UK General Election 2017

UK General Election 2017

Polling day is upon us. But Britain sorts the winners from the losers, here are a couple of random thoughts about the campaigns so far and predictions for tomorrow.

Three (hopefully) non-partisan thoughts about tomorrow:

  • Tomorrow, and through the night, social media will resemble the hotter days of fighting at Stalingrad. It will be brutal, unrelenting, and also increasingly vicious and fact free.
  • The Conservative Party has conducted the most lacklustre and self-harming general election campaign since 2001, and possibly since 1964. This is partly down to hubris, but I think has far more to do with a damp-squib of a manifesto, coupled with the fact that Theresa May – supposedly the party’s big totem-pole around whom they could built their campaign – has revealed herself to have all the colour and personality of an Argos, flat-pack coffee table.
  • Brexit and the economy, two hugely important and significant areas of debate, have hardly been discussed in any serious way at all.

Sherlock, Season Four

Sherlock, Season Four

Sher-blocked?

I rather like the BBC’s Sherlock. I’ve been watching since 2010, and consider it to be pretty good fun. Not too dry, not too soppy. It’s bonkers, obviously, and occasionally cringe worthy, but fun, nonetheless.

I am a Holmes fan, full stop. I’ve read many, if not all of the short stories, and three of the four novels (though, for some reason, I’ve never quite found the time nor the will to read The Valley of Fear). Brett, to me, is and possibly always will be the definitive Holmes. No one else has ever embodied the character of Holmes so fully and with such charisma. Nonetheless, Sherlock is definitely one of the better ‘modern’ adaptations, and Cumberbatch does his best with what is, occasionally, pretty daft material. Although, I’ve never felt him to be quite as mesmerising as many other people I’ve spoken to.

However…

Ah yes, there is a ‘however’ …

However, from Season Three onwards, I’ve started to suspect that the actors don’t want to be there, and the writers feel constrained by the source material they are working with. How else to explain the fact that the original stories have gradually been receding into the background? And how else to explain the fact that Sherlock has become a tale of one obnoxious sociopaths gradual emotional uncorking, and less and less a detective story about an unusually insightful man solving crimes?

Sherlock has become Bond-light. A sort of Bourse Identity with tea and biscuits. There’s a great deal of running and shouting. Cameras whirl about the place. The cable-drop trope makes a regular appearance. Fast cars swerve and screech. And super-villains plot to take over the world.

Yes, yes, I know, I know, the original stories had action, too: Holmes sometimes resorted to his fists, Watson often carried a revolver, and Holmes possessed a Moroccan leather case, in which he kept a needle and syringe for the occasional, recreational injection of cocaine and other opioids. I know all that, just as I know that Holmes could occasionally be scathing and rude. But Cumberbatch’s Holmes has always seemed obnoxious to a fault. Doyle’s Holmes could be terse when needed (particularly to save someone’s life), and he certainly had little time for women. Moffat’s and Gatiss’s Sherlock is an obnoxious, borderline sociopath. To me, the character is plain unlikable. I would cross the street to avoid him. Wouldn’t you?

Sherlock’s un-likability, and the stories runny-shouty-ness weren’t necessarily problems when the show stuck to telling one of the original stories, albeit in a contemporary way. There was enough there to keep the viewer interested. The stories made sense (more of less), even if they were always very far-fetched. And yes, inSherlock’s defence, some of the original source materials are hardly realistic drama. (The Creeping Man, anybody?). Also, Sherlock has never been a ‘pure’ retelling of the original tales. It’s contemporary, and in that sense, you would expect a certain of amount of nudity, drug taking, and rudeness. (Though, turning Holmes into a law-breaking ‘smack-head’ is definitely a liberty too far, in my opinion). Gatiss and Moffat weave characters and plot elements from multiple sources into one story. Many of those references can be ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. Witness, for example, the various Easter eggs crammed into The Six Thatchers (S4.E1). (There are lines, names and events from, amongst others, The Sign of the Four, A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League, and The Adventure of the Yellow Face. Doubtless there are many more, but I had to blink sometimes.) Say what you will about Gatiss and Moffat, but they do know their source material.

Still, their gradual moving away from the original stories, and their focusing upon Holmes as some sort of semi-messianic, comic book hero (on which subject see below), leaves the show feeling a little rudderless, and makes the writers seem as if they wish they were working on some other, flashier project.

As an aside, I’ve always been somewhat irritated by the lazy portrayal of ‘genius’ on television. A genius on TV has to be a superhero. They have to possess supra-human powers, and increasingly, in this day and age, they have to be rude and arrogant. (Witness, Sherlock, Sheldon Cooper and Tony Stark, to name but a few). They’re not just exceptionally clever and very, very hard working (like, say, Goethe, or Mozart, or any other ‘genius’ you care to mention), no, these days they can solve problems that might take a real life genius half their lifetime in the blink of an eye. Their brilliance is effortless. It requires no learning, and no hard graft. It is, in short, total nonsense. This on screen portrayal of genius reached new levels of comic-book daftness in The Final problem (S4E3) when Mycrofft described his sister as ‘“incandescent… an era-defining genius beyond Newton.” Really, Gatiss? Pass me the sick bucket.

