Posted in bastards, Books, Publishing, Review

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany by Norman Ohler

Hitler and Elvis 1A couple or three things before I get into the review of this book. First, it was originally published as The Total Rush: Drugs In the Third Reich, but for the publication of the English translation was retitled as Blitzed. I don’t like this retitling, possibly because it’s too on-the-nose, though “on-the-nose” is not a phrase I’ve got much time for.

Second, Ohler is a novelist and not an historian, which probably means he’s played up his angle for, you know, the narrative. Which is not to say that he hasn’t somehow come across something that mainstream historians have underplayed.

Third, I don’t like the cover. They obviously wanted a picture of Hitler looking deranged, but to me Hitler looks deranged in every photo of him. Aside from that, I dislike the graphic design aesthetic. I get that the black and red colour scheme is meant to evoke the Third Reich, but I just hate the way the subtitle is placed in relation to the author’s name, and the overall effect is just tacky.

514QN3Fg-2L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_All of which means it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’re in the hands of a marketing department, reading something sensationalist and exploitative, designed to garner headlines and promote sales. Which is of course the job of the marketing department, but my emotional response to all this is pure Generation X. I’m reading this because I’m interested in spite of not because of your attempts to market it to me. To clarify: I heard this mentioned on a podcast, without knowing the title, author’s name, cover design, typography, or anything else about it. So, holding my nose, here goes:

This is fascinating. Not just because it explains how the Nazis were able to roll so quickly into France and Belgium without waiting for logistical support or allowing the troops to rest, but because of the ways in which the secret sauce of doping up combat troops for a fight has clearly been picked up by every fuckhead with a pip on his collar ever since. Short version: German soldiers and Luftwaffe pilots were consuming mind-boggling quantities of methamphetamine, marketed under the name of Pervitin. At first, they were obtaining it privately (Ohler refers to letters home by one soldier, whose ulterior motive for staying in touch with his family seems to have been drug seeking to feed his addiction); but after a while, the pills were being issued.

As a non-historian, I grew interested in the power dynamics at play here. Hitler wasn’t giving the instruction for soldiers to be given crystal meth, although he may have been insisting on otherwise-impossible outcomes, which seems to have been his stock in trade. There were powerful figures in the army who were competing either for his favour or to be seen as the architects of victory. Or maybe they were competing with the Luftwaffe. The culmination of all this was the bizarre halt order which was enough of a pause to allow the British to escape at Dunkirk. Strategic error, or power play, or whatever it was, it meant that the retreat was less of a disaster than it might have been.

The use of performance enhancing drugs by the army, navy, and airforce was widespread and ongoing. Crystal meth helped the Nazis to defeat the French, but it also allowed them to retreat from Moscow, the drugs allowing soldiers who were dead on their feet to keep marching through the snow. Towards the end of the war, when the Germans were wildly experimenting with technologies that allowed them to keep fighting in the face of certain defeat, the navy were trying various drug combinations to keep mini submarine pilots awake for 4 days at a stretch. The ultimate outcome was a dismal failure, but along the way, drugs were tested on concentration camp inmates in typically inhuman ways. Needless to say, I’ll never look at the marketing around Bata Toughees shoes (designed to walk long distances) in the same way again.

Behind all this is the history of drug development in Germany, which is really an incredible thing. Did you know that the scientist who invented aspirin also invented heroin? Eleven days later? The Germans were popping pills like nothing else, and securing supplies of narcotics during the war seems to have been as important as securing supplies of oil. And, after the war, it seems as if the Americans and the Russians (and everybody else, probably) continued to experiment with drugs for military and sporting performance, as well as “truth serums” and psychological experiments, using the same Nazi scientists in many cases. For example, the CIA’s MKUltra programme was a continuation of one of those horrific concentration camp experiments.

