book review

Better Late Than Never

‘The English are a justice-loving people, according to charter and statute; the Scotch are a wrong-resenting race, according to right and feeling: and the character of liberty among them takes its aspect from that peculiarity.’

John Galt

Three and a half years ago I got an email asking if I could give a mention to the bolabposter.jpgok Breaking Up Britain.

That email has been staring me in the face since then, so here it is finally being done when I have just had painkilling injections for an inflamed nerve in my back.

The quote above was from Kevin Williamson’s essay in that book and I find it interesting to think about.

More so is this little piece that Kevin wrote himself…

“…if we look at the leanings of the eight best-known political parties in Scotland a distinct pattern emerges. The four political parties which support an independent Scottish state – the Scottish National Party, Scottish Greens, Scottish Socialist Party and Solidarity – are all to the left of centre, anti-war, anti-imperialist, and are for the dismantling of the nuclear state. The four political parties which support the Union – Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the British National Party – are all to the right of centre, pronuclear, and imbued with the spirit of Empire. The left-right political division on the question of Scottish independence is not a coincidence.”

 So there is your little taster of Breaking Up Britain. Williamson’s essay is very good.

Contributors: Gerry Adams, Arthur Aughey, Gregor Gall, John Harris, Michael Kenny, Peadar Kirby, Guy Lodge, Inez McCormack, John Osmond, Mike Parker, Lesley Riddoch, Richard Thomson, Vron Ware, Charlotte Williams, Kevin Williamson, Leanne Wood and Salma Yaqoob.

Review – Radical Therapies – by Philip Challinor

Philip Challinor blogs under the name The Curmudgeon. If you have visited that site you will know that a quick wit, combined with his great mix of sometimes arcane and sometimes garbled newpoliticmanagementspeak result in some sublime moments.

Radical Therapies is one of his several advances into longer format writing and while it doesn’t really use the funny jargonese it combines insight with a dark imagination to make 3 memorable stories.

The first story, The Little Doctor, is the story of a war criminal told from the point of view of the war criminal. You might think this is somewhat unusual but if you do I would remind that Bush and Blair have recently published memoirs and talked (or in the case of one of them, tried to talk) about their roles in the imperial ventures of our time.

At first it seems like the war in question could be current or marginally in the future. As it progresses, the character’s names serve to give the story the parallel world feel that the story needs to make its point; they could all be from anywhere or from nowhere. Similarly, not putting the story in any place we can put our finger on gives the impression that it could be everywhere. The winners or losers could be any state.

Without any kind of anchor for the reader (where is it? when is it?), in the opening pages it takes a little careful reading at the start but very quickly it becomes a page-turner.

The war criminal is in prison and awaiting his execution and recounts events leading up to his current situation. This is interspersed with his dealings with the prison guards and various functionaries representing the victorious powers in the war.

“Why should you be [put on trial] ?” said the Warden. “As I told you, the position is quite clear. Everyone knows what went on in that place, the … the researches you carried out; it was all thoroughly documented, and most of the documentation has survived. There is no doubt as to your actions or the actions of your colleagues – the Anthill business, for instance, and Project Fiat. It only remains to pronounce judgement.”

“I see,” I said.

“I suppose,” he said with a slight, ironical smile, “I suppose to you that sounds like nothing more than victor’s justice.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was any other kind.”

The researches in question were various cloning and DNA experiments carried out at a facility originally designed to solve a food crisis. Originally well-intentioned (if ethically dubious) scientific work is subsumed by the events going on around it and radically altered in its scope. The scientists themselves are more perturbed by the interruption to them doing the work they want to than moral concerns about the work they must now do.

There is also a historical element in the conclusion of The Little Doctor but I will leave that for you to find out.

The second and third stories (Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs) make a good job of actually making hospital drama interesting. That said, they are unlike any other hospital dramas you are likely to read.

Both Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs are like the worst imaginings between wake and sleep. The former features a man shackled in a bizarre fashion, always unsure of whether he is being cured or tortured. The doctor that he doesn’t know whether to trust or hate flits in and out along with the “nurse-thing”. A surprising beginning finishes with a surprising end. All through it the question “should I be laughing at this?” is swimming in the background.

The final story, The House of Stairs isn’t quite so much like a horror scene as Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth but again, it is eerie and atmospheric and takes place in a fantastic imagined world. It vaguely reminded me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and also of THX-1138 and I hope he won’t hate me for saying that. The surreality of the setting is dragged back to more corporeal concerns by the action.

An escape from a maze (or in this case a labyrinthine institution) is made much more terrifying if you don’t know how you got in there, or if an exit even exists.

You can buy it here.

Rafflesia The Gentleman Thug – A Short Review of David Attenborough’s Life On Air

I have just finished reading David Attenborough’s Life on Air. It is not the kind of thing I normally read because I don’t like reading green room stories or memoirs about a life in TV. In fact, I don’t much like TV so as I said, it was an unusual choice for me but I felt David Attenborough is something of an exception so I determined to give it a go.

