Book Reviews

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Anthology #1

Dolphin Junction, by Mick Herron

It’s always a pleasure to find a book by this author, and this is a collection of his short stories, one of which features some of his Slow Horses characters; there are also two featuring his private investigators Zoë Boehm and her hapless, erstwhile husband, Joe Silvermann. Herron seems to have the knack of being able, cosynchronously, to write both contemporaneously and classically; although maybe by that I mean that his writing is cogent, a quality not always found in current fiction; and he is very clever in how he sets the reader up for a conclusion, only to often turn these assumptions on their head. There are eleven stories in this collection, and they are all of the right length, so each new one is anticipated with pleasure. This hardback was published in 2021 by John Murray (Publishers), London, ISBN 978-1-5293-7126-0; there is also a paperback, ISBN 978-1-5293-7127-7.

Our Man in New York, by Henry Hemming

This non-fiction book deserves to be read very widely: I say this as the author of a non-fiction biography, but the remit of this biography is arguably much wider than was mine, so I have every sympathy for this author with regard to the research he must have had to undertake. He is the grandson of a very good friend of the subject, William [Bill] Stephenson, but that notwithstanding, his documentary & anecdotal sources in his family were more limited than he would have liked; nevertheless, he has produced what I consider to be a very well-researched & important record of the British government’s efforts to influence American opinion enough, in 1940, when Britain was on its knees against the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s Germany, to persuade President Roosevelt to bring America into the war on the side of the Allies. Whether Stephenson’s background as a Canadian made a significant difference to his attitude & effect in this campaign is debatable, but suffice to say that, by the time Japan attacked America in December 1941, American opinion had revolved enough to make the country’s contribution a foregone conclusion. A must-read! The paperback I read was published in 2020 [2019] by Quercus editions Ltd., London, ISBN 978-1-7874-7484-0.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles, by Alexander McCall Smith

I have already alluded to this series; the 44 Scotland Street stories, set in Edinburgh; in a review of another series, the Inspector Varg novels, by this author [no diaeresis over the first A of his name here, as I expected], and I was curious to read how different, or otherwise, this might be from the aforesaid Malmö-set Varg stories. This is trumpeted as “now the world’s longest-running serial novel”, and it is with no little regret that I have to say that this reads like it; that said, it is very pleasant reading, which does have some measure of closure for a couple of the characters, but otherwise, it is a gentle meander through the lives of the characters during a short length of time in “Auld Reekie”. One thing I did find slightly irritating is that, for all the writing is cogent, there is an ever-so-slightly supercilious air about the latin quotations which are used without translation: some I knew, and some I wasn’t 100% sure of. Nevertheless, as said, this is very pleasant, undemanding reading, so I will be very happy to find another instalment in the series, whenever it is in the timescale. The hardback I read was published in 2019 by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., Edinburgh, ISBN 978-1-8469-7483-0.

Admissions, by Henry Marsh

This name might not mean a thing to many people, but is you are a supporter of assisted dying, as I am, you might have seen his name as one of the high-profile supporters. He was a neurosurgeon [aka brain surgeon] before he retired, although he had not completely retired when he wrote this book; he was only working part-time though, and he also did stints in Ukraine [before the most recent Russian invasion] and Nepal, working with erstwhile colleagues. These foreign sojourns were partly altruistic, but it is fairly apparent from his personal musings that he has something of a restless nature; he has also seen, in his working career, which has encompassed many aspects of the medical profession, the despair which can overtake human beings who are suffering terminal illnesses, and the anguish which this can cause their loved ones, so this explains why he supports the concept of assisted dying. This has been decriminalised in many countries, and other countries are engaged in rational discussion about its advantages, but Britain doggedly refuses to countenance this humanitarian change, despite many well-informed & high-profile supporters: I can only hope that this resistance is dropped in the not-too-distant future. The paperback I read was published in 2018 [2017] by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-0387-4.

Book Review


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No Time Like The Future, by Michael J. Fox

I suppose it would be virtually inevitable that a memoir; of which there are now four; by this personality [I eschew the term celebrity] would include in its title a knowing reference to his most well known and, arguably, celebrated [whilst nevertheless still not condemning him to inclusion in that overused category mentioned above] trilogy of films; although, that said, only one of the others does; but I can happily accept that, for a variety of reasons, which don’t require explanation here. The front cover photograph; an unapologetically simple monochrome study of the man sitting sideways on an ordinary office-style chair; shows him looking straight down the camera lens with a weary, but at the same time, not completely worn-down expression on his face, which conveys, I think, what this volume wants to convey: that he is indisputably down, as a result of the health issues which have beset him over the course of his life hitherto, but by no means is he out.

