October Books 23) Edmund Spenser

23) Edmund Spenser, by Rosemary Freeman

This is a very slim pamphlet of thirty pages, published around 1960 as part of a series on “Writers and Their Works” for the British Council and the National Book League. I realised a little while ago that if I am serious about researching sixteenth-century Ireland, I will have to get into Spenser’s writings, especially his poetry; this booklet gave me a reasonable overview of his works, including one very important tip – don’t start The Faerie Queene by reading the explanatory letter to Sir Walter Ralegh which is printed in most editions as a preface, just get into the poem directly. I will have to tackle the original texts at some point but at least I now have a better idea of what I am getting into.

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Copy this sentence into your livejournal if you’re in a non-same-sex marriage, and you don’t want it “protected” by those who think that gay marriage hurts it somehow.

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October Books 22) The Moving Toyshop

22) The Moving Toyshop, by Edmund Crispin

Got this off Bookmooch, after reading ‘s review (in which she explores its literary antecedence of Doctor Who), and greatly enjoyed it. It is a murder mystery set in Oxford in 1938, solved by Gervase Fen, professor of poetry; the plot is convoluted and utterly implausible, but it is written with immense verve, energy and humour. Anyone who knows Oxford will appreciate the attention to local detail. (Anyone expecting a sort of prehistoric Inspector Morse will be disappointed.)

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Small world

Professor Christine Bell of the University of Ulster is an old friend of mine. I knew her first when she was a clarinettist, and I played percussion, in the Belfast Youth Orchestra as teenagers; then we more or less overlapped at Cambridge; then we both ended up at QUB again; then we both got into the international arena at about the same time – I quoted her work to the president of Macedonia; she recently sent me a couple of chapters of her next book to critique.

But it turns out that I am not her only old friend.

Small world, eh?

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New Who?

We went to bed early last night, and incredibly were not awakened by the collective sound of fandom exploding after the news broke. Well, I’m not surprised that Tennant is leaving. He will have played the part for longer than anyone except Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, unless one allows McGann and (more justifiably) McCoy the time of the interregnums. He has been good; I wasn’t totally convinced by either The Christmas Invasion or New Earth, but since then he has pretty much got it. (My favourite Doctors are still Four, Nine and One, in that order, but it is an increasingly tough call.)

Things have changed since the days of Old Who, when the handover would be fixed up and completed in weeks or at most a few months; now we have over a year to go before we see the last of Ten.

I’m not going to get into the guessing game of who Eleven will be. Speculation at this stage is rather premature. Anyway there is the old saying that he who goes into the conclave as the next pope comes out of it just another cardinal. (Though the old saying is sometimes wrong.) I imagine the Moff will have someone in mind, and probably it will be someone he has worked with before; one could easily draw up a likely shortlist after a brief session with IMDB, but I’m not going to bother.

Instead I will note that some of the greatest Old Who stories emerged from the creative tension of the great changeover of 1974, when producer, script editor and Doctor all changed roughly simultaneously, and most particularly when the new script editor had been responsible for some of the better stories of recent years at the time. So I have high hopes for 2010.

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October Books 21) King John

21) The Life and Death of King John, by William Shakespeare

I confess I knew nothing at all about this play before last week. It’s a somewhat weird meditation on the political process. There is a sort-of viewpoint character, “The Bastard” who is the illegitimate son of John’s brother Richard Cœur de Lion; yet at the same time he consistently argues for a more vigorous and vicious engagement by the English against the French and/or the Pope, including at times when this is obviously a bad idea. So although he is definitely the author’s creation, it is not at all clear that he is the author’s mouthpiece.

King John himself is also an ambiguous figure. His bold words against the Pope in Act 3, which sound terribly impressive in post-Henry VIII England, melt into historical footnotes in Act V. The cosmic karma that descends on him for killing Arthur is unfair because a) his orders weren’t actually carried out, b) he changed his mind and c) Arthur dies by accident. John (and by the end of the play Henry III) may be legitimate, but that doesn’t make you right. It’s not at all obvious that John’s agonising death is deserved.

I’m surprised that this play isn’t better known. Apart from the title role, the Bastard, Constance, Arthur, Hubert and Salisbury all seem to me to be rather interesting characters who could be brought to life under the right circumstances. Arkangel have a decent cast, none particularly outstanding, but it is good material and they deliver a quality product.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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Confucius descendant dies

Kung Te-Cheng, a 77th-generation descendant of the philosopher Confucius, died recently at the age of 88. Confucius lived 2500 years ago, so that allows an average of 32.5 years per generation, which I guess is reasonable if you are talking about high-status men.

