Friday, 30 June 2017

The Books I Read In June

Fiction
'Wintersmith' by Terry Pratchett
This is the third in the Tiffany Aching series of five books by Pratchett, which sees the heroine still training with witches but compelled to move from one to another.  In addition, by accident she attracts the attention of anthropomorphic representation of Winter, the eponymous Wintersmith who wants to make her his Queen while nature seems to want her to become Lady Summer.  There are fewer laugh out loud moments in this book than the previous ones.  However, Pratchett does show that if he had turned to straight rather than humorous fantasy who well he could have done in that genre.  He questions assumptions and gives new twists to established patterns.  He portrays witches as a kind of social services providers in villages which then reflects on how we support elderly people, those facing bereavement, birth and other challenges in our own society when we live in silos.  The Nac Mac Feegles appear but at not really at the heart of the story.  It was a satisfying book to read but more on the basis of the story it told rather than the humour.

'Battle Flag' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the third book in the Starbuck tetralogy.  In it Cornwell plays to his strengths as the action barely leaves the battlefield.  He shows the build-up and the fighting of the Second Battle of Bull Run in western Virginia in August 1862.  It continues with some of the characters of the preceding books, but absent from Richmond and with two of the commanders of the Faulconer Legion sent back there, some of the characters are absent.  While there is less of the crossing of frontlines which happened far too often in the previous book, 'Copperhead' (1994) you do feel at time that there are far too many consequences and mirrored actions.  Confederate Major Nathaniel Starbuck runs into his preacher father who skirts around the Union side throughout even though a civilian and into his friend, Adam Faulconer who similarly deserted his father in going over to the Union side.  These twists undermine the realism of the book which is otherwise good.  The strengths are in the confusion of this particular battle especially for small units among large armies and portrayal of the fighting.  Starbuck's motives have simplified to ambition for progression and simply keeping men he favours alive.  The behaviour of others is often bewildering and feels inauthentic, though Cornwell does reproduce errors that were made for real.  I have found this series rather unsatisfactory almost as if Cornwell has tried too hard and so undermined the strength seen in the much longer Richard Sharpe series.

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 1792-1944' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This is the second volume to the book I read last month covering 480BCE to 1757.  The problems and strengths of that book continue into this one.  The work of Fuller is fragmented by Terraine who does much more than an editor.  That becomes even worse in this book as naively and petulantly he counters Fuller's views of the lead-up to the First World War utterly dismissing the economic factors and the involvement of Britain which we know to have been so important.  You just wish Terraine would back off and go and write his own book rather than critiquing in such a harsh way the one he was supposed to be editing.

I started reading these two books as a basis for finding 'what if?' points for analysis.  Fortunately Fuller does not disappoint in exploring how things could have turned out differently in the cases highlighted by the war.  Looking at Napoleon's career 1812-15, he highlights many occasions when something very different could have been done.  In terms of the First World War he believes that having the USA entering the conflict in April 1917 not only prolonged the war but also wrecked Germany to an extent that some dictatorship like that of the Nazis was almost made inevitable.

Fuller makes fair points that Hitler made a grave error in not more fully enlisting non-Russians when the Germans invaded the USSR; highlights his unwillingness for units to retreat when victory was no longer feasible and his personal interventions which so weakened many battles.  For the Allies, he highlights how the obsession wit unconditional surrender ruined the chance of winning over the whole of Italy in September 1943; undermined those fighting Hitler within Germany and indeed those in Japan who wanted an earlier surrender.  He does forget how ambivalent the British were towards the Italians and, above all, even after the war, how long it took politicians to accept that there had even been opposition to Hitler.

