May books

Only 18 books this month, as the absence of my usual commute hits my reading habits…

Non-fiction: 5 (YTD 26)
The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe, by Thomas Levenson
Joanna Russ, by Gwyneth Jones
A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by P. E. Winter
Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell
A border too far: the Ilemi triangle yesterday and today, by Philip Winter

Fiction (non-sf): 2 (YTD 12)
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo
The Accident, by Ismail Kadarë

sf (non-Who): 9 (YTD 65)
Riverland, by Fran Wilde
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime 1: Breaking Strain, by Paul Preuss
Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht
Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

Comics: 2 (YTD 15)
Peanuts: A Tribute to Charles M. Schulz, ed. Shannon Watters
The Wicked + The Divine vol 1: The Faust Act, by Kieron Gillen etc

5,000 pages (YTD 33,500)
6/18 (YTD 43/124) by non-male writers (Jones, Wilde, McGuire, Dorsey, Olbreht, Walters)
0/18 (YTD 13/124) by PoC
3/18 rereads (YTD 16/124) – The Godfather, The Forever War, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Currently reading
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
Local Hero, by David Benedictus
The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England, by John Cooper

Current
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
Local Hero, by David Benedictus
The Queen's Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry

Coming soon (perhaps)
Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, by Rana Mitter
Yugoslavia's Implosion: The Fatal Attraction of Serbian Nationalism, by Sonja Biserko
The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies
Heaven's War by David S Goyer
Laatste schooldag, by J. G Siebelink
Dreaming In Smoke, by Tricia Sullivan
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov
De dag waarop de bus zonder haar vertrok, by Beka
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Tooth & Claw, by Jo Walton
Gaze of the Medusa, by Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby and Brian Williamson
“The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov
Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo
Jerusalem, by Alan Moore
East West Street, by Philippe Sands
Beren and Luthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Darwin's Island: The Galapagos in the Garden of England, by Steve Jones
Exiled to Nowhere: Burma's Rohingya, by Greg Constantine

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The Sting

The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1973, and picked up another six – Best Director (George Roy Hill), Best Writing, Original Screenplay (David S. Ward), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation. Robert Redford lost Best Actor to Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger (which I admit I haven’t heard of), and The Sting was also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, losing to The Exorcist and Cries and Whispers respectively. Worth noting that Julia Phillips was the first woman to collect the Oscar for Best Picture (in the 46th Oscar ceremony).

The other nominees for Best Picture were American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist and A Touch of Class. I have not seen any of them. IMDB users rank The Sting 2nd or 8th of the films of 19732, depending on the system. The Exorcist is above it on both rankings. The other 1972 films I have seen are an odd assortment: Nebula winner Soylent Green, Live and Let Die, The Day of the Jackal, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Three Musketeers (the version where Spike Milligan is married to Raquel Welch), Charlotte’s Web (the original animated version – accept no substitutes) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (the one with Tom Baker before he was Doctor Who). I haven’t yet seen Sleeper, which won both Hugo and Nebula. I think The Sting is the best of those that I have seen. Here’s a trailer.

Criminality continues at the Oscars, as this is the seventh Best Picture winner in eight years to be centred around law-breaking (stretching a point for A Man for All Seasons). Robert Redford (as Johnny Hooker) and Paul Newman (as Henry Gondorff) are hustlers in 1936 Chicago who set out to defraud a major crime boss from New York. I like it a lot, and I’m ranking it just behind last year’s The Godfather and ahead of Ben-Hur, in the top third (but just outside the top quarter) of my league table. In particular I should note that I rather bounced off last year’s Hugo winner, Slaughterhouse Five, which was had the same director, George Roy Hill, but I really like The Sting. (I had seen both previous to my current award-winner project.)

A couple of returning faces to note from previous Oscar-winning films. Robert Shaw is Doyle Lonnegan, the New York crime boss who is the mark of the eponymous sting. Seven years ago, he was Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons.

Ray Walston is J.J. Singleton, one of the key oeprators of the sting here; twelve years ago he was one of Jack Lemmon’s clients in The Apartment.

A less prominent character, Larry D. Mann is the train conductor here and was the racist councillor Watkins in In the Heat of the Night.

I did not spot any crossovers with Hugo-winning films, or with Doctor Who.

As noted above, I enjoyed this. It looks very good, and I’m certainly not familiar enough with either Illinois or California to spot which locations from the latter are pretending to be the former. The feeling of small spaces – on the train, in the bars or apartments, and finally in the fake betting shop – is very well conveyed.

Going through my usual list, it’s actually not bad on representation of women and people of colour. Even though fundamentally it’s a story about the three white men played by Newman, Redford and Shaw, it’s notable that the Chicago scenes show a more diverse team behind the sting, with Eileen Brennan’s Billie in a key (if supporting) roles; and there is the subplot of Dimitra Arliss’s Loretta, which ends with a very unexpected twist.

Two key plot developments are driven by Hooker’s loyalty to his partner Luther Coleman (as played by Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones). The sting itself is vengeance for Coleman’s death, and Hooker’s collaboration with the FBI is driven by their threats against Coleman’s widow. The fact that a white guy might be instinctively loyal to a black friend and his family is depicted as in no way problematic (perhaps beyond realism). I note also that the early visit to the Colemans’ home is the only portrayal of normal family life in the film; the white people are too busy engaging in crime (and that includes the white women). Unfortunately we don’t see much of the Colemans after Luther is killed, 23 minutes into a 129-minute film. We do hear a lot of ragtime music.

The narrative is carried by Newman and Redford, who are great individually and an even better double act. Both of them have to take on different identities during the film, as their main characters pretend to be other people. Redford is particularly watchable as the more action-oriented of the two.

