June 2013 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there.



“The Alternate Asimovs” Isaac Asimov. Original previously unpublished versions of the novels Pebble in the Sky and End of Eternity, and of the short story Belief. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“Pebble in the Sky” Isaac Asimov. Asimov’s first novel, originally published in 1950. Far-future science fiction. Part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“Foundation” Isaac Asimov. Far future science fiction, the start of Asimov’s most famous series. Library book.

“Foundation and Empire” Isaac Asimov. Far future science fiction, part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“Second Foundation” Isaac Asimov. Far future science fiction, part of Read All the Fiction, boxed up.

“Life After Life” Kate Atkinson. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy – the story of a woman growing up in the early 20th Century over & over again. Library book.

“Shift” Hugh Howey. The sequel to Wool, post- and immediately pre-apocalypse. Library book.

“Flash” L. E. Modesitt Jr. Science fiction political thriller set a few hundred years in the future. Library book.

“Blackbirds” Chuck Wendig. Urban fantasy/thriller about a young woman who can tell when & how people die just by touching them. Library book.

Total: 9


“China: The Three Emperors 1662-1795” eds. Evelyn S. Rawski & Jessica Rawson. Exhibition catalogue from a 2005 exhibition at the Royal Academy, covering the art collection of the three Qing Dynasty Emperors the Kangxi Emperor, the Yongzheng Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor.

Total: 1


The Stone Roses, Finsbury Park 7/6/2013.

Total: 1



Just Hanging About.


Turned to Stone.

Waiting for the Sun.

Total: 5


Japan’s Sakoku Period. In Our Time episode about the period of Japan’s history where it pursued a policy of isolation from the rest of the world.

The Putney Debates. In Our Time episode about the context of & discussions in the Putney Debates (held in 1647 after the end of the first part of the Civil Wars).

Total: 2


“Monuments to Amun-Ra ‘King of the Gods’: The Temples of Thebes” George Hart. Talk given by George Hart at the June meeting of the EEG, about Amun-Ra and the various temples in the Theban region.

Total: 1



Donald Campbell: Speed King. Biography of Donald Campbell, who died in 1967 trying to break the water speed record (for the 8th time).

Fit to Rule. Series about the British monarchs through the lens of their medical history from Henry VIII to Edward VII, presented by Lucy Worsley.

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World. Programme about the life & work of Marie Curie.

The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution. A programme about the life & work of J. M. W. Turner.

Australia with Simon Reeve. Simon Reeve travelling around Australia.

Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Documentary about the life of Thomas Cromwell, presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Part of the BBC’s Tudor Court Season.

Horizon: The Secret Life of the Cat. Programme about investigating the territories & ranges of pet cats using GPS.

Ice Age Giants. Alice Roberts talking about the large animals that lived during the ice age, complete with CGI recreations.

Isaac Newton: The Last Magician. Biography of Isaac Newton.

The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign. Programme presented by Jonathan Dimbleby about the events leading up to the pivotal World War II battle at El Alamein in late 1942.

TOWN with Nicholas Crane. Nicholas Crane visiting British towns.

The Tube: An Underground History. Programme made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground.

Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here. Cut down version of a programme about what made Britain such fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble. Series where Kate Humble visits sheep farmers around the world to see what’s the same & what’s different.

Total: 14

“Blackbirds” Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black can tell when you’re going to die. She’d actually rather not know, but it only takes a bit of skin on skin contact and she knows when, of what and maybe a bit of where. A nicely packaged vision that only takes a couple of seconds real time but lasts for as long as it needs to to show her the details.

The book opens with Miriam waiting for an unpleasant specimen of a man to die in a motel room so she can rifle through his wallet and take enough money to get a few more dinners & a few more motel rooms. This is how she lives, hitch-hiking around the US, surviving rather than living. She’s got a foul mouth and an attitude and underneath the bluster she’s broken but she’ll be damned if she lets anyone else see. The story is told both moving forward from the opening scene and through a series of flashbacks & dreams & other people’s stories. Miriam meets a trucker (who she actually likes, not a common occurrence) who’ll die in a particularly gruesome murder with her name on his lips – the climax of the thriller plot line. And a con man who has a proposition for her, and who isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. The flashbacks & dreams tell us how Miriam got here, why she’s broken & on the road and give hints as to how her power works & where it came from (as far as she knows).

One thing I liked about this book is the gender flipping of a couple of clichés. Most obvious is Louis the trucker as the damsel in distress and murder victim, with Miriam trying to figure out if she can stop it happening. Louis is also the catalyst for Miriam to become more actively engaged with her life again rather just drifting along waiting for death – in a “redeemed by the love of a good woman” sort of way (Louis is the “good woman” here, in case I’m not clear). Also notable, Miriam’s got a troubled past (well, duh) but Wendig avoids the cliché of rape. The bad shit that did happen to her feels appropriate for what it’s done to her, and thematically appropriate for the story rather than “woman with trauma, must’ve been rape”.

While the story is satisfyingly complete in itself there’s a sequel and there’s definitely hooks for a wider story. Miriam figures out more of the rules of her powers by the climax of the story. There’s also a (gruesome) scene where she talks to a psychic to try & learn more about her power – she doesn’t get answers but it’s clear that there’s something there to learn. Which kinda sums up that side of it for the reader too – we don’t know any more than Miriam, but it’s clear that Wendig knows where he’s going with this.

I liked this book a lot. It’s pretty dark, but with a current of optimism running through it. I thought Miriam’s cynicism was clearly presented as part of how she’s broken rather than the truth of the world. And the ending holds out hope that she might be able to make her own world better. It’s a fairly gruesome book tho – I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re easily disturbed by written descriptions. I’m squeamish myself, but when reading I’ve perfected the art of Not Visualising things so books (including this one) are generally OK. But there’s stuff in this that I’d not want to see in a film.

