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

Monday, January 29, 2024

Just Finished Reading: America in Retreat – The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder by Bret Stephens (FP: 2014) [231pp] 

When this arrived on my doormat, via Amazon, I read the blub on the back and almost decided NOT to read it. With everything going on right now, I thought a book on US isolationism (which, as far as I know has been a strong  and persistent theme in American politics from the earliest days) would be just the thing to illuminate things. The blub though made it quite clear that this book was going to be, above all else, a partisan critique of President Obama’s foreign policy to date. But, as the book was already bought and paid for and I had a companion volume already lined up, I bit the bullet and started reading. I’m actually glad I did, because this wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be. 

It was, as you might imagine, about the idea of the US being or at least being portrayed as the world’s policeman. What really surprised me, especially coming from a right-wing commentator was that the author was in favour of America taking that role – up to a point. What he clearly wasn’t in favour of (and neither am I) was the twin ideas of regime change and nation building. The problem he sees is that American idealism leads to the belief (and subsequent actions) to ‘fix’ other countries problems and then hold themselves responsible to put them on the ‘right track’ to Freedom and Democracy. All laudable aims, but somewhat difficult to achieve in a reasonable timescale or at reasonable cost – both in blood and treasure. I think someone in the Bush administration, in reference to Iraq, said something along the line of ‘if you break something you own and need to fix it’. Of course, getting into a quagmire is much easier than getting out of one – as we’ve seen on our TV screens far too often. So, is retreat and new isolationism the answer? No, says the author. We know where isolationism and a refusal to interact with the real world ends up. What is needed is smart intervention, targeted, pragmatic, reasonable. Less of taking the moral ‘high ground’ and more supporting the global ‘rules-based order’ that has provided peace (by and large) and security (ditto) since the end of WW2. More cruise-missile, less boots on the ground, in fact more than analogous to the ‘broken windows’ policy practiced in US cities and exported elsewhere to combat low-level crime BEFORE things get out of control. 

Despite the obvious partisan slant and the personal animosity towards Obama throughout this book (which I mostly managed to ‘edit’ out whilst reading) I did find a fair bit of this book either at least interesting or illuminating. It’s useful, from time to time, to hear the arguments from ‘the other side’ to see how they fly or die on examination. I actually surprised myself more than once nodding in agreement with some of the authors arguments regarding both the failures of US Foreign Policy and what could be done better. Interestingly, some 10 years after initial publication, we are indeed seeing chaos and collapse increasing across the world as the US has steadily withdrawn – sometimes with spectacular bad ‘optics’ as in Afghanistan – from at least some of its involvement in geopolitics. Power abhors a vacuum and when the US refuses to act, and others are unwilling or unable to take its place, then still other actors will be more than happy to enter the breach for their own ends. The ‘trick’ is the ability to walk the line between being a cop on the beat and being an invading soldier. Interesting and worth reading. More to come... 

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Birthday Dinner Party – 27th January. 

As you’ve probably already noticed I like to post things here most days. The ‘problem’ is to actually have something to post! Now, I could just post a meme or something I found somewhere on-line, but where’s the fun (or originality) in that? This means, of course, that sometimes I can struggle with having anything worthy of posting here. Sometimes this means simply a blank day. There’s nothing wrong with that but it can feel, at least sometimes, like a lost opportunity. So, the search for new and original content goes on... I was pleased, therefore, when I half-heard an idea on the radio and thought... Cool, I might do that. The idea, which will become obvious the moment I stop rambling on, is that of holding a birthday dinner party for a group of (mostly dead) people – actually on their birthdays. This is my first attempt and, though I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good start. 

For his musical talents (and to be honest the thought that he might be half as crazy/entertaining as he was portrayed in the 1984 movie ‘Amadeus’) we could hardly do better than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Just imagine the music wafting across the room as we eat and chat!  I thought it would be interesting to add Elmore James (American blues slide guitarist) so that they could riff off each other and jam together over brandy and cigars. That’d just be beyond amazing to watch/listen to. 

