Scavenger, by Bill Gallagher

This is the climax to the current Big Finish trilogy of audios featuring Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor and Lisa Greenwood as new companion Flip, by William Gallagher (whose work has generally been pretty good, though I don't seem to have written it up here previously). I must say it is a real tour de force - the plot begins with a joint Indian-British space mission in the year 2071, but then takes a leap into Indian legend, with some excellent guest performances (including Ajli Mohindra, who was Rani Chandra in the Sarah Jane Adventures). My one complaint is that Kate McEwen, playing the evil British character, sounded a bit inconsistent with her accent, sliding from Scotland to Northern Ireland and back again. But otherwise, this has been a fine set of plays, with a stunning twist at the end of this one which I didn't see coming but which had been decently foreshadowed in the previous two (Antidote to Oblivion and The Brood of Erys).

Brussels trivia question


Which EU member state is seventh (and last) in this sequence:



Links I found interesting for 24-03-2014


BSFA Non-fiction

Last year I didn't actually vote for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction; time was short, and I had read only one of the nominees; and though I very much liked it, I felt uncomfortable giving it a vote when I knew nothing about the competition. This year there are only three nominees, but this doesn't really make things easier: one is a big book about writing, one is the foreword to an anthology of stories about mummies, and one is a series of blog posts which started in mid-2012 and continues to this day. On top of that, I have read only one of the three in full - and I am putting it last. Yet I feel pretty confident in my vote, which will be as follows:

1) Wonderbook, by Jeff Vandermeer. I have not read this from start to finish, but I've read enough to be clear that it's a very serious, useful, friendly and engaging guide to creative writing, particularly of sf and fantasy. There are side essays by such as Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin. There are gorgeous illustrations (some of which irritatingly break up the text, but not as badly as the last Vandermeer book I read). It will have a pretty long shelf-life, and indeed one member of my household who has stronger aspirations to creative writing than I do snatched it from me and became immediately engrossed in it (which is part of my reason for not having read it in full).

2) I am very happy that Liz Bourke has been nominated for this category. If I am not wrong, she is actually the first Irish nominee (this award was first made in 2002, and has skipped a few years in between). has done a great thing in opening up its webspace to articulate commentators from different traditions, leaning to the progressive end of the political spectrum (though maybe I'm just ignoring the bits I disagree with). Liz Bourke has built up an impressive body of work, variable in subject but not in quality; as well as sub-genres (epic fantasy, urban fantsy, lesbian SFF) she writes about non-genre novels, games, museums, interviews particular authors, and takes on various topics succinctly yet in some depth. A good sample is her piece on her piece on older women as genre characters. Although... while I enjoy Liz Bourke's writing, I also am a bit surprised that this particular set of blog posts got chosen ahead of other possibilities by the BSFA selectorate; see further discussion below.

3) My bafflement at the BSFA nominations process mounts to a new peak with the inclusion on the shortlist of “Going Forth by Night”, John J. Johnston's introductory essay to Unearthed, an anthology of classic stories about mummies which he has co-edited with Jared Shurin. It's not that (as with one of the 2010 award nominees) I have any concerns about its eligibility. Clearly this is a "written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2013". My surprise is more that, well, it's not actually very impressive; a chronological listing - though sometimes repetitive and jumping about - of the theme of mummies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, carried through into the later film and TV tradition; with only a glancing reference to colonialism (some remarks by Conan Doyle, which are rightly disparaged but not analysed) and almost nothing about sexual symbolism. It also misses a couple of stories that I would have thought were relevant - The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit, may not have a visible mummy per se, but does have a very visible mummy-case, and it is steeped in Egyptology, more so than Charles Bump's "The Lost Mummy" which is actually included in the collection. When I read articles about the genre, I want something that goes beyond mere indexing, and which - if it does index - includes the relevant things that I have read so that I can fit my own experience into the writer's argument; and this essay fails on both fronts. Also, considerable violence is done to the poor comma, over-used and abused on every single page of the piece.

