Monday, November 09, 2020

Even happier and even more relived!

At noon today, there was an announcement that Pfizer/BioNTech have developed a 90+% effective vaccine against COVID-19. 

This is WONDERFUL news, and there's reason to hope that by Spring next year, things could be getting back to normal.

It's a shame that our own researchers at Oxford didn't win the vaccine race, but apparently they're only a few weeks behind. By the end of the year there may well be three different types of effective vaccine ready for mass production.

This is an excellent example of what science can do, and what hopes and prayers can't do, and will never do. 


Saturday, November 07, 2020

So happy and such a wonderful sense of relief!

After several interminable days of waiting, the meja have finally decided that Joe Biden will be the next President of the United States.

This is such a relief after the four disgusting years of Donald Trump, a stinking human being with almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever. 

Trump of course hasn't conceded, defeat - that isn't the Trump way. Fortunately he still has about 10 weeks to get used to the idea. Unfortunately, for those 10 weeks he's still, nominally at least, in charge. 

Lets hope he doesn't do anything especially stupid during that time - we can take it as read he'll do something stupid.  

Friday, November 06, 2020

Here we go again

The country went into lockdown for the second time this year yesterday.

Unlike last time we're assured that the restrictions will expire on the 5th of December. Viruses are so difficult to deal with and while we hear optimistic reports from time to time, there is still no sign of a credible vaccine. 

The government are now going ahead with a fast test system, being piloted in Liverpool. The idea is you can get a COVID test done and know the result in less than an hour. Once you're in the clear you can then go and do stuff like have a meal in  a restaurant with similarly tested friends. 

It's a good idea and 2000 soldiers are being deployed to help run the tests. Lets hope it works.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

H.M.S Leviathan - Review

Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
John Winton was a British naval officer turned author, who in the mid-20th century wrote some successful light comedies about life in the Royal Navy.


The most popular of his books was "We Joined the Navy" published in 1959 and filmed (badly) in 1962. In the early 1960s the book was followed by several sequels; "We saw the sea," "Never Go to Sea" etc etc. Like most sequels these weren't as good as the original, but they were amusing, well written and sold fairly well.

HMS Leviathan was a departure, a serious novel, albeit with some humorous moments. It describes the entire tour of duty that 45-year old Commander Bob Markready spends on Leviathan. The ship is the Royal Navy's largest and most modern aircraft carrier. The novel is written almost entirely from the commander's  point of view, as he becomes 2nd in command after several years of duty in the far East.

Also new to Leviathan is the captain, a man with the ludicrous nickname "Tosser." We quickly learn that the ships maiden cruise wasn't a success and as a result there's been a clear-out of senior officers and some of the men. Both our hero and the captain are amazed at being chosen for this duty:

How did you come to get this appointment, Bob?

The Commander blinked. Evidently Tosser Mctigue was not a man to beat about the bush. "I don't know, sir, to be quite honest. It came out of the blue."

"And mine by God!"

The rest of the novel concerns Bob Markready's attempts to understand the scale and complexity of a modern aircraft carrier, and the motivation (or lack of) from various members of the crew and the officers. He is old-fashioned, earnest and rooted firmly in the traditions and standards of the service. Early on, a cynical but competent officer nicknamed Delicious Joe has some words of advice:

"In a lot of ways it [serving on HMS Leviathan] is like having a job in a factory."
"Oh balls."
Delicious Joe had a quicker temper even than the Commander. "I don't know what you're trying to achieve with all this crap..." 

"What crap?"
"Where have you been these last few years?"

"I was in Singapore for about..."
"Oh my God." Delicious Joe twisted his head, to look away from the Commander. "I don't mean that. I mean the last ten years, fifteen years, while the Navy's been changing. Ever since you joined this ship you've been behaving like somebody who's been away, been asleep, like Rip van Winkle. Now you've woken up and its all changed. The Navy is a job now."

So we're all set up for a straightforward tale of old experienced officer licking a new ship's company into shape with plenty of trials and tribulations a few laughs along the way.

Well not really.

Because Commander Bob Markready quickly emerges as a vicious snobbish bully. Consider this passage, which takes place when he is introduced to one of the Fleet Air Arm pilots:


"Sub-Lieutenant Alfred Stiggins, sir."

"Stiggins?"

It was an impossible name for a naval officer. The Commander could not prevent himself repeating it aloud in astonishment. Alfred Stiggins. He was probably called 'Alfie' in the squadron. It was a name for a band-leader: Alfie Stiggins and his Novelty Mandoliers. Or for a character part in a radio comedy: Alfred Stiggins, the jaunty milkman, with a cheery word and a pinch on the bottom for every housewife. 

"That's right, sir. Stiggins is the name. Pleased to meet you."


The Commander blinked. Pleased to meet you? Stiggins spoke with a noticeable Birmingham or possibly Liverpool dialect twang, similar to Connolly's. Indeed, the thought struck the Commander that in only slightly different circumstances he might now be welcoming Sub-Lieutenant (P) Connolly to the wardroom mess, while Leading Steward Stiggins served behind the bar. 

"How old are you... Stiggins?"

"Twenty, sir."Stiggins smirked. "Not got the key of the door yet, sir, you might say."

Key of the door, you might say?

Rupert Smith had anticipated, ever since the secretary's party, that Stiggins might not make a favourable impression on the Commander at their first official encounter. The interview was proceeding even more unhappily than he had feared. 

"This is Stiggins' first ship, sir."
"That's right sir, first time out on the briny."

