April Books 14) Parallel 59, by Natalie Dallaire and Stephen Cole

This is rather a good Eighth Doctor novel, with the Doctor and the steadily improving Compassion trying to navigate a military regime which is better realised than most of the many such regimes in Who books, while Fitz (who I think is actually in more individual stories, taken across all media, than any other companion), having got separated off, settles into an ambiguous and ultimately dangerous utopia. Some of the ideas here seem to be drawn from The Matrix, though I’m not sure if the timing works out (the film came out in 1999; this book was published in 2000 and must have been in the works for a while). Stephen Cole rarely disappoints, and I don’t know what Dallaire’s contribution was, but I thought the characterisation of the non-regulars here was a notch above the usual standards for Who books of any era.

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The Selachian Gambit

Another of the recent Big Finish Companion Chronicles, this time reuniting Fraser Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Anneke Wills as Polly Wright, with Hines doing most of the other voices including the Second Doctor and Jamie. It’s a fairly routine romp of a futuristic bank being raided by aliens, a concept recently done much better in Naomi Alderman’s Eleventh Doctor novel Borrowed Time, but it’s fun anyway. I have a feeling that the story of the Second Doctor encountering the shark-like Selachians here isn’t quite consistent with that in the two novels which feature them, but as they are all by Steve Lyons I won’t let it worry me too much.

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April Books 13) X’ed Out, by Charles Burns

I picked this up when I went to the Charles Burns exhibition in Leuven last month, struck by its front cover which is a direct homage to one of Hergé’s Tintin albums, The Shooting Star. The story here is completely different, though, as young Doug wakes up in a nightmare world of strange and slightly horrible people; we get flashbacks to his “normal” life in our world which may or may not explain what has provoked his dreams, if they are dreams; and then a big reveal in the last frame shakes some sense into Doug’s new world, and prepares the way for the next volume; which I will buy.

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April Books 12) The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

I seem to be reading a lot less this year; not really sure why this is, perhaps a combination of minor changes to my usual routine along with presbyopia simply making reading less comfortable than it used to be (for example, I can barely read the small print of most articles in Doctor Who Monthly). As I did last year, I set myself about twenty reading lists in 2012, and whereas last year I could expect to cycle through at least one book on each of them in a two-month period, I’ve only now, at the end of April, reached Dorian Gray, which was at the top of the last of my lists. Things have also been a little skewed by my reading the complete BSFA and Arthur C Clarke shortlists, and also by my decision to prioritise reading Christmas presents, but it’s a definite slowdown.

Anyway, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a reread, the top book in my LibraryThing list that I hadn’t already written up on-line. I was sorry that I had only the standard Wordsworth Classics edition, with GRRRRR endnotes, rather than the deluxe uncensored edition recently reviewed by Steve Mollmann. But it’s a masterpiece anyway, with the hilarious witticisms of Lord Henry punctuating a frenetic narrative of devotion to aesthetic perfection which leads inevitably to moral and personal disaster. It’s also very short (having just trudged through yet another Dostoevsky, I appreciated that) and easy to digest, as long as you remain alert to the constant innuendo.

A couple of minor points that struck me: the fictional dukes who pop up as minor characters (and perhaps the other nobles as well) have non-fictional titles; the real Duke of Berwick and Duke of Monmouth were the illegitimate sons of Stuart kings. (Compare Wodehouse’s comically named aristocrats.) And the anti-Semitism directed at Isaacs the theatrical agent is very jarring to today’s reader in a way that probably would not have been the case earlier.

Anyway, a classic work which I recommend (while envying Steve his access to the unexpurgated text).

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Ending co-terminosity

One of the less frequently used buzz-words in Northern Irish politics is “co-terminosity”, which is shorthand for the fact that members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected from constituencies with the same boundaries as those used for Westminster elections. It seems to me that co-terminosity has had its day, and if the long-postponed local government reforms come in, it would make a lot of sense to shift to a system where Assembly members are elected from constituencies which are based on the new local council areas rather than the Westminster election boundaries.

