Sunday, 31 March 2013

Books I Read In March


‘When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo’ by Ruth Waterman
My parents were evacuated from Croatia where they had been holidaying when the war in Yugoslavia broke out in 1992.  In that decade, living in London, I met quite a few young people who had fled from the conflict.  In the 2000s I would write a short story set in Bosnia.  These aspects led to me discussing with an author I had met, a proper one who has produced paper books, not just e-books like the stuff that I write and people simply condemn.  She lent me this book which is a memoir by a orchestral violinist and conductor who helped assemble and train various classical ensembles in Bosnia in the period 2004-6.  In my teenage years, I used to read travel memoirs of people in the late 19th century and early 20th century and this took me back to those books.  Whilst I have heard about, sometimes at first hand, what happened in the former Yugoslavia, I suppose I have always felt it as far removed from me as someone writing about travelling in the region when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  To some degree this book did not change my perspective though I do feel I have a slightly more up-to-date impression.  Waterman’s story shows simply how long it takes for a country to put itself back together and that no-one should be expecting a restoration of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya in the next few years.

The book is like two books combined into one.  The passages of the challenges Waterman faced in rehearsing the ensembles and having them perform have quite a light tone and at the end are pretty life affirming, though perhaps less so than Waterman initially thought.  They are cut with testimonials from many of the people she met outlining what they and the people they knew experienced during the war.  What alarmed me was that I could process these testimonials without difficulty.  Some small snippets, such as blame put by a Bosnian on the war being caused by the Americans rang true when you have heard about the agents provocateur in the region at the time.  Similarly finding out the post-war Bosnian currency was the Deutschmark also answered another question I had had about the political situation behind the war.  Perhaps it is because I remember news from the locations at the time; maybe as a historian, dealing in the deaths of millions I am now immune even to hearing the experiences of individuals.  I felt surprisingly numb reading this material.  This made it hard for me to accept why I was unsettled by the books.

The aspect that I felt unease with was when Waterman outlined how orchestras work.  Each member does not simply play the music on the sheets in front of them; they are in a constant dialogue through gestures and expressions and can deliver very different output from the music they read as a result of this.  Perhaps everyone already knew this and I am just a fool not to have realised.  I have always felt inadequate in the face of people who can play music, speak a foreign language or do a martial art, three activities that I have utterly failed at.  This book simply made it worse.  I now realise that musicians, certainly working at the level of playing public performances are a species apart from me with alien capabilities.  I came away from this book wishing I had not read the elements about how an orchestra works and had stuck simply to the material about the war.  I came away from reading this book unpleasantly unsettled and embarrassed at my own failings.

‘Brest-Litovsk.  The Forgotten Peace.  March 1918’ by John W. Wheeler-Bennett
I have noted in recent months how history books fall down once they try too hard to draw parallels from the past to the time when the book is being written.  This book was written in April 1938, though my copy was published in 1963.  Thus the author tried to draw parallels between the reshaping of Eastern Europe by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the developments in the region at the time he was writing.  He failed to see the persistence of appeasement, the absorption of Austria into Germany and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia let alone the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the subsequent division and re-division of Poland.  Thus the points he makes seem strained and now erroneous.  It would have been better if he had dropped the Introduction and got on with the history. 

The story of the negotiations between the Socialist Federal Republic of Russia and the German Empire and its allies Austria Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire are rarely told.  This book certainly gives a good impression not only of the negotiations but of the motives of those involved in them and the directions they were receiving from their leaders back home.  What is interesting is how weak the Bolsheviks were even after they had closed down the Constituent Assembly and within the party how weak Lenin was.  Wheeler-Bennett seems rather in awe of Lenin and very dismissive of the liberal government which had followed the February Russian Revolution.  It becomes clear in this book, more than in other general histories of the October Russian Revolution, how Lenin may have been excluded from developments or even once the peace talks had begun, have had his policy ignored and dismissed.  His almost unique early recognition that Russia could not fight the Germans any longer and that to oppose them would simply provoke harsher terms and that there was not going to be an outbreak of revolution across Europe, meant that he was proven to be right and gained immense credibility.  Wheeler-Bennett reproduces one of Lenin’s speeches and you can see that he gained nothing through his rhetoric unless it was to bludgeon his audience with his constant repetition of bare bones ideas.  You wonder how much worse those he faced down were at public speaking. 

