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

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Presumably AIR cooled...? [grin]

Just Finished Reading: This Dark Business – The Secret War Against Napoleon by Tim Clayton (FP: 2018) [356pp] 

Wars are neither fought nor won exclusively on the battlefield. This was as true during the Napoleonic Wars as it is today. Indeed, many of the techniques used throughout the 20th century were invented and used for the first time during the decades long war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France.  

Along with the usual diplomatic maneuvering across Europe to rise allies to the cause and to ensure that they stay in the fight even after early defeats the British government maintained a propaganda war against France – and most especially against Napoleon himself – both at home and abroad. For domestic consumption the UK government financed contributors to magazines and periodicals to write articles and produce political cartoons critical of the French regime and the Revolution that proceeded it. Indeed, the government approved the publication of and often completely financed newspapers to spread that very message – that France was a direct threat and needed to be opposed rigorously and to believe (or act) otherwise was both unpatriotic and dangerous to national security. Needless to say, newspapers and pamphlets who opposed the government were denied publication and their editors or publishers often ended up in court or in prison. If damaging revelations could not be discovered or twisted to fit then fake reports or forged letters would have to suffice and these were often published in both foreign and domestic newspapers to justify actions that the British government had already decided on. But propaganda, no matter how effective, would never be enough – especially in the years when it seemed that Napoleon and his generals were invincible on the battlefield. Something more direct needed to be attempted. 

In 1800 a determined group of men – both old-style Republicans and dyed in the wool Royalists – determined that the only way things would change for the better would be if Napoleon was dead. They determined that they could aid in this by blowing up the dictator with a barrel of gunpowder as he approached the theatre in what is probably the first recorded use of a roadside IED (Improvised Explosive Device). Obviously, it failed as we know from history but it came close, very close, to killing the man who was and would continue to change European history. The plotters had been delivered into France from British warships and had been paid with British gold. A few years later another, much larger, group were similarly infiltrated into France to complete the task, again paid for by Britain. The term ‘assassination’ was to be avoided (however tenuously) but that was the common object everyone had in mind. 

Following both streams in the secret endeavour, the author dives into a great deal of detail (too much in my opinion) on the propaganda side of things with somewhat less time spent on (at least for me) the more interest assassination plans. Both aspects of the secret war involved a LOT of people and I honestly lost track of who people were and skimmed over things a little from time to time both for sanity and for time's sake. If the author had concentrated more of the main players rather diving into the more detailed accounts, I think that the narrative would have flowed both faster and smoother. So, I did find myself struggling through this more than I would’ve liked. Part of that, I’m sure, is that the great majority of the book was completely new to me. I’d honestly never really thought of the political or covert aspects of the Napoleonic Wars until I’d come across the idea in a recent novel based during that period (Clarissa Oakes by Patrick O’Brian). A little stodgy at times but of interest to anyone wanting to know more about the wars progress off the battlefield.  

Monday, September 26, 2022

I had the great pleasure, actually exhilaration, of travelling on one of these beasts between the Italian mainland and Capri. An amazing experience....  

Just Finished Reading: The River of Fire by Patrick Easter (FP: 2012) [367pp] 

The Thames, London 1799. It was obvious to Captain Tom Pascoe of the Marine Police that the grisly discovery was just the start of things. As soon as a local told him that the boat wasn’t local and had probably come from Hastings the word ‘smuggling’ immediately came to mind. Of course, that just prompted even more questions: what exactly where they smuggling, who killed them, was it a deal that had gone wrong, a falling out between thieves or something darker, deeper? Who was the lone figure seen to leave the river near the sunken lugger, was that really a gunshot heard in the night? So many questions and so few answers. But the river was full of questions and Captain Pascoe only had so many men to chase them down. It was only when his boss informed him that an East Indian fleet was approaching that things started to fall into place. With the Pool crammed to overflowing with ships the greatest danger was of fire. If a fire could be started deliberately it would spread quickly from ship to ship and maybe to the harbour buildings themselves. It would be a tragedy to London and a blessing to the French. It might even knock Britain out of the war – unless Pascoe and his crew can find those responsibly before the match was lit. 