In the first volume, Fuller revealed an abhorrence of Calvinism.  In this book he and Terraine share a common loathing of Communism.  They go on it in hyperbole and at a length which is not appropriate for a history book like this.  I suppose this is not surprising given the book was written in the 1950s and Terraine edited in the 1970s.  It is rather jarring now.  However, it does lead both men to strongly argue for different paths to have been taken that might have prevented Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe.  Fuller feels that the Normandy Invasion was a mistake and that the British should have pressed on with an invasion of the Balkans, though from Italy rather than directly.  To have a Second Front in France, he feels, simply handed over large parts of Europe to the Soviets.  Another striking thing is how Fuller portrays the Soviets as barbarians, constantly emphasising that they had largely Asiatic forces and even leading generals were of that ethnicity.  In frankly racist sections, he argues that, as a consequence, their soldiers had low intelligence and were brutal, leaving no explanation why the apparently higher intelligence German soldiers were equally brutal especially on the Eastern Front.  Terraine simply amplifies these racist tones.

This is an interesting book, but erratic.  It certainly raises interesting counter-factual points that tend to be disregarded in history books these days and I feel put the decisions made at the time to the test.  However, it is unrestrained in airing opinions which seem incredibly dated and prejudiced now, and I feel lead to faulty assumptions about what was feasible and the nature of the soldiers in the various conflicts.  As before the strongest parts are the descriptions and analyses of the actual battles and the editing that should have been done would have been to eliminate the meandering, often misguided linking sections and to have cut back simply to a series of vignettes about the battles.

The battles which feature in this book are:

Battle of Valmy - 1792; Battle of Trafalgar - 1805; Battle of Leipzig - 1813; Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny and Waterloo - 1815; Battles of Vionville, Gravelotte and Sedan - 1870; Battles of Tannenberg and of the Marne - 1914; Battle of Amiens - 1918; Battle of Warsaw - 1920; Battles of Kiev and of Viasma-Briansk - 1941; Battle of Stalingrad - 1942-43; Invasion of Normandy - 1944.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Oaties

Belmont Oaties

While not a Hobnob, these do very well.  They have that oaty flavour but without tasting something like ryebread.  They do not disintegrate on being bitten and you do not have to pick pieces from your teeth, though you get the oaty texture in them.  There is the hint of sweetness which is right to indicate that this is not a biscuit for cheese.  The packet is a little small, but the thickness of the biscuits is more than reasonable.  Overall good value oaty biscuit if that is what you want.

Rating:
*****

Sunday, 11 June 2017

What If Proportional Representation Been Used in the June 2017 UK General Election?

This is something I have now been doing for a few years, most recently for the May 2015 election: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/what-if-proportional-representation.html  In part it is driven by my interest in counter-factual analysis and how different Britain might have been if back in 1918 when given the chance, the coalition government had introduced proportional representation, or indeed, if the Labour Party had stuck to its stated policy and introduced it when in power in 1997-2010.

I use a simple system for my analysis, allocating the number of seats in Parliament on the basis of the share of the vote received.  Of course, any proportional representation system cannot replicate purely the percentage figures but they tend to come close.  Some systems, e.g. that of Germany, will not allow any party polling less than 5% of the total vote, to have a seat in parliament.  However, I assume such a bar is not in place.

This election has seen a rise in support for both the Conservatives, who received more votes than they have done at any election since 1983, and for Labour, who saw a 10% rise in the number of people voting for them.  The thing is, especially for the Conservatives, many of these votes are simply 'stacking up' in seats that they already hold safely, they are not winning additional seats, simply raising the majorities of individual MPs.  Thus, whilst they are the party most opposed to proportional representation the Conservatives might actually benefit from it as they are, in many cases, firming up their hold on some constituencies especially with the departure of UKIP. Perhaps the party with the greatest stacking this time, however, are the Greens, with a single MP, but now with over a 14,000 majority.  Many Green votes are not translating into seats.

While noting the stacking up, this election has also seen some very narrow majorities, the most extreme being in North-East Fife where the SNP won by just 2 votes.  Such narrow margins are difficult to translate into proportional representation as simply 1 person voting differently could have changed the situation. In Kensington, Perth & North Perthshire, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Southampton Itchen, Richmond, Crewe & Nantwich, the majorities were fewer than 50 votes.  In another three seats, including two in Glasgow, the winning candidate has a majority of fewer than 100 votes. 

