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Following Owen Hatherley’s adventures over at Shiny New Books! @shinynewbooks @owenhatherley @RepeaterBooks

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Owen Hatherley is an author who’s popped up on the Ramblings before; I reviewed his stimulating book “The Chaplin Machine” back in 2016, and I read a number of his works pre-blog, so I was delighted to be able to review his most recent book for Shiny New Books. “The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post Soviet Space”, with its cheeky cover homage to Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, is a fascinating, entertaining and surprisingly deep read. If you have any interest in Soviet architecture, the state of the disassembled nations of the USSR, aesthetics and politics and how they intersect, or indeed the history of the various ex-Soviet states, this is definitely the book for you.

To go off at a slight tangent, I was (perhaps rather foolishly) surprised by the amount of discussion of iconoclasm in the book. As is fairly obvious to anyone following the Ramblings, it’s a subject that has become of increasing interest to me over the last year or two. I guess in the past, due to my reading of all things Russian, I’d thought of it as a fairly simplistic equation: Angry Mob + Statues of Hated Leaders = (Concrete) Heads Will Roll – what you might just think of as a visceral response to detested rulers. However, when I began watching the programmes of, and reading the books, by Professor Richard Clay on the subject, in particular with regard to the French revolution (though he *has* moved his study of the subject onto a wider platform more recently), I started to realise that iconoclasm was anything but straightforward.

In France, in particular, the state sponsored iconoclasm was a structured and planned approach to the removal of particular symbols thereby changing the meaning of objects in public space. This actually made me think anew about what is actually *meant* by iconoclasm; it’s not just a religious term any more, but one applied to the alteration of any symbol of control which is out of keeping with the public space in which it sits. Context is all – the objects concerned stay the same, but a statue of Lenin in a Soviet controlled country has a very different meaning and effect than one in a post-Soviet location. As I mentioned, this kind of thinking addled my brain a little when I was taking my mum round Edinburgh on our trip in 2017 – so many statues of dead white men in the city! What where they meant to be saying? What relevance did they have to today?

The topic of state-sponsored iconoclasm comes up in the Hatherley book, of course, where it’s given the heady title of decommunisation; though as Hatherley points out wryly at one point, a number of places could only be decommunised by razing them to the ground, so ingrained is the Soviet iconography. The Lenins, Stalins and Marxes have often been removed, as have the hammer and sickle emblems; but in many places they haven’t, and you wonder whether the imagery has been there so long that people just don’t see it any more, or whether they actually have a hankering for simpler times. Bearing in mind the extreme poverty which now exists in many of the cities, and the massive divide between rich and poor, I’m afraid you can see the appeal of Soviet times where the state provided everything…

Anyway – as you can tell, the Owen Hatherley book is one which provokes any number of thoughts, and I found it fascinating. You can read my thoughts about it here.

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Looking forward into 2019 – some bookish non-resolutions!

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The start of a new year is traditionally a time when we book bloggers start looking ahead and making plans and deciding what challenges to participate in and what projects to undertake. When I first began the Ramblings I was well into that kind of thing and used to fling myself into numerous commitments – usually to fail.. I think I know myself better as a reader nowadays, and for the last few years I’ve kept things light; I dip into challenges and projects as the mood takes me, and apart from our Club weeks I commit myself to pretty much nothing! This seems to work well and I can see no need to change things for 2019. 😀

Some post-Christmas book piles…. =:o

However, there are certainly a few aims I have for 2019, so time for some gratuitous book pictures and resolutions that probably will go very much awry!

LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group reads

The lovely LT Virago group plan some wonderful group reads every year; most recently focusing on specific authors every month, and I did dip in last year. 2019 is to be dedicated to reading books written in, or set in, the 1940s, with a particular theme every month. January is ‘family’, and there are a number of books from either Virago or Persephone I could choose from, and as I already have several on the shelves it’ll be a choice from these if I decide the mood is right!


I must admit that “Dimanche” and the Attia Hosain are both calling strongly; I was late to Nemirovsky’s writing but do love it; and I read “Sunlight on a Broken Column” back in 2014 and was transfixed. Watch this space to see if I *do* actually join in!

Penguin Moderns

As I mentioned yesterday, I was very fortunate to receive this box set from my lovely Offspring on Mothers’ Day, and although I was happily reading my way through it I kind of got sidetracked towards the end of the year. Hopefully, I can climb back on the wagon soon…

Poetry

2018 was a year with an increasing amount of poetry in it, particularly Russian but latterly French. I’ve been loving dipping into big collections, and I need to keep myself in the mindset that I don’t need to read a collection in one go; I *can* just dip and enjoy as the mood takes me.

