensibly try and get on with it themselves and regard him as a nuisance. All very watchable.

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The Friday question: money

One of the restaurants where I sometimes eat lunch contacted me to say that they had made a mistake and billed my credit card €2260 instead of €22.60 last time I was there with a friend. Apparently they couldn’t just reverse it but wanted to refund me in cash. So I dropped in today, picked up the €2k and change, and walked it straight over to my bank, fortunately just around the corner.

I got to thinking, though, about handling large amounts of cash. I once had to bank £7000 in takings from a shop I was managing, which is certainly the most British currency I’ve ever handled. But in the wild days of my time in Bosnia, I routinely did the Sarajevo-Banja Luka run with more than that in Deutschmarks, probably going up to DM 50,000 occasionally, though I don’t remember exactly.

These days, so much is done electronically that it is rare for me to have even a hundred euro on me in cash (muggers please note).

So, what’s the most worryingly vast amount of cash you have ever handled?

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Getting up in the middle of the night

I’m going to bed now, because F wants me to wake him up in the middle of the night to see the lunar eclipse. I’ve seen several in my life, but it’s different when you are eight. Indeed, since there won’t be another total lunar eclipse until December 2010, and rather longer until the next one properly visible from here, maybe I should relish it a bit more.

I’ve been looking back through the list of eclipses in my lifetime. I think I have seen about four. They are on the whole associated with moments of change in my life, to my surprise. I’m pretty sure I remember 9 September 1978, a couple of weeks after I started grammar school; I’m certain I remember 16 October 1986, just after I had started at Cambridge; and I also remember 9 December 1992, attending a pub quiz in the Rotterdam in Belfast, not long before Anne and I got engaged.

And of course there was the 11 August 1999 total solar eclipse. We drove south to France, with visiting in-laws, two-year-old B and two-week-old F, along with the entire population of Belgium and most of the Netherlands, and indeed managed to catch a few moments of totality as the clouds parted near the end. B commented “Dark”, and then, thoughtfully, “Sunset”; she was receding into her own world already, but we did not know that.

So F, who has seen the photographs of himself as a neonate from 1999, is keen to be woken up in time for this one. If the weather holds (though the forecast is for fog), he should be satisfied.

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The Four Things anti-meme

The four things meme has been going round again; my answers to it now are not sufficiently different from when I did it two years ago to be worth recording again.

But here’s a different version, seen on a locked entry on my friends-list, copied from a locked entry by someone else:

Four  jobs I didn’t get

Director of Political Party operations for the OSCE mission in Kosovo (actually was offered it but turned it down). Representative of North Belfast after the 1996 elections. Executive Director of ISIS Europe. Adviser to a European Commissioner.

Four films I didn’t even get to the end of

Twelfth Night. Comedy of Errors. The Fisher King. Can’t think of a fourth.

Four places I haven’t lived

Kosovo, Cyprus, Washington DC, Africa

Four TV shows that I don’t watch that everybody keeps going on about

SGA. Ashes to Ashes. 24. Heroes.

Four places I haven’t been

Africa. South America. The Pacific. Latvia.

Four people who I wish would stop e-mailing me

The Spark application on Facebook. All the other applications on Facebook. Shelfari. That weird bloke who used to hang around the college chapel in Cambridge.

Four of my least favourite foods

Spinach. Spinach. Spinach. Spinach.

Four places I would hate to be right now

Outside (because it’s cold). Antarctica (because it’s colder). Iraq. Chad.

Four things that I am not looking forward to this year

Actually rather difficult to think about the immediate future in such negative terms. Try it if you like though.

Four authors I’m patently not going to read no matter how you go on about them

Nora Roberts. Laurell K. Hamilton. Chuck Palahniuk. Charlaine Harris.

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More media

Did another debate on France 24 last night, visible here – my Russian and German co-panellists actually succeeded in making the Serbian ambassador look moderate! (My preparation for it was a bit less frantic than last time – I had at least worn a suit to work.)

