Monday, March 31, 2008

Sunday night gore

Spent the weekend writing things that needed being writ. Was still tocking away on the laptop last night as we settled in to watch telly. And one week before the return of Droo, cor, isn’t telly good?

First off, Tiger – Spy in the Jungle in which elephants filmed tigers being peed on by monkeys and having a scrap with bears. I remember when how they filmed nature documentaries was a separate programme, but these days the mechanics is just as much part of the show as the efforts not to anthropomorphise. And naw, hooza fuffy meow-cat?

Then Casualty 1907, a drama based on real cases from east-end hospitals just a century ago. For all it’s standard cops-n-docs with lashings of frocks and stiff collars, it scores many points for being so unpleasant. As I argued last week, the past is all a bit horrid. The Dr couldn’t watch David Troughton treating a broken leg, where he left splinters of bone lodged in the soft tissues for fear of doing more damage trying to fish them all out. And with the gangs and booze and squalor it helped give the lie to the idea that the country is now going to the dogs.

I also liked the use of a medical sun lamp to treat blemished skin – and the juxtaposition of the doctors’ own excitement about modern technology and lady smokers, and our own horror from What We Know Now. We were asked at a panel at Gallifrey to come up with new Droo spin-offs and I suggested a late Victorian Torchwood – where they’d be scandalously racy by seeing each other’s wrists. And that’s exactly the sort of thing I would have done: wireless telephony and women having opinions all part of the wild sci-fi madness.

Having watched the headlines (and does it strike anyone else as odd that planes crashing into houses doesn’t happen more often?) the Dr asked to watch Torchwood. Yes, she asked to watch it. Voluntarily. Because she’s got into it this year. I can’t think of any higher testament to how splendid this season has been.

Thought Fragments brilliantly rationalised and explained things I didn’t like about series one. We understand why Owen was a pathological shagger, what with having been so shagged by life. I liked how Ianto’s story didn’t mention but fitted round Cyber-girlfriend, and how Tosh (my favourite character, by the way) came to be studying space-pig for UNIT while at the same time being Torchwood.

(Nimbos, meanwhile, specualtes that Bernard Cribbens may be ex-UNIT, based on his having a red hat and a winged-looking badge. We shall see…) Am very excited about the Torchwood finale – though please no spoilers if you’re watching it live; I shall be out clubbing. (See how I slipped that in there, like I am still among da yoof?)

Then Storyville, in which Henry Marsh used an ordinary Bosch hand drill to do brain surgery on a conscious man. The documentary about his efforts to help with neurosurgery in the Ukraine made less of his opposite number being called Igor, and of the drill being low on batteries, than the news story implies. But the conscious patient’s sudden fit mid-operation was edge-of-seat appalling.

The Dr again couldn’t watch much of this and despairs at the consultant’s son who is twistedly unsqueamish. I am quite content watching the inside of people’s brains and faces, and am happy eating spaghetti bolognese in front of a TV screen that seems to be showing the same. It’s the threat of pain that gets me. The Dr once thought it hilarious when I went white at a description of Samuel Pepys being cut for a bladder stone. But as much as that was to do with having your old chap macheted open, it was the horror that Pepys probably only survived because his wife was rather house-proud. As a result, the dining-room table on which the op was done had been freshly scrubbed that morning.

Likewise, Marsh was dead-eyed in horror at conditions in the Ukraine, and it was heart-rending to see the long queue of patients, so grateful even when nothing could be done. Medicine is full of grisly drama about young and pretty people who just cannot be saved, but there was a constant awfulness that if the same cases were seen in the UK, something better could be done.

How much we take our own health service for granted. And how much we stand to lose. Marsh’s tetchiness often came from the stress of trying to help people despite monumental odds. But it was far more bitter and despairing at how petty empire building and office politics too often got in the way. That’s something where I suspect we are no better than the Ukraine.

The final part of the documentary saw Marsh and Igor guests of honour in the home of a patient they didn’t save – one Marsh seemed to say he’d made a grievous mistake with. After the brutal, unreasonable sickness and conditions we had witnessed, there was an incredible added weight to them drinking each others’ healths.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Majestic and Coronet

While flying across the Pacific just a month ago, I read Codename Downfall – The Secret Plan to Invade Japan. Jonathan Clements had recommended it to me after I’d asked him to help with my homework, and it’s a fascinating and detailed account of what might have happened had Truman not dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Authors Thomas B Allen and Norman Polmar effectively disagree with AC Grayling’s thesis in Among The Dead Cities that those bombings were war crimes. They follow the slow, island-by-island crawl of Allied troops towards Japan, the high casualties suffered by both sides and the Japanese refusal to surrender or even to acknowledge protocols like not shooting at stretcher bearers or those brandishing white flags. Islands commited mass suicide rather than give in to the Americans; on one island Japanese soldiers were still resisting invasion until the 1970s.

Admittedly, tales of the horrors suffered by Allied POWs and the spread of a particular photograph of a beheading meant that the Allied troops weren’t exactly prone to winning heart and minds, let alone taking prisoners. But the general idea is that an invasion would have been a Bad Thing.

Had the bombs not been dropped, Codename Downfall would have been carried out in two distinct parts. Operation Majestic (formerly Olympic) was the invasion of the south island of Kyushu. This would have established air and army bases (perhaps at the strategic port of Nagasaki) that could then lead to Operation Coronet – the invasion of the main island of Honshu. Plans were well advanced by the time President Truman made his decision about the hydrogen bomb, and the book examines the attitudes, knowledge and estimates of those involved to piece together what might have been.

On 16 June 1945, General MacArthur was asked to supply estimates for battle casualties in the invasion of Kyushu. He sent back his expectations of dead, wounded and missing from the day of landing: in the first 30 days, 50,800; in the next 30 days, 27,150; the next 30 days, 17,100. There were also 4,200 ‘non-battle casualties … for each 30 day period.’

MacArthur was what people sometimes call "single-minded" when what they actually mean is "a shit". He'd got his plan and whatever the evidence, alternatives or men-who-would-be-killed, he was not going to budge.

When he realised that these figures had been requested for the President, who was considering other options, MacArthur,
“back-pedalled from his original estimate, saying it had been ‘a routine report … for medical and replacement planning purposes. … I regard the operation as the most economical one in effort and lives that is possible.’”
Thomas B Allen and Norman Polmar, Codename Downfall – The Secret Plan to Invade Japan, p. 241.

But MacArthur knew full well what a horrid war this would be, and tended to speak less in numbers of casualties as ratios of Japanese to American killed. The authors explain the ideological underpinnings of ‘special attacks’ – i.e. suicide planes, submarines and individuals. The original ‘kamikaze’ or sacred wind was a hurricane that had wrecked Kublai Khan’s invading fleets in 1274 and again seven years later – the last time anyone had dared try an invasion on Japan.

We get details of the civilian population trained to use bamboo spears, “flame bottles” (Molotov cocktails) and “spider-holes” (fox-holes). And all I could think of was another civilian population being bigged up for imminent invasion with encouragement to fight on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and streets, and in the hills.
“We shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Despite this impossibly hostile force, MacArthur resisted any suggestion that they might conclude the war another way.
“[MacArthur] had absolute confidence in his own battle plan, little confidence in any information that came from Magic or Ultra, the code name for intercepted Japanese military communications. Willoughby had recently reported that US air forces were not doing enough to stop Japanese reinforcements from reaching southern Kyushu. But when MacArthur wanted to refute Ultra’s penetration of Japanese Army movements in his message to Marshall, he proclaimed his faith in air power’s ability to knock out the Japanese reinforcements coming to Kyushu.”
Allen and Polmar, pp. 266-7.

The authors argue that MacArthur disliked Ultra for two reasons: it had proven him wrong about Japanese strengths and intentions; and the intelligence came via the US Navy – MacArthur’s rivals in leading US troops through the Pacific. I wasn’t just horrified that these office-politics wranglings about who had the biggest willy were going to greatly increase the numbers killed and wounded. MacArthur was also adamant about who he’d be sending to their sudden deaths.
“By MacArthur’s personal orders, only American troops would go ashore for the climactic invasion of the war. And all the assault troops would be white.”
Ibid., p. 300.

Oh yes. But before we start daring to think that this madman was also some kind of racist, he did explain his thinking.
“The British initially proposed that British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, and Indian divisions participate in Coronet, but General MacArthur objected to the Indian troops – ‘I doubt the advisability of employing troops of native origin in this complex operation where homogeneity of language within the corps is required … Likewise, there is a question of the advisability of utilizing troops in a temperate zone without an extended period of acclimatization, hence the acceptance of Indian troops is not concurred in. The British division [sic] should be Anglo-Saxon.”
Ibid., p. 160.

