The Caucasus: an Introduction, by Thomas de Waal

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It is tempting but misleading to see the seventy-year Soviet experiment as just a second Russian imperial project. Ultimate power resided in Moscow and Russia played the role of big brother, but the Soviet Union was much more complex and contradictory. The Soviet state modernized, terrorized, and Russified the Caucasus but also gave it new kinds of nationalism. It also went through radically different phases: from the Bolshevik would-be utopia of international class liberation to the Stalinist authoritarian state of the 1930s to the corrupt, Brezhnev-era multinational state. Modernization meant both the destruction of old traditions and emancipation for women and technological progress. Policy toward the nationalities veered from the implementation of a liberal “affirmative action empire,” which gave new opportunities to non-Russian nations, to genocide. While some small ethnic groups benefited hugely from “nativization” programs, others were subjected to deportation and mass terror.

I have known Tom de Waal for many years, going back to my own intense Caucasus engagement in 2003-06 and again in 2012. He is lambasted by Armenian activists for being too pro-Azeri, and by Azerbaijani activists for being too Armenian, and by all sides in Georgia for favouring their opponents. I think he is generally right. I had been looking forward to this book for ages and attended its Brussels launch in 2019; my memory is that we went for a very nice dinner afterwards.

To get the obvious point out of the way, unfortunately one of the core sections of the book now needs to be updated after the Nagorno-Karabakh war of late 2020. This occasioned one of the few points of disagreement between us, and I actually wrote to de Waal to say that I thought the “both-sides” narrative which was prevalent in the early weeks of the 2020 conflict was obscuring the important fact that Azerbaijan was winning.

But I don’t think he can be faulted for not seeing precisely into the future when writing the book. In any case, he, and I, and many others, had been warning of the likelihood of a bloody denouement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for many years (here’s me and Damien Helly in 2004, and me and Sabine Freizer in Russian in 2006). In 2004 the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan told me to my face that they were saving up their profits from fossil fuels in order to upgrade their armed forces to drive Armenia out of their territory by force, and if he was saying that to me, he was saying it to a lot of other people. This was not a difficult war to predict.

So, could the conflicts in the region have been averted or mitigated? I get the gloomy feeling from de Waal’s narrative that the forces of political gravity generally favoured violent conflict. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard-line nationalists to power in all three countries, and eliminated the political habits and institutions that might have channeled the energy of disagreement away from the precipice of war. I found his analysis of the 2008 South Ossetia conflict particularly interesting, as it happened after my first round of Caucasus engagement. His view (in crude summary) is that Saakashvili decided to pick a fight quite early on, and the Russians decided to give it to him.

It’s fair to say that international engagement with the conflict has often been less than vigorous. It seemed to me grimly appropriate that the OSCE mechanism to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, co-chaired by the USA, Russia and France, was named after a conference that never actually took place. But I know individual officials who have made great efforts, and in any case it’s easy to think of better-known conflicts where huge investment of time and energy in international mediation has failed to pay off.

Anyway, recent developments aside, de Waal’s book is a warmly engaging look at the three South Caucasus countries – Georgia (including South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara), Armenia and Azerbaijan (including Nagorno-Karabakh) – in their historical context between Russia, Turkey and Iran, with the Russia relationship being the most important for all three cases. (Though other powers got involved too – Azerbaijan was briefly a British protectorate, with democratic elections, women’s suffrage and proportional representation in 1918-1920.) He concentrates on the political history, but also explores the rich literature of all of the region, and touches on the cuisine as well (I personally love Georgian cooking). He argues that the important regional context has been lost, with the independence of the three states inevitably making them look inwards rather than at their neighbours. It’s a good and informative read. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2019. Next on that pile is Complexity: A Very Short Introduction, by John H. Holland.

Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee

Second paragraph of third chapter:

On leaving Miss Maxwell’s ‘Academy’, I followed [his brother] Michael to Aldro, a boarding school in Eastbourne. I was about seven and a half and not at all happy at the idea of being so far from home. There was a kind old master there called Mr Craft, who closely resembled Rudyard Kipling; well, he seemed old, but as I received Christmas cards from him for twenty years afterwards, he was probably only about thirty-five at the time. To me he represented kindness. Mr Hill, the Headmaster, on the other hand represented unkindness, for I was often to be caned by him. ‘Go and change into gym shorts and wait for me in the gymnasium,’ he would order. That wait was more terrible than the thrashing. Even at seven and a half, I could take the beating, but the waiting made me sick with apprehension.

First volume of Jon Pertwee’s autobiography, though he did not write much more apart from an out-of-print account of his time on Doctor Who. It’s an entertaining set of anecdotes about his early life, difficult relations with parents (he did not actually know that his father‘s friend was his biological mother), his wartime service in the navy (which takes up almost half of the book), his love of girls and cars. If I had been editing it, I might have taken out some of the exclamation marks.

Lots of names are dropped, many of them of showbiz figures now long forgotten, though a couple stood out; visiting his father’s friend A.A. Milne as a child, Milne’s son “was good enough to introduce me to his toy animal friends, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Kanga’s son Roo, and best of all, his teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh.” At the other end of the book, when he is assigned to Naval Intelligence, one of his office-mates is future prime minister James Callaghan. (Callaghan, who lost the 1979 election, is the most recent prime minister to have served in the armed forces and the only one to have been in the Navy.)

But Doctor Who fans like me won’t find much to chew on here. Pertwee did not really have hidden depths; what you saw was what you got, and that personality is on display in his book. You can get it here.

Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It slid open with a quiet hiss, revealing the main corridor of the starboard passenger deck. Doors to passenger quarters (four bunks per room) lined either side of the corridor. Here and there men in Royal Castakaran Army fatigues lay slumped on the floor, unconscious from the gas. Malcolm saw no corpses and no sign of any possessed men.

I got this in 2016 out of admiration for the author’s decision to decline nomination for the Hugo Awards; his story had been boosted onto the final ballot by slating and he wanted very much to distance himself from it, and not only that, he kept quiet about it until the full results were announced. However it took me until now to get around to reading it. It’s a well-written enough story of horrors lurking between the stars, while humans fight the artificial intelligences they have created, with some interesting narrative twists. I’d still have voted for the winner of this category, “Folding Beijing”. You can get it here.

This was the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2016. Next is Zink, by David van Reybrouck.

Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Çerkez

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Judge Raif, although instrumental in helping Rauf to navigate through the intricacies of Cyprus’ politics, hoped his legacy would extend to more than Rauf becoming better informed. He also wanted to instil in Rauf the importance of becoming an active member of the law profession. The dedicated Judge had maintained an almost obsessive stance on the necessity to have educated Turkish Cypriots remaining on home sod. His opinions stemmed from the idea that knowledgeable citizens would not only advocate amendments to the law but also be in a position to challenge and produce effective changes beneficial for the Turkish Cypriot community.

I never met Rauf Denktaş, though I once walked past his car as it was leaving the presidential office in northern Nicosia, and he gave me a friendly smile and an amicable wave; I was on my way in, to a meeting with Mehmet Ali Talat, his successor, and I guess he had just been there for the same reason. I spent four years immersed in the Cyprus issue a few years ago, first with the International Crisis Group and then as an adviser to President Talat with Independent Diplomat; I stay in touch as best I can, though it has frankly gone off the boil in recent years.

This is an unapologetically positive biography of the Turkish Cypriot leader, written presumably on the basis of many conversations with him (he was famously talkative) and with no claims or pretence to objectivity. This is actually refreshingly honest; in Cyprus, as in many other conflicts, many writers feel the urge to prove that their own truth is the only truth, whereas here we are just getting Denktaş’s version of events. He had a remarkable career, a London-trained lawyer who rose to the top of a small embattled community and, for good or ill, created a state for them which still exists, even if unrecognised.

There is a lot of good chewy detail about Denktaş’s early years and family. (The half-way point in the book, page 150 of 300 pages of the main narrative, comes at the end of the 1964 crisis when Denktaş had just turned 40 and had almost another half century to live.) It’s a bit less satisfying once we get into the weeds of Cyprus politics, because the book is only interested in one person, and although he was indeed pretty important, there are other important figures too. Beyond a couple anecdotes of Denktaş arguing or joking with them (or both) we don’t get much of a feeling for Makarios, Küçük or Clerides, let alone any of the Turkish political leaders.

The most interesting thing politically for me was that Denktaş (by his own account) had to lobby very hard to get attention from Ankara to the Cyprus issue in the years up to 1974. The received wisdom by the time that I got involved was that Turkey and the TRNC were in a symbiotic relationship, and there were mutterings about the tail wagging the dog when Denktaş was at the height of his powers. But in fact Turkey did not take its treaty responsibilities very seriously at first, and in the 1950s and 1960s Denktaş was constantly frustrated by Ankara. (This is where a Turkey-focused perspective would have been really illuminating. The received wisdom is that Denktaş got a lot more help from Turkey than he allows here.)

The book skips over a lot of key questions, presumably because Denktaş himself didn’t want to talk to the author about them because he found the topics either embarrassing or boring (or both). What was the extent of his involvement with the TMT’s violence in the 1950s? How did he lose the confidence of both Ankara and his own voters at the end of his career? After everything that happened, was it all worth it?

But in the end, it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; primary material, rather than a primer.

This was the very last book that I had acquired in 2015 that was still on my unread shelf. (Actually acquired rather early in that year, at a memorial service in London to mark the second anniversary of his death in January 2013.)

Last book acquired in 2015, read in November 2022 (Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait)
Last books acquired in 2014, read in October 2021 (The Empire of Time and Crashland)
Last book acquired in 2013, read in October 2020 (Helen Waddell)
Last book acquired in 2012, read in May 2020 (A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese dialogue 2000-2003)
Last book acquired in 2011, read in October 2019 (Luck and the Irish)
Last book acquired in 2010, read in January 2019 (Heartspell)
Last book acquired in 2009, read in December 2016 (Last Exit to Babylon)

That opens up the books acquired in 2016, which I’ll hope to get through a bit quicker than I managed for previous years, starting in this order:

  • Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller – shortest unread book acquired in 2016
  • To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt – earliest acquired unread sf book
  • Faith in Politics, by John Bruton – earliest acquired unread non-fiction book
  • A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg – earliest acquired unread non-genre fiction book
  • Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen – top unread book acquired in 2016 as by number of LibraryThing users who own it

Meanwhile you can get Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait here.

Doctormania, by Cavan Scott, Adriana Melo,Cris Bolson, Matheus Lopes and Marco Lesko

Second frame of third story (“Transformed”):

The end of Rose, New Who’s first episode, from Mickey’s point of view

Second in the series of Titan Comics graphic novels about the Ninth Doctor, with three stories:

“Hacked”, a very short story with a reference to the Eye of Orion and the Braxiatel Collection, in which the Ninth Doctor, Jack and Rose are kidnapped by an intergalactic criminal who they duly defeat.

The title story, “Doctormania”, has the crew landing on a world where everyone is a Doctor Who fan, an immediately glorious concept. There is a fake Doctor who everyone loves and a fan who gets annoyed with Rose. But it turns out that a familar foe is behind it all. Nicely executed.

The third story, “Transformed”, brings Mickey back into the narrative (though at a point where he has already met the Tenth Doctor). The whole team ends up in San Francisco for an adventure with shape-changing gargoyles with super powers. Nicely done.

Enjoyed it. You can get it here.

The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough

Second paragraph of third chapter:

My mind felt as rumpled as my bed and my face was swollen with tears and sleep. I still felt like applying the nearest blunt object to all within this confusing household but was also aware that in doing so I was no doubt sealing my own doom. What galled me most, I suppose, was that in selling myself into this arrangement, I had inadvertently fallen into domestic problems as painful as those I had sought to avoid by evading my mother’s relatives. The gods do not like to have their plans thwarted, I suppose.

An orientalist fantasy, drawing heavily on the Arabian Nights, but subverting it in that the women characters take charge and have to rescue their husband, Aman Akbar, who has been transformed into a donkey. I don’t think the racial stereotypes would really fly today, but I can see what Scarborough was trying to do and it’s (intentionally) quite funny in places. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2016. Next on that pile is Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen.

My 3xgreat-grandfather Richard Grafton Belt; and The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

This is another of the volumes put together by my cousin Edward “Wick” Hoffman, drawing on the family letters left by his mother in a vodka box. This time he looks at his great-grandmother, my great-great-grandmother, Frances Wyatt Belt (1837-1912), and her ancestors – previous volumes looked at her relationship with her husband, Samuel Morris Wickersham, before and after their marriage. This includes Frances’ great-aunt, Elizabeth Bordley Gibson (1777-1863), who was friends with George Washington’s foster-daughter Nellie Custis and featured in contemporary art, but lived long enough to mentor her great-niece, whose grave I recently visited.

The early letters are really social chitchat from the first part of the nineteenth century. But we soon get onto the intriguing figure of my 3xgreat-grandfather, Frances’ father Richard Grafton Belt (1784-1865). For reasons that I will come to, I have been delving into his early life recently. His father, a farmer in the neighbourhood of Baltimore, died when he was 12, leaving him the oldest of five or six surviving siblings. In the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser for 18 December 1807, we find this notice:

I haven’t been able to track this location down directly, but thirteen miles out of Baltimore on the York Road, now Route 45, gets you to the area now known as Cockeysville.

Leaping forward a couple of decades, this page on medicine in Maryland lists Richard Grafton Belt as an “M.D., apothecary and druggist” in 1827, a “doctor and druggist” in 1829, and an “apothecary” in 1833, all at 13 Market St (not Baltimore St) in Baltimore, a really central location. In 1843 he is at 125 Fayette St, not quite as central, listed as a “doctor” and, intriguingly, “Spanish consul”. I have no idea where he got his medical qualifications.

In 1831 he had married Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley, who was at least twenty years younger than him, born around 1805 as far as I can tell. They had half a dozen children, my great-great-grandmother Frances (“Fanny”) somewhere in the middle. Wick’s collection of letters to and from him and his daughters dates from the 1850s. By this stage Richard Grafton Belt had rejected conventional medicine and taken up homeopathy. He completely failed to make it pay (not surprising, since homeopathy is bullshit), and basically had no money at all.

