January Books

Non-fiction: 2
Blue Box Boy, by Matthew Waterhouse
Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, The Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin, by Paul Hockenos

Fiction (non-sf): 3
Milkman, by Anna Burns
From Here To Eternity, by James Jones
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

sf (non-Who): 8
The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2010 Edition, ed. Rich Horton
Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson
α1
"The Queen of Air and Darkness", by Poul Anderson
Tales from Moominvalley. by Tove Jansson
γ1
Avalanche Soldier, by Susan Matthews
δ1

Doctor Who, etc: 2
The Time Lord Letters, by Justin Richards
Secret Histories, ed. Mark Clapham

Comics: 2
β1
Lambik by Marc Legendre

α1, β1, γ1 and δ1 to be revealed later.

5,100 pages
7/17 by non-male writers (Burns, Anderson, Jansson, γ1, Matthews, δ1, β1)
3/17 by PoC (Adiga, δ1, β1)
1/17 reread (Tales From Moominvalley)

Reading now
Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
Candide, by Voltaire
Molten Heart, by Una McCormack
ε1

Coming soon (perhaps):
The World of Poo, by Terry Pratchett
Bitter Angels, by C. L. Anderson
The Life of Sir Denis Henry, by A.D. McDonnell
The Secret Lives of Garden Birds, by Dominic Couzens
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot
Troll Bridge, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran
The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan
De Terugkeer van de Wespendief, by Aimee de Jongh
Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones
Feersum Endjinn, by Iain M Banks
The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy
Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, ed. Kevin J. Anderson
In Another Light, by Andrew Greig
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O'Driscoll
“Goat Song”, by Poul Anderson
A Sunless Sea, by Anne Perry
The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham
Present Danger, by Eddie Robson

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Avalanche Soldier, by Susan R. Matthews

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Stepping carefully between berry-bush roots and fronds of fern and the long thin branches of ground-level shrubs, Salli smiled to herself. It was Fenka. She liked Fenka. She kept her mouth shut and walked on.

I bought this on seeing a recommendation from someone back in 2011; and I cannot not find whose recommendation it was, or why. I thought at first it might have been Liz Bourke, but her review is from 2012, after I had bought it. Lisa DuMond wrote it up in 2000, the year after it was published, but I don’t think I saw that either.

It’s a book about the intersection of religious doctrine and security politics, in a society where a Reformation is up-ending traditional power structures. Unfortunately I never quite understood what was going on, and was particularly thrown at the very beginning when the central character’s brother, a serving member of the security forces, fears he may be in trouble because he accidentally killed a member of a minority group during a riot. This doesn’t seem very plausible. I note that Bourke and DuMond, who are otherwise boosters of Matthews’ work, are frank about the imperfect execution of this one. I haven’t read anything else by her, and I’m not going to look out for it based on this. But if you want, you can get it here.

This was the unread sf book that had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, edited by Kevin J. Anderson.

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My tweets

  • Tue, 19:18: RT @ManningOfficial: @nwbrux You may have a surprise in store !!! Xxx
  • Tue, 20:02: RT @pmdfoster: That went so well in December. But I guess it’s all changed now, she’s got the Malthouse Compromise to wave at them. https…
  • Tue, 20:07: RT @timfarron: Exactly. They are knowingly voting for no deal tonight. https://t.co/oN3IXDBRdy
  • Tue, 20:20: RT @DavidHenigUK: I can help Downing Street if they think that. They’re wrong. It’s the same Merkel to the rescue narrative that has so con…
  • Tue, 20:29: Sorry about Messingham, whose books are actually pretty good on the whole, but Whitaker’s early novelisations are f… https://t.co/7gIIzXRRhs
  • Tue, 20:34: RT @NewtonEmerson: Amazing to think that before the Gina Miller case, May’s plan was just to sign off a Withdrawal Agreement in cabinet.
  • Tue, 20:48: RT @MrStinkEsq: Monday – Greg Tuesday – Ian Wednesday – Greg Thursday – Ian Friday – Greg Saturday – Ian Sunday – Greg The Gregorian calen…
  • Tue, 21:38: RT @AlbertoNardelli: An EU official tells me that the irony of all this debate in the Commons is that “it makes crystal clear why we need a…
  • Tue, 21:42: Unicorns!!!!!
  • Wed, 02:15: RT @GuitarMoog: What will be noted most in Brussels & EU27 is not that the amendment passed, but that May supported it. She agreed the Ba…
  • Wed, 02:48: RT @BrigidLaffan: Thank you for this demolition. Job-Can ‘A Better Deal’ replace the Backstop? – UK in a changing EuropeUK in a changing Eu…
  • Wed, 02:49: RT @RezaMac: Today’s mess in Parliament shows precisely why the backstop is needed – we are not a reliable negotiating partner: one day we…
  • Wed, 08:25: RT @SHKMEP: Making my way into @Europarl_EN #Brussels – I know the mood will be rather mixed but #EU27 unity not be up for compromise. #B
  • Wed, 09:04: RT @jonworth: After tonight’s Commons vote for a I have updated by #Brexit diagram Next: May off to Brussels to demand something or othe…
  • Wed, 09:11: RT @GMLspokesman: .@Billbrowder “Today we agreed European Parliament should call on EU High Representative Federica Mogherini to put Sergei…
  • Wed, 09:38: Another great map from Bloomberg @Brexit. https://t.co/4MyvnI9jc4
  • Wed, 10:45: RT @SCrabbPembs: For what it’s worth, a few thoughts on the backstop and why we shouldn’t be tripping over ourselves to bin it. A thread:

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Tuesday reading

Current
Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
Candide, by Voltaire
Molten Heart, by Una McCormack

Last books finished
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Secret Histories, ed. Mark Clapham
Avalanche Soldier, by Susan Matthews
Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, The Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin, by Paul Hockenos
δ1

Next books
The World of Poo, by Terry Pratchett
Bitter Angels, by C. L. Anderson

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My tweets

  • Mon, 15:55: RT @EuropeanUni: Ivan Rogers now – former UK Permanent Rep. to EU – not surprising that we’re in this mess – article 50 well designed only…
  • Mon, 15:55: RT @nick_gutteridge: Sir Ivan kicks off his remarks with a good dose of honesty. Says he doesn’t know what will happen next and ‘anyone who…
  • Mon, 16:05: RT @jkass99: I just learned the cover art of my book is stolen. This cover was presented to me as an original piece of art by @TCKPublishin
  • Mon, 16:54: RT @EuropeanUni: On to Q+A now. Someone suggests a referendum on the backstop for Northern Ireland – @BrigidLaffan reminds us that Good Fri…
  • Mon, 17:03: Sir Ivan Rogers: “We will understand the European Union from outside a damn sight better than we did when we were inside it!”
  • Mon, 17:07: RT @nick_gutteridge: Sir Ivan says it’s now likely UK will understand EU better from the outside than it ever did inside. ‘It’s been a huge…
  • Mon, 17:15: The truth about the Political Declaration, says @AndrewDuffEU at @EPC_EU, is that it’s not very good. He has tried… https://t.co/EfOTLBjiQm
  • Mon, 17:17: RT @laurnorman: On backstop, @WeyandSabine says this not an Irish issue but an EU one. EU invested massively in Ireland peace and Ireland b…
  • Mon, 17:30: RT @PoliticoRyan: EU’s Sabine Weyand again: The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement political declaration is “a work of art” because it “bridges th…
  • Mon, 17:37: Audience member at @EPC_EU event. “Can we stop behaving like the Judean People’s Front, and start getting out of this mess?”

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The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Second paragraph of third chapter ("the Fourth Morning"):

We know each other by now. Plus we don't have the time for formalities, I'm afraid.

I got a little thrown at the very start of this book when it became clear that the narrator's name is Balram, a variant form of Balarāma, the elder brother of Krishna. That was also the name of the house in south Dublin where my grandfather lived with his second wife, my godmother, when I was a child (my grandmother died very young and he remarried). I guess I had never really thought about its meaning – it's not obviously of Irish origin, and I suppose it's quite likely that in this case it was also a reference to the Indian god. This coincidence sent me to the online archives; the original owner and possibly builder of my grandfather's house was an Alexander Malcolm, head of the Dublin branch of the Glasgow plastering company George, Rome & Co; he must have been a master plasterer, and it's not at all unlikely that he had some Indian connection, as almost everyone in Britain and Ireland of his class would have had in those days.