On first time of watching, I was genuinely shocked by the ending, which I had not seen coming at all; it’s one of the greatest twists I can think of in movie history. The second time round, even knowing what was to come, I was on the edge of my seat. The story is actually a bit far-fetched – it requires Hooker and Gondorff and their team to execute a complex plan with split-second timing – but the film is clear that this may not actually work and that the stakes are very high.

But the best remembered features of the film are the music and the title cards that introduce each narrative section. Every child of my age who attempted to learn the piano either foundered on the rocks of The Entertainer (as I did) or used it as a fundamental stepping stone to greater things.

The use of ragtime in the film is iconic and also anachronistic. The Entertainer was written in 1902; The Sting is set in 1936; but thanks to the film it’s impossible for me to dissociate ragtime from the 1930s. (Incidentally, more time has passed since The Sting was made – 48 years – than had elapsed between the setting and the making of the film – 36 years.) Here’s the full soundtrack – well worth a listen in the background fo whatever you are doing next after you read this.

Well, that was fun. Next Oscar-winning film is The Godfather II, which I saw once before, long ago; before then I’ll write up Soylent Green and Sleeper. You can get The Sting 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)

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August 2006 books

We started August 2006 in Northern Ireland as usual (heaven knows if it will be possible this year), and I attended MeCon 9 in Belfast where the guests included Ian McDonald, Hal Duncan, Ken MacLeod, Leah Moore, and John Reppion. I thought I had pictures from it, but in fact they seem to be from the following year, and I'm not in anyone else's that I can find. I remember having a lot of fun.

We also had a family excursion to the Legananny Dolmen and the Finnis Souterrain:

A mid-holiday work trip to London was unexpectedly extended by a day when I arrived at Heathrow to get a morning flight back to Belfast, and found myself in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 airport plot. I got the train to Liverpool and the overnight ferry, arriving not quite 24 hours after originally planned.

We published a report on Moldova mid-month (must have been just before I got back, in fact), and I ended the month in Budapest speaking at a conference in the rather splendid parliament building there.

I profited from the holiday to read a lot.

Non-fiction 9 (YTD 43)
Lost Railways of Co. Down and Co. Armagh, by Stephen Johnson
Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, by James Chapman
Doctor Who, by Kim Newman

Salonica: City of Ghosts – Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, by Mark Mazower
The Independent Irish Party 1850-9, by J.H. Whyte
Sixteenth Century Ireland, by Colm Lennon
H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, by Michel Houellebecq
A Rulebook for Arguments, by Anthony Weston
Critical Reasoning: An Introduction, by Anne Thomson

Non-genre 4 (YTD 16)
Tropic of Capricorn, by Henry Miller
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope
The Warden's Niece, by Gillian Avery
The Brightfount Diaries, by Brian Aldiss

SF 7 (YTD 49)
The Healer's War, by Elizabeth Anne Scarborough
The Wreck of The River of Stars, by Michael Flynn
Stations of the Tide, by Michael Swanwick
October the First is Too Late, by Fred Hoyle
Southern Fire, by Juliet McKenna
Year's Best SF 11, ed. David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer
Winter Moon, by Mercedes Lackey, Tanith Lee and C.E. Murphy

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 10)
Short Trips: Companions, ed. Jacqueline Rayner
Short Trips: A Universe of Terrors, ed. John Binns

The Empire of Glass, by Andy Lane

Comics 2 (YTD 4)
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes
Preacher: Gone to Texas, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon

6,400 pages (YTD 36,200)
6/25 by women (YTD 20/122)
None by PoC (YTD 5/122)

Best of these, and the one which still sticks with me, is The Wreck of The River of Stars, by Michael Flynn; you can get it here. I also gave The Healer's War, by Elizabeth Anne Scarborough, an enthusiastic write-up, but can't remember as much about it. You can get it here. I found Tropic of Capricorn, by Henry Miller, thoroughly unpleasant, but you can get it here.

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Thursday reading

Current
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

Last books finished
A border too far: the Ilemi triangle yesterday and today, by Philip Winter
Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut
The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross

Next books
The Queen's Spymaster, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry

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Arthur C. Clarke’s Venus Prime 1: Breaking the Strain, by Paul Preuss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

She’d garnered valuable information from the Snark before–in that split second when it had paused, hovering motionless inches above the ground, computing new coordinates–she’d jumped clear and sent it on its unprotected way. Precisely where she was. Precisely what day, month, and year it was. That last had come as a shock. Memories had been swarming more thickly with every passing minute, but now she knew that even the most recent of them was more than a year old. And in the hours since she’d jumped, while she’d been trudging through the snow, she’d contemplated the burgeoning strangeness of her sense of herself.

This was part of a Humble Bundle that I got in 2016 because of various Zelazny-related items. It’s an expansion of “Breaking Strain“, a 1949 story by Arthur C. Clarke, and the first in a series of six volumes by Preuss featuring the mysterious Sparta, whose memories of her own origin are unclear and unreliable, and gets mixed up with a very weird plot involving the transport of a first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom to the planet Venus. It started a bit clunky but developed well enough and kept my attention to the end; not Great Literature but a step or two ahead of the pulp stories which it is rooted in. You can get it here. I’m not inspired to get the rest of the series though.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that list is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

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The Accident, by Ismail Kadarë

Second paragraph of third chapter:

There was no way of knowing why the state of Serbia and Montenegro should take an interest in the accident, but it soon became clear that this country had kept the two victims under surveillance for a long time.

I have generally enjoyed Kadarë's work, but I'm afraid this left me rather unexcited and confused. The story is about an Albanian couple who dies in a freak car accident; we explore what they know about each other, and the woman's other loves; perhaps it's all a metaphor for the international flirtations of post-Communist Albania, but if so it's a bit clumsy and also not all that apt (post-Communist Albania has been pretty firm in its affections). If you want to try it anyway, you can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014 (I could not find Sleepers of Mars, by John Wyndham, and anyway it turns out that The Accident has overtaken it). Next on that list is Sleepers of Mars, if I can find it, or Listen to the Moon by Michael Morpurgo, if I can't.