In the 2015 election there was a lot of talk about the 'shy Tory' people willing to vote for the Conservatives but unwilling to say so to people asking their opinion.  This time there is talk of the 'shy Labour supporter'.  In fact they are largely shy because they were under-reported by the predominantly Conservative media.  Labour was having big rallies and the increase of turnout by 3% to 69% seems largely to have been young people who have not voted before, whether too young in the past or were not sufficiently engaged.  There had been an assumption that UKIP supporters would simply become Conservative supporters, but it appears, especially in northern England that instead they have turned to Labour, which highlights the fact that judging the political scene in the post-referendum era and especially in the time of populist politics, on old assumptions is flawed.

Of course, if proportional representation had been before this election then the political scene would have been very different anyway which may have meant that an election would not have been called at this time.  Analysis in 2015 showed the following profile for the House of Commons if proportional representation had been in place.  The actual returns are in square brackets:


2015: 650 seats [Conservative Government]

  • Conservatives: (36.9%); 240 seats  [331]
  • Labour (30.4%); 198 seats  [232]
  • UKIP (12.6%); 82 seats [1]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.8%); 51 seats [8]
  • SNP (4.7%); 31 seats [56]
  • Green (3.8%); 25 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Northern Irish Parties:
  • DUP (0.6%); 6 seats [8]
  • Sinn Fein (0.6%); 5 seats [4]
  • UUP (0.4%); 4 seats [2]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [3]
  • Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
Labour would have been stronger and it is likely that the Conservatives would have been in coalition with UKIP so there would still have been a referendum on leaving the EU and it is likely that the UK would have left.  However, the political scene would have been pretty different to what we saw in 2015 with the Liberal Democrats still a significant force and the Greens stronger by far than even the Liberals were back in the 1970s and 1980s, before the ascendancy in the 2000s.  Thus, it is likely that they would have received more back as a 'credible' party, it is impossible to tell.  With such a system other parties may have appeared too.  Again in the figures below, the numbers in square brackets are what the parties actually got.

2017: 650 Seats [Conservative with DUP Confidence & Supply Support]
  • Conservatives (42.45%): 279 seats [318]
  • Labour (39.99%); 263 seats [262]
  • Liberal Democrats (7.37%); 49 seats [12]
  • SNP (3.04%); 21 seats [35]
  • UKIP (1.84%); 13 seats [0]
  • Green (1.63%); 12 seats [1]
  • Plaid Cymru (0.51%); 3 seats [4]
  • Others (0.52%); 3 seats [0]
Northern Irish Parties
  • DUP (0.91%); 6 seats [10]
  • Sinn Fein (0.74%); 5 seats [7]
  • Independent Unionist (0.45%); 3 seats [1]
  • SDLP (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
  • UUP (0.26%); 2 seats [0]
I always caution on Northern Ireland figures as some constituencies are highly partisan, and a form of proportional representation is in place, so the figures might turn out pretty much as they do in reality. 

The portrayal of Labour as so extreme and its leader Jeremy Corbyn as some revolutionary in much of the media, has overshadowed what was actually going on.  The Conservatives did very well, not having polled as well as this since 1983.  Labour did badly, only really as well as when Gordon Brown lost power in 2010.  However, because of the incessant portrayal of Labour under Corbyn as useless, the right-wing media have made the party's modest gains appear far more significant than was in fact the case.  Theresa May's arrogance in assuming she could do better than her predecessor compounded by an aloof attitude which was even greater than the snobbishness of Cameron, did her party no favours among floating voters.  However, it went down very well with people who were already Conservative supporters as seen with increased majorities in safe Conservative seats.  May largely talking to Conservatives rather than floating voters probably gave her a distorted view of what was happening.  The assumption that almost all former UKIP voters would automatically turn to the Conservatives was also flawed.

