March Books

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 17)
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of Scandinavia’s Utopia, by Michael Booth
1493, by Charles C. Mann
Strategic Europe, ed. Jan Techau
Red Notice, by Bill Browder
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith – did not finish

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 7)
Small Island, by Andrea Levy
Midnight Cowboy, by James Leo Herlihy

sf (non-Who): 17 (YTD 42)
The Golden Fleece, by Robert Graves
Deeplight, by Frances Hardinge
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (did not finish)
The Green Man’s Foe, by Juliet E. McKenna
Fleet of Knives, by Gareth A. Powell
Babayaga, by Toby Barlow
Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman
Ragged Alice, by Gareth A. Powell
The Survival of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
The Winged Man, by E. Mayne Hull
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
Blake’s 7 Annual 1979
Blake’s 7 Annual 1980
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djélì Clark
Blake’s 7 Annual 1981

Doctor Who: 1 (YTD 6)
Doctor Who: The Macra Terror, by Ian Stuart Black

Comics: 1 (YTD 6)
Die, vol 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles

7,400 pages (YTD 20,700)
9/26 (YTD 23/78) by women (Levy, Hardinge, Hurley, McKenna, Newman, McGuire, Hull, Martine, Hans)
3/26 (YTD 8/78) by PoC (Levy, Thompson, Clark)
2/26 rereads (YTD 11/78) – Macra Terror, Babayaga.

Reading now
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka
The Wind on the Moon, by Eric Linklater

Coming soon (perhaps)
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson
The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
The European Parliament, by Francis Jacobs, Richard Corbett and Michael Shackleton
Wiske, by Willy Vandersteen
Long Song, by Andrea Levy
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by P. E. Winter
Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz
Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
Sleepers of Mars, by John Wyndham
Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime 1: Breaking the Strain, by Paul Preuss
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
The Queen's Spymaster, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry
Laatste schooldag, by J. G Siebelink
Heaven's War, by David S Goyer
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov

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  • Tue, 10:45: RT @JenniferMerode: Why didn’t UK take part in EU procurement? No 10: ‘We didn’t get the email in time’. Michael Gove: “Communication confu…

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October 2005 books

My two trips in October 2005 were to the Netherlands, where unfortunately I had a car accident on the ouskirts of The Hague – nobody hurt, but I was pretty shaken and the other car was a write-off – and at the end of the month to Montenegro. (You can see me in Montenegro at 2:00 into this video.) At work we published the second report on Nagorno-Karabakh and I had an op-ed on Bosnia in European Voice which I am still rather pleased with.

At home we had our twelfth wedding anniversary. I got a nice pic of young F in the cupola of the Bozar museum in Brussels, the royal palace in the background.

F meanwhile was occasionally commandeering my camera to take pictures of other family members.

Due to less international travel, and commuting by car, I read only 10 books in October 2005.

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 36)
Macedonia: The Bradt Travel Guide, by Thammy Evans
Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary

Non-genre 1(YTD 8)
A Personal Matter, by Kenzaburō Ōe

SF 7 (YTD 65)
Travelling Towards Epsilon, ed. by Maxim Jakubowski
The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross
The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross
Accelerando, by Charles Stross
Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
Ten Years to Oblivion, by Clem Macartney
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

2,700 pages (YTD 36,700)
2/10 by women (YTD 26/116)
2/10 by PoC (YTD 3/116)

Links above to my reviews, below to Amazon.

The best of these was Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, which won the Hugo for Best Related Work that year. You can get it here. I'm not going to pick on those I didn't like; three others that I did like were Terry Patrchett's Going Postal, which you can get here, Charles Stross's The Clan Corporate, which you can get here in omnibus, and Thammy Evans' Macedonia Travel Guide, which you can get (in a newer and retitled edition) here.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Because I am interested in Colón, I bought a copy of the translation when I spotted it in a used-book store. Part of a series the Italian state published to honor the five hundredth anniversary of his first voyage to the Americas, the book is a big, lush, cream-colored object that doesn’t fit on a standard bookshelf. Disappointing to readers like me, Gil and Varela announced in the introduction that “these previously unknown texts do not present any spectacular revelations” about Colón’s life and character. But halfway through the newly revealed chronicle of the admiral’s second voyage I came across a curious detail—one that wasn’t in the fine biographies by Samuel Eliot Morison and Felipe Fernández-Armesto.

I hugely enjoyed the same author's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus when I read it a couple of years ago, and my kind spouse bought me the sequel for Christmas. It's not quite as good, but it is still very good. The theme is the massive exchange (mainly biological, but also economic and cultural) that was set in motion by the opening up of commerce and communication across the Atlantic (and, soon after, the Pacific). I had not realized, for instance, that there were no earthworms in the Americas before European settlement. The roles of potatoes, rubber, tobacco and sugar cane in early and later phases of globalisation are deeply explored. So is the explosion of South American silver onto world markets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which via Spain and Portugal had a massive and long-lasting effect on the economy of China. Particularly right now, it's worth remembering that China has been plugged into the global economy for a very long time indeed. Mann also has some interesting reflections on how chattel slavery evolved in the Americas from existing patterns of indenture from Europe and slavery in Africa, and there is a lot of fascinating material on the societies of freed an escaped slaves that developed on the margins of European settlement.

