Friday, 19 September 2014

Guaranteeing Eternal Conservative Governments - One Victory is Not Enough to Satisfy Cameron

I did wonder during the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum why Prime Minister David Cameron was campaigning so hard for Scotland to remain in the Union.  With Scotland independent, the Labour Party would be denied 41 of its current 256 MPs.  In contrast the Conservatives have only 1 MP from Scotland among their 304 currently in the House of Commons.  It would have probably made it impossible for Labour ever to get back into office on its own ever again.  While this would not have ensured a Conservative government for ever more, it would certainly have increased the chances of that happening.  I realise now that I was naive to wonder why Cameron was behaving in the way he did.  

Today the explanation has become clear.  In fact it did not matter which way the referendum went, he had plans on how to permanently reduce Labour's majority at Westminster.  This can be seen as the next step in his shaping of democracy to constantly favour his party.  We know that boundary changes will favour the Conservatives anyway.  However, now he is going to exclude Scottish MPs from voting on legislation that is about England (and presumably Wales too).  The argument is that with certain powers being given to the Scottish Parliament it is argued Scots MPs in Westminster should not then vote on things that English, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs cannot affect in the Scottish Parliament.  Of course, 83% of the UK population lives in England and with the royal prerogative legislation passed can be extended in time or scope without reference to Parliament.  Thus, now Cameron can simply introduce purely English laws, be guaranteed of opposition not being able to muster sufficient seats and then extend it to the other nations through royal prerogative.

Cameron has steadily adopted steps to reduce democracy.  The introduction of the fixed 5-year term was the first move in this direction, making it almost impossible to break the coalition or bring down his minority government.  The vote on proportional representation similarly dismissed another chance to make the UK more democratic.  Only one, poor model was offered and yet its rejection is seen as ruling out any electoral reform.  At the last election the Conservatives received 36.1% of the vote but 47.2% of the seats; Labour won 29.0% of the votes but 39% of the seats; the Liberal Democrats got 23% of the votes but only 8.7% of the seats, they should have received 149 rather than 57.  However, these things such as fair representation are seen as 'not British'.  The Conservatives benefit from the fact that most British people feel politics is somehow inappropriate for them even though they complain about its impact.

Of course, the chipping away of democracy was begun under the Blair regime.  With hindsight it appears that the governments of Tony Blair had very little to do with Labour Party values, they were simply a repackaged form of Thatcherism something Cameron is taking to new extremes.  The erosion of civil liberties under Blair, notably the extension of detention without charge; the declaration of war based on faked evidence, the elimination of some critics and steps like identity cards and the RIPA anti-terrorism legislation which has constantly been abused by local authorities, let alone the constant use of the royal prerogative established a culture in which Cameron's steps to erode democracy can prosper.

In future I will be sure to try to see behind every step Cameron takes and recognise that no matter what he says it is about, all the rubbish about being passionate for the Union, in fact his core agenda is about creating a Britain where the Conservatives will never leave office and many of our remaining freedoms will be gone.  Today I really pity the Scots for not having chosen to escape from this developing dictatorship.  I know it would have left people in England in a tougher position, but even if you cannot escape from the prison yourself it is always good to see that someone else has made it out.  Now we are simply going to share our bitter fate together and I am sure many who voted for Scotland to stay under the yoke of Westminster yesterday will soon be regretting it.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Readers of Alternate History Books Living in a Different World

As people who have visited this blog before will know, I am a keen writer. I have over thirty e-books up for sale on Amazon. Most fall into two categories. One is detective stories set in 1920s Germany and the other are two sorts of alternate history books - some are stories and some are essays. I have much greater problem with the latter than the former. I do keep running into Americans who believe my syntax is wrong. I keep checking and checking, running every device and pair of eyes I can use over the work and cannot see what they are referring to; Word certainly does not agree with them and it is a stickler even for the correct use of 'which' and 'that' and likes to see no implied verbs or nouns, something it seems does not occur in American compared to British.

I used to write collections of essays about various what if? scenarios from different periods of history, This was something I had done initially on this blog and then turned into books. However, many people did not seem to understand that they were not stories and so would buy them and then complain when they got something different. It only takes one 1-star or 2-star review on Amazon to end your sales of a book and so many of mine whilst still available sell nothing. It used to be that you could take down a book, revise it and put it back up again without the old reviews remaining. Amazon have removed that ability and so you end up in the difficult situation that reviews will often be attached to a book referring to content which is no longer in it because it was removed during revision. Like eBay, Amazon is all about the buyer and the seller is simply taken for granted, they lack the ability to respond to what is said, however erroneous.

One reviewer complained that there were no maps and no photographs. I am experimenting on getting maps into my e-books but trying to get them of sufficient quality and clarity is a challenge. As for photos or even computer-drawn maps, the main challenge is the copyright charges would quickly exceed any money I would make on the books, let alone barring me with any profit. I would love to have photographs but until someone can find me a copyright-free source of numerous famous historical figures then that will be impossible without me losing money.

