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.