Friday, 23 April 2010

2010 Election: Keynesianism vs. Deflation?

Many commentators have suggested that the recent recession is in the same league of the Depression of the 1930s which began to enter its direst phase in October 1929 with the collapse of the US stock market and came into full effect in 1931 with the folding of the Kreditanstalt bank in Austria and the subsequent weakening of the global banking sector.  The Depression affected different countries in different ways but generally led to mass unemployment, in some countries only peaking in 1936 and really only came to an end with rapid rearmament in many states in the period 1938-9.  The Second World War disrupted the global economy but also provided stimuli.  However, in 1945-7 it looked like many states would continue to suffer low production and consumption and so continue to face high unemployment.  The Marshall Plan in 1948 providing millions of dollars to states of western Europe helped to pick up demand which stimulated the US economy and in turn other economies across the world, not simply in Europe but late Japan and South Korea too.  Other factors such as the decline of colonial empires so freeing up markets to a wider range of states, organisations such as OECD and the EEC fostered trade, consumption and production.  This was aided by low oil prices sustained in part by neo-colonial relationships between the industrialised powers and the oil-producing states.

In the 1930s there was a clear lack of ideas about how to deal with the Depression.  For the dictatorships the drive for rearmament and related infrastructure, notably road building, did stimulate certain sectors of the economy but at the expense of light industry and consumption of domestic items.  Unemployment was ended by effectively drafting workers into state projects and in many cases throwing certain people out of jobs, for example, Jews, Socialists and Communists in Nazi Germany.  The Soviet Union underwent a massive programme of industrialisation combined with collectivisation of agriculture.  The country was starting from a lower industrial base and the consequences of the programme was the starvation of millions, though, by 1939 the USSR had become more industrialised than a decade before.  In the democracies the only real approach to combating the Depression was deflation and protectionism.  This involved particularly cutting back government expenditure, making more government employees unemployed and restricting welfare payments.  Currencies were freed from the gold standard and allowed to float but economies put up tariff barriers to protect their internal industries and those states with colonial empires developed trade with their colonies but firmly shut out other providers.  With the dictatorships also pursuing a policy of autarky, i.e. to make themselves self-sufficient for raw materials and markets whether through direct control or bilateral, often barter deals, trade was choked off.  This tendency was the one which Marshall Aid and initiatives such as the Bretton Woods process on currencies aimed to address after the Second World War.

There were some voices in the democratic states arguing for a different approach to the Depression.  Democratic forms of economic planning were advocated by centre, centre-left and centre-right groups, in the UK by the Liberal Party and people such as Harold Macmillan, later Conservative British prime minister.  Most notable was the work of economist John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946).  Keynes's principles developed following the First World War.  He opposed the harsh reparations imposed on Germany seeing a weak German economy as being damaging to the whole European economy and thus much of the global economy.  He opposed the rigidity of returning to the gold standard for setting currency exchange rates as happened in many capitalist countries in the 1920s.  With 'Treatise on Money' (1930), 'The Means to Prosperity' (1933) and 'The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money' (1936) he outlined his policies for counter-cyclical economic approaches.  Basically he felt that depression could only be combated by stimulating consumption rather than reducing it through deflation.  He believed in the 'multiplier effect' that if the state pumped money into the economy to create work, often through major infrastructure project, then unemployment would not rise and with more people in work they would continue to consume products which, in turn would keep consumer good production going so keeping even more people in work.  In contrast to the balanced budgets, i.e. government receipts and expenditure were generally equal, Keynes was happy for the state to borrow in the short-term to fund the projects to keep employment levels higher, believing in the long-term that the maintenance of the tax revenues which would rise as the economy revived, would pay off the money borrowed.

Though there is some dispute about how directly Keynes's ideas influenced US policy, the New Deal, started 1933-4, introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), president 1932-45, seems to be based on the kind of assumptions that Keynes's ideas used.  Roosevelt established a swathe of government agencies many of which produced public works projects to provide employment.  Examples include the Civilian Conservation Corps for agricultural workers, the Works Progress Administration, which included units for employing actors and writers and the vast Tennessee Valley Authority for public works building hydro-electric energy generation dams and facilities.

In Britain Keynes's approach was seen to be adopted in the 1941 budget, though of course, with the war in full force at the time, stimulus through arms spending and borrowing to fund the war, were likely steps anyway.  After the war the Labour Government initially pursued economic planning which was seen as a more Socialist approach to the economy compared to Keynes's Liberal (in the British sense of the word not the US meaning of it) economics.  However, by 1948 and certainly by 1950 they were moving more to Keynesian assumptions.  France pursued economic planning up to the 1980s but had things such as tax breaks to stimulate certain sectors of the economy and unlike British nationalised industries, large state-owned companies such as Electricite de France (now EDF Energy) strove to stimulate other sectors. Other states in Europe such as West Germany worked on Keynesian assumptions, keeping a predominantly capitalist economy but stimulating it with government regulations and funds, especially for regional development.  Partly Keynesianism, though forming the basis of economic assumptions after the Second World War was not really needed as there was an economic boom until the mid-1970s when the US economy became recessed in the early 1970s and then the sharp oil price rise in 1973-4 brought the boom to an end. Though there were some minor differences from 1950-1974 no-one in British politics really challenged Keynesian assumptions; they did not even challenge the mixed economy with a sizeable state-owned sector, which had been a Socialist rather than Keynesian policy.  Keynesianism was not used in a sophisticated way.  By the mid-1950s credit controls had generally been given up and the UK tax authorities eschewed tax breaks in the way they were used in many continental countries.  The basic tool was simply manipulating the base rate, the basis of the interest rates that banks charge.

In 1976 the pound was put under so much pressure that the British government went to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for money to strengthen the currency (in those days the exchange rate with the dollar was reported on a daily basis and any move was seen as a source of concern, probably equivalent to falling house prices in the UK nowadays.  It is interesting how the British makes a fetish of particular economic indicators rather than looking at the broader economic picture; before the currency, the balance of payments had been the key focus).  The IMF demanded a deflationary approach to the economy, which had about 20% of industry under state control at the time.  From 1976 onwards there was consequently a move from Keynesian stimulus approaches in times of recession back to deflationary processes.  In the US there was the rise of monetarist economic approaches, which after 1974 gained ground in the British Conservative Party, though even after 1972 under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath there had been some minor steps in this direction until he fell in 1974.  Monetarism sought a strong control of the availability of money as a way to combat inflation, which was a key problem once oil prices had jumped, something they would do again following the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  Monetarism was wedded to 'free market' economics perceiving the end of state involvement in the economy through privatising state-run industry and reducing regulations on companies so allowing them to impose the pay rates and conditions that they wished.

Margaret Thatcher embraced monetarism and her regime 1979-90 saw it pursued increasingly vigorously with privatisation of the state sector, removal of regulations and reduction of the state, including dismissing a third of the civil service.  Private business was lauded and allowed to make as big profits as it liked and to move capital from the UK whenever it wanted.  The impact for the average person, however, was mass unemployment and an abrupt ending of established British industries.  In the move to a post-industrial economy after 1973 in the USA and 1974 in the UK, this was going to have happened anyway but monetarism made it more brutal and sudden.  Workers were encouraged to make themselves employable by taking lower pay and working longer hours, so reducing their ability to consume.  This seems to run counter to Keynesian approaches.  By the end of the Thatcher period, as I have noted on previous postings, the assumptions had shifted towards continued acceptance of monetarism.  In 1995 the Labour Party abandoned its objective of nationalising any industry.  When it came to power in 1997 it granted independence to the Bank of England to set the base rate so giving up the remaining Keynesian tool.  The Labour governments, bar in minor cases, before 2008, did not take back into state control industries that have been privatised.  This is apparently now called the Washington Consensus.