For further conversation we have Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (AKA Lewis Carroll), although I’m guessing that it might take having at least a few glasses of good wine inside him before he opened up. Maybe, like the rest of us, he would simply be entranced as Captain Edward Smith (of RMS Titanic fame) regaled us the story of the great ship's final hours? No doubt tales of other dramatic moments could be related by Hans Modrow the last Communist Prime Minister of East Germany (1989-90) who could give us all the inside scoop to what was happening in that state during the weeks before and after the Berlin Wall fell. Then, to add a bit of spice to the proceedings we have Ronald "Buster" Edwards, one of the British Great Train Robbers who could keep us all riveted with his own story of one of THE crimes of the 20th century.... I think that could be quite a memorable event! 

More dinner parties to come I think... [grin] 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (FP: 1950) [262pp] 

Talking to strangers can by positively therapeutic, cathartic even. You meet, swap problems, commiserate and move on – never to see each other again. At least that’s what Guy Haines thought to begin with. Bruno was entertaining, for a while, on a long journey but Guy almost instantly thought that something was ‘off’ about him. Then he mentioned murder – only in passing, only in jest, but still – murder. The idea was a crazy one even if it had its own kind of logic. The police solved most murders because they were committed by people the victim knew – often intimately. After all, you only really got mad enough to kill someone who you knew, right? But here was the genius part, what if two people, strangers, swapped murders? They would be no connection between victim and murderer for the police to focus on. They’d be lost, floundering looking for links that didn’t exist. It was brilliant, infallible, unsolvable. Of so Bruno thought, so he said. Guy said nothing at this point, part horrified, part fascinated by this strange man. Then it happened a few weeks later – Guy's soon to be ex-wife, who was holding up his divorce, was killed - murdered. Did Bruno go through with their crazy idea, did he take a casual conversation seriously? Did Bruno now expect Guy to commit his murder for him? Guy was at a loss for what to do. Should he go to the police? What then? Scandal? Ruination? Jail? Maybe it was a random killing and nothing at all to do with Bruno? Then the letter arrived: “Your Turn”.... 

I must admit it's an interesting idea – agreeing to do a stranger's murder to avoid the inevitable links between victim and killer. After all, that’s how serial killers avoid capture for so long. But this core idea was telegraphed almost immediately – even if I hadn’t already seen the 1951 movie adaptation at least once. After that, and the murder itself (which was rather well done) there was little left but the psychological effects of guilt and fear on both Bruno and Guy. The main problem I had with the whole thing was that none of the characters held much interest to me. I certainly didn’t like any of them although I did feel some sympathy for Guy’s finance Anne who, I thought, was generally hard done by. Bruno was a borderline sociopath and spoilt little rich kid with mother issues (and then some!) whilst Guy was both weak and self-absorbed. I honestly struggled to maintain any interest in whether either of the main male characters lived or died. I actually think it might have been a more interesting novel if it had been written from the PoV of the detective who investigated the second murder – that of Bruno’s father – rather than split between Guy and Bruno. Of course, 1950’s literature of all types (and not just crime fiction) was enthralled by the ‘new’ psychology of Freud so threw around his ideas and ‘theories’ like cheap confetti and we end up with books like this – lite on actually crime and detection and oh so heavy on the psychological effects of the crime on the criminals themselves. Unfortunately, in this case at least it really wasn’t my ‘thing’. Reasonable overall. More trains arriving soon...

Monday, January 22, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Nature’s Mutiny – How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present by Philipp Blom (FP: 2017) [284pp] 

