May 2023 books

Non-fiction 5 (YTD 32)
Johnson at 10: the Inside Story, by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
The John Nathan-Turner Doctor Who Production Diary, 1979-90, by Richard Molesworth
American Gridlock, eds. James Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka
Vengeance on Varos, by Jonathan Dennis
The Rings of Akhaten, by William Shaw

Poetry 1 (YTD 3)
Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles

SF 13 (YTD 100)
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
α5 (did not finish)
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
β5 (did not finish)
The Race, by Nina Allan
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill
The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell
The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay
The Second ‘If’ Reader, ed. Fredrik Pohl

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 16)
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos, by Philip Martin
Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, by Philip Martin

Comics 1 (YTD 9)
The Fountains of Forever, by Nick Abadzis et al

7,000 pages (YTD 39,700)
9/23 (YTD 66/165) by non-male writers (Giles, ω4, β5, ψ4, Allan, Marske, Serpell, McKay, Casagrande/Florean)
3/23 (YTD 26/165) by a non-white writer (Yoshinaka, ψ4, Serpell)
380 books currently tagged “unread”, 9 down from last month

Reading now
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
A Brief History of Stonehenge, by Aubrey Burl

Coming soon (perhaps)
The Endless Song, by Nick Abadzis et al
K9 Megabytes, by Bob Baker
The Shadowman, by Sharon Bidwell
Doctor Who and the Robots of Death, by Terrance Dicks
The Robots of Death, by Fiona Moore
The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang, by Philip Bates
The Shape of Irish History, by A.T.Q. Stewart
City of Soldiers, by Kate Fearon
Collision Course, by Robert Silverberg / Nemesis from Terra, by Leigh Brackett
World’s Fair 1992, by Robert Silverberg
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard
Winter, by Ali Smith
The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
The Memory Librarian, by Janelle Monáe
“Bears Discover Fire”, by Terry Bisson
Ancient, Ancient, by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Partitions irlandaises, by Vincent Baily and Kris
One Bible Many Voices, by S E Gillingham
Falling to Earth, by Al Worden
The Outcast, by Louise Cooper
Love and Mr Lewisham, by H.G. Wells
The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman
Living with the Gods, by Neil MacGregor
A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford
Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett
Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality, by Jaron Lanier

Vengeance on Varos, by Jonathan Dennis (and Philip Martin); also, Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor

I watched Vengeance on Varos on first broadcast in 1985, and was frankly bored and appalled by it. (Actually I have only a clear memory of the first episode; I may have missed the second.) The start, with a prisoner being tortured and the Doctor / Peri relationship in a deep trough, was not promising.

When I rewatched it in 2008, my views had not changed much.

I remember catching the first scenes of Vengeance on Varos first time round, where Jason Connery’s Jondar is unpleasantly tortured as an audience looks on, and then the Tardis breaks down and the Doctor decides it can’t be fixed. At that point I gave up and went away to do something else. Well, I misjudged it slightly. The torture scenes are unnecessarily unpleasant, and Colin Baker’s portrayal as annoying as before, but the rest of the story is not bad, Martin Jarvis and Nabil Shaban being especially good. Having said which, the scene with Peri turning into a bird is a bit crap.

Coming back to it in 2011, I was a bit more forgiving:

There’s a decent story in Vengeance on Varos, and particularly some good guest performances by Martin Jarvis, Nabil Shaban, and Sheila Read who plays Etta, and decent special effects at a period when these were sometimes a bit embarrassing. But it is rather spoiled for me by the violence, which I am now realising is a consistent problem with this season; by the silly subplot of Peri being turned into a bird and then magically cured in about five seconds; and by a number of under-rehearsed scenes where actors stand around with their hands limply at their sides, always a bit of a red flag for me.

Rewatching this time, my eye was particularly caught by Stephen Yardley, who is also the mutant Sevrin in Genesis of the Daleks, appears in the last series of Blake’s 7 in the Tanith Lee episode Sand, and is also a regular in the second series of Secret Army.

However, it’s still a rather stupid story. To add to my complaints above, it’s weird and a bit dehumanising that The Governor and The Chief Officer don’t have names. More trivially, when the Doctor is supposedly dead to all appearances during the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode and the start of the second, Colin Baker is visibly still breathing.

The novelisation is also by Philip Martin, and the second paragraph of its third chapter is:

‘Next time he will die,’ he said soothingly.

When I read the novelisation in 2008, I mocked a malapropism:

“I just won’t look!” Peri said, clenching her eyes shut but feeling the stiff vulpine feathers that had now emerged almost fully all over her arms.

(Philip Martin, Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos)

Vulpine feathers, eh?

With extra irony, the chief villain is given to malapropisms due to a faulty translation unit. The omniscient narrator has no such excuse!

I was interested to note that the cliff-hanger comes relatively early in the book, a good ten pages before the half-way point. Otherwise the book is a safe transformation from screen to print. You can get it here.

Before I get into Jonathan Dennis’s Black Archive, I just want to look at the later career of Sil. I’m actually rather a fan of Mindwarp, the second part of Trial of a Time Lord, with its shock ending for poor Peri (foolishly revoked six episodes later). Mission to Magnus, the unbroadcast story from the cancelled 1986 season, failed to impress me either in print or on audio. I was much more impressed by an original Big Finish audio by Martin, Antidote to Oblivion.

And for this post, I sought out and read Martin’s novel Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, based on a direct-to-video film which I have not seen (though apparently Jeremy Corbyn got a copy from Nabil Shaban). The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The profit chamber on Thoros Beta monitored the progress of its multiple investments throughout the universe. Thoros Betans were hunched over display panels giving the latest profit and loss values, and muttered voices echoed in the corridors as fortunes were made . . . and sometimes lost.

It’s not very good. Sil and Lord Kiv get caught up in a plot to sell dangerously addictive drugs to the people of earth (specifically the “Eurozone”, whose boundaries are not defined). Lots of characterful screeching, but as so often, the plot is just nasty for the sake of being nasty. You can get it here.

Jonathan Dennis, who previously wrote the Black Archive on Ghost Light (incidentally, the first Black Archive that I didn’t really care for), has mounted a detailed but ultimately unconvincing defence of Vengeance on Varos.

The first chapter, “Introduction – In Poor taste”, defends the aesthetic and tonal changes made to Doctor Who for the 1985 season, and asserts that they work. I think a more nuanced view is possible.

The second chapter, “Winston Smith Takes it on the Jaw”, looks at dystopias, especially 1984, and at the uncharacteristic (for Doctor Who) pessimism of the story.

The third chapter, “Capital (It Fails Us Now)”, looks at the critique of capitalism and to a lesser extent colonialism in the story, and in other Who stories (including Kerblam!). The second paragraph is:

Keeping this history in mind, it stands out when looking into the production of Vengeance on Varos that ‘producer John Nathan-Turner was wary, fearing that Philip Martin might inject political comment into the storyline.’4 Martin said, ‘He suspected I had some sort of political aim in mind, and so he insisted I prove myself first by doing a scene breakdown.’5
4 Pixley, ‘The DWM Archive: Vengeance on Varos’, p17.
5 Bentham, Jeremy, ‘Keep Watching!’ In-Vision #80 p4.

The fourth chapter, “‘They Also Affect Dogs’ – Sadism and Video Nasties”, looks at the moral panic around video nasties in the mid-80s, in the context of the horror genre in general and Videodrome in particular. Dennis finds a smidgeon of regret that the music cue in the acid bath scene is handled badly, and that Peri is exploited worse than usual here.

The fifth and final chapter, “Who Speaks for the Audience? – Conclusion” makes the fairly obvious point that Arak and Etta to some extent stand for us the audience.

An appendix, “6 Times 2 Equals 12”, makes some very interesting paralells between the Sixth and Twelfth Doctors:

The obvious similarity is in the Doctor’s character arc. Both eras feature a gruff, arrogant Doctor who gradually smooths out and becomes more (conventionally) likeable. In the sixth Doctor’s case that arc is unfortunately truncated due to real-world circumstances outside the narrative. It was a good concept in the Colin Baker era and Moffatt is able to bring it to its proper conclusion with Peter Capaldi.

Aside from this general similarity of the character arc, many of the details are echoed as well. Baker and Capaldi both appeared on the show prior to being cast as the Doctor…

The Doctor and Clara bicker. It doesn’t come off quite as harshly as comparable scenes between the sixth Doctor and Peri, but that’s down to the dialogue being funnier…

The first full years of both Baker and Capaldi’s tenure end with stories heavy on body horror, set in funeral homes where the Doctor’s old enemies are recreated with human corpses as the raw material. There’s even similar imagery, of the glass Dalek and the transparent Cybermen in tanks. They both have companions who die – Capaldi gets two – and all those companions get those deaths negated in some way…

Capaldi gets the all-black outfit that Colin Baker wanted, and it does serve as a visual reminder of the severity of the character. However, Moffatt starts progressing the character arc immediately.

Dennis is ready to admit that this was much more successful in the 2010s than in the 1980s. He seems curiously shy of drawing the obvious conclusion that it’s simply that Steven Moffatt (plus team) is a much better show-runner than John Nathan-Turner (plus Eric Saward). His argument is that the decision to darken the Sixth Doctor era in terms of aesthetics and tone was not a bad decision, just inadequately executed. I’m sorry, but that makes it a bad decision as far as I am concerned.

