Book Review: Erebus, by Michael Palin

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Picture credit: oikofuge.com; showing Erebus & Terror

If you’ve never before read any of Michael Palin’s serious writing, I think this will be a very good place to start, despite it being one of his most recent books (Hutchinson, London, 2018; ISBN 9781847948120 [hardback]); if you have, however, I am very confident that you will enjoy reading it as much as I did. Michael is known for his Ripping Yarns series, albeit at some remove now, but this book is a true life ripping yarn, although with a bitter-sweet ending, and although the review is rather longer than others I have posted, I feel that this book deserves it, in view of the impressive detail contained therein, and the research that clearly must have been done in preparation for its writing.

It tells the story of the 1846 Franklin Expedition to discover the North-West Passage, but what first excited Michael’s interest in this expedition was the discovery in September 2014 of a sailing vessel at the bottom of the sea, although a relatively shallow depth, in the Canadian Arctic. This ship was HMS Erebus, hence the book’s name. Michael had encountered Erebus, figuratively speaking, in the course of his research into Joseph Hooker, about whose life he was going to deliver a talk to the Athenaeum Club in London, in 2013. Hooker had run the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for much of the nineteenth century, and his policy of ‘botanical imperialism’ had become known to Michael whilst he was filming in Brasil, and which policy had effectively killed the Brasilian rubber industry. Before that though, in 1839, at the under age of twenty-two, he had been engaged as assistant surgeon & botanist on a four-year Royal Naval expedition to the Antarctic, and the ship that had survived eighteen months at the bottom of the world and returned safely was HMS Erebus.

In 2014, after a highly successful ten-night Monty Python reunion at the O2 Arena in London, he “saw [on the evening news] an item that stopped me in my tracks.”: a submerged vessel, believed to be HMS Erebus, had been found on a shallow part of the seabed (so close to the surface, in fact, that the tips of her masts would once have been visible above the waves) by a Canadian underwater archaeology team, and her hull was virtually intact, the contents preserved by the ice. So Michael set out to research this doomed ship, and he started at an institution of which he had for three years been President, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and which still had a pair of Hooker’s stockings, which Michael came to regard “as a kind of spiritual talisman”.

Erebus was launched on the 7th of June 1826, at Pembroke Dockyard, and she is known as a bomb ship because she was the penultimate vessel of a class that was designed to be strong enough to fling mortar shells high over coastal defences; however, history had by then overtaken this purpose, and the Royal Navy’s strength had already been considerably scaled back by the time of the launch of the 372 ton vessel. She was named Erebus to warn her adversaries that “here was a bringer of havoc, a fearsome conveyor of hell-fire”, because in classical mythology, Erebus, the son of Chaos, was generally referred to the “dark heart of the Underworld, a place associated with dislocation and destruction.” After being fitted out at Plymouth, she was transformed into a warship, but then she lay idle at Devonport for eighteen months waiting for a purpose. This was found when she set sail on 21 February 1828, under the command of Commander George Haye, RN, for a two-year patrol of the Mediterranean, which was relatively uneventful, although discipline on board was something of a problem. This changed in the second year when Commander Philip Broke took over: he instituted a regime of artillery exercises, but even those didn’t bring about a military career for Erebus, and at the end of June 1830, she was home again.

Her first real chance for glory came nine years later when, under the command of James Clark Ross, who already had something of an illustrious career as an explorer behind him, she set sail for the Southern Ocean to further our understanding of the earth’s magnetic field as, according to Palin, around that time “terrestrial magnetism was high on the agenda” of the newly formed British Association for the Advancement of Science. She was to be accompanied by HMS Terror, a similar type of ship to Erebus, but specifically one of the Vesuvius Class, built in 1813, with plenty of active service behind her. The voyage to Van Diemen’s Land, as it would continue to be known until 1855, when it acquired the modern name of Tasmania, took just under a year and, whilst Erebus was there, Ross’s “most urgent priority was to get an observatory up and running.” Their stay was relatively short though, and on Thursday November 12th 1840, Erebus left Hobart. The furthest south they got, at the end of January the following year, past 76°, was the Great Southern Barrier, a “great ice-wall”; an unbroken sheet of ice 300 feet thick and the same size as France; that ran east from the newly named Mount Erebus volcano “as far as the eye could discern”, and this effectively ruled out further progress towards the South Magnetic Pole, so the two ships headed back to Hobart, which they reached on 7th April 1841, as Ross put it: “unattended by casualty, calamity, or sickness of any kind”.