Co-terminosity goes back to 1921, when the 10 Westminster constituencies (three of which were two-seaters) were used as the basis for electing the first 52 members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and again in 1925. Arguably it continued until 1948, as the boundaries for the Stormont single-seat constituencies all nestled within the previous Westminster constituencies, which were in turn linked to the local government districts (ie the counties, and Belfast City). In 1948 the link was broken, as the Westminster boundaries were revised and the two-seat constituencies broken up, without reference to where the Stormont boundaries were. However, all elections to regional bodies from 1973 on again took the Westminster boundaries as their basis; these days they elect six from each of the 18 constituencies, giving a total of 108 for no very good reason.

Three recent developments seem to me to spell the end for co-terminosity – not in the current round of boundary changes, but probably in the next or the one after that. First off, co-terminosity has been killed off in both Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the number of Westminster seats was cut from 72 to 57 in 2005, but the 72 old seats still provide the basis for the 73 single-member seats in the Scottish Parliament (the Orkney and Shetland Isles elect two MSPs but only one MP) and will continue to do so after the next election when the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster will be further cut to 50. In Wales, the existing 40 parliamentary constituencies will also continue to be used for Welsh Assembly elections even after the number of Welsh MPs at Westmister is slashed from 40 to 30 at the next election. There is no reason for Northern Ireland to stick more religiously to keeping the boundaries aligned than the other devolved systems do.

Second, the new system of boundary revisions introduced by the present coalition puts the House of Commons into a state of perpetual revolution. The 650 MPs are to be cut to 600 at the next election. More significantly, the boundaries of the 597 non-island seats are to be revised every five years. Northern Ireland’s small size and small number of seats mean that ripple effects of even quite a small population movement can be significant across the whole territory. In particular, it’s quite possible that the number of Westminster seats allocated to Northern Ireland may change in future – had NI’s electorate been only 0.5% lower when the calculation was made, there would have been only 15 seats to draw instead of 16 (and Scotland would have had 51 instead of 50). So Westminster boundaries are no longer going to be a stable frame of reference. It’s maybe not a big deal to inconvenience one MP per seat, but if it’s six MLA’s as well then it will get tiresome.

Third, the long-postponed local government reform appears to be nearing legislative effect. This will create a new and hopefully long-lasting political framework for local councils, one which could equally well be used as the basis of Assembly constituencies. Using the published figures it is rather easy to allocate 108 Assembly seats among the 11 proposed new councils (Fermanagh and Omagh 7, Antrim and Newtownabbey 8, Lisburn and Castlereagh 8, Mid Ulster 8, Causeway Coast and Glens 9, Derry and Strabane 9, Mid and East Antrim 9, Newry, Mourne and Down 10, North Down and Ards 10, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 12 and Belfast 18). One would probably want to split these into Assembly constituencies electing between 4 and 7 MLAs, and that would require an independent review process with public consultation; and population shifts would require some fairly regular revision. But, assuming that the new councils have anything resembling the 40-year lifespan of their predecessors, they will be a much more robust basis for electing Assembly members than the ever-changing Westminster seats.

I can’t see this happening in the current round of revisions, which are too far down the road to stop. But in five or ten years’ time, when the new local councils are fully established and up and running, and politicians (and activists) have started to get annoyed with the five-yearly revision of the Westminster seats, I suspect that the end of co-terminosity will be inevitable.

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βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ – the frog chorus

We were out for a walk in the Kessel-Lo park near Leuven this afternoon, and the frogs were singing in full chorus. You can see them squabbling in this video I took:

This is yer actual Marsh Frog, not really found much in the UK (and not at all in Ireland), and Aristophanes obviously used either its call or its close relative for the frogs’ chorus in the play of the same name: “βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ!” “Brekekekex koax koax!”

Not quite Paul McCartney, let alone this fellow, but it’s good to feel that springtime is here.

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Links I found interesting for 29-04-2012

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April Books 11) First Frontier, by David McIntee

Rather a good Seventh Doctor romp, with Benny and Ace involved with an attempted alien invasion coinciding with the start of the Space Race in late 1957. It felt from the start rather like The Claws of Axos, only done much better, a feeling intensified by a plot twist about halfway through; it also has the general frenetic pace of a televised New Who story, to the point that I could see it as the basis for a decent script. Good fun.

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April Books 10) The Great Wall of China, by Franz Kafka

One of the Penguin Pockets series, a short set of very short stories, any one of which you would probably identify without much difficulty as by Kafka, with his trademark misanthropy and paranoia. The title piece is ostensibly about China but I suspect much more about the pointlessness of late Habsburg bureaucracy in the name of national defence. One or two of the others seemed to be dreams/nightmares written down, often a tricky endeavour but one which Kafka executes well. I think I would recommend getting the Complete Stories rather than this, but it is all good stuff.