Meanwhile, back in his various bunkers, Hitler was being injected with “vitamins”, steroids, pain killers, and anything else that might help him through the day by his personal quack doctor, Theodor Gilbert Morell. I was reminded of nothing so much as Albert Goldman’s exploitative follow-up to his Elvis biography: Elvis: the Last 24 Hours. According to Goldman, Elvis needed drugs to help him wake up in the morning, to help him sleep at night, to help him shit, stop shitting, and so on, all of which were prescribed by his personal quack doctor, George Constantine Nichopoulos, also known as Dr. Nick.

Elvis was constipated, up in the middle of the night trying to take a shit and reading a book about the Turin shroud when he died of heart failure. Like Hitler, he convinced himself that he wasn’t a drug addict because his doctor was his enabler, and these were on prescription. Morell seems to have been dismissed when he ran out of Oxycodone, the opioid marketed in Germany as Eukodal. Ohler suggests that Morell was dosing Hitler with Oxy more or less every other day, especially as the Reich shrieked towards defeat and after the bunker bomb that left Hitler trembling uncontrollably. It’s usually suggested that Hitler’s shaking might have been Parkinson’s, but Ohler more straightforwardly suggests that he was just an addict.

Talking of impossible-to-prove-by-now diagnoses, as someone who has recently been diagnosed with a food intolerance, I couldn’t help thinking as I read that Hitler’s bowel spasms, uncontrollable farting and various other digestive symptoms might have been signs of lactose intolerance, or something. Who knows? Either way, it seems that Hitler couldn’t function without Morell’s injections.

Some historians have reacted against Ohler’s work, saying that it appears to be offering an excuse for Hitler’s actions, but Ohler is clear on that point in the book: Hitler needed drugs because he was a drug addict, and the drugs that enabled him to function were not behind his atrocities but simply gave him the ability to go on committing them.

As repelled as I was by the marketing, I did find this a fascinating read, and Ohler’s research is exhaustively documented. The Hitler section became repetitive, but I guess that’s the nature of addiction.

Anyway, do what I did: borrow from your local library.

 

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in bastards, Publishing

The Guardian Problem

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 15.51.55So the Guardian lost £69 million, wiping a huge chunk of its Scott Trust cash cushion in the process. Print ad revenue is down, and so is online ad revenue. The whole enterprise seems to be circling the drain, and would have disappeared but for its £800m nest egg.

It’s a shame, because the UK media needs a voice independent of corporate/billionaire interests – one that’s stronger than the mealy-mouthed BBC – which doesn’t provide in-depth analysis and doesn’t prioritise the truth in the same way that the Guardian could.

But the Guardian doesn’t really act as an independent voice, and that’s its problem. Ideally, it would make enough money to cover its running costs and not have to dip into its capital funds; ideally, it would be supported by people like me, who would happily pay £5 a month to maintain its autonomy. But I won’t, because it isn’t.

Strike one: of course, its trust fund is invested in the money markets and depends on the continuing survival of the current economic model to maintain its value. So it would be against the Guardian’s own interests to argue for anything other than the survival of the current economic model.

Strike two: the whole point of the Trust is the keep the Guardian running along the ‘the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.’ In other words, meaningful change is not in the Guardian’s DNA. A lot of Guardian readers mistakenly think that it is a left-wing newspaper, but it’s not. It’s a Liberal newspaper, and socialist ideas generally give it the heebs.

Strike three: strikes one and two are never more starkly illustrated than in the Guardian’s lack of support for Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, in not supporting Corbyn, the Guardian aligns itself with The Dalies Mail, Telegraph, Express, Times, and Sun etc. Why would I, with my vaguely socialist beliefs and natural inclination to support Corbyn’s ideas about workers’ rights and economic reform, want to pay £5 a month to support a newspaper that followed the same line as all the other newspapers? Where is the meaningful difference here?

Strike four: talking of meaningful difference, let’s turn to the rest of its content. In its attempt to maintain its free, ad-supported digital model, the Guardian has gone down the route of publishing articles that attract social media links and clicks. This means that it tends to devolve to the same crap that all the other media outlets publish. This means endless recaps/blogs about trendy television programmes; articles with clickbait-style headlines (key phrases like “How [whatever] is [whatever]” or headlines that ask questions or [x] Reasons [x] will [x]). It also means too many columnists adopting contrarian opinions, providing the kind of ‘hot take’ that gives the internet a bad name. And having seen the damage created by contrarian journalists-turned-politicians (Johnson and Gove), I think, frankly, that this country has had enough of contrarian journalists.