You can get this Black Archive here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | The Girl Who Died (64) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

August 2021 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

The big trip for this month was a return to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years, to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday with a family party, and a specially commissioned birdbath by Eleanor Wheeler.

It was a great break and we were very happy to reconnect with friends and relatives on both sides of the border.

I also kept up my ten-day posts about the pandemic.

I read 28 books that month; though some of them were very short.

Non-fiction 3 (YTD 27)
The Secret of Kit Cavenaugh, by Anne Holland (has fictional elements)
A Woman in Berlin
Humankind, by Rutger Bregman

Non-genre 2 (YTD 19)
Thirteen, by Steve Cavanagh
The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue

SF 9 (YTD 83)
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Strange Bedfellows: An Anthology of Political Science Fiction, ed. Hayden Trenholm
Two Truths and a Lie, by Sarah Pinsker
Fish Tails, by Sheri S. Tepper
The Place of the Lion, by Charles Williams
A Hero Born, by Jin Yong
Cryptozoic!, by Brian Aldiss
The Primal Urge, by Brian Aldiss
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 8, 11 inc comics)
The Beast of Stalingrad, by Iain McLaughlin
The HAVOC Files 2, ed. Shaun Russell
Dalek, by Robert Shearman

Comics 10 (YTD 29)
In de tuin, by Noëlle Smit
Hr. Alting, by Bente Olesen Nyström
Trocoscópio, by Bernardo P. Carvalho
Meidän piti lähteä, by Sanna Pelliccioni
Mijn straat: een wereld van verschil, by Ann De Bode
Fridolin Franse frisiert, by Michael Roher
Otthon, by Kinga Rofusz
La Ciudad, by Roser Capdevila
Sortie de nuit, by Laurie Agusti
A Tale of Two Time Lords, by Jodie Houser et al

6,300 pages (YTD 46,400)
13/27 (YTD 78/171) by non-male writers (Holland, the woman in Berlin, Donoghue, Pinsker, Tepper, Bradley, Smit, Pelliccioni, De Boda, Rofusz, Capdevilar, Augusti, Houser et al)
1/27 (YTD 31/171) by PoC (Jin Yong)

The best of these were the traumatic A Woman in Berlin, which you can get here, and the charming Mijn straat: een wereld van verschil, which you can get here. I was underwhelmed by The Place of the Lion, which you can get here, The Secret of Kit Cavenaugh, which you can get here, and The Beast of Stalingrad, which you can get here.

Sunday reading

The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The Second ‘If’ Reader, ed. Fredrik Pohl

Last books finished
American Gridlock, eds. James Thurber and Antoine Yoshinak
Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles
Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor, by Philip Martin
Vengeance on Varos, by Jonathan Dennis

Next books
The Rings of Akhaten, by William Shaw
Can You Solve My Problems, by Alex Bellos 
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard

Amsterdam church tour

We’re taking the long weekend in the metropolis to the north, and yesterday we did a walkling tour of six Amsterdam churches, following a trail laid out by Cate Desjardins in a 2019 blog post. This nicely took up an extended afternoon, from about 12 to about 5. The map on Cate’s blog post no longer works, so here’s mine (you go from south to north):

The first church on the list is De Krijtberg, a Jesuit church dedicated to St Francis Xavier, built in the 1880s to replace one of the many “hidden churches” in the city built when Catholics could not worship openly. Like a lot of buildings in Amsterdam, it is tall and narrow, and has adapted the nineteenth-century Catholic aesthetic accordingly. Its own website said it did not open until after lunch, but Cate’s blog said it opened at 12 and Cate was right.

Not for the first time, I was struck by one of the stained glass windows (probably by the studio of F. Nicolas in the early 20th century), in this case the Jesuits Doing Good in Africa, whether the Africans wanted them to or not.

Our second stop was at the Begijnhof, the former enclosed community for single women (usually Catholics, not usually nuns), which remains a residential space under the protection of St Ursula (who we would see again):

Unfortunately the ancient Begijnhof chapel itself was closed for renovations.

We went back this morning and sneaked into a service at the English Reformed Church. It has a lovely stained glass window commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers.

And the organist played “Simply the Best” at the end, as a tribute to Tina Turner, after the scheduled Buxtehude, which was a lovely touch.

But yesterday we were able to appreciate the serenity away from the bustle outside.

And there is Art.

Third up is the Nieuwe Kerk, one of the big Protestant churches of Amsterdam which is now an art gallery. Cate in her blog post feels this is somewhat skippable; we were fortunate because there is an impressive exhibition there at the moment, and that was well worth the admission price. The original fabric is also visible here and there, including the tomb of Admiral de Ruyter.

The current exhibition, World Press Photo 2023, is stunning and gut-wrenching. It starts with previous famous photos, such as fifteen-year-old Dorothy Counts trying to go to school in North Carolina, and Tank Man from Tian-an-Men Square.

Of this year’s photos, I was particularly moved by this fifteen-year-old mother, her baby’s sixteen-year-old father having been killed in the Philippines’ war on drugs.

And the picture of the year is a woman being evacuated from Mariupol hospital in Ukraine, having been wounded while in labour by a deliberate Russian attack on the building. She and the baby both died.

Thoughtfully we wandered up to the red light district and the Oude Kerk, which had the highest admission price of any of the churches and frankly the least to see. It too is an exhibition space but there was nothing much on. A detailed audio guide takes you through the church fabric, including St Ursula again, partially preserved from iconoclasm, in the ceiling.

I think with both the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, it pays to check out the exhibitions in advance.

We skipped ahead on Cate’s list to go to the Basilica of St Nicholas next, because both she and the website said that it closed relatively early – in fact it stayed open later than we had been told. Like De Krijtberg, this is a working Catholic church built in the 1880s, but with a bit more space. An American choir was getting ready to perform Evensong.

Here we were both really grabbed by the Stations of the Cross by Jan Dunselman, which combine a realist sensitivity with an almost pre-Raphaelite balance of lighting.

Dunselman specialised in Stations of the Cross, and Dutch Wikipedia lists nine other churches where he tackled them. If we lived closer to this part of the world, I would try and check them all out.

Last but not least, we doubled back to Our Lord in the Attic, a hidden church from the time when Catholics could not worship openly, which has been preserved and restored. It is not very accessible for visitors with mobility issues.

This has very good displays explaining how and why the church was built in this way. I could not help but think of Anne Frank and her family, continuing the Amsterdam tradition of hiding up the staircase, centuries later and a little farther west. At the end we see St Nicholas again, patron saint of the city and of pawnbrokers and much else, holding onto his balls.

Anyway, this was a great way to explore a part of Amsterdam’s history. A couple more details: we paid for the three museums, but not the Begijnhof or the two active churches. Also, Amsterdam is full of places to snack or eat.

Thanks again to Cate Desjardins for inspiring us.

How Old is the Meuse Valley?

In one of my insomniac browsings of Wikipedia, I came across the interesting factoid that the valley of the River Meuse in Belgium is perhaps the second oldest river valley in the world, after an occasionally flowing river in the Australian desert.

I began to wonder if this could possibly be true. The argument is that between Charleville-Mezieres and Namur, the river cuts through Paleozoic rocks which were raised up to the surface between 320 and 340 million years ago, in what is called the Variscan or Hercynian orogeny, the process which created the Pyrenees, the mountains of southwestern Ireland, Cornwall, Devon, much of Wales, Brittany, the Ardennes, the Massif Central, the Vosges, Corsica, Sardinia, the Eifel, the Hunsrück, the Taunus, the Black Forest and the Harz Mountains. The Appalachians were being formed at the same time.

But the source cited by Wikipedia, Environmental History of the Rhine-Meuse Delta by P.N. Nienhuis, doesn’t say this at all. It says only that the river “transects the Paleozoic rock of the Ardennes Massif”. The Paleozoic era is basically anything before 250 million years ago. But the fact that the river cuts through rock of a certain age shows only that it is younger than those rocks, not that it is the same age.

Now, there is a thing that needs to be explained. The river has eroded its way through the Ardennes, producing an impressive gorge, and also terraces higher up the valley showing where the water level once was. In particular, it winds through the Rocroi Inlier, a chunk of ancient rock which the Franco-Belgian border winds through, all that is left of one of the offshore islands of the ancient lost continent of Avalonia.

Map from here.

The Rocroi Inlier is not soft rock; it’s hardened and mostly igneous, though crushed and faulted. So on the face of it, it seems odd that the Meuse flows across it, rather than turning west and feeding the Oise to join the Seine. The traditional theory, mentioned without adequate citation in Wikipedia, was proposed by Charles-Louis-Joseph-Xavier de la Vallée Poussin in 1875: that the river flowed north before the Ardennes ever rose and continued to erode its traditional path even as the hills rose around it. There are plenty of cases like this worldwide, the best known being the New River of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, which flows through the Appalachians and is thought to pre-date them.

Not everyone agrees that the Meuse is so old. One other explanation that I’ve seen and tend to reject is the idea that this is a case of stream capture: that the northern lower Meuse gradually eroded back across the granite to capture the southern higher waters. Stream capture is very clearly the case further up the Meuse in France, where the Moselle captured its upper streams. You can still see the old Meuse valley in the landscape west of Toul. But that’s in a flatter and more forgiving landscape than the Ardennes. I don’t see the Meuse gradually eroding southwards back through the granite, eventually breaking though to France.

