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Second paragraph of third chapter:
Grooming-talk starts with greeting-talk. Weather-speak is needed in this context partly because greetings and introductions are such an awkward business for the English. The problem has become particularly acute since the decline of ‘How do you do?’ as the standard, all-purpose greeting. The ‘How do you do?’ greeting – where the correct response is not to answer the question, but to repeat it back, ‘How do you do?’, like an echo or a well-trained parrot13 – is still in use in upper-class and upper-middle circles, but the rest are left floundering, never knowing quite what to say. Instead of sneering at the old-fashioned stuffiness of the ‘How do you do?’ ritual, we would do better to mount a campaign for its revival: it would solve so many problems.
"Grooming" here means the human equivalent of the behaviour of great apes, who groom each others' fur by way of polite greeting. Fox wittily dissects the behaviour of the English in 400 pages of anthropology, concluding that it all comes down to social dis-ease, with reflexes of humour, moderation, and hypocrisy, an outlook based on empiricism, Eeyorishness and class-consciousness, and values including fair play, courtesy and modesty. She enlarges on her concept of social dis-ease:
It is our lack of ease, discomfort and incompetence in the field (minefield) of social interaction; our embarrassment, insularity, awkwardness, perverse obliqueness, emotional constipation, fear of intimacy and general inability to engage in a normal and straightforward fashion with other human beings.
Since the author herself is English, the book falls firmly into the acceptable discourse of being self-deprecatingly funny. The most enjoyable chapters are perhaps those on pets and hobbies - I now begin to understand DIY. She is even self-deprecating about her own discipline: "social science can sometimes almost be as insightful as good stand-up comedy."

Of course, I am not English myself, but I am not unfamiliar with them (having married one), and as a close observer for several decades, I think Fox has nailed a number of characteristic behaviours beautifully. I would love to read a similarly sympathetic and close observation of the Irish or the Belgians. For now, well worth getting.

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
Finally in December [1945] he managed to persuade the owner of a large dilapidated building on the Finchley Road in London to rent him two rooms. A friend of my mother describes it well, ‘After the war they rented a flat in Swiss Cottage on a stretch of the Finchley Road opposite the old Odeon and close to the famous pub. In those days there was a row of substantial detached houses, each with what had been stables, but then converted into garages with flats above. I remember a very rickety staircase inside the garage up to the flat, and the intriguing fact that the bath was in the kitchen, with a large wooden cover serving perfectly as a table during the day. I envied them living there so close to the bright lights, and the fact that they had such a relaxed ‘bohemian lifestyle’ which included going out for breakfast when they felt like it!’
Slowly working through the published biographies of Doctor Who crew and cast, and it's time to look at Patrick Troughton, possibly the most versatile actor to take on the role as a regular, and certainly the only one to appear in a Oscar-winning film (as the Player King in Olivier's 1948 Hamlet, which also features Peter Cushing as Osric; John Hurt is in A Man for All Seasons which won the Oscar for Best Film in 1966, and of course Peter Capaldi shared the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 1994). The author is one of Troughton's many acting descendants, his third child Michael, who actually appeared in the 2014 Christmas special Last Christmas as Dr Albert Smithe.

It must be very difficult to write about a father like Patrick Troughton, who was loving but physically distant. Troughton's own life was full of much human drama, which we must largely infer from Michael's childhood memories and his father's preserved correspondence. Soon after Michael was born in 1955, Patrick left his first wife, Margaret, for another partner with whom he had another three children; at the point that he decided to take on the Doctor Who role, he was in the middle of a brief and ultimately unsuccessful reconciliation with Margaret, played out to a certain extent in front of the children. At the same time there was a third partner in the mix. He married someone else entirely in the mid-1970s. He said to Michael, years after the final split with Margaret,
‘I needed change. Things have to change all the time for me I’m afraid, that’s the way I am made. I am sorry if I hurt you.’
Reminiscent of one of his first lines as the Doctor: "Life depends on change and renewal."

