Winter is coming

Got an email from Fios at the end of June, telling us that, as thanks for being such valued customers, they’re giving us HBO for free for three months.  (No idea why we should be such highly valued customers.  We’ve only been Fios customers for three months.)

Of course, what I immediately did was download the HBO Go app to the Playstation and our Fire TV sticks, and for the past month I’ve been binging on as many episodes of HBO shows as I can.  I’ve finished all of Game of Thrones (so far) and am about two thirds of the way through Boardwalk Empire.  Next up will be Deadwood, then I’ll be moving on to the shows that have a lot fewer episodes, like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and Parade’s End.

(Incidentally I don’t recommend mainlining episodes of Game of Thrones, though it’s a fine show.  Quite apart from that da-da-DA-da, da-da-DA-da, da-da-DAAA rattling through my skull like it was the rhythm from the Archangel Network, there was also the fact that I pretty much could no longer interact with a woman without picturing her naked, and anytime I got into a dispute with someone, I developed the urge to win it by surprisingly and dramatically cutting their throat.)

Boardwalk Empire came at just the right time for me, though.  After I finished Game of Thrones we went off for a weekend road trip to Philadelphia, Valley Forge, Hershey Park and Harpers Ferry.  It involved a whole lot of history and was a whole lot of fun, but it really got me thinking again about my alternate histories set in colonial and Revolutionary America.  Those are topics that I really love but that I want to avoid writing about because I really don’t think they’re terribly saleable, so I always end up feeling like the time I’ve spent on them has been wasted.  But they had wormed their way back into my imagination by the time we got home, and I’d resigned myself to thinking I was going to be spending at least the next few weeks working on them again.

But then I started Boardwalk Empire, and that was no longer an issue.  It’s set in 1920 and manages to actually be about people who genuinely feel like they could have inhabited the 1920s, unlike most historical fiction, which (especially in TV and movies) is typically about modern people who happen to live in an earlier time period.  And it immediately refocused me on stuff I’d been working on before, set during that post-WW1 period, that I think has a much better chance of finding an audience.

We’ll see what happens when I start Deadwood.  Maybe it’ll make me replay Red Dead Redemption again.

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Bullseye

Today is World Thinking Day for the global Girl Scout/Girl Guides movement, and what that means in practical terms is that, during my six-year-old’s Daisy troop meeting last night, several of the parents got drafted into making swap items for the girls to swap with other Girl Scout troops at the event all the local troops are attending tonight.  (The girls themselves couldn’t make the swap items because, firstly, they were busy making Valentine’s Day crafts, and perhaps somewhat more importantly, the swap items involved melting poker chips on a grill and then drilling a hole through them with a power drill.)

The chips had already been melted when we got there, into flat metal discs; so now, they needed someone to drill a hole through the centre of each one, through which yarn would then be strung and tied into a loop.  (The end result is rather cute.)  The other two or three mums there immediately volunteered to do the threading and tying, so since clearly none of them wanted to operate the drill, I figured that I as the only male there should step up and volunteer for that job.

I want to be clear here: this was a really easy, unchallenging drill job.  Each plastic piece just needed to be held firmly in place and have a small hole drilled through its centre.  What happened next is due entirely to my own incompetence.

Reader, on my third plastic disc, I power-drilled a hole straight into the palm of my hand.  Specifically, into the fleshy bit right below my index finger.

It hurt (it still hurts now), but it didn’t go deep enough to cut into sinew or bone.  It just bled.  And boy did it bleed.  I could not get it to close.  It soaked through the band-aid pretty quickly, and blood just kept streaming down my fingers.  Also I felt incredibly foolish and just wanted us to stop talking about it while I kept on drilling (as I insisted on doing), but all the mums were exceptionally freaked out by it and kept asking if I was all right.

(As Lisa said when I told her later how dumb I felt and that I really just wanted everyone to stop talking about it, “Honey, they all have husbands.  They expect you to be that dumb.”)

Anyway, the upshot of this story is that a hundred or so plastic discs now have holes drilled in them, almost none of them have blood stains on, and I’m now completely up to date with my tetanus shots.

