Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Books I Read In January

With me reading much more fiction last year than for many years past, it seemed sensible to alter my book reviewing to monthly rather than annually which had meant there was a very long list to cover by the time I reached the end of December.  Thus, this is the first monthly review.  However, given that year I am intentionally reading the largest books I own to reduce the storage space and the weight if I need to move them again, the number may not be sufficient to warrant this approach.  However, I start giving it a go here.

'Tourist Season' by Carl Hiaasen
This is the first novel in an anthology of Hiaasen's first three solo novels that I bought second hand at the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury back in the mid-1990s.  His writing is crime fiction set in southern Florida in the 1980s.  Supposedly the books are satirical and though this one has some quirky characters, perhaps I am too far from the time and place to recognise the satire.  The story is about an odd band to terrorists seeking to drive away holiday makers and especially people with holiday homes or retirement homes in Florida so that the over-development can be reversed and some sort of ecological balance be established.  Whilst sometimes incompetent they carry out a series of murders.  Brian Keyes, a private investigator is drawn into combating the terrorists; his ex-wife is now married to one of them and he is also assigned to protect a beauty queen who is one of their targets.  The tone is rather erratic, probably due to the efforts at humour.  However, the characters seem well drawn even when peculiar, incompetent or nasty.  You feel that if he had avoided the humour it could have been a far more intriguing novel but conversely could have been a lot worse in the way that satire often can be, very laboured.

'The New France: A Society in Transition 1945-1973' by John Ardagh
This was recommended by a former friend of mine.  It is an interesting collection of writings about France by a journalist who knew the country well.  The first half is a very analytical account of how the country was modernising with great detail of the development and challenges in different locations in France.  I do not know if anyone has produced a follow-up which took the story further.  It reads very much like a series of articles rather than an integrated book.  It is packaged in a serious academic way which may be to its disadvantage and I could see it being better received if it had been published ten years later, i.e. 1983, as a jolly discussion of Britain's near neighbours rather than being packaged as something almost academic.

Ardagh had the advantage of meeting with so many of the key players and ordinary people wrapped up in what was happening.  I first went to France as a toddler and visited as child during and soon after the period he discusses.  I was not aware how sharply divided on social class basis France was but feel still that there is a juxtaposition of the very modern and the ancient side-by-side even today.  I had studied 'Paris and the French Desert' at school but this book really highlights that regional imbalance.  Ardagh is far weaker when he digs into cultural issues.  He is very weak in trying to analyse the changing role of French women and he gets distracted notably when writing about movie director Jean-Luc Godard and his trip to a Club Mediterannee resort.  He does show well the impact of the 1968 uprisings and of the De Gaulle regime on France and for that I feel I understand this phase of French history, particularly the latter years, far better.  I certainly imagine that Ardagh would be stunned to find how enduring Johnny Hallyday has proven to be given he had clearly written him off as beyond the end of his career as early as 1973.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

We Would Like To Complain That You Are Insufficiently Consumerist

I am used to advertising coming at me absolutely every way it possibly can.  Of course there are the old fashioned methods such as posters, newspaper and magazine advertisements, radio and television commercials that have been around for decades and longer.  I would imagine that more content on the internet and certainly the bulk of email traffic is actually trying to sell you something quite often spurious products connected to sexual performance that the vast bulk of users do not even want advertised to them let alone to buy.  It almost seems that advertising has become a kind of end in itself rather than a way to increase sales of a company's particular product.  The fact that there are awards for television commercials and I assume hidden within the industries themselves for all other kinds of advertising suggests that they have gone beyond simply being a tool to having become a form of art.

Keen-eyed readers or those listening very astutely to their screen reader will notice I have, as yet, not mentioned telephone advertising.  Of course, you can now sign up to a service that removes you from the lists of permissible numbers to call.  This saved us a lot of time and effort in our house, not only from calls from people but also from calls from machinery.  It seemed particularly invidious that the company could not even bother to employ a person to bother us and left it to a machine; even the ten-year old boy who lives in my house, younger then, knew immediately when he answered the phone if it was about to play out some recorded message and would slam the receiver down with a curse.  He was well trained in this as some scammers played on children answering phones to get them to call back premium lines.  Perhaps a child should not answer a telephone but given he moved much faster than the other residents of the house and could get down the stairs fast enough to reach the phone before it rang off and without injuring himself as I tended to do, it was often down to him to answer it, especially as the answering service supposedly provided by BT proved so unreliable.

On mobile phones it is even worse because phones have two ways of getting messages to you, either by calling you up or texting you.  I have owned a mobile phone since 1999 when one I was incredibly lucky to have one given to me as a present as I was living at the time in a house without a landline.  It cost the phenomenal sum of £199 (equivalent to about £296 at today's values).  I have only owned three handsets.  One I left in a taxi and one broke down.  From the initial gift I have stayed with O2 (or BT Wireless as it was up until 2001) and so have simply had the handset replaced.  Currently I do not have a smartphone so I imagine I am missing out on third and fourth ways to advertise to me through my phone, i.e. by sending me the equivalent of television and internet advertisements to me over it.  If I want to take photographs I use a camera; if I want to surf the internet, I use a computer.  I have no desire to use a second rate device as phones tend to still be in these respects to do those activities.  I realise that makes me an eccentric.  Typically I immediately delete any advertising texts but one company I cannot stop advertising to me directly is O2 itself.  I suppose as my long-time provider they have a right to contact me.  However, what alarms me about their advertising, as the title of this posting suggests, is not that they try to sell me things but they go further and try to tell me how to live my life.

It is a recognised advertising technique that you encourage potential customers to feel they are buying into a certain lifestyle or even into a kind of elite through purchasing their products.  Companies develop sub-brands to appeal to different sectors of their customer base separating them out by age or income, always by gender and sometimes by location.  Advertising often sells a story, that if you have the item somehow you will be a different person.  This is semi-spoofed/semi-replicated in the long-running campaign for Lynx deodorant and shower gel (interestingly the product is called Axe in continental Europe) which suggests one spray or dollop will make a man irresistable to women.  In fact, buying a handbag will not make you any more popular or beautiful or successful, despite the advertising.  It may signal to other people that you are of a certain wealth or taste and that may, in some rare circumstances, open up some social contact that you might not have previous garnered.  The main benefit is that it makes you feel a part of a set of people that you want to associate with, even if the feeling is not mutual or at least to show you share common taste/attitudes/aspirations with those people.

Some advertising goes beyond the change being brought about by purchasing the product to saying that some people do not deserve the product unless they already lead a certain lifestyle.  There are a couple of memorable ones of this style.  One was the 2009 campaign from Phones 4 U which only offered particular deals to people who had 50 friends or more, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/jul/11/phones4u-advertisement  There was another one which I think was for Audi cars, but I might be mistaken as this was probably a decade ago.  It showed a flash, brash stock broker type taking a test drive and then turning down the car saying it was not the car for him and the salesman agreeing, implying it was for customers with far greater taste.  I feel I am facing the same kind of pressure from O2.

Just after Christmas I was telephoned by O2 to ask if I was happy with the service they provided.  I said I was.  However, that was not enough for them.  They asked me why I was not using my phone more than I did.  The man on the other end of the line said 'I can't believe you're not using the 10% discounts' and then asked me why I did not want additional texts or calls or a whole string of offers that they regularly text and also email me about.  I then had to spend five minutes telling him that generally my phone is either switched off or without charge in it.  I probably receive one to two calls per month on it and make even fewer.  I probably send one text per month to my mother, one to the woman who lives in my house and one to my landlord generally when he has offered to cook me a curry.  Thus, if I was suddenly offered 100 free texts it would most likely take me until 2015 to use them all.  A lot of the calls and texts I receive are advertising.  I do not have an active social life and have lost contact with almost all of the friends I had ten years ago.  The ones I have prefer to email or even send postcards.  I had to keep repeatedly saying that my mobile phone was far more a safety device for when my car breaks down or to confirm with my mother or my co-resident that I have arrived safely.  Last time my car broke down the charge in my mobile was exhausted and I was compelled to use a phone box, something I have not done in probably a decade and was alarmed to find how much it cost.

What irritated me was that not only did I have to keep repeating myself, even though O2 knows how much I use my telephone from how much credit I put into it around £30 every 4-5 months.  I was resentful that they were trying to get me to live some kind of different life in which I have many more friends and I call them regularly rather than struggling home exhausted to spend the weekend on domestic chores and sleeping.  I half expected the caller to say I no longer deserved the phone I had because I was not living the appropriate life that their customers are supposed to have.  I felt that I had to fight for the right to live the dull life that I have been dealt.  Imagine the impact of such targeted advertising on someone like a teenager far less confident of their lifestyle or unable to see that actually in the UK in 2012 we have very little control over our lives.  The woman who lives in my house who lives pretty much the same sort of life as me though she runs a company and has local friends, was similarly called by her provider and questioned about using her phone more.  I guess the fact as an entrepreneur and yet has little need of the phone in this age of email and Skype, in order to do business may suggest why the companies are so tenacious and have no embarrassment in trying to press us to live what they feel is an expected lifestyle. 

I am reminded a little of an episode of 'Doctor Who' in an alternate version of 2000s Britain in which everyone wears blue tooth kinds of ear pieces and consequently become programmed to behave in much the same way as their fellow citizens and are steadily being turned into cyber(wo)men.  A mobile phone is useful, but I feel no compunction to live the way the company that provides it expects.  I could not do so without a sudden injection of lots of friends.  I do feel that I should not be rung up at regular intervals and have to defend my lifestyle choices so vigorously.  I guess this is another element of the shift in service provision that I have noticed.  It is no longer the case that 'the customer is always right' now it is clearly, 'the company is always right' in how they take and hold your money and how they tell you that you should be living your life.  Hands off my personality!

Monday, 9 January 2012

The List For 2011 Which Interested Me The Most

For some reason many in the media seem an urge at the end of the year to compile lists usually related to things that have occurred in the preceding year.  I suppose it is a very easy way to fill up newspaper and webspace without really having to put much effort into composing something.  'The Guardian' which along with the BBC news website, is my media source of choice was not immune to this tendency.  However, rather than the 'Five Things We've Learned About Fashion' (despite it being penned by the very sexy Jess Cartner-Morley) or 'Five Things We've Learned About Television/Art/Food/Science' and definitely skirting Grace Dent's 'Five Things We've Learned About Celebrity' I was ironically drawn to the more eclectic almost surreal 'Famous List Words': lists produced by a range of 'celebrities' including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling and teleivsion presenter Lorraine Kelly to the puppet character Sooty.  The items listed included Scottish anthems, top people called Jones and favourite past shapes (with spaghetti, penne and fusili rounding out the top three).  The one that attracted my attention most and I felt was worthy of comment was '8 Movie Characters You Wouldn't Want To Fuck With' as selected by current pop star Jordan Stephens (born 1992) of Rizzle Kicks, a hip hop group from Brighton, southern England.

Of the movies listed I have only seen six but hope that I know enough of the work of the actors featured to comment on the list as a whole and I may come back to this posting if I see the remaining two movies.  I replicate the list here for reference with some additional information for ease of subsequent discussion:

1) Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills in 'Taken' (2008) - Literally slaps up most of Paris in 96 hours.
2) Brad Pitt as Mickey O'Neil in 'Snatch' (2000) - One-hit wonder.
3) Gary Oldman as Stansfield  in 'Leon' (1994) - No one plays gun-toting villains like Gary Oldman
4) Vincent Cassel as Jacques in 'Mesrine' (2 parts; 2008) - He holds up a judge at gunpoint. Enough said.
5) Keanu Reeves as Neo in 'The Matrix' (1999; but presumably too in the sequels both 2003 in which the character becomes stronger) - Can literally do ANYTHING.
6) Denzel Washington as Eli in 'The Book of Eli' (2010) - Can batter people while wearing a backpack.
7) Samuel L. Jackson as Jules in 'Pulp Fiction' (1994) - Just wants to be the shepherd.
8) Sir Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in 'Sexy Beast' (2000) - Doesn't take no for an answer.

