Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for...moreDetective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can the search for the killer if they don't know who the victim is? And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette, whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.
Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.
Are there flaws?
Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can't imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat. (less)
According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so...moreAccording to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.
It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.
When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.
But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven't read the other books.
The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.
Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he "went ballistic". "Ballistic" was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM -- an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I'm sure it took a few more years before the term "went ballistic" was applied metaphorically to human beings.
The second such anachronism is where someone is described as "a scrounger living low on the food chain". Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don't think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.
Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of "blows coppers away". That one I'm not sure of, but I don't think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.
Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren't around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.
In spite of that, it's still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I'll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really. (less)
Thirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves....moreThirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves. I don't know how many of them the children read, but the other day, looking for some light reading, and not having seen anything I hadn't read on our general fiction shelves, I looked on the old children's books' shelf, and found this.
It's a very ordinary story about some school children in a village in the south of England. In the Christmas holidays they get bored, and go exploring the neighbourhood, in the course of which they encounter a reclusive woman who lives alone with her cat. When the Lent term starts at school they get involved in preparing for a play.
The children are of indeterminate ages, though as the youngest is 11, I assume that most of the others are somewhere in the age range of 11-14.
I think it is the kind of book I would have hated as a child.
The problem is that it is so ordinary. It describes things that children do, like climbing up drains and acting in school plays, and being jealous over who gets the best parts and so on.
It was published 40 years ago, and so describes a vanished generation. There is only one mention of a computer in the whole story, and no one would have had one at home. And the play they produce is an Easter play, and the children seem to be familiar with the plot. Even back then, that might have been quite unusual (though the girls were at a church school, run by nuns). I recall a Church of England bishop of about that period describing how he took his nephew and niece to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, and being somewhat disconcerted to find that they didn't know the plot.
But in spite of its ordinariness, I found the story quite moving in a way. I wouldn't buy it for a child to read, though. I'd be afraid that they would have been as horribly bored as I would have been.(less)
A couple of weeks ago I wrote in a blog post Gunning for the Dixons about some of the problems of locating the Dixon family in what is now Namibia.
We...moreA couple of weeks ago I wrote in a blog post Gunning for the Dixons about some of the problems of locating the Dixon family in what is now Namibia.
We were interested because some members of my wife's family had married into a Dixon family (as described in the blog post in the link above) and they also appeared to be business partners of the Dixon family, but most of the records we had found were confusing and it was possible that there was more than one Dixon family. We made contact with the author of this book, but weren't able to get hold of a copy because of a postal strike. Now at last we have a copy, and things become a little bit clearer.
This book deals with only one of the families, and makes no mention at all of the other, but that at least helps us to say that people who can be identified as members of this family are very unlikely to be members of the other.
Both Dixon families were probably Irish in origin, however.
The two Dixon families are:
1. Benjamin Dixon and Lodivia Manifold (the subjects of this book) 2. Peter Daniel Dixon and Whilhelmina Hendriks
I will refer to them as the "Ben Dixon" and "Peter Dixon" families.
Ben Dixon became a business partner of James Morris, and their two families set out for Namibia in 1843, travelling overland by ox waggon. They were Wesleyan Methodists and travelled part of the way with some Wesleyan missionaries, and stayed at mission stations on the way. They crossed the Orange (Gariep) river on Christmas day 1843, and reached Walvis Bay in about June 1844. This is all described in detail in the book, seen through the eyes of the Dixons' eldest daughter Jane, who was 13 years old when they left, and had her 14th birthday on the journey.
The Dixon and Morris families built two houses and a store on the Kuiseb River, at a place they named Sandfontein, about three miles from the present town of Walvis Bay, and began trading for cattle, which they exported to St Helena to provide meat for the British garrison there. In September 1844 Mary Morris gave birth to a daughter at Sandfontein (she was named Sarah Ann Kuisip, because she was born on the Kuiseb River, though that is not mentioned in the book).
They kept a couple of lion cubs as pets, and various sailors from ships in Walvis Bay harbour wanted to buy them, and when they would not sell, tried to steal them. Walvis Bay harbour was amazingly busy in those days, mainly with ships collecting guano from the offshore islands, and sometimes there were 10 or 12 of them in the bay at the same time, come to re-stock with stores before going back to collect more guano.
For a while the business prospered, and then things went bad. Fewer guano ships arrived, and many of the people inland who traded cattle for goods did not pay for the goods, and so Ben Dixon and James Morris had so go on debt collecting tours. The debtors, however, sometimes decided that they easiest way to pay their debts was simply to steal the cattle from someone else, or even from those to whom they were owed. One group bought a waggon for a number of cattle, and then took the cattle back to haul the waggon home. Complaints to the British government about this led to the St Helena contract being cancelled.
James Morris took a large herd of cattle overland to Cape Town, to try to sell them there, and returned by sea with his sister Fanny and her husband Frank Stewardson, and their two children. Fanny and Frank Stewardson were my wife Val's great-great-great grandparents, so snippets like that were of special interest to us.
So one thing that we learned from the book was that while that Ben Dixon and the Morris and Stewardson families were in a business partnership together, they did not intermarry.
Eventually Ben Dixon returned to the Cape Colony, but instead of going back to Cape Town he settled in Little Namaqualand, on a farm near the town of Garies. Their eldest daughter Jane married William Latham, and remained in what is now Namibia until her husband's death, then went to stay with her parents. The second daughter, Rebecca, married Frank Bassingthwaighte, and their family remained in Namibia, and some of their descendants are still there today. The younger members farmed in the Northern Cape, and so the Ben Dixon family is mainly associated with Namaqualand, as the book's title suggests.
The Peter Dixon family seems to be entirely different, though also perhaps originally from Ireland.
Peter Daniel Dixon was the son of McCombe Donald Dixon and Maria Sprewt. He was born in the Cape Colony about 1821, and married Wilhelmina Hendriks, by whom he had at least 7 children. He was trading in Walvis Bay in the early 1860s, and his daughter married Fred Green, the elephant hunter, but died in about 1860, and they seem to have had no children. Fred Green then married Sarah Kaipukire, and after a separation or divorce, married Catherine Stewardson, the daughter of Frank and Fanny Stewardson mentioned above. So Fred Green was married into the Peter Dixon family, but was also friendly with the Ben Dixon family.
Peter Dixon married a second time to Annie Cloete, probably in Damaraland, but if they had any children, we know nothing of them.
Though it appears that we are not related to the Ben Dixon family either by descent or marriage, the book was nevertheless a fascinating and informative read, and gives a good insight into life 150 years ago.
At first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on u...moreAt first I thought this was going to be one of the better books by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, when a doctoral student writing a thesis on unmarried mothers in Victorial literature is given an unpublished novel on the same topic, but set in the 1920s and 1930s to read. At the beginning it showed promise of being something like Possession by A.S. Byatt, or, if not quite at that level, like a Robert Goddard novel, with a mystery in the past coming back to haunt people in the present. I kept reading, hoping for some sort of dénouement, which never came.
The past action is all in the unpublished novel, which, dealing with unmarried mothers and homosexuality, could not be published when it was written, as those were taboo topics in those days. The thesis about how the theme of unmarried mothers was dealt with in Victorial literature piqued my interest, as I had just read Oliver Twist, where that is one of the central themes.
But The child's child is rather disappointing, as it comes in the form of a novella wrapped in a novelette, with very little connection between them. The novella is supposed to be based on the life of a great uncle of one of the characters in the wrapping story, but the connection is not made clear or explained, though one is led to expect that at some point it will be.
Barbara Vine has written better books in this genre in the past -- one of them is Asta's book, which I must perhaps re-read to see why I remember it as so much better than this one.
When I saw this book in the Protea Bookshop in Pretoria, I immediately bought it, mainly because of my interest in family hsitory and Namibian history...moreWhen I saw this book in the Protea Bookshop in Pretoria, I immediately bought it, mainly because of my interest in family hsitory and Namibian history. My wife Val's paternal great grandfather, Frederick Vincent Greene, was born at Ehangero, Damaraland, in 1868. His father, Frederick Thomas Green, a Canadian, lived in Damaraland for 25 years as a hunter and trader, and when he died in 1876 William Chapman attended him at his death bed, at Heigamkab in the dry bed of the Swakop river. He describes the scene in his book in some detail.
The late Mr Frederick Green had arrived shortly before at the bay [Walvis Bay] and had gone with his family on a trip to Cape Town so I decided to wait for his return and then go with him to the interior. During the time I was waiting for Mr Green I enjoyed the hospitality of Mr John Gunning, the manager of Mr A.W. Eriksson's store in Walvisch Bay.