He seems to have been a man who broke many hearts, but continued to take his emotional commitments to all his lovers and children very seriously, but always suffered from the pressure of generating enough income to meet his financial obligations to his two families, which eventually ground him down; he had his first heart attack at 58, and died of another at a convention eight years later. (Incidentally the circumstances of his death are clarified here, and are much less exciting than we had been led to believe.)

There is quite a lot here about Troughton's approach to acting, including his early education ain London and New York. He is on record (sometimes contradictory) about his philosophy of theatre, particularly on how it defined his own sense of personhood:
My father was a complex man but one thing was very clear – he had to act. He once confessed to me, whilst working together on an episode of the seventies TV nursing drama Angels, that acting was part of his being, something he had to do rather than had chosen. He likened the process of inhabiting another character in performance to ‘a drug-like craving that seemed to keep my whole self in order. I can’t imagine my world without it. It sparks me with life.’
This craving for multiple identities perhaps played out in his complex private life, and even his approach to being an ex-Doctor Who, where he embraced the American convention circuit once he had discovered it, but was much less visible in the UK, where he wanted to avoid typecasting for the sake of future acting work. He would no doubt be pleased that IMDB ranks The Omen as his most notable performance. There's not much on politics here (Troughton fought in the second world war, where he became noted for wearing a tea-cosy; he was contrarian for the sake of it in argument). Interestingly, there is more on religion: Troughton was deeply hostile to organised Christianity, boycotted one son's wedding service and was dismayed when another decided to get ordained.

It's a more lively book than Jessica Carney's biography of her grandfather, William Hartnell, because Troughton had a more lively life, and Doctor Who came in the middle of his career rather than at the end (chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10 out of fifteen total). It scratches one's itch of curiosity about its subject, while inevitably leaving you wishing you knew more. Well worth getting.

(Next up, if I can find it, is Directed by Douglas Camfield by Michael Seely; if I can't find it, I'll turn to Robert Holmes: a Life in Words by Richard Molesworth.)

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Second frame of third chapter:


Collecting the first four issues of Alan Moore's Providence series, itself apparently both prequel and sequel to his Neonomicon (which I haven't read) and very much tied in to the Lovecraft mythos (with which I am familiar but not expert). It's the story of Robert Black, a young New York journalist in 1919, Jewish and gay and hiding both, who travels to Rhode Island to investigate a mysterious cult. (But this is not our 1919, exactly.) Each of these four issues ties to a specific Lovecraft story - "Cool Air", "The Horror at Red Hook", "The Shadow over Innsmouth" and "The Dunwich Horror"; I knew the last two but not the first two.

As you expect with Moore, it's a layered text with many knowing references to 1919, 2015, Lovecraft and occultism in general, not to mention sexuality and race. I don't think I had come across Jacen Burrows before, but he successfully conveys 1919 both in our reality and when the moments of Lovecraftian horror come. I enjoyed it but did not really get into it enough to feel that I want to get into the rest of the series, when Moore's Jerusalem is sitting on my shelves looking at me.

I picked this up on a whim, but am amused to find that the publishers now insist that it will never be reprinted and second-hand copies are going for $100 dollars or more on Amazon. So that turns out to have been an unexpectedly sound investment, and I am open to reasonable offers for my own copy.

This was my top unread graphic novel in English. Next on that list is even more Lovecraftian, Ian Culbard's treatment of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

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Second paragraph of third section:
Dann had wanted to leave the Centre - leave the past - because of the weight of sorrow on him, which he believed he understood. It was natural. Of course he was bereft, but he would get over it. He had no intention of subsiding into unhappiness. No, when he got walking, really moving, he would be better. But he had not got into his stride, his rhythm: it was what he needed, the effortlessness of it, when legs and body were in the swing of the moment, a time different from what ruled ordinary sitting, lying, moving about - never tiring. A drug it was, he supposed, to walk like that, walking at its best, as he had done sometimes with Mara, when they were into their stride.
I hadn't realised while reading that this was a sequel to a book I haven't read, Mara and Dann, so was judging it more on its own merits. (People who have read Mara and Dann generally seem to think that it was better.)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic world where Europe is covered by melting ice sheets, the Mediterranean has dried up but slowly starting to fill again, and the remnants of humanity are trying to hold onto and maybe rebuild civilisation. Dann is thrust into a leadership role despite his bad health, and, surrounded by his companions of the title, is drawn into a quest to save a library of knowledge from the old days. The prose is terse, but the setting and the characters conveyed effectively, Dann's personal drama very closely linked to the question of what will happen to the cultural heritage now under threat from the changing climate. It's also fairly short. You can get it here.

