Book review: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (Discworld 28) by Sir Terry Pratchett, 2001

My lock-down guilty pleasures Discworld series reread continues with another novel I have not read before.

Let me explain. I discussed at length in my previous post the fact that The Last Hero and Maurice were not originally considered part of the Discworld series of novels. The change, from them being Discworld stories to becoming part of the series happened around 2009 or thereabouts. The Amazing Maurice has even weaker claims to be part of the series than Hero – apart from the setting (Uberwald, although it really could be anywhere vaguely middle-European), a mention of the Unseen University, and a brief appearance by Death and the Death of Rats, this is very much a stand-alone novel. So although I religiously bought each Discworld novel as they were published, from as early as The Colour of Magic, I missed some of the Discworld stories, including, obviously, this one.

The Amazing Maurice is marketed as a children’s or younger reader’s novel. I don’t want to argue with that because what makes a children’s novel is a matter of authorial and publisher’s judgment that I am not in a position to question, But there are dark elements to the story that I will come back to later which could easily upset a younger audience.

The Amazing Maurice is a cat who has acquired the ability to talk. He did this by eating a rat who had the same ability, having lived on a rubbish dump outside the Unseen University, where lots of background magic had accumulated. Maurice works with a troupe of talking rats with the same powers, and their human, Keith, a piper. They travel around from town to town embezzling communities by a minor variation on the Pied Piper scam – the rats make a nuisance of themselves, and then for a modest fee Keith pipes them out of town. We join them as they arrive at a town in Uberwald called Bad Blintz. This, they promise themselves, is going to be their last heist before retirement, the set up line for so many unsuccessful adventures (and bad movies). Maurice is the brains of the operation, keeping the fairly gormless Keith out of trouble as best he can.

Bad Blintz turns out to be a troubled place. Rats have already impoverished the town, and while food continues to disappear there don’t seem to be many surviving rats left. Keith meets the mayor’s daughter Malicia who is obsessed with story-telling, and has a thin grasp on the difference between reality and fiction. For example, when she is searching the town’s rat-catchers’ hut for clues she keeps leaning casually on walls hoping false walls will open. The fact that they do find a hidden trapdoor, leading to a network of cellars full of stolen food and caged rats, naturally encourages this fantasy. Malicia learns about Maurice and the rats ability to talk but is unfazed by it – it’s the sort of things that happens in stories.

At the heart of the novel is the quest to work out what is happening in Bad Blintz – where all the food is going, and what has happened to the rats? In the course of that quest we are introduced to many of the rats in the ‘clan’ – their aging leader Hamnpork, Dangerous Beans a spiritual rat, his assistant Peaches, and Darktan, the trap expert, to name a few. In the nightmarish cellars of the town they meet and confront the sinister Rat King, Spider, who is able to control rats, cats and even humans with the powers of his mind.

Some of the scenes with the rats, caged and cannibalistic, are vivid and scary, and I can only imagine how a pre-teen reader would react to them. There are also some character deaths, not all of which are temporary, and while the happy-ever-after ending is well constructed and satisfactory, the scares and genuine sense of threat along the way contribute to that sense of darkness I mentioned earlier. Pratchett has learned from Roald Dahl and others that stories for children can be nasty.

Pratchett was a wonderfully thoughtful writer, always with something interesting and original to say about the big issues of life, so I should not have been surprised to read such insight and compassion in a children’s story about talking rats. Along with the ability to speak the rats (and Maurice) have developed consciousness, and dare I say it souls. They develop concepts such as the self, an awareness of evil, and debate moral issues such as whether to eat non-talking rats, and what happens to them after they die. The rats are not overly anthropomorphised, certainly not sentimentally. They still widdle on everything, can’t wear clothes because they get in the way, and take their names from the sides of tin cans. In case we miss the point the contrast is emphasised by the snippets from a children’s story which the rats carry around in a manner akin to a holy book. This gave Maurice and the rats a depth of character that you just don’t expect in a story about talking animals, and for a brief moment my lifelong aversion to rats was abated.

Storytelling is an important theme in the novel. Malicia think life is just a story, the kind in which there is always a happy ending. Speaking of endings, I think Maurice has one of the most satisfying and effective endings in the series. The rats work out a purpose in life, which isn’t to run away and live on an island, but to use the power of narrative force to shape their destinies;

“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.”
“And what if your story doesn’t work?”
“You keep changing it until you find one that does.”

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents

Maurice is an important link in the Discworld chain because it kept the franchise alive and fresh, introducing a whole new group of readers to Discworld, who would of course go on to read the ‘main’ series. It was awarded the Carnegie Prize in 2002. This was Pratchett’s first major award, and in acceptance he gave this wonderful quote reflecting on his ambivalent about the fantasy genre:

Stick in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer’

Book review: The Last Hero (Discworld 27), by Sir Terry Pratchett, 2001

I haven’t yet worked out why this matters to me, but for some reason it does. If you look up a list of Discworld novels on the internet today it will tell you there are 41, starting with The Colour of Magic and ending with The Shepherd’s Crown. There are many other Discworld books, from guides to the streets of Ankh-Morpork to Nanny Ogg’s recipe book.

The-last-hero.jpg

But it was not always thus. The list of Discworld novels used to run Thief of Time (26); Night Watch (27 – now 29), omitting The Last Hero (now 27) and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (now 28), both of which at the time were firmly non-canonical “other” Discworld stories. By ‘the list of Discworld novels’ I am mainly referring to the list as published in each new instalment of the series. I have a first edition of Night Watch for example, which shows this order, and categorised The Amazing Maurice as a Discworld story. I can perfectly understand why, for marketing purposes, Pratchett’s publisher would want to differentiate the novels written for younger readers – essentially the Tiffany Aching books – although I am not convinced that the differences between the younger reader novels and the mainstream Discworld novels are all that significant. Over time this distinction might fade, and they will just be considered part of the golden thread of the series. The Sir Terry website maintained by his publishers lists the Tiffany Aching books both in the main series of novels and in the younger reader section (along with the carpet People, Truckers, Dodger etc) in classic having their cake and eat it fashion.

