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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Just Finished Reading: Concretopia – A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain by John Grindrod (FP: 2013)

Well this certainly pushed several of my buttons all at once – British post-war history, architecture and design, and even a brief mention of the town I spent my formative years in (ages 10-23). Before reading this I had hardly given such things a second thought or a second glance. I guess that I had been brought up to view concrete ‘brutalist’ architecture as eye-sores and the greatest planning mistake of the last century. This view was certainly reinforced by the almost regular and sometimes theatrical demolition of tower blocks and other bastions of the future. But I realise now that there is much, much more to this so-called ‘urban blight’ than I had ever thought possible.

Of course these things – tower blocks and other concrete constructions – didn’t emerge from nowhere. These futuristic (at least from the viewpoint of the early 20th century) ideas emerged in the 1920’s with the likes of Le Corbusier but only really took form in the great urban reconstruction programmes forced on all European countries after WW2. There was a massive and urgent need for new homes which had to be built quickly and cheaply with the minimum of materials. But things of this scale take time – no matter the urgency – and the first permanent housing projects (not hastily but ingeniously constructed prefabricated dwellings) went up in the 1950’s. The early tower blocks amazed their early residents – they had running water, internal plumbing and even central heating. For residents of aging and overcrowded Victorian slums they were a revelation. After their initial success the only way was up – literally. With taller towers and the concept of ‘streets in the sky’ separating pedestrians from the increasing number of cars on the newly built roads everything looked good and the future was so bright people started buying shades. But not everything was rosy in the concrete jungle of tomorrow.

In hindsight (that wonderful ability) it became clear that haste and lucrative contracts rather inevitably lead to corruption and shoddy construction as companies bid or buy themselves a piece of the action. A case in point being the infamous Ronan Point which partially collapsed after an upper floor gas explosion. This was the beginning of the end for the super-high rise. Then came the trails and convictions for double dealing and graft which did the building contractors, architects and government ministers no favours at all. The concrete future literally came crashing down around their ears with unfinished projects, cut-backs, and eventually demolitions. The dream of a utopian future ended almost before it had begun. It did however leave behind some amazing pieces of architecture that only now, decades later, people are beginning to love and demand to be kept away from the next wave of planners demolition experts.

Part history of the future, part travelogue around 50’s to 80’s Britain, part autobiography and part love affair with the building material of tomorrow this was a surprisingly gripping tale of an idea that literally became concrete. At times I was honestly making a mental list of buildings around the country I wanted to see in all their majesty. It also made me understand the New Town I grew up in much more too. Although I never lived in any of the tower blocks I did visit a few of them in the 1970’s and although my ‘home town’ only got a brief mention the design of other towns turned out to be similar enough for me to completely relate to them in the authors narrative. A must read for anyone interested in post-war Britain, town planning or the marvellous material that is concrete.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Rosetta: Date fixed for historic comet landing attempt

by Jonathan Amos for BBC News

26 September 2014

The date has been fixed for Europe's daring attempt to land on a comet: Wednesday 12 November. It will see the Rosetta satellite, which is currently orbiting the huge "ice mountain" known as 67P, drop a small robot from a height of 20km. If all goes well, the lander will free-fall towards the comet, making contact with the surface somewhere in a 1km-wide zone at roughly 15:35 GMT. The European Space Agency (Esa) says the challenges ahead are immense. Imagine pushing a washing machine out the back of an airliner at twice cruising altitude and expecting it to hit Regent's Park in London - all while the ground is moving underneath.

Although not really analogous for many reasons, this scenario does give a sense of the difficulties involved. The chances of failure are high. "J" site is the best location on the comet, but it is still far from flat Esa's confirmed date is actually a day later than the one that had been discussed in provisional planning in recent months. The extra time will give flight controllers a bit more latitude as they try to get Rosetta into just the right position to deliver the 100kg lander, which goes by the name of Philae. This requires careful "phasing" of Rosetta's path around 4km-wide 67P so that the satellite turns up at the precise, pre-determined ejection point, 22.5km from the centre of the comet at 08:35 GMT. Because the whole event will be taking place 509 million km from Earth, any radio signal will take 28 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Esa's ground station network. It means confirmation of success or failure will not come until perhaps just after 16:00 GMT.

