Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alistair Campbell Diaries

I had that Alistair Campbell in the back of my cab once. The thing is, it wasn't a cab. I was picking him up for radio sports show and I had to wait for ages for him. And he climbed in the back, which I thought was a bit strange. If I'd seen Curb Your Enthusiasm at that point, I'd have been tempted to pull a Ben Stiller on him. If he'd been slightly less terrifying.

In fact, he was perfectly polite and I'll be meeting him again soon - he's doing something for my new station - but for the big journalists at the time he was the devil incarnate. The real Malcolm Tucker. The real author of the dodgy dossier. The real killer of David Kelly! I've actually got a bit more sympathy for him now

He's intelligent, humane and a born communicator and his diaries are a great read (listen actually - and he reads it himself, but you get used to his drone.) A part time historian tells him at one point that he wishes there were similar accounts from centuries past (Thomas Cromwell's would've been nice.) All the characters are painted wonderfully, from the idealistic and infuriating TB to the ghastly Queen of the Harpies CB; from the accident prone popinjay PM (whom Campbell has a punch up with), to the brooding weirdo timebomb GB. I was only confused by the use of initials once - all the way through I couldn't believe how close to the centre of power John Prescott was, and how much his advice was listened to. It wasn't till the end that I realised JP was Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell.

These were only extracts, but it goes through the death of Diana (after a few bouts of shameless flirting between the two) the resignation of Robin Cook, the Millenium Dome, Gordon Brown being a dick, Peter Mandelson being a dick, Prince Charles being a dick, Cherie Blair being a fanny. All great stuff. But 911 only happens towards the end of the penultimate CD, so Iraq, Gilligan, Kelly, Hutton is all squeezed into the last CD.

So let's get into it. Kelly: at one point Philip Gould (New Labour's man behind the throne) makes the very good point that David Kelly killed himself because David Kelly killed himself. And of course he wasn't murdered - no-one benefitted, for a start. On the dodgy dossier, it's not so clear. Certainly not from these extracts, though he does deny putting pressure on the intelligence services to get the political outcome they wanted. But should've he been involved at all? The stuff about the Gilligan row with the BBC is very good, but murky. There are dangerous waters when the national broadcaster feels forced into becoming the official opposition when something as controversial as the Iraq War happens.

Strange days. This is only one side of the story of course, but an important and entertaining one. My big worry about Campbell's influence is shown early on - he thinks Blair's move on Clause 4 is bold. He thinks his approach to Northern Ireland is bold. His actions on Iraq were certainly bold. I think what he's done there is mixed up bold with wise. Ah well, their hearts were in the right place.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Ah, the joys of books on tape. There's no way I'd have finished this monster of a novel without some fool reading it to me. And I probably couldn't have remembered who all the characters were without said fool (Simon Slater, as he deserves a mention) having different voices for each of them.

Well worth ploughing through 22 hours worth though. It's the story about Henry VIII's fixer Thomas Cromwell, the son of a violent blacksmith who becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom. Apart from the king, obviously. And he was the driving force behind the most important event in English (and Scottish) history since the Norman invasion - the split from Rome. Which was also largely about sex.

T Cromwell (yes, related to O Cromwell, but that's way in the future) has been portrayed many times, and usually as a villain. I've seen Donald Pleasance do him very effectively. In Wolf Hall, he's pretty heroic - very smart, very capable and ruthless but also loyal and kind.

Henry is a believable prince - selfish and petulant but also superstitious and insecure. Cardinal Wolsey also comes across really well, big hearted, wise and vain. The women are all great - Catherine, Princess Mary, Ann Boleyn, her slutty sister Mary (Scarlett Johanssen in that movie.) Thomas More - the hero to Cromwell's villain in A Man in For All Seasons - is portrayed as a weird, stubborn sadist. His execution closes the book, so this is really the rise of TC. There's a second book which'll go through the darker stuff - the abolition of the monasteries, the execution of Ann, five other wives, the execution of Cromwell himself and his head getting stuck on a spike. A low point, obviously.

It's a good book, but not an easy read. It's pretty hard to follow even if you've got a basic idea of the players and plot, and since this is a Booker winner it's very literary, which means there are layers and subtleties behind everything. I suppose that's pretty apt for a subject like Cromwell.

I've got another Booker winner coming up - Peter Carey's book about Ned Kelly. The hoon better have a bloody tin helmet. Before that I'm listening to Alistair Campbell reading his diaries and racing through some Stephen King. Neither are as subtle as Thomas Cromwell but they are a lot of fun.