In addition to the foregoing, the front cover photograph shows a deceptively youthful looking fifty-eight year old man, which is quite surprising, given his well documented tribulations. He was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease in 1991, at the cruelly early age of just twenty-nine, but rather than just giving up and accepting the inevitable; which it is, currently; he used his own resources, of money & influence, to set up a foundation, in his own name [categorically not as an ego-boosting vehicle] to raise global awareness about this scourge and help find a cure; he also engages in advocacy work. This book catalogues his most recent experience to the time of writing; and there is an epilogue, written in August 2020, which includes the arrival of the Covid pandemic, and the consequences ensuing therefrom, so it is almost, albeit not quite, how things stand today. This could be quite a traumatic read, in view of the impact this illness has had upon his life, but thankfully, his trademark wry humour shines from the text to avoid this.

In addition to the degeneration of his physical mobility; which has made something the majority of us take for granted: walking more than a few steps, inadvisable; and, what is understandably more concerning, even frightening, for him, his mental acuity, he also had to contend with a tumour on his spinal cord. He was faced with an awful decision: risk being permanently confined to a wheelchair and never walking again, or have an incredibly delicate operation which, if successful, would result in his being able to continue as he was—disabled, but still mobile, albeit carefully. His wife, Tracy, and his four children were a great source of solace & support in those desperate times, but it is also a measure of the resilience of the man that he decided the risk was worth taking, and the top surgeon in his field calmly & efficiently ensured a successful result; the post-operative delusions ensuing from the combination of the necessary medication were frightening both for him and his family but, thankfully, they were mercifully short-lived.

His recuperation was not entirely trouble-free, however: his determination to return to ambulant independence overrode any semblance of caution he should have exercised when he was back in his New York apartment, assuring his daughter that he would be able to get himself up unaided the following morning, before going off for a very welcome acting opportunity which had been especially made available for him. Predictably, he fell and badly broke his left arm, which meant he was out of action again for an extended period. There is a happy ending to that section of the story, thankfully: although that setback plunged him into a depression, it also acted as a wake-up call to be more realistic about his prospects, and eventually, he was able to do his acting job, which the producer, Spike Lee, had very honourably held open for him; he was also sanguine enough to know that his acting career is all but over, but that that is not the only thing which defines him. His life latterly has not been a triumph of hope over adversity, but there is always hope, where the possibility of a cure is concerned, and most definitely determination, so I found this a rewarding read which I can heartily recommend, and I hope you will too. The hardback version I read was published in 2020, by Headline Publishing Group [UK], ISBN 978-1-4722-7846-3.

Website Update

With reference to my previous post, as a result of, sadly, inevitable postage price increases, and very probably an indirect result of Britain’s recently leaving the EU, it has become necessary to update the Wilfred Books website to reflect this, because the postal charges included for despatch of the print version of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles have been insufficient, for all areas of the world, for some time now. I should also point out that the book’s retail purchase price has NOT increased, neither are there any plans for this to happen. To achieve this update, certain sections of the site have been ‘refactored’, as it’s called, but it has not been a simple matter of just editing a few items of text; the reason for this is that a new price group, specifically for delivery to the EU zone, needed to be introduced: previously, the first non-UK price group included Europe, but this is no longer the case. More details can be found on the website’s about page, where there is a link to the book’s own page, and there is also a purchase link there.

Another complication is that there is now a veritable plethora of possible screen sizes for all of the devices which people can now use to access websites, compared to when the book was first published, in 2013; and, indeed, there are now even narrower screens than the first smartphones had [which I find slightly incredible, but I’m old-fashioned, and prefer a laptop for accessing websites]; so, each possible screen size had to be checked, to make sure that the new layout of the page a buyer is taken to when purchasing a print version of the book, looks acceptable with the new EU postal delivery price group included, so although this was relatively straightforward, as mentioned above, it was not a quick undertaking!

I hope the page looks acceptable across all devices, but I must stress that I am not a professional website developer; although I was confident that I could produce a functional & attractive site to make my book available direct, with no middle-man in the process, other than PayPal, which processes the purchase securely. So, if I have missed a new device size, or slipped up when formatting the page for an existing device, please don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments.

Finally, dare I remind readers that a present-buying opportunity [in addition to normal impulse-buying] is rapidly approaching, so if you know of someone [or yourself!] who would enjoy reading a comprehensively-researched examination of the febrile inter-war period of the 1920s & -30s in Britain, please ensure that a purchase can be delivered in good time! The book focuses specifically on what made an ardent socialist like Wilfred Risdon from Bath, who saw action as a medical orderly in the first world war, and worked in the Tredegar coal mines alongside Aneurin Bevan [who, as we know, went on to a sparkling political career], drastically change his political allegiance to support Oswald Mosley who, although he started out also as a socialist with the best of intentions, fairly soon swung to the opposite side of the political spectrum before the second world war. During the war, after a short period of internment in Brixton Prison under the notorious Emergency Regulation 18B, Wilfred sensibly decided to leave politics behind as far as possible, and concentrate on his passion for animal welfare, advancing to the position of Secretary of the prestigious National Anti-Vivisection Society, before his death in 1967; before that, he engineered the bold [and confrontational!] move of the Society’s London headquarters to Harley Street, the heart of the British medical profession, that still [and continues to, sadly] relied upon animal testing, which involved [Wilfred would argue, unnecessary] hideous & painful procedures. Given the state of the world in general, and British politics in particular now, a knowledge of how we arrived at this point can be very illuminating, so I can heartily recommend Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: but, then again, why wouldn’t I?

