May Books 38) Cyprus, 39) A Functional Cyprus Settlement

38) Cyprus, by Christopher Hitchens
39) A Functional Cyprus Settlement: the Constitutional Dimension, by Tim Potier

Two very different books on the same country, Hitchens writing in 1984 about the events leading to the conflict of ten years previously and its consequences, and Potier reviewing the events of 2004 and after and proposing detailed remedies; one book looking backward, and one forward.

Hitchens is of course a provocative and controversial writer. His main line of argument, once you cut through the rhetoric, is that uncritical American support for the Greek military junta – going right to the top, particularly Kissinger but also Nixon – emboldened the colonels to move against Makarios, and while Washington at best ignored the warning signs and at worst encouraged them. And when the colonels’ rule collapsed along with their Cyprus adventure, US policy switched to a similarly uncritical endorsement of Turkey.

That much is clear. But I think Hitchens makes the classic mistake of enthusiasts for a particular country in assuming that there really was a US strategy. He says several times that partition had been the US policy on Cyprus since the Acheson plan of 1963. But the evidence he presents, particularly from the Johnson administration, makes it appear more likely that once it had become clear that the Acheson plan wasn’t going anywhere, it was dropped as a policy objective; I don’t believe that Kissinger especially cared whether Cyprus was partitioned or not.

While some of his details are questionable, Hitchens is right to castigate external actors for looking at Cyprus solely through their own selfish strategic lenses. But he doesn’t spare the Cypriot leaders from criticism either. It seems to me that all actors are culpable for failing to put intercommunal relations on the island at the top of the agenda. If the international community as a whole had put a tenth of the effort into preserving the 1960 Cyprus constitution as it has put into preserving the 1995 Dayton Agreement in Bosnia, we would be looking at a very different story.

Things have moved on quite a lot since 1984 when Hitchens wrote, and a plan for reunifying the island four years ago was accepted by two thirds of Turkish Cypriot voters, but rejected by three quarters of Greek Cypriot voters. One of the objections to the Annan Plan at the time (though not the most frequently heard one) was that the mechanisms for power-sharing between the two communities were unworkable – not “functional”. In 760 pages, Tim Potier has gone through the constitutional proposals of 2004 with a fine tooth comb, pointing out the less workable bits and proposing improvements. Amazingly, he still appears to be fairly sane after this experience. His book will certainly be an important vade mecum on the subject for the new negotiations which should begin this summer; I cannot imagine that any international official will want to repeat this work.

I have to admit that I did not read every word; I am not totally convinced by Potier’s most drastic proposal, to make the collective executive (the “Presidential Council”) a forced coalition generated by the popular vote, rather than (as in the Annan Plan, and indeed the Good Friday Agreement back home) a slate of candidates endorsed by the legislature. But I have an open mind.

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May Books 37) Contested Lands

37) Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus and Sri Lanka, by Sumantra Bose

Sumantra Bose first hit my radar screen when he wrote the best analysis I have read of post-war Bosnia. Here he combines that research with one other case that I know nearly as well – Cyprus – and three others about which I know much less – indeed I was astonished to realise just how little I knew about Kashmir. Also, although he doesn’t give it separate treatment, Northern Ireland is a constant point of reference throughout the book.

I found this a very clear-headed analysis. These are all awful cases of human misery caused by other humans, and great powers meddling irresponsibly (one point he doesn’t make, but which struck me, is that the Kashmir and Israel/Palestine situations share the experience of an indecently precipitate British withdrawal in 1947/1948). For all that, there has not been a lot of cross-referencing between them by scholars or practitioners.

The two cases I am more familiar with both essentially have their solutions mapped out – actively in the case of Dayton and Bosnia, potentially in the case of the Annan Plan and Cyprus. Bose does not hesitate to be prescriptive in the other three cases, where a settlement is not currently on the table – the Tamils will not get independence, but must get autonomy, with guarantees for the non-Tamil minorities; there will be no referendum in Kashmir, and the Line of Control will become the permanent boundary, but India has to deliver on autonomy for the area it controls and India and Pakistan must open up the LOC; there must be a Palestinian state, and Hamas must be brought into the political process. He makes the cases compellingly, though my libertarian heart regrets that the Kashmiris will clearly not get the independence that they apparently actually want.

Bose draws two lessons from the five cases. First, that constructive third-party engagement is essential to help move local actors away from zero-sum games. I couldn’t agree more. The dog that doesn’t bark here, in a way, is Northern Ireland: the 1998 settlement was essentially what was on the table in 1973 (as Seamus Mallon said, “Sunningdale for slow learners”). But it did require an externally appointed chairman of the calibre of George Mitchell to get everyone to agree to what in the end they knew they would have to agree to. Even then, of course, it took another nine years to nail down properly, but (whatever the DUP may say) 1998 is the moment of departure.

Bose’s second point is that it is much better to start by aiming for the big picture rather than an incremental approach. This is slightly more controversial, but my instinct is again that he is basically right. The poster child of failure here is the Oslo process in the Middle East, but I’ve heard it said in the Cyprus context especially as well: in the absence of a big picture agreement (or even the framework of one) within which to operate, negotiating confidence-building measures can be a huge diversion of energy and can actually result in worse rather than better relations between the parties. (Supporters of incrementalism may complain that it was never seriously tried in Cyprus, and never seriously implemented in the Middle East, but perhaps those difficulties illustrate the basic problem.)

One conceptual point which Bose hints at, and I wish he had explored more, is the issue of democracy. In polarised situations, it is almost natural for politicians to try and compete with each other in chauvinism rather than in their willingness to accommodate – Sri Lanka and Israel/Palestine are particularly obvious examples, as indeed is Northern Ireland. This creates difficulties for international peace-builders who (and this is my analysis, not Bose’s) will instinctively try to construct “moderates” who are worth engaging with and “hardliners” who are not, essentially judging the standing of the local actors by the extent to which they are prepared to talk pretty for the internationals. Of course, the only criterion for credibility in the end is the level of your popular support; and while it is reasonable to set certain hurdles to participation in formal dialogue, it is stupid to set them in such a way that you prevent the critical mass necessary to consolidate the process from forming. Democracy is a hugely complicating factor in conflict resolution, but also a very necessary one.

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Samuel Pepys is amazed

Quite a long diary entry from yesterday, but I particularly loved these two bits which appealed in different ways to my appreciation of the history of science:

at noon to Sir Philip Warwicke’s to dinner, where abundance of company come in unexpectedly; and here I saw one pretty piece of household stuff, as the company increaseth, to put a larger leaf upon an oval table.

A table that can be extended! What a nifty idea! And how amazing to think that this was the first time he had seen one!

Even more so with the other thing that caught his interest:

Thence home and to see my Lady Pen, where my wife and I were shown a fine rarity: of fishes kept in a glass of water, that will live so for ever; and finely marked they are, being foreign.

Amazing! Fish! In a glass container filled with water! I bet you could look at them all day!