277 is roughly 1.5 x 1023. Estimates of the world population of humanity in 500 BC range from 100 million to 200 million. I submit that we are all descended from Confucius by one route or another; the late Mr Kung is unusual only in that his male-line descent was apparently well recorded.

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October Books 20) Sunrise Alley

20) Sunrise Alley

This book was on my mind anyway, but popped up on my reading list the other day. Didn’t take long to read (300 pages, many of them blank, large print); not as awful as some of the other Asaro books I have read, but not specially outstanding either. It’s a near-future story of artificial intelligence, including a robot so cute that our heroine falls straight in love with him. I found the portrayal of the military securocrats who get in the way pretty unbelievable, and likewise the psychology of the romance, but the questions raised about humanity and intelligence are valid enough.

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Big Finish once more

I’m way out of date with my Big Finish updates. I had listened to a couple of dozen before the summer, but never got around to writing them up, and then they got displaced on my commute by the novelisations. So I’ve returned to them, pacing (for example) an act of a Shakespeare play against a Big Finish episode; also I’ve decided to work the most recent releases into my listening as well as catching up from the beginning.

Unregenerate!, by David McIntee, has Mel trying to make contact with a newly regenerated Seven, and finding herself and her taxi driver sucked into an illicit Gallifreyan research centre where Tardis brains are transplanted into the bodies of the dying. There was one particularly memorable mental image, when Mel penetrates the evildoers’ headquarters on earth and dicovers that it is merely a shell, the real business going on elsewhere. The taxi-driver is a memorable character too. But apart from that, I wasn’t wowed by the Doctor saving the day because his brain is just so special (though McCoy plays it well), and not really confident about how it all fits in to what else we know of the Time Lords.

I already wrote up The Council of Nicæa, just noting it here for completeness.

In Terror Firma, Joe Lidster has delivered a fun piece of work. Eight and his team, newly emerged (in continuity terms) from C’rizz’s native universe, are confronted with Davros and the Daleks; but the memorable bits are actually incidental characters Gemma and Samson, who turn out to have been previous travelling companions of Eight’s whom he has forgotten, and their terribly posh mother, who turns out to be the leader of the Folkestone branch of the anti-Dalek resistance. Poor old C’rizz is asked to be the new Emperor Dalek, but I guess he is getting used to that kind of thing.

Paul Sutton’s Thicker than Water takes an unusual continuity angle of visiting Evelyn Smythe after she has left the Doctor and married Rossiter from Arrangements for War: Six takes Mel to visit her, Mel having expressed interest in meeting the woman who tamed the Doctor after the unstable start to his regeneration. The actual plot is rather straightforward – emotional conflict between Evelyn and her doctor stepdaughter, with a rather minor sfnal element of alien tech captured from the Killoran invaders – but there are lots of reflections on parental and quasi-parental relationships, including a twist at the end involving a brief appearance from elsewhen in continuity. Actually rather satisfying.

Marc Platt is either brilliant or incomprehensible in my experience, and unfortunately Time Reef is more in the latter category. Thomas Brewster, who joined Five and Nyssa a couple of adventures ago, has temporarily borrowed the Tardis and flogged most of the interior fittings to a rather curious spaceship marooned on a Time Reef. The script was witty and weird, but I didn’t get enough of a handle on the means and motivation of the various players, including particularly Brewster himself. Also it really annoys me that Five is/was so indiscriminating about his travelling companions – happily sharing the Tardis with those he didn’t like (Adric), who didn’t like him (Tegan), who were actively trying to kill him (Turlough and to an extent Kamelion) and now someone who actually steals his valuable property. There are a couple of Five/Brewster exchanges which are really unbelievable.

Jonny Morris, having written Brewster into the Big Finish sequence earlier this year, now writes him out with a short but satisfactory story: life suddenly takes a shift for the better, but this perfection is not what it seems. Brewster leaves with some element of redemption, a decent end to his character arc.

In summary, Terror Firma is probably the best of these in fannish terms, Thicker Than Water probably the most approachable for the non-fan.

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October Books 19) A Midsummer Night’s Dream

19) A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

Of Shakespeare’s really famous plays, this is probably the one I knew least well before starting this project. It is brilliant. Somehow it all comes together, in terms of plot and language. The human side of the plot – conflicting love interests resolved by supernatural means, entertained by a local am dram group – is straightforward enough; the special bit is the fairy world. And somehow here Shakespeare manages to construct an alien culture, beings which have super powers yet whose motivations remain mostly familiar. Not knowing the play, I tended to assume the fairies would be more or less of the Andrew Lang variety, but these are much more serious beings.

