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Christopher Nolan's Inception is a film which seems to have been dividing opinions this summer.  Fashionably late as always, the Bee takes a gander.  Our reviewer is Rhys Jones.

The idea that drives Inception is the concept of the invasion of dreams. Invading the dreams of their victims, 'extractors' are able to glean precious secrets from the subject. Dom Cobb is such a man, and with the help of his team, he is one of the best in the dream-invasion field. Cobb and his crew hook themselves up to their subjects with wires, and together they infiltrate the subconsciousness of their victims.

Hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, they have been tasked with implanting ('incepting') an idea into the head of Robert Fischer (Cilian Murphy), who is set to inherit his father's multinational business empire. But the 'inception' of ideas is a whole lot harder, and involves many levels of dream states. And the more levels, the more is at stake, and Cobb is withholding vital information; information that could sabotage the whole operation....

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, Inception is an amazing, heart-stopping multi-genre film that manages to combine sci-fi, action and thriller into one, gratifying cinema experience.

Unlike many contemporary action-come-thrillers, Inception is very much about the characters. It's not often you come across such a wide-variety of different characters in one film, and even less often is the main character so deep and so well performed that you really come to understand and connect with him. DiCaprio has done a magnificent job of bringing Cobb to life, and Inception proves that he is a great actor who deserves the recognition of winning an Oscar for his contribution to this film.

It's not only DiCaprio who inhabits his character with such distinction, though. The whole cast, many of whom have collaborated with Christopher Nolan before (including Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy, who both starred in Batman Begins) manage to take up their roles perfectly, fitting them like well-tailored after-dinner jackets. The Canadian actress, Ellen Page, who, at 23, already has numerous films under her belt, is really convincing as a young woman who is involved, not by choice, in such a large scale, illegal operation.

At this point, I should probably say something about Christopher Nolan, who I'm sure many know for directing the two Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Nolan is responsible for the concept of the film, which he wrote and directed himself, around the notion of “exploring the idea of people sharing a dream space — entering a dream space and sharing a dream”. Originally wanting Inception to be a horror film, he later changed his mind as horror films are traditionally very emotionally lacking, and he wanted to “raise the emotional stakes”. Nolan's screenwriting skills seem as accomplished as his directing skills, as Inception really does piece together in a very cinematic way.

The cinematography is perfectly executed; shot on film rather than digitally, every scene is beautiful in it's own right, and wonderfully lit. Action is caught perfectly, without too much wobble, and the score, written by the popular composer Hans Zimmer, ups the tension greatly. The visual effects are fantastic, and some will surprise you to know that they didn't involve CGI.

So, when everything is added up, what is the result? Well, it is something that should not be missed. Both intellectually gratifying and full of action, this tense piece of film-making involves the viewer, where other films only command you to be a spectator. Going to the cinema without being prepared to think is a bad idea, as Inception requires you to think, and grasp at ideas that are complicated but also wonderfully thought-provoking. Anyone who thinks Inception is a nice film to watch on a Saturday evening, a film to switch off to, again I say this is a bad idea; not only does the viewer need to be involved with the film, but the memorable action scenes will manage to keep your heart rate at a constant high. Inception is both visually and intellectually stunning, and is sure to be one of the best films of the coming years.

Exiting the cinema and stepping into the warm, autumnal sun is like waking from a dream.

Rhys Jones's book reviews can be read at his own site, Thirst for Fiction.

Citizen Science

By Andrew Gorton

I think there is a tendency now that when the 'S' word is mentioned, the image that is conjured up in most people's minds is of huge, barely comprehensible projects such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the Human Genome Project and the like.  There is a very human tendency for non-scientifically literate minds to go blank, or sometimes seize up with panic at the mere mention of science.  Certainly scientists and engineers are perceived as highly intelligent but socially inept, working on a level that most people cannot hope to reach.  
Do not fear though, because there are ways average people can contribute to the scientific enterprise.