Sometimes he seems very contemporary and then there are these little flashes revealing that his world contains elements of ours that are only just coming into being for him. Also we have an earl kidnapping a society beauty in broad daylight to have his way with her.

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May Books 34-36) Three Season 12 Novelisations

And so to the glory days of Who, when Hinchcliffe and Holmes oversaw the Best Stories Ever (until recently), and Terrance Dicks turned them into readable and sometimes (as in two of these cases) good novels.

34) Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, by Terrance Dicks

Oddly enough, Dicks is not especially good at making his own stories transition happily to the printed page. There are some good bits added/changed here, especially the characterisation of the new Doctor, but in general it is competent rather than exciting.

One point that struck me on reading this (rather than on watching the TV original) was the similarity between the Robot and the Hangman in Roger Zelazny’s Hugo/Nebula winning novella, “Home is the Hangman”. The Who story came first, but I would be surprised to learn that Zelazny had had a chance to see it; both he and Dicks were, of course, drawing from many other sources going back at least as far as Mary Shelley.

The next two stories in sequence were both adapted to the printed page by Ian Marter, who played Harry Sullivan throughout this season. Dicks then picks up the sequence again with

35) Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks, by Terrance Dicks

One of the greatest TV stories, and I still think one of the best novelisations. The action is breathlessly stripped down from six episodes to fit the Target format; but Dicks also adds a lot more circumstantial detail about the horrible landscape of Skaro, Davros, the Kaled and Thal leaders, the reactions of Harry and Sarah to their environment, and the Doctor’s moral dilemmas. Despite knowing the story as well as I do, I found myself reading avidly to the end.

36) Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Cybermen, by Terrance Dicks

Again, one of those cases where Dicks has taken a so-so story and made it into a good read. Partly this is because of good scene-setting; partly also that he is liberated from the constraints of poor special effects; mainly that he seems to have been having fun with the script. I remembered this one fondly from my childhood, and for once it lived up to my memories.

The Season 12 novels, including the two not reviewed here but with slight reservations for Doctor Who and the Giant Robot, are consistently good in a way that I don’t think can be said for any other season so far. (I know that Season 7 has its partisans, though.) All the elements seem to have come together successfully. There are a couple of significant differences in characterisation: Dicks’ version of the Fourth Doctor is more jolly than the screen version, so I imagine that fans coming to Tom Baker’s stories via the books will be surprised by the darkness in the original portrayal. Harry comes over as more clueless than gallant as written by Dicks (the reverse is true in Marter’s books for some strange reason). I’ll come back to Sarah in due course.

You may be relieved to know that the end of this mad project is coming into view; there are different ways of calculating it, but the half-way mark for Classic Who stories, counted individually, is definitely in the second half of Season 12. And I’ve read perhaps a quarter of the remaining novelisations already. Thanks for your patience.

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letter meme

Use the 1st letter of your name to answer each of the following questions. They have to be real places, names &/or objects, but nothing made up! Try to use different answers if the person you got this from has the same 1st initial. You CAN’T use your name for the boy/girl name question. And Have Fun With It!!!

1) 4 LETTER WORD: Nook
2) BOY NAME: Niall
3) GIRL NAME: Nadine
4) OCCUPATION: Neurologist
5) A COLOUR: Nectarine
7) BEVERAGE: Nektar/Нектар (the local beer in Banja Luka, Bosnia)
8) FOOD: Nuts
9) SOMETHING FOUND IN A BATHROOM: Nappies (in our bathroom, anyway)
10) A PLACE: Nivelles
11) REASON FOR BEING LATE: Normal Non-arrival of train or bus
12) SOMETHING YOU SHOUT: NO!!!!!!!! (or NOW!!!!!!)

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May Books 33) Letter from America, 1946-2004

33) Letter from America, 1946-2004, by Alistair Cooke

Part of the Sunday morning routine of my childhood was to listen to the weekly ten or fifteen minute “Letter from America”, one of the world’s longest radio programmes, produced in a stunning 2.689 editions over 58 years before Cooke gave up in 2004, a few weeks before his death at the age of 96. By the time I started understanding the content of the talks, Cooke was already sixty and had been doing it for over half his life.

The BBC has a tribute section on its website, where you can read and hear all about it. The primary way to appreciate Cooke’s pieces is of course by listening to them, but there is no harm in having this selection in the form of dead trees.

They don’t all work as well on the printed page, but there are some that do – a brilliant lyrical description of the New England fall; a lovely account of a family Christmas; his eyewitness account of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. It is interesting that in his early pieces on race relations, he really didn’t seem to get the nature of the problem; but he redeems himself partially with a reflection on the life of Duke Ellington, and then completely with his reminiscence of covering Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. There are three pieces included about the assassination of JFK; only one about Watergate, from years later; and several about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which from the perspective of only a very few years later seems excessive.

One interesting thing about Alistair Cooke not in this book: his first great romance was with the half-sister of Anthony Ainley, who played the Master in Doctor Who; half a century after the relationship collapsed in 1933, Cooke wrote to Ainley after seeing his name in a credits list (quite possibly Doctor Who, which was the only TV Ainley did after 1980 – see correction) and got a reply to the effect that his sister had always remembered him fondly, thus easing decades of heartbreak for Cooke.

Anyway, it’s a heavy book, probably better for dipping into than reading straight through as I did, but worth having by anyone who remembers him.

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James Fraser West

Kudos to , who for the first few months of this year was publishing as a blog the daily entries of the diary of her ancestor, mid-nineteenth century Birmingham surgeon James Fraser West, on LJ as . It did not run for very long – his medical work was interrupted by a long trip to Italy for the sake of his health; this did not have the desired effect, and the blog has now ended with his obituary.

I found it fascinating to get to know this long-departed doctor, and his death came as a real shock – we knew he was ill, but he wasn’t letting on how bad it was in his diary. (Though I think he was too good a doctor not to have known.) ‘s mother, Geraldine Goodman, has published it as part of a longer biography (A Victorian Surgeon, from Brewin Books): I shall look out for it, not least because my mother-in-law’s maiden name happened to be West and she too was a doctor based in the Birmingham area before she retired. Thanks again, and your mother; it’s been an interesting journey.

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Sir Maurice, the Lancastrian

One of the more peculiar entries in our family history is a brief note about

Sir Maurice Whyte, who served in France under Henry IV and Henry V where at the siege of Rouen, with the Prior of Kilmainham, he led 2,000 Irish, and later made Governor of Montaire under Henry VI. He was called “The Lancastrian”, having served under three kings of the House of Lancaster.

This would presumably explain the three red roses on the family coat of arms (see icon); but I wouldn’t mind being able to find some slightly better proof of the existence of Sir Maurice. I have a sneaking suspicion that this was all invented to give a respectable background to my Elizabethan namesake.