So, er, Asians should not fight in Asia because they wouldn’t cope with the climate. It’s obvious, isn’t it? And also it’s not like the Indians in the British Army could be expected to speak the language.

MacArthur also had views on the make-up of troops under his own command.
“Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, had complained to President Roosevelt about the Army’s treatment of black troops, focusing on a division serving under MacArthur – the 93rd Infantry. MacArthur, attacking White as a ‘troublemaker and a menace to the war effort,’ said the 93rd was inferior to other divisions ‘except in the matter of motor maintenance,’ with poor morale – ‘as evidenced by courts martials, homosexual activities, selfmaiming, alleged discrimination, etcetera.’ MacArthur said his decision to order was ‘not, repeat not influenced in the slightest degree by race or color…’”
Ibid., p. 237.

Got that – he’s not a racist because he said so himself.

And it wasn’t that the Army didn’t have any use for black soldiers – they just weren’t going to be part of the actual invasion. Many soldiers in the US Army were discharged after VE Day, but there were exceptions for those with special skills or those who,
“had to be shipped to the Pacific ‘so swiftly that no opportunity is provided for replacing’ them … Many of the men in the ‘so swiftly’ category were black soldiers – the pick-and-shovel GIs who would build the port facilities and air bases needed for the invasion of Japan."
Ibid., p. 237.

But what really amazes me is that MacArthur seemed to think that getting yourself blown to bits in the invasion of Japan was some kind of high-esteemed privilege. Getting hacked to bits by the Japanese civilian home guard was not the sort of thing for just anyone.

Oh, and an entirely unrelated but interesting top fact: the Japanese attacked the west coast of the USA with explosive balloons, which mostly did no harm to anyone.
“But on 5 May 1945, Mrs Elsie Mitchell and five children were killed. While fishing in Lake County, Oregon, they found a Japanese balloon bomb that detonated when they examined it. They were the only casualties of enemy action on the US mainland during the war.”
Ibid., p. 222.

This reminded me of a thing in something else I’d been reading, about the space race of the 1950s and the not-often-spoken fact that a lot of the rockets in development were designed to carry nuclear payloads.
“But in 1957 came the shock of Sputnik. The psychological effect on the Americans was considerable… In the US it was felt almost as an invasion of the country. Britain had suffered bombing of London as early as 1916, but the US had never experienced hostile aircraft in the skies. Sputnik was perceived in those terms.”

Friday, March 28, 2008


I been mostly working in an office and when not doing that, writing and revising a few outlines. On the whole these outlines look as though they might one day be things that are real and tangible and can be talked about here.

But not yet.

Outlines are tricky because there's so much you need them to do. They've got to show a strong central concept (or, to use the technical term, Wheeze). They've got to show how that Wheeze works in a plot structure (or, Adventure). That Adventure has to include all the mechanics of discovery, revelation and twists (or, How). That How needs to include the way the disparate threads all conclude together (or, Ending), making the jagged and unpredicatable path of the Adventure look, in retrospect, a single straight corridor. And then, you gotta include some kind of disclaimer that this is just one option and you'd be happy to knock more ideas around (or, and in a timid squeak, Yes?).

So, in short, W-A-H-E-Y.

Thing is, you know your poor editor is very busy and so you have to keep it brief. You have to pack as much detail and excitement and off-the-wall-look-at-me-mad-idea-Roger-Rabbitry into as few words as possible. And the effect of this packing a whole universe into a half-sentence is to make you a bit starey-eyed and hyper.

More starey-eyed and hyper.

But it's worth it. The here's-an-idea... was the stuff that got me fired up writing as a kid. A chance comment or joke from my younger brothers and I could suddenly see a whole story. They of course would then be expected to read it, poor sods.

And even more exciting is that bit where an editor agrees to whatever you're proposing. (That getting the gig, and then getting the monies when it's been handed in, those are the good bits of writing. Let's just gloss over the bit that goes in between. Oh, and incidentally the Times has winkled out what I got paid for the Pirate Loop. )

And then there's the particular skippiness because folk like the effort you put in. Like Ionlylurkhere and the splendid LJers who have responded to that thread. (They can scroll through plenty of Badger facts and pictures by clicking the badger tag.)

I don't know what a LoM is but this Proper Who Writer (another technical term) certainly feels validated. Wahey indeed!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The anachronauts

As regular readers might know – and those who’ve listened to me whinging in the pub – I do not travel well. I don’t fit on buses or trains nor tend to sleep on them either. So I arrive feeling beaten up and tetchy.

It’s not that I don’t like new places and people. I just need a bit of time when I get anywhere to regenerate my limbs and brain.

There’s a classic question asked of Doctors Who in interviews that was being discussed in the pub on Saturday. It’s been discussed many times before. And yet one astute reader of this blog insists I’ve never blogged my answer. So here goes.

Time travel would be rubbish.

Take, for example, this country. Until the mid-1960s when the white heat of technology meant people bought washing machines, most people didn’t wash their clothes (or themselves) as often as we do. This sudden change in personal hygiene led to a new kind of advertisement – people whispering harshly about something called “B.O”. Until then, the vast majority of people really stank. (The Victorian solution to being stinky was just to button up more clothes.)

Until the mid-1940s when the welfare state kicked in, most people would not see a dentist or doctor until they absolutely had to. People’s teeth and breath was on the whole pretty awful. Watch old films and see what the heroes and heroines get away with in their mouths. Penicillin, aspirin and Bugs Bunny were all brand-new inventions.

The further back you go, the worse the knowledge of medicine and basic hygiene, so the worse off everyone gets. Those who can get good food aren't necessarily eating well. Education reforms haven’t come in so illiteracy and child labour increase as you head back in time. Sexism, racism, regionalism, superstition… all hold more sway in the past. People live shorter, harder lives. Even the rich are crowded by frequent, premature deaths.

No, they might not think of themselves as living in abject misery. But we, as spectators, would. And we would be unable to help them without over-writing our own times. It is better we cannot go back; or at least, that the only solace we can give is through reappraisal of history.

David Tennant had a good answer on the Parkinson show a while back, saying if he could go anywhere he’d go back just a couple of decades, and have a word with himself in his teens. Give a few pointers about opportunities coming up, moments not to screw up. And blimey there’s loads I could go back and do better. Was going to give some examples but I'll let you choose your own.

But, as I had him explain to Martha on page 172 of The Pirate Loop, changing stuff like this is “just a world of messy and complicated.” Without those screw-ups and missed opportunities we wouldn’t be who or where we are. If it weren’t for a particular row in 2005*, would Martha ever have met the Doctor?

(* In the original draft, the row was with someone called Joe.)

So what about the future? I think there are two reasons why seeing it would be bad. First, there’s how well you can fit it, with your backward ways and health and assumptions. Skip forward 50 years and you’ll bring with you the same attitudes as the old folk there once had. But theirs will have been weathered and smoothed by getting to that point the long way. They might not even remember thinking like you do, aghast that anyone can be so Neanderthal.

Secondly, there’s the issue of spoilers. A book’s a disappointment if you skip to the last page. (The Dr and at least one of my exes do exactly that – but they’re probably used to disappointment.) If things are good you’ve ruined the surprise. And if things are bad is there anything you can do?

I’m with Ian at the end of The Time Travellers, who has seen a terrible future just a year or two away but will make the most of what time there is until then. But, as the Doctor says in that book too, we’re all time-travellers anyway. We all move at one second per second, crawling our way through the minutes and days and years.

And until the loops, bracelets and police boxes are invented that make time travel possible, all we can do anyway is make the best of now, wary of what’s coming next.

Friday, March 21, 2008

This and that and whatever

I seem, touch wood, to have avoided the Dr's icky cold and yet am beset by an infection of my own. She pointed out last week that I keep saying the phrase "this and that and whatever". And since I'm not doing it consciously, I don't know how to stop.

I'm not even sure why this particular phrase has such appeal or even where it comes from - assuming it's been picked up from somewhere. But this blog has been a good place to exorcise the bits of nonsense that rattle round my brain.

Today I have been working on two revised outlines for things as yet unnannounced (I've signed a contract for one of them, the other might not even happen). I've also done a bit of proofing of the Dr's book and been to the gym. Got home before the heavens opened and the cat was freaked by hail.