Of course, if I want different things on the ballot paper, the responsiblity for nominating them falls to me, and I completely failed to do that this year. In terms of blog posts, I wish I had nominated Jo Walton's posts on, or Abigail Nussbaum. From the Whovian perspective, I am regretting not having nominated Philip Sandifer's blog, or Tat Wood's latest About Time volume, or Neil and Sue Perryman's Adventures with the Wife in Space or The Eleventh Hour (essays on the Matt Smith era edited by Andrew O'Day) in time, though I also admit that would be on firmer ground had I actually read the last two of these. But, not for the first time, I find it quite difficult to understand how the BSFA Non-Fiction shortlist ended up looking like this, and wonder where the conversations that I must be missing are taking place.


Second paragraph of the third chapter:
During the rest of their travels with the Doctor, we learn very little about Ben & Polly, even though they continue with him for another six adventures. It is a curious thing that from the start, despite having witnessed the Doctor's 'renewal', Ben refuses to accept that the Doctor is indeed who he claims to be. Once again Polly is the voice of reason, willing to accept what she has seen, even if she cannot really understand it. Throughout their adventure on the human colony on Vulcan (The Power of the Daleks) Ben continues to be irritable and highly strung, while Polly opts for calmness. It is only when a Dalek recognises the Doctor that Ben finally accepts this strange man in the frock coat is the same old man he had come to trust.
A fannish guide to all the Who companions from Susan to Clara, up to the middle of 2013. Not really very deep, and the author has some very weird ideas about Rose Tyler. Benton and Yates, and later Chris and Roz, are simply omitted. Also, although the "Expanded Universe" (a term I've never previously seen applied to Who) is covered in some depth, publication details for the short stories are usually omitted and there is no bibliography. Graham Sleight was able to make bricks out of the straw of The Doctor's Monsters, and I should think it fairly easy to repeat that exercise interestingly for the companions; but this is not that book.

Links I found interesting for 23-03-2014

Second paragraph of third chapter:
There are two obvious reasons why minilectal approaches cannot explain or predict, why the fundamental concept of naturalness (see later) is so vague and shifting, and why linguistics faces something of a philosophical crisis. First, it is clear that explaining and predicting depend on the study of developments that produce structures: developments explain states, not vice versa. Of course, a given combination of existing structures is a conditional cause for what changes are possible, but the efficacious causes for linguistic changes must be sought elsewhere. This brings us to the second reason why static, or minilectal, approaches can never attain to the theoretical goals of explaining and predicting, namely, the fact that they are autonomous approaches: they prefer inert 'formal' explanations (if any) or economy metrics to developmental explanations - those based on how new languages get formed (from pidgins) and develop from then on - the sort of explanation made use of in cosmology and astrophysics. (Development is of course excluded from the purview of status approaches.)
I got this book because I knew Bailey briefly when I was much younger, and really admired his charm and his incomprehensible expertise in linguistics. He kindly taught me the rudiments of New Testament Greek. This book pulls together his own choice of his best academic pieces, which unfortunately means that they are pretty impenetrable to those not familiar with the internal arguments of linguists over the last forty years; it's clear though that he was a bit of an outlier (he's till alive, but long retired) and that his particular axe to grind is that linguists pay too little attention to language change as a dynamic, perpetual phenomenon, driven both by internal shifts and external stimuli.

The two most accessible chapters are fairly near the end. One sets out his argument that English should not be described as a Germanic language. He argues that all languages have more than one parent anyway, so the traditional "family tree" model is simply wrong. Much better, he says, to think of Middle English as a creole of Middle French and Anglo-Saxon. The vocabulary may be Germanic, but the grammar is much more Romance.

I find this a provocative and not completely convincing argument argument. I think there's a good reason why we instinctively tend to group languages together by vocabulary rather than grammatical structure, and it's not just oppressive Saussurian propaganda. I agree that there are indeed some intriguing underlying geographies - to take two examples that Bailey doesn't use, the definite article suffix which is shared by Albanian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Romanian, but by none of their neighbours; and the English "-ing" and "do" constructions which appear to have come from Celtic. But Bulgarians and Macedonians still find it easier to communicate with article-less Serbs and Russians, while Romanians find it easier to communicate with article-before-noun Italians, and even English speakers will find more echoes of their own language in Dutch and German than in Irish or Welsh. So I'll happily concede that we need a more nuanced picture, but I think the traditional family structure does tell us something useful.