Around the middle of the 17th century things were obviously wrong. The summer became more overcast and wet, whilst the winters became increasingly colder and often extended far into what used to called spring. The gradual cooling the whole world was experiencing was having real, indeed potentially fatal effects. With Europe especially an essentially subsistence economy where food was, by and large, both produced and consumed locally a series of poor crops could cause serious famine and this is what exactly began to happen more and more. The initial response was widespread prayers, calls to turn away from sin and processions asking for divine intervention. When these failed to change things – indeed things became progressively worse – other things were tried. Innovations in crop rotation, better use of fertiliser, the expansion of farmland into common areas all increased crop yields but it still wasn’t enough. Looking beyond local agriculture and towards areas less affected by the worsening climate than others, the transport and importation of foodstuffs increased everywhere. But this meant payment in cash, not kind, the writing and enforcement of contracts, increased diplomatic contact, improved ports and roads, more and bigger ships to carry grain and return with goods for sale, the need for more effective taxation schemes, increased military spending to protect what you had, and others wanted, exploration of foreign lands and the return of exotic plants like the potato... With each new coping mechanism put in place to ameliorate the effects of the cold and damp conditions things began to change, indeed everything began to change. The old, almost medieval ways gave way to Mercantilism and eventually Capitalism. Money in the form of hard and then paper currency became much more common. New companies making healthy profits from increased trade needed secure ways to finance their ventures so corporations, stock exchanges and banks emerged to support them. A growing middle class demanded more say in their local politics and began using their newfound wealth to buy their way into the upper echelons of society. Power shifted away from nobles and towards the nouveau riche.         

Although I’ve known about the Little Ice Age for a while, I’d never really realised just how long it lasted – around three HUNDRED years! - nor had I realised exactly what effect it had on Europe and the larger world. By groping towards often local problems of supply and demand (largely for food) without actually understanding what they were dealing with, the great and the good of Europe started an unstoppable cascade of change that, eventually, produced the modern world we live it. This honestly riveting book has changed the way I now look at modern European/world history. Most (to be honest almost all) of the history I’ve read so far barely mentions things like the weather or climate and how such things have lasting impacts on historical events. But looking at the history of that period through the lens of sudden climate change explains a GREAT deal of what was going on then. People didn’t just start exploring the world and changing things around them on a whim. They did it because they really wanted to KNOW where their next meal was coming from and how (if possible) they could make a bit of ready cash on the side. Because the climate downturn extended across generations the changes that were made to cope with the new climate stuck and became the new default socio-economic position. A few bad winters simply wouldn’t have changed that much, but three hundred years of bad weather has a tendency to change how people think about the world – and it did.  

I’m confident that this, even so early in the year, will be one of the best History books of 2024. If you want to get a handle on European history between the 17th – 19th centuries, you could do a LOT worse than start here. Highly recommended and more from this excellent author to come. 

Translated from the German by the author.   

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Predator – Big Game by Sandy Schofield (FP: 1999) [226pp] 

He had been hearing the stories his entire life – the Monster and the Monster Hunter. His grandfather, the Navajo tribes wiseman, had told him the tale a hundred times. But this was the real world, this was the modern age and tales of monsters should have been left in the past where they belong. It was certainly nothing that Corporal Enoch Nakai of the US Army need concern himself with. Until that is they saw the streak in the sky and a party of soldiers from the base were sent out to investigate. Hours later a second team was sent to find out what had happened to the first and they discovered the craft – seemingly abandoned. The brass didn’t know what to make of it. Was it Russian? Was it some kind of spy plane? The scientists examining it had no idea either, but the base was put under lockdown until someone somewhere figured it all out. Corporal Nakai, it seemed, was way ahead of them. He’d seen, or rather sensed, something out there in the desert and it frightened him. Something was watching them, waiting until the right moment, testing their alertness. It was a hunter who crossed the desert as if born to it. Could this be the legend returned? If so, the Monster must be met and destroyed by the Monster Hunter and Enoch was beginning to think he alone knew who the Monster killer was. If he failed a LOT more people were going to die. 