His daughter Fanny started working in a textile factory in Rhode Island at the age of 15 to keep the family going. Her father’s letters are full of the “it’s-really-going-to-work-this-time” narrative to the point that you can feel his teenage daughter shrugging her shoulders; what, again?

As well as being a rabid homeopathist, Richard Grafton Belt was also mawkishly religious and urged his children to get confirmed and attend church regularly in his absence. His grandson, Francis Sims McGrath, reflects on him thus in his book Pillars of Maryland:

So. DNA analysis reveals that there may have been more going on. There is a particular group of people on AncestryDNA who have a common link with me and each other. Most of this group appear to be African-American, or at least to have a large part of their heritage from that source. A lot of them also seem to have ancestry that can be traced back to Annapolis and/or Baltimore in Maryland. The link is sufficiently close that an early nineteenth-century common ancestor is plausible.

I am inclined to think that Richard Grafton Belt had a relationship with an African-American woman in Baltimore, and that the children of that relationship have many living descendants who are cousins of mine. I conjecture that Richard Grafton Belt’s relationship with the mother of his black child or children ended badly, causing him to seek redemption in religion and homeopathy, and leaving DNA that endures in my own body and in the bodies of dozens of Marylanders. (And a few in Alabama, for reasons we can only speculate about.)

There are of course other possibilities. But Richard Grafton Belt had only two sons; one died aged 16, and the other spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia (and is not known to have married or had children), so neither seems likely to have left DNA traces in Baltimore’s African-American community. He had several brothers, and one of them, Thomas Hanson Belt, could be a possibility as he too lived most of his life in Baltimore; his wife, Elizabeth Key Heath, was the aunt of Richard Grafton Belt’s wife Sally Rebecca Heath Sims Bordley. (The other brothers all seem to have moved away as soon as they were adults.) Still, the strength of the DNA connections points to Richard Grafton Belt rather than his brother as the most likely common ancestor.

Anyway, if you want to try your own psychoanalysis, you can get Wick’s book of family letters here.

Love & Monsters, by Niki Haringsma

For my Black Archive write-ups I like to give heavily documented notes of my previous comments on each story and novelisation. This works well for Old Who, but less so for New Who where there are fewer novelisations and I didn’t always write up the stories on first broadcast. So for Love & Monsters, I have only the following note from my Great Rewatch in 2013:

Love and Monsters [sic] is one of the most daring episodes of Who ever. Paul Cornell has written a spirited defence of the story as an episode about fandom, about the show Doctor Who rather than its central character, and he makes a good case. But the fact is that this had not been done before in New Who, and only really in passing in Old Who (most notably in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, though talk of fans of the Doctor goes back to The Savages). The episode is doubly daring in that it is the first of the Doctor-lite episodes that we now accept as a regular event in New Who. It is a bit bizarre, and it doesn’t fit with the previous run of the programme at all, but I think it’s OK for Who to be experimental occasionally and that it more or less works.

Watching it again, almost a decade later, we’ve had a lot more Who stories, both on TV and off, that were self-referential and reflexive; Paul Cornell’s The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who is a particular high point for me, but a lot of the Moffat era treated the Doctor as a figure of intergalactically mythic importance. And the Doctor-lite episodes also became the norm for the rest of the Davies era, including my favourite episode of the whole of New Who, Blink. So Love & Monsters now seems less disruptive and more trend-setting. But it’s still unusual.

It’s also striking in that it gets a tremendous performance from Camille Coduri as Jackie Tyler. At first the story mocks her obsession with Elton, but it rapidly shifts to heart-breaking as he betrays her. It is very good writing to take a character you have been laughing at, and turn them into an object of sympathy, without missing a beat. Davies actually tries to do this fairly often, but is not always as successful as he is here.

The world of Who is sometimes quite small. In 1988-89, I was the External Officer of what was then the Clare College Students Association in Cambridge. The Welfare Officer was a more arty chap, who moved in generally different circles to me. About five years later, I caught a very well-made short film on TV called That Sunday, starring Minnie Driver and Alan Cumming. I enjoyed the 16 minutes hugely – I’m a Minnie Driver fan anyway – and then my jaw dropped when the credits revealed that it had been both written and directed by my old comrade from the JCR Committee.

That was as nothing to my surprise when the credits rolled at the end of Love and Monsters, a dozen years after that, and I saw the director’s name. Dan Zeff has gone on to be a medium-to-big name in the UK film industry, but Love and Monsters is his only venture into the Whoniverse. (Incidentally the credits sequence on my DVD copy cuts off before the director’s name is displayed; I hope he’s getting compensated for that. I haven’t checked extensively but it seems to be the case for several other episodes from that season.)

So, let’s go forward another eight years, to one of the first Belgian conventions I attended, the 2014 Antwerp Convention, where guests included Colin Baker. As I made myself comfortable for his presentation, I got into conversation with the fan sitting beside me; we found that our tastes were aligned on a number of points regarding Doctor Who, and have stayed in touch ever since, though I think that is the only time we have actually met. I was delighted when he got the commission to write this book, drawing on his literary studies and fan-writing experience.

Here’s Niki’s own blogpost introduction to the book. He says up front that he loved the episode from the first time he saw it, but also recognises that this is not a universal view. Writing the book helped to work through the reasons for both love and hate, but especially love.

I found a wonderful community while writing this Black Archive. So many people came up to me to say how much they loved the episode. Sure, they could all see the awkwardness and camp, the disgusting rubber-suit monster, the fan characters becoming creepy stalkers, but they still adored the whole thing because it spoke to them. I made so many new friends who helped me with my investigation ‘n’ detection, and my book became a love letter to the comradery of Doctor Who fandom itself.

The first chapter, “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system”, looks at the production reasons why the story was made in the first place, and why it had such a tight budget. It identifies “The Zeppo”, one of my favourite Buffy episodes, as partial inspiration.

The second chapter, “Spaceships and lasers and everything”, looks at how the viewer is estranged from the action by the way the story is told, invoking Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of oстраннение (often translated as “defamiliarisation”, but here as “estrangement”) and its implementation in the works of Bertold Brecht, especially The Threepenny Opera. I am not familiar with either, but I found this tremendously interesting. He also looks at the queerness of Elton’s relationship with Ursula after her transformation, and how the dynamics of fandom are portrayed in LINDA.

The third chapter’s title is “This isn’t, you know, my whole life”. Its second paragraph, and the quote it introduces, are:

It was decided that the comic pitch would make a good TV episode instead. The female protagonist became a male one. The reason for this change, according to Davies, was that there had already been too many female characters who fancied the Doctor. He explains:
‘Very soon after drawing this up, I looked at the amount of women in Series 2, especially those arguably in love with the 10th Doctor – Sarah Jane, Madame de Pompadour, not to mention Rose – and I decided that he’d broken too many female hearts! Time for a man! And so Elton was born.’3
3 Davies, ‘Second Sight’, p9.

The chapter looks briefly at Elton as a character, and the unreliability of his narration.

The fourth chapter, “Great big absorbing creature from Outer Space”, looks at the Absorbaloff, about the role of fans in creativity around Doctor Who (including the fact that Davies and Tennant were both long-term fans themselves), culminating in the idea for the monster coming from a nine-year-old fan, and finishes with more analysis of what the Absorbaloff really stands for.

The fifth chapter, “We’ve got the place to ourselves”, looks in depth at Jackie, but reminds us that there are two other mothers in the story as well – Elton’s own mother, whose death is linked with the Doctor, and Bridget, the LINDA member who is looking for her own daughter and is one of the first to be absorbed.

The sixth chapter, “Fetch a Spade!”, examines how the story hints at the darker side of the Doctor’s personality, and quotes Jon Arnold on Amy Pond, before going back to Shklovsky’s oстраннение and also Itō Gō’s concept of キャラ (kyara), instantly recognisable archetypes. as manifested in the characters of Love & Monsters and then meditating on the nature of fandom and the character of the Tenth Doctor.

The seventh chapter, “What he never won’t represent”, starts by asking the reader, “Am I a good fan?” But we are reassured. “If you’re reading this book, chances are you’re not satisfied with just taking Doctor Who at face value. You probably want to dive in a little, poke it, look at it from different angles and see what’s hidden inside. Luckily, there are endless ways to do so.” Haringsma invokes Barthes’ Death of the Author, and goes on to unpack Ursula as a paving slab and romantic partner, taking us in some surprising directions.

A brief conclusion invokes Brecht again, and leaves us with these thoughts:

Maybe as you’re reading this, a text-only Target Love & Monsters novelisation will have seen the light of day as well. And maybe Ursula’s transformation will be obviously queer this time around, or maybe the Abzorbaloff will remind us a bit more of some particularly obnoxious fan. Or maybe not. Because the world is changing and transforming too, making room for new lessons that can be taught, new fannish circles of new geeks hungry to seize the reins. Maybe this strange adventure that’s been absorbed into fandom’s consciousness can be re-imagined to tell another story altogether. But it will always have been this wonderful little side-step in the Doctor’s life. And as fans, we have the opportunity to look beyond the episode’s awkwardness and camp – and to celebrate Love & Monsters for all that it is. Because it’s so much darker…
…and so much madder…
…and, y’know, it’s got a blowjob joke and everything.

It’s always nice when someone I like writes a book I like about a subject I like. Niki is a friend, the book took me to some very interesting places that I had not really considered, and while I’m still not completely sure if I like Love & Monsters, I love Doctor Who. You can get the book here.

The First World War Diary of Noël Drury, 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers: Gallipoli, Salonika, The Middle East and the Western Front, ed. Richard Grayson

As mentioned yesterday, I have been reading a couple of war memoirs by officers serving with Irish regiments of the British army, written a hundred years apart. Yesterday I wrote up Charles Crowe’s memories of serving in the Peninsular War with my 3xgreat-uncle, Thomas Whyte; today it’s the memoirs of Noel Drury about his service with Thomas Whyte’s great-nephew, my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte.

Second paragraph of third chapter (Grayson’s introduction):

On 9 August, the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers finally got orders to take part in an advance from Hill 50 towards All Bey Chesme. This was Drury’s first real action and he recalled, ‘The firing was worse than I imagined it would be and I felt very scared’, with snipers hidden in trees a particular problem. The attack failed and Drury attributed that to ‘the failure by the staff to work out any proper scheme at the beginning while there was a chance of our getting there without much opposition’ and also ‘the extraordinarily bad behaviour of the 11th (Northern) Division troops and some of the 53rd’.6 Casualties for the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were heavy: 11 officers and 259 other ranks, with 6 of the officers turning out to be dead, which necessitated some reorganisation of the battalion.7 The battalion spent the next few days digging in, struggling to find water but on 12 August were reattached to their own 30th Brigade and sent to a ‘rest camp’.8 Drury felt there was a ‘subtle wit’ at work in naming this a rest camp, noting ‘Anything less like a Rest Camp you couldn’t imagine. It was a bare slope, cleared in the scrub and having tracks of a “hay” crop of hard wiry burnt grass. The sun was beating down with a heat such I have never felt before. There was no shade.”9
6 Diary entry, 9 Aug 1915.
7 Diary entries, 9 and 11 Aug 1915.
8 Diary entry, 12 Aug 1915.
9 Diary entry, 13 Aug 1915.

Second paragraph of third chapter (Drury’s diary):

So we started off for the great adventure. I felt very nervous, as I am sure the others did, about how I would get on when real fighting started, and I think the responsibility of leading the men well, weighed on us.

I was put onto this by browsing around after reading a disappointing book on the 10th (Irish) Division in the First World War. Noel Drury was born in 1883; his family owned the busiest (and at one stage the only) paper mill in Ireland. He had two brothers, one of whom stayed at home to run the mill during the war (and then died in the influenza pandemic) and the other a doctor who joined the RAMC. He left four volumes of war diaries to the National War Museum; Richard Grayson, who I have known for thirty years, has now edited them down by about half and presents them for us here.

My main interest is that Drury served with the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and one of his closest colleagues, who gets more mentions than anyone except the battallion’s original commander Colonel P.G.A. “Paddy” Cox, was my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte, who fought alongside him and succeeded Cox as the battalion’s commanding officer. I never knew my grandfather, who died in 1949, long before I was born, so for me this is a unique insight into the man who contributed a quarter of my DNA.

Bill Whyte was born in 1880, the seventh son (of nine) and eleventh child (of fourteen) of my great-grandfather John Joseph Whyte (1826-1916). He had been a soldier since 1901 when he signed up for the Boer War. He appears on the very first page of Drury’s diary, welcoming Drury to the battalion in December 1914. Months of training then follow before they are sent to the eastern Mediterranean, arriving at Alexandria in July 1915, where Bill Whyte already knows the city, having been there on a previous military mission, and shows Drury around.

Their first (and as it turns out worst) day of actual combat is 9 August 1915, two days after their landing in Suvla Bay as part of the Gallipoli campaign, with no maps and no orders. They are ordered forward to capture a couple of hills, but in the confusion of war nothing seems to go right. Bill Whyte shuttles back and forth from the front line to Colonel Cox to try and sort things out. They manage to hold a ridge for a week, but are finally forced to withdraw to a prepared defensive position by the Turkish army, and Bill Whyte is injured in the neck/shoulder as they retreat. By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, half of the battalion’s men have been killed or wounded, or fallen ill, including 22 of the 26 officers.

The 6th Battalion spends the next month dug in on the Gallipoli front. Bill Whyte comes back from hospital on 21 September, five weeks after he was shot, and the soldiers move out at the end of the month to Thessalonica in Greece, where they spend October. They spend the whole of November preparing to defend the Allied positions just across the Serbian (now Macedonian) border. Eventually, without too much actual combat, it becomes clear that the position cannot be held against the incoming Bulgarian army, and Bill Whyte organises the retreat from the Battle of Kosturino on 8 December.

I knew some of this part of the story, having read up on the Macedonia campaign and actually explored the battlefield a few years ago. But I had not realised that the Allied troops had spent more than a month dug into the freezing Macedonian hills before being forced to withdraw. My grandfather was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia as a reward for his part in the campaign, unsuccessful as it was.

