Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Books I Read In April

'The One From the Other' by Philip Kerr
For much of this book I feared it would fall prey to many of the difficulties I have found with others in the Bernie Gunther series that I have read recently.  There were scenes in Germany, Palestine and Egypt in 1937 that appeared irrelevant to the rest of the book which is set in Bavaria and Austria in 1949.  I also felt, as with 'Red Gold' by Alan Furst that I read last month, that the cases that Gunther tackles were too episodic.  It was as if we were viewing a number of stories that could have developed into a full book but had been left stunted.  However, fortunately Kerr held back from too much jumping around in time and eventually, almost at the end, the strands came together making the book better than the sum of its parts and finally one of the better of the recent volumes of the Gunther series. It was aided by being shorter than some of them, only 387 pages of narrative in the version I read.  Saying this, so many of his books now overlap in narrating Gunther's life that it can be confusing to determine where you are now reading about him.  In particular in this book he returns to Vienna only a year after he had to leave the city in 'A German Requiem' (1991) which came out 15 years before this book was published.

The main remaining flaw stems from how Kerr has developed Gunther's very world weary, wise-cracking detective.  As reviewers have noted, increasingly he has the style of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, which fits well with action set in the 1930s-50s.  However, for a lot of this book, Gunther seems utterly deluded about what is happening, only regaining his wits toward the very end.  You can put this down to him suffering from grief and ill-health, but it is a wrench in the writing when suddenly he 'wakes up'.  Kerr also continues his annoying habit of insisting that Gunther meets leading members of the Nazi Regime or their allies.  In fact it is something he almost satirises when assassins after Gunther reference him in lots of pictures with such men.  In this book he meets Adolf Eichmann and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini.

I wonder if I have read too many of these stories and that it is too much to expect consistency within a novel these days when editors are not even available to leading authors and across novels, when it is over a decade between one and another.  I keep feeling that Kerr is on the verge of an excellent book but a lack of discipline and a lack of tautness in what he is writing keeps frustrating him from achieving that.

'A Quiet Flame' by Philip Kerr
This is the last of the Bernie Gunther novels that I have at present though another has been published and one is due.  As with a number of these that I have read recently I have felt that they were alright but could have been excellent.  Perhaps Kerr needs a stronger editor.  There are certain traits in his Gunther stories which he feels compelled to include but I think weaken what could be excellent stories.  The use of jumping between two periods of time has its uses and in some of these novels, it helps give us background to what is happening in the later set parts of the story.  I think it works best in 'If The Dead Rise Not' (2009) which was published a year after 'A Quiet Flame' but with me tending to read them in the chronology of the stories, I read a couple of years ago.  It is a device which Kerr overuses now and in this story adds little.  He goes between Berlin in 1932 and Buenos Aires in 1950 when Gunther ended up at the close of 'The One From the Other' (2006) which I read earlier this month.  The greater weakness is Kerr's insistence that Gunther meets leading lights of the time.  In this novel he manages to pack in the leading Nazis, Arthur Nebe, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Otto Skorzeny and Hans Kammler.  There seems to be no reason for Skorzeny to turn up.  Gunther also meets the dictator of Argentina at the time, Juan Perón and his wife Eva 'Evita' Perón.  As a result as Gunther notes himself, he is assigned far too many overlapping jobs.

Kerr could have written two excellent novels - one set in Berlin in 1932 with a gruesome murder and the rise of the Nazis against the background of the last days of the Weimar Republic.  He could then have written a fast-moving story set in Buenos Aires in 1950, with Gunther uncovering secrets of the Perón regime.  Mixing them together weakens both elements.  In addition, Kerr piles too much on Gunther that is unresolved.  Various women standing as someone else's wife or daughter seems unnecessarily complicated and much of what Gunther is charged with resolving simply peters out.  The climax happens about three-quarters to seven-eighths of the way through the book and the remainder feels as if he has no idea how to finish it.

As always there is excellent historical detail both in the settings, in what is happening and the way people behave.  The trouble is that Kerr too often loses sight of a good story in fulfilling his desire to shine a light of loads of bits of history in the novel.  In this case less would be much more.  Some gritty crime novels set in 1930s Berlin or 1950s South America would be fine.  However, the author strays up far too many side paths that by the end you feel exasperated rather than gripped.

