Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Books I Read In December

In my new job I have 16 days more leave than in my previous post, though, of course, being in a more senior position it is often difficult to schedule to take this leave as people cannot do without you.  Anyway, I did get 3 weeks leave for Christmas.  I know Americans will be stunned to read that and in turn each year I am quite surprised just how little holiday they receive no matter what the festival or time of year.  This is particularly given that it is worse than Britain which itself has fewer holidays than most countries in Europe.  Given that the concept of the working poor developed first in the USA it is apparent that they are having a rough time in terms of pay and leave.  Anyway, that is getting off track.  I always read less when I am on leave, hence only two short books this month.

'The Rose Rent' by Ellis Peters
Whilst there had been others who had written historical crime fiction before, notably Van Gulik discussed last month, Ellis Peters's (real name Edith Pargeter; 1913-95) Cadfael series published 1977-94, really brought the genre into the mainstream.  Her stories not only sold in vast quantities but were also turned into a successful television series in broadcast 1994-8; though this ran into difficulties with the broadcasters wanting 'tweaks' in the historical aspects, so after the first series sandals which were historically accurate, were replaced by shoes.  Peters's writing at times can seem dated and almost archaic, but that appears to fit with the era she is portraying so you soon become used to it.  The skill she demonstrates is to create a credible mystery and quickly but thoroughly draw a range of characters.  Some notably the monks and the secular authorities feature in each book, but she also has to create a new set of characters which sit in the foreground.  She does not shy away from historical references as the stories are set during the 'Anarchy' of the 12th century, a period of civil war.  Other characteristics which readers welcome is the use of references to plants; Cadfael is the monastery's herbalist and to medieval Shrewsbury where the stories are set.  What is remarkable is that she packages all of this up into a book usually 180-250 pages long, far shorter than most contemporary crime fiction.  I think if she had lived she would have been perfect for e-books in which there is a desire for crisp, shorter fiction.

This story features a wealthy widow, Judith Perle, who has let a house to the monastery on the basis that it pays her a rent of a single white rose from the garden of the house each year.  Not only does someone attack the rose bush but a monk who tended it is murdered.  Perle is beset by a range of suitors and is subsequently abducted.  At times Peters can come across as a little sentimental, though not all of the women characters come off well in her stories, some have their hopes entirely dashed.  However, she is good at writing women and they are as strong in the story as the monks and other male characters.  She also does not shy away from tragedy and the stories can certainly be more brutal than an Agatha Christie novel, but this reflects that with war and disease let alone accidents all potential ways to die the 12th century was not easy.  The characters do develop and while the situation is resolved it is generally not status quo ante, in a mixture of outcomes for the different characters.  I read the first twelve of the books about ten years ago and having the remainder out of storage I hope to finish the set now.  They are not taxing but are a good model of how well written historical fiction can be done.

'Death's Men' by Denis Winter
This is a book about the experiences of British soldiers on the Western Front in the First World War.  Winter is American and occasional phrases do jar, but this is a very good book.  Published in 1978 he was able to draw not just on memoirs and newspapers but also interviews with veterans of the war and for this reason this is a good counter-balance to some of the bombastic books coming out about the war at present.  He works through the different facets of the experience from recruitment, through training, service at the front, rest and recreation, attitudes to the war, demobilisation and so on.  Each section is peppered with examples from a range of men.  The book is very brisk and draws you in.  Without stinting on the horrors it consequently does not burn you out in the way other books on the conflict can do.  The central message was that for the ordinary soldier there was no single experience of war, it was incredibly diverse even for men serving in the same unit, perhaps surprisingly, some men enjoyed it.  It also shows that for these men the war was very dispersed, men on one part of the front would be oblivious to battles raging even just a few miles away.  The conflict was more about routine and they were usually ignorant of the sweeping plans and actions that are the way the war is generally presented to us as that was how it was seen by the generals.  That distance is important and was as much between a frontline captain and a colonel behind the lines as it was between a private and the generals.  This is a well written book that is a good starting point for those interested in having a balanced and perceptive exploration of the experience of the war.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Books I Read In November

'The Chinese Gold Murders' by Robert Van Gulik
This is the fourth book in the series of novels published in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Dutch diplomat and scholar, Robert Van Gulik which featured the 8th century Chinese judge/detective, Judge Dee.  Van Gulik had translated an actual 18th century book of Chinese detective stories set during the 7th-8th centuries, during the Tang dynasty.  He then used this style to write a series of novels himself featuring a historical character engaging in fictional crimes but often based on those of the 18th century or even incidents of the Tang dynasty.  As I have found myself, it can be a challenge to use a historical style in modern fiction as many readers do not 'get it' and feel the constraints of the style simply show poor writing.  It is a fine line to walk.  At times van Gulik's work feels to have a simple tone.  However, each of the novels features three inter-twined stories being investigated simultaneously, something many contemporary crime novels are unable to engage with.  Van Gulik is good at both conjuring up the time period and whilst it is very alien to us, you soon find yourself comfortable in it, just the way Ellis Peters made readers feel 'at home' in 12th century Shrewsbury.  This particular novel features Dee's first cases as a judge when he assigned to a port on the Shandong Peninsula and becomes involved with the assassination of his predecessor, smuggling, the Korean population of the town and a local Buddhist monastery.  Whilst Dee is the hero, he is a man of his time and culture and it is interesting when he expresses prejudices, for example, as an ardent Confucianist against Buddhism. As a rational man it is also interesting when he is faced by things that appear supernatural and certainly that many around him believe are so; reminiscent of Ichabod Crane. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it is a shame you only seem to find them in increasingly rare second hand editions.  If you like historical crime fiction, I certainly recommend seeking these out.

'Against the Day' by Michael Cronin
Michael Cronin is renowned to my generation as an actor for many years in the school-based series 'Grange Hill'.  He seems to have made a modest transition to writing.  This is a 'what if?' novel, the first of a trilogy, set in Sussex following a successful German invasion in 1940.  It is aimed at a children's audience, but there are only a few occasions when you feel as an adult reader that it is for children.  Cronin's focus on the perceptions of a small group of individuals in a small village which has a local headquarters for the Gestapo comes off very well, as in their own ways they seek to process what they have witnessed.  Different strands inter-twine as the hero, Frank Tate, tries to find out the fate of his father; preparations are made for the celebration of Hitler's birthday in 1941 and actions by the local 'stay behind' resistance begin. 

Cronin is very successful in character portrayal.  While there are characters we like and dislike and even heroes, all have flaws which influence how they respond to the (changing) circumstances.  This means that their reactions can be vacillating and ambiguous and certainly they evolve.  This is an aspect often missing in stories focused on a 'what if?' and I find it a good lesson for my own writing.  The action and the threats are appropriate for a children's audience but the development of the different characters and how they react to circumstances is handled very well and as an adult reader I found that facet engaging and will certainly look out for the following books.

Some commentators have noted that you do not find out a great deal about how history ran differently.  We witness scenes of the Germans coming ashore on the beaches of a fictional seaside resort close to Brighton and there are stories of a prolonged series of tank battles in the Midlands.  However, these aspects are less important than exploring how the occupation is imposed on Britain.  At times I think Cronin could have emphasised more the benefits of living in the country as it jarred occasionally how much cheese everyone was eating, even with the war having ended the previous year.  However, that is a tiny issue.  This may not appeal to some adult readers of alternate history but certainly is far better than some of the bombastic Hitler-won fiction.

'The Rachel Papers' by Martin Amis
It had been a good month up until this stage.  Having read many of the larger books I have owned on the practical basis of needing to reduce the amount of storage space I use, I am now onto shorter works.  This is one of those books that I regret buying and am glad I got it from a charity shop.  I saw part of the movie of the book and maybe was inspired to buy it as a result of that or maybe I was curious about Amis's work.  I have read his father's alternate history books.  I had found them interesting but irritating.  Amis (born 1949) exceeds his father in terms of irritation.  I accept that 'The Rachel Papers' (1973) was one of his earlier books, published when he was 24 and featuring a man in 1970 who is turning 20.  Even if I had not known that this would have struck me as being at least a semi-autobiographical book.