What is apparent is that 2017 saw a polarisation back to the 2-party system characteristic of the 1940s-90s.  However, there are geographical shifts with Labour picking up seats in a number of unexpected places such as Canterbury, perhaps finally benefiting from the mobilisation of university student votes, much vaunted but little seen in 2015.  With so many universities in the UK and more towns having two, they may create pockets of Labour and even, in time, Green support among Conservative 'seas' of rural Britain.  The Conservative return to Scotland, strongly in the South and East, in part compensated them for Labour's random gains and without which they might have even struggled to form a coalition. 

Of course, Labour's chance of ever having a majority government ever again are quickly fading as boundary changes will lose them over 30 seats as parliament shrinks to 600 members.  They are likely to find that they again receive fewer seats than their share of the vote as their support will stack up in small urban constituencies to a greater extent than has been the case recently.

In this alternative, there still would have been polarisation, but to a different pattern. The Liberal Democrats under proportional representation would have fallen rather than risen in the number of seats yet would have been returned to being the third party with the eclipse of UKIP.  Now, if UKIP had been in a coalition with the Conservatives since 2015 they may not have been swept away; indeed there probably would have been no need for an election for Theresa May to continue with the Brexit process. 

Other small parties have seen a decline, notably the Greens and Plaid Cymru.  However, if the Greens had had 25 MPs in 2015 rather than 1, then people might feel a vote for them was not 'wasted' and so the fall in support might have been less in 2017 than has been the case in our system.

Labour really no longer has any need for proportional representation as its number of seats is proportionate now to the amount of the electorate supporting it. The same can be said for Plaid Cymru. The Conservatives still receive more than their 'fair' proportion of seats, getting 48.4% of the available seats.  The same applies to the SNP, who got 5.4% of the seats compared to 3.04% of the votes this time even though this is a fall from 8.6% of sets in 2015 from just 4.7% of the vote.  Thus, parties that win or when they are winning, large rural seats, tended to be over-represented.

Analysis that I have done on elections down the years if there had been proportional representation is that a Labour-Liberal coalition would have been the predominant form of government.   In fact the more common coalitions of the 21st century under the first-past-the-post have been Conservative dominated ones as in the early to mid-20th century.

With proportional representation another Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition  with probably the SNP and Greens adhering too, is likely to have appeared in 2017 with the departure of the Conservative-UKIP coalition.  However, in that scenario I imagine the 'Brexit Coalition' would have continued under Theresa May and having no election until 2020. 

What is interesting is that for Labour is that its vote is increasingly in line with the number of seats it receives, in contrast to the situation in the 1990s.  The Liberal Democrats and the Greens, previously to a far greater extent UKIP too, are heavily under-represented for the amount of support they gain.  The big winners from the first-past-the-post system are the Conservatives and SNP who effectively need a smaller number of votes to win a seat than the other parties do.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

Belmont Rich Tea biscuits

These are not bad as Rich Tea biscuits go; certainly not as small as some are now becoming.  They have a rather dry starting taste but some richness in the aftertaste and they are reasonably moreish.  They have a good snap and as you would hope for Rich Teas do not crumble easily.  Overall, for the standard range of a discount supermarket they do the job intended for them.  A little less dryness in them would raise them that bit higher.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Books I Read In May

Fiction
'The Mask of Dimitrios' by Eric Ambler
Ambler, publishing first before the Second World War, is seen as the precursor of post-war spy thriller novelists notably Len Deighton and John Le Carré.  Having read a lot of Le Carré this year, I feel he needs to go back to his Ambler to get an idea of pacing and excitement.  This book features a novelist, Charles Latimer, in late 1930s Turkey who becomes friends with Colonel Haki, head of Turkish secret police and is shown a body apparently of Dimitrios Makropoulous, a renowned criminal.  He travels Eastern and Central Europe unearthing the career of the man before ending up in Paris to find out the final truth.