The financial crisis from 2007 onwards has led to what some have termed a Keynesian 'resurgence'.  It is fascinating how the faith in monetarist approaches dropped away so quickly.   In Germany and India both of which had retained a strong state role in the economy, but also the USA and the UK which had been at the forefront of monetarism, leading economists, bankers and politicians began talking about stimulus.  The President of the World Bank advocated developed countries pledging 0.7% of their GDPs to stimulus.  In January 2009 President Obama passed a US$787 billion (£512. billion: €589 billion) stimulus bill.  In November 2008, the British government launched a £20 billion (US$30.6 billion; €23 billion) package equivalent to 1% of the UK's GDP.  Much of this has gone into supporting banks rather than stimulating the economy through public works and there has been a challenge in that the supposed 'easing' of lending has not risen to the extent that the governments hoped.  This reflects that during the Thatcherite/Washington period financial institutions were given so much freedom that it is now impossible really to get them to do anything governments want, for example, even reducing bonuses.  Inadvertently the British have effectively nationalised two banks, but as was typical with British nationalisation of the past, they have not asserted much control over their behaviour and kept an 'arms length' approach.  In addition, in the face of claims of 'unfair competition' from other banks the government has not used its banks to drive certain behaviour by example or provide freer lending to stimulate business.  The state is not as strong as it was in Keynes's day and mulit-national companies and banks are often more powerful than governments as we have seen in resistance to various 'windfall' taxes and attempts to restrain bankers' behaviour.  However, stimulating (parts of) the economy through borrowing, now at £152 billion (US$232.6 billion; €175.1 billion).

Thus, it seems for the first time ever that Keynesianism is being implemented to combat what it was designed for, i.e. a depression.  In British politics because in the 1950s up to the mid-1970s there was consensus of the need for Keynesian economics and it was just over the details rather than the economic approach.  By 1979 even the Labour Party had stepped away from Keynesianism and whilst it did not embrace monetarism in the way the Conservatives did, it was no longer a strong advocate of an alternative economic path, partly because the economics then were focused on wage and price inflation which had not been a characteristic of the 1930s depression when there had often been over-supply depressing prices rather than excess demand or at least excess demand for income whether from sales or pay as was the case in the 1970s and overall was stimulated by the artificially raised oil price, oil being vital for freight of all kinds at that time and things like plastics at a time when plastic packaging was growing massively.

In 2010 we do have a difference between the continuation of Keynesian policies under Gordon Brown and with David Cameron, the revival of not even really monetarist but in fact deflationary policies as pursued by Conservative leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s and overseen by the cross-party National Government set up in 1931.  Cameron's emphasis on the need to reduce public borrowing so reducing the available stimulus to the economy (though no-one would envisage a balanced budget these days) and swingeing cuts to public services is text-book deflation; it will cause unemployment not least amng public sector employees and raise unemployment, increasing social welfare payments and suppressing domestic consumption and through fear of job losses, domestic demand even from those still in work.  Keynesianism is not simply about stimulating consumption but with it the confidence to consume. Cameron is pretty old fashioned in his approach to the economy even in Conservative terms.  Perhaps this is because the Thatcherite approach of the free market now seems so debased with constant reports of vast profits for those in big business at the expense of jobs and homes for ordinary people.  This is the first time in British history that the two key economic approaches of the 20th century are being brought face-to-face and as a consequence Britain stands at more of a crossroads that this lacklustre campaign suggests.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Nick Clegg Factor

People said they have found the current UK parliamentary election campaign to be dull.  I suppose after the big changes that happened in the USA it must seem a little downbeat, not helped by the fact that people have been talking about the election for so long.  The Conservatives' haranguing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call the election may have backfired on all the parties as we feel we have been in the midst of the campaign already for six months if not longer.  To some degree, the mudanity of this campaign conceals how much of a crossroads we have reached in British politics.  Whichever party comes to power it is going to be tough for them as we attempt to clear up the mess in the economy left by the greedy bankers, who of course are already back to their old dangerous tricks, though it was nice to see Goldman Sachs, the leading investment bank in the USA being charged with fraud.  I do hope they suffer harsh penalties for their criminal behaviour, but as yet am not confident they will.  However, the key point in the UK is how we cope with the recession.  It is clear that both Labour and the Conservatives want to cut public expenditure, it is just an issue of in which areas and how fast.  What has become apparent from the speeches of David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader is that if he comes to power with a majority we will see economic policies of a harshness not witnessed in the UK since after the 1983 election. 

This will mean sustained high unemployment and a damage to British industry, let alone to those dependent on social welfare.  Such an approach will increase the divisions in society as people will look for easy scapegoats and will blame people from abroad or other parts of the UK.  This is already what many employers are looking for as they feel the 'whip' of unemployment to get long hours on insecure terms and bad conditions out of workers on frozen or depressed salaries has become too weak in recent years.  High unemployment, they feel, works in their behaviour.  Partly they are right, because given the UK has long been a low income economy and yet people have high levels of consumption based on credit, they can afford to reduce the domestic demand without impinging as heavily on domestic sales in the way you might expect to be the case.

Given the nature of the MPs who would come in with Cameron, we will see the House of Commons with an very elitist flavour with apparently 68 of these MPs coming straight from the banking sector that needs to be reined in.  Brown will have a challenge in restraining outrageous bank behaviour, but Cameron and his MPs will have no interest in even attempting to do this.  Like many people of my generation and even younger, we really fear a return to the 1980s which is not the big hair, cocktail glamour that it is portrayed as now, but millions of people suffering years of unemployment, low incomes and whole swathes of the UK simply being wastelands of boarded up shops and houses, as a result.  Thus, this is actually a very important election.  There is the other factor of preventing the rise of the racist BNP (British National Party) and their watered down equivalent UKIP (UK Independence Party), both of which seem perched on the edge of getting some representation and no doubt will locally in the areas with local elections on the same day as the general election.

Another factor which makes this election interesting is the possibility that it has suddenly become a three-party race.  That has not been the case, probably, since 1923 when the Conservatives had 234 seats, Labour 188 seats and the Liberals 183 seats.  The eclipsing of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party in the 1930s was very rapid.  The Liberals struggled with single figures of MPs in the 1950s.  Whilst holding the balance of power March 1977 - July 1978 when there was a minority Labour government in power (a minority government is one which does not have a majority of MPs over all the other parties combined in the House of Commons; it is usually still the largest party though).  The 1990s and 2000s saw a renaissance of the Liberal Democrats, the latest version of the Liberal Party, though Tony Blair's vast majority in 1997 meant that plans for having the Liberal Democrats in with Labour in the 'big tent' cabinet were shelved.  The Liberal Democrats rose from 20 MPs in 1992 to 46 in 1997 to 52 in 2001 to 62 in 2005.  This is more seats than any combination of Liberal parties has had since 1935.  Of course, they are still behind the Conservatives with 198 seats and Labour with 356 seats. 

The big change in how the Liberal Democrats were perceived following the debate between the leaders of the three main parties on 14th April 2010.  This was the first televised debate between the party leaders in British history and mimics closely the model used on US television first in 1960 and then intermittently afterwards.  There have been regular jokes since 2007 when Nick Clegg became Liberal Democrat party leader than he was 'unknown'.  To some degree this is because in our very media-conscious age all the part leaders simply look like different varieties of bank manager.   However, appearing on a programme watched by more than 9 million people and which has generated a lot of general media coverage since, has helped massively. Labour and the Conservatives have been pretty successful marginalising the Liberal Democrats and in turn they seem to have shifted steadily from being more radical than New Labour in 1997 to seeming like a pale version of the Conservatives, only really marked out by a pro-European Union stance.  Now with the recession they seem to be ready to embrace more radical solutions and whilst not back left of the Labour Party do seem to have some radicalism about them once again.  After the lame duck leadership of Charles Kennedy (1999-2006) and Menzies Campbell (2006-7), in part Clegg, slowly, seems to be capturing a little of dynamism of Paddy Ashdown, leader 1988-99.