Book Review

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Bittersweet, The Clifford T. Ward Story, by Dave Cartwright

Initially I thought that, necessarily (for reasons, I hope, that should be self-evident) this review will be much shorter than my customary fiction reviews, but in fact, that’s not the case; nevertheless, I hope it will give you sufficient reason for seeking the book out, if for no other reason than to sustain interest in this enigmatic figure in late twentieth century music, and the music itself, of course. Music is one subject of interest, very precious & valuable to me, on which I try to avoid being prescriptive or judgmental, because it is very much a subjective choice, and therefore personal & unique to the individual. This book, like many such biographies, I think I am right in saying, is effectively a labour of love by the writer, who is a musician, rather than a biographer, but in addition to having known the subject himself, even if only tangentially, he has obviously spent a lot of time, to his credit, interviewing the family and friends of the subject, some of them mutual, and using documentary sources, some of which were provided by the subject himself.

The book, which is a modest (in terms of presentation), albeit professional product, has actually been published twice: the first time in 1999, when Ward himself was still alive; and the second edition, the one I read, was published in 2003, with the ISBN 1-901447-18-9. It was lent to me by a friend, who is also a singer, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn about the life & career of a singer who was known to me from his best-known output (i.e., the ones which got radio play), but that couldn’t prepare me for what I discovered about this complex, eccentric character who should have been better known, rather than more successful, because like many creatives in his position, success, such as it was, was something he found very difficult to deal with: to the extent of stubbornly and, it would seem, deliberately going out of his way to thwart. This also restricted the extent to which he would be known and his music appreciated, of course. The author, according to his ‘bio’ at the back of the book, has been [sic] a musician and songwriter for over thirty years, so he will be well versed in the gamut of interpersonal relationships in the music business, and the characters who inhabit it; many of whom, both well known and (to me) hitherto unknown, he mentions because of their association with CTW, instead of for reasons of tawdry self-aggrandisement. At the time of writing, Cartwright lived in the city of Worcester, and this is very much a book with the west midlands of England at its heart, and it has been the cradle of creativity for many British musicians of varying levels of influence & appreciation.

Clifford Thomas Ward was born in Stourport-on-Severn, 30 miles south west of Birmingham (“a popular day-trip excursion from the sombre, stiff-lipped canal towns of the Black Country … in the post-war boom of the 1950s”), on the 10th of February, 1944 (apparently simultaneously with the birth of PAYE income tax), the fifth child of Frank & Kathleen Ward. What surprised me most of all in this book, notwithstanding the revelations about Cliff’s complex (and often maddening) personality, from what little I knew from hearing his best known songs played on the radio latterly, courtesy of the now also-departed Terry Wogan, one of CTW’s champions, was that he retained his strong local accent, which he would accentuate, and also lapse into the vernacular dialect, when it suited him; often for comic effect, as he was known to have a sense of humour which encompassed the juvenile; but then again, his formative years were the period of ITMA and The Goons. When he was an adolescent, music was undergoing a seismic development, due in no small part to the influence of American artistes, churlishly oft-lamented by some, but unarguably irrevocably influential, and the teenage Cliff was drawn to music performance, like so many others in that first flush of realisation of independence, after decades of enforced deference to their elders; so he became a singer in several local beat combos, but he never learned to play the piano the traditional way, which caused no end of problems for conventionally-trained (either academically or experientially) musicians.

His career progression from there was difficult, to say the least; he soon realised that he preferred performing solo, predominantly his own songs, and this allowed him the creative freedom he craved. Unfortunately, he was such a perfectionist, but with a capricious streak that caused him to change his mind just when he had thought that a project was finished to an acceptable standard, that he ended up trying the patience of both musicians who worked with him, and management, of whom there were many! Through all this, his rock and possibly only faithful support was his wife, Pat, whom he married at a relatively young age; unfortunately, he chose not to always acknowledge that, but Pat seems to have accepted his philandering (which was almost entirely temperamental, rather than simply opportunist as a concomitant of his musician’s lifestyle) with a high degree of equanimity. His relationship with his four children was also sometimes difficult, and it is somewhat sad, although also indicative, that his response to his later medical condition wasn’t mitigated by his commendably considerate attitude towards his first daughter, Debbie, who was physically disabled at a young age.

