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.