Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Book I Read In June

Fiction
'Vellum' by Hal Duncan
Back in March I criticised the fragmented often incoherent nature of 'Hawksmoor' by Peter Ackroyd. All that I said about that book applies to 'Vellum' in even greater amount. There are basically three characters but it is difficult to pin down even what their names are. They appear in scraps of text set in a range of historical and fantastical settings. They are mixed up with characters and stories from ancient mythology. There are some interesting ideas such as the 'vellum' being a kind of book which structures the multiverse and using it, people can travel into various times and realities. The book also includes a half-hearted reference to a battle between various angels and between them and demons which seems to have been borrowed from the US television series, 'Supernatural', though it might be in reverse as the episodes covering those themes were broadcast after this book was published in 2006. There is no resolution to the story for any of the characters. Instead there are numerous incomplete stories thrown together in apparent random order.

I have seen an online review which likens the book to the Jerry Cornelius books by Michael Moorcock: 'The Final Programme' (1968), 'A Cure for Cancer' (1971), 'The English Assassin' (1972) and 'The Condition of Muzak' (1977). This is not entirely accurate as 'The Final Programme' has a coherent narrative. In contrast, 'A Cure for Cancer' is described as 'essentially a collage of absurdist vignettes' and this description would fit 'Vellum' well. It seems Duncan is aware of the Jerry Cornelius books, the character is referred to by name at one point and elsewhere one of Duncan's characters wields a needle gun, the favoured weapon of Cornelius. The thing is that Moorcock was writing at the height of the era of the drugs- and hippy-influenced culture when authors were experimenting with different forms of writing. Duncan is writing thirty years beyond that period when it is clear that for most part that approach to writing has been set aside. Certainly the acclaim on the book sleeve about Duncan's work being radical or innovative is misplaced, in many ways it is revival of an old style around when he was a child (he was born in 1971). One saving grace of the Jerry Cornelius books is that they were short, around a quarter of the length of 'Vellum' at 500 pages in the edition I read.

Duncan has some great idea and the opening scene of a protagonist stealing the 'Vellum' could have let into a fascinating book. However, it appears that Duncan lacks many of the skills needed to write an actual novel and instead has sold what was effectively the scrapbook that all authors have of ideas, characters and fragments of which some grow into true books, others do not. He has been incredibly lucky to get his scrapbook published. If he could have written a book as good as 'The Final Programme', he would have been deserving of acclaim. However, it seems he has a long way to go before he becomes a novelist despite the fact someone has given him a publishing deal.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Returning To Sables D'Or

Six years ago, I produced a posting about my childhood memories of holidaying at Sables D'Or Les Pins in Brittany in northern France: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/memories-of-sables-dor.html  Conscious that I do not have a great deal of holidays left and seeking something that would not end in the kind of disaster my holidays usually do, e.g.:

http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/when-holiday-is-worse-than-no-holiday.html
http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/camping-in-me-first-era.html
http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/canal-boating-running-gauntlet-of.html

I decided to go back to Hotel De Diane in Sables D'Or and sit there for a week.

The holiday was largely a success.  I aimed to go with Condor Ferries which use catamaran ferries that should shave three hours off the travel time across the English Channel.  However, being relatively small vessels they are affected by the weather much more than traditional ferries.  On both the outward and return crossings the sailings were cancelled.  In the end I had to return by Brittany Ferries, taking nine hours in total, but a very reliable service.  As it was, the Condor Ferries service saved no time.  In the last couple of years they have ended their sailings from Weymouth and from 2014 ended direct sailings from Britain to France.  Instead you are taken to the Channel Islands where you have to wait at least 2 hours, sometimes overnight, until a shuttle ferry from France arrives to take you the final stage.  Thus, the time saving is lost and often you will have to pay for accommodation on Jersey or Guernsey.  This rigmarole is repeated on the return journey.

Anyway, the ferry difficulties shifted my holiday by a day and meant me paying for another night in the hotel in France.  I also was very sick on the outward crossing.  It has become apparent that in contrast to my youth I now cannot sail on board a ferry even in calm seas without becoming ill.  I put it down to the inner ear infection I caught in Berlin some nine years ago.  It has affected the woman I was travelling with then in a different way but she has still had to abandon motorcycling.


In many ways the resort is similar to that portrayed above.  It was opened in 1924 and despite modern technology retains old world charm.  The houses shown in the picture are still there and it seems many French have holiday homes in the area as do some British.  Rambling, horse riding and golf, despite being things I did not engage with, remain important in the area.  The casino is still there, but did not seem open while I was in town.  Sitting between St Brieuc to the West and St Malo to the East, the hinterland is traditional rural France with quiet roads and pleasant villages with locations for horse riding and fishing.  The coast is a mixture of rocky headlands and large beaches from which the tide goes out a long way.  In June most of the visitors were the elderly there for the walking.  There were quite a few Germans in camper vans too.  I am sure it gets much busier once the school holidays start.