On the briny? The Commander winced, and closed his eyes, and turned his head away, hardly believing his ears. The memory of their previous meeting lay like a shadow between them but, still remembering, the Commander had been prepared to let bygones be bygones and begin again, on an officially correct basis. But Stiggins was evidently troubled by no such preoccupations. Because he had met the Commander before he continued to chat with a kind of ghastly affability, not as a very junior officer talking to a senior, but as neighbour gossiping over a back-garden fence. The Commander submitted with growing rage, while longing to be rid of Stiggins. 

"...I'm happy to have met you, Stiggins. Thank you."
"Not at all, sir. Thank you. The pleasure's mine. Cheeribye, sir."


Cheeribye. It was too much. The Commander had struggled to be charitable, to remember that this was the young man's first ship. But this was too much. He leaned forward, his lower lip jutting as he drove each word into Stiggins face. "What the devil do you mean, cheeribye! The pleasure's yours. Pleased to meet you. Where do you think you are? Where do you come from, with your...." The Commander began to stutter in his rage. "...with your extracts from C-cockney p-pantomime..."
Stiggins had believed that he had been keeping his end up with the Commander very well; he retreated, amazed and hurt, to the squadron group. While he talked to the next officer, the Commander was aware of the atmosphere behind him. When he next turned round, he saw their faces: Rupert's squadron were standing in a row, shoulder to shoulder, united in a common unwavering hostility towards himself.


And every modern reader stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

Speaking of the modern reader, what era are we in aboard the unhappy H.M.S Leviathan? Unusually for naval fiction, it's set firmly in peace time. The exact year that events take place isn't mentioned and one of its strengths is how insular and self contained the world is inside the ship. We don't know who the Prime Minister is, although the Suez fiasco is the past. The only outside event that affects the ship's company is a national rail strike that delays the men rejoining the ship after a week's leave. That rail strike is perhaps a clue to the era, as is a description of the sailors off duty and on shore wearing "...tapered trousers, Cuban heeled shoes, and bulky leather jackets with fur collars." That sounds like the early to mid-1960s to me.

John Winton must have known exactly what he was doing when he invented the anti-hero Commander Bob Markready. It would have been much easier to create a more sympathetic character. Yet Winton doesn't do that. At various times Markready is ill-tempered, inflexible, snobbish, and at one point is even a sadistic voyeur . Yet we still root for him, at least most of the time. He's one of the most remarkable anti-heroes in literature, let alone genre literature.  


John Winton (his real name was John Pratt) served as a senior officer on the carrier HMS Eagle and it's easy to see how expert his knowledge is of the Navy in this period. The novel's main theme is one anti-hero's  struggle to cope with the huge social and technical changes that affect the Navy during this time. Readers are torn between wanting Bob Markready to succeed in transforming the ship, and the awareness that he is, in the words of one perceptive character, a dinosaur. Reading some reviews, the book went down well with Navy personnel of the time, and some people maintain that it's still relevant to the Navy today, which is a bit horrifying.

HMS Leviathan is currently out of print, as are most of John Winton's books. Let's hope some sympathetic soul at Amazon or elsewhere converts them to digital-reader format. They're well written and deserve to survive into the 21st century. In the meantime, HMS Leviathan sold well enough to ensure there are plenty of second hand copies out there. Mine is the 1971 2nd edition paperback, published by Pan and cost less than £5. What a great read.


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Saturday, July 04, 2020

Independence Day

Today is of course Independence Day in the United States, but unofficially, it's also being called that here in the UK.

That's because the lock-down is being eased still further - the pubs are open today along with hairdressers and also some cinemas. It's hard to know how the public will take this, Boris Johnson has cautioned people not to 'go mad' as he put it.


Personally my money is on most people being pretty sensible. The Bank of England are also cautiously optimistic about our economic future. For once me and the Bank agree - there is tremendous pent up demand in the economy, no sign of mass redundancies yet, and the stock market is buoyant. I'm predicting a V shaped recession, unless you work in aviation or theatre.

Every now and again, I try and read Richard Ford's great novel Independence Day around this time of year. It's an astonishingly good lyrical novel about humdrum ordinary things made magical, and coping with the let-downs and disappointments of middle age. Every time I read it I find something new to enjoy and admire. 

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Free Speech

I'm worried about the effects of the "I'M OFFENDED!" tactic on free speech.

The latest example was yesterday when Sir Kier Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party, sacked the left winger Rebecca Long-Bailey for the heinous crime of approving an interview which contained an 'antisemitic' (i.e anti-Israel) remark.

Brendan O'Neil puts it much better than me in an article in today's Spiked:


The sacking of RLB by Labour leader Keir Starmer is wrong. It is a shrill overreaction to the mere sharing of an article. RLB’s tweetcrime was to praise the actress Maxine Peake and to share an interview with Peake that was published in the Independent today.

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Cancelled Summer

So normally this is my favourite time of the year - the long Glastonbury weekend followed by the two glorious weeks of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Not this year. 


Quite rightly, a couple of months ago both events were cancelled, Instead, me and "M" are watching classic headliners from past festivals. The BBC are brilliant at this sort of thing, and are promising much the same during the Wimbledon fortnight - a choice of classic tennis matches.


This morning Emily Eavis, the main Glastonbury organiser now that her Dad is getting on, tried her best to put a positive spin on the cancellation. It's full speed ahead for next years's event she explained as this year would have been the 50th anniversary of the event.

Wimbledon is much the same - focusing on 2021. 


Ironically we've had a lovely Spring this year and another prolonged hot spell of weather breaks up tomorrow after today was the hottest day of the year so far; 31C in London.

This is the strangest year I've lived through - it's hard to escape the feeling that the whole thing should be written off and everyone reconvenes on the 1st January next year. 

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