One very simple thing to do is to take part in a volunteer computing project. This is where you can lend your computer's (capacious) spare processing power to one of an increasing number of
scientific projects. This first began in 1999 with SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). One of their ongoing projects is to sift through data gathered by radio telescopes for specific patterns that may indicate the presence of intelligent life. The SETI team pioneered the technique of parcelling the data out over the internet to ordinary desktop computers, which would then process it during their idle moments. All a PC user has to do is download a free piece of software, hook up to the project and just let it run. Whether or not you can see any point to SETI, the project has paved the way for many other projects such as more mainstream astronomical projects and medical investigations to looking at new ways of playing chess. One recent project that caught my eye is in the process of decoding three ENIGMA messages transmitted during World War Two. ENIGMAs were complex machines that were designed by the Germans to encode messages. The codes were supposed to be unbreakable, but teams at Bletchley Park were able to do this by, among other techniques, developing the first computers. There is a computer museum located there now.
For those wanting a more active role, Galaxy Zoo was launched in 2007. The idea behind this project for anyone with a web browser can classify pictures of galaxies by their shape –whether elliptical or spiral. Although computers are good at crunching large amounts of data very quickly, one thing they are not good at is pattern recognition jobs like this, something which humans excel at. The military have a phrase for similar situations – using the Mark 1 Eyeball. In many situations this approach is better than any amount of technology. (The phrase was even used in the new Battlestar Galactica TV series. If memory serves, the characters had to solve a problem similar to Galaxy Zoo’s.)
Galaxy Zoo has been extremely successful with 150,000 volunteers taking part in the first stage
enabling the project scientists to conclude a lot about galaxy types and their behaviour. The project has since been relaunched, as Zooniverse, with galaxies taken from the Hubble telescope archives and a more comprehensive classification process. Having taken part it is a strangely addictive process: you are shown a photo of a galaxy, and you answer questions about its structure (round or spiral; if spiral, how many arms; how tight are the arms; and several more in a similar vein) by pressing the appropriate button next to the photo. The process takes about 30 seconds for each galaxy, and you can easily spend 15 minutes or longer doing this. Even the most powerful computers could spend several minutes on each galaxy, and their results are often unreliable. The same project has now widened considerably. Users can now classify features on the moon, and hunt for solar flares and supernovae.
Since moving to the Norfolk coast from London about 6 years ago, it recently occurred to me that I know very little about the natural world, especially the wild life. Last year a website called iSpot was launched with involvement by the Open University. This website allows you to upload photographs of plants, animals and fungi –anything living wild basically, for other users and wildlife experts to peruse. You add the location, habitat and date of the observation, and what you think the critter might be. Other people can agree with that ID or supply their own if you are unsure. iSpot made the news recently when a species of moth that was new to the UK was identified by an expert. I bet the six-year old girl who put it up on the site was dead chuffed! They still have the insect, which will shortly end up in the Natural History Museum for posterity.
For myself, I have contributed a number of butterflies and other insects to iSpot, as I have been out and about in my garden, and my local area at large. I get quite a buzz by supplying an ID from a book and having several other people agree with it!
Amethyst Deceiver
Being unemployed I have been involved in a number of voluntary activities. A recent one I have started with is an organisation called Norfolk Workout, which carries out a number of conservation activities in my local area. A recent activity involved a bird and butterfly survey to Bacton Wood near North Walsham. As is often the way, we saw no butterflies and only a few birds, but the fungi were everywhere. I have never seen so many types before in one place. I took photographs of a few, (due to Murphy’s law, the batteries gave out on the camera before I could take many pictures. Will always carry spares in future!) then had them identified on iSpot. I then emailed them to Mark, the organiser, and he wants to use the for a fungi website he wants to set up. A couple of the more striking examples are included.

Fly Agaric

Mr Levett's Scottish Tour, Part Five: Whisky Galore.

After Culloden, we stopped by Inverness for a mediocre fish and chips by the coach station, and on to the Black Isle (which is a green peninsula), past the seemingly endless fence of a cattle show, spying oil rigs out in the Moray Firth in the slanting rain. At Cromarty town we watched tugs escort an oil tanker out from the deep water terminal, and made a six-pointed trace italienne sandcastle with bastions and ravelins (without the bucket and spade our cottage came equipped with, which had been left in Elgin). In Cromarty, we found a lovely second-hand bookshop/cafe hybrid thing, whose gimmick was having walls and ceiling coated with signatures from past patrons. (The most famous one they could name was "Tolkien's great niece", though.) We bought a lot of tea, several excellent biscuits and a little interesting-looking literature, and headed on back to the cottage.

The following day we did the whisky industry.

Image: The Speyside Cooperage

The Speyside Cooperage is one of the few functioning places of its kind left in Scotland, supplying dozens of distilleries, and they're justifiably proud of it. There are thousands of casks piled up behind the place. The tables and chairs in the cafe are made of casks. There are rain shelters in the car park, made of half-tuns on their sides with little windows and chairs. Made from casks. We got shown around an interesting history of the cask industry (they being the go-to break-bulk container for literally thousands of years), watched an educational video about casks, were shown the cooperage floor full of manly coopers doing manly things, had the general cask-making process explained to us with helpful diagrams and examples of tools and cracked staves.

Casks are an essential part of the whisky-making process, the ageing being what gives whisky a lot of its flavour, and the wood and what it's previously been used for (whisky is only very rarely aged in casks that haven't had another kind of alcohol in them) are very important. The coopers we saw were rebuilding casks, which is the main work done by Scots cooperages (their master coopers do actually make casks from scratch on occasion, but they're bespoke and thus rather expensive.) Used bourbon and sherry casks are broken down and shipped from America and Spain. US law forbids re-using bourbon casks, a law presumably passed due to the influence of a cooperage magnate, or the owner of a lot of prime forest. It looks like back-breaking work; they do twenty, twenty-five of these a day, earning a respectable salary (in the master cooper's estimation, anyway). Apprentices train for four years, and there was a special area laid out for them, but there weren't any in attendance the day we came. At the cafe we were given some wine made from oak leaves (me neither) and bought some tablet.

