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Man on the Moon

The Moon landings were faked up on a Hollywood backlot, right?

What a load of utter tosh!

It astounds me that anyone would prefer to believe that something which would have had to be kept secret for so long by quite a large number of people (people moreover, cinema technicians etc, not truly invested in the “deceit”) would not have leaked by now. But it hasn’t leaked.

And why hasn’t it leaked?

Because it would need proof of such a conspiracy to fake.

And there is none.

And why the desire to deny the endeavour and the expertise which went in to the making of man’s greatest adventure, not to mention the sheer bravery of the men who made the voyages? Buzz Aldrin was quite right to take exception to the guy who accosted him, a guy who has not one thousandth of the guts and integrity. What is it about some folk that they cannnot rejoice in others’ achievements but must find some way to denigrate them?

And the Soviet Union did not claim that the US Moon landings did not happen – which as a propaganda coup they most certainly would have – because they knew perfectly well that they did. (Compare that to now, when Russia does claim that things that happened didn’t and things that didn’t, have. And so, too, does POTUS, T Ronald Dump.)

Besides, some of the experiments the astronauts placed on the Moon are still sending back data, even fifty years on.

So, raise a glass and drink a toast to a magnificent accomplishment, a demonstration of humans’ ability to perform amazing feats of focus, cooperation and enterprise.

It’s just a pity we gave up on that enterprise so soon.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 330 p

Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Emblazoned across this book’s cover is ‘Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize’ – Kim Stanley Robinson. Rather a large claim to make and considering the novel spends some time mentioning and discussing Science Fiction and the existence or not of aliens – an automatic disbarment one would have thought – a forlornly hopeful one at best. (I note a certain amount of possible mutual back-scratching going on here as Roberts praised Robinson’s latest novel in his recent Guardian review.)

Yellow Blue Tibia, unusually for a piece of Western SF, is set entirely in the Soviet Union and starts when a group of Soviet SF writers is invited to meet comrade Stalin and asked to come up with a scenario of alien invasion to provide an enemy for the state to rally the people against. Their concept of radiation aliens becomes fleshed out but then they are told to forget the whole thing and never mention it again to anyone. Narrator Konstantin Skvorecky, former SF writer and veteran of the Great Patriotic War, recalls this from the perspective of the glasnost and perestroika era of 1986 when he once again meets a member of that original group, Ivan Frenkel, and weird things begin to happen.

The novel contains several nods to works of SF, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy etc, and frequent discussions of the form, ‘the worlds created by a science fictional writer do not deny the real world; they antithesise it!’
But what are we to make of this exchange?
“‘Communism is science fiction.’
‘And vice versa.’
‘I can think of many American writers of science fiction who would be insulted to think so.’
‘Perhaps they do not fully understand the genre in which they are working.’”

Frenkel is attempting to convince Skvorecky that UFOs are real, are in effect all around us, that in accordance with the scenario dreamed up by Stalin’s conclave of SF writers an alien invasion is under way. Skvorecky is initially sceptical, “‘Marx called religion the opium of the people… But at least opium is a high-class drug. UFO religion? That’s the methylated spirits of the people. It’s the home-still beetroot-alcohol of the people.’” To help persuade him Frenkel has Skvorecky meet two US Scientologists, James Tilly Coyne, and Nora Dorman – with whom Skvorecky falls in love mainly, it seems, because she is well-proportioned. In the end, though, Skvorecky tells us, “There are no secrets in this book… it is drawing your attention to that which is hidden in plain view all the time.”

Supposedly comedic interludes are provided by Saltykov – a taxi driver who has a condition, an extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome – and cannot bear contact with another man. He continually harps on about this and repeatedly says, ‘Do not talk to the driver. It’s a distraction.’ Roberts making one of Saltykov’s utterances, ‘I like to keep my engine clean. It’s a clean machine,’ is, though, certainly an authorial allusion to Penny Lane. Then we have the rather plodding KGB heavy, Trofim, who dogs Skvorecky more or less throughout.

