If you could somehow change history, or even had the chance to go back in time, would you? This is the central theme of Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63. The date of course refers to the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. There will be no spoilers here – I won’t mention the outcome of the book, but thought that it was an excellent idea – the kind of thing that King is well known for.

Imagine being told that there was a way, a “door”, if you like, that always took you to a certain time and place. Even better, it is always the same time and place when you go through, and regardless of how long you stay in there, days through to years, about two minutes will have passed when you return. A fantastic concept, and it had me hooked from the start. Another idea that had me thinking about it for weeks was – if you did go back to 1958, how would you manage to blend in? Think of all of the phrases you couldn’t utter. All of the knowledge you couldn’t reveal, or you would likely end up in either police custody or an asylum for the insane. In fact, turning the coin over, imagine if someone purporting to be from 2062 arrived in the US, or Europe today; what would happen to them? It would depend on what they said, did and looked like, I think. See? I finished this book a month ago, and he’s still making me look at it from different angles! No wonder I love his writing.

The protagonist in this book, once he has had the concept proved to him, decides to return to the past in order to try and right a terrible wrong. One of his adult learning class had nearly died as a child when his father ran amok with a hammer and killed the rest of the family on Halloween night. Again, I won’t spoil the book, as finding out if he could do it or not is a major part of the story.

As the story progresses, he returns to 1958 in order to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Of course, this raises some very interesting questions – would the world have been a better place if JFK had lived? There are certainly indications that the remainder of the 1960s would have been quite different. This is what interested me as a reader. When I first heard that King was writing this story, my gut reaction was “of course things would have been better”. Gut reactions are not usually particularly well thought out or reasoned, hence their name. Clearly, the assassination was a terrible thing, in common with any murder. That it left itself carved into the American psyche is pretty clear. If it didn’t happen, would everything be sweetness and light? Given human nature, and the state of the world back then, I doubt it. King uses an interesting phrase throughout the book: “History has a way of harmonising with itself”. I think that awfulness would still find a way to manifest itself, just wearing a different mask.

The story is significantly complicated by the fact that as the protagonist settles in to wait for Oswald to come back from the USSR, he meets and falls in love with someone, Sadie. Sadie comes from a time when divorce is not nearly as common as in our present age, and has some serious baggage, in the form of a violent husband, in tow.

Another thing that I liked about this book was that I learned things. Yes, the book is fantasy, but many of the events throughout the book were real. Imagine being able to sit through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and not only know how it was going to turn out, but who would say what, and when! Imagine how that would feel today, if someone told you in real detail, how the Arab Spring in Libya would turn out, before it really kicked off. When I watch old American or British civil defence films from the late 50s and 60s, I get a real sense of how close nuclear Armageddon was, and how frightening it must have been. Growing up as a child in the Seventies, on the tail end of it all was scary enough, but that must have been dreadful. In the book, you get a real sense of what it must have been like at the time.

It’s funny, but for a book that I really want to talk about, I can’t, for fear of spoiling it! I’ll focus instead on what I think made it such a great read. It has been one of the best books I’ve read this year, and one of the few that has had me sitting up in bed until 2-3AM, just to see how things turn out. First, characters. As always, King manages to create characters who feel like real people. Thinking about half a dozen characters, they feel as though they could be standing here in the room with me. Two other authors who can do this for me are Robertson Davies (The Salterton Trilogy, Murther and walking spirits) and John Irving (The world according to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, A prayer for Owen Meany). This is one of the best gifts an author can confer, in my opinion. Secondly – great ideas. This book is founded upon an incredible “what-if” scenario. Thirdly – great attention to detail. He gives a great impression of what it would be like to live in the late 1950s, from haircuts to clothing, accents to cars. So much so that I think it would be very difficult to fit in without drawing attention to yourself. Fourthly – he imbues this book with a world-view that runs through many of his books. It also connects to places mentioned in previous novels, like Derry, where something is clearly terribly wrong. King also has a view of the innate goodness of (some) people in small towns which I find comforting. I’m thinking here about Deke Simmons, Mimi Corcoran and Sadie Dunhill. Their behaviour justifies my faith in humanity.