Just down the road from the cooperage is Glenfiddich distillery, which prides itself on being one of the few left with its own cooperage, and brags about its professional coopers rebuilding seventeen casks a day. Glenfiddich was much more slick than the cooperage; a bit too slick and commercial, which is slightly weird given that the tour is free. Once we'd got past the appallingly gushy, overwhelmingly desaturated, slow-mo-blurred-smiling-crofter-faces-littered, one-too-many-twists-on-a-catchphrase video (with headphones in many languages! I amused myself by twirling the language dial around; simple things please simple minds, like having a single sentence go from Japanese to Russian via pretty much the entire Indo-European family) introduction video, we got to the distillery itself. It was a lot like Bushmills - various immense vats oozing exotic odours, spirit safes built according to brass-and-glass sensibilities that would give steampunkers screaming orgasms, funny-shaped copper stills radiating heat, dark, busy warehouses redolent with the angels' share. I'm pretty sure all distilleries are about the same inside; in Raw Spirit (one of his best books for the simple fact that the plot was dictated to him by the world). Iain Banks tours more distilleries than I've had hot dinners, and comes to the same conclusion.

It all makes me almost wish I were interested in alcohol. At the end of the tour they sat us down in the bar and gave everyone sample drams in 12, 15 and 18-year-old incarnations, but they all just tasted like fire to me.

After the tour, parents discussed Highland Games (some were playing on screens in the bar; I always thought caber-tossing was some sick joke thing that didn't actually happen, like haggis running around, or Baba Yaga, or Swindon) with the nice German guys in our group, while I chatted up with our pretty tour guide (all tour guides in Scotland so far, despite having good Scots names like Donald and Morag, sound more English than the Queen; in her case it was because her dad was in the army, though I haven't heard any excuses for Culloden Duncan). The day was yet young, but we needed to get Dad back to an appointment with the spinemongler in Elgin. On the return journey, collectively musing over printing and bandwidth and sati-themed nursery rhymes, we stopped at a bridge by ol' Tom Telford, arching over the turbulent Spey with plaques proclaiming its proud Welsh heritage, and helpful signs explaining why Telford loved his Welsh ironmonger so much, though I can't remember why now. Thundering pairs of RAF Tornadoes swept overhead the whole way home (carving parallel lines into the sky, until they turned off near Sandford and were lost).

On the Saturday we set off on the long road south to Edinburgh. On the way down we espied a ruined church lurking by the roadside, and explored. There were death's heads on half the gravestones, among various other highly morbid symbols; the church had no roof, and the weathering inside suggested it had lacked one for a long time; it all reminded me somewhat of Marienkirche in Lubeck (so it was with wry amusement I noted it was called St. Mary's). Beyond it all, there was a pervasive, distant buzz, like a thousand beehives. Mum suggested midges. If that was true, it was terrifying.

Craigievar Castle was the spitting image of the tower houses I'd been hoping for, save for being pink. It had straight-up walls and loopholes for shooting at cattle rustlers, and an almost stereotypical highland toff's interior. It was pink. It had a minstrel gallery containing a spindle and a bunch of Civil War-era (ours, not yours, any Yanqui devils reading) lobster-tail helmets, pikes and muskets, all lurking threateningly as if daring you to play them; but it was pink. It had glorious, sweeping grounds with ancient trees, monkey puzzle and funny grey cows. But it was pink.

Really, really pink.

Castle Kellie, our last stop before Edinburgh, was a deeply Civilised country house, brimful of nannyish guides and down-the-centuries ephemera (children's picture books of the late 19th century look both hilariously racist and Uncanny Valley creepy). Most hilariously, a couple explained (in character) how to Keep Up Appearances as a fifties family celebrating the coronation, while short on money but attempting to be long on class. It... it was the most unexpected, and the most priceless, moment of the holiday so far.

Crossing Fife we had a perfect view of the glorious Forth Bridge in the dying sun, on the last leg into Edinburgh.

Confessions of a One-Off Archaeologist: Part II

Alex Keller has been busy launching his first novel since he regaled the Bee with the first installment of his archaeological adventures.  Now he's back with the second installment...  

