Archive for August, 2020

Amandine Roche – Nomade sur la voie d’Ella Maillart

August 27, 2020

81a+PrLYM5L._AC_UL320_     I’ve remarked before how little the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart is known over here, despite having written most of her books in English. She is much more popular in Europe, and this book is another ‘tribute’ to her: a French traveller attempts to follow in her footsteps seventy years later, in the early years of this century, and it’s quite instructive. I read it in the hope of understanding a little more of Maillart’s philosophy of life, some of which I had gleaned from Olivier Weber’s book.    

The book is very uneven: at times Roche’s travelling and encounters appear very superficial, and some stretches of her journey are sketched at breakneck speed: Maillart she isn’t, and this isn’t her fault. Her comparisons of the places Maillart visited and how they are now are very interesting, especially when we feel she is as engaged with people and surroundings as much as Maillart was. There are major changes: there is Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits it places on the possibilities for travel; there is the disintegration of the USSR, its fragmentation into numerous barely functioning statelets (Maillart travelled through the Soviet Union in its very early days); China is now a communist empire rather than a failed state in the middle of a civil war and experiencing a Japanese invasion; travel is so much more mechanised… and then there are the places which really do seem virtually unchanged since the 1930s, particularly in Tibet and Nepal. In poorer and more remote regions of the former USSR, Roche encounters a good deal of nostalgia for the good old days of communism among ordinary who have not been on the make.

What became clearer to me was what I picture as Ella Maillart’s flight from Europe in the wake of the horrors of the First World War, a continent where civilisation and its values had either vanished or been found severely wanting. It’s almost as if she could see the future unfolding as she gravitated towards India as the Second World War approached, stopped travelling and began an interior journey instead. I feel that one of the values of Roche’s travels and writings is how, via the inevitable comparisons, Maillart’s quest becomes clearer. At times, I also felt Roche had a tendency to romanticise rather. Travel in the 2ist century is certainly very different, and much harder, in many ways.

It’s when she’s in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China that Roche feels so much more immersed, more detailed and more observant; her reflections on how thing do or do not change over time show clearly that we are not necessarily progressing as a species. She happened to be in Kabul on 9-11: certainly chaos did seem to follow her about at times!

One thing was really unsatisfactory: clearly five years in India shaped the second half of Maillart’s life, and Roche did not really provide too many clues about those experiences. Nor – and this was a great surprise, especially since she mentions her intention of doing it – does she visit the places in Southern India where Maillart spent those five years of the Second World War.

I’m glad I read this book; I feel a little more informed, and the personal narrative of how things have changed over time is worthwhile. But the maps are poor…

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

Knowledge and the marketplace

August 25, 2020

Some of what I’m going to say will probably seem blindingly obvious, but my recent reflections on testing, and the astonishing farce that has been the government’s recent attempts to manipulate public exam results in this country, have led me to realise how my feelings about learning have changed as I’ve aged, and how these changes are probably inevitable.

The later stages of my teaching career marked a sea-change in attitudes to education, with most students deciding to study not subjects they necessarily liked or loved, but those they felt would guarantee them a career and decent salary: this wasn’t the way my generation had considered study and learning. Of course, if you wanted to be a dentist or doctor or a vet, say, then you obviously had to follow a particular course for a specific qualification. Otherwise you chose to study what genuinely interested you; this was a motivational factor in pursuing those studies, and you graduated a more developed person, of interest to a range of employers because of the higher level skills you had acquired. I accept that such a choice was rather perhaps rather easier in the days of student grants and free university education.

I always chose to study what interested me, and the testing and examinations were in many ways a minor hindrance that I had to put up with; the exception was training to become a teacher, which had specific aims and objectives as well as necessary theoretical and practical assessment. So my studies of languages began at school and worked towards a degree in English and French. I loved French, felt empowered by being able to communicate in another language, proud of being able to be taken for a native after I’d done my year in France and still pretty chuffed that although many French people now know I’m a foreigner, they can’t tell where I’m from… when in France I just ‘do French’, it comes naturally. It’s not quite so straightforward in Germany as my level of competence isn’t that high – I was taken for a Swede once – but my interest in and fascination by communication and language has never waned, and it’s over 40 years since I graduated.

I read Literature for my first, second and third degrees. What this meant was I could indulge my love of lying on a bed or a couch and reading, but I also acquired what I now realise was a toolkit for exploring what I was reading, setting it in contexts and exploring how it worked and achieved its effects; this toolkit was my vademecum throughout an entire teaching career – the qualifications enabled the access to the career, but the heightened and enriched love of reading has been my lifelong companion, and I like to think I have passed on some of this love and enthusiasm to some of my students over the years.