This is the kind of list you would expect men in their thirties sitting slumped in front of the television, perhaps portrayed by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the movie version.  It is notable that all the characters are male and what is interesting is that what seems to have got them into the list is not simply that they can be physically violent but also that they have an attitude.  The nature of each is very different, but you could argue that all are self-righteous, and in a couple of cases righteous too.  I suppose that is something that is very scary about such an opponent that they have blind faith in what they are doing and believe that to challenge that is utterly unacceptable even if, on an objective moral judgement their own behaviour would be condemned.  This is particularly the case with Stansfield and Logan, both of whom are evil men and yet it is their indignation that anyone would challenge their world view that gives them real nastiness.  Jules is a little like this but his indignation really stems less from his world view which in the course of the movie seems to be moving towards some kind of Christian religious revelation but rather irritations to his day-to-day life; he is most angered not by immoral behaviour but by people disturbing his coffee drinking.  That mundanity of violence is another aspect of evil and shows a complex character who seems to feel that he is moving towards good whilst at the same time behaving in an evil way without thought.

Eli and Neo are different, both being at least prophets if no messiahs.  I have not seen 'The Book of Eli' but it is about a blind traveller carrying a braille copy of the Bible across the USA thirty years after a nuclear apocalypse.  In many ways it panders to the US view that much of the population of North America could survive a nuclear war and in some ways the world would be a better place if American society could start from scratch, in this way the premise is very similar to 'The Postman' (novel 1985; movie 1997).  Having Washington play a blind character also references martial arts movies with blind action heroes. In parts of the movie Eli seems able to dodge bullets as if protected.  Thus his violence fighting against Carnegie played by Gary Oldman, is righteous as he is seemingly on a mission from God.  Washington's action characters tend to be rather stoic almost relaxed in many of his movies such as 'Devil in the Blue Dress' (1995), 'Fallen' (1998), 'The Siege' (1998), 'Man on Fire' (2004) and especially 'Deja Vu' (2004).  Keanu Reeves struggles as an actor and whilst Washington can show a wider range of emotions Reeves is a one-note actor.  'The Matrix' is engaging due to its premise, but Reeves is so emotionless that he might as well have played a construct of the computer system.  Yes, Neo can do everything, but in many ways that is what makes him unappealing.  There are times when we feel Neo is in jeopardy, not through Reeves's portrayal but because it is explained to us, yet ultimately we know he has the power to overcome everything and an invulnerable hero is no hero at all.  Even Stansfield and Logan have a vulnerability if their plans do no go right.  They suffer the double hit of things not working out and them becoming apoplectic that other people have derailed what they felt was the thing that had to be done.

Gary Oldman seems to be coming down to two settings.  One is a quirky almost pleasantly, camply sinister bad guy as he has portrayed not only in 'Leon' but also almost taking off that role in 'The Fifth Element' (1997) and producing something similar in 'Airforce One' (1997), 'Lost in Space' (1998) and more recently voicing Lord Shen in 'Kung Fu Panda 2' (2011) and funnily I always see him in mind's eye rather than Tim Roth, playing Archibald Cunningham in 'Rob Roy' (1995) - perhaps since they were in 'Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead' (1990) together.  The other is a warmer, usually bearded character, notably in the Harry Potter series (movies feauring Oldman 2004-11) and perhaps 'Red Riding Hood' (2011) though I have yet to see that.  To some degree he seems to have lost the range of his early work notably 'Sid and Nancy' (1986) and 'Prick Up Your Ears' (1987) which may explain his movie hiatus 2001-4.  I find Oldman's warmer characters far more credible than his evil ones which he tends to ham up.  This was no doubt intentional in 'The Fifth Element' which was a light-hearted movie, but I feel weakens his portrayal in 'Leon'.  His best bad character is probably the title role in 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992).  The elements of the mundanity and self-righteousness that makes the others listed here often so sharp is lost in Oldman's ostentatious portrayals.

Brad Pitt plays against type in 'Snatch' which is a gritty movie.  It has elements of humour but having lived in East London, I also felt it managed to catch the everyday harshness and easy criminality of the area.  Pitt plays an Irishman rather than an American (something he also did in 'The Devil's Own' (1997)) whose dialogue is deliberately inaccessible.  He is a traveller who also bareknuckle boxes, an illegal sport in the UK.  The part draws on the muscular build Pitt gained for 'Fight Club' (1999) through boxing and other martial arts.  O'Neil is a violent man for his living but that fits the context in which he lives.  Ultimately what he does is for his family especially when their caravans are torched by gangsters.  Thus, while not showing the indignation of Stansfield or Logan, O'Neill still adheres to a rule, one which I think would be more broadly accepted in UK society and probably even more so in the USA or looking out for your family and  taking revenge on anyone who harmed them.  I think people like his character because people underestimate O'Neil and yet he bides his time until he can have the situation to his greatest advantage.  The character in 'Snatch' that I despise is Brick Top portrayed by Alan Ford, who like Logan and Stansfield creates his own selfish rules and viciously punishes anyone who steps over the line of his self-imposed laws.  These people believe they are in the 'right' because they have created their own 'moral' universe simply based on their base desires.

I think the reason why Mills is at the top of the list is for much the same reason that O'Neill is favoured.  Mills is a retired CIA operative (as with war veterans, the USA seems to be full of such men) who goes after the slavers who snatch his daughter while on holiday in France.  He is the manifestation of millions of fathers sitting in the audience imagining what they would do if their own daughter was taken.  Mills shows a lot of paranoia in the early part of the movie, which actually turns out to be well placed.  'Taken' taps right into the fear that parents especially in the UK and USA have about even letting their 18 year old children out of their sight and into the dangerous place called 'Europe' (most British people do not see the UK as part of Europe).  Mills has both to fight authority in the typical way of many cop and spy movies as well as beating up and shooting the bad guys who turn out to be the 'acceptable' racial stereotyped enemy of the past two decades: Arabs.  Mills does appear vulnerable and he appears human too; he seems motivated by the best of intentions, which for the average cinema goer is defence of family well above religious or other moral motives.  It seems no surprise that Neeson is starring in 'Taken 2' (2012) set in Istanbul and featuring Mills and his wife taken prisoner by the father of the man he killed in the first movie.

Finally I turn to Jacques Mesrine.  Unlike the other characters the two movies featuring Cassell are biographies of a renowned French gangster from the 1960s and 1970s who carried out the acts featured in the movies for real even if these have been dramatised.  I have not seen these movies by Cassell is an accomplished actor.  His bady guys can be rather camp like Oldman's, for example in 'Dobermann' (1997) [Tcheky Karyo as Inspecteur Sauver Cristini is actually more terrifying in that movie], 'Brotherhood of the Wolf' (2000), 'Ocean's Twelve' (2004) and 'Ocean's Thirteen' (2006) and I hope has been able to channel more of the edginess which was apparent in 'La Haine' (1995).

Even though Stephens is only 20, he has produced an interesting list that certainly provoked thoughts for me.  I think what it shows is that a 'hard nut' character in movies is not necessarily the most violent character, there has to be something more.  Perhaps it is the righteouness of the character that makes them appear unstoppable that adds that edge to what they do and means that you would not want to cross their paths as you would know that they would never let up.  In some cases, notably Mills and O'Neil this gives heart to the audience.  In reality we know that if our child is snatched there is very little that we can do and the authorities have very little more power, so being shown even a fictional case of someone getting something back, some revenge at least for their family heartens us as viewers and it also allows us to watch the violence without feeling uneased by it.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Trouble With Steam

This is not a posting about water above 100oC, it is about the online gaming service called Steam.  Now, living away from home five days per week and lacking the money and the energy to go out at all, my laptop is my prime source of entertainment.  As regular readers know I have long been a fan of the 'Total War' historical computer wargames.  Unfortunately since 'Empire Total War' in 2008, even though you buy a disk to load the game into your computer, you have to subscribe to Steam to play it.  There is no charge to subscribe, but it does inhibit game playing quite a bit and leaves me feeling resentful that many evenings I am unable to play a game that I have paid for.  You can buy games that you download from Steam too and they sell numerous classics at a discount rate, I reconnected with 'Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines' this way and was able to play it without having to download the 23 patches needed to make the disk version work.

I can see why the Steam system was developed.  It allows the company to advertise upgrades and extra content and they encourage you to buy other similar games.  There is also an online community to connect with.  There have long been options to fight battles in the Total War series online.  However, given how unpleasant the bulk of people I have encountered through online gaming are, notably so many players of 'World of Warcraft' I have no desire to play with them.  This blocks many of the unlockable achievements on the Steam system from me.  I hate being compelled to become part of a community.  I used to be a regular contributor to the online fora for Total War run by Sega itself and between being told I was utterly useless because I could not simply storm through each of the games on Very Hard setting by people unable to spell properly and having my comments censored by the company, I got very little joy from there either.

The key problem with Steam, though, is that despite having paid my £35 for the game, unlike in the old days with games like 'Medieval II Total War' or 'Rome Total War' simply having the disk is not enough to play the game.  I have owned a copy of 'Napoleon Total War' since it came out and enjoyed it.  There was a bug which meant that the game crashed about four years into the game time.  However, there was a patch that resolved that.  When I got a new laptop I reinstalled the game, but, of course, with the cyber attacks on Sega they had taken down the patch.  Thus, when I try to play it through the Steam account I am compelled to have, it simply crashes as before.  Steam are no use simply sending me back to Sega and anyone offering the patch now is in fact nothing more than a scam trying to infect your machine.  Thus, through no fault of my own except upgrading my computer, I can no longer play the game.

A new problem has arisen over the Christmas period with simply accessing games.  I have been enjoying the Rise of the Samurai scenario of 'Total War: Shogun 2'.  However, just when I have my strategy planned of how to defeat the tough clan in what is a pretty challenging version of the game, I find that I cannot get into the game.  I get time markers and then am told that the game is unavailable or has crashed.  Repeated tries bring no joy.  Again, I cannot play a game I have paid for.  The £35 only bought me the occasional chance to play the game, not regular access to it.  In addition, every couple of months there is some upgrade, some of them entirely spurious such as the one which made the opening screen which shows a 15th century Japanese castle, suddenly decorated with snowmen out the front of it, one holding a candy cane, something only invented four hundred years or so later, on a different continent.  In addition, the downloads seem to make my computer forget that I have bought the game and it tells me it is unavailable.  Initially the Steam staff again referred me to Sega, but then another told me I had to delete almost all the files and reinstall the game from Steam.  This I do diligently every time.  Again it is clear that paying my £35 has not brought the game to my computer, it has simply allowed me occasional random access.

I understand why, for commercial reasons, a hybrid online-disk system like Steam was created.  However, in terms of customer service it marks a real retrograde step.  If I buy a game I cannot be sure that I will be able to play it more than one or two evenings per week.  In the old days, as long as the disk was not scratched, once I had bought it, I could keep on playing it repeatedly for years to come.  The disk of 'Shogun Total War' that I bought in 1999 still works and I go back to it when I find for whatever reason I am unable to access its sequel. 