Donald Campbell: Speed King; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The Marillion song Out of This World was inspired by Donald Campbell, and when they play it live the visuals are footage of the man and of his last fatal attempt to break the water speed record. So I recorded this biography of Campbell (Donald Campbell: Speed King) because that’s pretty much all I knew about him. We’d been putting off watching it for a while, as the footage of the crash is always pretty depressing to watch and the programme was probably also going to be.

We were right … it was pretty sobering to watch. Partly because of the tragedy at the end, dying chasing a goal that really wasn’t worth someone’s life. And partly because towards the end of his life it seemed like the world had moved on and he hadn’t. The programme opened with much the same footage of the accident as Marillion use, and then fairly straightforwardly told us the story of his life with contemporary footage and lots of interviews with people who knew him. This included people who’d worked with him, and also his daughter & widow.

Campbell’s father had been a land and water speed record holder before him, and was knighted for his achievements. Malcolm Campbell was by all accounts not a very nice man – arrogant & overbearing – and ignored Donald a lot. Donald on the other hand idolised him, and wanted to impress him. One of the interviewees, a writer who met Donald Campbell at the height of his achievements, thought that this desire to live up to & to out-do his father was the driving force behind his whole life. And certainly Campbell didn’t make any attempts at speed records until after his father died. But once his father was dead he gave up his job, mortgaged his house and dedicated himself to breaking speed records.

He broke the water speed record several times. At first he used his father’s old boat but was unsuccessful with this, even with modifications. Then he & his team created a newly designed boat, the Bluebird K7. This boat was barely in the water at all when in motion, as one of the engineers pointed out this is the best way if you want to go fast – air being a lot less dense than water. With this boat he broke the record several times in the late 1950s. This earnt him the CBE, and lots of prize money.

In terms of his personal life he’d been married twice by the late 50s. He had a daughter from his first marriage, who was interviewed on the programme. She said what she had been told was that her mother had been unfaithful to her father, and he’d discovered this and packed his bags & left. She didn’t see her father again for a few years (this was when she was quite young) and the first she knew about speed record attempts or anything like that was when he broke the first water speed record – she was in hospital (swallowed a hairgrip, she said) and someone came to tell her her father had broken the water speed record.

The programme didn’t mention his second wife beyond saying she existed, and moved on to the period he was single after this marriage ended. At this point he was rich, famous and was also charismatic … so unsurprisingly he had a lot of success with the ladies. His daughter said when she first met the woman who was to be his third wife she thought it was just another of his girlfriends, but this relationship was to last until Campbell’s death. And beyond – his widow was another of the interviewees and she said she still regarded herself as Campbell’s wife not his widow.

Having outdone his father in terms of water speed records Campbell now moved on to the land speed record. Campbell & his team designed and build the Bluebird CN7, a car that was theoretically capable of breaking the 400mph barrier. There was a lot of investment & sponsorship from British industry, and an assumption that he’d find breaking the land speed record just as easy as the water one. Sadly this wasn’t the case – the first attempt ended in a spectacular crash at around 300mph, wrecking the car and astonishingly not killing Campbell. The car was rebuilt and they searched for another place to attempt the record, blaming conditions in Nevada for the crash. But the Australian salt lake they found was even worse – it hadn’t rained for years there, but once the team arrived it rained again & again. The investors were beginning to balk at these successive failures – what had they paid their money for? Why wasn’t he getting on with it? Campbell even had to appear on TV to answer criticisms because various of the investors had been giving interviews about how unhappy they were with the lack of progress. To make matters worse, an American competitor had set an unofficial record (the car wasn’t set up right for the rules) so Campbell looked even more like a failure. Eventually in 1964 he succeeded in setting a record of 403mph – a record, but lower than the unofficial one.

He counted this as success (which it was, but I think they all felt it was only partial success) and set out to do something his father had never done – break both speed records in a single year. He achieved this in December 1964 & then returned to Britain. Sadly for him, the world had moved on and people didn’t really care so much for speed records as they had done in the 50s and before. It was the mid-60s, the Beatles were the big thing, and a rather old fashioned man doing rather old fashioned daring deeds wasn’t a good fit for the mood of the era. He announced plans to build a rocket car to break the land speed record again and built a mockup for the press. But he failed to get funding or sponsorship so the project was shelved. It felt like this is when he should’ve retired – he’d beaten dear old Dad, the public enthusiasm for more was waning, time to rest on his laurels.

Obviously, he didn’t. Various of the interviewees said that this was his life – all he knew how to do was make speed record attempts, it was what he’d devoted his life to for years. And it was how he earnt money. And he still hoped if he could generate a bit more publicity he’d get funding for the rocket car. So he moved on to making plans to refurbish the Bluebird K7 and start making attempts on the water speed record again. The boat had only been designed with 250mph in mind, but he was determined to push it past 300mph.

And on 4 January 1967 it had fatal results. He died doing what he loved. But to me it feels so pointless to have kept trying to cheat death after all that success.

His body wasn’t recovered (nor was the boat) until 2000-2001, and he was finally buried in September 2001. They didn’t say on the programme but the diver who located the wreck was inspired to search for it by the Marillion song, which brings me full circle.

After that we cheered ourselves up by watching the third episode of TOWN with Nicholas Crane – a much lighter & fluffier programme! This one was about Huddersfield – a new town. Before the Industrial Revolution it was a village, albeit one with a market, but the proximity of both coal fields & the wool industry meant that Huddersfield grew quickly into a town. There’s still cloth mills in Huddersfield even now – Crane visited one that still works in the (post-Industrial Revolution) traditional way. He also visited a company that is pioneering new technology for finishing cloth using lasers and plasma – the man he spoke to there was a pro at saying nothing with lots of buzzwords 😉

Being a heavily industrialised town it wasn’t surprising that the Luddite Movement was strong in Huddersfield. Crane talked to a modern anarchist who is also a Luddite historian about the rebellion – how they came & broke the mills because they were taking away their livelihood. They were also concerned with how the employees at the mills were treated poorly and felt it was ruining their way of life.