The only real difference between the Last Hero and (say) Thief of Time i.e. a conventional Discworld novel is that The Last Hero is illustrated. It’s not a comic book – there are no speech bubbles – but there are illustrations on every page, and it was always conceived as such. It could be published without the illustrations as a Discworld novella, but that would be ripping the heart out of the novel (or whatever it is) because the illustrations, by Paul Kidby add significantly to the text. Kidby was at this point (2001) just taking over as the principal Discworld illustrator from Josh Kirby who was to die the year The Last Hero was published.

The plot is a very conventional Discworld adventure. Cohen the Barbarian sets off with his Silver Horde to return fire to the home of the Gods, Cori Celesti. A message is received by Lord Vetenari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, warning him that if their quest succeeds, the world will end. He assembles an unlikely team to stop them –  Leonard of Quirm, Captain Carrot, and the world’s worst wizard, the irrepressible Rincewind, backed up by the wizards of the Unseen University. They travel into space and round/under the world in a contraption invented by Leonard, in scenes that combine multiple references to the Apollo missions with echoes of Jules Verne and Dan Dare thrown in, arriving just in time to save the day, inevitably. It’s great fun, and a wonderfully fresh addition to the series. I thought I had read all the Discworld novels already, but because of the issues I mentioned in the opening of this post (at far too great a length!) I had missed this one. It was a wonderful to discover another chapter in the Discworld story.

Book review: The Thief of Time (Discworld 26) by Terry Pratchett, 2001

In Thief of Time Terry Pratchett gives his by now bulging bag of Discworld characters, settings and scenarios a good shake, and comes up with an entertaining story about the end of the world. There are some distinct echoes of Good Omens along the way, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Auditors of Reality, who as we know from Hogfather want to end the world, finding humanity unnecessarily messy, are back. The Auditors had the potential to be fairly sinister, dementor-like figures, in their floaty grey hooded-cowls, but their susceptibility to explode when tasting chocolate is a bit of a weakness. They don’t seem to have learnt much from their previous encounter with Death and his grand-daughter, Susan Sto-Helit, who set out to stop their latest attempt. The Auditors’ dastardly plan this time is to hire a clockmaker Jeremy Clockson (yes, this is the standard of the jokes. If you don’t like them then don’t read the book, it’s quite simple really) to build a perfect glass clock. There is at this point what David Tennant’s incarnation of Dr Who called some “timey-wimey” stuff. We are asked to accept that a clock that can measure time perfectly will stop the universe. There are quite lengthy attempts to explain why this might be the case, and these have a sufficient veneer of plausibility to hold the rest of the plot together.

Another reappearing character is sweeper Lu-Tze of the History Monks. Lu-Tze first appeared in Small Gods but here the character is expanded significantly, as is the role and history of the History Monks themselves. Lu-Tze is the only known master of “déjà fu” a martial art in which the hands move in time as well as space. This leaves one’s opponent with ‘the feeling you’ve been kicked in the head this way before‘. Lu-Tze usually relies on the principle that no-one notices a sweeper, which allows him to go anywhere in the monastery, together with ‘Rule One’. Rule One states “Do not act incautiously when confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men”.

Pratchett spotted that as Westerners often draw inspiration from spiritual figures from the East, so seekers of enlightenment from the East may well look for insights into philosophy from the West. The Discworld version of this concept is Lu-Tze’s following of ‘The Way of Mrs. Cosmopilite’, drawn from the everyday sayings of Mrs Marietta Cosmopilite, his landlady when he lodged in Ankh-Morpork. For is it not written that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’, ‘do you think I’m made of money’, ‘don’t make me come in there’, and ‘because’ and other pearls of wisdom.

To help him track down the doomsday clock, Lu-Tze takes a bright young apprentice, Lobsang Ludd. Lobsang is a relatively new recruit to the History Monks, having previously been raised by the Ankh-Morpork Thieves’ Guild. Lu-Tze quickly learns that Lobsang is (of course) no ordinary apprentice, having powers to manipulate time way ahead of anyone of comparable experience or age. Lu-Tze and Lobsang set out to find the maker of the glass clock, and in part to make repairs for the last time such a clock was made, which caused huge problems with the history of Discworld before breaking. Motifs from road-trip and master and apprentice stories are used as well as a slightly out of place reference to James Bond – they are equipped with special devices by a quartermaster called Qu!

Susan is against her better judgment called in to help Death. This involves her leaving her day job as a teacher (the scenes of Susan teaching her class Geography by magically transporting them to the country concerned are wonderful). She questions Nanny Ogg, given a guest appearance as the world’s best midwife, who eventually reveals she once helped Time herself have twins. As two young men in the novel, Lobsang and Jeremy, have already demonstrated a special relationship with Time, joining the dots by this point isn’t too difficult.

Thief of Time is also a Death novel. As well as commissioning Susan’s help, Death organises a reunion of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who are joined by the Fifth Horseman, Ronnie Soak, a personification of Chaos and now living in quiet retirement as the world’s most efficient milkman.

This is perhaps not Pratchett at his peak, but not far off. The jokes are, as always, wonderfully terrible, and the pop-culture references come thick and fast. The plot hangs together – just – and while there is little suspense we keep reading because we want to know how it is all resolved. There is even just a hint of romance for Susan, which is nice.