So, in summary, I thought that this book was exceptionally well written, full of absorbing characters and rich historical detail. It kept my interest up to and beyond the final page, and the fact that I am thinking about it a month after finishing it says a lot. Go read it!

First line: “I have never been what you would call a crying man”

Last line: “Then the music takes us, the music rolls away the years, and we dance”

Rating (1-10): 9 Amazing.

In praise of dictionaries, and regional variation

I was reading the dictionary in bed late last night / early this morning. Not a standard English dictionary, but one charting words in Scots. I was surprised to find a vast array of words I had never heard. Given that the volume is almost five hundred pages long, it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but it did. Here are half a dozen examples which could probably be used for a Scots version of “Call my bluff”:

Jurr – the noise of a small waterfall descending among stones and gravel.

Mourie – A gravelly sea-beach.

SlorkThis has two definitions – To make a disagreeable sound in eating, and to walk through slush with wet shoes that regorge the water in them.

Phring – Wife or consort.

Grue – half-formed ice.

Stravaig – To saunter or wander aimlessly

While one or two of these suggest their meaning through the sounds they make, the others are baffling. I had heard the term “Stravaigin” before, as this is a restaurant in the West End of Glasgow. Didn’t know what it mean though, until recently.

There’s a lot to be said for reading the dictionary. At the very least(!), you learn new words. My favourites are those that give you some idea of the origin of the words, such as two of my Gaelic dictionaries. Take the word “tarbh” for example. This refers to a bull. Pronounced “Tar-rav”, it comes straight from Latin, “taurus”. Many other words have an agricultural origin, or are related to the turning of the seasons. How much more evocative is “An Dùbhlachd”, the dark / stormy days, than “December”?

Getting back to English, particularly the variant spoken in Scotland, I first encountered regional variation as a child, moving from Glasgow to Midlothian. Most noticeable was the glottal stop, and using the word “ken” for “know what I mean?” at the end of sentences. For the glottal stop, think of someone saying “bottle”, and ending up with “bow-al”. In Arabic they go further, and have two letters that consist almost entirely of the glottal stop. When learning, they say that the only time westerners use those muscles is to retch, so if you feel ill when you say it, you’re getting close to the right pronunciation! Back in Scotland, the biggest variation I’ve noted is in Aberdeenshire, where “Doric” is spoken. There, I was greeted in friendly fashion with “Fit like, loon?”. Confusing, to say the least. Down here, near Glasgow, it would be “How’s it going, son?”. Doric has a wide range of words that are unfamiliar to me. The local paper, the Press and Journal, has a page devoted to Doric each day, and I felt proud if I could get through it with a good grasp of the subject under discussion. This is not in any way to disparage Doric. As an aside, there is a brilliant sketch about Doric-speaking Scots interacting with their Standard English-speaking counterparts. Search for ‘Doric call centre‘ on YouTube for it.I love the fact that such a small country can have so much dialect variation. For my North American readers, Scotland is about a quarter the size of Montana (30,000 square miles, as opposed to approximately 145,000).

So, Standard English has its place, but I love the wide range of non-Standard words in Scots. There is also a strong sense of identity and belonging in speaking some of these words. I see and hear the same things when Geordies (people in Newcastle upon Tyne) say particular things, such as “Haway hinny, we’re gannin’ doon the ‘Toon”. Lovely. In Britain, we’ve historically had linguistic input from a variety of sources, including Europe, Scandinavia and Ireland. Since the middle of the twentieth century, we’ve also incorporated phrases and words from further afield. I frequently use the word “shufti”, in the sense of having a look at something. This was brought back by British soldiers from the Middle-East, and Arabic.

What I’d like to know from my friends from outside the UK is this: Do you find that there is a lot of regional variation in your speech? Luxembourg for example, is a tiny country, but do people up north near Wiltz and Hosingen speak a different dialect to those down near the French border? What about Germany? I’m pretty sure that they use different expressions between north and south, but perhaps my friends can answer that. In the United States, it is readily apparent that significant regional variation exists, just compare a speaker from the Louisiana bayou to someone from Washington State. But what about people living in the same state? Do you hear a lot of variation from one end of (for example) Nebraska to the other?