Perhaps one problem is that post-'Life on Mars' and 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', the 1970s look incredibly seedy to us no matter what the focus of the story set then.  With the lack of technology, notably having to phone the neighbour of a friend to fetch them to answer the phone, it seems much further in the past than it is chronologically, more akin to the 1940s than the 1990s, for example.  However, the morality also seems very dated.  There is the racism, misogyny and class bigotry of the 1940s but then added to with what now seems a sordid attitude to sexual behaviour.  It is as if the period combined the worst of the uptight 1950s with the unpleasant aspects of the permissiveness of the late 1960s.  There are few books that I have read that have left me feeling 'soiled' but this is one of them. 

The book features a self-centred young man, Charles Highway, who rather than going to university has opted to attend a crammer school over the summer of his 19th year in order to gain 'O' Level Latin and to sit the Oxford University entrance examinations.  There seem to be flaws in this, why someone clearly capable of university entrance, has to take an 'O' Level aimed at 16 year olds and why he is doing this while 19 rising 20 rather than 18 rising 19 is not clear, though there is reference to his ill-health and he spits almost constantly through the book apparently due to bronchial problems.  I think Amis's own experiences have butted in here to blind him to the practicalities and so he feels no need to explain them.  While staying with his married sister in London he seeks to seduce Rachel who he sees as the necessary 'older woman' he must sleep with before ceasing to be a teenager.  Rachel is only a few months older than him.  Charles has casual sex with Gloria whose name seems anachronistic even in 1970 for a teenager who gives him a venereal disease.  He tries to get a girl to sleep with him though just through writing letters. Charles records his exploits and his strategems in a series of 'papers': books and pads with his self-reflections.  He is pretentious especially in regard to literature and despite all his introspection cannot appreciate the feelings of anyone around him despite the meltdown of his parents' marriage and the challenges his unsympathetic sister and brother-in-law face dealing with her pregnancy.

The story does not run chronologically.  The jumping back and forth in time is engineered pretty well; the approach of the papers makes this appear rational.  Amis is clearly fascinated by how time works especially in fiction and this is probably the only positive aspect of this book.  There are reasonable sex scenes that were probably had a greater frisson at the time, but today are generally refreshing in the ordinariness.  However, they are irritating due to Charles's constant inner monologue indeed dialogue while carrying them out.

Why do I dislike this book so much?  It shows up all the nasty things that Amis is accused of.  Anti-Semitism breaks in at an early stage and is complemented by general racism.  The attitude to women is appalling.  They are presented not just by the character but by the author himself as disposable.  Having slept with Rachel and uncertain whether he has made her pregnant, Charles simply gets rid of her in a very callous manner.  The author seems to think that young women should be grateful for the fact that a man has given them an orgasm and not expect anything else.  To anticipate any emotional engagement or even manners, is apparently, in Amis's view to be too 'clingy'.  This is certainly a pre-Feminist novel but exposes the nastiness of the author that many other far better commentators than myself have noted.  I will certainly read nothing else by Martin Amis and recommend that you do not waste your time if you have any self-respect.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Your Car Has Broken Down? Then You Are An Idiot Who Must Be Lectured By Me

There are certain topics that British men, and indeed probably men across Europe and even further afield will not let anyone gainsay them on.  Football is one of them.  Immigration issues is another as is the treatment of convicted criminals.  Do-it-yourself is another topic.  These are things that the bulk of men will not be permitted to contradict them on, often even when there is clear evidence to the contrary.  The last resort is 'that doesn't sound right', 'that can't be right', and 'you must have heard it wrong'.  It is the equivalent of the 'does not compute' from a robot.  A man's dignity is so dependent on him being right in these issues that he cannot mentally cope with any challenges to this perception. Perhaps the largest area for such a mindset is in terms of cars and driving. 

The comedian Harry Enfield portrayed a character who would interrupt conversations in pubs with 'you don't want to do it like that' and would totally dismiss the individual's approach and lecture them on the correct way to do it.  He could not accept that anyone could trump his view.  Another set of characters in a similar vein were the Self-Righteous Brothers portrayed again by Enfield this time in collaboration with comedian Paul Whitehouse.  They tended to take particular celebrities and praise their attributes before drawing a particular line over which they would not let them cross.  These characters were played for comedy, but they are very well observed. As a blogger I get indignant and tell people what to think but the advantage of a blog is one click and you are away from it.  I am not pestering you any longer than you wish.  Unfortunately there are far too many people like this in Britain today who do it to your face and they make any troubles you face harder to deal with.

As I mentioned, the biggest focus for such intrusive souls is connected to cars.  I have had a lot of bad luck with cars, two in a row completely died, though fortunately I had not paid much for them.  In one case I was conned by people who appeared to be friends but clearly more wanted to offload a poor vehicle than they wanted to remain my friends.  I tend not to publicise these problems as immediately it reduces my standing in the eyes of any British man I meet.  They, of course, have perfect knowledge which means they are never conned and always get the best prices.  For them it is simple to achieve this, so I must be a real idiot not to be able to do so.

My last car was 15-year old Mitsubishi people carrier which had done 200,000 Km (125,000 miles).  It was still running but despite all the tweaking and services, it kept on losing revs at slow speeds, making it difficult to keep from stalling in the stop-start traffic that I now drive through.  I thought it had had a good run so started looking for a replacement before it died completely.  I lighted on a Kia people carrier, 8 years old and having done 115,000 Km (71,000 miles) for £3,500, about £1000 more than I could afford.  However, it was in good condition and was large enough to accommodate stock for the business I sometimes help out.  It has a diesel engine which these days means that it is less economical than it would have been about 15-20 years ago.  It has a fuel tank which is 40% larger than the Mitsubishi but the distance per litre is about 15% less than the Mitsubishi.  Apparently the advantage of diesel engines is only apparently if you cover more than 25,000 Km per year and I only do half that.  Having run for two weeks without problem, it suddenly would not start.

Since leaving London in December for a better job, having struggled to find anyone who would rent me a room in a shared house in a city for less than £650 per month, I ended up renting part of a very large house which unfortunately is in rural West Midlands. Before you write in to say that you can rent cheaper rooms, try doing it when you are a man, over 30 and working in my industry, all of these things put off potential landlords/ladies.  I have made another mistake about diesel cars.  Yes, once I saw that I might buy a diesel car, I should have run off and read everything I could about them, but when you are at the dealership you do not have such time and with this tendency for all car dealers to treat you like an imbecile if you make one mistake about the car you are looking at, you do not ask questions.  The woman accompanying me asked about the jack, something largely redundant in cars these days and it led to the dealer simply laughing out loud at here.  They do not care and you have no choice, a private seller would be even harsher.  It is all about them loving the boost to their insecure egos that such humiliation brings.  The mistake I made is that diesel engines start poorly in cold weather.  This seems ridiculous given that tractors, lorries and I imagine snowploughs use diesel engines.  However, it is to do with the fact that it runs on compressing the fuel until it ignites, rather than a spark from a spark plug igniting it.  I found I actually remembered quite a bit about diesel engines from my O Level Physics classes.  Thus, living in a rural area, on top of a hill, with few houses around put me into not an ideal position to start the car.