I have had readers demanding that I include ratings of how feasible a particular outcome would have been. Though, of course, that is an opinion of every reader and would make little sense. I never want to patronise my readers and maybe that is my problem. These days readers expect every last item pointed out explicitly to them and every loose end tied up. It is incredibly difficult to have a trilogy with an ongoing plot accepted, people want everything resolved by the end of a single book. One reviewer insisted that I was not firm enough in my conclusions and that I should say explicitly what outcome I believed would occur. He argued that because my conclusions left too many options open, my books should be removed from the Alternate History category on Amazon, but it was not clear where he expected them to go instead. As usual, it seems he simply wanted me to remove my books from sale. I was once surprised how angry my books made people but no longer. I do lack the arrogance to simply say that something would have happened. That is not really the work of an essayist about alternate history as the veracity of any outcome can never be known. It is the realm of the novelist and short story writer, which is why I may be having less problem since abandoning the essay books in favour of more clearly works of fiction.

A review posted today about one of my alternate history books of essays, 'In Another America: Views and Reviews of Alternate Histories for the USA in the 17th-20th Centuries' drew my attention to something which I had missed and alerted me to the fact that I should recognise how alien some of my potential readership is. The reviewer criticised the book for being 'sanctimonious'. He also felt it was wrong of me to judge the real outcomes of the American Civil War and the Vietnam War as the correct ones. I have known for a while that many of the alternate history books available on Amazon are written by extreme Republicans from the USA. As a commentator on the review pointed out, this led Richard J. Evans to publish 'Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History' (2014) which according to 'The Guardian' review: 'Evans's rigorous demolition of what-if? narratives decries counterfactual history as a fundamentally reactionary pursuit'. Of course, I disagree and saw no point in reading this book. However, with the kind of input I am getting from readers of my books, I am beginning to feel that even if not all the writers are strongly right-wing, the majority of readers are.

In addition to criticisms about my views on the American Civil War and the Vietnam War, there was criticism that a story set in 13th century France was told from the perspective of the French people and not that of the Mongols. On this basis, the book was condemned as 'a primary school exercise'. The assumption is that real men would write from the perspective of raiders who slaughtered thousands and destroyed much of cultural importance not only in Europe but huge swathes of Europe. Only a child would seek to explore the reaction of Christian Europeans to that assault, even though their culture is one from which ours (yes, and that includes you Americans) has evolved. Only now do I see that these Republicans have no investment in the society in which they live; they have no interest in democracies or freedoms and would rather live in a barbaric society in which the determining factor is how brutally you can murder people and how effectively you can destroy buildings, art and literature. Unfortunately this seems to be a large part of the readers attracted to my books. It is not surprising that they are disappointed.

Returning to the latest review, I had to remind myself that for Americans, 'liberal' equates to left-wing rather than centrist. I was criticised for seeing social welfare as beneficial, the reviewer said disparagingly: 'He thinks that progressive social programs are good.' I think I would be pushed to find anyone who though they were bad, but again, I am not living in the USA where I know they attacked ideas around public health care as being akin to the extermination policies of Stalin and Hitler. Maybe I am wrong. Write in and tell me if you think there should be no social benefits for anyone and that the National Health Service is doing bad to the UK.

The reviewer goes on: 'He presents many debatable points and simply assumes that any informed reader will agree. He does this a lot when the question is regarding questions of the desirability of specific historic outcomes - for example, a confederate victory in the Civil War, or US victory in Vietnam.' My simple answer to this is - yes I do make that assumption. If you are intelligent enough to read my books, then surely you must accept that slavery was a bad thing and was not benefiting the USA at all and that the South has benefited immensely from being part of the broad Union. Convince me that Texas and Florida would be as wealthy now if they were part of the CSA. It was at that moment that I realised that it was like I was dealing with people from a different planet.

Despite living in one of the largest and longest enduring democracies in the world; a multi-cultural state that offered refuge to persecuted people from across the world, these people feel that that is all wrong. Instead, they feel that no-one should assume that that is the correct model, and in fact, that slavery and harsh racial division could somehow have been a better option. I presume the reviewer is a white man. I imagine he would get a very different perspective if he spoke to a black or Hispanic neighbour or someone whose ancestors fled from Nazism in Europe or simply spoke to a woman. Remember the Confederacy was hardly advanced on women's rights either. I thought there might be some Americans who still supported slavery, but I imagined they were unlikely to be buying books or reading. What is shocking is the overlap between those two categories of people in a modern democracy.