This is intended to be an open discussion, so please let me know what you think. I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on regional variations, or just what you think of dictionaries!

Between the woods and the water – Part 1 (Hungary to Romania)

“Between the woods and the water” is one of my favourite books of all time. People say this frequently, but in this case it is true. I have many books which are like dear friends, to which I return time and again. Many of Paul Theroux’s volumes on travel fall into this category, as do Colin Thubron’s. However, this book is one which I will treasure, as I find myself on Patrick’s journey in my mind, and think of particular sections when I need to cheer myself up. That is what makes this book so special. As well as wishing that I could have met the author, I also found myself wishing to meet one of the animals he encountered, a horse named “Malek”. Malek’s character adds to the atmosphere of Leigh-Fermor’s writing, and brings a new dimension to his travels.

A book like this deserves more than one post, but it would likely be as long as his book!

For anyone coming fresh to Patrick Leigh-Fermor (PLF) and his writing, a brief introduction is in order. PLF set out in December 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, modern Istanbul. The journey took almost two years, and even in modern times, this would be a daunting task.

This volume starts where “A time of gifts” ends, on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, in Esztergom. Friends made along the way tended to write to people they knew, in order to procure assistance for him. In this instance, he ends up meeting the Mayor of Esztergom, and finds himself in a church service on Holy Saturday. His attention to detail is remarkable, though my favourite sections of his writing are when he is in between towns, describing the countryside and people that he comes upon at random.

Esztergom Basilica (Image copyright NatashaP)

What a magnificent building. There is a link to Natasha’s Flickr stream below the picture. After the service, the Mayor puts him up at a friend’s house, but not before checking out some storks nesting in a nearby belfry. The procession to the basilica causes them, and most of the others in the town, to rise into the air with a distinctive clapping sound. By the end of the service, they are snoozing peacefully again.

Budapest, to hear PLF describe it, had just been recaptured from the Turks when he visited. Put up by Tibor and Berta, he spends time at a Ball with a charming girl called AnnaMaria, and bumps into friends from earlier in his trip, “A csodalatos Koschkak!”, the Koschkak Brothers. Another contact made for him was with Paul Teleki, the ex-Prime Minister, who had mapped the Japanese Archipelago, and the boundaries of Mesopotamia. He notes with sorrow that his friend subsequently committed suicide, when the Germans invaded Yugloslavia across Hungary in 1941. Budapest is something of a chance to recharge batteries and regroup for him, and he makes the most of his visit, planning the next stages carefully, and riding at a military stables just outside the city. He describes this as a “discrete form of vetting”, and he was equipped with Malek shortly afterwards.

It is clear that he is aware of travelling through a Europe that was vanishing, even as he wrote about it. There is a strong sense of nostalgia in his writing, as he describes treaties, sieges and conquests. I find his writing very educational as well, and am always tempted to go and try to learn some of the jaw-breaking languages that he tackled. To be sure, a good Classical education stood him in good stead, regardless of school reports. A familiarity with Horace’s Odes would ultimately prove a point of common ground during the Second World War, when he abducted General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete.

The Great Hungarian Plain brings PLF back to the kind of writing that I enjoy best, full of evocative description. Here is a bit from his first evening out with Malek on the plain:

“These lonely uprights give an air of desolation to the plain: they resemble derelict siege-engines by day and the failing light turns them into gibbets or those wheel-topped stakes in pictures by Hieronymous Bosch where vultures wrangle over skeletons spread-eagled in mid-air.