The rather large Elizabeth Bishop collection requires attention, as does the lovely French book I got for my birthday from Middle Child; and I really must finish Baudelaire…

Self-imposed Challenges!

I set myself up for failure, don’t I? I get all enthusiastic about something, put together a large pile of books on the subject, read one if I’m lucky and then instantly become distracted by another subject/author/shiny new book. The curse of the grasshopper mind, I fear.

There’s the French Revolution. There’s Utopia. There’s those lovely London area books Mr. Kaggsy got me. There’s two huge volumes of Sylvia Plath’s letters and all of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. Any of these would be project enough for a good few months, but will I stick to anything? Not very likely…

Clearing the decks and reading more

I think ultimately that’s my aim this year. I’m not going to impose a book buying ban, because I would fail instantly, but I *am* going to try not to amass quite so many books, and to pass on a book quickly after reading it unless it moves and shakes me, or I think I want to read it again at some point. I’ve been clearing out books I’ve had for decades and either not read or only read once. I’ve hung onto them out of some kind of sentimentality perhaps, but I’ve taken a long hard look and decided in many cases that I actually don’t want to read a particular book or two, and they will go. Which will make room for the recent incomings…

Plus I need to waste less time on YouTube and mindlessly looking at social media, and simply focus on reading more. I *will* continue to enjoy good documentaries when they turn up (as I mentioned yesterday, I’m very much looking forward to Richard Clay’s forthcoming prog on viral memes) but aside from these I want to give more of my time to reading. Currently, I’m deeply involved in this chunkster for a Shiny New Books review and it’s proving completely absorbing.

Whether I can keep up this level of involvement when I go back to work remains to be seen, but I shall try! What reading plans do you have for 2019? 😉

2018 – so what were my standout reading experiences? :)

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When it comes to doing an annual best of list, I tend to leave it to as close to the wire as possible; I’ve been known to read some corkers that end up at the top of the tree in the dying embers of the year. I also like to stretch the format a little, going for themes or concepts as well as just titles or authors. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what rocked my reading boat in 2018!

Books in translation

I don’t keep detailed statistics about the kinds of book I read, but I *do* now keep a list! And I can see from a quick glance down it that I’ve most definitely read a lot of works in translation. This has always been the case with my reading, and I’ve probably tended to focus on French, Italian and of course Russian originals. However, I’ve branched out a little more this year, with Spanish-language works, a stand-out Polish book (the incredible Flights!) and of course continued very strongly with the Russians…

They pretty much deserve a section on their own, but suffice to say I’ve encountered a number of authors new to me, from a shiny new book in the form of the marvellous The Aviator, to a poetic gem from Lev Ozerov and a very unusual piece of fiction (if it was fiction…) in the form of The Kremlin Ball. The wonderful humorous and yet surprisingly profound Sentimental Tales by Zoshchenko was a joy. Marina Tsvetaeva has been an inspirational force, and in fact Russian poetry has been something of a touchstone all year. I don’t think I will *ever* tire of reading Russian authors.

I spent quite a lot of time musing about poetry in 2018, actually, including the intricacies and issues of translating the stuff… Part of this related to the Baudelaire-Benjamin rabbit hole into which I fell, and I’ve actually been gifted a very fat book of French poetry in verse translation which I’m really looking forward to. The Baudelaire prose translations I’ve been reading are just wonderful and so I’m hoping this approach will work for French poetry generally.

To pick out one particular book in translation would be hard, but I do want to say that Saramago’s Death at Intervals has remained with me since I read it, particularly the delicate portrayal of the relationship between Death and the Cellist. In fact, whilst browsing in Foyles at the start of December, I found myself picking the book up and becoming completely transfixed by the ending again. Obviously I need a re-read – if I can only work out where I’ve put my copy…. :((

And a book of the year must be the poetic wonder that is Portraits without Frames by Lev Ozerov. Books like this remind me of how much I’m in debt to all the wonderful translators in the world!

Club Reads

The club reading weeks which I co-host with Simon have been a great success this year, and such fun! We focused on 1977 and 1944 during 2018, a pair of disparate years which nevertheless threw up some fascinating books. I was particularly pleased to revisit Colette, Richard Brautigan, Sylvia Plath and Edmund Crispin, as well as exploring Borges‘ work. The clubs will continue into 2019 so join in – it’s always fascinating seeing and hearing what other people are reading!

