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August 2017

This film rates a miserable and miserly 5.9 from 660 votes on the IMDB. That puts in the company of some Roger Corman’s creations.  Democracy, so overrated, as Plato said.

This is a thoughtful science fiction film about racism and bigotry in a post-apocalyptic world.  It starts with 92% mortality in a nuclear war, the origin of which is unknown, after which the survivors have created ever more elaborate and human-like robots. The robots are programmed to serve the best interest of humanity! Always tricky that, just ask anyone in politics. (Only journalists know all the answers.)

Humaoids cover.jpg A lobby poster

The robots are necessary but they have to stay in their place! Evidently some Republicans survived — no holocaust is ever perfect — and those who most want to restrict the robots are members of the Order of Flesh and Blood, i.e., code for the GOP. Indeedy. These Luddites accept the work the robots do so long as they look and act like mechanical contrivances and stay in their distant and inferior place. Jack Haley as the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is their idea of a good robot.

However, the robots themselves realise that such Tin Men are inefficient. They are technically inefficient, clumsy of movement, slow afoot, so they improve themselves with each new iteration. (The make-up is good on this.) The more important way in which they are inefficient is that there are social and psychological barriers between them and human co-workers. Some humans refuse to work with these talking machines.

The robots face the facts: the long term effects of the massive radiation unleashed in the forty minute war has doomed the capacity for human reproduction. The birth rate is falling at an increasing rate.

Humanoids confer.jpg The robots confer on their Key Performance Indicators.

For the Flesh and Blooders the answer is simple, ahem, as always, to get rid of those damn robots. Period. Their service makes us soft! Rid of them, humanity would fend for itself and grow stronger again, scientific evidence be damned! Ayn Rand should get credit for this part of the script. In her world the will power of rugged individuals could triumph over any old facts.

The Flesh and Blooders wear party hats and harass those who support and use robots. (On the hats, read below.) They skulk around robot recharging stations. Among themselves, the robots call the charging stations temples and refer to the master computer with admirable and anticipatory political correctness as the Mother/Father or Father/Mother. As it turns out, there is a point to this mumbo-jumbo.

Humanity is dying out and the robots will have to put a stop to it. And they do!

The drama is played out with two principle characters (Don Megowan and Erica Elliott).  The irony is that the Luddite leader, vociferous and violent, is himself an undercover humanoid!  But wait there's more. His squeeze is also one of THEM!  The explanation of all of that is ingenious and thought-provoking.

It is all talk and no action against cardboard sets spray painted in primary colours.   It seemed more like a play than a movie, but the talk is interesting and I paid attention. A rarity that. That there is no action, that the women are fully clothed, and that it is complicated talk must together explain the democratic rating. The Maestro of 'Dark Corners of this Sick World' Robin Bales, no democrat he, also shreds it for the inertia and the inconsistencies in the story, while admitting that it is full of ideas. The alleged inconsistency is that it starts out about the downtrodden robots and then shifts to the future of humanity. Get with it Robin! It is a segue. Stories develop.

By the way, he, too. suspected theatrical origins but evidently found no confirmation, an inference since he left the point hanging. Just the sort of omission he derides in the films he reviews with his razor tongue.

Don Megowan, large of size, chiselled of chin, deep of voice, dark of hair, was a stalwart in television westerns for years, while Erica Elliot quit with this role, she also started with it, as did the director Don Doolittle whose coda was a nice touch.

Doolittle Dr.png Dr Doolittle, who talked to the vacuum tubes.

The opening credits say ‘Introducing Don Doolittle’ and the Internet Movie Data Base indicates this introduction was also his finale.

The hats the Flesh and Blooders wear are ersatz Confederate forage hats. They were sold as novelties at the centenary of the Civil War. Yes, I had one.

Humanoid hats.jpg Big Don is the big one.

Did they purloin those hats from the dustbins after a revival of ‘Gone with the Wind?’ Who knows. It is all of a piece with the hundred dollar budget for the film.

I came across it on You Tube when trawling for 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s science fiction.

It has whet my appetite for ‘Real Humans’ (2012), a Swedish series aired here, which for reasons lost to time, we did not watch.

Jaded cinephiles will think of Isaac Asimov’e ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ Readers may recall 'Tin Men' (1965) by Michael Frayn, which tried awfully hard to be funny.

Future Man won!

'The Man from Lisbon' (1978) by Thomas Gifford was homework for our 2018 Iberian excursion. It chronicles the escapades of Reis who lies his way into an engineering job in Angola in 1915. Africa seemed better than the Western Front.  I got it from Audible, about which more below.

Gifford Lisbon.jpg

From humble origins, his father a mortician, Reis strives to better himself.  But to get started he needs an angle in the stultified society of Portugal and this he procures by faking a degree from Qxford University in engineering. There will be few Oxonians in Angola, he reasons, and he will not be challenged. He does have some technical school training in mechanics so off he goes, diploma in hand, with his adoring wife and faithful sidekick in tow for Africa.

His forgery is nothing more elaborate than some expensive paper on which he writes out a diploma for himself. That ought fool ‘em! It does.