Lots of interesting stuff here, and if it's not quite up to the mark of the previous volume, that was a very high mark to keep to. You can get it here.

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Patton (1970)

Patton won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1970, and picked up another six – Best Actor was famously declined by George C. Scott as the title character, but its makers took home awards for Best Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Best Original Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Art Direction. It lost Best Original Score to Love Story, Best Cinematography to Ryan’s Daughter and Best Special Effects to Tora! Tora! Tora!

The other Best Picture nominees were Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story and M*A*S*H, none of which I have seen. IMDB users actually rate this the top film of 1970 on one system, but only 8th on the other, behind Ryan’s Daughter, The Honeymoon Killers, M*A*S*H, The Aristocats, Love Story, Catch-22 and Rio Lobo. The other 1970 films I had previously seen were The Aristocats, Catch-22, The Railway Children, A Man Called Horse, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and that eternal if puzzling classic Dougal and the Blue Cat. The Hugo that year went to No Award (it was a weird final ballot).

Here’s a trailer.

In case you had not guessed, this is the story of General George S. Patton and his campaign during the Second World War; we move from North Africa to Germany via Italy, France and Belgium with an excursion to England. This is the fifth or sixth Second World War film to win Best Picture (after Mrs Miniver and Casablanca, for which the war was a contemporary setting, and From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai, plus I think you’d have to count The Best Years of Our Lives as well). It’s the fourth or fifth biopic (after The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola, Lawrence of Arabia and maybe you could stretch a point for A Man for All Seasons although it was adapted from a stage play).

I did not like it much. The central character is not very nice and not very interesting, and goes around fighting people, mostly but not always the enemy. It clearly appeals to a wide audience, just not me. I’m putting it pretty far down my list, just below Mutiny on the Bounty but above All the King’s Men. I think I liked all the other films I had seen from 1970 more than this. (Yes, including Dougal and the Blue Cat.)

The star of the film appeared five years ago in Dr Strangelove, where George C. Scott was the militaristic general Buck Turgidson; the two characters are somewhat related.

We have two returnees from previous Oscar-winning films. Karl Malden is the secondary lead here as General Omar Bradley; he was the uncertainly heroic Father Barry in On the Waterfront, sixteen years ago.

Less prominently, Jack Gwillim is General Alexander here and eight years ago was the club secretary who tells Lawrence to smarten up in Lawrence of Arabia.

But my big casting surprise was to discover that this, as far as I know, is the only Oscar-winning film featuring a Doctor Who companion. (There are two with actual Doctors – Hamlet has Patrick Troughton and Peter Cushing, and A Man for all Seasons has John Hurt.) It’s about as obscure a companion as you can get. Gerald Flood, who plays Air Chief Marshal Tedder here, went on to provide the voice for the shape-shifting android Kamelion, who appeared in two Fifth Doctor stories in 1983 and 1984. He appears onscreen in the first of them as the android double of King John of England.

This is a film mainly about white men. The good women of Knutsford get two speaking parts, neither credited. The occasional woman extra can be spotted in other scenes.

There is one credited black character, George Meeks, Patton’s valet, played by James Edwards. He is one of the many secondary figures who Patton expounds to at great and tedious length. Sadly, Edwards died in January 1970, aged only 51, a month before the film was released.

As I guess I have made clear, my biggest problem with the film is the protagonist, who comes across as selfish and self-destructive. I also really don’t like the make-up on his eyebrows.

I found Coppola’s script rather stilted. It rather felt like there were boxes that had to be ticked – this is the scene where he has an argument about Sicily, this is where he slaps a convalescing soldier, this is where he insults the Russians – and writer and cast were just ticking them.

There were some points I liked as well. In general we are convinced that we are seeing North Africa and France rather than Spain and England. There is a good sense of geography, and the culture clash between Americans and Brits is not too overdone. The battle scenes are convincingly done and there is a sense of real danger and risk.

The point that appealed to me most is the film’s treatment of French and German. I don’t know how linguistically gifted the historical Patton was; Scott breakes into fluent French at several points, sometimes translated by context or bystanders, sometimes not. The scenes in German High Command are played by German actors speaking German to each other. I can’t remember another Oscar-winning film that was this open to languages other than English (plenty of course are based on translated works). Admittedly there is no such latitude given for Arabic in the North African scenes.

Next up is The French Connection. I can only hope for better luck.

Normally I buy and read the books that each Oscar-winning film is based on. Patton is based on two books each of which is over 600 pages in length, so I am not going to bother this time; we are under lockdown here and I’d rather do things I know I will enjoy. For completeness, the second paragraph of the third chapter of Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, by Ladislas Fargo, is:

Though Georgie’s ancestry was as splendorous as any in America, he was somewhat apprehensive that it was not quite a match for the Ayers’ New England background. The Pattons’ aristocracy was the informal, relaxed, unsophisticated kind of nobility that seemed parvenu in proper Bostonian eyes. And Ayer was a Brahmin to the core.

