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:
*****

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Books I Read In April

Fiction
'A Hat Full of Sky' by Terry Pratchett
This is the second book in the Tiffany Aching series of books by Terry Pratchett.  They are aimed at children, but as with many of Pratchett's books there is an ambivalence and they speak to readers of different ages on various topics.  Though published in 2004, I feel this series captures the essence of what was so good in Pratchett's writing in the early days.  In contrast his other novels published in the 21st century, seem weighted down with too many issues and have lost the spry nature of his earlier books.  However, despite the humour, the book is very perceptive on our own society and makes very acute remarks about it; another great characteristic of Pratchett's writing even when dealing with the fantasy setting of Discworld.

This book moves on two years from the previous one, 'The Wee Free Men'.  It sees Tiffany, at the age of eleven, leave her home on the downlands and become an apprentice to a witch in the mountains.  The Nac Mac Feegles, the rough fairies with a Glasgow accent, do feature but to a lesser extent than in the previous book.  Tiffany is pursued by an ancient force, a Hiver, which seeks to take over the bodies and minds of the powerful.  Aside from battling with this force and what it makes her do, Tiffany becomes developed as a district witch, very much like a district nurse or someone from social services in our world.  Thus, there is an adventure, but also commentary on how societies function and the role that carers in the community, especially women, play.  There is also a challenge to the Wiccan approach of using amulets and fancy costumes as if this aids magic, a bit of a swipe at New Age attitudes as opposed to practical action.

Overall, this is a brisk book with some decent laughs and a real feel of the old Pratchett that many of us read decades ago.  Though it has a girl at the centre, at no stage did this feel like a children's book and indeed some of the comments from the Nac Mac Feegles would probably go over the head of an 11-year old.

'Copperhead' by Bernard Cornwell
This is the second book in Cornwell's tetralogy about the American Civil War.  It is better than the first book, 'Rebel' because while featuring many of the same characters, he has toned down what seemed to be a universal nastiness of them.  Even the hero, Nathaniel Starbuck was unlikeable in that novel so it was hard for the reader to empathise or even care about his fate.  This book covers the period in late 1861 when the Union forces were trying to advance on the Confederate capital at Richmond and despite amassing a huge force fumbled the invasion and the advance and so lost the chance to end the war much earlier.

Many people comment that Cornwell is best when handling battles and that proves the case.  This book opens with the Battle of Ball's Bluff and covers many engagements in the campaign of General  George McClellan to try to reach Richmond.  There are scenes in Richmond, including a harrowing one in which Starbuck is tortured as he is suspected of being a spy for the Union.  He finds out who the real spy is and as in the first book, though to a lesser scale, there is a lot of him contemplating the morals of his situation as he has gone from being a trainee clergyman to being a Confederate Officer, the lover of a prostitute often led into risky situations by his lust.

The main problem I have with this book is that at times the spy aspect feels very laboured,  Starbuck crosses back and forth across the frontlines blithely lying to his family and his comrades.  Another character goes the other way across the frontline.  Despite the carnage around them, they do this largely unscathed and so there is a sense of invincibility.  Towards the end of the book it seems quite contorted and you wish Cornwell would have kept to a more straightforward story, less stretching of credibility.  Yes, having some devious and useless characters is fine, but the sharp contrast between this series and the Sharpe books is that the twists are excessive and so undermine Cornwell's strength in portraying the American countryside and the reality of the soldiers and people living and fighting there.

'The Sudden Arrival of Violence' by Malcolm Mackay
I am glad to have reached the end of this trilogy.  The fact that the books have received such acclaim continues to astound me.  It is called the 'Glasgow Trilogy' and finally in this book we actually get mention (twice) of one district of Glasgow.  For the rest of the time the action takes place in a vacuum with people moving between houses and businesses that could be in any city.  You have no sense of geography except once they go into some generic countryside to bury two bodies.  This adds to the claustrophobic sense of the individuals.  Having produced his 'how to be a gangster' lecture in the first book, Mackay is left with just the worrying of the various characters.  If in 'The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter' he stuck two fingers up to the 'show not tell' precept of writing, he continues to violate the 'rule' about sticking one point of view at a time.  He jumps between perspectives sometimes within a single paragraph.  This does not help clarity and at times is even ridiculous when we are treated to a combined memory of brothers William and Callum MacLean.  This weakens what Mackay is saying about the characters.

I know the book has been praised for being 'laid back', but unfortunately in a crime novel that comes over as weary.  In this book and indeed the previous one 'How a Gunman Says Goodbye' with is pathetic anti-climax conclusion, this tone just makes everything feel laboured.  Too many of the characters are old and tired something exacerbated by this tone even more than in the first book in which new ideas and branching out was the trend.  Women are very disposable in this novel and none of them seem to be more than simply a plot device.  Mackay has tried too hard to be 'hard boiled' and has simply taken that voice without reflecting it in the substance of the story.  Despite some attempt at the late stage to get us interested in William and Callum, there is too little to empathise with.  Even the police are weary and largely failing for almost the entire book.  Yes, Mackay has tried something different but he does too much of it.  He could have taken 100 pages from each of the three books; cut out large chunks of navel gazing and made them closer to what they are marketed as rather than these slack, tiresome novels.  I will not be coming back to his writing.

