Greetings! Welcome to the Chateau!


Within its corridors you will find insight into the books I have written, the books I am writing and the books I am thinking about writing.

It is also a place where I can offer insights into my favorite authors and - in the case of my game Conqueror: Fields of Victory - I can explain my rules and offer new variants.

Scroll down or check the sidebar for my latest posts.

Nonfiction:

Long Live Death: The Keys to Victory in the Spanish Civil War

Fiction:

Three Weeks with the Coasties: A Tale of Disaster and also an Oil Spill

Battle Officer Wolf

Scorpion's Pass

The Vampires of Michigan

The Man of Destiny Series:

A Man of Destiny

Rise of the Alliance

Fall of the Commonwealth

The Imperial Rebellion

Wargaming:

Conqueror: Fields of Victory, Revised Edition


This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for all the corrections

The title of this post may seem ironic, but I'm completely sincere. 

I know some authors are very sensitive about their work (and I can be at times), but what we all want is reader engagement, and nothing I've written has gotten a response like Long Live Death.

Much of that comes from people noting errors or typos, and I'm fine with that because it means people are paying attention.

It's a wonderful thing.

This is a strange year in many ways, not the least of which our family had our 'feast' three days ago so that we could all be together (one of my kids has to travel), so today we'll eat turkey soup and finish off the leftovers.

For all that, I'm grateful for so much, and I hope you and yours enjoy this day in a spirit of true gratitude.


Lord Jim and other thoughts

I'm most of the way through Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, which I haven't read in 20 years.  Conrad is more long-winded than I remember, but when he picks up the pace, he's great.  I see why he and Ford Madox Ford got along so well: they both really groove to long-form ruminations in their work.

Once I finish, I'll start reading Conrad's Eastern World, a detailed look at the sources for his writing.  My annotated copy of Lord Jim has lots of references to it, so I figured I'd grab a copy.  It's out of print, but I got a very new-looking copy.

I've always found Conrad evocative and getting back into him is a respite from the endless turmoil we're going through.  I'd like to write something soon - if only for the escape it provides.  Our household is currently in a state of transition (one kid moving back in, another moving out) so when the dust finally settles I might be able to write again. 

I've also started a gaming project which will get its own post later.


Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End series followed by Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.  I had already read both works, but doing so in rapid succession really drove home how closely the two are related but also how significant their differences are.  Here are a few of my observations.

Writing Style

Ford was 30 years older than Waugh and his writing style shows it.  Ford is considered one of the first “modern” writers, and he does demonstrate some unique flourishes (and a willingness to take on hitherto forbidden topics), but his prose is very much of the Victorian era.

He goes into detailed descriptions that sometimes read like an inventory.  He can also be florid in the extreme when setting a scene, particularly when he blends this with the internal stream of consciousness of the characters.

Waugh is capable of beautiful and evocative descriptions, but most of the time he focuses on only the most crucial details, and works them into the text.  Whereas Ford might go in depth over every knick-knack on a library shelf (and highlight the titles thereon), Waugh would bring up only a couple, and do so in a such a way as to let the reader know that the rest is emblematic of this selection.

Ford is particularly fond of moving back and forth in time and also in diving deep into the characters’ inner thoughts.  This can be an interesting device, providing sort of a reverse foreshadowing, but it is also disorienting and bogs down the flow of the story.  He seems to have a particular problem with the character of Valentine Wannop, whose extended internal monologues are breathless and repetitious.

Waugh also uses internal monologues, but only when no other vehicle is available to advance the story.  He much prefers to show his characters’ motivations through action and rapid-fire dialogue.  It is much easier to “see” Waugh’s story and this is likely why there are more film adaptations of Waugh’s work.  It’s simply more accessible in a visual medium.

Dueling Protagonists:  Tietjens vs Crouchback

Ford’s creation was the archetypal Yorkshire Tory: stoic, stubborn, socially awkward but ruthlessly competent in his own way.