The day came almost two weeks ago now when it would not start.  I waited until the day warmed a little, then called Green Flag and still it would not start.  The size of it meant a larger tow truck was needed and this dragged it to the nearest mechanics I could find who had a space, the sixth I had telephoned as all the others were busy, being the time of year.  They had it for three days and could not work out what the problem was.  There seemed to be a range of problems, the heater which warms the fuel before it enters the compression process had loose wires and the battery needed replacing.  One problem with the car is almost everything in the engine is invisible, hidden below large metal boxes, a characteristic of a Kia, I have found I do not like.  It also turned out that one of the tyres was below the legal limit despite the car apparently passing its MOT just a fortnight earlier.  I had noticed this due to skidding on the road and was happy to have it replaced.  The mechanics managed to get the car running long enough to get it back to where I am living, 6.5 Km away where it proceeded to die once more.  I then discovered that the battery in the key fob was run down.  Having walked back 9.5 Km to a branch of Asda which had sold out of just that sort of battery and a further 3 Km to a pound shop that had them at half the price of Asda and got a taxi at £10 back.  I managed to start the car.  It was apparent the low battery simply kept triggering the immobiliser.  However, by now I was blocked in by the other lodger's car and satisfied that I had started it four times thought I would start again the next morning.  Of course then it would not work.  I have now had to wait seven days for the Kia specialists 25 Km away to fit me in and have to get it towed there once more.

In the meantime I have clearly been on to the people who sold me the car.  Given that they have treated me so poorly I will do something I do not often do and tell you that they are BMC Autonation based in Bournemouth in Dorset.  They are not huge but have a number of locations around the town.  They seemed to be reliable and the car came with a 12-month warranty on parts - an important qualification.  I telephoned them about the fact that they had sold me a car that had stopped working within two weeks of me buying it from them and that despite the MOT certificate had a tyre below the legal limit in terms of tread.  They simply denied vigorously that it had anything to do with them.  I had driven the car off the forecourt (though not very far given how little diesel there was in the tank) and as far as they were concerned that ended their responsibility for the car.  I guess I should have realised from the lack of diesel that much more would need replenishing from the key fob battery to the car battery to the tyres.  Basically the car was not fit to drive and I am sure thousands of men would shout at me for my inability to simply smell that these things were wrong with the car the moment I looked at it.  That has been the attitude of many men and indeed a woman, since I bought it.

For £3500 I have been left with a car which cannot move after two weeks with problems that after 3 days, an experienced mechanic could not resolve.  Being in a rural area with buses stopping in the village every 80 minutes during the rush hours, when they turn up, has meant great difficulty getting to work.  It costs £3.30 to cover the first 6 Km and then £1.70 for the next 16 Km.  The second stage is from town to town so is faster and far more regular.  A return journey costs exactly £10 or £50 per week, 20% more than the diesel I was having to buy for the journey.  If the bus does not come then it is £10 for the taxi over the first 6 Km, each way.  So not only have I wasted thousands of pounds on a car I am now paying even more for the privilege of not having a car.  If this goes on the choice is to move into the town and see my rent rise from £475 per month for a room to £650.  Of course taxi drivers will swear that you can rent a 2-bedroomed flat for that much, but it actually turns out to be impossible to find any of these places they keep telling you that you are an idiot not to be renting.

I guess this takes me to the root of the problem.  Men largely have an unshakeable perception of the world.  They will not be challenged in that viewpoint.  To be challenged somehow twists their brains so much that it is painful.  Thus, they keep pumping out the same perceptions no matter how much someone contests them.  Their own explanation for the difference between their world view and what the person is saying is that that person is an idiot, no matter how many admirable traits or how much knowledge they have demonstrated up to that point.  Throughout this car saga I have had to put up with such lecturing, very difficult as a lot of it has come from my landlord and whilst I want him to stop banging on about this stuff I do not want to upset him so he feels that I am too much of a pain and chucks me out.  Of course, when the car first broke down the landlord insisted that he got in and tried to start it, he did this repeatedly with no more success than I had had.  The other male lodger similarly insisted that he must try and did exactly the same as myself and the landlord had done with exactly the same result.  By now the engine was flooded and the battery run down anyway.  However, there was nothing that could be done to stop them turning the engine over and over again.  The landlady was determined to do the same and was only prevented by me taking the dying battery out of the spare key fob.

The landlord then insisted that being a diesel engine it must need the glow bulbs replaced.  These were the old method of warming diesel before it was compressed.  He is still insisting on this even though I have told him at least ten times that the car has no glow bulbs but a more up-to-date, though possibly less reliable, heater system.  Even when the car came back from the mechanics he has continued to say it simply needs the glow bulbs replaced.  This shows the strength of his world view, that he believes even professional mechanics who had the car for three days would not have replaced the glow bulbs if that was all that was wrong.  My refusal to accept that this reason is the correct one is now angering him.  However, there is nothing I can do about it.  Even if I get the Haines manual and show him the lack of glow bulbs it will simply stoke his anger, he would rather be angry and wrong than be corrected and so feel humiliated in this subject matter which clearly shapes a large chunk of his masculinity.  The car has been sitting passive outside the house while awaiting the tow to the Kia dealers.  I have tried to start it on the off chance but have simply ended up running the battery down again.  Yet, even today the landlord suggested I try some more and went on about if I just got new glow bulbs it would be fine.  His knowledge is clearly greater than that of the manufacturers.

Having proved myself very poor at buying cars, he has now insisted that if I get another one, which seems quite feasibly will have to be the case, he must accompany me.  He apparently can sniff out faulty cars even when they work perfectly on the test drive (and as you can imagine given my past experience I tried absolutely everything in the car to see if it worked or not before I bought it).  He along with a number of colleagues from my job have this ability and all want to come along next time, because clearly I am incapable of buying a car.  I will need quite a large vehicle to fit them all in.  Of course, they will spend the time correcting each other and pointing out how not only I am wrong, but their fellow 'advisors' are too.

Being lectured repeatedly as a man of 46 is hard.  Being told that you are an idiot unsuited to drive, is humiliating.  Having people insist that a part which does not exist is faulty, is hard to tackle politely.  This is on top of the missed trips and visits to friends and the burden on my wallet to cope with.  I feel once more as I did when living with my parents last year.  All my achievements, the fact that I have survived all the bullying and losses without going mad are nothing simply because my car has broken down.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Unacceptable Corporate Blackmail

Imagine the following scenario:  The British government and other political leaders receive threats from a small group of wealthy men that unless they keep allowing them to squeeze money from the general population for the foreseeable future, these men will cut off the power supply to the UK.  It sounds like a plot from a spy novel of the 1970s, but is in fact the situation that the UK is in today.  It is not SPECTRE but the six main power companies who are making such threats.  Back in September leader of the Labour Party said at the party conference that if Labour won the next general election, which will not be held until 7th May 2015, they would impose a 20-month price freeze on the charges for gas and electricity supply to consumers.  Now, at the time it was still 19 months until the election and there is no guarantee that Labour will win.  However, just making this policy statement was sufficient for the leaders of the the 'Big Six' : British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE to say such a policy would lead to blackouts. 

Given that four of these companies are foreign owned; they said that they would withdraw from the UK market place. EDF belongs to the French government; Scottish Power is owned by Spanish company, Iberdrola; E.ON is German and npower is owned by RWE of Germany.  They blame the wholesale prices, even when these are falling; they blame the taxation raised to try to promote sustainable energy initiatives, they blame everything except their own greed.  These six companies have made made more than £2 billion (€2.4 billion; US$3.22 billion) every year for the past four years, rising to £3.74 billion in 2012.  This year prices to consumers on both gas and electricity are rising by an average of 9% whereas wholesale prices have risen between 1-2%, so it is likely that they will exceed last year's profits this year.  They claim they only make 5% profit on what they sell.  When this is generating billions of pounds of profit, year after year, you could fall to 1% profit and still be incredibly wealthy.