Before I get to the content, I should just say I bought the book in a shop in South England where I had a temporary job last summer. It was a charity shop and it had no price on it. I asked the woman how much it was and she replied, slightly surprised, “Oh, you’re very Scottish”.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. These possibilities leapt to mind…

  1. Yes, can I help you?
  2. And?
  3. Do you go around just naming things? Do you say “oh, that’s a shelf, and that’s a floor” every time you see one?

Anyway, I have to say the book was an excellent read. Some of it seemed familiar because the documentary of the same name covers a lot of the material but most of the things in the documentary are covered in more depth in the book.

There is a bit of internal BBC politics but  mostly from a bygone era and not enough to make you stop reading it. Everyone knows the wildlife documentaries but less people know about his spell as controller of BBC 2 and also Director of Programming for BBC television. The angle about these things in the book is that although in part interesting jobs, thse things eventually became distractions from his real desire to make wildlife programmes.

Although, having said that, the word wildlife doesn’t really cover it all because there have been plenty of Attenborough written/produced/narrated/commissioned programmes about  geology, paleontology and anthropology too. He also mixes in some telling words about the worsening environmental crisis that threatens to destroy a large number of the species he has been filming.

Also, for a man with a fair number of royal titles to his name he seems to have a rather healthy disdain for the whole ridiculous merry-go-round. This is revealed in a couple of places, the first was how he tried to get out of being the man responsible for the Queen’s speech and the second I will come to.

With all these things in mind the book never really gets bogged down in one particular area. At the beginning there is a lot of in the pioneering days of nature filming stuff and it makes interesting reading when you consider who it is coming from. It seems that in the early days part of the point of the programs was to capture some of the animals for London Zoo although this practice seemed to die out fairly quickly.

When we move past that we get into landmark series such as Kenneth Baker’s Civilisation and others and then onto some of the more remarkable modern series that have been made.

The only thing that disappointed me in the book was that he didn’t directly address the issue of  certain stations buying his documentaries and then editing out the references to evolution. I would have enjoyed reading his take on that.

So why this title about Rafflesia then? Well, Raffles the Gentlemen Thug was a very funny character in Viz Magazine. This character was basically a modern hooligan using victorian era language and the juxtaposition made it funny. Sentences like “My scarves are fashioned of the finest silk sir. Any man who suggests differently is a c*nt” are pretty memorable.

While I doubt that Attenborough is a reader of that magazine Attenborough wrote about the plant Rafflesia which produces the “largest unbranched inflorescence” (not the largest flower) in the world. The plant is a parasite which lives inside a host vine and the only visible part of it is the flower. Attenborough had this to say about it…

I am not one of those, like Aesop or Robert the Bruce, who readily derive moral precepts from the behaviour of animals, and I thought I would be even less likely to find them in the cycle of the life of plants, but Rafflesis did seem to me to provide a parable. One has to ask why this particular plant should produce the most extravangt and flamboyant of all flowers. It occured to me that Rafflesia does not work for its living. The vine itself has to build leaves and stems to produce its food and ultimately construct its flowers. But Rafflesia does not concern itself with such practical matters. It simply absorbs all the food it needs from its host. Indeed there is virtually no limit on how much it can take and no curb to its extravagance. So it can build the most grandiose of flowers. It is the aristocrat of the tropical forest plant community.

RADICAL THERAPIES by Philip Challinor

Philip Challinor blogs under the name The Curmudgeon. If you have visited that site you will know that a quick wit, combined with his great mix of sometimes arcane and sometimes garbled newpoliticmanagementspeak result in some sublime moments.

Radical Therapies is one of his several advances into longer format writing and while it doesn’t really use the funny jargonese it combines insight with a dark imagination to make 3 memorable stories.

The first story, The Little Doctor, is the story of a war criminal told from the point of view of the war criminal. You might think this is somewhat unusual but if you do I would remind that Bush and Blair have recently published memoirs and talked (or in the case of one of them, tried to talk) about their roles in the imperial ventures of our time.

At first it seems like the war in question could be current or marginally in the future. As it progresses, the character’s names serve to give the story the parallel world feel that the story needs to make its point; they could all be from anywhere or from nowhere. Similarly, not putting the story in any place we can put our finger on gives the impression that it could be everywhere. The winners or losers could be any state.

Without any kind of anchor for the reader (where is it? when is it?), in the opening pages it takes a little careful reading at the start but very quickly it becomes a page-turner.

The war criminal is in prison and awaiting his execution and recounts events leading up to his current situation. This is interspersed with his dealings with the prison guards and various functionaries representing the victorious powers in the war.

“Why should you be [put on trial] ?” said the Warden. “As I told you, the position is quite clear. Everyone knows what went on in that place, the … the researches you carried out; it was all thoroughly documented, and most of the documentation has survived. There is no doubt as to your actions or the actions of your colleagues – the Anthill business, for instance, and Project Fiat. It only remains to pronounce judgement.”

“I see,” I said.

