Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Favourite Things From 2016

I saw a lot of art in 2016. That's what will stand out I think. I hardly saw a film, went to the theatre and opera a bit & read a lot but I made my way to a lot of art.

Now, my knowledge of art extends pretty much as far as that cliche: "I may not know a lot about art but I know what I like." The amusing thing though is even the stuff I like I couldn't always explain to you why I like it. Especially the more abstract stuff. Perhaps it is simply that there's a mix of colour, shapes & textures that work for me without too much actual thinking being required. Perhaps that line about 'all art aspires to the condition of music' applies. The stuff hits you without being too smacked about by your mind.

So, the only films I saw in an actual cinema in 2016 were: Deadpool, Lawrence of Arabia, Hail, Caesar!, Mustang, Son of Saul, Nice Guys, Our Kind of Traitor & Embrace The Serpent. I enjoyed them all - although I'm not sure 'enjoy' is the correct word for Son of Saul, which is a pretty harrowing film but one I think everyone should see. I'd say similar things about Mustang, but that isn't as bleak. Embrace The Serpent was an astonishing film with an interesting structure. It was brilliant finally seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, where you can lose yourself in the desert properly. Nice Guys, Hail Caesar! and Deadpool were all highly entertaining whilst Our Kind of Traitor was fine up to a point. And that point was the ending. So, if I'm going to pick a film of 2016 from that list it would have to be Son of Saul.

My friends - Caroline Dunn and Emma Parry in particular - will probably find my selection of a really depressing subtitled film unsurprising. I am nothing if not easy to read.

OK, on the theatre & opera type stuff I saw Guys and Dolls (Savoy Theatre), Macbeth (Young Vic), Hangmen (Wyndhams), Battlefield (Young Vic), The Magic Flute (ENO), The Caretaker (Old Vic), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Globe), Taming of the Shrew (Globe), Madam Butterfly (ENO), The Deep Blue Sea (NT), Tristan & Isolde (ENO), Macbeth (Globe), Imogen (Globe) The Plough & The Stars (NT), Don Giovanni (ENO), No Man's Land (Wyndhams). Annoyingly ill-health (or perhaps my own anxiety related to my ill-health if truth be told) led me to cancel a few other things I was supposed to see. This has been a problem recently and one I'm determined to see the back of in 2017.

The only one of those that I thought was an utter dud was Macbeth at the Globe. I'm not 'in' on arts politics but having seen everything from Emma Rice's 'Wonder Season' I'm a bit baffled as to why the Globe have gone and given her the - polite - boot. A Midsummer Night's Dream was (almost) the best thing I saw in 2016, The Taming of the Shrew was an OK take on a terrible play, Imogen was an interesting attempt to do something with one of Shakespeare's less often performed plays and Macbeth was rubbish but that was more to do with its director than Emma Rice. But The Globe is my favourite place to watch Shakespeare. There's something about feeling part of the production that other theatres don't have.

My favourite things I saw though were: Don Giovanni (ENO), Guys and Dolls (Savoy Theatre), Macbeth (Young Vic) and Hangmen

I would say I enjoyed everything I saw at the ENO, even the five and a half hours of Wagner that was Tristan & Isolde. I love the ENO though, even as they struggle to find a place in the new austerity-driven arts culture of the 21st century. They still have lots of reasonably priced tickets and they seem less pompous than the Royal Opera House, which - and this may be unfair - seems to be home to the wealthy and the snobby but I base that on one visit & feeble attempts to buy tickets that aren't outrageously priced.

I saw two more Pinter plays this year - The Caretaker and No Man's Land - which just reinforce my love of Pinter's black comic verbal hostility where you have to read not just between the lines but between the lines between the lines.

The Deep Blue Sea was a disappointment, The Plough & the Stars interesting and Battlefield though provoking and very, very Peter Brook.

The only live music I saw this year was the magnificent Gretchen Peters who is the finest purveyor of warm melancholy I've seen recently and I'd go see her every time she comes to Britain if I have the money. I did make it to The Cambridge Folk Festival, though, which was fun. This time with my friend Mark and my god-daughter Gemma. There were some great bands on and some great pubs in town to explore but I really enjoyed Lisa O'Neill, Songs of Separation, Sam Outlaw, Kate Rusby, Mary Chapin Carpenter & Baaba Maal. I'd like to see more live music next year (and Depeche Mode are touring so that's already on the list.)