It seemed comparatively short, and the text seems more approachable; certainly the humorous and farcical aspects of the plot are pretty timeless (none of the incomprehensible wordplay scenes of, say, Love’s Labour’s Lost). In particular, to my surprise, Bottom stands out as a vivid character – the guy in the club who thinks the whole thing revolves around him, and because he thinks so it has largely become true; and even having his head turned into a donkey’s while the fairy queen makes love to him doesn’t seriously faze him.

The Arkangel production has veteran comedian Roy Hudd doing a superb Bottom (climaxing with a glorious Pyramus death scene), and two other particularly good performances: David Harewood as Oberon and Adjoah Andoh (Martha’s mother in Doctor Who) as Titania, playing the fairy couple with Caribbean accents, which of course adds to their exotic characterisations (as does the effective soundscape). Amanda Root and Saskia Wickham are good also as the human girls, Hermia and Helena. The most enjoyable so far.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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LJ Maps

It’s an old ‘un but a good ‘un:

I’m trying to get all my Livejournal friends’ locations plotted on a map – please add your location starting with this form.
(Then get your friends to!)

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October Books 18) Winner Takes All

18) Winner Takes All, by Jacqueline Rayner

A Ninth Doctor novel, set in the Powell Estate and featuring one set of aliens using computer games to recruit humans to fight their war against another set of aliens. The Sarah Jane Adventures did this too, with Warriors of Kudlak; I think this version of the story is better, with a lot of development of the Powell Estate, including a viewpoint teenager, and some nice Doctor / Rose moments. I’ve found Rayner’s writing a bit hit and miss, but this was a good one.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that on the whole the Ninth and Tenth Doctor novels with a contemporary setting are better than those with a historical or alien setting. I wonder if this says something about New Who? Or just that my sample size is small?

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October Books 17) Jean Sibelius

17) Jean Sibelius, by Guy Rickards

I was in the Hague for work yesterday, but happened to pick up this biography of my favourite composer during my lunch break (at Van Stockum, for those who know it); a handsomely illustrated Phaidon Press publication, a real bargain at €9.95.

Sibelius was a particularly long-lived composer (born 1865, died 1957) but the productive part of his career was really only from 1891 to 1926 – mind you, 34 years of production is still pretty good.

He was a real bastard to his wife and daughters, basically drinking and smoking away every mark he ever got, surviving on handouts from the Finnish state and from wealthy patrons, which he had often spent even before the cash arrived. Even a period of medically enforced abstinence from alcohol and nicotine from 1907 to 1915 didn’t improve his general spending habits. And yet… his most lasting works are those from the first half of his career – the Kullervo symphony, the First and Second Symphonies, the Swan of Tuonela and of course Finlandia – written when he seems to have been permanently drunk. (Symphonies Three and Four are the product of sobriety, but he was drinking again by the time he wrote the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh.) Then he spent thirty years agonising over the Eighth Symphony, which Rickards suspects he had actually completed in 1933 but then burned in 1945, while pretending almost to his dying day that he was still working on it (a bit reminiscent of a certain never-published sf anthology).

Sibelius was two when his father died; he grew up in an atmosphere of unstable poverty; and his sister ended up in residential care for (unspecified) mental illness. There’s obviously an untold psychiatric story here, and Rickards is rather disappointingly superficial about this – he mutters about ADD and SAD, but I think I want more substance than that – Sibelius clearly had an addiction problem, and also tended to a self-destructive perfectionism in the way he treated his own work (the lost Eighth Symphony being merely the best known case).

Rickards is particularly good on tracing Sibelius’ intellectual and patronage links with other composers, especially in his early studies in Berlin and Vienna (though there are later links with Bax and Vaughan Williams as well). And the illustrations are great, tracking the composer’s transformation from young seducer with floppy hair and trailing moustache to national monument with totally shaven head.

One of my fascinations with Sibelius is how he got folded into the politics of the time, to the point where he became a national icon. He was always a Finnish nationalist, but a Swedish speaker, yet devoted to the Kalevala legends. The period of his career exactly coincides with Finland’s national awakening and evolution to an independent state, and his music was a vital part of that national awakening – it is, after all, so very evocative of the Finnish landscape, which Swedish speakers and Finnish speakers, Red and White, had in common. That is all right until independence and civil war transform the situation; Rickards hints that the political uncertainties of the inter-war period may be part of the explanation for his three decades of silence.