This had the makings of a good tale. The tension was certainly there with a deadline (defined by tides and wind), a resolute and deadly enemy, a well-crafted sense of time and place and an obvious talent for storytelling. But.... Despite all of that I still struggled with this otherwise interesting novel. Characterisation was good (if not better than good) if a little two dimensional at times, the story I thought was overly complex at times and, contradicting myself here, a little too simplistic at others. I thought that there were too many characters involved with too many interweaving backstories. These stories tended to slow down the central narrative and ultimately take tension away from the central investigation. As historical backfilling and providing added context and realism they served a purpose but I thought they were used too often and too intrusively. Two of the subplots in particular somewhat irritated me mostly because they were both largely irrelevant to the main story and could easily have been left out without any negative consequences – the separated siblings sub-plot and the love interest sub-plot. The other thing that irritated me, and honestly at times felt like padding although it might have just been the authors relative inexperience (this was his 2nd book), was the way that the story kept circling back to locations or people to nudge the story along a bit. But probably the most annoying aspect of this book was something that has long annoyed me throughout my reading career – when a character knows something vital to the hero’s ‘quest’, and also know of its value (or at least suspect its value) and yet either forgets to tell them till later (and often at a dramatic moment) or deliberately doesn’t tell them until it's too late because of a bullshit reason. The only purpose of such actions is to slow down the hero and the plot and its bloody obvious why it's happening. That sort of naked plot device just annoys the crap out of me. Saying ALL of that [grin] this wasn’t a bad book per se, it just wasn’t as good as it could have been. Reasonable.     

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Now, that was never REALLY going to work, was it?

A-Z Questions – Borrowed from Marianne @ Let’s Read 

A. Attached or Single? 

Single. It’s my default position. 

B. Blue or Black? 

Tricky... My favourite colour is Blue but I like wearing Black. 

C. Cats or Dogs? 

Love cats (had you noticed?) but really like dogs. 

D. Down 10 flights of stairs or Up to 2 flights? 

Don’t mind stairs, although walking down TOO many flights plays a bit with my knees 

E. Email or Snail mail? 

Can’t remember the last time I sent an actual letter. These days I might send 2-3 e-mails most days. At work I used to send/receive a LOT. 

F. Fairytales or Nonfiction? 

Non-fiction. There’re FAR too many fairy tales floating around these days. We need to be grounded in facts, evidence and solid testable theory. 

G. Gain a pound or Gain some money? 

Well, I’m (slowly) gaining weight over time, so..... Money is always useful though...... 

H. Hop on one foot or Jumping jacks? 

Hop on one foot.... Not sure why I’d want to though! 

I. Ice cream or Ice cones (aka snow cone)? 

Either. I was always a sucker for a 99 in my day (that’s a cone of soft ice cream with a cadbury’s flake in it 

J. Juice or Water? 

Juice. I only drink straight water when I really have to. 

K. Kiss a frog or Hug a bear? 

I do like frogs but I don’t think I’d ever kiss one. If the bear was amenable to a hug I’d be happy to oblige 

L. Lose your heart or Lose your mind? 

People would say I’ve already lost my mind. I always liked being in love though, maybe a little TOO much [lol] 

M. Music or Silence? 

Depends on the circumstance and my feelings. I like music playing @ home (Classic FM on the radio presently) and used to have headphones on when I was outside.  

N. Nuts or Chips? 


O. Oatmeal or Cereal? 

Cereal. Never got on with oatmeal although we had it as children for some reason. 

P. Pizza or Spaghetti? 

Pizza. Spaghetti is usually too much effort. 

Q. Queen for a day or Quiet for a day? 

FAR too much effort being Queen so quiet it is. 

R. Rain or Sun? 

Sun, or at least sunlight. Not too much though as I burn easily. Plus being British we see enough of rain thanks! 

S. Steak or Salad? 

Salad. I’m a VEGGIE! [grin] 

T. Talk to a stranger for a minute or talk to your enemy for an hour? 

I don’t really have enemies – none living anyway. Plus, strangers tend to talk to ME. Meeting new people and getting to know them was one of THE fun parts of my last job. I met SO many interesting and nice people. 

U. Unicorns or Unicycles? 

DEFINITELY unicorns. Who could POSSIBLY say no to a UNICORN? 

V. Vanilla or Chocolate? 


W. Walk or Run? 

Walk. I walk EVERYWHERE. It’s a really great way to get to know a place and, of course, chat to strangers! 

X. Xray vision or Power to fly? 

Flying. I’ve has SO many dreams about flying that it’d be really great to try it for real. 

Y. Yoga or the Gym? 

I tried the Gym for a while. The hardest part about it I found was the boredom. 

