WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

This is a reblog of a post with the above title (used deliberately ironically, of course), on my own personal blog, which I use to vent my spleen about issues that are engaging me; generally, but not exclusively, politics and the repercussions therefrom. I normally avoid airing my personal views on this Wilfred Books WordPress blog, preferring to confine it to subjects & themes that might have concerned Wilfred Risdon, the subject of my biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles: for further information, please click through to the about page on this site.

Link to the blog:

http://www.jonrisdon.co.uk/blog/database/alt_blog080521.html

Book Review

Photo by Vadim Burca on Unsplash

Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff

This is not an easy book to review; not because I don’t know what to say about it, but because I know virtually nothing about H P Lovecraft’s writing, so I wouldn’t want to jump to any lazy conclusions about the presumed connection between this book and Lovecraft’s own oeuvre. I was attracted to the book because I recently watched (and enjoyed, albeit with some ongoing confusion) the HBO dramatisation, which was shown serially in Britain on Sky (and seems to have taken some considerable liberties with the narrative, but I suppose that is only to be expected, using the mitigating excuse of “dramatic licence”) and, inevitably, two of the drama’s main characters were depicted on the latest edition of the book’s front cover: this paperback was published in 2020 by Picador, London, ISBN 978-1-5290-1903-2. Unfortunately, the book’s Wikipedia page isn’t a great deal of help here:

Lovecraft Country is a 2016 dark fantasy horror novel by Matt Ruff, exploring the conjunction between the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft and racism in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as experienced by Black science-fiction fan Atticus Turner and his family.

See above for citation

Lovecraft’s own Wikipedia page is somewhat more helpful, but I will return to that at the conclusion of the review. The book is actually a portmanteau of eight separate, but connected stories, the first of which gives the book its name. The story starts in 1954, with the return of Atticus Turner, who has just been released from military service, having served in the American war in Korea, to his home in Chicago. Although the story starts in an apparently ‘normal’ world, it very quickly becomes clear that this normal world is a very difficult one for black people (or ‘coloured’, as they are often referred to, which is at least polite), and that the events which ensue are going to be seen & interpreted through the lens of this difficult, and very often painful reality.

Before long, magic becomes an inescapable part of the fabric of the story, which makes the journey upon which our protagonists have embarked, even more perilous. Atticus’s father, Montrose, has gone missing, and in New England, where they hope to find him, Atticus, his uncle George, and his childhood friend Letitia encounter thuggish & provocative white police officers (inevitably), but also the white, patrician Braithwhite family: father Samuel and son Caleb will figure in the rest of the story, and become a presence that it is impossible for Atticus & his associates to ignore. The Braithwhites are members of one of a loose confederation of quasi-Masonic Lodges, but this appearance is merely superficial, as their main purpose appears to be the use of magic; and not always a beneficent one, unfortunately. Atticus’s family also appears to have a knowledge of the same esoteric arts practised by the Braithwhites, and George & Montrose are also members of a Chicago Masonic Lodge; one exclusively for Black members, of course.

To give any more plot details would be unfair, but it might be helpful to add a few details about Lovecraft himself here, to support the description of the environment which Atticus & co. encountered as ‘Lovecraft Country’. Lovecraft’s Wikipedia page states, somewhat confusingly, that he began his life as a Tory, which is normally understood as a British political persuasion, but despite apparently becoming a socialist after the Great Depression, it is clear that some of his views were also incontrovertibly right-wing, to the extent being arguably fascist; although the page also states that the form of government advocated by Lovecraft bears little resemblance to that term; I would take issue with that, having researched fascism for the biography of my relative, Wilfred Risdon, because in the early 1930s at least, it was possible for fascism to also embrace socialistic principles. Unfortunately, his racial attitudes were not unusual for the time, although it would seem that his earlier (prior to the 1930s) denigration of non-white races later modified somewhat, to an opinion that different ethnicities should remain in their area of origin and, ideally, not intermingle, unless they, presumably only the white races though, were prepared to assimilate completely.