The chosen landing site is on the "head" of the rubber-duck-shaped comet and is currently referred to simply as "J", the designation it was given in a list of possible destinations in the selection process. It is far from ideal. It contains some terrifying cliffs, but is the flattest, most boulder-free location the mission team could find in its survey of the icy object. Mapping of J and a back-up site known as "C" is ongoing. This past week, Rosetta manoeuvred into an orbit just 20km from 67P, enabling its camera system to see details that can be measured on the sub-metre scale. For landing, such information only has a certain usefulness, however, as the automated touchdown can only be targeted with a best precision that will likely run to hundreds of metres. And that error is larger than any of the apparently smooth terrains in the J zone.

The whole separation, descent and landing (SDL) procedure is expected to take seven hours. Philae will take a picture of Rosetta as it leaves its "parent". It will also point a camera downwards so that it can see the approaching comet. Not that this information can change anything; Philae has no thrusters to control or alter its descent trajectory. It will land where it will land. But the images will help controllers determine where the robot ended up after the event. If Philae gets down successfully into a stable, operable configuration, it will fire harpoons and deploy screws to try to hang on to the surface. The action of these devices will tell Esa mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, that the surface was engaged. Will it hang on? Part of the problem here is that no-one really knows what the surface conditions will be. Philae could sink into a soft powder or impact ice as hard as rock. A major worry is that it could simply bounce off into space. Whatever the outcome, the Rosetta mission will continue.

Already the main satellite has returned some astonishing pictures of Comet 67P and the close-quarters observations it will conduct over the next year will transform our understanding of these remarkable objects. The timings mentioned on this page carry some uncertainty and would change if subsequent mapping shows the J site to have a major problem, with Esa forced to shift its attention to the back-up destination, C.

[Amazing. Even if the landing fails (which I really hope it won’t) we’re learning lots about comets every day that Rosetta staying in orbit around 67P. If the landing is successful this could just be the beginning of a future programme of both comet and asteroid mining that could transform our exploration and colonisation of our Solar System. It’s an exciting time to live in.]

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Just Finished Reading: The Language of Things – Design, Luxury, Fashion, Art. How we are Seduced by the Objects Around Us by Deyan Sudjic (FP: 2008)

Rounding off my trio of books on Stuff and our relationship with it this was a well argued, knowledgeable, wide-ranging and often fascination study of how we became a culture drowning in its own manufactured products. Looking at the language of Design, the development of archetypes which resulted in the acknowledged classics of the design world, the history of luxury and its reinvention in a world where abundance is the norm (this was my favourite section), the growth in power of the fashion industry with its relentless need to change and force us to change with it, and the seemingly academic difference between art and design – even when design is presented as art – this book really made me look at things in a different way.

Everything we use, everything we see (apart from nature in the raw which exists almost nowhere these days), and everything we experience has at least elements of design about them. Designed objects exist in part to manipulate the way we feel and experience the world around us. It’s not just that objects are designed to be attractive to part us from our money (which is in itself a designed artefact) but in many ways our objects tell us who we are and advertise to the rest of the world who we want to be. Our natural tendencies to seek out new things, to acquire objects of value and to horde things in times of plenty to get us through times of famine have all been exaggerated and manipulated to produce perfect consumers who buy what we’re told to, when we are told to and to exchange perfectly serviceable objects with ‘newer’, ‘better’, and ‘more attractive’ replacements.

