The Bunkers at Sint-Joris-Weert

Today the Flemish government is having an Open Monument Day, with hundreds of normally inaccessible historical sites on display to the public. Our commune’s contribution to this event is two squat structures in Sint-Joris-Weert, which I have driven past on numerous occasions without giving them a second glance, now revealed as bunkers built by the Belgian army in the late 1930s and actually used by the British in May 1940 shortly before the retreat to Dunkirk.

This was part of the KW-line, integrated into the so-called Dyle plan, using the river Dijle as a defensive barrier. You can see the river on the left in the first photo below, and it’s pretty obvious that it’s not much good as a defensive barrier.

Local volunteers dressed as British soldiers had staffed up one of the bunkers to give some idea of what it would have been like, watching for the Germans coming from the east.

A Bren gun inside the bunker with bullets artistically scattered below it:

And the volunteers tried to explain how it would have worked. (Would have been very bad for the hearing of anyone firing it in such an enclosed space.)

Outside another volunteers waits for the German planes by his Vickers machine gun:

In real life I imagine the equipment would have been rather more chaotically arranged.

The other bunker, across the road, was unlit inside; apparently it is now a nesting place for bats.

And there was a small exhibition around the corner about the impact of the war in our area. It’s open today as well.

A lot of people will be thinking about a different conflict today. But it was sobering to reflect that the elderly ladies and gentlemen unsteadily sipping glasses of wine as they looked at the exhibition of faded wartime photographs had lived through a time when our peaceful village was the front line in the war between Hitler and the Allies.

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The daily linkspam function from Delicious still isn't working, so here's a few things that caught my eye:

Things that distract me from Writing – Good overview of latest Orson Scott Card controversy

A history of conflicts – Brilliant on-line atlas of the history of war.

A new Libya must also be for women

The Fall & Fall of Scottish Conservatism  – The future for the political Right in Scotland. (Bleak.)

The ISS: Threat or Menace? – The International Space Station as bringer of doom.

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September Books 10) Of Blood and Honey, by Stina Leicht

Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s; at the same time as the human conflict unfolding on the streets of Belfast and Derry, there is a supernatural conflict being waged between the Church and the Otherworld. It would be very easy to do this badly, but Leicht has avoided almost all the obvious pitfalls; the two plots reinforce each other rather than seeking clunky parallels. Her viewpoint character, Liam Kelly, is swept by circumstance into the IRA and co-opted by his supernatural paternity into the less visible war, and both he and the grim circumstances of 1970s Ulster are memorably portrayed.

The author kindly sent me a manuscript to review for the Northern Irish equivalent of Brit-picking, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to respond in time for her deadline. Considering that she apparently has never been to Ireland, there are surprisingly few points that I would have flagged up – I am a bit sceptical about the use of “BA” rather than “Brit”, but there is good authority for this from Tim Pat Coogan; I wouldn’t have called a fictional detention centre near Belfast “Malone”; and there were a couple of points of ecclesiastical detail (use of first names for priests, church attitude to abortion) that rang slightly false. Just goes to show that if you bother to do the research rather than resort to cliche, you will reap the rewards.

Flicking through other reviews, I see a couple of Americans making the point that by getting inside the head of a Christian English-speaker who is involved with the IRA, Leicht has got them to reflect a bit more deeply and critically on the current “war on terror”. More power to her if so.

And I really must update my list soon.

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September Books 9) The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot

I fear I am probably not in the right demographic to appreciate this novel of a privileged New York teenager who discovers that she is even more privileged than she had realised, and, in a revelatory moment at the end, also discovers that the popular boy in the class is a jerk. It’s not really in the same league of self-realisation as Catcher in the Rye (which I didn’t like anyway) and the humour failed to grab me.

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Big Finish catchup

I’m way way behind with these, so can’t really put time into doing them justice. As usual I’m posting in order of internal Who chronology rather than either release order or listening order, which means the one I listened to most recently actually comes first.

In John Dorney’s Companion Chronicle, The Rocket Men, William Russell tells the story of how Ian Chesterton saves Barbara from certain death when space pirates with jet packs attack the holiday resort where they are staying with the Doctor and Vicki. I was a bit underwhelmed by it, to be honest; for some reason the plot was chopped between two different time lines, and would I think have worked just as well as a linear narrative; also Russell carries more than 90% of the story, which he is great at, but makes bringing in another actor to speak the villain’s few lines seem rather a waste.