On a lighter note (and not featuring me), Andorra is not in Africa.

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Kosovo and Cyprus

A lot of my work involves steady slogging against the prevailing political winds. So when I get not one but two favourable gusts filling my sails on the same day, it is definitely worth noting.

Kosovo has declared independence, after years of restraint; and it seems likely that the international community by and large will recognise it – most of the EU member states will decide to do so at tomorrow’s regular meeting of foreign ministers, and various other international actors have been lined up at least to facilitate the process. It’s no big secret that I’ve been in favour of this for a long time; I’m glad that we appear to have a fairly soft landing for this process, though of course there are many pitfalls ahead. As one of my Kosovo friends said last year, this was one of the least unexpected developments in the Balkans in the last two decades: the ground had been well prepared, and the choreography is being duly executed.

The unexpected good news is that the Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, has lost his bid for re-election, by quite a narrow margin but none the less he is out. There’s still some way to go – in particular the two remaining more moderate candidates must now compete for Papadopoulos’ hard-line votes – but the prospects for a Cyprus settlement suddenly look a bit better. As usual the Cyprus Mail has a trenchant commentary (written before the election took place) as part of its regular Tales from the Coffeeshop series; you may have to concentrate to interpret the columnist’s nicknames for the personalities involved – eg: ‘The ad contained the following statement by the five-star, luxury hotel suite freedom fighter: “My history does not allow me to be silent.” As if there is anyone in Cyprus who does not know his history as a windbag.’

There is a possible connection between the two events. The two situations are more closely linked than may be immediately apparent; certainly I have always been conscious of the similarities. Papadopoulos is practically the only Greek Cypriot president who could not even manage a modest lurch towards a settlement, and the voters have duly taken note. It may possibly be that a crucial bloc of Greek Cypriot voters realised that his policy towards the Turkish Cypriots was dangerously similar to the Serbian policy towards the Kosovars, which has so visibly and catastrophically failed today. Sometimes the ‘domino effect’ can be a positive one.

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February Books 15) The Megalithic European

15) The Megalithic European, by Julian Cope

Like Ian, I recently acquired this book and have been browsing it in preparation for further excursions; it’s long been a fascination of mine. Cope has some thoughts about sacred landscapes and what you can tell about the monuments just by looking at them and feeling what the builders must have intended. There is a nice gazetteer section covering the Belgian and Irish monuments – I really hadn’t appreciated that there was so much in the Sligo area! – plus various other parts of Europe, some of which I knew about (Brittany, the Mediterranean, especially the Maltese cart ruts and temples which I saw aged 8) and some of which I didn’t (the monuments dotted all over Denmark and southern Sweden). Illustrated with gorgeous pictures as well, some including Cope himself or else his wife Dorian.

The maps are not always terribly clear, and I wonder how much this would actually help me find some of the sites – I shall hope to put it to the test at Wéris some time this year. Also I was puzzled that Cope seems to buy into what has always seemed to me the least convincing bit of megalithic orthodoxy, that dolmens (see userpic) were usually originally covered with earth or stones which has since weathered away; it seems to me vanishingly unlikely that this can be true of more than a handful of them.

Anyway, a lovely book to look at.

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Bernice Summerfield, Season 2

As sometimes happens, I’m catching up with my Big Finish audio listening. I got through the second series of Bernice Summerfield audios, none of which reached the heights of the first series.

The Secret of Cassandra was a nice set of character studies, spoiled by a silly plot. Why on earth should the captain, charged with a vital military mission, stop off to pick up passing strangers? And the switch of loyalties of the computer Cassandra was most unconvincing.

The Stone’s Lament is the best of these four. Benny and her colleague Adrian are stuck in an isolated house with a mad host who is obsessed with her; once again we have an intelligent computer with ideas above its station, all comes nicely together.