With the election of Tony Blair to being prime minister in 1997 just before his 44th birthday has made youth appear at a premium in British politics. Brown is 59; Cameron is 43 and Clegg is three months younger.  Cameron is very much old fashioned elitist Conservative, his long-term friendship with the moronic Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, does not help.  Brown seems to have aged a great deal while in office, though is much younger than some prime ministers of the past; Winston Churchill first came to power in 1940 at the age of 66 and was in office in 1955; Margaret Thatcher was 54 when she came to power in 1979 and was still there until late 1990.  So, Clegg appeared to be of that youthful style that is currently in demand.  As the two other parties have effectively kept him out of the spotlight, I believe has actually now helped, because Clegg's party's ideas now seem fresh.  He also presents them in a clear and logical way.  This morning the first poll to put a Liberal Democrat in the lead to become prime minister, came out.  There has not been anthing like that since probably 1918-20.

The issue for the Liberal Democrats has always been that the first-past-the-post system in the UK never distributes seats evenly depending on the percentage of the vote the party receives.  The classic example was in the 1951 election when the Labour Party received more votes than in 1950 but received fewer seats.  At the 2005 election the Liberal Democrats got 22.1% of the vote (but 9.6% of the seats; back in 1992 they got 17.9% of the vote but only 3.1% of the seats), the Conservatives got 32.3% and Labour 35.3% of the vote.  On vote percentage division the Liberal Democrats would have got 144 seats; Conservatives 210 seats and Labour 230 seats, making a minority government.  This means that the Liberal Democrats need more than twice as many votes as the other parties to get a seat; the Conservatives lose out a little, but it is far simpler for Labour to get seats these days with them securing 126 seats more than they would have get through the proportional distribution.  This is why the Conservatives want to redraw the electoral boundaries.  The fact that the Liberal Democrats need to struggle harder to get seats, as a lot of their constituencies are in large rural areas on the periphery of the UK, opens them up to the allegation that a vote for them is a 'wasted' vote.  If people believed they could get into power, more people would vote for them.  This is one reason why the Liberal Democrats do well in local elections.  They control 65 local councils, and a total of 4,200 local, 21% of the seats from 25% of the votes, ahead of Labour.

Of course, the political parties know they can no longer ignore or easily dismiss Clegg and you have immediately seen Cameron say that Clegg would simply usher in more years of Labour.  Of course, even if Clegg went into a pact with a minority Labour government it could not be the same Labour government that it would be if it won a majority.  The Liberal Democrats would bring far more pro-European and electoral reform policies into the mix, something Cameron could not stomach if he had to work with the Liberal Democrats to gain power, especially since the Conservatives in the European Parliament abandoned fellow conservatives for a right-wing extremist bloc.  The Liberal Democrats would not tolerate the kind of cuts Cameron is envisaging.  He has positioned his party almost as far as he can from the Liberal Democrats, overly cocky that he would not have to work at all hard to get into power, it would be gifted him.

Thus, even if the public now likes Clegg, there is still a long way for his party to go to get the votes, let alone the seats to form a government.  As was highlighted on the BBC news over the weekend, with our current electoral system, even to achieve additional seats in double figures, and, for example, lift the Liberal Democrats up to 80 seats would need a swing of 6% against both the Conservatives and Labour in marginal seats.  However, there are a number of seats where the non-Conservative support is split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats almost equally and a shift in such seats would certainly make David Cameron's job a lot harder.  This is in contrast to both a year or so ago and the day the election was announced when it was assumed that the Conservatives would 'walk' into power.  Now they not only face a battle with Labour by the Liberal Democrats too.  Whilst it seems unlikely that the Liberal Democrats can win, a loss of seats for Labour and a smaller than previously expected gain for the Conservatives was already being considered, with the Liberal Democrats as powerbrokers for government, even before Clegg's successful television performance.  Baroness Shirley Williams a Liberal Democrat peer who was Paymaster General and Secretary of State for Education and Science in the Labour government when the Lib-Lab pact was in force in 1977-8 (she left the Labour Party in 1981 and was in the SDP and then Liberal Democrats), has said the Liberal Democrats would work with a minority government on an issue-by-issue basis rather than forming a pact with one party or the other.  Calls for a government of national unity are likely to fall on deaf ears especially as the Conservatives have re-embraced Thatcherite economic policies once more.

The price for Liberal Democrat support of course will be proportional representation, a policy embraced by Labour until it won massively in 1997.  As I have highlighted on this blog before: and  this would change the face of British politics forever.  Given the corruption among MPs we have seen this year that is probably necessary.  By potentially allowing in a far wider spectrum of parties more people would feel their voices were being heard.  Of course, it depends on the model as (West) Germany has had proportional representation since 1949 and yet only the SPD and CDU/CSU have dominated the governments for sixty years.  In Britain with a centre party almost already stronger than the FDP in Germany (93 out of 622 seats in the Bundestag) a three-party system under proportional representation would appear to become the norm.  Of course, extremist parties are likely to appear (though Germany has seen off extremists like the NPD and Republikaner parties through a minimum of 5% of the vote needed) but then that would challenge  the major parties to address the issues these parties raise; the same goes for the Green Party.

So, whilst we may already be weary of the election, 2010 is going to be a year in which we may see a more radical change than even the Conservatives are seeking and we finally see the face of British politics change for the first time in almost 90 years.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Not As Pathetic As I Thought I Was

As anyone who has read this blog over the last couple of years or so, or has more recently dipped into my accounts of cycling in northern France will, know, I have felt that I was a real failure as a touring cyclist.  Despite covering 60-100 Km per day I seemed to be incredibly slow, averaging only 13-14.5 kph compared to the 24 kph that my local cycling club expected people to maintain over 80 Km.  I remember too vividly the days I would set off from my hotel or hostel only to find myself slumping in a bus shelter an hour later feeling exhausted and the number of times I had to get off and push my bicycle up the middle part of hills, much to the derision of the local young people.  I also remember regularly being overtaken by men who were 40-50 years older than me out for local club runs and moving at a pace that I could not hope to match.  One reason why I gave up such cycling holidays (and a lot of bad luck was an additional factor, such as getting lost, finding all the hotels full, being robbed and confusions over ferry times) was that I felt I would never be fit enough to be convincing as a touring cyclist.

Having just read 'French Revolutions' by Tim Moore (2001), I realised that I had done myself a real disservice by not having read it nine years ago when I first bought it (I have a shed full of novels to read, most from charity shops, but with the occasional 'new' book, i.e. bought in the year it was published).  Moore's efforts put my completely into the shade.  In the summer of 2000 he went around the entire route of that year's Tour de France three weeks before the race was run.  His climbs of Alps and Pyrenees was in a completely different league to anything I did and I probably never topped 120-140 Km in a single day and quite often it was nearer 80 Km, whereas he managed over 250 Km on one occasion.  I remember a tourist office official in Amiens telling me explicitly that 96 Km in five hours thirty minutes was nothing to be proud of.  What is striking is how many of the same things we encountered, including dogs leaping out at you suddenly as you rode through villages; wildlife, in my case, two deer, crashing on to the road right in front of you; elderly men overtaking you on bicycles that looked like they had been involved in the First World War; very positive and very dismissive responses from different hoteliers when you turn up in cycling garb; getting lost on ring roads, drawn towards motorways and lost in housing estates; staying in hotels that could be used in an episode of 'Maigret' with no need to adapt anything and above all the physical impact.

