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

Monday, September 30, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Predator

In my 20’s I was a HUGE fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If he was in a movie it was pretty much a certainty that I’d go and see it – no matter the genre and no matter the story. OK, I did draw the line at Twins and only saw Kindergarten Cop on video but the point stands.

In Predator Arnie played ‘Dutch’ a US Special Forces veteran and leader of a crack rescue team called into bring back a cabinet minister and his aide from inside rebel held territory in Central America. Along for the ride is CIA operative Dillon played by Carl Weathers. Quickly it transpires that not everything is at is seems. For one thing Dutch’s team are not the first who have been sent into the meat grinder. A previous team who had disappeared in mysterious circumstances are stumbled upon – dead and skinned. Determined to extract vengeance on the rebels Arnie and crew do what they do best and kill everyone except for a girl who they take along with them as a possible informant. Before they get too far from the recent action one of the team is killed when ‘the jungle came alive and took him’. It’s clear that something – rather than someone – is hunting the team and picking them off one by one. Despite all of their skills they seem helpless against an enemy they can’t see and can barely conceive. Until that is it is wounded in a firefight. As Arnie/Dutch rightly saws: ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’…… Hopefully before it manages to kill every last one of them!

OK, this is a film without much in the way of plot, without a great deal of subtlety or character development. Its premise, whilst not exactly ridiculous is hardly original – a bunch of people being hunted by a deadly dangerous creature (usually either a crazy human or a supernatural beastie but, in this case, an alien). The acting, such as it is, is often wooden and most definitely minimal. It is most assuredly not a thinking person’s movie. But put all of this aside and what you have left is a fun film. The alien, as in all the best movies, isn’t seen much if at all for the first ¼ to ½ of the film. You know that something weird is going on but not exactly what. When you do finally see it/him he’s pretty damned cool with sophisticated weapons and what appears to be a warrior culture deeply embedded in everything he does. It’s certainly the kind of creature you want to know more about – which is great! As in the interminable slasher movies of the time the good guys are dispatched in a variety of particularly bloody ways that can’t help to make you cringe. Arnie’s fight with the alien is fairly clever and nicely staged although the end is frankly silly though laughable (in a good way) at the same time. As I said, a fun, fun film – if you like that kind of thing anyway!  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Starbucks asks customers not to bring guns into outlets 

 From The BBC

18 September 2013

The coffee chain Starbucks has asked its customers in the US to stop bringing guns into its outlets. Starbucks has not imposed a ban, but says guns "should not be part of the Starbucks experience". The firm has recently become a focus for the pro- and anti-gun lobby, with supporters of the right to carry arms holding a Starbucks Appreciation Day. But it said it wanted to give customers "a safe and comfortable respite from the concerns of daily life". Starbucks has a policy of defaulting to local laws when it comes to whether people can take guns into its 7,000 US outlets. The company's stance has won support from the pro-gun lobby, and in August campaigners staged an appreciation day at several outlets. One location was to have been a Starbucks at Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six staff were killed in a mass shooting at a school in December. The outlet was closed before the event began.

The debate about US gun laws returned on Monday with the killings at a US Navy base in Washington DC. In an open letter, Starbucks' chief executive Howard Schultz said the firm had been "thrust unwillingly" into the middle of the national debate over firearms. Mr Schultz said the appreciation days mischaracterised the company's stance on the issue and the demonstrations "have made our customers uncomfortable". He noted that "some anti-gun activists have also played a role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and friction".

Mr Schultz said he hoped that customers would honour the request not to take guns into outlets, but said those who ignore it will still be served. "We will not ask you to leave," he said. In an interview later, he said: "I don't want to put our people in a position of having to confront or enforce a policy (when) someone is holding a gun." An anti-gun lobby group, Moms Demand Action, has been organising Skip Starbucks Saturdays to urge the coffee company to ban guns at its outlets. The group was formed after the Newtown school shooting. Its founder, Shannon Watts, said that Starbucks had taken a strong stand on other issues, including banning people from smoking within 25 feet (7.5 metres) of its stores.

