26 April 1910, 1986, 2005

It’s my 57th birthday today.

Why, thank you!

On the one hand, I don’t feel especially old, just slightly unfit and middle-aged as usual. On the other, it’s extraordinary to think that someone who had their 57th birthday on the day I was born would themselves have been born in 1910.

Such a person is the fantastically glamorous Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, 阮玲玉, also known as Lily Chen, a major star of the Shanghai silent movie scene around 1930. Here she is in her 1931 hit Love and Duty, long believed lost until the early 1990s.

Sadly she was not able to celebrate her 57th birthday in 1967, because she died aged 24 in 1935.

Also born on 26 April 1910 and also very big in his own country’s movie industry, Tomoyuki Tanaka, 田中友幸, is generally recognised as the creator of the Godzilla franchise. His 1967 film King Kong Escapes features an evil robot double of King Kong invented – I am not making this up – by the sinister Dr Who.

The day I was born was also the 57th birthday of Swedish composer Erland von Koch. In 1967 he was appointed to the Order of Vasa, and also published the first version of his string orchestra piece Arioso:

The Bosnian writer Meša Selimović was also born on 26 April 1910. His most famous novel, Death and the Dervish, was published in 1966; he followed it up in 1967 with a potted history of Serbian orthography and language standardisation, Za i protiv Vuka.

The guy in the book cover is Vuk Karadžić, not Meša Selimović

See also Austrian composer Ernst Tittel, Dutch soldier and politician Herman Vos, Danish actor Else Petersen, Swedish actor Solveig Hedengran, and American psychiatrist Otto Will.

57 is of course three times nineteen, and I am reflecting on things that I did on my 19th and 38th birthdays. On my 19th birthday in 1986, I was working on an archaeology site in Germany, getting to grips with a profession that in truth I never really wanted to profess.

More notoriously, 26 April 1986 was the day that the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in Ukraine. I have worried off and on since then about the potential effects of the radiation cloud drifting across Germany as I did my outdoor work, but 38 years on I appear to have lived to tell the tale.

I celebrated my 38th birthday on 26 April 2005 by speaking at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian Senate. Here I am with my new intern J (originally from Pittsburgh but of Ukrainian/Russian heritage) waiting in the wings:

J now lives in Kosovo, and I caught up with her 15 years later in 2019, by which time she was now 38, the same age as me in the photo above.

Incidentally I take the 38 bus from Central Station to my office in Brussels.

I will hope to come back to this post in 2043 on my 76th birthday, and review the careers of people born in 26 April 1891!

Slovakia and the United Kingdom: the first 30 years, by Pavol Demeš

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The British ambassador to Czecho-Slovakia, David Brighty, became the Ambassador to both Republics after the dissolution of the state. From Prague, he also covered Slovakia (as a non-resident ambassador) until a fully-fledged Embassy was built in Bratislava, and in 1994 he handed over the baton to the first head of the British diplomatic mission in Slovakia, Michael Bates. At first he was Chargé d’affaires before becoming Ambassador (1994 — 1995). Bates was suceeded in 1995 by Ambassador Peter Harborne, who served in Slovakia until 1998

I was in Bratislava two weeks ago (as previously noted) and met up with my old friend Pavol Demeš, who among other things was the foreign minister of Slovakia just before its break-up with the Czechs. He has now produced this commemoration of the UK-Slovakia relationship for the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, and you can download it for free here.

A lot of it is simply recapitulation of diplomatic routine – exchanges of ambassadors, state visits – but it’s good to hear the voice of genuine enthusiasm for external engagement that comes through loud and clear. The book is in parallel Slovak and English texts, with photographs in the middle, one of which features Pavol himself in his ministerial years. (He’s on the left in the group photo.)

Pavol is a keen photographer himself, but has included only a couple of his own photos. I particularly like this one, taken on the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994 on the royal yacht Britannia, of someone who was normally very much on her guard when in the public eye.

For myself, it was interesting to be reminded of the past roles of a lot of my Slovak political contacts – leaving aside the living, I knew Eduard Kukan as a Member of the European parliament and a Balkanist, but he had a distinguished career in domestic politics and diplomacy as well.

A book for specialists only, I think, but very nicely done.

Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Ruby and her band were performing their usual Christmas set, full of old classics and crowd-pleasers, with some newer, cooler Christmas anthems snuck in. The rosy-cheeked patrons laughed and chatted, coats unbuttoned, bobble hats hanging off chairs, scarves trailing forgotten on the floor. Behind the bar, a boy Ruby knew from around the area served drinks with a cheerful smile, a tinsel crown in his hair.

Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson is new to the Whoniverse, and charmed everyone at Gallifrey One this year, though unfortunately there were not enough copies of this novelisation around for me to get one. Anyway, it’s a breezy, enjoyable revisiting of the first full Fifteenth Doctor story, with a bit more background for Ruby, and sensibly not trying to reproduce the stunning visuals in printed form. She catches the voice of the new Doctor well, but we don’t find out much more about him, perhaps even less than usual for a Who novelisation; perhaps there are surprises in store. You can get it here.

Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu

Second paragraph of “The Fatal Bride”, as presented here:

With these few preliminary remarks, now offered once for all, I shall end the te- dious task of introduction, and plunge at once into the business of my story, mere- ly reiterating, by way of supplemental caution, that names and titles, and a few de- tails of locality, which I fancied might indicate individuals, and lead to detection, have been suppressed and altered; but that in the substance, and, indeed, with those exceptions, in all the minor details of these narratives, I shall observe a strict adherence to the facts, as they were either related to me, or came within my own personal knowledge.

Le Fanu is one of those overlooked nineteenth-century Irish writers of the Weird, and this slim volume presents two of his stories told by a narrator identified only as “a Bachelor”. There are good forewords and afterwords by Matthew Holness, Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers, and the two stories themselves are prefaced by an introduction which is actually lifted from the original publication of the second story, “The Fatal Bride”.

The first story, “The Watcher”, is much weirder and to be honest much more interesting; “The Fatal Bride” resolved in a rather prudish nineteenth-century way, and the dark hints of what is going on in “The Watcher” are better executed. However, both of them give a very strong impression of eighteenth-century Dublin – even though Le Fanu was born i 1814 so would not have known it personally.

A nice little gem, though I hope I did not pay the €25 that I see as a price tag on my copy. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book on my shelves acquired in 2018. Next on that pile is Belfast City Hall: One Hundred Years, by Gillian McIntosh.

Tuesday reading

Current
The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Last books finished
Ara Güler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs
Translation State, by Ann Leckie
The Witches of World War II, by Paul Cornell and Valeria Burzo
Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
Liberty’s Daughter, by Naomi Kritzer
The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson
Belfast: Approach to Crisis, by Ian Budge and Cornelius O’Leary
Belfast: The Story of a City and its People, by Feargal Cochrane

Next books
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt
When the Moon Was Ours, by Anna-Marie McLemore

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But the primary system had opened up the presidential nomination process more than ever before in American history. And openness is always double-edged. In this new environment, a wider range of politicians, from George McGovern to Barack Obama, could now compete seriously for the presidency. But the window was now also open to true outsiders—individuals who had never held elective office. In the twenty-three years between 1945 and 1968, under the old convention system, only a single outsider (Dwight Eisenhower) publicly sought the nomination of either party. By contrast, during the first two decades of the primary system, 1972 to 1992, eight outsiders ran (five Democrats and three Republicans), an average of 1.25 per election; and between 1996 and 2016, eighteen outsiders competed in one of the two parties’ primaries—an average of three per election. Thirteen of these were Republicans.