Z. Zipper or Velcro 

Definitely a zipper rather than buttons. Too much faff with buttons. Velcro is SO good though – until it gets all fluffy and stops working. 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Shapes in the Clouds? All in the mind.....

Just Finished Reading: The Great Depression & The New Deal – A Very Short Introduction by Eric Rauchway (FP: 2008) [131pp] 

The Great Crash of 1929 led directly to the Great Depression of the 1930’s - right? It might certainly seem that way but the direct cause and effect of both events is far trickier. There had been crashes before, sure not as bad or as deep or lasting so long as the one in ‘29 but they had happened and, after a short sharp recession, the economy had recovered. The thinking at the time, the prevailing idea of laissez-faire, suggested that if left alone the stock market as well as the larger economy would ‘self-correct’ in time. So, time was given then more time and then some more time. Instead of any self-correction things instead grew steadily worse. Pronouncements from politicians and industry leaders followed stating publicly that everything was fine and that people really should spend money. Meetings were held (again very publicly) between government and industry to show that they were ‘doing something’. Eventually, the Hoover administration decided that they really had to do something but it was too little and too late – their thunder’ had already been stolen by the Democratic candidate for President who promised a New Deal if elected: Franklin D Roosevelt. The problem was, even FDR had no clear idea what could be done, if anything, to bring the country back. 

Looking back with a ‘big picture’ lens it's easy to see the New Deal program as a coherent and coordinated response to the Great Depression. At the time it was nothing of the sort. FDR and his administration knew (as did most people) that ‘something’ needed to be done but there was only so much that could be done as well as only so much that would be allowed to be done. Despite the condition of the US, and the world, economy the idea of direct government intervention was still anathema to many. Even those most effected on the ground were loath to take charity or government handouts even if they desperately needed them. Yet still, something had to be done. The first order of business was to shore up the financial sector and restore confidence in the banks. Then there were incentives for business to invest and grow. Some things seemed to work and were expanded, others seemed not to work and were dropped. The Federal government extended aid and guarantees to the States for plans already drawn up and awaiting funds. States were encouraged to plan more projects and businesses were asked, encouraged and sometimes bullied into keeping their workers in employment even at shorter hours or reduced pay. Although things improved slightly, or stopped being so bad for so many, it still wasn’t enough. Nowhere near enough. The government would, it seemed, need to get its hands dirty. Over the coming years the Federal government started funding projects directly – to build roads, schools, dams and much else. It increased Social Security and began to directly influence business decisions. It was heavily criticised for inaugurating Socialism in America (whilst being nothing of the sort of course) but things did improve and keep on improving. But did the New Deal work? Did it end the Great Depression. The clear answer is No. Although things were improving as the 1930’s began to draw to a close it was the war in Europe which boosted job numbers and then the massive increase in defence spending prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor that pulled the economy out of Depression and laid the foundation for American financial dominance for the rest of the 20th century and beyond. 

I thought this was a useful follow up to my previous read on the Wall Street Crash and rounded off the subject nicely. Obviously in a mere 130 pages the author couldn’t do full justice to either the Depression nor the response to it – in America never mind the rest of the world – but he did manage to hit the highlights and, as always, provide a full bibliography for further reading. I’ll see if I can follow this up (at some point) with some of the different responses to the Depression in the UK, France and other places around the world. A very good (as these very often are) introduction to an interesting and important topic especially after the Crash of 2008. Recommended. 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Life before the Internet.... and Video games.

Just Finished Reading: The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith (FP: 1954) [210pp] 

The NY Stock Market crash of 1929 is undoubtedly one of the most important events of the 20th century. The worldwide ramifications of the event and the Depression that followed shaped the world we live in to a significant extent. Without an understanding of what happened and why it happened any appreciation of 20th century history can only be severely hampered. But what made the Crash of ‘29 so devastating? Afterall, we’ve had economic boom & bust for a good chunk of human history, likewise we’ve had financial ‘bubbles’ that have emerged, grown and ‘popped’ before without dragging the world into economic chaos. What was significant about this one? 