Rebellion of another sort in more recent history – Huddersfield is the town where the northern rugby teams met and decided to split from Rugby Union to form Rugby League. While there are rules differences now the original split was down to pay – Rugby Union players must not be paid, and the poorer more working class players who played for the northern teams found that impossible to sustain. Watching Crane dressed up in rugby gear having them demonstrate tackles on him was particularly entertaining.

Crane also did a tour of the various bits of the town – including one of the markets, the canals, and the university. At the university he spoke to Patrick Stewart, who’s the Chancellor. The theme through the whole modern bit was that everyone who is born in Hudderfield or moves there wants to stay. Also that it’s not a touristy town, not even in the guidebooks. Crane got more than a bit carried away with himself several times – waxing lyrical about the wonders of Huddersfield. I’m not sure if this was padding or that he’d been genuinely overcome with love for the town. It was a little OTT tho!

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World is part of a loosely linked series of programmes that each examine the life & work of a pivotal figure in Western history of the last couple of centuries or so with an emphasis on science or invention. We’ve watched the Newton one recently (post) and the Turner one last week (post) and on Monday we watched the one about Marie Curie. And it was interesting, a look at both her life and the work that made her famous. But my enjoyment of it was tainted by the way they chose to frame it.

For the Newton programme the opening segment talked about how he wasn’t just interested in things we’d think of as scientific today, he also worked for several years on alchemical experiments and developed his own theological understanding of Christianity. For the Turner programme the opening segment talked about how he’d lived through the Industrial Revolution and painted works that were of that time – they talked about his painting of the Temeraire being towed by a steam tug to be broken up and how that symbolised so much about the age. So the focus in both is on the achievements of the man in question – intellectual or artistic.

For the Marie Curie programme it started off well enough – the opening segment runs through her achievements (2 Nobel Prizes, a woman who succeeded in a man’s world, someone who refused to conform to societal expectations etc). But then the voiceover said something akin* to “In every great life there’s a pivotal moment and the reaction to that is what comes to define their life”. And this moment that they chose to present as “defining” was the discovery of her relationship with a married man by the press & the resulting scandal. Rather than, say, her Nobel Prizes. Or if you’re after a human interest angle what about her work driving a mobile X-ray unit during the First World War, which they suggested later in the programme was what lead to her death. But no, they’d rather frame it as a woman who had a scandalous love affair (while doing science on the side). Gah.

*We’ve deleted the programme already so I can’t check the exact wording.

I hadn’t even heard of that before, I know of her as “Polish woman who discovered radium, married Pierre Curie, eventually died from radiation related disease” – so I don’t see that relationship as something that’s permeated into the zeitgeist as defining. Gah.

To be completely fair, they did later in the programme make the point themselves that the press & public interest was because she was a woman, and that this was sexist. Einstein had affairs & no-one talked about them instead of his physics, why should it be different for Curie. But that doesn’t let the programme off the hook for centring this scandal, and presenting it as at least as important as her work (if not more so).

Two other irritations before I talk about the interesting bits. Firstly, every time they showed us a photograph they did this jerky pan across & around it which was intensely distracting. And secondly, the soundtrack was very obtrusive and the choice of songs not nearly as funny as they thought it was.

So. Despite my irritation with the programme on a philosophical level and on a technical level it was still interesting. What I knew about Marie Curie before was fairly bare bones & it was nice to get that fleshed out a bit (even despite the above). She was born Maria Skłodowska in Poland and grew up in Warsaw during a period where it was ruled by the Russians. At that time there were supposed to be no schools or universities in Polish, no Polish music or dancing – basically the Russians were trying to wipe out Polish culture. Her mother died when Maria was 12, from tuberculosis. Her father was a teacher of physics & maths, and he taught his children these subjects. Maria and her elder sister Bronisława made plans to move to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. They had to move because the Russian run universities in Warsaw at the time would not admit women, whereas the Sorbonne did. The scheme was that Maria would work as a governess in Poland to earn money to support her sister at university, then once her sister was established Maria would move to France & her sister would support her at the Sorbonne. While working as a governess Maria fell in love with the eldest son of the family (not one of her charges) but his parents wouldn’t agree to the match because she wasn’t a suitable class of person – he was unwilling to go against his parents’ wishes and this rejection sent Maria into a depression.

She had at first given up the dream of studying at the Sorbonne, but she enrolled at the illicit “floating university” in Warsaw and studied chemistry (and other subjects?) there. This was a Polish run, Polish language, university and was forbidden by the Russian rulers – and they would teach any Pole who wanted to learn whether male or female. This rekindled her interest and she went on to join her sister in Paris. She excelled in her studies, graduating first in her class. And then she went to work in the lab of a man named Pierre Curie. Her first studies were on magnets – this was relatively lucrative work, because there were commercial interests that would pay for the development of new alloys to make better magnets for better electrical generators. Over time she & Pierre fell in love, and when the homesick Maria talked about returning to Poland he talked about following her there. However in the end they married & remained in Paris (I can’t remember if the programme said why – wikipedia suggests that Warsaw University wouldn’t have her as a PhD student because she was a woman, whereas she could do research in France).

Marie Curie started to work on radioactive materials not long after the initial serendipitous discovery of the phenomenon by Becquerel. She developed (and with Pierre’s help built) apparatus to measure the radioactive rays coming off a sample, and analysed a large number of different substances which was painstaking & tedious work. One sample, pitchblende (a uranium containing mineral), was more radioactive than anything she’d previous analysed including uranium itself. So she theorised that there must be some new element present – and set out to isolate it. This was a mammoth task, as the element was only present in trace amounts. They had some footage of her stirring a great vat of what I think was pitchblende & nitric acid. Eventually she and Pierre isolated and purified their new element – Radium. So called because it glows.

