How I Write of Castles

I realised, after having reviewed castles (and, actually, historic sites of all types: palaces, temples, hills) that I have not said what I look for when I visit these places. While it is not that difficult to get the sense of what I say and don’t say, this might not be too helpful for people looking for some concrete facts or a detailed picture-overview.

Neither of these is in the realm of what I aim to do here. What I aim to do is to offer some snippets of historic curiosities, events which made me laugh or think or cry when I read about these places. That Tantallon’s lords liked going shooting on the nearby granitic outcrop, the Ailsa Craig of the eastern coast, or that James VI heard of his accession at Falklands and made it into a local title, or that a lord Cassilis of Culzean went and shot his umbrella-holder in the rainforests of Gambia…

These are stories which bring these places to life. They illustrate how living people treated each other and themselves in times gone past. What they laughed about and what they might not have enjoyed as much. All of these snippets help me build a better, clearer, window to look into history.

And I visit these places mostly to expand my understanding of history. This understanding takes many shapes. I do not particularly like reading about places and not being able to visualise them in my mind, and yet not many a text would describe Dunnotar Castle as well as the effort of climbing those steps to reach the peak of that peninsula. But this understanding also takes the form of the farmers at Alpsee who have ever lived looking at two or three castles on their nearby peaks. How do they relate to these? Is it a symbol of hope and strength, or does it merely represent wasted fortunes?

Naturally, all of these could be answered by other methods in the modern day. Yet, the feeling of going to somewhere and seeing it in its natural climate — no matter whether the result is a wintery Schloss Linderhof, sunny Mull of Galloway, or a rainy Rothesay — helps put that place into its natural context.

So… what I look for is emotion, a feeling, any feeling, that would relate to this place I am writing about. How this place fits into the world I have seen and into the lives of the people who were involved with it. How a representation of this place can carry the message that was dearest to my heart. How the inhabitants of this place would have looked about in the beginning of their day or at the end of their toils.

How I Review Books

Books can be looked at from many points of view. My one most strenous belief is that when I talk about books, you should not hear the plot in too great a detail (unless the author intends the ending to be known before the book begins). Hence, I rarely comment on plot devices or any story development as I feel I could be shortchanging the reader of the review.

So, I have to look (and like looking in any case) at the other aspects of the book instead. One of these is the writing — very important indeed for me, and I hope for most people, but I need to feel comfortable reading the book. It should not feel forced (again, unless that is the intent), and it should feel good. I should get the sense that the author enjoyed writing it, and if their words are put to paper with such skill that I lose myself in their world, even better.

Part of the above is how well the characters come out. I think I here quite often contradict what some other people say, or at least when I have compared reviews on Goodreads it is quite obvious that characters I liked very much were considered incomplete by others and vice versa. I cannot quite explain it, except perhaps I look for the establishment of the character in something more than the written person. They must feel consistent throughout, and they must feel logical. They must have culture (if that is their background), and they must act as if they belong to wherever they are from.

The above is not always the case. However, I have also noted a lot of people have preference with respect to how much text is descriptive vs dialogue (say Tolkien vs Asimov for an easy one here). I think both of these can be similarly splendid, but they must be appreciated for what they are and how they are. The being of Asimov’s characters will come through their words, while Tolkien’s characters get constructed perhaps even before they say their first sentence. That is the difference between various authors.

Next, I am always partial to an interesting story which is interlaced with enough background for it to feel real. This includes an aspect which is not directly related with either of the above, but which is indirectly connected to both of them: there should be some wisdom in the book. No matter what form or method it takes to come across, either the narrator or a character, whether or not it is picked up on and used or not.

But, lastly, and most importantly, the writing must be good enough for me to feel what is going on. This I’d term as emotion. And, indeed, in my reviews I often go with whether something feels right or wrong and what other emotions the story created. How the characters felt and whether they were right is another aspect. This, for me, that a book feels a certain way, is maybe my own classification, but very useful in the sense that if I am feeling a certain way it is quite nice to pick up a book which complements it. There is, after all, no point in reading a fact-oriented history (as opposed to a story-oriented) when looking for amusement or philosophy, or looking for sarcasm from high fantasy.