After a period of rest & recuperation (and no little socialising), the ships set off again in July 1841, via Sydney, northern New Zealand and Chatham Island, for the Antarctic. By February 23rd, after spells becalmed in pack ice, they reached the Great Southern Barrier (now known as the Ross Ice Shelf), and recorded their furthest position south, 78°9’30”, six miles further than their previous record, but it was obvious that there was to be no way through it, so regretfully, they headed for the Falkland Islands to refit & resupply. On the way, both ships were nearly lost because, in avoiding a giant iceberg, their course resulted in them colliding, and after Terror had found a narrow gap between ’bergs, it was only the rapid & unorthodox action of Captain Ross that avoided Erebus being reduced to matchwood, with the loss of all hands. Their safe arrival at the Falklands was overshadowed by the loss of four men during the recent expedition. They stayed there until September, when they set off “for a short expedition to undertake a survey of magnetic activity around Cape Horn, a round trip of about 2,000 kilometers, and they took 800 young beech trees “back to the treeless Falklands.” By the 17th of December 1842, they were ready to set off again, but this time there was nowhere near as much enthusiasm for the trip, one notable exception being Captain Ross. This time, they went nowhere near the Barrier, and by early March, when the winter ice was closing around them Ross accepted defeat and gave the order for both ships to set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.

They reached those safe waters the following April. According to Palin, “Officially … the Antarctic expedition was a success. Unofficially it extracted a traumatic toll.” Ross resolved never to go to the Antarctic again, and Hooker revealed in a letter to his father that none of the men would follow Ross there either. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to go straight home: they had to go via Ascension Island and Rio de Janeiro, “for magnetic purposes”. By the beginning of September 1843, however, they were in sight of “the shores of Old England”. Back on dry land, Ross resolved never to go to sea again: “The long voyage had exhausted him.” He probably wouldn’t have been in the least perturbed that “For the next sixty years the antarctic remained virtually forgotten.” However, paradoxically, according to Palin,  Erebus and Terror’s success had renewed interest in the Arctic, specifically: conquest of the Northwest Passage, if for no other reason than to prevent the Russians from getting there first. The biggest advantage that could be pressed to achieve this was “that two ice-tested ships were ready and waiting in the Thames estuary.” The go-ahead was given, and preparations for the voyage, including some strengthening of hull & decks, and, controversially, the fitting of 2 second-hand 25-horsepower locomotive engines (much smaller than the marine steam engines of the time, were completed in very short order; to make the best use of the northern summer of course; so that the ships left England on the 19 May 1845, under the command of the surprisingly old (59) Sir John Franklin, who had latterly been somewhat in the doldrums as Governor General of Tasmania: he had, in fact, been summarily dismissed.

