Chance Witness

Book Review: Chance Witness – An Outsider’s Life in Politics, by Matthew Parris
Parris never actually attributes the line “There’s something not quite right about that boy” to Thatcher; rather, he says, it was his reading of her face on more than one occasion. He claims in the introduction that this will be an unconventional autobiography, and it’s fair to say he does go into a longer description of his childhood than many. He has made an interesting story out of that – living variously in southern Africa, Cyprus, and England; the eldest of what turned out to be a relatively large family in the twilight years of the British Empire. An initially patchy education was completed in a progressive multiracial school in Swaziland after which Parris obtained a place at Cambridge, then a lazy year of postgraduate study in the US, before joining the Foreign Office, then the Conservative Research Department, then being in the right place at the right time – after a high-profile dog rescue in the Thames – to land a safe seat for the 1979 general election, quitting as an MP in 1986 to pursue a media career, initially on LWT and later as a sketch-writer for The Times. This book takes us up to 2002.

The jacket cover describes the autobiography as “candid”, and Parris certainly describes a few events of which he is less than proud; but more often he is generally indifferent about his own behaviour. He says his decision to leave parliament was made to some extent as he could see contemporaries starting to be promoted into government, while he was left behind; yet, by accident or design, perhaps the powers-that-were at the time made a good choice, for there are a continual stream of (mostly minor) errors of judgement. He says he was indifferent to Thatcherism, which perhaps also explains a lack of promotion in the 1980s; yet he maintains that was a position held by many. There was intermittent cruising on Clapham Common, which at the time went unreported; he later dug another hole for himself by going onto Newsnight with the intent of defending Ron Davies, but the effect of outing Peter Mandelson. Still, he found success as a sketch-writer, upsetting inter alia John Redwood and John Prescott. This is a thoughtfully-written and moderately entertaining book, though one isn’t quite sure whether Parris is a plain figure who never quite made it, or a complex figure who never quite wanted to make it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Forest Murmurs

Book Review: Arminius – The Limits of Empire, by Robert Fabbri
Fortunately I had no New Year’s resolution to be timely with my reviews, as I have been sitting on this one for about a week. Knowing only the legend of Varus’ defeat near the Rhine, I picked this up in a work book sale early last year. Apparently Fabbri has written a series of novels about Vespasian, of which this constitutes an offshoot.

It does, as TV announcers say, contain scenes of violence “from the start”. In this case, the start is Licus’ (Thumelicus, or Thumelicatz) final fight in the gladiatorial arena, from which he gains his freedom, avenges his father, and returns to Germany. This, however, is not the story of the book; rather, it is a prologue, for some years later, Roman emissaries seek to recover their missing eagle and believe he can offer assistance. Despite an oath saying he will not have anything further to do with Rome, he is minded to hear their case, for what might be described as geopolitical reasons. He compels them to listen to a reading, by his own Roman slaves, of the scrolls of Arminius, which tell the life of Arminius and his defeat of the legions in the Teutoberg forest, and for the most part, this is a book within a book, written in a convincingly rhetorical style, and with convenient coincidences at appropriate points.

An author’s note at the end attempts to explain what is fiction in the account, and what is based on historical sources. This is useful, but for me leaves some questions unanswered. How likely is it, for example, that a (Germanic) child forced to become a gladiator would be literate (Thumelicatz reads some of the scrolls himself)? Indeed, one might go further and consider whether Arminius (Erminatz), for all his Roman upbringing as a hostage, would want to commit his history to a set of scrolls, something surely out of keeping in the Germanic society he sought? If one is prepared to allow artistic licence in these matters, then the book is quite successful. The defeat of the Roman legions in Germania is an obvious “what if?” point in time for counterfactuals; instead, this is a telling of the real tale.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Men are from Tatooine, Women are from Alderaan (spoilers)

They said at the John Williams Film Music Prom that if he completes the score for the Star Wars nonology, it will be his equivalent of the Ring Cycle. In fact I think it might be longer than the Ring Cycle.

We went to see The Last Jedi yesterday afternoon. Broadly speaking, I enjoyed it.

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

New Year, New …

A happy new year to all readers.

During 2017 it became apparent that a number of things weren’t going to last much longer. This gathered apace in December. We’re not neophiliacs, so it’s not as if we haven’t had our money’s worth from most of the items; I’m not especially sentimental about saying farewell to them, but shy away from confronting the choices that must be made in replacing them. In no particular order,