A grim warning of the threat of authoritarianism and fascism in the United States, written at the end of the first year of the 2017-21 Trump presidency, and looking at historical precedents for the dismantling of democratic systems of government, notably the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and the more recent case of Chavez in Venezuela. (A cynic would pause here and note that the authors do not pick examples from regimes that the USA had good relations with, though one would be spoiled for choice.) You can get it here.

It’s a somewhat frustrating book because it’s half analysis and half exhortation; the exhortation is to those Republicans who actually care about the US Constitution to unite with Democrats and get rid of Trump before American democracy is destroyed. Seven years on, the danger has certainly increased and the likelihood of a positive resolution decreased.

Personally I tend to feel that the rot set in thirty years ago, when the Republicans won the 1994 mid-terms by effectively declaring war on the legitimacy of the Democrats to govern at all, and they have no incentive to abandon a strategy which has kept them in the White House for half of the twenty-first century despite winning a majority of the vote in only one election since 1996.

(Nobody under the age of 37 has voted in a presidential election where the Republicans got more votes. Nobody under the age of 53 has voted in two presidential elections where the Republicans got more votes.)

I also felt that the authors critique the cultural assumptions of those they disagrees with, but fail to address the problems of American governance. Not all of the popular disaffection with the political establishment is down to Trumpian propaganda. Americans live shorter lives and have a worse health-care system than citizens of any other advanced democracy. Study after study shows that while the rich are getting richer, the middle classes as well as the poor are all getting poorer. As I said above, both parties have been in power for half of the twenty-first century, so both must share the blame. But it’s not a recipe for political stability.

Obviously I hope that Trump loses the election in November, and the polls are really too close to call right now (Wikipedia’s running average has Trump on 51% and Biden on 49%). But even if he is defeated, there is an awful lot else that needs to be fixed.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2022 which is not by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Next on that pile is Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez.

The best known books set in each country: China

See last week’s post for methodology.

As with India, China is a big place, so I’m looking at the top eight books which are often tagged with the word “china” by users of Goodreads and LibraryThing.

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
The Joy Luck ClubAmy Tan683,23017,574
孫子兵法 / The Art of WarSun Tzu488,94523,043
Snow Flower and the Secret FanLisa See372,51511,252
The Good EarthPearl S. Buck249,73213,848
道德經 / Tao Te ChingLao Tzu157,64718,474
三体 / The Three-Body ProblemLiu Cixin333,5438,595
The Bonesetter’s DaughterAmy Tan128,9837,891
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of ChinaJung Chang113,0058,318

I’m a little uneasy about giving The Joy Luck Club the top spot. The framing narrative is set in San Francisco, and the author has never actually lived in China; but on the other hand it’s clear that the majority of the action of the book is set in China, so I guess I’ll allow it. The Bonesetter’s Daughter has a similar structure of setting.

The Art of War and Tao Te Ching are great Chinese texts, but the principles are universal, and I don’t think there is a single place name mentioned at any point in either, so I’m putting them in italics as not really set in China for my purposes.

Both Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Good Earth are entirely set in China but written by American writers; having said which, Kisa See identifies as Chinese, and Pearl S. Buck grew up in China and lived there for much of her life.

The top books on GR/LT which are mostly set in China and are by authors who were actually born and grew up in China are The Three-Body Problem, followed by Wild Swans. (Though I’ll admit that The Three Body Problem has a dramatic passage set in the Panama Canal, and Jung Chang left China in 1978 when she was 26.)

Not sure how long I will keep this up, but next is the USA.

My anatomical peculiarities

Going from top to bottom:

  • 1) Sliding hiatal hernia: also known as slip hernia, where a small part of the stomach sometimes protrudes up through the hiatus, the opening in the diaphragm that usually separates the stomach and the oesophagus. Also I have a small patch of stomach tissue growing a bit further up in the wall of the oesophagus.

Rarity factor: 50% of the US population over the age of 50 is thought to have one.

Inconvenience factor: minor. Most people with hiatal hernias have no symptoms at all. I find that fizzy drinks give me indigestion, but I don’t like them much anyway. I did get a granuloma removed from my larynx a couple of years ago, supposedly caused by acid reflux.

  • 2) Pig bronchus: And extra opening from the trachea to the right lung, so that the upper and lower parts of the lung are largely fed separately.

Rarity factor: pretty rare. I see a figure of 0.1%-2% of the population having it.

Inconvenience factor: none, on a day-to-day basis. But if I am ever intubated, they’ll have to take care.

  • 3) Supernumerary renal arteries: Rather than the normal situation on each kidney being supplied by a single artery branching off the abdominal aorta, I have two on each side.

Rarity factor: surprisingly common, estimates ranging between 15% to 30% of people having this particular anatomical quirk. So there’s a good chance that you have it too, and just nevef realised.

Inconvenience factor: none. If anything it probably means that my blood is cleaner, given that more of it is getting to my kidneys.

  • 4) Dolichocolon: My large intestine is much longer than usual, crammed into my abdomen with an extra twist compared to most people’s.

Rarity factor: Utterly unknown. One article that I found gave the prevalence as 1.9%-28.5% of the population, which is not exactly precise.

Inconvenience factor: chronic. I suffer from acute IBS symptoms once every few months, and the extra long colon is certainly part of the cause; but I haven’t yet established the specific triggers (full cream is a suspect). Meanwhile, I consume plenty of fibre and liquids.

  • 5) Leg length discrepancy: I’ve twice in my career had to take a week or so off work with back pain. The first time this happened, I went to a physiotherapist who took one look at me and said, “Your right leg is shorter.” It’s not very much shorter – certainly the difference is less than a centimetre and probably less than 5 millimetres – but ever since then I have been aware that when standing up, I’m leaning on my right side and balancing with my left leg, rather than spreading the weight between them.

Rarity factor: How long is a piece of string? One website suggests that 40%-70% of people have length difference in their legs.

Inconvenience factor: minor. I have tried the Couch to 5k programme a couple of times and both time flared out with intense pain in my right calf after the tenth day or so; running increases the imbalance on my spine. So I’ve come to the conclusion that cycling is the better way for me.

Just in case my mutilated corpse ever needs to be identified, and other features are not available…

De Verdwijning, by Guido Eekhaut

Second paragraph of the third chapter:

Wat hij leuk vond aan Esmeralda, wist hij niet zo direct te duiden. Het was een vaag gevoel. Misschien de vorm van haar ogen, het timbre van haar stem. Het was een gevoel als van een vingerknip. Als dat ene schitterende, ontluikende moment dat altijd zal aarzelen tussen twee seconden. Maar iets was er zéker.He couldn’t immediately explain what he liked about Esmeralda. It was a vague feeling. Maybe the shape of her eyes, the timbre of her voice. It was a feeling like a snap of the fingers. Like that one brilliant, unfolding moment that will always waver between two seconds. But one thing was certain.