The little he knows together with the willingness to do the hard work himself lead to success in Angola.  Soon he is doing two full time jobs as director of public works for the colony and director of the Angola railroad company with ease and raking in the escudos.  While other engineers think the railway bridges will fail under the weight of the new engines he has imported, Reis is confident they will not. It is a confidence based on nothing. Damn those pesky stress tables!  Even the laws of physics yield to his will power! Miraculously they do. It seems those stress tables were fake news avant le mot.

He returns to Lisbon loaded with dosh but blows his fortune on the vanities of automobiles, luxury fittings in his home and office, speculative investments that come to nothing. Getting desperate. he tries yet another bold swindle and this time the stress tables are right and he goes to the slammer in Oporto!  I stopped at this point because I did not care about his fate, though I see on Good Reads some were gripped. It runs to be in all more than 21 hours. Agony without ecstasy.

Of passing interest was the account of early twentieth century Angola and its myriad natural riches. The colonials are sun-stunned alcoholics for the most part and the natives all but absent. Reis’s basic knowledge of mechanics sufficed, together with his readiness to get his hands dirty by doing the work himself, for his early successes, and also set him apart socially. The few other engineers in Luanda supervised natives who did the dirty work, but Reis did it himself, and got it done in record time and with good effect. These successes of course angered the others.

The references to World War I ring true because Portugal did join the Allies and suffered for it.  But scant are these references.  The Portuguese division on the Western Front was obliterated in a single day in an offensive. Its replacements met the same fate later. The survivors brought home Spanish flu.

The prose has many nice images. This Iowan Gifford could write, if only he had something to say.

Thomas Gifford.jpg Thomas Gifford

But my disbelief did not remain suspended. How could that hand written fake Oxford degree in Portuguese fool anyone?  Second that will power prevails over stress tables, i.e., the laws of physics. But most of all, there was nothing about Reis of interest, a superficial egoist. So what, a dime a dozen they are.

The narration is by a Portuguese speaker who handles the proper and places nicely while mangling the English. Possessives invariable are said as 'es' and extra letters creep in elsewhere, too, e.g., 'dastardsly' and more.  This became predictable and distracting. Twenty hours of this narration would be enough to put me off going to Lisbon in 2018 and so I took no chances.

However it was the inanity of the narrative that exhausted my good will.  Thomas Mann's 'Felix Krull' was the confessions of a confidence man (like Reis) whose career revealed the venal and moral corruption of post World War I Germany, told with wit, insight, grace, and rueful good humour.  It dissected events and individuals with a scalpel.  Not so here, where soft focus prevails.  Me, I kept hoping the jerk, Reis, would get his comeuppance, and the sooner the better. I left him stewing in the Oporto slammer.

In contrast Captain Future together with his Futuremen in ‘Worlds to Come’ by Edmond Hamilton (aka Brett Sterling) from Radio Archives has to save the universe from a shape-shifting critter out of the sixth dimension! That narrative had purpose AND drive!  This, too, was from Audible.

Capt Futue 14.jpg

Loved the death rays, atom pistols, proton canons, and other NRA boy-toys.  Then there is the robot assistant who took itself apart to pass through a small hole in a wall and reassembled himself on the other side. That reminded of something I tried once without success near a girls' dorm.  The deathless brain floating around in a plastic box caused me to re-examine some of the leftovers in the refrigerator Tupperware. Yuk! Is that the fate for professors emeritii, I had to ask?

Of the moon pets the less said, the better. I am not picking up after them! And that is final.

The scientific explanations of the hijinks was pulp fiction which where it all began (1940-1951) and so suitable for a climate change denying anti-vaxxers. While I turned off 'The Man from Lisbon' I could not turn off 'Future Man' and I will go back for another episode of exploits, there being at least another fifteen! Whopee!

Ed Hmaitton.jpg Ed Hamilton

There is a ponderous entry on Wikipedia about 'Future Man' that almost destroys the pleasure in it. It has all the appurtenances of Cultural Studies. (I always fear the worst when I hear the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ and it has never let me down. The worst follows that term as the night, the day. It is an even more reliable indicator of nonsense than 'Post-Modern(ism.')

I acquired both books from Audible, whose customer service is superb.  I reported a problem in downloading these titles on the web page and got a phone call within the hour walking me through the correction. This was followed by an email setting it out in writing for future reference.   Many profuse thanks. Of course, the problem was obvious once I realised it. Doh!

My listening is done on solitary dog walks while Majic sniffs the trees on nights when the diva is rehearsing or performing, or mornings when I am at the gym where I passed a hundred visits on the current annual membership as I have each of the retirement years to date.  

The poet Robert Penn Warren wrote ‘The Legacy of the Civil War’ (1961). In it Warren asks readers to imagine General Robert E. Lee shaking hands and congratulating the strutting Southern governors of the 1950s and 1960s barring children from schools, encouraging baying crowds of Bible-grasping gorgons to shout abuse at children, licensing hissing mobs to burn churches, sanctioning lynch parties, raping and pillaging for sport, and praising masked men hiding in the dark. Would Lee approve such deeds done under that flag he served? No, he would regard such acts as the desecrations that they are, and he would have said so.

The old remains new.

