Books acquired in August

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson
The TARDIS (Doctor Who Files 12) by BBC Books
"Doctor Who" Files the Cybermen by Justin Richards
The Daleks (Doctor Who Files 7) by Justin Richards
Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway
Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould
Learning and Change in European Foreign Policy: The Case of the Eu Special Representatives by Cornelius Adebahr
"Doctor Who": The Sontaran Games by Jacqueline Rayner
The Darksmith Legacy: The Art of War Bk. 9 by Mike Tucker
Out by Natsuo Kirino
On the Nature of the Universe by Lucretius
"Doctor Who": The Doctor Trap by Simon Messingham
Doctor Who – Snowglobe 7 by Mike Tucker
The Darksmith Legacy: The Pictures of Emptiness Bk. 8 by Jacqueline Rayner
The Darksmith Legacy: The Planet of Oblivion Bk. 7 by Justin Richards
The Darksmith Legacy: The Game of Death Bk. 6 by Trevor Baxendale
The Darksmith Legacy: The Vampire of Paris Bk. 5 by Stephen Cole
The History of the Hobbit: Mr Baggins v. 1 by John D. Rateliff
Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham
Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland by Robert Ramsay
Early Belfast: The Origins and Growth of an Ulster Town to 1750 by Raymond Gillespie
Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447-1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule by Steven G. Ellis
"Doctor Who": Peacemaker by James Swallow
"Doctor Who": Ghosts of India by Mark Morris (2009)
George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt by Lucy Hawking
The Darksmith Legacy: The Depths of Despair Bk. 4 by Justin Richards
The Darksmith Legacy: The Colour of Darkness Bk. 3 by Richard Dungworth
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Fables Vol. 9: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham
Fables Vol. 10: The Good Prince by Bill Willingham
Doctor Who: The Visual Dictionary by Jacqueline Rayner
"Doctor Who": Beautiful Chaos by Gary Russell
Legacy: A Collection of Personal Testimonies from People Affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland by BBC Northern Ireland
"Doctor Who": The Eyeless by Lance Parkin
Ship of Fools by Dave Stone
Dragons’ Wrath by Justin Richards
Doctor Who: Atom Bomb Blues by Andrew Cartmel
Doctor Who: Spiral Scratch by Gary Russell
The King of Terror by Keith Topping
Target: A History of the Target Doctor Who Books by David Howe
"Doctor Who": Shining Darkness by Mark Michalowski
"Doctor Who": The Rising Night by Scott Handcock (2009)
The History of the Hobbit: Return to Bag-End v. 2 by John Rateliff
The Darksmith Legacy: The Graves of Mordane Bk. 2 by Colin Brake
The Darksmith Legacy: The Dust of Ages Bk. 1 by Justin Richards
Cyberabad Days by Ian Mcdonald
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Official "Doctor Who" Annual 2010 by BBC
Fables Vol. 8: Wolves by Bill Willingham
Fables Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days) by Bill Willingham
Fables Vol. 6: Homelands by Bill Willingham
The Angel Makers by Jessica Gregson
Autobiography, The: The Kindness of Strangers by Kate Adie (2002)
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August Books

Non-fiction: 12 (YTD 67)

Fiction (non-sf): 9 counting Rankins separately (YTD 41)

SF (non-Who): 10 counting Brusts separately (YTD 58)

Doctor Who and Torchwood: 15 (YTD 42)

Comics: 7 (YTD 25)

9 (YTD 51/252) by women (Paula Devine, Dava Sobel, Harper Lee, Jane Austen, Michelle Magorian, Jessica Gregson, Margo Lanagan, Stephenie Meyer, Keiko Tobe)
1 (YTD 12/252) by PoC (Tobe)
Total page count ~15,000 (YTD ~71,600)
Owned for more than a year: 12 (To Kill A Mockingbird [reread], Swift’s Satires, Pride and Prejudice [reread], Sacred Visions, Lord of Light [reread], Hotel Rwanda, Back Home, Galileo’s Daughter, With the Light, Rebus x 3)
Also reread: none (YTD 26)