During this time period the Curies had two children. Marie Curie was more interested in her work than her children and they were mostly brought up by her father-in-law. This caused a rift in the family, although Curie and her eldest daughter reconciled by the time she grew up. Curie & her younger daughter didn’t reconcile until Curie was dying many years later. Both Marie & Pierre Curie suffered increasingly from ill health during this time – the effect of their work with radioactivity. Pierre tragically died – not as a direct result of his ill health, which I hadn’t realised. He was actually run over by a horse & carriage, the implication was that if he’d been in better health he might’ve got out of the way.

Curie’s first Nobel Prize was in 1903 for Physics – originally this had only been intended for Becquerel & Pierre Curie but Pierre complained and insisted that Marie’s name should be on the award too otherwise he wouldn’t accept it (good man!). The second one came in 1911, 5 years after Pierre’s death, in Chemistry. This came at the same sort of time as the scandal of her relationship with a married man broke – and the Nobel committee made noises about how if they’d known she was that sort of woman then they wouldn’t’ve given her the prize. Her displeasure with this broke her out of the depression she’d fallen into after the scandal and the end of the relationship*. (The man in question kind of didn’t quite fight a duel to restore his honour, and came away reputation intact, somehow *eye roll*)

*The programme spent more time on this, but I’m irritated by that so I’ve skipped the details here.

In the First World War Curie read that shortage of X-ray machines meant that the French army was losing soldiers who might’ve been saved – and she designed a mobile X-ray unit and drove one (of several?) herself. She and her elder daughter operated this unit for most of the war. There was still no idea at the time that X-rays or radioactivity were dangerous, so Curie didn’t have any protection from the X-ray machine. The programme later said that this is now thought to’ve lead to the aplastic anaemia that killed her (her body wasn’t radioactive enough for it to’ve been the radium).

After the war Curie continued with her work on radium, founding an institute for investigating the element. She was a respected scientist, attending invite-only conferences with other prominent physicists (like Einstein). And was the only one of them to have two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines – an achievement that is still unique. Despite all this she still had difficulty securing funds for her research & at one point didn’t even have enough radium for her work to continue. This came to the notice of an American journalist (Marie Mattingly Meloney) who had written articles about her, and who organised a fundraising drive throughout the USA to buy Curie’s Institute a gram of radium. When the money was raised Curie visited the US and toured the country giving many lectures before being presented with the radium by the President in a White House ceremony.

Curie eventually died of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation or X-rays, and was buried with her husband. In 1995 their bodies were exhumed (hence knowing how radioactive she was) and re-buried with a full state funeral in the Panthéon in Paris – she’s the first (and only) woman to be buried there because of her own achievements.

So, an interesting but flawed programme. But I did at least learn more about Marie Curie and her work.

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble is a new series about sheep farming. The hook for it is that Humble owns and lives on a sheep farm in Wales, and for this series she’s visiting sheep farmers in other countries. I think the three episodes will also roughly speaking cover past, present & future (the intro segment hinted at that) but I won’t know that for sure till I’ve seen them all!

This first episode was set in a very remote village in Afghanistan where they still farm in traditional ways dating back thousands of years. The people Humble visited live in the Wakhan Corridor which is part of Afghanistan due to European colonialism. To the north of this narrow strip of land is Tajikistan, once part of the Russian Empire, to the south Pakistan, once part of the British Empire. The Russians and British didn’t want their Empires to meet, so the borders are drawn so that a finger projects from the east of Afghanistan to separate the two countries. The programme opened with Humble travelling through Kabul (the most dangerous part of the whole trip) because this was the only place they could fly to the Wakhan Corridor from. After flying for 250 miles across the mountains they landed in the valley where the Wakhi people live in winter. During the summer months (Humble arrived towards the end of summer) half the population live here, and grow wheat & barley. The other half travel over the nearby mountains to a plateau called the Great Pamir where they graze their flocks of sheep.

After walking to the plateau, with the help of some locals & their yaks to transport their gear, Humble & her camera crew stayed in a couple of different villages to see how these shepherds live. In the first one they were made welcome immediately & encouraged to film whatever they wanted. Here Humble saw the everyday life of the shepherds – a routine of driving the sheep out to graze, bringing them back to be milked in the middle of the day and then at night to protect them from predators. The grazing here is better than in the home valley, and there’s not the space to both grow crops and graze sheep, so the increased risk of predators is worth it. Humble pointed out how the sheep didn’t look like her sheep in Wales – they have much bigger bottoms where they store fat for the winter ahead. They’re also tamer as they’re milked every day, unlike Humble’s sheep which are grown for meat and so not handled by people often. She also seemed envious of their good health, despite the harsh conditions – there are diseases sheep get in the damp climate of Britain that they don’t get in places like Afghanistan which are drier & more like where sheep evolved.

After a bit of time in this first village Humble moved on to another village, because she wanted to film the migrations that these people do as winter starts drawing in – they move progressively down the valley away from the winter. The first village was already quite low (relatively, a mere 4000 feet above sea level …), so they had to go elsewhere to film. This second village weren’t so keen to have foreigners come in & film, and negotiations were protracted. At first a faction among the men were refusing any access, but the women encouraged Humble to sneak a camera in & film them cooking food. The next day the overall chief turned up from the other half of their village (the wheat growing half) to supervise the impending move & he was happy for them to film & quashed the refusals.