Although, it has to be said, his lack of conventional success was due to a significant extent to his contrary nature, leading to all sorts of complications with writing & performing credits and consequent payments under a succession of different management, the direction of his career was inexorably downwards after his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at the age of 40, in 1984. For as long as he could, he refused to accept submission to an illness that would physically (and, to some extent, indirectly, psychologically) disable him, and kill him at the tragically young age of 57. At first, he steadfastly ignored it (while it was actually possible), dismissing it as an ear infection that was affecting his balance & coordination, but before very long, it was impossible to conceal it, notwithstanding the scarcity of his live performances, even quite early in his career; from then on, the progression was irreversible, causing him to become a recluse, despite the efforts of many of his friends & supporters to convince him that acknowledging his condition would be widely accepted, but one (of many) thing he didn’t want was sympathy, because he would have seen that as a sign of weakness on his part.

Although this book is by no means ‘mainstream’, it does seem to be still available, published by Cherry Red Books, and this company has also reissued at least 4 compilations of CTW’s songs, some of which are re-worked demo tracks, but all of which are free of the “constraints … [of the] sheer bloody-mindedness of record companies”. As an independent publisher myself, I would encourage you to support this author, if you have any interest in the life, career and, most importantly, the music of this under-appreciated artiste. There is a biographical monograph in existence, by Mick Armitage; it is a web page on the Sheffield University site: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/cliffordt/biogrphy.html, and there is also a Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_T._Ward.

Book Review


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The Face Pressed Against a Window, by Tim Waterstone

I have to confess I am rather ambivalent about this book: it is subtitled A Memoir, so it is, by definition, selective, which means that I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I would have done a ‘proper’ autobiography. Tim Waterstone’s childhood is described in some detail at the beginning of the book (in which there is also a reference to “genteel Bournemouth”); so far, so good, but after his time at university (and here he shamelessly name-drops, including one of his intake who achieved great fame, Ian McKellen), he seems quite happy, after one fairly short chapter about his time working in India, to almost jump straight to when he achieves his dream of opening first one, and then before very long, a whole chain of independent bookshops (another confession: I didn’t make the connection when I first read his name as the author, and didn’t look closely enough at the cover cartoon which shows a Waterstone’s bookshop!), and the bulk of the rest of the book is occupied, understandably of course and, to be fair, forgivably, by a detailed exposition of the trials & tribulations, as well as the laudable successes, of his bookselling empire. He is also rather tight-lipped about the first two of his marriages, the former during his time in India. His third marriage appears to have lasted, and he has produced, in all, eight children.

His childhood was not the happiest, and it is possible to ascribe the competitive aspect of his nature that enabled him to realise the dream that made itself known to him as a young man to that, but I think that would be simplistic: of course we are all, to a great extent, a product of our childhood & upbringing, but we are also all unique, so there must have been other factors along the way as well. He was the youngest of three children, and his father never loved him like he did Tim’s siblings, a brother and a sister. His father is described as a weak man, who depended upon his wife to a large extent while trying to give the impression that he was the man of the house; it is most likely that, as far as his father was concerned, Tim’s conception was an accident, and therefore unwanted; whereas his mother was always loving & supportive after a fashion, but that didn’t deter her from accompanying her husband to India for work, which meant that the three children were packed off to boarding schools; at Tonbridge, later, he was a contemporary of Frederick Forsyth. The boarding school episode was by no means unusual, of course, but Tim was unlucky enough to be sent to a school run by a married paedophile clergyman; although that, too, was sadly not unique. Tim laments that he made an unforgivable mistake of describing in an interview for The Times Educational Supplement his treatment at this school in a “painfully jocular and trivial and false” way, which prompted letters from previous students or, in one traumatic case, the widow of a former student who had killed himself, because “he had been destroyed by the sexual abasement he had been through at Warden House at the hands of the headmaster.” Lesson learned, albeit at a relatively late stage of his life.

In the final analysis, I am also somewhat ambivalent about how I regard Tim Waterstone as a person, not that that has a bearing upon my review of his book: he is evidently a thoughtful and considerate person, as evidenced by his supportive & caring attitude toward his staff, preferring to think of them as colleagues & friends, rather than merely members of staff; and he makes no secret of the fact that he is a Labour voter, although he doesn’t specify if he was a Blairite, given the latter’s quasi-Tory support for ‘business’; but he also is clearly and unequivocally driven & competitive, without which qualities it is very probable that he would not have succeeded, and this is the aspect of his personality which I can’t personally identify with. That doesn’t make him a better or worse man than I, of course, and it is impossible to go any further than that without the benefit of a personal acquaintance, which is extremely unlikely. What is unquestionable is that he changed the face of British bookselling in the 1980s, before the advent of the behemoth Amazon, and beyond, irrevocably. The book, published in hardback by Atlantic Books Ltd., London, in 2019, has the ISBN 978-1-78649-630-0; it is also available in paperback and an Ebook.

A book for Christmas?