I was startled, when I visited the Imperial War Museum (North) in Manchester a year ago, to find a vivid depiction of the battlefield, “Land Heals, Memories Remain”, a 2018 painting by Jen Gash, at the entrance to the main exhibition hall.

The Battalion falls back to Thessalonica, and settles down to defending the lines and preparing for the next offensive. Meanwhile Drury goes down with malaria in July 1916 and is invalided home, returning only in July 1917 after a year away, to find that the front line in Macedonia has barely moved in the meantime.

In September 1917 there are two significant developments. First, the battalion is sent to Egypt as part of the Palestine campaign. Second, there is a new commanding officer. Colonel Cox is ordered home on 1 September, and Drury notes, “I wonder who will get Command – I’m afraid Bill Whyte won’t, as his deafness was a bar in the past.” (I was well aware of my grandfather’s deafness, supposedly due to overdosing on quinine during a bout with malaria.) But on 17 September he writes:

Great news. Major WH Whyte was in Orders today as Lieutenant Colonel and to command the Battalion. I am so glad as he is a damn fine fellow and a white man [sic]. He breathes the spirit of the Regiment and loves it better than anything. He knows the whole history of it and is always instilling it into the men. One malefactor when brought up at Orderly Room found himself sentenced to learn all the Battle Honours and their dates by heart.

And the next day:

Bill Whyte turned up at Orderly Room today with his crown and star on, amid hearty congratulations from everyone. It’s a huge relief that we haven’t had a dago sent to command.

(Presumably “dago” here means an officer from another regiment; or possibly just a non-Irishman.)

The battalion is held in reserve for the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of Jerusalem, and has a brief skirmish with a failed Turkish counteroffensive at the very end of the year. In January, Bill Whyte wrote a letter to the former chaplain of the Battalion; when I first came across this I had no idea who the people in question were, but thanks to Drury’s diaries I now can identify all of them. This is from our family papers, not part of Drury’s book.

13 January 1918

Dear Padré [Father Murphy, the former Catholic chaplain],

This is to wish you all of the best for 1918 and also to ask why the divil we never hear from you? The boys do be going strong and as you probably have read we have had three successful stunts so we are all wagging our tails hard.
Has been hard work on little food and less drink; absolutely no whiskey! Stuffer [R.C. Byrne, the battalion quartermaster] is perforce a teetotaler and aging rapidly.
John Luke [another of the senior officers], sitting beside me much wishes he was where he last saw you. I gather you fed him nobly with drink in proportion!

Well, here we are in the Holy Land and as [probably mythical] Pat Murphy said “It’s no wonder Abraham was always wandering; sure he would be looking for a better spot.”
I got as far as Jerusalem just for a look at it. As a city most disappointing, incredibly dirty and smelly with a loathsome population. The interest of course is in the association with Biblical and Christian incidents. I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Garden of Gethsemane Mount of Olives etc etc. Had only time for a glimpse at each, and also one or two of the Moslem places. The Mosque of Omar built on the site of Solomon’s temple is far and away the finest thing in Jerusalem or out of it. The whole of this country is full of interest also. We bivouaced under the hill where Christ is supposed to have appeared to the three disciples after his resurrection [meaning the appearance on the road to Emmaus, which was to two disciples, not three]. There is a Latin Monastery there ran by Franciscans. – French and Italian [the monastery at Al-Qubaibeh, which had been founded only in 1902].
Got some bread and oranges out of them when they learnt we were all R.Cs. The Turk had left them pretty bare. The O.C. Monks breakfasted with me next day and was very interesting. They are evidently very industrious people, have transformed the top of a bare and bleak mountain into quite a charming spot. Trees planted, gardens flourishing with vines, oranges, pepper trees, etc. to say nothing of flowers and vegetables. Chapel is very fine and the Monastery and Hospice are very large; all buildings cut stone. We were using Hospice as a hospital. By the way it was here our padre first failed us. Being a holy man I sent him out foraging to the Monastery, as we were short of food, and expected him to return with all sorts of luxuries. However all he got out of the Monks was permission to pray in their Chapel! Not much use to hungry men! I think you or the Canon would not have come away empty handed.
The padre is one of your recruits Fr O’Carroll by name a good lad, but a bit young for the “brutal soldiery”. Next day I took in the job of foraging myself.
Another day we had a small scrap in the same place where Joshua hunted the 4 kings (I think) [actually five kings; the valley of Ajalon, a skirmish also described by Drury as taking place on 1 December 1917]. As far as I remember a terrific hail storm put the wind up them. We were assisted by a fog and sneaked up to the Turk and put the wind up him.
As regards fighting generally we have had a walk over as compared with the Gallipoli days. My company on 9th August lost more in 3 hours than the battalion has lost in all this campaign. Thank God for it. Our last stunt, when we counter attacked during Turks attempt to recapture Jerusalem, was I think our best effort. Anyhow the old Division was let loose as a whole and we fairly wiped everybody else’s eye. Our share of the pick up was more killed, wounded, prisoners, guns, M.Gs. etc. was more than three times as large as all the other divisions put together. [27-29 December, around Deir Ibzia]
It was hard work though. Xmas day was the divil raining like hell and New Years Day if possible worse. All the time we were on bully & biscuit and not enough of either. Indeed to look back now over the country we put the Turk out of it is astonishing an army was ever able to cross it. We went up 4 mountains all nearly 3000 feet high to say nothing of dozens of lower eminences. Men of course were marvelous, so happy and cheery under most adverse conditions and mad keen to get at the Turk. The other day a patrol came back grousing, saying the officer in charge was no good as he couldn’t find them any Turks to kill! With me still or rejoined lately are John Luke and Shadforth (both have done awfully well) also old Dovey Loveband and of course the Stuffer. Wodehouse also here sticking it out well in spite of rheumatism. [John Luke already mentioned; Captain H.A. “Tony” Shadforth; ]Guy Yerburgh Loveband; Stuffer Byrne already mentioned; Arthur Hugh Wodehouse, who had only recently joined the 6th Battalion from the 5th.]
Lots of the “old hands” here also “getting their own back”.
Col Cox [the previous commanding officer] writes he met you in Ireland so he will have given you all recent news. –

We have had no mail for weeks. In this country and under present weather conditions it takes a lot of doing to keep us fed and supplied with lead as a gift to the Turk. –

What is going on in Ireland? Is the convention [the Irish Convention, chaired by Horace Plunkett, in a well-meaning but doomed (and now largely forgotten) attempt to get a constitutional settlement in Ireland before Sinn Fein’s rise became unstoppable] going to put things right or are the Germans going to fool the Irishman into another rebellion? Meantime we are sighing for fresh blood to help us carry on. Only yesterday I had 2 men hit for the 4th time and another hit for the sixth! They will still carry on whilst thousands of able bodied men at home waste time doing nothing but talk rot.
Nothing else matters, except to beat the Hun. When that is done there will be no particular harm in people returning to their petty parish politics. –

Well! Well! God save Ireland anyway!
Have you done any racing lately? And if so I hope you gave Miss May Grehan VAD. better tips than you ever gave me! Give her my kindest regards. [May Grehan’s sister Magda was married to Bill Whyte’s brother George; they were second cousins once removed; May and Magda Grehan had two other sisters, who both married first cousins of the Whytes on the Ryan side; May eventually married an unrelated Englishman in 1922] Also to The Canon [the former Protestant chaplain of the battalion, R.A. MacClean, rector of Rathkeale in Limerick] when next you see him, and the two of you can drink to the health of yours v sincerely

W. H. Whyte

In March the Battalion take part in the Battle of Tell ‘Asur, but the Turkish troops withdraw pretty quickly (as usual at that stage of the war). The battle of Tell ‘Asur brings a particular difficulty as John Luke, one of the most senior officers who was very close to both Drury and Whyte, disobeying a direct order (possibly due to drunkenness) and consequently being court-martialled. (He was ultimately acquitted. Before the war he had resigned from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers after an incident of drunkenness, before rejoining in the war and he was fined for public drunkenness in 1922.)

After that things are fairly quiet, though Bill Whyte has the usual problems of leadership to address, and the soldiers go back and forth to Cairo fairly freely. On one of these train journeys, Drury has an interesting encounter:

When we got to Zagazig, I noticed a peculiarly shabby-looking fellow mouching along in an officer’s tunic but without badges or regimental buttons, unshaved and with long hair. He looked such a disgrace that I was on the point of speaking to him when one of the 10th Divison staff with whom I was sitting said to me ‘Don’t you think you might think first before blazing at him, and don’t you know who it is?’ I said I didn’t and he replied ‘That’s Colonel Lawrence.’ He was probably just back from one of his wonderful stunts with the Arabs and had picked up any old gear to take him to Cairo.

I had wondered if my grandfather ever encountered Lawrence of Arabia. I still don’t know the exact answer but I am satisfied with what I have.

The battalion is sent to France, and then in early September 1918 Bill Whyte is unexpectedly sent for “a rest for a while at home” (I have no idea what was really going on there; was it connected with John Luke’s court-martial?) and replaced with a new CO, Colonel Little, who Drury immediately dislikes. After four years, the war in France is finally going well, and the battalion starts to make major progress against the Germans (the first time that they had actually fought the Germans – previously it was the Turks and the Bulgarians). Then on 11 November everything changes.

About 09.00, Colonel Little came along and after saying ‘Good morning’, casually remarked ‘Well, we stop today’, so I replied ‘Thank the Lord, we could do with a spell of a few days’. So he smiled and said ‘Oh, but we stop altogether, the old war’s finished’. I thought he was pulling my leg so I asked him was I to tell that to the men? He said ‘Yes, certainly, an Armistice has been signed and all fighting will cease at 11.00 exactly’. He then handed me the official order, — ‘OC B Coy 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Hostilities will cease at 11.00 hours today, Nov. 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour which will be reported by wire to Advanced Army Headquarters. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until receipt of instructions from Army headquarters. Further instructions follow’ — 16th Corps HQ, 07.00, 11th November 1918.
I can hardly believe it. I don’t know what I feel, but somehow it’s like when one heard the death of a friend — a sort of forlorn feeling.
I went along and read out the order to the men, but they just stared at me and showed no enthusiasm at all. One or two just muttered ‘We were just getting a bit of our own back.’ They all had the look of hounds whipped off just as they were about to kill.

It’s extraordinary and yet somehow understandable that despite the horrors of years of war, Drury and some of his colleagues would have preferred to press on than to stop fighting; a sort of Stockholm syndrome.

My grandfather lived to 1949, dropping dead in church at the age of 68 with my father, then 20, standing beside him. Noel Drury died in 1975 shortly before his 92nd birthday, leaving most of his estate to a cousin who had been living with him; he never married. He had sold the family paper mill to the Irish state many decades earlier.

So, a few things jumped out at me, partly also as a result of having read Charles Crowe’s diary of the Peninsular War and his association with my grandfather’s great-uncle Thomas Whyte alongside Drury’s memoir. The First World War was a lot more static than the Peninsular War. The soldiers spent a lot of time stuck in one place, sometimes in trenches, sometimes in pleasant Mediterranean cities. Fighting seems to have taken up less than 10% of the time of the campaign – two weeks at Gallipoli, another couple of weeks in France at the end (which my grandfather missed), a few days in Macedonia and Palestine. The Peninsular War was a lot more fluid, though I think the proportion of the time spent fighting was a little higher.

The other striking difference is that women are much less visible. Drury stays in touch with his brother’s girlfriend, who is a nurse and often overlaps with him. He organises a concert for about 50 nurses and other British women in Thessalonica, and helps out a couple of lost Englishwomen in Normandy, but otherwise the first world war army is much more male than the army of the Napoleonic era.

Drury’s descriptions of people and places are vivid, if bigoted. It’s all very clearly presented. Richard Grayson has done a great job of breaking the story up into chapters and clarifying what was going on. And I’ve learned something more about my grandfather. As with Glover’s edition of Crowe’s diary, I wish there had been some maps, but apart from that I recommend it as a nice example of presenting primary source material. You can get it here.

An Eloquent Soldier: The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-14, ed. Gareth Glover

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Officers and men were so fully occupied making good their new billet, that few of them were aware of our arrival, and we waited some little time before the Adjutant came to us, who, to my surprise and delight, proved to be my very particular friend Lieutenant Close* who left us eighteen months before at Danbury Barracks, near Chelmsford. He gave me a most cordial welcome, delivered my animals and baggage to his own batman, and when I enquired for my billet, told me to wait until he had apportioned off the men of our detachment to the different companies. This duty performed, Close gave me another hearty shake of the hand, and taking my arm, said, ‘Come my old boy, I will show you your billet, you are my prisoner. I told the quarter master’s sergeant I should take you into my billet, for, being now Adjutant I am entitled to a good house by myself but we two can be, I think, very snug and comfortable, and talk about our long walks near Danbury. This town is so small that chief of the officers are doubled up, and the juniors are three and four in one house. I am sure you will be glad to get away from that rattle Hambly.’
* Lieutenant Edward Charles Close 48th Foot.

This is the first of two posts I’m doing this year for Remembrance Day. Both are published diaries of officers in Irish regiments of the British Army, from a century apart. My interest in both cases is not so much in the conflict itself but that both diarists served in close company with relatives of mine.

I feel somewhat ambiguous towards the military in general and the British army in particular. Back in 2010 I read through all ten volumes of the Bloody Sunday report, which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in state violence and subsequent cover-ups. At the same time, for many of my male Irish ancestors, joining up was a means of assuring income in a precarious economic situation. There’s a significant Irish component to the heritage of the British army, in both directions.

The earlier of the two diaries I’m looking at today and tomorrow concerns my great-great-great-uncle Thomas Whyte, who for very many years was nothing more to me than a sad little line in the family records, one of my great-great-grandfather Nicholas Charles Whyte’s seven brothers, most of whom died during the Napoleonic wars. A few more details came to light with more research. Thomas was born in 1778, and was a captain in the 3rd Battalion of the 27th Regiment of Foot, known as the Inniskillings because they were originally raised in Enniskillen. But I don’t have much more; in particular, I have no idea what he was doing before 1812..