This was the top unread book on my shelves acquired in 2011. Next on that list is The God Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life by Jesse Bering.

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The Tree of Life, by Mark Michalowski

Second paragraph of third chapter:
She pulled a pained face at Piotr, standing to her right. He gave a tiny shrug, used to the heat, Benny imagined. She wasn't quite sure how he'd wangled being out here with her on her first 'walkabout', but it was (only vaguely) reassuring to have a familiar face there.
I rather dropped off my blogging of Who-related books last year, but I intend to fix that this year. As I work through them, this is the next in publication order of the Bernice Summerfield books by Big Finish, in this case a novel by Mark Michalowski. The setup is the rather usual framing narrative of Benny getting summoned to a planet on which there are funny things going on, ending up with everyone trapped in a base under siege, but I thought there were a couple of very good wrinkles to it, in particular the biological cycle of the alien tree/giant hamster symbiotes which are responsible for the trouble, and the internal politics of both aliens and humans which make a bad situation worse. Also mercifully short. Worth a look.

Next in this sequence is Parallel Lives, a collection of three novellas, the first by my old friend Rebecca Levene, and the other two by Stewart Sheargold and Dave Stone.

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Monday reading

Current
Who Is The Doctor, by Graeme Burk and Robert Smith?
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse

Last books finished
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Next books
Toast, by Charles Stross
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Parallel Lives, by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold and Dave Stone

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The Berlin wall was erected on 13 August 1961. It was breached on 9 November 1989, after 28 years, 2 months and 27 days (10315 days, to be exact). Counting forward another 28 years, 2 months and 27 days (or just 10315 days, you get the same answer) takes us to tomorrow, 5 February 2018.

Below is the blog entry I posted on the twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Wall, in 2009. Since then, I have continued to enjoy visiting Berlin; and I always pay my respects to the Wall and its memories, for me and for many others.

Originally posted by nwhyte at The Fall of the Wall, twenty years on

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Gone With The Wind

Gone With The Wind won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production of 1939; for once, I have actually seen two of the other Best Picture nominees, Ninotchka and of course The Wizard of Oz. It won another seven competitive Oscars and two honorary ones, a sweep that was not exceeded for decades. I have actually seen two other 1939 films, which makes this by far my best year up to now - back in the early 1980s the BBC showed the Basil Rathbone The Hound of the Baskervilles and the less memorable The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

IMDB has this at the top of its 1939 list on one system, The Wizard of Oz winning on the other. Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is the top-grossing film of all time (narrowly ahead of the original Star Wars), and also apparently holds the record for cinema tickets sold in (at least) both the USA and the UK. (I can’t find figures for Ireland. Incidentally, the first ever cinema in Ireland was owned and operated by James Joyce, subsequently better known for other things.) Here's a trailer.



I’m going to note here a couple of actors who are back again from other recent Oscar winners. I’ll get to Clark Gable later, but here’s Eddie Robinson as Scarlett’s aunt’s enslaved coachman, having been Rheba’s boyfriend Donald in last year’s You Can’t Take It With You. They have tried to age him up, not with total success.