There’s another problem too. It looks like the area of the Meuse valley may have been underwater during the Hettangian age, roughly 200 million years ago. That would rather kill the notion that the river could be as much as 320 million years old.

In fact, the current consensus appears to be that it is much younger. In their 2000 paper “Sediment budget and tectonic evolution of the Meuse catchment in the Ardennes and the Roer Valley Rift System”, Van Balen and four co-authors state as if it were generally accepted that “The Meuse river system developed in its current position despite the uplift of the Ardennes since the Eocene [which ended 34 million years ago]. In the Ardennes, the present-day system was to a large extent established in the Pliocene [5 to 2.5 million years ago]; only minor changes occurred in the pattern of the drainage system during the Quaternary [since 2.5 million years ago]. During the Plio–Pleistocene [the last 5 million years], the rivers incised and a terrace sequence developed[.]”

I am not a geologist, and my French is not all that good, but Francis Meilliez in his 2018 paper Le Massif Ardenno-Rhénan, un massif ancien en cure de rajeunissement also has the Meuse happily flowing north, finding its way through the faults in the crushed granite of the Rocroi Inlier, until the Ardennes and Rocroi Inlier very slowly rose in the last few tens of millions of years, the river eroding its way down to its current level. This would explain why the Meuse river terraces, showing where it was previously, are not especially ancient.

I’d love to read some more about this, but I’m satisfied for now. The Meuse is not really so very ancient as all that – certainly not as ancient as the Rhine – but these are still processes that take periods of time which are impossible for us to comprehend. It makes you feel rather small, really.

The header picture I’m currently using was taken last July on the Lesse, a tributary of the Meuse right in the middle of the Ardennes.

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

And so she spent her days in her castle, dressed in wool trousers and jerseys, eating half a cold dinner in the dining room, walking the corridors, the echoes alone persuading her that the walls still existed, stalking the parapets and slumping up and down stairs, she repeated words from the shiny reviews of old tennis matches, singing a sad song to herself, until finally spring came – the heat in the air, the heady smell of blossoms, birdsong loud enough to wake you.

For fairly obvious reasons, I’m thinking a lot about the Arthur C. Clarke Award at the moment, and realised that I have not read the most recent three winners; time to put that right.

I thought The Old Drift was tremendous. It’s mostly about the interlinking lives of three families in Zambia, mostly in Lusaka but starting at the Victoria Falls, over the decades from the early twentieth century to the very near future, in a timeline that diverges slight from ours in terms of technology. I don’t think I’d ever read anything much about Zambia before, and this really conveyed the spirit of a young and also old country, with European and Asian inputs to an African culture. It’s quite a tech-oriented story as well, but the core is the vividly imagined relationships and environment of the characters, with different points of view sympathetically given. It stretched my mind in an unexpected way. Recommended. You can get it here.

Edited to add: I should have mentioned the other Clarke finalists. There was an unusual degree of overlap with the Hugos, with A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine, The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders and The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley on both lists; I read all three but did not blog them, as I was Deputy Hugo Administrator that year. A Memory Called Empire won the Hugo and was also on the Nebula final ballot. The other two shortlisted novels were Cage of Souls, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and The Last Astronaut, by David Wellington. None of the six was on the BSFA or Tiptree lists.

Arthur C. Clarke Award winners: The Handmaid’s Tale | Drowning Towers / The Sea and Summer | Unquenchable Fire | The Child Garden | Take Back Plenty | Synners | Body of Glass / He, She and It | Vurt | Fools | Fairyland | The Calcutta Chromosome | The Sparrow | Dreaming in Smoke | Distraction | Perdido Street Station | Bold As Love | The Separation | Quicksilver | Iron Council | Air | Nova Swing | Black Man | Song of Time | The City & The City | Zoo City | The Testament of Jessie Lamb | Dark Eden | Ancillary Justice | Station Eleven | Children of Time | The Underground Railroad | Dreams Before the Start of Time | Rosewater | The Old Drift | The Animals in That Country | Deep Wheel Orcadia

Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick

Second paragraph of third chapter:

She had never been given orders to socialise by a superior before. But then, she’d never before been given many of the orders she now got in the Fourth. Mrs Roberts had taken the telegram to Hilda from Eileen. In it, Eileen had played the pure innocent. Two long separated friends meeting in the middle of a war, and then she would try and find where the missing Ministry money and resources were going. Because it certainly wasn’t leaving the factory as steel parts for Avro Lancaster and Spitfire crankshafts.

First of another sub-series of the Lethbridge-Stewart books, set during the second world war in Derbyshire, and centring on Edward Travers and Eileen Le Croissette (who was actually a real person). The other Doctor Who reference is that the invading robots are the Quarks. It’s decent enough but not really breaking new ground, and I’m wondering how long I will stick with this series. You can get it here.

The Diplomat

We’ve been hugely enjoying the Netflix series, The Diplomat, over the last week or so. It’s about a woman who is appointed as the American ambassador to London in the midst of a crisis, little realising that this may be a step towards something much bigger, and also attempting (or not) to salvage her marriage. It looks gorgeous, as this trailer will demonstrate:

Of course, it’s all a bit different from the way these things work in real life – no US Ambassador would get sent to London without a confirmation hearing by the Senate. (Yes, technically it could be done by a recess appointment, but this is not mentioned in the show.) The level of access enjoyed by the ambassador to the UK Foreign Office, and vice versa, is a tad unrealistic; the fact that we see officials swirling around the protagonist, and not the equivalent flocks around her British counterparts, makes the British look distinctly and unrealistically unbureaucratic. POLITICO has mercilessly fact-checked the show from the American point of view, and the UK foreign secretary has done the same with a little more mercy:

But let’s be honest, we don’t watch Macbeth to learn about eleventh-century Scottish history. The script was fun, the international intrigue a little crazy but also engaging, and the actors good to look at. I remember Rufus Sewell smouldering in Cold Comfort Farm three decades ago. He does a good smoulder. And it’s nice to see T’Nia Miller again from Doctor Who, Years and Years and Foudnation, though I’d have liked to see a bit more of Pearl Mackie.

So yes, recommended if you don’t mind a show that is definitely more drama than documentary.

The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill

Second paragraph of third story (“Coming-of-Age Day”, by A.K. Jorgensson):

But you got some funny answers.

A 1978 anthology from Pan, including stories by Robert Silverberg, Thomas M. Disch, A.K. Jorgensson, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Aldiss, Hilary Bailey, John Sladek and Michael Moorcock. I’m afraid that despite the stellar array of authors and the potentially interesting subject matter, this is not a great collection; several of the stories depend on a rather rapey concept of consent, the Aldiss contribution is frankly incomprehensible (I see that this is its only publication apart from its original appearance in F&SF) and the Moorcock is an excerpt from Dancers at the End of Time that I already have in two different editions. Hilary Bailey’s “Sisters” is the best of these, and it’s more about bio weapons than sex. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2016 on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Shape of Irish History, by A.T.Q. Stewart.

July 2021 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

With things opening up again, I had two significant excursions in July 2021. The first was to nearby Park Abbey just south of Leuven, where for the first time I saw the astonishing work of Jean Christiaan Hansche in the ceilings of the library and the refectory. This became a bit of an obsession for me over the next few months.

Later in the month, F and I went to Paris before his 22nd birthday.

And I kept up my ten-day posts about the pandemic.

I read 21 books that month.

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 24)
Too Innocent Abroad: Letters Home from Europe 1949, by Joan Hibbard Fleming
The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, Commonly Called Mother Ross on Campaign with the Duke of Marlborough (incorrectly attributed to Daniel Defoe)

Non-genre 4 (YTD 17)
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, by Zora Neale Hurston
Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry, by Lucy Kellaway
The History of Mr Polly, by H.G. Wells

SF 11 (YTD 74)
Raybearer, by Jordan Ifueko
Riding the Unicorn, by Paul Kearney
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse
The Separation, by Christopher Priest
Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard
A Deadly Education, by Naomi Novik
Empire Games, by Charles Stross
“Grotto of the Dancing Deer”, by Clifford D Simak
The Kingdom of Copper, by S. A Chakraborty
The Dragon Republic, by R.F. Kuang

Doctor Who 3 (YTD 5, 7 inc comics)
The Last Pharaoh, by Iain McLaughlin and Claire Bartlett
Times Squared, by Rick Cross
Star Tales, ed. Steve Cole

Comics 1 (YTD 19)
Le dernier Atlas, tome 2, by Fabien Vehlmann, Gwen De Bonneval and Fred Blanchard

7,400 pages (YTD 40,100)
13/21 (YTD 65/144) by non-male writers (Hibbard Fleming, Davies/Ross, Eliot, Hurston, Kellaway, Ifueko, Roanhorse, Muir, de Bodard, Novik, Chakraborty, Kuang, Bartlett)
6/21 (YTD 30/144) by PoC (Hurston, Ifueko, Roanhorse, de Bodard, Chakraborty, Kuang)

Unusually I’m going to call out two excellent rereads -normally in these posts I concentrate on books read for the first time. But Middlemarch, which you can get here, is one of the best books I have ever read, and The Separation, which you can get here, is one of Christopher Priest’s best books.

