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Genre: Krimi

Goodreads meta-data is ‘The Flaxborough Crab’ is 176 pages, rated 3.98 by 110 litizens
F Crab.png

‘Broomsticks over Flaxborough’ is 192 page, rated 3.95 by 103 litizens.

Verdict: No more.

I liked ‘The Flaxborough Crab’ for its mordant humour and sly exposition. A village doctor taking part in a clinical trial carefully prescribes a trial drug, and things get out of hand, or in hand. The drug has viagra side effects with the result that ….

Well, some of it is amusing. Some annoying, and some threatening. Despite the serious subject matter of sexual assault, not to mention murder, Watson manages to make it light hearted. No one is ever harmed because the codgers reacting to the drug are well past it try though they might. The palate darkens when the drug company intervenes to cover its error.

Especially amusing is the opening scene when a librarian deals with a would-be assailant by cracking his head against a tree. One to stop him and twice to get silly ideas out of what is left of his head.

After reading this guilty pleasure I tried ‘Broomsticks over Flaxborough.’ I found it less successful. It seemed padded with a parody of advertising speak that had nothing to do with either the place, the plot, or the principals yet on it went. The first few pages were amusing but the repetition soon put that paid.

colin-watson.jpg Colin Watson (1920-1983)

Watson’s characters are well drawn, but given too little to do, and there is virtually no policing. Just stirring around waiting for the villains to blunder.

There are ten of other titles in the series, and I am uncertain if I will continue with them.

Four of the Flaxborough stories were adapted for a short-lived BBC television series in 1977 called ‘Murder Most English: A Flaxborough Chronicle.’ There were seven fifty-minute episodes with Anton Rodgers in the lead. They are amusing, though sometimes hard to follow, and leaden in pace. Later episodes are enlivened a bit by Miss Teatime. The production values were Filene’s Basement. However the acting was superb from one and all, including the ever reliable Moray Watson. It was a precursor of ‘Midsomer Murders’ in its picture of the quaint English village as a satanic pit.

Genre: Krimi

GoodReads meta-data is 334 pages rated 3.9/5 by 539 litizens.

Verdict: Compelling.

Hamberg cover.jpg

January 1947, Hamburg Germany is city in ruins and a city of paradox. It is depopulated and overpopulated. Depopulated by the war, by the bombing, by the deprivations….tens of thousands died, many who could left. Overpopulated by Displaced Persons - millions of them roaming Europe at the time, camp internees, returning German POWs, German refugees from the East, Russian deserters, and more.

Hamburg Europe.png

Because it was a major seaport on a major transport waterway, the Elbe, because most of the U-boats were built there, because it lay within range of the RAF, Hamburg was subjected to constant air attack for five plus years. From July 1943 the air raids were obliteration bombing aimed at the industrial and attendant working class areas of Hamburg. Because precision bombing was then, as now, largely a fiction for popular consumption, the bombs fell where they may.

What became the British Army of the Rhine occupies Hamburg and environs with an experienced colonial hand.

Then came the hard winter in which the story is set. Both the roads and railroads were badly damaged by bombing, and now the weather has rendered them useless. The trains cannot run. The roads are impassable. The Baltic winds drive the -25C temperature into the bone. It has been much too cold to snow for weeks. In this weather the Brits mostly stay indoors, near the heat. They have plenty of everything, and stealing from them is crucial to the blackmarket.

hamburg rubble.jpg Hamburg cola seasrch.jpg

Much of the population is homeless, living in basement ruins, lean-tos, or cobbled together Nissan huts surplused by the Brits. Most are dressed in the rags, clothes they have had on since 1944. Most wear all their clothes at once for warmth, but also to keep others from stealing them.

In the last years every tree has been cut for fire wood. Coal is unknown. Medicine is beyond price. With the closure of transport for weeks, neither wood nor coal can be trucked in. Food is vanishing. Everyday people die in the street of starvation, malnutrition, exposure, disease and simply freeze to death.

Hamburg death 1.jpg Death in the streets. Starvation, malnutrition, and disease.

The Third Man would find this all familiar territory.

DeNazification has gone full tilt. Expelling Naziis from the police, courts, law, hospitals and so on. Necessary but disruptive to the workings of the city. Expatriate Germans who got out are returning to this new world, but many are out of depth in this situation. False identity papers are a thriving black market. Since few paper records have survived the firestorms of the bombings, claiming identity is common.

Could things be any worse? This nightmare world is far more disturbing and disjointed than any dystopia conjured in the Sy Fy films treated on this blog. This environ and the city of Hamburg itself is the major actor in the novel.

Then it gets worse when a murder victim is found, naked and frozen into the surface in a bombed ruin. Then another, and another. Can it get any worse? Yes. The first victim was a young woman. The second an elderly man. The third a child. The fourth, an older woman. Each garrotted, a method much favoured by Naziis as degrading and economical.

Inspector Frank Stave with a stiff leg that kept him out of the Wehrmacht and much baggage is landed with the investigation, aided by a British liaison officer, and a new vice detective. His loyal office assistant does what she can. There are wheels within wheels in this circle.

The strength of the book is the context. The ice freezing on the windows of unheated bedrooms. The flapping of roof tiles in the Arctic gusts. The odors which penetrate even the sub-zero temperatures. The desolation of the streets. The exhaustion of the people. The flow of humanity in the Displaced Persons of every nation, race, and creed. Everyone is suspicious and fearful of everyone else pace Thomas Hobbes's state of nature. The desperate efforts of Jews to get to Palestine. Ominous rumbling about what the malevolent god in the Kremlin might do next.

The author is no apologist for the Reich.

A1qKAfp5HOL._UX250_.jpg Cay Rademacher

The Hunger Winter of 1946-1947 was bad all over Northern Europe, made worse by the destruction visited by the Naziis in Norway, Denmark, Poland, Netherlands, and France. As Stave muses, we brought this on ourselves and now we have to endure it.

On the terrible conditions in Germany read Stig Dagerman's 'The German Autumn' (1947), though when I read this years ago while travelling in Sweden I found it to be an apology for the Reich.
German autum.jpg

Back to the book in hand, in contrast to the environment, the characterisations are not particularly compelling, and as is usual there is far too much sympathy-jerking backstory for Stave. This volume is the first of a series and I will certainly try another.

I quibbled about some of the terminology. Those who informed on others were styled by several characters as ‘grasses’ a British term of the 1960s. Would a German have used that expression in 1947. There were other instances of the same sort that distracted this reader.

Goodreads meta-data is 200 pages, over-rated 3.74 by 226 litizens.

Genre: krimi, police procedural.


Verdict: a curiosity of the place and time. A forced march to finish it.

Set in the Swiss alps in the early 1930s when radio was a novelty. A local is found dead. Was it suicide or murder? Everyone speaks Schweizerdeutsch in which ‘Chabis’ is an oath.

Not to be confused with Chablis.

Into this isolated mountain top community comes Detective Sergeant Studer from the distant Canton to find out which is which. He takes up residence and observes the locals. The bar owner. The nursery man and his staff. The family of the deceased. Creditors. Trees. Swains. Rivals. That is something like the Maigret approach but the hands of this cuckoo clock are heavier by far. As far as this reader can report no thumbprint figures in the story.

Masochists can find out more than they should know by reading the thirty reviews on GoodReads.

Glauser.jpg Friedrich Glauser (1896-1938) was diagnosed schizophrenic, addicted to morphine, dabbled with heroin, and was intoxicated when he could not get drugs. He spent most of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums, and prisons. That experience makes him well qualified, ahem, as well qualified, as most journalists, to comment on the human condition.

There are two or three other titles with Studer. They are unlikely to be disturbed by this reader.

GoodReads meta-data is 267 pages, rated by 3.87 by 1375 litizens.

Genre: thriller

Miernik cover.jpg

Verdict: Unusual in the telling.

It is deep in the heart of the Cold War of 1959 and the Russkies have their eyes on East Africa. Spy and counter-spy vie to manipulate the natives. It centers around a group from a UN agency housed in Geneva which includes a Yankee doodle, a Polack, a Magyar, a Sudanese princeling, a MI6er, and others who embark on a drive from Geneva to Khartoum. Sure.

Geneva Khartoum.jpeg

While the journey is as fantastic as anything Jules Verne conjured, the characterisations are nicely done. No one is quite whom they seem to be, and yet perhaps they are. Even at the end, it is not at all clear to this reader whether Miernik was a villain, though he certainly was a victim.

What is unusual is in the telling. It reads like a dossier that collects and combines testimony, written reports by observers, diary entries from protagonists, archival material about them, analysis by Langley desk jockeys, wiretap transcriptions, post hoc interviews, radio intercepts, case officer cables, opened mail, entries from the CIA Fact Book, field briefings, and such. While there is a master narrative with an arc, it is by no means told as a story. Though in its own way it is, and the story unfolds in these several different registers. The ending is open, but not empty.

McCarry.jpg Charles McCarry

This is the first title in a long series featuring Yankee Doodle, namely Paul Christopher. Alan Furst ranks it highly and that persuaded me to give it a try. Not sure, but inclined to try another.

Goodreads meta-data is 4.2/5 by 2745 litizens.

Genre: Thriller diller.

Verdict: The study in organisational pathologies continues.

Dead Lions.jpg

We used to teach something call Org Theory which bore little relation to Org Practice. This book does. Anyone who works in a large organisation will recognise the pathologies exhibited by many of the characters.

The set-up? Two of the Slough House crew are seconded by James Webb, known as Spider, to provide purely nominal security for a visiting Russian tycoon. Why two slow horses for the job, oh, because there is flap on at the Park. Something about office furniture. As always there is never any paperwork to justify the assignment. No paper trail for the FOI rats to find.

Why did I find it credible that a mighty organisation like the Secret Squirrels of MI5 might grind to a halt while an argument with accountants about office furniture takes precedence. Goal displacement comes in many forms. Of course, the furniture is only a means. The end is for two ambitious opponents to fight for supremacy within the organisation. The battle ground? An Eames chair.

Both of the slows, Min and Louise, hope this assignment might restore them to the shining light of the Park, ending their tedious exile to the outer darkness of Slough House, which per the earlier review on this blog is neither in Slough nor a house.

Webb is counting on that motivation to preclude them asking too many questions about this verbal secondment. In meeting them directly he bypasses the supremo of Slough House, Lamb.

There are so many wheels within wheels that my head got in a spin. Rather try to unravel that I offer a few remarks. Nit picking perhaps.

One of the salutary lessons is how easy it is to be fooled if one wants to fooled. Webb’s bit on the bait after reading all about the Russian on the Russkie’s web site. He found there flattering portraits from the 'Financial Times,' interviews in 'Der Spiegel,' and testimonials from here and there. He looked no further. It was not until Tech Boy Rod cross-checked these excerpts on the Russian’s blog with the original sources that Webb learned, much too late, that they were fake news. There were no laudatory accounts on the pink pages of the 'Financial Times' nor in the Gothic script headlines of 'Der Spiegel.'

What have teachers said since Odysseus returned? Check the original to see if there really was a horse.

Webb did not verify anything because he dearly loved the idea of doing a favour for major player in Russia, a favour that could be cashed later. Ergo, he saw what he wanted to see and nothing more. In his case a successful deal would lead to a promotion up the greasy org pole. Once promoted he would move on away from any fallout anyway.

That is the other lesson. Later when asked who set up the contact, Webb tried to make it sound like his initiative. It wasn’t but he wanted the credit for spotting the possibility of indebting this fellow. When finally he later reluctantly admits that the Russian contacted him first, the tale takes on a different light. It seems it was Webb who was being reeled in and not the Russkie.

london-skyline-700x325.jpg The London sky line these days.

Back to those nits, I found it hard to believe that Dickie would spot the hood quite that easily after all those years. Equally hard to believe was that Dickie did not wonder why it was so easy. Likewise that hood’s boss had lived quietly in England for nearly twenty years seemed a stretch, and in two different places. Even more so the villain’s faith in the dead lions, of whom in the end we learn nothing.

There a few more quibbles but that is what they are quibbles.

Less and less in writing is one legacy of Prime Minister Tony Blair, or so I have been told by a one-time inmate of Number Ten. In that administration, verbal communication became the order of the day to avoid written records. Freedom of Information applies only to what is in writing, after all.

Genre: Fiction

GoodReads meta-data is 416 pages, rated 3.8/5 from 1573 litizens.

Verdict: Quite a ride. Best to have a scorecard of the names and places.

Santa Evita.jpg

The novel offers an examination of the place of Eva Perón (1919-1952) in the soul of Argentina and Argentines. Eva is dead. Long live Evita!

While there are retrospective glimpses of young Eva growing up, meeting and marrying Juan Perón and ruling with him, and her earlier career on radio and in films, most of the book concerns her afterlife.

When she died Perón went through the stages of grief, culminating in the plan to build a giant mausoleum to her memory. Barely had the ground been cleared in central Buenos Aires for the building when Perón was toppled in yet another military coup. (For what it is worth he won the popular vote in three elections.)

The plotters were at odds among themselves in every way but united in one. Above all else every trace of the Peróns, both of them, had to be erased immediately, least their followers, who were undoubtedly the majority of the populace, rally to the remaining symbols. Street signs, building names, charitable foundations, orphanages, schools that bore the name Perón, all of these had to go. Over night school teachers were required to mark out their names in every scrap of instructional material. Republicans have been doing likewise regarding Obama.

Eva young.jpg The youthful Eva.

No symbol of Perónism was more important than Eva herself. At her death Perón had set about having her mummified like Lenin and to be put in a glass sarcophagus on display to the faithful. He had seen the thousands come to mourn her as she lay in state, and since there was demand he set about supplying it. Work had begun on that. There was also a nascent plan to produce wax replicas, least the body decay despite the preservation. Remember Jeremy Bentham?

Eva at mic.jpg She spoke.

Eva speaking.jpg They listened.

EVa giving.jpg They came; she gave.

Eva layingon hands.jpg Even the touch was enough.

Some of this work of preservation had been done in secret and later amid the turmoil of the coup which was followed by an in-house palace revolution by another faction. Moreover some of those trusted with the cadaver tried to hide it from the usurpers. When usurpers found it, they in their turn tried to hide it. In short, the body got lost for many months. When it was discovered the new regime was in a quandary about what to do with it. Unsure even if it was the real thing. More hiding followed.

To desecrate it would call down the wraith of the Catholic faithful and the electoral majority of Perónistas. To bury it would create a site of Perón pilgrimage. To hide it indefinitely in a time of coup and counter-coup would not suffice. To comply with Perón’s plea from his roaming exile to send the body to him would put a potent symbol at his disposal.

From these chemicals Eloy Martínez compounds quite a story as he enters into the minds and souls of the morticians, embalmers, army officers and soldiers, on-lookers, janitors, true believers, by-standers, journalists, and foreign diplomats who come into contact with the mystery train transporting the cadaver or one of its several replicas.

To summarise what cannot be summarised, thinking takes time and initially during the thinking time a squad and a colonel, low enough in rank that he could not reject the assignment, drive the cadaver in a coffin around in a truck from place to place, phoning in for more orders. This becomes a truck of Otranto as the six men keep to themselves, park in deserted streets, eat army rations, skirt cemeteries, and begin to think Santa Eva is watching them from the coffin they transport, the coffin which they must not open, but which…

When the truck is parked overnight, and a careful watch is set, yet the next morning the truck is surrounded by flowers. Or when they turn into a blind alley far off the beaten track to park for the night, when they open the doors to get out they find the alley is now illuminated with candles. Spooky. Thereafter the colonel is obsessed by the body.

Meanwhile, others took charge of her personal effects and papers and in pawing through them come into vicarious contact with the Argentines she touched. There is no doubt that she was a miraculous saint to millions, one who brought material succour and, more importantly, spiritual hope. It is all there in the letters she received from individuals and the letters she sent in reply. This is charisma.

In death there are sightings of her in the valleys, pampas, deserts, villages, barrios, hills of Argentina. The rumours spread. Since there are no facts to contain the imagination, the rumours grew. If a sighting was reported in a village in the distant mountains, within a few hours a host of peasants was on the road making for that village. If a bundle of cash was bestowed anonymously on an orphanage the dead hand of Eva was credited. When the national soccer team scores a goal against the odds ….., and so on.

Dead Eva Perón was beyond price and dangerous beyond measure. Dead she was omnipresent and omnipotent.

The replicas are as dangerous and priceless as the cadaver and in the hysteria, miasma, fear, exhaustion, and confusion of the time, those responsible for the replicas and the cadaver themsevles become uncertain about which is which.

The novel is set out as the author’s report on his effort to write a book on this subject, and some of it takes the form of interviews years later with participants or their relatives, or the discovery of diaries kept by participants, old newspaper cuttings from villages in Tierra del Fuego, letters and documents as officials pass the buck, censored television footage, interview transcripts from the time, radio tapes, and so on. Much is fact, most is fiction.

At time the author breaks the theatrical fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. He also passes comment, droll and disparaging on Andrew Lloyd Weber’s abomination. Likewise he makes short shrift of Juan Luis Borges attempt to crucify Eva.

The grip the woman had on the soul of Argentina and Argentines is the theme. And that grip included both those who loved her in their millions and those who hated her in their millions. Together these millions were as one in their complete preoccupation with THAT WOMAN. Both get plenty of space in these pages.

Eloy Martinez-2.jpg Tomás Eloy Martínez

I seem to have had a Perón spree, starting with Joseph Page, ‘Perón: A Biography’ (1983) and then Eloy Martínez’s ‘The Perón Novel’ (1999), both reviewed elsewhere on this blog, and now this. Eva is much present in these two titles, but I wanted to read more. I did watch the A&E biography on You Tube, which was basic but not as bad as some of the illiterate comments say. Then we were given tickets to see ‘Evita’ later in the year and I decided to do some homework on Eva, starting with this one. I have one more to go, ‘The Adventures of the Busts of Eva Perón’ (2004) by Carolos Gamerro.

I read Jeane Kirkpatrick’s ‘The Perónist Movement in Argentina’ (1971) in graduate school and it left me with a curiosity about Argentina. What she argued was that historically the army made Argentina and that despite its many later corruptions and failings it remained the only legitimate institution in the society. ‘Legitimate’ means being accepted by the populace.

When I referred to a scorecard above the meaning is that it helps to know the players, some of whom I have learned of through the reading above. To read it based on Lloyd Weber, well don’t bother.

Every military coup in Argentina was justified on the ground that it would bring stability. A coup was followed by a counter-coup in one case by a single day and in another by a month. No military government lasted as long as the term of an elected government. Civilian governments, said the army officers, were unstable. The duty of the army was to bring stability. This it did in an endless parade of coups and counter-coups, sometimes between the services, Navy, Air Force, and Army, and sometimes within the Army. They shot it out, bombed Buenos Aires, and fought it out again and again. Stability is a hard thing to get out of a gun.

…. in which an immature boy from New Jersey goes to college in Winesburg Ohio. He makes few friends and falls in lust. It is 1950 and when he is expelled, then he is drafted and dies in Korea.

Indignationc cover.jpg

Meta-data from Good Reads is 3.7/5 from 11959 litizens.

Verdict: Ah, now I remember why I do not read novels by Philip Roth.

Our hero is Messner who dislikes other Jews he meets in Ohio, cannot get along with Gentiles who befriend him, and is attracted and repelled by the only co-ed who knows he exists. With the auto-didacticism of youth he spouts ill digested bon mots from Bertrand Russell.

On the one hand he is typical of a nineteen-year old in all this and on the other he has not got the sense to stop. His self-destructive streak has no rhyme or reason but the needs of the author to make him and vicariously himself (the author) into a victim. Young men are often as stupid as Messner but they grow up little-by-little but not so here in either case.

HIs expulsion arises in this way. He hates attending Chapel, not on religious grounds, but because it is boring. He hires a substitute to go in his place. This fact is revealed by one of the many people he antagonises and when confronted with the fact he is defiant. Expulsion follows.

(I attended Chapel in a similar fashion and found it often boring, but not always. It was sometimes an opportunity for rest, if not reflection. At other times I heard Basil Rathbone read Shakespeare, Robert Penn Warren recite poetry, Ernie Chambers call blacks to arms, Sarah Gardner make science wonderful, Alexander Kerensky mourn the missed opportunities of 1917, Paul Tillich bring the New Testament to life, and a stage set designer whose name has been lost talk about how to stage Greek tragedy in a contemporary theatre, and more that I can no longer remember. More’s the pity. Thereafter with new eyes I saw Shakespeare, read ‘All the King’s Men,’ followed Senator Chambers’s career, found Tillich in utopia, and watched Sophocles.)

It is the usual from Philip Roth, to my mind ever an greying instance of arrested development. He is totally focused on his ….. first friend. He and Silvio Berlusconi are cut from the same cloth. Neither Messner, the paper protagonist, nor Roth, the writer, shows any interest in Olivia, the co-ed, except insofar as she relates to his first friend.

The style is simple and that is a relief as the pages are free from the lengthy and pointless descriptions that encrust other of his novels which I have sampled. Ergo it is easy to read. The style, one supposes, is to match the voice of the man-boy Messner. In that it succeeds.

The title is ironic. Throughout Messner, transfixed by the Korean War, recites a phrase from the People’s Republic of China’s national anthem long before it entered the war. In Korea at a map reference he is killed by Chinese, we must suppose. That all goes beyond heavy-handed to lead-handed. There is never any explanation of how and why Messner has latched onto this passage. It is just the author’s vanity intruding. Did I mention that Messner was dead all along. I did not much care. Not true, I did not care at all.

Here is a comparison. This Messner is about the same age as William Styron when he wrote ‘Lie Down in Darkness’ (1951) at the time ‘Indignation’ is set. ‘Lie Down in Darkness’ is a tour de force novel. Friends of Roth, parading as critics, say ‘Indignation’ is a character study. Ha! ‘Lie Down in Darkness’ is a trip into mental illness that is exhilarating, compelling, and frightening. By the way Styron was a Marine and his take on the Korean War is in ‘The Long March’ (1954).

The setting must have been a deliberate reference to Sherwood Anderson’s ‘Winesburg’ (1919) which is a series of short stories that together present the inhabitants of a Winesburg Ohio. Anderson's prose is supple and evocative. The people come to life off the page. A reader feels the breeze from the river and hears the quiet sobs from behind closed windows with a minimum of words. It is no wonder that the young William Faulkner sat at Anderson’s feet.

philip-roth-01.jpg Philip Roth

I found Roth’s novel boring and cold. I persisted to honour the gift it was from a friend.

The novel was filmed in 2016. Go for it but don’t say there was no warning.

Good Reads meta-data Rating: 4 from ‎1,234 votes. 425 pages.

Verdict: not the biography of Oppenheimer I was looking for.

Oppy cover.jpg

The development of Atomic Bomb in twenty-seven months on a mesa in New Mexico is quite a story from theory to practice.

The book offers a near day-by-day account mostly of the administrivia of Los Alamos. Largely told through the subsequent recollections of the office manager of the project, located at 109 East Palace Street in Santa Fe, Dorothy McKibben, who adored Oppenheimer. In silence the author credits Dorothy with a remarkable and flawless memory for conversations because she recalled them years later without the benefit of diary or any other written record from the time.

Only 40% of the way through the book did this reader notice any discussion of the engineering, technical, and scientific endeavours. Apart from listening to complaints about laundry and indulging the pranks of immature minds, Oppenheimer never comes into focus in these pages despite his image on the cover and his name in the title.

These impressions are not helped by the slangy style of exposition and the credulity of the author who takes as fact whatever a favoured source said. This reader got no sense that any assertions were double checked. In addition, facts were scarce. I never did get an idea how big the operation was. Only more than half way through are some numbers mentioned, e.g., 3,000 but given the one-eyed perspective of the author I was unsure who was included in that number.

I said one-eyed because the author is always on the side of the scientists, say when they complained about secrecy and security and seems repeatedly to belittle both the GIs who built most of the set-up and the intelligence agents who censored the mail, kept strangers away, demanded to see passes, and so on.

The immaturity of many of the scientists involved is breath-taking, the more so later when some of the same individuals took it upon themselves later to pontificate about the use of the Bomb. Even the fraternity brothers paled at some of their antics. While some of these draft-exempt scientists were planning panty-raids, in 1944 the Pentagon was sending 2000 yellow telegrams a day to mothers and wives.

Most of the Europeans on the project were more serious because Naziism was a reality to them, and not a newsreel. Indeed so focused were they on Germany that when the war ended in Europe many wanted to quit the project. They had so quarrel with Japan since it had no bomb and no prospect of one. Their goal was to get to the Bomb before the Naziis did.

At this point Oppenheimer was, it seems, crucial in motivating them to work ever harder, far from quitting. That he did this is, however, not explained by anything in his nature or character developed earlier in the book. Yet it was certainly crucial and he was the one who did it. We did get earlier the grudging admission by one of his many critics that Oppenheimer, despite his dilettantish pre-war mien, had proven adept at getting all those (egotistical) scientists to talk to each other. No mean feat that. More exposition of how that was managed would be welcome.

There are many assertions that Oppenheimer was attractive to women, that he had blue eyes, and a confident manner. So what? There are many of these and none of them built the bomb. There had to be more than these superficial descriptions to explain his singular achievements as noted in the paragraph above. Using the word 'charisma' is neither analysis nor explanation.

Oppenheimer is the centre of the book, even if he is seldom on the page. His own disregard of security is numbing. Why did he do those things that later would look so damning? My own conclusion is hubris. In the first instance Oppenheimer was sure, because he was so much smarter than everyone else, he would never make a mistake and give anything away, no matter to whom he talked. Second, he was likewise sure he would always be able to talk his way out of suspicion. So he thought.

Instead he simply called attention to himself again and again, and it stuck. And he created a pattern that was at best reckless and at worst sinister.

That a skilled intelligence agent could learn much from what is not said, or from the lies told, these are tricks of the spy trade that Oppenheimer never considered, since his hubris meant he never thought anyone else could out think him.

His hubris had another strand. After the war, he could have gone back to Cal and time might have healed some of the wounds, but instead he haunted Washington, putting himself forward as Mr. Atom, advocating committees, and himself as a member. He was hard to miss. He had come to view himself as indispensable. Maybe he was, but the effect, given the two strands already mentioned, was to make himself into a target. He seems always to think he was an invulnerable Achilles.

While the author mocks the efforts of the security officers with the fact that they missed Klaus Fuchs, who was indeed passing information to Them, she seems to fail to see that the security officers were right. There were leaks. Fuchs, by the way, was not the only source of leaks but the most well placed.

Nor does the author indicate any effort at ascertaining, say by visiting the National Archives, whether German agents were active in the matter. Still less other Soviet agents who monitored Oppenheimer when he was away, as was often, from Los Alamos.

The drama accelerates quickly in the middle of the book, and we read less about bickering, picnicking, and laundry, when it is time to test Trinity.

Trinity.gif The Trinity test at 10 seconds after detonation.

Though here, as always, is a squabble about the name which is dutifully recorded by the author.

Yet she sits on the fence about the use of the bomb. She quotes estimates of causalities of the projected November 1946 invasion of Japan and then in a rare footnote says this figure might have been fabricated. That is quite an accusation to make in a throwaway footnote. It is a fact, by the way, that the Pentagon planners had begun preparations for 500,000 American casualties from an invasion of Japan. It had also contracted for 10,000 yellow telegrams a day.

What president would not use the bomb in preference to such a toll?

Given the many uncertainties involved with the Bomb, the only way to go was to use it. Why? What demonstration would convince the Japanese? Blow up an uninhabited island? Not likely to be convincing. They would suspect a trick. That the Bomb would even work was always in doubt. If it did not work on the island, then it would serve no purpose but waste the weapon and do so in a way that nothing could be learned from the failure. And a failed demonstration would queer the pitch for another demonstration.

Moreover, the weapons grade uranium was so scarce and hard to use that wasting a Bomb on an island might mean another one was not available for some time. Furthermore transporting the Bomb to the Pacific was hard. The cruiser USS Indianapolis that delivered the first Bomb was sunk by a Japanese submarine a few days after completing that mission. (See 'Jaws' [1975] for confirmation.) Would the next ship transporting a bomb be sunk with it on board?

The prospect of besieging Japan into surrender was considered and rejected on many grounds. The Soviet Union would nibble away at Japanese weaknesses, while leaving the hard work to the United States. Little material support would come from a depleted England. The Chinese would turn full-time to fighting among themselves. During a prolonged siege the young, the women, and the civilians would suffer most as scarce resources would go to the defence forces. The result would be to cripple Japan for a generation or more without discrediting or displacing the war party.

Douglas McArthur always preferred manoeuvre and surprise to direct attacks, but he saw no other way in 1945.

The zealots in Japan were ready to fight on, and the example of Okinawa frightened everyone in the Pentagon. They would fight to the death unless the Emperor ordered them not to do so. To get to that order, the zealots had to be completely undermined. Hence the first big bang. It was made all the more dramatic for being a single aircraft. Japanese air defence spotted it but did not respond to its approach, assuming it was photographic reconnaissance.

In the two-day interval allowed for the Japanese to assess the destruction of Hiroshima, we now know what was unknown in D.C. at the time, that there was an abortive coup d'état, but it came to nothing. The second bomb, by the way, was not targeted on Nagasaki but bad weather took it there.

Back to the book in hand, the author seems to relish name dropping, as if everyone associated with a notable university is somehow a superior person. I could only put this down to an ingrained snobbery. This attitude shows also in the way those who were not blessed with such illustrious associations are portrayed. General Lesley Groves is one example. He, more often than not, is portrayed just one step away from Groucho Marx. Yet he oversaw an unprecedented and wide-spread effort of which Los Alamos was only a part, but he gets barely any credit, until, perhaps at the urging of editor, some condescending good words are applied toward the end. But overall the tone is, how could this nobody criticise these men from prestigious universities. Yes, Groves had an MIT degree, but he was but a student there, and in those days, by the way, MIT did not have the caché it does now, partly thanks to graduates like Groves.

Yet the text shows he was right about many things, like the irresponsibility of some of the scientists, about the need for secrecy, about the dubious nature of the undertaking, about the subsequent need to explain and justify everything done, and even the spies. More importantly, that he stuck by Oppenheimer as the right man for the job even though he did not like him.

The author has an admirable list of titles on related subjects.


So be it. Not for me. Reading this book but confirms my cynicism about the world of New York City publishing.

Good Reads meta-data is rating 4.4/5 from 10127 litizens. 352 pages.

Verdict? Marvellous.

Circe cover.jpg

Circe is a daughter of Helios, a Titan. Sounds better than it is.

The Greek world is full of gods in a bewildering array of statuses, ranks, powers, egos, and so on. Zeus defeated the Titans and most were destroyed in the Divine War. Only the most essential, like Helios, survived. He is one of the most important remaining Titans but no Titan is important among the Olympians. Over the eons he has sired many children. Every deity is important to mortals. Some are gods, some are demi-gods, some are titans, some are nymphs, some are mortals, some are half-animal, and so on and on. This is a family tree for the LDS to sort out.

The book is a biography of one such child, Circe. Though ageless and immortal, she changes over time from a sulking metaphorical teenager trying and failing to win the approval of her aloof father to become a witch with witch’s brews. She and Flavia, whose books are reviewed elsewhere on this blog, would make quite a pair.

While immature in her father’s house, she transgressed by giving wine to a suffering Prometheus before he was sent to Alcatraz. For this sin she was exiled to an island dot far away to pass eternity alone with pigs. Later clever Circe finds a way to blackmail Helios with her sin.

Over the centuries in this insular retreat she meets passers-by, and she learns of the mortal world from these experiences. For a time she is befriended by Hermes, though he does so only for his own amusement and when no longer amused he is no longer friend.

None of the echelons of the immortals will have anything to do with this outcast, apart from Hermes who is partly spying on her for Helios, and so she takes an interest in the mortals who find the shore. She welcomes some, careful to keep her yellow eyes concealed for they declare the godhead, and regrets it.

Yellow eyes.jpg

One betrays her trust. Another rapes her before she can utter a spell, but she takes revenge by increasing the population of the sty.

Thereafter, she is much more cautious. Then one day wily Odysseus comes and she finds she cannot, nor does she want to deceive this deceiver. What a fresh and vivid portrait of this marriage springs from the pages. Marvellous. Yes, the story is well known but this is a telling Homer would envy.

Finally he leaves, not knowing that she is bearing his child, a son. This is a circle that closes in the remainder of the book.

With the great learning that underlies the book, the author explains much. One example will suffice. Why are the gods so capricious with mortals? Think about it. If mortal life was easy, then mortals would have no reason to pray to the gods and make sacrifices. While the gods do not need these prayers and sacrifices in any material way, together these offerings are how the divinities establish status (along with their powers) among themselves. They are counters in the social snobbery of the Olympians, nothing more. But since the gods have no other pastime but that snobbery, it is the only game in town.

The worse the harvest, it follows there will be more the prayers and sacrifices. The more children and women who die in childbirth, the more the prayers and sacrifices. Of course, to keep the wheel spinning the gods must occasionally allow a good harvest, and for child and mother to survive birth. But only now and then when it pleases them. Sounds about how casinos work, come to think of it.

Odysseus did in time return to rocky Ithaca, but as with many a war veteran, the man who came back was not the one who went away. He is changed. That change is the dynamic of the latter part of the book. He returns short-tempered, easily bored, lustful, violent, and voting Republican. Yet in some ways he is what he always was. This schizoid duality makes sense in these pages. Penelope plays her part, too.

M Miller circe.jpg Madeline Miller

The author brings this world of the gods to life with razor sharp insights, exhilarating prose, penetrating details, and a profound compassion. Yet no punches are pulled. None. The violence rips the page. The arrogance of the gods burns the eye of the reader. The duplicity of mortals in this world is bottomless. All this is true, yet Circe delights in spring flowers and warm sand underfoot. Penelope abides. Telemachus is straight as an oak.

Her earlier book 'The Song of Achilles' is reviewed elsewhere on this blog with the same acclaim.

While pulling these remarks together I noticed a number of deprecating reviews, many of them video, by mouth-breathers (in Jim Rockford's phrase). It was amusing to watch a couple of these pygmies.

A self-indulgent memoir of time spent in Barcelona by the man with shag carpet for a typewriter, the rich, soft, deep pile of his prose remains but in this instance it is largely devoid of substance. Well, unless a reader must know where Hughes drank sangria in 1983. For that information, this is the book.


Ostensibly a guide to the city, it a scrap book to selective memory mainly confined to his personal experiences. However, to his credit, and unlike some, he does note in passing the deep and murderous divisions among Spaniards. Their many failed attempts to find a modus vivendi and Hughes labours under no illusions about the future.

But all in all, it is a very short and lazy book that seems to have been spoken into a recorder and then typed. Even the final chapters on Antoni Gaudi’s architecture, though showing signs of research done long ago, seem trip with neither destination nor arrival.

roberthughes.jpg Robert Hughes

To sum up, it reads like the Fatigue of the Exhausted.

I chose it prior to a trip to Spain and to Barcelona but found it offered little of interest. He also has another, larger, book called ‘Barcelona’ (1993) to confuse readers.

The momentous five days are May 24 to May 28 1940 when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and overcame the resistance to his leadership within the War Cabinet and stiffened British resolve to resist Hitler and Naziism.

Five Days Luk.jpg

In so doing Churchill felt the pulse of the British people far more accurately than his many opponents, most gathered behind him in the Conservative Party. British resistance at the time of Dunkirk prevented Hitler from winning the war so that later American gold and Soviet corpses would win it.

These two paragraphs above sum up this book, the nature of which will be discussed at the end.

The story is without parallel. At age sixty-five Churchill became PM in the deepest crisis ever for Great Britain. His energy and concentration alone are noteworthy. His hour had come and he lived up to it. He was certainly the Greatest Britain.

First to the internal resistance. When Neville Chamberlain, over seventy himself stepped aside, after tumultuous scenes in parliament, he remained in the five-man War Cabinet, literally there was no one else at the starting line but Churchill. As PM he alone, it seemed, could restore order to Parliament which was elected in 1935 in far different circumstances. And many in the Conservative Party thought it best to let him try …. and fail, and then the real heir apparent could sweep up and take over. That was Edward Halifax (who had so many names and titles I gave up trying to keep track of them).

An aristocrat to the core, Halifax could not push himself forward but would wait to be called. He was, after all, a personal friend of the King, and a vastly experienced parliamentarian, diplomat, cosmopolitan, and more.

Why no one thought of calling new elections is not considered in this text.

As darkness grew with the fall of the Netherlands, the surrender of Belgium, the defeat in Norway, the collapse of France, the entry of Italy on Hitler’s side, the neutrality of the United States, Spanish troop movements near Gibraltar, the aggressive noise of Japan in Asia, the reluctance of Canada, many Brits wanted a truce with Germany.

While the British Expeditionary Force flailed, Churchill spent five days out-manoeuvring Halifax, Foreign Secretary in the War Cabinet, who kept on about a truce, a pause, an arrangement with Germany, brokered by France, by Belgium, by Italy, by the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. On and on he went in the super secret discussions, which remained secret at the time. According to the author, efforts were made subsequently by weeding archives to bury the secrets.

Halifax minced words, explored semantics, twisted meanings to find a way to open a mediated dialogue with Nazi Germany, anything to avoid another blood bath like World War I. He talked repeatedly with the Italian ambassador until Italy invaded France. He sought out informal intermediaries. He lunched with the King.

If there were a way to stop the war and guarantee Britain’s freedom by making concessions to the Naziis, Halifax wanted to discuss it. While nothing concrete remains on paper such an arrangement would involve leaving Europe to Nazi domination. Period. It might also involve emasculating Britain sufficiently so as not to pose a threat in the future to German domination of Europe by reducing the British fleet, by forcing it to withdraw from the Mediterranean and sacrifice Malta, Gibraltar, even Suez. Further it might involve disarmament, as it did for Vichy France in a few weeks. Would it also involve compliance with Nazi racial policies....starting with sending back refugees.

Churchill took the view from the start, albeit muted, that there was no point in trying to negotiate with Hitler. Either Hitler would propose impossible demands, or, if not, he would not keep his word. In either case for it to be known that Britain had begged for a separate peace on such terms would destroy British morale on the domestic front and comprise British standing on the international front with the Dominions and the United States.

The author makes a tenuous distinction between public opinion and popular sentiment in the era. The former, public opinion, was formed by the intellectual classes in newspaper articles, letters to the editor, lectures, universities, BBC interviews, essays, and the like. The opinion leaders were fearful of Germany’s might and had little confidence in Britain’s ability to withstand it. As a consequence many in these ranks were Defeatist to one degree or another. Some were admirers of Hitler. A small number wore the black shirt of Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats (16 November 1896 – 3 December 1980).

Popular sentiment in contrast was the silent majority of the day, largely working class, generally uneducated and unaware of the wider world, although a great many had served in World War I and the author seems to forget that. The author makes extensive use of reports from the Mass Observation Survey, begun in 1935, as a window on to this stratum. These reports were qualitative surveys of doorstop interviews, pub conversations, overheard remarks on buses, talk in queues at the market, or discussions exiting cinemas. Unsystematic to be sure, but rich in detail. Yes, that is true but it is also true they were a lot more like gossip than systematic observations in the specimens I have read.

Popular sentiment was resolutely patriotic with none of the weakening cosmopolitanism of the intellectual classes. Germans were the Hun, not the progeny of Brahams, Beethoven, and Bach. It also had a rugged confidence in muddling through and took pride in that. They had once crossed the Siegfried Line and could do it again. This was the heart beat that Churchill felt, because he shared it, and which he mobilised.

While it is not emphasised Churchill’s mastery of the forms of British parliamentary democracy and cabinet government gave him an advantage. He timed meetings of the cabinet of thirty where he had many supporters, War Cabinet where he had none, parliament, BBC speeches, and personal meetings to create support and momentum for his commitment to war, war, and more war, and so to undermine Halifax's position. In part his publicity campaign was to show to the United States and the Dominions that Britain would prevail.

While Dunkirk is mentioned, it is not the focus. In the foreground is the tactical conflict between Churchill and Halifax across the meeting table against the backdrop of the war. War Cabinet met two or three times a day.

For Halifax what was a stake in the war was the future of Britain. For Churchill what was at stake was Western Civilisation. It seems laughable to a jaded intellect today to say that, but that was both Churchill’s rhetoric and his perception. Naziism was a ravening and devouring beast that could not be caged, tamed, constrained, or reduced by negotiation and treaties. Even to try to treat with it was to become corrupted by its touch in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the world. To plead with this beast from a position of weakness was suicidal. In a few weeks the French example would prove that point.

While Halifax evidently thought negotiation, even if it failed would enhance rather than diminish Britain’s claim to the moral high ground. It would show that Britain had done everything possible to avoid war. That almost makes sense, until considering the sacrifices that would have to be offered or made to a Nazi dominated Europe and Mediterranean. The willingness to bargain away the defeated countries (some of which had formal alliances with Britain, many of whose fleeing citizens had taken refuge in England) and those that might follow would never be forgotten nor forgiven.

He also differed from Halifax and his ilk in another way. He saw Naziism as the greatest evil and threat to Western Civilisation. Whereas Halifax and his kind feared Communism above all else, and many had earlier seen in Naziism a bulwark against the Red Tide, as earlier had many German nationalist, liberals, monarchists, bankers, musicians, and jurists who supported or tolerated Hitler at the outset.

The comparison has to be France, where nothing was ever secret and where the disputes within cabinet were blood thirsty. Every remark in cabinet was in the boulevard press within the hour. The conflicts between cabinet members were personal, religious, regional, and racial as well as ideological. Finally, the French generals gave up before the politicians. They were ready to surrender before Paul Reynaud, the last Prime Minister. Indeed Reynaud resigned rather than surrender.

Three things then distinguished Britain, secrecy, impersonal argument, and military resolve.

Lukcas mug.jpg John Lukacs has a long list of impressive publications.

The book does not do the events justice. It treats Dunkirk and the decision-making about that as an annoyance to the cabinet machinations rather than central to it. It is replete with asides and ruminations that lead no where. Much of it is parsed in the negative, e.g., 'he was not entirely wrong,' 'there is some truth in this matter,' and so on. A manuscript like this submitted blind to a publisher today would be unlikely to be produced. ‘While the references to the Mass Observation reports are interesting, it is not convincing unless one is already convinced and then it confirms.’ That would be one of the many things an anonymous assessor might say.

I read it years ago and did not find it satisfactory but recent stimulation about Dunkirk brought it back to mind and I tried it again with the same result.

Cairo, May 1942. The Desert Fox is a hundred miles away or less. Where? No one is sure. But close. Of that everyone is sure. Despite prodigious efforts the British have been unable to staunch Erwin Rommel’s relentless advance.

City Gold cover.jpg

Egypt is a sovereign state with its own army, but it is neutral in this struggle. Its sovereign, the boy-king Farouk I, has invited the British to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal. Well, that is diplomatic fiction. The reality is that the British have occupied Egypt to protect the Canal, and thought it best to retain the façade of Egyptian sovereignty by leaving the king on the throne in the hope of stability in the rear.

Nationalists in Egypt are ready to welcome a Rommel victory as the means to end British domination and the corrupt local elite that thrives on that domination. Members of the Egyptian Army plot to that end, though there are many divisions among them.

British soldier Jim Ross arrives in Cairo in the custody of an MP who dies of food poisoning unexpectedly and quickly, and Ross switches places with the dead officer as a means of escape. But once in Cairo he is mistaken for that officer and soon finds himself growing into the role. That is a nice twist, and it is well realised.

Ross's assignment is to find Rommel’s spy in Cairo who is feeding the Desert Fox very detailed information about the British forces, deployments, morale, weapons, Egyptian nationalism, shipping in the Canal, promotion of officers, developments in the Sudan and more. Ross discovers he has a penchant for reading files and making inferences.

Into the mix come many others. There is a resident white Russian prince, a widowed nurse, a Jewish gun runner for the Haganah, Ross’s superior and subordinate officers, and the comely Alice who finds him a man of alluring mystery. Throughout is the rogue Wallingford, a man of infinite charm, bottomless self-confidence, utter audacity, and who is amorally unscrupulous enough to go into politics. Even with a gun to his head, he continues to bargain.

Each character has a personality, but the sharpest is certainly Sergeant-Major Ponsonby who runs the office, and much else. In a complicated set of circumstance Ponsonby is forced to comply with the request of the arrogant women, the wife of a high ranking officer. Meekly he does so. Then, in a phrase Ross learns to respect, Ponsonby makes ‘a few inquiries.’ The woman's request, though granted, seems thereafter never to progress through the works. At every stage it is misplaced, misfiled, mis-stamped, mis-signed, or mislaid. In the end Ponsonby is proved right, what she wanted was a bad mistake, and he explains the delays in action to Ross by saying 'the SMs stick together.'

There are also vivid portraits of Egyptians caught between the worlds of the past, the present, and the future. Though the reaction of one Egyptian seems mistaken to this reader. His enemy was the king not the nationalists, but plots must have their devices.

The source of Rommel’s spy is adroitly handled, and is evidently historical fact, though it was all news to me (again). Though the plot device creaked here in the person of Percy, the ersatz South African.

For those that must have it, there is also one skirmish as the Germans advance, and Ross is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Len Deighton's name on the cover is always a guarantee of high quality plot and prose.

Deighton.jpg Len Deighton
After false starts with some krimis I wanted something to read that I could and would read, so I turned to an old reliable. While sure I had read this before, I remembered nothing of it, not even as I read it. Hmmm. In any case it lived up to my hopes, it was engaging, informative, amusing, and enlightening with a story, a plot, characters, and such that the krimis that I had aborted did not have.

Moustaches, butter chicken, cricket, Pakistan, history, international intrigue, terrorism, samosas, this caper has it all!

India’s greatest PI is once again on the job. That is PI as in Private Investigator not as in Principle Investigator. Vish Puri by name, he lives in Delhi but in this outing his travels include Mumbai and…. Pakistan! Gasp! It is further away and more alien than Mars, New Jersey, or Indian take away in Ballarat!

Butter cover.jpg

While at a banquet after an Indian Super League cricket match in which his nephew played, Vish is there when a visiting Pakistani falls dead, face down in a dish of butter chicken. Holy samosas! Vish had earlier espied this Paki skulking about in the garden, though he did admit that all Pakistanis skulk as far as he is concerned. This dramatic death throws Vish off the current case of the moustache-napper. There are contenders for the title of the longest moustache in India and they are being shaved in their sleep! The mo disappears and a clean lip remains. Nothing is sacred in secular India!

His team consists of Tubelight, Handbreak, Facecream, and assorted others contracted in when needed. Back in the office Madame coordinates. It is a smooth operation, usually, mostly, sometimes. He meets contacts around Delhi in air conditioned ATM lounges (cages), those glassed in ones, where he sticks up a ‘Closed’ sign to deter others while in conference. No tricks are missed.

Along the way, much Indian cuisine is consumed, and why not. He has stuck a dowel in the bathroom scales so his weight remains constant when Madame checks him, which is all too frequently.

The plot thickens with international gamblers, Scotland Yard detectives, a digital gecko, and more. It become necessary for Vish to travel to Pakistan! He spends some time trying to avoid it, but in the end, applies for a visa, and after more delay crosses the border, where he expects to be murdered immediately. He is astonished to find he is treated civilly and respectfully. In the end what drove him to go was not the case but the chance at tasting a delicacy in Lahore. This is not the cesspit of violence and corruption he had expected.

There is much about the terrible days of the Partition, enough to put anyone off religion as Muslims hacked up Hindis who happily reciprocated.

Partition cover.jpg An unknown story to me.

The sins of fathers and mothers live on.

In fact the murder was part of the long fall-out of those dark days. Much to his surprise Vish finds several Pakistanis who are stalwart and amiable, and they share information. But he also discovers that his Mummy, who has long had a penchant for interfering in his investigations, much to his annoyance, has a deep and dark past. In fact, she was a secret agent for the Indian Rescue and Recovery Commission during Partition and went on many dangerous missions, as one of his new Pakistani associates tells him with admiration. ‘Mummy!’ Vish cannot believe it but somehow it fits. Not a word has she ever spoken of those days.

Together they crack the case of the murder and also the international gambling, while the team finds the mo-napper.

Much of the subject is serious, but the touch is light, and while the history is detailed, it is crucial to the plot and focussed, as well as informative. I also found enlightening Vish’s defence of India as a society compared to Pakistan and its generals. India may have corruption and incompetence galore but it has never resorted to the rule of the gun. Another a good show.

This novel is a tribute to Universal Studio’s ‘The Mummy’ (1932) which spawned continual imitations, successors, parodies, and mutations.  There have been so many successors that they have nearly obscured the fount. The original, by the by, is moody, understated, and terse, whereas most of the spawn are bland, bloated, and blurred.  

Mummy cover.jpg

It starts with a museum of antiquities in Cambridge (England) among myopic bookworms and nerds, along with some shadowy figures who turn to kidnapping when Google Translate fails, and a dark prince.  In addition, far away there is a newly discovered and untouched tomb in the Egyptian desert.  With these ingredients the ride should be fun! It is a mile a minute once the big gong sounds! 
The prize Mummy in the Cambridge Museum breaks out of the glass case that has held its 4000 year old remains. Gulp! He staggers around with an ancient hangover. Woe to anyone who gets in his way.  Careful, all ye who look upon Mummy!

Soon the Brotherhood of Wannabe Villains appears to assist Mummy, while the Librarians rally to oppose them. Caught between are assorted Gypo nerds. There is a demonic cat. Feline situation normal.  

The cast assembles in the desert where they find the requisite dusty diggers under the direction of Maggie, a fiery site manager, who scares the Mummy.  In a straight-up no-holds-barred fight Maggie against the Mummy, the fraternity brothers bet on the Mags, but then changing the odds, the evil queen-pharaoh is reanimated for the showdown in a gore feast. Bad! Good! Turns out, at the moment of truth it was the wrong Mummy! How’s that for a plot twist. It is so hard for evil queens to hire good help for an eternity.  Incantations, EEO, hexes, KPIs, mesmerism, spells, LSAT, GPS, minimum wage; nothing is enough!

There are flash backs to the Lost Dynasty Egypt to explain the shrouded players: the priest, the pharaoh-queen, the rebel, and…[was there a cat?].  These seem to go on a little but it is all relevant at the end.  

The prose is expository, no flourishes, no elevation, no psychological depth, no big words, but well paced.  The characters are differentiated in manner and speech. It reads like a film script to some extent, a comment that would please the author, I expect.  

I came across Robin Bailes’s ‘Dark Corners’ movie reviews on You Tube by accident but once I found them, they became addictive.  The man has a razor tongue and a mastery of the form with few equals. His five-minute reviews are informative, amusing, insightful, and devastating.  Other reviewers on You Tube are, by comparison, self-indulgent, verbose, unfocused, and boring. Better yet, I lodged a suggestion for a film to review and he replied, and later screened the review acknowledging my suggestion. That feedback loop worked, a rarity that.


I signed on as a You Tube follower, became a regular hit at his web site, donated to his cause at Paetreon, and now bought this, his first novel, does all of this make me a Bailesee?  

Deep space travel is routine and many planets have been surveyed. There was nothing of interest about the planet Solaris and so it was ignored for years.  An astronomer then noted that its orbit was odd. Because it circles a double star, one red and the other blue, its orbit should be erratic but it does not confirm to the laws of physics. (The same is often said of the fraternity brothers.)

Solaris cover.jpg

Solaris receives closer inspection.  It is nearly completely covered by an ocean with only a few rocky outcrops like a few tufts of hair on a bald man's head.  Landing parties use those but cannot find anything relevant, but they do see that the ocean’s motion is varied and unexpected.  Again they wonder about the laws of physics. After years of study, the field of Solaristics concludes there is an intelligence in the ocean regulating the orbit by some means. The book is replete with a gentle satire about academic specialisation as an end-in-itself.

More studies fatten cvs and efforts to stimulate communication are made using radio waves, ion streams, pictures of Mother Teresa, neutrino bombardments, pamphlets, and an unauthorised use of intense x-rays and other more destructive means to no avail.  Solaris seems immutable like reasoning with a Republican. 

A research station is placed in orbit to observe with a crew of three on a three-year stint and has been there for years. Then the one day commander of this station a the time requests base to send a psychologist.  Isolation in space does lead to mental problems so shrink Kris Kelvin is dispatched.  The novel opens with his arrival and the preceding information emerges piecemeal.

No one greets him. Odd. No one seems to be about. Odd.  Moreover, there is disorder everywhere. This is no way to run a space station!  He finally finds one of the scientists cowering behind a barricaded door. The other scientist will not leave his lab and speak to Kris. The plot thickens.

The commander who asked for the visit committed suicide that very morning. Odd! What to do?  Kelvin decides to examine the corpse in the best tradition of the police procedural.  En route he hears barefoot steps and passes a large black woman in tribal dress. She blankly ignores him. He is astounded. That is only the beginning. 

Cutting to the case, each member of the crew has a spectral guest. It is someone a memory of whom is found deeply etched in his psyche. This is not necessary someone he wants, but it is the deepest, most ingrained memory. In Kelvin’s case his guest is Harey, a girlfriend who also committed suicide, so that he feels guilt, regret, and remorse.

These guests, the crew concludes, are from the Solaris ocean which is engaged in a Communicate with the Humans Project of its own. The Solaris guests have assumed the identities they have because of the importance of the memories to each scientist. Once embodied the guest seems to know a lot but have no memories of specifics. Harey is sweet and clingy but has no idea how she came to be there, but strangely she knows things about Kelvin that occurred after her own death.  Evidently to some extent the guest can tap the host’s mind. But the commander’s guest has remained after his death! Talk about overstaying a welcome!

Various methods are tried to analyse the guests and to eject them from the station but they keep coming back.  Meanwhile, Kelvin finds it easy to have Harey around.  They engage in many conversations as she becomes aware that she is some kind of aberration, clone, replicant, or dream.  
She is a virtual reality girlfriend. She is self-conscious, intelligent, capable of learning but she can never be more than Kelvin’s memories of her. In that way she is limited, and realising all of this she grows despondent. Of course the fraternity brothers wanted to know whether she is full functional but that is not made explicit.

There are many conversations with one of the scientists about the ocean, god, creation, Amex bills, morality, metaphysics, ontology, bratwurst, on and on.  It is talky.  We never find out about the other guests, nor is there any contact with the ocean.  It is all trip and no arrival.

Is the omnipresent but uncommunicative behemoth of the ocean of Solars a metaphor for.... Soviet Communism viewed from the observation platform of Poland?  Or just a yarn?

It is a meticulously written and original work to read it today, let alone more than fifty years ago.  I sat through the Soviet 1972 film version years ago without it making any impression on me apart from the cruel and unusual  length of three turgid hours.  

socviet solaris.jpg The Grand Jury at Cannes is made of stronger stuff than am I.

But in the age CGI Über Alles I expect it will have to be done again one day. No, I have not seen the Yankee 2002 version either, well, except for some scenes that I came across somewhere.

Solaris USA.jpg

Channel flipping, no doubt.

A bildungsroman of sorts as Gully Foyle grows and changes with his experiences, and the greatest changes occur at the instruction of women. The first is the one-way telepathic black woman whom he rapes and, in a way, sets free. Later they form a team of convenience.  The second is Jiz whose influence on him is considerable, making him grow and change.  Finally is the White Icicle who attracts and repels him in equal measure. Least influential but last is Moira, the stay at home.

Foyle cover.jpg

Gully begins the story as an uneducated barely verbal spaceship hand on the Nomad. Think of the channel 7Mate demographic without the drooling and scratching and you have him.  By the end he is richer than all the cynics who own Channel 7Mate put together.

The Nomad is a wreck floating in space and Gully alone has survived the attack by dumb luck and a resourcefulness he did not know he had.   A friendly spaceship hoves into view and he signals it, quickly and repeatedly.  Yet it passes him by, contrary to all the laws, rules, norms, and ethics of spaceflight.

Thereafter he swears revenge on that ship.  Driven by that desire he survives, and later prospers, and learns, and seeks the guilty ship.  The adventures are many, the plot twists are deft, the characters differentiated, the settings detailed and followed through, and the science fiction is etched into the story and the characters.  

The first, and as it turns out, the last key, to the narrative is that in this world of 2550 teleportation is as common as walking is today.  To move from one place to another one teleports oneself, clothes included and anything one is carrying or holding.  Distance varies with ability and practice.  It is safer than walking since there are no crazed drivers on King Street to dodge.  The method is a mental discipline developed by a Mr. Jaunte, and so it is ‘to jaunte.’ The telekinesis involved is crucial to the narrative and the denouement.  

There are three treasures in this quest.  First is a vast fortune of Credits 20 billion, where a hundred credits is a great deal of money.  Second is a rare mineral that releases vast quantities of energy, far exceeding uranium and its mutant cousins.  Third is Foyle himself, much to his own surprise, and to the reader, too.  

There is much satire of the super rich, so much it grew tedious to read, but it is fitted to the overall plot like a jewel in a ring.  In a world where movement is by thought conspicuous consumption to signal one’s riches becomes conspicuous transportation.  

Nicely embedded in that satire is Foyle’s hiding in plain sight for a part of the time, as the most ostentatious and conspicuous transportee, while he seeks leads to the hated ship.  Although his choice of an alias was a quick and certain give away it took the villains a long time to figure it out.  

There are also a couple of surprising passages for a 1956 publication about the role of women in this wealthy society, sequestered, hidden, and rather like pets in a zoo.  None of that applies to the first three women whom he encounters, though the last one is of that sort of society.  Finally he returns to Moria as we all do. One is an illegal immigrant and the second a convict.

Without any explicit comment, Bester also shows a society with deep, very deep class divisions so that members of the working class where Foyle started, are barely educated, civilised just enough to do a job like living machines. Indeed he is so dense that at first the target for his vengeance is the spaceship itself.  Only later does understand that the crew made the decision and then he targets them, but in time the realises that the captain gave the order. 

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There is no preaching by the author but the reader gets that point.  So much Sy Fy is spoiled by childish preaching by the author using the keyboard as if it were a sledgehammer to drive points home to the dense reader all too much like the morons on Fox News yelling at the camera.

bester.jpg Alfred Bester

Another flaw that has stopped me reading a few Sy Fy titles is the ostentatious erudition that some author parade to show how clever they are, like the pointless CGI of so many movies, but which advances neither plot nor character.  This title is free of that egomania.

That it opens with an excerpt from William Blake’s most famous poem which is integrated into both plot and character.  

I read it in an adolescent Sy Fy phase but had forgotten all the details.

By the by, holding physical objects accountable for the consequences arising from them may seem absurd to us — we know the spaceship itself did nothing — but Athenians did not. A building block that fell and killed some would be tried, sentenced, and smashed.

The spaceship Invincible with its formidable array of technologies and a very experienced crew of space explorers arrives at Regis III to find its sister ship Condor which landed there two years before and has since failed to report.

Great precautions are taken. Force fields and robots are deployed. There is a lot of science in the text about these machines and their programs. The crew numbers about eighty. They find Condor and most of its like-numbered crew are dead. Despite full larders on the ship the doctors are sure most of the Condor's crew starved to death. Very strange. Was it one of those fad diets!

Invincible cover.jpg

There are no signs of life on the inhospitable planet. If Condor had surveyed it and left, the planet would probably not have been bothered again since there seems to be nothing there of interest or use and there are so many other worlds to visit.

But now there is a mystery to solve. What happened to the Condor’s crew? Exploration occurs. Speculation is riff. The scientists compete in boring each other to death with wild hypotheses.

Then some of their crew go off the air. They are present in the flesh but seem unconscious though wide awake. Think of a Republican congressman and there it is. Mouth open but brain off. This happened to more of them every time that black cloud is around. The black cloud is around more and more.

The black cloud is in fact comprised of a myriad of tiny, fly-sized, microbots evolved from some alien technology of a race long since dead, say two million years ago. The bots surround one’s head and that net burns out the electricity in the brain and makes one into a slavering idiot incapable of anything, eating, drinking, hailing a bus; the victims are only able to vote for Australian idol.

They try to fight the bots with the Invincible’s mighty array of weapons, blowing up a good part of the planet but not landing a punch on these micro-terrorists. Sounds like the foreign policy of some stupor power does it not?

In the end the Captain finally capitulates and decides to blast off, but first the crew has to be accounted for. One principle of space flight, says the Captain, is that no one is left behind alive by mistake or purpose.

Since no Republicans were handy, they hit on putting colanders and tin foil on their heads to hide their brain activity, and set about retrieving their dead and missing. This method works per innumerable Sy Fy movies.

Off they go.

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Stanislav Lem wrote reams of Sy Fy, including the novel on which is based the movie ‘Der Schweigende Stern’ (1960) reviewed elsewhere on this blog, though his novel lacks the propaganda inserted into the movie, which insertion led Lem to withdrawing from the production per the official web site of Stanislav Lem.

The initial mystery is intriguing and the description of the apparatus of the Invincible is detailed but mostly superfluous to the plot, story, and characterisations. After such a detailed and long built up the climax seems a squib.

A superb novel that traces the early life and career of the Spartan Gylippus of the Fifth Century BC. He was a major figure in the Peloponnesian War and the spine of the novel is derived from Thucydides’s ‘History’ of that war.

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There is much insight into the inner workings of Sparta. The author knows the detail well but wears the learning lightly, though making no concessions to readers by spelling everything out. The reader is left to figure it out when Greek terms are used or to refer to the glossary at the end.

The divisions in Sparta are well realised. There are personal and clan rivalries and also personal ambition. As one character says much later to Gylippus from the outside the Spartans appear as one man. Hardly. The author makes the Spartans all too human, at times vain, myopic, venal, ambitious, resentful. But those tensions are played out behind many curtains.

Athenians are no better and their fractious conflicts are largely played out in the open air.

The contrast to Gylippus is the Athenian Nikias, another giant from the pages of Thucydides. Nikias does all in his considerable power to avoid war, and rejects command twice when it is thrust on him, and yet he dies in the war on duty,

Readers of Thucydides will know that the crucible for both Gylippus and Nikias was the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The arc of the story begins with the Athenian reduction, pillage, and rape of Melos, where the cry ‘The Athenians are coming!’ anticipated the German cry ‘The Russians are coming!’ in 1945.

That was Athenian democracy at work. The opening scene of the Athenian slaughter of chained Melian prisoners and then forcing the surviving women to stack the bodies of their faheres, husbands, sons, and burn them are gruesome indeed. After that the rape begins, followed by a slave market. Two young girls escape, and though that was unlikely, as a plot device it takes them to Sicily for later events.

We went to Melos in 2007 as homage to this atrocity.

On a pretext Athens invaded Sicily to seize the island and its agricultural wealth now that the Persians have closed the Egyptian grain trade. The expedition was gigantic and command was divided and proved contradictory, aggressive in one instance, and passive in another. Nikias searched for a political solution to accommodate the appetite of the demos on the Pnyx in Athens, while the other generals wanted a battle in which to be a hero. There is no pretence at unity among the Athenians.

Melos had appealed to Sparta for help in deterring the Athenians, but Sparta did not act.

In Sicily the democratic city of Syracuse likewise appealed to Sparta, and Sparta sent one man, and that was enough. ‘Throughout time allies did not sent to Sparta for ships, or money, or soldiers, but for one man,’ said Plutarch.

The divisions within Syracuse are well realised, and full of the irony of reality. The staunch defenders of democratic Syracuse’s independence are the oligarchs, while the Syracusean democrats sell out to the invading Athenians at every opportunity. They do so not for ideological reasons but because they hate the oligarchs.

The Athenians expect a show of force will bring Syracuse to its collective knees, and are mildly surprised by the resistance, but they remain confident that Sparta will not act. Though Nikias is less confident about this than his associates. Indeed he is so very cautious that he does not want to risk a battle for the gods can be fickle and his army is a long way from home, so he set about winning local allies on the island, establishing a supply base and so on. Time passes with small skirmishes.

Then comes Gylippus. There is a marvellous scene where the Athenians are marching around the walls of Syracuse in a demonstration of shock and awe when they encounter in a field a battle-line of hoplites standing at rest. The raw Syracuseans do not stand easy. When they lined up for a battle earlier, they fidgeted, wavered, squirmed, twisted, turned, and all but ran long before the fighting started. Not so on this day. The line is firm.

The Athenian force is great and this opposing line is much less and it is near the end of the daylight. Yet these hoplites stand calm and relaxed with their shield turned side ways to the Athenians. The Athenians approach and then on command the hoplites turn the shields faces catching the last rays of the setting sun to the Athenians who then see the lambda on the shields for Laconia, or Sparta.

Spartan shield lamda.jpg The shield is big enough for a man to hide behind it when the arrows fly. Together with body armour from toe to head the load on a hoplite was about thirty kilograms in battle.

The Sparta have, this time, come, about a thousand of them face this Athenian contingent of perhaps five times that number. The frisson through the Athenian ranks is electric. Spartans! Darkness falls and no battle is joined but the news travels fast and by sunset everyone knows the Spartans have come.

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Game on. Over the next three years there is much cat-and-mouse between the protagonists, each undermined by rivals there and back home. Both Nikias and Gylippus have a two-front war, one military the other is a double political one with their respective home cities and local allies.

While Gylippus did not come quite alone, he came with only a token force compared to the forty thousand in the Athenian expedition. He relied on the defensive walls of the city and concentrated on cutting Athenians supply lines and stealing silver from them so they could pay the mercenaries that comprised the bulk of their forces.

Nikias was often infirm but he was not permitted by the demos to resign and he dared not leave on his own initiative for the demos had more than one unsuccessful general put to death, sometimes along with a few relatives to drive the point home. Likewise Gylippus, frustrated as he is by his reluctant allies in Syracuse, cannot go home without a victory.

The use Hermocrates makes of the two escapees from Melos is cleverly done by the writer. The exposition of the divisions within Syracuse are well set out though the Athenian sympathisers are largely cardboard. The author leaves aside the larger question that confuses modern readers, how could democratic Athens attack democratic Syracuse. The answer is, of course, that Athens by this time would eat anything. Even as this expedition was launched there was talk of Carthage, then but a legend.

The writer’s wit, insight, sympathy for the principal characters and the way he interprets the facts recorded by Thucydides is wonderful.

J E Martin.jpg Jon Martin

Clearly he has walked over all the ground he describes and done so with a sponge in his mind soaking it all up. I read his ‘Shades of Artemis’ (2004) about Brasidas some years ago and found it fine, too.

Third in a series of novels about life in the Yorkshire Dales of England: Low key, rural, disarming, and downright charming. The eponymous hero is one Gervase Phinn, school inspector. Some will remember these (in)spectors who were often the object of fear and trembling.

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Gervase is one of a team of four inspectors presided over by a senior inspector assisted by a secretary. This unit in turn reports to head office at the county. They are employed by the county but work to rules set by the Ministry of Education in distant London. Whatever the organisational chart, they are a small unit within a large organisation, combing the best and worst of each kind of organisation.

The master narrative is Phinn’s life and career. In this entry it is his second year on the job and in these pages he gets married to Christine and they set up house in a 'builder’s delight' of a cottage on the Dales, which are lovingly described.


Think of the countryside of ‘All Creatures Great and Small.’ Their efforts to make the cottage habitable are monitored by a neighbour who makes many observations, all of them laconic and most of them ironic, careful always never to lift a finger to help.

At work Phinn visits schools, sits in classrooms, talks to children, and attends one speech day after another. He also participates in staff development exercises at a training centre. The bulk of the novel strings together such episodes, many of which are delightful, as when a five year old girl in a class asks him how to spell ‘sex.’ No spoiler.

At Christmas he sits through four nativity plays in schools as he delivers the end of year reports. Dreary it may sound. Repetitive it may seem. But in the telling it is neither. The four plays are done in different ways, and Phinn, the writer, has the eye and ear for detecting those differences and conveying them to the reader. Wonderful.

At work the senior inspector and head of the unit, Harold, announces that he will take very early retirement in a few months, meanwhile a successor is appointed. In due course a much credentialed new senior inspector is named. Prior to taking up the job he pays several visits to the unit and the county office.

He speaks but McKinsey and talks but key performance indicators.


He bristles with changes and more change, and further change. Everything must change from the colour of ink in the reports to the number of rings of the telephone before answering. Everything must change from the time spent on task to the numerical indicators harvested from audits. Bullet points must replace text and text must replace bullet points. He is a very image of the modern major manager. As much as he is caricature he is also reality. In his hours of consultation, where he does all the talking, he never mentions children, teachers, schools, learning, or education. But the generic McKinsey-speak rolls on, and on. [Pause.]

Each of the members of the unit reacts to him. The Irish woman, Geraldine, is the first to realise the news is bad. Later when they catch on, David and Sidney are stunned into silence, an unusual state for either. Julie, the office secretary starts looking for another job. When this McKinsey clone refers to Connie at the training centre as the janitor, she …. and gets her revenge. She is the building supervisor! And proud of it!

The cast of characters is an amusing lot and given plenty of page time in the manner of all those character actors that enliven Frank Capra movies.

Lest it all seem light as air, note that there are serious moments. When David, with his usual insensitivity makes a stupid, sexist joke concerning unwed teenage mothers, both Geraldine and Connie set him straight in a one-two punch combination.

More than once Phinn is confronted by the conundrum of means and ends. The Ministry requires teachers to keep a tidy classroom, plan every teaching activity two weeks in advance, make written records of each class meeting, involve students in activities in prescribed ways, improve students language use and written expression in measured steps, and so on. This is the administrative approach to teaching much favoured by administrators and ostensibly it is the means to the end of education. Most teachers comply and most are adequate, and nothing more. Consider that approach applied to gardening for a moment to see it weakness. The plants are growing all the time in unplanned ways right now, not two weeks from now. A neat and well organised gardner may nonetheless have a dead garden.

But Gervase encounters in these pages two extraordinary exceptions. The first has a chaotic classroom in which the children do most of the talking as they explain things to each other. The room is untidy. Extremely! There is no plan. But there is excitement, curiosity, focus, learning, engagement, interaction, experimentation, argument, and more which the teacher seems to manage with hints and materials. It is all palpable but ineffable on the pages of the pro forma of the report Phinn must complete. Which is the priority? The Ministry standards or the children’s learning, because they are certainly learning, of that he has no doubt. Hmmm. Of the second deviant teacher there will be more in a moment.

Drafted to speak to a ladies’ club. He meets the president at her home where she orders her husband, Winco she calls him, to and fro like a wind-up toy. She blusters and demands and Winco complies with an amiable ‘Righto’ on each occasion. Phinn finds them both pathetic.

Only later does Phinn realise the Winco has every medal the RAF bestows, Distinguished Service Cross, Battle of Britain Ace, George Cross, two Life Saving ribbons, and others and that ‘Winco’ is short for ‘Wing Commander.’ Still later he learns that this woman was a Air Raid Warden with her own set of medals for pulling people from burning buildings while delivering babies in the rubble with the other hand. Never judge a book by its cover contra Bill Byson who never does anything else.

Gervase visits a Church of England school where all the most delinquent and troublesome students are sent within the high walls around it. Most of the teachers are rugby players. Most go through the motions with the sub-verbal, primeval slime they see as their students but are well organised with pristine paperwork. Phinn is shadowing one such amoeba who surprises him by her anticipation for the last class of the day, Religion. Huh? Well, he is not sure. She does not seem the sort to be ironic, but she is also difficult to understand mumbling through lip and tongue studs with a thick accent and three-word vocabulary.

Lo and behold! These students who have been indifferent and hostile in every other class that day, are completely rapt in Religion. The instructor goes at the Bible as though it were a football game, narrating the stories and eliciting reactions from the bleachers, and react they do! With four-letter words unusable for a family blog like this. Pontius Pilate gets a right barracking! At the end, they file out arguing about their reactions of events just unfolded. Engaged they are! Learning they have been, but how to square that with the Ministry pro forma? That is the question.

Gervase_Phinn.jpg Gervase Phinn

The book ends with a school fete and a verse reciting contest which Phinn must judge. His previous experiences at judging were none to happy. However deservingly obvious is the winner, the others have parents with a great deal to say. It is climatic, and great fun.

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.

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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.