Part of the reason it seems is both the length and the height of the boom before it all fell apart. It’s not unusual for stock markets to climb and then fall back but it is unusual for the market to climb to giddy heights and then keep on climbing. For a LONG while it looked like, and was talked about by people who should have known better, as if the rise in value could indeed go on indefinitely. It’s hardly surprising then that people saw buying stocks as an easy, indeed essentially free, way to make money. Starting with the usual suspects – the financial speculators – it wasn’t long until average people started buying stocks and watched with great pleasure as their net worth grew week on week. As the market continued to grow it made sense to borrow money to buy stock and then to use that stock as collateral to extend the loan to buy more stock. It was even worth companies cutting back on investment in order to buy stock (often in their own company) which seemed like a sure way to ensure ever greater profits. As the bubble grew and grew those ‘in the know’ knew that, at some point, the bubble would burst and the market would ‘self-correct’. The trick was to sell just before this happened. The problem was, of course, knowing precisely when to do so. This decision wasn’t exactly made easy by the market reporting methods of the time. These were designed to report on market prices where a reasonably moderate number of shares exchanged hands each day. As the number of shares bought and sold ballooned in the late 20’s information regarding these sales started to lag behind reality. In this state of uncertainty, it was all too possible to jump too soon or, even worse, too late without even knowing it.  

Of course, the US government could also see the risk of a burst bubble but what to do about it, that was the question. It was certain that the bubble would burst eventually but would intervention make things better in the long run or worse in the short term and, most importantly to the political mind, who would be blamed for either action (or inaction). In an attempt to ‘cool things down’ the bank borrowing rate was increased. This, by and large, achieved little to nothing. The interest on any loan paled in comparison to the interest on bought shares. In any case, the prevailing theories of the time confidently said, after the burst would come the market self-correct and after a short period of pain, the market would start increasing again. Afterall, the fundamentals of the real economy were sound. Unfortunately, the politicians, the economic theories, and the experts were wrong. Dead wrong. 

After a few minor falls and recoveries, the market dropped a LOT. The next day it was expected to recover, at least in part, but the delayed transactions from the day before put paid to that. The market dropped again, and kept on dropping. It wasn’t long before the panic set in. Stock prices plummeted with even so-called guilt stock losing 20, 30, 50% of its price within days. Those who didn’t cash out quickly lost everything. Those who managed to sell in the early days still lost a great deal. But, no matter how bad the Crash itself was it was assumed that, once things hit bottom, a recovery could begin. Unfortunately, that ‘bottom’ failed to materialise in days, weeks or months after the initial precipitous fall. Many assurances were made, both in the financial and political realm that the ‘real’ economy was fine and that whatever happened in New York really didn’t influence things ‘out there’ too much. Stocks were ephemeral things but bricks and mortar, land, and acres of wheat were the real wealth of the country, right? The problem, however, was twofold: firstly, the underlying economy was NOT fundamentally sound and second even those who had money (and only a small percentage of people had actually speculated in the market) where reluctant to spend it during a period of growing uncertainty. It wasn’t long before the fantasy world of the stock market started to infect the real-world decisions of whether to buy or not or whether to keep your money in the local bank (if you had it) rather than under your mattress. The Great Depression was about to begin. 

Although, I’m sure along with most other people, I had an appreciation of the events of 1929 I wasn’t fully aware of the details of that disaster. This classic work of Economic history has filled in a lot of blanks in that regard. Written within living memory of the events and by an economist of note this was a quite fascinating look at the logical, almost rational, madness that gripped the US and the world in the late 1920’s. If you’ve ever wondered about the Crash and where it fits into 20th century history but didn’t know where to start, I think this is definitely the place. Written in an easily digestible language format you won’t need a background in Economics to witness the financial trainwreck unfold before your eyes. Recommended for all those interested in 20th century history and economics.    

Saturday, September 17, 2022

OK, 20 MORE Questions 

Would you rather go on a fancy date or Netflix and chill? 

I’m not a huge one for fancy dates but they do have their charms. Personally, I’m much more of a Netflix and chill person depending on my mood. 

If you had the super-power of invisibility, how would you use it? 

Well, duh! SPYING! 

How would you save the world? 

My first thoughts were CAN the world be saved and SHOULD the world be saved (presumably the question relates to the human world rather than the actual world which can pretty much handle whatever we throw at it up to a full all out nuclear war). But: I think we need to co-operate a LOT more than we do (at all levels), I think we need to stop ‘fucking each other over for a percentage’ (as per Ripley in Alien), we need to look and plan 10, 50, 100 years ahead rather than just to the next election, we need to look at the whole Earth and not just at our little slice of it and we really should stop killing each other. That’d be a good start.   

