Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Books I Read In December

'The Origins of the Second World War' by A.J.P. Taylor
Initially reading this book I was pleasantly surprised by its strengths.  Though the version I read was published in 1964, it is still of value for anyone studying the history of this period today.  In some ways Taylor treats the reader maturely.  He does not include loads of dates and figures, assuming that you can pick these up from other places.  Instead he digs into explaining what happened and why.  I like the fact that he overturns many myths about the lead up to the Second World War which in most cases seem as prevalent today as they were in the 1960s.  He also shows how historians have come to certain conclusions.  Again, because these have proven persistent, his insights remain valid also.  Taylor highlights individuals such as MacDonald, Halifax, Benes and Bonnet who often get left out or wrongly interpreted even nowadays and it is good that he shines a light on them.  He also shows effectively the extent to which British policy and, in part, French policy was driven by a sense of 'morality' and doing what was 'right' rather than any strategic perspective.  Thus, even once Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, British politicians and officials believed that they could hold an international conference to resolve the issues.  The British did not value the rights of different countries equally and saw the demands of Germany as of a far higher status than those of Czechoslovakia or Poland.  This does help explain the strange policies the British governments adopted, applying one principle until it was trumped by the other, but consequently divorcing them from any Realpolitik.

Taylor is, at times, refreshingly self-critical too.  In 1963 he added a new opening chapter to his 1961 book in which he analyses his own failings of analysis.  Few historians seem capable of doing this even now.  Before moving on to my difficulties with the book, I would note that it is far better than 'The Habsburg Monarchy' (1941) by Taylor that I read in April.  That book careered through the history in a frenetic way and if he had applied that approach to the events covered in this book then it would have been almost impossible to read.

Now, the problems.  Taylor criticises historians who have sought out the 'guilty men' of the lead-up to the Second World War, though smugly he says he believed Hitler should have been contested right from January 1933.  However, throughout this book he is imbued with perfect hindsight.  Whilst he might not portray those involved in the events as guilty he certainly repeatedly points to them as naive, foolish and vacillating as if the way events would turn out were visible to them and they simply ignored them.  This smugness becomes very difficult to swallow as the book goes on.

At the time of publication, Taylor was condemned as writing a book which was pro-Hitler.  Now, there are two reasons for this.  One is that Taylor does seem to give (perhaps grudging) admiration for Hitler for having one approach and sticking to it throughout.  He shows that repeatedly Hitler would not take the initiative if he could get another country to do it for him, hence the dangers of appeasement.  Taylor is right to show appeasement as advancing the Nazi agenda more effectively than Hitler himself.  Taylor cannot stand vacillation and as a consequence every other leading politician is shown in a poor light.  It is not that Taylor lauds Hitler it is because of the principle of one man seeming to step forward from a line because all the others have taken a step back.

The other complaint people had at the time but seems irrelevant now was that in showing that it took the bulk of Germany to bring about the Second World War, he somehow let off Hitler from responsibility.  This is a false impression.  Taylor simply aims to counter the view that Hitler was to blame for absolutely everything that was nasty about the Nazi regime, whereas in fact it required many thousands of men and women, not all of the German, for it to be effective in that respect.

There are some minor quirks that distort Taylor's book, some of which you see in others he has written.  One is that he does not believe that there was any German resistance to Hitler.  He cannot comprehend any of the attempts to halt or remove Hitler at any stage and is sneering about any reference to these.  He utterly dismisses the French and Italian armed forces as irrelevant.  The French military was utterly wasted in 1940 because as he identifies elsewhere defeatism had already debilitated the French state.  However, if used effectively it is clear now that the French military could have blunted severely if not indeed halted the German offensives against Poland, Belgium and France in 1939-40.  In Taylor's view that was impossible.  The Italian forces might have been weak but their advances in Greece and North Africa caused delays and casualties for the British and drew Germany into regions it might have otherwise avoided.

Another thing is that Taylor is so much a 'child' of the era of Keynesianism that he finds it impossible to consider any other approach to the economy as legitimate, ridiculing the deflationary policies pursued in Britain in the 1930s.  I am sure he would be startled if he returned today to find that for the past thirty years such economic policies have been the economic orthodoxy and Keynesianism is utterly forgotten even by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats.

This book still has value for people studying the lead-up to the Second World War.  However, Taylor grandstanding with a very dismissive, arrogant attitude to almost all those involved in the events is very tiresome and detracts greatly from what he is trying to communicate.  This book is most useful for challenging many of the myths that still appear in popular histories of the period, notably the Hossbach Memorandum.

'Tart Noir' ed. by Stella Duffy & Lauren Henderson
This collection of twenty stories proved to be a real disappointment.  I was enthused by the concept, i.e. female authors writing crime fiction with female protagonists.  The emphasis is on strong, sexually liberated women in control.  However, the stories contained really failed to live up to my expectations.  Perhaps I was wrong to have imagined that there would be more female detective stories contained in the book.  I do not think I was wrong to not expect fantasy stories to be contained within it.  In any collection written by multiple authors there will be stories that you find better than others.  However, for me the overall standard was too low.

Perhaps the stand-out story is unsurprisingly 'Metamorphosis' by Val McDermid which quickly conjures a sexual obsession and then the overwhelming need to get the person out of your life.  This was the kind of story that I expected throughout, but was sorely disappointed.

I do think they should have warned the reader that one story, 'Stormy, Mon Amour' features scenes of sex between a woman and a dolphin.  I guess I should have remembered the movie 'Max, Mon Amour' (1986) about a woman's sexual relationship with a chimpanzee which caused uproar at the time and is clearly being referenced by this story.  The resulting birth of a mermaid is simply fantasy but of a very dreary kind.  I almost abandoned the book at this point, but pressed on because I thought it might improve. 'Labia Lobelia' by Lisa Jewell is another fantastical story.  The protagonist calls up the ghosts of Judy Garland and Joan Collins.  If it had not been for the book's rules, I would have assumed she was a transvestite.  However, she turns out to be a woman with magic powers.  She turns her neighbours' flat into vast (and smelly) labia and a vagina. 'Talk Show' by Lauren Henderson has a talk show, unsurprisingly, but featuring Medea and Phaedra from Greek myths and Lady Macbeth.  It is better than a secondary school balloon debate or an Oxbridge skit.  Bestiality features once more but at a distance.  Overall, though, it is more an intellectual entertainment than a 'noir' story; it reminded me of 'The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul' (novel 1988; radio serial 2008) which features Norse gods in contemporary London.  I would almost put 'The Wrong Train' by Jenny Colgan into the fantasy category.  It is about an administrator at MI6 who gets on a train full of immigrants with TB being ejected from the country.  It turns out to be a government conspiracy story, but for much of it reads as if it is an offshoot of 'Neverwhere' by Neil Gaiman (TV Series 1996; novel & audio book 1996; graphic novel 2005; stage play 2010; radio play 2013).  It could have been scarier and better.

A number of the stories are about revenge.  The two most memorable are 'The Best Revenge is Revenge' by Chris Niles.  A touch light in tone at times, it seems credible in featuring a TV presenter getting revenge on the executive that sacked her.  In a short story, the relationship with male characters is handled well, a kind of push-and-pull between them.  The snobbery of the narrator is maintained well.  'Martha Grace' by Stella Duffy herself shows very skilled characterisation of the eponymous protagonist.  Like the best of these stories, it shows the unusual but without becoming unbelievable.  You want to see Martha in other stories. 'Africa' by Jenny Siler, does feel like an episode of 'Spooks' (2002-11; movie 2015).  However, it quickly builds up a complex story and portrays Morocco very effectively.  This is one story you would have liked to have seen developed further.

Some of the revenge stories feel as if they could have fitted into 'Tales of the Unexpected' (book 1979; TV series 1979-88) especially the televised versions which tended to be edgier than the stories in the book and the two that succeeded it. 'Enough was Enough' by Martina Cole fits that category.  It is a very capable portrayal of a wife drawn into her husband's sexual fetishes and then baulking against them. 'What He Needed' by Laura Lippman is of a similar quality and nature.  Not as good, but not too bad is 'The Man' by Katy Munger.  It is a straightforward revenge story with all the bodily fluids featured.  You could argue whether being a gigolo is worthy of revenge, but in this book it clearly is. Munger's description of the gigolo is very well done. Not about revenge, but with the twist beloved of the 'Tales of the Unexpected' is 'The Diary of Sue Peaner Marooned! Contestant' again has the bitch narrator.  The outcome is not unexpected and in many ways given how extreme these survival programmes are her behaviour does not seem too extreme.  This story does include cannibalism but it is passed over so lightly as not to really impact.  Like some of the other stories, the lightness naturally undermines the 'noir'.

Two of the stories are what I would term 'shotgun shack' stories.  They are noir in a different way.  In large part the woman is disempowered by the structures that the men in their lives create, leading to tragic outcomes especially for children, that seem unavoidable.  These two could appear in books simply about the lives of many women in modern USA and UK.  'Alice Opens the Box' by Denise Mina is the UK one and 'Necessary Women' set on the border of Alabama and Georgia.  In these stories murder is the only power the women have to survive; though you do wonder about their sanity.  These are bleak stories rather than true 'noir', primarily because the protagonists are so disempowered.

Some of the stories do have the detection element that I anticipated.  'The Convenience Boy' by Sujata Massey stands out because it is set in Japan with Japanese cultural perspectives whereas most of the other stories are set either in the UK or USA and all of them have the cultural norms of those countries as their basis.  This story is almost sweet rather than noir.  It is a nice peek into a different setting especially if you have not read crime fiction set in Japan either by Japanese or Western authors, though there is a lot more easily available in English these days.  'I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside' by Jessica Adams has a lightness about it.  It features a seaside clairvoyant able to detect crimes very easily.  It features many Brighton [UK version] tropes including a range of gay characters,  It was entertaining but not really 'noir' and Madame Romodo is not really a protagonist, more a spectator.  'Pussy Galore' by Liz Evans is set in London and rather erratically, but ultimately, effectively, switches between being cosy and sinister.  I found the old woman character credible, despite her great claims to a past in spying because in a part of London close to where the story is set I attended a discussion with former members of SOE, who like the character in this story retained some of the 'old skills'.

