Sunday, 30 June 2013

Books I Read In June

‘The Foresight War’ by Anthony G. Williams
This is a well rated alternate history book which envisages what would have happened if two military historians one from Britain, called Dr Erlang who seems to be a version of the author and one from the former East Germany were transported back to 1934.  The two men are soon advising their respective leaders, Dr. Herman, the German historian, seeking to at least hold back the Soviets so that East Germany is not created which his son died trying to escape from.  The book is very technically focused which is probably unsurprising given the focus of Williams’s non-fiction books.  There is much discussion of calibres of guns and the engines of aircraft.  Both men successfully advance technology so that fruitless projects are abandoned and developments that only appeared at the end of the war in our world are in place by the outbreak of war in this. 

There are political changes too.  The British are persuaded not to give up their naval bases in the Irish Free State and not to make any commitment to supporting Poland.  No British Expeditionary Force is sent to France and instead Norway is successfully taken over by the British.  Later there is no invasion of Italy.  In the Far East, Hong Kong is abandoned but Malaya and Singapore successfully defended.  The war ends in 1943 when with the Allies having invaded northern France through western Normandy, Herman kills Hitler with a suicide bomb. 

The book is very interesting on these grounds and has substantial appendices to outline the differences from our world.  However, it is clear that Williams is a historian and not a novelist.  The main characters are not developed a great deal, despite the fact that Erlang has a relationship with the woman assigned to oversee him and they marry and have a child who is called Hope, which seems anachronistic for Britain; she might have been Faith or Hester.  I am content, unlike some readers for there to be no explanation of why the two men went back in time.  However, to be a novel rather than a technical book, these men have to be developed more.  One technique that Williams uses that is commendable is dropping in on particular commanders and their troops or civilians mixed up in specific conflicts.  This might seem to lead to fragmentation, but it allows him to look at the differences that the changes are making whilst avoiding lengthy exposition and I would suggest other alternate history authors look at this approach for their own work. 

I understand that Erlang and Herman are able to overcome official suspicion, but they also seem to be able to push against official resistance to innovation.  Notably Erlang is able to stop the RAF obsessing about strategic bombing and to focus instead in protecting convoys across the Atlantic.  He is able to overcome Churchill’s obsession with the Mediterranean and the British under-estimation of Japanese abilities in particular in terms of defending attacks on Singapore from the land.  He is also able to break the British concern for defending France.  I think he is too successful too often and more resistance to his ideas would have seemed credible.  Herman experiences this much more especially his failure to get the German forces to encourage states in the western USSR to break away and ally with the Germans.  He is able to temper Hitler’s enthusiasm for exotic vehicles and have a focus on creating jet fighters sooner. 

Overall, this novel feels like a first draft that needs work to be a proper novel.  It is not a long book and unlike many would have benefited from being longer.  As some reviewers have noted there is minimal tension; Erlang and Herman face too little resistance to their ideas.  In addition, once Hitler is dead the book stops abruptly as if Williams has lost interest.  However, handling a post-Hitler Germany in 1943 even with the Allies not having insisted on unconditional surrender is an interesting aspect.  Would a civil war have broken out in the way the SS was preparing for?  The book has many fine and interesting ideas, but it would have been better, given his ‘trainspotter’ approach to weaponry if Williams had gone down the Tsouras path and gave a kind of ‘battle report’ style approach.  If he had favoured the Turtledove approach of an actual story with developing characters then he needed to put in more work.  The Authors publishing company seems to be a low budget outfit that seem to lack editors and this again will have had an impact.  Williams has a website on which he lists numerous reviews of his books and refutes some of them. 

This book is interesting for anyone into alternate history.  However, it is more like the raw materials for an alternate history novel rather than being a novel in its own right.  I have not read subsequent books by Williams but I hope his fiction writing skills have developed.

‘One Way Or Another’ by Richard Meredith
I bought my copy of this book from the author himself.  It was self-published and he travelled the country marketing it.  I admire him for that.  It is also clear that he is a modern day adventurer.  This book published in 2002 was about him as the ‘balding backpacker’ travelling around the world becoming involved in a range of adventures including anti-capitalism riots in Canada, the US Presidential election and an attempted coup d’etat in Fiji.  Meredith is a former journalist and the style of this book is really like a collection of articles and there is an appendix of articles he wrote during his travels.  He has subsequently driven right across Asia in an Aston Martin. 