This is the first time on reading Roberts that he has made me laugh. This came during an exchange in Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 (the aliens are apparently intending to blow this up, Skvorecky to find the bomb) when Trofim says, “It’s fallen in the water!”. But then I suppose, strictly speaking, since it’s a Goon Show quote (“He’s fallen in the water” – audio sample here, towards the bottom of the page) it was actually Spike Milligan making me laugh.

Skvorecky leads a charmed life, surviving many threatening situations, not least with Trofim. The UFO hypothesis suggests his survival is due to the superposition of states, of what Roberts dubs realitylines.

So why Yellow Blue Tibia? Apparently “yellow, blue, tibia” approximates to a phonetic declaration of “I love you” in Russian, a phrase which Skvorecky teaches to Dora. Unfortunately the book states that the tibia is a bone in the arm. The tibia is actually in the leg, along with the femur and the fibia; the bones of the arm are the humerus, the radius and the ulna. This is a pretty egregious mistake to make when the word tibia is in your book’s title.

It is undeniably all very cleverly done but again there is that distancing feeling attached to Roberts’s writing. Skvorecky claims to be in love with Dora but as a reader I couldn’t really feel it.

Apart from that could Yellow Blue Tibia have won the 2009 Booker Prize? Given the literary world’s prejudices – even though some of its denizens have taken to appropriating the tropes of the genre – never.

And should it have? In a word, no. Look at the short list.

Pedant’s corner:- for you next appointment (your,) paleoarcheological (palaeoarchaeological,) a stigmata (stigmata is plural, the singular is stigma,) a missing opening quote mark, sat (seated, or sitting,) “the spindle-wheels of the cassette again began turning again” (only one “again” required here,) span (spun – which appeared later,) “covered with the chocolate brown patches” (these patches had not previously been mentioned; so “covered with chocolate brown patches”,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of dialogue, “we spent out energies” (our energies,) sprung (sprang.) “‘What am I suppose to do now?’” (supposed,) liquorish (liquorice. This is the second time I have seen liquorish for liquorice in a Roberts book. Does he really believe liquorish is the correct spelling?) “‘She was the middle of’” (in the middle of,) cesium (caesium, please,) trunk (of a car; previously “boot” had been used,) “‘Use you fucking head.’” (your,) “The air around me was less atmosphere and more immersion, or preparation was of a multiple spectral shift.” (????) “when accounts … becomes more frequent” (become. )

Fidel Castro

Whatever your opinion of him, Fidel Castro, who died yesterday, was undoubtedly one of the most significant figures of the Twentieth Century.

Not only did he somehow contrive from a very small personnel base to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista he managed to sustain his regime against the efforts to undermine it of a great power whose territory began only 103 miles away even when his backer, the Soviet Union, which that confrontation drew him to had fallen into the jaws of history.

The nationalisation of all US-owned businesses on the island naturally poisoned relations with it, as, no doubt, did the treatment of Batista suporters and the suppression of opposition voices. Castro did, though, institute free medical care for all and a well regarded education system.

The Cuba-US stand-off provided the biggest world crisis since the Second World War when USSR missiles were stationed on Cuban soil. Thankfully cool heads prevailed on the part of both the great powers to procure their removal.

Despite many increasingly lunatic plans to remove Castro or his influence (see first link above) he survived them all and was able to pass on his leadership peacefully.

Even if that was only to his brother he did not continue to cling to power beyond his capacity to wield it, unlike many.

Here are two opposing musical views.

Focus: Sugar Island

The Skatalites: Fidel Castro

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz: 13/8/1926 – 25/11/2016. So it goes.

