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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Unbroken – An Extraordinary True Story of Courage and Survival by Laura Hillenbrand (FP: 2010)

I have so many books still sitting in piles salted around my house (thankfully much bigger than I actually need – apart from serving as a library that is) that it’s a rare thing indeed that I borrow books from other people. For one thing if I see a book that looks interesting I normally buy it straight away and for another my tastes are rather individual shall we say and leave it at that. This particular book was leant to me by my Big Boss at work after her husband enjoyed it on holiday (being practically unputdownable apparently) so she thought I’d enjoy it too especially after seeing me read other WW2 books which must have seemed pretty similar.

Anyway – the book is about Louis Zamperini who spent his young year’s one step ahead of the law and one act away from juvenile hall. He was a terror to the neighbourhood he grew up in and a constant test to his parents. Luckily for Louis he discovered his gift – he could run faster than any one he knew and he liked to win. Entering the 1936 Olympics he gave a creditable performance and was tipped to be the first man to break the 4 minute mile. Unfortunately his chance ended when the 1940 Olympic Games – scheduled to take place in Tokyo – had to be cancelled because of a much bigger event called World War Two. Louis did the only thing he could think of – join the Air Force – and ended up flying in B-24’s in the Pacific War. In 1943 his luck ran out and the plane he was in ditched in the Pacific ironically during a search and rescue mission for another lost bomber. Far exceeding the existing record for survival in an inflatable raft Louis and his two companions where eventually picked up by a Japanese warship and ended up in a prisoner of war camp until wars end in 1945. Needless to say his time in camp was far from pleasant. After years of physical and mental torture at the hands of his captors Louis returned to the States seemingly untouched by his ordeal yet was suffering increasingly from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress. In an act of desperation before their marriage fell apart his new wife introduced him to charismatic preacher Billy Graham whose words turned his life around.

On the face of it this should have made a gripping story. After all it’s a huge best seller and has just been made into a movie which will, no doubt, make buck loads of money. But it honestly left me cold. I found the whole troubled youth thing laid on far too thick (and for too long) and just wanted the author to move the story on a bit. Likewise the harrowing treatment at the hands of several Japanese guards went on for so long that it frankly became boring – there’s only so many beatings you can take – and I was probably as grateful that the war ended and Louis could go home as he was. Lastly the fact that he managed to overcome yet another hurdle in the shape of PTSD – with the help of God no less – whilst true left me deeply unmoved. Despite all of the troubles heaped upon poor Louis he was just too good, too unbroken, to be true (despite the truth of the tale). The whole book read like a modern version of Job being pushed by God to lose his faith only for it to deepen instead. No doubt this man went through hell and came out the other side but by the end of the book I frankly didn’t care. There are many people out there who will, no doubt, love this book which will be a real inspiration to them in their own difficult times. I, however, am not one of them. Definitely not recommended.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Thinking About: Scottish Independence

You really can’t miss it. With less than a week today before the vote takes place the top topic of conversation just about everywhere is whether or not will (or should) Scotland break away from the United Kingdom. It’s obviously an emotive issue to many on both sides of the border apparently with families, partners and friends on both sides of the divide. Me? I’m in favour of Scotland – indeed any country – being as independent as it can be these days (total independence whilst not being actually impossible – I’m looking at you North Korea – isn’t exactly easy nor is it sustainable over the long term without a lot of sacrifices).

But apart from all of the heat and rhetoric the thing that gets me most of all is the level of quite often irrational opposition to the whole thing – never mind the threats and dire warnings. It seems, if you read some papers, that if Scotland decide to be the master of its own fate that European, if not the whole of Western, Civilisation will come crashing to its knees. This is not the time (apparently) to show disunity, and hence weakness, in the face of our many enemies some say. Now is not the time, it appears, for Scotland to ‘go it alone’ in these turbulent economic and political times – especially when jam (sorry, real political power short of independence) is just around the corner if only they say No. But why the panic you see in the eyes of English (and some Scottish) mainstream politicians? What is the real reason for all the doomsday rhetoric? It’s a good question. I wonder if we’ll ever find out the real answer. Maybe if they do vote Yes next week?

