Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

All of a winter’s night

All of a Winter's NightAll of a Winter’s Night by Phil Rickman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suppose one could sum it up by saying this this book is to morris dancing what The nine tailors by Dorothy Sayers is to church bell ringing.

I looked at this book very carefully before buying it, to make sure that it was not Midwinter of the spirit sneakily published under a different title, since they have republished old Phil Rickman books under new titles before, as a trap for the unwary.

It turned out, however, that I had not read this one before.

Phil Rickman‘s early books were of the fantasy/horror genre, but he seems to have been moving in his more recent ones more towards the crime and detective genre. In this one, however, he seems to have been trying to give equal prominence, switching scenes between the Revd Merrily Watkins, Church of England Vicar of Ledwardine in Herefordshire, who is also the diocesan exorcist, but with the updated and rather twee title of “deliverance consultant”, and Hereford detectives Annie Howe and Francis Bliss who do their detecting while trying to keep their affair secret from their colleagues.

It’s a while since I’ve seen a new Phil Rickman book — as I noted, the last one turned out to be a false alarm, mutton dressed as lamb. Perhaps I have rosy memories of his style, or perhaps his writing style has changed, but I found this one stylistically disappointing. I don’t know whether is writing style has got worse, or whether I have just become more critical.

One of the problems is that he has sudden changes of scene, but the characters are only indicated by pronouns. So you have “he said” and “she said”, but only halfway through the paragraph do you realise that the he and she are not the same people who were in the previous paragraph, and go back to the beginning and read it with different characters in mind.

In the first few chapters, in Particular, it looks as though Rickman has been reading the elementary text books on fiction writing that give advice to wannabe writers — especially the advice to end every chapter with a cliffhanger. The problem is that for the first 15 chapters or so the build up to the cliffhanger falls flat in the next chapter, so that every chapter begins with an anticlimax. This becomes tiresome after a while. So one learns that people have been terrible things in a churchyard. It turns out to have been morris dancing.

I first learnt about morris dancing from the comic strip The Perishers, which appeared in the Daily Mirror back in the 1960s. The role of the morris men in the comic strip was never terribly clear, but they struck me as nostalgic old gits who were trying to keep alive imagined traditions of a Merrie England that had never existed. Twenty years later I saw them performing in real life in a series of church fetes in Pretoria, the ind of events announced on their posters as a “Fayre”. I once made a video juxtaposing them with a group of Pedi women doing a folk dance in what is now Limpopo province, but was then called the Northern Transvaal. Two folk traditions, one local, the other imported.

Rickman tried to introduce morris dancing as though it was uncanny, spooky and scary, but in my experience, however, it was just quaint and nostalgic, and morris men no more sinister than people who liked going around ringing church bells.

As the book goes on it gets better, at least as far as the plot is concerned, and I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that ultimately the villain turns out to be capitalism, especially as exemplified by property developers. In that it doesn’t differ much from some of the other more recent Phil Rickman books.

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Okavango gods

Okavango GodsOkavango Gods by Anthony Fleischer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On one level this is a teenage love story set in Shakawe in north-western Botswana. On another level it is a story of a devastating flood, which the author relates to the ancient Middle-Eastern flood stories of Gilgamesh and Noah.

A fisherman’s son and talented woodcarver, Pula Barotse, and his friend, the village doctor’s daughter, Julia Pinto, face the beginning of the flood together, and gradually Pula falls in love with Julia. Pula is black and Julia is white, they come from different backgrounds and cultures, and the flood both draws them together and yet places another barrier between them. There is an American pilot who has come to rescue the flood victims, and who who also falls in love with Julia, and quite a large part of the story is told from his point of view.

There is a villain, Potlako Lereng, a Mosotho, who pops up at odd moments in the story and does nasty things to the other characters, but his motives are never explained other than that he is a “maniac” and a “terrorist” and comes from Thaba Bosiu, the mountain of night, which is made to sound ominous, but with no explanation. I got the impression that the author had a deep prejudice against the Basotho people, and he made Lesotho sound like Mordor, and the Basotho had come to the Okavango delta like orcs, to ravage and destroy.