The Extinction Event had Miles Richardson making the first of his many appearances as Irving Braxiatel, and a story of the aftermath of planetary destruction. It seemed a bit implausible that this would be played out in the context of an auction, and I didn’t find the denouement totally convincing.

The Skymines of Karthos was OK. I liked the concept of Benny going to the rescue of her friend, trapped in a troubled marriage and peculiar planet. The interaction with the dubious errant husband was also very well done. But I was puzzled by Benny’s pregnancy – presumably a part of the background story I had missed?

So, if you are getting any of these, make it The Stone’s Lament.

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February Books 14) Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising

14) Dublin Castle and the 1916 Rising: The Story of Sir Matthew Nathan, by Leon Ó Broin

This is a good example of how to take a rich and largely untapped vein of source material – the private papers of Sir Matthew Nathan, supplemented by the memoirs of Arthur Hamilton Norway and his wife Mary Louisa – and turn it into a good read. It’s not as comprehensive – because it doesn’t aim to be – as Charles Townshend’s more recent book, but is way better than Brian Barton’s treatment of similar documents.

Sir Matthew Nathan was the most senior civil servant in Ireland in 1916. Because the political head of government, Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell, spent most of his time in London, and their nominal superior, the Lord Lieutenant Lord Wimborne, was being kept out of the loop, Nathan was effectively in day-to-day control of the whole of Ireland until events overwhelmed him on that Easter Monday. He was a dedicated documenter of his own activities, and therefore a historian’s dream: and Mrs Norway published her own reminiscences of the Rising shortly afterwards, from the perspective of the woman whose husband ran the GPO. (Their son later reminisced as well.)

The first half of the book is, sensibly enough, taken up with an account of Nathan’s career in Ireland and before up to Easter 1916, and how it was that the rebellion was allowed to break out. It illustrates well one of the points also made by Townshend, that the old Irish Nationalist Party had completely lost credibility by 1915. But a related point that was largely new to me was the extent to which Nathan in particular was discussing the handing over of control of the government to a Home Rule administration headed by John Redmond and John Dillon. It was an opportunity missed, in a way – if their talks had been more public, it would have been possible to construct a public narrative of an all-but-imminent handover of power (as has been done in Kosovo over the last couple of years), which would have undercut the extremists, rather than the perception of Liberal dithering and a creeping reinfiltration of Unionist influence which corroded public confidence.

The second half of the book is taken up with the Rising itself and the aftermath. Again, one of Townshend’s points, that British surveillance of and intelligence on the rebels was pretty minimal, is reinforced. In fact, it seems that, thanks to the Admiralty’s radio intercepts, London had better information on what was going on behind the scenes in Berlin than Dublin Castle had about Ireland. They still failed to put the pieces together – in particular, the official line on Roger Casement, that he had been sent from Germany to take charge of the Rising when in fact he had returned to Ireland to try and call it off, was supported by dodgy intelligence dossiers the like of which we have seen in other contexts more recently. I believe that some of the British official documents from 1916 are still not open to the public, and won’t be until 2016; whatever can be in them, I wonder?

Ó Broin himself was actually Norway’s successor – in his professional life, he was the Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, and was instrumental in the creation of the T in RTÉ. The book was published in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Rising, and must surely have been a rather odd contribution to the political discourse of the time, rather a contrast to official glorification of the political heritage of the rebels by looking at it from a completely different point of view. His political credentials were impeccable, which must have given the book extra weight (he also wrote books about Charles Gavan Duffy, Augustine Birrell, the 1867 Fenian rising, Michael Collins, Joseph Brennan, Parnell, Robert Emmet, and the I.R.B.) I’d read a couple of his other books – in particular, his autobiography, …Just Like Yesterday – and had this one on the bookshelves for years; I’m glad I finally got around to it.

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Morning time

So, for the first (and therefore only) time this week, my train connections worked out perfectly on my way to Brussels, and we were just pulling in to Schuman station, right next to the BBC studio…

…when the Today programme called and asked if it was all right for me to do the piece tomorrow morning instead.