This is an unusual read for me. Despite the fact that its science-fiction and tied into one of my favourite movie franchises, I don’t usually read books associated with it. A clear instance is Star Trek. Despite the fact that I’m a HUGE fan of the ST universe I haven’t read a single book from it. I have read a few from the Aliens universe (non-Predator related) but that, in itself, is unusual too. Anyway... I’d had this book for some time, although LONG after its publication date, and thought it was about time to actually read the thing. Overall, it was an OK read. The ‘monster’ was quite clearly a Predator from the movies and operated pretty much as you might expect. The Hero was OK, and it was an interesting ‘twist’ having him being a Native American and growing up with the legend of the monster which actually turned out to be more of a prediction. The combat was pretty well handled even if it was a little over the top at times. I did roll my eyes a few times at stereotypical writing, but I honestly wasn’t expected great literature here! The novel was entertaining enough to be a fast and generally fun read. I’ve been ‘planning’ to read some of the older Aliens novels (I have several omnibus editions in ‘the pile’) and I think I have a few newer Predator books too. I’ll see if I can fit in a few more this year. Reasonable.  

Monday, January 15, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Hunt the Altmark by Richard Wiggan (FP: 1982) [159pp] 

With war approaching, Germany knew that an effective way to degrade Britain’s ability to fight would be the disruption of its global trade network. They intended to do this by using commerce raiders – heavy cruisers and ‘pocket’ battleships – operating independently on the world's oceans sinking merchant ships and avoiding contact with the Royal navy were possible. One such raider was the Admiral Graff Spee which was dispatched in the weeks before war was declared. In support was the armed fast cargo ship Altmark which carried everything Graf Spee needed to continue her mission on the high seas. 

Initially all went well, and the Graf Spee succeeded in sinking a number of British merchant ships. But what to do with their crews? In those early days, with the old fashioned ‘Rules of the Sea’ still applying the Graff Spee couldn’t simply sink the merchant ships from range and leave the crews to their fate. So, time was given for the crews to abandon ship and they were taken onboard the battleship until they could be deposited on the Altmark and take up (hopefully temporary) residence in the emptying cargo holds. So far, so good. Until that is the Graf Spee was cornered by the Royal navy and its captain scuttled her rather than have her taken. For the Altmark this presented a problem: What was she to do now? The only logical thing, it seemed to Altmark’s captain, was to sail back to Germany, off-load the prisoners, and be assigned to another commerce raider. But how to get back undetected? 

There were only a few ways to get back to German territory and back Altmark and the British hunting her knew this. Finally, Altmark decided that the best course would be via still neutral Norway. She almost made it, except that the Admiralty in London had been alerted to her presence in Norwegian waters and plans were made to intercept her. But there was a problem – Norwegian neutrality meant that British warships could not enter her territorial waters without permission and certainly couldn’t operate there against her German enemies. There was really only one answer to that conundrum – the Royal navy would do it anyway and to hell with the diplomatic consequences! The ‘Altmark incident’ certainly soured relations between Norway and Great Britain and quite possibly increased the pressure on the German forces to take Norway before the British decide to. Certainly, the taking of Norwegian ports was being considered and mines were already being dropped in Norway's coastal areas to force German shipping into areas where the Royal navy could engage them. But the subsequent German lightening invasion of Norway put both the British and Norwegians on the same page. They would fight together. 

I knew a little about the Altmark incident going into this, but it was good finding out so much more here. About the only criticism I had was that the book was rather ‘thin’ and not just the page count. I would’ve liked to see more emphasis on what the Royal navy was doing to find the Altmark, what the Kreigsmarine was doing to get her back, some more background about the commerce raider programme and, finally, more background to the Norwegian diplomatic difficulties surrounding the incident. But saying that, this was still pretty informative and managed to fill in a small gap in my early war knowledge. Reasonable.  

Oh, I almost forgot... The Royal navy ship that released the merchant crews was HMS Cossack - the same destroyer that took part in the attack on Narvik and was later in at the kill of Bismarck. No wonder I built a model of her in my youth. BUSY little ship!  

