A review of “The War Of The Worlds” by H G Wells

February 25th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In my teenage years, I read quite a lot of Wells and studied “The History Of Mr Polly” at school. However, while over the years I saw film and television versions and even listened to a musical interpretation of “The War Of The Worlds”, I was 72 before I eventually read the novel which was first published as long ago as 1897. I was prompted finally to read this classic work by a chance visit to Horsell Common in Surrey where, in the narrative, the first Martians landed (at the time he wrote the novel, Wells lived in nearby Woking).

From the opening words, the reader is gripped:“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own”. From then on, we are introduced to the cylinders from Mars, the Martians themselves, their towering tripods, the Heat-Ray, the Black Smoke, and the Red Weed. There is a wonderful chapter, entitled ‘What We Saw From The Ruined House’ which provides graphic details of the Martian anatomy including the practice of taking blood from living creatures – preferably humans – and injecting it into their veins.

The imaginative and exhilerating story of this fateful month is told in the first person by an unnamed “professed and recognized writer on philosophical themes” (clearly a stand-in for Wells himself) and, at times, there are some existential musings in the text. I read the novel during the global pandemic occasioned by the coronavirus and it is a neat irony that – spoiler alert – the Martians were finally felled by Earth’s tiny and invisible bacteria.

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How should we test for coronavirus?

February 24th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

There are two tests to determine whether someone has coronavirus (and one – a blood test – to establish whether someone has actually had the virus).

The first test for the virus is called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This involves swabbing the back of the throat and the nostrils. The swab has to be sent to a specialist lab that typically takes 24-48 hours to determine the result. The test has a high degree of accuracy.

The second test for the virus is called lateral flow. This involves swabbing the nostrils only and gives a result on the spot in 30 minutes. It is reasonably accurate but certainly not as sound as a PCR test.

For various reasons – mainly because I am a volunteer with the National Health Service (NHS) – so far I have done four PCR tests and 21 lateral flow tests (all negative, thank goodness). My poor nostrils!

Now we have promising news from France about a test that can be done faster than the lateral flow one – just 10 minutes – but with the accuracy of the PCR one. You can learn more about this proposed new test here.

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Did you know that, in the Second World War, the British interned Jews on the Isle of Man?

February 20th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

No, neither did I, until I read “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel [my review here].

You can learn more about this internment here.

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Would you like to buy the narrowest house in Britain?

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

What is believed to be the narrowest house in Britain is located on Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush, west London. The width varies a bit between the five floors but is typically a mere 6 feet (2 metres).

Originally this location was simply a gap between two buildings but it was filled in as a house around the 1870s. It is currently in the news – which is how I heard about it – because it is up for sale at an asking price of £950,000.

You can learn more and see photographs here.

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A review of “Jews Don’t Count” by David Baddiel

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I read this book because, in his own review of it, a good Jewish friend encouraged all his non-Jewish friends to do so. I’m glad that I did and I would endorse his recommendation. It is a short work (just 123 pages) but compelling and important.

Baddiel, who is a Jew best known for his comedy, writes with passion and fluency to present a case which, for me, is utterly convincing. The case can be simply stated: too many progressives who (rightly) are quick to condemn sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism and especially racism, have a blind spot when it comes to recognising and calling out ant-Semitism.

He provides example after example, many from the world of Twitter, which is not a forum on which I personally spend much time, and finishing (sadly for me as a lifelong member of the Labour Party) with the report of the Equality and Human Rights Commission following its investigation of anti-Jewish discrimination in the party.

So, why do so many progressives fail to call out ant-Semitism?

For Baddiel, the basic answer is that, while other communities facing racism are seen as disadvantaged, “Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status”. So while Jews are perceived as dirty and vile, they are also seen as privileged and powerful and – in the classic conspiracy theory – in control of the world.

Another factor which Baddiel identifies is that Jews are often seen as white and therefore privileged compared to other ethnic minorities. Yet, when it suits the racists as it often does, Jews are portrayed as non-white with swarthy skin and big noses. He writes: “being white is not about skin colour, but security”.

A third factor is what Baddiel calls a “hierarchy of racisms”: a view of some progressives that, while Jews might have problems, they are somehow less discriminated against and therefore less deserving than other ethnic minorities. Baddiel emphasises: “I am arguing not for another person’s experience of racism to be lessened in significance but for the awareness of something similar happening to Jews to be heightened”.

I was particularly struck by Baddiel’s reference to his lived experience: “the lived experience of a Jew who feels as most Jews do that the reaction of progressives, to ant-Semitism, is that it doesn’t matter very much” or – to use the title of his book – “Jews don’t count”.

We live in a challenging age in which offence is less about the intention of the offender and more about the feeling of the offended. As someone with what has been described as a white-male-cis-het perspective, I am aware of my privilege and of the need really to listen to Baddiel and my Jewish friends when they talk of their lived experience.

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A review of the new film “Greenland”

February 18th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In the middle of a global pandemic which has killed millions, here comes a movie featuring an extinction event that wipes out some 75% of all life on Earth. Cheery, eh?