Well, some of this is easy enough to put dates to. Since Henry V reigned for less than ten years (1413-1422) it is not difficult to imagine a military career that would involve serving under both his father and his son. The siege of Rouen lasted from July 1418 to January 1419, and the presence of the Irish soldiers is well attested, as is the role of Thomas Butler, the Prior of Kilmainham; though British and Irish estimates of the troop strength under his command are more like 500-700, a French source describes “eight thousand Irish savages” as being part of the English forces. There is no mention of Maurice the Lancastrian in any on-line sources, but probably I can get into this the next time I am in a decent university library.

The idea of Maurice having been “Governor of Montaire” needs a bit more exploration. I can’t find any Montaire in France; much more likely the story refers to Montoire-sur-le-Loir, now more famous as being the place where Pétain and Hitler agreed on French collaboration with the Nazis in 1940, but which was certainly on the contested border between English and French zones of control at that phase of the Hundred Years’ War. I can’t find on-line references to any particular local set-up there in the 1420s; other possibilities are Montoir-de-Bretagne in Brittany, and the Château de la Montoire near Calais (though this last appears to have been in French hands between 1410 and 1488). Again, I shall just have to wait until the next time I am in a decent university library.

Would any of you have easy access to the journal The Irish Sword? Only I see that it had a very short article (pages 62-63 of vol 2, 1953) by Richard Hayes on “Irish soldiers at the siege of Rouen, 1418-19”.

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On my morning commute I usually listen to the day’s meditation from this site. I am not an Ignatian practitioner – I don’t think it would work for me – but I find it good to at least have some space for guided reflection in my routine.

I have been thinking all week about last Monday’s reading, Mark 9:14-29. It’s one of Mark’s irritatingly cryptic healing narratives, where the disciples are rebuked (with no apparent justification) by Jesus for their lack of faith. That wasn’t the bit that grabbed me: what interested me was the description of the symptoms of the child with an evil spirit which “has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.”

Usually interpreters take this to be a case of epilepsy, but as the parent of two children who cannot speak due to autism, it seemed to me that this must also be a possibility. B in particular can get into such a fury with the universe that she pounds on walls or the floor, doing herself damage like the child in Mark’s account who would throw himself into the fire or the water – actually both our girls will perfectly happily throw themselves into the water with no regard to their own safety, but for fun rather than in rage. I’m struck by the way in which the child goes into convulsions as soon as Jesus comes into view, just as an autistic person can get deeply upset by new people or new routines. (And I don’t know a lot about epilepsy, but I had the impression that it doesn’t usually go with speechlessness.)

Obviously it’s a bit pointless to diagnose a medical condition reported at second or third hand several decades after it happened two millennia ago, and it is not the point of the story anyway. The point of the story is the cure that Jesus effects on the child, who lies there at first seeming to be dead; but Jesus lifts him up by the hand. The moral lesson is the slightly obscure question of the level of belief of the disciples, and the child’s father; in the raising up of the child from apparent death, there is also a clear foreshadowing of Jesus’ own coming resurrection, which indeed is made explicit a couple of verses later.

The bit about the child’s hand seemed very familiar to me. Both our daughters will take your hand and move it towards whatever it is they want done – a door that they want to have opened, food to get out of the kitchen cupboard, a particular video or DVD to put on. And I found myself wondering to what extent the child was actually “cured”. If B were as easy-going and generally happy as U, she could probably still be living with us; if she were suddenly to become as able as U (who is still very very disabled), we would see it as a major advance.

Yet if they were not autistic, they would be completely different people; it would be very different from, say, healing someone who cannot walk, or has been born blind, or has leprosy. Part of accepting our children’s situation has been realising that it is a fundamental part of what they are; at a very early stage I became suspicious of snake-oil merchants offering “cures”. Elizabeth Moon writes about this from the autistic person’s own point of view in her Nebula-winning novel Speed of Dark, and Charlotte Moore gives the perspective of a mother and a younger brother in George and Samreviewed her book, but here it is again:

These mysterious, impossible, enchanting beings will always be among us, unwitting yardsticks for our own moral behaviour, uncomprehending challengers of our definition of what it means to be human.

Mark doesn’t tell us that the child who Jesus encountered was completely “cured”; just that he went home quietly with his father and (by implication, though not explicitly) started to speak a little. I think any parent in a situation like ours would be profoundly grateful for even a small shift in that direction.

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On being a fan, and the first half of Season Four

I make no excuses for being an sf fan, and a Doctor Who fan. My day job requires me to engage with people trying to extricate themselves from long-running conflicts; when I get home and turn on the TV, or get out my book to read on the train, I want escapist entertainment, not intellectual stimulation – I think this is why, for instance Gene Wolfe and M John Harrison don’t really do it for me, ad why I prefer The Third Policeman to At Swim-Two-Birds.

New Who has been catering for my needs: smart scripts, decent special effects and a reasonable but not obsessive respect for the programme’s past. Indeed, my impression is that the current season has had more links to Old Who than ever, yet not so intrusively as to make it incomprehensible for those who are new to it. I wonder to what extent that will change when RTD hands over to Steven Moffat?

In fairness to Davies, he has not only revived the programme to beyond its previous peaks of popularity it hadn’t had since the 1970s, he has also lasted longer at the top than anyone except Barry Letts and JNT. Change is inevitable in human activity, and New Who has already surmounted the more visible challenges of changing Doctor and companions; I expect Moffat will build on the foundations in his own way.

I’ve enjoyed the first half of Season Four more than any of the others. Each of the previous seasons had a clunker among the first seven stories (Aliens of London / World War Three, The Idiot’s Lantern, the Dalek two-parter) but this year that hasn’t happened. While I didn’t object to the romance of Rose/Nine, Rose/Ten and Martha/Ten, I find the sparks between Tate and Tennant tremendously refreshing – not to say that there is no UST at all, but the change of emphasis is nice; and Bernard Cribbins is great as her grandfather (I fear that Jacqueline King as her mother is rather similar to all RTD mothers though).

I already wrote up Partners in Crime, but here’s my take on the rest of the season so far, in the absence of this weekend’s episode due to Eurovision.

The Fires of Pompeii

I must have been one of the few kids of my generation who voluntarily did Latin O-level. There were two of us in the class; our teacher was from Achill Island, and had studied classics in Galway through the medium of Irish (which she also taught at our school). However we used the Ecce Romani books, not the Cambridge Latin Course, so missed out on that particular set of in-jokes.

But I loved the Doctor’s shifty acknowledgement of responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, and my Big Finish sympathies were satisfied with the fact that there was no explicit contradiction with what Seven and Mel were up to on the other side of town. I also liked the new take on the Tardis translation effect – “Look you!” – and the way in which the Doctor accepts responsibility for causing the eruption. There was that one moment reminiscent of the “You lucky bastard!” scene from Life of Brian, and I am aware that volcanoes on the whole do not contain such conveniently located corridors, but I was willing to take the ride.