But, anyhoo…

Back to the subject in hand. Could it be that the writers have resorted to prolonged car chases, fast-paced action scenes, and dramatic plot twists because they’ve begun to realise that their core their storytelling sometimes makes no sense? I don’t think there’s ever been an episode of Sherlock that hasn’t had at least one or two major or minor plot holes. Sometimes they leap off the screen, and sometimes, however, they’re subtler, and take some time to realise. Nonetheless, they’re there if you bother to look.

Unless, of course, you ask series creator, Moffat, who seems to be quite touchy on the subject. (The lady doth protest too much, methinks?).

When asked about plot holes in the show, Mr Moffat said: “I don’t know what they’re talking about. I thought it [is] watertight. What were they complaining about?

“I think people have come to think a plot hole is something which isn’t explained on screen. A plot hole is actually something that can’t be explained.

“Sometimes you expect the audience to put two and two together for themselves. For Sherlock, and indeed Dr Who, I’ve always made the assumption that the audience is clever.”

Ouch! So there you go. If you spot something that you consider to be a plot-hole, it’s because you’re a bit thick.

Well, I’ve been called worse. But it’s a bit of an extreme reaction, no?

Almost all films and TV shows contain an element of unseen action. We know that. That’s fine. You can’t show everything hat happens over the course of several days, weeks, or even years in an hour or two of screen times. So when people complained in The Final Problem about Holmes and Watson suddenly appearing on top of a fishing boat (as pirates), we can merely assume a degree of off screen action. Fine. I get that. It’s not a whole, it’s just a jump in time. But when you have things that contradict the logic of the universe you have thus far created, or that gainsay established character developments, then those things deserve the title of plot holes, no?

Well, just to be on the safe side, I’ll re-brand them narrative errors, or, at times, merely ‘errors in logic’. And just to be doubly sure, I’ll renew my subscription to the ‘International Society of Thickos’. You know, just in case I’m being a bit dim, as the mighty Moffat claims.

Goodness, where to start! I suppose I could do worse than last night’s The Final problem, if for no other reason than it is still fresh in my mind.

Plot a Course

The Final Problem actually hung together well compared to, say The Six Thatchers.

En Bref: Sherlock and John scare the bejesus out of Mycroft to get him to reveal that there was a third Holmes’ child – a sister. He then spends ten minutes playing Basil Exposition by filling in the parts of their childhoods that Sherlock cannot remember. Mid-conversation a little drone flies in, singing, and detonates a grenade, forcing the three men to leap for the exits (or windows, in the case of John and Sherlock). The three men steal a fishing boat and visit Sherrinford, a maximum-security facility built on an island (a la Alcatraz), and where Eurus Holmes (the aforementioned middle sister) is being housed because she’s, you know ‘era defining’ (uggg), yet psychopathic or, suffering from anti-social personality disorder, in modern language).

Whilst Mycroft and Watson tell-off the governor – after all, the most dangerous woman alive has been popping on and off the worst most secure facility at will – Sherlock goes down to have a bit of a chat with her. Then the plot twists. The governor of the intuition, who has been hypnotised by Eurus and is now under her control, takes Mycroft and Watson prisoner, whilst Eurus captures Holmes.

All three men (plus the governor) wake up in a locked room, after which they are put through a series of locked-room scenarios (sort of like a re-boot of the Crystal Maze if the head-produced were now E. A. Poe), set against the ticking clock of a little girl on a plane that is about to crash into London. In each instance, one of the three must make a moral choice or solve a problem before they are allowed to continue (usually by killing someone). In the end, Sherlock threatens to blow his own brains out, thereby forcing Eurus to end her little experiment early.

In the next scene, they all wake up back at Skyfall Lodge – Sorry, what was I think, Gatiss? – Musgrave, back at Musgrave House, the Holmes’ ancestral home (as in, yes, The Musgrave Ritual. And yes, I love that they worked in lines from the original catechism!). Watson wakes up in a well. Mycroft is nowehere to be seen. And Sherlock, well Sherlock must run around the graveyard, solving a riddle his sister set twenty-odd years ago relating to his supposedly beloved, and lost dog, Redbeard. The Moffat twist comes when Eurus forces Sherlock to remember that Redbeard wasn’t a dog at all, but was in fact a little boy named Victor (I think), forcing us to surmise that Eurus, jealous of her little brother’s friendship, lured Victor to his death in the well, and then tortured Sherlock with a nursery rhyme about the crime until she was taken away by the authories.