And here’s Henry Davenport as Dr Meade, having been the night judge in You Can’t Take It With You and also the Chief of Staff of the French army in The Life of Émile Zola. I don’t know if there are other actors who managed to be in the Best Picture winner in three or more successive years; I’ll keep counting.
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To get the most important bit out of the way: Gone With The Wind is racist and gives a positive account of slavery. This is made absolutely clear with the film’s opening statement.
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The war is entirely portrayed as a struggle to preserve a whole romantic and chivalrous way of life, which is doomed because of its failure to invest in its own defence. Both Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes spot early on that the war will be lost; nobody ever states out loud that the reason for the war was slavery. All the Northerners are bad guys. All the black characters are happy in their relationship with their white masters. Most of them are disarmingly stupid (a particular shout to Butterfly McQueen, who must have been gritting her teeth as she delivered Prissy’s lines).

Apparently the NAACP were consulted on the script, and advised against the use of the word “darkie” instead of “nigger” and that the Ku Klux Klan should not be explicitly referenced (as they are in the book), so it could have been even worse. And also on the plus side, Hattie McDaniel was the first ever black actor to win an Oscar for her performance as Mammy, though she was of course excluded from the film’s launch in Atlanta and the role itself is not exactly liberating.
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(Incidentally, Barbara O’Neil plays Scarlett’s mother despite being only three years older than Vivian Leigh.)

The second worst thing about the film is that it is simply too long. The book was of course hugely popular, and its many fans would have wanted servicing. Six of the twelve early Oscar-winners I have seen so far were based on books and another on a short story (two of the other five were adapted from stage plays, the remaining three were original material). Gone With The Wind deviates least from the printed original, and is the poorer for it. Its very length was part of the reason for its fame, of course, but it could easily have lost an hour and been better. The first half has a tremendous impetus as the Old South disintegrates, but once the war is over, the narrative thrust has gone, and we slip into a series of somewhat disconnected episodes from post-war life, ending with Rhett’s dramatic rejection (which one can anticipate from his very first scene). I think the last scene misses the target; surely Rhett has made the right decision, to leave Scarlett, and her fantasy that she can get him back (after their atrocious behaviour to each other during the marriage) is indulged a little too much.

The incidental music is great, but again just a little too much - I watched the full version with overture, intermission and end music, and actually the overture is a bit of a disappointment as overtures go.

Like Cimarron, we have the interesting case of a text that is racist but also somewhat feminist. A lot of this is tied up in the character arc of Scarlett and her three marriages. She starts the film as a very silly teenager, with an appalling crush on poor Ashley, who marries someone else on a whim (and is quickly widowed). But at the halfway mark, she transforms herself into a powerful economic operator in her own right, and it is here that she is at her most sympathetic - she depends on her second husband’s money to start her business, but it’s absolutely clear that she is the one making the decisions. Then the arc curves down again when she finally gets together with Rhett and it doesn’t work out; and at the end she is fantasising about his return to a marriage that she herself was never fully committed to. Basically, she does better, and the audience is encouraged to identify with her more, when she is not being hassled by the men who have led her society to war and disaster. Sure, a lot of the other women characters are stereotyped, but most of the men are gallant cardboard cutouts as well. And anyway Scarlett’s story is the story; one of IMDB’s glorious factoids is that Leigh’s 2 hours, 23 minutes and 32 seconds on screen is the longest ever performance to win an Oscar. (She was the second youngest winner of Best Actress at the time, and is still the tenth youngest out of 90.)
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And that brings us to the one of the film’s core strengths: the very watchable smouldering chemistry between Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and Clark Gable as Rhett. (Some credit for this also belongs to the script, which was attributed to Sidney Howard who won an Oscar for it; sadly he was killed in a farming accident before shooting even started.) We’ve had Gable twice before, in It Happened One Night and Mutiny on the Bounty, and he was good in both of those, but he is excellent here, as a rogue who rises to the occasion when challenged. Here he has very strong support from Leslie Howard as Ashley and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.
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We should shout out to Olivia de Havilland, who at the age of 101 is the only surviving lead from any Oscar-winning film of the 1930s.