Looking at objects as diverse as the Anglepoise lamp, the Apple MacBook, the black Nikon SLR camera, road signs, the Citroen 2CV, the Olivetti portable typewriter, the Walther PPK (as used by James Bond no less), banknotes and the choice of faces on them, the Bakerlite rotary dial telephone, the Rolex watch, Chippendale furniture and much else besides, the author looks beyond the image, beyond the representation to see how and why these objects have become fetishized in the way they have. He examines what it says about us as human beings and what it says about the culture we have created to both produce these items and service the industries dependent on their manufacture and ultimate destruction. I have another of his books in the pile (about the architecture of power) which I shall look forward to reading fairly soon. He writes with an obviously deep understanding of his subject, with a definite wry sense of humour and an elegant wit. A delight to read from the first page to the last and, therefore, highly recommended.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

If the addition of this movie to my favourites list surprises you don’t worry, it surprised me too. My regular readers and people who know me IRL will know that I don’t ‘do’ superhero movies – to say nothing of movies based on comic books (something I really don’t ‘get’). Despite that fact I have seen my fair share of this seemingly endless deluge of Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Hulk, Thor and other character movies that has been pouring out of Hollywood for years now. Most of what I’ve seen has been somewhere between poor and, at best, reasonably entertaining. Most though have frankly bored the pants off me and I have started to refuse to view them when my friends trot off to see the latest blockbuster. I did however relent with Winter Soldier because I thought that the trailer looked different, looked interesting, looked adult (rather than teenage as usual) and looked unusually dark and complex.

Of course I worried, with good reason, that the trailer had shown all of the good bits and that I would sit through 131 minutes of largely padding between set action scenes where they blow up major parts of major cities (usually including Paris and London for some reason) but I was actually very pleasantly surprised. Not everything it seemed had been given away by the trailer. That in itself is something worthy of note. Now I had seen the original Captain America movie and thought that it was OK (but just OK) as it was hampered by the usual problem of first franchise movies – having both to stay true to the original comic books whilst bringing the character to the attention of an audience potentially unfamiliar with the back story. It worked, for me at least, but was rather dull I thought. The second movie, having got the background stuff out of the way (notwithstanding the Cap’s stroll through the Smithsonian Museum for those who hadn’t seen the first movie), could move forward with new ideas and new storylines. The thing I found fascinating almost from the off is the conflict between the Captain’s 1940s sensibilities and morality and the early 21st century which is, let’s be honest, one huge grey area. In effect the whole movie was trying to answer the question: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys (answered beautifully at one point by the comment that the bad guys are the ones shooting at us!). That for me was the selling point of the movie. It was complex, multi-layered, grey, messy and unresolved (largely) at the end. People died (but didn’t), friends became enemies, trusted players turned out to be the worst baddies, peace became order, freedom was replaced by fear, democracy was replaced by force and the worst of tyrannies was considered to be progress, all at the hands of an agency dedicated to the exact opposite. Complex doesn’t really begin to cover it. It was positively and intelligently labyrinthine. That was another definite selling point. Despite all of the usual, and excellently choreographed, fight scenes, despite all the gunfire and explosions, despite the flying aircraft carries (I kid you not) and the expected excellent special effects, this was underneath it all an intelligent movie. That’s not something we see much of these days. Taken at face value this was just another in a long line of wham bam, thank you mam, blow the shit out of everything summer blockbuster. But that was just the surface sparkle to keep the kids happy and glued to the screen for two hours. Beneath the surface however was a movie about power, about corruption, about values, about the wrong way and the right way of doing things, about trust, about friendship, about honour and duty, about protecting the weak and bringing down the strong if necessary no matter who they are.

This film pits outcasts and misfits against the power-elite and their hired minions (and not the fun yellow kind). It has leaders we cannot trust on one side – none more so than Robert Redford in some inspired casting – with salt of the earth types on the other. The action, and there’s plenty of that, is almost a backdrop to the real story inside the shiny outer coating. Beyond the dazzle there is, surprise of surprise, actual substance which is what makes this movie for me. The fact that there are super-heroes and, very much in the background, super-baddies is almost irrelevant. The movie portrays a struggle against two opposing ideologies that are actually fighting it out in the streets, alleyways and battlefields across the world right now as you’re reading this piece of fluff. That’s the real core of the movie if you can, and want to, see beyond the spectacle. That’s what surprised me and pleased me about this movie which I enjoyed just as much this weekend on DVD as I did some months ago at the movies. The more I watch it the more I see the nuances and the subtlety (not something usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters) and the more I raise an eyebrow and the more I raise a smile. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have good actors (Chris Evans is very good as the Captain and Scarlett Johansson is obviously have a lot of fun playing Black Widow as is Sam Jackson as Nick Fury who hams it up gloriously) a script which moves at breakneck speed and top notch SFX but that’s there to keep the teenagers and movie executives happy. It’s the subtext that really counts, that’s where the real story is and that, for me at least, is where most of the fun was.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

So many books....................

