Notes from underground

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Dissolution: how revolutions consume their own children

Dissolution (Shardlake Series)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Historical novels are not my favourite genre, as I tend to spend too much time looking for anachronisms, but C.J. Sansom seems to get around that. I first read his Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War, and then [boo:Dominion], which is a kind of “what if” novel — what if the UK had surrendered to Germany after the fall of France in 1940?

Dissolution is set in the period of the English Reformation in the 1530s, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and is a combination of historical novel and whodunit, a genre popularised by Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose.

Ruins of an English monastery

Ruins of an English monastery

In Dissolution Thomas Cromwell, who masterminded the English Reformation, sends a commissioner to the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast to arrange for its dissolution and surrender. The commissioner is murdered, so Cromwell sends another, Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, to continue the work of the first one and also to investigate the murder.

I ought to know something about the English Reformation, but I don’t know as much as I should. When I studied church history at St Chad’s College, Durham, in the 1960s, it formed quite a large part of the syllabus, but it was not a period that particularly interested me. I was more interested in the missionary period, which, where historical novels are concerned, is covered by Melvyn Bragg‘s Credo. I suppose that’s why I became a missiologist rather than a church historian.

Reading Dissolution reminded me of why I did not much like reading about that period of history, whether church or secular history. There is no doubt that the English Church wanted reforming, but the cure was worse than the disease, and C.J. Sansom brings this out clearly in his novel. None of the characters is particularly admirable. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, suffers from a physical deformity, which seems to reflect a spiritual deformity as well; he is naive and ambitious. He does have a sense of justice, but when push comes to shove, it makes way for ambition and political correctness every time.

Destruction_of_icons_in_Zurich_1524One of the things I did know about Thomas Cromwell was that he ordered the clergy to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials, which I have found useful for family history, among other things, but most of what he did seems to have been bad, and motivated by greed and ambition. I have little reason to suppose that C.J. Sansom got his character very wrong. So the book gives something of the flavour of the times, even if the actual events it describes are fictitious.

But like much historical writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, it also carries “the burden of the present”. George Orwell‘s Animal Farm is an allegory, a parable about how revolutions consume their own children. It is set in a differnt period, and uses different literary techniques, but the same message comes through. The dissolution in the title of the book is not merely about the dissolution of the monasteries as institutions, but the dissolution of the people whose lives are disrupted in the process, and the dissolution of the English Reformation into a cesspool of corruption and greed.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace

There was a protest against the dissolution of the monasteries, called The Pilgrimage of Grace, which tunred into a rebellion. It was defeated after its leaders were given a safe conduct to travel to London to negotiate, and were then brutally murdered.

And so there is much in it that reminds me of the dissolution of South African democracy, twenty years after its inauguration, where the high ideals with which we began have dissolved into patronage, greed and corruption. Apartheid was South Africa’s Lent, 1994 was its Easter, the following 7 years were its Bright Week, and now it is winding down.

The character in the book for whom I felt most sympathy was the exiled Carthusian, Jerome, who was regarded as mad and dangerous, but retained something of the original monastic ideals, and his integrity.

For more on this, and its relevance to our times, see Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic

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No Highway: re-reading a book after 60 years

No HighwayNo Highway by Nevil Shute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]‘s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I’ve just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.

It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.

When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round — that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.

It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.

Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.

I find the social differences interesting too, because I’m also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past.

There are some less obvious things too. The scientist doing research on metal fatigue, Theodore Honey, also has some other interests that seem bizarre to his colleagues and associates — calculating the end of the world from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid and the like. These interests made them doubt his competence as a scientific researcher, and that would probably also be the case today too. But what his contemporaries thought was equally crazy was his designing of moon rockets, yet within 10 years the launching of artificial satellites showed that that was feasible.

Another, and perhaps a minor one, yet which strikes me as significant, is when the designer of an aircraft is announcing plans for important modifications. The accountaint asks if this will require night-shift work and overtime, except on Sundays. The chairman of the airline then asks that “in view of the extreme urgency of this matter to us, may I ask if Sunday work can be authorised?” To which the designer replies, “On no account would I agree with that. If you want work done on Sundays, you must go elsewhere. It is uneconomic upon any account, and it strikes at the root of family life, which is the basis of the greatness of this country.”

That reminded me that there was a brief period, in the middle of the 20th century, when the interests of Mr Gradgrind were eclipsed, and more basic human values were allowed to take precedence over economic ones. It lasted until the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reinstated Mr Gradgrind.

Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it’s still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years’ time too,

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The City of Tshwane gets it right: a service-delivery thank you

When local government bodies get things wrong, people are quick to complain, and one of the phrases that we have seen a lot of in the media lately is “service-delivery protests”.

But sometimes they get things right, and people tend to say less about that.

When we were coming home from church this morning we noticed that municipal workers were plasnting trees in George Storar Drive. Not little saplings, but full-grown jacaranda trees, for which Pretoria has been famous. It is now late spring, and the jacarandas are blooming — here they are in Middel Street, at the eastern end of George Storar Drive.

Jacaranda time in Brooklyn

Jacaranda time in Brooklyn

George Storar Drive had a few small trees in the centre islands, barely more than shrubs, and some flower beds, but if they take in their new home, these full-grown trees should look quite spectacular in a couple of seasons’ time, and change the whole appearance of the road.

Tshwane City Council workers planting jacaranda trees in George Storar Drive

Tshwane City Council workers planting jacaranda trees in George Storar Drive

George Storar Drive is, in a way, the entrance to the academic part of the city, as there are a lot of educational instituions along it, or that it leads to, including the University of Pretoria, and the University of South Africa as well a several high schools.

Some of the newly=planted trees -- the holse have not yet been filled in.

Some of the newly=planted trees — the holes have not yet been filled in.

It looks as though some trees had to be removed because a road was being widened somewhere else, so congratulations to the city authorities for thinking of another place to put them, a plac e where they will look really good.

In a couple of years we hope to see the newly transplanted trees looking like this.

In a couple of years we hope to see the newly transplanted trees looking like this.

Jacarandas are exotic to South Africa, and a few years ago there was a lot of antipathy in official circles to illegal alien vegetation, and under that policy Pretoria would have lost all its jacarandas, for which it has been famous for years. Lots of places that had alien vegetation have been cleared, but now the policy has been softened a bit. A few days ago I was listening to a radio programme about the Tsitsikama forest, and someone was saying that exotic trees, like wattles, protected the indigenous forest, because the wattles were available for firewood, whereas if they were not people would be chopping down trees in the few remaining bits of indigenous forest for that purpose.

About a month ago we noted that where former council houses were damaged in a severe hailstorm last year, the city council was helping the residents to replace the old asbestos roofs with galvanised iron ones, which, in addtion to being more resistant to hail damage, are also made of a safer material.

So congratulations to the City Council of Tshwane for good ideas for beautifying the city and improving the quality of life of its citizens in different ways. If anyone from the city counsil is reading this, they can take it as a service-delivery thank you.

Go figure

I’ve quite often seen the expression “Go figure”, and thought I knew what it meant.

Go figure!

Go figure!

Take, for example, the graphic on the right, which was recently posted on Facebook, referring to current fraud investigations in Britain. I would have thought that that was a classic example of the use of “Go figure”, meaning “Work out the significance or implications of these figures for yourself.”

But I’ve been told by the experts in American English in the alt.usage.english newsgroup that that is not what it means.

As one put it, “It means ‘this is surprising’, ‘I didn’t expect that to happen’.”

And another, “In my experience, it’s always used to express perplexity of some sort about something.”

Now in the example graphic on the right, there is no surprise at all. Britain has a Tory government, which can be expected to implement policies that favour the rich and screw the poor, so there is no element of surprise, and nothing to be perplexed about. It is exactly what one would expect. But I still think that “Go figure” is an appropriate comment, though it seems that most Americans wouldn’t.

I asked my wife what she thought it meant, and she said “Go and work it out?”

So it seems that it is an American metaphorical expression that has been exported, but in at least some places that it has been exported to, it has been misunderstood, and given the literal meaning rather than the metaphorical one.

It seems that the canonical explanation is here AUE: FAQ excerpt: “Go figure”:

This expands to “Go and figure it out”, and means: “The reasons for the fact just stated are unknown and possibly unknowable. You can waste your time thinking about what they might be, if you choose, but you’re not likely to accomplish anything.” (Kivi Shapiro)

“Go figure” comes from Yiddish Gey vays “Go know”. Leo Rosten, in The Joys of Yinglish (Penguin, 1989, ISBN 0-452-26534-6), says: “In English, one says, ‘Go and see [look, ask, tell]…’ Using an imperative without any link to a conjunction is pure Yiddish, no doubt derived from the biblical phrase, translated literally: ‘Go tell…’ ‘Go praise the Lord…’ (In English this becomes ‘Come, let us praise the Lord.’)”

Gianfranco Boggio-Togna writes: “The expressions an Italian is likely to use to show bafflement correspond exactly to “go figure”: va a capire=’go understand’ or va a sapere=’go know’. The va a idiom is common in colloquial Italian.”