Now, one can certainly debate the desirability of a US victory in Vietnam rather than the withdrawal in 1973. By that stage US troops had been in the country for eight years without being able to defeat either North Vietnam nor the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. I have heard of the futility of the effort from a man who was there. The war also had immense impact on neighbouring Laos and Cambodia leading to decades of slaughter and hardship. If you go to Vietnam the impact is enduring in the number of US landmines across the country and the number of mutated children as a result of US chemical warfare, even forty years on. The USA did not leave Vietnam as a result of pressure from any other country. Withdrawal occurred under a Republican President, Richard Nixon who had great cold warrior credentials. The defeat has traumatised the USA and maybe I under-estimated the fact that even since the end of the Cold War and Vietnam becoming a popular tourist destination for Americans, it cuts so hard that they lost the conflict. However, let us reflect on how much worse it would have been if the USA had won in Vietnam. Of course, in this judgement the Vietnamese will not enter the equation as they never do in American judgements of the success or failure of the war.

My life has been made easy by a commentator on Amazon who has pointed to the US victories in the Gulf War of 1990-91, the Iraq War of 2003-11 and in Afghanistan, 2001-11, though effectively ongoing as is the conflict now back in Iraq. In all of these cases the USA won the war and yet that meant years of commitment in terms of troops and resources, it also meant ongoing deaths and maiming for many US service personnel. If the USA had won in Vietnam in 1972 would the US public have tolerated troops still being there in 1980? How many more Americans would have been killed or mutilated? How many more young men would have left the USA to escape the draft, taking their input into the economy with them? How much racial tension would have been stoked up by African-Americans feeling they were fighting the war on behalf of the WASPs? How much money would have been drained from the US economy? How bad would the USA's relations with the rest of NATO have been? How hostile would China have remained to the USA? How authoritarian would the government have had to become to suppress the growing anti-war protests? How long would Thailand have put up with Vietnamese refugees? How soon would it have been before a madman like Pol Pot in Cambodia have begun to introduce genocide in Vietnam? You can lie about these things and pretend that a US victory would have created a peaceful prosperous country by 1973 with minimal input in terms of soldiers or dollars. However, you only have to look at the bitter, protracted involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan after what were declared victories, to see that a win in Vietnam for the USA would have had far worse consequences than the defeat.

What I have come to realise is that I am living on a different planet to some readers and certainly my reviewers. There society is straining because it is compelled to live in democracy, with civil liberties and opportunities. Over here, and I know President Obama and many millions of Americans are on this side of the portal, we think democracy is a good thing and we work hard to maintain it. We look at the history with interest and will often speculate about why it turned out a particular way and if any alternatives were feasible. However, over here we like our safety, our freedoms and our tolerance and have no desire to visit a world where Mongols slaughtering and destroying are seen as the correct models for how we should live.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Books I Read in August

Non-Fiction
'Blind Eye to Murder' by Tom Bower
This is a book a little like 'Petain's Crime' that I read earlier in the year which touches on an aspect of history that you have some familiarity with but no real understanding of the extent to which bad things happened.  Bower looks at the failure of all of the Powers that occupied Germany after the Second World War - Britain, France, USA and USSR to effectively bring the majority of Nazis to trial let alone punishment.  While it has the earnest approach of 'Petain's Crime', it is less frantic in what it communicates.  This is useful as it covers and immense number of individuals not simply among the occupying powers and the German population but across Europe and in North America too.  It highlights the fact that despite the rhetoric of the leaders, the bulk of the military and especially the civil services of the occupying countries had no interest in punishing all but the most senior Nazis.  Pressure from leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill did mean that some of those who ran death camps or carried out war crimes against soldiers and civilians were brought to trial.  However, the numbers were tiny compared to the 250,000 Germans and other nationals believed to have had a direct role in carrying out the Holocaust, let alone other facets such as persecuting non-Jewish and disabled Germans.  The businessmen and the judges who funded and supported the regime largely escaped scot-free; 90% of West German judges in the 1950s had served in that role under the Nazis.  Police forces and businesses were filled and led by men and women who had taken an active part in Nazi repression.

What is most sickening is not that so many Germans and their allies slipped through the net, but the sustained prevarication among the officials charged with bringing them to justice.  Their reactions varied from seeing no point to believing that no-one could be charged because the crimes went beyond normal laws to disbelieving the repression had occurred to thinking that to punish such people would simply let the Soviets overrun Europe.  This is a story of how governments squirmed and twisted away from seeking out, arresting and charging even a tenth of those directly involved in heinous crimes.  What is worse is that they suspected those who had fought against Nazism, the refugees and those of Jewish background of some sinister plot in seeking out war criminals.  Many of the victims of the Nazi crimes were denied pensions when those who had ran death camps were usually paid handsomely by the West German state.  It is an infuriating book which explains why the German youth of the 1960s were so furious at the establishment of their countries - both West and East Germany.  It is clear that despite the changes they were largely living in a legacy of the Nazi regime and those who had prospered under it continued to do so, while those who had opposed the dictatorship saw no retribution let alone gain.  A very sobering, detailed book which shows the incompetence and corruption that characterised post-war Germany and the countries involved with it.