Life in Bulgaria wasn't all digging however. Around two o'clock each day, we would pack up our things and be taken back to Nikyup in a state of near exhaustion. Once arrived, we would slump into the cafe/bar that served as our port of call for all food and drink related things, and work out what we we do for the rest of the day/weekend. In this blog, I'll try to give you some idea what life was like over there off the dig site.
Most week-day afternoon/evenings were spent in our village. However, entertainment in Nikyup itself was pretty thin on the ground as it is very, very small. It contained only two bars (that I remember) and not a great deal else. Once we had returned and used the outdoor shower (I'd recommend anyone who lives in a hot country to get one of these. So, so nice...) we could either go to the bar we spent our mealtimes in (so the less adventurous of us could sit down at 3pm for a late lunch and wander off to bed at 3am having not moved a hundred yards all evening); or walk up the street (slightly over a hundred yards) to another bar that had what was laughably called a “beer garden” complete with its very own dodgy pool table and outdoor toilet. Most week day evenings would be spent in one bar or the other recovering from dehydration by drinking horrendously alcoholic beverages.
At weekends we tended go to the nearby city of Veliko Tarnovo. After the the more basic lifestyle of Nikyup, Veliko Tarnovo was a oasis of western life: flushable toilets; dodgy nightclubs playing cheesy music; people trying to sell us illegal copies of DVDs and CDs in the street; and cocktails (I remember one called 'The Swimming Pool' was particularly severe!). Veleko Tarnovo was a much needed change after the dust and the heat of the dig site. A usual Saturday would involve heading to the city for lunch at the outdoor swimming pool with attached restaurant (bliss!); wandering about for a bit, perhaps to the old fort that appeared to be Tarnovo's only tourist attraction; then pop to a bar before going to the Spider club, a possibly Mafia-run “joint” full of dangerous energy drinks, long drops, and concrete floors (surprisingly, only one person lost their front teeth. We expected more).
Overall, I enjoyed my time in Bulgaria. It was hot and tiring, and perhaps five weeks was a bit too much, but it was certainly a very different experience from any other time when I've been abroad and I don't regret a single moment!

Ten Ancient Civilizations...

Debbie Owen has alerted the Bee to this useful round-up of Ten Ancient Civilisations That Were Incredibly Advanced on Online Doctorate Degree.
Click HERE to read the article...

Books with bite: the rise of dark romance for teens

By Caroline Short

As a bookseller I am sick to death of ill-written vampire fiction for teenage girls. Half of our Young Adult department is now black-spined and dedicated to the outrageously beautiful boys and girls who matriculate together, drink one another's blood and live in a heightened state of emotional and sexual arousal. Sexual awareness, death and violence have always been interconnected in literature (and film), but now more than ever they permeate the teenage genre, glamourised to the extreme and marketed to arguably the most malleable audience out there.

My aversion is, of course, a personal reaction, based largely on the quality of the mass-produced, market-saturated genre. This is certainly not to say that dark romance doesn’t have its place on our bookshelves, nor that it isn’t teaching some important life-lessons to an audience displaying what must be acknowledged as previously unseen level of commitment to reading. Like J K Rowling before her, Stephanie Meyer deserves commendation for bringing a disaffected audience back to books.
The popularity of vampire fiction has always been inextricably linked to changes in our social, political and economical situation. Victorian vampire fiction reflected a society in which women were beginning to gain purchase academically, economically and politically, but whose sexuality was stifled: the connection between vampires and sex mirrored that between loose morals and perceived evil. In more recent history, a resurgence of interest in the pale of face and sharp of tooth in the 80s coincided neatly with the AIDS epidemic and the disease’s associated connection to blood and sex, the popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 90s with the rise of “girl power” and the emasculation of the dominant male, with his bodily protrusions.
Current vampire fiction is of an entirely different ilk. The modern take offers choice in the matter of how they live their lives and procure their “necessities” (i.e. blood). As with humans, they may choose whether to live a good and virtuous life over one of murderous destruction. They are fatally flawed, but can overcome this through restraint.
The modern teen is growing up in a time of uncertainty and confusion. The worldwide nature of our current economic situation is unlike any encountered before in the breadth of its reach. This recession is an international issue, encapsulating every first world nation across oceans and borders, leaving the population unsure as to what the future might bring…
So, vampire fiction does its usual party trick, of creating a physical entity representative of the wider “big bad”. Only this time, the vampire takes on all the uncertainty, the fear of the unknown, and even the glimmer of hope that the reader is exposed to on a daily basis. Unlike in their previous incarnation, these vampires are not instinct-led killing machines. They come in all colours, across the moral spectrum, choosing whether to kill or compromise. You could be onto a good’un or being seduced by a bad – but you won’t know which you’re backing until it’s too late.
Either way, the moralistic and hopeful tale these dark romances weave provide a desperate generation with much-needed potential silver-lining. They also drive home the theory that, in order to attain the happy-ending, there must always be risk and sacrifice along the way. The nature of the risk and extent of the sacrifice are for you to discern.

If, like me, the idea of yet another tale of love, lust and blood-sucking leaves you cold, do not despair. There are a handful of authors out there writing truly fantastic, non-vampiric fiction for the teenage market. Meg Rosof, Celia Rees, Malorie Blackman, Sally Gardner and Laurie Halse Anderson (to name a few) write wonderful, engaging stories with life lessons at their heart, across genres encompassing sci-fi, crime, modern and historical fiction.

And for confident readers, the classics are crying out to be read – Wuthering Heights is a great choice for teenage girls, perhaps particularly those who lean towards the dark side… Indeed, thanks to Harper Collins you can now buy a copy deliberately designed to buy into the dark romance market – and partially responsible for putting Emily Bronte at the top of the classics bestsellers chart for the first time since records began.
Whatever teens are choosing to read, I suppose the important fact remains that they are choosing to read. There is so much life-knowledge to be gleaned from a love of books – and despite appearances to the contrary, vampires truly are optional! 