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August Books 53) Cornelius Adebahr on the EU’s Special Representatives

Working in the slipstream of EU foreign policy as I do, I have had a lot of dealings with the European Union’s Special Representatives – I have known most of the EUSRs for Macedonia (one of whom is now my colleague), all of the EUSRs for Moldova and the South Caucasus, and several others. One of a number of statements that surprised me in Cornelius Adebahr’s new book, Learning and Change in European Foreign Policy: The Case of the EU Special Representatives, was that they are not particularly well-known outside EU diplomatic circles, and have attracted little attention from academic analysts. I note that three ICG papers which I worked on appear in his bibliography, so I guess I am not in the group of people that he needs to convert.

The EU’s Special Representatives tend to be senior diplomats (occasionally retired politicians or ex-UN officials) hired by the EU to be a European institutional presence in a conflict area. They have a legal basis from the Amsterdam Treaty, which came into force in 1999, but actually first were invented in 1996 in the wake of the Rwanda genocide. They work under EU foreign policy supremo Javier Solana, but (bureaucratic complexity!) are technically employees of the European Commission, and their Brussels offices are not actually in Solana’s splendid Justus Lipsius Building but elsewhere in our neighbourhood. Some are resident in-country (Macedonia, Bosnia, etc) but most are based in Brussels and travel to their region regularly. Their role is partly to be a political face for the EU, representing the collective views of all 27 member states, and partly also to coordinate the various EU actors, and sometimes others as well, on the ground. In Macedonia and Addis Ababa, the EUSR also heads up the relevant Commission office; in Bosnia and Kosovo, he also has a second mandate from a wider international ad hoc groupin (all four of these are thus “double-hatted”).

All of the EUSRs, past and present, have been male.

Adebahr’s theoretical argument is that the behaviour of political institutions can be explained, at least in part, as a learning process, and that the way in which the EU has adapted its procedures to accomodate changing practice with regard to the EUSRs illustrates this. Being a practititoner rather than a theoretician, I have no real idea of how well this fits into current academic debates, and I don’t much care either. Adebahr admits that his organisational learning model is not sufficient to explain how the EU works, but hopes to demonstrate that it is at least necessary; I am myself a bit doubtful about his two key examples of organisational learning in practice, as explained below. His survey of rival theoretical approaches was a bit hasty, and for what it’s worth the stimulus-response model attributed to Bo Hedberg sounds more intuitively attractive to me.

Adebahr succeeds reasonably well in describing the institutional history and set-up of the (rather slim) EUSR apparatus. The biggest problem with analysing the EUSRs is actually that the organisation as such is very thin; most of them operate with only a handful of staff, who tend to get rotated in and out at regular intervals, so the institutional memory is inevitably shallow. Adebahr’s interviewees are, however, deeply embedded insiders including all the serving EUSRs at the time of his research, so he has a good broad view of the situation. There is one significant omission: the European Council’s geographical working groups, many of which operate as standing committees of Brussels-based diplomats, rather than the occasional gatherings of flying visitors from national capitals which he describes. (They and the civilian crisis management staff are absent from the organigram on page 61 which also refers to DG RELEX as “Rolex”. It is a part of the European Commission, not a watch.)

I could not completely agree with Adebahr’s actual detection of organisational learning happening in practice. His strongest finding of it is that EUSRs were removed from the chain of command for EU security or civilian missions in-country in early 2007, and he explains this as a recognition of the fact that as diplomats they tended not to have the necessary expertise in police or justice issues. This is very far from being the whole story. The EU Police Mission in Bosnia in its earlier years famously refused to accept political guidance from the EU Special Representative, who was not a seconded diplomat but Paddy Ashdown, a British politician from a military/security background. I personally have been told by other former EUSRs in other situatiions of their inability to get the EU mission leader in-country to accept their political guidance. Rather than attempting to enforce its own chain of command, the EU decided that the EUSRs should be cut out of it. This seems to me not learning, but making a virtue of bureaucratic necessity and conceding to inertia – I would go further and say that it was the wrong decision. The EUPM in Bosnia, as it originally operated, appeared to be wilfully ignorant of local political context and failed to mesh with the international community’s approach. The bureaucratic shifts of early 2007 probably make such problems more likely, rather than less likely, in future. I interpreted the episode as a turf war in which 150 Avenue Cortenbergh defeated the scattered EUSR offices, rather than an impressive example of organisational learning. I will of course be delighted if the new arrangements work better and I am proved wrong, but I no longer work on the relevant countries so my information is less current.