The next chapter, much more digestibly, argues simply that the Greek letter xi - uppercase Ξ, lowercase ξ - was sometimes pronounced "sh" /ʃ/ rather than "x" /ks/. Appreciating the evidence in depth would take more knowledge of ancient Greek than I have, but Bailey has me convinced at "Xerxes". The Persian ruler's name is spelt Ξέρξης in ancient Greek, but the Persian original was something like Xšaya-ṛšā, where that first X is a chi sound (as in "loch") rather than X as in "axe". The consonant after the "r" or "ṛ" is pronounced "sh" in Ancient Persian, also Modern Persian ش (both the second and second last letter in خشایارشا), also Hebrew שׁ (third and last in אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ) and ς (usually "s" rather than "sh") in the Book of Esther (Ασουηρος) - not a hint of a "k" sound in any of them. NB also that in the Latin alphabet, "x" is routinely pronounced /ʃ/ in Basque, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese and Maltese. Given the weight of the evidence I was left wondering if this was really controversial at all.

Anyway, I'm glad I read this even if I didn't understand as much as I would have liked.
Second paragraph of third section:
The man was dressed formally in a long-sleeved white shirt with frilly collar and cuffs. Though his hair was white and bushy, his slim frame moved with an energy that suggested he wasn’t as old as he first appeared . The woman was younger and shorter – and her face was red, either from sunburn or exertion or both. She was dressed in a miniskirt and blouse in a style of the last century, reminding Sunny of her own love affair with retro fashions, back when she had been a much younger woman.
Considering how much Doctor Who owes to Australia, it's amazing how few Who stories are actually set there. In this latest of the series of short ebooks by well-known authors, Trudi Canavan takes the Third Doctor and Jo to a corner of the continent where people are slowly turning to salt. It's a story which is basically about that single image, but it is very well told, and I felt I could hear the accents in my head as I read.

Links I found interesting for 22-03-2014


BSFA Short Fiction


An all-female shortlist for the BSFA Short Fiction Award this year, which is refreshing. I had little difficulty in raking the four nominees as follows:

1) March Books 14) Spin, by Nina Allan

Second para of third section of narrative:

“Oh my God, you’re here!” Macy cried. “Was the bus ride terrible? I bet it was. I told your father he should have made you come by skyway.”
I was hooked by Spin from practically the first page: our heroine, Layla, follows but does not completely recapitulate the story of Arachne across a recovering, slightly alternate-history but still contemporary Greece. Tremendously well realised, and I hope it wins the BSFA and that it gets a Hugo nomination. I'll be voting for it both times.

2) "Selkie Stories Are for Losers", by Sofia Samatar

I was not quite sure about this story's eligibility, in that what actually happens to the protagonists in the framing narrative seems to lack any overt sfnal content. However, that framing narrative then refers back to various folk-tales about selkies, and since they are part of the story as it is presented to us, I guess it counts. Having got that out of the way, I found it a neat examination of what myths do to us - both the ones we get from our culture, and the ones we tell ourselves.

3) "Saga's Children" by E.J. Swift

The story of three children of a famous Swedish-Chinese woman astronaut, who gather together on the dwarf planet Ceres to watch her final mission. There is some quite nice incidental detail, and the picture of the astronaut herself is clear, but I found the narrative a bit one-note and not very helpful about who is actually telling the story, and to whom; plus of course the actual spaceflight stuff doesn't make a lot of sense, in a story where other details are nailed down quite hard.

4) "Boat in Shadows, Crossing", by Tori Truslow

I'm sure this will be this year's Marmite story, which some people will love to bits, while others (including me) just don't get it. It's a tale set in a city like New Orleans with lots of stuff going on in terms of symbolic fish and a gender-shifting protagonist; but I was not convinced by all of the parts, and still less by the way they fitted together. It's a shame because the imagery was pretty vivid, but needed more connecting tissue.

Just a note on methodology: for a couple of years now I've been using Evernote for a lot of my general record-keeping: it isn't as fiddly as Dropbox, and it means I can keep a lot of things synchronised across iPad, iPhone and all my various computers, with a web interface too if I need it. For the BSFA shorts this year (apart from Spin), I saved the original web publications to Evernote and was then able to edit out everything but the story text, leaving me three stories in a very readable format. It worked very nicely.


