The Sex Column and other misprints, by David Langford

Another collection of Dave Langford’s magazine columns, this time his series for the UK magazine SFX, where he valiantly helped uphold the honour of written science fiction against the tide of tv and films that are the magazine’s usual fare, a battle he fought valiantly until 2016, when his column was terminated by the magazine for unspecified, probably commercial, reasons. Against the howls of derision that flooded into the SFX editorial office (and three of which they actually printed), the magazine managed to make it look as though it was Not Their Fault.

Still, what we have here are Dave’s columns from 1995 to the beginning of 2005. Rather than being book reviews, much to his relief the magazine gave him free rein to discuss pretty much anything he wanted to relating to science fiction, fantasy and related fantastic genre writing. Those who have not discovered Dave Langford’s writing should do so; those of us who know him and his works well will be pleased to see old favourites preserved in a more permanent form.

Despite the title, there is little inside the book that is untowardly salacious. There is a good reason for the title, but I won’t spoil it here.

A short, sharp shock by Kim Stanley Robinson

This short novel was a surprising page-turner for me. Robinson wrote it in 1990 but it only saw UK publication in 2000.  The story is fairly slight; a man awakes on a beach with no memory of his past. He awakes next to a woman who he only knows as “the swimmer”. The next morning, she has disappeared, and he sets out to find her. In the process, he explores the strange world that he and many other different characters inhabit; it appears to consist of a single, world-girdling strip of land separating two seas which may be planetary in extent.

Along the way, he is told different stories about the world’s origin. Are we in a fantasy world? Are we in some sort of construct? Has this world been terraformed? A range of possible answers are suggested; the overall effect is rather like reading Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, because everything is familiar yet strange, and there are hints of powerful forces off-stage, or lost in time.

Unlike any other book of Robinson’s I’ve read, it nonetheless kept me turning the pages even though the focus is tight on the protagonist and his companion, the swimmer. The ending could be allegory, or it could point to multiple layers of existence. It’s vivid, and haunting, but not suited to anyone who wants a resolution or other sorts of easy answer.

The complete Critical Assembly; the collected White Dwarf (and GM, and GMI) sf review columns, by David Langford

David Langford’s writing has been a source of pleasure to the comparatively small group of readers who know his work in the (mainly) British science fiction community for many years (although he has many admirers in the USA, Canada and Australia as well). He is perhaps science fiction’s equivalent of Clive James. Much of his output has been in the form of reviews in various magazines, covering the genres of science fiction, fantasy and mystery writing, although one of his many Hugo awards for excellence in the field of science fiction was actually awarded for a short story and he has a couple of novels to his name. He is witty, erudite and above all funny, but wears these mantles lightly.

I have known Dave’s writing since the mid-1970s, initially through his fanzine writing, and only later through his professional career. So I came to this collection with a little trepidation; after all, a dense book of over 100 review columns culled from gaming magazines might seem like a fairly turgid proposition, even for such a good writer. And indeed, I took a few reviews to get into the swing of the format – as indeed I’m sure Dave did, as these are collected columns almost from his first professional reviewing appearance. But I was soon finding funny asides and references, some of which involved things I’d seen earlier in fanzines, and some of which I hadn’t.

These reviews date from the period 1983-91. It may seem odd to find interest in reviews of books that are now up to thirty years old, but many of them have become well-known in the genre and it was good to see them through eyes that were reading them for the first time when they were fresh.  I also found it quite interesting to look at what else was coming out at the same time; I shelve my books by author, so it was instructive to see what author X was producing when author Y brought out book B. A few times, I thought “I’d forgotten those books were contemporary…” Along the way, Dave tells a few stories of his own career and encounters – not necessarily always first-hand – with famous (or infamous) writers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Whitley Streiber.

This was a great exercise in nostalgia for me, and it is good to have some of Dave’s non-fiction writing in a more permanent form.