However, returning to the book, it is an engaging story; and having seen the television dramatisation, notwithstanding the dramatic liberties, does help to a large degree with visualisation of the action (but I appreciate that not all readers would be able to avail themselves of this facility); but the battle of wits between our protagonists and the white antagonists, not least because the Black characters are able to show, with considerable ease, that they are really the match of (and, often, superior to) their white oppressors, both actual & putative, makes the narrative very enjoyable, especially if equality, fairness, and human rights are important to you. This is highly recommended, and you don’t need to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction to be able to enjoy it; although that undoubtedly helps!

Book Review

Photo by Miguel Carraça on Unsplash

Two Tribes, by Chris Beckett

I have to confess upfront that this book was something of a disappointment for me. The book back blurb includes the paragraph: “Two Tribes is a reflection on the way our ideas are shaped by class and social circumstances, and how they change without us even noticing. It explores what divides us and what brings us together. And it asks where we may be headed next.” So far, so good, and the book starts well enough, but I could see the book’s thickness rapidly diminishing as I was reading, and I was wondering why the wider story outside the characters’ immediate actions, which is threaded right through the book, was not moving forward as quickly as I thought it could. The book is categorised as ‘speculative fiction’ (which is a new category to me), and Beckett is clearly an intelligent & thoughtful writer, detailing the thought processes behind the characters’ action.

The story is presented as a reconstructed history of the time in England immediately following the Brexit vote, from the point of view of a historian & archivist, Zoe, who works in the Cultural Institute in “the bleak, climate-ravaged twenty-third century”, after she discovers the two hundred and fifty year old diaries of the two main characters, Harry, an architect, and Michelle, a hairdresser, so a certain amount of ‘embroidery’ is practised by Zoe, to flesh out these two people’s lives, and she actually resorts to explicit fabrication in the creation of some characters with whom Harry & Michelle come into contact, for the novel she has decided to write, although it is outside her professional remit, to the consternation of Zoe’s friend, and putative lover, Cally.

England is under the ostensibly benign supervision, in the form of the Guiding Body, of China, as a result of some sort of catastrophic societal breakdown (and living conditions are still rather primitive for some of the population), and this is the aspect of the story that I felt Beckett could have developed better; of course, it would inevitably be speculation & hypothesis, but I feel it is something of an abrogation of the author’s responsibility, to work back from an imagined future with only lightly sketched details of how that future came about. Harry and Michelle are from different backgrounds, but for Zoe, it is “an extraordinary stroke of luck” that another diary, Michelle’s, overlaps both chronologically & geographically with Harry’s, so it is possible for Zoe to present the very real discord that has been experienced in Britain following the ‘leave’ Brexit vote through the eyes of a character effectively from each side of the divide; and people’s accents & enunciation are examined in some detail to emphasise their social difference. Beckett points out our own hypocrisies & blinkered thinking in the discussions the characters have and, for me, this is the most successful aspect of this book, because in the real world, it is widely recognised (possibly more by the ‘remain’ side than the ‘winners’ of the vote) that this episode in our early twenty-first century history is producing many more negative than positive repercussions.

Where the book falls down is in not projecting forward, apart from in the very broadest brush strokes, to describe how the societal collapse came about. At some stage, ‘normal’ life broke down sufficiently (which might have coincided with a collapse of democratic government) for armed conflict to begin, with two factions, the possibly somewhat clumsily named, but easily understood, Liberals & Patriots fighting for dominance. China must have had sufficient investment in the country, presumably, to want to protect it, and an agreement was reached whereby the country was invaded, enabling a Protectorate to be established, creating a Guiding Body “of qualified, able and scientifically minded people”, using Nine Principles to develop the country in a way appropriate to one of the factions, albeit patrolled by armed militiamen, which is roughly when the story starts. How did social media ‘argy-bargy’, and current-affairs navel-gazing programmes, descend into armed conflict? Would having a theoretical scenario presented here prevent it happening in real life? Probably not, but knowing how bad things could become should spur us on to work ever harder to preserve peace. The paperback version of the book that I read was published in 2021 by Corvus, London, ISBN 978-1-78649-933-2.