This model of only be able occasionally to use something you have paid good money for seems to be the acceptable model.  When I had BT internet they kept charging us month after month even though the internet connection broke down on a daily basis.  Despite a very patchy service they wanted to charge us £120 to break the contract and a further £90 to remove their equipment.  Since when did basic economics state that you have to pay for a service you might actually receive and pay even more to try to get out of that purchase of in fact sometimes nothing?  Will it spread and I will go to the dry cleaners and sometimes find my suit has not been cleaned and then be charged more if I want to have it cleaned at another dry cleaners?  Will I try and buy a burger and be told that they are unavailable at the moment and I have to come back an hour later for my fast food?

P.P. 04/02/2012
Steam has now deteriorated to the extent that I am unable to ever open 'Total War: Shogun 2' any more.  Even before that I was encountering other problems with the games I have via the service.  In the past month playing as different clans on 'Total War: Shogun 2' I have reached a certain date usually a round number like 1200 (if playing the 'Rise of the Samurai' add-on) or 1600 only for the game to crash.  I have gone back to an earlier saved game and tried picking different options to see if that will spare me from the crash only to find it still happens at the set date.

I have also gone back to playing 'Napoleon Total War' and the Peninsular War add-on which looked very interesting.  While I can still get into that game, it crashes the moment I attack someone or someone attacks me.  I have tried finding a patch for this problem on the internet but Sega seems to have stopped all the genuine ones.  The only ones advertised are in fact scams.  So another game which I paid for and used to be able to play is effectively shut off from me and Steam seems to be doing nothing about it.  The only response that I get is that I need to check my computer is suitable for the games.  Clearly it once was, well, up until January, and now for some reason it no longer is, or as I suspect something is going wrong with Steam.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Utility Company Holding On To My Money

The behaviour of utility companies has been a perennial concern of mine, prompted when the deign to send me a bill: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2007/05/uk-utility-companies-cash-vampires-of.html  The constantly rising prices are well known to everyone in the UK and cause real difficulty for millions of people, even when we are having an incredibly mild winter like we are at present.  It is ironic that global warming may be sparing the lives of thousands of British elderly people.  Utility prices rise whenever there is some crisis that increases the cost of gas and oil and that they do not decrease when these costs fall; our monthly combined gas and electricity is now equal to what our quarterly bill was in 2008.  In addition it is clear that the six power utility companies are running a cartel unchallenged by anyone.  All their prices rise by approximately the same amount at the same time of the year with an increase of around 20% in 2011, well above the increase in pay and even general inflation.

What I am focusing on today is not simply the rising prices, but in particular the way customers are treated.  There now seems to be an accepted way that service providers feel they can treat you.  They are not compelled any longer to even provide a service for what you pay them let alone one which is timely and efficient.  This applies to things like telecommunications and rental property as well as other utilities.  If you are disgruntled with them, you find it difficult to break a contract that they insisted was the only terms you could sign up for and they feel free to levy all kinds of charges to get away from them even if they are failing to provide the service.  I have also noted before how these days you pay in advance for so much and how this actually works against people being efficient in their usage of gas and electricity because with the fixed monthly rate you do not see any gain for yourself especially if on rental contracts of less than two years that are so common:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2010/06/annual-utility-bills-no-incentive-to-be.html

I live in a house in which we economise as much as we can in terms of utility usage not simply in an (often fruitless) effort to keep bills down but also because we are aware that humans are causing damage to the world through excess usage of finite resources.  We tried to have solar panels installed but out roof proved to be the wrong shape which suggests to me that people should be working on all kinds of shapes of panels if we are really going to make a break through for renewable energy.  The halving of the government incentive to have panels installed is damaging in so many ways, notably in raising unemployment in the private sector which is supposed to be soaking up job losses from the public sector and slowly down an improvement in our 'fuel security'.  Fuel security is something the British government has been obsessing about at least since the 1960s and focuses on how Britain can ensure it has enough fuel to power its industry and domestic sector.  As Britain moved steadily away from the consumption of domestically produced coal from the mid-1960s down to 1985 and the North Sea oil reserves were depleted there was a renewed awareness of a need to secure sources of oil in countries friendly to the UK.  This is nothing new and was on the agenda particularly 1967-73 where turbulence in the Middle East led to the cutting of oil supplies and then a substantial price rise which ended the post-1945 economic boom for good.  Fuel security has been what has motivated US and UK involvement in Iraq, probably in the Libyan revolution too; British involvement in Nigeria and US concerns in Venezuela.  The complicating factor compared to the 1960s that China too is securing fuel resources by heavy investment in any country which will accepts its money. 

Government subsidies to install solar panels right across the country would secure and increase jobs as well as help reduce the UK's fuel insecurity through reducing dependence on fossil fuels from countries which might not like us.  As I have noted before: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2010/01/what-if-uk-had-handled-oil-shock-of.html  Britain gave away its lead in sustainable energy.  However, in Derby recently I saw a line of small scale turbines on the roof of an office building that were providing electricity to the building.  Britain lags behind building wind turbines along motorways the way the Germans do and can be achieved without even having to upset the powerful pretty-England lobbyists.

Anyway, solar power is currently out for our house.  This means we remain dependent on one of the six companies and their authoritarian approach to pricing and charges.  For the last twelve months we have paid £140 (€167; US$217) each month.  Our consumption of gas has risen probably due to the cold period in January compared to 2010 but our consumption of electricity has fallen.  In 2010 we ended the year with £277 in credit, i.e. we had paid them £277 more than was due for the amount of gas and electricity we had used.  I contacted the company, Scottish Power, to ask for a refund but was told that was not possible as our consumption might rise.  So, they were saying that they were holding this money to hedge against us suddenly consuming more.  This makes their statements that readings are important so that we 'only pay for the fuel you use' utterly ridiculous.  Instead we are simply giving them a set amount of money and they take out what they feel they need. 

The invidious nature of this has been revealed this year.  For 2011 we ended the year £582 (€692; US$902) in credit to the company, so they now have an additional £305 of mine for fuel of theirs I have not bought.  On this basis the more fuel I save this year the larger that sum will rise.  I have enough credit with them to pay for all our gas and electricity until mid-April 2012.  However, if I stop paying penalty charges will be levied on me.  You might think that on this basis they might reduce my standard monthly charge, but no, it has been set again at £140 per month.  I guess I should be grateful that the monthly charge has not risen but I am resentful that the company is holding on to my money gaining interest on it in their account when that is money which could feed my household for more than two months.  At the rate we are going within two years I will be paying a whole year in advance for my fuel.  I can see that is in the utility company's interest but it is certainly not what the majority of us would consider good customer service. 

You have to step outside the world of utility companies and their warped mindset to see how greedy and twisted their approach is.  Imagine I went into a supermarket and when I arrived there they took £140 from me.  I then proceed to spend £100 on food.  When I reach the till, rather than be refunded the £40 that I have not spent, the shop holds on telling me that they need it just in case more than two years from now I might suddenly spend some extra on one of my trips.  Surely if I do then they can charge me more.  The amount of cash that utility companies must be holding for resources they have not provided to the customer must be in the millions.  They do not seem to be investing it in improving their provision and they are certainly not reducing prices to customers.  Fuel poverty now affects 5.5 million people in Britain up from 3.8 million at the end of 2010.  Partly this is due to the fact that household incomes fall as all costs rise, pay in many cases is actually falling and unemployment continues to rise.  To me it seems that the only way I can get my money back is to say that I am leaving Scottish Power and moving to another company, presumably, though I have not put this to the test, they would be compelled to pay me back the excess money they have taken from me.  Much of the focus is on the price that we are charged for the utilities we use, but pressure also has to be brought to bear on companies for how they charge us especially for fuel we have yet to use.

P.P. 09/01/2012
Well, I am pleased to say that by threatening Scottish Power with moving my account to another provider they have agreed to refund me £440 in two stages.  I received the £40 last week and should get the £400 by 17th January.  They have also reduced my monthly payments from £140 down to £90, thus by the end of the year I will be £1040 better off.  Now, that is a reward for using less gas and resources and has come at just the perfect time to deal with all the New Year bills.  What is irritating is that it has taken pressure spread over two years plus a threat to move my account to get my money back when, in my view, they should be attentive to these things and do them unprompted.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Manufacturing Traffic Jams

As regular readers know I am a frequent car driver, topping 320 Km per week. Whilst this is nowhere close to the distances covered by truck drivers or even the travelling salesmen left in business, it does mean I spend quite a lot of time on the road. In the past it used to be the M25 and these days it is often the M4. Both are very busy motorways in South-East England (and if you think that no motorway is ever not busy, I suggest going along the M40 or the M69). The traffic along them is often congested. The western arc of the M25 seems particularly worse than it used to be, a factor I put down to so many people like myself commuting in on a daily or weekly basis from South-West and West England and the West Midlands to work in London. What exacerbates the congestion on the M25 and now increasingly on the eastern Berkshire (I know that part of the county has been fragmented into a number of consolidated authority ‘city-states’) stretch of the M4 is the variable speeds approach. This is explicitly warned about on the M25 but also now occurs on the M4.

Now, I am a person who adheres strictly to road speed limits and I have no issue about speed cameras. However, what I do not like is how the speed limit is jerked back and forth on the M4 and M25. The speed limit for a motorway is 70mph (112 kph) but the matrix signs daily alter this down to anything from 40-60mph (64-96 kph). Often you have ‘Queue caution’ appearing as well. This is ironic, because as I have discussed before: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2009/06/rubbernecking-far-less-common-than.html  putting up any sign on the motorway causes people to slow down automatically so creating the queue that they were seeking to warn people about. The other day I actually saw a sign that said ‘Strong winds forecast’, not that they were happening then, they might as well have said ‘Long-term recession forecast’ in terms of how much it may have modified the average driver’s behaviour. The signs appearing saying ‘Fog’ always strike me as a waste of electricity. Anyway, what you find is that you are slowed down, sometimes jumping from 70 mph to 40 mph and then back up to 50 mph or 60 mph, or any combination of these speeds. What this tends to do is not actually moderate the flow in the way that I assume the Highways Agency intends, it simply creates a jam wherever the signs start.

What is the expectation of the ‘Queue caution’ sign? One might expect people to slow up so that they do not crash into the unmoving cars. They would slow up even if you put a smiley face on the matrix boards. In addition, motorways are designed so that you can see far into the distance. Particularly at this time of the year you can see the cluster of red lights long before you come close to them. Is there an assumption that we see a queue warning sign and decide to leave the motorway and try an alternate route? There are a few places where not going down the motorway will get you to your destination faster than using the motorway. I know that most days it is easier to get into Dorset via the single carriageway roads through Newbury and Salisbury than going along the motorways and dual carriageway route through Winchester and Southampton: M3-M27-A31. However, most of the time, taking the motorway is the most direct route, especially going into a city like London. The whole reason why motorways were invented was to move vehicles between cities more effectively so it seems ironic that we are now being encouraged to leave them.

Of course, not all of the blame can be put on whichever human or computer decides to put these random speeds into the mix, some of it depends on the drivers too who simply exacerbate a difficult situation. Many drivers on the M4 simply ignore the signs and keep going as fast as they can until they actually come to the start of the jam. There will always be those, like myself, who obey the speed limit immediately and the bulk of drivers who will not seek to match the limit but will simply lift their foot off the accelerator as they process the information. There are also those who speed along the hard shoulder with their emergency lights flashing away pretending that they are having a break down right up to the next junction. The other major challenge is that so many drivers see the queues as a good opportunity to switch lanes believing that in doing so they will suddenly get clear of the jam. This is particularly troublesome when an articulated lorry decides it is time to switch lanes and so a space the length of five cars is forced to open up. All of this behaviour simply adds to the jam.