Are my wife and I the only ones who have misunderstood it, or have others misunderstood it as well?

Murder in Mykonos

Murder In Mykonos. Jeffrey Siger (Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis Mystery)Murder In Mykonos. Jeffrey Siger by Jeffrey Siger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A readable and exciting whodunit.

Police officer Andreas Kaldis is a bit disgruntled when he is transferred from Athens to the tourist island of Mykonos in the Aegean, from investigating murders to being a nursemaid to tourists is not an exciting prospect. But soon there is a report of a dead body, found in the crypt of a rural church, apparently of a young woman. The case becomes more urgent when another young woman, a tourist, disappears, and it appears that the police on Mykonos have a serial killer to look for.

But there are political complications. The mayor of Mykonos does not want the news of the investigation to leak out — nothing must be allowed to frighten away the tourists on whom Mykonos’s prosperity depends, When the police start to trace the movements of the murdered girl, and those who last saw her alive, there seem to be too many suspects, and at a crucial point in the investigation, most of the suspects disappear without trace.

There are a few plot holes and discrepancies in the story, but none of them serious enough to get in the way of enjoying a good read, if you like crime fiction.

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Journeys in the dead season

Journeys in the Dead SeasonJourneys in the Dead Season by Spencer Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An awaiting trial prisoner reads a book written by an ex-World War 1 soldier. The prisoner is apparently facing a charge of being an accomplice in kidnapping and murder in Leicestershire, while the soldier makes notes for his book while travelling around the same general area visiting his war-time companions, but the events of his journeys are mainly revealed in letters to his father, which the prisoner has apparently not read.

Both the ex-soldier and the prisoner have witnessed scenes of death, and meet with psychotherapists, and both end up wandering around the Leicestershire countryside in apparent fits of madness. It is difficult to make any kind of sense of this, but that seems to be the point, as it made very l;ittle sense to the protagonists. In spite of the apparent pointlessness, it made compelling reading, even though in the end one is left wondering what exactly has happened.

It also left me wondering what has happened to book editors.

I think I would be reluctant to write historical novels, especially novels that contain, as this one does, texts purported to date from a different period. In this case, the letters of the ex-soldier to his father are dated in the early 1920s, and yet they use some anachronistic expressions that I think may not have been used then. Referring to the young soldiers who fought in the First World War as “teenagers” seems out of place. Perhaps they did, but I’m sure that people of that period would have been more likely to refer to them as “boys” or possibly “youths”. I thought “teenager” only came into widespread use in the 1940s of 1950s. Similarly, I do not think people of that period would have been familiar with the 1970s malapropism “parameters”, or with the misuse of “sojourn” apparently popularised by Stephen Donaldson‘s “Thomas Covenant” books. I thought it was only in the last 20 years or so that people have begun to use “proven” instead of “proved” as the regular past tense of “prove” — before that I understood it as a technical term of Scottish law, found in the verdict of “not proven”.

But perhaps this anachronism is all part of the book’s topsy-turvy timeline, in which the personalities of the protagonists from two different periods seem to merge.

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Dreamcatcher: a book review

DreamcatcherDreamcatcher by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m never sure what to expect with Stephen King novels. Some I think are very good, some very bad, and most somewhere in between. The ones I liked best are Needful Things, Pet Sematary and The girl who loved Tom Gordon. I’ve generally enjoyed his supernatural horror stories rather than his science fiction ones or other genres, though The girl who loved Tom Gordon, about a girl lost in the woods, is neither science fiction nor horror.

I read a couple of his science fiction ones, including a UFO novel, The Tommyknockers, which I thought was his worst. So when I picked up The Dreamcatcher at the library, I wasn’t expecting much, but thought that as it was only a library book, I didn’t need to feel I had to finish it. In the end I did finish it. It was a page turner, in the sense that I wanted to see what happened, but it confirmed my opinion that King is better at writing about spooks than about space aliens. Dreamcatcher was better than The Tommyknockers but not much.

The story line was disjointed and made little sense, and thoughout the story telepathy seems to be overused as a deus ex machina. The eponymous “dreamcatcher” is never really explained in any coherent way. The main characters are unreal; we are told virtually nothing about their families, and they hardly ever think of them or miss them when they are experiencing tough times.

But there is also a kind of moral thread running through the story. Stephen King clearly has a lot of sympathy for bullied children, and one could say that there is a moral in the story: be kind to bullied and disabled children.