What I did not realise at the time was how poorly prepared I was for cycle touring in terms of my health.  I had the creams to rub on sore parts of my body.  I made sure I bought bottled water rather than relying on bidons which often become the home to lots of bugs.  I made sure I had regular meal breaks with a decent amount of carbohydrate (and lugging a huge pack of custard creams - the biscuits containing most energy in a single biscuit around with me, just in case) and between these Orangina breaks to keep me from dehydration and fuel me with more natural sugar. I was ready for the diahorrea common for cyclists and the general 'windiness' coming from having your stomach crunched up over the crossbar for hours on end. I got to bed early and showered every day.  However, and this probably stems from being excluded from the cycle club and not mixing with other more experienced tourers I neglected other aspects of the necessary health regime.  Foolishly too, I pored over maps and read acommodation guides and downloaded guidance on navigating various routes from the CTC (Cyclists' Touring Club) but overlooked any health advice and also failed to pick up a single account of a tourer's journey.  I suppose this was because I was used to setting off on a Sunday for a decent 65-80 Km run without too much difficulty.  I made sure I ate well and was protected from the sun and seemed to assumed that with regular breaks and rest days that a cycling holiday in France would be like a series of Sundays (and now I remember that in itself caused fear as I was worried that I would arrive in a town on a Sunday and find everything closed.  Being in a locked youth hostel in Dunkerque at night with no water in the taps and having to drink from the toilet as the only way to slake my thirst at that time of night because I had finished my last bottle earlier, probably added to that phobia).

What I realise now is that I had totally underestimated the cumulative impact on my body.  Unlike professional cyclists, my muscles were not receiving any massage at night and I had not even done any of the stretching exercises that Chris Boardman's books recommended and that Moore followed pretty religiously.  No wonder my muscles complained the next day. At school I had always been told that I would never be a sportsman and given my slowness compared to other cyclists I never even considered myself in that category even as the most amateur of amateurs.  However, that meant I did not read the advice for sportsmen or engage with the kinds of activities they do to make their efforts less of a challenge.  Even if you are cycling for a day in your local area, you need to think of yourself as doing sport and thus, a sportsperson, however minor.  To ignore that fact can lead you into the kind of difficulties I encountered which reduced my holiday's potential for enjoyment.

The second thing was that I had made wrong assumptions about my medical condition, diabetes.  I knew from reading and experience that a hazard for a diabetic when doing physical exercise is that the insulin they have injected earlier (diabetes is caused by the body losing the ability naturally to produce insulin which is what breaks down the sugars coming into your body so they can become energy) you would get a 'hypo', i.e. not have enough energy to continue.  This happens even to people without diabetes and in cycling is called the 'bonk' which Moore suffered a few times.  Being diabetic I was more familiar with this risk, hence, keeping up both the slow and fast burning carbohydrates coming into my system.  What I did not do though was have things like the fruit, e.g. raisins and bananas, that are going dripfeed carbohydrates along the way.

Most importantly, it was not until I attended a course in 2008, that I realised a huge blunder that I had been making, in that it is as bad when doing physical exercise not to have enough insulin in your body as then your the sugar is trying to float around in your body as that, sugar, rather than energy your body can use.  Suddenly, this explained a lot of the discomfort I had felt day-to-day.  It is clear now that fearful of a hypo I was not taking enough insulin and so in fact was wasting a lot of the carbohydrate because my body could not process it and was simply urinating it back out again.

Another factor that I neglected to take into consideration when chasitising myself for my pathetic performance on my tours was the weight of the luggage I was carrying.  As I stayed in hostels, bars and hotels I did not have the weight of a tent and like Moore I had only one change of clothes aside from my cycling kit and a minimal number of books to find my way around primarily and keep myself entertained when passing my evenings alone in a hotel in the middle of nowhere (I am absolutely useless at making acquaintances when away from home even when in the UK, let alone when abroad; my language skills are terrible and my social skills even worse).  However, with the waterproofs, the cold weather arms and leggings and particularly the tools and spare inner tubes, etc. which did prove extremely useful, as you will get punctures, I estimate now it added up to something like 20-25 Kg.  To put this in context the 8-year old boy who lives in my house weighs 26.5 Kg, so it was as if I had a child riding around on the back of the bicycle, weighing over a quarter of my body weight of the time.  Of course, this was a big difference to the cycling I had done on Sundays in the UK when I would have a pair of waterproofs, a drink and my camera.  Moore notes how much faster he was able to move when he was able to leave his luggage with his family, and I guess I would have been the same.  Instead I had to carry everything I had with me, on my bicycle up and down whatever inclines I encountered.  If I had had more French I would have given this context to the hoteliers and others who thought my efforts were poor. 

It also explains for me, as it did for Moore, why we could not overtake the elderly men no matter how aged their bicycles were.  It is not only that you have to exert more energy to move that weight, but it is constantly slowing you down so you have to overcome the friction element.  In addition, Moore was riding something a lot racier than my road-mountain hybrid, however light it might be (and great over roads needing resurfacing).  This was outlined in Moore's book when a friend of his, riding something like my bicycle, came to cycle with him in Switzerland.  Of course, a lot of commentators by the road side, even in France, just see 'man on bicycle' and do not appreciate how many variants there actually are.

The need for approval is a strange aspect which impinged on Moore as much as it did no me.  I have not achieved anything great in my life and could never afford to travel to exotic locations, so doing something that marked me out even just a little from the kind of people I mixed with, had an important aspect in my self-esteem.  Giving that I set off on my first cycling trip from the single room above a chipshop on the Mile End Road, with a bathroom that I shared with seven other residents, getting some self-esteem was important.  The fact that I can see the face of the woman in the Amiens tourist office to this day with her sneering comment, is probably not healthy.  However, people touring are looking for recognition of what they have achieved and I am sure the same happens for hikers and mountaineers.  I loved the fact that I felt I was part of a 'club', that cafe owners truly expected me to come back again in the future (especially on the routes frequented by numerous cyclists, there are favoured parts, inland from Dunkerque was one and there was another such area in eastern Normandy), and other cyclists nodding to me or helping out with the map.  I found the camaraderie that I was later not to find in the local cycling club in the UK, and, in fact, more than that, the acceptance that even if I was nowhere near the quality of a Tour de France racer or even a local race racer, I was a cyclist going about his business which deserved respect rather if not acclaim.

Having read Moore's account and his difficulties that, despite, far greater preparation, far better equipment and far more support, were very similar to my own, I am beginning to feel a little better about my efforts.  Of course, these days I am not fit enough to run to the end of my road let alone cycle 20 Km, but perhaps if I had come to Moore's book in, say 2002, I can envisage I would have far more cycling trips to recount here and probably a bit more self-respect.  I have to remember the morning when a whole class of French school children, probably aged 9 or 10, all dressed in matching cycle helmets, were pulled to the side of the road to let me pass up a hill with their teacher pointing out how properly I was attired in my cycle helmet and bright cycling strip (that year bright yellow) so visible to motorists.  Though I struggled up the hill, I dared not get off or slow until I was out of sight.  I should also remember stepping into a pristine bar at the top of a hill that was run by a man who clearly (from the numerous black and white photographs around the wall) had been in the paratroopers and asked for two Oranginas and a single glass.  I never drank from the bottle for some reason.  He knew the steepness of his local hill and seemed please that I had chosen to stop at his bar and sent me off with a real rousing encouragement.  I recommend Moore's book to anyone who has battled on a cycling trip.  It has made me feel that my efforts were not wasted and that I was fighting against the odds, partly due to lack of the right sort of preparation, but even so, not things that other people had not encountered themselves.

