July 5th, 2010


July Books 2) Hope-In-The-Mist, by Michael Swanwick

This short book (100 pages, 113 including front matter) is one of those made available to Hugo voters electronically because of its presence on the shortlist for Best Related Work. This prompted me also to read Hope Mirrlees' classic, Lud-In-The-Mist, last month; and for anyone whose mind was boggled by Mirrlees' novel, Swanwick's biography and explanatory material fills in a lot of gaps.

Hope Mirrlees was born in 1887 into a wealthy family, and hung around the fringes of the Bloomsbury group; names like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot pepper the pages of Swanwick's biography. Her masterpiece came out in 1926 (though she had previously published an epic poem about Paris in 1918), and she lived with the famous classical scholar Jane Harrison from 1913 to 1928. Swanwick concludes that she was, in a sense, cursed by family wealth; had she needed to scape a living after Harrison's death, she might have produced more works of genius, but as it was she could afford to sit back and produce a self-indulgent biography of Sir Robert Cotton, and do nothing much else for the next fifty years. She isn't a sad figure, but we readers are hungry for more.

Reading Lud-In-The-Mist, I did wonder about its influence on Neil Gaiman; he writes a preface here which is absolutely explicit about the importance of the book to his own view of fantasy. It's still not all that well known a book; Swanwick quotes this analogy:
Elizabeth Hand has compared Mirrlees to the Velvet Underground, of whose first album it has often been said that it sold only a hundred copies but everyone who bought one went on to start a band.
Unlike the Velvet Underground, however, Mirrlees fell silent as a writer after Lud-In-The-Mist (also it was her third novel, coming after two much less impressive efforts). Literary one-shot wonders (one thinks also of Walter M. Miller, Daniel Keyes, and I'm sure you can think of many others) are in a sense more fascinating than those writers who buckle down and churn out a decent output for most of their career; partly because we feel sorry to have missed the unwritten sequels, but I think also because those of us who are not literary giants can still have the sneaking hope that one year we too might produce an unexpected masterpiece out of nowhere.

Swanwick's book includes an 18-page "Lexicon of Lud", explaining the meanings behind the names of the characters, places and species of the town, which helped a lot of things fall into place for me (and which I hope some enterprising future publsher will bind with Lud-In-The-Mist where it belongs). Poor marks, however, for the use of endnotes rather than footnotes. It always annoys me when relevant information is hidden at the end, far from the paragraphs to which it relates. It is even more irritating when reading a PDF version on a screen, particularly since the footnotes themselves are rather interesting; but their relationship to the text is destroyed by presenting them in this way.

July Books 3) The Bloody Sunday Report, Volume II

This second volume is mercifully shorter than the first, a mere 348 numbered pages. It takes us right up to the point where Support Company have been deployed into the Bogside, contrary to the orders given to Colonel Wilford; and incidentally exposes his and his superior officers' "inaccurate and misleading information" on precisely what those orders were.

Chapters 10 and 11 are fairly brief geographical introductions, with lots of maps which did not survive transfer to my Blackberry so I read them online.

Chapter 12 starts off in much the same way, with detailed descriptions and maps showing where various bits of the army were stationed on 30 January. It then diverts into a somewhat prolonged discussion of the question of at what stage in the afternoon Colonel Wilford decided not to send soldiers in across a wall beside a Presbyterian church, but instead through one of the army's barriers; the Inquiry goes to some lengths to establish that this was a last-minute decision, despite Wilford's own testimony to the contrary. It becomes clear in Chapter 20 that this is to establish the clear fact that Wilford had not sought approval to deploy in that way, and could not have sought approval largely because he had not thought of it as early in the afternoon as he later claimed to have done.

Chapters 13 and 14 deal with the organisation and early stages of the march from the organisers' point of view. There were about 250 stewards for about 10-15,000 people; I don't know, and the tribunal doesn't express a view, as to whether that is too few, enough, or too many. The stewards were organised by a member of the Official IRA; the flatbed truck at the head of the march was being driven by a Provo. It hardly matters anyway. The organisers (who were not themselves in either branch of the IRA) decided at a fairly late stage to march to Free Derry Corner rather than continue the original plan to end at Guildhall Square when it became clear that the security forces were serious about blocking the route.

This decision was not communicated to everyone on the march, and Collapse ) it is interesting that Saville concludes that three out of three soldiers who fired rubber bullets drastically exaggerated how many they had fired.

This all matters because of what happened in the few seconds described in Chapter 18, the first actual firing and injuries on the day. At 66 pages, this is the second longest chapter in the 348 numbered pages of Volume 2. Perhaps we see now a bit more clearly why Saville established his analytical techniques from the outset; he ends up disagreeing with Damien Donaghey (the surviving victim) and also with Corporal A and Private B, who certainly fired the shots that injured Donaghey and John Johnston, who died of unrelated causes several months later having made a full recovery from his gunshot wounds, but whose evidence, given almost four decades ago, is found to be more reliable than any of the three living principals in the incident. Basically Saville's finding is that the soldiers fired on Donaghey, then aged 15, at around 1355 because they thought, incorrectly, that he was about to throw a nail-bomb (though he had certainly been throwing stones); four or five shots were fired, of which only one or two hit anyone.

Chapter 19 looks at Collapse )

Chapter 20 Collapse )

Chapter 21, ending Volume II, is a two-page reminder of the geographical approach taken by Saville and his colleagues to the report.

I commented in my write-up of Volume I that I felt McLellan was given too easy a time by Saville, that he should have been clearer with Wilford about the orders. My opinion of McLellan's actions has been changed both for better and for worse. For better, in that he was not to know that he was being given incomplete and inaccurate information by Wilford on the day, which as Saville speculates might well have led him to call off the operation had he had the complete picture. But for the worse, in that his story afterwards was clearly constructed to protect the army and obscure the truth.

Wilford's responsibility is clear. He failed to communicate adequately either with his superiors or with his own troops, in the hopes of staging a spectaularly successful arrest operation in the Bogside to show the softies who normally patrolled Derry how it should be done, and as a direct result 14 people died.

I have been informed, by someone who has actually seen them, that Saville commissioned a number of animated three-dimensional reconstructions of events on Bloody Sunday, which are circulating among privileged circles on DVD. I hope that these too will be published for the sake of transparency.

Volume I | Volume II | Volume III | Volume IV | Volume V | Volume VI | Volume VII | Volume VIII | Volume IX | Volume X and conclusions