The Okavango River near Shakawe, Botswana

There are all the ingredients for a good story, star-crossed lovers, a dramatic event, an evil villain, yet somehow it does not gel. In that respect it reminded me of another novel I read several years ago, Odtaa by John Masefield. Odtaa stands for “one damn thing after another”, and in some ways real life may seem like that, but it makes for boring fiction.

I’ve been to Shakawe, or at least passed through it, and took a boat ride up the Okavango river there, so I can picture many of the scenes described in the book — the bee-eaters nesting in the river banks, the crocodiles and hippos, the reeds and the fish eagles. So the descriptions are evocative, but the events themselves and the motives of the characters remain obscure.

*** spoiler alert ***

If you have not read the book and might like to, some of what follows may give away elements of the plot.

Towards the end of the book Pula and Julia go to the Tsodilo Hills, about 40 km west of Shakawe. During the flood Pula has planned to go there by boat, but it seems that the flood waters have receded. So the implication is that they have walked, a day or two after Julia has been desperately ill, at death’s door. The rescue plane gets stuck in the mud. How that happened is not explained, just hinted at. Pula’s father, John Barotse, suddenly decides to attack a crocodile with a small axe, but his motive is not explained. Potlako Lereng pops in and out of the story, threatening or doing nasty things to people for no apparent reason. It is clear that he is a bully, and behaves like one, but most of his actions, except for the last, do not really contribute to the story.

There is a traditional healer, Bubi. She is part diviner, part healer, part witch. That is credible. Healers can turn to the dark side and become witches just as security guards can turn to the dark side and help burglars. Her name suggests evil, but that may just be me — ububi is the Zulu word for evil, but she is not Zulu-speaking, and it may mean something completely different in her language, though with the menace the author tries to put on the Mountain of Night, ind with his refferring to he as a witch, it is quite possible that he is trying to suggest by her name that she is evil. Julia fears her, though whether this is just cultural prejudice, or because she fears real evil, is not made clear.

I’ve also visited Lesotho, and only a few days ago blogged about one journey there, at the age of 17. And shortly before or after that trip I also read the novel Blanket Boy’s Moon, which describes the ritual murders that lie behind some of the menace in Okavango gods. It was from reading that that I first learned of the practice of female circumcision, which I found almost as horrifying as the ritual murders. But the menace that author Anthony Fleischer ascribes to Thaba Bosiu seems misplaced. In Lesotho history it has an honoured place as a mountain of refuge and not does not have the Mordot-like qualities that Fleischer attributes to it.

In the end Bubi tries to drug Julia, though her motive for doing so is unclear, and Julia attacks her, with motives that are also unclear. She could have simply tried to escape, but in the end she has become like Potlako Lereng, who appears as a deus ex machina to threaten her once again.

It could (in my view) have been a much better book if the events had been described — Julia becoming ill, the grounding of the rescue plane, the journey to the Tsodile Hills — rather than just being hinted at, and also if the motives of the characters had been explained.

But in its present form it really is just one damn thing after another.

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Halaal food sparks fury

“Halaal food sparks fury” read the headline in today’s City Press.

I read the first couple of paragraphs, and, bearing in mind today’s date, dismissed it as an April Fool’s joke in rather bad taste. It seemed to diss Christians, trying to make it look as though they were a bunch of idiots.

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL) Commission has been flooded with letters from Christian consumers complaining that most food and beverages in their supermarkets are certified halaal, with some saying they don’t want to eat or drink anything “sacrificed to idols”.

Complaints received by the CRL against supermarkets and Muslim halaal-certification authorities show some Christians are furious about the prevalence of halaal-certified food in grocery stores and restaurants, claiming it violates their right to freedom of choice.

Is that for real? They’re joking, of course.

You can see an online version of the original article here.