[Several things struck me about this bizarre story. Firstly that a company needs to ‘ask’ its customers not to bring firearms into its outlets. You have to wonder why people feel the need to carry, presumably concealed, weapons into a coffee shop. Is it in case someone has been drinking coffee all day and becomes uncontrollable? Or maybe they’re expecting to be assaulted by someone who REALLY needs a coffee NOW! The second thing is that customers who do bring firearms inside will not be asked to leave – presumably by non-armed staff. This seems eminently sensible. I certainly wouldn’t want to tell an armed coffee addict that he needed to leave and wouldn’t get served because he was ‘packing heat’. Of course the third thing was the apparent throw-away line about ‘someone HOLDING a gun’. I mean, HOLDING a gun. Why the fuck would you be in a coffee bar HOLDING a gun unless you intended to rob the place? Do people normally have guns out on the tables like so many mobile phones? Or do people pop out for a coffee which they sip while field stripping their favourite Glock? WTF people…. Just WTF!]

...and I'm Back!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is it just me, or can anyone else hear the theme tune to Rocky....?

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Bite (FP: 2005)

It’s a truism I’ve often stated here that books of short stories tend to be of variable quality. There are, I find, a great way to be introduced to new authors but there’s a risk involved. If the authors appear to be able to throw 30-40 pages together can they throw 300 pages together and still make it a good story? I’ve been burnt like that a few times.

This particular volume however had a different problem to contend with. On the face of it the author line-up was pretty good. I did have low expectations of the first story by Laurell K Hamilton who I really liked until she went all sexually weird and loved up in her Anita Blake series. The story, such as it is, concerns Blake getting back together with her vampire boyfriend and is about as interesting in watching paint dry. Actually I think the paint would be far more interesting! The second story, by Charlaine Harris was much better. It was a ‘True Blood’ Sookie Stackhouse tale and I was impressed by how well written it was (especially as I didn’t really enjoy the few episodes I saw on TV). So after a poor start my hopes where definitely raised. The third story by MaryJanice Davidson started out OK and was fairly amusing but rapidly went downhill towards the end. I really started to get a bad feeling at this point – 1 out of 3 decent stories with only 2 remaining. The fourth story was, pun intended, the final nail in the coffin. It was, not to put too fine a point on it bloody awful. I can’t actually remember reading, or in this case starting, anything quite that bad in many years. I did honestly struggle to understand why it was even published. But that was it as far as I was concerned. One decent story in 300 pages. I did wonder if this was the state of vampire literature today and then I remembered the earlier books by Kim Newman and Charlie Huston which where both very good indeed. The only comfort I can take from this rather unpleasant experience is that I can prevent people, or just one person, from reading this utter tripe. AVOID.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Berlin Blockade by Ann & John Tusa (FP: 1988)

This is another of those history books that I picked up years ago (actually probably decades ago), put on my shelf and promptly forgot about… or maybe just lost interest in. But a few weeks ago I was looking for something different so picked it up again. Until delving into this detailed and honestly gripping narrative the only thing I knew about the Berlin blockade and the subsequent airlift was that it happened and that, eventually, the blockade was lifted due to the Herculean efforts of the Allied air forces who supplied the city. The devil, as they say is however in the detail.

As WW2 drew to a close the race was on for Berlin. Unfortunately for the western Allies Russia, after Herculean efforts of her own, made it there first and secured both the city and the surrounding area which would ultimately become East Germany. The problem for the west, and to be honest for Berliners, was that Berlin itself was very firmly within the Russian sphere of influence. But before this had come to pass agreements had been made. Berlin was to be city run by all four powers involved and its administration run by those powers in co-operation. Not surprisingly such co-operation didn’t last very long with the Russians (and sometimes the French) using their veto to get their way. Tensions inevitably built up, words were exchanged and sometimes blows and bullets followed. It was, for many months, very tense indeed. In order to replenish their own garrisons in the city the Allied powers relied on a single road, rail and water link to pass through Russian held territory. From time to time difficulties occurred which restricted traffic but where often cleared up as ‘misunderstandings’. But as the Allied powers wearied of the game and began building up the West Berlin and West Germany economies the misunderstandings grew, lengthened and eventually became a full blown blockade. Only one option existed for the Allies – an air bridge. But such a thing had never been done before and certainly not on the scale envisaged. The initial ad hoc and uncoordinated effort brought in a few percent of the food needed to feed half a city of undernourished civilians. Even with rations cut to the minimum the calorie intake dropped and dropped. There was no way to bring in enough for a few weeks never mind any longer – and winter was coming. Soon simply providing food would not be enough. How do you supply a city with everything it needs on a daily basis – from the air?