So, now for the arts/museums list. I went to: Alexander Calder : Performing Sculpture (Tate Modern), The World Goes Pop (Tate Modern), Artists & Empire (Tate Britain), Frank Auerbach (Tate Britain), Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (2015 & 2016) (National Portrait Gallery), Vogue: A Century of Style (National Portrait Gallery), Bletchley Park (with Aya), Painting with the Light (Tate Britain), Russia & The Arts (National Portrait Gallery), Mona Hatoum (Tate Modern), Bhupen Khakhar: You Can't Please All (Tate Modern), Georgia O'Keeffe (Tate Modern), William Egglestone (National Portrait Gallery), Picasso Portraits (National Portrait Gallery), Paul Nash (Tate Britain), Turner Prize 2016 (Tate Britain), Painting The Artist : Van Dyck & Early Self-Portraiture in Britain (National Portrait Gallery), Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery) & Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy). So that's not too bad.

I particularly loved Alexander Calder: Performing Sculpture (Tate Modern), Vogue: A Century of Style (National Portrait Gallery), Painting with the Light (Tate Britain), Russia & The Arts (National Portrait Gallery), William Egglestone (National Portrait Gallery), Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery) & Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy) but Mona Hatoum shook me up & blew my mind in a way that I hadn't been expecting even as I wasn't sure about how much I liked what I was seeing, which makes for an interesting response. I'll probably try to get to Beyond Caravaggio again before it closes and I'm going to pop in to see the Wilfredo Lam (Tate Modern) Exhibition on New Year's Eve so the year isn't closed yet.

If I had to pick one though I'd go for...Mona Hatoum. 

I missed a couple of things because friends wanted to go but we couldn't pin dates down. Next year I'll go regardless.

The best thing is having memberships to various Museums and Galleries, which are funded by generous relatives (mostly). It means that these things are doable even when I'm skint, which as those of you who know me well know that's often. It also helps that I live in a city with such an amazing set of galleries and museums. It's easy in London to get that London mindset that means weirdly you end up not going to all the things you're surrounded by because you just don't. There's no real explanation for it. I've lived in London for about twenty years. For half that time I barely saw a play, went to an art gallery or did anything else but get drunk, sleep and work. Now, I'm more aware of what's out there and more determined to take advantage of it.

It helps that there are people I know who enjoy this stuff as much as I do so here's an end of 2016 thank you list:

To Gemma, for joining me at Don Giovanni in our lucky dip seats & having a whale of a time. As well as The Cambridge Folk Festival.
To Mark, Emma & Chris, for the various plays & trips. To Emma also thanks for being one of the few people to get around art galleries and museums at the same speed as me. To Marky for having a similar taste in music to me also & for making the Cambridge Folk Festival such an excellent combination of beer and music. Maybe we'll get round to Hampton Court this year. ;-)
To Carrie for the continuing education in the world of musicals. More next year as I've been rubbish this.
To Aya for getting me to go the Bletchley Park again & for her help with tickets at the Prince Charles Cinema.
To Mum & Dad for funding a lot of this stuff through Xmas & Birthday presents.

I hope you all had a lovely 2016. And here's to 2017.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Reading in 2016

So, I set out to read 100 books in 2016. 

I know - and thank you, Professor Parry, for also pointing it out to me - that setting targets isn't really what reading should be about but hey, that's how I roll. It also allows me to indulge in my love of Excel spreadsheets. 

What I also set out to do was read more fiction, more poetry and more writing by non-white men. I have certainly read more fiction than usual. Of the 64 books, I read in 2016 26 of them were fiction, 28 non-fiction, 6 poetry and 4 Doctor Who (which I've made a separate category just because.)

How did I pick the books? Well, partly I am very slowly working through a list I found on the Guardian website of 1000 novels you should read so some of them came via that list. Another chunk was picked via my Reading Group.* Most of the non-fiction was just a random choice but reflects my interest in World War One and World War Two. Often though one book on a particular topic will lead to another one, e.g. reading Geoff Dyer's excellent The Missing of the Somme led me to the older (and also excellent) The Great War & Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. I also read a couple of books on the recommendation of podcasts - Dan Snow's History Hit was a particular contributor here - but you can also thank Tim Keys's Radio programme on Daniil Kharms' The Plummeting Old Women. 