Fiction
'The White Guard' by Mikhail Bulgakov
I read this book soon after it was recommended in 'The Guardian' as a book to read as an example of Ukrainian literature.  Having bought it in 1995, I was obviously ahead of the trend.  Though it was written in 1925 the play which is an abridged version of the novel gained more attention and it was only when the book appeared in its full form in the USSR in 1966 (I read an American edition from 1971) that it gained recognition.  I found the book utterly infuriating.  While it is not one of those books I regret buying, I did feel my time could have been better spent reading something else.  It is set in weeks at the end of 1918 when German soldiers retreated from Russia and left the Ukraine to be fought over by a range of factions. 

The story centres on a group of young adult siblings living in an apartment in Kiev and their landlord living downstairs.  There is very little direction in the story, it simply conjures up the chaos of Kiev at the time.  Various characters venture out into the streets  to have odd encounters and get mixed up with the forces trying to hold the city or simply use the situation to steal.  It is very much a 'slice of life' book which comes to an end in early 1919 with nothing resolved either for the characters, Kiev or Ukraine.  Perhaps that is the point, but if you want any resolution you will not find it in this book.  An article from 1967 included at the end of the edition I read points out that the apartment that the story is set in was Bulgakov's actual apartment in Kiev.  Thus, it is not clear really how much of it was semi-autobiographical.  No matter what the interest of the setting, overall I found this a frustrating book that I would not recommend even if you have a yearning for Ukrainian literature.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Books I Read in July

Fiction
'The Heretic's Apprentice' by Ellis Peters
It is interesting now I am into the last few Brother Cadfael novels, that whilst Peters included many characteristic elements, she sought also to broaden the stories as seen with 'Brother Halouin's Confession' which went away from Shrewsbury and involved a complicated plot around a forbidden marriage.  In this book, along with the usual elements of monastic life, life around medieval Shrewsbury and some elements of herbalism there is also a portrayal of Christianity in England at the time and what was perceived as heresy.  Elave is a young man returning from a pilgrimage to the Middle East with his employer.  The journey has taken seven years and has included visited to other holy sites in Europe.  The employer dies and Elave brings his body back to Shrewsbury where the man as a patron of the monastery.  Elave voices some of the views of his late employer, such as the fact that he cannot believe that young babies that die unbaptised will end up damned, though this goes against the principle of original sin, the view that everyone is damned until baptised because of the taint of Adam's sin.  He also rails against the view that some people will always be damned; i.e. that there is an 'elect' able to get into Heaven and others, no matter how well they live their lives will not be able to do so.  Interestingly, though this was a view being espoused by the Catholic Church in the 12th century, it is actually closer to the views of the Protestant Calvinists.  Thus, though there is a murder and the theft of an ornate case carrying something precious but unknown, there are also sections in which there is theological discussion as Elave seeks to prove that his views are legitimate and that he is not a heretic.  He receives a range of reactions from senior clergy from the dogmatic to the pragmatic.  This extra element added a depth to this story and marked it out from some of the others.

'Making Money' by Terry Pratchett
This is the sequel to 'Going Postal' (2004) which unfortunately I have not read; it precedes 'Raising Steam' (2013) and like those books focuses on Moist von Lipwig, a former con man who is employed by the Patrician, i.e. dictator, of the fantasy city of Ankh-Morpork.  In this story he is bullied into moving from the post office that he revitalised in 'Going Postal' to running the bank and mint of the city.  With the focus on coins and simply on storing money, there is no capacity in the city for raising loans particularly for capital investment.  As with 'Going Postal' with the creation of paper money and bank loans, the story marks the gradual evolution of Ankh-Morpork from a Medieval, perhaps Renaissance, style city to a Steampunk/Victorian one.  Of course as with much of Pratchett's latter works, it is more a satire than downright humorous and many child readers will miss references to jokes about banking, the need for gold reserves and mental health issues like people believing they are Napoleon.  The reference to the 'glooper' modelled on a real machine built to show the impacts of money flow in the economy through the movement of water is something only people of my age or older would remember seeing on television in the 1970s.