He is the youngest of five children and the fourth son of a landed aristocratic – and wealthy – family.  This was a unique combination for the time, since many of the great old estates were collapsing under the strain of the Industrial Revolution and changes to the tax code.

In an age where much of the English nobility was compelled to add an American heiress to the family tree, the Tietjens family stood aloof, holding considerable estates that also encompassed valuable coal fields.  They are not extravagant and there is also no lack of money.

When he is first introduced, Christopher is an analyst at the Department of Statistics, and we swiftly learn that he has an incisive if somewhat pedantic mind.  He edits encyclopedias as a hobby. 

As the story unfolds we learn that he is thrifty and has a gift for trade, particularly in antique furniture.  The crucial takeaway is that the Tietjens family is that rare bird among fictitious Edwardian landed aristocrats in being in an enviable financial situation.

When war breaks out, Tietjens obtains a commission in a Welsh regiment and serves as a transport officer, marshals replacements and also commands at the front.  He sees plenty of time in the trenches, where his lungs are weakened by exposure and gas.  He’s also “blown up” by concussive shock of a nearby shell, which leaves him physically unharmed but mentally impaired for some time.

Tietjens is aloof from his family, who seem to emerge only gradually as the story progresses.  Two of his brothers are never seen, having gone of to India with the Army before returning to the Western Front where they are killed on the same day.  His eldest brother, Mark, emerges from obscurity to become the main character of the fourth book, but there is nothing approaching affection between him and Christopher.  Their father commits suicide early on and their mothers (Christopher is the child of a second marriage) have deceased before the story begins and are rarely mentioned.

There is a sister, but she is spoken of in the text rather than spoken to.

All of this leaves Tietjens alone and aloof.

Guy Crouchback is also of a noble family, but a Catholic one, steeped in the history of their persecution in Protestant England.

Guy is also the youngest son.  His elder brother, Gervase, was killed on the Western Front early in World War I.  His next brother, Ivo, went mad and starved himself to death.  His sister is married to an indifferently religious MP, and has three daughters and a son, who is an officer in a Guards regiment.

Guy’s father is living as the story begins, and is an important influence in his life, particularly his spiritual development.

Like Christopher, Guy will seek to enlist at the start of the war, but Britain’s manpower situation in 1939 was very different from that in 1914.  During the First World War, Britain had a tiny all-volunteer army backed up by a small militia force.  The demands of total war required a massive influx of personnel.  The British had an innate dislike of conscription, and so volunteers were highly encouraged to join up as soon as possible.

By 1939, Britain had adopted conscription as its wartime method of recruiting, and while volunteers were welcome in some cases, Guy is too old (36) to be an attractive recruit. 

What this means is that the wartime experience of Ford and Waugh differed right from the start – Ford worked briefly writing propaganda, and then had no difficulty in obtaining a commission, despite being 41.  Waugh had no interest in propaganda, and was only able to get into the Royal Marines through political string-pulling because like his character, 36-year-olds with no prior military service were not considered good recruits.

Another difference is that Crouchback has no real occupation at the start of the war.  He has certain skills (speaking Italian and French), but nothing to set him apart.  He’s mentally adrift and sees war as a chance for personal redemption.

As noted above Tietjens is confident to the point of arrogance about his place in the world.

The Women:  Sylvia vs Virginia

Both men have complicated romantic relationships.  As his tale begins, Tietjens’ wife Sylvia has left him for an adulterous romp.  We swiftly learn that she is remarkably loose around men.  In fact, she tricked Tietjens into marrying her by seducing him after she thought she had become pregnant by another man.

The ruse is revealed, and Tietjens is filled with a cold fury towards her, mingled with shame at the thought that his son and heir is another man’s child.

This particular element of the plot – the paternity of ‘the child’ (his name is rarely spoken) – recurs throughout the books to the point of tediousness.  Eventually (and this is no particular spoiler), Tietjens accepts that the boy is likely his and in the oddball fourth book, this is pretty well established when the kid finally appears in person.  He looks like his father, case closed.