Anyway. The book itself is very dark but also funny. It chronicles Balram's rise from a desperately poor village to wealth and prosperity in Bangalore, via a period as a chauffeur in Delhi working for a rich man from his local village. It's a vivid account of an India where the old ways are breaking down, and new money and urbanisation are creating their own rules. Balram is rather a sympathetic rogue, who commits murder and colludes in other deaths to ensure his own path to the top. The story is framed as a letter to Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, warning him about what India is really like. I don't have enough knowledge of India to critique it, but it was well worth the ride. You can get it here.

This won the 2008 Man Booker Prize, beating five books I haven't heard of: Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency and Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. It was my top unread book acquired in 2018, and my top non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, and Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot.

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My tweets

  • Sun, 22:59: RT @kevinhorourke: Unfortunately the Irish watch UK TV and read its press. Brexiteer claims that Ireland is responsible for no deal will be…
  • Mon, 06:46: RT @jonworth: Earlier I was confusing myself with too much detail on amendments to be voted Tuesday 29. Only two types of amendments matte…
  • Mon, 07:34: RT @DavidHenigUK: The UK Government including Boris Johnson and David Davis signed up to an Irish backstop commitment 13 months ago. Now…
  • Mon, 10:45: RT @MatthewdAncona: My @guardian column: I have had it up to here with the Conservative Party – an ugliness has entered its soul https://t.…

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Blue Box Boy, by Matthew Waterhouse

Second paragraph of third chapter ("Episode 3"):

Tom and John Nathan-Turner had kept the news close to their chests, so Matthew found out at the same time as everybody else. Tom went on the BBC1 evening news magazine Nationwide – the programme for which Matthew had cut up newspapers a few months earlier. He wore his tatty blue pinstripe and white shirt, open-collared, the outfit he pulled from his wardrobe whenever a nod to formality was required. He looked like somebody you wouldn't buy a used car off. It was a look which Matthew found charming. He leant against the TARDIS which appeared to be propping him up. His arms were folded. It was possible to suspect that he was a bit the worse for wear, though John Nathan-Turner, who was hovering off camera in his customary way, later told Matthew that Tom had not had very much to drink. “Only a couple…”

I probably got this at Slough in 2013William Hartnell, by his grand-daughterPatrick Troughton, by his sonTom BakerPeter PurvesAnneke WillsNicholas CourtneyElisabeth Sladen.)

Waterhouse has chosen to tell the story in the third person, which seemed really pretentious when I first heard about the book (cf Julius Caesar), but actually it works really well – it allows him to establish some distance from his not always terribly happy childhood, and from the intense experience of working with the very temperamental Tom Baker on his last few stories. Once Davison arrived and the regular team settled down (though of course Waterhouse was the first to be written out) it seems to have been more fun, though he still took it pretty seriously. I deeply sympathise with his approach, as reported in an exchange with Janet Fielding who played Tegan:

“The trouble with you, Matthew,” she said more than once, “is that when it comes to Doctor Who you suspend your critical judgement.” This was a well-made point, but then she had no emotional involvement with it and Matthew did. He was intelligent enough to know that if too critical an approach was taken to Doctor Who, every last moment of it would collapse to dust.

Anyway, it’s a good book that made me feel interested in and sympathetic to the author, and gave me insights into Doctor Who that I had not thought of before. You can get it here.

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Tales from Moominvalley, by Tove Jansson

Second paragraph of third story ("The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters" / "Filifjonkan som trodde på katastrofer"):

Then she soaped and rubbed further, to the next blue stripe, and the sun was warming her back, and she stood with her thin legs in the clear water, rubbing and rubbing. Sen tvättade hon till nästa blåa rand och solen värmde hennes rygg och hon stack ner sina smala ben i det genomskinliga vattnet och gnodde, och gnodde.

These are really superb little chunks of Moominland, not at all whimsical, but dark and thoughtful pieces that speak to adults trying to make sense of an imperfect world. The funniest perhaps is the last one, "The Fir Tree" ("Granen"), in which the Moomins, who normally hibernate, are woken up for Christmas and try to make sense of it. But my favourite is "The Secret of the Hattifatteners" ("Hatifnattarnas hemlighet"), in which Moominpappa abandons home and family to try and find some extra meaning in life, and ends up in a confrontation with dark and incomprehensible forces. I must have first read it when I was seven or eight, and it hit me then quite differently to how it hits me now. But they are all good. You can get it here. (It’s really cheap.)

This was my top unread sf book on the shelves (though I confess to tweaking my system – I had read it first over forty years ago). Next up is Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones.