My parents stayed at the resort in 1965, 1966 and 1972; family friends also stayed there in that era.  I am not sure now if the Hotel De Diane was the hotel they visited, because it is run by the Rolland family, who have held it for four generations and that is not the name of the proprietors that my parents knew.  I think in fact they stayed at the much larger hotel less than a metre away next door.  It, however, has now closed down.  The Hotel De Diane, named after a valley rising from the town, is compact and has an award-winning restaurant which has good food though a small menu.  Everywhere seems to have been affected by nouvelle cuisine and it is very difficult to get anything traditional.  I suppose this is a result of catering schools and inspectors in France.

The hotel is modern inside and nicely appointed; the staff are very friendly - many seem to be from the Rolland family.  There is a waitress from northern England in the restaurant who shows off how people can have different characters when speaking different languages.  She squawks at British guests in English and speaks softly to the French guests in French.  A good place if you want somewhere quiet to stay.

Hotel De Diane, Sables D'Or-Les Pins, eastern Brittany, France


At this time of the year the beach which is immense at low tide, as can be seen below, is largely deserted.  There is an onshore breeze and some people sail or windsurf.

The Beach at Sables D'Or at Low Tide


The tiny chapel, seen in the picture at the top can still only be reached at low tide.  It is a real mission to reach it across the rocky causeway.

Chapel on the Islet of St Michael at Sables D'Or


The small town of Sables D'Or-Les Pins has a few restaurants of different standards, a couple of pizzerias and creperies.  Erquy down the road remains a functional town still with a fishing fleet.  Like many towns in the region it has a very large, very clean beach.  In fact how clean the beaches was stunning to me though I am familiar with award-winning ones on the South coast of England.

There are some sights to see.  I returned to Fort La Latte which I mentioned in my previous posting.  The battering ram from the movie 'The Vikings' is now properly displayed.

Fort La Latte


Prop Battering Ram used in the Movie, 'The Vikings' (1958)



I enjoyed visiting the historic town of Dinan and for some reason found Lamballe a town which houses France's national stud, very pleasant too.  St Malo old town is a tourist attraction but did not seem overwhelmed by it.  This maybe because I was early in the season.

Dinan


Lamballe


St Malo



Even St Malo which has a commercial port has a long, attractive beach, it seems compulsory for towns in the region.  Being an adult rather than a child, I had freedom to go where I chose.  Unlike many members of my family,   My car did great service getting me around the countryside.  Drivers in rural France seem more patient than their equivalent in the British countryside who always seem offended that you are simply there.  My sat nav despite containing maps of France pleaded that it lacked the memory to cope, so I ended up map reading which did me well.  I only had difficulty entering and leaving St Brieuc where the drivers were impatient at me looping the roundabouts and where, anyway, the roads were disrupted by road works and diversions.

I found some other interesting places, St Jacut de la Mer is a town with very little bar a modern looking abbey.  However, being a narrow peninsula it is lovely and quiet and I can recommend the 'Awawa' restaurant run by a young couple.  The food there is delicious.  I did not have a bad meal anywhere I ate but this one really stood out.  Jugon-les-Lacs almost due South inland from there, is also very pleasant.  The lakes are artificial but you could not really tell.  As with a lot of the region, I saw loads of wild flowers everywhere and many more bird species than I even see North across the Channel in Dorset and Devon.  It must be a great area if you enjoy walking or cycling.  There was a cycle race open to teams and individuals of all levels while I was in Sables D'Or and a cycle rally in St Malo too.

One thing that struck me was how difficult it was to pick up radio stations that did not play old fashioned French music.  It was as if I was in an American's imagination of France.  I even ended up with a Breton folk channel at one time.  The rocky outcrops of the area seem to play havoc with reception.  I found no petrol station with any staff.  You generally have to pay by debit card and this can get complicated.

The main street of St Jacut de la Mer


Interior of 'Awawa' restaurant


Wild flowers in St Jacut de la Mer


Street in Jugon-les-Lacs


Jugon Lake seen from Surrounding Hills


As you can see from the shot of Jugon-les-Lacs there is a flaw in my camera, a chip in the glass right in the middle of the lens.  I had to replace it.  However, on the balance of what has happened on holidays, this one turned out to be better than the large majority.  I was able to both indulge in nostalgia for my youth and discover new places.  I also found a region, which certainly outside St Brieuc, is very quiet and relaxing to travel around and visit places.  It may be that going early in the Summer helped with this and it would be a different story in August.  No holiday in the area is going to be a staggering experience but it can be restful and that is what I really needed.  Last year's experience meaning I came back even more stressed then when at work, needed to be avoided and returning to Sables D'Or provided that.