Sunday reading

American Gridlock, eds. James Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross

Last books finished
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell
Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos, by Philip Martin
The Animals in That Country, by Laura Jean McKay

Next books
Vengeance on Varos, by Jonathan Dennis
The Second ‘If’ Reader, ed. Fredrik Pohl
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard

Northern Ireland local elections 2023

So, the headline is that Nationalist parties (those who would designate as Nationalists in the Assembly) outpolled Unionist parties (those who would designate as Nationalists in the Assembly) in Thursday’s local elections by 19,000 votes, and more than two percentage points. This is a first for Northern Ireland.

Nationalists (SF + SDLP + Aontu + IRSP): 300,565 (40.8%, +4.5%)
Unionists (DUP + UUP + TUV + PUP + Cons): 281,196 (38.2%, -3.7%)

My tweet about this last night got a lot of pickup, including getting me quoted in the Guardian. Some people pushed back at me saying that I should have counted People Before Profit as Nationalists, though they don’t designate as such; or that I should have counted Alliance as Unionists, though they too don’t designate as such; or that I should have counted independents, though they are not political parties by definition; or that I shouldn’t have done the calculation at all. The point remains: Unionist parties were outpolled by Nationalist parties for the first time ever.

This is important psychologically but not operationally. The criterion for triggering a referendum on a United Ireland is pretty much that the UK thinks it is likely to go that way. That outcome is not apparent from the above numbers, which show only 40.8% of voters supporting the election of candidates from Nationalist parties to local councils with limited powers. 40.8% is a lot – it’s more than 38.2% – but it’s not 50%, and the Nationalist vote share would need to be higher or have a larger lead to justify calling a Border Poll.

In the case of Catalonia, which I am familiar with, where pro-independence forces were in the zone of getting a majority of the electorate, the picture was complicated by a significant clump of voters who wanted a referendum on independence, for the sake of clarity and dignity, but also wanted to stay part of Spain. There is no such pro-referendum caucus within the 20% swing voters of the centre in Northern Ireland. Nationalists (in both Northern Ireland and Scotland) might start usefully working out how such a caucus could be persuaded into existence.

And, as I’ve said before, winning such a referendum is a different matter again. It requires three things: Brexit continues to be an obvious negative (✔), Unionists continue to talk only to their own core voters and ignore the persuadable middle (✔) and Nationalists come up with a credible counter-offer, including robust proposals on health care (✘). Nationalists have time to work on the third of these; Unionists are running out of time to work on the first two.

Looking at the details:

Antrim & Newtownabbey13-7–08+2+ Ind 1—9++++40
Ards & North Down1480-12++3 Ind, 2- Green1040
Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon13++6—-1+4+1 Ind1—–15+++++41
Belfast City14-21+11+3- Green, 1– PBP, 1+ Ind5-22++++60
Causeway Coast & Glens13-4—2++5+++1+ PUP3—12+++40
Derry & Strabane5–3+00–3- Ind, 1- PBP10-18+++++++40
Fermanagh & Omagh6+7–02+1— Ind3–21++++++40
Lisburn & Castlereagh14-6—–013++++1+ Ind24++40
Mid & East Antrim14-8+572- Ind0-4++40
Mid-Ulster11++2—-003+ Ind5-19++40
Newry, Mourne & Down5++1—05+++2— Ind8—20++++41
Not shown in above table:
2 PUP losses in Belfast
1 Ind loss in Causeway Coast and Glens
1 Aontu loss in Derry and Strabane
1 Lab loss in Fermanagh and Omagh
1 Green loss in Lisburn and Castlereagh

It will be apparent that while the majority of the SDLP’s losses were directly to Sinn Fein, only about half of the Sinn Fein gains came from the SDLP. The rest came from smaller groups/independents and Unionists. The campaign successfully persuaded many voters who don’t normally vote SF, or vote at all, to show solidarity with the concept that the leader of the party with the most votes should become First Minister. It is a stunning success, the best vote share ever for Sinn Fein in a Northern Ireland election. Alliance’s gains also demonstrated support for getting the institutions back up and running.

On the other side of the argument, the TUV failed to break through in any significant numbers – though they are still there – and the DUP were fortunate to avoid a net loss of seats despite slipping a full percentage point on vote share. It’s clear that their message has not resonated beyond the core vote, which is tactically a successful defence but strategically questionable. Cards on the table: I don’t see how blocking the institutions can be a successful strategy. It’s clear that London doesn’t care very much, so the blockade imposes no pressure on Westminster, while damaging the interests of the people who Unionism claims to represent. Worse, it undermines the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s continued existence as an entity. (See above.)

The crunch on smaller parties is severe, and I don’t see an easy way out of it. It’s the worst election result ever for the SDLP, and the second worst for the UUP. Neither has a clear unique selling point relevant to the current situation. I heard one SDLP speaker complaining that the electorate have forgotten who got the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago. In the real world, nobody fights this year’s elections on 1998’s outcomes. A UUP speaker complained that Nationalists were running too many candidates and should let other parties have a chance. That’s not how elections work.

On these numbers, the SDLP Westminster seats in Foyle and South Belfast look vulnerable, though I’m inclined to think that the incumbent will hang on in South Belfast. On the other hand, Alliance look more secure in North Down and better placed in East Belfast. Come an Assembly election, SF would be well in the lead, and Alliance in third place but some way behind the DUP.

So how was your weekend?


Parasite won the 2019 Best Picture Oscar, and three others: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film, more than any other film that year. The other contenders were Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I have not seen any of them. The Hugo that year went to a TV series and the Ray Bradbury Award to an episode of that same TV series.

It was the year of the pandemic so I don’t think I have seen any other films made that year except Knives Out, which I liked a lot, maybe a bit more than Parasite. (I think this is the least number of films that I have seen from any year since 1958.) IMDB users rate Parasite 3rd and 6th on the two rankings, respectable enough, with only Avengers: Endgame ahead of it on both.

Here’s a trailer.

Usually I run through the crossovers in terms of casting between each year’s Oscar winner, previous Oscar / Hugo / Nebula/Bradbury winners and Doctor Who, but here there aren’t any because the film is entirely Korean.

It’s the story of a deadbeat family in Seoul, the Kims, who manage to insinuate themselves into a rich household, the Parks, without revealing to their employers that they are all relatives. It turns out that there is a secret in the basement, and disaster ensues. It’s very funny and very well done. The Jungian theme of buried secrets is nicely executed. The audacity and sheer chutzpah of the Kims in pulling off their scheme can be seen as a small example of the class struggle, or a metaphor for any other sort of transformation if you like.

It’s great to see a completely local ensemble cast, with as many leading women as men, shining a light on a society that I don’t know very much about at all. English slang is freely used (as indeed it is in the streets of Brussels). European classical music is played. But there’s also the shadow of the nuclear rogue state whose frontier is only 40 km from the centre of Seoul. The Kims joke about it, but you know it’s serious as well.

I found the violence at the end of the movie as their scheme disintegrates rather jarring and not at all funny, after an hour and a half of solid laughs. So I’m bumping it down my ratings a bit. But otherwise this was a real find, and I’m ranking it between two other films about criminals, exactly a third of the way down my table, just below The Godfather and above The Sting.

Next up: Nomadland, of which I know nothing.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

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 80 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)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Second paragraph of third chapter:

He was on a street corner when he stopped, hand abrupt and white- knuckled on the wet metal of a lamppost, and took a few deep breaths with his eyes closed.

Another one from last year’s Best Editor Hugo packets (edited by winner Ruoxi Chen). A story of gay magicians in a very slightly parallel late Edwardian England. I actually thought the pacing was a bit off here, with the middle half set around the protagonist’s visit to his love interest’s family mansion, and then an abrupt jump forward in time before we get to the final section. But an unusual magic system, lushly described. You can get it here.

This was the top unread sf book in my pile. Next up is The Outcast, by Louise Cooper.

The John Nathan-Turner Doctor Who Production Diary, 1979-90, by Richard Molesworth

Second paragraph from third year (1981):

John had also overseen a complete change of regular cast, and once ‘Logopolis’ was completed in the early weeks of January 1981, he would be in charge of a show that he had totally cast himself. The unveiling of Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor had afforded a welcome shot of publicity, and the show now needed to capitalise on this.

The one Who book that I picked up at Gallifrey One this year, this is the archive of papers retrieved from John Nathan-Turner’s estate after his death, briefly running through most of the days of each of the years in which he was in charge of the show. The bones of the story have been told elsewhere, notably by Nathan-Turmer himself and by Richard Marson, so this is just extra supporting documentary evidence.

I did find a couple of points of interest, all the same. I hadn’t appreciated that JNT and Peter Davison were already friends from All Creatures Great and Small, which both had worked on. It’s clear that the 1986 cancellation crisis was caused in part by JNT taking his eye off the ball and doing too many pantomimes and US conventions. And I don’t think I had absorbed that the eventual cancellation in 1989 came about almost accidentally after a co-funding opportunity for the show fell through.

It’s also interesting to see the scripts that never were. A few of these have since been completed and recorded by Big Finish, most notably “Song of the Space Whale” by Pat Mills. I wonder what happened to American writer Lesley Elizabeth Thomas, who submitted a four-part story which never got to screen? There’s not much else about her online; I bet she is mainly known under a different name.