Book review: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez, 2019

“The presumption that what is male is universal is a direct consequence of the gender data gap. Whiteness and maleness can only go without saying because most other identities never get said at all. But male universality is also a cause of the gender data gap: because women aren’t seen and aren’t remembered, because male data makes up the majority of what we know, what is male comes to be seen as universal. It leads to the positioning of women, half the global population, as a minority. With a niche identity and subjective point of view. In such a framing, women are set up to be forgettable. Ignorable. Dispensable – from culture, from history, and from data. And so, women become invisible.”

It is difficult to read this book without succumbing to a sense of both rage and frustration. Rage at the endemic discrimination against women which seems hard baked into all areas of society, all deriving from the often-unacknowledged assumption that women are the

deviation from the male norm. And frustration at the speed of change in a society which has known about many of these issues for a long time but seems to have made little progress in addressing them.

“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience–that of half the global population, after all–is seen as, well, niche.”

The depth and range of research that went into this book is breath-taking. The author’s examples touch on almost every area of life, and consistently return to the same conclusion: women just haven’t been thought about when it comes to the design of the constructed world we live in. It is hard to pick representative examples from the book, but here goes: at Google, which likes to think of itself as a progressive company, they hadn’t realised that parking spaces for pregnant women shouldn’t be at the back of the car park until the Chief Operating Officer fell pregnant; when first launched the Apple Health app didn’t include a menstrual cycle tracker; car crash dummies are 1.7m tall, the size of the average man, leading directly to women being 47% more likely to be seriously injured if they are in a collision; the average smartphone is 5.5 inches long and is too big for most women’s hands; speech-recognition software is trained on recordings of male voices and therefore much more likely to understand men. I could go on – this is not a book short on evidence or examples.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. This is not just a collection of evidence, powerful though that would be on its own. It is a manifesto, a rallying call for change. It is not enough to just witness this inequality; we should not accept women being treated as an anomalous version of masculinity and data collection should recognise sex and always consider how men and women are impacted differently.

“Closing the gender data gap is only step one. The next, and crucial step, is for governments and organisations to actually use that data to shape policy around it. This isn’t happening.

(page 120)

I am well aware that it is going to seem churlish of me to write about one of the very few passages in this book that I disagree with, but I think the issue is sufficiently important to address. In Chapter 12 ‘A Costless Resource to Exploit‘, the author writes about the post-2010 General Election austerity policies of public sector cuts. She describes how these cuts fell on women particularly hard (although you could add people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Northerners and the working class to that list) and observes that by comparison “men in the richest 50% of households actually gained from tax and benefit changes since July 2015”. So, an ideologically hard-Right Government cuts benefits, attacks the poor and gives tax breaks to the middle classes – Criado Perez rightly asks “So why is the UK Government enacting policy that is so manifestly unjust?” Her answer I have to say made me splutter:

The answer is simple: they aren’t looking at the data”!!

Really? So it is not that there is a gender-gap in the data, which has been the central thesis of the book thus far, but that the Government and the thousands of civil servants that advise it have either chosen or forgotten to look at the data forecasting the impact of their cuts before implementing them. I can imagine George Osborne sitting in his office at the Evening Standard reading this chapter and saying “If only someone had told me that closing all those children’s centres, shutting down Sure Start, cutting funding to local Government, imposing the bedroom tax etc would have been damaging to working people and women in particular. If I had known that of course I wouldn’t have cut public spending and given tax breaks to the rich.”

This is important, because if we accept Criado-Perez’s idea that the problem is the data gap (which unquestionably exists in many areas) then the obvious remedy is to gather more data. That would no doubt help, but I struggle to believe that it would address the injustices in society on its own. Because there are plenty of situations where we have more than enough data, we just have politicians and people in power who choose not to use that data. Equal pay is an obvious example – we have a vast amount of data about how much people are paid, not least through the income tax system, yet the pay gap between men and women remains shamefully high. Do we need more data as to why that is, or do we just need to do something about it, and if so what? (Incidentally the Office for National Statistics has got a wonderfully detailed report on the gender pay gap on its website.)

Perhaps I am being unfair. Elsewhere the author is much more direct about the issue of whether the problem is missing data, or the willingness to use the data to confront inequality. It’s clearly both, and the motivations ascribed to the Government when imposing austerity were hyperbole.

The only other critical observation I would make is that Criado-Perez is inconsistent in her treatment of unpaid work. In Chapter 12 she points out that it is a political choice to exclude unpaid work, done largely by women, from measurements of national wealth and economic activity, usually expressed as GDP (gross domestic product). She illustrates how much GDP would increase in various countries if unpaid work was included in the measurement. But later she argues that

Increasing the amount of unpaid work women have to do (by closing children’s centres, for example) lowers their participation rate in the paid labour force. And women’s paid labour-force participation rate has a significant impact on GDP.”

Invisible Women, pages 245-6

Enabling women to undertake paid work by providing adequate childcare would only raise GDP if we exclude the economic value of unpaid work from that measurement? Otherwise women would just be swapping unpaid work in the home for paid work outside of it. The actual value generated would be neutral.

These points might seem like nit-picking, but there is a far more serious issue that goes unaddressed here. The author treats data as if it is neutral, objective, the elusive source of answers to any question if it is collected correctly or if just enough data is gathered. But it’s not. It is possible to frame or interpret data in many ways. It isn’t passive – the exact same data set can be read to mean entirely different things (we’ve all seen those drawings – is it a duck or a rabbit?). Data can be twisted to make difference seem less drastic, false correlations can be drawn, how data is collected and presented can make huge differences to what it appears to tell us, and of course numbers can be manipulated depending on the question asked. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science has some fascinating evidence on this, showing how it is possible to manipulate the results of supposedly double-blind trials simply by how you select your participants. We have seen during the recent Covid 19 epidemic that it is possible to the collect and present data to show how successful the UK Government’s handling has been despite it being seen by the rest of the world as an unmitigated disaster. Data is political.