What is the super-power you most want to have? 

To use my brain at peak ability whenever I needed to. 

What do you imagine your future family will be like? 

Well, I’m 62 and don’t have an immediate family so.....  

Would you rather live the next 10 years of your life in China or Russia? 

Tough choice! But as Russia is probably going into a death spiral in the next 10 years I’d have to choose China. 

If you had to switch lives with someone, who would you choose? 

I can’t think of a single person. 

Would you rather never be able to eat meat or never be able to eat vegetables? 

LOL – I'm a vegetarian so I already don’t eat meat (or fish before you ask). Easy! 

How did you meet your best friend? 

School, University, Work. 

Would you rather have a home on the beach or in the mountains? 

Mountains, for the view and fresh air and, hopefully, lots of pine trees. 

What was the best meal you’ve ever eaten? 

I was in Nottingham some years ago and tagged along with a group of people heading to a curry house. When I checked the menu I noticed that they didn’t have a single vegetarian option (not that unusual in those days) so I asked what they could do for me. The waiter informed the manager who came over to speak to me. I told him the kind of thing I liked (or didn’t like) and he said he’d see what he could do. When the rest of the crew was being served I was brought a vegetable curry. It certainly looked the part and when I started tucking in I was amazed at just how TASTY it was. I could virtually taste individual rice grains and EVERY spice in it PLUS I could taste every individual veggie too. Not sure if it’s the best meal I’ve ever had but it was certainly the best curry I’ve ever had. 

Would you rather eat a spoonful of wasabi or a spoonful of extremely spicy hot sauce? 

Probably the spicy hot sauce, except I’m not a hot sauce kind of person despite liking curry!  

How would you describe your relationship with your family? 


What memory do you just keep going back to? 

Saturday, 2nd May 1998. Both myself and my ex-girlfriend had been invited to the same wedding. As it was somewhat out of the way she offered to give me a lift to the church. She looked amazing when she arrived on my doorstep and we had a really great day together. By the time we arrived later that evening at the after-meal event (square dancing!) we were back together. I have very fond memories of that day even if the relationship didn’t last.  

What’s the most ridiculous argument you’ve had? 

I do my very best not to argue that much (really!) but have found myself arguing over some VERY trivial stuff sometimes. 

Would you rather be very good at dancing or singing? 

Apparently I can sing (or could anyway). I used to help out backstage with a Light Opera Company when I first moved here. It was a good way to meet people and something to do at weekends during the season. Once we all went on a weekend away and, because a lot of them sang, we had a karaoke evening planned. So, the person running it was pointing people out in the audience to sing on stage and I really didn’t want to get stuck with a song I either didn’t like or was painfully unfamiliar with. So I volunteered (slightly drunk I admit) to sing ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles thinking that my mild Liverpool accent would help. After I sang it, the Technical Director came across and said that he needed me BACK stage despite the fact that I could obviously sing. Seems I can hold a tune....  

What was your favorite game as a child? 

Probably Monopoly and Chess (later). 

Would you rather travel anywhere in the universe at the speed of light or be able to read minds? 

The SPEED of LIGHT? [lol] Do you realise just how SLOW that is? It’d take four YEARS to get to the nearest star. The Galaxy we live in is 90 THOUSAND light years in diameter and 100 light years THICK. Travelling at or near light speed is just a neat way of getting old before getting anywhere! As to reading minds – no thank you. Imagine having to listen to that junk all the time every time you pass near enough to someone. What a nightmare! 

Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest? 

Iain M Banks before he died. I’d SO want to pick his brains about his Culture novels. From what I’ve heard he was also just a great all-round guy to be with too. 

Have you ever had to lose someone close to you? 

A friend or two over the years plus my dad in 2005. I have a friend in hospital presently with cancer who isn't expected to make it. 

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Just Finished Reading: The Viral Storm – The Dawn of the New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolfe (FP: 2011) [255pp] 

Pandemics are, thankfully, rare events but as we are only too well aware they are not something confined to the past. With all of the media and political attention paid to the Covid-19 global pandemic we have all become much more familiar with historic events such as the ‘Spanish’ flu outbreak towards the end of WW1 as well as previous esoteric epidemiological concepts as the R(0) number – the rate at which infection spreads in a population, which means that pandemics are no longer as mysterious to the general population as they once were. Today, thanks in part to the work of the author of this fascinating short volume, we have a much greater understanding of what viruses are, how they are transmitted both between species and between humans, how they spread so quickly across the globe and, ultimately, where they come from and, by implication, where the next pandemics will emerge. 