I am not saying that without variable speed limits jams on motorways would not come to an end. However, it is clear that without the signalling of queues and the constant slowing down and speeding up on the M25 and M4 and probably other motorways I do not frequent too, the queues would be shorter both in length and duration. This is apparent, when suddenly for no reason the queue breaks up and you find yourself travelling again at a decent speed. If you can see an accident by the roadside you know the course, but these days more often it is simply the exclamations about queues which is creating these things and you then find the road is perfectly clear and that there is, in fact, no reason why you could not have been driving at 60-70 mph for the past two miles. My father, among others, feels that variable speeds on motorways is a game being played by bored staff at some traffic monitoring centre. I agree with him on very few things, but for now, these seems as rational explanation for this irrational behaviour as any other.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Books I Read In 2011

This posting follows my annual habit of reviewing the books I have read.  With me being unemployed in the first half of the year I read very little; the second half was a complete contrast with me back in work and living away from home so with ample opportunity to read.  As a consequence, I have much more to comment on that I would have anticipated this time last year, but again pretty much an eclectic mix with a fair share of books I regret wasting time on.  Hopefully by reading this you can be warned off them if you happen to stumble across them in a second-hand bookshop or charity shop and like me, foolishly are tempted to buy them.

'The Space Machine' by Christopher Priest
I have said a bit about this in my review of Priest's work.  It was the last published to date book of his that I read.  It was well written mixing 'The Time Machine' and 'The War of the Worlds' into a good action story with nice pastiche of science fiction novels of the late 19th century, though to some degree influenced by the foibles of the 1970s when it was written.  For anyone into steampunk, I suggest reading this.

'Armadillo' by William Boyd
I was given this as a gift in the 1990s.  It is a strange though no unpleasant book, a 'slice of life' story about a man from Transdniester gypsy stock, working as a loss adjuster in London and deciding between how to respond to various incidents, breaking a long-term relationship, having an affair, being threatened by clients and misused by acquaintances.   It is written in a way which draws you along well, but you may be dissatisfied because there is little plot.  It is interesting how date the technology seems, but all the same, it reminded me of some of the good times I had while living in London in the mid to late 1990s.

'Departures' by Harry Turtledove
This is a collection of short stories by the US author known for his numerous alternate history novels.  Saying that, a number of the stories are more purely science fiction for example including a time traveller arriving in the 20th century mistakenly looking for Genghis Khan, a post-apocalyptic shaman using veterinary books he finds in ruins, aliens mistakenly thinking humans have telekinesis and a story about discrimination between aliens that seems to be a parable around the persecution of Jews.  Turtledove does reference his Judaism in a number of the stories from one about a werewolf in 12th century Koeln to one about genetically engineered pig that chews the cud, so making it kosher.  Some of his stories are almost impenetrable to non-Americans, especially difficult are the ones around baseball and the one which turns on the joke that 'oreos' are American biscuits and 'Oreopithecus' was a type of hominid.  The story falls entirely flat and I read it twice before I realised what I was missing. 

All I know about school education in the USA stems from what I have seen from television programmes both documentary and fiction and from movies.  I accept this probably gives a distorted view falling into four categories: nostalgia for how schools were fifty years ago, inner city schools with lots of pupils with economic and social challenges, very Christian schools with a particular take on the world and bland schools where there are minimal challenges and it is interaction between the pupils that makes the story.  What I do not see is programmes whether true or fiction in which the teachers are utterly useless.  The one exception is probably 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' (1986) and that is a comedy.  However, Turtledove seems convinced that the majority of schoolteachers in the USA are useless and have only gone into the profession as an easy option.  This shows a real disconnect to reality because no-one is deluded enough to think teaching is easy and those who do certainly never survive the initial training.  Yet Turtledove uses his power to not criticise but dismiss a whole class of important worker as useless; he does the same to child minders too.  He may have had a bad personal experience but in his foreword to the story about a society where teachers are lauded is unpleasant.

The better stories are ones on a more alternate history such a number on the basis of Turtledove's 'Agent of Byzantium' that Mohammed became a Christian Orthodox monk rather than finding Islam.  There is a more standard science fiction (published in 1984) about murders on Saturn's moon Mimas during an Olympic event there.  However, it involves a portrayal of the Earth divided into various federations: United Europe, Eastern Europe (which has thrown off Communism), the Anzac Federation (despite the fact that ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), Japan, the Chinese Empire (which is also free of Communism), a weakened USA, Arab World (which has conquered Israel), Communist Muscovy, Tsarist Siberia and Luna.  Whilst rather weakly worked out, this is of interest.  Overall there are some good parts but it is inconsistent; probably better to read if you are an American.

'The Last of Philip Banter' and 'Devil Take the Blue-Tailed Fly' by John Franklin Bardin
Like 'The Deadly Percheron' by Bardin which I read in 2010, these stories live up to their billing of being unsettling.  All three books were published 1946-8 and conjure up late 1940s New York very well.  They are also strong on the characters they portray.  In 'The Last of Philip Banter', Banter is a philandering, alcoholic advertising executive who finds a typescript apparently predicting the next 24 hours of his life and doing it pretty accurately.  He grapples with his affairs, his relationship with his wife, his colleagues and his father-in-law and as in all three stories, with his sanity too.  If it was not so bleak it could make a Woody Allen movie.  

'Devil Take the Blue-Tailed Fly' steps up these traits (aside from the Woody Allen aspect) another level, focusing on a schizophrenic concert harpsichordist coming out of a mental institution where she has received electro-shock therapy which has damaged her ability to play and the deterioration which happens in her as a result of this, the murder of a former disreputable lover and finding her husband has been unfaithful.  These stories come over as if John Updike had decided to write thrillers and given that I painfully remember battling to get through part of an Updike novel, you can imagine I was not really comfortable working through these, but once I have started I feel duty bound to finish.  I am stunned how bad I am at selecting novels I see for sale.  There must be thousands of better books out there than the dreary ones I seem to select.  Maybe I should not venture beyond a small range of authors I can trust, because I always regret it.  It is much easier for me to compile a list of books I would advise people not to read rather than ones I suggest they do read.

'The Lady Vanishes' by Ethel Lina White
Having seen both the 1938 and the 1976 movies of this story, I was interested to read the original book.  There is less action in the book than in either movie, certainly no gun fights at the end and no appearance of the Charters and Caldicott characters seen in the movies either; their role in the novel seems to be held by the two Misses Flood-Porter.  The basic premise is the same, that a young spoilt Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home from a holiday in Central-Eastern Europe and meets a kindly old spinster on the train, Miss. Froy.  This woman then proceeds to disappear leaving Iris to try to both find out what has happened to Miss. Froy and in fact if she was ever real or just a figment of Iris's imagination as the other passengers on the train claim or a case of mistaken identity.  Whilst the country in which the story is set is never revealed, given that the train only crosses one border to reach Trieste and the local residents do not speak German, it has to be Yugoslavia.  In the 1938 movie the setting is again not revealed though appears to be Yugoslavia; in the 1976 movie it is more clearly Alpine southern Germany. 

In the novel, Miss. Froy is not a British agent, rather she has simply witnessed a leading politician at his home so breaking his alibi for the murder of a Communist rival.  In the movies, Miss. Froy is a British agent who has to bring a tune carrying secret information to British intelligence.  Despite the dated manners and the very upper class orientated nature, I always enjoyed Dornford Yates stories of Britons on adventures in Central Europe.  The style of the novel is a little like the John Franklin Bardin stories, with much of the narrative focused on Iris's thoughts, her concerns for her sanity and her thinking through how she can interact with the other passengers both British and Yugoslav.  Consequently it has a claustrophobic feel, despite the fact that, unlike the movies, we see Miss. Froy's elderly parents waiting for news of her back in England.  Certainly you feel the frustration and fear that Iris feels and given this focus, written by a female author in 1936 you can see why it made an impact and was taken up by Alfred Hitchcock to be released as a movie two years later, with a great deal of the story intact.

'Thanksgiving' by Michael Dibdin
This is one of Dibdin's stand alone novels.  At 179 pages it is short for a modern novel, but the tightness of the story is a good characteristic.  Dibdin writes some very effectively unpleasant characters (the two most memorable are American) and in this novel as in 'Dirty Tricks' (1999) he conjures up a believably unpleasant antagonist for the hero.  The story revolves a man going to visit his recently killed wife's first husband, a really sordid American man who it is revealed stalked his ex-wife.  The novel is around the consequences of that meeting.  Dibdin experiments with different styles of narrative which come over in an interesting way and do not feel like gimmicks.  He also plays around a little with time and with haunting, rather as he does in 'The Tryst' (1989). 

Dibdin never seemed afraid to flirt with magic realism, ironically giving the novels in which he used it a shareper edge.  Whilst in many ways very bleak and unnerving, the novel comes ultimately to connect you to the title.  Dibdin was married three times and ultimately ended up living in Seattle in the USA where he died in 2007.  I do not know if any of the story was autobiographical, but it has a raw, engaging style which lifts it above many of his Aurelio Zen novels.  I do wonder why he was unable to bring over the strengths in characterisation and style into his more popular series; certainly the criminals in those stories could have benefited from having the nastiness of the antagonist in this story.

'And Then You Die' by Michael Dibdin
I was prompted by, 'Zen' the dramatisation of Dibdin's series of crime novels shown on BBC1 to finally get round to finishing off the final four books in the series.  I read this 174-page novel in a single evening which I think emphasises how it sweeps you a long.  Interestingly it has a very light tone especially when compared to the previous novel in the series 'Blood Rain' (1999) which was set on Sicily.  In fact the plot of this novel leads you and the hero, Aurelio Zen to reinterpret what happened at the end of that previous novel and introduces a man bent on revenge who pursues Zen despite his efforts to hide out at the Italian resort of Versilia and to the town of Lucca, thus allowing Dibdin to explore another region of Italy as he does in each Zen novel, moving up and down the country with every story.  Zen also takes an unscheduled jaunt to Iceland where Dibdin introduces the concept of ' fylgja' an ability in Icelandic folklore which is like a kind of second sight that allows 'gifted' people to see ugly sprite-like people, the 'huldufolk'.  There turns out to be a rational explanation, but you feel that Dibdin would have loved to have produce a novel rather like Christopher Priest's 'The Glamour' (1984).  I prefer Dibdin's grimmer stories over his light ones though perhaps with the deaths in this one it is a little darker, but certainly with a touch which contrasts to the bleaker outlook of 'Blood Rain'.

'Medusa' by Michael Dibdin
As I have noted before, in his Aurelio Zen series, Dibdin tended to alternate between light-hearted and more serious novels.  The more serious ones, by far, are the better.  'Medusa' follows on from 'And Then You Die' but is very different in tone.  Again it has Zen criss-crossing Italy as if Dibdin wants to ensure that every region in the country has been covered.  This novel features both the German-speaking Alto Adige region where a thirty-year old corpse preserved in a tunnel system left over from the Austro-Italian front of the First World War, to the rural areas of the Po Valley and the Italian enclave in Switzerland, Campione d'Italia.  The novel is more in line with much crime fiction written by Italian authors since the late 1920s, with a focus on the tensions between different interest groups within Italian politics and society, views of what was done correctly or wrongly for Italy in the past and an ambivalent conclusion.  It also successfully mixes the motives of individuals with broader societal trends in a clever way, notably with reference to right-wing groups in Italy which sought to bring about or oppose coups in the 1950s-70s.  At times you feel Zen is travelling too much and the final phase might have been better to have been trimmed down, but overall this is an engaging novel even if you have not read any others in the Zen series.