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Sir Arthur Aston’s widow

Idly browsing through family history the other day, it suddenly clicked with me that the sister of one of my direct ancestors was married to Sir Arthur Aston (1590-1650). Aston was a Royalist soldier during the English Civil War who ended up in Ireland in command of the garrison at Drogheda, and was massacred along with the rest of the defenders and hundreds of civilians when it was captured by Cromwell in September 1650. According to legend, he was beaten to death with his own wooden leg by the New Model Army.

It is fairly widely recorded that Aston's widow Ellinor (or Eleanor), by whom he had had no children, went on to marry Edward Butler, who became the second Viscount Galmoye on his grandfather's death in 1653; he seems to have been born around 1627 (making him in his mid-twenties in the early 1650s, almost four decades younger than his wife's first husband) and died in 1677. They had at least two sons, the older of whom, Piers Butler, born on 21 March 1652, would in turn become the third Viscount Galmoye and was created Earl of Newcastle by James II in 1692 (a Jacobite title that was not recognised by London). NB that he was born just eighteen months after the death of his mother's first husband. There is no record of Ellinor's death.

So what of Ellinor's parentage? I was surprised to discover that there are two different stories. The Jacobite Peerage says that she was the daughter of Sir Nicholas White of Leixlip, my 7xgreat-grandfather. But other sources, including a Peerage of Ireland from 1809, say that she was the daughter of Charles White, my 6xgreat-grandfather. (It's not clear when the ancestors started spelling our surname "Whyte" rather than "White" but it seems to have been some time in the eighteenth century.)

Each of them is slightly problematic as Ellinor's father. Sir Nicholas White was born around 1583, died in 1654, and had numerous other children.  Two of his daughters are recorded as having married in 1635 and 1636. Another daughter married the Earl of Carlingford (who cooked eggs and buttered asparagus for Samuel Pepys one day in 1662 after bringing news of the birth of the future Queen Mary II); her second son, who inherited the title in 1677 on his father's death, was killed in action at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. 

It's no clear when Arthur Aston and Ellinor White would have got together, but he was only sent to Ireland in 1648, so I would bet that they met and married then or very soon after. If she was Sir Nicholas White's daughter, that means that she was marrying more than a decade after her sisters, when her father was in his late sixties; and then went on to have at least two children by another husband. Maybe she was a lot younger than the other siblings, but it looks a bit odd to me.

On first sight Charles White is much more plausible as a brother and much less as a father to Ellinor. He too was firmly on the Jacobite side in 1688-90, though possibly too old to fight actively; he was the governor of County Kildare and MP for Naas during the short-lived Jacobite regime. He first pops up in documentary terms chasing his father's legacy in 1670, after apparently several decades in Spanish and French service. He is also supposed to have been Sir Nicholas's fourth son, all the others dying without heirs. He died in 1695; his son John married in 1704 and died in 1741. So at first sight the idea that he had a daughter old enough to marry in 1650, more than half a century before her brother (or perhaps half-brother) seems a bit implausible.

But here's an odd thing. Charles White's first wife was called Eleanor. She was the daughter of Nicholas Barnewall, the first Viscount Kingsland (1592-1663). One of her sisters married the sixth Viscount Gormanstown (1608-1643). Another married the second earl of Fingal in 1636. She must therefore have been about the same age as Charles White. For them to have had a daughter, named after her, of marriageable age by 1650 is therefore tricky but not implausible. Her date of death is not known; it is recorded that Charles White's surviving children at his death in 1695 were all by his second wife, Mary Newcomen (who had three siblings who married in the 1670s and a sister baptised in 1662, so must have been much younger than Charles; see portraits here.)

Probably the first explanation is more plausible; young Eleanor White, the afterthought of Sir Nicholas White's large family, born in the late 1620s, stayed unmarried until she caught the eye of the gallant old Royalist commander in 1648; and after his gruesome death, ended up marrying a young nobleman who was about her age and who she had probably known from childhood, and lived happily ever after; it is merely a coincidence that her brother's first wife had the same name as her.