Caroline Short is a bookseller, editor, education consultant and entrepreneur, currently blogging at The Second Hand Shopper.

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The Godfather of Sail

Philip Reeve explains why you should set a course for wherever books are sold and stock up on the novels of Patrick O'Brian.

"Why are you both reading Patrick O'Brian?" asked my son Sam the other day, spotting that his mother is reading Master and Commander for about the third time while I'm on The Ionian Mission for what must be the fifth.  It's a reasonable question, and one which might be echoed by anyone who hasn't encountered O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books, for to a casual observer they must appear to be cut from the same militaristic cloth as CS Forester's Hornblower yarns or Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels.  Hopefully the fact that we've both read and re-read the Aubrey/Maturin novels is proof that they offer something more than just tales of derring-do in the Napoleonic Wars.  If I had to find a comparison I would say that they are more like Jane Austen, except that Patrick O'Brian excelled at writing battles, tempests, and shipwrecks, which were never really Jane Austen's strong point.

The series began back in 1970, gradually grew in popularity through the eighties, and achieved huge acclaim in the '90s from the sort of critics who would usually sniff at books like these, followed by more widespread fame in the noughties with the release of the film Master and Commander, a pretty good screen version, although (or perhaps because) it doesn't follow any one book but mixes elements from many of them*.

Master and Commander is also the title of the first book.  It begins in 1802, when a young naval commander, Jack Aubrey, meets penniless physician Stephen Maturin at a concert in Port Mahon, Gibraltar.  Despite their shared love of music they are very different characters - almost exact opposites, indeed, for Jack Aubrey is big, straightforward, friendly, good-looking, a pretty conventional English Tory, an excellent seaman but a little naive ashore, while Stephen Maturin is small, rather ugly, reserved, physically clumsy, deeply intelligent, a keen naturalist, and a political radical of Irish/Catalan descent who took part in the failed rising against British rule by Wolf Tone's United Irishmen in 1798.  But somehow they hit it off; Stephen sails as surgeon aboard Jack's brig the Sophie as she cruises the Mediterranean in search of French and Spanish ships, and a deep, enduring friendship begins that will be the subject of a further twenty novels.  War is always the excuse for the stories - Jack is ordered off to frustrate French or American plans in just about all of the world's oceans, and Stephen, finding that his hatred for Buonaparte exceeds his distaste for the British Empire, becomes an intelligence agent - but they are not simply war stories.  They are not really about plot at all, although the plots are good, and often nail-bitingly tense.  The real heart of the books is the characters; those two great central characters and all the lesser ones - hundreds and hundreds over the course of the whole series - who orbit about them.

O'Brian's approach to character is subtle; often he doesn't tell us what people are feeling; he just shows us what they do, and leaves it to us to work out why they do it.  They don't read like characters whose attributes have been thought out and noted down on index cards before the author set to work; they are inconsistent and perverse; they grow, and age, and make mistakes; the heroes sometimes behave in ways which make us think less of them, although they never lose our sympathy; apparent villains sometimes reveal a kinder side, or at least some reason for their villainy. And they all speak and think in a wonderful, rich, utterly convincing Georgian prose.  It isn't necessary for a historical novel to feel as if it were written in the era it's describing, but it's impressive when you find one that does.  (It's also rather infectious: I'm always warning Sam to put a coat on to preserve himself against the falling damps.  Sometimes he'll pop into my office to report, "Mummy's compliments and wittles is up.')

The series is also surprisingly funny; when I started reading them I hoped to be entertained, and I expected to be informed, but I didn't expect to laugh out loud so often.  Some of the comedy is quite broad -  a reliable source of fun are the zoological specimens which Stephen brings aboard - wombats on deck; a beehive in the main cabin; a three-toed sloth which acquires a taste for rum ("Jack!  You have debauched my sloth!") - but most of it springs from the foibles and failings of the characters, and it grows funnier as we come to know them; Jack's tendency to mangle proverbs and quotations, and his infectious delight in his own bad jokes; the endless grumbling of his servant Killick, Dr Maturin's continuing inability to grasp the basics of seamanship and the nautical jargon which his shipmates spout, and the sly pride with which he uses the few scraps of naval terminology he does possess to baffle fellow travellers even less nautical than himself.

To a newcomer this naval lingo may be one of the most noticeable things about the books, and perhaps off-putting.  All this talk of double preventer backstays, futtock shrouds, bowlines, topgallants, studdingsails and flying jibs can seem a bit bewildering, and even the helpful diagrams which appear at the front of the more recent editions can't pack in a hundredth of the details.  Luckily for non-nautical readers we have Dr Maturin on our side; he is as bewildered as we by these reams of grommets, knees and catheads; even more so, perhaps (I don't think he is ever really sure of the difference between port and starboard) and the things we actually need to understand - the importance of gaining the weather gage in battle, for instance - are patiently explained to him by his shipmates in terms which even we can grasp.