The above is not perhaps the most perfect description I could give, but I know that my book recommendations follow this. I know my friends well enough and try to recommend books to them if what I felt in that book seems to match what that friend is like. Sometimes I am wrong, sometimes not. Nonetheless, I have always taken great care if I recommend something (or, at least, I would like to think so).

And, I hope, that derives from me considering more than just the plot. For, indeed, the plot is just the first glazing on the house that is the book, and that is also why I nearly always recommend picking an old book up after years have passed to read it anew.

Opinion: On the Prevalence of Nelson

Nelson. He always comes up as the first name, and I don’t think he should. Now, let me say that I am a great admirer of Nelson for the victories he won and for the mindset he carried on (of decisive close combat). ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates’ is a definitive example of a brilliant mind that adapted to situations in a quick and comprehensive manner. Victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar are similarly choreographed — any naval lord would have been happy to win them. But it was not anyone who did — it was Horatio Nelson.

And yet that should not blind us to the fact that there were tens of men of similar capacity and capability in the Royal Navy. To name a few Edward Hawke, Richard Howe, John Jervis, George Rodney, James Saurmarez, and Edward Pellew deserve to be ranked in the highest echelons of the serving officers in the late 18th century (and early 19th). If two names were to be picked from the above, then Nelson should be placed in context alongside Richard Howe and John Jervis. Theirs were, after all, the previous victories for Great Britain. Nelson’s victories may have been ‘greater’, but it should also be kept in mind that the Glorious First of June was the greatest victory in nearly a century. Cape St Vincent outdid that in a matter of years. The Nile followed after, and Trafalgar only after that. It was a succession of victories.

It is indeed the type of men that Horatio Nelson served with that allowed his personality to grow into the fighter he became. Thereby, the laurels he won also reflect on the men he served with, and that — if nothing else — is the reason why we should keep those names in mind.

The other angle that the subject is worth looking at is knowing general history. It might be argued that it is best if we know some basics and that Nelson is part of these basics. Though in theory it would be worth agreeing with such an argument, I could also liken it to saying that it is enough to know the Sun exists alongside the Earth. A comparison too extreme? Perhaps. My point is that all knowledge is worthwhile, and to pretend in our daily discourse (which does ever so often touch upon the history of Britain where two names crop up — Nelson and Wellington: and I disagree with both, but the story of Wellington I shall leave for a different time) that they were there alone, giants of men, commanders of legions, is wrong.

Nelson and his achievements are a follow-on to the morale of the sailors from the increased rations & salaries agreed to by Lord Howe, and the victories won in the beginning of the war. Every step builds upon the previous, and we should strain ourselves to realise that it was only a man who died in 1805. He was an admiral and, indeed, a very fine admiral, but his work was carried on as successfully by his colleagues who continued to sail the oceans.

The next time one thinks of Nelson, let that thought be supported by the campaigns and blockades of France enforced by John Jervis, or the Indian Ocean campaigns won by Edward Pellew, or something else entirely. Let us think in systems, for our histories are the product of systems. Nelson is a thought, a single solitary thought. The Royal Navy fighting for twenty years against the French and Spanish is a system. Nelson is a branch in that system, one of many branches. The laurels might well rest on some of the other ones every now and then, for the other heads also deserve them.

Opinion: On Syria & Interventions

The topic at hand these days is Syria, and whether the West should intervene. Given that nearly everyone in the West has already said what they think of these matters, I thought it only proper to describe my own as well. I have tried to base mine on logical reason and thought, which is to say that I have aimed to steer away from using emotions as a guideline on how to act in an instance like this.

My basic claim is that the West (or, at the very least, Europe) should not interfere in the Syrian civil war.

The question of chemical weaponry use in the past (and, potentially, in the future) is irrelevant in a more than a few ways — firstly, the West has used more destructive ammunition against both civilians and military personnel compared to any other denomination of countries. Thereby, a moral justification would first imply the complete renouncement of our own past actions which no political leader has suggested.