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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.  

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.

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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.

The Lázaro men are carpenters and in their workshop there is backroom, usually kept closed, full of broken down pianos - the cemetery of the title. That much I got. It is set in Lisbon.

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Our narrator, who speaks from beyond the grave, recounts his life story and within that his discovery of his father’s life story. In both his father’s story and his own the piano cemetery figures.

In effect, this is a domestic drama with piano music on the radio in the background. While some pianos are repaired, notably a bar-room grand piano in the early pages there is too little about pianos. What is important is the locked room where his father dallied with women, and where our narrator does, too, or dreams of doing so; I am not sure which. I also got confused about where the narrator was the father or the son. Perhaps that Braque superimposition was intentional, but I found it confusing.

There is nothing specifically Portuguese about the story; it is deracinated. Though a few streets are traversed, they could be anywhere. Nor am I sure of the epoch. There are references to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm as long ago.

Some of the descriptions of the atmosphere within the workshop are very fine as are the luminous descriptions of the narrator’s young love.

Now if there were a story to hang those onto, it would be of interest. Instead, the narration turns back onto itself, and like snake swallowing it own tail it disappears.

Peixoto.jpg José Luis Peixoto

It has been well reviewed in ‘The Times’ (London) and ‘The Financial Times,’ and it has many stars in Good Reads reviews. He has many other titles.

This is homework for our Iberian travels in the future.

A journalistic account of the Amber Room, once of the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg in Russia. It is indeed journalistic, disjointed, breathless, unfocussed, self-centred, inaccurate, and clumsy. One reader’s opinion.

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The Amber Room was an Eighth Wonder of the World in its day. Wondrous, indeed it is.

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First, what is amber? It is the resin dripped from the trees in the primordial forests that flourished where the Baltic Sea is now. In time it is fossilised into a soft stone, let us say for the sake of illustration. That was millions of years ago. The smell in a pine forest is carried by the resin excreted by the trees. In sustained hot weather it drips from the trees. The drips pile on top of each other in clumps like small stalagmites. With rain and then climate change these clumps on the forest floor were washed into the rivers and thence into the emerging and enlarging Baltic Sea where tidal action drives it into pockets along the shore. Most clumps are the size of a golf ball or smaller, which are too heavy to float on top and too light to sink to the bottom and stay there.

amber-red-kaliningrad-russia.jpg.png Red amber.

Amber has been valued as jewellery since human habitation in the region. In time artisans learned how to work it, by carving and polishing and then later using heat to shape it, then to dye it with vegetable extracts, wine, or honey. Most prized became clear pieces in which an insect was trapped by the sticking, dripping resin. These were talismen for pre-historic Nordic peoples. We saw some spectacular examples of such jewels in our Baltic sojourn in 2016.

One of the prizes of the Baltic Coast of Prussia was amber. There is a superb krimi which is set among the women who harvested amber for the Hanseatic market in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Michael Gregorio, 'A Visible Darkness: A Mystery’ (2011), one in a series based on a judicial officer, Hanno Stiffeniis. Very atmospheric and detailed.


In the Prussian court of the Seventeenth Century there occurred a rivalry among architects, artists, decorators, and artisans for the favour of a new queen, Charlotte, later of Charlottenburg Palace. One competitor who was being displaced by younger rivals, knowing the King’s reluctance to part with a pfenning devised a project based on using what was already in storehouses, tons of amber in those clumps. There followed a technological leap from small items of jewellery to panels twelve feet high and three or four feet wide.

At the time an ounce of amber was more than ten times the value of an ounce of pure gold. It was more rare and precious than gold by a factor of ten. It had been stockpiled because the cost of the jewels limited the market. No other Baltic country had such riches of amber on its shores, thanks to the peculiarities of tidal action, location of ancient forest, etc. The idea of using what was sitting in the basement appealed to the king, and the project started to create an amber room, i.e., a room panelled in amber. Extraordinary as it was it did not find favour and the panels, once made, went back to the storeroom.

In 1701 Prussia and Russia were allies against the Swedish juggernaut, and to seal the deal the Prussian king wanted to entrench himself with Peter the Great, Tsar of all the Russians. Peter had a fondness for amber, and ‘Voilà!’ There was the answer, a gift like no other to someone who would appreciate it. The amber panels were packed up and dispatched to St Petersburg. Peter was overwhelmed but there was a war on and the panels stayed in boxes.

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The Tsarinas who succeeded Great Peter did have the panels mounted to create a room but moved it several times. It is fragile when extended to the size of panels and there must have been breakage but no details were recorded. Then the German Tsarina, who had grown up with amber jewellery, came to the throne and she made what became known as the Amber Room in the eponymous Catherine (the Great) Palace, a summer residence outside St Petersburg. Walls were lined with gold and silver leaf foil and the amber placed over it interspersed with mirrors. In flickering candle light, with bejewelled courtiers moving about the very walls themselves would seem also to teem with life.

There it stayed, surviving the revolutions and upheavals until 1942 when the advance of German armies targeted Leningrad, as the city had become. The order went out to all Soviet cultural institutions west of the Ural Mountains to pack up everything and ship it east. So much easier said than done. None of the curators had experience in moving whole collections and everything necessary for the task was in short supply, from timber for packing cases, to men to load them, to railway cars to transport them.

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In the Catherine Palace the Amber Room was the obvious priority, the problem was how to dismantle it without destroying it, and then how to ship it over roads and rails under aerial attack. Heating in the Palace over the years had made the amber brittle, even more fragile as early efforts indicated. If cracked, some pieces simply disintegrated into dust. In the end the responsible curators could not square this circle and to the sound of German artillery decided to hide the Amber Room with its tons of amber by papering over the walls and painting the floor and in another adjacent room they tried to make it look like wall panels had been removed from it. Nice try.

As the Wehrmacht advanced there followed in its train the treasure hunters, special units commissioned by Hermann Göring to loot treasures and send them back to the Reich. The Amber Room was at the top of the list for these units approaching Leningrad.

The Germans occupied the Catherine Palace area quickly and the Amber Room disappeared as the siege of Leningrad began.

From this point onward information is fragmentary, partial, hearsay, distorted, self-serving, false, and incomplete. In the crisis of war and battle records were not always kept in detail and many such records as were made became collateral damage in the German advance and then three years later in the Russian advance. The Red Army was followed by its own treasure hounds to reclaim looted goods and to loot more as reparations. At the top of their list was…. The Amber Room.

The records that do exist show that the German treasure hunters found the room quickly and dismantled it in thirty-six hours! That is hard to credit. There is no record of how much damage was done in that haste. The German records show that the trove and much else from the east was shipped to Königsberg, the historic capital of Prussia where it was placed in the Castle Museum. This city is so far east it is now in Russia, Kaliningrad, once home to Soviet boomers.

In January 1945 the Russians were coming and the RAF was bombing Königsberg to block the harbour, destroy the railroad yards, cut roads, and then to destroy the town itself. Half the Castle was destroyed either by RAF bombs or Red Army artillery. A few weeks later, after the Soviets had taken over the rest of it was burned either by accident or design. On one of these occasions the amber of the Amber Room went with it.

K castle.jpg Königsberg Castle in 1945.

Everything after the initial receipt at Königsberg is vexed, contradictory, inconsistent, undocumented, rife with conspiracy theories, and lost. Despite the many years the authors spent on the trail, they found nothing because there was nothing to find. This fact is disguised by the pitiless details that are heaped up in the book as though altitude yielded enlightenment. The authors, seemingly fluent in both Russian and German went here, there, and everywhere in Russia and Germany to track down survivors and records. The ensuing discussions were fruitless and the records scant, Instead we have endless detail of the number of stairs climbed, the knocks on the door, the shuffling feet heard inside, the second knock, the forms filled out in archives, the colour and feel of empty file folders, the cigarettes smoked by interviewees, the aroma of the tea offered, the mercenary attitude of Russian museum staff, the apologetic demeanour of German curators, and on and on. A traveller across a desert may describe in detail a mirage, but it remains a mirage, and these two travellers have described in detail the illusions they chased…to no avail. It is all trip with no arrival.

My impatience with the journalistic style together with the dawning realisation that there was no story to tell, led me to reading only every other page and then later every other chapter. I did not miss anything. This was a technique I learned in graduate school to cope with the impossible reading assignments, though with that reading I did miss a lot. Though even with this stream-lined approach it was still heavy going.

Having heard many stories of our Russian travels, a friend lent me this book. He said it was overlong. What a subtle understatement. As to substance it is indeed overlong, as to content it is short. Fully three-quarters of it is puff. By the way the giant equestrian statue near the Arsenal in St Petersburg mentioned early in the book is of Peter the Great, not Catherine the Great. Nor is Saxony south-east of Königsberg on map. Perhaps a new prescription for contact lens is in order.

Scoot and Levy.jpg Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Yes the book has a lot to say about the rivalries among curators, the terrible political infighting, the disastrous wars, the personalities involved, but such subjects are treated in many far better books by historians, biographers, and novelists than this effort. It is described as a best seller, but what is not so described today.

For an orderly and succinct exposition of the Amber Room turn to Wikipedia. A replica was completed in the 1990s and we saw it on our tour of the Catherine Palace. It is indeed a wonder though lacking in the mystique of the original.

The word ‘Timbuktu’ entered vernacular English in 1863 as the most distant place imaginable, according to the OED. It has had many spellings over the years but the one used here is the standard in Wikipedia. Most who have heard the word take it to be mythical, but in fact it can be found on a map, in the sub-Sahara West African nation of Mali.

Timbu in Mali.jpg

Timbuktu gained some recognition among the Nerd Empire in the late 1990s for the collection of medieval and even ancient manuscripts gathered there, and more when these treasures were threatened by fundamentalists whom god had told to destroy all. Not all the nut cases are in D.C.

Timbu 1.jpg A building in Timbuktu.

Timbu airport.jpg The airport at Timbuktu

This book combines the Nineteenth Century story of Europeans exploring the interior of Africa to find this very place with the Twenty-First Century story of saving its aforementioned records from the flames.

Timbuktu cover.jpg

The quest for this African El Dorado began in the mid-Victorian period when intrepid chaps in Britain were looking for new adventures. Africa, the dark continent, beckoned. It was called the ‘dark continent’ and ‘darkest Africa’ not because of the colour of the skin of the natives but because it was unknown, in the dark. There was plenty of racism but this term was not an instance of it at the outset. Later, yes, certainly. say as it was used in the 1950s in Disney cartoons.

In part the book traces the efforts of the African Association in London to explore, map, and study Africa, partly directed by the affable Joseph Banks, who as a young man had accompanied James Cook on his voyage to Australia, and after whom Bankstown is named, along with flora. The method this private organization took was to recruit a series of intrepid men and send them off one-at-a-time. Off they went and mostly disappeared into darkest Africa, never to be seen or heard again. Disease, dehydration, animals, sand, stupidity, accidents, villains got them one after another. Inevitably, a Société d’Afrique in Paris got into the game so that the rivalry between England and France was played out on the way to Timbuktu. Then came the Germans looking for that fabled place in the sun.

On the other hand is the story of the threat posed by fundamentalists, which is told in the choppy and breathless manner that distinguishes contemporary journalism. It is a sandstorm of names and places that mean nothing to this reader, and at no point is there an orderly exposition of what the manuscripts, papers, and documents are, how they came to be in Timbuktu, and who had formal responsibility for them. Nor is there anything more than the repeated assertion that they are valuable to justify the importance assigned to them. In the telling, it sometimes seems this town on the sand just by chance was home to a number of private collectors who had somehow gathered the written material and at other times there are references to libraries, catalogues, steel boxes, and UNESCO grants. Later there are few references that indicate that Timbuktu became a centre for learning in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, but by then I was so lost it did not help.

This map below from Wikipedia shows when and why Timbuktu (Tomboctou) was an important crossroads that benefitted from proximity to the mighty Niger River, from which proximity it also suffered when the river flooded. The lines are trade routes used at various times.

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That combination of two stories is both an asset and a liability. It is an asset because it makes clear the importance of Timbuktu and its holdings and a liability because the author has a lot more to say about the latter story than the former and so it is unbalanced.

Books scattered.jpg Trashed books in Timbuktu

While the telling is repetitive and confusing at times, the subject is so important that I tried to persevere through all the confusion that the author reproduces.

There is a shower of proper names, descriptions of men with guns, the arrival of trucks, comings and goings as though this is a thriller. Well it is a mystery to this reader. One that remains unresolved.

Charlie English.jpg Charlie English

I supposed the author was a journalist from the disjointed style, the disregard for readers, and the indifference to exposition, and then I checked. Sure enough. He and this book get a lot of space on the ‘Guardian’ web site. Make up your own mind. I have. With perseverance I made it about halfway through before deciding I would learn more reading Wikipedia. No doubt Good Reads is replete with fulsome comments. No doubt the dust jacket of the hardcover proclaims it a best seller. No doubt.

A charming, enthusiastic, and altogether delicious memoir of life in Venice in the 1950s. It has an intimacy born of residence which goes into the details of everyday life, like rubbish removal, and the weekly shopping by dingy. Indeed, it includes many asides on the perils and joys of keeping a small boat for just such mundane purposes, and the surprising array of regulations and taxes that a humble, leaking rowboat attracts, watertight or not.

Morris cover.jpg

The Venice of the 1950s is gone, but Morris is confident that as long as there are Venetians there will be a Venice. The gene pool is strong, deep, resourceful, and clever enough to withstand the tides and times, Morris opines in the 1996 introduction to the reprint of the book, originally published in 1960.

Venice flag.jpg

The approach is almost ethnographic, as an anthropologist living amongst a tribe in the African savannah, he observes, notes, compares, enumerates, and ponders the meaning of what he sees, but with much more affable affinity than a Cambridge don in khaki kit roughing it for a few months in the jungle on the way to promotion. Morris spoke enough Italian to get to know the regulars he met, and enough to talk his way into some places not usually open to nosey beaks. He combines with those assets a keen eye and a tireless pursuit of detail that would satisfy John Ruskin. To these he adds a bonhomie that is hard to resist. Well, why resist it at all?

San Marco squarte.jpg A quiet day at San Marco.

Day by day over the months Morris weaves together many asides on the history that brought Venice to the current point; these accounts often take the form of lists. That might sound boring, but it is not. Consider the following example as one of many instances.

Here is Morris’s dictation while standing on the tiny balcony of the flat there was:

‘To the left is the palace where Richard Wagner wrote the second act of ‘Tristan,’ and just beyond is the terrace from which Napoleon Bonaparte once watched a regatta. Near it is the house where Robert Browning died, that Pope Clement lived in it, the Emperor Francis II also stayed in it, and Max Beerbohm wrote about it. Across the way at that point is the home of the Doge Cristolo Moro, sometimes claimed to be the original of Othello, and to the right is a palace once owned by a family so rich that it is still called the Palace of the Money Chests. At the corner is the little red house of the poet D’Annunzio wrote ‘Notturno’ there. At the Convent next door Pope Alexander lived in exile from Rome. King Don Carlos of Spain once owned the next house along. La Donna of ‘La Donna è Mobile’ lived nearby. Away to the right, is a palace where one of Byron’s paramours suicided.’

All of this lies within one learned glance.

That is both a comment on how compact is the core of Venice, and also, and more importantly, a comment on what a magnet it has been for the great and good and the not so great and the not so good over the centuries. Yes, Adolf Hitler met Benito Mussolini there in 1934.

Hitler Veice.jpg Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Followed shortly by Indiana Jones.

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Morris goes on to enumerate and describe the many watercraft to be seen in the lagoon from towering cruise ships to garbage scows, to vaporetti and gondoli, and in many cases goes into the etymology of the terms in part to show the polyglot past of Venice with its Arabic, Islamic, Roman, Teutonic, and Byzantine influences, turning the catalogue into a history lesson, spiced by Morris’s own experiences in dealing with many of the craft as either a passing boatman, or as a passenger.

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Venice conjures the gondola and Morris gives it due respect. Totemic though it is of Venice, there is no clear explanation of its origins, purpose, or use. Why does it have three notches in the bow? Why is it propelled by a pole and not an oar? Why is it painted black? While the number in the water has decreased by many factors, it remains in demand … by tourists. Morris offers a charming account of both past uses of the gondola and the occasions when contemporary Venetians make use of this clichéd but inevitable device.

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Like others who have written of Venice, Morris sees in it a deeply ingrained commercial imperative to make a living out of trade. Having no natural resources, Venetian has always been a broker bringing products to a buyer at a premium. The commodities that Venice can make a profit trading have diminished and disappeared, that is, all but one. The one commodity that Venice retains a monopoly on is itself, and so it trades on itself and does that to a T for Tourism.

Jan Morris.jpg Jan Morris.

Upon completing the book, I am not sure what to make of it. To read it is to envy the author’s mastery of the exposition. This writer could make a recitation of a telephone book interesting, and indeed, did so in these pages. In some ways it is a memoir of a world now gone. As Morris found even while living in Venice human intervention changed the face of Venice time after time with causeways, channel dredging, factory building, and more, and also the lagoon itself makes changes, eroding what were once residential islands into little more than hillocks of sand.

But the more Venice changes the more it remains exactly the same! Grasping and enchanting, mercenary and magnanimous, seedy and edifying, grotesque and elegant, universal and unique, quite unlike any place else.

The book is an elegant and languid meditation on the city of Venice, the one in Italy not the one in California. It tells the story of Venice through thematic chapters rather than a sequential history. The chapters run ten to twelve pages, easily digestible in a sitting, and the segues from one to another and within each are smooth as the surface of a pond on a still day. Without a doubt the man can write. The book is replete with watery images, metaphors, comparisons, similes, and tropes. I felt moist reading it at times.

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A sample of the chapters includes; Origins, Trade, Refuge, Stones, Chronicles, Secrets,…..

Leaving aside a myriad of details, the heart of Venice was and is trade. It made itself an entrepôt for more than a thousand years. Having no wealthy terra firma, having no mineral riches, having no vast population, it lived by wit, barter and trade. It became the European end of the Silk Road. The merchants Shylock funded sailed into the Black Sea and along the Levant coast to bring back to Venice the luxuries of the East and sold them in trade fairs in Venice. The first Venetian carnivals were commercial expositions.

During its long ascendancy, when violent change was the norm in other polities, precipitated from within by ambitions or ideologies or from without by invasion, Venice remained stable. The city lived with the constant threat alta aqua, which made Venetians pull together, however much they grumbled, like no others at the time. Until Napoleon in 1804 joined it to the Italian kingdom he created for his brother it had stood apart from one and from all. Having no choice Venice reluctantly and slowly became a part of Italy. Earlier when Niccolò Machiavelli rhapsodised of a future Donna Italia he did not include Venice in it, and in this he was not alone seeing it as an enemy of Italy, not a part of it.

In Venice the commercial imperative reduced everything to a contract, and copious records were kept which miraculously survived despite many catastrophes natural and human that often destroy the past. Ackroyd has immersed himself in the dry and dusty ledgers when not walking the campi and picked out some very apposite instances for the reader.

Venetians were traders for whom the sea was the highway. They bought cheap and sold dear and on the margin prospered. Though the merchants were private businesses, their activities were supported, encouraged, promoted, and taxed by the commune as a whole. To specify, the ships were built and owned by the commune and rented to merchants complete with crews. There is a parallel here to George Pullman and his famous railway cars, which are treated in another review on this blog.

Because of the historical and ever-present threat of the water the communal spirt ran deep, and lasted longer even in the age of Enlightenment individualism. In Venice the whole comes before the one. Else everyone drowns. The comparisons to Amsterdam are many.

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Like many others he is impressed by the Venetian drive for order and regulation, the more so in the face of repeated Venetian corruption, extortion, embezzlement, and fraud. Shylock was the least of the problem for most merchants of Venice. Ackroyd is absolutely deadpan in the chapter called ‘Merchants of Venice’ in which he does not mention William Shakespeare and his Venetian play. If he did, I blinked. Earlier he does mention Venice’s most famous literary tourist, Gustav von Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s mediation on life and death ... in Venice.

Everything was put down on paper, moreover, everything was kept totally secret. There is the paradox, everything was recorded, included the energetic informing on each other that kept the authorities busy processing, but nothing was said. Ackroyd cites some remarkable examples of the ability of Venetians to keep secrets. They make all those Stasi agents in the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR) look like blabbermouths. There are many, and to this reader, surprising comparisons to be made between the DDR and Venice in matters of secrecy, security, and surveillance and the high cost of such social control.

In the case of Venice the campi — the residential squares — made surveillance unavoidable even for those few who were not interested in spying on their neighbours, and easy for the great many others who were interested. One result is the hidden doors of many houses, so placed to avoid prying eyes. Another result was the mask and cape.

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Yes, there is a ‘but’ coming. The book is all trip and no arrival. Though each theme is treated clearly and simply, this reader lost impetus. Without a sequence of events the reader has no characters upon whom to focus or chain of events to follow. Of course, the author's choice to do that puts all the focus on the city of Venice and Ackroyd’s considerable powers of persuasion, and it kept me reading.

‘Doge’ is a dialect corruption of ‘duke’ and they come and go but none move the story on. Doges were invariably elevated at an advanced age, say seventy-two, and some then continued for another twenty years. There was an unbroken line of one hundred and twenty doges until Napoleon brought the Enlightenment on the bayonets of his army. The regime, in the terms of comparative politics, was authoritarian, oligarchic, patriarchal, and gerontocratic. That is for those who suppose labels are explanations. Napoleon, extracting a huge tribute from Venice, had the Golden Book of the Doges publicly burned. It was the genealogical register of the ducal families, the clan that sired the succession of doges, and its destruction completed the rupture with the past.

Venice was a republic; it did not have hereditary monarchs, though successful and powerful families strove for dynastic succession, and it did not have a feudal past in which a few owned the land and the landlord owned most people. The social strata were thus not the hard sediment they became elsewhere, but they hardened over the millennia. No gondolier ever became doge and no scion of the Golden Book ever poled a gondola.

Its foundation, existence, continuation, wealth, and stability depended on trade over the seas, and that trade required a great many skilled artisans to build, maintain, and repair the ships that were rented to merchants. The importance of these skilled craftsmen gave them more leverage in Venice than in many other comparable places. It is easier for the workmen at a single shipyard, the Arsenal, together to make their displeasure known than for an equal number of peasants scattered over vast estates to do so. See Gdansk in Poland for further confirmation.

The pages of the Golden Book represented about four percent of the population and the mercantile strata added another six percent, leaving the ninety percent out of the political, social, and financial elite. Those of the Golden Book tried hard to marry only within its own small ranks, and the merchants married their own kind when not trying to marry up. The total population in its prosperous times numbered about 100,000, more than it does today,

As with cities like Florence in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, the government of Venice was complicated and convoluted, by design, not by accident. When problems arouse a committee to act on it would be created and it would inevitably perpetuate itself in the first law of administration — goal displacement — revealed in 1957 by Philip Selznick in ‘Leadership in Administration.‘ There grew an encrustation of such committees with vague and overlapping remits, that never seemed to lapse. They often worked in ignorance of each other even when they had overlapping membership the law of secrecy applied. While laws were written, they were never codified and seldom promulgated and enforced only when necessary. It sounds very much like a university Department’s approach to self-government in the days when that was tolerated.

This open texture might seem to offer many opportunities for citizens to play one committee off against another, as is commonplace today in organisations, but not so in Venice, because the existence of most of these committees was secret, so secret that other committees with exactly the same terms would be created anew, and all of their activities were secret, too, including from each other.

Of course, there was no written constitution that spelled out anything. Some of that may remind a reader of working in a large organisation without an organisation chart, and no reporting. Yet everything is recorded. Ahem, see the passing remark above about a university department.

In a way, though prima facie more formal with its archive, it reminded me of the rule by talk in Colin Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’ (1961) where every instance is treated as unique and talk, talk, talk until the antagonists prefer to give way than talk anymore, like those self-governing co-operatives in the 1970s where everything was done at all-staff meetings that went on, and on, and those who persisted eventually got their way. It was self-management by verbal attrition. Compared to this, McKinsey management looks better.

The Venetian mask a perfect metaphor for the pure city. It is ‘pure’ by the way because it had for most of its history no hinterland with apologies to Padua. It was all city and nothing else. While Florence had a rich agricultural land in its domain, where the Medici family raised beef cattle that still grace the plates of Italian cuisine, Venice had only itself and the lagoon.

Venice masks.jpg

In Venice care was taken to be sure that the archivist was either blind or illiterate so he could not read the files, unlike Connie in the John Le Carré Cold War novels. The files might be sequestered but Connie knew what was in them despite the sealing wax. The files might be altered but Connie forgot nothing. Corporate memory resided in one sodden pensioner.

That passing mention of Padua reminded me that Venice has another connection with Machiavelli. Cardinal Reginald Pole who broke with Henry VIII spent an exile in Padua where he became aware of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and wrote a condemnation of it, though it is doubtful he read it. Since King Henry’s confident Thomas Cromwell had earlier spent time in Italy, Pole supposed that he learned his sins from Machiavelli. Association is poor proof of cause and effect, but this tenuous thread is woven into Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.

Today Venice remains a city of trade, and its trade is with tourists who come to it as if the whole city is a continuous exposition. Venice remains an entrepôt and the product it mow sells is itself. The tourist Venice, the Venice a tourist sees is Venice, he concludes.

While Ackroyd's impressionistic tour refers to the mysteries and crimes of Venice the dedicated krimi reader turns to Donna Leon for detail.

Ackroyd mug.jpg Peter Ackroyd from the dust jacket.

This book is all trip and no arrival. It meanders here and there and Ackroyd is a superb cicerone.

This book is a popular presentation of some serious studies in the psychology of perception and memory. It shows how counter-intuitive reality can be. It also overstates its case and enforces a technical vocabulary where it adds little or nothing to the general reader, who seems to be the target audience.

gorilla cover.jpg

The video that made the authors famous and which explains the title can be found on You Tube. It is a psychology experiment in which observers are instructed to count the number passes a basketball team makes, and while the observers count, a gorilla walks across the court. Well, a student wearing a full-body gorilla suit, since the research grant did not run to capturing and training a complaint gorilla.

Imposible to miss!

Hmm, missed by about 50% of all subjects through repeated iterations and variations.

We can indeed miss things in front of our very eyes, and do so nearly every day. So I say from personal experience. Because we miss them, we suppose they were not there, but they were.

The explanations are many, and in these pages become increasingly, and needlessly, complex, no doubt to justify the grants that produced the fame and book contract(s). My cynicism is showing.

We see most readily what we are looking for. Indeed we often can only see something if we are looking for it, and in concentrating on that, we miss much else. Whoops! But then concentration is supposed to do that, focus.

In parallel we are less likely to see what we are not looking for, and the even less likely to see it, the more out of place it is. This latter is counter-intuitive. But that gorilla is an example. It is completely out of place and, consequently, invisible (to half the watchers). Another player, a coach, a referee, a cheerleader wandering onto the floor might have been spotted more often for the fit the context.

To reiterate. something extremely odd can be the most easily missed. See, counter-intuitive, because one would think the oddest things would stand out, but they do not always do so. Sometimes, yes, but often times no.

Add to this perception blur-memory and the plots thickens. If it is not perceived in the first place but is just a blur, memory cements over it, and it never happened.

The authors demonstrate these failings, which seem very plausible in my own personal experience, with a combination of laboratory experiments and case records of automobile accidents, flight simulator video evidence (nearly enough to put me off flying), conflicting eye witness testimony, and trial records. The range and variety of this empirical evidence is impressive.

One of the governing points is that our contextual expectations shape perception and also memory. We do not expect to see a gorilla while a basketball team practices passes.

There is also cognitive load, which the authors do not give any attention, but they do note that when the task assigned to observers is made more difficult, gorillas sightings decrease. For example, to ask observers to count separately air versus floor passes makes the gorilla all but invisible to everyone. The more complex the assignment, the more concentration it takes, the less attention remains to detect the unexpected.

There is another example of cognitive overload in these pages. Drivers who follow the GPS oral directions despite the obvious mistake it is making. They ignore flashing lights, barriers across the road, and drive off collapsed bridges, over the culverts of incomplete roads, and on to rail way tracks because the computer voice told them to do so. I would like to think I would not do this, but…. I have found GPS directions mistaken when roadworks blocked the recommended routes and had the wit to stop on those occasions. Who knows what the future will bring?

Of course, magicians and other illusionists have long exploited misdirection, distractions, sleights of hand, and lighting to make audiences see what the magician wants its members to see and not what is in fact happening before their very eyes. The authors have not yet referred to this domain in my incomplete progress through this book. Though the illusionists do not publish in ranked journals and apply for National Science Foundation grants, hide behind polysyllabic jargon, nor make mountains out of molehills as scholars must, so they may get short shrift in these pages.

There are many more ingenious experiments to justify research grants. If magicians are neglected so too is the simple fact of concentration. If I am concentrating on counting passes maybe I should not see the gorilla. Perhaps the observers who see the gorilla made mistakes about the pass count. Nothing is said about the accuracy of the observations, but if I were paying pass-counters that is what I would want them to do, count, not notice gorillas. Many of the examples given involve witnesses who are not concentrating. A student passes people on the street, and one says ‘Hello.’ Five minutes later the student cannot describe this person. Well, so what? If that student had been told the description would be on the final exam, it would have been remembered.

Two passengers in a moving car see an assailant pull a bike rider to the ground. Interviewed by police thirty minutes later and they give different description of the assailant. Again, so what? They were not concentrating on the scene. It was a blur.

Of course, the authors’ point, is in part, that such witnesses each individually think they do have an accurate description even when one, if not both, of them must be wrong. It is this confidence that is the underlying problem, and the authors nail that. It is the this also confidence that presents many problems. Agreed, but I am not sure this book has narrowed that down any.

Though in doing so, it seems like overkill. The messages seems to be that no one is ever right in the first place and subsequent memory further erodes. To give up would seem to be the best response to such a hopeless situation.

Men in black.jpg I thought of these two when reading about memory in this book.

Hmm, well I just watched an American football game and there the players with enormous concentration remembering intricate plays from a manual of fifty or more, in a deafening stadium, driving rain, with hard hitting opponents, carrying injuries, and growing tired toward the end of the season and the end of the game. Memory does work better when one concentrates.

The authors offer some amusing anecdotes to illustrate the fragility of memory but to this reader that is all they are: anecdotes. Men often appropriate each other’s stories as their own in the retelling and when challenged about it, get very defensive. (I have even seen women do this.) What is going on in such cases is not primarily a false memory but a stupid lie followed by a masculine refusal to admit it. No National Science Foundation grant is required to explain this everyday event.

More disturbing are airline pilots in simulators who are so absorbed in reading gauges that they do not notice the tanker-truck on the runway.

A tendency in this book is to name a ….a what? … a syndrome, and then move on to another ingenious experiment. The missed gorilla and the missed tanker truck are treated as instances of the same tendency and yet they differ so much in context and consequence as to be different in kind.

Moreover, to this lay reader (I thought about say layman to see if it would arose a comment about gender but I forgot) that the nominalism is not very informative. By nominalism, I mean naming a pattern of (mis)perception - e.g, inattention to change, and suppose we now understand how it works. We do not; what we have, often in these pages, is a description with a label.

Chabris.jpg Charles Chabris

Simons.jpg Daniel Simon

While I am airing my nits, I find the book replete with name dropping of colleagues and of universities. Perhaps some editor encouraged that to make it more personal and less austere and scientific for a general reader but it makes it read too much like a letter to mom identifying all of the fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. It is all of a piece with the me-ism of the selfie.

Warning! cynicism overload.

We spent several hours, day and night, discussing Robert McCrum’s list of ‘The 100 best novels written in English’ from the ‘Guardian.’

Google will produce several associated lists but the one I mean is found at

The list is the product of two years of ‘careful consideration.’ The introduction refers to the list as the ‘greatest’ novels.

McCrum cover.jpg

The work must be a novel and written in English. When we went through the list we also supposed there was an additional element, every author only has one novel listed. They are listed in chronological order.

Yes, one can quibble over the definition of a novel, or even perhaps written in English (see the impenetrables below); entertaining perhaps, but hardly productive. And then there is that word ‘great’ constrained by the number one hundred. What does make a novel great? On there a few words at the end.

We read the list and discussed what we knew about each writer, or took note of writers that were unknown to us, consulting Professor Wikipedia at times for more information.

The list begins with ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ (1678) - a ‘story of a man in search of truth told with clarity and beauty,’ says McCrum. Much as we like Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (1386), a novel they are not.

Robinson Crusoe, Lemuel Gulliver, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Clarissa, Emma, and Dr Frankenstein get their dues.

The first krimi is Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Moonstone’ (1868). Though Edgar Allan Poe is there with his one spooky novel, along with Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler follow, but not the uncrowned king of noir, Ross Macdonald. Tsk. Tsk.

We loved the description of George Elliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ (1872) as ‘a cathedral of words.’

Benjamin Disraeli is there, before he became British prime minister, but also Jerome K. Jerome. Who?

There were others that struck no bell with me:
George Gissing, ‘New Grub Street’ (1891)
Fredrick Rolfe,’ Hadrian the Seventh' (1904)
Max Beerbohm, ‘Zuleika Dobson’ (1911)
Sylvia Warner, ‘Lolly Willowes’ (1926)
Henry Green, ‘Party Going’ (1939)
Elizabeth Bowen, ‘The Heat of the Day’ (1948)
Elizabeth Taylor, ‘Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont’ (1971)
Marilynne Robinson, ‘Housekeeping’ (1981)
Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘The Beginning of Spring’ (1988)

Bowen heat.jpg

Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’ (1899) made the cut. But is it a novel or a long short story? Quibble. Quibble. The trouble with quibbles.

Also on the list is the impenetrable prose of Theodore Dreiser of whom is it is said ‘he was no stylist.’ Indeed. Speaking of the impenetrable, there is Ford Maddox Ford, ‘The Good Soldier’ (1915) and James Joyce, ‘Ulysses’ (1922).

While there were many famous titles, I was not sure all were great novels. There was John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ (1915) which is a rattling good story, but is it a great novel? It may be the cornerstone of the espionage genre that followed, but is that enough to merit inclusion when Agatha Christie is omitted?

It will take a lot more than assertion to convince me that Ernest Hemingway wrote a great novel. The title is ‘The Sun Also Rises’ (1926). Oh hum. I also wondered about John Dos Pasos, ‘Nineteen-Nineteen’ (1932) and ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’ (1939) by Flan O’Connor and — most of all — H. G. Wells with ‘The History of Mr Polly’ (1910). For Wells I might have swallowed one of science fiction titles like ‘The Time Machine,’ ‘The Invisible Man,’ or ‘The War of the Worlds’ but not this trite and self-indulgent disguised autobiography.

While the demigod William Faulkner is there, the novel cited is not his most astounding. ‘As I Lay Dying’ is the one, but his most hypnotic novel is ‘Absalom! Absalom!’ (1936). The novel he thought was his best was ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1929). By ‘best’ Faulkner meant the most painfully true.

One book authors are here like Harper Lee.

Carson McCullers who is in another, higher league than Harper Lee is not, nor is William Styron.

Two towering English writers are also conspicuous by their absence: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’ (1952) and Antony Powell, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ (1951-1975). Also absent is John Galsworthy, 'The Forsyth Saga.'


The list ends with a number of contemporary writers, most of whom leave me cold, e,g., Martin Amis, John McGarhan, Don DeLillo, and Peter Carey. More oh hum from me.

In addition to the expatriate Peter Carey, Australia is represented on the list by the egregious Patrick White. Absent is the luminous David Malouf; when will the Nobel Committee wise up?

malouf_n.jpg David Malouf

There is a Canadian writer, or two, but not the profound Gabrielle Roy, a bank clerk by day and a communicate with eternity by night. To this day she is listed on the Amazon Canada web site as Roy Gabrielle, despite many corrections offered by we readers!

Whoops, Roy did not write in English.

Nor does Willa Cather make the list, and the list is poorer for it.

McCrum mug-L.png Robert McCrum


The pleasure of an exercise like this is that it makes one stop and think, first about the old friends on the list, also about the titles and authors one knows of but has not read. It also introduces new authors and other titles for the reader. Each is welcome.

But most of all it makes one think about the criterion: great.

Is a great novel one that influences other writers?

One that wins readers across generations and cultures?

Is it one that creates an enduring world with its words?

Is it one that leaves an indelible impression of the mind of a reader?

A great novel is one that does such things because there are many, even several, ways to be great.

Now and again I have had the urge to go to Venice, but never have. To scratch that itch I decided to read a history of the damp republic.

Venice cover.jpg

A fishing village on the lagoon is first mentioned in extant chronicles at about 800 A.D. Venice was not a Roman settlement, unlike nearly every other city in Italy today. The mud flats in the lagoon were home to fisher folk who were left alone by others because there was nothing there worth having or worth stealing.

From this embryo grew a mighty city that dominated much of its world for three centuries.

Vencie from sea.jpg

The constant threat of the sea, aqua alta, meant everyone in Venice had to cooperate against nature. That common and constant threat produced a tight social order that put an absolute premium on planning, discipline, and initiative, and most important of all on social cooperation both horizontal and vertical. The commune took precedence over the individual and orders were obeyed.

This is my reading of it because the book is mainly focused on the wars of conquest and decline that led to the empire and then its collapse.

While most European cities between 1200 and 1500 developed an increasingly elaborate hierarchy based on blood, money, and religion, by contrast Venice remained largely undifferentiated with a very flat social hierarchy. That proved a bedrock beneath the water. In this way it seems to me that Venice is comparable to that other muddy republic that lived off trade and battled the sea, Amsterdam. See Geert Mak, ‘Amsterdam’ (2001).

The people of the lagoon had almost no terra firma. That was a benefit since it meant no passing war lord wanted to wade out into the mud to conquer it. It was also a weakness since it meant Venice had to live off trade because there was no vegetable patch. It had to be the broker to live.

Its conversion from a diet of fish to one of gold began with the Fourth Crusade in 1200 which occupies the first one hundred pages of this book. It is a story for the ages.

The crusades were religious, the aim being to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel, and all those who participated in the effort would be blessed in the Christian heaven for eternity. Sounds like a Holy war because it was.

The first three crusades had limited successes and unlimited failures. They left behind Christian enclaves in the Middle East. Of course, the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as we call it today, were the Greek orthodox Christians in Constantinople. The author refers to that city of the Bosphorus by that name, though at the time it called itself New Rome.

The endless religious schisms in the preceding millennium had divided the Christian world into these poles: the Universal Church in Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church in New Rome. The twain did not meet. At each pole there were further divisions: Two fingers versus three fingers, is one example. (Either one gets it or one does not.)

The Byzantine Empire in New Rome had participated in the earlier crusades, but not as fervently as Popes in Rome thought it should have done. This was another source of friction in the Christian world.

When Saracen leaders in Syria began to squeeze the pimples of the Christian enclaves in Lebanon, the Roman Pope called for a Fourth Crusade to rescue them and to conquer the Holy Land once and for all.

Whereas the earlier crusades had been more or less spontaneous movements of mobs of Christians from Europe to the Holy Land by any and all means, motivated as much by the selfish desire to save their individual souls as to cleanse the Holy Land of Islam in a rag-tag mob of inexperienced, impoverished, undisciplined and diseased hordes who were often unarmed, this crusade was different. The Pope made an effort to organise the Fourth Crusade. by commissioning a number of nobles to lead and manage it.

The plan called for thirty thousand crusaders to be raised, equipped, provisioned, supplied, organised, and assembled in Venice, from whence Venetian ships would transport them to Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, and other ports along the coast of the Middle East. This crusader army would be commanded by Christian lords, barons, and knights from the lands of France, Germany, Italy, and Poland, by and large, though others joined the cause.

An advance party went to Venice to prepare the way. There its members discovered that the Venetians expected to be paid in coin for shipping these souls to the desert. Long and difficult negotiations followed. While Venice had dabbled in sea trade for its living, this project was a hundred times larger than anything previously undertaken. To transport thirty thousand men in a single fleet, along with their arms, equipment, and food, was such a difference in degree from previous trade expedition as to be a difference in kind. Furthermore, a knight must have his steed, and some five thousand horses with grooms, squires, tack, fodder, and more had to be shipped at the same time. Hundreds of ships would be required and thousands of crewmen not he oars and sails.

The Crusaders agreed, reluctantly, to pay 100,000 silver marks, a vast sum equivalent to billions today. The details were many and each was a line-item in the contract, a copy of which remains in the Venetian state archives. Then the Venetians took a year to build the ships, and — once built — agreed on a twelve-month shipping contract to start on a certain day when the crusader army was to embark.

The Venetian Doge, chair of the city council, we might say, though an elderly man over ninety at the time, was keen on the project, and eventually sold it, with all its considerable risks, to the council and in turn to the citizenry. It meant that for a year in Venice all other activities ceased and every citizen of Venice worked on the crusader ships and all that they needed. This focus was enforced by the commune. All of this before a single silver mark had been paid.


The Arsenal became a scene of frenetic activity as ships were produced, logs were imported from Russia along with sail cloth from the England and rope from Estonia. Resources were sucked in and had to be paid for as the work went on and on.

Murphy’s Law applied. Only about a third of the projected number of crusaders arrived in Venice at the appointed day when the meter on the shipping contract started ticking.

The Venetians wanted to be paid, having outlaid nearly all of the treasury to built the crusader fleet and contract the crews, but the crusaders wanted to renegotiate the contract. When the crusaders arrived Venice was more or less broke. But the crusaders did not want to pay for thirty thousand when only twelve thousand had arrived.

Months went by and more crusaders straggled in while others gave up and left. The crusaders camped on mud flats in the lagoon where disease found them. Food was in short supply for everyone. Sanitation is best left in silence.

In the end the Venetians agreed to become participants in a joint venture rather than merely contractors for shipping, this being the only hope of securing a financial return on the massive investment the city had made in the project. They sailed.

It was not plain sailing and they diverted to Byzantium in the New Rome of Constantinople. While the Byzantines welcomed assistance against their Islamic neighbours, they were not keen on an army of thousands of ill-disciplined and increasingly desperate men camped on the foreshore, and still less interested in joining in the crusade. They had had an uneasy but durable modus vivendi with their Islamic neighbours for some time.

Many recriminations followed. Though the Pope had strictly forbade conflict among the Christians on the pain of excommunication, ultimately the Christian Fourth Crusaders attacked and sacked Christian Constantinople. The justification of this Christian on Christian war was as convoluted and tortured as that of a political candidate.

The Fourth Crusade crippled the Byzantine Empire, though it limped on for three more centuries.


Out of the pillage of Constantinople the Venetians got their 100,000 silver marks and another 150,000 for their trouble. While the other pillagers took the money and ran, the Venetians dutifully took the dosh home to Venice, along with much else from Constantinople to enrich Venice. Many of the treasures seen in Venice today, including the four lions on St Mark’s Square, were stolen from Christian Constantinople.

Venice was now the Lion of St Mark, and ruled the waves of the Eastern Mediterranean for the next three hundred years. It had bloody trade wars with rivals, mainly Genoa for a century, but it prevailed partly because of its social cohesion. It established itself on the shores of the Adriatic, Aegean, Azoz, Black, Cretan, Ionian, Levantine, and Marmara Seas.

They established and controlled sea ports, harbours, straits, estuaries, and anchorages, but they did not conquer territory or enslave populations, except on Crete. This empire was a string of settlements along shores under the flag of St Mark dotted along the Adriatic Sea into the Mediterranean Sea and eastward and north into the Black Sea. They never ventured Westward and apart from Venice itself had no settlements on the Italian coast. Nor did they risk the Red Sea to the south.

Stato da mare.png The red on the map indicates Venice's empire of the sea.

Venetian citizenship was closed. Venetians were forbidden to marry outside the civic list. Those Venetians who staffed, managed, and ran the empire’s outposts were strictly regulated, as two chapters of the book detail, but the real regulation was social and not legal.

Even while the Christian and Islamic worlds were at war, the Venetians happily traded with both, to the point of ferrying an Ottoman army from Asia to Europe to attack Christian peoples. In so doing the Venetians made a tremendous profit and an enduring reputation for mercenary mercantilism. Shakespeare is downwind of that.

The Silk Road brought exotic luxury goods from the Far East to the Lebanese coast and later to the Black Sea coast, and it is from these goods that Venice made astronomical profits in the high-end market.

silk Road.jpg

Eventually, the Ottomans began to conquer Venetian territories on the Black Sea coast, on the coasts of the Middle East, in Greece, on Crete, in Albania…. Then Venice proclaimed itself the shield of the Christian world and called for a fifth crusade to protect it. Too little, too late.

Used and abused for generations by Venice, other Christians enjoyed the spectacle of Venice supping on its just desserts. In the end Venice bought off the Ottoman but in so doing ceded most of its empire and by 1511 was just another minor city-state as the nation-states of France and Spain became European superpowers. While on a map it retained some marine territories, this was by Ottoman indulgence.

The social cohesion of Venice had disintegrated. In this telling there is no way to know which came first, the social erosion or the defeat. Which precipitated which? There is no doubt that the social discipline failed against the relentless Ottoman abrasions. Individuals enriched themselves first and secreted the money away, sometimes in other cities, like Amsterdam. Other refused to serve the commune and immigrated. While there had always been a few such deviant cases in the past, but in the Fifteenth Century they became the norm.

What finally killed Venice was not Ottoman cannons though they wounded it. Technological innovation delivered the coup de grace. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco di Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to open a direct route to India, Venice’s role as an entrepôt for the Far East, e.g., spices and silk, died within a few years.

Much of the book is devoted to the many Venetian wars with Genoa and the Ottomans and the details of who killed whom in the most creative and diabolical ways. If I want blood-and-gore I can watch the television news where man’s inhumanity to man is on show every night as journalists try to shock without informing us.

The book is well written and impressively researched but did not have the insights into the social, political, ethical, religious, and financial organisation of Venice that I had sought. Many other city-states traded but somehow Venice surpassed them. How it managed, that is what makes me curious.

Crowley.jpg Roger Crowley

Still the book lives up to its title and I can have no complaint.

A few years ago I read Garry Wills’s ‘Venice, Lion City: The Religion of Empire’ (2001). It, too, left me unsatisfied. Wills has shag carpet prose, luxurious to feel, but the book is a litany of one description of an astounding work of art, much of it devotional, after another with little or nothing about their origins and social context. This was a disappointment from an author for whom I had the highest expectations.

My prime source on Venice remains the krimis of Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin.

This epistolary novel is a meditation on grief and mourning. It is low key, told in fragments and the more powerful for this episodic manner of exposition. At age twenty-five a man commited suicide and his father is thereafter haunted by this death.

Come back.jpg

Most of the story is told backwards as the father remembers his immediate efforts to understand the suicide by reading and re-reading every word his son left in letters, in noteboooks, in grad school assignments, anything else he can find.

This quest is sometimes played out before a chorus of one, Owl, his Cree, coffee-drinking friend.

It is set in Edmonton Alberta and the characters are Mennonites, very serious and spiritual people, from the vast prairies.

Wiebe.jpg Rudy Wiebe

I used to see Wiebe on campus in grad school, and read one of his earlier novels at that time, 'Peace shall destroy many.' It was memorable. Much of this novel seems near the bone, almost autobiographical.

This title is a collection of science fiction short stories by one of the well-known names in the genre at its peak. In 1966, fifty years ago, a gallon of regular gasoline in the USA was 0.31 cents. Cars had tail fins. Japan was where the junk came from. Vietnam was seldom in the news. The Cold War was very cold. China was …. nearly invisible. Hollywood ruled the silver screen. Air travel was the preserve of the very rich.


Robert Silverberg’s (1935 -) stories feature automatic doors, mobile phones, automatic autos (self-driving cars), surgery that does not cut the skin, video watches, as well as the a menageries of aliens. But mostly the stories are how people think, act, and react. The gadgets are there as props and furniture, as are the aliens.

Best of all, given that in 1966 ‘I Love Lucy’ was the top-rated television show, was his anticipation of reality television with its fetish for the pain and humiliation of others. Equally amusing was the tyrannical robot diet enforcer in ‘The Iron Chancellor.’ Yes, the allusion is to Otto von Bismarck who is here combined with a diabolical Jenny Craig.

The most thought-provoking was ‘The Invisible Man,’ a rift, of course, on the H. G. Wells story but with some social and psychological insight which Wells never had.

The stories are all about 15-20 printed pages. Irony features heavily in them. Think if Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone.’

A character, usually the narrative voice, is confounded at his own game. The con man is conned. The exploitive television producer is exploited. The lord is abased before a serf. The expert on alien life forms is disgusted to meet one. The firm bureaucrat is dealt with firmly by another. There are quite a few role-reversals.

Most of us like to see the mighty eat some crow. The more so when the mighty are unworthy.

As adventuresome and imaginative as these stories are, a contemporary reader they swim in the manners and morēs of 1966. There is nothing about racism. Not even the stories involving alien beings seem to reflect on race relations.

Alike absent are women. Occasionally there is a secretary in an outer office, or budding young girls who long to be married, or a frazzled housewife, but none is an agent, an actor, These are men’s worlds. The linguist has a wife but her role is to pack his bag when he goes to meet the aliens. The doppelgänger meets several young women whose only aspiration is marriage. The dieting husband has a wife who also needs to diet, but she is but a chorus to his tenor.

Sometimes the balance of the stories fails. There is a considerable lead up to wispy, poof denouement.

The prose is fluent and confident. I re-read a couple of Philip K. Dick novels a few years ago and remember finding it hard going. Not so with these pages.

Most collections of short stories take the title from one of the stories, usually the longest or the one placed first. That is not the case here. The title stands apart.

Silverberg.jpg Robert Silverberg

This copy emerged from a box in our recent move. Kathlyn McNeil bought it for 0.80 cents Australian in 1966. In those days the back cover had prices of Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, South Africa, and East Africa. Its pages have yellowed but the paperback spine remains bound.

A unique journalist this, as Poland’s one and only foreign correspondent for many years he covered the world of Poland’s allies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. His extended essay ‘The Emperor’ (1989) on the reign of Haile Selassie in Ethiopian is nonpareil.

RK Emp.jpg

The insights, the wit, and desiccated humour all stay with the reader long after. Though much of it is fiction larded with a great deal of speculation it makes sense in a way the description of facts and furnishings does not.

The essays in his ‘Travels with Herodotus’ (2002) are likewise memorable. This volume is much more thematic than the compilations of his journalism in other titles. The focus here is on history and the recording thereof.


When ‘The Soccer War’ came to light among the book boxes at home I put it aside to peruse, and peruse I did. (We are still unpacking after last year's move.)

Soccer war cover.jpg

Most of the places and events in these essays are unknown to me. I never heard of them at the time, or if I did, the memory faded at day’s end. But Kapuściński went where Poland supported insurgents, governments, or had economic interest in the nooks and crannies of the Cold War. He travelled, as he remarks elsewhere, Polish-class. [Use the imagination.]

The Soccer War was a three-month armed conflict between El Salvador (the Switzerland of Central America) and Honduras, then a brother-in-arms with Poland in the Socialist International. Though the animosities and tensions between the two countries were many and deeply rooted, the war exploded when the two played soccer for a place in the World Cup in July 1969. These two midgets were deadly serious, and several thousand people died, and tens of thousands more were displaced. In the aftermath social services collapsed in both countries and many more died of disease and untreated illnesses.

Kapuscinksi comrades.jpg Kapuscinski with some comrades.

Kapuściński happened to be there and became an eye-witness, though he hardly saw anything, try as he might. Think of Fabrice at Waterloo in Stendhal’s ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ (1839). Add jungles, swamps, and a language barrier.

Chick Lit and I want more of it!

A delightful account of the culture clash between a single Swedish tourist who comes to Broken Wheel, Iowa, population 640 and declining. Sara is her name, and though she is classroom fluent in English the Iowa accents and idioms do not readily translate.

Wheel cover.jpg

The good citizens of Broken Wheel are delighted to find a tourist in their dwindling midst. Sara left Sweden because there was nothing there for her, and she is pleased to be warmly welcomed.

Iowa sign.jpg

Sara, however is nonplused, because her pen-pal and prospective host for the stay in Broken Wheel, Amy, is nowhere to be seen. She and Amy have been corresponding about books and life for a long time. The absent Amy has left instructions that Sara should stay in her house and make use of her books. She does.

Broken wheel cartoon.jpg

Caroline runs the town by the force of personality. Formal positions mean nothing, and in the end that pays off, but not before this pillar of rectitude learns herself of sin first hand. Wow!

Jenn chronicles it all in her newsletter, blog, and private diary. Grace observes with disdain, a shot gun at the ready. The Grace women are always armed.

George stays off the drink one day after another, that is, until his long lost daughter returns, and then leaves again. The second loss is too much for George.

Andy and Chris pull the beer at the tavern, and the six hundred residents accept this gay couple without a word.

Cornfields play a part, too, because after all it is Iowa; there are a lot of cornfields, but none as scary as the one in the first episode of ‘Star Trek: Enterprise.’

cornfield.jpg Spot the Klingon.

Then there is handsome Tom who cannot help noticing the new face in Broken Wheel. He is too handsome for her, and she is too smart for him, but, well, in books anything can happen, right Mr Darcy?

Then Gavin the regional representative of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service appears. Gavin hated his old job in the USCIS because he had to arrest and deport hard working, god-fearing, polite, resigned, clean, and illegal Mexicans who never complained about how badly they were treated.

His remit is now Europeans, and Sweden is in Europe, right? Europeans, these he is ready and willing to arrest and deport for the slightest infraction of visa rules. If only…

Gavin descends on Broken Wheel with the full might of Federal government at his disposal, and finds that he is overmatched against Caroline.

Bivald.jpg Katarina Bivald

To give the devil its due, I noticed this comment on Good Reads

‘This book was absolute rubbish. 394 pages of stupid observations written in a clumsy and somewhat childish language combined with unbelievable characters.’

A salutary reminder of why I do not bother with Good Reads.

Lanterne Rouge? Yes, it can be the red light on the last car in railway train, in the dark there to let yardmen, roustabouts, and switchers know that is the final car. It can indicate a doctor's late night surgery in some countries, and...., well, you know. (I only know from movies.)

In this case, none of the above!

The Lanterne Rouge is the last rider to finish the Tour de France, and Max Leonard, himself a cyclist, wondered how those losers felt about being last.  

Lanterne rouge.jpg

I am glad he did, because their lives, races, and attitudes are varied, intriguing, and represent much of the Tour de France at its best and at its worst. Moreover, Leonard has a light touch with self-deprecating humour, as he rides them down.

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Perhaps the most important point made is that to finish last in the Tour de France is not losing!
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Counter-intuitive, but true all the same.  

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When one Spanish rider was asked by a boneheaded journalist, is there any other kind, how he felt about finishing last, this was his reply:  'One hundred and ninety-eight riders from the cream of world cycling started the Tour and I finished (stress, finished) at 120.'

Tony Martin injury.jpg

Explanation: Seventy-eight others did not finish, but he did.  To do so he had to make the time cutoff each day to stay in the race, not easy that, period.  He coped with mechanical breakdowns and stayed in the race. He managed injuries from falls and stayed in the race. All the while he performed his role on the team, carrying water bottles for others and pacing the sprinter. He climbed the mountains in the Pyrenees and the Alps, endured the individual and team time trials, pedalled the long flats, and coped with the weather. Hard. Hard. Hard.

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It is a theme that recurs. Finishing is itself a triumph, over the elements, over the odds, and over one's own weakness, capped by a roll down the Champs Elysee with family and friends on the sidelines among the 100,000 spectators and millions more on television!

Sometimes it is a triumph over injury, as one Lanterne Rouge rode the last eight days in a neck brace, others with enough stitches to bring tears to one’s yes. All of them overcame the inner voice that urged them to quit on the slope of L'Alpe d’Huez, half-way through a 60-kilometer time trial, while riding last through a parallel rain storm off the Atlantic, or on a hairpin-turn descent. For many it was the dream of lifetime fulfilled to ride in the Tour and to finish. Period.  

Alpe de huez.jpg

Further proof, be it needed, is in the person of Jack Durand, who finished last and yet stood on the winner’s podium on the Champs Elysee! Huh? He was awarded the medal for the Most Competitive Rider.  
Through the three weeks of the Tour he led one attack after another, on climbs, in the flat, against the wind, through tunnels, often alone.  On some days he led the field for a 50 kilometres.  Some of breakaways produced a gap of 12 minutes. Some days he pedalled quietly in the peloton. He was unpredictable and explosive.  His post mortem was this: 'Everyday I ride to win. Against such champions as gathered for this race, I have to beat them mentally with breakaways.' Indeed he did win a stage in that tour.

Then there is Phillipe Gaumont who became a (barely) riding chemistry laboratory.  He surrendered to Dr Alchemy, and rode on Belgian Pot, a concoction of cocaine, blood stimulants, and anything else lying around the laboratory.  As he slowed down, he took more needles, the syringes taped to his ankles inside his socks. The effect was curvilinear, at first he was stronger, then he plateaued, and then he slowed, as he slowed, he shot up ever more drugs in the hope of regaining speed, but instead that slowed him down even more and he could barely finish. Thereafter he broke down, and shortly thereafter told all in a memoir.  He died at 44, surely the chemical soup hastened the end.

Leonard max.jpg Max Leonard

These stories illustrate the material.  In its one hundred editions, there has always been a Lanterne Rouge, and there are more of their stories in the book. There are many ways to be a lantern rouge in life and it does not mean being a loser. There is a moral in there somewhere.

The distinction between High and Low Context is a valuable tool.  It can be applied at many levels to social interactions.  I fastened on to this distinction because it explains much about the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli. He was a high context writer. That is one reason why I bristle when I see his themes applied to ... well almost anything since his death.

To illustrate in broad, within a nuclear family speech is often cryptic, because both speaker and auditor are entwined in the same context which itself communicates much through the accumulation of experience.  

Beyond culture cover.jpg

When Kate says, 'It's Thursday,’ I know she means it is time to put the wheeled bins of recycling and rubbish on the street to be emptied early on Friday morning.  She does have to say, ‘It is time to wheel out of the garage the red-lidded and yellow-lidded bins, one at a time, because it is tight squeeze past the car, to the front of the house near the curb facing backward for the mechanical arm to lift onto the bracket on the truck…..’ Her shorthand is very clear to me, but has been incomprehensible to house guests.

Some years ago we prepared a manual for house-sitters who move in while we travel, and in writing and illustrating that manual we assumed low context, and explained and spelled everything out from the location of spare light bulbs, to the vagaries of Wi-Fi, to the operation of the garage door, the use of Netflix, the way the lock works on the back gate, to the nights when the bins have to go out, and so on and on.  The manual will soon be a multi-volume work because, lacking context, it is explicit and detailed about everything.  

For those still not convinced that context matters, consider the array of remoters that lie around the tele, video, and music devices at home. Their use and interaction has been learned by users, but is far from obvious to a neophyte. While I can operate our system, barely, there is no chance I can do so with someone else’s without guidance, instruction, or a manual.

More generally, in the state of Nebraska everyone is a Huskers football fan, most volunteers, some conscripted, and every Sunday with friends and family, and every Monday with colleagues, there is a postmortem of each Saturday’s game in the season.  It may start with a remark like, 'Thomson has got one powerful arm.' The auditor is assumed to know whom Thomson is, what the reference is to, perhaps a sixty yard Hail Mary touchdown pass in the waning moments of the game, and more. Nebraskans will forgive outsiders for not knowing all of this context, but for one of their own not to know, worse, not to care, is beyond the pale.

This distinction between high and low context explains a lot about the natives described in Colin Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’ (1961), one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. But when I read it, I did have this tool in mind. This is a book some may remember from the 'Power' course in days of yore. Time to read it again.

I see the same distinction between assumed context in philosophers.  Some wrote for a wide audience and spelt out first principles, like Plato or John Locke. Others wrote for a known and limited audience and were cryptic like Georg Hegel writing text notes for his students. Others wrote for and to themselves, like Niccolò Machiavelli. Hegel and Machiavelli, in particular, are high context writers, while Locke and Plato are low context.

The chapter on this distinction is about ten pages long, and is to be found in the middle of this book. For me it is the most valuable part.

Much of the rest is punctuated with Hall’s asides on his personal experiences, his previous research projects, and even hearsay. Some may find these touches humane and interesting but this reader found them self-indulgent and padded. Hall is an anthropologist.

Edward_T._Hall_1966.jpg Edward T. Hall in 1966

Irony is never far away is it, Mr Spock? The author is a sensitive canary to the vibrations of all manner of cultures, remember those personal experiences, but he writes only of ‘man’ and ‘men.’ Even in 1976 that would have caught the eye.

This is the eighth outing for Ethan Gage that energetic Eighteenth Century rogue. While I have enjoyed most of the books in the series, once again I had the feeling that the the wind is leaving Ethan's sails.  This title is much slower and more serious than its predecessors.  Ethan does not sparkle. He worries a lot.  The word ‘again’ refers to ‘The Emerald Storm’ (2012) which seemed more a forced march than a romp.

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Moreover, the narrative is divided between Ethan and Astiza, his wife, and she is even more serious than Ethan has become because she worries about their son Horus (Harry) who also has some chapters, consisting chiefly of him worrying about his mother. There is a lot of worrying.  These three worry enough to be Op-Ed writers, that professional worrying class.

The technique of alternating chapters with the voices of Ethan, Astiza, and Horus slows the pace a lot. And it is distracting.  Especially Horus, the eight year old whose range is, well, that of an eight year old.

On the other hand there are vivid characterisations of the many individuals and the places that Ethan meets and traverses but once again it was too much, St. Petersburg and the Russian court, Poland and a revanchist noble, Istanbul and the the harem in the Topkapi.  Indigestion, I cried. All of this name and place dropping is not a substitute for élan, spirit, movement, and fun.

Yet for all the movement there is none of the pace that I have so enjoyed in some of his earlier titles in this series.  In these pages the movement is punctuated by long periods of rest and relaxation. and, of course, worry.

One character drops out of the story half any through, namely the Russian prince, whom I keep expecting to re-appear, as others do in this novel and have in the others in the series, else why have him in the first place. Answer: a plot device.  

It is peopled with some truly malign villains, von Bonin and Count Dalca. Neither one is a quitter, that is for sure.  


The eight Ethan Gage novels.

1 Napoleon's Pyramids (2007)
2 The Rosetta Key (2008)
3 The Dakota Cipher (2009)
4 The Barbary Pirates (2010)
5 The Emerald Storm (2012)
6 The Barbed Crown (2013)
7 The Three Emperors (2014)
8 The Trojan Icon (2015)

I found ‘The Emerald Storm,’ despite its exotic setting, to be forced as I found this title to be. I read this one on the Kindle. I do hope the author consults Alfred E. Neuman before he writes the next one follows Neuman's timeless advice 'What, me worry?'

Another gentle comedy of manners set among the red bricks of an English provincial university. Our heroine is Caroline, Caro, and her husband Alan Grimstone, who is a lecturer in anthropology at the aforementioned university. The social manners and morēs are very 1950s, though the time is the 1960s. The women are wives and the wives are housewives. Only widows and eccentrics are permitted to be exceptions.

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Caro has little to do. Even less than some other faculty wives, because Alan does his own typing, in part, because he is secretive about his research. He is in competition with Professor Crispin Maynard who is head of his department in a narrow field of study, or so Alan thinks. The professor is more concerned with his grandchildren and dogs than with off-prints.

To fill in her days Caro reads to inmates at a nursing home, to call it by its right name, and one of them the Reverend Stillingfleet spent many years in Africa where he wrote notes about the natives' manners and morēs. By using Caro’s reading as cover, Alan snitches one of Stillingfleet’s notebooks. It contains valuable data which he immediately incorporates into a journal article manuscript, the argument of which undermines the professor’s own work in the field.

Alan does offer the professor the opportunity to read the draft manuscript, but what with grandchildren and dogs, he declines. The clouds gather.

While Alan and Caro are still in possession of the notebook, Stillingfleet dies. Returning the notebook nows seems impossible so Caro keeps it, and Alan acts as if he does not know that, though of course he does.

Alan submits the manuscript and, voilà, it is accepted. If only it was ever that fast and easy!

He goes to London to correct the proofs to speed the process even more.

Caro moons around, wondering what to do with herself. She does not want a part-time job at the university library, which Alan thinks suitable, because she does not like the people in the library. She considers work in a jumble shop, but Alan does not find that suitable. This is a time and place when women often were introduced as ‘Mrs. Alan Grimstone,’ without even their own given name being, well, given.

She wonders if Alan is unfaithful to her, since he is often out at nocturnal seminars, and those trips to London to correct the proofs do go on. There are temptations in Iris, Inga, and Cressida.

She has some friends but they get on with their own business. Coco, Kitty, and Dolly, each seems to have a better grip on reality than Caro and they do buck her up from time to time. But well, Coco is a man who is apparently asexual, and with his mother, Kitty, together mentally they still live on the Caribbean island surrounded by servants as they were when Kitty’s late husband was governor, and so they are not entirely reliable. There is ever so faint an indication that Coco is homosexual. Dolly, who is Kitty’s down to earth sister, is the most practical person in the book, but she is rather obsessed by the life, loves, and deaths of the hedgehogs that inhabit her rambling garden. Any personal confidences shared with her inevitably are compared to the doings of the hedgehogs, which Caro finds rather…..

Alan admits a dalliance in London with Cressida, and expects their life to continue as before. He is man of his time and place, he cannot make tea, make a bed, prepare toast, etc. After retreating to stay with her mother and then sister a few nights, Caro returns to Alan and nothing more is said of the dalliance. Stiff upper lips and all that.

Alan’s paper is published, Maynard writes a rebuttal. Stillingfleet’s manuscript is lost to an accidental fire in the library to which he gave his papers, but the war of words between Alan and Maynard goes on in the pages of the journal, while they invite each other to tea at home and talk of the seasons. All very civilized.

Along the way, Alan asks Caro to do some typing for him, and she greets this as bridge between them. She will now be permitted to help him and take an interest in his work. He means it that way, and she takes it that way. I took it as satire.

Caro returns to the nursing home to read to others, and finds another elderly person with a trunk of papers….

There is a reference to Miss Clovis from Pym’s earlier novel, ‘Less than Angels’ (1955). Some incidents seemed to set up for development in later novels, but this was her last.

Pym at the typewriter.jpg Barbara Pym at the typewriter.

The telling probably deadens it but in the reading it is light and breezy, and any members of a university or college department will recognise the types, the ambitions, the moans and groans of a nine-hour a week work-load, the quiet desperation of some women to breath in the manners and morēs of the time and place, the restive students….

One of the classic sagas of Finnish literature detailing life in a village in the period 1884-1907 as a microcosm of Finnish history of the period, which I read as homework for our planned short visit to Helsinki in September 2016.

It is earnest and documentary in style. We start with Jussi who works hard as the handy man at the parish manse and in his spare time drains a swamp, and with the verbal agreement of the vicar farms it.

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All readers know, as Jussi suspects, that the verbal agreement will be insufficient when tested.

Much of the book is like this. It sets up situations that any reader can see unfolding.

The message is clear, the underclass always takes it on the chin, and the underclass is always Finnish, and even if the overclass is, in the village of Pentti’s Corners anyway, Finnish they hold the position because of Russian suzerainty of the Grand Duchy of Finland.

The language politics pervades all. The old vicar preaches in Russian and consoles the bereaved in Finnish. The local newspaper is in Russian. Finns are seldom permitted to speak Finnish.

Legal questions, like Jussi’s informal tenancy, are adjudicated by Russian law, not Finnish practice. Nor even by the rules of John Locke, i.e., ownership going to those who mix their labor with the land, which in this case would by Jussi.

A young vicar replaces the old and in time the pressure on his young family is resolved by encroaching on Jussi’s farm. The vicar’s wife is the source of this pressure, and she is a cardboard cutout for this role.

Indeed, none of the characters are rounded. Jussi is nearly a robot, who works all day and all night. Though he is credited with the vision to realize the swamp could be drained and farmed, that seems to be limit of his imagination, and that limit is enough for the plot. A little too pat, I thought.

Likewise, the other characters stereotypes from many other such stories, the talented and handsome workman who prefers to lay around scheming his next seduction, the vodka soaked doctor, the fiery tailor who speaks a garbled version of proto-Marxism from Georgi Plekhanov about the masses, the timid newspaper publisher who dares not print a word of Finnish for fear of losing the licence to publish.

The Japanese defeat the Russians in the Far East, and though not a word is said of it by any official source, and not a word published about it, still everyone in this remote village knows it. Yes, I know about rumour mills, but really, most of the unschooled people in the village Linna has conceived would have no idea of the Far East or Japan.

There is also political unrest in Helsinki, including an assassination. While this is closer to home, it is still an alien world to the villagers, whose major worry is retaliation from the Russians. Rational as that is, it also seems a long bow for these rough, uneducated villagers to see cause and effect in this way with the goings on in distant Helsinki where none of them, and no one they know, has ever set foot.

The tailor Halme agitates and the vicar counsels patience. Those locals who are aware of some of the wider world suppose that if the czar only knew how badly the Finns were treated, then he would change things. This is the old Russian folk maximum, perpetuated by every czar. The bad comes from corrupt ministers around the czar, that insulation that kept the Romanovs in business for the last hundred years. (Spell checker note: ‘czar’ is a difficult word to get through the spellchecker. It would prefer tsar so I stubbornly persisted with czar.

When Russia revoked its commitment to a Finnish Constitution, there was a reaction in Helsinki and nationalists adopted some proto-Marxist rhetoric to organised resistance. Some of the youths who resisted were exiled and made it to Queensland in northern Australia, as chronicled in the novel of Craig Cormack ’Kurikka’s Dreaming’ (2000). Russia itself was undergoing severe strains at this time, too.

Marx was right and Plekhanov was wrong, by the way, and the villagers do not arise to seize their the fruits of their labor. Although Jussi’s son Akseli becomes a convert to socialism and that makes him a marked man. While there is no general strike, but there are plenty of strikes here and there. The natives are indeed restless and Halme continues, making suits for the squires, while agitating for a mix of nationalism and socialism, one does not dare say national-socialism any more.

There are divisions among the Finns who are united by nationalism and divided by ideology. Numerous variations are traced in debates, speeches, rallies, and confusion.

The first time the people of the village see a Russian, he comes to nail up a notice filled with threats. Not a public relations master stroke. This followed shortly thereafter by evictions enforced by mounted police who are Finns but labeled Cossacks. It is a common motif that overwhelming force will shock and awe the restive into submission, and it never works, leading to ever more force, as it does in these pages.

Though I found the novel stiff and wooden, it is also true that the author knows the way of life of the people he depicts better, say, than the social realist writers in the United States covering the same period. I have in mind Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and Sinclair Lewis. There is in Linna’s pages none of the condescension that Dreiser, Norris, and Lewis unwittingly reveal while representing the downtrodden. While loud in denouncing the oppressor such writers have no empathy with the oppressed. Their reaction is intellectual, learned from the pages of books. Linna’s voice is much more authentic than any of these three.

There is no redemption for the novel in the descriptions of that north star or nature and the place: these are mechanical. I found only one playful mention of Swedish, albeit I was turning the pages very fast, but ethnic Swedes remain to this day, an exclusive caste in Finnish society, as evinced by the Finnish literature written in Swedish.

Vaino_Linna_color.jpg Väinö Linna

I glanced at the many laudatory reviews on Good Reads and found nothing in them to give me pause. This is volume one of a trilogy and I think I will leave volumes two and three to all those accoladers on Good Reads. Serves them right!

This is the story of the boy Achilles and lifelong companion and true love Patroclus from their first meeting when both were eight, told from the point of view of Patroclus and set in a mysterious world. It is ‘mysterious’ because the gods are ever-present. Max Weber said the Enlightenment had gradually ‘demystified (Entzauberung) the world,’ that is, taken the mystery out of the world through rationality and science. Well, this novel is firmly set in a world that has not been demystified. The author handles both the gods and the men and women and the goddess, if that has to be said, quite well, and also their interactions. The prose is gorgeous and the conceptions of the principals is engaging.