The British Library

I think BL Publishing need a special mention for the continuing wonderfulness of their books; I’ve read a number of their Crime Classics this year, which are always a joy, and I’ve also been exploring the new range of Science Fiction Classics which they’ve been putting out. I credit them, together with a chance Virago find in a Leicester Charity Shop, with my discovery of the books of the amazing Ellen Wilkinson – definitely one of my highlights in 2018!

They publish other books than these, of course, and as well as the excellent Shelf Life, I was gifted some fascinating-looking volumes about areas of London for my December birthday – I feel a possible project coming on…. 😉

Non-fiction

I’ve always been fond of reading non-fiction, and this year I’ve read quite a few titles. Inevitably there have been Russians (with How Shostakovich Changed My Mind being a real standout) as well as Beverley Nichols on the 1920s and numerous books about books. However, there’s been quite a focus on women’s stories with Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley both featuring strongly, as well as Flaneuse, a book that intrigued and frustrated in equal measure. The French Revolution made a strong entry, with Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women proving to be stirring stuff. Looking down the list of books I read, there’s a lot of Paris and Russia in there!

Bookish arrivals

There have been *so* many bookish arrivals this year, that at times Mr. Kaggsy was getting quite fretful about the fact that we would soon be unable to move around the house… However, I *have* been clearing out books I think I won’t return to, and intend to continue having a bit of a (careful) purge in 2019. I have been very fortunate on the bookish front, though, and having not been able to afford much in the way of books when I was growing up, I’m always grateful to have them and thankful to the lovely publishers who provide review copies.

There *have*, inevitably, been some particularly special arrivals this year. My three Offspring gifted me the Penguin Moderns Box Set for Mothers’ Day, and although my reading of them has tailed off a little of late, I do intend to continue making my way through them in 2019, as so far they’ve been quite wonderful.

And a year ago (really? where has that year gone!) I was ruing the fact I couldn’t get a copy of Prof. Richard Clay‘s fascinating monograph Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs, and forcing one of my offspring to borrow a copy from their university library to bring home for me to read over the break. Through diligent searching and bookseller alerts, I managed to secure a copy, which I was inordinately excited about. On the subject of the Prof’s documentaries, I’m very much looking forward to seeing his forthcoming one on the subject of memes and going viral – watch this space for special posts! 🙂

New discoveries, rediscoveries and revisits

One of the delights of our Club reading weeks is that I always seem to manage to revisit some favourite authors, as I mentioned above. However, this year I also reconnected with an author I was very fond of back in the day, Julian Barnes. The Noise of Time was a hit last year, and I finally read and adored The Sense of an Ending this year. I now have a lot of catching up to do.

Returning to George Orwell is always a reliable delight, and I made peace with Angela Carter after a rocky start. Robert Louis Stevenson has brought much joy (and most of his work has been new to me), and Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners was my first Seagull book. I keep being drawn back to Jose Saramago, though; Death at Intervals really got under my skin and I *must* find my copy…

Challenges

I’ve been keeping my commitment to challenges light over the last few years, and this is actually working quite well for me. I don’t like my reading to be restricted, preferring to follow my whim, and I think what I’ve read has been fairly eclectic… I dipped into HeavenAli’s Reading Muriel celebration of Spark’s 100th birthday; dropped in on the LT Virago Group’s author of the month when it suited; joined in with the reading clubs (of course!); and for the rest of the time mostly did my own thing. It’s been fun… Will I take part in any next year, or set myself any projects? Well, that remains to be seen…. 😉

So that’s a kind of round up of the year. Looking down the list of books I’ve read, I’m more than ever aware of the grasshopper state of my mind – I don’t seem to read with any rhyme or reason. Nevertheless, I mostly love what I read, which is the main thing – life is too short to spend on a book you’re really not enjoying…

Mapping the imaginary – gratuitous book pics and #utopia again!

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A recent post on the excellent Science Fiction Ruminations blog on the subject of maps and diagrams of fantasy worlds from science fiction reminded me that I had a rather old and lovely book which collected some of those together – and this is it!

I was gifted “The Atlas of Fantasy” by J.B. Post by Mr. Kaggsy longer ago than I care to acknowledge (well, it came out in about 1982 I think…) It gathers together an eclectic collection of plans, maps and diagrams of places unreal, and as I was a keen reader of sci-fi and fantasy at the time I was very taken with it. I’ve always been fond of maps – I think it’s because my geography is rubbish and I’m not so good at visualising. Give me a map or a plan or a chart and I’m happy.