Anyway, this really is for the completist only, but the completist will enjoy it. You can get it here.

The Race, by Nina Allan

Second paragraph of third section:

It was the only thing they really rowed about, the biggest stumbling block to their relationship and the main reason they’d split up in the first place. Alex carried on where he was, working at the Gateway supermarket in Queen’s Road and trying to amass enough money to get away on. He found he couldn’t forget Linda though. He kept waiting for her to get back in touch but she didn’t. At the end of three months he finally caved in and phoned her.

Kindly given to me by the author in 2016, after it was one of the few BSFA shortlisted novels of the previous year that I did not read (I was burnt out by my first Clarke run). It’s a really good linkage of four stories, set in at least two different parallel near-contemporary Earths, with enhanced greyhounds and deep dark family secrets. Reflects on gender and gender violence, and on journeying to find yourself. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was the most popular unread book on my shelves acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Can You Solve My Problems?, by Alex Bellos.

June 2021 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

Another month when I did not leave Belgium, though I started going to the office regularly again. F, U and I had a particularly interesting excursion to just the other side of the Dijle valley where there are not one but two eleventh-century churches.

I kept up my ten-day updates.

And crucially I got my second vaccination at the end of the month.

My research into family history and genealogy continued: my great-great-uncle who died in the Johnstown Flood, my first cousin three times removed who acrimoniously split up with her boyfriend in 1842, and the baby in the park, my second cousin once removed.

This was also the month that my involvement with the 2021 Worldcon came to an abrupt end, after weeks in which the internal difficulties became ever more apparent. I resigned along with my entire team on 22 June; the Chair of the convention resigned in turn three days later.

I read 25 books that month.

Non-fiction 6 (YTD 22)
China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, by Peter Martin
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, by Lynell George
Don’t Be Evil: The Case Against Big Tech, by Rana Foroohar
Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins
Boys in Zinc, by Svetlana Alexievich
The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullagh

Non-genre 3 (YTD 13)
Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
All Among the Barley, by Melissa Harrison
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje

Poetry 3
Blind Harry’s Wallace, translated by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley
Beowulf: A New Translation, by Seamus Heaney

SF 9 (YTD 63)
Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey
Comic Inferno, by Brian W. Aldiss
The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane
Roger Zelazny’s The Dawn of Amber: Book 1, by John Gregory Betancourt
“Stories For Men”, by John Kessel
Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire
Cemetery Boys, by Aiden Thomas
The Monster’s Wife, by Kate Horsley
Light, by M. John Harrison

Comics 4 (YTD 18)
Monstress, vol. 5: Warchild, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Once & Future vol. 1: The King Is Undead, by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Ed Dukeshire
Wonder Woman: The Golden Age, Vol. 2 by William Moulton Marston
Parable of the Sower, written by Octavia Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

6,800 pages (YTD 32,700)
13/25 (YTD 52/123) by non-male writers (George, Foroohar, Alexievich, Fielding, Harrison,Headley, Gailey, MacFarlane, McGuire, Thomas, Horsley, Liu/Takeda, Butler)
6/25 (YTD 24/123) by PoC (George, Foroohar, Ondaatje, Thomas, Liu/Takeda, Butler)

Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire was tremendously enjoyable and ended up being my book of the year; you can get it here. Also good were David McCullough on the Johnstown Flood, which you can get here, and Heaney’s Beowulf, which you can get here. I tried Light by M. John Harrison again, and bounced off it again; you can get it here.

Guards! Guards!

Second paragraph of third section:

And there was light, of course, in the Library.

I’m proceeding through the Discworld books that I have not previously written up online, in order of their popularity on LibraryThing, and that has brought me to Guards! Guards!, the first of the Watch books. I think that this is the first that is really about politics and government – recurrent features in the previous ones, but here Pratchett introduces and / or develops the characters of the Patrician and Vimes, and of course Carrot, as three different takes on how the state could or should be run – contrasted with the conspirators with their unnamed king and then the dragon. Almost all of the humour is well-aimed (there’s a skit with a rich beggar that landed rather poorly for me) and it’s a good example of Pratchett getting into his humane and angry mode. I was glad to return to it. You can get it here.

Here’s the original Kirby cover:

Next up in this sequence is Wyrd Sisters.

The Colour of Magic | The Light Fantastic | Equal Rites | Mort | Sourcery | Wyrd Sisters | Pyramids | Guards! Guards! | Eric | Moving Pictures | Reaper Man | Witches Abroad | Small Gods | Lords and Ladies | Men at Arms | Soul Music | Interesting Times | Maskerade | Feet of Clay | Hogfather | Jingo | The Last Continent | Carpe Jugulum | The Fifth Elephant | The Truth | Thief of Time | The Last Hero | The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents | Night Watch | The Wee Free Men | Monstrous Regiment | A Hat Full of Sky | Going Postal | Thud! | Wintersmith | Making Money | Unseen Academicals | I Shall Wear Midnight | Snuff | Raising Steam | The Shepherd’s Crown

Sunday reading

Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
American Gridlock, eds. James Thurber and Antoine Yoshinaka
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross

Last books finished
Johnson at 10: the Inside Story, by Sir Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell
The Race, by Nina Allan
The John Nathan-Turner Doctor Who Production Diary, 1979-90, by Richard Molesworth
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske
The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill

Next books
Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos, by Philip Martin
The Second ‘If’ Reader, ed. Fredrik Pohl
Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, by Mary Beard

My grandmother in Paris: Shakespeare and Company

I was recently contacted by Joshua Kotin, Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, who runs a fascinating resource: the Shakespeare and Company Project. Any of you who know Paris today probably know the current bookshop of that name, just across the river from Notre Dame. But today’s bookshop is its second incarnation; the first Shakespeare and Company, run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 to 1941, was a hub for expatriate Americans (and to a lesser extent Brits and Irish) between the wars, and most famously published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 when nobody else would do so.

Shakespeare and Company was also a lending library, and Joshua Kotin and his team have been putting together as much as they can about the community who borrowed the books. There are some big names there: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Aimé Césaire, Simone de Beauvoir; there are some less well known names too, and one of them is Dorothy Hibbard, my grandmother, who lived in Paris from late 1918 until she married my grandfather in 1927 in Malaya (now Malaysia). She joined Shakespeare and Company for a month in August 1923, and renewed for a year in September 1923, September 1924, and October 1925. The address given in 1925 is 278 Boulevard Raspail, where she lived in a studio apartment from June 1924.

Frustratingly we don’t have the record of what she actually borrowed. Her own memoirs don’t name any books that she was reading, though she certainly read a lot (and her step-brother was the writer and critic Van Wyck Brooks). There is one tantalising note from late 1923, a couple of months after she joined the library, when her boyfriend of the time came to visit with his younger sister; she notes “We had some difficulty in finding a book in my library which was suitable reading for a well-brought-up French girl of sixteen!” I wonder what exactly she had borrowed from Sylvia Beach?!

The boyfriend, Loïc Petit de La Villéon, was a French naval officer whose first wife had died earlier that year, and I think his romance with my grandmother must have been a bit of a rebound for him, and as far as I can tell was her first semi-serious relationship (she was 24). He later married again and had several daughters. There is a marine scientist of the same name alive today, but it must be a great-nephew as he had no sons by either marriage.

The studio apartment at 278 Boulevard Raspail has a rather glorious history of its own. Ten years before my grandmother lived there, it was the base for Guillaume Apollinaire’s literary journal Les Soirées de Paris from 1912 to 1914, and hosted a concert by the musician and surrealist painter Alberto Savinio in May 1914. And ten years after my grandmother’s departure, it was the home of Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan from 1936 to 1938. It still exists as a mix of offices and apartments. It’s close to the Catacombs which are among my favourite Paris attractions.

The Fountains of Forever, by Nick Abadzis et al

For most books I review, I like to publish the second paragraph of the third chapter, or section; or just the third paragraph if there are no chapters or sections. For comics, I try and identify the second frame of the third issue, but this is a compilation of a short singleton story and two two-part stories, whose four parts are actually merged into a whole to the point where you can’t easily see where the issues started and finished. So here is the third frame of the first story.

Starts with a short and breezy story about the Tenth Doctor, Gabby and the Tardis’s washing machines, answering the question my mother always used to ask about how the Doctor and companions keep their clothes clean.

Then we’re into a story marketed under two titles, “The Fountains of Forever” for the first two parts and “Spiral Staircase” for the third and fourth, set in New York where an unexpectedly rejuvenated movie star become the focus of the Osirians attempt to return to Earth after the Pyramids of Mars. There’s a nice little moment where the Tenth Doctor retro-regenerates into the Ninth, and back again. Good atmospherics in general. You can get it here.

I’ve had better luck with this Who reading project than with some. Next up is The Endless Song, by the same team.

Johnson at 10: the Inside Story, by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘One hundred and nineteen days, Prime Minister. George Canning,’ replies an aide.

Tantalised by the reviews and published snippets, and searching for something very different to read after finishing the Clarke submissions, I gave in and coughed up $11 (on American Amazon) for this much discussed book about the dreadful mess of Boris Johnson’s term as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It’s not just, or not even a matter of policy; he was quite simply a very bad prime minister.