Some stories you feel 'so what?'.  'No Parachutes' by Karen Moline is in this category really simply detailing how the protagonist gets turned on by violence on an aeroplane, just as the author confesses she does at the end of the book.  'Take, for Example, Meatpie' by Jen Banbury is very much in this category about a woman who seduces a 16-year old schoolboy and introduces him to poetry and music before casting him loose again.  Yes, she might be in control, but there seems to be no real outcome so you are left dissatisfied.  'Queen of Mean' by Liza Cody is better, but is really simply a 'slice of life' story about a woman who with a mentor changes her life.  It lacks the necessary 'noir' but is interesting as a straightforward short story.

'Timequake' by Kurt Vonnegut
In theory, this book is a novel.  However, it is in fact more fitted to Vonnegut's short story and autobiographical books, 'Fates Worse Than Death' (1991), and 'A Man Without a Country' (2005).  This is a real mess of a book, really an assembly of fragments.  Some of them come from the first book he started writing called 'Timequake' which envisaged that in 2001 the universe reset by about ten years and everyone on Earth was compelled to live the preceding ten years again with no ability to change anything until the reached the starting point in 2001 once more.

Much of the book is a stream of consciousness about the author's career, members of Vonnegut's family and a number of fictional characters, notably Kilgore Trout who is a kind of older alter ego of Vonnegut's.  Little happens and the whole tone is like an old man (Vonnegut lived 1922-2007; the book was published in 1997) rambling on about things as he recalls them.  It encompasses themes that Vonnegut liked exploring.  He thought television was killing writing, reading and imagination though many of his statements could be used unchanged today for commentary on use of the internet and social media.  At times the book is juvenile in tone, especially when referring to sex and death, but maybe, despite his aversion to a lot in US society, Vonnegut is simply tied down by all the euphemisms that many Americans seem compelled to use, especially if they were born in the 1920s.  This may be in part to be humorous but it quickly becomes tiresome.

The decent part of the book is Vonnegut's discussion on the challenges of writing short stories, something he was able to live off for parts of his life.  By the 1990s he saw it as a dead art because of the dominance of television, not foreseeing its revival through self-published e-books and indeed free to view story websites.  You cannot make a lot of money off short stories but there are certainly numerous outlets across a massive spectrum of genres.  Vonnegut discusses the difficulties of ending a short story without killing everyone, a challenge I have encountered with my own short story collections especially when writing about war.  There is an implication that the short story must end with a 'big bang' even if it is simply a surprising revelation.  Amateur reviewers seem to insist on this, even arguing that a 'slice of life' story is not really a story at all.  One of Vonnegut's editors told him something along the lines of have the hero get on his horse and ride off into the sunset or an appropriate equivalent dependent on the context.  I do not know if that would satisfy many amateur reviewers who seem not to know what they want from a short story but certainly know what they do not want; some even see the approach as entirely illegitimate.  This is ironic given how much a boost short stories and episodic stories have received from e-book readers.  I would have liked more on this topic in 'Timequake'.

Overall this a very unsatisfactory book.  It would have been better if he had simply written a straightforward autobiography.  He could have discussed the same topics and even the same fictional characters as feature in this book, but it would not be the shambles that 'Timequake' is.  I can only imagine his age and standing in US science fiction were what meant a publisher would permit this book to come out.  It is really nothing more than a shabby scrapbook and the ramblings of a man whose talents had clearly dimmed.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Biscuit Blog: Lotus Speculoos biscuits

Given the bad reviews of my books with people feeling that English is not my first language; that I focus on the wrong aspects of history, my stories are too long/too short/not even stories and that my history essay collections are 'BORING' (to quote feedback), I have been advised to stop writing fiction and instead focus on other activities.  It has also been pointed out to me that with the bookshops filled with books written by vloggers, e.g. 'The Pointless Book: Started by Alfie Deyes, Finished by You' by Alfie Dyes [there is a sequel too], 'A Work in Progress' by Connor Franta, 'The Amazing Book is Not on Fire: The World of Dan and Phil' by Dan Howell and Phil Lester, 'Girl Online - Girl Online 1' by Zoe Sugg [a.k.a. Zoella - there is a book 2 as well], 'Life with a Sprinkle of Glitter' by Louise Pentland, 'Binge' by Tyler Oakley, 'Hello Life!' by Marcus Butler, 'All I Know Now' by Carrie Hope Fletcher and 'This Book Loves You' by Felix Kjellberg [writing as PewDiePie],  if I want to stand a chance of getting a book contract I would be better off starting online wittering on about stuff first.  The person suggesting that seemed to neglect the fact that I am not young, ditzy or glamorous enough to appear on the cover.

The suggestion was that I move my blog to being about biscuits.  These have an appeal right across the age range and you can express opinions on them without being attacked as a bigot or not 'understanding the real world'.  In addition, I lack the skills to cook food or make handicrafts, so sampling and reviewing biscuits made by others.  I am not sponsored by any company for this.  All the biscuits featured have been bought at my own expense and photographed by me.  This is not advertising because I am sure many of my reviews will be ambivalent, some even hostile.  However, given the range of biscuits out there, I hope I will enable customers to make the choices which are appropriate to them.

Lotus Biscoff Speculoos Biscuits

Given the time of year, it seemed sensible to start with a Speculoos biscuit.  I used the bastardised French term for them as is common in the UK.  They are know as Speculaas in Dutch/Flemish.  They are associated with the feast of St. Nicholas in early December.  However, you may be familiar with these biscuits from getting them on the side of your saucer in coffee shops.  They are medium-hard biscuits with a crystalised, 'sandy' texture.  They are lightly spiced though sweet and make a tasty counterpoint to coffee.

This particular brand came from Lidl.  You will find I buy quite a lot of my biscuits from Lidl as well as Asda, Co-op and Tescos.  In part this is because Lidl is cheap, but also because unlike the other three stores, they tend to stock a lot of products from continental Europe especially in the period around Christmas, which means you can break away from the standard British biscuit types common throughout the year.

These biscuits seem to fit the requirement for Speculoos biscuits perfectly.  They were not too sweet or too spicy.  They did not go soft too quickly and yet they were not overly sharp in terms of the sugar crystals.  Maybe it is beginner's luck, but I felt I had got off to an excellent start with my biscuit selection and had something that was ideal for the Christmas season.


Monday, 28 December 2015

Out Of The EU. But How Far Out?

To me it seems probable given the high level of hostility in the UK to membership of the European Union (EU) that in 2016 at the promised referendum, a majority of voters will opt to remove the UK from the union.  I no longer mix with politicians but do come across middle and working class members of the public who seem happy, especially at this time of the year, to talk about politics.  They assume the EU is a bad thing and that leaving it will 'free' the UK from all its rules.  I was speaking to such a man just before Christmas and for me he summed up the next difficulty that the UK faces which the government does not seem to have considered, but I imagine (I hope) that civil servants are working on contingency plans for even now.

I said that the question of whether we left the EU seemed settled.  However, the question of what relationship we would have with it afterwards had to be hammered out.  I used the example of three countries which are outside the EU but have very different relationships with it: Norway, Morocco and the USA.  He dismissed this as any serious concern, because he said the referendum would simply be in/out.  I accepted that that was the case, but said that someone had to work out the precise details of the relationship.  I asked him what he thought the relationship would be like and he seemed to believe he could have his cake and eat it.

Norway is often cited as the model that Britain would favour, but it is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which means that while it has no right to vote on any EU legislation, it still has to accept the free movement of EU citizens into its country.  Now, the free movement of EU citizens is one of the key reasons why parties like UKIP and fellow travellers want to leave the EU.  Consequently the UK moving into the EEA would not remove that aspect.

Morocco is an associate member of the EU.  This might be the model most favoured by those seeking UK exit from the EU.  There are a range of associate agreements; they were started in 1961.  However, typically they allow the country to have access to specific markets, e.g. in agricultural or industrial goods or more recently free trade with the EU.  They have been focused on the Mediterranean littoral, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, but there are agreements with former colonies and states across the world.  Interestingly even this kind of relationship implies that the country works towards political, economic, trade and human rights reform to bring it in line with the EU.  Given that the UK is not a full democracy (the House of Lords is unelected as is the Head of State) and is seeking to abandon human rights legislation, we might find it difficult to get an agreement.  However, this one seems to be the status that people would favour, retaining the trade privileges without being bothered with the mobility of people or quotas.

The USA is friendly to the EU and has some bilateral agreements such as on extradition and on airline ownership.  There have been efforts at tariff agreements but anyone who has bought anything from the USA or tried to sell stuff there knows you get customs duties slapped on them at one end or the other.  It is the administration of these which is as painful as the actual cost.  If the UK wants to be out of the EU as much as the USA does, then this would be the model for selling even to France or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where much more stringent border controls would have to be introduced.  The UK could close its doors to anyone under this model just as the USA does and we could insist even daytrippers from France needed a visa if we so chose.

The thing is, no-one is yet speaking about the model that the UK will end up with, no doubt at the end of a lot of discussion.  You cannot simply walk out of an organisation you have been tied into for over forty years, especially if you want to keep many of the privileges that a majority of the anti-EU Britons seem to think are their right and not the result of that membership.