Before Greenland was reached, a crow’s nest, invented by William Scoresby less than half a century previously, was installed on Erebus, to keep a lookout for ice; Terror, which followed Erebus, was not so equipped. It seems odd that this wasn’t considered for the Antarctic expeditions. By late July, both ships were seen, surrounded by ice in upper Baffin Bay, by two whaling ships, Prince of Wales and Enterprise; the sighting by Captain Dannett of the former, on the 27th of July, is generally assumed to be the last-recorded sighting of the expedition, other than by Inuit; although there was an unconfirmed sighting of the tips of their masts on the horizon, by Captain Martin of Enterprise, as late as the 29 or 31 of July. When 1847 arrived with no word from the expedition, at least two proposals for fact-finding or possible rescue missions to the Arctic were rejected by the Admiralty and the Royal Society: it was both too soon and potentially too dangerous. In less than a year, this attitude was reversed, but the first voyage, to the Bering strait, found nothing; the second rescue attempt, down the Mackenzie River to the coast & islands, also found no trace of Franklin & his men; finally, James Ross, having acceded to the relentless demands from Franklin’s wife, Jane, set off in the summer of 1848 in Enterprise (although whether this is the same one mentioned earlier is not specified), accompanied by Investigator. They made very little progress, because the ice was so thick and the weather so cold, and they had to winter at Somerset Island, where Ross had surveyed in 1932. After an aborted man-hauled sledge search, covering 500 miles in 39 days, Ross decided to return home. Needless to say, Jane Franklin was surprised & disappointed.

Over the next decade, 36 separate expeditions were mounted to the area. In August 1850, the first tangible evidence was found: “fragments of naval stores, portions of ragged clothing, preserved meat tins”, and an empty cairn; soon after, the graves of two seamen from Erebus and one from Terror were found. Other evidence started turning up in diverse locations, and further expeditions only succeeded in proving where Franklin had not gone, rather than the opposite. The first claimed land crossing of the Passage was in 1853, but still no sign of Franklin. In January 1854, notwithstanding the opposition of Lady Franklin, the Admiralty decided to draw a line under the situation, and consider the men of the two ships lost. Within a few months, however, a Hudson’s Bay employee, John Rae, had bought from Arctic Inuits various items that were soon identified as belonging to members of the Franklin expedition, but worse was to come: “‘From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles [cooking vessels].’ Rae reported the Inuit telling him, ‘it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.’” This grisly but pragmatic solution was totally unacceptable to polite Victorian society, and was dismissed out of hand by no less a champion of Jane Franklin than Charles Dickens. He helped to raise funds, speaking at the RGS, and £3,000 was enough to organise a 177-ton 3-masted, steam-driven yacht, Fox, to engage in a search, leaving in July 1857.

After initially getting caught in ice in Baffin Bay and having to overwinter there, the ship was able to move to a base at the eastern end of Bellot Strait and a sledge-bound reconnaissance expedition was mounted. On the way, Inuits they met told of 2 ships that had come to grief, one sinking, which spurred the searchers on. Confirmation of Franklin’s death was found in a written record in a cairn, and the second-in-command of the rescue mission, Lieutenant William Hobson, wrote it all up in a report dated 1 August 1859, but it was never published (finally appearing in Arctic magazine in April 2014), so the news didn’t come out until 23 September, when Fox arrived back in England. It emerged that “Crozier had led his doomed men to the last link in the chain of marine connections that made up the Northwest Passage.” Statues were erected, and this appeared on the citation that accompanied the award of the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society to Jane Franklin, the first woman to be so honoured by the Society; although curiously, not her husband. With regard to the predominant cause of the death of the Franklin Expedition members, there doesn’t appear to be consensus; exhaustion and hypothermia are obvious, and lead poisoning from badly sealed food tins is a strong contender, but also is tuberculosis, which was the probable cause of death in at least three cases.

This is an absolutely fascinating account and meticulously researched; I have deliberately (of necessity!) skimmed for this review, but Palin mixes the comprehensive historical detail with his own experience of travelling to many of the locations mentioned. It is a mixture of pathos and enthusiasm, as much for the enterprise of the British as much as anything else, but this is also tempered with Palin’s own observations on how this enterprise can be contaminated by greed and the arrogance of  imperialism; I will leave the last word to Palin:

“So far as nature was concerned, Ross was like McCormick and so many other of his contemporaries, inquisitive but unsentimental. At that time the world’s population was less than one billion and resources were abundant. Today, with the population heading towards eight billion, the destruction of our habitat is seen as a threat rather than an obligation. For Ross, the rich seas and forests of Tasmania were not there to be conserved, they were there to be exploited. To make the world a better place, one had to make it more productive. If there were fish, then they should be caught; if there were forests, they should be cut down. He couldn’t see the wood for the price of timber. Woodland should become farmland, and quiet coves with good harbours should become productive ports.