'The Seeds of Time' by John Wyndham
It is now 35 years since I last read a book by Wyndham, 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951) as a result of seeing the 1981 television series.  I did not even know there had been a 2009 television series.  I remember that book being very much of its time, post-war British science fiction of the 'Quatermass' ilk that was only really shaken up in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the more psychedelic influenced science fiction.  This collection published in 1956, fits with that rather twee post-war British science fiction, despite what Wyndham writes about trying to break from the norms of the genre of that era.  It is certainly less engaging and less challenging than the 'The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology' (1952) edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. that I read in 2010:  and suggests that, despite acclaim for Wyndham, he was not on a par with his US counterparts of the time.

There are some highlights in this book, but a number of the stories are twee science fiction romances, notably 'Chronoclasm' (though the title is great) about a woman from a future having a romance with a man. Of course, this line would be used to full effect in 'Terminator' (1984).  Similarly there is 'Opposite Number' with a similar romantic air but making use of parallel worlds.  Such themes are very common these days but might have appeared much fresher and intriguing when the book was written.  Some of the stories do have an edge, such as 'Survival' about cannibalism in a stranded spacecraft; 'Pillar to Post' about two men, an invalid from the present and an effete man from the distant future battling for control of each other's body and 'Dumb Martian' which is a modernised version of colonial administrator in a backwater exploiting the local populations.  'Pawley's Peepholes' is a whimsical story again with time-travel romance, that feels almost Victorian in nature.  'Meteor' - not to be confused with the 1950 William T. Powers short story of the same name is alright looking at aliens seeking to escape destruction of their own planet by coming to Earth and the difficulties they encounter when they land.

The stories were written before the space race and indeed some, it is not clear how many, were even written before the Second World War.  Thus views, such as water and people living on Mars seem painfully dated.  This is exacerbated by the portrayal of women who even when mature are referred to as 'girls' and are expected to be unable to cope with the pressures of space exploration.  Wyndham even seems to expect that the cost of living, rendered in pounds/shillings/pence would not change, though it would be only 15 years after the book was published that Britain would finally decimalise its currency.

Those standing up better to the test of time include 'Time to Rest' about settlers on Mars following the destruction of Earth (very reminiscent of 'The Martian Chronicles' (1950) by Ray Bradbury); 'Compassion Circuit' about a home-help robot - I read  a short story very similar to this in 'The Guardian' newspaper earlier this year and 'Wild Flower' about plant mutations caused by radiation.  Overall, this collection gives you a feel for mid-20th century British science fiction and the establishment of certain tropes which are now in common usage.  However, unlike the 'Astounding' collection, it does not surprise you with forgotten gems.

'Best Secret Service Stories' ed. by John Welcome
This is a collection from 1960.  I do not know why Faber seem to so like these anthologies.  I read their 1993 ‘The Faber Book of Espionage’  back in April 2012:  and I read a similar collection to this one but from Headline, last July:  It is another anthology of short stories and extracts.  It is better than those two collections, though it seems compulsory to include something from Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden: Or the British Agent' (1928) and 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' (1908) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all of these things.  The former is very dull; the latter is fine.  There is an extract from 'Live and Let Die' (1954), a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming but the others are unfamiliar to me.

There are two spy stories set in the American Civil War and given how many novels seem to be coming out about that war, I am surprised not to have seen more like this before,  'Parker Anderson, Philosopher' by Ambrose Bierce is rather contorted rather than adventurous; 'High Tide' by John P. Marquand is far better and very engaging.  There is also 'News Out of Spain' by A.E.W. Mason, which is set during the 1580s around the preparations of the Spanish Armada and one could easily imagine a whole set of spy stories in this context, but I have never encountered any.  The other stories are set in the mid-20th century.  'The Hut' by Geoffrey Household could have been far more gripping and ends up with a range of characters wittering on about a killing and so losing any tension.

'The Flaw in the Crystal' by Godfrey Smith is far too convoluted to be entertaining though it does seem to have echoes of George Smiley stories by John Le Carre.  'Dr Lartius' by John Buchan set during the First World War is alright, but it is narrated so lacks the tension too, it is almost as if it is setting out an idea rather than being a developed work of fiction.  This is a little the case with 'The Trial of Marius Derocq' but it manages a little better and bringing the reader into the story.  'Double Double Cross' by Peter Cheyney starts reasonably though the twist ends up being whimsical when it could have been harder in tone and thus better.  'Water on the Brain' by Compton Mackenzie suffers even more from that almost trying to be humorous in approach.   'Espionage' by Dennis Wheatley is probably the best and manages to get tension into a short story.