The complaint from the power companies, is that they lack capital for investment.  However, it is clear that if rather than paying their chief executives and their shareholders big sums they actually invested in the business this would be not an issue.  Phil Bentley, CEO of British Gas, led got a salary of £1.3 illionm in 2010, plus share options worth £2.7 million at the time.  Ian Marchant  of SSE got £1.2 million, plus £126,000 bonus in shares and 330,000 shares worth £4 million at the moment; his pension in 2011 was worth £6.1 million.  Johannes Teyssen, CEO of E.ON, has salary of £860,000 in 2010 but including bonuses and share options raised this to £3.6 million.  These are just the men at the very top, not the numerous executives and managers beneath them who all receive generous payments which could pay for all the power going into a small town for a year.

Once again, today, as reported on BBC Radio 2, npower has spoken out saying blackouts are inevitable unless Britain has a 'more stable' political context.  Now, this to me, sounds very like a company trying to dictate Britain's government, it can be taken as suggestion that democracy is too troublesome for the power companies and something like a dictatorship which panders to their greed and lets them keep ramping up prices for consumers, year after year, unchallenged would be better.  If a foreign politician said something similar you can imagine the outrage.  A few weeks ago the wife of an executive from an energy company said that there needed to be a 'serious conversation' about investment and more money coming to companies for it.  I said that her husband should simply be arrested for threatening the British state.  Why can someone tweet a joke about terrorism and be arrested and yet, these company executives can come on the television and radio week-after-week and continue to threaten damage to the UK economy without even being challenged let alone arrested?  It is clear that there is one rule for the hyper-rich and one for the rest of us.  The cockiness after the first assault following Miliband's speech in September is apparent that now the power companies feel they can begin to try to shape the political context too.

Yes, there are major problems with generating electricity in the UK.  There are two key sources of this.  Both the Labour governments 1997-2010 and the current coalition have failed to drive ahead with developing new power stations of any kind.  They vacilated because they are torn between making sure enough electricity is generated and their obligations to sustainable energy.  Surprisingly, unlike our European neighbours, especially in Germany and Denmark, Britons are largely hostile to sustainable energy approaches.  The campaigns against wind farms are far more extensive and successful than any campaigns against nuclear, gas or coal power stations being built.  Greed does have an impact as EDF held out for its set price for the electricity it will generate from the nuclear power station it is building.  The price will be £89.50 per megawatt hour once the station is complete, twice the current level.  Of course, this is blackmail.  The cost to the consumer can do nothing but rise, but there is nothing that government let alone the consumer can do to resist this.  We can switch suppliers, but it is a cartel.  Some smaller companies are appearing but as yet they cannot challenge the marketplace the way was possibly fantasised about when private companies were allowed this oligopoly. 

We have to commend Miliband for his bravery in standing up to the companies.  It is certainly a vote winner.  However, with the corporations now making political points and in fact trying to threaten any future government both in terms of what policies they will permit it to adopt and indeed the entire 'political scene', we can argue that democracy is being eroded before our eyes.  I was concerned during the Blair regime especially with the attacks on human rights in the UK, that this process was happening or that it would be driven by the Murdoch empire.  However, I had overlooked that other big corporate players were happy to follow in the footsteps of News International and try to shift the political patterns more to their liking, and, indeed being pretty successful about it.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

From Conception To Retail In 3 Days: My Fastest e-Book

As regular readers have known, around two years ago I got into producing e-books. Not only did I self-publish the novels I had been writing over the past thirty years but I also made use of blog postings to create essay collections on alternate history.  These latter were very popular, especially those concerning the Second World War.  However, as time passed they began to be criticised, as is typical for many e-books, on the basis of minute points and people simply disagreeing with the content or the style and labelling it with a one-star review.  The worst being a review that complained that a 1940s pastiche novel was a 1940s pastiche novel and as the review said 'no-one wants that', so the critic felt it was down to him to remove it from circulation.  A one-star review means the book is no longer picked up by search engines and basically sales cease.  I have kept the book on sale for want of knowing what else to do with it.

Self-published e-books have brought other trends beyond the absolute power of a single reviewer to destroy a book.  One that is discussed in 'The Guardian' newspaper last weekend by Philip Hensher: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/01/philip-hensher-why-short-is-sweet  as if it had suddenly just appeared, is that such an approach allows the publication and sale of short stories in a way that has probably not been feasible for a century, maybe even longer.  I think Hensher would be pushed to sell a short story at £2.29 on Amazon as he suggests, but maybe someone like Zadie Smith who he focuses on, has sufficient standing to achieve that price.

Hensher seems to be oblivious to the fact that this trend has been going on for five years or so.  I guess he still reads books he buys in WH Smiths rather than traipsing through the online Kindle listings on Amazon on a Friday afternoon or clicking through from a blog to an author's stories sold on Smashwords.  Certainly he should have been aware of 'Shetl Days' by Harry Turtledove, an established if no literary author, published only online as a short e-book for 99p back in April 2011.  Hensher is write to praise the ability to produce and get out to the public books of very varied lengths.  Ironically, or perhaps logically, on Amazon the best-selling genre of short-story seem to be 4,000-word erotic e-books; I guess because people are not looking for much character or plot development in such stories!

This year with my books being torn apart for representing Finland in the 1940s in a way which people disapproved of, apparently using too many online as opposed to paper sources and having 'too much history' in my alternate history e-books, I took many of them down.  They were not making any money and it was soul-destroying just to be sitting there being slagged off in a whole host of ways.  These days, one minor typographical error is enough to have the entire book condemned as useless.  I guess that is a characteristic of our indignant societies; people are angry that their authors can actually be human and cannot afford to employ editors, even though most publishing houses do not bother with them these days anyway.  Conversely, people I meet want to see my books, but if they even read them, they never bother to include a review, leading me to think I indeed must be so bad and they are simply too embarrassed to say.

Some constructive criticism is what all authors need, such as suggestions on style or level of detail.  In this world it is all or nothing, either the reviewer condemns your work as needing to be removed for causing offence due to minor errors or the person is too embarrassed to say anything about what they did not like in the book.  The former simply want you gone out of the way of the 'proper' authors they admire so much more.  The latter, well, I do not know what they want, perhaps simply proof that when you say you are an author you actually are, maybe they hope to catch you out in confessing you are lying and the evidence simply ruins that game so they have nothing else to say.

Anyway, you get the picture.  However, these set-backs have not doused the ideas that I have bubbling away in my head.  Sometimes I have to simply write a story to get it out of my head otherwise it bubbles around in there getting in the way of other thoughts and indeed preventing me from sleeping.  One reason why the 10th-12th of the Braucher stories were written so fast was that they had been planned some years before but never written and reflecting on them kept me awake, I simply had to get them out and finished to get enough sleep and maintain my health.  This brings me to 'Against the Devil's Men' which is an e-book just under 9,000 words in length that I started writing on the evening of Saturday, 2nd November 2013, as a result of the weather meaning the wireless reception where I am staying was too poor to allow me to continue my game of  'Rome II Total War'.  I wrote the remaining 7,300 words of the book throughout 3rd November.  I edited it after work on 4th November, having created most of the front cover and the synopsis over my lunch break.  I put it up for sale that evening and by the morning of 4th November, had sold one copy. 

Of course, the ideas had been around for a long time.  The book is set in western Normandy in 1272 in an alternate world in which rather than retreating from Europe in the 1240s the Mongols have remained to continue their conquests and destruction.  The ideas go back to me reading 'The Devil's Horsemen' by James Chambers (1979) in 2007, playing 'Medieval II Total War' and subsequently producing a chapter on this blog and then in my e-book of alternate histories of the Middle Ages 'On Other Fields' (2012).  The story is told from the perspective of a cardinal charged with inspecting the frontline in the bocage country of Normandy.  I worry that it is too dense because the cardinal engages in religious thoughts and controversies.  I was also conscious of avoiding anachronisms, so he refers to the Mongols as 'Tartars' a mix up with the Tatars another steppe people; for centuries 'Mongol' meant a group of nomads rather than their ethnicity.  In addition, being seen as coming from the Devil, this was a reference to Tartarus, a hellish region of the underworld in Ancient Greek mythology.  He also refers to the Folban, the German term at the time for the people we now call the Cumans, another nomadic steppe tribe but one which fled in front of the Mongols and converted to Christianity in the 1220s.