But then it seemed that, if it was an April Fool’s joke, rather a lot of people seemed to have fallen for it and were taking it seriously.

I still haven’t made up my mind whether it is for real or not, but I thought I’d say something about it.

I am a Christian, and for more than 60 years I’ve been eating food that has been marked as OK for the dietary rules of other religions. As a schoolboy I liked Mozmarks Tasty Matzos, which was marked “Kosher for Passover”. I never heard anyone say or imply that it was bad for Christians to eat that.

And I loved Gold Dish Mutton Breyani, which was marked as Halaal.

No one ever said that Christians should not eat that either.

There was also Go0d Dish mutton curry with peas — those soon disappeared from the market, but they were replaced by mutton curry with kidney beans and mutton curry with vegetables. All were marked Halaal and I ate and e4njoyed them all. They are now almost unobtainable, and when you do manage to find them they have a “new and improved” recipe, which, like the WordPress editor, isn’t nearly as good as the old one.

When I lived and worked in the UK 50 years ago I used to eat a lot of breyani (or biriyani), as they spelt it there. It came from Pakistani restaurants and I’m pretty sure Pakistani cuisine is mostly halaal, because most Pakistanis are Muslim. I liked it a lot better than most English cooking, which consisted of things like “rice” (which turned out to be rice pudding, with custard) and macaroni & cheese with chips (British cooking has improved since the 1960s, perhaps as a result of all those TV chefs).

Illustration attached to City Press “Halaal” article.

One clue that suggests that the City Press article is an April Fools joke extracting the Michael is the bit about Halaal food being “sacrificed to idols”. Everybody knows, or ought to, that Muslims don’t do idols. So the City Press article is poking fun at Christians by making them out to be a bunch of ignoramuses. That is why I think that, if it is an April Fool’s joke, it is in pretty poor taste.

I will say, however, that I’m all for food being labelled to show that it meets the dietary requirements of religious and other groups. I’m happy to see food certified as “organic”, recalling that melamine and other inorganic substances were introduced into Chinese pet food a few years ago.

I’m happy to see some food labelled as “Kosher for Passover”, and am only sorry that I cant find food labelled “Nistisimou for Lent”.

I once attended an Aids symposium, where lunch was provided, and as it happened to be a fast day I was picking out tomatoes from the salads and leaving the cheese behind. Some helpful soul pointed out the “Halaal” table, and when I said that wouldn’t make it, they pointed to the kosher table. I said that wouldn’t make it either, but if it had prawns they would do.  They then offered me a cheese sandwich. No. But a nistisimou table would have been nice. The people who organised the symposium thoughtfully made special provision for the dietary needs of Muslims and Jews, but not for Orthodox Christians.






In defence of Facebook

I’ve often been critical of Facebook in the past, and since the recent Cambridge Analytica affair many people have been deleting their Facebook accounts and challenging others to do so.

Some speak of Facebook addiction, and suggest that failure to delete your Facebook account may be a sign of addiction. But that makes about as much sense as saying that if you don’t get rid of all your telephones, you must have a telephone addiction.

For all its faults, Facebook has its uses and I use it, like a telephone and other media of communication, to communicate with people that I want to communicate with. Sometimes one has to devise workarounds for the obstacles that Facebook puts in the way of communication, often in the name of utterly bogus “privacy” concerns, but in spite of this, I think the advantages of using Facebook outweigh the disadvantages.  As one of the critics acknowledges Facebook: is it time we all deleted our accounts?:

In many ways, being able to distance yourself from Facebook these days is a privilege. As Safiya Noble, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Southern California and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, notes: “For many people, Facebook is an important gateway to the internet. In fact, it is the only version of the internet that some know, and it plays a central role in communicating, creating community and participating in society online.”

Even if you’ve got multiple ways to communicate and participate in society online, there is not really a good replacement for Facebook. There’s no one portal that reminds you of your friends’ birthdays, connects you to relatives across the world and stores photos from 10 years ago. Deleting Facebook inevitably means missing out on certain things and having to make more of an effort to connect with people in other ways.