Personally I find this cascade of odd, archaic, highly specialised words one of the many delights of the series, but I'm sure that some readers are equally happy to treat it as background detail; you no more need to understand sails and rigging to enjoy O'Brian than you need grasp the hand-wavey physics of Warp Drive to watch Star Trek.  And anyway, it is not all ships and sea: the books spend much time on shore as well; with Jack Aubrey's wife and children and his deliciously vile mother-in-law, with Stephen's contacts in the worlds of intelligence and natural philosophy, and with a vast array of characters met in foreign ports, some recurring, some mere passing sketches; admirals and ship's boys, noblemen and paupers, Frenchmen, Americans, Turks, Parsees, Chinese, Africans, even a pahi-full of Polynesian lesbian separatists, all vividly brought to life with a few words, making the series not just a portrait of the British navy but of the entire early nineteenth century world.

The tone changes subtly about half way through, when the Napoleonic Wars are running out and Jack Aubrey is in danger of being promoted to the rank of admiral, which would make him more concerned with administration than adventuring: time seems to slow down, reasons are found to halt the progress of Jack's career, and Stephen becomes rich enough to buy the lovely frigate Surprise.  Perhaps the later books are more historical romances than historical novels.  But none of that dents a fan's enjoyment in the least.

I suppose that if I were a proper reviewer I would be pointing out faults as well as high points, but to be honest I can barely think of any.  It's true that some of the books end rather suddenly, but that's just a good reason to start the next one.   It's true that The Hundred Days, the penultimate book, written very soon after the death of Mrs O'Brian, comes perilously close to jumping the shark when it abruptly kills off several major characters, hustling them off-stage with barely a goodbye.  It's also probably true that the female characters are less engaging than the men: it seems that you have to be outwardly beautiful to qualify as an O'Brian heroine, which is odd in a writer so attuned to his characters' inner lives.  Stephen's great love, Diana Villiers, can be particularly annoying; forever running off with richer, better looking men, and forever being forgiven.  What does he see in her, I wonder? But I don't mean that as a criticism of Patrick O'Brian;  I'm just infuriated by Stephen Maturin, who seems now like a real person to me, and who I wish would settle down with some nice, sensible lady naturalist instead (indeed, towards the very end of the series just such a lady is introduced, so he might have done so had the story not been cut short by O'Brian's death).

And that, I think, is what makes Aubrey/Maturin so readable and so re-readable; the characters come to feel like old friends, and it is always good to be back in their company.  The series may have ended but, like Blandings Castle, 221b Baker Street or Bag End, the stern cabin of HMS Surprise will always be there waiting for us, a small, comfortable space upon a vast ocean, filled with music and laughter and good conversation and the smell of fresh coffee and toasted cheese.

Patrick O'Brian's novels should be available just about everywhere. (Nowadays there are even special editions without ships on the cover - for the  ladies, I presume, or people who don't want to be seen reading sea-faring tales.)  He also wrote several unrelated novels, and an excellent biography of Picasso.  

*I thought Russell Crowe made a rather good Jack Aubrey.  Paul Bettany did a creditable job as as Dr Maturin, but he was just too good-looking, and too clean: I imagine Stephen looking more like Hugh Laurie's baleful Dr House, but dressed a in blood-stained frock-coat and a vile wig, under which he's keeping a dead shrew which he plans to dissect later.  One of the striking historical details of the books is that Stephen, for all his scientific brilliance, has no inkling of germ theory - how could he, being a man of his time?  His filthiness is a running joke, and he thinks nothing of eating dinner or opening up a patient with same knife he's just used to dissect a decomposing dolphin.

Mr Levett's Scottish Tour: Part Four: Culloden

Jeremy Levett and family continue their perambulations through bonny Scotland, arriving this week at the field of Culloden where, on the 16th April 1746 the Jacobite army of Charles Edward Stuart was defeated by Government forces.  (All images in this post are taken from the visitor centre website. )

The visitor centre at Culloden had clearly had a lot of effort put into it; Paul later told us it cost the National Trust for Scotland a cool twenty million quid. I wonder how much of that went on the building (solid, grey wood), how much on the artefacts (muskets and edges, medals and pottery, woodcuts and handbills, cavalry boots and field guns) and how much on people proofreading every last line of information to keep it as neutral as possible. My dad tells a story from when he was working for Scots government, in which a senior Scot asked a junior Scot, only half joking, “Campbell, eh? Whose side were you on in the Forty-Five?” Getting on for two hundred and seventy years, and it's still an issue.

All the signs in the visitor centre were bilingual – English and Gaelic – a strange sort of sop to a set of ultranationalist Gaels I wasn’t even aware existed. Unlike the Welsh, the Highlanders seem less tiresomely attached to their old tongue; but I suppose the Welsh had no Clearing, no Culloden. The exhibition was a fairly well set out maze of corridors, with a peculiar design; on the right hand was the red wall, which told the story of the Government, and on the left the blue wall, following the Jacobites. While for the first few metres it seemed to be “pick your bias”, each wall describing its faction in glowing terms, you would then have to switch sides, as both proceeded to thoroughly deconstruct their cause and talk at length about the various defeats, setbacks and foolish mistakes they suffered in the run up to April 16. The last corridor was somewhat dodgy, using unseen speakers to play you audio clips ostensibly from soldiers on the eve of the battle; I preferred Peter Watkins' version. Then there was a reconstruction of the battle in a room whose walls were all screens, which was stylish, expensive, and in every sense visceral.