Sibelius seems to have coped well with becoming a fixture on the tourism agenda of distinguished visitors in his final years. No doubt he had a few drinks with them as well. I’ll look out for more books about this fascinating and aggravating character.

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October Books 16) Astra and Flondrix

16) Astra and Flondrix, by Seamus Cullen

A rather bizarre and somewhat distasteful fantasy novel: Elvish genitals come in pairs, while Dwarves have a more complex spiral arrangement (on which the male Dwarves spring across the countryside). I read to the end hoping there would be a punchline; but there wasn’t.

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October Books 15) The Duke and I

15) The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn

Gosh, two books cast aside in one day! This was one of the freebie e-books I got with my Palm T|X years ago (in fact I have read all the others, and enjoyed them). But two chapters of this is enough; it is romantic tosh, and insultingly inferior to Vanity Fair which I guess is one of its distant literary ancestors.

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October Books 14) Richard II

14) Richard II, by William Shakespeare

After a run of comedies and tragedies, we’re back with the history plays (though this one was in fact explicitly billed on first publication as The tragedie of King Richard the second). The plot is pretty simple: King Richard II starts the play by exiling his cousin Henry, who then returns and overthrows him, with Richard killed by one of Henry’s overzealous supporters at the end.

It’s a bit different from the three Henry VI plays. Apart from the last act (which has the rather odd York/Aumerle murder conspiracy subplot), I felt that there was almost too little attention to historical detail; it’s not at all clear why Richard is so very bad, let alone why the nobles and commons desert him for Henry as rapidly as they do. Richard, indeed, is a rather sympathetic character, getting several of the better speeches in the play – while he is being overthrown, and just before he is murdered. The other famous speech, of course, is John of Gaunt’s oration about England (“this blessed spot, this earth, this realm, this England”), declaimed while waiting for Richard to turn up to Gaunt’s deathbed.

Besides the set-piece speeches, the most interesting scene is at the end of Act 3, when Richard’s Queen learns of his overthrow by listening to the gardener gossiping. (This is the third Shakespeare play in a row with people hiding in foliage – Romeo does it in Romeo and Juliet, and three of the four male leads do so in Love’s Labour’s Lost.) There are lots of good bits here but they don’t quite knit together.

The Arkangel production is decent enough – lots of big names (Rupert Graves as Richard, Julian Glover as Henry) but I actually found it rather hard to get through.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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2008 Films 5) Time Flies

5) Time Flies (1944)

I acquired this as part of one of my current Speshul Prodgekts; also because my father occasionally reminisced about seeing it as a teenager when it first came out. It is a very early example of an explicitly sfnal British film; I have seen it claimed as the first ever commercial movie featuring time travel a time machine – my cursory researches so far haven’t turned up any earlier example, but I’m sure someone will put me right.

The film is basically a vehicle for Tommy Handley, who ruled supreme as the best known British radio comedian of the 1940s. The script is by three standard Handley writers, Ted Kavanagh, J.O.C. Orton and Howard Irving Young (Young’s other credits, interestingly, include a 1931 play about television and a 1950 film called The Flying Saucer). This one was not a huge success, and helped kill the career of director Walter Forde and ensured that Handley stuck to radio. It was also the last film ever made by leading lady Evelyn Dall, who is one of the best things in it; apparently she is still living in Arizona, aged 90.

Handley stars as a disreputable Englishman in New York in 1943, who together with two American showbiz friends gets swept back to Elizabethan England in Professor MacAndrew’s Time Ball. There is so much here that seems like a taproot text for Doctor Who that I am really surprised not to have seen it mentioned anywhere else. Felix Aylmer, as Professor MacAndrew, is closer to Peter Cushing than William Hartnell, but the resemblance to both is unmistakeable. As the Time Ball takes off, its passengers collapse, incapacitated, just as Ian and Barbara do in An Unearthly Child. There are scenes with Shakespeare, and Queen Elizabeth I, which must surely have been at the back of Terry Nation’s mind as he wrote The Chase.

Having said that, this is a 1940s film, and our protagonists several times escape certain doom by breaking into song, helped by the fact that one of the local troubadours looks like jazz violinist Stéphane Grapelli (because he is jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli). I was quite impressed by the attention to scientific and historical detail in the first half of the film – MacAndrew’s mutterings about space-time curvature are perfectly respectable, and Shakespeare is accurately depicted working on Romeo and Juliet immediately after Love’s Labour’s Lost – but then they bring in Pocahontas and Captain John Smith twenty-five years too early, which rather kills any pretensions to accuracy but possibly helped it in the American market.