The Abolition of Britain by Peter Hitchens

Superior swivel-eyed right-wingery from the country's most conservative commentator. Here's a list of some, but not all of the things P. Hitchens blames for the terminal decline of Britain in the 20th century:

World War 1, World War 2, US ascendency, lefties in general, Roy Jenkins, Margaret Thatcher, the European Union, the disappearance of leather shoes in favour of trainers, Dutch elm disease, pornography, the contraceptive pill, abortion, trendy teachers who don't believe in teaching, trendy COE vicars who don't believe in God, paramilitary police, Grange Hill, the abolition of grammar schools, the abolition of the death sentence, the abolition of hell, television, the Teletubbies, computer games, David Frost, Alan Bennett, John Lennon's Imagine, the state's war on the family, the infantilisation of education, sloppy grammar, drugs, the ease of divorce, the funeral of Princess Diana, the trial of Derek Bentley, the trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the trial of Deirdre Rachid, year zero radicals of every stripe, political correctness gone mad and Tony Fucking Blair.

On the other hand, he likes Winston Churchill and George Orwell.

This book was published ten years ago, so Hitchens doesn't even get a chance to stick it to the following:

The war on Iraq, the war on terror, Gordon Brown, Gordon Ramsay, Simon Cowell, Stephen Fry, the smoking ban, mobile phones, immigration laws, self service check-outs in the supermarket, people saying UK rather than United Kingdom, 4chan, 2 girls 1 cup, and David Fucking Cameron.

Fantastic stuff - eloquent, angry and elegiac for a lost Britain. No-one can possibly agree with everything he says, but you may find yourself nodding along more than you expected. Depends if you've had a drink.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson

Well, it's been a while. This isn't a childhood favourite (like Whoever Fights Monsters), but one I picked up recently in a bookshop on Mull for fifty pence. This blog is a great excuse to dig it out, while deciding what to read next. YOU decide what to read next, etc.

I decided to play it by the book - no re-rolls for stats, no stamina resets after fights. I even drew a map as recommended. I'm a grown man, dammit. And otherwise I'd only be cheating myself.

You start by choosing a wizard on the edge of the swamp, who gives you a mission and different spells. Good, evil, and wild card. I plumped for the wild card. Turns out he's not even a wizard. Bad move.

My first attempt ended after two steps on encountering the Master of Spiders. I, predictably, died. I started again at the swamp entrance with the same stats, and carefully avoided him. This time I got a lot further, survived a few fights and ended up in a scrap with three orcs. After killing two, I was finished off by the last one.

I had to rethink my whole strategy. So I started from scratch, created new stats (which were much healthier) and decided to see the good wizard. I chose wisely. Better spells, and a lot more people helping me out.

This time, I did it. I was successful in my quest, as the book says. Oh, it wasn't easy. I had to be careful, make notes, keep my map up to date and use my spells at the right moment. And you can't get anywhere in Fighting Fantasy without some lucky rolls. Yes, I found myself screaming at the dice. Yes, I punched the air when I killed the Sword Trees (trees with swords) for the final time. No, I'm not proud of myself.

That's not true - I am.

Since there are three different missions here, I should really give it another go with the evil wizard. But I've learned something today - it's nice to be nice. You help people out, people help you out. Non zero sum. I choose not to be evil.

There's now a Citadel of Chaos iphone app. You shake the phone to roll the dice! On the basis of Scorpion Swamp, I think I'll be checking it out.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler

This is an old favourite and a guilty pleasure.

FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term "serial killer" back in the mid 70s. It's one of those phrases you'd imagine has been round forever, but before that they were called "stranger killings." The new terminology recognised that someone was killing in the same way again and again. He also notes in retrospect how they're similar to the old movie serials. Every one excites you, but ends in a cliffhanger. You need to watch the next one to get another kick, but you're never sated.

Ressler was also the first man who went round the prisons trying to find out what made them tick. The book starts with Richard Trenton Chase, who killed familes and drank their blood to stop Nazi UFOs turning his blood to dust. He's one archetype here - the disorganised killer. Your basic nutjob kill crazy maniac, who doesn't even bother to wipe the blood off his t-shirt.

Your second archetype therefore is the organised killer. A psychopath, but not mentally disorded. Often intelligent and charming, they plan out the hunt and hide the evidence. Much of the book's about this type, as Ressler can actually get a conversation going with these guys. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Kemper are your go-to killers here (though Ressler seems to really hate Bundy - Kemper he's pretty cool with.)

The main point here is that all serial killings are sexual, even if there's no obvious sexual element. It's all about the fantasy taking over - fantasies which start in an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional childhood. It did leave me wondering about Harold Shipman.

Ressler pioneered criminal profiling, which is clearly still a touchy subject, but there's a lot of evidence here to show how it can help in an investigation (Peter Sutcliffe for instance, though the haters never listened) without it being a magic bullet, or an alternative to actual police work.

There's a lot of really interesting and horrible stuff here, but the book drags when talking about Ressler's life story or bureaucratic infighting at the FBI. Who wants to hear about a dedicated fighter of crime - a man who's actually made a difference! - when we can hear about someone who chops women's heads and hands off and has sex with their corpses. That's Edmund Kemper again. Here's Kemper's top tip by the way - cut the achilles tendons, and they're easier to position once rigor mortis kicks in.

You learn something new every day.