  • Car – which is now 11 years old and has c.106000 miles on the clock. During the service in December I had an “advisory” about the shock absorbers; this follows persistent problems with the rear windscreen wash and having to replace the battery on the key fob. Going with a whimper is probably preferable to a bang in this case, and a gradual accumulation of niggles and small faults is giving me significant signs that it’s time. I’m not completely sure what to get next, or how to pay for it. The money is there, but buying a car is just about the worst investment you can make; plus, how long do I want to keep it for and how quickly is technology (elecric and/or driverless cars) going to move? A new Jazz would probably be fine, though the Skoda Fabia also rates well; dealers seem to push PCP, whereas if I don’t by outright, PCH (a straightforward lease) looks better value. The risk of such plans is that my anticipated annual mileage (currently much less than 6000) changes; the risk of buying outright is that the depreciation is all mine.
  • TV – we are not sure how old this is, but 15 years is a reasonable guess. It’s a 21-inch 4:3 CRT, and the volume has been rather erratic of late; quite often I am struggling to hear speech in particular. We are not significant TV watchers and it looks like a 32-inch widescreen is the most corresponding replacement; the thinness of its frame makes it not very much bulkier overall than the current model. The concern around this one is generally that of connectivity – we have SCART cables but of course in that vintage there is no HDMI, and we didn’t get an HD or HD-ready Freeview box at the time either. Though no item in itself is hugely expensive, it’s possible this could turn into a slippery slope, including replacing items that are actually working fine, which would be irksome.
  • Dishwasher – about 10 years old, and at some point last year it stopped producing hot water. It’s possible this could be repaired, but maybe, for efficiency and so on, it should be replaced. Not exactly a priority, but from time to time it’s useful.
  • Tooth – the dentist informed me that my filling, which dates from childhood and was last seen to c.1999, needs replacing. Obviously not something to look forward to, but if I delay too long the repair work will be more expensive and extensive.
  • Laptop – coming up to 7 years old, which is pretty good going, but now getting slower and slower when the OS (Windows 7) gets restarted; I suspect it’s virus-scanning and a relatively slow hard disk that’s actually the problem. Not the highest priority, but an SSD model would be nice.

So, it looks like I shall be keeping the global economy afloat pretty much single-handed for the next few months on that basis.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Best of 2017

So, farewell then, 2017. Better than 2016, but that is setting the bar a bit low. The best of the year for me:

Other highlights: (Fiction) Nice Work (if you can get it) by Celia Imrie, The Spy of Venice by Benet Brandreth; (non-Fiction) The Eroica by James Hamilton-Paterson; (Music) Les Siècles, BBC SO with Semyon Bychkov, The John Williams Film Music Prom, The Fourth Choir; (Film and Theatre) A Man Called Ove, The Farthest; (Museums and Exhibitions) The Museo do Oriente (Lisbon), Hokusai at the British Museum, Hockney at the Tate, Sargent and Jansson (both at Dulwich); (Food and Drink) Restaurante Farol de Santa Luzia (Lisbon); Erebuni (London), Moya (Oxford), O ver (London). After a couple of quiet years for film I’ve seen quite a few this year; I also appear to be making good use of my Art Pass from work.

It’s been an indifferent year at work. The move to Bracken House has been delayed until late 2018/early 2019. I survived what has become an annual cull, but whether I will do so next year seems in doubt. It would be a shame to be let go without the opportunity of working there.

From time to time I do feel distinctly middle-aged, and my health hasn’t been the best this year, with several trips to GP and dentist, and making use of my employer’s private health scheme. Nothing serious has been revealed and I still enjoy generally good health, and what I do have may well be triggered by stress. In general I’m sceptical of that as a cause, but I can see the case that leads there. Work is not stress-free, though it isn’t the most stressful job I’ve ever had; but combined with travel and it does put me under pressure for time.

I probably had a better 2017 than Theresa May, though that’s not saying much; I also had a better 2017 than the people who lived in Grenfell Tower. I think that’s a significant symptom of the British disease: not investing, or minimally and misguidedly investing, in something, being surprised when it goes awfully wrong, and then finding it is much more expensive and disruptive to put it right. We did that with the trains around the millennium, with a number of high-profile accidents that led to the demise of Railtrack. See also Brexit. Which trains are metaphorically going to depart from which tracks, I am unsure, but I have the feeling 2018 will be an “interesting” year with good and bad in it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Food For Thought

Book Review: The Course of History – Ten meals that changed the world, by Struan Stevenson and Tony Singh
The pre-Christmas work book sale is always likely to have its share of blockbusters, bestsellers, and erudite tomes, but also a selection of more quirky items, and this is definitely one of the latter. The hypothesis is that a good meal makes people more amenable to negotiation, to possibilities, to constructive viewpoints, and to this end the authors have catalogued ten meals on historic occasions through the past 300 years, with Tony Singh reconstructing recipes based on menus from Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, through American independence, Carême at the Congress of Vienna, Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Tehran conference of 1943, Nixon in China and finally the Egypt-Israel peace talks at Camp David. There must be some selectivity here; I assume that the food eaten must have been documented in sufficient detail, for example. Each chapter gives the historical context, the principal actors, describes the meal and its outcomes, followed by a series of recipes, which, despite the formality and grandeur of some of the occasions, at least look plausible to be tried at home. This isn’t a deep book; I imagine scholars will find the history rather lightweight, but I think it’s intended to be informative in a fun way, in which it succeeds.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A lot of unlearning to do

Book Review: Time Travel – A History, by James Gleick
I picked this one up immediately in the work book sale, as I recognised the author and, obviously, thought the subject was interesting. However I have to say I’ve been a bit disappointed. This is not a bad book, but it didn’t really live up to expectations. I knew from the blurb that it would mostly be about science fiction and culture, rather than science itself, but in fact there is very little science in it at all. I accept that really writing about the science of time travel would be hard, but it’s patchy and in quite a few chapters I found I wasn’t really paying attention. It is a useful overview, and perhaps provides a useful sourcebook for a bibliography of fact and fiction, but this probably won’t be productive for anyone reasonably knowledgeable about the subject.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment