Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Books I Read in July

'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.

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: 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

'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.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

What Was The Point Of The Movie 'Valhalla Rising'?

I have just wasted 88 minutes and am writing this posting to warn you so that you might avoid doing the same. Having recently seen violent action movies set in historic times: 'Centurion' (2010) about the destruction of the IX Legion in Scotland; 'The Eagle' (2011) about the attempt to recover the IX Legion's standard twenty years later and 'Apocalypto' (2006) about a tribesman escaping from capture by the Mayan Empire in 1527 just as the Spanish are landing, I bought a second hand copy of 'Valhalla Rising' (2009) which is set in the 11th century in parts of Scotland where the Norwegians were to maintain holdings until the 15th century.  The lead character is called One-Eye and is played by Mads Mikkelsen one of the best known Scandinavian actors in Britain.  The box of the movie warns that it is violent.  It begins with One-Eye as a gladiator for a Scottish lord to win money.  He is persuaded to sell One-Eye to a neighbouring lord and during the transfer One-Eye escapes along with a boy who was charged with feeding and securing him between fights.  They fall in with a group of crusaders who seem to have just killed some male unbelievers and stripped the women.  They are heading to Middle East to fight in the crusade.  They persuade One-Eye to go along.  Out at sea they are becalmed for many days in a thick fog.  When it clears they are miraculously in North America.  One-by-one they are all killed by natives firing very accurate arrows and only seen at the end of the movie, others kill each other until only the boy remains.

The three movies I mentioned are not top quality, but they have characters, they have dialogue, they have jeopardy, decent photography and they have narrative.  Aside from the photography which even then is often limited to rainy glens, 'Valhalla Rising' is lacking in all of these. There is very little story and very little dialogue. Frequently all the actors simply stand in poses like a tableau with no purpose to it simply to waste more time. There is actually not a great deal of violence it is bunched up at the beginning and end and scenes are often repeated as One-Eye keeps getting premonitions of what is going to happen including his own killing.  These premonitions add to the very psychedelic feel of the movie.  At one stage for no reason they crusaders and One-Eye and the boy all drink from a bottle and then seem to go on a hallucinogenic trip, wading in mud, piling up stones and basically zoning out, again adding nothing to the story.  It might be metaphysical.  Certainly you might think that One-Eye represents the god Odin from Norse myths as he had one eye pecked out to gain enlightenment.  However, the bulk of the movie involves men wandering around craggy areas in dull weather in Scotland and largely sunny weather in America.  They achieve nothing except to die in different ways.  There is no epic battle or indeed any real sacrifice or redemption.  They walk around, they die.  That is it.  This movie looks like a student project or one of those psychedelic shorts from the early 1970s.

Given how many good movie projects never get made and even those that are often do not get distributed, it seems criminal that such a poor piece of work should have been green-lighted, made and distributed.  Mikkelsen and the other actors should be embarrassed to have appeared in this movie.  I am angry that it was made and will take more care with what I buy even second hand, in the future.  Do not bother watching this movie; there is probably no point even if you are high on drugs, what you are imagining is likely to be far more engaging.  I will certainly stay far away from anything written or directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and why he needed Roy Jacobsen to help him, let alone Matthew Read for supposed 'additional writing' to quote Imdb, I have no idea.  There is so little narrative and dialogue in it, I imagine they did it all during their lunch breaks.  A real crime that this movie ever got further than a discussion in a pub.

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Book I Read In May

'Thud!' by Terry Pratchett
I am the opposite of most people and read far less when on holiday than at work.  Having been kicked out of my job three weeks earlier than I had been anticipated for 'showing insufficient leadership', 'worrying too much about "treading on other people's toes"' (and anyone who has read the travails of my career will know why I felt I had to do that) and 'not speaking to enough of the right people' despite liaising with tens of them in my department and other departments.  Anyway, this has meant a forced holiday as they were still obliged to pay me.  The department went into crisis as so many staff are leaving.  Out of an office of four, one member of staff remains and myself, their manager has also gone.

A consequence of not having work once more is that I have read very little and only finished one book this month.  'Thud!' sometimes is reviewed as not being up to the standard of some of Pratchett's other work.  One key flaw as often happens with very successful authors is that people are unwilling to tell them to cut back on what they produce.  This could have been a much tighter story if reduced from the 430+ pages in my edition down by 100 pages.  I think the prime reason why reviewers do not rate it is because unlike many of Pratchett's book, for example focusing on vampires or the postal service, the target of this one is not a topic many general readers engage with.  The focus is policing ethnic violence, in this case between trolls and dwarfs.  In itself it hardly sounds an exciting topic.  However, this makes the book one of the sharpest satires of Pratchett's work.