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Gollancz, 2014, 307 p

 Wolfhound Century cover

Investigator Vissarion Lom is bobbling along in the regional city of Podchornok seeking out dissidents when he is summoned to the capital city Mirgorod and there tasked with catching a terrorist. The setting is clearly based on Russia, characters have patronymics, the currency is the rouble, distances are measured in versts, the iconography of the cover is Soviet. A secret service head called Lavrentina (Chazia) adds to the impression. But it is a strangely altered Russia, named Vlast, ruled not by a Tsar nor a General Secretary, but by a Novozhd, and perpetually at war with a polity called the Archipelago. Moreover, an Archangel lies imprisoned in the countryside potentially threatening the future but first it has to ensure that the Pollandore, the vestige of an older voice which can undo the Archangel’s vision and is capable of altering reality, is destroyed. Lom has a piece of angel flesh embedded in his forehead “like a blank third eye”, giving him powers to move the air. There are giants.

It is a curious mix. The flavour of the novel is a bit like reading Joseph Conrad, the feel of the society it depicts like late Tsarist era Russia, but there are sub-machine guns. I found the thriller aspect of it to be too conventional, the circles of contact of Lom’s suspects too restricted and their connections too easily uncovered by him but it is an unusual fantasy scenario, all the more welcome for not being based on a mediæval template.

To be sure there is occasional “fine writing” but I’m afraid I lose patience when extra-human powers come into things, although such content may be true to its Russian inspiration. A more major complaint is that the novel didn’t end. An immediate threat was dealt with but the Archangel and the Pollandore were still extant. And quite why it is entitled Wolfhound Century remained obscure. If I see its sequel in one of my local libraries I might pick it up; otherwise, no.

Pedant’s corner:- “He should have waited. Showed his papers.” (Shown,) “his cap pulled down tight down over his forehead (only one down required,) and and (only one and required,) miniscule (minuscule.) “Its not on any map” (It’s,) dikes (USian? dykes,) “broken staithes and groynes” (staithes?) “with the trunk on it back” (its back,) a missing full stop.

I Miss the Soviet Union

Remember those bad old days of the Cold War? The evil Commies who stamped on people’s rights and stifled individualism?

Well, maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

Yes, life in the Eastern Bloc wasn’t a picnic and freedom of expression is a good thing – provided it isn’t taken too far.

But… The existence of the Soviet Union kept big business in the West honest (to a point.) Inequality was much less pronounced in the UK then than it is now; in the US too I wouldn’t wonder. With the example of a competing economic system to hand there was a brake on excess, those inclined to it restrained their greed. When so-called Communism (a description which was woefully inaccurate, there was little communal about it, it was an autocratic oligarchy) collapsed, the brakes came off and CEOs and executives of big companies let their impulses off the leash. Thoughts of paying and treating fairly the true source of any wealth created by a company’s endeavours, the workers, evaporated. Instead, those workers were squeezed, marginalised, treated with contempt, their abilities to protest curtailed – at least in the UK.

There is a thought amongst certain people – on both sides of the Atlantic – that government is in and of itself a bad thing, “A conspiracy against the people.” (These are probably mostly the same people who want to do whatever they like with no comeback.)

A Trump Presidency may be the experiment that tests that idea.

To destruction.

Unfortunately it won’t be its advocates whose lives will be destroyed. In times of turmoil it rarely is.

Lack of government does not mean freedom, it means anarchy. It means no protection against predators and wrongdoers. It means those with the deepest pockets have no barriers to their avarice prevailing. (It also means they in turn have no protection beyond what they can buy.) In effect, though, it means slavery – either real or (poorly) waged – for the majority.

Regulation of human activity – in any sphere – is actually a necessary constraint. “Freedom from” is as important as “freedom to”.

Which leads to the thought; if you are a woman working in the Trump White House, how safe will you be in terms of your personal autonomy? How free will you be from coercion?

And Now I’m Back

I’ve been in Holland.

Well, strictly speaking, since it was on the borders of the Friesland and Groningen provinces, make that The Netherlands.

The good lady’s eldest brother lives there. We had been supposed to visit for years but life got in the way.

