Suspiciously like a carrot on a stick

My four year old Nook has made it very clear that it’s time to get a new ereader.  I don’t want a Kindle so long as it refuses to support the .epub format, so I took to the Internet to figure out what the best e-ink ereader is, and I discovered that there’s an overwhelming consensus right now that it’s the Kobo Aura One.

And not only do all the reviewers love the Aura One, but it also works really well for me: I’ve been getting my ebooks from Kobo for a while, and also, since Kobo and Overdrive are owned by the same parent company, the Aura One comes with Overdrive integration, so you can borrow library books right from the device.

Sweet! I already know exactly what I want for Christmas.

So on 10 October I went to Kobo’s website to see how much it would cost meLisa and the kids, who are totally the ones who will be buying my Christmas present.  Out of Stock, the site told me.  Will be in stock on 14 October.

Fair enough.  Waited till 14 October, went back to the site, still got the same message.  So I waited till the next day and went back again.  Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 19 October.


19 October, same message.  Can you guess what it said by 20 October?

Out of Stock.  Will be in stock on 1 November.

I googled to see what the situation is, but I couldn’t find any mention of there being an Aura One shortage in the USA.  There was a shortage in Canada in September, but judging by Best Buy Canada, that’s been solidly resolved.  (Best Buy USA doesn’t stock the Aura One; in fact, it doesn’t seem that any US retailers do.  Best Buy Canada won’t ship to the US.  Chapters apparently will ship to the US, with the caveat that I’m responsible for “any duties or taxes”.  I don’t think there should be any duties, since we’re both part of NAFTA, but taxes might be a different deal.)

So, guys, I have a question.  Do we know for certain that the Aura One is in fact a thing? For realsies?  Has anyone seen one?


The other side from the other side of the Pond

Okay, so I’m fascinated by the American Revolution.  And it’s no secret that I think that the way the American Revolution, and the Revolutionary War, are taught and thought of today are based on some broad assumptions and biases that are, basically, wrong.  Probably the major reason for this slant in perception, I’d argue, would be that historians of the American Revolution are overwhelmingly American, and almost never British.

This tends to warp the historiography in two ways.  First, there’s the simple fact that only one side of the story gets told.  I think we can all agree that that’s always going to bias the account.  The bias isn’t even really conscious; it’s just that, as no one pushes back against it for generation after generation, writers about the Revolution simply don’t notice it’s there.  It’s exactly this source of bias that Fred Anderson pushes back against in my favourite book about the Revolutionary (and pre-Revolutionary) era.  That’s a general principle that would apply to any instance of only one side ever getting told.

Second is more about the specific instance of the American Revolution: Americans have a serious emotional investment in the story of the Revolution.  At times, preserving that story, and preserving the heroism of its protagonists, can take precedence over accuracy.  That’s certainly not to say that I think the American writers about the Revolution are more interested in myth than facts; the legitimate historians among them certainly aren’t.  But much of their readership is, even if they’re not aware of it, and pushing too hard against those myths gets distinctly unpleasant for them.  As one small example of this, there’s the continued iconic status of Paul Revere, a man whose fame derives entirely from an intentionally inaccurate poem written in 1860 (which ascribes to him heroic deeds done by other men), and who faced the British in combat only once, during which he showed, in the words of Artemas Ward, “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice”.

(Trips to the history section of the bookshop would also seem to indicate that someone has discovered there’s something of a market for American history books that quite explicitly provide the “true, un-PC” version of events, by which they of course mean they defiantly reassert only the myth as actual fact, but those books aren’t written by actual historians and I don’t know that they really affect the study of actual history.  The ones aimed at children really trouble me, though.)

So for a long time, I’ve wanted more British scholarship on the Revolution and the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called in Britain, the American War of Independence).  That would balance the American biases and provide a broader perspective of both the revolution and the war.  They’d be able to examine the British government’s perspective in the conflicts and crises that led up to the outbreak of violence, to see the war as a civil war within the British Empire rather than as a war between Britain and America, to explore the global aspects of the Revolutionary War that had nothing to do with the Americans.