Lunched with Scott Andrews yesterday who I'd not seen since last year due to our adjacent jettings off around the world. We got to swap notes on what unannounced and uncommissioned projects we both have at the mo and a chance remark - that he was thinking of doing something anyway - gave me the twist I was looking for in one of my outlines today. So hooray for Scott.

Last night, the Dr called me out to Brixton to join her and G. in The Prince. We talked of many things I didn't quite understand (museums and theory and, er, I forget) but my role was to advise G. on what is good in Doctor Who. To my great delight, the Dr was herself able to advise on what might be the Good Stuff. She even listened to Son of the Dragon yesterday, all on her own.

I think I have turned her. Bwah ha ha, etc.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

So he was Captain Birdseye all the time!

Sir Arthur C Clarke, who died yesterday, is probably best remembered for getting his physics right. This is the bloke who, for a bit of a lark, worked out the height at which something in orbit above the Earth would match the planet’s speed of rotation. He did this long before there were such things as satellites, where being in what’s essentially a fixed position over the Earth is quite useful. And, rather sweetly, he worked it out as a fun mental exercise in a sci-fi magazine.

His Space Odyssey stories (2001; 2010; 2061; 3001) are also grounded in the latest discoveries from NASA’s missions into the void, accurately spelling out the time spent travelling between planets and describing the correct mineral constitution of moons. Many of the obituaries have stressed the link between his stories and his contributions to proper, real science.

Thing is, I’ve always preferred science-fiction to be more about the fiction. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the science isn’t important (or just that I’m not very good at it). But sci-fi is period drama, only not set in the past. The props and costumes conjure an atmosphere and lend flavour to the story but it’s the story that’s got to be the focus.

Think about the period drama on telly. It doesn’t wholly matter if your stiff-collared actors don’t shout into their candlestick telephones, or if a set designer’s decided that those phones look nicer without thick cabling like an elephant’s trunk. You don’t actively try to get it wrong and you should do your research. But period drama can easily get bogged down in the tedious detail of etiquette and sci-fi is at its most ponderous when dumping information about how its world works. Much better to get back to the gun-shoots and explosions.

Sir Arthur’s stories are often actually very good at doing just that. Like the very best writers, you don’t always notice the research that’s gone in to the engaging story. His early novel, Childhood’s End, is better known amongst my peers by two of its best rip-offs – Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who and the Daemons. It takes the central conceit of Joseph Campbell’s rather sloppy The Hero With 1,000 Faces – that all mankind’s religions and cultures are off-shoots of the same basic stories – and adds a twist – because early man was mentored by an alien.

The book pre-empts a lot of sci-fi of the 60s and 70s (and songs by Pink Floyd and Bowie) with it’s dawning of a new age for the teenagers which the old folk cannot dig. But its real joy is what theorists of sci-fi have sometimes called the “conceptual breakthrough”. This is the jaw-dropping, gosh-wow bit in good sci-fi where the author has spun the whole story on a massive change in your perspective. Oh blimey, you realise, our 10,000 year-old ideologies are all based on a spaceman with horns.

It leaves the reader open-mouthed like the dupe at the end of an episode of TV’s Mission: Impossible, all the sound effects and scenery revealed as a clever conjuring trick. It’s those big-concept surprises that make sci-fi so addictive.

(There’s a similar phrase from Iain M Banks’ Excession which is not entirely the same thing. An “outside context problem” – like what the Spanish were to the Mayas with their exploding fire sticks – is more total bafflement. A conceptual breakthrough is, even if just to the reader, a momentous revelation.)

Some more examples of the best conceptual breakthroughs. There’s one at the end of Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston finds a statue on a beach. There’s one at the end of Soylent Green when Charlton Heston finds out what the special foodstuff means to people. You can see the pattern – most top sci-fi hinges on one brilliant reveal.

The four in 2001: A Space Odyssey make up the structure of the film. An alien artefact teaches the apes; an alien artefact awaits us on the Moon; Dave’s beaten HAL and goes to meet the alien artefact; and, er, something about a huge space-baby. Everything else hangs off those freaky moments. It’s not just the physics that have been got right, either; the effects are amazing; the scale constantly enormous with tiny humans in the foreground. And, quite brilliantly, the humans twitter on about nothing in particular, minuscule and mundane. It is only the observing us that finds it wondrous.

But a really good example of the importance of gosh-wow over the numbers is a short story which, annoyingly, Neil Gaiman also linked to in his Clarke post. Unlike Neil, I didn’t meet Sir Arthur but I did once have his telephone number – and that was on a copy of The Nine Billion Names of God.

Spoilers follow so click the link, read the story and come back here after for my paltry thoughts.

Done that?


How’s that for a gosh-wow ending? Can’t you see Jim Phelps just escaping in his van, his props and costumes abandoned at your feet? And yet, when I first read it, a learned chum who was much more into sci-fi for the physics had a Different View.

For him, the great brilliance of the lack of fuss in that closing line was that that’s not how physics works. The stars are millions of billions of light years away – from us and from each other. It’s not just that you shout “Go!” and they wink off one by one. They’ll have been winking off for millions of years, all in a fiendishly complex and intricate order and just so that – to a computer programmer watching from the Earth – they seem to be extinguishing one by one.

The Clever Thing, said this learned colleague, was that the stars had been going out for millions of years, it just so happened that the time taken by the light of those destructions to register on Earth all rather neatly coincided – the implication being that it is not coincidence. So the programmer, his machine and its result have all been long-expected. This, he said, proved a mechanical universe operating like clockwork; the man-made computer just a machine in a machine. He didn’t agree with my gosh-wow reading at all, that the computer was rendered nothing to the magic truth of God. And we argued long into the night.

I’m not sure what this not-entirely-interesting anecdote might mean. But I’m rather sad I missed the chance to ever share it with Sir Arthur.

Spy Wednesday

Hooray! I was rather hoping for some James Bond news, today being today. Though I don't think Holy Week quite has MI6 in mind.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Darth Maul unto the breach

Darth Maul unto the breachThe Royal Shakespeare Company has posters all round London at the moment advertising their run of Histories - that is, the whole damn epic of the wars of the roses one after the other.

Is it just me, or is that Darth Maul on the right?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Some comfort

There’s 238 days until Quantum of Solace opens in the UK. There’ll probably be quite a lot more of this sort of thing before then. It includes spoilers for some of the James Bond novels.

I originally started reading James Bond when I was 11. I can vaguely recall trying to explain to a friend at my new secondary school that the last chapter of Dr No was a lot like Witness – which had been on telly round that time. I also remember calling it “Doctor Number” and my confusion, from a footnote saying ‘See the author’s previous one…’ that this wasn’t the first of the books when it had been the first film. (It’s possibly I gleaned even this fact from a feature on the forthcoming new one, which my wicked big brother kept insisting was called Daylight Saving Time.)

Working through the Bond canon again now (honestly, it is useful research) all manner of other things strike me. Bond is a prized cock at the best of times; the dialogue is always pretty abysmal, clunky, place-holding stuff; the racist undertones and outlook are far more obvious than the misogynistic; and the exotic props described in such pornographic, listy detail have not all worn terribly well.
“In a characteristic passage from Live and Let Die, Bond leaves a ‘bitter raw day … the dreary half-light of a London fog’ to go to New York, where his hotel serves him crabs and tartare sauce, ‘flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, from the charcoal grill, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice cream with melted butterscotch’ and Liebfraumilch wine. That a burger-and-chips with Blue Nun menu, which would soon become common in suburban lounge bars across Britain, clearly seemed so mouth-wateringly exotic [to British readers] in 1954 is eloquent and, in its way, touching.”

Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain, p. 216.

Annoyingly, I thought that too as I reread Live and Let Die – about a week before I read Marr’s very excellent history. But you’ll just have to believe me that I didn’t pinch the insight. Again, what follows contains major spoilers for various Bond books.

After the events of Casino Royale (book) and the leave Bond gets granted at the end, he’s sent by BOAC to New York to help investigate some long-lost pirate gold that’s just resurfaced and is financing the communists. He and old pal Felix Lighter are soon on the heels of grey-faced black hoodlum, Mr Big. The old-skool Etonian spy naturally has Opinions:
“’I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a great negro criminal before,’ said Bond, ‘Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There’ve been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don’t seem to take to business. Pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought except when they’ve drunk too much.’

‘Our man’s a bit of an exception,’ said M. ‘He’s not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good dose of French blood. Trained in Moscow, too, as you’ll see from the file. And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions – scientists, doctors, writers. It’s about time they turned out a great criminal. After all, there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They’ve got plenty of brains and ability and guts. And now Moscow’s taught one of them the technique.’”