I only read six poetry books, which wasn't quite what I was hoping - ignoring for the sake of argument The Poetry Society's fantastic Poetry Review, which arrives Quarterly & features a fine selection of poetry to read as well as interviews, criticism and reviews. If you like poetry & have a decent income I can't recommend joining The Poetry Society enough. It would be worth it for the Poetry Review alone. However one of my favourite books of 2016 was Katherine Towers' 'The Remedies'. 

Poetry books sometimes feel like a luxury - perhaps because they are - because they tend to be quite expensive but I'll take them over watches (as a random example of pointlessly expensive bling.) 

The one thing my reading does often do is miss contemporary or literary fiction so I'll end up reading a lot of 2016's best books in 2017 & beyond. Any recommendations of podcasts about current fiction eagerly received. 

So, what were my favourite books I read in 2016?

I've already mentioned The Remedies, by Katherine Towers so that's one. Then there is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, which is an astonishingly well-written & crafted novel. Also Elizabeth Smart's By Central Station I Sat Down & Wept, which feels more like a long narrative poem than a novel. It's also incredibly and almost unbearably personal. I can see why some people might dislike it but I absolutely loved it. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which I expect not to like at all but fell in love with to such a degree that I found myself a little tearful twice whilst reading it. On public transport. It wasn't far from Joey's reaction in Friends. I also really enjoyed Elif Shafak's Forty Rules of Love, which is a classic example of a book I wouldn't have read based on its cover if I'd picked it up in a shop but which deserves to be read by as many people as possible. It being a story of love and philosophy (which might just be the same thing.) I also really enjoyed The Vinyl Detective by Andrew Cartmel, which I described as 'James Bond with carrier bags'. That's a line I'm still proud of. 
I also loved Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, which reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude but with more cooking. So it is tough to pick a single best book but I've randomly (and perhaps pointlessly) decided to select one: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which just pips By Grand Central Station I Sat Down & Wept.)

Michael Herr's Dispatches is one of the great books of military reportage and I regret not having read it in 1989 when it would have probably changed my life. Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by D.R. Thorpe, which is a biography of the kind of Conservative that I suspect is if not extinct certainly endangered. Geoff Dyer's 'The Missing of the Somme is moving, wonderfully researched and well-written. But I think the best non-fiction book I read in 2016 was Sarah Helm's This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, which is a tough read - there were moments when I had to put it down for a bit to read something less real - but well-worth it. 

Perhaps the book I found toughest to get through in 2016 was T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which I find had great moments but did sometimes feel like a long, dull trudge through the desert. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, was the book I felt I needed more knowledge to appreciate properly but did enjoy. Kobe Abe's Face of Another was the only book in 2016 that I really ended up disliking, despite it being clearly a fine book. There was something about it that lost me towards the end. 

So there you have it. That was my 2016. Below is the full list of the books I read. Feel free to comment. 

Fools & Jesters in the English Court, John Southworth
The Private Lives of the Saints: Power, Passion & Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, Janina Ramirez
The Silver Stallion, Ahn Junghyo
After Hitler: The Last Days Of The Second World War, Michael Jones
The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning & Making of English Football, David Goldblatt
The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart
The Mask of Dimitrious, Eric Ambler
Non-Stop, Brian Aldiss
This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women, Sarah Helm
Beowulf, Seamus Heaney
Childhood's End, Arthur C Clarke
The Wild Swans at Coole, W. B. Yeats
The Happiness Patrol, Graeme Curry
Forensics, Val McDermid
Trumbo, Bruce Cook
The Crystal Bucket: TV Criticism from the Observer, 1976-79, Clive James
The Pompous Tory: The Wife in Space, Volume 3. Neil & Sue Perryman
Cultural Amnesia: Notes On The Margins of My Time, Clive James
The Plummeting Old Women, Daniil Kharms
1971 - Never a Dull Moment: Rock's Golden Year, David Hepworth
Like Water For Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
Disobeying Hitler: German Resistance in the Last Year of WW2, Randall Hansen
Rasputin - A Short Life, Frances Welch
Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe
The Wind Among The Reeds, W. B. Yeats
The Vinyl Detective, Andrew Cartmel
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence
Resistance is Useless, Jenny Colgan
The Movie Doctors, Simon Mayo/Mark Kermode
Stage Whispers, Douglas Wilmer
Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, Dan Fox
Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan, D.R. Thorpe
The Victorian Guide To Sex: Desire & Deviance in the 19th Century, Fern Riddell
The Missing of the Somme, Geoff Dyer
The Waste Land & Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Where Adam Delved & Eve Span: A History of the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, Mark O'Brien
The Mad One: The Wife in Space, Volume 4, Neil & Sue Perryman
The War Machines, Ian Stuart Black
Operation Insanity, Colonel Richard Westley
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
England, Arise: The People, The King & the Revolt of 1381, Juliet Barker
The Face of Another, Kobo Abe
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe
Le Grand Meaulnes, Henri Alain-Fournier
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Death of a Hero, Richard Aldington
The Man With The Golden Arm, Nelson Algren
Fantômas, Marcel Allain/Pierre Souvestre
Epitaph for a Spy, Eric Ambler
Journey into Fear, Eric Ambler
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
The Great War & Modern Memory, Paul Fussell
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Sex & Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire, Eric Berkowitz
The Remedies, Katherine Towers
The Forty Rules of Love, Elif Shafak
Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream To The Sun, Sarah Ladipo Manyika
The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting: Wannsee & The Final Solution, Mark Roseman
Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945, Raul Hilberg
Dispatches, Michael Herr