There’s way too much content on the Guardian web site, and most of it is the same old shite you find everywhere else. It was a mistake for any newspaper to give away its content for free, a decision driven by Fear of Missing Out and misplaced concerns about the BBC. By all means, make AP-style news reports free, but keep all the analysis and opinion for the print edition, or stick it behind a members-only paywall. Also, charge memberships for people who want to post comments on articles. Another idea: update the home page just once a day for non-paying visitors, and keep all the breaking and rolling news and regular updates for paying customers only. Any article in any section of the web site leaves you in a grumpy mood as soon as you accidentally read just one of the comments beneath it. And that’s a problem because, man, do I not want to belong to that particular club. Guardian readers appear to be the nastiest people in the world. Why would I pay £5 a month to be lumped in with that lot?

Whatever: without providing a real alternative to the so-called mainstream, without giving me the alternative voice I crave, there’s no point to the Guardian.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Giving up on a book

Radiance-616x991I’ve walked out of a couple of films in my life, but I’ve almost never given up on a book. Especially a book I’ve bought. Especially especially a book I’ve bought in hardback.

But here it is. Radiance by Catherine M. Valente was on the honour list for the 2015 Tiptree Award and I ordered it and one of the others on the list out of interest. I often do this for the Nebula and Hugo award nominees, too. It’s a good way of discovering new authors.

It’s a hard book to describe. Some would say it was batshit crazy, which I have no objection to at all. It’s set in an alternate universe, where the planets of the solar system are like countries, relatively easy to get to, and inhabitable. And there’s a film industry which is apparently frozen in the silent era (and offworld) and, the novel is built up from documentary-like fragments, piecing together the story of a female director who went missing on Venus…

All of which sound all right. You know? But I just couldn’t get into it. It has that epistolary character, like a bad 19th century novel (like Dracula, say), and the pace drags and there’s no real narrative drive, and, well, it’s all very postmodern (or it might be modern, I didn’t get to the end), but I couldn’t suspend disbelief or get into it. I kept putting it down and picking it up, and it’s been next to my bed since the beginning of April, and I kept finding other things to read, and then trying it again. In the end, I was about halfway through and still not enjoying it – not even a little bit – and so, with regret, I give up. Fuck it.

I just couldn’t get behind this Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burrows, retro fantasy romance vision of interplanetary life, or care very much about the space whales and their milk, or the mystery of the missing director or the various other characters who have something to do with this film industry. I just didn’t see what difference it made that this was all taking place in space in an alternate universe instead of being about, say, early Hollywood and a director that went missing in Argentina or wherever.

Mixed emotions. I feel guilty and sorry for giving up, but at the same time relieved to be picking up the (2014 Nebula nominated) Golem and the Djinni instead.

 

Posted in Books, Publishing, Writing

An interview with the author

class war coverFrequently Arsed caught up with T O McKee, author of Class War: the teacher’s story, a novel about life in a bog-standard comprehensive academy school in 21st century Britain. We asked all the burning questions that readers want answered.

First things first: why did you choose to publish under a pseudonym?

It’s not because I’ve breached confidentiality or written anything about actual people or places. I’ve taught in a number of schools over the years, and I’ve worked with people who have taught in more, so I’ve synthesised all those experiences into a fictional school with fictional staff and students – a composite of experience, like all fiction. On the other hand, what I say in the novel about the atmosphere of fear and censorship within schools is true. So although I haven’t written anything actionable, I’m mindful of the way in which employers will find fault and use any excuse to accuse teachers of being unprofessional. For example, what I say about social media in the novel is true: I have been in meetings where staff were told not to use Facebook. At all. And even doing something like running a useful blog for students to use as a resource is frowned upon if it takes place outside the micromanaged control of school leaders.