On the home run with my book on tape - Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, and I might try something a bit special tomorrow. It should only take me a few hours, but I'll need some equipment. No, not a knife.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

It's 1946. Stalin summons a group of fiction writers to create an alien threat which communism will save us from. They imagine that a US spaceship will be blown up; that the aliens will attack the Ukraine. They're then told to forget everything, and never mention it again. Forty years later, everything they invented starts to come true.

Dot dot dot.

This is so up my street, if almost feels like a trap. Spaceships, SF, Stalin, Soviet paranoia, Scientology.

But it wasn't what I was expecting at all. Although it certainly is science fiction, it doesn't read like it. Philip K Dick here would be closest in the genre, but it reminds me more of Murakami and Ishiguro (The Unconsoled especially.) Absurd conversations with desperate strangers in an atmosphere of insecurity. Dark, then, but also very funny. Bits I laughed at "OL" as the internet would say. I particularly enjoyed the police interrogator with a testicle fixation and an inability to work a tape recorder.

Ingenious, too, and it makes a pretty good stab at tying it all together at the end. Not an easy job by that point.

It won't be everyone's cup of tea I'm sure, but I'm giving it a big old thumbs up.

Something a bit different for me next - serial killer porn!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Time for some sci-fi. It won't be the last.

This is a collection of short stories by a bona fide astrophysicist, all set in the same universe. It's about different kinds of humans changing and evolving over the centuries and how those groups interact. Hive minds, cyborgs, genetically altered near-immortals and plenty of weirder things

It's hard SF, rooted in what's theoretically possible, so no warp drives or humanoid aliens. Instead you've got near-light speed travel, which throws up relatavistic paradoxes which I don't pretend to understand. And you've got very few aliens, and what there are are very alien indeed.

Best of all, it's dark. Pirates, insane computers, war criminals, genetic terrorists and robotic plagues all feature strongly. The best two stories here are horror stories. One's about a prick who collects the most dangerous alien creatures and human mutations in the galaxy. With hilarious results. The other's about a raid on on a hospital spaceship to capture a notorious general after a civil war. With even more hilarious results.

There's a real sense of scale here. It's set in different periods and you can feel the history and myth building up behind it all. It culminates in the titular story, which takes place over 40,000 years. It's got some great stuff in it, but it didn't really work. And since this is all the same world, I know how it all ends (not well.)

That's always going to be a problem with a short story collection - it's a mixed bag. But when it's good, it's very good. He's got a stack of big chunky novels set in the same "Revelation Space" universe, so I'll give one of them a read.

Next up - I've started another sci-fi book called Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts which is very strange and could be very brilliant. It's got Stalin in it. And I'm listening to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel about noted monastery-botherer Thomas Cromwell.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. I found the positives in Twilight. I even seem to remember rattling through The Bridges of Madison County.

The Prestige is worse than all of them. Possibly the worst book I've ever read.

If you've seen the film, then you'll have had a taste of the balderdash herein. Two dull and unpleasant stage magicians from the late 19th century carry on an unconvincing feud for a number of years. Let's call them Penn and Teller.

Penn has a trick where he vanishes at one end of the stage and reappears at the other. Teller is intrigued. He's told Penn must use a double, but he's unconvinced. Instead he's
sent on a wild goose chase by Penn with one word - Tesla!

So Teller is tricked into going to Nebraska, and asking Nikola Tesla to build him a transporter. Piece of piss says Tesla, much easier than transporting energy. Oh, and I need it to transport something living. He's in luck as that's much easier than transporting inanimate objects. The machine is built

Just to make clear - there's been no earlier suggestion that Tesla could do this. Tesla didn't even know he could do this! He certainly doesn't make another, just drops out of view.

Now because Christopher Nolan is generally a maker of quality bollocks, the movie has the interesting twist that Teller (or Batman. Or Woverine, I forget) ends up with two living copies every time he does this, so he has to kill one each time, and that leads to his rival being framed for murder. This doesn't happen in the book. Instead Penn accidentally unplugs the machine mid-act. So there are two imperfect versions of Teller. Neither of whom does anything.

Okay, one does think about killing the rival, but doesn't go through with it. Then they both die. After unneccesarily faking their death. Then they come back to life and do nothing for ninety years.

Oh, and the other magician's secret? He had a double. Probably. That's kind of forgotten about.

The Prestige really is a masterclass in terrible plotting. A series of mishaps and boneheaded coincidences, and the solutions to the central riddles manage to be both bizarre and banal. There so much more stupidity to go into, but I've said more than enough. It's probably bad form to describe so much of the "plot" and I won't make habit of it, but this book has already spoiled itself.

Let's give this a whirl

I read quite a lot of books. Or at least I start a lot, I get an exciting new book and then I jump ship, fully expecting to go back and finish the previous book. This rarely happens. Maybe writing a review of each book I finish will bring a little discipline to my reading habits. We'll see.

The books in the background of the blog aren't mine, and I don't think they're even real. I think they're the kind of props you find in pubs with an unconvincing literary theme. That pile of books on the left isn't mine either. This is all a tissue of lies.

A blogpost by Noise inspired the title, though Logan's Run is also in there.

Right, on with the books.