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

Sunday, April 30, 2023

So, it's the end of April and that means its the end of Book Month here @ SaLT. I hope you enjoyed this years effort. Normal (or what passes for normal) service will resume tomorrow (May Day!) until October when we start Monster & Horror Month. Until then posts will be a little more random than of late, so you might want to think about buckling up, things MIGHT get bumpy from here on out...... [lol] 

Saturday, April 29, 2023

I do WORRY about the strength of that stick.... I mean.... SNAP & SQUISH - one book ruined.....

A Love of the Classics 

A few months before Christmas my DVD player finally (after much sterling service) gave up the ghost and died. This wasn’t a huge issue for movie watching as I was already watching DVDs on my computer, but it did stop me listening to my music on CD (yes, I’m old and like physical things). So, as a temporary measure I fished out an old pocket radio and listened to that for a while. That wasn’t great for a host of reasons, so I went looking for something better – which I found hiding under a pile of other stuff I never got around to throwing out – a BIG radio I’d bought YEARS ago which covered Long Wave, Short Wave, Medium Wave & FM. Sorted.  

The first thing I discovered was that the batteries I’d stupidly left in it had corroded and needed to be carefully removed and disposed of. At that point I didn’t really know if the radio would even work, so I plugged it into a wall socket and stood back. For a good few seconds nothing happened, and I started thinking that the beast was dead. Then, reluctantly, I noticed a faint red light getting slowly stronger and from the speakers a faint sound of music. So, I began fiddling with the dial and volume settings until I could hear the station it’d been left on. A bit more dial turning, and I started to hear some pleasant Classical music – exactly what I needed just then. I remembered, YEARS ago, that I used to listen to a station called Classic FM and even, when working weekends setting up loads of computers at work, had my pocket radio set to that channel to help me through the day. Funnily, the other people working through the weekends called it ‘scary music’ and didn’t like it. I think they meant the opera bits. 

Anyway, I thought I’d leave it on Classic FM for a while before moving on to something more modern. A little over 6 months later the dial has barely moved. Almost from the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed my house is filled with the Classics. It’s just SO relaxing! They do tend to play a lot from their Top 300 but that’s fine with me considering that I like a lot of tracks on that List – actually I think their Number One is also one of my all-time favourites – Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto number 2. It’s also nice to hear pieces that you’ve heard before – on adverts, movie soundtracks or Bugs Bunny cartoons – and finally know what they are and who composed them! Classic FM is definitely a learning experience! It also has some fantastic DJ’s (do they call them that these days – especially on a classical music station?) - my favourite of which, by far, is Alexander Armstrong who is frankly HILARIOUS and has a great radio voice. 

Despite the odd spate of adverts every so often (which either get completely internalised or completely ignored) the music is pretty constant. They’re not afraid to play LONG pieces either. This isn’t classical excerpts in 3–5-minute chunks, this is entire movements or concerto’s lasting 10 or 20 minutes or longer. That’s brilliant to have in the background when you’re reading. So, on top of everything else I have a renewed LOVE of all things Classical.   

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Just Finished Reading: American Slavery – A Very Short Introduction by Heather Andrea Williams (FP: 2014) [118pp] 

It’s kind of odd, but makes sense after a few moments thought, that American slavery is older than America itself. Afterall, the colonies that eventually became America – and not just the British colonies on the Eastern seaboard – existed long before the subsequent battles for Independence, and those colonies, British, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese had slaves. These enforced labourers where in addition to the ‘indentured servants’ who worked for around 7 years before been given land to work for themselves. These were, by and large, black Africans either imported directly from Africa or via places like Cuba who already had a thriving slave population. Some Native Americans were also enslaved initially but proved to be more trouble than they were worth and, in general, were shipped off to the Caribbean often in exchange for African slaves from there. Slaves were used to do every task imaginable, from domestic duties to forest clearance and growing of various crops – cash or otherwise. As the colonies grew and demand for workers bloomed, so did the slave trade to keep pace with demand. In some colonies the slave population made up a significant percentage of the total headcount which, as you might expect not only led to a certain amount of understandable anxiety on the slave owners' part but also led to further problems post-Independence. Where political power was concerned do slaves count towards a state's population – even though they cannot and probably never will, vote - and if they do count then just how much do they count?  