The evening was full of the see-saw creak of their timbers. At one of them, by a ruined farmhouse with a stork’s nest in the rafters, two dismounted drovers were toiling: their wide, white linen trousers, worn loose outside black knee-boots, came halfway down the calves of their legs. They had finished watering a large herd of remarkable pale cattle with almost straight horns of enormous span that filled the air with trampling and lowing and dust. When the drovers had remounted, I waved a greeting. They lifted their black hats with ceremony and wheeled their horses around, then, abetted by rough-coated white dogs, they spurred after the herd, trotting or cantering on the outskirts and whirling long goads to keep strays from wandering. The declining sun outlined all their silhouettes. Haloed in dust and trailing long shadows, they moved westward with a noise of harsh cries, dogs and a jangle of horns and bells. a stork joined its mate in the rafters, probably after swallowing a last frog captured at some quieter oasis and I trotted east towards the darker end of the plain. The clouds had flushed an astonishing pink.

But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants…the less said the better.”

Arad at sunset

His travels across the plain and into Rumania took him to a town called Arad (above), where he was interested to hear more Hungarian than Rumanian, and noted Hungarian, Jewish and German names above many of the shops. He describes Arad as being about the size of Guildford (as it was in 1934), and famous for the Austrian execution of thirteen Hungarian generals, after Kossuth’s uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848. While there, he encountered and sketched Izabella. He found the sketch at the back of his notebook, while writing this book, nearly fifty years later, looking “almost as pretty as she had in real life”. This is the shade of someone long since gone, and I find myself worrying about wether or not they survived the coming war. I’ve often found myself thinking like that about people, in my favourite books.

I think that this is a good place to stop, with PLF getting ready to play skittles with Brother Peter of the Franciscan Abbey of Maria Radna. The story continues, but I’ll finish it in a second post. Dracula, Ada Kaleh and the Iron Gates of Kazan are still to come.

Living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud

I’ve recently been reading (or in one case, re-reading) three books with a common theme. Nuclear war. This might seem a little morbid, but growing up as a kid in the Eighties, this was a real possibility. The US and USSR could hardly be said to be on congenial terms with one another, and the numbers of nuclear weapons in play were truly frightening. One day in the late 1980s, an electrical fault caused all of the air-raid alarms in Edinburgh to go off in unison. Living in a time when nuclear war was a realistic threat made this scary in a way that today’s kids probably can’t empathise with. I remember wondering if the missiles were in the air, and what to do with my four minutes. Might seem funny nowadays, but it certainly wasn’t then.

Secret State - preparing for the worst 1945-2010

First book I read recently was “The Secret State”, by Peter Hennessy (ISBN 978-0-141-04469-9). This is a history of how the United Kingdom prepared and planned for the unthinkable – total nuclear war. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture given by Peter this year, and ask him when he believed the moment of greatest peril of nuclear war occurred. Without hesitation, he said “The Cuban Missile Crisis. If Kruschev hadn’t backed down, the UK Government would have escalated its preparations for war to a new level”.

What made this read so compelling is the insight it gives to the workings of government, when trying to plan for a series of events that will literally be the end of human life on Earth. Instructions are given to the commanders of each of the UK’s Trident missile submarines, to be opened in the event of nuclear war. But how would you know if war had broken out? Guidelines were given for this, including listening for BBC Radio 4. I would imagine that sitting down and writing these instructions (a task for each new Prime Minister) is a sobering task, and it apparently even quietened Tony Blair down for a little while.

More sobering still was the idea that to render the UK unusable as a stage for military operations, it would only be necessary to drop ten 10MT (megatonne) hydrogen bombs off the west coast, and the prevailing weather would blow contaminated material across the entire country. This is military-speak for “everyone wiped out, or dying”. Figures from the Joint Intelligence Committee for the Clyde area show a projection of 10 weapons dropped on Clydeside, for casualties of 98,000 killed and 57,000 seriously injured. 979,000 homes would be either destroyed or uninhabitable in the short term. Faslane, less than a mile from where I am typing this, would be expected to be hit by 2 500kT missiles and two 1MT groundbursts from air-launched weapons.

While this was going on, or about to happen, selected Government staff would be heading for a “secret” bunker, known as “TURNSTILE”, under Box Hill, Corsham. Sadly, it turns out that the Russians knew all about this bunker, and would have sent some quite large warheads their way.