I made the remark about goddesses because anyone familiar with the mythology knows that Thetis, the divine mother of Achilles, was one formidable goddess. Even the the king of the gods, Zeus, had been known to steer clear of her.

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Patroclus is a foundling who pitches up at the home of Achilles’s mortal father, who takes in boys as future warriors. In a world ruled by the sword this is a wise precaution.

IMG_2302.jpg We visited the site of Troy in October 2015.

IMG_2311.jpg The view of the Trojan plain.

The descriptions of Achilles from boy to man are, well, Homeric, it has to be said. He is beautiful, he is graceful, he is simple in manner for there is no need for him to prove himself to himself or to anyone else, his senses are preternatural… he may work all day with sword and spear in practice and yet never seems to sweat. The abrasion of his hands on sword haft never raises a callous, and so on. Truly he is favoured by the gods.

The more so when Thetis appears, as she does, now and again and when least expected. The first time she appears to Patroclus, of whom she disapproves as unworthy to be a companion of the god-born Achilles is marvellously realised. (Ditto the last time.) The boy is walking along a mountain path when he realises all has gone quiet. The cicadas have stopped. The birds have left the sky. Even the leaves on the trees are still. The grass itself seems tense in expectation. And then…there she is, a combination of incredible beauty and searing hatred. To look at her burns his eyeballs, when she looks at him, his skin burns. Not a goddess to cross.

Though Thetis hides Achilles to spare him from the Trojan War, the wily Odysseus finds him. That is another story and it is partly re-told here afresh. She hid him among a large group of girls in female attire. Suspecting that Achilles was among these girls, Odysseus threw down a sword before them and the hand that snatched it up with blinding speed, that was the hand of Achilles. He was born to hold that sword, a reflex to grab it. The story is dressed up a little here but stays entirely faithful to the legends. Odysseus used some good old fashioned leg work to find the place where Thetis had secreted her darling boy before he got close enough to drop the sword.

There are some soft spots in the story. It is never clear to me why Achilles took up Patroclus. Achilles is asked this very question a couple of times and answers each time, but none made sense to this reader.

I also found it hard to reconcile this mild mannered Achilles with the butcher he became at Troy. Though the novel does deftly lay the groundwork to explain his double reaction at Troy, first to the loss of the girl Briseis to Agamemnon and then Hector’s murder of Patroclus. Though, strangely, regarding Briseis the author does not quote what Achilles says in the 'Iliad,' 'I love her.'

Yes, Achilles knows the doom that hangs over him, and in time Patroclus learns it, too. But there is a shred of hope even amid these Western Front trenches at Troy, for the prophecy says that as long as Hector, the Trojan champion lives, so shall Achilles, i.e., Achilles will only die after Hector. Since Hector seems indomitable, Patroclus has hope that Achilles will survive, somehow. Patroclus is not a deep thinker.

Achilles faces his destiny and wades into the mayhem at Troy slaying this one and that by the dozen. He moves at five times the speed of even the most athletic opponents. Patroclus, never much a hand at athletics or warfare, stays clear of the fighting and becomes a healer, and there is much to heal. This I do not remember from the ‘Iliad.’ But the author made a choice for reasons of plot and character. So be it.

More than once ethical and moral matters rise to the surface, and are discussed by characters. The writer manages to do this without anachronism, not imputing to these men and women our Enlightenment ethos, nor condemning them for lacking it. Quite an achievement, this. Those that have not read the 'Iliad' do not realise how philosophical is that poem of force.

But fate is fate, and bad leads to worse.

MAd Miller.jpg Madeline Miller is a high school teacher.

The novelist clearly shows that, to a degree, even within the ambit of the prophecy, Achilles is the author of his own fate. That is an achievement. Chapeaux!

When doing homework for our trip to Chicago I came across reference to Pullman railway cars, a fascinating business model in itself. Those references also mentioned George Pullman’s artificial community, the eponymous Pullman. It was time to find out more.

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Pullman made a fortune from the railway cars that bore his name from 1867-1968.

Pullman mug.jpg George Pullman.

As railroads were rebuilt after the Civil War and extended coast-to-coast, Pullman built ever more of them and had to expand the manufacturing capacity. Because in his business model the staff of the cars was also contracted with the cars (of which he always retained ownership), he also had to recruit and train staff to maintain the Pullman standard. To do so, he bought more than 4,000 acres south of Chicago and set up a new factory and built a town around it.

To recruit first class mechanics (the term that applied to all skilled workers in his factory), to ease the commute of workers who lived in Chicago, and to satisfy his philanthropic self-image he built a community for his workers called Pullman, after the factory, not after him personally in the first instance. It would offer all the necessities and conveniences of town life from clean water, sanitation, paved streets, schools, libraries, theatres, and so on, all laid down in a plan and built before the first inhabitant moved in. There were would be no demon rum, no gambling, no prostitution and related vices.


The dwellings were varied in size and the occupants rented them from the Pullman Company at a rate calculated to return 6% on the investment of building and maintaining the community, that being the return the Pullman Company realised on its other investments. This return was important because Pullman wished to prove to other robber barons that such social investment was profitable. The author found that it never did quite make 6%, more like 4.5%, something that the Pullman Company kept secret.

Pullman employees had first priority for the housing, but some others also rented there though not many because there was nothing there but the Pullman factory in the early days. The homes were subject to occasional inspections to identify maintenance needs and to insure that the occupants were taking care of them. At first the rent was extracted from salaries before they were paid, but a court struck that down in a class action. Nonetheless when paid, Pullman employees could not leave the pay desk without paying the rent.

What’s so good about utopia? The town of Pullman offered peace and quiet, recreation for families (parks, theatres), libraries and schools, sanitation, clean water, fuel, and the like, all laid on. It was run by a business manager because it was unincorporated. Ergo the residents had no say whatever in what happened. Moreover, their residential tenure depended on the Pullman Company. Furthermore, they could never buy a home there. By the way, the community included a covered market but Pullman did not have a company store, but rented space in the market to providers.

It is a kind utopian thought experiment. One can have all these good things of life in return for giving up democracy.

George Pullman was no friend of democracy, having observed at first hand its practice in the 1850s and 1860s in Chicago where one corrupt political party replaced the other by turns with mayors and councillors each more venal than the other. The corruption at city hall, ensconced by the democratic process, was matched by the drunkenness, robbery, assaults, prostitutions, and drug-taking on the streets. One neighbourhood of two thousand residents had forty bars and fifteen brothels, and more. Ruthless landlords built tenements and extracted maximum rents for rat-infested hovels. Despite the taxes collected, the streets were mud baths with plentiful horse droppings. Schools and libraries were private with stiff fees. But here was vigorous democracy as the parties battled each other in the race to the spoils. The corruption included wholesale vote rigging. Some things have never changed in Chicago. There has always been a high turnout of voters there, especially among the dead who do not care for whom their vote is cast.

To most residents of Pullman and to the journalists and philanthropists who visited the town, it was superior. 'To most’ but not all, because some railway workers wanted to extend the union to Pullman workers to secure higher wages and to increase the security of tenure in the homes they rented. There were occasions when workers who did not meet the Pullman Company standard of punctuality, sobriety, and good work were evicted from their homes overnight. In least one case the activities of a worker’s wife caused eviction. (Use you imagination to figure it out, Sherlock.)

George Pullman reacted to these union stirrings as a personal affront to his benign paternalism. There would be no negotiation; not an inch would be given. Cometh the fall.

The railroads were the site of much of the early struggle for unions, often led by the redoubtable Eugene V. Debs. I have discussed a biography of Debs elsewhere on this blog.

At the same time the ever-expanding city of Chicago, doubling in population every ten years, was encroaching on once distant Pullman. In time Chicago incorporated Pullman into Cook County though leaving the domination of the Company largely intact for another decade.

The collision course was laid in. The Pullman Company paid high(er) wages to attract and keep good workers as well providing all of the amenities of Pullman town for them and their families. But it was a business and when competition undercut the Pullman Company it unilaterally reduced wages while leaving the rents at the established level to get that 6% return on investment. When demand was high it expected unpaid overtime out of corporate loyalty. When the bottom fell out of the demand, the Company laid off workers and if they could no longer pay the rent, then they were evicted. The union movement found increasing interest from Pullman workers. By the way, Pullman did retain employees and sell cars at a loss at times before laying off staff. But the layoffs came.

The very kind of workers that the Pullman Company wanted, these were those most likely to chaff at the control of their lives and fates in Pullman Village. They were safe, sane, sober family men who would aspire to home ownership, who would want an education for their children and taken an interest in it, who would want a social life for the housewives, who would want family entertainment, who would want and expect job security. But George Pullman would never relinquish control of anything he owned, not one iota.

The result was the Pullman Strike that went from bad to worse. While the workers offered negotiation, the Pullman Company quickly resorted to force, and was shocked to find resistance. It spiralled out of control amid much posturing. Debs called every calamity a victory. George Pullman affected wounded pride. President Grover Cleveland sent in 12,000 Federal troops, three for every striker. (President Cleveland currently ranks in my book as the worst incumbent.)

The overkill of the corporate and political oppression galvanised public opinion against the Pullman Company. Religious leaders, newspaper editorialists, and even Chicago businessmen blamed the Company, not the strikers. George Pullman found himself ostracised among the business elite and that made him more stubborn. It became a test of wills, one he lost.

In the long aftermath, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Pullman Company must divest itself of the town. The annual Labor Day holiday in the first week of September was one of the concessions to the union movement from this strike.

Prof_Buder-copy.jpg Stanley Buder.

After a hiatus, the Pullman Company survived but was never the same again.

Nothing is said about race, but many members of the over-the-rail staff of Pullman were black. There is much else in the book about the business practices of Pullman which I found of interest. For that, read the book.

A memoir of sorts from the two years in 1969 and 1970 when Daniel P. Moynihan, with Hess as his deputy, served as President Richard Nixon’s chief advisor on domestic policy.

Hess cover.jpg

It was the odd couple: the president was a social conservative who courted to the right wing of his party to get the nomination and then moved further right to win the election joined with a high profile exponent of liberalism in American politics. Nixon ran to the right in 1968 first to secure the nomination from much more liberal Republicans like Charles Percy and that Hamlet of the Hudson Nelson Rockefeller. Then Nixon ran even further toward the right to undercut segregationist George Wallace’s independent campaign among those red of neck. Each time the message was simple and clear: law and order, cut welfare to zero, wind back the clock on affirmative action, stop integration by ending funding for its support, stack the Supreme Court with non-entities who would deny government intervention to support minorities…. That was rhetoric. It has a strangely contemporary ring to it, does it not?

In office the reality was this. Nixon wanted peace and quiet in the United States and he personally wanted peace and quiet in the White House. He was willing to buy domestic peace and quiet. Moreover, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and seemed secure in continuing that. Nixon saw no reason to rile up Congress on domestic matters that he, Nixon, did not care about, nor to stir up the population by eliminating programs that had popular support. None of this could be done overtly for fear of alienating his electoral constituency which he would need again in four years. It was time for some legerdemain.

Enter Pat Moynihan. His credentials as a liberal in American politics were unassailable. He had worked for President Kennedy. He had advocated the cause of minorities. He supported all manner of social programs. His intellect was bright and he was a wordsmith, and he had other credentials, too, as a Professor at Harvard University. Robert F. Kennedy was dead, but Moynihan was his living spirit still flesh. Moynihan embodied from the bow tie on the Eastern Liberal Establishment that Nixon hated privately almost to distraction.

But it would placate Congress and confuse and perhaps divide his critics if he keep Moynihan close, and so Nixon appointed him as the chief domestic political advisor with cabinet rank. It was a masterstroke that won much breathing space for the new Nixon administration.

At the outset it seemed that Nixon’s administration would be dominated by two Ivy League professors, since his chief foreign policy advisor, appointed earlier, was Henry Kissinger, another Harvard professor, head of the National Security Council with cabinet rank. Remember that Kissinger had entered public affairs with Nelson Rockefeller, the most liberal of the Ripon Republicans (a phrase no longer used by the Grand Old Party). Are these two twin and each a deuce philosopher-king?

One of the interesting observation in the book under review is the comparison of the communities in the White House for domestic and foreign policy. While foreign policy is the preserve of the President, per the Constitution, and only two agencies figure in it, though they are the great and good Departments of State and Defense. In fact, with the appointment of Kissinger and the elevation of the position of Director of the National Security Council to cabinet rank, Nixon enlarged the foreign policy circle. It was still, however, a small circle. All the principals could sit around one small table, and a single strong personality could dominate the group, in this case Kissinger, even though he did not have the powerful Department of State and Defense at his back, he had the intellect and cunning to out manoeuvre them to influence Nixon. But that is another story.

In contrast the domestic policy community is vast and ill defined, but it starts with every other cabinet member, fifty state governors, and expands from there.

Moynihan saw an opportunity to dominate the domestic policy community with his own intellect. It would be a contest on two levels. The first was to get Nixon’s attention to domestic policy and the second was to displace his principle domestic policy rival, the economist Arthur Burns. The first step was simple and easy and had continuing implications. It comes down to real estate.

Thousands of people work in the White House and it has long since burst at the seams. Nineteenth Century broom closets have been converted to offices, hallways reduced in size to enlarge offices to shoe horn in more people, doubling and tripling up is the norm. The alternative was the Executive Office Building nearby. Moynihan opted to squeeze into a White House broom closet a few steps from the Oval Office, while Burns chose an opulent suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building. That was very nearly end of story. Game, set, and match to Moynihan. He was at hand instantly, and he made use of that.

In a way that says it all. The imperceptive Burns probably never quite realised it was a competition, and conveniently excluded himself. He further reduced his own influence by his ponderous class room manner. He could not participate in discussions ad lib. He could not debate submissions and never got to the point, if ever he had one, in less than forty-five minutes. If asked for comment in a meeting he would go away and write a lecture to deliver a week later. It was no contest. Nixon, in fact, began to interrupt Burns to ask for the conclusion, and then simply stopped inviting him to meetings. Moynihan excelled at debate and was always ready with an idea.

Getting Nixon’s attention was harder. The Cold War was very cold; the Vietnam War was very hot. The Middle East was on fire. Other trouble-spots vied for attention by more outrageous events.

But domestic policy could not be neglected. There were racial tensions and riots. Moreover, many Johnson programs were coming due for renewal and Moynihan was a genius at using these calendared deadlines to create some domestic policy for Nixon. He conceded some of the Great Society program to the dustbins, re-badged others, and merged many to serve up a diverse and responsive domestic policy. More importantly, he couched it all in terms Nixon could recognise and accept. That is, Moynihan played to the President, whose own background was one of hard times during the Depression. For two years the magic tape held.

Nixon came to like Moynihan who addressed him as an intelligent and well-meaning man, and did not act either the sycophant or supplicant. Sometimes Moynihan addressed complicated arguments to Nixon, in a rain of memoranda, on the assumption that Nixon would read and understand. These memoranda were often short, always witty, and usually tuned to the day's headlines. Nixon liked being treated as an intellectual equal by this star from the Harvard firmament, just as the star liked being asked to advise on all manner of things, many beyond his remit.

moynihan1-articleLarge.jpg The odd couple.

It did not last because when all is said and done, well, Nixon was Nixon. He was unable and unwilling to ply Congress on domestic policy. By that I mean, Nixon was not someone who would court the support of anyone, still less in a policy arena in which he had no interest. Part of his dedication to foreign policy was because it was essentially the President’s chess game. He played the lone hand. At that he excelled.

To promote any domestic policy requires a president to woo, court, explain, cajole, coax, trade favours, entertain, persuade, the chairs of sub-committees, the chairs of committees, the party elders, the lobbyists, the press, individual Senators, faction leaders formal and informal, state governors, certain Representatives, and so on and on and on. This kind of endless dance was what Lyndon Johnson did better than anyone before or since, seldom idle and never alone when he could press his case on someone.

Nixon thought this kind of politicking without end led to compromises and bad policy, or so he said, but the truth is deeper. He just could not do this person-to-person persuading even if it was scripted and controlled. We can all speculate on why. Here is my take. Because of his background of penury he was too proud to ask others for help. To do so would be admission of weakness, and the weak are reluctant to admit it. There is also in Nixon a personal shyness that is another result of his upbringing that kept him in the family. That is my pop psychologising. (Yes, I know LBJ's background was even more penurious and he had no trouble in seeking help.)

After the first few months of his presidency Nixon sharply reduced the time he spent in cabinet meetings, and made himself less and less available for appointments with anyone. Bob Haldeman who kept Nixon’s appointment diary noted that the President said and said often ‘I want to be alone.’ Yes, I thought of Greta, too, as I am sure did Hess, but he passed it in silence.

Nixon had to be alone with those yellow legal pads to think. When Nixon was thus isolated, as he preferred, Moynihan was a few steps away and would be summoned to be a one-man sounding board, who would speak freely in the privacy of the tête-à-tête.

Like Senator William Fulbright, Moynihan had made a Faustian bargain. He joined Nixon’s band on the pledge of loyalty and that he would not speak of the Vietnam War which was the biggest and hottest ticket for the incoming president. Moynihan kept his part of the bargain.

It lasted for two years and then Moynihan returned to Harvard. He paid a price for his association with Nixon and gradually went on to a political career in the Senate, taking the seat once held by Robert Kennedy.

The price was a loss of status among his Harvard peers for his dalliance with Tricky Dick. He never quite re-entered the Harvard Square club. Indeed, his association with the Nixon White House also damned him to many anti-Vietnam War protestors. The one chance I had to hear Moynihan speak, at a political science conference, he was shouted down, quite comprehensively, by such protestors.

Stephen Hess has many other books, and I will certainly read more.

Hess mug.jpg Stephen Hess.

He is even handed, and lets the facts do most of the talking. He does, however, present most of this book in the present tense and I found that distracting, and I always find it annoying after I have been distracted.

Dyson is sometimes said to be the greatest physicist never to win a Nobel Prize, settling instead with having a space craft named for him in ‘Star Trek.’ The book is autobiographical but not an autobiography. Huh?

The essays set forth something of his life and career as a scientist from his first absorption in and simple adsorption of mathematics, to statistical analysis during World War II in Bomber Command, to theoretical work in the Cold War… That is autobiographical part. However it does not offer much of the private man, though we do find out some of his personal life there is no interior, and it is shorn of any reflections on the might-have-beens in his life. The ruminations, and there are a few, are about science and scientists and those they effect or effect them.

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He, by the way, was perhaps among the one million Allied soldiers estimated to be killed in the conquest of Japan, who was saved by the atomic bombs. He had been ordered to Okinawa with a contingent of RAF Bomber Command to join the aerial campaign against Japan in anticipation of a sea landing in November 1946. The Allied planners had assumed one million (1,000,000) Allied causalities to subdue the islands of Japan, based largely not the resistance on Iwo Jima and then Okinawa. He read the news of the first atomic bomb en route to the boat train for the Orient. His orders were altered, and he was demobilised. (The planners also assumed ten times that many Japanese deaths in the conflict and untold numbers later in the devastation of the entire country that would be necessary to subdue it.) The planners also assumed nearly all of these Allied casualties would be Americans, since the other Allies were depleted by the war in Europe and that the Soviet Union would play the waiting game, if for no other reason than in retaliation for the tardy opening of the second front in Europe in 1944. Among the many contingency plans for this operation was, after Japan had been bombed flat, to convert air force personnel to infantry and send them into the charnel house. One such flyboy being converted to infantry in 1945 was my father.

‘The Children’s Crusade’ is the chapter about his RAF experiences. It is an absolutely outstanding account of bureaucratic pathology. I used it a number of times in teaching. The more lies told, the more innocents murdered, the more lives thrown away, the greater the prestige of Bomber Command, the more knighthoods distributed, the larger the budget to continue the mayhem, the less rational analysis occurred. Nothing unique about it, but he lays it all out in a way that is all too familiar.

He started a PhD and sent a year at Cornell University with Hans Bethe, who sent him on to the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton New Jersey to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Many of the Los Alamos scientists, apart from Oppenheimer, had been hired by Cornell. (Chicago got the rest.) Entering their company was exhilarating and frightening to the young Dyson. They had won the Pacific War with their brains, it seemed to him, and now he was one of them, well, not really, but he was among them.

He found Cornell and later the Institute very different from Cambridge where he started the PhD research earlier. First, there was plenty of everything from butter to test tubes and clean, crisp white paper. To a theorist like Dyson, who quickly proved himself so inept at experiments as to be a danger to anyone else working nearby, the clean, crisp, empty white paper was a thrill. (Reminded me of paper elsewhere.) Second, he found the informality of first names, all lining up together for lunch, and sitting at one table different from both the RAF Bomber Command, of course, but also from the class, status, and hierarchy consciousness of Cambridge high tables.

There was another distinguishing feature that stayed with him. The anguish of the atomic scientists at having unleashed the atom. Most days at lunch or coffee someone would talk about it as a moral question, as moral guilt, as a genie that would not go back into the lamp, as the last consuming sin of hubris.

It is in this context that Dyson interprets Fredrick Teller’s fatal testimony against Oppenheimer, and it makes sense in this telling. Oppenheimer was so distraught, feeling ashamed and guilty, stunned, confused by the enormity of nuclear weapons that he had become unstable, volatile, sleepless, haunted, and so was not fit for duty. Teller was trying to make a specific and limited criticism of Oppenheimer’s fitness for the job as director of the Atomic Energy Commission, but in the hysteria of the time and place it got blown out of proportion and Teller never lived down this betrayal of his mentor, doing himself as much damage as he did Oppenheimer. Of course, Teller might well have realised that once he took a public side, it would spin out of his control. Too bad the principals of Wikileaks did not learn from such an example. Once it is out, it is out of control. This is one of many examples in the book of the disservice the media does to reason and rationality with its remorseless, cheap sensationalism.

Toward the middle of the book is the story of Matthew Meselson, a biologist, who won a single-handed victory in the Nixon Administration. Armed with reason and evidence he convinced the National Security Council, which in turn convinced President Nixon, to end military research into chemical and biological weapons: One man with an idea, per John Stuart Mill. Moreover, having renounced CBW (chemical and biological warfare) the Nixon administration convinced the Soviet government to do the same, completely in contradiction to the conventional wisdom. This is a marvellous story which was swamped too soon by the tale of Watergate. In order to slip it past domestic opposition, Nixon played it all so low key many involved did not realise it was done, least of all the sensation-seeking media. No great rhetoric but an achievement for the ages. Dyson was one of the scribes doing the technical work on the reports and proposals that went into this effort.

Nixon also deserves credit for listening to the arguments of Daniel P. Moynihan about cities as per Stephen Hess, ‘The President and the Professor’ (2014) but again, to out manoeuvre opponents on the right, Nixon did so with no fanfare to attract the the attention of the jaded hacks.

Dyson like many of his scientific colleagues drew strength from poetry and music. Indeed he often tried to understand what he was doing by finding poems that expressed it. The same with music. He emerges from this book as a modest and direct individual with a great deal of intellect and capacity for meeting challenges, solving problems, indeed, but not only technical ones.

Dyson head.jpg Freeman Dyson.

Lee Hansen first enticed me to read this book, and I used the chapter about Dyson’s experiences in bomber Command many times in teaching to demonstrate the pathologies of large organisations. I lent it to a friend and when he returned it, I opened it and started to read it again. I had thought of it last year when we saw ‘Particle Theory’ about the God-particle, and I noticed the enormous spectacles on the nose of an owlish man in the audience; it was Dyson.

While in the States Dyson did what so many exchange students have done there, including Jacques Chirac, and criss-crossed the country by bus. Dyson chose his destinations according to his finances and the physicists he might meet at the destinations, either by attending lectures or knocking on the office door, things he would never have done in England.

What is reality? What is not? What is the difference? Does it matter?

This is a novel from Finland, read in anticipation of a brief visit there later in 2016. It is charmingly enigmatic and low-key, rather reminding this reader of Finnish movies in those respects.

Datura cover.jpg

It is episodic, written in what might be diary entries of a young woman who, after graduating from university, goes to work in the editorial office of a publication called ‘The New Anomalist’ which is a one-man publication that prints only the weird and wondrous; two-headed sheep always get a good run.

Our nameless heroine tries to be nice to the oddballs and weirdos who contribute to the magazine, want to contribute to the magazine, or subscribe to it. Gradually, with constant exposure, they seem less weird and odd to her, and her own normal life seems illusory. Part of the explanation, for the literal minded, is in the title, but I took that mostly to be a metaphor for erosion of her own grasp on reality. Datura is an hallucinogenic.

Leena Klohn.jpg Leena Krohon.

While it is set in Helsinki that hardly matters. Mostly the encounters and rumination occur in the dreary one basement office of the magazine which could be anywhere. Ergo, no travelogue.

This a collection of short stories that opens with the title story of Smith deliberately losing a race in order, as he sees it, to defy the authorities. Winning would have benefited him, but it would also have benefited the warden and jailers of the Borstal where he is held, and rather than do that he loses, and does so in a way that is obvious to viewers.

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It told from his point of view and is hypnotic at points, especially during the fateful run. Once a reader starts, it draws one in.

Most of the stores have a common theme in loneliness. ‘Uncle Ernest’ is a touching story of a very lonely old man trying to befriend some innocent school girls, which is misunderstand by on-lookers. but who knows, maybe in time, Ernest might …. There is just enough ambiguity to make a reader wonder. No sledge hammer morals here.

‘Mr Raynor the School Teacher’ is another person trapped in his own, very small world, dealing with obstreperous boys, some of whom will find their way to the Borstal nearby. Meanwhile, he daydreams, but never dares speak his mind.

‘The Fishing Boat Picture’ is about love and sacrifice, but all clouded by the inability and unwillingness to communicate. Maybe the characters cannot say what they feel because they just do not know how to do so or they do not quite know what they do feel.

sillitoe-1.jpg Alan Sillitoe at the time the book was published.

There are four other stories, suffice it to say. I enjoyed reading each of them. Though the petulance does wear thin. Sillitoe was one of the 'Angry Young Men’ of British letters who found the post-war Welfare State inadequate.

We forget just how long it took Britain to recover from World War II, for example, in meat rationing, petrol scarcity, in employment. It did not enjoy the years of growth and plenty that the United States had during the Eisenhower years. One of the reason the decade of the Swinging Sixties was so liberating was because finally it heralded the end of this wartime privations, that had long ended in other English-speaking countries.

The Wikipedia entry on the story is convoluted and one-eyed, as well as pompous. But it has probably benefited editing twice since I looked at it ten minutes ago.

courtenay2.jpg Tom Courteny in a still photograph from the 1962 film based closely on the titular story. I started to type that Courteny was born to play Smith, but then I thought the same about his performance as Ivan in 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970).'

Another book that turned up during our move.

William Butler Yeats wrote that ‘life is a long preparation for something that never happens.’ No, he was not thinking of the Chicago Cubs in a World Series, but it fits.

I omitted the subtitle: ‘History, Triumph, Mostly Defeat, and Incurable Hope at Wrigley Field.’

George Will has long been an expositor of baseball, well before Ken Burns discovered it. This book is an ode, spiced with some gritty reality, to Wrigley Field and those who have graced and disgraced it from zealous fans, first-ball throwing presidents, class and déclassé players, managers, and owners including the fabled P. K. Wrigley, famous for his indifference to baseball and his genius for marketing.

Wrigley Field.jpg

All of the lore is here reiterated: Babe Ruth calling the shot, Hack Wilson the perpetually hungover human fireplug, the storied Tinkers-Evers-Chance, smiling FDR throwing out the first ball, Ruth Ann Steinhagen shooting first baseman Eddie Waitkus (who had never met her before she pulled the trigger on him), Wrigley’s many innovations from Ladies’ Day to the ivy on the walls, and his decision to contribute the steel for light poles in 1941 to the war effort and the resulting, accidental, consecration of Wrigley Field as a cathedral to daytime baseball. Waitkus, by the way, was the inspiration for Bernard Malamud’s novel ‘The Natural,’ ironic since Malamud had no interest in baseball, nor any knowledge of it either, as is apparent in the novel, somewhat emended by the screenwriter for the movie of the same name.

Did the Babe really call his shot? The record is far from clear, but the legend is indelible. Tinkers-Evers-Chance turned very few double plays but the journalist who said they did, created a reality that has endured despite the wizardry of sabermetrics. Will is very good at presenting a lot of facts, including statistical data, in digestible portions with spritely commentary, including the paltry number of double-plays this trio made in the year when they together ascended to myth.

Hack Wilson was certainly hungover on days when he blasted home runs. His drinking shortened his career and life dramatically. FDR and Chicago Mayor Anton Joseph (Tony) Cermak made an odd couple on opening day in 1933, and even more so a few weeks later in Miami when Cermak was murdered at FDR’s side, the speculation being that Cermak was the target of the Mafia as a warning to FDR to call off the IRS or to leave Prohibition alone, which had made them millionaires.

The end of live-ball era is much discussed, surprisingly, without much enlightenment. The rather mystical implication is that the live-ball ended with the advent of Great Depression. One catastrophe begat the other. Members of the pitching fraternity did not mourn the end of the live-ball era and celebrated the dead-ball era. I speak as a brother of this lodge.

The Olympian RBI totals Wilson and others compiled in the live-ball era endure, unlike most other records from the days of yore. Why is that? In those days most teams had but one big hitter who was preceded by yeomen who hit singles and were thus on base for the clean-up man. In those days before money-ball, pitchers threw strikes to such clean-up hitters and the RBIs followed. In subsequent years most teams have more, better hitters so there are just fewer ducks-on-the-pond when the sluggers pounds another home run. And pitchers are often instructed not to pitch to the big hitter when there are runners on base, even to the point of walking in runs. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire hit phenomenal numbers of chemically-assisted home runs without threatening the RBI record.

Denizens of Wrigley Field have included the great and the good, the ordinary and the unknown, and the bad and the ugly. In the heyday of the aforementioned Prohibition Al Capone was a regular. Later Jack Ruby sold peanuts there before finding his way to a Dallas basement carpark a generation later. Ray Kroc had his first experiences at retail food in the concessions under the grandstand. And of course those indefatigable entrepreneurs the Bill Veecks (as in wreck, they always said) Senior and Junior.

While the leagues expanded and new stadia were built Wrigley Field, together with Fenway Park, remained testaments to the past. These new stadia seated tens of thousands, and came equipped with all mod cons, as the realtors say, from plasma television screens to beer on tap, cushioned seating, hot and cold running distractions, and more. They occupied vast tracts of land, sometimes seventy acres far out of town; the further out they went, the more parking they needed for fans to drive cars there; the more parking they needed; the further out they went. Some went so far out they no longer have a connection to any city like Foxboro in Massachusetts.

The needs of television to fill airtime and the need of the owners to sell fans more than a ticket once there, and the needs of fans to do more after driving hours to get there and back turned many such stadia into entertainment complexes. The distractions are many. One of the worst, and there are many contenders, are sound system that assault the senses, though thankfully being largely open spaces, never as excruciating as at NBA games. Being more expensive than the Apollo space program, these colossi have to multi-task, and this was integrated into their design: baseball, football, rock concerts, soccer, you-name-it, anything and everything.

The predictable result was that they do not suit any of them, least of all baseball, which is best played on Astro-dirt.

Wrigley Field stood apart from this pursuit of Baal for a generation or more, literally held together by chewing gum in more than one way. However, the balance sheet caught-up one day. Lights came. There followed a scoreboard that can be read by Apollo astronauts on the way to the moon.

Will deftly demonstrates that the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs who play (at) baseball in Wrigley Field are less important to fans than the price of beer. That price predicts attendance better than the team’s winning percentage (which the cognoscenti know seldom tops .500). The Cubs team has long been the lesser interest both to the ownership, the management, and the fans than the beer.

Will discreetly leaves the players out of this list those indifferent to the game itself. Though some of them did not evince much interest in the game while playing at it what with two errors by the same outfielder on one play in several games, six walks and a balk by a pitcher in one inning without a single out, ground balls lost in the sun, outfielders charging balls hit over their heads, one batter called out on strikes without a swing of the bat a record number of consecutive times, infielders unaware of the location of the ground when it came to ground balls, players traded…for themselves with a cash refund. All of which makes the achievements of some individuals all the more remarkable, like Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, Bill ‘Sweet’ William(s), Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Kerry Wood, and a few others.

The book ends with a coda from that poet of baseball Bart Giamatti, he who banned one of its greatest players (for not playing by the rules), who chided us to remember that it is just a game and that is why it is so transcendent, for two hours outside the river of time.

As the story draws to a close the team has changed hands several times and the unforgiving business of major sports prevails, though others have learned some of the lessons of Wrigleyville, as the neighbourhood calls itself, and some new stadia are more like Wrigley Field these days than Chavez Ravine (that is a memory test).

Geo Will.jpg George Will

When I ordered the book I did so in the recollection that George Will is a wordsmith of excellence, and that assumption was amply vindicated by the light touch, the glib segues, the pertinent metaphors, and the economical allusions. Altogether a perfect game of a book. I read it in one sitting. Gulping it down.

This book came to mind when I read Michael Booth’s 'The Almost Nearly Perfect People' (2014) survey of Northern Europe. Booth mentions Brown’s book, too, in a rather left-handed way. Relying on my cataloguing system, I found this book on the shelf at the Ack-Comedy and had a look.

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As when I read it first in 2009, I find it to be an understated book that neither condemns nor praises Sweden, the Swedish way, the Swedish model, and, accordingly, it does not satisfy the ideologues. It is low key in every way. It is more a personal memoir than an assessment of Sweden.

Brown lived in Sweden as a boy with diplomat parents, and later as a married man, and worked for a living in a sawmill. His experience of Sweden is far different from a travel writer who passes through for a few weeks of interviews in hotels and restaurants, and guided tours of the country side. His voice is muted and his comments are largely derived from direct, personal experience. Little is black or white, little is so clearcut to satisfy an ideologue. More importantly, his perspective is working class and from the hinterland, not urban middle class.

To judge from krimis Sweden is worse than Midsomer, every street, every town is replete with pedophiles, Neo-Nazis, Sven the Rippers, people smugglers, drug barons that put Latin Americans to shame, bankers who gave the Lehman Brothers lessons, and corporate villains to dwarf Enron, and worse. Anyone with a new car, a bank account in the black, a country cottage, a fine coat, got it by foul means. This compound of envy of the rich and imputation of evil to others is to be found in some other Nordic krimis, too, e.g., the Dane Jussi Adler-Olsen becomes poetic in his lyrical hatred of those he regards as rich. There is no depravity of which they are incapable. I fully expected to find his villains eating their own children, so I stopped reading his diatribes in malice.

But to return to Sweden, of course the pathfinders in this social criticism were Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. By the tenth volume in their Martin Beck series, the villains were cannibals. The first books in the series were police procedurals but along the way the authors ascended a soapbox and every page contained some sort of denunciation, not just of the evil rich, but the Swedish society that bore them. They attacked not just the filthy rich but the Social Democratic scrum who ran the place strictly for the benefit of the rich.

Talk about parochial! The authors lived in a decent society that had gone from subsistence farming to industrial surplus in the three generations, and they hated it for what it was not, namely, a communist Eden. It is rather like those self-righteous leftists in the 1960s who denounced Western liberalism as evil incarnate, while lining up to shake hands with Pol Pot. They do not know evil, that is for sure. Wake up! Look around. Try a few weeks in the third world. These very same types would spent hours defending Robert Mugabe, Muammar Gaddafi, or Fidel Castro, while condemning parliamentary democracy as a sham.

In contrast, Brown offers an everyday account of life and work. struggling to learn Swedish on the job in the mill. He finds much different from the England he left. As he notes many times, in Sweden there was a palpable sense of unity among the people he worked with which was aimed at getting things done. Ergo, the work in the factory was hard and everyone went at it with determination, including the owner. He contrasted this with his experience of working in a factory in England where the union made sure productivity was just enough to keep the wheels turning and no more. In Sweden everyone, including the union, wanted to get as much done as possible, whereas in England everyone, led by the union, want to do the least.

The unforgiving climate, the brutal history of the region with Germany on one side and Russia the other, and the recent past of grinding rural poverty combined, he speculated, to teach Swedes that the world does not owe them a living. They will have to earn it day by day. Brown met variations on this attitude in different guises, including church attendance. He found that religion, not necessary denoted by church attendance, seemed important to Swedes in the countryside where he lived. It was a sign of the larger whole beyond the individual.

That sense of a larger whole was comforting at times but stifling at others when he encountered a herd mentality such that no one dared to be different. Individual self-expression was actively disvalued in this milieu.

He is an outsider and is constantly aware of that and as constantly reminded of it by others. Swedes do not worry about what it means to be Swedish because they know it in their blood. They do not talk about it, they just live it. Brown wonders how this silent unity will wear with increasing immigration, made necessary by declining birthrates. The expectation to conform in Sweden is much greater than in England but there are almost no explicit clues about how to do it; he depended on his wife to cue his behaviour, say when checking out books at the library, cashing a cheque at a bank, buying groceries, all those everyday transactions that we do on automatic pilot he re-learned to do the Swedish way. For details read the book. He did learn to speak Swedish, by the way.

For the literal minded, yes there is quite a lot about fishing the book. It is Brown’s hobby and some of the most lyrical passages in the book are his weekends tramping through forests to lakes, amid man-eating mosquitos, to find a place to fish at sunrise, observing the breeze in the trees, the light on the water, the insects in the air. His father taught him to fish and he teaches his son.

The Sweden that Brown describes is all rather normal. Some people grizzle about taxes while cashing their pension cheques, denounce overpaid sportsmen while cheering them on. It is neither the paradise of its many rhapsodic admirers elsewhere, nor the putrid cesspit of depravity portrayed all too seriously by some krimi writers. It is no Midsomer!

Andrew-Brown-002.jpg Andrew Brown

He returned to Sweden as a journalist and covered some of the aftermath of the murder of Olof Palmé in February 1986. There is superb thriller that springs from that event, ‘The Death of Pilgrim’ (2013). Of course, the conspiracy at the heart of the plot is simpleminded, but the performances and tension are very well done without the gratuituous gore and violence of some Nordic thrillers on screen, like ‘The Bridge.’ However, I found the time shifts back and forth threw me more than once, the clothing and hair styles were not enough to indicate to me the context. Brown, to his credit, does not compare Palmé’s murder to that of Jack, but the aftermaths are certainly similar, the desire for meaning, and the desperate desire for there to have been a conspiracy to give the act meaning.

This is a novel about the lives and loves of a group of anthropologists at a London institute. For those who have to have a label perhaps we can call it a comedy of manners like Antony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time,’ the token that defined the type.

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Tom, Deirdre, Digby, Catherine, Miss Clovis, Mark, Professor Mainwaring, Alaric, Rhoda, Professor Fairfax, Mrs Foresight, and others make a living sharply observing primitive peoples in Africa, while unconsciously acting out the same rituals in London. That makes it sound more didactic and pedantic than it is, but the cumulative effect is to observe the observer.

Only the visiting scholar, Frenchman Jean-Pierre, makes a point of observing and cataloguing English ways just as he would in the heart of Africa. Though he is unfailingly polite and far more considerate of others than any of his hosts, they regard him as odd.

The professional rivalries and jealousies all ring true but are played out with a polite formality. In all the author has a light hand.

The rituals of the off-print, when it still existed, are amusingly set forth. So that is what one was supposed to do with them, I said to myself! My collection of them grew to occupy a filing cabinet and I put them in a yellow recycling bin when I left the Merewether Building. I wonder what the ritual is now with PDF versions? No idea.

The centre of this little drama is Tom Mallow who is devastatingly attractive to women, which he takes for granted in a vague way as he ricochets from one to another, barely noticing the differences from Elaine whom he absent-mindedly jilted a few years before, Catherine who was mother and wife to him without the benefit of law, and Deirdre whose cow-eyed veneration warms him. Digby and Mark circle around in the hope of leftovers.

He is also the golden boy at the Institute, though he never seems to finish anything. That omission does not diminish his glow.

Alaric who has never published anything, though he treasures dozens of tea chests full of field notes, devotes his considerable energies to writing caustic reviews of the books others dare to publish. He never has a good word to say. Still less when book review editors sometimes alter his prose to make it less venomous. That elicits another war of words between Alaric and the offending editor.

All of this seems true to life, if from an earlier time.

One of the themes is the way we have of idealising and wanting the life that others have. The urban, educated, worldly Londoners pine for the suburban calm, snug family life of the provinces. The provincials lust after the allure of London and resent the claustrophobia of the Sunday lunch en famille. It sounds leaden when I write it but in the book it is a feather on wind, conspicuous yet ephemeral yet entertaining to watch.

Spoiler alert!

Tom, chronically vague and oblivious of his surroundings, absent-mindedly gets himself killed and Deirdre discovers that she recovers from the shock of the news of the death of this demigod in a few hours. Digby is so amusing. Catherine convinces Alaric to burn his field notes and so free himself of the burden they have silently imposed on him all these years. Professors Mainwaring and Fairfax begin another tug of war over a new golden boy. Miss Clovis shelves Tom’s thesis and goes to tea. Gone and forgotten in a very few minutes.

I first read it sometime in the latter 1980s or early 1990s and the volume came to light again in the course of moving to the new abode. At that earlier time I had meant to read more by Pym, but failed to do so. I will try to do better this time around and I have plunked another of her titles in my Amazon basket.

Pym wrote a number of such novels but then fell out of favour. She kept writing them but her publisher decided she was old fashioned and stopped taking them. Her efforts to find another publisher failed for the same reason: fashion, or the perception of fashion, from the editorial desk. Then in the later 1970s some literary lions (re)discovered her, and her books came back into print…to stay. I expect the editors who rejected her work were paid handsome bonuses for such insight, but their names are now forgotten.

Pym.jpg Barbara Pym at work.

She, by the way, was crushed by the rejection. This all from Wikipedia.

When I saw the title on this Christmas present from Herself, I thought of Norbert Elias’s ‘The History of Manners’ (1939). The book at hand is broader than its title indicates. The subtitle pretty well sums it up, however, I would have been tempted to call it ‘Consider the Kitchen,’ because that is the culmination of the book.

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Each chapter focuses on some essential aspect of food and eating in one word titles: fire, ice, knife, fork, grind, and, finally, kitchen. The fork which I begin to consider is important, to be sure, but it is only one element among seven others, hence my quibble about the title.

Ever wondered why a kitchen knife is sharp only one side? A table fork has four tines? Why was the freezer on top of the refrigerator until recently? Why are tin cans of food the size they are? Why are refrigerators powered by electricity when they use gas? How did the can-opener evolve?

Probably not, we take everyday things for granted, but there is much to learn from the answers to such questions. Successful innovations started by pandering to the expectations of consumers as in the case of refrigerators. The influence of major industries also figures, as electricity powered refrigerators, a boon to power companies because refrigerators, unlike light bulbs, are always on.

Here are few tidbits. Japanese knives are sharpened to 20 degrees while most European knives are sharpened to 30-35 degrees. Why? The difference traces back to a combination of the use of the knife and the material it is made from. The carbon steel layers that combine in a Japanese knife take the sharper angle. Though it is dangerously, lethally sharp it is confined to the kitchen for preparation. European knives are made from a different compound of metals, and the use of the knife is not so strictly regulated by convention to keep it in the kitchen, e.g., Europeans cut meats and carve birds at the table in way unknown to Japanese cuisine.

Most interesting of all is, of course, the greatest technology of cooking, the kitchen itself. At one time food was prepared in a lean-to behind the house, now the kitchen is often, usually the centre of home-life. There is the amusing story of post-kitchen renovation depression, after years of saving for, planing, selecting appliances, designing a new kitchen, when it is finally done…there is nothing to occupy every waking hour. There is but a void.

Chopsticks are another world. The lacquered and pointed Japanese ones are impossible. The flat steel Korean one with small raised striations for gripping the food are the easiest to use. In between are the plain Chinese wooden ones, which are used in such a quantity to threaten the forests of the country.

The discussion of the potato parer is wonderful. We put up with that primitive implement for generations until someone whom she names came up with a better way. We do put up with a lot of inconvenient things because that is just the way they are, until someone comes along and betters them.

In the 1920s Marion Mahony at Castlecrag designed kitchens in the front of houses, looking into the street, to reduce the social isolation of the housewife eliciting the consternation of local councils, mortgaging banks, and some clients. Certain patterns are ingrained. This incident is not included in this book but it seemed relevant.

By the way, the fork is credited to Catherine di Medici when wed to King Henri of France and mother to his successor. She had a household of Italians to Paris and from there emerged the fork. Of course Italians had been using it for years but it only entered the food culture when it was used in France. Another example of ideology over reality. By the way, she is routinely blamed for the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants.

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Bee Wilson wears a great deal of learning lightly, and passes much in review with no distractions. An attentive reader will notice that there are a few aspects of the contemporary food culture that she disdains but without ever quite saying so, a subtlety that will pass most by.

An amusing but informed, insightful, critical, positive, and biting though sympathetic tour through northern Europe. It starts with the definitions: no single term — neither Nordic nor Scandinavian — quite fits the combination of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. ‘Northern Europe’ as a geographic term does not quite fit either, after all Iceland is way out there in the Atlantic all by itself.

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‘Scandinavia’ does not include Finland, which has not participated in the Nordic Council and not in the Scandinavian Air Service, or NATO. As individual Finns are loners, so is their country. While the languages of the other four have much in common, not so Finnish. The Finnish language takes a lot of explaining, though grammatically it is, Booth says, simpler than most. It does not matter, since Finns do not use it much. He offers many examples of their taciturn nature. They are not the talkers that the Irish are. Their own term is ‘sisu’ which means just get on with doing it.

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Iceland is the smallest, the most remote, the poorest, the most intimate, and all of that explains what they do and what happens in Iceland. There are a few snorts for reader when Booth samples some of the delicacies of Iceland’s cuisine. Iceland has long been very influenced by the United States and Great Britain, out that all by itself.

His analysis of Sweden as a mass society, my term, not his, has given me some food for thought. The explanation of the Swedish welfare state is that it makes individuals autonomous, i.e, they do not depend on each other [but on the state, yes]. Women are independent men; wives of husbands; children of parents, and so on. It is a benign decomposition of the civil society. What came to mind was William Kornhauser's ‘The Theory of Mass Society’ (1959).

Norway? One word: oil. The wealth of the North Sea oil, despite the restraint exercised, has changed Norway and Norwegians, who now employ Swedish guest workers who peel bananas for them! Historic revenge against the colonial power! It is all explained in the book. See for yourself. The other distinction of Norwegians is their commitment to and engagement with the forests, fjords, and mountains of the country.

Denmark, where the author lives, is the odd one out. Perhaps because the author knows it best and he sees through many a veneer and what he sees, notwithstanding his efforts to balance the books, is not very pleasant. The courage to run that cartoon seems to have been born of a casual and still socially-acceptable racism, which often directed against migrants of any kind with the enthusiasm of a Tony Abbott. While successive Danish governments have been careful with the Kroner, Danes have not. The country has the largest private debt in the world, and its people work the fewest hours, and on every comparative measure of productivity rank low. It all seems rather fragile.

One of the strengths of the book is the use the author makes on the factual data available, e.g., to explode the myth, which I saw repeated just this hour on Facebook, that migrants are responsible for all, most, or any crime in Sweden.

He also makes good, though not systematic, use of the international comparative indices compiled by the Organisation for European Cooperation and Development, the United Nations, and non-government organisations.

The book seems to omit any account of the natives of the northern tip of the north, the Suomi peoples. They are mentioned but that is that. Who are they? How do they differ, how did they differ from Finns or Norwegians.

While Finland’s role as a buffer state, like Thailand between British and French colonies in Nineteenth Century south-east Asia, is treated, not much is said about Norway’s border with the Soviet Union and now Russia. Throughout the Cold War, Norway was the only western European state with a border on the Soviet Union.

There is no effort to define ‘utopia.’

Booth mug.jpg Michael Booth

The book is a salutory counterpoint to the personal reflections on Sweden in Andrew Brown's ‘Fishing in Utopia’ (2009).

Another item from my reading list for Turkey is this novel of 440 pages. It is well written and offers a cast of characters which represent some of the variety of life in Istanbul. There are many incidents, some great and others small, from the modus vivendi, so to speak, of the half-Moslem and half-Christian cemetery, the vanishing garbage, and the eponymous fleas. It is lively and, yet, well, I grew to resent having to spend my time reading it when I had such other alluring titles as ‘Zombies of the Gene Pool’ (a treasured Christmas present from Herself) jockeying for my attention from the bedside table.

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Despite the above remarks, there is no momentum in the novel. I was never quite sure why these characters were there and why I was supposed to invest interest in them. The assembly seemed to be arbitrary. Nor did I feel that, page-after-page, I was learning any more about any of them or the circumstances in which they lived. Instead the fevered imagination of the author produced yet another incident, twist, turn, upset, but well, since the prose was not going anywhere any twist or turn is just another twist or turn.

In so far as I got anything from it, it seems another exercise in ‘What does it mean to be Turkish’ that I found in ‘The Time Regulation Institute.’ Well do I remember all those talking heads on the CBC talking about ‘What it means to be Canadian.’ Same script here but different words. As Canadians have defined themselves by what they are not: American, British, or French, so some Turkish writers define Turkey by what it is not: European, Asian, Christian, Islamic. Not sure what the point is? Neither am I. Saying what it is not, does not leave what is.

I looked for other reviews to see if I had missed the point - it does happen. No professional reviews came to light and those I consulted, reluctantly, on Good Reads were, as usual, more about the reviewer than the book. Some liked it, but them some people like being hit with a stick. Others confessed that they had not finished it; my kind of readers, because I stopped, too. I am however grateful for one such reviewer who offered the summary below.

To make that summary meaningful I should say that the novel describes the live, loves, troubles, triumphs, lice, garbage, hair styles, reading habits, drapes of the assorted residents of an apartment building long past its prime, after an account of how it came to be built. The inhabitants who figure in the story are:

Flat 1, Musa, Meryem, and Muhammet: Musa and Meryem are married, but Musa is often absent. Their son is Muhammet who is a bullied at school, much to the distress of Meryem. Musa is no help.

Flat 2, Sidar and Gaba: Sidar lives with his dog, Gaba, and is obsessed with death.

Flat 3, Hairdressers Cemal and Celal: Separated as children, these identical twins are temperamentally dissimilar Cemal, who grew up in Australia, is a fussy extrovert, while Celal, who remained in Turkey, is painfully introverted. After reuniting, they run a hair salon on the ground floor whose staple is gossip about the occupants of the building.

Flat 4, The FireNaturedSons: This is a dysfunctional family dogged by ill fortune which tries to insulate itself from the others and, by extension, the outside world.

Flat 5, Hadj Hadj, his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren: Because the son and daughter-in-law work, most of the action in flat 5 involves grandfather Hadj telling his grandchildren stories which bore the oldest and confuse the youngest.

Flat 6, Metin Chetinceviz and HisWifeNadia: Metin isn’t around much, but HisWideNadia is: she’s a Russian émigré with an unhealthy obsession for bugs and a dubbed Latin American soap opera, 'The Oleander of Passion.'

Flat 7, 'Me:' The narrator is a recently divorced university professor who think he is perspicacious. [The author is also an academic.]

Flat 8, The Blue Mistress: She is a kept woman for a merchant, which the neighbours accept despite the teachings of the Koran.

Flat 9, Hygiene Tyijen and Su: Hygiene is a compulsive clean-freak. Her daughter Su has lice, and that drives Hygiene to new heights of cleanliness.

Flat 10, Madam Auntie: The aged matriarch of Bonbon Palace, whose story only reveals itself towards the end, or so it is said. I cannot confirm this assertion since I ended my reading before the book ended.


The author has many other titles. Ahem. So be it. She also proclaims a PhD in political science. [Sounds of silence.]

More on ‘Zombies of the Gene Pool’ later!

This book offers a study of scrofula. Scrofula was a swelling of the glands that medical historians say was a symptom of tuberculous. It was sometimes known as the King’s Evil. What do kings have to do with glandular fever? What is a ‘royal touch?’ The reader might bear in mind the concept of charisma when reading below. A few Google images of suffers of such glandular disorders will push aside any smirks about mononucleosis. In late medieval and early Renaissance Europe tuberculous remained an insatiable serial killer.

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There emerged the belief that the king’s touch could relieve the swelling. It was the King’s Evil in the sense that it an evil the king could relieve.

Why, how, and where did this conviction emerge? How did priests, abbots, monks, and popes react to the king’s intrusion into spiritual mysteries? How did word of this miracle spread? What use did king’s make of this power? Did others try to capitalise on this belief?

Bloch’s research is meticulous into original sources reaching back to the Eleventh Century to piece together something of the puzzle. Prior to the Eleventh Century there is no evidence that European kings had the healing touch. Charlemagne’s (748-814 AD) rule is well documented and much storied, but nowhere in this record is there evidence of him applying this touch. If Big Chas did not do it, it is hardly likely any lesser monarchs were at it.

With Charlemagne’s death and his Lear-like division and subdivision of his realm among his inheritors and successors, the record are fewer and less reliable as Europe fell into endless conflicts. Through these mists we can see, thanks to Bloch’s pathfinding, glimpses of the royal touch documented from the Eleventh Century and thereafter.

The healing touch of some monarchs was well enough known for the afflicted to travel great distances to seek it, and remember that travelling then usually meant walking. Nor was the king’s touch applied only to his own subjects, for these records report travellers from other realms seeking the touch of a foreign king.

The surviving reports confirm that healing effect of the king’s touch. The swelling went down. The petitioner cried out in gratitude, and so on. The doctors of spin have always been with us.

Very often for every king there were a number of pretenders and rivals with royal blood. Did they, too, have, or have the potential for, the healing touch? What is the origin of this miraculous power?

Despite its success, the evidence that remains does not suggest kings made an effort in the first instance to exploit this touch to win over adherents in any way. Rather the touch is applied only on special occasions like a patron saint's day or the Resurrection.

By the way, the king also gave the petitioner a coin. This monetary reward might also explain why some sought the royal touch so that they could touch the royal purse as well as be touched by the royal personage.

Scrofula ceremony.jpg One such ceremony.

To some churchmen the king was intruding into religion’s domain of he supernatural with these miracles. Caesar was playing god.

How does the healing touch of a king relate to the divine right of king’s to rule? While God chose the king to rule, he himself is mortal, and has no line to divinity. That line is reserved for the ordained priesthood who sacrifice the material world. Yet later when monarchs wanted to assert their divine status, they would invoke scrofula and apply the healing touch,.e.g., Charles I of England in the Seventeenth Century.

Part of the evidence Bloch considers with his usual care is the descriptions of Charlemagne in ‘The Song of Roland.’ The poem came into European literature long after the death of Big Chas, and Bloch’s point is that it reflects the attitudes of the time of its composition, not necessarily of Charlemagne’s times. In it Charlemagne is a priest-king, giving blessings and making benedictions, wearing holy vestments as his Christian armies battle the infidel Moor. Hmm, never noticed any of that when I read ‘The Song of Roland’ as an undergraduate. But then again I missed quit a lot as an undergraduate.

Inevitably by the Fourteenth Century rival claimants to a throne and rival kings of conflicting realms sought justification in the supernatural. The healing touch was one of the fronts of these contests. But as Bloch notes, it seems that most of this conflict was in rival publicity. The kings did not have heal-offs, but their supporters circulated stories of their healing powers. Did the stories consist of whole cloth, or were they based on something? Bloch cannot be sure. What he is sure of is that they were believed by those who sought the royal touch, and the stories were credible enough for those who circulated them to continue to do so.

Churchmen, be they Protestant or Catholic, discouraged monarchs from the ritual of the touch on ecclesiastical grounds. Some of the advice was given privately and noted in diaries. Others ever so carefully denounced the practice in sermons - delivered or written. In addition religious figures involved in the upbringing of heirs-apparent indoctrinated their charges to disavow the royal touch. The most successful instance of this last indoctrination is James I of England, himself an intellectual, denounced the practice and yet did it. By the way Elizabeth I also engaged in the royal touch, laying hands on more than a thousand subjects on one occasion.

The same story unfolded in France. French kings were reluctant to do it, and were skeptical about it themselves, while they were discouraged for doing it by Catholic advisors, yet they did it.


Because their subjects wanted it. When notice was given that the king, whether in England or France, would appear at a church or cathedral to heal the sick, they came in thousands. When a reluctant king, when a king who accepted the advice of the spiritual advisors refrained from healing ceremonies, the populace became restive and the word filtered back to the royal ear that his legitimacy was in doubt. To the populace it was proof of the king's divine right to rule that he could channel the heavens in healing.

More than one king confided to his counsellors or his day-books, the pressure he felt from this expectation, decrying the sick who gathered wherever he went, who followed his entourage into the countryside, who appeared in even the most remote location.

Those intellectuals who devised and thought out the divine right of kings, including James I himself, did not include scrofula in the equation. In fact because of the proscription of religious authorities were determined to preserve their own domination of matters spiritual. The king is chosen to rule, but that does make him divine. This fine print was of no interest to sufferers who flocked to kings for succour.

At times there were concerns about contagion and the king would not be exposed to roomfuls of plague victims. However to withhold the divine gift of the healing touch from those most in need, did not encourage loyalty in subjects. How could a divinely ordained king fear disease? Though the transmission of disease was not well understood, it was common for those with the means to do so, to leave an area when the plague occurred there. French kings travelled around the country, not to solidify their rule, but to find places without the plague. When watching one of the episodes of a television documentary on the stately house of England, say, the viewer is sometimes told that this king or queen once stayed there. That was probably a case of tourism inspired by the plague back in London.

The practice continued long into the Renaissance and even the Enlightenment. In 1715 Louis XIV, who was hesitant to lay hands on the ill, saw 1,700 in one day. Equally impressive figures survive in court records of other monarchs. None can best Charles II (1660-1684) of England in his twenty-five year reign touched nearly 100,000 of his subjects in such rituals. All the while the religious authorities looking on must have been grinding their teeth.

Kings in Austria, Spain, Bavaria, Anjou, and elsewhere claimed the healing power in pamphlets but seldom practiced it. Rival claimants for thrones began to offer to heal, once the crown went on.

All of this became entwined with other claims of divine preference. The origins of the fleur-de-lys which had been in use for generations were re-written so that it all but came down with the burning bush.

Political upheaval, Calvinist monarchs, rival faith healers, science, and the Enlightenment, these all combined to end the royal touch, as later medicine tamed tuberculous. The Hanoverians never practiced it, either in Germany or in England. The Calvinist monarchs in the low countries denied it even more vehemently. The Hapsburgs in Spain, the Netherlands, Bohemia, and Austria followed the advice of their Catholic advisors and avoided this blasphemous practice. Not even Rudolf II, that most unconventional of monarchs who dabbled in the occult, figures in the history of the royal touch.

The king’s touch was at its most potent when his accession to the purple was consecrated in a religious service, at Westminster for Brits and at Rheims for French. For in the beliefs of the day when the priest blessed the new king for a moment God's will was manifest in the flesh. Talk about charisma! On those widely publicised occasions veritable armies of diseased petitioners would show up, along with the rich and mighty of the land.

Such records as there are show that some sufferers came repeatedly for the royal touch, plain proof that it had not worked the first time, the second time, or the third time. Some observers took the view that many of the ill came for the coin not the touch. Others, still more cynical, said that the petitioners were petty criminals who used the occasions as a pretext for pickpocketing and worse. Contemporary scientists, including some on the occult side of the table, tried without success to find an explanation for the effectiveness of the touch. Some physicians who were empirically minded kept track of those who had received the royal touch, and found... they died. The data was held in secret.

Yet the demand for the practice continued until monarchs were discredited and destroyed by political revolutions. Though Bloch is slow to accept it, the final explanation seems to be some kind of collective wish fulfilment, though that wording is more Freudian than his, which takes it to be an expression of a collectively unconscious need to assert control over the inexplicable and unknown, or even unknowable.

The book is 220-pages of text accompanied by another 220-pages of notes, appendices, descriptions of iconography, and citations. He wears the research lightly but it is impressive.

Marc Bloch wrote many fine books, including the magisterial ‘Feudal Society' (1939) in two volumes which I read in 1974. It was one of the great books I relinquished when I moved from the Merewether Building.

Bloh 2.jpg Marc Bloch, who murdered in Paris in 1944.

My main source of medieval history is, of course, Robin Hood on television in 144 episodes from 1955-1960. This Robin Hood was the dashing and charming Richard Greene. I now realise a very young Paul Eddington was Will Scarlett in this series.


Is the royal meet-and-greet when the queen, king, or prince(ss) walks through a crowd some vestigial echo of scrofula. People line up for hours for a glimpse of the anointed one, and the fortunate few in the front ranks may even still today with maxed security get a royal touch. Do those so touched feel better, elated, special, or something? They must, or to be more specific, they must think beforehand that they will, and so invest the time, energy, and effort to get that position in the hope of being touched.

It all fits with Max Weber’s conception the charismatic as one carrying a special grace, and the appetite of others to share in it by proximity or adherence.

Tanpinar (1901-1962) is one of the deans of Turkish literature, according to Orhan Pamuk, he of the Nobel Prize for literature. The master narrative of Tanpinar’s novels is its identity. Is Turkey Asian and Islamic or European and secular if not Christian. Is Turkey a traditional society rooted to and limited to the past or modern society making and re-making itself.

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These themes are embodied in the satire in the creation and evolution of the Time Regulation Institute, a private corporation which, for a fee, will adjust clocks and watches to the right time in kiosks around the country. As life becomes more regulated, the demand for this service grows. No longer do sunrise, high noon, or sunset mark the days but rather hours and minutes.

The corporation is paternalistic, nepotistic, sexist, incompetent, and succeeds despite itself. It becomes home to a psychoanalyst who wishes to study its members, an alchemist who wants to use the clockwork mechanism for some purpose or other but he is secretive about it, wives, nephews, cousins, European trained scientists who cannot get any other work in a society where suspicion of foreign taint is routine, concubines, and wastrels. Its counter staff are all attractive young men and women in smart uniforms and they rake in the dosh.

After four hundred pages all this is laboured. The novel unfolds as a memoir by Hayri Irdal, the Institute’s first employee. There is much background of the various, idiosyncratic, zany members of his family, and the brooding presence during his formative years of a large long case clock that seems to work when it wanted to and at no other time.

The Institute is so successful that it attracts the interest of the government in search of tax revenue, and other shysters in search of easy opportunities. In the wings we have a double murder and suicide involving Irdal’s relations and friends. None of it taken too seriously.

In a difficult press conference in the early days of the Institute a parable was used to explain its purpose. Ahmet the Timely from centuries ago was quoted and his sagacity struck a nerve in the public. There was a demand to learn more of this sage. Despite qualms, Irdal writes a biography of this completely fabricated character, which is a great success and does much to cement the place of the Institute, despite the quibbles of some pin headed dopes in universities who point out that this man never existed.

The satire is the superficiality of it all, which in fact leads to its success. The fact that Ahmet did not exit frees Irdal from sticking to boring facts. The fact that no one needs to have the time regulated makes it a perfect commodity.

Perhaps to a Turkish reader what is most conspicuous is what is not said. Not a word about women’s head scarfs in the many references to the uniforms. Not a word about the calls to prayers five times a day as regulators of life.

Tanpinar.jpg Ahmet Tanpinar

As with Russian novels, I continue to find it hard to distinguish the characters by name, the more so with women whose names are strings of letters. How parochial am I.

The book profiles the several Chicagos that co-existed in 1893 when the World's Columbian Exposition (the official shortened name for the World's Fair: Columbian Exposition, also known as The Chicago World's Fair and Chicago Columbian Exposition. Against the odds, Chicago wrested the right to hold the Fair from New York City. The sniping from New York City was without end.

Perfect citiess.jpg

I saw a miniature replica of the White City of the Chicago World's Fair at the Durham Museum in Omaha a few years ago.  I had forgotten that sight until I read this book.

The White City that was the heart of the Exposition. All of its buildings were neoclassical in style, plastered in a shining material, and painted white. In addition, outdoor lighting, including street lighting, was used extensively as electricity was promoted as the future. Some things are not said.  The White City was a front in the contest between direct and alternating current electricity which Nicolas Tesla eventually won, though Thomas Alva Edison, who lost, made the money.  The White City was not only painted white so as to gleam and glisten in the sunshine, but also to reflect the light of the electric lamps throughout.  It was brighter at night than on many a dreary day. Also unsaid is that the White City was the site of the first labeled serial murderer who stalked victims in the nocturnal White City, a fact suppressed at the time in the interest of keeping the 27 million tourists coming. Yes, 27,000,000. The Fair was intended to showcase the arts, industry, and science, but most of all to showcase Chicago as a city of the future. In cooperation with the railroads, the Fair was a tourist attraction that brought tourists from far and wide, e.g, 25,000 from Connecticut alone.

By the way the construction was largely intended to be temporary. In any event nearly all of it burned down in two fires in 1894 and 1895.  One building made to last remains and that is the Field Museum endowed by Marshall Field of the department store that has been subsumed by that orca of department stores, Macy's, once confined to Fifth Avenue, it now roams the retail waters everywhere.

To make travelling easy, many guidebooks were published and distributed widely, sometimes freely. The author’s analysis of what these guidebooks include and do not include is clever, creative, and informative. Like the Fair itself, they emphasise the future and disregard the past, in their case the real city of Chicago with tenements, union unrest, child labor, alcoholism, and disease, still less the stockyards, of which nothing was said. We have also noticed how contemporary guidebooks handle the darker side of things, and the differences among guidebooks when we have consulted more than one.

By the way the World's Fair was called that because one of its founding and long term sponsors was the newspaper the ‘New York World’, which also sponsored later the baseball World Series, and hence the origins of that name, too, neither being the example of parochial American imperialism that pin heads often assume.  

One of the cities is Pullman Village, built by the railroad entrepreneur George Pullman whose business model was to sell comfort and luxury, and micromanage to achieve it. His underlying thesis was that salubrious surroundings would bring out the best in people, a common belief in the Victorian Era. If we want to stop men spitting, then lay down carpets and they will not spit. All of this was designed to encourage women to travel, too, and ergo to encourage families to travel together. That was also part of his thinking, men travelling with families would act better than men travelling among only other men. The locker room versus the tea party, that might be the comparison. (That was the reasoning when dormitories on college campuses went co-ed. It would lead to improved behaviour among the lads. Wonder if anyone has collected evidence on that one?)

His business model was this: he leased his sleeper, lounge, kitchen, and dining cars to railroads; he did not sell them. With these cars went Pullman’s staff: porters, chefs, waiters, conductors, who were trained in his approach to courtesy and service. No matter which railroad, a Pullman car offered the same service, accommodation, food, and so on.

He also thought he could shape his workforce just as he hoped to shape his clientele, so he built the Pullman Village around the factory where the railway cars were built, and offered a very good standard of housing, shopping, access to fresh food, schools, theatre, exercises for the family together and so on. Nothing is said, but I assume it was racially segregated. Indeed virtually nothing is said about race.

By the way Pullman was inspired to build this village by a visit to Saltaire in Leeds. Titus Salt was in turn inspired by William Morris and Robert Owen, important figures in the utopia tradition.

Paternalist that he was, Pullman could not abide growing unionism in railroads, sometimes led by Eugene Debs, and his intransigence precipitated that infamous Pullman Strike in 1894 that led to the ruin of his company. In sum, times turned down, Pullman cut wages by a third but would not reduce the rent he collected from workers in the Village. Of course others lost their jobs and with the loss of the job they also lost the housing in the Village. He would not compromise one inch and even the local newspapers owned by his peers and friends turned against him. Nonetheless, the incompetent Grover Cleveland turned the army loose. Douglas MacArthur was there, practising for his later efforts at Hooverville.

Another of the cities is Harvey Illinois which was also a planned workers’ community inspired by the evangelist Dwight Moody.  Moody was a major figure in the region, in part, because he was more pragmatic about entertainments like music, singing, and dancing than many of the Elmer Gantry rivals.  The robber baron Turlington Harvey built Harvey under his influence. When Harvey lost interest it quickly reverted to the norm.

One of the most interesting but hardest to fathom parts of the book is the account of The Midway which, I think, was the fun fair associated with the Exposition. It offered cultural variety and light entertainments, approved by a board of elders. Perhaps I blinked too many times, but I never did grasp the author’s point in the recurrent references to it.

Gilbert James.jpg James Gilbert of the University of Maryland

The author uses the words ‘utopia’ and ‘utopian’ a number of times without stipulation. The only meaning I can read in his use is planned, on the assumption that a well planned city will continue in the way planned. Of course the White City was also built, perhaps, metaphorically to usher in a spotless future. Pullman and Harvey were built to promote certain kinds of better conduct, and that is part of the promise of utopia, but better is very limited to sobriety, courtesy, work ethic, and so on.

I read it in anticipation of spending a week in Chicago in March 2016.

On the murders see 'The Devil in the White City' (2004) by Erik Larson.

A few thoughts provoked by reading Lara Tingle's 'Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern' In 'Quarterly Essay 60.'

It is one of the few ‘Quarterly Essays’ to have an argument. What is it then?


The premise is that corporate memory is a valuable asset in complex organisations to operate in a large and varied environment, and ever changing environment. Government is one such organisation that works better if corporate memory is present. Those seem to be the most relevant assumptions.

The argument then is that corporate memory has been systemically, if inadvertedly, reduced in the Australian Commonwealth Government since the 1980s. The signal indication of this was the shift from tenure to higher pay for the elite of the public service. That was the end of the permanent department head, and by implication the end of any permanence down the ladder in the public service.

Tingle gives several reasons, a compound of these elements:

1. contracting out public services so that the remaining public servants do not have first hand experience at delivery and so do not know the problems and opportunities in the field. It is certainly true that I have spoken to public servants who write contracts for others to bid on to deliver services, and these contract-writers have no firsthand experience in the field. They say they rely on the contractors, because the competitive market will keep them honest. (Did someone say that about the Australian Wheat Board?)

2. the contractors come and go and even those that recur have a staff turnover that limits their memory as well. One of the goals of contracting out is to cut cost, the chief one being something that is never said: superannuation. The unfunded liability of the Commonwealth government for public servants’ superannuation is astronomical and seemed to grow exponentially. Those commitments were reduced for the future, but the historical legacy is still enormous. To avoid a colossal increase the key is to have fewer public servants.

3. public servants find career is best served by avoiding service delivery departments (an old one). Those public servants who remain discovered that expertise (developed in part by trial and error) is no longer valued and so it no longer valuable in career advancement. Service delivery is hard, exhausting, and can go wrong. Drafting policy papers is none of that.

4. career is made by moving from one department to another rather than concentrating on one speciality. Here we have that old chestnut that management/policy/administration is generic, neither carrying nor requiring specific knowledge. Indeed such knowledge is a hinderance.

5. at a second level appointed ministerial staff have replaced public servants in policy and program development and they come with no corporate memory and move on without leaving any behind.

6. ministers move from one portfolio to another, especially when moving from opposition to government. They do not know what they do not know. That is so simple and obvious and yet hard to explain to a third party, let along to a principal.

7. new ministers distrust public servants in the increasing polarised atmosphere of Canberra. I expect this one is crucial. The air of conspiracy and menace in Canberra seems to increase every year. Partly the media appetite for dirt subjects every move to hours of video and talking head scrutiny. Many in opposition set themselves against both the Government of the day and all who assist it, namely, the public servants. The flexibility in employment introduced by Labor when permanent heads of departments were abolished, now makes it easy to deal with those enemies once in office.

8. the repeated purges of the public service have left one memory among public servants, that is to keep heads down. The endless, repeated cuts in the public service have not only lowered the morale of the public service, though no one will admit it, it has also discouraged people from supposing there is a lifetime career there. It is not just movement between departments but also the movement out of the public service that diminishes the talent pool.

9. the blind faith that the market will generate a response, e.g., a sufficient number of skilled and qualified tradesmen to install insulation in the political time line. This is an ancillary point.

Overall the essay sounds curmudgeonly and I like that but…. Remembering that ‘we tried it before and it did not work,’ well, yes, and I have said that myself more than once in my little patch, but it is also true that times change and perhaps the time is now right. I saw ideas fail, and then arise again and work. It does happen.