On one hand, given this success I began thinking about possibly venturing further afield.  However, I fear now that one success has bred complacency.  Furthermore, there are few places I have been where things have not gone wrong, so I have little idea where I would go next.  I do, fortunately, appear to have broken a 7-year bad run of holidays.  Perhaps I need to go back to the pattern of the 1990s when I only had a holiday every 5 years so as to reduce the risk.  That would mean, however, I have only 1-2 holidays left.  I suppose I should be grateful this one went well.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Books I Read In May

Fiction
'Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Memoirs Part 1)' by Thomas Mann
I was careless when buying this book.  I had thought that it was set in the early 20th century and expected a story about a confidence trickster; something a little like 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' (1929) by Alfred Döblin.  However, this book is set in some unnamed years in the late 19th century and is whimsical rather than gritty.  Though the protagonist does steal some jewellery in fact he spends most of his time working as a lift attendant and waiter.  He is then employed by a Luxembourgish marquis to pretend to be him on a world tour so that the marquis can remain in Paris.  The 'Memoirs Part 1' element only appears on one of the interior pages of the book, not on the cover so I was disappointed when the book stopped abruptly when the hero was about to leave Portugal and I have no idea what happens next.  However, I have no desire to find the second part of the book.

Despite Krull having many skills that would make him appropriate to be a criminal, he carries out little crime, so it is a very different book to what I expected.  It is light-hearted.  It is heavily overwritten there are sections which go on for pages simply talking about Krull being assessed for military service, touring the natural history museum in Lisbon and a letter to the marquis's parents.  They go on and on adding nothing to the story.  In many ways this made me feel it was a pastiche of novels of the period that this story covers.  However, being published in 1954, it has sensibilities of the mid-20th century so features more sexual references, including homosexual, than would ever have been seen in a novel published 60 years earlier.  The writing is engaging for the most part, but the book does not really go anywhere and because these are supposed memoirs the character fails to develop.  Overall it was unsatisfactory and it shows me to be more careful in judging a book by what is written on the cover.

'Great Tales of Detection. Nineteen stories chosen by Dorothy L. Sayers', ed. Dorothy L. Sayers
This collection of short crime fiction does what it says in the title.  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was herself a leading crime novelist as well as religious work, feminist essays, translations and poetry.  This book was published in 1936. A worthwhile essay at the start reflects over the development of crime fiction which was almost a century old by the time Sayers was writing.  She highlights aspects such as the 'fair play' rule, i.e. that no evidence on which the solution is based has not been signalled to the reader previously, even though deus ex machina remains permitted.  The stories selected reach from 'The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allen Poe (1844) to 'The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem' by C. Daly King (1935).  I do wonder if the latter was part of the inspiration for the Inspector Clouseau character in the 'Pink Panther' movies.  'Clou' is the French word for nail ['seau' means bucket], the detective in the story, Trevis Tarrant, has a Japanese  manservant called Katoh; Clouseau has a Chinese manservant called Kato/Cato [the spelling changed after the first movie featuring the character].

What becomes apparent from this collection is why the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie written in this time period has remained popular, it is of far better quality than a lot of the competitor books/stories out there.  There are some crime authors featured who remain renowned today, notably Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton of the Father Brown stories; to a lesser extent Ernest Bramah as well as one each from Christie and Sayers themselves.  The others featured are largely unknown today.  What is largely lacking is any sense of drama even when the reader sees from the perspective of the murderer.  Perhaps at best, 'The Avenging Chance' by Anthony Berkeley or 'Superfluous Murder' by Milward Kennedy could have featured in a collection of 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind collected by Roald Dahl.  However, in large part they are presented as intellectual exercises.

Sayers herself was criticised for having stories too dependent on specialist technical details and characters that were simply a series of stereotypes. The stories from the mid-19th century in the collection even seem like philosophical tracts rather than even the kind of puzzle crime stories that are still familiar, these days categorised as 'cozy' by Amazon.  Many of the stories have very contorted set-ups to allow the 'impossible' murder and weaponry which even when you know it, seems incredible.  There are a few highlights such as Collins portrayal of an arrogant junior detective in 'The Biter Bit' set out as a series of letters between three police detectives.  However, in general this book simply reassures you that you are not missing out much if you stick to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot/Miss Jane Marple.  Overall, a curiosity but with little to engage the reader certainly one from the 21st century.  Sayers's essay is probably the highlight.