Interestingly, it appears that all flu strains originate in birds. This virus then hops across the species barrier to a mammal – often pigs – and then to us. Generally, most viruses die at that point in the human host and go no further. Sometimes, although only rarely, they are either already compatible enough with humans to both make the host sick (or even kill them) and jump to others or they swap genes with an existing flu infection already in the host and produce something more akin to SARS or MERS. Very occasionally things go a step or two further with a world-wide pandemic like Covid-19. Although relatively mild, in the overall grand scheme of things, Covid proved to be highly infectious and spread across the world before we really knew what hit us. But flu isn’t the only pandemic we are either already dealing with or coming at us in the future. The classic example of HIV/AIDS that we are only now getting to grips with jumped the species barrier from ape virus SIV. Somewhat ironically it appears to have begun spreading outside its home reach because of a combination of economic and health improvements in Africa enabling people to more easily travel long distances coupled with misuse of needles in local hospitals. Only in the 1980’s, many decades after it emerged in the human population was it ‘discovered’ in the US. One can only imagine the difference if it had been identified much earlier and stopped in its tracks. 

We are, in some cases at least, creating a perfect storm for future pandemics. We crowd into cities that are ever more dense, more people than ever before move across the globe at subsonic speeds allowing viruses with ever shorter infection to symptom times to make it to other continents before people become visibly sick, we herd our increasingly homogenous food animals into closer and tighter groups allowing any infection to spread through them quickly, we are increasingly destroying natural habitats and encountering new diseases there and the growing ‘diseases of affluence’ increasingly compromises our immune systems and impacts our healthcare systems. It’s quite a toxic brew and it should come as no surprise that people like this author are sounding the alarm bells (well in advance of Covid-19). 

Of course, one of the positive outcomes of Covid is that not only have we had a pretty loud wake-up call but we’ve also put a lot of time and money into producing drugs and vaccines that can cope with, or at the very least mitigate, future outbreaks. Taken together with a global virus surveillance effort this could be the difference between ‘business as usual’ and, well, use your imagination. If you’re in the ‘headspace’ to read about pandemics yet or, like me, never left it, this is an interesting, somewhat reassuring if somewhat sobering read. The bad news is that Covid-19 isn’t going to be our last pandemic. The good news is that we’re not helpless in the face of such things if we take the problem seriously. Definitely recommended. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

Should be getting my Covid booster and winter Flu shot in the next 4-6 weeks.... 

Just Finished Reading: The Horns of the Buffalo by John Wilcox (FP: 2004) [399pp] 

South Africa, 1879. Lieutenant Simon Fonthill is a coward - at least his Colonel thinks so. After apparently fainting and being bedridden for 3 days following the announcement of his regiment leaving for active service in South Africa even Simon isn’t sure. But there’s really only one way to find out. When given the choice of either resigning his commission or shipping out to the Cape he accepts his mission to make his way into Zululand and discover King Cetswayo’s intentions. Despite being erroneously viewed as a horseman and a linguist by the powers that be back home in Horse Guards, Fonthill manages to make contact with an Irish cattleman and friend of Cetswayo. As tensions between the British and the Zulu escalate, Simon and his trusty servant 352 Jenkins are held captive in the Zulu capital. Managing to escape they jump from the frying pan into the fire and are just in time to warn the British forces camped at Isandlwana. Forced to flee once more Lieutenant Fonthill races to warn the nearby hospital station that a massive army of Zulu warriors is coming their way. But can he aid the tiny garrison there if things go badly? If he falls in battle no one will remember his name or where he fell. No one will remember the name: Rorke’s Drift. 

I’ve been meaning to start this series for a while now. The 1964 movie ‘Zulu’ (based around the battle of Rorke’s Drift) is one of my all-time favourite films so I was interested to see how the fictional literary version chimed with the fictional cinema version – closer to the truth apparently! But first the bits I liked about the novel before I get onto a few criticisms. As a well-known fan of characterisation I am pleased to report that all of the main characters, and in particular Fonthill and Jenkins, were very well drawn indeed and I’m already looking forward to their future adventures together. The ‘baddie’ Colonel Covington (Fonthill’s superior officer) is a little bit from central casting and is well designed to hate but is OK despite that. The ‘love interest’ (or in this case two love interests) are reasonably well done but largely unnecessary although I did like the roving reporter Alice Griffith and hope that she appears in future books in the series. Naturally most of the action takes place in South Africa and I thought that part of the book was well done and it gelled with what I already knew of the conflict as well as the foundations for the future Boer War. The smaller fight scenes (including a frankly hilarious one between an unarmed and rather drunk 352 Jenkins a young Zulu warrior complete with Assagai) as well as the larger battles were very well done and very dramatic despite already knowing the outcome going in. 