And the second paragraph of the third chapter of A Soldier’s Story, by General Omar N. Bradley, is:

After a 25-cent breakfast of canned bacon and powdered eggs in a tar-paper shack on the field at Dakar, we boarded our plane for the 1,400-mile flight north to Marrakech in French Morocco. We flew for hours over the bleak Sahara. But as we passed into Morocco, the snow-topped peaks of the Atlas Mountains rose steeply out of the desolate plains and we threaded a course through their passes. Beyond this mountain barrier, on its fertile northern slopes, Mar-rakech lay like a crystal city in the center of a green oasis. From the air its huge white mosques ballooned like giant mushrooms. We landed there, spent the night at the Arabesque Mamounia Hotel, and left early the next morning for Algiers in a cargo-loaded C-47.

If you want, you can get the film here, Fargo’s Patton here, and Bradley’s Story here.

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)

A week and a half under lockdown

So, we're on our tenth day of lockdown here – it started at noon on Wednesday 18th, and here we are at the end of the first full week under new conditions. And it has just been announced that the lockdown will be extended to 18 April.

New conditions for me, that is. A lot of people who I know were already working from home and had well-established routines. A lot of people weren't working at all. My wife and son are both full-time undergraduates at the local university, and they have shifted to fully online studies. I have colonised the spare room, brought home a box full of papers from the office (which I admit I still haven't looked through) and am managing the inward and outward flow of emails and ideas. We are not getting under each other's feet too much – Anne generally works in the study and the kitchen, and F in the living room, while I lurk upstairs. We have been able to speak to little U in her home via Skype; she clearly enjoys seeing us but doesn't really engage directly. (B would probably be baffled by any attempt to communicate with her that way.)

I do miss my work colleagues. The ordinary camaraderie of office life is actually a great stimulant for me; that you can just walk down the corridor or over to the coffee machine to pick someone's brains, rather than ping them via chat or email, which inevitably feels much more like an intrusion. We've had some great fun online get-togethers, but it is not the same. And I miss being able to pop out for lunch or a drink with professional contacts. I am sure I am not the only person compiling a long list of people to catch up with as soon as possible once this is all over.

We have become a much more interconnected world. On the first full day of working from home, I spoke to friends and colleagues in Japan, India, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA, and in my spare time I have been assisting the process of working out this year's Hugo final ballot, with the Hugo administrator in Michigan and the Worldcon itself in New Zealand, a difference of seventeen time zones. Worldcon made the tough decision to go virtual, in the grim expectation that travel restrictions will not have eased by July. Eastercon of course was cancelled.

I have been getting out for walks (or even once, a bike ride) almost every day. But I have not been reading as much – I have lost the reading time of my lengthy commute. On balance I do prefer being at home with my family, but my brain is still looking for the moments that it can switch to consuming the written word in a leisure environment. At the same time, I'm several books behind my usual habit of bookblogging here – part of that is because last weekend, when I would normally have caught up a bit, was consumed by the Hugos, but part of it also is that I haven't felt like doing it.

What I have been doing is a short series of video blogs about our village. I've done two so far (here and here) and have enough material in hand for several more. It's a work in progress, and I suspect I will come back to them and make Director's Cuts to make them look better. I find it quite difficult to go for pointless unguided walks, but a ramble that ties into a longer-term creative project makes a lot more sense. The videos don't seem to have the same popularity on social media as my more factual posts, but I must say that I am enjoying the creative process for its own sake.

The other source of great joy has been the two Doctor Who worldwide rewatches, of "The Day of the Doctor" last Saturday and "Rose" last night, organised by Emily Cook of Doctor Who Magazine and including in both cases the writers of the episodes, with thousands of people sharing fannish glee on Twitter. These have been wonderful experiences of shared international escapism. We're doing "Vincent and the Doctor" next, on Monday nght.

On the issue of the day: as far as I know, nobody in my family has (yet) been afflicted. Two friends in Belgium, and a colleague in London, have actually had COVID-19 and made full recoveries. The two in Belgium were not even tested, so they are not in the official statistics, but both are pretty clear that it's what they and their partners have had. The Belgian government is muttering about maybe reaching the peak at the start of April, which seems very optimistic indeed, though if you squint at the numbers you can just about see why they might think that is possible. A few other countries seem to be reaching the same point. We can but hope.

On the other hand, I'm desperately sorry to hear that the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari, has been diagnosed with it; and we are going to see a significant toll of elderly victims (indeed, some not so elderly; the UK deputy ambassador to Hungary, a friend of several friends, was only 37). It's just appalling to watch the situation in the USA spiralling out of control; the narcissism of the current president is quite simply going to kill a lot of Americans, and in the end a weaker America is not good for the rest of us. Hopefully American voters will be realistic and vote for someone else in November, but I am not getting my hopes up. On top of that, the consequences in developing countries, where there are few tests, few ventilators and not much soap to wash your hands with, look to be truly catastrophic. The world at the end of 2020 will be very a different place. I do hope to see you there.