So I’ve been really thrilled to see a trend of British historians coming to the Revolution and the Founding Fathers in the last few years.  Over the past couple of months I’ve come across five such books:

By George Goodwin, there’s Benjamin Franklin in London, a biography of the two decades (1757–75) Ben Franklin lived in the imperial capital, for all but the final year of which he was a revered and well-liked member of the British social elite and the most enthusiastic advocate of Britain and America’s imperial partnership.

By Nick Bunker, there’s An Empire on the Edge, looking at the Boston Tea Party and the final crises that touched off the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the British government rather than the Patriot leaders.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaugnessy (who really is British, even with such a name) has two: The Men Who Lost America, biographies of ten men who directed the British war effort from London and in America, and An Empire Divided, examining Britain’s Caribbean colonies and why they stayed loyal when the colonies to their north revolted.

And by Brendan Simms (who’s actually Irish, not British), there’s Three Victories and a Defeat, in which the American Revolutionary War (the defeat, obviously) is treated in the context of being the latest in the chain of five other wars Britain had already fought against the French & Spanish alliance over the previous ninety years.  This is perhaps the perfect example of where I think Revolutionary War scholarship would benefit from more British input; it’s inevitable and entirely appropriate that for American historians, the war will be a war that was fought in America by American forces.  But after 1778, it was also fought in the West Indies, in Spain and in India, where it had no involvement from Americans at all—but if we ignore those theatres, we’re left with an incomplete understanding of the war.

I can’t get to these books right away, but I’m very much looking forward to when I do get to them.



I’ve spent the last six weeks reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired the Broadway musical Hamilton. I reviewed it at Goodreads, like I do almost every book I read, but that review got pretty long. And since the big deficiency in the book is something about American historiography that really matters to me, I figured I’d reproduce my review here.

So much of this book is a cogent, thorough biography of Alexander Hamilton and his times. At points it can get preemptively defensive, but it’s natural for biographers to have sympathy with their subjects, and besides, Chernow certainly doesn’t shy away from criticizing Hamilton, highlighting his severe lapses in judgement like the Reynolds pamphlet and the John Adams pamphlet. And this extends to other figures, too: he paints pictures of multifaceted individuals with qualities both to admire and admonish. The chapter introducing John Adams, for instance, is probably the best summation I’ve ever read of the second American president, covering both his vanity and ever-growing persecution complex, as well as his unmatched philosophical and rhetorical contribution to the causes of independence and limited government. Even Aaron Burr gets his moment of praise, when he attempts to mediate the feud between Hamilton and James Monroe over the Reynolds affair and Chernow tells us that Burr “was the one upright actor in the whole affair”.

It’s such a shame that all this good work is clouded by instances of bias and even outright disingenuity. The first of these comes with the author’s note before the book’s frontispiece, in which Chernow tells us that in his direct quotations from letters and newspapers, he has modernised eighteenth-century spelling and style for the reader’s comfort. In point of fact, there are literally only two people for whom the original spelling and capitalization are preserved: James and Maria Reynolds, the married couple with whom Hamilton formed a triangle of adultery and blackmail. Coming after four hundred pages of quotations that have been seamlessly sanitized for the modern reader, the sudden reversion to the Reynoldses’ jarring prose style (idiosyncratic and poorly educated even for the 1790s) serves only to make the Reynoldses appear seedier and more ignorant, so that Hamilton—whose actions here, let’s remember, involving cheating on his own wife and then paying his mistress’s husband hush money—can be more comfortably presented as a victim in the matter.

And then there’s Aaron Burr. Eighteenth century politics was a vicious business, full of slanderous and ridiculous personal smears hurled by leaders on both sides at their opponents. When those smears are thrown at Hamilton—that he was Washington’s illegitimate son, that he used his position as Treasury secretary to corruptly enrich himself from the public purse, that he plotted with the British minister to install a younger son of George III as King of the United States—Chernow is genuinely offended and at pains to show how false and preposterous each one is. But when the slanderers’ target is Burr, Chernow reports each one and, by refraining from offering any comment on their illegitimacy, actually insinuates they’re true.