Thinking About: Having Children

When I was visiting my Mother recently my brother and I drove over to see my sister and her kids. While we were there my oldest niece, who is 13-14, interrogated me about my lack of children. Growing up in a family of five other siblings it didn’t surprise me that she wanted to know why I didn’t have any children of my own. This is how I answered her:

I started by saying that I was 54 years old and felt that I was a bit long in the tooth to start thinking about producing any children at this late stage in my life. I told her that I had spent most of my life single and that my most successful relationship (which actually wasn’t exactly a poster for a perfect relationship) had lasted two years. Apart from some brief, and seemingly one sided, infatuations since we split up I have been pretty much left to my own devices. I told her that I thought that there are already far too many people in the world and that we didn’t really need another mouth to feed. She responded, rather intelligently I thought, with the idea that a child I’d help to produce might save the world someday rather than simply be just another consumer (I’m paraphrasing here) and I said that the odds against something like that were quite long. I said that the future is likely to be bleak and there are difficult times ahead for everyone. I told her that it was my considered opinion that the next generation, and maybe the one after that, are going to go through some bad times, indeed very bad times, and that things might never recover. It wasn’t fair, believing that, to bring a child into the world knowing, or at least suspecting, what was coming next. I said that bringing a child into the world is a huge responsibility and such a thing was not to be undertaken lightly. I said that I really didn’t want to be put in a situation where something I did, or didn’t do, could screw up another person’s life to the extent that a parent can screw up their child’s. It’s not the kind of responsibility I seek or would enjoy – or possibly cope with. Last I said that I didn’t particularly like children anyway, that they’re noisy and that they smell. That they’re always crying and are always so demanding of time, effort and attention. I really couldn’t see myself taking on that kind of commitment – at least not voluntarily.

To which my sister said: They’re just excuses.

Maybe so, but they’re good excuses. It takes two to tango. Even if I wanted to I cannot produce a child on my own. Presently, and it would seem for the foreseeable future, I’m going to be on my own. That kind of limits my options on the baby front. Luckily I’m not in the position where my biological clock is forcing me to think about such eventualities. For one thing there’s quite a few of my genes out there already with a brother, sister and 6 nieces and nephews. I don’t feel the need to add any more Cyberkitten into the gene pool even if, going from my sisters kids, they’re pretty good genes. I doubt very much if not having children is one of the things I’ll regret on my death bed if I get the opportunity to look back over my life. Not getting around to reading all of my books, yes. Not getting around to having children, no. It’s just not that important. Even if I met someone tomorrow, even if we hit it off right away, even if everything was as it should be the odds of children being in the (future) picture are, I think, very low.  So sorry, Katie. Never going to happen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

That's the intention...............

Just Finished Reading: The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane (FP: 2008)

Rome, 70BC. Slave girl Velvinna is returned to her master’s residence when she stumbles into a group of drunken nobles on their way between tavern and brothel. Raped for her bad luck at being in the wrong place at the wrong time she is left to fend for herself as the nobles move on with their planned evening. So is set in motion events that will shape the Republic and some of the greatest names in it. When Velvinna gives birth to twins they immediately become the property of her master Gemellus. Thirteen years later, with his business failing Gemellus uses the excuse of finding the male twin, Romulus, training with forbidden swords to sell both him and his sister for a quick prophet. Whilst Romulus goes to the local gladiator school his sister Fabiola is sold to a high class brothel whose madam recognises the profit she can accrue both from her virginity and her beauty. Both brother and sister vow eternal revenge and prey to the Gods to allow them to exact it in their lifetimes. Whilst Fabiola starts her campaign to seduce the high and mighty to her side, Romulus vows to be the best fighter Rome has ever seen. Aided by the all-conquering Gaulish gladiator Bennus he might just accomplish that feat despite enemies both inside the arena and within the gladiator school itself. Meanwhile to the north the student of an Etruscan seer discovers something of his mentor’s dreams and the place he will play in them – to travel far across the world in the company of gladiators he has yet to meet. Around them the great Republic seethes with political intrigue and three factions vie for the highest offices in the land. Chaos spreads and blood flows on the streets of Rome. Only one faction can emerge victorious but which one will it be?