I’m afraid that this novel about women disappearing in an unnamed city (which might be Belgian or might be Iberian) didn’t really do it for me. It may be that I missed important biots due to my Dutch not being good enough, but I didn’t grasp if there was an explanation for the disappearances, and if not, what the point was. I’m also dubious about settings that are both everywhere and nowhere. And I didn’t really see what the astronaut had to do with it. You can get it here.

I thought that this was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, but in the end I don’t think it had any sfnal elements. Next on the unread sf pile is Moroda, by L.L. MacNeil aka L.L. MacRae.

Version 1.0.0

The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse

Second and third paragraphs of third chapter:

I hoped he was not going to say “Ha!” but he did. And as I had not yet mastered the vocal cords sufficiently to be able to reply, that concluded the dialogue sequence for the moment. Then, still keeping his eyes glued on me, he shouted:
“Sir Watkyn!”

After the tough work of getting the Hugos over the line, I felt like a bit of a rest from my usual reading fare and got hold of this, the top Wodehouse novel by ownership on LibraryThing and third on Goodreads. I had a phase of reading Wodehouse when I was thirteen; I cannot remember if I had read this or not, but they are all very similar so I may well have done.

The plot is simple, and also complicated. Wooster, our somewhat dim aristocratic narrator, is sent to a country house on two simultaneous missions, to rescue the relationship of a friend whose engagement is in trouble, and to steal or otherwise acquire an antique cow-creamer which has been acquired by his host, Sir Watkyn Bassett. Wooster’s valet, Jeeves, comes too and by research and quick thinking saves the day on all counts

But honestly, one reads it not for the plot, and certainly not for the social commentary (for there is none apart from “fascism is silly”), but for the delightful turns of phrase. For instance, here we are introduced to the McGuffin, the antique cow-creamer:

It was a silver cow. But when I say ‘cow’, don’t go running away with the idea of some decent, self-respecting cudster such as you may observe loading grass into itself in the nearest meadow. This was a sinister, leering, Underworld sort of animal, the kind that would spit out of the side of its mouth for twopence. It was about four inches high and six long. Its back opened on a hinge. Its tail was arched, so that the tip touched the spine—thus, I suppose, affording a handle for the cream-lover to grasp. The sight of it seemed to take me into a different and dreadful world.

or more simply:

I suppose a man who has been hit over the head with a picture of a girl chirruping to a pigeon and almost immediately afterwards enmeshed in a sheet can never really retain the cool, intelligent outlook.

The book was published in 1938, and one of the comic relief characters is Roderick Spode, a would-be dictator of Britain. Wodehouse later got into serious trouble for making wartime broadcasts after he was captured by the Germans, but he had prepared his defence well in advance:

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?”

I have not checked in detail, but I strongly suspect that it is a Bechdel fail. The named female characters are Bertie’s aunt Dahlia, Sir Watkyn’s daughter Madeleine Bassett and her cousin Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng (Bertie narrowly escapes marriage to each of the latter two in quick succession). But I am not sure that any two of them even appear in the same scene, the story being told tightly from Bertie’s point of view. Madeleine and Stiffy do have off-screen confrontations, but they are always about Madeleine’s boyfriend, Gussie Fink-Nottle.

One other point that struck me – Bertie and his boy and girl friends are clearly intended by the author to be quite young, in their mid to late twenties. But I have found only one case of an actor under 35 being cast as Bertie for the screen, David Niven in the 1936 film Thank You, Jeeves, which veers far from Wodehouse’s characterisation. In general much older actors have been cast. Ian Carmichael was in his mid-40s for the 1960s BBC series The World of Wooster, and Hugh Laurie in his early 40s for the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster. An innovative creative team could inject a totally different energy into a TV or film adaptation by choosing a much younger cast.

My reading of The Code of the Woosters was much enhanced by the notes supplied by the Madame Eulalie’s Rare Plums website, which has similar annotations for all of the other Wodehouse books.

Anyway, a delight if not exactly a stretching read. You can get it here.

Kinda, by Frank Collins (and Christopher Bailey, and Terrance Dicks)

I vividly remember watching Kinda when it was first shown in 1982, and being a little baffled but also a little reassured; I wanted interesting adventures on distant planets, like we had largely had in the Tom Baker years, and apart from the one production fail of the snake itself, we got it.

When I rewatched it in 2008, I wrote:

I also saw Kinda on first showing in 1982, and in some ways it is even less comprehensible than Logopolis, though in other ways it is fairly clear what is going on – giant pink snake trying to penetrate Tegan’s inner recesses, and all that. It is one of Doctor Who’s most successful takes on colonialism (a theme the Pertwee era consistently tried and failed with) even though that isn’t really the point of the story. Wood and Miles point to the influence of Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, and while I can see that, I think it may be a more general reflection of the ecological concerns of the day. The deep themes are laid on pretty heavily – the apple in paradise, the reflections of the “real” world in Tegan’s dream, and on the whole we are shown rather than told about it. There are some impressive performances – Janet Fielding as Tegan of course, the three colonial officers (though we never find out what happened to their missing colleagues) the two Kinda women and the Trickster, which means you can almost overlook the cheapness of the sets and how wooden Adric is. Rather fascinating.

When I rewatched it in 2011 as part of my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

I had forgotten quite how fantastic Kinda is. Even the snake at the end is not as bad as I remembered. But it’s a brilliant tour de force of explorations of reality, possession by spiritual forces, possession by colonial agents, about speaking and not speaking. Again, Janet Fielding is the best of the regular cast, but everyone is good, especially of course Simon Rouse as the increasingly deranged Hindle, and Mary Morris – only in two of the four episodes, but bloody hell, what a performance – as Panna. But nobody is actually bad; Nerys Hughes and Richard Todd, big name actors hired to perform auxiliary parts, lift it; even Matthew Waterhouse, delivered with yet another Adric-as-potential-traitor script, more or less rises to the occasion; and though I see some fan criticism of Sarah Prince as Karuna I must say I find her performance pretty luminous and interesting.

It does show the value of watching Who in sequence. Taken as an attempt at a serious big-picture SF story, it would probably fail because of the limited means available. But when one bears in mind the production constraints, and considers the story as a televised theatrical piece, it really ought to blow you away. I don’t have time or energy to wax more lyrical on the subject, so just let me refer you to a brilliant write-up of the story here. [link now long dead].

Just before we go any further, here is Mary Morris 42 years earlier at the age of 25, performing the dance of the robotic Silver Maiden in The Thief of Baghdad:

As with Paradise Towers, I enjoyed revisiting Kinda, and it almost reminds me of the early Hartnell stories which were trying to tell big picture space parables in a fairly small production and budget space. Adric is still annoying, and the snake still disappoints, but the rest of it all works very well, and this was a rewatch that was more rewarding than I had hoped.