Sherlock’s response to this, we learn, was to re-write his memories of childhood, thereby erasing Eurus from his mind, turning a boy into a red setter, and becoming the emotionally withdrawn, egotistical berk we first encounter in season one. Oh, and the little girl on the plane? Well, she was just Eurus’ in her ‘mind palace’, so there was no ticking clock after all.

Got that? Phew!

Well, what’s wrong with that? Nothing really. It’s daft, but it just about hangs together, and it’s certain entertaining. And yet, there are just too many places where the story veers off road and into comic book-mode for it to be wholly enjoyable. And that’s the problem with Sherlock these days: it’s slick, it’s well produced, and occasionally it’s very clever. Yet at the same time, from one scene to the next, it suddenly becomes very infantile, very Batman comic, rather than Holmes detective story.

Take the opening scene, for example. I cannot believe that this confection wasn’t the brain-child of Mr Gatiss, a well known horror fan. Indeed, when you see Stephen King references, piled upon a half-a dozen other horror movie tropes, you can be reasonably assured that he’s behind it. Ok, fine. I’m a horror buff myself. Nothing wrong with that. But it was a dream sequence, surely? It has to have been. Nothing this daft would pass the BBC controllers, would it? A door closes behind Mycroft by itself. Paintings on the wall bleed from their eyes. A clown emerges from out of nowhere.

These things are all well and good in a film set in a universe with supernatural forces at work, but how does Gatiss expect to explain them away within the universe of Sherlock Holmes? Did Watson sneak into Mycroft’s house whilst he was in the shower, poke pinholes in all the paintings and conceal paper-thin, radio-controlled blood packs behind each eye?

Come on, it’s farcical! It’s a classic example of a writer sacrificing audience credulity for the sake of a bit of self-indulgence. And it’s a real pity too, because a little but of thought could have pulled it all together. Suppose, fore example, that Sherlock had stolen a few canisters of that fear and hallucination-inducing toxin cooked up by Project Hound way back in Season One”? Then suppose he’d chucked one into Mycroft’s home cinema? All those hokey costumes and daft horror tropes would have been terrifying to poor Mycroft, even if they’d seemed a bit daft to the viewers. We, the viewers, would have assumed that he was merely hallucinating the bleeding eyes.

But is it a plot hole, or ‘narrative error’? Well, not quite. Yes, we can assume it was all set up off camera by Holmes and Watson, as Moffat would have us believe. But how? How, in the real world, would they achieve such things? They couldn’t and wouldn’t be able to do it. It requires almost supernatural abilities: abilities which, in the universe they have created, do not exist.

Oh well. Moving on.

The grenade.

Grenades have timers. Fair enough. You pull the pin, thrown it away, and a few seconds later, kaboom!

Buy why create a grenade with a motion-trigger than then has a delayed explosion? The clue is in the name – motion trigger. Motion sets it off. There’s not much point in having a proximity mine that waits for you to pass, then counts down a bit before going off, is there? It’s daft. Who would make such a thing? A grenade needs a timer because you have to thrown it a safe distance. A bomb that explores to due motion or proximity, or whatever, needs no such countdown. Obviously, the only reason for this was to give the three men in the room – Mycroft, Watson and Holmes the younger – a chance to leap for the exits. Except, of course, that John and Sherlock threw themselves headfirst out of the windows. A one-story fall, head-first, propelled by the force of an explosive device detonating mere yards behind them, and, in the next scene, nothing, not even a sprain or a bruise.

Hmmm…a slight ‘error in logic’, Moffat?

No, you say?

Just off screen action, then.

Ah, ok. They fell onto the pavement, commando rolled, leapt up and dusted themselves down? Because that’s now how gravity and human reflexes work in this universe? Right-o.

Gotcha.

Moving on.

Why did Eurus try to kill them with a grenade in the first place? When Sherlock later threatens to blow his own head off, she freaks out and calls off phase one of an elaborate scheme that has been five-years in the making. The whole point of her murder spree, we later learn, is to earn a hug from her little brother. She’s trapped in her mind-palace-plane and needs talking down – it’s all a metaphor, don’t ‘cha know – and t can’t happen if Sherlock is dead, so why try to kill him?

I mean, ok, she chose something with a delay to give him a sporting chance. But she can’t know that he will survive. She can’t know that any of them will survive. In which case, all her Moriarty video, all her looked rooms, and all her hostages have been assembled for nothing!

It’s a bit off a plot hole, isn’t it Moffat? Let’s be honest, there’s no ‘unseen action-ing’ your way out of that one.

Anyway, on to Dr Evil’s Island.

Sorry, I mean Sherrinford.