Second paragraph of the third chapter of the first story:

"If he's so keen to find these fireballs," Mattias grumbled, "Why isn't the Doctor with us?"
Four stories from the Eleventh Doctor's climactic centuries of battle against the bad guys on Trenzalore, each bringing back a classic era monster. The first one, where Justin Richards (who is excellent when, as here, he is on form) brings in the Ice Warriors, is the best; Paul Finch does well with a Krynoid too. Less convinced by George Mann's Autons or Mark Morris's Mara.

Second paragraph from the third story:
“Seeds of some unknown Egyptian plant,” replied Forsyth, with a sudden shadow on his dark face, as he looked down at the three scarlet grains lying in the white hand lifted to him. [from "Lost in a Pyramid", by Louisa May Alcott]
Well, who'd have thought that the author of Little Women was writing mummy stories in her spare time, eh? I got this because the opening essay has been nominated in the Best Non-Fiction category for the BSFA Awards, but more on that in due course. This is an anthology of mummy stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; basically once you've read one mummy story you've read them all. The two standouts here are Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words With a Mummy", which punctures the pride of his own contemporaries, and "The Unseen Man's Story" by Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel) which I felt added a little more conviction to the standard tropes. On the other hand the two stories by Arthur Conan Doyle are entirely in the same style as his Sherlock Holmes work without being nearly as good, and Charles Bump's "The Vanished Mummy" is a tale of a modern student prank. On Steve Mollmann's recommendation, I hope some day to read The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-second Century by Jane Webb (later Jane Loudon), which kicked the whole sub-genre off back in 1827.

Second paragraph of the third chapter:

Great age ought to have meant being greater and wiser than ever. It should have been about becoming the one to lead others on a wonderful quest.
This was hilarious. A group of Cambridge academics calling themselves the Smudgelings listen to each others' writings, including the annoying Cleavis (who lives with his younger brother) and Reg Tyler, author of that great classic The True History of Planets, with its epic tales of "elves and trolls running about the place with nothing on their hairy feet." But the Doctor gets involved via a visit to a planet ruled by dogs; sinister forces have intervened with Professor Tyler and his book is now about poodles instead, as are the trilogy of blockbuster movies based on them. It then turns out that Noël Coward and an old acquaintance of the Doctor's are involved with it all. If you are not in a mood to take things too seriously, this is great fun.

Wednesday reading

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali
Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie

Last books finished
[Doctor Who] Mad Dogs and Englishmen, by Paul Magrs
Unearthed, eds. John J. Johnston and Jared Shurin
[Doctor Who] Tales of Trenzalore, by Justin Richards, George Mann, Paul Finch and Mark Morris
Spin, by Nina Allan
[Doctor Who] Salt of the Earth, by Trudi Canavan
Essays on Time-based Linguistic Analysis, by Charles-James N. Bailey
Companions: 50 Years of Doctor Who Assistants, by Andy Frankham-Allen
[Doctor Who] Search for the Doctor, by David Martin
[Doctor Who] Crisis in Space, by Michael Holt

Last week's audios
[Blake's 7] Counterfeit, by Peter Anghelides
Current: [Doctor Who] Scavenger, by William Gallagher

Next books
Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann
Any Given Doomsday, by Lori Handreland
[Doctor Who] The Garden of Evil, by David Martin

Books acquired in last week
See announcement here.
Goodreads Librarything
number average number average
Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie 2432 4.00 351 4.10
Nexus, by Ramez Naam 2041 4.13 179 3.74
God's War, by Kameron Hurley 1430 3.61 377 3.73
The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest 114 3.74 51 3.88
The Machine, by James Smythe 78 3.94 17 3
The Disestablishment of Paradise, by Philip Mann 22 3.68 14 3.33

The numbers for Ancillary Justice remain impressive, though God's War is ahead on LibraryThing and Nexus is most loved by GoodReads users.
The second paragraph from Chapter 3:
Meanwhile, she [Serafina Pekkala] looked down at the melting ice-cap, the flooded lowland forests, the swollen sea, and felt heartsick.
Sometimes you shouldn't revisit former favourites; I have to say that I have been much less blown away by the His Dark Materials trilogy on re-reading than I was first time round. I loved the bits with Mary Malone and the mulefa, but found the land of the dead sequence a bit internally inconsistent - likewise the death of God - and got really a bit fed up with Mrs Coulter and some of the others (eg the Gallivespians ). And while if you are a young teenager in love it does indeed feel as if the entire universe depends on that fact, actually it often turns out to be a temporary phenomenon. Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but it just did not have the same magic for me on second reading.
The second paragraph of the third chapter:

"Big Finish was looking for a way to do stories with the First, Second, Third and Fourth Doctors, and Nick [Briggs] came up with the inspired idea of telling stories from the perspective of the companions," explains the current range producer, David Richardson.