But it keeps coming up as point of doubt and wrath, along with musings about how much of the English aristocracy’s leaders are cuckolds.

Even in the restrictive legal environment of the time, Tietjens could divorce Sylvia, but he refuses out of pure Tory stubbornness, and thus there is a constant back and forth between him and the endlessly beautiful Sylvia, who alternately lusts after and hates her husband.

This isn’t as obnoxious as it seems, because Ford does a wonderful job of showing how English social conventions end up blaming Tietjens for everything his harpy of a wife does, even to the point where Christopher’s own kin and allies come to agree that the best thing for everyone would be for him to be killed at the front.

Guy Crouchback’s love life is much simpler.  As a Catholic, he believes marriage is an indissoluble union, and when his wife Virginia leaves him, he accepts the fact of civil divorce, but regards his chance at happy marriage as at an end. 

He still harbors some residual love for her, however, and their paths cross repeatedly.

Virginia is a familiar figure in Waugh’s other writings – beautiful, vivacious, flighty and utterly irresponsible, she the epitome of the modern "smart set" woman.  At the start of the story, she has separated from her third husband, a wealthy American who stays well clear of England.

Spirit vs the Flesh: Valentine Wannop

A key difference in the two stories is the existence of The Other Woman in Parade’s End.  This is Valentine Wannop, an intelligent, athletic Suffragette who nevertheless falls in love with Christopher and seeks to become her mistress.  Much of the story centers on if, when and how this romantic relationship can be consummated.  The title of the first book, Some Do Not-, highlights the importance of this question.

In fact, the core issue of Parade’s End is whether people should let their personal happiness be dominated by social convention.  Christopher is trapped by both an unhappy marriage and the burden of his familial responsibility.  Being a younger son, this should not have happened, but because his elder brother Mark never produced an heir and the others are deal, the weight now falls on him.

It’s just not fair.

Ford himself felt similar constraints.  After converting to Catholicism and getting married, Ford himself launched a series of adulterous relationships with literary-minded young women.  This naturally brought scandal on himself, but Ford simply moved to France and later the United States, brazening it out.

It is interesting that Sylvia Tietjens is a Catholic, and while portrayed as wanton and cruel, at one point she wishes to patch up her relationship with Christopher, only to be rejected.  Naturally this makes her even more vengeful.

One can’t help but see the similarities between this situation and that of the Marchmain family in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The fictitious Lord Marchmain was close to Ford in age, and likewise a convert to Catholicism.  After the war he abandons his responsibilities to take up with a mistress and he lives happily abroad, indifferent to the collapse of his family.

At one point, Marchmain explains himself by saying that the war was about fighting for “freedom,” and that’s what he wants – freedom from obligation; freedom to put himself first.

Waugh stridently disagrees with this viewpoint.  Like Ford, he also was a convert to Catholicism, but unlike him, the conversion “took.” 

While Waugh remained capable of vicious satire (and does not spare the Church), his later works are steeped with questions of faith and duty.

Guy Crouchback epitomizes this, and though an observant Catholic throughout the trilogy, it is only in the final book that he truly grasps the need for self-sacrifice.  His decision almost exactly parallels that of Tietjens, but in the reverse.  I cannot believe this is a coincidence.

Indeed, while both books have moving as well as wickedly funny takes on military service, there is a spiritual void at the heart of Parade’s End.  Tietjens regards God as a distant and stoic figure, finds church stuffy and conventional and essentially creates his own Tory religion that guides his actions.

Guy Crouchback personal journey arguably goes through even darker places, but in the end he understands that larger issues are at stake than whether he’s personally happy.

I believe this, combined with the far more accessible writing style, is why Waugh continues to be read while Ford remains something of a curiosity.