The book is witty and gives an interesting perspective.  However, I found it very fragmented.  He covers the stories almost in reverse chronology.  There are large chunks of his journey that only are mentioned in passing, so you have little sense of the year-long adventure as whole.  It would really have helped if there was linking text to contextualise where every component fitted into the broader story.  Something along the lines of ‘having spent three weeks travelling from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast of Canada, I headed South into the USA where this next big thing happened to me’ or ‘by this time it was May and I decided to head into Egypt where I encountered …’  There is no conclusion to the book about how he got back home or how he reflected on what he had experienced.  As a result you feel this was put together to make money rather than as a result of capturing personal experiences. 

This was an interesting read which would have been better for me to reach nearer the time it was written but I am currently on a decade-long lag in my reading.  It shows that shifting from being a journalist to being an author is not always straight forward.  Articles can be chapters but the book needs to be more than a sum of its parts.  This was another book that would have benefited from being longer and having much more ‘mortar’ between the different chapters.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Has Cycling Become Simply A Poser's Hobby?

As regular readers will know, after being bullied for twelve months, I went into melt down and ended up losing my house and living with my parents, something which proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated.  Not only were there the issues of being around them but also the fact that they have lived in the same house since 1968 meant that there were far too many ghosts of the people who had bullied me for around a decade in my youth in the small town where they live to allow me comfortably to go out around there.  Consequently, I tend to keep to my room and play games.  Eventually I managed to find a room closer to my work and moved to South-West London, into districts I had never visited before.  Whilst many of the locals are very rich and come with attitudes of the kind that make the government insufferable, I felt pretty comfortable here.  With my mental health a lot better, I started looking at my physical health.  I had put on about 5Kg since things had started going wrong.  I am supposed to be 82Kg for my height, but have typically been 90Kg since the mid-2000s; 95Kg was certainly too much.

My job is not well paid and given that I am so physically unattractive I can alarm people in sporting venues, gym membership was out of the question.  I have failed at fencing and Aikido, so such sports seemed to be pointless, though I did consider badminton, though was worried it would simply be too middle class all round.  I was not able to find any swimming pools around.  I considered taking up running.  It seems to be a common urban sport.  In addition, I have always had a curiosity to find out where specific roads go to.  My interest in modernist and other 20th century architecture means that I can actually find going through suburbs pretty interesting.  I know it is sad, but there it is.  Given I have spent much of my life living in suburbs, I suppose it is a good safety mechanism.  Saying that I would never go back to Perivale.  That exceeded my tedium level and I could not get out of there fast enough.  I imagined that running would be a comparatively cheap sport.  Yes, I might need so decent shoes and one of those fluorescent tops that would keep me safe but not sweat too much.  However, reading 'The Guardian' guide to running last month:  I was utterly put off even trying.  It might have been good for my fitness but facing up to the scrutiny and the disdain were too much and threatened to throw me into the haunted state I had when living with my parents.  I know the locals now and disdain flows from every pore even if you skulk away from them.  Shoving myself into their line of sight so clearly was bound to lead to heckling.  I have experienced this when cycling for not wearing cleats, but the advantage is you can get away from it easier than when running.

With running ruled out, I thought of a return to cycling.  As regular readers know, I used to cycle a great deal, even going on cycling holidays of my own making.  One key problem is that I cannot cycle fast enough.  I average 14.5kph (around 9mph) whereas cycling clubs require you to go at 15mph (24kph).  My father averages 10kph but he is 75 so I think they give him some leeway.  My father only cycles mid-week and whilst he comes past my work, I would only cycle on weekends so there would be no chance of humiliatingly running into him.  There was one big challenge and that was that whilst I had a bike that had once cost £329 (I got it in a terrible state for £90), I had not ridden it much.  The last time had been when unemployed in 2012 and I had felt terrible vertigo as if I was constantly going to crash over the handlebars; I often felt nauseous though never actually vomited.  That was on a 3Km ride to and from the job centre.  I thought that given my blood pressure was down, I should be in a better state.  However, thinking about it the woman who used to live in my house had similar symptoms and had to stop motorbiking as a result, so maybe there was some inner ear infection we caught, I do not know.