Why did they need to smuggle themselves onto the island? Why not go in the front gate? Mycroft has clearance, surely? To judge by previous episode, he can go wherever he wants, whenever he wants. All we get by way of explanation is: ‘because your security has been breeched’. Ok, but again, why smuggle yourselves in by boat and then go to the trouble of getting captured, just so that Sherlock can sneak off and have a chat with his sister? If security has been breeched and Eurus has been moonlighting in London, then why not arrive with a team of uncorrupted officials and soldiers to secure the facility whilst you interrogate staff and sift through the paper work? I mean it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a woman who, can by telepathy, magic, hypnosis, or whatever, get people to do doing whatever she wants (because that’s how being clever works), might have done just that to the security personal on the island, even though they were under instruction not to speak with her. It is possible, after all, that it is the governor who has been corrupted, no?

Annnndddd, that’s exactly what happens, but not before super-duper-genius Mycroft fails to factor that possibility into his equations and walks unarmed and unprotected into the midst of this inescapable island.

Anyway, whilst all this is going on, Sherlock, a man with such foresight that he can predict the future weeks in advance (S4.E2) whilst smacked out of his head, a man so observant that he can tell the state of a man’s marriage from a speck of dust on his hat, fails to notice that there isn’t a thick piece of security glass separating himself from his deranged sibling.

I see…

Hmmm…I think we’ll call this one ‘character inconsistency’, eh, Moffat?

Anyhoo…

The three amigos fall into Eurus’ trap, the governor commits suicide in an effort to save his doomed wife, and Sherlock and co are forced into one horrible decision after another, all prompted along by the plight of a little girl all alone in the clouds on a plane that must be running low on fuel.

Except, that the little girl doesn’t exist.

Sherlock, Mycroft and Watson don’t know that, of course.

But might they have been able to work it out?

Maybe?

I mean, they know Eurus likes to make things up (the bomb in Molly’s flat), and they know she has a voice changer (the security glass stunt). Might they also wonder therefore, how, in her brief stints on the mainland, she has been able to organise the hijacking of a plane bound for London to coincide precisely with the random arrival of her brothers on Dr Evil’s Island? If they took another moment to think, they might also wonder how she had hijacked a plane, knocked out everybody on board, set it to autopilot (with no one on board), and set it on a long auto-descent into the heart of London?

I’m sorry, but it’s phenomenally daft! Alarms bells started going off in my head the moment the little girl was seen to be alone on a plane under Eurus’ control. How had she managed that, I wondered? Wow, the writers must have one hell of an ace up their sleeves to make this one plausible, I thought.

But, of course, the didn’t. It couldn’t possibly have happened, and in any remotely grown-up drama that hadn’t dissolved into a comic book, Sherlock would simply have sat down on the ground, fired the bullet into the TV screen, and told Eurus to sod off.

He didn’t though, because this is comic-book television. Nothing really makes much sense, and all common sense and laws of nature have been put on hold (temporarily, mind you. They come back whenever the writers need them). So instead, Sherlock messes with Molly a bit, threatens to kill himself, and the whole story moves to the Musgrove Estate, which Eurus, the twisted little fire starter, burnt down when she was just a child. After a bit of banter and running about, Sherlock comes to realise that the dog he thought had died when he was a child was in fact his best friend, and Eurus stirs this memory into life by reminding Sherlock that their father is allergic to dogs.

Yup, that’s right … the man who can tell the dimensions of your kitchen by the sun-bleaching on a piece of paper, spent thirty-odd years unable to deduce that his father being allergic to dogs might have meant that the family never owned a dog.

Whatever.

I mean, plot-wise, the dots join up, but the who thing is so farcically unbelievable and so out of character that you don’t really care any more.

Still, you hope for an explaition. I mean, they have got one, right?

Yup, and it’s a doosey!

It seems that somewhere inside Sherlock’s infallible ‘mind palace’ – you know, where he stores everything meticulously using an eidetic memory – a whole bunch of data has become corrupted. Sherlock has rewritten his childhood (because smart people think like computers, don’t you know). He has supressed the memories of his sister’s cruelty. Mycroft has helpfully kept these memories dormant by providing Sherlock with little ‘prompts’ through out the show, references to Red Beard, that sort of thing. Hey ho, the whole thing has to have been foreshadowed somehow, so fair enough. If I were being picky, however, I might ask why Mycroft elects not to share the Red Beard revelation with Sherlock right from the beginning? Sending him in to battle wits with the twenty-first centuries finest mind, whilst still blissfully unaware of some painful truth with which she used to torture him, seems more than a little negligent by big-brother dearest. Why didn’t he tell Sherlock back in Baker Street when he was scaring them all with stories of what a little psycho she is:

 

“Oh yes, and by the way, did you ever wonder what happened to Red Beard?”

“My dog?”

“No, Sherlock, the pirate”.