Final Thoughts

Parade’s End is often considered to have four books, but the last one in the series, The Last Post, is very different from the others.  It is essentially an extended experiment in stream of consciousness writing that purports to finish the tale by giving a post-war update to the story.

It is not an easy read and there is reason to believe that Ford himself was unhappy with the result.  When Graham Greene commissioned a reprint after Ford’s death, he purposefully omitted the final volume and declared the work to properly be a trilogy.

The first book in the series is the longest, and it is very difficult at times because it dives deep into social commentary and digs into a number of minor characters.  The next two are shorter and more focused. 

Of the three, No More Parades is arguably the best, being a pure wartime story of Teitjens’ life at the front.

Though written over a much longer span of time, Sword of Honour works well as a cohesive whole and reads quickly.  As one would expect, the tone darkens as the war drags on and England suffers from hunger and bombing, but this is offset by Guy’s spiritual journey and also Waugh’s amusing take on how people ‘make out’ during the war.

There is no question that Waugh's is the superior work, but the first three books of Parade's End provide valuable insight into the Edwardian mentality and wartime Britain.


Veterans Day - a day later

I planned to do a Veterans Day post, but it turned out I was rather busy and then sore and tired.

Anyway, Michigan had been having warm, unusually balmy weather which of course went away hours before I was to play "Taps."  Figures.

There was better turnout at Memorial Park this year, which was nice.  Some years there were three people there - including me.  We had a dozen yesterday.  There were some younger people as well, so maybe a new tradition is taking root with the next generation.

It's all well and good to give out discounts or free food on Veterans Day, but I think it's even more important to observe the little rituals, such as the moment of contemplation at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Hopefully we'll see even more people next year.

 


I'm getting a very 1935 vibe

Back in August I talked about how my research for Long Live Death led me to see some uncomfortable similarities between Spain and the current situation.

That feeling is now all-consuming.

I am deeply troubled by the way things are moving.  I'm old enough to remember the contested election of 2000 very clearly, and the media was much more scrupulous about not outrunning events or trying to force the issue.

Add in the increasing attacks on Catholic churches and religion in general, and I see dark times ahead of our nation.

If one examines the lead-up to the Spanish Civil War, there were multiple opportunities for things to de-escalate, but the Spanish Left was uninterested in them. 

I fear their ideological heirs have not learned their history, and may make the same mistakes.

Let us pray that this is not the case.

 


A Strange, Distant Halloween

Absent the COVID, last night would have been quite the scene in my little burg.  Costume parties, college football - the joint would have been hopping.

Alas, the streets were sparsely populated.  The local government didn't quite ban trick-or-treating, but tried to discourage it.

We held a modest (masked) gathering in the garage, and were encouraged by a few hardy souls who ventured out in search of candy and some actual human contact.

When all this passes, there needs to be a frank and brutal reckoning with the public health authorities who have imposed all of these useless regulations.  Keeping children in perpetual fear is far more destructive than a respiratory infection that is overwhelmingly non-lethal.  Despite soaring "case loads" the number of actual hospitalizations in the area are in the single digits.

I guess what bothers me the most is that no one can articulate what "winning" looks like.  Are we to destroy society in order to save it?  All of the previously announced benchmarks have been reached - hospitals are able to cope, treatments are improving. 

These developments should be celebrated, but the media dutifully spreads panic and despair.

They too will have much to answer for.


Leaving Ford for Waugh

Over the last several weeks I've been re-reading Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End series.

I've now reached the final book, The Last Post and it is just as disappointing as I remember.

Ford's series follows the pre-war and wartime experiences of Christoper Tietjens, a Yorkshire aristocrat with an unhappy marriage and outdated scruples.  He's an amusing, well-drawn character and the books are chock full of amusing social commentary.

The first book, Some Do Not- is a bit long-winded because Ford tends to jump back and forth in time and indulge in lavish description punctuated by lengthy internal monologues.

The next two books - which center on World War I itself - are much better.  They are focused, funny but also poignant.