We needed to renew our passports first. I sent the applications away late in July. Despite all the talk on the news about delays we got the new ones inside a week. (As I remember it was four days.) Maybe the Glasgow Passport office is more efficient than down south.

So another country visited. Apart from the constituent parts of the UK (though I only just made it into Wales) I’ve been to Sweden (Stockholm,) the Soviet Union (Leningrad as was) and Denmark (Copenhagen) on a school cruise when I was at Primary School, Portugal (the Azores, Madeira, Lisbon) and Spain (Vigo) on a Secondary School cruise, and as an adult to Germany (near Stuttgart) and France twice (Normandy for the D-Day beaches and Picardy for World War I battlefields.)

Since the good lady didn’t fancy being on a RoRo ferry overnight we drove down to Harwich (with an overnight stop) and the same on the way back. I’m knackered.

The Road To Berlin by John Erickson

Stalin’s War With Germany, Volume 2. Grafton, 1985, 1199p – including 223p of references and sources, 78p of bibliography and a 38p index.)

The Road To Berlin

I read the previous volume on Stalin’s war with Germany, The Road to Stalingrad, last year. Like that, this too is blighted with an alphanumeric soup of Army and Front names. The Red Army had variously:- Shock Armies, Guards Armies, Guards Tank Armies, Air Armies, Artillery Armies, Motorised Divisions, Rifle Divisions, Guards Cavalry Corps etc – designated by prefixes such as 1st, 2nd – all organised into different Fronts – Southern Front, South-Western Front, Leningrad Front, Steppe Front, Voronezh Front, Bryansk Front, four Ukrainian Fronts, three Baltic Fronts, three Belorussian Fronts, which morphed and changed or merged as the war progressed. Added to this is the proliferation of German units some of which are delineated in words (Sixth Panzer Army) or Roman numerals (XLVI Panzer.) Keeping track of it all is well-nigh impossible. Best to go with the flow as the narrative is very broad brush and consists mostly of plans to attack here or there with the various Soviet forces available to whatever Front is being discussed at the time.

The book gets out of these difficulties when it comes to the diplomatic area, being lucid on the various discussions with the Western Allies on Poland, Greece, Romania etc. In the matter of discussions Tito was unusual among the resistance leaders in German-occupied territories as he stood up to Stalin. The Western Allies were hamstrung in their dealings with Stalin as regards the post war settlements as they had no armies in Eastern Europe. A surprise to me was that there had apparently been a German plan to kidnap President Roosevelt from the Big Three conference in Tehran. Otto Skorzeny (who did rescue Mussolini from his mountain top imprisonment after the Italian change of sides) had a look at the possibility but dismissed it. Seemingly an aeroplane did land some German agents but the plot was foiled as the Russians had a spy in their midst. How much of this was genuine, how much a Soviet fabrication is debatable; Erickson says he has seen no documentary evidence.

This volume starts with the aftermath of the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Thereafter it describes an almost consistent series of Soviet victories, though there were occasional holdups and slight reverses along the way. The emphasis on the Stavka is lessened here compared to Volume 1, perhaps because there were little or no crises for the Red Army to endure from 1943 on, only extremely bloody slogging. The role of the artillery in reducing German positions prior to Soviet attacks is made obvious – plus the importance of holding back the tanks until the infantry had made the breakthrough.

By this account the halting of the Soviet armies in front of Warsaw was not entirely an exercise in cynicism. They had just made a rapid advance, were at the end of long supply lines, with depleted forces and worn equipment and had suffered considerable losses (nearly 300,000 casualties over the two Fronts concerned in the relevant campaign.) Despite a wide exposure to World War 2 histories I had not been aware till reading this that there had also been an anti-Nazi rising in Slovakia as well as in Warsaw. Then again matters on the Eastern Front have tended to be skimmed by US or British accounts.