*A thank you here to Rachael Barnes, Leslie McMurtry & Aya Vandebussche for making me read books that I might not have picked myself. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Longest Afternoon - Brendan Simms

'The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided The Battle of Waterloo' by Brendan Simms, is my fourth Waterloo book of the year. 

This focuses on the King's German Legion's (KGL) defence of La Haye Sainte, which Simms claims was the key battle within the battle. Their defence held the centre of the field for Wellington long enough to allow von Blücher's Prussians to arrive & effectively finish Napoleon. 

It's a well-written & researched account of the day at La Haye Sainte & does well by all who fought there, including the French. 

He is very insistent about La Haye Sainte's significance, which he points out (at least three times in very similar words): "is still lost amid the (understandable) emphasis on the Guards at Hougoument, the heavy cavalry charges, Picton's death, the resilience of the British infantry squares...and finally Maitland's coup de grâce to the Imperial Guard." 

He makes a good case, but as that list shows battles are more than just single incidents one after another. They are interconnected, often happening at the same time & wreathed in the smoke, chaos & terror of the day. 

The importance of a single part of that battle is often hard to say without straying into counter-factuals. La Haye Sainte was clearly important but if it had fallen earlier in the day would Napoleon have won? It's impossible to say but it is worth a detailed look. And the men - on both sides - who fought there are worth remembering.

Simms does an excellent job of explaining not just the battle but the creation & make-up of the King's German Legion, individual stories from within that battle and putting the KGL into a post-Waterloo context too. He quotes Field-Marshal Lord Bramall who refers to Waterloo as 'the first NATO operation' so multi-national was the army that fought there: British, Hanoverian, Brunswickers, Dutch, Flemish and Walloon (before you throw in the Prussians).  

It is good to be reminded that our history is not as separate from Europe as we might like to believe and that Waterloo wasn't won - just - on the playing fields of Eton. Not that I think this is the book's intention, just something I took from it.

Definitely worth a read if Waterloo is your thing, although it is actually as much about the trials of men in battle as it is the strategic and tactical stuff of military history. The story of Friedrich von Ompteda would be worth a book in its own right (and makes the Prince of Orange the nearest thing to a villain this book has.)


Wednesday, September 9, 2015


"I knew it was my business to protest, however futile protest might be. I felt that for the honour of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm."

This quote was taken from Adam Hochschild's excellent book, To End All Wars and when, as now, voices start calling once more for us to go to war or when the press start beating the drums of war and start calling anyone who questions the government, 'Cowards' it might do us good to remember this quote. 

The price many of those who objected to World War One paid could be high, especially in the early years when anti-war activists could be attacked by patriotic mobs or when one chose not to fight and ended up imprisoned and - in the case of c.30 concious objectors - threatened with the death penalty for refusing to fight. 

I've just finished To End All Wars, which I'm reading side-by-side with Douglas Newton's The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain's Rush To War, 1914, and the role of press barons and editors in pushing war and punishing and mocking dissidents hasn't changed much. The Sun branding the potential leaders of the Labour Party, 'Cowards' is part of the same culture even if the wars they want us to take part in are very different. 