Opposing the first German offer led to the loss of all the Baltic States and the Ukraine, though Germany was too weak to enjoy these gains for long.  In fact if the Soviets had accepted the first offer it would have been better for Germany as so many troops would not have been tied up occupying vast areas that had formerly been Russian.  The book is also good in showing how dependent Germany and especially Austria-Hungary were on the grain and other resources that they could insist on delivery from Russia and the Ukraine.  Again, an earlier peace may have led to their economic situation being aided sooner, though given the difficulties the occupying forces faced in securing the grain they had been promised the benefits may have been minimal. 

Another interesting element often overlooked in general histories is how the extreme demands of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk altered the attitudes of the Americans away from the conciliatory Fourteen Points to the far more aggressive peace treaty sought by the British, French and Italians.  This was despite the Western Allies unease with the new Soviet regime.  The Treaty made claims of the barbarity of the Germans appear to have been true all along.  In part this was an accurate assessment as Wheeler-Bennett shows how the expansionist fantasies of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, effective dictators of Germany from 1916 onwards, were allow to run free with the treaty and the Soviets’ vacillating attitude while they still had to learn that Lenin had been right all along.  If the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk had not been so harsh, then it seems likely that elements of the Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germany the following year, would have been milder, though the Allies were committed to the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine and Poland, no matter what, so in German eyes the treaty, even if more moderate than the one our world saw, would have been deemed to be harsh.
Overall, in large part this is an astute book which still provides aspects that I find too often missing from general histories of the period and benefited from the author being able to interview participants in the story that he outlines.  It would have been better still shorn of the very rapidly anachronistic introduction and the unnecessary and rather tedious appendices of documents.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Room Hunting

I have commented over the past few years how traditional modes of residence have come back into style as work in the UK has become more geographically concentrated, pay has fallen in real terms and the cost of accommodation has risen particularly rapidly.  I guess I am wrong to have ever thought that I should perceive what I think of as ‘old fashioned’ modes of living as such.  It is clear that they are, in fact, part of lifestyles of the 2010s and completely bury the myth of a ‘property-owning democracy’ that was once peddled in this country.  Thus, I guess it is unsurprising that as a man in my forties, I have lived with my parents: ; in a guest house:  and as a lodger:  Working in London I am again looking for accommodation, a process which is fraught with difficulty.  I am more alert to the hazards of 419 scammers in the market place for renting rooms:  and so far, this time round seem to have only encountered one.  This was a very low-key one without all the grandeur and fake photos of those I ran into back in 2013. 

One lesson I learnt back in 2009 is that there is no point in me responding to advertisements for rooms.  There are a number of characteristics which rule me out.  First is my age.  I am now in my mid-40s and for some reason people letting rooms seem to feel that there is something sinister about a man my age renting a room.  Even when they say in emails that they are happy to have me, meeting me they change their minds and I suddenly find the room has been ‘allocated to someone else’.  I accept I am overweight and unattractive, but I am clean and tidy and do domestic chores.  However, I clearly do not fit the image that people have of a young, dynamic businessman.  If I did, then presumably I would not have to rent a room. 

I think part of the problem is that they think that I will not tolerate poor things about the room.  I certainly think that if I am paying rent for a room, I should get all that is advertised.  Perhaps I am overly demanding in expecting cooking facilities and heating.  If you have a cooker and a heater, then they should work.  However, maybe this is too demanding and is what rules me out when there are others who will accept no heating or no cooking facility.  For me it is rather selfish because I know it is far more costly if I eat out every meal and I find I cannot stomach living on sandwiches constantly. 