Monday, 5 April 2010

My Favourite Computer Games

I have no idea how many games have been produced for playing on the average home computer and here I mean something with a keyboard and a screen, I am leaving aside games consoles with which I have had only passing contact.  I have tens of games, many of which I have never even played as I used to use the purchase of them as a form of 'retail therapy' enjoying the browsing and purchasing and the reading of the little booklet on the train ride home even more than actually uploading the game, especially when I had a computer that only had sufficient memory to hold about ten decent games at a time.  Anyway, I have lost track of the number of computer games I have played down the years, but thought it would be worthwhile to share memories of the favourites.  Of course, since 1999 a great deal of my game playing (and this is a hobby which has ousted watching television and writing fiction from my most common leisure activities) has been with the 'Total War' series of computer games, but I think they warrant a whole posting of their own.  I have realised that aside from that kind of wargame the prime type of game I play is third-person shooting games.  I am certainly not a person for racing games or flight simulators, I think in part I like the stories that such third-person games have as background and in contrast to the very involved mental activity and planning in playing a wargame, with a shooting game there is a satisfactory visceral destructiveness which is good for relieving tensions, though, as I have noted in previous postings, feeling I am being treated unfairly by the game certainly raises my tension.  Anyway, in no particular order are my favourites of this genre.

I might say some that did not make it into this list.  One is 'Gun' (2005).  I enjoyed elements of this game.  It was controversial because of you having to gun down Apaches at one stage.  I made a mistake on sticking with guns rather than bows in the latter phases, making it impossible for me to win, but that reminded me I should check walk-throughs sooner.  The settings in Montana, Kansas and New Mexico in 1880 were well rendered and there were interesting side missions as well as the ongoing story about the hero, a former Confederate officer and gold in a reasonably worked out story.  I suppose why this has not become one of my favourites is partly the US setting and the bittiness of it.  If you are into Westerns then I do recommend it.  Just remember to enter the final stage with a bow that can fire dynamite.  Another was 'James Bond 007: Nightfire' (2002).  Again this has some good elements, I especially like creeping around the traditional Japanese house near the beginning, spotting people with X-ray glasses and shooting them through the paper walls.  However, as the game progresses you get ridiculously powerful weapons that take the edge off the fighting.  There are some very tedious sections like one where you have to jump up ledge after ledge in a vertical metal tunnel and one slip means you fall all the way back to the beginning, really boring.  I have played 'From Russia With Love' (2005) on the Playstation 2.  Like 'Nightfire' it raided a number of different Bond movies, but this time very much from the mid-1960s and that era gives a real flavour to the game.  The story is excellent in building on things such as Kerim Bey from the movie of 'From Russia With Love' (1963) but gave depth to the settings of the movie and giving tasks that seemed logical though very different from the story in the movie.  I would actually like to read a novel based on this game.  Sean Connery voicing Bond was an excellent touch.  It is a pity this game never made it to the personal computer.

No One Lives Forever (2000) and No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy In H.A.R.M.'s Way (2002)
I suppose mentioning spy games is a good lead in to two computer games that owe a lot to the spy craze of the 1960s.  The clothing, the rather sexist 1960s attitudes, the music all combine to create a story which is immersive. These two games are first-person shooters featuring Cate Archer, a Scottish cat burglar turned spy who is kitted out very much in the Cathy Gale - Emma Peel - Modesty Blaise style, though the appearance and voicing makes her distinct of all of these.  There are disapproving and avuncular bosses too, working for the good guys, U.N.I.T.Y.  The stories combine interesting action with tongue-in-cheek action such as a deadly German opera singer, a crotchety Scottish sergeant and in the second game, a series of murderous mimes.  You get fascinating and sometimes unreliable equipment such as explosive lipsticks, helpful robot parrots and distracting robot poodles. 

You have to explore a range of different environments in order to defeat H.A.R.M. a sinister, though sometimes ineffectual, even comic, organisation.  Of course, there is creeping around (and noise attracts opponents in a pretty sophisticated way given the age of these games) and shooting and blowing up things, underground bases and even falling from an aircraft (move as far as you can 'away' from you as gamer, right to the edge of the screen to survive that part).  These games were pitched at the right level, a challenge without the feeling that any moment you would be killed arbitrarily and with no chance to avoid your fate.  The styling and approach was wonderfully done, the stories interesting and successfully combining humour and drama.  A lot of gamers could learn from these two games.  It is no surprise that 'No One Lives Forever' was Game of the Year in 2001.

Hidden & Dangerous (1999)
Thinking about immersive games, brings me to an even older one that I played for ages.  This was 'Hidden and Dangerous' a game that allowed you to switch between first and third person on each of your characters.  This involved you recruiting a team of four specialists in the SAS in the Second World War to carry out various missions in locations across Europe including France, Norway, Hungary and what was at the time the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia.  You had to rescue people, recover objects and assassinate people.  These days it would seem incredibly unsophisticated and it was riddled with horrible bugs which would leave your characters jammed down dead ends or being killed by the engine of the boat they were supposed to be riding in.  However, the tension as you crawled along the ground in pouring rain to line up with your rifle to take out a guard or creeping in disguise through a town or infiltrating a chateau or using the tactical screen co-ordinating the actions of your four men to overpower particular units and then leaping in a car and driving off, was really a thrill.  Again, in its favour, it was tough but not impossible, even allowing for the bugs. 

I liked the stories behind each mission and also the fact that each of the characters you could build your team from had a back story and expertise as a result.  You could have a very multinational team mixing in a Pole, a Czech, a Briton, a New Zealander, a Frenchman even a Spanish Republican.  There was an expansion pack 'Hidden & Dangerous: Fight For Freedom' (2001) which interestingly had a mission in which you fought against Communist partisans during the Greek Civil War 1944-8, even though they had been opposing the Germans in Greece.  In 2004 'Hidden & Dangerous 2' was released, but by then, the clunky graphics and bugs were unforgivable.  The atmosphere and functionality of 'Hidden & Dangerous' were excellent.  It is just a pity that more work was not put into ironing out the bugs as this could have been the basis of a very successful franchise.  Its legacy is in many squad battle games, but as yet, I do not feel any has matched the engaging portrayal of wartime Europe that this game did.

BloodRayne (2002)
This one inspired two movies and a series of comic books.  Again it is based on a strong story, in this case about a half-vampire (termed a Dhampir) working for the mysterious Brimstone Society in the 1930s to prevent a special group of Nazis the Gegen-Geist Gruppe from using elements from a demon to make their forces superhuman.  This game is really gory and reminds me of the fear in the 1980s when there was a fear that 'video nasties' would spill over into the gaming world.  Back then the graphics were not capable of reproducing anything that looked alarming, these days it is very different.  Rayne runs around both feeding on people to sustain her strength and dismembering Nazi forces and various mutants and demons she encounters with long blades fitted to her arms.  Her attacks are often balletic and there is a real delight to be had in spinning through the air in slow motion to go on the attack.  Whilst as in many shooting (and this case stabbing) games there are numerous nameless opponents, a lot of the GGG personalities are detailed.  Some are cyborgs, some priests, some well-armed or psychotic soldiers, but they look and behave differently and there is a large team of them to eliminate in Argentina and Germany.  Mad Nazi machinery including two-legged tanks also get a look in.  All of this creates a fantastical but engaging atmosphere. 

