Dominion

By C.J. Sansom.

Dominion is set in an alternative 1952 in a universe where Britain negotiated peace with Germany in 1940 and became a fascist puppet state run by Lord Beaverbrook. The Resistance is led by the ageing Winston Churchill while in Germany, no one has seen Hitler in public for two years.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant working in the Dominions Office, is recruited into the Resistance by Geoff Drax. He manages to get access to secret files which he photographs and passes on the information contained in them. In his haste, he accidentally leaves a sheet of paper from a different file in the wrong place.

At the same time, an old university friend of his, the timid Frank Muncaster, has been locked up in a mental hospital after pushing his brother, Edgar, out of a window after the latter told him about his work on the atomic bomb for the Americans.

The Resistance gets Fitzgerald involved, but the Germans have also heard about the incident between the Muncaster brothers and send Gunther Hoth, who has been hunting down the few surviving Jews in Germany. The Germans are keen to find out what the tight-lipped Muncaster knows.

The two matters come to a head and walk right into the Great Smog of 1952 where the Germans and collaborators in Special Branch narrowly miss capturing the party as it makes its way to the south coast (including a chat with Churchill) to a waiting US submarine.

Meanwhile, news come through that Hitler has died, and Germany collapses into civil war.

A brick of a book. It doesn’t pall, but I’m sure with some judicious editing, it could be reduced to 250 pages (from 690) and still be a ripping yarn. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for “Frank Muncaster’s Schooldays” since Sansom frequently repeats how nervous the man is. Nor is there any real reason for Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, to feature that much except as ’er indoors, as Arthur Daley would say. Does her side story, the death of Mrs Templeman, really contribute anything overall? Not really.

Fitzgerald may as well be wearing a T-shirt saying “Kiss me, I’m Irish” since every woman who crosses his path immediately falls in love with him, from Natalia, the mysterious Slovakian Resistance woman to the unfortunate Carol Bennett.

The Historical note at the end of the book also includes a tirade from the half-Scottish Sansom about the opportunistic SNP pre-independence referendum and pre-2015 elections. He also uses the Scottish Communist character, Ben, to lambast them as well.

Dominion isn’t a bad story, but it can be a bit of a trudge at times.

Is there life on Mars?

The Martian.

When a Martian storm turns out to be much stronger than predicted, the astronauts manning a base on Mars evacuate the place, but as they trek through the storm to their shuttle, a satellite dish hits Mark Watney, who is left behind, presumed dead.1

Watney survives, and finding himself stranded on Mars, must work out how he can stay alive long enough for the next manned mission to arrive there. Fortunately, he’s a botanist and he starts doing some indoor gardening, growing potatoes.

NASA eventually realises that someone is still on the surface of the red planet and manages to make contact with him. Plans are made to send a supply rocket, but it explodes not long after launch, and the only other plan is to send the Hermes (the mother ship) back to Mars to pick Watney up by sling-shotting it around the Earth and collect a Chinese supply ship at the same time.

“I’ve done the maths,” says the NASA scientist who doesn’t even recognise the man who runs the show. “It’ll work.”

Meanwhile, Watney loses all of his crops and must trek to another shuttle, but in order for him to reach the Hermes when it gets back to Mars, he has to strip it of most of its kit or he’ll never make it to the rendezvous point. But even without all the extra weight, he doesn’t quite make it, and must stab a hole in his suit for that extra propulsion to cross the gap to safety.2

It obviously wouldn’t make for a good film if Watney merely got on with his gardening for a couple of years, and nothing bad happened. In the best traditions of Hollywood, you know that the moment someone says, “Provided nothing goes wrong”, everything will go wrong, and it does. It could’ve been worse, though. It could’ve been Gravity-bad, with increasing levels of ludicrousness.

Matt Damon at least plays Watney as a personable individual. His banter with the rest of the expedition members is informally chummy and entertaining. Jeff Daniels is a bit bland as the head of NASA, and the scientists who aren’t in major roles are all typically nerdy because, er, that’s what scientists are. Oh, and the head of China’s space programme wouldn’t ever have grey hair. He would’ve been at the hair dye like almost everyone else.

Overall, The Martian is a decently entertaining piece of cinema even if it has to conform to The Big Book of Hollywood Disaster Film Clichés.

Notes.

  1. On this point, I have to wonder why the storm was strong enough to rip the dish off its mount and blow it hard enough to knock Watney 20m or so through the air, but neither affect the astronauts nor kill him.
  2. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation why the other five members of the expedition were able to fly back to the Hermes without any problems while Watney’s super-light spaceship can’t make it.