The book appeared just before the arrival of the gritty spy novels of the 1960s which raised up the genre greatly.  It shows spy writing in a difficult position, perhaps because of the genuine stories from the two world wars being well known to readers.  The daring of the Victorian era had gone and yet the cynicism of the 1960s was not yet in place.  It introduced me to some writers I would not have encountered which I imagine was the purpose of the collection.  More than that it sparked thoughts on why we have not seen more historical spy fiction, even now when we have had over twenty years of medieval detective stories.'

'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' by J.K. Rowling
This was the most enjoyable book I have read for quite a while.  Perhaps that says something about my level of literacy given that the edition I had inherited indicated it had won an award for the best book for 9-11 year olds.  I feel that in this book Rowling got into her stride.  The hesitancy of the early sections of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' had been worked out and so this book moves along at a cracking and engaging pace.  I still have my qualms about the lionising of the elite public school system; there is even a reference to Eton which does not feature in the movies.  However, fortunately, Rowling begins to counter-balance this a little by the tensions around biological 'racism' in the magical world with people attacking 'mudbloods', i.e. people from non-magical families.  It is a decent primer for children on the basis of biological discrimination and lays the basis for the anti-Fascist message which appears in later books.

If like me, you come to the books after having watched the movies, you will notice that the climactic action part has far less coverage in the book than it does in the movie.  Rowling seems far more concerned with school life and the development of her characters which is a fair approach but may leave some readers wondering when the exciting bit is going to be reached.  I had been told that there are parts of the books which do not appear in the movies and this became more apparent with this second book.  The revelation of what a 'Squib' is, i.e. someone from a magical family with no magical ability themselves; the Deathday party for one of the ghosts with rotten food and the Valentine-letter delivering dwarfs do not appear in the movie.  Ginny Weasley's affection for Harry Potter is much clearer in the book.  The action is stretched over a longer period and Hermione Granger remains a cat-girl for weeks; similarly those petrified are in that state for far longer than in the movie.  The fate of the mandrakes, humanoid plants is a dodgy issue as they are shown as going through different ages coming to maturity at which stage they are presumably killed in adulthood, when it is noted they try to start cohabiting, to make a potion.

Reading this book I can now better understand why the series was so popular as books.  It is a child's book but sensibly Rowling does not shy away from concerns that children will be coming to as they age, even when looking at a fantastical world.

'The Labour Government 1964-70' by Brian Lapping
Lapping was a Labour Party member asked by Penguin in 1971 to analyse the preceding Labour governments, 1964-66 and 1966-70.  These had seen Harold Wilson as prime minister, coming to officer after 13 years of Conservative government which had followed in the wake of the immediate post-war Labour governments.  As Lapping shows, Labour came to power with big ideas, particularly in terms of planning the economy and modernising Britain.  A lot of their plans were immediately undermined by the economic situation.  At the time and enduring into the 1970s, the status of the pound as an international currency and the balance of payments, i.e. the difference between imports and exports were the dominant way the economy was judged, in a way that they are no longer.  The Wilson governments struggled to adjust the imbalance built up over the preceding years without imposing austerity and they also suffered from international financiers speculators weighing in to try to shape government policy in favour of big business.  Thus, in the economic sphere these governments are seen as failures and Lapping is unstinting in his criticism of the governments' inability to counteract these constraints.

As the book progresses, however, other sectors of UK society which tend to get overlooked show that Wilson was a moderniser and he and his ministers worked hard to make Britain a country fit for the 1960s and 1970s rather than clinging tightly to the glories of the past.  As today, such people face blind opposition, but the record is pretty good especially given the economic difficulties that were faced.  This book is a very good reminder that things which are now perhaps taken for granted, such as rules for equality for women and ethnic minorities; attempts to alleviate poverty and even the obligation to consult the public about urban development did not simply appear but had to be legislated for, taking a great deal of concentrated effort.

The most outstanding part of this book is how prescient Lapping was.  In many sections, if you took out the dates, you could think he was talking about Britain in the 2010s.  He was very far sighted on a wide range of issues such as the Britain's desire but lack of money to keep up a world role; challenges facing private tenants; hostility to immigrants; surveillance and keeping of computer records on people; the challenges of urban and transport planning even down to the level of bus companies in towns something that remains a challenge; the formation of unitary local authorities; demands for greater autonomy for Wales and Scotland; the difficulties of paying for social welfare and the National Health Service; the need for social workers; how university staff can be rewarded for their teaching; the fact that all higher education institutions wanted to become universities; the desire to retain grammar schools; the need for more technical and vocational education and so on.  What is fascinating but a little disheartening is that Lapping's analysis of the ills of the UK stand up even forty-five years later and many remain unresolved.  In addition, many of the attitudes used to challenge Wilson and his governments are still being rolled out today.