It is notable that in this book the war in Italy, D-Day, the breakout from Normandy, the crossing of the Rhine etc are incidental, off-stage, barely mentioned except in terms of co-ordination of attacks. The scale of the Soviet effort comes through loud and clear. In their terms, theirs was the only war. Even some of the German units involved in the Battle of the Bulge were later moved east.

The savage nature of the fighting for Reich territory in East Prussia and in front of and inside Berlin is given note. The 1st echelon of Soviet troops was well-trained, even clean-shaven, and relatively disciplined. The 2nd echelon was a complete contrast, made up either of POWs released by the advance and hurriedly retrained or conscripts from the various recently liberated Soviet republics – all of whom had suffered at German hands (Erickson’s description is “brutalised”) and some of whom may have resented both sides equally.

There is less sense in this volume of Stalin’s controlling hand on the armies, again perhaps due to the victories being won. His impatience comes through, though, and his possible vengefulness.

At one point Erickson gives the figure of over 1,500,000 Communist Party members being casualties in the Great Patriotic War. This underlines the magnitude of the Soviet Union contribution to winning the war as not every soldier would have been a party member. And there were of course the civilian casualties. The final attacks were pushed through with huge losses. Still, even at the end, there were German armies in the field capable of resistance, though some others were going through the motions.

Erickson had the benefit of speaking to some of the Soviet generals involved in writing his history of “Stalin’s War,” It was however written well before the demise of the Soviet Union and may well now have been superseded.

The Road To Stalingrad by John Erickson

Stalin’s War With Germany Volume 1
Grafton, 1985, 814p (including 144p of sources and references and a 26p index.)

I remember seeing a newspaper review of this and thinking, “That sounds interesting, I’ll maybe get it in paperback.” Then I realised it was the paperback. (£7.99 was a lot of money for a book in 1985. And there was the second volume to consider). It was a few years later before I bought both, I believe. They are weighty tomes and I didn’t feel able to give them the necessary time till now.

Originally published in 1975, firmly during the cold War era, The Road To Stalingrad filled a gap by being the first UK history of the Russian Front to focus primarily on Soviet sources.

Its starting point is the disruption to the Soviet armed forces caused by the purges of the 1930s, the rearrangements and lack of preparedness which that caused, all of which was exacerbated by the strange purblindness of Stalin with regard to German intentions in the run up to war. Thereafter it considers the frontier battles, the deep German advance, touches briefly on events behind the German lines, deals with the Moscow counterstroke and the following abortive Soviet offensive in early 1942 with which Stalin thought he might win the war that year, up to the German drive to the Volga and the Caucasus.

The book is strongest on the deliberations within the stavka, the Soviet high command, but really that means the decisions reached by Stalin. Marshal Shaposhnikov, the main military voice within the stavka – even though Zhukov was made Stalin’s deputy in 1942 – seems to have learned early to go with that flow.

Unfortunately it is not till page 538 and the start of the Battle of Stalingrad that the narration comes to life. Here Erickson begins to leaven his account with details of the battle. Up till then he is more concerned with the general sweep of events and is peculiarly fixated on enumerating the switching of multifarious Divisions between the various Soviet Armies, Groups and Fronts. Along the way there is a daunting array of Russian General’s names to deal with.

While the book does have maps, they are very few and only depict large areas. Some showing the smaller movements involved would have provided clarification of the somewhat dense prose.

What, for me, it all illuminated was the unlikelihood of any attack to liberate Europe by the Western Allies being likely to succeed had Hitler’s armies not already been embroiled and macerated in the East. The sheer numbers of troops involved, the scales of the operations, are stunning. As it was, Stalin’s pressing of Britain and the US to initiate a Second Front quickly was deflected as they were as yet not adequately prepared for any such endeavour.

At the end of the 642 pages of narrative we have reached only the encirclement of von Paulus’s Sixth Army, trapped in the city. The second volume of Erickson’s history, The Road To Berlin, awaits. It may be some time.

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