Planet of the Ood

Russell T Davies was 15 months old when the first episode of The Sensorites was broadcast in June 1964, but it obviously made a deep impression on him – we had two explicit references to Susan’s description of her and the Doctor’s home planet last season, and now we have it confirmed that the Ood are close neighbours to the Sense-Sphere. I think The Sensorites is positively the worst First Doctor story, so to me it is a slightly weird choice, but I’m aware that this is not a universal view.

pointed out at the time that evolving to the stage where you have to carry part of your own brain around in your hand doesn’t seem terribly viable. But that apart, I thought that the music was great, the parable about slavery and society decent enough, and Tim McInerny’s performance (and also Ayesha Dharker’s) really excellent.

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Here’s a funny thing: if you get appoonted as UNIT’s medical officer, you may find that in your first televised story in that role you have to go undercover to infiltrate the bad guys’ headquarters; and then when the Doctor returns to Earth to meet you for the first time after you stopped travelling with him, you get replaced by an evil doppelganger. Apart from that, of course, Harry Sullivan and Martha Jones are very different, but I was amused by the similarities.

The Sontarans’ plan is as nonsensical as most alien invasion plans (and setting fire to the poison gas? Really?) but again I enjoyed the ride. The resolution of the UNIT dating controversy was brilliant; so was the Martha/Donna encounter going so very differently from the Sarah Jane/Rose encounter two years ago; so was the Doctor thinking that Donna was leaving him rather than popping back to her mum’s for a cuppa. And there were pleasing refs to both the Brigadier and the best Ninth Doctor story – “Are you my mummy?”

Having recently re-watched The Two Doctors, I felt that the Sontarans came across much better this time – as an actual army, complete with war chants. We have not often seen big groups of Sontarans before. And good performances from Ryan Sampson in particular as Luke Rattigan, but also Christian Cooke as Ross Jenkins and Rupert Holliday Evans as Colonel Mace.

The Doctor’s Daughter

I suspect that this is one of those “Marmite” episodes, in that you either love it or hate it. (For the record, I hate Marmite.) Georgia Moffett, who I had previously heard helping her father battle Ice Warriors in an early Big Finish play, is very cute and also very good. I loved her “Hello, boys!” at the end. Yeah, of course bringing her back to life was a bit of a cop-out, but we got to see the Tenth Doctor’s take on how the First Doctor had moved on from having his own family to other commitments, and then suddenly had the chance for it to start again, and then (as far as he knows) it didn’t.

And Donna got to be brainy. I love the brainy companions. (Am also trying unsuccessfully to think of another Who story which gives the Doctor three strong female sidekicks.)

The background to the story, as I spotted at the time (and Lance Parkin also noted, in a post which seems to have since been deleted) owes quite a lot to The Ark – the humans and their conflict with their non-human travelling companions, the room with the jungle at the end; another reference to the Hartnell era, and this time one that RTD just might credibly remember from the original broadcast (he would have been nearly three). The Hath are better than the Monoids though.

The Unicorn and the Wasp

In my early teens I read Agatha Christie almost as obsessively as I watched Doctor Who, so this episode was total nostalgic crack. I was noting every book title as it came up. I have even read Death in the Clouds, the book referenced at the end, which features a murder on an early commercial flight from Paris to London, after which the inquest jury wants to indict Poirot for the murder because he is foreign.

This is so much better than Black Orchid, the only other televised story I can think of set in this era. It was really fun to watch – very silly, but played with total conviction; all the guest stars were good, so it is invidious to single any of them out. Doing a story like this is, as I was saying of some of the Eurovision song contest entries, a high risk strategy, but I think it worked.

Spoilers for the rest of the season

So, we have another six episodes to look forward to – two by Steven Moffat, the return of Rose, more Daleks and everyone’s favourite mad scientist gets resurrected yet again. Looking forward to it.

Edited to add: The Doctor and Donna go to Belgium! But in 800 AD!

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Eurovision voting

Russia looking pretty good at the moment!

(And UK, Romania and Germany still on nul points.)

Ah, but Greece doing well from Albania!

My own vote appears to have made no difference to the Belgian tally. (My Armenian friends in Brussels have obviously been organising well.)

(Germany still on nul points.)

Even San Marino votes for Greece – they are looking good!

(Latvian announcer obviously rather pained at announcing the 12 points for Russia.)

Those Bulgarian votes for Greece are obviously helpful! But 12 points for Germany???? They are clearly taking the piss. (A common Bulgarian hobby.)

Top Israeli votes go to Russia and Ukraine. No surprises there then. And, good heavens, Cyprus voted for Greece, Armenia and Russia – who could have predicted that????

After Moldova votes, Greece and Russia are on level pegging – this could actually be quite close!

The French announcer actually announces his votes in French (unlike their entry which sang incomprehensibly in English). And they vote for Armenia!

The Romanian announcer very sweetly congratulates the whole show with barely a stumble over the difficult consonants. And they vote for Greece over Russia. That must be the killer.

Rather cute to have the Russians chanting “Латвия! Латвия!” in the Green Room.

And over we go to the Andorran voter. He speaks French too. But their votes are not very interesting.

Russia now consolidating a bit. Ten points ahead at the half-way stage. OK most of the ex-Soviets have voted but it’s a good lead.

Hmm here’s Armenia. Will they give 12 points to Russia? Er, yes.

Czech announcer very cutely confuses Armenia and Azerbaijan!!!!!

We’re at the two-thirds stage now, and Russia is 13 points ahead of Greece; that looks increasingly unassailable.

Poland currently running last, which really isn’t fair; the German song was much worse. – Ah well, Ireland gave them ten points which will help; puts them level last with the UK and Germany, which is better.

Switzerland bucks the trend!

Leyla in Azerbaijan forgets to use the vocative case; perhaps she wasn’t briefed. And they give 12 points to Turkey; gosh, how amazing!

The Greek guy speaks rather good Serbian! (Better than mine, anyway.)

The Swedish announcer is completely sloshed. Here comes Belarus – no big surprise expected here: no, indeed, 12 for Russia, 10 for Ukraine. Russia now unstoppable I think.

Wow, the Russian announcer looking very cute. Also buoyed by the confidence that they are going to win.

Montenegro!!!!! She knows about the vocative case anyway. More votes for the Russians. Georgia reinforces the trend.

The Danish votes are now irrelevant; Russia wins in the end by 272 to Greece’s 230. Most impressive, and demonstrates a) how far my own tastes are out of whack with the public as a whole, and b) how difficult it can be to predict the preferences of an international voting public. (Though see ‘s comment below.)

They are going to have to introduce some regional handicapping in future, aren’t they?

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Eurovision liveblogging

As has happened before, I got banished to the computer to watch the live webcast. Thank heavens for technology, eh? Great fun working out the country from the intro dance piece – even the Albanian one surprisingly tasteful.

If by some strange chance you are readng this as I write it, I also refer you to



   here, and Doug Muir here, and also intermittent entries from

    – oh, and go and vote in

  ‘ poll.

Romania: Quite sweet, really – seems to belong to another age, in a way, but the chemistry between the two singers is not bad. Shame about her voice.