To this reader the stronger ground for the argument is that memory of how to work the process, negotiate with the cross bench, involve parliamentary committees, respect parliamentary draftsman…. When this memory is lost mistakes will be made and repeated, forgotten and repeated again.

My caveat to the argument is this: The waves of retrenchments, downsizing, has not just shed people, it has also shed expertise (as distinct) from memory which has not been replaced like parliamentary draftsmen.

The short cycle of elections has always been with us, and the media has always been rapacious.

Tingle also makes a good point about the transition from opposition to government that I would give more emphasis. A leader of opposition works very closely with a very small staff due to funding, office space, convenience, and so on. There is something of a bunker mentality in most opposition leader’s offices: us versus them. The Opposition leader alone challenges the sitting government. The media certainly play it that way. Add to that a long tenure as opposition leader and these tendencies deepen.

In a polarised atmosphere my enemy’s friend is my enemy. Public servants who work hard and closely with the government of the day can become, to an opposition leader, such enemies-by-association. Hence the now recurrent purges of public servants when government change.

The silent assumption is that there are plenty of hard working, bright, and talented people to take over. There are always plenty of people who think they fit that description. Or is the assumption that talent does not matter. By ‘talent’ I wrap together memory and expertise to keep the terminology simple.

For shadow ministers in opposition who have never been a minister, parliament might be something like theatre. Huh?

They see many plays, each and everyday, but they have never been behind the scenery and have never seen any of the stage machinery and stage management that puts on the show, have not talked to the carpenters who built the scenery or electricians who handle the lights. Theatre critics concentrate on the result without a thought to the production. Fine for them as critics who do not aspire to be producers. But shadow ministers who criticise ministers aspire to be ministers.

There is a learning curve in the transition from opposition front bench to minister that is seldom recognised by new ministers who carry attitudes, habits, expectations, ambitions formed in opposition to government. The gap between opposition and government is also abridged by journalists who refer to shadow ministers as ministers. Grrr, ABC journalists do this, I am told, partly to inflate the importance of an interview in the minds of viewers and to flatter the interviewee. There are so many excuses for stupidity.

The most troublesome part of the luggage a new minister carries is the conviction that for a minister to say it is so makes is so. All it takes is will power! The details, leave those to others, and focus on the big picture!

Pile those clichés high!

The devil hides in the detail. Those looking up at the big picture often step in potholes.

There is no right way to do the job, but mixed scanning, near and far, is the best way to learn. But of course one has to want to learn or to know that there is something to learn. Some in opposition do study the process, monitor committees, read interim reports, talk to public servants, make constructive criticisms and these few are more likely to make an easier transition to minister. But often such an approach is criticised by colleagues because it is not aggressive enough, not machismo enough. Who needs details when bluster is the coin of the realm.

Having said all that, I am not sure returning to the era of the Seven Dwarfs, i.e., permanent heads of departments would offer a net gain. Or would it be to trade one set of problems for another.

Tingle mug.jpg Lara Tingle

Still any lengthy essay on contemporary politics that starts with rumination about Tacitus is must reading for nerds.

Emperor Rudi the Two was a retiring and secretive man by nature and nurture. Perhaps that made the lure of the Occult sciences all at the more congenial to him. While he would seldom leave the keep of his castle in Prague on Hrady hill, he would welcome anyone who claimed to have a secret to tell. Not gossip about people, but rather secrets about how the world works and the meaning beneath appearances.

Rudi II wiki.jpg

The Occult claimed to penetrate beyond the world of appearance and experience to the hidden reality that underlay it. Clues to this reality appeared to the cognoscenti in symbols and emblems from crosses to hexagons. An inspired artist was as likely as a scientist to chance upon these keys to the mysteries of the universe.

Alchemy was the most self-conscious of such sciences but not the only one. It was different from the later stereotype of a crazed individual throwing this and that together to see what happens, for alchemists in Sixteenth Century middle Europe comprised a disciplined school that followed certain principles. Rudi had as many as two hundred alchemist in his employ, with his own private laboratory where he did his own experiments.

The alchemists sought to control reality, not to understand it. Natural philosophers of the day sought knowledge, but the alchemists sought power.

The Occult belief in the reality of unseen things aligned them with much the religious mysticism of the era as did their denial of Enlightenment rationality. Most of their number ignored both Catholicism and Protestantism in preference to sui generis sects of neo-Platonism and such ilk. Secret rituals, incantations, E = MC squared, they were all on the same plane in the cosmology.

Rudi paid a high price for hermetic books that would open a door to the beyond. Many were written and published with his financial support. Many of the books ostensibly revealed the code, but were themselves coded. Some of them were so heavily encoded that no one could understand them. Indeed sometimes the more incomprehensible a text was, the higher the price it commanded. What a field for a charlatan. Or even a professor!

In a few years some of this would be codified under the Rose Cross of the Rosicrucians. Esoteric knowledge went on the curriculum.

All manner of Occultists went to Prague to take some of the Emperor’s gold while promising to replace it by creating gold from lead. Whether sincere or fraudulent, none delivered on the otherworldly promises.

Occult symbols.jpg

In the same vein, the Occultist believed that some objects were transmitters or receivers of the hidden reality, usually gems of great beauty or perfection. Or unusual natural formations. Rudi was a one-man market for these things, and sometimes engaged in a bidding war with others to acquire them. Other bidders wanted them for their beauty and uniqueness, Rudi wanted to tune them into an Occult broadcast.

He funded the construction of many clockwork automata, partly because, like a Shinto follower in Japan, his spiritism meant even inanimate objects could channel the Occult. Many rooms in his ever growing palace complex housed these toys some life size and even lifelike. Imagine a stormy night in one of these warehouse of automatons with shutters banging, and floors creaking, glassy eyes staring. Spooky.

One of the many tenets of the Occult is that some geniuses are touchstones — like a medium at a séance — who hear, understand, or transmit (to a small and select audience) the secrets they receive. This knowledge is so fantastic, so powerful, so awe-inspiring most of us cannot fathom it. Indeed most of us would not recognise these profundities even if face-to-face with them, but if we did, then we would misuse it. It is best hidden from the ordinary people like thee and me. They are secrets in plain sight.

The steam from this kettle leads to the supposition that some geniuses leave coded messages in their works, poems, books, painting, statues. Often the code is numeric, especially in books. Think of Johnny Depp in ‘The Ninth Book’ or Dan Brown’s various larks. Accordingly, it is said that a genius like Plato hid his message in the seventh word in seventh line on seventh page of his seventh book. The Occultists then strive to determine which is the seventh book, which is the seventh page, which the seventh line, and the seventh word. The example, if crude, is nonetheless indicative of how such minds work.


Plato’s text contains a coded message, perhaps several, and we have to find the key. To find the key, we disregard what Plato said explicitly and look instead at the incidental remarks, fillers, repetitions, seeming errors, non-sequiturs, apparent discontinuities - these offer the clues about whether it is the seven word or the ninth. The least important parts of a Platonic text may be in fact the most important.

Thus do some political theorists discount most of Plato’s explicit arguments and turn them upside down and inside out to arrive at conclusions that they alone can see. The example that comes to my mind is Plato’s repeated assertion that women equal men. Plato says this is different ways in three of his major works. A dedicated follower of the esoteric school of interpretation will conclude that the more Plato says it, the less he meant the knowing reader to take it at face value.

One can never win an argument with such an interpreter. And believe me, such interpreters exist.

To get back to Sixteenth Century Prague, Rudi also sponsored all manner of seminars which took the form of séances in many dark rooms in his palace. He did not often sit in himself, but he wanted to know what happened, and was inclined to be credulous. Though in his ecumenical way many of those he kept around him in court were skeptical and he permitted them to express their doubts.

By the way, when Rudi moved the capital out of Vienna it was not obvious that Prague was the best choice. There were plenty of other cities from which to choose in northern Italy, along the Danube, or in southern Germany. He chose Prague perhaps because it had a reputation as a religiously free(r) city than any other. It was not dominated by either an entrenched Catholic or Protestant establishment. These two had battled it out a hundred years earlier in Prague, murdering each other with great energy, and fell into an exhausted and dispirited peace where they (barely) tolerated each other. That would have suited Rudi who had no interested in religion beyond the most minimum formalities. A move to some other city might be seen as supporting the religion dominate in that place.

This is the twenty-first novel in which Richard Sharpe’s career is recounted by a master story teller. As a teenager, Sharpe’s career started in India, but in these pages he is nearly forty, called once more into the breach.

Sharpes devil cover.jpg

The wife of an old friend solicits the assistance that only Sharpe can lend to find her husband, who has been lost in the fog of war in rebellious Chile in 1820-1821. He reluctantly leaves home and hearth in his farm in Normandy. It is a common set-up made fresh in Cornwall’s hands.

En route to distant Chile his ship calls stops for water at St. Helena. There Sharpe meets face-to-face the nemesis that has dominated his life from 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte. In the company of a group of a dozen Spanish officers with whom he is travelling, Sharpe is received by the Emperor. This scene is well realised. While everyone in the room is an officer, the Spaniards all decked out in grand uniforms for the occasion, there are only two soldiers in the room, and each recognises the other as that almost immediately. After some polite formalities Napoleon dismisses the gaudy Spaniards, so that he and Major Sharpe in a faded field jacket and he can talk about …,well, what else, Waterloo. For his part, Sharpe clearly sees in the sallow, pudgy little man, the inner warrior.

As well done as that is, at the time it seems window dressing, but read on.

In Chile Sharpe finds a mare’s nest. The Spanish officials range from incompetent to corrupt. The British consul is a useless. The rebels are not any better, back-biting and bak-stabbing.

Sharpe’s perception of the Spanish colonial administrator is insightful and amusing. He enters a room to find the governor surrounded by officials. Each is intense and focussed, none more so than the Captain-General Bautista.

“The Captain-General had resumed pacing up and down …stabbing more questions into his audience as he paced. How many cattle were in Valdivia’s slaughter yards? Had the supply ships arrived from Chiloe? Was there any news of Ruiz’s regiment? None? How many more weeks must they wait for those extra guns? Had the Puerto Crucero garrison test-fired their heated shot, and if so, what was their rate of fire? How long had it taken to heat the furnace from cold to operational heat? It was an impressive display, yet Sharpe felt unconvinced by it. It was almost as if Bautista was going through the motions of government merely so that no one could accuse him of dereliction when his province vanished from the maps of the Spanish Empire” (p. 88).

A few pages (p. 91) later the Captain-General outlines his strategy to defeat the rebels, which is to build ever larger fortifications and lure the rebels to their deaths before the cannons, if only Spain will send him more men, cannons, ammunition, and artillery men. It is, as Shape muses a strategy of doing nothing and shifting the blame for the result onto others, not enough cannons, not enough ammunition, poor artillerymen. In short, he has no strategy. The puff seems plausible because of the theatrical presentation. Why does this remind of briefings from some of my leaders? I could not possibly say.

The action scenes are so energetic that the reader suspends disbelief due to the momentum of the prose. Cornwall knows how to do this. The small rebel force succeeds by subterfuge, guile, surprise, and audacity and more audacity. It succeeds because the Spanish are poorly trained, poorly led, poorly equipped with rock bottom morale. While the Spanish have sturdy forts and many cannons, they have no reason to fight so far from home, being well aware of the corruption of their leadership. While the rebels are resilient, the Spanish are brittle. This, too, Cornwall does well.

Cornwell.jpg Bernard Cornwell

In addition to Sharpe, Cornwall has also published another many other novels on a variety of other themes from the Saxon Trails to the Copperhead Chronicles. Then there is the non-fiction. Wow!

The idiom a ‘mare’s nest’ traces back to the Sixteenth Century where it meant something extraordinary and remarkable. Indeed too remarkable to be a true, a hoax. By misuse, that god of idiom, came to mean something extraordinarily complicated and confused.

A novel with that super nerd Johannes Kepler in the leading role. It is part of a series of such eponymous works by the tireless John Banville, on whom there will be more later.

Kepler cover.jpg

The young Kepler, having exhausted alternatives, goes to work for the great Dane Tycho Brahe who is sustained by that screwball emperor of the vestigial Holy Roman Empire, Rudolph II in Prague (been there).  In so doing Kepler’s backstory unfolds in several flashbacks.  

Kepler is a teacher whose tenure is precarious in a world still riven by the Great Schism and where schools exist at the whim of the local grandee.  He marries largely for the dowry which is quickly spent on an inadequate model of the planets.  His wife Barbara is seen only through his eyes as part whore and part harridan.  

Brahe is a remote and glacial figure who treats Kepler as an underling, not a colleague. Tyco is moody, vague, and irascible by turns. Hardly the ideal patron, but Kepler has no alternative but to bear it. Rudolph is seldom seen, and exercises no influence, it seems. He just lets Brahe get on with it.

kepler brahe.jpg

The atmosphere is laid on by the cement mixer load and gets in the way of both the plot, if there is one, and character development, if there is any.

The author tries too hard to create a foreign world by reaching for the dictionary and using as many an arcane words as possible each of which distracted my attention as I looked each of them up.  Moreover, I soon lost patience with Kepler's tongue-tied ineptitude. He blunders about like one of the Stooges alienating even his supporters.  Now that may been historically accurate portrayal, but it does not inform, entertain, or enlighten a reader.  

When he is offered the chance to explain his system to a patron (and thereby to the reader), he does not seem to know what to say and starts with the most minute details, quickly boring the auditor, and this reader, too.  It is as though Kepler does not know the point either. I wondered if Banville was trying to show this as an example of pure research scoffed at by practical people, but if so, it fails. All I got was the urge to shake Johannes and tell him to get to the point, whatever it is.

Towards the middle of the book one finds a series of letters written by Kepler and the man revealed in these letters is not the bumbling oaf of the preceding pages. The letters are succinct, clear, and revealing. I do not know (yet) if they are real or imagined, but they are a relief of the clown Kepler of the earlier pages. Then in the last third we have Kepler again, not quite as bumbling and irritating. There is no explanation for the insertion of the letters and no indication at the end about their veracity. While there is an end note that mentions a biography of Kepler there is nary a word to explain Banville's caricature.

kepler banville.jpg John Banville is a one-man industry with scores of books to his credit under a phalanx of pseudonyms, or so it seems.  He writes contemporary novels, mostly set in Ireland under his own name, krimis featuring Dr Quirk under another name, still others as Benjamin Black, and this series of biographical novels about great scientists. It must be in the blood since his brother Vincent is also a busy author-bee, too.   Sadly nothing in this book motivates me to read another.

There was some added interest in that much of the novel takes place in Prague on that hill, which we visited in 2014. We walked through some of the rooms where Kepler worked. Moreover, that odd specimen Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, is a character. This Rudolph sponsored all manner of invention and science. There is an excellent account of him in an ‘In Our Time’ episode from Lord Bragg. I have not been able to locate a biography of Rudi.

Two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, are chosen by aliens to justify the existence of humanity by preventing the murder of Adam and Eve. Such a trial of poor old humanity is a common premise in science fiction. Consider the Q Continuum for one.

Adam Eve.jpg

That old chestnut is given a new twist in these pages by sending the pair -- Ellie and Nick. -- back in time to 50,000 B.C. to save themselves by saving the genetic forbearers of our species in East Africa, styled Adam and Eve.  

Nick has all the egotistical misery and self doubt of a normal teenager, while Ellie is several classes out of his league, pretty, smart, decisive, and confident. Nick is a loner with few interests.  But together they make something of a team, the more so with a box of matches, a Swiss Army knife, and few other things in their pockets when the trial began, but their greatest asset is Twenty-First Century knowledge (hygiene, maps, the wheel).

Yet for all their several advantages they have a lot to learn about living in Eden, stay downwind of the animal herds. That standing still while a lion passes in the distance is very hard when the fire ants swarm.  
They do find the genetic bearers whom they call Click and Foxy, and they do try to protect them and also get them to move toward Sinai thanks to their Twenty-First Century knowledge of maps and cross into the Middle East in time to come.  

In the course of these exertions they learn to kill, butcher, and eat, sometimes raw, wildebeest and other delights of the teeming flora and fauna. This is no place for vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerants, etc., etc. They also learn to trust each other, and slowly win the trust of Click and his clan.  

Eden africa.jpg

Woven into the story are comments, too many for this reader, about the dire straits of the environment in the Twenty-First Century and the looming environmental catastrophe that threatens the Earth.  The self-destruction of planet Earth, a perfectly good piece of real estate, is what has prompted the aliens to intervene, thinking to reset this world by extinguishing Click (Adam) and Foxy (Eve) and let evolution start over. This is a clever idea for a plot.

There are two sub-plots to muddy the water, though the major twist was evident long before its revelation. Even so it was well done.

The suspicion of my acne years that high school science teachers are not human was at last vindicated. 

Dietrich has a good ear for teen-speak though it is mercifully shorn of speech crutches of 'like' and 'actually.'  Though the latter has long since migrated to adult speak.  Quarantine failed on that one.  He is even better at getting inside the mind of Nick, whose high school experiences perhaps reflect Dietrich's own. I know they do reflect mine.

Dietrich.jpg William Dietrich who is an accomplished writer whose Nathan Gage I have much enjoyed. 

This book is a novel. Aqa Jaan and his family live in a house attached literally and figuratively to a mosque.  In fact his family owns the ground upon which the mosque was built.  Imams come and go but the Jaan family goes on and has done so for hundreds of years in the house of the mosque.

Mosque book.jpg

The story opens in the latter days of the reign of the Shah of Iran and ends twenty or so years later. That is, it encompasses the origins and start of the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah, started a civil war among Iranians, led to a war with Iraq, and blood letting without end, all the while praising the God of peace.  In pauses during the slaughter, there is much praying.  

mosque mosque.jpg

Leaving aside the details, the account has many, many parallels with the French Revolution, the Russian revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and no doubt others from Cuba to China and back. First the uprising, followed by increasingly brutal repression. Then victory for the revolutionaries followed by a purge, first of previous enemies, and then of tepid friends, and then as the paranoid of incumbency develops a cannibalism its own. Remember Robespierre?  Revolutionaries eat their own.

Under the guise of the New Dawn, old grudges re-surface and old scores are settled with revolutionary justice, i.e., a bullet to the brain right here, right now. Anonymous denunciations are enough. Silence is betrayal. Any criticism, or hesitation is treason.

Some estimates of the death toll exacted by the Ayatollahs at 60,000. The Iran-Iraq War added another 1.5 million deaths. Iran being roughly four times larger than Iraq its military strategy was to win the war by piling up corpses. It was the same strategy General Alexander Haig favoured on the Western Front in World War I.

Aside from those generic features, the portrayal of the Ayatollah Komeini is interesting, and there is some explanation of the factions that existed in Iran before, during, and after the revolution. 

mosque komenini.jpg

The trials and tribulations of the Jaan family are without end, though somehow a few of them survive and retain their faith in Islam despite its bastardisation during and after the revolution.  As for many others, their faith is in God, not in the church.  

Some gratuitous grostequieres like the Lizard.  

I read it as an Ebook on the Kindle which means only saw the cover once in a poorly rendered graphic. Ergo when it came time to type these notes I had to make a point of opening the cover to get the title right and to get the author's name.  On the title page I could not find the year of publication. 

mosque author.jpg Kader Abdolah

Translated into English from a Dutch translation. Odd that, I would have supposed the best thing is to translate from the original into English, not from Farsi to Dutch to English. Having said that, I found no faults with the translation, but then I might not but someone who knew Farsi might. 

It was hard to keep track of characters because of the unfamiliar names, like those in nineteenth century Russian novels, and the over lapping webs of the extended family and the mosque.

In this novel Lewis recounts the life and adventures of the title character with the sledgehammer subtlety that marks all of his work that I have read: ‘Arrowsmith’ and ‘Babbitt.’ In a generous mood, I will call it satire rather than sophomoric caricature.

Gantry book.jpg

Elmer Gantry is a self-centred charlatan who starts out a travelling salesman selling anything and everything from snake oil to farm machinery to anyone with a dollar. He has a gift of the gab and personal charm that makes him a success, but he also has many faults that undermine that success, chiefly the faults of whiskey and women.

He learns to sell religion and salvation, and not only does that make money, but it also gives him a power that is so satisfying that, to some extent, he controls his faults. Indeed, he stops drinking altogether. Gantry enjoys the competitive element in drawing crowds and raising money against other rival churches and barnstorming evangelists. Most of all, he enjoys manipulating others, for which he seems to have a gift, i.e., people believe what he says, even those who should know better.

He uses and abuses believers, fellow preachers, and several women.

There are a few bon mots and a couple of well-turned phrases, but for three hundred pages the prose is, well, prosaic.

The telling is episodic and relentless in demonstrating Elmer’s one-dimensional unscrupulousness and complete amorality. There is no limit to Gantry’s mendacity, duplicity, and deceit. There is never a qualm of conscience. Never does he do something for another but always for Elmer over the forty year period covered in the book. He never seems to grow or to change. He switched addiction from booze to power, discovering he could still have women on the side. It becomes one note repeated again and again.

The only people who see through him are either bookish ineffectuals or the blackmailers, who are themselves so corrupt that they have to back off.  

The underlying theme is that religious people are all fools in one way or another.  Like those without religion, Sinclair cannot imagine what faith means to others.

There is one dramatic moment when Reverend Pengilly asks Elmer why he does not believe in God at the end of Chapter 27 and it not resolved and so becomes a non sequitur.

By far the most interesting character and the best part of the book concerns the strange evangelist Sharon Falconer. She is far more compelling than Gantry himself. She also seems to be sincere in her mission, though she likes the money, too.  Doing well by doing good, as Ben Franklin did say. She seems to be a split personality. Lewis kills her off. That is approximately the middle third of the book.

Gantry Lewis.jpg Sinclair Lewis on the cover of Time Magazine.

I retain a very strong recollection of the film ‘Elmer Gantry’ (1960), but had never read the book. In memory the film concentrates on Falconer. Time to do the homework. While travelling in Turkey, I downloaded it to the Kindle and read it.

Gantry film.jpg A lobby poster for the film.

When I started reading the description of Elmer at the beginning brought to mind the very actor who embodied him in the film, Burt Lancaster. It seemed as though, Lewis created Elmer cased on Burt, though that is chronologically impossible.


I read it in one sitting, stifling laughs, snorts, and chuckles as I went. Set in academe though it is, like ‘Dilbert’ it resonants with life in any large organisation these days. The drive for ever more meaningless detail and perfunctory documentation that is never used is endless and general. Nor is it only in academe that one part of the organisation thrives while another starves. Then there is the snivelling twelve-year old from Tech who mocks those he supports.

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Professor Jay Fitger has long since made a separate peace with research and teaching, instead spending many a long day writing letters of recommendation for any and every one, each peppered with asides about life, his life, The universe, and the university that is grinding him to dust. An old salt, he knows many of his correspondents, been married to some, thrown-up on others, and takes that intimacy as licence to be ever more long-winded, circuitous, and explicit. Professor Fitger is surly, mendacious, anachronistic, energetic, and sharp along the edges.

His letters support students applying for internships (unpaid jobs), scholarships, two-week training workshops, jobs in mortuaries, summer jobs, places in a queue, and seminars taught by people Fitger despises but needs must, and for colleagues applying for tenure, part-time jobs, summer jobs in garage, meaningless awards, their own jobs twice in one year, honorary titles (more work for no money), and the use of the toilets where even that prerogative is limited. The point is, everything has to be applied for and every application must be supported by five letters of recommendation.

Fitger brings some of this load on himself since he never says no, and ends up writing in support of candidates -- both students and professors -- he does not know, nor want to know. along with those he knows and does not like. That is understandable. There are some colleagues, there are some students to whom it is far easier to say yes than no. If they want a letter it is best to do it, rather than try to talk them out of it. Safer, too.

His passing descriptions of colleagues brought tears to my eyes. Two-thirds of the members of his department bear the scars of long-term abuse from the university, mostly imagined but some real, and busy themselves tending to personal grudges like scraps of carrion on which they gnaw in the corners of the open-plan work space they now have instead of offices with doors. Few will survive the killing fields of administration in the next re-organisation. Fidget expects his department will be re-organised out of existence soon.

Against such threats to its existence there was the Department retreat where instead of discussing survival they argued for hours about the placement of a comma in a resolution that no one voted for when it was finally presented. Exhausted and frustrated, they turned to drink.

When not likening students to primordial ooze without individuality, Fitger says of one: she has endured the intellectual abuse and collective disdain for which this university is widely known, overcome administrative snafus of Orwellian proportions, and been penalised by other professors because she is his supervisee.

Though the best is perhaps the periodic correspondence with the campus Wellness Office about a disruptive student, one who terrorises the other twenty-nine in a discussion section, a fact deemed irrelevant to the Wellness Office, which repeatedly charges Fitger to be more supportive, understanding, and lenient. If not, then it is Fitger who is the problem! We have training courses for that! One more irritating complaint and off Fitger will go to be re-educated, Comrade Number One.

Schumacher herself.jpg Julie Schumacher

Class, there is further reading. Another tale told in letters is Mark Harris, ‘Wake up, Stupid’ (1959) which left me gasping for air in 1980, according to the records. Then there is Iain Pears’s ‘The Titian Committee’ (2004) in which the chair of the eponymous committee, despairing of achieving consensus among the fractious members of said committee, begins to murder them, one-by-one, in the hope that the survivors will be more pliable. As if! The survivors become even more determined to resist consensus. Evidence be damned!

In April 1962 William Faulkner spent a few days as a writer-in-residence at a college in a small town in New York state, West Point. The book combines the typescript of the story from ‘The Reivers’ which he read (including his hand-written emendations), and transcripts of several question and answer sessions with students and faculty.

Faulkner West Point.jpeg

It is overproof Faulkner and there is no stronger elixir. The moral purity of the man glows. By moral I mean his commitment to lift the hearts of readers with true accounts of the conflict within and between us. 'Morality' does not mean telling other people what to do; it means doing the best one can at what one does. Believe it, Faulkner says it better.

He acknowledged that his novels are uneven but he loves all his children, the crooked as well as the straight, as would a mother, and learns from them each. When asked about the parochial nature of his work, he admits it, and then goes on to the eternal themes of loss, love, onus, anger, belonging, challenge, and — most of all — comprehension. Asked to say which novel is his favorite, slowly he answered, as I knew he would, ‘The Sound and the Fury’ because it hurt so much to write it, and it still hurts ‘when I read a few pages of it.’ The implication is that a few pages at a time is all he can bear.

Why is the idiot Benjy the narrator in ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ he is asked? Is it because of his childlike simplicity? No, said Faulkner, though much more politely than that, it is because Benjy does not understand what he sees, and even so the novelist must try to make it understood.

Asked about Southern racism he replies that it is a terrible disease to be eradicated by education, but it won’t be as easy as eradicating polio. No, not the education of blacks to be like whites, but the education of whites to end racism. [Maybe in another thousand years.]

The students asked leading questions right out of the textbook, and he gently turned them aside to come back to the bedrock where there are no labels, no simple either/or answers, no symbols, nothing that can go on an exam paper, just the story. Any man’s story is, in part, every man’s story, someone once said.

Asked how he plans his novels he said this:

‘A disorderly writer like me is incapable of making plans and plots. He writes simply about people and the story begins with a phrase, an anecdote, or a gesture, and it goes from there and he tries to stop it as soon as he can. It’s not done with any plan or schedule of work. I write about man in his comic or tragic condition, in motion, to tell a story — give it some order and unity and coherence.

Or in reply to a question about the value of literature:

‘Poetry is best and first. The failed poet writes short stories. The failed short story writer has nothing left but the novel. Poetry condenses everything in a few lines, the short story in a few pages, the novel… goes on.

That old chestnut is tossed in, Where do you get your ideas from?

‘It starts with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does, and maybe even thinks, but he is in charge. I have little to do with it but edit it into some coherence to lay emphasis here and there, but the characters themselves, they do what they do, not me.

Leo Tolstoy said something like that in his time.

When I visited Rowanoak in Oxford Mississippi on stifling hot day one August I beheld his well-used typewriter and the walls on which he used to doodle with his characters. He did try to use the technique he had learned in Hollywood of storyboarding for some of his later novels.

My nomination for his most powerful novel? That is easy: ‘Abalsom, Absalom.’ His most accessible novel for a newcomer who has yet to enter Yoknapatawpha County is ‘Intruder in the Dust’ and his long short story ‘The Bear.’ The funniest is ‘The Reivers.’ The most exhausting? ‘As I Lay Dying.’ The most compelling? ‘Light in August.’ The most harrowing? ‘Sanctuary.’ The most penetrating? ‘Go down, Moses.’ Each of his titles has something distinctive while they form a whole. And let’s not forget that very short story, ‘A Rose of Emily.’ I was always sure it was ‘Emily’ for Emily Dickinson.


A word of warning. Faulkner only became Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha Country.

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His earlier novels like ‘Pylon,’ ‘Mosquito,’ and even the elegiac ‘Soldier’s Pay’ are pre-Faulkner. I do believe I have read them all (some more than once) and most of the stories, too, that he managed to stop short before they, too, grew into novels.

On that pilgrimage to Oxford I also recalled that it was on the campus of the University of Mississippi that there were race riots in 1962 led by the governor of that state and subdued by Federal troops. This was a time when Faulkner could not show his face on campus, where now he is honoured.

Eggheads! Did Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote ‘The Miserables’ on Guernsey in the Channel Islands? Yes, he did! He spent nearly twenty years in exile, three years on Jersey and most of the remainder on Guernsey. While this book is not a biography it does limn the relevant elements of this gargantuan writer’s gargantuan life. His books were big and so was he, and as big as he was his ego was even bigger. He regarded himself as the greatest writer ever, full stop, period, and end. He did not mean the greatest French writer, though he meant that, but the greatest writer of all, including William Shakespeare, who latter confirmed this judgement! (The best French writer had to be the best, because French was the best language per Hugo, though he had no knowledge of any other languages. It was a priori knowledge.)

Hugo book cover.jpg

No he was not a Mormon but yes the long-dead Shakespeare did concede Hugo’s surpassing genius … in a séance, for he sampled, practiced, and studied spiritualism with the same intensity he did everything else. At first he was disinterested in the many varieties of spiritualism that washed around Europe in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, but tolerated his wife’s interest, and then himself became hooked when it seemed that he could communicate with his dead daughter, the first born whom he loved (almost as much as himself, as one wit had it).

MAp-2.gif Some may remember 'Bergerac.'

It was a time when the line between the living and the dead was a veil to some. Magnetism, mesmerism, table talking, automatic writing, rap rap, these were all in vogue. Once Hugo tasted this activity he drank deeply of it. A séance might start at 8 pm with a dozen participants in his Guernsey house and as the others departed or fell sleep in place, he continued on and on into the small hours of the morning.

And why not, he was H U G O after all and the spirits of the long dead crowded around to meet him! To the dead, he was a celebrity. [Pause.] Thus did Shakespeare rap out a message as did Aeschylus, Molière, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the Emperor Napoleon. Ego, indeed. He found further confirmation of his own self-estimate in these exercises, as if the chorus of praise from his contemporaries was not enough. Gargantuan that ego.

Seance.jpg A séance.

Hugo was not a Christian and yet he prayed. Hugo was not a socialist and yet he spoke for the dispossessed. Hugo was not a monarchist and yet he supported Louis Napoleon. Hugo was not a democrat but he came to oppose Louis Napoleon. Hugo loved Paris and yet lived in exile in the Channel Islands. Hugo was principled and yet he broke his word more than once. Hugo despised politics but twice served in parliament. Hugo made a point of defying classification with any one side or position. The words of Walt Whitman came to mind: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contract myself, I am large, I contain multitudes' (‘Leaves of Grass,’ 1855). Hugo was a multitude.

victor-hugo-statue.jpg Statue Hugo on the island.

Among the spirits who paid court to Hugo was Niccolò Machiavelli during a séance 16 December 1853 and on two other, later occasions (p. 224), and that is why I had look at the book. Most of the séances were recorded by a scribe as the spirits spelled out their messages a letter at a time, mostly in French, sometimes in Latin, and occasionally in an incomprehensible mishmash. While several participants including Hugo himself wrote up the experiences using the transcripts, most of the original transcripts have joined the spirit world, i.e., they have been lost. In this book we find that Machiavelli visited Hugo twice, the first two times they talked politics, and the last the subject was reincarnation and a summary of that last conversation is presented. Nothing further is said about the political discussions because these are among the lost transcripts. Given the Hugo was proscribed by Louis Napoleon III it is likely that Hugo denounced tyranny to Machiavelli, ah hem, in the transcriptions that survive Hugo does a lot of the talking, and so he probably did with Machiavelli who was probably left to agree as most people, living or dead, were in conversation with Le Grand Victor.

John Chambers.jpg John Chambers

The book is well written and based on Hugo’s own accounts and those of contemporaries and it reads like a novel with asides for exposition. However, I had no interest in the word-by-word translations of the actual channeled material in the sessions which form the bulk of the book.

This is a personal memoir of a French officer who was on the front line in Flanders in 1940 during The Defeat. He was a supply officer who managed fuel for tanks, ambulances, motorcycles, cars, and trucks with Henri Giraud’s First Army. Bloch was a professor of history at the Sorbonne, and he volunteered to serve in 1939 again, having been an infantry captain in World War I. Some may recognise the name for Bloch was also a remarkable historian whose two volume study, ‘Feudal Society,’ is one of the most compelling works of history I have read.

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Bloch wrote ‘Strange Defeat’ as a diary in the last months of 1940, and it remained unpublished at his death in 1944. He was in the Resistance, arrested by the Gestapo, tortured for information, and then murdered. None of this figures in his pages but it is a grim reminder of the mortal gravity of the place and time.

Bloch muses on his own reactions to the approach of war and his decision, at age fifty-two, to take up arms again and reflects on the men with whom he served, and analyses the Defeat from his captain’s eye-view.

bloch_marc.jpg Professor Bloch of the Sorbonne

He emphasises that the military shibboleths of order and method could not bend but they could break. That is, there was little sense of urgency when the German attack began. He had fuel requisitions rejected because a corner of the page was torn or the ink had run, which meant a long drive back to complete a new copy and get it signed by field officers whose troops were engaged with the Germans, and then return along roads strafed by the Luftwaffe. None of these exigencies were sufficient to compromise protocol. There was all the time in the world, until time ran out and then panic set it.

Even when the First Army retreated, it did so at a leisurely pace, moving back twenty kilometres. His point is that the insistence on procedure and these short retreats were measured against trench warfare of World War I, not against the mobile warfare of the Panzers. A twenty-kilometres retreat was but less than an hour from the next tank attack, which was never enough time to re-set the line of defence. Yet French Army doctrine would not permit a longer retreat, and so nothing was available to facilitate it in the way of equipment, road signs, traffic controls, communication, identified positions, marked map coordinates, and expectation. (To retreat a longer distance required an order from Supreme Command and Supreme Command could only reached by courier and no courier could get through. Supreme Command refused radio and telephone communication even in distress.) The First Army then retreated in these bite-sized steps five or six times before it completely disintegrated. At each retreat more units lost contact, were cut-off by marauding Panzers, read the map sideways and wandered into a Belgian bog, or collapsed in exhaustion and fear.

Then there were the personal rivalries he saw in the career officers in the many headquarters where his duties took him. To say to one colonel that he had instruction from another colonel meant he would get no hearing at all, because these two colonels were old adversaries in the promotions list. After mentioning the first colonel’s name, Bloch watched helplessly as the second colonel dropped his requisition into a drawer and with an icy word dismissed him. Clearly that chit was going no further up the chain of command.

There are many other examples but perhaps enough has been said to make the point. The procedures were cumbersome, inviolable, mysterious, and most of all based on absolute obedience at the expense of any initiative. (By the way, German intelligence services were aware of French army procedures and took them into account in their own planning.)

Black was the day, but Bloch also met, worked with, and observed many officers who manfully did their duty despite the circumstances. More than one staff officer stayed at the radio or telephone directing retreating units to Dunkerque even as shell fire fell on them. Bloch is one of those thousands of men who spent days on the sands at Ostend as British troops were evacuated while the Luftwaffe strafed the beaches and artillery fire grew closer.

dunkirk_small_boat.jpg The miracle at Dunkirk

Along with more than 120,000+ other French soldiers he was himself evacuated. (Winston Churchill personally ordered the Royal Navy to make no distinction among Allied soldiers and to board them first-come, first-served. For a day or more before that order the Royal Navy had only taken Brits.)

Bloch landed in Dover, marched to the train station, stopping for tea and scones served to the group of French troops he was with at the local lawn bowls club, then onto a train to Plymouth where he boarded a ship for Bordeaux, and thirty-six hours later he was again in France. The French troops shipped back to French Atlantic ports like this were without weapons, some had lost clothing, particularly boots in the surf at Ostend-Dunkerque, some were wounded or injured, and devoid of any chain of command. Bloch and the compatriots he shipped with were billeted in a health camp near Bordeaux, where, he observes, they were received with far less warmth and civility than they had experienced in England where he and his fellows were heroes who had stemmed the tide of the Boches, but in Bordeaux they were burdensome failures.

In World War I the city of Bordeaux was a million kilometres from the front; not so in the mechanised age. No sooner did Bloch arrive than did the Germans. He became one of those poilus, dirty, dazed, ragged, head down, among a thousand others on a road, escorted by a lone Wehrmacht private with a single-shot carbine, marching into captivity.

prisoners-1.jpg Les poilus

At fifty-two the Germans deemed him too old for slave labour in the Reich and he was paroled to begin his career in the Resistance shortly thereafter.

Bloch plaque

A book to be read in parallel with ‘Flight to Arras’ from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, he of the ‘Little Prince.’ St.-Ex was an air force pilot who flew combat in 1940, then fled to Algeria to continue the war with the Free French. He, too, died in 1944 while on a mission.

‘What experience and history teach is this: That people and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles learned from it.’ Thus spake George Hegel in the ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History.’

In contrast Ernest May explains the German victory ‘in terms applicable beyond its character or epoch’ as a parable for other times and other places. We can learn from history is the burden of this phrase. We can but do we.

Strange victory.jpg

This tome sets out to qualify, refute, and set aside the three most common interpretations of the Fall of France. Instead the Allies’ major error was to misunderstand German intentions, both politically and militarily.

These are the three common explanations of the German defeat of France.
1.That the Germans had a crushing superiority of men and material.
2.That the French and British were badly led.
3.The French people were morally lax.

Of course, there is some truth in each, which is why they have taken root, but May’s claim is that they are not decisive either alone or in combination. The Defeat was not a sure-thing, but rather a long shot with such a high risks that only a singular mad man like Hitler would do it. ‘Singular’ is not the right word. What I mean is that he alone decided, while in the Western countries there were many hands at work.

Against (1) the French and British had better weapons, e.g., French tanks, and more airplanes in the RAF. In addition, there was that large and well-equipped French Army. The German generals were dubious that they could match the Allies, and said so repeatedly to each other and to Hitler.

Against (2) there were many excellent leaders in a situation that defied rationality, i.e., Hitler wanted war and that was a fact Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier could not perceive, themselves horrified at the prospect of another war. The most significant leadership failure is probably Belgium's King Leopold’s vacillation and that of his government. Certainly May does not gloss over this one. He also acknowledges that French generals (1) did not switch from peace time budget politics, crying poor, to war time reality easily and that there were political rivalries among them that were more important to some than the fighting and (2) the leisurely way communications were done by courier rather than telephone and the many levels orders had to go through to be issued and obeyed. These latter points were structural, it is true, but they were designed and implemented by the very French generals who later complained of these cumbersome structures, e.g. Gamelin. As to the former, May admits that Daladier had little hold on either cabinet or parliament and that Paul Reynaud's decision to replace Gamelin in the midst of the battle with the seventy year old Weygand who had to fly to France from Syria was bound to fail. But Reynaud had to show the public he was acting. Well did he? Or would a stronger leader have weathered that expectation?

Against (3) the French had developed a resolve to resist by the time the Polish crisis occurred. Indeed the political leadership sensed this swing in public sentiment and that is what caused both the French and the British governments to go to war on the assumption that the public would not tolerate another compromise. Maybe but it is also true that there thirteen political parties, each jockeying of position, in the French parliament and they had a professional interest in disagreeing.

That there were doubts, fears, worries, hesitations among German generals is well known. Is not that always the case? Even the most bellicose general, when D-Day dawns has doubts, hesitations, delusions. Think of George McClellan’s fantasies about the grey hosts over the hill. Of Bernard Montgomery's endless demands for more until he outnumbered the rump of the Afrika Corps 15 : 1 and then he still waited. Think of General Hermann von François waiting too long to execute his part of Schlieffen Plan. Think of General James Longstreet waiting for hours before ordering Pickett’s Charge. No general can ever had enough to be absolutely sure at any level of command. That the German victory was against the odds may well be true, but the qualms of generals is not proof of that contention. May seems to be insensitive to this general tendency.

And surely part of that demand for ever more material and men before committing to battle is done with one-eye on history. If made to fight now, and I lose, it is the politicians who are responsible for pushing me into the fight ill-prepared. If made to fight right now, and win, it is because I overcame the odds. Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Many reports, appraisals, estimates are written for history to exculpate the writer, or to wring more funding from the niggardly political masters or both. ‘History memos,’ cynics call them. May seems insensitive to this common occurrence.

The divisions among the French cannot be papered over, though the author argues that there were periods, most of them of two or three years, when there were different alignments. Yes, and no. Yes there were accommodations but no, because many of the differences were deeply etched into history, regionalism, ideology, and religion. I am not convinced that there were significant changes. The social divisions in France were many and ran deep, and they certainly did not make France strong and imposing in Hitler’s perception. May seems to treat these divisions too lightly and to conclude that by September 1939 they had disappeared.

One of the things I do get from this book is that Hitler rose above the details of the arguments, how many airplanes, what range of flight, the number of bombs, the rate of production, the thickness of armour plating, the training time of pilots, and thousands of other technical details about training and equipment of all arms, and concentrated his assessments of France and England on the willpower of the elites to resist, to fight. While German officials and officers would cry poor because of the myriad of technical details involved, Hitler set little store by these facts. After an hour presentation on some such aspect of preparation by a general, he would wave it away with hand and talk about setting a date, next week, for the assault, leaving some general in stunned silence. The German generals delayed and argued for ever later dates. If left to their own devices, they would have been still planning the Western offensive in 1960. For them, planning, like management today, was an end in itself.

Also themselves deeply involved with technical details, Allied generals supposed that at some point German generals would talk Hiller out of a Western offensive, since on all the data the combination of France and England had the advantage, the more so adding Belgium and the Netherlands. Though Hitler saw this combination of allies as a weakness instead of a strength because the consultations would slow things down, the differing procedures would lead to confusion, the many heads involved would disagree, and there would be language barriers. He was right in all of these. May is silent on the fundamentals of Allied cooperation.

Instead of a direct attack on France the Allies anticipated an attack on Netherlands to get airbases on the English Channel, and perhaps on Belgium to close the port of Antwerp. Hitler played to that assumption with the first attack there, which proved to be a diversion, but it took far too long for that to be realised. That is, the French along with the British Expeditionary Force moved into Belgium to meet this attack and then got cut off by the main offensive in the south.

Added to that mindset the myriad of false alarms from November 1939 to May 1940, and the author does a good job of showing just how many false alarms there were, and how heavily qualified each was, along the lines of an ‘immediate attack will occur tomorrow, maybe, possibly, or not.’ He compares these occurrences to the warnings about Pearl Harbor to good effect. Some of these false alarms may have been planted by the Germans to weary, distract, confuse the Allies. It worked.

That Hitler did not attack the West immediately after Poland was at the time proof to many that the Germans were afraid of the might of the French army and the British airforce and would not attack later. This became another article of faith that led to the belief that an attack on the Netherlands and Belgium was most likely.

Meeting Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier face-to-face at Munich sealed the deal. Hitler saw no fight in either. At Munich Daladier said nothing, literally nothing. He was completely worn down by the back-biting and conflict within the French parliament and was counting the days until he would be displaced. (On Daladier, see the superb 2009 novel ‘The Ghost of Munich’ by Georges-Marc Benamou.) Benito Mussolini dominated the proceedings speaking a German no one could understand, but eschewing translators. That fog and mist suited Hitler for whom the meeting served other purposes (showing his generals he was willing to negotiate though he was not, buying time for preparations, courting world opinion, keeping the Soviet Union guessing, more closely involving Italy in his machinations, misleading all those who took him at his word, and, finally, assessing his opponents), the details were unimportant since he had no intention of sticking to any agreement. Chamberlain understood no German, no French, and no Italian.

We have that film of Chamberlain’s return from Munich with peace for our time, because Chamberlain mobilised the news media, including the BBC to record it. He made a point of mobilising and directing the media, says our author, far more than had been done previously by either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay McDonald.

For their part it took Chamberlain and Daladier, and those around them, a long time to realise that Hitler really did want war. Many of them had been in the trenches themselves and they all knew others who had been and who had been maimed or killed. They could not conceive that anyone wanted to repeat that. It was only when it became numbingly apparent with the invasion of Poland that Hitler would not stop that they realised there was no point in further delay. The passing of time would favour Germany, as it added new territories and capacities, growing confidence, and allies, and the passing of time would see the British and French populations grew more and more fearful and demoralised. All that is the standard HSC interpretation from my years as an HSC examiner.

The French penchant for detailed planning meant everything was complicated. Because everything had been anticipated and planned, when a French unit came under fire there were pages of protocols to govern responses, and one has the impression that some officers were furiously leafing through the manuals to find the right protocol rather than directing their men.

The Belgians oscillated between clinging to neutrality and so denying cooperation with the Allies, or seeking Allied protection. Accordingly the move into Belgium when it was finally made, was too slow. Belgium also played a role earlier in stopping the extension of Maginot Line along its border. Belgium relied heavily on its own mini-Maginot Line in the impregnable Fort Eben-Emael near Liege, which was partly built by German contractors who turned over all the blueprints to the Wehrmacht, which meant the fort was put out of action by fifty men in a few minutes.

Eben wall.jpg Eben-Emale was carved into this cliff face and dominated a river valley. There were many gun ports and block houses that do not show in this contemporary picture.

In building Eben-Emael successive Belgian government had declared it to be the essence of Belgian defence when it capitulated after one day, the psychological blow was decisive.

The Allies’ major strategic mistake was the belief that the Ardennes Forest was impassable to a large army, especially one with tanks and trucks. Even the evidence of eye witnesses did not overcome this conviction. It was fact-proof. Nothing would convince a distant senior officer that tanks and trucks were pouring out of the Ardennes even as they were pouring out.

ardennes_1.jpg The Belgian Ardennes

But once the shooting started, the crucial tactical difference was that the Germans combined air and ground forces which the French did not do that for strategic reasons, and which the British did not do it for political reasons. The French air doctrine prohibited use of aircraft as air artillery! The cannons do that, period. The only tactical role of aircraft is to defend their airfields. The only strategic role is to bomb cities, which was ruled out at the time, not wishing to provoke the Germans into retaliating. The RAF wanted to keep all its aircraft to defend the homeland when the time came and flying low into columns of German armour would certainly mean heavy losses. Ergo when there were terrific traffic jams with thousands of German tanks and trunks on narrow roads, they were not bombed. Ergo when the French armies were pounded by the Luftwaffe as the Germans advanced, they had no air support of their own.

Moreover, neither the French nor British concentrated armour or motor transport, as the German did. That steel tip of the German offensive was irresistible, even though one-on-one French tanks were superior in armour and cannon. While the Allied tanks outnumbered the German ones, they were dispersed, so in combat the French tanks were usually outnumbered five to one. The French tanks were distributed one or two to a regiment of infantry as mobile block houses. Yet on paper there were more French and English tanks than German ones.

The analysis of intelligence is a crucial point. The French intelligence services gathered information and delivered it but did not analyse or evaluate it. A rumour would be dutifully reported, but its source would not be evaluated. A fact - the movement of troops - would be reported but not placed in the context of the reports of other troop movements. No one was responsible for putting all the pieces of information together. The several intelligence services did not want the responsibility and the general staff would have resented it had it been done. Ten reports of German troop movements would be filed but no one was responsible for reading the file and adding it up to ten. Each report was a discrete fact. The contrast was the Germans who integrated intelligence findings and analysed them thoroughly so that they knew how the French Army gave orders (in such detail that quick obedience was unlikely) and how the British gave orders (with so many qualifications and exceptions that quick obedience was unlikely).

Finally, at a tactical level both the French and British demanded absolute obedience, whereas the Wehrmacht doctrine stressed initiative and flexibility at the lowest levels of command, i.e., sergeants. In the confused situation that developed many a French command waited for orders that never came instead of acting independently.

One of the important points May offers is that most leaders (and their advisors) think the past predicts the future. To know what will happen tomorrow, look at yesterday. It does not always work that way. The linear projection of today on tomorrow can mislead as much as inform, if crucial information is ignored or changes are not perceived. Today is the best predictor of tomorrow, but only because nothing else is better, not because it is perfect. The hardest thing to do is to be open-minded about changes.

The many false alarms of a German attack on the West from October 1939 to May 1940 allowed German intelligence to monitor Allied reaction, and that fed back into the subsequent planning so that Fall Gelb evolved to the feint into the Netherlands and eastern Belgium to draw the most well trained and well equipped French armies along with the British Expeditionary Force into Belgium which would then be cut-off by the main attack through the Ardennes toward the sea and not toward Paris (which the French expected in a variation on the Schlieffen Plan of 1914). That the German attack on the Netherlands did not use tanks was attributed to the terrain, and not that the Germans were moving the tanks elsewhere to attack France, although there were many individual intelligence reports of such movements. The British feared German airbases in the Netherlands and wanted to respond with the drive into Belgium.

There were two political outcomes of the Fall of France.

First, Hitler believed his own genius was proven infallible and so did many of his generals, and those that did not, could no longer say so since Hitler had been vindicated by the achievement of a victory over mighty France. This combination of Hitler's hubris and the generals' reticence led to the gratuitous declaration of war against the United States and then the invasion of the Soviet Union and these led to downfall.

Second, the catastrophe frightened Britain into accepting the authority of government without the usual party and parliamentary bickering, back-biting, and undermining. It also put Winston Churchill into the big chair, and gave him a relatively free hand to select a cabinet, a war cabinet, and to appoint generals and admirals.

May argues that in the period from October 1939 to May 1940 French, and British, too, political leaders took positions and selected evidence to support them without regard to any overall appreciation of the realities. In both cases there was a reluctance to reveal one’s reasoning since that could then be challenged. Instead one just declared something to be the case, e.g., Swedish iron ore is decisive and if we can deny that to Germany the war is won. Rather than opening the subject up for debate to test its strength, it is closed. In the poisonous atmosphere of French politics exposing one’s reasoning would be have a suicide note and May does not credit that toxic atmosphere sufficiently.

Ernest May.jpg Ernest May

The book is based on much original research and the results is a five-hundred page text with another hundred pages of notes and bibliography. The book takes its title from Marc Bloch’s moving little memoir ‘Strange Defeat’ (1944). On that more later.

Reading a biography of Símon Bolívar left me confused about events in Spanish America, and when Amazon’s Mechanical Turk recommended this title, I had a look and liked what I saw and sucked it down into the Kindle. Well worth the $1.12 price. This is a short guide book (just under 100 pages) that summaries the sprawling history of these rebellions, revolutions, and wars, the factions and forces involved, and the geography. The print version has coloured maps and graphics that do not show well on the Kindle but on the iPad they were superb.

Fletcher cover.jpg

Terminology first, I am tempted by habit to refer to Latin America but Fletcher makes it obvious even to the geographically challenged that Spanish America in 1809 extended to Oregon, including all the eventual United States states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and parts of others, as well as Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, St Domingo, and everything south to Tierra del Fuego with the exception of Brazil.

Second, it turns out I knew a little more than I thought, since I had watched Guy Williams (Zorro) fight the corrupt and incompetent Royalist regime in Old California while I was coming of age on the Rio Platte. Though Don Diego de la Vega is pretty vague about dates, it still turns on themes relevant to the 1809-1829 period. a distant colonial master, local villains, indians and blacks with no love for the regime. Locally-born Spanish Europeans taxed and abused by Spanish officials who steal all they can before returning to Iberia.

Zorro-1.jpg Zorro-2.jpg Zorro-3.jpg Zorro-4.jpg

Third, I appreciated Fletcher’s deft summaries of the shifting divisions and alliances among both the Patriots and Royalists. Even those names are inadequate, but some labels are necessary. A score card is necessary to tell all the players, and at times they change uniform numbers, necessitating a revised score card. More on that below.

Among the American population were the three races and various combinations of them: Spanish, Indians, and blacks. When the shooting started the Spanish had been living in the Americas for nearly three hundred years. They were set in their ways. The Roman Catholic Church was a major factor. The Inquisition was hard at work in the New World.

Haiti loomed large in the minds of all Spanish, as it did in the southern United States into the 1860s. The slave revolt there confirmed the worse nightmare of many while confounding stereotypes. The blacks massacred their owners went the story, and took over, defeating two Napoleonic armies sent to teach them to respect the white man. Black slaves defeated two European armies!

There were divisions among the Royalists. Some wanted to continue the monarchy, but who was king, the old king clinging on, his usurping son, or Napoleon’s puppet. Moreover, some Royalists advocated a constitutional monarch and spoke less of a king and more of a constitution. In addition, in metropolitan Spain there were those who wanted no king of any kind, but did want to retain the empire. Each of these slivers of opinion was reflected in the Americas.

Among the Patriots were a host of differences as well. They called themselves ‘Patriots’ who were fighting for the freedom of their countries, and sometimes for their peoples, too. But which people? White, red, black, and the shades among them? The whites were further divided into those born in America, called Creoles, and those who moved there from the Old Country. Most of the blacks were slaves, but not all. The reds had tribal loyalties. Because of the methods of Spanish colonalism, the many colonies had almost nothing to do with each other. Lima was as foreign to Caracas as Madrid.

Most of the Patriots were loyal to their province with no larger conception of Spanish America. As soon as the Royalist were driven out the provinces would fall into conflict over rivers, boundaries, mines, and symbols. Sometimes they did not wait for the Royalists to be driven out before starting a war among themselves. A Columbian army would not go to Venezuela to fight the Royalists, nor would a Venezuelan one go to Columbia. And so on and on. If there is strength in unity this was one strength they did not have. Bolívar argued that if the Spanish retained one toehold in the Americas, then one day they would reassert their claims to the colonies.

Bolívar and José San Martin were among the few who saw a larger picture, the former for political purposes and the latter for military purposes. Though Bolívar had a political goal of a united Spanish American, he was not the accomplished soldier that San Martin was, but San Martin lacked Bolivar’s vision. Nor was there much chance they could work together. Bolívar was brassy, impetuous, egotistical, as well as determined, dogged, and tireless, while in contrast San Martin was reticent, careful, self-effacing, methodical, and slow (because it takes time to think), as well as a professional solider who was a strategist of note and a tactician of creativity.

Certainly a quarter, perhaps a half, of the populations (red, white, and black) in Spanish America died in this period. Many were killed after the battles, and others died of diseases loosened by the upheavals of warfare. Though Spain was feeble, on one occasion it managed to dispatch an army of 40,000 to the Americas to end the rebellions. Whole cities were murdered after battles to eradicate the enemy.

To get soldiers both sides courted the red and black races. The Spanish approach was to offer material reward, while the Patriots offered emancipation. The material reward of money would allow a slave to buy his freedom. The Royalists did recruit some individuals this way. Bolívar in contrast would declare emancipation and then recruit blacks to fight to retain this new freedom. The worked, too, on a larger scale. As a result slavery was outlawed a generation or two earlier there than in the United States. A parallel approach was taken by each side to recruiting indians. The Spanish offered individual incentives, Bolívar emancipation from forced labor and the so-called red taxes. Likewise the Patriots recruited soldiers from the captured Royalists with promises of citizenship.

In between the Royalists and Patriots were self-serving bands of armed men that preyed on both Patriots and Royalists or made temporary alliances with either to secure booty. More fearful than any of these bandits was the pestilence and disease let loose by the destruction of waterways, wells, damns, and the like.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars meant the world was awash with war surplus, and much of it went to these conflicts from northern California to southern Chilé. Likewise, there were demobilised soldiers who had no other life and who became mercenaries on one side or the other. Men who had fought each other at Waterloo ended up comrades in the European formations of San Martin’s army. Irish Catholics driven out of Ireland by Protestant England, found their way to Spanish America to serve with English veterans of Waterloo.

Brazil and Portugal also played roles in this story, trying to take advantage of the disruption among the Spanish to settle old grievances, appropriate land, secure river access, and the like. There were armed clashes between Brazilian forces and Patriots, Portuguese and Royalists, Brazilian and Royalists, Brazilian and Portuguese, and so on. All combinations.

No sooner had the Spanish given-up and left than the Patriots fell into prolonged conflict among themselves within cities and provinces and between provinces that became countries, some of the conflicts lasted until the 1860s. That goes some way to explaining the prominent role of the army in many Spanish American states. In contrast George Washington’s Continental army was under arms for eight years, but some of these Spanish American armies were at it for fifty years, e.g., in Argentina. Just as the Prussian army made Prussia, some of these armies could claim to have made the state.

As to the book, the organisation is coherent, the prose is crisp, and the pages are free from typos.
Fletcher is a UNL graduate and now a band manager.

Reading about John Stuart Mill brought to mind Mr Utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and I remembered that I had acquired a copy of this book years ago as relevant to utopia, though many might suggest one criterion of utopia would be the absence of insufferable bores like JB, as he referred to himself. While not a biography, the book does convey much of Bentham’s personality and habits.

The subtitle explains the remit of the monograph, ‘An Account of his Letters and Proposals for the New World.’

Williford cover.jpg

JB proselytised far and wide in England. He started out in law but when his parents’ deaths left him well off he became a full-time know-it-all. He wrote one tract after another, many are legal in orientation, and sent them off to one and all to influence opinion and incite action. He eschewed running for parliament on the ground that the duties thereof would distract from his broader and deeper influence. He ranged over many subject and topics, ignorance being no bar. Altogether a public intellectual!

Then he hit on the idea of the panopticon and devoted himself nearly exclusively to that for years, and sunk a lot of his own money into it. It started out as a model prison but as he honed the idea it became a more general social model. It is all in the name ‘pan’ = ‘all’ and ‘opticon’ = ‘seeing.’ All-seeing, a building made of glass so that everyone could see what each person is doing at all times. Little Brothers and Sisters are always watching! The social discipline born of this exposure would put us all on our best behaviour all the time. Michel Foucault has some things to say about this that are worth reading.

Disaffected by the failure of the Great British to embrace his panopticon, JB turned his gaze to the wider world, and there he saw Spanish America. This was a greenfield site in his mind. New societies were aborning there, and if they started off on the right foot, they would grow into perfect little Benthamic societies. He would be only too glad to tell them about that right foot.

Bentham mug.jpg God's gift to humanity, Jeremy Bentham

Cue, another prodigious letter-writing campaign, and more tracts. Since he paid for the publication of his tracts they were not edited, and seldom reviewed. That may explain why most of them are so excruciating bad. Neither self-criticism nor second-thoughts featured in his personality. His contemporaries can be grateful that for every tract published he wrote two others that had to await posthumous publication in his collected works now safely confined to research library shelves for the terms of their natural lives.

The circumstances were a bit tricky, as reality can be. While Spain still claimed and asserted suzerainty over Spanish America, and these claims and assertions were largely respected by European powers, the Spanish Americans were rebelling against rule from Spain, imposed locally by appointees whose main goal was to enrich themselves with the least possible effort. San Martín, Símon Bolívar, and others were in revolt. These niceties did not bother JB, he wrote to Madrid, to Spanish colonial governors, and to the rebels offering his services as a lawgiver. Solon, reborn! Have laws, will travel.

In doing so he promoted his own considerable expertise as evinced by his numerous tracts, which he usually enclosed with his letters, and he cited testimonials from heads of states (who had never heard of him), savants (who regarded him as a crackpot), and religious leaders (who rejected him as an atheist).

Never one to stand on ceremony, while he was wooing the Madrid government to let him dictate to its restive colonies, he managed to find time to offer 400 pages of criticisms of the Madrid government, its constitution, its acts…. What a pompous prat, one might think.

More seriously, he suggested that his complete ignorance of local circumstances, and existing manners and morēs (or knowledge of Spanish) ideally suited him for the job, leaving him dispassionate, detached, unfettered, and rational. In short, he claims some of the qualities that Plato ascribed to Philosopher-Kings, though he never cites Plato, or anyone else for that matter. It is JB all the way, unalloyed.

He did make plans to travel to Mexico at one time, and then at another Venezuela but neither eventuated. Nonetheless, he continued his barrage of letters and tracts.

Imagine now a besieged Spanish governor in Peru with insurgents at the door, nearly all communication to the interior cut by Indians, receiving a letter…from Bentham running to 25 pages about whether the legal code should be written in italics or not. Bentham often seized on such trivial details and spent pages and pages on them, while the castle burned down. He had neither practical sense nor political nous. Though, surprisingly enough, some of his correspondents did take him seriously like Símon Bolívar, giving me cause to doubt SB’s wisdom. (Maybe I should read a biography of SB.)

Williford charts all this deadpan, resisting all but a few asides on the evident megalomania. This is an excellent, short monograph that shows a considerable volume of research, effectively marshalled to say what needs to be said with little fuss. Perhaps it started as PhD but if so the published version escaped the PhD-to-book syndrome - overkill.

I could not find a picture of the author.

I confess that I have a marked up copy of Bentham's 'Fragment on Government' which I had to read in a graduate seminar, and I cannot remember one thing about it, except the relief at never having to look at it again.

In pursuit of John Stuart Mill I have also recently read Eric Stokes, ‘The English Utilitarians and India’ (1989) which I chose not to review, finding it so densely detailed that only a specialist in British colonialism in India could fathom it. I certainly could not, though I found informative the distinctions Stokes made among the Whig, Liberal, and Utilitarian approach to India. For the Whigs government itself is the enemy. For the Liberals education solves all problems when mixed with time. For Utilitarians there is no substitute for telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and, if time permits, why to do it.

By the way, when Bentham's parents’ estate was divided between the two sons, his brother took his half of the dosh and moved to the south of France to pursue the life of a sybarite. Who can say which was the greater service to later generations?

A novel of life among destitute Canadiens in Montréal of the Great Depression. Yet a book that brims with life, and ends with optimism.

The description of the snow driven before the wind as a dancer pursued by a cracking whip was marvellous, graphic, exciting, and accurate. Then there was the house party and the young and inexperienced Florentine measures herself against her rivals, parents, and beau. Her combination of defensive quips and throbbing hormones is certainly right. Emanuel's unwilling love for Florentine and her gradual response, each with inner doubts, provides the unity of the story.

Gabrielle Roy is the novelist of a Montréal now gone, the Montréal of Maurice Duplessis, and even the egregious Jean Drapeau, long before Le révolution tranquil. The working class French of 1940 stay of their side of Rue St Laurence in a quietude that is born with a stubborn resignation. The Church offers spiritual comfort in a world where there are few material comforts after a decade of the Great Depression.

tin flute.jpeg

That endurance is personified in Rose-Anna Lacasse, the mother of a starving clan of ten, soon to be eleven, children with her earnest but eight-year unemployed husband Azarius. All of them go to bed hungry and get up hungry. The children dress in rags and share shoes. Yet they all persevere.

montreal depression-1.jpg A sign in Montréal in 1939.

Roy enters into the lives of her characters, or maybe it is the other way around, they have entered into her life and she chronicles their determination, dignity, forbearance, and humiliations in a world they did not make, but in which theirs is to make the best of if that they can. The inner monologues of her cast of characters are compelling. Confused, determined, troubled, hesitant, defeated, defiant they may be inside, but outside each tries to maintain a façade. Rose-Anna is calm; Azarius is cheerful; Emanuel is self-contained; Florentine is scornful....

To a politically-minded person they are victims of an oppressive social order that could be changed. To Roy they are God’s children, each one precious, individual, and whole just as they are.

The novel, written by a Manitoba school teacher, provides a companion piece to The Canadian novel, ‘The Two Solitudes’ written at nearly the same time by a Nova Scotia school teacher. But the books differ. McLennan’s ‘Two Solitudes’ implies a political agenda and it looks to a changed and perhaps better future. Roy accepts eternal reality as the mystery of life in which we must trust in God and ourselves. That might sound passé, even retrograde, to some but in her hands it is a message of salvation.

By the way, in McLennan's novel conscription into the Canadian army is feared by Canadiens, but in Roy's novel three of the central Québecois characters voluntarily enlist, and a fourth throws himself into a war industry. The army represents a job, an income, after nearly a decade without either. (Yes, I know some of them ended their lives at Dièppe in 1942.)

Moreover, when I compare this book to so many contemporary prize-wining novels that I try, and fail, to read, I realise she has the one essential of a novelist, that so many published novelists lack, a story to tell about people. To which she adds a sympathy, an empathy for others that transcends the facile judgements that reviewers love.

I have read her ‘Alexandre Chenevert’ (1951) and ‘Where Nests the Waterhen’ (1955) and found much pleasure and occasion to reflect in each. There is a very informative biography of her on the Canadian Dictionary of Biography online web site. She wrote constantly and kept every word she wrote including letters sent (and received). The Amazon Canada web site has shown her for more than a year as ‘Roy Gabrielle,’ despite many complaints, mine among them. The Mechanical Turk has fallen asleep, it seems. I see in this mixup the fate of those with two first names, but others find a darker purpose to capture her work for the masculine!

Gabrielle Roy.jpg Gabrielle Roy

The original title was ‘Bonheur d’occasion’ which is an idiom meaning, at its most basic, ‘Best wishes.’ The title ‘The Tin Flute’ refers to one incident in the novel. It was filmed in 1983, turning this compassionate study of grace under pressure into melodramatic drivel suitable for a mid-day movie.

Reading Nicholas Capaldi’s biography of John Stuart Mill put me in mind of Mill’s ‘Autobiography’ and I found I had it on Audible already, so the rest was easy, well not quite. See below for some comments on using the Audible app.

Mill auto.jpg

Although his voice was a clarion for social equality and personal responsibility, generations of students have since been taught to despise John Stuart Mill as a progenitor of evil liberalism.

Sounds odd I know, but since the 1960s jaded intellectuals have made careers biting the hand - liberalism - that feeds them, having insufficient imagination to do anything creative themselves. When these pygmies are long gone, John Stuart Mill’s books will still be read; that will be the judgement of history. It is little wonder that the feeding hand has gradually lost enthusiasm for subsidising intellectuals.

Mill started to write the ‘Autobiography’ when he had a nervous breakdown early in life and then went back to it later. In addition, Harriet Taylor had a hand in editing it. Many PhDs have been earned trying to figure out when Mill wrote portions of it, and what Taylor took out or put in. The Audible version I listened spared me this Pin-HeadeD detail.

The early chapters are a description of the childhood of this prodigy with an emphasis on his father’s method of educating him. It is exhausting to listen to the account, the more so knowing, as he must surely have himself known in retrospect, that most of it was meaningless. Prodigious, yes, but neither lasting or meaningful. He may have read in Greek Plato’s ‘Apology’ at five years of age, but he did not understand it. So, too, with much else in this force-fed education, which was all work and no play everyday for years on end.

James Mill.jpg James Mill

One unintended consequence of this gruelling education was that Mill was THE hyper-nerd. He grew up in a hot house that he seldom left until he was a late teenager when he went out of the house to go to work at the East India Company where he toiled for his father.

East_India_House_by_Thomas_Malton_the_Younger.jpg East India House

He was in his father’s shadow for much of his life everyday, socially, intellectually, and morally. It is painfully apparent to an auditor of the ‘Autobiography’ that Mill had no friends. He had peers; he had colleagues; he had associates; he had debaters and opponents. But he had no friends, which he as much as says more than once, though he uses the term 'friend,' it usually means someone he knew, and nothing more intimate. He had no interests but the unforgiving logical analysis of important matters learned from and constantly reinforced by his father. This is not the person to sit next to at dinner. He could debate the great issues of the day but he could not make small talk, or show any interest in pictures of a seat-mate’s children. A cold fish, I would guess. Ready to beat you to death in argument and inept in passing the butter, because he never played any boyhood games meant he had zero physical dexterity, something he himself notes twice in the ‘Autobiography.’

Chapter Five (5) is superb. In it Mill reflects on his many and varied experiences, and knocks off some bon mots as only he could. He paraphrases Thomas Hobbes’s remark that ‘When reason is against a man, he retaliates by being against reason’ which made me think of all those deniers (climate change, Catholic Church pedophilia, Holocaust, Greek debt, etc.). I listened to this while walking the dog, pushing pedals at the gym, or taking the train, so I could not take notes or mark-up the text.

HIs conclusion in this chapter is that political theory is best confined to a few principles which would allow inferences to be drawn in particular circumstances, rather than trying to lay down a single ideal institutions. Mill lost faith in a singularly unified theory and recognised the inescapable influence of context. Under the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville, Mill wanted the deductions to be based on facts, hence I referred above to inferences and not deductions.

Likewise, Mill concluded that perfect political institutions were of no value in themselves. The underlying social order was decisive. The most perfect political institutions would be hollow shells unless the society valued and embraced them for their purposes. To make a comparison, the church may be full, but do they really believe and act like Christians everyday in every way?

Mill once fancied himself ‘a reformer of the world,’ but during his depression, he asked himself this question: If all the material and moral ideals he espoused were realised in the world, would he then be happy? No, he answered. He concluded that happiness if not an end in itself, but rather a by-product of purposeful activity. Both trip and arrival are important.

In Chapter Six (6) Mill refers to Mr. Warren and the villages he set up. It was a passing reference but I want to see it in the printed text when the copy I ordered arrives. I found a reference to Warren and his villages in a history of anarchism. Mill's praise for Warren villages is odd, since Mill knew nothing about them, not even if they existed. So much for Tocqueville's influence.

Later in Chapter Seven (7) he refers to the Hare-Clarke voting system as the salvation of representative government over several pages. I have passed these passages on to Anthony Green. Likewise there is also in this chapter a reference to multiple votes for the educated, rather than the propertied, and I must get that and send it to Glyn Davis who once asked me about my comment, somewhere, on Mill and multiple votes. In the ‘Autobiography’ Mill says he proposed multiple votes in a submission; I have since tracked it down and will pass it on in due course.

There are some odd things about the ‘Autobiography’ to be sure. Mill never mentions his mother though there are many, many references to his father who died when Mill was thirty (30). It would seem his father had those nine (9) children all by himself. James Mill was a formidable fellow but he was no hermaphrodite. While there are only a few early references to Mill’s work for the East India Company. Yet Mill specialists have some strange stories about his habits at work.

This review affords an opportunity to correct some errors I made in the review of Capaldi’s biography. It was not Bentham that introduced Mill to poetry. Several peers led him to poetry. I also said he was called a Mechanical Man, not quite, but rather a Manufactured Man by some who found the analytical engine of his mind artificial and inhuman.

I found this Audible reading to be unsympathetic. It sounded almost mechanical, phrases of equal length and inflection followed one another without regard to the content. Perhaps that is partly a fault of Mill’s writing style, which is replete with dependent, relative, and embedded clauses with asides and comparisons which makes it precise but it does not flow.

Not quite easy I said, because Audible kept dropping out, asking me to log in again, resetting the book mark, and so on. None of that is easy when using the iPhone while dog walking. No doubt I brought this on myself, somehow. But it was annoying, and a lesser man might have quit.

Noah Webster (1758-1843) has shadowed me through life. In reading rooms, office desks, library shelves, legal offices, conference halls, spell-checkers, and seminar rooms, wherever I have gone there I found a direct line back to him on the spine of dictionaries. This Webster is that Webster, the dictionary man.

Unger bio.jpg

How and why he became that is a story I could no longer deny myself. He grew up in western Connecticut when it was the frontier. He was the bookish middle son. The family decided to see to his education, while the other children stayed and worked the farm. Off he went to a common (public) school where the emphasis was on discipline (secured by rod and whip). Not even the brutality he found there could quench the intellect within and at sixteen he entered the local church school, Yale.