Now out on DVD. Then out on DVD

The Hateful Eight.

A bounty hunter, Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson), is taking some prizes to Red Rock when his horse dies on him. He hitches a lift with John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is taking the notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee) to Red Rock to be hanged. A bit further up the road, they meet the man who is going to be the town’s new sheriff. Behind the coach is a blizzard.

The party arrives at Minnie’s, where they find the cast of Reservoir Dogs, but no sign of Minnie or Sweet Dave. Ruth and the stagecoach driver drink poisoned coffee and die, while Warren and the sheriff start putting two and two together. There’s the inevitable shoot-out when it’s revealed that Domergue’s brother and the rest of the gang are there to rescue her.

The sheriff and Warren finish off the job which Ruth started, and after three hours, the film is over.

The Hateful Eight is like an extended version of Reservoir Dogs set in the Wild West. Some viewers will not doubt find that the film drags because of its length, but I don’t seem to have been in that mood.

It is full of the usual Tarentinesque violence and blood. Domergue’s face gets increasingly bloody one way or another as the film progresses.

The twist, if you want to call it that, is that the sheriff is not quite the dimwitted rustic clown the rest take him to be.

Not advisable for anyone who is not keen on blood, violence and a three-hour-long film.

I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry.

Chuck and Larry are firemen, but in order to scam the system (for all the right reasons), they pretend to be a gay couple and get married.

Dull and frequently embarrassing. (Also, Adam Sandler as a babe magnet? Don’t think so.) The 1970s rang part way through and said it wanted its tacky comedy back. I watched it on and off, but mostly ignored it.

Fast and Furious 7.

Yes, I know. Vin Diesel and chums drive fast cars and engage in the most ridiculously OTT stunts and storyline you can imagine. Jason Statham… Yeah, ’nuff said. Dwayne Johnson… ’Nuff said there, too.

Poignant send-off for the late Paul Walker who was killed in a car crash in real life while the film was in production.

The lights went out

The clocks all stopped.

Yesterday at lunchtime, Astrill stopped working. The connection was there, but nothing was getting through, and although I was hoping it might be a temporary problem, it remains dead this morning, with none of the connection modes working.It is hard not to conclude that Nanny is behind this.

There’s been no mention of this so far via, say, the Shanghaiist, which often reports such matters.

I recently saw an article via Facebook, reporting that some security expert thought that Astrill and Express VPN’s encryption had been cracked, but Nanny was allowing them to be used as a means of spying on the users (which won’t mean the likes of me, but rather the people who count for something).

The real problem is gmail, which has been my main e-mail address for about ten (?) years now, and which is where all my contacts are and a good deal of useful information. If Astrill really has been blocked, there will come a time where I will need access to gmail. As it is, my inbox will now fill up with messages I get from various sources on a daily basis.

I’ve also been wondering whether the block also has anything to do with the news that Tiβet will be closed to foreigners in March.

As for any news about the current state of affairs with Astrill, I’m unable to check Facebook to see whether there’s been any word about this, and whether anything is being done about it; or can be done. The timing does make it appear that third-party interference is to blame.

Oddly enough, I can access the Astrill website, but the message at the bottom of the page says “We’re offline” when usually it says the opposite.

As for WordPress, I’m surprised I can even access it, and even though I can, it’s only partly functional. The menu bar at the top of the screen has vanished, and I only have the option of logging out. I can, as you can see, post messages, but I’m having to write this in HTML because the visual editor doesn’t appear.

About an hour later. I’m now on Astrill in stealth mode, but on my old laptop. I’ve sent Astrill a message more as an advisory that there may be problems here. I assume the problem is probably China, but can’t be certain; nor can I say why Astrill works (to a point) on the 5755, but not on the V15. OpenWeb seems to be down. I was getting that old error message on the 5755 that OpenWeb had crashed. The other possibility is that W10 is working its magic.

Whether I use a VPN or not, the message on the Astrill site still says they are offline, which is a little unusual since there’s been no time I’ve ever seen that message regardless of the time I visit them.

The next day. Astrill seems to be all right again this morning. OpenWeb is now functioning normally. Scare over.

In the ensuing days. Well, Astrill is sort of working. OpenWeb was out again a couple of days ago, but has since returned with a heavily reduced number of servers available. In spite of this, it seems to be working adequately.