So the calls have begun for us to bomb Syria. A country that has already been pretty comprehensively bombed. Our bombs, of course, are special stability bombs. Designed not to kill but to bring stability to a region that has clearly already massively benefited from our previous stability campaigns. And yesterday we announced the killing of two British ISIS fighters by drone. 

We're all supposed to be OK with this because these people were ISIS fighters. They, apparently, wanted to organise terrorist atrocities in the UK. So killing them without trial is perfectly fine. They chose to fight. They deserved to die. 

Except...except...is anyone else uncomfortable with a politician playing judge, jury and executioner without consultation? Is anyone uncomfortable with vague discussions of 'intelligence', which since the Iraq War is questionable in both accuracy and/or its use by politicians eager to make a case for war. 

We talk about how untrustworthy politicians are seen to be. We talk about cover-ups, sexed-up dossiers and conspiracies. Yet we seem willing to allow David Cameron to - effectively - reintroduce the death penalty with barely a whimper. 

These things matter because they set precedents. We have nothing to fear from our government, I hear, if we've done nothing wrong. And perhaps that is true but history shows that laws accepted on the basis of being used in the fight against terrorism have a tendency to creep into other areas. 

So I write this and paraphrase Bertrand Russell: I know it is my business to protest, however futile protest might be. I feel that for the honour of human nature those who are not swept off their feet should show that they stand firm.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Project 45, Part I

So in January 2016 I turn 45. Yes, 45. I may act like I'm 11 but I'm 45 so I've set myself a number of projects for 2016.  One of which is this film list. I've randomly picked one film from every year since 1971 to watch that I haven't seen.

Basically my criteria is:

- I've never seen it
- I think it is a surprise I didn't/haven't
- It's not part of an ongoing series (although there are a couple of exceptions)

There's not much horror or superhero stuff in there, but I'm planning to come to them later. It's pretty arbitrary.

I haven't put 2015 on the list yet as it isn't over yet.

Ideally I'm going to keep a look out for these being shown at cinemas, especially The Prince Charles or the BFI who regularly show older films

Here it is:

1971, A Clockwork Orange
1972, Solaris
1973, American Graffiti
1974, The Conversation
1975, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
1976, Taxi Driver
1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1978, Grease
1979, Mad Max
1980, The Shining
1981, Escape From New York
1982, Fast Times At Ridgemont High
1983, The Outsiders
1984, Paris, Texas
1985, St Elmo's Fire
1986, Stand By Me
1987, Dirty Dancing
1988, Willow
1989, Sex, Lies & Video Tape
1990, Goodfellas
1991, The Silence of The Lambs
1992, Basic Instinct
1993, Dazed & Confused
1994, The Lion King
1995, Toy Story
1996, Fargo
1997, Good Will Hunting
1998, The Big Lebowski
1999, American Beauty
2000, Requiem For A Dream
2001, Spirited Away
2002, Minority Report
2003, Underworld
2004, The Incredibles
2005, Brokeback Mountain
2006, The Prestige
2007, No Country For Old Men
2008, The Hurt Locker
2009, Inglorious Basterds
2010, Scott Pilgrim v The World
2011, Drive
2012, Silver Linings Playbook
2013, Snowpiercer
2014, Whiplash
2015, TbC

So there it is.

Any alternative suggestions etc. Feel free to suggest them in the comments or one Twitter, where I am @Lokster71.

Any of my friends wishing to join me, especially if they like any of these films feel free to step forward.

Be seeing you.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dancing Into Battle, Nick Foulkes

Nick Foulkes has written a rather lovely book here. It tells the story of Waterloo from a different angle. There are soldiers in here. From lowly privates to officers and gentlemen, including The Duke of Wellington himself. But there are also civilians. Particular the wealthy British occupants of Brussels.

Brussels was, before the battle, packed full of Britons. There was an army, of course. There to help stabilize the newly formed (and slightly uncertain) United Kingdom of the Netherlands. With them came a high class of flotsam & jetsam who had joined the dash across the Channel for their own reasons. In some cases this is because they weren't quite as wealthy as they would have liked to be and their money went a lot further in Brussels than it did in Britain.