Wilfred Risdon at his office desk in 1937

Just by way of an annual reminder (you can’t have forgotten, surely?), books make an excellent Christmas present, especially at the moment, when we might have rather more time on our hands than hitherto, so if you enjoy reading biographies of people with fascinating/engaging or even objectionable lives, why not think about, either for yourself, or as a gift, the life story of Wilfred Risdon? He was a man whose career divides itself quite neatly into two distinct halves (although there was some overlap, to be fair, in terms of the principles that drove him): the early political activism, fighting for the interests of the British working man (and woman, or course), which took him eventually down the dark road of fascism, in its British manifestation; and the second half, fighting the cause of defenceless animals, endeavouring to impede where possible, or ideally curtail completely, the barbaric practice of experimenting on animals in the cause of human medicine.

The book is available in paperback (and it still only costs GBP15.00, plus postage & packing!) and delivered by post (so please take delivery times into account when ordering), and digital download forms (still only GBP5.00): all variants are available; PDF, ePub, and both popular formats of Kindle, .mobi & .azw3. Each chapter is fully supported with comprehensive notes, and there are also several appendices at the end, with faithful reproductions of literature which was relevant to Wilfred’s life; the most significant of which was his interrogation by the Defence Regulation 18B(1A) Appeal Committee in July 1940, to decide if he could safely be released from internment in Brixton Prison; and even some biographical information about a (second world) wartime Polish pilot, Jan Falkowski, who bought Wilfred’s house in Ruislip, north west London. Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of right & left in political affiliation, this is a very detailed examination of the life of a 20th century activist who is not well known, but whose work does deserve to be better known. The book can be ordered direct from the Wilfred Books website (which is, assuredly, safe, despite what over-cautious browsers might want you to think) by clicking on this link. If you do order the book, thank you, but nonetheless, Merry Christmas!

Free book for Christmas!

LTbiogcover100wFor a limited time, the PDF version of Wilfred Risdon’s biography of Robert Lawson Tait, the Edinburgh born surgeon, can be downloaded free! This could be the ideal Christmas present for somebody who enjoys non-fiction in general, and biographies in particular.

Robert Lawson Tait was born in 1845, and was clever enough to be accepted by Edinburgh University at the surprisingly precocious age of 15. LawsonTait

After graduating, he became a surgeon, and took a special interest in women’s medical problems, especially those associated with childbirth; but he was also a committed advocate for the admission to the medical profession of women, on the same terms as men. What initially brought him to Wilfred Risdon’s attention was that he was fervently opposed to the use of animals in medical research, which made him many enemies in the medical profession. The latter concern is still very relevant today; thanks to the work of Tait, and others who shared his aspirations, women now rightfully work as equals to men in medicine.

Please leave your email address in a comment, if you would like to download this book for free, and I will send you a link. I look forward to hearing from you!

Book review: The Cryotron Files

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Picture credit: popsciencebooks.blogspot.com

I found this book, published simultaneously in the US and the UK in 2018 (Icon Books Ltd., London, 2018), fascinating. It is cowritten by Iain Dey & Douglas Buck, and it is is subtitled: “The strange death of a pioneering Cold War computer scientist”. You could be forgiven for thinking, on the basis of the book’s main title, that it is fictional, possibly science fiction; but it isn’t: it is a narrative of what we have to accept (given the somewhat murky reputation of some of the organisations involved) as the truth, and the subject of the book is the father of one of the authors, Dudley Buck. Even if you feel you are reasonably well informed about how science & technology, especially that appertaining to computers, have developed over the last 80 years, from its hesitant beginning with Colossus at Bletchley Park, I think it is fairly unlikely that you would have heard of a cryotron. Even though (and without worrying about revealing any significant element of the narrative) this was ultimately a ‘blind alley’ for computers as we know them in common usage nowadays, it was fundamental to the development of computing in a wider sense than what we, as the vast majority of non-specialist users know of as computing, from our smartphones and laptops.

Those of you with any knowledge of etymology will have guessed that the stem of the word cryotron indicates cold, freezing or frost, and it is derived from the Greek kruos, icy cold, frost; this compound name was coined by Dudley Buck for his invention that he thought would revolutionise computing, and it is almost risible in its simplicity, and yet its operation is marvellously efficient, the biggest requirement being that it (or in common usage, they, in significant multiples) had to be contained within an environment as close to a temperature of absolute zero as possible. The device consisted of literally nothing more than two pieces of thin metal wire: a straight section, and another that was coiled tightly around it with a ‘tail’ on each side (you can see it, tiny though it is, in Buck’s right hand in the above photograph, comparing its size with a contemporary vacuum valve); so, an input and an output. Depending upon the presence or absence of an electric current, this switch could be considered closed or open: the absolute minimum required for a binary switch, which could produce a positive or negative result – yes, or no, which is the ridiculously simple premise that allows all computers to function (although quantum computers, now reaching a fairly sophisticated stage of development, will muddy the waters somewhat).