My short stories have never sold as well as my longer books.  However, I have enjoyed being able to produce and sell a book within three days.  In the 1930s books on political events were often overtaken by a change in the global situation before they had been published.  In these days not only can you blog about such events but you can get a book out while events are still running; indeed with an e-book you can update as they change.  Perhaps Philip Hensher should catch up with the rest of the world and reflect on that new slant on writing and publishing.

P.P. 01/01/2016
I realised that I should have updated this posting in June 2014.  That month I stopped selling 'Against the Devil's Men' in large part because it was criticised as juvenile for taking the French rather than the Mongol perspective on the Mongol invasion of Europe.  Given how inhumane and brutal the Mongol invaders were to Christians and Muslims alike, destroying many aspects of civilisation where they attacked and killing people in particularly cruel ways, I would be very worried if I could write from the Mongol perspective on these things.  I did include the story in 'Déviation: What If? Stories of the French' (2014) where it seems to have attracted less attention.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Book I Read In October

'Zulu Rising: The Epic Story of iSandlwana and Rorke's Drift' by Ian Knight 
This book was brought back from Durban as a gift for me, apt given that it features the KwaZulu/Natal region of South Africa where Durban sits.  This is the best history book I have read since 'The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich' by Callum MacDonald (1990) which I read in 2011.  Knight takes a very complex situation looking at the background and then the events of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879-80 and makes them enthralling.  After reading the first 25 pages of over 700 in the book, I realised I had already learnt an immense amount, and yet it was written in a way that was as engaging as a good novel.  There is a great deal of detail and learning the Zulu names can be a challenge.  However, by both looking from the strategic level and getting down to the story of individuals on all sides of the conflict you are really drawn into it.  You learn about the complexity of Zulu politics and culture; the rise and fall of various tribes and their rulers.  You see the detail of British imperial policy from London and the local initiatives taken by politicians and commanders in southern Africa.  You see the experience of the massacre and receive a balanced view of how the British could have made such grave errors. It also puts in context the inaccuracies of the movie portrayals 'Zulu Dawn' (1979) about iSandlwana and 'Zulu' (1964) about Rorke's Drift; in the latter not least that the bulk of the battle took place at night rather than during the day and with heavy rain rather than glorious sunshine; plus very fewer of the defenders were Welsh. This is a very dense book, jammed full of information, but you are carried along by the writing until you are surprised by how much you have got through and how much new you have learnt.  I certainly wish I could write as well as Knight.  This is an excellent book that I am thoroughly delighted to recommend you read.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Arrogance of Sports People in Public Places

Today I read a story that did not surprise me.  It was that the Olympic athlete Mo Farah has admitted to beating up a man who apparently 'got in his way' while he was running in Richmond Park in 2009.  The man was walking with a woman with a pushchair and Farah insisted that they moved out of his way as he was training along the path.  The path is in a park that is open to the public, it is not a sports arena not even a sports centre, it is free to people to walk around.  Farah called the police and tried to get the other man charged, arguing that he had started it.  However, Farah had left the man so injured that the police would not believe Farah's version of events.  Now Farah is black and the other man's ethnicity is not given.  Typically, if I had heard the story I would have assumed that a white man had punch Farah and the police sympathised with the white man.  However, Farah condemns himself by his own words in his autobiography.  Yes, he may be a nationally recognised athlete, but that gives him no authority to order members of the public about and then to attack them viciously if they do not comply with their wishes.

The fact that Farah cannot see what he has done wrong and how he has bullied and then attacked people going about everyday business, it was Christmas Day when you expect many people to be walking in Richmond Park, shows how far removed from reality his mindset is.  Can you imagine his indignation if he had been out with his family and the story had happened in reverse?  Yet, the reason why he cannot see it this way is because we live in an increasingly divided society.  Many people think they are better than everyone else.  In part by writing this blog, I am subscribing to that view, because I feel my words are right and are worth reading.  However, the lauding of sports people as with members of the military, leads to them having an inflated attitude of themselves.  Yes, instruct people where they are to go if you are on a running track or keep them off a military installation, but do not think that extends to a park.  It has rules which are enforced by officials connected to the park and in many parks in London even by a specific park police.  However, that power does not extend to every individual who is upset that someone else has happened to choose at the same time.  That is life, just get over it, do not attack people.

You might argue that Mo Farah has such recognition and status that other people should do what he wishes.  I feel that no-one not even the Queen has such a right.  If people are acting within the law, then no-one can censure their behaviour.  Pushing a pushchair in a park is not a crime.  Even if you feel that people like Farah should have special privileges, this does not mean they extend to every sports person whether they compete at a national, country or local level or are just hobbyists.  However, as I have noted before, Farah might be at one end of the wedge, but there are thousands of others who see his kind of behaviour as acceptable for them too.  I have written here before about abuse I have received from 'proper' cyclists in all the expensive kit as if I was contaminating their space, simply cycling along a public road (not in a velodrome or along a cycle race route).  They feel they constantly have to assert that they are better.  The same applies to runners especially alongside canals but also on pavements and even on roads.  I remember cycling down a hill in a residential area that was poorly lit suddenly to find tens of runners coming right the breadth of the road towards me.  Unlike them I was lit up, they were the ones who shouted at me to get out of the road.  They felt they had the privilege to run where they liked and somehow I should know this was their route.  I just hoped a 4x4 would skid around the corner and collide with them to reduce their arrogance.

There are case after case that I could cite and more come to mind as I write this: swimmers who feel that the lane rules (i.e. swimming clockwise or anti-clockwise and keeping to a certain speed in specific lanes) do not apply to them and power up and down the centre of the slow lane.  Yes, be confident, but putting on your running kit or getting on to an expensive bicycle does not make you better than me and certainly not better than the elderly people you terrorise.  Yes, it is admirable that you are doing some sport, but it is admirable that that couple are walking with their child or that elderly person is getting to the shops and back.  I used to respect Farah.  I have worked in the area he lives in and have met people who have trained with him.  He seems a joyous, friendly, family man who has achieved a great deal for Britain.  Yet, when running in a public space, he needs to remember that he is in fact no better than the rest of us.  To assume that you have rights above that of other ordinary people is bad enough; to beat up someone for simply walking in a park is something utterly shameful and he has lost my respect by his own confession.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

'Total War: Rome II': The Same Old Problems

I have been playing the Total War series of computer games, produced by The Creative Assembly, and latterly sold by Sega, since 1999.  I have realised that I am not at all good at them and I struggle to win even on the Easy level.  No-one has told me how to win on any higher levels and despite playing these games for many hours, I have never improved.  In fact, I am now worse at the original 'Medieval Total War' than I was ten years ago.  However, I love to engage with the possibility of changing history.  I am utterly useless at shooting games, whether first person or third person, but I have enjoyed computer gaming for the last thirty years.  The Total War games are certainly immersive.  I love the attention to historical detail, even the scenery that you fight over.  Naturally, I had pre-ordered 'Total War: Rome II', despite the fact that these days you really just rent it from Steam and if your internet connection slows or decides to go down you cannot play a game you actually have the disks for (hence sometimes being compelled to go back to 'Medieval Total War' which was free-standing).

Lots of people will tell you that games sales now exceed movie watching.  This is why even quality newspapers now cover the industry.  In particular 'The Guardian' got very involved in discussing 'Total War: Rome II', though the debate was less than that around 'Grand Theft Auto V', which always attracts attention in part for the twisted morality of the game.  The Total War games, are, as this coverage shows, seen as standing above your average purchase.  In part, I guess because they are bought by reasonably well-educated, forty-something men like me and to some degree we are stronger opinion shapers than men twenty years younger than us with perhaps a lower income.

