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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last (for a while anyway) Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: Shadow of the Titanic – The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived by Andrew Wilson (FP: 2011)

The first thing that struck me about this often interesting book was that it was obviously written by a journalist rather than a historian. The difference in style between this and the previous Titanic book was rather stark. Shadow of the Titanic is, in a word, far more sensationalist than Titanic Lives and this author focused upon and, I believe, consciously or not heightened the apparent after-effects of the tragic sinking of the great liner.

The author was quite right in his preamble that most books on this most famous ship close with the sinking itself or at best with the recovery of the lifeboats on the 705 survivors by the Carpathia the following morning. Little is mentioned of the two official inquiries in New York and London or what happened to those rescued after they returned to dry land. Although the blurb on the back of the book implies that all 705 survivors’ stories would be told I did think that such a Herculean task in only 350 pages. Such was the case and actually only 20-30 follow ups where attempted. Typically, as you might expect from a non-historian, much of what followed was the low hanging fruit of the lives (by and large) of the rich and shameless with hardly a mention of those from 2nd and especially 3rd class. From then on we were treated to numerous tales of divorce, madness, suicide of those ‘cursed’ by their survival. We have stories of those who believed that something very bad was going to happen to them when they heard the name Titanic for the first time and even one 1st class passenger who had a warning from a psychic she encountered whilst on holiday in Europe. We even have suicides 20 or more years after the event (precluded by divorce and/or death of beloved children) attributed, without as far as I could see a shred of evidence, to the horror experienced by that fateful night. Certainly I am not questioning the fact that surviving the sinking of the Titanic was a traumatic event in the lives of over 700 men, women and children. Many survivors never spoke of the incident again during their lives and never wrote about it. Others wrote newspaper articles, books and even starred in some of the early films recreating their own experiences on board ship. Others, it seemed, simply left the Carpathia never to be heard of again. How interesting would it be to find out what happened to those people rather than the spoiled teenage wife of an Astor?

My overall impression of this book was, unlike the ‘dizzyingly impressive’ comment from the Mail on Sunday (coincidently a paper that the author also writes for) was disappointing. It certainly had a good idea to follow and apparently filled an obvious gap in the Titanic narrative. Unfortunately it didn’t have the depth, heft or scholarship to follow this idea through to a decent conclusion. Oddly what I found most interesting about this book, which to be honest was by no means a total loss, was when the author moved beyond the survivor stories to what happened to the Titanic story itself as the years and decades went by – the stories that circulated at the time, the imposters who tried to claim compensation for losses or who made ‘scenes’ grieving for people they did not know, the misidentified infant who only found out she was a Titanic survivor decades later, the survivors who related their stories to Walter Lord and who assisted him in the production of the movie ‘A Night to Remember’, and the bizarre legal wrangle over a kimono that may, or may not, have been worn that night. Each of these stories could have made an interesting book in themselves but had been brought up as flotsam at the end of the book almost as an afterthought.

Taken with a few good pinches of salt this is a reasonable telling of ‘what happened next’ in the Titanic saga. If you do still feel like reading it (after my hatchet job above) you’ll pick up a lot of interesting side stories that might be possible to follow up elsewhere just don’t expect to be all that enlightened.

December in the UK - the wettest since 1910 and one of the warmest ever recorded.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Name to a Face?

My Favourite Movies: Double Indemnity (1944)

Anyone who knows me, or has been reading this Blog long enough, knows that I’m a huge fan of Crime Noir in both its book and film form. So I’ve been taking the opportunity over the Christmas/New Year break to catch up with some of my favourites.

I’ve probably seen Double Indemnity at least 10 times and probably closer to 20. It is, as it says on the back of my DVD copy, quintessentially film noir. For those who have missed out on this gem of a movie it stars Fred MacMurray as Insurance salesman Walter Neff who falls for lonely housewife Phyllis Dietrichson played by Barbara Stanwyck and plans to kill her abusive husband for the insurance money on his accident policy. Now Neff being an expert in the field devises a plan which he’s sure will pass scrutiny and net the couple a cool $100,000 once the type of accident – falling from a train – is factored in (doubling the pay-out hence the insurance clause and film title). It seems like a perfect plan – and it is – but they didn’t reckon with the companies stubborn reluctance to hand over the money (could they have got away with $50,000 I wonder?) and the deductive power of insurance investigator Barton Keyes played by Edward G Robinson. As it all starts to fall apart, the stress levels build and accusations fly in all directions panic sets in and both Neff and his (very) femme fatal decide that the only way to survive is to eliminate the other before they crack under the pressure.