The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini.

Amir is a privileged child from a well-to-do Afghan family living in Kabul in the early 1970s. He often plays with Hassan, a Hazara boy, who is the son of the family’s servant, Ali. Sometimes Amir is unpleasant to the deeply loyal Hassan, and jealous of the attention which he gets from Amir’s father, Baba.

Baba is a larger-then-life figure, who is disappointed by Amir, who displays none of the more manly virtues he hopes to see from him. If the boys get into trouble, Hassan usually stands up for both of them. The fact that Amir wants to be a writer doesn’t help.

Nonetheless, Amir is good at kite fighting while Hassan is good at kite running, having an unerring instinct for where a kite is going to come down once its string has been cut. Together, the boys are triumphant in a kite fighting contest, but it comes at a cost when the brutal bullying Assef corners Hassan and rapes him while Amir does nothing to try and stop it happening.

Amir and Hassan’s victory does at least allow Amir to break the ice with his father, and he has little to do with Hassan until Ali declares that he and his son are leaving much to Baba’s dismay.

When the Russians invade, Amir and his father flee to the US where the old man works at a petrol station while Amir goes to college to become a writer, meets a girl, Soraya, and marries her. Baba dies of cancer, and the couple are unable to have children even though there seems to be no reason they cannot.

Time passes and Amir is summoned to Pakistan by hos father’s friend, Rahim Khan, who has tragic news about Hassan and his wife, who were murdered by the Taliban, leaving behind a son, Sohrab, and some news about which neither Amir nor Hassan knew anything, which changes the nature of the relationship between them. Amir’s job is to reluctantly go to Kabul and find Sohrab.

He manages to track the boy down soon enough, but because the orphanage struggles to cope, the director allows a prominent member of the Taliban to pick some child to abuse, and the child of the moment is Sohrab.

Amir goes to confront the abuser, who is none other than Assef, who proceeds to give him a severe beating until Sohrab, who has inherited his father’s skill with the slingshot saves Amir by taking out Assef’s left eye just as Hassan threatened to do many years previously.

The pair escape to Peshawar and then move to Islamabad for their safety. Amir finds that it will be almost impossible for him to get Sohrab into the States, with one option being the one thing that Sohrab wants least of all – to be returned to an orphanage. The boy tries to commit suicide on the same evening that Amir hears that he will be able to take him to the US after all.

Even when Sohrab is in America, he is still rather withdrawn until one day he sees some kites being flown, and together with Amir, he takes down another kite.

The Kite Runner is riven with parallels from one generation to the next – Baba and Ali; Amir and Hassan; Amir and Sohrab. Hassan saves Amir from Assef; then Sohrab saves Amir from Assef for real. The beating which Amir receives from Assef purges him of the guilt he felt about not trying to defend Hassan from Assef. Sohrab avenges the insult to his father in the way that Hassan warned Assef of, by taking out his left eye with a stone from a slingshot.

The relationship between Amir and Hassan is very Gunga Din with Hassan being the better man, and the man who is better matched to what Baba expects from a son.

The book flags a little when the story shifts to America, and then drags at the end with the issues of adopting an Afghan orphan. The use of American jars at times, especially in the parts based in Afghanistan, and the whole fathers-and-sons trope is a an American cliché to say the least.

Overall, though, the virtues of The Kite Runner outweigh the vices.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

By Arthur Conan Doyle.

After Sir Charles Baskerville is frightened to death, probably by some spectral hound that is part of the family’s history, his heir, Sir Henry, returns from Canada to claim the title, but is immediately dogged in London by someone who seems to be trying to scare him off by sending him a warning or following him about the city.

Through the agency of his friend, Dr. Mortimer, Sir Henry visits Holmes, who finds the case most interesting, and sends Dr. Watson to act as his agent in Devon while he remains behind to deal with a case which requires his utmost concentration.

Once at Baskerville Hall with Sir Henry, Watson meets the locals, including the Stapletons. He is a naturalist who collects butterflies; she is his sister, who issues a warning that Sir Henry should get out while the going it good.

Though Watson and Sir Henry are inclined the doubt the presence of some infernal canine, they hear the howl of  the creature across the moor.

In addition to the hound, there is also a convict called Selden, hiding out on the moors, and aided and abetted by  Sir Henry’s housekeeper (the man’s sister) and her husband, Barrymore. But before he can escape from England, the hound pursues him to his death.

