Notes from underground

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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Not dead yet (book review)

Not Dead YetNot Dead Yet by Peter James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Detective Superintendent Roy Grace of the Sussex Police has a lot on his plate: a murder case with a limbless headless corpse. How can they search for the killer if they don’t know who the victim is?
And then a film crew want to use the Brighton Pavilion for a new film on King George IV and his mistress, and Roy Grace is put in charge of security for the film set and the star Gaia Lafayette,
whose temperamental fans can turn adoration to detestation in an instant, and has already received several threats to her life. There are others too, with grudges against the producers of the film, who are planning to disrupt it. Some of the threats are known, but some are unknown to anyone other than the plotters.

Peter James has written several whodunits featuring Roy Grace, and I think this is one of the best. As with many such books it is not easy to say much about it without giving away too much of the plot. But this one is definitely a good read for lovers of murder mysteries.

Are there flaws?

Yes, it is difficult to write a book that has none. But in this book the most obvious flaw does not affect the plot and is peripheral to the story, though it could quite easily not have been. And that is that I can’t imagine any circumstances in which one would take a newborn baby home from the hospital in a car seat.

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Know your DA

During the past week the Democratic Alliance (DA) appears to have been trying to rewrite history and rehabilitate its past, including a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #KnowYourDA. This has prompted others to use the same hashtag to denounce the DA.

DAknow01One of the more controversial elements of the campaign was this pamphlet, quoting Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC, praising Helen Suzman, one of the leaders of the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party was the great great grandmother of the DA.

If you know anything about family trees you will know that each of your great great grandparents contributes about one sixteenth of your DNA. The pamphlet appears to be trying to tell a different story, with Helen Suzman as Mummy and Nelson Mandela as Daddy of the DA.

It wasn’t like that, and it still isn’t like that.

Check where the other fifteen-sixteenths of the DA’s DNA really came from.

One Tweeter put it in a nutshell when he said:

Akani Mathebula@Akanirelo 1h

#KnowYourDA is failing because instead of crafting a new future @helenzille wants to rewrite history. Epic fail

The Democratic Alliance was formed out of a campaign, led by one of its components, the Democratic Party led by Tony Leon, to unite the white right during and after the 1999 General Election, under the slogan “Fight back”. Their campaign posters were clearly aimed at appealing to those who were “Gatvol” with five years of democracy, and wanted to fight back against it to restore the status quo ante.

After the election the united with the rump of the National Party (the party of apartheid, the former political home of most of the white right), and in order to do so introduced the thoroughly undemocratic practice of “floor-crossing” into parliament. That turned round to bite them when some of the former leaders of the National Party found the Democratic Alliance too right-wing for them, and themselves crossed the floor to join the ANC.

While this effort to whitewash the DA is reprehensible, some of the comments to counter the DA campaign are equally reprehensible. Some people are trying to counter it by attacking Helen Suzman, and trying to show that she was evil.

But Helen Suzman was not responsible for this pamphlet, nor for the misuse of her photograph and the words of Nelson Mandela.

I think Nelson Mandela’s words were sincere and genuinely meant, and for the most part true.

What is bad is the DA’s dishonesty in trying to claim the credit.

I was one of those who voted for Helen Suzman in 1961.

The Progressive Party had broken away from the United Party two years previ0usly, and she was the only one of their MPs to be re-elected. It was not perfect, and it did not have a perfect policy. But after 13 years of apartheid, and the relentless efforts by the National Party to create a race-obsessed society, the Progressive Party opted for a different policy. They switched the focus from race to class. The National Party wanted to ensure that only whites could elect representatives to parliament. They removed black representatives. They were in the process of disenfranchising coloureds, and their aim was to have an electorate defined by skin-colour. Only whites were to be able to vote. The official opposition, the United Party, were lukewarm in opposing this, and so the “progressives” left.

But they did not join any of the several parties and movements that advocated “one man, one vote”. They still wanted a limited franchise, only it was to be limited by class, not race. In their policy, anyone of any race could vote, as long as they were rich and educated. Property, income and education were to be the criteria, rather than race.[1]

But Helen Suzman’s significance was far wider than her party’s restrictive class-based franchise policy. She spoke out against the Natoinal Party’s increasingly totalitarian jackboot rule at a time when few others did (and most of those who did were detained, or banned, or harrassed by the police). And she was the only one who did so in parliament, where she could not be silenced.

But when, after several political marriages of convenience, in which the Progressive Party became the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party and then the Democratic Party, it finally, after the 1994 General Elections, held aloof from joining the Government of National Unity led by Nelson Mandela.

If the DA had joined the GNU, there might just have been a grain of truth in the picture of Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman together on the DA pamphlet. But as it is, it is lying propaganda, which deserves all the contempt that has been poured upon it.