This is a brief (219 pages) analysis of a particular time in British history.  It explains the complexities of what was going on, especially in the economy, in a very accessible way.  It also reveals Brian Lapping as an acute analyst of Britain who was able to outline its experience in the coming decades.  It is a history book but is almost stronger in showing how the shape of things to come were apparent to those who effectively analysed the situation in the early 1970s.  Yet, like Wilson, they proved incapable of overcoming the robust conservative resistance to change that was necessary for the benefit of the wider UK population.

'The Heath Government 1970-74' ed. by Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon
This was a logical book to read after the Lapping one.  It is different in style with a series of chapters written by different historians and commentators each taking a different facet of the period in government.  Looking along my 'to read shelf, I realised that this year I have a number of books written by people I have met.  In this case I have only met one of the authors, John Ramsden (1947-2009) who I ran into at the Clacket Lane services on the M25 in the early 2000s; in addition I briefly met Edward Heath himself in 1995.  The book is very thorough in its analysis, but good at presenting complex situations especially over the balance of payments, inflation and wage agreements.  The two editors seem to have had a light touch on the various chapter authors and as a result there is quite a bit of repetition especially in the political and economic chapters; in some cases even the same quotations are used more than once, let alone points that are made.

Edward Heath's government has suffered from attacks both from left-wingers who have condemned him for his confrontations with workers and for trying to restrict free collective bargaining, but also from the Conservative Party, his party itself.  The Thatcherites condemned Heath as representing all the failures of the party and its failed approaches.  Ironically, as is noted on a number of occasions in the book two of the leading Thatcherites, Margaret Thatcher herself and Sir Keith Joseph, were ministers right throughout the Heath government and oversaw two of the largest spending departments in that period, despite their aversion to the public sector and public expenditure.  In addition, many of the leading ministers of the Thatcher administrations worked under Heath.

Heath is not excused in this book.  His aloofness and distance from his party are noted as failings.  His expectation of reasonable behaviour from those he had to deal with whether coal miners, foreign governments and sectarian parties, put him at a disadvantage.  However, the book does rescue Heath from the damnation of the Thatcherites and shows that he was not some kind of pathetic aberration but fitted in the context of the time.  While Heath himself set out to be very different from Wilson, one can actually see them as coming from the same mould.  They were men who had come from ordinary backgrounds and had thrived through hard work rather than privilege.  They were not afraid to be the people they were.  They were also clearly technocrats of that mid-20th century ilk.  Both men sought to improve the British economy and get industry working in a more efficient way and both failed in the face of obstinacy both from workers and from industrialists.  Heath certainly appears in this book very like his European conservative counterparts such as Konrad Adenauer in West Germany and Charles De Gaulle in France, but even like the West German Social Democrat Willy Brandt.  In Britain that modernist, efficiency, technological approach to conservatism, had a very brief existence and was hammered by its opponents from both sides of the political spectrum, to the extent that it has been effectively erased from the memory of the Conservative Party.

The book shows that Heath came into office far better prepared than most other Prime Ministers.  However, he was in a time of high unpredictability and anyone in that position would have struggled whether Wilson or Thatcher or any other possible candidate.  The end of the post-war boom, the oil price 'shock', increasing aspirations and consumerism, the challenges of immigration brought on by regimes such as Idi Amin's and conversely the rise of explicit racism and increasing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps only in Enoch Powell, the chief rival within the Conservative Party to Heath, do we see a problem specific to Heath; then again Powell would have caused difficulties whoever was in office.

While the book could  have benefited from some tighter editing and discussion between the various chapter authors, perhaps with a baseline chapter outlining events clinically to save on people rehearsing these throughout the book, it is a very thorough and even handed analysis of a period in British history which is often too easily; often deliberately, misunderstood.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Biscuit Blog: Hall Ginger Nuts

Hall Ginger Nuts

I bought these from Asda at the height of the ginger nut shortage earlier this year.  They were the last packet left.  I have not come across Hill as a company before, though it is clear that they are well established.  I am glad that I did try these as they are good ginger nuts.  They have a really sharp snap to them and they do not powder in the way inferior ginger nuts do.  They have a crisp flavour with a clear ginger tang to them.  I notice that they say that they have a hint of lemon in the flavour and I think that adds to the tang which is what you are looking for in ginger nuts.  My only complaint is that they are smaller than equivalent biscuits of this type.  However, they are of sufficient quality that I would buy Hall biscuits again.


Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Shortcake Biscuits

Tesco Shortcake Biscuits

In terms of being the kind of biscuit that they are supposed to be and tasting decent, so far these are the best biscuits I have bought from Tesco.  As I have noted before, even among supermarket employees, Tesco is not rated as having the most flavoursome products, but this shortcake biscuit, though very simple, delivers what it promises, no more; no less.  There is a touch of creaminess and they are not overly sweet, though there is a hint almost of a glaze in the taste even though it is not there for real.  Fortunately the bicarbonate of soda flavour is absent.  They are thinner than other shortcake biscuits I have known.  However, as I say, these do the job and in that respect exceed other biscuits I have recently bought from Tesco.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Scottish All Butter Shortbread Fingers

Tesco Scottish All Butter Shortbread Fingers

These biscuit have the longest packet name of any I have tasted so far for this blog.  I think, at present, my baseline for judging shortbread fingers are those produced by Walker's,  I tend to get them in packets of two at work.  These do not reach the level of those.  However, they are better than a number of the biscuits I have recently bought from Tesco.  They are sprinkled with sugar which used to be traditional with shortbread, but it is not ridiculously the case.  They have a decent crumble which is good for shortbread.  Some tourist brands go far too far and they are breaking up before you can even get them to your mouth and these certainly do not do that and they also do not snap which would be wrong for shortbread.  They have a hint of the butteriness that is promised, but it does not go far enough.  It is this final element which lets them down.  These are reasonable biscuits for having with coffee or tea and with a little work could be really decent shortbread biscuits.  I would cut down the sugar and raise the creaminess of the taste in order to get there.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Biscuit Blog: Tesco Pink Panther Wafers

Tesco Pink Panther Wafers

I do not know if I expected to get a better pink wafer from Tesco.  The supermarket has a bit of a reputation for many of its own brand products lacking in flavour and so if you are looking for cheaper items you tend to be better off going to a cheaper store like Lidl or Aldi where the budget products taste better.  This product, however, clearly with the rights to the Pink Panther cartoon logo, even though that is not as prestigious as it would have been forty years ago, I thought would package a better product than the Lidl pink wafers I tried in January.  However, that was not to be the case.  For a start, like the Tower Gate ones from Lidl, these from Tescos are not pink at all, but orange in colour.  I do not know if the pink colourant is on the EU banned list these days, but these two sets of biscuits really lack vibrancy and more resemble packaging for parcels.

The most surprising think about this product was how sharp the snap is when you bite into it.  You expect a bit of a snap with a pink wafer rather than a crumble, but with these it is extreme.  The main problem after the colour is the taste.  Pink wafers should almost be painfully sweet, but these are almost plain.  I know they are termed 'vanilla' but that does not mean they should be lacking in sweetness.  Overall, these biscuits simply taste like those you might have stuck into an Italian ice cream, maybe even less flavoursome than those.  While I have struggled to find a creamy malted milk, getting anywhere near what a pink wafer should look or taste like appears even more remote.


Thursday, 31 March 2016

The Books I Read In March

'Primary Colors' [sic] by Anonymous [Joe Klein]
I never do well with books that are lent or recommended to me and this is no exception.  My father insisted that I read it and I have had it hanging around for a few years.  It was only by the chance of where it ended up on my 'to read' pile that I have read it during the US primaries to choose the candidates for the Presidential election, later this year.  The book is about a young black political worker supporting the campaign of a fictional Democrat governor from a southern state in the primaries, probably in 1992.  The book was published in 1996 and the politician Jack Stanton and especially his wife Susan Stanton, seem to have parallels to Bill and Hilary Clinton.  Bill Clinton was elected US President in 1992 and was proven to be a philanderer though not to the extent that Jack Stanton is in this book.  The Anonymous was revealed in 1996 to be Joe Klein a columnist and an author of non-fiction books as well.  He had specifically covered the campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992.

The book is a mess.  The first seventy pages are a stream of consciousness pouring out frantically and so jammed with US political jargon as to be meaningless to anyone outside that context.  The pace slows down right through the book so that the last fifty pages really drag and you are left simply wishing that it would get to its conclusion.  There are no sympathetic characters in the book,  The best people are just naive, the rest are either seedy or downright sordid.  The narrator incessantly cheats on the woman supposed to be his girlfriend and there seems to be no genuine feelings from him, just cynical manipulation to salve whatever is troubling him at the time. Yes, if you are interested in the topic, it gives a bit of an insight into a particular phase of the US Presidential campaigns, but little else.  This is a very poor quality book and I think it probably only received the attention it did because it seems like a coded exposé of the Clintons.  If this book does bear any relation to how US politics really works, then it reveals a terribly corrupt system.