Likewise, Adebahr’s other example, the re-siting of the EUSRs for Moldova and the South Caucasus to Brussels rather than the officials’ home countries, struck me as a successful reassertion of strength by the Council Secretariat to overcome an anomalous situation originally dictated by questions of human and financial resources, ie Talvitie and Jacobovits de Szeged did not want to move to Brussels, and that was just about tolerable while the Finns and Dutch were picking up the tab, but became difficult once they were brought properly onto EU fundng, and then irrelevant when they were replaced.

Adebahr ends by considering – assuming that the Irish referendum in October approves the Lisbon Treaty – if and how the already extant EUSR structure should be integrated into the proposed European External Action Service (which is studiously not being called a diplomatic corps in order not to frighten the British; comments on this point from British readers are welcome). I have heard rumours that the EEAS, far from the grand merger of Council Secretariat and Commission services for external affairs, trade and development which its inventors imagined, is likely to be a much more modest affair. In any case, Adebahr’s urging of flexibility rather than rigidity of approach is surely correct.

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August Books 52) Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

Well, this book is not quite as bad as Interview with the Vampire, but that’s roughly the best that can be said for it. The most immediately striking thing about the book is that the writing is rather dull; Bella’s fascination with her own inner dialogue was not shared by this reader. My own favourite vampire series is likely to remain Buffy/Angel, which scores over Twilight by a) being much funnier and b) having characters whose sexuality extends to parts of the body below shoulder level.

The most troubling aspect of the book is that Bella is very passive indeed, entirely surrendering to the guidance of Edward and his fellow vampires – and when she tries to do something on her own she screws up and they have to rescue her. It’s not relevant for my own daughters, but if I did know any teenage girls who were reading this I would want to draw them into conversation about how Real Life may perhaps involve differentiating oneself from a doormat. (Starting with this excellent Buffy vs Edward mashup.)

And although I haven’t seen either film (nor do I have experience of being a teenage girl), I suspect may have a point when she suggests that teenage boys should watch Twilight in order to understand teenage girls’ fantasies, just as teenage girls should watch Porky’s to understand teenage boys’ fantasies. (Hat-tip to .)

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August Books 50) The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt (edited by A.J. Spencer)

This is a comprehensive full-colour guide to ancient Egyptian civilisation, which I bought when young F was at the height of his Egyptophile phase last year. It is addressed at a grownup readership and covers particularly the issues visible from the British Museum’s own collections. There is a huge amount of detail here, covering three and a half millennia (including the Pharaohs of the First Dynasty – Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djen, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qaa). It will take me a while to absorb, but two issues jumped out at me for further exploration.

First, I was fascinated to discover the survival of ancient Egyptian literature – stories such as The Tale of Sinuhe, dating from the early to mid Twelfth Dynasty, so around the 19th century BC, 4000 years ago. I must look out for them; apparently there are a couple of volumes edited by R.B. Parkinson in the 1990s.

Second, I was interested to read repeated descriptions of Egypt suffering under and oppressed by its foreign rulers (mainly the Hellenistic pharaohs from Alexander on, though they were not the first). I had always thought of this as rather a nineteenth-century concept, linked with the growth of romantic nationalism in various European countries; my impression was that a lot of people in earlier times ended up with ruling elites who spoke a different language and generally took it in their stride (usually by getting the elites to go native – the Goths in Spain and Italy, the Kievan Rus, the Normans in first Normandy then England and Sicily, the Old English in Ireland). I wonder to what extent the objection to Greek speaking rulers rested on what we would today identify as Egyptian nationalist grounds? Or is the writer (or the reader, ie me) projecting modern concepts onto a very different ancient world?