Criado-Perez doesn’t directly address transgenderism, but it is an underlying topic in many sections of the book. A book called Invisible Women needs a working definition of ‘women’ for starters. One of the structural responses to the public discussion of transgender issues has been the introduction of gender-neutral toilets in public spaces. Criado-Perez is not sure that this is the correct approach. Not only does it reduce the availability of toilets for women (because they need to use stalls) but:

“We have learned from so many mistakes in the past that women are at a greater risk for sexual assault and violence if they don’t have separate bathrooms” (quoting an Amnesty International official).

Page 303

And on the topic of transwomen competing in women’s sport, the author provides the following significant evidence (I have removed the half a dozen or so footnotes from this quote, which provide evidence for each of the statistics quoted, but they are there to be checked if required) :

“Upper-body mass is approximately 75% greater in men because women’s lean body mass tends to be less concentrated in their upper body, and, as a result, men’s upper body strength is on average between 40-60% higher than women’s (compared to lower-body strength which is on average only 25% higher in men). Women also have on average a 41% lower grip strength than men, and this is not a sex difference that changes with age: the typical seventy-year-old man has a stronger hand grip than the average twenty-five-year-old woman. It’s also not a sex difference that can be significantly trained away: a study which compared ‘highly trained female athletes’ to men who were ‘untrained or not specifically trained’ found that their grip strength ‘rarely’ surpassed the fiftieth percentile of male subjects. Overall, 90% of the women (this time including untrained women) in the study had a weaker grip than 95% of their male counterparts.

Food for thought.

This is not a book to be rushed, but one once read to keep on the shelf for reference. It should be compulsory reading for anyone in a position of authority whether in Government or private enterprise. It’s a landmark study that will be looked back on in decades to come, hopefully as a record of how we got things wrong in the bad old days.

Book Review: Decline and Fall, (Diaries 2005-2010) by Chris Mullin 2010

These diaries cover the long slow death of the New Labour experiment from Blair’s comfortable third win in 2005 to Labour’s election defeat in May 2010. The diaries were published later that year, which suggests either that Mullin used his self-imposed retirement productively or that he was actively preparing them for publication while still writing them. Is this different from keeping a diary and one day getting round to editing it for publication? I think so, although I recognise the distinction is a narrow one. Mullin’s earlier edition of his diaries A View From the Foothills was published during the period covered by this book, so you have the slightly surreal occurrence of a diary recording the publication of and reaction to a diary. He was later to go on to publish a third edition of his diaries A Walk on Part covering the period 1995 to 1997.

Decline & Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 (Mullin Diaires 2): Amazon.co.uk ...

It goes without saying that on the course of a politician’s day-to-day life they will have lots of conversations about politics. It must be so tempting to just publish those conversations that appear prescient, making one look a wise political forecaster, and edit out any instances where one gets it spectacularly wrong. To be fair to Mullin he studiously avoids this temptation; these diaries book is full of forecasts that make him look like he really didn’t know what was going on. He confidently predicts David Davis will win the contest for leadership of the Conservatives (David Cameron won) for example, and that Gordon Brown will not lead Labour into the 2010 general election (he did). Sometimes he does get it right of course, such as this entry November 2005, only a few months after Blair’s third election victory:

“I think we will lose the next election. The Tories will come to some sort of understanding with the Lib Dems”.

In 2005 that wouldn’t have been an obvious outcome, but I can see why that conversation would have seemed important when editing the diaries in 2010, because of course that is precisely what did happen. This sense of foreboding about Labour’s prospects suffuses almost every entry. Labour seemed to Mullin, and to most people he spoke to, to be in irreversible decline, and he often refers to the inevitability of the party not just losing the 2010 general election but being displaced from power (or office) for good, and it losing its ‘historic purpose’.

The Labour Government of 2005-2010 had a secure majority of over 60, not that much smaller than the current administration. This was the third consecutive Labour Government, and the malaise of all long-term administrations is clearly articulated in these entries. Large numbers of disaffected former Ministers now on the back-benches led to lots of resentment against whips and party leaders. In the early years plotting over the succession to Blair gripped the Parliamentary party. Incompetence ruled – if it could go wrong it did, and the atmosphere was suffused with decay and corruption. This was also the period of the huge expenses scandal, with hundreds of MPs over-claiming their expenses, and several eventually going to prison.

It is hard to see from these diaries whether this administration achieved anything much at all. If it did Mullin didn’t seem to notice, and the best he can say about the Government is that it is not as bad as the Tories. It was obsessed with the idea that to build on the successes of the previous Blair Governments it had to be as right-wing as possible. New Labour as an ideology still gripped the party. The diary is full of daft right-wing proposals that Mullin feels compelled to vote against. The Government tries time and again, expending huge amounts of political capital, to extend the period of detention without charge for terror suspects, without anyone other than Ministers thinking it a good idea. I had forgotten that it was a New Labour idea to privatise the probation service, an idea that the Tories subsequently pushed through and have just had to unpick because it was so stupid. It is almost as if the party had a death-wish, recognising the need for a period in opposition to cleanse itself of New Labour and to put the calumny of the Iraq War behind it. (Incidentally, Ed Miliband features very little – when the surname Miliband is used it almsot always refers to David, always seen as the more senior figure.)

Much of the headline stories of this period are familiar, and Mullin’s observations are more in the way of reminders rather than new insights. This in part is because he was by this time a peripheral figure – he does not appear in any of the extensive memoirs of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson or Alastair Campbell. This sense of being an observer was partly what drove his decision to stand down at the 2010 election. Revisiting this period does bring home the tragic mismanagement of the opportunities a 60+ majority brings. Mullin records in detail the period when Gordon Brown took over from Blair (in 2007) and flirted with the idea of calling a snap election. At the time it seemed another daft idea, with three years left to run on the Government and a secure majority, but no-one foresaw the banking collapse of 2008 which was to inflict such damage on the Government’s reputation for fiscal rectitude.