We spoke about the need to disengage from EU legislation in the British legal system.  The UK would be free from EU quotas on farming and fishing, but human rights legislation which is at the top of the list for many of those opposed to the EU, does not come from the EU, it comes from an often forgotten body, the Council of Europe which is entirely separate.  Unlike the EEC (the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU), the UK was a founder member of the Council of Europe in 1949.  The EEC was not established until 1957 and the UK did not join it until 1973.  The Council of Europe has 47 members; the EU only 28.  Thus, if we are to purge human rights from British law, the UK will also have to leave the Council of Europe and, as yet, that is not on the cards.

I asked the man whether he knew how difficult it is for people from outside the EU and EEA to travel to countries in the EU.  Anyone in the UK who has relations from Australia or South Africa or a host of other countries (though US citizens do not need a visa for tourism) knows how difficult it is for them to simply 'pop over' to France from the UK.  Generally it means 8 hours being interviewed at the French Embassy in London in order to be issued for a visa lasting 6 months.  The man said he was sure the French would not impose that on the British and surely we would go back to the situation in 1972.  I said that was making big assumptions about the willingness of the other EU states to tolerate the British leaving perhaps even the EEA but still making use of the benefits.  I also pointed out that the world of 2016 is very different from the world of 1972 in terms of protecting borders.  Given that those who want to leave the EU want to close the gates on EU citizens coming to our country, why can we assume the French and others will not simply do the same in return?

From this I moved on to how many Britons live outside the UK in other EU countries.  There are 761,000 living in Spain alone, probably augmented by about another 200,000 who live there for part of the year.  200,000 Britons live in France and again many others own property there; 115,000 live in Germany; 44,000 in the Netherlands; 28,000 in Belgium; 26,000 in Italy and 18,000 in Greece.  There are around another 48,000 in other EU countries.  This does not include UK students who study in EU universities; 9,500 UK students study in France, Spain, Germany and Italy.  Many of the Netherlands 41 universities have hundreds of British students.  With free movement of citizens Britons can apply to these universities and in some countries like Denmark have to pay no fees.  With numerous courses taught entirely in English (as these appeal to Chinese students as well) it is very easy to do.  However, once we leave the EU this will stop.  I know many who support the UK leaving the EU have no time for students anyway, but is is just another factor.  The man I was talking to said he did not think Spain or France would eject Britons resident in those countries.  I said: why not?  Given that UKIP has spoken of sending EU citizens home what is to stop these other countries doing the same in return?  An influx of over 1 million Britons being sent home, many of those from Spain being elderly, is going to be worked out.  Remember, before Greece joined the EEC it did not permit foreigners to own property in the country and Australia does not allow this either.

This is one challenge for those pressing for exit from the EU.  They assume that the rest of the EU will let the UK go quietly and to retain many of the privileges that it has in relation to those states, unchallenged.  No-one seems to be thinking this through and simply making assumptions that it will be all very nice for the UK and that EU states will not be resentful to Britain.  I know Britons think their country is special, but they have to recognise that other countries see it very differently.  The UK has long been a troublemaker in the EU and is exacerbating this situation at a time when the EU has enough to deal with handling terrorist attacks and the refugee situation.  The UK is making no concessions but in return expects the EU to just go on allowing tens of thousands of Britons to live, work and own property and to travel freely back and forth even when the UK is trying to stop that for EU citizens coming in.  To expect the rest of the EU to tolerate such treatment of their citizens and not seek a balance against UK people, is incredibly naive.  If we must leave the EU we need to be far better prepared for the consequences than is currently the case.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Animals - One Of Only Two Things That Will Get British People To Talk

A South African friend of mine who has lived in the UK for over a decade still complains about the lack of community in Britain and how that British people, even when neighbours, simply ignore each other.  I have lived in lots of different places in the past couple of decades from London to a rural Warwickshire village and many towns in southern England and some in the Midlands, somewhere in between in scale.  Aside from when I lived in Poplar in East London and that was in the 1990s, I have found her experience to be the same for me.  When people say 'they kept to themselves', in fact that goes for everyone in the street even the person the newspaper, radio or television journalist is talking to.  British people may gawp at their neighbours - I have had people literally standing in their front gardens staring at me but not acknowledging my greeting, most recently in the house I moved into this September, but they will not talk to them apart from in two exceptional cases.

This is in contrast to some other countries.  Yes, there is a fantasy of US suburbia where everyone talks.  I am sure my South African friend would find the community of her youth has now faded.  I have encountered it a bit in Belgium.  The pull by global society is always to be suspicious of your neighbour and have nothing to say to them.  The concerns about immigrants and terrorists, very often linked in people's minds, simply exacerbates this situation.  However, in some parts of some other countries, a basic level of communication has to be eroded.  In Britain, suspicion and silence come as the norm and it is only exceptional circumstances that shift this, not the other way around.

The first occasion when British people (and indeed anyone from abroad who catches on quickly) talk to each other, even those they may have been living next door to, is when something goes seriously wrong.  You need a whole spate of burglaries, not just a few, for the ice to be broken.  A murder or an abduction is usually necessary to really get people to talk to each other.  A big fire or a riot will have a similar effect.  There is a finite time for which this effect will last.  It is dependent on the severity of the incident and how long concerns about it go on.  The politician Tony Benn noted that when travelling on trains, people only began to talk to each other when the train broke down or was severely delayed.  Often once the journey resumed they returned to their silence.  Generally, if everything is going normally on public transport and you try to speak, people will distance themselves; will not respond and may even complain that you are a 'nutter'.

The tendency of crisis encouraging Britons to speak is probably declining itself as indignation, even fury, has replaced simply moaning as the UK's prime pastime.  These days I find it is mainly the elderly who speak during a problem; the younger people, even the middle aged, now simply text or tweet furiously about it or even shout into their phones, rather than complain about it with the people around them.

Twice over the past two years, I have discovered the other thing that will get British people to magically talk and that is animals.  It is said that the British love animals more than they love children and I think this is probably true.  While having a child can be a link to colleagues to strike up a conversation, an animal can do this with complete strangers, including your neighbours.  Two years ago I was renting in a room in a house owned by a Lithuanian family in South-West London.  They would often be out at work during the day and sometimes their bitch a golden Staffordshire bull terrier, who was very well kept and friendly and had the run of a large garden, would be whining to be taken for a walk when I got in, often hours ahead of the other residents.

One day to calm her I took her for a walk.  I had no experience in walking dogs except handling a friend's black Labrador for an afternoon about twenty years earlier.  In addition, I quickly learned that she only understood commands such as 'sit' and 'stay' in Lithuanian.  Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in Europe which has not undergone much change except increase in vocabulary.  Proper nouns of all creatures including humans and dogs depending on whether they are the subject, object, being ordered, etc.  Anyway, with a gentle but firm hand I was able to walk the dog along the local river bank.  She was exceptionally well behaved, heeling and lying down if another dog approached.  The thing was that she was a key to suddenly a whole host of people talking to me.  Despite walking down the same streets five times per week, without the dog I was invisible; with her I seemed safe and worthwhile talking with to men, women and children of all ages.

A similar effect has happened now that I have returned to southern England.  As noted above, I have been renting this house since September, a little over three months now.  I have waved and tried to introduce myself to the neighbours in the close I live at the entrance to, to no avail.  No-one has given me their name or even responded to me walking up and saying 'hello'.  I know I look a little odd and people are particularly suspicious of middle-aged men, but the woman who lives in the house, who is younger than me, has had a similar reaction.  After three months, we have no idea of the names of any of the neighbours and apart from one man who drives a company van, no idea of what they do.  We have picked up scraps of information from seeing them coming and going, but nothing more.  If someone said to me that the person next door was called Mr. Smith and he was a local footballer or if they said he was Mr. Korzeniowska and he was a terrorist, I would have no idea if either of these statements was true or not.  I know he has two expensive cars, a blonde woman and small girl and a small dog, that is it.  I have not even seen his face in these dark evenings.

Now, this week something changed.  A cat decided that it lived in our house.  Every time we opened the front door it would run into the house and be reluctant to leave.  It is well tended and had a collar and bell but no tag.  We have been advised to check if it has a chip implanted but it is difficult to get her in our car and we do not know if we will have to pay to have this checked.  Given that this is a large housing estate with houses back-to-back and labyrinthine closes, she may have strayed off her usual patch and be confused how to get back.  She likes none of the food we have offered and keeps looking for toys we do not have.  The woman in my house went to everyone in our close and because it was about a cat suddenly they began talking.  It was none of theirs, but people who had ignored us repeatedly were suddenly giving their names and speaking.  Even the man who lives opposite who parks his van to block the exit of my car because he has lived in the close longer and feels he has that right, suddenly introduced himself when he saw us with the cat.  Putting up posters about her got complete strangers from neighbouring streets talking to us at random.  Our appearance has not changed; our behaviour has not changed, but abruptly we are perceived as people that can be spoken to.

 Dogs and cats like me.  Other people's dogs will often come to my heel or even get in my car.  However, personally I cannot stand them; they all stink.  Furthermore I think people who focus on cats and dogs lack an essential element of humanity.  Yet, it is clear now that they have an important use.  We are not allowed to keep any pets under our tenancy and we need to get this one back to the owner, who we fear may be abroad or away over the Christmas period.  However, in a couple of days she has done us a great service in making us appear acceptable and finally we have some of the communication we had wanted/expected.  How long we can 'milk' this opportunity I do not know.  However, I do recommend that if your British neighbours give you the silent treatment, borrow someone's cat or dog and it will change their view of you in an instant.  It is clear that buying a dog was the best thing the Lithuanians could have done to be accepted quickly in their particular suburb.  I have no understanding why this situation is the case, but it is something I have finally learned.  It does not make me a fan of either dogs or cats, but I can see their use.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

My Writing Is So Bad That It Makes People Uncomfortable

I have commented before on the reviews I receive of my books. The reviews are largely bad. Sometimes this is because I produce books that people do not want. Apparently my counter-factual history books cannot be in the alternate history section because I do not make firm enough decisions on what might have happened. My books of analysis are criticised for not being books of stories and ironically my books of stories are criticised for presenting the world as it might have been. Despite having 'Factual' and 'Counterfactual' sections in my books I apparently do not make the distinction clearly enough. My syntax is bad because my sentences are too long and also too fragmented. My books are 'BORING' as well.