You may have forgotten about the Peninsular War. In the quarter century of European fighting that culminated in 1815, for most British and Irish people the battles that stick in the memory are Waterloo and Trafalgar. But this was an intercontinental conflict, with action in India, Egypt, the Caribbean and North America. Within Europe, Spain was particularly badly hit, with different governments and their sponsors battling it out over seven long years; proportionate to population, it was twice as bloody as the Spanish Civil War 130 years later. Here’s an animation of the day-by-day progress of the sides in the war to illustrate how complex it was.

Charles Crowe, the diarist whose memories I’m looking at, was born in 1785 in Suffolk, and joined the local militia in 1810, transferring to the regular army in 1811 and setting sail for the war in Spain in 1812, which is when the diary starts. In January 1813 he got transferred to the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings; Crowe as a Lieutenant was immediately put in command of one the companies of the battalion.

I was really reading his diary for the mentions of my great-great-great-uncle, and there are about a dozen. When Crowe joins the 3rd Battalion, Whyte is the second in command and welcomes him to the team. It becomes apparent that since the commanding officer, Colonel John Maclean, is a Scot, Whyte has an important informal role as the most senior Irishman in a largely Irish battalion, and Crowe records him as intervening twice to defuse disciplinary issues before they escalate.

In July 1813 the French appear to have been beaten, and are clinging to Pamplona in the northeast of Spain. The British army masses for a showdown with the French forces led by Soult marching in from the North. As the 3rd Battalion prepares for battle, Crowe has dinner with Colonel Maclean and “our worthy little Captain Whyte”, which is literally the only indication we have of Thomas Whyte’s physical appearance.

On 19 July the Inniskillings are near the French border, and Whyte rides up to the pass to take “a peep at France”. A few days later the French come pouring in and Wellington orders his troops to fall back to the valley of Sorauren, north of Pamplona, to make a stand. As the battle starts on 28 July 1813, the Inniskillings find themselves in an exposed defensive position taking very heavy losses and with little support.

I left my men to watch the path and hastened up to report the circumstance to Captain Whyte and stated that I could no longer defend the left of his position, for my company was annihilated. He thanked, and requested me to go and inform the colonel that he must have support instantly. I scrambled up the steep as quickly as possible and found the colonel anxiously watching all our proceedings. I briefly told my tale, he quietly replied, ‘Thank you, my good fellow. Thank you! I have seen what you have been doing. Go and tell Captain Whyte to do the best he can, for I cannot send him any assistance. Lord Wellington has ordered me not to part with another man, but that should the enemy appear on our ground, I am to give them a volley and charge with my three remaining companies.’

‘Oh! Ho!’ thought I, ‘This is very cheering intelligence truly! But we must fight it out!’ … Poor Whyte was not pleased with the result of my embassy, we were talking with Captain Butler about it and what we could do when an aide de camp galloped up with order for us to retire. Each of us most willingly went to muster as many of our men as we could. I could find only eight of the fifty three I had brought into the field!

…Poor Captain Whyte, proud of being second in command of the regiment had advanced on horseback, perchance, but for this circumstance the worthy fellow might have escaped. He was shot through the head as we retired!

I guess the point that Grove is making is that on horseback, Thomas Whyte was more vulnerable (and clearly an officer and therefore a more obvious target for French snipers); if he had swallowed his pride and walked, he might have lived. Grove mourns

the loss of Captain Whyte, the good officer, the brave soldier, the perfect gentleman, the warmhearted friend! No one was ever more beloved by all classes.

The battle continued for another two days and the British eventually won, so they would have recaptured the spot where Whyte was killed while retreating. There is no record of his place of burial – in fact I don’t know of any physical memorial to him anywhere – but it was probably on the battlefield.

Location of the battlefield of Saurauren, north of Pamplona

As it turned out this was the last French offensive of the Peninsular War, and for the rest of the diary Grove plays his part in the invasion of France while increasingly suffering from poor health, which he attributes to aggravated sunstroke, though Glover thinks it was brucellosis contracted from infected milk. After Napoleon’s first surrender, the 3rd Battalion of the Inniskillings was merged with the 1st and sent to America, where they lost the Battle of Plattsburgh, but Grove was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, which had suffered very heavy losses at the Battle of Ordal in Catalonia in September 1813 and went to Ireland to help with recruitment to replenish their ranks. This meant that he missed the Battle of Waterloo, where the 1st Battalion (which now included the survivors of the 3rd Battalion), just back from America, lost two-thirds of their remaining men in the fighting around the farm of La Sainte Haye. If Thomas Whyte had not been killed two years earlier, he would probably have been killed at Waterloo.

After the war, Grove went home to Suffolk and seems to have lived a quiet life, marrying without children and eventually dying at 70 in 1855. Gareth Glover has done a great job of editing and explaining the two volumes of his memoirs, one held by the family and the other originally by the regimental museum in Enniskillen. He was also good enough to clear up a query by email, more than a decade after the book was published.

Fortunately for Glover (and us), Grove was a good writer and gives us some lovely descriptions of the landscape and vivid portrayals of the Portuguese, Spanish and French people who he encounters. He shows (and depicts his fellow soldiers as showing) a fannish devotion to Lord Wellington – not yet the Duke, a title he got in 1814. Every word he exchanges with the big boss is carefully noted and recorded.

I was also struck by how many women were involved with the army. Quite recently I read the memoir of Mother Ross, a genderqueer soldier from a century earlier who served under Marlborough as both a woman and a man; it’s clear from Grove that Wellington’s forces (and presumably the other side as well) depended on women as well as men, and some of the rank and file (especially what we would now call NCOs) travelled with their wives. One night in March 1814, seven of the soldiers’ wives were billeted together in the same house; and that evening, two of them gave birth.

Readers who are more interested in the Napoleonic Wars than me will get more out of this than I did, but I got what I wanted. You can get it here.

Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Some say it’s The Culture War, finally reaching into the realm of geeks, but it isn’t. The Culture War is a struggle between conservatives and liberals, and is more a label on thousands of disagreements than anything definite. That loosely defined war involves the issues held dear by the right wing and the left wing and how each would like America (or England, or wherever) to shift closer to those beliefs. The Puppy Mess isn’t a left/right affair. There are no conservatives trying to conserve anything or liberals trying to be open to new ideas. This is true for multiple reasons, but the main one being there aren’t two sides. This isn’t an us vs. them, left vs. right, good guys vs. bad guys situation, though some will vehemently say that it is as they search to find the illusive other side. This is everyone, and within everyone a small group breaking things. The metaphor of a war doesn’t apply; one of a terrorist cell would better reflect the situation.

A book of essays by Foster, widower of the much-missed Eugie, mostly assembled from blog posts at the time of the Puppy debacle. God be with the innocent days when we did not yet realise that cynically channeling outrage and resentment with no regard for the actual facts could be a viable political business model. He makes and emphasises the crucial point that there were not really two sides in the Puppy dispute; there was a small group of bad behavers who managed to motivate a larger but still small group to support them, and there was the rest of fandom who responded with revulsion. It’s a point worth bearing in mind if anyone ever tries to give you a “both-sides” interpretation of the events of 2015. Other than that, these are really historical primary material now; what will probably be the definitive chronicle of the Puppies has been written in Debarkle, by Camestros Felapton. But you can get Welcome to the Doomsphere here.

This was the second last unread book of all of those that I acquired in 2015. That leaves only Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez.

The Face of Evil, by Thomas L Rodebaugh (and Terrance Dicks)

Next in the excellent sequence of Black Archive books on Doctor Who.

I remember vividly watching The Face of Evil when it was first broadcast at the start of 1977 (the first episode was shown on New Year’s Day). I loved it then and I still like it now. When I rewatched it in 2007, I wrote:

The Face of Evil was broadcast in 1977 between two other excellent Fourth Doctor stories, The Deadly Assassin and The Robots of Death. It features the introduction of new companion Leela, played by Louise Jameson, a warrior woman of a primitive far-future clan descended from the crew of a crashed spaceship. She had a difficult act to follow, and perhaps it’s as well that we had the companionless Deadly Assassin and a month’s break to help us get over the departure of Sarah Jane Smith (and more about her in a coming post). But she really does seem right for the part from the word go, as a new kind of foil for Baker’s Doctor, a woman confident in her own culture and not afraid to engage with the new and unknown.

The story itself is good rollicking stuff: hinges on one of my least favourite devices, an untelevised earlier adventure, but that aspect is brought unashamedly into the story at the end of the first episode and done well and unapologetically. The name of the other tribe who are enemies of Leela’s people causes some amusement in this household. (I must stop playing the litany when the in-laws are visiting.)

When I got to it in my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

And, even if Sarah Jane is the greatest of Old Who companions, we then hit Leela’s introduction in The Face of Evil. This is the first time we have had a new companion who does not arrive in the the first story in the season since The Wheel In Space; indeed the first time we have had a new companion other than in the first or last story of the season since The Highlanders, so it’s a disruption to the normal cycle of these things, just as Leela herself is a disruption – primitive, instinctual, sexy and violent. Just watch the clash of characters between Jameson the professional method actor and Baker the accidental instinctive actor, as the relationship develops. Last month’s Doctor Who Magazine ran an interview with Louise Jameson, where she reflected that she hadn’t quite realised that Leela was a sexy character at the time. We’ll hold over discussion of that point until next month.

The other thing to notice about The Face of Evil, viewed in the sequence of fourteen years of Old Who, is that it seems rather a riposte to The Savages from eleven years before (a story which was incidentally also followed by a story written by the same author about homicidal machines). I haven’t seen any serious questioning of Chris Boucher on this point, but it seems to me that the parallels of Elders/Savages vs Tesh/Sevateem, the playing around with absorption of the Doctor’s personality, and even the use of a hand-held mirror to reflect a death ray at a critical plot moment are a set of references to the older story. They are both jolly good scripts, and both repay the casual viewer (or, sadly, listener in the case of The Savages) even now.

I am ambivalent about references to unseen adventures; Terrance Dicks dealt with this in the novelisation by explaining that the Doctor went for a spin during the events of Robot and ended up dealing with Xoanon, which isn’t perfectly satisfactory but is better than we get from the screen version. My other reflection, more personally, is that as it happens my wife’s maiden name was Tesh, so certain lines from this story have extra entertainment value in our household. At least for me.

Rewatching it again, I still like it. In these days when people have been getting all upset about Doctor Who continuity (much more so than in 2010 when I last commented), it’s worth bearing in mind that there is a whole unseen adventure here that the story depends on, and the franchise moved happily on.

Though this time I wondered where all the other women are; we see only male Tesh, and the Sevateem have one woman warrior whose voice can be heard in the group chants, played by Barbara Bermel but uncredited. (She also plays the younger of the German women in the famous Fawlty Towers episode, again uncredited.) One of the voices of Xoanon is Pamela Salem, who had a more visible role in the following story.

Speaking of the voices of Xoanon, here is one of my own very few contributions to Doctor Who research. Spurred by reading a now-deleted story that the youngest of the voices was provided by “seven year-old Anthony Frieze, who had won a Design-A-Monster competition administered through the BBC exhibitions at Blackpool and Longleat”, I got in touch with someone called Anthony Frieze who confirmed that it was him and that otherwise almost every part of my source was wrong:

…as you have worked out I was older than the website records. In fact I was almost 11 in September 1976 (or “1876” as T[om] B[aker] dated a poster of his he asked me to sign). I have also seen references to winning a competition which may have been the way the director of the Face of Evil series explained my selection. In fact the explanation is somewhat more “young boys’ club”, as it were. The director, a chap called Pennant Roberts – if I recall correctly – had a wife who was a teacher at my school (Belmont Primary School, Chiswick) and she suggested my name having heard me read at assembly. No competition, as such that I was aware of. I had to re-record the the “Who am I” as I had the wrong emphasis.

I hope this has corrected some of the Dr Who lore.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of Terrance Dicks’ novelisation of the story is:

Leela looked at the box in awe. ‘That keeps away the phantoms?’

When I most recently reread it in 2008, I wrote:

Doctor Who and the Face of Evil has a couple of interesting differences: Leela is actually portrayed as young, vulnerable and, well, girly in a way that is inconsistent both with the TV story as shown and with the other books. Also, of course, we have the explanation of how the Doctor’s face became the Face of Evil, as the result of a solo adventure shortly after his regeneration.

Not much to add apart from that; it’s one of Dicks’ less adventurous novelisations.

Thomas L Rodebaugh has written one of the more adventurous Black Archive books, however. He is a Professor and Clinical Training, Psychological and Brain Sciences at a mid-western American university, and has brought all of his professional expertise to bear on the story. The result is not really the book I wanted to read about The Face of Evil, but it’s clearly the book that Rodebaugh wanted to write, so I enjoyed it more as a gateway into someone else’s passion than as a stimulus for my own thoughts.

The first chapter, “The Face of Evil and the breakdown of the bicameral mind”, argues that the setup of the story strongly reflects the theories in Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some plausible points are made before he admits that there is simply no way that the writers and production team could have read and absorbed Jaynes’s book before making the story (the scripts were commissioned in January 1976 and delivered before the summer). He then argues for his own preferred personality model (the OCEAN aka Big Five model) and insists that by applying psychological theory to Doctor Who, we learn more about both. It is an interesting argument, but I am not completely convinced.

The second chapter, “Why psychology and why The Face of Evil“, briefly develops this further, calling attention to Christopher Boucher’s other work.

The third chapter has the title, “Ideas of madness”. Its second paragraph is:

If we start with whether Xoanon’s ‘madness’ is accurate, we have an immediate problem of determining what is meant here by ‘mad’. There are at last two different ways that the word is used in popular fiction. It is often used to signal that the person being labelled is beyond reason in a moral sense. This usage is aligned with what used to be called ‘moral insanity’: an affliction in which a person understands morality and the world, but makes choices without concern either for how those choices will affect others or the self1. The very term ‘moral insanity’ suggests that it is not the same as insanity without a qualifier, which historically referred to the condition of having a severe lack of understanding of reality. Thus, a person who kills because it seems fun is morally insane, whereas a person who kills due to a false belief that he or she is being attacked is simply insane.

It goes into some depth in an effort to diagnose Xoanon’s psychological afflictions, concluding that in fact Doctor Who in general is not very good at depicting mental illness and tends to go straight to stereotypes. (Vincent and the Doctor is consigned to a footnote.)