Is life as a teacher really that bad?

It is. And it’s even worse, because to undo all the damage that has been done over the past few years would mean another unsettled period of permanent revolution. You can trace the fault back decades. When they did away with grammar schools, for example, they didn’t do away with all grammar schools, so they hung around as a reminder of the old system – for parents and politicians to obsess over. Education has been a political football for my whole life.

Is teaching no worse than it always has been, then?

The difference, when the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, was the determination to make wholesale – and I think deliberately damaging – changes in a hurry. I think that Gove/Cameron etc. believed they wouldn’t be in power for long, so they set out to make irreversible changes as quickly as possible. So while teaching has always been unsettling, with the ground constantly shifting, what Gove wrought happened dizzyingly fast, and was ill-planned and gleefully destructive. To be a teacher in one of the subjects that Gove decided was unworthy – creative subjects, for example – was to see your contribution devalued, your livelihood threatened, and the number of students opting to take your classes diminish because parents had been influenced – or confused. Meanwhile, non-creative subjects like Business Studies get a free pass. And beyond what’s happened with the curriculum, the management style that has been encouraged by the current OFSTED regime; the attacks of teachers’ pensions – for ideological, not economic, reasons – the attacks of unions, pay and conditions, the ever-increasing workload, micromanagement, the pressure to conform – all of it makes the job harder and more horrible.

Is that why the drugs?

I wanted to portray a mid-life crisis – the kind that people who can’t afford fancy sports cars have. But I’ve known a lot of teachers who would have to confess to drinking a bottle of wine every night in order to relax or sleep. People who take three sets of books home at the weekend, who put in 60-hour working weeks.

Do you work those kind of hours?

I don’t think so. But I probably work more than I’m aware of. I’ll be working on my laptop with the telly on, for example. Which in my mind might be telly watching time. But I’ve watched whole series without looking up at the screen. And I’ve spent hours creating resources for myself or my students, which is part of the planning and preparation. The long-term view is that you can re-use rich resources in later years and save yourself time. But then exam specifications change, or subjects are abolished, or whatever. So they don’t last that long. I try not to take more than one set of books home at the weekend, but you definitely work longer than your contracted hours. And then at stressful times, sleeping can be hard.

Why include the romantic sub-plot?

I needed something that would highlight how my main character is being driven to clutch at straws. The lack of joy, the unrelenting pressure, the feeling of being ground down – he needed something to cling to, something that would offer hope. There’s nothing quite like that feeling you get when you meet someone and go through that initial attraction. And I also wanted to write about the different ways in which people interact in these digital days.

Is it doomed?

Maybe. Maybe all relationships are doomed. I’ve kind of left that for the reader to judge, based on their own experiences.

And was that romantic sub-plot based on your experience?

I wish. Kind of. Not a romantic relationship, but certainly thinking about how – for a long time – I would write lots of letters to people I cared about, but how these days you’re more likely to chat or exchange selfies. I have chatted online with former students, and it’s a weird experience and there was never any romantic interest on their part. At my lowest ebb as a teacher I might have fantasised about throwing everything away and running away with a younger woman, but not really.

But that’s not the ending of the novel. What about that ending?

People like to complain, don’t they? And then most don’t do anything about it – complaining is enough. But some people get out on the street. Historically, you look back at protest movements – the anti-Vietnam movement, Civil Rights, the Poll Tax – and you can see that there was some impact. Change never happens quickly, and it often doesn’t go far enough, but without those people – who often/usually put themselves in physical danger – society would be a lot worse. But I have mixed feelings. While you’re in it, on the march, you’re just surrounded by shouty people and you have tired legs from walking too slowly, and your feet hurt. And then you get home and the BBC haven’t even bothered to report it. So you feel like nothing will change. We do need a mass movement. But most of all, we need an engaged electorate who are aware of their own interests and aren’t fooled (by racism, lies, by short-termism) into voting against them. So I wanted to finish on that note. How you can be reluctantly driven to participate, but also what might result from all the frustration and anger and the feeling of helplessness that goes along with it.