Of course, with the 20-20 vision that hindsight provides it's easy to see that Independence missed a huge opportunity to divest the new nation of its slave past. With the stated belief that ‘all men are created equal’ it might have seemed obvious that such a belief and the institution of slavery are mutually exclusive. The missing factor was, naturally, money. Slavery, and the free labour it produced massively favoured those in control of it. Although the idea of abolishing the practice was, briefly, muted it was very quickly dismissed as unworkable (and simple economic suicide). To ensure the ‘balance of power’ in Congress it was agreed that Slave & Free states would forever be in parity so no one side could impose its beliefs on the other. Initially working quite well, the process of adding new states caused ever greater friction between the two ideological/political positions. Something had to give, and it did with the birth of the Confederate States and the Civil War that followed. With the end of that bloody conflict slavery ended too, but the echoes of that institution are still felt to this day and America is still dealing with the fallout. It will be dealing with this for some generations to come. 

I think I had a fair impression of the highlights of this well-written slim volume, but I still found much to add to my knowledge of the subject. I was most intrigued by the missed opportunity – if they’d only had the courage and power to do so – of getting rid of slavery as America became a fully independent nation which would have been one of the crowning achievements of that country's foundation. But it was not to be, much to the disappointment of some at the time and the many in the century ahead. If you’re looking for a high-level and brief overview of American slavery – along with the usual extensive bibliography – this is the book for you. Recommended.

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Monday, April 24, 2023

Just Finished Reading: Amistad by David Pesci (FP: 1992) [344pp] 

Connecticut, 1839. They knew they had a case as soon as they saw them. The so-called ‘pirates’, towed into port from the Spanish ship Amistad, were the blackest ‘slaves’ they’d seen. With the trans-Atlantic slave trade now illegal they could not have come, as the surviving crew said, from Cuba. For one thing, not a single one of them spoke a word of Spanish. But could they win in court, that was the thing. They had powerful, well-connected, forces against them. With a presidential election next year, the last thing the Whitehouse wanted was a slavery debate in the press. Likewise, those of the abolitionist persuasion saw the arrival of the Amistad slaves as a gift from God himself. This case, if handled properly, could blow apart the administration's weak policy on the slave issue and bring it front and center in the upcoming debates. There was everything to play for. The slaves themselves wanted only one thing – they wanted to go home to their lands, their families and their way of life. But it was going to be a long road, in a cold and hostile country. They needed to survive and, above all else, win their case in court. 

My knowledge of the Amistad case, prior to reading this excellent novel, was mostly based on the 1997 movie of the same name directed by Stephen Spielberg (not based on this book), so I was eager to know more even in fictional form. The novel is essentially split into two parts with the first 130 pages (or so) covering the abduction, sale & transportation of African captives across the Atlantic to Cuba. As you might imagine this was from time-to-time rather brutal (though nothing like as brutal as reality) and with a sprinkling of the inevitable N-word in order to give the reader at least some impression of the illegal slave trade at that time. The second section, which took up most of the book, I found much more interesting – the three court cases which went all the way to the Supreme Court progressively arguing that the ‘pirates’ or revolting ‘slaves’ were nothing of the sort. I was impressed. It was all very, very clever and, as in most court proceedings it seems, included a few laugh-out-loud moments. The Abolitionist lawyers in general – all existed in real-life – were very good but I couldn’t help but be impressed (as no doubt we were expected to be) by one John Quincy Adams who argued the case before the Supreme Court. I think I’ll have to read up a bit more about him. 

Overall, I thought this to be a very satisfying read (and a little emotional at times). You get to know the captive slaves as people and not just as property and you really get to know the law, culture and attitudes of the time with some serious foreshadowing for the upcoming Civil War that even people in the 1830’s thought might be a real possibility over the slavery issue. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in the issues surrounding the reality of slavery or for those who enjoy a well-structured court case.  

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Saturday, April 22, 2023

A Land ‘Bridge’? 

It must have been decades ago that I first came across the idea – that England had once been physically connected to mainland Europe by a ‘land bridge’. Now in my mind at the time, and until very recently, I’d envisaged some sort of causeway, maybe a mile or two wide, connecting say Dover and Calais over which the earliest colonisers of Britain migrated. It would’ve been much easier than, say, trying to cross the Channel or the North Sea in a primitive boat before the age of sail. As many people (and potential invaders) have found to their cost, crossing the 26 miles between Britain and the European continent is no easy feat. So, land bridge.... 

As you can see from the map above the ‘bridge’ was anything but! As you can see, as recently as 16 thousand years ago the WHOLE of the British Isles as well as Ireland could be WALKED to from Belgium. To be honest this map has been totally blowing my mind since I downloaded it a few months ago. Just try to imagine what things looked like from the Normandy ‘coast’. Apparently, people lived, farmed and had communities where it’s now the North Sea. Fishing ships regularly pick up peat deposits and artifacts from the Dogger Bank area where, I’ve heard, it was possible to STAND on the surface with your head above water at certain times of the year. Yes, parts of the North Sea are that shallow still. I now appreciate why the Royal Navy doesn’t like having its submarines there – just too dammed shallow! 