A close examination of pictures from the March on Washington in 1963 will show Warren there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial come to give his own thanks. He received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work, living most of his latter years in New England, no longer welcome in his homeland, and it shows in the poetry.

warren classroom-2.jpg

A callow undergraduate, I heard him recite some of his poems and the memory has since remained bright. There are some short excerpts on You_Tube.

Raimund Gregorius, known as Mundus, teaches dead languages to gymnasium students in contemporary Berne, Switzerland. He eats and drinks dictionaries of ancient Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, barely noticing when his wife leaves him. His only topics of conversation is the ablative case in Latin, declensions in Hebrew, and inflections in demotic Greek. He can bring boredom to any dinner table and so is invited to few, well, none.

Night Train cover.jpg

Think Immanuel Kant, Mundus is a man of unvarying routine, a routine not interrupted by the aforementioned wife’s departure. Every morning at 8:15 a.m. he walks across a bridge to the school, where students and staff are silently agog at his myopic intensity. This he has been doing for thirty plus years for he is now fifty-seven.

In the rain, with wind inverting his umbrella, he trudges to school with a brief case full of marked essays to return to students whose every error, great and small, has been meticulously annotated, and he has prepared a lecture on the main themes in their work, mostly about their errors, which lecture he calls to mind as he wrestles the umbrella.

Losing the battle with the wind, he sees ahead a woman in a red coat, standing next to the bridge rail in the rain staring at a piece of paper. (Immediately I saw Irene Papas in the rain from ‘Zorba the Greek.’) The rain continues and the paper is sodden. Is she going to jump off the bridge into the gorge? He quickens his step; as he approaches he can see the ink running on the page. He looms up and she is startled out of her reverie and in reaction he drops his brief case spilling out the essays. In the ensuing confusion he takes her to a coffee shop across the bridge to regain composure. Even before getting away from the rain she extracts a piece of paper from him and writes down a telephone number, which in the coffee shop is copied again on a dry piece of paper, while Mundus sweeps the sodden copy along with escaping essays into his brief case. She keeps the telephone number once it has been transcribed.

They speak French and he discovers that she is Portuguese. He takes her along to the school where she can dry out in one of the women’s cloak rooms. He is thus late for his class; moreover the janitor is stunned to see Mundus late AND in the company of this woman, dripping on the just mopped floor. She goes off to dry, and with a word of thanks leaves. Enigmatic.

He goes to the classroom and thinks about what he has just seen, and done. He did not ask her the obvious questions. What were you doing standing there on the bridge. What is so important about that telephone number? Who are you? What is a Portuguese doing in Berne? He has spent his life not taking an interest in others and does not start now. Yet he cannot let it go.

As he hands back the essays, he notices the wet paper with the telephone number on it. (The pedant in me wondered how he could tell it was a telephone number, and not an account number, or social insurance number, a series of soccer scores, or…. ) He stumbles through the morning double class, quite uncharacteristically letting errors go unmentioned, and then goes to lunch. Ah, the life of the scholar.

This man is a loner and seldom mixes with others. On that score he has reverted to routine. He sits in another café letting the food and drink he ordered get cold: Portuguese, a Romance language derived from Latin, but that is all he knows. Instead of eating he goes to a bookstore that specialises in languages and finds Portuguese books. As a scholar he relates to books. He does not look for Fado music, or a Portuguese restaurant, or DVD of Lisbon travelogue. Bored on a rainy day and in awe of Mundus, of whom he knows, the store owner, who just happens to know Portuguese, reads some passages to him from a book of reflections, the substance of which reminded this reader of Michel Montaigne’s musing on life. Mundus likes both the sound of the spoken Portuguese and the musings which owner translates for him. He buys the book, along with a Portuguese dictionary and grammar and goes home, blowing off his afternoon class. This is the first class he has ever missed.

Overnight he begins to learn Portuguese. That may sound impossible but Ekkehard with whom once I shared an office in the Netherlands was a linguist who soaked up a language like a sponge. After a few days in the Netherlands he was speaking Dutch. Mundus finds the train connections to Lisbon by telephone (no internet for him) while dodging inquirers from the school come to look for him at the door and on the telephone, and he sneaks out of his apartment to go to Lisbon! By train. At night.

He has that telephone number. He has that book of musings. But why is he going? He asks himself that very questions more than once. He does hesitate but on he goes.

The local takes him to Geneva, where he changes trains for Paris, where he will change again for Irún in Spain and then on to Lisbon. While he rides he reflects on what he has left behind, a routine set in concrete that contains within its walls more sub-routines, and nothing at all, a series of nested do-loops that lead nowhere.

Night train station.jpg A European train station at night.

Mundus’s recollections of academic conferences, seemed familiar. All those people trying to prove (to themselves as well as each other) how smart they are. Yes, the one-up-man-ship is eternal, phrased ever so politely and usually by reference to some obscure secondary source from a foreign language. Who needs primary sources, after all. But also all those smart people for whom the subject is simply a commodity, today it is Louis Althusser and tomorrow it will be Michel Foucault, and then Jacques Derrida, with no inner feeling for or commitment to the subject matter, despite the ritualistic mouthing these days about passion. The passion is always about the ego, the self, not the subject. Though such poseurs would be the first to decry universities advertising degrees like products, they themselves approach their subject in the same detached way.