Secondly, chemical warfare is separated from ‘normal’/regular warfare by the simple fact that the bullet has been replaced by a gas. For either side, therefore the conflict did not change with the use of chemical weaponry since people died before and will die until the conflict is brought to a resolution. It is artificial to now say that “country’s own citizens are sacrosanct, and we will ensure military protection against further onslaught” when two years have gone by only with the mutterings of  “stop, please, it is not supposed to go like this”.

Now, I’ll come back to the original point and mention that it is not even confirmed that chemical weapons were used. Mind, I think it more likely that they were used — around a ratio of 80-20 for the weapons having been in use. Overall, this is a point that is far easier to determine than the next one while both are incredibly relevant in this matter. Namely, the question of who was the side to use the chemical weaponry.

The convention at present seems to be that the Syrian government ordered a chemical attack against its citizens. Unfortunately, without seeing the “proof” that the US intelligence agencies claim to have, logical reasoning would presuppose that given the following statement, ‘the Syrian government is in a conflict that it is slowly winning against an opposition that is varied in nature’ is true, the conclusion based on that statement would be ‘the Syrian government has nothing to gain by implementing methods that anger the West’.

Thereby, the logical answer to the question ‘Who gains from the apparent use of chemical weaponry in Syria?’ would be ‘the opposition to the Government’.

The opposition has the most to gain through framing the Government as if they had used chemical weaponry. The standpoint that the West would take could easily define the rest of the war as an aerial mop-up of Syrian forces while the opposition expands its power-base through the rest of the country.

Additionally, it is necessary to note that any benefit to the opposition that comes through Western use of force will be inherently against the interests of the West by way of the opposition consisting of a variety of different parties, some of whom are declared Islamist fanatics and al-Qaida allies.

From a Western point of view, I am of the opinion that if the present UK Government declares war on Syria, it will find itself in a far more difficult position for re-election — an important matter for the ruling Coalition. Likewise, a necessary point to consider is that none of the Western governments have considered the provision of military equipment (missiles, plane fuel at mission levels, etc) in their present budgets, implying that war would increase borrowing and lead to further cuts, increased borrowing, or raised taxes.

Any consideration of realpolitik would, therefore, quickly determine that even if there were justifiable moral reasons to support the side which chemical weaponry were used against, there can be no justification for supporting the opposition. There is no need or reason, however, to support Mr Assad’s Government.

In conclusion, therefore, it is apparent that the West should not intervene in the conflict in Syria and has more to lose from intervention than from not the opposite.

What Have I Been Reading?

Since it has been a long time from my last post (more or less two months) — not including the one from yesterday — I thought it might be prudent to give a short overview of what I’ve read up to this point.

‘Artemis Fowl’ was the last book I seem to have commented on here. Naturally, after reading Eoin Colfer’s work, I have taken up quite a few new ones as well as a number of ones I knew from the past. I have tried to write them out in a list so that there would be an overview somewhere, and here you go.

New Books:

  • ‘1Q84: Part 3’, Haruki Murakami
  • ‘The Client’, John Grisham
  • ‘Arctic Drift’, Clive Cussler
  • ‘Tarnished Knight’, Jack Campbell
  • ‘Guardian’, Jack Campbell
  • ‘Black Wind’, Clive Cussler
  • ‘Captain Vancouver’, E.C. Coleman
  • ‘The Glorious First of June’, Sam Willis
  • ‘Starter for Ten’, David Nicholls
  • ‘Diamond Queen’, Andrew Marr

I probably have a number of things to say about the majority of these books, and I will do my best to get round them (or the memorable ones at least) at some point in the near future.

What I have also been reading though are the old books, the ones I was supposedly familiar with. These are the ones I have revisited since March:

  • The Empire trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts
  • ‘The Hobbit’, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • ‘One Day’, David Nicholls
  • ‘The Madman’, Kahlil Gibran [And I know I am not consistent with the spelling of his name.]
  • ‘Siddhartha’, Hermann Hesse
  • ‘Into the Black’ series by E. Currie

And I am of a mind that some of these deserve a look into as well. It always does astound me how ‘The Hobbit’ changes when I read it again… but I hope to get back to that in the not too distant future.

I’ll do my best to comment on these books I’ve mentioned, but I am sure some will be left out. I would only hope that the better ones will be the ones included.

Until that time, then…