Anyway, the decision about whether to return to my bicycle was soon made for me.  I know I live in a snobby area, but no-one who cycled passed me did not look like they were about to race for a leading team.  The bicycles were generally more expensive than my car (it is insured for £1000); I have now seen bicycles for sale at twice that amount.  Even Halfords sells bicycles for £850 (€977; US$1300); let alone the Giant dealership I passed, with bicycles for £4499 (€5699 - their exchange rate; US$6883).  As when I drive it is clear that I would be disparaged for simply what I was using.  The other thing is the clothing.  Very few people ride around on a bicycle in normal clothes, let alone work clothes.  The time when people would ride in their suit or overalls to work are long gone.  The only people in ordinary clothes on a bicycle are either children generally in school uniform or people riding on the pavement.  These days adults riding on the road, whether it is a weekday or the weekend must ride in a pristine cycle team strip.  I used to have the Credit Agricole strip because Chris Boardman rode for that team and they were only bank in Falaise which would change my traveller's cheques.  That was my kit until I got chocolate ice cream on it at a restaurant somewhere South of Fecamp.  I guess these people change when they reach work and probably shower too.  Given that my workplace has no air conditioning and the window beside me does not open; it has an extractor fan embedded in it which does not work but madly is cleaned periodically.  I would arrive with sweat dripping from me and having to squeeze into a toilet cubicle to change.

What soon became apparent is that like football and running, cycling is no longer a democratic sport.  Football was captured by the prosperous middle classes (as opposed to me who was middle class and not prosperous) in the 1990s and running soon after.  In swimming there has been a similar attempt, but fortunately most pools at least leave some segments of the pool clear of the swimming lanes that these 'elite' practitioners favour to demonstrate their skills.  Heaven help you if you attempt to swim in them, you will be swamped and even kicked to get back into the non-laned area.  The sense that 'you are not doing it right' and thus open to public ridicule, sometimes very vocal, has now become embedded in all of these sports, cycling among them.  It is as much about how you appear as about what you do or what benefit you are gaining.  The other day I sat in central Esher for about an hour; 34 cyclists in small groups of individually came passed me going off in different directions.  It is clearly a crossroads for different routes around that part of Surrey.  Of those that I saw, and there may have been others I missed, only three cyclists, all men, were not wearing a pristine cycle team strip and riding a bike which, at least, would be at the top of Halfords range if not that of Giant.

As they whizz past, you get that look of disdain and often are told to get off the road, back on to the pavement, apparently nowadays the cycle path for those just using a bicycle as a mode of transport rather than a status symbol.  Non-status symbol cyclists now get it from all sides.  Of course, we have always been shouted at or pushed by car drivers, for 'being in the wrong place' or 'not knowing the law' especially when turning right or using a cycle lane.  On the pavement the large pushchair mothers shout as if cycling there is tantamount you trying to abduct or crush their child and now the poser cyclists have a go at you for being where they want to be and not dressed 'right'.

Yes, you can have your Sky Rides around city centres and all of the initiatives to get more people cycling.  However, it is too late, certainly in southern England.  Too many influential people want to keep the average person off their bicycle.  As with running and visiting gyms, cycling is now the preserve of the rich.  They identify themselves by what they wear and ride and have no tolerance for 'plebs' trying get in on the game.  It is all about status, as Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto when lecturing on the cultural perceptions of fatness, it has all been turned on its head from three centuries ago.  Then it was the rich who were seen as fat as they could afford to eat well.  Now it is the rich who are the slim ones, sometimes looking as if they are starved, because they can still afford to eat well; our definition of 'well' having changed.  Thus, they are going to prevent any ordinary person from exercising so that they cannot aspire to even look like their 'betters'.  They do this by making it so unpleasant to take part that individuals abandon it for not wanting to suffer further chastisement.  I was blind to this, but realise now that I own no house, living in a sub-let room and drive a 15-year old car, there is no way I would be accepted into the ranks of cyclists and to even try is to open me up to more of the bullying I have too often experienced in my life.

P.P. 06/08/2013
I read an article in 'The Guardian' on Saturday 3rd August 2013 which seemed to sum up my fears.  One person interviewed said that 'cycling has become the new golf' for upper middle class males.  The newspaper's own coverage of Sunday's 100-mile ride for serious amateurs seemed to reinforce this view.  It is all about the kit and now increasingly about downloading the statistics regarding your ride from some on-board device.  Performance now seems to out-rank achievement.  Despite the newspaper arguing that cycling has become 'less cliquey' in fact itself is showing that simply the clique has shifted from rather nerdy individuals of the past to snobby ones of the present.  Nothing is going to keep me away from cycling more than knowing I am going to be heckled for not only what I am wearing and riding but also what electronic equipment I might be carrying.  Cycling, like running is now an elitist hobby.  What is going to be next?  Darts?

