Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The English Baccalaureate: Overnight Invention To Increase Division

Like a lot of people who take a passing interest in education stories, I was at once both surprised and not surprised to hear the government's figures for pupils achieving the so-called 'English Baccalaureate'.  It is in fact no such thing and bares minimal relationship to the International Baccalaureate which has been taught in some British schools for many years.  What this new element is, is simply a grouping of subjects, taken at GCSE level, i.e. aged 16: Mathematics, English, two Sciences, a Humanities subject and a language (interestingly either ancient or modern).  This resembles the kind of collection of subjects that pupils taking a baccalaureate  would take, but, of course, given that this approach has never been adopted in most British schools, they would never have been treated as a whole, instead students would have made individual choices of subject.  In addition, the results coming out now were taken by pupils in May and June 2010, just when the current government was coming to power and the pupils would have chosen their spread of subjects back in mid-2008 long before the coalition government was even a nightmare.

On this basis, it is unsurprising that only 1 in 6 of pupils have achieved the 'qualification' that they and their teachers had no idea that they were going to be measured on.  At 270 state schools, no children 'achieved' it, and at 1600 state schools less than 10% did.  The emphasis on 'academic' subjects (and how many state schools actually teach Latin?) is a reversal of the recent emphasis on diplomas and the desperately needed focus on vocational study that the UK has been battling to introduce for the last 150 years.

The so-called 'English Baccalaureate' is simply a way for the government to continue its disparaging approach to education, showing clearly that private schools of the kind ministers in the large part attended are 'better' than the schools that the bulk of the population attended.  As with universities many commentators have wanted a clearer divide between different schools and this is one way to show it.  It turns back all the recent emphasis on the value of vocational qualifications which the country desperately needs to raise the skill levels of the average worker to bring it in line with competitors in the EU. 

Given that the coalition government clearly wants universities to return to being institutions which only take a small elite from privileged backgrounds I have a suspicion that the next step will be to say that no-one who has not achieved the 'English Baccalaureate' will be able to progress to university.  This would reverse the attitude that certainly the Conservatives despise, espoused since the 1960s and reinforced in the late 1990s, that everyone should have a chance of higher education if they are capable of doing it.  Bluntly, someone doing a Tourism course at a post-1992 university is in fact going to contribute a great deal more to the economy than someone studying Classics at an 'ancient' university.  However, efficiency and a strong economy is of second value to the current government which is bent on reintroducing a very socially divided, hierarchical society to the benefit of the already privileged.  This creation of a fake qualification as a measure to demean schools which are doing good work in educating the bulk of the population, is another weapon in which to drive UK society back a hundred years.

What If Operation Mincemeat Had Failed?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Other Roads: Alternate Outcomes of the Second World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Monday, 10 January 2011

Things I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18

A few months back on the BBC website I came across an inteview with sociology professor Fred Furedi about five things he had felt he had learnt during his life (he is 63).  His five were: 1. Listen - because you can learn from anybody; 2. Question everything; 3. Rely on your intuition; 4. Always reflect on your motives when you are dealing with your children and 5. Things are never as bad as they seem.  Two things struck me about this.  First I was interested that almost all the points were completely the opposite to his (with point 4. I am only occasionally a pseudo-parent so cannot really engage with that point) and second it reminded me of a similar column I used to see in one of the Sunday newspaper magazines when I did a paper-round in the early 1980s which was entitled as I have entitled this posting.

I am not as old as Furedi, but I have experienced quite a bit of life.  I know that I came from a privileged background: my parents never divorced; we lived in the same house all through my youth; we lived in a middle class town in southern England not hit by unemployment and social problems as much of England was; I was not sexually abused (though I was physically bullied by peers and constantly humiliated by my parents who portrayed me as looking like someone mentally disabled); I had friends (though fewer than I realised); I had a room of my own to sleep in; I was well fed but not obese and when I went to bed it was not wet or cold.  I must say, however, that I have been incredibly disappointed with my life.  If I had written this posting some months or years ago, I might be more positive, but facing losing my house and having no work for months is clearly going to alter my view of things and make a lot of what I have done in recent years seem entirely wasted.

I will start with Furedi's five points and then add some of my own.  In terms of listening, I agree up to a point, but the more I have heard the more I have heard the same.  I have been struck by how small minded and bigoted the average person is.  I have lost count of how many times I have been told that the problems of the country are down to immigrants with absolutely no evidence.  Such things are repeated so often that they are no longer challenged.  The same with stuff around the Thatcherite agenda, such as deregulation and privatisation; that large numbers of people are defrauding the state and millions are getting more than their fair share.  I am sick of this stuff being repeated to me as if it is acceptable and beyond challenging.  I do not know how I would have reacted if at 18 I would have known this, I guess I would have terminated conversations with many people much sooner, simply walked away.  It would be better to be thought peculiar than to listen to hours and hours of this rubbish which I must have heard in my life, simply wasting time I could have spent reading a book.

In terms of Furedi's question everything, I think there is no point.  I thought this was the case when I was a child, but I think I was misled by the lingering radical lecturers at my university who had been students in the 1960s and had not thrown off such attitudes even with their prosperity and success (more likely because of them).  Basically, unless you are a member of the ultra-rich in our society, you are never going to be able to change anything.  There is no point questioning what happens.  Often it will be unfair and irrational, but whether it is how your company does things or how you are taught or how the country is run, you are in a position which means you can do absolutely nothing about it.  Even if you question it, the answer will usually be irrational and refer to habit or tradition and you cannot break that down.  This particularly applies in the workplace.  Most offices, factories, warehouses, shops, etc. have methods which are wasteful in terms of time and resources but never try to challenge these and suggest a better way, it will simply cause you to be complained about as a troublemaker or naive and certainly not being wortwhile employing.  An episode of the US series 'Malcolm in the Middle' (2000-06 in USA).  Teenager Malcolm gets a job working in a warehouse where his mother works.  He is charged with squashing up empty cardboard boxes and then taking them to the refuse.  The pattern is that the boxes are loaded into a lift taken down a floor, taken into the box-squashing area, squashed, loaded back into the lift, taken back up a floor and then to the refuse container.  To speed things up Malcolm squashes them on the floor they start off on and then takes them over to the refuse container, so saving time and electricity.  He receives an official report against him for not complying to procedure.  This kind of thing happens in every warehouse in the UK and in every office or shop or factory there is similar behaviour, but unless you want to lose your job do not challenge it.  In terms of wrongs in our world, complain about things, shout and protest about how wrong they are, but do not waste your effort questioning most things as you simply irritate people and generally they can give you no answer which makes any sense.  Save your effort.

Intuition is useless, you might as well toss a coin or throw a dice to decide the step to take in any situation.  Even when you have lived life it is impossible to know enough to make a judgement that will save you from harm or discomfort.  The best you can do is learn as much as you can about a situation and at least dodge some but certainly not all of the unpleasant consequences, e.g. use a condom when having sex should spare you from a pregnancy developing or getting a STI, but you are unlikely to avoid your partner's ex-boyfriend/girlfriend attacking you jealously, unless you have researched your partner's background and choose a different location or time to have sex with the person.  Intuition is far too often affected by superstition and prejudice and so often blinds you to the full range of options and in fact can channel you down fixed, bad paths and leave you with no alternatives that you might otherwise have seen.