The other key factor is that I am a man.  Around 75% of the advertisements I see specify that only women can rent the room.  At least people say this now up front, whereas in the past you had to ring or go there to find out ‘well, we’re actually looking for a woman’.  Yes, it is prejudicial, but I would rather see the prejudice before I waste my time.  Of course, no-one is allowed to specify ethnicity.  I am a very pale Caucasian.  I find that other people in that category do not want to rent to people like me because of the concerns about.  I get on far better with landlords/ladies who are South or East Asian.  However, not being from that background myself I am sometimes jumped over by someone ‘from the home country’.  This happens even when I have said I like a room and want to rent it.  Of course, in some cases it is just because they have met me and now the other negative aspects kick in.

One key negative aspect for me is the company that employs me and the fact that I now do administrative work.  For some reason there is a prejudice against people who do not work in making earnings.  Strangely I was told that people prefer a salesman on commission to someone who does a solid administrative job day-in/day-out.  Again, I think this comes down to the sense that an administrator renting a room must be a serial killer.  However, ironically, I am actually a better lodger as my income does not fluctuate and I certainly do not have alcoholic lunches and noisy celebrations the way some people in sales still do.  However, it is clear that it is better for me to lie about where I work and the nature of my work or run up against this prejudice.

The other thing is people’s sense of geography.  If I say that I want a room in North London, then clearly I will consider places in North-West London or North-East London and having a car and a parking space at work, I am not tied to bus, tube or train lines the way that many people are.  However, somewhere in South London or East London are of no use to me and it wastes my time to have to deal with these people contacting me.  Conversely, when I put an advertisement about being in a certain radius of work, I found I got no responses.  When I took this criterion off, I then had loads of people contacting me with properties precisely within that circle.  It is clear that, certainly in London, that people have little idea where their house is in relationship to other areas or even points of the compass.  I suppose if you travel just from home to work you do not gather this information.

I accept rent by the week.  However, there is now this common thing of accepting weekly rent and then after a period of time requesting the ‘make-up’ rent for the months which have passed.  This is because, aside from February in non-leap years, months have 2-3 days more than 4 x 7 days = 28 days.  Rent by calendar month appears to have disappeared and rental weeks that go over months also appear to be too difficult for landlords/ladies to work out, so you have this cluster of days, which add up to 29 days in a normal year, 30 days in a leap year.  Thus, you can suddenly be charged with an additional four weeks’ rent.  Storage places pull off this trick as well.  A key problem is that some charge you for it even when only four or six months have passed, so you have only tallied up a fraction of this additional month. 

I have now tried to rent three rooms only to have my application rejected or reneged on at the last moment.  I know the competition for renting a room is very high in London, but it is clear that my optimism that as when living in Exeter and Uxbridge that I would be able to find a place within a few weeks, has been entirely misplaced.  Though my income has fallen I did think I could rent somewhere at the same kind of level, with a 25% leeway, as I did last year.  It is clear that I need to accept that I am not going to find somewhere even within those parameters now and will have to put up with an unheated room or one with no access to cooking facilities if I want to rent for £4-500 per month.  Saying that, at this moment, I cannot even afford that.  I am not clear how I can go any lower in terms of finding somewhere to rent.  A job outside London or with higher pay is clearly necessary but is as difficult to conjure up than an affordable room as a lodger.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Fight Back Against Trolls – Become a Goat

I recognise that almost inadvertently, since I was encouraged into writing e-books, this blog has mutated into being a bit of a writer’s blog.  Rather naively, I thought producing e-books would not be easy, but certainly did not anticipate having them stamped on by people whose hobby is simply dismissing books.  Clearly I should have read more of the writers’ discussion boards on Amazon before embarking on involving myself in the self-publishing e-book world.

It was not as if I did not know about ‘trolls’, i.e. people who go around the internet usually anonymously making offensive remarks about anyone they choose.  Quite often these are well-known people.  Recently I have read some of the horrific stuff sent to Classical historian, Professor Mary Beard, OBE and the pro-rape ‘communities’ that FaceBook refuses to remove though it does take down pictures of a woman breastfeeding her child.  Ordinary people also suffer trolling and often lack the range of supporters to fight back.  It is a form of bullying that clearly allows some people to get a buzz about pushing down others.  It is clear that there a individuals who subscribe to an unacceptable view of what society should be, largely violent, racist and anti-women, to shout out their views wherever they chose.  Their view of society is so distorted that they get angry at people who seek to instil any sense of humanity into the debate.  The ground is fertile, when publications like ‘The Guardian’ and even specialist journals like the ‘Times Higher Education’, as one regular reader of this blog pointed out, have discussions in which commentators just attack the abilities and knowledge of each other in offensive terms, you almost appear to be half-way to the really outrageous stuff from the outset.