The final image is ambiguous

It reflects my own ambiguity. I want to bring the place down in flames, but I’m afraid to live in the aftermath. It’s a kind of what would you do? moment.

A book: Class War

class war coverUpdate: fellow blogger Rashbre has put up a review of Class War, which has some interesting insights. 

===

I need to write a better blurb for it, but: it’s about Dave Coote, a teacher who’s struggling along in an academy school and facing up to the fact that the job is becoming impossible because of creeping privatisation, corruption, and management bullshit.

There’s other stuff happening, too: a former student who drops in to ask a favour and turns his life upside down. And then there’s the evidence of financial mismanagement Coote comes across and what he decides to do about it.

It’s a work of fiction, of course, and published under a pseudonym because: reasons.

It’s a quick read: 68,000 words. Available for Kindle and Kindle Apps:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon Canadia

Amazon Oz

Amazon India

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, Publishing, Review, Writing

Updraft by Fran Wilde

updraftI bought this book because it’s shortlisted for the Nebula award, and I thought it looked intriguing. My copy is a US hardback edition, so I don’t know if it’s available in any other printed form in the UK (you can get a Kindle version). It’s listed as ‘Fantasy’ but I could easily make a case for it being science fiction – set in a world with a very different ecosystem, to be sure. There’s nothing here that requires the presence of the supernatural. People fly, but their wings are man-made and without them, gravity kicks in and they fall.

This novel is written using the iceberg method – so much so that you think you might be picking up the second or third in a series, but you’re not. The author merely knows a lot more than she’s telling you, and you have to do the usual (science fiction) detective work to understand what is happening. Of course, it helps that this is a society with social strata and secrets, which our heroine and reader proxy Kirit Densira seeks to learn and to expose.

Daughter of a successful trader, Kirit wants to pass her wingtest and join her mother in the family business. But she makes a mistake, breaks Tower Law, and finds herself fighting for both her wings and her identity, as she is pulled into the secretive and deadly world of the Singers, the priest-like enforcers of the Laws.

In this world, people live in organic towers which soar above the clouds and keep growing, gradually filling the lower levels with thickened bones. The higher you are in a tower, the higher your status; but if you can’t fly, you’re nowhere. And even if you can fly, you have to watch out for dangerous predators and keep your wits about you.

Updraft features the kind of imaginative world-building that you’d expect from the very best of the fantasy genre, but unlike a lot of fantasy (I’m looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire), this is also incredibly pacy, with a story that fair rockets along, leaving you breathless in its wake. If you enjoyed last year’s success, The Goblin Empero, you will certainly love this as much as I did. And even if The Goblin Emperor was too fantasy-like for you, Updraft, as I said above, feels a lot like a certain type of science fiction (Katherine Kerr’s Snare is a good comparison), so should appeal to those wary of the usual fantasy fare. There are no dragons or elves herein.

Entertaining and intriguing as this was, I do hope there are more to come.

Posted in Books, movies, Publishing, Review, Writing

Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers – Review

Rudolph_Valentino_and_Natacha_Rambova
Valentino and Rambova

My favourite author* Tim Powers has released a new novel just four years after the last one (has it been so long, Tim?), which is very exciting. A new Powers is an event to savour, and you want to force yourself to read slowly so as not to use it all up.

My copy is a hard back with deckle edges (uncut pages), which is a design choice you come to understand when you reach about halfway through the novel.

Like the Fault Lines series (1992-1996) and Three Days to Never (2006), Medusa’s Web is largely set in contemporary Los Angeles, and like Three Days to Never it features spooky links to Old Hollywood.

Three Days to Never featured the handprints of Charlie Chaplin, whereas Medusa’s Web visits silent heartthrob Rudolph Valentino; set- and costume-designer Natacha Rambova (aka Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy from Utah); and star of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé Alla Nazimova (which was co-written by Rambova, who was also married to Valentino and rumoured to have had an affair with Nazimova).