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Seventy days of lockdown, and Dominic Cummings

Ten weeks ago today, the Brussels St Patrick's Day reception was due to take place in the BOZAR. It's always a grand occasion, and this time was going to be particularly special; the evening was not only a celebration of Ireland's national day, but also a farewell to the Irish ambassador to the EU, Declan Kelleher, who played a key if under-reported role in ensuring that Dublin and Brussels remained tightly connected during the Brexit negotiations. Of course, there was no reception.

We've been thinking about the last bits of normality before it all hit. My last international travel was a visit to London at the end of February, finishing with a birthday party in Cambridge on the 29th and coming home on 1st March. This is surely the first time that I have spent thirteen consecutive weeks in Belgium since we moved here in 1999. (I don't think it will be another thirteen – but it may be another four or five.) The last reception I attended was the opening of an exhibition about the Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter on Wednesday 4 March. (It's open again, if you want to go – rather good, I thought.) My last networking lunch was with a former Swiss ambassador on Friday 13 March. (An inauspicious date!) On 17 March, the last full day in the office, eight of our usual complement of forty-something were in, and we ordered a socially distant lunch. (I note that the seven colleagues in the picture below are from seven different countries, and none shares a nationality with me.)

The numbers are subsiding slowly. I noted ten days ago that the number of patients in hospitals and in intensive care were about halfway between those for 22 and 23 March. Today's numbers are just below those for 21 March. So we are heading in the right direction, but slowly – it seems to take five or six days to make up for each day of the initial surge (and of course we're now at the equivalent of the point where that surge was going really fast). Cafes and restaurants will be able to open next week, but it's not clear that it will be worth their while. Hairdressers opened last week, and I took advantage:

The issue of the day is, of course, Dominic Cummings. I will be clear – I despise the man and everything he stands for. This is the person who sabotaged Britain's participation in the largest peace project in history, and thought nothing of colluding in wicked lies in the process (the claim that the UK paid the EU £350 million a week, and the further claim that this money would go to the National Health Service if the country voted for Brexit). I wish him nothing but failure in his political career and ambitions.

It is however impossible to read his full statement and not feel some sympathy for someone in a high-pressure job facing a family crisis. Even so, it's not good enough. Most of Western Europe had to deal with lockdown, and most of us did so by respecting what we thought were the rules. We just received a note from the home where our daughters live to say that normal visiting will remain impossible until further notice. (That’s been the case since 13 March). Our experience is sad but not as awful as many others have gone through.

British senior scientific advisers Neil Ferguson and Catherine Calderwood were forced to resign for what on the face of it were rather less egregious violations of the UK's "Stay home" mantra than Cummings’ driving 425 km to Durham (and then back again to London). And his admission that he decided to test his own eyesight by getting into his car and driving another 100 km from Durham to Barnard Castle and back is, well, startling and not exactly in line with the usual guidance about eyesight and driving. Many people made agonising personal sacrifices for the greater good, and they now see Cummings having breached the spirit of the rules, and probably the letter as well, and getting away with it.

(This is much less important in the scheme of things, but Cummings also appears to have edited his own past blog entries to look as if he was more prescient about pandemics than he actually was.)

The Spectator is keeping a running tally of Conservative MPs who have called for Cummings to resign or be sacked; you can add the Chief Executive of blog site Conservative Home to the list. These are not the usual bunch of people like me who already hated Cummings’ politics. The government is visibly spinning desperately to control the damage.

This feels like an inflection point. John Major’s government was holed below the waterline by Black Wednesday in 1992, five months and seven days after he won a general election. It is five months and fourteen days today since the 2019 election. History never exactly repeats itself, but past events are often the best guidance to what will happen next.

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Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell

For reasons which will swiftly become obvious, I am quoting the first paragraph of the third chapter rather than the second which is my usual practice:

As discussed in Chapter One, the last analysis of Roger’s Judicial Astrology was Nicholas Whyte’s MPhil dissertation, published in 1991. Whyte relied primarily on two manuscripts from Cambridge University Library, with some additional material from a Bodleian Library manuscript (although he identified several more), while French, who also analysed some aspects of the text, relied primarily on a transcript he had made of one of the Cambridge manuscripts.1 In what follows all twenty-two known extant manuscripts containing all or part of Roger’s Judicial Astrology have been examined, and are summarised below, and are listed in order of relevance to this thesis; A is the oldest extant manuscript and is used as the exemplar in this thesis where possible. A few folios are missing from A, and for those folios, B, which is complete, is used instead. C is also complete, and features in some of the discussions relating to analysing the manuscript. D, E, F, and G are all thirteenth-century copies and are relevant to the development of the stemma codicum discussed later. Remaining manuscripts are listed in order of completeness. A full analysis of the palaeography of the manuscripts is beyond the scope of this thesis, but a brief palaeographical analysis has been undertaken in order to identify, tentatively, the possible location and date of the earlier manuscripts and in order to identify those manuscripts that might be considered to be as close as possible to Roger’s non-extant original. In addition, those manuscripts that contain Roger’s prologue and introduction have a number of tables, some of which contain errors. Examining the manuscripts to see where errors have been copied also provides a route to determining which manuscripts are likely to be closer to the original source. Professor Erik Kwakkel of the University of British Columbia very kindly narrowed down dates for some of the manuscripts for which a palaeographical analysis had been undertaken. These analyses are covered in a later section of this chapter. Finally, an examination of the contents of the manuscripts, together with a brief survey of other texts bound within the same codex, provides some possible information about the reception of Roger’s Judicial Astrology.
1 Whyte, ‘Roger of Hereford’, p.55. Whyte made use primarily of Cambridge, University Library, Ii 1.1, ff.40r-59r and Cambridge, University Library, Gg 6.3, ff.139r-153r with additional material from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Selden Supra 76, ff.3f-19v. French had apparently transcribed Cambridge Ii 1.1, which Whyte referred to.