Deleting your Facebook account is like locking the garage after the car has been stolen. You data is already out there, and deleting your Facebook account won’t recall it.

I mentioned Facebook’s totally bogus concern for privacy. For example, it keeps warning me about “Who can see this post?” when I make posts public. But it does not warn me when I don’t make them public. I posted something recently for friends only, and Facebook failed to warn me that the next five posts were also marked for friends only.

If there is something I don’t want people to see, I don’t put it on Facebook. If I put it on Facebook, I think it’s OK for people to see it. If I make it “friends only” it’s not because I don’t want people to see it, but because I think people might find it boring. I’ve no doubt that many people out there do find stuff I post boring, and one of my biggest gripes with Facebook is that its algorithm seems to show people things that will bore them, and not show them things that will interest them. For example “Top Stories”, which has recently become the default, is what Facebook thinks are the top stories, not what I think are the top stories.

But the other day I saw a very ominous invitation from Facebook with no privacy warning. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something to the effect of “Tell people something about yourself that they don’t know?” According to my bullshit detectors, that has BIG DATA written all over it, rather than the “Who can see this?” nonsense.

Most third-party apps, quizzes and games, especially the ones that say stupid stuff like “Which of your friends will spring you from jail?” serve no other purpose than to get access to your data and that of your Facebook friends. They do warn you that the app or quiz or whatever will give access to your friends list, but true addicts won’t care about that.



The Western Canon

I took this book out of the library because I had read about it and its author online, and was curious to know more. I won’t, however, be adding it to my books on GoodReads because I doubt that I’ll finish it, which means that it would stay forever in my “Currently Reading” queue.

Is “The Western Canon” a thing? That’s what I was hoping to find out by reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, except that the opening chapter is “An Elegy for the Western Canon”, so apparently if it was a thing, it is so no longer, and all that is left is a lament that it is no more.

I resorted to two of my favourite reference books for such things to find out whether the Western Canon is a thing, and if so what kind of a thing it is. But neither The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature nor The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought had anything to say about it, either under “Western” or “canon”. The latter did note that “western” was “a perennially popular genre in American cinema since 1903”, but that was about it.

So what am I to make of the Western Canon, other than that it is a list of books that Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University in the USA, happened to like? And his elegy seems to be a lament that there were other people who either didn’t like those books, or who liked other books that didn’t happen to be on his particular list.

In my youth I studied English at university for three years. I never got to be an English Major, however, because I repeated English I three times, twice at Wits University, and once at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP, now UKZN). I passed each time, but they wouldn’t give me credit for it.

At UNP I learned all about canons. Back in the 1960s the English Department there followed the Leavisite canon of D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and D.H. Lawrence. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad were permissible but everything else was taboo. One English Honours student once noticed a copy of Ulysses on a professor’s desk. We speculated that he might have confiscated it from a wayward student. My friend, Ritchie Ovendale (where is he now?) asked if he should read it, and was advised against it, as it might leave his critical faculties impaired.

The Wits English Department was a bit more broadminded. They included E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and William Golding in their set works for English I, but I was sad that I never made it to English II. I attended more of the English II lectures, though, because there was a lecturer, Cronin, whose lectures were packed with students who were not taking his courses, because of his wit. Even engineering students came along for the entertainment.

Bloom appears to like Dante and Milton, though I’ve tended to avoid both of them, out of pure prejudice, possibly. When I was 13 I used to pore over a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy owned by some friends. What interested me, however, was not so much the text as the illustrations by Gustav Doré. And Doré managed to make hell look a lot more interesting than paradise or heaven.

But since then I’ve steered clear of them. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two wrong attitudes one can take to the devil and his minions, the “lowerarchy”. One is to pretend that they do not exist, and the other is to take an unhealthy interest in them. At 13, influenced by Doré, I was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the lowerarchy, trying to classify demons and the like according to their infernal ranks. And I suspect that Dante and Milton have had a big influence on Western theology in areas where it differs from Orthodox theology. For one thing, there is no purgatory in Orthodoxy. There are occasional theological disputes about toll houses, but I don’t think either Dante or Milton mentioned those. Yes, it’s prejudice, but until I can read an Orthodox equivalent, I’ll give them a miss. Reading them might impair my critical theological faculties or something.