I was a little disappointed with this big heavy glossy book; it simply lists the Big Finish plays up to about 2010, with cast list, plot summary, and a few almost invariably positive words of description from those who were involved with the production. This is fine for enjoying the triumphs (where indeed I, Davros is a clear winner among several high points) but it means that the nadirs (eg Nekromanteia, The Poison Seas) are rather glossed over. The book also has similar surveys of several of the Big Finish ranges which I simply don't know at all - Sapphire and Steel, Highlander - and might now try. But for what it is, it's rather overpriced.

It was sad to read that the Sapphire and Steel range was basically discontinued because of too much torrenting. I wonder if that would still be the case today.

The second paragraph from the third section of the Völsungakviða en Nýja:

Long ruled Sigmund,
sire and uncle;
Sinfjótli sat
at his side proudly.
There towered the tree,
tall and ancient,
birds in the branches
were blithe again.
One (well, actually two) of Tolkien's works that he never expecetd to see published - a translation into modern English, but using ancient metre, of highlights and interpolations from the Poetic Edda, much of which was also used by Wagner for his operas. I found the story-telling a bit dense - it is not always totally clear what is going on - but the language rather beautiful, with occasional moments where the two do come together rather well. Interesting to spot elements which were later borrowed for the Silmarillion and LotR.

The Liberator Chronicles, vol 1


The Turing Test, by Simon Guerrier
Solitary, by Nigel Fairs
Counterfeit, by Peter Anghelides

Big Finish had a special offer on last month for the first three sets of Blake's 7 audios, which after a little reflection I decided to go for. I didn't quite know what to expect; what I got was three Companion Chronicles-style narrated stories, the first with Paul Darrow being Avon with a little Michael Keating as Vila, the second with Michael Keating as Vila and an Anthony Howell as a new chaacter, and the third with Gareth Thomas as the man himself, plus a bit of Paul Darrow as Avon.

All three are set in early Season One, with Cygnus Alpha still a recent memory. I liked the first best - Darrow doing a brilliant Avon, undergoing something of a moral and ethical quandary in the course of the story. The other two were good solid stories which would have made decent enough TV episodes, both with twists that work better on audio than would have been possible on video. Gareth Thomas's voice has noticeably changed since the 1980s; Michael Keating's voice notably hasn't, Paul Darrow in between. Look forward to the other two sets of plays now.


Murray Leinster, whose real name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins, was one of the major figures of mid-twentieth century science fiction. His story "Exploration Team" (1956) won the second ever Hugo for Best Novella; his "First Contact" (1945) established a humorous twist on humans-meeting-aliens; his "A Logic Named Joe" (1946) foresaw computers in every household, communicating with each other; his story "Sidewise in Time" (1934) gave its name to the awards for alternate history.

Justly forgotten (until now) is his 1960 story "Attention Saint Patrick", in which a planet which has been settled by the Irish government (both planet and government confusingly referred to as "Eire") has a reptile problem which is solved by a smart girl visiting from earth. You can download it in various formats from Project Gutenberg here. The opening paragraph, just in case you had not yet decided if you wanted to read it:

President O'Hanrahan of the planetary government of Eire listened unhappily to his official guest. He had to, because Sean O'Donohue was chairman of the Dail—of Eire on Earth—Committee on the Condition of the Planet Eire. He could cut off all support from the still-struggling colony if he chose. He was short and opinionated, he had sharp, gimlet eyes, he had bristling white hair that once had been red, and he was the grandfather of Moira O'Donohue, who'd traveled to Eire with him on a very uncomfortable spaceship. That last was a mark in his favor, but now he stood four-square upon the sagging porch of the presidential mansion of Eire, and laid down the law.
And the last paragraph:
"Ah," said the chief justice. "Some way will turn up to handle the matter. Like Sean O'Donohue was sayin' to me yesterday, at the very bottom of a bottle, we Erse can always depend on St. Patrick to take care of things!"
Erse, indeed. Or something like that.