I said yes, of course; but will ask them if I can do it from home rather than trek into town first thing on a Saturday.

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The experience thing

Bumped up from a comment to someone else’s entry, asking to what extent the previous political experience of US presidential candidates has correlated with their ability to do the job:

WikiPedia has a handy ranking of all US presidents which may not precisely match your own view but does reflect a certain consensus.

The best five presidents, according to this ranking, were:

1) Abraham Lincoln: 8 years as state legislator in Illinois, 2 years in US House of Representatives, unsuccessful candidate for US Senate
2) Franklin Roosevelt: 2 years in NY state senate, 7 years as Asst Secretary of the navy, unsuccessful candidate for VP of the US in 1920, 4 years as governor of New York
3) George Washington: member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, not sure how long for, which seems to have been his only previous experience of elected office; general during Revolutionary War
4) Thomas Jefferson: Also member of House of Burgesses, not sure how long for, and of its successor the Virginia House of Delegates for 3 years; governor of Virginia for 3 years; Secretary of State for 4 years; Vice-President for 4 years.
5) Theodore Roosevelt: 3 years in New York state legislature, 1 year as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 2 years as governor of New York, six months as Vice-President of the United States.

By contrast, the worst five according to this ranking were:

1) Warren Harding: 4 years in state senate, 2 years as governor of Ohio, six as US Senator.
2) James Buchanan: 4 years in state legislature, 10 in US House of Representatives, 11 in US Senate, 4 as Secretary of State
3) Franklin Pierce: 4 years in US House of Representatives, 5 in US Senate, successful military figure
4) Andrew Johnson: Tennessee state legislature, not sure how long; 5 years as governor of Tennessee and three as military governor; almost six weeks as Vice President of the United States
5) William Henry Harrison: successful military figure, 3 years in US House of Representatives, 3 years in state senate, 4 years in US Senate, unsuccessful candidate for President of the United States in 1836

It is striking how similar the careers of the best (Lincoln) and the worst (Harding) are. Indeed, if you had to choose betwen the two of them based purely on political experience, you would probably choose Harding, who had six years on Capitol Hill compared to Lincoln’s two, and had been a state governor to boot. The most extensive political CV of these ten, perhaps of any president (I haven’t gone into the others in depth) is Buchanan’s, with a decade in each house on Capitol Hill and a term as Secretary of State, which still leaves him ranked as worse than any other President bar Harding.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Once you’ve reached a certain level of political activity, the length of your CV reflects your age much more than your ability. (Indeed, that is probably true in any walk of life.) In addition, of course, it’s not just what you have done but how you have done it: Lincoln’s unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 1858 was a far more impressive affair than anything Harding ever did in his life. And finally, for me, and I suspect for many people, most of the important lessons I have learned came relatively early in my career and increasingly long ago. But you won’t see that on my CV.

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Two glorious Youtube videos

Saw both of these on the f-list over the last few days, can’t rememeber where, sorry for not hat-tipping but these are too good not to share.

Salvador Dali on What’s My Line, some time in the 1950s

Frank Zappa conducts Ravel’s Bolero, 1988

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Church and so on

There has been much fuss while I was (ironically enough) in Rome about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on Islam and Sharia law in the UK. The Archbishop’s own website tries without success to clarify. The key problem is that his argument is fundamentally incomprehensible. has a very good take-down of Williams’ remarks from the legal perspective. I’m going to take a brief look at the political side of it.

But before I do that I’m going to step aside – about 400 miles to the west – and react to Belgian Waffle’s comments on press coverage of Tony Blair’s conversion to Catholicism, echoing to an extent ‘s comments from some time ago (see also Ken MacLeod). There is indeed a bit of weirdness in English views on Catholicism – though I think BW is over-sensitive in reaction to the phrase “cradle Catholic” – the reason we don’t use it in Ireland is because most of us are, unlike in England where there are quite a lot of converts who tend to be fairly visible. But this ties into a deeper weirdness (he said, in a completely unprejudiced way) in English views of religion in general.