As I say I cannot comment on dealing with 'my' children.  I certainly think it is worthwhile checking your motives when engaging with anyone not on any moral basis but because it will allow you to see why you are truly doing something and whether that motivation is liable to alter or more likely flag as time passes.  A clear example is joining a club or activity because you know someone you are attracted to is a member/participant.  That is a bad motive.  The likely outcome is that you will be stuck doing something you do not enjoy and they will not be interested in you anyway.  You will endure doing something you do not like and wasting time that could be spent on more enjoyable things for you.  I am not saying just be a hedonist, but that your focus should be on the central activity not ulterior motives or possible by-products of doing that thing.

Things are always far worse than they seem.  As I grow older I adhere to the phrase 'it is later than you think', as used in a religious context, i.e. you must change your life and seek salvation as soon as possible because you are going to be judged sooner than you believe.  I do not see it in that particular way, but I think it is a good attitude when thinking about your life.  Often minor things happen, such as something goes wrong with your car or your house or there is trouble in your workplace.  Too many people, myself included, think, 'it is only minor, I have time to get it sorted'.  No, not only is it already too late when the problem becomes apparent, it is going to get worse, because one problem triggers a whole series.  You will find the repair to the car costs more than you think so you have less money or you get to work late and steps begin to remove you from your job.  In the current economic climate, no job is safe, even teachers and nurses could lose their jobs very quickly.  You constantly need to be looking ahead for potential problems.  You constantly need to be saving what you can to prepare for the dire situations that come up in your life.  Even then you have to recognise you cannot foresee everything and will get caught out unexpectedly.  Unfortunately there is nothing that you can do about that, it is part of life.  I know now that when I was teenager I was not cautious enough and rather than think I could survive in the business I dreamt of going into, I should have trained as an accountant or a lawyer and right throughout my life I would have avoided things like living in an unheated room above a chipshop sharing a bathroom with seven other people and losing the house I bought now.  Always be prepared for the worst that you can imagine, because, in reality, life will be even worse than that.  Anyone who tries to follow dreams, especially in their careers, will suffer badly.  Find the most secure occupation you can and cling to it; keep retraining constantly to widen your options and even then be prepared for not getting even a fraction of what you want.

Moving on from Furedi's points there are a few others of my own.  The first is that most people quickly forget when you have said something in passing that upset them.  I often believed I had offended people by what I had said and worried about it greatly and assumed they would hold a grudge against me.  Perhaps this stemmed from childhood experiences when people in my district constantly referred to mistakes of the past.  I was once at a party and turned down a dessert saying I was not allowed by my parents to have 'packet food' (I had assumed wrongly that it was 'Angel Delight' a very popular, very sweet dessert in a packet of the time) as they were into self-sufficiency and homegrown stuff at the time, the mid-1970s.  This offended my friend's mother who had put a lot of effort into the dessert.  Running into the woman more than 12 years later she immediately challenged me on what I had said at the age of 8 and was clearly still unhappy about it.  However, as life has gone on, I have found that people generally forget faux pas and inadvertently insulting comments incredibly quickly.  Not everyone, of course, but the bulk.  I do have a concern that in the age of social networking, we are all now experiencing longer duration of anger at such faux pas. I blame this on the hyper-emotionalism being brought from the USA to the UK in which all friendships have to be the greatest ever with constant contact and all groups gather and fall apart like girls in a US high school playground with snubs seem as some heinous insult, even simply not acknowledging immediately or daily is seen in this way.  Such attitudes, spill into the workplace.  Thus, at 18, I wish I knew that most people do not take faux pas to heart and let them fester for days let alone years, but at 42, I would warn myself that perhaps my childhood experiences are more mainstream now.

People do not want the truth they want a quick answer.  Being interested in many topics it took me many years to learn that even if people ask you a complex question they want a quick, simple answer with no context.  I have to rein myself in sharply these days because somehow a lengthy answer is now taken as 'improper' especially in the workplace where it seems to be insulting to the 'time poor' staff.  You have to keep thorough answers to your diary or your blog, most people want nothing lasting more than 3 sentences, you have to stick to simple concepts, generally engaging their prejudices, whether you are emailing or speaking to them.  Challenging someone's view of something unless done very subtly is seen as an insult.  At 18 I loved the complexity of ideas and events and assumed everyone else did and wanted to discuss them: they do not and will become irritated, even insulted, if you try.

Women do not like to have sex with virgins.  I was never very successful with women, but realise that at 18 I should have been far less picky and simply have had sex with any woman who offered it.  As a man, if you have not had sex by the time you are 21 then it is unlikely you ever will have sex.  Women, no matter what their age, do not want to be a man's 'first'.  The woman who was mine was incredibly angry when she found out and ended the relationship as she weirdly thought I would somehow be obsessed with her.  Given her attitude I was clearly quite happy to be rid of her.  Women expect a man to know precisely what he is doing, not matter how young he is.  You need to read up as much as you can, get to know all the current jargon and never, ever admit to your first partner that she was the first, not even years later, because even then she will turn strange and may spurn you, even if you have had lots of sex with her by then.  After 21, women will guess that you are a virgin anyway, it seems impossible to hide.  So, whilst taking precautions, I certainly recommend all men, who want to have sex in their 20s and beyond, having sex with a woman before they turn 21 otherwise your chances of ever having it drop to almost zero.

Women are very complex anyway and the input of all the media means they are often not making decisions for themselves but making decisions selected by others.  On one hand I wish I knew at 18 that some women will be gravely offended if you even dare to ask them out and you must be ready for how cutting they will be and how indignant that you dare ask.  Conversely, I would say, it is amazing who women will be attracted to and you may feel that you are incredibly gawky and ugly but there is at least one, if not many more women you will meet who would at least like to sleep with you and perhaps have a long-term relationship.  Certainly if a woman asks you out, it is usually genuine.  I often thought I was being played with, but with hindsight, I see that whilst some women might want you simply to get them pregnant, the vast majority simply would not bother asking you if they did not feel that there was something good about being with you even short-term.  I was always chasing women who had no interest in me and never knew how to handle those who actually had asked me out, thinking it had to be some kind of trick.  In this still too heavily male-focused society, any woman who has made the effort to ask you out is worth going out with.  The vast bulk of women of your age have no interest in you, so one who expresses an interest is to be treasured.  The other thing I would say to my 18-year old self, is that the most unexpected girlfriends are often the most successful ones.  We all have an ideal, but actually real happiness is found in the least expected place, in terms of a woman's interests, appearance, nationality, background, even age.  If you really want happiness have an open mind.

Do not reveal anything much about yourself to work colleagues, it will be used against you.  Never tell anyone if you are married or single or who your parents or siblings are or where you used to work, even where you holiday or what books or movies or food you like.  All of these things will be taken and used by someone in your workplace to disadvantage you.  Do not have family pictures on your desk or talk about your wife or parents, keep all of this secret.  If you have to, fabricate a life that fits with your colleagues' prejudices about what a 'normal' person of your age and position has.  Obviously, I would advise anyone to keep details available online about them to a minimum.

One thing I am glad I did adhere to when 18 is not to disrespect anyone, even if you disagree with their views, they are worthy of respect as being humans.  Certainly if you run into a dictator or a torturer challenge them as far as you can (without endangering yourself or others), but almost all people you meet in normal life think they are doing right and are doing it for worthwhile motives.  Even if what they are doing is wrong, do not lower yourself to become like them.  You are unlikely to change them by disparaging them, but your mean-spiritedness is going to put other people who could be your allies, off you.  As far as possible avoid unpleasant people and console yourself that they will pay a price whether you believe as a result of karma, being judged in the afterlife or by being left friendless because of their behaviour.