Long, long ago (well, the summer of 1991) I picked up a lovely project as my M Phil thesis: Roger French, a senior lecturer at the Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science had transcribed a manuscript written by his namesake and ancient neighbour, the 12th-century scholar Roger of Hereford, and wanted to do something with it. I had better knowledge of astronomy than he did, and the basics of Latin, so I picked it up for analysis. It was the most intellectually fascinating thing I have ever done, particularly at the end when I was convinced that Roger had included in the text a birth chart for Eleanor of Aquitaine. But my life moved on from medieval astrology rather rapidly after 1991, and I still regret that to an extent. Not that the other challenges I have faced have not had their points of interest, but there was something peculiarly fascinating about research which wasn’t so much pushing back the frontiers of knowledge as mapping more accurately where they used to be.

So I was delighted when a random Twitter search a few years ago turned up the information that Chris Mitchell was writing up the same book by Roger of Hereford as his PhD at Leicester University. You can download his finished thesis from here; and I did, and was happily returned to the summer of 1991 when Roger was my constant companion. There’s a bit of a revival of Roger at the moment – the German scholar Alfred Lohr has recently edited his Computus (on the calculation of Easter). One of my ambitions is to give the same treatment to Roger’s other work, an explanation of the Ptolemaic planetary theory. But that will have to wait.

Mitchell makes the argument that Roger’s Judicial Astrology (as he calls it, and I think it’s better terminology than I used in 1991) should be understood as a teaching manual, pulling together astrological lore from various sources and presenting it for students to learn from. He makes the point that the book is really rather widespread in British manuscript collections, and also to an extent in Europe, so it must have been popular among scholars. (Modern technology means that he was able to order scanned copies of the manuscripts from various European libraries without having to go there himself.)

He very thoroughly identifies the texts whose material Roger synthesised – mostly Arabic originals, which had been translated into Latin only in the late 11th or early 12th centuries. He courteously disagrees with me on several points of analysis, and I’m not going to insist that I got everything right almost 30 years ago when I was 24; his arguments are well structured and convincing in almost every case.

But I think he misses a really relevant question about the importance or otherwise of Roger’s work. How important was astrology in the late medieval period? I’m a bit sceptical. There’s very little evidence of astrology entering the mainstream of politics or of scholarly discourse in England or northwestern Europe more generally (except when people condemn it). One of the few examples is the fuss around the Great Conjunction of 1186, but Mitchell doesn’t mention it. Where are the records of other astrological practitioners? How do they compare with records of, say, medical pr mathematical writers? I’d have liked a bit more context.

And while I agree with all of Mitchell’s other points of correction to my 1991 research, I stand by my identification of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s natal horoscope. Mitchell argues that the horoscope provided by Roger is only a theoretical exercise, not meant to be linked to any real-life planetary alignment. I would counter that it’s a lot of trouble to go to for a fictional example; if Roger was really a practitioner of astrology, he would have had plenty of worked examples to hand; and sure, in theory one might be meant to cast a horoscope for the moment when a question is asked rather than the nativity of the person asking it, but I’m not at all sure how that would work out in practice.

So, more things to pursue when I have time. (Whenever that may be.) But I’m very glad that someone else has picked up the trail of Roger of Hereford, and run much further with it than I was able to.

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July 2006 books

This is the latest post in a series I started last November, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging which will fall in 2023. Every six-ish days I’ve been revisiting a month from my recent past, noting work and family developments as well as the books I read in that month. I’ve found it a pleasantly cathartic process, especially in current circumstances when we are all somewhat distracted. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

I was hugely honoured to be present at the Presidential residence in Podgorica on 13 July 2006, the last leg of a trip that had started in Skopje and continued through Prishtina with an exciting journey through the mountains to Montenegro itself. There were perhaps 300 guests. The mood was festive, everyone shaking hands and embracing. The moment eventually came when the guards played a fanfare, and then a young man began to sing the new/old nation's anthem, joined in the second verse by a young woman, without any other accompaniment, their voices trembling with emotion. For the first time in nine decades, Montenegro was celebrating its traditional independence day as an independent state. They didn't drop a beat, or miss a note. It was one of the most electrifying things I have ever witnessed. I don't have photographs, but I was given a souvenir first day cover.

The month started with a family trip to Antwerp to see the Sultan's Elephant, an extraordinary live action steampunk show. I got a few film shots of the elephant and the little girl in action:

F celebrated his 7th birthday later in the month, and actually had a party, though my contribution was to take B on a long drive to keep her out of the way.

At the end of the month we drove as usual to Northern Ireland (Anne failing to be persuaded of the merits of Fury from the Deep), but made the tough decision to leave B in Belgium under the supervision of my mother-in-law. It actually went all right, but it was a bit sad.

I managed to read 24 books in July 2006, thanks perhaps to several long land-based trips.