After this, the corridors panned out into a huge room full of militaria centred around a big floor screen displaying a top-down RTS style account of the battle, all Time Commanders-style (I wonder if they actually used the Total War engine...)., and then a door to The Place. The field itself isn’t much to look at. Well, it’s a field, what do you expect? There are rows of red and blue flags showing the original line of battle, GPS-linked audioguides that play you a clip when they detect you’re on a certain piece of ground, a great big stone memorial to the Romantic Lost Highland Cause, and a great many small monuments celebrating where individual tartans were gunned down. There was only one memorial to the Government's troops (who were, in case you didn't know, as much Scots lowlanders as Englishmen): “FIELD OF THE ENGLISH; THEY WERE BURIED HERE.” Mum got the impression that was biased towards the Government, in emphasising the Highlanders' failures and making little of the Government's losses; I felt it was entirely the other way round, with a soulless and inaccurate monument to Cumberland's troops but a trashy Victorian headstone for where every chieftain and famous clan was heroically escorted from this vale of tears by Brown Bess.

It was a tricky one; the Gaelic, the romanticism and the serious wait before the museum got around to mentioning the actual outcome had me rather annoyed at a perceived pro-Jacobite slant, but by the end I wasn’t so sure. The disgusting Victorian Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-on-a-bottle-of-Drambuie ahistorical romanticised kitsch that no true Scotsman on either side actually believes has left its mark, perhaps indelibly, and even in this most truthful of exhibits there still seemed to be a hint of That Noble Lost Cause; but maybe this is a knee-jerk response I have that objects to any recognition of the Jacobites as anything but doomed, misguided idiots on the wrong side of history.

In modern parlance, you can call the Forty-Five a heroic act of defiant independence against economic tyranny (under Union rule the lowlanders and city folk were prospering, the Highland crofters and smallholders not so much) and religious persecution, betrayed by incompetent leadership. But in that same modern parlance, the Jacobites were a foreign-backed insurgency of a small minority attempting to violently overthrow a legally elected, popularly accepted government, and replace it with an absolutist monarchy. Still sound romantic to you?

The displays were informative, the artefacts plentiful and well-chosen, and the audiovisual stuff of extremely high quality; it’s a serious, no-nonsense account of Culloden in all its brutal detail and desperate futility, and you really could see where the £20m went.

By the by, Bonnie Prince Charlie was a prick.

Mrs Tinne’s Wardrobe

Natalie Crawford reminds us that they also serve who only go and shop...

As we remember the brave fighters of 1940’s Battle of Britain, I am put in mind of all the various war era heroes that go unsung. There were so many spectacular acts of bravery and kindness by every day people during both wars and the depression in between, that they are too numerous to count. Of course on occasions such as these we should commend the men and women who put their lives on the line for our freedom, but I would also like to take a short moment to remember the lesser known who ‘did their bit’ for Britain.

One such philanthropist was Mrs Emily Margaret Tinne. Born Emily McCulloch in 1886, this remarkable woman, brought up in a staunch Presbyterian household, could have had no idea how her path in life could affect others so profoundly. Despite her modest upbringing, Emily was to marry into the exceptionally wealthy Tinne family of Liverpool in 1910. Her husband Philip was a local doctor but also heir to the Tinne fortune (derived originally from the family’s sugar and ship businesses).

This dizzying wealth undoubtedly took its hold on Emily as she was suddenly able to afford any luxury she desired. However, she still maintained a modest appearance and did not flaunt her new found wealth openly. Even so, she is thought of as one of England’s first, and finest, shopaholics as she amassed a secret collection of thousands of items of clothing, many of which she never wore. It is this prolific spending that makes her a minor heroine in her own right.

During the first half of the twentieth century, shop assistants did not take a wage, they worked simply on commission. Obviously, during the war years and the depression these girls would have been taking pitiful pay packets home. It is thought that Mrs Tinne, each afternoon, would head into Liverpool to go shopping. She combined her new found love for retail with her desire to help those less fortunate than herself. She would purchase outfit upon outfit (often multiples of the same style) because she could; because this was her way of contributing to the war effort and to the helplessness of situation young people found themselves in.

She herself was not a flamboyant woman and had trained to teach before she met her husband. Being thrown into such a dynasty, Emily quickly found herself without occupation; her children had nannies and she was not allowed to work. Shopping and providing vital commissions became her livelihood, became her purpose for being. Without it, many shop assistants in Liverpool would have been a lot poorer, and we would have been deprived of a perfect cultural snap shot.