Giving in was, of course, not really an option. If the Allies had abandoned Berlin to the Russians and had fallen back to a more defensible position they would have basically had to give up the whole of Germany. Greece was already on the edge of collapse and Italy or France would have followed. Within just a few years all of Continental Europe would have been under Soviet control. It simply could not be allowed to happen. Once the decision was made the US, Britain and to a much lesser extent France, began the biggest airlift in human history. At first using every plane available and relying on grit and determination until a proper plan could be put into place. Over the coming months additional bigger planes came on stream carrying ever greater payloads, new airfields were built, new techniques perfected and sometimes desperate lessons learnt. Despite regular Russian interference and intimidation the tonnage of food and other necessities – including coal – increased until it had reached the point where the airlift could be sustained practically indefinitely. Only then, reluctantly, did the Russians finally back down – but it was already too late for them. By then NATO had been created, the Truman Doctrine had been adopted and the Marshall Plan was in place. The world we knew during the Cold War years had been born.

This well researched and heavily detailed book explains so much as to why the world became the way it did after 1945. Berlin, the blockade and the airlift are central to that understanding. I now have a much greater appreciation of exactly why Europe in particular looked and felt the way it did from the later 40’s to the late 80’s. Berlin. That’s the reason. An excellent read if you can get hold of a copy. If you want to understand the origins of the Cold War this is a definite must read. Highly recommended.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

I really hope he doesn't meet anyone coming the other way!

Thinking About: Smoking

There are many, many things I do not understand. What women think, why women cry, why people keep voting against their own interests and why, oh why do apparently otherwise intelligent people smoke?

Luckily I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life. I sometimes wonder if this was despite or because of the fact that both of my parents smoked for the first 20 or so years of my life – and in the house too! Neither my brother or sister smoke so I’m guessing that we were all put off the habit by watching our parents light-up and drag noxious substances into their lungs (and force us to breath the effluent) throughout our formative years. There’s still a joke in our house that when my mother gave up smoking after a prolonged stay in hospital, and then forced my father to give up so she wouldn’t be tempted back, that not only did they both have far more disposable income but that all of our house plants started crazy growth spurts, the dog became far more active and the household decorating bill dropped off dramatically, and that’s before you take any health benefits into consideration.

Despite decades of propaganda from the tobacco manufacturers it’s pretty well recognised that smoking cigarettes causes all kinds of health issues and is a major contributor to a whole host of cancers. People know this stuff and, these days, it’s hardly even disputed anymore. Yet people persist in buying and smoking the very thing that they know is in effect killing them. OK, I understand that nicotine is addictive. I get that. But people do give up even if the craving goes on far longer than most people expect. Addiction can be fought and fought successfully. Merely being addicted to a substance is no excuse to simply accept the fact and help it along in the digging of an early grave. I know people personally who have witnessed friends and family develop cancer, have life threatening operations and sometimes die because of smoking. Did that even give them pause in their personal smoking habits? Apparently not. My brother told me some years ago that when he was a taxi driver one of the other guys had to give up his job after developing lung cancer which eventually killed him. When his family came to visit him practically on his death bed some of them were smoking at the time! I still find that quite incredible. It certainly shows the power of denial present within the human mind. The belief that, all evidence to the contrary, continuing in a behaviour that has led to the death of countless adherents will not result in the same outcome. If that’s not a pretty good definition of insanity I don’t know what is.

I do struggle with the idea that rational or intelligent people can smoke. When I see them do so I have to question either their intelligence, their rationality or both. To be honest it makes me sad that people I like and respect continually and wilfully put their health in danger. It’d be like me playing Russian-roulette every morning, trying to justify it to other people and being surprised that my friends and family wanted to take the gun off me – or at the very least get me to stop putting it against my temple every morning. Personally I don’t think that the half-assed attempts by the government to get people to stop smoking go anywhere near far enough. Banning smoking in public places was a huge step forward but we need to go further. Smoking should be banned in all buildings and vehicles no matter if they’re public or private. Smoking should be banned within 5 metres of any child under 16. Cigarettes should have a price increase of at least 5% above the rate of inflation per year. This price increase (backdated at least 10 years) should be skimmed off the top and paid directly to the National Health Service to cope with smoking related diseases. Cigarette advertising should be banned in its entirety – which includes the irony of sports sponsorship. In effect smoking should be seen as socially unacceptable and personally irresponsible. Maybe one day it will be just that.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (FP: 2005)

For those of you who have been living on Mars for the past 8 years here’s a synopsis of the plot: Isabella (AKA Bella) Swan has just moved from Phoenix, Arizona to the small town of Forks in the northwest of Washington State. Dreading her first day at the local high school she is intrigued by a group of seniors who sit away from everyone else. They are, she finds out, the Cullen’s – a group of natural and adopted siblings of the local doctor. Exhibiting otherworldly grace and good looks Bella doesn’t know what to make of them. One of the boys in particular catches her eye but only succeeds in annoying her by blatantly ignoring her in class. It is only when Edward Cullen saves her life with a seeming act of supernatural strength and speed that she suspect he, and his family, may be far more than they appear to be. As they become increasingly infatuated with each other Bella slowly realises that the Cullen’s are creatures she thought to be merely myth and legend. The Cullen’s are vampires and once over the initial shock Bella realises that she simply doesn’t care.