Mundus nails many academic pretensions on show in any seminar or conference.

- the high-flown gibberish that means nothing outside the classroom and very little within it
- French notions introduced as seasoning not substance, and unnecessary at that
- study is not fodder for an academic career, it is life itself with colour and melody to which a reader submits but does not conquer

Amen, Brother Mundus.

In Lisbon he begins to investigate the author, Amadeu de Prado. and pieces together his biography. There is detective work here, and the characterisations of the still-grieving sister thirty years later is a masterpiece as also some of the surviving school friends, especially Maria.

Lisbon_12 .jpg Lisbon

Amadeu is Mundus’s alter ego, yet he, too, was a creature of habit. Amadeu lived through the Salazar years and like all Portuguese still bears the marks of those days, good and bad. This is a new world to Mundus as he interviews family, friends, teachers, and others who knew Amadeu, who died years ago of a brain disease. Amadeu’s life is a microcosm of the life in Novo Stato of Salazar in his latter years with the PIDE, the secret police, had a free hand.

In Lisbon he makes no mention of the mysterious telephone number or the woman in red on the bridge who was the catalyst, but only that it seems. Indeed he stops thinking about her altogether and she does not reappear. If she did, I missed it, as explained below.

The musing is beautifully realised. Particularly striking to this scholar was the exchange of letters with the head of the school he left behind. When I mentioned this novel and this episode in particular to a lunch gathering of jaded scholars, there was a respectful silence, which I took to be each imaging the exhilaration that would follow walking away from a yet another pile to essays to mark, yet another pro forma about key performance indicators, yet another research grant application, yet another decanal briefing.

All that and more is true, but it does seem to go on and on for 4 5 8 pages. Mundus wanders through Lisbon, travels to Coimbra, and Finessterre in Spain, following links in Amadu’s life. Then he goes back and forth to Bern and…..THE END.

Like a bad student, doing a reading assignment badly, I kept watching the percentage tick by on the Kindle, ever so slowly. I kept at it because of the jewel like prose, the insights into friends, filial love, comradeship, chance, and so on, but there is no narrative drive. All trip and no arrival.

Pascal meericer.jpg Pascal Mercier.

The story is very well measured and the prose is exact, and yet a certain mystery remains. The film derived from the novel passed through the Newtown Dendy a few years ago and I was tempted by the prospect of a European travelogue but put off by the prospect of watching Jeremy Irons for two hours. Seeing him always makes me think, and no doubt this is just me, that he has haemorrhoid pain which he manfully bearing, just short of grimace.

The travelogue reminded me of my travels in those parts. I went to Geneva (from Zurich) by train to burrow into the archives of the League of Nations housed there by the United Nations when I was investigating the International Brigades for ‘Fallen Sparrows’ (1994) and then on by train to Neuchâtel to see some Jean-Jacques Rousseau manuscripts, an article based on this study appeared later. To this nerd boy both were thrills. In Geneva I found a 3” x 5” card file prepared by a Greek diplomat in 1939 of individual Brigadiers walking out of Spain to France: name, nationality, age, gender. Nothing much but authentic to the touch. Each soldier an Odysseus and few with an Ithaca to which to return. In Neufchatel I held in my hands, there being no requirement to wear gloves, pages that Rousseau himself had written. He would go on and on for pages after page of quarto, say thirty of them, and then there would be one cross-out, the prose just flowed from his quill in a steady pulse for twenty or thirty pages before it hit a rock. These are nerd-boy thrills.

Moe recently we took a night train from Amsterdam to Prague and back with DeutscheBahn. We did not do much musing. On boarding there were no directions or staff, but everyone with heavy suitcases, narrow corridors, and tiny compartment numbers elbow high. The compartment was a broom closet and the train was boiling -- it must have been sitting in the sun for hours. Food was nearly non-existent. But there was worse. The toilet. [Gasp!]

The Man in Seat 61 recommended this service, and said it stopped four times. Get a new abacus, Mate! It was twelve times, each punctuated by bells, whistle, red flashing lights, and much yelling, no doubt all dictated by safety. We arrived exhausted and swore off such travel.

It had to happen sooner or later. Lord Peter Wimsey has become the Duke of Denver, upon the death of his older brother Gerald. That dukes are higher than lords is news to me.

With the title Duke comes ducal responsibilities, most of which were new to Peter Wimsey. There are vexatious relatives, disputatious tenants, ravenous charities, clogged drains in the strangest places, a crumbling pile that is crumble still, elderly retainers to retain, so that when he is called to Oxford, off he goes! What a relief!

When he was but a lord, to him the relatives were polite, the tenants deferential, the charities distant, the drains unknown, the ancestral pile was for holidays, and the retainers retained. As duke, it all changed.

Late Scholar cover.jpg

Called to Oxford? One of the Duke of Denver’s entailments is to be The Visitor to a not very distinguished college at Oxford. While every other Oxford college Visitor is a royal of one magnitude of another, this college has the Duke of Denver. Investigation in the muniments room of the aforementioned crumbling pile reveals that generations ago a Duke of Denver handed over some dosh to replace a roof or two at the college and in return for that largesse the title The Visitor was bestowed upon him for his lifetime, but in a subsequent change of the college constitution the limitations ‘his lifetime’ was omitted, perhaps by error.