There’s also another visitor on the moors who, Watson eventually discovers, is Sherlock Holmes himself, who has been observing everyone’s doings incognito so that he can investigate the case more effectively.

He uses Sri Henry as bait, but fails to take the possibility of dense fog into account, saving the man’s life just in time, and hunting down Stapleton, another possible heir to the Baskerville estate, until it becomes clear that the bog has swallowed another victim.

The dog was merely a large breed of mortal hound with its mouth painted with phosphorus (which would probably have killed it; or have poisoned it slowly).

Stapleton’s sister, to whom Sir Henry had taken rather a fancy, was actually the man’s wife (and also a victim of his when she refused to co-operate with him), and like any good Victorian gentleman, Sir Henry sails off with a male companion, Dr. Mortimer, to recover from his ordeal.

In the best style of the penny dreadful, there is a certain amount of waffle in The Hound of the Baskervilles, especially the long epilogue in which Holmes explains what Stapleton had been up to. The so-called hell hound is part of  the trope, and all the awkward questions which would have arisen in any subsequent trials are conveniently swallowed by Dartmoor. There is also the usual hyperbole about how mysterious and complex the case was, and just when Watson thinks that his own powers of deduction have improved through his association with Holmes, he finds that he’s still mostly wrong and merely confirming the master detective’s own rightness.

Should everyone work as hard as the Chinese and Americans? No. Nuh-uh. Nope | Helen Lewis | Comment is free | The Guardian

The fuss about Jeremy Corbyn’s recent holiday is ridiculous. Every human being needs a break

Source: Should everyone work as hard as the Chinese and Americans? No. Nuh-uh. Nope | Helen Lewis | Comment is free | The Guardian

When the idiot George Osborne talked about Britons working as hard as the Chinese, I thought, er, “What an idiot.”

As far as I can tell, the only people who work hard in China are migrant workers, peasant farmers, and foreign teachers on international programmes. As one of the comments on the article said, there’s a lot of presenteeism here from the women in supermarkets who stand around gossiping all day to office workers who only do anything when the boss turns up to school librarians who sit around making sure no one goes near the books themselves.

In China, it’s all about the outward appearance of hard work, but this is really a culture of minimalism. At school, pupils do as little as they possibly can to complete work (e.g. responses to text types – write it once to perfection!), an attitude which follows them through their lives.

When I go back to the office after class, I inevitably have work to do; and even when I’ve finished that, I’m usually thinking about what I need to do next. There is occasional faffing about, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

I also hasten to add that the age of retirement for women in China is 55, and 60 for men, and that’s followed by a lifetime of pension payments (though not necessarily for everyone). And so for a lifetime of turning up at work inhumanly early in the morning (well, to a point; we’re still in a lot earlier than the admin staff), taking 90-minute lunches, and avoiding hard work, there’s a nice little reward at the end.

Disintegration of the mind

Still Alice.

Alice Howland is a 50-year-old lecturer in Linguistics at Columbia (and – thankfully – we’re spared a lot of gushing about what a genius she is) who starts forgetting words, and then things in general, even those which she has only been told moments earlier. She goes to a neurologist who diagnoses early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which she inherited from her father, and which she has passed to at least one of her children.

Howland does what she can to retain her memories, testing herself every day to see whether she’s still capable of remembering basic facts. Before the disease has gone too far, she makes a video to tell herself where she has stashed a bottle of sleeping pills which she is to take when she can no longer answer the questions she puts to herself. The obvious problem is that she’s likely to have forgotten about the video by that stage, and it’s by accident that she stumbles across it later on. Howland’s attempt to instruct herself to commit suicide fails because the nurse arrives, but she struggles to retain the instructions.

The film ends with Howland unable to produce much more than noises.

Julianne Moore largely dominates the film in which the rest of the cast has a supporting role. This is perhaps for the best because otherwise it would be easy for this to have become mawkishly sentimental (little is made of the end of her academic career) or filled with shouting borne of frustration with her inability to recall things. Similarly, Howland’s decline is tragic, but it’s presented as a tragedy which is a natural consequence of the disease.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Metal Gear Solid.

“Can I have a look at Loki’s Sceptre? Pretty please?” says Tony Stark.

“Yeah, fine” says everyone else, quite forgetting that this isn’t going to end well. (You’s think they’d never seen a single American film in their lives.)