I bought this before seeing the movie back in 2008. It’s taken me this long to get over the disappointment and actually read the book. I had thought that I’d most likely abandon it unfinished but hoped that, against that expectation, I’d rise to the challenge. I rather surprised myself by not only reading the book but by finding it didn’t entirely suck the big one. OK, it’s not exactly high literature but it does hold together fairly well and is far superior to any of the Harry Potter books I’ve read (the first 2-3 from memory). Although Bella is definitely a whinny teenage girl her whininess is believable. What is far from believable is the whole Edward Cullen thing. If I had seen him or his ‘family’ the very first thought in my head would’ve been: VAMPIRE. It’s so, sorry about the pun, bloody obvious I can only think that Bella (and the rest of the town) are particularly dim. I can get with the not drinking humans thing. If you are essentially the same person, which it seems that you are in this version of the vampire myth, then it follows that there will be vampires who look for (and find) an alternative to preying on people. One of the thing that I particularly liked, which I don’t think came across in the film, was Edward’s minute by minute fight with his desire to rip Bella’s throat out. OK, for most of the movie I was with him on that but don’t think that I could have restrained myself in the same way. I can certainly see why this story, such as it was, would appeal to teenage girls across the world. I’m sure that many of them dream of a beautiful, strong, protective but potentially dangerous boyfriend who can’t have sex with them though desperately wants too. The unfulfilled and unfulfillable passion would be, I’m guessing, quite a turn on – romantic even. Of course one thing this series of books will do, rather inevitably I’m afraid, is to ruin the future emotional lives of a whole generation of women. When they find out that real Edward Cullen’s simply don’t exist no matter how hard or how far they look they may well become disillusioned and despondent. Such is, of course, the whole problem with romantic literature and film. It portrays things are they hardly ever are or hardly ever can be…. Or maybe that’s just my experience of things……

Monday, September 09, 2013

My Favourite Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean – The Curse of the Black Pearl

I knew that I would love this film the second that Captain Jack Sparrow (aka Johnny Depp) stepped off his sinking boat and onto the dockside without breaking step. It was a wonderfully understated scene which set the tone for the rest of the movie. Sparrow (you might have heard of him) is a pirate in the British dominion of Port Royal looking for a ship to steal in order to chase a much bigger prize – the fabled Black Pearl – which used to be his ship until the crew mutinied and left him stranded on a small island. Unfortunately for the crew the gold they had recently acquired was cursed and, for the last ten years, they had been forced to sail the Caribbean as an undead crew of an undying ship unable to eat or feel anything. Only once the curse is lifted can they finally begin to enjoy the benefits of those ten years of plunder. That opportunity is presented to them when young Elizabeth Swann (played fairly well by Keira Knightley) falls into the ocean wearing the last of the cursed gold. Alerted to its presence they attack Port Royal, take the gold as well as Miss Swann. Considered lost even by her loving father, Elizabeth’s would be lover William Turner (a rather badly cast Orlando Bloom), decides that the only way to get her back is to spring Sparrow from jail, steal a ship and sail in pursuit. What they don’t realise, but quickly come to appreciate, is that finding a supernatural ship is difficult enough but fighting a supernatural crew is something quite different!

The first thing that has to be said is that this should never have been made into a trilogy no matter what the financial pressure to do so. As a stand-alone film this works. It is reasonably well plotted, mostly well-acted (the less said about Bloom in particular the better here) and often very funny indeed. The second film, which I and many others made the mistake of seeing, was in my opinion at least was a serious let down. Needless to say I didn’t see the third movie and definitely won’t be seeing the fourth (or fifth if they make one). That now out of the way I can concentrate on why I like the film so much. For one thing I thought it was very well filmed. Being a sucker for cinematography that goes a long way on selling a movie to me. Then there was the parody of the pirate genre which I have long enjoyed. Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is so over the top that it creates its own credibility. It’s just so crazy that you have to believe it. Seeing the pirates as the rock stars of the age he played Sparrow as a rock-star…. And it worked brilliantly. Without that central character it just wouldn’t have worked. The film basically revolved around him and Depp had enough screen presence (and more besides) to carry it off. It is by far, going on the movies I’ve seen of his, way and above the best thing I’ve seen him in. Luckily his supporting cast didn’t need to do much to support him. About the only other credible character in the whole film was the mutinous Captain Barbossa (played in almost equally over-the-top fashion by Geoffrey Rush) and it was great fun to watch them play off each other.