Apparently despite my research, my portrayal of certain historical characters is seen as being speculative. I am apparently wrong to feel a victory for the Confederacy in the American Civil War or a US victory in Vietnam would be bad outcomes for the USA, though given the words of Donald Trump currently receiving such support I realise that I come from a very different planet to many Americans so it is inevitable that my views are different. A book featuring stories set in Britain is condemned because it is just about Britain. A story featuring the Mongols is apparently insufficiently pro-Mongol to have any credibility.

Some feel '[t]he concept is really clever. Unfortunately the writing is far from gripping.', possibly because not every story involves a huge battle. Even those who feel my books are 'interesting' will not give me better than the mediocre 3-star rating. Positive reviews present me as writing obscure stuff far away from the work of Harry Turtledove, though my books are pretty much like many of his collections, perhaps again I simply have insufficient fighting.

Nothing I do in my books, how I re-edit them or re-categorise them is enough to satisfy the majority of people who commentate on my books. I cannot find the right category for some people. I cannot write in the precise way certain readers want, though I spell check and grammar check repeatedly and revise again and again. I cannot write in American English though I have tried. I cannot turn myself into a Trump supporter and I know that there are enough books out there on Amazon in that style that fans of his have no need to come anywhere near my books. I cannot afford to use the copyrighted images that some people insist upon.

These are problems I have faced with my writing. The strength of feeling often surprises me; commentators take real offence at what I have dared to do. The attacks from so many sides make me want to abandon writing, which I know is the objective of many critics. Today's posting, however, is to indicate how much power I clearly have over people that I somehow 'lure' into reading my books. One has said that 'Even though I knew what I was buying, it just was not an enjoyable experience.' which makes my book sound like it is heroin and at least an enema. Indeed one commentator has said he found my book '[a]lmost painful'. As a writer I must be something like a venus flytrap. I am able to lure people in to buy my book and read it; not to return it for a refund as they can easily do, and yet write so badly that I make them really suffer to the extent that they cannot simply stop reading my book, but they have to utterly delete it from their e-reader.

I clearly have a weapon that maybe the British or perhaps the US government might want to pick up on. With training and practice it seems likely that I can write a book which is both so intriguing at yet so bad that it will kill someone. I know it is said that 'the pen is mightier than the sword' but had not realised how literal that the saying was. So far I guess I have produced books like a razor blade and with time I may work up to a stiletto and then a proper dagger.

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Books I Read In November

'A Body in the Bath House' by Lindsey Davis
This is a book from the long-running Falco series of books, featuring the eponymous Roman detective active in the 1st century CE.  I read the first in the series 'The Silver Pigs' (1989) many years ago.  This is the 13th book of 20, published in 2001.  Davis has moved on to writing stories featuring Falco's daughter.

This novel was not at all good.  The books are written in the first person with Falco looking back on his life.  However, despite Davis's work in terms of ensuring historical accuracy, Falco's manner is far too late 20th century/early 21st century.  The complexities of Falco's family and connections are complex and add little to the story except for confusion and coincidence later in the story.

This story mainly focuses on Falco resolving issues at the construction of the palace at Fishbourne in southern England.  Thus, Davis puts in far too many jokes about unreliable builders and uses construction jargon from modern times.  The jokes are very feeble and not humorous if you have never had an extension built.  The key problem with the book is that it progresses with minimal direction.  Various people die whether from accidents or murders but there is little sense of urgency.  Ultimately murders both in Rome and in Britain are resolved almost by accident.  Overall this book seemed to be a waste of effort.  There were interesting components but they were assembled in a way which was listless and not engaging.  I am unlikely to read any more of Davis's books.

'The Time Ships' by Stephen Baxter
Down the years friends have often recommended me to read certain books.  Typically I have loathed the recommendations and as a consequence if someone suggests I should read a book, let alone says I 'have to' read it, then I go out of my way to avoid it.  This book was lent to me by a friend and running short of science fiction or fantasy books, I turned to it.  It is billed as 'The Authorized Sequel to The Time Machine'.  It is not clear who authorised it, but I imagine it was the estate of H.G. Wells.  As we know from the difficulties that 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003) movie faced in trying to feature the lead character of 'The Invisible Man' (1897), the estate guards these things very assiduously.  'The Time Machine' (1895) is a novella and at over 600 pages, I feel Baxter has lost some of the essence of the original.  The tone is pretty well replicated of a Victorian character written in the first person.  However, Baxter does tend to betray his own era especially in portraying the superstructures created by the advanced Morlocks and then the Universal Constructors that seem to be physical manifestations of the internet.  Baxter's problem is that he simply has too many ideas that he feels compelled to jam into the book.  This is in contrast to Wells who maintained a tighter focus, exploring a concept per book.

Wells's book first appeared as a magazine serial and it is ironic that because of the multiplicity of ideas that Baxter feels compelled to include his book ends up being very episodic.  Any block could have been a book in itself.  There is travel to the advanced Morlock society in which a vast sphere has been built around the Sun.  There is a brief episode in which the time traveller meets his younger self.  There is an alternate 1938 and 1944 caused by time travel and involving an enduring First World War.  This seems to have been caused by the Kaiserschlacht of March 1918 succeeding and an assassination of a leading Allied general in Paris, I assume Marshal Foch.  There is a return to the Paleocene era; a journey to an Earth wrecked by a perpetual ice age brought on by climate change from pollution and a return to the original future of Morlocks and Eloi envisaged in the original novel.  Any one of these would have been sufficient for Baxter to explore his ideas of parallel realities allowing time travel and changes to history shifting the traveller into an alternate rather than actually changing that line of history; plus the sense that humans are almost doomed to becoming Morlocks or Eloi in one way or another.  I am never happy with beneficent super-powerful creatures with vast constructs and Baxter manages to get two of these in.  The visits to the alternate mid-20th century and the prehistoric period are much more tolerable.

I enjoyed this book more than I anticipated.  However, I feel it is too long.  I feel that it should not be perceived as a sequel to 'The Time Machine' but something simply using the tone of that book.  It might appeal more to readers who are fans of 'hard' science fiction.  Steampunk fans may enjoy the middle element of the book.  However, this is clearly a segmented novel and ultimately it is less overall than the sum of its parts.  I have been ambivalent about Baxter's work and this hardly encourages me to seek out any more.  However, in contrast to other book recommendations I have received, I am not angry with my friend for proposing this book.

'The Daydreamer' by Ian McEwan
My book choices recently have proven to be so poor that I almost feel I should start up a separate blog entitled 'Books Not to Read'.  Given how harsh and dismissive a large portion of online reviews are, I feel at least I am fair in my portrayal of the books.  I do wonder, sometimes, how these people managed to get their books published.  As someone once said to me, it is clear that it is not the book which gets it published, it is the person.  This is one reason why established authors, let alone celebrities, get poor quality books out there and why sales of Robert Galbraith's book, 'The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) rose by 156,866% when it was revealed that they were written by J.K. Rowling.

As you can imagine from this lead-in, I was not pleased with 'The Daydreamer' (1995).  I bought it about the time I read 'The Innocent' (1990).  That was a gritty thriller set in 1950s Berlin; was well researched and engaging.  I was irritated with reviews of the 1993 movie of the novel, as there was criticism that Isabella Rossellini was told old to play Maria in the movie.  She was 40 years old at the time and the character is 36 in the book.  Critics made the lazy assumption that innocent had to be the female character rather than Leonard played by Campbell Scott.

That aside, 'The Daydreamer' comes nowhere close to the earlier book by McEwan.  It is a conceit.  It is supposed to be a book written for children that adults can enjoy.  It features a number of episodes from the life of Peter Fortune between the ages of 10-12.  He daydreams himself into a number of scenarios, quite a fair portion of which envisage him swapping bodies in order to learn a lesson.  Yes, it is written in language which could be comprehensible by children of that age and could be seen as a collection of modern fables.  However, even if you accept these aspects, it is highly flawed.

It appears to be as nastily autobiographical as Martin Amis's work and, as regular readers know, I think Amis is highly over-rated.  It is set in a world that only exists in the mind of Michael Bond.  Aside from the occasional references to computer games, it could be inhabiting that stylised third quarter of the 20th century; it barely scrapes into the fourth quarter.  It is as if white middle class southern urban England has been distilled to its fullest.  This is the kind of context that the grandchildren of Enid Blyton's characters would have ended up living in.  As such, this is more unrealistic than the fantasies Peter ends up in.  It would have been more refreshing set on a fantasy island.  I have no idea why McEwan wrote this book, it seems to have been an utter waste of his time.  I have been reminded of the lesson of not to fall into the trap of assuming that if an author can write one good or even decent book, that others they produce will come anywhere close.

I have another of McEwan's slim volumes on my pile which I will read, but then it might be time to give up on him entirely.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

The Books I Read In October

'Tales of Old Japan' by A.B. Mitford
This book was recommended in 'The Guardian' newspaper recently and I realised I had a copy. It is a reprint of a book published in 1871 by A.B. [Algernon Bertram Freeman-]Mitford (1837-1916) who was part of the British Legation to Japan at the time that it was opening up to the outside world.  He witnessed elements of the civil war which broke out between the forces of the Shogun and those of the Emperor, leading to the victory of the latter, the so-called Meiji Restoration.  Mitford consequently was witness to a period of immense change in which Japan shed much of the culture it had had effectively frozen since the 17th century and abruptly leapt into modernisation.  He also highlights the damage the civil war did. Thus, while the book is a collection of traditional stories, it is interspersed by Mitford's reflections on what he saw at this particular time.  Importantly he cautioned readers of the time not to make assumptions about Japan based simply on what they saw at ports open to foreigners.  Thus, you effectively have two books running in parallel, the stories as narrated by Mitford or another narrator he translated rather than us reading the story directly and a rather erratic commentary on mid-19th century Japan.  It is interesting to set Mitford's work beside that of Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), similarly a traveller to Japan and a collector of its myths and legends.  Mitford is clearly a partisan of the Emperor and misses no opportunity to disparage the Shogunate even when described in far history.