And no, it doesn’t end well. Stark’s defensive program, Ultron, comes to life and decides to destroy the Avengers and humanity. The former will be fractured by a pair of twins, one with super speed and the other with mind control powers. The latter will be annihilated by dropping a central European village on them.

Unfortunately for Ultron, his attempt to upgrade to a living body leaves him open to mind reading, which reveals his nefarious plan, and the twins change sides. (Damned robotists all with their robotism creating a barrier between humans and their metal overlords!)

The village gets fired into the air and falls back to Earth, but somehow ends up in a lake. The Avengers go home, leaving Captain America and the Ginger Assassin to train some new recruits at their new HQ.

Another glossy action flick from the Marvel stable with plenty of fighting and explosions for Third-World audiences.

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion

By Anne Somerset.

Queen Anne (1665-1714; queen 1702-14) was yet another English monarch who struggled to produce an heir. Henry VIII wanted boys when he had capable girls; Mary I was good at phantom pregnancies; Elizabeth I preferred to avoid making an her herself by importing one from Scotland; James I managed to father Charles and James, although the former failed to produce any legitimate heirs, and the latter, who was more fecund at home, messed up the succession. Mary II produced no heirs, and Anne followed in the same unfortunate tradition in spite of innumerable pregnancies.

As far as I can tell, Anne wasn’t quite the cully that, say, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, thought she was, but she does seem to have been prey to all sorts of muddle-headed ideas, especially during her (seemingly one-sided) feuds with her stepmother, Mary of Modena (who seems to have been a nice enough person misrepresented by Anne’s religious bigotry), and William and Mary (although William seems to have been a colossal tosser).

However, Anne was gullible enough to believe that her half brother was a changeling smuggled into the palace in a warming pan.

Her relationships with her confidantes are only partly covered because we have plenty of material from the highly opinionated Duchess of Marlborough (who doesn’t really seem to have ever cared that much for Anne; for one thing, their politics were diametrically opposed), but much less from Lady Masham (Abigail Hill, a relative of Churchill’s). As far as I can tell, Anne was not so swayed by the latter as she was by the former.

Accusations that she was having a lesbian relationship with Lady Masham seem implausible because her relationship with her husband, Prince George of Denmark, seems to have been too close and affectionate for her to even have considered some same-sex alternative. She went into mourning for two years after her husband’s death. In reality, relationships between women at the time seem to have been characterised by extreme expressions of fondness between friends.

Anne’s religiosity seems to go back to a previous age, and it poisoned her relationship with Mary of Modena. It also meant that Dissenters, who liked Catholicism no more than Anne, were seen as a threat because of their heterodox views.

If Anne’s half brother, James, had been king, it’s hard not to imagine her being resentful of missing her turn in the Big Chair just because he was a boy. Although she may have been fervently religious, she doesn’t seem to have espoused her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s views about the divine right of kings.

Anne’s great misfortune was her health, having had so many miscarriages, having had a surviving child who was born with the odds heavily against him, and having suffered from painful gout, lupus, and obesity.

The early 18th century was an age of vicious, partisan party politics. While the queen was not the shrewdest political operator herself, she had, it seems, fairly sound guidance from Lord Godolphin. The picture of Godolphin in the book is of a man who tried to do his best for the queen, although it’s difficult to judge whether he was more honest and decent than his usually corrupt contemporaries. He frequently lamented the strain that politics and the queen placed on his health. Regardless of what Godolphin was like in real life, Anne seems to have trusted him.

Anne also had the War of the Spanish Succession to deal with. On the one hand, she a great general, Marlborough, but on the other, the war was economically ruinous for both sides, and party politics were always in the background, making things even worse. She saw Union with Scotland, thus creating a supposedly united Britain.

The queen was less keen on the Hannovers with frequent pressure on her to let one reside in Britain. Her response, that they should be kept out of the country, was probably for the best because with party politics there were already enough troubles in Britain without the potentially disruptive presence of the heir to the throne.

I thought the book was ultimately a bit like wading through mud because it frequently resorted to primary sources to tell and drag out the story, but didn’t do much pro history until the final chapter. Ultimately, the reader is left to make their own mind up about the queen and her supporting cast. She was perhaps not quite the incompetent she appeared to be; Sarah Churchill was immoderately passionate about her views; Lady Masham may not have had quite the influence everyone thought she did, but could’ve been a victim of social snobbery given that she rose from low estate.

The book needed a chronology for quick reference and, perhaps, a few short biographical notes about the major players in Anne’s reign, including some sort of character sketch.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.

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