The book moves briskly.  It shows an ordinary man being sucked into extraordinary situations, but ones which appear highly feasible.  There are nasty, but believable people.  It is a thriller, but one you can believe in.  Though published in 1939, now that the Cold War is over and drug and people traffickers are back working the same kind of routes, it has a more contemporary appeal that, say back in the 1970s. 

Much of the story is related by other characters, but it is Ambler's skill that this is engaging. Unusually for a British novel, almost every character is not Anglo-Saxon and the protagonist actually speaks fluent Greek and reasonable French; he has to enlist help with other languages, which he does in a credible way. The novel also highlights many historical developments in Eastern Europe of the 1920s which these days are often overlooked; the violence of the Greece-Turkey War 1919-22 is an notable example, but also unrest in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia feature.

In many ways the book is grim, but it is a good read and is a useful lesson for anyone wanting to write thrillers today about how to keep them taut and the reader engaged in a story which is intriguing but rooted in reality in a way some contemporary authors fail to achieve.  Probably the best book I have read this year.

'The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits' ed. by Mike Ashley
There is now a whole plethora of these 'Mammoth Books' but this one dates from 1993 and, like those others I have read has a very wide assortment of stories under the umbrella of a genre, one which was blossoming at the time but has expanded immensely since.  This book, stimulated by the writing of Ellis Peters who provides the foreword and one story, is a collection of 23 detective stories set historically to when the author was alive and runs from 2000 BCE up to 1910 in chronological order.  One of the authors, Herodotus, is a well-known historical figure in his own right but even he wrote a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before he lived.  I must say that there are far too many locked room (or even sealed tomb) mysteries that by the end you tire of this conceit.

As with collections of 'rivals' to Sherlock Holmes I have read, one thing is such collections tend to show you why the novelists you know best in the genre, in this case both the story by Peters featuring Brother Cadfael and one by Robert Van Gulik featuring Judge Dee, both of whose work I have read before, though not these stories, stand out from the others in terms of the crispness of the story and the language.  Though there are some half-decent Roman detectives and the stories John Maddox Roberts and Wallace Nichols show how Rome changed in going from Republican to Imperial rule, few stories were sufficiently engaging for me to want to find other work by these authors, saying that having a slave as detective as Nichols does, creates a fascinating dynamic.

There were some that I found interesting for the setting.  One was a Sister Fidelma story by Peter Tremayne set in 7th Century CE Ireland and it is fascinating in terms of the potential for a nun to play a part in the legal process of that time and what a High King needed to attain the throne.  Paul Harding's story has some of this in featuring a 14th Century coroner in London.  Another is 'Captain Nash and the Wroth Inheritance' a full length novel by Raymond Butler, set in 1771 in London and the English countryside though a little burdened by the sexual mores of the mid-1970s when it was published.  It is adventurous and intriguing and well conjures up the contrast between the squalor and decadence of the era.

Overall this is an interesting collection and may expose readers to some forgotten historical detective authors, especially from the mid-20th century who may now be pretty much neglected.  You feel a number of the characters have not been taken far enough and it would be nice to see them revived today in full-length novels, just as long as none of them feature a locked room murder or robbery!

Non-Fiction
'The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC - 1757' by J.F.C. Fuller; edited by John Terraine
This book was published in three volumes entitled 'The Decisive Battles of the Western World and Their Influence Upon History' from 1954-56.  In 1970 John Terraine was asked to edit them down to a two-volume set.  This book was from the 1981 edition of that set.  Abridging is always a challenge, but I think it was handled particularly poorly in this case.  As well as the particular battles, Fuller wrote connecting text taking the reader through the centuries between each set of conflicts, explaining developments in Europe and noting innovations in warfare.  What Terraine has done is cut this down to much briefer sections, clearly written in his own voice and at times referring to Fuller in the third person and even quoting him in what is supposed to be Fuller's book.  Thus, we end up with three types of chapters.  The chapters about the actual battles are the best, followed by the linking chapters by Fuller which precede them.  The worst are the forward linking chapters by Terraine which are a mess and cause confusion, plus a horrible jarring in voice.