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Thursday reading

Excession, by Iain M. Banks
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
The Winged Man, by E. Mayne Hull

Last books finished
Ragged Alice, by Gareth A. Powell
The Survival of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson
Red Notice, by Bill Browder
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

Next books
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

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My tweets

  • Wed, 23:24: RT @goodclimate: La Gare de la rue de la Loi, built to impress visitors to the Cinquantenaire celebrations in 1880, was replaced by a petro…
  • Thu, 10:45: Time for Johnson to get serious about crisis management skills. My twenty check points for his briefing team…

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Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, by James Hadley Chase

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Myra Shumway had not been telling the truth when she described herself to Doc Ansell as a newspaper correspondent For the past five years she had been a "dip." If you don't know what that means, just stand on any street corner and flash a fat bank-roll. Before long some dame will take it off you and you'll know nothing about it until hours later. That dame was a dip.

This entertaining book is by a well-known writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, turning his hand for once to the paranormal. Miss Shumway has run away to Mexico; as well as being a stage magician she has developed real magical powers, and also turns out to have double trouble:

    Myra was becoming blurred. Her figure was smudgy, like a blurred photograph and even her features seemed to be dissolving.
      “What’s happening to you?” I exclaimed, feeling my heart pounding.
      She didn’t say anything, but just stood swaying before me. I could see something filmy in front of her. Something that moved. Then a shadowy figure stepped from her.
      You’ve seen those trick films where people become transparent? Well, that’s exactly how this figure looked. It sent my blood pressure up and gave me the scare of my life.
      As I watched, the figure became more distinct and then there she was—Myra the second, the spitting image of Myra except she was dressed only in white satin panties and brassiere.
      I knew it must be Arym. But, even seeing the two together, it didn’t make it possible.
      Myra backed away. She was as startled as I. Then she clutched at her frock and gasped.
      “You—you’ve got on my underwear!” she said.
      Arym admired her figure. “Well, I had to have something,” she returned airily. “After all we aren’t alone.” She looked at me archly. “Aren’t you staring a little too much?” she asked.

There's also a glorious sequence where a bad guy is transformed into a sausage and eaten by a dog which then acquires the powers of speech. It's not Great Literature but it's quite good fun. Two films were based on it – the French/Argentinian 1963 film Une blonde comme ça/Mi novia es otra and the 1995 Rough Magic with Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe. I will look out for them. You can get the book here (though the whole text seems to be online here)

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September 2005 books

I both started and ended the month in Macedonia, visiting Slovenia and Serbia (including the Vojvodina) in between (I may also have taken in Kosovo at the start of the month – my notes are not clear). Most interesting for me was to be asked to speak at a meeting of the EU's COWEB working group (the diplomats working on the Western Balkans) alongside Carl Bildt and Goran Svilanović. I also had a new intern at work, A from Armenia, who was quite a character. We published three pretty important reports at work – on the EU police mission in Bosnia, the situation in Mitrovica in Kosovo, and the first of two reports on Nagorno-Karabakh.

But the biggest long-term development for me of the month was discovering LibraryThing, which has been a tremendous incentive for my OCD approach to reading books over the subsequent fifteen years and has helped me very much in writing this series of posts.

Books I read in September 2005:

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 34)
Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures), by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlethwait, and Andrew Thomson
The Alphabet, by David Sacks
Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, by Apostolos Doxiadis
The Banovina, by Donka Stančić and Miško Lazović
The Truth About The Armed Conflict In Slovenia by Col. Nikola Popović, Col. Ivan Matović, and Lt-Col. Stanoje Jovanović

SF 7 (YTD 58)
The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
Sandman: The Dream Hunters, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano
Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny
The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien
The Family Trade, by Charles Stross
The Man Who Fell To Earth, by Walter Tevis
Emerald Eye: The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction, ed. Frank Ludlow & Roelof Goudriaan

3,100 pages (YTD 34,000)
1/12 (YTD 24/106) by women
1 by PoC

Of these books The Third Policeman is one of my favourite books of all time; you can get it here. Of the books that were new to me, Emergency Sex has the best title and also is a gripping portrayal of life on the front lines of conflict and humanitarian aid. You can get it here. The Da Vinci Code is truly terrible. If you want, you can get it here.