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My tweets

  • Fri, 09:18: RT @pmdfoster: Of course this will be used to argue a ‘no deal’ will be ‘fine’. All i can say is “see, the sky didn’t actually fall on our…
  • Fri, 09:50: On the left is Stuart McDonald (41), the Scottish National Party MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East… https://t.co/5l9e7pdXlA
  • Fri, 10:45: Robert Craig: Could the Government Advise the Queen to Refuse Royal Assent to a Backbench Bill?… https://t.co/hpxuj5gFZo

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Amoras deel 4: Lambik, by Marc Legendre and Charel Cambré

Second frame from third page:


Achiel: "May I have my umbrella back, young man?"
Suske: "?!"

(See previously vols 1, 2, 3)

Flemish FNAC customers voted this as their favourite comic of 2014, but I think it would be pretty impenetrable if you weren't at least vaguely familiar with Suske and Wiske, and also with the previous three volumes of the series. Here, Lambik, Suske and Wiske's adult friend from the present day, zooms forward to the year 2047 to try and save them from the evil Krimson and other dangers. He runs afoul of the mysterious deaf girl, Jérusalem, who is becoming a much darker and more dangerous figure (and darkening the story as a whole). Lambik actually attempting to be useful for a change, but being thwarted by external factors and by his own character flaws, turns out to be quite an effective story. Otherwise the rest of the plot doesn’t advance all that much, and I’ll just have to go out and get the last two volumes. You can get this one here.

Meanwhile my next non-English comic will be De Terugkeer van de Wespendief, by Aimee de Jongh.

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“The Queen of Air and Darkness”, by Poul Anderson

Second paragraph of third section:

Thus voyages from sun to sun will always be few. Colonists will be those who have extremely special reasons for going. They will take along germ plasm for exogenetic cultivation of domestic plants and animals—and of human infants, in order that population can grow fast enough to escape death through genetic drift. After all, they cannot rely on further immigration. Two or three times a century, a ship may call from some other colony. (Not from Earth. Earth has long ago sunk into alien concerns.) Its place of origin will be an old settlement. The young ones are in no position to build and man interstellar vessels.

Next in my reading of the joint winners of the Hugos and Nebulas. I am getting through these at about four a year (five last year and three in 2017), so at this rate I'll finish this project in the late 2030's.

This is a planetary romance, where a distraught mother whose son has been kidnapped by the natives hires the human colony's only private eye to retrieve him. It's a rather uncomfortable mingling of several tropes. The PI hero is part Philip Marlowe, part Sherlock Holmes (his name is Eric Sherrinford) and part Science Genius. It's quite difficult to do noir and aliens together, and Anderson doesn't really succeed. Although the child's captors seem to have magical powers, our hero proves that he can Defeat Them With Science (which however I note is itself sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic). There is a lot of Jungian banter, and very little characterisation. Today's reader will wonder how the Earth people feel that they have the right to take ownership of the planet from its original inhabitants; this question is not asked in the story (or rather the answer is presupposed). I think that of the stories I have re-read so far in this project, this has aged the least well.

"The Queen of Air and Darkness" won both the 1973 Hugo for Best Novella and the 1972 Nebula for Best Novelette. In both cases it beat "A Special Kind of Morning" by Gardner Dozois; other Hugo finalists were "A Meeting With Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke, "The Fourth Profession" by Larry Niven, and "Dread Empire" by John Brunner; other Nebula finalists were "Mount Charity" by Edgar Pangborn, "Poor Man, Beggar Man" by Joanna Russ, and "The Encounter" by Kate Wilhelm. The only one of these that I know I have read is "A Meeting With Medusa" by Arthur C. Clarke, which I don't think is his best work but I liked it more than "The Queen of Air and Darkness".

The other written fiction Hugos went to To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer (novel) and "Inconstant Moon" by Larry Niven (short story; there was no novelette category). The other Nebulas went to A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg (novel), "The Missing Man" by Katherine MacLean (novella) and "Good News From The Vatican" by Robert Silverberg again.

You can get "The Queen of Air and Darkness" in the collection with the same name. Next up is another Poul Anderson short piece, "Goat Song".

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Tuesday reading

Current
Avalanche Soldier, by Susan Matthews
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Secret Histories, ed. Mark Clapham
δ1

Last books finished
From Here To Eternity, by James Jones
Blue Box Boy, by Matthew Waterhouse
γ1

Next books
Fanny Hill, by John Cleland
Candide, by Voltaire

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My tweets

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Second of two posts for Martin Luther King Day: my failure as an ally

Long long ago, when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the late 1980s, I vaguely knew one of the university academics. He was famous for his rudeness.