In some ways this is one of Pratchett's more adult books.  I do not mean that in the sense of adult meaning pornographic, though there are references to the girlfriend of guardsman Nobby Nobbs being a pole dancer and a scene with a female werewolf and female vampire naked and covered in mud.  More that the topics are less likely to be engaging for younger readers.  This is not simply about racial antagonism and how history can be distorted to work for extremists, but also with the sub-plot of Commander Vimes as a father.  In some ways the stories involving the police of Ankh-Morpork should be read as a sequence as even more than those set in the Unseen University, they follow on, especially focusing on the career of Vimes and his staff.  In many ways it also feels a very British book and perhaps that reflects the challenges faced are more like those of the UK police than say, for example, US police forces.

This story also involves actual murders and quite gruesome ones at that.  There is also a Cthullu touch to the story with an element of an ancient evil seeking to control events.  Overall, this book is less humorous than others in the Discworld series, but it is a more thought provoking book and I imagine that was Pratchett's intention.  It certainly challenges easy assumptions about racial differences and antagonism by exploring them in a fantasy world.  Something that not a great deal of even humorless fantasy addresses, rather portraying a clear good vs. evil approach, rather than the multiple shades of grey seen here.  It is a book worthwhile reading, but be prepared for it to differ from other books in the series.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Books I Read in April

'Hidden History. The Secret Origins of the First World War' by Gerry Docherty & Jim MacGregor
If you read one book about the origins of the First World War this year, it must be this one.  On the surface you might believe it is a conspiracy theory book.  The bombastic language of the authors rather contributes to that impression.  However, this book has been thoroughly researched and is referenced throughout.  It builds on work in the 1970s of US academic Professor Carroll Quigley.  It shows that rather than Britain being a rather hesitant entrant into the First World War, leading politicians and businessmen had been seeking a showdown with Germany since the early 1900s.  It is known that empire-builder Cecil Rhodes had ambitions for British dominance and established groups to foster connections between the USA and Great Britain to secure on a racial basis the leading position of the Anglo-Saxons.  This work was continued by Alfred Milner.  Recognising the growing strength of Germany, the men who shared Milner's interests went to great efforts to establish situations to weaken Germany.  As is known anti-German feeling was fostered through fiction and newspaper stories in the 1900s even when Germany had given up on its attempts to build a superior navy.

Though the sense of a group of politicians, civil servants and businessmen building a path to war, may seem incredible, it is on different to what is often seen as being the case in the groups around the Kaiser.  In addition, we know that arms companies had a vested interest in provoking war, so the involvement of businessmen comes as no surprise.  The book certainly helps to explain many things that appear pretty strange in the two decades before the First World War.  How was it that Britain with a German royal family, ended up in alliance with Russia and France which had been Britain's prime rivals in the late 19th century?  Why was so much fuss made over the Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911 only for them to be resolved quickly?  Why did the British switch for sympathising with Austria-Hungary over the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to emphasising the need to go to war against the country within the space of a month?  Why was foreign policy kept in the hands simply of Sir Edward Grey?  Why were military plans made with both Belgium and France kept from many ministers let alone parliament?  Why was there no real Cabinet discussion on going to war let alone a vote in parliament?

All these things are known facts of British history at the time, but are not questioned or excused with statements which seem irrational.  The book highlights how many documents were removed from the archives of the Entente states at the end of the war and how many ended up locked up in Stanford University.  Again these are known facts often overlooked, but which have meant histories of the origins of the war have only been able to access a limited number of documents portraying a particular story.  This book needs much wider coverage and to be addressed by academic historians.  While it does not excuse Germany for its part in the war, it certainly puts it in a broader context and shows that rather than sitting on the sidelines in the lead-up to the war, a very limited number of British politicians with friends in Russia, France and Serbia were thoroughly involved in leading Europe down the path to war.  I highly recommend this book.

'The Confession of Brother Haluin' by Ellis Peters
This is the fifteenth Brother Cadfael book and differs from the ones I have recently as it goes outside Shrewsbury into eastern Shropshire, near to Litchfield.  Cadfael goes on a mission to aid a monk, Haluin, who is doing penance in thanks for surviving a fall which severely injured him.  In going to the tomb of a young woman whose death he believes he caused, Haluin triggers off a process of the unravelling of lies and misunderstanding between two families.  The murder in this novel is actually a side issue.  It is more focused on Haluin seeking redemption and the impact on a range of people, particularly a number of women that his presence and the subsequent revelations bring about.  There is quite a lot of travelling in this book, but its focus on a smaller number of people and on the nature of rural rather than urban England at the time, still affected by the Harrying of the North, adds a different dimension to this book.  Less is wrapped up by the end in this book than in some others and the outcomes for a number of the leading characters will not seem satisfactory for modern readers though they might have seemed so in the time when the novel is set. 

Thursday, 17 April 2014