The fourth chapter, “Implicit bias and production design”, turns (thank goodness) away from psychology and looks instead at Leela. Was she based on Leila Khaled? Why did they insist that Louise Jameson wear contact lenses to change her eye colour to brown? Was her skin colour in fact deliberately darkened by make-up so that she would look more savage? To what extent is the story deliberately based on Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe? And where are all the Tesh and Sevateem women? None of these interesting questions is really answered, apart from the Captive Universe one where the answer is “not much”.

The fifth chapter looks a bit more at potential sources for and influences on the story; the films Forbidden Planet and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and Harry Harrison’s Deathworld trilogy. Rodebaugh speculates that Brian Aldiss told the BBC about Harry Harrison, though I think BBC executives would have found plenty of his work in any nearby bookshop. Once again, he turns around at the end and says that looking for specific sources (other than Captive Universe) is a waste of time. This rhetorical device annoys me. I would rather be told up front what the author is trying to prove, rather than try and follow an argument for a dozen pages only to be told that the point is something completely different.

An appendix attempts to apply the OCEAN personality analysis to the different Doctors and to other Whoniverse characters.

A second appendix consists of an interview with Chris Boucher, which is really interesting though the key points have already been covered in the main text.

And finally, a third appendix looks at the massive continuity problems within the story. What about the Doctor’s previous visit? What’s the weather like on Leela’s home planet? And, again, where are the women?

It will be apparent that this is not my favourite of the Black Archive books, but I want to be fair and it will likely appeal to others more than me. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

Goliath, by Tochi Onyebuchi

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Someone had spray-painted “xo” in radiation-tag on each of the houses. An emoticon for a kiss and a hug. Or shorthand for the ecstasy and oxycodone they guzzled every night. And all the while, one question threaded itself around Jonathan’s thoughts: Would David enjoy it here?

As my regular reader knows, I’ve been friendly with Tochi Onyebuchi since he was a Yale undergraduate, so I was very keen to get hold of his first novel for the adult market. It has already won the 2022 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction, and I suspect may do better in the months to come.

In America a few decades from now, white folks have mostly left the poisoned, plague-ridden land to live the high life in space, with people of colour left to scrabble around in the ruins. But there is a lot more to it than that enraging situation (not too different from where we are now); Onyebuchi plays with Biblical tropes, the dynamics of religion, of white folks unwittingly making things worse, sexuality and acceptance, all in rich prose which jumps along its own timeline without ever losing the run of itself. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book by a non-white writer. Next on that pile is All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva.

Lineage, ed. Shaun Russell

Second paragraph of third story (“What’s Past is Prologue”, by David A. McIntee):

‘Are the girls ready?’ Alistair asked.

A collection of short stories in the timeline of Candy Jar Books’ Lethbridge-Stewart sequence, this time looking at the Brigadier’s ancestors and relatives from the seventeenth century to the present day (2018). All good fun, nothing that especially stood out (maybe the Quarks in the last of the stories). You can get it here.

The Bad Christian’s Manifesto: Reinventing God, (and other modest proposals), by Dave Tomlinson

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Eventually I settled on one of the God channels, the sort my wife scorns me for watching. But, hey, she wasn’t there; I could do what I liked. The show featured a man talking about a near-death experience (he called it his ‘resurrection’ experience). He told how, after leaving his body, he travelled through a tunnel of light and arrived in heaven where an angel greeted him and escorted him into the ‘throne room’ of God for a personal audience with the Almighty.

This is a book for Christians, especially those involved in ministry, and that basically means it is not a book for me. I appreciate the author’s efforts to advocate a more open, more generous and more inclusive Christianity, but it’s not my circus and not my monkeys, and I put it aside after fifty earnest pages. You can get it here.

This came to the top of three lists simultaneously: top unread book acquired in 2015, shortest unread book acquired in 2015, and non-fiction book which had lingered longest unread on my shelves. The two remaining books in my 2015 pile are both non-fiction and both equally popular on LibraryThing (in that I am the only recorded owner of either). I will start with the shorter one, Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster, and then move to the one I acquired earlier, Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez.

La Femme, ed. Ian Whates

Second paragraph of third story (“A Winter Bewitchment”, by Storm Constantine):

“What is it, my lady?” Mimosa asked.

An anthology which I got in 2015, probably because that year’s BSFA Short Fiction Winner, “Honey Trap” by Ruth Booth, was published in it. The stories all have a common theme of women protagonists with agency. It starts strongly with two very good stories – “Palestinian Sweets”, by Stephen Palmer, who I don’t think I have otherwise come across, and “Slink-Thinking”, by Frances Hardinge. I wasn’t as sure about the rest, and unfortunately the last story in the volume is by an author whose personal conduct has put me off reading any of their work. A mixed bag. You can get it here.

This was both the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, and the shortest unread book that I acquired in 2015. Next on the first of those lists is To Rule in Amber by John Betancourt, which I’ll get to when I start clearing the 2016 acquisitions. Next on the second is The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson, which I have in fact also read between finishing La Femme and publishing this review.

Doctor Who: A British Alien?, by Danny Nicol

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The United Kingdom is also characterised by English domination, insofar as England is by far the most populous of the four nations, accounting for some 55 million of the Kingdom’s 65 million people. As a result, governments tend to be English dominated. This English preponderance contains the seeds of Scottish and Welsh discontents. At the same time, whether those who grow up and live in England choose to self-identify as English or British remains very much a question for the individual. Aside from certain sports, there is scant social necessity for an English person to identify as English rather than British. Though probably most choose to define themselves as English, some identify primarily as British while many others may express different identities in different contexts. There is also ambiguity over whether Englishness constitutes a nationality or an ethnicity, a haziness which impacts on whether non-whites in England favour a British identity over an English one. These sensitivities and nuances may create difficulties within Doctor Who studies, particularly for scholars not imbued with the lived experience of England. For example, in a chapter entitled “Rose is England”, Tanja Nathanael argues that Doctor Who companion Rose Tyler represents England and that indeed “the body of Rose is conflated with England”.3 Yet Nathanael’s account does not explain why Rose represents England rather than Britain and, on occasion, she uses the terms “England” and “Britain” interchangeably. There is, in fact, some evidence that Rose’s narrative aligns her more closely with Britishness than with Englishness.4
3 Tanja Nathanael, “Rose is England”, in Who Travels with the Doctor? eds. Gillian I. Leitch and Sherry Ginn (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016), 79-90.
4 For example, Rose is the only companion to have adventures with the Doctor in England, Scotland and Wales, and she is closely connected to the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (2005) and “The Idiot’s Lantern” (2006). If she were representing England she would be aligned with England’s own flag, the Saint George’s Cross.

I was alerted to this book by Paul Driscoll’s criticism of it in his Black Archive on The Movie, and then realised that I already had it on the shelves, having acquired it in February but having forgotten to log it in my system. The author is an academic lawyer, and he spends the first three chapters analysing Doctor Who and Britishness, as you would expect from the book’s title; but then he looks at broader questions of law and politics for the remaining four chapters, constituting more than half of the book, so it is slightly mis-sold.

There are interesting thoughts here, but some gaps and slips as well. As Driscoll points out, The Movie, which is remarkable for the extent to which it highlights the Doctor’s Englishness, is barely mentioned (likewise The Dæmons, which we’ve just covered). It’s true that there’s not much to say about either part of Ireland in the show pre-2020, but there is a bit more than Nicol has found. And just a minor point, but it’s not true that everyone except the TARDIS crew has been killed by the end of Warriors of the Deep.

I got the most out of the exploration of wider political ideas in Doctor Who, about the shift from British to international governance (not only UNIT) and the fairly consistent challenging of corporate authority (until 2018’s Kerblam!). ON the other hand, I really didn’t think it was worth spending fifty pages analysing whether or not the Doctor can be considered a war criminal.

So, an interesting enough addition to the shelves, with flaws. You can get it here.

October books

A couple of tweaks here. First I think I have finally cracked the secret of how to include the book covers neatly in each of the thematic sections. Second, I’ve revised the “Coming next” section to include the coming month’s Doctor Who-related reading first, and then the books acquired in 2016, followed by the rest of the Reading Order in sequence. As always, this is for my own records more than anything else.

Non-fiction 7 (YTD 83)
Doctor Who: A British Alien?
, by Danny Nicol
The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson (did not finish)
Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup
The Face of Evil, by Thomas L Rodebaugh
Love and Monsters, by Niki Haringsma
Welcome to the Doomsphere: Sad Puppies, Hugos, and Politics, by Matthew M. Foster
The Bordley and Belt Families, Based on Letters Written by Family Members, assembled and annotated by Edward Wickersham Hoffman

Plays 1
Juicy and Delicious
, by Lucy Alibar

SF 12 (YTD 89)
Empire Of Sand
, by Tasha Suri
Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss
La Femme
, ed. Ian Whates
, by Tochi Onyebuchi
 (did not finish)

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 28)
, ed. Shaun Russell
Doctor Who and the Face of Evil, by Terrance Dicks

Comics 2 (YTD 16)
Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst
, by Kamagurka
Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan

6,500 pages (YTD 62,000)
7/24 (YTD 91/236) by non-male writers (Alibar, Suri, ε1, ι1, κ1, λ1, Stott)
6/24 (YTD 33/236) by a non-white writer (Northrup, Suri, Onyebuchi. κ1, λ1, Setyawan)

381 books currently tagged “unread”, 13 more than last month, with award submissions continuing to come in

Reading now
The End of the Day
, by Claire North
The Harem of Aman Akbar, by Elizabeth Scarborough
Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Cerkez

Coming soon (perhaps) – new format for this list
Doctormania, by Cavan Scott et al
Moon Boots and Dinner Suits, by Jon Pertwee
The Danger Men, by Nick Walter
The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon, by John Toon
Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Terrance Dicks
The Dalek Invasion of Earth, by Jonathan Morris
Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller
To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt
Faith in Politics, by John Bruton
A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg
Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen
Null States, by Malka Older
Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman
Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney
The Clockwise War, by Scott Gray
Song of Time, by Ian R. MacLeod
The Lost Child of Lychford, by Paul Cornell
“Schrödinger’s Kitten”, by George Alec Effinger
Metamorphoses, by Ovid
What If? by Randall Munroe
All the Names They Used for God, by Anjali Sachdeva
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
The Revolution Trade, by Charles Stross
The World Set Free, by H.G. Wells
Neptune – Épisode 1, by Leo
Roadside Picnic, by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Complete Short Stories: the 1950s, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third story (“Breathing Space”):

The younger man lay gasping in the deep dust. Wilms attempted to stand over him and then, too exhausted, sank down beside his late opponent.

One of the books that I got Brian Aldiss to autograph for me.

A collection that does exactly what it says on the tin: this is the sum of the short stories published by Brian Aldiss during the 1950s, his first full decade as a professional writer. I count 65 of them, about half of them republished (or even published) here for the first time. Several of my favourites from other collections are here – “Who Can Replace a Man?”, “Supercity”, the novella “Equator”; some of the new (to me) stories are more experimental than successful, but they are all really interesting illustrations of a talent working out what can be done and which corners of the envelope can be pushed. I don’t think I would recommend it to anyone who is not already interested in Aldiss, but I do think that Aldiss is very interesting! You can get it here.

This was both the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves, and my top unread book acquired in 2015. Next on the former list was La Femme, an anthology edited by Ian Whates, and next on the latter was The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, by Dave Tomlinson. I have read both in the time between finishing the Aldiss collection and publishing this review.

Empire Of Sand, by Tasha Suri

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Below her, echoing up from the central courtyard of her home, came the sound of a woman weeping.

I got this because the author and I were both guests of honour at this year’s Eastercon, but did not get around to reading it until now. We’d previously had brief communication when she was a finalist for the first Astounding Award in 2020, though I’m sorry to say that I did not get around to reading the extract from this novel included in that year’s voter packet (there was a global pandemic on, and some things slipped through the cracks).

It’s similar to the standard fantasy romance (arranged marriage which works out, against the odds, with both couples having magical powers), but there are a couple of very interesting twists. The fantasy world is based on Mughal India rather than medieval Europe, and that gives a whole new set of cultural references to play with. There’s court politics among both the empire where the protagonist is from and her husband’s people who are very culturally different. And the settings are vividly realised. Recommended. You can get it here.

This was the top SF novel on my unread pile. Next on that list is Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, which I have previously read but a very long time ago.

Weapons of Past Destruction, by Cavan Scott, Blair Shedd, Rachel Stott and Anand Setyawan

Second frame of third part:

Continuing to work through my stash of Doctor Who comics, here’s the first of the Titan Ninth Doctor stories, set between The Doctor Dances and Boom Town, featuring the full TARDIS crew of Nine, Rose and Jack in an adventure with Time War technology looted by an alien race. The plot is nicely twisty and the characterisation of the leads (which after all is the main attraction) is bang on. Definitely good fun.

There’s an actual YouTube trailer for the story:

You can get it here.

Voorbij de grenzen van de ernst, by Kamagurka (Luc Zeebroek)

Third frame of the book:

I foolishly got this collection of cartoons for F a couple of Christmases ago thinking that it might appeal to his sense of humour. It didn’t, and it didn’t really appeal to mine either. Most days I feel a close affinity with Belgium, my adopted land, but occasionally I run into bits of culture that I just don’t get. (The last of these was another collection of graphic art, Boerke bijbel.) The reflections on the life of the writer were wry and sharp, but the rest passed me by. You can get it here.

This was my top unread comic in a language other than English. Next up is the first of the new sequence by Leo, Neptune vol. 1.

12 Years a Slave, and Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and only two others, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay; Gravity got seven Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have seen none of them, though Gravity is next on my list as it won both the Hugo and the SFWA Ray Bradbury Awards.

I have seen very few other films from that year. The only one I sat through with my full attention was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have been in the same room as small children watching Frozen. And I got halfway through Saving Mr Banks before something distracted me and I never got around to finishing it. IMDB users rank 12 Years a Slave 6th best film of the year on one ranking, but only 30th on the other. The Wolf of Wall Street tops both rankings, and Prisoners and The Man of Steel are both ahead of 12 Years a Slave on both. Of my limited sample of the year, I like 12 Years a Slave best.