I would tell my 18-year old to go and visit more people.  Even if it means lengthy journeys, actually visiting friends is a rare commodity which will become rarer as you get older and you will look back at missed opportunities to spend time with friends.  It is important for your wellbeing to get out and see people.  There will be ample time for sitting at home in the future.  Travelling with people is a whole much harder thing, far more difficult than you could ever imagine and only worthwhile doing with individuals who can tolerate their life while travelling to be entirely different to everything they had at home, even if going camping in the UK or to a hotel in France, and who do not get frustrated when things turn out differently to what is expected.  Do not plan too much, people jam holidays full of stuff, just absorbing the place is often enough, do not try to adhere to a rigid, packed itinerary, it will simply raise the chances for frustration and problems.  Enjoying being away from home and with friends and family should be a far greater priority than seeing or doing everything you had considered doing.  Only travel with sexual partners if married to them, no other set-up will stand a holiday.  It is better for you to have short breaks and to holiday separately with same-sex friends or family until you have effectively become family to each other.  So many good relationships are broken by holidays and I am far from being the only person to note this.

In terms of myself at 18 in terms of travel, I would see be less afraid than your mother about me travelling to places.  I miss out a great deal in 1989 by not seeing the Berlin Wall before it fell and in 1995 in not going to Prague and Budapest, for fear that I would be robbed or not find someone to stay.  My holidays cycling in France would have been better if I had not been terrified of not finding anything to eat on a Sunday.  Whilst caution while travelling is sensible, fear actually reduces the experience and means it fails what the basic principle is of travelling, which is to have fun.  I certainly wish I had had the courage to do things at university such as 'rag hitch hike' and gone on more random trips because succeeding at them would have built up my courage to travel more.

Another personal thing which would not be broadly applicable, would be to tell my 18-year old self not to be deluded into thinking that I could learn foreign languages or learn any martial art.  I wasted a lot of time and money doing both, ultimately for absolutely no personal gain, and, a long the way a lot of stress and disappointment.  Despite what you are told by the people wanting to market their courses or their club, not everyone can achieve success in these areas.  It is certain I am an utter failure at trying to grasp foreign languages or do a martial art and yet I continued to delude myself that 'this time it will be different', it never has been.  Finally giving up on Mandarin for the second time two years ago and chucking in fencing back in 2005 were long overdue admissions that I would never be good at not only these specifics but at these things in general.  When I was younger I wondered if I should not have taken up the chance to study Japanese in Japan, but now know that was the correct decision.  I certainly should not have gone to live in West Germany in 1989 as my grasp of the language was just as bad when I came back as when I went and all the good things I experienced there I could have experienced just as well as a tourist.

I would tell my 18-year old self that I would never be published.  Though it was not as severe a situation then as now, I should have realised that there was never any chance that anyone would pay any attention to what I had written to want to publish it.  There are tens of thousands of full-length books being written in the UK now and the vast majority of these will never be published.  Before wordprocessors were common they were probably fewer in number, but certainly I wasted a lot of my life writing and editing stuff that no-one beyond myself is ever going to read and it is clear it will never be published.  It was a massive delusion on my part and I should have spent my time doing something else and saving my cash.  People do not get published because they have an ability to write good work, just look at the quantity of appalling books.  They get published either because of luck or most commonly because of who they know.

One thing that I would have told my 18-year old self to do is to attend more public appearances by people, particularly politicians, historians, scientists and authors.  I often could not stir myself to go to these things, but I severely regret that now.  Despite our television, and now internet age, there is nothing like actually being in a room with someone you admire or, conversely, strongly disagree with and I wish I had taken up far more of the opportunities that were presented to me to do this.

I would also tell my 18-year old self that whilst hard work is vital, it never guarantees anything.  Working until 9 p.m. most evenings of the week studying in the library does not get you a 1st class degree.  If I had stopped at 5 p.m., I probably would have still got a 2.1, but been able to do more of the things above.  I certainly warn my 18-year old self at 21 not to take the advice of what turned out to be a very foolish lecturer, and take time every day to read the newspaper.  Following that suggestion in my final year at university caused immense difficulties.  I lost hours of time which I should have been spending on my work, for absolutely no personal gain.  I knew more about day-to-day events of those months but they have given me no benefit then or since.

Anyway, these are the things that I wish I had known at 18.  I am a person who, when anything goes wrong, always analyses how better it might have turned out if I had made different choices.  In most cases, living in the UK in the times I have done, there is little change I could have made.  Getting some slightly different jobs would have made a huge difference, but if this recent glut of interviews has shown me, I have minimal control over which job I get, and the same applies for where I have lived, too often it has been Hobson's Choice.  However, if I had been able to get these thoughts back to my 18-year old self, I think a lot of the time between the difficult times would have been a lot happier and certainly satisfying than it turned out to be.  I think this is because unlike, perhaps Fred Furedi, there are very few parts of my life that if I had the chance to change them in some way, I would want to leave them just as I experienced them.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

I Don't Love the 1980s: Second Bash

Back in October, last year, I finally got around to writing my views of the 1980s.  Given that it is a decade which is being referenced a lot at the moment, by politicians, the media/culture and the public, primarily because we are once again under a harsh Conservative regime (wrapped up to look like a coalition, but in fact no less sinister than if David Cameron had won a clear majority), unemployment and social division are rocketing once again.  I intended to write a critique of the decade which too often is remembered through the rose-tinted perspective of the 'Brat Pack' movies of the 1980s and the lie that it was a period of glamour and prosperity, whereas for most people it was one of the worst times of their lives.  My critique: ended up going down the Alan Davies route and in fact being very much about my personal experiences of the decade and far less a general historical survey of the times along the lines of what I did for the 1970s.  Thus, with the objective of reminding those people who lived through the 1980s actually how bad it was, cutting through the softening of memory and especially of nostalgia, and for those who were not alive or not conscious of the decade except as history, this posting is a more impersonal critique.

Bascially the 1980s were frightening.  When the population was not frightened about losing work and home, they were frightened about being wiped out in a nuclear war.  The period called the Second Cold War started in 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support the left-wing government in power there against radical Islamists; they remained until 1989.  The Soviets were to prove the second of three superpowers (the British in 1837-42 and again 1878-1880; the Americans now) to get into serious military difficulties trying to control the country.  Their invasion coincided with a shift in the American political scene away from the detente phase of the mid-1970s to a much harder line under right-wing president Ronald Reagan (1980-8), not an intelligent man and one who had strange beliefs about how God would defend the righteous when a nuclear war came.  Consequently, certainly until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, there was a real fear that we would see a nuclear war.  Reagan's bullish approach was seen in active support for the Contra rebels seeking to overthrow the elected left-wing government in Nicaragua and for the Afghan Mujahadeen fighting the Soviets.  Such support seemed to revive the 'proxy' wars facet of the Cold War of the early 1980s. 