The stories that Mitford covers includes the famous 'The Forty-Seven Ronin' and other stories with very convoluted tales of revenge.  However, these stories indicate much about the caste nature of Japanese society; many are tragic.  He also includes fantastical stories which highlight the importance of animal spirits, notably badgers and foxes, but also hares, in Japanese stories.  These are the equivalent of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.  Of less interest, indeed rather tedious are the odd bits from Japan of Mitford's time.  He includes a number of Buddhist sermons from the Nichiren sect which drag on.  This, I imagine, is because Mitford states that with exposure to the West he anticipated Buddhism being entirely eliminated from Japan within a matter of years.  This might also reflect the revival of Shintoism at the time which was in part to be the basis of developing Japanese militarism.  Similarly tedious are his translated accounts of seppuku, ritual suicide.  I imagine he included this as it was something that shocked contemporary readers.  His account of the one he witnessed in 1868 is far better than the guidebook he translates, the same can be said for the sections on weddings and funerals.

One gripe I have is that he renders the shorter Samurai sword, the wakizashi as 'dirk' which in my experience is more like a dagger and would equate to the Japanese tanto.

This is an engaging book on the two levels that I have highlighted.  It tells us as much about British Victorian views of Japan as it does about the country itself at the time.  However, it does provide a range of quick stories which remain important even today in Japan as can be seen from the numerous movies of 'The Forty-Seven Ronin' and reference to them even in our culture.

P.P. 06/12/2015
I caught a bit of the time-travelling drama, 'Outlander' (2014) that the woman in my house has been watching.  The series is not to be confused with the movie of 'Outlander' (2008), which is about an alien with high-tech landing in Viking-age northern Europe.  The series is about a woman travelling in Scotland between the late 1940s and in the mid-18th century. I quickly got put off by the series because, despite being set in these two time periods not known for liberal sexuality, the characters seem to leap at having sex of all sorts, at every possible occasion.  I suppose the series is aimed at the 'mummy porn' market.  These fantasies are characterised by dominant males carrying off women and yet fulfilling their sexual needs, rather than abusing and exploiting them as would have actually been the case in 1948 as in 1745.  Anyway, one of the scenes I saw before the protagonists went for sex behind a bush and I left, was the heroine being equipped with an 18th century dirk.  Assuming that the programme makers have striven for historical accuracy, despite being a dagger, it was long and broad enough to be an equivalent of a wakizashi.  I realised I had only seen modern versions which are far smaller.  So, I have to forgive Mitford.  At the time he was writing, a dirk would indeed be the nearest British equivalent of a Japanese short sword.

'Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk' by Len Deighton
Deighton is primarily known for his spy fiction.  However, this book and 'Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain' (1977) he produced popular non-fiction books that specifically challenged many of the myths of these events of the Second World War.  He did this at the right time because in the late 1970s people who had taken a leading role in what happened were still alive.  Deighton's book published in 1979, benefits from the input from men who had been involved in the fighting of the first year of the war, indeed the foreword was written by General of Panzertroops Walter Nehring (1892-1983) who had served as Chief of Staff to Colonel General Heinz Wilhelm Guderian (1888–1954), the leading general in terms of what we see as Blitzkrieg tactics.  Interestingly, Nehring focuses on the chance that was missed to crush the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, whereas Deighton's book primarily demonstrates how much of a gamble the German invasion of France was and that success came from a combination of generals, notably Guderian, disobeying orders; good luck and defeatism on the part of the French commanders and hence the men beneath them, leading them often to surrender or flee when there was no need.

Deighton shows both how the principles of Blitzkrieg go back to Prussian military principles of the 19th century, but also how rare the method was.  He demonstrates that the invasion of Poland and of Norway; indeed the German advance beyond Dunkirk to finally defeat France owed very little to the Blitzkrieg concept.  He certainly emphasises how many missed chances there were to halt the German advance in the Ardennes, at the Meuse and even on the advance to the Somme.  This could have brought the war to an end far earlier than in our world.  The book is excellent in terms of the technical details of tanks, aircraft and other weapons and how they were used.  It is well illustrated with simply maps, images of tanks and photographs.  It is written in a brisk style well broken up, so it does not become a heavy text.  Some sections, however, are too generic and add little.

There was no real reason to repeat everything about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.  It would have been better to have started with the annexation of Austria, because of the use of various tank units and worked from there.  It would have been better if he had continued properly until the surrender of France as it seems to come to an abrupt halt which does not really demonstrate how the use of Blitzkrieg in France ceased and was replaced by traditional tactics, even though Deighton asserts that this happened.  Deighton has some strange obsessions and goes on extensively about the SA and Ernst Röhm's homosexuality, which really has nothing to do with the focus of his book.  On such occasions you see the novelist seeking out interesting characters, getting in the way of the historian.  Overall, an engaging book which effectively challenges many myths about Blitzkrieg and the military strength of both Germany and France, which you still see too commonly today.  Certainly recommended for anyone with an interest in the first phases of the Second World War and a model of how a popular history book can be produced, but unfortunately seems to be neglected as an example of good practice.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Pedalling Too Fast? You Have More than One Gear

This is a posting griping about something I am seeing on an almost daily basis these days, even though I have moved into a close.  It is cyclists coming past me with their feet spinning around on their pedals and yet them progressing slowly.  This used to be confined to young people and where I lived it seemed to be common among East Asian residents, but now I am seeing people of all ages and ethnicities doing it.  I could understand it if I lived in the Peak District or the Grampians or even on the Downs, but I live in southern England, to the East of the Tees-Exe line and so steep hills are not particularly common; indeed a lot of the roads have minimal inclines.  Yet all of these cyclists are riding around as if they are about to attempt to ride up Mont Ventoux or Alpe d'Huez.  You see their feet spinning around as they progress slower than walking along a flat road.  In the past I have challenged people as I have walked by but soon learned that not only was that deemed unacceptable no matter how politely I did it, but the cyclists had little idea of what I was talking about.

You have to wonder at the lack of curiosity on the part of the cyclists.  Whenever I buy or rent a new car I try out all of the buttons to see what they do.  Clearly these cyclists have not tried the levers or twisted the grips which operate the gears.  Perhaps it is an issue of there being so many.  When I was a boy, the bicycles that ordinary people rode had 3, 5 or 10 gears.  Only those who raced had more.  These days even a child's bike will have more than 20 and rather than seeing the cable pulling the guide wheel across it is all confined within the frame and adjusted by something looking more suited to a motorbike.  Perhaps seeing other cyclists around them similarly spinning their feet around people assume that is what cycling is normally and they do not realise that they could be moving far more effectively and indeed speedily especially on the flat or shallow inclines.  Cycling around a town you probably need only 5 of the many gears you have and it seems ironic that most people have their bicycle set on the one which would enable them to ride up an alp rather than a high street.

I do not know how you solve this issue.  We live in an age in which people do not read instructions and certainly are angered by anyone offering advice of any kind.  I suppose we just have to cycle or walk past them marvelling that they have so little sense of self-preservation that they will not try out all the functions on their machine and work out what is best for them in a given situation.  Where this does become a hazard is when you also hear the squeak of a chain that has never been oiled, despite bicycle lubricant now being available in supermarkets and with tyres with so little pressure in them they flop around and are liable to puncture.  Children are supposed to pass a cycling proficiency series of classes but adults are simply allowed to get on a bicycle and try to go.  Drivers say that cyclists need licences and insurance, largely, however, as an excuse for hitting them.  However, I think there would be benefit in having to secure a cycling permit including basic maintenance and how to cycle safely and efficiently.  The challenge is how this would be administered and how unlicenced cyclists would be caught and penalised.  For now I just have to walk passed people on squeaky bicycles moving slowly along the road believing they are cycling for real.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Book I Read in September

'Ink' by Hal Duncan
As I have discussed before, as I have aged, people increasingly have felt that I may have Asperger's Syndrome and as a result find it difficult to 'connect' with what they feel is 'normal' society.  Indeed this week, having introduced myself to my new manger, a colleague said 'of course, the rest of us live normal lives'.  Given her obsessions and zoning out to anyone else's words, we might contest her view of 'normal'.  Anyway, I provide this as an explanation of why I ended up reading this book having given its predecessor 'Vellum' such a bad review:  I bought the two books together, though fortunately from a charity shop.  Having been criticised at school for not completing a book ('Great Escape Stories' by Eric Williams (1962) largely because though a fan of the accounts of escapes from Colditz castle I found post-war stories had too much of a feeling of torture), I have always battled to any that I have bought and started to read.

Unsurprisingly, 'Ink' was no better than 'Vellum'.  It is 115 pages longer which is hardly a benefit.  It again contained loads of fragments typically featuring the same set of characters in multiple alternate worlds.  This time there was a parallel thread of a performance of Harlequin, Columbine, et al and parallels drawn between them and the book's characters and various personalities from ancient myths.  There is a pretentious bit at the end about how Duncan has drawn on various translations of Greek myths, but if that is the case and not simply an affectation, he has learned nothing from these works in terms of character, narrative or plot.  Instead there is simply a pile of fragments.  There are flashes of interesting ideas and settings.  One sustained one is set in Syria in 1929 in which the Ottoman Empire was able to hold on to the North of the country following the First World War and using weaponry provided by Germany is threatening the British hold on Palestine.  It is the first book I have read to feature the Yazhidi community, written before they attracted global attention from their suppression by Islamic State.