Here’s a trailer.

A number of actors who appeared in previous award-winning films, starting with the star himself, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in Solomon Northrup here and was the Operative in Serenity.

Not as high up the list, but Sarah Paulson is the gruesome wife of plantation owner Epps here, and was also in Serenity as Dr Caron, who gets gruesomely killed by the Reavers.

Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, and Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret, return from last year’s Bradbury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, where they played the key protagonists, father and daughter. Both films of course are mostly set in Louisiana. Unlike last year, they don’t share any scenes together this time.

Going further down the list, Scoot McNairy is Brown, one of Solomon’s captors, here; last year, with less facial hair, he was Joe Stafford, one of the fugitive diplomats in Argo.

And finally Garret Dillahunt, the treacherous Armsby here, was deputy sheriff Wendell in No Country for Old Men, again with much less facial hair but with a similar hat.

Apart from the above, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt also play significant roles, Cumberbatch and Fassbender as bad guy slaveholders and Pitt as the good guy who eventually gets Solomon freed. This was also Lupita Nyong’o’s first significant role as Patsy.

After many many entries in which I have castigated Oscar winners for their racism, including as recently as last year’s winner, Argo, this is a film entirely about the African American experience of slavery, which goes a little way towards expiating the Academy’s past faults. Closely based on an autobiographical account, it is the story of a free African-American from New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and endures twelve years of horrible treatment on cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana before finally regaining his freedom by getting a message to friends back north. It is gripping stuff.

As usual, however, I’m going to start with the elements of the film that I did not like as much, before going on to its virtues. The thing I liked least about the film was unfortunately at its very core, and the film could not have been the same without it. The violence is graphic and disturbing. I had to fast-forward through the scene where Solomon is forced to flog Patsey (I had already read the book, so I knew what was coming; it’s 4 minutes and 46 seconds in a single take). It’s not possible to make an honest film about slavery without depicting grim, horrible and repeated violence, but it is not something I enjoy watching. Accounts from the set indicate that the actors were psychologically affected by it too.

My other (much less serious) case of side-eye is the casting of actors playing antebellum Americans. Benedict Cumberbatch is English. Michael Fassbender is Irish. Lupita Nyong’o’s family is from Kenya (the other side of Africa), though she also has Mexican citizenship and was educated in Massachusetts so perhaps it’s a less clear case (she still isn’t Southern, though). The star of the film, Chiwetel Ojiofor, is English and sounds totally London when not acting:

Maybe it’s not such a big deal, but I do think it is unfortunate that none of the lead Southern parts is played by a Southern actor. (And Chiwetel Ojiofor is playing a Northerner.)

Apart from that, the film has a good and important story to tell, and tells it very well. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, or its shameful endorsement by the forces of the state and the church. (Christianity does not come out well in this film.) There is little Hollywoodisation of the facts – the film has stuck pretty closely to the book it is based on (rare enough), and is probably a better film as a result (even rarer). Although Solomon is freed in the end because he was born a freeman, we are left in no doubt that the continuing enslavement of his fellow workers is an appalling injustice. It skips a little over the formalities of how he was freed, but we know what has happened.

I thought the cinematography and film editing were very good, and look forward to seeing Gravity which won the Oscars in those categories that year. And I don’t usually comment on this, because I am rather fashion-unconscious, but I thought the costuming was superb. I did scratch my head at first at how clean everyone’s clothes generally are, but goin back to the source material, I realised how important cleanliness is to people who have otherwise lost most of their dignity, and indeed how important it was for slave owners to put on a good show.

Unusually, the music is a mixture of diegetic and incidental. Solomon Northrup is a talented violinist, both free and enslaved. One of the most memorable scenes is the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” by the slaves picking cotton.

The acting is top-notch. I grumbled a bit about the casting of Ojiofor, Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Fassbender earlier. I have no grumbles about their performances, or about anyone else’s. The slaveholders are flawed human beings rather than caricatures. The slaves are individuals who have been placed in awful circumstances. It is of course a didactic story, but it’s at least as much a story about people.

I would have liked to place this higher in my rankings, but the violence really did squick me, so I’m putting it just over a third of the way down my list, in 26th place, just below Oliver! and above Unforgiven.

Next up in the list of Oscar winners is Birdman, but I’ll watch Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy first.

I also read the original book on which the film is based, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup but edited by David Wilson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

I have previously read a number of slavery narratives – Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the research of Rebecca Hall and the close observations of Fanny Kemble – and they are all interesting in different ways. Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, and Equiano born in Africa, so Northrup’s account is unusual in being that of a man born free in the USA but then enslaved. It’s also unusual in the relatively neutral presentation of the means and motivation of the slave owners – these are evil people, sure, but their evil is an inevitable consequence of the system.

I also found it really interesting in the precision of the geography where everything happened – I found myself googling the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, and Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Northrup is also very detailed and convincing about the precise techniques of employing slave labour for both cotton and sugar cane farming. And of course he is crystal clear about the brutality of the slavery system.

Not surprisingly, there have been Northrup denialists since 1853, just as there have been Anne Frank denialists since a century later. But the level of verifiable detail about named individuals and places is tremendously convincing. It’s also fairly short, and well-written (as is normal for any mid-nineteenth-century writer). You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 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)

Richard of Cornwall: The English King of Germany, by Darren Baker

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Richard was furious over the fiasco and denounced his stepfather for leading them into a trap. When Hugh just shrugged it off and blamed his wife, Richard removed his armour, picked up a staff, and made his way through the enemy line as a man of peace. The crusaders he saved in the Holy Land welcomed him with joy and respect and gladly conveyed him to the presence of their king. For Richard it had to be extremely humiliating. The last time he and Louis met, just two years earlier, he had been much feted and honoured. Now he was standing before him, a nervous and sweaty pilgrim humbly begging for a truce.

I was enthusiastically looking forward to this newly published book about Richard of Cornwall after very much enjoying The King of Almayne, by T.W.E. Roche; this is the thirteenth-century English prince, younger son of King John and brother of Henry III, who was elected “King of the Romans” (ie of Germany) and might have become Holy Roman Emperor, a fascinating case of England reaching into the politics of continental Europe with plenty of contemporary resonance.

Baker’s is the first biography of Richard since Roche’s, more than fifty years ago. It follows on from biographies he has previously written about Richard’s brother, Henry III; his brother-in-law, Simon de Montfort; and their wives, Richard’s sister and sister-in-law, both called Eleanor. The preface to the book promises a new portrait of a man driven by ego and greed, and perpetually in the psychological shadow of his brother (who incidentally was not all that bad).

Unfortunately the book itself is not all that good. It is largely a dry recitation of where Richard happened to be travelling to throughout the years of his long life, stifling the more dramatic moments and leavening the dullness of the facts as presented with sweeping and unsupported statements about Richard’s psychological state, failing to really substantiate the points made in the preface.

I also felt that given that this is the author’s fourth book about a member of the dysfunctional ruling family of thirteenth-century England, he assumes that the reader has knowledge of the earlier three, or at least of their subject matter, and important events and background are skipped or over-summarised.

I was frankly disappointed with this book, but it motivated me to download a copy of Noel Denholm-Young’s 1947 biography which everyone speaks highly of, and I’ll get to that sooner or later. Meanwhile, you can get Baker’s book here.

“Tangents”, by Greg Bear and Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

So, on to the joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards presented in 1987 for works of 1986. This time there are two, a short story and a novel.

“Tangents” by Greg Bear, the short story in question, was originally published in Omni. I found scans of the original publication and thought I should share these two cartoons that were originally published alongside it. Unfortunately I can’t read the credits on the scan of page 12 which would have identified the artist, nor can I identify the signature on the first (the second is unsigned).

A conference hall full of people, with a sign reading "National Holography Association"; a man discovers that one of the audience is really a hologram.
Three men looking at two blackboards. Two of them are standing in front of a blackboard with a very complex equation written on it. One of them is sayiong to the other, "Cotsworth here claims to have found a simpler version." He pointing to the third man, who is looking at another blackboard which has the simple inscription "1 + 1 = 2".

This piece by Michel Henricot which illustrated the story itself.

A metallic, mouthless male figure from the chest up.

Second paragraph of third section of “Tangents”:

“None of my muscles move that way,” Lauren said. “You’re sure you can’t make him … happy, stop all this trouble?”

When I first read it in 2000, I briefly commented:

A story of the fourth (and higher) dimensions which is good fun but didn’t quite work for me.

I stand by that judgement twenty years on. The story is about the Platonic friendship between an adult gay man and a young boy, and about how we in three-dimensional space might perceive four-dimensional beings, and there is music in there as well, but it just doesn’t hang together for me. You can get it in the collection of stories by Bear with the same name.

Three other stories were on both the Hugo and Nebula final ballots for Best Short Story: “The Boy Who Plaited Manes”, by Nancy Springer; “Rat”, by James Patrick Kelly; and “Robot Dreams”, by Isaac Asimov. The Hugo ballot also included “Still Life”, by David S. Garnett, and the Nebula ballot also included “The Lions Are Asleep This Night”, by Howard Waldrop, and “Pretty Boy Crossover”, by Pat Cadigan. I’m sure I’ve read the Asimov but can’t remember which one it is, and I don’t think I have read the others.

Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel, the sequel to Ender’s Game which had won both awards the previous year. A few weeks ago in the middle of the night I came across a fanzine article from 1987 drawing attention to Card’s own role in the Nebula process, but I failed to note it down and now can’t find it again. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

We’ve never seen them eat anything else. Novinha analyzed all three foods – macios, capim blades, and merclona leaves – and the results were surprising. Either the peclueninos don’t need many different proteins, or they’re hungry all the time. Their diet is seriously lacking in many trace elements. And calcium intake is so low, we wonder whether their bones use calcium the same way ours do.

Again, I first read it in 2000 and noted then,

Speaker for the Dead is a better book than Ender’s Game; a grown-up Ender, many centuries on thanks to time dilation, comes to solve the problems of the interaction between humans and the alien Piggies on the latter’s home world, and incidentally resolve several issues of the human society there as well. Tackles family life for adults as the previous book tackled children.

As with Ender’s Game, this time around the things that annoyed me about the book annoyed me more. There are two central tragedies in the narrative: Ender’s own hidden past as a perpetrator of genocide, and the unintentional homicide of the indigenous aliens, and also the well-intentioned destruction inflicted by the aliens on their human friends. But the real story here is about colonialism and colonisation, and there’s not much interrogation of that at all; and the fact that the aliens are given an insulting nickname throughout is frankly disgusting. But you can get it here.

There was one other novel on both Hugo and Nebula ballots, Count Zero by William Gibson, which like every other Gibson novel I have read I cannot remember anything about. The Hugo ballot also included The Ragged Astronauts, by Bob Shaw, which won the BSFA Award that year, and Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard and Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge neither of which I have read.

The Nebula ballot also included The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, winner of the Clarke Award and a retrospective Tiptree Award and surely the most important sf novel of the year in retrospect, and Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow, none of which I have read. The Handmaid’s Tale is a far better book than Speaker for the Dead, and it’s not to the credit of Hugo or Nebula voters that they chose the latter.

In the other categories, the Hugo for Best Novelette went to “Permafrost” by Roger Zelazny, one of the many by him that I rather like, and the Nebula to “The Girl Who Fell into the Sky”, by Kate Wilhelm. “Permafrost” was on both ballots, as were “Hatrack River” by Orson Scott Card and “The Winter Market” by William Gibson.

The Hugo for Best Novella went to “Gilgamesh in the Outback” by Robert Silverberg, and the Nebula to “R&R” by Lucius Shepard. Both were on both ballots, as was “Escape from Kathmandu” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

That was also the year that the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation went to Aliens, which is better than anything else I have mentioned in this post, apart from The Handmaid’s Tale.

The following year, unusually, there were no joint winners. The Hugo written categories were won by The Uplift War by David Brin, “Eye for Eye” by Orson Scott Card, “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula K. Le Guin and “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers” by Lawrence Watt-Evans; and the Nebulas were won by The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy, “The Blind Geometer” by Kim Stanley Robinson, “Rachel in Love” again by Pat Murphy and “Forever Yours, Anna” by Kate Wilhelm.

So the next post in this sequence will cover two shorter pieces from 1988 that won in 1989: “Schrödinger’s Kitten” by George Alec Effinger and “The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis.

The Dæmons, by Matt Barber (and Barry Letts)

The next in the Black Archive sequence of commentary on Doctor Who is on The Dæmons, which rounded off the eighth season of Old Who in 1971. As usual, I went back and rewatched the original story, and then reread the novelisation, published in 1974, before getting to the Black Archive analysis.

When I first watched it in 2007, I wrote:

The Dæmons, first shown in 1971, is presumably the only Doctor Who story featuring a character in the title outside the standard 26 letters of the alphabet (plus numbers and punctuation). I’m a bit stunned that it is remembered as the peak of the Pertwee era by some. It’s not very good; it’s not very bad either; perhaps that makes it an archetypal Pertwee story, and so those who like that sort of thing will like this sort of thing. Delgado is good; Benton and Yates are good (and this story has clearly provided much inspiration for slash writers); both the Third Doctor and Jo are bad, as usual; and the monster is just awful, as is the final twist (it is destroyed when Jo offers her life instead of the Doctor’s as such self-sacrifice CANNOT COMPUTE).

My brother in 2010 wrote up The Daemons in the style of New Who:

JO: Don’t kill the Doctor, he’s fantastic! Kill me instead!
AZAL: Good point. I was just realizing how stupid it would be to kill the Doctor. (KILLS JO).
DOCTOR: Tut tut.
AZAL: I’m the last of my kind, you know.
DOCTOR: Really?

When I got to it again myself later in 2010, in my Great Rewatch, I liked it a lot more than first time around:

The Dæmons is surely the greatest of the UNIT stories, and one of the most English stories of this very English show. Evil morris dancers! A white witch! The Master is your local vicar! The first time I watched this I didn’t like it much, but taken in context, and an episode at a time, I can see why this Barry Letts script is seen as a high point of the Barry Letts years; it is the first time, apart from The War Games, that we have had a season finale as such, pulling all the characters together and ending with the Master’s disgrace and capture.