Through the whole of the programme Humble showed us how these people lived, and how hard their life is. She talked in particular to one woman who listed the people in her family who had died – two brothers, two sister, her husband, and of her seven children only one was still alive. An appalling list of grief. Their diet is very basic, and mostly the stuff they produce themselves – bread and (buttery) tea for everyday. A sort of flour & butter porridge for more special occasions. And every once in a while they’ll eat meat – one sheep will be spread around the whole village (50 people or so in the second village). A lot of babies die – 1 in 5 before they’re one year old. Half of all the under-twos are malnourished. For the little that they don’t produce themselves they need to buy – and the only way they have of earning money is to sell off a yak. Humble filmed some traders who’d walked up the the Great Pamir to buy yaks, they said they came to the area because they would get good animals and a cheaper price than anywhere else. But while they were talking about how hard this subsistence farming is they were also talking about how they’re glad they’re not closer civilisation and to the war.

I like Kate Humble’s programmes – we saw the ones she did about the Frankincense Trail and the Spice Trail a few years ago. She’s got a knack of not ever making it seem like “look at these funny foreign people”. In fact in this one the sympathies of the narrative (so’s to speak) were clearly with the Wakhi people as they were vastly entertained by how this grown woman didn’t know how to do any of the basic necessities of life. One woman was consumed with laughter as Humble tried to milk a sheep – “what’s she doing? she’s just tickling it!”. Another got Humble to help her churn butter and then could barely believe how she wasn’t strong enough to really help out.

“Second Foundation” Isaac Asimov

This isn’t quite the post I thought I’d be writing when I started the book, I thought I’d be concentrating on the details of the plot or the characters. Instead there was a scene in the middle that shifted my perception of the overall arc in an unexpected way.

I’ve always thought of this book as ending the trilogy on an upbeat note – the Second Foundation has wrenched the course of the civilisation of the galaxy back on track to form the Second Empire in accordance with Seldon’s Plan. The first section of the novel is about how The Mule was defeated and changed from a conquering dictator to a benevolent despot whose empire would fall apart after his death. The second section follows a group of Foundation citizens who are searching for the Second Foundation – they are tricked into thinking they’ve found & removed it. This is necessary for Seldon’s Plan to come to fruition in part because it relies on the majority of humanity being unaware of the details of the plan. And also because “We still have a society which would resent a ruling class of psychologists, and which would fear its development and fight against it”, in the words of the First Speaker of the Second Foundation. Which is a summary of the plot of this section of the novel.

And the sentence that I’ve quoted just above is part of the scene which changed my perception of the story, and I’m not sure if it was supposed to or not. Here’s a description of the Second Empire that the Second Foundation is working towards, extracted from a longish conversation that’s part of the examination process for a new member of the ruling elite of the Second Foundation:

[…]it is the intention of the plan to establish a human civilization based on an orientation entirely different from anything that ever before existed. […] It is that of a civilization based on mental science. […] Only an insignificant minority, however, are inherently able to lead Man through the greater involvements of Mental Science; and the benefits derived therefrom, while longer lasting, are more subtle and less apparent. […] such an orientation would lead to the development of a benevolent dictatorship of the mentally best – virtually a higher subdivision of Man […] The solution is the Seldon Plan […] six hundred years from now, a Second Galactic Empire will have been established in which Mankind will be ready for the leadership of Mental Science. In that same interval, the Second Foundation in its development, will have brought forth a group of Psychologists ready to assume leadership.

So the Seldon Plan is actually the blueprint for the ruling elite of the Second Foundation to take over the galaxy. They will rule by Psychology – which is like our science of psychology but has been developed in this far far future to include mental powers. Including the ability to alter the memories and the emotions of other people, by directly tampering with their mind in a way they can’t protect against unless they too have this training and the ability to use it. The first section of the novel makes it clear that The Mule is conquering the galaxy using a cruder (mutant) version of this power, and the Second Foundation are both more powerful than him and subtler & more sophisticated in their use of these powers. The Mule is explicitly said to be able to change people from non-loyal to loyal and fix their minds there. The Second Foundation aren’t that crude, but it’s implied that’s within their capabilities just they prefer not to be that obvious. They are explicitly said to be able to alter someone’s memories such that they can’t tell it was done. The Mule isn’t stopped because what he’s doing to people is an atrocity (and I think it is). He’s stopped because he’s getting in the way.

The Second Empire will be a place where if you’re not one of the elite then your mind could be changed by an external force, against your will and without your ability to stop it – if you’re one of the elite it could still happen but you’d be more likely to know it was being done (until they altered your memory of it having happened …). The difference between it and the society of The Mule’s empire is that in the Second Empire it will be done with Science and For Your Own Good. I don’t see that as being a significant difference. So now I see the end of the book as a tragedy, the win by the Second Foundation is a loss for humanity in the long run.

But I’m not sure if I’m supposed to think that, what Asimov’s intent was. I can’t remember feeling that way about it last time I read it (20 or more years ago). I think I accepted unquestioningly that Seldon’s Plan was “the way things were supposed to work” and that it was a net good for humanity (reducing the time of barbarism between the two civilised Galactic Empires for instance). And the tone of the book still feels like that’s how I’m supposed to be reacting. I know in the later books (“Foundation’s Edge” and “Foundation and Earth”, neither of which I own) Asimov writes in a third way that’s not the First Foundation’s type of Empire and not the Second Foundation’s one either so perhaps he too wouldn’t want to live in the Second Galactic Empire? I can’t remember enough about them though to know if that addresses my issues with the mind control side of the Second Foundation’s plans (but from what I remember mind control and loss of individuality is still a part of the future of the galaxy). I think my mother owns the books, I shall have to borrow them next time I’m in Oxford and see what I think now (I certainly remember them as being stylistically more pleasing – being written in the 1980s rather than the 1950s so “current” for when I was reading them last).

The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution

J. M. W. Turner was born in 1775, at the end of the Age of Sail, and lived until 1851 at which point the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. During his life he often painted the machinery and scenes of the new industry. The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution was part a biography of the man and part a look at some of his key paintings.