One evening I happened to be out with an Asian friend, and bumped into this famously rude academic at a bar. He offered to buy a drink “for you and your monkey”. My friend was appalled. So was I. But because this chap was in a position of privilege (not directly; my friend and I were at different colleges to him, studying different subjects to the one he taught) I felt unable to do more than look appalled.

I know that I should have had the wit to at least say, “That really isn’t cool.” Frankly, I should have reported the remark to his college authorities, who I fear would not have been at all surprised, and might just possibly have taken some action. (Years later, he was removed from the Cambridge entrance interview process after mocking an applicant about her geographical origin.)

There are a lot of things that I am embarrassed about in my past, but I am particularly ashamed that I failed to stand up for my friend on this occasion. I would like to think that I would respond better now. I fear that for my friend it was probably just another bloody evening of being insulted by white people. (I am glad to say that my friend is now thriving as a leading commentator on terrorism and security issues in their home country.)

The famously rude chap died recently. I was struck by the affectionate tone of both the official obituaries and in the online comments I saw from other friends of mine who had been taught by him, though almost all also admitted his character flaws. I am glad that he had a positive impact on some people’s lives. But I am afraid I will remember him as an arrogant racist.

If you think you may know who I am referring to, you are probably right. I don’t plan to say any more than this.

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First of two posts for Martin Luther King Day: erasure in the cinema

Over the last fifteen months, I have been watching the winners of the Oscar for Best Picture from the beginning – I have now got through the first 26 of them, from Wings (1927) to From Here To Eternity (1953). I'm not especially a film buff, so I think I have been learning a lot.

I generally enjoy the films (and carefully note the exceptions. But one of the particularly negative things that has jumped out at me is how little non-white representation there is in the most successful Holywood films of 70-90 years ago. The first scene in an Oscar-winning film with a non-white actor is 10 minutes into Cimarron, the fourth film of the sequence, with Eugene Jackson playing the boy servant Isaiah.

As I said, I have now reached 1953; the last black speaking character was Sam, played by Dooley Wilson, in Casablanca ten years before. Gone with the Wind, which is openly racist, won the award in 1939. (Though the film is less racist than the book, and Hattie McDaniel, who was excluded from the film's opening in Atlanta, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.) Cimarron, another racist film, had previously won in 1931. The best we get are the comic parts played by Lilian Yarbo and Eddie Anderson in You Can't Take It With You (1938), and the excitingly primitive Tahitians of Mutiny on the Bounty (1936), and really that's not very good.

But I've also been reading the source texts for those films which were based on other works, usually novels, occasionally poetry or plays. And it is striking just how far Hollywood went to erase black Americans (and also Africans in Europe) in the transition from page to screen. Here's my list.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) – there are black French soldiers in the book, but not on screen.
Cimarron (1931) – both book and film are pretty racist, but at least the one significant black character, the young Isaiah, gets some agency in the book, whereas he is comic relief in the film.
Grand Hotel (1932) – the book features a black barman in the Berlin hotel where it is set; there are no black faces in the film.
Casablanca (1943) – has surprisingly few visible Africans in it for a film set in Africa, but the same was true of the play (and the film treats Dooley Wilson's Sam with much more dignity than the play gives the character on which he is based).
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – no speaking black roles in the film, though the epic poem it is based on has a "mulatto bartender" called Nat.
All the King's Men (1949) – by far the worst case of racial erasure. The book is very clearly set in Louisiana, and the racial politics are inseparable from the main plot; there is a moving chapter reflecting on the experience of the Civil War. The film has precisely one black actor visible, a waiter on a train.
From Here To Eternity (1953) – Hawaii is almost entirely white, and the US Army is exclusively white; compared to the book's depiction of a vibrant multicultural Honolulu and a diverse army.

It's always more difficult to critique a work of art or literature for what isn't there rather than what is. But I've found this a depressingly enlightening experience.