A triumphant return for Victorian heroes Jago and Litefoot, as played by Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter, with added energy from Louise Jameson as Leela, sent to 19th century London from Gallifrey to heal mysterious time rifts. The four stories are rather different in format, with Justin Richards’ Dead Men’s Tales a fairly standard horror adventure (with nice character moments for our heroes), Matthew Sweet’s The Man at the End of the Garden typically dense with literary references (particularly to E. Nesbit) and intricately constructed (with an excellent guest performance by child actor Eden Monteath who was also in The Eleventh Hour with her sister), and John Dorney’s Swan Song also nesting narratives between our present day and Jago and Litefoot’s era. Sad to say I was a little disappointed with Andy Lane’s finale, Chronoclasm, which seemed to me to be camping it up without really delivering a coherent plot – Nikola Tesla? Turkish baths? what??? Lane is usually much better than this. But the casts’s heart is fully in it, with shouts especially to Lisa Bowerman as Elly, Philip Bretherton (who played Judi Dench’s son-in-law in As Time Goes By) as Professor Payne and Joanna Monro in a couple of different roles.

I assumed at first that from Leela’s point of view this story is set not very long after her first recruitment by Romana as a security expert; but the brief appearance of an actor from Classic Who in what may or may not be a new role at the end of Chronoclasm may indicate that in fact these stories follow the end of the most recent Gallifrey mini-series. Looking forward to finding out anyway.

I very much enjoyed Tony Lee’s Rat Trap. Lee has written some excellent Who comic strips, but I think this may have been his first audio script, and I hope it will not be his last. It’s a claustrophobic tale of Five, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough exploring tunnels under an English fortress, and encountering two rival groups of humans and for added excitement some superevolved intelligent telepathic rats. The plot is decent enough but what really makes the audio is the sound design, which superbly conveys the inhumanity of the rats (brilliantly brought to life by former Davros Terry Molloy) without making them incomprehensible. A great example of what audios can do.

Big Finish’s 150th regular release was a set of four short stories by different writers, all of whom I think are new to Who audios, and all with a common theme of loss of identity for the Sixth Doctor, Peri or both. In Recorded Time by Catherine Harvey, Peri falls into the clutches of Henry VIII who is incidentally trying to rewrite history; Paradoxicide by Richard Dinnick is a more standard space opera tale but with some interesting twists; in A Most Excellent Match by Matt Fitton our heroes find themselves both battling a telepathic parasite and trapped in classic nineteenth-century literature; and in Philip Lawrence’s Question Marks, what appears at first to be a case of mass amnesia on an endangered spaceship turns out to be much worse. The four stories are all individually good but become very strong as a group; the whole is even better than the parts. The rotating cast includes Philip Bretherton (again) and Raquel Cassidy who I have been enjoying as the Labour minister in Party Animals.

The Big Finish seasons of ‘Lost Stories’ have often struggled a bit, and unfortunately Animal by Andrew Cartmel and Earth Aid by Cartmel and Ben Aaronovitch, the latest two Seventh Doctor tales with Ace and new companion Raine Creevy, are not exceptional in this regard. Animal does bring back Angela Bruce as Brigadier Winifred Bambera from the TV story Battlefield, but suffers from having a very similar story line to Rat Trap without being as good. Also the risk of having aliens who are simultaneously boring and menacing is that the boredom will win out. Earth Aid had some serious internal improbabilities (one character turns out to have been shut in a box for a long period of time; how they got there and how they survived was not explained to my satisfaction) and my unsuspended disbelief overwhelmed my interest in the story; poor Paterson Joseph seemed wasted in his role. It is surprising that Cartmel, who must take a lot of the credit for the marked upswing in quality of the last couple of seasons of Old Who, has not really been able to transfer that magic to the audios, and unfortunate that Beth Chalmers, who I think has potential as companion Raine Creevy, hasn’t hjad better material.

Last in chronological sequence, but definitely not least, Nicholas Briggs’ Robophobia is an excellent sequel to Robots of Death, whose events are only dimly known to the crew of the robot freighter where the Seventh Doctor lands. It’s an sfnal murder mystery, with a good script and excellent delivery, the cast including Nicola Walker from Spooks, Big Finish regular (and TV Dalek operator) Nicholas Pegg, and Toby Hadoke of Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf

That leaves Jonathan Morris’s Tales from the Vault, difficult to fit neatly into Who chronology, which has two UNIT officers played by Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso explore an archive of material which includes stories told by Peter Purves as Steven, Wendy Padbury as Zoe, Katy Manning as Jo Grant and Mary Tamm as Romana. Nicely done but not spectacular.

Probably nobody rushes out and buys these audios on my recommendation. But I think that both Rat Trap and the Recorded Time stories are accessible and will be enjoyed even by non-Who fans, whereas most of the Jago and Litefoot stories, and also Robophobia, will particularly appeal to fellow children of the Fourth Doctor era.

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September Books 8) All Clear, by Connie Willis

Chewed my way through the second volume of this year’s winner of both Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel (having read the first half in June).