So I’m not much wiser about the Western Canon. Is there an Eastern Canon?





Russophobia: the key to success in Anglo-American politics

It seems that the surest path to failure in politics in the US and the UK is not to be Russophobic enough for the war-mongering “mainstream” media.

Last week it was Newsweek and the London Independent trying to outdo Bell Pottinger in trying to stir up race hatred in South Africa by misrepresenting the land issue. This week it’s the Guardian  joining them on the alt-right by pronouncing doom on Jeremy Corbyn for failing to be enough of a Russophobic bigot: Theresa May transforms into cold war colossus by not being Jeremy Corbyn | UK news | The Guardian.

I can think of plenty of things one could criticise in US President Donald Trump’s policies — poisoning the air and water and killing off endangered species for a start. But it seems that the most common criticism is that he isn’t Russophobic enough for the media pundits.

Perhaps we need to put prejudice on hold, and heed this warning: Russian to Judgement – Craig Murray:

The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

This is not to say that Russians, and possibly the Russian government could not have done such a thing, but the British démarche makes it clear that Teresa May is playing the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland — first the sentence, then the verdict, and the evidence must follow as best it can. Jeremy Corbyn is quite right to be cautious. It was his own party that fell for this 15 years ago. And there is still a great deal of obscurity about who developed and provided the poison gas that was used in Syria a few years ago.

As a result of the Russophobic hype of the last few years, I don’t trust anything that Anglo-American media say about Russia, its government, or its role in world affairs. As a result of an apparent tit-for-tat policy that has developed in the Russian media since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, I don’t trust anything the Russian media say about Britain and the USA either. So who can one trust? Perhaps a more neutral source like the Irish TimesUnlikely that Vladimir Putin behind Skripal poisoning:

Theresa May’s first scenario, that the Kremlin was directly involved, seems unlikely. Skripal was in the UK as part of an official spy-swap deal with Russia. The only suggestion of suspicious activities on Skripal’s part has been a report in the Daily Telegraph that he was close to an unnamed person in the organisation run by Christopher Steele, who produced the dossier claiming Russia had compromising material on Donald Trump.

For President Vladimir Putin to have launched such a vicious attack would have been counterproductive as it would jeopardise any spy swaps in the future.

There’s a lot of hatred and violence in the world, and it’s bad enough when the media report it. When they report it, however, they are just doing their job. But when they are busy stoking it up, it’s something else.

And I’ve just added Creating Russophobia to my “Want to Read” list on GoodReads. As the blurb on GoodReads puts it:

Contemporary Russophobia is manufactured through the construction of an anti-Russian discourse in the media and the diplomatic world, and the fabrication and demonization of The Bad Guy, now personified by Vladimir Putin.

That doesn’t make Putin the “good guy” either. He’s a politician like the rest of them, and he believes in Realpolitik like the rest of them. The real “bad guy” is the Orwellian rhetoric of the Anglo-American media.

The Psalm Killer (review)

The Psalm KillerThe Psalm Killer by Chris Petit
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twenty years ago I read The Monkey House, where a detective has to try to solve a murder case in the middle of a civil war, where different factions are taking pot shots at one another in war-torn Sarajevo. This one, published about the same time, is very similar, except that it is set in war-torn Belfast about ten years earlier.

In both cases the temptation is not to bother too much, and simply ascribe any unexplained deaths to “sectarian violence” and leave it at that. But of course if they did that there would be no story. But there is also the danger that if the detective solves the crime, the interests and deeds and loyalties of powerful figures might come to light.

In this case, the killer publishes verses from Psalms in newspapers with each killing, almost as if wanting to be found.