With maybe one or two honourable exceptions it is hard to over-state just how catastrophically bad this Government was. Initially the pressure on Blair to stand aside for Brown was hugely damaging, but that is only one small part of the problem. Politically the party was bankrupt; financially things were equally disastrous, with membership in freefall. If a mistake was there to be made the Government embraced it enthusiastically, from the expenses scandal to cash for questions. If bringing Peter Mandelson back into Government was the right answer then you have to wonder what the question was. The sense of decay is compounded by the regular visits by the grim reaper as various Labour figures met their maker – Robin Cook, Michael Foot, and Mo Mowlam to name a few.

For anyone supportive of the Labour Party this is sad but instructive read. The Party was captured by a right-wing faction that was very good at what it set out to achieve – to win elections – but missing many of the other qualities needed to form a successful reformist Government. Lessons for today are there for the taking.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902

Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead of a heart attack, his corpse disfigured by an expression of horror. Next to the corpse the footprints of a gigantic hound are found. There is a sinister curse on the Baskerville family dating back to the brutal abduction of a local girl by one of Sir Charles’ ancestors. The girl died escaping from Baskerville Hall and her abductor was killed by a demon hound which has haunted the family ever since. The curse has now returned to the Baskervilles once more. Can Sherlock Holmes work out what’s going on and save Sir Charles’s heir from the curse?

The Hound of the Baskervilles - Wikipedia

Thus begins the atmospheric classic The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third of Conan Doyle’s four full-length Holmes novels. The formula that Conan Doyle used to construct his detective short stories was well honed by this point, but did not lend itself comfortably to being adapted to novel length. This in part explains why structurally the novel is a mess. But I really don’t want to write a review explaining why The Hound of the Baskervilles is a flawed mystery story, not least because that kind of deconstruction of the novel has been done before. Instead I wanted to focus on at least one of the reasons why the novel works in spite of its plotting weaknesses. Much of its undeniable impact is down to the strong evocation of place created by Watson’s descriptions of Baskerville Hall and the moor.

Watson and Sir Henry, Sir Charles’s successor, newly arrived in the country, travel down to his estate on Dartmoor. They have good reason to feel apprehensive about what they will find. This is Sir Henry’s first visit to Baskerville Hall. He is aware of the family curse, and has been troubled by mysterious events while staying in London which add to the sense of foreboding.

We first see the moor from Watson’s train carriage window:

“Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream. “

The formal squares of the rural landscape break down into jagged, vague shapes as the train progresses from the farmed countryside to the dream-like moors. The other-worldly quality of the landscape is something Watson returns to time and again.

Our first sight of Baskerville Hall, ancestral home of the Baskerville family, is soon upon us. The point of view narration as Watson provides an almost minute-by-minute account of his journey gives an immediacy to the narrative:

The wagonette swung round into a side road, and we curved upward through deep lanes worn by centuries of wheels, high banks on either side, heavy with dripping moss and fleshy hart’s-tongue ferns. Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the light of the sinking sun. Still steadily rising, we passed over a narrow granite bridge and skirted a noisy stream which gushed swiftly down, foaming and roaring amid the grey boulders. Both road and stream wound up through a valley dense with scrub oak and fir…. a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside, which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed. The rattle of our wheels died away as we drove through drifts of rotting vegetation—sad gifts, as it seemed to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles.

This is fine descriptive writing of a quality not often found in the short stories, where there is rarely the room for Watson to be expansive about landscape or place (although to be fair some of the descriptions of foggy London streets are very evocative). Again the emphasis is on the melancholy atmosphere of the countryside, in which the dying vegetation provides a suitable setting for the scenes that are to follow.

The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline. Suddenly we looked down into a cuplike depression, patched with stunted oaks and firs which had been twisted and bent by the fury of years of storm. Two high, narrow towers rose over the trees. The driver pointed with his whip.

“Baskerville Hall”

(One might reasonably expect a crash of thunder at this point, but sadly, no.) Patched, twisted, stunted, bent – this landscape is described using the language of sickness or illness, and stands in stark contrast to the ordered, productive fields which had come before.

Inside, Baskerville Hall is equally striking, a fine setting for a murder-mystery:

It was a fine apartment in which we found ourselves, large, lofty, and heavily raftered with huge baulks of age-blackened oak. In the great old-fashioned fireplace behind the high iron dogs a log-fire crackled and snapped. Sir Henry and I held out our hands to it, for we were numb from our long drive. Then we gazed round us at the high, thin window of old stained glass, the oak panelling, the stags’ heads, the coats of arms upon the walls, all dim and sombre in the subdued light of the central lamp...the dining-room which opened out of the hall was a place of shadow and gloom. It was a long chamber with a step separating the dais where the family sat from the lower portion reserved for their dependents. At one end a minstrel’s gallery overlooked it. Black beams shot across above our heads, with a smoke-darkened ceiling beyond them. .. A dim line of ancestors, in every variety of dress, from the Elizabethan knight to the buck of the Regency, stared down upon us and daunted us by their silent company.

Again this is impressive descriptive writing. Unusually Watson is not now writing for the magazine readers who follow his accounts of Holmes’s achievements but for Holmes himself, stranded back in London dealing with a tricky blackmail case (or so we are told). So attention to detail, even if it is not immediately clear whether it is relevant to the case or not, is key, and Watson completes his commission diligently. The detailed layout of the Hall is to prove an important aspect of the mystery.

The setting of The Hound of the Baskervilles is a key element of its enduring success as a novel. Holmes fades into the background for much of the narrative, allowing Watson more time to expand his observations and at least start to unpick the mystery.