'Back to Bologna' by Michael Dibdin
In line with the pattern seemed to follow with his Zen novels, every other one in the sequence is more light-hearted and so it was time for one certainly less heavy than 'Medusa'.  For the bulk of the novel, unsurprisingly set in Bologna, it is not as light-hearted as I had been led to believe.  The inter-twining of the various characters could seem contrived, but if a darker tone had been adopted then it could have worked.  I guess a lot of the humour in this novel is really satire and because I am not aware of the original people, notably the football club owner, the television chef and the academic that Dibdin is satirising, I miss the jokes and so it comes across as a more straight forward crime novel.  The private detective who features is another light character but primarily because of his own delusions and pretensions around being a 'hard-boiled' detective and again this could have been carried if the overall tone, especially towards the end was more serious.

Given that the novel features the break down of Zen's relationship which developed in 'And Then You Die' and seemed to be going fine in 'Medusa' it probably needed leavening.  In addition, perhaps, like Ian Fleming with James Bond, the fact that this novel was published just two years before Dibdin's own death, the ill-health and bleak outlook of Zen may reflect what was happening in Dibdin's own life.  In contrast to 'Medusa' the ending seems terribly rushed with everything coming together in a single restaurant and Zen effectively stumbling over a reasonably accurate outcome.  It feels as if an editor demanded that the novel be brought to an end at that stage and on an upbeat note.

'End Games' by Michael Dibdin
This was the final Aurelio Zen book and the last book Dibdin published before his death.  Of all his novels, I only now have 'Dark Spectre' a non-Zen book to locate and read.  Dibdin went out neither with a bang nor a whimper.  This novel was not his best nor was it his worst.  Like many of the later Zen novels it is plagued by Dibdin's desire to include satire of particular trends in society both in Italy and elsewhere and to ridicule individuals in the public eye certainly unknown now even if they could be recognised at the time.

This novel, in contrast to the ones that closely preceded it sees Zen located in one town as temporary chief of police of a region in Calabria, on the 'toe' of Italy, investigating the murder of an American lawyer and attempts to locate the treasure of Alaric, king of the Goths who died in the region.  It is reasonably well handled.  Zen has married the girlfriend he met back in 'And Then You Die' and his mood is far better than in 'Back to Bologna' though the woman herself does not really feature.  The story is effectively about Zen battling with Calabrian culture an thwarting the plans of a particularly nasty local gangster.  If he had stopped attempting the satire then this would have been a taut crime thriller with some shocking scenes that jar the reader.  Maybe at this stage in his career, Dibdin could not cope with the darkness.  However, you are left feeling he never actually wrote his best crime novel, never being able to bring across from his non-Zen novels the painfully realistic and genuinely nasty characters.  Of the Zen novels, the first four are the best: 'Ratking' (1988), 'Vendetta' (1990), 'Cabal' (1992) and my favourite 'Dead Lagoon' (1994).  'Cosi Fan Tutti' (1996) was utterly stupid and from then on Dibdin was never able to recapture his former greatness.  Of the latter novels, 'Blood Rain' (1999) and 'Medusa' (2003) are not bad, but the desire for satire and weak humour damaged what could have been far better stories.

'Caravan to Vaccarès' by Alistair Maclean
This is a book I have been carrying around for years on the recommendation of my 'A' level Geography teacher.  She believed in visiting every region that was focused upon in the 'A' level syllabus.  This led her to recount her time in the Rub-al-Khalil, the so-called Empty Quarter, entirely barren region of Saudi Arabia and where you could get the best bacon and eggs on the edge of Kuala Lumpur.  It also meant she had travelled extensively in South-East France, a region featured in the first year of the course.  She seems to have fallen in love with the Carmargue region of historic towns and low-lying lakes with a very distinct culture.  'Caravan to Vaccarès' is probably one of the only novels set in the Camargue (if you discount the post-apocalyptic 'Kamarg' featuring in Michael Moorcock's 'The History of the Runestaff' series), consequently the teacher's encouragement that we read it.

I saw the movie of the same name (1974) about ten years ago and, like with many of the movies of Maclean's novels, its plot is stronger than the original novel.  Basically the story is based on an annual pilgrimage of gypsies from across Eastern Europe to the Camargue for religious ceremonies associated with their patron saint, Saint Sara.  This pilgrimage was permitted even while the Cold War was raging, allowing a unique opportunity for people and things to be smuggled between the East and West.  In addition it provides a colourful setting with the gypsy and Camargue dress and culture, including bull fights which do not end in the death of the bull, though can end in the death of the human participants. 

Though the novel is written in 1969 with an awareness of the Cold War, it almost feels like something that Dornford Yates could have produced in the 1930s, with the protagonists picking up beautiful young ladies that they patronise, banter amiably with and promise to marry; a character who is a duke, charging around in a lime green Rolls Royce (the colour is probably the only concession to the era) and the lead characters dressing up in traditional costume.  Maclean always over-writes everything which I guess was what was favoured at the time to give a kind of air of sophistication, but I find really drags down the narrative.  I guess his old world attitudes, the sense that the individual could still achieve something in the age of superpowers, added to extensive scenes of flight and violence, probably what makes the movies so engaging, really meshed with the audience.  The portrayal of the region is well done. 

'Prime Minister Portillo And Other Things That Never Happened' ed. by Duncan Brack and Iain Dale
Whilst, as the title shows, this is actually a collection of counter-factuals, the approach of many of the authors is more like a non-fiction book of modern history and politics.  Aside from Helen Szamuely's chapter on what would have happened if Lenin had not reached Petrograd in the 'sealed' train in 1917 and Simon Burns's on the survival of John F. Kennedy, the other 19 chapters are about developments in British politics from the 1920s to the 2000s, looking at factors such as a stronger Liberal Party and its entire elimination; the timing of elections notably in 1974 and 1978; resignations by Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher; the survival of Aneuran Bevan and John Smith and different results in the 1964, 1970 and 1983 elections.  Some of them are really like academic articles, not a bad thing, but lacking the spark you expect in counter-factual writing. 

Some  of the contributors write a fiction as if the counter-factual was real, others simply do a historio-political analysis.  Some undermine the proposition they were presumably assigned by the editors.  Robert Waller shows that given the British electoral system the SDP-Liberal Alliance needed vast shifts in support to even make minor gains and Dianne Harper paints a scenario in which even if Tony Benn had beaten Dennis Healey to become deputy leader of the Labour Party there would have effectively been a coup inside the party to emasculate him in that role. Irritatingly, in a similar vein, Sir Bernard Ingham's investigation of Thatcher resigning over the messy but insubstantial Westland Affair, exposes another hagiographical treatment of Thatcher; it reminded me of Simon Heffer looking at the counter-factual assassination of Thatcher in the 1984 Brighton bombing, in 'What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve 'What Ifs' of History' (2004). These men seem unable to envisage a society without Thatcher, seeing her as somehow vital for all the 'good' that has happened during and since her regime.

I agree with the view that the absence of Lenin would have made a large impact on events in Russia, but continue to contest that John F. Kennedy surviving his assassination or it not occurring would not have seen a significant scaling down of US commitment in Vietnam and would have seen steps taken more slowly in civil rights.  However, I recognise that the latter goes against the 'standard' counter-factual view. John Charmley takes an interesting view on Lord Halifax becoming prime minister in 1940.  I do not believe he would have signed a peace treaty with Germany, but again the standard counter-factual is that he would have done.  Charmley's outcome is different to the usual line in that as a result of this peace treaty, Britain becomes stronger quicker and the war is actually ended sooner than in our world. 

It is heartening to see contributors acknowledging that some alterations would not have led to much change in the long run.  Neil Stockley on what if Roy Jenkins had joined the Liberal Party rather than the SDP is one example.  For Stuart Thomson he has to beg tolerance for the scenario of Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat leader and others from his party becoming members of Tony Blair's government in 1997 still assuming Blair won the huge majority he did; it seems illogical and so the chapter reads uneasily.  Conversely, the Socialist fantasies painted by Robert Taylor seeing 'In Place of Strife' succeeding and Paul Richards with Callaghan going to the polls in October 1978 are nice in these times, but seem too extended.  In terms of political commentary the best is probably James Parry on the Liberals challenging the Conservatives from the right rather than the left in the 1950s and David Mills on Arthur Scargill seeking a ballot ahead of the 1984-5 Miners' Strike are the most acute.  Though, again, Mills might have a rather rosy perception of the outcome.

Overall this is a book which brings forth some less common counter-factual scenarios.  The quality of each chapter varies considerably and many read like a politics text book rather than an entertaining read.  Perhaps it is better to see the questions they set forward and go and discuss your own views of the potential outcomes.

'President Gore and Other Things that Never Happened' ed. by Duncan Brack
This, unsurprisingly is the sequel to the collection above.  However, it is probably the weaker of the two books.  Whilst in the first the British Liberal Party received possibly more prominence than might have been its due if viewed by more objective commentators, this second volume is weakened by being shot through with the views of Liberal partisans who make up the majority of the writers included.  Almost no opportunity seems to be missed to state that the UK would have been better if the Liberals had never been so weak in the 20th century and commonly that things would have been far better if the Labour Party had never risen to prominence.  Some of this is tolerable in things such as 'What if Robert Peel had not gone out riding on 29 June 1850?' [a ride on which he was killed] or 'What if the 1903 Gladstone-MacDonald Pact had never happened?' by Robert Waller. Even 'What if Joseph Chamberlain had married Beatrice Webb?' by David Boyle is tolerable though I feel Boyle over-emphasises Webb's influence on British Socialism. His hatred of Fabianism seems peculiar for a Liberal and his faith that political doctrines that did not include a view of a powerful role for the state stood much chance in the early to mid 20th century, utterly distort what he writes.  However, we see such Liberal partisanship, not handled at all subtly in 'What if Franz Ferdinand's assassin missed in 1914?' by York Membery and even 'What if President Mitterand had imposed first-past-the-post instead of proportional representation in 1986?' by Byron Criddle.

I guess this volume highlights the 'wrong' way of going about counter-factual, the way it is abused as a propagandist tool rather than a historical one.  The authors start with a conclusion that they desire then work back to see how they would make it come about.  Working in this predestined way means that they push aside anything that jars and might send their path away from the intended outcome.  Many of these authors see the current political system in the UK, especially the role of the Labour Party, as unhealthy and so drive through narratives that would have meant it never came about.  To the ones listed above, add 'What if Ramsay MacDonald had lost the 1922 Labour leadership election?' by Jaime Reynolds, which is a fascinating question, especially given how close the election was, but the conclusions are devalued by Reynolds's view of current politics.  'What if the Liberals had formed the government in 1924' by David Hughes, is another feasible question, but you feel the possibilities are ridden roughshod over in the dash to mourn that the UK has not had a series of Liberal governments since 1922.

Rab Houston in 'What if the Scots had voted for devolution in 1979?' presents a similarly distorted view.  Houston is clearly an opponent of any degree of devolution for Scotland and suggests a very dystopian development for the country as if local devolution could have somehow exacerbated the excesses of Thatcherism rather than provided any amelioration as the Scottish government is currently doing in terms of the coalition government's policies.  He portrays a country overrun by American interests and becoming even more impoverished and dysfunctional than even the problems Scotland faced.  He makes no recognition, even if such a state would have developed, that Scots would have become the cheap labour force Thatcher wanted to promote and consequently that if things had become so bad there would have been even greater migration of Scots to British towns than was even the case.  As it is, at any time about 8% of the entire Scottish population is living in England.  In addition, there seems no factors in his counter-factual that would allow the economy of Eire to boom before it did in our world.  Overall, this comes over as a very sour analysis, distorted heavily in the assumption that even the mild devolution proposed in 1979 would have led to utter disaster for Scotland with no redeeming features.