Well, no matter, an escape to Oxford is most welcome for the poetry quoting, incunabula collecting, Saxon speaking Wimsey. It is a return to lost youth for this old soldier.

Peter is now married to Harriet (née Vane) and it seems to be after World War II and in the early 1950s. The stately home is crumbling in part because of a fire caused by an errant German bomb and taxation is vexing.

Together they descend on the college to find themselves in the middle of an acrimonious and bitter conflict among the twenty of so fellows of the college over the status of a tenth century book in its library. The conflict is so vitriolic that no one speaks of it! Immediately I found this scenario easy to believe.

These scholars seem to do little else but plot one against another, while seldom is heard a discouraging word from their lips. Backstabbing, undermining, poisonous rumours, slanderous gossip, attribution of venal motives, all communicated by innuendo and sotto voce, these are the weapons of choice. Meanwhile, at high table meals the weather is much discussed. This is brutal realism at its best.

Even the engineers and economists among the brethren have taken sides over this book. On the one hand, the goal is to sell the book to raise money for yet another roof and on the other hand is the over-our-dead-bodies group! Yep, prophecy there.

Each fellow votes in a time honoured, and otherwise incomprehensible, arcane ritual and each poll results in a tie. After three such votes, some of the parties invoke the right to summon The Visitor to adjudicate. Enter the Duke!

While the vote remained tied in those three rounds, the constituency shrank. The senior most fellow, the Warden, went missing and another died falling down stairs. Two others had unlikely accidents, which while damaging, were not fatal, but which precluded participation in the voting ritual. In the best tradition of krimis the ritual does not admit of absentee or proxy voting. Is someone mowing down the voters? Are there two mowers, one on each side of the question, the keepers and the sellers? Are there only two sides to the issue?

Before any Solomonic adjudication can occur there must be sleuthing to find out what is going on.

Harriet takes no convincing to join in, and engages her own distaff Oxford network, and the ever reliable Bunter mines the college servants with his usual dexterity.

Nothing is what it seems to be.

As in C.P. Snow’s Cambridge novels, all of which I have read [Groan!], the scholars do little scholarship but make an enormous fuss over the rituals and prerogatives that fall to them, like passing the port. It is all too credible.

Dorothy Sayers created Wimsey in the 1920s.


While Ian Carmichael brought him to life on the small screen in the 1970s.

Casrmichael.jpg Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey

Bunter was an older man, and he and Wimsey had been through trench warfare in Flanders together and had survived, thereafter bonded for life, and with a considerable amount of unspoken communication.

Despite the dreadful experience of Flanders, Wimsey (and for that matter, Bunter, too) remains Edwardian in manner and morēs. Wimsey is an enthusiastic and effete dilettante, who quotes obscure poems in dead languages and playwrights unknown all the day long while playing the piano and sporting a monocle. His private collection of incunabula is the envy of museums. His flow of witty banter is without end and without purpose. Noel Coward could not have bettered him as a caricature.

Bunter unfailingly addresses him by his title and always stands in his presence. Always and always. Bunter out butlers even that fellow James Stevens in ‘Remains of the Day’ (1989).

Harriet, mindful of her own modest origins, tries after a fashion to loosen them both up, with little success. Nor does she seem aware of the changing times of the 1950s.

The unalloyed Edwardians Wimsey and Bunter are an odd couple in world of a Labour government and many new social attitudes. Still that is part of the fun.

Like Sherlock Holmes and more recently Hercule Poirot, Wimsey has his re-animators. This is the fourth title by Paton and I have liked it enough to read another. Though I did find it wordy, but Peter is like that. There is much talk, often about nothing much, and too little detection. It must be struggle to be arch and witty when talking about staircases and fence posts, but Wimsey is made to do it. Poor fellow.

Jill Paton Walsh.jpg Jill Paton Walsh

He even indulges in the future subjunctive interrogative at times, such is his mastery of all things Fowler. (Mortimer, skip it. It would take too long to explain.)

Even in the sleepy village I know well, the absence of the senior scholar for three months would be noticed and some effort made to figure how what happened to the missing savant lest the key performance indicators be spoiled.

Our hero, Eddie Grant, he of the chiseled jaw, martial arts belts, multi-lingual talents, and accomplished lady killer …. [Is there nothing beyond him?]

Lazare cover.jpg

The set up is this. Ed (I refuse to call a grown man with such a cv as above Eddie) is the son of World War II veteran whose assignment in 1944-1946 was tracking down art looted by Nazis. His father died earlier, in suspicious circumstances that Ed mentions but apparently was not motivated to do anything about at the time. Then the father’s assistant from the wartime assignment dies, again in suspicious circumstances. This assistant left a letter to Ed's father, not knowing he had predeceased him, and asked that his executor deliver it by hand.

Since the dad is dead the messenger, a daughter, delivers it to Ed. She is of course a beautiful woman who falls under Ed's spell, taking her place in the queue.

It just so happens that Ed has many contacts in the worlds of policing and art, and these he now mobilises. Why he did not mobilise them when his father died is unknown. Even more mysterious is why he did not mobilise them when his wife and child were murdered after his father's mysterious death. All of this death is supposed to awaken sympathy I suppose but it just makes Ed seem a jinx and jerk. Four dead before he goes into action.