Taken as a trilogy, it's an excellent work, which is why some critics (apparently including Graham Greene) cut the fourth book out of the series.

I agree with that assessment.  The Last Post is nominally about what happens to the characters after the war, but it is told from the point of view of Christopher's eldest brother Mark, who has grown so disgusted with the world that he has faked a stroke and now lies mute in bed, moving only his eyes.

He thinks a lot, though, and we get to follow his thoughts, which loop back and forth, and repeat themselves in a very tedious manner.  The whole book could have been condensed into a short story, but Ford is indulging himself, introducing the perspectives of Mark's wife, the gamekeeper, handyman, maid, etc. 

All of which is painfully detailed and rendered into various dialects.

I simply can't get into it, so I'm quitting early and turning back to one of my favorites, the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh.  I intend to write a lengthy comparison between the two books because they are very similar.

Given my work and family schedule, I've abandoned serious writing for the time being.  I've begun a series of pieces for bleedingfool.com that will run on a weekly basis and I'll let you know when they go live.

 


Gallipoli: Putting 1917 to shame

Having watched the disappointing 1917, I noticed that Gallipoli was free to view on Amazon, so I took a gander.

I'd seen it long ago on video, and one of my hobbies these days is re-watching old war movies in light of my own military service and the changing times.

It's held up rather well, and goes through the traditional storyline of introducing characters before they begin military service and then chronicling the way military life changes them.

This is an early Mel Gibson movie, when he was still playing Australians (so much so that I thought he was one for many years). 

While the plot meanders, that works because the narrative is based on capturing the feel of adventure the ANZACs experienced when they went off to war for the Mother Country.  They were literally going to the other side of the world.

I cannot overlook that the movie shows its typical anti-British bias, something that would later become a Gibson trope.  No matter how or why, he has to slur the English in the most crude ways possible.  I wasn't at all surprised that man who can nurse such an irrational, all-consuming hate for one ethnic group, would also have it in for the Jews. 

The core tension of the film is ironically the same as that in 1917: a doomed attack is about to start and only a timely message passed by runner can stop it.  Unlike in 1917, the setup is at least plausible: the setting is the beach head at Gallipoli, where Allies forces clung tenaciously to exposed positions.

Trench warfare was new, the soil was rocky, the Turks held the high ground and tangled communications are therefore a lot more likely here than in the well-dug, well-maintained trenches shown in 1917, which positively bristle with telephone lines.

The weakest point is that Gallipoli embraces the standard trope that World War I troops mindlessly stood up and got shot again and again, even though they knew it was certain death.

In fact, people back then weren't any more stupid or suicidal than they are today.  Faced with crippling fire, they'd simply refuse to move.  This might cause a "flap" but so be it.

The reason why battles like the Somme had such horrific losses was that troops were caught out in the open with nowhere to go.  Both sides figured out that trick early on - you let the enemy advance almost to the wire and then pin them in a lethal crossfire.  If your trench is being covered by fire, you try to suppress it with fire of your own from elsewhere.

To put it another way: officers cared about their troops.  The generals pushed forward attacks based on faulty information, and in every case believed that while they were being bled white, the enemy was getting it far worse.

In any event, Gallipoli works as a war movie and while it has some tropes, it's much better than 1917,


Memories of elections gone by

Eight years ago I ran for my local school board.  It was an interesting experience, because while I had worked in politics for many years, I'd never actually been a candidate before.

Perhaps the strangest thing was being the one in charge.  I got to decide what I said!  That sounds a bit odd, but if you work in politics, most of the time you're either asking people to say something or repeating what they said to someone else.  It was weird being in charge and able to say whatever I wanted.

I didn't win, but that was fine with me.  The entire reason I ran was to get rid of the school board president, and in that respect I was successful.