I think readers will be aware that I was never Johnson’s biggest fan. He cynically supported Brexit because he thought (correctly) that it would make him Prime Minister (though he screwed up on the first attempt in 2016), building on a career of lies about Europe and about his personal life. In office as Foreign Secretary, he displayed casual incompetence to the point where he endangered the life of a British citizen held captive in Iran. He endorsed Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU, before deciding that it would be more convenient to resign in protest, disrupting and upstaging a Balkans conference in London that the UK had laboured on for months. From then on, it was only a matter of time before he got to Number 10.

Seldon and Newell have interviewed hundreds of people who worked in the Johnson government, mostly but not all off the record, to build a comprehensive picture of how and why it was such a disaster. And the answer is pretty clear. Like Lloyd George a hundred years before, Johnson came into the office distrusted by large parts of the political system and with a chaotic personal life distracting him. But Lloyd George was good at surrounding himself with other strong figures and listening to them, and also had a vision for what he wanted to achieve, which enabled him to achieve it.

Johnson filled his cabinet with mediocrities and created a team in Number 10, including his partner/wife, whose main job was sniping at each other. (His mayorship of London had been supported by a strong team of advisers, most of whom refused to work with him again in Number 10.) His vision did not exist, beyond winning the 2019 election and “getting Brexit done”. But most of all, his personality is so flawed that he is unable to exercise leadership. He says one thing before a meeting, another in the meeting and something else entirely after it is over. He hates making decisions. He doesn’t really like or understand people in general. He has no idea how government works, and is therefore incapable of governing.

Seldon and Newell have arranged their book thematically rather than chronologically. This is sometimes a little confusing as events come out of order, but probably for the best overall. They look at Johnson’s rise, Brexit, the 2019 election, the (lack of) agenda, COVID, Cummings, domestic policy, foreign policy, the shifting cast of characters in Number 10 and the eventual collapse. The Cummings chapter is the longest, at 69 pages, and his gaunt shadow looms over most of the rest. At the end the authors ask which of the many possible culprits was most responsible for Johnson losing office, and the answer is clear: it was Johnson himself.

There are a couple of points to be said in Johnson’s favour. He did win an election with a clear majority, which is a notable achievement even in the supposedly decisive British system (helped of course by the incompetence at the time of Labour and the Lib Dems). He was seriously committed to Net Zero, and was ready to argue the toss on climate with sceptics in his own party, though less good at doing the preparatory legwork for the Glasgow COP meeting. He came in early and strong on Ukraine’s side in the war, and helped consolidate the G7 and NATO in support. (Though there too, the UK is a smaller player compared to the US and the EU.)

But otherwise there is nothing much to be said for him as a prime minister. His Brexit deal was deeply deficient; I wish the authors had gone a bit more into the Northern Ireland Protocol, though I must admit they may be right to leave that to the specialists. His flagship “levelling-up” agenda got nowhere because he was unable and unwilling to give it leadership. His reluctance to lock down earlier in the COVID waves cost thousands of lives. He allowed Cummings to erode the structures of the constitution, and tolerated unethical behaviour by his allies to beyond the breaking point of government standards. He learned nothing, and forgot nothing. (Also, he seriously thought you could build a bridge/tunnel between Northern Ireland and Scotland.)

None of this can come as any surprise. Johnson’s character flaws were obvious, and widely reported by those who had previously attempted to work with him, going back to his days as a schoolboy at Eton. I have some sympathy for those who joined his team after the event, hoping to make the best of a bad job. But nobody who supported Johnson’s rise to power deserves to have their political judgement trusted on anything else. (And that includes Rishi Sunak, whose late endorsement during the leadership campaign was an important moment.)

This is already long enough, but I was interested in personal glimpses of two people who I know a little and a third who I am fascinated by. I knew Martin Reynolds, the Principal Private Secretary to Johnson, when he was a mid-level diplomat in Brussels fifteen years ago. He is more capable than most officials, but was nonetheless out of his depth in the sheer awfulness of trying to manage the Johnson system. On the other hand, John Bew, Johnson’s main foreign policy advisor, is one of the few people to come out of the book looking good; he gave sound advice and wrote a substantive paper on UK global strategy post-Brexit. His father was a colleague of my father’s; I last saw John when he was about ten years old, and I’m glad he is doing well.

The third person of interest is the late Queen Elizabeth II. Although manipulated by Johnson into proroguing Parliament, she did him a massive favour during the pandemic by giving him permission to jog in the grounds of Buckingham Palace – a nice human gesture, at palatial scale. Much more importantly, it’s strongly hinted that the crucial breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations, when Johnson and Leo Varadkar spoke on the afternoon of 8 October 2019 (after a disastrous conversation between Johnson and Merkel), was directly suggested to Johnson by the Queen. It’s certainly difficult to identify anyone else who could have made the suggestion and that he would have listened to, and impossible to imagine him thinking of it on his own. If so, it’s one of the most consequential personal political interventions of her reign.

The acknowledgements include this peculiar back-hander:

We would like to thank Isaac Farnworth and John Paton, but cannot for the life of us remember what you did to help.

This is not a great book. The writing style is breathless and occasionally out of breath, sometimes repetitive, sometimes clunky. The trees get a lot of attention, the forest as a whole not so much and the outside world very little. I can really recommend it only to fascinated spectators of slow-motion political train crashes (though I admit that I am one, and there are a lot of us around). You can get it here.

May 2021 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

The most important news of the month was getting my first COVID injection. Weird to think that the pandemic had been going on for fourteen months at this stage. I also seemt o have started going back to the office at this stage, and we were holding office parties in the nearby parks.

With the public holidays, I had two excursions southwards: to Mons on my own, and with two colleagues to see Merovingian metalwork at Mariemont near Mons.

I met up with long-lost cousins in Belgium, and helped solve another genealogy case in the USA.

And I kept up my ten-day blogging about the pandemic.

I read 16 books that month.

Non-fiction 2 (YTD 16)
Doctor Who: The Pandorica Opens: Exploring the Worlds of the Eleventh Doctor, by Frank Collins
Statement and Correspondence Consequent on the Ill-Treatment of Lady de la Beche by Colonel Henry Wyndham, edited by Ann Auriol

Non-genre 3 (YTD 10)
Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally
The Complete Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant
Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom

SF 7 (YTD 54)
The Evidence, by Christopher Priest
In the Days of the Comet, by H. G. Wells
Cloud on Silver by John Christopher
All the Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
Finna, by Nino Cipri
City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Comics 4 (YTD 14)
DIE, Volume 2: Split the Party, by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist, by Adrian Tomine
Ghost-Spider vol. 1: Dog Days Are Over, by Seanan McGuire, Takeshi Miyazawa and Rosie Kämpe
Invisible Kingdom, vol 2: Edge of Everything, by G. Willow Wilson and Christian Ward

4,600 pages (YTD 25,900)
6/16 (YTD 39/98) by non-male writers (de la Beche/Auriol, Sharma, Cipri, Hans, McGuire/Kämpe, Wilson)
3/16 (YTD 18/98) by PoC (Sharma, Tomine, Miyazawa)

All the Fabulous Beasts, by Priya Sharma, is really fantastic. You can get it here.

Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom, really sucks. You can get it here.

Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister

Second paragraph of third chapter:


Way back in 1989-90, as the world changed forever, I shared a house in Cambridge with a guy called Andrew. Years passed and we fell out of touch, and then it suddenly turned out that he was writing science fiction as a side gig from his environmental consultancy job, and we net for the first time in a quarter of a century at Eastercon in 2016. It is a small world sometimes.

This was his debut book, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve only now got around to reading it. It is jolly good. There are two and a half interlinked plots: one follows the memorable villain, the other the spunky heroine, with flashbacks to explain the history of her relationship with her AI guardian. Both villain and heroine are chasing abandoned ancient tech of mindblowing capability (the eponymous Creation Machine). It’s mostly space opera but leaps into cyberpunk at the end. I found it compellingly written, and I shall get the sequels in the trilogy – though I’m glad to say that this first volume is self-contained. You can get it here.

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is The Second ‘If’ Reader, ed. Fredrik Pohl.

This was the first non-Clarke book that I finished reading this month, so now I’m only a week behind. But once the Clarke shortlist is announced, I’m going to start publishing brief reports on the books that I read through to the end but were not shortlisted.

The Underwater Menace, by James Cooray Smith (and Geoffrey Orme, and Nigel Robinson)

When I first listened to the audio of The Underwater Menace in 2007, and watched what was then the only remaining episode, I had fully absorbed the fan consensus that it is terrible, and I wrote:

The Underwater Menace, from Patrick Troughton’s first season in early 1967, is notorious – even the normally upbeat Howe and Walker describe it as “undoubtedly the weakest of the second Doctor’s era, if not of the sixties as a whole”. Fortunately, in a way, only episode three (out of four) survives, and today’s fan can buy the soundtrack with narration by Anneke Wills who played Polly (the story featuring her, Ben and new companion Jamie). This means that we are not subjected to the awful production values and can let our imaginations fill in for the cheap-looking sets. As a sound only production it comes close to succeeding, with the main problems being the baffling ballet of the fish people in episode three (which in fact becomes more rather than less confusing when you actually see it) and the utterly clichéd villain, Professor Zaroff, who actually ends the third episode by declaring that nothing in the world can stop him now. The director, Julia Smith, went on to create EastEnders; this cannot have been a high point of her early career.