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Return Of The Pedestrian

After losing my house I had no option but to live with my parents or be homeless.  As I have noted on this blog over the past few months, I took the first option.  Though it proved to be stressful it was less debilitating than living on the streets or at some council's pleasure in a bed & breakfast.  That delight will probably come when I am bullied at work again and my parents have died.  Anyway, after weeks of searching for a room; being rejected by the bulk of them because I was too old (at 45) or too male or was impudent to ask that there was heating that worked, I finally found the room I mentioned.  I am a sub-tenant of a Lithuanian family in a house with another lodger plus the family of two adults, a child and a dog.  The dog only understands Lithuanian and looks at me with a bewildered stare whenever I speak to her in English.  In contrast, the child flicks between both languages with immense ease. 

In London it is expected that you commute to work.  My parents live 30Km outside London and the route I took meant I could do that in 30 minutes.  I was offered rooms that were 18-19Km from my workplace but with the trains being radial rather than around the circumference and the traffic in so many one-way systems between these rooms and work it easily too 2 hours to cover this distance.  I was fortunate that the room I ended up with is less than 3.5Km from where I work.  Since losing the house, my weight had risen by 3Kg.  My mother had kept trying to persuade me at least to walk around the town where they live, for exercise.  However, having been bullied for ten years in my childhood, there are very few corners of the town which do not haunt me with memories of being humiliated or physically assaulted.   The neighbouring town is a little better as it has been do smashed around by developers in the past thirty years and continues to be altered that there are few structures left from my memory to remind me of what happened: the library where I was punched has been levelled, the swimming pool where I was held under the water is now replaced by a car park and where the other pool, the one at which my trainers were stolen, used to stand is now a landscaped bank of grass and flowers.

I had never visited my new district ever before, so I can walk through it with no ghosts tugging at my peace of mind.  Like much of London, though the area is generally wealthy, there are pockets where ordinary people live and abruptly you can turn a corner and see a very different society from the street you just left.  It reminds me of London Below in 'Neverwhere' (television series 1996; cassette/CD 1996; novels 1996 & 2006; graphic novel 2005) which I have just recently re-watched on DVD.  It is more like 'London Beside'.  The same applies to the architecture.  I am fortunate on my walk to pass large Victorian town houses, 1930s blocks of flats and semi-detached villas, 1950s bungalows, 1960s blocks of flats, 1990s fake versions of the Victorian houses and terraced houses that could have come from any period in the past century.  I suppose this is better than a route that took me alongside a dual carriage way for kilometres.  There are small shops and pubs on the way, some with a very old-fashioned approach - one chemist advertises that it develops films and one post office closes on Wednesday afternoons.

Walking I see the same people, some occasionally, some almost daily.  Many, of course are oblivious to me, tied up in the sounds and images emerging from whatever device they are grasping.  Conversely, I am watched eagle-eyed by parents.  This is the fate of any man walking within 500 metres of a school.  Everyone no matter how smart or shabby looking is perceived as a potential paedophile.  It is very unpleasant, but something that seems unavoidable these days.  I try to skirt going too close to any school, nursery, playgroup or even college, fearful that some mother is going to thrust an assault alarm at me and have me dragged off for lynching because I simply look 'odd'.  I am jumping ahead of myself as before the parents, thrusting us off the pavement with vast pushchairs, there are the sports fanatics, filling up the park with styles that look like they belong in the Eighties as they run and exercise.  There are also the dog walkers, even more demanding than pushchair pushers as their dogs scurry in multiple directions threatening to snare your knees in their leashes and it is always your fault.  From this you can tell the prosperity of the area.  The poorer the area, the earlier in the morning people head to work, something you can witness if you take a  tube train from Mile End at 06.00.  There are the cyclists, looking like left over domestiques from the Tour de France, in top team kits, with more equipment than I have in my car.  It is only at 07.30 that the locals begin to head to work, appearing like the Eloi in 'The Time Machine' (1960) in this case as if summoned by some silent signal.  Literally five minutes can be the difference between an empty street and it being filled with apparently sightless zombies, only zombies who march and brook no-one else in their path.

