Finished Dodger by Terry Pratchett. Not a Discworld book: this one is set in a slightly mythologized Victorian London, with a couple of fictional characters interacting with real people. It's an interesting turn from an author whose Ankh-Morpork has gradually become a kind of fantasy version of Victorian London. The fantasy elements of Discworld have receded enough that it doesn't seem like much of a transition.
Pretty entertaining, though not as comic or as funny as some of his novels. The plot is also a little bit perfunctory. However does have a good atmosphere and lots of period detail.
Worth a read if you like Terry Pratchett, but not his best work.
What I'm Reading
Attlee by David Howell is a biography of the British Labour prime minister. This is a short and basic book, part of a series of Prime Ministerial biographies. Does do a good job of explaining the man and his times.
Attlee was never a charismatic figure, but someone who gradually attained a huge amount of respect for his hard work, organisational skills, and steadfast character. He comes across as a nice guy who finished first in many fields. In the first world war he got a head start due to being active in the cadet corps before the war, and quickly rose to the rank of Major. (Like Macmillan and others he used the military title on election forms for a long time afterwards). His hard graft as a community and Labour Party organizer eventually got him a candidacy as one of the few Labour Party MPs. As the Labour Party expanded he spent a lot of effort helping new Labour MPs find their feet, and did copious research to get himself and others up to speed and able to debate effectively: this helped him get the party leadership after a bad election wiped out many other senior figures. During the second world war he was a key figure as one of the tiny (5 to 7 strong) War Cabinet, where again he gained respect due to his organisational skills: mastery of paperwork, tersely effective chairman of meetings. After the war he and the Labour Party were rewarded with an astonishing landslide, where in a term and half the party largely created the modern welfare state, in a form too popular to be easily reversed.
Overall, a decent biography, informative but not spectacularly revelatory.
One thing that becomes painfully clear after reading the Attlee and Macmillan biographies is how horrifically inexperienced the modern political class is. Longer political careers, more frequent alterations of power helped: but also politicians came into Parliament after successful careers elsewhere. In Macmillan and Attlees day people generally only became ministers, and certainly prime ministers, when they had a wealth of experience at managing things. Modern politicians sail into high office without having run anything significant.
With that in mind, it's interesting to see how David Cameron seems to have improved vastly with a couple of years experience. I'm not a big fan of his, but he's had two big achievements lately: getting the gay marriage bill through the commons, and getting a good deal on the European budget. Less obvious, but I think also significant, is that someone seems to have slapped down Michael Gove crazier and more impractical ideology-driven schemes. Even the austerity programme has been quietly restrained, with accounting gimmicks, and some of the cuts postponed till after the election.
While it's good to see more pragmatism now, I think quite a bit of damage has been done by the fond ideological fantasies they had of the Confidence Fairy and Expansionary Fiscal Contraction meaning that they could sharply cut spending without tax receipts falling.
What I'm Watching
Saw The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists on disk. Animation of one of the popular series of children's books from Aardman studios. Pretty decent, cheerful entertainment. Surprisingly they stuck to the books alienated style, for instance with pirates called and addressed as "The Pirate Who Likes Sunsets and Kittens" rather than given actual names. Pretty fun.
Saw the Silent Opera production of L'Orfeo. It's an interesting concept in ultra-modern opera. Part of the music comes through headphones, though the singing and some of the music is live. It's a promenade production where you're led through a warehouse through several sets.
I liked it a lot. As usual, the singing sounded good to me. I do find straight operas a bit dull, so I liked having a bit more eye candy and entertainment value around.
Not sure that the headphone thing really works though. There is a speaker so you can hear all the content without headphones, but the sound balance is off so some of the instruments are very quiet. I ended up taking the headphones on and off quite a bit, with them on you can't really tell where the sound is coming from and when someone new starts singing you have to look frantically around to see who it is.
Girl B, who is the opera buff, wasn't very impressed. She thought it was OK and the Orpheus singer was good, but apparently the rest of them were pretty mediocre singers. Also there were apparently problems with timing: people weren't quite starting and stopping singing at the right time. I think the promenade layout makes it harder, with the audience all around they have to have two conductors because the actors are facing different directions. I of course didn't notice any of this. She had a reasonable time, but preferred the Opera Up Close style of cut-down operas where there are just a couple of musicians but everything's live.
Good value though: it was only £16.50 through lastminute, so for not much more than a 3D multiplex movie you get a cast of about 15 and half a dozen musicians too.
Politics. Cameron's budget blinder.
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