Non-Fiction
'The Great War' by John Terraine
This is a book published in 1965 at the last peak in publications about the First World War.  The edition I read came out in 1983.  Terraine was heavily involved in the BBC television 26-part series also called 'The Great War' (1964) but as he makes clear this is not the book of the series.  It is very short, only 195 pages in the edition I read.  Thus, it could make a useful book for someone who wants a quick, adult-orientated coverage of the war.  However, I am reluctant to recommend it even for that because of how partisan it is.  Terraine rightly adheres to the view that the war was largely the result of German aggression, a view that was being reinforced in the early 1960s and which he adhered to twenty years later.  However, he neglects the enthusiasm among the British elites for going to war and ironically the hostility to it both in Parliament and among the public.

Terraine says that he excusing the generals from the undeserved blame that they had received. Alan Clark's 'The Donkeys' on this issue had been published in 1961 and Terraine is known to have argued with the makers of the BBC series about this focus. Ironically, in this book Terraine is uncomplimentary and at times condemnatory of almost every general he writes about. The only ones who are spared his harsh criticism are the Russian General Adjutant Aleksei Brusilov (1853-1926), the Australian General Sir John Monash (1865-1931) and above all, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, (1861–1928). In fact, his support of Haig, leads him to utterly dismiss his predecessor Field Marshal John French 1st Earl of Ypres, (1852–1925) and to portray the forces of France as poor throughout in not bowing to British objectives at all stages.

Terraine fails to portray the Gallipoli Campaign as the utter fiasco that it was which ironically means he is more condemnatory of the Allies efforts at Salonika in Greece.  He rightly notes that the Dominion troops notably the Canadians and the Australians were both the spearhead and the backbone of the 'British' forces in the last two years of the war and also how many troops fighting the Ottoman Empire took up.  Like many commentators of his time he over-emphasises the role played by American forces, perhaps with an eye to the US readership.  He also neglects to note that the period of greatest British success, 1918 was when its casualty rate reached new highs.

Overall, though not apparently inaccurate, this is very imbalanced book with Terraine's prejudices being all too apparent throughout and shaping, indeed distorting his recounting of the war.  He goes against what he says he is going to do and condemns the generals the way many others would only sparing Haig and less than an handful of others from being derided.  He also shows the kind of Western prejudices prevalent in histories of the time in behaving as if the Russians were all ignorant and lazy and the Ottomans utterly incompetent from a racial basis despite how difficult they made British advances on all fronts they were engaged with them.  This was not a good book in its time and is not required now.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Five Years of Terror

Given my interest in politics the outcome of the election was less of a surprise to me than to some others.  I know that the 'conversion rate' of Conservative votes to seats has always been much higher than for Labour, so the supposed 'neck and neck' polling would mean more seats for the Conservatives; Labour needed a clear lead in terms of votes ever to stand a chance of gaining an equivalent number of seats; many commentators missed that fact.  There is also the issue of the 'shy Conservatives'.  Unlike with supporters of other parties, a percentage of Conservative voters, this time perhaps 5% of their voters on the day are unwilling to admit that they are going to vote for the Conservatives.  Unsurprisingly even Conservative literature reckoned they would win 303 seats rather than the 331 they attained.  Those howling for opinion polls to be banned should consider that fact.

The other thing is that elections in the UK are won by fear and myths.  This has been the case since 1992 if not longer and was boosted by the spin doctor era of the Blair governments.  In 1992 the myth was about the Labour taxation plans.  In 2015 the myth of the Labour 'over-spend' of 2005-10 causing the deficit, rather than the fact that it came from having to bail out reckless banks.  The myth of over-spend is now so well established that many people will not accept any other view and demand that Labour apologise.  They do not read the actual history, they simply absorb the myths spread by the right-wing newspaper.  Such approaches have actually been more successful than direct support for the Conservatives.  I anticipate comments here saying that I am lying because the myth has become the 'truth' no matter what history actually shows.

The fear this time was the SNP.  This seems to have been effective in increasing the turn-out sufficiently to win a lot of seats by a narrow margin that Labour could otherwise have taken.  This leaves Labour in a very difficult position.  In England they probably need to return to Blairite policies but in Scotland where there has been an abrupt shift in the opposite direction, to the left wing, they will need a completely different pitch, indeed possibly a separate centre-left party.  The Conservatives' scare tactics and myths rather than any policy are what secured them the win.  It is ironic that leading Conservatives have said the campaign was 'positive'.  As I have read commentators note, if this was a positive campaign then Heaven help us if anyone thinks of doing a negative one, perhaps George Galloway and the opponents of Esther McVey gave us a feel for the supposedly positive campaigns of the future.