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The Macra Terror, animation, recon and novel; and Gridlock

I got the new animated reconstruction of The Macra Terror (the last complete Doctor Who story shown before I was born, all of whose episodes have been lost) a few weeks ago, and finally got around to watching it last weekend – our last weekend before the lockdown, as it turned out. I prepared for it the weekend before by listening to the audio version, with Colin Baker's narration as scripted by John Nathan Turner, which I put on in the car as I drove to and from visiting B in her home – which looks like it will be the last time I see her for a while. When I first listened to the audio in 2007, I wrote:

The Macra Terror … sounds absolutely glorious (even if fan lore has it that the evil crustaceans themselves looked rather crap), indeed I almost felt it would have fitted comfortably in to 1980s Who rather than 1960s Who. While the idea of aliens controlling an apparently happy and contented human society did eventually become a cliche, here it was all brand new – I think the only previous Who story to feature the concept was the second episode of The Keys of Marinus (though I haven't checked, and if I'm wrong someone will point it out). The "happy campers" sound exhorting the colonists to enjoyment as well as slave labour is genuinely chilling; I'm not surprised to learn that writer Ian Stuart Black had input into The Prisoner, which started its broadcast run a few months later. And … I'll put a good word in for Michael Craze as Ben, victim of brainwashing by the evil crustacean overlords, whose character transformations are entirely convincing.

Unfortunately I can't say the same for Colin Baker's narration. I don't blame Baker (much) for this. For some reason the narration is entirely in the past tense, rather than in the present tense used by most Doctor Who audio releases; it also curiously fails to set the scene very well – take, for example, the very first lines: "The entrance to the colony was decidedly futuristic. A crowd of workers was watching a drum majorette performing to the accompaniment of a band. The whole place had the aura of a holiday camp. Everyone was smiling and enjoying the performance." Not only does it not really convey anything very coherent, it also completely misses the real start of the story as seen by the 1967 viewers, of a man looking on in terror. I think this story would benefit well from re-dubbing with a new narrative script (and possibly a new narrator).

I later observed:

Colin Baker's narration of The Macra Terror is terrible not because Colin Baker is reading it but because John Nathan Turner wrote it

Listening to it again, after another thirteen years' experience of listening to audios, it sounds even less impressive as a narration, and the kindest thing that can be said is that it was one of the BBC's earliest efforts.

After watching the recon by Loose Cannon, which uses black and white stills from the original TV showing of the story, I wrote this:

I have seriously upgraded my opinion of The Macra Terror as a result of watching the recon, one of the rare cases where the BBC audio book version is rather poor (due to John Nathan-Turner writing the linking narrative). The holiday camp atmosphere is delightfully bonkers, especially when it turns out that all the colonists are in fact the unwitting slaves of, as the Pilot puts is, "grotesque insects" who thrive on pollution and corrupt the minds of their victims. The soundscape – incidental music and various sound effects – is remarkably good even by the generally high standards of this period of the programme's history, which is just as well considering the visuals are lost. Even Michael Craze actually gets something interesting to do when Ben gets brainwashed (which interestingly means his accent slips into standard RP). The scenes of the Doctor and Polly working out what to do with the pipes in the last episode are an early version of numerous Third Doctor / Jo Grant exchanges to come. And while I feel sorry for the Australian viewers who missed out on the many shots of Polly screaming deleted by the censors, fortunately the result is that we can now watch Anneke Wills at full lung power. (Though I have a suspicion that the loss of the Macra in their first incarnation may not be such a shame.)

It's also Jamie's first proper story as a companion (though this comes about because of the narrative space opened up by Ben's being brainwashed). The Macra Terror has leapt up in my estimation; it is my favourite Second Doctor story so far. Only five episodes survive from Troughton's first season; I would swap any of them for one of these four. (And think how rapidly the programme has changed – The Savages, by the same writer as The Macra Terror, was broadcast barely a year before, with Hartnell's Doctor, Steven and Dodo; now we have Troughton's Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie. A huge shift.)

Well. The new two-DVD production of The Macra Terror has a new animation in colour on the first disc, and the same thing again in black and white on the second, plus also the Loose Cannon recon, with or without Anneke Wills narrating, split across the two discs, and even also the Colin Baker/John Nathan Turner audio version on the second disc. And a few extras but they are not terribly exciting. It's an impressive artistic effort. Here is the trailer:

I have to say that watching the new animation on my TV, cross-referencing with the Loose Cannon reconstruction on the iPad, I felt that in general the Loose Cannon reconstruction still wins. There's a much more in-depth analysis here, but in general the scenes with the human characters are just a bit trickier in the animated version – the motion is too jerky to be naturalistic, and the group scenes less dynamic – I begin to appreciate how important it is for TV drama in general, and early Who in particular, to capture everyone within the view of a single camera, which means the actors and their charactes gain energy from each others' proximity. The biggest exception, oddly enough, is the Macra themselves, originally wrotten as insects but realised as crabs on the screen, which are much more dynamic and credible in the animated version than they were in the original show, as far as we can tell. Poor Polly is actually dangled upside-down in the Macra's claws in Episode 2.

Still, it's very nice to have all of the versions of the story – the Baker/Nathan Turner audio, the Loose Cannon recon and the new animation – all collected on a single DVD release. That's all of the versions focussed on audio, of course – a photonovel version is still available on the BBC website.

I went back to Ian Stuart Black's novelisation of his own story as well, to refresh my memory. I had read it before, and wrote then:

I enjoyed this more than I had expected to, chiefly because of [Ian Stuart] Black's characterisation of the Doctor, which seems to me to capture Troughton's performance better than any of the novels I have read so far. We do, of course, miss out on the superb soundscape of the original (alas, the video is no longer available), and poor Polly ends up screaming a lot. But it's a worthy attempt.