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Single Oh Seven: Licence to fanwank

SPOILERS AHOY for Spectre, Skyfall, Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly for any of the nineteen other canonical Bond films I decide to chuck in

I have a theory.  I haven’t researched it at all, so there might be plenty of other people who have theorised the same thing.  Or there might be stuff out there refuting it, or confirming it.  But it’s my theory, and I’m going to put it here.

Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig’s first two James Bond movies, are pretty openly presented as the first two episodes of a trilogy dealing with the discovery and exploration of the top-secret global criminal superconspiracy, “Quantum”; and the end of Quantum of Solace—in which Bond takes Dominic Greene offscreen to interrogate him, and all we learn of that interrogation is when we cut back to Greene afterward and he screams, “Okay! I’ve told you all you wanted to know about Quantum!”—clearly set the third Daniel Craig film up as Bond’s big final showdown with Quantum and whatever shadowy mastermind was running it.

I’ve assumed it was because Quantum of Solace was so underwhelming (in terms of critical response and general narrative dissatisfaction, though certainly not in terms of box office) that the decision was taken to abandon the Quantum storyline completely in Skyfall.  Narratively, Skyfall stands completely apart from its two predecessors, with no mention of Quantum.  Even the characterisation of Bond has been reversed: not only has the first two films’ “Bond is too young, hotheaded, unpredictable and inexperienced” theme been jettisoned, it’s been replaced by its exact opposite, as Skyfall is centred on Bond being too old and past his prime to carry the physical demands of his job.

So here’s my theory.  I think that when the Bond people reacquired the rights to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and the Blofeld character in 2013, they were so anxious to include them in the next Bond film (particularly given how successful Skyfall was at reintroducing elements that have been missing from the series, such as Q, Miss Moneypenny and even the 1960s Aston Martin), they were so eager to include them that they basically just dusted off the abandoned original storyline for the third Daniel Craig film and changed the name “Quantum” to “Spectre”.

This would explain why Blofeld in Spectre is essentially identical, in modus operandi, to Raoul Silva from Skyfall; because Silva would have been originally conceived of as the evil genius masterminding Quantum.  (Silva’s obsession with Judi Dench’s M fits in well here.  One thing the first three Daniel Craig Bonds did very well—I’ve raved about this many times in the past—was their extended exploration of the relationship between Bond and Dench’s M.  The treatment of the Bond–M relationship in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes a lot of sense if the plan had always been to subject it to the same deconstruction it gets in Skyfall even when Skyfall hadn’t been intended to be Skyfall.)

This would also explain why it is that Spectre and Blofeld don’t actually seem to have any sort of evil goal.  They have want to link up the intelligence-gathering networks of Britain, South Africa, Japan, China and five other unnamed countries, and have access to the information produced by those networks, but there’s no explanation as to what they want to do with that network that would be so much more horrible than the fact that modernday governments already have access to that information in the first place.  Mounting terrorist attacks on Mexico City, Frankfurt, Tunisia and Cape Town?  Except that those terrorist attacks were staged as a means to get the Nine Eyes network up and running, and once that goal had been achieved, there wouldn’t have been any reason to keep them going.  To avoid prosecution for Spectre’s sex trafficking and counterfeit African drugs programmes?  They seem to be doing a pretty good job of that already, considering that they apparently have already cornered both those huge markets of global crime and yet still no one is even aware that their organisation exists.

(Really, if Bond had been a bit more cooperative with Ralph Fiennes’s M and told him he’d just discovered a secret global crime syndicate who are masterminding the distribution of counterfeit drugs in Africa, M could have saved everyone a lot of time just by saying, “Don’t worry about it, 007; your wife and I already took care of that.”)

There were parts of Spectre I thought worked well.  I really liked the Dia de los Muertes imagery in the opening shot.  Blofeld’s introduction at the Spectre board meeting in Rome was a really brilliant example of “this is how we take a quintessentially 60s cinematic moment and put it on the screen for a 2015 audience”.  The Bond torture scene was genuinely squeam-inducing.

But it was also a clunky film, and its biggest area of clunkiness was its complete lack of a coherent plot.  If that’s because it’s the product of an abandoned storyline that had already been cannibalised for parts in Skyfall, well, that would explain a lot.