The threat of nuclear war was brought home to the population of Britain and many other West European countries by the higher visibility of nuclear weapons in the country.  The advent of cruise missiles launched from lorries meant that ordinary people saw nuclear missiles coming through their village on manoeuvres in a way that they had not seen them in the past when they were generally concealed in underground silos and nuclear submarines.  Culture constantly reminded us of nuclear weapons and it spilt over into all aspects of popular culture with numerous books and even games about the Third World War; songs about nuclear war by mainstream bands (e.g. 'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984) and 'Russians' by Sting (1985)), not only protest singers; television dramas (notably 'The Day After' (1983) and 'Threads' (1984)) and documentaries about the effects of nuclear war (the concept of nuclear winter began to be explored at this time) and even comedians referenced nuclear war, not only the burgeoning 'alternative' comedians in the UK (such as in 'The Young Ones' series (1982-4), but even mainstream comedy like the short-lived series 'Comrade Dad' (1986). 

For many people there seemed to be a choice between instant vapourisation in a nuclear blast or lingering death from radiation sickness or starvation during the nuclear winter.  It is unsurprising that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) revived so vigorously.  It had been formed in 1958 but had been pretty moribund, having only 4000 members in 1979.  The immediate threat of nuclear war meant membership rose to 100,000 by 1984 with many more sympathisers in the general population.  The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev was a real relief to much of the world.  Whilst most of us had never expected the USSR to start a nuclear war (in fact China was a greater danger but constantly overlooked in the West), this was confirmed by Gorbachev's steps in the late 1980s.  Fortunately Reagan saw which way things were going.  With the failure of his delusional plan for the 'Star Wars shield' against nuclear weapons he recognised, or his advisors did, that going along with Gorbachev could also spare the ailing US economy of the burden of the constant arms race.  It was made more palatable for the Americans by the declarations that they had 'won' the Cold War, though, as I have argued on this blog, that was probably a premature claim.

The other global threat to life in the 1980s was AIDS. HIV had been identified in 1959 but the perception of it as an epidemic really began to appear in 1980-1; AIDs was officially defined as a disease in the USA in 1982. While we were aware of the rising number of people with HIV and AIDS, it reached around 8 million globally with HIV by 1990 (it is now 33 million), in the UK, the real jolt came with the 'Don't Die of Ignorance' campaign started in January 1987. With intentionally very grim imagery, it instilled in people the fear that the world was at risk from this epidemic. It certainly seemed like something out of science fiction series of the 1970s such as the chilling BBC series 'Survivors' (1975-7) and movies like 'The Andromeda Strain' (1971; from 1969 novel). To a great degree it was to shake up the complacent attitude that the disease was something that only gay men or intravenous injecting drug addicts would get. Of course, Africa has seen the outcome that the whole world anticipated in the mid- to late 1980s, with over 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with HIV, 1.4 million deaths and over 14 million children left orphaned by AIDS. Around 1 billion people live in Africa, so we are talking about 5% of the population of that continent still suffering. Fortunately the development of medicines and a degree of alteration of behaviour, in particular the growth in the use of condoms, slowed down the growth of HIV/AIDS in other parts of the world, especially the wealthy countries. However, complacency is risky, as the rise in all STIs among over-50s has shown in the past two years in the UK. AIDS seemed, like nuclear war, to tell us that the warnings that authors had given us in the 1960s and 1970s could easily come true and the fear was palpable.

In terms of global politics, in the early 1980s most people assumed that the world would be divided into two or three superpower blocs for the foreseeable future.  Looking back now on the era there is naturally a sense that the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and of the USSR itself was inevitable.  However, the suppression of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland in 1981 with the implementation of martial law made us far less optimistic in the 1980s.  Even when Gorbachev came to power there were often concerns in the late 1980s that he would be overthrown and a harder line regime re-introduced as happened after liberal Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was removed in 1964.  Like Khrushchev, Gorbachev did not always pursue liberal policies and the suppression of nationalist uprisings across the USSR in 1986 can be seen as a clear example of this.  Thus, millions of people in Europe continued to be under totalitarian Communist rule until the Soviet bloc began to break up properly in 1989 first with Hungary and notably with East Germany and Romania.  Even then the break-up of the USSR was not a foregone conclusion.  The former Communist states did get democracy and some have flourished.  Russia has found it harder and has suffered from gangsterism and a tendency towards authoritarianism.  Elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc, national tensions effectively put on hold in 1944 have revived, most shockingly in the brutality of the Yugoslav War 1991-5 (I know Yugoslavia was not entirely in the Soviet bloc but it had been a Communist state) but also in states like Hungary and Romania.

The rapid collapse of the Soviet bloc and then the USSR 1986/9-91 led many to feel that the right-wing assumption that a free economy must lead to democracy was disproved by the experience in China.  Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Chinese leaders like those in the USSR came to realise that a highly centralised economy was no longer working and so more steps towards a more capitalist system was needed to secure even basic prosperity.  In China millions of people were allowed to relocate, primarily to coastal cities.  In the 1980s about 80 million people, equivalent to the population of Japan (which was the booming economy of the time, people forget it was seen then very much as China is now) relocated.  China moved very slowly towards capitalism, a process which was anticipated to move as fast as it had in the USSR, though thirty years on it is still incomplete and the Chinese state still controls vast sections of the economy.  Too many commentators cannot shake off the delusion that China will inevitably (and comparatively soon) come to a more democratic system.  They do not look at Taiwan which had capitalism for fifty years before it became democratic or how authoritarian in flavour the regimes of South Korea and Singapore are.  If they needed any more evidence they have to only look as we did at the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.  The sending in of tanks looked incredibly like the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968-9, the crushing of attempts towards a more liberal political system in Communist states.  China has made no further steps towards political liberty, it remains a totalitarian state with an appalling human rights record as it did in the 1980s.

Another concern was what was happening in Iran.  This took time to really penetrate into our consciousness, but also signalled a big change in the risk to the world.  In 1979 the Ayatollah Khomeni became the head of a revolutionary regime which had expelled the corrupt Shah of Iran.  The shah's callous and greedy behaviour, based on the country's immense oil wealth, had made him naturally hated in Iran.  The failure of Arab nationalism to effectively remove western influence in the Middle East and limit/destroy Israel, led to Islamist thinkers (remember the population of Iran is mainly not Arabic, they speak Farsi) to adopt different approaches.  In common with a trend across the world (in terms of Christianity, notably in the USA) there was a shift to fundamentalism; a re-emphasis on literal interpretation of holy writing.  In Iran, Islamic fundamentalism was the foundation of the regime which persists to today.  Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter had ordered an embarrassing failure of an attempt to rescue US hostages in Iran and I think this is why Reagan stayed away from the country.  US interest in the region dates back to the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 which outlined the USA's need to ensure stable friendly governments in the Persian Gulf region to secure oil supplies, a policy revived under the two Presidents Bush in the 1990s and 2000s.  Reagan's approach was to bolster secular Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, especially during the inconclusive Iran-Iraq War 1980-8; ironically Hussein was later removed by the Americans on the basis that he was backing Islamist terrorism, but in fact it was simply about the oil he controlled and that his usefulness to the USA was at an end. Fundamentalist Islam is an attitude that proved to provide the intellectual seeding ground for Islamist terrorism in the 1990s and 2000s.