P.S. On re-reading this post in draft I am conscious that it is mainly extracts from the novel, with little by way of commentary or analysis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think I can call it a review. I will however let it stand, because the extracts are fine writing, and if they prompt anyone to go on and read the novel itself (free online, or otherwise) then that can’t be a bad thing.

Book review: The Truth (Discworld 25) by Terry Pratchett, 2000

In the mid-1990’s, in response to the question “Do you see yourself still writing Discworld books in ten years’ time?” Sir Terry gave a very definitive reply:

“No. Not even in five years time. Certainly not on a regular basis, anyway. There’s only so much I can do with it.”

The Truth (novel) - Wikipedia

Published in 2000, The Truth was the 25th novel in the series, and came at a point when Sir Terry was clearly questioning whether that it had run its course. I believe it represents an important turning point for the series (just a personal theory): previous novels had shown hints of the series running out of steam. Taking established characters and putting them in novel situations can only take you so far. The Last Continent = Rincewind and the wizards in Australia; Carpe Jugulum = striking similarities to Lords and Ladies; The Fifth Elephant = the Watch in Uberwald. But in The Fifth Elephant Pratchett had also introduced the idea of the clacks, telegraphy, and with it the idea that technology had begun to arrive in the Discworld. The Truth picks up this idea and runs with it, introducing a new group of novels in the series, often grouped under the heading ‘Industrial revolution’, charting the arrival of technology in Discworld. It is more than possible that it was that idea that persuaded Sir Terry to keep writing the Discworld novels until he died. If that tentative theory is right, then let’s be grateful for great ideas.

William de Worde is a scribe (as if that name would allow him to be anything else!) He writes a monthly newsletter for leaders and senior figures outside Ankh-Morpork, which is produced for him in paper copy by an engraver, Mr Cripslock. William meets a group of dwarves who are starting a printing business. Printing technology, and in particular movable type, has been known for a while in Discworld, but has never been adopted in Ankh-Morpork. This is partly because there hasn’t been much need for it, but also because of the grip of the Guild of Engravers. (This situation, where a technology is known about but not widely adopted despite its obvious technical advantages, is not unheard of here in the round world. Examples that come to mind are the use of the wheel in Central and South America.

Almost by accident, William and the dwarves establish The Ankh-Morpork Times, and begin to publish daily editions, using Foul Ole Ron and friends as distributors. Their new venture is given impetus by a sensational story featuring the Patrician, Lord Vetenari, who is arrested for the attempted murder of his clerk, Drumknott.  William’s nascent journalistic instincts tell him something is not quite right about the official account of the attack, and he begins to investigate, helped by his colleague Sacharissa Cripslock, daughter of his former and now out-of-work engraver, and by Otto, a recovering vampire and iconographer (the Discworld equivalent of photography).

The reader is aware that de Worde’s suspicions are justified. A conspiracy is underway by the ‘Committee to Unelect the Patrician’.  These anonymous but influential figures have hired two assassins, the formidable Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, to frame the Patrician and replace him with a look-alike. Mr Pin and Mr Tulip are two of Pratchett’s finest villains. Mr Tulip is psychotically violent, strong enough to take down a troll. He consumes industrial quantities of drugs, although these are usually ersatz concoctions powdered mothballs mixed with icing sugar or similar. Mr Pin is the brains of the pair, the menacing presence who doesn’t need to be violent to terrify people (that’s Mr Tulip’s job).

The joy of The Truth lies in its insightful descriptions of the birth of journalism onto the blank page that is Ankh-Morpork. The exploration of the responsibilities of the press sounds like a worthy subject matter, but it is done, as is pretty much everything Pratchett wrote, with a joyfulness. William discovers the power of just asking questions and writing down people’s answers, even when that answer is “Don’t write that down! Nor that!”. The truth is more than just what William and the Times says it is, but the ordinary people of Ankh-Morpork equally seem happy to consume any nonsense that is published by the Times’s competitor, the Inquirer, simply on the basis that if it is written down it must be true. William works out in real time some important journalistic principles, such as not being intimidated into giving prior copy approval to anyone, even the police. He also discovers the power of being ‘clever’ with words – “He was appalled at the ease with which the truth so easily turned into something that was almost a lie, just by being positioned correctly” – an idea which could have had a personal significance for Sir Terry, a writer supremely clever with words.

There’s a very welcome freshness to The Truth. Partly this comes from the introduction of new characters – Mr Pin and Mr Tulip in particular are a terrible combination of the Krays and the killers in Pulp Fiction (there are even playful references to the “royale with cheese” discussion from the film, and the use of the term “going medieval on…him”). Seeing the Watch from another perspective – they are important characters in the novel, but secondary to the Times’ team – also serves to give new energy to the novel. And while movable type is not really new technology as such, it is new to Ankh-Morpork, and I found the reference to the power of science to change the world strangely moving:

Kings and lords come and go and leave nothing but statues in a desert, while a couple of young men tinkering in a workshop change the way the world works.”

Book review: Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell, 2019

Another ‘popular science’ read. I had previously bought but was unable to read Gladwell’s highly successful Blink, a study of what he termed the ‘adaptive unconscious’. It’s not that I didn’t finish it – it just never got to the top of my to-be-read pile, and is probably still lurking at the back of a bookcase somewhere. So my selection of Talking to Strangers was in part a strange form of apology – I may not have read your earlier book, but I will make up for it with this one. Another reason for this choice was that the title was encouraging – the ability to talk to strangers is a important skill that comes easily to some but causes angst and distress to others, and it would be good to know more about it.