So there is a lot to hear about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. There's lots of interesting stories and characters but at the centre, in a unobtrusive way, is the Duke of Wellington. The Duke is often seen as a cold, cynical aristocrat (and there's an argument to be made that this is what he became later) but this book let's us see that some of his aristocratic insouciance in the run up to Waterloo was an act designed to reassure a nervous Brussels public. It also reminds us that the Duke wasn't always the clean cut hero he is presented. He could, often, be a very naughty boy, especially with Lady Frances Wedderburn-Webster.

There are balls and races. There is sex and romance. There are aristocratic young men showing off in the parks and streets of Brussels. There are drunken soldiers (of all ranks). There is gossip and gossips: of whom Thomas Creevey MP stands out. Creevey was a Whig MP who - if memory serves* - was in Brussels avoiding the consequences of a trial for libel. He provides an insight in the Duke of Wellington's state of mind post-battle when he basically pushes his way into the Duke's home in Brussels.

Foulkes gradually builds up these stories to the Duchess of Richmond's ball, which has cemented a place in history. There is apparently a whole book devoted to the ball - David Miller's The Duchess Of Richmond's Ball, 15 June 1815, which I would now dearly like to read - such is its fame. Foulkes tells it story in a single excellent chapter.

Then the book moves on to the battle itself. Foulkes writes a sketchy but rather excellent account of the how the battle panned out. Obviously being a social history it concentrates more on people. Both soldiers and civilians, including those waiting nervously in Brussels listening to the distant rumble of the cannon. He does a fine job of bringing the uncertainty of that day to life. Rumours of French victory swept through Brussels at one point causing a panicked flight from the City. It's a reminder of how different a world without instantaneous communication is. A world where no one can agree on the time. It also reminds you that the entire battle might have been won when the gates of Hougoument were shut after a small group of French soldiers broke in. On the smallest things the fate of Empire's hang.

This book actually makes a good companion to Paul O'Keeffe's, Waterloo - The Aftermath as both books talk of similar topics but from different angles. So both books talk about the treatment of the wounded. Amputation was a pretty standard practice for the time. Foulkes gives accounts of how Lord Uxbridge and Fitzroy Somerset dealt with their amputations with a stoicism that is almost unbelievable. O'Keeffe gives a detailed account of how a leg was amputated in a chapter that I would not read if you are squeamish. Both books remind us that some of the wounded lay untreated on the battlefield for days. Both books emphasise the shear horror of the post-battle field. The tightness of the space. The density of the bodies. Both books show us how the site became a tourist attraction pretty much immediately.

Foulkes also makes a fine job of showing how miraculous it was that Wellington wasn't killed. His officers died or were badly wounded all around him. As Foulkes himself says, "Often in accounts of the battle given by those who fought at Waterloo, there comes a time when the writer admits he finds it hard to believe how anyone survived..." The Duke himself realised it was a miracle of sorts. He said - almost - as much to Creevey.

I think the section on Wellington after the battle, when his 'act' slipped in the face of realising what the cost of the day had been, is genuinely moving. The quote from the letter Wellington wrote to Lord Aberdeen on June 19th to commiserate with Aberdeen on the loss of his brother illustrates his feelings admirably.

The book ends with an epilogue.

That's all I am going to say on that.

This is a fabulous book, which is written with a clarity that other writers of history would do well to emulate. I can't recommend it enough.

*I really should make notes when reading but I'm generally reading them on buses, tubes and trains so...blah blah blah. (Consider this an apology for the slipshod nature of this blog.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Omega Factor (Part One)

If you've never heard of The Omega Factor then I wouldn't be surprised. I hadn't heard of it myself until Big Finish announced they were going to bring it back in audio form. When I discovered it starred Louise Jameson - for whom I have a bit of thing - I zipped off to Amazon to pick up a copy on DVD. Second hand.

The 1970s seems to have been a bit of a paranormal decade. Or at least that's my impression. The great powers were definitely working on these areas, although whether they achieved anything more than create the conditions for a thousand and one conspiracy theories I don't know. The 70s is the peak decade for Uri Gellar too. So this was fertile territory for a television series.

It's a single season ten episode series made by BBC Scotland in 1979 and shown the same year. It's the tale of Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), a journalist. He's been writing articles of the occult but basically lives an ordinary life with his wife Julia (Joanna Tope). However he also has suppressed psychic powers, which it turns out are about to complicate his life in significant ways.