I could say similar things about other subjects I studied and was tested on: there was a qualification and often a subsequent and lasting interest. And the testing was also temporary, I understood quite early on: once I passed my A-Levels I knew that the O-Levels I’d been so proud of two years earlier were fading into not quite insignificance, but certainly the past. Ditto when I came to take my degree… one level replaced the next, in some way denoting that I’d extended a certain set of skills to another level.

What I have come to realise, and to enjoy, is the feeling that learning has been a lifelong activity, achievement and pleasure; I cannot now imagine it being or having been anything otherwise. I have no real idea whether this is a common feeling, but I am convinced it sprang originally from being able to follow what I liked and enjoyed, rather than feeling obliged to study something for my own good, like a dose of cod liver oil. I’m saddened that many of today’s students seem to feel they do not have the freedom to make such a choice. I’m also conscious that many of the things which have fascinated me – books, reading, languages, history, philosophy – are not regarded as worthwhile because their monetary and economic value cannot be computed, and yet I also know that such subjects create values and cultures…

I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned nothing about the world of maths and science, and this is not because I dismiss or belittle it; it just isn’t my world. Maths I always found hard, though I loved arithmetic and playing with numbers, calculating things in my head, and I still derive much pleasure from it today. I passed the necessary examinations at the time and moved on; most of the science and maths has faded and atrophied from lack of use, though it’s still there somewhere on my personal hard-drive. When I became a vegetarian some forty years or so ago, I read and studied a good deal about nutrition and healthy eating, and I have kept up with this, and manage to understand a good deal of the science involved: what I learned all those years ago has come in useful in an unexpected way…

In a decent world, in a wealthy country like ours, I feel that study should be available to anyone, at any time and in any field, if they have the required time and effort to commit to it. Many people, myself included, discover long after the age of formal education, that there are new things they wish to learn…

In the end, I suppose that my experience does demonstrate that indirectly education serves ‘the market’ in that it enabled me to work and have a career; what seems so wrong to me now is to expect the entire education and qualification system to be reduced to a mere function of the market in every aspect, with the state and the market expecting to produce students to fit certain slots, like widgets, whilst making a profit from them all along the way. Just look at all the money made out of examining students, and all the money made out of student accommodation in university towns…

What is wrong with the country?

August 21, 2020

Warning: politics ahead!

I’ve always kept up with the news, ever since I was a child. COVID-19 has taught me some particular lessons, though, as I have read about how other countries have approached looking after their populations, and keeping them as safe as possible from the pandemic. Some have been pretty successful so far, others less so. And our own country has been pretty awful, surpassed only by the USA and Brazil, perhaps, in its brazen insouciance and incompetence.

The countries that have done pretty well have also made mistakes, needed to backtrack, tweak their responses and actions, tighten up again. Their politicians have acknowledged this, and apologised and done the necessary. I have read quite closely about the different measures they took, why, and how quickly they took them, and how they presented to their people the need to behave in certain ways, for the benefit of everyone. Why have we been so different?

Everything about the UK, it seems to me, has been set up for centuries to perpetuate a small elite and its great privileges: the rest of us are basically peons who don’t really count. We are expendable, of use in the further accumulation of wealth and maintenance of privilege for the few. Even if you accept the idea of a monarchy (which I don’t) ours is ridiculously large, with dozens of hangers-on, and phenomenally wealthy, and our aristocracy owns vast tracts of the country. Our education system – schools and universities – have been set up to keep the elite at the top, via astonishing financial privileges and legal protection for private schools, and their two chosen universities, to which a few more have been added over the years to protect the interests of the almost elite, which assists in the perpetuation and reproduction of the elite. This happens in a way not seen in other countries, to the best of my knowledge…

This embedded class-system was challenged briefly in the seventeenth century; we gave up on the Commonwealth experiment and re-imported the monarchy, and again for a couple of weeks in 1926. Other countries have been rather more effective in eliminating class privilege, even without going to the lengths of the Jacobins or Bolsheviks. My family name officially classes me a member of the Polish nobility; there is a coat of arms; we could have taken part in the election of the king (!) and yet our background is in the peasantry: it’s name, not wealth that counted. I can derive nothing from all this, fortunately, for the nobility was abolished – just like that! – in 1919.

Our ruling classes have an arrogance which resembles that of the elite in the USA. Theirs comes from their military and economic might, and ours comes from our inflated sense of ourselves, because what the US is now, the UK once was, and we resent the fact that that has changed. We had a huge empire. We claim to be a paragon of democracy. We are, in fact, a small island off the coast of a very large landmass, and we have recently decided to sever many of our most useful political and economic ties with that landmass, in an attempt to ‘go it alone’ (whatever that means). We attempt to hang, pitifully, on the coattails of the US and imagine we still count. And the ruling classes have managed to persuade enough of the rest of us to believe this.