One of the big elements of culture shock for me when I first lived in England (two months working on an archaeological site in 1985, when I was 18) was to encounter people who actually took the Church of England seriously. Brought up on BBC news reports and sit-coms (and the 1982 Barchester mini-series), plus of course my Catholic education which informed me that the Reformation happened because of Luther’s poor relationship with his father, it had never occurred to me that the Church of England was anything other than a much-mocked hangover of Henry VIII’s infidelity.

Five years being educated at the second oldest college in Cambridge gave me a more rounded appreciation of the Anglican tradition. (The new Dean of the college, who started at the same time as we did and married me and Anne seven years later, had just been appointed as the immediate successor to one Rowan Williams.) Yet there’s always this undercurrent of not quite knowing what the Church is for. “I don’t know what I am, so I suppose I’m C of E” was the standard response to my Northern Irish enquiries about people’s denominational identities.

And what I detect with Rowan Williams’ statements is a failure to engage with the problem that Anglicanism has with itself. Of course, this is because the media cannot boil down his complex concepts into short sound-bites; but it is actually his job to do that for them, and if he does not make the message simple enough to understand, then perhaps it is not actually worth bothering to try. I’m not a huge fan of the current Pope, but at least his response to the Stupid Storm of eighteen months ago was to apologise

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That Doctor Who meme

Lots of people are doing this long Doctor Who meme, so I will too. Most people are posting it in locked entries for whatever reason, but I won’t!

1. When did you start watching and why?

Way way back in the mid-1970s, because it was what was on on Saturday nights.

2. What was your first serial/episode?

The first episode I remember watching is the last part of Frontier in Space, broadcast 31 March 1973, particularly the moment when the Master says that he has got some old friends for the Doctor.

3. Which serials/episodes have you seen?

All of One, Two and Three; almost all of Four; most of Five; more than half of Six and Seven; all of Eight, Nine and Ten.

3a. Favourite?

The Daleks’ Master Plan; The Mind Robber; The Deadly Assassin; Talons of Weng-Chiang, and basically anything with Leela; Caves of Androzani; Ghost Light; “Dalek”; “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances”; “School Reunion”; “Blink”.

4. Are your friends/family interested in the show?

My wife and son are, at least in New Who; my brother is must much into it and my sister shares our nostalgia though to a lesser extent.

5. Which Doctor is your favourite?

Still Four. But One and Nine are not far behind him.

6. Which Doctor is your least favourite?

Three, followed by (in his TV version, rather than audios) Six.

7. Which TV companion is your favourite?

Leela! Leela! Leela! And then Zoë.

8. Which TV companion is your least favourite?

Jo Grant. To a lesser extent, because he hardly counts, Kamelion.

9. Do you listen to the Big Finish audios?

Yes, though I’m still catching up.

9a. If so, which is your favourite?

I really really love “Spare Parts”.

9b. Also: which Big Finish companion is your favourite?

All three of the female ones sound excellent in their different ways – Erimem, Charley and Evelyn. (But does Bernice Summerfield count? If so she wins.) (And does Leela count also? Because if so she wins too.)

10. Have you listened to any non-Big Finish audios?

Just the two Barry Letts Pertwee ones, the two semi-canonical Four ones and Slipback.

10a. If so, which is your favourite?

Didn’t really care for any of them. The Ghosts of N-Space was the least stupid.

11. Have you read any of the novels or short stories?

Yes, about a dozen original novels and perhaps half as many short story collections, though again am not into them in depth.

11a. Have you written any of the novels or short stories?


11b. Which is your favourite?

Hmm; I’ve enjoyed the short story collections most.

12. Have you read any of the comics?

Was a regular reader of DWM in the Four and Five eras. Not really since.

12a. You guessed it–which is your favourite?