'A Game of Thrones' by George R.R. Martin
This book, at 801 pages in my edition, has taken up a lot of my reading this month.  I was able to purchase the 7 books currently in the series unread for just £1, but it does mean I have committed myself to reading a lot by one author this year which will reduce my coverage of a range of books.

I have seen all of the seasons of the television series, also called 'A Game of Thrones' (though the book sequence is called 'A Song of Ice and Fire') which are available on DVD in the UK.  So I know the story pretty well, though I hear book and television series diverge later on.  What is striking is how close portrayals of characters from the book are on the television, much dialogue seems to have been carried across and even the tone preserved.  There are differences because it is easier to have grand detail in a book, but easier to show a landscape in images.  Thus, in the book you find out more about a lot of the minor noble houses, the history, nature, clothing and food of the world Martin has created.  An added advantage is that you see more of the thoughts behind the characters' actions.

I think the success of this series is that at heart it is just another fantasy series.  You can pick up hundreds of series about imaginary worlds with a kind of medieval context and magic thrown in; in which people battle to become ruler.  What distinguishes Martin's series, from what I have read and seen, is that there are no heroes.  His characters are flawed throughout; perhaps the most minor are those who are simply naïve.  The vast majority of the characters are selfish, cruel, violent, petulant, exploitative, etc. and sometimes have a whole host of nasty elements to them.  Thus, it seems almost like a contemporary rather than a historical/fantastical drama; as if corruption in national politics had been moved from our world today into this context.  Many of the characters are ugly, the trait least transferred on to television.

Martin does include magic but very sparingly.  In the book we see one ice zombie and we see three dragons hatch right at the end of the book.  I think this is also useful because it then emphasises the importance of the human element and also keeps magic as exceptional as it appears to the people of the world Martin creates.  In fact what we witness is dismissed as impossible by many characters.  The other thing is that you do not know who will die.  Unlike in many fantasy series, no-one is immune to death and this also increases the credibility of the story, something vital when portraying an alien context.

The book is gritty and grotty.  Despite the length, unlike some (maybe many) fantasy series it moves along briskly.  Most chapters end with a cliffhanger in themselves.  Some readers might find the jumping between different characters across the world confusing, but to me, naming the chapters solely after who they refer to, works well and I was not lost, though it might have helped that I have seen the story with its characters.

Despite my generally positive view of this book, there is one aspect which seriously jars.  If this book had been self-published to Amazon in 2016 rather than published traditionally in 1996, it would have been rejected.  This is because of the featuring of underage sex.  Many of the leading characters are children and at times it feels a little like a children's story.  Some of these characters have been aged for portrayal on television and it is clear there would have been uproar if this had not happened.  Martin makes it explicit, in particular, that Daenerys Tagaryen is only 13 when she is married off to a leader of steppe horsemen.  She becomes pregnant by him aged only 14.  This is not fudged around, it is stated explicitly. Another character, Tyrion Lannister, remembers when he was tricked into having sex with a woman by his father when aged just 13. 

Now, I know Martin is trying to recreate behaviour of the Middle Ages in our world in which marriages of children occurred and even in parts of the USA where the age of consent remained below 16 into the 20th century.  However, Martin's emphasis on this behaviour is highly unsettling, and, as I note, to portray it actually runs against policies of providers such as Amazon.  Perhaps he is trying to add extra 'grit' to his novel, but it simply comes off as sordid and utterly unnecessary given what else he portrays throughout.

Non- Fiction
'Britain and the Korean War' by Callum MacDonald
This is a quick book looking at the political context of the Korean War.  There are brief mentions of what happened militarily but that is not the focus of the book.  It concentrates on Britain's often ambivalent part in the war which stretched over a change of government from Labour to Conservative but throughout was driven by a desire to keep US protection for Britain in Europe.  Many aspects of the organisation of the war are familiar for those who have lived through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the USA feeling obliged to have a multi-national force as long as it did precisely what the American commanders and politicians wanted.  Thus the British were very much dragged along, often unhappy at backing the corrupt and cruel regime of South Korea and especially the bullishness of US commanders, including a desire to use atomic weapons, not simply General MacArthur.

There are some aspects that I had not come across before.  One was the role of India as friendly to Britain but able to talk to the Chinese and the issue of the exchange of Prisoners of War, especially those who had no desire to return to China or North Korea.

The book shows how the war helped formulate US Cold War policy with a temptation to 'roll back' replaced by containment and a willingness to be involved in proxy wars but only to a certain extent.  In addition, it shows a willingness of US administrations, whether Democrat as under President Truman at the start or Republican under President Eisenhower, to work with dictatorships even if they were half-heartedly fighting Communism.

MacDonald also does well in showing how the errors of the 1930s weighed so heavily on any decision.  Furthermore he highlights how few choices the British had given how short of money they were following the Second World War, even when they utterly disagreeing with US policy.   He shows the British seeing the Americans as naïve in dealing with developments in East Asia and provocatively aggressive, risking an all-out conflict with China and/or the USSR.  One particular point of difference is the British awareness that China and the USSR were not really a single bloc, a misapprehension US politicians clung on to right until the 1970s.

This is a brisk book which is very useful in highlighting aspects of the early Cold War that have so often been over-written by erroneous assumptions about what happened and especially about what leaders were seeking to achieve.