*Cue big Cumber-frown.*

“Didn’t it ever seem odd to you, bother dearest, that our father, a man who would convulse at the mere presence of a pocket poodle, would keep a giant red setter in the house…?”

* Thrown in some patented Cumberbatch, quizzical eyebrow acting.*

 

You get the idea.

Poor Sherlock. Negligent Mycroft. Forewarned would have been forearmed, after all.

But no, that would spoil the ending, so he has to find out the dramatic way.

Fair enough. This is TV after all.

But it’s not very, hmmm, clever of Mycroft, is it? I mean, in order to get the plot moving, ‘brilliant’, forsighted geniuses have to behave in ways that short-sighted and dim.

Then we get the bit with the canticle, which, in the original story, beings:

 

‘Whose was it?”

‘His who is gone’

‘What shall have it?’

‘He who will come’.

 

In this re-telling, Mofatt and Gatiss have worked it into a riddle, concocted by Eurus when she was about five years old, firstly to torture Sherlock as to the wareabouts of his lost dog (or, friend), but also to tell him in 2016 that she is sitting up stairs in his old bedroom waiting for a hug. It’s a solution that is at once both inventive, but also maddeningly frustrating and unsatisfying. Where you were hoping for something clever, you are left with a thin cop-out that defies belief.

Meanwhile, poor old John is still stuck down a well, and now it begins to flood with water from above. Yup, this is a well with a tap at the . Whereas others dig wells to acces underground streams to bring water to the surface, the Holmes family use them to dump unwanted water in the ground. At casa Holmes, they have taps at the top, just in case you feel like, literally, pouring water down the drown. Though, to be fair to Moffat, it might not be a tap. We never get to see the source of the water that is pouring down upon poor John, so it could very well be a hose pipe with a very long extension. A hose pipe that Eurus is presumably controlling via remote from the bedroom. (Unless, of course, she’s re-plumbed the house so that the garden tap is in her bedroom? She is ‘beyond Newton’ after all, and he would never have thought of that).

Anyhoo…John gets rescued from the well, Eurus goes back to Sherrinford, and then we are treated to a nice ‘everything-is back-to-normal-montage’, which should have ended once scene earlier than it did. Baker Street is rebuilt. All is well. Cut.

Done.

Show’s over.

But no, we have to have Mary in other of here, ‘I’m dead, but the writers want to keep using me DVD sequences’. Then she calls them her Baker Street boys, and as if that isn’t enough, the two come charging out of ‘Rathbone Place’ in a scene that immediately reminded me of Del Boy and Rodney dressed up as Batman and Robin. It was awful. Just awful. I almost physically recoiled from the television.

 

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Oh, those Baker Street Boys!

And that about covers it.

Oh, except of course that Moriarty was back (and he’s, well, ‘gay now’, as Willow once put it).

Except, not really. He’s still dead. He was just tacked on so that the writers could hint for years (yup, literally years at this point) that he was alive again, when in fact he was dead all along. He was just there to troll Sherlock in the midst of his Sophie’s Choice between Mycroft and Watson. He served no plot purpose at all. Not even slightly. You could have cut him out completely and it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference.

 

Well, that’s one episode covered. And, whilst it felt good to get off my chest, I do feel a bit bad for bashing the show so relentlessly. I mean, I really enjoy Sherlock. I know it makes no sense, and I know it places hard and fast with reality and the laws of physics as and when it sees fit, but I enjoy it all the same.

To judge by online reactions, people seem to have split into two camps following this last season. Either it was utter genius. A complete tour-de-force. Dazzling. Mind-blowing. And oh, so-clever. Or, it was utter shite. Total garbage. Self-indulgent twaddle.

Personally, I dislike this polarisation of opinion that we all seem to have to have these days. Why can’t it have been pretty good, but flawed, a bit daft in places, but over all, pretty good fun? Why does everything have to be black or white? And why do people have to get so angry with anyone who has a different opinion?

I don’t know. It’s sad.

For me anyway, season four of Sherlock has been at times brilliant, but at others mindless. The production has been spectacular, but also occasionally clichéd and over-the-top. The acting has been very good – except for the few occasions when some of the principals phoned it in. (I’m look at you, Freeman – if you don’t want to do the show anymore, then don’t!). It’s been a lot of fun, but it’s been very frustrating, too.

I hope they do more. And I hope that if they do, they get back to telling detective stories and leave the whole ‘Sherlock’s emotional awakening’ arc in the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Summer of the Somme

The Summer of the Somme

 

I decided, sometime in late June, that I did not know enough about the Battle of the Somme. I started in, what, July of 1916? And it rumbled on into November? The opening day was the worst disaster in British military history. Oh, and the men who fought in it were primarily those from the ‘Pals Battalions’ – is that right?