I love Colin Baker’s Age of Chaos as a curiosity. From the old days, I particularly remember the Parkhouse/Gibbons story “The End of the Line”.

13. Do you watch any of the spinoffs (e.g. Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures)?

Yes, both.

13a. Which is your favourite?

I like them both!

14. Is there any particular episode/book/audio/comic you desperately want to watch/listen to/read?

Looking forward to the Sontarans coming back. Looking forward to hearing “The Kingmaker” as everyone says it is great.

15. Do you write fanfic for Doctor Who?

Only once.

15a. If so, post a snippet of a work-in-progress (or several)!


16. Do you create Doctor Who icons?

Rarely, and not very imaginatively.

16a. Let’s see a sample!

and . And also .

17. Recommend a fanfic/icon/fanvid/fancomic/fancreation!

I love this fanvid based on Mike Oldfield’s Moonlight Shadow; and I am a fan of the complete works of Babelcolour, starting with this.

18. Have you been to any Doctor Who conventions?

No, though I’ve done Who panels at general sf cons.

19. Have you ever dressed up as a Doctor Who character?

Not that I am admitting to.

20. Do you own any Doctor Who merchandise?

My wife got me this handy gadget last year, which looks great in the office.

21. Are you a fan of Russell T. Davies?


21a. Steven Moffat?


21b. Paul Cornell?


22. What say you to Season 6b?

Yes – fits in with the general concept of stretching the gap between Planet of Fire and Caves of Androzani to accommodate all the Five/Peri audios!

23. The UNIT dating controversy?

Less excited by this one.

24. The Blinovitch Limitation Effect?

Obviously violated for convenience’s sake!

25. Multi-Doctor episodes?

A good idea but often poorly done – Three Doctors! Two Doctors! Dimensions in Time! But I like the others – Five Doctors, Zagreus and Time Crash. (Not so wild about the other Big Finish ones.)

26. What’s your favourite Doctor Who technobabble?

From Old Who it is this classic Hartnell phrase. From New Who, it has to be “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff”.

27. Have you watched other TV shows exclusively because of the presence of Doctor Who actors?


28. Have you met any of the actors?


28a. Traveled to any filming locations?

Not yet!

29. What do you think of “The Curse of Fatal Death”?

Great fun!

30. Do you have any fannish opinions that you think are fairly unpopular?

I actually liked most of series 1 of Torchwood! And I can’t understand why anyone doesn’t completely love The Gunfighters! Plus I don’t think Dodo was all that bad!

31. What’s your favourite pairing?

Eight/Charley, which is practically canonical, followed by Four/Romana II, followed by Two/Zoë; I’m moderately impressed with Steven/Dodo as well.

32. What pairing(s) won’t you touch with a really long pole?

Anything with One, who is clearly not into that sort of thing.

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February Books 13) The Time Out Guide to Rome

13) The Time Out Guide to Rome

Invested in this in Brussels airport, and it was worth it – good background essays, very good restaurant recommendations, a sensible approach to navigating around the sights. My one complaint is that the maps are not tied to the text awfully well, and actually allowed us to go seriously astray when we looked for the catacombs along the Appian Way.

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Weekend in Rome

A rather glorious break in Rome, leaving the in-laws in charge of the small beings and exploring the Eternal City ourselves.

I’d been to Rome a few times before; once as a baby, because my grandmother lived there at the time; once with my then girlfriend while inter-railing in 1986; again on my own in 1992; and a few times for conferences and other work trips since 2002. Anne hadn’t been in Italy at all apart from cutting across the northeastern corner on one of our Balkan trips. So we were coming with different experiences and expectations.

First minor glitch: our lunchtime flight out of Brussels was two and a half hours late. So all we got of Rome on Friday evening was dinner, and basic orientation in and around the hotel (La Griffe, on Via Nazionale near the Piazza della Repubblica – decent enough, the rooms rather warm but that has its compensations).