Most people read the Pratchett books chronologically.  However, I think there are grounds on which to read some of them thematically and the von Lipwig trilogy is one example.  Characters from other Discworld books do turn up, but the manner of humour is more consistent if you follow the same character through the sequence.  For me of course, the order in which I read them is based on when I find them in the charity shops.  While I can find Pratchett novels from the 1980s with relative ease, people seem to be holding on to ones of the early 2000s so rather a gap has opened up in my reading of them.  This book was not laugh-out-loud, but its gentle ribbing of the banking sector just at the time it was beginning to go very wrong (2007) plus darker references to obsession with money and powerful individuals, make this an engaging book.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Freedom to Speak = Freedom to Swear

The UK has a principle of free speech.  This has been restricted in recent years with the introduction of hate crimes which mean you can be arrested for making racist and religious insults to people.  I assume that this also applies to sexist comments, but there do not seem to have been any arrests on that basis just yet.  What is important to note is that these are generally made at people as a form of verbal assault.  However, even if using such terms in general and heard by someone of a particular group, you run the risk of being arrested.  Given that such verbal abuse is often the starting point of more serious attacks, I support the legislation against such behaviour.

What I am going to talk about in this posting is general swearing.  This is not directed at people, but typically the universe in general or at inanimate objects, very often cars and computers.  As someone who has been constantly shafted in his life, usually simply on the whim of someone in power, sometimes swearing is the only thing I have left.  It is an outlet for the pent-up frustration when you know that nothing you do is ever going to be able to get back at the person who has treated you so badly.  It also is essential when dealing with machinery which behaves in an irrational manner or at least functions in a way that you can tell no reason for it doing so.  These days with computers both at home and in the workplace I feel as if I only get to do what I want to do in the few moments between the computer running itself.  Most of the time I simply have to bow what it sees as more important than my choices - constantly downloading new versions of software I do not use or that lead to no noticeable change and even altering my documents to the format it favours.  The computer is no longer my servant, it is an arrogant sod who allows me some crumbs once in a while.  At work I was issued a new computer last month and now it takes 30-40 minutes to boot up every morning, often requiring to be started 4-7 times to even achieve this.  Three IT staff have looked at it, but, as yet none have been able to resolve the problem.

I swear because often it is all I have left.  The alternative is to fall to the floor sobbing and the risk with that is you will be arrested 'for your own safety' and risk being sanctioned.  However, increasingly people including some women, but primarily men as being censored in what they say.  A certain set of people, typically white, middle-aged women, seem to feel they have the right to go around censoring what complete strangers say.  I am getting sick of them pursuing me in towns simply to lecture me that I should not have said 'fuck' when my groceries fell to the floor or I was cut up once again at a roundabout.  The swearing was not aimed at them and in fact was none of their business.  I constantly hear people spouting opinions that to me are ignorant or offensive, but would never think of stepping in and saying, 'you must not say that people on benefits are scroungers' even though it is in large part a lie peddled by 'Daily Mail', because in fact, these days, two-thirds of those who need benefits to be able to pay their rents and eat are in work.  Yet, I withhold, recognising I live in a democracy with some civil liberties remaining. 

In contrast, these women feel they have the right, indeed the duty to pursue me and lambast me for swearing. On the recent holiday one pursued me for more than five hundred metres to lecture me and the people I was with.  They stretch what was an instant of fury into a prolonged encounter.  They seek to treat me like a child.  I imagine that they get some thrill out of it; some sense of satisfaction and that shows how misplaced their efforts are.  They would be far better off challenging racist and sexist language and simply erroneous facts about so much that you hear daily in public places.  However, they lack the imagination for that.  Instead they get their hit of indignation through challenging words not aimed at them at all.  We are not living in a Jane Austen novel and even if we were in the early 19th century, these women would be surprised to hear all kinds of offensive language.  They judge based on a distorted view of the past and a sense that their self-importance is not sufficiently stoked up without getting angry about anything they can find, even though it is in fact of no importance.

Swearing is therapeutic and very necessary.  Swearing is an element of freedom of expression.  Until the UK has fully turned into an authoritarian state, interfering people need to back off and let people express themselves.  It is none of their business.  They only do it for some kind of buzz.  There are numerous more important things they could be putting their efforts into.  Stand up for your rights to speak and within that your democratic right to swear.  No censorship!

Monday, 28 July 2014

Canal Boating: Running the Gauntlet of Humilation

I know I have intense bad luck with holidays. It is now six years since I wrote: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2008/03/when-holiday-is-worse-than-no-holiday.html and in that period I have only had one holiday which has lasted more than 2 days before something has led to it being terminated. The last week-long holiday was in December 2012 in a cottage 45 Km from home. The last holiday I took did not even last two days as on the morning of the second day we woke to find the electricity had been cut to the whole district by a storm; power was not restored for twelve hours, so we simply went home.