Apparently a quarter of adults walk for less than two hours per week; I do four to six hours; the recommended is one hour thirty minutes.  I now walk 6.5Km per day, averaging about 6kph.  As occasionally I drive and sometimes I go out at the weekends too, I cover 25-38Km per week.  However, having my health reviewed by my doctor recently, this was deemed to be 'inactive'.  Thus, though I feel healthier from walking apparently it is far from being enough actually to make me healthy.  I have noticed that the stress brought about by idiots driving has been reduced.  However, I would contest the suggestion made in the reports that came out in May, that walking benefits your mental health.  The time you are left to ponder life and to think that I am in a job that I can only afford two suits and I live as a sub-tenant with an immigrant family, is not cheering.  In addition, living in such a prosperous area I see so much arrogant behaviour even of people walking and cycling, let alone the car drivers who regularly try to kill me on the Zebra crossings.  I often arrive at work or back home thoroughly dispirited by seeing how unpleasant people are and knowing that I will never own a house again, not even one of the small, mid-20th century terraced places.  Perhaps I need to put my brain into an ipod or a smartphone to avoid such daily mental challenges.

I did aspire, briefly, to be a flâneur.  This term these days usually means someone who is pretty much a layabout going back to its 16th century routes.  However in the 19th century in France it took on a more proactive sense of being someone who strolled in order to explore his/her urban environment. The ideal flâneur was seen as an individualist, not willing to fit into the category of the 'badaud', i.e. someone who simply gazed without thought at what they were passing, perhaps like the modern 'rubber-necker'.  The flâneur seems to be having a bit of revival, perhaps not in South-West London but in West London by Will Self, author, raconteur and now professor, who is apparently renowned for his peripatetic lectures, i.e. lectures while walking, an approach in theory dating back to Aristotle (384-332BCE), though that view may stem from a mistranslation.  Self's approach in turn seems to have been highlighted by his book 'Walking to Hollywood' (2010) stemming from his obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessions going back to the early 2000s of walking great distances out from London.  Like myself, he did not find the walks curative or beneficial for his mental health.  From what I have heard from an old friend of this blog, his colleague, John Francis, seems to be developing the flâneur concept in terms of lecturing and in exploring the urban environment, perhaps, it has been suggested, stemming from his background in film studies.  This sense of people walking through London and other urban locations equipped unlike any flâneur of the past to challenge, check and capture the scene is an exciting one.  However, I imagine like running and cycling it will be taken and made into a colourful pose activity with expensive clothing that you simply must buy in order to be into it properly.

The flâneur, even on a daily walk, is exploring the town/city, being alert to its history and its changes even day-on-day let alone over the seasons, years and centuries.  It is seen as then leading on into street photography, not only witnessing the urban scene but capturing it.  Wikipedia refers to Susan Sontag in this respect, but I would go back to Robert Doisneau, who has brought street scenes of his Paris in that era to many people in succeeding decades.  Thus, I equipped myself with small camera and dreamt of having the tools to look at the spaces I walked through an augmented reality application on a smartphone, even adding to the elements available online from my walk.  Yet, it has failed.  Even when I got passed the blood-filled blisters, I found that I simply moved like the blind zombies, in fact not even marching at their pace.  I move furtively, seeking to avoid being close enough to a school to be shouted at for being a potential molester, dodging the cyclists on the pavement (despite the minimal traffic on the roads I walk beside), heads down, the world blotted out by the iPlayer.  Getting to work is a physical and mental survival course.  I am not excited by the day-to-day changes and I am depressed by the streets that show me everything I can never have and more.

My walking saves me some money in petrol and that saves the planet some milligrams of pollution.  I guess the stress is not as bad as when I drove and perhaps my chances of being injured or killed have fallen now I am on suburban pavements rather than the M25.  However, it has shown me that not everyone can be a flâneur.  You need to be rich enough and have sufficient prospects not to be overwhelmed by the weight of other people's opportunities.  You certainly need an arrogance to face down the arrogance of those unhappy at you being in the space they want to move into.  It probably helps if you are a woman so that you are not considered a potential burglar, rapist or paedophile at every step.  So I guess the flâneuse it possible in this world.  Perhaps then you can get some benefit from walking through a city.  For me, there are no mental benefits, bar the fact that I am not pursued by the ghosts of my hometown bullies.  Even the doctor's system claims that there is no physical benefit and that walking 25Km is insufficient to render me anything more than 'inactive'.