 

That was about the extent of my knowledge. In my defence, the Great War is not my period. I studied it at school, then again and college, and once again, briefly, at university. But I own fewer than half-a-dozens books on the subject, and would quickly run out of ammunition if I had to debate any aspects of the war in any great detail with a real buff. I could dimly recall the Fisher Thesis, and the arguments of some of his detractors, but from a historiographical perspective, that was about it.

 

With this glaring ignorance in mind, I set out to learn more. A brief bit of searching in the library and online, turned up a number of promising places to start. Middlebrook’s First Day of the Somme (1971) is, from a historiographical point of view, an old piece, but one that seems well liked, and so it took it as my ‘jumping on point’. It was a well written, albeit sparsely sourced (at times, he makes sweeping statements which he never bothers to substantiate) account from the soldiers’ perspective. I enjoyed it, and moved on from there to some works dating from the last five years or so. All proved interesting reads in different ways. Having refreshed my memory of things I knew but had forgotten, and learnt a great many new things along the way, I moved from fact into the realms of fiction. I picked up and re-read Pat Barker’s very clever Regeneration and Faulk’s Birdsong. Then I stumbled, almost by accident, upon a second-hand copy of a novel in a charity bookshop. The book was by a man I had never heard of named John Harris and was called Covenant with Death.

 

The back-cover synopsis led me to believe that it would be a sermonizing, Sixties dramatization of the lions-led-by-lambs interpretation of the war. A great deal of recent historical research gone into correcting this orthodoxy, and I’ll admit to a great deal of cynicism when taking the book to the register.

Covenant with Death
Cover of John Harris’ Covenant with Death

I was wrong. Covenant with Death is an extraordinary novel, and deserves to be much more widely read than I think it is. So moved and mesmerized was I by the climatic chapters that I read certain passages several times over; I think I may well have groaned aloud in dismay at various events that occur towards the novel’s dreadful climax.

 

First published in 1961, the story follows the fortunes of a group of young work colleagues who volunteer with boyish enthusiasm for the British Army in the late summer and autumn of 1914 – thereby becoming part of Kitchener’s so called, civilian ‘New Army’. Harris claims to have conducted interviews with some of these men’s real-life counterparts, and it was their accounts of the war – of recruitment, of training, of life at the front, and of course of the actual Battle of the Somme itself – that Harris used to form the backbone of his dramatization. The result is as vivid, distressing and visceral an account of those awful years as anyone could hope for. It is not a comfortable read. The men are much like men I have known and met – albeit shaped by a world that has now long vanished – and Harris brings their enormous sacrifice to mind in a way that perhaps non-fictional histories sometimes struggle to achieve.

 

(Spoilers Ahead!)

 

In a book with many memorable scenes, a few stand out above the rest, most of them from the novels awful climactic chapters: the death of the professional and aptly named Sergeant Bold; and for me, above all, the horrible moment of realization when the handsome young Murray becomes caught on the wire like a fly in a web. The description of him struggling feebly against the mantrap, and his hysterical cries of disbelief as he faces his own imminent and inevitable death have haunted my imagination since first I read them. Even now I find it difficult to summon them to mind without discomfort. None of the characters escapes unscathed. All are altered. Few of them escape with their lives. Reading it is and was a thought-provoking experiencing. And if you haven’t read it, you should.

 

When I had finished the book, I thought back to the more recent pieces of historiography and their calculated accounts of the Somme as the forging ground for the professional army that would one day drive the Germans back across the Rhine. Can it really have been worth it, I wondered? Was the blood sacrifice of worth the well-oiled fighting machine that emerged in the spring of 1917? I remain unconvinced. German was a menace and needed to be beaten. Yet throwing the bravest and most patriotic of Britain’s young men, often half-trained, into battle on that day and in that way cannot have been the optimal approach to victory. The unforeseen always occurs in war, and a general cannot see all ends. But the objectives that day were unclear, and the mistakes made unforgivable. Most of the men went over the top toiling under unnecessarily heavy packs, many were told to walk and not run towards the enemy guns (though these commands supposedly came from company or battalion commanders, and not from on high), reports of uncut wire were ignored, successful attacks were not followed up, disastrous attacks were reinforced resulting in slaughter, and the effects of the massive pre-assault bombardment (which the French knew wouldn’t work from experience – and told the British top brass it would be so) were hopelessly over estimated. The result was more than sixty thousand young men dying within the first twenty-four hours of the battle. Their deaths were often protracted and unpleasant. Their bravery was breath-taking.

 

Hindsight can be a terribly smug thing, but there must have been another way.

The EU is the reason we have peace?

 

A friend of mine is convinced that the European Union is the only thing that has prevented another major European war from occurring since 1945.