I think I saw this at least twice and possibly three times at the cinema. The first time with the usual gang and them again with my friend CQ who is a huge (and I do mean huge) Depp fan. I think that most of the Depp films I’ve seen are because of her. I’m honestly not that impressed. Depp for me tries too hard to be quirky and ends up as being a caricature of himself. He has made a living from being an odd-ball and has been typecast in that role both on and off screen. I remember having a lot of fun watching it the first few times and in my subsequent viewings too – including a few days ago where I still laughed out loud at some bits despite knowing that the joke was coming. If that’s not the sign of a funny film I don’t know what is!  

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Thinking About: The ‘M’ Word

Miracles are everywhere these days or so it appears. We have the miracle of birth (actually a very well understood and completely natural process) and miracle escapes from earthquakes when survivors emerge from the rubble days after the event (when the human body is known to have great resources in extremis and we are, at least on occasion, surprisingly hard to kill) or when an individual is found relatively unharmed from a plane or train crash (although it’s not that much of a miracle to those who died or lay in hospital severely injured) and just a few days ago we apparently witnessed a miracle in Kent when over 130 vehicles collided in thick fog without a single fatality. Everyone seemed to hail it as a miracle – despite the fact that it certainly was not.

The thing that made me angry, sad and amused by the discussion of the accident on the BBC breakfast news the next day was the frequent use of the M word – Miracle. Yet almost as soon as it was uttered the qualifications followed. First up was the fact that since the 1970’s fatal road accidents had been steadily reducing to less than 50% of what it was a few decades ago and that this was generally due to two factors – that seat-belts are legally compulsory (and that most people use them) and that motor vehicle technology has been steadily improving over the years making cars ever safer. Air-bags, ABS breaking systems, crumple zones and a host of other innovations have steadily reduced the number of injuries and fatalities in accidents even as extreme as those seen on the Sheppey Crossing in Kent. Another factor not mentioned on that morning after was the lack of HGV collisions in this pile-up. As you can imagine the carnage caused by the impact of Heavy Goods Vehicles into stationary traffic is predictably lethal. Not so in this case as the HGV vehicles involved managed to stop in good time and there is even some evidence that a quick thinking driver blocked the entrance to the overpass preventing more vehicles from entering the accident zone. So the lack of death on that foggy morning was far less of a miracle and far more of an example of our ability and intent to legislate and manufacture safer and safer motor vehicles. Indeed it has been argued that such incidents in the future will become progressively rarer as AEB systems (autonomous emergency braking) - where the car brakes automatically – become more widespread and future HGV are compulsorily fitted with forward collision warnings making such events rarer still.

The M word is used far too much. Its usual definition is “An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God” so it does not simply mean that something is unexpected or fortunate. The fact that no one died on the Sheppey Crossing is not inexplicable and does not violate the known laws of nature. Indeed I have yet to hear about any ‘miracle’ that fits that definition. Maybe our news reporters and their talking-head experts should stop using a word they clearly do not understand. Or am I asking for a miracle to occur?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Capitalist Realism – Is There No Alternative? By Mark Fisher (FP: 2009)

The author of this intriguing little book (a mere 81 pages long) starts with an interesting observation – that it appears easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of Capitalism. Why is that? Part of the reason is, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there seems to be little practical alternative on offer. China, once a bastion of Communism, is becoming ever more capitalist as the years go by. Countries such as Great Britain, once an example of ‘mixed-economy’, are quickly ditching their state socialist past for a fully-fledged market economy. Partially because of that it would seem that capitalism has colonised the imagination of those living within its warm embrace. Challenged to do so most of us cannot even conceive of another way of running our economies. Does that mean capitalism has reached its very own ‘end of history’? Is this it?