Though I love the game series, I have always had gripes about them.  I was not alone with 'Rome Total War'.  It functioned well enough and had innovations of its predecessors, but historical accuracy was sacrificed for playability.  There were Egyptian troops centuries out of their time and the Gauls had their territory cut back to provide more room for Roman factions.  The Total War games always have a lot of amateur built content and many of these variants, usually free to download, tend to have a greater impact on the next phase of the series than many thousands of comments by gamers.  Thus, 'Total War: Rome II' has a far larger map stretching outside the Mediterranean area right to modern day Pakistan allowing the building of empires to rival those of Alexander the Great.  Territories have been made more complex and cities have more points to hold so making an attack or the defence more challenging. 

Graphics are very good though there has been some simplification on the interfaces to speed things up, the images look appropriate for the era portrayed (the game starts in the early 3rd century BCE).  There were issues, and it must embarrass Sega that they have had to release three patches in the first month.  In part this stemmed from over-ambition as so many factions feature that running through all of them at the end of each term really slowed down the game.  The patches seem to have got the game back on track and it loads up and progresses faster than 'Total War: Shogun 2' despite that having a smaller geographical spread and fewer factions.

If the game is at least half-decent, why am I here writing about it rather than playing it?  Well, the simple answer is that there are core flaws in the Total War game that utterly exasperate me.  Foolishly, game after game, I think they will address these.  They never do and so pretty soon I ended up downloading an amateur-produced variant from Total War Center: http://www.twcenter.net/  You can find numerous small-scale modifications, but I look out for ones that redraft the game to the way it should be.  I do not know whether it is worthwhile reprising my gripes or recognise that The Creative Assembly never pays attention and keeps including the same flaws in game after game.

My experiences of playing against real people online have always been unpleasant.  I enjoy playing against the computer.  However, in the Total War games, this is always an imbalanced experience.  It is one aspect that almost every Total War Center variant resolves.  Perhaps I like historical accuracy too much.  I cannot accept anyone pushing a trebuchet uphill in a storm to precisely hit my troops sheltered by the trees with rocks shot after shot.  In Rome II, you now even get conflicting advice.  It tells you holding a hilltop is a good position, but then points out you can be shifted from it by missile fire from below.  Perhaps with a 19th or 20th century mortar, but have you ever tried firing slingshot uphill and even arrows lose effectiveness.  Yet, I find ranks of my troops being swept away by slung stones from far below.

I cannot accept a ship even from the 20th century let alone the 14th or 1st centuries, being able to locate another ship on the other side of the Mediterranean precisely and move to sink it with exactly the correct number of ships.  The thing that angers me most is that the rules for me as the human do not apply to the computer.  Of course, it never makes mistake.  While my troops set off around the long way because I have not spotted a single spy 'blocking' my army's route, the computer's troops move exactly correctly and rapidly.

Yet, how come if I have a small, poor territory I can only raise a few weak troops whereas my computer opponent with the same land and lack of cash can conjure up huge, well equipped armies?  If you push back an opponent and seize his resources, surely he should become poorer, but no, these rules do not apply.  It is far harder and requires far more troops for you to defeat an opponent than it does for them to do the same to you.  I do not expect an advantage, I just expect equal treatment.  You will find that the morale and skill of an opponent especially in the early stages is far higher than anything you might achieve through experience or research.  One commentator to 'The Guardian' noted that even after many game years, his Spartan force simply fled when opponents appeared, totally anachronistic to what we know about the Spartans when faced even with overwhelming odds.

As in previous games, you find that rebels in one of your territories suddenly appear with a large army with troops that go way beyond the level that can be recruited at that time or in that region and with experience far higher than your most experienced armies, making it almost impossible to defeat them.  This has been a problem across the Total War games, but seems to have returned to the situation of the original 'Medieval Total War'.  Rebellions are common as you can do little to please the population.  Squalor from enlarged settlements is the main cause of dissent, so you have a choice of not to develop the cities or face unrest.  There are a few cultural buildings to alleviate the unhappiness, but confined to the capital of a province meaning unhappiness can develop elsewhere.  You can run your taxes at the lowest level possible (in this game unlike previous ones, you cannot exempt territories from tax) and people are still unhappy; neo-liberal attitudes persist here as in many city-building/strategy games.

One improvement is that your agents such as spies and dignitaries are not slaughtered almost immediately as they are recruited.  In preceding Total War games this happened constantly making it that there was really no point in paying for such people as there would be a high-level assassin waiting to eliminate them the moment they stepped outside the town.  Thus, you could never get any increase in skill.  This was at its worst in 'Medieval II Total War' in which recruiting merchants was an utter waste of time, but still persisted as recently as 'Total War: Shogun 2' made worse because newly-recruited agents appear outside rather than within the city, making them prone to attack before they even could move.

A problem which does endure in Rome II as with all its predecessors is the fact that whilst your opponents have a 'zone of control' for each army, which you cannot march through without triggering an attack, you do not have this in return.  Thus, opponents can simply walk past you even if you are in a narrow valley.  This is one flaw which if corrected would make a lot of play against the computer far less imbalanced.  One advantage of Rome II, is that a city can raise a decent garrison force, including of ships if it is a port.  Thus, if your opponent slips passed the army guarding the road to the city, they cannot simply just walk in and claim it for themselves.

Co-ordination between different armies is far harder for the human player than the computer.  You find it difficult to move two armies close enough so that when the battle comes they can support each other, the computer never has such a challenge.  The reason why I abandoned playing tonight is that I faced a combined attack from an army on land and another invading from the sea at night in a thunderstorm.  Such a combined attack would be challenging even today with modern technology, satellites, etc., in 260 BCE it would be impossible to co-ordinate let alone in a way that allows the armies to sweep right into a city.

The invisible army problem is far worse in 'Rome II' than any of the preceding games in the series.  From 'Rome Total War' onwards it was quite common when moving around the strategic map to suddenly find an army appearing right by one of your settlements or you running into in a valley without seeing it until the last moment.  I can accept you can be surprised and ambushed, but I cannot accept your spies and armies would not notice if a few thousand men was marching towards them, especially in their own lands where they would have agents and a largely loyal population to inform you.  This problem became far worse in 'Shogun 2'.  You could march back and forth across a forest but it was able to conceal many hundreds of men.  Of course your computer opponent always knows precisely where your army is an marches directly to attack you now matter where you might try to hide.

I can accept that in forest or even particular grasslands, that some units can conceal themselves, particularly if they have special skills.  However, in 'Rome II' you witness entire armies that you have begun firing at suddenly disappear, even on wide open plains or in deserts.  In reality you would hear their marching and their clanking weapons and armour, let alone the amount of dust an army typically throws up, even if you could not see the troops themselves.  Again, of course, they can see you as clearly as you would expect in such terrain.  However, I have had tens of units suddenly appear and disappear within a few metres of my troops.  Once they disappear your troops stop firing at them and it is impossible to gauge how many troops there are or who you are fighting.  This is exacerbated by the fact that fleeing troops no longer appear on the radar map.  The invisible forces make battles incredibly difficult even if you use scouts on horseback to try to find them.  Why this ability has been introduced, I do not know.  Even more than the imbalance in morale and the laser-guided artillery, the invisible army factor makes it very hard to fight any battles and stand a chance of winning.

Attacking cities is much harder.  Since you have been able to do city assaults in these games, they have often been fixed towers which fire out missiles.  These can be challenging to take and can wreak a lot of damage on your attackers.  In 'Rome II' such towers are limited to provincial capitals but their speed of fire has been ramped up greatly and you will lose unit after unit trying even to get close to the towers to knock them out of action.  With fewer artillery weapons available than in the medieval games and needing you to research to pretty high levels, this makes attacks on cities far harder.  Defending the provincial capitals is easier, but defending the bulk of towns for which you cannot build walls is very difficult.  In previous games you could build up the garrisons of towns and naturally would do this in contested areas.  In 'Rome II' you can build only a limited number of armies and as you generally need three to be invading others' territory you cannot leave too many behind.  As your empire grows they move too slowly to be able to march to cover towns.  Each town has a garrison generated by its size and the specific buildings it has, but these are generally poor quality troops and certainly are no match for any rebel army that appears with its high level forces; indeed some slave revolt armies are better equipped. 