It does feature the most extensively featured Irish character in any Doctor Who story [arguably until Thaddea Graham as Bel in 2021], P.G. Stephens’ trapped sailor Sean (who is teamed up with Jacko, a trapped Asian sailor played by Paul Anil). As I have previously noted, there is not a lot of competition. It is not fair to say that he has “the least convincing Irish accent in television history”, as he has a long acting career both in Ireland [dead link] and England (playing mainly Irish parts, including a comedy IRA bomber [another dead link]), but he is certainly as wobbly in his acting as any of the rest of the guest cast, especially in the deeply embarrassing scene where he urges the fish people to revolt.

When I came back to it in 2010 for my Great Rewatch, I was no less forgiving.

Ow. The Underwater Menace is the first really bad story for some time, in fact almost as bad as The Sensorites which is my least favourite story so far. The plot is dreadfully padded – the Tardis crew faffing around getting captured in the first episode, wandering around in caves in the second episode, the hideously embarrassing fish-people dance in the surviving third episode, more cave wanderings in the last episode. The plot is fundamentally stupid, and Joseph Furst intensely annoying as Professor Zaroff. (Likewise Peter Stephens, doing a reprise of Cyril the schoolboy as Lolem the high priest; and the risible parts written for Token Irish Guy and Token Black Guy.)

As minor compensation, it looks decent enough, and the early Dudley Simpson score generally works; and some of the supporting cast are good – Ara (played by 16-year-old Catherine Howe who went on to a successful career in music) is clearly deeply in love with Polly, in the most overt gay crush in Who since Ian and Marco Polo. And Troughton carries it well, conveying at least his own confidence in the story (however feigned that may have been). Episode Three is the thirteenth Second Doctor episode, but the earliest to survive. I can’t help feeling that any one of the previous twelve would have been better.

A year later, of course, the missing second episode was recovered, and I watched it for the first time last month in preparation for this post; and you know what? I have revised my opinion of the story substantially upwards. Perhaps it’s that the second episode generally looks good enough; perhaps it’s that the intervening decade since 2011 has seen Moffat and Chibnall stories which were easily as silly in their premises as The Underwater Menace; perhaps my own tastes have matured enough that I am confident in my own judgement without relying on fan wisdom. The fish people are still a bit strange, but we’ve seen similar in New Who. I think my tolerance for what Doctor Who should be like has been broadened by the last two show-runners. You can judge for yourself by getting the DVD with reconstructions here and the audio only narration by Anneke Wills here.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation by Nigel Robinson, introducing Dr Zaroff, is:

Lolem stalked angrily up to the figure who had just entered the temple and had evidently given the black uniformed guards their orders. The newcomer was tall and dressed in a high-collared white coat; a short black cloak hung over his shoulders. A shock of prematurely white hair covered his head, and a pencil-thin moustache topped his cruel mouth. The skin of his long aristocratic face was sallow but his large eyes gleamed with an icy-blue brilliance.

When I read it for the first time in 2008, I was also unforgiving:

This is very poor. It’s not quite as bad as Robinson’s novelisation of The Sensorites, and in the earlier chapters I thought it seemed quite promising. But the prose soon descends into his trademark clunkiness, and the story’s most famous line actually manages to come over even worse on the printed page than it does in the original.

Again, I don’t think I was being fair. It’s a perfectly adequate novelisation; a bit of back-story is given to Ara, Sean and Jacko, and even to Zaroff. You can get it here (if you are lucky).

This is the first time in this run of rewatches that I have found myself substantially revising my opinion of a story. Of course, it’s partly that there was a whole new episode here that I had not seen before. I was therefore in an open frame of mind when I started on James Cooray Smith’s Black Archive monograph; he had already done yeoman’s work on The Massacre and The Ultimate Foe, so my expectations were high.

And I was not disappointed. This is a more personal account than some of the Black Archives have been, as Cooray Smith was actually present at the BFI event in 2011 when, without any prior warning, the missing episode was shown to a crowd who had mainly come to the event for other reasons. Several of the Black Archives have made the point that our reception of past Doctor Who episodes is often dynamic rather than static; this is a very good case in point.

The first chapter, “Prehistoric monsters” looks at the reception of The Underwater Menace before 2011, pointing out that it was one of the most obscure of Old Who stories.

It neither introduces or writes out any memorable characters, nor features any popular monsters or villains. There are no references to it in subsequent television Doctor Who. It is one of a vanishingly small number of 20th-century Doctor Who stories to have no substantial sequel or prequel in any medium. With very few photographs taken during production, there was little visual material for use in the various glossy Doctor Who history books produced in the 1980s, whose printing of often striking colour photographs from black-and-white serials did much to shape fandom’s perceptions of the series’ earliest years.

The second chapter, “Hope it’s the Daleks”, describes the event on 11 December 2011 when Mark Gatiss presented both the third episode of Galaxy 4 and the second episode of The Underwater Menace. I remember this vividly too, though I was not there; the news hit Twitter as I was dining in a bistro near the main station in Luxembourg, on my way to a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, possibly the first time I learned something important from Twitter as a news source. Cooray Smith also points out that the episode’s subsequent DVD release was a bit underwhelming.

The third chapter, “Please let it be… 1966”, briskly recounts the fraught writing and production of the story. Its second paragraph is:

The Tenth Planet (1966) had been rewritten as a swansong for William Hartnell’s Doctor and then its third episode had been hurriedly redrafted1 when Hartnell became unavailable. The Power of the Daleks required the temporary return of former Story Editor Dennis Spooner to the role (in addition to work performed by Davis in that capacity and rewrites by credited writer David Whitaker). The Highlanders (1966-67), made before The Underwater Menace but commissioned and initially intended to be made after it, was written by Davis after the contracted writer, BBC executive Elwyn Jones, failed to deliver any material at all, and was scripted with such urgency that all the necessary paperwork surrounding Davis’ commission was delayed until after most of the story had been made.
1 The original version, the Doctor playing a larger role in events, is retained in Gerry Davis’s novelisation.

The fourth chapter, “What have I come upon?”, looks in depth at Episode 2 and how watching it changes one’s perceptions of the story as a whole, exactly the experience I had had myself a few days before reading the chapter.

What the recovery of episode 2 has gifted us, however, in addition to a whole extra episode of 20th-century Doctor Who to enjoy, is a tremendous real-time demonstration of how any even only partially missing Doctor Who serial cannot ever really be understood as a piece of television, no matter how much secondary and supplementary material exists.

One utterly glorious bit of trivia. For many years, the only surviving segments of Episode 2 were those that had been cut from it by Australian censors for being too scary. The recovered copy of the episode turned out to have been the very one from which the Australian censors had cut the scenes, so they were reinserted into the master copy, half a century later on a different continent.

The fifth chapter, “Science is in opposition to ancient temple ritual”, looks at the tension between science and religion in the story, in the course of which the Doctor allies himself with the High Priest against Professor Zaroff, not the usual way around for these situations in Doctor Who.

The sixth chapter, “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”, offers a redemptive reading of the character of Professor Zaroff. Again, now that we have episode 2 as well, I can see that Joseph Furst’s performance, and the character as written, are much less over the top than fan lore would have had you believe.

The seventh chapter, “I should like a hat like that!”, looks at the question of the Second Doctor’s tall hat, which is seen for the last time in The Underwater Menace. Cooray Smith reckons that it was badly damaged in the filming of the previous story, The Highlanders, and thus quietly abandoned.

The eighth chapter, “Look at him! He’s not normal, is he?”, makes a good case that Troughton’s performance as the Doctor only really settles down after The Underwater Menace.

The ninth chapter, “A New Atlantis”, looks at the very little that is known of the writer, Geoffrey Orme, and examines the socialist elements of the plot – notably the strike of the Fish People as one of the few cases of industrial action in Doctor Who, and speculates that their infamous dance is rooted in the work of Ernst and Lotte Berk, with whom Orme had professional connections. I was convinced.

An appendix, “Vital secret will die with me! Dr. W”, looks in amusing and extensive detail at the question of whether the name of the lead character of the show is “Doctor Who” or not.

A second and final appendix reviews the production schedule of the story, whose studio sessions were recorded only a week before they were broadcast.

It’s all very satisfactory, and after a run of Black Archives which I was less happy with, this is reassuringly back to the usual excellent form.

Having said that, there is one very annoying production glitch. As has sometimes been the case before, it involves the footnotes; in this case, most of them are duplicated. It rather breaks up the reading experience.