UK: I admit that I haven’t been following the selection process, but how on earth did this get chosen? His singing is good, and the backing musicians seems competent. But the combination totally fails to excite. (Wogan says, “our best entry for years”; sadly, this may be true.)

Albania: She has a sexy voice but unfortunately a bit wobbly on the high notes. Shame cos it’s not a bad song.

Germany: Is this some kind of sick joke? They can’t sing, they can’t dance, and the lyrics make no sense. Corsets can only get you so far. (

    say “Incomprehensible but class”, and he’s right.)

Armenia: It’s a terrible thing to say, but this is actually the best so far – she can sing, it’s visually interesting and even the “three gyrating eejits” are rather good.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Started very well – visually fascinating, and the lyrics are interesting – but the bloke cannot actually sing, and sadly the same is true of the backing chorus.

Israel: Not a bad Mediterranean crooning song.

Finland: Hoping for a repeat of their success a couple of years back. They can actually sing, but it’s not a very interesting song.

Croatia: Actually rather sweet in its own way. Middle-aged crooner and irrelevantly gyrating dancer. We’ve seen worse this evening.

Poland: Good and heartfelt, she can actually sing and looks impressive. Also singing in English will probably help with the floating voters.

Iceland: Cor, cute young blond guy, good beat, good music. Ah, here’s the girl though… but she is not only cute, she can sing too! What an amazing idea, to put two people who can actually sing forward as your contestants in an international song contest! Those sneaky Icelanders!

    accuses them of being “the most intentionally camp” which clearly indicates the subtlety of the Icelandic strategy,.

Turkey: Not a bad song, but as so often the singer’s voice is a bit unconvincing on the higher notes. And the lower ones too. In fact, on all of them.

Portugal: More Mediterranean crooning (of course Portugal is not strictly Mediterranean, but you know what I mean). Not awful but could have developed into something more interesting than it did.

Latvia: Wow, this is different! And the camera angles do not convey how good their dancing is. It’s taken me most of the way the way through the song to notice that, yet again, they don’t hit the high notes particularly well. But they look good, they move well, and the song is a bit cheeky even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Sweden: Put a blonde singer in a short skirt on stage, and who can vote against you? Well, I think it’s a risky strategy frankly. Meat Loaf could have sung this song well, but while it’s not bad it’s not interesting enough.

Denmark: It’s risky to choose as your song’s title a phrase that is well known as the title of a different song, just in case yours turns out to be much less memorable. As indeed has happened in this case.

Georgia: Gosh, heartfelt, visually interesting, these South Caucasus countries seem to get it.

Ukraine: She’s got the same dress as the Swedish singer, but looks much better in it. The Serbian camera lingers on her hips and why not? for some strange reason. I can’t understand a word of the song (which is in reasonably accented English), but she looks good and the backing singers are well organised and acrobatic. 

France: What is this about? There are these peculiar mixed messages – the toy car driven by bloke with long hair and beard; the French song in English; the backing singers who can’t, er, sing, but are all wearing false beards (even the girls)… well, it’s a statement all right, but I think the statement is “We are not going to win the contest”.

Azerbaijan: Good Lord! This is obviously going to win. Astonishing costumes and visual effects. As 

   so wisely puts it, this is “camper than a row of pink tents at Butlins”. 

Greece: Cor, they got a rather erotic intro, didn’t they? And, good heavens, the song actually makes sense and the lead and her backing singers can actually sing. But alas, I think they are blown out of the water by Azerbaijan. Though her wee hip-shaking dance was very sweet and would have done her proud against less wacky opposition.

Spain: This is a valiant effort, which is to say it is pretty awful. In some ways attempting to be postmodern, in other ways just relying on skimpily clad backing dancers to distract from the essential crapness of the song. (I mean, he is barely even singing!)

Serbia: The home team, of course. Starts off with some nice crooning. Hmm, and cute redhead playing the violin. But, alas, it’s a bit average. I mean, it’s much better than the average entry tonight, but it is still not as memorable as some of the others.

Russia: Starting well. Cute young singer belting out a ballad which he can actually sing. Without too much distraction – one violinist, once dancer; looks like they are not trying too hard. And gosh, a hint of a musically interesting key change (not actually fulfilled) towards the end. This will do well.

Norway: A nice song, a nice singer, nice backing group. Generally OK, but I am voting for Iceland, and expecting Azerbaijan to win.

And a special treat for those of us lasting through to the end – Goran Bregović live! And performing Kalašnikov!

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Answers to the previous quiz

My Thursday quiz was indeed about alphabets, as several of you, including and in particular said. It is interesting, and perhaps a little surprising, how few alphabets or scripts give their letters actual names that mean something rather than just call them roughly something like the sound they stand for. It’s also interesting just how rapidly the meanings of the letters get lost in the historical murk, hence the uncertainty in some of the clues given. The answers are as follows:

First list – the Phoenician / Hebrew alphabet

  • the head of an ox – Aleph – root of our letter A
  • a house – Beth – root of our letter B
  • a camel’s hump, or possibly a boomerang-like throwing stick – Gimel – root of our letters C and G
  • a door, or possibly a fish – Daleth – root of our letter D
  • jubilation, or possibly a window – He – root of our letter E


  • a hook – Waw – root of our letters F, U, V, W and Y

Second list – the Elder Futhark

  • money/wealth/cattle – Fehu
  • a wild ox or possibly water – Uruz
  • a monster – Thurisaz
  • a divine being (actually one of the Æsir, but to be that specific would have given it away) – Ansuz


  • – a ride or a journey – Raido (one of the few which looks like the Latin equivalent)

Third list – the Ogham alphabet

  • the birch tree – Beith
  • flame or a herb, or possibly the rowan tree – Luis
  • the alder tree – Fern
  • the willow tree – Sail
  • a fork – Nion


  • horror, or possibly the whitethorn – Uath

Thanks for playing, those of you who did!

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May Books 29-32) The first four Sarah Jane novelisations

My apologies to those of you who are not all that interested in Who; I have three posts brewing on different aspects of the canon (of which this is the first) which I plan to write this weekend. There are a couple of non-Who posts brewing as well, and I’ll try to leaven the mixture.

29) Doctor Who and the Time Warrior, by Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes

Somehow despite the apparently favourable conjunction of DW’s most prolific TV script writer (Holmes) and the most prolific novelisation writer (Dicks), it rarely seems to gel, and this is a typical example: an unexceptional Dicks novelisation of a decent Holmes script, supposedly in this case with Holmesian participation. The Sontaran commander Linx (rather than Lynx) and the myopic Professor Rubeish both get a little more characterisation, but it’s otherwise standard stuff.

It is interesting that both this and the next story are about the bad guys shunting people between the present and the past.

30) Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, by Malcolm Hulke

I am not sure if this is the best of this run of novels (and I’m certain it’s not the best of the Season 11 novels, as Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders clearly takes that trophy) but it is certainly the most interesting. As commenters to my last entry noted, it starts with a lovely vignette of a Scot in London for the football who becomes a victim of the dinosaurs; there are other little bits of depth added as well, Professor Whitaker becoming very camp, and a couple of odd extra details – the Doctor is described as having “a mop of curly hair” (shurely shome mishtake?) and he talks about the Mary Celeste again as he did in Doctor Who and the Sea Devils. Also, of course, the book loses the appalling visual effects of the original programme – these dinosaurs are flesh and blood, not rubber!

Yet at the same time it is a bit too over-earnest, not quite as mature as Hulke’s better novels (Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters and Doctor Who and the Green Death), so it doesn’t quite get its fourth star from me.

It is interesting that both this and the previous story are about the bad guys shunting people (and in this case dinosaurs) between the present and the past.

31) Doctor Who – Death to the Daleks, by Terrance Dicks

A fairly routine treatment of a fairly routine Dalek story. As often happened in this period, the wobbly special effects of the original are much better on the printed page.

It is interesting that this and the next story are both about external aliens (here, the Daleks) forcing the natives to mine the planet’s indigenous mineral resources. Though in this case the humans are among the good guys.

32) Doctor Who and the Monster of Peladon, by Terrance Dicks

This really isn’t particularly good. Hayles’ original story was over complex anyway, including activist miners, imperialist exploitation, and feminism in a confusing tangle of plot strands which Dicks’ novelisation rather fails to untangle and clarify. Definitely for completists only.

It is interesting that this and the previous story are both about external aliens (here, the Ice Warriors) forcing the natives to mine the planet’s indigenous mineral resources. Though in this case the human character is one of the bad guys. No wonder people thought the show was running out of ideas.

So, since I read Doctor Who and the Planet if the Spiders a while back, that is the end of the Third Doctor novels. The general level of quality is better than for the first two Doctors, with some excellent reads – Barry Letts’ Doctor Who and the Dæmons and Malcolm Hulke’s Doctor Who and the Green Death – and some of Terrance Dicks’ best efforts – Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons, Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, Doctor Who – The Three Doctors and Doctor Who and the Planet of the Spiders. And even if Malcolm Hulke didn’t always match his own ambitions, his books were always interesting, and Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters and Doctor Who and the Space War are pretty good.

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Balkan blogger

Those of you who are interested in the Balkans may like to check out my friend Rita’s new blog at – mainly on Kosovo, and partly in Norwegian (though the rest in English).

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Today’s Quiz

What comes next in these lists? (When you get one you will probably get them all)

First list:

  • the head of an ox
  • a house
  • a camel’s hump, or possibly a boomerang-like throwing stick
  • a door, or possibly a fish
  • jubilation, or possibly a window

Second list:

  • money/wealth/cattle
  • a wild ox or possibly water
  • a monster
  • a divine being

Third list:

  • the birch tree
  • flame or a herb, or possibly the rowan tree
  • the alder tree
  • the willow tree
  • a fork
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May Books 28) Gösta Berling’s Saga

28) Gösta Berling’s Saga, by Selma Lagerlöf

This seemed to me a fairly painless way of dipping my toe in the lake of great Swedish writing, Lagerlöf having been the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is more a series of linked short stories than a novel, mainly telling the story of a year in the life of Gösta Berling, a somewhat dissolute unfrocked clergyman who is given a chance to redeem himself through the exercise of social and moral responsibility. It reminded me a bit of both George Eliot and Tolstoy in the emotional agonies of village life, with of course the climate being much colder (and some overt intervention from supernatural beings). Frankly, Lagerlöf is not as deep as either Eliot or Tolstoy, and I felt not quite convinced that Berling deserves our sympathy as much as she seemed to believe; in particular, he is pretty dismal in his relationships with women. Still, it is an engaging book with some brilliant moments (mainly involving the battle of humans against the elements).

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May Books 19-27) Nine Jo Grant Novelisations

A run of novels from what will probably turn out to be the peak period in terms of consistency of quality in this entire project. None of these is awful; all are decent efforts, though none of them is outstanding. Both the best and the worst (in my humble opinion) are by Malcolm Hulke.

19) Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks, by Terrance Dicks

This is the most owned Doctor Who novelisation on LibraryThing, and certainly one of the best ones. Ian has written of the sharp contrast between the tense novel, especially the excellent characterisation of the Controller, and the much less convincing TV original. Well worth it.

20) Doctor Who and the Curse of Peladon, by Brian Hayles

Hayles adapted his own TV script again; and it is generally a good version of a good story, with the excellent point that Alpha Centauri is much less silly on the page than on the screen. I felt that Hepesh, the high priest, was a little more three-dimensional in the original but basically it is a good effort.

21) Doctor Who and the Sea Devils, by Malcolm Hulke

This was the only one of this run of nine that disappointed me. We start with quite a tedious aside on why the Doctor and the Brigadier intervened to prevent the Master from being executed (after his arrest in The Dæmons), and then we lose some of the more attractive bits of the original story – the quiet feminism of WRN Blythe, the excellent incidental music, and the Clangers. The plot holes, as so often, seem more apparent on the page than on screen.

22) Doctor Who and the Mutants, by Terrance Dicks

I retain an affection for this book, even though the TV original is quite possibly the worst Pertwee story. Somehow the anti-colonial politics comes through both more clearly and more subtly; and we are spared the dodgy special effects and atrocious acting. One where the page is way better than the screen.

23) Doctor Who – The Time Monster, by Terrance Dicks

A decent effort at conveying an over complex story; not spectacular, but OK. Tony has an interesting point about the Master’s pseudonym.

24) Doctor Who – The Three Doctors, by Terrance Dicks

This is one of the novelisations that is so much better than the original that the TV version is a real disappointment – the stupid music, the lousy special effects, the clumsy resolution of the story all either absent or fixed on the printed page. It is not one of the great novelisations but it is nonetheless very enjoyable.

I have already re-read Doctor Who and the Carnival of Monsters, so next up is:

25) Doctor Who and the Space War, by Malcolm Hulke

I was getting a bit worried about Malcolm Hulke after the disappointments of Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon and Doctor Who and the Sea Devils, but this was a welcome return to form; the slightly odd politics of the human and Draconian governments seem a bit less improbable on the page, and everyone is given decently believable motivations. The one slightly odd thing is that the ending just has the Master tidying up his desk, rather than shooting the Doctor. I suppose this was a quiet tribute to Roger Delgado.

26) Doctor Who and the Planet of the Daleks, by Terrance Dicks

This is another book that solidly retells the TV story, without being diminished by wobbly special effects.

27) Doctor Who and the Green Death, by Malcolm Hulke

The Malcolm Hulke novelisations have been a bit hit and miss for me, so I am very glad to end on a high note. Where some of his other books are rather irritatingly written down for a younger readership, Doctor Who and the Green Death is written much more maturely – at one point Jo offers to pose topless for Professor Jones, which is rather prophetic in view of later developments in Katy Manning’s career. (In fairness, their romance is one of the best constructed narratives of romantic companion departure in the whole of Who; perhaps the only serious rival is Vicki/Troilus in The Myth Makers.) For once, Hulke’s political themes are well-judged and match the tone of the narrative, and although we lose the full mania of the screen version of the mad computer, BOSS, we also (as so often from this era) lose the dodgy special effects. A particularly good effort.