One country which attracted much attention in the 1980s was South Africa.  The apartheid system was still in place.  Apartheid had been in place since 1948 and though there had been massacres in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the Soweto Uprising of 1976, in 1985-9 the situation came to a head with local rioting spreading.  In 1985, a State of Emergency was declared and spread to the whole country.  Battles between the black population and government forces and within the black population filled this period and it appeared as if South Africa was on the verge of civil war.  As it was fatalities were commonplace.  It was only with the resignation of President P.W. Botha and his replacement by F.W. de Klerk in 1990 that began the steps towards the dismantlement of the apartheid system, including the release in 1990 of Nelson Mandela.  For the bulk of the 1980s it appeared as if the killings in South Africa would not cease and a full-scale racial war would develop as it almost did at the start of the 1990s.

Many Americans seem to think that terrorism was not invented until September 2001.  However, the UK in the 1980s was suffering terrorist attacks by Irish Republican groups.  In the period 1981-3 there were bombs across London including in prominent sites like Regent's Park and Harrods store; another in Kent in 1989.  In 1984 they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the British government were staying killing and injuring members of the government and their families and almost assassinating the prime minister.  These were a continuation of bombings on the British mainland seen in the 1970s.  In Northern Ireland itself bombings and shootings continued almost without cease; notably the Enniskillen massacre in November 1989.  The British government responded with harsh policies such as 'shoot to kill' allowing special forces to assassinate terrorists both in the UK and outside its borders.  In the 1990s the incidents increased in regularity and severity.  This is why the British were pretty non-plussed about the 11th September 2001 attacks and their aftermath.  In the 1970s we had seen the Queen's cousin assassinated; an MP Airey Neave killed right in the Houses of Parliament car park and were to see another Northern Irish Secretary assassinated, mortar bombs fired at the home of the prime minister and countless soldiers and civilians killed.  The security checks you went through whenever visiting a public building reminded you of the risks you faced.

Another particular characteristic of the UK in the 1980s was rioting.  In 1981 there were riots in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol.  During the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 there were regular battles between police and strikers that seemed to resemble something from the Middle Ages with police behind shields and riding down strikers from horseback.  In 1985 many of the areas which had experienced riots in 1981 saw them again, some again in 1987.  The introduction of the poll tax was to lead to the Poll Tax Riot of 1990 in central London.  The poll tax or Community Charge as it formally named (though even government documentation noted its more popular name) was introduced to Scotland in 1989 and the rest of the UK the following year.  It funded local authority spending.  Unlike previous local authority taxation or the current Council Tax, it was not based on the value of the property which you lived in.  All people living in a district had to pay the same amount no matter whether they own property and no matter what their income was (though the unemployed could get a discount).  Clearly it hit the poorest working people hardest.  It was incredibly inefficient as it was based on individuals, and on average a district would see 2-4000 people move address between each year's assessment and the bills being sent out.  In the town where my parents lived it meant doubling the number of staff working for the council simply to handle the tax so sapping the funds it brought in.  I lived in East Anglia at the time and received bills for eight different people who shared a surname with me; one friend of mine whose surname is the very common Smith never received a bill because they were all sent to someone else.  Another friend who was out of the country for three months (you were not liable for the tax if not in the UK), and had told the council returned home to find he was being summoned to court for not paying the tax, so costing the council additional money in the legal processes.  You can see why the tax was unfair and in fact useless.  The idea was that it would make payers put pressure on the local authorities to find the cheapest way to provide services so curtailing the activities of high-spending local authorities on behalf of the government which despised Labour-run councils.  However, no-one gave any thought to that just the inequity of the whole scheme and how it penalised them.  No wonder the riot was so virulent.  Again it was a factor which brought fear into your everyday life.  I worried I would be taken to court and be imprisoned (elderly people who refused to pay on principle were imprisoned, so I feared, that, as a young man, I would be one of the first to be locked up) because I had not paid the other seven bills sent to me but certainly lacked the money to do so.  The poll tax led to a great distrust of local authorities to the extent that even in the mid-1990s when I was living in East London it was reckoned there were 60,000 people living in the borough who were not registered for council tax.  Though the poll tax was short lived it has done immense damage to local authority funding. 

There was an assumption, which fortunately in the past five years seems to be finally being challenged, that private business will always run things far better than any public provision.  As we have seen with filthy hospitals, expensive fuel and water and appalling public transport, in fact, private business is good (most of the time) at making huge profits but in terms of service delivery is very poor.  In addition, British service providers are not even good at running businesses, which is why so few of the privatised services of the 1980s remain in the hands of British companies.

Another major trouble of the 1980s not only in the UK, but across capitalist countries, was unemployment.  UK unemployment was a little below 2 million, around 5% of the working population when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.  This contrasted to 1.2 million, around 3.5% in 1974.  The increase had been provoked by the oil price rise, the decline of heavy industry in the UK and difficulties around the strength of the pound and balance of payments which had led to the introduction of semi-monetarist policies in 1972 and again in 1976 on the urging of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The cutback in public services, the wrecking of the coal industry, the restriction on money flow and a strong pound limiting export markets meant that manufacturing, which had been overtaken by service industries in contributing to the economy in 1974, went into severe decline.  In 1983 unemployment exceeded 4 million, around 12% of the working population, but far higher in particularly depressed regions like Northern Ireland where it exceeded 20%.  Even in the 'boom' of 1989 it was still at 2.5 million before rising again to 3.5 million in 1992, 10% of a larger working population.  The UK was not alone, the USA had unemployment of 7.5% in 1980 and 10.8% by 1982.  These days the rate of 10.2% unemployed in the USA means 16 million people without work.  West Germany, like the USA and UK pursuing a monetarist policy saw its unemployment rise from below 4% in 1979 to over 9% in 1983 and remain that high for the rest of the 1980s.  Unemployment not only blighted individuals and their families, it blighted towns.  As now you could walk or drive through areas with all the shops and often many houses boarded up.  It was easy for areas to get into a spiral as with high unemployment people did not have money to spend in shops so these would also close putting more people out of work.  The fear of losing your job hit far wider than the 1 in 5 or 1 in 10 people who might be unemployed in your street.  In addition, as now, many of those in work were in part-time and low-paid jobs.  In particular local public sector work saw a decline in wages as councils were compelled to privatise them to the cheapest bidder.  Thus, even those in work were often worse off than they had been during higher inflation of the 1970s.  Those who did not get the training or the education or the promotion or who spent much of the 1980s unemployed are still being affected by these years now.

Despite that the bulk of the population, even those who were not affected directly by unemployment, reined in their expenditure for fear of losing their jobs, the very nasty aspect of the 1980s was the emphasis on greed.  I always refer back to a line from a song by the band 'the The' (1986; I think from the track 'The Mercy Beat'): 'everyone can be a millionaire so everyone's got to try'.  The sense, as now, that if you were not out being an entrepreneur and making a huge profit you were somehow a 'scrounger' and unpatriotic, despite the fact that through the 1980s recessions thousands of companies large and small were going out of business.  It was as if you did not put yourself up as a sacrifice to capitalism you had no right to respect.  Of course, the bulk of us will never make good entrepreneurs.  However, public service was now looked down upon and claiming benefits had you portrayed as a pariah and pushed around by an ever intrusive state. Trade unions which stood up for decent pay and conditions were portrayed as 'the enemy within' and were increasingly restricted by legislation and police activity.  Margaret Thatcher's emphasis that society did not exist exempted those doing reasonably well from caring at all about their neighbours or even members of their own families and instead the cry 'get a job' was shouted at them as if they were deliberately avoiding work.  This myth that anyone on benefits was claiming simply for an easy life, despite how low those benefits are, became fixed in British society and remains there today, when, in fact, the bulk of unemployed people are desperate to work which is why even the low paid and increasingly dangerous jobs were filled.  These attitudes, this smashing of concern for others infected the USA as well.  I am sure it appeared across Europe though perhaps not as virulently, though the steps against immigrants does suggest it took root.  This view that we can all be successful in private business and if we are not it is our fault, revives one strand of Victorian thinking without the balancing element of philanthropy which stemmed from seeing all great and lowly as part of the same society.  Attempts to re-establish that latter aspect by Cameron, are not succeeding and so we simply have the harsh Thatcherite line of 'I'm all right Jack, the rest go to Hell' is back as virulently as it was in the 1980s.