Turner was the son of a London barber who from an early age displayed a talent for art. He attended the Royal Academy where he was taught to draw, and he taught himself to paint in oils. His art was heavily influenced by a painter called Claude Lorrain whose landscapes were widely admired. They showed us several of Turner’s Claudian works pointing out the similarities of composition to things that Claude painted. But where Claude was interested in painting idyllic scenes with nymphs or gods Turner painted the modern world around him. Industry and all.

Only about half the programme was about the life of Turner – so it pretty much just hit the high (or low) points, and as it’s a few days since I actually watched the programme I only remember the high points of the high points, so’s to speak. Turner’s father lived with him most of his life, as his assistant. His mother had fits of madness and was confined to Bedlam sometime when Turner was in his teens, eventually dying there. The programme pointed out this was a pretty poor way to handle things on the part of the Turners. Turner himself was not a very sociable man, near the end of his life they talked about him allowing people to watch him paint but never turning to face them, even as he left the room at the end of the session. He never married, but did have a relationship with Sarah Danby and is probably the father of her two children – he didn’t seem a particularly attentive father, tho.

The rest of the programme was several talking heads discussing the themes & so on in Turner’s paintings. Which is a little difficult to write about as it’s all visual. One of the things they drew out was that he was clearly both fascinated with and approved of the Industrial Revolution. Two of the paintings they used to illustrate this were The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838 and Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway. Sometimes the programme did seem to get carried away with itself (in particular a discussion of how Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth is “clearly” a painting of iron filings attracted by a magnet as well as the more obvious subject), but generally this wasn’t a problem.

I was left wanting to go & see some of Turner’s paintings, which I suspect was the desired effect. In particular because I quite like seeing industrial things in the landscape – for instance, I like the big cooling towers on coal power stations and the way they rise up out of the hills. I even have favourites! There’s one that we pass on the way up the A1(M) to Northumberland that feels like a symbolic gateway to The North. There is also one near Stafford that I’ve only seen once, on the way to a Snowplains Meet, where the cooling towers are red brick and stand out beautifully against the green. I’d’ve loved to take a photo but sadly I didn’t have the camera to hand and anyway we couldn’t exactly stop in the middle of the A51 (I think that was the road). Ahem, I’m the one getting carried away now. The subject matter appeals, is the point of this paragraph 🙂

“Life After Life” Kate Atkinson

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is an astonishingly hard to categorise book. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy. And probably properly classified as “literary fiction”. We follow the life of Ursula Todd, born on 11th February 1910 to a well-to-do middle class English family as she lives her life over & over again. Every time she dies she starts all over again, and each time things go a little differently. Atkinson tells the story through a series of vignettes of the key events in each life. It’s very much a book where the journey is the point rather than the destination, and the structure of it reinforces that. We loop back over & over to the snow of February 1910 where each time the same(ish) scene is told differently. At the end of each life the refrain is “Darkness fell” (or words to that effect).

At first each life lasts a little longer than the previous one as Ursula avoids the pitfalls of early childhood. Just as I was starting to wonder if Ursula could remember anything from life to life Atkinson started to make it clear that there was some leakage – Ursula would have a sense of deja vu or a sense of dread. Later the memories that carry from life to life are more complete & there’s a sense that Ursula can choose how things are going to go this time round. There’s also the way that Ursula chooses more adult solutions to problems in later lives – at first to successfully get past a death from influenza in 1918 she can only resort to pushing Bridget down the stairs when the sense of dread hits her. In a later go round she engineers a falling out between Bridget & her fiancé which is a much more subtle way of preventing the trip to London (and gets Ursula into a lot less trouble).

The book doesn’t end where I thought it would – neither way I thought it would end, in fact. At first I’d thought that perhaps we’d see her live longer & longer – getting past the knot of deaths of influenza in 1918, and through the Second World War (another knot of deaths). But the life where we see her make it to 1967 & retirement isn’t the end. Another ending that wasn’t the way it ended was when we looped back to the very first vignette in the book – which isn’t Ursula’s birth, it’s 20 year old Ursula assassinating Hitler. It’s the classic time travel theme – prevent the Second World War by killing Hitler. And we do loop back to that, and it’s clear that Ursula is doing this knowing the consequences of Hitler’s rule of Germany. Interestingly, it’s not precisely the same scene that opened the book, some of the details are different. So we’re not seeing all the lives that Ursula lives, just key ones to give a flavour of the possibilities (just like each life we only see the key moments). But this is not where the book ends, either.

Which left me feeling a bit like I’d missed something with how the book did end. One of the phrases running through the book is “Practice makes perfect”, often said by Ursula’s mother. And there’s a strong impression that the last life we get a couple of scenes from is supposed to be the closest to perfection yet – Ursula’s mother manages to prevent Ursula’s death at birth despite the non-arrival of the doctor by having the right tools at hand. And Teddy, Ursula’s favourite brother, survives the war. Which implies that the war is somehow necessary? But then how would Ursula know – she doesn’t survive the assassination of Hitler either time we see it happen, so she doesn’t know if the world is better. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – maybe it’s just meant to be a sign that there isn’t an ending and Ursula will continue to live through all the possible permutations.

The characters are well drawn, and through the repeated lives you get to see how the core personality of each person stays the same but the way events fall out changes how that manifests. The centre of the story is always Ursula, but also prominent are Sylvie (her mother) and Izzy (her father’s younger sister) who are two opposing poles of role models for womanhood. Sylvie is a respectable housewife & mother whose whole self is poured into those roles. Izzy elopes at 16, she has a child out of wedlock, she writes novels & newspaper columns, she lives in London on her own. She is the epitome of the new freedom a single woman can have in the London of the 1920s & beyond. At first Sylvie seems the more sympathetic character, and Izzy to be rather selfish & scatty. But over the course of several lives Sylvie seems less selfless & a lot more concerned with appearances and with respectability, and Izzy is always there when Ursula needs someone.