It’s difficult to see who this could fail to please Noir fans. It has great acting by some of the best actors of the period, it’s directed by Billy Wilder who was involved in Sunset Boulevard (written by), The Seven Year Itch (screenplay), Some Like it Hot (screenplay) and The Apartment (written by), assisted by Raymond Chandler (say no more) from an original book by James M Cain. With a pedigree like that you’d be pretty confident you’ll be in for a treat – and so you are! It’s well paced, full of intrigue, Stanwyck in particular is great as the apparently helpless housewife who captivates MacMurray to such an extent that he doesn’t know which way is up – all with everyone keeping their clothes on. Then there’s the voice over/narration which, like a few more of my favourite noir films, starts at the end with a confession which leads into an extended flashback.

Oh, and researching it I discovered a few mistakes that made me chuckle. The movie was released in 1944 but was supposedly based in 1938 for unexplained reasons. This led to a few anachronisms that people who obviously have way too much time on their hands spotted: Although set in 1938, Walter Neff makes reference to the "The Philadelphia Story", which did not debut on Broadway until 1939, and on film until 1940. Plus: The movie is set in 1938, but at Stanwyck's house the radio is playing "Tangerine" which wasn't written until 1942. Both of which got a laugh when I read about them. The very sharp eyed amongst you will also spot that although the character Walter Neff is unmarried he wears a wedding ring throughout the movie. Apparently this was his real wedding ring which was only spotted in post-production. None of which detracts or distracts from one of the best Noir films ever made. If you haven’t seen this, or haven’t seen it for a while why don’t you treat yourself?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas card addressed to 'England' reaches right person

From The BBC

24 December 2015

A German Christmas card with just "England" on the envelope has reached the right address in Gloucestershire. Paul Biggs, from Longlevens, said he was absolutely shocked when his postman arrived at his front door with the card from his friends in Bitburg in Germany. He said: "I can't believe it - it's eerie - it's just got 'England' and sent from a sorting office in Bitburg."

Mr Biggs said the card had been sent by his friends in Germany on Monday and was handed to him by his postman on Wednesday morning. The postman had been carrying the letter as he completed his round, asking his customers if the card was for them. "He gave me my mail and said 'Are you expecting anything from Germany?' and I said 'I might be - we've got friends over there'," said Mr Biggs.

"He said 'Have a look at this letter' - so I had a look and turned it over and our friends' address was on the back of it and on the front it just said England." Mr Biggs said the card had been sent from a sorting office in Germany close to Gloucester's twin town of Trier and had not been opened. "I said 'How on earth did you know it was for me?' and he said 'I didn't, I've been wandering around with this', said Mr Biggs.  "My wife and I are absolutely shocked but this puts posties at five or six stars and top of the tree for me this Christmas."

The card, it is believed, may have originally been addressed correctly and so was sent to the right area of England - but with an address label that fell off at some point. A Royal Mail spokesman said: "Royal Mail's team of 'address detectives' are renowned for their ability to ensure poorly addressed items of mail reach their intended recipients however, even by their standards, this is pretty impressive."

[Oh, I really don’t think that ‘impressive’ covers it. Or is that just another example of British understatement? The Royal Mail have successfully delivered a few badly addressed things to me before – badly spelt name, address or wrong Post Code – but nothing approaching the sparse address on this one! The thing that impressed me most was that the card had not been opened (hence probably a printed label had fallen off at some pint). Still – pretty neat!]

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino (FP: 2003)

It is what she has let define her – the hatred of her beautiful sister Yuriko who everyone admires but her sister knows to be a monster. When twenty years later her sister and Kazue, a school friend, are murdered by the same person she feels nothing, no loss, no guilt, no remorse. Now the centre of attention with her connection to both victims she hates her sister even more and spends her time thinking back to how it all began.