Saturday, January 13, 2024

I *do* hope that's sarcasm....! [lol]

Neglected Book Zones 

I’ve been thinking of this for a while, but last year's attempt to read as many label types as possible kind of crystalised things. It’s obvious (to me at least) that I’ve been neglecting some areas of my reading that I used to read in quite heavily. Again, obviously habits and interests change over time, but I think it's time to turn that around – or at least turn this juggernaut back a bit in their direction. One subject in particular REALLY jumps out at me – Philosophy. I used to really enjoy that subject, indeed SO much that I did a Master's Degree in it! These days however I hardly pick up a book on the subject despite having most of a shelf unit overflowing with volumes of the stuff, the vast majority only being partially read for essay prep. So, there’s going to be more reading being done in that particular ‘zone’ and most especially on ethics which I really liked studying during my first degree.  But that’s not it... Between everything else I’m intending to at least try to read more on the following: 

Fantasy/Urban Fantasy
The Tudors

So, expect at least a sprinkling of books on those subjects coming up. I don’t have anything planned at present, but I’m sure that I can parachute the odd, and sometimes very odd, book into my reading from time to time. One other subject which is new(ish) to me – book-wise at least – is Music. So, expect more music related reading too! Most of it (presently at least) will be modern, as in post-1960's, but as I listen to more classical music, care of my daily dose of Classic FM, I’ll want to start reading about the Great Composers too. But, as always with me... We’ll see what happens! 

Friday, January 12, 2024

RIP: Annie Nightingale (1 April 1940 – 11 January 2024). She was the first female DJ on BBC Radio 1 in 1970 and played great late-night music including some of my requests to her show. She was a significant part of my youth and my musical education and will be missed.... 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Just Finished Reading: Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs (FP: 1964) [220pp] 

The once sleepy town of Evingden is sleepy no longer. With development expanding into local farmland and a steadily rising population there is money to be made for those with the drive to do so. Except, it appears, the Excelsior Joinery Company. Known to be in debt since the death of its founder some years previously, the company has failed to take advantage of the changes going on all around it, but worse is to come. When an explosion destroys the company's offices the police and fire brigade rush to the scene in time to stop the fire spreading to the nearby lumber yard. When the fire is finally out three bodies are found in the wreckage – three of the five directors of the firm. But what were they doing, late at night, in the office? If it was an important meeting why were the other two directors excluded and what caused the explosion? When the residue of dynamite is found the local police feel out of their depth and call for help. Scotland Yard responds with Superintendent Littlejohn who quickly discovers that this is no case of accident or simple murder. The more he investigates the more he is certain that there’s a lot more going on below the surface than most would imagine in what seems to be a prosperous and bustling community.  

This was a FUN read from the very first page. I was most pleased by the fact that it wasn’t yet another murder mystery. I know that murder is the ‘sexy’ crime – and one of the most straightforward to portray in fiction I suppose – but there are other crimes out there! The other thing I liked (a lot) was the way the two detectives (the superintendent & his sidekick) went about following the evidence, digging up wrongdoing and bringing people to justice for a whole host of things. It was really interesting seeing how local power and influence, to say nothing of money, operated in a small town and how opportunity gave way to corruption and worse. This was a classic English crime story in many ways – and not just because it's part of the British Library Crime Classics series! - including a rather gentle investigation and then the reveal at the end with all of the suspects present although not, in this case, at an isolated country house! I honestly enjoyed this a great deal – probably more than I was expecting actually. I just fell into the narrative, which I found super cosy and familiar, and was entranced from beginning to end. FULL of interesting characters, good, bad and mixed, with a completely believable and complex plot (just complex enough without losing its way anywhere) I was highly entertained. The author has written a LOT of books with these main (detective) characters, and I’ll be searching them out in future. At least two of them are part of the BLCC set so they’ll be coming my way soon enough. Oh, and another good sign – I'd put aside 3 days to read this and easily managed it in 2. Enough said, I think! If you’re into good solid British crime stories this is definitely for you. Highly recommended.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

"A modern rational person, whether religious or not, might be forgiven for questioning the credibility, let alone the wisdom, of any continuing notion that a country could have a divine mission - even a destiny and duty - to do anything. It is a startling presumption, oddly arcane, which does not survive critical analysis."

Michael Pembroke in America in Retreat - The Decline of US Leadership from WW2 to Covid-19.