Book Review


Photo by Louis. K on Unsplash

London Rules, by Mick Herron

This book, published by John Murray (Publishers) in paperback in 2018, ISBN 978-1-47365-740-3, is the fifth and latest in a series of five spy thrillers that are presented in the flyleaf as “Jackson Lamb thrillers” and, inevitably, comparisons are made with Graham Greene and “the spycraft of le Carré”. This book follows closely on the heels of the previous story, Spook Street, which featured a character called David Cartwright, referred to privately, but fondly, by his grandson River as “the old bastard”, or OB for short. I could be mistaken, of course, but this choice of name, for the former, is very likely a tip of the hat to the author’s rôle model, John le Carré, real name David Cornwell of course, and recently deceased. At the end of the previous story, the OB is consigned to a rest home, as a result of his obvious dementia (which shouldn’t be any sort of plot spoiler, if you are able to read that story, as this condition is evident from the start of the book), but his grandson who, arguably, occupied the lead rôle in the narrative, also figures in the latest book, again as a member of what can only loosely be described as a team, known as the “slow horses” (a description not particularly difficult to fathom) working out of a secret service London backwater known as Slough House. Only having read these two stories, back-to-back courtesy of my gratifyingly efficient local library, I can’t include the other three in this assessment, but on the surface, these stories are not so much “Jackson Lamb thrillers” as “slow horses” thrillers, as they appear to dominate the action; however, this is possibly missing the point, that Lamb undoubtedly rules his roost, in his own sardonic, sarcastic, and frequently scatological way, and is experienced enough to know when to allow the operatives who have been foisted upon him, for a variety of reasons, to operate on their own initiative, but also to defend them, provided they don’t make the fatal error of crossing him. He also has a healthily pathological dislike of authority, and makes it his business to accumulate ‘dirt’ on any superior who might make the mistake of trying to compromise him.

It must be difficult to conceive of a completely original scenario for a spy story, but this one starts with a series of apparently unconnected incidents in England that fall into the category of terrorism, and a member of the department, Roderick Ho, known as Roddy, is allowing himself to be manipulated by his “girlfriend”, Kim, into helping her with certain computer-related tasks, mistakenly believing that she is infatuated with him (as, indeed, are all females with whom he comes in contact: in his own mind, of course). This is not known to his colleagues initially, for obvious reasons, but when an attempt is made on his life, and one of them is present, they start to take notice, and follow him, only narrowly preventing a second attempt. The terror incidents appear to have an amateurish quality about them, and this possibly explains why the murder of Roddy Ho by the same team also failed, although the presence of some of his colleagues did contribute to this. Before long, an explanation for the terror campaign is suggested by another of the team, a psychologically damaged young man by the name of J K Coe, who seems to be perpetually dressed in hoodie and jeans, and plugged into an iPod which isn’t necessarily playing any music. His previous activity in the service is known as “psycheval”, so it isn’t unduly surprising that he is a deep thinker who is very sparing with his verbal output. His hypothesis brings into contention two politicians, one more generic than the other; this is Zaffar Jaffrey, “outside the London mayor, … the highest-profile Muslim player in the country”, who is well-placed to win the position of Mayor in the West Midlands; the other is pretty obviously modelled, albeit with at least one significant difference, on Nigel Farage: “the showboating MP who orchestrated the Brexit vote”. His wife is the “tabloid columnist who’s crucifying Whelan in print”, Whelan being the relatively new First Desk of MI5 at Regent’s Park, Claude Whelan, who is also very conscious of the machinations of “his own deputy, who’s alert to his every stumble”, given that she regarded the position as hers, before being supplanted by Whelan. Dodie Gimball, the wife of the Brexiteer, has also been furnishing her husband with information with which to discredit Jaffrey, because in addition to his obvious bigotry, he suspects that, given this penchant for racial stereotypes, Jaffrey is too good to be true.