At the time church and state were united in a Tea Party dreamworld. Taxes were paid at the local church which doubled as town hall and government offices. Yale was little more than a Calvinist secondary school for parsons, and it was funded by those taxes paid at churches. There was no religious toleration. Those who were not Congregationalists were, however, free to move west.

The taxes Great Britain imposed on the thirteen American colonies to pay for the expense of defending them in the French and Indian War of 1754-1763 were punitive, and precipitated the Revolutionary War 1775-1783 (in which the colonist reputiated their sovereign debt to England). Webster’s father had been a militiaman in the French war and during the Revolutionary War, Noah Webster joined a student brigade which marched around but found no English redcoats. However, the Revolution fired him with patriotism for the new world in the making.

He took up teaching children to read upon leaving Yale, and apprenticed to a lawyer for a career in law. That changed when in late 1783 his travel to a cousin’s wedding took him through an encampment of the recently victorious Continental Army of the United States. He, youthful idealist, was thrilled to see and meet the men who had created this New Jerusalem.

What he found was Babel. The men were at odds with each other over scarce provisions, ragged clothing, three-years of back-pay eroded discipline, and — what was worse — was the cacophony of languages. He heard Swedish from the men of Delaware, German from Pennsylvania, Dutch from New York, Welsh from Maryland, Irish from Massachusetts men, Scots from others, French from the forest men of Maine, Spanish from a few from the Caribbean, Italian was also to be found. All of these were further divided into dialects. If anything, English was just one of the plurality of languages.

The language barriers within Americans made prospects for productive cooperation unlikely, and it soon became his lifelong ambition to unite the States with an American language. He formed this ambition at twenty years of age, and stuck to it. The result is on the shelf, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. (‘Merriam’ because when he died the brothers Merriam, long-time friends, neighbours, and admirers of Noah, bought the copyright from Noah’s widow, as a way of insuring her financial security. Part of that agreement was keep the name ‘Webster’ on it.)

Websters.jpeg My copy.

The division, conflict, unproductive confrontations that he saw in the army camp were mirrored and enlarged among the victorious colonies which were held together by the so-called Articles of Confederation (1776-1789) which had only a congress meeting briefly twice a year. Each state was a law and nation unto itself. Pennsylvania and seven other states had a state army. At the borders of each state tariffs were levied. Since the British had not surveyed more than one hundred miles inland in most places, there were disputes about western borders that were settled by the gun. Each state issued its own coins and bank notes, ran a postal service of sorts. Some levied visa charges for visitors from other states. A murderer could flee across a state border and most likely escape pursuit or apprehension. I said fourteen states, and not thirteen, because Vermont seceded from New Hampshire.

For Webster to secure copyright for his first book meant that fourteen state legislatures had to enact copyright legislation and he then had to secure fourteen separate warrants, each with slightly different conditions. In this state of confusion, there were those who thought returning to British suzerainty would be preferable. Some of these were diehard Tories and others just wanted order and stability.

All of this division stimulated Webster to redouble his efforts. H travelled to nearly every state capitol, selling his book as he went, and lobbied first for a copyright law and then to secure copyright for his book(s). Doing so was hard, expensive, and took him away from home for months at a time. It also made him a national figure, with personal friends in every state.

He was innovator in every respect, As a teacher he thought school was to teach children to read and write, not simply to beat them into submission. He pitched his lessons at the level and world of his five and six year olds, striving to make learning fun, interesting, relevant, and easy. He was very successful at it. He set up his own school and parents who wanted their children, both girls and boys, to learn subscribed to it. He prepared his own teaching material and these became the three books: The Speller, The Grammar, and The Reader. Each was American in each and every way.

To make spelling easy and fun he simplified it, by dropping silent letters, like ‘u’ in most occurrence of ‘ou’ or the unpronounced double ‘l' in traveller or the double ‘g’ in waggoner, and matching sound to letter by using the ‘z’ extensively. He dropped many, many other silent letters, so that 'give' became 'giv' and the same for all words with an unsounded terminal 'e.' He also tried to change existing spelling to match sound so that some instances of the letter 'c' became 's' or 'sh' which certainly have made English easier to learn. English, in part because of its polyglot origins, has many silent letters and varieties of letter sound values. And he thought American English had to be learned, and it would be better for being distinct from British English and for being rational in the spirit of the Enlightenment. He was an admiring reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith, and their ilk.

He likewise inventive in grammar, dropping the Latin cases which had theretofore been used to teach English grammar. Reader, when was the last time the ablative was necessary?

The reader, aimed at young children, was entirely home grown. Gone were incomprehensible British essays about the Astronomer Royal, or legal disquisitions on the Welsh marches, and in came essays about the New England forests, thanksgiving with the native indians, and paeans of praise for the stalwarts of the Revolution. He made an exception for the poetry of William Wordsworth.

No publisher would touch his work. It was too novel, untried, and untested. He borrowed from his family and paid for the first edition of The Speller himself. Five hundred were printed, and by the end of the year 5,000 had been sold. He set the price low to make it accessible and he invested the income in The Grammar, and so it went. Throughout his life he made enough money to live and support his family, but nothing more.

He was a publisher’s dream author. He travelled the country for weeks and months at a time, selling the books in person to every churchmen, legislator, lawyer, judge, and school teacher he could find. During this period he also found time to argue for a stronger national government and that won him friends among the emerging Federalists (and enemies among others). Indeed in the Constitution of 1789 some of his ideas were embodied, and others he proposed were deleted. Chief among those embodied was a strong central executive, the President, and among those rejected were universal manhood suffrage, female equality, and emancipation the slaves.

noah_webster.gif Noah Webster.

Much of the middle of the book is a summary of American history in the turbulent period from 1789 to 1830. Reading it reminded me of how well educated I had been, there along the Platte, because I knew most of it in broad: Citizen Genet, the undeclared naval war with France, the Jay Treaty, Thomas Jefferson’s ascendence, and so on. Webster was constantly in the fray, opinionated, pompous, self-righteous, and often right. He saw unity as the only path to survival, and advocated a strong central government.

He moved to New York City to found first a magazine and then a newspaper, both of which failed at personal and professional expense. He then revised his school books and went on the road to sell them. Finally at about 40 he sold the rights to his books, rather than face another round of travel, and started on the dictionary that made him immortal. He also worked with his cousin Daniel Webster (he of the devil in the Ambrose Bierce story) to enact the first copyright legislation in the United States.

He worked on the dictionary singlehanded for 20+ years and compiled 70,000 entries, far in excess of its only rival, Dr Johnson’s (which I am proud to say adorns our shelves). To study the etymology of words Webster learned German, to go with the French and Latin he had. In time he traced words through dozens of languages. He travelled to London and Paris when he was 60 to research in libraries there. It was a Herculean labour. The result was pure Noah Webster. Definitions, examples, the etymology was slanted to reflect his Calvinism, American patriotism, and Anglo-Saxon heritage.

It was difficult to find a way to publish this whopper. He did finally manage to do so with financial support from John Jay (of the Federalist Papers), and it was an immediate commercial and critical success. He had long since modified his efforts to reform spelling on rational grounds and moderate his zeal for being a know-it-all. The two volume work that resulted was hailed far and wide.


Since the veneration for Dr. Johnson and his dictionary had prevented any new dictionary in England for two generations, Webster’s was taken up there with enthusiasm. For a time more copies of Webster's Dictionary were sold in England than in the United States, despite the explicit American character of Webster’s from the title page on. In a 1917 court ruling the name Webster on a dictionary passed into the public domain and anyone may now use it. Only Merriam Webster dictionaries trace directly back to Noah.

Nearly all the men who led the Civil War had learned to read and write from Webster, the tireless advocate of unity. Jefferson Davis had once in the Senate explicitly praised Webster and his speller. Only those who were self-educated, like Abraham Lincoln, had escaped Webster's influence. Even a century and a half later, I grew up in the world of words he created. In high school Webster’s Dictionary was on the shelf. In college, purchasing a copy of Webster’s Collegiate was required. In graduate school Webster’s Enlarged was necessary to write that dissertation. When I started teaching I acquired the current edition. Regrettably I cannot trace the genealogy of the spellchecker to be sure but I hope it goes back to the brothers Merriam and from them to Noah.

Remarkable, energetic, and a polymath, Webster was many things. He was also arrogant, a know-it-all, a man who loved the sound of his own voice, a micro-manager, someone who did not understand the word ‘no’ when applied to him. He must have been a very high-maintenance individual. He also ha[ed the Constitution, fathered the copyright laws, founded Amherst College, taught a nation to spell, and brought forth that dictionary (and its many imitators that use his name) that remains a gold standard today.

harlow_unger.jpg Harlow Unger

Harlow Unger is the author of twenty-three books, most on individuals and themes from this same period in American history. There is a considerable body of research behind the book. That said, I found it hard to read - the prose oscillates from inscrutable to leaden to transparent, with too much of the first and not enough of the last. The emphasis is on Webster the patriot, as in the subtitle, and not on his personality or his dictionary. There is little of the inner man to be found in these pages. Nor is there much about how he went about the process that created that lasting testament, the dictionary. Those years occupy a small part of the book. Of course, no book can do everything, and I learned a lot from it. My thanks to the author.

This book from a major New York City publisher has had a big push. It pops up on web sites, newspaper review pages, NPR programs, and more.

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I took the bait, remembering how much fun reading ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ (2003) by Lynn Truss was. Inspired by reading that I tried Jacques Barzun’s ‘Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers’ (2001), and it, too, was entertaining and enlightening, but much heavier going, and at about page 50 I cut Jack loose. It was too much! It was like getting an assignment back from Miss Moses in junior high school drenched in the Red Sea of ink flooding over each page. (The name has been changed to protect the guilty.) She did not know when to quit and neither did Jack.

In ‘Between you & me’ the usual suspects appeared in the lineup. Among them were the evil twins Who and Whom, the hyphen, and the serial comma.

Who is on first? That is the nominative case. To whom did I give the keys? That is the accusative case (aka dative case). Got it? The doer is nominative and the done to is accusative. With me? It gets more complicated with noun groups and compounds, but I left the train before that. Their cousin, possessive case, Whose is best left for the advanced course.

The hyphen is just too hard for me. Compound nouns seldom take it but the words rendered as a compound adjective must. The boarding house fell down. But the boarding-house fire was bad. See? Sort of, but not for long. It turns out Herman Melville’s whale was Moby Dick but his book about Moby Dick was Moby-Dick. Sit down and think about that. Then there is breaking words over lines with hyphens. Is it at the first syllable. the first pair of consonants, or at the first meaningful break? Eng-land or En-gland or Eng-land. Two out of three? Grammar does not accept such populist methods of decision-making (or is that ‘decision making').

My favourite is the serial comma which I learned way back in Hastings on the Platte to call the Oxford comma; so called because it was prescribed by the Oxford University Press, which was regarded along the Platte as the highest court for punctuation, though patriotism required Noah Webster’s spelling. The Oxford comma is that one before ‘and’ at the end of series, as in ‘eats, shoots, and leaves.’ This by the way illustrates one of the features of John Stuart Mill’s rule-utilitarianism. That last comma is not always necessary but it is best to include it because it is too time-consuming to decide if it is needed in this or that instance and that decision may be mistaken. Just follow the rule, and include it.

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I have enlivened many dinner parties by bringing up the Oxford comma, discovering that some people invest much of themselves in that little squiggle, the ‘,’ and their cool, detached, and cynical demeanour slips entirely when it is bruited. People who yawn at important topics like man’s inhumanity to man, spitting by baseball players, or coal-seam gas, roll-up their sleeves for Indian wrestling when the serial comma is mentioned. (I feel free to say ‘man’s’ inhumanity to ‘man’ in the masculine since men are the principle culprits.) Defending the serial comma, I have alienated some guests who went away muttering never to return!

Back to Norris, there was a very informative and amusing aside on Noah Webster’s several efforts to create an American language, stimulated in equal measure by his patriotism and rationality. No less a figure than George Washington encouraged him in that endeavour. He had successes and he had failures. The ‘ou’ passed out of most American use and he made the ‘z’ do a lot more work than it did across the Atlantic, and, animated by the egalitarian spirit, he called it by its right name ‘zee’ and not that snobbish ‘zed.’ If it looks like a zee, acts like a zee, sounds like a zee, then call is ‘zee.’

Webster’s failures may outnumber his successes. His multiple efforts to match sound values to sight did not always carry the day, e.g., ‘cloke’ for ‘cloak’ and many of the same ilk died in the pages of his lexicography. I have resolved to read a biography of this Webster (and maybe one day Daniel Webster, too).

It was also an eye-opener to learn that any dictionary can take the name of Webster, and several have. But an heir to Noah always bears the name Merriam because the brothers Merriam bought the rights from the widow Webster when Noah died, and that company has continued to publish it. A dictionary titled ‘Internationl Websters’ or ‘Websters New’ is unlikely to have anything to do with the founder, Noah. I turned to my reference shelf and was glad to see that mine is a Merriam. I am now armed against such infiltrators in the future.

There was also a poignant moment when Norris quoted from a hand-written letter Jacqueline Kennedy sent to Richard Nixon in reply to his note of condolence when Jack was murdered to show how emotion is conveyed by punctuation. More importantly, to this observer it confirmed once again that Jackie was a higher being.

Emily Dickinson haunts the pages. Her poems, written privately like a diary, have presented editors and analysts a lifetime of challenges since she relied almost exclusively on the dash (—) for terminal punctuation, sometimes straight and level, sometime upward ascending, and sometimes downward descending, and some times wiggly. That combines with her very poor penmanship has created the space for many learned seminars to interpret her intentions and how best to convey them. When I read her poems (Saturday mornings at 8:00) I was unaware of that (and much else). Signing up for a class that met on Saturday at 8:00 am seemed like a good idea when I registered one semester as an undergraduate, so I did. By 9:00 am I would have knocked off another credit and have the day ahead. That was the plan. The reality was that it never seemed like a good idea on Saturday morning at 7:00 am.

I was impressed by the many editorial stages through which a ‘New Yorker” manuscript, once accepted, passes en route to the glossy page. The effort is great; the division of labor is elaborate; and the care is microscopic. Yet the product is largely ephemeral compared to the hubris that creates it.The elephant brings forth the mouse, a phrase I learned in Thailand when visiting Chulalongkorn University, meaning a great effort for a small result.

New Yorker cover.jpg

The difference between copyediting non-fiction and fiction was most interesting. It presents many challenges that have never crossed my mind when reading William Faulkner or John Updike. The details are many but perhaps the best illustration is that difference between the spoken and written language. That difference is a tension in fiction, whereas in non-fiction it is a rule. The imperative in fiction is let the author’s voice sound. Updike must sound like the prissy perfectionist and Ivy-League graduate he is and Faulkner must sound like the uneducated backwoodsman he is. But, yes there is a ‘but’ coming and it is a sizeable one, another thing I never considered.

If it appears in the ‘New Yorker’ does that henceforth make it right? If the magazine publishes one of Faulkner’s malapropisms, e.g., ‘most all’ for ‘almost all,’ will that cause its lemming-like readers all use that neo-logism? That the responsibility the ‘New Yorker’ bears in its self-assigned role as arbiter of United States English. [Sound of fife and drum.] Believe it or not, Ripley, decisions over punctuation at the ‘New Yorker’ are made against that national standard, and authors like Richard Ford have been subjected to editorial correspondence of some volume arguing over commas, what else?

By the way, getting that hyphen in ‘neologism’ above was a head-on struggle with automatic correct. Norris comments more than once on the habit of autocorrect to change things it ought not to change and the struggles at the ‘New Yorker’ to devise an in-house system to let it be itself. Regrettably nowhere does she discuss how it is that autocorrect got like that. Is it nature or nurture? Would remediation help?

I found no discussion of the relationship of quotation marks to punctuation, an old pet peeve of mine. I solved years ago, inspired by Mr Lloyd in high school, by opting for what I now know to be a Millian (as in John Stuart) solution by putting the punctuation inside the quotation marks to keep it tidy. I see this is common in North American publications and seldom seen in British publications. The lucky ones will not know what I am talking about.

Like all pedants I have bones to pick. Norris uses direct address, ‘you,’ frequently. Ugh. She also goes to considerable lengths more than once to use the F-word. Most of all there is that title. No, the ‘me’ is right in the accusative, but what about that ampersand? She spares not a word for ‘&’ which I revile in anything but grocery lists. The dentist says I grind my teeth, well I know why! Really, I expected better of the 'New Yorker!'

I have treated all this with amusement but inside, I am very glad that someone takes the language seriously enough to work that hard at it. Why? Because most people do not, and the people I have in mind are authors and editors, not just teenagers who cannot be bothered.

There was a time when even Disney films cared about the language. Who can forget that touching scene in ‘The Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) when the latter explains to the former that a ‘dog lover’ without a hyphen is a dog. I remember this vividly because Miss Moses was overjoyed after it opened at the Rivoli on Second Street. She positively glowed, unlike the glower that was the norm on Monday mornings, Tuesday mornings, Wednesday… [etc.] and that was so unusual there was much comment among we grammarians, mostly by stolen glances and wrinkled frontal lobes, and some pinching to see if this was reality or a dream.

Norris.jpg Mary Norris

Like most books rooted in the ‘New Yorker,’ it is snappy, breezy, and a 60-page article puffed up into hardcovers. While the meandering introduction is easy to read, I did not see the point of the recollection of dairy work, nor was it clear to me from the start what the purpose of the book was, though Norris is an amusing and informative companion for trip, the destination was never named.

In the absence of a higher purpose I read it as a memoir of her life and times as a copyeditor for the slickest of the slick magazines. The lustre of the ‘New Yorker’ will never dim in my eyes because it published Hannah Arendt when no other magazine would. Credit William Shawn with that.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has many claims to fame, but this book is mainly and obsessively concerned with one of his claims to infamy as a betrayer of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth who overreached himself. Essex was patron to Bacon’s client. It is a study of the formation and transmission of Bacon’s reputation with periodic rehabilitations and denunciations.

BAcon bok cover.jpg

Insofar as the book is a study of Bacon’s reputation, there are comparisons to Niccolò Machiavelli. Like Machiavelli’s contemporary Thomas More, Bacon was both a scholar and a politician, as was Machiavelli. For all three of these men the ease with which erroneous assertions become fact by repetition is remarkable and once realised causes me to wonder what else in received option is equally erroneous.

To blacken Bacon’s name takes only a few words. To rebut and refute that assertion takes many pages to detail context, to infer intention, to shift testimony of eye-witnesses and so on. Believe me, Nieves Mathews is just the woman for the job of filling pages, though she complains more than once that she has too few pages to do the material justice. I took these asides to be references to the publisher’s insistence that the book end … sometime. She complains that Ignatius Donnelly’s book on Francis Bacon was too short to do justice to the subject. Too short at 900+ pages! See what I mean?

Essex is well known to anyone with even a slight knowledge of Queen Elizabeth. He was an attractive young man who captured the Queen's interest and held it, despite some appalling behaviour. His indiscipline combined with hubris of considerable proportions such that he put himself forward for all manner of things, and he got some of them. He was promoted several levels above his competence. Thus was he sent to Ireland as the head of an army to quell the fractious Irish. For most of that campaign, at great expense to the public purse, he disported, drank Ireland dry, left no wench go unmolested, wrote piteous letters to the Queen lying about his noble efforts on her behalf, and knighted seventy (70) of his drinking buddies. That escapade alone, and it was not unique, gave his enemies ammunition for a lifetime.

Bacon counselled moderation to this wastrel with a patience that bespeaks the lack of alternatives. Bacon was Essex’s man and he did his best to help him. Of course, Essex knew no bounds and when his plot against the Queen foundered Bacon was safely clear of the fallout. Like many others in politics, Essex contended that his plot of seize the Queen was to protect her from others with sinister designs on her. Perhaps because even the dim Essex realised Bacon would not play, Essex made no effort to involve him in the plot. Or, more likely, Essex regarded Bacon as unimportant. None of the copious correspondence produced as evidence against Essex named Bacon as conspirator. Nonetheless he was guilty by association in the minds of many then and since.


The story is not as clear-cut as summarised above. There have since been apologists and historians who see in Essex a victim of other forces. In that light, Bacon figures as a false friend who either betrayed Essex by revealing the plot, did too little to stop Essex’s mad scheme, or did too little to reconcile the Queen him. For the Essex-apologists Bacon’s treason to Essex is proven by fact that Bacon survived the drama and Essex did not.

Bacon’s reputation as a savant and public servant was sound for two hundred years until Baron Macaulay (1800-1859), wrote a hundred page essay on him, while resident in Calcutta during his tenure on the Indian Supreme Court. That got my attention because this same Macauley made a valiant attempt at about the same time to rescue Machiavelli’s reputation.

Back-and-forth through these 592 pages Mathews refutes every word Macaulay wrote and some he thought of writing but did not and still others he might have written. It is as thorough as a very expensive legal brief and just about as interesting to read. She is not one to summarise evidence when it can be paraphrased in full over pages and pages.

Macaulay started an anti-Bacon trend which she details from sources I never heard of but then I did not know his reputation had ever been blackened. She quotes letters to editors from literary magazines in 1891 to prove the point. Did I say ‘obsessive’ above? I did. It is. The thoroughness is that a PhD dissertation but it is not that, as I discovered when I tried to find out more about the author. For that see below.

Every card has been played against Bacon, she says, including the speculation that he was homosexual. My, my another comparison to Machiavelli who was accused of this practice by some plotting his downfall.

She also has a chapter on Bacon’s reputation in France, Germany, and Italy. No stone is left unturned. Among these enlightened Continental people he has long been recognised as a savant without equal.

‘I know of no other Renaissance writer who is so regularly vilified,’ said Brian Vickers (qv., p. 406). Brian should get out more. Try Machiavelli.

I did love her description of a Penguin edition of Bacon’s ‘Essays’ as aimed at discouraging students from ever reading them with the many derogatory things said of the man and his work in the editor’s preface. There is a student’s guide to Plato that is similar. Its editor, an Oxbridge don of high repute, is so plainly bored with Plato that he ends up making him boring. Penguin editions are cheap and available, but they are not always the best.

Overall this book is combative, sometimes polemical, but the subject matter saves it. Bacon was an interesting man and so were his times. Though it remains a mystery to me why Yale University Press published it. There are many mysteries out there, Scully. Another is the gentle review in the ‘American Historical Review,’ which went so far as to praise the writing style. Sometimes one suspects that reviews have not read all the way through a book.

Bacon’s claims to our attention are many. Along with several others he has been granted title to the plays and poems to which William Shakespeare put his name. Others have credited him with writing most of the works attributed to Michel de Montaigne, and still others say he wrote 'Don Quixote' in his spare time. True. He held two major public offices in the turbulent world of the Tudor and then Stuart courts: Attorney-General and Chancellor of the Exchequer. In addition, he served in parliament for many years. He articulated the scientific method, or at least, empiricism as a foundation for science, including particularly experimentation. His personal private secretary for some time was Thomas Hobbes, that giant of political theory. His personal physician was William Harvey. He knew a lot of big brains. Moreover, Bacon’s 40-page book the ‘New Atlantis,’ gave rise to cult of the Rosicrucians. However, some readers will be disappointed to know that he has nothing to do with the food of the same name.

The Child Bride gave me this book for Christmas some years ago. I tried to read it then and found it hard going. Feeling guilty after leaving it to ripen on shelf, when my eye fell on it recently I took it up to try again. Hard going. It is a specialist monograph based one extensive research into the time and place written without concession to an avocational reader (me), and the prose is leaden. Still it did get me thinking about Francis Bacon.


The author’s full name is Nieves Hayat de Madariaga Archibald, Mrs. Mathews (1917–2003). This from the Wikipedia stub: 'She was also deeply influenced by the works of Immanuel Velikovsky. In her earlier years, 1956, she wrote a crime novel, 'She Died Without Light'. She was inspired to do the Bacon book by Chandra Mohan Jain (1931-1990), also known as Acharya Rajneesh from the 1960s onwards, as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.' Her guru told her to do it. If Velikovsky is unknown, my advice, is to leave it that way.

The volume offers a selection of this prolific writer’s oeuvre, poems, essays, plays, short stories, excerpts from his novels, forwards and prefaces he wrote for the books of others.

Warren reader.jpg

Warren (1905-1989) wrote one of the best novels ever, especially for political junkies, ‘All the King’s Men’ (1947); three or more times butchered by Hollywood, it remains evergreen despite the assaults by the Tinsel Town pigmies.

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The opening of that novel strikes an hypnotic chord in which the rest of the story unfolds. Marvellous.

Most of the items in this collection were composed between 1940 and 1965. He was Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress in the 1970s and his greatest fame lies in that world, poetry, amply vindicated by the poems included in this volume, each a small study of nature or humanity.

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Like many others of the South his greatest challenge was the obvious one of slavery past and racism present. As an undergraduate he defended segregation, as did his professors and peers at Vanderbilt University, including that other remarkable Southern poet, Allen Tate, but Warren grew out of it and quickly, unlike Tate. Warren’s short monograph ‘Segregation’ (1956), included between these covers in its entirety, offers his personal bildungsroman along with penetrating insights into the manifold evils segregation spawned. Though this account lacks the hellfire and brimstone of his comrade William Faulkner’s many denunciations of the racism, being more cerebral and measured, yet it strikes hard, sure, and deep. His reference to the remark attributed to a Southern plantation wife says it all, but so succinctly and so swiftly that I had to read it twice to get it. ‘Mr. Lincoln freed me of slavery and I thank him for it.’ (Either you get it or you don't.)

Among the pleasures in this volume is a short but layered appreciation of the nineteen novels of William Faulkner. Faulkner’s many failures and weaknesses, on Warren’s telling, were essential to Faulkner’s astonishing successes and strengths. The man was whole and so is his work, and that is how we must take it.

The same themes run through his commissioned monograph ‘The Legacy of the Civil War’ (1961), included here. There is too much in it to summarise but to this reader the most striking passage is when Warren asks readers to imagine 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 girl scouts, licensing hissing mobs to burn churches, sanctioning lynch parties, ignoring rape and pillage for sport, and praising masked men hiding in the dark.

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.jpg In a classroom at Yale University where he taught for years.

The wonders of nature and humanity remain many and varied, but the sense of loss and disconnection is but palpable.

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.

Listening to John Stuart Mill’s autobiography reminded me of a story by Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), a pioneer in existentialist fiction and philosophy in Spain. That name by the way is Basque and though ‘Unamuno’ clearly means ‘one world’ it is not from any known language. In this as in other ways, he was one of a kind. He wrote fiction, poetry, drama, and essays.

Unamuno_Meurisse_1925.jpg Miguel Unamuno in 1925.

When Mill talks about losing faith in unified and theoretical solutions to human problems, it echoes Unamuno’s story ‘Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr’ of the eponymous priest who loses his faith in God and yet continues to minister with continued dedication to ease the lives of his parishioners. It is a very moving story of self-sacrifice, told in a slow and subdued manner over sixty (60) pages. The scene in the confessional when he, the priest, confesses to the young penitent Angelica his loss of faith is remarkable. Readers will long remember Don Emmanuel and his daily struggle to act as though life has meaning.

The second story is ‘The Madness of Doctor Montarco’ which is social criticism, and daring for the time and place. Montarco is a fine physician and as a pastime he writes and publishes in newspapers and magazines ever more farfetched stories which we might label as fantasy or science fiction. His patients begin to doubt his ability and reliability because of these stories, despite the evident fact, attested to by other doctors, that he is treating them very, very well. The patients lose confidence in him and desert his practice, and as this happens the stories he writes become ever more bizarre and disturbing to readers, until he finally enters an asylum to live out his remaining days a confused and broken man. It is a story about the fate of those who do not conform to the narrow channels of the Catholic and conservative society of Spain which rejects this re-born Don Quixote. This is a twenty (20) pages story.

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The title story is a short novel of 176 pages, ‘Abel Sanchez’ in which Unamuno tells anew the tale of Cain and Abel in contemporary Spain circa 1930. It is a marvellous study of the jealously, envy, and madness of Don Joaquín (Cain), another doctor, who hates his best friend Abel Sanchez for all his apparently easy success in life and love, and Joaquin plots his downfall. I read the first sixty (60) pages in a gulp. Abel is a painter whose work acquires much recognition and financial success and leads to his marriage to Joaquín’s cousin, Helena who had earlier refused Joaquin's proposal. He, the man of science, who saves lives is shadowed by this frivolous artist and trumped by him at every turn. Yet such is Unamuno’s artistry that Joaquín is largely a sympathetic character, as are Abel and Helena. That is the tragedy, there are no villains here and yet there is destined to be a collision.

By the way all three of these works were put on the Index Librorium Prohibitorum, forbidden to Catholics.

The tattered copy I read was an undergraduate text from my college days for which I paid $1.25 in 1967. I have read and re-read it several times since.

The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera exiled Unamuno to the Canary Islands from when he escaped to live just across the border in France. HIs writings were considered incendiary, including the works of fiction above. He returned when the Popular Front government took office in 1936, though one can hardly describe him as a liberal, a socialist, a communist, or an anarchist. He was a staunch Catholic but one who could see the reality behind the curtain. In any event when the Civil War came he denounced it very publicly from the lectern in Salamanca where he was rector of the university with members of the junta sitting in the audience and on the stage while he spoke. It must have been electrifying to see this hunched and weary old man challenge the Goliaths in their gold braided uniforms and sidearms. He was nearly lynched on the spot.

Confrontation-Millan-Astray-1936.jpg Passing through an angry mob of Nationalists.

He died a few weeks later. Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered even earlier that year, he being another genius of Spanish letters. There are now monuments to both of these writers, but none to the men who killed them.

Reading Nicholas Capaldi’s biography put me in mind of John Stuart Mill’s ‘Autobiography’ and I found I had it on Audible already, so the rest was easy, well not quite. See below.

Although his voice was a clarion for social equality and personal responsibility, generations of students have since been taught to despise him as a progenitor of evil liberalism. Sounds odd I know but since the 1970s jaded intellectuals have made careers biting the hand - liberalism - that feds them, having insufficient imagination to do anything creative themselves. When these pygmies are long gone, John Stuart Mill’s books will still be read; that will be the judgement of history.

Mill started to write the ‘Autobiography’ when he a nervous breakdown early in life and then went back to it later. In addition, Harriet Taylor had a hand in editing it. Many PhDs have been earned trying to figure out when Mill wrote portions of it, and what Taylor took out or put in. The Audible version I listened spared me this detail.

The early chapters are a description of the childhood of this prodigy with an emphasis on his father’s method of educating him. It is exhausting to listen to the account, the more so knowing, as he must surely have himself known in retrospect, that most of it was meaningless. Prodigious, yes, but not lasting or meaningful. He may have read in Greek Plato’s ‘Apology’ at five years of age, but he did not understand it. So, too, with much else in this force-fed education, which was all work and no play everyday for years on end.

Mill autobiography cover.jpg

One unintended consequence of this gruelling education was that Mill was a Galaxy-class nerd. He grew up in a hothouse that he seldom left until he was a late teenager when he went out of the house to go to the East India Company where he worked for his father. He was in his father’s shadow for much of his life everyday, socially, intellectually, morally. It is painfully apparent to an auditor of the ‘Autobiography’ that Mill had no friends. He had peers; he had colleagues; he had associates; he had debaters and opponents. But he had no friends, which he as much as says more than once. Part of the reason for that is that he had no interests but the unforgiving logical analysis of important matters learned from and constantly reinforced by his father. This is not the person to sit next to at dinner. He could debate the great issues of the day but he could not make small talk, or show any interest in pictures of a seat-mate’s children. A cold fish, I would guess. Ready to beat you to death in argument and inept in passing the butter. That he never played any boyish games meant he had zero physical dexterity, hence the comment about the butter.

Chapter Five (5) is superb. In it Mill reflects on his many and varied experiences, and knocks off some bon mots as only he could. He paraphrases Thomas Hobbes’s remark that ‘When reason is against a man, he retaliates by being against reason’ which made me think of all those deniers (climate change, Catholic Church pedophilia, Holocaust, etc.). I listened to this while walking the dog, pushing pedals at the gym, or taking the train, so I could not take notes or mark-up the text.

HIs conclusion in this chapter is that political theory is best confined to a few principles which would allow inferences to be drawn in particular circumstances, rather than trying to lay down a set of single ideal institutions. Like Miguel Unamuno’s story about Don Emmanuel, Mill lost faith in a singularly unified theory and recognised the inescapable influence of context. (Unamuno’s story made an impression upon me, Don Emmanuel is a village priest who loses faith in god. Read it.) Under the influence of Alexis de Tocqueville, Mill wanted the deductions to be based on facts, hence I referred to inferences above.

Mill Statue.jpg John Stuart Mill, London, The Embankment

Likewise, Mill concluded that perfect political institutions were of no value in themselves. The underlying social order was decisive. The most perfect political institutions would be hollow shells unless the society valued and embraced them for their purposes. To make a comparison, the church may be full, but do they really believe? Did they act like Christians everyday, or only for a couple of hours on Sunday?

Mill once fancied himself ‘a reformer of the world,’ but during his depression, he asked himself this question: If all the material and moral ideals he espoused were realised in the world, would he then be happy? No, he answered. He concluded that happiness if not an end in itself, but rather a by-product of purposeful activity. Both trip and arrival are important.

There are some odd things about the ‘Autobiography’ to be sure. Mill never mentions his mother though there are many, many references to his father who died when Mill was thirty (30). It would seem his father had those nine (9) children all by himself. James Mill was a formidable fellow but he was no hermaphrodite. While there are only a few early references to Mill’s work for the East India Company. Yet Mill specialists have some strange stories about his habits at work.

This review affords an opportunity to correct some errors I made in the review of Capaldi’s biography. It was not Bentham that introduced Mill to poetry. Several peers led him to poetry. I also said he was called a Mechanical Man, not quite, but rather a Manufactured Man by some who found the analytical engine of his mind artificial and inhuman.

I found this Audible reading to be unsympathetic. It sounded almost mechanical, phrases of equal length and inflection followed one another without regard to the content. Perhaps that is partly a fault of Mill’s writing style, which is replete with dependent, relative, and embedded clauses with asides and comparisons which makes it precise but it has no flow.

Not quite easy I said, because Audible kept dropping out, asking me to log in again, resetting the book mark, and so on. None of that is easy when using the iPhone while dog walking. No doubt I brought this on myself, somehow. But it was annoying, and a lesser man might have quit.

Savonarola (1452-1498) was a critical figure in the history of the city of Firenze (Italia). Born to a comfortable family he learned Latin as preparation for a career in law or medicine. But a dream when he was twenty (20) convinced him to renounce the world and take orders in a Dominican monastery. His sleep then, as throughout his life, was troubled, perhaps by ulcers, speculates Ridolfi. In this troubled sleep he feared for his immortal soul because, well, he was a young man and his thoughts often turned to young women.

Savonarola prfile.jpg

Giro never did anything by halves. He left home at night leaving a letter behind and entered the Church never to leave. Thereafter he had little contact with his parents or siblings. Then his apocalyptic thoughts turned from himself to all mankind.

Though well educated he had a thick accent from his region, Ferrara, north east of Bologna. This marked him as an outsider wherever he went. He was holier than thou and was sent from place to place by his Order (Dominican) trying to find a place where he fitted in, did something useful, and was content. He had few chances to preach but when he did the message was repentance. He was assigned to a monastery in Fiesole just outside Florence. This building is now part of the European Universities Institute where I spent a semester once upon a time.

With his Ferreranese accent, his gloomy message, and his blunt manners he did not fit into Florentine society at the birth of Renaissance where the emphasis fell on elaborate manners, rich clothing, refined tastes in religious art, sensual music, and optimism about the future at the time of Lorenzo il Magnifico (a conventional honorific that was descriptive in this case). After a brief residence, Giro was sent away on other duties, but he later returned. In the meanwhile he had an epiphany, being called by God to scourge the world of sin, he said. A big job for one humble monk but he shouldered it. He began to preach with a newfound confidence, speaking slowly and in simple phrases, though always in Latin, he denounced arbitrary taxes that deprived humble people of the means of honouring god by giving alms. He denounced those who lavished money on useless trinkets, i.e., fine clothes, paintings, sculptures, etc. in the city where Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were hard at work, and Filippo Brunelleschi had made that great dome.

Savonarola_monument,_Ferrara.jpg Statue of Savonarola in full flight, Ferrara.

His populist message found a constituency and his sermons attracted ever more auditors. Lorenzo tried to get him re-assigned elsewhere but the letter was lost in the Italian postal service where millions have followed them. (I got my letter of appointment to EUI about ten months after I returned from my tenure there. Thank goodness for faxes in those days). Larry then tried hiring some competition, and brought in some other, more showy, and acceptable preachers to no avail. He also tried to coax Giro into a more reasonable approach by asking a few local intellectuals to befriend him, which they did and both were won over by Giro's sincerity and intellect. Hmm. He finally tried money but Giro gave it to charity. Then, considering it all small potatoes anyway, Lorenzo ceded the field.

In Milan Il Moro had invited the French King Charles VIII to support his rule, and Charles found Italy congenial. There was no match for the French army and King Charles, like some many other later tourists, found the shopping excellent. His army would appear, and whole towns and cities would surrender everything to him, gold altar pieces, oil paintings, rich silks, musical instruments, tapestries, fur coats, chests of gold, and a good number of women. He shipped home tons of boodle to stock up the Louvre.

Spain had a matrimonial alliance with Naples and soon enough these two incipient nation-states fought out their war in Italy over the next generation. The micro Italian city-states made shifting alliances with each other and France or Spain as seemed opportune. Venice watched with one hand on the sword, while the Pope in Rome schemed and plotted in hyperdrive. Cesare Borgia supported by his father, the Pope, seized his opportunity to create a kingdom in Romagna. Think of Afghanistan today, that is the picture.

When Charles appeared near Florence, Piero de Medici who had succeeded Lorenzo set a record in the speed of his surrender thus forever sacrificing the support of Florentines who, being traders, expected him at least to bargain. Charles was not at all sure that Piero could deliver the goods, and bided his time. Then the Signoria sent a delegation of four to plead with the king to spare the city. Because of his perfect Christianity, Savonarola was one of the four. He found common ground with Charles by appealing to his Christianity and Charles spared the city. Giro was hailed as a hero. It is more complicated than that but it seemed to everyone that Giro had saved the day.

Giro had also had visions and predicted the future a few times, and enough happened to make the predictions credible. His direct line to God seemed very real. No wonder then that on occasion his sermons would attract 15,000 people. He was a celebrity by word of mouth. Crowds would gather to watch him walk between buildings, hoping that by proximity some of his divine grace would come to them.

During a calm period, the elders of Florence asked his advice (remember that direct line to the divine) on government. He suggested a process of generating and evaluating alternatives that results in three constituent bodies. What is impressive is that he suggested a process and did not simply say do this or that.

He also counselled moderation and clemency when hot heads wanted to exact vengeance on the followers of the Medici. His many enemies, including Medici loyalists, tried to trick him into making more prophecies but he proved astute in not biting. His oracular statements were few, making them all the more mysterious and remarkable. His fame spread throughout Italy. A Venetian ambassador was instructed particularly to observe and report on his activities.

Savonarola seems to have established some kind of relation to King Charles VIII of France during the latter's several Italian campaigns, which Giro used to protect Florence. This elevated his status still more, but not with the Mediceans (though King Charles was reserving his options by tolerating the current Medici pretender in his entourage).

Factions in Florence rejected Savonarola’s castigations and threats of damnation and petitioned Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) to reassign, recall, criticise, and finally excommunicate him. The Pope went through the motions at first but did not follow through, until…. King Charles threatened Rome again, then the Pope tried to coerce Florence into joining the Venetian League against France and if it did, then he would tolerate Savonarola. If it did not, he would excommunicate him. This see-sawed for a while and further divided opinion Florence.

The executive of the Florentine government was elected every two months, and it oscillated both as to the emphasis placed on Savonarola and its support for him. In June the executive petitioned the Pope to recall Giro, and two months later another, new executive proposed his sainthood. Back and forth it went.

Meanwhile, Savonarola - becoming more extreme and apocalyptic - challenged believers to sacrifice their most precious belongings at Lent, not just forgo their use (say by draping statues or turning paintings to the wall which had sufficed previously). This happened in two successive Lents. The second time the pyre of goods (silk clothes, paintings, statuary, musical instruments, sheet music, books, manuscripts, etc) was so impressive than the Venetian ambassador offered 20,000 gold ducats for it, but Savonarola refused. That is an enormous sum. He must have been biding for the city of Venice because no individual had that many gold ducats. Earlier Giro might have taken the dosh to succour the poor, widows, orphans, cripples, the sick, but he had become more and more obsessed with symbols in the mystified world he inhabited.

His sermons also become more hellfire and brimstone, and he became much more agitated, voluble, and loud when he preached and began to pound the banister on the pulpit in castigating his congregation. In the streets there were clashes between his supporters and opponents resulting in injury and death. When King Charles VIII lost a couple of battles, Giro’s big brother friend no longer intimidated his local opponents.

The Pope’s efforts to discipline Giro got nowhere, but he wanted Florence, perhaps the richest city in Italy at the time, on his side and against the French. The last card was to threaten to excommunicate all of Florence. While many Florentines individually might have agreed with Giro that the Pope, being irredeemably corrupt, had no divine mandate to do this and laughed it off personally, it also meant an interdict on Florence so that no Christian would trade and do business with it. That is, it threatened the livelihood of the city and the fortunes of those who thrived on trade and business, which was most of them. That was serious!

Savonarola was also increasing erratic, even rejecting as evil sinners those who tried to help or protect him.

The Pope finally took more enegetic action, but the Signoria beat him to it. Savonarola was arrested and tried as a heretic, tortured repeatedly over several weeks, until brought to a point where he would confess anything, which he did. He was then hanged and burned in a public spectacle in the Piazza della Signora, where we many tourists have admired the replica of Michelangelo's David. In all likelihood Niccolò Machiavelli, about 28 at the time, saw this. He has a few words to say about unarmed prophets later in 'Il Principe.'

Giro published a lot of his sermons, and his acolytes acted as amanuenses at times and wrote his words down. To true believers he was a saint in all but name, and they spread his fame. Visitors to Florence looked at the art work and at Giro. He was also a prodigious letter writer and many remain.

Martin Luther was at it up north during this time, and he is the obvious comparison. Giro was less interested in denouncing the corruption of the Papacy than in saving souls by abnegation. He was also less egotistical than Luther, at least as portrayed in Erik Erikson’s biography ‘Young Man Luther’ (1958).

There is no doubt that Ridolfi’s sentiments lies with Savonarola. He smooths over some of Giro’s behaviour which I have read about in other studies of the time and place, e.g., he minimizes the bonfires of the vanities at Lent. Giro really whipped believers up to do this, and he encouraged them to break into public buildings and private houses and steal valuables to be burned, and no matter how much was burned it was no enough.

These days Giro is known to many tweeners as a character in Assassin's Creed. To find out more about that, ask any 12-year old boy.

This English translation is minus the footnotes, though the text makes many references to sources and archives, these cannot be traced with this edition.

In which Skid tells the story of his life, or a part thereof, to our nameless narrator who is trying to finish his second, long over due, novel, i.e., Basilières’s alter ego. Though a work of fiction it has some of the layout of nonfiction. There is a preface, and the text has footnotes that supplement the dialogue. The setting is contemporary Toronto.

Free Man cover.jpg

Skid’s efforts are hindered by a Lem, a shape-shifting monkey from three hundred (300) years in the future. Yep! Lem tries to convince Skid that he is needed in the future. To do that Lem pops up at very inopportune times. Lem does that, pops up.

In the Preface our deuce Basilières makes it clear that he has laboured under expectations for a second novel since his marvellous first one (‘Black Bird’ in 2004), and that he had given up but would pass along this story from his friend Skid. Skid works in a bookstore and lusts after the female employees and customers, but being a terminally inept nerd he gets no further.

It sounds rather like Basilières himself, who works in a Toronto bookstore….

When a writer, or anyone else for that matter, speaks of the expectations - demands - of customers I am reminded of that Stephen King story ‘Misery’ about the writer trapped by a fan and chained to typewriter to produce more stories, and getting whacked by a baseball bat if the stories are not up to standard! Whack!

Basilieres.jpg Michel Basilières

Some authors are one book authors, i have heard, and perhaps that applies here. Sympathise as I do for the angry and demanding god Expectations, the novel bears no relation to the exhilarating ‘Black Bird.’ I am turning the pages through it in honour of that first novel. Let’s hope, however, that getting ‘A Free Man’ out might stimulate Basilières to stick to the keyboard, and try again.

Jules Romains, 'Men of Goodwill' is the longest novel ever, running to twenty-seven (27) titles. Yes, 27! They have all but disappeared. Few libraries have the whole set, and finding a set to purchase was a long chase for me. They appeared in an English translation in the 1930s. Each volume contains two novels, apart from the last.

In this, volume 1, there are two novels: 'The Sixth of October' and 'Quinette's Crime.'

men og good will.jpeg

Romains's description at the start of Paris awakening, stirring, moving on a working day is wonderful. He was a believer in some kind of collective consciousness in crowds and he sees this in patterns, recurrences, and actions and reactions on streets, in the Metro, on buses, in employees clocking in, bicycle riders at a traffic light, trucks backing into loading docks at les Grand Magazins.

Monsieur Quinette spontaneously hides a murderer and involves himself in the crime for no other reason than boredom, and because he is, he thinks, so much smarter than anyone else. He misleads the police, extracts the dosh, but finds Leheuday, the murderer, a thug and a loose cannon. He decides to off Leheuday, nick the dosh, and perhaps take Leheuday's rather dim girlfriend, while leading the police on a merry dance. Deciding is slow work and his last scenes with Leheuday are interminable. But in the end, bang, bang, and he is dead.

It takes Quinette both volumes to shoot Leheudey who murdered an old women in the opening pages. In another of the several threads started in these opening volumes, the students Jallez and Jerphanion meet and they continue through the remaining volumes I think.

Jalllez and Jerphanion become friends, and the Minister of State Gurau discovers a plot against him. He is another who thinks he is smarter than those around him.

The street scenes are well described. The interior monologues of Quinette and Gurau are well done but they go on too long.

Jules-Romains_3557.pjpeg.jpg Jules Romains, who broadcast for De Gaulle from New York.

The whole 27 volumes together comprise an encyclopaedia of Parisienne life -- the high and the low. It reads rather like an encyclopdia, earnest, accurate, detailed, and bloodless. Still the characters are differentiated in manner and speech as part of the ethnography of types and the descriptions of Paris are cinemagraphic.

An espionage thriller from a master story teller who conjures an atmosphere of melancholy from a few lines. Most of the story takes place in grey drizzle with characters who get by on 1500 calories a day, wearing paper thin coats in the unheated rooms of Occupied France in early 1942. They are Jews, bystanders, communists, socialists, citizens, refuges, unionists, journalists who get caught up in each others' schemes, some petty, some heroic.


The fear, the deprivations bring out the best and worst in people. Pretty Victorine in the travel agency sucks the Jews dry and then turns them in the Gestapo. A gendarme leaves the back door open while he goes to sharpen his pencil and the suspected resistant walks out.

The communists of FTP trust no one, certainly not each other. Students do half-baked, stupid things and get killed. These martyrs inspire others to do more stupid things, and so it goes. German reprisals grow in scale and scope. Life is the one, the only thing that is cheap and readily available.


The prose is laconic and spare. In this oppressed world no one has the time for long winded perorations, or for second thoughts. There is no food and hardly any clothing to describe. It meets the Elmore Leonard test. If it is there, then it is important. What is not there is unimportant.


I have read a few of his titles before, but I do find them so melancholic and so grim that there is little pleasure In reading them. It is clear that nothing good is going to happen. And nothing good does.

The answer to the title question is in the Iliad:

'The gods did this and spun the destruction of people
For the sake of the singing of men hereafter.'

Read on for an explanation.

I saw this title on an Amazon recommendation and bought it. My reaction is mixed. I learned something from it, to be sure, and I was reminded of other matters I had forgotten and that is all too the good. I will review some of that before turning to the vinegar in the mix.


The chapters on dating Homer and the Iliad reviewed the debates and evidence I had heard before as an undergraduate but also added a lot to it. Of course there are two issues in dating, one is the composition and the other is the event described in the Iliad. What was new to me here was both ancient and modern. The ancient part were excerpts from other ancient sources who commented on these two dates. The modern was the archeological finds that had not been ratified when I read the Iliad in college, one of which puts Homer himself a thousand years earlier than the received opinion of the 1960s! That reopens the question of the date of war he reported. Was it contemporary or many hundreds of years earlier still?

Then there is the recurrent question of Homer himself. Was he one person at a point in time, or was he several, each commenting on that big Asian land war, or several over time. Or was he the personification of a tradition of epic tales about a single war (or several wars, or a fictional war) in the way a Pop Music could be personified from fragmentary evidence so that a future archeologist might ask where Mr. Pop Music was born, how he managed to be so prolific....

The questions of dating and identity explain the differences between the Iliad with its rigourous hexameters and the varied measures in the Oyssesy, the obvious errors, the gaps, and the repetitions. One sample suffices, in the Iliad a named warrior is killed, his death detailed. Then a few score lines later he is back in battle! Homer nods, was the tag line.

The author does answer the title question although I am not sure he realises it when he quotes the lines above from the Iliad:

'The gods did this and spun the destruction of people
For the sake of the singing of men hereafter.'

To explain, the gods led the men into this war to create events worthy of an epic poem of the magnitude and grandeur of the Iliad. Wars there were many, cattle raids, clan vendettas, boundary disputes over grazing land, pirate raids to rape and pillage in a day or two, involving this tribe, that village, a Kingdom here or there. But the scope of the Iliad adds all of those up and doubles it. Greeks from Ithaca on the Adriatic Sea to the Peloponnese, to Euboea in the Aegean Sea come together in a massive expedition. Jason had one ship and became legend. Here were a hundred ships to make an epic. None of these men would have been remembered but for the war, well, not quite, but for the poet who afterwards made the war and them memorable.


Art is life and the purpose of life is art. That is what we learn from Homer. Without art to capture, articulate, crystalize, preserve, and communicate life we are sheep in the field who leave nothing behind but dung and bones. When the flesh is gone, the poetry remains. That is Homer's deepest meaning.

It is part of the genius of the Iliad is that it incorporates dissent, when the most enduringly famous warrior, the man at the centre of the Iliad, Achilles says he regrets it all. Famed as a warrior, slayer of men, many men, raper of women, many women, this same Achilles loved Briseis, loved Patroclus even more, weeps in the arms of Priam. This man of men is also a lover and loser. Fated, he knows. A preternatural warrior and an immature human being.

There were some omissions from the book, the foremost is some greater explanation of the origins of the texts we have. Does the Penguin Iliad trace back to...a complete Greek text on Egyptian papyrus? Is it the same original text that underlay Mathew Arnold's Iliad two hundred years ago? When and how did Homer come to medieval Europe? Was he a travelling companion of Plato and Aristotle when Lorenzo Medici commissioned Latin translation from Greek masterworks then known in Europe only by references in extent Roman works. Plato and Aristotle we know did not exist in complete Greek texts but rather in Arabic translations that had survived and then a thousand years later were back translated into New Testament Greek. Without a doubt there were errors in translation. What was Homer's path?

There is too much ME in the book. No doubt this personal element is an asset to some readers but not to this one. Knowing that the author thought of a passage from the Iliad when climbing the steps at...adds nothing and takes attention from the subject. There is a lot of this. Some has a thin justification in that he went to some of the places in Homer's books, but even so, who cares these millennia later. He is no Homer. Moreover, he did not go to the obvious place, Troy and makes no comment on it. By the way, reopening the dates as mentioned above might mean Heinrich Schliemann was right about which layer at the site was the Homeric one!

I also found the comparisons to other Bronze Age people a long bow, and likewise the comparison of the Greeks at Troy to twentieth Century gang behaviour tenuous and tendentious. It filled the pages which I went over lightly, very without learning anything.

Adam_Nicolson_1297119c.jpg Adam Nicolson

Many of the Bronze Age comparisons do not apply to the cosmopolitan, urban, artistically rich Trojans, and Nicholoson says that and then ignores it at other times. He generalises about Homer as though the Trojans were not there. Yet one of the beauties of the Iliad is that the poet does not take sides. Priam is majestic; Hector is noble; Andromache is stoic. These are the losers, the Asians. In contrast Agammenon is grasping; Achilles petulant; and Odyseuss is lazy. These are the winning Greeks, and no PhD has ever disputed that Homer was Greek and on the Greek side in some sense.

Stylistic irritations include direct address 'you' which I find distracting, a faux familiarity, and informal where the rigour of formality is the best support for exposition. There also seem to be some liberties taken or are they simple prejudices as when he gratuitously refers to 'the sterilities of Oakland California' on p. 74. There a few of these, shall we say, Bill Brysonisms: snide and superfluous remarks.

There are extensive notes but I rather think they were selected for fit not after analysis. There follows a long bibliography. I thank the author for both since I suppose it took a fight with the publisher to include these extras. That said, I judge them to be window dressing, not substance.

The ‘Crag’ is Castlecrag on Middle Harbour, Sydney, a jewel hidden in plain sight on a peninsula, there are no through roads and so no passing traffic. Thus it is not known to many locals, despite its rich, even unique, history.

It has two distinctions. First, it is one of the last places in metropolitan Sydney that Aboriginals lived in their traditional way into the 1920s. There is photograph evidence of that in the Mitchell Library archives on Macquarie Street. Second, it was home to Walter Burly Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, who created Canberra, the national capital, for more than a decade. This latter is the focus of the book under review.

The location, planning, and building of Canberra was a very large and lucrative political football, which was kicked and pulled in all directions. The main point relevant here is that there was an international design competition to plan Canberra, and the entry chosen by the selection committee had been submitted by Walter Burley Griffin of Chicago who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, as did Griffin’s wife Marion. Walter and Marion migrated to Australia to contribute to the building of Canberra, setting up headquarters in Melbourne in Chinatown.

In short order a kick of the political football tossed Walter and Marion off the project, though the overall conception remained theirs, as did the eponymous lake when it was finally built (does one built a lake?) in 1961, fifty years later.

They had established an architectural practice in Melbourne and occasionally visited Sydney to meet clients. At some point they saw the wilds of Castlecrag and decided to move there. They set up a business to develop the Crag in accordance with their own planning and architectural principles, designing and building houses, parks, an amphitheatre, an incinerator, and a hospital.

In 1926 when Canberra was declared open for business in a grand ceremony, the Griffins were not invited. That will sound familiar to many who have toiled in large organisations with neither corporate memory nor simple courtesy but replete with strategic plans and a branding campaign…..


Wendy Spathopoulos summarizes the story above, but concentrates on the Crag years, which she witnessed as a child. She writes very well, strikes a balanced tone, and offers the results of library research, archival burrowing, interviews, and personal recollections. It is a mixture, to be sure, but she pulls it together well. Stories of colourful characters, and none were more colourful than Marion Mahoney, are mixed with the dreary struggle to get planning approval to build a house with the kitchen at the front near the street, and not at the back. Yes, Ripley, the Willoughby Council fought this to the end. Kitchens have always gone in that back and in the back they should remain. However, there was no legal grounds for this imperative and in the end, the Griffins prevailed.

By the way, they put the kitchen at the front so that deliveries from the street could be done easily; think of those times you have carried groceries through the house to the kitchen, and the point is made. In addition, putting the kitchen at the front meant the wife, inevitably at the time, had ready access to the street for child minding, for seeing neighbours, for reducing the social isolation of the wife at home.

Cheong House_1.jpg

The Griffins’ principles of design emphasised integration into the natural environment, per Lloyd Wight, and maximum functionality of space, including the roofs, which were flat for use in drying clothes, and as a patio. This also threw the Willoughby Council into hysterics, to judge by the minutes of meetings quoted in this book. Flat roofs were … unheard of, safety risks, a health risk, the work of Satan. But again there was no legal basis for the reaction and with persistence it yielded, but it shows that nearly every step was uphill.


It was all uphill in another sense, too, because Castlecrag is a ridge line with steep slopes on both sides down to Middle Harbour, and that pushed up building costs, though it kept down land prices. But by following the contour of the land, the Griffins tried to keep the cost of road building down, but once again Willoughby Council objected. Roads had to be straight, even if nature was not. Take it as read that Willoughby Council objected at each and every step to each and every thing.

The houses were small so as to be affordable, two bedrooms, with small rooms to economise on heating and lighting costs, with many large widows and serving ports to ease the work of the wife in the kitchen and walk through fireplaces that could heat two rooms. Yes, the Council objected to most of these design elements as well.


Marion Mahoney was larger than life and a dedicated amateur thespian. Hence the amphitheatre for the neighbourhood productions she orchestrated. She involved the local children in preparing the sets, props, costumes, and performing in some of the works where suitable. She and Walter knew many artists from Melbourne, some from Chicago and met more in Sydney. The players were amateurs but the productions were not amateurish. Marion designed and built the sets, as well as the costumes and props. The plays she produced included:

A Midsummer night’s dream - Shakespeare
Iphigenia in Tauris - Euripides
Prometheus bound - Aeschylus
The Green snake - Goethe
Oedipus Coloneus - Sophocles

In keeping with their commitment to the integrity of the environment, the Griffins spent a lot of time on storm water re-use — yup, another bone of contention, sanitation, and sewage. He designed his own sewer pipes because he found the Council standard inadequate. Guess what?

Spathopoulos describes both the Griffins as energetic, optimistic, and vital. The resistance of the Willoughby Council presented an opportunity to educate its members in design principles, building techniques, the value of social interaction, the integrity of nature, and so on. Thick skinned indeed these two paragons. However, banks were altogether harder since they did not hold public hearings. Banks? Yes, the banks were unwilling to lend money to buy such oddities as the houses the Griffins designed and built.

Walter also devised his own construction techniques and manufactured the building blocks to do it. Once again resistance was futile, if exhausting. He did not only design and plan, he also built and often pitched in on the manual labor. Marion was a keen gardner throughout the area, always native plants. Super-Greens avant le mot, they never uprooted a tree to build a house but planned the houses around the existing trees. Guess how the Council reacted to that.

Walter and Marion were keen connoisseurs of the many varieties of eucalyptus trees, and would have loved the novel ‘Eucalyptus’ (1999) by Murray Bail, I know I did; it is reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Walter taught the local children to identify the varieties of the gum tree with their Latin names.

walter marion.jpg

While artists, some university people, a doctor or two bought Griffins houses in Castlecrag, they were few, and then the Great Depression came. King O’Malley, that giant of Canberra politics, remained a lifelong supporter and friend, bought a house as an investment. So did two Chinese the Griffins had gotten to know in Melbourne. Miles Franklin, the writer, was a frequent visitor but could not generate the finance to buy, and no bank would lend to a woman in those days. (Indeed about every 15 years there is a review into banking in Australia that discovers it is still true that banks are very reluctant to lend to women.)

Despite some trials, the Griffins prospered in Castlecrag, ever active and creative. They were active in the Theosophical Society and later the Anthroposophical Society, both forms of occult spiritualism which were in vogue at the time. There were one or two trips back to the States. He went to India on a commission and found much work there, and Marion joined him for a time. He died there and she returned to Castlecrag for a while.

Utopian theory and practice led me to planned cities, and I tried for years to interest a student in a thesis on that subject. Brasilia, New Delhi, Washington, Canberra, they offer plenty of choice. Hence I have read about Canberra and Griffins and saw in them a dotted line back to William Morris and one thread in utopia.

I put a visit to Castlecrag on the To Do list, and one day its number came up. There is a guided tour offered by the local residents association, on which I commented in an earlier post, and off we went. At that time I came across this title, but found it was unavailable and not in the University library. I put it on my Amazon Wish List and one day I noticed it was available and acquired it. It runs to 400 pages and has many photographs included. Too bad it is not more widely and easily available.

The book is unpretentious, straightforward, and lets story speak for itself, but I found the author’s decision to intersperse chapters about a visit to Greece distracting without adding to story of Castlecrag.

Your tax dollars work, published with an Arts Council grant.

I was looking for a biography of Mr. Mack (1862-1956) and this is as close as I could get and it is not a biography. Apart from a couple of early chapters about his playing career, it charts the seasons of the Philadelphia Athletics to 1945. It bursts with baseball clichés and brings back to mind some of the famous names, but there are no insights. Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics from year zero 1901 to 1950, more than 7,000 games.


There is nothing about Mack’s ability to manage his teams, the more so as he aged and the players got richer. That was what I was looking for. I did learn why the name ‘Athletics’ and why the ‘White Elephant’ as a mascot. Members of the Philadelphia Athletic Club were the early investors at the turn of the Twentieth Century. It was a racket club. Skeptics said the franchise would be a white elephant, i.e., not succeed, and Mack and Shibe, the major shareholder, took that as the mascot image. They added the baseball either as a conscious reference to fickle fortune, as balancing on a ball symbolised in the Renaissance, or just because it was a baseball!


Mack played professional baseball from 1886 to 1896 and shifted into coaching and managing. He proved adept at managing some pretty wild and undisciplined characters, but how he learned to do this and how he did it, are not to be found in these pages. He also learned to treat management as a business, being himself part owner of the team.

In the unregulated era that covered most of his seasons, poaching players was common, rival teams would set up across the street to siphon off fans, journalists were unscrupulous, and many players found the money had to be spent on alcohol and women. Somehow this man who himself did not smoke, drink, or swear convinced most of his players to follow his example. Those he could not win over, he let go. By the way, that is the origin of the name Pirates for Pittsburgh, because it pirated players from other teams when it had steel money.

Shibe park was mostly .25 cent bleacher seats to allow its working class fans to attend, and the attendance gate was the only source of revenue then. Accordingly the Athletics could never compete with the New York and Chicago teams in money.

Shibe-Park.jpg Shibe Park, interior.

Shibe exterior.jpg Shibe Park, Street view. Mack's office was in the tower.

One of the distinctive feature of Mack was that he always wore a business suit when he managed. There he is on the dugout bench in a suit, tie, and hat with his players, scorecard in hand. Earlier in his career as a manager, before the A’s, he had dressed with the players and changed back into street clothes with them, as is still the norm in baseball. He stopped doing it because he found it hard to control himself, he told the author, sometimes after a stupid loss. He decided to stay out of the dressing room altogether, leaving the coaches to that realm, and establish some distance. Then when the wanted to talk to a player about that stupid loss, he would do so later that night in the hotel on the road, on the next day before the game, but in each case privately when cooler heads prevailed all around.

Connie-mack-cover.jpgHe became a national figure.

Of course the most impressive thing about Mack, and it comes through in this book, is abiding enthusiasm and interest in the game, its rules, its players, its symbolism, its continuity for more than fifty (50) years.

The book is a day-by-day account of six months spent in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the Niobrara River in the Sandhill country of Nebraska. Nothing happens...but life. The roof leaks, winter hangs on too long, the grass needs mowing, the grasshoppers devour the kitchen garden, shopping trips to Chadron are iffy in the old wreck he drives.... Modest, matter of fact, impossibly romantic, hyper-realistic at times, and every word a labor of love.

Red House.jpg

This book is one man's tribute to a woman he never met, she being Mari Sandoz (1896-1966). If you do not know Mari Sandoz, perhaps now is the time to make her acquaintance.


She was a writer and her titles include: 'Old Jules,' 'Cheyenne Autumn,' 'They were the Sioux,' 'The Story Catcher,' and 'Sandhills Sundays.' She was a lifelong proponent of the rights of the native American Indian, long before it was a fashion for celebrities to take up photo op causes. Wilkinson aims to write a book about her.

Wilkinson's reasoning, Mr Spock, is that to write about Sandoz he would understand her better for knowing the environs that formed her, namely the Nebraska Sandhills.

Though the book takes the form of diary entries and is very chatty, it is at the same time more formal than many books I have read. (I suppressed a comparison here on the grounds that these reviews are always positive.) By 'formal,' in this case, I mean careful to give a full exposition so that the reader can understand.

Alan has visited parts of the United States many times but Nebraska is it, first Willa Cather and then Mari Sandoz.  He has even been to Hastings and is proud of it! This is a man who knows quality.

Much as I enjoyed reading the book I was surprised he did not mention James G Niehardt who is surely the poet laureate of the Niobrara. Or did I blink and miss it? Nor does he say anything about the Indians that so dominated Sandoz's imagination, but some are still around there. Though he went to Chadron several times he did not go on another hour to Alliance to see Carhenge! That is hard to believe. But then Carhenge is hard to believe, but I have seen it with my own four eyes.


Wilkinson says he does not like Sandoz’s novels but I have good memories of her 'Cheyenne Autumn' and 'The Story Catcher.' Memories which for the moment I will leave undisturbed. 

alan_mugshot.jpg Alan Wilkinson

A masterpiece is every sense. At once finely wrought and sprawling. A large work inset with multifaceted gems. I liked it.


There is a 'Jules et Jim' ménage à trios, sort of, but much more erudite. Onno and Max are kindred spirits who without quite meaning to come to share a love of Ada. But the cosmos intervenes in a car accident. 

Max is haunted by the ghost of his father, a savage collaborator with the Nazi occupation, and who, it seems, murdered his wife, Max's mother.  There are many echoes of the War and the transportation of Jews. Onno is prodigiously talented and gifted, so much so he can never do any real work, but all his days he ponders an indecipherable Creatan disk, as an amateur archeologist. Given the prominence of the disk for hundreds of pages, readers expect resolution of it, but I found none. As far as this reader could tell the disk drops out of the story 4/5ths of the way through. Onno has his own ghosts in his Calvinist family, though none as spectral as Max’s.

In all, the novel is a study of generational change, starting in the early 1960s and ending in the later 1980s just before the Wall came down. If you have to ask what Wall, you weren't there.

Between the parts of this 700+ page magnum opus, two angels discuss the events and people. The book is both earthy and divine. 

Max is a radio astronomer who studies the sky by staring at data on his desk. Onno is a know-it-all who finds he knows nothing at all. 

Both Onno and Max grow up and mature and grow old, and change. Only the comatose Ada remains the same.  The stars kill Max. 

The book reflects the preoccupations I found In his novel 'The Assault' which still ranks very high in my all-time list: the War, the Hunger Winter, the loyal Moulaccans who foolishly believed that loyalty would be rewarded, musical chairs of Dutch governments, the chasm between Calvinists and Catholics, and the divide between Amsterdam and the rest of the country.

Foreign and then Dutch Jews were deported through the Westerbork transit camp.
01338.jpg We something about this at the Museum of Dutch Resistance in Amsterdam in 2014.


This tale is, well more than one tale and it is too much to recount and, though I read It in great gulps, it lacks the focus and urgency of 'The Assault’ with its very satisfying resolution when the message is at last delivered. This novel is too prolix for that.  But it is one fine ride like few others, with Hegel, Wagner, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, and of course Machiavelli all mentioned along the way.  He tries to out do Umberto Eco and Dan Brown toward the end, and then it tails off.....

mulisch_vm_298804a.jpg Harry Mulisch

Where were you when France fell? That was certainly a memorable day for those born in the 1920s.

Impregnable France, eternal France, the France of Napoleon, the France of Clémanceau, the France of the taxi cab offensive, the France of Verdun, the France of Jean d’Arc, indomitable France, this France dissolved in the powerful acid of the Wehrmacht.

‘Thank God for the French Army,’ said Winston Churchill in 1935, for it was the bulwark that stayed the German beast. Yet less than five years later it proved to be a wall in a Japanese house, made of paper.

In 1940 where was the France of Union Sacrée of 1914-1918 when all social strata, all social classes, all degrees of political opinion, all regions put aside their historic animosities and united without question against Les Boches? It was gone.

In the Twenties French politics descended into blood sport. With the ancient external enemy vanquished and emasculated, French political differences sharpened once again, each with a backlog of grievances to be settled. Without an external threat to encourage a degree of forbearance, cooperation, and restraint the gloves were off.

Any of this starting to sound familiar?

One’s opponents were no longer well meaning, but misguided, people. They were detestable enemies whose very name was sin. They were alien spawn to be eradicated right now, if not sooner. With such people compromise is impossible!

Internal enemies completely replaced external enemies and they were everywhere: in schools teaching pernicious doctrines from science to scholasticism, in trade unions practising black masses, in plutocrats dining upon working class babies….. No vituperation was enough! No exaggeration too far. No lie too big. From 1934 many observers thought civil war in France was imminent. When such a war began in Spain, they supposed the example would light the many powder kegs in France. Against that backdrop, the drama played itself out.

Yes, Mortimer, it is all starting to sound like the Tea Party and Fox News.

In the 1936 election some of the very many political parties actively campaigned under the slogan ‘Better Hitler than Blum.’ Léon Blum was the leader of Socialist party and he was feared more than Hitler. Ludicrous, to be sure, for Blum was a moderate to his finger tips and a true patriot and if any thing he was a brake on the hotheads in his own party. Blum, by the way, was a Jew, and the explicit attacks on him in parliament for his Judaism authorised a hate campaign in the press the like of which not seen before or since. His every gesture and word was sign of his nefarious plots. Compared to Blum, Dreyfus was small potatoes.

To the most right-wing parties, blocs, movements, and groups the real threat was Britain, seen to be constantly scheming to grab the French Empire. Albion was the enemy, not Hitler. And Albion’s agent was that Jew Blum and his ilk.

Blum did form a Popular Front government in 1936, striving to keep France out of another war. Though by then the die was all but cast. He depended on the votes of the Communists and the Radicals (centrists, despite the name). Neither was reliable, each had its own agenda.

In the last decade of the Third Republic political musical chairs is the only fitting description. The electorate was fractured into innumerable political parties which combined into coalition governments, briefly, to divide the spoils of office, and then lose a vote of confidence. An incoming minister grabbed everything thing that was not nailed down, cancelled all commitments of the previous minister, signed a raft of new commitments, and six months later was thrown out of office when that coalition failed. Democracy at work.

During one five year period there were eleven (11) ministers of defence. Each dedicated upon entering office to demolishing everything the predecessor had done.

Contracts to build tanks, were torn up. Though the government paid a penalty to the contractor, the tanks were not built. To secure as much popular support as possible, contracts for tanks, aircraft, artillery were spread widely. Instead of concentration on one fighter plane, France built a dozen different types around the country, with no economy of scale. But it bought votes.

One minister boasted that in France it took 18,000 man hours of work to build a warplane and a mere 5,000 man hours in Germany, proving the superiority of the French approach that generated more demand for labour! That Germany thus produced three planes to every one in France was beside the point.

In 1936 when German workers put in 60 hours week in defence industries, those in France were awarded a 40 hour week with much jubilation. That ratio of 3:1 does not capture it all. German industries were more efficient because they were centralised. Germany did not dabble with a dozen different kinds of warplanes but concentrated on only a few to reach economies of scale far beyond anything the French could do. Finally, the brutal facts of demography apply. Germany had nearly twice the population of France, the more so when it digested Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia.

It gets worse. The French Communist Party had worked hard to organise workers in defence industries on orders from Moscow. From the mid-1930s obedient to Stalin’s orders some of these workers sabotaged French war industries. Some of this sabotage occurred during the war in 1939! The Soviet policy was to make it easy for the Germans to go West.

In all of this the French army was complicit, though of course after the Defeat, the generals spent the rest of their lives lying about it. Ambitious generals had learned to play the parade of governments off against each other to win promotion and ever more gold leaf on the kepí. One general after another advanced his career by telling the ministers of the day what they wanted to hear. Dissent within the ranks was silenced, e.g., Charles de Gaulle was struck from the promotions list, posted abroad, and forbidden to publish his criticisms of military strategy along with several others.


Here is one singular example. Pétain blamed the Defeat on the politicians who had cut the defence budget. Hmmm. Class! Who was minister of defence when the defence budget suffered its greatest cut? Go on, guess! Phillipe Pétain! The generals blamed politicians, Free Masons, protestants, free thinkers, women wearing slacks, school teachers, physical education instructors, Jews, Albion, the Belgians, the Dutch, newspapers, journalists, novelists, travel writers….. Any one but themselves. Now back to the Third Republic.