German secret weapons, by J.B. King and John Batchelor

At first sight, this magazine, issued as an instalment of a part-work, looks unattractive to the modern reader; a 64-page, 1970s part-work, illustrated by fairly average graphic art and comparatively few – and quite poor – photographs. And initially, the text is off-putting. The first substantial chapter deals with German secret aircraft projects and has a number of places where there are factual omissions, only some of which have come to light since publication.

But then, the writers get onto meatier matters, going in depth into artillery and missiles, and things get much better. There is a surprising amount of detail in these sections, and the writing style picks up with a far easier style than would have been expected.

Little commented upon was the use of slave labour in the German war effort. This is despite reference being made to the V-2 production facility in ‘central Germany’ (actually KZ-Dora, near Nordhausen in the Harz) and the large numbers of missiles deployed. Other references are made where the use of slave labour can be inferred by reading between the lines.

Throughout, there is a continual theme; that German success in World War II was a virtual impossibility in the long run because of the interference of Hitler in key decisions. Moreover, Hitler’s own ingrained belief in Social Darwinism left different teams competing with each other for favour and resources. Any number of the concepts explored in this book were workable and feasible (though many were not), but development was left too late, either because projects were passed over, or because people with access to the right channels were allowed to go their own way, using resources that would have been better directed to the immediate war effort. And a degree of arrogance also played its part, in the infamous ‘one year rule’ – certain projects were shelved in the early years of the war because there was a policy of only supporting projects that could be finished within a year because “the war will be won by then”.

We should be thankful that these attitudes prevailed. And we should be thankful that resources were wasted on a wide range of different projects, instead of concentrating on a couple of key ones, such as jet engines and atomic weapons.

Lost for Words; the mangling and manipulating of the English language by John Humphrys

This book (written in 2004) is a polemic against the standard of the English language used in British public life. John Humphrys was, and still is, lead presenter for BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme, Today, broadcast between 6am and 9am each weekday morning. It sets the political agenda for the day and getting an interview slot on it is essential to have a message make any sort of impact on discussion in the next 24 hours.

Humphrys has therefore come into contact with a large quantity of written material in the form of reports, statements and press notices from organisations of all sorts. He has also directly interviewed – sometimes challengingly – the Great and the Good for the thick end of fifty years as a press and broadcast media journalist. So he knows the English language fairly intimately.

So given the subtitle of this book, The Mangling and Manipulating of the English language, you might expect a series of oh-so-polite rants about the state of the English used today. (Things have not changed much in the intervening ten years.) And that is indeed what you get, although sometimes Humphrys’ targets and villains are not necessarily what you might expect. For example, he cites the former Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who had a particular way of speaking which definitely qualifies for the category of ‘mangling’. But instead of chiding Prescott, Humphrys remarks that whilst his English was confused and jumbled to the point of incoherence, it was nonetheless honest, direct and above all, understandable (as long as you didn’t analyse it too much). He always got his message across, and indeed on one occasion at a Party conference, made an impassioned speech that rallied support behind the then leader, the late John Smith.

Instead, Humphrys reserves his ire for English that is clear and understandable, but under the surface, immediately meaningless. Or worse still, the language he dislikes is that which aims to manipulate the listeners’ or readers’ opinions. Sixty-five years after George Orwell identified “Newspeak” as a way to manipulate thought and actions by controlling the language, Humphrys shows how this is alive and flourishing in 21st century Britain.

And then when you think he’s merely had a series of rants as to how things could and should be better, the reader reaches the last chapter, wherein Humphrys considers politicians and then REALLY goes off on one. He stops short of calling for all politicians to be rounded up at gunpoint and marched into a re-education camp for Crimes Against Sentience and Rationality, but only just.

Many of the examples he quotes cite members of the Government of the day, the Blair Labour administration. Those were the people he was most regularly interviewing at the time the book was written; no political bias should be inferred from this.