But there is another possibility hinted at by the relative paucity of detail: the young Charles White, born around 1610, and the younger Eleanor Barnewall, born about 1615, could have got together scandalously in about 1630, with baby Eleanor as the result; spurned by both sides, Charles regained respectability only after lengthy military service abroad, the death of his first wife and the glamorous demise of his son-in-law (and his daughter's subsequent aristocratic marriage). It's less plausible, admittedly, but perhaps more entertaining.

We'll never know.

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The Anachronauts

Somehow I have got very far behind with recent Big Finish releases, so I am listening to them all again, in continuity order. The Anachronauts, by Simon Guerrier, brings together the fantastic First-Doctor team of Peter Purves and Jean Marsh as Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom, in a story set immediately after the Christmas episode of the Daleks’ Master Plan; something mysterious is up with the Tardis, and the crew encounter the peculiar and violent survivors of another timeship. The best bit is the third of the four episodes, where Steven and Sara find themselves in a very well-realised 1966 Berlin, though nothing (and nobody) is quite what it seems. Purves does a very decent Hartnell, though the unfortunate consequence is that we hear less from Marsh as she is given less to do (though gets a cracking end to the Berlin subplot). The extra track is particularly squeeful, with Guerrier complaining that he lost much of the script in a computer crash and Marsh enquiring politely if he has ever thought of using an A4 pad. The recording must have been made just before her recent bout of ill health; I do hope she recovers and is able to do more.

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April Books 8) Among Others, by Jo Walton

I must admit that at various points in this novel I wondered how Jo Walton had got inside my head. Her narrator is a teenager in 1979-80, growing up reading Vonnegut, Zelazny, Heinlein and all the classics of science fiction, coping with the usual pains of growing up. Of course, Mor has a few extra problems that I didn’t have: no real friends at school, a move to a different country (Shropshire is very different from South Wales), dealing with a new family, and coping with the physical and emotional scars of the car accident which killed her sister and was conjured by her sorcerous mother. Rather like Buffy, Mor finds the terrors of adolescence taking supernatural and physical form; there’s also an interesting dialogue about England and Wales going on in the background (mostly). I was completely captivated by it; I am a couple of years younger than the heroine and her creator, but basically we are the same generation and Among Others hit me squarely in the memories. (I do wonder if it will appeal as much to those who are much older or much younger.) Anyway, this is the first of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels that I have read since the shortlist came out, and it is strongly recommended.

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Attack of the Daleks

Young F has been doing some coding, and presented me with this birthday present:


Works on Windows XP at least; let me know how you find it with other systems!

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I was really ill on my last two birthdays, which rather cramped my style; I'm in better health this year, thank god, and therefore able better to express my appreciation for the good wishes people have been sending me over the internets, and also to add how much they cheered me up last year and the year before, though I wasn't really able to express my gratitude at the time.

Someone who celebrated their 45th birthday on the day I was born (such as the great historian of Babylonian astronomy Asger Aaboe, or Canadian governor-general Jeanne Sauvé) would have been born during the brief presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding, and the last few months of David Lloyd George's term as British Prime Minister. Stalin had just become General Secretary of the CPSU. It seems unimaginably long ago. (Though I suspect that if I'd done a similar thought experiment at 35, 25 or even 15, I would have been similarly boggled by the passage of time.)

It's a busy day at work today so we'll be celebrating at the weekend. But thanks again, folks.

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Links I found interesting for 23-04-2012

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Space exploration rejected by French voters

Holding a glorious tenth place out of ten candidates in today's presidential election in France is Jacques Cheminade, with support somewhere around a stupendous 0.2% of the total vote, who perhaps coincidentally was the only candidate with an advanced policy on space exploration:

For thirty years, space policy has been suffering from an economic logic based on short-term gain, and from lack of understanding by a hostile public opinion which considers it too expensive, unnecessary, fanciful and emblematic of a spirit of unlimited conquest. Faced with this regressive vision of a finite world, we need to revive what is proper to man: the deep desire to constantly push the limits of the known, the enthusiasm to discover new principles of the universe and use it to drive the long-term economy and improve the world for generations to come.