Non-fiction 7 (YTD 34)
The Economist Style Guide, no author given apart from one section by John Grimond
The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror, by George Soros
Café Europa: Life after Communism, by Slavenka Drakulić
Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, by M.J. Simpson
The Belgian House of Representatives: From Revolution to Federalism, by Derek Blyth, Alistair MacLean, and Rory Watson
Under the Devil's Eye: Britain's Forgotten Army at Salonika 1915-1918, by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody
Mr Belloc Objects To "The Outline Of History", by H.G. Wells

Non-genre 5 (YTD 12)
Eleven on Top, by Janet Evanovich
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow
The Man With Two Left Feet, and Other Stories, by P.G. Wodehouse

Sf (Non-Who) 10 (YTD 42)
Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman
The Prisoner, by Thomas M. Disch
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Compleat Enchanter – The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea, by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Galactic Patrol, by E.E. "Doc" Smith
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The Mark of Ran, by Paul Kearney
The Lady of the Shroud, by Bram Stoker
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

Doctor Who 1 (YTD 7)
Timewyrm: Exodus, by Terrance Dicks

Comics 1 (YTD 2)
Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu, by Osamu Tezuka

6,500 pages (YTD 29,800)
3/24 (YTD 14/97) by women
2/24 (YTD 5/97) by PoC

The one I enjoyed most was The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson's classic horror tale, which you can get here. There were a lot of other good ones, and I guess my favourite reread was Fahrenheit 451, which you can get here. I thoroughly bounced off Galactic Patrol, but you can get it here.


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Slaughterhouse Five: film and book

Slaughterhouse Five won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1973, with only three competitors – Silent Running, which I have not seen, and two TV films that I had not even heard of, Between Time and Timbuktu which is based on other works by Kurt Vonnegut, and The People, mostly based on a novella by Zenna Henderson, "Pottage". IMDB users rank Slaughterhouse Five 25th and 27th of all films of 1972 on the two systems; Silent Running does better at 12th and 18th, while the other two are a very long way down. Iwonder why there were only four finalists? The previous year with less than five was 1965 and the next was 1977. I haven't seen Tarkovsky's Solaris, but I think it has shown the best staying power of any sfnal film from 1972, despite being overlooked by Hugo voters. It's also a bit surprising that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes didn't get a look-in.

Anyway, here's a trailer for Slaughterhouse Five.

I had seen it long ago, and am also familiar with the book. A lot of people really rave about this film, whose director, George Roy Hill, went on to my next Oscar-winner, The Sting. I was not quite so grabbed; I think I can be politely positive, but not a lot more. The central character, Billy Pilgrim, is played at various ages and degrees of make-up by Michael Sacks (who dropped out of acting and went into tech ten years later). None of the other actors seems to have appeared in other Hugo-winning films, or Oscar-winners or Doctor Who, so that gives me one less thing to write about.

The plot concerns Billy Pilgrim's voyages up and down his personal timeline, including his time as a PoW in wartime Germany, experiencing the Allies bombing of Dresden, and then suburban unfulfilled family life, with a phase of being kidnapped by aliens who hook him up with a beautiful young porn actress who has his baby. I don't remember seeing a single non-white actor even as an extra in the entire film, and the few women characters are pretty but stupid (I don't think it passes Bechdel Two). I also wasn't really persuaded by 24-year-old Michaels Sacks made up to look older, and frustrated that we don't really get much sense of what Billy Pilgrim actually thinks about the bizarre things that happen to him; he is a very passive protagonist.

There are some good bits too. The horrors of war, and the alienating effect of combat on the participants, are well brought home, and there are some very nifty transition points between different parts of the timeline. Eugene Roche (who I remember as a lawyer in Soap) is great as Pilgrim's friend Edgar Derby who gets shot for looting, and Valerie Perrine is tremendously energetic as Montana Wildhack, the porn starlet. But I have to say I found it one of the less engaging Hugo-winning films I've seen so far. Still, if you want, you can get it here.

As usual, I went back and reread the book, which is quite short. Vonnegut felt that the film was a faithful adaptation, and I would agree with him there. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The dog, who had sounded so ferocious in the winter distances, was a female German Shepherd. She was shivering. Her tail was between her legs. She had been borrowed that morning from a farmer. She had never been to war before. She had no idea what game was being played. Her name was Princess.

When I last reread this in 2009, I wrote:

Rereading this classic, which combines the horrors of the 1945 bombing of Dresden with the sfnal captivity of the hero by the aliens of Tralfamadore. Having first come to Vonnegut via Cat's Cradle and The Sirens of Titan as a teenager, I wasn't really sure what to make of this. Coming to it again a quarter-century later, I have a much deeper appreciation of Vonnegut's savaging of the surrealism of war, and of how trauma throws the rest of your life into a weird perspective. But I also find his attitude to women much more annoying – at least, to the women in the main part of the story, the mothers of Billy Pilgrim's children, Valencia Merble and Montana Wildhack (and Pilgrim's daughter Barbara). Having said that, the sanest character in the book is probably Mary O'Hare from the ostensibly autobiographical foreword; and it must also be admitted that most of the male characters are pretty unpleasant too.

Anyway, I can't think of many other sf novels which take the Second World War as their subject, and this is probably the best in that rather small set.

Scanning the SF Encyclopedia entry on WW2, I think that last comment still stands – J.G. Ballard, Jerry Kosinski and Primo Levi all wrote sf and all wrote about the war but as far as I know, none of them combined the two themes at novel length. Edited to add: I have been reminded of Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, which I had successfully been trying to forget.

This time around I found I appreciated Vonnegut's success in keeping the narrative pace balanced between the various parts of the story line, all of which have different climaxes at different times. I found his drawings annoying though, and I think I still prefer Cat's Cradle. Still, if you want, you can get it here.