You might be wondering why I read this. Well, firstly, it was a fascinating account of a very dark period in our recent history. Peter Hennessy writes very well, and his access to Government documents and insiders makes the account remarkably readable. Secondly, reading about how the world was, rather than is, makes me appreciate it more. The threat of global nuclear annihilation has receded, and is probably less likely than for forty years or so. Nuclear weapon stocks are falling, numbers now in thousands, rather than tens of thousands.

Making of the atomic bomb, by Richard Rhodes (image from Amazon.co.uk)

Second on my list was “The making of the atomic bomb” by Richard Rhodes (ISBN 0-684-81378-5). This won the author a Pulitzer Prize, deservedly, I think. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the efforts to make an atomic weapon. The characters are very well drawn, and the story moves along rapidly. From a scientific point of view, the technical accomplishments were staggering, and the collection of scientists at Los Alamos possibly the greatest of the twentieth century. From a human perspective though, it must have been terrible to witness. Two cities wiped out in the blink of an eye. Many said that the ones who died immediately were the lucky ones. Anyone who thinks that the weapons were glorious, or the action laudable, probably doesn’t have much empathy. I understand the strategic reasons for deploying the weapons, but what terrible weapons they were.

Rhodes’ book leads directly on to the third book I’ve finished,  “Dark Sun” (ISBN 0-684-82414-0) by the same author. After the Second World War had ended, the race was on for the USSR to develop nuclear capability, and the US to develop “the Super”, the Hydrogen Bomb. What made this book so compelling was the relentless surge to develop larger and larger weapons, for fear that the enemy would surpass and then destroy them. A chilling insight into a nuclear scientist’s mind was shown when Jon von Neumann was asked to brief the US military on nuclear strategy. He had determined that the best strategy, as the USSR had yet to develop atomic weapons, was to strike first. In theoretical terms, this was an excellent solution, but showed a disconnection between von Neumann and the real world. Probably fortunately for us, the Russians soon afterwards detonated “Sudden Lightning”, and the balance was restored. This balance has kept us away from the abyss so far. When the Americans managed to detonate a hydrogen weapon on November 1st 1952, they weren’t even sure how large the explosion would be. Their estimate was 5MT, a huge amount in anyone’s book. The actual yield was 15MT. The Russians quickly followed with a hydrogen bomb of their own, and China has also got in on the act.

Mike test shot, photo copyright USAMHI.

The sheer destructive power of these weapons is almost unimaginable. The Mike test-shot, that ran away to 15MT, left a crater two hundred feet deep and more  than a mile across. However, I recently found something even more appalling. The Russians hold the dubious record for detonating the highest yield weapon ever, over Novaya Zemlya, on October 30th 1961. As with the American Mike shot, the Russians were uncertain as to the exact yield, so they replaced part of the weapon with a lead tamper. As it turned out, the weapon yielded 50MT, was visible from 600 miles away, and would have caused third degree burns at a distance of 62 miles. For a detailed account of the test, see here.

So, three books on nuclear weapons. Sobering reading, but as I said, giving me hope that these weapons will never be used in anger again. As a scientist, the technical side of this is very interesting, but both Richard Rhodes and Peter Hennessey manage to bring a human element into the story.

For the final word, I will point you at the book or film that first showed me how appalling such a war would be. “On the beach” by Neville Shute. His story is set in a post WWII pacific theatre, after a massive global exchange of dirty atomic weapons has taken place. The northern hemisphere (where all of the protagonists lived, ironically enough) has been contaminated by lithium-cobalt bombs, and everyone is presumed dead or dying. The focus of the story is a submarine crew relocated to Australia. The contamination cloud is spreading southwards with the prevailing weather systems, and ultimately everywhere on Earth will be contaminated. There will be nowhere to shelter or hide. Everything is going to die. I think that everyone should have to read this book. There is nobody who could read it and come out thinking that anyone could “win” a nuclear war. The film reference is here. The book can be bought here. I recommend that you do. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. How could we ever be so stupid? Thankfully, we haven’t (yet), and therein lies the ray of sunshine. Thanks to Richard for reminding me of it. Read it.

On the beach, by Neville Shute