The two main detectives in the case, Cross and Westerby, have no first names, or at least the reader is not told them. This calls to mind Inspector Morse of Oxford, whose first name was not known even to his closest colleagues on the force. I’m not sure what the purpose of that is — to depersonalise them? But they are the strongest characters in the book. Perhaps to show that they are puppets, manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Despite a few puzzling plot holes this one is a very good read, and shows how the exercise of trying to find the “good guys” in conflicts like these is almost impossible. There is no “war on terror” here, there are just terrorists against terrorists, with ordinary people as the victims.

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Early Social Media

It was 30 years ago this month that I first encountered online social media.

I borrowed a modem from a friend and used it to access Beltel, which was run by Telkom. The modem was a Saron (perhaps made in Saron in the Western Cape, perhaps not). It is so far lost in the mists of history that a Google search produced no information. A few months later I bought one. There were two gadgets we wanted back then — a modem and a microwave oven. We could not afford both, so we got the microwave oven. But then someone who had upgraded their modem to a faster one advertised a Saron modem second hand, and so I bought it.

Ceefax screen display from the UK. The Beltel display was similar.

Beltel was accessed by a 300/75 baud modem. It would download data at 300 baud, and upload it at 75 baud. “Baud” for those who don’t know, was roughly equivalent to bits per second. The Beltel system was similar to the Prestel and Ceefax system in the UK, and lasted until 1999, when it closed because the software was not Y2K compatible.

The Beltel system produced a 40 character screen display.

One of the features of Beltel was Comnet, which was like a bulletin board, with sections for discussing various topics. It worked a lot like Facebook, except that it had very crude graphics, it was much slower, and because it used 40 characters across the screen, it was easier to read.

There was also a more sophisticated version of Comnet called “The Network” for which one had to pay extra.

Most of the discussion was about computers. The main exception was a couple of right-wing white racists Adrian and Karen Maritz, who used it for racist propaganda. The were supported by someone using the pseudonym “Computer Advisory”, whom I suspect was Henry Martin, who later also posted racist propaganda under his own name. Most of the other users were white middle-class computer geeks, who whatever they may have thought about people of other races, reacted against the very crude racism of the propagandists.

A few years later Adrian Maritz and Henry Martin booby trapped a computer, which they sent to Durban, where it blew up and killed some poor innocent computer tech who was trying to compare it. They were arrested, and made it on to the news when they had a hunger strike in prison. An investigative journalist, Jacques Paauw, followed up the story, and 30 years later he’s still around, still digging up the dirt on politicians and the like. Henry Martin and Adrian Marits scarpered overseas to the UK. Perhaps they are still involved in right-wing politics over there.

Through Beltel I discovered BBSs — Bulletin Board Systems. These could be set up by anyone with a computer, a modem and a telephone line, and could both transmit and receive data at 300 Baud, and quite soon 1200 Baud. Then Baud as a measurement became obsolete, and new modems could transmit and receive at 2400 bits per second, which could not be measured in Baud. But even at 300 Baud, seeing characters appear on my screen and realising that they were coming from another computer 150 km away was an amazing thing. Now I’m typing this and it’s being saved on a computer on the other side of the world and I think nothing of it.

One of the first BBSs I used was Capital ComTech, run by Geoff Dellow from Centurion, which was only a local call away. I visited him one day, and also met the notorious Adrian and Karen Maritz, who were visiting at the same time. Most BBSs were run by computer geeks, and the main thing most of them wanted to talk about was computers. They would make their systems available to those who wanted to talk about other things, but regarded those as irrelevant fluff, and not the really important stuff. That seemed weird to me — like people only wanting to use telephones to talk about telephones (well, since the introduction of cell phones I think many people do want to use telephones to talk about telephones, but back in the 1980s it did seem to be ridiculous). Nevertheless, most BBSs had about 10-20 sections, called “conferences”, for discussing various aspects of computers, and perhaps one or two for non-computer stuff, which most sysops (BBS system operators) regarded as an unnecessary luxury, needed only to keep off-topic stuff out of the computer conferences.