Other than that, I really recommend this – after you have seen the recovered second episode. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Underwater Menace (40) | The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: Doctor Who and the Silurians (39) | The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24) | Invasion of the Dinosaurs (55)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Hand of Fear (53) | The Deadly Assassin (45) | The Face of Evil (27) | The Robots of Death (43) | Talons of Weng-Chiang (58) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | The Sun Makers (60) | The Stones of Blood (47) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Kinda (62) | Black Orchid (8) | Earthshock (51) | The Awakening (46)
6th Doctor: Vengeance on Varos (41) | Timelash (35) | The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Paradise Towers (61) | Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25) | The Night of the Doctor (49)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1) | Dalek (54)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13) | The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (38)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | Vincent and the Doctor (57) | The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang (44) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9) | The Rings of Akhaten (42) | Day of the Doctor (50)
12th Doctor: Listen (36) | Kill the Moon (59) | The Girl Who Died (64) | Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)
13th Doctor: Arachnids in the UK (48) | Kerblam! (37) | The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos (52) | The Haunting of Villa Diodati (56) | Flux (63)

Sunday reading

The John Nathan-Turner Doctor Who Production Diary, 1979-90, by Richard Molesworth
The Race, by Nina Allan
A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

Last books finished
Creation Machine, by Andrew Bannister
The Fountains of Forever, by Nick Abadzis et al
α5 (did not finish)
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
β5 (did not finish)

Next books
Home Fires Burn, by Gareth Madgwick
The Shape of Sex to Come, ed. Douglas Hill
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross

The oldest church in Belgium and the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe – menhirs; donkeys; forest; Wilfred Owen; Henri Matisse; August Bergin; the forum at Bavay

Anne and I had a little 24-hour excursion at the end of the long weekend just gone, mainly exploring the arrondissement of Avesnes-sur-Helpe in the département du Nord of the Hauts-de-France region, a small corner of the Republic that ended up French rather than Belgian due to the 1678 Treaty of Nijmegen which allowed Louis XIV to take it from the County of Hainaut. It has been rather neglected by its overlords in the 345 years since.

But before we got there, we stopped off at the Collegiate Church of St Ursmer in the small town of Lobbes near Charleroi. It is supposedly the oldest church in Belgium, and this year is celebrating the 1200th anniversary of its consecration in 823. Little is known of St Ursmer, a local boy who became bishop and is buried in the crypt (well, most of him; bits and bobs are in reliquaries). But the crisp, clean geometrical arches of the ninth-century church fabric are currently crowded with an exhibition of the iconography of the saint and how this affected the church.

The external view shows the ancient core and 19th-century spire.

St Ursmer’s major miracle was exorcising a demon from a nun, whose name has been forgotten, though artists agree that the demonic presence was expelled from her mouth.

The exhibition will stay in the church until, er, next Monday, and will then transfer to the former sacristy of the Abbey of Good Hope in Lobbes from 18 June, if you want to catch it there.

The church is only 10km from the border with France, and so we slipped across to the small French village of Sars-Poteries where various menhirs from the neighbourhood have been collected. My Celtic soul is still a bit revolted at the thought of moving the sacred monoliths from the places where their builders put them, but I suppose it is better than losing them altogether. One of them stands proud and upright in the centre of the village; the others recline in retirement nearby.

We stayed at Les Mout’ânes, a pension in the small town of Saint-Hilaire-sur-Helpe, where a luxurious double room with breakfast costs a mere € 89. Strongly recommended. They also have donkeys.

They don’t, unfortunately, do dinner for groups of less than four, so in the evening we headed down to La Petite Ferme de Lucien in Fourmies, a steakhouse in the style of an American diner except with French culinary standards. Very yummy.

On Monday morning we decided to explore the Parc naturel régional de l’Avesnois, which occupies most of the land surface of the arrondissement. This proved a little difficult; there are no real centres of tourist information, no established walks, and not a lot of information on the ground. We stopped at the arboretum in the Forest of Mormal near Locquignol where there are a couple of amusing wooden statues.

As we drove on to our next destination, we passed a sign labelled “Wilfred Owen”, and went back to investigate. Like all UKanian schoolkids, we were taught several of his gut-wrenching war poems in our English Literature classes. The house where he wrote his last letter to his mother on 31 October 1918 has been transformed into a large sculptural memorial, but sadly was not open on 1 May.

We parked there anyway and walked for twenty minutes through the woods to his grave in the nearby village of Ors; a few dozen British soldiers are buried in the municipal cemetery, including Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly a week before the war ended. The woods were alive with birdsong and the cemetery was quiet. It was a thought-provoking walk.

I should add that I had consulted many French tourism websites about things to see in the arrondissement, and not one of them mentioned Wilfred Owen’s grave. We found it completely by accident.

Our destination at that point was the Matisse museum in the former bishop’s palace at Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where he was born. As is often the case with such museums, most of his best known art is elsewhere – there are two other museums in France alone which have more of his work. But there is enough here to show his evolution as a painter, from the 1899 First Still Life with Orange:

…to the 1906/07 portrait of his daughter Marguerite:

…to his later experiments with cut-outs, as with the 1946 Océanie – La Mer.

Upstairs, the museum has a lot more art by modern artists – lots of Alberto Giacometti, some Miró, a Picasso, a few by Fernand Léger (who impressed me at the Kröller-Müller Museum last year); and a large collection of art by Auguste Herbin, another local boy who neither Anne nor I had previously heard of, but who completely wowed us. This is a case where almost none of his art is elsewhere and the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis has almost all of it. He started fairly representational, eg these early Chrysanthemums:

But then he went completely geometric in various media. Here’s a flat piece with the title Napoleon:

Here’s a more three-dimensional piece whose title I failed to record:

Here are two stools with Herbin covers:

And most spectacular of all, here’s a stained glass window, with the title Joy, that he designed for a local elementary school (this is an exact copy; the original is still in the school, where we later saw it from the outside).

This stunning museum charged us € 4 each as the cost of entry. I can certainly think of many occasions when I have spent five times as much to have five times less fun. It was practically empty and it was well worth the trip. (The same, sadly, could not be said for the lunch at the Restaurant du Musée Matisse across the street, where the service was slow and the food a bit disappointing.)

Finally we stopped off at Bavay for a look at the huge ancient Roman forum there; but unfortunately it was closed due to the bank holiday. We’ll have to go back.

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, by Paula Fredriksen

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Why his followers had this experience is an interesting question. After all, many other Jews in this period followed other charismatic, prophetic figures (John the Baptizer comes readily to mind); but none of their movements outlived the death of their founder. Why was this group different?

An interesting book on the very early history of Christianity, between the time of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem, looking at what are effectively trace fossils in the records to get a sense of what the followers of Christ believed and did. The only real contemporary witness is St Paul in his letters, though Fredriksen also gives a lot of weight to Flavius Josephus.

The crucial point is that the early Christians expected the apocalypse at any moment, and structures therefore didn’t need to be established for the long term; but they gradually evolved from being dissident groups within local synagogues to becoming free-standing communities, a process partly driven by their acceptance of non-Jews among the ranks. (Fredriksen observes that Jesus himself was a bit hesitant about non-Jews.)

The destruction of the temple – and indeed Caligula’s earlier threat to desecrate it – convulsed the Jewish world and shook the Christians definitively into a separate channel. That’s a different story, but the decades leading up to that are well depicted in this book. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019; next on that pile is One Bible Many Voices, by Susan E. Gillingham.

April 2021 books

This is the latest post in a series I started in late 2019, anticipating the twentieth anniversary of my bookblogging at the end of October 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 recent circumstances. If you want to look back at previous entries, they are all tagged under bookblog nostalgia.

Another month when I mainly stayed at home, apart from a birthday excursion to the east of Belgium for more megaliths.

And I went to a museum with little U.

We were devastated by the death of our old friend Liz Marley.

I kept up my ten-day posts.

I also wrote about my American ancestors featuring in art.

Worldcon continued to provide drama, with the publication of the final ballot arousing much controversy, and the entire convention being postponed until December (giving rise to further arguments about the rules). More positively, it was announced that I would be a Guest of Honour at the next year’s Eastercon.

Non-fiction 1 (YTD 14)
Kathedralen uit de steentijd, by Herman Clerinx

Non-genre 2 (YTD 7)
The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco

SF 12 (YTD 47)
Worlds Apart, by Richard Cowper
Network Effect, by Martha Wells
Kaleidoscope: diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories, eds Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi
The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo
The Gameshouse, by Claire North
Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn (did not finish)
The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal
The Serpent Sea, by Martha Wells
The Orphans of Raspay, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Two Truths and a Lie, by Sarah Pinsker
The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi
Doctor Who 1 (YTD 2, 4 inc comics)
Adventures in Lockdown, ed. Steve Cole
Comics 5 (YTD 10)
Muse vol 1: Celia, by Terry Dodson & Denis-Pierre Filippi
Muse vol 2: Coraline, by Terry Dodson & Denis-Pierre Filippi
Le dernier Atlas, tome 1, by Fabien Vehlmann, Gwen De Bonneval and Fred Blanchard
Feeders & Eaters & other stories, by Neil Gaiman, art by Mark Buckingham
Sculpture Stories, by Neil Gaiman with Lisa Snellings

4,800 pages (YTD 21,300)
9/21 (YTD 33/82) by women (Wells x2, Krasnostein/Rios, Vo, North, Deonn, Kowal, Bujold, Pinsker)
3/21 (YTD 15/82) by PoC (Onyebuchi, Vo, Deonn)

There were a couple of these that I did not like, but you know what, let’s celebrate half a dozen that I liked very much.

Kathedralen uit de steentijd: hunebedden, dolmens en menhirs in de Lage Landen, by Herman Clerinx (get it here)
The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris (get it here)
Kaleidoscope: diverse YA science fiction and fantasy stories, eds Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios (get it here)
Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi (get it here)
The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo (get it here)
Two Truths and a Lie, by Sarah Pinsker (get it here)