About the only real criticisms I had here, apart from the rather one-dimensional Covington, was the several detours into exposition. Personally, I’m a big fan of show not tell which both keeps momentum going and actually flatters a reader’s ability to ‘pick things up’ rather than mildly insults them by lecturing them on things they might already know. I would probably have given the author a pass on the briefing Fonthill received from the officers sending him into Zululand but the (at least) two other occasions could have been handled differently. I am, however, going to put this rather minor issue down to this being his first book. Apart from that very small niggle I enjoyed this book very much and am looking forward to Simon’s next adventures across the British Empire at its height. Definitely recommended for all historical action fans. 

[Side Note: This, finally, adds another country to my fictional world tour list. Hopefully at least one more addition before years end.]      

Saturday, September 10, 2022

20 yet MORE Questions 

What’s the most pleasing accent to hear your language spoken with? 

I have a great love of accents and like to try to figure out exactly where people are from as I listen to them talk. The great thing about accents is that with a tuned ear you can almost determine which side of a street they were born on. Obviously they’re not THAT specific [lol] but you can tell pretty clearly which part of a city they hail from and I can usually (or at least could in my youth) tell where someone grew up within about 5 miles on a good day and within 10 without too much effort. The funniest example though was when a friend & I were in Sydney for the Millenium. We were chatting to some nurses we’d just met and I asked: You’re from Melbourne, aren’t you? Yes, they said, how did you know. It’s the same accent as in ‘Home and Away’, I replied. As to accents I like – I've already mentioned Welsh, but there’s Cornish, just about anywhere in the North East particularly Sunderland, a soft Midland accent is quite nice as is an equally soft Irish accent.  

Would you rather be a fairy or be a tall dwarf? 

Oh, DEFINITELY a fairy. I mean, what’s not to like about the Fae? Tall, great cheek bones, pointed ears, pale almost translucent skin, immortal, acrobatic, deadly in combat..... Yup, fairies ROCK. 

How did you deal with your feelings and emotions growing up? 


What are your life’s dreams, and what do you want for your future? 

A reasonably long and peaceful one. 

Would you rather have a sensitive nose or sensitive ears? 

Ears. Many years ago I had some hearing problems so went to my doctors who said that I had an excess of ear wax (apparently I have rather long and convoluted ear canals. Who’d have thought it?). Well, the person who usually deals with such things was off sick [lol] so the doctor tried his hand and completed messed up – effectively blocking BOTH of my ears so I was, essentially, deaf for three days. I couldn’t hear much of anything and could only hear my own voice through bone conduction. When the nurse sorted me out a few days later I had, thankfully briefly, the equivalent of 20/20 hearing. I could hear EVERYTHING. I could hear people's hearts beating next to me, I could hear the fibers in my carpet moving back into place as I walked across it... The noise of railway doors slamming sounded like artillery... It was definitely an interesting experience!  

Who is your secret hero? 

I don’t really have heroes as such and certainly not secret ones. 

How long would you survive a zombie apocalypse? 

On my best day? About an hour. In reality? About 10 minutes after I met my first zombie. 

Have you ever been cheated on? 

Yes. Unfortunately. 

Would you rather be fantastic at riding horses or amazing at driving dirt bikes? 

Probably horses. I’m not a huge fan of motorbikes but I do like horses. I haven’t had a ton of experiences with them but I liked what I had. 

What are you completely over and done with? 

Nothing? Probably? Maybe? 

Would you rather be emotionless or feel too much? 

Mr Spock is my hero so you do the math. Although being completely emotionless would mean giving up your humanity, so..... 

What are the top three things you want to accomplish before you die? 

Finish my TBR (although immortality might be a big ask there). I think that’s all three to be honest! 

What age do you feel right now, and why? 