The second paragraph of Chpater 3 is:

‘They’ve got him!’ the shout went up.

Rereading it this time, I felt that it possibly gets us closer to the spirit of the original production than any of the efforts at reconstruction have managed, working from a twenty-year-old script and Black's own intuition of what he had wanted to convey. There is a key scene in the first episode, fundamental to our understanding of the colony planet and its society, which I think comes across much better on the page than on any of the versions we have – I link it here with the TV script:

Script Novelisation
(An alarm sounds. Two workers stagger in through a glass door from the pit-head. The colonists rush forward to help.)
OLA: Emergency! Quick, give me that! Come on!
(He helps the injured men.)
ALVIS: (Into intercom.) Accident! Stand by, oxygen supply. (To OLA.) Take them away. Any other losses?
OLA: Two with gas sickness. Come on.
(He leads the injured men away.)
BEN: What happened?
ALVIS: Their work. It can't be helped. The work must be done.
[Ola] broke off as a metal panel on one of the walls slid back.
Beyond was another world, and out of it staggered two young men, one of them holding the other upright. They were both covered with black stains, dirt, dust, and were giddy with exhaustion.
There was no panic in the Centre. It was as though a well-rehearsed process clicked into gear.
‘Stand by for oxygen,’ Alvis broadcast over the sound system. A team of young men and women were helping the two, adjusting breathing masks over their heads as they led them away. It was done with speed and proficiency.
‘Any other losses?’ asked Alvis.
Ola pressed a button on the instrument before them and read off the signal. ‘Two more with gas sickness,’ he said.
‘What happened?’ asked Ben, suddenly sobered. This was another side to the bright picture around them.
Alvis shrugged. ‘It is their work. It can’t be helped. An accident from time to time… But, as you have heard, it is essential. The work must go on.’

Oddly enough the BBC photonovel version does make a decent attempt to get this scene with flashing alarm light which you can't see in this picture), whereas the others more or less muff it.

Anyway, I think this is still more for enthusiasts and completists than for a general audience, but it's all nice to have. You can get the DVD here and the novelisation here.

I then went to rewatch Gridlock, the New Who episode that brought the Macra back. On first showing I wrote this:

I have to say that of all old-school Doctor Who monsters to return, I really didn't expect the Macra!

I loved this. The traffic jam was neatly claustrophobic, the use of hymn tunes tremendously evocative, and the Doctor having to tell the truth about why he lied to Martha.

Sure, not a lot was made of the Macra other than some impressive CGI imagery, but I suspect they did better this time round than last time.

Rewatching a few years later, I wrote:

The Ceann Comhairle is the Speaker of the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is the highest official of the established religion north of the Tweed. In Gridlock the son of the then Ceann Comhairle plays a giant cat and the star of the show is the son of a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

This is an episode where the core narrative is perfectly decent if a little implausible, and a fannish box is unexpectedly ticked by bringing back the Macra (now much larger than in 1967), but the most important bits are actually the development of the story arc for the season and for the Doctor's mythos. The Face of Boe's peculiar statement is obviously a set-up for future stories; but the brilliant bit is the Doctor finally telling Martha about Gallifrey, a conversation he never had with Rose as far as we know. New Who is gradually getting more comfortable about looking back. In the first season, continuity was basically Daleks, Autons and the Tardis; the second season brought back Sarah Jane Smith, Cybermen, and referred at least to UNIT; and now the Doctor is not just a lonely hero coming out of nowhere, but someone with a rich personal history only gradually being unveiled.

As I said last week, it was striking that here, as in this year's series, it is the Face of Boe/Jack Harkness who reveals new and important facts about the Doctor's relationship with the Time Lords. It was very interesting to be immersed again in the Tenth Doctor era, but also to feel the consistency with the latest developments. The Macra are a bit irrelevant. It's a great episode for the wonderful Freema Agyeman as Martha.

I had forgotten that the big revelation is that almost all of the population had been wiped out by a mutated virus. Perhaps I could have done without that right now.

You can get the new DVD here, the novelisation here, and Gridlock as part of this DVD set.

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Small Island, by Andrea Levy

Second pargraph of third chapter:

When you are the child of someone such as he, there are things that are expected that may not be expected of someone of a more lowly persuasion. And so it was with I.

I liked this without being overwhelmed by it. It's a novel of the Windrush period, with flashbacks to the very recent war. Levy gives very believable voices to all of her characters, including the nasty ones (which is a rare skill.) Hortense, one of the two protagonists, has a particular wake-up call, realising that her native Jamaica is seen as a small island by the British, and also coming to realise that England itself is a much smaller place than she had dreamed of. The specific instances of racism experienced by her and her husband are vividly depicted – interesting also that the attitudes of the US forces during the war are portrayed as being much worse. Queenie, her landlady, also navigates the paths of relationships and race in a time when everything is changing. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019, my top unread book by a woman, my top unread book by a writer of colour and my top unread non-genre fiction book. Next on those piles respectively are The First Men In The Moon, by H.G. Wells; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; Long Song, by Andrea Levy again; and Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens.