When Mr Green returned I joined him and we left the Bay for the interior, he was very unwell. After reaching Hykamgap in the Swakop River he became worse and died on the 4th May 1876, succumbing to what Mr Palgrave said was an acscess on the liver, the last days of his illness being marked by vomiting. I was in the wagon with him during the last night and present when he breathed his last. Poor man, he left a widow and a number of children!
Chapman goes on to give a summary of what he knew of the life of Fred Green, who had been a friend of his father, James Chapman.
Family historians like to get birth, marriage and death certificates for information about their ancestors, but there was no registration of these events in Namibia in those days -- at that time the country consisted of a number of mini-states that sometimes quarrelled among themselves. Fred Green's death took place during one of the peaceful interludes, though he himself had participated in some of the earlier battles. But Chapman gives as much information as most death certificates, and with a more human touch.
William Chapman went to Damaraland as a teenager to seek his fortune. He had a romantic notion of following in the footsteps of his father James Chapman, and saw Fred Green as a Nimrod who would teach him the ropes. He was 16 at the time.
Instead he had to be content with Fred Green's brothers-in-law, William and Charles Stewardson, teenagers not much older than himself, who were equipped and sent out to hunt and trade by the aforementioned Mr A.W. Eriksson. It makes me wonder about the youth of today. How many parents would send three kids aged 16 or 17 out on a business trip, putting them in charge of expensive equipment, and in a country full of wild animals, some of which they would hunt, and others which would hunt them? Though I suppose we do send them to war, to hunt and kill other human beings.
But William Chapman did not get on well with the Stewardson brothers, nor they with him. Reading between the lines, it sounds like a high school kid being excluded from a gang. The Stewardsons had been brought up rough, in a desert country. Chapman was the citified kid, who had been to a relatively posh school, which taught him gentelman's manners. The Stewardsons preferred the company of their Damara and Herero servants, and at nights around the campfire preferred to talk to them, in their own languages, thus excluding the city slicker, who spoke only English and Dutch.
Chapman grew up fast, however, and eventually went into business on his own account, and migrated northwards to Angola, where he farmed, hunted and traded for 48 years.
The book is in two parts. The first part, the reminiscences proper, he began to write in 1916, mainly for his children, or at least at their request, and is the story of his life and of the people he encountered. The second part is an account of the Dorsland Trekkers, who left the Transvaal when it was under British rule about 1880, and went north-west through what is now Botswana, ending up in Angola, which was gradually coming under Portuguese rule.
It seems that he may have intended the second part for publication, but never actually got round to finishing it, because there are blanks for things like dates and names to be filled in later, and towards the end it is in obvious need of much editing. Most of the last part is a series of anecdotes intended to show how terrible Portuguese rule in Angola was, and why the Dorsland trekkers left after having lived there for nearly 50 years. There is no account of how they left and what subsequently happened to them.
Except for those last 50 or so pages, the book is very readable, and gives an interesting picture of what life was like in Namibia and Angola a century or more ago. There are also several photographs.
One of the things that struck me was some strange inconsistencies. I'm not sure if they were mere personal idiosyncracies, or if they were attitdes common among white people living there at the time. At times Chapman rails against the Portuguese for their unjust treatment of the "natives", and gives accounts of such practices as forced labour, imprisonment (and even killing) without trial, confiscation of livestock and so on. And then in another place he accuses the Portuguese of over-familiarity, giving chairs to natives to sit on when they meet for discussions and similar malpractices. The British and the Boers, he avers, would never sink to that level.
The value of the book is enormously enhanced by comprehensive annotations by the editor, Nicol Stassen. He has gone to a great deal of trouble to identify people and places mentioned in the text and to provide useful information about them in footnotes. It is almost worth buying the book for these alone.
It seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts...moreIt seems a bit silly to try to write a review of a book that was published more than 150 years ago, and is so well known, but here are a few thoughts prompted by reading it.
Dickens is generally regarded as a Good Author who wrote Good Books, and so reading them must be Good For You. Even F.R. Leavis allowed Dickens into his canon.
As a result, Dickens's books are often prescribed reading for schoolkids, to do them good. But the only book by Dickens that I liked when I was at school was A tale of two cities. It seemed to fit in with The scarlet pimpernel and others of the same genre.
Another one we had at school was Great Expectations. It was a matric set book, and our English teacher, a guy called Derrick Hudson-Reed, told us that in 20 years time we would come back to visit the school and confess to him that we had never read Great Expectations. Quite a number of us told him that right after the exam. We'd read an executive summary to get the main points of the plot. Perhaps if I'd read it I'd have got an A instead of a BB in the exam, but I rather doubt it. I rather suspect that Charles Dickens is wasted on the young.
About every four or five years I pick up a book by Dickens and read it. I've enjoyed them, but as I've read them I've been glad that I hadn't read them when I was younger. There was so much that I just would not have appreciated.
Oliver Twist begins with scenes in a 19th-century workhouse in England. When you are at school, they explain such things in a brief footnote, or maybe the teacher would say something about it.
But reading it now, at my age, I've read quite a bit about workhouses because of my interest in family history. I know that my great great grandfather (well, one of them) died in Bodmin Union Workhouse at the age of 83. It was what passed for an old age home in those days, and if you'd spent your life as a woodman, scrounging wood from the woods, you didn't end up with much in the way of a pension. Oliver Twist not only describes life in a workhouse; it has graphic descriptions of death in a workhouse.
So I'm glad that I read it at the age of 71, rather than at the age of 11 or even 21. If I'd read it then, I'd have missed too much.
Having said that, I might not have noticed the plot holes if I'd read it earlier. There are just too many improbable coincidences, too many people fortuitously meeting too many other people who turn out to have been related, or friends of relations, or enemies of relations. I suppose that that is in part the result of its having originally been written as a serial, and having so many plot threads that Dickens had to find ways of tying together in the end.
If you haven't read it yet, you might enjoy it, especially if you are over 50.
But Dickens, in spite of having a chapter to tie up the loose ends, never does tell us what happened to the Artful Dodger. (less)
As I read this book I had a line from an old Kinks record running though my head: "God save Fu-Manchu, Moriaty and Dracula." The book has a villain wh...moreAs I read this book I had a line from an old Kinks record running though my head: "God save Fu-Manchu, Moriaty and Dracula." The book has a villain who is like all three rolled into one, with the addition of a few more villains from Victorian melodrama besides.
But while there is a supervillain, there isn't a superhero, just a middle-aged clockmaker who is trying to live down his family's criminal history, though it turns out to be fortunate that he can call on his father's old criminal associates for help when necessary. The plot revolves around his inadvertently setting off a weapon of mass destruction that was forgotten (by most) since the Second World War. Other characters are his lawyer, his girlfriend and a retired spy with a blind and almost toothless dog.
As for the story, it's a bit like Franz Kafka meets Neil Gaiman with a dash of Charles Williams and Jean Genet thrown in for good measure. But it's not really as good as any of those, so it's a bit disappointing. There are some good witty descriptions at the beginning, but they are scarce towards the end, or perhaps it is just that that kind of humour tends to pall if overused.
There are too many plot holes to make it really interesting. It has some interesting social commentary, about the forces of law and order being beholden to the bad guys, while the criminal underworld turn out to be the good guys, the hope of saving the world. It is that aspect that is a bit reminiscent of Jean Genet, though Genet does it so much better. Perhaps that's why the publishers tried to boost it by putting no fewer than nine pages of glowing reviews at the beginning, to bludgeon the reader into thinking that the book was worth the money spent on it.
It is the kind of book that will probably be made into a film, and one will know it has succeeded if the audiences hiss and boo whenever the villain appears on the screen. (less)
This is a 700-page history book that reads like, and is as gripping as a novel. It covers the first battle of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the battle o...moreThis is a 700-page history book that reads like, and is as gripping as a novel. It covers the first battle of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the battle of Isandlwana, when the British invaded Zululand, and retreated with a bloodied nose.
The term "history book" needs to be qualified, of course. Many historians believe that detailed descriptions of battles are not real history. For real historians, they might say, the actual battle is not important, only the causes and the results.
This book is not even about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 as such. It is just about the opening battles, or to be strictly accurate, the opening battle, the Battle of Isandlwana. The Battle of Rorke's Drift was a mere side-show, boosted by the British war propaganda machine to divert attention from their defeat at Isandlwana.
Having said that, however, Ian Knight describes the causes of the war at some length, and it is interesting to compare it with other books on the same topic. There was a flurry of books on the Anglo-Zulu War around the time of its centenary in 1879.