Of the original inhabitants of the island, neither Ross nor anybody else had much to say. Almost all had now been killed or removed to Flinders Island. Hooker has a particularly poignant entry in his journal. ‘Of the numbers that once inhabited this island, only three remain, all males, and they consist of an old, a middle aged man, and a child. They are very savage, but seldom seen.’

Ross was a successful, strong-willed and strong-minded individual who saw the world as being at the service of man. And from there it was a small step to seeing the British as those best suited to be the world’s caretaker.”

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 – 3001, The Final Odyssey

This book was a revelation to me, primarily because I hadn’t known it existed! The title gave me to expect, and in which I wasn’t disappointed, that it was a sequel, of sorts, or at least a further instalment of the story, to the original novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was written as the narrative for a truly iconic film of the late 1960s, created by the maverick director Stanley Kubrick: 2001, A Space Odyssey. I’m sure that most other avid readers, especially those of science fiction, would have come to the same conclusion. I was aware that there had been what appeared to be a direct sequel (but see below) to 2001, called 2010, Odyssey Two, although I wasn’t sure if there had been a book before the second film; this question was answered in the helpful notes at the back of the book (which were appropriately titled Valediction, and I often smiled as I was reading this section, imagining Arthur Clarke himself reading the notes in his rich Somerset burr), and a further surprise came with the revelation that there was a second sequel, called 2061, Odyssey Three, before the final volume that I had just finished.

Very briefly, the chronology of the series is as follows. Clarke’s original story was written for a BBC-sponsored competition at the end of 1948! It didn’t win, but the story, which was published just over two years later in a British Sci-Fi magazine, was the basis of a “proverbial good science-fiction movie” for which Kubrick asked Clarke in 1964 if he had any ideas; the book & the film were released four years later. The unmanned Voyager space-probes in 1979 sent back such fascinating images of Jupiter and its moons that “the temptation [for Clarke] to explore it was irresistible; hence 2010 Odyssey Two [1981], which also gave me the opportunity to find out what happened to David Bowman, after he had awakened in that enigmatic hotel room.” The film was made in 1983 by Peter Hyams, using “actual close-ups of the Jovian moons obtained in the Voyager missions”. Odyssey Three was already being conceived thereafter, on the basis that the forthcoming Galileo mission would provide “a detailed survey of the major satellites over a period of many months.” Unfortunately, this mission didn’t happen, because the Challenger disaster ruled out a launch from the Shuttle in 1986; nevertheless, Clarke decided to press on, and the 1985 return of Halley’s Comet suggested the theme for the story, based around its next return in 2061.

Clarke is unequivocal that “Just as 2010 was not a direct sequel to 2001, so [2061] is not a linear sequel to 2010. They must all be considered as variations on the same theme, involving many of the same characters and situations, but not necessarily happening in the same universe. … So this Final Odyssey has discarded many of the elements of its precursors, but developed others — and I hope more important ones — in much greater detail.” So it would appear that the ‘reboot’, which nowadays causes so much consternation & debate among sci-fi fans, is by no means a new phenomenon! I certainly don’t want to give the impression that a reader new to the Odyssey saga, if I could refer to it so, would struggle without reading any of this book’s precursors: quite the opposite, so don’t feel inhibited by a lack of previous knowledge.

After a brief prologue (the details of which I won’t reveal), in which the background to the whole odyssey is laid out, the story starts, and it features ‘Dave’ Bowman’s erstwhile colleague from the USSS Discovery, which was on a “Top Secret mission to Jupiter”, Deputy Commander Frank Poole. He wakes up feeling rather confused, in a hospital bed on what he presumes is a space station, but before long, he is apprised of the fact that it isn’t, and how he came to be there. Without wishing to reveal significant elements of the plot, he decides to complete his mission, in a manner of speaking, by discovering what happened to Dave, after HAL’s mutiny; which he does.