Ian Fleming, Live and Let Die, in Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, p. 153.

Mr Big could be meant to be some kind of emancipatory figure, because having a black baddie is a kind of equal rights. I’d almost have time for that line of argument if his use of voodoo – and just the way he and his men get described – didn’t plumb such blatant racial stereotypes. A dead giveaway is the painfully “authentic” bickering between a couple in a Harlem bar in the tastefully titled Chapter 5, “Nigger Heaven”.

Yes, it’s easy to wag a finger at the presumptions of another time. But what stands out here is just how old and far distant James Bond seems from now. Marr nicely links the spies, sex and establishment so much a part of novel-Bond to the spies, sex and establishment of the Profumo affair.
“The political scandal that happened at the fag-end of the Tory years was more highly coloured and more unlikely than much of what Ian Fleming poured into his early ‘shockers’.”

Marr, ibid.

The scandal hit in mid-1963, a year before Fleming died and just as a working-class milkman was making Bond his own. As I’ve said before, the film Bond changes quickly: becoming a force for détente when the Russians start buying the movies; or one minute slating the Beatles, the next they’re doing his theme tune. When David Niven – Fleming’s own choice – played the role just five years later, he’s an awkward, embarrassed fossil of another age.

The movies have continued to express tension about how of-the-moment to make Bond: is he a smoker, is he a dinosaur, does he do girls in their teens? Anyway, shouldn’t women know better? Even so, and taking us back to race, notice how Colin Salmon is the only person who works with Brosnan’s Bond who doesn’t at some point take the piss out of him.

Back to Live and Let Die. As with Casino Royale, the plot simply licks along. Bond soon meets Simone Latrelle, better known as Solitaire, who reads cards for Mr Big. She sees Bond as her way out of getting hitched to the villain, lies to save his life and then joins him on a train. Beautiful and 25, she’s never been with a man but – caught up in the adventure – shows everything to Bond. But she’s not foreseen the many eyes of Mr Big and gets herself recaptured before Bond can do his moves.

Bond and Leiter continue their investigations. Fleming is good at conjuring paranoid claustrophobia – the two agents don’t quite appreciate how closely they are watched. In fact, we take their predicament far more seriously than they do. Leiter rather recklessly goes to investigate the baddie’s hide-out all on his own one night. This allows for a shocking bit of savagery, the sequel to the bollock-whacking in the first book. As cobbled into the plot of Licence to Kill, Leiter gets himself fed to a shark.

That’s the gloves off; Bond finds the truth hidden beneath the poison fish, has a fight with an octopus and finally meets up again with Solitaire. They do the bit being dragged behind a boat like in the film For Your Eyes Only, but without the cheat of having an aqua-lung waiting. As is often the case with the films, you realise you’ve been well briefed on the thing that’s going to eat Mr Big at the end. Bond goes off for some ‘passionate leave’ [sic] with Solitaire, and is then back in London in time for his next assignment.

Which sees him playing another game of cards and then pootling round exotic Dover. Moonraker feels like a whole other series. The first chapters have a bored, restless Bond doing a bit of filing and dwelling on things to come.
“It was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as, when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five. Eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters. At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.”

Fleming, Moonraker, in ibid., p. 328.

Which makes Bond 37 in a book first published in 1955, and possible set a bit earlier. He can't then be born any later than 1918. I'll come back to this age question another time, when I'm further into my rereading.

It’s a different kind of mission, this – initially a favour to M, then a secondment to MI5. It seems small and parochial, a threat to little England with no need for sexy clothes and locations. Bond worries about his secretary’s love-life and what people might think in the papers of Sir Hugo Drax. Drax is not French here, as in the movie, but one of Britain’s finest. Oh, I realised as I reread it, Drax is Toby Stephens.

There’s something funny with the British rocket programme that Drax is rather dashingly donating for the protection of the nation. Hmm… what could possibly go wrong? It maybe seems a bit obvious since we get told early on how the programme is using lots of former Nazis (who knew a thing about long-range rockets having worked on doodlebugs). I still love their brilliant disguises, as Drax ultimately explains:
“’You smelt a mouse, my dear Bond, where you ought to have smelt a rat. Those shaven heads and those moustaches we cultivated so assiduously. Just a precaution, my dear fellow. Try shaving your own head and growing a big black moustache. Even your mother wouldn’t recognize you. It’s the combination that counts. Just a tiny refinement. Precision, my dear fellow. Precision in every detail. That has been my watchword.’ He chuckled fatly and puffed away at his cigar.”

Ibid., p. 483.

There’s also the oddly erotic mix of awkward and sexy as Bond and Gala go for a swim in just their rubbish pants, and survive an explosion that blows up all their clothes. This is falling into parody – more Tara King than Ian Hendry. Yet there’s still plenty of thrilling writing, like the car chase on the A20 where a boy racer takes the fall for Bond. The live news report at the end of the penultimate chapter is also nicely done.

And I also loved that in this one Bond doesn’t get the girl. Policewoman Gala Brand (a less-rude name than Dr Holly Goodhead) is engaged to someone else and furious when Bond plants a kiss on her. The control freak fantasist has all sorts of plans for them once the adventure’s done, and she neatly tells him it’s not happening and walks out of his life.

A few people have said that the film producers should have followed Casino Royale (film) with a remake of Live of Let Die and then continued through the canon. But Moonraker really has only its title to recommend it. The rest feels low budget and ITC, too easily imagined with stock explosions and the exterior dialogue played against photographic flats.

The short story collection For Your Eyes Only also contains some very un-Bond-like Bond. The titular story is the springboard for a lot of the film of the same name, only it happens in Canada not Greece. The Havelocks in the story have lived in the same house in Jamaica for 300 years and their murder by Cuban gangsters might suggest Fleming’s own discomfort with the political context gathering round his home. It’s odd to see Bond being nominally on the side of Castro, but there’s not really any profound insight into post-colonial or ex-pat existence. Some rich friends of M are murdered and he asks Bond to take revenge.

The film also nicks and hellenifies bits from the story “Risico” (which is how the character Kristatos says “risk”), and neglects to have Bond dying himself with walnut stain until he looks “like a Red Indian with blue-grey eyes.” But the vengeful daughter, the crossbow and that cheesy line about first digging two graves is all in Fleming’s original.

“From a View to a Kill” (the short story has the word “from” in it) has Bond spotting the secret hide-out of some villains who shoot a messenger. The villains have an underground base in the forest and wear things like snow-shoes that stop them leaving footprints in the grass. It’s set in France and has ex-Nazis, but no airships, horses or microchips. “The Hildebrand Rarity” is the Krest bits of the plot of Licence to Kill, only not quite as exciting.

Rereading this stuff, I’ve been struck by how often the best bits of the films are always Fleming’s. Yet it's weird to realise that the worst of Bond on film - silly plotting, an overly serious Bond being dull about posh past-times and food, and sleazing his way into bed (in fact, A View To A Kill) - is not atypical Bond of the books.

The skill of the adapters is also to jettison his crapper stuff. They rename the women and make the set pieces bigger and in more striking locations. They make the words coming out of Bond’s mouth smart and witty and sparkly. They’ve got a broader, more inclusive view of the world and other people. And that’s what keeps Bond involving when he could easily have died with Fleming.

“Quantum of Solace” is really very odd; Bond is bored at a dinner party and doesn’t get on with his host. But a chance remark leads to the host telling a story about an affair that gives him a completely different perspective on the boring guests. Bond is, unlike the reader, gripped. Compared to them, he finally decides, his life isn’t that exciting.

Just what the flying flip?

An uncharitable reviewer might assume Fleming had shoehorned Bond into the framing of a non-James Bond story. Perhaps it’s meant to reinforce the idea of Bond as an outsider, cold in company but keen to know everyone’s secrets. But I think it’s just meant to play as it is; Bond is moved, has a revelation about people, because of hearing this story.

The title comes from the host’s own theory about what finally breaks up a couple. Bond can’t suck up enough.
“Bond said: ‘That’s a splendid name for it … I should say you’re absolutely right. Quantum of Solace – the amount of comfort. Yes, I suppose you could say that all love and friendship is based in the end on that. Human beings are very insecure. When the other person not only makes you feel insecure but actually seems to want to destroy you, it’s obviously the end. The Quantum of Solace stands at zero. You’ve got to get away to save yourself.’”

Fleming, Quantum of Solace, in For Your Eyes Only, p. 093.