Membery's chapter starts well, but is ultimately wasted.  Whilst he rehearses the different explanations of the causes of the First World War, he ignores what we know of diary accounts of what Kaiser Wilhelm II was saying as early as 1912 about desiring a war, not least to bring about a political shift within Germany; that the most suitable time would be in the summer of 1914 when the Kiel Canal widening was complete and that it would be best caused by an incident in the Balkans.  Yes, it is entirely feasible that Franz Ferdinand would not have been assassinated, in fact it was far more likely that he would not have been than what actually happened.  However, the changing of that incident would have done nothing to divert the progress to war.  Consequently Criddle skips over elements which are fascinating, notably him drawing to attention that even without the war the world would have been hit by the flu epidemic in 1918/19 which killed many millions across the world and what the consequences would have been if the war had still been running by then.

Criddle's chapter probably shows up the worst in counter-factual writing.  He states more than once that Mitterand would have had no desire to introduce the first-past-the-post system to France, and that the electoral system he did introduce avoided having his party almost eliminated in the elections.  Thus, there seems no reason why the counter-factual would ever have come about.  It appears that Criddle is so wedded to the pattern of British politics since 1979, of a single party in power for over a decade (Conservatives 18 years unbroken; Labour 13 years unbroken) that he is intolerant of France which experienced an alternation of the kind the UK saw between 1959-79; and the fact that the President and the government were of differing political complexions at times even though this often happens in the USA.  Consequently Criddle comes down simply to a highly Anglocentric view and one embedded in his time rather than being aware of the past and simply uses this highly unlikely counter-factual to criticise France for basically being insufficiently like the UK.

The most detailed chapter is by Brack himself, 'What If the Alliance had not quarrelled over defence in 1986?', this and the ones that follow, 'What if John Major had become chief whip in 1987?' by B.J. Briand, the one by Simon Buckby and Jon Mendelsohn on Yitzhak Rabin surviving the assassination attempt in 1995 and Michael Howard becoming Conservative leader in 1997 by Mark Garnett are reasonable enough, but as with the previous collection they are almost more use in putting the spotlight on aspects of political history which might have been overlooked.  The Rabin counter-factual ultimately ends up minimally different from what happened in reality and shows that it is a rare situation in which a single person can alter the trends of history.  The title chapter by John Nichols is interesting on how differently the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA could have been handled to the benefit of the Democrats.  As with the counter-factual on Tony Benn in the previous volume, this is based on a 'factual' because we know Al Gore won the presidential election, it was just the electoral mechanics that stopped it happening.  The differences of a Gore administration are rather rushed through which is a pity.

The best chapters are Richard S. Grayson's 'What if Gustav Stresemann had lived beyond 1929?'; Helen Szamuely's 'What if Czechoslovakia had fought in 1938?' and John Gittings's 'What if Mao had met Roosevelt?' which not only provides a spotlight on an often overlooked occurrence in the Second World War but also a good quick survey of shifts in historiography on US-Chinese relations.  I am sceptical that a good working relationship would have been possible with Mao and it seems likely he would have come to power using the 'salami technique' used by Communists in East European coalitions in the post-war period if there had been some deal with Chiang Kai-shek to share power in the short term.  However, the concept of a tripolar Cold War world is likely to have appeared in US policy 20 years sooner than it did.  In addition, as Gittings notes, the most likely outcome would have been to prevent Chinese and in turn, possibly US, intervention in the Korean War.

'The Solitaire Mystery' by Jostein Gaarder
This was given to me by the brother of a friend of mine who seems to have a passion for buying what I feel are pretentious books, ones that are the centre of conversation at middle class dinner parties at the time.  Of course, I get to them many years, even decades after they were the height of fashion.  I think I received this book at the same time as he gave me 'Perfume' by Patrick Süskind (1985) which attracted renewed, extensive attention in Britain the late 1990s; probably around 1996 when the English version of 'The Solitaire Mystery' was published in the wake of Gaarder's highly successful guide to philosophy, 'Sophie's World' (in English 1995).  Anyway, as with 'Perfume' I was very dissatisfied reading 'The Solitaire Mystery', both books seem to emphasise style over substance.  This is particularly the case with Gaarder's book which has chapters named after different cards in pack of cards.  The story is very simple, about an eight-year old boy and his father travelling from Norway (Gaarder's home country) to Greece to get their mother/wife back from her modelling career.  On the way the boy is given a book which outlines adventures of his ancestors on a fantastical island inhabited by living playing cards, located in the Bermuda Triangle, so there are two parallel stories.  The book would be fine for an imaginative ten year old, but for adult readers it is curious but never engaging.  There are supposedly references to different philosophies and I am probably at a disadvantage as I am unfamiliar with even standard western philosophical tendencies so cannot tell these references apart from the simple whimsical ones.  This book is presumably interesting if you are a philosophy student (the man who gave it to me had been a sociology student but is now a debt collector) looking for a rest or a pre-pubescent child who can read the book at face value.  I would rather read a Harry Potter novel.

'The Gate of Worlds' by Robert Silverberg
I know little of Silverberg's work so cannot really compare this to other writing by him.  However, it reads like a book aimed at adolescents rather than adults.  It is a good adventure story for a 12-year old and easy to get through if you are older and want something untaxing.  It features a young man in a counter-factual world travelling from England which has broken from the Ottoman Empire sixty years before, travelling to the Aztec kingdom and then adventuring in the southern regions of North America, having journeys over thousands of kilometres and a chaste relationship with the daughter of a tribal chieftain; the indigenous tribes basically untouched except for various Russian trading ports down the West coast of North America.

For me the greatest interest is the counter-factual background.  In this world, three-quarters of the population of Europe rather than a quarter, were killed by the Black Death which basically by-passed the Middle East.  Consequently, the Seljuk Turks have conquered Constantinople in 1420 and by 1490 have conquered England.  Except in England, Islam is the dominant European religion.  Without the West European explorers, the Aztec and Inca empires were unmolested until 1585 when Diogo Lobo discovered the Americas.  Similarly even by 1985, when the book is set, the West African states like Mali and Songhay remain free of European interference.  Russia is the dominant power in Asia, ruling both China and India. Turkish is the lingua franca for Europe and the language Shakespeare wrote in, not only 'Julius Caesar', 'Macbeth' and 'Hamlet' but his historical plays of our world have been replaced by 'Osman the Great', 'Suleiman the Magnificent' and 'The Fall of Constantinople'.  Technology has advanced more slowly and the most advanced vehicles in this 1985 are steam-powered cars; there are no aeroplanes or even airships.

'The Way It Wasn't: Great Science Fiction Stories of Alternate History' compiled by Martin Greenberg
The title is pretty self-explanatory.  These are stories rather than analysis, published by a range of US authors 1968-92.  They vary greatly in quality.  One of the longest is 'Lion Time in Timbuctoo' which is set at the start of the 20th century in the world Silverberg envisages in ' The Gate of Worlds'.  This story is set in the West African kingdom of Songhay at the time of the death of the king.  The British have just broken from the Ottoman Empire rather like Balkans states did 1912-13.  The different balance of the world powers has left the West African empires in existence rather than suppressed by colonial rule by European powers.  It is an interesting story with the tensions between the different powers played out well, though the conclusion is rather too tidy.  Pamela Sargent's 'The Sleeping Serpent' is similarly not bad.  It envisages a Europe in the 17th century (bar England) controlled by the Mongols who have now started developing colonies in North America.  The story involves the expulsion of the English from from the continent but also the Mongols coming to see the indigenous population as cousins.  I have read 'Archetypes' by Harry Turtledove before, it is one of his Basil Agyros stories set in a world where Mohammed became a Christian monk and the Byzantine Empire is still prospering in the 14th century. This is not a bad story either. 

'A Ship Full of Jews' is a very short story by Barry N. Malzberg about Christopher Columbus's voyage being used to deport Jews from Spain in 1492 to dump them in North America.  Unfortunately it goes weirdly metaphysical at the end.  Another story with a mystical/magical element but would bear being longer is 'Through Road No Wither' by Greg Bear about a witch encountering Nazi officers in a contemporary France in which the Germans won the Second World War and then sending them back in time to die in that conflict as a form of revenge.

A number of the stories mean little to non-American readers.  Susan Shwartz's 'Suppose they Gave a Peace ...' envisages that George McGovern rather than Richard Nixon won the 1972 US Presidential election.  The outcome is that the USA withdraws from Vietnam slightly sooner than happened in reality which it seems would have had minimal impact on the situation either for Vietnam or the USA.  The only real difference which is not explored in the story is the fact that Nixon's involvement in Watergate would not have tarnished his standing.  'Ike at the Mike' by Harold Waldrop simply envisages Dwight Eisenhower having become a jazz musician and Elvis Presley having become a senator for Mississippi with minimal repercussions.  'The Winterberry' by Nicholas A. Dichario is told from the perspective of a mentally damaged President John F. Kennedy who survived the assassination attempt against him.  However, given that he is confined to a house and has little grasp of events around him, this seems a real waste as if for Americans, 'wow, JFK survived' is sufficient to make it interesting. 

'All the Myriad Ways' by Larry Niven envisages a world in which travel between alternate versions is possible leading to people to totally devalue life because there will always be somewhere where they survive.  'Over There' by Mike Resnick I have read before too and sees Theodore Roosevelt leading an irregular cavalry unit during the First World War again with minimal impact.  I guess this is simply a device to explore the legacy of such behaviour.  That type of approach is handled incredibly better in 'The Lucky Strike' by Kim Stanley Robinson who looks at the outcome of a different crew flying to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.  The discussion of the weight on individuals responsible for using atomic weapons reminded me of a number of stories in the 'Astounding' anthology I read last year.  Very well handled.

Two other stories with an American flavour which stand out are 'We Could Do Worse' by Gregory Benford set in a USA in which Robert A. Taft rather than Dwight Eisenhower became the Republican nominee for the 1952 US Presidential election after Richard Nixon (in our world Vice-President under Eisenhower) brought support of the California delegates behind Taft who was on his third attempt to be nominated.  Taft in this story selected Joseph McCarthy as his vice-president.  So, when in 1953, Taft died as he did in our world, McCarthy, the witch-hunter of Communists became President and was re-elected in 1956 with Nixon as his vice-president.  Early in his career Nixon had worked with McCarthy and was seen as having strong anti-Communist credentials.  This precise outcome seems unlikely because of the steps Taft took to rein in McCarthy's behaviour.  What is more feasible is that Nixon would have become Taft's vice-president, become president in 1953 and then had McCarthy as his vice-president in 1956.  The outcome might have delivered the kind of USA shown in the story with a secret police putting Adlai Stevenson the Democrat candidate in 1952 under house arrest and simply snatching other members of Congress as if it was a regime like Germany in 1933.  It would be interesting to see this setting extended to a novel.  However, given that counter-factual writing in the USA is typically used by the right-wing to show how much 'better' the country would be if things had gone differently, it might not find a publisher

Another strong story is 'Catch That Zeppelin!' by Fritz Leiber which is based on a number of minor differences to create an alternate 1939.  Thomas Edison married Marie Sklodowska (better known as Marie Curie in our world) and cheap electric power was developed as a result of their and their son's inventions.  Germany was invaded following the breaking of the Hindenburg Line by the British in November 1918 followed by a thrust by Field Marshal Foch which drove the Germans to the Rhine and led to occupation of Berlin.  The consequence was better relations between the Allies and Germany which became an immediate member of the League of Nations and the USA remained involved in global politics so Nazism never arose.  Helium was made available to Germany and the 'Hindenburg' disaster was avoided; though there were airship crashes, by 1939 airship travel is still common with them docking at the Empire State Building in New York as was considered.  Winston Churchill has become an American as his mother was, but has still written similar books.  The consequence of these factors is a less polluted, more peaceful world.