'Field Grey' by Philip Kerr
In a number of his recent Bernie Gunther detective stories, Philip Kerr has used the technique of jumping back and forth in time.  To a great extent this reduces the jeopardy for the character as we know that even when he is in grave situations during the Second World War and in this book the post-war period too, he is going to live on into the 1950s.  The trouble with this book is that the jumping back and forth is almost incessant.  Yes, there are consecutive chapters in the same era, but we see Gunther in Berlin in 1931, 1946 and 1954, in France in 1940, in the USSR in 1945-46, in Cuba, the USA, and two parts of West Germany - Bavaria and Lower Saxony in 1954. Large parts of the novel he is in one prison or another being interrogated.  In many ways this book fills in many of the gaps in the Bernie Gunther story but this means it is incredibly fragmented. At best it seems anecdotal.

There are a number of brief cases that he solves and at the back of it a big Cold War spy thriller with too many twists.  Gunther works for the US authorities and French authorities and is seen to work with the Stasi, the East German secret police.The book has a narrative running to 563 pages in my edition and as a result you have a long book made up of lots of bits which do not make a satisfactory whole.  It would have been better even if Kerr wanted to have this book focused on reminiscences to narrow the focus to one particular setting, e.g. his activities in France in 1940 or perhaps in Soviet prison camps in 1945.  There was enough there to produce a shorter but stronger book.

I know Kerr likes to show his knowledge of the settings but in this book he has to show us so many prisons and outline so many police and intelligence agencies of a number of countries, that in the end it is too much and trying to keep up with who he is speaking to and who he is working for, when reduces and tension.  Instead we have a kind of encyclopedia entries for various groups in this era.  Fewer big names feature in this book.  Arthur Nebe is seen briefly taking control of Gunther's life; Reinhard Heydrich is like a ghost in much of the book, referenced but not encountered in the way he was in 'Prague Fatale', though much of this book shadows the career of Erich Mielke who rose to be the Minister of State Security in East Germany 1957-89.

While I have enjoyed many elements of the Bernie Gunther series and admire Kerr's attention to detail, I feel that of all of them, this book fails most badly.  It is overblown and unnecessarily choppy really draining any potential tension from the story and instead leaving the reader bumping through fragments as they are tossed back and forth between years.  I still have a two more books in this series on my 'to read' shelf and hope that they have a tighter focus and greater tension.

'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' by J.K. Rowling
I effectively inherited the Harry Potter books from the boy who used to live in my house and feels not that he has outgrown them but that these days 'nobody reads books' even e-books let alone printed ones like this.  Like many people my view of the book has been shaped by the movie.  I had been told by Potter fans that the novels have many characters and sub-plots that are left out of the movies.  Perhaps because this is the first of the series, there were just a couple of scenes that I did not recall have seen and they did not really add much to the story though one in the Forest outside Hogwarts School would have been horrific if shown in the movie.

One problem I have always had with the Potter series is that it seems to lionise children who go to elite, fee-paying 'public' schools such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow.  Hogwarts seems to be the ultimate public school in that the children there are special and clearly apart from the normal population.  In British society more people who have attended public schools (and they are only a sub-set of the 7% of children who attend all fee-paying schools) become ministers, bishops, generals and judges than people who have attended other schools.  The current government is highly symptomatic of that.  So I have always been wary of books that signal to children, the bulk of whom will attend state schools that they are 'muggles' and should look up to their 'betters' at public schools.

Setting that aside there are additional elements that suggest Rowling has drawn heavily on public school novels of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I know she came from an ordinary background in Scotland so seems to have made assumptions about Middle Class life in southern England but seems to lump all of that class into the Upper Middle Class.  Unlike in the movie, in the book Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter's cousin, also goes to a lesser public school.  Yet his family live in an ordinary, not particularly large Middle Class house in a suburb and would not be able to afford such fees.  There is only one mention of a comprehensive school.  Maybe this is why the Potter books succeed because not only do they have a magical school, their portrayal of 'ordinary' Britain is very fictional too.  It seems Rowling inhabits the same country as Ian McEwan as I have noted earlier in the year.  Though the book was published in 1997, the technology mentioned seems to come from ten years earlier and the dialogue from thirty years even before that.  Once at Hogwarts, of course, everything is out of the flow of normal time and technology is early-mid 19th century with magical assistance.