Reading the reviews of this book – the author’s second translated into English – I thought I’d be in for quite a treat. Labelled as ‘cool, angry and stylish’ and ‘brilliant... a triumph’ what more could I expect? What I didn’t expect was just how boring it would be. I did manage to last 200 pages but just couldn’t face ploughing through a further 270. I struggled with many things. Oh, the writing/translation was more than adequate and the setting in Japan was suitably exotic. Likewise the characters themselves where well drawn and believable. But not a one of them was a person you would like to spend hours and hours with. Actually I doubt if I’d particularly like to spend time in a lift with any of them. All of the characters portrayed here are damaged to varying degrees – not that it makes any of them admirable or, frankly, even that interesting. Most of the narrative – largely told in flashback and through various journal entries – takes place in a Japanese High School with its intense competition, bullying and backstabbing. That I found was unbelievably boring and it was a direct choice between losing the will to live or abandoning the book (which I never like doing as you know). Well, I chose life! Obviously this was a critical hit which, just like many movies approved of and applauded by the critic’s turns out to be dire. Most obviously not recommended. Oh, but if you do decide to try it watch out for the sex – it’s not for the easily offended!

Translated from the Japanese by Rebecca Copeland.

Christmas is Coming! Excited yet....?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Just Finished Reading: You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (FP: 2010)

Billed as a ‘dazzling polemic’ and ‘short and frightening’ I was quite looking forward to this – especially as it’s from a definite insider and early pioneer of Virtual Reality. To be honest I was more than a little disappointed. It’s possible that, 5 years after its first publication, I’d heard it all before or maybe it’s that such criticism peppered throughout this short (that got that right at a mere 207 pages) has kind of moved on in the intervening years.

It is entirely possible that ‘provocative’ criticism of Internet institutions, such as Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter were indeed much more controversial back then so maybe a lot of the initial impact has been lost – that’s probably it. These days the author’s digs at the power of Facebook (which he criticises quite a bit) seem rather tame. Likewise his lament at the power of Wikipedia seems, at least to me, out of place. Personally I use it for quick reference – usually to settle arguments at work or with friends on-line – but I’d certainly never use it for anything serious. If I’d tried that in University a few years back I would have been laughed out of my seminar room. Although I was shocked a few years back when someone I knew referenced Wikipedia in their dissertation. How times change! Wikipedia is, I feel, one source of information. It is not, and certainly should not be regarded as, the only (or even primary) source of information.

I certainly ‘got’ much of what the author had problems with. He posited that because of lazy programming (as much as anything else) that people are expected to shoehorn themselves into applications that, because of their inherent limitations, dehumanise their users. Up to a point I understand that. Again personally I use the Internet as a tool and (largely) for fun – or to occasionally buy something (I’m looking at you Amazon). I don’t feel as if I’m being used by the Internet (or its designers) but maybe that’s because I’m not on Facebook? Do my Facebook using readers feel that the application is dehumanising them in any way?

I use Google a lot. If I want to know something or find something I, like millions of other people across the globe ‘Google it’. Yes, I also rarely, actually very rarely, go beyond the first page of hits – unless my search criteria is so vague that Google throws up all kinds of things. Then, generally, it’s my fault rather than the search engine itself. Sure there are dangers relying on Google and not going beyond the first page but they are dangers I recognise and am conscious of. I don’t expect Google to supply all of my answers or even point me in the direction of all (or even most) of them – but it helps, a lot. Yet again Google is a tool and should be used that way. After the results come up you need to use your own brain and your own experience to narrow the search further and decide when to stop looking – that’s the human part of the process.

I think possibly the author is too close to his subject and too close to the people who use the Internet without thought to write the book this is billed as being. Things are nowhere near as bad as he thinks they are. Sure, enough people use the various Internet applications without a great deal of input and a great deal of thought both before and after. People like that have always existed. It’s just that now they’re both more obvious and (probably) more vocal. I’m sure that there are lots of people who use the Internet as a tool and (generally) don’t let themselves be used by it. More than the author believes at any rate. Obviously the Internet is far from criticism free but I think that this book is far from the criticism that it needs. It may have broken the mould 5+ years ago but is now looking pretty dated. More up to date criticism to follow! Reasonable.

The Shortest Day....! Longer days from now on! [Does Snoopy Dance!!!]

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Name to a Face?
Met office says 2016 'very likely' to be warmest on record

By Matt McGrath Environment correspondent for BBC News

17 December 2015

A new global temperature forecast from the UK's Met Office says that 2016 is likely to be even warmer than 2015. This year has already been provisionally declared the warmest on record thanks to a combination of global warming and a strong El Nino. The Met Office believes that temperatures in 2016 could be 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. Last week in Paris, countries agreed that the world should pursue efforts to limit the rise to 1.5C.