I became interested in the topic when I learned that my great grandfather had fought in the war. My grandmother had died three years before we became seriously interested in family history, but I talked to her cousin, whose mother's birthday book had an entry for Captain Richard Wyatt Vause VC. The VC bit sounded rather unlikely to me, but I asked other members of the family, and one cousin had my great grandfather's diary of the Anglo-Zulu War. He wasn't a VC, and he wasn't a captain, but he was a Lieutenant in the Natal Native Horse, and he was one of the few on the British side who escaped alive after the Battle of Isandlwana. I'm glad he did, because if he hadn't I wouldn't be here.
A second reason for my interest was that I was living in Zululand at the time of the centenary of the war, and we visited the battlefield both on the centenary itself, and for the centenary celebrations four months later. On the actual centenary there were some overweight people marching up and down wearing British redcoat uniforms, no doubt left over costumes from the filming of Zulu Dawn. At the celebrations there were some descendants of members of the Zulu army running up and down, also overweight, and quite exhausted by their exertions. I suspect their great grandfathers would have been quite amused.
When I first became interested in the Anglo-Zulu War the most up-to-date account was The washing of the spears by Donald R. Morris, so I read it. Now, forty years later, Ian Knight has produced a new account, and it is quite interesting to compare them. Both are very readable accounts, and well written.
In the intervening period there has been a lot of effort to collect more primary source material and make it more accessible to researchers, so Knight had access to a lot more source material than Morris did, and he quotes from it quite extensively. So Knight's book has some first-hand accounts from both sides (including excerpts from my great grandfather's diary). This makes the story come alive more, so that on reading it, one almost feels that one has been there.
This also means that Knight can fill in some gaps, and answer some of the questions that could not be answered in Morris's account. Morris, for example, mentions a 12-year-old drummer boy, who was strung up by the heels and had his throat cut. Knight mentions that there were rumours of such things in the press, and stories to that effect later told by soldiers to frighten new recruits, but there was no evidence that any such thing happened, or that there was anyone younger than 17 in the British army, and the drummers were mostly middle-aged men. There may have been a few that young on the Zulu side, but they were not actually soldiers, but rather camp followers, perhaps come to help carry equipment for an older brother, and to catch a glimpse of the excitement.
There are some curious differences in the accounts of the lead-up to the war. Morris and Knight emphasise different points, and each includes some things that the other omits. Morris's account, with fewer sources available, is sometimes contradictory. He appears to accept the British propaganda line that Zululand, with its large army was a threat to Natal, and that the British therefore had no choice but to invade Zululand to deal with this perceived threat, but at the same time he acknowledges that King Cetshwayo of Zululand had no hostile intentions towards Natal, and simply wanted to live in peace.
Both books deal with the confederation policy of Lord Carnarvon, the British Colonial Secretary, which was the real cause of the war. Carnarvon wanted to unite the various colonies, republics and independent kingdoms of southern Africa under British rule. Both books mention that the invasion of Zululand was preceded by the British annexation of the Transvaal by the erstwhile Natal secretary for Native Affairs, Theophilus Shepstone. Knight, however, comes up with the explanation, which was new to me (or else I simply hadn't appreciated it before) that Shepstone introduced the whole confederation scheme in conversations with Carnarvon, and convinced him that it could work in South Africa as it had in Canada in 1867.
Knight, however, omits all mention of James Anthony Froude, Carnarvon's spin doctor for confederation, who was sent to convince everyone of its benefits. He does mention that the Cape Colony was brought around to the idea by the simple expedient of sacking its prime minister, but omits a description of the way in which the same object was achieved in Natal, where Sir Garnet Wolseley was sent to "drown the liberties" of the colonists in sherry and champagne.
In military matters, though I am no expert in such things, I think Knight gives a more accurate picture. Morris speaks of Zululand as having a large "standing army", which is not quite true. The Zulu military system at that time more closely resembled that of the Swiss, with all males of military age subject to call-up, and being called upon to attend the king at various times. They generally provided their own weapons (only the shields were government issue). It was the British empire that had a standing army, like the two battalions of the 24th regiment, who were full-time professional soldiers, armed, fed and paid by the government. That was why the British lost the battle of Isandlwana, but won the war, because a standing army has a better chance in a drawn-out campaign.
Morris also, for some strange reason, plays down the fact that both sides used firearms. The blurb in the front of Morris's book emphasises this even more:
In 1879, armed only with their spears, their rawhide shields, and their incredible courage, the Zulus challenged the might of Victorian England and, initially, inflicted on the British the worst defeat a modern army has ever suffered at the hands of men without guns.
It is true that the British infantry were better trained in the use of firearms, and had state-of-the-art Martini-Henry rifles, which had a longer range and were more accurate than most of the guns in the Zulu army, but until the fighting got to very close quarters, most of it was by exchanges of gunfire. In hand-to-hand fighting, the British used bayonets fixed to the end of their rifles, while the Zulus used short stabbing spears. The bayonets had a longer reach, but once someone got inside that reach, it was over.
[Author:Ian Knight] also makes it pretty clear that war was not the romantic and glorious affair that was pictured in contemporary Victorian paintings. It was brutal, vicious and messy. Both sides killed prisoners and unarmed civilians. Some, like George Hamilton-Browne, would probably today be described as a war criminal, and his troops seem to have behaved like Arkan's Tigers in more recent times, though Hamilton-Brown treated his own troops pretty badly.
Another thing that comes out in Knight's account is the parallels between the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the Iraqi-American War of 2003. There was the same spin-doctoring in search of a casus belli, the same scare tactics and bogus threats (weapons of mass destruction/the Zulu plan to invade Natal). The main difference is that the Zulus fought better than the Iraqis.
The centenary of the war in 1979 occurred at the height of the "revisionist" movement in South African historiography, and much of the writing at that time was of the Marxist school, in which a "rigid theoretical framework" and concentration on abstract economic forces made for dull reading. Learning that unamed people who were in a position to "extract surpluses" and actually did so in unnamed places is dead boring to read.
Knight, I am glad to say, does not follow that trend. He tells the story of people and events, and his theoretical framework, if any, is less obtrusive.
And the impression that I get from Knight is that, if he has told the story accurately, Theophilus Shepstone was the villain of the piece, aided by his family, whether they extracted surpluses or not. Shepstone it was who worked himself into a position where he controlled much of the lives of the black people of Natal. It was Shepstone who urged the confederation policy on Lord Carnarvon. It was Shepstone who recommended to Garnet Wolseley that Zululand be broken up into 13 statelets whose rulers fought, as a contemporary described it, like Kilkenny cats. In other words, Shepstone embodied the principle of "divde and rule" in his own person.
And Shepstone's brother John "continued to dominate the Natal Native Affairs department thoughtout the 1880s, using his considerable influence to block any attempted resurgence of the Zulu royal house. As late as 1904 he provided evidence to the South African Native Affairs Commission arguing against allowing black Africans a right to vote in colonial elections (Knight 2011:692) -- an injustice that was only rectified 90 years later, in 1994. (less)
This is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was t...moreThis is Jo Nesbø's best novel yet -- the only problem is that it is his first.
Nearly four years ago I read The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø.I thought it was the best Scandiwegian whodunit I'd read till then, and it was the first one I'd read by Nesbø. But the later novels of his that I read were rather disappointing (see reviews here). Perhaps if one reads them backwards, there will be a steady improvement.
In The bat Norwegian detective Harry Hole is sent to Australia to help with the investigation of the murder of a Norwegian citizen in Sydney. The book is therefore quite an interesting guide to Australian geography and culture, which Nesbø explains to his Norwegian readers, to whom it would be unfamiliar. Books set in Australia and written by Australians don't generally do this, since the authors no doubt assume that their readers will be Australian, and therefore familiar with the social demographics of Sydney suburbs, and the appearance of the Queensland countryside. I found that Nesbø's explanations of these added to the interest of the book
There are also some Australian folk tales (the title of the book is based on one of them) and more about the different cultures in Australia -- as seen through Norwegian eyes. I found all this far more interesting than the lengthy descriptions of Harry Hole's hangovers, which seem to take up more and more space in the later books, though even in this one they are not entirely absent. One of the plot holes of this one is that one is never told when he stops drinking and is able to function again.
I was going to write a review of this book, but there's a damn video flickering in the corner of the screen and even hiding what I'm typing -- has Goo...moreI was going to write a review of this book, but there's a damn video flickering in the corner of the screen and even hiding what I'm typing -- has Good Reads been hacked or what?
Anyway, apart from being distracting, it's probably wasting my bandwidth which I have to pay for, so I'll write the review on my blog instead.
Excuse any spelling mistakes that I can't see to correct. (less)
This is a rather surprising book, and I came to read it in an unusual way.
My wife mentioned to a colleague at work that she had enjoyed a book that s...moreThis is a rather surprising book, and I came to read it in an unusual way.