The dénouement of this latest story is not a great surprise, but it does tie up the loose ends neatly enough, and it isn’t quite as traumatic as the aforementioned previous story, if that is any sort of incentive for you to read it! These are eminently readable books, especially if you like spy thrillers, which can sometimes be too clever for their own good, and after reading only two of them, which dovetail nicely together, I have developed an affection for the variously damaged slow horses, who can occasionally be effective, in spite of Lamb’s contempt, which becomes more transparent as the narrative proceeds, but one explanation for this is that he doesn’t want them to think (let alone believe) that they are anywhere near as clever as he is, and perish the thought that he might actually respect any of them….. In a way, this makes Lamb the most difficult character to identify with, and certainly to like, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is comforting to know that, however badly any or all of the slow horses might foul up (which they do), Lamb will always be there to cover their backs (to ensure that his own back is covered in the process, of course), even though he will complain mightily and make their lives almost (but not quite) unbearable for a time. The mind boggles to think that this setup bears even a passing resemblance to a real section of the British secret service, so probably better to ignore that, and just enjoy these stories for what they are, very cleverly written fiction.

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!

Book Review

Devil’s Feast, by M. J. Carter

Alexis-Benoit-Soyer-FB

This is not the sort of book I would generally feel was worthy of review; it is not a biography (but see below, to explain the main image), but a workmanlike murder mystery set in Victorian times, published by Penguin Books, 2017 (ISBN 978-0-241-96688-4), and although the pace is somewhat stodgy, it is a decent enough read, with the culprit not being revealed until very near the end; also, the contemporary historical detail, including the political climate of the time, seems authentic; what interested me, once I had finished the book (with only a small sigh of relief) was the historical afterword. This explains that a few of the characters, and most of the places in the story really existed, although the timeline has been adjusted in places, to suit the narrative.

The setting is London, and the primary location is the Reform Club, which was set up in 1837 by a group of Radical MPs (I am shamelessly lifting these details from the book), including one William Molesworth, one of our characters. There was some tension between the Radicals and the Whigs, who later formed the main body of the Liberal Party, but these comprised the membership of the Reform; Molesworth remained a Radical all his life and was the only one to serve in the Liberal government of 1853. An added element of tension, albeit very mild, is injected into the story as one of the ‘sleuths’, ex-East India Army Captain William Avery, is a Devon Tory by birth and conviction (so thereby treated with some suspicion or even hostility by some of the club’s Committee), which seems somewhat odd, given that he is a man of modest means & upbringing; although that is possibly to judge him too much by current standards?

When the Reform Club’s grand new building opened in Pall Mall in 1841, its kitchens were dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world”: the most modern & advanced of their kind, and thousands were able to take tours of them. Credited with the excellent reputation of these kitchens, in no small part because he invented numerous “practical, ingenious ideas”: cooking paraphernalia as well as pioneering the use of gas as a cooking method; a Frenchman, Alexis Soyer, 1810-1858, “was the first real celebrity chef, a brilliant inventive cook and a shameless self-publicist … part Heston Blumenthal, part Jamie Oliver.” Throughout his time at the Reform Club, Soyer had a stormy relationship with its Committee: he was censured for insolence and, in 1844, for financial dishonesty, when he was accused (although he was not alone in that) of having falsified the butcher’s account; despite a vote of the Committee to sack him being narrowly lost, he resigned anyway. Another of this story’s characters, the club Chairman, Sir Marcus Hill, was able to use his influence & careful management to get Soyer reinstated; however, the matter “left a permanent bitterness in the relations with the club.”

Three are several murders in the story, although not all are initially interpreted as such, and the second of the pair of sleuths, albeit the more proficient of the two, Jeremiah Blake, is not able to participate actively in the investigation until roughly half-way through the book, for reasons that I won’t reveal here; in fact, for the majority of the investigation he has to masquerade as Avery’s manservant, which is understandably somewhat inhibiting, although more for Avery than for Blake himself! There is also some historical information about poisonings in the afterword, given that it is the method of murder here, which I don’t think is revealing too much about the story, and mention is also made of Thomas Wakley, founding editor of the Lancet, and he is also one of the book’s characters. Week after week, in the pages of the Lancet, still one of the world’s most respected medical journals, Wakley exposed evidence of food swindling: legislation didn’t arrive until 1860. So as said, not a top-flight story, but easy if slow reading, and for me, at least, the historical accuracy makes the story all the more enjoyable.