I’ve said it before (though not all agree with me) but I’ll say it again: Jo Grant comes across much better on the printed page, perhaps because of the affection the writers of these books have for this era of the show in general. She often becomes a sympathetic viewpoint character rather than the whiny blonde side-kick she so often was on screen.

The same is true, indeed, for Pertwee’s Doctor, who comes across as more affectionate and humorous, and less arrogant, on the page when written by the people who designed the character rather than portrayed by the actor who had his own ideas.

The other UNIT personnel don’t fare so well. The Brigadier is on the whole a bit less cartoonish in the books than he became on screen; Yates and Benton don’t get a lot to do in most stories (Yates has his moment in The Green Death, Benton in The Three Doctors).

Sarah Jane next!

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May Books 18) Jhereg

18) Jhereg, by Steven Brust

Another of my sf reading resolutions for this year. This is the first in a long series of novels featuring assassin Vlad Taltos, in a well-imagined high fantasy setting. The style owes a great deal to Roger Zelazny, but I felt was not quite as even. Complex plot which more or less made sense; I quite enjoyed it, but not really enough to seek out more in this series.

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Travel again

Up early to catch my flight to Belfast via Manchester, and discover as I am about to leave the house that I have got the time of departure wrong by an hour.

Fortunately, the flight is an hour later than I had thought. That is the right way round.

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Podgorica and Tirana

Spent the last few days travelling in the Balkans for work purposes; Tuesday landing in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro; Wednesday afternoon driving down to Tirana, the capital of Albania; Thursday in Tirana, and driving back up to Podgorica on Friday morning; and a couple of hours on the Montenegrin coast before my afternoon flight home yesterday.

It was my third time in Podgorica (formerly known as Titograd), but the first time that I was there in charge of my own agenda, as it were (my first visit in January 2002 was organised by the government, and my second in July 2006 by my field staff, back in the days when I had field staff). Our hotel was in the rather small Ottoman part of the city, near the clock tower and the mosques. Our business was all in the more modern district, which is a big rectilinear grid straddling the Morača river; it is oddly confusing, with both me and my colleague getting disoriented by the similar-looking streets. The shopping and restaurant section, along with some official buildings, takes up the southeastern half of the grid, on the eastern side of the river; the other half has some more official buildings along the far edge but is mainly occupied by the Morača gorge. The centre of Podgorica is buzzing, as you would expect of the capital of a newly independent country; the Balkan cafe culture is alive and well. No difficulty finding food or drink until well into the night.

It was my second time in Albania, after a conference there in April 2005. First time round I had rather bad luck with the food, but no complaints at all this time: our hotel was the International, on Scanderbeg Square, with breakfast and dinner on the balcony overlooking the monumental architecture (with the significant advantage that you cannot actually see the International Hotel itself). The sound of the muezzin comes at regular intervals from the Et’hem Bey mosque (though apparently this is pretty cosmetic, as nobody actually worships there, and the call to dawn prayers did not wake us as it usually does in Muslim countries – I suspect it doesn’t in fact happen). Tirana is rather brimming with self-confidence; the Albanian economy has been growing massively, they just got invited to join NATO, and the nasty infighting which has characterised the political scene since the fall of Communism has died down, at least for the time being.

We drove between the two capitals, a distance of 160 km / 100 miles, the same as between Dublin and Belfast. The road on the Albanian side is very good from Shkodër down to Tirana, which is basically the southern two thirds of the route. In Tirana itself it is pretty bad – massive roadworks, which presumably will lead to some improvement. From Shkodër to Podgorica it is surprisingly empty of traffic for a major route between the capitals of two neighbouring countries. On our way down, we found ourselves negotiating with pigs and sheep that had wandered onto it. On the way back up again, in an even more graphic indicator of the traffic levels, we saw a tortoise crossing the road with no apparent concern (though how one could tell if a tortoise was worried, I am not sure). On the Montenegrin side in particular it is really twisty and narrow. Apparently there are plans to upgrade it over the next couple of years.

The Montenegrin coast is lovely as ever. I flew in on a direct flight from Brussels to Tivat airport, rented the car there and drove up to Podgorica; and dropped down to the coast again yesterday to see a friend who was staying there. It’s much cheaper than the Croatian coast, and still relatively unspoilt. I found it very interesting, though, that the coastline was festooned with posters inviting you to buy your Montenegrin dream home – in Russian. I was told that 18% of foreign investment in Montenegro is from Russia, compared with 52% from the EU; I wonder how that compares with other countries?

Anyway, back home safely. Off to Belfast for 24 hours tomorrow; will be glad when this run of travel is over.

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One of Two, and Three of Four

I was pleasantly surprised, on reviewing my Second Doctor lore as I read the novelisations, to realise that I had not seen any of the four surviving episodes of The Ice Warriors, though I had listened to an audio version with Fraser Hines narrating. So I watched it, and it is a heck of a lot better with the pictures than without; the sense of a really cold environment, with different groups of humans surviving as best they can, and the Ice Warriors themselves all come across really well on the screen. Not surprised to see that this was an early effort of one of DW’s more successful directors. Shame about Victoria but you can’t have everything.

I don’t have a lot of Four stories left – half of the Invasion of Time, a few from the last season, and just one last story after this remaining from Sarah Jane’s first run on the show. Fannish consensus is fairly heavily against The Android Invasion, but I think this is a bit unfair, perhaps driven by the fact that it is not a particularly glorious farewell to Harry, Benton and UNIT as we first knew it. I thought the creepiness of the village which is not really a village, the general concept of the android doppelgangers, and the sinister Kraals behind the scenes, worked rather well. Admittedly the Kraals’ plot makes No Sense At All, but they are neither the first nor the last baddies in Who of whom this is true. Also we get to see Tom Baker playing the Doctor’s evil double (as again with another story reviewed below).

The Stones of Blood was one that I remembered fondly from first time round, and I liked it again on re-watching three decades later. Perhaps, now that puberty is behind me rather than yet to come, I appreciate Mary Tamm’s costumes as Romana all the more. But of course I also have a fascination with megaliths, and this is the only broadcast story that really uses them (though see also the SJA story The Thirteenth Stone). And of the three stories featuring an ancient cult in England within a few years of 1980, this is the only one that really pulls it off well (the other two being Image of the Fendahl and K9 and Company).

I either missed most of Meglos first time round or else just wasn”t concentrating. It too is rather excoriated by fans, but it reminded me rather of the middle-grade Pertwee stories: there is one absolutely wooden performance, Edward Underdown as Zastor, and the special effects are dire (watch Tom Baker’s legs disappear as he walks across the desert, and also we have plant monsters almost as bad as in The Chase). But there is plenty to like: the Grugger/Brotadac relationship, the return of Jacqueline Hill as Lexa, the whole concept of an evil cactus, and, again, Tom Baker playing the Doctor’s evil double and getting a lot more to work with this time. It isn’t the best story of the season by any means (that is probably Warriors’ Gate), but it’s not Tom Baker’s worst either.