Nothing can begin to improve our nation, it seems to me, until (1) we have a twenty-first century voting system rather than an eighteenth century one; (2) until we abolish the foolishness that is the house of lords, and replace it with a properly-elected second chamber; (3) until we abolish the aristocracy once and for all, as most other countries did ages ago; (4) until we abolish private education. Then, if we can understand that it’s in our best interests to work closely and effectively with our nearest neighbours, we may begin to build a better country, which serves the interests of all its inhabitants and has the welfare of all at the core of its values.

Failing the future: COVID-19 and schools

August 19, 2020

This retired teacher is profoundly grateful not to have been working under lockdown, either at the chalkface or from home, and is in admiration of anyone who has. I have tried to imagine how I might have taught and managed a full teaching load and run a department under the circumstances, and failed. I have, however, been reflecting on what has been happening and not happening, according to what has been reported in the press.

I am saddened at the thought that students in year 11 and year 13 had such an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending to important stages in their lives, and are uncertain about how their futures may (or not) be affected by the disruption. I wonder why the government has not finally grasped the nettle and taken the opportunity the occasion has presented, to bring an end to university applications based on predictions rather than actual exam results. Having undermined faith in teachers’ professional judgement and set schools in competition with each other, predictions are now highly unreliable for many different reasons. I see no need to comment on the recent farcical sequence of events surrounding this year’s public exam results: it speaks for itself.

What surprises me most of all is that no-one in power has addressed the potential for further disruption: everyone is meant to be back at school in September, whether this can be done safely or not (and that’s another thorny issue). But what if there has to be another national lockdown in winter? Or a series of local lockdowns, of varying length and at different times? How can any system of student assessment through examinations be carried out fairly under such conditions? There used to be a lot of collective expertise in the profession about continuous assessment and moderation – I know, because I was heavily involved in it – but that has all gone.

Is is possible to set up a system whereby exams might be taken in students’ own homes, with sufficient inbuilt security to prevent cheating and personation? I don’t know, but someone should surely be investigating.

What about all the students without access to IT at home? Laptops have been promised for months but none or few delivered. Can a basic device with an OS and software only for school use not be designed and produced, and be enable to work on 4G for those students without broadband at home? This might go some way towards levelling a very uneven playing field; again, I have no notion that anyone is working on this case.

I can imagine that individual schools will be devising protocols for briefing their students fully come September about how things will be done in the event of further disruption, insofar as the schools themselves have been informed…

I have always seen education as society’s investment in its future citizens, as well as individuals’ investment in their own future. And we as a nation have been trying to do that on the cheap for far too long. That’s without thinking about the broader picture, the building of curious, educated and intelligent people, with an interest in knowledge and culture for its own sake, because it’s a good thing; as a nation, I think we’ve thrown that one right out of the window.

Back to lockdown: as a teacher, how could I share a love of books and reading at a distance? How could we discuss the novels, characters and ideas, the issues that they raise, not being together in the same room? More difficult, how to communicate grammar and spelling, analysis of texts and more? How to draw out and encourage the quieter ones, and allow them their moment in the sun?

Even under ideal circumstances – whenever were they? – and with the best of intentions, things can slip. At home, many students will find better, more interesting and more distracting things to spend their time on: who will keep them focused? A parent has to be a parent first, not a teacher, and teachers are trained in their craft, as many parents have been somewhat surprised to realise over the past months.

What I have written comes from the perspective of a secondary phase teacher, where the task is harder because there are so many subjects and input is required from so many different people; I have the impression that some wonderful things have been happening in primary schools because so much comes under the remit of a single class teacher who is able to have more of an overview of the planning of what is taught to their pupils.

I said earlier that I cannot imagine how I would do all this, and yet I realise that it all must be done. I have the picture of a government that isn’t really bothered enough, doesn’t care enough and isn’t competent enough to make the good happen. And so I fear the consequences of the selling short of several years’ education, and what the reactions will be of those young people when they realise just how badly they have been treated. We are not a poor country, and our future citizens deserve a hell of a lot better.

Still not reading books…

August 19, 2020

Despite all be best intentions and renewed efforts, I’m still not succeeding in reading very many books during the pandemic and all the extra time I have at home at my disposal, as this blog shows. I’ve accumulated a few new books with the best of intentions, but…

Recently I’ve been distracted by the way I use the internet. In a very old-fashioned way, I’m very fond of RSS feeds, which I discovered many years ago, but which now seem to be dying the death. Interesting websites allowed a feed to be set up, usually in an e-mail client (which was very convenient) so that one could be notified of new articles; these would remain in a list – just like emails – for me to look at whenever suited, but they contained links to the actual articles, so if the feed title looked interesting enough, I’d read the article, otherwise I’d just delete the header.

It’s only people like me that use desktop email clients; tablet and phone email apps don’t have built-in RSS aggregators, and purpose-made ones annoyingly insist on trying to ‘curate’ (god, I hate that word!) a list of articles they think I’ll be interested in, ie fill up with crap.