An easy pass for the Bechdel test, with four women guest characters and at least one regular (Nyssa only in briefly, but two versions of Tegan), all of whom talk to each other about various things other than men.

Terrance Dicks wrote the novelisation, and it’s not one of his more energetic efforts. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

She stared challengingly at this new apparition. ‘I suppose you’re also going to tell me I don’t exist?’

When I reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Another standard write-up, not doing any favours to a story whose impact was visual and implicit.

Nothing to add to that. You can get it here.

Frank Collins’ Black Archive monograph on the story follows his previous writing on Warriors Gate and on the first Matt Smith season. As usual, it is dense but enjoyable, one of the longer Black Archives, with seven chapters. Like the monograph of Paradise Towers, it has clearly benefited from a lot of dialogue with the original writer of the story, in this case Christopher Bailey.

The first chapter, ‘An Eccentric Chain-Smoking Buddhist’, looks at Bailey’s personal biography and other work, and convincingly shows how a mild-mannered but politically radical playwright who had not previously touched science fiction ended up writing Kinda.

The second chapter, ‘Only Ever One Ingredient in the Stew’, looks head-on at the Buddhist themes in the story (and the limited visibility of Buddhism elsewhere in Doctor Who).

The third chapter, ‘The Important Part is the Melody’ looks at the behind-the-scene story of the commissioning and production of Kinda. In particular, Eric Saward as script editor rewrote large parts of the last two episodes, and Christopher Bailey then rewrote them again. Its second paragraph is:

However, changes were made to the scripts of The Kinda under the guidance of three different script editors. After his initial consultation with Bidmead, apart from several phone calls and letters, Bailey doesn’t recall meeting in person with him again. Bidmead later saw that Bailey was exploring a ‘strong Buddhist element’ on his own terms and while Kinda ‘lacked the form and structure and indeed the sort of subject that I thought was essential to Doctor Who […] nevertheless, it had an extraordinarily haunting quality to it’3.
3 Bidmead, ‘Dream Time’.

The fourth and longest chapter, ‘The Power of Life and Death, Over All of You!’, starts by looking at the casting of Richard Todd and Simon Rouse and the postcolonial context (unfortunately he says nothing about Nerys Hughes), and goes on to look at theories of ancient science, and then sources of inspiration such as Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a brief coda on cargo cults.

The fifth chapter, ‘Otherwise Out There Gets In. Do You See?’, looks at Hindle’s disintegration, Christianity and imperialism, matriarchy and the Box of Jhana, and the Mara and Janet Fielding’s sensuous performance.

The sixth chapter, ‘The Mara Turns the Wheel of Life. It Ends as it Began’, begins and ends with the Box of Jhana again, and also looks at the unfortunate fact that all the actors are white and how this intersects with the colonial themes, and at the uncomfortable role of prophecy in the story.

The seventh chapter, ‘There is Great Danger in Dreaming Alone’, looks at dark places (Conrad again), the imperfect implementation of Bailey’s vision for gender roles among the Kinda, and the late rewrites of especially the last episode to foreground the Buddhist themes more visibly.

I sometimes complain about the Black Archives on less good Doctor Who stories, that they cannot bear the freights of the interpretation placed on them by the Black Archive authors. This is not one of those cases, and it’s a great rick unpacking of the themes informing the story and how they were realised on the screen. (Though I’d still have liked a bit more about Nerys Hughes.) 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)

Tuesday reading

Current
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch
Translation State, by Ann Leckie
Ara Guler’s Istanbul: 40 Years of Photographs

Last books finished
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Conversion, by Al Ewing et al
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu
Saga, vol 11 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson
Mammoths at the Gates, by Nghi Vo
Slovakia and the United Kingdom: the first 30 years, by Pavol Demeš
DOOM 94, by Jānis Joņevs

Next books
Flux, ed. Paul Driscoll
The Return of Marco Polo’s World, by Robert Kaplan
The Pragmatic Programmer, by David Thomas and Andrew Hunt

Sleepers of Mars, by John Wyndham

Second paragraph of third story (“Invisible Monster”):

‘Look!’ said David.

I had meant to get to this book several years ago, the last surviving unread book on my shelves acquired in 2014, but it slipped into a weird corner of the bookshelves and I couldn’t find it. However it then came to light in a recent tidying-up exercise, so I picked it up again.

These are five stories by Wyndham in the space opera tradition, which is not what he is best known for. They each have a somewhat different twist on the format. I had read the title story back when it was up for the Retro Hugos in 2014, and noted then:

this is actually rather an attractive story, Bradbury before his time, with the central characters being the Russian cosmonauts (though in fact they include a Ukrainian, a Kyrgyz and a politically exiled Scot) and an opening-the-tomb narrative with a surprising and downbeat ending.

Wyndham however got the number of Soviet republics wrong.

I wasn’t so impressed with the second story, “Worlds to Barter”, about a time-traveller attempting to interfere with his own ancestor’s crucial decisions, but I enjoyed the rest. “Invisible Monster” has, er, an invisible monster from Venus landing on Earth with a decently paced bit of horror. “The Man from Earth” is a parable of the fall of humanity as a result of exploring Dangerous Places. The title of the last story is “The Third Vibrator”, which OK is a bit snigger-worthy these days but again has a time paradox at the core.

It is what it is. I think only “Worlds to Barter” even has a female character, so we don’t even get near the first step of the Bechdel test. But you can get it here.

This was my remaining unread book acquired in 2014. Back to usual run after this/i

The best known books set in each country: India

A few years back I ran through each of the countries and territories of Europe and looked at the books set there which had the highest number of owners on LibraryThing and the highest number of raters on Goodreads. This is of course an imperfect metric, as all such metrics must be. But it does indicate the visible cultural impact of each country among GR / LT readers. No judgements can be made on literary merit, just on the effectiveness of marketing.

So I think I will try it again, but this time taking the whole world. If once again I take the countries in order of population, that puts India first, as it has recently overtaken China as the world’s most populous state. I’m going to be completely arbitrary about how many books I list from each country, but will generally aim for five-ish. But India is a big place, and the top eight books on Goodreads and LibraryThing which readers describe as being set there are as follows:

TitleAuthorGoodreads
raters
LibraryThing
owners
Eat, Pray, LoveElizabeth Gilbert1,743,75922,110
SiddharthaHermann Hesse771,52927,768
The God of Small ThingsArundhati Roy298,09519,592
Interpreter of MaladiesJhumpa Lahiri193,41312,094
The White TigerAravind Adiga191,6619,573
Midnight’s ChildrenSalman Rushdie123,79513,881
A Fine BalanceRohinton Mistry149,4989,155
A Passage to IndiaE.M. Forster80,35712,409

So, something that is going to happen quite a lot if I continue this project is that I will have to disqualify books of which less than 50% is set in the relevant country. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, less than 30% of the book is set in India, the first third being set in Italy and the remainder in Indonesia. So it gets disqualified.