Naturally, my imagination went into overdrive when I saw this map. Not only from the point of view of people 16-8 thousand years ago, but from more recent history. Imagine, if you will, the possibility that the ‘land bridge’ could have persisted into the present. Maybe to its full extent or maybe to its 7000BC limit. With Britain directly connected to Europe along a substantial front just how different would world history have been.  Would the Roman Conquest of Britain have been much easier? What about Napoleon or Hitler? Imagine no ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ but instead the Blitzkrieg rolling across the ‘Dover Straights’ right into the heart of Southeast England. Would Britain have become a great maritime power so cut off from the remnants of the North Sea and so far from the Atlantic? What a world such a place would be..... What a very STRANGE world!  

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt – Women Travellers and Their World by Mary Russell (FP: 1986) [224pp] 

Women have been travelling, either alone or in company, since beyond recorded history. Fortunately, once records began to be made, kept and survive into the present, we’ve had their experiences put down for posterity. The reasons for these treks into the wild and on dangerous roads are as varied as the women themselves – pilgrimage, voyages of discovery, finishing a task that their husband had started and failed at, missionary work either alone (rarely) or as part of a group or couple, scientific endeavour, or for the sheer joy of travel and knowing what is on the other side of the hill – and often as not being the first (white) person to see it. 

As you can imagine, the number of women who undertook such trips and left sufficient records behind are practically numberless so picked the few to represent the many would be a difficult task for anyone. Which made me wonder why exactly the author picked the women she did. Sure, they were adventurers and sure many of them became famous (or as likely infamous) in their lifetimes, but I couldn’t help but wonder over the author’s definition of ‘travel’. For instance, she had quite a little section on female pirates. Now, I’m the first person that I would, and indeed did, find the history of women pirates to be interesting in and of itself, but ‘travelers’? Really? Likewise, mountain climbers. There have been, and continues to be, some very competent mountain climbers across the globe and they should be rightly admired for their skill and bravery, but ‘travelers’? Again, pioneering aviators – certainly amongst the most famous women of the 20th century and rightly so, but again ‘travelers’? Many of these women certainly traveled to get where they wanted to be but the travelling was not the core reason for doing so. They might have traveled to a particular mountain in a remote region, but the travel was incidental to the climbing. Personally, I’d call such people mountain climbers rather than travelers who just happened to climb an odd mountain or two. Am I being pedantic? Slightly, yes but you get my point. The author could, and in my opinion should, have spent more time on actual women travelers and had less of a scattergun approach to her subject matter. 

But this does not mean that this slim volume was a bad book. It wasn’t. It was a little too chatty and somewhat less rigourous than it could have been – plus I couldn’t help noticing that it was VERY 80’s with a strange mixture of feminism and, from a 21st century PoV, sexism (together with a slight unconscious racism). However, as a primer to the subject it was definitely a reasonable read and would prompt anyone, me included, to know more about this fascinating topic. Worth a read if you can find a copy. More, as always, to come. Oh, and I almost forgot... Can we spend just a moment marvelling at the book's wonderful title.

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Monday, April 17, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (FP: 2016) [319pp] 

April 1912. Boston American Reporter John Steadman knew that there would be bodies. When he was called to report on events there were always bodies. His editor relied on his nose for death, for pathos and sympathy to sell newspapers. He was good at it too, reporting on fires, disasters and more common murders from the victim's point of view – even when they could no longer speak for themselves. But this was no common disaster, no common story of death even on a larger scale than he had ever dealt with, even heard of, before. This was a supposedly unsinkable ocean liner with some of the most famous and richest people in the world on board, and many of them were now dead. Titanic had struck an iceberg and foundered. Many hundreds had died. Stories of sacrifice and heroism abounded, each getting more than their fair share of column inches across the globe. But there was one story that seemed to be getting scant attention – the ship that didn’t come. Several aboard Titanic had already stated that they’d seen a ship, close to them, who failed to respond to their distress rockets. It was a ship almost close enough to touch. Steadman had a clue as to which ship that was and had be told that they’d been searching for bodies – bodies of the rich, the famous and the tragic, returning to Boston. Intrigued by the officer’s reaction to press scrutiny, Steadman asked the obvious question: where exactly was Californian the night Titanic sank? Did she see any rockets? Why wouldn’t he let the 2nd officer, the man holding the midnight watch, the officer in charge at the time Titanic sank, answer the simplest of questions? Where were the bodies? Steadman was determined to find out, even if he lost his job doing so. 