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My tweets

  • Mon, 06:30: RT @alexstubb: Saw the lunar eclipse on my way to the airport. Impressive. Early flight to #Davos2019. There the focus will be on the globa…
  • Mon, 07:59: RT @pmdfoster: Amending the Good Friday Agreement will never fix backstop issue  – my latest on ⁦@Theresa_may⁩ Plan B. Why won’t it fly?…

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The Arenbergs: Power and Beauty at the M Museum

Leuven has been commemorating the Arenberg family as previously noted, and I suddenly realised this morning that today was the last day of the exhibition in the M Museum about the family's Power and Beauty, so I zoomed into town at lunchtime. It was pretty crowded, no doubt partly because other people like me had realised that this was the last chance to see it.

The Arenbergs dominated the town from the moment that they inherited the lands in 1612, owning the castle at Heverlee and the forest where we often walk. I was particularly fascinated by an estate map from I think 1709, showing our village in the context of the ducal lands, which I present here with the modern version from Openstreetmaps (rotated to fit). We live roughly on the "v" of "Heverlee" in the new map. It's particularly striking that the ponds which today are an attraction for birdwatchers simply weren't there 300 years ago; perhaps they were a consequence of driving the railway through the valley?

Anyway, the exhibition was mainly about the objets d'art collected by the Arenbergs over the centuries. I'll spare you the details of all of it, but three things in particular jumped out. I was particularly interested in the libary constructed by the Blind Duke, Louis Engelbert (1950-1820), who although he could not himself read after a hunting accident when he was 24, built up the Egmont Palace in central Brussels as a place of culture. I know the Egmont Palace well – it's a venue for big political conferences, and was where Ted Heath was inked in 1972 (here and here). The most striking part of this was the four painted glass door panels for the library made by Sophie Frémiet (1797-1867), a French artist of the period who I confess I'd never heard of, as indeed women artists have generally been erased. (This photo by Dick Pauwels for the exhibition)

Here is another painting that grabbed me, The Awakening of the Arts (1560) by Frans Floris (1517-1570), which normally lives in Puerto Rico but was on loan to the exhibition. The iconography here is jolly confusing – Mars is being led away by three mythical women at the back, which Mercury is waking the sleeping and very topless allegories in the foreground – but the audio commentary did its best to explain and then for good measure played the actual song that is on the pages held by the Muses.

Another striking woman is Hedwige de Ligne (1877-1938), whose stunning 1900 portrait by Gyula Benczúr (1844-1920) is one of the icons of the exhibition. Here she is aged 23, married two years previously in 1898 to the Ninth Duke, Engelbert-Maria, having had one of their three children a year ago in 1899, and basically in charge of the world. (The museum audio commentary treated us to a reading of a love-letter to her during the first world war; I could not see if this was fictional or historical.) She and her husband were the last of the family to live in Arenberg castle in Heverlee; he had served as a Prussian officer before their marriage, and from 1903 they decided to opt for Germany, where he was successively a member of the Reichstag for the Centre Party and then a commander of the Seventh Army in the first World War. Not very surprisingly, the Belgian state confiscated all of the Arenberg properties in Belgium once the war was over. The Egmont Palace in Brussels is still owned by the Belgian state, and the Arenberg Castle in Heverlee is part of the University of Leuven.

And there's a good view of the University Library from the roof of the museum.

The exhibition opens with a short video from the current Duke, speaking Dutch with the same aristocratic non-native-speaker accent that we are used to from the King of the Belgians, explaining the history without rancour.

On my way out I saw a tall man with curly hair in the corridor speaking fluent German, with a rather posh accent, and realised who it must be.

"Entschuldigen Sie mir, bitte, sind Sie der Herzog?" I asked.
"Ja", he replied.
"Darfen wir bitte ein Selfie machen?"
"Ja, natürlich."

And so I met the Duke, who was preparing to personally lead one of the last of the guided tours of the exhibition, in French which he says he speaks as well as German (and once he had clicked my accent, he switched to English). However, I clearly need to work on my selfie game.

So, a worthwhile expedition, and I’m afraid it is now twenty minutes too late to see it before it closes for good.

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My tweets

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From Here To Eternity: 1953 film, and book by James Jones

From Here To Eternity won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of 1953, and picked up another seven, Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), Best Screenplay (Daniel Taradash), Best Cinematography (Burnett Guffey), Best Sound, and Best Film Editing (these last two beating The War of the Worlds). This equalled the record of eight won by Gone With the Wind fourteen years earlier. The other contenders for Best Motion Picture were Julius Caesar, The Robe, Roman Holiday and Shane.