The film is a curio. The spell of Tommy Handley as a cult figure dissipated almost six decades ago, and today’s viewer will wonder why we are supposed to think it is funny. But anyone interested in the development of sf, especially in Britain and/or the cinema in the 1940s, should seek it out.

Quotes from the film (courtesy of IMDB)

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Pete Fenelon, aka blue_condition

I’m desperately sorry to hear that Pete Fenelon, who the discerning livejournal reader will have known as , died a few days ago. I can’t say I knew him well, but I enjoyed our interactions immensely; we first made contact during the Lib Dem leadership campaign in 2006, and he posted sardonic and occasionally wistful entries and comments which made me look forward to the day when we might meet, which now will never happen. A typical sample of his comments can be found here, where inter alia he teased me about liking The Curse of Peladon because it is essentially about my day job, and then remarked, “Sadly they never made Doctor Who and the Principal Engineers Of Slight Disillusionment for me.”

He was only 40.

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Primary source material leading towards a biography

This is an account of the death of Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, of dysentery while serving as Earl Marshal of Ireland in 1576, written a few days after the event and sent to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who was Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State. One of my projects at the moment is to research the life of the person who wrote it.

To the right honnorable my singular good L. my L. Burghley Lorde Treasurer of Englande


I RECEAVED by my nephewe your Lordships loving lettres, all written with your awne hande, which were more comfortable to me then I can expresse. I finde in themme a rule to direct me, and a piller wheron to stay me, besyds a confirmation of your accustomed favour towards me, whom your selfe hathe lifted upp from stumbling downe, wherof I and my posteritie shall alwaies cary a loving memory. I will not presume to prohibite your honor to write any thing to the Governor which youe shall thinke good for me ; but I suppose he hathe made choise of suche as he thinks fittest to be acquaynted with his platt : and therefore-using me but as tanquam vocatus, am to require no more, but his indifferency, and favorable acceptation of my best advise in the service of my Prince and Countrey.

Oh my good Lord, here I must, emong others advertyse your Lordship of the dolefull departure of Th’Erle of Essex, who ended this life to begyn a better the xxijth of September in the Castell of Dublin and felt his sycknes first at Talaghe [?Tallaght?] th’archebisshope of Dublins house, in his jorney towards Balhuglas [?Baltinglass?] to mete Th’Erle of Ormounde accompanyed with the Chauncelor, the last of August.

I was moche abowte him in the later ende of his sycknes, and behelt suche true tokynes of Nobilitie conjoyned with a most godly and vertuos mynde to the yelding upp of his breathe, as is rare to be sene.

Two daies before he died he had speche with me of your Lordship, and sayd he thoght he was borne to do you and your’s good. But nowe sayd he I must comytt the oversight of my son and all to him. He likewise spoke lovingly of my Lord of Sussex, with many other things which for prolixitie and otherwise I omytt to write. He doubted that he had bene poysoned by reason of the violent evacuation which he had, and of that suspicion acquitted this Lande, saying no not Tirrelaghe Lunnaghe him selfe wolde do no villany to his person. But upon the openyng of him, which I coulde not abyde, the Chauncelor tolde me that all his inwarde parts were sounde saving that his hart was somewhate consumed, and the blader of his gall empty. Suche as toke upon theme to be his phisicians, as Chaloner, Knell a preacher, and the Deputies phisician called Doctor Trever, applied him with many glisters, and therby filled his body full of winde which was perceyved : so as ether ther ignorance, or some violent cause beyonde ther skill ended his life. His fleashe and complexion did not decay, his memory and speche was so perfitt that, at the last yelding upp of his breathe, he cryed ‘ Cowradge, Cowradge. I am a soyldor that must fight under the banor of my Savior Christe.’ And as he prayed alwaies to be dissolved, so was he lothe to dye in his bed ; which made me to remember your Lordship’s tale of your Father.

Emong others he had care of my seconde son, which is all this while brought upp with the young Erle his son, without any chardge to me, bicause his mother was a Lenox. And required Mr Waterhouse to move your honor that he might still attende on his son and be broght upp with him, wherin I refer his case to your accustomed goodnes.