So it’s a story about there being nothing left of a relationship. Which bleak view, it seems to me, is the complete opposite of what rumour says will be the basis for the film version. If the whispers are right, Bond can take some minuscule comfort from how things with Vesper turned out in that she’s led him to the baddest of the bad guys. And maybe – though they whispered it of the last one, too – that’ll be someone with the same initials as one of Fuller’s beers.

No, not London Pride.

James Bond will be return in Diamonds Are Forever (book), just as soon as I've reread it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The new issue of SFX includes a new interview with Russell T Davis and, according to the,
"he confirms that UNIT, the fictional military organisation returning to the show in the new series, is now the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, and not the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce as it was previously known."
Apparently, the UN didn't approve of the fictional organisation that so effectively (if fictionally) has curbed alien invasions, weird diseases and mining operations. I wonder if they'd also be bothered by a re-make of North by Northwest.

Anyway, ages ago a bunch of like-minded writing types discussed what UNIT might stand for if not the United Nation's Intelligence Taskforce. My suggestion, which I'm still far too pleased with, was:

You Know It's Topsecret.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The first time Benny got lost

Here's an interesting (myabe) historical curio, the first outline for Bernice Summerfield and the Lost Museum.
Benny and the Lost Museum
Synopsis by Simon Guerrier, 12 September 2004

Benny and Bev are the first human civilians to enter the city of Aname for nearly forty years. They are here at the request of the Federation army, who’ve faced increasing criticism of their efforts to liberate the city. News reports have blamed the sacking of the Aname Museum on the army’s own gung-ho attitude. For PR reasons, they’re sparing no expense in getting the experts in to sort it all out.

Benny’s annoyed to be working for the military who have such a cynical attitude to the museum’s collections. Nor is she happy to be saddled with Bev – whose own attitude to art treasures leaves a lot to be desired. Benny visited the museum nearly a century ago, and can testify first-hand to the importance of its collection. The news report she saw showed one particularly fine sculpture, the Head of Someone, in a battered and unloved state. She’s full of righteous indignation.

Bev, however, takes a more pragmatic approach. They’re just here to make the best of a bad job. The Federation army has only just liberated the city from the former regime, and the regime’s militia are still staging assaults in the suburbs, and threatening a major attack on the city any moment. Soldiers are being targeted, and Benny and Bev are both assigned bodyguards.

Locals approach them, saying they have genuine artefacts from the museum to sell. Bev wants to follow these leads up, but Benny says they need to investigate the museum first.

The museum is a mess – it’s been looted and variously used as a barracks, squat and toilet. Benny is overcome. The new curator speaks no English, and even the translator machines have trouble getting through (though it may be that the curator is just being evasive). Bev tries to get an inventory from the curator – of what the museum should have. It’s not forthcoming. There are too many locked doors and misplaced keys. And some of the empty display cases have not been damaged – so whoever removed the artefacts had access to keys…

Bev gets impatient, shouting at the curator that they’re trying to help. Benny has a museum catalogue from her earlier visit, and this they use as a preliminary inventory. But when Benny wants to show Bev the Head of Someone – the sculpture they know survived the looting because Benny saw it on the news – it’s nowhere to be found. Are things still going missing?

The head of the Federation army is not surprised – he’s called in ‘the experts’ because he’s not been able to get any sensible answers from the locals. However, he’s less bothered about helping out because the city is under siege from the militia. It seems the army’s claims to have liberated the city are a little exaggerated… So. Benny and Bev try – mostly separately - to make sense of what’s happened at the museum. Are the current curators responsible for the looting? Did the militia do it? Why’s it so difficult to get answers? Benny and Bev have very different and clashing ideas about how to go about finding out, what the priorities are, etc. The looting seems to have been going on during the regime, as well as during the battles. And, even the locked rooms are full of neglected, damaged items. It’s as if the museum has never looked after its collections well… As they investigate, the militia makes attempts on their lives. During the attempt on her life (and daring escape), Benny loses her precious museum catalogue – the one document they have to tell them what the museum should possess. The militia invade the city. The Federation army is more interested in people’s lives than bits of old stone, so uses the museum building as a stronghold during the battle. Benny offers her services as a soldier… Finally, the fighting mostly over, Benny is able to see the former curator of the museum, in prison as a figurehead of the old regime. He’s not just unapologetic, he shrugs off Benny’s concerns. Everyone was stealing stuff – to protect it, or to get one in the eye of the regime, or because they fancied items, or for any number of reasons. The museum is a treasure hoard and who is Benny to dictate the terms of what is important and what is not? Benny tries to argue that the museum is the one thing that might unite the city’s people. It gives them a shared past, an identity. At the end, the museum building is pretty much a ruin. The situation with lost artefacts is far worse than when Benny and Bev arrived, and Benny can only do as Bev first suggested – make the best of a bad job. They begin to list the artefacts they * do * have. The Federation army will find them temporary home until a new museum can be built. And, as they go about their inventory, all sorts of people appear, dropping off bits of this and that, artefacts squirreled away. Bev is keen to stop these people, interrogate them about how they acquired these priceless artefacts, but Benny says they should stop asking questions.

Characters: Benny; Bev; head of the Federation army; new curator of the museum; old curator of the museum; Benny and Bev’s bodyguards; various locals and soldiers.

Monday, March 10, 2008


Some time ago in a comment on this blog, Liadnan recommended I base my understanding of Middle Eastern history on more than a rant from one old stand-up comic. He was even kind enough to supply a copy of David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace”, though it is such a hefty and serious-looking tome that I kept bravely putting off starting it…

It’s utterly compelling. Sadly, it’s compelling in the same way as a car crash. Or rather, like some impossibly intricate multiple pile-up, stretching out years and hundreds of miles. “How the Middle East ended up in such a godawful mess” was Liadnan’s own subtitle.

The book covers the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the foundation of the modern Middle East, so from the start of the First World War to the attempts at agreement that followed it, up until 1922. In large part, it’s told from the perspective of British interests, and often Fromkin seems to concentrate on two key figures – David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.

This is in keeping with a particular kind of history that likes to pinpoint the Great Men Who Made Stuff Happen. Just like in Knight Rider, one man can make a difference. And yet the one man who really changes everyone’s fortunes is the bloke who single-handedly won the First World War. Bothersomely, he was French.
“Suddenly – and unexpectedly – an Allied breakthrough came in Bulgaria, where General Louis-Félix-François Franchet d’Esperey, the new French commander of the Allied forces in hitherto-neglected Salonika in Greece, launched a lightning offensive at the end of the summer. Bulgaria collapsed and, on 26 September 1918, asked for an armistice. The request should have been forwarded to the Supreme War Council of the Allies in Paris, but Franchet d’Esperey dared not chance the delay. He composed the terms of an armistice himself, and had it signed within a matter of days so that eh could turn immediately to mount a devastating offensive on the Danube against the Germans and Austrians, thus successfully executing the ‘Eastern’ strategy that Lloyd George had been advocating in vain ever since the war began.”
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, p. 363.

Fromkin argues that this turned out to be a bit of a nuisance, as Lloyd George and US President Wilson weren’t quite ready with a plan for an armistice, at least not one that would hand them the best spoils. The war was suddenly over, and the West’s leaders were running to catch up with new powers in the Middle East.

It’s a monstrously complex mix of stories, plots and conspiracies, and Fromkin thankfully divides even his short chapters into sections. Yet I found I kept having to refer back to the index to remind myself who was who, and there’s just four maps with which to try and untangle the mess of various place names and people.

Though the grand narrative is rather hard work, Fromkin peppers it with tremendous and brilliant detail. He explains and critiques the self-mythology of TE Lawrence (who was blushingly caught at the Albert Hall, enjoying a sell-out performance of a film version of his own heroic endeavours). He gives context to the Tashkent adventures of Colonel Bailey, and even the misadventures of Enver Pasha are full of weird and lurid intrigue. British – and French and American – interests were, though, little troubled by any of this contemporary complexity.

European powers had famously seen the Ottoman Empire as that “sick old man” for a good century, but it served as a useful buffer between the imperial machinations of Britain and Russia. As the venerable Dr Challis argues in her published work, the Crimean War was just one example of the Ottomans’ relative weakness. For the next few decades, British warships patrolled her waters and British travellers helped themselves to her antiquities.

But Western assumptions about the East meant Britain massively underestimated the Ottoman position on the outbreak of war. Fromkin is good at following the various diplomatic intrigues – British, French, German and Russian – that saw the Ottomans joining the war and, rather to the surprise of those four powers, not tumbling out of it pretty much instantly.