Book Review

Westwind, by Ian Rankin

ian-rankin-westwind

Image credit: The Reading List

I like Ian Rankin’s work; or, I should qualify, what little of it I have read hitherto; but, given that this is not a detective novel per se, in the Rebus oeuvre, I thought it would be worth reviewing. It is almost science fiction, but (so don’t panic) not quite, for reasons which should become clear in the course of this review. It is also presented, on the cover of the 2019 edition which I read, as “The classic lost thriller”: hyperbolic, perhaps, but it seems that one doesn’t win many prizes in publishing for understatement. After the probably inevitable, and understandably somewhat grudgingly undertaken rewrites, the book, actually his fourth, was published on March 1, 1990, to an almost deafening silence: one small review in The Guardian. “So I decided that it would rest in a dark corner of my consciousness, never to see the light of day again.” Somewhat later, a surprise: Twitter to the rescue! Fans using this estimable service, and one in particular, combined to persuade Rankin to look again at this book, which he duly did, and it was republished in 2019, after giving “the original printed text a polish, … [a] few words have been added here and there, while others have been removed or altered, but it is essentially the same book it always was, just thirty years older and a little wiser . . .”

The story, which is set in a slightly alternate version of our world in 1990 (where Germany is still divided, for example), begins with parallel situations of a British government listening station, monitoring satellites, especially ‘our’ spy satellite, called Zephyr (the significance of which will become clear near the end of the book), and a space shuttle mission, Argos,  to launch a satellite ends disastrously (not unknown, unfortunately), when the shuttle crash-lands, killing four (all American) out of the five astronauts (or are some of them already dead?), and as a consequence, the British surviving astronaut becomes a hate-figure, because American military forces are being unceremoniously kicked out of mainland Europe, which considers that it is capable of defending itself against the old Adversary, Russia. At the same time, there has been a panic at the listening station at Binbrook, Lincolnshire, that has lost contact with Zephyr for over three minutes, which is unprecedented: it was not a drill, and yet the military overlords do not seem unduly concerned. One of the monitoring operatives, Paul Vincent, who is relatively new to the job but very well qualified, thinks he has spotted something worthy of mentioning to his superiors, but before his older friend, Martin Hepton, can quiz him further, Vincent is mysteriously sent on sick leave, to a nursing home, even though Hepton knows him to be very fit & healthy. Hepton is able to visit Vincent on a day off, but their eventual clandestine conversation appears to have been observed by two well-muscled ‘orderlies’, so when Hepton drives away, he becomes fearful for his colleague’s safety.

After this, the story develops into a cat & mouse chase, with an assassin thrown into the mix, and the British astronaut, Mike Dreyfuss, is brought back to England to assist the British security services get to the bottom of what has happened, and how much of a threat Hepton’s suspicions, and Dreyfuss’s near-death experience might be; not only to Britain, but to the whole world. There is many a slip along the way before the purpose of the satellite launched by the Argos mission is revealed, and as usual in any story involving security services, the reader is given clues as to who might be untrustworthy, or actively working for ‘the other side’: it is suggested that one of the main characters might be a wrong’un, but this turns out to be a red herring. It is clear (to this reader, at least) that, despite being one of Rankin’s earliest efforts, it is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller, and the pace of the action increases to a pitch where the book, which is not overlong at only 288 pages, not including the new introduction by the author, attains that epithet that has become something of a cliché: ‘unputdownable’! The story isn’t a classic in the way that, say, Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, or Lolita are considered to be, but it is a thumping good mystery, and I recommend it.

Book review: The Cryotron Files

buck3
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 – Identity Crisis

BEnovel

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.

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.