Another interesting aspect is that the GGG often unleashes things it cannot control and you can end up in three-sided battles with the Nazi forces Rayne is targeting fighting off demons and mutants who will also attack Rayne.  Though Rayne gains numerous powers, some of her weaknesses, such as water effectively being a strong acid to her.  Towards the end when Rayne is battling huge demons who can kill her with a single swipe it becomes far too hard and I could not complete it without using cheats.  However, I did want to find out what happened in the end and I think that was a winning element of the game.  The fact that it has inspired such a following I think bears witness to this success.  The sequel, 'BloodRayne 2' is set in the near future in a world that vampires are trying to alter to be more conducive to them.  This is very stylish with Rayne starting in an elegant dress in a German mansion and goes on to street fighting.  However, it is far too difficult to be enjoyable.  You can be killed with a single blow at any stage and Rayne does not gain much better weaponry (though the blood-powered dragon guns look neat) as she progresses.  The fact that there is a facility from the start to enter cheat codes, I believe shows the producers knew it was too touch to survive through normal play.  It is a shame as it looks good and has an interesting story.

Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption (2000)
I have mentioned this game before.  It features a 12th century crusader who is turned into a vampire while in Prague and goes on missions in medieval Prague and Vienna and then modern day London and New York.  Though there are some anachronisms, the attention to detail of the medieval cities and the equipment and armour you can get, combined with a wide range of skills and spells you can develop, plus the squad approach of operating up to four team members in co-ordination, make this a very engaging game.  Again, it is not easy, but there is not that sense of futility that you get with, say, 'BloodRayne 2' that you will never progress beyond a certain stage.  That was a problem which I encountered with the sort of sequel, 'Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines' (2004) which was cursed with scores of bugs and needed stacks of patches to work.  One strength of 'Redemption' is that it is based on the paper-based role-playing game, 'Vampire: The Masquerade' which means that it came with a developed world of different warring vampire clans and weapons and spells already worked out.  There is a real enjoyment in this game when a co-ordinated plan comes together or you cast a spell to defeat your opponents, I especially like conjuring up a golem to assist me.  The story, again though fantastical, has more than two-dimensional characters and a story that you can really enter and to some degree get through differently depending on the specialisations you pick for each character.  I just love walking around medieval Prague.

Assassin's Creed (2007)
I have realised that a lot of my favourite games date back to the start of the 2000s.  I wonder why this is.  Maybe the good ideas have been exhausted and we have ended up with variations on themes rather than innovative approaches.  However, one more recent game which certainly allows me to indulge in wandering medieval cities to the full is 'Assassin's Creed'.  This is set in Palestine/Lebanon/Syria in July or August 1191 (Jaffa has not yet fallen to the Crusaders which it did on 10th September 1191).  Well, your character Desmond Miles, is from 2012 and is sent back into the body of one of his ancestors in the 12th century to find out various secrets connected with the Templars for the benefit of the sinister Abstergo Industries which had kidnapped him.  His ancestor known as Altaïr ibn La-Ahad is a member of the Assassins, a genuine body in medieval Lebanon.  Their role in this game was to bring about some kind of end to the conflict between the Crusaders and the Saracen forces.  This was the time of the Third Crusade, with King Richard I of England battling Salah ad-Din.  Altair embarrasses himself at the start of the game and has to restore his standing among the Assassins by carrying out missions in the cities of Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem.  What is stunning about this game is how wonderfully rendered the cities are.  You can walk among the crowds, and being an assassin, scale the walls of buildings and leap across rooftops.  The building details, even the shadows you cast are beautiful to watch.  Great attention has been paid to the historical setting.  Acre, a Christian city at the time, still shows war damage; Damascus is clearly a Muslim city and Jerusalem (including the Dome of the Rock which rather sacriligeously you can clamber on) is a mixture showing its current Muslim occupation and yet with the legacy of years of Christian control.  I have always found the Crusader States fascinating and this game gives you the chance to charge or creep around them.

The one down side is that many of the missions are similar and more variety in what you had to do, would have been of benefit.  Of course, you can go about each mission and the side missions in a different way.  You can simply, if you like leap from rooftop to rooftop sneaking up on guards and pushing them from the roof.  I would like to be able to go into the shops and sit in a cafe, but I suppose exploring the markets and bases of various opponents will suffice.  Have I said, it looks stunning.  You can stand on a high building and simply look out over the city with smoke and pollen and dust blowing around and gaze up to the surrounding hills.  I am so glad that they picked on such a different setting.  I am really looking forward to 'Assassin's Creed II' coming to the PC.  It allows you to play in 15th century Venice, the screenshots look stunning.  There is speculation about the third in the series.  Personally I would favour Paris during the French Revolution of the late 18th century as the next setting, though rumours say it may be somewhere in Second World War Europe.

Deus Ex (2000)
This is an incredibly successful game which has won a slew of awards and has sold over 1 million copies.  I came across it not in a game review but in an article on the BBC website back in about 2003.  This is partly due to the political messages and the chance to have a variety of outcomes to the game depending on the options you take.  It is described as a cyberpunk setting, as you play JC Denton, a man with his body augmented by nanotech which, depending on which options you pick give you a range of special abilities.  Weaponry can also be augmented so two players can end up pretty quickly with very different JC Dentons in the game with different equipment. The story is set in 2052 and Denton works for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition (UNATCO) whose base is at the bottom of the beheaded Statue of Liberty in New York (remember this was produced before the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001) and in seeming to combat terrorism in the USA, Hong Kong and France he uncovers a conspiracy in which a corporation has manufactured a disease called 'Gray Death' so they can get rich selling the vaccine.  However, a load of organisations come into the story like Majestic 12, the Illuminati and the Triads and fictional terrorist organisations such as the National Secessionist Force and the wonderfully named Silhouette, a French terrorist group.

Throughout you can choose different actions to take which impacts on how others perceive you and information you receive.   My brother played the game very differently to me and in many ways this reflected our different personalities, in the way that games like 'Black and White' (2001) tended to show up your personality traits however you tried to act differently.  Ultimately you can pick one of a number of options for governance of the world. Woven through the game are messages about our own world now, for example the steady reduction in the amount of tax large corporations pay.  A sequel set 70 years later, 'Deus Ex, Invisible War' was released in 2003 but I never played it, mainly as I did not have a DVD drive, which it required, at the time.  The reviews of it have not been as good as for the original, which seems to be still available and I recommend buying.

Dungeon Keeper 2 (1999)
This final game is not a first or third person shooting game, it is a building game.  I could have listed 'Caesar III' (1999) or 'Medieval Lords' (2004) or even the 'Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile' (2004) which has great involvement and graphics (why are there never any good Renaissance city building games? Ancient Rome and then Egypt with the odd medieval village seem to dominate), but I have never really engaged with them, 'Dungeon Keeper 2' was different.  Looking over these games I think I enjoy being able to play the 'alternative', to some degree break rules that I could not break in real life.  This is what attracts me to certain games over others.  'Dungeon Keeper 2' allowed this.  You get to play the evil dungeon master and to construct a lair with traps and devices and populate with trolls and others monsters, sorcerors and even sexy dominatrices and then wait for the good knights to charge in and get wiped out.  Stage by stage you take over the kingdom by expanding into the good guys' areas and attracting them into yours for elimination.  Not only do you get the funding of constructing a dungeon in detail, a part I enjoyed when playing the paper-based 'Dungeons and Dragons' role-playing game in the 1980s, you get to be the bad guy, encouraged along by a sinisterly voiced advisor, excellently performed by actor Richard Ridings (born 1958).  One great function is that you can possess any of the monsters or your minions in the dungeon and get to see everything from their perspective which to me seemed wonderful that you can move from working on the 3D overhead view to seeing it on the ground, also useful if you wanted to carry out specific missions using one of your monsters.

Anyway, this is my list of favourite computer games which have not only kept me entertained over the years, but I now realised have in fact provoked thought.  I do hope there is room out there for games that are willing to take a risk to be different.  Games are now part of our broader culture and if, like too many movies, they simply fall back on the tried and tested and parade things we have seen many times before in front of us, then our broader culture is going to be less rich and for me and, no doubt thousands of others, that little bit less fun.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

I've Got My Orange Clasp - Steampunk Short Story

This story arose from thinking how different colonial wars may have turned out with steampunk technology available, in this case the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The nature of the story was inspired by the song ‘Orange Crush’ (1988) by REM which is about aspects of the USA’s colonial war in Vietnam 1965-73.