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August 2005 books

The major event of August 2005 was my first Worldcon, Interaction in Glasgow. I had a whale of a time, met many people who I had previously known only online, shared a room with Alaskan writer David Marusek, spoke on several panels, attended many more. The two best pictures of me were taken at a panel with Harry Turtledove, by Elizabeth Patrick, and just hanging around, by Anna Feruglio Dal Dan.

For our summer in Northern Ireland, the kids were able to use a trampoline:

At the end of the month, back at work, I went to an exceptionally fun conference in Macedonia, afterwards meeting with the famous Baba Tahir Emini of the Bektashi sect (who sadly died a few months later).

Books I read in August 2005:

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 29)
Getting Things Done: How To Achieve Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen
A Very British Genre, by Paul Kincaid
The Last Journey of William Huskisson, by Simon Garfield
Peace Without Politics? Ten Years of International State-Bulding in Bosnia, International Peacekeeping vol 12, no 3, Autumn 2005; ed. David Chandler
Knowledge, Power and International Policy Coordination, ed. Peter M. Haas
The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught Between East and West, by Tom Reiss

Non-genre 1 (YTD 7)
The Black Tor, by George Manville Fenn

sf 9 (YTD 51)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
The Prize in the Game, by Jo Walton
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg
Imperial Earth, by Arthur C. Clarke
City, by Clifford D. Simak
Cultural Breaks, by Brian Aldiss
A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn
King of Morning, Queen of Day, by Ian McDonald

comics 1 (YTD 6)
Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, by Daniel Clowes

4,900 pages (YTD 30,900)
2/17 (YTD 23/94) by women
None by PoC

The two books from this month that have lingered with me are Ian McDonald's King of Morning, Queen of Day, which you can get here, and the seminal international relations book which I still swear by, Knowledge, Power and International Policy Coordination, which you can get here. I was disappointed by Daniel Clowes' Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, but you can get it here if you want.

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Thursday reading

Red Notice, by Bill Browder
Ragged Alice, by Gareth A. Powell

Last books finished
1493, by Charles C. Mann
Fleet of Knives, by Gareth A. Powell
Babayaga, by Toby Barlow
Atlas Alone, by Emma Newman
Strategic Europe, ed. Jan Techau

Next books
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka

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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of Scandinavia’s Utopia, by Michael Booth

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Danes do seem to have an uncommon facility to get on with each other regardless of age, class or outlook. Egality comes easily to them. One of my most cherished memories of this inclusiveness is of a friend's fortieth birthday party where his octogenarian grandmother was seated next to the country's most notorious rapper. and the two spent a jolly evening chatting together.

A Finnish friend was kind enough to give me this book as a Christmas present. I'm not very surprised – of the five countries and people Booth surveys, he gives the Finns much the best write-up (which is fine with me as I am more familiar with Finland than the others). He starts with a relatively long piece on the Danes (because he married one and lives there) and ends with a relatively long piece on the Swedes (because they are the biggest of the Nordic countries), and in between goes through Iceland, Norway and Finland in that order, combining interviews with experts and his own observations and, frankly, prejudices. Booth is mainly a food writer, and he is funniest about food, particularly Icelandic food:

I shall fight for as long as I remain conscious to avoid ingesting håkarl again. Apparently, the shark meat caught in these parts is toxic if eaten fresh but, rather than giving up on the whole eating shark business altogether, they eventually hit upon the idea of burying it in the ground for between eighteen months and four years until it has decayed to the point where it becomes, in the very loosest sense of the word, edible. This is håkarl.

I tried some at a bar in central Reykjavik. Clearly used to tourists 'just wanting a taste', a waitress brought me two small, sugar-cube sized chunks of unappetising-looking greyish meat in a sealed jar, 'Don't worry, it doesn't taste as bad as it smells,' she said, smiling. 'If you can get past the smell then that's the worst of it.'

She was lying. True, the smell from quite some distance away as she opened the jar was indeed abominable: redolent of a multistorey carpark staircase on a hot summer's day, with accents of urine and vomit. But that wasn't the worst of it. The burning, fishy-cheese flavour was much, much worse. I concluded that håkarl's name was onomatopoeic. It was the noise one made upon upon eating it.

It's an interesting survey from someone who has taken the effort both to understand why the Nordic countries have such good reputations as placed to be alive, and also their flaws one by one. I think he is a bit harsh on Sweden, which is not really as close to a totalitarian society as he seems to argue, and maybe also on Iceland, which surely has some redeeming virtues; but in general its an entertaining survey, which reflects what the Nordic countries think of themselves and each other almost as much as his own prejudices. I think that fans of any of the Nordic countries will find stuff to recognise here, and those who don't know a lot about the Nordics may be inspired to find out more. You can get it here.