Not so fast, says the author. Have we already forgotten the recent banking crisis that plunged the world into recession/depression? Is that really the sign of an efficient market system reacting to the demands of rational consumers or does it point to something fundamentally flawed at the very heart of capitalism itself? Of course the delicious irony of failed banks and other capitalist enterprises being bailed-out by the State they regularly vilify in some part compensated for the wreckage left behind by their singular failure. But that is not the only crack in the capitalist fa├žade. The author points out several more flaws in the apparent pristine edifice. One is the capitalist general opposition to environmental issues – particularly the idea of sustainable development, an idea which is anathema to capitalist development and exploitation. Another is the medicalization and individualisation of mental issues. Mental ‘illness’ has been increasing in capitalist societies for decades without any agreed upon apparent cause. The focus has been, up until now, on the individual and to ‘correcting’ the apparent chemical imbalances in individual brains. But what if the cause was greater than the individual? What if the cause was social and economic? What if the cause of the growth of mental illness is capitalism itself? Why are we encouraged to look at the effect and not the possible cause? Finally the author points out an apparent contradiction within capitalist societies. As the call for a smaller state and a reduction in state intervention and control increases in volume so does the number, complexity and reach of bureaucratic organisations. The paradox seems to be that you need an ever increasing bureaucracy to run an ever decreasing state apparatus.

Despite its short length this is a meaty tome. Full of fascinating ideas, some of which are (or where for me at least) difficult to get your head around without taking time out to pause, consider, and think things through. Helped along by using examples from modern cinema, books and TV shows, without trivialising the arguments in the least and by person observations made in the Further Education College where he works this is a book that might just make you look at the world around you in a very different way. But be warned, this book will probably dig its hooks in to you and you will be musing over it for weeks or months after you finish the last page. I know I still am. This is my first book from the Zero Publishing house and it won’t be my last. Very much recommended.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Just Finished Reading: Admirals – The Naval Commanders who Made Britain Great by Andrew Lambert (FP: 2008)

Being an island a mere 26 miles off mainland Europe it should come as no surprise that not only does Britain have a long (indeed very long) maritime history but that, over the centuries, we have fought the other great European nations at sea. To do so effectively the British not only required to produce the ships to fight in and the captains to sail them but over and above everything else they needed the admirals to organise the fleet(s) into effective fighting units. No matter how good individual ships or captains became they would be at a huge disadvantage without efficient organisation at fleet level. The admirals outlined in this impressive volume did just that. The ten men covered here range from gifted amateur to steely professional, from commoner to royalty and covers a period of the last 400 years from Henry VIII to the end of the Second World War. Most of the names, if not the wars, were new to me. Some I recognised, Samuel Hood for example, because of ships named after them which fought in later conflicts. Others, such as John Fisher, David Beatty and Andrew Cunningham, I knew well enough from previous readings of WW1 and WW2 accounts. Of course what did surprise me was a particular absence – Lord Nelson. Thinking about it though I can understand the omission. Nelson was, and still is, a towering figure in British naval history. Adding a chapter in this volume would add little to the countless books and articles written about the great man and would have probably diverted this book away from its intended trajectory.

This is not to say that Nelson is forgotten or is relegated to the function of a ghost wandering the corridors of the Admiralty in Whitehall. Nelson is in fact mentioned time and time again. The admirals who saw action before Nelson was born helped him become a great commander and leader of men. He learnt both from his predecessor’s mistakes and successes. The admirals who followed him learnt from the great man to be aggressive in the face of the enemy and that every effort should be made to annihilate the enemy’s fleet. Only when such annihilation is complete can British interests be safe and trade flow. The lifeblood of the country travels by sea and only total command of that medium, brought about by the destruction of enemy shipping, ensures the survival of the nation. This was true when we fought the Dutch, the Spanish and the French. Each victory over their fleets pushed Britain one more step forward to world domination and to the possession of a global Empire the like of which had not been seen before or since. Of course this all came crashing down at the very height of British sea power at the end of WW2 when the emergent US Navy took centre stage as the most powerful maritime force in the world. But that, as they say, is another story.

Told with great knowledge and a great deal of admiration and affection for the naval service this is a must read for anyone interested in the rise of British power over the last 400-500 years. Full of expert analysis of the events that shaped the nation and the men that helped in the shaping this kept me interested from beginning to end even when the author delved into the intricacies of political manoeuvring both in parliament and the admiralty that often stymied rapid enough progress in an ever changing world. Definitely recommended for the naval history buffs out there.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

‘Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a stand-still. They are engines of change, windows on the world, lighthouses erected in the sea of time.’

Barbara W Tuchman.

Cartoon Time.