This was a really good book. This time I’ve read it as a library book, but I think I might buy myself a copy – it’s a book that will be good to re-read. In particular later tellings of similar scenes often reveal a little more about some character’s motivations/personality so when you re-read you will get a bit of a richer experience. It seems apt that this is a story with themes of repetition with variation & of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s a book about which both of those things are true.

Fit to Rule; The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign; Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here

The last episode of Fit to Rule backed up a bit from the end of the second episode (post) to a time when George III was still on the throne and the future of the Hanoverian dynasty looked secure. His granddaughter, Princess Charlotte (daughter of the future George IV), had married and was expecting her first child. Worsley told us that in a departure from previous royal matches Charlotte was marrying for love, she was also looking forward to a life of familial bliss. She was a tremendously popular Princess, and all seemed bright for the future. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Worsley showed us the detailed notes taken by the celebrated male midwife who was overseeing the delivery of the royal baby. After 24 hours of labour there had not been much progress, and then there began to be signs that not all was well with the baby. Finally after 50 hours the Princess was delivered of a stillborn boy. Disaster, but not yet catastrophe – that was to come during the night after when the Princess herself went from seeming fine immediately after the birth to dead. The midwife never recovered from the guilt he felt at presiding over the deaths of 2 generations of the royal family and killed himself a few months later. The nation was in mourning for Charlotte – Worsley showed us the commemorative teapots made as morbid souvenirs. The comparisons with Princess Diana are obvious, and Worsley told us that Charlotte had even been referred to as the English Rose just as Diana later would be.

Charlotte hadn’t just been the first legitimate grandchild of George III, she was the only legitimate one. So now the race was on for an heir – all the other sons of George III married (most just had mistress at this point …) and tried to be first to produce a child. Worsley quoted us a satirical poem of the day, which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. Prince Edward & his wife Victoria won the prize with the birth of the future Queen Victoria in 1819. Edward didn’t live long after that, so Victoria was brought up by her mother & her private secretary Sir John Conroy. In some ways bits of their regime made sense – Victoria was trotted around the country & shown to the public in carefully controlled publicity events. This was to give her a base of popularity for when she took the throne, an important thing to have given the unpopularity of her uncles who reigned before her and her family in general (saving only the dead Princess Charlotte). However that was the only good bit – the rest of it, the isolation of Victoria from her father’s family & from any children and the way they tried to control her every thought & deed, was not good. They tried to ensure her future obedience for after she became Queen, but in doing so over-reached themselves and meant that she shook off their influence as soon as she could.

The unhappy childhood of Victoria shaped her personality – she was imperiously keen to get her own way and prone to temper tantrums when she didn’t. (I guess because she never wanted to be controlled again, Worsley didn’t spell it out.) She was industrious in the performance of her royal duties at first, tho after her marriage this began to take a backseat to her pursuit of a happy family life. She, like Charlotte before her, had married for love. And she & Prince Albert had a brood of children, who they brought up in a “private house” on the Isle of Wight – the dynasty was secure and the Queen was mostly popular, much better than the last few decades would’ve suggested. However their eldest son, Bertie, gave them concern – he seemed slow & lazy. Victoria & Albert turned to the pseudo-science of phrenology to try & figure out what was “wrong” with him. Phrenologists believed they could tell a person’s character & capabilities by examining the bumps on his or her skull. Worsley said that the practitioner they turned to thought that Bertie had inheritied his lack of intellectual capability from his mother … but was too polite (and sensible) to tell Victoria & Albert this.

Bertie finished his education at Cambridge University, and also indulged himself in a life of luxury there. He slept with an actress, and when his parents discovered this they were horrified – Albert went off to Cambridge to have a word. Albert & Bertie made up in the course of a long walk, but soon after Albert’s health went downhill. When he died Victoria blamed the stress of dealing with Bertie’s bad behaviour for his illness. She went into deep mourning, which she never came out of – and for several years she did pretty much none of the duties of the monarch, having her doctors write medical reports saying she wasn’t capable. This came close to finishing the monarchy, after all if the Queen could just ignore her duties & government could continue without her what use was she? Worsley said that actually if Albert had remained alive it probably wouldn’t’ve helped avoid a crisis, but in that case it would’ve been because Albert was becoming more & more powerful (he did most of the work of the monarch, not Victoria).

Victoria did show herself from time to time, but never recovered from the depression she entered after Albert’s death. Her court was small & very concerned with morals, while Bertie continued to live it up. When Bertie ascended the throne it was thought that he wouldn’t make a good king, but as Edward VII he actually did a good job in restoring the public image of the monarchy. He might not’ve had as much power as his predecessors but he could put on a show and provide pomp and ceremony. He didn’t reign for long, and was succeeded by his son George V. Who even changed his name during the First World War, as a PR exercise really – no longer the German surname of Saxe-Coburg, now he was George Windsor.

Skipping over George V as being healthy, presumably, Worsley moved on to his son Edward the future Edward VIII who abdicated. From the outside Edward looked like he was going to be a splendid King. He was sent on tours of the Empire and other places for PR purposes, and brought a fresh informal style to various events. But inside he was not having fun At All. He hated all the meet & greets, and the media interest. He hated being away from whichever married lady was his mistress of the time. Worsley read bits from his letters back to his mistress that were particularly angsty & full of baby talk, he seemed somewhat emotionally fragile. This all came to a head when he became King – he had become involved with Wallis Simpson, who was married and now divorced. Somehow he hadn’t really thought that this affair would hit the press, and when it did it caused a constitutional crisis ending in his abdication. And this is where the series finished – obviously one can’t dissect the Queen’s medical history yet, and her father is clearly also a bit too recent!