Then the big black Mercedes limousine appears bearing -- as it must -- Germans.

So much for subtlety. The plot is by the numbers and the characterisation are connect the dots.

I quit at about 25% on the Kindle. I was reading topic sentences only and flipping on; it was time to move on.

At the start there is much too much backstory forced into the opening pages so that we may appreciate Ed, followed later by extensive and pointless descriptions of hairstyles. clothing, drinks, furnishings, cars, and so on and on. This later I guess is the Paris part. If this superfluous detail were cut to the standard say of Georges Simenon the text would reduce by more than two-thirds. Good grief. Amid all the bland descriptions there is very little story. With John Stuart Mill, I suppose that we know a person by deeds not by the recitation of a backstory. What do I care about the backstory until there is a front story?

Nor is it possible to warm to Ed for whom everything seems to come easily though he moans and groans about it.

This is described as 'a novel of Paris' and I wanted to test that proposition. There is much Paris in the early going and I consulted by Michelin map, but then we head off to Orlando in Florida and…. I supposed it gets back to Paris but without me. The Florida trip seems mostly to be an occasion for more pointless description.

After re-reading all of Iain Pears krimis with Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano chasing lost paintings the reference to a lost Raphael was intriguing, but this treatment is not arresting for this reader.

I had a look at the comments on Good Reads to see what I was missing. I looked at the effusive ones, further confirmation that this source is not credible.

Pearce J.jpg John Pearce

Speaking of sources without credibility, one of the local rags has a weekend feature called something like ‘Books that made me’ in which minor celebrities, well I guess they are but they are unknown to me, list and comment, briefly, on five books that had a formative impact of their being. Nice idea, but the execution is kindergarten.

These celebrities seem not to do much reading and certainly not of, say, a novel of consequence or a historical study of insight. Instead we have excited drivel over self-help manuals, diet plans, children's books - see I said kindergarten - and Mills and Boon stories, Alice’s adventures. In some cases it is pretty clear it was a stretch for the subject to think of five books. When one of these pieces refers to ‘Death in Venice,’ ‘Swann’s Way,’ ‘Absalom, Absalom,’ 'The Iliad,' 'Crime and Punishment,' 'Hotel Baltimore' and their kind, let me know.

‘Australian Financial Review’ of 28 July 2017.

Why is it that large projects continue to be undertaken and to repeat the same mistakes of all those which went before them, that is the question? Flyvbjerg explains the recurrent attraction of mega-projects along four intersecting and interacting vectors: they are technological challenges, they are politically attractive, they create a constituency of profiteers, and they are aesthetic.

Mega-projects by definition have not been done before and so engineers, designers, builders, technologists, find them stimulating, ready and willing to give it a try. Look at the sails of the Sydney Opera House, and remember they were made and fitted by hand, long before lasers.

Megaprojectsf cover.jpg

The political attraction is in the grand project that will define an administration, or even an era. Think of the those pyramids in Ghiza.

The profiteers are the facilitators, the bankers, consultants, fixers, the lobbyists, financiers, and all those others in the middle, who do not build anything but without whom nothing can be built. Then there are the builders themselves, the construction firms and their employees, and their insurers and suppliers. ‘Profiteers’ is my word, not his.

Finally, there is the aesthetic dimensions anticipated in the completed project by designers, artists, and users.

Despite all of this impetus many, many mega-project go awry. Before getting to that, a few definitions. A mega-project is big, over a one billion USA dollars. For examples, in addition to those passed by above, consider the Canadian Firearms Registry, the Big Dig in Boston, Channel Tunnel, Viaduc de Millau, Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, North Sea Protection Works in the Netherlands, and that black airport in Montreal, Mirabel.

The most common failure of such projects is cost overruns, some of which are truly astonishing, like the Sydney Opera House that came in — sit down, Mortimer— 1,400% over budget in real terms.

The second most common failure is missing the target completion deadline and running on and on, and here I think of another example close to home, though it may not have hit the billion dollar price tag, the OPAL public transport card system, a three-year project that took fifteen years before the first tap. (OPAL users will get it.)

The third most common failure is to return the benefits asserted for the project. Investors lose a lot of other people's money in mega-projects, even in the private sector, e.g., the Chunnel. Every rider on EuroStar is still being subsided by the financiers who invested the pension funds they manage into that hole under the water while paying each other six-figure bonuses for their wit.

With these failures, other matters recede, but there are also failures regarding the environmental impact of mega-projects. Is it any wonder that the public is cynical about the projections and promises made?

The failures are so numerous and catastrophic that one wonders why we keep doing it. It certainly undermines confidence in the financial projections, the pace of construction, that management of labour, the environmental impact assessments, projected use and earnings, the alleged rate of return on investment, not solving the problem the project was supposed to solve, and more. The litany of such failures makes fascinating, if morbid reading.

Yet this reader wondered if that was the whole story. Impressive though the data in Flyvbjerg’s study is, much has been omitted. For a start the study concerns only failures, and not successes, and there is a long list of mega-projects on Wikipedia that seem to be successes, again including some close to home like the desalination plants in New South Wales and Victoria which proceeded so smoothly no journalist could make up a story about either of them. The unerring eye of hindsight on display in this account is like Barbara Tuchman’s successful but superficial ‘The March of Folly’ (1984).