How does this bring me to the terror I have been feeling today?  The reason is that I am a member of 'working poor'.  Despite having a full-time job, I do not earn enough to pay rent on a single room in a shared house and cover my bills in terms of my car, internet, food, etc.  Only my book sales keep me from going into further debt each month.  My salary is the same as it was in 2009 but obviously the cost of living has continued to rise.  My girlfriend who runs her own business and as a result is dependent on housing benefits to pay her rent.  Her efforts to get work in supermarkets has failed despite completing the third stages of recruitment processes.  As a result of being 'working poor' we are incredibly vulnerable.  I have been fortunate to have been in work since 2012 but know that with current employment law I can be terminated with a month's notice and my income dry up.  There is a good chance my employer will then try to block me receiving unemployment benefit as has happened before and according to Job Centre staff is common these days.  Seeing no sign of this alleged economic recovery benefiting anyone I know or encounter, there is a good chance my job will go as the economy continues to stutter.

What is more frightening is the promised £12 billion benefits cuts that Cameron has promised.  There has been no indication where these will fall, but it seems that child benefits will be cut.  It also seems likely that housing benefit will be cut as more money is taken away from local authorities.  It seems probable that my girlfriend will struggle to pay her rent.  Labour had promised controls on rent and increase the rights of tenants to stop what has happened to me in my life with landlords simply tossing us out with minimal notice when they feel a need to sell the house or it turns out they have been failing to pay his mortgage.  They promised freezes on utility bills which have continued to rocket leading to fuel poverty.  There are also no attempts to ban the locked-in contracts which on  two occasions has meant having to keep paying when the internet service has died or face a charge of £65 to have it fixed or £180 to have it removed.  

It is clear that poverty will increase; as the hare-brained school policies are liable to continue, then opportunities for ordinary young people will be closed off.  The next few years are going to be terrible for the bulk of the population.  In such a situation it seems that prejudice and exploitation will continue to rise.  I have tried suicide before and have failed but today's results and the era it ushers in is the one that that is encouraging me to consider it once more.  I have a good job and yet a bleak future is all that lies ahead of me.  For those who are disabled or dependent on benefits, it is going to be utterly horrendous.

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the May 2015 UK General Election?

In previous postings, I have looked at how UK general elections since 1922 would have turned out if, rather than the 'first past the post' system in place system in place in the UK had been replaced by proportional representation.  I did this most recently for the 2010 general election: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/what-if-proportional-representation-had.html

The 2015 election is certainly one for this consideration because the different between the proportion of the votes each party won compared to the proportion of the seats they won has probably reached its most extreme.  There are a couple of well-known factors in UK elections which were apparent at this one.  First is that the 'conversion rate', i.e. how many seats a party gets compared to how many votes they received has always been highest for the Conservative Party.  The Labour Party and to an even greater extent, the Liberal Democrats, often have tens of thousands of 'wasted' votes, that win them no additional seats.  In this election such vagaries can be seen at the extreme.  The SNP (Scottish National Party) gained 1.45 million votes which won them a total of 56 seats.  In contrast UKIP (UK Independence Party) won 3.861 million, more than double what the SNP got, but only won 1 seat.  This explains UKIP's sudden support for the introduction of some kind proportional representation, despite the defeat of the proposal of adopting the Alternative Vote (AV) method in the referendum of 2011.

The other known factor is the 'shy Conservative'.  That in polls people who are liable to vote Conservative are much less likely to say they will than supporters of other parties.  This explains the fact that the Conservatives received 2% more of the vote than polls had predicted.

Before I launch into the analysis, there are some caveats.  These calculations are on the basis of direct proportion, so assuming constituencies with equal populations.  The most simple approach is used rather than ones such as AV which alter the proportionality to some extent.  In addition, I assume that unlike, for example, in Germany there is no bar on how few votes a party can get in order to win a seat.  In (West) Germany only parties that achieve above 5% of the vote have been allowed to sit in the Bundestag.  This has meant the absence of numerous small parties at national level and effectively a two-party system since 1949.  The actual number of seats that the party gained is shown in square brackets.  Note, one seat that held by the Speaker, was not really contested.  The current Speaker is a Conservative but does not vote with his party.

2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]
  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]

In Northern Ireland a form of proportional representation is used anyway, which is why the figures are not massively different. The adherence to different sides of the Unionist/Republican debate in different constituencies also makes it tricky.