The Middle East region was important to Britain as the link between its colonial riches in Africa and India, and much of Britain’s attempts at settlement hoped to create a safe trade route stretching from Cape Town to Australia. Fromkin is good at explaining the economics of this; that the European powers were parasitic of Africa and Asia, and that this to some extent justified the attention Lloyd George gave the Middle East while (as the Times argued at the time) ignoring important issues of welfare at home.

The economics is also important in explaining why Britain’s hold over these territories unravelled. The local populations only suffered such regimes because revolt was put down so brutally. As with Iraq after 2003, the new treaty agreements needed to be more than just words, but deploying lots of soldiers to keep the peace proved to have to high a price. It wasn’t just the money; the British people were exhausted by four years of appalling warfare, like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
“It has been estimated that the total of military and civilian casualties in all of Europe’s domestic and international conflicts in the 100 years between 1815 and 1915 was no greater than a single day’s combat losses in any of the great battles of 1916.”
Ibid., p. 232.

As a result, the domestic pressure for post-war demobilisation scuppered all Britian’s efforts, and at a time when Lloyd George had just expanded the territories over which Britain was keeping watch.

Where Fromkin disagrees with Rob Newman is in the role of oil before war broke out. Churchill was, Fromkin argues, unusual in seeing the importance of the region’s oil prior to 1914. The military importance of oil was generally recognised by 1918, but Churchill, arranging before the war,
“for the British government to purchase a majority shareholding in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, aroused a great deal of opposition, especially within the Government of India, from British officials who did not see the need for it.”
Ibid., p. 354.

That said, this doesn’t quite square with Fromkin’s own account that,
“a month before the outbreak of the Ottoman war in the autumn of 1914, London had ordered a standby force to be sent from India to the Persian Gulf to protect Britain’s oil supplies from Persia in case they should be threatened.”
Ibid., p. 200.

So if not about the oil, what was it all about? As Fromkin says, Britain’s concerns about Germany’s influence in the Middle East in the lead-up to the war were not about the well-being of the indigenous people. Rather they worried that, “Asia might be left as a vast slave colony in Germany’s possession, and its wealth and raw materials would fuel Germany industry and allow it to dominate the globe” (p. 357). Clearly that sort of thing should be left to the much more honourable British.

The Middle East was also important to the West for historical, cultural reasons. This was the land of the Bible, of the Iliad and the founding of civilisation as we know it. The names used for the regions in question – Syria, Mesopotamia, even Palestine – betrayed that the Western powers were some 2,000 years out of date with their local intelligence. Fromkin is good at showing what little concern there was for the contemporary, complex mix of languages, people and traditions. “The [Ottoman] empire was incoherent,” he says (p. 34).
“It was evident that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces. The antipathy between the minority of Moslems who were Sunnis and the majority who were Shi’ites, the rivalries of tribes and clans, the historic and geographic divisions of the provinces, and the commercial predominance of the Jewish community in the city of Baghdad made it difficult to achieve a single unified government that was at the same time representative, effective, and widely supported.”
Ibid., p. 307.

And the Western powers tried to untangle these disparate groups with little more than the stories they’d learned at school.
“Lloyd George, who kept demanding that Britain should rule Palestine from (in the Biblical phrase) Dan to Beersheba, did not know where Dan was. He searched for it in a nineteenth-century Biblical atlas, but it was not until nearly a year after the armistice that General Allenby was able to report to him that Dan had been located and, as it was not where the Prime Minister wanted it to be, Britain asked for a boundary further north.”
Ibid., p. 400.

US President Wilson had no better weight of local knowledge to support his lofty ideals for the territorial settlement. His “experts” based their assessments on old maps and one encyclopaedia.
“The Middle Eastern group, composed of ten scholars operating out of Princeton University, did not include any specialists in the contemporary Middle East; its chairman was a specialist of the Crusades. The chairman’s son, also a member, was a specialist in Latin American studies. Among other members were an expert on the American Indian, an engineer, and two professors who specialized in ancient Persian languages and literature.”
Ibid., p. 261.

It was this lack of detail that proved fatal – literally. The disastrous Gallipoli campaign was the result of the available maps being so out of date (as well as an atrocious lack of planning about what to do once the beach had been taken).

But the West didn’t acknowledge their own shortcomings, and just assumed they knew what was best for all these funny foreign people. There's a misguided belief, perhaps a Whig liberal idea, that the locals will be glad to see us wading in, even if we don't really speak the language. Wilson’s high principles were, to be put it mildly, not practical.
“The President’s program was vague and bound to arouse millennial expectations – which made it practically certain that any agreement achieved by politicians would disappoint.”
Ibid., p. 262.

The lack of local knowledge and insight inevitably led all too often to the achievement of entirely the opposite of what was wanted.
“Nothing, however, could have provided a better description of what was going to happen at the Peace Conference than [US President] Wilson’s speeches about what was not going to happen. Peoples and provinces were indeed ‘bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were chattels or pawns in a game’. It was not the case that every settlement was ‘made in the interest and for the benefit of the population concerned’; on the contrary such settlements were made (though Wilson said they would not be) in order to provide an ‘adjustment or compromise of claims among rival states’ seeking ‘exterior influence or mastery’. Not even his own country was prepared to follow the path that he had marked out.”
Ibid., p. 390.

There were also awful consequences for groups affiliated with the Allies, which again the Allies seem not to have considered at any point. The Turks avenged themselves on those groups they took to be helping the Allies – the Armenians and Christian minority groups, and (it seems strange now that they get just a footnote) the Kurds. Constantinople and the Dardanelles were effectively held hostage by the Greeks to ensure, “Turkey’s good behavior in such matters as the treatment of Christian minorities” (p. 411).

Fromkin is also damning of many of the promises made by the Allied powers. “This was sheer dishonesty,” he says at one point, “for the Arab Bureau officers did not believe that Arabs were capable of self-government” (p. 345).

It’s ironic, too, that Feisal and other leaders in the region were told to trust the Entente powers, when those powers couldn’t even trust each other. The language used at the time gives some idea of the suspicion and contempt for any kind of foreigner, even the ones on your side. The French referred to “the brutal rapacity of our allies” (p. 442), the British spoke of Transjordan as “partially inhabited by predatory savages” (p. 443).

All this meant trouble for the various communities caught up in the disputed lands – such as the Armenians, Kurds, Assyrian or Nestorian communities. But the book especially concentrates on the plight of – and problems caused by – Jewish groups.
“London’s policy of Zionism might have been expressly designed to stir up trouble, and must have been devised by far-off officials who did not have to live and deal with local conditions.”
Ibid., p. 445.

There’s a temptation to see all of Middle Eastern conflict as a war between Jews and Arabs. That is mistaking race for culture, that all Jews are the same, that all Arabs are the same. It would be as wrong to assume that all the Christian peoples of Europe had the same national identity, or could be controlled in the same way. Even as the British made their first woolly commitments to a Jewish state, Zionism was a contentious topic among much of the Jewish community. Edwin Montagu was not alone in his concerns that a Jewish Palestine would mean exile for British Jews.
“The second son of a successful financier who had been ennobled, Montagu saw Zionism as a threat to the position in British society that he and his family had so recently, and with so much exertion, attained. Judaism, he argued, was a religion, not a nationality, and to say otherwise was to say that he was less than 100 percent British.”
Ibid., p. 294.

Fromkin struggles to reconcile British Zionism with an implicit, institutionalised anti-Semitism. I think you can reconcile these two extremes by considering the Nazis’ later plans to make Madagascar the new Jewish nation; giving the Jews their own country meant they could be excised from yours.

Fromkin shows Britain to be rabidly anti-Semitic. British intelligence (or rather, stupidity) was fast joining up the dots between disaffected Jewish groups in Germany, Jewish designs for Palestine and Jewish members of the Bolshevik revolutionaries. This seems to have been helped along by the publication in London and Paris in 1920 of “The Jewish Peril”. This translated “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”, apparently the records of Jewish and Freemason meetings “in which they plotted to overthrow capitalism and Christianity and to establish a world state under joint rule” (p. 468).

The Protocols had first appeared in a Russian newspaper in 1903, but had really become something in 1917,
“when it was remarked that several Bolshevik leaders were Jews and the communist doctrine bore a certain resemblance to that described in the Protocols … As such, the Protocols explained – among other things – the mysterious revolts against Britain everywhere in the East.”
Ibid., p. 469.

They were, of course, a forgery and, like so many of these things, cut and pasted from earlier works (including a satire on Napoleon III and even a fantasy novel).