Things have not improved in the years since this book was written. The recent campaign in the UK connected with the EU referendum showed up politicians on both sides as incapable of deploying either reasoned argument or any sort of marshalling of facts. Instead, both sides set out to manipulate the public into voting in a particular way – one side’s objective was to persuade the electorate to vote against continued membership, but the other managed to convince enough people not to vote for continued membership even though that was not their intention. John Humphrys has not publicly given his opinion of the outcome, either in terms of politics or of the standard of the English used – but I suspect that he would have more harsh things to say.

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by Jerome K. Jerome

The predecessor to the author’s Three Men in a Boat, this is a collection of Jerome’s humorous journalism from the years immediately before that book. These pieces are not laugh-out-loud funny; and indeed, such have our lives and reading tastes changed, some will find them long-winded, circumlocutory and possibly even tedious. And the world they describe, the world that Jerome moved in, is now gone. But if you are in any way appreciative of nineteenth-century London, or want to get a good idea of what occupied the middle classes in those times, this book is perfect.

Interestingly, the author’s voice in these essays was echoed in later years by P.G. Wodehouse; some of the idle musings he puts into the mouth of Bertie Wooster are straight out of the same mould as cast these gems of Jerome’s. And just when you think that there’s nothing at all substantial about any of this, you suddenly get hit between the eyes by the bitter reality of On being Hard Up, or realise that so often – mainly in On Memory, but also at intervals throughout the book, Jerome talks of people who have passed away and we realise that the rate of mortality, especially amongst children, was appallingly high compared to our own time.

But just to show that all is not doom and gloom, Montmorency the dog gets namechecked. And there is much to please throughout the volume.

My copy was the UK Snowbooks 2004 edition, a charming little volume in square hardback format with a “contemporary afterword” by a modern London dandy and flaneur.

The Blunders of our Governments, by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

This book is a study of blunders made by UK governments in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The authors take a very specific view of what constitutes a “blunder”, so certain issues such as the banning of trade unions at GCHQ are not covered, even when such an action has been identified by many commentators, international courts and successive governments as illegal.

Instead, “blunders” are identified as bad decisions, made for the wrong reasons, that ended up costing the taxpayer serious money. In this, the authors claim not to take a partisan view. Indeed, they take an entire chapter early on to talk about the successes of various governments over the same period. Their view of what constitutes a “success”, of course, may in itself seem quite partisan. Later in the book, they talk about various causes of blundering, and identify “group-think” as one such factor. Yet they themselves fall into the same trap, especially when writing about the British political Left and some of its more extreme manifestations, their very language betrays their underlying viewpoint and their acceptance of the consensus “group think”.

They speak of the “cultural disconnect”, a more fundamental form of “group-think”, where a group of people from similar backgrounds all share the same world-view and cannot conceive that other people in quite different situations would not have the same world-view. Yet they display precisely that same behaviour. They are academics specialising in modern history and politics, working in the early years of the 21st Century. They assume, for instance, that the trade unions of the 1970s and 1980s were over-powerful and over-bearing. Yet to the members of those unions, they were merely working to advance the cause of those members over – or at least alongside – the cause of the employer. Even today, I heard a Minister on the news complaining that striking rail workers had a duty to “think of the passengers”. Their cultural disconnect prevented them from thinking as a rank-and-file trade union member who pays their subscriptions and expect the union to support their grievances. To them, the duty of the union is to think of its members, not everyone else.

Be that as it may; after the introductory chapters, the authors then describe a number of political decisions and events that turned out badly. They do not apportion blame in those chapters, but then carry on, in the third section of the book, to look at a number of causes for blunders and apply them to the examples they quoted. This structure does force me to my major stylistic criticism of the book. By looking at specific causal factors, they build into their narrative a fair amount of duplication, especially as the range of blunders they are examining is distinctly limited. To be told for the fourth or fifth time “The failure of the poll tax can be put down to…” does get a little repetitive.