It is a mild improvement on the first volume, in that there are actual signs of plot around page 400 and again around page 600. But the tone is wearyingly sentimental as ever, and the characters just dull apart from the two cheeky kids; and in the end, if the time continuum is going to respond to time travellers in such a way as to preserve History As We Know It – and there is never any good reason for Willis’s characters to think otherwise apart from her need to inject emotion into her writing – it’s difficult to get excited about it. I also spotted more errors of setting here than I had noticed in Blackout – premature mention of the Jubilee Line by over three decades, and reportedly vast distances separating the Tower from Stepney (actually about a mile and a half apart) and St Paul’s from Bart’s (five minutes’ brisk walk).

I suppose the good news is that it will probably take Willis another six years to publish her next book; the bad news is that it too will probably win awards it doesn’t deserve.

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September Books 7) The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

This really is as gripping and un-put-downable as they say; a brilliant detective story set in contemporary Sweden, as an investigative journalist is asked to research a murder in a wealthy family from the mid-1960s, and recruits the eponymous girl as his partner. The plot is topped and tailed by a largely separate vendetta with an Evil Capitalist (as opposed to the old man who wants the 1960s mystery investigated and is a Good Capitalist). But apart from that I was captivated both by the central mystery, whose brutal nature only gradually becomes apparent – and the solution to the original murder took my breath away – and by Lisbeth, the hacker and investigator of the title, a damaged but super-competent heroine. Excellent reading.

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September Books 6) With the Light… / 光とともに…, vol 4, by Keiko Tobe

Next in the series of manga volumes about bringing up a child with autism. Apart from the main story line about Hikaru and his mother Sachiko, there is a sub-plot (bolstered by appendices) about Hikaru’s father Masato setting up a factory which will employ people with disabilities, and a couple of disturbing threads about children being abused in residential care. The book ends with Hikaru preparing to leave elementary school, the next stage of his education not at all clear. Beautifully illustrated as ever.

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September Books 5) George’s Secret Key to the Universe, by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

A genially educational novel for kids; George’s parents are anti-technology environmentalists, but luckily the girl next door has a magic computer, and together with her scientist father they manage to foil the fiendish plan of the evil school science teacher in alliance with the class bullies. Lots of text boxes explaining about planets and stars. Credits also go to Christophe Galfard, who gets a ‘with’ on the title page but I note has gone on to write novels in his own name, and Garry Parsons for excellent illustrations on every page.

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A few links

The daily link posting function from seems to be broken, and unfortunately it seems that Yahoo are letting the service wither on the vine. So until further notice I shall be posting interesting links on Twitter and then doing roundups every few days.

Eliza Dushku alert: In northern Albania.

Emma Watson alert: Advertising perfume.

If you sing the Doctor Who theme to yourself with your own made-up words, you can either stop doing it or else put it on Youtube. (I recommend the former.)

A history of patient modesty, Part 1 and Part 2. “Exposing the body for medical purposes is a relatively recent development. It began in the 19th century, before anyone now alive can remember. Prior to that time — for thousands of years — doctors considered it socially unacceptable and morally improper to examine an unclothed patient, especially a woman (the doctors at the time were all men).”

Me old mate Misha Glenny on cyber-security: “…if you are on Apple, you immediately reduce your vulnerability by about 90%, because 95% of network systems run on Windows so virus makers just don’t bother to do it on Apple.”

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Delicious LiveJournal Links for 9-5-2011

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Delicious LiveJournal Links for 9-4-2011

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Delicious LiveJournal Links for 9-4-2011

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Delicious LiveJournal Links for 9-3-2011

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September Books 4) The Hero With A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

I have to say that I was rather disappointed by this classic work on mythology. On the plus side, it is indeed fascinating to put myths from very different points in time and space beside each other to note the similarities; Campbell is consistent and clinical in subjecting the Bible to the same scrutiny as any other culture; and for myself, I learned a thing or two about Cuchulain, not just a local hero and contributor to Ulster geography but in fact an exemplar of several different widely found characters in folklore.

But I found the structure rather confusing, both at macro and at micro level. I couldn’t quite be sure what Campbell’s basic thesis is, whether he thinks that there is a single archetypal hero myth in which all hero stories (maybe even all stories) are rooted (which is what he seems to say in the introduction) or whether he thinks it’s impossible to be so concrete (which is what he seems to say in the epilogue). While each individual chapter and section is supposed to illustrate a certain element of the “monomyth”, in fact the examples given often have little bearing on the point that is being made; Campbell tells us what he is going to say, then actually says something a bit different, and then fails to tell us what he has said. (The chapter on Transformations of the Hero, where Cuchulain comes up, seemed rather better structured than the rest.) Of course, it is the nature of folklore to be rambling and discursive, but one can analyse a thing without taking on too many of that thing’s characteristics.