I have a couple of quibbles - Leslie Howard, at 46, is really too old to be Ashley, supposedly one of the neighbourhood kids, not much older than Scarlett (who is explicitly sixteen at the start of the film); he is also way too English, and indeed the white Southern characters generally fail to have very Southern accents. This is the one scene where all four leads appear together, when the women are tending Ashley after Rhett has brought him back from the definitely-not-Ku-Klux-Klan raid.
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Finally, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Of course, it's obviously California rather than Georgia, from the vegetation and the landscape; and Margaret Mitchell objected that Tara was far too elegant; in the book is was "built according to no architectural plan whatever, with extra rooms added where and when it seemed convenient". These are minor quibbles. The landscapes and architecture are beautifully realised but never get in the way of the human story; we go intimate and close, we pull out to look at the bigger picture, and in particular, as conflict loomed on the other side of both oceans, we see the horrors of war. We've had two outright war movies so far (Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front) and one where war was a distant but fatal prospect (Cavalcade); here we don't have a single battle scene, but a stark contrast between the gung-ho young warriors who set off to battle and the (rather few) casualties who return. Rhett's pragmatic rather than patriotic approach turns out to be the right way to go, and Scarlett succeeds when she adopts the same strategy. 

I had not seen this before, and of course I doubt that it will ever be on general cinema release again, but it is just about worth the four hours of my life it took to watch (plus time to write this review).

Next on the list is Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, where I have actually read the book, if a long time ago.

(Still reading the book - will report on it in due course.)

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Second paragraph of third chapter:
‘It’s terrifying!’ said Dick.
An attempt to keep the continuity of the updated Famous Five books from last year, this is not so much a one-joke book as a no-joke book, the Famous Five being kept in a jail which resembles an immigration holding centre by the combination of the Secret Seven and evil cousin Rupert. Not really recommended but you can get it here.

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Rather Be The Devil, by Ian Rankin

Second paragraph of third chapter:
"When did he move out?" Rebus asked.
I admit it; I'm a complete Rebus addict. I had missed that there was a new Rebus novel out, but someone kind got it for me for Christmas. (I prioritised Christmas presents in my reading this month, and actually finished this two weeks ago - my blogging is some way behind my actual reading.)

It's another good one. There is a combination of a dubious next generation criminal leader, with aspirations to become the next great Cafferty, with a cold case from the 1970s which suddenly starts warming up again. There is the micro-geopgraphy of Shandwick Place. There is tension between Rebus himself, pathologist Deborah Quant (his current girlfriend), his former sidekick and now successor Siobhan Clarke, and their competitor /colleague Malcolm Fox. My complaint is that the eastern European bad guy, mixed up in Edinburgh business, doesn't get a lot of page time. But it is all very satisfying; good guys win, bad guys lose. You can get it here.

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January Books

Non-fiction: 3
Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield
Patrick Troughton: The Biography of the Second Doctor Who, by Michael Troughton
Watching the English, by Kate Fox



Fiction (non-sf): 6
L’Équation Africaine, by Yasmina Khadra
War and Turpentine, by Stefan Hermans
Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam
Rather Be The Devil, by Ian Rankin
Five Escape Brexit Island, by Bruno Vincent
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield



Theatre: 1
You Can’t Take It With You, by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman



sf (non-Who): 10
It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Fall of Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
"Gonna Roll the Bones" by Fritz Leiber
An Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute
The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing
The Island Of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells
Daystar and Shadow, by James B. Johnson
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy



Doctor Who, etc: 4
Who Killed Kennedy: The Shocking Secret Linking a Time Lord and a President, by “James Stevens” and David Bishop
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, script by Robert Holmes
The Tree of Life, by Mark Michalowski
Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, by Douglas Adams and James Goss


Comics: 2
Ys de Legende: v 1 Verraad, by Jean-Luc Istin and Dejan Nenadov
Providence, Act 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows



~7,300 pages
7/26 by women (Hirshfield, Fox, Haddam, Setterfield, Woolf, Lessing, Piercy)
1/26 by PoC (Khadra)
2/26 reread (The Fall of Hyperion, Who Killed Kennedy)

Reading now
Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore

Coming soon (perhaps):
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse
Toast, by Charles Stross
Planesrunner by Ian McDonald
Hoger dan de bergen en dieper dan de zee: kroniek van een migrant, by Laïla Koubaa
"Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", by Samuel R. Delany
Seventeen Equations that Changed the World, by Ian Stewart
Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift
So, Anyway..., by John Cleese
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch
Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner
Julian, by Gore Vidal
Free Radical, by Vince Cable
Contes Fantastiques Complets, by Guy de Maupassant
The God Instinct by Jesse Bering
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov
Wit, Wisdom and Timey Wimey Stuff - The Quotable Doctor Who by Cavan Scott
Doctor Who Storybook 2009 by Keith Temple
Parallel Lives, by Rebecca Levene, Stewart Sheargold and Dave Stone
Torchwood: Rift War by Ian Edgington

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Doctor Who: The Early Adventures, Season 1

Getting back to the Big Finish plays I have bought but not written up, here are four First Doctor stories featuring the surviving original companion actors, released back in 2014. All but one of these is directed by Ken Bentley.

Domain of the Voord, by Andrew Smith



I think the only previous attempt to bring back the Voord (from The Keys of Marinus) was a story in the 1966 Doctor Who Annual. (Apparently they have returned again since 2014, in both comics and audio; and there are references to them being pitted against Irish Wildthyme in the Death Zone on Gallifrey.) Here Andrew Smith has provided them with a rather good and interesting background and origin story, which goes some way to explaining their need to invade. There's a great soundscape depicting the unlucky planet that is the subject of their intentions, and William Russell and Carole Ann Ford give Ian and Susan the full welly (and also sub for Hartnell and Hill). However I found the plot in the end a bit creaky - in particular, the absence and then the return of the Doctor and Barbara was a bit handwavy. Fan opinion seems sharply divided on this one: I thought it was decent but not excellent.

The Doctor's Tale, by Marc Platt



Now it's William Russell and Maureen O’Brien, in a pure historical story of the Crusaders type, visiting the little-known interregnum between the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV in 1400. Alice Haig is very endearing as Richard's very young queen, Isabella, and Gareth Armstrong gets to be Chaucer. But I felt the script came down too heavy on the religion and politics of the day, basically endorsing the Lollards as the good guys and the Church (embodied by John Banks as Bishop Arundel) as the baddies. In my home town, kids still get beaten up for being perceived to be on the wrong side of that argument.

The Bounty of Ceres, by Ian Potter (directed by Lisa Bowerman)



Apparently the first time Peter Purves and Maureen O'Sullivan have worked together since they were on TV! I rather liked this base-under-siege story, with what appears to be a clumsy removal of the Doctor from the story actually turning out to work rather well in plot terms. There's some fun continuity in that the story is set in our future but in the past for both Steven and Vicki. Julia Hills puts in a good commander, Richard Hope is an intriguingly demented Scottish scientist, and the soundscape again is well done.

An Ordinary Life, by Matt Fitton



This was my favourite of the four. Peter Purves and Jean Marsh reprise Steven and Sara, maroon in London in the 1950s (distant past for both) where they are taken in by a family of recently arrived Jamaican immigrants (played by Ram John Holder, Sara Powell and Damian Lynch). But they are not the only recent arrivals to worry about, and the bleak and constrained docklands become the place of conflict among humans and between humans and something else. Holder's total confidence is particularly engaging.

So, in general thumbs up, with reservations about the politics of the second of these.

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Monday reading

Current
Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy
A Tangle Of Fates, by Leslie Ann Moore
Gone With The Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Last books finished
Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen, by Douglas Adams and James Goss

Next books
He, She and It, by Marge Piercy
The Universe Between, by Alan E Nourse
Toast, by Charles Stross

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Quoth the Raven, by Jane Haddam

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Now she looked down at the piles of pink message slips spread out across her desk and sighed. Back then, it had never occurred to her to do the obvious and apply for admission. Half a dozen students in her own high-school graduating class had been taken on as commuters, all tuition paid by the Crockett Memorial Valley Scholarship Fund. Maybe it was the fact that those students had all been from the other side of town, where houses were neat and conscientiously painted and fathers were present and meticulously sober, that had made her believe, unconsciously, that she was not qualified to be among them. Maybe it was just that, in that time and in that place, "secretary" was the job most women were taught to aspire to. Either that, or "teacher." Miss Maryanne Veer had never suffered from the delusion that she had the talent to be a teacher.
I've tried two other books in this series of murder mysteries featuring retired Armenian-American FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, and neither quite gelled for me, but I must say this worked very well - a campus mystery, where the traditionally low stakes of academic politics have escalated to murder. The mystery is carefully laid out and worked through. I did raise an eyebrow at the sexual politics of the student lifestyle, which seemed to me closer to the 1950s than the 1990s when the book is set, but perhaps I don't know enough about Pennsylvania. Anyway, the best Haddam I've read so far; try it if you like.

This was the non genre fiction book which had lingered longest on my shelves. Next on that list is Baptism in Blood, by the same author, but I'm going to hold off on reviewing it until I have finished all the books I acquired in 2010.

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Some time this year, Irish voters will have a chance to repeal Article 40.3.3° of the Irish Constitution, inserted by referendum in 1983. It reads:
The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.
This embedded a ban on abortion into the Irish constitution. Many on both sides of the debate, including the Catholic Church, assert that this ban is in line with traditional Christian teaching, particularly in Ireland. The word “medieval” is sometimes used on the pro-choice side.

This is very unfair to the medieval Irish.

A brilliant 2012 article by Maeve Callan of Simpson College, Indiana, “Of Vanishing Fetuses and Maidens Made-Again: Abortion, Restored Virginity, and Similar Scenarios in Medieval Irish Hagiography and Penitentials.” (Journal of the History of Sexuality vol 21 pages 282-96 - summarised here, but the whole thing is worth a read) recounts the records of four medieval Irish saints who miraculously “cured” unwanted pregnancies, one of them being no less than St Brigid of Kildare. Prof. Callan also transcribes the medieval Irish recommendations of what penance to impose on a woman who confesses to abortion - in one text, less than half the penance for carrying a child to full term and giving birth; for another, it is half the penance imposed on a man who has extramarital sex. Basically, for the medieval Irish church, God might well be on the side of a woman who wanted to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.

I have come on a significant personal journey on this issue. I was educated in the Catholic system in Belfast, and accepted the doctrine which we were taught (and had to regurgitate for our compulsory O-level in R.E.): that human life begins at conception and abortion is therefore always wrong. It seemed logically coherent on its own terms. As an undergraduate I campaigned for David Alton’s bill which would have reduced the term limits for abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, to the extent of visiting Parliament as part of a mass (unsuccessful) lobby. I actually had to withdraw from a spot in a national Lib Dem student slate in 1989 when it became clear that my record on the issue would be a problem. (My replacement, ironically enough, was a younger chap called Tim Farron; I wonder what happened to him?)

But despite my public commitment, I became troubled by two things. The first was that although back then (and until not all that many years ago) I counted myself as a practicing Catholic, my research into the history of the Church’s position on the issue revealed some serious inconsistencies. The logical coherence that I had valued was not there. Maeve Callan’s research was not yet available, but it was perfectly clear that, for instance, St Augustine condemned early-stage abortion as equally (but no more) sinful than sex outside marriage, or marital sex using contraception, both of those being activities which he strongly opposed but that I have enjoyed without, I like to think, any lasting moral harm. The Catholic Church’s dogmatic firmness that full human life begins at conception dates only from 1869, and to assert now (as many pro-lifers do) that it goes back to the earliest times of Christianity is simple dishonesty about theological history. The early picture is murky, as is the picture from Classical times. I don’t go all the way with those who see Numbers 5:11-31 as a text allowing the local priest to terminate an embarrassing pregnancy by magic ritual, but I can see their point. (Going a lot further back, the origin of pregnancy itself is murkier still.)

The second thing that troubled me, frankly, was that although some of my closest friends were also pro-life, many of the other pro-life activists who I dealt with were simply on a completely different political wavelength to me in many other respects, and in addition some of them were not very nice people at all; meanwhile most of the people who I generally had more in common with politically and personally were also pro-choice. (The National Union of Students had a joke: “How many pro-lifers does I take to change a lightbulb?” “The lightbulb may not be working, but I’m going to ignore that and tell you about a much more important issue.”) I have never minded being a maverick, but I started looking around and wondering if it was them or if it was me, and I came to the conclusion that it was quite probably me. I strongly relate to this moving account by an evangelical American former pro-lifer of her growing awareness that the supposedly "pro-life" movement was in reality anything but. (See also U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan.)

So I underwent a quiet change of mind, with no particular need to speak out on it one way or the other. Since the proposition that full human life begins at conception is not tenable, all we are left with is the question of where and when to draw the line, which is obviously a matter for legislation and not the constitution. The issue was not raised once as an issue when I last stood for public election, in 1996, and I doubt that I will ever stand for election again. On the other hand it became increasingly clear to me that a healthy society is a society where everyone is able to make free choices about how they shall live: most fundamentally, whether and how to have children. The State should in general stay out of people’s decisions about fertility, except in so far as it prevents abuse and maximises the available options. Talking to people who have directly made the decision themselves one way or the other reinforced my change of mind.

Many years on, becoming a parent has confirmed my scepticism of the pro-life agenda. I love both of my daughters very dearly. But life with them has not always been easy. I would not condemn any prospective parent who had the opportunity to avoid such an experience of parenthood, and took it. (See also this piece on the Eighth Amendment debate by the father of a girl with Down Syndrome.) This is a very different issue from fatal fetal abnormality, of course, an issue which in my view unhelpfully restricts the discussion even though it is the least defensible aspect of the Irish situation. We need to emphasise the right to choose parenthood positively, a point made quietly but well by Rachel.

Even more so when I consider the awful prospect that either of my daughters might become pregnant, which could only come about as a result of molestation; both are physically mature, but neither is remotely capable of consent. I have no doubt at all that we would exercise our legal authority to have such a pregnancy terminated. A consistent pro-lifer would have to argue that our potential grandchild should not have to pay the penalty of its father's crime or its mother's incapacity. Such arguments frankly do not interest me in the slightest.

Coming back to Ireland, it’s clear that on its own terms the Eighth Amendment has failed. (And I could write a lot more about the crazy times of the 1983 referendum, the Kerry Babies and Ann Lovett, but that will have to wait.) Thousands of Irish women every year still go to England, or to other countries, or get pills mailed to them, to terminate their pregnancies. The defenders of the Eighth Amendment seem to have little to say about that. If the intention was truly to stop abortions from happening, the effect has been to ensure that unwanted pregnancies are restricted to women without the necessary resources to end them. (A similar point is made in this piece by a Texas woman who found Texas had placed so many obstacles in the way of getting a legal and necessary abortion that she had to go to another state.) And, of course, another effect of the Eighth Amendment is that medical care for women fails them because necessary abortions are banned, most notoriously and fatally in the case of Savita Halappanavar.

In four Irish referendums since 1983, two attempts to strengthen the ban by excluding the threat of suicide have been rejected by voters (in 1992 and 2002) while two proposals to recognise reality by formally permitting women to travel abroad for abortions and to access relevant information have been approved (both in 1992). Really it is ridiculous, in any field of policy, for this level of fine detail of women’s rights to be regulated by the blunt instruments of constitutional amendment and referendum.

Ireland now faces another vote on abortion. The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has committed to holding another referendum. A specially convened Citizens’ Assembly recommended last June that Article 40.3.3° be replaced by a new text explicitly allowing for legislation on abortion. The parliamentary committee charged with the subject last month recommended the straight repeal of Article 40.3.3° without any new text (rightly so; any new text will quickly become a traumatic litigation playground). High profile politicians including opposition leader Micheal Martin and government MEP Brian Hayes have endorsed the straight repeal option. The tide appears to be turning.

And who knows, maybe it will even reach Northern Ireland next?

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