Although the authors are experts in their field, there are instances where I have been able to identify areas where they were not in full possession of the facts, and indeed the odd place where I thought “Ah, if they’d seen what I saw, they’d think slightly differently”. But these were not frequent objections. After all, I was only ever peripherally involved in some of these issues, or heard about them at third hand, admittedly from someone who really was there, not just hearing it at second hand themselves. And the overall impact of these changes wouldn’t have changed the main thrust of the book, though the one instance I can think of does work a little against them. In the section where they speak of the cultural disconnect between the political class – MPs, Lords and senior civil servants – they generalise that these people are now all cut from the same cloth. Certainly, the number of MPs who now can boast serious life experience in commerce or public-facing front-line services is massively decreased from what it once was. But one of the few officials they name, Sir Terry Heiser, Permanent Secretary at the Department of the Environment at the time of the Poll Tax, is an exception to the rule; he was the last Permanent Secretary to have started his Civil Service career in the lowly role of Messenger. And they also miss the fact that some of the Ministerial portfolios people have been responsible for have meant that often, Ministers have to keep a lot of plates spinning at once. Again, looking at the DoE in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole tranche of issues occupying the minds of the department that would have diverted attention away from the Poll Tax. For example, from where I was sat, in the water regulator’s office Ofwat, we were mainly concerned with the industry taking a more outward-looking view towards customer service and customer expectations, whilst at the same time engaging in a massive capital investment programme and looking at the impact of EU legislation in both urban waste water, drinking water standards, and wider environmental impact legislation.

Originally, the book was published in 2013 and ended its narrative in 2010 with the replacement of Gordon Brown’s Labour administration with the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition led by David Cameron. The edition of the book that I was reading was issued a year after its original publication, and included an Epilogue covering the Coalition Government’s record up to July 2014. It is no less appalling than the story up to 2010. University tuition fees, Universal Credit, the performance of the private sector in fulfilling outsourced public sector contracts – especially the performance of G4S over providing security for the 2012 Olympics – are just a few of the blunders that the authors identify, and they finished by listing seven issues or policies that had the potential, in their eyes, to turn into future blunders. Again, they differentiate between a blunder and merely bad decisions, and give credit where it is due, for the overall success of the London Olympics and the introduction of same-sex marriages. The Epilogue was too late for the EU membership referendum of 2016, which I suspect will be put down as a major blunder in future years., irrespective of which side of that particular argument you were on. But it is way too early to reach any firm assessment as to the overall effect of ‘Brexit’. After all, Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China, was once asked what he thought the effects were of the French Revolution; and after some deliberation, he opined that it was “too soon to tell”.

At the end of the day – and the book – though, the conclusions are telling. They identify a whole slew of issues endemic in the British political system. They also graze the surface of one – the politicisation of the Civil Service under Margaret Thatcher. Although they allude to this, they do not examine it in depth. This is a fairly hefty omission. They mainly reserve most of their criticism for the political landscape of the UK, in particular the “winner takes all” view of our entire system, a system that seems intended to cause divisions and conflict. We only have to look at the EU Referendum result. Of the roughly 33 million votes cast, 17 million voted out and 16 million voted in. Yet the attitude of most of the ‘Brexiteers’ is “Ha, ha, we won, so suck it up, Remainder losers!” Our normal political processes are similar: a Government can come to power with a majority of the seats in the House of Commons but, due to their geographical and demographic make-up, that Government may not enjoy the support of the majority of voters in the country based on pure head count.

These recipes for conflict and division drive the attitude of Governments towards decisions, best summed up in the Yes Minister joke: “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”. And perhaps this is the one big place where the authors pull their punches. It is difficult to avoid the impression that it is our entire British political system that will result in successive Governments making blunders; and that effective, efficient Government would really demand that our entire political system should be torn up and replaced with something better. The authors give us a number of portraits of instances where other countries’ legislatures and executives would have done differently. But as Churchill is reputed to have said, “Democracy is perhaps the worst possible form of Government – except for all the others.” If that be so, then possibly the sort of blunders Governments make are the price we have to pay for living where we do, with the political settlement we have. How we could ever force any change or improvement, what we would want such a Government to look like and behave, and (perhaps the one thing any radical or revolutionary never thinks about), how we get There from Here, is a whole set of other questions whose answers we might not like.