For instance, in two consecutive paragraphs (page 662 in my edition), Chernow details the character assassinations that publisher James Cheetham launched on both men in his newspaper the American Citizen. In the first paragraph, the accusations against Burr are simply repeated verbatim: “he put into operation a most extensive, complicated, and wicked scheme of intrigue to place himself in the presidential chair.” But when Cheetham moves onto Hamilton in the second paragraph, Chernow cannot let a single statement pass without labelling it “far-fetched” or telling us that “the reality of” Alexander Hamilton “did not suit Cheetham’s needs” or that these attacks came because “Cheetham knew little and cared less about” the truth about Hamilton.

Chernow seems to accept Hamilton’s visceral hatred of Burr as proof that Burr deserved such visceral hatred. When he details the prominent New York Federalists who supported Burr in 1804, such as the eminent John Jay or Hamilton’s own brother-in-law Stephen Van Rensselaer, he doesn’t so much demonstrate how chameleonic and untrustworthy Burr was as how unreasonable and obsessive Hamilton’s opposition to him was. An entire chapter is devoted to the election of 1800, with Burr supposedly scheming to rob Jefferson of the presidency, with a single paragraph grudgingly inserted in the middle conceding that “recent scholarship has tended to exonerate Burr from charges that he did anything untoward” and that his letters show that he spent the electoral crisis far more concerned with his love life, the preparations for his only daughter’s wedding and local New York politics. He cites Burr’s involvement with the Holland Land Company’s bribes as evidence of his conniving nature, but omits any mention that it was Hamilton who secured the single biggest bribe the company paid, a quarter of a million dollars to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler’s canal construction company. (Chernow’s Hamilton is always—always—above even a hint of corruption when it comes to public finance.)

He opens his description of the exchanges leading up to the two men’s fatal duel with the sentence, “It is hard to escape the impression that in the early stages of negotiations it was the headstrong Hamilton, not Burr, who was the intransigent party.” But why would you feel inclined to escape such an impression unless you’re already expecting that Hamilton should be cast as the hero of the piece and Burr the villain—that is, unless you’ve mistaken the role of chronicler of events for that of advocate for one of the parties?

I’ll admit that a blinkered picture of Burr is the quickest way for a historian of Federal and Jeffersonian American to lose my sympathy. For two centuries, historiography of the Jefferson—Hamilton—Burr rivalry has been dominated by partisans of Jefferson, with a minority composed of Hamiltonian historians to rebut them. This has meant that, while Jefferson’s attacks on Hamilton and Hamilton’s attacks on Jefferson have both had counterarguments in response, both major camps have been naturally inclined to treat Burr with distrust and give credence to the two men’s politically-motived vitriol against him. But now that Jefferson is being reevaluted as a hypocrite and a rapist, and that Hamilton (in no small part thanks to Ron Chernow) is being brought forward to displace him, I had hoped that Burr would be able to take the place formerly occupied by Hamilton and get a fairer hearing.

Burr is, after all, a fascinating figure: an early abolitionist in the Northern state that had been as pro-slavery as any in the South (Chernow repeatedly snipes at Burr’s abolitionist credentials), an advocate for such complete women’s equality that even by modern standards he qualifies as feminist in his views, and the one political figure who appealed to partisans of both parties in the incredibly vicious political climate that took hold as Americans divided into a party system for the first time. That seemed to be happening with Kennedy’s Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character, followed by the excellent popular histories of the last decade: Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder, Stewart’s American Emperor and Brands’s The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. (I haven’t read the Brands book yet, so I can’t rightly include it under “excellent”, but it’s apparently the book on which Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of Burr in the Hamilton musical was based.)

I want to see historians really examine why the two most powerful politicians of their day, the men around whom America’s first two political parties formed, were both so unnerved by Burr as their rival that they gave way to an unreasoning obsession with bringing about his downfall that completely jettisoned any sense of perspective or rationality. Because by casting Aaron Burr in his received role of villain, we allow Alexander Hamilton to escape responsibility for something that’s just as much a part of his legacy as the party system or as the modern finance and banking system that’s so key to American prosperity: the jealousy with which he guarded his own petty political kingdoms. His fear of losing the Federalists to John Adams, and of losing preeminence in New York to Burr, led him to attack both men with such viciousness that all three of their political careers were ruined, effectively eliminating each other so that the real rival of each man—Thomas Jefferson—was left so free that he not only emerged as the only national leader in the United States, but established his Virginia slaveowning cabal as the dominant political force in the country for a generation.


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.



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.


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.


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.


(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.


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.



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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