I disagree. For me, the long peace we have enjoyed since 1945 can be attributed to ‘democratic peace theory’. In fact, i think it has little or nothing to do with the existence of the EU. The fact is that no two democratic, capitalist nations have ever gone to war with one another, and the 1939-45 conflict put an end to any other form of government in Europe. There are numerous reasons for this, but the main ones are that capitalist democracies are less likely to view other similarly government nations as hostile, their leaders are publicly accountable to the public (and people everywhere are largely opposed to war), and finally, most such nations are reasonably prosperous and operate with complex international trade agreements, all of which might be imperilled by war. Economically and politically speaking there is therefore no reason for one such country to attack another. If you don’t believe me, try a thought experiment. Try to imagine a scenario in which Britain decides to invade France in a world where the EU does not exist. What would be the upshot of such an action?’

 

Trident: a forking waste of money?

Trident: a forking waste of money?

I am currently on the fence about Trident. I can see the logic in the arguments against renewing such an expensive and perhaps unnecessary system, but am also sympathetic to those who point towards the rapid changeability of geo-politics, and who note that the weapons would be for use in an unknowable future.

One key point that has always interested me is whether or not Britain has the capacity to use the weapons unilaterally. This seems to me to be crucial, for if they cannot be used independently then they represent nothing more than an extension of the U.S’s nuclear deterrent, paid for by the British tax payer. Obviously much information on this subject will be hidden behind a fog of secrecy and security, but that aside: what serious evidence is there that Britain would not be able to use the missiles independently if a crisis arose?

Whenever I have brought this up in conversation, I am told that the missiles need ‘arming codes’ and that these codes can only be issued by the American President. However, a little research on my part has suggested that this is untrue. Whilst the U.S does indeed have a system of arming codes, my understanding is that the British navy rejected such a procedure for fears that the chain of command could be broken during an attack.

What other evidence is there? Well, a report by Greenpeace, which was itself cited by the 2006 Commons Defence Committee when investigating the independence of the systems, suggested that the U.S could: “cut off the technical support needed for the UK to continue to send Trident to sea.” This is often cited in the media (particularly the Guardian) as evidence that the system is beyond our ability to control, which of course sounds very alarming. But note the use of the word ‘continue.’ The report does not suggest that the American’s have a ‘kill switch’ that can disable the missiles already in our possession. Instead, it tells us that without long-term American maintenance the missiles would eventually become unusable. An important point, but not the same thing.

WE.177_safety_keys
Nuclear weapon safety and arming keys

My understanding, however, is that Trident uses astro-inertial navigation, and that, once launched, the missiles are capable of finding their way to their targets without the aid of satellites. If this is indeed the case, then is it not true the missiles, as they currently exist, are available for the UK government to use unilaterally?

Close attention to the language used by both sides of the debate would suggest that this is true. The UK government, for example, is keen to stress that they have ‘effective operational control’, whilst opponents of Trident often stress a ‘long-term reliance upon American goodwill’.

How to win at Gwent!

How to win at Gwent!

Show of hands: anyone else here a Gwent-a-holic?

Come on, don’t be shy.

Too cool to admit to it, eh? Or are you just worried that it looks too complicated or even boring?

Well, you’re not alone. When first I played Projekt Red’s deceptively simple card game, I wrote it off as a tedious aside. ‘Who’s going to want to learn a whole new card game whist trying to get-to-grips with these complex game mechanics?’ I scoffed.

Two weeks later, and now I spend my evenings riding around the  Northern Kingdoms scouring every tavern, shop or smithy for anyone willing to offer me a few hands! I’ll play anyone. I’ve even (God help me!) eyed-up the real life Gwent decks available on eBay.

So, for the benefit of those uninitiated, here are a few things I’ve learnt about the game that might help you out.

