Monday, 16 January 2017

Theatre review: An Inspector Calls

20170114_191332After AIC, the book, here's AIC, the visit to the theatre. E was doing it for English, and had been recommended to see the production if possible. And it seemed like a fun idea to go down to London and stay overnight. M found us Z Hotel, Orange street. This was very conveniently central, a few minutes walk from the National gallery and only five minutes from the theatre, and all very nice though the rooms are smaller than the bathroom we had at the Ritz last year.

But what of the play I hear you ask? Interesting, I reply. You've read my review of the book-of-the-play I hope. Actually watching the play, I came to realise, was a bit like having a conversation with someone about it: you got to see another perspective, and some fresh ideas, which you might or might not agree with.

The production is a revival of the landmark 1992 production and uses the same set, or so I'm told. This is, errrm, quite dramatic, which I suppose is the point: the dining room is inside a house occupying about half the stage and elevated by about six feet; and somewhat undersized, so the actors have to duck to get out of the door. This all is, I think, intended to give a feeling that the inside is all rather dolls-house, as opposed to the gritty reality of the outside world. Which is cute but facile: all the world is real; dinner parties just as much as gutters.

In the first scene the house is lit and the "understorey" is dark. As the play goes on the underneath comes clearer; and towards the end the house "falls down", and extras dressed in war garb for no clearly identifiable reason other than effect come on at the edges; so the effect is of a town ravaged by war. This fits into what I would call the "propaganda" aspect of the play, and of the staging. This clearly fits within Priestley's worldview: for him, Capitalism had caused WWI and WWII. And indeed some of the speeches within the play are intended to foreshadow this. However, there is no "evidence" for this within the play, so it all has to be done by innuendo instead; the "war" stuff is subtly mixed with the social-justice message, and by being persuaded of one (perhaps) you are insidiously lead to the other; which is why I call it propaganda. It is, effectively, dishonest; though doubtless Priestley believed it and meant well, as people always do.

Since it is a topic, I shall bang on about it some more: did Capitalism cause WWI? As already said, JBS (and many on the left) take it almost as a given, not requiring any form of evidence. The Economist disagrees; and so I think do I. In this, Old Man Birling is correct: business does not want a war, it would be bad for business.

After that, we;re back to the less arguable part of the Message: you should be nice to people and consider the effect of your actions on them. Put like that it is all very motherhood-and-apple-pie; part of the skill of the dramatist is then to wrap this idea up into some fresh garb to make you think about it again. And in a way you do... a bit. But then again, we come back to Old Man Birling. He sacks the girl, after she's asked for a rise, as the Inspector somewhat dishonestly sums up towards the end. Had he done that, he'd have been in the wrong. But he didn't: he sacked her after she'd lead a strike, which is different. So his behaviour seems excusable. If we turn to Gerald, his sins also seem weak: arguably taking advantage of a pretty young woman, but also providing her food, shelter and money and giving her a chance to recover after a difficult time. By contrast the Young Folk - Sheila and Eric - who we are invited I think to like at the end because they repent their sins - do seem to be the two characters with the most to repent. I ignore Mrs B, because she doesn't fit into my nice scheme.

On to the presentation of the play. When I read it through, it all appeared to be neat and tidy and to work well. It worked well in theatre, too. There was a slight awkwardness - to my mind - when after they realise he's not an Inspector, and that she's not one woman, it takes them ages to realise that she may not even be dead. That needs smoothing over, in my view. But that might be because I've recently read the book. Small note: was Sheila a catty over-privileged young cow who habitually dissed shop assistants, or a fundamentally nice young thing who made but one serious mistake? In the book, the latter, I think. In the play, the former: she delivers the line "I only did it once, and will never do it again" in such a way as to suggest the opposite. Such is the plasticity of language.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Book review: All Hell Let Loose

All Hell Let Loose is a history of WWII, by Max Hastings. One of the children had it; I read it; it wouldn't normally be my reading material. It is a thick book, with some illustrations. I thought it good.

Danger: spoiler alert: the Germans lose.

The main advantage of the book is it's sweep: it covers the entire war, in very rough proportion to the amount of death and fighting, and so covers the Eastern Front far more than the traditional English schoolboy education, that I received, ever did. It also, somewhat refreshingly, largely covers the actual fighting, rather than politics, or causes, or economics. It doesn't entirely ignore economics, of course - pointing out, for example, that pure weight of US industrial capacity doomed Japan from the start (so why did they fight at all? Because they were stupid enough to deceive themselves: they thought they could expand, and then offer peace, which the US would accept though being soft and reluctant to accept casualties).