As it happens Siddartha, by Hermann Hesse, is quite high on my reading list right now. Investigation reveals some doubt about whether the key moments are actually set in India or Nepal; the site of the Buddha’s home town, Kapilavastu, is contested. A quick scan of the text reveals that there are very few place names mentioned apart from Savathi, also known as Shravasti, which is definitely in India.

But there is room for reasonable doubt about whether Hesse was really writing about India at all. It’s clear that the top book on both Goodreads and LibraryThing which is both set in a recognisable place called India and by an Indian writer is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which I read and enjoyed many years ago. But I’ll come back to this after I have read Siddartha, to give Hesse a fair chance.

Public art in Bratislava, especially Colin Spofforth

I’m just back from a few days in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I’m afraid that Bratislava will never be my favourite Central European capital, but it does have some lovely public art. I was particularly charmed by the bronze sculptures by British artist Colin Spofforth in the Eurovea shopping centre by the Danube, which illustrate a children’s story called The Six White Mice. I didn’t manage to see all eleven sculptures, and I didn’t know the story, but I felt that the sculptures did a lovely job of humanising what would otherwise be a somewhat heartless retail space.

A couple of other statues in the town caught my eye. One was a depiction of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who we also saw in Prague in January. This is in front of the Slovak National Museum, in Masaryk Square. The statue is a recent (2010) copy by Czech sculptor Jaroslav Matějíček made from an original by Ladislav Šaloun which was commissioned by Zemska Bank. It’s not clear where the original now is. The signature was made by Matějíček. It’s interesting that Masaryk is seen as one of the good guys in Slovakia too.

The other one that grabbed me was the monument to Ľudovít Štúr in the square that is named after him, about 250 metres from Masaryk. I confess that I had not heard of Ľudovít Štúr before; he was the leading figure of the Slovak national revival, probably the single person who did most to establish the Slovak language, and died aged 40 in 1856 as the result of a gunshot wound, accidentally self-inflicted while hunting.

The monument was erected in 1972 (so four years after 1968, think about that) and is by Tibor Bártfay who also did most of the other public sculptures in Bratislava. Bártfay was from Nitra, now in Slovakia, but was a Hungarian speaker, so it’s interesting that he was chosen to honour Štúr and his colleagues. The monument has Štúr with resplecndent beard in front, and three of his followers behind, somewhat in his shadow. I don’t find it beautiful but it is striking.

On a previous visit to Bratislava in 2018 I photographed a strange monument beside the river.

It turned out on further research to be a one-third scale model of a giant marble Maria Theresa memorial, which was originally on the site where the Ľudovít Štúr memorial is now. The Maria Theresa memorial (by János Fadrusz, another ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia) was destroyed by Czechoslovak legionnaires in 1921, but there is now a campaign to move Štúr and his colleagues to a location where they would look a bit less out of place, and to restore Maria Theresa to her previous position. I have to say that I have some sympathy with that.

Paradise Towers, by John Toon (and Stephen Wyatt)

Paradise Towers was first broadcast at the point that I was an undergraduate and no longer watching Doctor Who regularly, so I did not see it until 2008 when I watched the whole of Season 24. I wrote then:

I actually loved Paradise Towers, apart from the music and one ill-inspired character. The whole concept of the abandoned tower block with its feral inhabitants is done, not fantastically well I admit, but at least with the courage of its convictions. Richard Briers as guest star clicks with the show in a way that Paul Darrow utterly failed to do in Timelash. The Kang chants and warping of familiar phrases are also great, and Mel actually gets something to do. This is more like Doctor Who than anything broadcast since The Caves of Androzani. (The two flies in the ointment are the awful music and the character of Pex – some blame Howard Cooke for his performance, but basically Pex doesn’t fit awfully well with the setting.) 

When I came back to it for my Great Rewatch three years later, I wrote:

And suddenly we seem to have a complete step change with Paradise Towers, a glorious story which merges comedy and horror – Richard Briers dressed up as a Hitler-like bureaucrat; girl gangs with extraordinary slogans; cannibalistic little old ladies; a hero who isn’t terribly heroic; an evil architect and a swimming pool. I don’t know what it is, but there is a sudden injection of energy and confidence into the show at this point that, in my view, lasts for most of the rest of Old Who’s run. The Doctor may not have much of a clue as to what is going on, but we are urging him to work it out and we get there at much the same time as he does. My daily watching of the old episodes has become a pleasure again, rather than a chore.

I’m interested to see that on both occasions, watching the story in sequence with those before and after, I noticed what a different beast it is to its predecessors. I wrote in 2011 that “I don’t know what it is”, but since then, I have read Andrew Cartmel’s reminiscences so it’s clear that Paradise Towers was his first real commission as script editor, and that he was successfully stamping his mark on the show.

This time round was the first time I had watched the story in isolation – both in 2008 and 2011 I watched it in sequence. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it held up. Yes, the production values are poor, but the story actually lampshades it by referencing the decaying tower block environment. Richard Briers is a delight and so are the two old ladies. Pex annoys me less every time; I find the character easier to accept as a send-up of hero tropes. And I actually found the music easier on the ear, especially the riff on the them tune of the show while the Caretakers are holding the Doctor captive in Episode Two.

The one thing that jumped out at me this time is that all the speaking characters, though not all the people we see on screen, are white. That is an opportunity missed. Several of the non-speaking Kangs (and one of the Janitors) are clearly of African or Asian descent, including Nisha Nayar who got a small speaking role in the Ninth Doctor two-parter Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways and has done a fair amount of Big Finish work.

The other really important thing to note is that Stephen Wyatt is the only graduate of Clare College, Cambridge to have written a Doctor Who story – so far. (The only Clare alum to have directed a Doctor Who story is Dan Zeff, who I served with on the 1988-89 JCR Committee.) Wyatt also wrote the novelisation of the story, and the second paragraph of its third chapter is:

At first Mel thought she was hearing things. She was sitting dejectedly in a grimy ill-lit corridor in Paradise Towers and someone was offering her a cup of tea. It was so unlikely Mel thought her mind must be going.

I read it at the same time as first watching it in 2008, and wrote:

Wyatt has the courage of his convictions here: a reasonably strong story in the first place, and the opportunity to overcome the weaknesses of the production (the Kangs on paper can be teenagers, and we don’t get the awful music, though Pex as a character is still an anomaly). An easy pass for the Bechdel test, with the scene where the old ladies are about to eat Mel a particular delight. 

Nothing to add to that; an above-average novelisation, just about. You can get it here.

As noted above, both TV story and novelisation easily pass the Bechdel test.

John Toon’s Black Archive monograph on Paradise Towers won the Sir Julius Vogel Award last year (2023), as his previous volume on the Fourth Doctor story Full Circle had done in 2019. I complained about the Full Circle analysis that I would have liked more on the actual production of the show; and the Paradise Towers volume delivers that, for a very satisfying read. It has been richly informed by extensive correspondence between Toon and Wyatt, so that we hear the original author’s voice more clearly than in most Doctor Who analyses.