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Some Saturday etymology: door, forum, forensic, foreign, forest, thyroid, Durbar and Dari

‎“door” is an ancient word. It has cognates in other Germanic languages. Dutch deur; German Tür; Yiddish טיר (tir); Danish/Norwegian dør; Swedish dörr; Gothic (daur); Icelandic/Faroese dyr – this last is plural, and we’ll get back to that.
Let’s also note German Tor, as opposed to Tür, which means “gateway” and has drifted to mean “goal” in sports, both the target and the score. Proto-Germanic had two words, *durz for doors and *durą for a BIG door. In most descendant languages they merged, but not in German.
The Proto-Indo-European root is *dʰwer- and it has many descendants meaning “door”: Welsh dôr/drws, Breton dor, Irish doras; Russian дверь (dver’); Albanian derë; Armenian դուռ (duṙ); Sanskrit द्वार् (dvā́r), Ossetian дуар (duar); Latin foris, Greek θύρα (thýra).
Going further: Old Persian (duvarayā);  Farsi/Dari در  (dar), Tajik дар (dar); Urdu دوار, Hindi द्वार (dvār); Marathi दार (dār); Bengali দ্বার (dbāra); Telugu ద్వారము (dvāramu); Gujarati બારણું (bārṇũ); Burmese ဒွာရ (dwara); Thai ทวาร (spelt dwār, pronounced tá-waan).
Icelandic and Faroese dyr are always plural. So are Latvian durvis, Lithuanian duris; Belarusian дзверы (dzvjéry), Ukrainian двері (dvéri), Czech dveře, Slovak dvere, Polish drzwi. This suggests that ancient tribes had double doors at the entry to the compound.
There are interesting cases of shifting meanings. In many Slavic languages, words for “courtyard”, “court”, “palace” come from this root – Slovak & Serbo-Croat dvor, Czech dvůr, Russian, Bulgarian & Macedonian двор (dvor), Ukrainian двір (dvir). Lithuanian dvaras means “estate”.
In Latin, *dʰw -> f and forās is “outdoors”. You go out to the *forum*, a public place. The evidence suitable for public examination is *forensic*. In medieval French, people from outside are forain, which becomes English *foreign*, and the wild places outside are the *forest*.
And here’s another spin: from Greek θύρα (thýra), door, comes the word θῠρεός (thýreos), meanings include an oblong shield, adjective θυρεοειδής (thyreoidés) is applied to the shield-shaped cartilage of the larynx, which then gives its name to the adjacent *thyroid gland*.
Finally, a whole language takes its name from this root. The Persian word دربار (darbār) means a court or court gathering (cf Slavic двор/dvor above, and English durbar). The Persian spoken at court became known as دری Dari, as opposed to the فارسی Farsi spoken elsewhere.
So there you are. The ancient Indo-European root *dʰwer- gives us “door”, “forum”, “forensic”, “foreign”, “forest”, “thyroid”, “Durbar” and the name of the Dari language. Not bad for a simple mechanism to keep wild animals out and tame animals (and humans) in.
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Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey; “Travels with the Snow Queen”, by Kelly Link

Second paragraph of third chapter of Black Wine:

After that it did not struggle, even though its body was still as warm, its feathers as stiff and soft. Horrified at what my intervention had done, I ran away, and never wanted to go near that tree again, though it was near the path and difficult to avoid.

An intricate, interesting novel, which actually reminded me of some of Iain M. Banks’ work more than anything, with interlacing narrative perspectives in a dangerously diverse but mimimally portrayed world. There is good sex, and very bad sex, and power wielded against those who are divergent or deviant, and there is some brutal violence which I admit I found a bit of a deterrent from following the main plot. I am rather surprised that the author hasn’t written a lot more. You can get it here.

Second paragraph of third section of “Travels with the Snow Queen”:

The cuff of his trousers got splashed. There were little fragments of glass everywhere. “Don’t move,” you said. You weren’t wearing shoes.

This is a subversion of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy-tale “The Snow Queen” (not the only one in sf), where the protagonist’s boyfriend is stolen by the eponymous queen and she goes on a quest to bring him back, encountering talking animals who may or may not have been humans, and subverting the original metaphor in a feminist way. It was one of Link’s first stories, bu I think it is very well done. It was first published in the very first issue of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, the magazine edited by Link and her partner Gavin Grant, and has been reprinted in half a dozen anthologies and collections; it’s currently available online for free at Uncanny Magazine.

These were the two winners of what was then the James Tiptree Jr Award for 1998, and they are both writing of the kind that the award was surely designed to honour – both authors were very early in their careers, and Link has turned out to be reasonably prolific, if Dorsey less so. The short list was rather long, with another five short pieces and seven novels, two of which I have read – The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda McIntyre, and Sacrifice of Fools, by Ian McDonald. To be honest, the latter is one of my favourite SF novels, but I can see that it did not fit the Tiptree Award as well as the winners did.

The BSFA Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award that year were both won by Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, so I’ll move on next to Dreaming in Smoke, by Tricia Sullivan (Clarke 1999); The Extremes, by Christopher Priest (BSFA 1998); and “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K.N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin”, by Raphael Carter (Tiptree). For efficiency, I may write up all three in the same blog post.

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Thursday reading

Current
The Complete Secret Army: An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to the Classic TV Drama Series by Andy Priestner
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
The Nightmare Stacks, by Charles Stross
The Tiger's Wife, by Tea Obreht

Last books finished
Roger of Hereford’s Judicial Astrology: England’s First Astrology Book?, by Chris Mitchell
The Accident, by Ismail Kadarë
Arthur C. Clarke's Venus Prime 1: Breaking the Strain, by Paul Preuss

Next books
The Queen's Spymaster, by John Cooper
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within, by Stephen Fry

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The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The troopship was a converted “cattlewagon” made to carry two hundred colonists and assorted bushes and beasts. Don’t think it was roomy, though, just because there were half that many of us. Most of the excess space was taken up with extra reaction mass and ordnance.

When I last read this in 2003, I wrote (WARNING – SPOILERS):

William Mandella is a physics graduate, drafted in the year 1997 to fight an interstellar war against the unknown Tauran enemy. Because the battlefields themselves are light-years away, Mandella spends most of the book slipping forward into the future thanks to time dilation, and thus becoming progressively more alienated from the society which he was recruited to serve. But he falls in love with a fellow soldier (the army of 1997 and later years being gender-balanced) and despite all obstacles they get back together. The book ends with a birth announcement from the happy couple – a narrative closure which is also used by Mary Gentle at the end of her medieval fantasy war novel, Ash: A Secret History.