Have you ever heard of Dudley Buck? I certainly hadn’t, hitherto. It was clear from an early age that he was gifted in all-round terms, and after the tragic accident suffered by his mother when he was only twelve, he & his younger sister were sent from their home in San Francisco to live with his father’s mother in Santa Barbara. It was there that he was able to satisfy his curiosity for all things mechanical & electrical, using a spare garage on his grandmother’s property. The family was god-fearing, so Dudley was included in all the religiosity, but that didn’t preclude him from the occasional mischief, including producing a stink bomb from the lab equipment he had hauled to bible camp one year! He joined the local Eagle Scout troop, and made a friend with whom he attended evening classes in radio electronics; before long, they set up what is claimed to be one of the first mobile disc jockey businesses in California. This was late 1942, and “World War II was in full force, but it was all happening too far away to completely disrupt the flow of life in central California”; although Dudley’s self-built radio system did attract the unwelcome attention of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite having to surrender his equipment to be dismantled, the positive outcome was that, a few months later, “Dudley was plucked out of high school and sent on a fast-track training scheme for America’s best and brightest.”: a very sensible response!

After completing his college education in the V12 program, at Seattle, Washington, which was “a  fast-track officer-training scheme that would mix undergraduate study in a few chosen disciplines with the rigors [sic] of naval training”, Ensign Dudley Buck was posted to the navy’s communications headquarters in Washington, D.C., which is when his involvement with the various security services began, and very possibly set him on the path to his untimely, early death. Although the immediate circumstances that caused his death are known, the big question mark that hangs over it is whether the Russian security services could have somehow engineered it. Somewhat surprisingly, given the vehemence of the McCarthy purges which were concurrent, there was also a willingness to share scientific research, especially in the field of computers, with the Russians; however, it was expected that this would would be a reciprocal arrangement, which was not always the case, and the research that was shared was carefully selected, because computers were increasingly being used in the euphemistically named “defence” sector, for the purposes of both detecting & targeting missiles. Buck had been working with the newly-formed National Security Agency (NSA), and the already existing CIA, including a secret mission in Berlin, although this was overseen by the highly secret 7821 Composite Group: “… a covert CIA operation run by a man who would later be dubbed the Spy of the Century … Reinhard Gehlen”. Before this, though, he had gained entry in early July, 1950, to the prestigious MIT, although not without some strings being pulled on his behalf. It was there that he had the idea for the cryotron, and was able to start developing it.

The first reciprocal trips involving the Soviets, after a couple of false starts, took place in the summer of 1958, after which a bigger exchange was suggested by the Americans. The Soviets wanted to see “among others, the young assistant professor at MIT whom the Russians believed was building the guidance system for America’s intercontinental ballistic missile.” The Russians were aware that Dudley Buck was one of the expected headline speakers lined up for the Eastern Computer Conference that December, in Philadelphia; the conference went ahead, but without the exchange, “and Buck was indeed a star performer.” The following April, a group of seven Russian scientists travelled to the US for a series of meetings & demonstrations at various locations, one of which was MIT, where they were eager to meet Dudley Buck, but: “Ever patriotic, Buck clearly just didn’t want to show them his work. … The group left MIT that night full of questions, not least about the cryogenic computer that they had not been able to see.” Around this time, Buck had begun working on electron lithography, but to achieve this required some very volatile chemicals, and they were not easy to obtain; it wasn’t until May 18th that the parcel of chemicals arrived. With hindsight, it would be very easy to condemn Buck for the careless way he handled the chemicals, which appear to have caused the fatal illness that killed him within three days, but the strange thing is that his assistant, who was very close by during the handling, was entirely unaffected. The main concern is that the Russian visitors could have somehow engineered this, but it is difficult to see how. Perhaps it was just an bizarre & tragic coincidence; the fact remains, however, that the Russians were aware Buck was a leader in his field, and the potential military applications of his work, so there will always be a question mark over his death.

It is possible that if he had lived through this early period of development, Buck might have been able to overcome the limitations of the ultra-cold environment for his technology, but it had to be modified quite extensively to be used in any practical application; according to Snyder’s official history of NSA computing projects, the cryotron “‘proved not to scale to high speed operation as had been hoped.’ The detailed explanation of how the cryotron was used and what went wrong with it remains classified. It seems that it never was used as a missile guidance system, in spite of the time that was spent on the idea; the semiconductor took that crown.” Sadly, Buck’s family earned next to nothing from his work and, outside the confines of the well-informed, Buck’s name quickly became a footnote in history, but his work was fundamental to the development of computer technology, even though, as is usually the case in most highly developed countries since the second world war, all technology has to be a slave to the military. The details I have given here only scratch the surface of Buck’s story and his achievements, but I can highly recommend this book, and as I said at the beginning, it’s a fascinating read.