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May Books 17) Odd Man Out

17) Odd Man Out, by F.L. Green

Literally the only film I have seen this year is Carol Reed’s adaptation of this novel, published in 1944. So my write-up of it is very much based on the differences with the film, of which three seemed to me pretty significant.

The first, which concerns me most in a way, is that where the setting of Reed’s film is somewhat ambiguous, Green’s book is absolutely firmly set in Belfast in 1944. The city centre streets are named – Royal Avenue, Dublin Road, Victoria Street; and the tram that in the film is heading up the Falls Road is going up the Shankill in the book. Green therefore also catches the sectarian picture a bit more than the film does (or could); the youths on the tram chant “No Surrender!” at the police, the two ladies who care briefly for the fugitive Johnny are respectable Protestants, which adds an extra poignancy.

Second is the book’s structure – whereas the film continually cuts between Johnny and his various pursuers, in the book he is almost absent from the first half after his colleagues abandon him, so that by the time we reach the mid point we are wondering what on earth has happened to him. Since he is then reintroduced to us half-way through the book, Green can be pretty clear about the fact that Johnny is dying as soon as he reappears; in the film there is a bit more suspense on this matter.

Third of course is the nature of the drama, culminating in the ending. It is inevitable, of course, that Johnny will die. But Green has Agnes and Father Tom more complicit in the manner of his death – and redemption, according to the last paragraph – than Reed. Throughout, Green talks about souls, faith, belief, where Reed concentrates more on character and action.

Altogether, it makes for a convincing package. William Hartnell’s character, Mr Fancy, is here the sinister Fencie, ten years older: difficult to choose between them or some of the other differences in characterisation. But basically, as so often, the film is very good but the book is even better.

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Sign of the times

For most of the last twelve years I have been a subscriber to the daily digest of news from Eastern Europe provided by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty from Prague, and before that by the Open Media Research Institute in Munich. While its political leanings (pro-US and NATO, often euro-sceptic) were often visible in its reporting, it never missed a big story or even a medium-sized one in the course of breaking, and was certainly a more reliable tracker of events than any of the mainstream English language media. They cut back much of their Eastern Europe reporting after the EU enlargement of 2004, and last night came a message from Jeff Gedmin, who was head-hunted to run RFE/RL a couple of years back, to say that due to the weakness of the dollar they will no longer produce the daily newsline. It’s a shame; I can get pretty much the same information by setting up the relevant Google news alerts (and indeed have done so) but it was nice to have RFE/RL as a backstop reference point. At least the archives will remain on-line.

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F was given some frogspawn to care for from school just before Easter, and the tadpoles graduated from the small plastic container they arrived in, to a bucket in his room. F has been very responsible about feeding them; I felt very uneasy though about having dozens of God’s creatures living under our roof, without the prospect of ultimate liberty.

But my doubts have been happily confounded. took us all to the local pond shop on Sunday, and bought some pondweed and a bonus pond snail. The pond shop itself was pretty amazing, a suburban labyrinth of water features (mostly inhabited by fish, amphibians and other invertebrates). Now, the big plastic turtle which we originally bought as a sandpit for B nine years ago, and which has since done occasional duty as a paddling pool, has become a new home for the tadpoles, sitting in the drive just outside the garden gates in order to prevent U from experimenting with the water. It has a couple of shelves that its inhabitants can sit on when their legs have grown, and has already started attracting insects. Summer is coming, and it is beautiful.

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May Books 16) Contested Island

16) Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630, by S.J. Connolly

I found this a much more interesting and well-structured book than Lennon’s Sixteenth Century Ireland. By the end of it I had a much better idea of the two key narratives – the shift of the Old English areas to permanent alliance with Gaelic Ireland, and the growth in power of the state apparatus centred in Dublin. The general failure of the Reformation to take hold in Ireland is a part of this story, but Connolly admits after surveying the various theories that he does not have a good explanation of why it failed. The least satisfactory thing about the book is that the six maps at the end are horrendously mislabelled; only one is published with the correct caption.

An unexpected benefit of reading about this period of Irish history is that it gives me a slightly different insight into international relations today. Reading how various English military expeditions tended to end not with the defeat of the Irish enemies, but with them being bought off with recognition of their authority and (often temporarily) converted to allies, has obvious parallels with today’s Iraq and Afghanistan. And the gradual extension of the central govenment’s authority across the whole island has many resonances with state-building efforts around the world up to the present.

It is fascinating that the British government in Ireland was utterly unable to cover its costs from locally raised revenue. At the start of the book, roughly 90% of Dublin Castle’s budget had to be met from Westminster; by the end of the book it was down to roughly 30% but that is still a heck of a lot – and the cost of this improvement in the finances was the loss of identification with English interests of the vast majority of the previously loyal population. One question that is rarely asked is, given the huge costs of Ireland to England, why bother? I guess there was a certain amount of protecting existing investments of property and prestige, but the question of securing a geographical back door to the English realm must have been even more important – just before the start of the sixteenth century, you have Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, and just after the century ends you have thousands of Spanish troops landing in Kinsale.

Some of you will remember that my interest in this period is driven by family history. My namesake and ancestor Sir Nicholas White gets two mentions, one in passing as a reformist official, the other as the person who suggested that a legal dispute be resolved by the two litigants fighting to the death in the yard of Dublin Castle – which doesn’t sound terribly reformist to me…

Anyway, somewhat heavy going in places, but enlightening all the same.

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Richard Holme

Last week was insanely busy for me, and I’ve only just caught up with the news of the death of Richard Holme eight days ago, aged 71. I first knew of him in my early activist days as a student immediately after the SDP/Liberal merger, when diehard Liberals excoriated him as the demon prince of selling out to ex-Labour and later New Labour; his acceptance of a peerage rather than fight the winnable seat of Cheltenham threw activists there into a mild spin as well (if I remember rightly, the two candidates to replace him were the future MP Nigel Jones and his ex-wife, or something like that).

But when I actually got to know him, through my involvement in the Lib Dems Northern Ireland policy working group after I had moved back to Belfast, I found myself really impressed by his gravitas and also his humour. As the party’s Northern Ireland spokesman, and in the House of Lords to boot, he was a bit invisible to the public eye (I shouldn’t think many people reading this had ever heard of him), but was very active behind the scenes. He sent me a congratulatory note after I captained the QUB team on University Challenge, but mocked my election literature – “Couldn’t you have found a photograph to use which was taken after your fourteenth birthday?”

Once I moved to the Balkans we lost touch – I was sorry to see the circumstances of his parting company with the Broadcasting Standards Council, but glad to get back in touch with him briefly a couple of years ago. Nice tribute to him by Paddy Ashdown in the Independent and by Trevor Smith and others in the Guardian.

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