My wife mentioned to a colleague at work that she had enjoyed a book that she had read at school, Reënboog in die skemering by Elizabeth Vermeulen, but had never seen a copy since she had left school, as it was apparently out of print. The book was a kind of family saga, and she had found it much more interesting than the "Trompie" books that were the other Afrikaans books that they had had to read at school. Trompie was a mischievous schoolboy, a bit like the "William" books of Richmal Crompton, but definitely intended for a younger readership than my wife was when they had to read them.
Great was her surprise when her colleague presented her with not one, but three books by Elizabeth Vermeulen. It turns out that the family saga was in three volumes, of which Towergoud (enchanted gold) is the first.
I began reading it, not quite sure what to expect. The title suggested that it might be a fantasy novel or fairy tale of some sort, but it turned out to be a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel on the pattern of David Copperfield or Great expectations.
The story opens in 1864 when Neels and Tys Lindeman are orphaned when their parents are killed in an accident. Their parents had lived on the farm Diepfontein, somewhere in the northern Cape Colony, employed by the farm owner, Org de Wit, who also owns the trading store that is the social centre of the district. Org de Wit takes in the young orphans, and employs them as shepherds, but without pay, and treats them harshly. Neels grows up realising that he will need to care for his retarded younger brother for the rest of his life, and resentful of the rich but miserly Org de Wit.
To say more might give away too much of the plot; even though it seems to be out of print someone else might get hold of a copy and want to read it. I found it a gripping tale, generally well told, though the language at times seemed a little stilted to me, but then Afrikaans is not my first language, and so I'm not the best judge of Afrikaans style. I will say, however, that Afrikaans, as written and spoken by the late dominee Beyers Naudé, is a really beautiful language, thought the years when it was South Africa's language of bureaucracy tended to make it very ugly.
In this book I also learnt a few words that were new to me -- algar where I would have expected almal (everyone, all). Another surprise was a term that was quite quite familiar to me, but which I had never seen written before, was te kere, meaning to do one's nut, or go ballistic. I had no idea it was from Afrikaans, and pictured it as written tequira, by analogy with tequila, and thought it came from Spanish. One is never too old to learn! (less)
This ia a book about life seen through the eyes of the 54-year-old concierge (caretaker) of a block of flats in Paris, inhabited by rich people.
Renée...moreThis ia a book about life seen through the eyes of the 54-year-old concierge (caretaker) of a block of flats in Paris, inhabited by rich people.
Renée grew up in a rural area, in a peasant family. She left school at 12, and her husband Lucien died some years previously, so she lives in her lodge with her television and her cat Leo (named after her favourite author, Tolstoy), and she fills her spare time reading. As a result she is probably more well-read and better informed than most of the residents of the flats, who, however, barely notice her.
One of the residents, however, has something in common with Renée. This is 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who feels oppressed by her parents and elder sister, and has a similar love of reading, and so is better informed in some ways than the rest of her family. She hates the idea of growing up to be like them, and so plans to commit suicide on ther 13th birthday. In the mean time, she records her profound thoughts, and movements in the physical world that she observes.
In some ways, the book reminded me of Sophie's world by Jostein Gaarder, which I read a few years ago, at least in the sense that the viewpoint characters, Renée and Paloma, express their philosophy of life.
I really enjoyed this book a lot, and I think it has a great deal to say about life and human relationships in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor his as great, if not greater, than in France, and is probably still growing.
Tom Sherbourne, a soldier returned from the First World War, gets a job as a lighthouse keeper, and is posted to a lonely island off the south-western...moreTom Sherbourne, a soldier returned from the First World War, gets a job as a lighthouse keeper, and is posted to a lonely island off the south-western tip of Australia, where a supply ship calls once in three months. This doesn't sound like the recipe for an interesting or exciting story -- perhaps only as exciting as the log book Tom is required to keep, saying what time he lit the lamp in the evening, and what time he extinguished it in the morning. For the most part one day's entry is much the same as the next, with no unusual occurrences.
On one day when there is an unusual occurrence, however, Tom fails to record it in the log. That was the day a boat washed up on the shore with a dead man and a live baby. There is no sign of the baby's mother. Tom's wife Isabel has just lost a stillborn baby, and sees the new arrival as a substitute. When they return for shore leave everyone knew she had been expecting a baby, and so no questions are asked. But decisions have consequences, sometimes unforeseen consequences, and it is easy to get into a position from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.
I found it a very good book indeed, and well worth reading. Perhaps it was partly as a reaction against the previous book I had read, The girl who disappeared twice by Andrea Kane, where all the main characters were far too perfect, and never, ever made a mistake, I found this one, with its fallible human characters, a much better read. So I found myself always wanting to read more, to find out what happened.
I found the story well put-together, and well told. At one level it is a love story, though not really a starry-eyed romantic one. It is a sad book, and in some what a tear jerker. In some ways it reminded me of The Caucasian chalk circle by Berthold Brecht, which I only ever saw performed as a play over 40 years ago, and now I want at least to read it, to remind myself of what it was about. (less)
I've just finished reading The winds of war for the second time, about 25 years after reading it the first time. I had never thought that I would re-r...moreI've just finished reading The winds of war for the second time, about 25 years after reading it the first time. I had never thought that I would re-read it -- it just seemed too long. It was not that I hadn't enjoyed reading it, but it seemed that once in a lifetime was enough.
And then my wife bought the DVDs of the TV series based on the book, and we began watching it.
In the first episode I was struck by the trouble that had gone into making it. It was not all shot on location, of course, and some of the locations no longer exist. But setting up a 20-second scene of someone entering a building and taking care to avoid anachronisms was quite impressive.
The Second World War is history, and there are plenty of history books about it. What most of them fail to show, however, is how it affected ordinary families, and this is what author Herman Wouk tries to show. Of course it is contrived. While almost everything that happens in the book has some parallel in actual events, having all these things happen to one family is a bit too much.
The protagonist, and paterfamilias is Victor "Pug" Henry, a somewhat dour and taciturn US navy officer, who is stationed in Berlin as naval attache about six months before the war begins. His wife Rhoda, who is something of a social butterfly, whose horizon does not extend much beyond clothes and shopping and hobnobbing with celebrities, enjoys the parties and invitations to spend weekends with Nazi officials and businessmen who have profited by their rule. Her husband finds these difficult to stomach, but attends out of a sense of duty, for the opportunities for intelligence that they provide.
When the war begins the Henrys' younger son Byron is trapped in Poland in front of the advancing German army, with a girl, Natalie Jastrow who decided on a whim that she wanted to visit her Polish cousins in the village from which her parents had emigrated. By such devices of giving very different people family ties, Wouk manages to show quite a range of the effects of the war on one family -- from Polish peasants to an isolationist US senator. While one of Pug Henry's daughters-in-law witnesses the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbout, on the other side of the world, the other daughter-in-law is trapped with her baby as an enemy alien in Italy when Mussolini declares war on the US. Pug Henry himself manages to meet Hitler, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in person, and to fly in a British bomber on a raid over Berlin, and later to visit the Russian front linhe when the Germans are trying to encircle Moscow. While on one level it seems improbable that all this could hapen to one man, or to one family, it does help to show how many ordinary people were affected by the war.
When I remarked to a friend that I thought that it did seem a bit improbable, and he pointed out that nobody complains about the many and varied adventures experienced by the characters in Homer's Odyssey. And by stretching relationships a bit, there are similar things in our own family. My father-in-law, Keith Greene, fought for the Allies and was captured in Tobruk, and was a prisoner of war in Italy. His 3rd cousin, Rudolf Schrader, was part of the German army that invaded Poland, and was killed there in the first month of the war.
Such things happened, and they happened to many families, and it is something of this that Wouk manages to convey in his book, while maintaining a high level of historical accuracy.
One of the things that seemed quite strange to me was the degree to which civilian airlines seemed to operate in war time. On checking up on it, I discovered that it was so, and that BOAC (the British Overseas Airways Corporation), for example, maintained flights to neutral Sweden, even though it would have meant flying over German-occupied Norway. (less)
A child is kidnapped and within minutes the local police, the New York State Police and the FBI are on the case, along with several other experts from...moreA child is kidnapped and within minutes the local police, the New York State Police and the FBI are on the case, along with several other experts from groups with various initials. But despite all their effort they are unable to find any trace of the missing girl.
The desperate mother then calls in the private team of Forensic Instincts, and these are all joined by another detective who investigated the kidnapping of the mother's twin sister 32 years previously, but had failed to solve the case.
It's not a bad read, in spite of the fact that one begins to suspect whodunit about a third of the way through. It is also rather tiresome because the good guys are presented as perfect and super competent, and never make mistakes -- not only the team of Forensic Instincts, but the members of all the other law enforcement agencies involved in the case. This begins with the first officer on the scene, who, within twenty minutes of the alert being sounded, not only has secured the scene and interviewed witnesses, but has information on what everyone else involved in the case is doing, and one wonders how he managed to get this information when he spends most of the available time explaining it.