In some, perhaps many, cases trolling appears to stem from a sense of inadequacy.  As the person cannot run an interesting blog or write a novel, they feel no-one else should be allowed to enjoy the success of doing so.  In many cases, like the specific one I discuss below, they seek to assert their superiority by being a better ‘train spotter’ than others and insisting that their spotting of minutiae is important.  In the past such people were confined to their clubs of like-minded people.  At worst you would encounter them like the Harry Enfield character telling you ‘you don’t want to be doing that’.  They were tiresome but avoidable.  On the internet they are less easily avoidable and when ratings and sales are important and these days are not allowed to be independent of ‘feedback’ they have a destructive edge.  It is the revenge of the geek, they now hold the power online and they are not satisfied even with smearing your reputation, they want you to suffer and to be seen to suffer.  It is like a drug that they have to keep coming back to.

In this posting, I am not going to take on the whole trolling community, but am going to focus on those who impinge most on what I do.  As a blogger I have been very fortunate that I have not received the kind of attacks so many do, especially women blogging.  Running the blog we have the control to delete comments that offend us and can respond immediately.  Such facility tends to be lacking when you move on to selling e-books, in my case, via Amazon.  I have commented on previous postings about the negative comments I have received so will not revisit those.  I have removed almost all the alternate history books which attracted this attention.  However, looking around other writers’ books I have seen a common pattern.  The one that was sent to me by the regular was ‘The Nanking War’ (2009) by Ryan McCall.  This book has been available as a paperback and now as an e-book on the generic and US version of the company.  The book considers a war breaking out between the USA and Japan over the Rape of Nanking [Nanjing] in 1937.  As readers know, I like alternate history fiction and essays, so this attracted my attention, especially as it neither started from ‘what if Hitler had won the Second World War?’ nor ‘what if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War?’ the basis nowadays of a large number of books.

The review on gave it a 1-star.  What was interesting was that the structure of the review was almost identical to one I had received for ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’.  This is unsurprising given that these troll-reviewers are pretty small in number and unimaginative.  It started by saying the ‘I found Mr. McCall's writing to be technically correct and the story is well edited.’  They usually put in a positive, though editing, something the trolls can wheedle out small errors from is often a target.  The reviewer then complains that the story fails because even though it is alternate history ‘that history must be grounded in some sort of reality for the reader to suspend disbelief.’  Fine.  Now, personally I would challenge this book on the fact that the USA did very little in response to the Rape of Nanjing and in fact did very little in response to the sinking of the USS ‘Patay’ by the Japanese or their invasion of central China.  Even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than four years later, it was not clear that the USA would enter the war.

What grounds does the troll-reviewer condemn this book?  I quote:

Mr. McCall chooses 1937 as the time frame for his story therefore he needs to ground the reality of his story to that year. For example, McCall arms the U.S. Marines in Nanking War with magazine-fed Winchester rifles. In 1937, U.S. Marines assigned to China were issued Springfield 1903, bolt action rifles. McCall's lack of understanding of military rank structure also hurts the story. He claims the Marine Lieutenant was a squad leader. Marine Lieutenants were and are platoon leaders not squad leaders.’

It is on this basis that the reviewer gives the book 1-star.  This means it will not be recommended to people searching for alternate history and given that sales end once you have a 2-star review, he might as well take the book off sale.  As my correspondent highlights, these minor details would be overlooked by most readers anyway.  In addition, given that it is alternate history, what is to say that the USA would not have issued different rifles?  The US Marines in China were a garrison force not one going to war.  In addition, many officers who have gone into combat have ended up taking different roles as a result of local circumstances.  A further point is, if the reviewer felt these small issues utterly undermined the book, then s/he could have written to the author.  You can amend and republish a book written in English in under 12 hours on Amazon, sometimes far quicker than this.