The book improves greatly as it progresses.  Rowling is best when she is showing a true adventure.  In this first book you do feel that she has spent too long going into the background of Harry Potter's life, leaving insufficient time for the adventure.  I think the movie balances these aspects better.  Rowling is often criticised for the clunkiness of her writing.  I think it is less that and more that it is dated.  However, perhaps that was what made it seem acceptable to parents and teachers.  I imagine child readers will look beyond any social message to the excitement, which in the final third of this book Rowling handles deftly.  One notable aspect is the ambivalence of characters.  In particular Severus Snape (played so admirably by the late Alan Rickman) and the motives for his behaviour are refreshing in a children's book, especially at this stage there is no indication of his motives and this constantly leads to misapprehensions on the part of the leading characters.  I have the other six books in the series and have not been put off sufficiently by this one to abandon reading them.

'Red Gold' by Alan Furst
This is the sequel to 'The World at Night' (2002) which I thought I had read reasonably recently, but it turns out it was six years ago:  I suppose that says something decent about it that I can remember it this long on.  'Red Gold' covers the further adventures of Jean-Claude Casson a former movie producer living in Paris during the German Occupation.  The story has now reached 1941-42.  This leads us to the first problem with these books.  It is as if we are reading a dramatised biography and each book simply covers a chunk of Casson's life, rather than having a structure of its own.  This causes immense problems with pacing and climaxes which happen rather sporadically through the book.  Too much of this book is not at all exciting, it is incredibly dreary as we see Casson very short of cash, moving from one seedy location to another and so it feels like 'Down and Out in London and Paris' by George Orwell (1933) rather than a spy or adventure story.

Casson becomes involved with three resistance groups in this book including, the Communist FTP which became active when the Germans broke their non-aggression pact with the USSR and invaded in June 1941.  However, Furst has a problem with jeopardy.  This is apparent in other work of his.  I particularly recall the dramatisation of 'The Spies of Warsaw' (novel 2008; TV series 2013) which 'The Guardian' described as 'pallid'.  Furst is poor at communicating risk.  He tries in this book by having a number of failed actions by resisters.  However, he does not realise that they come and go so quickly that the reader has no investment in them as characters.  He develops no-one to the depth that he develops Casson, who despite becoming involved in many dubious activities seems invincible.  Furthermore, Casson is a philanderer and his women face some risk, but so far all end up with happy endings.  Perhaps if the novels were set in the 1930s or 1950s this would be tolerable, but in the heart of the war with the German secret police so active it loses credibility.

What Furst is excellent at is conjuring up the time and place.  His attention to detail on the lives of people from all kinds of social backgrounds living in Paris at the time are really good.  This can sometimes be a problem for some authors, especially of historical novels - the setting can become more important than the story.  To make a good book needed more strong characters and them at real risk.  It also need the book structured so that a climax such as the delivery of arms or the sabotage of a canal is not something passing but what the book works toward.  The last part of the book, especially the flight of Helene is terribly rushed as reduces the impact immensely.  Maybe Furst wanted to write a 1000-page novel, but when that was not feasible he should have reworked the components far more than he has done here so that the reader is not simply left with an odd assortment of activity that simply happens to fall into the chunk that Furst has sliced off on this occasion.

'Age of Austerity 1945-1951' ed. by Michael Sissons and Philip French
Though this book was published in 1964, when I started reading my copy I realised no-one had ever read it before.  I do not know if it was a gift or simply passed on from person to person without it stimulating sufficient interest to begin reading it.  That is a shame because it is an interesting and indeed engaging book.  As the title suggests it considers the years in Britain under the Labour governments, 1945-51.  Much of Europe faced similar challenges, but the USA was conversely going through a boom which is now often seen as the start of a golden age probably running to about 1963.

The book consists of 15 chapters written by journalists and authors, all of whom were children when the war ended.  They focus on a wide range of topics including political aspects such as the aftermath of the 1945 election and the British withdrawal from Greece but also cultural aspects such as the spiv, the New Look and the Festival of Britain.  Given the range of authors, the style varies considerably.  David Hughes's chapter on the spiv is interesting and highlights issues that are likely to have been forgotten, but is poorly drafted and jumps around what it is dealing with, weakening the force of what he is saying.