I’ve had a bit of an obsession with Titanic for as long as I can remember. That was before I discovered that I might have had distant ancestors on board – inevitably in steerage and (equally inevitably) who died that night. At least they all had my surname. I don’t have any confirmation yet, but I’ll let you know if I do. Anyway, I’m pretty familiar with the story and knew of the Californian question (or rather questions). So, it was interesting looking at those questions – at least in a fictionalised context – from the view of the captain and crew of Californian herself rather than from Titanic. I haven’t read much about either the American or British enquiry following the disaster (something I’m going to have to correct) and a good chunk of the later part of the novel relied on the evidence presented at both – especially from Captain Lord, master of Californian. If his fictional portrait is anywhere near accurate, he was a strange bird. Strange indeed! The main thrust of the novel was the question at the heart of his action, or rather inaction, on that night. Why didn’t Californian go to Titanic’s aid sooner? The novel made it out to be a psychological conundrum – revolving around the personalities of the captain and his 2nd officer and most especially the troubled relationship between the two. It was an interesting ‘take’ but, I thought, rather unsatisfying (which probably leads it at least some credence). Overall, this was a well written look at some of the less well-known aspects of the disaster and I liked the fact that the author had his main character talk to some of the relatives of the survivors in Liverpool and other places to put names and faces to the nameless hundreds who never ate in the First-Class dining room. As with all good novels it left me musing on the history of that fateful night and thinking about reading more about it. Definitely recommended, especially if you have any interest in Titanic and the issues that surrounded her demise.    

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Saturday, April 15, 2023

It’s all Fun and Games, until.... 

It was while on a school trip to the French Alps in 1974 that I discovered video games – care of a coin-operated ‘Pong’ console in the hotel's games room. Over the week or so we were there ‘learning’ to ski, I spent most of my holiday money in that room. Since then, I’ve been playing video/computer games on and off on various coin-ops – my 2nd Year @ Uni was spent living in the ‘seaside’ resort of Morecambe where I spent far too much time and far too much money in the arcades – and on borrowed and, later, bought PCs. Over the decades I’ve played a fair few games over a LOT of hours. Primarily I’m a reader but I’m also very much a gamer too. 

My games generally fall into 3 large categories – FPS (First Person Shooter), RTS (Real-Time Strategy) and RPG (Role Playing Games). Over the decades I’ve enjoyed all 3 types, from Doom (FPS) to Age of Empires (RTS) to World of Warcraft (RPG). In the last 15 years or so the pattern has been playing a few hours each night with gamer friends (who I met at work in our IT Department), plus a few extra hours during the day at weekends and holidays. I also had ‘Gamer Days’ - generally on Christmas Day and New Years when I knew no one (or far fewer people) would be around due to family commitments. On those days I’d generally play from about noon (or before) until late at night.  

Looking through my Steam Account logs it’s interesting (to me anyway!) how some games really took off for me – and the guys – where others fell flat. Fortunately, most of the games purchased have been fairly cheap (or on sale) so the outlay hasn’t been enormous. Plus, when you’re getting hundreds of hours of entertainment out of something, the odd £25-35 doesn't seem very much. Until recently I was playing Warthunder (FPS but with tanks) during the day and, most recently, Generation Zero (FPS) with my primary gaming friend in the evenings. I’ve now switched to playing Gen Zero exclusively. So, what are my stats I hear a lone voice asking.... In no particular order (actually alphabetical order!) they are: 

10 Miles to Safety 26.9 hours
Aliens: Fireteam Elite 21.2 hours
Arma 3 27 minutes
Besiege 6.1 hours
Borderlands (Game of the Year Edition) 108.2 hours
Borderlands 2 1,276.6 hours
Borderlands 3 574.9 hours
Borderlands the Pre-Sequel 228.8 hours
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 136.7 hours
Cities: Skylines 8.1 hours
Company of Heroes 2 1,205.5 hours
Don’t Starve Together 41 minutes
Dorf Romantik 13.6 hours
Guns, Gore and Cannoli 2 7.8 hours
Livelock 3.2 hours
No Man’s Sky 585 hours
Northgard 32.1 hours
Oxygen Not Included 499 hours
Plague Inc: Evolved 88 minutes
Stellaris 38.7 hours
Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands 74.5 hours
Tropico 5 24.6 hours
Two Point Hospital 161.3 hours
Dawn of War 2 342.3 hours
DorW2: Chaos Rising 130.7 hours
DorW2: Retribution 655.5 hours

Most recently:

Warthunder 745.7 hours
Generation Zero 81.8 hours (with 52.6 hours in the last 2 weeks)

So, yes..... I’m a GAMER LOL. 