So I wonder how many people are around who remember those early days of social media, who participated in ComNet and The Network on Beltel. Somewhere on my hard disk I’ve still got some conversations saved from those days.

The Big Six (review)

The Big Six (Puffin Books)The Big Six by Arthur Ransome

When I was a child, books by Arthur Ransome were the kind of children’s books that adults thought that children ought to read, but which I found rather boring. Our school library was well stocked with them, so I read a few, but if I’d been on Good Reads back then I’d have given them two stars, three at the most.

I can remember little of what I read, and perhaps I read Coot Club, of which this is a kind of sequel, and I suppose my main memory is knowing what the Norfolk Broads were — the kind of knowledge that comes in useful when watching TV quiz shoes like Pointless, until you’ve seen them so many times that you stop trying to work out the answers, and rather try to remember which question is going to come up next and which of the very familiar contestants gets the right answer. But yes, reading about that di help to me form some kind of picture of the place, which recurs in other books, such as The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers.

I also read Missee Lee, from which I learned that typhus was a serious disease, but when I grew up I found that its cousin typhoid was more common.

Arthur Ransome’s books were great for children who liked messing about in boats, but the closest thing we got to that was paying an exorbitant fee for half an hour rowing round the island in Joburg’s Zoo Lake, or the slightly less crowded Germiston Lake.

The Big Six has boats, lots of them. But it is also a whodunit, and that adds to the interest. I don’t remember reading it as a child. I do remember reading a couple of Enid Blyton‘s Secret Seven series, where a group of children outwit the criminals that have the local police foxed.

In this one it is not difficult to guess the culprit, but the child detectives are themselves accused of the crime, and so in order to exonerate themselves they have to find the real culprits. The crime is casting off moored boats, and stealing some equipment — not major crimes worthy of Interpol, but serious enough in a small village where the children’s fathers are boatbuilders, and a bad reputation could harm their livelihood.

Though it takes a long time for the children to identify the suspects, that is not the main problem. The main problem is to collect evidence that points unambiguously to the perpetrator, because so much of the evidence they do manage to collect is open to different interpretations. So as a children’s whodunit, this one is quite sophisticated. Finding a suspect is one problem, getting enough evidence to convict is another.

In addition to being a whodunit, there is an undercurrent of environmental concern, perhaps of wider concern now than when Ransome wrote it in the 1930s. One is conscious of such concerns throughout the book, that, and the price of things. The idea of a lawyer’s fee being 66c makes the mind boggle.

I don’t think I read this one as a child, but if I had, I wonder if I would have been able to grasp that point at the age of 9 or 10. But as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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The house on Falling Star Hill

The House On Falling Star HillThe House On Falling Star Hill by Michael Molloy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read an earlier book by Michael Molloy, The witch trade, and was not at all impressed. The blurb made this one sound a bit more interesting, and as I had nothing to lose I took it out of the library anyway. I could alwasys dump it after a couple of chapters if it didn’t look interesting.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised tom find that it was a considerable improvement on The witch trade. The characters are more interesting, if somewhat stereotyped.

A boy, Tim Swift, meets a girl, Sarre, from another world, called Tallis. According to the Chronology of the story they are both about 11 years old, Tim and his dog Josh get unexpectedly dragged into Tallis where Tim discovers that Sarra is a Chanter, with special powers. Tallis has some similarities with Earth, and some differences. Jewels are plentiful but flowers are scarce, which makes a lucrative trade for some. There are also power struggles between the king and a would-be usurper., which makes for interesting adventures and excitement, in which Tim and Sarre, as somewhat precocious brats, play a significant part.

There are also hints of a romantic interest, especially on the part of Sarre, which at some points looked as though it might turn it into a rerun of His Dark Materials , but fortunately it didn’t. But while His Dark Materials appeals to adults as much as to children, I think The house on Falling Star Hill will appeal mainly to children, and rather younger ones at that.

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