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Ted Kennedy

My one personal glimpse of Ted Kennedy was on a late evening shuttle flight from New York to Washington several years ago. I was bleary-eyed from the transatlantic leg of my itinerary, and became aware of a guy with a very loud voice who was vigorously fanboying one of the other passengers as we disembarked and had a long wait for the terminal bus. The passenger who was being fanboyed was, indeed, Senator Kennedy, who I am sure would have preferred to have a quiet evening’s journey after a hard day in the Big Apple, but coped with it all very gracefully, with due sensitivity to the other passengers’ fascination with eavesdropping on their exchange. I did not realise it, but his chief of staff at the time – who wasn’t on the plane, but I guess would normally have had the job of deflecting fanboys – was Mary Beth Cahill, who I once spent a week with in Macedonia, and who went on to run John Kerry’s election campaign.

There has been some extraordinary editorialising in the British right-wing press about his record on Ireland, based on a couple of remarks made in the heady days of the early 1970s. Once he had got himself up to speed on the issue, he was pretty firmly on the SDLP line opposing violence, and of course kept it on the agenda in Washington, which did not suit British interests. But to describe him as an IRA sympathiser is wilfully ignorant (to be charitable).

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The Three Doctors, reconsidered

When I first rewatched The Three Doctors a couple of years ago, my assessment of it was pretty harsh, but I gave it another go this last week and saw more merit in it this time. Back in October 2006 it was only the fourth Pertwee story I had watched, and I had not got very far into the Troughton era either, so my basis of comparison was not very broad; taken in consideration of the surrounding stories (especially the immediately preceding, overrated Season 9), The Three Doctors is not bad at all. (Though Terrance Dicks’ novelisation is still an improvement on the broadcast original, particularly because the monsters are not visibly ludicrous.)

I revised upwards my opinion of three of the performances. First, Troughton is not just good, he is excellent, and rather steals the show from Pertwee. He gets a lot of the best lines – there is one about confusing the anti-matter blob by letting it watch television which must surely have been an ad-lib. Second, Courtney’s Brigadier, if considered as an admittedly comedic authority figure, is actually pretty decent and he also gets some good nostalgia moments – thinking that Pertwee has changed back into Troughton and framing the situation as best he can. It’s not the Brigadier of The Invasion or Spearhead from Space, but we haven’t really had him around for a while. And third, the music is not half as bad as I remembered; I think it has to work hard to cover for the awful monsters, but does the job.

This time round I was watching the DVD, which includes a 1993 convention interview with Jon Pertwee and a 1973 Pebble Mill interview with Patrick Troughton – who looks very nervous and ill-at-ease, either he hadn’t yet developed the convention-attending skills he later displayed until the day he died, or perhaps he just wasn’t feeling well. There is also the 1973 Who retrospective from Blue Peter, starting with Pertwee (as himself) driving the Whomobile into the studio and then continuing with a potted history of the show, including Peter Purves introducing himself as Steven by showing Katarina’s death scene from The Daleks’ Master Plan – rather OTT for Blue Peter, I thought, but presumably we have Purves’ choice of clip to thank for its survival when the rest of the episode was trashed.

My copy of the DVD itself has a rather special provenance. A few months ago I noticed that several items of Who memorabilia which had been sent to Verity Lambert as courtesy copies by BBC Enterprises were being auctioned on eBay (to raise funds for cancer research), and I ended up buying this DVD and (slightly by accident) a videotape of An Unearthly Child. The latter had been watched, but Lambert (who died in late 2007) had not opened the DVD, which she must surely have received, probably unsolicited, shortly after its release in 2003. On a couple of the First Doctor DVD commentaries, she remarks that she felt very sorry about Hartnell’s increasingly poor health when they were working together; watching The Three Doctors, Hartnell’s last acting role before his death, would hardly have made her feel better on that score, so I am not surprised that the plastic wrapper was still sealed when I got it.

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August Books 49) The Angel Makers, by Jessica Gregson

If I hadn’t somehow come across its author here on livejournal, I might not have picked up The Angel Makers, and that would have been a shame: this is a gripping narrative of a Hungarian village during and after the first world war, whose women resort to murdering their husbands when they return from the army. Almost all the action takes place in the village, stifled and trapped by the monotony of the Pannonian Plain – I saw one review which found this setting unrealistic – clearly by someone who had never been there!