Anyway, I can see why this was an influential book of its time, but I felt that the approach was old-fashioned even for 1948, and hope that there are better introductions to world folklore out there.

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Delicious LiveJournal Links for 9-3-2011

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September Books 3) Ha’Penny, by Jo Walton

It is over three years since I read Farthing, the first of the Small Change trilogy, which is really too long an interval. Although Ha’Penny works extremely well as a standalone book, I was aware that for the characters the events of Farthing were only a couple of weeks ago, so much fresher for them than for me. But even so, I was riveted by this tale of an assassination plot against Hitler and the British prime minister, in an alternate 1949 eight years after the war ended in a sordid compromise. Walton’s two protagonists are the gay policeman from the previous book and an aristocratic actress whose family are closely modelled on the Mitford sisters (with the further development that one of them has actually married Himmler), neither of them completely believing in their own role in the story. While I loved almost all the detail (especially spotting the parallels between the Larkins and the Mitfords), I boggled a bit at an Ulster baronet and landed gent who is also an IRA agent, but I suppose the little-known case of Eric “Chink” Dorman-Smith is not that dissimilar. Anyway, this is very very highly recommended, and I will not leave it so long until I read Half a Crown.

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September Books 2) Stalin Ate My Homework, by Alexei Sayle

I don’t think I’d read anything by Sayle before; I remember him from the 1980s as the landlord in The Young Ones and also memorably playing a radio disc-jockey in a funeral home which turns out to be run by Daleks, but I’m not sure I was even all that familiar with his standup routines. In this book he recounts the story of his childhood and adolescence as the sole offspring of two Communist Party activists in Liverpool, the standard stories of growing up as a smart kid in a tough-ish neighbourhood interspersed with trips to Hungary and Czechoslovakia where they were feted by cabinet ministers. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly it is a wryly affectionate account, vividly depicting the strengths and weaknesses of each of the family members.

Of course, for those in their 20s and below, the idea of people actually dedicating themselves to a revolution to bring about Communism and rule from Moscow in Liverpool must seem vanishingly farfetched. (Sayle as a dissident teenager later attached himself to the followers of Mao and Enver Hoxha.) It’s a fascinating reminder of a part of the political landscape which has been utterly (and, to be honest, rightly) buried by history.

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September Books 1) Pirate Queen: the Life of Grace O’Malley, by Judith Cook

I read Anne Chambers’ book on the same subject last month; Cook is a clunkier writer than Chambers, but actually has a much better political grasp of what was going on in Irish, English and to an extent Scottish politics at the time and casts her net fairly wide. Essentially this turns into a study of the micro-politics of County Mayo in the last third of the sixteenth century, and gives a deep context to the story of the glamorous protagonist. I started by not really liking it because of the style but came around fairly quickly.

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Weirdest campaign ever

The animal rights organisation GAIA has taken out full-page ads in the Brussels free-sheets today, calling on all men to abstain from wearing underpants on 9 September (slogan: “Let ’em hang out”), in solidarity with castrated piglets. (I kid you not.) I must say that I cannot think of many campaign techniques which would be less visible to non-campaigners.

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Air travel: safety vs comfort

The Economist notes that not a single airline appears in both the Air Transport Rating Agency's list of the ten safest airlines in the world and the 2011 Skytrax World Airline Awards for front-line product and service standards. The lists are:

Top ten for safety (ATRA, alphabetical) Top ten for service standards (Skytrax)
Air France-KLM
AMR Corporation (American Airlines, American Eagles)
British Airways
Continental Airlines
Delta Airlines
Japan Airlines
Southwest Airlines
United Airlines
US Airways
1 Qatar Airways
2 Singapore Airlines
3 Asiana Airlines
4 Cathay Pacific Airways
5 Thai Airways International
6 Etihad Airways
7 Air New Zealand
8 Qantas Airways
9 Turkish Airlines
10 Emirates

I've used most of the companies in the left-hand column but only Turkish Airlines in the right-hand column. As a consumer, I must say that the safety record of the comfortable airlines doesn't strike me as particularly awful, whereas I would go to some extra cost and scheduling inconvenience to fly Turkish Arlines rather than any of the supposedly safer options simply because I know I will arrive in better shape. (I also had a lovely transatlantic flight once with Jet Airways, an Indian company which I am surprised not to see in the right-hand column.)

The geographical difference is especially striking above, with all the comfortable airlines (apart from Asiana) on or near the great circle between Istanbul and Wellington, and the safe but uncomfortable airlines based in the US, Europe and Japan (interesting that Japan is the geographical outlier on one list and Korea on the other). It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that standards of customer service have been driven down over the years in Europe and America. Europeans and Americans should travel more with Asian airlines and see how different things could be.

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