Anyway, this rather fab volume is stuffed to the gills with places I have or haven’t heard of, and a quick look at the contents pages gives you an idea of what to expect:

You probably can’t read all of that, but there’s basically everything from Eden and Hell up to Stephen R. Donaldson taking in all manner of interesting locations and oddities in between.

Favourites? Impossible to pick – but at the time I loved having the maps of Narnia and Middle Earth to hand, and there were several variations of each. And of course, you have to love a book that includes the Hundred Acre Wood…

It’s a long time since I had a look at the Atlas, and I would love to share a few more favourites but it’s now so fragile I was reluctant to manhandle it too much. However, this time round a couple of obvious entries caught my eye (ahem!)..

Gulliver’s Travels has slipped onto my radar as it featured in Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Utopia” series; I can’t say that I’ve ever read the book, although I have a vague idea of the plot. And then there is this:

There are actually a few Utopia images, and of course I might have been considering curating a sort of Utopian reading list recently. And these would help it:

Yes – there’s another copy of “Utopia”, a brand new shiny freshly translated version by Roger Clarke from the lovely Alma Classics (thank you!) And I may have to have invested in a copy of “Gulliver…” too. Utopia or the French Revolution or Russia – where next???? 🙂

Utopian Ideas and Ideals #utopia #professorrichardclay #bbc4

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One small advantage of being in depths of documentary repeat season is the chance to catch up on favourite progs. I’ve frequently rambled on about Professor Richard Clay’s marvellous three-part series “Utopia: In Search of the Dream“, and so I was very pleased to note that the show is making a welcome return to BBC4 in the wee small hours starting tonight.

“Utopia” takes as its starting point the classic book by Sir Thomas More of the same name and goes on to cover myriad variations on that theme, from utopian visions that go wrong, the dystopian flip-sides, searching for your own personal inner fulfilment, how architecture affects our vision of life and so much more. It’s an exceptionally wide-ranging set of programmes, full of thought-provoking stuff; I highly recommend it and if you have access to BBC4 and/or the iPlayer you can give it a look starting from 00.30 tonight/tomorrow.

The Prof has an intriguing new documentary in the pipeline on the subject of the art of the meme, which sounds equally fascinating. It’s still awaiting a transmission date, and when it goes live I shall be covering it on the Ramblings in depth with some special posts – so watch this space… 😉

*****

As an aside…

I was reminded that I picked up a copy of More’s book back in April (I had one decades ago, but who knows where it went?); and as I posted at the time I was vaguely thinking about setting myself up a little utopian reading list, drawing on some suggestions in the Happy Reader magazine. I revisited that magazine and went on a rampage (oh, all right, a gentle rummage) around the house trying to find what books I already had that fitted into that list. And then I found a few more. And then I couldn’t find some I know I have somewhere (“Flatland”; “Looking Backwards”). And for those of you who love gratuitous pictures of books, I came up with this:

As you can see, there are some awfully interesting books on the pile – here they are without Thomas More blocking them. Yes, I *know* I have duplicates of “We”, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Brave New World” (and there are at least two more copies of the Orwell somewhere in the house) – I’m afraid I have a congenital affliction that prevents me being able to get rid of multiple book copies…. (ahem)

However, what occurs to me looking at the pile is that many of the books suggested by the HR mag (and not all are here) were actually dystopian, not utopian. Admittedly, they began their list with “We”, and that’s certainly not a jolly book. Still – I do wonder if we are naturally drawn to the negative; it does seem that we as a race have trouble in dealing with the concept of perfection and a happy life. But as I’ve said before, we are questing, searching beings and maybe the ideal world would be just a teeny bit boring…

Anyway, one thing the rummage did was produce this behemoth (as in a big book, not a big cat):

I had totally forgotten I have “The Faber Book of Utopias“; it came out in 1999 and I suspect was a gift at the time and I couldn’t tell you if I’ve read it. However, it looks absolutely fascinating, with extracts from all manner of books, from More himself through to modern writers like Julian Barnes. I was very pleased to see that Margaret Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” is in there too, as I’ve been keen to have a look at her work. It’s 500 or so large format pages – I could be in there for some time…

So there you are. Another potential reading project, at which I will no doubt fail. Perhaps I should put the French Revolution and Utopia books in a room together and just let them fight it out, a la Swift’s “Battle of the Books“. Or give up work and sleep. Or stop buying books and thinking about reading projects and just damn well read! 🙂

Three things… #4 – Revolutions, plus difficulties with older books…

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Time for another go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. The book I’m currently reading has influenced what I’m currently watching (as there is still a dearth of documentaries, alas…), and this ties in also with my thoughts on some bookish and not so bookish things at the moment. So here goes!