The first chapter, ‘Reception’, starts by pointing out something I had not realised – not everyone liked Paradise Towers as much as I did. I often find that alleged classic stories are not to my taste, but it’s much rarer to discover that a story I rather admire is not held in such high esteem by fandom. Toon argues that the story’s reputation has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, basically since the Blu-Ray was released, but he shows convincingly that it went down badly at the time and since – featuring at 193 out of 200 in the DWM poll of 2009, for instance.

Toon then goes on to explain the rushed process of writing and production. It all makes a lot more sense when you realise that Pex actually was supposed to be a muscle man, but they couldn’t find one in time who could actually act and were left with Howard Cooke; and that the Caretakers apart from Richard Briers were supposed to be overweight and middle-aged; and that the music was hastily rewritten because the originally commissioned score didn’t fit the way the story was going.

The second and longest chapter, ‘The Foudnations’, looks in detail at the similarities and differences between Paradise Towers and J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, and a few other sources: 2000 AD for the mega-city, A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies for the youth gangs, Toyah Willcox for the Kangs’ style.

The third chapter, ‘Windows’, makes the cases successively for interpreting Paradise Towers as a queer story, a camp story and a Gothic story. (I vote for all three.) Its second paragraph is:

There’s an anecdote often told by Andrew Cartmel about a script conference between himself, Stephen Wyatt and John Nathan-Turner that took place on 16 March 19871. According to Cartmel’s recollection, Nathan-Turner expressed concern about the cannibalistic habits of Tilda and Tabby, in response to which Wyatt confided, ‘You realise that they’re also lesbians?’ Wyatt corroborates this story, and further recalls that he suggested Nathan-Turner might tempt the tabloid press with the headline ‘Dr Who in Lesbian Cannibal Bondage Horror’2. This suggests a creative team keeping a wry eye on opportunities for sensationalism rather than seeking to give representation, sympathetic or otherwise, to non-heteronormative lifestyles. And yet Paradise Towers does lend itself readily to queer interpretation. In large part, this is likely due to the nature of Doctor Who itself in 1987.
1  See, for example, Cartmel, Script Doctor, p53.
2  Email conversation with author. The ‘bondage’ in this case would be Tilda restraining Mel with her knitting, but more on that anon.

The fourth chapter, ‘The Towers’, begins by pointing out that it’s really rare for Doctor Who to address architecture as a topic, and then goes on to sketch the appalling history of Brutalism and the British high-rise block.

The fifth chapter, ‘The Great Architect’, chases the architecture theme still further, with glances at Le Corbusier, Peter and Alison Smithson, Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher, in a very satisfying hunt for truth.

A brief conclusion pulls it all together.

Driven to produce a set of scripts quickly to break ground on Doctor Who’s 24th season, Wyatt and Cartmel created a story as rough-edged yet multi-faceted as the concrete estates they wanted to comment on. It overlays serious issues of shoddy social housing and uncaring architects with comedy fascist Caretakers, punk gang children in their twenties and cuddly teatime cannibals. But for all that, it has a comfortable charm. Be it ever so humble, some of us call it home.

Recommended for fans of the Seventh Doctor era, and of architecture. You can get it here.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The cost of water has gone up again. And I heard on the news today that more water peddlers are being killed. Peddlers sell water to squatters and the street poor—and to people who’ve managed to hold on to their homes, but not to pay their utility bills. Peddlers are being found with their throats cut and their money and their handtrucks stolen. Dad says water now costs several times as much as gasoline. But, except for arsonists and the rich, most people have given up buying gasoline. No one I know uses a gas-powered car, truck, or cycle. Vehicles like that are rusting in driveways and being cannibalized for metal and plastic.

I discovered to my surprise, after reading the Hugo-winning graphic adaptation of this classic novel in 2021, that I had not read the original version, though I had read the Nebula-winning sequel soon after it came out and again in 2009. It’s of special interest right now because the first part of the story is set this year, starting on 20 July 2024 (the 65th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing), though it runs through to 2027.

On the one hand it’s a grim narrative of the disintegration of society in an all too credible future, where the state no longer protects people against each other, climate change is out of control and the narrator’s safe home enclave becomes steadily less safe. There are some gruesome moments of psychological and physical horror, and the whole situation seems a lot more plausible now than it must have done in 1993 (which was the exact time that the Republican Party declared war on the Constitution).

At the same time the narrator, Lauren Olamina, is a symbol of hope, founding a new belief system that allows her and her found family, her tribe, to start rebuilding society for the future. The book ends on a note of optimism despite the horror. One can question how realistic it is that even the most gifted eighteen-year-old could start a successful religious movement for the long term, even (especially?) under such extreme circumstances, but great stories are often written about unlikely events. You can get it here.

Not surprisingly, an easy Bechdel pass, with the narrator and her stepmother discussing the stars in the first chapter.

This was my top unread sf book, my top unread book by a woman and my top unread book by a non-white author. Next on those piles respectively are Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt; and Fevered Star, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

Bletchley Park Brainteasers, by Sinclair McKay

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Enigma machine was revolutionary, but actually, the principle that it worked on was as old as the centuries. Despite the technological sophistication, it was still all about substituting one letter for another. The encryption puzzles in this section are intended to reflect the patient discipline that Bletchley codebreakers had to acquire. Especially when facing the prospect of diving into a vortex of chaos.

(Actually read a few weeks ago but the review lingered in drafts for longer than it should have.)

A breezy collection of puzzles, aimed perhaps at older teenagers, with lots of stories about what life was like for the men and women who worked at Bletchley Park during the second world war. A lot of people are into the Bletchley Park fandom and I guess this will feed those cravings and also provide some intellectual stimulation. You can get it here.

Several friends have parents (or older relatives) who worked at Bletchley Park; I’ve had two very minor and remote personal connections – first, John Herivel went back to Belfast after the war and set up the History of Science programme from which I believe I was the first PhD student several decades later (long after he had retired); second, Mavis Batey herself posted a comment on my Livejournal in 2005 when I reviewed her book about Alice in Wonderland (she would have been 84 then, and died in 2013).

Lewis Carroll
So glad you liked the Story Of Alice . There were no reference footnotes because it was all my own research as a local historian and Carroll admirer. Yes Christ Church is a wonderful place. My husband was Treasurer of Christ Church and his rooms looked over Alice’s garden . In many ways the donnish creatures hadn’t changed much since Carroll’s days and I suppose you might say with Humpty Dumpty ‘You’ve been listening at doors- and behind trees- and down chimneys – or otherwise you couldn’t have known it’ Mavis Batey.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is a photograph album, Ara Güler’s Istanbul.

Eclipse memories

Envious of all my US-based friends who managed to catch the eclipse yesterday. Back in August 1999, we saw that year’s eclipse with Anne’s parents, a very small F (just two and a half weeks old) and two-year-old B who could still talk a bit at that stage. We fought through traffic which had come from most of Northern Europe and eventually came to rest just outside Guise. Clouds covered the sky as the light dimmed and eventually totality fell. B commented “Dark”, and then, thoughtfully, “Sunset”. The clouds broke just as totality was ending and we had a good view of the “diamond ring” effect, and of the rest of the partial phase. It was pretty amazing.