An interestingly different way to look at the various monarchs of the last 500 years, with Worsley concentrating on different people and different events to the normal story we’re told. However I was uncomfortable that the sexuality of the monarchs was part of the narrative – particularly given the subtitle was “How Royal Illness Changed History”. I think I can see why they did this, because it’s part of the lives of the monarchs that was usually kept private & out of the official history and because it could affect the succession. But it’s still wrong to lump it in with “illness”.

The Road to El Alamein: Churchill’s Desert Campaign (which was presented & written by Jonathan Dimbleby) was exactly what you’d expect: a programme about the events leading up to the pivotal Second World War battle at El Alamein in late 1942. This is the event about which Churchill said “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Before it the Allies had been doing badly, afterwards they went on to win.

Whilst Egypt was technically independent by the time of the Second World War, it still had a very large British colonial presence and was strategically important to the British Empire. The ports on the Mediterranean coast (like Alexandria) were important for control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal was vital for maintaining contact between Britain & territories such as India. The initial attacks were made by Italian troops from Libya in early 1940 – Dimbleby said this was Mussolini’s attempt to prove he was one of the big boys, to make sure he’d get a sufficiently large slice of the pie in the peace treaty. At the time it seemed that Germany was poised to conquer Britain so Mussolini had to act fast. Libya was ruled from Italy at the time, and was the obvious base for the operation but the army that crossed the border into Egypt was poorly trained & far too cautious – they were easily pushed back deep into Libya by the British forces (under the command of Wavel at this point).

This caused consternation in Germany because Italy was supposed to be securing Germany’s southern border, so if they collapsed & were defeated then Germany was at risk. So Hitler sent Rommel with some German Army divisions to help out the Italians. Rommel acted decisively taking the British forces by surprise and pushed them back to the border with Egypt. There’s now some back & forth over the next couple of years but in general Rommel wins more battles than the British do.

When things are going poorly Churchill blames the generals for not doing their job. He sacks Wavel, installing Auchinleck in his place. Later (after the first battle of El Alamein in early 1942) Auchinleck is also sacked, and Montgomery is put in command. The difficulties between Wavel & Churchill were partly a personality clash – Wavel was a taciturn man who was suspicious of politicians, Churchill was bombastic and suspicious of generals. Never going to work out well. But in both cases the fundamental difficulty was that Churchill would send orders that attack must be pressed, why weren’t the army doing something?? And the generals would feel that the troops they had available weren’t adequately trained nor ready to actually win the battle. So they would delay, and ignore Churchill’s orders, because to’ve blindly followed them would mean certain defeat (and they were running into enough defeats as it was).

There were also other theatres in the Mediterranean and until late 1942 the British forces were losing in those too. There was an ill-fated attempt to invade Greece, which pulled troops away from the front in Egypt at around the time that Rommel was really starting to press forward. And they were defeated in Greece too, it was “another Dunkirk” with the British army forced into a humiliating retreat. Malta was another key place in the Mediterranean – it was under British control and played a vital part in restricting the flow of supplies to Rommel’s troops. It was captured by the German forces whilst the campaigns in Egypt and Libya were underway, and this contributed to the defeats of the British. Just before the second battle at El Alamein (the pivotal one) Malta was back under British control & so Rommel’s supply chain was once again disrupted.

Churchill was under a lot of pressure from politicians during this period – it seemed like he was presiding over a losing war, and motions of no confidence were called more than once in Parliament. This probably contributed to his pressure on the generals out in Egypt to act more decisively. He was firm in his belief that winning in North Africa was a prelude to winning the whole war, and kept pressing that in both domestic & international politics. In terms of international politics Churchill was fighting an up hill battle both to bring the US into the war despite a complete lack of public support for this in the US, and also to get them to fight in North Africa first. Eventually Pearl Harbour tipped the balance (and Dimbleby quoted from Churchill’s diary at the time where he’s quite gleeful about it, which I didn’t really think was appropriate when what he’s talking about is a lot of dead people even if it does mean he gets what he wants finally). Even after that the US wanted to fight in Europe first, but eventually Churchill wore them down and that pivotal battle at El Alamein was the prelude to the first Allied operation (which came at the Libyan based German & Italian divisions from both sides and defeated them).

I’ve missed out loads in this summary – things like the various battles for Tobruk, the anecdotes about how badly prepared the various armies were, the details of the political situation. All of it was also illustrated with quotes from soldiers as well as the generals & politicians involved. Dimbleby didn’t forget the human cost, either – talking about the horrific casualty figures & visiting the graveyards where the soldiers are buried.

The version of Why the Industrial Revolution Happened Here that we had recorded turned out to be a cut down version of the full thing (20 minutes instead of an hour). But it was still interesting, if rather brisk. Jeremy Black talked about both what it was about Britain that made it fertile ground for the Industrial Revolution to get started, and how it changed society.

The driving force for the start of the Industrial Revolution was coal. Before Britain had used wood for fuel, but this was beginning to become scarce. Coal was plentiful in Britain & easily accessible near the surface. It also turned out to be a better fuel than wood. As coal mines got deeper, they drove the need for machinery to keep them operational which started the process of mechanisation of various industries.

The political & social conditions in Britain at the time encouraged entrepreneurs & inventors. Black was saying that the Parliamentary Monarchy of Britain meant that there was more stability of government. Also important were the network of societies & coffeehouses where men could meet to discuss the scientific & engineering discoveries of the day. And not only educate themselves but contribute their own ideas. It was also possible to become rich by inventing new machinery – which is a great incentive to do so!

The programme then moved on to the ways that the Industrial Revolution changed Britain. Black talked a bit about Wedgewood, who isn’t just someone who made china dinner services but also in effect the inventor of modern marketing. The demands of new mass produced goods and factories for raw materials drove the creation of a better road network, and the creation of the canal system. (And presumably the railways, but that wasn’t covered – a bit too late perhaps? or maybe it is in the full programme.)

A shame I only found the 20 minute version when I recorded it, I’ll have to keep an eye out for the full thing.