Reading

I’m currently deeply immersed in “The Race to Save the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport, which I’m going to be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Give my interest (alright, obsession) with all things Russia, it’s inevitable that I’ve read a *lot* of books over the decades about the last Tsar of Russia and the fate of his family. This particular volume promises new insights, specifically into the failure of any of the other Royal houses in Europe to intercede and come to the aid of their relations, and it’s intriguing reading so far. This is actually the first of Rappaport’s books I will actually have finished; I bailed out of her book on Lenin fairly early as I sensed an underlying inability to really accept the concept of someone devoting their whole life to a cause which undermined the narrative for me. However, we’ll see what this book brings! Although Rappaport is acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws of the regime, I *am* sensing a slight bias, and so I turned to some vintage viewing:

Looking

Mr. Kaggsy is something of an enabler when it comes to DVDs, and one box set he gifted me a while ago was the complete BBC series “Fall of Eagles” from 1974, which I’m gradually making my way through. A classic drama from what I tend to think of as the golden age of TV (!), it tell in 13 parts of the collapse of the three main royal dynasties in Europe at the time of the First World War and Russian Revolution. It’s stuffed to the gills with marvellous actors (Patrick Stewart perfect as Lenin; Barry Foster actually *is* Kaiser Wilhelm) and I remember being enthralled when I was just a wee thing, freshly captivated by the Russian Revolution. Revisiting it has been a wonderful experience; so after reading a bit of the Rappaport, I watched the episode “Dear Nicky” which deals with the pre-war correspondence between the Tsar and the Kaiser against a backdrop of suffering and unrest in St. Petersburg, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. Just how good the series was – the acting!
2. How it was also even-handed in that the royals were shown as flawed and the people were shown as suffering.

Which led onto…

Thinking

… well, thinking about revolutions generally. I have to say up front that I deplore violence (well, as a vegan, I would.) However, we live in a world which is unequal and unfair, and frankly it’s hardly surprising that the people often have to take up an aggressive stance against those in charge when the latter are exploiting and enslaving them. Russia was a case in point, and I’m finding my reading of the Rappaport book a little problematic because although I can’t condone the violence meted out to the Tsar’s family, neither can I countenance the violence done to the Russian people. It will be interesting to see what I finally conclude.

And as I’ve blogged recently, I’ve been incubating a possible reading project of French Revolutionary fiction. Well, it started as fiction, but might not end up being limited to that, as a few internet searches have thrown up a very tempting list of possible books. Some of which may have slipped quietly through the letterbox when Mr. Kaggsy wasn’t paying attention….

The revolutionary French are obviously breeding…

One in particular really caught my eye because of its focus on women’s involvement; when I posted about “The Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gouges earlier in the year, I commented on the fact that I’d been looking for the female voice int he French Revolution. I also alluded to the figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, who I’d heard mention of in Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, where he credited her with urging on the men who were hesitating to storm the Tuileries Palace. I found very little about her in the books I have relating to the Revolution, so the fact that she features in this recent arrival is rather nice…

I must admit I feel inclined to pick it up and start reading straight away, but the problem is, it’s only one of a number of Big Books about Inspirational Woman that I have lurking…

All of these are crying out to be read instantly, but there isn’t enough time. Plus the French Revolution books are massing offstage… And as I hinted in the heading to this post, some of the older titles are really giving me issues. If you go off to search for a more obscure old book, like a Victor Hugo or a Joseph Conrad which *isn’t* one of the well know titles, you end up being offered weird, expensive reprints on the online sites. (I found this when I was looking for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on Edinburgh, and ended up buying a very old copy instead – but that’s by the by…) I would like to have actual *physical* copies, as I really hate reading on a screen, but as you might have guessed by the glowing screen in the picture further up this post, I have had to resort to Project Gutenberg. Really not my preferred way of reading, but beggars etc etc as they say… Anyway, onward and upward with the Romanovs – hopefully by the time I’ve finished that, I’ll have more idea of what I want to read after it! 😀

“The burden of knowing” #TwoMinutesToMidnight #armageddon

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Gods of Metal by Eric Schlosser

Have gone to the trouble of ransacking the shelves to find the Eric Schlosser book I own (see my post here!) I felt it was only fair to actually *read* the book reasonably soon, particularly as it’s been languishing on the shelves for over three years. The timing felt opportune after listening to Richard Clay’s stimulating programme on the nuclear threat, “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which I blogged about extensively) and I was in the right frame of mind for some hard facts. And Schlosser certainly provides those.