His Lordship comytted to my keping the patents of his creation and countreyes here : and made me one of his feoffees of Trust. I hope with the Deputie’s favour to turne those lands to a reasonable yere comoditie to his son.

I do sende your Lordship here inclosed the names of suche of Th’Erles servaunts as were abowte him in the tyme of his sycknes, and served him moste painfully and diligently ; for with respect I thinke them worthy the favor of all men.

It is doubted whate ende the deputie will make of this great sturr in Conaght.

From S’. Kathrins besyds Dublin, this last of September 1576.

Yor honors moste bounden during life


Dramatis personæ:

The writer of the letter: Nicholas White, Master of the Rolls of Ireland, also my 9x great-grandfather
The recipient of the letter: William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer of England
The man who died: Walter, Earl of Essex, who had led a failed colonisation expedition to Ulster a few years before and was now Earl Marshal of Ireland
Others, named:
          “Th’Erle of Ormounde“, Lord Treasurer of Ireland
          “Tirrelaghe Lunnaghe”, Turlough Luineach O’Neill, King of Tyrone who had defeated Essex
          “my Lord of Sussex”, Thomas Radclyffe, the Earl of Sussex
          Chaloner, Knell and Trever, incompetent doctors who killed the earl with too many “glysters” (ie enemas)
          “the young Erle”, Robert, Earl of Essex, who grew up to be a favourite of Queen Elizabeth’s and then was executed for leading a rebvellion against her
          Edward Waterhouse,Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant
Others, named by title:
          Sir Henry Sidney, “the Governor”/”the Deputie” (ie Lord Lieutenant of Ireland)
          Adam Loftus, “th’archebisshope of Dublin”
          Robert Dillon, “Chauncelor” of the Exchequer of Ireland
Others, not named:
          White’s nephew
          White’s second son, whose “mother was a Lenox”

The section of most general interest is the bit about the earl’s demise. Nicholas White knew about poisoning due to the circumstances of his own father’s death, and presumably his evidence that the earl’s death was due to natural causes was important and needed in London. His profession of affection and gratitude for Burghlety’s help is rather striking. The account of the doctors’ mistreatment of the earl is pretty chilling, though probably he was doomed anyway.

Edward Waterhouse, mentioned in the last paragraph, wrote a much more widely circulated account of the earl’s death and was crucial in building his son’s later reputation.

I’m confused by the references to White’s family. Other sources say that he had three sons, Andrew, Thomas and James, all by his first wife, who is recorded in genealogy only by her surname, Sherlock. (His second marriage – that we know of – was in 1587, long after this letter was written.) But here he says that the mother of his second son was a Lennox. More research needed.

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October Books 12) Vanity Fair

12) Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray

I really enjoyed this. It’s essentially the story of Becky and Amelia, two girls of English high society of the Regency and reign of George IV, and what happens to them both after they leave school and marry against the wishes of their husbands’ families.

Becky is much the more interesting of the two; her adventures repeatedly lead her to personal and/or financial disaster, but she always bounces back. She is rather selfish in the way she constantly and instinctively exploits those around her, but also does have a good heart in the end. I find her one of the most fascinating characters of Victorian literature; Thackeray’s portrayal of her is sympathetic despite the harsh circumstances.

Although the book’s subtitle is “A Novel without a Hero”, that’s not quite true: the virtuous Amelia is loved from afar by her husband’s friend Dobbin, whose behaviour is pretty saintly. However his gentlemanly and honourable conduct seems a bit of a waste, since Amelia is blind to him for most of the book.

The settings of the story – London, the Crawley country mansion, Brussels, the Grand Duchy of Pumpernickel – are tremendously well realised, especially in their human landscape. I commented last week that Thackeray’s portrayal of a multi-racial London is memorable; also Amelia’s brother Jos is addicted to curries. Thackeray is of course a racist, but at least he actually has black characters.

The first half of the book climaxes at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. I could not help but compare Thackeray’s account of the battle with my memory of Victor Hugo’s version in Les Miserables. For Hugo, it’s an extended flashback to explain certain bits of back-story for Thenardier and Marius; although the battle is described with a historical precision, the really memorable scene is among the corpses on the battlefield after it is over.

For Thackeray, the battle mainly happens off-stage: his characters don’t know the outcome, and he has a brilliant sequence of chapters in Brussels preparing for the coming crisis, including the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, and then the non-combatants left behind in a city swept by rumours as the artillery fire rumbles up from the south. When I worked at CEPS, I used to go and eat my sandwiches in the Parc de Bruxelles, where Thackeray’s characters promenade.