The two books promote a pro-gay agenda.  The killing of a gay character at the end of 'Vellum' is constantly analysed and recast throughout the early parts of 'Ink'.  Perhaps in 1975 this would have intrigued or even excited the reader, but in 2015 you are left feeling 'so what?'.  You need to do far more with the scenario than simply toss it out there and expect the reader to be thrilled by how daring you are being.  This is part of the problem, Duncan relishes showboating, grandstanding or whatever you want to call it.  For him showing off how erudite he can be, how he has read more serious books than you, how he can keep all these tiny balls of story in the air at one time is more important to him than actually producing a decent book,

Again a lot of good material seems wasted due to an utter lack of (self-)discipline by the author.  I mentioned before that he is a Michael Moorcock fan and references things like Rosenstrasse, Mirenburg and needle guns.  There are Moorcockesque references to drugs and rock groups.  So this is fan fiction on a large scale, 1115 pages of it in total.  However, it really lacks the deftness of Moorcock and the repetitiveness which is inevitable when fragments are piled so high, makes it much less than the sum of its parts.

I think that there is talent somewhere in Duncan.  However, his vanity has been flattered for far, far too long.  The fact that he was able to publish two such large books full of crumbs of stories shows this.  He needs to stop the grandstanding and shed the tired tropes that might have been daring forty or fifty years ago, but these days for anyone who is going to pick up his kind of book are on their cliche hitlist.  Gay characters are now simply characters, nothing more than that.  Their sexuality is a part of their make-up just as the height or hair colour or religion is of them and other characters,  It no longer warrants getting so het up about not least from the author.

I do recommend you do not bother with either 'Vellum' and 'Ink'.  I hope Duncan is not further pandered to with publishing contracts until he can actually write a story.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Worst 'Doctor Who' Episode Ever?

The internet is full of fans and haters of 'Doctor Who' so you might argue there is no need for another.  However, this blog has always been about getting the stuff stressing me, 'the tablets of lead' out of my system and into the 'waters' of the internet.  After a dormant period following some terrible days in my life, I seem to be re-engaging with blogging, so expect an erratic flow of new ideas.  The political scene is frightening at present with us beginning to see the shift to a more authoritarian state started by Blair but relished by Cameron.  We also see the return of the military threatening to overthrow the Labour leader if he was ever elected to power.  So far, so very mid-1970s.  So perhaps it is time to seek solace in a programme I started watching back then.

I was not massively excited to see the new series of 'Doctor Who' on Saturday, but I did take time out to see it live.  Ironically this was only for the woman who lives in my house, who has not watched it for eight years, to pause it because she was 'not ready'.  Unlike some, I have been quite content with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  I thought his first series was fine.  The first series with a new actor in the role is always a bit lumpy.  Perhaps only Christopher Eccleston came in without a hitch and then proved to have gone too quickly.  Thus, I was expecting even better for Capaldi's second series.  When I say an episode might be one of the worst ever, I have to say it has been a while since I saw those featuring Sylvester McCoy and so there might have been duller and/or more disjointed ones back then, that I have blotted out.  I am, however, still, traumatised by the liquorice allsort man even now.

Back to Saturday's episode. The opening scene with the mix of biplane and bow-and-arrow and the revelation of the 'hand mines' did not disappoint.  CGI has revolutionised television science fiction series.  The reveal of who the boy in the mine field was, was excellent, really triggering a potential moral dilemma.  I was happy. Then it was pushed aside.  We had someone looking like they had come from 'Hellraiser' in a bar from the seedier side of Tatooine and then the Shadow Proclamation and so on.  Yes, it might have reference Harry Potter a bit too much, but what was worse was how we got through so many good ideas very, very quickly, almost all of which could have been sufficient for an entire story.  I am sure many fans were watching thinking how they might develop any one of these into a story.  However, they were just tossed aside, not as a teaser but almost as if they were off-cuts from a script conference.

We got the frozen aeroplanes in the sky.  I could buy this too.  It felt a little Eccleston-era meets 'Torchwood' and 'Sarah Jane Adventures', but I was not averse to that.  Clara leaping on a motorbike in a skirt and powering off to UNIT, well I guessed that was to keep the younger viewers on board who might be lost in all the darkness that had proceeded.  Yet, again, another idea that could  have sustained an entire episode was burnt up far too quickly.

Missy appearing in the dreariest of Spanish squares was more wasted content.  From there it went down hill right to the bottom.  So many potential stories had been discarded.  The Doctor turning up with a guitar and a tank, trying to riff on 'Back to the Future' was an embarrassment.  He was supposed to be in 1138 CE (and no-one calls it AD these days!) but seemed to be at a medieval theme pub in the 1990s.  Look how well 'Time Crashers' did a joust to see what is easily available these days even without CGI for the actual event (only to get the participants in and out).

The return to Skaro was a good idea.  The 1960s version of the Dalek city was nice too.  However, these were yet more fragments.  All of the actors seemed lost in what was happening.  It had turned from something that hinted at so much into a pile of 'if only' strips of story that were tossed away.  There was the potential for an excellent opening episode and a number of middle-ranking ones.  Yet what was chosen was tired, confused and down right embarrassing.  I could almost feel the millions of people turning off.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Do Not Treat My Politics as Any Less than Yours

As anyone who has read this blog down the years will not be surprised, I am pleased that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected leader of the Labour Party.  After the May 2015 election I did not have any expectation that the Labour Party will be re-elected.  The demographics are against them and as has been quoted before, the British public is Conservative and only occasionally votes Labour.  Indeed the New Labour it voted for was simply a pale blue version of the Conservative Party with a better publicity machine.  Corbyn is refreshing because he puts forward an attitude that many, if only a large minority, have felt have been missing from British politics (though clearly not the politics of Greece or other European countries) for so long.

It is not surprising that the right-wing media have attacked Corbyn on every basis from what songs he might sing to who he slept with forty years ago to his fashion sense to made-up policies they think sound poor.  In some ways I welcome that fact as it does suggest that they see him as a genuine threat to their distortions and scares peddled to the population.  If Andy Burnham had won, I doubt he would have attracted a fraction of the attention that Corbyn has done.

'The Guardian' feels that Corbyn and his camp could have rebuffed false accusations if they had had their 'media machine' set up quicker.  In some ways, however, I am heartened by the fact that it was not.  To feel an obligation to rebuff every last accusation as soon as possible is simply to play the game of the right-wing; it shows that you feel that you can be harmed by them, rather than ignoring the rubbish thrown at you because it is in fact nothing more than rubbish, often fabricated and always plastered with indignation.

Corbyn is facing a man who left a child unattended in a pub and has no grasp of how 95% of the UK population live.  Even when he is pictured on public transport, it is clearly faked.  Corbyn looks like he belongs on the underground train, travelling home from work, looking tired, like literally millions of other Londoners.  Part of the problem are the Blair years.  The Blairite government made themselves masters of media manipulation.  However, they also made themselves vulnerable by seeming to care whether one MP stepped off a very narrow line about a policy.  They created a context in which it is felt that unless an entire political party is full of drones mouthing exactly the same words on everything it has somehow failed.  This makes it very difficult for genuine debate to occur not just over the big issues but also the nuances within them.  That does not aid British democracy.  Why is it acceptable for the Conservatives to have a spectrum of opinion from people wanting immediate exit from the EU to those who want to stay in forever and yet even moderate differences on the issue are seen as a 'failure' by Corbyn.  I suppose because we lack a left-wing media.

The anti-Corbyn campaign has been so relentless that it is unsurprising that it is picked up unquestioned and every crumb used as gospel truth by a lot of the population.  I work where people generally have to have a decent level of education to be employed.  However, I have been harangued by the fact that Corbyn wants to wreck the UK economy by scrapping the Queen and he will abolish the Army the moment he comes into office.  Even then, to me such policies seem pretty rational alongside ones such as compelling schools to become academies and allowing the private sector to take over handling prisoners and hospitals.  Given how shoddy and expensive the British railway system is, why is it not shouted down whenever anyone suggests it is not re-nationalised?

I do not expect people to agree with me.  This is a democracy, there are different parties and there is a range of views within every political party no matter how the Conservatives and the media portray it.  Yet, Corbyn politics in a matter of a week have been made to appear illegitimate even to discuss and at best something very naive.  No other political leader has reinvigorated a movement in this way for decades.  Perhaps Sir Keith Joseph and following in his footsteps, Margaret Thatcher did for the Conservatives and that was forty years ago now.  Yet if I ever say anything positive about a Corbyn policy people titter as if I am foolish.  I would be happier to accept them being angry about my approach.  However, the right seems to be winning as it did in the 1980s by simply making Labour policies not seem a threat but simply not worthy of even considering and viewing anyone who proposes them as 'loony'.  It worked before, so I should not be surprised that it is working now.  It is exasperating for a number of reasons.

I could stand in a French or a Greek workplace and outline political views at odds with the people around me and they might disagree perhaps vocally, but they would not look on me as a child; they would not strip me of my right to hold that opinion.  To do so in Britain is a form of censorship which is in fact akin to the approach of dictatorships, not that of other mature democracies.  A further point is that I could state that the world was created in 7 days in 4004 BC; that dinosaur bones were laid in the strata by God to show man the passing of all things and that one day the righteous will be lifted into the skies during the Rapture and no-one would be allowed to laugh or ridicule my views without risking a disciplinary action for discrimination.  I subscribe to a political stance which is rational and in my view would be better for the bulk of people living in my country than the current policies.  Yet, because those very few who control our society and economy feel threatened by such views, they have schooled their minions in the population to ridicule and simply dismiss even the expression of that view.  Is it any surprise that people say Britain has only a partial democracy?