Another area of clunk were elements that seemed to have been included as homages or tips of the hat, but that were just tossed into the background, glided quickly past and never mentioned or focused on. For instance, when Mr. Hinx popped out his opponent’s eyes, I could have sworn that he had steel-tipped thumbnails, which I took as a reference to Jaws’s steel teeth; but his thumbs were only onscreen for a second or two, and weren’t shown again, so I couldn’t check.

Similarly, Bond first finds Madeleine Swann at an ultra-exclusive, ultra-luxurious, secluded mental health clinic perched in isolation on a mountaintop in the Austrian Alps, and that has to be a reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, right?  There’s no way that everyone involved in the production of Spectre can have been unaware that that’s a major part of OHMSS, particularly considering that OHMSS is not only one of the “Blofeld trilogy” of Bond films, but is also the only other Bond film that ends with Bond resigning from MI-6 and (literally) driving off to spend the rest of his days with the woman he loves?  And yet Dr. Swann’s milieu gets no special comment or focus; it’s just an exotic background like any of the many others that litter the opening acts of Spectre as they do all Bond films.

I’m a huge fan of ambiguous storytelling, but I didn’t find things like this to be ambiguous so much as I did frustrating.  Because they make you wonder if other parts of the movie are also references to previous films, or if you’re just pattern matching and there’s really nothing there.  For instance, when Bond and Dr. Swann arrive at Blofeld’s layer, and Swann finds that Blofeld has left a dress out for her on her bed in her room; Lisa was pretty sure that was a reference to Dr. No.  Or the fact that Bond’s ultimate defeat of Blofeld involves bringing his helicopter crashing down out of the sky over London—there are enough differences between how that’s realised in Spectre versus in For Your Eyes Only that I think it’s kiiiiiinda a stretch to see the two as related, unless Spectre has already been genuinely peppered with all these other moments and images from the previous films.

Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

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Common knowledge

Last month I wrote at length about the fact that the Soviet Union and Japan, despite being on opposite sides of the Second World Wars, never went to war with each other during the whole time that Russia was at war with Japan’s ally, Germany, or indeed for some time after.  Indeed, the Soviet Union agreed at the Yalta Conference of 1945 to declare war upon Japan no more than ninety days after the end of the war in Europe; Germany ultimately surrendered on VE Day, 8 May 1945 (9 May in Moscow), and Russia duly declared war on Japan on 9 August.  The Russians immediately launched a massive invasion of Japanese Manchuria, and Japan announced its surrender six days later.

(You and I know Manchuria better from maps, as the big honking chunk of China that separates Beijing from Siberia and Korea.)

Japan, of course, was already doomed to certain defeat by this point, and it was just a matter of how much longer—and how many more Japanese and Allied lives—it was going to take before the admitted that.  But as any Russian on the street can tell you, it was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria that finally tipped the Japanese leadership over the edge and persuaded them to surrender.  Russians know this, because it’s what their history textbooks and their historical novels and films and documentaries all tell them.

Wait, what?

Yeah, we know different.  Because, of course, 9 August was also the day that the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, having already dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August.  We know that it was the atomic bombings that were the immediate cause of Japanese surrender, and that we can feel smugly superior at the Russians being propagandised into thinking that it was their own contribution that was more important.  We know this, because it’s what our history textbooks and our historical novels and films and documentaries all tell us.

You can see my point here, right?

I’m not saying it was the Soviet declaration of war that really made the Japanese surrender, since I don’t know.  I’ve never gone and researched it, since I’ve always been more interested in the European War than the Pacific (even though one of my grandfathers and at least two of my great-uncles received the Burma Star).  I suspect our version is closer to the truth, because I’m aware of the fact that remembrance of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a really big deal in contemporary Japan, whereas I’m unaware of today’s Japanese paying any special commemoration to the invasion of Manchuria.  But I could also be very easily biased because our version is, of course, the version I grew up with, so I’m going to stay carefully neutral.

But mainly, I just want to point this out because it’s the best illustration I’ve so far encountered of how suspicious we should be of things we know for sure because everyone else knows it for sure too.

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(Another Second World Wars instance of this: the guy on the talk page for Wikipedia’s article on the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre who acidly took issue with The World at War’s description of 10 June as a “summer day”, describing it as a “simple and obvious” error because 10 June is supposedly in the spring. He was, one assumes, entirely unaware that it’s pretty much just in North America where people define the seasons as starting three weeks after the rest of the Northern Hemisphere does.)