Though the 1980s can be seen as a period of important steps forward, in the dismantlement of apartheid and of Communist dictatorships, for the bulk of the decade the future seemed incredibly bleak and the present unsettled and violent.  Scars have been left on public attitudes which have damaged many societies, notably in the UK and USA up to the present day and make life far more unpleasant that it needs to be.  Hyper-individualism and being beholden to profit-making at any cost are harmful for the vast majority of people who are never going to come close to being millionaires.  Yet, since the 1980s these attitudes have been portayed as laudable and the 'common sense' basis for how things should run.  I am glad that the fear of nuclear was has subsided but the racism and the unemployment with all the bigotry it brings are with us now.  Remember when you sit down to watch 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986) or 'The Breakfast Club' (1985) let alone 'St. Elmo's Fire' (1985), that that was a fantasy of the 1980s, all big hair, pastel colours and big mobile phones; it came nowhere near the bitter reality that most people experienced.  Certainly there seems to be none of the fear that was so prevalent in the 1980s and is again, that you could be dropped by society and there would be no escape from that.  Watch instead 'Boys from the Blackstuff' (1982) or 'Edge of Darkness' (1985) or even 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' (1983-4) for a more realistic indication of the times.  If I had written this three years ago as I had intended, I would have said, I just hope we never go back to the days like that.  Unfortunately, now we seem to be back in the midst of them once more.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The End Of My Property-Owning Dream

Back in 2000 when I was buying my first (and only) flat, a Japanese friend of mine emailed to say that now I was entering the property owning class that he anticipated that I would not wish to communicate with him being simply an employee, at the time working in a record shop, subsequently when laid off for being too old for that work (at the age of 30) he became a carer.  I know there has always been snobbery in the UK around owning property, but no-one has ever said to me here that I should or should not talk to them because I was or was not an owner of property at the time.  I note this now because finally we have had an offer on the house, probably just in time because I am running out of money to pay the mortgage.  Of course, the offer is less than we paid for the house, by £25,000 (€28,750; US$39,500) and is £15,000 less than the asking price we insisted on (which itself was £15,000 higher than the price the estate agent recommended).  Aside from the slump of 1990-3 the UK, especially southern England, has been used to constantly rising house prices and in general property has been the best investment if you want a decent return on your money.  In fact as I have often noted, house prices have been an obsession in the UK and I can think of no other country where just a simple slowing in the rise of house prices, not even a fall, makes the news broadcasts.  With mass unemployment reappearing and a depression in full bloom, this has already begun coming to an end.

For me, of course, the profitability of owning houses never really turned into a reality.  I owned a flat in London for seven years.  It rose from £80,000 to £130,000 in that time, so I did very well out of it.  The only trouble was, with work taking me away from London on a series of short-term contracts in the Midlands and on the South coast, I was deemed to be running it as a business (I let it out so that I could cover the council tax charged on empty furnished properties) and so I ended up with a £16,000 capital gains tax bill and then, of course, Newham Council, which makes up charges for all kinds of things at a whim, charged me £16,000 as well for work done in the street and to the building which held my flat.  I was compelled to sell the flat far cheaper than the going rate.  It was a two-bedroomed flat but was sold at the price of a one-bedroomed flat, about £20,000 less, partly because the estate agents were in on some deal with buyers (often landlords in the area) and because I was being hassled by my own landlord to move very quickly.  Always remember that however nice estate agents appear to be, they are always playing off the buyers against the sellers.  As a seller, they will never even get you the price that they recommended, expect to lose many £10,000s on that price.  Buyers are also getting very greedy.  When I sold my flat, the buyer, who was being granted constant access to the flat by the estate agent, began demanding various £500 sums for things such as cleaning the flat, something I could get done for less than a tenth of that price.  Clearly informed by the estate agent that I was desperate to move the buyer felt he could twist lots of little bonuses out of me.  The estate agent actually broke the lock to the front door something I had to pay over the odds to have replaced hours before the contracts were exchanged.  I was angered by the buyer's arrogant behaviour and in the end did not pay for the flat to be cleaned; I left the toilet unflushed and a range of food items for the buyer's delectation when he arrived.  It was a small victory, but you can see I was desperate to get something back for all the hassle and lost money.

I suppose I should not complain that I came away with £20,000 profit from the flat.  What was worse was that with the landlord compelling me to move so fast, I had to buy a house (the woman who shared the house with me was sick of renting, but maybe with hindsight we should have done that for a period more) when prices and interest rates were at their highest; more time could have made a huge difference, but I am never lucky that way.  Consequently, of the £20,000 I made on my flat, I will take away about £12,500.  I suppose I should not complain.  I could be facing negative equity meaning that I would still be paying off a loan on a house that I no longer owned.  At least with this deal, I do not get the black mark of repossession against me and all my debts will be cleared.  A lot of people will be far worse off than me.  Of course, I will never own property ever again.  I am now 43 which means that even with the raised retirement age I could not pay off a 25-year mortgage before I retired.

So, after a decade of owning a flat/house, though only a total of four years of actually living in the property I owned, I am back into the rental sector.  Of course, it has worsened since even the bad landlord I experienced back in 2007.  Now you can pay £600 per month to rent a single room in a house.  In addition, you have to go through the humiliation of an extensive selection process.  I am not glamorous, I look peculiar and am told I taught too much.  Like a lot of people looking for a room, I am going to find myself going through fruitless beauty contests.  Landlords/ladies know that people are desperate for housing and so can use this against you.  People renting out property generally think their tenants are slovenly and filthy, no matter how hard they work to keep the place clean.  Rights to be informed of a landlord's inspection are often ignored and you get levied charges like £40 for dust in a drawer or £60 for soap residue in a sink or £400 for the lawn having grown.  I should go into business as one of these cleaners/handypeople who charges such high prices for rectifying these things.

In addition to being once again a tenant, I have also dropped down the social scale even further.  Now, I am a man who has been unemployed for 7 months and will be dependent on housing benefit.  This rules me out from even applying for the bulk of rental property in my area and I am restricted to only those offering 'social housing'.  Housing benefit is falling and will quickly be below the rate necessary for the region in which I live in.  Consequently I will be compelled to move into one of the 'benefit ghettos' that are liable to harden once the new rules of housing benefits really begin to bite.  It seems incredible that twelve months ago that my career seemed to be advancing and I had a house and a stable situation and now that has been stripped of me.  At 43 I am cast on the scrap heap.  My career has halted and I cannot even get manual work because there are too many younger people with the right NVQ to step into those roles.  I suppose pride comes before a fall, but I do feel, that rather than much to do with my efforts, this has been inflicted on me by a government which loves pushing people down the social scale so as to enhance the standing of its people.  I am harangued by the Job Centre to be positive and see some future, but, despite all my efforts, there is no work even in a 250 Km radius, that will take me, I am apparently too much of everything for these employers, too high, too low, too practical, too strategic, too involved, too detached and so on.  Before Christmas I was interviewed for a job and came in as first reserve.  Given unemployment levels it seems unlikely that the winning candidate will turn the post down.  However, I then found out that the funding for the post has not even been approved yet, they were just building up a clutch of potential employees.  I was not even applying for a real job, just simply the opportunity that if a job does appear then I will have a chance to get it.  How much more like disposable batteries can workers become?  'Keep some in the drawer if we need them; chuck those ones out: they're past their use-by date.'