I've come to cordially despise politics and for those new here, I am officially A Man of No Party.  I've been a Democrat and a Republican and now I'm sick of them both.  How I vote is my business, and I haven't given a penny to a political cause since I got out of "the game" in 2006.

Politics seems to intrude everywhere these days, and everything from the food you eat to the car you drive is now held up to a political lens.  It's exhausting.

I like to think that when the election is finally over this will go away, but I'm afraid it won't.  I've said before that everything happening now seems like a replay of Spain in 1935-36.  I pray that I'm wrong.


1917: An evocative, attractive failure of a movie

When 1917 came out, I figured that I would hate it because it would be chock full of historical inaccuracies.  This is a particular bugbear of mine, and my family knows full well that asking me to watch a "war movie" is asking for trouble.

I typically pick nits as if they were precious pearls, relishing each one as I find it.

In the case of 1917, the look and feel of the film is spot-on.  Sam Mendes (or his consultants) did a great job, but in fact it's assumed that British filmmakers can knock it out of the park regarding the Great War.

The problem with the film is that its premise is stupid and its execution deeply flawed.

But other than that it's pretty to look at and has some nice scenes with cool music.

Okay, let's look at the premise.  The film centers around the need for a pair of British troops to convey urgent orders from headquarters to stop a doomed attack.  Fair enough.  A similar plot device was used in the much, much better Gallipoli nigh on 30 years ago.

The difference is that for some inexplicable reason, the messengers must cross enemy territory to convey this message to friendly troops on the other side of a salient.

To anyone who knows anything about World War I, normal command arrangements or basic logic, this is nonsense on stilts.  The "Second Devons" who need the message are not cut off or surrounded, they're simply on the other side of a wide patch of (formerly) German controlled territory. 

The problem can literally be solved with a phone call.

What's that?  The phone lines have been cut?  Well gosh, then have a messenger run down a friendly trench from the higher HQ telling them not to attack.

You see, contra the myth that the trenches were permanent, long-term dwellings of troops ala the 4077th in M*A*S*H (I mean the TV show, not the movie), in fact there was constant movement within the lines.  A battalion would rotate in, spend a couple of weeks on patrol, covering the front, and leave when new troops arrived.

Whole divisions rotated back and forth, up and down the front in this manner, and all the while the troops needed food, ammunition, water, blankets, etc.  To be sure, a heavy bombardment might wreck the connecting trenches and leave the front line troops temporarily cut off, but both sides would immediately strive to restore their lines of communication (which is why these trenches were called "communications trenches").

Thus Colin Firth didn't need to send two messengers across enemy territory to stop a useless attack, he simply could have his staff pick up the Fuller Phone and tell Benedict Cumberbatch not to attack.  If he was being a jerk, he'd order him back to the rear.

If the phone line was cut, it would be quickly repaired (this being a high priority thing) and in the meantime, messengers would stream forward with the latest crates of food, ammunition and water.

I hate to belabor the point here, but it is a seriously stupid premise, like one of those horror movies where the entire film would end if any of the characters had a room temperature IQ.

Okay, the premise is dumb, but what of the execution?

Mendes made a big deal of making the film look like it was one continuous take.  For some things, I think that could work, but it fails utterly here.  Perhaps it's because its a trench system, but it feels a lot like watching someone play Call of Duty: The Somme or something.  The effort to keep the action going, makes it feel contrived and labored, and even with the wildly improbable events, Mendes still had to do a fade to black and skip ahead.

I'm going to avoid the temptation to give specific spoilers, but will simply note that Flanders - where the film takes place - is not noted for the quality of its white-water rafting.

In fact, Belgium - being a flat, swampy country - has crap for waterfalls.  I actually looked it up.

This is like having a character scramble to the top of the 10,000-foot mountains of central Ohio.

Anyway, if you don't know anything about World War I, Belgian geography, or how the military actually works, you might enjoy the movie.  I didn't find it painfully stupid, but I'm not in a hurry to ever watch it again - unless I'm drunk and making fun of it.