What foresight distinguishes successful mega-projects from unsuccessful ones? No enlightenment comes from this account.

Flyvbjerg also omits one crucial constituency in his rather jaded four part explanation: The public. When commenting on the political attraction of mega-projects and the interest of the profiteers, Flyvbjerg’s explanation is cynical self-interest. That is why I used the work 'profiteers.' Hmm. Doubtless a factor, but generative or decisive?

What is the political benefit from the colossal failure? If failure is so likely, why take the risk? Maybe that caution explains the long delays with the Opal Card.

Those who stand to profit may also have more complex motivations about the challenges and competitive opportunities. Ready as I am to disparage others, preferably those about whom I know nothing, I reserve judgement on this.

There is a missing player in the epic of mega-projects and that is the general public. The mega-project can create, stimulate, and capture the public imagination which the media then reflects and amplifies. It would be a brave political leader, pension fund manager, or designer, to reject the public pressure that can be conjured for such projects. Another local example was the millennial Orange Grove project in Sydney that had a considerable popular following. A state government minister who rejected that development because of skepticism about the projections would have be crucified by the same journalists who lit the fires when the project fell.

The public is missing in another respect, as an opponent of some mega-projects. Surely one reason for the costs of the Big Dig in Boston was sustained and calculated strategic and tactical opposition of several publics. The bill for the litigation must have been enormous. Indeed public opposition has stymied many mega-projects, e.g., a third Sydney airport.

Bridge miss.jpg Bridge-building Italian style.

In this short newspaper reprint Flyvbjerg omits that recurrent five-ring circus of the Olympics which illustrate the popularity of mega-projects regardless of the cost over-runs. Olympic bids are wildly popular and hosting the Olympics is even more popular to all, but the die-hard spoilsports like me. One of the masterminds of the Sydney Olympics once privately said it was worth the money for the lift it gave to public awareness and pride.

Nor does this analysis include defence projects or military planning where there are many failures to be sure, but there have also been some spectacular success in projects the complexity of which dwarf even the largest mega-projects. Note that NASA did put astronauts on the moon and bring them back. These examples suggests plans and forecasts can work. Why sometimes and not others?

Defence projects are legendary for cost over-runs and that is as true in Australia as anywhere else. Those Collins Class submarines are an object lesson, and I hope PhD students are examining the details. In order to mobilise the public support to spend money on competitive submarines, the government had to insure that the boats were built in Australia and that the work was spread around the country, so that there was an informal coalition of parliamentarians and community groups who supported the project because of the money to be spent in their electorates. None of that is cost efficient in the short term, and probably not in the longer term. But it is political necessity. Ditto the financing has to be distributed to create support.

Collins_Sydney-hero.jpg A Collins class submarine in Sydney Harbour

At a formal dinner once I sat next to a Royal Australian Navy officer who was in submarines, and inevitably I asked him about the Collins submarines. He had a lot to say about how excellent they were, but when I asked him about the cost over-runs and missed completion dates, he said that it always happens. [Pause.]

If so, then why were not such costs and delays built into the original planning, just as the builder who did our kitchen had an allowance for extras in money and time to cover the unforeseen? If foreseen, then why not integrate an allowance for the unexpected into the process? That was my question. His line by the way was the official navy line at the time as subsequent research showed. ‘No big deal, it always happens.’ If so….!

Much of the four sublimes, as Flyvbjerg calls them, are generated, empowered, and enabled by the public appetite for such projects, and according to the fount, Wikipedia, many are in fact successful. That term ‘sublimes’ grates on this reader. It seems forced and uninformative.

No doubt in the full text of the studies Flyvbjerg has done of the massive data set he has complied with care and wit such niggles are resolved.

Bent Flyvbjerg.jpg Bent Flyvbjerg

While this article was in a newspaper this week, I read virtually the same text in 2014. Slow news takes on a new meaning.

For years Bent Flyvbjerg’s book ‘Rationality and Power‘ (1999) held pride of place on the syllabus. The abstract title came down the the ground with a thump in the study of the building of a bus terminal in Aalburg, Denmark.* What a story! What a story-teller! Altogether it was what social science should be but seldom is, wise, contextualized, plain spoken, dispassionate, located within major intellectual currents, and modest. This study also shows the public enthusiasm for such projects and the distortion of the original project necessary to achieve a coalition to realise it. By the time all of the interests which wanted a piece of the project got it, it was distorted beyond recognition.

That was democracy at work, not dastardly financiers, unscrupulous politicians, air headed aesthetes, or pastry faced tech heads.

*Many travelling students sent me pictures of the bus terminal at the heart of this study, for which much thanks.

A krimi set in wartime Reykjavik Iceland in 1944. The island is awash with soldiers and sailors of the Allied forces: Brits, Canadians, French, and mostly Americans. Harbours are dredged, piers built, fuel tanks dug into hillsides, pipelines laid, barracks built everywhere, landing fields levelled, hangers erected, roads paved, concrete bunkers made, ammunition dumps created, and on and on, from 1940. There has been more money spent on the island in those five years than in the previous five hundred years.