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Just Finished Reading: The Stone Mason – A History of Building Britain by Andrew Ziminski (FP: 2020) [288pp] 

I still chuckle over a comment made by one of The Monkies when asked why he liked the UK so much. A little tongue in cheek maybe, he said that “You have gas stations older than my country”. Whilst technically true we have a LOT older buildings too: houses that have been lived in for centuries, schools founded in the Elizabethan Age and burial sites that amazed the Romans with their antiquity. Naturally these places, scattered across the depth and breadth of the nation slowly (or sometimes catastrophically quickly) decay under nature’s assault or through accident, acts of vandalism and war. When such things happen, they need the tender loving care of someone who knows a thing or two about the methods and especially the materials that went into their construction. The author of this odd and intriguing book is just that someone. 

Starting with the Stone Age barrow and with interesting insights to both standing circles I’ve visited at Avebury (once) and Stonehenge (twice), the author travels across the south of England looking at the construction of Roman Bath (a beautiful town) as well as numerous Medieval churches. Filled with stories of itinerant craftsmen (and women!) both past and present you almost feel like you’re looking over the author's shoulder as he studies crumbling stonework or weather-beaten gargoyles who have seen better days. Some jobs need little more than the reapplication of mortar mixed to Medieval standard whilst other jobs require something a bit more radical – from rebuilding walls that have sagged over the centuries to re-carving statues in appropriate style and with appropriate Latin inscriptions.  

Always interesting and often fascinating, this is a unique look at the buildings that have influenced and dominated Britain for century after century, from standing stones, to churches, to castles and stately homes, from Victorian canals to Roman baths and Gothic cathedrals. It’s definitely an absorbing way to look at history and one I very much enjoyed. The author is a very effective communicator and even when some of the rather technical stone mason terms went a bit over my head, I still understood enough to get the feel of things through context. Despite loving a flying buttress as much as the next person – and who doesn’t, right? - I freely admit that my knowledge of architectural history and technique is a little on the sparse side. Thankfully, I’m now a little more knowledgeable because of this excellent book. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in design. 

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Monday, April 10, 2023

Well, I don't buy 'em ONE at a time! That's VERY inefficient..... [grin]

Just Finished Reading: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (FP: 2008) [240pp] 

England, 1946. It all started with a letter informing Juliet Ashton (played by Lily James in the 2018 movie adaptation) that one of her books had been found on the Channel Island of all places. Deep into her book tour the letter provided a brief moment of intrigue as she wondered just how that had happened. What was more intriguing still, was a brief mention of the island’s book society, so vital at keeping up morale in times of war. Just how had the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society been named? Who were its members? What did they read and, most importantly, what exactly was Potato Peel Pie? Juliet needed to know and so a correspondence began, first with Dawsey Adams (played by Michiel Huisman) and then with the other islanders. Slowly the story emerged of the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans in the war and of the hardships and friendships of those terrible days. Finally released from her book tour, Juliet had to see for herself what the Society meant to her correspondents and how it helped them arrive, battered but resilient, into peacetime. 

I think I picked this up AGES ago mostly because of its quirky title – definitely one of the oddest of the year, no doubt. So, it has languished on a shelf (or in a pile) waiting to be read. Naturally I’m VERY late to the party (again) but, finally, I’m here. Honestly, it was worth the wait. Told through a series of letters as well as the odd telegram, this was a charming and delightful story of friendship under adversity and the very human need for something more than survival. Full of interesting, quirky and honestly lovable characters – including Juliet herself who has made it into my list of favourite female characters – that you’d like to have as friends or neighbours, this is the kind of book that gets under your skin and stays there. Naturally, it got me thinking about the reality of the Occupation but, rather unsurprisingly, I already have two books on that very subject which I’ll be scheduling later in the year. There were certainly enough little details sprinkled throughout this short volume that felt real, so I’m guessing that the authors drew on the real experience of those who lived there.  

Being the subject that it is, as well as the fact that it takes place both during and shortly after a devastating war, this novel is not without its moments of drama, pathos and tragedy. I did at least once have to put the book down and take a few moments before reading on. Several characters really do not have exactly a pleasant time of things and it's quite effecting at times. If you are of a sensitive disposition, I recommend having some hankies ready just in case. This was a somewhat surprise hit for me and turned out to be one of my best reads this year – so far! Highly recommended.

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