In particular, the central character, Sari Arany (which we can accept as a translatuion convention: in Hungarian she would have been Arany Sari) is a fascinating figure, developing from introspective teenager to being the village midwife, registrar and procurer of poison. The chain of events is triggered by the billeting of captive Italian soldiers in Sari’s boyfriend’s family home, with all the emotional and sexual opportunities they offer for the women of the village. Sari’s unwilling entanglement is entirely credible, and somehow inevitable. She pleads towards the end of the book that she was simply trying to do something for herself, and it rings true.

I read a lot of historical / political literature about conflict, and it tends to centre around the men who dominate historical discourse; The Angel Makers made me think about the histories that are not told. gives Sari a satisfying end to the story, which (having checked up a little on the historical incident on which the story is based) is perhaps a little bit unrealistic, but even so it is done in a way which stuck in my mind. An excellent read.

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Three Who audiobooks

August Books 46) The Peacemaker, by James Swallow (abridged version read by Will Thorpe)

The Doctor and Martha turn up in the Wild West of the 1880s and thwart an alien invasion. Thorpe has fun doing the accents.

August Books 47) Snowglobe 7, by Mike Tucker (abridged version read by Georgia Moffett)

Interesting setting – near future earth facing catastrophic warming, so chunks of arctic terrain are being preserved (but for some reason in Dubai). Ancient alien menace, of course, dealt with by the Doctor and Martha (who gets some good moments); well enough written and keeps the attention. Georgia Moffett doesn’t go over the top but delivers the goods.

August Books 48) The Doctor Trap, by Simon Messingham (abridged version read by Russell Tovey)

Like Stuart Burns, I began by expecting this book to be a derivative rejigging of Richard Connell’s famous short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, with the Doctor being pursued by trophy hunters who literally want his head, and like him I was pleased when my expectations were confounded a couple of chapters in and the narrative jumped into quite a different structure of real vs fake Doctors who might or might not know whether or not they are the real thing. Unlike Burns I didn’t quite feel that the conclusion delivered on the premises, but it is decent enough. Tovey has great fun doing the villainous Sebastiene, though his Donna is a bit less confident.

All standard stuff really.

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Today’s quiz

What comes next?

  1. Narmer
  2. Aha
  3. Djer
  4. ?

And no sneaky Googling for the answer!

I confess I don’t think I had ever heard of Narmer, Aha or Djer, though they are the first of a very famous sequence.

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August Books 45) The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, vol 1: Threshold

Problems with my train journeys to and from work today meant that I managed to finish this weighty volume of almost 600 pages, covering the early work of the late, great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). This is the first of a planned series of six volumes covering his entire literary career, published by the New England Science Fiction Association and edited by David G. Grubbs, Christopher S. Kovacs and Ann Crimmins. Together with volume two, it was launched at Boskone in February which was where I bought it.

I suspect that the book’s main audience will be Zelazny fans like myself, hoping for 1) hitherto unpublished literary gems unearthed by the editors’ diligence, 2) some insights into those aspects of Zelazny’s life and background which made it possible for him to produce his work, and 3) a convenient volume including our favourite pieces. NESFA have delivered on all three. A lot of the uncollected pieces here are rather minor, but there were a couple which jumped out at me as memorable (“Final Dining”, “Circe Has Her Problems”). There is a decent amount of explanatory biographical material by co-editor Kovacs, Carl Yoke and a preface by Robert Silverberg. And this first volume includes “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”, “The Doors Of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth” and “He Who Shapes”, Zelazny’s best early stories, which is a powerful mixture.

Satisfying those three requirements would just about justify the hefty $29 price of this hardback. But there are several other positive points about it. First, a lot of Zelazny’s early poetry is collected here, interspersed through the stories, certainly at a pace where I could appreciate it. Second, and probably deserving to be mentioned before this, there is a brilliant Michael Whelan cover which will apparently span the jackets of all six volumes. Third, each story and poem has, if available, a short epilogue from Zelazny himself explaining his own feelings about it, and also a glossary of literary references (most of which are accurate, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Miller whose writing has emetic effects is Henry rather than Arthur).