But British intelligence seems to have been blinded to the dodginess of this dossier by their own eagerness to believe the conspiracy. They even decided the Young Turks who’d revolted against the Sultan must be Jewish led, because one of them had a name a bit like a bloke in New York. Fromkin quotes the manic conspiracy theorising that opens John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, and then reminds us that Buchan “later became director of information services for Lloyd George’s government” (p. 247).

(It'd be easier to justify these rantings as the mad paranoia of a character in the book were the book then not to confirm the character's suspicions. Sherlock Holmes' Last Bow includes a similar cell of anarchists working to bring about war, so you could easily create a shocker plot without having to make the baddies such stereotypical Jews.)

This institutional anti-Semitism came with a high price in lives. The British refused to help arm Jabotinsky and other Jewish veterans of the British Army so that they could defend themselves from the violence that broke out in Jerusalem on 4 April 1920. No casualties were suffered where Jabotinsky's forces were (they had bought weapons from a gunrunner); all the Jewish casualties were in the Old City of Jerusalem,
“which British army units prevented Jabotinsky’s forces from entering. Adding an especially ominous tinge to the bloodletting in the Old City was the cry of the rioting mobs that ‘The Government is with us!’ That the mobs were not unjustified in their cry became evident when the British military authorities meted out punishment. Only a few rioters were punished by serious court sentences; but Jabotinsky and his colleagues were swiftly brought before a closed court martial, charged with distributing arms to the self-defense group, and sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in the fortress-prison of Acre.”
Ibid., p. 447.

Richard Meinertzhagen, head of Military Intelligence in Cairo, was sent to Palestine to investiogate, where he discovered that the,
“British colonel who served as chief of staff of the administration was conspiring with the Arab Mufti of Jerusalem to foment new anti-Jewish riots.”
Ibid, p. 448.

This does not mean that the Jewish groups themselves were entirely innocent of all wrongs. Churchill was also prescient about problems inherent in the settlement of Palestine for the Jewish people, arguing as far back as October 1919 that the Jews “take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience” (p. 494).

Also, the West might have been wildly paranoid about the Bolsheviks and their influence. Yet Fromkin is quick to point out that “[Lenin’s] was a minority regime that had seized power by force and that held on to power by employing as many as a quarter of a million secret policemen” (pp. 476-7). There were good reasons to be paranoid.

But again and again it’s the West’s own wilful blindness, paternalistic assumptions and damnable pride that are the cause of so much of the horror inflicted on the region. Fromkin traces a line through a whole series of separate incidents, intrigues and revolts that the British believed had to be the work of a single and small group of conspirators. And then argues that that’s not wholly wrong.
“In fact there was there was an outside force linked to every one of the outbreaks of violence in the Middle East, but it was the one force whose presence remained invisible to British officialdom. It was Britain herself. In a region of the world whose inhabitants were known especially to dislike foreigners, and in a predominantly Moslem world which could abide being ruled by almost anybody except non-Moslems, a foreign Christian country ought to have expected to encounter hostility when it attempted to impose its own rule. The shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own.”
Ibid., p.468.

The book explains how the Middle East we know today came into being. And I can’t help wondering if those same shadows accompany the British and Americans even now, only under a different name.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Days like crazy paving

On Thursday, as well as being in DWM, I sat through some debates relating to International Women's Day, and then went to the pub. Saw lots of lovely people, ate some nice Thai food, and had more to drink than is probably wise. There was hugging at the end of the evening.

On Friday, I meant to finish a great long blog post about David Fromkin's "A Peace to End All Peace". But I didn't. Instead, I went for a very amiable meeting about something I can't talk about, and came away with a free book full of thrilling pictures. And, I'm assured, a contract. Whee!

Calling the Dr to say it had gone well, there was terrible news. Her camera seems to have eaten all the pictures she took of our holiday. I bought that camera as a hooray for her finishing her PhD, and it has been well travelled and contributed much to the Dr's forthcoming book (of which she now has proofs). So the thought of a digital replacement is all a bit sad and emotional.

In the evening, I took the Dr to see Under the Eagle, which I'd seen as a reading back in October. The script has been polished and sharpened up, and is much more effective (though I did really like the first version). Afterwards, there was time for beer with various colleagues. And I got to meet Tom Baker's infamous friend.

Yesterday I tried to put some notes together for something I am pitching. The Dr returned from giving a lecture on the use of mummies in medicine (they get their name from mummia, the resin used in the mummification process, but the reason mummies were thought to have healing properties was cause they contained bitumen). We poddled down to Winchester to plot travels with my parents, and then went to hear the Waynflete Singers doing Bach's B Minor Mass rather well.

I like that mass. It is probably in my top five masses.

My recent globe-trotting had well-prepared me for the packedness of the seating. My knees were right against the plastic chair in front of me, and by one of those brilliant coincidences I was the one who got the bloke who kept pushing back on his chair. At one point he might as well have just been lying in my lap.

He was also amusingly flatulent, which may explain why he couldn't keep still.

Got home about half twelve, and then I was up this morning early to finish this pitching thing. Got a showbiz party this afternoon where I need to pick someone's brains, and then we are out with the neighbours for tea.

By the end of this week I need to have written a proper synopsis for something, and made a start on something else pressing. And I've got two days freelancing, and a night out with the brothers. And something to write for one of them. But it's al very exciting and lively, and I'm only just back from holiday so it's not like I can complain. But blimey, it's like we was never away.

Fromkin is going to have to wait.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pick of the penguin

Hooray! For the third time ever, I am in the letters page of Dr Who's Magazine.
Doctor Who has had pig people, cat people, rhinoceros people, butterfly people, bird people (and, ahem, badger people) but I think we should get some octopus people. Octopuses have three hearts, blue blood and can regenerate their limbs. So they are probably related to Time Lords anyway.
          Simon Guerrier, email."

Galaxy Forum, DWM #393 (2 April 2008), p. 17.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The last leg

Dr on the RocksSo where were we? Oh yes, I was blogging from our hotel in the Sydney Rocks, while the Dr was exploring the roof-top hot-tub. I went up to join her and we enjoyed the view, choosing to ignore the ominous low and dark cloud out to sea.

This proved to be a mistake as it meant that as we went out to meet Dr Who author Jonathan Blum for tea in Darling Harbour, I was only wearing Birkenstock flip-flops, shorts and tee-shirt. And so got soaked when the heavens opened. There was thunder. There was lightning. There was a river of water higher than the pavement. There was me and the Dr diving into a posh wine bar, looking like drowned and under-dressed rats, texting Jon to come join us.

He did, and when the sky had cleared he took us squelching for tea in Darling Harbour. I had a pizza and shared a bottle of fizz, and we talked a bit of shop and to Jon’s wife Kate Orman by phone, and then me and the Dr squelched back to our hotel, cold and damp but well-fed.

Two tier architecture in SydneyThe next day was a bit over-cast, but we explored the Rocks and took pictures. Again we were struck by the Manchester-ness of the lower-tier architecture, with sparkly skyscrapers behind.

Not that I'm sure the photo right really shows that adequately. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Sydney Observatory, with bollockWe nosed round the observatory that’s so very like the one in Greenwich – though they call the time-keeping bollock on the roof a “time ball”.

Bought a postcard of the upside-down Moon.

Upside-down Moon

Thence a long walk to Darling Harbour again for pancakes with Jon, followed by a trek round the Maritime Museum. The Dr dared suggest it’s better laid out and interpreted than the one she used to work at herself, with plenty of personal stories and artefacts to bring the Big Ships And Stuff to life.

Just time for a beer in Edinburgh Castle (a pub) before the train back to the airport, and we got back to Melbourne in time for me to grab a quick beer with the sister’s boyfriend.

Tiger, tigerOn Thursday, I managed to cock-up the trams to Melbourne Zoo, but we got there eventually. Had a great afternoon of cooing at the creatures and taking photos. The highlight was probably seeing the smallish, cuddly-looking Sumatran tigers getting fed. The keepers poked a syringe of milk through the gaps in the fence, and the tigers lapped away like little kittens. They had to chase the syringe as the keepers moved it around, and they were then touching the tigers’ paws as they poked them through the fence. Just the game I play with the Dim Cat at home through the banisters.

Also good were the apes:

Am I ginger?

Baby ape

Kangaroos chillin' in the Outback ZoneThe zoo is laid out in regions, so the tigers and apes from East Asia are amongst Asian trees and buildings, while the marsupials are all in a bit that feels very outback. The koalas hid in the tree and it’s illegal in Victoria for people to handle them anyway, so I didn’t take any pictures. The wombats were all cuddled up in the dark, looking snug and comfy. Again I couldn’t get pictures of them.