World Wars Two

I’ve actually seen American history textbooks whose beginning-of-the-unit timeline says right there in print, “WORLD WAR II: 1941–45”. (The odd thing is that those same textbooks have to acknowledge that the war was already going on in 1940 so that they can teach Lend Lease and the Neutrality Act.) I would imagine there are Russian textbooks that say the same thing.  Most Americans, I think, know that by the time the USA joined, the war between Britain, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had already been raging for years, but we can still shake our head at the insularity of actually telling children in history class that the war didn’t start until America entered in 1941, when it in fact had begun in 1939.

… Or had it? (Dunh dunh duuuuunh.)

I was a teenager when I learnt that Japan and China went to war with each other in 1937.  The expansion of the Asian war in 1941 to bring America and the British Commonwealth in on China’s side pretty closely parallels the expansion of the European war at the same time, with the Soviet Union and the USA being brought in on Britain’s side.  For China and Japan, 1937–45 represents a period of continuous conflict in the same way that 1939–45 does for Britain, Germany and Occupied Europe.  It bothered me that, though the two conflicts merged into a global World War II in December 1941, the name for the pre-1941 Asian conflict was “the Second Sino-Japanese War”, while the name for the pre-1941 European conflict is “World War II”.  English-language histories of the war would include the Phoney War and the London Blitz, but wouldn’t include the Marco Polo Bridge Incident or the Rape of Nanjing.

For a long time it didn’t seem to be such a big deal.  I would’ve liked the pre-41 European war to have its own name, but after Pearl Harbor, they both merged into a single global war, Axis vs. Allies, right?

… Or did they? (Dunh dunh duuuuuunh.)

Lately I’ve been thinking about how Anglo–Americentric it is to consider the Second World War a unified conflict after 1941.  Even leaving aside that there was no coordination between the European Axis Powers and Japan, we can still look at the three major Allied Powers: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.  One of the Allied Powers specifically.

After 22 June 1941, the war in Europe was fundamentally a war between Germany and the Soviet Union.  In terms of men and materiel involved, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Western Allies’ participation in the war—the North African and Mediterranean theatres, the strategic bombing campaign, the D-Day campaign—became peripheral, and there’s a real sense in which, in terms of the grand strategic outcome of the war, our central contribution was in how much we could handicap Germany’s war effort in Russia.  If the Wehrmacht had taken Moscow, or had won in Stalingrad and crossed the Volga and rolled into the Caucasus, and had been able to transfer its millions of soldiers back to the West, we can’t reasonably expect that we’d ever have been able to dislodge them from Europe.  Even during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944–January 1945, when the Germans pumped hundreds of thousands of additional troops into the Western Front in their last great push to turn back the British and American advance into Germany and knock the Western Allies out of the war, the total number of German troops fighting in the West was still just a small fraction of the number fighting against the Russians in Poland and East Prussia.  That’s part of why four million of the (very roughly) five million German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front; it’s part of why four hundred thousand Americans and four hundred fifty thousand Britons were killed during the war, but twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were.

Whereas if we look at the Soviet Union in the Pacific War: Russia shared an extensive land border with Japan (the only one of the Three Powers to do so), by way of Korea, at that time an outright Japanese possession, and Manchuria, a Japanese puppet state since 1931; in Vladivostok, the Russians had a naval and air base within easy strike range of the Japanese Home Islands, far closer than anything the Commonwealth or the United States possessed.  The two countries rubbed up against each other so closely that they were literally athwart each other’s supply lines: Vladivostok thrusts into the Sea of Japan between Japan to the east and Korea and Manchuria to the west, while the Trans-Siberian Railway, Vladivostok’s link to the rest of Russia, actually runs through Manchuria.

And yet the Soviet Union and Japan remained at peace with each other throughout the Pacific War.  Indeed, out of deference to the Soviet–Japanese neutrality pact of 1941, the Russians actually interned British and American airmen who landed in Soviet territory after conducting operations against Japanese targets, just as would happen to belligerent airmen who landed in neutral countries like Switzerland or Spain (though the Russians usually permitted interned Allied airmen to “escape” after a given period).