Being a book of the 1950s, it assumes all readers can speak French and Latin as well as English and Terraine did nothing to alter this even in the 1980s.  So you may need to translate certain passages.  Especially in the early chapters about the Classical World, there is a tendency to rely on florid quotations from Victorian historians and some of these are overblown.  There are a reasonable number of line-drawn maps, my favourite and they do act to clarity.  Sometimes Fuller goes off on grandiloquent commentary, somehow seeing the conquest of Granada as unleashing global exploration but when focused on specific battles, he is very perceptive and many of his portrayals of the battles are more incisive than those by modern readers.  His commentary on the Battle of Hastings 1066 and the Siege of Constantinople in 1453 are excellent. He is also very good at showing how Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough and Frederick the Great were revolutionary in how they carried out war.  Prejudices do creep in at times: he is incredibly hostile to Calvinists and Lutherans, seeing them as nastily political rather than religious movements.

I turned to this book as I was interested in potential counter-factual analysis and stories.  Though Fuller does not go into this in depth, he does show why he thinks the battles were decisive. Despite the title, he actually starts in 1479BCE. In some places it is surprising which battles he does not include, such as the Battle of Poltava 1709, but he does note these.  His writing on complex conflicts like the Thirty Years' War and Seven Years' War are sound, but can be breathless at times meaning you need to read back over to find out which general went where.  Though a densely written book (with small print in my edition - hence taking me 19 days to read), it sweeps along briskly and is thought provoking.  I have the second volume, which runs 1792-1944, to read later in the year.

You may be interested to know which battles Fuller feels were decisive in this context:

Battle of Megiddo - 1479BCE; Battle of Marathon - 491BCE; Defence of Thermopylae - 480BCE; Battle of Salamis - 480BCE; Battle of Plataea - 479BCE; Battle of Arbela - 331BCE; Battle of the Metaurus - 207BCE; Battle of Zama - 202 BCE; The Teutoburger Wald Campaign 9CE; Hunnish invasion of France 451; Muslim invasion of France 735; Battle of Hastings - 1066; Battle of Crecy 1346; Siege of Orleans 1428-9; Siege of Constantinople 1453; Conquest of Granada 1491-2; The Armada Campaign 1588; Battle of Breitenfeld 1631; Battle of Lützen 1632; Battle of Blenheim 1704; Battle of Rossbach 1757 and Battle of Leuthen 1757.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

Belmont All Butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers

I must apologise for the photo in this posting, the light level was lower than I realised even though I have always lived in unfortunately gloomy houses.  As seems typical with Belmont, the ordinary biscuit brand from Aldi, they have gone for a lengthy title.  These went into a head-to-head with the Lidl equivalent for a taste test by two members of my house and came off slightly worse.  They crumble easily, a trait common for shortbread, but the full biscuit lacks 'bulk' when bitten, it seems too dry.  There is no visible sugar, but the butteriness that you would hope for given the title also seems absent so it comes off as very plain biscuit with only a little of creamy after taste.  The Lidl version just wins out for having better structural integrity and some more of that creamy flavour that you look for in shortbread.

Rating:
*****

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Biscuit Blog: Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

Hill Fruit Shortcake biscuits

I bought these Hill biscuits from Aldi.  The first thing is that you get a very long packet, though the biscuits themselves are small.  Perhaps they have too much of a snap for a shortcake.  This is the start of the problem for the biscuit.  It takes more like a Digestive without the oaty pieces in it; the creaminess of a good shortcake biscuit is missing.  The fruit is lacking in sweetness, so effectively you end up with a kind of small - and they are small - Digestive biscuit with bits in it, not a pleasant experience.  If you were looking for a better value biscuit like this, then simply buy a Digestive, they are available from Aldi too.

P.P.  Just a warning: I found that these biscuits have a laxative effect which I put down to the hard currants and the wheaty texture of the biscuit.

Rating:
*****