My Proposals

  • Demand that the budget of the European Space Agency (ESA) be immediately tripled, and staff a large worldwide space program with a budget of $500 billion, of which $150 billion for Europe and $40 billion for France. Space should not be a military issue but the horizon of a common humanity able to renounce war.
  • Launch a major scientific and cultural education project, and introduce modules on space and astronomy in our schools, in collaboration with countries elsewhere in Europe and the rest of the world taking similar initiatives.
  • Install a more effective space warning system, against the intrusion of asteroids or comets in Earth's atmosphere.
  • Initiate programs to build third-generation space transports, and the industrialization of the Moon, which is a future platform for Mars and the rest of the Solar System.
  • Using programs already developed in electronics, computers, hybrid flight control systems, new refractory materials, thermal protection in general and mechanical and aerothermal constraints to go first to the moon, and from there to Mars.
  • To shorten future trips between Earth and Mars and beyond, develop nuclear propulsion (propulsion by a miniaturized controlled thermonuclear fusion device).

A major space program is impossible in the current economic and cultural system, which is why we must change the system.

That's the summary; the full policy can be found here. (Apparently the printed version of his full electoral platform runs to 368 pages.) As my father once said, "One can learn something of the tendencies in a society by observing on which particular fringe of it the lunatics break out."

Cheminade is now considering whether to give his supporters guidance on whether to support Sarkozy or Hollande in the second round on 6 May. France is waiting with bated breath.

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The wandering hands of Pol Van Den Driessche

Belgium (or at least the part of it that cares about Flemish politics) has been consumed with interested over the last week in the affair of Pol Van Den Driessche, a right-wing politician and former journalist running for mayor of Bruges in October's municipal elections, who has been accused of sexual harassment of his professional colleagues. (Thanks to for alerting me to the story.) We have had the usual depressing circus of his political allies defending him against "baseless" attacks, and even five female colleagues writing an open letter stating that they had never experienced any intimidation from him. (If I had been advising Van Den Driessche on his PR, I would have counselled against orchestrating this letter.)

My linkspam for today includes a first-person account from Liesbeth Van Impe, a top political journalist from one of the main Flemish newspapers, published yesterday. It is worth translating in full:

Liesbeth Van Impe on Pol Van Den Driessche: Why the silence is the real problem

If the whole discussion about Pol Van Den Driessche this week proves anything, it is that we have not yet found a good way to discuss sexual harassment in 2012. All the side issues have now been reviewed. There is shooting the messenger (Humo). There is doubt about the sincerity of the witnesses. The real object of debate was the Mayoral contest in Bruges. Or the whole problem was narrowed down to the purely legal: there are no official complaints, so there is no problem. We can now make lists of women who did not experience any groping. God help us, even the debate over the privacy of politicians was again resurrected.

All very interesting, but often quite beside the point. This story has nothing to do with privacy. It is not about whether Pol Van Den Driessche has or had affairs, a question of importance only to his wife. It's about whether he abused his position to go further with many women than those women liked. The workplace is not an extension of the bedroom. It is very nice that some women will say they have not suffered from the Van Den Driessche phenomenon, but that does not mean that other women are lying. And even if the timing indicates a political agenda, does that make the allegations less bad?

Of course, the comparison with DSK is exaggerated. If there are similarities, it is not so much in what happened, but more in our reaction to it. Until one woman stood up against DSK, he could say there were no complaints, just like Van Den Driessche. Only after the first accusation did some find the courage to tell their stories after many years. And suddenly many more people seemed to have known for a long time that something was wrong.

Many comments during the past week were silent about the merits of the case. And that silence is what this is all about.

Kick under the Table

Eight years ago I was a novice political journalist. Pol's reputation had preceded him, I had been warned that he had wandering hands. During a lunch in the Senate he rubbed my back the entire time, which was not really fun, but neither was it a reason to scream bloody murder. A while later I had another incident. During an N-VA press lunch which we both attended as journalists, I suddenly felt a hand on my knee. I gave a kick under the table. Pol never went that far again.

To be clear, I do not feel like one of Pol's victims. I have no trauma to survive, and once Pol respected my boundaries, he was a fine colleague. What has been bothering me all week is my own reaction then. I found that hand on my knee really not okay, I had not invited it in any way. It hit me more than I would have expected. But I did what everyone did for years: get on and pretend nothing happened. Nobody wants to be the prudish hysteric, I was too cool for that. I had a good laugh about it with my colleagues. It was all over. But why?