I remain the eternal optimist and having finally got some compensation, after seven months of battling, for the car which lasted me 13 days before breaking down entirely, never to move again, I decided to go on a canal boat holiday. This is a very British style of holiday. Americans and Canadians do not have this kind of holiday and fall enthusiastically in love with it. Even northern continental Europeans prefer our quaint, narrow canals to the vast still industrial/commercial ones of Belgium/Netherlands/Germany. I am part of the canal generation. Growing up living near a canal I saw it transformed during the 1970s and 1980s from a disused channel with little water in it and a lot of rubbish, into a functioning canal which attracted the growing leisure boat crowd. Yachting and power boating has always been popular among the well-off of southern England where I lived, but canals now offered a whole new opportunity with less risk of storms and less distance to travel to reach your boat. With boats on canals limited to 4mph (6.4kph) it also appears to be a relaxed way to travel. Canals were built originally to move heavy goods like coal or stone to industrial areas and for this reason they are densest in England in the industrial Black Country of the West Midlands. However, also linked to rivers, they also pass through rural and former industrial areas which are more pleasant to go through and connect historic towns which are tourist attractions in their own right such as Oxford and Bath.


Aside from the 'boating set' canals have also had an attraction for a more 'hippie' like clientele. The association with moving freely around the country, tying up mostly where you choose, obviously has an appeal for people who like a less tied-down way of life. Certainly in the 1970s canals were heavily associated with folk music and handicrafts. It has only been in recent years that the styles and decor of them has been allowed to diversify from the black, red, green colouring of 'trad', i.e. traditional, boats. More and more have been built, many these days with modern facilities such as televisions and washing machines; steps are now in place to allow wi-fi on them. Perhaps the fad is passing as the number of canal boats for sale has reached an all time high and you can pick one up for as cheap as £32,000 (€38,700; US$54,000). This may seem a great deal, but new ones cost double or more that price. You are buying something 2.1m wide (for what is called a narrowboat, i.e. one that will fit all canals in the UK) and 16m long. The longest are 24m (72 feet) long, made of steel with water and toilet tank, a cooker, etc. on board. You can live on a narrowboat and in many parts of the country you will find people doing so for part or indeed all of the year, though it can get cold. You find the entire range from modern ones with double glazing and solar panels to traditional ones with the engine visible in the middle of the boat and a coal oven on board.


All over the UK you can hire canal boats for a holiday. They typically sleep six people but you can get ones accommodating more. For £1000-2000 depending on where you start from and the quality of your boat and its facilities, you can rent one for a week. You are permitted to drive it with only one hour's training. This is one challenge, people moving vessels 72m long in channels sometimes only a couple of metres wide with other canal users, notably canoeists and people on the towpath running beside the canal, including pedestrians, anglers and increasing numbers of cyclists. The other thing is that the momentum of a canal boat even when moving at 2kph is immense and water does not provide much friction. Lock gates weigh anything from 800Kg to 2 tonnes. There is a lot of room for bumps and knocks. One woman described it to me as 'a contact sport'. However, despite this, given the attitudes of canal users outlined below, you have to move as if walking on eggshells.


On paper a canal boat holiday might seem ideal. You can move at your own pace. It is like camping without having to give up all the facilities or having to queue to have a shower or use the toilet. In addition, if it rains you can retreat inside and watch television or a DVD; going through urban areas you can even use your mobile phone. The trouble is, the thing that ruins it is the British and indeed foreigners who aspire to behave like middle class Britons. You can do nothing in the UK these days without someone telling you very loudly that you are doing it wrong. They do this for two reasons: 1) to assert their social status, through having a privately owned boat or one that is 'proper' or better equipped compared to what you might be aboard; 2) to massage their egos, by showing you up to be ignorant or a fool.


Encouraged by the woman I used to live with and her son, I hired a 33-metre, 6-berth narrowboat on a canal in southern England for one week. In many ways this holiday was a 'success'. It lasted 5 days rather 2 days, though it was supposed to last 7 days. I lost a hat and a map; a watch strap was broken but no electrical items or money were lost. I had some scrapes but no serious injuries. It did not rain and the weather was fine, with some reprieve from intense sunshine. We moved very slowly, covering around 7Km per day. In part that was due to the number of locks and swing bridges along the way. A lock is a large mechanism sometimes 3 metres deep with usually four, though sometimes two, of the large gates already mentioned. They allow the lifting or dropping of the water level in an enclosed space, so permitting a boat or sometimes a pair of boats, to go up or down hills. They are marvels of 18th century engineering and can be entirely operated by a single person if required, though it is typical to use two or more. You also need someone on the boat to move it in and out of the lock. To operate the lock there is no power bar that from your arms and legs. You let water in and out of the lock by turning ratchets and you open and close the locks with the strength of your back. Thus you need to be physically healthy and fit. However, of course, the British work at two extremes, either they lay utterly passive on the beach or they insist on a holiday which in centuries passed would have been deemed labour.


I knew locks well. Probably better than almost anyone we met. When the canal behind my house was derelict friends and me would climb down the tunnels that run through the locks. They were dry then and are now literally filled with tonnes of water. I have climbed up and down lock gates that most people now only see as they pass them. I am unfit and overweight, but thought I remained strong enough to do the job. Despite some 'sticky' lock gates, this proved to be the case. Indeed the 12-year old boy (1.67m; size 42 feet) with us was able to operate them alone.