“Gods of Metal” was published in 2015 as a Penguin Special, alongside a new edition of John Hersey’s seminal “Hiroshima”, to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Schlosser is an investigative journalist, probably best known for “Fast Food Nation” (although “Two Minutes…” referenced his book “Command and Control” which also sounds fascinating); those journalistic skills are certainly on show here. “Gods…” explores the world of nuclear resistance in the USA through the Plowshares movement, and their actions are brave and terrifying in equal measure.

The fact that an eighty-two-year-old nun had broken into a high-security nuclear-weapons complex seemed unbelievable. But to some people familiar with the security arrangements at Y-12 the intrusion was the logical result of mismanagement that had plagued the facility for years.

In 2012, a small group of people broke into a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee; unfortunately, they gained access unimpeded; fortunately they were peaceful protesters. Schlosser relates the history of the Plowshares group, a movement inspired by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker newspaper, and which has spawned dissenters over many decades. Their belief in peace and disarmament is paramount, and they’re willing to be jailed in the most shocking conditions for their cause. Schlosser follows the three protesters from the moment of their break-in to their eventual imprisonment and aftermath, whilst considering the state of nuclear control in the USA as well as the increasing arms race from developing countries. And it’s really scary stuff…

Little Boy [the bomb dropped on Hiroshima] – a crude and highly inefficient atomic bomb, designed in the 1940s with slide rules – contained about 140 pounds of weapons-grade uranium, and almost 99 per cent of it harmlessly blew apart as the bomb detonated. And, when that happened, two-thirds of the buildings in the city were destroyed and perhaps 80,000 civilians were killed. The amount of weapons-grade uranium needed to build a terrorist bomb with a similar explosive force could fit inside a small gym bag.

As Schlosser is at pains to point out, the nuclear threat comes not simply from a conflict (and a really big war is going to end up with Mutually Assured Destruction, so one would hope that the major powers are still trying to avoid this – although that wasn’t necessarily the case when this book was published). There is the fact that smaller countries are developing nuclear capability, but without necessarily the proper controls; and the more weapons there are, the higher the probability of an accident. Then there’s the ideal of a nuclear terrorist threat which is mind-bogglingly awful, and when you consider how relatively easy the carnage of 9/11 was, the concept doesn’t seem so unlikely.

By Lgmelby [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

But possibly the likeliest threat (and this was highlighted in “Two Minutes…” as well) is from incompetence or accident. As Schlosser reveals, the various nuclear sites are run by a series of commercial agencies (G4S at one point, FFS!!!) and these are shown again and again to be totally motivated by money and to be failing the most basic security tests. What is particularly terrifying is the ease with which the Plowshares activists gained access to the sites; the security was abysmal and had they wanted to actual take drastic action, they really could have.

For nearly forty minutes, I stood on the shoulder of a dirt road within throwing distance of a Minuteman complex. I didn’t see another car on the road, let alone a security fence with guns drawn. The short-grass prairie that stretched before me was windswept, gorgeous, dotted with small homes. You would never think that hidden beneath this rural American idyll, out of sight, out of mind, were scores of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Just yards away from my rental car, sitting not far below my feet, there was a thermonuclear warhead about twenty times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, all set and ready to go. The only sound was the sound of the wind.

“Gods of Metal” (the phrase is how the activists refer to the missiles) is a stunning mixture of the factual and the personal, which makes it particularly compelling and very affecting. Schlosser writes beautifully, and whatever you might think of the Plowshares activities and beliefs, you can’t help but admire their commitment to their convictions and their willingness to go to jail for them. And Schlosser’s slim book (120 pages) packs a real heft (I wonder if it’s perhaps “Command and Control”-lite, and whether I need to explore that book too…) The facts are stark and Schlosser’s warning of the real danger we live with every day is chilling. After listening to “Two Minutes to Midnight” (which will still be here on the iPlayer for a little longer) I was convinced we were walking around with blinkers on; I’m even more convinced of that fact after finishing “Gods of Metal” and I can see why it was released alongside “Hiroshima” (kudos to Penguin Books for that). It’s a worthy companion piece to that work, and it’s about time that more people read these works and started paying attention to what’s going on in the world around them.

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