Along the way, Frank has some romantic involvement; one abortive liaison, subsequent to an exhilarating flying experience, then a slower to develop, but longer lasting relationship. I’m very pleased, as an avid fan, to relate that Star Trek, which was already quite long in the tooth, gets an honourable mention. There is a jeopardy here, of course, as there should be in an engaging story, but I feel that there is a very slight ‘cop-out’ at the end: even though I do prefer a nice, neat ending generally, this didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, however. For me, the most salient point that it makes is delivered as a quote from one of the book’s main characters, Dr Theodore (a.k.a. Ted) Khan, who resides on Ganymede, “curing any True Believers he can find there … all the old religions have been discredited.”, and which includes the name for the first monolith that was found on earth, TMA ZERO:

‘Ted’s fond of quoting a famous palaeontologist who said “TMA ZERO gave us an evolutionary kick in the pants”. He argues that the kick wasn’t in a wholly desirable direction. Did we have to become so mean and nasty to survive? Maybe we did … As I understand him, Ted believes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the wiring of our brains, which makes us incapable of consistent logical thinking. To make matters worse, though all creatures need a certain amount of aggressiveness to survive, we seem to have far more than is absolutely necessary. And no other animal tortures its fellows as we do. Is this an evolutionary accident — a piece of genetic bad luck?’

This sounds rather like another nod, albeit inadvertent, to Star Trek: a reference to the Vulcans, who deliberately modified their nature over centuries, to rid themselves of the inherent aggression that they felt was destructive. Human nature: a subject about which there will probably never be any agreement (for as long as we have the free will to debate it)! At 253 pages (the edition I read: this might vary) the book is by no means too long, and there is a very brief, but in the context of the narrative, rather portentous epilogue, right at the end, before the notes, acknowledgements and valediction. We are left to draw our own conclusions about this portent and the possible necessity for the manipulation of human nature, perhaps emulating the fictitious Vulcans. The pace of the story is just right, for me, and even though it is now over twenty years old (the book was first published in 1997, by HarperCollins Publishers, London), the future technology does not feel unduly antiquated by contemporary standards. A very satisfying read for a sci-fi buff; this one, anyway.

Book Review – Identity Crisis

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This is Ben Elton’s latest novel, although he has a good number already under his belt, and he is also a very accomplished writer in other genres, including the very well known television productions  Blackadder, on which he was a co-writer, and the more recent, (in my humble opinion) very funny, Upstart Crow. This book was clearly written within the last couple of years, notwithstanding that events latterly have rendered it inaccurate (not that novels are under any obligation to be true to life, of course), because the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is female (but unnamed; and definitely not Thatcher!), and Brexit is part of the social & political scene but, very sensibly, Elton leaves the detail of the implementation of this schism somewhat vague.

It is tempting to reveal the whole plot, because it is sufficiently clever, but I will refrain (so no spoiler alerts necessary!); suffice to say that this is a Whodunnit, skilfully wrapped up in a contemporary morality tale about how our society (such as it is, no thanks to the aforementioned erstwhile first female PM) has become more self-obsessed, shallow and, for all our access to a wealth of information, more gullible; although that is, to some extent, forgivable, in view of how the media and, in particular, social media, are manipulated without compunction by agencies and their agents whose ultimate goals are, inevitably (depressingly so), filthy lucre and, of course, the associated power, whether real or only perceived. This manipulation is also not too difficult because nearly all of the print media channels are owned by only a few people.