When vitriol replaced argument in public life, the night creatures dared to reveal themselves: anti-Semitism became a public pastime. The Dreyfus Clock was turned back. The Communist Party of France openly acknowledged its obedience to Moscow. The plutocrats stole pension funds on a national scale. Political interference meant even those few police officers who were not corrupt could not investigate major crimes against persons or property. It does all seem like the End of Days.

All of this is a familiar story, what Horne adds to the picture was Gallic arrogance. As France was the fountainhead of European (read ‘World’) civilisation, others would rush to its side if ever the worst happened. This, Horne suggests, was one of the central, unspoken, shared assumption of every French government after 1919. It followed that no matter what the French did or did not do, the firemen would come. Though the firemen are lesser beings, they are useful, and they will come from England, America, Canada, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia…. to save us even if we set ourselves alight.

It seemed to this reader — though Horne does not say it — that part of the French response to the German offensive in May 1940 was that its generals, from Maurice Gamelin to Maxime Weygand, thought, moved, and acted on trench time. They were in no rush because after all trench warfare goes nowhere. If Gamelin took three days to think things over, there was no rush. Yet the German armoured Panzer divisions were moving 40 - 60 miles a day! By the time Gamelin made up his mind to authorise the French 2nd army to disengage and pivot, the Germans were no longer within striking distance. Indeed the 2nd army had already been forced to retire because the Germans had outflanked it. Gamelin used neither radio nor telephone but motorcycle couriers to communicate with his five armies.

Gamelin reacted to this pressure of time by delegating everything downward. He would make no decisions. Let others decided, and then be responsible for the consequences. But of course no one else could give orders to all the armies and generals involved but Gamelin. Very quickly each French army was left in isolation to cope as best it could alone. There was no coordination. Here’s an example. The British Expeditionary Force of General Gort was under the command of a French Army in Belgium. As the Germans were crossing the Meuse River, Gort had no orders, information, or contact from his French commander. None for eight (8) days. Is it any wonder he decided to stay close to sea.

Horne makes it clear that Hitler prevented the Germans from refighting the last war. He was the only head of state who had been in the trenches in World War I, though Churchill and de Gaulle had been, they were not heads of state until later. Moreover, Hitler was an autocrat who had powers no democratic politicians in England or France ever had. Got the picture?

Hitler loved machines and he reviled the trench warfare he had experienced. When he rebuilt the Wehrmacht he wanted tanks and airplanes. When an obscure German Colonel Guderian advocated tanks, Hitler promoted him to give his advocacy a wider audience.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-139-1112-17,_Heinz_Guderian.jpg Heinz Guderian

When French Colonel de Gaulle advocated tanks, he was struck from the promotions list and exiled to Syria. Germany built tanks, armoured cars, self-propelled cannons and concentrated them in regiments, divisions, corps, and armies. Mobility and manoeuvre were the watchwords.

The French were stuck in 1916. Their major strategy was continuous defence of the whole border from Switzerland to the North Sea. Not one foot would be yielded for one instant to the invader. The manpower needed to defend these hundreds of miles was gigantic. In addition, the commitment to static defence led the French General Staff, which reluctantly accepted those new fangled weapons of tanks and airplanes, to distribute them all along the line. Every division had a few. They were never concentrated, and once the shooting started, it was not possible to concentrate them, to deliver a resounding blow. Instead the tanks and airplanes went into battle in small groups. A German Panzer division of 200 tanks would encounter 200 French tanks in a week, but each time in groups of 5. No contest, even though individually the French tanks were technically superior. When 200 Panzers hit 5 Renault tanks, it was over in a muzzle flash or two.


In fact, the French manpower required for continuous defence was so great that there scarcely more than two divisions in reserve. This fact dumbfounded Churchill when he was told that. Note: very often the troops held in reserve outnumber those in the line, so that when the enemy attacks or retreats a large, fresh force can be unleashed.

The manpower shortage was produced by the strategy, but it was compounded by the politics of the Third Republic. To buy votes successive ministers had reduced military service and inserted exemptions of all manner. The exemptions were so numerous that when Paul Reynaud, a minister who feared the Germans and was serious about defence, cut 30 pages of exemptions from the conscription law, another 20 pages remained. Wine was deemed of national importance and anyone who worked in the wine business was exempt, etc. Renaud angered many people and was dumped from the job.

To his credit Reynaud kept trying and was prime minister during the fateful six weeks that led to the capitulation. His coalition cabinet was full of rivals and pretenders and he had little authority among them. Yet he persevered and in the final hour, he very nearly alone wanted to fight on. It is clear from Horne’s pages that the generals — Gamelin, Weygand, Pétain — gave up long before he did.

They yielded in part because they, and many others of the haute bourgeoisie feared a repeat of the Paris Commune in 1940. All French military police (Garde Mobile) had been concentrated in Paris to keep order, code for preventing a left wing revolution or right wing coup d'état.

At the eleventh hour they did prefer Hitler to Blum.

Horne lays to rest one of the myths of the War concerning Hitler’s order that halted the Germans short of Dunkirk. The German armour was miles in advance of infantry and artillery, many miles. Moreover that steel tip was by then at half strength, with battle loses, mechanical breakdowns, and the exhaustion of the men. Fuel trucks were finding it hard to get through the debris. A halt had been considered several times before. In addition, the German intelligence estimated only 40-50,000 Allied soldiers in the Dunkirk enclave, and the conclusion was that the Luftwaffe would suffice to disrupt any evacuation on that scale. It was also supposed that RAF's losses had been so great it could not cover any evacuation. Finally, because Gort, having withdrawn to Dunkirk, in good time had fortified his position against tanks. Ergo, Hitler decided to draw a breath. The halt was not a conciliatory gesture to the British nor was it a blunder. It made sense in the context.

Horne also emphasises that the Germans, surprised at the speed of their successes, had no plan for a next phase, namely an invasion of Britain. Nothing. Nada. Zip. So why be in a hurry?

The German were successful in part because the French assumed the strategic target was again Paris as it had been in 1870 and 1914, and never realised that the strategic objective was the North Sea, having first lured massive allied armies into Belgium and the Pas de Calais, and then cut them off, encircle them, destroy them, and only then move on to Paris.

PAZ17_10_Sichelschnitt-neu.jpg S

The vacillation of Belgium before the war played in the hands of the Germans. Belgium shifted back and forth between a French and British alliance and then neutrality. The Belgians did not want the Maginot Line extended to their frontier with France and lobbied hard against it. Yet, fearing arousing the Germans, they did not want an explicit alliance with France or Britain. Uncertainty all around.

photo_alistair_horne__main.jpg Alistair Horne

As to the book itself, Horne's command of the subject is complete. Highly recommended. However there are typographical errors in this the third edition which were there in the the first when I read years ago. Horne’s style is orotund. It takes him a long time to get to the point and the passive voice confused me more than once. More than half the book is devoted to the details of armies, movements, skirmishes, battles of little interest to me but in between there are shafts of insight into the people and events that repay the reader.

This is the Great Canadian Novel. It appears on every list. Critics make a name for themselves attacking it. Surely that is a sign of its place at the top of the tree.


It is ambitious, peopled with every type, and set against the backdrop of the two World Wars. The two solitudes are the Two Canadas. When MacLennan planned and wrote the book these were two ships that passed each other in the night, night after night.

Quebec is one and the other is English-speaking Canada.

The novel opens in rural Quebec in 1913, and rural Quebec then was Quebecois. The fertile plains along le fleuve Saint-Laurent, being the only land suitable for farming in Quebec, were settled by the Normans who came to Canada, there to be abandoned by the Parisiennes and left the mercy of perfidious Albion. Thus did Quebecois hate both the French and the English, and hold themselves to be unique.


Along the way the dominance of the Catholic Church in Quebec is manifested in ways that seem hard to believe today. Yet in 1960 most schools in Quebec were Catholic, offering little science, no English, and only to glad to see girls leave at 16. Though the role of the Church is emphasised MacLennan fires no cheap shots. It is a tragedy: a clash of sincere and opposing worlds.

Likewise the resistance of Quebec and the Quebecois to change is there. But not to change is to die, argues one character. So be it, intones another; then we die as God made us.

The island of Montréal is the exception to Quebec in every way and yet also the exemplar of it. It is the redoubt of the Quebekers who owned most of the province. These are English-speaking Presbyterians tracing back to Scotland; they who built McGill University for their children. For generations the Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montréal divided Quebekers from Quebecois. No one spoke of the border and every knew.

boul_st_laurent_panneau.jpg West of St. Laurent

Tourist, even today, spend their time on the English side of that line and never know. it.

The principle characters come from two families, the Tallards and the Yardleys. The action encompasses the anti-conscription riots of 1917 in Montréal, the Great Depression, and the advent of World War II. There are several threads to their interactions but the chief one concerns a Tallard who is that rarity - both an English-Canadians and a French-Canadian. That is his father was Athanase Tallard and is mother was Kathleen Morgan (an Irish Catholic woman who never learned to speak French). Anthanase and Kathleen married and raised a son, Paul. One then could say the book is a bildungsroman.

There are marvellous passages describing the landscape, that mighty river, the weather in sultry Montréal and the bitter snow of the winter along the river, the smell of crops, the sound of frosted grass cracking underfoot….

Each of the many characters is given the camera and treated with respect of a Frank Capra character actor. There are no one-dimensional plot devices among them, each is a well-rounded human being. But, but, but sometimes it does seem didactic. Every perspective has to be enumerated and considered, however little it might add to the truth of the story.

I read this in graduate school in the 1970s and formed a high opinion of it but had forgotten most of it. Time then to re-visit it.

MacLennan has always maintained that none of it is autobiographical, by the way. He himself was from Nova Scotia and his other novels are set there, like ‘Barometer Rising’ about the destruction of much of Halifax in World War I when in 1917 a munitions ship bound for England exploded in the harbour.

Quebec did change, first in Montréal when post war European immigration brought new people to Canada’s most European city who spoke neither French nor English and whose ambitious were not focussed on the tension between French and English. They came to North America for a better life for their children, and that better life spoke English. Their appetite for English is one of the proximate causes for Quebec French-language nationalism; it was a reaction to this third factor, an effort to capture them by the language. Earlier there had been Jean Lesage and La Révolution Tranquille in the early 1960s to bring Quebec into the Twentieth Century. Lesage and his most creative lieutenant René Lévesque put science in the school curriculum, took religion out of schools, encouraged retention in schools, placed a premium on technical subjects like engineering and accounting, lured ex-patriate Quebecois home, invested in the film industry to portray Quebec Nouvelle, borrowed to built Hydro-Quebec which still sells electricity to Toronto and New York City, and most of all spoke French….all in the name of Chez Nous.

maclennan-143.jpg Hugh MacLennan, school teacher by day.

THE novelist of Montréal is Gabrielle Roy whose books are studies of ordinary life with the weight and integrity of a Paul Cézanne still life. ‘Alexandre Chenevert’ (1954) is one of many of her many titles that has stayed with me. It has been translated and titled ‘The Cashier.’ A little gem in my view, small and perfectly formed. Her best know book is ‘The Tin Flute.’ There are many others, like ‘Where Nests the Waterhen.’

File this fact under extraordinary but true: she appears on the Amazon Canada web site, and has for some time now, as Roy Gabrielle! Figure that one out.

I said Quebec and Quebecois above to omit the million or more French-Canadians who live outside Quebec in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta. The sentiments that MacLennan charts may be found among them, too, but they have never participated in or warmed to Quebec nationalism. Every time the Parti Quebecois hits the headlines the French-Canadians in the Atlantic and Prairie provinces cringe. They want no part of the English-Canada blowback on Quebec.

Andrei Sakharov designed and built hydrogen bombs for the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. He also dissented from the regime during much of that time until he became a full-time dissident in the latter 1960s. I have wondered how he compared to Robert Oppenheimer and this is a start in finding out. Strangely enough Sakharov loomed larger on my horizon than Oppenheimer because Sakharov was a celebrity dissident in the 1960s, repeatedly in ‘Time’ magazine and in the highbrow publications of the Centre for Democratic Institution from which I drank at the time, whereas Oppenheimer was a man of the past.

Andrei-Sakharov-1989.jpg Andrei Sakharov, 1989

Sakharov was man and boy Soviet, knowing no other way of life like the millions of others. His family was secure and comfortable by the standards of the time and place, though Stalin’s purges and the myriad of local purges that cascaded onward in time caught up with members of his family, first among the older generation of uncles, and then aunts whose crime was to have married that uncle, and then Sakharov’s generation, an arrest here, a deportation there. Even so his loyalty to the regime was unalloyed.

He grew up in a musical family, while his father was a successful physics teacher who wrote and published numerous approved high school texts on the subject. Sakharov’s interest in and aptitude for mathematics blossomed and he went to the head of the class and stayed there. Having just seen ‘The Imitation Game’ (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) I compared him to Alan Turing.

He failed the physical examination for the Soviet army in World War II; consider for a moment how low that standard must have been. He had an irregular heart beat most of his life. Instead he signed up to work in an ordinance factory. There his capacity to reduce confused and confusing reality to rows of numbers led him to several innovations which made his name as a coming man.

One example suffices. To test artillery shells for defects the method was manual, in every new batch several shells were dusted and examined with a magnifying glass for cracks in the casing. Until that test was passed the batch waited. If one crack was found the whole batch was rejected. Neither effective nor efficient. Sakharov devised a laser to pass over each shell individually and ping on cracks so that individual shells could be rejected but not whole batches and the production line kept moving the whole time. I have take quite a few liberties in this description to make it accessible; as they say in movie credits, ‘based on a true story.’ In the same spirit that could be motto for Fox News rather than that ironic statement ‘Fair and Factual.’ It is ironic isn’t it?

There is one of similarity to Turing. Both turned to automation for tasks that previously had been done by hand, just as the machine gun replaced the bolt action rifle.


Sakharov’s change from cog in the mighty wheel to dissident came slowly. He saw neighbours and colleagues foully treated and it could not all be explained by the war. Jews were made victim. A loose word about comrade number one, and … Exactly, no one quite knew.

Moreover, when he left the laboratory for the factory and later the weapons plants, which were really cities in themselves, he saw how badly treated workers and their families were, despite the endless rhetoric of the workers paradise. Also he choked on the ritualistic evocation of Marxism-Leninism at every official juncture. Just as many of us have choked on the empty and ritualistic evocation of God on public occasions like the Gallipoli ceremony.

He was a brilliant scientist, a claim reiterated many times in these pages without a satisfactory explanation of this brilliance or how it was recognised as brilliance by all the dimwits around him. Well, they have to be dimwits if they did not reject the regime per Bergman.

Gradually, Sakharov tried to use the status he had to help individuals and in time he realised that the Stalinist regime was the problem, and that it rolled on even after its creator died. He retained a faith in the Soviet promise but thought it perverted by Stalin. At first his supposition was that the Tsar did not know, in the old Russian proverb, only slowly concluding that the Tsar was the problem, then Tsarism including the people who wanted a Tsar, call them the Tsarists.

Though his interventions were few, carefully judged to appeal to Soviet values, and argued on pragmatic grounds they yielded a vigorous reaction. He was named as errant in public by Chairman Khrushchev himself.

In time he realised there were systematic and systemic failings and those he saw first and most clearly and which he quantified were the deaths and defects causes by the radiation of atmospheric testing of hydrogen weapons. He compiled spreadsheets of data that showed approximately 10,000 deaths caused over three generations by the radiation released in a single atmospheric test. He thus argued for underground testings, which had technical limitations, in his immediate environment, then at closed and secret scientific conferences, and then by writing to the Party Chairman.

H-bomb bandw.jpg

Yikes, this drumbeat was readily characterised as unpatriotic, just as Edward Teller tried to portray all other others who lacked his one-eyed enthusiasm for ever bigger bombs and UnAmerican.

His ground shifted from urging reforms on pragmatic grounds to improve Soviet society to urging reforms because they were morally right. This put him beyond the pale; it put him in Groky four hundred miles east of Moscow.

There is a personal element as well. Sakharov saw and despaired at medical treatment his first wife Klava received. Doctors at elite clinics could not interpret X-Rays to his mind. She died in a great pain as he watched. Perhaps it could happen anywhere but it happened to him and it was another fissure in his allegiance to the Soviet Union.

One of the things that tied Sakharov to the Soviet regime withal his objections was the need for weapons not because of the Cold War with the West but because of Mao’s China and its erratic course as perceived from Moscow. That was a new perspective to me.

One of the things that loosened the tie to the Soviet regime was the Prague Spring of 1968. We read that many Soviet dissidents saw in those Czechoslovakian changes a hopeful future for the Soviet Union itself. When that door slammed shut in August 1968, those Soviet dissidents who championed reform from within communism lost hope. It was proof that communism could not change. This was another new perspective to me and a striking one due to our recent visit to Prague and our tours of its communist relics.

The many and varied dissidents could not agree among themselves and spent at least as much time and effort in undermining each other as working for reform of the Soviet way. (Sounds familiar to any seasoned committeeman.) They tried to organise themselves in the way they knew, a central committee with a rigid hierarchy….and that did not work. All of this backbiting made it easy for the regime to isolate and pick off dissidents.

He became a supporter of any and all dissident causes from ethnic revanchism to free masonry, seemingly without discrimination. His enemy’s enemy became his friend. Anyone who dissented from the Soviet way was his friend, or so it must have seemed to the Communist authorities. He also demonstrated a political naiveté born of his sheltered existence in believing that some how all these dissenters could combine within the abstraction of human rights, when some of them did not want human rights, they wanted their land and would gladly kill to get it! See post-Soviet history for the data.

He seems to have had a charmed life in that even when stripped of his scientific duties, he was still paid, retained his apartment, had a limousine and driver at his service, was available to all manner of foreign journalists in Moscow to whom he spoke ever more freely, including offering advice to the Reagan administration on how to negotiate with the Soviet leadership - rather like Jane Fonda encouraging the North Vietnamese to kill more American draftees to shorten the war. (Oh, yes she did.) For a man who was oppressed and repressed he published a very great deal in the way of political opinion, a bibliography of which runs from page 413 to page 431.

Mikhail Gorbachev appeared but for Sakharov he was too little, too late. Sakharov wanted everything now, and Gorbachev was carrying a heavy load on thin ice. That Gorbachev let him return to Moscow and appointed him to ceremonial offices was accepted but it did not temper Sakharov who but now seems unable to trust anyone or give anyone else credit for good intentions. Then Sakharov died and Gorbachev offered his widowed second wife, Yelena Bonner, a state funeral which she accepted. That became a Saint Bartholomew’s circus for dissidents, for apparatchiks who wanted a halo, for Western journalists looking for easy copy.

I should have said earlier that Bonner, of Jewish descendent, did much to focus Sakharov’s political interests. She had a much more general and coherent view of the Soviet Union in contrast to Sakharov’s piecemeal perspective. She became a comrade in arms, as she appeared to be at the time in their hunger strikes.

Yelena-Bonner-007.jpg Yelena Bonner

Returning to the comparison with Oppenheimer, this book being my only source, it is not clear to me if Sakharov had management responsibility akin to Oppenheimer’s. None are explicitly mentioned though Sakharov is occasionally referred to as ‘Director’ of this project or that and the word implies management to some degree.

The book was a hard slog. The implied thesis behind the title seems to come straight from Karl Popper that science and democracy unite in falsifiability. Neither assures perfection but each can falsify mistakes through rational argument and evidence. Ergo, the more rational and scientific Sakharov was, the more he had to reject (falsify) the Soviet system and make his way (intellectually) to democracy. Oh dear, does that mean the Soviet scientists who did not move this way must not have been rational and scientific after all, and likewise that the Western scientists who pined for authoritarian government, hello Ed Teller, were not either. Such consistencies do not worry the author.

Our author has it that one of Sakharov’s deepest concerns with the Soviet Union was the easy and irrational way in which scientific arguments and evidence put before the top leadership were cast aside. Stalin and Khrushchev having grown up among farmers rejected scientific biology on the strength of that background. Bergman implies this rejection of scientific, reason, is one of the core evils of the Soviet Union. Arrrrrrrgh! What would Bergman make of political leaders today in the West who reject climate science in one sentence or less? Evil?

Similarly, Bergman in contrasting Sakharov with that other even more famous dissident of the time Alexander Solzhenitsyn takes Sakharov’s side because Solzhenitsyn was too much a believer in the mystical soul of Russia for the scientific age of reason and democracy. Hmmmm. What would Bergman make of those Tea Party nut cases invoking God above to reject vaccines and fluoride because Moses did not have any. Evil?

In the same vein, Bergman speculates that Sakharov wanted the rule of law as he supposed it existed in the West. Well maybe but convince me. Quote that phrase ‘rule of law’ from something Sakharov said or wrote. [Silence.] The ‘rule of law,’ let’s ask David Hicks about that shall we? Montesquieu evolved a theory of government that inspired the writers of the Constitution of the United States to divide and separate powers; Montesquieu reasoned from the British example where he thought it existed but in fact it did not. Nonetheless, the illusion bred reality. (With difficulty I will refrain from mentioning that smirking Queensland journalist who made a name nationally by misunderstanding the separation of powers doctrine. Such are media reputations.)

Bergman.jpg Jay Bergman

Even though published twenty (20) years after the fall of the Berlin Wall this book is a Cold War salvo. Every few pages another evil of the Soviet regime is described, denounced, and then placed in relation to Sakharov with some long bows.

There is virtually no science in the book after the early pages, and the science there is in inaccessible to this reader. The last chapter on Sakharov’s legacy which addresses exclusively his dissidence. Period.

I still do not know what made him a brilliant scientist.

Doing homework for the Turkey trot, ooops, tour, in October 2015. I read Pamuk’s ‘Istanbul: Memories of the city’ earlier, finding it well written but meandering, too much like life that.


This book is a fable, an Italian traveler is enslaved in Ottoman Istanbul in the 16th Century. His western knowledge, particularly anatomy, sets him apart, first as a doctor and later as an engineer.

The pasha who owns him gives him to Hoja, because the two men, the unnamed slave and the master (Hoja), look a great deal alike. Hoja is a scientist-engineer employed by the pasha and the slave becomes his assistant. They work on several projects, including fireworks. The pasha strives for recognition from the Sultan, Hoja strives for promotion. Much striving.

One theme is identity given the resemblance of the two men and their incessant exchange of information for some years, some of it personal. Another theme is the resistance of the Ottoman world to change, as represented by scientific knowledge both imported from the West in the slave but also as generated by Hoja.

The third, the governing theme, is the master-slave dialectic. The slave becomes like the master first but in time the master becomes like the slave. At the end it is not clear who is narrating the slave who has assumed the identity of the master, or the master who pines for the slave (his European knowledge) as his alter-ego. Are Turks Asians or Europeans?

Then there is the unreliable narrator beloved of post modern writers but not readers.

OrhanPamuk.jpg Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize winner in Literature.

But I fear that it is not particularly interesting to read. It is well written but seems lifeless, as though the plan was drawn up on a white board and then executed in neat chunks. The author is aloof, detached from it all framing the story as the finding of a third party.

The subtitle of this book is ‘How the Merchants of Venice created modern Finance.’
Yep, this is a book about the thrills, chills, and spills of accounting and accountants, the thrills of receipts, chills of ledgers, spills of debits, and that is just the beginning! Economics is the dismal science, and accounting is its dreary cousin.

Doubel entry.jpg

In 1986, according to my notes, I read Fernand Braudel’s ‘Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800’ in three magisterial (a code word for large and long) volumes. Braudel asserted in passing that the invention of double entry bookkeeping generated capitalism in Europe, first in Italy and then as Italian banks expanded northward to Amsterdam in Europe as a whole. At the time, I asked an accountant upstairs what double entry bookkeeping was, and he invited me to attend his twenty-seven lectures in Accounting 101 to find out. Some people always want to start way back at the beginning.

I tried again a few years later when I asked another accountant, who answered, in exactly 50 minutes, a lecture. That was simultaneously TMI + NEI or Too Much Information and Not Enough Information. None the wiser, my interest withered. But the ground was covered, as lecturers like to say.

Then one day I came across this title. The blurb promised that it would reveal all about double entry bookkeeping is. I took the bait! Who wouldn’t? Here is what I learned.

The Crusades created first mass tourism through Northern Italy which bought vastly increased demand for goods and services. Enterprises flourished to take advantage of the market opportunities these tourists offered, and so Italy has since remained. The Crusaders, those that came back, brought many things with them apart from saintly shin bones that they acquired from enterprising Arabs, they also brought back Arabic numbers.

Venice made sure it got a piece of the tourism action both ways, and the tourist boom it got put it on the map to stay since then.

Mathematics evolved thanks to those Arabic numbers, though it was resisted by the Catholic Church which saw evil in Arabic numbers. Multiplying and dividing was regarded as black magic. Sounds like an analysis by Fox News today. Ignorant and proud of it!

Though very Catholic, the authorities in Venice were pragmatic enough to tolerate Arabic numbers, despite papal fulminations. (Presumably some gold changed hands to buy the silence of the local prelates.) Indeed, Venetian authorities encouraged sound book-keeping, the more prosperous businesses are, the more taxes are due; the more accurate records are kept, the easier it is identify the taxes that are due and collect them. On this reasoning, the Venetians also invested in education! Hmm, has not quite caught on that one. Smarter, more well informed people make better use of their resources and opportunities to solve problems. This is still a new idea to some governments today, it seems.

Moreover, the Venetians licensed the publication of books about mathematics that spread the word through the Mediterranean world. Indeed because of its relative tolerance and stability it became a centre for book publishing as Amsterdam was to become later. Some of the earliest mathematics books published in Venice were applied mathematics aimed at book-keeping, says out author.

After all that background, what is double entry book-keeping? Good question, Mortimer! The essence is that each transaction is recorded in two entries, one called ‘credit’ and the other ‘debit.’ Wake up! ‘Credit’ and ‘debit’ are not used here in their ordinary meanings. (Those conscripted to use Spendvision will realise that there is nothing intuitive about accounts.)

Prior to double-entry book-keeping (hereinafter, DEBK) merchants, nobles, tradesmen, households did not keep accounts of any kind. I expect most of us still run the business of our daily lives like this.

Those that did keep records before DEBK, made notes on scraps of papers as reminders when something had to be followed up.

Most of us do a little book-keeping, say when keeping receipts for business expenses to submit for reimbursement from the firm, or to support business deductions on income tax. Either when submitted or at the end of the tax year we categorise and total these records. That is a primitive form of book-keeping. Corporate credit cards perform some of this record keeping for business expenses.

Before DEBK, the more careful merchants, especially those with larger volumes of transactions, began to write them down in a single list, e.g., of things bought and things sold. A month later it would be hard to find a particular transaction in that list, undifferentiated and without annotation. First came annotations which took the name ‘memorandum.’ These memos were sorted and entered again in a journal (a term still used in accounting), and finally in a ledger.

DEBK nests in a ledger with a T making two columns that are still to be seem in ledger books at Officeworks, Staples, or OfficeMax.

If I have $500 in my pocket then I have a debit against my capital of $500 and a credit in cash of $500, ergo two entries.

I know there is a lot more to it, but like all those accounting students I find it hard going.

The book goes on to claim that DEBK is the key to the whole of capitalism because someone said so. A lot of someone’s are cited, but…. Hold on! Slow down! Wait a minute!

The author shows that many people talked about and praised DEBK from, say, 1500 on, but not once, not ever does the author show that it improved business practice, was associated with greater productivity, led to more revenue for Venetian purses or anyone else’s. In short, there is nary a (factual) word about impact. It is all very Cultural Studies (a phrase I always shudder to hear, let alone type) to suppose that talk is reality and that reality is but talk. (Didn’t those Cultural Studiest ever mean a Lying Blackfoot? [You either get it or you don’t.]) Everyone praises Christianity, but it is seldom practiced with the fervour with which it is praised, even by those who praise it most, i.e., members of the Tea Party.

To a jaded reader (me) the best chapter then is the penultimate one on accounting scandals. Whew! What a list: Enron, Royal Bank of Scotland, World Com, HIH, One.Tel, ABC Learning, and that is just in the very recent past with an emphasis on some of the small potatoes of Australian examples. Of course when the potatoes are all one has, they are not small. Despite Australia’s sorry experience, it has more accountants per square dollar than either the United States or Kingdom (p. 153).

The author carefully alludes to the string of examples of accounting firms, which trade on their reputations, signing off on accounts of such corporations as those above a few days before the house of cards falls, and much to everyone’s surprise the piggy bank is empty, including the pension fund.

It does make a punter like me wonder what the point of it all is. (Yes, I thought of Foucault.) Have rules become so complex that a clever and determined villain can use them to hide the trail (in some cases for years)? Do more rules create more loop holes, black spots, grey areas, and trees to hide the forrest and just generally make it easier to play hide-and-seek?

For a couple of years I served on an Institute of Charted Accountants committee that enforced professional ethics on its members. The rigour of the proceedings of this committee, the take-no-prisoners attitude of its professional members (I was a lay member) was all very impressive, but all the cases (documented sometimes in hundreds of pages) was about the date of a membership re-newal to the Institute or something else on that level. Was the postage stamp correctly squared on the envelope, is what I silently thought sometimes. (Yes, it was that long ago that postage stamps were relevant.) Such tiny ants were destroyed with titanium tipped warheads! Ouch! Inevitably, the accountants involved were sole practitioners who were humbled before this pitiless tribunal. Meanwhile, the major accounting firms in the same building were signing off on the accounts of the likes as those above. Go figure.

In this world, the mud seldom sticks. The author describes some of the subsequent careers of many of the major players in the scandals above. At a corporate level the accounting firms that approved the accounts of such corporations change their logos and web sites, a few partners take the money and run, oops, retire, and the firms continue to dominate not only the market for accountants but also for consultants to government and more. One fears the same people who brought us the last corporate collapse are now happily advising governments on the next one. No mea culpas can be heard.

Like tools, rules can be used for good or ill to be sure. But independent audits are supposed to deter and detect some of the ill. Maybe they do, but that does not make the headlines.

Tidbits, there are a few. The CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland CEO presided over the creative accounting that led to its near-dearth experience got a golden parachute of £16 million paid for by the ever generous British taxpayers (p. 197).

The high and mighty behemoth Arthur Andersen started in 1929 as a cleanskin firm which would ferret out cheats, and died in 2002 of the same poison. Well do I remember once getting told off by a very proud Andersenian about the irrelevance of ethics education in business degrees.

By the by, Enron started in Omaha where it trod the straight and narrow, but when it moved to Texas, well it crossed more than a state line, thus confirming some deeply held prejudices of mine.

gleeson-whhite.jpg Jane Gleeson-White

As to the book, there is too background and too much repetition and not enough focus or exposition of essence of double-entry to my mind. I still not sure what it is, so don’t ask.

‘Copyright’ (p. 78), no I do not think there was any intellectual property, but rather a license that permitted publication (i.e., passed by the Church censor and the Venetian censor). Copyright protecting the author’s intellectual property is centuries in the future.

A word is used that I cannot find in a dictionary: ie (p. 94). Even the spellchecker thinks it should be i.e. but not in this book.

There is a reference to Aristotle reviling interest on borrowed money but no text is cited (p. 96).

In 1931 the French army was the largest, best trained, most modern in equipment with a wealth of strategic intelligence in a large and able general staff joined to the leading airforce of Europe and a large navy with newer and more powerful warships than England or Italy. In addition the French Army had those kilometres and kilometres of tunnels, bunkers, turrets, gun emplacements, tank traps, endless buried telephone wires and underground cities of the Maginot Line. To members of the general staff of Germany, of Spain, of England, and of Italy, France was an impregnable fortress. Moreover, it had an even larger colonial army spread around the globe from New Caledonia to the Caribbean. In particular its officer corps was its pride. It was drawn from all classes of society, promoted on merit in a system that prized intellect.

It was altogether impressive, this army, and yet less than a decade later during five weeks in May 1940 this army was comprehensively defeated. So total was the defeat that it was embarrassing. The defeat was as much psychological as material. French troops fought with each other in the rush to surrender. Units far from the front abandoned their arms never to touch them again because of rumours of a truce before the first radio broadcast of a ceasefire. Officers, it was said, surrendered as quickly as possible so as not to miss lunch. Censors tried but failed to suppress pictures of lone Germans herding thousands of apparently willing French prisoners along. This moral collapse turned the army into a mob by the thousands. When the German burst from the impassable Ardenne forrest, the French army fell to backbiting and backstabbing at all ranks. For their part staff officers in Paris denied responsibility and knowledge of anything and everything in some squalid episodes.

images-4.jpeg The surrender. General Gerd Von Rundstedt went on and on reading a long statement authored by Hitler to the French officers. There are many videos of this ceremony on You Tube.

Yet apart from some volcanic fighting in Belgium and around the Pas de Calais (Dunkirk and Ostend), the defeat resulted in relatively few French casualties, making it all the more surprising, and all the more embarrassing. In fact, French Army emerged from the defeat largely intact, though its members were divided, dazed, confused, isolated, dispirited, and exhausted. There is plenty of newsreel footage on You Tube. Have look.

Perhaps the analogy is to victims of a mighty car pile-up on an expressway.

Defeated+French+Soldier-res.jpg A poilu dazed, stunned, isolated.

Blind-sided, a gigantic wallop with noise and shrapnel, and than another and another as the pile up continued. Much noise and confusion but few killed or injured. Yet all are dazed and confused.

This book is a study of how one set of the victims of that crash, the officers of the French army, responded to the catastrophe. It is a subject that takes study, because the recriminations at the time and since have been a blizzard without end, as blame as been laid this way and that, often with no other evidence than the unshakeable conviction of prejudice. In fact, it is perhaps the kind of study best done by an outsider who is disinterested in the matter. This book is based on archival material, publications of the day, interviews with participants, and, inevitably, the river of memoirs protagonists wrote to justify themselves. It is impressive to see how much microfilm of contemporary records and reports in German and French the author worked through to find the confirmation or disconfirmation of assertions that in other books are taken as read. Through this minefield Paxton picks his way with care and sound judgement.

What prompted my interest in this study was the realisation, born of reading about this period, that the chain of command in the French army survived the triple debacle of June 1940 and remained in place for the use of the Vichy regime both France and in the colonies, triple in the defeat, the surrender, and the humiliating peace.


Remember, that this army was deployed around the world in French colonies, territories, protectorates, enclaves, embassies, and missions - most particularly in Africa and the Middle East but also in the Caribbean, India, Latin America, and Oceana, including New Caledonia, today a one hour flight from Brisbane.

As discredited as defeated France was, the colonies held fast to it in this dark hour despite the clarion call from London on 18 June, when Charles de Gaulle made his first radio broadcast in the name of France Libre. Likewise, the officer corps in France also obeyed orders to return to barracks or comply meekly with capture and imprisonment. As German archives show, they were themselves surprised at the speed and scope of the capitulation and unprepared for it.

Even as two million French prisoners of war were being entrained to Germany, the remainder of the French army began to demobilise itself. While de Gaulle shined a light, in the first months few officers followed it. This is all the more remarkable considering the residual anti-German sentiment throughout France and most particularly in the army after the bloodbaths of World War I, which had led to the development the formidable army described at the outset.

French prisoners.jpg One German guard and hundreds of French prisoners bound for slave labour in Germany.

Paxton’s focus is not on the defeat but the aftermath, though he does set the scene by showing how in the years after 1931 the strength of the army dissipated. There were disputes within the army over strategy and tactics that took the form of bureaucratic backstabbing and career blockage to new extremes. Charles de Gaulle was himself one of the victims of this battle.

Though French tanks and fighter planes were technically superior to their German, Italian, and English counterparts in 1939, the doctrines that dictated their use did not exploit the capacities they had: One example, Renault heavy tanks were technical leaders, and those the Germans captured were later used to good effect on the Russian front in the following years. But French army doctrine spread them very thinly through infantry regiments as mobile block houses for static defence. They were not grouped to give weight and supporting fire power in attack. The Germans, at the time, had lesser and fewer tanks but made far more effective use of them. The same could be said for aircraft. It is also true that often the French forces outnumbered the attacking Germans, but the tactics of the Germans with tanks and aircraft overcame the numerical advantage the French had. The French also enjoyed the advantage of shorter and interior lines of communication but again German tactics cut these by attacking roads and bridges from the air. The French airforce doctrine conserved assets and did not attack German ground targets.

Even more corrosive were social attitudes of those born to the army, and their scorn for parvenus, including Jews that had entered the army during the Third Republic, especially under the Popular Front government. It went beyond the usual snobbery or cliques one must expect and included systematic efforts to degrade, discourage, and drive such undesirables out of the army. There were many little Dreyfuses victimised in a hundred small ways for the lack of a ‘de’ in the name or the presence of ‘berg’. Contrary to the post-war legends there was little liberty, equality, or fraternity in the French army by 1939.

After 1931 successive governments cut defence spending, as did General Phillipe Pétain, when he was minister of defence, and cut it again, and again as the Great Depression spread. As the ordeal of World War I receded from memory, an historic anti-militarism in French society, a child of the French Revolution when the army was the instrument of royal oppression (and it was again with the Napoleons and restored monarchs), re-asserted itself. Parliamentarians not only cut military budgets but they boasted and bragged about it, including one Pierre Laval. In the name of liberty, conscription was qualified by twenty pages of exemptions and exceptions, while the overall length of service was progressively shortened. A standing, professional army was perceived to be a greater threat to society than a foreign enemy by many ideologues who came to prominence in the Popular Front era of the Third Republic. It is also true that the Communist Party of France, following explicit orders from Moscow, disrupted French defence industries by strikes and sabotage and sheltered those fleeing conscription.

Though French generals said they were ready for war in 1939, despite later denials, the record is clear. It is equally clear that when the German offensive struck they were among the first to show the white flag. To review the last days of the Reynaud government as it fled from Paris, is to conclude that the generals gave up the fight before the politicians did. Prime Minister Reynaud himself was prepared to take the Government into exile and continue the war, as the Dutch, Norwegians, and Danes had done, but the generals, including Pétain advised him to surrender not just the army but the government itself. Reynaud could not bring himself to do that but he bowed to the majority of his cabinet and deferred to Pétain to seek terms of an armistice. Instead Pétain capitulated, precipitating generations of debate about the legitimacy of his initial government.

Later, of course, the generals blamed the politicians, but that is hard to credit. Start with the commander in chief of the field army, Maurice Gamelin, who set up his headquarters in splendid isolation from the front lines in a place chosen more for the wines in its cellar than for its communication or access to the armies he commanded. Read this sentence slowly: After nine (9) months of war, he had in his headquarters no telephone in May 1940.

Gamelin.jpg Maurice Gamelin

He sent and received messages by car and motorbike along country lanes but few roads ran to the border where the army was emplaced. He later explained his inaction in the crisis by saying that he did not know what was happening. Hmm. If communication with Gamelin was slow when nothing was happening, once the front broke he was a hard man to find. (Radio was too easily intercepted for use and unreliable in the heavily forested area and jammed by Germans.)

I referred to doctrines before. Here is another example. The French General Staff had slowly and painfully negotiated an agreement with Belgium before the war to form a line of defence on the Dyle River in Belgium. This Dyle Plan allowed three (3) weeks, 21 days, for the French Army to take its positions along the River Dyle. Care to guess how long it took Germans to breach that line? Three (3) days. Once that happened the French Army had no plan of operations. They had thought of everything except a Plan B. (By the way the British Expeditionary Force was part of this plan and was thus left without a mission.)

Overarching themes:

Officers from general to lieutenants denied the defeat by blaming politicians, British perfidy, spies, lazy conscripts, unpatriotic civilians….women who smoked, protestants, secular education. The list went on. Only the army was blameless for its defeat.

Military contempt for parliamentarians and the Army's early effort to dominate the Vichy government. Civilian control was only established in April 1942. Apart from Maréchal Pétain himself the Vichy government was dominated in its first crucial months by General Maxime Weygand and then later for longer periods by his navy rival Admiral François Darlan.

Backstabbing, cliques, career opportunism were rife in the very hard circumstance of the armistice army that the conquering Germans permitted. This personal struggle is most well documented at the most senior levels of the army but it was not confined to the top.

Vichy played off Germany against Britain and vice versa by trying to be neutral, not so much in Vichy France itself, but in the colonies, especially those of strategic import like Dakar, Damascus, Djibouti, Diego Surez, Noumea, Oran, and Bizerte. To keep the Germans out of the colonies the Vichy regime defended them from British incursions. To keep the British from occupying a colony there was the spectre of a German response.

There was an effort to use the National Revolution of Vichy to enhance the status of the army after its humiliation. The new curriculum emphasised patriotism and physical fitness and left little time for science. Girls were encouraged to leave school at puberty.

NAZIVICH0038.jpg The benign Pétain.

The fate of two million French prisoners of war in Germany preoccupied some officers to the exclusion of everything else and was ignored by many others. These prisoners included all ranks including generals like Giraud, Juin, and others.

Inter-service rivalries that pitted the influence of the army against that of navy, and the navy won very often because it had all those lovely ships which the British wanted and the Germans did not want to Brits to get until November 1942. The army was discredited by its collapse.

The near thoughtless compliance with the purge of Jews from the army, navy, and air force. Likewise the German efforts to identify and seize Germans in the French Foreign Legion is a sorry story of compliance.

Most officers obeyed Vichy because the regime was congenial, not out of duress or desperation. Indeed those officers forcibly retired to reduce the size of the Army clamoured for re-admission.

Vichy officials reluctantly agreed to many German demands but moved slowly to comply. It might take six months to get agreement from them, only to find it was another nine months before they took the first steps. There was a lot of this kind of passive resistance. It is not easy to trace its origin. At times both Pétain and Laval expressed anger at the slow movement of their government, but at other time this pace suited their efforts to keep Germany at the negotiating table.

The Vichy regime presented itself to France and to the world as the sovereign government (of what was left) of France. See, for example, the newsreels at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dU61J_xXBAE
(Cut and paste the address into a browser.)

The army's chain of command held despite the colossal shocks of May and June 1940. By and large the French army from generals to lieutenants accepted Pétain as the government of France and obeyed his orders. But it is important to realise why that chain held despite the unprecedented jerks on it. (It might have been a different story without Pétain. A government with only Pierre Laval at the top, well that certainly would have been less compelling to most officers.)

Officers had responsibilities; they were not free agents. As long as those responsibilities remained and made sense, they stayed at their stations. Paxton makes this point by analysing the officers who joined de Gaulle’s France Libre. They numbered several hundred and then thousands and invariably they were officers who did not have command of men who were dependent on them.

De Gaulle himself is an example. He had been relieved of his field command in May and appointed an under-secretary for war in the Reynaud cabinet, and then sent back and forth to London several times to gouge greater effort from Britain.

The officers who first joined de Gaulle fell into these categories: retired, on unattached duties (ill or convalescing), attachés at embassies around the world (particularly Latin America), staff officers who did not command subordinates, on special assignments (e.g., as couriers, liaison, or missions abroad). These officers were free(r) agents than those with dependents, i.e., subordinates. They came from metropolitan France but also from the colonial forces. Of course they may have had families to think about, too.

While nearly all officers at French embassies in the the Americas saluted de Gaulle’s flag, not every retired or convalescing officer did. The second criterion that Paxton suggests was decisive is access. Retired or unattached officers who had only to travel a short distance to join de Gaulle, were more likely to do so. Many officers on special assignments were already embedded with British forces as liaison or couriers along with scores of others in the United States and Canada on a variety of missions. Some colonial officers had only to walk across the street to a British consulate to get passage to London. But retired or convalescent officers in Lyons or Metz had no such access and so joining de Gaulle may well have never crossed their minds. Later the fear of reprisals against one's family in France held some officers in check. Others adopted noms de guerre to avoid such reprisals.

In time as the Vichy regime lost creditability. The unopposed Japanese seizure of Indochina shocked officers far and wide but most of all in Indochina, from which some intrepid souls found a way to abscond and travel, slowly, to England. German setbacks like the stalemate at Stalingrad encouraged others to abandon Vichy neutrality for the opportunity to return to the war effort, e.g., those garrisons in India (a surprising large number). While some officers were staunch themselves they turned a blind eye to the departure of junior officers, forging roll calls to fool German supervisors. Yes, there were German supervisors throughout the French colonial Armistice Army, as well as the Armistice Army in Vichy territory.

Officers in the Armistice Army in Vichy also acted in secret. Rather than turn over all weapons and ammunition to the Germans, they hid much against the future. One trove, scattered in numerous caves, mines, commercial wine cellars, abandoned barns consisted of thirty-nine (39) tanks! The tanks had been disassembled and crated, marked as agricultural material and salted away.

When American troops landed in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, the veil fell. The Vichy chain of command was by then muddled. Mistrust, suspicion, fear of reprisals from either Germans or Gaullists, residual anti-German feeling, loyalty to Pétain, inter-service rivalries between the navy and the army, tests of will between civilian control and military, all had grown over time and reached new heights; this brew bubbled, collided, mixed, leaked when reality of an Allied invasion occurred.

mkivpanzer_hzoom.jpg The velvet gloves come off and panzers roll into Vichy France in November 1942.

Contradictory orders were issued one after another by a single commander as information came in or was discredited. Conflicting orders came from civilian and military authorities, who then disputed each other’s right to give orders. Generals disputed the authority of other generals to give orders in the crisis. Messages from Vichy said one thing and the local representative of Vichy said another.

Because communication with Vichy was disrupted, the chain of command was altered, but not everyone got the message about the change. Some commanders got orders from generals they had never heard of. Confusion was the result and that led often to inertia and paralysis. Though the reaction of soldiers when attacked is to reply in kind, there was no decisive leadership and the will to resist dissipated within hours. The soup of conflicting orders, contradictory orders, the unabated undermining of rivals confused the matter all the more.

One example is a captain with a company on the beaches at Casablanca received orders from a his colonel to greet the arriving Americans as allies, and almost simultaneously orders from his major to fire on the landing parties. Faced with this contradiction, the captain took his men back to the barracks. The colonel and major were each passing on orders they had received.

In this mire, the castle was Algiers where the headquarters of the French colonial forces in North Africa was located. The conflict and contradictions were played out there with full force. In addition the American sponsored alternative to de Gaulle, Henri Giraud arrived with his immense prestige as a soldier and his childish incomprehension of the political situation, along with the American commander General Mark Clark whose campaign had already fallen behind schedule. In addition, François Darlan, Vichy Minister of Defence and commander in chief of the French navy was in Algiers on private visit to his ill son. The clash of these egos was seismic. The French would not agree among themselves, still less with Clark, but he had the bayonets.

At stake in this opera in Algiers was nearby Tunisia. It was the frontier between Vichy North Africa (and now the Allies) and Rommel’s Afrika Corps in Libya. The Germans wanted to use Bizerte as a port to supply Rommel. Vichy neutrality forbade that. When it became clear that the Allies had taken over in Algiers, and when de Gaulle arrived there and ended the fruitless negotiations with Vichy officials, the Germans stopped asking and started taking. In response the French troops in Tunisia turned on the Germans. As soon as this switch was reported by the Germans to Vichy, Pétain relieved the Tunisian commander, General Alphonse Juin, who ignored the order on the assumption that Pétain’s hand was forced by Germans. The chain of command snapped at long last.

Now the Armistice gloves were off from Morocco to Tunisia and Djibouti, and French officers along with their commands in these stations joined the Allies as speedily as possible. Within a few months every French colony was aligned with France Libre. Thereafter, General Juin’s 100,000+ man First French Army led the way in the Allies' Italian campaign. At the bitter end, Free France had 250,000 soldiers in the field in Europe.

The necessities of war brought Great Britain and Vichy into conflict to be sure. While Hitler had promised not to seize the French fleet, he was not a man famous for keeping promises. While French admirals swore not to let their ships go, would they be able to resist at the moment of truth or would they, like so many others, be overwhelmed by the Nazis?


Noteworthy, but not mentioned is that the Armistice Army was never used to enforce order in any sense. This army did not round up Jews. It did not kick in doors to arrest trade unionist. Its parades were not designed or intended to intimidate onlookers, in contrast to German parades in France. Rather these parades were intended to boast morale in the ranks and in the viewers.

I do wish the author had included some kind of chronology of major events with a comment on the fallout of each as I did above.

I do wish the author had included more numerical information, i.e., data about the military formations discussed. Numbers are mentioned at times, but a table or graph would be more effective.

I do wish the author had more systematically distinguished the metropolitan Armistice army from the colonial Armistice army, and then offered some general account, complete with tables, of their size and distribution.

Only a few sentence end with conjunctions in this book, however. This regrettable tendency is much in evidence in another Paxton’s books.

Laval was the dark prince of the Vichy Regime (1940-1944).

Unknown-3 Pierre Laval in 1931

Formally, he was prime minister while the venerable and elderly General Phillipe Pétain was president. These two hated each other and spent a good deal of effort in undermining one another. Although Pétain was willing to collaborate with the Germans and re-make France into an agricultural nation bound to family and church and reject the Third Republic and end all that liberty, equality, and fraternity rhetoric in favour of work, family, and country, he did draw lines against the Germans. Not so Laval who gave in to German demands at every turn, and at times offered more than the German demanded. He said that he did it to secure the good will of the occupier. There was never any evidence that good will resulted. When the Germans demanded slave labor, disarming the fleet, handing over Jews, Laval complied. Pétain did not.

Laval had entered the national assembly as a Socialist, having had a career as a labor lawyer. There he formed a boundless ambition, and a belief in himself that became delusional. In pursuit of that ambition he moved across the political spectrum to the centre and then the right. In the Third Republic in the 1930s he was a foreign minister, interior minister, and prime minister at one time or another.

Time man of year 1932.jpg Time's Man of the Year in 1932

In each case he was convinced that he alone could save France from external enemies (Germany) and internal ones (Communists).

In this biography he seems not to have been a reflective or introspective person. Self-doubts, he had none.


I said ‘delusional’ above. To explain, while prime minister he hoped to befriend Mussolini’s Italy and use it to restrain and buffer Hitler. At the time he started on this policy it had some promise. But to everyone but Laval it soon became apparent (1) that he had no influence with anyone in Italy and (2) that Italy followed and did not lead Germany.

No evidence convinced him to change his course. One rebuff after another from Rome, was dismissed as a bargaining ploy, an effort to conceal his influence from Hitler. In the effort to stop Laval’s endless messages to Rome, the Italian foreign minister wrote a letter, couched in very undiplomatic terms, to tell him to stop and sent it to the French foreign minister of the day who read it in parliament in an effort to silence and embarrass Laval. It did not slow him down a beat.

Later he developed a similar fixation on his capacity to influence Hitler, and repeated rebuffs did not faze him. He had a number of interviews with Hitler, and got virtually nothing from them, but that only led him to try harder to get another meeting where he would surely score a great coup.

Laval and Hitler.jpg One of many meetings

2WWlaval2.jpg How others saw him

Nor were his delusions limited to foreign relations. His start as a socialist gave him the abiding belief that he (alone) could unite the social divisions of France. Each failure to do so, he took as a sign that he was succeeding little by little.

One can only admire his tenacity and optimism while deploring his grasp of facts.

Maréchel Pétain was 84 when the Vichy government took form. While the Germans and the French were glad to have such a respected figure associated with the papier-mâché regime, they also considered that he might die at any moment. Anticipation of what might happen if he died, set off one palace intrigue after another as members of the Vichy government manoeuvred to have themselves named as his inheritor. Laval was the most conspicuous schemer but he was certainly not the only one.

By December 1940 Laval had irritated most other members of the six-month old government since its inception in July of that year. He was always a fast worker. In order to secure German good will he had cut across the domains of other ministers and given away French assets for a hand shake, and sometimes not even that. Accordingly, six of the eight other minister convinced Pétain to dismiss him. Pétain did not take much convincing.

It was done with a combination of subtlety and force. It was a ritual of Third Republic governments for ministers to sign a collective letter of resignation which the head of state (Pétain in this case) could use to drop an unpopular minister and placate public option or the parliamentary parties. At a routine 8 pm cabinet meeting one such letter went around the table and each minister signed it. The unspoken assumption, at least in Laval’s mind, was that it would be used to drop a junior minister who was ill and not at the meeting. As per the ritual, when the letter got to Pétain there was a short break and he retired to another room while the others drank coffee and smoked. He came back ten minutes later and said the ‘resignation of M. Laval has been accepted.’ The explosion went off!

Laval, completely taken by surprise, shouted, thumped the table, and nearly cried. To Pétain who had stood down generals under fire this reaction was most unseemly. Laval was bundled out of the room by other ministers and taken into custody by the Praetorian Guard (Pétain’s body guards) and put under house arrest some miles away. Although Pétain had told the Germans a few hours before he was making a change of government, they, too, were surprised and demanded Laval’s immediate re-instatement. Pétain refused. After 72 hours of pistol waving, angry telegrams from Berlin, a new prime minister (who was acceptable to Berlin) was named, and the Germans took Laval to Paris for the next 16 months.

Note that it was in Paris that the real extremists congregated and not in Vichy. The French fascists, the anti-semites, the New Europeanists (code for the German Europe), published newspapers, pamphlets, and books in Paris damning the Vichy government for its sloth, weakness, and lack of enthusiasm for the opportunity to cleanse France. They produced anti-semitic films and curated anti-semitic exhibitions. Applied their creative powers to anti-British propaganda which convinced themselves, if no one else, that Great Britain was the real enemy. They held rallies and attacked all manner of people in the street to show how tough they were. A few (very few) who really believed what they said volunteered for service on the Russian front. Laval was never quite comfortable with these zealots; he was — I think — an opportunist in service of his ambition and not an ideologue.

During this interregnum the Germans kept Laval on tap in Paris as a threat to the Vichy regime. If it did not comply with German requests, the Germans retained the option of creating a new French government in Paris with Laval at the head. Remember that by now Pétain was 86 and he might die at any moment. If he did can anyone doubt, they reasoned in Vichy, that the Germans would crown Laval? For his part Laval toadied, conspired, lobbied, and generally tried to ingratiate himself with German authorities.

Absent Laval, the scheming and musical chairs in the Vichy regime continued. Prime Ministers came and went, each trying to get Pétain to pass the mantle onto him. Ministers and ministries changed monthly or so it seemed. Until November 1942 Vichy did exercise administrative responsibilities of many kinds but once the Allies landed in North Africa that ended. Yet the Germans continued the mirage of Vichy as a means of stability. At the insistence of the Germans Laval returned to Vichy and to government after 16 months of his Paris exile and exacted his revenge on everyone, though Pétain himself and his immediate entourage was untouchable, not so others who were soon deprived of position, income, accommodation, and even papers. The Germans perceived Laval as the most pro-German of the Vichy figures and they also wanted at least the veneer of continuity in the Vichy regime.

Laval, that master of self-delusion, continued to suppose the Germans would win the war and said so often. That had been plausible in August 1940 but it no longer was in August 1944. No evidence could ever dent the Maginot line of his delusions. Throughout 1943 Laval conceded nearly every German demand. Indeed, he only declined in cases where he did not have the capacity to deliver.

Oddly enough as the Vichy regime withered and shrunk in early 1944 there was a clamour from the Parisienne ultras to join the government, and Laval finally agreed, over Pétain’s objections. As the ship was sinking, more rats got on it.

In August 1944 with American, British, and Free French armies a few miles from Paris, the Germans, perhaps out of the same strange loyalty that led to the German rescue of Benito Mussolini, moved Pétain and Laval and few others to a castle on the Danube. Laval had fled to Spain but the Spanish surrendered him to the French provisional government which tried and executed him in short order. Initially Laval seemed to think he was going home to a hero's welcome.

At this trial he lied as freely, as he had done throughout his career, and when presented the evidence of a lie, he shrugged and went on.

There is no doubt that in the end Laval believed he had done France a great service by buffering the Germans. Like Socrates, he nearly suggested that he be rewarded rather than condemned. The author refutes this claim with some comparisons to other occupied countries like the Netherlands and Belgium who governments went into exile.

His trial was no model of justice, but the author contends that there was and is no doubt that Laval was guilty of treason, however defined, but certainly within the meaning of the relevant French law. A lot more guilty than, say, Alfred Dreyfus or Léon Blum who had been tried on this charge in trials that were not models of justice either. Nor can one deny the conclusion that Laval was also a scapegoat for a lot of other people who trucked with the Nazis.

The book is definitive. It is based on primary sources from French and German archives, both civilian and military, with other material from the United States, which (too) long maintained diplomatic relations with the Vichy regime. It is measured and the prose clear, letting the story speak for itself and letting the reader draw conclusions.

Simone de Beauvoir, who is not mentioned in the book, covered Laval’s trial for a newspaper, and remarked that as much as she hated him, and hate him she did, the Laval that was on trial was not, or did not seem to be, the man she hated. He was diminished, small, uncertain, cowed, not the brash, bull-headed know-it-all man, who crashed through and crushed all in his path. Some of that diminution is physical. Laval’s table had always been sumptuous in Vichy, even when the rest of France starved, but after August 1944 he lived on German army rations and then prison food. He lost weight and colour from his complexion, the hair greyed. His one suit of clothes wore through. Then there is the fact of being on trial for his life…the round shoulders and bowed head. His was no longer the whip-hand. Her essay is reprinted in her ‘Ethics of Ambiguity’ (1962).

‘Jean?’ who you ask. Jean Monnet (1888-1979). He ought to be called ‘The First European,’ since he is widely regarded as the mid-wife of the European Community. Quite an achievement for someone who never held an elected office and who was never a civil servant. Yet by wit, tenacity, wisdom, patience, a vision, an appetite for data and facts, a network of friends and acquaintances all over the world, he kept moving toward a European union, and he got a lot of other people to move in that direction, too, including Charles de Gaulle.

In 1938 the French Prime Minister sent him on a special diplomatic mission to the Washington D.C. In 1940 Churchill gave him a British passport and sent him on a special diplomatic mission. In 1943 Roosevelt entrusted him to be his representative in Algiers.

publishable.jpg Monnet in Algiers in 1943

Internationalist indeed. This was just the beginning.

In Monnet’s mind European union was the means to the bring of enduring peace to Europe. He was born into a wine family in the Cognac and began working for the family company at 16. At that age he learned enough German to sell barrels of brandy to German buyers. Later as his father innovated and expanded the business, he sent young Jean to London to learn English while selling brandy. There he found his best single customer to be the Hudson’s Bay Company of Canada which bought in volume for national distribution. In time the Bay hired him, with his father’s encouragement, and he spent time in Canada, and from there the United States.

Asthma kept him out of the army in World War I, but, inspired by his experience with the Hudson’s Bay Company, he proposed to the French government that it join with Britain in a consortium to purchase not just war materiel but everything else, too, including the shipping to transport it, and the bank loans to pay for it all. An Inter-Allied Committee evolved out of this suggestion and Monnet was its executive assistant, and in no time at all he ran it in everything but name. There were many conflicts on this committee and Monnet was the one who never gave up, who stroked egos, who broke the conflicts down into a small pieces to find common ground, who developed the spreadsheets to demonstrate the priorities…. This committee was successful beyond anyone’s expectations. By the way, it was a small committee of four (USA, England, France, and Italy) and that was another enduring lesson. Keep executive committees small.

Toward the end of the war he left that committee and worked for Herbert Hoover in war relief for Belgium and France in that Herculean effort where twenty hour days were the norm.

At the end of World War I he went to work at the League of Nations, serving there for three years as an international public servant. He passes through Frank Moorhouse’s superb novel ‘Grand Days' set in the League.

Lured by the business opportunities offered by friends in the United States he moved there and made millions of dollars only to lose it all, as did so many others, in the Great Depression. He went from multi-millionaire to pauper in a few weeks. His passage back to France was paid by friends, including John Foster Dulles.

Never one to sit idle, back in France he received an offer from Chiang Kai-shek’s government in
China to set up and import-export bank in Shanghai. One of his League of Nations colleagues had recommended him for the job. He took it and succeeded, where several others had already failed. Later a dynastic power play in Madam Chiang’s family pushed his patron out of the bank and Monnet with him. His greatest achievement in this venture had been to convince the Chiang government that it had to re-pay all outstanding debts before trying to borrow more. This was a hard sell and it took a couple of years. He also made quite a profit from the three years he spent there.

He married an Italian woman who had left her husband. No divorce was possible in Catholic Europe. Both Monnet and his wife-to-be became Soviet citizens because divorce and re-marriage there was easy. She travelled from Switzerland to Moscow and he from Shanghai and there she divorced her husband and married Monnet. Reds! How did he live that down in the Cold War? This book sheds no light on that.

When he returned to Europe Monnet hatched a plan for France to buy airplanes from Canada. These airplanes would be assembled in Montréal from airframes and engines manufactured in the United States, in a work-around of its policy of neutrality. In the course of devising this plan Monnet had private meetings with President Roosevelt at Hyde Park.

The French capitulation occurred before those planes were delivered, 5000 in all, but Monnet on his own responsibility signed them over to Great Britain. For this act, and many later ones, the Vichy French regime charged him as a traitor. De Gaulle did the same, by the way, with military equipment intended for the French army in 1940: Gave it to Britain.

Churchill’s desperate gesture to keep France in the war in May 1940 after Dunkirk was to create a union government combining France and Great Britain as one. Churchill offered to defer to Paul Reynaud as the head of such a government. Quel beau geste! In London Monnet wrote the text for Churchill. The idea was that then Reynaud could take the government out of France to London and the French fleet and France’s considerable colonial army could be brought into the war. Reynaud could not convince his cabinet to continue the struggle and the moment passed.

Though Monnet supported de Gaulle’s effort to keep France in the war, he feared basing it in London would compromise it in the eyes of Frenchmen, which it did. He tried to convince de Gaulle to move to Algiers, and so remain on French soil. De Gaulle did not, and probably wisely. To move Free France to Algeria in 1940 or even 1941 might have meant capture by Vichy. Moreover, even if Algiers could be won over, location there would mean foregoing the material support Great Britain offered in London.

In 1943 Monnet was thinking ahead about European reconstruction. In Washington he used his business and political contacts to talk incessantly about the necessity of economic reconstruction to ensure social stability, including one lunch at the Pentagon with George Marshall. Monnet was responsible for American Lend-Lease supplies going to Free France. In fact, at the times he was the de facto American administrator of Lend-Lease going to Free France, and the de jure French manager of the supplies obtained. In this role he was a tyrant for propriety, insuring there was no hint of the graft, corruption, or profiteering that marked so many Lend-Lease operations elsewhere. This propriety made later Marshall Plan funding easier to justify.

104406918.jpg Explaining the Coal and Steel treaty

The historic conflicts between France and Germany, in the industrial age, had focussed on the Saar, Ruhr, Pas de Calais, Alsace, and Lorraine because there is where the coal and steel was. In 1943 Monnet was drafting plans to internationalise these regions under joint control of three or four countries. This is the seed of the European Coal and Steel Community, which later gave birth to the European Community. Monnet’s idea was to take the means of modern war out of the hands of a single country to put them into some kind of transparent international protectorate.

He was the author of the Schumann Plan that embodied this ambition and led to ever greater French and German collaboration and European unity. It was not easy going, and it took nine complete versions to get a plan that both France and Germany accepted since it involved a diminution of sovereignty. While others gave up and quit, Monnet persevered. The European Coal and Steel Community became the first voluntary European entity since the Holy Roman Empire. I omit the League of Nations because of its origins in Woodrow Wilson's insistence on it as the price for the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I.

142357.jpg With Robert Schumann, foreign minister, selling the big idea.

No sooner was the ink dry on the Treaty of Rome in 1957 which marked the beginning of the European Common Market, European Community, European Union of today, than Monnet began to talk about financial integration. He set up an Action Committee of private citizens, partly funded by foundation (including Ford and Rockefeller) grants, to organise seminars, radio lectures, publish discussion papers on financial integration, brief journalists which in time came to be a common currency, the Euro.

As successful as he was, Monnet had failures. Try though he might, he could not convince Roosevelt to recognise de Gaulle’s Free France as the provisional government of France in 1943.

Monnet also proposed a European army, partly motivated by the Soviet Union’s machinations at the time of the Korean War. This, too, failed. His aim was to contain German re-armament within such a pan-European army.

Another failure was Euratom which he proposed to make nuclear research European and so not put to military use by a single nation. France itself would not agree to this limitation, though the initiative is in the genealogy of CERN in Geneva today.

How did Monnet do all of this? Most of all he was a salesman. He loved big ideas and no idea was too big to interest him. He did not think of reasons why a big idea was impossible. As he emerges in this book, he is not reflective, nor introspective, and certainly not given to self-doubts. The harder the sell the more energised he seems to have been. He was not a writer either. The many policy proposals and discussion papers were terse, and detailed in dot points, graphs, tables, maps, and charts. The text would be filled out later by others. His preferred method of exposition was discussion and he was a master of that whether in a seminar, at the podium, dinner table, or a seat on a train or plane. Every occasion was used to develop, test, and advance the big ideas.

How did he live? Often he was sustained by the grace and favour of friends and admirers. He had no fortune and long ago he had signed over his share of the family business to his brothers. The money he made in China was considerable but moving in the elite circles he did meant the best restaurants, the best hotels, first class passage on ships and planes. He exhausted that money soon enough. His service on one special mission after another, yielded living allowances and nothing more. When at 70 he slowed down, to live on .... a pension derived from his three years at the European Coal and Steel Commission and that is all. He agreed to write memoirs in return for a hefty advance which supported his last years.

His name is everywhere in Europe. On postage stamps, commerative medals, universities, think tanks, government fellowships, busts and plaques in foyers of EU buildings in Geneva, Brussels, and Strasbourg, and the like, and yet he remains largely unknown, ever the stage manager in the back while the stars tread the boards before the audience of history. Indeed his name can also be found in Australian universities and yet few could say more than a sentence about him.


Monnet cognac remains in the market though no member of the family is now associated with it.

The book is comprehensive and thorough with admirable documentation. It is far more interesting than the first biography of Monnet I tried to read. Perhaps because Monnet was not a leader and did not hold an office, there seems to be little drama or momentum in the book. To confess, as fascinating as the story is, I found it a test of will to finish reading it.

Aside: Roosevelt’s handing of all things French in the war seems to have been clumsy and ill-informed for such a master juggler. Roosevelt overrode his Secretary of State to maintain diplomatic relations with Vichy from July 1940 to November 1942. Roosevelt’s hand picked ambassador to Vichy recommended suspending diplomatic relations but FDR ignored this advice. Did Roosevelt hope that indulging Vichy would make things easier when the landings in Morocco occurred? It did not. Vichy ordered resistance and resistance there was. Ditto in Algeria. In Algeria the United States through diplomat Robert Murphy indulged the Vichy governor Admiral Darlan and tried to undermine de Gaulle. Darlan enforced Vichy's anti-Semitic laws, arrested and deported to France enemies of Vichy, transported Jews to France for German death camps, and more while America officials and officers looked on. Even though by that time it was clear Vichy would not, could not open any doors to France when the invasion came to the continent.

A wall poster of General Pétain features in the opening sequence of ‘Casablanca’ (1942) and that film concludes with a bottle of Vichy water tossed into the rubbish bin. That's about all I knew about Vichy France.

saving-france.jpg Pétain was 84

Whereas every other country Nazi Germany conquered was placed under direct German rule, France was not. The Vichy Regime, as it became known, by the terms of the Armistice was to govern all of France, even though the North was occupied by Germany. The Occupation was only military. Civilian life was the domain of the French government, temporarily located in Vichy.

Vichy_France_Map.jpg Divided and dismembered France

Among the overarching themes in the book are these: First, Vichy evolved as the war developed. It transformed itself, in part, and was later transformed by the Germans. Second, at the start Vichy earnestly sought co-operation with Germany, to which Germany was indifferent for a couple of years, until the tide of the war changed the calculus. Third, Vichy had nominal responsibility for the whole of France, i.e., including the Occupied Zone in the North and West for schools, hospitals, police, roads, and so on. Fourth, in practice France was divided into three not two zones, the third being Paris itself where the German presence was the greatest and collaboration was the most blatant. Fifth, the Vichy regime was internally riven by ideology, religion, region, and personality, united only by an abhorrence of the Third Republic and a willingness to work in Vichy. Sixth, Vichy’s commitment to retaining the Empire ran deep, hence the undeclared naval warfare with Britain, the defence of Syria and Algeria, and Vichy bombing attacks on Gibraltar. Vichy propaganda supposed Britain's only war aim was to seize the French Empire. In this context Vichy propaganda portrayed General de Gaulle as a puppet for Britain to steal the French Empire away, which partly explains his intransigence in trying to retain every foot of the French Empire from Syria to Morocco.

confiance.jpg That is Churchill as the head of the octopus

Germany wanted France out of the war, and did not want a French government-in-exile to continue the war in any way. Why not? After all the Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Belgian, and Luxembourg governments-in-exile existed and were of little moment.

France was different because (1) of its proximity to Britain for the putative invasion, (2) its size compared to these others, (3) its navy which was second only that Britain, and (4) its colonial empire, particularly in North Africa - Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and the Levant. A united French government-in-exile might make a very large difference in one or all of these dimensions.

As to (1), in July 1940 the German plan was to concentrate on an invasion Britain as soon as air supremacy over the Channel was achieved, not on occupying and subduing every corner of France. Let the French govern themselves in everyday life, policing, sanitation, railroads, hospitals, water, roads, schools, and so. Call these matters administration. Of course, such administration continued in the other occupied Western European countries but run by Germans. Read on.

(2) The difference in France was size and location. German staff estimates of the troops needed simply to occupy all of France were considerable, let alone what would be necessary to subdue continued resistance in a rear-guard or guerrilla action in the Vosges, Alps, Pyrenees, Massif central mountains or the swamps of the Gironde, Loire, Rhone, and Saone rivers. It was best to make peace so that France could be used as a platform against Britain, and as a resource of food, men, and armaments. As it was the German army of occupation in France numbered a mere 40,000 for a population of 45 million, and most of those Germans were concentrated along the North coast opposite Britain. When resistance attacks began, that number increased and the overall calculus changed.

(3) The French navy was distributed around the world, though much was in French waters, not all. There were major elements in Africa (Algeria and Senegal), and there were 18,000 French sailors and more than one hundred ships in England in June 1940. Germany did not have the means of using the ships in French waters, i.e., it did not have the seaman and officers to man them, still less did it have a surefire way to recall the fleet from Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific. The best option then was to neutralise it by an agreement with the French government, i.e., the Armistice, to keep the ships out of the hands of Britain which might have the means to use them. Hence the fiction that Vichy was sovereign neutral. If and when Germany needed the ships, they would then be available. The fiction of French sovereignty kept the much of the fleet on ice for several years.

(4) Finally the colonies were a distraction to Germany. It had no means to occupy even those of strategic value, e.g, French Somaliland on the Red Sea, Lebanon and Syria (then French protectorates) with ready access to Middle East oil, or Dakar (Senegal) with its excellent deep water port on the Atlantic. Each would have been useful, respectively, to disrupt the Suez Canal, either secure Iraq oil or disrupt British access to it, and to base submarines in the Atlantic. Even so, Germany did not have the means (at the time) to do anything about them. Neutrality would be the best, immediate result to keep them out of British hands while the final battle for Britain occurred and allow for the possibility that later Germany would make use of them, brushing Vichy aside.


However, when Hitler turned east to the Soviet Union, then the demands on France changed, and would change again when the Allies landed in North Africa, expelled Germany from Tunisia, invaded Italy and drove it out of the war, and landed at Normandy. Each time, the German bear-hug on France tightened.

The 1940 Armistice allowed France, alone among the conquered European countries to retain a sovereign government beyond the daily administration alluded to above. France was divided into two zones and Vichy had about 30-40% of the country by either area or population. While much of France’s industry was in Paris and the north, Michelin tires, for example, was located within Vichy and several large manufacturers were in Marseilles and Toulon. The Armistice implied that once the war was won against Britain, the Vichy regime would be located in Paris and the northern Occupied Zone would dissolve. Meanwhile, Vichy received ambassadors from the United States and Canada and thirty (30) other countries, negotiated with Britain in Madrid for French assets, sold war matériel to Italy, imported food from Latin America, appointed new governors to its empire abroad … for a time.