The Brigadier is off the main field of action for most of the story, which actually gives him a chance to shine on his own rather than be snarled at by Pertwee, and generates a nice the-boss-is-away dynamic among the other UNIT folks, augmented by Delgado on top form and by Damaris Hayman’s wonderfully batty performance as Miss Hawthorne (who we assume had a jolly good fertility dance with Benton throughout the following night). Apart from Richard Franklin, who is clearly the weakest of the regulars, everyone is excellent. (I enjoyed also watching the Return to Devil’s End documentary, bringing Pertwee, Courtney, Franklin and Levene back to the village along with director Christopher Barry.)

commented back in The Abominable Snowmen that Who has four ways of treating religion: squabbling sectarians, deluded cultists, religious buildings used for nefarious purposes, or true believers. The Dæmons includes both the second and third categories. As far as I remember it is also the first time religion has been portrayed on the show since The Abominable Snowmen, and the only time apart from Steven’s profession of faith (or at least denomination) in The Massacre and the unecclesiastical antics of The Smugglers that we have had anything explicit about the Church of England. More on this in the story after next.

Once again, I liked it a bit more on rewatching. Sometimes one enjoys performances that little bit more because the performers are clearly having a good time, and this is one of those. The spooky line between science and magic is nicely explored as well; we’ll get to that later.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the novelisation, by Barry Letts, is:

Across the churchyard flitted a shadow a little more dense than the shadows of the gravestones in the moonlight. Seeking the sanctuary of the church wall, it paused momentarily as if to make sure it was unobserved and then vanished through the vestry door.

The Master talks to a young man in the vestry

When I re-read the novelisation in 2008, I wrote:

This was one of those books which, on rereading, very much lived up to my fond childhood memories. It is funny, witty, adds bags of backstory to both minor and major characters (the account of the Doctor and the Master growing up together on Gallifrey ought to be canon for all interested fanfic writers), substitutes far better special effects on the page for the end-of-budget ones we got on-screen, and is generally a good read. My favourite Third Doctor book so far.

Again, I still think this is the best Third Doctor novelisation, with Doctor Who and the Green Death by Malcolm Hulke being its only serious rival; it’s the only classic series novelisation by Barry Letts, the producer throughout the Pertwee years. One aspect that I feel deserves a bit more attention: the dramatic internal illustrations by Alan Willow, this being the first of seven novelisations that he illustrated between 1974 and 1975. (Though his take on Jo isn’t brilliant, and “creature” is misspelt in the second caption – not his fault, I guess.)

You can get it here.

Matt Barber’s Black Archive on The Dæmons is of average length for this sequence, but has very long chapters, so this review will probably be unfairly short.

The introduction sets out Barber’s stall: The Dæmons is actually a very atypical and unusual Doctor Who story, “without time travel, with little science fiction and, debatably, an ambiguous approach to the existence of magic; a story in which the TARDIS does not appear and is not even mentioned.” Barber himself has an MA in the History and Literature of Witchcraft, and his PhD focused on the mythologising of American politics in film and television, so he brings an unusual set of analytical filters to the task.

The first chapter, “The Unholy Power of Olive Hawthorne”, looks at witchcraft lore through Margaret Alice Murray, Gerald Gardner, and James Frazer of course, before turning to the role of Miss Hawthorne in the narrative; he makes the interesting point that although she is presented initially as a somewhat batty busybody, in fact she is right about what is really going on and all the men she argues with, including the Doctor, are wrong.

(I must add also that Damaris Hayman, who plays Miss Hawthorne, appears in the very last episode of Here Come the Double Deckers! which also dates from 1971.)

The second chapter, “Satanism, Devilish Pacts and Scientists”, starts with a real-life West Country vicar who was accused of involvement with black magic in 1969; then looks at Faust and the Master (and to an extent the Doctor as well); then at the influence of Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley in general; and finally at the similarities and differences between The Dæmons and The Devil Rides Out.

The third chapter’s title is “A Tour of Devil’s End”. Its second paragraph is:

There is something about the English village that made it an enticing location for particular genres of popular culture in the 1970s. But why should such a parochial and picturesque location become such a standard for horror and dark fantasy? In the previous chapter, I inferred that the writers of Doctor Who were, like fan creators, ‘textual poachers’. In this chapter, I want to press this idea further by looking at how the series adapts the work of genre writers including John Wyndham and Nigel Kneale, MR James and HP Lovecraft to create a new, gestalt narrative. Through this, I want to explore how the English countryside and pastoral mythology has been adopted and reshaped by popular culture before, during and after the production of The Dæmons. In this way I will unpack what the English village brought as a location for this story and others in the 1970s and 1980s, and what Aldbourne in particular contributes to the character and popularity of The Dæmons. This will be a whistle-stop tour through subjects ranging from folk horror and pseudo-archaeology to psychogeography, hauntology and religion.

The opening paragraph of the chapter points out that Aldbourne, the village where The Dæmons was filmed, is very close to Silbury Hill, the ancient artificial mound which was the subject of a televised dig in 1969. (My old friend Jonathan Last has things to say about Silbury Hill.) Barber then looks at the real geography of Aldbourne, the connections between The Dæmons and the Fifth Doctor story The Awakening, the subgenre of Folk Horror, Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the role of the Church (both institution and building), M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft and the role of the pub.

A brief conclusion reflects on Barber’s personal reaction to visiting Aldbourne over the years, and an appendix gives a plot summary of The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley, which is clearly a taproot text for this story.

In general I prefer the Black Archive books that reflect a bit more than this does on the production, plot and performances in the stories that they are looking at. But this was a very interesting and well-informed exploration of the cultural roots of The Dæmons. Recommended. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)

Jocasta, by Brian Aldiss

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was a broken land, uninhabited, the land called Phocis through which they were passing.

(Longer extract here.)

Resuming regular bookblogging, at least until I work through the backlog.

While I am here, I want to respond to a comment from a friend on Facebook who queried my habit of linking to Amazon here for the books that I review. (Unless they are only available elsewhere.) Yes, I know that Amazon has many problems, and I deleted all my reviews from their site back in 2010. But the fact is that every book bought through one of my links gives me a small Amazon credit – not a lot, a pound every couple of months, but it’s the only physical reward I get for writing my blog. I don’t have a lot of other options for ordering English-language books by mail, especially now that Brexit has made it much more difficult to purchase from UK suppliers who haven’t done the EU paperwork. I’m always on the lookout for alternatives, but haven’t yet found any.

Anyway, this was one of the books I got Brian Aldiss to autograph in Forbidden Planet in 2015, a year before he died, published in 2004. It’s a retelling of the Theban Plays, but told largely from the point of view of Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife and mother, as her family and her world disintegrate. It also includes a short story relating the Antigone narrative to political oppression today.

I really enjoyed both parts. The Jocasta story is particularly strong, the title character dealing with supernatural creatures loose in the palace, her aged grandmother communing with the old powers, her teenage children being brats, appearances from Sophocles and other voices from the future, and the claws of destiny slowly closing around her husband. Long long ago I saw Pasolini’s Edipo Re (a very unsuccessful first date), and I’m sure that Aldiss was familiar with it too, as I am sure I detected echoes of it. The Antigone postscript takes a different approach with mixed timelines, but I enjoyed it too. You can get it here. (And here’s a longer review from the Spectator.)

This was the sf book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile: Aldiss’s Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

How I decide which book to read next

Blogging has been a bit light in the last couple of weeks, due to a combination of two weekends away in a row (normally I write a week or two’s worth of entries at the weekend) and the fact that due to award submissions I can’t actually write about some of the books I have been reading. So I thought I would do a soft relaunch by telling you about how I decide which books to read next.

I have developed a Reading Order to guide me up the slopes of Mount Tsundoku. I have two aims here: first, to get through as many unread books as possible, especially those that have been on my shelves for a while; second, to make sure that in that process I don’t end up spending too much time on books by white men (which are inevitably the majority).

I catalogue all of my books on LibraryThing, a superb resource. At the time of writing I have 8095 books catalogued there, of which 382 are currently tagged as unread. I have classified the unread books into a number of lists, as follows (the original neat alphabetical order has been overtaken by events):

  • a) unread non-fiction books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • c) unread non-fiction books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • d) unread non-sff fiction books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • e) unread non-sff fiction books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • f) unread sf books, in order of entry into my catalogue
  • h) unread sf books, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • p) unread comics in languages other than English, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • q) unread comics in English, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • s) unread books by writers of colour, roughly in order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • u♀) unread books by writers who are not men
  • y) unread books acquired in the year I am currently finishing up (2015 at present), in ascending order of page length
  • b15) unread books acquired in 2015, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b16) unread books acquired in 2016, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b17) unread books acquired in 2017, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b18) unread books acquired in 2018, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b19) unread books acquired in 2019, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b20) unread books acquired in 2020, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b21) unread books acquired in 2021, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • b22) unread books acquired in 2022, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • hn) joint winners of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, in chronological order
  • k) winners of the Clarke, BSFA Best Novel and Tiptoe/Otherwise awards, in chronological order
  • wells) books on my shelves by H.G. Wells that I have not yet written up online, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • pterry) books on my shelves by Terry Pratchett that I have not yet written up online, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing
  • v) books on my shelves that I have in fact read but have not written up online, and are not by Terry Pratchett, in descending order of popularity on LibraryThing

At the start of the calendar year, I take the top book on each list and arrange them in a Reading Order by length, shortest first. I then bump up any book not by a white man up the Reading Order by six places. (Or to the top of the list if already in the top six.) And that’s my initial Reading Order for the year. Sometimes the same book appears at the top of more than one list, and that’s fine.

As I start each book, I recheck the list it was on to take account of newly acquired books; when I finish each book, the next book on that list goes either to the end of the Reading Order, if by a white man, or seventh from the end, if not by a white man. If the book I have just finished was at the top of more than one list, the next books in each list are arranged by increasing LibraryThing popularity on the Reading Order (so that I get to the more obscure ones first).

I read three books at a time, usually the three which were top of the Reading Order. I make exceptions – if I am already reading two sf books, I may slide down the Reading Order to take the next non-sf book; if I am starting two or three new books at the same time, I’ll start with the shortest of the top two or three on the Reading Order.

I’ve been publishing the current Reading Order in my end-of-month book roundups since January 2010. I have varied the system over the years. Back when Livejournal was a thing and Mount Tsundoku was much lower, I did annual polls to help me decide which books to read the following year. I’m getting through four years’ worth of Tiptree / BSFA / Clarke winners every year, and am now at 2008, so I will finish the k) list in 2026 at that rate. The H.G. Wells and Terry Pratchett lists are new, basically to stop them dominating the b19) and v) lists respectively.

There are special measures for the year that currently has the earliest unread books – at present 2015. I’m about to change the system here. From now on, one of the three regular reading slots will be reserved for the next book on the Reading Order which was acquired in 2015, ie from lists a), d), f), b15) and y). If the top book on lists a), d) or f) was acquired later than 2015, it will be put on hold until I finish the 2015 books. (This is currently the case for lists d) and f), the two fiction categories.) When I do finish the 2015 books I’ll do the same for those acquired in 2016, and so hope to gradually work my way up the Tsundoku slopes.

There are also special measures for Doctor Who books. Each month, the first open slot among my three regular books will be filled by reading the next unread Doctor Who graphic novel from my (large) stash of digital comics, in series canonical order. Then I will read the top unread Doctor Who prose book, whether fiction or non-fiction, from my shelves. Then I will read the next in the Lethbridge-Stewart sequence. Then I will read the next two Black Archive books, and the novelisation of the relevant stories if they exist.

And finally, I also have a “speed read” option where I alternate 50 pages of the three Reading Order books with 50 pages of a book that I want to finish fast. I am currently implementing this for award submissions, but in the first half of the year I tend to use it a lot for Christmas presents, BSFA shortlisted works and Hugo finalists. I also implement it for books that were the basis for Oscar-, Hugo- and Nebula-winning films as I watch them. They tend to be short. (Not always.)

And of course fairly often I just pick up a book off the shelf at random, and read it. Damn the torpedoes!

Doctor Who (1996) by Paul Driscoll (and Doctor Who, the-book-of-the-movie, by Gary Russell)

I missed the broadcast of Doctor Who: The Movie (as we now call it) in 1996, because I was fighting an election campaign at the time. I ought to feel grateful to the 95.9% of voters who supported other candidates in the election and liberated me to follow my subsequent career; but for some reason I hold the 4.1% who did vote for me a little closer to my heart. I did not see it until ten and a half years later, when I wrote:

It really did take me until last night to get around to watching, for the first time, the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie. I think it looks fantastic. The inside of the Tardis, especially, but also the other scenes, hospital, party, city, the policeman riding his motorbike into the Tardis, the lot. The final scenes with the Master, the Doctor and the Eye of Harmony are impossible to look away from. I think it sounds good as well. The arrangement of the theme tune is the only one to take serious liberties with the original and get away with it. (Apart from the original 1963 version, the only good opening music for the TV series is the present one. Though the opening titles for the Tom Baker era are the best of the classic series.)

There is, of course huge violence to continuity which can only really be dealt with by assuming that the post-regeneration Doctor and body-transferring Master were deluded in their statements. There is really no way the Doctor can be half-human. We suspect that Gallifreyans and humans can mate (see Leela’s departure, and the follow-up in Lungbarrow), but the Doctor has made so many remarks over the years about his own separateness and difference from humanity that I must assume he doesn’t mean what his eighth incarnation says. Also the Eye of Harmony was on Gallifrey on the Tardis as far as I remember. (Though Wikipedia has some heroic retconning on this topic.) 

But in general I come down in favour. I think McGann, Ashbrook and Roberts are great. I also liked the links to continuity both forward and back – McCoy’s appearance for the first twenty minutes, McGann’s fondling a scarf as he decides what to wear; but also of course (a point that was new to me) the Doctor looking through Grace’s letterbox, a scene repeated by the Ninth Doctor and Rose in the very next episode (nine years later). Sure, the plot was just a bit threadbare, and the revival of the dead companions at the end a bit silly (if repeated for Captain Jack in The Parting of the Ways); and I can see why this did not lead to a revival of the series’ fortunes. But it is far from embarrassing.

