Jo Cox, MP

The attack on and subsequent death of Jo Cox MP is simply appalling.

That an MP should be killed in the course of carrying out her duties to her constituents strikes directly at the heart of representative democracy, especially as by all accounts she seems to have been one of the good ones, not in it for the money or the power but to help others.

Sadly it seems to be exactly that characteristic that has led to her being targeted by her assailant. A bitter testament to the level to which political discourse in the UK has sunk in recent months and the unsavoury attitudes it has engendered.

The greater loss is to her children and family but life in the UK has today lost a kind of innocence.

Helen Joanne “Jo” Cox: 22/6/1974 – 16/6/2016. So it goes.

Murder at the Loch by Eric Brown

Severn House, 2016, 208 p.

 Murder at the Loch cover

If you want an example of how character can be established with economy look no further. Brown does this with facility. Witness how much we learn about Gabriel Gordon from the reactions of Sophie, living in an artists’ commune in London, to Maria Dupré seeking him out. This, in the third of Brown’s Langham and Dupré mysteries, is in part of the narrative where Maria is looking into Gordon’s background while Don Langham is investigating an attempted murder at a hotel in the Scottish Highlands. Langham’s wartime comrade, private detective Ralph Ryland, enlisted his aid when their wartime commanding officer Major Gordon, who now owns the hotel, called for assistance after he and a guest were shot at while they were involved in work on a project to raise the wreck of a German Dornier aeroplane which had crash landed in the nearby loch in February 1945.

The inhabitants of the hotel, not only Gabriel Gordon but also Hungarian emigré Renata Káldor, the German Ulrich Meyer – an expert on World War 2 aircraft – a Professor Hardwick (who is delving into the hotel’s history of paranormal phenomena) and Major Gordon’s ward Elspeth Stuart (with whom Gabriel had a fling before the Major put a stop to it) provide plenty of scope for suspicion.

The splitting of Langham and Dupré is a device Brown has employed before and is a useful tool when background information has to be sought from different locations many miles apart. It also handily allows both to be placed in jeopardy separately. Here the fifties setting yields a benefit to raising tension in that communication between the pair has to be by an unreliable telephone connection. The book also sees the welcome return of Langham’s literary agent, Charles Elder, released from jail, where he made a new friend. (It remains to be seen whether this will be a wise liaison.)

This isn’t quite a locked room mystery (though a winter snow storm makes it more or less a hotel in lock-down one.) However, the actual murder when it occurs – with which another years previously is connected – comes close to the classic scenario. And there is nothing gratuitous here. Brown adheres pretty closely to the template and feel of the stories he is echoing. If at times his Langham and Dupré mysteries may seem to have a soft edge that isn’t necessarily a drawback. Those fifties crime stories were primarily entertainment and still are.

Pedant’s corner:- Inverness is described as a “little town.” In the 1950s? “Soon they were tooling along,” (tootling?) “economical with the truth” (in dialogue – but was it in use in the 1950s?) “a crack at the Bosch!” (Boche,) “a Hungarian who had fled her homeland when the Nazis invaded” (I think the Nazis already had a presence there and so took over rather than invaded, but they certainly occupied the country in an attempt to prevent it changing sides as Romania had just done,) jerry-rigged (jury-rigged,) Camus’ (Camus’s,) “it appeared as first glance” (at,) primeval (I prefer primaeval,) “She said It was unlikely” (insert quote marks or make “it” lower case,) of the Loch Corraig Castle (of Loch Corraig Castle,) “drawing is revolver” (his.) Plus sixteen instances of “time interval later” (but two of these were in dialogue and another two not very glaring.) Also one “within minutes.”

Menin Road South Cemetery

The cemetery is well inside the boundaries of Ypres/Ieper and lies on the edge of the Menin Road. It contains the remains of 1,657 soldiers of whom 118 are unidentified but 24 of these are known or believed to be buried here.

Menin Road South Cemetery

This view from the east shows the Stone of Remembrance, the Cross of Sacrifice and (at the western end) the shelter building containing the cemetery register:-

Menin Road South Cemetery, View from West

Art Deco in Ypres

I didn’t expect to find Art Deco buildings in Ypres but what else can you call this?

Art Deco House Ypres

It was on the Menin Road inside the city limits. And it wasn’t alone; the building below was on the opposite side of the road a bit further in.

Art Deco Building, Ypres

Once I’d started looking I found deco styling quite easily:-

Art Deco House, Ypres

This is the above building’s doorway. Good ironwork here too:-

Art Deco, Doorway, Ypres

Nearer the outskirts but still on the Menin Road was this brick building:-

Art Deco in Brick, Ypres

Close-up on the doorway:-

Art Deco, Brick Doorway, Ypres

On the Menin Road on the way in to town from our hotel was this. We didn’t have time to visit the museum it houses; there were too many others:-

Art Deco Building, Ypres

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Hodder, 2015, 416 p plus 10 p extract from a sequel, a 2 p reading group guide and a 2 p special note from the author.