“I suppose,” he said with a slight, ironical smile, “I suppose to you that sounds like nothing more than victor’s justice.”

“I wasn’t aware that there was any other kind.”

The researches in question were various cloning and DNA experiments carried out at a facility originally designed to solve a food crisis. Originally well-intentioned (if ethically dubious) scientific work is subsumed by the events going on around it and radically altered in its scope. The scientists themselves are more perturbed by the interruption to them doing the work they want to than moral concerns about the work they must now do.

There is also a historical element in the conclusion of The Little Doctor but I will leave that for you to find out.

The second and third stories (Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs) make a good job of actually making hospital drama interesting. That said, they are unlike any other hospital dramas you are likely to read.

Both Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth and The House of Stairs are like the worst imaginings between wake and sleep. The former features a man shackled in a bizarre fashion, always unsure of whether he is being cured or tortured. The doctor that he doesn’t know whether to trust or hate flits in and out along with the “nurse-thing”. A surprising beginning finishes with a surprising end. All through it the question “should I be laughing at this?” is swimming in the background.

The final story, The House of Stairs isn’t quite so much like a horror scene as Needles, Pins and Doctor Proth but again, it is eerie and atmospheric and takes place in a fantastic imagined world. It vaguely reminded me of Lanark by Alasdair Gray and also of THX-1138 and I hope he won’t hate me for saying that. The surreality of the setting is dragged back to more corporeal concerns by the action.

An escape from a maze (or in this case a labyrinthine institution) is made much more terrifying if you don’t know how you got in there, or if an exit even exists.

You can buy it here.

APE & ESSENCE

I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s Ape & Essence recently. Quite an unusual book to say the least but worth the effort. Given that it was published in 1949 I think you could say he was ahead of the game here…

“‘These wretched slaves of wheels and ledgers began to congratulate themselves on being the Conquerors of Nature. Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course. they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences. Just consider what they were up to during the century and a half before the Thing. Fouling the rivers, killing off the wild animals, destroying the forests, washing the topsoil into the sea, burning up an ocean of petroleum, squandering the minerals it had taken the whole of geological time to deposit. An orgy of criminal imbecility. And they called it Progress’.”

THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.

THE MAN WHO HELD THE QUEEN TO RANSOM AND SENT PARLIAMENT PACKING

In the summer a fellow blogger gave me a book called The Man Who  Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing [1968] by Peter Van Greenaway [not to be confused with Peter Greenaway the film director].

It is a fantastic read.

An army captain called Wyatt organises and pulls off a more or less bloodless [one person is injured] coup in the United Kingdom. He achieves this by kidnapping the royal family and imprisoning them in the tower of London with the threat that if anyone attempts to reverse the coup then they will begin executing them.

By this method the organisers of the coup manage to hold power for a short time.

The book uses a style that we are quite familiar with now – using pieces of conversations, excerpts from newspapers and trial transcripts and so on from before and after the fact and bringing it all together at the end. At the time this book was written I imagine that this style was something of a novelty.

One of the things I liked about the book is that although big alarm bells are rightly ringing about the idea of a military coup, we are constantly kept uncomfortable by the fact that Wyatt talks a lot of sense and begins to put in place policies that a lot of people would support.

For example, he asks the US army to leave the UK, withdraws UK troops from Germany and places them under the control of the UN to act as a peacekeeping force [this move also forces the UN to recognise his new government]. He starts reforms of the criminal justice system some of which people might find a little strange but he is not the stereotypical military dictator and allows the press to say whatever they wish and there are no curfews and such like. His stated intention is to prepare the country for real democracy instead of the puppet show that we have at the moment.

The best passages in the book however are not when Wyatt and the other coup leaders are putting policies in place but rather when Wyatt is speaking to those who were [nominally at least] in control before him and explaining the problems with the previous regime. Take this example from when he dismisses the parliament…

“There’s no doubt that the system has benefited property speculators, building tycoons, bookmakers and organised crime; there’s no doubt that under the system both parties have succeeded in running the country into the ground with the gay abandon of two frustrated spinsters daring their all in a cosy game of Monopoly.

“That you act with a cynical disregard for those you represent is the measure of your dishonesty. That you assume public apathy to your actions is total shows a blindness to reality suggesting outright stupidity.

“I am here to tell you that the country refuses to be led by the nose from the Right, by the hand from the Left. It is prepared to march forward in step with the times with whoever is prepared to give effective leadership. The House is no longer an effective instrument of government. Consequently it is my pleasurable duty to inform you that from this moment you no longer exist. You are free to leave.”

He also takes a great shot at some trade union leaders who are more interested in their upcoming peerages than helping their members and the leaders of both parties are made to seem like absurd cowards and puppets.

In some ways it is similar to the drama A Very British Coup that I wrote about before but in others no. In both cases there is a group of people in the shadows… the people that really pull the strings…waiting for the chance and scheming to ensure the downfall of the new regime. In this book however, unlike the drama,  we know from the first few pages that the coup is doomed to fail but that doesn’t detract from the story as it unfolds.