Anyway, lots of neat touches of characterisation, lots of good circumstantial detail, and a plot that kept me reading. It’s rather long – 672 pages of small print in my Penguin copy – but recommended.

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Comment spam

It’s happening again – spam comments from sock-puppet accounts to various old entries. Anyone else getting it? (Apart from those whose comments are being replied to.) I’m just deleting the messages and tagging them as spam.

I wondered if last week’s attack might be deliberate harassment by someone who disagrees with me politically, but now I think it is just some idiot spammer.

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The Presidential ballot

I’ve seen a couple of other people post on how and why they are voting in the Lib Dems’ presidential election (including one rather amusing locked entry about why the whole lot is going into the recycling bin).

I decided back in July that I was voting for Ros Scott. Her manifesto is blessed with superlative endorsements – Ashdown, Williams, Cable – but I think if she was campaigning on that alone it might not do the trick; there are very few specifics about what she would do to make the party different. But the fact is that I know what she intends to do, because she has told me; she has, she claims, spoken to 3,000 members in the last 18 months (certainly including me), and in any case her website does have a few more specifics. So my vote is safely going to her.

That left the choice of putting my second preference for Lembit or the unknown young bloke, or not using it at all. There are two very specific things I don’t like in Lembit’s manifesto, and which I think will put off uncommitted voters: the peculiar phrases: “primary colours, not pastel shades” and “support our leader and never compete with his role”. It’s not at all clear who is being attacked for either using pastel shades or competing with Nick Clegg, and it just sounds a bit weird.

However, Chandila Fernando’s manifesto is enough to let me give Lembit my second preference. Fernando is clearly a bright guy, but you basically need someone in the role of party president who has some experience of how the party ticks from the inside. Fernando doesn’t mention any actual experience in the party other than being a “seasoned campaigner” (I’ve heard that he was a Conservative until recently, and while I wouldn’t hold this per se against him, it would explain why he hasn’t many Luib Dem credentials on his CV). Lembit is charmingly eccentric but does in the end have a clue; Chandila doesn’t quite manage to score on the clue scale, so he goes third on my list.

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October Books 11) Doctor Who and the City of Death

11) Doctor Who and the City of Death, by David Lawrence

When I was reading through the Doctor Who novelisations over the spring and summer, I bemoaned the fact that all were available, in print or electronically, apart from the unofficial New Zealand fan write-up of City of Death. I spoke too soon; because back in August, thanks I believe to the efforts of Paul Scoones, it was published on the NZDWFC website. I only discovered this at the weekend, and managed to download the book and read it over today’s commute.

I think it is by some way the best of the New Zealand books. It helps that the original story is one of the best Who stories ever – the Doctor and Romana flirting in Paris, presumably about the time that the actors portraying them were falling in love; Douglas Adams at his best, concentrating on witty and sparkling dialogue rather than trying to write sf; a comic time-travelling plot about the Mona Lisa, the origin of life on Earth and the potential destruction of humanity. But Lawrence has managed a) to write it all down without sucking the life out of it and b) throw in a few extra original details which reinforce the story. So, for instance, we get an insight into that peculiar phenomenon, the marital life of the Scarlionis; he makes the Doctor/Romana relationship more Timelordish; and he has a wonderful run of opening scenes, including a moment with K’anpo on Gallifrey and a party at Leonardo da Vinci’s where the guests include Mozart, William Blake, Shakespeare, Napoleon, Dickens and Homer. Strongly recommended for all Who fans. And I’m glad to finish my reading of the Who novelisations with such a fine example of the sub-genre.

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October Books 10) All-Consuming Fire

10) All-Consuming Fire, by Andy Lane

I enjoyed this tremendously. The Doctor, Ace, and Bernice Summerfield, in nineteenth-century London, get mixed up with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson; and all five of them are then confronted with an invasion of Earth by the forces of Azathoth from the planet Ry’leh (sic). Mixing the mythoses (mythoi?) of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft is risky, but Lane has done it very well – lots of borderline steampunk in his Victorian settings, most of the narrative told in the first person by Watson (who inevitably develops a liking for Benny), cameo appearances from Pope Leo XIII, the San Francisco fire of 1906, and the smart missiles from Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

Apart from the wonderful romp of the setting, Lane is also pretty smart about reinforcing our willing suspension of disbelief. Is Sherlock Holmes real or fictional in the Whoniverse? We get a rather neat answer here. On top of that, the entire narrative is nicely presented as a flashback, Benny and Ace perusing Watson’s account, and then critiquing him as an unreliable narrator.