The new forecast, a combination of computer models and statistical methods, says that the global average temperature for the next 12 months is likely to be 0.84C above the 1961-1990 average. When compared to the pre-industrial levels, the forecast predicts that next year's temperature will be 1.1C above the 1850-1899 average. This is edging closer to the 1.5C level that governments agreed last week they would do their best to keep under in the long term.

Last year, the forecast for 2015 predicted a central estimate of 0.64 above the average. Observational data from January to October this year shows the global mean temperature so far this year is running at 0.72 above 1961-1990. "The forecast for next year is on the back of some other strong years," said the Met Office's Prof Adam Scaife. "In 2014 we had 0.6 which was nominally a record, 2015 so far we've had 0.7 which is also nominally a record, and next year we are talking about 0.8 - so you can see that very rapid rise over three years and by the end of 2016 we may be looking at three record years in a row."

The impact of the strong El Nino that started this year continues through the first half of next year. It's already been responsible for a reduced monsoon season in India, it's also weakened the Atlantic hurricane season and been involved in the early winter storms in Northern Europe in the past few weeks. The forecasters at the Met Office say it is responsible for up to 0.2C of next year's value. In combination with continuing climate change, the forecasters believe it will lead to new records.

"There is an uncertainty range, the bottom end of the range for 2016 is very close to the current value for 2015, so it's not impossible that it will come out the same as 2015 but it is very likely to be higher," said Prof Scaife. The Met Office says that the rise in temperature predicted for next year may not continue indefinitely - and may slip back under 1 degree over the coming years. But they argue that the growing warming signal can combine in unpredictable ways with smaller natural fluctuations leading to "unprecedented events". "It's when the natural variability rides on top of the climate change and gives us something we have not seen before," said Prof Scaife.

[It’s certainly been very mild here for the last month or more with daily temperatures around 10 degrees above ‘normal’ for the time of year and is predicted to be milder than usual well into the New Year. Lucky for us that Global Warming is a myth!]

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (FP: 1916)

It was all just a matter of survival, that and luck. That’s how you got through the days and especially the nights in the trenches. The focus of the whole squad was keeping warm, keeping dry (if you could) and getting enough to eat. Speculating about what was happening on other parts of the Front was as pointless as wondering what the officers, briefly glimpsed from time to time escorting journalists or rushing along the narrow trench on a mysterious assignment intended to do with them next. No one told them anything except in the form of orders given moments before whatever action was demanded – the repair of the trench or the building of new ones, a temporary relocation behind the lines for rest and repair or an attack on the Bosche trenches sometimes as little as 40 metres away. Being old hands with over a year’s experience they knew to keep their heads down even without the prompting of enemy artillery in all its many vocal forms. They had seen enough random and bloody deaths from a snipers bullet to recklessly put their heads above the parapet without a very good reason. But it wasn’t the bullets or even the shells that defined their lives – it was the ever present lice, the rats and the mud and of course the ever present smell of shit and death. Their admiration for stretcher bearers knew no bounds. Men who risked their lives each day to retrieve not only the wounded but the dead from battlefields swept by machine gun fire deserved nothing less. Of course they were crazy which helped though not as crazy as the gunners who ran into no-man’s land to recover fuses from unexploded German shells to discover esoteric details of the guns which fired them and where they could be located and therefore killed by counter battery. Yet, as always it seemed, it was the poor bloody infantry that did the work with pick, shovel and bayonet that ended up paying the price and the butcher’s bill each time an attack was ordered. Each day the squad diminished as veteran after veteran fell to the random mechanical death dealt out by enemy machine guns. Little wonder that, when taken alive, they were executed on the spot and laughed at as they died. This was not a war fought between gentlemen but by bakers, postmen and common farm labourers. Gentlemen fought in the air with chivalry, here on the ground, in the mud, men murdered each other.

This is a well-deserved classic (and not just in France). It’s also rather unusual. For one thing it was published during the war rather, like many others, after the conflict had ceased. It also went against the grain and showed the soldiers as average men rather than as iconic heroes. Although they occasionally thought about what they would do after the war their main focus was surviving that day and the day after. Long term thinking didn’t make a lot of sense when so many were dying each day in a war they seemed to go on forever. Narrated in the first person by the author who served in the trenches in the early years of the war before being invalided out the story had a gritty visceral intensity at times that was almost breath-taking. Two sections in particular jumped out at me. One in which the narrator walked back an injured squad mate across the battlefield they had so recently crossed at a run to an aid station showing the number of dead and dying required to gain a few hundred metres of ground and later the shelling of the same aid station by enemy artillery and the chaos and death it caused. There are stomach churning moments throughout the narrative as this is as far from a tale of glory and heroism as you can get. Such things are almost taken for granted these days but at the time such an anti-war novel was quite a shock to those safely back home being fed a daily diet of official propaganda. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in WW1.