The second and third paragraphs from Chapter 3:
They fed from the ship’s structure in the boot-cupboards, and played dice with the universe in the cloisters. Creations, phantasms, aberrations...
... why be coy? Monsters. They were monsters, that was all.
My peculiar reading sequence means that I read this about a month after The Adventuress of Henrietta Street, rather than five years earlier; so I can see it as clearly Miles' first novel, with all the elements that he would later use, but not yet in their mature form. The 1799 in America environment was interesting, but ran slightly off the rails at times, the Tardis/Gallifrey bits fairly incomprehensible, but at least Roz got some good sequences despite a generally dodgy line on gender and race. Some commentators whose opinions I generally respect are huge fans of Miles; I am not yet there myself.

The Sleeping City, by Ian Potter

A very nicely done Companion Chronicle, with William Russell doing his impressions of Maureen O'Brien's Vicki and William Hartnell's Doctor, plus a little bit of himself and Barbara, in a story of a city of shared and potentially fatal dreams. John Banks plays an intelligence agent interrogating Ian about his travels with the Doctor after his return home, and several other roles as well. Excellent twist at the end.
gebealogy, genealogy
Almost exactly four years ago, I posted my analysis of the descendants of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. At that time, there were 836 of them living; now, my source, Allan Raymond, lists 875, but hasn't updated since May last year. It's not that I find the Royals terribly interesting; but I think they provide useful evidence in favour of the fascinating findings of Rohde et al that the most recent common ancestor of all living humans lived only a few thousand years ago, probably in south-east Asia. (One can debate whether this also applies to apparently isolated populations like the North Sentinelese, but they may not be quite as isolated as reporters like to claim, and also are actually in south-east Asia.) A related statement, which I think is strongly supported by all the available evidence, is that all of us with European or part-European ancestry are descended from Charlemagne. (A paper published last year finds it probably that all Europeans share common ancestors from within the last 1000 years; Charlemagne died in 814.)

One point that was made in discussion of my previous post was that the number of marriages between relatives must surely slow down the overall rate at which one's ancestors increase going back in time, or descendants increase going forward. Examples were given such as the Grand Dauphin, who had only four great-grandparents rather than the usual eight, his parents being first cousins and his grand-parents being two pairs of siblings. But these cases are very unusual. I revisited the Victoria and Albert data, and found that while indeed about a quarter of their living descendants can trace more than one line of descent back to them, this ratio has not increased much over the last forty years. This graph shows the overall trend in multiply-descended individuals as a percentage of all individuals descended from Victoria and Albert since the birth of Prince Waldemar of Prussia in 1889:


As you can see, it starts rather low, then zooms from about 5% in 1933 to about 23% in 1970, rising rather more gradually in the decades since - actually falling at the end of the last century, before picking up to the current 27%. I note that in my previous post, I had the average rate of annual increase of descendants at 2.6%, but the rate since 1970 at around 1.9% only, as if a quarter of the overall rate of increase had disappeared; it's interesting that this decrease is close to the overall ratio of multiply-descended individuals. The 900-odd current descendants of Victoria and Albert may represent up to 1200 possible lines of descent.

I suspect that the ratio will never again rise as quickly as it did from the 1930s to 1970. The era of such dynastic intermarriages is basically over. There have been 21 marriages between descendants of Victoria and Albert, including Liz and Phil, and the king and queen of Spain, but the most recent was in 1981 (Prince Andreas of Leiningen and Princess Alexandra of Hanover). Only two others have taken place in the last fifty years (King Constantine II of Greece and Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark in 1964, Prince Franz Wilhelm of Prussia and Grand Duchess Marie of Russia in 1976). This compares to seven such marriages in the 1930s, when the overall pool of descendants was only one-seventh its current size.

Just as the Grand Dauphin is a bit of an outlier among dynastic practices, the inter-war royals were much more likely to intermarry than their post-war children and grandchildren, and I suspect much more likely to intermarry than the general population at any time. Given that the intermarriage factor has failed to slow down the growth in the total number of V&A descendants by much, despite the flurry of marriages between cousins in the 1930s, I think it's pretty clear that this does very little to change the likely date of a most recent common ancestor for Europeans, or indeed for humanity as a whole.