Book Review – Breaking and Entering

Contrary to what you might think, this book is not a catalogue of actual burglary and/or housebreaking (other than a few minor instances in the early chapters), but the subtitle tells us specifically what it deals with: The extraordinary story of a Hacker called ‘Alien’. It is written by Jeremy N. Smith, and published by Scribe Publications, London, 2019; ISBN 9781911617006 (UK edition). I am interested in matters computer, and enjoy tinkering with code, becoming proficient enough to hand-code (a matter of some pride) a personal website (jonrisdon.co.uk) and a business website (wilfredbooks.co.uk), from which I sell the biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon 1896-1967, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and also offer help to aspiring authors. With the best will in the world though, I am no genius when it comes to coding & computers: at best (and, ideally, free of self-deception) I am a dilettante.

I had read, maybe last year (how time flies!) an account of the hacking collective (although even that loose terminology is disputed by its participants) called Anonymous and, although it was acceptably interesting, it was somewhat confusing, given the myriad of groups & splinter-groups under that umbrella name, all, seemingly, with their own variant of a code of ethics (although some would even question dignifying them with so honourable a description); so it was easy to lose focus, and in the end, I was quite glad to finish it.

Jeremy Smith’s book, however, was not what I expected, and had me gripped from the word ‘Go’. It is effectively a part-biography (given that she is still relatively young) of a woman called Elizabeth Tessman, from New Jersey, USA, who adopted the pseudonym Alien when she became a freshman (freshperson wouldn’t sound quite right, would it?) at the prestigious MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This action is not as deceptive or devious as it sounds: simply that she needed a username for the college computer system, and eschewing something as mundane as her initial & family name, she tried ‘ET’. The film was already sixteen years old (this was August 1998) but still one of her favourites; unfortunately, 2 letters wasn’t sufficient; so, she thought back to the oversized essay with which she had clinched her acceptance, which concerned extraterrestials and how beneficent they might be; she tried ‘alien’, which was accepted, so, from there on, Alien she became.

Jeremy Smith takes the reader at a cracking pace through her life story from university to becoming an established, and still growing, independent consulting company in the field of cyber-security; a ‘white hat’ hacker, as they are known. Along the way, she has to face, and occasionally fight, almost unbelievably, at the end of the twentieth century, the prejudice & discrimination displayed by male colleagues, in a world where male ‘geeks’ tend to dominate the field of computers. It is also a salutary lesson, however depressing it might seem, given that it explicitly details an erosion of trust in human relations, that however well protected we might think the computer systems (and that encompasses all devices with processors and an internet connection) with which we interact might be, they are all, without exception, susceptible to attack by individuals and, increasingly, organisations, with malignant intent.

However (and I say this as the father of two wonderful daughters who never cease to amaze me with their skills & determination), this book is a heart-warming story of how Alien succeeded against the odds, which included working insane hours to prove that she was more than capable of holding her own and, latterly, with a burgeoning young family, running her own company in what was a highly competitive field and still, predominantly, a male-dominated world, although that has changed as the twenty-first century has progressed and more opportunities in scientific & technical specialities have opened up for women; when the pay gap is eliminated, these ladies might be able to consider themselves equal. This is an excellent read, and I hope that if you also read it, you enjoy it as much as I did.

Was Orwell guilty of bias?

It is perhaps too easy to assume that a writer such as George Orwell, if not actually saintly, was very well-balanced and even-minded, but the truth of the matter is that he was equally given to bias in his thinking and consequent written output as any other comparably well-educated person would be. I have just taken the opportunity to read his  The Road to Wigan Pier; I actually quote from it in Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles (note 16 to chapter 6; page 150), coming to it by a circuitous route, but I have neglected reading it in toto until now. Initially, it was the desire to read such a well-known book that impelled me, and I already had a general sense of what it embodied, but as I read, I realised that there was a significant relevance to my aforementioned biography of my grand uncle, Wilfred Risdon, because Orwell’s book was written in 1936, when he spent some time in the north west of England, experiencing life with ‘working class’ people (a term that seems strangely outmoded today, even though class distinctions are not yet entirely absent) especially miners.

Notwithstanding Wilfred Risdon’s experience as a miner, albeit in the south west of England, and then south Wales, and some fifteen years or thereabout previously, I was interested for two reasons: would Orwell mention the presence of Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF), in the ongoing debate about unemployment, and working people’s lives in general; and, would he acknowledge, in any terms, Wilfred Risdon’s work in Manchester only a year earlier, when he had a staff of 20 under him, and the BUF had driven “an energetic campaign in Lancashire to enlist cotton workers for Fascism …” and “opened about a score of propaganda centres in the cotton towns which, under Risdon’s direction, enrolled new members by the thousand and were so successful as seriously to worry the Labour Party.” (The Fascists in Britain, Colin Cross, Barrie & Rockliff, 1961; an online version can be accessed at https://www.questia.com/library/79757/the-fascists-in-britain) Were miners so different from cotton workers, and did their lives never overlap?