I wish that The Creative Assembly would look at the basics of their games.  With greater balance between the human and the computer players their games would be far better.  Instead, they keep wheeling out the same flawed assumptions that were prevalent as far back as 'Medieval Total War' and have not been addressed in all the rush for better graphics and more downloadable content to sell.

P.P. 24/05/2015
Talking of downloadable content I was interested to play 'The Wrath Of Sparta' set in the 5th century BCE allowing you to play one of four Greek factions.  It seemed to be a challenge because each of them has fragmented territories spread across modern day Greece, its islands and what is now western Turkey.  However, it is a useless expansion.  As has happened in the past with 'Total War' games, the developers have created invincible forces.  In the past they did this with the Mongols and the Byzantine Cataphracts in 'Medieval II Total War'.  Now it is the Spartan hoplites.  You can have a thousand men attacking a single unit, throwing hundreds of javelins and thrusting at them on all sides (Greek troops were always vulnerable on their right hand side where they held the spear) and yet you will not inflict a single casualty on them.  With the fragmented territory you will simply run back and forth trying to hold individual cities.  The requirement of 'Rome II' for generals in order to have armies and the pathetic garrison armies means a small naval fleet can capture any old town it fancies.

As usual, play is imbalanced against the human player.  Fleets converge perfectly over hundreds of miles magically.  I played as Athens which is supposed to have the strongest navies, but with my enemies knowing precisely where my ships were and co-ordinating to trap and destroy them, they were eliminated in the first few turns of the game.  This download game has no skill element at all.  It is very easy even on the Easy setting to have lost within a few turns of beginning.  There is however an additional bitter twist.  You cannot go against your opponents' capitals, despite the fact that they lie close to your starting point.  You receive constant warnings against doing this and severe penalties if you take one.  Thus, this game is simply a process in humiliation.  You have one hand tied behind your back as you dodge around the capital cities and an array of fleets and armies turn up to crush you wherever they fancy no matter how skilled your defence.  That is even leaving out the usual unrest due to food shortage and squalor.  I do not really understand the motive of making such a hard game.  They would get the money if it was dead easy and in fact are liable to damage future sales through piling up the imbalance game play and the anti-historical approach.  If Sparta had been that strong in reality, we would not have Greece but Sparta.

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Books I Read In September

'The Angel of Pain' by Brian Stableford
I had no memory of buying this book but guess I scooped it up from a charity shop when looking for some fantasy fiction.  Stableford writes a mature kind of fantasy.  I had read 'The Empire of Fear' (1988) and while I did not like the directions it went in, I recognised that he had succeeded in creating an interesting take on vampire stories in a 17th century alternate Earth.  It is much the same with 'The Angel of Pain'.  It is in effect a sequel to his 'The Werewolves of London' (1990), featuring the same characters but is set 21 years later, in 1893.  I think my key issue with Stableford's books is that not a lot happens.  He spends much time writing about the characters rather than having them do anything.  He creates an interesting context of Victorian Britain in which various powerful beings with limitations are compelled to use various humans to observe and compete against their opponents.  I was not surprised to find that Stableford has published a book featuring Cthullu stories.  The story focuses on the impact on the individuals, one is enslaved by the Angel of Pain and for much of the book is wracked by discomfort as part of his service to her; others come off worse.  The setting and the creatures within it are interesting.  There are werewolves of the kind seen later in the 'Twilight' series.  There is an immortal man perhaps created by an angel and these powerful beings of differing kinds.  What is Stableford does well is have all of the main characters as unreliable witnesses: their viewpoints are never perfect and often contaminated by the individual's prejudices.

The book succeeds on its own terms in creating a number of complex characters and having them interact with each other sometimes in mundane ways, sometimes in very exotic ways.  The lead characters ultimately end up in another realm appearing as a manifestation of Eden, but even here they do not do a great deal.  Perhaps this is to emphasise that they are little more than pawns.  I was interested by this book but did not enjoy it, there was insufficient action.  I also read it at entirely the wrong time as I was suffering pain daily and further injured myself bringing on more pain during the period while I was reading it.  I certainly disagree with Stableford's view that with time pain loses its sharpness and as a consequence felt the fact that characters did not reflect on how pain comes again and again and again as fresh as the first time as making their perspective illegitimate.  I commend Stableford's imagination, I just more happened in his books.  For me, reading this book was like wading through an encyclopaedia of imaginary country.

'Ashes and Diamonds' by George [Jerzy] Andreyevski
I came to this book from seeing the movie of the same name released in 1958. The book was written in 1948 but the edition I have must, published in 1957, must have been done to coincide with the movie's release as the front cover has a drawing replicating an iconic images of the young nationalist resistance assassin played by Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-67). I heartily recommend the movie which has some stunning photography that you will remember and successfully conjures up a time and place.

This book is almost the reverse of 'The Angel of Pain' featuring almost frenzied activity over the course of three days at the very end of the Second World War. For the movie it was tightened even further to a day and a night and the following morning. The setting is a medium-sized industrial town in Poland which had been liberated some months before. Nationalist resistance forces are still operating in the area, turning their attention to the Communists busily establishing a new regime, backed by the Soviet Red Army. It looks from many different points of view and the reader is shown a string of characters coming to terms with the situation which remains fluid. Interestingly, and this may stem from the time when it was written, despite the extremes of the time many characters come over as surprisingly soft. Another factor is already the legacy of the war years weighs heavily on them. Thus, this is very much a 'slice of life' novel, bracketed by two shootings and covering violence but also more down-to-Earth activity such as having meals, ambition and betrayal. For the bulk of the characters there is no conclusion contained in the book and it is very much as you have glimpsed their world in passing. I imagine this was in part Andreyevski's intention, to record a very particular time. Yet, though 1945 Poland may seem very alien to us now, you are drawn into the characters very well.

I would not say I was as impressed with the book as much as I was with the movie. However, given the poor quality of so much I have been reading recently, this did stand out and I really admire the writer's craft. However, the brevity of it is liable to leave many modern readers unsatisfied.

Monday, 16 September 2013

What If? Art 7: History Books That Never Existed

It has been six years since I posted any 'what if?' book covers on this site, the last being my spate of 'lost' books back in November 2007:  http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/what-if-art-6-books-that-existed-but.html  The use of book art as an element of 'what if?' speculation has long interested me and my engagement with it is outlined here: http://rooksmoor.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/what-if-art-1-history-book-that-never.html

For the cover of my latest 'what if?' anthology, 'Other Lives: ‘What If?’ Outcomes for Famous People in History' (2013), I considered doing gravestones or announcements in newspapers.  However, the people feature stretch from Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE right up to people in the 20th century.  In addition, not all the differences about the duration of their lives but also some of them taking different decisions.  As a result I returned to the idea of creating history books that never existed in our world.  I tried to keep as close as possible to the style that you find on history book front covers, though also to bring in a bit of variety.  These appear as small images on the front of the book.  However, I thought people might enjoy seeing them separately in a larger format here, with some explanation of why I decided on the different titles and formats.

One challenge was that to emphasise the alternate history aspect often required two things.  First the date has to be included to show the precise divergence from our history.  This is notable with the book on the impeachment of George Bush.  I included '1987' in the title, as I envisaged Bush becoming President following the assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, rather than being impeached during the term of office 1988-92 that he had in our world.  The other challenge for those who I was looking at as living longer than in our world, was to find images that showed them as older than they ever were in our history.  Thus, I had to work on the hairline of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln and spread the grey in Indira Gandhi's hair far further than was the case in our history.