The second paragraph from Chapter 3:

Spencer Perceval was not the first member of his family to die a violent death. On 5 June 1677 an ancestor of Perceval's fell victim to a murderer's knife. This young man, Robert Perceval, who was about 20 years of age, was in London studying law unde his uncle, Sir Robert Southwell. Ironically, he had told his uncle some days earlier about a bloody premonition of his death that he had experienced in his sleep. Robert was, it seems, not averse to conflict, as he had already been involved in, and survived, nineteen duels. On the night of his murder Robert noticed that he was being followed from place to place as he went around town on his night's entertainment. At each establishment he visited, he saw the same man waiting in the porch for him to emerge. He decided to approach the stranger and ask him what he wanted, only to be told by the man that he was attending to his own business. When Robert informed his friends bout this, they wanted to send a footman to accompany him, but he declined the offer [and was found stabbed to death in the Strand later than night; the murder was never solved].
This short book caught my eye at the Boekenfestijn down the road from us the other day, retailing at a mere €2.99, which is about right; it's a workmanlike retelling of all the contemporary historical details of how John Bellingham, blaming the government for failing to come to his aid when a business dispute landed him in a Russian prison for several years, decided that he would kill the British Prime Minister to make his point; and duly did so. He was arrested at the scene, and tried, convicted and executed only a few days later.

There's not a lot to write about an incident which lasted only a few seconds, even if it ended two men's lives. Hanrahan does his best and gives us all that is known about both assassin and victim. Perceval was a rather rigid anti-Catholic politician, who had however shown some skill in navigating the implementation of the Regency, and had also backed Wellesley/Wellington to the hilt during the crucial phases of the Peninsular War. (My father, who was a historian, once remarked that had it not been for the manner of his untimely end, Spencer Perceval would probably be the most forgotten of British prime ministers; as it is he must compete with Viscount Goderich and Bonar Law.) Perceval, who was 49, left twelve children, six boys and six girls, most of whom survived to adulthood; Bellingham, who was 35, had three children who have disappeared from history.

A lot of this story has been told before, and Hanrahan misses some turns where a fresh eye might have turned up new material - what, for instance, do today's Russian historians make of Bellingham's travails in St Petersburg? What actually happened to Bellingham's wife and children? (Hanrahan has her reverting to her maiden name, but Wikipedia says she remarried.) There is a lovely new theory that Bellingham was unwittingly put up to the crime by two merchants who wanted to be able to resume trade wth the continent by getting the restrictive Orders in Council withdrawn (as indeed they were after Perceval's death). None of that here. Hanrahan also incorrectly abbreviates Sir Francis Burdett to "Sir Burdett" and Sr James Mansfield to "Sir Mansfield".

The most interesting intellectual discussion is of the attempt of Bellingham's defence lawyers to plead insanity and avert his execution. It is obvious in any case that Bellingham did not get a fair trial - his defence lawyers were appointed the night before, and did not get a proper chance to talk to him before the trial began; two defence witnesses arrived only after the trial was over; the judge, summing up for the jury, wept openly as he spoke of his own friendship with the victim - but even with the most impartial of proceedings, could Bellingham possibly have been saved from execution for a crime which he freely admitted (though pleading not guilty) and which was committed in front of dozens of witnesses? Bellingham clearly sincerely believed that as a result of his killing the Prime Minister, his grievances against the government would be redressed. He was wrong, of course; but does that make him deluded? And if deluded on that one point, but sane on all others (as he really appears to have been) is that sufficient to excuse him from criminal responsibility for murder?

I had always thought that a useful standard was that proposed by Robertson Davies' narrator, David Staunton, in his wonderful novel The Manticore (the middle chunk of the Deptford Trilogy: "If a policeman had been standing at your elbow, would you have acted as you did?" (But I can't find that anywhere else, so I guess Davies made it up.) Clearly Bellingham's answer (unlike Staunton's in the novel) would have been "yes"; even though there were no policemen as such in England at the time, there were a lot of people with equivalent roles right beside him when he fired the fatal shot. But I'm not at all sure that that is what the law says; and I'm really not sure what the law ought to say. The law on these questions was poorly developed in 1812, and I suspect that it is not a lot better now.