(Someone’s going to mention that the Soviet Union did ultimately declare war on Japan, on 9 August 1945, three months after Germany surrendered and six days before Japan did the same, finally ending the Second World War.  The Soviet invasion of Manchuria of 1945 is an important event, and in fact I’m mentally drafting a blog post about it as I write this, but it had no effect on the outcome of the war on either continent and is irrelevant to the discussion here.)

Both the Soviet Union and Japan materially hindered their allies by refusing to go to war with each other from 1941 to 1945: peace along the Manchurian–Siberian border meant that Japan was freeing up Soviet troops to fight against Germany, while Russia was allowing Japan to divert all its best troops to the south to fight in China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands.

I just can’t see Europe and the Pacific as separate theatres of a single war when one of those theatres saw the Soviet Union locked in a death struggle in the bloodiest and most destructive war humanity has ever fought, while the other saw them remain at peace with the enemy for the duration.  It’s bad historiography.  It assumes that the Anglo–American experience, as the only two powers to conduct a unified war effort over both hemispheres, is the definitive one.

So I’m going to be calling them the Second World Wars.  Like “Napoleonic Wars”, that seems to me a good umbrella term under which to gather several separate conflicts which were clearly very closely related and overlapped considerably, but which did not share unified causes, participants, outcomes or even date ranges.  We acknowledge the separateness of, say, the Peninsular War, the War of the Fifth Coalition and the War of 1812, while also acknowledging how inextricably interlinked they are; we should be able to acknowledge the same thing about the wars in Europe and the Pacific.

The Second World Wars, then, to me include at least four conflicts: the European war of 1939–45, the Asian–Pacific war of 1937–45, the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39 and the Winter War of 1939–40. (Wikipedia’s article on the Napoleonic Wars groups the Anglo–American War of 1812 and the Latin American wars of independence as “subsidiary wars” of the Napoleonic conflicts, and I think that’s an excellent way to describe the Spanish Civil War‘s relationship to the war in Europe.)

And I mean, let’s be honest.  We all already think of the Winter War, or the Battles of Khalkin Gol or the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, as part of “World War II”, the cataclysmic period of global upheaval; they’re just not formally included in the definitions of the war itself.  By redefining the Second World Wars as an era rather than as a single conflict, we accord them a status we already know they should possess.

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Books, but written in English

One thing I always make sure to do on a trip to Britain is to get to at least a couple of bookshops to browse through the history sections.  Nowadays I don’t usually buy what I find, but rather make a note of the title on the assumption that anything published today in print is also going to be published in e-dition.

(Because it’s a really crap thing to go into a place of business and browse their wares with the intention not of actually paying them any money, but instead ordering whatever you find from the internet, I try to make sure to buy at least the same number of titles as I write down for later.  So, for instance, in addition to whatever my mother bought for herself, I did buy in the shop a bunch of stuff to take back as souvenirs.  For Boy, Horrid Henry’s Biggest and Best Ever Joke Book, a book of Darth Vader & Son family postcards, and a grow-your-own-crystals science kit; for Girl, a London sticker book, Disney Fairies activity set and book of Peppa Pig stories; and for Lisa a novel I actually think I’m going to end up reading myself, about a woman from a village in Somerset who has to go to the East End in search of her best friend’s daughter, who’s been kidnapped on Coronation Day, 1953.  Anyway.)

There were two books that I did in fact buy right there in the shop.  I can’t remember exactly why it was that I picked out these two ahead of the others:

book coversThey Fought Alone: The True Story of SOE’s Agents in Wartime France is a reprint of the memoir of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the Special Operations Executive’s French Section.  SOE was the British organisation that conducted espionage and sabotage in Occupied Europe during the Second World War, and provided aid and supplies to local resistance movements.  Buckmaster actually played himself (and did a decent job of it) in the film Odette, about the capture and torture of SOE agents Odette Sansom and Peter Churchill by the Gestapo.

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill seems destined to be the latest addition to my Spanish Civil War kick.  It’s a history of the wartime experiences of three couples (Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar) who all passed through this Madrid hotel, which was home to so many journalists during the siege of the Spanish capital.

I won’t list all the other titles I made note of (there were about a dozen) but the ones I’m most interested in are:

The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines by Clare Mulley, a biography of Christine Granville, the daughter of a Polish Catholic nobleman and Jewish heiress, who served as an SOE agent in occupied Poland and France and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, only to be stabbed to death after the war by a colleague who had rejected her advances.