Will a great deal change? I really don’t think so, at least not immediately. I think that it’s likely that Scotland will keep the Pound without too much trouble and it won’t matter much if they don’t. There will be no new border controls as, I presume, the country will still be a member of the EU despite splitting from its partner nation. If required I’m sure that it’s possible to add Scotland to the EU roll if required (or indeed if they want to be part of that!) I don’t think it will effect business very much and actually might increase the power of Scottish business if they have the freedom to play with their economy to benefit their own country rather than to add to England’s coffers.

I don’t think the nuclear question is insurmountable. The UK’s nuclear deterrent is based at Faslane and there is talk of Scotland being nuclear free by 2020 but that might just be a bargaining position to ensure that we lease the base from them for the next 99 years (a nice little earner that one). Even if we do need to move the facility it’s not exactly impossible – just expensive and awkward. Such a move will probably do the English economy (to say nothing about the local economy near the new base) the world of good – or it might actually prompt us to finally ditch the whole rather anachronistic weapons and decommission them.

Personally if I was Scottish there wouldn’t be a doubt in my head and I happily vote Yes on the day. Not only has the referendum energised Scottish politics like nothing else recently (the turnout is expected to be record breaking) it is one of those rare opportunities when your vote actually means something and changes something. Oh, and the idea (yet another threat) that this is a one-time deal and there is no going back is obvious bullshit. Partnerships can be formed, broken and reformed as long as both parties agree and it’s for their mutual benefit. Nothing is forever in politics!

...and I'm Back!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Tiny dude...!

Just Finished Reading: Americans in Paris – Life and Death under Nazi Occupation 1940-1944 by Charles Glass (FP: 2009)

With the clouds of war gathering over Europe the 30,000 Americans in and around Paris had a choice to make: Leave before things become untenable or stay with the relative safety of being a citizen of a powerful and, more importantly, neutral country. By the time of the German invasion of 1940 some 5,000 decided for numerous reasons to stay. In this often gripping and always well written narrative journalist Charles Glass tells their stories or at least some of the more prominent ones. From the humble Sylvia Beach, owner of the famous English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, to millionaire Charles Bedaux, from the Countess Longworth de Chambrun dedicated to keep the American Library open come what may, to Dr Sumner Jackson who fought tooth and nail to keep the American hospital open and free of German influence this was the story of triumph over adversity, opposition to tyranny, collaboration and double dealing, spying and defiance with the ever present threat of torture and death, of small sacrifices and acts of resistance that made life just a bit more bearable.

In many ways the Americans left behind where in a far more favourable position that French citizens or any other European nationality still on French soil when the Germans invaded and quickly subdued the country. As non-belligerents there where in the odd position of being – by and large – untouchable. Even after the declaration of war shortly after Pearl Harbor the German authorities still held American citizens in somewhat higher regard than other nations, partially it seemed, through fear of the consequences to their own citizens in the US and the inevitable backlash if US citizens where treated badly in occupied territories. Additionally it seemed that Germany was playing the long game hoping that, eventually, after the Continent was subdued that America would tire of war in a faraway place and leave them be – a fate made less possibly if Americans in Paris and elsewhere where roughly handled.

Charmed life or not those who relied on their status to oppose the Germans with impunity soon found themselves in camps of greater or lesser inhuman conditions especially if they happened to be black or Jewish. It was a time when those who had never considered themselves to be heroes acted heroically and those seemingly looked to the future co-operated, collaborated and made money to burn. It was a time when a day to day existence permeated with the possibility of quick death or slow torture brought out the best and the worst in people and forced them to behave in ways they had never imagined they could before 1940.

This was not really an aspect of WW2 that I had given much consideration to before. I was aware of some of the circumstances facing the French under The Occupation but had never previously thought about all of the other nationalities caught up in the conflict. This book was a real eye opener and was often as thrilling as some of the best wartime fiction I’ve read – except this all happened to real people. Fascinating, well written and emotional this is a must read for anyone interested in the period. Highly recommended.