BSFA Best Art

There are only three entries shortlisted for the BSFA's Best Art award this year. All three of them involve tall buildings; all also have central human figures (two emphasise the human, one the buildings); one is a book cover, one a magazine illustration for a short story, and one a poster for a 1927 film. All three are by men. As I've said before, I may not know much about art, but I know what I like, and found it not too time-consuming to make up my mind.

1) Kevin Tong's poster for Metropolis uses greyscale and ominous red highlighting to hint at the story within: the transformation of robot to Maria and back is hinted at in the main image, and vignettes convey both the industrial hell of the undercity and the isolation of the towering homes of the elite. I think it says a lot and does so very economically, and it has my vote.

2) Richard Wagner's illustration for "The Angel at the Heart of the Rain", from Interzone. The figure of the angel itself is pretty striking: Asian angels are rare in art, so the viewer immediately has to question why this is, and why it matters. Yet the bystander, perhaps a commuter waiting for a bus, is looking the other way as far as we can tell; for him or her it's a perfectly normal part of the world. If, that is, the angel is visible at all from the commuter's viewpoint; I felt not entirely happy with the perspective between the angel's plinth and the bus shelter - the visual cues are a bit confusing as to their relative scale, height and distance, and this marked it down for me.

3) Finally, Joey Hi-Fi's cover for Tony Ballantyne's Dream London. Like Kevin Tong's Metropolis poster, greyscale with red highlights; a red-coated man on a wooden jetty looks away from us, across the Thames to a jumble of tall buildings from London and elsewhere, some of which are ornamented by ominous red tentacular things (plants? dragons? Can't really see clearly). I am sure that there is good reason for jamming all these buildings together away from their geographical homes, but it jars my sense of location; the human figure seems a bit clichéd; and I'm putting this last. I note also that reviews suggest that in the book, London is reverting in some ways to the Victorian era; this is not really signalled by the cover, but I think we should judge it in itself as a work of art.

Non-fiction coming soon.


Links I found interesting for 15-03-2014



The second paragraph from Chapter 3:
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What is there to say about Animal Farm that hasn't already been said? I read it first as a teenager, back when the Soviet Union still existed; it still packs just as powerful an impact now, with the awful fate of Boxer the horse a superb emotional climax of betrayal. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most shocking passages are the perversion of truth and history by Squealer (we've all met people like him), where the writer's ability to convey to the reader precisely the opposite of what the words on paper ostensibly mean is on top form.

What struck me most on this reading is Orwell's deep sympathy for the ideals of equality and community. His scorn is not directed at socialism as such, but at the Soviet leaders for perverting it to their own profit, to the point where in the final confrontation between pig and man, "it was impossible to say which was which". The awful thing is that he offers no solution; the animals have been duped and betrayed, and are now worse off than they were. (Did he write any books with happy endings?)

And I wonder what happened to the cat?
The second paragraph from Chapter 3:
And it was all so unfair. He’d ["he" = Billy Grebber, who will be bumped off soon] always tried to keep his nose clean. Well, more or less. What was the point of making a pile of dosh, if you were looking over your shoulder all the time for the fuzz – or worse? And as for duffing up the opposition, or having a ruck with every geezer who tried it on, well, leave it out. Look at Tel, who’d ended up splattered all over a car park in Bethnal Green for coming the old soldier with that tearaway from Brum. Or Tel’s brother for that matter, going slowly crazy in Parkhurst.
I actually thought that I had read all of the Target novelisations, but I had forgotten about this, the last of them, published in 1994 just after the broadcast of the Pertwee/Sladen/Courtney radio series on which it was based. I thought the original story was pretty poor; the novelisation brings out its strengths and reduces some of its weaknesses. It still feels like a lot of half-thought-out scenarios jumbled together, but there is a better consistency of tone. Letts did a lot for Who, but writing plots that actually made much sense was not really one of his strong points.

The euro coins in my pocket

Latest in a series of occasional surveys:

Belgian: 16 (36%)
German: 10 (23%)
Italian: 6 (14%)
French: 5 (11%)
Dutch: 3 (7%)
Austrian: 2 (5%)
Spanish: 2 (5%)

(the last time that I set foot in a euro zone country outside Belgium was Germany, in November.)

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