Strongly recommended, especially for fans of Holmes or Cthulhu who may for some reason not have encountered Doctor Who.

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October Books 9) The English

9) The English: A Portrait of a People, by Jeremy Paxman

As you would hope from the author, this is a witty, erudite, but very readable book about the English. Anyone who has contact with English people on a regular basis should read it. It is written, of course mainly for them, but we who observe them at close quarters will be amused and perhaps enlightened by Paxman’s analysis of his own people.

I admit that that paragraph was a bit provocative. I’m not English; I have lived in England for only five of my 41 years; none of my ancestors, as far as I know, in the last 300 years was English. Of course I married an Englishwoman, and my father and his parents (one Irish, one American) were educated in England, as was I myself for the five years of my various Cambridge activities. I remember once having an earnest sherry-fuelled discussion with the Master of my college as to whether or not the Irish were foreign. Paxman’s book reminds me that the English are definitely foreign. It was very interesting as an intellectual exercise to separate out England and Englishness, to acknowledge the fact that I am an outsider to both, and to consider them as phenomena in themselves.

Having said that, I found myself in silent agreement with an awful lot of what Paxman writes about the English attitudes to history, the countryside, religion, sex, food, property and history again – so much so that I’m not going to recapitulate it, just urge you to read the book. There were just two points that jumped out at me as especially thought-provoking.

First, a rather technical historical point, and one that is not original to Paxman. The dissolution of the monasteries and Henry VIII’s breach with the Pope, it is argued, had deep effects on England’s cultural psyche; a rich mainstream (Catholic) European artistic heritage was literally destroyed forever, and the new concentration on the Word of scripture, translated into English, created the intellectual space for Shakespeare, etc, while England was unable to match the continent in the more visual arts. I suspect one could find plenty of opposing evidence if one wanted, but I sense there may be something there, and I should read more about it.

The second, more general point I picked up from Paxman’s book is this: that for many English people, national identity is not something that actually has to be considered at all. Going back again to my Cambridge days, I remember one friend from Essex assuring me, “I daon’t really ‘ave an accent!” Of course he did, but he had never thought of it in that way; he just though he talked normal, and that I talked funny. We who come from smaller, or indeed just other, countries and nations are constantly (made) aware of our origins when we are in England. Other nationalities (certainly everywhere else I have lived, including even the US) accept that they are themselves a distinct and particular group of people, and that other countries are the same; in England, we visitors sometimes feel that we are weirdly and perhaps quaintly deviating from the default state of humankind, which is only found locally.

(“Yet, in spite of all temptations / to belong to other nations / he is an Englishman! / He remains an E-e-e-e-e-e-englishman!”)

Paxman then goes on to suggest that because the English sense of Englishness (or Britishness) is poorly or even unpleasantly articulated, it becomes much more difficult to have a rational discussion of European integration. To expand his point, the Belgians, Germans, Latvians, and Portuguese all have a good idea of where they are starting from, so are less worried about and more interested in going down the European track. Going back to Paxman, the British (and that largely means English, with certain peculiar exceptions in the territory where I was born) sense of mission collapsed with economic austerity and the loss of Empire after 1945, without anything much to replace it. Yet paradoxically the civic liberal tradition which is one of England’s most admirable contributions to the world makes it almost impossible to construct a replacement national ideology. And even if that were possible, it’s difficult to see how the Scots and Welsh might buy into such a project; consider how silly Gordon Brown’s recent pronouncements on Britishness sounded, especially coming from a Scot.

Anyway, that’s what I thought. I hope none of you English people reading this are offended – I like most of you and I love some of you!

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Memo to job applicants

Don’t lie on your CV. Really.

I’m hiring for interns again. One of the candidates who I was about to shortlist had put as their most recent employment that they had worked for a friend of mine. I checked out with my friend who said that the candidate had worked there only for a few days, not quite the six weeks of employment stated on the CV – which is otherwise quite impressive, but now I must distrust every other detail given. And I don’t have time to check those details out, so into the bin it goes.

If you lie on your CV, you will get caught. And even if you get away with it this time, it will have a corrosive effect on your ethics. How many more times will you pad out a few details, just because it looks a little better than the truth? In the field where I work, it is a small world and we all know each other. And even if you work in a less focussed field than I do, as you get farther up the tree, your lies will come back to haunt you, until you fall spectacularly.

Just tell the truth. It’s easier all round.

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