So, apart from its obvious appeal to existing fans, I think volume one at least is well-designed as a gateway book to encourage new sf readers to read more Zelazny and just to read more widely. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is a really powerful story to begin with – consciously old-fashioned but doing something new as well. “He Who Shapes”, drawing as it does on Zelazny’s own experience of car accidents and bereavement, is a good ending point for this first selection. The commentary keeps us going through the less memorable stories in the middle. I am looking forward to reading volume two, and to buying the rest as they come out.

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Three Ian Rankin novels

For reasons which will eventually become clear, we have amassed a large proportion of the writings of Ian Rankin, and I started with the first three Rebus novels on the way back from hols.

August Books 42) Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin

The first Rebus book introduces us to our hero, who has a Past – two Pasts, in fact: a traumatic military experience in the SAS, and a failed marriage. The two collide in spectacular fashion; it’s not so much a detective novel as a psychological account of Rebus working through his own experiences. Both Rankin and Rebus also seem to have a fascination with the intersection between police procedurality and media manipulation. All set against a richly detailed Edinburgh. A good start.

August Books 43) Hide and Seek, by Ian Rankin

I also enjoyed Hide and Seek, which expanded one of the themes from Knots and Crosses – Rebus’ relationship with his non-policeman brother – for a complex web of pairs of police/non-police brothers whose relationships cross the boundary of legality. It’s also the most political of the first three novels, in that Rebus’ investigation into the lonely death of a drug addict takes him into the highest echelons of Edinburgh society (there is a scene featuring the Temptation of John Rebus by the devils of social status). The ending is rather unsatisfactory for Rebus but not for the reader.

August Books 44) Tooth and Nail, by Ian Rankin

The third book worked least well for me, taking Rebus off his home patch to London to investigate a serial killer. The London of Tooth and Claw seemed improbably small, with everyone turned out to be related to each other; its population also appeared to be entirely white. The subplot with a forensic psychologist who was not what she seemed was not very plausible. And the solution to the actual mystery was more suited to an Agatha Christie country house murder fantasy than to the gritty urban narrative that Rankin was probably trying to write.

So I am adding Rankin to my monthly reading list, taking the books more or less in order. It is interesting to read a totally different take on the setting also used by Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod (though of course set in the present day rather than a future independent Scotland).

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August Books 41) Early Belfast, by Raymond Gillespie

This short (180 pages) and readable book tells the story of Belfast up to 1750, using what there is of contemporary records and archæological evidence. I learnt a lot from it (more than from my previous reading). As a schoolchild I had been taught the early history of the city as originating around the River Farset, which now flows under Castle Street, Castle Place and High Street (eating away the foundations of the Albert Clock to make it lean slightly). The truth is more complicated.

In fact the medieval settlement of Belfast was roughly a block farther south – the castle was roughly on Castle Lane, and what settlements there were around it appear to have been on Anne Street – although the oldest church in Belfast is generally described as being sited on High Street, its original entrance was from Anne Street. This is because that axis was the centre of a spit of land between the Farset River (now High Street) to the north and the original course of the Blackstaff (roughly Donegall Square North / Chichester Street / Victoria Square) to the south, leading from the castle to the original ford or causeway across the Lagan which was fairly close to where the Queen’s Bridge is now.

The castle lay at the boundary between different Gaelic chieftains’ territories, and was never held by anyone for very long. The Earl of Essex proposed settling it as a town in the 1570s but died horribly. Eventually the Chichester family, who became the Earls of Donegall (sic), took it on and rapidly developed the town in the first decades of the seventeenth century.

Here I expected that we would switch back into the narrative I learned at school of a development centred around High Street. But I was out by a block again, though in the other direction this time: the seventeenth-century town took Waring Street as its principal axis, though the church remained on the southern shore of High Street, on (or even off) the edge of town. The Donegalls developed a new castle on the site of the old one, but it was for ostentation rather than defence, and they preferred to have the townsfolk living at arms length, farther north.