Then we trammed back into town and made our way to the Ian Potter Centre. There were fun exhibits of aboriginal artworks and a thing on black in fashion which was very goth and the Dr. Then there was pizza, and we bumped into the sister’s boyfriend again by chance, who spared time for a chat as I accompanied him up to the bike shop.

Wicket T WarwickIn the evening, me and the English girls (the Dr, the sister and Erykah) descended en mass on poor old Ian and Mrs Mond for wine and clever bloody Joe Lister on the telly. Couldn’t have been a better last night in Oz, with splendid company and many laughs. Ian even showed us the Wicket T Warwick costume he’d been made to wear on his stag do.

Up early Friday for a very long flight to South Africa, where again I didn’t fit. My auntie met us at the airport, and explained the various things we were driving past on the way back to her house. She dealt very well with what were probably two zombies. I was much tickled, though, that they call traffic lights “robots” – and didn’t know that it’s the Czech word for serfdom.

On Saturday, the auntie and uncle laid on an extraordinary trip round Soweto, with local guide Ken Dalgliesh. No, not the one I used to have a poster of. He’s studied and written on the history of the collection of townships that now has a population of 4.9 million, and is also up to his eyeballs in projects to help and support the poorer bits.

So we went to the market opposite the Hani-Baragwnath hospital, biggest hospital in the southern hemisphere, and the Dr and I braved the protein-rich mopane caterpillars that are a local stable. Past the chicken stranglers and heaps of freshly butchered, fly-covered meat, we ventured into a shebeen (pub) to share a carton of the yeasty, frothy Jo’Burg beer which was home-brewed in the days of Apartheid, when the locals were not allowed the “white man’s” beers. It’s thick, heavy, low-alcohol stuff that reminded me a lot of freshly-squeezed milk. The locals seemed very interested in my hat.

We toured through the various areas of the townships. After the fall of Apartheid, the inhabitants were given the plots of land on which they had their small and basic shacks. In the posher bits, they’ve since extended and enhanced these basic facilities, so you’ll see lavish properties and exquisitely manicured gardens bolted on to the side of a crude oblong of breeze blocks. I assume this juxtaposition is better than demolishing such a reminder of their history, and also serves to show how far the inhabitants have come – and in such a short time.

The aunt and uncle were most surprised by the low walls and lack of armed guards and electric fences that are everywhere in their bit of town. Only recently one of their friends was bound, beaten and robbed by a gang described as “militant”. Incidents like that seem pretty regular, too – they and horrendous car crashes are talked about in the way we might talk of a bad morning on the Tube.

Perhaps Soweto is just a safer, happier place with less divide between the well-off and poor. Or perhaps it has always been self-policing, so that no one would dare risk being caught stealing or anything else. I assume we only saw the tourist-friendly bits of Soweto anyway.

But our tour did include the poorer bits, and we stopped off at a community centre (oddly, built by an American basketball charity) which our guide Ken was very involved with. The smiley, happy children hanging out there quickly threw together a performance of dancing and singing, and were keen to get us dancing too. It was all so impromptu and lively. We also met the old lady who has run the place since its most basic beginnings back in 1954. She’s still the one everyone goes to when approving any new developments or projects.

The main part of the tour, though, was following the route of the march on 16 June 1976, when schoolkids with an average age of 13 protested at having to be taught at least 50 percent in Afrikaans – a language they and many of their teachers did not even speak. The subjects chosen to be taught in Afrikaans were history, geography and mathematics, further disenfranchising the country’s black majority. The kids acted independently of their parents, who they saw as subsumed into the Apartheid regime because they accepted it. And in the Catholic church where many of the kids first assembled that morning, we counted the bullet holes in the ceiling and saw the broken edge of the altar where the camo-wearing South African police had tried to scare them off.

The kids were not scared off, and we followed the route to Vilkazi Street where the police dogs (or, some sources say, a single dog) were set on them. The dog was killed, and then the police started firing into the ranks of children…

One boy, Hector Pieterson, was shot in the back, and a photo of his wounded body being carried by another boy came to embody the massacre. The picture (see the last link) is a classic “pieta” in structure, a tragic emblem that fuelled a tide against the regime. But our guide, though understanding this focus, was keen to acknowledge the other 20 people who died that day – not all of them black – and to talk of the wider context.

We stopped at Vilkazi Street to see the memorial to Hector, and then to the larger memorial with a museum to one side. The museum was full of different perspectives and ideas, if a little text-heavy. It was an intensely moving, fascinating place – so much so that the Dr was quite quiet for the rest of the evening. Seeing it makes it all the more remarkable that the fall of Apartheid didn’t descend into a bloodbath. Those we spoke to all credited that to Nelson Mandela; and they expressed concern that there was still the risk of major violence. There was much discussion (not all of which I followed) about how the BEE policy, despite its best intentions, had widened, not helped, an epidemic skills gap in the country. They await the forthcoming elections with some anxiety.

In the evening we went out to a place near to where my aunt and uncle live for some food. And again it messed up our preconceptions and prejudices about the place. There was a mix of white and black people there, and me and the Dr were both struck by how much more integrated Johannesburg is than either Australia or LA, where the races seemed to much more stick to their own. Even the airport at Johannesburg had hefty tomes trying to reconcile the past (including a book by the Dr’s PhD supervisor); we saw no acknowledgement at all in LA or Australia of their own contributions to racial history. But then I also can’t see the UK producing anything so self-critical on, say, the history of Northern Ireland.

Wild warthog at PilansbergOn Sunday, we had a two-hour trip to the 55,000-hectare Pilanesburg game reserve to the north of Johannesburg and spent the day spotting real, wild hippos, giraffes, impalas, zebras, wildebeests, warthogs and what could have been a crocodile but could have been a log. The aunt and uncle apologised for us not seeing rhino and elephant, but we were very happy.

The Dr surveys the vastness of AfricaI tried to explain the astonishing vastness of the landscape, like the horizon has been extended twice as far. Various people have told me that once you’ve lived in Africa it gets into your blood, and the mother-in-law still hankers for the continent some 30 years after she left Kenya. I can sympathise. There’s something rich and potent about the brick-red soil, the hugeness of space with its wealth of animals and under the soil in gold and platinum. I guess human beings evolved to best fit this landscape, this climate, this altitude and everything else. We’re already making plans to go back, to see more…

Odd thing. The toilets at the park all offered free condoms. The toilets at Melbourne Zoo had special boxes for disposing of needles. Not sure what this signifies.

My cousin G. took us to a bar in the evening, and made us feel old by not knowing that the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” was more her mother’s generation than mine. I managed three bottles of Castle beer before we were back to the house for a fantastic spread of spare ribs and some kind of sweetcorn bake.

The Dr in the villageA quiet day Monday, though we visited the barking mad shopping centre / casino of Montecasino. The whole place is made out like an Italian town, and even the trees and ducks in the river are fake. The ceiling is painted so that half of it’s in “daylight”, the rest at “night”, and I can see when it’s really hot outside it makes sense to hang out in a place like this. But with the constant piped pop music and everything a sell, I was wanting to break out after five minutes. My uncle said it was like the village in the Prisoner – like this was a good thing.

The dire warnings about not bringing your guns into the place, and the security check to get through the door, made me ask about guns in the country. Apparently it's a major problem - people getting shot for beeping bad driving or just for being in the wrong place. Driving is mad too - you don't step on the gas when the lights go green, you pause to let people jump the lights. And the taxi drivers have to be seen to be believed.

Storm, who I chased round the gardenAfter a bit of shopping and chasing the dog round the garden, we made our way to the airport. Plane was two hours late because they’d loaded the wrong baggage on the plane. And then the holiday was all over.

In the taxi from Heathrow, as we got caught up in the tailback behind an accident in Chiswick, I thought how small and squished up the road signs and roads and horizon all seemed. And how pale and cold and unambitious the weather seemed. And how relieved I was to get home and to sleep.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Two degrees

Hello from sunny but cold London. Didn't sleep on the flight (but did watch No Country For Old Men, Michael Clayton and the 1966 version of Alfie). Will try to write up travel notes and post pictures tomorrow. Still wading though a world of email and stuff. Bah.

In the meantime, here's Nicole's write-up of a commentary I did in LA on my audio play "The Lost Museum". Yes, a commentary on an audio play. And picures of me looking strange.