The sequences portraying life as a soldier, in training or in a combat situation, are gripping and unforgettable. Haldeman has put a lot of his experiences as an actual soldier in the Vietnam war into the book. William is his own middle name, and Mandella almost an anagram of Haldeman (see his interview with Spaced Out, the Australian gay and lesbian sf club). Mandella’s lover has Haldeman’s wife’s maiden name, Marygay Potter. The two colossal strengths of the book are the portrayal of the psychological experience of combat, and the depiction of the progressive alienation of the soldiers from the rest of humanity, culminating in the awful revelation that the war was basically a mistake.

As a civilian veteran of Balkan and Irish conflicts myself, I’m not unfamiliar with the psychological effects of war on the participants, and Haldeman gets it right. In a sense the protagonists of The Forever War are relatively fortunate in that there seem to be very few civilian casualties directly resulting from the conflict. Not that they see it that way, as the casualty rate among military participants is huge, and our hero gains rapid promotion merely for staying alive (though as a highly intelligent graduate he must have been officer material anyway). (Brandon Ray subsequently pointed out on rec.arts.sf.written that this isn’t necessarily so, since all the recruits were enlisted by the Elite Conscription Act.)

The military stuff seemed well thought out. I particularly liked the gimmick of the stasis field, within with electricity doesn’t work so our soldiers have to resort to edged weapons. The science behind it may well be rubbish but the military implications were sensibly developed. (And anyone who doubts that the military could possibly jump at shadows to such an extent as to wage war against an enemy that wasn’t in fact an enemy should consider such recent events as the US military’s hysterical reaction to the International Criminal Court and its bizarre fixation with National Missile Defense, a project that will cost vast amounts of money to defend against a threat that is vanishingly unlikely to transpire.)

However despite the undeniable power of the core message of the book, much of the packaging is flawed. The book begins in a world where interstellar space travel has been developed by 1997, which now seems optimistically premature to the 21st century reader. The first edition, which actually won the Hugo and Nebula awards, features a section set in a future Geneva where the UN is now based – a Geneva where the local population has suddenly started speaking German! And although there may some day be a gender-balanced army which tolerates soft drug use, encourages other ranks to say “Fuck you, Sir!” to officers, and enforces (hetero)sexual activity among its recruits, this seems as unlikely now as it must have done in 1975.

The book’s biggest problem – and this has often been acknowledged by Haldeman – is its handling of sexuality. In a year when Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, and Robert Silverberg’s The Stochastic Man were pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of sex in science fiction, The Forever War‘s take on the issue seems rather unimaginative. The 1997 army enforces one-on-one heterosexual activity, with daily rotation of partners, among its personnel, none of whom appear to be particularly upset by this. A few decades later, the entire world has become homosexual as a means of population control, which seems rather disproportionate. Mandella sticks to his heterosexual guns, and does not appear in the least tempted to try it the other way (unlike the hero of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway which also won both Hugo and Nebula, two years later).

And the ending, where our hero retrieves his lost love while the rest of the human race has surrendered its identity to a race of bisexual telepathic clones, seemed to me on first reading simply silly. I may be being unfair to the author here. Haldeman retorts in the introduction to “A Separate War”, in the Robert Silverberg-edited collection Far Horizons, that:

The Forever War does not have a happy ending. Marygay and William do get back together – the book ends with the birth announcement of their first child – but they’re together on a prison planet, preserved as genetic curiosities in a universe where the human race has abandoned its humanity in a monstrous liaison with its former enemy.

That’s all very well as an explanation (twenty years on) of what was in the author’s mind when he wrote it, but it doesn’t really come across on the printed page of the book where the happy ending appears to be the point of the narrative. And it isn’t sufficient, to this reader anyway, to justify the proliferation of homosexuality followed by the telepathic clones as a part of the metaphor for the alienation of Mandella from the rest of the human race; by today’s standards this is either naive or offensive.

To an extent we should forgive the book its anachronisms; we still enjoy Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar even though his depiction of Roman life (with clocks, hats and doublets) is rather different from ours. The flaws are real, but the passion is real as well. The Forever War is not a timeless classic, but it is a classic of its own time, and will no doubt continue to be read for its passion rather than its predictive accuracy. And after all, sf would be a very boring (and small) genre if it was actually rated on its ability to predict the future!

I can’t find whether the novel was published before or after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, but the experience of the Vietnam War of course crucially informed the Zeitgeist. I have to say that going back to it now, I found the book’s take on gender and sexuality so far off kilter that it is difficult to see past that to the intended core message on the dehumanising effects of conflict. I guess we are all better educated about sexual consent now, and while the army’s enforcement of sexual behaviour among the troops may be meant to satirically highlight the pointlessness of trying to enforce sexual abstinence, it completely misses the mark. And it’s impossible to ignore that the first step that the human race takes away from “normal” humanity is to become almost entirely homosexual. What message does that send to the LGBT community about the story’s view of their humanity? I don’t think I could recommend this to anyone starting to read SF in 2020. But if you want, you can get it here.

Three of the other novels on the 1975 Hugo final ballot were also on the Nebula final ballot that year. They were Doorways in the Sand, by Roger Zelazny; The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester; and The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg. I have read all three and frankly I like all three better than The Forever War, though all have their flaws and I’m not sure how I would have voted. The other Hugo finalist was Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which I have not read.

The (long) 1974 Nebula ballot included another five that I have read, The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany; The Female Man, by Joanna Russ; Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino; and Missing Man, by Katherine MacLean; and nine that I haven’t, A Midsummer Tempest, by Poul Anderson; A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop; The Heritage of Hastur, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; Autumn Angels, by Arthur Byron Cover; Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow; The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee; Guernica Night, by Barry N. Malzberg; The Exile Waiting, by Vonda N. McIntyre; and The Embedding, by Ian Watson. In retrospect it seems a real error to have overlooked The Female Man.

