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Twenty days of lockdown

Ten days since my previous update, a briefer set of notes on what has been happening.

First off, I had a bad bug last week - I had actually had an upset stomach a few days previously, and thought I had recovered, but then started a course of antibiotics on Monday evening and perhaps that over-triggered the body defences; at any rate, I slept very badly on Tuesday night and woke on Wednesday knowing I was not getting out of bed that day. On Thursday I felt even worse and of course worried that I was coming down with the Big Rona; but I called our GP who pointed out to me that I had no trouble breathing and no temperature, and more importantly neither Anne nor F was showing any symptoms at all, so it was just one of those things. I stayed in bed on Friday as well and was better at the weekend. Read quite a lot on Wednesday and Friday, didn't have the energy for it on Thursday but watched a classic film in bed, in stages. Back at work today with a mountain of backlog, of course.

More positively, we've been able to Skype with little U every couple of days, and she now understands what is going on - at first she obviously thought that she was seeing a passive video, but she eventually realised that it was "real". (We get regular updates on B, who is fine, but there is no point in tryingto Skype with her.) When we talk to U, it's with my iPad held at arm's length, so it can get a bit crowded at our end of the call. You will see that we have been joined by Upsy Daisy and Igglepiggle.

I am glad to say that the Big Rona has yet to hit my own immediate circle. The former prime minister of Somalia, who I met a few years ago, sadly succumbed to it; we have also lost the great Mhamed Khadad, but as far as I know it wasn't Coronavirus that got him. I have been fortunate; I know from Facebook and Twitter that a number of my friends have had sadder experiences. I have had no update on ex-president Ahtisaari, but another friend in his 70s who had been hospitalised in Sweden has been released and is still recovering at home.

Belgium appears to be at or even slightly past the peak, at least of this round. Today the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care decreased for the first time since the crisis started, and the expectation is that the death rate (which sadly reached another maximum today) should start to fall in a week. Whether this means we can start going back to business on 19 April is another matter. I think it's more likely that we will be asked to tough it out until 3 May, or perhaps have a partial relaxation in the last ten days of this month.

The situation in the USA continues to horrify me. I know, I know, states' rights and all that; it simply means that there are 50+ different outbreaks which are simply not being co-ordinated, with no national leadership and the highest daily death rate of anywhere as of current writing. But the crazy thinig is that the objective evidence of Trump's failure to deal with the issue appears to have no effect on the internal narrative - in fact, his approval rating seems to be higher than at any time since January 2017. Cause for despair.

Meanwhile, when I have not been ill I have found it easy enough to disappear into the spare room to do Werk and then emerge at the end of the day. Next weekend will be a long one again - remember Easter? My plan to do more videos about the neighbourhood was hit by illness last week, but I hope to revive it. We are fortunate enough to live near the woods, and get out often enough.

Stay well, everyone!

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November 2005 books

November 2005 was a heavy month for travel. I started in Montenegro, went from there for Vienna and then on to Kyiv, my first ever visit to Ukraine (I enjoyed visiting the Bulgakov house and the Scythian gold exhibition at the Museum of National Historical Treasures); and then at the end of the month I went to Berlin and from there to New York. I also found time for an informational interview with my current employers; I thought it went rather well, but it was almost eight and a half years before they got back to me!

Back at home, the local riding school put on a show of small pets including rabbits. One of the rabbits, a Flemish Giant, was very big indeed.

With all that travel, I read quite a lot of books in November 2005, comparable to one of the better months of recent years.

Non-fiction 3 (YTD 39)
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, by Samuel R. Delany
Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi with Tahl Raz
Up Through an Empty House of Stars: Reviews and Essays 1980-2002, by David Langford

Non-genre 1 (YTD 9)
The Days of the Consuls/Bosnian Chronicle/Travnik Chronicle, by Ivo Andrić

sf 10 (YTD 75)
Moving Mars, by Greg Bear
Olympos, by Dan Simmons
A Feast for Crows, by George R.R. Martin
Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett
Smoke and Mirrors, by Neil Gaiman
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Darkness That Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker
Counting Heads, by David Marusek

Doctor Who 2 (YTD 2)
Genocide, by Paul Leonard
The Dying Days, by Lance Parkin

Comics 1 (YTD 7)
Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, by Joe Sacco

7,200 pages (YTD 43,900)
2/17 by women (YTD 28/133)
1/17 by PoC (YTD 4/133)

Links above to my reviews, below to Amazon.

Best books of the month were Le Guin's The Wind's Twelve Quarters, a welcome reread, which you can get here; and Andrić's Bosnian Chronicle/Travnik Chronicle/The Days of the Consuls, which you can get here. Massively underwhelmed by Dan Simmons' Olympos, but you can get it here if you want.


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A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1972. It was up against two other films, The Andromeda Strain and THX 1138; a Firesign Theatre LP, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus; and "L.A. 2017", an sfnal episode of the non-sf TV series The Name of the Game, directed by a very young Steven Spielberg and written by veteran Philip Wylie. Up to now, it had been rather rare for films to win the BDP Hugo - A Clockwork Orange was only the fourth to get it after the award was inaugurated in 1958. The category was simply skipped in 1964 and 1966, voters chose No Award in 1959, 1963 and 1974, it went to The Twilight Zone in 1960, 1961 and 1963 and to Star Trek in 1967 and 1968, and in 1970 of course it was won by the real-life moon landings of 1969. The three previous films to have won were The Incredible Shrinking Man, Dr Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, giving Stanley Kubrick two out of three; A Clockwork Orange makes it three out of four. From here on, the dynamic changed and films won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation every year until 1993, with one exception when the voters chose No Award. So that's going to slow down my film-watching project, especially once I start counting the Nebula winners as well.

IMDB users rank A Clockwork Orange as the best film of 1971 on both of their systems, with that year's Oscar winner, The French Connection, ranked 4th and 8th respectively. I think it is better than any of the (few) other 1971 films that I have seen. I hadn't seen it before, but took advantage of a day last week when I felt too porly even to read (don't worry, not the Big Rona, just a stomach bug that knocked me out) and watched it in bed.

As you're probably aware, it's a brutal film, with two rapes and some nasty physical violence and torture. I won't go into gruesome detail. It's the story of Alex, a youth in the very near future, who likes doing damage to people and property with his friends. He is caught, jailed, and subjected to horrible brainwashing in order to condition him to be repulsed by sex and violence, and also by Beethoven, previously his favourite composer. When he gets out he finds himself a political football, torn between those who have abused him and those he has abused. The film is fantastically made, portraying a totally convincing dystopian environment with an eerie soundtrack combining classics and Moog synthesiser versions of the same. The visuals are striking and memorable.

There are also quite a lot of breasts. The central character is deeply misogynist, living in a sexist society, and though we do in fact see his penis at one point, the topless and naked women and depictions of women are what stick in the mind. Almost all of the sex (apart from the final cowboy scene) is male-dominant missionary, including the threesome with the girls from the record shop. A particularly telling moment is the press conference at the end, in which there are only two women in the crowd of journalists and photographers, both stuck at the back. This may be a film of genius, but it is not exactly a feminist work.

The whole thing is carried by Malcolm McDowell as Alex, combining menace, partial self-awareness, and a weird sort of innocence as the grownups start doing things to him in return for his crimes. I had only seen a few of his later films, but it's clear why he plays such good villains, right from the start of his career.

His gang of droogs, to my surprise, include Warren Clarke, decades before he became a national treasure, second from the left.

On the far left is James Marcus, who had two minor roles in Doctor Who: in Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974) he was a medieval peasant brought forward to modern times, and in Underworld (1978) he was the nasty security officer Rask. Sorry, not brilliant pictures in either case.

Two other roles that really jumped out at me, from actors who I do not remember seeing before but both seemed to slip into it tremendously comfortably: Anthony Sharp as the evil Minister, and more briefly Barry Cookson as Dr Alcott who admits Alex to the Ludovico Centre.

We have only one returning actor from a past Oscar winner, Michael Bates who is the chief prison guard here after being Monty in last year's Patton.

And we have one returnee from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the previous film to win the Hugo (also by Kubrick) - Margaret Tyzack, who is the unnamed woman conspirator here and was the Russian scientist Elena who Heywood Floyd meets in orbit.:

Apart from John Marcus, there are a number of crossover Doctor Who appearances. Virginia Weatherall is the sexual temptress for Alex's post-treatment test; back in 1963 she was Dyoni in the story now known as The Daleks.

Godfrey Quigley is the prison chaplain here; in the second Peter Cushing movie (1966), he was the disabled scientist Dortmun.

Neil Wilson, who checks Alex into prison, was a hairier Seeley in Spearhead from Space the previous year (1970):

A couple of years later, John J. Carey, one of the policemen who beats Alex up, became Bloodaxe in The Time Warrior (1974), also with a lot more hair.

Further on again, Adrienne Corri, one of the gang's victims, whose face we don't really get a good shot of here, was to be Mena in The Leisure Hive (1980):

Margaret Tyzack's co-conspirator is played by John Savident, who is briefly seen as the Squire in The Visitation (1982) but also had a couple of roles in Blake's 7.

And yes, sitting with him in the Clockwork Orange shot is David Prowse, later the Green Cross Man and the body of Darth Vader.

Finally in terms of Who, and with the biggest time gap, future enfant terrible Steven Berkoff is the other policeman who beats Alex up, and four decades later was the evil Shakri in The Power of Three (2012).

A couple of notes from other fandoms. The nurse who is interrupted while having sex when Alex wakes from his coma is none other than Carol Drinkwater, who achieved fame a few years later as Helen Herriot in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. Unfortunately I couldn't get a clip from the film that shows her face as clearly as her breasts, so you'll just have to imagine it. And a rare crossover with the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Gaye Brown, the sophisto woman who sings in the milk bar, is one of the Transylvanians.

I don't think I'll rush to watch this again, but I am very glad to have ticked this box of my cinematic education.

The book is very short, but the paragraphs are long; here is the second one from the third chapter:
We got out at Center and walked slow back to the Korova Milkbar, all going yawwwww a malenky bit and exhibiting to moon and star and lamplight our back fillings, because we were still only growing malchicks and had school in the daytime, and when we got into the Korova we found it fuller than when we’d left earlier on. But the chelloveck that had been burbling away, in the land, on white and synthemesc or whatever, was still on at it, going: ‘Urchins of deadcast in the way-ho-hay glill platonic time weatherborn.’ It was probable that this was his third or fourth lot that evening, for he had that pale inhuman look, like he’d become a thing, and like his litso was really a piece of chalk carved. Really, if he wanted to spend so long in the land, he should have gone into one of the private cubies at the back and not stayed in the big mesto, because here some of the malchickies would filly about with him a malenky bit, though not too much because there were powerful bruiseboys hidden away in the old Korova who could stop any riot. Anyway, Dim squeezed in next to this veck and, with his big clown’s yawp that showed his hanging grape, he stabbed this veck’s foot with his own large filthy sabog. But the veck, my brothers, heard nought, being now all above the body.
When I first read it in 2006, I wrote:
I was complaining a few days ago about authors who make you work hard to read their fiction, and how I expect to be adequately rewarded. With A Clockwork Orange I do feel adequately rewarded. It's a very short novel about the violence of youth, based a little I guess on the famous battles between mods and rockers of the 1960s. But Burgess manages to lift it into the realm of the universal by two straightforward but brilliantly executed gimmicks.

The first of these, of course, is the nadsat used by Alex and his friends. Rather than use contemporary teenage slang, Burgess invented his own. My Russian is pretty vestigial but sufficient to get through most of the book without worrying too much - in particular I think he's managed to catch a few genuine Russian nuances and insert them subversively into English, like chelloveck, which basically means "chap", from человек. Another good bit of wordcrafting is tolchock, which is originally толчок, the Russian noun for "shove", but in Burgess becomes either a sustained push or a sudden blow, as when Alex and friends are disposing of a stolen car in the canal: "we got out and, the brakes off, all four tolchocked it to the edge of the filthy water that was like treacle mixed with human hole products, then one good horrorshow tolchock and in she went." I've heard people in Ireland used the word "feck" as a verb with similar meaning. And horrorshow (ie хорошо) for "good" is a lovely riff on "wicked". (There were a lot of other nice touches; I'll just mention oddy-knocky for одинокий, "lonesome".)

The second is his choice of classical music as Alex's personal fixation. Actually I rather get the impression that Alex is unusual even among his peers in his preference. The two girls he lures home are much more into "pathetic pop-discs", and he doesn't listen to music with his friends. (No mention of going to actual live musical performances at all - though there are "worldcasts" where everyone gets to watch the same entertainment around the world, closer to Edward Bellamy than Bob Geldof I think.) However, the fact that the music Alex listens to is (mostly) already known by the general reader helps us to get through the barrier created by the language, and his description of why he likes Beethoven's Ninth is something anyone else who likes it can relate to.

After all that, the book itself? Plot is easy to summarise: Alex is a very nasty and violent boy; he is imprisoned and subjected to mind control which removes his ability to do evil; after public protest the process is reversed; but he finds that he is growing up anyway. The use of nadsat slang actually makes the descriptions of violence in the early part of the book more bearable than it would be if graphically expressed in standard English. The violence of youth is, of course, universal.