 The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet cover

Rosemary Harper is fleeing from her past life, having paid more than handsomely for the privilege, not to mention for a new identity. She is taking up an administrative job on the Wayfarer, a spaceship whose function is to punch holes through space to create pathways for other ships to travel by. Despite Rosemary’s doubts about her abilities she is accepted readily by the multi-species crew – barring only one member (there always has to be one) – the algaeist (ship’s engineer basically) who is something of a loner and not too friendly with anyone.

The tonal qualities of the narration are a little odd. Terms like grounders for planet dwellers and spacers for those who travel between solar systems are somewhat unimaginative (and utterly retro,) while artigrav is a horrible coinage. Give it a specific name and thus derivation instead of a generic description. Other aspects of the narrative, too, are irritating. There are frequent discussions amongst the crew about food which seem interminable. Their swear word of choice is “Oh, stars.” Even in moments of crisis there are very few instances of stronger expletives – and two of these were by a non-crew member. Without exception information dumping immediately follows on the mention of something we haven’t encountered before. Rosemary’s supposedly carefully hidden secret she blurts out at the first hint of its possible revelation. The only thing resembling a plot is a commission for the Wayfarer to travel to the galactic core to forge a tunnel back to local space. I suppose it is this that constitutes the titular long way for the Wayfarer makes numerous stops on the journey to the core, is once invaded, and boarded by friendly aliens on another occasion. Throughout there is no sense of urgency about the impending mission, no keenness apparent to get to the job, nor any hint of penalty for delay. On the planet Cricket (sadly not named after the sport but the insect) some of the crew are forced by a swarm to utilise the shelters against such an occurrence but the chapter just ends and the next one starts back on board the ship with nothing more said about it.

The universe of Chambers’s novel has a variety of alien species and both strands of humanity are relative newcomers to, and very minor players in, galactic society. Exodans fled Earth some time back but those who remained also now have access to the galaxy. The Toremi at the core are the most interesting aspect of the book but disappear from the narrative within a few pages, merely providing the impetus for the crisis of yet another crew member.

This isn’t a novel. It’s a series of barely connected episodes. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Chambers is so much in love with her universe she wants to show us every bit of it, regardless of whether her stops along the way follow any sort of logic rather than existing merely for the sake of themselves and to be shown off. Things happen merely to illustrate facets of Chambers’s vision. Sure, we get interspecies sex (two instances, two different couples) but I note in both cases there is no delving into the nitty gritty. We aren’t even invited to speculate on the mechanics. It is as if there is an assumption that these are universal; but they won’t be. Can’t be. (And where do pheromones fit in in this context?) There is no economy, no standing back, little evidence of the sacrifice of authorial darlings.

Yes, the title is The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but it is a very long way indeed. (And a very short stay there.) Perhaps if Chambers had stuck to the back story of one or two of the Wayfarer’s crew this might have been less noticeable but she gives us them all. And, yes, the members of the crew all look out for each other – even in extremis, for the algaeist – but this isn’t enough to sustain interest. It only highlights the lack of story. Had there been an underlying theme, a point to the meanderings, a grappling with an issue or two then there might have been positives to be taken. As it is, this is a very light read indeed.

There is one of those naff “extract from” passages after the book’s conclusion, from its sequel A Close and Common Orbit, but I really can’t see where Chambers can go with this. She’s already told us the background to every single one of her ship’s characters. Look on the bright side though. A Close and Common Orbit might actually have a plot.

Pedant’s corner:- On the back cover blurb; reptillian (reptilian.)
Otherwise:- ambiance (ambience,) acclimate (acclimatise,) liasing (liaising,) “we’re not kit out for it” (kitted,) unfased (unfazed,) “every shop had different lighting mechanisms to help distinguish themselves from the others” (to distinguish it from the others,) kaleidescope (kaleidoscope – the correct spelling also appeared later on,) “hands were shook” (shaken,) maw (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth,) “curling inward at rigored angles” (? ) “’Our ship is less than an hour out from yours, but we could half it if you meet us in the middle,’” (halve; and spaceship trajectories just DO NOT WORK IN THIS WAY. They are not like cars; you cannot just change a spaceship’s course on a whim,) Jenks’ (Jenks’s, which did appear later,) theirself (themself surely?) automatons (automata,) Encaledus (Enceladus?) “The length of the elevator cables were …” (The length was.) “Her feathers were beginning to lay flat,” (to lie flat.) “She was on her feet before she knew it.” (That’s just impossible.)

Look Out, There are Llamas!

One of the last things I expected to see on our trip to Ypres/Ieper was ….llamas. In a field by the Menin Road, grazing peacefully on what was a battlefield 100 years ago.

Llamas near Ypres (Ieper)

The photos were taken late in the evening when it was beginning to get dark.

Llamas Near Ypres (Ieper)

I just can’t help it. Every time I see llamas I always utter the quote which I used for this post’s title.

Atmospheric Pluto

A stunning picture taken by the New Horizons probe of a backlit Pluto showing its hazy but stratified atmosphere appeared on Astronomy Picture of the Day on 9/6/16.

Pluto at Night

Iron Fist by Bryan Perrett

Classic Armoured Warfare. Cassell & Co, 1998, 224p.