With such perfect investigators, the only thing that can prevent them from solving the case instantly is the machinations of the bad guys, or unforeseen failures of equipment, or rash and panicky actions on the part of the victim's family. The good guy investigators do everything right, though not always by the book.
But in spite of being rather unconvincing, it's not a bad read, and one reads on to see how it all turns out in the end. (less)
Reviewing a book is always a subjective exercise, but even more so when you know the author. I first met Michael Lapsley in 1974, when he came with an...moreReviewing a book is always a subjective exercise, but even more so when you know the author. I first met Michael Lapsley in 1974, when he came with another member of the Society of the Sacred Mission to speak to our youth group in an Anglican parish in Durban North. He had only recently arrived in South Africa from New Zealand.
Our paths have crossed at fairly long intervals since then, partly because he was deported from South Africa and for long periods I did not have a passport, so when he was deported I did not expect that I would ever see him again. In 1977 I had a passport for a brief period, and we went to Swaziland on holiday, and he happened to be there too, also on holiday. But when he returned to South Africa he was in Cape Town and we were in Gauteng.
Nevertheless, we lived through the same period of South African history and so even though our paths crossed rarely, they were sometimes parallel. So there were several parts of the book where I felt as though I was reading something that I could have written. I cannot discuss all the thoughts that the book provoked in me in a single review, so I'll probably write a couple of blog posts about some aspects of it later. For now I'll concentrate on the core of the book, which is the healing of memories.
The book begins with the bomb that maimed Michael Lapsley in April 1990, which became the defining moment of his life, and changed the course of his life to a new ministry of healing of memories. And that is where our paths diverged, because I never experienced anything like that.
About 2/3 of the book is taken up with the healing of memories, and it made me think about it more, which no doubt is what was intended.
I had heard of the notion of the "healing of memories" before. When I was at college in Durham there was a book on Clinical theology by Frank Lake, which dealt with the topic, and became very popular. We had a fundi on the subject, Michael Hare-Duke, come to the college and tell us about it. It included the idea that the memories that needed to be healed went back to one's birth and beyond. It all seemed somewhat remote to me.
At about the same time there was a Roman Catholic priest, Francis MacNutt, who became involved in the charismatic renewal, and taught about the healing of memories. But I never read his book and it still seemed remote from me.
And now Michael Lapsley comes with this book and tells how we have all been wounded by apartheid and the struggle against it, and especially by what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.
And that made me think a bit more about it. It was a lot closer to home than Frank Lake or Francis MacNutt. I can think of many things I have done that I wish I had not done, usually because they have hurt other people. Perhaps those are memories that need to be healed, but most of them have little to do with apartheid or the struggle against it; they are more the result of my own captivity to the passions: anger, pride, lust, greed, impatience, the need for self-justification etc. I find it harder to think of things I have failed to do, because those are things that do not exist and have never existed. In what circumstances would it have made a difference if I had done something different? I'm not sure; it becomes speculative.
What has been done to me?
Well no one has ever sent me a parcel bomb, or if they did, it must have gone astray in the post.
I did once have a phone call from a guy who said, "Hayes, you bloody commie, I'm going to slit your throat." I said "Thank you," brightly and cheerily, and he hung up.
I've been banned, I've been deported from Namibia, and I've been sacked from a few jobs, and had my passport confiscated or applications for a passport refused, I've been forced to leave my home more than once. But none of those caused direct physical injury, like Michael's parcel bomb, or like many of the people described in the book as having been tortured, assassinated etc. So in all those things I haven't had the kind of resentment about ill-treatment that would make me feel a need to be reconciled to anyone in particular.
The evil of apartheid, as Michael Lapsley points out in his book, was systemic. No one person was responsible for it. Our struggle was not against blood and flesh, but against the principalities, the authorities, the world powers of this present darkness.
Well, I did discover one thing. Mr Vorster signed a banning order for me on 11 January 1966. I never received it because I skipped the country before it could be delivered, and I only discovered it a few years ago, in my Department of Justice file in the archives, and discovered that it had Mr Vorster's personal animosity behind it. But at the time I was not aware of the banning order, nor of the animus that lay behind it.
And a few months before, when talking to a friend who was preparing for baptism and had all sorts of questions about the Christian faith, she said, "We are supposed to thank God for everything, but how can you give thanks to God for Mr Vorster?" And I said, without thinking, "You can thank God for giving you Mr Vorster to love." And then wondered where that had come from, and if I had really said it. I concluded that it must have been one of those things that the Holy Spirit does.
The Security Police used to follow us around in those days, and we got to know some of them by sight, and we were on speaking terms with some of them. One in particular was Warrant Officer van Rensburg. I found his home address and when I was overseas I used to send him Christmas cards. Once they followed us to a meeting in a rural area, and when crossing a stream water got into the car's distributor, and we were stuck in the middle of the stream. A couple of us went on to the meeting on foot while the rest stayed and we took our time about cleaning the distributor, and the SB could not get past, and were furious with us, as they never made it to the meeting.
On their way back, however, their car got stuck on a ridge of rock, so that it was rocking with either the front or back wheels touching the ground, but not both. It also holed their petrol tank. We waved at them as we passed, and some of our party were gloating from schadenfreude, but I thought it was inappropriate, and said so. If we hadn't been late for the next meeting, I'd even have stopped to help them. They were victims of the system too, and were just doing their job. I don't think the ones I met were the ones who actually tortured anyone. They just watched people, tapped their phones, opened their mail, and interpreted what they saw and heard in terms of the demonic ideology that held them captive, and sent off reports coloured by that view to Kompol in Pretoria. And compol would in turn report to the Minister of Justice and say "Ban this one, remove that one's passport, detain that one, and charge that one with high treason." If I encountered any torturers, I didn't know it. I did know people who did encounter torturers, of course, on both sides of the conflict. But I got the feeling that the "healing of memories" part of the book was for them, not for me; for the tortured and the torturers, the bombers and the bombed. The closest it came to me was the sackers and the sacked.
Later, in 1972, a banning order did catch up with me. But I thought of it rather as a badge of honour than as something bad. The worst thing about it was a telegram I received from a Methodist minister friend, "Deep shock and anger at arbitrary action against you." It would have been more appropriate, it seemed to me, if he had said something like, "Congratulations! You've made it." Great is your reward in heaven, we are told (Matt 5:11-12). Why should a reward in heaven cause deep shock and anger?
So in all this, I could not think of anyone that I needed to be reconciled with, anyone who had caused a festering memory that needed healing -- at least not in relation to apartheid and the struggle against it.
But as I read the book more things came to mind. Some names came to mind. And I thought, yes, with those people there may still be some unfinished business. Interestingly enough, the names were all German. One was Jürgen Meinert, who in 1971 fired me from the Windhoek Advertiser, which he owned, along with the Allgemeine Zeitung. He hadn't hired me -- the editor had done that -- and I'd never met him and didn't even know who he was. I met him for the first time the day he fired me. On the same day he fired my friend Toni Halberstadt who was also involved with the Anglican Church in those days.
There was also Kurt Dahlmann, the editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung, who, some of my colleagues on the Windhoek Advertiser told me, had been gunning for me, and also wrote a lying editorial about me. He it was, they said, who asked Jürgen Meinert to fire us. But then in 1978 Kurt Dahlmann got a taste of his own medicine when he himself was fired by a new bnoss who was even more right-wing than he was. Perhaps it was Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid.
The third one was a Mr Klingenberg, a farmer of Commondale, near Piet Retief. He was the absentee landlord of a farm in the Utrecht district, on which there was a small Anglican Church, and one day, just as we were about to start a service, he came and closed the church at gunpoint. We thought that the SB had probably put him up to it.
So perhaps I do have some memories that need to be healed after all. And Michael Lapsley's book has made me think of them.
But then I think about it again, and think no, that is too trivial. I can say yes, I've suffered human rights abuses, but they weren't too gross; perhaps they were God's way of teaching me to sympathise with those for whom they were gross, like Michael Lapsley himself. Whatever human rights abuses I suffered were merely temporary inconveniences, for him they were permanent disabilities. When South Africa became free in 1994, my temporary inconveniences ceased; but Michael Lapsley's disability will last for the rest of his life. ____
This book began pretty well, and I thought it was one of Peter Robinson's best. Perhaps that was because i had not read one for a long time, or had re...moreThis book began pretty well, and I thought it was one of Peter Robinson's best. Perhaps that was because i had not read one for a long time, or had read too many Scandinavian whodunits in between. It felt real and believable.