This week, the journalist Tine Stephens had more courage than I had then. She does not dramatise, but says that what happened then was not okay. I am now in a leadership position in the newspaper where Pol was once editor-in-chief. As far as I am concerned, the idea that a male boss here would sneak out with a newly hired intern or a female journalist is downright unthinkable today. And that has nothing to do with prudishness. Because I keep wondering if I would have dared to kick Pol under the table if he had been my boss.

Gray Zone

Talking about sexual harassment is particularly difficult. Often there are no witnesses and no evidence. Often it is about subtleties. And what is perfectly acceptable for one person may be a problem for another. Anyone recounting an incident feels a bit ridiculous. There is no clear boundary. Many women know the builders' dilemma: being whistled at on the street can be intimidating, but also flattering, and even sometimes both.

There is much ambiguity about sexual tension, including in the workplace. In the U.S. they solve that with very strict rules. There is white and black, there are rules and prohibitions. If you break the rules, you risk complaints. It is clear, but it can also lead to hysterical situations. A law can prescribe for all the nuances of human interaction.

We are not the U.S., fortunately. Here we have a gray zone. That can work perfectly, provided there is sufficient openness to discuss issues and resolve them. In the gray zone there is greater freedom but also greater responsibility. Every organization, every group should be alert to false signals. You cannot only see the problem in legal terms. We do not go to court because of a stray hand or some inappropriate touching. But that does not mean there is no problem. The defensive line "there are no complaints," is thus simply ridiculous.

Even a gray zone has a border. It is not a license to go as far as possible. Laying a completely unsolicited hand on the knee of a young colleague who you hardly know during a work meeting has nothing to do with the gray zone. Seeing how far you can go with young female colleagues as their boss, is not a case for reasonable doubt. You simply can not do that.

What now?

Pol Van Den Driessche denies any accusations of unwanted intimacy. That is at least strange when some women have stated that in their case it really was not wanted. He would be wiser to ascertain exactly what these women blame him for, and to apologize as much as possible. Steely denial is simply stupid.

Whether there will be political consequences, his party must decide. It is perfectly legitimate for voters to decide how much they care. But can N-VA stop using double standards? You can not be a party of values ​​and then dismiss the women who finally have the courage to testify. You can not be a party of values ​​and only care about the legal side of the affair. Many employers, colleagues and acquaintances have let Pol go on like this for a long time. To continue like that after this week, makes it doubly bad.

And as for me, I blame myself that I have contributed to building an atmosphere in which a young woman needed a great deal of courage, between all the jokes, to say that it really was not okay. But now when I look around in the newsroom, buzzing with many mature women and decent men, I'm pretty confident. And if anyone should bump into a problem in the grey zone, there are three editors, two men and a woman, who will not laugh it off, but will try to solve it.

This morning Pol Van Den Driessche announced that he is leaving politics because of the effect of the accusations on his family. It includes this apology:

…wil ik mij oprecht verontschuldigen tegenover vrouwen die mijn gedrag als grensoverschrijdend hebben ervaren. Ik heb dit toen niet zo aangevoeld en als dit vrijpostig of kwetsend overkwam: dat was nooit mijn bedoeling.

I sincerely apologise to women who experienced my behaviour as crossing their boundaries. I did this when I was less sensitive (aangevoeld – has also implications of raised consciousness), and if this came across as impertinent or offensive, that was not my intention.

So that's the end of the Van Den Driessche affair; but far from being the end of the issue.

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Links I found interesting for 21-04-2012

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What I learned in Strasbourg

MEPs’ offices in the southern end of the European Parliament building (the Winston Churchill / Salvador de Madariaga wing) are closer to the completely separate and external Council of Europe building than they are to MEPs’ office at the northern end of the European Parliament building (the Louise Weiss tower).

Also the Venice Commission isn’t in the main Council of Europe building but a block further, across the road from the European Court of Human Rights. (At least I was aware that it is not in Venice.)

Also it’s just as tedious to travel to Strasbourg from Brussels by car as it is by train.