Liverpool Museum are now proud owners of much of this vast collection and back in 2006 displayed articles free of charge to the public. The book of the collection, “Mrs Tinne’s Wardrobe: A Liverpool Lady’s Clothes 1900-1940” is a beautiful and intriguing record of her life; a must have for any fashion or historical enthusiast. It provides a brief history to Emily and the Tinne family as well as detail on Liverpool shopping at that time. The collection included covers a vast array of her garments from everyday dresses and evening wear to stockings and swim suits. Each example is photographed in full colour alongside a detailed description of fabric, stitching, cost and, where possible, information as to the occasion on which it was worn.

The collection spans the period from the First World War onwards, and ends abruptly in 1939 - It is thought that even Mrs Tinne’s wealth could not avoid the rationing of the second world war, forcing even her to make-do-and-mend. But photographed alongside her wardrobe are some of the sewing patterns she also bought, which undoubtedly came in useful during more frugal times.

The catalogue book is stunning and very often I sit to simply flick through the pages, wishing somehow that these incredible fashions would come back in. It is a veritable time line of silks and velvets but does not discount the more accessible middle-class garment. As she was a humble woman, it is one of the very few collections that not only includes the glamorous but the mundane as well. 

Mrs Tinne passed away in 1966 leaving all her articles to her children. When her daughter came to clear the family home, she found piled chests stuffed with clothing still sitting in place as a barricade which Emily formed in fear of invasion during the Second World War.  As well as this, she also had whole rooms dedicated to her clothes and accessories. Whether her purchasing intentions were actually heroic, we may never really know, but I like to think they were. I would love to have seen those shop girls’ faces, filled with relief and gratitude as Emily Tinne walked in.

I doubt very much if she knew the legacy she was leaving, but it is one makes the heart warm.

Publisher: The Bluecoat Press (2006)   ISBN: 978-1904438205 
RRP: £15.99 



By Philip Reeve

I have a new FLA, or Favourite Living Author!*  Michael Chabon is the author of The Wonder Boys, a very funny academic farce which is also one of the best books about the business of writing novels that I’ve ever read (and adapted pretty well into a Michael Douglas movie).  He also wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a moving and hugely readable story about the creation of a 1930s comic-book superhero, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an extraordinary, unmissable, iced-noir detective thriller set in a Jewish state in Alaska - a state which, in the real world, was proposed in the 1930s but never actually existed.  His swashbuckling historical fantasy Gentlemen of the Road comes wrapped in reviews comparing it to Melville, though it seemed to me to be a loving tribute to Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar.  And his novella The Final Solution seems to spin off from the uncomfortable way that the phrase ‘the Final Solution’, despite its awful historical weight, sounds rather like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story...
 All these books tell gripping tales, and tell them in prose dense with wild ideas, sharp dialogue and beautiful description.  None of them, I imagine, would be suited to readers much younger than 16.   But happily Mr Chabon has also written a novel for younger readers which should appeal to any child who enjoyed His Dark Materials or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  
Summerland, published back in 2002, is an American fantasy in the tradition of Ray Bradbury and L Frank Baum.  It starts off in the present day on a small island in Puget Sound, but quickly takes its young heroes, Ethan and Jennifer T, on a breakneck journey into three other worlds, all of which are under threat from a surprisingly charming and likeable villain called Coyote.  This fantasy universe is woven from a mixture of Norse and Native American mythology (which seem to go together rather well) and it has a simple logic which makes it feel instantly right.  There are fairies (here called Ferishers), Bigfoots (or do I mean Bigfeet?) and a pleasingly wild and weird array of demons, were-folk, dim-witted giants and oracular clams.  There’s technology as well as magic, though; Ethan’s father is building a prototype airship, and Coyote’s army of goblins and werewolves ploughs its way across the worlds aboard a fleet of armoured cars and steam-powered sledges.  
There’s also quite a lot of baseball, or ‘rounders’ as we call it in this country, which is a bit of a drawback for the British reader.  What is it with American writers and baseball, I wonder?  I’ve always believed that team sports are the opposite of novels; writing fiction is a solitary expression of individuality, while sport submerges the individual in a collective and binds them with all kinds of silly rules.  But American novelists, from J.D Salinger to John Irving, from Don DeLillo to Dennis Lehane, keep coming back to the image of the pitcher’s mound, the home run, the Catcher in the bleedin’ Rye.  In Summerland, the game of baseball is one of the things that link all the worlds, and the final conflict which determines their fate will be played out not on a battlefield but on a baseball diamond.  Apparently a game of baseball is really ‘a great, slow contraption for getting you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer’s day’.  
Well that sounds nice, and if I thought for a fraction of a second that it was true I might take the trouble to actually look up the rules of baseball, so that I’d know precisely what was going on during the various matches which occur in Summerland.  But in the end I doubt it really matters, any more than not understanding the rules of Quidditch matter when you're reading Harry Potter.  All you really need to know is who’s on each team, and who wins or loses.  And the ultimate winners in Summerland are its young readers; they are taken on a splendid trek through the imagination of a great writer, who doesn’t flinch from showing us the sadnesses and disappointments of life, but is still able to end his story with a positive cascade of happy endings.

(*He’s not quite at the top of my chart; that position is reserved in perpetuity for Geraldine McCaughrean, Head Girl of modern children's fiction.  But he’s currently number two.)