It's more of a police procedural than a whodunit, since you have a fair idea of who did it in the first chapter. It's more a matter of gathering evidence and tying up loose ends, and the story does not lose interest.
It's only in the last couple of chapters that the story seems to come unpicked, with a kind of deus ex machina ending. If the ending had been better, I would have given it four stars, but it felt as though the author had lost interest at that point and just wanted to finish it off quickly. (less)
"Kafka meets Orwell in contemporary England" says the blurb on the cover.
Well, not quite, but one can see how they arrive at the comparison. Simon Le...more"Kafka meets Orwell in contemporary England" says the blurb on the cover.
Well, not quite, but one can see how they arrive at the comparison. Simon Lelic simply extrapolates some trends in British society and politics into the near future, and the picture he gives is generally quite believable. All it needs is the detention-without-trial legislation that some British politicians desperately wanted, but didn't get.
Franz Kafka and George Orwell wrote about dystopian futures in which there are extreme changes in every aspect of society. Simon Lelic writes about a society that is deceptively normal.
In that respect this book more closely resembles A Dry White Season by Andre Brink. For the first 50 pages of The Facility I thought it was about a Britain that resembled South Africa c1968, after the passing of the Terrorism Act. It was a Britain transformed into Vorster's South Africa.
After the first 50 pages the plot is slightly different, and there are a few plot holes that make it fall short of Kafka, or Orwell, or Brink, but it is still a pretty good read. And scary, too. This is something that could happen, and something that some British politicians are on record as wanting to happen.
Phil Rickman now seems to have settled in to a formula for writing his novels, with Merrily Watkins, Vicar of Ledwardine on the Welsh border, as prota...morePhil Rickman now seems to have settled in to a formula for writing his novels, with Merrily Watkins, Vicar of Ledwardine on the Welsh border, as protagonist, and the usual cast of supporting characters -- Merrily's daughter Jane, Gomer Parry of Gomer Parry Plant Hire, Lol Robinson the folk-rock musician trying to make a comeback, the Hereford police and a few others. The main villains are different, but a few of them continue from previous books.
There's nothing wrong with that; if you set stories in the same place, then it would be strange if the same characters did not appear again and again. The plot is, as in most of Phil Rickman's books, based on a crime that turns out to have religious or supernatural overtones, which is how Merrily Watkins, the diocesan exorcist, or, rather, "deliverance consultant", for the Diocese of Hereford gets involved.
In spite of these similarities, I must admit that I am hooked on books by Phil Rickman. If I see one I haven't read, I buy it. No ifs, no buts, no "I'll go home and think about it". It's an impulse purchase, immediate and compelling.
If I try to analyse why I like Phil Rickman's books, it becomes a bit more difficult. Perhaps it's because I also like the books of Charles Williams which have been described by some as "supernatural thrillers". In War in heaven Williams describes how supernatural evil manifests itself in a quiet English village, not unlike Rickman's Ledwardine. Williams has far greater theological depth than Rickman, but Rickman also gives a picture of at least a part of English society, which seems to me to be fairly true to life, and gives a picture of how social and intellectual trends affect ordinary people, with such things as fox-hunting, gentrification of the countryside, and even the trends in the Church of England reflected in the change of name from "diocesan excorcist" to "deliverance consultant". I'm not sure that any English diocese has actually done such a thing, but it is certainly the kind of thing they might do.
One of the trends that this book deals with is the macho military style of doing things, fostered by the wars that Britain has got involved in over the last few years, not reluctantly, but with a very macho eagerness. And so the book deals with the kind of spiritual problems that might arise at a military base, and especially one of the SAS, and what kind of spirituality might result.
This is one of Rickman's better novels, and I might have given it five stars were it not for a few quirks that were distracting, if not annoying. One was his habit of making the subject of the opening dialogue of many chapters (and sometimes sections within chapters) obscure. You simply have no idea what the characters are talking about, until a hint may (if you're lucky) be dropped about 10-15 lines down. And then you have to go back to the beginning again to make sense of it.
Another, and perhaps more minor quibble is the way Rickman treats St George. St George's Church, Brinsop, seems to be connected by leys to some of the events that take place. Merrily Watkins thinks that St George was "Turkish" and "Middle Eastern", and somehow being used to justify the crusades -- yet it was probably the crusaders who brought the cult of St Geoorge back to England, after encountering it in Palestine. And there were no Turks in the the Middle East in St George's time. At that time, in the Middle East, as one of Rickman's characters might have said, Turks were from Off. It was only much later that they took on the role of Incomers.
One of the pictures in the church shows St George dressed as a Roman soldier, and this is regarded by one character as very strange. Yet to all accounts, St George was a Roman soldier, so why should it be strange that an ancient picture in a church should depict him as one? One of the interesting things about St George is his very widespread popularity. He is one of the most universally popular saints of the Christian Church, from India to England, and from Russia to Ethiopia.
But desipite a few flaws, it's still a good read. And the next time I see a Rickman book I haven't read in a bookshop, I'll buy it, without hesitation. The greatest danger in readi ng it is that it has a tendency to shape my perceptions of England, English society, and the Church of England. Apart from the minor exceptions noted above, Rickman's descriptions are almost too credible.
Over the last 10 years or so Scandinavian crime fiction has come to dominate the genre in the English-speaking world. Many of the books in the genre h...moreOver the last 10 years or so Scandinavian crime fiction has come to dominate the genre in the English-speaking world. Many of the books in the genre have a gloomy boozy divorced (or about to be) detective as protagonist. This one is different.
There is no protagonist. We are given glimpses into the lives and loves and hates of members of different branches of the Swedish police as they are touched in some way by the apparent suicide of an American journalist who fell from the 16th floor of a student residence.
The book is not well-written; in many ways there seems to be too much irrelevant detail. Describing in detail how a single protagonist spends Christmas is one thing; doing it for five or six different characters seems to be overdoing it. Some of the problems in the writing may be problems in translation rather than in the original. The writing sometimes seems stilted.
One of the more disconcerting things is that it takes one a while to work out the period the story is set in. The book was first published in 2002, so one expects it to be at around the turn of the century, but the technology doesn't fit -- there are no personal computers, only typewriters. No cell phones. The technology used would seem to date it to about the mid-1970s, but the story also concerns the investigation of a possible plot to assassinate the Swedish prime minister, which links it to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. Though the prime minister in the book is not named, there are sufficient resemblances in the story to make that a possible period as well.
One of the minor characters is a South African student with an improbable name, and there were stories of South African connections to the assassination of Olof Palme, and in Totale aanslag by De Wet Potgieter this is presented as historical fact. As an aside (this is not mentioned in the story, and is rather a personal anecdote), in 1988 my wife worked in a factory and the office next door to hers was used by a company that was indirectly linked. Sometimes she could not help overhearding conversations in the next door office, and she got the impression that they were involved in some shady business -- money laundering, illicit diamond buying, or something like that, and possibly the assassination of the Swedish prime minister. At about that time we had a break-in at our house, and the house was thoroughly ransacked, cupboards and boxes were emptied, but the only things that were taken were the cheap loudspeakers for our radiogram, which had been carefully unscrewed from their cabinets (the cabinets themselves were left behind), and some food. We had the impression that the thieves were looking for something very specific, which they didn't find, and the usual things that thieves took, cameras, computers etc., were left behind.
But, to get back to the book, in spite of its deficiencies, it was an interesting story, even if it was not well-told, and ultimately worth reading.
I suppose one could say much the same about most of Robert Goddard's books. He has written more than twenty novels in the same...moreA good story well told.
I suppose one could say much the same about most of Robert Goddard's books. He has written more than twenty novels in the same genre, and with very few exceptions each one is as good as the last. And the exceptions are generally those where Goddard breaks from the formula, which he seems to have perfected - a mystery in the past which affects characters in the present.
The story is about a family firm, Walter Wren & Co., that mines china clay in St Austell, Cornwall. It is merged with a bigger firm, and after several more mergers has become part of a large international conclomerate. The former CEO of the company, Greville Lashley, who is still the majority shareholder, commissions a historian to write the history of the company, but she finds that several crucial files are missing, and Jonathan Kellaway, who had worked at Wren's as a student, before it was absorbed, is asked to help locate the missing files.
Back in the 1960s, when Jonathan was a student doing a vac job, he had become friendly with two of the children of the Wren family, Oliver and Vivien Foster, and Oliver is convinced that there was a mystery hidden in the company records, a mystery that had led to his father's death. Oliver got Jonathan to help him with some of his investigations, but never revealed exactly what he was looking for, and now, more than forty years later, Jonathan is asked to find the missing files, which may solve Oliver's mystery, and others that have plagued the Wren family ever since.