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April Books 7) Doctor Who: Shada, by Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts

We’ve waited a long time for this, the lost novelisation of the lost Doctor Who story, brought to life from the final version of Adams’ script by one of the best-placed of the current Who authors. And it is pretty damn good. Having watched both the 1992 video of the surviving parts of the original 1979 filming, and the webcast version with Paul McGann, and also read a previous fan-produced novelisation, the single most important thing about this new version is that it actually makes sense. Roberts has teased out threads of narrative left him by Adams, thickened them up and knitted them into a warm colourful and much longer scarf of story. I often find myself complaining about sf stories – and I think I have previously made this complaint about Shada – that the means and motivation of the characters, especially the bad guys, is inadequately explained. But now we actually understand who Skagra and Salyavin are, and why they behave as they do. In addition, we have the extra romantic depth we had always hoped must be there between Clare and Chris, nicely contrasted with the relationship between the Doctor and Romana. And Roberts delights with his love of the work, with several entertaining references to the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide thrown in (I particularly liked a vignette at the end riffing off both a Hitch-Hiker’s joke from the final radio episode, and the earliest moments of Who continuity). Not sure that this would be a good place to start for people who know nothing about Doctor Who, but I think anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of the Tom Baker years will enjoy it immensely. I think this was the most expensive book I bought at Eastercon – signed, too! – but worth every penny.

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April Books 6) The Empire Stops Here, by Philip Parker

A fascinating travelogue around the ruins of the Roman Empire’s frontiers, starting at Hadrian’s Wall and ending at Septem, now the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, which was incidentally also the last Byzantine outpost in North Africa. Parker manages an admirable evenness of tone through some very different bits of territory, including debatable mounds in central Europe as well as the rose-red city half as old as time. Having finished Gibbon just a few months ago, I found Parker a useful adjunct; geographical clarity, especially at the margins, is not Gibbon’s strong point, and Parker anyway has over two centuries’ worth of further research and excavation to draw on. The geographical focus, however, does mean that Parker has to leap back and forth in the time line depending on when interesting things happened on the bit of frontier he has reached, and I would have found this confusing if I had not had Gibbon’s narrative in my recent memory.

Parker makes the interesting overall point that we should not see the boundary fortifications as the border where Roman power stopped; the Empire’s power was projected in both directions, and those beyond the limes might still be under Roman control (and in later times, those within the limes might not be). He concludes with admiration for the initial success and relative longevity of the Roman project, and sadness that it is unlikely to be repeated (which is a whole other debate, I think). There are some great evocative descriptions of ruins as perceived by today’s traveller and resident, and some nice historical and archaeological points (eg the soldiers found dead in their fortress in Germany, killed by raiders but never buried); in general it’s an excellent book.

It is let down by the fact that the numerous lovely photographs are presented out of order and without cross-referencing to the relevant pages, and also (I know I keep going on about this) by the use of endnotes, so that relevant and interesting information is buried hundreds of pages from the text to which it refers. I wouldn’t mind if this was merely a question of providing precise citations, but the notes have a lot more narrative material. No publisher should do this and no author should tolerate it from their publisher. In these days of advanced technology, there is no excuse for not having proper footnotes on each page relating to the text on each page, as Gibbon was able to do in the eighteenth century. Accept no excuses and no alternatives.

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April Books 5) Paradox Lost, by George Mann

I have already snarked about the quality of the prose of this book; apart from that fairly major consideration, my only other objection is that it doesn’t really deliver on the Miltonian reference of the title other than by having a major character called Angelchrist. The story is a workmanlike time travel tale with alien incursions, split between a rather vague future London and a more precise 1910 setting. In the audio version, Nicholas Briggs does a fantastic job of injecting life into Mann’s prose (though I find his Eleventh Doctor too demotic). All but completists can skip the dead tree version, the audio is a bit better.

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April Books 4) A History of God, by Karen Armstrong

I’ve had mixed luck with Karen Armstrong’s books, but this is pretty readable; it’s a potted history of theology in the three major monotheistic religions from early Old Testament times to the present day. I’m not an expert in the field, so didn’t spot any inaccuracies, but basically she is able to convey fairly succinctly what key figures and traditions believed, and why we should care. She is particularly good at spotting contemporaneous and similar developments in the last 500 years or so in Christianity, Judaism and Islam; and I had not previously encountered the idea that the Young Turks were influenced by the post-Shabbetai Donmeh tradition. On the down side, there are a small number of figures who make Armstrong erupt in bile about their personal shortcomings – Martin Luther is an early and rather startling example – which distracts and detracts from the objectivity of her writing in 95% of the book. It’s a bit of a dry subject but not a bad introduction to it.

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