I’ve Got My Orange Clasp

Extract from an article in the ‘Labour Leader’ edition for the week beginning Sunday 10th January 1904.

This article is based on an interview between our war and foreign affairs correspondent and a soldier who served in the Boer Wars. The soldier’s identity and other identifying elements have been concealed in order to protect him from retribution for coming forward to reveal a little more of the picture that is emerging of how British armed forces executed the recent wars in southern Africa.

Correspondent: What part did you play in the Second Boer War?

Soldier A: I served as a gunner aboard the _________.

C: An airship?

S.A.: Yes, but assigned to the __ Air Dragoons. People forget that the dirigibles of the Air Dragoons are manned by Army men, not ratings and officers from the Navy of the Skies.

C: What armament were you assigned to?

S.A.: The Hotchkiss machine guns.

C: What was the role of those guns?

S.A. They are to clear the ground before we come into land so the companies transported on board can disembark in safety.

C: What do you mean by ‘clear the ground’?

S.A.: Shoot anyone of the enemy who is visible. Other men would drop grenades.

C: How much hazard is there in such activity?

S.A.: Usually there is no hazard at all. I have fought against the Zulu and other tribes and on occasion we would keep firing with no response from them at all; just putting them Africans to flight. Once the dragoons disembarked they just had to clear up. The Boers though, well, they were different. They were a danger even before they started receiving those rockets from the Germans. The Boers, they are the best shots in the world, can hit a target at two thousand yards, so, a man in a slow moving dirigible a few hundred feet above them was all too easy. By late 1900 they were putting in armour plating around our positions on the airships because too many men were being killed; being shot up between the legs or shot through the head from some mountain top as we came down to land.

C: Did you have any moral compunction at shooting men on the ground who had no skyborne forces to support them?

S.A.: In the early days, perhaps, it did seem too easy. Some of the officers seemed to enjoy it too much; calling us something like the Angels of Death, raining bullets down on the ‘filthy farmers’. That was before the bombing from flights of Navy dirigibles over Pretoria started. With the quantities of bombs they were dropping our attacks then came to seem as nothing major. Once a couple of our men had been killed by Boer snipers then, well, we did not feel anything should stop us shooting them: it was a battle, they fired at us, we fired back. Then, of course, late in 1900, the German rockets, the ALRs, began arriving in the veldt. They sent them to the frontline units first, well two or three of them. I know they kept a lot for defending Bloemfontein and Pretoria, but from then on, you had to approach so carefully otherwise in a couple of minutes there would be a rocket coming through the gas envelope and in moments the whole airship would be a ball of flame.

C: You saw that happen?

S.A.: Yes. The air dragoons lost more dirigibles in southern Africa than the Navy of the Skies, but the numbers get lumped together. We always fly at lower altitudes, they can bomb from a safer altitude and actually hit something if they get their calculations right. Well, for us, we had to come in far closer, even if the dragoons slide down ropes the last stretch, and that is when a dirigible is most vulnerable. The rockets could destroy you in one, but even a well-aimed shot at an engine could end the mission and the Boers, well, they are ______ good shots. I have heard the air dragoons lost twenty-four airships up to 1902.

The worst had to be in the run into Mafeking when we were trying to drop food supplies. We had to fly so close and we dropped it at night, but the Boers would be listening, with look-outs in rings around the town, so even if we cut our engines for the last stretch and glided in, they would have already heard us a mile, two miles, back out. How my ship managed to survive I have no idea. Seeing the sky light up when a dirigible got hit at night was incredible. The only consolation was that the Boers more often than not would bring it down among their own lines. It was difficult for them not to do so because they were right around the town.

C: The supplies you brought helped Mafeking hold out for seven months did they not? Until Colonel Mahon’s relief column arrived?

S.A.: Yes, they did.

C: You were at Spion Kop?

S.A.: Yes, I was. That was a battle which drew in almost every dirigible we had operating in southern Africa at the time, certainly those that could do any good at low altitudes. If it had not been for us, then, well, I doubt the British force could have survived. I know here had been reconnaissance from the skies, but, you know, these generals in their steam carriages just blunder around. Saying that, a lot of the time out there, they could not get sufficient coal and they were reduced to going on horseback. Anyway, they have to see the land for themselves and they trust their view far better than the best collodion-calotype or sketch the Corps of Observers can produce from dirigibles. I can accept that, from above, it can be difficult to judge just how hard it would be to lead a unit up a particular slope; how well they can be seen by the enemy. However, at Spion Kop, they did not even seem to notice the whole other peak. Even if it had not stood higher than the hill they went up, it would have been a redoubt the Boers could have used.

The air dragoons saved the ground force at Spion Kop. We circled again and again. We were firing the Hotchkisses as much as we could without melting the barrels. That was the time we ran clear out of ammunition. The dragoons on board were firing from the windows. The thing that is eerie about any gunfire from an airship is how quiet it is. The slap, slap, slap as the air guns fire. The carbines do not have that long a range range, but the men with us kept firing at anything that looked Boer. There were a dozen, fifteen, perhaps twenty dirigibles circling by the end. They say that there is no square foot of that hilltop that is not peppered with lead. Then, of course, it was the air dragoons that we put down who cleared the top, not the units that had marched there. I know the dragoons are light troops but seizing hilltops that has always been the task for light troops; you only have to look at what Wellington did in Portugal and Spain.

C: You feel Spion Kop marked a change in the war?

S.A.: Certainly. From then on, every column then had at least two dirigibles assigned to it, at least one with a company or two of Air Dragoons. The Boers changed tactics too. I do not know if they were going to get the rockets before but it was certain that they had them afterwards and every man of them could use them. You would shoot dead one, two, three, teams setting a rocket up and then someone else would take up their position; boys, even women could fire those things. You learned to spot a cluster of Boers even if was underage boys, women or old men and you would target that group with Hotchkiss rounds, grenades, carbine bullets, whatever you could throw at them.

C: You were awarded the Orange Free State clasp?

S.A.: Yes, I have my Queen’s South Africa medal with my Spion Kop clasp, I have my Orange clasp; I have my Transvaal clasp. That will not identify me from many hundreds others who fought in the war. If you survived, you got those.

C: In the public imagination, however, the Orange clasp has become most associated with the latter phases of the war; the most controversial period.

S.A.: Perhaps. The fighting was different then. The Boers had seemed like worthwhile opponents; frightening men if you fell into their hands. By 1902, however, we had the impression they were fanatics, no different from dervishes, apparently willing to fight to their last rifle round. Normal countries would have surrendered by then, but they kept on and we were running out of ways to stop them. They would attack and scatter, attack and scatter. Grenades and machine gun bullets cannot stop that kind of attack. We took to ringing them with flame. If we saw a unit on the veldt, it would be out with the incendiary grenades, something you do not really want to be carrying on an airship, but you could burn up the veldt, burn the _______ Boers, kill herds of their cattle or ruin the grazing land.

C: Did the men, the ordinary soldiers, approve of those methods?

S.A.: Maybe back in ’99 or 1900 we would have griped, but by the end we wanted the war to be finished and we wanted all the Boers with their rockets out of the way.

C: And the arrests, the internment of the families? The ___ Air Dragoons were heavily involved in that?

S.A.: Yes, yes, we were. However, again, it had to happen. Until then we had simply flown over these isolated farms with women and children scowling at us from the verandas, but then we realised that, of course, the men would be hiding somewhere, not to far off, concealed among the rocks and, at night, they would come back to the farms and eat and then head out to attack one of our forts or a town or some supply column. If we took away the farms then they had nowhere to get the support.