Of course, there is something of a sub-genre of films involving threats to Earth from cosmic objects. Think of “Meteor” (1979), “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” (both 1998) plus – my personal favourite – “Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World” (2012). Sadly “Greenland” is not a distinguished addition to the canon.

Since the budget available to director Ric Roman Waugh (“Angel Has Fallen”) was moderate, the special effects are limited in this more character-driven work, but the characters are so stereotypical: a married couple facing difficulties (Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin), their son who has diabetes and manages to mislay his insulin, and various individuals who either help or hinder their attempt to reach the safety of a special facility in Greenland.

I suppose as a reminder that we could face greater challenges than Covid-19 and a two-hour diversion from lockdown, it has some entertainment value.

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A review of the new film “News Of The World”

February 17th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

I’m a huge fan of Tom Hanks (who isn’t?) and I would watch him reading a telephone directory; here we view him as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reading items in a newspaper to illiterate folk in post-civil war northern Texas. This poorly-paying itinerant role brings him unexpectedly into contact with a 10 year old girl called Johanna (a mesmerising Helena Zengel) who has been raised by an Indian tribe and, on the rare occasions when she deems to speak, utters Kiowa or German.

This unusual western brings to mind two other films. The first is “The Searchers” which is all about an effort to locate a young woman who – like Johanna – has been taken by an Indian tribe. The second is “True Grit” which – like “News Of The World” – is centred on the relationship between a grizzled man of the west and his young female companion.

Both these other films starred John Wayne and were darker. Hanks rarely plays a character who is not decent and kind and here – overlooking the act that (however reluctantly) he was recently fighting for the Confederacy in the defence of slavery – Hanks, who is growing old(er) gracefully, is a wonderfully brave and altruistic ex-soldier.

The director (and co-writer) of “News Of The World”, the British Paul Greengrass, also made “Captain Philips” in which again Hanks has the starring role, but that movie was utterly frenetic and tense. Here Greengrass is unusually languid in this beautifully-photographed terrain. Indeed this thoroughly enjoyable film has an elegiac tone: not only is the old South dead, so is the way of life of Native Americans, so is the carefree wandering of the buffalo, and so are family members of both the principals.

But ultimately this is a delightfully uplifting film that Netflix brings to us when we need it in the midst of a global pandemic in which we deserve all the kindness we can find.

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Word of the day: metonym

February 16th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

A ‘metonym’ is: ‘a word or phrase used in metonymy, a figure of speech in which the name of one object or concept is used for that of another to which it is related.

As an example, “the crown” is a metonym for “royalty”.

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A review of the new book “Joe Biden” by Evan Osnos

February 12th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

This is not so much a biography as an extended profile written by a staff writer on the “New Yorker” and adapted from an occasional series of articles written by the author for the magazine. It was rushed out for publication the week before the presidential election of November 2020 on the assumption that Biden would win the presidency which, of course, he did. So the book is both short (167 pages) and topical. 

Osnos quotes Biden’s friend Ted Kaufman:

“If you ask me who’s the unluckiest person I know personally, who’s had just terrible things happen to him, I’d say Joe Biden. If you asked me who is the luckiest person I know personally, who’s had things happen to him that are just absolutely incredible, I’d say Joe Biden.”

So, on the one hand, Biden had to contend with a childhood stutter which is not entirely absent now; days after his first Senate victory, he lost his wife and baby daughter in an horrific car accident which also injured both his sons; at the age of 45, he suffered a cranial aneurysm which resulted in him being in hospital for three months and out of action for seven months; he lost his elder son to a form of brain cancer; and his younger son has struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Politically he made two very poor runs for the Democatic nomination for presidency. 

On the other hand, Biden was elected to a Senate seat for Delaware, still only 29 on election day but (as required) 30 by the time he actually took his seat; his long service in the Senate included chairing the Foreign Relations Committe; he spent eight years as Vice-President to Barack Obama; and, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency a third time, he finished a distant fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before winning South Carolina by 29 points and on Super Tuesday taking 10 out of 14 states; and, in the actual election for the White House, Trump’s card of a strong economy was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Osnos recalls some of the many political mistakes made by Biden including opposing bussing, drafting the 1994 Crime Bill, and supporting the invasion of Iraq. He refers often to Biden’s verbosity and proneness to gaffs: “a harrowing tendecy to put his foot in his mouth”. But Osnos admires Biden’s resilence in the face of so much personal tragedy and he quotes lots of ancedotes underlining Biden’s humanity and empathy. 

The tone of this book is: cometh the hour, cometh the man. Osnos hints that, in spite of Biden’s unlikely assendency to the post of POTUS and him being the oldest person to move into the office, given his special qualities and the remarkable times Biden could turn out to be a far more progressive and successful president than one might have ever imagined and that “for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing”. Let’s see … let’s hope …

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Word of the day: comity

February 11th, 2021 by Roger Darlington

In legal language, there is a term comity of nations which is the friendly recognition accorded by one nation to the laws and and usages of another.

More generally, the word comity means mutual civility or courtesy.

I came across the word in a profile of the new US President Joe Biden which suggested that comity is part of his political style. Sounds good to me.

Comity derives from the Latin comitas, courtesy, and from cemis, friendly, courteous.

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