The next major development came with the conflict of the 1640s. In 1641, the largely Protestant townsfolk managed to fight off Catholic insurgents and became a haven for displaced refugees from elsewhere in Ulster. The town’s defensive ramparts were built in 1642, but Belfast changed hands several times over the next few years between Royalist, Parliamentarian and Scottish forces, so the ramparts probably weren’t much use (Gillespie suggests they were badly designed and the maps show clearly that they left a large gap at the northern edge of town).

Over the second half of the seventeenth century Belfast thrived, as the local political situation settled down (King Billy passed through in 1690). But partly as a result of the forced population movements of 1641, it had become the most militantly Presbyterian town in Ireland, and this made for unhappy cohabitation with the Donegalls. The economy slumped in the eighteenth century, and Belfast was hit particularly badly. the Donegalls were unable to provide leadership (the third earl was killed fighting in Spain in 1706, his son who lived to 1757 apparently had a learning disability, and the family became less fond of Belfast after the earl’s three daughters were killed when the castle burned to the ground in 1708. Although the Donegalls fought and won their battles with the (mainly Presbyterian) merchants for political domination of the town, the legacy was one where the landlords were not really disposed to foster the local economy. Again, returning to my schoolbook, the story of Belfast starts to pick up with the linen trade in the later eighteenth century, but really this could have happened fifty years earlier if the Donegalls and merchants had come to terms. The fifth earl / first marquess was prepared to forgive and forget, and started the great push of development after 1757.

I was really struck by the similarities between the early histories of Belfast and New Amsterdam / New York. Belfast was founded about fifteen years earlier, but equally as part of a colonisation project, and both found themselves, after a few decades of development, playing rather marginal roles in the geopolitical conflicts of the mid to late sixteenth century. (The Belfast defensive rampart of 1642 was as militarily useless as the wall built to protect New York in 1653.) Both are well-situated on usable harbours at the natural confluence of trading routes into their respective hinterland. But a century after their foundation, Belfast was slumping while New York was booming.

New Amsterdam, of course, started life as a project of the Dutch government rather than just of one family, and I suspect another factor may have been that potential settlers were more terrified of Irish Catholics than Native Americans. But even so, the two projects were developing at relatively level pegging for their first few decades (New York’s population in 1646 was about 400, Belfast had 589 taxpayers in 1660 so it population must have been several times bigger). The real difference is that Belfast remained a family fiefdom – the Donegalls were on the winning side of all the seventeenth century wars, apart from a brief interlude in the 1640s – while New Amsterdam was captured by the British, who then had to come to terms with the population – who accepted the rebranding of the city as “New York” but held onto (and indeed strengthened) various cultural and religious rights not enjoyed at the mouth of the Farset. All very thought-provoking.

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August Books 39-40) Yendi and Teckla, by Steven Brust

After I rather bounced off Jhereg, I was urged to give Brust’s Taltos books another try. I have done, and I’m afraid they still don’t grab me at all.

These two novels failed for me for slightly different reasons. In Yendi, there is an attractive romance subplot between the assassin crimelord narrator and the woman who kills him before he gets “revivified”, but the core story is mired in complex dynastic politics which were never explained to the point where I could actually care about them. In Teckla, I simply could not relate to Taltos’ unwillingness to adapt his personal code of honour to his wife’s political and personal interests: as far as I could suspend my disbelief, it made him a deeply unattractive character whose fate I could barely bring myself to care about. So I don’t think I’ll be trying any further volumes in the series.

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Well, Ken MacLeod agrees with me rather than with Jonathan Swift

Greensides, close to the top of Leith Walk, was fifteen years old, slabbed with obsolete fortification, pocked with likewise redundant gunports, and still referred to as ‘the new station’. Its upper floors commanded fine views to the west, along Queen Street to the towers and high-rise hydroponic farms of Turnhouse, and to the north across Leith Water and the Firth. So Ferguson had been told. He had never personally verified this, but had no reason to doubt it. His own office was in the middle of a long corridor on the second floor. At about 1.30 p.m. he elbowed the door handle and shouldered the door, coffee and sandwich in hand and papers in oxter.