The trouble with the holiday was not the mechanics, it was the people.  It was the not so wonderful British public who cannot let anyone pass without making some jibe or instructing them about how pathetic they are or simply insulting them.  When you are in a hire boat, you are the lowest of the low.  The company you are hiring from has its logo, its name and telephone number emblazoned on the boat.  Everyone knows precisely where you have come from and that you are not a 'proper' boater despite all the exhortations in the canal associated publications that people like us are an important source of revenue for the upkeep of the canals and for restoring the many miles of canal that still remained disused.  However, the British cannot stop themselves and it even seems the hobby for people to hang around locks simply to shout advice/abuse.  Within the first hour you get used to person after person telling you exactly what you have been told in the training you have received.  You smile and nod thanks.  However, this does not seem to be enough.  The people seem to want you to bow down and kiss their boots for the wonderful enlightenment they have given across.

We had a Dutchman not even bother to talk to us, but in the middle of us operating a lock simply walk up and take over.  I stepped back trying to stay calm and not say anything.  By dropping the vent (the piece in a lock gate that lets the water in or out) early, he actually made our job harder.  We had people bellowing at us that we were not doing it the 'correct' way, even when we were in fact the right.  One man became indignant when we started to use the barge pole to move the front of the boat away from the bank, though that is its purpose.  He insisted that the 12-year old insert his foot between the side of the boat and the lock wall, even though this risked it becoming crushed.  He would not accept our rebuffs.  We had people trying to race into a lock before we had exited it, making it far harder for the pilot, only a few days into driving anything let alone a 33m boat.  We had people 'speed' (if you can call 8kph speeding) past us, and they scowling at us when their wash meant we were sucked into buffing the stern of their boat. Always we were deemed to be on the 'wrong' side or opening the lock too fast or too slowly.  We were even chided for 'not having come far today' as if there is a set distance you must cover every hour to be deemed an appropriate boater.

Every passage through a lock we made, every peg we hammered into the ground, every knot we tied was judged as having failed and we were told very vocally that that was the case.  I tried to throw one rope aboard the boat, missed and cursed.  This resulted in a woman pursuing us for 1Km down the canal, bringing with her the representative of the boat company we had hired it from to harangue us for ten minutes about appropriate language.  Clearly you are not permitted to 'swear like a bargee' (i.e. someone operating a barge, a commercial version of a canal boat) however, the locals are into 'trad' boating.  To be told off for swearing such distance from the incident made me feel like a child.  I swallowed all the abuse, all the snootiness, all the patronising behaviour, all the haranguing, all the people pushing their way in to take over my task and all of this with the expectation that I would be grateful for their intervention.  I feel utterly debased from my five days on the boat.  I feel as if I have given up all dignity, all initiative and am fit only to be ordered around by people apparently so superior to me.  As you can imagine, I snapped and abandoned the boat.  No-one else would come with me.

I returned to the yard where we had started from.  The woman on duty was surprised to see me leaving.  She has the faith that canal holidays are the very best that anyone could have and was unable to tolerate the fact that someone was having such a humiliating time that they had to go home early.  Of course, I have absolutely no interest in going nowhere near a canal ever again and will be happy if they all fade back into blocked up obscurity where they should have been left.  Dried out they could have provided decent roads between many towns.  The British (plus representatives of the Dutch, German and even Canadian populations) have to bring their egos and their suppression of people around them to everything they do.  You see it constantly when driving; you now see it if you ever dare venture out on a bicycle; I am sure you have long seen it on the golf course or the tennis/squash court.  They cannot be happy unless they are pressing someone else down and not just with a simple cutting remark but with sustained abuse, at best patronising; at worse insulting.  If you are thinking of a canal boat holiday, I would utterly advise against it unless you have skin as thick as a rhino or enjoy being made to feel small on an hour-by-hour basis.  The alternative is to go to another country where you do not speak the language and when treated this way simply plead lack of comprehension.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Books I Read In June

Non-Fiction
'Pétain's Crime' by Paul Webster
Just because a book is important it is not guaranteed to be well written and this is the problem with 'Pétain's Crime'. Webster seems to perceive his readership as hostile to the information that he is putting forward, i.e. that the Vichy regime headed by Marshal Pétain, 1940-44 was not only complicit in the German extermination of the Jews but actually led the way in interning and deporting Jews from France. No-one who was hostile to that suggestion would bother picking up the book. Yet because of Webster's attitude the reader feels patronised almost also as if being made to feel guilty about what happened. This constantly jars. A further problem is that the book jumps around a great deal chronologically, geographically and between a focus on events and on individuals. There is a rough chronology but it is constantly broken and the focus not only goes between the Occupied and Unoccupied zones of France but flits between towns within each. Yes, it is important to include biographies of the important individuals involved, but this means Webster keeps breaking the flow of his narrative and this weakens the impact of both elements. This makes it have less impact that a much clearer approach would have done.