We arose in a leisurely way on Saturday and got the Metro to the Vatican. Once there, we by-passed the museums to go and explore St Peter’s properly. What strikes me is that it is so huge but wears its hugeness quite lightly; there must have been well over a thousand tourists and pilgrims there with us, but we didn’t feel crowded. There were significant numbers of eastern Asians among the tourists, and I reckon that they were mainly Japanese rather than from the more Christian countries of the region, coming to get a good look at the European cultic sights as European and American tourists do the rounds of Shinto temples in Japan. St Peter’s is a working religious space too, of course; one corner is roped off for confessions, a Mass was going on in a side-chapel, in the crypt people were venerating the recently occupied tomb of John Paul II. Indeed, that’s the message of St Peter’s in a way, that this is the headquarters of an institution with centuries of history behind it, I guess one of the longest surviving political or religious entities in today’s world. That’s why the centrality of the tomb of St Peter himself is so important to the building, and the continuity is emphasised by the visible monuments of his successors – indeed, one or two of the successors are themselves visibly on display, most notably John XXIII.

We left and headed east, down to the Castel Sant’ Angelo, built as his own mausoleum by a bloke more famous in England for his wall, also of course where Tosca hurls herself to her doom; and then crossed the river and found lunch in the Piazza Navona, populated with rather indifferent buskers and rugby fans filtering in for the match on Sunday.

Then we strolled over to the Pantheon, again built by the bloke who did the wall; a beautifully proportioned building, very graceful. Is there another building in the world still being used for its original purpose after almost 1900 years? I mean as a place of worship in general, of course; there are churches and cathedrals which were built before the Pantheon was handed over to the Christians (thinking of the cathedral in Trier, for one, and I’m sure the monastery at Mt Sinai goes back almost as far) but I don’t know of anywhere else where the original 2nd-century infrastructure is still in use. Perhaps in India or China; I’m not well-enough informed. But I suspect the Pantheon may hold the European record.

A block or two away we had a good giggle at Bernini’s elephant built to honour Pope Alexander VII, because apparently the elephant was considered a symbol of continence because it was supposed to mate only once every five years. History does not record whether the Pope thought this rate was appropriate for Popes, clergy or laity.

And then slowly over past the Wedding Cake monument (shrouded in scaffolding, alas) to the Forum. The difference in street level between the modern tarmac and the Forum’s flagstones is pretty incredible; I wonder if anyone has analysed how much of it is down to rubble, and how much to general domestic rubbish piling up over the centuries. My favourite things in the Forum are the three triumphal arches, Septimus Severus commemorating his defeat of the Parthians (with Smurf hats), Titus commemorating the sack of Jerusalem, and Constantine celebrating the Milvian Bridge. One new thought that occurred to me was that the arches actually are not so very big, compared to, say, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Trafalgar Square. The Romans could certainly have built that big if they had wanted to (clear enough from the Colosseum across the road), so they must simply not have wanted to. I wonder if anyone has done a cost analysis of how much of the loot from the campaign went into commemoration? Of course, there would have been less durable aspects to the victory celebrations as well, games etc, and perhaps the arches had to be finished to a deadline, which would constrain their physical size.

We walked around the Colosseum but were daunted by the queues and headed vaguely north to the hotel. We stopped on the way at Santa Maria Maggiore, a big Baroque church, and paid a rip-off four euro each for the museum, which basically has ecclesiastical relics and vestments from the last few centuries, including various paraphernalia belonging to Pius IX and Pius X. Still, that long long walk from St Peter’s to the Colosseum taking in the various sights en route is my absolute favourite thing to do in Rome, and it was great to share it with Anne.

Started on Sunday by trying to get into the church of San Lorenzo where St Bridget of Sweden is commemorated; but it was locked. Then north to the Trevi Fountain, which is indeed pretty charming; and north again to the Spanish Steps, but the Keats and Shelley museum is closed on Sundays. I did manage to find one more sight I had always meant to see: the tomb of Augustus, a few blocks west of the Spanish Steps. It’s pretty massive, but you can’t see a lot because of all the trees growing on it. (“Don’t eat the figs!”) I seem to remember it played a key role in Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, but don’t remember it as being so overgrown; maybe they actually used somewhere else for the film?