 Iron Fist cover

As the subtitle suggests in this book Perrett covers the history of armoured warfare from its beginnings in the Great War up to Operation Sabre during the first Gulf War.

In the beginning was the armoured car, whose first flourish in the British forces came in the form of a Royal Naval Air Service armoured car division. With the establishment of the Western Front’s trench system these quickly became unusable but squadrons of cars were subsequently sent to Libya, the Middle East and the Eastern Front and had notable success there.

The origins of the tank were less straightforward than just bolting armour to an existing chassis. An Australian, Mr Lancelot de Mole, in 1911 submitted to the War Office a design for an armed, tracked vehicle capable of crossing trenches. It was ignored; as it was by the Austro-Hungarian General Staff. Again it was the Navy, and the influence of Winston Churchill, a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence, which in 1915 set up a Landships Committee and the development of the tank began. (de Mole received recognition for his invention after the war in the form of an award.)

Perrett illustrates the development of armoured warfare by discussing representative engagements in the Great War, World War 2, the Arab-Israeli Wars, Vietnam and the liberation of Kuwait. He devotes a chapter to Hobo’s Funnies, the tanks adapted under the auspices of Major General P C S Hobart to “swim”, blow up mines, fill in anti-tank ditches etc, which contributed greatly to the success of the British and Canadian landings in Normandy and showed their worth as late as in the battles for Walcheren.

As well as Mr de Mole we find herein the fantastically named Count Hyazinth Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz who was a tactical genius with a seeming ability to read his Soviet enemies’ minds. Sometimes he had his tanks travel with their guns pointing backwards (traversed to the rear as the jargon has it) to fool the enemy into thinking they were friendly. In one such engagement he made his way behind Soviet lines with only four tanks. His tiny unit destroyed 105 Soviet tanks in one hour and made it back out intact.

For those, like myself, with a general interest in the military history of the twentieth century but perhaps lack in depth knowledge, the book illuminates some of its byways as well as giving an overview of its subject.

Pedant’s corner:- the latest generation were (was,) produced in (produced, or resulted in,) not prepared the maintain (to maintain,) handed them over the Senussi (to the Senussi,) Sirelius’ (Sirelius’s,) coped with the mud better the heavier cars (better than,) gild the lily somewhat that by (gild the lily somewhat by,) on 8th January the Soames (no “the”,) set too (set to,) of which were never enough to fill the gaps (there were never enough,) have been in dominant element (a dominant element,) nor aware of (nor was aware of,) the line of German tanks form (forms,) were several of new corps (no “of”,) Kirponos’ (Kirponos’s,) overlaying its rear areas (overlying makes more sense,) the minefields gaps (minefields’) the first of a succession that were to continue (that was to continue,) Volgagrad (Volgograd,) that tide of war had turned (that the tide,) was all but isolated with due course it had to evacuated by sea (all but isolated and in due course,) breath in (breathe in,) an Small Box Girder Bridge (a,) floatation screen (I prefer flotation,) infantry were pinned down (was,) a paragraph break in the middle of a sentence, referred to a Kangaroos (as Kangaroos,) who he invited to surrender (whom,) phosphorous (phosphorus,) the division … and were (and was,) on the eastern sector the British Eighth Army (of the British Eighth Army,) one the best (one of the best,) the cavalry… were (was,) his map told (indicated?) Hollands’ (Hollands’s,) Grossstein (I assume Grosstein,) a variety of ingenious techniques were developed (a variety was,) like that other conventional armies (like that of,) around a arc (an arc.) Perrett describes the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an attack on US warships by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The USS Maddox fired first. The US authorities described these as warning shots.

Friday on my Mind 132: RIP Dave Swarbrick

I wasn’t that much into folk rock. I was certainly aware though of the importance of Fairport Convention to that form of music and of Dave Swarbrick whose death was announced earlier this month.

This medley of The Lark in the Morning, Rakish Paddy, Foxhunters’ Jig and Toss the Feathers was arranged by and features heavily the fiddle of Mr Swarbrick.

Fairport Convention: Medley

David Cyril Eric Swarbrick: 5/4/1941 – 3/6/2016. So it goes.

New Cup, New Laws

I see from the club website that the Challenge Cup has been given a revamp so that it will now include more Scottish clubs from outwith the SPFL, top division under 20 sides and even clubs from Wales and Northern Ireland. The format looks like a right dog’s dinner.

I note that Tier 2 clubs won’t be joining till Round 3. It won’t make any difference to us. We always lose in it anyway. (I doubt being seeded will alter that at all.)

What concerns me most is the inclusion of the top division under 20s sides. This feels like the thin end of a wedge that will eventually see them allowed to play in the lower leagues. I know similar provision happens in Spain etc with reserve teams but the Scottish scene has unique characteristics that make me uncomfortable at the thought.

Edited to add. I just took in the fact that the draw will be regionalised. Fat chance of me getting to a a game then. (But maybe we’ll be in the North for that too.)

There have also been changes to the laws of the game. We’ll need to see how those work out.

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