Libertarians may jump with glee on the sinister role of the State in all this, the brutal millicents/милиции, but I think the involvement of the State is almost incidental; Burgess' point is about redemption, and that it must come from within, cannot be imposed from outside. In the last chapter Alex realises this for himself, bumping into his old friend Pete who is now married, and reflecting that "I am not young, not no longer, oh no. Alex like groweth up, yes." According to Blake Morrison in the introduction of my Penguin edition, the last chapter was actually deleted from the first American version of the book as the publishers felt it was too upbeat (!). Bizarre.

Anyway, a fascinating, horrible and well-constructed book.
Kubrick did not realise that there was a last chapter, so the film ends on a less upbeat note than the book (which has Alex achieving at least a partial redemption). Apart from that, it really does the book justice - some details are changed to make a more coherent screenplay, but in fact the three sections of the book each are treated in about a third of the film's length. Sometimes the movie can do a book favours by cutting bits out (eg Oliver!), but with a short intense book like A Clockwork Orange, it made sense to take what was there and lift almost all of it into a new dimension.

You can get the film here and the book here. Next film on my list is The French Connection, which won the Oscar for this year; the next Hugo winner is Slaughterhouse-Five.

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Strategic Europe, ed. Jan Techau

Second paragraph of third essay (John Kornblum, "Six Vignettes about Europe"):
2. In today's Europe, as Marshall McLuhan put it: "the medium is the message." Raised on Europe's mantra of peace and stability, many Europeans actually feel a sense of superiority from the success of what they see as their innovative "peace policy." They believe that their multilateral institution-building has "erased the threat of war forever," and that this method can be applied across the globe. Even the euro was sold not as a tool for a dynamic financial future but as guarantee that Europe would never fight another war.
One of the advantages of a job like mine is that I often get exposed to top-level thinking about What Is Really Going On; one of the disadvantages of my lifestyle is that it often takes years to get around to reading analysis that I have picked up along the way. Jan Techau was the first director of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; his successor, Tomáš Valášek, just got elected president of the Slovak parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee; and the new director, my good friend Rosa Balfour, took over this week. This book is the fruit of one of Jan Techau's early initiatives in the job, in 2011; he got a bunch of leading European thinkers to write short pieces on the theme "Time for Strategic Europe" for the Carnegie website, and then collected them in this book, published in 2012 and acquired by me then, but unread until now.

It's weird to look back a mere eight years and see what signals were seen and which were missed even by people who are generally good at this sort of thing. Brexit simply isn't mentioned. The threat of populism more generally is hinted at, but not in any very analytical way. The 2014 Ukraine crisis was unimagined. The Arab Spring was beginning to unfold, but the EU's failure to respond to it positively was not foreseen. (There is one particularly optimistic piece on that.)

One positive point was also not foreseen - the EU's involvement with the Iran nuclear deal, however shortlived that may turn out to be.

Back in 2011, of course, the real problem with EU external policy was a widespread concern about the performance of Catherine Ashton, the first High Representative under the Lisbon Treaty. It's telling that her name doesn't appear anywhere in the book either. There are some reflections on institutional tinkering and making the most of the new structures, but none of them really gets to the meat of the question.

Fundamentally, the reason the EU doesn't collectively pack more of a foreign policy punch is because member states have been reluctant to let it (contra the Brexiteer myth of the nascent EU army). It would have been interesting to explore why this was the case, and what arguments could be used to get Berlin and Paris in particular, but also Warsaw, Madrid, Rome and The Hague, not to mention the easterners, to let the shared institutions accrue more authority; or alternatively, to be realistic about the limits of what can be achieved.

Anyway, it'a always worth thinking about these things, and right or wrong there is a lot of informed comment in this book. You can get it for free here. Carnegie still maintains a Strategic Europe blog.

This was the shortest book on my unread shelf of those I acquired in 2012. Next on that list is A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese Dialogue 2000-2003, by Philip Winter.

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Thursday reading

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Last books finished
(A long week, including the last two days in bed, and some very short books)
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith - did not finish
The Winged Man, by E. Mayne Hull
Excession, by Iain M. Banks
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine
Blake’s 7 Annual 1979
Blake’s 7 Annual 1980
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djélì Clark
Blake’s 7 Annual 1981
The Wind on the Moon, by Eric Linklater
Minor Mage, by T. Kingfisher
Prophet of Bones, by Ted Kosmatka
The Wicked King, by Holly Black

Next books
Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson
The Moomins and the Great Flood, by Tove Jansson