Then by taxi to an actual museum, the MACRO which specialises in contemporary art. I am afraid this was only just about worth the one euro entry fee. There was an exhibition by an Iranian artist, featuring her animations of whales swimming through the walls of houses, and a man who savagely attacks his dog for no reason. She had also various studies of humans and animals, including several pictures of a huge manatee. I attempted to explain to Anne that this was funny, but don’t think I succeeded.

In the afternoon we attempted to find the catacombs along the Appian Way. We got to the Colli Albani metro station all right, but then the lack of clarity of our maps, the low sun confusing my attempts to get my bearings and the natural lie of the land all led us some way to the southeast instead of the southwest, and we gave up after a long walk through not unattractive countryside, and got the bus back into the city.

I had invested in the Time Out Guide to Rome before we left Brussels, and though it let us down at the catacombs, we did very well out of it for dinner. On the first night we took its recommendation for a sushi restaurant called Doozo very near our hotel: that was pretty yummy. On the second evening we did even better, with a superb gourmet experience at the Hostaria Glass in the heart of Trastevere: five courses of wondeful delicacies. The Sunday evening saw us go in the same direction but without crossing the river, to try a restaurant called Da Giggetto which supposedly specialises in Jewish cuisine; I liked the fried artichokes “à la juive” but didn’t think the rest was particularly exotic compared to what I would get in an Italian restaurant in Brussels; but the same was true of the prices, so I can’t really complain.

And so back home on Monday morning; have been writing this on the plane, while Anne gazed out the window at the Alps. Back to work tomorrow.

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February Books 12) Interzone: The 5th Anthology

12) Interzone: The 5th Anthology, edited by John Clute, Lee Montgomerie and David Pringle

A collection of fifteen short stories published in Interzone in 1989-90, some well-known names represented (Brian Aldiss, Kim Newman, Ians Watson, MacLeod and MacDonald) and one or two who I don’t think I’d otherwise heard of – Neil Ferguson, Ian Lee. Almost all the stories, whether serious or funny, have the distinctive narrative voice of English sf; the exception, for obvious reasons, being David Brin. Anyway, they are all very good, and there is an excellent introduction by John Clute.

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February Books 11) Algernon, Charlie, and I

11) Algernon, Charlie, and I: A Writer’s Journey, by Daniel Keyes

This is a really good, short account by Keyes of the genesis and later history of his classic story, Flowers for Algernon. There are quite a lot of insights into the writing process – I was very interested in his depiction of writing as therapy, as a means of distancing yourself from difficulties you have had in the past by putting them in your fiction. It’s very interesting to read of the various roots of the story – Charlie himself based on a student in one of Keyes’ classes who asked to be made clever, much of the scientific background based on Keyes’ own frustrated interactions with pyschologists and therapists.

Keyes was much more connected with the 1950s sf crowd than I had realised, and they gave him good advice – to cut the original story by over a third to get it published, for instance. Originally there was going to be a framing narrative, of Charlie’s lover finding his diary at the start and resolving to look for him at the end, but that was cut at quite a late stage too. Keyes is graphic about the pressure he was put under, but (thank God!) successfully resisted, to provide a more upbeat ending, pressure which continued into the TV and movie versions of the story. Nonetheless, he himself feels the ending is ambiguous rather than necessarily tragic; I don’t think I agree.

Keyes wrote several other books and stories, but none has had the critical success of Flowers for Algernon. I was slightly surprised that he betrays no resentment at all that his subsequent efforts have not been regarded with the same veneration as his earliest work. But I suppose if I’d written Flowers for Algernon myself, I would feel it was success enough for a lifetime.

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