Anyway, I suppose returning to the rental sector will give me issues to post on here, assuming, that is, that I can get internet connection in whatever cramped flat I can get and hear myself think over the noise of screaming neighbours.  What about the woman and nine-year-old boy who have shared my house through the past few years?  Well, with the little money derived from the house sale, they are emigrating to Germany.  With the EU and online sales, small business have a lot more ability to relocate.  Apparently Berlin is desperate for people to rent there and is offering particular breaks.  There are a string of bilingual English-speaking schools there too.  Being an entrepreneur relocating is one thing; an unemployed office manager who does not speak German is something different. 

I am glad that they are getting out of the UK because the future here is going to be incredibly nasty.  As I have noted before people these days often ask: 'why did people not flee from Nazi Germany sooner?' and seem to think that they were naive or foolish.  For my views on this see:  Sitting here in the UK with a new regime, which I trust will never come close to the horrors of Nazi Germany, but certainly seems well on the path to something like the Francoist regime in Spain (1939-75), I can see how hard it is to flee.  You need lots of money and know how you are going to access it in the new country.  You need to be able to speak a foreign language, very well, and to be able to handle all the bureaucracy of the destination country.  You have to try to get some of your belongings out with you.  You have to think about the welfare of your children and how they will be educated when you arrive.  You have to think about what you will do for work.  You have to learn a new set of not only laws, but also customs and expectations.  If you think how challenging a lot of this is, even when you move from town to town in the UK (supplement accent for language in that case), think how many more times it is moving abroad.  I wish I had the ability to go.  Given the damage to UK education that is already beginning, I am glad the boy is getting out.  His mother seems to have paid heed to the warnings I have given about going abroad, see: and finding a school that was English-speaking, was her first task.  Berlin is very different from the rest of Germany, more international and at the moment welcoming to immigrants from western Europe.  The EU makes things a lot easier for moving around than was the case in the 1930s, but it is still a challenge.

A couple of years ago I wrote on this blog that life does not 'begin at 40' as many have claimed, instead it 'begins to end', see:  It is clear now that through bad luck, probably not being assertive enough, and living in particular times, my future is going to be a lot worse than the life I have lived so far.  I have had a brief period owning a house and having a kind of family, the type of lifestyle that the Conservatives are supposed not only to support but to foster.  That period of my life is over.  My one shot at establishing myself in the middle class has gone and now I am an over-aged, over-educated something that will be pushed around by bullying landlords and officials simply because I failed to scrape together enough money to keep a house or said the wrong thing to a question at one of my interviews.

If you have the means to get out of the UK, I advise you to do it now.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Books I Read In 2010

This is the latest in my annual series of reviews of books I have read.  See:
for previous postings in this series.

The number of books I am reading seems to be steadily falling from between 30-40 per year back in the 1990s to much lower figures now.  Interestingly there is a direct correlation between how much I am unemployed in a year and how little I read.  You might think that being out of work would leave me lots of time for reading, but it is also about being inspired to read and when I am without a job, the debilitating lethargy quickly creeps over me.  I guess this is why I know I could never be self-employed.  Like the huge majority of the population from the moment I started play school I have been conditioned to having my day structured for me whether directly or indirectly through people making timed demands.  As a result, being out of work so much in 2010 I have read less than even in the previous years.

Some people say that the book is dead and young people in particular tend not to read books.  Pre-secondary school children do still seem to engage well with books, as sales of things like the Beast Quest series show.  Reading is in fact at a height.  The internet, though providing lots of video content, is actually full of text.  A lot of that text is very badly spelt, but it is text all the same.  Blogging is a very text based art and develops writing skills, though I accept to a limited extent in some cases, and reading too.  The book as a medium rather than reading as an activity may be in decline but it is not that apparent.  I remember when supermarkets did not sell novels or any books in fact, and yet, these days even comparatively small branches have a row of books.  I find them in 99p shops too.  Some of this I imagine is about the digital divide; 30% of people in the UK have no internet access and many others have poor, low band access.  I am a well educated person who cannot afford a Kindle, whereas I can fill my house with books from charity shops and actually have a backlog of a few hundred books to read; I have not bought a new book in the past two years trying to keep the stack down.  People give me books too.  I think the tactile element of reading, the robustness of books, their ease of reading in a variety of light situations, the fact no-one is liable to steal your book, means that they will be around for a lot longer.  The recession means they will be more appealing to those with few funds and a lot of time.

Anyway, for me, not having travel on public transport, no longer having a lunch break and having a lover who is often averse to me reading in bed, my chances for reading for pleasure rather than for information or trying to find a job have declined severely, and last year's very short list of book titles shows that.  Expecting to have to move house at any time last year I focused on the heaviest books in my collection.  Many removal companies refuse to move books (certainly three companies out of the last four I have used) and so I was concerned that if I could not reduce the weight I would have to abandon large quantities of my collection if I could not fit them in my car.

'The Daffodil Affair' by Michael Innes.
This was the third in a three-book collection of terribly over-rated novels by Michael Innes. I commented on 'Death at the President's Lodging' and 'Hamlet, Revenge!' last year.  This third book was even worse than them.  It is a weird fantasy of a police detective sent during the Second World War to South America to investigate a man interested in psychic phenonmena who has abducted various people, a horse and even haunted buildings and brought them to a settlement he was creating.  How anyone could do that during wartime seems odd.  Of course, many of the people simply have mental health issues.  The whole novel is very peculiar, totally unbelievable and a real waste of time.  In nothing I have read by Innes does he seem to warrant the acclaim he was given.

'Chimera' by John Barth.
I really seem to have had a bad run of novels.  This one was an utter shambles.  It received an award in the mid-1970s and I can only imagine the award jury were on drugs at the time.  It is supposedly a three-part novel that draws on Greek myths and stories from the Arabian Nights.  It starts rationally enough re-interpreting the stories from a 1970s perspective though set in the ancient world.  However, quickly the text becomes almost incomprehensible with the plot running out of steam and even if you know great details of the original myths, the writing is soon a mish-mash of phrases and snippets that seem to think they are so clever but in fact are pathetic.  I certainly would warn you away from this novel, though I imagine there cannot be many left in circulation.

'The Deadly Percheron' by John Franklin Bardin.
I immediately worried that this was a kind of re-run of 'The Daffodil Affair' being a story set during the Second World War and involving a disappearing horse.  In fact it is far better being about a plot to divert, even brain wash as leading psychologist so that he cannot reveal the identity of a murderer.  It is written from the psychologist's perspective and is especially well done when he wakes up after having been almost murdered by being pushed in front of a train and begins to try to recapture his identity.  As a European reader, seeing New York portrayed in the early 1940s, so apparently untouched by the war is interesting.  The novel has elements of film noir stories, but with a greater psychological element than even those.  Not a cheerful novel, but well written and engaging all the same.

