Monday, 30 June 2014

The Books I Read In June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction
'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

Non-Fiction
'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.

Fiction
'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

Wednesday, 16 April 2014