'Diva' by Delacorta
I enjoyed the 1981 movie of this novel and its sound track.  It is a short novel set in and around Paris featuring a young motorcycle courier Jules, an American opera singer Cynthia, a thirteen-year old girl Alba who shoplifts and the man, Serge, she lives with.  They story revolves around a recording of a performance by the opera singer, the diva of the title and a recording made by the girlfriend of a gangster.  The novel moves quickly, though these days it is difficult to read without feeling very uneasy about the relationship between Alba and Serge or even the one that develops between Alba and Jules. In the movie these relationships plus the one which develops between Jules and Cynthia, are much more clearly platonic than in the novel.

Jules is regularly chased by gangsters and record company representatives for the cassettes he ends up with.  The movie is far more stylish than the novel, for example, in the book Serge drives only a Peugeot saloon, in the movie he drives a Citroen 11.  In addition, in the novel, the police, both corrupt and clean, are much more involved whereas in the movie it is Serge who sorts everything out.  The novel is more brittle and in some ways nastier, especially the fate of the gangster's girlfriend, Karina.  Perhaps this is because it was written in French and first published in 1979 and so it is out of step with a UK reader in 2011.  Despite the twisting plot and the various chases, I would suggest not bothering with the book and simply watching the movie which is far more stylish, clever and wistful.

'The Secret Documents of Sherlock Holmes' by June Thomson
There have been numerous novels published since 1927 that have added to the Sherlock Holmes canon of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  What is interesting about Thomson's work is that unlike most subsequent authors, she has stuck to the short story format, which accounted for all but four of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.  In addition, she has only written stories which are referred to in passing in the original stories.  Conan Doyle included numerous 'off stage' stories that Dr. Watson refers to to give a context or a timing for one of his stories.  Sometimes there are details about the particular cases.  From these crumbs, Thomson has spun a good collection of Sherlock Holmes tales, very loyal to the original, though occasionally frivolous, but still both engaging in their own right and successfully adding to the scope of Holmes stories. 

I thought wrongly that this was the fourth book in a series of such collections.  However, now I have found it was the first and that five others have followed.  The current series is 'The Secret Files of Sherlock Holmes' (1990); 'The Secret Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes' (1992); 'The Secret Journal of Sherlock Holmes' (1993); 'Holmes and Watson : a Study in Friendship' (1995); 'The Secret Documents of Sherlock Holmes' (1999) and 'The secret Notebooks of Sherlock Holmes' (2004); these others I will certainly now look out for.

'Unmaking the West' edited by Philip E. Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow and Geoffrey Parker
I have commented on the rigorous approach to counter-factual analysis introduced by this book in a recent posting: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.com/2011/12/rigorous-approach-to-counter-factuals.html  Though this book is even more academic in style than those involving Duncan Brack discussed above, if you are a counter-factual enthusiast it is worthwhile persisting with.  Whilst you may not agree with some of the contributors, all of the chapters are strong and stimulate interesting debate.

Many of the chapters look at events for which there was a far greater probability that something other than what happened for real would have occurred.  In Victor Davis Hanson's chapter on the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE he shows it was far more likely that the Persians would win that battle or even if they had lost, have gone on to defeat the Greeks and so snuff out Classical Greek civilisation, a foundation of our western society.  Even Barry Strauss's response sees the Persians winning, the only difference is that he believes that Greek colonists in southern Italy could have ultimately defeated the Persians and so 'corrected' the history closer back to ours.

Carlos Eire similarly argues that there was a high probability that Jesus would not have been executed but rather imprisoned or banished or gone into exile and lived to die of old age.  This would have meant that Christianity would have developed in a different way without the central element of his death, apparent resurrection and so his divinity.  As it is, Eire points out it could easily have been the case that we ended up with different forms of Christianity to the ones which are dominant in our world.  The key difference is that with Jesus not being seen as largely divine, dictators in Europe could have claimed they were the highest authority and even divine themselves the way the Roman emperors and rules in other parts of the world such as Japan did.  The fact that there was always a higher spiritual authority, Eire feels, provided a focus for those opposed to authoritarian regimes.  Eire goes on to look at a Catholic England brought about by Henry VIII choking to death on a mouthful of venison in 1531 or getting the divorce he wanted from Pope Clement.  In the former case Queen Mary would come to throne 22 years early, marrying sooner and increasing the chance of having an heir probably by a Spanish king.  Eire does seem differences for the development of England, but these are mainly political and he fortunately does not fall into the trap of assuming that Catholicism prevented economic or technological development.

Jack Goldstone sees a Catholic England appearing due to the death of William III and a limit as a result on scientific developments that formed the basis for later industrial revolution.  However, as Carla Gestiana Pestana quickly contests, the death of William may have meant no strong links with the Netherlands and its defeat by Spain, but Protestant Mary II and then Anne would have come to the throne rather their Catholic brother James.  To some degree Eire's view on Catholicism and industrialisation is implicitly supported by Joel Mokyr's essay on alternatives to the industrial revolution.  I was heartened to see that he suggests cultural and physical reasons why industrialisation may not have taken place or stalled at the first phase of water-powered machinery.  He also shows why it was unlikely to take place in other parts of the world.  This is a theme that Kenneth Pomeranz also looks at.  However, Mokyr's work is stronger as he lays down a fascinating almost scientific approach to how knowledge and context need to be at a certain state to allow particular technologies to develop.

Sticking out a little, but still interesting are Robin Yates on a stronger Song Empire in our 13th century, reminding us that many countries outside Europe had a range of paths they could have gone down as a result possibly of simply a different outcome in some battles.  Holger Herwig looks at a Second World War scenario in which the USSR is defeated by October 1941 as a result of the death of Stalin and this leads to a more extensive Holocaust and far more steps in Hitler's plans such as the resettlement of conquered territories and the construction of the architectural behemoths in Berlin that were planned.  However, the Third Reich is overthrown in 1945 by repeated atomic bombings by the USA. 

Interestingly, lacking the Cold War imperatives, Holger sees the USA staying uninvolved in Europe after the war and not providing Marshall Aid.  I think that is an incredibly flawed argument.  Marshall Aid was more about restoring the European economies so that they could buy from the USA in the coming decades and not lead to the over-supply problems which had dogged the US economy after the First World War.  In addition, the USA had to stay in Europe to feed many of its people and without the USSR taking over half of the continent then the USA may have been involved in far more states than it was in our world, notably ravaged Poland.  In addition, in Holger's scenario, Hamburg, Munich, Augsburg, Bremen, Essen, Frankfurt, Hanover and Mannheim (presumably Ludwigshafen too as it lies just over the river) are all destroyed by atomic bombs.  This would have not only destroyed major trade and industrial cities but left large parts of Germany radioactive with a major hazard to neighbouring states too.  This would have created vast quantities of refugees and rendered large parts of Germany uninhabitable.  Unless Germany as willing to tolerate mass starvation not only in Germany but most of Europe, then it would have had to have a sustained humanitarian mission which may have made Marshall Aid look small scale.  If it had turned its back on Europe then the USA would have revived the Depression for itself pretty quickly.

'Girl With A Pearl Earring' by Tracy Chevalier
This is a simple story which imagines that the woman who appears in Johannes Vemeer's (1632-75) painting of the same name was a servant of Vermeer's.  The novel traces the few years she spends as a servant in the Vermeer house and the friction with her family and her employer's wife and one of his daughter's.  It is limited to certain districts of Delft but outlines the period and the city well.  It is a model of how a story can be set in the past without the dialogue becoming cumbersome in an attempt to be 'historical', so having the correct feel and yet not being difficult for modern readers to penetrate.  I suggest it is a model of a historical novel and has a 'clean' style which fits that of Vermeer's paintings which may have been deliberate, but it provides a good example for those thinking of writing historical novels.

'Sons of Heaven: A Portrait of the Japanese Monarchy' by Jerrold M. Packard
This does pretty much what the title says.  A friend of mine questioned my motives for buying this when I did from a remaindered bookshop back in the 1990s.  It was mainly better than he expected, detailing the part of Japanese society which tends to get overlooked in favour of the military.  It showed the impotence of the emperors and their slide into poverty as well as the tortuous nature of court society.  However, the last fifth to a quarter of the book was incredibly tedious.  I had forgotten the obsessions of authors about monarchies and that is to explore the minutiae of the court and its personalities, assuming that their audience revels in these things too.  Once he started giving immense detail of Emperor Hirohito's household in the 1980s I should have stopped reading: it was painfully tedious.

'Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War' by Bruce Lincoln
This is a very good coverage of an aspect of the post-Russian Revolution period that is often hurried over in general history books and even survey histories of Russia.  In a flowing style which reminded me of William Shirer, Lincoln covers a very complex conflict, not only the battles but behind the frontlines of all the differing factions.  I particularly welcomed the thumbnail sketches of the different protagonists and neglected areas such as the complicated situation in the Ukraine and the Baltic States; the role of cavalry and armoured train forces; the use of terror by all sides; the 'home front' of the different factions especially on aspects such as women and propaganda; the level of anti-Semitism which though not leading me to believe in the supposed 'causal nexus' for Nazism, did highlight what was clearly a context into which the advancing German armies could bring the Holocaust less than 25 years later. 

Like too many historians, particularly Americans, Lincoln loses his focus when discussing the execution of the Tsar and his family.  No-one looks on Louis XVI and his family in that way, so why is there this adherence to the Romanoffs?  It is almost 100 years since they were executed and yet too many people seem to think their deaths somehow erased all that they had inflicted on Russia.  When you read the millions of deaths in the civil war due to conflict and simple persecution, the execution of a handful more, however, illustrious jars with other more important points Lincoln makes.  Certainly reading this book shifted my view of Lenin's use of terror.  Whilst he may have lacked the paranoia of Stalin, it is clear he was utterly, explicitly, ruthless and developed a culture that was fertile ground for Stalin's purges in the following decades.

'The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich' by Callum MacDonald

I bought this book in 1993 at the Imperial War Museum and regret not having read it sooner.  My copy is in the Papermac addition and some of their books focused on war history are not that impressive.  However, this is an incredibly well written book which really draws you in.  Whilst focused on the events of the assassination, one of the rare times during the Second World War that such an action was authorised, it is very strong on the background and answers many questions about why Heydrich was singled out, showing that it was not simply because of his abilities but also the politics around the Czech government in exile and its need to demonstrate that the Czechs were fighting back so that the country would not simply be left in the hands of the Germans if a negotiated peace came about.  MacDonald is highly capable at writing the best kind of history which leaves you feeling you have learnt so much without even really being aware of it. 

The book is as gripping as a novel and yet is a historical text.  With his death in 1996 at the age of only 49, we lost a very capable historian.  I will certainly search out the other books he produced especially 'The Lost Battle: Crete 1941' (1993) another location, like the Czech Republic, which for some reason has held an interest for me.  Learning so much about the Czech experience during the Second World War did prompt me to think that I had never read anything on Slovakia which was divided off from Bohemia-Moravia (the Czech lands) in March 1939 and was an ally of Nazi Germany.  Nor indeed have I read much about Hungary or Croatia, other allies of Germany in the period; there seems to be a dearth of English-language books on what went on in these states during the war.