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With so much money comes loose morals, it would seem, despite the language barriers. While Icelandic men are not off at the war, they are off on construction jobs all over the island, leaving wives, sisters, cousins, and daughters to their own (de)vices.

The setting and the set-up are good. On the plus side is some detail about the impact of this intrusion on Iceland, and not just the sex, but also on nationalism, though that is merely mentioned and not in any way developed. The weather is there, too, but it does not figure in the story, as it did in ‘Trapped.’ There is also a little more about Iceland legends, the hidden people, but again it is a sidebar that is not cemented into the plot.


The execution is not equal to the set-up. First, the story is split between then in 1944 and now in 2000, say. This is a technique I cannot abide because it makes the reader responsible for integration. Second much of both stories, the then and the now, is padding, e.g,

‘I walked up the the three plank steps to the door. I took off my left glove and knocked on the door, and waited, while I put the glove back on. I heard faint sounds insider but the door did not open.

I took my glove off again and knocked on the door again. I put the glove on and waited. And waited.

The door opened. I introduced myself and asked to come in for a word. She said, no. I asked gain very politely. she said no and turned away. I asked once more for a word inside. She said alright.’

Snappy, uh? He then asks her what she saw. She says she saw nothing. He asks her three times and three times she says she saw nothing. Bold, he asks a fourth time, again no result. He leaves, descending the plank steps.

That took about five pages for nothing. He then repeats most of this verbatim to his partner over the next two pages.

While this book is slow, it is not detailed, but rather superficial. Two examples suffice. (1) The Icelandic nationalism is mentioned more than once but never articulated. (2) While there are many soldiers around there is never anything about their role in the war effort or how Icelanders feel about being occupied. Is this war their war? They are, after all, eddas or not, Danes by blood and the German heel is on Denmark, yet that is never even referred to as an issue in the story.

The text, perhaps thanks to the translator, is replete with banalities. If there was a clichéd way to say something, that was the way it was said.

Inridson.jpg Arnaldur Indridason

This is one industrious writer who has three series, the one that includes this title is Reykjavik during World War II, including ‘Silence of the Grave’ (2007), which was adequate, and another series that follows the investigators of Inspector Erlendur, e.g., ‘Jar City’ (2007) which I liked a lot for its meticulous attention to detail, especially in thinking things through. Erlendur as I recall does a lot of thinking. In contrast is the author’s third series ‘Reykjavik Thrillers.’ On the strength of Erlendur I read his ‘Operation Napoleon’ (2012) and regretted it and did not bother to finish it. The list of his titles on Amazon translated into English is long,

While my recollection of Erlendur is strong enough for me to try another, from now on I will pass on the other two serieses.

One of the great westerns.  It combines a young director with two of the wisest hands on the ranch. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea between them must have been in more than a hundred and fifty oaters. McCrea made it a point only to accept roles in Westerns and Scott did virtually the same thing though less explicitly. I would like to think that they did so for the same reasons that Justin Playfair gives in ‘They Might be Giants’ for only watching western movies. See the review of this latter film elsewhere on this blog for further explanation.

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The gossip is that McCrea and Scott flipped a coin to see who played the good guy and the not so good guy.  What a tour de force for the young director, Sam Peckinpah, and what a swan song for Scott and McCrea who both retired after this film, Scott at 64 and McCrea at 58.  

Scoot=McCrea.jpg A publicity photograph.

Two ageing lawmen find the west has changed and so have they.  It is no longer in need of them. One has become a sideshow barker and the other a bar-room bouncer.  Then a job comes up, one with a modest reward but it smacks of the old days and the old ways, off they go once again a team. One is losing his sight and other has arthritis but this is too good an opportunity to miss….for one of them it offers vindication and for the other one it offers something more venal.  

In 1962 audiences were also changing and the Western was on the way out. Nor was there any further need in Hollywood for these two old actors in particular. The screenplay reflects their own situation, too.  It becomes a story about the actors as well as the characters they embody.  

The tattered McCrea remains steadfast, but the flamboyant Scott has heard a different drum, after countless brawls, wounds, ambushes, shoot outs, injuries, chases, beatings, falls, and betrayals it is time to taste the honey. With what he thinks is subtlety Scott tries to suborn McCrea who seems not to realise what is going on. Subplots add depth and as in every Peckinpah film, each character however minor has a name.  Edgar Buchanan’s brief speech at the wedding, Federico Fellini could not have done better, gave me pause for thought.

Peckinpah.jpg Sam Peckinpah

The Biblical reference to ‘entering the house justified’ is another gem.*  Any close observer of Peckinpah’s films will realise, he was student of the Bible and studded his films with imagery and lines from parables, hymns, letters, psalms, and words of the prophets. 

The landscape of the high country is an elegy to a cleaner, better world made foul by humanity at its worst.  


Then the denouement comes. Perfect. The exchange of looks between McCrea and Scott constitute a master class in acting in a few seconds. Each man sums up his own celluloid career in a single glance.

Ride High End.jpg The end.

Then there is that last line of dialogue delivered by McCrea as his sun sets.  Moving and marvellous.  Redemption is even sweeter than honey.  

*Luke, 18:14

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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