IMDB ranks From Here To Eternity 6th on both popularity and number of rankings for the year. The only films ahead of it in both leagues are Roman Holiday and Disney’s Peter Pan. As mentioned previously, the only 1953 films which I am sure that I previously seen are Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot / Mr Hulot’s Holiday, and Le Salaire de la Peur / The Wages of Fear, The War of the Worlds and probably Calamity Jane. Here is a contemporary trailer, in which the only scenes from the actual film are some footage of soldiers on parade and the love scene on the beach. You will observe that it’s in black and white, after two winners in colour (An American in Paris and The Greatest Show on Earth):

To cut to the chase, I rather enjoyed this, and it’s grazing my top quartile, just below All About Eve (losing points for whitewashing) and just above Olivier’s Hamlet. It’s the story of three soldiers, and the women who love two of them, grinding out their individuality in the suffocating environment of the US Army base on Hawaii immediately before Pearl Harbour. No detailed spoilers, but it does not have a happy ending. I liked it a lot more than last year’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which is also a romantic drama set in a stressful professional environment; the plot is more substantial, the characters more sympathetic and the situation more interesting.

Whitewashing: I am sorry to have to do this yet again. It’s now ten years since we had an Oscar-winning film with a speaking part for a black actor. OK, there were not a lot of African-Americans in Hawaii (0.05% in 1940, rising to 0.5% in 1950) but the biggest single ethnic group then was the Japanese (37% in 1940 and 32% in 1950); there is not a single identifiably Japanese face in the film. The book (which I will get to below) portrays a vibrant multi-ethnic Honolulu and indeed a relatively diverse army. Hollywood erased that; the whiteness of Hawaii here is almost (but just about not quite) as bad as the all-white Deep South of All The King’s Men. The only visible non-whites in the film are coded as Chinese (7% of Hawaii’s population in 1940, 5% in 1950) or Hawaiians (15% in 1940, 14% in 1950).

Bowdlerising: Again, I want to save the book for proper commentary later, but even the casual viewer can tell that the New Congress Club, where Prew meets his lover Lorene/Alma, is a brothel that has been cleaned up for Hollywood (“soft drinks”, forsooth!!!). In fairness, the extramarital relationship of Warden and Karen is kept (it would be rather difficult to tell the story without it).

From here on, it’s all positive. The music is good, both George Duning’s incidental music and the contemporary songs which crop up, which include the memorable “Re-Enlistment Blues”:

The use of the buildings and landscape is very impressive, and one wonders how the locals felt about the re-enactment of Pearl Harbour only twelve years after the real thing; most of them would have remembered it well. The most notable use of landscape of course is in the film’s most famous single scene (which actually lasts less than a minute):

The plot (and again more on this later) has had a lot stripped out of 850 pages of novel to make 118 minutes of film, and therefore loses a lot of the complexity that the book has, but establishes its own structural integrity. This is partly because of the star quality of the leads; where the book concentrates on getting into the heads of the two main characters, Sergeant Warden and Private “Prue” Prewitt, the film also has two strong female leads and a third strong male, which means a rebalancing of the narrative which gives a slightly more balanced gender perspective.

One change that apparently was forced as part of the price of army co-operation was to ensure that the awful Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) should get his come-uppance in the end, rather than get promoted out of the way as happens in the book.

Of the leads, I actually found Montgomery Clift as Prewitt and Donna Reed as his girlfriend Lorene (whose real name is Alma) the least magnetic, though still pretty compelling. Prewitt’s character arc is a sadly downward one, as his defiance of the system fails to bring him any reward; and I was a bit mystified that Reed’s performance was one of the two that got the Oscar. Clift’s bugling (if it is him) does add to the soundscape.

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as Sergeant Milt Warden and Karen Holmes, the wife of his commanding officer, are gloriously sexy throughout. This is a publicity shot rather than an actual scene, but conveys the atmosphere well:

The standout performance, to my total surprise, is Frank Sinatra as Maggio. He’s a relatively one-dimensional character in the book, but in the film he’s partly a bromance partner for Clift’s Prewitt, and mainly the life and soul of the party, who really demonstrates how the military lifestyle fatally curtails his individuality. He hardly even sings in this. (The only other film I’d seen him in is Guys and Dolls.)

So basically I went into this with no expectations, and was very favourably impressed. You can get it here.

As is my habit, I also read the book on which the film is based. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

He threw the cigaret in the flat iron pot painted red and black, the Regimental colors, and watched the tail end of the Company move out the truck entrance and out of sight, then stepped down onto the slick concrete of the porch and walked along it to the Supply Room’s open door.