Titled Americans: The Real Heiresses’ Guide to Marrying an Aristocrat is a reprint of an actual 1890 guide for American young women who wanted to follow in the footsteps of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Nancy Astor by marrying a member of the British peerage and becoming a real-life Countess of Grantham.

Old World, New World: The Story of Britain and America by Kathleen Burk should, I think, be pretty self-explanatory as to why I’m interested in it.

The Scandalous Lady W by Hallie Rubenhold has, I discovered when I googled it, been turned into a BBC programme starring Natalie Dormer in the title role.  This made me pretty pleased, since I’ve got a bit of a thing for Natalie Dormer, but on further googling, I couldn’t seem to find any trace of the book, even though I’d seen it right there on the shelf at the WH Smith in Borehamwood.  Turns out that’s because the book’s original title, prior to the TV adaptation, was Lady Worsley’s Whim.  Excellent, progress; at least, till it turned out that Lady Worsley’s Whim has no e-dition in the US, and the cheapest price I could find for a print copy on (US) Amazon or Barnes and Noble was $180.  Finally, I discovered that the book’s title in US publication is The Lady in Red: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, and it is, in fact, much more affordably priced (eight bucks for Kindle or in .epub).  So!  Looking forward to the book, and also to the TV show.

Last month I was complaining about having too much to read.  I come back from six days in Britain with a reading list that’s almost doubled in length. I’m awesome at managing my expectations.  Good thing school starts tomorrow.

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Dependence

I got off the plane at Heathrow last Tuesday morning and discovered that my iPhone utterly refused to receive any cell data signal in Britain.

I’m expecting this to be pretty beneficial to my cell phone bill—the last time I was home, for five days in 2011, my Android and I racked up a hundred forty bucks in data roaming charges—but it did mean that during my trip, I was completely cut off from the Internet or iMessage except when I could connect to wifi.

This was mostly fine.  Mostly.

Our hotel was in Borehamwood, just up the street from the Elstree & Borehamwood train station, so on Wednesday my mother and I decided to go to the National Portrait Gallery.  As we left the hotel room, my mum said, “And you know where we need to get off the train?” and I casually said, “Yeah.”

Reader, that was a lie.  What I had was a superficial knowledge of London geography (I can group a list of Central London landmarks into general categories like “this is in Westminster”, “this is in the West End”, “this is in the City”), and a reflexive assumption that, if I get lost, I can check for info on my smartphone.

Except that day I couldn’t.

We got on the train, and I checked the on-board map to figure out where we should get off.  What we should have done was get off at St. Pancras, so as to take the Tube from King’s Cross to Charing Cross, or else get off at Blackfriars to take the Tube to Embankment.  But I knew that the closest two stops we’d get to Trafalgar Square would be City and Blackfriars, so I had us get off at City because the picture of London I had in my head was one in which the City is close enough to Trafalgar Square for us to walk it.

(It’s close enough that I could have walked it, on my own, if I had the familiarity with the geography to know where I was going.  Figuring it out along the way and with my mum in tow, nope.)

So the upshot was that we emerged from the train station into Holborn Viaduct with no blessed idea how to get to the National Portrait Gallery, beyond perhaps, “figure out which direction is west”.

It wasn’t even that harrowing, in the end.  I managed to figure out which of the many bus routes that passed us would head to Trafalgar Square.  (The trickiest part of that was making sure we got on a bus headed in the right direction.)  After visiting the NPG, we decided to head to Bond Street to visit the shop that sells my sister’s jewelry, for which we got directions from the nice lady at the Trafalgar Square Waterstone’s.  (The trickiest part of that was that she told us to follow Cockspur Street and Pall Mall to Regent Street, but it turns out that Regent Street isn’t actually “Regent Street” at its intersection with Pall Mall; it is in fact “Waterloo Place”.)  Then after we got to the end of Bond Street, we turned into Oxford Street for some shopping, before taking the Tube back to King’s Cross and the train home.