As previously noted, the Hugo and Nebula voters concurred in two of the other three fiction categories. “Home Is the Hangman” by Roger Zelazny won both Best Novella awards, and “Catch that Zeppelin!” by Fritz Leiber won Best Short Story. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to “The Borderland of Sol” by Larry Niven, and the Nebula to “San Diego Lightfoot Sue” by Tom Reamy.

Going forward in my reviews of works that won both Hugo and Nebula, I think I’ll take it a year at a time rather than a work at a time. So the next entry in this series will feature two rather different stories, “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” by James Tiptree, Jr., which both won awards presented in 1977 for work of 1976.

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A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by P. E. Winter

Second paragraph of third chapter:

One problem with our donors was that several of them were not only financiers of the process but also had interests in its outcome, whether those were pressures from past and potential investors in the DRC or concerns about the cost and availability of suitable troops to deploy as peace-keepers. Thus three of them, the USA, France and the UK, were permanent members of the Security Council and one, Belgium was the former colonial power. Within the EU, our largest donor for the first two years, some officials clearly felt it should have more say in the process. As South Africa later assumed a more prominent role, voices were raised to claim that South Africa was not entirely disinterested either: their mining companies could profit greatly from the Congo's minerals. Such pressures are of course a reality of peace-making within the framework available today. While we were resisting external suggestions which we did not feel were consistent with our brief, we were also clearly failing to inspire confidence.

Philip Winter is one of the most interesting people I have ever worked with. During my Independent Diplomat days, he was our representative in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, from late 2010, just before the independence referendum, until it all went wrong at the end of 2013. While we were colleagues he kindly presented me with a copy of this book, which was published in 2012 but written several years before. Shamefully, I have only now got around to reading it. It was worth the wait.

The Inter-Congolese Dialogue doesn't have a Wikipedia entry, though there is one for the peace agreement with which it ended. As part of the process of winding down the awful Second Congo War, in which millions lost their lives through violence and related factors, the Congolese regime of Laurent-Désiré Kabila agreed reluctantly to find a joint government structure along with the groups that it had been fighting. Kabila himself then did his best to prevent the dialogue process from getting started, but was assassinated by his own guards early in 2001. His son Joseph, then aged 29, was rapidly chosen as his successor and engaged sufficiently for the factions to find a solution acceptable to most of the parties (and eventually accepted by all of them) in April 2002. Philip Winter was hired by the British government to work as chief of staff to the facilitator of the process, the former President of Botswana Sir Ketumile Masire, and tells the inside story of a mission which initially a lot of players did not want or did not understand, and which eventually came to be the focal point of international diplomacy in the whole of southern Africa.

It's a personal account which barely scrapes the surface of the actual content of the agreement, and assumes that the reader already has significant background knowledge of the Congo conflict (which I did, mainly thanks to the work of another former colleague from those days, Gérard Prunier). However, it is a very good account of the inside workings of the process, taking very much the anthropological perspective that I find sympathetic – diplomacy revolves as much around personalities and pressure from above and below as it does on the actual substance. There are effective, brief pen-portraits of the team led by Sir Ketumile Masire (QM to his friends) and some of the other protagonists as well. One interesting aspect is that QM and most of his team (and most of the other relevant African leaders) were anglophone, while the parties to the conflict were mostly francophone. Various means were found to get around this, including that Philip's own French is good enough for diplomatic work.

The story has a conclusion, in that the parties do reach the Sun City Agreement, but not an ending, as the implementation of the agreement was far from unproblematic and lower-level armed conflict continues to rumble on. There are some very important insights. Reaching an agreement was not inevitable, and there were several moments when the whole thing appeared to be about to crash – an important factor often being the international community hinting at a lack of faith in QM personally. The mediators pushed as hard as they could for greater inclusion of women in the process, but they could not push very hard and the results on that score were meagre. Philip goes into the reasons for the successes in some detail – basically, very careful preparation for the few key meetings that took place, the first of which was in Gaborone in August 2001, a continued emphasis on African and Congolese ownership, and constant transparency and clarity with the one set of stakeholders who really mattered, the parties to the conflict.

I twitched when several other people who I know personally popped up in the narrative – François Grignon, who was a colleague of mine at the International Crisis Group and is now the UN Deputy Representative in DR Congo; Claudia Wiedey-Nippold, now a senior Africanist in the EU External Action Service; Annemie Neyts, now retired but then a Belgian government minister. There is a lovely moment near the end where Philip introduces the rest of his team, most of whom were from Botswana, to the Alexander McCall Smith novels of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The Batswana really got into them, and actually took a break from diplomacy one afternoon to go and hear McCall Smith do a reading.

It reminded me of another book by another former colleague, Collision Course, John Norris's account of the US negotiations over the Kosovo peace agreement in 1999. There are important differences. Not least, A Sacred Cause covers a longer period of time (three years rather than three months). Philip puts himself in the picture more than John. But he is also painting a wider picture – where John was working for one of the belligerents (the USA), Philip was in a sense working for them all. A really interesting read. You can get it here.

This was the last unread book on my shelves acquired in 2012. (I read the last book acquired in 2011 last October, the last book acquired in 2010 in January last year, and the last book acquired in 2009 at the end of 2016.) This opens up my 2013 lists: Yugoslavia's Implosion, by Sonja Biserko (non-fiction in order of acquisition), Local Hero, by David Benedictus (shortest unread book acquired in 2013), The Ghost of Lily Painter, by Caitlin Davies (non-genre fiction in order of acquisition), Heaven's War, by David S Goyer (sf in oder of acquisition) and Laatste Schooldag: Verhalen, by J. G Siebelink (most popular unread book acquired in 2013).

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