Translated from the French by Robin Buss.  

The start of an 18 day break...... and relax.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Name to a Face?

Just Finished Reading: Titanic Lives – Migrants and Millionaires, Conmen and Crew by Richard Davenport-Hines (FP: 2012)

In April 1912 the greatest ship ever built sailed on her maiden voyage confident of a great future ahead of her. Days later she lay in pieces on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean taking over 1500 people with her to the bottom – including some of the greatest names of the age. Shocked into disbelief the Edwardian world would not see death on this scale until the killing fields of the Western Front a mere two years away. The sinking of the apparently ‘unsinkable’ Titanic caused a deep psychic wound on both sides of the Atlantic and caused many to question man’s domination of nature and his hubris in challenging nature on its own terms. The death of so many seemed to indicate that humanity had finally gone too far.

This is the story of that great ship (and her two sisters Olympic and Britannic) from concept and design, to construction in Belfast and finally her destruction in mid-Atlantic. But it is far more about those who sailed on her. Refreshingly it did not dwell exclusively (or even extensively) on the super-rich ‘jet-setters’ of their age who crossed and crisscrossed the Atlantic on a regular basis for business or pleasure. It also had much to say for the migrants from all over Europe hopeful and confident of a life in the New World free from prejudice, political and religious oppression. Confident also in making a better life for themselves and for their villages back in the old country to which they sent some of their hard won dollars. The Titanic was, more than anything else a microcosm of early 20th Century society with its mix of sharp class distinctions and of the new rich who broke through previously unbreakable barriers which left them with millions in the bank but a deep insecurity about their social position.

It was also an age all too recently transitioned from sail to steam and one supremely confident in its material and technological capabilities. Each year bigger, faster and more luxurious liners crossed the Atlantic with seeming impunity. Disdaining the fitting of enough lifeboats for all – which not only ruined the elegant lines of the ship itself but seemed superfluous as the ship itself was one huge lifeboat – it did seem for a while that no limits existed (or should be allowed to exist) in the design of the new behemoths. Until, that is, the fateful night when the Titanic met and side-swiped an iceberg she saw far too late to avoid. With six compartments holed and watertight bulkheads that only went up so far (to save money and weight) the ships doom was inevitable. Knowing that a large number of passengers and crew would inevitably die unless rescuers appeared swiftly only made the situation more poignant. Women and children first often seemed to mean women a children only with boats being lowered into the water two thirds or sometimes half full despite their being men (and boys) available to fill them. Oddly it was the 2nd Class men who suffered most losses seemingly living up to the expectations of their betters.

The radically divergent tales of the two nearest ships – the Carpathia who rushed to Titanic’s aid in vain to the Californian who (apparently) ignored Titanic’s distress signals from much closer – are well known though fairly lightly covered here. Tales of the survivors surprised me more than a little. Subdued by their ordeal and, no doubt by the publicity that followed, many slipped into depression and a rather surprising number ended their own lives apparently unable to cope with the aftermath of the greatest maritime disaster to date.

Even for a story so well-known and so often written about this book gripped and captivated from the first page to the last. I learnt so much from this book – not only about the ship and her crew but the society that her voyage was embedded in – that I was, at times quite overwhelmed by it all. On an emotional level it was also quite a journey. In relating the lives of many passengers and crew you began to know them as people rather than statistics and became overjoyed when you learnt of their survival or equally devastated to learn that they, their spouse or children did not survive the incident. One final thing was the knowledge that two passengers who had my rather unusual surname both perished in those freezing Atlantic waters never to reach their hoped for destinations in the New World. Where they actual relatives – I don’t know. I did a tiny bit of research which seemed on the face of things to indicate not, but who knows? That’d be quite a claim to fame.

If you’re interested in the Titanic tragedy or the pre-war period then this is definitely the book for you. This is very well written social history at its best and I can highly recommend it. This is also the first of three books on the subject. Next up is survivor tales followed by the search for, and incredible discovery, of the wreck itself. Watch this space.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Actually, we hardly think at all and emote far too much.........