  1. Build your deck! I really can’t emphasis this enough. Winning at higher levels of Gwent often means having the best cards on the table. If your cards are rubbish, you will loose. And the only way to get hold of good cards is to win them competitively from NPCs. (Ok, you can buy some good cards – such as scorch – from merchants and pub landlords). But mostly you are going to have to play a lot of matches and build up an impressive hand.
  2. Complete the Gwent missions as soon as possible. I left it until quite late in the game to start building my Gwent deck, and as a result lost the opportunity to gain quite a few unique cards. Remember the Bloody Baron you encounter a few hours into the game? (Spoiler alert!) Well, don’t make my mistake and leave it until it’s too late to try and win his unique card. By the time I realised I wanted his card, the Robert Baratheon wanna-be was swinging in the breeze at the end of a rope!
  3. At the start of each game the computer randomly selects 10 cards from your deck of 22 and this makes up your opening hand. Early on in the game this will probably end up including quite a few rubbish cards (see point 1) along with the good ones. As your deck gets bigger, however, you can reduce the chances of drawing useless cards by shrinking the size of your starting deck. Remember, you only need 22 cards to play, so if you have 30 cards in your Northern realms deck and ten of them suck, then be sure to eliminate the eight worst cards from the drawing process before the match begins.
  4. Be prepared to loose a round. Gwent is the best of three, remember, so you don’t need to win every round. And tactically speaking, loosing a round can sometimes be the easiest path to victory. If you three cards into a game against a Monsters deck and the NPC has already played  three infantry cards that draw in outside assistance then consider conceding the point. Do the maths. I’f he’s already scored 40 points and you’re only at 14, how many cards are you going to have to lay to chase a win? If the number is too high (you need cards left other to play another two rounds, don’t forget), then resign save your best cards for a later stage.
  5. Speaking of saving cards: buy or win as many scorch, decoy and spy cards as you can! These cards are game changes. No, seriously. That front rank of chained monsters with a high score your NPC opponent has smugly laid before you? A scorch card might be able to wipe them out. Those three cards you laid in the game above that are wasted if you resign the round? Well, if you have decoy cards then you can claim the highest cards back. And spies? Well, spies are arguably one of the most useful cards you can have. For each spy you lay you draw two extra cards for you deck. (The downside being that the spy usually has a points value which is added to your opponents score.) Lay every spy you can, because in Gwent the more cards you have the more points you will score, and the more points you score the more likely you are to win.
  6. Decoy enemy spies. If you have a few decoys in your deck, it’s often a good idea to pick up any spy cards laid by your opponent so that you can chuck them right back at him and even up the card numbers. I’ve played games in which both the NCP and I have 2-3 spies each and a number of decoys, and these spy cards have ended up trading hands several times. By doing this you can end up with 12, 13, even 14 cards in your hand! Very handy.

 

Happy Gwenting!

The Nintendo NX

The Nintendo NX

Dear Nintendo,

Let’s face it: the Wii U has been a disaster! Your previous worst-selling console, the GameCube, sold just under 22 million units in its lifetime. Whilst the Wii U, by contrast, has managed just half that in it’s almost three years on this planet. Yup, sales figures for the Wii U as of this summer (2015) stand at just 10 million – on a par with of the 10 million Dreamcasts sold by Sega right before the company went belly up.

Now, I know that that’s not going to happen to you, Your handhelds are still selling like hot cakes, and I have no doubt that you can and will roll again in the console market. In fact, rumours are already circulating about your NX. Will it be a hand-held-console hybrid? What kind of controller system will they opt for? Perhaps you’ll let us know sooner than we think.

I want the NX to be a success; I’ve owned seven Nintendo consoles in my life (including hand-helds) and I’d be heartbroken if you went down the tubes in the face of tablet gaming competition and a string of failed home consoles. I don’t want to be stuck in a bare choice between Sony and Microsoft, and I don’t want all my gaming on the go to be freemium- garbage upon non-dedicated device. So, at absolutely no cost whatsoever, here are three tips to help ensure that the NX is not a disaster.

  • Please stop releasing consoles with previous-generation specifications! I realise processor speeds, amounts of RAM and other technical specifications matter to a very limited number of consumers, but even a five year old can see the night and day difference in graphics between a PlayStation 4 game and a game on the Wii U! So please sort it out. After all, it’s only the last few consoles you’ve released that have been tech sloths. When the N64 came out, it blew everything else away with its capabilities. It was (and still is) superior to the original PlayStation (there, I’ve said it!)
  • Why not release a console with some launch titles that fans might actually want? How long did we have to wait for a Mario or Mario Kart game on the Wii U? Months. Years even. And how about a Zelda title? Well, we’re umm, still waiting, aren’t we? I know you don’t release software until you’ve got it right, and that is a highly commendable trait in an industry increasingly full of buggy code and endless patches, but strong launch titles sell consoles. Release the NX with a Mario game and a Zelda title on hand and watch the NX fly off the shelves! Now imagine that those games come with next gen quality graphics (see point one), and you’re almost home.
  • For the love of God, please stop fixating on quirky controllers! You’re obsessed and it’s not healthy. Yes, the Wii was a the third best-selling console of all time, and yes, a large part of that was down to the ‘wand’s’ appeal to gamers of all ages, but most other consoles do just fine with functional classic thumb-sticks and buttons. The failure of the Wii U is, in my opinion, at least partly down to that bizarre dinner tray controller you lumbered us with. What were you thinking? Did you even do consumer testing on that one?

 

So there it is: make a bleeding-edge, high spec console (just like you always used to) that at least competes, with if not betters the competition, and launch it with a blistering line up of Nintendo software titles. Package all that with a simple to use and functional controller and I pretty much guarantee you’ll do a hell of a lot better than you have with the U. Maybe not quite 1980s better, but you can’t keep going on like this!

Best wishes for the future,

A fan