A possible explanation for this might be that King had been in a serious accident, and appears to have written this book while recovering from it, and one of the characters experiences a similar accident, and goes through similar suffering. The girl who lived Tom Gordon, written shortly before the accident, was a much better book.

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Why do I support Putin?

I was gobsmacked to be told by another blogger recently that I supported Putin.

Tell Me Bill Maher Is Not an Idiot | Clarissa’s Blog: “Yet you support Putin whose belligerent war mongering makes both Obama and Bush look like babes in arms?”

That was news to me, and so I asked what made her think I supported Putin, and it was apparently because I had referred to the conflict in Ukraine as a “civil war”, perhaps in this earlier blog post: Some observations on the Ukraine crisis | Notes from underground.

Now she is Ukrainian, and I am not and I’ve never been to Ukraine. I have read a little of its history, and according to the history I have read, Eastern and Western Ukraine have different histories and this sometimes leads to differences of opinion. Blogger Clarissa denies this, says that there are no differences of opinion among Ukrainians, and all the problems are caused by outside interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs — from Putin, of course.

Well, to misquote Bob Dylan, Oh, no, no, no, I’ve been through this movie before. We were told during the era of the Verwoerdian dream that black people and white people in South Africa lived in perfect harmony, and any appearance to the contrary was caused by outside agitators from Moscow. And therefore anyone who spoke of differences of opinion was ipso facto a Communist, and was therefore supporting Stalin or Krushchev or Brezhnev or Andropov or whoever happened to be the head honcho of the USSR at the moment. We even had laws that defined “communist” in such terms.

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

I hold no brief for Putin. I don’t know what he’s up to most of the time, and I wonder if the citizens of Russia know what he’s up to most of the time either. To all accounts he’s an exponent of Realpolitik, but the same appears to be true or Obama, Cameron, Merkel and the rest of them. So I don’t “support” any of them.

The only political leader I might just possibly support is the President of Uruquay. José Mujica. If we had a politician like that, I’d support him. But in voting in our election earlier this year it was a matter of deciding which was the least of 29 evils, and it was a hard choice.

As for Ukraine, I just wish the Ukrainians would sort out their differences peaceully, whether or not they have any differences, with minimal interference from politicians in other countries, all of whom, I suspect, are using Ukraine as a political football.


Independent Scotland: rhetoric and reality

The news and social media have recently been full of this week’s referendum on whether Scotland should be independent.

ScotFlagOne of the things that has struck me about it is the dire predictions of disaster for an independent Scotland from those opposed to independence, yet most of them are not on record as having opposed the independence of several other recently independent countries on similar grounds. Why are they opposed to independence for Scotland, yet not to independence for some of the following countries?

Country Area Population

30,265 sq miles

5.295 million

Czech Republic

30,450 sq miles

10.52 million


24,938 sq miles

2.013 million


18,933 sq miles

5.414 million


19,767 sq miles

3.829 million


21,851 sq miles

4.253 million


11,720 sq miles

2.074 million


7,827 sq miles

2.06 million

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another on whether Scotland should be independent or not. I’m not voting and I don’t live there. But I am struck by the spuriousness of some of the arguments for a “No” vote, and the predictions of disaster. Have such disasters struck the other states on the list above?

I can see some good arguments for a “No” vote: the main one is that Scottish independence would be bad for the rest of the UK, because it would condemn the rest of the UK to having a Tory government in perpetuity. Perhaps the answer to that would be to have independence for Wales for a start, and perhaps Cornwall, Mercia, Wessex, Bernicia, Deira, etc, and and leave London and the “home” counties to do their merry little Tory thing.

Another utterly spurious argument was that the Royal Bank of Scotland would move its head office to London. If it did such a thing, I hope that it would change its name. And if I were a Scot, and had an account with it, I would certainly take my custom elsewhere.

I wonder where Slovenians do their banking?

Iconoclasm and the Reformation

A very interesting post by my blogging friend Terry Cowan, on the real meaning of iconoclasm in the Protestant Reformation and in Islam:

Notes from a Common-place Book: Philip Jenkins on the Reformation, both Protestant and Islamic:

For anyone living at the time, including educated elites, the iconoclasm was not just an incidental breakdown of law and order, it was the core of the whole movement, the necessary other side of the coin to the growth of literacy. Those visual and symbolic representations of the Christian story had to decrease, in order for the world of the published Bible to increase. In terms of the lived experience of people at the time, the image-breaking is the key component of the Reformation. In the rioting and mayhem, a millennium-old religious order was visibly and comprehensively smashed….in effect removing popular access to the understanding of faith and the Christian story.

It’s worth reading, as is the article it refers to and quotes from.

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