I shouldn’t have worried because the title is misleading – the book is not a how-to guide on speaking to unfamiliar people, but about what happens when people talk to one another for the first time, the different assumptions and mistakes people make when dealing with those that they don’t know. Obviously the mistakes continue even when we know the people quite well – but I suppose “Talking to People” wouldn’t have made as interesting a title. Gladwell has a relaxed anecdotal style. He draws examples from all over the place (although with admittedly an American emphasis) – Cuban spies, dodgy sports trainers, Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, and Amanda Knox, to name just a few. Whether these anecdotes cohere into an overall narrative or line of argument is debatable. My impression at the time was that they were just interesting stories stitched thinly together without a consistent thread. That’s not to say the stories and the analysis aren’t interesting, just that at the end of the book we really can’t say we know that much more about how to talk to strangers. Often the points made are unremarkable – of course we aren’t as good at telling when people are lying as we think we are; of course some people are better liars than others, and of course social norms are important when assessing behaviour.

The book opens and closes with an analysis of the case of a young American woman, Sandra Bland, stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation. Gladwell tries to work out why this routine stop went so badly wrong that it ended up with Bland being arrested and jailed, where three days later she tragically ended her life.

One of Gladwell’s main themes is the ‘default to truth’, our tendency to assume the person we are speaking to is being honest. There are obviously good evolutionary reasons why we trust more than we are suspicious, not least the need to cooperate with one another for common, social enterprises. Gladwell isn’t suggesting the default to truth is a bad thing – just that we need to be aware it happens. Sadly in the Sandra Bland case it did not. The officer did not assume she was telling the truth – quite the opposite in fact. Gladwell argues that the reason this routine traffic stop went the way it did was because the officer had been trained to a) aggressively stop everyone he possibly could, because criminals drive cars, and b) to interpret normal behaviours such as irritation and nervousness as indicators of guilt – guilt about what isn’t clear. But what is almost completely missing in Gladwell’s analysis is any recognition of the role of racism in the Bland case, because almost inevitably Sandra Bland was black. I say almost because the idea that she was treated differently because of her skin colour is raised only to be quickly discounted. It is hard to look back at that traffic stop now since the murder of George Floyd and not make the case for the arrest of Sarah Bland as being part of the systematic attack upon African-American citizens by the state.

This is a book designed to make the reader feel well-informed without learning much other than a series of anecdotes. Here’s an example of the level of analysis in the book:

“The first set of mistakes we make with strangers—the default to truth and the illusion of transparency—has to do with our inability to make sense of the stranger as an individual. But on top of those errors we add another, which pushes our problem with strangers into crisis. We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.

That’s a distillation of some of the central concepts in the book – “we do not understand the context in which the stranger is operating”. Really? That’s it?

There is an excellent demolition of the book in the Atlantic if you want to read more along these lines. One of the very perceptive points made in this article is that readers come to consider Gladwell’s books as:

“the high-journalism version of Bond or Bourne movies, breakneck adventures that take us on a tour of exotic intellectual locales. He introduces us to historical oddities, revisionist interpretations of the past, the frontiers of social science, the backstories behind recent headlines, all strung together along a single provocative thesis.”

This is the approach used in Talking to Strangers – with the difference here that the provocative thesis goes missing, leaving us with a disjointed series of anecdotes. It’s an easy read, but not one of those popular science books that is going to change the way I look at the world in the way that the best of the genre can do.

Book review: Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund 2018

Subtitled “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Which is a really encouraging subject isn’t it? We spend so much time reading how terrible the world is, wouldn’t it be nice if things are better than we think they are? That’s the central compelling thesis of Factfulness: that the things we think we know about the state of the world are often wrong. It’s more prosperous, safer, more developed than we believe.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World - And Why ...

In a way that shouldn’t be surprising – of course our perceptions of the world aren’t constantly updated, so our belief that everyone in Africa lives in poverty, that immunisations are not widely available in developing countries (Rosling challenges this terminology; he instead proposes that the world is classified into four groups based on average income, which seems a little arbitrary (why four not five or three?)) and so on. Charities feed that narrative – “things aren’t that bad in African so send us some money if you can” is hardly a winning approach. The news does the same – not many people killed by tsunami because their sea defences were well built – isn’t much of a story.

Many years ago I had a light-bulb moment when I read about the Whig view of history, an insight which has stayed with me and influenced much of my thinking. I think it may have been something by E,P, Thompson, but anyway if you haven’t come across it, it is the argument that history is always presented in the form of a narrative of progression and improvement – things are getting better. Back in history people did bad things – public hanging, slavery, denying women the vote, etc – and now we have seen the light, we no longer do those bad things. Thompson calls it (quickly checks Google) the ‘enormous condescension of posterity‘. Why it this version of history so powerful? Partly because generally speaking it is right – things do generally get better. Fewer people live in slavery, most countries have abolished capital punishment, many more people have the vote, life expectancy is going up incrementally, and so on. More to the point we want this version of history to be true – we cannot stand the idea that people in the past may have been more tolerant, enlightened or educated than ourselves.

But this version is not the whole story – some rights have only been temporarily won, and we stand to lose them if we are not alert; most states may not publicly execute people, but they still die from the actions of the state in huge numbers, and the vote is constantly being removed from people for minor reasons (such as in the UK being unable to provide a form of written identification).

So there are two competing tensions when considering Rosling’s central claim – we want it to be true, we desperately hope that the population crisis isn’t going to lead to mass starvation for example (of course we do) and will welcome anyone with a chart that shows us everything is going to be OK because it fits into our general expectation that things are steadily getting better. On the other hand, unless offered that bar chart we stay in our fixed view of the world that vast numbers of other people are poor, that populations are exploding around the world, that fossil fuels are running out, and the ice-caps are melting.