One thing unfortunately hangs over too much of the book.  It is bad practice to try to squeeze out lessons for your own time from a study of history, especially recent history.  It contaminates the historical process.  The writing for the book seems to have been completed in 1963, by which time the Labour Party had been out of office for 12 years.  Thus, there is much searching for what the Labour governments of 1945-51 had done 'wrong' to make themselves unelectable.   Following the October 1964, Labour was to be in power for 11 of the next 15 years.  As a result, we now tend to see its governments of 1945-51 in a less negative light and actually creating the kind of British economy and society that was accepted, even fostered, across the political spectrum until about 1975/76 and the shift to New Right attitudes that led to the Thatcher Consensus as the replacement for the Attlee Consensus.

This book is very good at reminding us how hard the post-war period was in Britain.  Though the fighting had stopped, supplies were even shorter than in wartime.  Rationing for consumers lasted until 1952 and for industry until 1956.  The extremely harsh 1947 winter plus the difficulty for Britain of making foreign earnings and trying to dismantle an empire which had become immense, made a bad situation even worse.  It shows us how dreary life was in the period and as the shortages continued that hope was soon lost.  Britain in these years easily looked like a country in the Soviet bloc.  The pettiness and indeed stupidity of those enforcing regulations suggests that while the UK never came close to the kind of Gestapo Winston Churchill warned of in 1945, the handling of resources did allow openings for numerous 'little Hitlers' to plague British lives.  I was particularly interested in Michael Frayn's brief study of the economic and practical challenges of the Festival of Britain which complements the more commonly seen analysis of the cultural impact.

Some of the chapters refer to things which have been lost from memory.  This is noticeable in Brian Glanville's chapter on sport.  I guess some people will recognise the footballers' names beyond Stanley Matthews and even have heard of the boxer Bruce Woodcock, but to me this chapter was largely meaningless, bar the fact of British sporting struggles seem unchanged seventy years later.  It was similar with David Pryce-Jones on novels and theatre.  T.S. Eliot is well known still, but when did you read or see anything by Angela Thirkell or Christopher Fry - two leading writers of the era,  Ironically the authors from the inter-war period that Pryce-Jones is so dismissive of, have endured far better,

Most of the chapters are concise and well rounded, but some become fragmented and are weaker as a result.  Peter Jenkins is fine covering the battles with the B.M.A. to get the National Health Service set up, again echoing current issues over doctors' contracts but then he launches off on coal nationalisation and economic planning each of which deserved their own chapters.  Godfrey Hodgson is weaker on the debates around nationalising the steel industry mainly because he is trying to find when the Labour Party ebbed into unelectability.  However, he also then goes off on the revival of the Conservative Party's ideas and organisation, really quite irrelevant to the issue of steel.

Another important thing this book does is to highlight factors, that of course unknowingly, would be a feature of our lives seventy years later.  Anthony Howard's chapter shows how the House of Lords prevent the government's legislation to abolish the death penalty, delaying this until 1965 and to nationalise the steel industry the first time.  It was partially achieved by 1951 but was almost immediately reversed.  I doubt many people will read David Leitch's chapter on the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.  This was done in an attempt to drive the British out of Palestine which they had controlled since 1919.  The difficulties faced in running a country divided alone religious/ethnic lines when both camps were hostile to the occupiers is a salutary lesson for anyone looking at post-conflict control in Iraq and Afghanistan.  David Watt's chapter on the British exit from Greece and the USA taking over adds more insight.  Furthermore, Leitch highlights the hostility towards Jews in Britain, provoked by what seem nowadays, minor, terrorist incidents. This aspect has eerie echoes in the current hostility towards Muslims in Britain, the USA and elsewhere.

This is an easily accessible book which despite the clear rooting of certain authors in a specific time context is very useful in reminding anyone interested in Britain in the immediate post-war period of how hard and ugly it was.  Effectively for many people in the UK the war did not really end in 1945 but just as the legal definition of Britain being at war had it, it continued until 1955.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Biscuit Blog: Sondey Butter Rings

Sondey Butter Rings

These biscuits from Lidl are a kind of Viennese whirl with a more golden colour to them and both less creamy and crumbly.  Indeed some butter rings can almost be brittle or frangible in nature rather than crumbly.  This version almost has a feeling like a meringue on the tongue, almost too sharp in texture to be pleasant.  The key problem for these from Sondey is they are far too sweet which adds to the sense of sharpness.  For a biscuit with 'butter' in the title, I would expect a flavour much creamier and at least much smoother.  If they scale back the sugary nature and make them a little more crumbly, they could be on their way to making a decent butter ring.