There is useful information when his focus is tighter, for example on the Natzweiler death camp, on the role of Fascist Italy in protecting Jews living in its region of France and at times about specific Jewish and other charity groups. However, when Webster is away from his specific focus he makes sweeping statements that are lazy. He dismisses Alsace as a German-speaking region but later outlines how many citizens there emphasised their very 'Frenchness' as a form of resistance. He is very anti-Communist and at times he desire to find wrongs committed by the French Communist Party leads him down very peculiar paths. Portraying the Paris Commune as the model for Communist parties in Europe and neglecting Marxist texts is simply weak. There is also a tendency for him to be repetitive. He tells at least twice that the Cagoulards meant the 'hooded ones' as if only by somehow shocking us does he feel he can force us to sympathise with his line of argument. He is speaking to readers who will never come near this book not those who have bought or borrowed it.

The book was first published in 1990 and did usher in a period of change in France regarding the Vichy period and led to some belated trials of French involved. The edition I read was published in 2001 and the sections updating the story, especially on the involvement of French President François Mitterand in the Vichy Regime and diverting attempts to bring people from that regime to account, are the strongest parts in the book. It certainly appears that in the eleven years between the first and second editions, Webster really honed his skills in writing and it is a shame in 2001 that he did not go back and revise the entire book. Overall this is a very frustrating book. It is important and it is filled with lots of important and interesting pieces of data. However, it is let down by the hostility of the author towards his audience and the weak structure which means it loses much impact through reading like sifting through a box of scraps of paper with various pieces of information on them, some more than once.

'The People's Manifesto' by Mark Thomas
This is a book of proposals for government policies that political comedian Mark Thomas assembled at live shows around the UK that he did for a radio programme in 2010.  Proposals were provided by the audience, debated and then voted on, with the winning one from each show going into the book. Some of the suggestions are flippant, but some make a sound basis for policy.  Indeed one of the proposals, of allowing gay marriage has become UK law since the book was published.  There has been some movement not to close tax havens but certainly pursue people using them, but on too limited a scale.

Some were specific to the time as there were comments about identity cards being considered then and the London Olympics which were anticipated to fail and be very costly.  Many reflect the liberal/left-wing make-up of Thomas's audiences, for example, two demand statements on the front page of the right-wing 'Daily Mail' newspaper about its historic support for Nazism and the specious nature of many of its stories. Another simply demands renationalisation of the railways which was considered towards the end of the Gordon Brown government. Similarly the 'none of the above' box on ballot papers is once more being suggested for real.

Others like an automatic assumption that someone will pass on their organs at death, are being introduced in other countries.  An age of consent for religion I thought was an ingenious idea. A 0.05% tax on currency transactions should be law and could easily be so. The maximum wage of 10 times what the lowest wage is, was something proposed in the 1970s and some countries are looking at it once more. A scheme that anyone buying a second home in Somerset has to provide an equivalent home for local people again highlights how ordinary people feel that the privileged are now ruining lives without feeling any shame.  These go against vested interests and would be resisted vigorously it can be assured.

Many are aimed at politicians such as not paying them salaries but equivalent to student loans which they have to repay when they leave office as they usually end up with very lucrative jobs.  The displaying of logos of companies that sponsor them on their clothes in the way that racing car drivers do was another one which mixed a good idea and humour.  Similarly MPs having to give their second homes to the state when they leave office would also aid a very little with the chronic housing shortage in London.  The sense that MPs exploit their positions comes through strongly.

There is a suggestion, presumably in the light of the Iraq War, that there must be a referendum whenever the government wants to go war.  This was proposed in the USA in the 1930s, though with the caveat that it would only be open to those who could be conscripted or their close family.

The proposal to limit prime ministers to two terms of office is not really necessary.  In the UK a term of government is at maximum 5 years.  The duration was fixed in 2010.  Thatcher lasted 11 years 7 almost 4 months and Blair 10 years & 2 months.  Thus, this rule would have shaved a little off the term in office of these two.  However, typically until 2010, British governments have not lasted as long as 5 years.  This rule would have prevented Harold Wilson becoming prime minister at all in 1974 even though he would have only been in the job for six years by then and Thatcher would have had to go in 1987 even though she only came to power in 1979; similarly Blair would have had to step down in 2005 again having been in power for 8 years.  I imagine this is what the audience would have been thinking of.  Gordon Brown's career certainly would have benefited from that rule.

This is a stimulating and fun book which I suggest taking to the pub with you in case you run out of topics to discuss.  I read it entirely one morning, it is that easy to engage with.