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Book I Read in August

'The Giant Book of Private Eye Stories' ed. by Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg
This seems to be another anthology I bought in the 1990s and have had lying around for a long time.  It was first published in 1988 but my edition is from 1997.  However, it must have been well loved before I got it as it looks to be older.  For such a broad topic it has a narrow focus.  Almost all of the stories are set in the USA and the one which is not, 'Busted Blossoms' by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1986) set on a ferry from Italy to Greece, features Americans.  Most of the stories are set in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, though some stray into other areas and when they go into the backwaters, they are particularly seedy, notably  'Iris' by Stephen Greenleaf (1984) about people buying and selling babies and 'Ride the Lightning' by John Lutz (1985) about people holding up petrol stations in rural areas which does have a good twist.  I suppose seediness is an essential element of the private eye story. 'Skeleton Rattle Your Mouldy Leg' by Bill Prozini (1985) himself is set in a hotel for retired men and is another which brings shabby life to the fore, when in others many of those involved are well off, hence able to afford a private detective.

The chronological scope is from 'Suicide is Scandalous' by Henry Kane (1947) to 'The Reason Why' by Edward Gorman (1988).  However, it is often hard to tell when they are set because even the stories set in the 1980s often have a feel that they date from thirty years earlier.  Only occasionally does this slice of the genre seem to recognise the march of time.  In part there are fewer references to the Second World War and occasionally there are references that suggest US society has moved on.  Even on that basis, some can be misleading, 'Death Flight' by Ed McBain (1954) which features an internal flight and buying travel insurance feels like it was written twenty years later.  Perhaps only 'Surf' by Joseph Hansen (1976) in which most of the characters are gay; 'She Didn't Come Home' by Sue Grafton (1986) featuring a female detective investigating a woman who has tricked her company and her husband and perhaps 'Greektown' by Loren D. Estleman (1983) set amongst an immigrant community suggest much change has occurred.  However, throughout the 'classic' style with a woman in trouble or causing trouble seeking to employ a burnt-out private detective persists drawn from what Philip Marlowe in 'Wrong Pigeon' (1959 - though written long before that) by Raymond Chandler or Race Williams in 'Not My Corpse' (I cannot find the date for this but it must have been between 1926-51 when the Williams stories were being published) by Caroll John Daly, would have experienced.

The 'hard boiled' language was also a characteristic of the American private eye stories.  However, at times you really need a translation for example from 'Diamonds of Death' by Robert Leslie Bellem:

'Dan Turner, movie hawkshaw, falls for stolen gem routine. Mitzi Madison slips snoop the hotfoot.'

Or from 'Wrong Pigeon': 'My checking account could kiss the sidewalk without stooping' or '"Suppose I got tossed in the freezer? I am out on a writ in twenty-four hours.'

Again no date, but must have been published 1942-50.  As the stories move closer to our own times, fortunately they drop the dated slang and do not seem to have anything much to replace it with.  The violence does not increase.  I guess for the post-war generation and perhaps given the level of murders in the USA right through the 20th century, there was no appreciation of any need to change.  Perhaps Pronzini and Greenberg were cautious in the stories they selected to avoid ones which would appear 'gritty' in the contemporary rather than 1950s sense.  There is that air of despair and of predestined fate hanging over the stories in the way which was common during the film noir era but faded from movies in the 1970s only occasionally popping up once more simply to be challenged, for example, in the movie of 'Minority Report' (2002).

There are some decent stories in this book, but they are rather diminished by how similar so many of them are.  This suggests that for a 'giant' collection, the scope is tiny.  The lack of private detectives from other countries does not help.  It seems the editors have a very narrow definition of what a private eye story entails, even though they recognise in the introduction that the genre started in Britain; there are examples from continental Europe and elsewhere too.  It seems that by having 26 stories (23 of which are written by men) they have set down what the genre should be and will brook no alternative.  Perhaps 'The Giant Book of Marlowesque Private Eye Stories' would have been a more accurate description.

On the positive side there are good examples of short story writing.  They demonstrate how you can use a small number of characters to provide an intrigue and even get in a twist.  Thus, they are good for those wanting to write short stories, a style of writing which is increasing in popularity with the rise of e-book readers.  However, it does show a static genre which over the course of fifty years saw minimal development.  There are far more female writers around in the genre now, so that at least leavens the rather stagnant style.  I suppose no-one can argue the genre was not successful.  This collection, however, despite good points, emphasis the picture of a style of writing in English which remained locked in a pattern for decades.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Pub Tour In Hampshire - Shawford Station to Hedge End Station

Despite going from pub to pub in a district is a sporadic though enduring hobby of mine, it is something that I have neglected on this blog.  In part it may come from lacking a digital camera for many years and then lacking a scanner.  I never see the point of having a camera on a phone and anyway my latest phone is now broken when the place where you put the charger got stoved in.  I do not believe it is almost two years since I last did a pub tour posting here: 

I did some up in the Midlands that I did not capture.  Now back in southern England I have done more visits to Hampshire, some distance away from where I am now living, but convenient for Bacchus to rendezvous with me (in both senses of the word!  Bacchus being the nickname of my best friend).  Our tour of Eastleigh was so desultory as to not be worth reporting.  Our return visits to Winchester have deserved better coverage than I have given them.  It is a good city, if you can stand the snobbier elements of the population, for visiting a range of pubs in close proximity with lots of food outlets across the spectrum in between.

This particular tour was prompted by my father who commented how many pubs there seemed to be in this stretch of Hampshire (Shawford lies 8 Km (5 miles) South of Winchester). Thus, I thought I would give it a go to see how many I could visit.  One warning, pubs in Hampshire seem not to open until 12.00, which has caused some frustration when in Winchester.  Thus, I planned my trip to start at 12.00 and was almost bang on.  It ran until about 19.30 and encompassed me drinking at 12 pubs, whereas it should have actually been 14, but more about the reasons for that in a minute.

Below is a crude map of the route.  The 'ßà' symbol represents the railway stations.  Shawford is a very small station but you can get trains there from Winchester and Eastleigh or Southampton.  You can also get the 69 bus which runs between Winchester and Fareham.  It stops in the centre of Twyford rather than Shawford.  The 69 and the 8 buses are your bale-out vehicles if you tire on the route.  Once you reach Fair Oak you can take the 2 to Eastleigh if you cannot stand any more.

Map of the Route
Round numbers refer to the text about the pubs below

Shawford Railway Station exit

1. The Bridge, Shawford
This is right by the station dominated by a high bridge across the valley.  This area is criss-crossed by rivers and navigations and you would think would be popular with walkers.  However, it would seem to be favoured by well-off Hampshire residents. There is a high-class patisserie opposite the pub.  I did not go into the heart of Shawcross itself which lies to the West of the railway, instead I was heading East.  The pub is Chef & Brewer but seems a bit less mechanical than some of those places.  I suppose because being so tucked away (the station platform is so short everyone has to move into the front carriage to get off) the clientele is well known.  Large garden.  Food clearly a focus as with the bulk of these rural pubs, ironically with a 1940s menu at present which I imagine is common across the Chef & Brewer pubs at present.  It was also in full-flow in terms of customers when I got there at 12.00, a different experience from other pubs in Hampshire I have visited.  It was one of the only pubs I have been in, where I felt under-dressed.  It is clear locals 'dress for lunch' even in a pub.  I drunk Kronenbourg 1664 which was available in most places I went to.

The walk to Twyford is very pleasant, crossing the river valley and looking to the next village in the distance.  I believe the name 'Twyford' comes from 'two fords' and that is suggested by the village sign. To the South there is a large private estate called Shawford Park.

Scenes along the Road from Shawford to Twyford

Central Twyford

Now, you may wonder why I have featured a post office and general stores.  One thing is that it sells local produce.  Though if you are on this tour, I suggest not buying free-range eggs!  More important for this trip is the 'Bean Below' cafe which you can see the sign of to the right of the traditional phone box.  This is a cafe actually beneath the post office.  The entrance to it is up that side road, not through the post office.  It has some nice basic food and if you need a coffee it is worth a stop.  Apparently its cooked breakfasts are renowned, but it only opens at 09.00 on the weekend.

From this sign, I realised that I had left my visit too late and could have once encompassed another Twyford pub in this tour.  I suppose given how many are closing down each month these days I was very lucky to be able to get to the ones I did.

2. The Phoenix, Twyford
This was a welcoming pub.  Very much a down-to-Earth place run by a middle-aged couple.  Basic food here, lots of jacket potatoes.  However, like most of the pubs on this tour, some interesting beers.  I am not a bitter or real ale man, but I was surprised by the choice along the route.  This seemed like the pub for the locals who are not snobby.  They seem to run a lot of events like bingo and things for charity; the landlord was getting ready for the fire-walking in the garden that evening.  Much cleaner and alert than many pubs of this kind.  The roadside face looks dusty but go in and you will see it is kept well-tended, no doubt one of the reasons it has survived.  I had a guest lager, I think from a micro-brewery.

3. The Bugle Inn, Twyford
'The Bugle Inn' is across the road from 'The Phoenix' but is clearly pitched at a very different clientele.  As I continued on this tour I was becoming conscious of how simply in pubs you can be exposed to the British class system.  In none of them did I feel unwelcome, but maybe my oddities set me outside many assumptions, people simply cannot put me into any particular category.  Saying that I was dressed in shorts and shoes from Asda and the shirt I had on had come from C&A which closed down in Britain over a decade ago.  The hat was from Marks & Spencer, but I was hardly in designer wear.

'The Bugle Inn' is an upmarket gastro pub.  Like almost every pub I went in, it has stripped floor and the usual accoutrements of leather sofas.  They did expect me to be staying for lunch.  It was quite with a very spacious and light bar area.  I drunk Staropramen in here; in an iced glass.  It was the just on the verge of pretentious.  Unlike 'The Bridge' it attracted couples rather than well-off families.  Looking around it did seem rather where you would come if having an affair. All the staff are young women dressed in black, apparently selected for being waif-like and with long hair.

