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August 3rd, 2009

Another classic reread for me. It is as good as I remembered; I had forgotten just how much of the book is the set-up for the trial scene, which is actually only a fairly short chapter. It is a brilliant and brutal depiction of childhood in rural Alabama in the 1930s, when your father is the town's most visible liberal, and of the murder of a black man by racism.

I am bothered, though, about the complacency of the ending. Actually, Atticus Finch's morality suffers a serious defeat. Boo Radley is spared his day in court, for a crime which he committed but would certainly have been acquitted of; totally the opposite fate to Tom Robinson's. Yet I am left uncomfortably feeling that we are expected to consider this a happy ending. And what of the Ewell family, now fatherless and denied justice as they denied it to the Robinsons? Nobody wins, and I think the last chapter needed a bit more edge to be true to the rest of the book.
An excellent merging of numerous MacLeod themes, shaken and stirred to produce a thought-provoking result. The book is set in a relatively near-future independent Scotland, after the victory of secularism against religion throughout the English-speaking world, but is nothing like as polemical as that summary might make it sound; it is told from the point of view of the policeman investigating the murder of a Catholic priest, a crime which leads him into the underground world of the surviving Christian churches and the existential and political problems of intelligent robots, built for a war which is now over. (In general, I hate cute anthromorphic robots, but these are not cute and only optionally anthroporphic, and I was entirely satisfied by their psychology.) I wished the ending had been unpacked a bit, but I also know that MacLeod sometimes expects a bit of brain-work from his readers.

Although this is a stand-alone book, and so is MacLeod's forthcoming The Restoration Game, astute readers will note that both feature U.S. intelligence, computer games, and New Zealand, though to differing extents.
A slightly odd Who novel, a bit out of joint with itself: the Fourth Doctor, travelling companionless, meets with Nyssa, years after she has left Terminus, and sets off to track down a time anomaly centred around Roger Bacon in the year 1278. Darvill-Evans (who of course was Rebecca Levene's boss at Virgin when they were publishing the New and Missing Adventures) has worked hard, perhaps a little too hard, at the medieval Oxford setting, and explains how and why in an interesting afterword to the book. It is a very good study of Nyssa as tragic heroine, a line taken also in a couple of the better Big Finish audios; the Doctor / Bacon exchanges are quite fun as well. But the plot is a thin compilation of Brother Cadfael and Inspector Morse, with a pinch of alien menace not very satisfactorily explained. Still, an interestingly different take on where a Who novel can go and a moderate success.
One of those classics which I'd never quite got around to reading. It tends to get claimed as sf because it is set in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic nuclear war (in 1961, started by Albania nuking Naples believe it or not). But in fact it is a very middle-class story about people dying: facing up to their inevitable death from radiation poisoning, as the deadly dust gradually makes its way south to Melbourne. (Would be interested to hear from John Wyndham experts if they consider this as a "cosy catastrophe" novel.)

Many years ago I had read what was purportedly a slightly risqué extract from this novel (about a woman "risking her assets" by cooking stir fries while topless). I am disappointed to report that there is no such passage in the book.

And knowing Shute as I now do, that's not very surprising. There is dignity and decency here rather than passion. The love affair which partly drives the narrative is determinedly not consummated; one of its protagonists, the last American military commander on earth, decides not to poison himself as the others all do, but to go down with his ship. In places the narrative voice is so sparse that it is skeletal. It is almost a novel without suspense, since there is no mystery about whether or not the characters will survive.

But in the end, the theme of encroaching death is one that we all have to deal with individually sooner or later. Shute is one of the rare writers to have applied it to a whole group of people - the last of humanity - and carried out the thought experiment as to how people like him (and I suppose people rather like me) would react. And the end comes with a dramatic understatedness, true to the epigraph from T.S. Eliot (which supplies also the eponymous beach):
    In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river ...

    This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
A few years back, the first story in this collection, "Singing My Sister Down" (probably the most moving story ever to be written about a ritual execution) got a lot of attention and award nominations (sadly didn't win as many as it should have). It is of a piece with the other stories in the book, a set of pieces of lyrical magical realism, from the point of view of outsiders and unheard voices, all rather thrilling and engaging.

It was a bit unfortunate for Nevil Shute that I was doing this as an accidental paired reading with On The Beach; they share a largely Australian background, but Lanagan's prose is much more profound. (I don't recommend that anyone else try repeating the experiment.)
The ARK research centre, with which I have the honour to be loosely associated, does an annual opinion survey of all 16-year-olds in Northern Ireland, and this book pulls together expert essays on some of the findings from the poll (along with a prize-winning essay about teenage life from one of the respondents). Topics addressed include perceptions of sectarianism, poverty, mental health and the structure of schooling, but the two standout chapters for me were on bullying, by Ruth Sinclair of the National Children's Bureau, and sex education, by Simon Blake of the Brook Advisory Clinic.

While all schools claim to be committed to preventing bullying, very few have convinced their pupils that they are serious. Sinclair broadens out the discussion into examining the rather weak and inconsistent attitude of most Northern Irish schools to pupil participation. The evidence is thin but compelling: those schools which are able to reassure pupils that something will be done about bullying are also those with an active pupil council - a concept that was simply unthought of in my day, in my religious-controlled grammar school.

Likewise the concept of anything meaningful in the way of sex education - the only practical information that we got at school about contraception was a samizdat sheet of diagrams circulated by one of the more liberal teachers, not much use for those like me who weren't in the relevant class. Of course, like most kids, I had my own sources of information, but my school failed - and I am sure that most Northern Irish schools failed and still fail - to provide much in the way of useful education about sexuality, preferring instead to reflect on the contents of letters of the Conference of Bishops (several of whom, it turns out, also had other sources of information).

Blake's analysis, augmented by observations by one of his Belfast-based colleagues, is slightly weakened by the fact that they are activists as well, but the figures speak for themselves. Indeed, if anything Blake is too kind; he states that there is little to choose between the various schooling systems with regard to sex education, citing figures which make it quite clear that in fact it is Catholic pupils who are most likely to feel underinformed.

Anyway, it's a nice little book which shows how academic research can become a building block in the wider social policy debate.

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