Meanwhile, the regime was temporarily housed in the hotels of the spa town of Vichy. Why Vichy? Because nearby Clermont-Ferrand had the very best railway connections and Vichy itself had the most modern telephone exchange in France, connecting it easily to Paris, Berlin, Marseilles, and any where else. Moreover, one the most influential members of the Vichy Regime had major commercial interests there, and probably lobbied for the location, namely Pierre Laval.

By the Armistice, Vichy had administrative responsibly in the Occupied Zone, and near sovereignty in its Free Zone. Indeed, it maintained an Armistice Army of 100,000, unique in conquered Europe. That it existed, motivated many officers and men to be loyal to Vichy until November 1942 when it was disarmed and disbanded.

Though not stated in the Armistice, Paris quickly became a separate, third zone in everything but name.

Paxton convinces this reader that the Vichy regime attempted to use the situation to break with the past of France, and start the National Revolution to wind the cultural clock back. The first break with the past was the name. It called itself L’État Français and not La Républic Français. It repudiated the Republic and all it represented. It was a utopian moment when the discredited past burned away, allowing a Phoenix to rise. And because authority was concentrated in the executive, Pétain and the cabinet, with no carping, criticising parliament to be accommodated, it was a green-fields opportunity to (re)create a society afresh by dictate.

The Vichy Regime was Catholic not secular, agrarian not urban, insular not cosmopolitan. It did not celebrate the Rights of Man but rather the duties of a good Catholic to pray, work the land, procreate, and shun outsiders. On grounds that a religion brings order and calm it embraced Catholicism, though none of the principals of Vichy was ever religious, and certainly not Pétain himself, still less Laval. The school curriculum was changed and the Catholic Church invited to re-enter the classrooms from which it had been expelled after the Revolution. Science was de-emphasized. Curriculum committees set to work cutting French literature down to Vichy-size, big ideas out, duty and humility in. Girls were encouraged to pray and bear children for France. Withal, the author argues that Vichy was not fascist, but rather nationalist, nostalgic, and conservative. For example, its anti-Semitism was culture not racial. Hence the efforts of Vichy, ineffective though they were, to protect converted Jews.


Paxton shows in a great many ways that the Vichy Regime strove to be an active partner with Germany when it seemed that Germany's final victory was only a matter weeks away. Again and again, Vichy took the initiative to expel Spanish Republican refugees, to identify foreign Jews, to surrender arms, to bomb Gibraltar, to turn over information, to oppose Britain in word and deed, and to excoriate de Gaulle. Later, by 1944 the tables had turned and Vichy was merely a German catspaw, but that was not the case in 1940, in 1941, in 1942, in most of 1943, and even in some ways in early 1944.

Phillipe Pétain headed the Vichy government, bringing to it little more than his name, as the victor at Verdun in 1917 and a reputation, in contrast to so many in World War I, for saving the lives of his men behind fortifications and not spending them in pointless attacks. He was 84 years old when he took over. German intelligence kept an eye on all things Vichy including Pétain himself, and its assessments repeatedly confirmed that the old man had his wits about him, though he tired easily in the afternoons. We should all be so fit at that age.

When the time came the Vichy regime made itself a German catspaw. To make work in the South it negotiated contracts for war matériel for Germany. When Germany demanded slave labour, Vichy conscripted it. When Germans retaliated for resistance attacks by shooting hostages, Vichy volunteered to do that, and in some cases exceeded the German appetite for blood, as both local and national authorities settled old scores, personal and political. Most of all it delivered up Jews ever easier. Once on the slippery slope, the only way was down and down into the levels of Hell.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1989-107-24,_Frankreich,_Einsatz_gegen_die_Resistance.jpg Frenchmen arresting Frenchmen to please Germans.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-141-1258-15,_Russland-Mitte,_Soldaten_der_französischen_Legion,_Fahne.jpg French volunteers against Bolshevism on the Russian Front.

Paxton chronicles the infighting, careerism, exploitation, profiteering, undermining, conflicting personalities within the hothouse of Vichy, though he offers no explanation for the remarkable dismissal of Pierre Laval in 1941, who bounced back and exacted revenge on his real and imagined enemies. The seamy side of Vichy is well realised in some of J. Robert Janes's krimies set in this time and place like ‘Flykiller’ (2002).

One of the claims of Vichy was stability. Unlike the volatile Third Republic where governments lasted six months at best, and often less, Vichy would be a rock, as Pétain was at Verdun. Vichy propaganda repeated that claim untinged by the fact that its was a government set to musical chairs with six ministers of defence in one year, and a parade of prime ministers (until the Germans put a stop to it): Pétain, Weygand, Laval, Flandin, Darlan, and Laval again in less than 2 1/2 years. The Third Republic had longer periods of ministerial stability than Vichy ever had. Rather reminded me of the Murdoch media where what matters is repetition not veracity. Pétain wanted to remain prime minister and tried to regain that post but lost in these manoeuvres Laval.

8716_1331111324_image_8_1.jpg Pétain and Laval. They despised one another but were bound together in a bargain with the Devil in Berlin.

This book also makes very clear just how very alone Charles de Gaulle was on the 18th of June 1940 in London and how alone he remained for quite a time, making his creation France Libre all the more remarkable. De Gaulle remained alone because the chain of command in the army and the colonies held, despite the catastrophes of the defeat, the surrender, the occupation, the dismemberment.

There are honorable exceptions to the unalloyed vanity, venality, and immorality of Vichy. General Charles-Léon Huntziger, whom Charles de Gaulle specifically invited to command Free France forces, chose to stay at his post to share the fate of his soldiers in captivity, signed the Armistice in that railway car, and then worked tirelessly on the Armistice Commission to secure the release of French prisoners of war by any and every means, and met with some success.

To end where we started with ‘Casablanca,’ the Governor-General of French Morocco, Hippolyte Noguès, held to Vichy despite his own expressed conviction that the Reynaud government should retreat to Algeria and continue the fight from there. This was soldier who obeyed orders, however distasteful. But when by the terms of the Armistice a German commission arrived to monitor the French troops there, he restricted the movements of its members, assigned them a police escort, insisted they wear civilian clothes, put them in poor accommodation, and tried everything within his limited powers to minimize their impact. 'Casablanca's' Major Strasser would not have been allowed to wear his uniform, click his heels, drive around with a Wehrmacht guard, or start a bar fight. Not quite as accommodating as Louie Renault in the film. On the other hand, in 1942 when he was told, the day before, that American forces would land, he was ordered to resist, and he did for three days before surrendering. Not quite the romp show in ‘Patton’ (1970).

The book is informative, insightful, meticulous in the use of evidence, precise in drawing conclusions, and makes extensive us of German archives. It is also somewhat repetitive, which suggests more organisation is necessary, and there are annoying lapses in composition. Too many sentences end with ‘however,’ ‘moreover,’ and ‘of course.’ Far too many. There are also cryptic references to French history better suited to the seminar room. The author compiles some compelling data, especially in the final chapters, that is, quantitative, calories a day, total costs, tonnage of shipments, and the like, and these are presented as lists in paragraphs. While the presentation of evidence is welcome, this method detracts and distracts. Better to have presented as much of this evidence as possible in charts, graphs, and tables to give the reader a picture to put the detail into perspective.

Postage stamp catalogues feature stamps printed but not distributed by the Vichy regime for France’s far flung colonial empire. By early 1943 Vichy had lost contact with most of that empire, apart from North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco), and by 1944 all of that empire had gone over to Free France, with the exception of Indochina which the Japanese had occupied much earlier, despite the protests of Vichy. Germany made no effort to discourage this Japanese strategic move. Yet the stamps kept coming off the presses.

In a time of desperate shortages, when skilled manpower was at a premium, when printing presses were being broken up to be re-fashioned into weapons, when oil was a rarity, at this time the Vichy government had printed by the thousands in Paris those postage stamps for all of its lost empire. Almost none of those stamps were ever issued, that is, they not transported to Madagascar, Réunion, Nouvelle Caledonie, St Pierre et Miquelon, Guyana, or the Antarctic station. An example suffices. New stamps for St Pierre et Miquelon were issued six months after those strategic islands off the Atlantic coast of Canada had been occupied by an Anglo-Free France force. Reality did not intrude into the process, once engaged. Anyone who has worked for a larger organisation knows the truth of that fact.

rc7_0523_big.jpg Issued in 1943

Is this a case of bureaucracy gone mad? With the new constitution of Vichy the colonies had to have new stamps, so new stamps were produced regardless of the circumstances. Possibly. Another explanation presents itself, though, continuing to make work like this shields the workers from conscription for slave labor in Germany. The stamp designers, the stockmen, the inkers, the suppliers of ink, paper, and glue, the auditors all become essential workers in the Vichy administration. With this make-work perhaps some Frenchmen were protected from the dreaded Service de Travail Obligatoire.

The novel is a study of war photographers in South East Asia in the 1970s.  The three principals are Jimmie Feng, Dmitri Volko, and Mike Langford; the last is the protagonist. Mike is from Tasmania and there is where I got this copy in 2014. 


The descriptions of life and war in South East Asia are etched, and at times lyrical, the heat of the day, the bird song before sunup, the sapping humidity, the blinding sun, the people rooted to the land, the cool of the night,contrasted to the blare of American Saigon, the wumps of helicopters, the paralysing fear and chaos of a firefight, the confusion of battle, the mistrust of those people rooted to the land.  It is all there in a kaleidoscope of sounds and colours.  Much of the book can be read for a vicarious ride into the world of these war-lovers, as per the John Hersey novel.  

The first experience of combat is terrifying. Enduring a B-52 bombing is unendurable.  Volkov's drunken lament is moving. The political theory seminar, complete with references to Hegel, in the jungle is compelling.  

Mike is a Christ figure trying to save just about everyone and finding that he is all too human, too frail to do that.  Indeed his unremitting inarticulate goodness wore down this reader. Even more tedious was his universal sex appeal; it read like an adolescent boy's wet dream. Still worse was the recognition of his gift of grace in the early pages. The world does not work like that.

This reader was also worn down by 511 pages many of which were repetitious, first Vietnam and then Cambodia, each the same story told twice. Koch may have had to write it to exorcise his demons but I did not need to read it, and the second telling is lesser for my want of attention. Yes, I turned the pages ever faster. 

book.jpg Christopher Koch

Niggles, there were a few, I do not know what a 'Tasmanian bluey' is and neither did the Tasmanians I asked.  I have never seen it spelled ‘tzarist’ before and neither has the spell checker. The many references, including some in the Launceston setting at the start of the novel, to the Australian Broadcasting Service in the 1970s made me wonder where the ABC was. By the way, we never do get back to Launceston despite the elaborate setup. I also stopped short at a reference to blue eyes in old photograph of a great grandfather. Do the arithmetic and that great grandfather's photograph must have been in black-and-white.

I chose this book because I have read other Koch novels and trusted him on two counts, to have a story to tell and to tell it well. He met both those criteria despite my niggles and plaints.

When people hear that I am reading about Le Grand Charles most have a dismissive reaction as if to say ‘That fool!’ or worse. I get no such reaction to reading about Adolf Hitler or Erwin Rommel.

Does the memory of his veto of the United Kingdom’s bid to join the fledgling European Union still rankle? Does his icy reception of President Kennedy in Paris still itch? Does his determination to make France independent by (1) withdrawing from a NATO commanded by Americans and (2) developing nuclear weapons make him a villain?

That seems to be the superficial reaction. I say ‘superficial’ because I doubt any of these reactors know much of French history or his biography. This book offers a lot of both. As a foretaste of what follows, here are a few reasons by de Gaulle had no faith in the Anglos.

1.The British tried repeatedly to oust Free France from Syria and Lebanon when the Vichy Administration there collapsed.
2.The British colluded with the Americans for two years to displace de Gaulle with another, more pliable figure head. As to pliable see (5) and (6) below.
3.Whenever de Gaulle’s insistence that France was an Ally became too annoying the British would literally turn off his telephones, deny his vehicles petrol coupons, and end take-off and landing rights for the aircraft he used for transport in England and North Africa.
4.The Roosevelt Administration continued diplomatic relations with Vichy regime well into 1944, while that regime was busy deporting Jews to Germany.
5.Free France was excluded from all the planning of D-Day and the invasion of France in June 1944. ALL.
6.The American plan was to occupy France as though a belligerent and install military governors.

The list could go on but that is enough to indicate the sore points. To see some of the context read on.

When he decided to be a soldier, Charles de Gaulle grew up. His earlier dalliances with poetry and the life of letters fell away.  His adolescent indolence and insouciance stopped from one day to the next. His indifferent school work suddenly became excellent.  He is another example of Prince Hal or Achilles, a man born to the sword. Once committed to the Army, De Gaulle never looked back.  He entered St. Cyr by examination and worked his way up from 150 in a class of 200 to 12.   No one doubted that in another term he would be first. When he graduated he chose the infantry, unlike his peers who preferred engineering, artillery, or cavalry, each more glamourous than les poilus.


At 24 World War I started and de Gaulle was a captain at the front, shot in his first engagement. When his unit was transferred to the defence of Joan of Arc’s birthplace, sacred Verdun, he rejoined it there and served under the command of General Phillipe Pétain who praised young captain de Gaulle in dispatches. De Gaulle was bayoneted and captured, spending nearly three years as a POW in Germany.  He had studied German since high school and he studied it again to aid his numerous, unsuccessful escape attempts.  

In the long months of captivity he studied Germany and Germans in every way he could. He read the newspapers, spoke to and listened to the guards and the civilians who worked around the jail. He drew two conclusions from this study: (1) a civilian government mobilizes a country better than a military government because it is responsive to citizens and (2) Germans are resilient despite bad government.

For the moment stress the first, the primacy of civilian government. There is no doubt that de Gaulle, despite everything said about him by his many enemies, was a child of the French Republic and viewed it as the best form of government. He was never tempted by dictatorship of any kind under any name.

Wherever he went Charles de Gaulle had a mind of his own which he spoke. This characteristic slowed his progress up the army hierarchy but it also won him the support of Marechel Phillipe Pétain, such is the irony of history.  Though he and Pétain were never close, Pétain made use of de Gaulle’s talents and protected him from some of the enemies de Gaulle made all too easily.  

Prior to World War I the major debate in the French army was between the advocates of fortifications and those of firepower.  Pétain took the side of fortifications and he found vindication in the killing fields of World War I.  Firepower was so great it could not be overcome.  Sheltering on the defensive in forts was the only solution.  Out of this seed grew the Maginot Line.  

De Gaulle drew a different conclusion, though he agreed that firepower was irresistible, his conclusion was maneuver, mobility, and movement.  Hence his interest, even while a POW, in tanks.

After World War I the debate become more abstract.  The received opinion in France was that war had to be managed through a series of doctrines that computed firepower, ratios, bullets per man,feet of cement walls, angles of fire, lines of wire, kilograms of steel in fortifications, ever more technical, mathematical, and abstract.  A Cartesianism gone mad that René Descartes would not have recognised.  Everything must be planned and calculated far in advance, then the army ants move like clockwork according to the plan, directed from afar by telephone and radio, observed from above by airplanes.  

De Gaulle rejected this approach period, and said so in the first opportunity when he, then a junior officer, addressed a seminar of very senior officers who had all supped on doctrine. Rather he argued that it was circumstance, the unanticipated opportunities, that led to victory. These are first and best perceived at the lowest level of command, the sergeant, not in a manual of doctrine or at the end of a telephone wire in Paris. He advocated an army based on sergeants! At this rank the French Army should recruit educated and stable men, retain them with good pay and conditions, and train them (map reading, codes, signals) so that they could recognize opportunities and take initiatives. Hardly what the demigods of the École de Guerre saw as their mission. That Moltke the Elder, Napoléon, and Caesar could be quoted in support of this thesis helped not at all.  Off de Gaulle went to distant posts in Poland, Germany, and Syria. Had World War II not intervened he would no doubt have been assigned to the French Antarctic Territory.

To make matter worse, de Gaulle wrote and published one book after another, each contrary to doctrine. By the way in this writing he earned a reputation as a stylist of the first order. To read 'Le fil de l’épée' (1927) is to see why.  It is spare, terse, laconic, and elegant.  It emphasised the human element in combat not the technical; it stressed the concrete not the abstract. It argued that the soldier wins the battle at the edge of a sword, not the general at the end of a telephone line. The general trains and motivates the soldier, and directs operations in broad.

Not only was de Gaulle a democrat of the French Republic, he was never anti-Semitic, not even in the casual way that was common in those days.  There are many examples of this kind of anti-semitism that mar Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels of this time. Some of de Gaulle's mentors in the army were Jews, and he always remembered them. Moreover, Léon Blum from his prison cell in Vichy declared de Gaulle to be the leader of France.

Then the war came, and de Gaulle was plucked from a desk and assigned to a field command of light tanks. Within days of arriving, he launched a reconnaissance in force and engaged the Germans with some success and took several hundred supermen prisoners. This is one of the few initiatives shown by any French officer during the Phony War (September 1939-May 1940).  His superiors chided him for riling the Germans and relieved him of command! Gallic logic.

Then in May, German General Heinz Guderian struck with Erwin Rommel in the lead, proving that the Ardenne Forest was not impassable, which had been the assumption of the French General Staff, proving that massed tanks can destroy an enemy contrary to the doctrine of static defence.

De Gaulle, promoted to brigadier general, was assigned to command a makeshift brigade of French tanks. With this scratch force he launched the only French counter-offensive of the war to cut Guederian’s communication slowing the German advance. Like Churchill and Hitler, de Gaulle had been under fire in World War I, and, unlike them, he had also been under fire in World War II, several times at the edge of the sword.  

By this time the chain of command was disintegrating. Premier Paul Reynaud asked him to join the government to balance the defeatist that surrounded him, e.g., Pétain, who had been advocating an armistice for days.  Reynaud sent de Gaulle to London to motivate the English into making a still greater commitment to France.  

Between 1932-1939 there were fourteen (14) minister of defence.  Each busy undoing the work of his predecessor as the government lurched from one crisis to another.  

That old chestnut that people unite against a common enemy is belied in this story.

Even as the Germans were flanking Paris in June 1940, Generals Maxim Weygand and Maurice Gameilin were undermining each other and writing letters to prove that the defeat had nothing to do with them.  In one very embarrassing episode Weygand prowled the halls of the Ministry of War trying to get cabinet ministers and generals to sign a petition exonerating him of any responsibility.  Comic opera, but for the gunfire.  

Churchill was tempted to do more in France but he was surrounded by officers who told him France was lost and it was necessary to preserve British forces for the coming battle of Britain.  

Then in a master stroke that has since faded from history, Churchill offered to unify France and Britain as a single nation, with a single government, and to defer to Reynaud as head of that government, if only the French would fight on in France or take the government into exile to London or Algiers. Reynaud was ready to accept the offer of union but his cabinet, by this time meeting in the Bordeaux town hall, was defeated, and rejected the offer in a few minutes.  Better to make peace with the Germans than to enter into a covenant with perfidious Albion!

Like many others who emerge as leaders, the deeper the crisis became, the more disastrous the situation, the calmer, cooler de Gaulle became.  At the last joint meeting of the Anglo-French War Council, Churchill described de Gaulle as imperturbable, relaxed, and yet alert and — most of all -- with a plan….!  The plan was a far-fetched (a redoubt across the Breton peninsula, but he was the only Frenchman at the table with positive action in mind, indeed, the only one to make eye contact with the English.  The others stared down at the table top in silence.  Beaten men, they were defeated.  When Churchill passed de Gaulle leaving the room he paused and said to him ‘Vous êtes la France.’ Little did either of them know what was to come.

Though commissioned to ask what terms the Germans would offer, Prime Minister Pétain instead declared a unilateral ceasefire in his second day in office, and capitulated to the Germans with no effort to negotiate or permit the government to choose exile as the Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians had done in preceding weeks. Some say that Pétain's actions were thus illegitimate.

In London two days after the capitulation de Gaulle went to the microphone in defiance of the obvious facts that France was lost; in defiance of the government of Pétain; in defiance of a great deal of public opinion in France that the war was over, and thank God for that! In defiance of the French community in London which wanted nothing so much as a low profile.
De-gaulle-radio.jpg 'France has lost a battle; the war goes on!'

There is much more to tell but it is best read.  Instead of going into those details, let us take a look at the man himself.  He married Yvonne, he said, because she had the best mind.  He read most of his manuscripts to her, when possible, and accepted her judgement on style.  His daughter Ann was born mongoloid and thereafter much of the family life revolved around her.  There was never any question that she, Ann, would be secreted away in an institution though that was the common practice at the time.  To the extent possible Ann would have an ordinary life with her siblings. His sons all carried arms in the Free French military.

_Anne_de_Gaulle.jpg Anne de Gaulle, 'Maintenant elle est comme les autres.'

Second only to Yvonne was lifelong influence of his father and then his brothers.  They were a close knit clan and stayed that way.  The adverse publicity that Charles brought to the name of de Gaulle was worn as a badge of honour.  By 1944 the Vichy Regime had rounded up all of his relatives and they were deported to German slave camps. That included his elder sister, cousins, nieces and nephews, and few of them survived the ordeal. Is it any wonder that later he refused any truck with the Vichy Regime, despite the insistence of President Franklin Roosevelt. Non!

De Gaulle, the rebel, has an impressive CV.
1.In 1912 a very junior lieutenant de Gaulle advocated mobility in a unit commanded by Pétain that singular proponent of fortifications.
2. In 1917 Captain de Gaulle lectured senior field officers on the stupidity of ‘attack at all costs’ against machine guns which many of them had ordered.
3.In 1924 Captain de Gaulle published articles in both popular and technical journals arguing that circumstance determines success, contrary to the French Army credo of doctrine.  He is sent to Poland as an observer.  
4.In 1927 he lectured future generals on the importance of sergeants in combat, not High Command.   
5. In 1928 Captain de Gaulle refused to comply with General Pétain’s demands for intellectual flexibility.  He is posted to Syria.  
6.In 1934 Captain de Gaulle published a book opposing the doctrines of High Command predicting that the next war will be won by massed tanks supported by aircraft which will punch through any defensive (Maginot) line.  
7.In 1937 he published yet another book disputing the doctrines of high command against the express wishes of Pétain.  
8.In 1940 de Gaulle mailed a tract denouncing the conduct of the war to 80 superior officers.  
9.Against orders to do nothing, Colonel De Gaulle launched his tank regiment on a reconnaissance in force against the German, netting 500 prisoners, and proving that French tanks can best Panzers. 
10. On his own initiative in 1940 General de Gaulle launched the only counter-attack the French Army offered, briefly cutting Guderian’s line of communication.  
11. In1940 in London General de Gaulle re-directed a French shipload of military equipment diverted to England.    

Philippe Pétain rescinded de Gaulle’s promotion to General, put him on the army’s inactive list, retired him from the army, stopped his army pension, declared him a traitor, withdrew his citizenship, and launched legal proceedings in abstentia against him in both compliant civil and military courts where he was sentenced to death. Lest that all seem comic opera it is sad to say that others likewise tried in astentia did fall into the hands of Vichy authorities and were executed. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and even in one case the United States surrendered individuals to Vichy arrests.  Likewise those who fled to French colonies (from Algeria to Madagascar) were sometimes arrested and returned to Vichy where they were murdered. Shades of 'Casablanca.'

As to anti-semitism, consider this. When De Gaulle secured control over Algeria and Tunisia in 1943, his critics, including that completely cock-eyed American ambassador Robert Murphy, said de Gaulle was stirring up the Arabs. What de Gaulle did to stir up Arabs was stop the deportation of Jews from Algeria to Germany, which the Vichy governor François Darlan had been doing assiduously while Murphy looked on.

De Gaulle was long suspect to both British and American authorities because the Free French he assembled included communists, socialists, nationalists, royalists, reactionaries, regionalists, fierce individualists, and every other political stripe. All he asked was that they fight the common enemy under the tricolor.

From that radio broadcast on 18 June to July 1944, de Gaulle went from the most junior general in the French army to the head of the provisional government of France. It was a long, hard road with many setbacks, a lot of mistakes, and much opposition, but in its course he brought France back to life. In November 1944 there were 350,000 Free French troops in Western Europe. General Alphonse Juin's First French Army played a decisive role in Italy. General Phillipe LeClerc’s army liberated the south of France. Earlier in Africa Generals Jean Lattre de Tassigny and Pierre Koenig held the flank for the British at El Alamein. All of this started with that one man with an idea at a microphone. Though it was a capital offence to listen to his broadcasts in Occupied and Vichy France, Vichy authorities estimated his audience at three million (3,000,000)! What did John Stuart Mill say about one man with an idea? In this case de Gaulle's idea was France.

By the way, I note once again with interest that de Gaulle never promoted himself, unlike all those tyrants that his enemies likened him to. He retained his rank as a brigadier general. Every other general outranked him, including those who served at his command in the Fighting Free French. Even from the first days in London at least two full generals and an admiral of the fleet put themselves at his command. They recognised leadership beyond rank.

Despite the efforts of Ambassador Murphy, acting for Roosevelt, to undermine and displace de Gaulle he continued and in a coup de main in 1943 the Resistance in its many forms joined together briefly to recognise General de Gaulle as the voice of fighting France. The many European governments-in-exile in England recognised de Gaulle's committee as the sovereign of France, too, though it took the Anglo-Saxons powers much longer to do that thus sewing the seeds for future resentments.

Even in early 1944 Ambassador Murphy was still plotting some kind of transfer of allegiance of the remnant of Vichy to the Allies bypassing de Gaulle completely and recognising Pétain as the sovereign! The same Pétain whose primer minister Pierre Laval was an ardent Nazi. A plot that de Gaulle scuttled but which he never forgot. Put the shoe on the other foot: What if de Gaulle had endorsed Thomas Dewey against FDR in 1944?

Finally, D-Day and the invasion of France was planned without any participation from the Free French, and the plan was to occupy France and install military governors. Believe it or not. This was an insult de Gaulle never forgot. This is a story in itself. Within days of 6 June, de Gaulle with a small entourage marched onto a British ship, unauthorised, bound for the Normandy beaches, went ashore, and installed the first Free French prefects in the smoking ruins of town halls. As he strode down roads and streets that had just been fought over, he was mobbed by the locals. They had no doubt who their leader was.

As to the book itself, the judgements are few but very finely drawn. The prose is elegant, though there are too many distracting translator’s notes asterisked into the text * and ** and *** and, on one page, ****.   Readers should note that the French grammar is preserved in a literal translation that often throws an English reader used to word-order grammar.  There are also many cryptic references to figures and events in French history that escaped me.  

Lacouture is a journalist of the old school, one who values truth, seeks several sources for confirmation, interviewed everyone he could and who prefers understanding to glib judgements, and leaves conclusions to the reader, altogether a now vanished breed.  He would never get a job at the ABC.

PARIS-Jean-Lacouture-2-photogriffon-goodheidi.jpg Jean Lacourture

I read the two volumes of this biography in the 1990s when Kate gave it to me, and this is a second reading.  I will read the second volume soon.

All the reading about presidents brought me to Garry Wills’s book on leadership. It is so much more insightful, intelligible, digestible, and accessible than James McGregor Burns’s ‘Leadership’ (1979), often cited as the book that created leadership studies. Burns tries to bring everything--and I mean everything--under the heading of leadership, the result is like those banquets when all the courses from the soup to the dessert appear at once. Too much.


Wills’s book presents sixteen chapters profiling a leader matched with an anti-leader. His approach is informed by Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, and Burns, but not with the straight-jacket such frameworks often produce. There is an opening discussion that separates leadership from management and from influence and a concluding chapter that emphasis context accompanied by thirty pages of notes. Though it reflects a great deal of study and research the book reads easily; I read it in one sitting.

Some of the usual leaders are rehearsed like Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Mary Baker Eddy, Martha Graham, selecting leaders from sports, business, diplomacy, military, and more. The point is that political leadership differs from sports leadership differs from business leadership, and so on.

There is not a single thing Leadership that fits all cases. It is a simple point but it is hotly contested in both the popular leadership books and the academic literature on leadership. By the same token, to set leadership apart from management and influence is contested. Though both separations seem dead obvious to me but when I said so at conferences I walked into a firefight.

I learned more about Napoleon from Wills’s twenty page chapter than from the three biographies I have read, the shortest having 550 pages. They all had much more detail but less meaning than this chapter. The anti-leader set against Napoleon is George McClellan. Say no more. Though it is tempting to nominate Braxton Bragg who combined McClellan's incompetence with spite.

Wills's passing remarks contrasting Nancy Reagan to Eleanor Roosevelt won my applause. Now I know why I found the former so distasteful.

Eleanor Roosevelt 2.jpg Eleanor Roosevelt

Cesare Borgia is his example of an opportunistic leader and Wills’s main source on Borgia is one Niccolò Machiavelli. This is one chapter I read closely; yes, there were some I flipped through, admiring Wills’s breadth but not engaging with the substance. Borgia recognized that conditions change and success means both responding to those changes, and where possible anticipating them. Failure lies in ignoring or resisting these externalities.

100221726.JPG Garry Wills in 1994.

For every leader he included there are others omitted. Winston Churchill and Huey Long are absent. For every leader included there are qualifications. With age Napoleon lost the audacity that made him. For every leader included, there were mistakes. Franklin Roosevelt picked fights he could never win early in his career but he learned not to do that.

I have visited Smithsonian museums many times in Washington D.C. At last count there were nineteen (19) of them on the Mall. Vast and varied!


I vaguely knew that James Smithson (1764-1829) started it all with a whopping great cash gift in the 19th Century, and that Smithson was English and never set foot in the United States. That satisfied my need to know (-it-all) for years.

My interest was pricked a few month ago in reading a biography of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States. Uniquely, after he left the presidency, defeated in a bid for re-election, he served in the House of Representatives for nearly twenty years, dying at his desk. In Congress he was instrumental in securing the Smithson gift and putting it to work as Smithson intended. (There were others who hoped to siphon the money off for their purposes; these others included the sitting president, Martin van Buren.) Quincy Adams navigated through these sharks and shoals, arriving at the first museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, that is the red brick building often referred to as the Smithsonian Castle these days, from the turrets of which Abraham Lincoln observed the Confederate Army at Harper’s Ferry in 1862.

Taken as read, I thought no more of it, until I happened to mention Quincy Adams’s role to a friend, who did not know that the Smithsonian was started with a private bequest or that the donor was English. I then realized how little of the story I knew because I could not shed any light on how or why the gift was made.

Clearly it was time to top-up my know-it-all tank and I sought out and read a biography of James Smithson. What did I find?


He was born to an English mother in France, where she had gone, as have many others, to have her illegitimate baby. The father, most likely, was the Duke of Northumerland, a man who owned about one percent of England. His mother was volatile and threw her own considerable wealth into one endless, pointless, and unproductive lawsuit after another trying to get yet money out of others. James grew up speaking French with other children and English with his mother. When she returned to England with him, he had to be naturalized. The Duke never recognized either his mother or him in any way.

Naturalization took an act of parliament, though routine, it was also conditional, namely that James, like all the others, was prohibited from holding public office, either elected or appointed, and could not receive any benefit from the crown, e.g., a royal pension. Later in his life he bristled as these restrictions, as well as the illegitimacy which prohibited him from taking his rightful place in society, as he saw it. He was twice estranged, once socially and once politically from Mother England.

His mother indulged him and used her contacts to get him into Oxford, at one of the lesser colleges, Pembroke, which contrary to the other more prestigious colleges, emphasized learning -- rather than drinking and gambling -- and even more unusual it emphasized science, and most unusual of all that dirty and stinking science where even a gentleman got his hands dirty -- chemistry. It was a time when many advances were being made in chemistry outside the two historic universities and the Master of Pembroke College, striving to elevate the reputation of the college, went into chemistry with enthusiasm. Smithson loved it. He published many papers, and was elected to the Royal Society at twenty-two, the youngest ever at that time.

He inherited modest means from his mother, and invested it in canals and railroads, and made a lot of money out of each, which he reinvested, accumulating far more dosh than he could spent of display cabinets for his mineral collection, or blowpipes for his chemistry experiments, or on his travels.

Like other young gentlemen of his class and era, he made a Grand Tour through Europe; in fact he made three such Grand Tours. Whereas others frequented galleries, salons, and cathedrals, Smithson sought out chemists, chemistry laboratories, minerals, mines, and miners. He took meticulous notes, collected many specimens (rocks and dirt to the inn-keepers who often refused his baggage entry), measured anything that could be measured, and tried to measure some that could not be measured. Amateur scientist, yes, but deadly serious and completely focussed. He had several unwanted adventures on these Tours because Europe was rent by the Napoleonic Wars, e.g., he spent a year in a cold, stinking prison in Hamburg as a British alien at a time when all of Germany was occupied by Napoleon's army, which saw a spy in those copious notes Smithson took of the geography and geology. In his travels around Europe he must have crossed paths with John Quincy Adams, on his many diplomatic missions, but they did not meet. Did he ever came across Ethan Gage?

Many of his English friends who had supported the French Revolution in the early days, were suspect in Great Britain as Jacobins. A few went into voluntary exile, including several to the United States, and they wrote to tell Smithson of the premium given to science in the United States. He also met Americans on the Grand Tour and they also told him that science was uninhibited and valued in the United States. He noticed when the incumbent President John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson one was the President of the American Philosophical Society and the other President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The two leading political figures of the decade were intellectuals! Did George W. Bush ever read a book, after 'The Little Prince,' I wonder? Bill Clinton stopped reading with 'Little Red Riding Hood.' Mitt Romney and books...does not compute. Barry O'Bama only reads himself.

In addition Smithson saw the vast private museum of Lumley Keate, a distant relation, broken up and auctioned, when all lamented that such a carefully acquired and artfully curated collection was sold piece-by-piece as curios, rather than preserved as a whole. In an England impoverished by the endless wars with Napoleon, there was no public means to capture this patrimony for the country. England along with Europe was consumed by wars from Portugal to Russia and the Baltic Sea to Sicily, leaving little time, space, or finance for science.

He continued to travel in Europe, despite the upheavals and convulsions. His health had never been good, and after that year in prison it got worse. Whole years are missing from the tale because the intrepid author could find no record of his activities, and surmises he was laid up somewhere recovering his strength. In 1829 he died in Genoa, Italy where he had gone see a collection of mineral specimens. He was buried there and in due course his will was probated in London. He had made the will some years earlier; he wrote it himself without consulting a lawyer; this is always a recipe for trouble. In it he left the income of his worldly goods to a nephew during the nephew's lifetime, his only living relative, and the goods themselves to be divided equally among the nephew’s children, legitimate and illegitimate, when the nephew died, and in a secondary clause, ‘to the United States of America to found at Washington under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.‘ A quaint second clause it seemed, until the nephew drank and whored himself to death in two years, dying without issue. Accordingly the secondary clause applied. [Aside, reader of Charles Dickens’s ‘Bleak House’ know what is coming next: The Feast of the Lawyers.]

The British Government, skint from all those Napoleonic Wars, moved to seize the fortune for the Crown. Somerset House informed the American minister in London, who passed the word to the President (Andrew Jackson). A plenipotentiary was dispatched to London to secure the money for the United States. He did superb job, no doubt paying bribes, to keep the matter out of the Chancery Courts. It was Richard Rush, a wily Pennsylvanian, who had been United States Attorney General for President James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury for President John Quincy Adams, and previously ambassador to the Court of St. James. He wrestled the money from the British Bulldog in only two years. Various distant relatives of Smithson, retainers, friends, some of many scientific associations Smithson frequented, all tried to contest the will, and Rush parried each.

That was only the beginning of a story that would take another book to tell in detail. The short version is that no one in Washington wanted the gold. (Rush brought it to Washington in twenty-one chests, each filled with gold bars!) Southerners thought it would enrich the federal government to dominate the states with their precious states right (to slavery) and Northerners thought it was a devious British plan to take over the country.

How big? About 100 million pounds today! That is about $US166 million or $A179 million today.

A satellite image of the eastern half of the National Mall with 10 Smithsonian museums located on it.
This is what the money bought. The Castle is 14 above. This is only half the Mall, the others are on the west end. (1, 7, and 8 are not Smithsonians.)

In time the Smithsonian Institution on the Mall emerged, though it took many hands, like Quincy Adams, Alexander Graham Bell (yes, Don Ameche invented the telephone), Joel Poinsett (the flower man), and others to overcome, first, the objections, and then to stave off the swarm of special interests who wanted all, most, or some of the money siphoned off into hundreds of pet peeves, from butterflies in Maine, to public lectures in every town on fingernail clipping, and so on. It took years. Work began on the red castle in 1855 about twenty years after Smithson’s death. Even then claims from relations and retainers continued to arrive at the White House. I expect they still arrive today, addressed to the Smithsonian!

Where did the money come from? Why did he do it? The first is the easier question to answer. He invested in canals and railroads, and was one of the first to do either and one of the few to do both, and they each paid off and continued to do so all of his life. He also invested in inventors, some of whom paid him back twenty times over.

Why did he do it? Let’s break that down into some smaller, more focussed points. What we have here is multiple causation.

Let us be clear he left his money to his only living relative, that twenty-five year old nephew. Only when fate intervened did that secondary clause come into play. Perhaps it was a amusement for him to write in that afterthought.

He had long been estranged from England by the reactions to his illegitimate and foreign birth. He was completely divorced from the French by that year in the slammer. More generally, he saw Europe bent on destroying itself. Wherever he went there was war, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Austria ....

He had seem examples of philanthropies in England and France, though few aimed at scientific knowledge. Rather he had seem great scientific collections sold as paperweights, while to find specimens he had had to travel the length and breadth of Europe.

Did he want to immortalize himself as a man of science in a way that his own scientific labors did not achieve? He was a very able and dedicated chemist but he made no breakthroughs to put him in the pantheon, and he knew it. If so, Europe was not the place.

From the United States he had heard many good stories about the value of science there and that democracy did not hold a man of talent back because of his illegitimate or foreign birth. (He had a total loathing for sea voyages and never thought to go there. Even to sail from England to France was something he avoided, in one case, for four years, so much did he fear the ocean.)

The book is a sterling example of thorough research and the dexterous handling of uncertainty, and speculation. Little is known of Smithson’s life, partly because trunks with his private papers burned in a fire, much has to be inferred. The author tracks him rather like astronomers identify celestial bodies by the distortions they cause passing in front of star fields. She has combed bank records, passport files, police reports, and the correspondence of his contemporaries for mentions of Smithson and draws conclusions from them. The author handles these inferences well, they are qualified but integrated. There are many ‘possibilies,’ ‘surelys,’ ‘probablies,’ 'maybes,' and so on. None of this is easy, not even that name Smithson for it was not his birth name. For details, read the book.

I re-read Hanah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem," inspired to do so by the film "Hannah Arendt."  By the way, the subtitle "The Banality of Evil" is implicit in the book and stated only on the last page by way of conclusion on page 252.  At the end of this review staunch readers will find a note about Howard W. Campbell at the end.  (Don't know about Campbell? Then read on to find out.)

Eichmann book.jpg

Despite the furore at the time, portrayed in the film, Arendt did not:

1. In any sense exonerate Eichmann, 
2. Condemn Jews in any way, 
4. Blame Jews for their own destruction, 
5. Assail the court proceedings, 
6. Oppose the death sentence, 
7. Question the legitimacy of the trial, and
8. Assert that Eichmann was a Zionist.

Though each of these lies was said at the time dutifully repeated by those that do not think but react.

Once one of these falsehoods was said, it was repeated by other journalists too lazy or irresponsible to check the facts, long before Rupert Murdoch could be blamed.  Needless to say none of the journalists who recycled these falsehoods ever apologised.

Nor was such intellectual laziness limited to journalists.  Over the years I have heard them from academics who should know better than believe everything they read, something they quickly condemn in students while doing it themselves. 

First things first, the role of Jews in their own destruction is there, reported as fact throughout the book, the local organization of the Jewish Council.  Where a Jewish Council did not exit the Nazis tried to set one up.  Some Jews who cooperated with the Nazis in these councils were later themselves tried for crimes in the Successor Trials that followed The Nuremberg Trials but not specifically for crimes against Jews.  She does not sensationalise this Jewish cooperation, and acknowledges that in its early stages in Western Europe it may well have seemed the best thing to do.

She also points out that others cooperated in their own destruction at times when whole peoples were moved, deported, and then murdered.  Likewise she is very clear that resistance was impossible.  

In all these references to Jewish cooperation amount to, say, fifteen pages of the 300 in the book.  Perhaps a little more.

Second, it is forcefully argued that Eichmann in Jerusalem was demonised in order to allow the trial to tell the whole story of Jewish persecution and destruction.  That is why the prosecution introduced volumes of material that had nothing to do with Eichmann.  He was a cog, albeit a vital one, but nonetheless a cog, not a director, decision-maker, influencer of others.  He was a cog who could have been easily replaced.  But the trial was not about him, and is that not what trials are supposed to be about, the defendent. In exile on Argentina, Eichmann did boast of his part in the Final Solution, true, but perhaps he did this to ingratiate himself with the exiled Nazis he found there as much as anything else. Men do brag and exaggerate, now don't they?

Third, all the nations occupied by the Nazis had Successor Trials shortly after the Nuremberg Trials.  None of these trials presented indictments about murdering Jews. Having no state, Jews did not.  Israel as the Jewish state had as much right to hold such trials as any other state, she concludes.

Eichmann's self-defense was that the emigration, evacuation, and destruction of Jews were acts of the German state which were above the law and normal morality.  Though he did often refer to orders, "ein befehl ist ein befehl," and even mentioned Immanual Kant. His six-day interrogation, his testimony in the trial, his many written submissions are muddled, inconsistent, repetitive.  He was working only from memory in Jerusalem and he was not a bright man to begin with. No Albert Speer he.

While rejecting resistance as a possibility she also reviews and dismisses the pop psychology explanations of the Jewish cooperation in their own destruction as some kind of death wish. One reviewer of the book said the same of her.  That she had written a negative book about Jews because she hated herself as a Jew.  There is no limit to imbecility.

All of Eichmann's social, intellectual, bureaucratic superiors knew and accepted the destruction of Jews.  Who was this functionary, one-time salesman, to judge compared to them?  Remember not all the professional officials were Nazi thugs.  At The Wannsee Conference where Eichmann did the coffee, Count Ernst von Weisacker represented the Foreign Office.  Eichmann was thrilled to be in such distinguished company at the time.  

There seems also to have been a big difference between the approach to the Final Solution in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe.  In the east there was no local government, e.g., Poland, a puppet government, e.g., Croatia, or a Fascist ally like Hungary.  Sometimes for a while Western European Jews had some protection afforded by their own governments, although Jewish refugees say in France were surrendered quickly.  But by 1944 even this protection was not enough.  Italy seems overall to be the best place for any Jew, including refugees who could disappear into the crowds, hills, forests.  Bulgaria is another country where the unwillingness of locals to cooperate stymied the Nazi killing machine.  Belgium is another exception because there many, many Jewish refugees and almost no Jewish organization, the Nazis had no place to start. But almost from the start German, Polish, and Russian Jews were murdered on an industrial scale. By 1944 nothing stopped the Death Machine.

Eichmann on trial.jpg
Eichmann on trial

Her argument is that the crimes were unprecedented and so the justice done them had to be likewise unprecedented.  [Everyone knew they were crimes which is why all the euphemisms were used. She does not consider this point, though she notes how seldom there was an explicit reference to extermination, killing, murder, etc.]. Law serves justice.  Law should not thwart justice. No graduate of a law school would ever say that!

She has many criticisms of the lackadaisical and incompetent defense attorney who seemed to neither know nor care much about the events, Eichmann, or the trial.  She is also very scathing about the melodramatic, wandering prosecutor who never seemed to focus on the accused.

In the end we have great evil partly done by this pathetic, hardworking, if stupid and unimaginative individual.  He was shallow, unread, incapable of learning from his experiences, unreflective and untroubled by what he was doing.  What he did care about was his career advancement and he spent lot of time, rather incompetently, trying to secure promotion.  He never read a book, certainly not a novel, a poem, or a play, and probably nothing more taxing than a few pages in coffee table books, if that. He flunked out of both high school and vocational training. He repeated clichés and stock phases he heard without grasping their meaning or their trite nature. He is no Faust aware that he had sold his soul to the devil for a few magic tricks.  

The Nazis were able to destroy as many Jews as they did, in part, because Jewish communities were so well organized and disciplined.  When the Jewish Council in Poznan told a list of families to assemble at the train station for resettlement, they did.  This order made the fiction easier to bear, as Eichmann dimly realized, but it made the killing easier.  If the Jewish Council had told the truth, it is not resettlement but murder, or refused to cooperate the result would have been terrible, but perhaps fewer would have died.  Perhaps.  It is a question Arendt asks, and she speculates that fewer would have died though with foreknowledge and dread.  Does the doctor tell the terminal patient the truth of allow the patient to die in hope? 

Safe to say we have all met people like this Eichmann, but fortunately none of them held the power of life and death over us.  They even exist in universities, a PhD is no guarantee of thinking. [Jackson pauses to recall several exemplars.] We all react to stimuli but seldom do any of us think.  Some people never do.  Ameboa react to stimuli, too.  

Not everyone who does great evil is a fearsome demon.  Readers may recall that in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Brothers Karamazov" the devil that visits Ivan is a dirty, smelly, stupid, and vulgar lout.  He is no Mephistopheles, but rather Anyman.  Simone de Beauvoir said something similar about Pierre Laval, evil but insignificant. Of course, years after their crimes, defeated,captured, reduced to prisoners, not even vicious killers seem very threatening.

The book exudes urgency and importance.  The prose is hard and clean, no embellishments, no learned references, very few citations of other studies though some. It is easy to imagine the author pounding it out on a typewriter to meet a deadline, not an editorial one, but In this case a moral one, namely get it all and get it right. There will never be another chance. Of course, she made mistakes in proper names, sometimes, in dates by a week or a month, and there are overstatements a few times. These errors have been pounced on by reviewers for years, who themselves evidently have never made a mistake, to discredit the entire book.

I noted that the Dutch journalist Harry Mulisch is cited a few times.  I found his novel "The Assault" a compelling book, ditto the film based on it.  Infinitely sad and yet somehow satisfying it was when the message is at last delivered.  That would have been a better name for the novel, "The Message."


In reading this book again I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's "Mother Night" and it's protagonist Howard W. Campbell who never laid a finger on anyone, spied on Nazis at great personal risk, sublimated his own personality to his espionage, and .... was a war criminal because "you are what you do."  


Another winner from this Sydney University graduate in Ancient History.

Corby with PC.jpg

Nicolaos (Nicos) and Diotima find more trouble to get into with a very young and very annoying Socrates in tow. Will he never shut up! (We all know that answer to that now. Prattling away on his deathbed.)

This is volume four in the series, which began with ‘The Pericles Commission’ (2010), and this one closes with a teaser for the next installment. Hooray!

These are krimies for time-travellers. They are set in the world of Pericles, Themistocles, Aeschylus, the greatest generation of Greeks who turned back the mighty Persian Empire, not once but twice. Pericles in these stories is a young man on the make, and he suborns the even younger and far more naïve Nicos into his service as messenger, go-between, agent, spy, and detective, while keeping him at arm’s length in case anything goes wrong! Nicos brushes with the great but, as in this case, spends his time following bear droppings in the woods.

Marathon Conspiracy.jpg

The touch is light, the history is real but measured out to amuse not choke by showing how much the writer knows, the characters are human beings and not ciphers or stereotypes, and Nicos’s realization that all is not what it seems, is always fun.

In this volume we learn about the education of highborn Athenian girls, how divorce works (and how it is best avoided), the limits on the husband’s rights over a wife, while seeing that Socrates was a pest right from the start. We also find out a lot about that battle at Marathon, a site I saw in 2007. It is always good to have Diotima your side, she is a dab hand with a bow and arrow, but even better to have a huge bear on your side. This is what Nicos learnt this time out.

The 192 Greeks who died at Marathon were buried in this mound which I saw in 2007.


Readers of the early Platonic dialogues will know that in the 'Symposium' Socrates credits Diotima with much of his education. Now we know why! She, by the way, is the only woman named in all the Platonic dialogues.

A book about the bookshelf and, more importantly, how bookshelves and books interacted and evolved by a civil engineer. It starts from papyrus scrolls and ends with the e-book which in 1999 was referred to as the Overbook.
book on the bookshelf.jpg

As Books Bagshaw once said ‘Books do furnish a room.’ English Prime Minister William Gladstone seriously demonstrated that two-thirds of a gentleman’s home should be dedicated to books. He was thinking of about 25,000 books. Yes, 25,000! (If Books Bagshaw is unknown, show some initiative and find out who he is.)

There was much to learn as books and the shelves that store them progressed through history.

In the 15th and 16th entries books were often sold as loose leafs which the purchaser then had bound, either at the place of purchase or back home in the castle.

In the medieval and early Renaissance Europe context books were precious.

There were traveling book cases, useful to be able to pick up the collection and move when the bad guys came, be they royal agents looking for booty to steal, ahem, taxes, brigands looking for loot, a foraging army in the Thirty Years or One Hundred Years Wars.

These shelf-boxes were often designed to press the books within when closed. Book presses. In time individual books might have a lock on the cover or a hasp with a strap. With parchment books, moisture was the enemy and the books presses, in boxes, straps, or locks were designed to pressed the pages together to exclude moisture. Though over time books pressed would deteriorate anyway. These boxes often had three locks taking three quite different keys held by three different individuals. That is even more distributed security that the firing pin on a nuclear armed Polaris missile on a U.S. Navy submarine. They have only two keys.
Henry Petroski

From these boxes we get the armoire, and the linen press.

It came to pass that bound books were shelved vertically. Who started that is lost in time, but it was a revolution that led to more revolutions.

At first the spine of the bound book faced inward on the self for several hundred years. It often accommodated a metal hasp which held a chain, the other end of which attached to a rod bolted to the furniture. This is the chained library such as the one I saw in Avila. A reader consulted the book right there as the chain was short. The lectern beneath the shelf served the reader with its angled face and foot to keep the book stable. From this evolved the lectern in the front of the class room. The books were chained, as all librarians immediately understand: to keep readers from nicking them!

On those very rare occasions when a chained book was freed, say to be lent to another monastery, it was a major effort to uncouple it from the iron bar that might have twenty (20) other books attached to it. The bar itself was held in place by a lock, which often took more than one key to open as above.

Then there was the question of light. First candle light, then windows, then electric lights. In the early 20th Century glass floor tiles to diffuse the light had a fashion. Light was also an enemy when the inks and dyes were organic, yet it was also necessary so great efforts were made to find a balance.

Petroski compiled many drawings, wood cuts, plates, paintings, and other illustrations to show the evolution of the storage and use of books in Europe which edify and amuse. My favorite is the book wheel. It has been literally true for some readers of my acquaintance who always (claimed to) read many books at once and beyond the literal, more importantly, it is a metaphor for the life of a reader like me.

Book wheel.jpeg

When books became cheaper and thus less valuable, the chains came off. That made it possible to turn the binding outward, and in time the title was printed on the spine, in Britain reading up and then in the United States, thanks to Ben Franklin, reading down.

George Orwell said that ‘People write books they cannot find on library shelves.’ Nowadays we scholars write book no one is looking for.

One of the pleasures of the book is seeing mention made of many libraries I have visited, like Widener at Harvard, the Bibliothèque National in Paris, the Library of Congress, the British Library, the New York City Public Library, the Bodelian at Oxford, Firestone at Princeton, the Hoover Library at Stanford, and so on.

The book ends with an whimsical appendix on methods to order books on bookshelves in a private collection. Each of the 20 or so methods Petroski enumerates has drawbacks that require an arbitrary rule apart from the method. For example, if the method is alphabetical by the author’s last name, the pitfalls come quickly. Is ‘O’Henry’ with the ‘Os” or it is “Henry, O’ with the 'Hs" and if that hurdle is past what do we do with pseudonyms. Then there are multiple authors and so on. O’Henry was William Porter by name.

By the way, the Overbook is the Kindle today.

This gem was unearthed in the process of sorting and cataloguing books at home. I am pretty sure I have his great book The Pencil (1990) somewhere.

Jacques Barzun is a great scholar.  His essays are powerful microscopes that zero in on important topics. His 'The Modern Researcher' is not only a useful reference, but also a pleasure to read. He must have published thirty books and edited as many more. Among them is 'A Catalogue of Crime' with Wendall H. Taylor (1989) (Rev. ed).

Jacques Barzun

At a time when Edmund Wilson, he of the 'Finland Station,' and Robert Graves, who said 'Goodbye to all that,' deprecated mystery and crime fiction as 'degrading to the intellect,' Barzun took his stand, and what a stand it is. The 'Catalogue' is just that, thousands of thumbnail sketches of crime novels. Some examples follow below.

In the introduction Barzun maps out the country in his pellucid prose, the purpose being to guide other aficionados like himself through the forests of mediocrity to the mighty oaks within.  It is a catalogue raisonné which I have used for years but over time it disappeared behind the silt of newer titles on the double-ranked bookshelves, recently rediscovered in my campaign to catalogue all my books, a long, slow process that yields, as on this occasion, pleasures anew.

When it came to hand unexpectedly, I paused to re-read that introduction. Against the likes of Wilson and Graves, Barzun sets Dr Johnson who wrote lovingly, in another context, of 'the art of murdering without pain' which is the starting point for Barzun's tour of the trails and vistas of krimie literature.  He turns to that philosopher and mystic R. G. Collingwood who opined that 'the hero of a detective novel Is thinking exactly like a historian when, from indications of the most varied kind, he constructs an imaginary picture of how the crime was committed and by whom' in his 'The Idea of History' (1946), a largely unintelligible work. Thus do intellectuals justify their human weakness.  That Marxist titan Ernst Bloch had a far more basic explanation: it is fun and satisfying to see villains get it, since in real-life they so seldom do. That is the gist; it took three weighty volumes for Bloch to grind that message out through the mill stones of Marxist clichés.

Barzun spends many words distinguishing the crime novel from thrillers and other interlopers in the scared grove, including some rather doubtful remarks about chick crim lit (p xiv).  Umberto Eco's 'In the Name of the Rose' is likewise banished from the inner sanctum by definition (p xv). Lines have to be drawn and these will do as well as any, but I did not find the explanations enlightening or interesting enough to summarize.  Suffice it to say that Barzun is right at the core with Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, and so goes the honour roll. He tosses off shafts of insight along the way, Chandler and Macdonald only make sense in a highly mobile (geographic and social) society where people do not know each other, and Christie and her ilk make sense in the Little England of Burkean communities of past, present, and future. 

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Barzun strives with his many powers of persuasion to argue that a great writer cannot write a krimie, for in their works crime and punishment are but plot devices to reveal character. When great writers put this noble purpose aside to write a krimie the result is left-handed at best, citing the unarguable example of William Faulkner's 'Knight's Gambit' which is a poor thing indeed compared to ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ but then so is most of 20th Century literature when set against this marvel. (Barzun thus implies that the krimie is destined always to be a second-class book no less that Wilson or Graves, it seems.)

The flood of mystery book titles that Barzun saw in the 1980s is today a tsunami with subcategories galore and specialities undreamt of in his time.  Added to that is the profusion of translated works from Europe, not just those Nordic tales of angst, and the once-red world of Russia and China, along with every corner of the globe from Africa to Zagreb.  There is so much from which to choose that readers like writers may now specialise.  I, for one, prefer continuing characters whom I get to know, like Philip Marlow, Mary Russell, Lew Archer, Jane Marple, or Jules Maigret, and always, Sherlock Holmes.

As a reader, I have also become merciless at casting aside books, no matter how well received, that do not win my attention.  Why press on when it becomes a duty and not a pleasure?  Under that flag I have surrendered to the depths Nicholas Freeling's 'Van der Valk' novels, despite my affection for the eponymous television series and for Amsterdam itself.  I have also dismissed Jan Wilhem Van Vetering's endless efforts to be different as boringly adolescent.  For a taste of Netherlands vice give me A. C. Baantjjer with the redoubtable Inspector de Kok.

I reproduce here Jacques Barzun’s 'Taxonomy of the Phylum Detective (Mystery) Literature.' The opening essays offers an exegesis of this taxonomy. In cutting and pasting it, I lost the formatting of numbers.

I. Genus ‘Detection’
A. Species
Short (1845)
Very Long (1860)
Long (1912)
medium Long (1940)
Short short (1925)

Police routine
Acroidal [?]

C. Habitat
Limited (train, ship, castle, etc.)
Big City
Open country (moor preferred)
Exotic (Nile River, Suva)
Underworld (Los Angeles)
Institutional (hospital, school. convent, etc.)

D. Temper
Humorous (farcical)
Historical (real crime reconstructed)
Amateur (boy-and-girl team, et al.)
Ineffectual (drunk, fool, boor detective)
Private eye (decent or deplorable)
Official (and a Yard wide)

II. Genus ‘Mystery’
A. Species
Social (cult, blackmail, conspiracy, etc.)
Private (revenge, triangle, etc.)
Stabilized (‘suspense,’ Gothic, Rebecca, etc.)
Aggravated (HIBK, EIRF) [?]
Ghosts (sin punished)
Pagan (elemental forces)
Witchcraft , orgies (always nameless)

B. Varieties
Chase (paper, necklace, girl)
Napoleon of crime (Shakespeare manuscript, the Drupe Diamond, white power bitter to taste and such)
Mysterious East (idol’s left eye, curse of SingSingLong)
Domestic (poison pen, poison swig)
Commercial (stolen formula, child, white slave, black slave)
International (new math: 007, MI5, ect.)

But the best use of the book is leafing through it, reading the tart comments on obscure works relieves me of the need to do more, reading encomiums on old friends like Georges Simenon reminds me of pleasures past, and references to hitherto unknown titles of merit promise pleasures future.  Here are a few specimens to give a foretaste.

'Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake (1943)
The exposition of situation and character is done with remarkable pace and skill, even for this master. A superb tale that moves through a maze of puzzles and disclosures to its perfect conclusion. This is Chandler’s masterpiece.'
chandler lady.jpg

'Alan Hunter (James Herbert), 'Too Good to be True' (1969)
A suitable title for this tale, which has a little suspense but in which the detection is pathetic, consisting of as it does in waiting for the appearance of the accused man’s half-brother. the trial collapses as does the tale.'

'William McGivens, 'Night of the Juggler' (1975)
Formerly a writer of good police procedurals in the terse style, McGivens has fallen under the spell of the new fad for excessive detail. The killer rapes and tortures young girls, always on a fixed date and for insufficient reasons. Go if you must on the case after the man and girl through the wilds of upper Central Park.'

'Ngaio Marsh, 'When in Rome' (1971)
The flame still burns steady and strong. The writing is elegant and Det. Supt. Alleyn is impressive as he works with the Roman police in a case of double murder set in an ancient basilica. Blackmail is neatly interwoven with the the activities of a delux tourist agency. The participants in one of these excursions form the group of skillfully depicted suspects, including a remarkable brother-and-sister pair.'

marsh rome.jpg

'Margot Neville (Margot Goyder), 'Drop dead' (1962)
Laid in Australia, written with something too much of female softness, but not disagreeable; composition choppy, characters and love relations perfunctory. Withal suspense in maintained and the part of official detectives are good.'

There are 5,000 entries in the book like these. Read on.


The versatile novelist Ron Hansen strikes again.  One change of pace after another from his 'Mariette in Ectasy' (1992) to 'Isn't it Romantic' (2004), the first a study religious devotion in a turn of the century convent and the second a contemporary screwball comedy and this, an examination of the BEAST seen through the eyes of one of his very few relatives, a niece, the daughter of his half-sister.  

Hansen Hitlers niece.jpg

It concentrates on the period between late 1919 and early 1930 and is based on biographical details spun by the novelist's creative imagination into a tale of obsession, confusion, and demonic egotism.  Hitler is almost human on occasion, but often playing a role to elicit the response he wanted from individuals at this early stage of his career: Pandering to some, bullying others, reasoning with a few, briefly avuncular.

I have never read anything about or by this the most famous man of the twentieth century, Adolph Hitler, so it was all new to me. The messianic self-confidence from the early 1920s that he WAS Germany (‘Du bist Deutschland,’ as Rudolph Hess always said), punctuated by lapses into exhaustion and doubt (human weakness) followed by a resurgence of manical energy charged with certainty.

The fulcrum of the novel is the niece Angela 'Geli' Raubal's seduction by his aura, the prestige, and material wealth he increasing commanded with his periodic moods of sexual attraction to her and then revulsion from her.  She became a canary in a gilded cage.  Spoiled and then abused by turns, and at crucial moments lacking the will to break away when that might still have been possible. 


This tension opens a window on Hitler, the man, through these crucial years.  Hitler had at the start an iron self-control in public, and volcanic temper tantrums in private, but as his successes piled up, the line between public and private decayed for he discovered that he could get away with anything in public and still be hailed a genius.  The temper tantrums were unleashed in his tirades.

Hansen gives us Rudolph Hess, Jospeh Göbbles, Hermann Göring, and others, all mesmerised by Hitler's charismatic personality.  'Charisma' is a tried and trite word these days, and I try never to use it, yet there is no doubt it applied here.  Hess and the others simply melt in Hitler's presence, losing their wills and personalities.

The same applies to the thousands in the audiences of his harangues, though at a greater distance, they too are also compelled, lifted out of themselves by his exhortations.  Hansen shows all of this, disgusting as it is, to be genuine, authentic.  There is no cynical or instrumental calculation to explain their adherence, obedience, and the ensuing terrible deeds.  

Long before he became Chancellor this man Hitler had a power over people that was tangible though invisible.  There is the mystery at the core that continues to fascinate. After the explanations of time and circumstances are exhausted there is still that element left that defies conventional, rational explanation.

Yes, there were aristocrats, financiers, and industrial barons who thought they could manipulate this rabble rouser to combat the menace of communism, and then discard him, but they, too, as they drew nearer to him soon enough submitted to his will.  Scenes in which Hitler seems almost deliberately to turn on his magnetic gaze -- think Superman engaging his X-Ray vision -- and bring to heel a millionaire, a full general, an heiress, a professor, a titan of industry, each his intellectual, organisational, or social superior yet all bowing down to this corporal without an education, with a grating Austrian accent, with a crude manner, spouting vitriol is .... astounding.  There can be no other explanation but that word 'charisma.' The novel is a case study of that C Factor. ('Charisma,' for those who have not been paying attention.)

In David Fraser's 'Knight's Cross: the Life of Erwin Rommel' (1994, p. 433) there is an occasion when the war in July 1943 is going badly and Rommel, who had doubts about its conduct which as a good soldier he stifled, is scheduled to go to Berlin. This trip he welcomes because, he said, he would warm himself by the Füher's radiance and gain re-newed confidence.  It is a wistful, school-boy-with-a-crush kind of remark made by a decent, mature man who knew better and yet even he could not help himself.  Rommel, like so many others, near or far, was hopelessly and helplessly in love with one Adolph Hitler.

There are many memorable scenes and events.  Perhaps the best, for this reader, is the description of one of Hitler's early speeches in an beer hall with an unruly crowd. Hitler is tight as a spring beforehand, nervous, angry, best avoided. He takes ten pages to the rostrum microphone in the hall, while the noisy crowd continues to drink beer and talk. ( We later learn that on each page is a bullet point in 10-15 words or so as a cue.) He begins…(after a few minutes the beer drinkers grow silent). The tirade mounts… (the beer drinkers lean forward to hang on every word). He continues … (the beer drinkers shout approval and applaud and he waves his hand and they fall silent like puppets on a string, this long before anyone even knew his name). HIs sermon becomes ever more explicit about what the problem is, what is to be done about it, concluding that Hitler alone sees the problem clearly and is willing to act on it with the merciless violence necessary to destroy the evils within Germany.

One crowd awaiting its master's voice

He rants for more than two hours. The reaction is spontaneous and tumultuous. The beer drinkers rush to sign up for the Nazi Party. This is early in his career, there is nothing coerced about the response as would be the case later. He has jolted a nerve shared by members of this crowd - the western nations are eating Germany and Germans alive through their despicable agents the Jews, Jews and Communist are one and the same, wicked oriental cannibals, and the crowd's response is galvanic. BANG! The poor, the uneducated, the impoverished veterans, dispossessed craftsmen, angry layabouts, the day labourers, the unemployed, the ignorant, these are the meek and they are being disinherited of their earth. For these, his is the voice. Hear it! Heed it! Obey it! (Christopher Isherwood says in this 'Berlin Stories' [1945] he went to a Nazi rally in 1938 and heard Hitler speak. Amid the shouting and frenzy he heard a familiar voice and turned to spot the speaker, only to realize it was he himself shouting his approval, even though he did not approve.)

After his speech Hitler is whisked away to a car out of sight. Sprawled on the back seat, he is drenched in sweat, reeking of vile emanations, exhausted, pale, his gaze unfocussed, twitching in throes, his clothes in disarray as if he clawed at himself. This description reminded me of Biblical accounts of John the Baptist channeling God’s will. It nearly killed John, but do it he must. Hitler, also, seems to be a messenger for something larger than himself. The agitator is himself agitated, as Harold Lasswell said all those years ago in 'Psychopathology and Politics' (1930).

Many were resistent to Hitler's appeal like Geli herself who laughed in his face more than once.

Surprising to this reader was the cunning with which at times Hitler carefully tailored his message in the 1930 election so as not frighten voters.  I had not credited him with that kind of calculation. But by that time, like the racism that infests contemporary American politics, it was so well embedded that it need not be said for it was communicated by signs and whispers. The red star of communism was also the Star of David. To attack communism was implicitly to attack Jews even if they were not mentioned.  

Ron Hansen pix.jpg
Ron Hansen

False notes, there are a few. The most striking to me was the way Emile at the end seemed not to be bothered by Geli's death.  

Minor missteps? I wondered about the reference to a crossword puzzle in 1927 when the first crossword appeared in the ‘London Times’ in 1930, and the crossword being an Anglo-American invention it would have taken time to migrate to Germany. There is also a reference to a zinfandel-coloured carpet. I stopped at this, because the zinfandel grape skin is black and the use of it as a wine grape is American. (Yes, I know it has a long history and has been used in Croatia for centuries as a blender, but I doubt a German in 1927 would reach that far for a colour.) I also found jarring the reference to Kaiser rolls and Ferragamo shoes. The Kaiser roll is Austrian and may be named for a baker, not The Kaiser, and more generally called Vienna rolls. Salvatore Ferragamo started making shoes in Florence in 1927 and went bust in 1933, to be reopened in the 1950s, leaving me unsure that Geli could buy such shoes in a shop in Munich in 1930.

One contrast to Hitler of these pages is his contemporary Charles De Gaulle who also felt himself to be the saviour of his country and as a result grew a kingsized sense of his own importance, and yet he seems modest, even self-effacing in comparison.  I read Jean LeCouture's three-volume biography of Le Grand Charles years ago.  De Gaulle did not use up people and then murder them when it was convenient as Hitler often did, like Ernst Röhm and perhaps Geli, among many others.

Dublin Chief Inspector Peter McGarr of An Garda Síochána (Guardians of the Peace) features in a series of krimies set in contemporary Ireland. They are rich in local detail and meticulously plotted with a variety of characters from lowlifes to highlifes. At times the inner compulsion to finish a job sees McGarr venture into Northern Ireland during The Troubles.

This installment in the series rests on James Joyce’s 'Ulysses.' Say no more. I had to read it. A scholar from Trinity College who lectures in the thriving business of Bloom’s Day is murdered. The suspects include academic rivals, jealous lesbians, a much put upon wife, a street gang, and ... well that is enough.


While members of his team interview and re-interview these prospects, and walk over the Bloom’s Day tour time and again retracing both Leopold Bloom’s and Stephen Dedalus’s footsteps along with the victim's, McGarr sits in the warm June sun in the garden at home on his annual leave reading 'Ulysses' in search of a context for all these people and their interactions, connections, meetings, conflicts, and associations. No Dubliner can admit to not having read 'Ulysses' so McGarr says he is re-reading it.

It is a clever premise and it is well executed.

22 Germinal 221
Nothing reminds us of the essential irrationality of the world than, there before our eyes everyday, the calendar.

Consider the numbers: the moon’s cycle is 29.53049 days which does not yield a nice set of months. Helios is no better. The earth orbit of Sol is 365.242199 days which yields 12.36827 months. These calculations were done by ancient civilizations around the world. Some of which had enough sense to stop there. The others formed committees.

(The hole gets deeper, if we ask what ‘a day’ is. And why, oh why, the seven day week? Let’s not go there, just now.)

The Julian calendar is one compromise, amusingly portrayed in John Maddox Robert’s novel 'The Year of Confusion' (2010) when Caesar tired of the squabbles among the expert committee he assembled to solve this problem. As always the defining feature of an expert committee is disagreement. After exhausting the treasure and patience of Caesar, the committee produced in 46 BCE a calendar that differed from the prevailing calendar by 0.0024 of a day! The committee did have enough sense among its cantankerous members to flatter its patron with that month ‘July.’

Pope Gregory repeated the exercise in the 16th Century with the result that the months range from 28 to 31 days, and inserted every fourth year a catch-up with Leap Year. No mathematical perfection there to please the Pythagorean in our souls.

‘Pope’ did I say ‘Pope?’ Yes, the Catholic Church owned that new calendar and completely colonized it with Saints’ days, feast and fast days, and more.

When the French Revolution ushered in the Age of Reason in 1793 it was as much a revolt against the Catholic Church as the Ancien Régime. All those saints’ and fast days had to go, and they went! They were rooted out right down to the calendar itself. The year of the Revolution was Year Zero, and that was 190 years ago and April is Germinal.

Another committee was formed..... It produced violent disagreements and incomprehensible technical disputes that led some of its member to the guillotine. How else to get a consensus but with a sharp edge? So the chair of many an expert committee has asked. Iain Pears's charming Jonathan Argyll stumbles, as always, on just such a deranged committee chair in 'The Titian Committee' (1999), and though committee members are murdered one-by-one, the remainder are no closer to agreement. So true. Discordant unto death which in Latin, sort of, is 'discordat usque ad mortem.'

The French Revolutionary Calendar made the irrational world, briefly, rational with decree after decree. The day, the week, the month, and the year, all had to change. And change they did (remember that sharp edge for those who clung to the forbidden, corrupt past).

As long as the earth spins, the irrationality remains despite what a committee in Paris does. The only solution is .... Yes, more committees. In the long outfall of the French Revolution, another French committee -- inspired by the success of the platinum metre -- tried again in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, but it soon fell apart and one member, the irrepressible August Comte, proceeded on his own with the Positivist Calendar with months named after Moses, Homer, Aristotle, Archimedes, Descartes, Fredrick the Great, Dante, ... and Bichat. Bichat? [I don’t know.] Each week also got a name, e.g., Socrates, Confucius, Mohammed... So did every single day!

The Russian revolutionaries made their own calendar with the result that their own October Revolution retrospectively moved to November! It does get confusing when time is relative. Vide Einstein.

There came another committee at the League of Nations, which produced the International Fixed Calendar, dividing the year into thirteen months, each of 28 days with an extra day at the end. Not heard of it? Few have. It died with the League to be buried alongside that other bold effort at rationality, Esperanto.

The next effort to control time was when Adolf Hitler decreed that all of Nazi subjugated Europe keep Berlin time regardless of sun or moon. Megalomaniacs all.

By the way, the French Revolutionary Calendar is essentially a blank calendar template in which nothing ever changes, as per that phrase. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
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Having read three of Tuchman’s other books with relish, I moved on to this one. This book seems to this reader to be -- superbly written, true to say -- a glib festival of hindsight, with some self-indulgence thrown in.

It is certainly true that governments, the focus in these pages, persist in failed polices, at times with an irrational fervor. It was said of Phillip II of Spain that ‘no experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence’ and it could be said of many others, too. (The same is also true of the corporate world, too, but that is another matter.)

That painful, self-destructive persistence takes some explanation. But it is not to be had here.

Tuchman Folly.jpg

First is the indulgence: She, the doyenne of (at least) popular history, starts with the Trojan acceptance unquestioned of that wooden horse. Hey, that is the Iliad, which is fiction at best and myth at least! People do foolish things in novels and plays as plot devices. A false note at the start is not a good start.