Other "nice" things it mentions - again, an example from Japan-US - is that some of the land campaigns were strategically pointless. Not all; some tiny rocks captured for airstrips were valuable. But once the US had wound itself up, it's submarines and surface Navy had largely suppressed the Imperial Navy, and so large garrisons of Japanese troops on... the ?Philippines? - I recall the concept, of course, not the actual examples - were no harm to anyone. They could have been bypassed and dealt with after the war was finished. But all the obvious things - commanders who wanted to fight, an army that had been created and therefore had to be used, lack of will in the overall command - meant that a whole pile of mainly US troops would die pointlessly killing lots of Japanese troops.

Slightly to my disappointment he doesn't cover "what if"s much. The most obvious large-scale "what if" is perhaps what if the Germans had put up lesser, or even token resistance on the Western front and diverted resources to the Eastern (of which the "battle of the Bulge" would be only a part). Then the Western allies would have reached Berlin and parts East first, perhaps even in 1944, leading to much less misery for Germany but perhaps also a much altered post-war balance, since the Commies would have got to conquer much less of Eastern Europe. The answer to this is perhaps that Hitler was mad enough to think he was going to win - or felt obliged to claim this in public - and so couldn't adopt this as a policy; that would only have been possible if he'd been deposed by the generals, but in that case they'd probably just have surrendered, so we rapidly go off into "actually, it couldn't have been like that".

There are hints of other "what if"s: he suggests that the Africa campaigns were but a side-show and largely pointless; but also that better strategy from the Krauts might have cleared the British out of the Med entirely, in which case Egypt and so on might have gone rather differently.

Philip Hensher writes a review that promotes the "individual voices" in the book. And, true, Hastings does quote quite a few people, officers, men, and civilians. But I wouldn't count that as a major part of the book.

Another good bit of myth-busting (again, to this English ex-schoolboy) is how poorly our armies performed in the colonies in the Far East against Japan. There's a certain myth that though there were a fair number of blimps in charge the actual fighting men were good; but this doesn't really seem to have been true. Few of the British soldiers particularly believed in what they were doing, and so weren't good at it.

And, so it goes. Overall, he does a good jobs of grinding in the terrible destruction wreaked on hapless populations by the fighting going on over their heads, largely in the Eastern Front. And all so totally pointless.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Christmas 2016

A follow up to the immensely successful Christmas 2015. What changed?

Daniel didn't break up from school ages before Christmas, since he is now at university. Instead, he came down ages before Christmas. We didn't work Christmas Eve, instead  travelling to Marcham for a meal out with Si+B on the 23rd, who were off to Hayling Island for Christmas. We stayed in Marcham that night, and to Milton-u-W on the 24th after brunch, in time for afternoon coffee and a read of the paper before carols around the village tree.


This year I managed a half marathon on Christmas morning, somewhat slow at 1:48. We didn't finish the washing up before the Queen's speech. Otherwise, reassuringly like last year. E now has braces; L too is at university, Leeds.

Which I see I didn't finish, another fine tradition. After boxing day comes the Trip To The Panto, this year Jack and the Beanstalk at Cheltenham, followed by Bella Italia (why C, not Oxford? I'm not sure; it used to be O, before 2015). We will probably think of something else, next year, the children are rather old for panto nowadays. BI is felt to be better than Jamie's Italian. The next day was a rest day and little was done - a lunchtime walk to the pub (the Lamb) for some.

Then the xfer to Marcham, which is rather less traditionally Christmassy, as is traditional. The meal at SoJo was on New Year's eve, after which E and I walked along the canal to Christ Church meadow and around. It was a grey day be we had a pleasant walk and chat, and (since she ponders the possibility of going to Oxford) she got to see some of it with new eyes. Then a sit in Blackwells cafe, and home.

When back home (having stayed an extra day, so that E could watch the Sherlock on New Year's Day) we were sad to find Little Cat not there; nor did she return next day. This, too, is in some danger of being traditional, as it happened once before. But a day or two later M was phoned up; P had been found, phew.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

When we were very young

shiptoship1 Looking for something else (I'll tell you later) I found GeoCities and diaries on the early web (James Baker, ‘GeoCities and diaries on the early web (preprint, 2016)’, in Batsheva Ben-Amos and Dan Ben-Amos (eds.) The Diary (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017)).

 More that two years ago (my how time flies) I wrote The dim and distant history of climate blogging, but that was about blogging. Since it was irrelevant - and I thought probably lost - I ignored my even more pre history, which was a - gasp - Geocities website.