Orwell’s book is in two clearly separate parts; the first details his travels and observations; the second is his polemic against the iniquities of contemporary life, particularly for working people, and how he considered that, notwithstanding his belief that only Socialism offered any hope of achieving any sort of equity, it was socialists themselves who were, in the main, hindering efforts to achieve this equity (he is also somewhat scathing of what he deems Utopian ideas): I was nearing the end of the book without seeing a specific reference to British Fascism, and beginning to wonder if he was going to ignore it completely. However, on page 197 (of 215 in the edition I read) it appears:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate at first, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be much more than a joke to the majority of English people; though even Mosley will bear watching, for experience shows (vide the careers of Hitler, Napoleon III) that to a political climber it is sometimes an advantage not to be taken too seriously at the beginning of his career. But what I am thinking of at this moment is the Fascist attitude of mind, which beyond any doubt is gaining ground among people who ought to know better. Fascism as it appears in the intellectual is a sort of mirror-image — not actually of Socialism but of a plausible travesty of Socialism. It boils down to a determination to do the opposite of whatever the mythical Socialist does.

Although there is plenty in Orwell’s book that could be quoted & analysed, the paragraph above seems to be the crux of his attitude to what was going on all around him, especially ‘on the other side of the fence’, so to speak. Is there any need to denigrate Mosley’s followers as “pimpled”? However much distaste he might have had for what Mosley was doing (and it is questionable whether Orwell had taken the trouble to ascertain the totality of what Mosley was trying to do), justifiably, of course, with respect to the racism that Mosley condoned, this ad hominem denigration, albeit mild, was unworthy. He considers that English (note: not British) Fascism has not yet arrived, and yet Mosley’s party (one of several initially, but his very quickly became dominant) had been in existence for three and a half years when Orwell started writing his book: enough time to make a very significant impact, like it or not, on British politics.

The character assessment of Mosley is not entirely undeserved, but it surely should be a given that any personality strong enough to create & lead a new political movement, whichever side of the notional political divide he or she might be, is always going to display character traits that are ripe for lampooning? Towards the end of the paragraph he becomes somewhat wooly, as well as potentially arrogant: surely, “the Fascist attitude of mind” was already demonstrably well-established, and who were the “people who ought to know better”? It would have been helpful here, instead of inviting speculation (unless he means “the intellectual”: a sweeping generalisation), Orwell could have been specific. The final sentence does have the ring of truth about it, and I regret to have to say that this still appears to be the situation today: ever more so in our tawdry, polarised political arenas.

I have set out my views on Wilfred Risdon’s politics in his biography, so I see no need to reiterate them here in detail; but aside from his belief in Nationalism and the concomitant necessity for the State to be all-powerful, albeit (in his view) benign if all the members of the body corporate worked positively toward the same beneficent end; and aside from his distaste for Jews and their modus vivendi, as much a product of the times in which he lived as of his somewhat non-conformist Christian upbringing; he was a lifelong socialist & trade unionist, and his primary concern, which in a man of higher social status than he might be considered patrician, was his fellow man, in the generic sense, and especially all who struggled against the yoke of restricting social conditions, and consequently, he was prepared to put his trust in Mosley, for all his faults, to create the more egalitarian society he saw as being possible.

Orwell’s final thoughts return to the evident dichotomy, containing both the ever-present hobby-horse of class, and, notwithstanding another example of his own potential nationalism, another grudging admission that Fascism in Britain was a force to be reckoned with:

Yet I believe that there is some hope that when Socialism is a living issue, a thing that large numbers of Englishmen genuinely care about, the class-difficulty may solve itself more rapidly than now seems thinkable. In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika. But if we do get it there will be a struggle, conceivably a physical one, for our plutocracy will not sit quiet under a genuinely revolutionary government. And when the widely separate classes who, necessarily, would form any real Socialist party have fought side by side, they may feel differently about each other.

I have a feeling (and I apologise for not reading Homage to Catalonia to support this assertion) that Orwell might have had a different viewpoint on the last sentence of the above quote (most likely, decidedly negative) when he returned from Spain in a couple of years’ time: he had practical experience of the difficulty, and almost inevitable conflict, resulting when “the widely separate classes” come together in socialism and its extreme relative: communism. He could not know what lay in store for British Fascism with the coming of war, notwithstanding that it ran out of steam through a combination of circumstances. It is interesting to speculate whether Len Deighton used Orwell’s verbal image of the “cultured policemen” in his concept of a defeated Britain in his novel SS-GB; nevertheless, Wilfred Risdon saw, only three years after Orwell’s book was written, that Mosley’s chances of achieving the power by political means to effect the social change that Wilfred saw as essential were minimal, so he moved into an area of activism that was equally important to him: animal welfare.

Featured image credit: Sascha Ehrentraut.