Of course, the objective of the reviewer is not to alert readers to minor errors or show that the book is no good.  Ironically these trolls often laud the good aspects of a book and then make judgements on minor points as if any spelling or grammar mistake or any technical detail which does not fit their memory is enough to damn an entire book.  On this basis, Ian Fleming’s James Bond series with their erroneous technical details about guns and geographical locations should not be in print.  The same goes for work by Henning Mankel and Philip Kerr.  Even Robert Conroy and Harry Turtledove that the reviewer recommends instead, have made such minor ‘mistakes’ in their work.  There is no capacity for the author to diverge from what is perceived to be the ‘truth’ despite writing fiction.  It goes for genres as a whole too.  I had ‘His Majesty’s Dictator’ rated 1-star not for the quality of the book, but simply because the troll-reviewer felt that there was no demand for a 1940s pastiche.  He had made a judgement for the entire reading population about what they might like to read and sought to censor a whole genre.

I accept that books may be poorly written and this should be highlighted to readers.  However, the utter condemnation of a novel simply because of minor, easily altered aspects or the type of novel it happens to be, is unproductive.  It utterly crushes innovation.  Authors of the 1960s and 1970s could not have moved on contemporary writing if they had been open to the kind of attacks writers of nowadays face.  It seems that there are particular approaches, with nerdy attention to passing details that are the only acceptable books.  I guess this is why there are no many novels dealing with Islamist terrorist attacks as these appeal to the mindset of the trolls.

I wondered if there was a way to deal with troll-reviewers.  I have no desire to write the kind of books they insist upon and yet do want to get my work out there.  Ultimately, I think once I have got my career back on track, assuming that ever happens and I do not slide even further, then I will make my work free once more.  For now, however, I welcome the little bits of income and what they can buy for me and the ones I love.  ‘The Guardian’ provided some anti-troll guidance:

However, what was suggested to me was that more of us need to become ‘goats’.  The term might not be an attractive one, but apparently comes from the fairy tale, ‘The Billy Goats Gruff’ about a trio of goats who trick and then butt off a troll that lives under a bridge they have to cross.  You have to have a strong stomach as I guess the trolls will turn on you if you goat.  I have seen people who have challenged such reviews patronised as na├»ve and ignorant.  However, you have to believe that you are right and remember that some poor author has spent months, perhaps years, writing a piece of work.  While some writers may need to enhance their skills, no-one intentionally puts up a shoddy, rushed book.  However, all of this effort can be destroyed by someone bored for ten minutes or less, over their lunch break, who wants to boost their own ego by kicking someone else.

Yes, if the book is bad, then a critical review is fine.  However, it needs to be constructive and not simply bury a book because it does not cover some niggly detail or is a different kind of book to what the reviewer wants.  I have heard that writers of gay fiction get this all the time.  Despite labelling it as ‘gay fiction’ which you can do on Amazon and having covers which suggest the content, they get virulent complaints from male readers who feel they have been ‘tricked into reading this filth’.

Challenge reviewers. It seems easier for people in general to comment on reviews on Amazon than it is for the writer to respond to them.  If the book has some minor errors, then it probably deserves a 3- or a 4-star rating, not to be condemned forever on the basis of these.  Challenge reviewers who argue that no-one will want that genre.  That is not a question of quality, that is a question of consumer choice.  If it gets a 1-star, then of course, no-one will go near it.  However, a writer can quickly tell which genres do not sell, they need no reviewer to tell them that.  Challenge reviewers who make patronising judgements especially on the age, gender or nationality of the writer.  A lot of great fiction would not have come about if writers had faced these prejudices so extensively in the past century.  There was prejudice, but there is no place for it now.  The internet is supposed to be free to speak and express ideas and self-publishing is an element of that now.  However, if trolls are free to shut down innovation and a range of authors, we are effectively seeing amateur censorship, intolerable in large parts of the world.

I am going to be using my own goats in an attempt to get back at troll-reviewers.  Thus, I would encourage you to get out there goating for other writers, starting with poor Ryan McCall if you can spot no-one else just yet.  Be proud, be a goat!