As always I caution that, of course, with a different system other parties may have come forward so that there might not be the parties on offer that there were in our world.  If we look back to the 2010 election, if then there had been proportional representation, UKIP would have had 20 seats in Parliament, whereas with our system they only gained 2 and then only in 2014.  Similarly back then the Greens would have got 7 seats and now would have 25.  Thus representation in the House of Commons would reflect the trends that have been so commented on in recent weeks but because of the system have not come to fruition. 

Under proportional representation Labour would have had 198 compared to 189 in this alternate 2010.  Thus, the system would reflect their difficulty in increasing their support, notably in England.  It did rise a little but this was heavily counter-balanced by losses in Scotland.  In this alternative meaning they declined, in our world, 26 seats overall, their 48 seats lost not only in Scotland but England too.  The failure to break through the 200-seat mark might have been enough to see off Ed Miliband even more than the poor performance in our world.

Proportional representation would not have altered the severe decline for the Liberal Democrats, they would now have a third of the seats they had back in 2010.  In this alternative, it would have still be likely that a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would have been formed, though with the Liberal Democrats three times stronger than in our world.  In this scenario, they may have gone back into coalition, but unlike in 2010, alone they could not have secured either the Conservatives or Labour a majority.

Even with proportional representation, the often-envisaged Labour-SNP-Green coalition would be no more feasible in forming government than in our world.  Indeed the SNP would only have 31 seats rather than 56 so would be weaker by far than in our current parliament.  Thus, with proportional representation in place what seems would have been the most likely government would have been a Conservative-UKIP-DUP coalition to give David Cameron a small majority.  Given that they had lost two-thirds of their seats as a result of the election (though a better result than losing over four-fifths in our world), the Liberal Democrats are likely to have been reluctant to have participated in this more right-wing coalition.

The first-past-the-post system has given the SNP 25 out of 56 of the seats they won.  It  has denied UKIP 82 seats and the Greens 24 seats.  As Douglas Carswell, the lone UKIP MP now, noted, this has meant, combined, 5 million voters for these parties have been denied something even approaching the level of representation they might expect and in large part given it to the Conservatives and SNP.

The analysis of how different proportional representation would have impacted has shown that the scenarios discussed in recent weeks were not massively misplaced.  This is because, as I have seen frequently mentioned, polls measure the anticipated proportion of the vote and as yet the only good way of predicting the share of seats is the exit poll which this time was only out by 15 seats and that neglected the persistent 'shy Conservative' difficulty.  Given that one of those Conservative seats was won by a majority of just 27 votes, it was pretty decent estimation, though, of course, insufficiently close to silence those who at every election howl for the banning of 'inaccurate' polls.  In this case they worked very much in the Conservatives' favour by making their warning about the advance of the SNP sound convincing and getting out their core voters especially in the very tight marginals that Labour had to take in order to approach winning.

P.P. 11/05/2015
This time round, the BBC has done similar analysis: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32601281

drawing on work done by the Electoral Reform Society using the D'Hondt Method of proportional representation approach.  Their figures are not radically different to mine Conservatives: 256; UKIP: 83, SNP: 31.  However, their work corrects my views based on my previous analysis regarding 'conversion' rates.  This shows that only this year, 2015, have the Conservatives needed fewer votes than Labour to win a seat.  Contrary to my sense of what was happening in 1997, they needed about 30,000 more votes to get a seat compared to Labour.  Now Labour needs about 6,000 votes per seat more than the Conservatives.  This does suggest that the party on track to win gains the better conversion rate.  I wonder what the impact of boundary changes will make on this conversion rate.  For UKIP the rate is running at over 3.5 million votes per seat, 100 times greater than for the Conservatives.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Books I Read In April

Fiction
'A Rare Benedictine' by Ellis Peters
This was the last of the Brother Cadfael books I had to read.  It was anomalous, featuring three short stories.  The first is set in 1120 when Cadfael is an ageing soldier.  The other two are set in the mid- to late 1130s when he is established as a monk. The stories are fine.  They show Cadfael solving three crimes even when this means him going up against his employer.  They show him using his knowledge of Shrewsbury and supporting the course of true love, all elements that are the backbone of the Cadfael stories.  What seems to be missing, contrary to what Peters notes at the start, is a sense of that transformation from warrior to monk.  It would have been really beneficial to have had 2-3 other stories set in the 1120s.  This would have shown us more of the character's development rather than simply presenting simply some further examples of him behaving in the way regular readers of the series are familiar with.  It is not a bad book, but it could have been a great deal more.