I used to say that I’ve felt like I was 15 for decades. But that takes into account that before I was actually 15 I felt much older than I was. People who tell me to ‘grow up’ or ‘act my age’ get a smile from me because I take comments like that as compliments. These days I probably feel somewhat older than 15, so I’ll say 25. 

What would your dream house be like? 

A library with a bedroom attached. 

What movie have you seen more than seven times? 

Probably the movie I’m seen most times is the original Bladerunner. Between all three versions I’ve probably seen it more that 60 times.  

Would you rather move to a new city or town every week or never be able to leave the city or town you were born in? 

I’m a city person by birth and have lived in them or near them all my life (which isn’t hard to do in England to be honest). I was born in central Liverpool but haven’t been back there in at least a decade or two so don’t really know what it’s like these days. I wouldn’t mind being confined to a single city though if it was big enough to provide enough of the right amenities. Moving is bad enough never mind EVERY week. It’d send me crazy. 

What is the most beautiful word for you? 

Isn’t the most beautiful phrase in the English language ‘cellar door’? Extra points for getting the reference!  

In your opinion, what is the most useless animal? 

Oh, is ANY animal useless? Probably not. 

What is the best advertisement you’ve ever seen? 

One of the most memorable is the 1984 Apple advert where a female athlete throws a hammer through a large viewscreen to announce a new way of computing. It was very well done – iconic even. 

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Just Finished Reading: The Re-Origin of Species – A Second Chance for Extinct Animals by Torill Kornfeldt (FP: 2016) [211pp] 

There was much talk, some years ago, about bringing mammoths back. A fairly intact baby mammoth had been discovered in the Siberian permafrost and it looked like viable DNA could be extracted from it. Bringing back animals that had gone extinct has a romantic quality to it. It’s a mixture of almost godlike power as well a moral righteousness of putting something right – most especially when it was us who made the creature extinct in the first place. There’s also, naturally, the scientific challenge or challenges as well as the possible financial payoff. In the background of everything else is, rather inevitably, Jurassic Park. Whenever any recovery of any species comes up it’s only a matter of time before dinosaurs and Michael Crighton come into the conversation – as the author of this interesting book discovered for herself. 

Intrigued initially with the talk of herds of mammoths wandering the Siberian steppe she decided to find out for herself exactly where the science stood and what exactly those involved in these cutting-edge projects had in mind. She was, as I was, both intrigued and rather disappointed with the results. Although there are indeed ongoing projects to bring back mammoths, the passenger pigeon, and even dinosaurs there’s one HUGE problem hanging over all of them – getting viable DNA from creatures that became extinct hundreds, thousands and sometimes millions of years ago. Apparently, they have indeed extracted usable DNA from mammoths. Although they haven’t managed to get DNA from a single specimen, they have managed to piece together a full mammoth genome from multiple individuals. So far so good. But, and this surprised me greatly, the scientists involved had no intention of using this information to eventually ‘clone’ a mammoth. No, they intend to genetically modify an Asian elephant, bit by bit, to *resemble* a mammoth. To me, that’s not exactly ‘bring it back’. That’s creating something completely new. Likewise with the passenger pigeon, they propose to use genetic information to modify an existing pigeon to more *resemble* its extinct cousin. With the holy grail of dinosaurs, it gets worse. So far it has proven impossible to derive ANY dinosaur DNA from ANY source. It’s just far too old to have survived – yes, even in amber. So, the idea is to ‘regress’ chickens to more *resemble* their dinosaur ancestors. Any resulting ‘dinosaurs’ will be both heavily modified chickens and tiny. Maybe they’ll sell well as exclusive pets?  

Oddly the most interesting and hopeful example in this book was the American chestnut. Apparently, it has been pushed to the edge of extinction by the unintentional introduction of a foreign fungus which almost eliminated it save for a few hold-out clusters that are endangered every day. With the ‘simple’ addition of a fungus resistant gene from wheat it looks like it’s possible – at the time of publication – that the newly bolstered variety could start expanding again. At least that would be an only slightly modified original species rather than the re-created versions mentioned above. 

Full of interesting science, interesting (sometimes rather odd) scientists and a healthy dose of philosophy and moral dilemma, this was a fascinating if rather sobering read. One thing it did make clear – an actual Jurassic Park with *real* dinosaurs is a LONG way from being realised, which is a bit disappointing. But there’s much food for thought here – not only about if we can do it, but also if we should do it. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the topic. 

Translated from the Swedish by Fiona Graham