But I felt a real disconnect, especially for that first quarter hour after we left City train station and had to figure out which end of the station we’d left from and which bus to take.  When Lisa and I spent a couple of days in Paris in 2009, for the first three or four hours or so, I was really disconcerted by the fact that I was somewhere where the conversations and signage that surrounded me was completely unintelligible to me.  I had a somewhat terrifying sense of isolation and helplessness.  Briefly in London last week, I got something of the same experience, just from not being able to pull up the internet on my phone.

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Getting to yes

A quick problem solving puzzle from the New York Times.

I got it right.  Click the button to read me talking about how I got there, but don’t do it till you’ve tried the puzzle yourself. Please.

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Reading research

“The problem with research,” I tweeted a few days ago, “is that I’ve got a list of at least fifteen books that I don’t so much want to read as want to have already read, right now.

On reflection, I think that’s one of the two problems with research, but more on that in a moment.

It’s not to say that I don’t want to read these books; I do.  Some of them I think are going to be great reads; others will be a slog but will still be about topics I find fascinating.  (Some will be flat-out disappointing, of course.  I had one of those recently.)  But while I am also reading these books for pleasure, centrally I’m reading them to extract information or get a better understanding of something I want to write about.  Holding off on writing about it is a really frustrating feeling.

(Which makes me feel like I should pipe up and say that I don’t have any intention of finishing my research before I start writing; I’m a strong believer that that’s a horrible way to write.  For one thing, your research should never actually be “finished”.  I start writing when I feel I’m ready to start writing, and my research continues apace while I write.  But when I know there’s a lot still out there for me to get a handle on before I can write what I want to write, well, it’s frustrating.)

The other problem with research is that it’s migratory.  There are three or four different things I want to learn about, and the simple act of researching one of them can make me shift interest to one of the others instead.  Right now, I’m reading about the American Federal period.  But that could well lead to me wanting to shift back in time, as I decide to read about the backgrounds of Federal-era statesmen by reading about Colonial America instead.  Or instead maybe it’ll send me across the Atlantic, and I’ll want to research Napoleonic Europe, which had such an impact on Federalist America via things like the Haitian Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase or the War of 1812.  From Napoleon I could well end up going elsewhere in French history—I’ve been meaning to do some reading about Vichy France, for instance, for a while.

So here’s the reading list.  There are books that are higher priorities on here than others; I thought about organising it on that basis, whittling it down or boldfacing the ones I’m either really excited about or feel a really pressing need to tackle before the others.  But then I realised that those priorities change, and the book that I’m thinking, “Oh, I’ll definitely want to read that one after I finish this one I’m starting now,” could, by the time I finish this new one, suddenly find itself way further down the pile.  So instead, here they are organised very roughly by chronology and geography.

The Invasion Within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America by James Axtell

Pitt the Elder: The Great Commoner by Jeremy Black

Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787 by Orville T. Murphy

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard

A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings by Stella Tillyard

America at 1750: A Social Portrait by Richard Hofstadter

The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands

William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King by Sheila L. Skemp

Benjamin and William Franklin: Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist by Sheila L. Skemp

Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes by Christopher Hibbert

John Adams by David McCullough

Mr. Jefferson’s Women by John Kukla

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano

A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh by Allan W. Eckert

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America by David O. Stewart

The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger

The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered by Laura Auricchio

Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert

The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes: The True Story of a Forgotten Hero in Wellington’s Army by Mark Urban

The Exploits of Baron de Marbot by Jean-Baptiste de Marbot

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Kate Hickman

The Courtesan’s Revenge: Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King by Frances Wilson

1812: War with America by Jon Latimer

Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754–1834 by Robert Malcolmson

Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey

Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna by David King

John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans by John Bailey

Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South by Michael Tadman

American Slavery: 1619–1877 by Peter Kolchin

Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves by Ira Berlin

The Prince and the Yankee: The Tale of a Country Girl Who Became a Princess by Robert N. White

Damn that’s about twice as many as I expected.  And I stopped before I got to the books I recently picked up about gender roles in the American Civil War, or the aforementioned books about Vichy France, because those are just too far down on my priorities list right now.

Damn.

I

NO ONE EXPECTS … nope, sorry, wrong time period

I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War.  Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager.  (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.)  I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school.  I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”.  On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.

One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.”  (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)

Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself.  There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them.  Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.

No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us.  The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men.  It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“.  Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter.  The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago.  Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.

And I don’t know.  Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left.  But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.

I

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