Instead of trying to reinvent the past, the DA would be better occupied in trying to rebuild the future.

As for me, I’m still waiting for Mamphela Ramphele to bring the train to the station.

_____

Notes and references

[1] The DA is not the only one to twist history here. In 1960 there were three political parties that stood for “one man one vote” and were also themselves nonracial: the Communist Party (which had been banned since 1950) the Liberal Party, which had been formed in 1953, and the Pan African Congress (which was banned in 1960).

The Congress movement — the African National Congress, the SA Congress of Democrats, the Indian Congress and so on — was made up of racially exclusive bodies. Rica Hodgson, a member of the Congress of Democrats, recently tried to blacken the name of the Liberal Party by saying that it did not allow blacks to join, whereas it was her own organisation, the COD, that was all-white. But whether one tries to blacken the name of other organisations, as Rica Hodgson did, or whitewash one’s own, as Hellen Zille is doing, it is still distorting history.

 

 

 

Lily of the field (book review)

Lily of the FieldLily of the Field by John Lawton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.

It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.

When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.

But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven’t read the other books.

The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.

Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he “went ballistic”. “Ballistic” was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM — an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I’m sure it took a few more years before the term “went ballistic” was applied metaphorically to human beings.

The second such anachronism is where someone is described as “a scrounger living low on the food chain”. Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don’t think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.

Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of “blows coppers away”. That one I’m not sure of, but I don’t think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.

Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren’t around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.

In spite of that, it’s still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I’ll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really.

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Franchise?

There are some words that are quite meaningless, because they can mean just about anything. Words like “unit”, “module”, “aspect” and “facet”, for example. The latest word to join this rapidly expanding group is “franchise”, and that is why I wondered about this tweet that I saw on Twitter this morning:

Has any of the print media written a story about an ‘inexperienced’ CEO being appointed to lead a franchise this morning? Yes No Maybe?

Perhaps there is something that preceded it that would explain what it means, but I’m left puzzled. In the last five years or so, “franchise” has been increasingly used of sports teams. Why, I don’t know.

NandosLogoI tend to think of “franchise” as referring to a retail chain of shops under a common name that sell something. So one has Nandos and KFC that sell take-away cooked chicken, Wimpy and McDonalds that sell hamburgers, and so on. The “restaurants”, if they can be called that, are individually owned, but they have the same decor, use the same recipes, and sell stuff for the same price, at least in any one country where they operate. The have a licence to operate, a “franchise”, from the owner of the brand name.

nandos1But I find difficulty in seeing how this applies to a sports team, like the Dolphins, the Sharks, the Titans, Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs or Mamelodi Sundowns. I know that these teems sometimes have sponsorships from commercial firms — at one time Mamelodi Sundowns were being called “Ellerines Sundowns”. But the term “franchise” implies that there is a Mamelodi Sundowns team in every city, all wearing the same outfit in their games, and that somewhere there is a big Sundowns CEO who manages all these franchisees, and admits new ones once they have learnt the culture of the franchise.

If you refer to the Titans as a cricket team, you know they play cricket. But if you refer to them as a “franchise”, they could be selling fried chicken or hamburgers or pizza for all anyone knows.

So just as “unit” can refer to anything from an electric locomotive to a kitchen cupboard to a group of soldiers, “franchise” can now mean anything, or, more likely, nothing at all.

The nightwatch winter (book review)

The Nightwatch WinterThe Nightwatch Winter by Jenny Overton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thirty years ago, when our children were small, we subscribed to the Puffin Book Club, and every month a new book arrived, and was put on the shelves. I don’t know how many of them the children read, but the other day, looking for some light reading, and not having seen anything I hadn’t read on our general fiction shelves, I looked on the old children’s books’ shelf, and found this.

It’s a very ordinary story about some school children in a village in the south of England. In the Christmas holidays they get bored, and go exploring the neighbourhood, in the course of which they encounter a reclusive woman who lives alone with her cat. When the Lent term starts at school they get involved in preparing for a play.

The children are of indeterminate ages, though as the youngest is 11, I assume that most of the others are somewhere in the age range of 11-14.

I think it is the kind of book I would have hated as a child.

The problem is that it is so ordinary. It describes things that children do, like climbing up drains and acting in school plays, and being jealous over who gets the best parts and so on.

It was published 40 years ago, and so describes a vanished generation. There is only one mention of a computer in the whole story, and no one would have had one at home. And the play they produce is an Easter play, and the children seem to be familiar with the plot. Even back then, that might have been quite unusual (though the girls were at a church school, run by nuns). I recall a Church of England bishop of about that period describing how he took his nephew and niece to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, and being somewhat disconcerted to find that they didn’t know the plot.

But in spite of its ordinariness, I found the story quite moving in a way. I wouldn’t buy it for a child to read, though. I’d be afraid that they would have been as horribly bored as I would have been.

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