The Night Sessions, chapter 1.

(Comments should be made to the previous post.)

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August Books 38) Satires and Personal Writings of Jonathan Swift

Passing through Dublin today we paused in St Patrick’s Cathedral to see the purported origin of the phrase “chancing one’s arm”, but also to pay homage to Jonathan Swift, resting where wild indignation can no longer tear at his heart. I’ve had this collection of his satirical and other writings (first published by OUP in 1932) on the shelves for years, and finally worked round to it this week.

I have to say that very little of it survives the three centuries since original composition particularly well. There were no more than half a dozen pieces that I felt really shone at the same level as Gulliver’s Travels: “A Modest Proposal” and the last Drapier Letter, of course, but also “A Meditation upon a Broomstick” (a brief but effective parody), and “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Entered into Holy Orders” (which has some excellent direct advice on writing sermons, or any public presentation); and also the random thoughts such as “Resolutions When I Come To Be Old” (which concludes that he also should not resolve to keep all the resolutions) and “Thoughts on Various Subjects”, the first of which is:

We have just enough Religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

Though actually that quote also illustrates some of the problems with Swift which make him unattractive to today’s reader. The sense is cynical, pessimistic and misanthropic (often misogynistic as well); also we are at risk of category errors – by “religion” and “we”/”us” does he mean any belief, and all of humanity? or just the Established Protestant Church of Ireland, and the Chapter of St Patrick’s Cathedral? The truth is probably somewhere in between but one can’t be certain about where.

Some of the choices of text are also rather odd. The extracts from the “Journal to Stella” are rather dull and exclude the most interesting political act Swift ever did, when he foiled an attempt to assassinate the prime minister of the day by means of a booby-trapped hat-box. (I am not making this up; his letter to Stella about it is online here, but not in this book.)

I probably paid about £2 for this, which would be about right. There is surely a market out there for a better, shorter collection of the Best of Swift, preferably with more useful explanatory and biographical material.

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It’s personnel, not political

I was out for a walk yesterday and came back to find I’d missed a call from a Sarajevo number (+387 for Bosnia, 33 for the capital city) – a bit puzzling, as I don’t have much business there these days. I checked my contacts database and discovered further that the missed call came from a number in the Office of the High Representative. This slightly alarmed me as I recently wrote an article, to be published in a few days’ time by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, which is rather critical of the OHR; I wondered if they had got wind of it and were wanting to yell at me (which would not have been the first time that had happened), and sent out delicate feelers to my contact on the inside.

He came back and told me that the extension that had called was in the personnel department, not the political department; further, he knew that a mutual friend of our had been at OHR for a job interview, and suspected that they were calling me as a referee. Of course, personnel issues are political, but at least it’s probably not directed at me this time!

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August Books 37) The Face of the Enemy, by David A. McIntee

So, what was happening on Earth while the Doctor and Jo were on Peladon? Well, UNIT found itself dealing with peculiar doppelgangers of senior officials, and had to call on the resources of the Master, despite his imprisonment, and of some bloke called Chesterton, who brought his wife Barbara along as well. And up in Faslane, there was a naval medic called Sullivan who turned out to be rather useful…

One of my least favourite things about the Third Doctor era is the Third Doctor, so it was with some hope that I turned to this Past Doctor Adventure set in his absence. (I had also enjoyed McIntee’s Second Doctor / future Master story, The Dark Path.) My hope was largely justified. The Brigadier and the Master spark rather well, and there are lots of gleeful continuity moments (including a surprise reference to Delta and the Bannermen). Ian and Barbara take a while to bed into the UNIT environment, though, and the treatment of Barbara in particular isn’t terribly satisfactory; Ian as temporary Scientific Adviser is almost Liz Shaw to the Master as Doctor.

The actual plot is basically decent but important details get drowned out by continuity squee (though of course most readers will be concentrating on the squee). McIntee has apparently said he would have liked the villainous Marianne to be played by Jacqueline Pearce, and I can see that. A fun experiment with the format.

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