Your grasp of Old Hollywood may stretch to Valentino, but Rambova and Nazimova call for more rarified  knowledge – or, like me, you go scurrying to Wikipedia to find out how much of this is true. In Hollywood, of course, everybody was somebody else, and every building (as Raymond Chandler so often noted) was a simulacrum. Rambova was Shaughnessy (a surname that makes me think of The Maltese Falcon); Valentino was  Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla; Nazimova was actually Russian, but was born Adelaida Yakovlevna Leventon. The Garden of Allah was a mansion, was a hotel, was levelled and paved over along with all the rest of ‘the Hollywood village’ and the orange groves and Bunker Hill.

then-now-goa-1935-today
The Garden of Allah site, then and now-ish

So it goes with Tim Powers. His stock-in-trade is history with a twist of mystery. He clearly buries himself in the lore until he finds something odd, and then weaves a novel around it. This has worked successfully for romantic poets, pirates, cold war spies and Vegas mobsters.

While this novel pales in comparison with my all-time-favourite Declare (his 2001 masterpiece), it’s still entertaining and fascinating, if not as disturbing and/or gripping as some of his best work. If you have an interest, Declare is essential, The Stress of Her Regard should probably next in line – and then you’ll want to read the sort-of sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. By which time you’ll be hooked, or not.

Right now, after the first reading, Medusa’s Web ranks quite low for me, but then I’d have said that about Three Days To Never until I read it for the second time a while ago. There’s usually enough here to require more than one reading. Even sitting here, writing this review and perusing images of Old Hollywood, I’m starting to like it better.

Rambova, the exotic pseudonym of a woman from Salt Lake City, is intriguing. The Wikipedia article includes this nugget about her later life:

She published articles on healing and astrology, and helped decipher ancient scarabs and tomb inscriptions, which led her to edit a series titled Egyptian Texts and Religious Representations. She also conducted classes in her apartment about myths, symbolism and comparative religion.

Nuggets like this are surely a magnet for an author like Powers. What if…?

In this case, we have some kind of multi-dimensional beings whose manifestation in this world takes a peculiar form, which becomes a fad among the Hollywood élite, and a dangerous addiction for some.

Returning home after the death of the aunt who raised them, Scott and his sister Madeleine reconnect with their estranged and odd cousins Claimayne and Ariel, who live together in a falling-apart Hollywood mansion and bear no little hostility towards them. Claimayne is nasty and Ariel is angry, and both of them have been addicted to the ‘spiders’ that allow them to travel in time – sort of. Scott and Madeleine are pulled back into the family psychodrama and find themselves caught up in events they barely understand.

Scott is your typical Powers hero, even down to the hand injury he sustains partway through (a trope Powers has used repeatedly since his first two novels); and his sister is also a familiar female character. There are no talking heads in boxes, another common Powers trope, but there is a clattering keyboard and a telephone that rings even though it’s not there.

My main criticism I think is that these characters do seem like shorthand by now: if you’ve read this author before you don’t need them fleshed out, but they are on the thin side and I can’t escape the feeling that this novel has had 150 pages or so edited out of it.

The greatest pleasures here are the glimpses of Old Hollywood, and the feeling that those black and white days of glamour and debauchery are almost tangible. Of course, almost none of it survives today, mainly because it was built of chipboard and stucco, like a movie set.

4a05813a_3x2crop.jpg~original

*Give or take Robert Charles Wilson.

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review

SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 21.32.28I’m not big on watching modern documentaries. I always make an exception for the music ones, but I won’t give time to the mainstream popular history or nature documentaries, simply because I cannot bear the padding of the content with the recaps and the previewing of information. Journalist Robert Hutton tweeted a brilliant parody of this structure a while ago:

 

Which is all by way of saying that I haven’t watched any of Mary Beard’s history docs on the telly, but I do have an abiding interest in the history of Rome, so when I saw this book on an Amazon Lightning Deal, I snapped up a hardback copy for a tenner.