'British Public Opinion and the Abyssininan War 1935-6' by Daniel Waley
This is another history book I wish I had read sooner rather than simply carrying from house to house.  It reads like a published version of a doctoral thesis, though by the time it was published in 1975, Waley was a well-published medieval historian.  There is a tight focus which makes very good use of the resources available.  It is a model of what people doing PhD research should really do.  Interestingly, perhaps given the time it was written, there are no sweeping statements, everything is supported and when elements appear that Waley feels counteract general trends he brings them out rather than ignores them, even though they may marginally weaken his line of argument.  Overall a very interesting study of British society, especially single-issue activism and politics around an element of appeasment that tends to be neglected in general surveys.

'Off the Record.  Political Interviews 1933-1943.  WP Crozier' ed. by A.J.P. Taylor
This is a book I found I had been carrying from house to house for many years as it had my tutor group number from when I was at FE college in the 1980s written in the front.  It is an interesting collection of notes taken by W.P. Crozier, editor of the 'Manchester Guardian' 1932-44 when he died.  The newspaper is what is now 'The Guardian' and even in the 1930s and 1940s despite its regional publication was seen as the leading liberal newspaper.  Crozier visited London and made erratic notes of his interviews with leading politicians and the occasional ambassador. 

It provides interesting evidence for the views of members of the elite in the run-up to the war and through the early stages.  Of course, it highlights errors made by many of these people, especially in terms of the likely actions of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the leadership of Japan.  The faith in the reasonableness of these dictators is pretty alarming. In September 1933, Labour MP Arthur Henderson and President of the Disarmament Conference and in November 1933, Norman Davis chief US delegate to that conference, both portrayed Hitler as 'entirely pacific'. In contrast, Ivan Maisky, Soviet ambassador to London 1932-43 in December 1933, warned that Germany was already rearming; he was also aware of the internal politics of Japan and how it had been military commanders rather than the Japanese government who had ordered the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.   Sir Geoffrey Knox who had been the head of the governing body of the Saar region of Germany 1932-5, as early as May 1935 despaired that the British believed anything Hitler said, he was incredulous at the attitude of 'The Times' newspaper which was staunchly pro-appeasement during the 1930s and was seen overseas as the official newspaper of the British Government.  Ironically whilst under-estimating some fears, these members of the elites over-estimated others.  The fears of Labour peer, Lord Marley in January 1934 that Sir Oswald Mosley had formed a private airforce and planned to bomb London and to pull of a 'March on London' to establish a Fascist regime in the way Mussolini had done was fortunately not feasible.

A number of the mistaken views expressed form the basis of counter-factuals I have looked at on this blog.  Some perceptions, in contrast, were highly astute though not generally accepted at the time.  On a minor issue, Sir Herbert Samuel, MP, Leader of the Liberal Party 1931-5 accurately predicted in November 1933 the outcome of the election in Canada that came in October 1935 and saw Conservative prime minister since 1929 R.B. Bennett swept aside and the Liberals come to power in a reverse of the political situation that had endured for ten years.  Sir Joseph Nall, MP, a Conservative backbencher, as early as February 1935 expected Churchill to become prime minister ‘if there were a big political crisis’, ‘by virtue of his brains and personality’ and because Conservative Party would accept him. This proved to be precisely the case in May 1940, even though many commentators in Crozier's book never expected Churchill to prosper. Another example is Sir Samuel Hoare, at various times foreign secretary, home secretary, first lord of the admiralty and secretary of state for air, predicted in November 1939 that the Germans would use paratroopers to seize control of strategic points in the Netherlands, something that came true in April 1940.  Similarly, as early as November 1933, Rex Leeper, Head of the Foreign Office News Department noted the impossibility of Britain defending Hong Kong from a Japanese invasion.  The territory was captured in 18 days in December 1941.

The information in the book goes through two filters, first the interests of Crozier which sometimes put the focus on issues that now seem less important, especially reshuffles in government and then through the rather heavy handed selection, editing and commentary from Taylor.  Most of the time he sticks to giving background details on the role the individuals being interviewed played but at other times he is very dismissive of statements feeling obliged to tell the reader that they are entirely imaginary statements.  The book was published in 1973 and since then scholarship has moved on and has shown how mistaken Taylor was to be dismissive of some of the statements.  In particular her regularly disparages Eduard Benes, president of Czechoslovakia, especially his views on developments within Nazi Germany.  Now, of course we know that certainly well into 1942 Benes did have regular information fed to him from within the highest levels of the Nazi machine (cf MacDonald's book).  Similarly Taylor dismisses the German resistance movements against Hitler, now making him look foolish for not taking these at all seriously.

Whatever the filters that Crozier and Taylor put on the information, what is apparent is the almost complete lack of talent among leading British politicians in the 1930s.  They seem acutely aware of this deficit themselves, constantly speaking about how inadequate their colleagues and rivals are.  One might blame this on the First World War for eliminating many of the people who otherwise most likely would have risen to prominence in the 1930s.  However, many of those in post were of an older generation anyway.  I guess it has to do with the attractions of business over civic life or of emigration over remaining in Britain; those people with 'get up and go' had gone by the 1930s.  Those people who were left and perception appear to have been kept on the margins and their views dismissed.  Given this context, it is in fact unsurprising that Nall could see as early as 1933 that Churchill would be the only option to run a war; there were so very few people who came close to him in terms of ability.

Another interesting aspect that the book highlights is how paranoid and controlling the government of Neville Chamberlain (1937-40) was.  The movie 'Glorious 39' (2009) directed by Stephen Poliakoff was a fictional account of how Chamberlain's secret forces monitored private statements critical of Chamberlain's regime and stifled criticisms.  However, this fiction is based on actual behaviour.  Notable are the discussion of suppressing the left-wing popular newspaper 'Daily Mirror' and the treatment of Leslie Hore-Belisha, secretary of state for war 1937-40 and a friend of Crozier's.  Even when he was unceremoniously removed from office due to dislike of him by military leaders he found the articles he wrote censored and articles written about him very disparaging.  This may have stemmed from him being Jewish.  Certainly reading this book has reinforced my view that the National Government which in various forms ruled Britain from 1931-40, with its unassailable position in parliament was a watered down version of the dictatorships seen on the continent.  As ineffectual and deluded as he was, Chamberlain seems to have even aped those dictators in his paranoia and use of the secret state to eliminate criticism and this book certainly gives credence to Poliakoff's movie.

'Habsburg & Bourbon Europe 1470-1720' by Roger Lockyer
This is another book I have been carrying around for far too long without reading.  When I bought it second hand in 1988 it was only 4 years old and now it is far older than that and seems rather dated in style.  It does a good job of covering the entirety of Europe (bar the British Isles) and the European colonies around the world that developed in this period.  It covers very complex issues such as the Reformation, the Catholic Reformation, the French Wars of Religion, the Eighty Years War and the Thirty Years War.  It certainly does not neglect the periphery of Europe and there are good sections on Scandinavia, Russia and the Ottoman Empire.  However, as Lockyer covers each phase geographically it does mean he goes back and forth in the chronology and you can find yourself reading about an incident three or four times from different countries' perspectives.  There are maps at the end, but far more place throughout the book would really help clarify what was going on especially with the armies marching all over German states during the Thirty Years War and the constant ebb and flow of the borders of France, the southern Netherlands and the United Provinces.

Lockyer betrays a clear sympathy for an Erasmian humanist form of Catholicism which means that the text comes over as exasperating at how long it took for the Roman Catholic Church to reform itself and a disdain for Protestant sects including Calvinism but particularly the more extreme ones such as the Anabaptists.  This means you feel as if you are reading a partisan account rather than a more objective one appropriate for this kind of general survey book.

'Toplis the Monocled Mutineer' by William Allison and John Fairley
I came to the factual story of Percy Toplis through the BBC television series, 'The Monocled Mutineer' (1986) based on this book.  Toplis was a confidence trickster from the age of 11 and through his life which ended at the age of 23, when he was shot dead by police, he was involved in a string of crimes including theft, fraud, impersonation and murder.  For a man who was adept at changing identities and playing on the social class assumptions of early 20th century Britain, the First World War provided him ample opportunity for crime and simply finding an easier life.  He managed to socialise in high society and regularly trick money from people. Never higher than a private, he would masquerade as everything from a corporal to a colonel whatever the circumstances demanded.  His ability also allowed him to be a very successful womaniser.

What led to the nationwide manhunt for Toplis which led to him being shot by police in Cumbria in June 1920 was his involvement with the Etaples mutiny in September 1917.  Etaples was the location of a number of military hospitals for Allied troops and notably of the Bull Ring training base which new recruits and recovering wounded soldiers were trained in before being sent to the front line.  The regime at the Bull Ring was so brutal that many men begged to be sent to the front line despite the horrific conditions there.  The soldiers were exercised to exhaustion with minimal food and were threatened with barbaric punishments over seen by the loathed military police and trainers.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that British soldiers were paid 1 shilling per day, a quarter of what soldiers from Dominion countries received.  In addition, rations for Australians were greater and they did not face the death penalty in the way British soldiers did.  The mutiny came at a time of unrest in the French forces and whilst there was reference to the revolutionary activity in Russia much of the demands were around practical things such as pay and leave.  A mutiny among Chinese labourers, paid one penny a day, working some miles from the Etaples camp broke out at the same time.  The soldiers' mutiny was ended through concessions being made, the labourers' mutiny was put down by brute force.  However, after the mutiny, action was taken against ringleaders who were executed.

These mutinies were an embarrassment to the British Army and the government and they were hushed up immediately.  Efforts were taken that no details of the mutinies leaked out.  Toplis had been involved with a gang of deserters at the time and with his charisma and ability appear and disappear at will, became an leading character in the mutiny.  Thus, there was a desire to capture and kill him so that he was not in a position to reveal what had occurred.  In many ways he became a figurehead of the mutiny.  However, given his extensive criminal activities he is not really a hero.  Yet, the abilities he had that allowed him to be a reasonably effective criminal kept him alive for almost three years when there was a desire to kill him.

The desire to conceal the reality of the mutinies has persisted for decades and even Toplis's grave is unmarked despite efforts to rectify this in the 1980s.  This continued desire to hide the truth led both the Conservative government and right-wing newspapers to attack the television series and the book it was based upon.  It was used to give strength to the view that the BBC has a left-wing bias, which I always find laughable because in my view it is a bastion of the Establishment and too often peddles right-wing viewpoints. There are attempts to dismiss the mutinies as exaggerated and to say that Toplis was not involved, a line which is stated on Wikipedia.  Toplis served under different names and never stayed in any army or RAF unit long and flitted between them regularly both in wartime and in peacetime, so to say he could not have been in Etaples because his unit was on its way to India is foolish.

In many ways, there is no need for Toplis to have been involved in the mutiny.  He was a hardened criminal and while he was glamorous, what is more important is that an element of British history has constantly been dismissed as false.  It involved ordinary soldiers sickened by the unnecessarily harsh regime that was imposed on them and the inequity of different treatment given to soldiers fighting alongside each other.  For some reason this still troubles many in Britain.  It is offensive to them to say that for six days in 1917, a few hundred soldiers mutinied.  The files will open at the National Archives in 2018 (archives are opened 30 or 50 or 100 years, etc. from the 31st December of the given year so, in effect on 1st January up to an additional 12 months after the material was generated), but there will be no point searching them out.  Given that there has been an effort to cover up the mutinies from the start, nothing of value will be in them.

The book is an excellent read and is reinforced with the rigour of an academic publication even down to giving the home addresses of the eye-witnesses interviewed in the 1970s.  It touches on interesting elements such as volunteer groups that provided refreshments to soldiers, the inflation that Britain suffered during the war, the differences between Dominion and British troops, the ambivalence towards participation in the war which persisted in the USA through 1917, how ill-equipped the US Army was and how poorly demobilisation was handled in 1918/19 given the concern that Germany would refuse to sign the peace treaty.  An important and interesting book to read.