 Aanyway, a wayback machine archive of that early site is here and to make assurance doubly sure there's an archive of that here (which will probably load faster). The photo (if you're wondering) is taken from a scan of my work pass. The picture of Miriam is on the other side of the Cherwell high footbridge in the University Parks.

The picture (don't click on it of you are of a delicate disposition) is re-used as traditional from the "dim and distant" post.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Blood pressure, 2017

A follow-up to the exciting "blood pressure" of last year. Summary: generally just on the safe side of 120 / 80.

2017 / 01 / 01: just before...

* 125 / 85 (63)
* 109 / 74 (63)
* 114 / 72 (61)

...and just after a 10 k run. Readings taken about as fast as the machine would; perhaps at one minute intervals.

* 151 / 88 (101)
* 126 / 81 (98)
* 114 / 83 (94)
* 118 / 83 (88)
* 116 / 80 (87)

Friday, 23 December 2016

Book review: Atlas shrugged

This originally appeared at wmconnolley.livejournal.com but I don't maintain that any more.

Quick summary: (too) long, interesting, enjoyable (as long as you skip stuff), but ultimately unacceptable.

A famous work; here's its wiki entry. I'm not going to bother attack its many faults too strongly, because they are too obvious. If you want to read someone disliking it, try CIP. As a token: the many long dense passages of philosophy - Rand's "Objectivism" - that lard the book get increasingly boring as they repeat. This culminates in John Galt's 70-page 2-3 hour speech on the radio, which is more like something you'd get in Cuba or communist Russia than in the cold West. Some of the characters - the dashing pirate - are laughably implausible. But enough criticism (errm, I won't keep to that. Sorry).

The image the book conjures up - of a fading darkening America crumbling under the weight of an unproductive, uncomprehending and eventually almost unwittingly hostile bureaucracy or parasitic class is well done, and will strike a chord with anyone who actually makes things. Those who work for the govt may be less impressed (token: I find her hatred of all govt funded research ridiculous. But hey, I was a govt-funded scientist for years). But Rand's solution - that all the able folk withdraw their labour and their physical selves and rebuild society in a quiet corner before, presumably, walking into the territory emptied by starvation, cold and strife is hard to see as acceptable. As an aside, at the present day, the central core of the hardened capitalist struggling to keep a railroad - yes, a railroad - going seems very quaint and 50s.

A veil is drawn over most of the deaths, but she helpfully provides one example: the wood burning transcontinental sleeper train taken through the long tunnel. It gets stuck inside, and everyone dies. Rand is at pains to set up the incident as an example of bureaucratic stubbornness and buck-passing (someone at the top decrees the train must get through, but all the way down officials area at pains to ensure that the disastrous orders they give can't be traced back to them) and does her best to make it seem as though all the passengers deserve death; but they don't.

You'll have to forgive me some vagueness here: I started reading the book on the way back from the Amsterdam marathon last October, and finished it a few weeks later, so my memory is fading.

And yet the two key intermingled ideas are worth thinking about: that there is a parasitic class leaching off the productive, and that this class is actively harmful (in Darwinian terms, they are bad parasites). In the book, as things go wrong, the parasites use fear of the problems to gain more power and control, and they use that power to throw patronage at their friends, but they also make genuine (to them; at least the book doesn't try to say otherwise) attempts to fix things, but because they are incompetent things just get worse. The attempt-to-fix-but-fail stuff is very true to life for anyone watching politics ever. The Tobin Tax propsed for the EU is a possible example. The stupid carbon trading schemes are another. These are examples where pols motivated by - well, we cant see into their minds, so we have to guess - a combination of shallow and wishful thinking, carelessness and stupidity, and a desire for patronage, act to make the world worse.

Since I've mentioned Darwin I need to complete the thought: which is, that parasites are universal, unless you make great efforts to remove them. Rand's idea is for a parasite-free society. Like many others she has no patience for fixing the old - its a tired toy, she will throw it away and make a new shiny one; lives don't matter to her; or at least, not the lives of small people. Inevitably, her new world would acquire parasites, but that's for the future. Our world is infested by parasites; what keeps them down is partly Democracy and blah; partly that anywhere that becomes too uncompetitive gets out-competed. That's not a careful analysis, but what I mean is that we accept a balance as we must: as long as society functions, and produces enough wealth for all or most, we tolerate some parasites. And at least at the moment it is working: the share captured by the unproductive isn't too high. In Atlas Shrugged Rand has had to produce a less capable society that succumbs to the weight of parasites - though even there it isn't really clear that it would do, if it wasn't for the "strike". Rand's various protagonists have decided - amongst themselves - that all the invisible deaths are worth it, to them. It is a very individualistic philosophy, and to support its plausibility all the lead characters are implausibly capable.

If you agree that Rand's apparent solution - restrict, retreat and rebuild - isn't very plausible, what lesson does the book teach? Just, resistance to stupid bureaucracy I suppose. Put like that, its not profound. And I do sense that many of the book's admirers are motivated more by some savage uncomprehending hatred of The System rather than by a desire, themselves, to try to build something better. Nonetheless there is something there.

[Edited to add: if I'm not mis-remembering, another important element to Rand was the coercive power of the State: its structure and authority is based ultimately on force. She doesn't like this; it doesn't fit with her individualistic world. Nonetheless in the book the state is rather uncoercive: only at the end is there a carefully contrived torture-John-Galt scene, which is inserted only to fulfil her own prophecy, that the state will ultimately resort to force. In this, I'm firmly with Thomas Hobbes and against Rand: without the Civil Sword, no compacts and hence no civil society is possible. Rand's insistence otherwise places her with the hippies and flower children, who she would despise.]

Book review: An Inspector Calls

Technically a play not a book, but I read Miranda's copy. We will be going to see the play, too, so you may get a "play review" next year.

An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley is, as wiki says, 'classic "drawing room" theatre'. It works very well; well written, neatly handled, and there is one (or perhaps two) clever and one not so clever twists at the end. However there are flaws: the final ending is not needed and is one twist too many, and probably blurs the message; the inspector's final speech reads like something out of Ayn Rand (though mercifully much shorter) and is far too unsubtle; and the whole thing is, in a way, too well turned.

Let me do that last criticism first. The play is very "neat": everything fits carefully together, all the threads fit, everyone reacts as they have to. This helps keep things moving along and helps keep you reading, but begins to feel by the end a little too pat, a little too careful (yes I know my criticism of the final twist somewhat vitiates this point, but never mind, I shall leave you with it anyway).

The inspector's final speech is a rousing cry to, well, whatever; I didn't actually read it; or if I did, I immeadiately forgot it. I've read such things before. For an actual real inspector, it would have been totally out of character, and I think you'd have expected Mr Birling to notice and complain of this. But more importantly, it is entirely unnecessary to anyone who has been paying any attention to the play. The play has carefully brought out the various aspects of the way in which the family's behaviour has lead to the death of the young woman - or, when you realise she may have been a composite, the various aspects in which they have degraded the lives of various women. That's a good way to do it, because in a sense the audience "discover" this for themselves, and will be inclined to accept the ideas. But when the inspector jumps up and tries to ram the same thoughts down your throat, you rebel. Or at least, I did.

The revelation that the young woman is - probably - a composite is clever, and well done. Probably the best bit of the play. Suddenly, a number of things we saw before - principally, the inspector only showing a photo to one person at a time - all make sense. Also, excellently, we see the way different people react to it: most obviously, the two children retain their - deserved, admitted - guilt; whilst the parents discard it, concerned only for outside appearances. And Gerald is perhaps ambiguously in between.

A tension that I think could have been explored, but wasn't: what will the two children do? The implication, by the end, is that disgusted by their parents they will leave home, and live on... what? How will they balance their conscience against comfort and financial security? Another unexplored aspect was the relation between Gerald and Sheila. The implication is that their nice, comfortable but rather shallow "love" has been disrupted by events, but perhaps they have come to see each other more deeply; Sheila's brief note that they'll need to start from the beginning again is quite touching. Perhaps that's all that is needed.

I expected more about knighthood. At the start the scene is carefully set: Arthur is prosperous but second-rank, and the marriage and knighthood would pull him up. As the play went on he should have become more and more desperate to avoid any of this becoming public (he is concerned to some extent, but not nearly as much as he should be). Perhaps that wasn't necessary; the play is about something a little deeper than social class.

Lastly, the final twist - that someone really has died - rather jars. It seems pointless and disruptive. "What does that mean?" we inevitably ask, and inevitably there is no answer. Does it mean that the carefully constructed twist about the composite Eva is wrong? That would be most unsatisfying. Does it mean that instead of having to consider their morality, we're back to a rather more straightforward tale of worrying about nasty details becoming public? That, too, would be unsatisfying. Again, it seems so unsubtle; as though some theatre manager, unsatisfied with the play's existing subtle and ambiguous ending, wanted some zing at the end. Before that last twist, the "inspector" has come to seem like something supernatural, a kind of angel, who has brought harsh truth into these people's lives, and given them the chance to react and show their characters. That was all that was needed.