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The first (known) Indian to settle in Ireland was forced out of his home by rebels

The wars of the 1640s, which are taught in England as the Engish Civil War, began in Ireland in 1641, when a co-ordinated rebellion by Catholic aristocrats and peasants established control over a large part of the island. Many of the Protestants from England and elsewhere who had settled in Ireland over the previous decades were forced from their homes and property, often by their own neighbours. Trinity College Dublin hosts an archive of first-person accounts from about 8000 of them, an incredible set of first-person accounts from a seventeenth-century conflict. One of them is particularly interesting, the story told by one John Fortune, who lost his proiperty at Ballinakill (just inside County Offaly on the border with Kilkenny. Here is his account:

John Fortune, for 20 years a servant to Captain Richard Steele, and by birth an Indian Pethagorian, but now a Christian and Late an Inhabitant of Ballinakill in the Queens County, sworn and examined deposeth:

That since the begining of the present Rebellion, viz. about 2 months since, he, when the town and Castle [of Ballinakill surrendered, he] was deprived, robbed, dispoiled of, or otherwise lost his cattle, sheep, cloth, household goods & other goodes & chattels of the value of thirtie Pounds, by the means of besiegers & assailants of the said town & Castle which are all Rebels, viz. General Preston, the Earl of Castlehaven, the Lord Mountgarret, & their followers and divers other Rebellious soldiers whose names he cannot express.

Signed [mark] by the aforesaid John Fortune
21 June 1643

Some researchers have assumed that he was an American Indian, taking Pethagorian to mean Patagonian. This is wrong. His account is pretty clear that he had for twenty years been a servant to Captain Richard Steele, who was one of the early representatives of the British East India Company, and indeed left a description of his journey from the Moghul Emperor's court to Baghdad in 1615-16. Although he does not name any of his servants, it is notable that he still uses "we" after he parts company with the other Englishman in his party, so he was not travelling alone. (His wife Frances came with him on later journeys.)

I reckon that John Fortune was recruited by Steele at some point in the journey. Most likely he was a Pathan (not so far phonetically from 'Pethagorian', though perhaps that's meant to be "Pythagorean"/"Zoroastrian" given that it's cited in a religious context), probably recruited in Lahore where Steele appears to have hired extra staff during his trip (though the text is not clear), and sticking with him through war in Germany and rebellion in Ireland. That fits the dates rather well; if he had worked for Steele from 1616 to 1636 or so, and had followed him to Ireland, he then had seven years to build up £30 in capital before it was wiped out by the rebellion. I'm sorry to say that there seems to be no other documentary evidence about John Fortune or his fate.

So there you have it; the links between India and Ireland go back quite a long way, and don't always point in the direction you expect.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!

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July 2005 books

The grim news of July 2005 was the 7/7 bombings in London, in which 56 people died, including the bombers themselves (and a friend of a friend). It's weird to think that this was actually the first Islamist terror attack in the UK.

I had one extended trip in the middle of the month, combining a work visit to Georgia and South Ossetia and my cousin's wedding in England. This was still three years before the war of 2008, and it was awkward but not impossible to visit South Ossetia. Mr Dzhioev, the Foreign Minister, received me hospitably enough.

However, when I asked him what else I should see in Tskhinvali, given that it was probably the only visit I will ever make to the city, he gave me a funny look and said (though my translator), "Well, you didn't come here for our scenery or our climate, did you, you came for the political situation!" Which was perfectly true, but if I were foreign minister I would have had a better reply. I put the same question to my two minders. They looked at each other. One said, "We could show him the theatre." The other said, "It did burn down last year." But if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, and here is my picture of the burned out (but repainted) theatre of Tskhinvali.

My cousin's wedding after that was a lot of fun. (Not quite sure what had been said or done to her just before this picture was taken.)

It as a lovely hot day and I got a nice picture of myself, my mother and my brother and sister with their respective other halves (Anne had had to stay in Belgium).

We also managed to have an actual party at our own house at the end of the month; I have not located any photographs from it yet. Young F celebrated his sixth birthday, but I don't seem to have pictures of that either.

July 2005 books

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 23)
The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert
The Rules of Management, by Richard Templar

Non-genre 4 (YTD 6)
The Great Fortune, by Olivia Manning
The Spoilt City, by Olivia Manning
Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiassen

Poetry 1
The Knight in the Tiger Skin / ვეფხისტყაოსანი, by Shot'ha Rust'hveli / შოთა რუსთაველი

SF 6 (YTD 42)
The Sword of the Lictor, by Gene Wolfe
The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe

The Hallowed Hunt, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Keepers of the Peace, by Keith Brooke
The Light Ages, by Ian R. MacLeod
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, by Diana Wynne Jones

Comics 1 (YTD 5)
Ice Haven, by Daniel Clowes

3,300 pages (YTD 26,000)
5/14 (YTD 21/77) by women (3x Manning, Bujold, Wynne Jones)
none by PoC

Top books: The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, by Diana Wynne Jones, which you can get here, and Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen, which you can get here. Least impressed by The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert, which you can get here.

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