As usual, I liked the book more than the film. I think the only parts that grated were where relatively unsophisticated soldiers engaged in deep conversations about Art and Literature which felt a bit like the author talking to his imaginary friends. As noted above, the character of Maggio is much less well developed and the women get relatively less viewpoint time than in the film. But in general it’s a lot more substantial, a lot more frank about sex and complex emotions; several particularly good subplots were cut from the script; the army of Jones’ novel may not have any black soldiers, but it does have Jews and Indians, unlike the army in the film; the Hawaii of the novel has a lot more non-white people than the Hawaii of the film. And it’s very well written, tensely close to the geography of 1941 Honolulu, to the point that one can follow Prewitt’s track from Alma and Georgette’s house to the fatal golf course quite readily on the mapping app of your choice. It’s a darker story than the film (which is already dark enough); Warden and Karen’s relationship is considerably more rocky on the page (there’s a grim passage where they sneak away for a romantic break and discover that they can’t actually stand each other’s company for more than an hour or so) and Prewitt’s final disintegration is recounted at length. I think it’s a rather old-fashioned book, in that it’s really all about the men, but it’s pretty gripping all the same. You can get it here.

Next up is On The Waterfront, of which I know very little.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)

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Heartspell, by Blaine Anderson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Inside was a teeming mass of bobbing heads and hoisted horns. He sank his weight onto the oak branch he'd whittled into a crutch and breathed in the familiar, happy sounds of the feis, the ancient gathering convened by the high king once every third year. Bone dice clattered, cheers spurred a chieftain crowing about his war feats, and a harp gantree [sic] silked [sic] through the smoky air. Niall smiled; this was his true ken, not some damp, lost lake. It felt good to be back among men.

Well. This is pretty rubbish. It is set in seventh-century Ireland, in the twilight days of druidism being defeated by Christianity, and manly men fight battles and women do womanly druidic magic. You can see with blinding certainty which way the plot is going from roughly the moment the protagonists meet on page 5. In the very first chapter our heroine nurses our hero back to health after he is viciously attacked by a cougar. Yes, a cougar in the sense of a very large wild feline animal, rather than a predatory older woman. There are tame wolves. Ireland's eastern coast is much more rugged than the west. I am not an obstetrical expert, other than having observed the process up close three times, but our heroine's rapid recovery from solo childbirth towards the end of the book struck me as medically implausible. There is no real sense of geography; the ancient shrine of Uisneach is spelt Uisneath throughout (no doubt the confusion arises from its location in modern Westmeath). Frankly, it's one of the least impressive examples of the Celtic misht sub-genre I've come across. If you really want, you can get it here.

I only really finished this because it was the very last unread book on my shelves that I had acquired in the calendar year 2010. It's just over two years since I finished my 2009 books, on a rather higher note. I think I will make quicker progress with the 2011 books – there are only 17 of them left, and there were 52 books from 2010 for me to get through. Now my various 2010 lists open up with Avalanche Soldier by Susan Matthews (longest owned unread sf book), The Life of Sir Denis Henry: Catholic Unionist, by A.D. McDonnell (shortest unread book acquired in 2011), The Secret Lives of Garden Birds by Domonic Couzens (longest owned unread non-fiction book), Nebula Awards Showcase 2011, ed. Kevin J. Anderson (most popular unread book acquired in 2011) and In Another Light by Andrew Greig (longest owned unread non-genre fiction).

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The Time Lord Letters, by Justin Richards

Second paragraph of third letter:

I’m sure that even you will soon notice that I have removed your TARDIS’s Dimensional Controller. I hope that will be a lesson to you about your tiresome meddling.

This is a spinoff anthology of 128 letters that might have been written to or about the Doctor up to 2015 (so up to the first third of the Capaldi era). All are related to televised stories, with the exception of a note from the First Doctor addressed to Horatio Nelson referring to the “Hordes of Betralamir”. (I’m delighted to say that this seems to have escaped other commentators.) The whole thing is gorgeously illustrated, but frankly doesn’t offer a lot of substance, and really it’s an excuse for a large selection of (very nice) stock photos with something that is barely an excuse for an illustrative narrative. I see Justin Richards as New Who’s Terrance Dicks, capable of great stuff but often churning out pot-boilers, and this is certainly at the latter end of the spectrum. You can get it here.

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