When I came to it again at the very end of my 2009-2011 rewatch, I wrote:

And last but not quite least, forward another three years to The TV Movie. It actually has a lot of good points – the repeated motif of eyes, a lot of the business of the Doctor explaining himself to himself as well as to the rest of the world, the comedy moments mixed with SFnal horror. Daphne Ashbrook is channelling all of the female Classic Who companions, with added snogging (and in fairness a much more complicated love life than most companions arrive with); Eric Roberts is I think rather good with the somewhat two-dimensional character he is given, though of course it’s difficult for Old Who fans to accept a Master without either a beard or poached-egg eyes. The script tears big holes in continuity about the Doctor’s genetic heritage and the location of the Eye of Harmony, but I think it does make sense in its own terms (apart from the reset button that allows the dead companions to be resurrected); however, it just doesn’t lead on to great things in the way that An Unearthly Child did thirty-three years before.

Knowing what we do now about Who since 2005, The TV Movie feels like a dead end in continuity, though I was surprised by the number of elements have been first properly seen here and carried through to New Who – including some of the musical themes, which are very close to some of Murray Gold’s work. But of course that is the narrow TV viewer’s perspective; the Eighth Doctor continuity goes on in comics, books and audios, in three separate streams, all rooted in these 85 minutes of movie.

McGann, once he has regained his memory and before he gets tied up, is a rather good Doctor; he combines a wizardly young fogey with a bit of an air of surprise and almost annoyance that the world is not quite as he would wish it to be. He is at his best with Daphne Ashbrook, and fans of McGann’s audio performances will remember that the high points there tend to come with interaction with India Fisher’s Charley Pollard and Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller. Whereas the more alien Doctors of Old Who were alien because they were hiding their nature from us, the Eighth Doctor doesn’t even fully know himself. It would have been nice to have had more of him.

Watching it again, it annoyed me a bit more. The pacing is generally off, and it’s difficult to imagine how this could have developed into a successful TV series (as indeed it didn’t). All power to McGann, however, a very nice chap in real life.

The second paragraph of The-Book-Of-The-Movie, by Gary Russell, is:

For Dr Grace Holloway, still dressed in her now crumpled ballgown, it began drearily. She woke up and heaved her face up off her desk and tried to massage some life into her right cheek. It had taken the full weight of her sleeping head all night, and she imagined that someone could jab a needle right through it and she would still not feel a thing.

When I first read it in 2007, I wrote:

This was the novel of the TV movie, written by Gary Russell (two of whose other Who novels I have read; I liked one of them). Not really a lot to say about this; he has stuck fairly closely to the script, padding out the introduction a bit more, wisely not expanding on the Doctor’s demi-humanity. I see that I found the visuals and the acting particularly attractive in the broadcast version of the story, and inevitably those get lost in the transfer to the printed page. But it’s basically OK.

Actually I liked it a bit more this time around, perhaps because I re-read it so close to re-watching the original version of the story. A lot of the incidental characters are given significantly more back-story. The Doctor himself comes over as a bit more of an enigma, which was possibly wise. I’ve also read enough Who spinoff fiction now to realise that Russell is among the best of the writers in the stable. You can get it here.

Paul Driscoll’s monograph on The Movie is one of the longest so far in the Black Archive series, featuring an introduction by Matthew Jacobs and a long interview with him as an appendix. Jacobs loves it.

I am compelled and intrigued by patterns Paul can see that were never intended, and delighted by the patterns he has seen that so few people have ever spotted that were absolutely intended. / Intended or not, his observations are always valid and entertaining. This is without doubt the most thorough and complete analysis of the TV movie I have ever read – and there have been quite a few. If I had any idea what I was writing in 1995-6 was going to be analysed this deeply, I might never have started!

The introductory chapter, “Anxious Voices in the Wilderness”, frames the TV movie in the context of the times, not just the hiatus in Doctor Who production but the uncertain international situation.

The second chapter, “He’s Back, But It’s About How”, looks at the extent to which the TV movie does (and doesn’t) rely on Doctor Who continuity,

The third chapter, “Coming to America: Refining the Britishness of Doctor Who”, looks in depth at the extent to which the Doctor’s Britishness, and the show’s British roots, shaped the story. The BBC were much more involved in the scripting process than I had realised. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

As the most extreme example of the two cultures combining in Doctor Who, The Movie sheds much light on how Britishness is defined and mediated through the programme, as well as the effects of globalisation and Americanisation on the character of the show. Yet despite the movie’s explicit privileging of Britishness, Danny Nicol’s 2018 dissertation on Britishness in Doctor Who as a whole lacks any notable references to the production or story2. One possible explanation for this odd omission is that Nicol excludes from his study any elements of British culture that he considers to be non-political, such as the emotional restraint conveyed by the term ‘stiff British upper lip’3. The Movie prioritises the personal over the social. Structural or societal evils such as repressive governments or greedy multinational corporations, so often the focus of the Doctor’s ire, are entirely absent from the story. However, by Nicol’s own admission, ‘Britishness’ as a term is intrinsically political and the lack of political and social engagement in the script of The Movie is in itself a political act. Besides which, as we shall argue, the Britishness of the Doctor in the movie runs far deeper than his English accent and fondness for tea.
2 Nicol, Danny, Doctor Who: A British Alien? (2018).
3 Nicol, A British Alien, p31.

The fourth chapter, “Who Am I? Reimagining the Doctor for a New Audience” looks at the McGann Doctor’s literary roots in Frankenstein, Christ, superheroes including Batman, the Beast of Beauty and the Beast, Byronic heroes, Wild Bill Hickock and the operas Turandot and Madame Butterfly.

The fifth chapter, “The Doctor’s Nemesis”, looks not only at the Roberts Master but at the character before and since in terms of various villainous literary archetypes.

The sixth chapter, “How Well Do These Shoes Really Fit?”, looks at the continuities and discontinuities between The Movie and both old and new televised Who, starting with a strong comparison of the plot with that of The Deadly Assassin.

An appendix looks at audience reception of the movie as revealed from an online survey, and another appendix, as mentioned previously, interviews the writer Matthew Jacobs.

It’s a book that focuses very much on the script rather than on the production (except where the latter affected the former), but I still enjoyed it a lot. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)


Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and only two others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film editing; Life of Pi got four Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Les Miserables, but not Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hugo that year went to The Avengers, and SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award to Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other films that I have seen from that year are The Hobbit part 1, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. Also, I haven’t yet sat down and watched the whole film, but the Bollywood dance scene set in Dublin from Ek Tha Tiger is a classic.

Sorry about that. I’m just obsessed.

Anyway, back to Argo. IMDB users rate it 10th and 20th film of the year on the different rankings, which is not brilliant but not as bad as last year’s The Artist. Ahead of it on both rankings are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit 1, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man. I would also have put it middle of the pack, but some serious issues came up that bump it to a much lower position in my ranking.

Here’s a trailer.

Returning from previous Oscar winners (and one Hugo winner): first and foremost, Ben Affleck, the star and director here, was Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.

John Goodman, who is prosthetics expert John Chambers here (the man who invented Spock’s ears, received a special Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and also did Richard Harris’s chest for that scene in A Man Called Horse), was producer Al Zimmer in The Artist last year.

From a previous Hugo winner, Alan Arkin is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel here, and was paterfamilias Bill in Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. (Like many of us, he had more hair then.)

Finally, the Canadian ambassador is played by Victor Garber, who is genuinely Canadian, but I flagged him up previously for his role as the only identifiably Northern Irish character in an Oscar-winning film – Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

This is the fairly incredible story, Based On True Facts, of how the CIA with help from Canada exfiltrated six American diplomats from Tehran shortly after the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, by posing as a Canadian film crew looking for locations to make a film version of Roger Zelazny’s great novel Lord of Light.

There are lots of things to like here. But I was dismayed to discover from the memoir by Tony Mendez, the CIA guy behind it all, that the film is significantly more white and male than the real events on which it is based. One of the trapped diplomats, Cora Lijek (who prefers Cora Amburn-Lijek) is a Japanese-American in real life; here she is with the very non-Japanese Clea DuVall who portrays her in the film. (Not that the role is very demanding; the trapped diplomats are basically peril monkeys.)

The film has only one Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Ken Taylor, and his wife Pat, who is also Asian and at least is portrayed by Chinese-Australian actor Page Leong. But in real life, the chief immigration officer and deputy Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown, played a crucial role, along with his wife Zena who is from Guyana. Here she is hosting the fugitives in her house, including Cora Amburn-Lijek on the left.

Almost everyone involved in the story on the US government side was, of course, a white man. But in the book, Mendez is very clear that one memorable meeting – where he made a remark about abortion that is preserved in the screenplay – was chaired by “an undersecretary of state, a dignified woman who was very much in charge.” It took very little research to work out that this must have been Lucy W. Benson, the first woman appointed as US Undersecretary of State; she had left office before the diplomats were successfully extracted from Iran, but would have necessarily been involved with the initial approval process. In his book, Mendez refers respectfully several times to her interventions in the crucial meeting. But on screen, everyone in the room at that meeting is male.

According to Wikipedia, when asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic, Mendez (who was born in Nevada) noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father’s culture. He said, “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert.” Which is fine; but Affleck did not grow up in the desert either, and his character in the film tells us that he is from New York (Affleck is from Boston), rather than Nevada. A smaller point, but Mendez in real life has three children, a daughter and two sons. In the film he has only one child. Would you like to guess… Yep.

Tony Mendez (the real one) meets President Carter

So basically, Argo whitewashes the protagonist, whitewashes one of the two significant Asian women in the story, erases the most significant black woman in the story, erases the most politically important woman in the story, and even erases the protagonist’s daughter in favour of her brother. Affleck is entitled to make the film he wants to make, and to make the artistic choices that seem right for the story he wants to tell; I too have the right to point out that a lot of these choices go in one direction and not the other, and that the story he tells is much more about white guys vs brown guys than the True Facts that it is Based On. Whitewashing, and erasing women’s agency, are par for the course in Hollywood adaptations, but I can’t remember anything this extensive since All The King’s Men removed the entire African-American population of Louisiana.

It should also be noted that the Canadians dispute the centrality of the CIA to the story, arguing that a lot more of the heavy lifting was done in Ottawa and especially by their embassy in Tehran. And it’s also clear from Mendez’ published memoir that the last-minute hitches portrayed in the film – mission almost cancelled by cold feet in Washington, Iranian security deducing the plan and storming the air traffic control tower in a futile attempt to prevent the departure – are pretty fictional. I’m more forgiving of these changes; it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. But the Canadians do have a right to feel miffed. (As do the shades of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby.)

Apart from that, I quite enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed that the opening sequence described the historic relationship between Iran and the United States in detail, giving context to the hostility that led to the capture of the embassy and the imprisonment of the hostages. Those who were around at the time will remember the apparent impotence of the Carter administration, and the impact of the crisis on his prospects for re-election; for Middle East experts, of course, the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA had already set the pattern for US involvement in the region for seventy years. After that opening sequence, the narrative of the film is very one-sided, with frothing Iranians vs innocent Westerners, but credit where it’s due – this political context was crucially missing from the Vietnam films I’ve watched in this sequence, and from The Hurt Locker.

The filmography is particularly good, with hand-held cameras among the crowd storming the embassy bringing it into focus, and the Hollywood, Washington and Tehran locations convincingly depicted. The music is suitable and not oppressive – in the hands of another director we’d have had dramatic chords all the way through to tell us what to feel.

A relatively small element of the film, but I was very struck by the story’s very cynical take on Hollywood, especially after last year’s dewey-eyed The Artist, which also featured John Goodman. The parallel between the make-believe world of Movieland and the deception of espionage is well drawn, and also Arkin and Goodman play the Hollywood scenes for just the right amount of laughs to offset the serious subject matter of the rest of the story.

Chambers: [after hearing plan to exfiltrate the house guests] So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: No.
Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

The film was enjoyable, but the erasure is so shocking that I am bumping it way way down my list to eighth last, just above All The King’s Men and below Forrest Gump.

I also read the original Wired article by Joshua Bearman which inspired the film (paywalled) and Mendez’ memoir Argo. The third paragraph of the Wired article is:

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

It tells much the same story as film and book, with maybe a little more emphasis on the experience of the fugitive diplomats.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the grandly titled Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio is:

From the beginning, the Carter administration faced a number of challenges. When Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council threw their support behind the takeover, there was basically nobody for the U.S. government to negotiate with. Carter tried sending two emissaries, but Khomeini refused to allow them to even enter the country. With overt diplomacy off the table, Carter then turned to his military planners, who gave him a similarly bleak assessment. If the United States were to launch a retaliatory strike, the Iranians might execute the hostages. The chance of rescue also seemed remote. Geographically, Iran was extremely isolated and the U.S. embassy compound was located in the heart of the capital city. It appeared there would be no way to get the rescuers in and back out without the Iranians knowing.

Strictly speaking, the film was based on the relevant parts of Mendez’ earlier memoir, Master of Disguise, which were then extracted, expanded and updated as the book Argo to capitalise on the film. This updating was not complete. John Chambers’ identity is concealed behind a pseudonym in the book, even though the film uses his real name and anyway he had been dead since 2001, so it hardly mattered by 2012.

But it’s a satisfying read, if obviously partisan. The book is clear about the fact that the protagonist (played by a white actor in the film) is from a Hispanic background, even if he doesn’t choose to identify in that way; that one of the fugitive diplomats was Asian-American (also played by a white actor in the film); that one of the key people on the Canadian side was a black woman (erased entirely from the film); that the senior US official who authorised the plan was a woman (erased entirely from the film); that the protagonist had a stable marriage with two sons and a daughter (rather than the broken relationship and one son portrayed in the film) and that the last-minute hitches depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

The book also gives useful context about Mendez’ previous experience of disguise and exfiltration, including various capers in Iran itself, in other Middle Eastern countries and in south-east Asia. He is frank about the shortcomings of the USA’s governmental wiring diagram and comments approvingly that the Canadians with a lighter government structure were able to make things happen much more quickly than the Americans. And even without the fictional last-minute threats to the success of the mission, the truth is quite dramatic enough. You can get it here.

Next up: that year’s SFWA Bradbury winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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)