'Alexander the Great's Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula'

 For this cover I used an image of Alexander's father, King Philip II of Macedonia to stand in for the older Alexander the Great.  The book envisages Alexander living into his fifties rather than dying in his early thirties.  Thus, not only completing his conquest of western Asia but then turning to conquer the remainder of the Mediterranean region with this book focusing on his final conquests in what is now Spain and Portugal. 

'The Bactrian Campaign of Julius Caesar' 

The basis of this book is Julius Caesar surviving or preventing the assassination attempt against him.  As a result he lived on into his sixties and was able to carry out the conquests in western Asia that we know he had planned.  Bactria is the region of Central Asia between the Caspian Sea and the Hindu Kush, covering the modern central Asian republics.  It was a region Alexander the Great knew and Caesar had sought to conquer.  I worked to adjust the image to make it appear as if it showed an older, more wrinkled Caesar.  He was concerned baout hair loss and in this image I have him with some male pattern baldness.
'Parliament's Lost Leader: Oliver Cromwell 1599-1643'

This is another example of a cover that needed dates on it to show that it was Cromwell's earlier death, in this case in battle in 1643, rather than peacefully in 1658 which was envisaged.  By this stage Cromwell was significant in the Parliamentarian camp but was not yet in a position to become leader of the country.  Thus this book would ask what missed opportunity the country had with him being killed at this stage.  If his death was earlier then it is unlikely he would have warranted his own historical study. 

'1777 - The End of the American Bid for Independence'

In my book, the focus is largely on George Washington dying at Valley Forge along with many of his troops in the winter of 1776/7.  However, if he had died then, his fame might not have been sufficiently significant to warrant a book of his own, so I envisage this one seeing with his death, the break up of the Continental forces and the end of the attempt of the Thirteen Colonies to break from British control.  This is a manipulated painting which actually shows Continental soldiers being trained.  However, it seemed to sum up the difficulties at Valley Forge and the three men at the front are in very submissive positions and look as if they are laying down their arms, assuming they have been captured by the British.  The background is the Continental flag of the time.
'Lincoln's Post-War Administrations 1865-1872'

This book like the one on Caesar envisages Abraham Lincoln surviving assassination in 1865 or that never having been attempted.  Again I needed to age him in the photo and I added in a map of the USA from the post-Civil War period to show Lincoln living on into this period.  His survival would have meant much more difference to that period of US history than I initially realised. 

'The World Economic Depression and the Demise of Capitalism'

This uses the classic Progress Publishers style for a book that never existed.  Progress Publishers were a Soviet back publishing house that made Communist literature available in cheap editions in the hope that ordinary people would buy them.  They were typically purchased by students who had to read set books.  This one would have been published in 1931 assuming that Lenin had not died in 1924 but had lived on as leader of the USSR.  The Great Depression which began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929 appeared to many Communists and Fascists to be the proof that capitalism could not work and that a different political approach was necessary.  One could imagine Lenin delighting in his emotionless way to the difficulties capitalism was facing and have hoped that the world Communist revolution was imminent.

'The Overthrow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt'

This one envisages the planned coup d'état of 1934 actually going ahead, leading ultimately to Franklin Roosevelt being pushed from power, probably forced to retire on grounds of ill-health.  I felt this picture might be his resignation speech to the nation.  This was a scenario that I had not envisaged leading to such a bleak outcome for the world as a whole.  However, it quickly became apparent that without the New Deal and certainly Roosevelt's almost one-man attempt to involve the USA in the Second World War not only would that war have dragged on longer but the US and the global economies would have struggled to return to any kind of prosperity well into the 1960s. 

'Gustav Stresemann and the Decline of National Socialism 1931-35'

As a bit of a contrast, for this one rather than use a photograph, I picked a commemorative stamp for Gustav Stresemann.  I manipulated the dates on it so he is shown as living to 1936 rather than dying in 1929 as was the case in reality.  The point behind this book is that probably only Stresemann had the skill and appeal across the political spectrum to undermine National Socialism, the proper name for Nazism.  He was a conservative and a nationalist but certainly never sought anything like the regime Hitler installed.
'A King of Our Times - Edward VIII, 1936-72' 

This is another one in which the date was necessary to show the change.  This is a late picture of the Duke of Windsor who in our world ruled briefly in 1936 before abdicating so he could marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.  This book envisages he never met Simpson or he chose to remain on the throne.  The trouble with Edward was his willingness to interfere in politics, engage in illegal currency deals and his sympathies for Nazism.  Given he would have been influential in the run-up to the Second World War, it is likely that this would have had an impact on British foreign policy.  I have opted for the styling of a bland 1970s book on monarchy that you can see online which belies the kind of difficulties this alternative would have brought to Britain.
'The Collected Articles of Benito Mussolini' 

It was quite a challenge to find a photo of Mussolini in which he was not in military clothes, shaven headed and pontificating.  This is a surprisingly human picture of him that seemed to fit really well with the different path envisaged, i.e. rather than becoming a dictator, he remained a Socialist journalist.  As a consequence, rather than being executed in 1945, I envisaged him living into old age.  His longevity and his writing is likely to have meant that he received some attention across Europe, perhaps even becoming a kind of older statesman of Socialism, though maybe not to the scale of Antonio Gramsci.
'The Assassination of Charles De Gaulle'

This is an old image dating back six years, which I revived for the chapter in 'Other Lives' on the assassination of De Gaulle.  I removed the date from this one as the chapter speculates on his killing at a number of dates.  However, the picture is from the early 1960s so suggests an assassination at that time.  As I wrote the chapter, my views on when the assassination would have had greatest impact shifted back in time a little.  However, I think this is one feasible 'what if?' which tends to be overlooked by writers. 
'Nixon as President: The Second Term, 1964-68' 

As is often the case with these alternate history covers I start with an actual history book.  This ones envisages Nixon being first elected in 1960 when he was narrowly beaten by John F. Kennedy, rather than in 1968.  The picture fits with the timescale of the book.  The 'button', i.e. the badge, is a genuine image of one produced for the 1964 election when Lyndon Johnson won.

'China's Reprieve: The Fall of Chairman Mao, March 1966' 

This centres on a picture of Mao Zedong with his likely replacement if he had been overthrown in the mid-1960s, Deng Xiaoping.  While China would have remained a totalitarian dictatorship under Deng, it certainly would have been spared the madness of the Cultural Revolution 1966-76 that caused so much damage to the country.  The Cultural Revolution was primarily about Mao re-establishing his predominance in China, so with him being ousted, which seemed possible at this time a different path would have been followed.

'The Indian Dictatorship, 1984-89'


This was another book about a leader avoiding being assassinated.  The idea is that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi avoided being assassinated in 1984 yet the attempt on her life and accompanying turmoil in the country led her to impose a dictatorship as she had effectively done in the 1970s.  For this picture I had again to try to age the image and I think it comes out reasonably well, with Gandhi's streak of grey having spread more widely across her hair.  This picture with the furrowed brow makes her look older too. 
'The Impeachment of President Bush'

I have explained the reason for the date at the start of this posting.  This cover is to signify a chapter which is less about Bush than about the implications of the assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.  With the De Gaulle one in place, I did not want another title with assassination.  The chapter naturally envisages Bush as Reagan's Vice-President, as Johnson did after Kennedy's assassination, taking over at his death and serving out Reagan's term, then being elected himself.  Furthermore it seems likely that Bush would have become directly involved in the Iran-Contra scandal and this would have led to him being charged with wrongdoing and to his impeachment.  It is probable that in such a situation Bush would have resigned as Nixon did when threatened with impeachment.  However, I picked this image as it suggested Bush had the pride and arrogance to hold on and to fight against the charges.