Between Twyford and Colden Common

I was impressed by this barn, it looked like somewhere that might have been fought over at the Battle of Waterloo.

It is not unusual these days to find Thai and Indian restaurants in rural areas.  This one is still marked on online maps as 'Rimjhim' but as you can see is known as Banaras.  I imagine it is run by former Gurkhas or their descendants given the connection between Winchester and those troops.  I know some people insist on a curry when on a pub tour and this is a good opportunity, they do a 2-course set lunch for £8.95.  So if you did not fuel up at 'Bean Below' this might be worthwhile dropping into.

There is a farm shop along the road selling eggs and honey as well as live chickens and ducks.  Looking at the eggs I would doubt they are free-range and if they are the chickens are not getting a very varied diet.  I was not impressed by them at all.

4. The Black Horse, Colden Common

On the maps this area is shown as Twyford Moors but there is no sign of that designation, rather you are shown as being in Colden Common.  From a distance this pub looked open, but when I reached it, it was clearly closed down, but perhaps only recently.  As you can see other properties are up for sale here, so given what I saw elsewhere on this route, it will all be levelled and made into expensive, cramped housing.

5. The Rising Sun, Colden Common
Having missed out on a drink in 'The Black Horse', scraping the edge of Colden Common which seems to be a very large 'village', I took a detour off the main road, following one of the brown signs which are common in this area, mainly indicating pubs, golf clubs or equestrian centres.  Fortunately it was a short walk into the village.  Though the day was advancing, I was surprised to find myself as the only customer.  This looks like a 'housing estate' pub which has lifted itself pretty well up to the next rung on the ladder, without becoming a gastro-pub.  It has a pool table but it also has leather sofas.  Given there seems to be a lot of housing around it I thought it would be busier.  Maybe it has fallen between two stools, not sufficiently posh for those who might go to 'The Bugle Inn' but too uppity for those who might frequent 'The Phoenix'.  It was a spacious place with friendly staff, though that might be because I was spending money.  I did see a three-generation family re-packing their car at length and it seemed they had been in for lunch; the man had even taken one of the menus with him!

Between Colden Common and Fishers Pond

Despite what it shows on the map as the area being 'Fisher's Pond', the apostrophe for Fisher's was missing from every sign I could see.  I went past this pleasant church which looked like it belonged in an Alliance area on 'World of Warcraft'.

6. Fishers Pond, Fishers Pond
This is a large, rambling pub, named after the area it is in, with its own river and both a swan and a black cat which have adopted the pub.  It was by far the busiest I had visited, exceeding even 'The Bridge'.  It is above all a family pub for middle income families.  Perhaps the styling of the pub was why they were here rather than a short distance away in 'The Rising Sun'.  It is stone floors and that grey paint which seems universal if you have pretensions of grandeur viz 'The Bugle Inn' and the exterior of  'The Rising Sun'.  Lots of small children running around.  I was pleased to be able to get Staropramen here.  I must say that the staff were friendly and seemed to be very competent in dealing with the complexities thrown up by large families ordering food, moving tables, etc.  I imagine the place would collapse if they were not.

7. Queen's Head, Fishers Pond
This pub is right next door to the 'Fishers Pond'.  It was slightly more down market, looking like a 'housing estate' pub in style and with the food it provided.  Again, like many of the pubs I went in on this walk, it was spacious.  The staff were friendly, but the customers few.  Probably a good place to escape to if you cannot stand the noise of children next door.  As in Twyford, it did strike me as odd that two pubs were so close together, but I suppose they deliberately target different sorts of customers.

After Fishers Pond you have a steep climb up a hill which has caravan sites - in fact there are quite a few right along the route both for mobile and static caravans.  If in need of some non-alcoholic input there is a cafe in the garden centre at the top of the hill.  Once you reach the flat you are heading into Fair Oak which is not really well supplied with pubs.  None of the three I visited, I would recommend.

8. Fox and Hounds, Fair Oak
I must apologise for the picture on this one.  Maybe the result of being six pints, a bowl of peanuts and a packet of salted cashews (provided in error) up to this point.

This place aims at being very much a 'family' pub.  However, it is rather a down-market place which I imagine attracts customers from the numerous housing estates of Eastleigh.  It is run by quite an intimidating one-legged ex-military man.  The 1980s style red leather sofas and the fish tank are worth seeing.  However, you are probably best off in here if you like pool or darts.  The signs suggest there is an issue with underage drinkers.

9. The Cricketers Arms, Fair Oak
Fair Oak, though small, is well equipped.  It has a fancy Indian restaurant, an Indian takeaway, two Chinese takeaways, a cafe, a tearooms, a large Tescos for a petrol station, a Morrisons and another convenience store.  So if you need to refuel or get more cash or have something other than beer, it is fine.  The two pubs sitting opposite each other in the centre of the village are very disappointing.

'The Cricketers Arms' exterior is the best part of the pub.  Inside it is very shabby.  The barmaid's young daughter had taken over one corner for her plastic slide and my-little-ponies.  The barmaid was far harder to find and even the locals had difficulty in getting served.  I know it was the middle of the afternoon, but even so they were losing money as a result.  Much of what was on tap was 'off' and so I ended up having bottled Becks.

10. The Old George
While in 'The Cricketers Arms' it was all about horse-racing with customers and staff heading out to the betting office on the main road which apparently only recently opened, across the road in 'The Old George' it was about football.  Again not unusual on a Saturday.  The service was far better in this pub than its rival.  The place had a bit of a stark feel to it and when you see the list of bands playing you understand while it feels a little like a venue out of hours.  I could imagine it would be a lot better in the evening when a band was playing.  I imagine the clientele changes too.  It was not as bad as 'The Cricketers Arms' but I felt I had come at the wrong time to see it at its best.

Having been disappointed in Fair Oak, I decided not to follow one of the brown signs down to the 'New Clock Inn' on the western edge of the village.  In part because that was the direction in which Eastleigh lay in and I knew from past experience that pubs in Eastleigh lack character.  Everything is national chains and the town shuts down early.  I pressed on instead into Horton Heath and was glad that I did.

11. The Lapstone, Horton Heath

I crossed the border from Fair Oak to Horton Heath, a little apprehensive about the quality of the next pub.  It turned out to be very pleasant.  The customers seem to be people who feel themselves better than those in Fair Oak and dress up to come out, certainly the women.  This had a more mixed clientele in terms of genders since I had left the 'Fishers Pond'.  It was a little like 'The Rising Sun', stripped floors but not to the extent of being a gastro-pub.  It is awkward to get through the front door.  I was back on Kronenbourg 1664 here.  They seem to specialise in curries and have a good range of them.  It is right next to a farm and apparently sheep appear in the field you can just see.  However, this felt more like an adult pub rather than a 'family' pub.  It be that I was now into late afternoon.

Just a gathering of birds I noticed as going through Horton Heath.

12. Brigadier Gerard, Horton Heath
This is a pretty if modern-styled pub at the other end of the ribbon village of Horton Heath.  Its pizzas are apparently acclaimed.  However, it had a mix of local drinkers (who would not move an inch to let you get to the bar) and families eating out, though with less frantic manner than at 'Fishers Pond'.  They also do takeaway pizza, The staff were very friendly.  The pub is named after the racehorse which itself was named after stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle.

13. Farmers Home, Durley
Now, my next pub should have been 'The Southampton Arms' on the edge of Hedge End.  However, reaching the roundabout which would have turned me South-West towards it, I was tempted by another brown sign.  This pointed North-East to the 'Farmers Home' and 'The Robin Hood'.  There was a lack of apostrophes to show how many farmers were involved; the sign suggests just one.  Having had a good experience at 'The Rising Sun', I thought another detour would not do any harm.  However, there was no indication of distance and it turned out to be quite a hike.  From 'Brigadier Gerard' to 'The Farmers Home' proved to be farther than from 'Fox & Hounds' to 'Brigadier Gerard' without stopping points on the way.  Furthermore, in contrast to my route so far, though at times I had had to cross the road to reach a pavement, down this road, at times there was none and lots of well-off locals powering their 4x4s towards me as I clung to the edge of the road.

I was quite relieved to penetrate right into Durley which turned out to be another of these villages that covers many hectares.  There is a cafe-bar at the equestrian centre I passed but at this stage I was recognising my error and wanted to reach the pub.  It turned out to be very pleasant.  Again a mix of eating in the garden and people drinking seriously, with local children but not too noisy.  Mobile phone reception is poor there, but it felt nice to be in a real village rather than sitting on the edge of another housing estate.  Having reached my twelfth pint and had some far-too-large pork scratchings, I bottled out the rest and got a taxi to Hedge End station (hence knowing mobile phone reception was poor, though not non-existent).  How much farther on 'The Robins Nest' is and whether it is still open I could not find out.  The brown signs tend to last years longer than the locations they point to.

14. The Southampton Arms, Hedge End and 15. Shamblehurst Barn, Hedge End
These would have been the last two pubs on the trip if I had not taken the mistaken detour to Durley.  The former is a 1930s-style pub looking like a large mixed use pub like the 'Farmers Home' and certainly above the Fair Oak level in quality.  'Shamblehurst Barn' is a Hungry Horse pub though built into an old barn, looks like a 1980s housing estate pub of the kind the Hungry Horse chain favours ('New Clock Inn' back in Fair Oak is one of theirs too).

Right, so in the space of 11Km (7 miles) you can get through fourteen pubs in this area which is a pretty good figure outside of a large town.  The countryside especially in the early part, is attractive.  The pubs vary considerably in the type of customers they favour so you might pitch your tour to what sort of person you are and where you might fit in.  The weak stretch is clearly Fair Oak, so you might just want to grab some food there and power on into Horton Heath.