Anyway, I’d built up a stack of feeds over several years and only visited them desultorily, but over the last week or so I’ve been carefully making my way through everything I’d saved and reading everything that grabbed my attention: a lot of very interesting stuff, raging through a wide range of topics. The stuff I save is mainly literary, with some religion and politics thrown in. Arts & Letters Daily sends me three chosen links a day and rarely do I delete them all without reading one. Strong Language started up a couple of years ago and is a blog dedicated to swearing in all its forms and languages, and I find it fascinating. Then there’s Strange Maps, which, as the name suggests, offers all sorts of interesting cartographical perspectives on our world. And of course, Project Gutenberg is forever throwing new delights as ebooks into the public domain, and the marvellous volunteers at Librivox are regularly recording them for our delight.

Attempting to read the articles after some time has not been without its frustrations: some of them have just vanished, some of them are now behind paywalls, some of them dislike my adblockers, and I often have to clear the cookie cache in order to visit the same site more than a couple of times in a day. I’m still surprised that no-one seems to have found a way to make micropayments work for access to the occasional article on a site; I’m quite willing to pay a small sum for this.

I’m aware this has all been a displacement activity, but a very useful one in that it’s tidied up the laptop, the email, given me some more space back, and the few articles I may want to return to at some future date are saved as pdfs. I am planning to get my hands on some real, paper books in the near future…

Ward Moore: Bring the Jubilee

August 8, 2020

613q34K95KL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_     Here is a curiosity, written in the year I was born, and which I have just read for the fourth time: a counter-factual, or alternative history, in which the Confederacy wins the Battle of Gettysburg and thus the American Civil War, which becomes the War of Southron Independence.

The novel tells the tale of a strange, rootless and wandering character, Hodge Backmaker, who lives in the backward and rundown northern part of the continent, seventy years after the end of the War. One of the best things about this novel is the sense of atmosphere: the economic and social decay and depression is sketched out initially and never stops being gradually fleshed out into a very convincing picture, and because the Confederacy is both wealthy and remote, we learn relatively little of life there. The northern states operate a system of indentured labour, where the poor basically sell themselves into serfdom in order to survive.

The alternative history genre is a curious one, and one that has attracted me because of the ‘what if’ question, which, in many ways links to the broader genre of utopias: would our world be a better place if x had happened instead of y? And there is an interesting proto-utopian element in this story, a commune of scientists, researchers and intellectuals who escape the grimness of life in the north in their settlement at Haggershaven, and to which our hero eventually finds his way by a long and circuitous route, as a serious academic historian of the era of the Civil War.

What is also intriguing about the novel is the wealth of interesting and eccentric characters and the philosophical conversations they have. The plot itself, and its development, is so very unusual and unexpected that it hooks and grips, even though it’s not particularly action-packed, suspenseful or exciting. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve fairly quickly forgotten all about the book except for a memory that it’s really good and I’ll read it again one day.

The denouement isn’t particularly original, either, depending as it does on the now-famous, so-called ‘butterfly paradox’ in time-travel tales, but again, it’s very skilfully done as our hero historian travels back to see how, exactly, the South came to win at Gettysburg.

It’s a minor classic of its type and well worth your attention.

Harry Harrison: A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

August 2, 2020

91ZDD32iqlL._AC_UL320_     I’m not sure what made me return to this slim novel that I last read 27 years ago. I have a fascination with the genre called alternative history and recently picked several out from my shelves to come back to. Here, the American colonies’ revolt against Great Britain failed and George Washington was executed as a traitor; one of his descendants is an engineer involved in a project to build a tunnel to carry trains under the Atlantic in a world that has atomic power but no internal combustion engine…

We are in 1973, and trains can only manage 150mph. Britain leads the world in technology, including nuclear-powered trains. It seems almost quaint, in our current post-industrial wasteland, that a writer in 1972 could have pictured our country like this in the future, such was the promise of those long-gone days when we had developed the TSR2 and also Concorde…

It’s almost possible to see where the steampunk vision of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s amazing The Difference Engine (a far, far better novel set in an alternative Victorian era) came from, in this science-focused tale, with its Boy’s Own Paper-style heroes and the rivalry between the American engineer Washington and the British Brunel as they strive to build the tunnel and Washington strives also to win Brunel’s daughter.

It’s poor stuff, I’m afraid, almost embarrassing. The characters are thin, cardboard cutouts reminiscent of the worst SF from the early days. Plot drives everything, along with pseudo-science, and there’s precious little plot to engage the reader, with almost no suspense, tension or uncertainty; technology overcomes everything without much effort and the evil saboteurs – French? German? no, merely a blackmailed capitalist – easily thwarted. And Washington is knighted for his successes and gets the girl, and surprise, surprise, the American colonies are granted their independence when Washington asks the Queen… Gordon Bennett!!

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