Origin of this interest? Not sure. Almost certainly related to reading Rosemary Sutcliffe when younger, but also because I did (I actually did!) Latin at ‘O’ Level, which involved the study of the Cambridge Classics (Caecilius in Pompeii, just like in Doctor Who), the Aeneid, and Pliny’s letters.

I had Michael Grant’s The History of Rome on my shelf for years, but found it very dry and unengaging. As a popular historian, Mary Beard’s style is far more accessible, and the footnotes are deliberately in the format where you don’t even know there are footnotes unless you look in the back.

Beard’s tone is skeptical throughout: skeptical of founding myths, of anything written about the early and fabled Roman Republic by self-serving politicians from later eras who are always scoring points. She does her best, in fact, to produce a history of Rome that doesn’t focus on emperors and conquest but tries to concern herself with everyday life for ordinary people: hence her enduring interest in inscriptions, graffiti, and the contents of ancient rubbish dumps. What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage was the condition of slavery?

Many of us were raised on the idea that history is about Emperors, Kings, and occasional Queens. This is the version of history that Gove and co. wanted to force back into the curriculum. Dates and battles, and Great Men. This is a far cry from the liberal days of the late 70s, when my own History ‘O’ Level included study of the Chinese revolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beard refutes the conservative view. She laughs at the notion that anything much before what we now call Common Era can be dated. She gives us some detail on the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, then more detail on the first of the emperors, Augustus (who really seems like a completely different person once he changes his name – I could well believe a version of this story that argues that the person called Octavian/Augustus was actually two different people), but then goes on to argue that for the next 180 years, under various dynasties, life for ordinary romans was pretty much the same, whoever was in charge. It seems to have been a fairly stable period, when most of the monumental building work was completed. And after that, things become less stable and the Empire fragments, and even the monuments are remixes of previous work.

(Isn’t that always the way? You know, how rock music was invented in the 1950-1979 era, and then everything afterwards was a remix, a mashup, a sample, or a simulacrum of the origin music.)

Beard’s approach will be frustrating for anyone who dives in looking for a narrative, Grand or otherwise. The surviving materials are both too fragmented and too often self-serving for any one narrative thread to hold for long. Which suits me. Narratives are weapons, after all, and we live surrounded by political and media narratives that support and prolong preposterous levels of inequality. Why, it’s almost as if we, the voiceless ordinary people, are ruled by a super-rich class with no visible means of support (other than plunder and exploitation), who surround us with the evidence of their greatness while leaving us to live hand-to-mouth. What do we eat? How long do we live? How do we earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage is the condition of zero hours contract?

Yes, the parallels are there, and so is the hope. The Emperors lost their influence, the centre couldn’t hold, the old Empire crumbled away. Looking back, that 180-year period of stability, the period of Augustus and Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and the rest, was a brief interlude, and maybe our own epoch of vast inequality will also be a brief interlude. One day historians will look at the ruins of London’s glass towers and wonder how ordinary people lived.

One note on my copy: I obviously got one from the first print run. The imposition of the pages was a bit off (page margins varied a lot, rather than being uniform), and there were a couple of typos, one involving text going missing from the main body and apparently being incorporated into a picture caption (or it was already repeated there). Anyway, I tweeted this with a mention of the author herself, and she was kind enough to reply and offer to arrange for a replacement to be sent. I declined the offer. I prefer to own one of the first print run.

Posted in bastards, Publishing, Review

Apple and News

Shit icon, shit app
Shit icon, shit app

With the latest update to iOS, UK users were given yet another undeletable Apple app, News.

The hype about News, when they launched it, was that it would render stories “beautifully”, making them easy to read on a small screen. There was also some talk about how Apple would provide ads, or the publishers could continue to include them in content.

The coming of Apple News coincided with the coming of content blockers, which can stop scripts and both foreground and background ads from loading. Content blockers are great, and allow news web pages to load much faster. On the other hand, the publishers are screaming because they’re not getting eyeballs on their ads. When you visit the Guardian with ad- or content blockers enabled, Polly Toynbee pops up and suggests that you pay £5 a month to support the Guardian.