The ostensible main theme of the narrative is not at all implausible; subsequent to (and, no doubt encouraged by) Brexit, there is a campaign (inventively called England Out) for England to leave the Union, whose prime movers are ‘rough diamonds’ Tommy Spoon (“who owned a much-loved chain of pub-restaurants called Spoons”) & Xavier Arron (a property developer), supported by the “three political heavyweights”, thinly-veiled characters called Bunter Jolly, Guppy Toad and Plantagenet Greased-Hogg: no prizes for guessing who at least two out of these three are! There is a distinct possibility of this further schism coming to pass, thanks to the machinations of a company called Communication Sandwich (and any similarity, excluding the name, to a company that manipulated the Brexit result, is entirely intentional; hence the obvious dissimilarity of the name, to avoid any possibility of litigation!), which uses algorithms developed by a young, attractive (natch) mathematics whizz-kid, who is one of the main characters in the plot. It becomes apparent during the course of the story that this company is playing both ends against the middle, to create social unrest, on behalf of another (for you, dear reader, undefined) person or agency, to influence and, thereby attain, the desired result.

Another associated thread in the story, whose significance might not be immediately obvious, is the apparent obsession of the nation with a television programme called Love Island (presumably there is no danger of litigation here?); I say apparent, because apart from being latterly an element in the plot, this is one of the main messages of the story, and very timely at that, that our perception of the mood of the nation is directly influenced by our diet of media – predominantly, these days, what are known, perhaps inaccurately, as social media – and this perception can be just plain wrong, because many of the often extreme opinions expressed, very often preceded (or so the book would have us believe) by what are known as hashtags (generally these are a link to a page dedicated to this issue) which are not the product of a real human being, but that of a computer algorithm, produced specifically to further an agenda, which might or might not be sinister and unacceptable to right-minded people, so although it might seem like ‘the whole country’ thinks this or that, this is an artificially-created perception.

There is another very dominant and, again, contemporaneous, thread running through the book: that of gender identity (hence the book’s title). The events in which this issue is unavoidable are many & varied, and although there is a definite element of validity in all of them, Ben Elton treats them with his trademark humour, so that, for all that I described this as a morality tale, the reader (this one, anyway) never feels the dead hand of moralising suppressing the humour; nevertheless, this issue gives us real food for thought: how far should we go, or feel obliged to go, to give people the opportunity to express their identity, and thereby expect it to be respected, however bizarre it might seem, especially to at least one character, a policeman called Matlock (and here, Ben Elton mischievously steals a name familiar to viewers of American crime dramas, albeit he was a criminal defence attorney, whose TV programmes ran from 1986 to 1995), someone who nowadays will be referred to as ‘old school’ – not in a derogatory way, generally, and at least it’s polite! You might gather that there several different threads woven together in this book, but I hope this review has given you an appetite for a novel that I enjoyed reading, and at 376 pages (the hardback edition: signed by the author!) it is just the right length.

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.

 

Anti-Vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates

The latest post in Hilda Kean‘s blog, which is always informative, is a résumé of a recent book on a subject very significant to Wilfred Books, Anti-vivisection and the Profession of Medicine in Britain, by Alan W.H.Bates, in the animal ethics series published by Palgrave. She says:

The impact of anti vivisection upon people’s lives is covered far more interestingly than conventional approaches to the topic. There is good discussion of the Research Defence Society’s hostile approach to the thousands of people campaigning against dog petitions to parliament in the 1920s. There is also interesting discussion of the ambiguous approach of the London and District Anti-Vivisection Society in the 1930s and 40s. … The work is well written, accessible and engaging. Please consider purchasing the book of around two hundred pages to get to a wide range of ideas on this important topic.

On a personal note, there are several references in this book to Wilfred Risdon’s work for the London and Provincial Anti-Vivisection Society, and the National Anti-Vivisection Society (now Animal Defenders International), taken from Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, which was published in 2013.

This book, of 217 pages, is available in hardcover at a cost of £20, including free shipping for individuals worldwide, from the publisher at this link; alternatively, because it is an open access book, it can be downloaded for free here. Please go to this page for further information and a chapter breakdown of the book.