It’s been a while since I’ve read any Rome based fiction and I was beginning to miss it. I had hoped that this book – inevitably the first book in a trilogy – would live up to the writing of John Stack and his Master of Rome series. I was not disappointed. Practically from the first page I loved just about everything about this book – it’s gritty no nonsense realism with its depiction of the seedy underbelly of the great ancient civilisation that, to our eyes, was barely civilised at all with its endemic slavery and violence dominated arenas. There is no rose tinted awe of Rome here. Things are brutal, unforgiving and relentless. People live, and more often die, on their wits and are just as likely to die from a thief’s blade or an opponents poison as of disease or war. Rome in this book is far, far from a nice place. The so-called glory is seen from the bottom, from the victim of slavery and Rome’s relentless conquests across the known world. In this kind of environment only the tough survive and only then if they are favoured by the Gods or fated to achieve great things.

Not surprisingly I already have the other two books in the series (bought before I’d read this) and I have acquired several more of the authors work too. Needless to say I am already looking forward to baking under an unforgiving sun and smelling the blood of Rome’s enemies as their bodies hit the earth in droves and I am really looking forward to some very high ranking Romans facing their fate when it arrives at their door holding a well-used sword. Highly recommended for any fan of ancient Roman fiction or just a good tale well told.  

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.

Monday, September 01, 2014

My Favourite Movies: Zombieland

When the world falls apart only the strong and brave will survive – or in this case the weak, the loner and the misfit. When a zombie apocalypse arrives, care of an infected burger, it quickly spreads across the US bring civilisation to its knees. Luckily for Columbus (played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) he’s managed to avoid most of it by being a nerd, staying at home playing World of Warcraft and having no friends – oh, and his rule book. Making his way across the continent to see if his parents have survived he meets up with Tallahassee (the hilarious Woody Harrelson in sparkling form) who is looking for the last batch of Twinkies before they reach their final sell-by-date and who is enjoying the little things – which mainly means killing zombies in the most inventive ways possible. Heading east, where they have heard its Zombie Free, they bump into fellow survivors Wichita (played by the seriously sexy Emma Stone) and her younger sister Little Rock (played by Abigail Breslin). Having already financed their trips by preying on the gullible they manage to steal the boy’s truck and all of their weapons. Given chase in a new found Hummer with a kit-bag of guns in the back so begins a beautiful friendship based on lust, mistrust and the never ending hunt for safety and sweet confectionary.

I’ve said before that I am no great fan, or actually any kind of a fan, of the outpouring of zombie flicks, TV series and books that has flooded the world in the last decade or two. The whole thing pretty much leaves me cold (pun intended) and I’d rather read about or watch vampires any day (OK, I draw the line at Twilight but the point stands). I did think Shaun of the Dead was funny in places but that was about it. This example of zombie rom-com is head and shoulders above that with genuine scary moments interspersed with howls of laughter, pathos, a bit of romance (but not of the usual saccharine vomit inducing kind in these sort of movies) and some great one liners. Everyone, including Breslin (surprisingly as, as you know, I don’t normally rate child actors very highly) is universally excellent. Harrelson does tend to steal every scene he’s in but Eisenberg gives him a run for his money with his uber-geek persona. Emma Stones is, as you might expect, both very funny and very sexy as the street-wise big sister with a good heart and a pump-action shotgun.

This film operates on about 3-4 different levels and works on every one. I think I’ve seen it at least 5-6 times now and still find it laugh-out-loud funny. If you have nothing much to do one evening and haven’t seen this at all (or just for a while) and don’t mind a bit of zombie action, blood, gore, and strong language then this is just the things for you.