'The Winds of Altair' by Ben Bova
Ben Bova was an author I first came across as a teenager and was very impressed by his 'The Dueling Machine' [sic] (1969).  However, too many of his novels appeared to be space opera which did not appeal.  'The Winds of Altair' (1984) is about colonists being sent to a remote planet, but is more about issues connected to colonisation and religious fundamentalism.  The colonisers make use of mind connection devices to use wolfcats - huge six-legged predators and white apes, to operate machinery on the hostile surface of Altair VI/Windsong to make it habitable for humans.  The story largely features those involved in this connection between the creatures and humans.  This connecting and the sympathy for the indigenous population are very reminiscent of elements of the movie 'Avatar' (2009) with a religious group instead of the military.  The book moves along briskly and handles the big issues well.  The casual racism jumps out until you realise that the religions have made Earth suffering with a population of 17 billion, a racially-segregated planet.  I enjoyed reading the book but then it ends abruptly as if Bova felt he had got his message across and there was no need for any more or the publishers said that he had reached his page limit.  The difficulties of the colonisation, the challenge of the religion and the development of the two romantic relationships are all concluded at speed, though in the case of the relationships, largely unresolved.  This abrupt end is a shame for a book which I otherwise enjoyed.  I may be tempted to find some more of Bova's books in the future, but hope they will end properly.

Non-Fiction
'The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918' by A.J.P. Taylor
This book was first published in 1941 and the revised edition I read came out in 1947.  This is important to note because people would not write a history book this way nowadays.  It is important to note that this is not really about the Austrian Empire or Austria-Hungary, but as the title indicates, about the Habsburg monarchy in this period.  It is written very much from a constitutional perspective and at times is very dry and complicated when discussing the nuances of political developments at the highest level.  The main flaw of the book is that it rushes through all of these elements very quickly with few breaks.  This leads the reader easily lost.  At times the analysis of the politics seems to be in a vacuum, detached from social and economic developments which form the context.  It improves when covering the first decade of the 20th century, but then with the First World War returns to the break-neck speed.  A slower pace and more summary would have improved the accessibility of the book greatly.

Taylor writes that he purged his misplaced wistful optimism for Austria-Hungary and what it could have been between the two editions of the book.  However, what is painful for a contemporary reader is the retention of his bigotry which too often colours what he is saying and imbalances his judgements.  He derides the Austrians and Hungarians perceiving themselves as the superior nations in the empire, with the Poles and to a lesser extent the Italians following on behind.  However, then he generally adheres to their hierarchy of the different nationalities.  He is painfully patronising when discussing the Slovaks and Ruthenes, even the Croats and Slovenes.  He presents a number of these nationalities as if they were infantile and is dismissive of any political or national perspectives they may have.  He is also explicitly dismissive of the French despite the importance of their government in successor states to Austria-Hungary.  I gather his attitude to the Italians was also shaped by the Second World War.  Yet, the problem goes beyond his own time.  His attitudes were old fashioned  even in 1947.  This is emphasised by his disparaging of the term successor states and his constant reference to 'Austria' in inverted commas, even after 1918 when it was a sovereign states.  Though Taylor writes in English in this book his perceptions are those of a German living in the late 19th century.  This handicaps him in making a fair judgement in terms of the various nationalities and distorts how he articulates what went on depending on which of the 'historic' nations was concerned.  The book is comprehensive but is best saved for reference which allows avoidance of its overly-frenetic narrative and the painfully bigoted attitudes towards many of the people being discussed.


Monday, 20 April 2015

Welcoming The Coming Of The End

As I may have noted here before, given my health conditions, I have been told by a series of doctors (I have had 16 GPs since 1988 and have met numerous specialists too) that I have a life expectancy of 51-57 years old, which means 4-10 years remaining.  I have become conscious of my departure in the next few years as my health has deteriorated.  I feel like a man probably thirty years older than my actual age.  My digestion is all over the place and it is often difficult for me to swallow.  My limbs are stiff and my eyes have trouble refocusing after I have been reading or in a dark room.  I also feel incredibly lethargic and when returning from work, which is very sedentary have no urge except to slump watching television and to sleep.  I often sleep for a couple of hours and then return later.  Feeling bloated much of the time means I have little appetite.  However, I have not lost weight, indeed my belly looks rounder than ever before, causing real problems with my trousers.

Perhaps I have been reaching this state for a number of years now but the bullying and the almost incessant problems with cars, holidays and accommodation have been a distraction.  Now things are reasonably settled, largely because I have given up on holidays and rent only a room in a shared house; car problems still persist, I am aware of how far I have deteriorated.  Of course, I have no idea when I will fall dead.  Ten years can seem a great deal, it will work out to be about an eleventh of my life.  I have a feeling I will make it to 57.  I have had more than one dream and other premonitions that I will live until late in 2024 and then will die in a car fire in Spain, during daylight.  Quite precise.  I have had quite a few premonitions in my life that have proven to be true.  Often I have ignored them, for example in the case of two of the jobs I was bullied in, much to my personal cost.