I found the story particularly interesting because I had just finished reading another book of the same genre, The Absolutist by John Boyne which was almost painfully badly written, with glaring anachonisms on every other page. As a result, I think I read Fault Line rather more critically than usual, and enjoyed the contrast: it was as well written as the other was badly written. I was on the lookout for anachronisms, more than usual, and spotted only possible one -- that there was no Metro Station at the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1969. According to Wikipedia, that station only opened in 1980. Perhaps if I were a publisher's fiction editor, I might have spotted more errors, but if there were others, I didn't notice them. The anachronisms in The Absolutist didn't just stick out like sore thumbs, they stuck out like undressed amputated limb stumps.
When Robart Goddard describes the 1960s, it feels authentic. OK, he no doubt lived through the period, as did I, so he would have a better feeling for it than John Boyne would have for the period of the First World War, but still... Reading some of the scenes in Fault Line brought snatches of songs from the sixties to mind:
... making love in the afternoon with Cecelia up in my bedroom
We passed that summer lost in love beneath the lemon tree the music of her laughter hid my father's words from me
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat
Another thing that made the book interesting to me is that I am interested in family history, and this is something of a family saga, a telling of the story of the family by someone outside, who knew nevertheless knew some members of the family well. Also, one branch of my own family came from Cornwall, and some of them were china clay labourers in and around St Austell in the 1870s and 1880s, so the descriptions of the china clar mining industry and its place in the town are quite interesting too. ___ Notes
 "Cecelia", sung by Simon & Garfunkel  "Lemon tree", sung by Peter, Paul & Mary (less)
I'm in two minds about this book. The plot and the story line are quite good, and it is a very sad story. But the manner of its telling is not so good...moreI'm in two minds about this book. The plot and the story line are quite good, and it is a very sad story. But the manner of its telling is not so good. The basic story is set in the First World War, where two new recruits, Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, stike up a friendship of sorts at Aldershot training camp. But they have different perceptions and expectations of their relationship, which sours when they go to the frontline trenches in France.
Tristan survives the war, but Will doesn't, and after the war Tristan goes to see Will's sister in Norwich, to take her the letters she had written to her brother, but also to tell her something about the manner of Will's death, which had brought disgrace on his family.
But the narrative seems unconvincing.
The blurb on the front cover says, "If you loved Birdsong, you'll love this."
Well, I read Birdsong, and I did find it a good read. But The Absolutist falls a long way short of Birdsong. It is not nearly as well or convincingly written. Sebastian Faulks, who wrote Birdsong had a feeling for the time and the place, and managed to give a convincing picture of what things might have been like during the First World War.
But in The Absolutist the time and place are fuzzy. I got the feeling that there was anachronistic slang on just about every couple of pages, and the dialogue felt as though it belonged to the 1980s rather than 1916 and 1919. For example, I can't imagine people saying, in 1919, "We were an item". Or perhaps they did, and I'm just not aware of how old that idiom is, but there are a number of other idioms that seem anachronistic, and this detracts from the story. If the dialogue is unconvincing, then one wonders how accurate the descriptions are.
I suppose such anachronisms are one of the pitfalls that writers of historical novels need to be careful to avoid, and John Boyne seems to fall into too many of them, and too many of them seem too obvious. An author does not need two write all dialogues in contemporary idiom, which might require too much research. But then it is best to avoid slang, and to write in more neutral English. Some writers, like Georgette Heyer, don't hold back from contemporary slang, but the more successful of them go to some trouble to make it seem authentic.
The book might be much more enjoyable to people who have no interest in history, and don't care if the atmosphere and setting are not authentic -- just badly-painted stage props for a story. And the story is quite good, and holds interest to the end. It's just a pity that it wasn't told better. (less)
This book is tale of three cities -- Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But it is a great deal more than that, as it is also the history of the region of...moreThis book is tale of three cities -- Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But it is a great deal more than that, as it is also the history of the region of the world in which the three cities are located, the region known to the French as the Levant, which is equivalent of the Latin "Orient", and means the land of the rising sun. More specifically, it refers to the lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean which, from the 16th century to the 20th, were part of the Ottoman Empire.
The three cities that feature in the story (to which can be added a fourth, Salonica), were trading ports in this period, and were subject to a great deal of foreign influence, and in some periods the consuls of the trading nations, mainly West European, had more influence than the Ottoman government, or even its local representatives.
One result of this was that these cities became cosmopolitan, with a great variety of races, religions, languages and cultures represented in them.
Western Europeans were known as Franks, and the ones who were most active at the beginning of the period were Venetians and Genoans, and a kind of piggin Italian, known as Lingua Franca (the language of the Franks) became the de facto language of business in the Levant. In later times French and British influence overshadowed the Italian, but the concept of a Lingua Franca as a language of trade remained.
Much of the trade was in the hands of dynasties of foreign merchants, families who lived in the Levant for generations, yet never became assimilated into the local culture. In the 19th century, however, there were forces of change and modernisation. In Egypt Muhammed Ali, the Albanian-born Ottoman governor, aided by the foreign consuls in Alexandria, made Egypt virtually independent. The foreign communities had their own schools, and even universities, using their own languages rather than Arabic or Turkish.
In the 19th century there was also growing nationalism, both in the local regions becoming aware of themselves as distinct nationalitities as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, and also the powers behind the foreign communities, such as Britain and France, and later Greece.
Mansel presents the history of the Levant as a struggle between cosmopolitanism (good) and nationalism (bad). Nationalism could not tolerate cosmopolitan cities, except where nationalists perceived trade as advantageous to their cause, and in the 20th century the cosmopolitan cities were nationalised, and made homogeneous, some more violently than others. Cosmopolitan Salonica became Greek Thessaloniki. Cosmopolitan Smyrna became Turkish Izmir. Alexandria expelled the foreign communities in the 1960s (even those whose members were Egyptian-born), and Beirut was torn apart by civil war in the 1970s.
I was aware of some of these events, from reading about them in other histories, or, in the case of more recent ones, in newspapers, but Mansel manages to weave the different threads into a tapestry to create a coherent picture.
Mansel's sympathies lie strongly with the cosmopolitan side, and at times I think he paints too rosy a picture of it. For one thing, the "cosmopolitan" side of these cities was the preserve of a wealthy elite, and did not affect most of the local people at all, or at least not in any advantageous way. And though I am sure that Mansel is correct in his assessment of the harm done by nationalism (much of the present tension in the region is the result of competing Arab and Jewish nationalism), the cosmopolitan paradise is, I suspect, overrated. In Lebanon before the civil war of 1975, for example, Mansel points out that deals were more important than ideals, and seems to regard this as a desirable state of affairs. But I wonder who prospered, and though those who prospered as a result of the war were an even smaller minority, I suspect that it was the very obsession with money that increased the dissatisfaction that led to the civil war in the first place.
In spite of this, however, the book is useful in helping to untangle some of the threads of mechantilism, captialism, nationalism and imperialism that affected and continue to affect the region once known as the Levant. (less)
A rather strange book about searching, pain and loss.
Oskar Schell loses his father in nthe attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and finds a key...moreA rather strange book about searching, pain and loss.
Oskar Schell loses his father in nthe attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, and finds a key among his father's posessions and spends the next couple of years searching for the lock that it opens. His grandparents have also suffered loss, and lose each other, and the ability to communicate. Letters are written and never delivered, and the paper that fails to communicate are symbolised by the fluttering leaves of paper bursting out of the twin towers when the planes hit them, and fuel for the fires that follow.
What more can one say? One has to read it to see what it's about. (less)
Occasionally one comes across a book that explains some things that one has always wondered about, and this is one of them. I've read several historie...moreOccasionally one comes across a book that explains some things that one has always wondered about, and this is one of them. I've read several histories overing the period of the Second World War, and even did a History Honours paper on modern Germany, which covered that period. but there were some things that I never understood, and this book has helped to explain some of them.
The things that I find most interesting in history are transitions: from peace to war, or from war to peace; transitions such as revolutions, and other things that make big changes in people's lives. And I want to know how these changes affected people. This book deals with one such period: the end of the Second World War in Europe.
I knew, from reading other history books, that one of the problems facing the victorious Allies after the surrender of Nazi Germany was that of Displaced Persons, or DPs as they were known. But it was never really clear who these people were, or what were the problems they posed. Why couldn't they just go home once the fighting was over?
It was not until I read this book that I realised that there was a difference between DPs and refugees, and just what constituted the problem. I thought that Displaced Persons included anyone who was left far from home when the fighting ended, including refugees, prisoners of war, and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the war started, like "enemy aliens".
But it appears that in the minds of the Allied administrators DPs were a particular class of persons, people who were brought to Germany during the war, voluntarily or forcibly, as labourers.