I must admit I’m looking now at options for northern Spain or western Iceland on 12 August 2026…

Tuesday reading

Current
How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty
Conversion, by Al Ewing et al
Reminiscences of a Bachelor, by Sheridan Le Fanu

Last books finished
All These Worlds, by Niall Harrison
The Code of the Woosters, by P.G. Wodehouse
Kinda, by Frank Collins
De verdwijning, by Guido Eekhout

Next books
Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road, by Esmie Jikiemi-Pearson
DOOM 94, by Janis Jonevs
Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch

Those Pricey Thakur Girls, by Anuja Chauhan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

‘What the devil…?’ the Judge demands, springing out of bed like a suddenly switched on fountain. ‘Why is that ruddy Gulgul cavorting about naked in my garden like a sturdy gazelle?’

I hugely enjoyed Anuja Chauhan’s story of an Indian parliamentary by-election, Battle for Bittora, when I read it in 2014. As a respite from Hugos last month, I sought out her top book on Goodreads, Those Pricey Thakur Girls, and devoured it fairly quickly. Romance novels are not my usual fare, but sometimes it’s good to have a change.

To my surprise, though published in 2013, the book is firmly set in a specific few months of 1988, with a major subplot being the male love interest’s attempts to hold a government minister accountable for the deadly pogrom against Delhi’s Sikhs in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination four years before. This is grim stuff for a romantic comedy, and I felt that the author did it justice.

Otherwise, it’s a nicely observed comedy of manners, as the fourth of Judge Thakur’s five beautiful daughters, newly hired as a TV newsreader on India’s main evening bulletin, navigates her romantic destiny, finding her backbone as well as her love. There is a healthy dose of political scepticism too, but the main thrust of the humour is in the character observation.

No actual sex on page (unlike Battle for Bittora) but lots of more than significant glances and fragile egos needing any support they can get. I didn’t like it as much as Battle for Bittora, but then I liked Battle for Bittora a great deal. You can get Those Pricey Thakur Girls here.

Not surprisingly, an easy Bechdel pass, with the two youngest sisters discussing how to get smart for a TV appearance in the middle of the first chapter.

The novel is in English, but the 2015 TV series based on it is in Hindi and you can find every single one of the 150 episodes on Youtube. (Five 25-minute episodes every week for more than six months! Phew!) Here’s the trailer.

Love and Other Human Errors by Bethany Clift (brief note)

Second paragraph of third chapter:

I do not like the London Underground. I do not like the noise of the tracks, the rush of warm air that heralds the approaching train, the throngs of people, the brush of synthetic clothing on my hand as someone passes too close. I do not normally use the London Underground, but the AutoBus will not be an efficient mode of transport at this time of day, so I am given no choice.

I really enjoyed this story of AI and dating algorithms, but I did not push it for the Clarke shortlist let alone the award – plotwise, it’s obvious what is going to happen from a very early stage, and it does indeed duly happen. I enjoyed the ride but I won’t claim it as Great Literature. A really nice palate-cleanser. You can get it here.

Flying across the Atlantic in 1952 (and Spurs beat Chelsea in 1950)

My cousin Wick Hoffmann has done a lovely write-up of the life of his grandfather, my great-great-uncle Morris Shallcross Wickersham (1872-1962). A lot of it is just family detail of interest only to us relatives, but there was one point that jumped out at me from Morris’s diary for 1952, when at the age of 80 he flew across the Atlantic for the second time, to visit his sister Lily in London and his niece, my grandmother Dorothy Whyte, in Northern Ireland. (The image is of Wick’s transcript of his grandfather’s notes.)

The first thing that jumped out at me was the price of an air ticket from New York to London – $395 single, $711 return. Today’s dollar prices are generally a bit more, but it’s only a couple of years ago since those numbers were comfortably within the lower end of the cost of a transatlantic flight. But for 1952, those prices are massive; the inflation calculator tells me that the $395 single is $4,650 in 2024 prices, and the $711 return is $8,300. Luckily Morris’s sister Lily was very rich and could cover the cost.

The fare for a flight from Morris’s local airport in Erie, Pennsylvania, to New York was initially quoted to him as $17.42, which equates to $204 in 2024. It would be impossible to do that flight now. At present, Erie is serviced only by American Airlines, and the only flights out of the airport go to Charlotte, North Carolina, so if you want to fly from Erie to New York you have to detour 900 km to the south. Prices start at $220.

In fact he ended up going to New York by train, paying $32.83, which is $384 today. The trip took nine and a half hours (and presumably he had a sleeper or equivalent). Today you’d pay $65, but the trip takes 11 hours and there is no overnight option.

The transatlantic flight experience sounds pretty gruelling. His first flight was cancelled after he had arrived in New York, so he went home again. On his second flight, the first leg took him from New York to “Labrador” (which must mean Gander, Newfoundland), leaving at 5pm and arriving at 10pm, a three and a half hour journey allowing for time differences. That would be even worse today – there are no direct flights from New York these days, and you have to change in Montreal.

Then the passengers were stuck in a military barracks in Newfoundland, sleeping in dormitories, for two days when their plane had to turn back after it developed engine trouble. Morris is surprisingly positive about this experience – I guess that the Canadian ground staff made a special effort for the stranded octogenarian.

Finally the flight took off at 9.15pm Labrador time, two days late, and landed in London at 6.15pm the next evening. That’s fourteen and a half hours, though that surely includes time taken for refuelling at Shannon Airport. The Pan Am ticket he had originally booked would have been quicker, leaving New York at 3pm and landing in London at 11.05am the next day, just over fifteen hours in total. I guess it skipped either Gander or Shannon.

You’ll note that amidst the travel detail, Morris notes on 21 May that he had given up smoking. This was neither the first nor the last time that he made such a note in his diary!

One other point of wider interest: during Morris’s previous trip to England and Ireland, in 1950, he notes the following for October 14th:

John Whyte and I went to Stamford bridge stadium to a football game between Chelsea (the home team) and Tottenham Hotspurs, Tottenham won 2 to 0. about 70,000 people attended. We got home at 5 P.M. This stadium seats 65,000 people we with thousands of others had to stand.

I was fascinated by this because I have never thought of my father (Morris’s great-nephew, then aged 22 and an Oxford postgraduate student) as much of a football fan. In fact it was a rather significant match. The win at Stamford Bridge on 14 October was Spurs’ third win in a row, and their first away win in London of the season, an important proof of concept of manager Arthur Rowe’s “push-and-run” strategy. Spurs had only just been promoted from the Second Division, after winning it in 1949-50. They went on to win the First Division for the first time in 1950-51, also the first time that any club had won the two divisions in successive years, and in retrospect the Chelsea match was the turning point in their fortunes after a shaky start to the season.

The total attendance is recorded as 65,992, so I suspect that if the capacity of the stadium was really 65,000, there were hundreds rather than thousands standing. (But they included 78-year-old Morris!)

More Belgian megaliths

It’s the first sunny and warm Saturday of the year, and the rest of the family all had other plans, and also I discovered that I had missed half a dozen megaliths to the east of us in my previous explorations of Belgium’s prehistoric heritage. So I recruited H, once again my partner in crime, and we spent the day exploring them.