Wooden Horse.jpg

There follow flawless accounts from the vantage of Olympian hindsight of the popes generating the Reformation, of England precipitating the American Revolution, and the United States trying to destroy itself in Vietnam. Each is certainly a remarkable example of political failure, each replete with fascinating personalities and stories which she tells far better than most; likewise much of it has been well told many times before. Another telling adds what?

The method is to identify the critics and naysayers, whom history proved right, starting with Cassandra. The naysayers show that there was doubt and that there was an alternative that was eschewed as time and effort instead went into the mistake approach, which she calls policy, a term to which we shall return below. Therein lies the rub.

There are always, I repeat, always naysayers. That they existed proves nothing. That fate in perfect hindsight vindicates some of them is no help. The naysayers are very often wrong. How can one discern the true negatives among all those negatives?

Look around, anything you see, a building or an institution, a custom or a practice had its naysayers. There is a Newton’s Law in society: for every action there is a reaction, though not aways equal, and not always opposite. One day cricket, oral vaccines, art deco buildings, trams, credit cards, women wearing pants, all of these had loud, heated, persistent naysayers, and some of them still do, by the way. The book about the March of Naysayers would fill every library shelf in the world. The file would be too big for Kindle.

So what? If everything stopped because someone feared the worst, nothing would happen.

These pages offer no way to distinguish a naysayer worth listening to from one not worth listening to. Remember that Cassandra had been against everything all her life. Like that boy who cried wolf, she had spent her credibility long ago, that is part of the joke that Homer has, the one time she was right was of paramount importance, but everyone was way past hearing her.

The very word ‘policy’ is part of the problem here. In the 1970s political parties discovered this term and began to use it to distinguish themselves. They no longer had programs, practices, procedures, or even promises, let alone principles, they had policies. Of course, no one has ever been quite sure what ‘policy’ means as distinct from all those other ‘p’ words, but it does at least mean consistency. These policies have been painted in ideological and partisan colours. Once the opposition has embraced a policy, its opponents can no longer touch that policy. Thus is the political world divided.

The media has fixed onto that consistency and first tirelessly demands that a policy be stated, and then attacks the stater for any deviation from it. It is win-win for the media. Though political parties started this game they are now reaping the whirlwind.

Pity the politician who offers no policies. Yes, I know Margaret Thatcher scorned the word but she practiced what she did not preach under the heading of principle which in her case was ‘policy’ sans le mot.

Never mind that the world is a wild beast, that circumstances change, that reality testing often returns negative results, that the same response does not always fit all cases.

The standard is consistency.

It is as though, we should demand that medical doctors prescribe the same therapy for each patient, regardless of medical history, circumstances, prognosis, capacity, etc., rather than try to tailor the therapy to the individual.

Policy, that is, consistency, is itself sometimes itself the problem. Yet the demand is always for more policy, another policy.

If all this seems inchoate and abstract, turn to the example of Franklin Roosevelt who never tied his hands with either policies or principles but willingly tried this-and-that to find something that might work. Like Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt had a goal and he steered toward that, though not always in a straight line, which meant going left sometimes and right other times. One imagines the meal a smirking ABC journalist, or a shouting Fox .... [journalist] would make of that today.

By the way, the best book on American involvement in Vietnam remains Neil Sheehan, A Bright and Shining Lie (1989). J. Paul Vann was Thucydides in this war, and when he died, Sheehan became his amanuensis.
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This is a study of how one Fabian Ware created the funereal symbols we now associate with World War I and subsequent wars. The subtitle is ‘How one man’s vision led to the creation of WWI’s war graves.’

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A reference to ‘war graves’ brings to mind green grass and ranks of white head stones to many of us. A reference to symbols evokes the solemn statuary say in Martin Place, or the dawn ritual of Gallipoli. Each of these and more trace back to Fabian Ware’s Herculean efforts.

Before World War I and Ware’s many efforts, British war dead were left were they fell, unidentified except by their absence at the next roll call, and buried in mass pits or burned with whatever fuel was at hand. The families of wealthy officers might (try to) retrieve the body or have a memorial erected at the site. That was it. And as Britain went so went the Empire.

World War I changed that. The industrial scale of the slaughter, even in the early days of 1914 made the war dead a visible, national issue. Scale tells the story. At Waterloo Wellington’s army had 3,500 causalities. One day at Mons 1914 the British Expeditionary Force had 35,000 causalities. These men were volunteers, but later it would conscripts usually organized geographically. One result was that the eligible manhood of whole villages and towns were destroyed in a battle, say at the hellhole of Ypres, whole cities.

Ware went to France in the earliest days of the conflict as a volunteer ambulance driver. He was a good organizer and soon commanded ever more ambulances and crews. Having been a student in France he spoke the language and loved all things French, apart from the Catholicism. He saw the way the British dead were ignored, and dealt with only as a health hazard or nuisance, and he went to work with a fury.

The metal dog tag, identity disk, was one result of his efforts, along with others. Tommys originally had a cloth name tag on the inside nape of the shirt. In heaps of mangled and rotting dead bodies no one wanted to wade in and cut those out, and most would have impossible to read. Given the staggering number of dead, the British authorities preferred to list the dead as missing to reduce the impact on public opinion. This conspiracy of silence outraged Fare and an outraged Fare was cold, methodical, utterly charming to win over allies, scrupulously rational in argument, and equipped with a mind-numbing array of facts and figures all heated by an evangelical zeal.

Like Thomas Edison and other aliens, Ware needed little sleep working all day driving the ambulance and all night compiling his arguments. In time he shifted his work from ambulances to identifying the dead, and marking and recording the sites where they lay buried.

There was much resistance to this effort but he pressed on and made allies as well as enemies. It is important to note that he was doing this often amid shot and shell. He gathered around him a dedicated team whom he taught, at night after an exhausting and terrifying day’s work, to speak enough French to ask locals about ‘Morts Anglais?’

His work transformed into the Imperial War Graves Commission, and again with a perseverance, tenacity, and wit beyond mere mortal he convinced the Empire dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and India to leave it all to him.

He tried to control everything from the grass to the statuary that arose after the war. Tireless is the only word for it. Megalomania is another.

Ypres necropolis.jpg

He convinced the French government early in 1915 to cede the land English soldiers were buried in to England! Imagine that. (See the note at the end for further explanation.) After the war that led to the consolidation (i.e., digging up thousands of graves and transporting the remains) into large necropolises like that vast expanse at Ypres. Every step was dogged by opposition, religious, familial, national, bureaucratic, political, institutional, church, racial, personal and Ware overcame them all. He anticipated much of this and was sensitive to religious and racial matters in handling the dead that seems enlightened by today’s standards.

In time most of this work was at a desk in London, but he would occasionally put down his pen at 6 pm in London and take the overnight boat-train to France for inspections. He descended on his field teams and more than once took a shovel himself. The men who worked for him hated these inspections for he was a strict taskmaster, but admired his commitment to the cause.

Like Steve Jobs he sweated the small stuff as well as the large.

What was that ‘cause’ any way? World War I, he thought, as did many others, was the last war and even more important it was an Empire war that united all the British peoples, all those naive volunteers, all those conscripts, all those lads from the Dominions, together they were everyman. Most had no wealthy families to care for them in death, and, as a Christian, death and those mortal remains had a sanctity that had to be respected. Moreover, the enormity of the death would discourage future wars, if only that enormity were brought home, he thought.

Death is a democrat; it takes all just as we are. Ware was an egalitarian at this level. He prevented many wealthy families from retrieving their beloved dead in contradiction to his vision of a single nation from all walks of life and parts of the world united in death. Imagine the outrage that caused. Only 10% of the one million British and Empire dead were identified, i.e., 100,000 but the families of many of those wanted their -- son, brother, husband, nephew -- to be singled out as an exception and some were willing to campaign for it and to pay for it. Thousands of letters to the Times denounced Ware in every way. Aristocrats petitioned the Palace and lambasted successive prime ministers. There questions in the House! Ware tried to explain his reasoning in response but the abstractions of equality or the vague promise that mass, majestic, silent cemeteries would stay the sword next time meant nothing to the bereaved here and now. The budget cutters in parliament snipped away as did Treasury. A perfect storm! How did he come through it all?

There is more to the story that is best read. And remember the Imperial War Graves stretched from Mesopotamia to East Africa to Gallipoli to Palestine to Greece to Italy and to the Western Front.

It is another of those cases that shows what a single person with intelligence and will -- a Gulliver among the Lilliputians -- can accomplish pretty much singlehanded, at the start, even in the face of vast bureaucracies (the Army, the Public Works Office, Treasury) that have other important priorities and in the face of an orchestrated and angry public reaction.

The story is much more powerful than the telling. The book is hard going. Many sentences I had to read twice to get the point. Obscure, elliptic, cryptic, inverted, recessive, these words come to mind in describing the prose.

Note. Ceding the land for cemeteries meant it cost nothing, but much more important it made the very land, say, at Étaples forever British even more permanent than an embassy.


In 1940 when the German army occupied Étaples it thus occupied British territory as much as the Channel Islands. The British flag flies there by right, not by courtesy. That is a gesture as thoughtlessly magnanimous as Winston Churchill's in 1940 offering to surrender British sovereignty to France by combining the countries as one to continue the war. Another story there.

Recommended for fun

Take two late twenty-something French cosmopolitans, she Helen of Troy beautiful, he devastatingly handsome, on the outs and plonk them down in Seldom (Pop. 398), Nebraska and see what happens. That is the hypothesis of this short novel.

If Seldomites are surprised to see, first, Natalie walking down the dusty road with a roller bag, and then half-a-day later the wild-eyed Pierre burst out of a bus that had no business being there, they did not show it. Owen continued curating his shrine to BIG RED FOOTBALL, Carlo continued to think of nothing and no one but Iona who has ignored him (with some difficulty in this very small town) for years, Mrs. Christensen continued to experiment with jello and kool-aid, but Dick Tupper did notice Natalie, did he ever, and Iona did notice Pierre!

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Natalie understands most English said to her full-face, using dictionary words, in proper constructions, and slowly without idioms. Not a common occurrence in Seldom. As a result, ....

Pierre gets about one word in twenty, which is enough when Owen... Well, read the book to find out.

Seldom, it turns out, has a few surprises of its own to offer. (I now know how CarHenge came about. If you don't know CarHenge, maybe you should inform yourself by visiting: http://carhenge.com)

The setting is in the Sandhills where nature remains hard at work.

The result is charming, unexpected, delightful, and finally what you always knew would happen but not quite like that. Think of those screwball film comedies -- It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby, My Favorite Wife, You Can’t Take It With You -- from the 1930s and that is the right planet.

By my count this is volume fourteen (14) in Saylor’s Rome Sub Rosa series. In addition he has written two other novels set in Rome. He knows a lot about ancient Rome in the time of Julius Caesar. Though some of the novels are located outside Rome, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Crete, in Cyprus, in Greece. They all feature the adventures of Gordianus, and some times members of his family, too. Gordianus is a working stiff whose odd jobs for those who can pay come to focus on finding things lost or stolen, or finding out things, like who stole them and why. He becomes known as Gordianus the Finder, because he good at finding those things.

A successful case of finding for Cicero lead to ever more work for wealthy clients. The result is ancient history. The Rome Sub Rosa series has gone on so long and been so successful that Saylor has now gone back to Gordianus’s beginnings. In this book Gordianus is a twenty-one year old pitched up in Alexandria on the Egyptian coast that being the best place to be to avoid conscription into the legions fighting each other in some kind of Roman civil war. No sooner does he relax to enjoy the easy life of Mediterranean sun than ….
Raiders of the Nile.jpgThus the adventure begins. Saylor tells a good story and packs it with interesting and highly individual characters. The leader of the Raiders is particularly well drawn, but there is a also a witch, and more than a few villains of different stripes. Then there is the decayed and decaying court of King Ptolemy IX (?). As always Gordianus is influenced a lot by his first friend.

At times the descriptions seemed padded and the tensions piled too high for fear of revealing how contrived, thin, and far-fetched the plot is. Having said that, I read it straight through in a couple of evenings.

Those new to the series might best start near at the beginning with Roman Blood (1991).

There are several other series of krimies set in Ancient Rome. The other one I have followed closely and like a lot is much more light hearted. That is John Maddox Roberts, SPQR (1991) and following. I have read fifteen (15) of them recounting the misadventures of Decius, who does not take things as seriously as Gordianus does. These two series are set in exactly the same time, and each has novels that feature Cicero, Caesar, Catiline, Crassus, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Brutus, and their contemporaries. Reading them side-by-side is interesting both for the contrast in approaches and efforts to characterize these famous ones.

I stressed the individuality of the characters above because I have read too many krimies, including some set in ancient Rome, in which all the characters have the same speech mannerism, the same gestures, the same walks, etc. They seem to sound and look a lot alike. Not so for Saylor, or for Roberts either.

Recommended for all Hillerman fans and other krimie readers.

Tony Hillerman wrote twenty-five or more krimies set in Navajo country in the Southwest of the United States, more specifically in the Four Corners where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.
Four_Corners USA map.png His protagonists were first Joe Leaphorn, then as he aged, he was joined by the younger Jim Chee. Leaphorn believed in science and reason in land of mystique and mystery, where rocks have names, and spirits inhabit shadows, or so it is said. Chee, though younger, finds much of value in the old ways of the Navajo, wind-walking, spirit-talking, and more. In each book the place is powerful presence, sometimes brooding, sometimes menacing, sometimes benign, and at other time indifferent.

The Old Ways of the Navajo may be gone but they are not forgotten by the legion of archeologists and anthropologists who overrun the countryside. Moreover, there is a market for the rugs, for the pots, and even for the oral history of the Navajo. Then there are other indians, occasionally old enemies.

Into this milieu Anne Hillerman has stepped. Tony died and she sat down at the keyboard and three year later produced her first Leaphorn-Chee book.
spider womans daughter.jpg It is a fine addition to the canon. Leaphorn and Chee remain as ever, and Bernie Manuelito, who was Chee’s girlfriend and now his wife moves more to centre stage. Like Joe and Jim, she is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police.

As always there are many policing jurisdictions, to confuse this reader, but refreshingly for once the FBI agents are not treated as drooling idiots. The story opens with a shooting that baffles one and all. The false leads and blue herrings are many. It always comes back to those Navajo artifacts, it seems.

Readers who have followed Leaphorn and Chee all these years are advised to take this one on its own merits. There is plenty to keep a reader engaged.

Monument Valley.jpg

We drove to Monument Valley a few years ago and along the way saw some of the Four Corners, like no other place for the scale and remoteness, and the geology.

In anticipation of a trip to Prague, I read some Czech literature, starting with this one.

Milan Kundera

I liked the proposition that life is light, and knowing that causes anguish. ‘Lightness’ means that life is produced by chance, accident, coincidence, mistakes, and so on. It all could just as well be otherwise. There is nothing profound, fated about what happens. Our individual lives are nothing much and we might as well enjoy what we have since there is nothing deeper to it, no world-historical meaning, no kismet, no divine plan. Just living and breathing, as Karenin, the dog, does. Lightness = liberation.


Only when Tomas and Tereza shed all their past lives and move to the country where the high point of the day is a walk in the woods with Karenin do they find happiness together. Though by then they are both so worn and defeated, she by weightiness and he by lightness, that they are barely aware of it.

But knowing that life, that one’s own life, is trivial and insignificant can disturb some. In reaction they search for weight, for meaning, in political action, in religious conviction, in martyrdom, in intellectual snobbery, in technical argot that excludes others, and so on.

There is much food for thought here. Moreover, sprinkled throughout the book are ruminations on the consequences of the Prague Spring of 1968, the subsequent Russian intervention, and the reactionary Czechoslovak regime that followed. Tomas and Tereza flee and then return, and that seems a kind of fate and the consequences are certainly heavy. Life may be light but the weight, like gravity, is always there. It cares not whether one denies it.

Tomas falls from social grace, from a skilled and valued surgeon, to a general practitioner, to a pharmacist, to a window cleaner, to market gardener. Evidently Czechoslovakia had so much educated talent it could afford to train its window cleaners to be surgeons.

Tereza’s fall is lateral, from budding photographer who documented the Prague Spring and then the Russian intervention to tell the world of the hopes of the former and the crimes of the latter, only later to realize her pictures meant to celebrate Czechoslovak courage and fortitude were used by the Secret Police to identify victims. She tried to be heavy in taking the photographs and discovered the law of unintended consequences took over. It is the one law we all obey.

I cannot say I enjoyed reading the book. Though the substance as adumbrated above is compelling, the storyline seems, more often than not, an adolescent idea of life with Tomas and his parade of willing women who never seem to want anything from him but an hour of sex which is completely light in that it never has any consequences. An endless supply of them seems to await only his nod. That is the major key in the novel, and that no doubt explains why the film was made, an excuse for a parade of sex. That project would appeal to the boys with arrested development who dominate the film industry.

That and the side tracks with Franz and Sabina, and some pontifical interpolated pages detract from the momentum of the novel.

Equally, the fractured timeline that moves back and forth on itself is metaphysical but not motivational to the reader.

It is indeed a modern novel with its broken and curled timeline, its unreliable narrators (Tomas and Tereza, among others), its inconsistencies, its multiple points of view, and its abrupt shifts of place, as well as time.

Tried to read it before and lost interest in one of the sidetracks. The film passed in front of my eyes on a long flight once.

Recommeded for Crime-travellers.

Inspector Singh Investigates is a series of six novels following the adventures of an overweight, lazy, down trodden Sikh, depressed Singapore police officer.

Singh beijing.jpg

He is very unSingapore with his curry stained neck ties, his grubby white tennis shoes, slovenly appearance, not to mentioned the five yards of sweat-stained turban he sports. In fact, he is so unSinagporean that in nearly every novel his superiors (and they include all ethnic Chinese in Singapore, he thinks) send him as far away as possible. He has been sent to Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Cambodia, New Dehli, and now Beijing.

His assets are that he does not scare easily (thanks to the training of his wife and her many, many relatives) and can always find a supply of beer.

While Singh never takes anything too seriously, these stories are darker than I usually like. The compensation is the exotic locales, and an appreciation for Asian English in these places.

In 'A Calamitous Chinese Killing' Singh, assigned at the request of the Vice-Counsel at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, finds himself caught between the merciless Chinese security apparatus and equally merciless Chinese corruption. Along the way he grows to respect the steel in the Vice-Counsel, a woman by the way, and befriends a penniless, retired, honest Beijing detective who introduces him to Szechuan cooking which Singh finds an acceptable accompaniment to beer.

His bacon is saved when he manages to bring these two behemoths -- the forces of security and the forces of corruption -- into conflict. While they slug it out, justice of a kind is done. Though many innocents are killed and psychologically scared. As I said, dark.

Singh has company among Singapore sleuths in the person of Mr Wong and his associates written by Nury Vittachi. Wong is in the private sector.

He has his footwear in common with Hermes Diaktoros penned by Anne Zouroudi who wanders the by-ways of Greek islands.

I still labour in the land of 'Ulysses.' I have listened to Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' episode on 'Ulysses,' again, and got some interesting points from it. But what I got most of all was the Solomonic wisdom of Judge John Woolsey's opinion which is quoted in full below.

Bennet Cerf, when he published the book on the day of this judgement in 1933, included the opinion in every edition, making it the most widely distributed judicial opinion ever. In reading about the case I noticed how reluctant the District Attorney was to bring the action and how the Customs Service ignored the injunction for weeks and weeks. The DA and Customs both seemed to think they had more important things to do.

I could find very little about Judge John Woolsey on the interweb. He was from South Carolina. There is an entry on him in the online History of Federal Judiciary but I could make the link work. The only picture I could find came from the cover of the 'James Joyce Quarterly.'


By the way, the District Attorney said he felt the book was a masterpiece of insight. The Customs officials said everyone brought it back from Europe and that it had caused no harm, so what was the fuss? The Appellate Court upheld Woolsey's decision on the points law.

Banning 'Ulysses' - Judge Woolsey's Decision

Opinion A. 110-59

December 6, 1933

[Edited out the technical matter.]

I have read 'Ulysses' once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times. In fact, for many weeks, my spare time has been devoted to the consideration of the decision which my duty would require me to make in this matter. 'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of 'Ulysses' is, therefore, a heavy task.

The reputation of 'Ulysses' in the literary world, however, warranted my taking such time as was necessary to enable me to satisfy myself as to the intent with which the book was written, for, of course, in any case where a book is claimed to be obscene it must first be determined, whether the intent with which it was written was what is called, according to the usual phrase, pornographic, -- that is, written for the purpose of exploiting obscenity. If the conclusion is that the book is pornographic that is the end of the inquiry and forfeiture must follow.

But in 'Ulysses,' in spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist. I hold, therefore, that it is not pornographic.

In writing 'Ulysses,' Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the City bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while. Joyce has attempted -- it seems to me, with astonishing success -- to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man's observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.

What he seeks to get is not unlike the result of a double or, if that is possible, a multiple exposure on a cinema film which would give a clear foreground with a background visible but somewhat blurred and out of focus in varying degrees.

To convey by words an effect which obviously lends itself more appropriately to a graphic technique, accounts, it seems to me, for much of the obscurity which meets a reader of 'Ulysses.' And it also explains another aspect of the book, which I have further to consider, namely, Joyce's sincerity and his honest effort to show exactly how the minds of his characters operate.

If Joyce did not attempt to be honest in developing the technique which he has adopted in 'Ulysses' the result would be psychologically misleading and thus unfaithful to his chosen technique. Such an attitude would be artistically inexcusable.

It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant pre-occupation with sex in the thoughts of his characters.

The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women, and are such words as would be naturally and habitually used, I believe by the types of folk whose life, physical and mental, Joyce is seeking to describe. In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring.

Whether or not one enjoys such a technique as Joyce uses is a matter of taste on which disagreement or argument is futile, but to subject that technique to the standards of some other technique seems to me to be little short of absurd.

Accordingly, I hold that 'Ulysses' is a sincere and honest book and I think that the criticisms of it are entirely disposed of by its rationale.

Furthermore, 'Ulysses' is an amazing tour de force when one considers the success which has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce set for himself. As I have stated, 'Ulysses' is not an easy book to read. It is brilliant and dull, intelligible and obscure by turns. In many places it seems to me to be disgusting, but although it contains, as I have mentioned above, many words usually considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider to be dirt for dirt's sake. Each word of the book contributes like a bit of mosaic to the detail of the picture which Joyce is seeking to construct for his readers. If one does not wish to associate with such folk as Joyce describes, that is one's own choice. In order to avoid indirect contact with them one may not wish to read Ulysses; that is quite understandable. But when such a real artist in words, as Joyce undoubtedly is, seeks to draw a true picture of the lower middle class in a European city, ought it to be impossible for the American public legally to see that picture?

To answer this question it is not sufficient merely to find, as I have found above, that Joyce did not write 'Ulysses' with what is commonly called pornographic intent, I must endeavor to apply a more objective standard to his book in order to determine its effect in the result, irrespective of the intent with which it was written.

The statute under which the libel is filed only denounces, in so far as we are here concerned, the importation into the United States from any foreign country of "any obscene book". Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, Title 19 United States Code, Section 1305. It does not marshal against books the spectrum of condemnatory adjectives found, commonly, in laws dealing with matters of this kind. I am, therefore, only required to determine whether Ulysses is obscene within the legal definition of that word. The meaning of the word "obscene" as legally defined by the Courts is: tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts.

Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts must be tested by the Court's opinion as to its effect on a person with average sex instincts -- what the French would call l'homme moyen sensuel -- who plays, in this branch of legal inquiry, the same role of hypothetical reagent as does the "reasonable man" in the law of torts and "the man learned in the art" on questions of invention in patent law.

The risk involved in the use of such a reagent arises from the inherent tendency of the trier of facts, however fair he may intend to be, to make his reagent too much subservient to his own idiosyncrasies. Here, I have attempted to avoid this, if possible, and to make my reagent herein more objective than he might otherwise be, by adopting the following course:

After I had made my decision in regard to the aspect of 'Ulysses,' now under consideration, I checked my impressions with two friends of mine who in my opinion answered to the above stated requirement for my reagent.

These literary assessors -- as I might properly describe them -- were called on separately, and neither knew that I was consulting the other. They are men whose opinion on literature and on life I value most highly. They had both read Ulysses, and, of course, were wholly unconnected with this cause.

Without letting either of my assessors know what my decision was, I gave to each of them the legal definition of obscene and asked each whether in his opinion Ulysses was obscene within that definition.

I was interested to find that they both agreed with my opinion: that reading 'Ulysses' in its entirety, as a book must be read on such a test as this, did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on them was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.

It is only with the normal person that the law is concerned. Such a test as I have described, therefore, is the only proper test of obscenity in the case of a book like 'Ulysses' which is a sincere and serious attempt to devise a new literary method for the observation and description of mankind.

I am quite aware that owing to some of its scenes 'Ulysses' is a rather strong draught to ask some sensitive, though normal, persons to take. But my considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of 'Ulysses' on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

'Ulysses' may, therefore, be admitted into the United States.


United States District Judge

December 6, 1933

By the way, to me Bennett Cerf was a panelist on 'What's My line?' in the 1950s where he was the life of the party in a dry and droll way. He is second from the left.


On Australia Day when I mentioned our forthcoming trip to Ireland, the host asked me I had ever read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ I confessed, ‘No.’ Deftly I parried this admission of ignorance by suggesting that she read it for her book club! The riposte, taking me by surprise, was ‘Let’s you and I read it!’ Being a polite guest, I dumbly nodded. Gulp, what had I got myself into? But a deal is a deal. A few days later I went shopping. The local bookstore, yes we still have one nearby, had three editions of ‘Ulysses,’ being a very high brow concern, and I took the one with the largest print (and ergo the most pages, 933 -- 933 -- of them).
I have since seen several other editions, one with 300 pages of notes explaining the allusions, double entendres, and literary references. T. S. Eliot poems come with footnotes, too, explaining the idiosyncratic and obscure implications, that’s why I gave up him until ‘“Cats” came along! Joyce has yet had no such redemption.

As a rule I do not comment publicly on books I cannot be positive about but in recognition of the reputation of this book and the effort it took to read it, I make an exception.

Here I am nearly four weeks later at the end of a long and dutiful (a deal is a deal) march through those 933 pages of Joyceprose. [Calm down, editors, I am imitating Joyce’s style of run-on words, run-on sentences, missing objects after transitive verbs, et beaucoup plus [to imitate his gratuitous spicing of foreign terms]. These notes gather my thoughts.
James_Joyce.jpg This novel is usually described as modern, as in modernist, and his technique is equally, commonly described as stream of consciousness. I felt ready for both. I have a read a lot of modern novels, and the modernist ones among them were incomprehensible as I comprehended them. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Juan Louis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, Robert Musil, Virginia Wolfe with their discontinuous story lines, the unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, unattributed dialgoue, the elaborate but meaninglessness red herrings, the inwardness, the self-referential, and meandering nothingness. (Starting to sound like a curriculum committee meeting.)

I have also read plenty of streams of consciousness from William Faulkner (Benj in ‘The Sound and the Fury’), William Styron (Peyton in ‘Lie Down in Darkness’), and Thomas Wolfe (Eugene Gant in ‘Look Homeward, Angel). It is a technique that takes the reader into the mind, the world as seen by the mind, of a character as no other technique can do, and when it works, it is devastating, as it does in the three instances cited.

In 'Ulysses' in the early pages, I found the multiple voices and the passing-through conversations on the street interesting, as the parallel conversations in Robert Altman’s film ‘Nashville’ and the cryptic quality of some of the early remarks, incidents, observation were intriguing, think Gene Hackman in ‘The Conversation.’ In contrast to these films, however, in this modernist novel it is all technique and no payoff. Just showing off. Then after 900 pages Bloom goes to bed, disturbing his wife Molly’s lumber and her half-awake mostly asleep thoughts are the soliloquy that ends the novel in 60 pages without punctuation, apart from two randomly placed carriage returns.

As with an actor who speaks bad lines badly, we cannot hold the actor wholly responsible, after all a producer and a director allowed it to happen, and the writer who wrote the lines must be guilty. The same mitigation cannot be said for Joyce’s publisher.

Then there are the legions of admirers and enthusiasts like Frank Delany whose podcasts I listened to for a while, seventy episodes, yes 70, as he unpacked each and every reference in the text word-by-word, line-by-line, page-by-page, nearly all them minuscule, pointless, and adolescent. (Indeed, I thought Delany over-interpreted the text often making something out of nothing in the manner of a Phd dissertation, or those people who see human profiles in clouds.) In all, the book brought to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s petty vindictiveness in his ‘Confessions,’ though Rousseau is even when spiteful in his dotage a wonderful stylist to be envied, unlike Joyce who seems to be determined to compensate for .... by being as deliberately naughty as possible, though the naughty in 1921 is trivial in 2014. It is in short an unremitting and totally self-indulgent memorandum of alienation from everyone and everything by someone privileged enough not to work on a farm or in a factory. An ordinary day with ordinary people, it is not, though that is often said of it. Ordinary people are much more purposeful and I rather doubt any of them would read this novel.

I did like one passage in particular, when one character muses on the differences between Romans and Jews in the ancient middle east. Jews come to a hill top, meditate and decide to build a majestic temple to the glory of god. Romans come to a like hill top … and decide to build ... a toilet.

I am sure all the Irish have it in the genetic code to defend, if not truly to enjoy, James Joyce’s novels. So be it.

When we visit Dublin we will do a tour of some James Joyce and Ulysses sites to recoup a little on my investment.
joyce dublin map.jpgI did get something out of the three weeks I spent with the book, putting aside all other reading to concentrate soley on it, and that is the right to strut on Bloom’s day next. (Joyceans will get it, and the rest will not.) Oh, I also got a strong desire not to read anymore James Joyce. ‘Finnigan’s Wake,’ which I am told is even more modernist than ‘Ulysess’ (which claims without ground an affinity with the eternal story of Homer)! Some people think that is a recommendation but I am not among their number. To me modernist means lack of punctuation, contempt for readers, and self-indulgence.

I do, however, have plenty of other Irish reading in mind before we travel.

After reading the condescending remarks about William Jennings Bryan's lack of presidential intellect it was amusing to read this study of two-term president Cleveland who was Bryan’s exact contemporary. Bryan got by with the Bible for reading, Cleveland’s horizon did extend even that far. He never read a book and never opened an atlas. Never left the United States, and only made one trip around the country when president. For a politician he was nearly anti-social.


A testament to hot hardened air turning into fact. The bigger the lie, the more it is repeated, the more likely it is to be believed.
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After reading a few rather taxing books I gave myself a treat by turning once again to Evariste Clovis Desire Pel. Amusing, implacable, exasperating, coughing, and determined as usual is Pel. Even Madame Pel calls him Pel.
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This is a book about a president by a former president. It is unique and must reading for presidentialistas. It is all the more distinctive since Wilson was a Democrat and Hoover a Republican.

Could it happen again? Would a Republican Bush write a tribute to a Democrat Kennedy? Or a Democrat Clinton to a Republican Reagan?

The ordeal is the war and the peace of the Great War 1914-1917, though it only concerns the American participation in the War 1917-1918. Hoover was enmeshed in Europe from 1914 on in organizing food aid for first Belgium and then France, and from November 1918 onward for all of Europe as far east as the Volga River in Russia. It was colossal undertaking that just got bigger.

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Hoover worked for Wilson in several capacities, directly and indirectly in these years and some of the work was very intense, urgent, and truly life-and-death. I have traced some of Hoover’s astonishing humanitarian efforts in the review of the Hoover presidential library elsewhere on this blog.

The book was written forty years after the events it describes when Hoover was in his twilight years.

There is no indication that Hoover kept a diary at the time but he certainly kept copious files. In addition to the papers he himself had, Hoover also consulted reams of declassified official files to which he had easy access and he was assiduous.

There is no doubt that Hoover had a great admiration and respect for Wilson, as an intellect, as a moral champion, as a tenacious reformer, as a titan for work, as a man of personal rectitude, and more. He writes in glowing terms of Wilson in nearly each chapter.

The book compiles a great deal of detail on the points it touches. We read about the pounds of wheat in a shipment, or the number of delegates seated around the table at a committee meeting. It rehearses the arguments made in dark days when much of Europe was starving to death between 1917-1919. It produces an anatomy of the enduring antagonism between the French and Germans, the racial hatreds among the Balkan peoples, territorial ambitions of every country involved with the Treaty of Versailles. I certainly found some of that eye-opening.

Yet there is no insight whatever into the subject Wilson. In fact, apart from some laudatory paragraphs at the beginning and end of each chapter, Wilson only appears in the book to support Hoover, to agree with Hoover, to praise Hoover, to ask for Hoover’s help, etc. More than anything else it reads like a log of their business dealings from Hoover’s side.

Robert Lansing, Secretary of State for Wilson, appears here to be the absolutely straight arrow he is seen as in others studies of the time. I stress this because he has sometimes been belittled in Wilson’s shadow. Jack Pershing seems to have been the very man for the hour; when he spoke everyone listened. The rank of general ratified what he already was, a leader. In these pages Georges Clemenceau certainly lives up to his reputation as the Tiger, completely unyielding, hoping to destroy in the peace every German who survived the war. Winston Churchill is preoccupied with retaining the British Empire, despite espousing Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Colonel Edward House is constantly moving here and there though he holds no position, except as Wilson’s friend, a very small club that.

There are a few striking anecdotes. During the Armistice and the never-ending peace talks, American army officers, numbering a thousand or more, were sent all over Europe to keep track of the American food aid flooding across Europe. Long after they had been recalled Hoover got a personal letter from a lieutenant at a railway station in East Prussia who was still recording the train cars going past, asking if he could please get a new winter coat, apologizing for contacting Hoover directly but doing so because no one in the chain of command, long since disbanded unbeknownst to him, had replied to his previous requests. Upon checking Hoover found this dutiful lieutenant from that dreary East Prussian train depot had been telegraphing data to an empty office in Paris for eight months. Hoover made sure this forgotten man was recalled immediately and treated him to a luxurious few days in Paris before sending him to his unit to be demobilized.

Of greater moment are Hoover’s descriptions of the negotiations in Paris. More than ninety governments were represented in one way or another, each anxious to retain every foot of territory and every citizen it claimed, each ready to take more territory and citizens with a list of historic grievances to support expansion, each proclaiming Wilson’s Fourteen Points while violating them, none willing to make a single concession, each distrustful of all the others. What an atmosphere! Moreover, many delegations were even more deeply divided internally. The newly created Republic of Banat (look it up) had a fractious delegation of twelve who each insisted on going around en bloc because not one of them trusted another out of sight. To put one of them on a committee meant putting all twelve on. In other cases there were two or three rival delegations each claiming to represent, say, Osteria. Which one speaks for Osteria?

Rufus T. Firefly of ‘Duck Soup’ would be the straight man here. An ordeal indeed for any sane, rational man trying to do the right thing in such a ninety-ring circus.

Hoover defends Wilson from the common charge of being a hopelessly naive idealist with a compelling and convincing list of the material achievements Wilson made in Europe starting with ending the war, saving tens of millions of starving people, undermining the tide of communism, displacing some murderous tyrants who had risen from the ashes in Eastern Europe, establishing the International Court of Justice at the Hague, creating the International Labor Organization in Geneva, and founding the League of Nations which in turn did much forgotten good and paved the way for the United Nations and the international organizations that exist today.

But most of all Hoover credits Wilson with inserting into the vocabulary of international relations the language of rights, conscience, liberation and freedom that did not exist prior to his oratory. One might say that Wilson translated the emancipatory rhetoric of the the King James Bible into statesmanship, supplanting the existing language of gunboats, maps, spheres on influence, mandates, concessions, and survey lines. That Wilsonian rhetoric remains today. spoken by people with no knowledge or interest in the man Woodrow Wilson.

It is not an easy book to read for many chapters consist of quotation after quotation from speeches, committee reports, newspaper articles, diplomatic assessments, letters, and telegrams strung together with a few transitional remarks from Hoover. In hindsight Hoover has no second thoughts and no feel for the human drama all around him in those meeting rooms. But what raw material for novelist! Bring on Frank Moorhouse of 'Grand Days,' Georges Simenon of 'The President,' or George-Marc Benamou of 'The Ghost of Munich.'

I hesitated to read this book since I found the Herbert Hoover in retirement portrayed the biography I have already read of him so bitter and unforgiving I supposed this book would be merely a record of that. Only a few asides did I perceive that rancor, primed to see it as I was. It would probably not trouble most readers who were not aware of Hoover’s ripened bile.

The forward by Senator Mark Hatfield adds little to the book.

Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy (1991). A novel that is recommended for adults, especially we sinners.

A short novel from a Nebraska writer that is partly a meditation on faith in the unseen and partly a study of human jealousy, envy, and love wrought in a spare prose that gives as much prominence to the sway of grass in the breeze as the characters in 60,000 unadorned words.


Mariette, a young postulant in a convent, is more religious, more faithful, more devout, more self-sacrificing than seems humanly possible. Several of the sisters conclude she has been touched by the hand of grace, while others suppose that she is an attention-seeking fraud.

A cult of Mariette begins and in the end it seems best to expel her. She is disruptive in punishing herself, in passing sleepless nights in prayer, in doing the work or two...

When confronted by skeptics, cynics, and disbelievers she submits to their depredations with a beatific smile.

Yet the skeptics, the cynics, the disbelievers, and the conservatives who expel her do so to preserve the delicate balance of convent community. No cardboard villains they.

The reader is left to wonder what the truth is about Mariette, or to wonder if the truth matters at all.

Perhaps Mariette is a saint and this is how saints are now reviled.

The time in the very early 1900s and the place seems to be Canada. But neither of those is important. The only reality is inside the convent.

I read a biography of Hoover (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and found the man in retirement shown there to be unsympathetic and unimpressive. However that experience bore unexpected fruit. Having driven by the exit for the Hoover Library more than once on I-80 I decided to have a look next time. The time came in November 2013.


To anticipate the conclusion, I found the Hoover presented there far more interesting and complex than that sullen ex-president I had read about. I left with no doubt that Hoover was a great man (defined as someone who does things few others possibly could) and that his great deeds were done before he became president.

He took the oath of office in March 1929 and The Great Depression started with a cataclysm in November of that year. Yes, he tried to stem it and ameliorate it but with little Congressional co-operation (which FDR later enjoyed). He got run over by History.

What great things did he do earlier? He was in England when World War I started and was one of the principal organizers of a boat-lift to evacuate about 15,000 Americans from Great Britain. There he, and the world, found the seed of his genius. He was a dynamic and innovative organizer.

He then led a food relief program in 1914-1917 for Belgium (the neutrality of which had been ignored by the belligerents), negotiating with American, French, German, and Belgium governments to import food to Antwerp throughout the war. When the United States ended neutrality and entered the war, Hoover’s program expanded to France. At times the program was giving a hot lunch to three million people a day!

In order to attract the donations to support it, he identified himself closely with the program and poured in his own money (made out of mining in Australia), encouraging others to do so as well. They did, the Astors, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and their kind. Most of the money he raised from private donors. He asked millionaires for millions, and got it.

At the time and later this program elicited such an outpouring of thanks that it still reverberates. He made millions of friends for himself and for the United States.

When the United States entered the war, President Wilson asked Hoover to look after food at home. He did. There were meatless Mondays, milk-less Tuesdays, flour-less Wednesday, and so on, to conserve food (and so free manpower for war work and the army). He advocated the use of cooking oil in place of lard (used in packing cartridges). It was the patriotic duty on the home front to be ‘With Hoover’ in these practices. He was on the radio, in the newspapers, on the stump explaining why this was to be done. He was whirlwind.

When the war ended he went back to Europe to oversee European-wide food relief for France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and more. He was akin to a one-man Marshall Plan, raising money with one hand and ladling out soup with the other. His double effort in Europe saved millions of lives, earning the amity of a generation. Few other presidents made so many friends for the USA.

When Calvin Coolidge succeeded to the presidency, he appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce. The whirlwind increased its speed! He was soon called the Secretary for Everything. Here he is at his desk in the museum.

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But this cartoon from the explanatory video conveys much more. Click it and see for yourself.

He promoted vaccines for children, and raised the money from private donors to support it. He also drove a national program for standardization of everything from screw heads to milk bottles, arguing that the lack of standardization was crippling the economy and destroying private life because it consumed untold time and money. On one side of town milk bottles were one shape and size and on the other side they were different. He set up committees with governors and simply would not leave the room until they agreed on a plan to reduce expensive and time consuming variations.

So many of the standards we assume today, he made into reality. Too bad his like is not with us today to impose standards on the IT world.

In 1927 the Mississippi River flooded, killing scores and displacing thousands. President Coolidge recognized it as a national disaster and he sent one man to deal with it: Herbert Hoover. The next day tent cities and field kitchens sprouted along the shores, and hundreds of thousands of American slept on Hoover cots and ate a Hoover lunch (soup and bread). These were the first Hoovervilles. Here he was a one-man FEMA (look it up).

In 1928 Hoover walked into the Republican nomination and defeated Democrat Al Smith, a Tammany Hall wet who did not hold even the Solid South, such was Hoover’s command.

Then the freight train of HISTORY roared into view .....

The Hoover Library, the smallest of the Presidential Libraries, is wonderful.

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The presentations are multi-media with plenty of buttons and bells for kids. It includes artifacts from his life, like European mails bags full of letters of thanks, and newspaper cartoons. It pulls no punches about the Depression and his inability to cope with it. Once again the National Parks Department sets the standard for conveying history briefly but in a compelling manner even to a jaded cynic with a made-up mind.

The two room house he was born in is on the grounds. From this modest beginning….

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Krimienologists take note. Mark Hebden, Pel among the Pueblos (1987). Recommended.

I read some Pel books in the 1980s and then moved on. It is a pleasure now to renew acquaintance with the irascible Chief Inspector Pel, the scourge of wrong doers on his patch of Burgundy. Clapping villains in irons was the greatest pleasure of his miserable life, that is, until he met the subsequent Madame Pel....

Hebden wrote a score of these titles and his daughter took over when he passed away.

In this entry Pel is in full flight, literally, since a particularly complicated murder takes him our of Burgundy. Shudder. But at least not to the sink of iniquity, Paris. But rather to Mexico City! For a man who had never left Burgundy it was a terrible experience. It got worse when he tried to eat!

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Worse still when the inquiry stretched on and he feared he had not brought enough cigarettes. Though ever dutiful to Madame Pel’s injunctions, he did try to quit, several times a day.

I loved the Mexican detective Barribal who knew what to do and how to do it, though not the way Per would. Certainly not!

Meanwhile back in God’s country, Burgundy, the team gets on with nabbing some pretty tricky villains.

Along the way I found out a little about the Emperor Maximillan’s ill-fated time in Mexico, and the intricacies of auto insurance in France.

My project on presidents of the United States extends to some also rans, and this is the first one I have read about. Others on the also ran list include Henry Clay, Harold Stassen, George Wallace, and Eugene Debs. A varied lot. I also have my eye on Jefferson Davis, an American president who was not a president of the United States, like Sam Houston. I also include the last Hawaiian monarch for the future.


Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback (1992). Recommended.

The Thirteenth President. Another succeeding vice-president who did not win an election, like John Tyler before him and Gerry Ford after.

Famous for: Maynard G. Krebs referred to him as Fillard Millmore to the repeated and visible annoyance of Mr. Promfritt, and he was also mentioned in ‘What’s up, Tiger Lily (1966)?‘ Students of Cultural Studies will grok these references; others will turn to Wikipedia.


Though Fillmore was anti-slavery he was intimidated by the magnitude of freeing seven million slaves and hoped for a gradual method and so did nothing. In an effort to maintain its North-South axis to make it a national party, the Whig party in 1848 capitalized on Zachary Taylor’s fame as a successful General from that era’s invasion of Mexico. Taylor was a Louisiana slaveholder. To balance the geography and the position on slavery, Fillmore agreed to join the ticket as a New Yorker who was anti-slavery but not an abolitionist.

Taylor treated Fillmore as every vice-president was treated. Ignored him entirely. Then Taylor took ill after a year and four months in office and died. Overnight Fillmore became president.

He had served in the New York state legislature, he had served three separate terms in the House of Representatives in Washington D.C., and he had been comptroller (chief financial officer) of the state of New York. He brought to the Presidency long experience of finance which he was good at, patience at working with committees, and a national outlook born of his long association with the Erie Canal and commerce along the shores of the Great Lakes.

The burning issue of the age was the existence, perpetuation, extension, or extinction of slavery, and its evil twin the tariff, which the South felt taxed it for public improvements in the North. The admission of new territories and states in the West was the kindling for these issues. Why? The addition of new senators would disrupt the balance of power in that body.

Fillmore supported, defended, and executed the Compromise of 1850 as a way to reduce the flames of insurrection, civil war, rebellion, invasion, riot, and the like. That meant enforcing the draconian fugitive slave law. Just as no state can decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, neither could a citizen, let alone the first magistrate, decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, despite his personal feelings, he reasoned.

As president he promoted industry, innovation, commerce, and business in the hope that national prosperity would lessen the heat in the extremities of the body politic. He encouraged trade with China and Japan and supported a railroad and then a canal across Central America to speed trade with the Orient. He warned first the French and then the British off Hawaii.

The aspirins of commerce did reduce some of the fever pitch but the effects soon dissipated. In 1852 one of the architects of the Compromise of 1850 proposed scrapping it, namely that Little Giant from Illinois Stephen Douglas. Go figure! All the old grievances and animosities re-emerged as if preserved in amber with every details in place. Nothing forgotten; nothing forgiven.

Should Fillmore seek the Whig nomination for another term in 1852? He dithered like a Libra though he was born a decisive, if lazy, Sagittarius. In the end Winfield Scott was the Whig nominee and was trounced by the Democrat Franklin Pierce.

Fillmore went into retirement in Buffalo, but his wife died within a month of leaving Washington DC and his only child, a daughter, a few months later. Thus at a loss he travelled through Europe and Asia, and flirted with re-entry politics.

By 1856 the Whig party was moribund and Fillmore joined the American Party, the political front of the Know-Nothing Movement [think Tea Party] and the rabid anti-Catholicism which was a reaction to the tidal waves of immigration occurring in East coast cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, Brooklyn, New Bedford, Providence, Trenton, Baltimore, Wilmington, Charleston, New York, and more. It was also anti-black. His vice-presidential running mate was Andrew Jackson Donelson, a nephew of Andrew Jackson. Fillmore evidently thought he could tame these nut cases [think John McCain] and discovered he could not [ditto John McCain]. He came a distant third to James Buchanan and John Frémont. His vote made no difference to the outcome.

That ended his political career. He made another European trip and was much feted as a former president, crossing paths with The Little Magician, Martin van Buren, who was in Europe. Fillmore returned to Buffalo and in time re-married and became a man for local good works. He was on every committee for a hospital, a school, an orphanage, a library, a bridge, a hard road, a railway crossing, a sewer line, a pier on the Erie Canal, and the University of Buffalo where he served as Chancellor raising funds for many years. Many of these committees met in his home and he was the real and titular chairman of many. How many ex-presidents have done as much tangible good, I dare not ask.

Though he disliked Republicans for happily embracing a Northern only party (Lincoln got not a single electoral vote in the South and no popular votes beyond Maryland and Kentucky) which he feared would, as it did, lead to civil war. Once the civil war came he organized a home guard of the superannuated and paid for its uniforms. There were recurrent rumours from the outset of the Civil War that Great Britain would intervene from Canada to revenge itself on the United States and so this guard was as much a message to British officials in Canada as to Confederates.

At war’s end, he advocated moderation toward the defeated South but his voice was no longer heard.

Despite those wits Woody Allen and Maynard G. Krebs, Fillmore did a great deal of good first by holding the union together in peace for his term, and then materially in his home town of Buffalo. His name is found on many schools, hospitals, bridges, and the like. A honour that has so far escaped Mr. Krebs. Of Mr. Allen, I (prefer to) know not.

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The book is well documented. When an assertion is made there is a reference to a source. The first hundred pages or so are pretty dreary as it traces his origins and early life, but the prose sharpens as his political career unfolds. The last third of the book offers some well judged observations and striking turns of the phrase.

It is part of series but does not read like a completed template the way the presidential biographies read in the series edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Junior. Rayback was professor of history at Syracuse University when the book was published.

Recommended for Krimieologists.

A rattling story that reaches top speed by page two.

The irascible, clumsy, crude Inspector Trompe Kramer sets off in all directions at once with Sergeant Mickey Zondi in tow to find out who killed the Republic of South Africa’s most famous resident, dissident novelist, loosely based on Nadine Godimer I suppose. There is a passing reference to André Brink for good measure.

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The manners and morés of apartheid society are there, and Kramer and Zondi comply just enough to get by. There is never any moralizing about it, though the English liberals who surround the novelist have plenty to say.

There are marvelous moments as when Kramer, who has never read a book, discusses Shakespeare’s Hamlet with an English-speaking professor of English, who delights in all of Kramer’s stupid remarks as deep insights into the Bard. The reader is not quite sure which one is the clown. Nice. Kramer's grasp of English is schoolboy standard.

There are some nice moments with both Zondi and Kramer realize the polite, shy, and reserved Vicki is more than she seems. It is just a flicker at first, and neither of them dwells on it. Nice.

As usual in this series the typical Boer police officer is portrayed as several levels below a Mack Sennett Keystone Kop. But given that it is slapstick some of it is hilarious.

The society is rigidly structured by race in everything. There is virtually no interaction between the Boer white majority and the English white minority. Kramer speaks English but not as well as his mission-educate Bantu sergeant Zondi.

I found the subplot involving the Indian postman a tiresome distraction when I realized it was not contributing anything to the plot but is evidently supposed to be comic relief. Had I been the editor I would have cut it after the letter is delivered in Chapter One.

Recommended for krimieologists.

This title is the first in a continuing series featuring Chief Inspector David Brock and Sergeant Kathy Kolla. It is assured and has a light touch though the subject is murder.

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The sisters are indeed distant relatives of Eleanor Marx (wife of Karl) and that figures in the plot in several ways.

There are many blue herrings, as Hercule Poirot says when the English idiom fails him, from a son eager for an inheritance, a developer who wants to build a giant building, an angry neighbor. Perhaps the dominant character is a place, Jerusalem Lane where the sisters live. It is marvelously invoked, though my London A to Z does not list it, more’s the pity.

The police make mistakes and pursue some of those blue herrings. Even the inscrutable Brock sometimes blunders. Fallibility appeals to me.

There is a delicious portrait of a solipsistic and unscrupulous scholar who reminded me of some I have known.

This first volume in the series is mercifully free of Kolla’s endless capacity for self-pity that I find distasteful in the latter volumes, though the seeds are there. Too often Kolla’s main interest is Kolla. No doubt some readers find her incessant self-doubts and uncertainties attractive but they are too narcissistic for this reader.

For more information go to:

Personal note. Like many others, when I first used the Reading Room at the British Museum I sat in the seat Karl Marx habitually used.

I enjoyed the portrayal and factions, bureaucratic turf wars, national animosities, divisions within divisions within the micro-state of Vatican City, only made sovereign by the Lateran Treaty with Italy (Mussolini) in 1929. The Vatican police force is divided into three, the neutral, the fascist, and the anti-fascist. The Swiss Guards have real uniforms and weapons. The Vatican police and Vatican's Swiss Guards are two separate groups and not friends. Most of the Swiss are Sweizcher Deutsch who look down on the Italians in the police. The police are called gendarmes for some reason. Our hero interacts with the gendarmes inside the Vatican, while the Swiss Guards patrol the line of demarcation.


The book offers an explanation of Pope Pius XII’s quiescence in 1943 anyway. By then there were 5000 Jews, downed Allied airmen, anti-fascist Italians, salted away in Vatican City and in Vatican properties (part the Vatican's sovereign soil by the Treaty) elsewhere in Rome. The Pope's vast summer palace in the hills outside Rome was home to another 15,000 refugees. Silence might be the best way to avoid interesting the Germans in them.

Moreover, with Mussolini reduced to a puppet up North and only the most extreme Italian fascist left in Rome along with the occupying Germans, there was the danger that the Germans might decide to take the Pope north for his own safety on the pretext of Allied bombing, exposing not only the refugees in the Vatican but also its many treasures and destroying its studied neutrality. A low profile might be best so as not to give a pretext. Hmm, but if the Germans had a mind to do that, a pretext could be conjured as it was many times before.

Also liked the tension on the white painted line of demarcation in the square in front of the Vatican that still marks off the sovereignty of the Vatican, but in these days it was patrolled by the Swiss Guards on one side and the German army on the other. I liked the geography of the buildings and gardens in the Vatican, including the Vatican radio.

The evils of the Gestapo and SS were old news. Our intrepid hero was cardboard as were most of the other characters. Though there were a variety of characters and they did differ, I admit. I liked the way some of them reacted to being trapped in the gilded cage of the Vatican when the war cut them off, like the American diplomat who disappeared into the brandy bottle.

Some interesting characters appeared but not enough was made of the artful scrounger, the butler John May, Detective Cipriano of the Vatican police, or Abe the pilot lock-picker.

Not sure what to make of the good German, Remke and his team. Doomed, of course. The Italian OVRA sadist was a drooling stereotype as was the evil Croatian bishop.

The villain was hard to credit.

Billy tried too hard to be a reverse snob. Most of his wisecracks were tired sixty years ago. As is usually the case his backstory was simply a distracting filler.

Many of the events take place in the German College in the Vatican but no ever connects this with the Germans outside and there seem to be no Germans in the Vatican. No German cardinal or archbishops or bishop.

Nothing about the Italian day workers who come to work every day.

The prose is workmanlike.

The Billy Boyle books each have different setting so that is goodbye to the Vatican. But I will try searching for Vatican krimies.

There are scores of Lincoln biographies. I have long been dimly aware of a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln by that poet of the Great Plains, Carl Sandburg, but eight volumes was much more than I wanted.  In the oral version from Audible it runs to 44 hours. However I did notice that there was a one volume abridgement.  That then was the obvious choice.  A biography of the most famous son of Illinois by the most renown poet of Illinois.

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All the well known stories are there and I shall not retail them.

New to me

Length and variety of his militia service
Travel down the river to New Orleans
Early and unequivocal objection to slavery on moral grounds in public statement occasioned by pursuit of runaways slaves into illinois
His gradual drift into politics because government could build bridges, dig drains, etc that this small community could never do. Local improvements, they were called at the time.
Saw Zachery Taylor and William Henry Harrison who both later became president.
By 1837 Lincoln opposed slavery on moral grounds, but accepted it in the South because of the Constitution.
As a mediator he learned from his father's example of dealing with eight children of a blended family in a one-room cabin. Defuse the situation and illustrate with humor
He spoke up on local improvements and because he had learned to read and write, others who could not do either turned to him to prepare petitions.
He became a state representative as Whig, worked hard at committees, reports, speeches
He saw and served in some run away slave case in Illinois.
He was a one-term congressman as a Whig, campaigned for other Whigs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky.
Lincoln voted several times for the Wilmot Provision to prevent slavery in new territories and states.
In his notebooks Lincoln puzzled over the morality, constitutionality, legality of slavery in whole and in part for years.
He concluded it was immoral since 1837, only indirectly constitutional in the States that had it a when the constitution was agreed, but fugitive slave act was legal, made by congress.
So he wanted to stop spread of slavery to other or new states, stop slave trade bringing in new slaves, but not for ending it since it was legal and partly constitutional in South Carolina and its ilk and since there was no way to cope with one million slaves in seven states who would be made free overnight and impossible to work out how to do it gradually, So on practical grounds there was no solution. Abolitionists seemed to have no plan for what to do if slavery were abolished, rather like all the Greens today who scream immediate action without a thought for consequences.  He would have preferred to keep the Missouri compromise but it lapsed with the Compromise of 1850 which was a hodgepodge of deals and concessions much too delicately balanced to last.

Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party arose (reminds me of Tea Party!)
Lincoln supported immigrants to vote, to get citizenship quickly and they voted for him.
The number of immigrants at the period is enormous 12,000 a month in Chicago, not all stayed there but went on to Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
When the Free Soil Party morphed into Republicans at Ripon Wisconsin (an event no longer celebrated on the Republican National Committee website, such is the pernicious influence of the ideologues) Lincoln had no baggage as an old time Whig, he was from the West and fresh and energetic, and he wanted the presidential nomination in 1860.
He seemed to like being at the centre of things in Illinois legislature and got the ambition.

In a four-way race he won the electoral vote on the popular vote in the larger, northern states. The Southern states started seceding from the Union long before he took the oath of office in March 1961.

Lincoln the president was slow, thoughtful, pragmatic, thick-skinned, patient, mindful of his limitations and those of others. Not to be stampeded by cabinet, nor by generals, nor by the press.  

Scurrilous animosity of many in the House and the Senate is hard to credit but it is palpable, and only occasionally silenced.  Even Lincoln's re-election did not shut them up.  Th calumny heaped on him by Senate Republicans, war democrats, peace democrats, abolitionists, to say nothing of the Confederates beggers belief.

The restraint in the Emancipation Proclamation was to try to prise the three border states and Delaware away from the Confederacy by not confiscating property of slave holders in those states. 

He found slavery objectionable not because of the equality of blacks, but for the debasement it brought to the master.  More and more though he did realize that blacks were not only sentient but more.  Frederick Douglas and other blacks he met lead him along this path, as did they blacks in the Union army, about 200,000 of them by 1865.  

Lincoln’s 10% plan.  Those states partly occupied by Union army in 1862 and 1863 like Florida, Louisiana.  If petitioned by 10% of males citizens computed against 1860 census he proposed that these state be permitted to form a loyal Union government and to rejoin the Union.  For example, Louisiana would have a rebel government in Shreveport and a Union government in New Orleans.  

Congress would not agree for a variety of reasons: for some the states which seceded had committed suicide and were no longer states at all, for some these states should be treated as conquered territory under military occupation, for some this plan was a sneaky Lincoln way to get more Republican voters first to get re-nominated instead of Chase and then to get more electoral votes in the general election, for some the were constitutional and legal technicalities that would take ages to be resolved through courts. Were now free blacks to sign these petitions? The House and the Senate would not seat representatives or senators from these ersatz states for all of these reasons and more. This was a mistake, Lincoln thought, because it made fighting on the only choice for some who might otherwise lead a reconciliation. The war between executive and legislature never ends, and there are few truces.  

Later in the war Lincoln also tried to set up local governments in East Tennessee that had always been loyal so to protect the loyalists from revenge of losing Confederates.  Again congress resisted on analogous grounds.  

Lincoln toyed with offering to buy slaves remaining in Deep South to end the war.  He claimed it would be no more expensive in money than continuing the war and it would save lives and the destruction of property.  

Lincoln ignored distinction of church and state several times a national days of prayer.

Scores and scores of personal petitions to Lincoln and he heard and read just about all of them, and often conceded the exception they asked.  That bothered me because I have always resisted making exception for the one in front of me because (1) there many equally placed who were not in front of me for whom I was going to do nothing and (2) I did not want to encourage others to present their petitions to me.  My thought was that if here is a reason to make an exception it should be written into the rules.  Sandburg does nothing to analyze or assess Lincoln's response to these petitions.  

The endless flood of office seekers even in the dark days of 1864 would be enough to slay a lesser man.

Of all the wonderful remarks Lincoln made, these two say it all.  

1. 'My policy is to have no policy' (p.  239). An oft repeated remark. Imagine saying it today.

Lincoln was not an ideologue.  His goal was to preserve the Union and on Monday that might mean X and on Friday it might be doing -X.  If an analogy serves considers a sail boat. To make harbour amid winds and tides sometimes a captain must oversteer to port and at other times oversteer to starboard.  These is no inconsistency in these variations, though every immature journalist will declare that there is, having face no bigger challenge than finding a parking place at work.  

2. 'Mr. Moorhead [a very young know-it-all], haven't you lived long enough to know that two men may honestly differ about a question and both be right (p 660)?'

This remarks explains why he was not an ideologue as per the first remark.

In these 800 pages there is no poetry, and very few examples of Sandburg's capacity to elevate the mundane to majesty with the sheer energy radiating from the page in his poetry.  He also lapses into the present tense in depicting the assassination.


There are too many chapters which list events that do nothing to develop Lincoln, the man, or Lincoln the President.

After the early years the book is about Lincoln the president.  No much about the man, relationship to wife or children.  Was he religious, I cannot tell?  Nothing about attending church and only show him once or twice consulting the Bible, but instead relying on his folksy stories, though the moral of many of these stories could have illustrated from the Bible.  

It has no sources or bibliography. Opening preface eschews footnotes.

Highly recommended.

The second Tuchman book I have read. This by legend is the one Jack Kennedy read and it scared him when he thought about nuclear weapons.

Tuchman august.jpg

One of Tuchman's major themes is that a plan carefully made in detail and extensively supported takes on a life's of its own.  If a small shove engages the plan, then it takes a super-human effort to divert it, stop it.  (When President Kennedy abruptly gets up from the table and walks out of the room while the Air Force generals are arguing for bombing Cuba in the film ‘Thirteen Days’ that is one example of the effort to resist a plan in the face of enormous pressure.) In 1914 the Germans had the most extensive and detailed plan for war of all time and so were the most bound by it.  It specified the train cars platoons would ride it and at what place and time they would, dismount from Mobilization Day (or M40) plus 40 in Paris. Once the plan was initiated everyone knew what to do and set about doing it. Belgian resistance which had been set at 0 in the plan broke down the schedule and traffic jams resulted. The perfect plan contained an erroneous assumption. But that dislocation simply made it more imperative to get back on schedule, not to think twice about the plan. The General Staff set to work around the clock to re-route trains, to re-supply units, to to find alternative roads, to shift rolling stock, and so on.

Another general theme is the difficulty of getting anyone to obey orders. French, German, Russian, and English generals refused orders, stalled, deliberately misunderstood, or willfully rendered themselves incommunicado.  Even when the superior officer came and delivered the order face-to-face in person the response was sometimes tomorrow, not just yet, or no. At times it was impossible to replace this general so he stayed in command and did not move. The Prussian General Francois waited and stalled and stalled until he was ready to move on his terms. The Prussian Von Kluck ignored his order and improvised in the hope of a magnificent coup and blundered.

In the same vein, she stresses the general confusion of war. The German Chief of Staff had little idea of what the situation with his own armies was, let alone where the French or English were and in what force.  Ditto for corps and division commanders.  

Another theme is the logistic of moving regiments, divisions, corps, and armies. The staff work was crucial. To move 70,000 armed men with artillery and other equipment takes a very great deal of detail and direction, a timetable for movement, an allocation of roads or railroad cars, fodder and food along the way, and much more. It all makes Sydney’s Town Hall Station at peak hour seem organized.

The tangled web of secret treaties, each with its conditions and conditionals, made it difficult for anyone to predict what would happen.  And even where there was a simple and clear treaty inevitably it was made by someone else a few years ago and the question of the will of the current incumbents to live up to it arose.

The disobedience gave scope for individuals to make a difference.  Her study by the way is all at the command level, generals and up, not grunts. 

Of personalities, the Kaisar seems a loose cannon who wanted to show the world Germany was a great power. The French general Joffre made many mistakes, none of which he ever admitted, but was a rock of calm and optimism.  French, the English commander, lost his nerve not even a personal visit from Kitchner could stiffen him. 

The contradictory character of orders plays into the disobedience.  A general is ordered to attack but cautioned not to expose his flank.  A general is ordered to be aggressive but not to risk defeat.  Which part takes priority, aggression or risk avoidance?

Galiani seems to have been the man for the hour at the Marne.  His idea of a long meeting was 15 minutes, all else was action.  He was a general without an army for the most of the time but that only slowed him down, it did not stop him.  The taxi cabs were but one of his initiatives.

King Albert of Belgium was ready to fight from the first and did not relent when the Germans started shooting civilian hostages. Even a German effort to buy him off for an enormous sum was rejected.

The Russians fulfilled their French alliance by attacking long before they were ready and that led to be a major defeat from which they never recovered, but it did draw off two German army corps from the invasion of Frances and that helped weaken the German advance in the West. There are many ifs and might have beens. 

Even the most bellicose commanders, when the order to attack came, hesitated, trimmed, temporized.

She has many masterful turns of the phrase. Impressive research and synthesis from original sources.  The scope is everything that happened in August 1914, well literally from the July assassination to the started of the Battle of the Marne in mid-September.  

The tactical of manuals of the Russian army placed little emphasis on shells for either rifles or cannons, but instead stressed sabres and bayonets. The German manual told attackers to run 20 seconds then fall down while the enemy fired every 20 seconds. After they have fired get up and run again.  But the fire rate was 8 seconds as it turned out.

Though most of the weapons, artillery and machine guns, that dominated World War I were used by the Japanese against the Russia in Asia, and dutifully reported by the European military attachés who observed the Russo-Japanese War, virtually nothing of that made its way into the manuals, the ministers of war, or generals.

Personal rivalries and antagonisms between generals often spoiled plans.

The capacity of politicians to dither in the hope that the crisis would dissipate of its own accord in England and France is worth reading.  Even with the Germans 40 miles from Paris no democratically elected office holder would permit General Galini to demolish building to create firing lines.  Instead they argued over who would pay compensation to the owners and questioned the necessity of destroying bridges to impede the German advance.  Galini wanted to mine all the bridges over the Seine and delegations of historians opposed him. There was very little singular focus even with the Barbarians at the gates.

Speaking of barbarism, the German atrocities in Belgium did occur and they were systematic.

Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram (1958). Recommended.

It is far fetched and yet true story of how the Kaiser's Germany tried off-and-on to encourage animosity between Japan and the USA, between Mexico and the USA and then an alliance between Japan and Mexico against the USA, or between the Japan, Mexico, and Germany against the USA to keep the USA out of European affairs, especially in the years for American neutrality in WWI.  The various schemes were launched independently by several German agents and government departments promoted a Japan-Mexico alliance funded in part by Germany to keep the USA locked into North America.  It included either a Japanese invasion or inflitration through Baja California.  The prize offered to the Japanese would be the Philippines and Hawaii and to Mexico the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  If Mexico could be won over it might stop the flow of Tampico oil for USA navy and might offer naval basis to U-boats along with the oil.


In World War I Japan had allied itself with the England and France, but once it had occupied the German possessions -- Guam, Samoa, and the Marshall Islands -- in the Pacific it had no further interest in the war. Germany was willing to give those up for Japan to dabble in Mexico.  There was even at one time mention briefly of a formal military alliance of Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

The Japanese encouraged the approaches to see what was on offer, but never seemed to be seriously considering it.  But simply being receptive was disturbing intelligence in Washington.  The real value of Japan to the Western European alliance was that it secured Russia's Asian border so it could concentrate its armies in Poland and not have to hold back some to guard against a Japanese attack and replay of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. Accordingly, to the Western Allies the goal was to neutralize Japan one way or another. Anything that jeopardized that neutrality was dangerous. Hence the German efforts to do just that.

At the time Mexico was a cauldron of vying war lords throughout this period: Villa, Huerta, Carranza, and others.  Each willing to promise anything to get arms and gold, each hating El Norte.  (Well that just about sums up a great of Mexican history to today.)

President Woodrow Wilson is presented as an inflexible idealist who could not shape his manner, means, or message to the circumstances.  He worked from elevated first principles for all times and all places, and so not suitable for any particular time or place.  His invasion(s) of Mexico was for its own good!  He found it very frustrating that Mexicans did not realize that and acquiesce. His goal was regime change!  History is repetitive.  He was quite upset that Mexicans resisted and united against his invasions.

Colonel House features largely in this story as one who enjoyed playing the game that he often lost sight of what it as all for.  Because he enjoyed wire pulling so much, he overestimated his own influence.

Wilson ignored the reports and advice of diplomats because he knew they did not imbibe his goals of world peace and were concerned only with American interests, including business interest in Mexico and with Germany.  Instead he relied on House who never said anything Wilson might not want to hear.  

Robert Lansing came early to the conclusion that war with Germany was inevitable.  He was reading the diplomatic reports and realized Germany would never compromise to make peace.

The most astounding thing was that Colonel House convinced Wilson to let the German embassy in Washington DC use State Department cables, during US neutrality, to communicate with Berlin and for the German foreign office to reply by the same means ostensibly to consider peace terms but in fact it was to avoid British intelligence surveillance in communicating to Mexico from Washington DC. The Secretary of State, Lansing, to his credit resisted and demanded a written order from Wilson each of the many times over weeks, because it violated neutrality.

Even after the Zimmerman Telegram was revealed the Germans kept using it this American channel.  It seems never to have occurred to any German that the code had been broken somewhere. They tried to trace the leak and the English tried to conceal it. Zimmerman, by the way, was the German foreign minister.

The Zimmerman Telegram was timed to coincide with the launch unrestricted submarine warfare with the up of an uprising in Mexico and the prospect of a Japanese attack on The Philippines, or Hawaii, or even California to paralyze the USA.  The German General staff estimated Britain could only hold out six months with unrestricted submarine attacked. If the USA was pinned down for a time, it might be long enough to compel a British surrender.  Without Britain, France would, the Germans supposed, fall over.

The declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare depended on having 200 U-boats operational to go to unrestricted warfare to cover the sea approaches to Britain. When that number was reached, the declaration was made.

The British had broken the code and since the German sent that Telegram three times, such was their confidence in the impenetrability of the code, once via the neutral Swedish diplomatic route which the Swedes offered to Germany throughout the war in violation of their own neutrality, via radio from Berlin, and by Telegram to Washington D.C., they got it.  The British wanted to conceal the fact that they had cracked the code so that the German would keep using it.  So they had to figure out a way to reveal the message to the USA in such a way to prove its authenticity but not so much as to reveal how the USA came to have it.  That is a convoluted story best read. 

Yet there is more.  The authenticity was denied by American pacifists like Robert LaFollette.  The Senate was set to block.  Then Zimmerman in Berlin called a press conference.  The opening question came from a pro-German American journalist who said 'Of course,you are going to deny it....'  But no, Zimmerman said, ‘I can't deny it because it is true.‘ End game! Then he proceeded to split hairs about whether the putative alliance was to apply before or after the USA entered the war.  Too late, the admission undercut the deniers in the USA.  

Let's count the blunders there.  Zimmerman did not need to have a press conference.  If there was one, he could have sent someone else.  If he went, he could have stalled, temporized, or prevaricated since time was the essence. Remarkably he continued in office.

When the telegram was revealed, the fact that it had been transmitted unknowingly by the State Department was omitted.    

Tuchman argues that the German were determined to win the war because to settle or lose would mean a revolt that would lead to a regime change and Kaiser would be gone.  They were right...

The book has many marvelous turns of the phrase, and enough skulduggery for several Le Carré novels.  Spies and counter spies tripping over each other.  

A few quibbles. A lot of guesses are passed off as fact, e.g., 'when he read the telegram, his heartbeat faster..'  'When the Kaiser again ....., he felt his grasp on reality slipping away.'  How can she possibly know the inner mind of all these characters. Of course, it adds a human touch to offer these comments and makes it read like a novel, but .... it is sheer speculation.  She could have said 'he might have felt his grasping reality' or 'his must have beat faster' but these subjunctive constructions reveal the description as hypothesis not as fact.  Just in case she was paraphrasing a source I checked the notes three or four times and found nothing to support the text. 

She also more than once reifies a nation, 'Germany reacted.., rather than which Germans or 'the State Department was embarrassed when..,' rather who was embarrassed.

She underestimates William Jennings Bryan and disparages him as though she had recently seen the play 'Inherit the Wind‘ (1955). He was certainly the most well travelled man in Wilson's cabinet and he read German and his wife spoke French on their travels. I have no doubt that he would have blunted the pervasive and pernicious influence of Colonel House in the State Department.

She makes no mention of that superstar journalist of the day H L Mencken who was pro-German. Yet he made enough noise for six others.

I was keen to read this as a precursor to her great book The Guns of August (1962), and also because I found that the Zimmerman Telegram was hardly mentioned in the biography of President Wilson I read, yet I recalled it to be of great importance.