'The World at Night' by Alan Furst.
Furst is renowned for his spy/intrigue/murder novels set in 1930s and 1940s Europe.  This one was a real disappointment.  It features a Parisian movie producer who is drawn into being a double agent working for SOE and the SD in wartime France and Spain.  In the meantime he tries to make movies during the period of occupation and has lots of affairs before falling in love with an actress living in Lyons, which unlike Paris, lay in the Vichy region of the country.  The whole novel feels like Furst is simply going through the motions.  There is a real lack of tension throughout even in scenes as when the protagonist is escaping from a Gestapo prison.  There is a lack of passion in the numerous sex scenes too.  Furst is pretty good at conjuring up the context and details of the period, but in this case it makes the book as dreary as living in wartime Paris must have been.  Something to engage the reader is really lacking from this book.

'The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology' ed. by John W. Campbell, Jr.
I have no idea where I got this book from but it is one of the best I have read in a long time.  It is a collection of stories from the US science fiction magazine, Astounding Stories, which became Astounding Science Fiction in 1938.  It is still being published, since 1992 under the title Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  The magazine started in 1930 and Campbell was its editor 1937-71.  This anthology published in 1952 includes short stories appearing in the magazine 1940-51, a period that Campbell feels was when science fiction was moving from being just the substance of 'pulp' magazines to becoming a more serious genre.  I will list the short stories below because you will see many familiar names.  I have included one of the stories from the anthology in a posting before:

I certainly think that a lot of contemporary science fiction writers especially those of the overblown, door-stop kind of writing should go back to these stories and see good writing in the genre.  These were clearly the cream of the stories over an 11-year period, but despite their age they stand up well today and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.  Of course, in 1940 the nuclear bomb was guessed at but had not been created, but already writers were analysing the likely impacts on humans and the struggles of dealing with such power.  Interestingly only in a couple of the stories do you see Cold War sensibilities, and this is really only apparent in the later end of the collection.  Knowledge of the solar system seems a little naive today, with primitive life on the Moon and bases established beneath seas on Venus, but to some extent show writing at that cusp before all the fantasies of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells about our neighbouring bodies were finally dismissed by space travel.  Certainly 'Clash by Night' by Lawrence O'Donnell (1943) portraying battling companies of mercenaries on Venus could stand up beside the 'Dune' series even today. 

As you would expect from science fiction there are stories questioning assured mutual destruction, first contact with aliens, brilliant children and creating immortality through manipulating cells.  Though the language [for example people say 'good-by' rather than 'goodbye'], the clothing and some of the ordinary technology seems very dated now, it added to the charm for me as it gave a window into not only science fiction ideas but those of a mid-20th century US context.  As with all best short stories, these pack stimulating ideas into a small package and often have an excellent pay off, sometimes in the final phrase.

'Blowups Happen' by Robert Heinlein, 1940
About the psychological pressures on men overseeing nuclear weapons.

'Hindsight' by Jack Williamson, 1940
About personal and inter-planetary rivalry in a colonised solar system, involving weaponry firing through time.

'Vault of the Beast' by A.E. van Vogt, 1940
About unleashing a sleeping alien entity.

'The Exalted' by L. Sprague de Camp, 1940
 Rather comic tale of an intelligent bear investigating mischief at a US university.

'Nightfall' by Isaac Asimov, 1941
Great story about how, on a planet which suffers periodic eclipses, myths and cults arise explaining what is happening, with particular consequences.

'When the Bough Breaks' by Lewis Padgett, 1941
Parents' view of raising a genius child desired by a future civilisation, a kind of antidote to 'Terminator' (1984) and its sequels (1991; 2003).

'Clash by Night' by Lawrence O'Donnell, 1943
City-states on Venus use mercenary companies to fight their battles; tactical nuclear weapons are banned.

'Invariant' by John Pierce, 1944
A man has found a way for him and his dog to become immortal, with unexpected consequences.

'First Contact' by Murray Leinster, 1945
A really good exploration of the challenges of encountering new intelligent life on the edge of human space.

'Meihem In Ce Klasrum' by Dolton Edwards, 1946
Clever essay on the ridiculous aspects of English spelling.

'Hobbyist' by Eric Frank Russell, 1947
Lone human space explorer cannot determine why there is only one of each species on a planet.

'E for Effort' by T.L. Sherred, 1947
Really fascinating story of the careers of two men who develop a device which can show images from any time or place in history. A little reminiscent of 'Deja Vu' (2006) though on a far larger scale.

'Child's Play' by William Tenn, 1947
A very 'Twilight Zone' like story in which a man receives a child's kit from the future enabling him to create life.

'Thunder and Roses' by Theodore Sturgeon, 1947
Quite a sentimental story with a real 1940s feel about a female singer touring the USA in the wake of a nuclear war begging for the counter-attacks to cease for the sake of the world.

'Late Night Final' by Eric Frank Russell, 1948
Uptight commander of alien invasion fleet tries to prevent his crews fraternising with the humans.  The character reminds me of Arnold Rimmer in the 'Red Dwarf' comedy science fiction television series (1988-99; 2009).

'Cold War' by Kris Neville, 1949
Very similar to 'Blowups Happen' looking at the psychological pressures on men manning nuclear weapon armed space stations circling the Earth.

'Eternity Lost' by Clifford D. Simak, 1949
About a man who has already had his life extended centuries seeking to have one, last, vital extension.

'The Witches of Karres' by James H. Schmitz, 1949
A playful story, a kind of 'Dances with Wolves' (1990) on the borderlands of a vast space empire with mischievous inhabitants of Karres.

'Over the Top' by Lester del Rey, 1949
An explorer is stranded on the Moon while Earth is on the verge of a nuclear war; reminiscent of parts of 'The Martian Chronicles' by Ray Bradbury (1950).

'Meteor' by William T. Powers, 1950
Nice twist on the usual meteor-threatening-to-crash-into-Earth story; the oldest story I know featuring mining within asteroids.

'Last Enemy' by H. Beam Piper, 1950
About staff who monitor different parallel universes being drawn into exploration of reincarnation on one version of Earth; one of the two stories in the collection with apparent US-side Cold War sensibilities but an interesting portrayal of behaviour in a society in which reincarnation is an established fact.

'Historical Note' by Murray Leinster, 1951
Very much a Cold War spoof exploring the consequences of developing personal flying devices in the USSR.

'Protected Species' by H.B. Fyfe, 1951
Nice consideration of colonial attitudes in space exploration, with excellent final line pay-off.

'French Revolutions' by Tim Moore.
An entertaining account of the author cycling around the 2000 route of the Tour de France, which I should have read long ago.  Entertaining as all the best travel books are and especially good if you have enjoyed cycle touring and/or know France.  For the impact had on my perception of myself see the posting:

'The Collapse of the Third Republic' by William L. Shirer
A very good exploration of the fall of France in 1940 and the reasons behind it dating back decades.  Shirer is renowned for his work on Nazi Germany.  As a US journalist he was in France and Germany during the 1930s and into the war period.  The USA being neutral until December 1941 he was pretty free to move around even during the war.  He is excellent on the political aspects in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He tends to get overwhelmed when describing the complexities of the fighting in 1940 and the book could have benefited from more maps at that stage.  His journalistic style makes the book very readable and it is very informative on the period.