How do people react to a recognition of mortality?  I heard an interview last week with blues musician Wilko Johnson who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and was given 10 months to live.  His tumour in and around his stomach grew to be 3 Kg (6.6lbs) before it was removed, along with his pancreas, spleen and parts of his stomach and intestines.  He had done a farewell tour and album, but then last year was cured.  He has been left at a loose end now he has recovered.  However, what he had done in response to death was to rush around and do things.  Maybe I am not close enough to it yet to feel that urge.

I have been working on a number of partially completed novels that I have written over the past twenty years and have enjoyed returning to them.  I am a better writer than when I began some of them, but I have liked going back to the characters and finishing off their stories.  However, I realised, now that I am working on a full-length Braucher novel, that I simply do not care.  I do not mind if I finish it or not or whether it gets out into the public domain or remains locked up behind passwords on my laptop's C drive.  Many people facing imminent death have a 'bucket list' of things to achieve before they go.  However, reflecting on this, I could think of absolutely nowhere that I wanted to go or any activity I wanted to do.  I have no desire to see the Grand Canyon or swim with dolphins.  There certainly is no point in me learning anything new.  I know I will gain no new skills before I die and there is no point in all these adverts for language learning that I receive.  Given my digestion problems I have no desire to eat any particular foods.

I have booked to return to the hotel in Sables d'Or in France: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/memories-of-sables-dor.html  that I visited when I was five and apparently before that in my mother's womb.  However, that was simply because have had so many disastrous holidays I could think of nowhere else to go.  If I do not make it, I will not be fussed.  It is almost due South of where I am living at present and it seems that I can reach it without much difficulty.  I do not really need a holiday but am conscious of the censure from colleagues for not going away especially from those who insist on putting themselves into dangerous situations around the globe.  Why do amateurs keep on insisting on climbing Mount Everest?  However, having had only two weeks of successful holidays since 2005, that have not ended prematurely and costing me hundreds of pounds, I am not optimistic that even this simple holiday will work.  Yet, they do not fail sufficiently.  I have not been at risk of my life at all.  I would be more than happy to give up my place in the lifeboat for someone else who wants life, when the catamaran goes down off the Channel Islands.  I have found myself incompetent: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/the-challenges-of-suicide.html and too cowardly: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/trouble-after-suicide-fails-is-that-you.html  to succeed at suicide, so it has to be something from outside that ends my life and I would be grateful if it got a move on.  I would like a heroic death, but given my luck it is bound to be humiliating, but I trust I will be on my way by then so will no longer care.

That is the one great thing about knowing you have a reasonably limited amount of time left - you no longer need to care.  Once I have gone, I will have no control over what moronic things people might say about my book.  Amazon actually bans the posthumous sale of books if you self-publish, presumably that is limited to ordinary people, not literary greats.  I have already stopped worrying about my career.  It was destroyed by the bullying of two managers who because of personal prejudices decided it was the appropriate thing to wreck my life.  I kept hoping that I could get back to the level that I had in 2009 if not beyond that and now am aware that unless this job goes bad too, this will be my last entry on my CV.  I do not have to worry about my pension as I will not be alive to collect it.  Even if I live ten more years, I will have left well before retirement.

I do care about what will happen to the UK, but these days it is the way I might care about the plastic bag island in the Pacific Ocean, I mourn it, but know I can do absolutely nothing about it.  I am throwing myself right into the current election as this may be my last or at most, the penultimate one I will witness.  However, with so much, a weariness comes over me.  I am just tired of how appallingly so many people are behaving and the energy they put into telling you how essential their nastiness is.  I am tired of how badly so many people drive.  I am tired at how every company tries to rip you off and insists that their various ways of screwing money out of you is customer service in your interest.  It tires me that they feel obliged to lie as if we are morons.

In many ways as the burden of life begins to lift but on the other hand I become ever more tired, perhaps I am becoming like the bulk of the population, walking along oblivious to everyone around me, not interested if I put myself or them in danger as I lap up the 'vital' rubbish coming through the phone.  In my case it is coming through my head rather than my phone, but maybe society has finally made me conform.  Perhaps if this does drag on for four years let alone ten, I will become tired of waiting.  I can certainly tell you now that if I died before I finished this posting, I would be more than happy to be relieved of having to live this tedious existence a moment longer.