C: You would shoot the farms and drop grenades before air dragoons were landed to arrest the families?

S.A.: No, not at first, but once the Boers knew what we were doing they would set traps. Dropping some grenades first was a precaution, send them running out. We had to burn the farmsteads anyway so it seemed we might as well do it straight off. It speeded things up a great deal; if they had ammunition or rockets they blew apart when the grenades detonated or fire burned through. Those Boers love their rifles like they love their horses, British people would not understand it. You would hear the rifle rounds cracking once you were burning even the most ordinary looking place.

C: In time, though, you came to see how invidious this policy was?

S.A.: Yes, yes, I did. By the end we were not fighting men we were simply rounding up wives and children; we were like cattle rustlers but taking people. As more and more of them were brought in to what they began calling the concentration camps, you know, where the civilians were concentrated, it became worse and worse. The battle was a long one, but by the end they were simply starving the young and the old, killing them with disease rather than bullets. Even the worst, most callous Boer rifleman, well, even he did not deserve that kind of death. You treat prisoners of war decently. Treat them like animals and you just make them as ferocious as animals; it made them fight all the harder. They would rather die with a gun in their hand than slowly of not getting enough food. In the end, we only won because they no longer had anywhere to hide, not enough bullets or horses and they saw their families would die for their continued resistance.

C: Do you believe the war was right?

S.A: I do not like the Boers. They are a very arrogant people and I can see why they caused problems with the Cape Colony and the lands Rhodes’s company set up. At the time I blamed them for the war, but now I feel the British, well, certainly the men of commerce and politics, were as much to blame. The cause appears to be not even about the growth of Britain’s empire, but the simple desire for gold and diamonds and rich men getting even richer.

C: Do you believe what was done to suppress the Boers has established methods the government may use against others who resist their will?

S.A.: I do not know. Southern Africa is a particular place; the Boers are very particular people. I guess though, someone has written manuals on how to repeat what we did in the last year of the war and so could do it again somewhere else.

C: Thank you Mr. A for speaking with me.

S.A.: Thank you for giving me the chance: there were things I had to get off my chest about what happened out there.

C: The people need to know what actually happened in their names.

S.A.: Yes.

The ‘Labour Leader’ opposed the war in southern Africa throughout its duration and now calls for a public inquiry into its conduct and in particular the methods employed against the civilian Boer population. This soldier’s account emphasises the nature of the methods of airborne assaults and the use of soldiers to intern the families of suspected combatants in what are increasingly being acknowledged as inhuman conditions. Such accounts simply add weight to this newspaper’s call for a full investigation and the calling to account of those involved.

Historical Notes
• Even in the 1970s, books would often have a patch of underlining in the place of a name or a date that was not to be revealed, e.g., 'In 19__ I was staying at the Hotel _____'. It was often used to cover expletives and you would see ‘b_______’ in the place of ‘bastard’ or ‘bloody’.

The ‘Labour Leader’ was a Socialist newspaper growing out of ‘The Miner’ and launched as a monthly in 1888. It was run by Keir Hardie until he sold it to the Independent Labour Party in 1904 though he remained editor until January 1905 when John Bruce Glasier took over. It became a weekly in 1894 and turned into ‘Socialist Leader’ following the First World War. It was renowned for its high quality investigative journalism and it maintained a pacifist attitude in the face of wars, in contrast to the rival Socialist newspaper, ‘Clarion’.

• The Second Anglo-Boer War ran 1899-1902. It was over the British attempt to annex the Boer Republics: the Orange Free State (capital at Bloemfontein) and the South African Republic, commonly called the Transvaal (capital at Pretoria). The Boers had launched a pre-emptive strike in October 1899 and put British forces under siege at Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking. The Siege of Mafeking lasted 217 days being ended by Colonel Bryan Mahon’s forces in May 1900. In this story rations for the besieged did not fall to the level that they did in reality because of the availability of dirigibles to fly in supplies.

• The Battle of Spion Kop occurred in January 1900. British forces had sought to recapture the hill in Natal from Boer forces. It was the highest area in the western part of the region. In the dark they captured what they thought to be the summit only to find they were faced Boer troops on three sides on higher ground and with artillery in position. The Boers were able to pick off the British forces. Due to the continued misapprehension of their position, despite having exhausted the Boer forces, the British who had lost many of their senior commanders, retreated from the important high ground effectively gifting the victory to the Boers. In the steampunk version, the appeal for support semaphored out by Colonel Maltby Crofton led to the arrival of dirigibles able to mow down the Boers on the heights and force them to retreat. Of course, with air support the British forces’ appreciation of the topography should have been better, so potentially avoiding blunders of the kind that occurred at Spion Kop.  However, the Second Anglo-Boer War was marked by errors on the part of British commanders anyway.

• The Air Dragoons are a branch of the British armed forces I have used in a number of stories. They are ‘dragoons’ in the original sense, i.e. infantry carried to the combat zone, in actual history on horseback, in this story by airship, and so they equate to an aerial version of the marines. By the 19th century, in our world, dragoons had generally become just another type of cavalry. The Navy of the Skies is the equivalent of the air force but developed far earlier in this steampunk world and based on dirigibles rather than heavier-than-air aircraft.

• Société Anonyme des Anciens Etablissements Hotchkiss et Cie, was an arms and car company established in France by American Benjamin B. Hotchkiss in 1867. It produced cannon and machine guns before also beginning to manufacture cars at the start of the 20th century. The Hotchkiss M1909 light machine gun was used by British forces in the First World War and was known as the Hotchkiss Mark I. In this story the British forces have adopted Hotchkiss machine guns earlier and have used them in their ground-support dirigible force.

• Collodion-calotype is a form of photograph that has featured in my other steampunk stories. Calotype was an early form of photography invented in 1841 and using a paper negative which made it less cumbersome than the glass and metal plates used in other processes such as ambrotype (invented 1854), tintype (1856), collodion process (1851 – because it created a negative first, it allowed duplicates to be made) and, the best-known, the daguerreotype invented in 1839. The collodion process needed trays of chemicals which were difficult to use in the field, but this was generally overcome by the use of an emulsion, invented by in 1864 in our world.

• The campaign medals issued for the Second Boer War were the Queen’s South Africa Medal and, after King Edward VII’s accession to the throne in 1901, the King’s South Africa Medal. A whole series of clasps were issued. Clasps such as the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were issued to troops serving in particular theatres of the conflict but not at specific battles, this would apply to troops such as the dirigible gunners participating seemingly indirectly in a number of land-based battles. Of course, in our world no Spion Kop clasp was issued as it was a defeat, but, in this story, the intervention of the dirigibles altered that.

• In our world, Bloemfontein was captured by the British in March 1900 and Pretoria in June 1900. This did not end the war, simply changed it into a guerilla conflict, with, by September 1900, 30,000 Boer troops still in the field refusing to surrender. To combat these methods, the British followed the example of the Spanish approaches against guerillas used in The Ten Years War (1868-78) and by the Americans in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. The British adopted a scorched earth policy destroying farm land and buildings; constructed 8000 blockhouses to defend strategic routes; had fast moving mounted units numbering 20,000 troops by the end of the war; used armoured trains to respond to Boer attacks and cut off their retreats and, most controversially, introduced concentration camps to intern Boer families in. The bulk of the 28,000 Boer prisoners-of-war had been sent outside Africa but 26,000 Boer civilians died while interned in the 45 camps in the country, which, by July 1901 held 93,000 Boers. A further 107,000 black Africans were interned in 64 separate camps and casualties are not known but at least 14,000 died. The causes of death of Boers and Africans were malnourishment and diseases such as typhoid, dysentery and measles.