£5 per month is a reasonable amount of money. That’s, what, about 17p per day? If there was a news organisation on earth that I wanted to support, I’d pay £5 a month, no problem. Problem is, I basically want all the news organisations on earth to die. I honestly think we’d be better off without them, since they’re not doing their job of speaking truth to power. Particular problem for the Guardian is, given the number of their articles I actually click through and read, that’s around 8p per article. And, more often that not, I don’t think what I’ve just read is worth even that. Most of what they publish is linkbait designed to attract Facebook and Twitter users. And their commentary is usually of the everybody thinks this, so I’m going to say that variety. The comment sections below the line are a scorched wasteland of trolling and hate. As for Polly Toynbee, she’s not the person who’s going to persuade me that The Guardian is worth supporting. Zoe Williams, maybe. But I barely even bother with the Stewart Lee columns, really.

Another reason I won’t support The Guardian is that they keep giving space to noted liar Tony Blair so he can continually justify his illegal war.

Swipe left on the iPhone home screen and you get screen -1, the one with the Siri suggestions on it and some news stories. Apple have already upset me by providing these, because they usually come from right wing sources. Finding a link to a Telegraph story on my phone’s screen, Apple, is worse than finding a fucking U2 album in my music library. And I fucking hate every fucking note fucking U2 have ever fucking played.

So, the News app. First of all, the stories are not “beautifully” displayed. Lots have raved about the new San Francisco font. I don’t like it. I don’t like it any better than I liked Helvetica as the system font, and I fucking hate every fucking character in fucking Helvetica. Maybe it’s supposed to look better on an iPad, but on an iPhone it’s pretty hopeless. Not as good as Flipboard, even, which I don’t use because Flipboard too serves you a load of shit you don’t want.*

Second of all, even if you have a content blocker running, the ads are back. Of course they are! In this scenario, Apple are like the mob, persuading publishers to support News, because it would be a shame if anything happened to those ads you run on your web site…With the returning ads comes the return of long page load times. Very few stories are readable within the News app, so you have to click a link to read them, and the experience is no better than just clicking a link from Twitter and opening Safari. Except with more ads.

In this brave new world, I’m supposed to be able to tailor news to suit me, but, see, it’s not really possible. News organisations are mostly right wing, and News doesn’t really let me filter out the hate. It’s the same problem Music had: you might think you know what customisation means, Apple, but you don’t. Customisation should mean I could switch off – forever – your shit curated playlists and your shit radio stations and simply follow my own musical nose, which has served me well for 40 years and continues to do so.

*I’m concerned this makes me seem like a closed-minded bigot, only seeking out news and views that support my narrow perspective. But my objections are as much to do with the practicalities of bandwidth. When I roam in France, I supposedly have the same “unlimited” allowance I have in the UK. But the speeds seem to be throttled down to 2G at best, and it can take a long time for content to load. I gave up on News mainly because it took so long to fetch new stories that I was better off just using Twitter. And at least on Twitter I can use the mute feature of Tweetbot to filter out shit. My muted terms include X Factor, Halloween, Glastonbury and anything else that the media overdoes. Yesterday, I muted anything relating to the John Lewis Christmas ad because I don’t need to read 65,000 tweets or links to articles about it.

And here’s why much of the media industry deserves to die. Marco Arment noted this recently, when something he blogged about was picked up, first by one tech news outlet, and then all of them. And all the “news” articles about his blog post merely summarised what he’d said. Over and over again. There is a tremendous over-supply of news organisations all publishing the same shit. None of them differentiate themselves in any way whatsoever. They all produced what Nick Davies in Flat Earth News called churnalism. Most of it is not news, and it’s not even opinion. It’s just a great tsunami of meaningless drivel.

Exhibit A would be something like the John Lewis ad. It heralds the great advertising monsoon that begins in November. But there is nothing to say about it this year that wasn’t said last year, and the year before, by the same people. The same jokes, the same complaints. Life on a loop.