I don't want to spoil the series. Suffice it to say after an unfortunate set of encounters with Edward Drexel (Cyril Luckham) and his sinister lurking 'friend' Morag (Natasha Gerson) Crane finds himself drawn into the work of Department 7. Department 7 is a special department headed by Scott-Erskine (the magnificently named Brown Derby) that is involved in investigating the paranormal. They poke, prod and test. They're trying to make sure Great Britain isn't left behind in the Cold War quest for advantages over the enemy.

Also working at Department 7 is the laconic and rather annoying Dr Roy Martindale (John Carlisle), who heads up the Edinburgh section (which is where for various plot related reasons Tom Crane ends up). And Dr Anne Reynolds (Louise Jameson), who knows Tom through his wife. Anne is the other main lead. She plays the Scully to Tom Crane's Mulder.

Ah, yes the X-Files comparison.

The two series do have similarities but The Omega Factor is more about the personal than the conspiratorial. Even if there is a conspiracy. But The Omega Factor is Tom Crane's personal journey into a strange new world that occupies the same space as the ordinary new one. His journey also involves Dr Anne Reynolds more and more.

The other thing I should note is that it is interesting to watch a series like this that is set in Edinburgh (and other parts of Scotland) instead of the familiar streets of London. It does have that grey, washed out look that the late-70s has in my memory.

The series was created by Jack Gerson, who also wrote a novelisation of the - effectively - the first couple of episodes of the series, although the plot goes in slightly different directions. [See Below] It has moments of real creepiness and can be rather dark and unpleasant. It certainly seemed to aggravate Mary Whitehouse with its portrayal of the dark arts, although the risks involved of dabbling are made pretty clear throughout the series. People in The Omega Factor pay a price for getting involved. It certainly isn't glib.

The only episode I didn't really get on with was Child's Play, which has its moments, but also features the silliest sequence in the whole series. But the best episodes are the first two, Illusions and Double Vision (which has some really creepy moments) and then The Powers of Darkness. I should also stop and note the rather unsettling title sequence and music.

The performances of the main cast are resolutely excellent. James Hazeldine plays the hero well as he struggles to come to terms with his own powers and the world he now finds himself in. He does righteous indignation well too. He'd have made a fine maverick cop in the right series. Louise Jameson also plays off of Hazeldine well. Dr Anne Reynolds is a scientist* but also a friend. She's more skeptical than Tom, even though she's been working for Department 7.

John Carlisle is brilliant as Martindale. He's dry, cold and almost reptilian. He's not sympathetic, which makes him ideal 'boss' material. Brown Derby's Erskine-Brown is a more traditional man of government corridors and gentleman's clubs. The sort of man that the Third Doctor would have been put up against during the Pertwee era of Doctor Who.

There seems to be a central argument in the series between the possible scientific truth of paranormal powers and the more old-school occult: computers and clip-boards v pentacles and demons. (And Gerson's novelization makes that more explicit.)

I don't intend to review the individual episodes. I think you should go watch them yourselves. Then come back and comment.

The series ends with some threads still dangling implying that there was more to come but it never did. Until now. Big Finish have today launched the first series audio The Omega Factor featuring Louise Jameson as Dr Anne Reynolds again. I look forward to hearing these.

Prior to that Louise Jameson narrated an unexpurgated version of The Omega Factor novel, which can be ordered here. It's an excellent book actually that isn't quite true to the series but has a bit more depth to it. There's some fantastic darkness in it. Some scenes are very hard to shake off. And Drexel is a nastier character here than he is in the television series, where I found Cyril Luckham to be a tad too avuncular to be as terrifying as he should be. Louise Jameson narrates excellently. She doesn't do 'impressions' of other characters. There's an accent here and there, a tone change and/or a step up or down in her vocal range to make it obvious that different people are speaking. Although her Dr Martindale really did seem to get the spirit of John Carlisle's performance. It might be a good way of dipping into the series in audio form if you're not sure it'll be your cup of tea (and can't get hold of the DVD).**

In Part Two I'll talk about the Big Finish series, which will feature words from Louise Jameson and David Richardson who were kind enough to spare me some of their time a while ago now. I would have written this later - for some reason I thought they were releasing Series One in August.

Be seeing you then.

*She also wears a fetching selection of jumpers but this may be my own personal thing.
**The series might be available in unofficial places but I couldn't possibly recommend them.