The big news is that over at Wéris, where I have been a couple of times previously, a new alignment of standing stones has been discovered, excavated and re-erected, giving an intensified sense of the sacred landscape of the town. I’m glad to say that it is in the same linear arrangement as most of the known Wéris monuments. This was the fourth of the seven new places (to me) that we visited, so it’s halfway down this page.

Holsteen

    (50.996000N  5.417000E)

    The very first rock that we visited is the Holsteen, in an attractive park in Zonhoven, northeast of Hasselt and northwest of Genk. The setting is lovely, but the stone itself a little disappointing despite its size; it appears to be a natural outcrop, which was however used by Stone Age humans for sharpening their tools.

    The Devil’s Stones of Langerlo

    (50.945160N  5.498960E)

    On the other side of Genk, these are a little more exciting, two of them aligned with a rather ugly flower pot, and a Christian chapel in the background:

    And a third a bit farther off at the other end of the green.

    The Devil’s Dolmen

    (50.601360N  5.666010E)

    Next was a long drive south to Fléron on the outskirts of Liège, for what was frankly the least impressive thing we saw today; some rather small overgrown rocks at the base of a steep slope.

    Someone had shoved a brick inside it, and it had a bit of a Stone’enge vibe, as in Spın̈al Tap.

    The Danthine Alignment (and Wéris)

    (50.325970N  5.516960E)

    On the other hand, the entire day’s trip was justified by the new alignment of standing stones at Wéris. These were discovered a couple of years ago, and re-erected last year; they had been buried in the 16th or 17th century, presumably as part of the fight against superstition. They’re a spectacular addition to the already well-endowed spiritual geography of the location.

    Still photos don’t give a really good sense of the alignment, so here’s a blustery video.

    It was H’s first visit to Wéris, so we had to also visit the two big dolmens, both within easy walking distance of the new alignment with is directly between them. Here’s Wéris I, in photographs taken today and in 2009:

    And the dolmen and nearby menhirs at Wéris II.

    Great Stone of Ellemelle

    (50.464000N  5.432000E)

    The Great Stone of Ellemelle is either a fallen menhir or a dolmen with its legs knocked out. Stark and alone in a field far from anywhere, it’s pretty big but doesn’t have much to say.

    Menhir du Grand Bois (Jehay Castle)

    (50.575688N  5.323281E)

    The second last of today’s stones has been transferred to the formal gardens of Jehay Castle, whose owner, Count Van den Steen, married one of the last heiresses of the Marquesses of Ormond, and left it to the Belgian state on his death in 1999. The building is undergoing refurbishment but is spectacular.

    The menhir itself is regarded as of dubious authenticity by experts, but is nicely presented for what it is.

    There are numerous statues in the grounds, all I think by Count Van den Steen himself. This nymph is particularly striking:

    Time was pressing, so we did not give the castle the attention it deserved, but I’ll definitely go back some time – only 5 euro for entry (and just 2.50 if you are only doing the gardens).

    The Stone of Saint-Gitter

    (50.746175N  5.063662E)

    B lives in the vicinity of the last stone of the trip and joined us for that part of the itinerary, and in fact I realised that I had brought her to the site in 2010 without noticing that there was a menhir there too. The site combines a tumulus with a small museum showing the Merovingian palace of Pepin the Elder, who was Charlemagne’s great-great-great-grandfather and therefore probably an ancestor of yours too, if you are of European descent.

    The Stone of Saint Gitter has been moved to a corner of the museum, and B enjoyed the feel of it against her tummy and also liked watching the shadown of her fingers on the rock surface.

    On the way back, we took her to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, where as usual she enjoyed lighting a candle.

    So, in summary, Wéris remains a key Belgian attraction; Jehay is worth a return visit; and some day I’ll find time to go to the Sint-Gitter museum when it is open. Thanks to H (and B in her own way) for travelling companionship.

    Doctor Who: The Evil of the Daleks, by Frazer Hines

    Second paragraph of chapter Three:

    ‘Mollie, Mollie, Mr McCrimmon has been kidnapped. It means the end of us unless we can find him quickly!’

    I wrote at length about the TV story, John Peel’s novelisation and Simon Guerrier’s Black Archive on it just over two years ago; however I’m coming back to it now because Frazer Hines, who starred as Jamie in the original show, has produced an alternative novelisation, assisted by Mike Tucker and Steve Cole. The authors have taken the step of the framing narrative of the second (and last) showing the the TV story in 1968, when newly acquired companion Zoe was invited to watch it as an example of the Doctor’s previous adventures.

    Is there a point? Yes, I think so; John Peel in his novelisation was trying to make sense of Dalek mythology in the context of the show as a whole, whereas here we have Hines and co-writers humanising the experiences of both Jamie and Victoria, giving a lot more back-story to the companions and indeedto the other characters.

    One of the problems I have with The Evil of the Daleks is that quite a lot of the plot doesn’t really make sense. But the TV story keeps you entertained with the pace of events, and this novelisation does the same, from a slightly different direction to John Peel’s. You can get it here.

    Bechdel fail, as is the TV story. (Some argue that Ruth Maxtible telling Mollie to get some tea at the end of episode 2 crosses the Bechdel threshold, but this is incorrect, because the tea is for Jamie.)

    Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel (brief note)

    Second paragraph of third chapter:

    After all that wild splendour, it’s an odd jolt to find himself in Victoria in those tamed and pretty streets. There are Englishmen everywhere; he steps out of the train and the accents of his homeland surround him. He could stay here for a while he thinks.

    It has time-travelling, and a plot that turns out to make sense. I wasn’t really into it at first, but loved the ending. You can get it here.

    Airside, by Christopher Priest

    Second paragraph of third chapter:

    Justin’s family background was conventional. He had one sister, four years older than him. Her name was Amanda. Her friends called her Mandy, but Justin and his parents invariably called her Amanda. His father’s name was Mortimer, and his mother was Nicole. Their names for each other were Mort and Nicky.

    A weird little jewel at the end of Christopher Priest’s writing career, this book’s protagonist, a film student who grows up to be a film critic, becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a Hollywood film star at Heathrow Airport in 1948. There’s a lot of exploration of film history and of airports and the human process of flight, and although I worked out what had happened to the actress some time before the characters did, there was more than enough momentum to keep me going. Like most of Priest’s books, this one will set your mind racing rather than your pulse. A decent note to end on. You can get it here.

    Bechdel fail, I think. Most of the book is tight-third to the male protagonist. There are a couple of scenes where his girlfriend is talking to an older actress, but he is present and in the conversation too.

    The Moonday Letters, by Emmi Itäranta (brief note)

    Second paragraph of third chapter;

    I have never understood why people would rather attempt to open conversations with strangers when they could be quiet instead.

    I loved her first book, Memory of Water, and was on the Clarke jury when it was shortlisted in 2015. But I found this less engaging. Single-note emotionally, and the means and motivation of the eco-terrorists not very well explained in the end. (I also noticed repeated mentions of feline ears!) You can get it here.