As the war expanded, with the successive German invasions of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, France, the Balkans and the USSR, so more and more Germans were conscripted for miliary service, leaving labour shortages in the farms and factories in Germany. To alleviate this shortage, the Nazi government recruited or conscripted labourers from the occupied territories to keep production going. Apart from a few volunteers from places like France, most were in fact slave labourers.
In an ideal world, once the war ended the demobilised soldiers would go back to their old jobs and the labourers would go home. But the old jobs were sometimes no longer there, because the factories had been bombed, and the transport infrastructure likewise. Also, once the war ended the last thing most of the forced labourers wanted to do was to continue working for the Germans.
The Allies had foreseen some of this, and had set up the United Nations Rehabilitation and Relief Administration (UNRRA) to deal with it once the war ended, but bureaucratic bungling and ineffective leadership meant that took a long time to work effectively. UNRRA was also dependent on the miliary authorities in the four different occupation zones for such things as transport, and the miliary authorities had other priorities, so urgently needed food and medical supplies often took a long time to arrive.
Camps were set up for DPs, to provide food and shelter until they could be sent home, but they were of many different nationalities, and some of the more nationalistically-minded of them demanded to be housed in separate camps, and nationalities were disputed. For example, at the end of the war, Poland had moved westwards, and DPs who had been born in Poland before the war found that their homes were now part of the USSR, and the USSR claimed them as its citizens, and they did not want to return home.
Jews and Ukrainians demanded to be treated as separate nationalities, and to live in separate camps, though at that time there were no separate states for those nationalities. Zionists from Palestine visited the Jewish DP camps, and persuaded most of the inmates to demand that they be "repatriated" to Palestine, something which the British, in their zone, were reluctant to encourage, because since the First World War they had governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, and the Arab population there were opposed to more Jewish immigration.
Many of the DPs from Eastern Europe, which was now under Soviet control, had no desire to go back home, and many wanted to go to America, which had seen hardly any fighting in its own territory during the war. Because of the westward movement of Poland, many Germans were expelled from western Poland (which before the war had been eastern Germany), and this aggravated the problems. Immediately after the end of the war there were outbreaks of diseases like typhus in the DP camps, though newly-invented drugs and insecticides, like penicillin and DDT, helped to control them.
One of the biggest problems was feeding the population of the camps, and indeed the population generally, was the problem of feeding them. One of the things that had puzzled me in the past was why in Britain, there was no bread rationing during the war, such rationing was introduced in 1946, and food rationing in Britain was more severe immediately after the war than it was during the war. This book provides an explanation of that too.
The influx of yet more refugees placed an intolerable burden on the British Zone. Only 17 per cent of those who had entered the zone by 15 June 1946 were adult males, and only 60 per cent of those were fit for work. The arrival of 750,000 economically unproductive expellees aggravated the food, housing and public health situation. In late 1948 there would be 243 people per square kilometre in the zone, compared with 167 in the American and 131 in the French; it was estimated that, if you reckoned on one person per room, the British Zone was short of 6.5 million rooms. The situation was at its worst in Schleswig-Holstein, where 120,000 people were still living in camps.
To feed the extra mouths, the British authorities made desperate efforts to raise food production and make the zone more self-supporting. They had some 650,000 acres of grassland ploughed up -- top produce, it was hoped, a 10 per cent increase in the grain harvest and and a 75 per cent increase in potatoes. They tried to persuade farmers to slaughter their livestock hers, so as to provide meat and reduce the demand on arable pasture and on feedstuffs. They forbade the growing of luxury crops; cut the amount of grain allowed for brewing; encouraged the cultivation of vegetables in town gardens and allotments; did what they could to compel farmers to bring their produce to market.
But this policy was only partially successful. The farmers of northern Germany, who were by long tradition animal husbandmen and not cereal growers, resisted attempt to change their ways; there wasn't the staff to enforce the changes. Food production was further handicapped by shortages of seed, fertilisers and equipment. British policy fell between two stools, providing neither effective coercion nor effective incentives.
It was clear that clear that considerable imports would continue to be necessary for several years. The British would have to juggle the needs of the Germans against those of their own population -- whose bread was rationed in 1946 -- and other regions of the world, such as India (Shephard 2011:246)
Another interesting facet of the food problem lay far from Europe, in America:
On the face of it there should not have been a food problem at all after the war. More than enough was produced in the western hemisphere -- and in particular, in the United States -- to feed the starving Europeans, and probably the starving Asians as well. The war years had seen a second agricultural revolution in the United States, as a severe labour shortage led to the systematic application of mechanisation and fertilisers which transformed the productivity of the land. By 1946 American agriculture was producing a third more food and fibre than before the war, and with much less labour.
However, Americans now wanted to eat more meat, and it paid their farmers to feed their cereals to the livestock needed to produce that meat, rather than to human beings. For the first time in history, high meat consumption in one major country would distort agricultural output all over the world.
However, the roots of the problem went back further than that. The people who ran US agriculture were mindful of the huge surpluses in the 1930s, when overproduction had destroyed farm prices: their main objective was to avoid any repetition of that nightmare. At the end of 1944 the United States War Food Administration had decoded from a few shreds of doubtful evidence that Europe was not going to starve when the war ended. Accordingly -- and against the advice of Herbert Lehman -- it took steps to avoid overproduction, by reining in farm output, relaxing rationing controls so that American civilians could eat up existing food stocks and stopping all stockpiling for relief. The object of this "bare shelves" policy, says historian Allen J. Matusow, "was to come as close as possible to see that the last GI potato, the last GI pat of butter and last GI slice of bread was eaten just as the last shot was fired". Its potentially disastrous effects of European relief were soon apparent and by the spring of 1945 public figures such as Herbert Hoover were warning of the perils ahead. Yet it was almost a year before decisive action was taken, partly thanks to Lehman's ineffectiveness in Washington, and partly due to the different priorities of the Truman administration, and its Secretary of Agriculture, Clinton P. Anderson, who was determined to put the interests of the American consumer before those of relief.
Which is where meat comes in. If there is a villain in this story, it is the sheer hoggery of the American military, which insisted on annually requisitioning 430 pounds of meat per soldier, thus taking up a fair amount of the available livestock and diverting grain production away from human consumption. However, in wartime meat had been rationed for the American domestic consumer; with the coming of peace, and Americans now eating considerably better than in the 1930s, there was huge pressure on Washington to remove the rationing, while the incentive to American farmers to sell their cereals for animal rather than human consumption remained strong. In November 1945, the Truman administration removed all rationing from meat, oil and fats (Shephard 2011:251).
Reading about the problems faced by UNRRA, and especially the bureaucratic bunglings described in the first few chapters of the book, also helps me to understand some of the failures of transformation in South Africa. In both cases, the planners underestimated the hugeness of the task. And as in South Africa, where so much of the money earmarked for development is siphoned off into the bottomless pit of corruption, so in post-War Europe, much disappeared in a similar fashion, and also into the black market.
What I liked about this book was that it did not just describe things in terms of bald statistics and policies and minutes of meetings, but also tells the human story of the people in the camps, and what life was like for them, and it uses not only official sources, but diaries, letters and personal accounts written by military officers, UNRRA officials, and DPs themselves. This gives a fuller and more human picture. (less)
The twelve districts of Panem are in rebellion against the Capitol, which has ruled and exploited them all, and reminded them all of their subjugation...moreThe twelve districts of Panem are in rebellion against the Capitol, which has ruled and exploited them all, and reminded them all of their subjugation and the cost of rebellion by mneans of the cruel annual Hunger Games, where two children from each district are chosen by lot to fight to the death in a reality TV show.
The second book, Catching Fire begins with the victors of the Hunger Games from District 12 going on their victory tour, after being warned by President Snow that they must do everything they can to discourage the signs of rebellion that are beginning to appear in some of the districts.
Once again, to say much more of the story would reveal too much of the plot, but I can say that as it seemed to me that the first book started out well, and then plunged to a low point so that I felt as though I wanted to rewrite it, and then the second rose to a kind of comfortable mediocrity, which continues about two-thirds of the way through. But the last part of the third book rises again, almost to the level of the beginning of the story.
It reminded me in some ways of the freedom struggle against the Gaddafi regime in Libya last year, though the book was published the previous year.
It is also a kind of parable, or as some might say, an allegory of colonialism, with the Capitol representing the metropolitan power, and the districts representing the colonies. If you are one of those who regards C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories as "Christian allegory", then this trilogy is certainly an allegory of colonialism, though I think in both cases it is a misuse of the term "allegory".
It also raises questions about the moral ambiguity of all freedom struggles -- is this truly a struggle for freedom, or is it merely a struggle for regime change?(less)