Rosling very clearly proves that things probably aren’t as bad as many of the people he surveyed think. His audiences consistently believe the world to be poorer, less healthy, and more dangerous than it is. Whether this mis-perception is because we are being misled, or because we just haven’t updated our ideas, isn’t completely clear, and it is really this topic – why we get our ideas about the world consistently wrong – that is the focus of this book.

Most of the detail in Factfulness is available on the Roslings’ Gapminder website, either in the form of a series of Ted talks, or in other neatly presented tools. The Ted talks are highly recommended, around 20-30 minutes long and presented with humour, interesting graphics and other visual aids. We all learn differently, so you might prefer the level of detail in the book – personally I found the subject matter ideally suited to the Ted talk format.

Being an eternal sceptic I randomly checked a few of Rosling’s statistics. He claims 80% of the world’s children were immunised for measles. That seemed incredibly high – in fact the World Health Organisation said that in 2018 86% of children were so immunised, which is wonderful. The claim that girls on average go to school for seven years, and that the world’s population of children is forecast to remain at 2 million by 2100 also both checked out. Despite this I was left a little sceptical. Is the world really getting better? Dramatically better in fact if Rosling’s bar charts are to be believed. Of course the issue is not that his statistics are wrong. But there are two obvious objections to this narrative. The first Rosling acknowledges – the fact that people aren’t quite as poor as we think there are doesn’t mean the world isn’t riven by spectacular levels of poverty and inequality. The fact that girls on average go to school for seven years doesn’t hide the fact that millions of girls around the world are denied education, and so on. The other in some ways even more serious objection to the claim that we are wrong about the world is the absence of any underlying understanding of why the world is riven by inequality, poverty and injustice, Without that understanding, trusting to whatever forces are out there which are making the world a better place to keep on doing a good job is infantile.

This is a useful corrective to apocalyptic, we are all going to die, narratives about nanobots, climate change, viruses or whatever is the latest end of the world, Anything that helps us see the world more clearly has got to be a good thing. For a book that is essentially about statistics, it is entertaining and accessible. Definitely worth checking out, although I still would recommend the website first.

Book Review: The Fifth Elephant (Discworld 24), by Terry Pratchett, 1999

My lock down indulgence reread of the Discworld series continues with another novel featuring the great moral philosopher Duke, Commander and Blackboard Monitor Sam Vimes.

One aspect of Pratchett’s work which is under-appreciated in my opinion is his ability to craft detective stories. Because The Fifth Elephant is, among several other things, detective fiction. The Stone of Scone, an ancient dwarven artefact, is stolen from the Ankh-Morpork Dwarf Bread Museum. Which is suspicious, because the original Scone of Stone, under close guard far away in a mine in Uberwald, is central to the forthcoming coronation of new  Low King of the Dwarves. To further complicate matters the Patrician, Lord Vetenari, has decided to send Sam Vimes as his ambassador to the coronation, suggesting that while there he may wish to negotiate with the Low King on a trade agreement with Ankh-Morpork. Uberwald is rich in underground fat deposits, as a result of the untimely arrival of the titular fifth elephant of legend. Or as Sam puts it:

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,’ …. ‘Überwald is like this big suet pudding that everyone’s suddenly noticed, and now with this coronation as an excuse we’ve all got to rush there with knife, fork and spoon to shovel as much on our plates as possible?’

Überwald, the setting in part of the previous novel in the series (Carpe Jugulum), is a complex kingdom home to dwarves, werewolves, vampires and trolls. Vimes wanders into this maelstrom of political in-fighting rather unprepared. Pratchett tiptoes close to commenting on radical Islamism here – a traditionalist faction of dwarves insists on remaining below ground, and refuse to acknowledge the existence of female dwarves. This faction has allied with the werewolves to undermine the new Low King and secure a more radical successor. Vimes is framed for an attempt on the Low King’s life, and with his bodyguard missing and the clacks down (this is the first explanation of the arrival of the clacks, the telegraph system that is the basis of Going Postal (Discworld 33)) things are not looking good for him.

Back in Ankh-Morpork things are also Going Postal. Captain Carrot has resigned to look for his – well, I suppose the right term is girlfriend, but that really doesn’t cover the complexity of the relationship – Corporal Angua. Angua is a werewolf, and daughter of the ruling werewolves back in Uberwald. This leaves Sergeant Fred Colon as acting captain, which doesn’t work out well.

The usual things that make Pratchett’s novels a continuing joy are all to be found here. There’s the clever references that are so easy to miss. One I patted myself on the back for spotting was when Vimes is considering how clumsy and uneducated he feels in the company of Ankh-Morpork aristocracy “What chance had he got against a tie and a crest“, which is a line from the classic punk anthem Eton Rifles by The Jam. Later the werewolf philosophy of “Uberwald for the werewolves” is characterised as “joy through strength”, an inversion of the Nazi slogan, telling us all we need to know about the werewolves. There’s also plenty of the Vimes philosophy we have come to expect and treasure. It’s really hard to pick a favourite quote from a novel as stuffed-full with them as this is, but try:

“All he knew was that you couldn’t hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just about be able to achieve some tiny deed that’d make the world, in a small way, a better place. Like shooting someone.”

I think this is the first novel where we really get to see Vimes and Lady Sybil as a married couple. The maturity of their relationship, full of compromises and kindness, is worth reading the book for alone:

“Sam Vimes could parallel process. Most husbands can. They learn to follow their own line of thought while at the same time listening to what their wives say. And the listening is important, because at any time they could be challenged and must be ready to quote the last sentence in full. A vital additional skill is being able to scan the dialogue for telltale phrases, such as “and they can deliver it tomorrow” or “so I’ve invited them for dinner” or “they can do it in blue, really quite cheaply

This is a great addition to the Watch series which sees a few more squares of the complex jigsaw that is Discworld pieced together, and introduces some new themes such as the coming of the clacks. Looking forward to The Truth (DW 25) already.