The Bomber Mafia – Malcom Gladwell — REVIEW

I read a lot of history for fun. I’m interested in how we fight – what we fight with, and how we use these weapons, even though I am really a pacifist at heart. I’m especially interested in aeroplanes (airplanes to some of the world), and have been even more so since I took up scale modelling again during lockdown (current build is a 1/48 MiG-21MF (“Fishbed”) in Bundeswehr livery following German reunification).

So, when I saw Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” offered for sale, I actually bought a copy (we have a Waterstones in Lichfield at last!). I was disappointed. I’m not an expert in bombing tactics or strategy, but I flatter myself that I know more than the average bear.

So to read a book about “the bomber will always get through” without a mention of Douhet or Balbo and only a passing reference to Billy Mitchell seemed to me to be extraordinary. Instead, emphasis is placed on a small group of US Army aviators who are reported to have a belief in the ability of a small force of aircraft (even single plane) to perform precision bombing on a logistical Schwerpunkt such as a ball-bearing factory, thereby saving the lives of thousands by a surgical strike.

In this, the aviators would be aided by the Norden bombsight, designed by an eccentric monomaniac, described in loving detail in this book, which in theory would allow the placement of a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In practice, of course, this proved completely unworkable. Winds, vibration, the difficulty of mass-producing a precision device, and human factors made it impossible to achieve this laudable goal (laudable because it would reduce the number of casualties needed to achieve a definitive war-winning result.

The British, of course, under “Bomber” Harris, scoffed at this utopian vision of warfare, and carpet-bombed German cities at night, when precision bombing was impossible. They looked at the American Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids which cost the USAAF over 60 planes and 500 men, while having results which were less than conclusive at best and wondered what the “Yanks” were playing at.

Curtis LeMay, a less than idealistic USAAF general, once he had been transferred to the Pacific theatre from Europe, decided that the best way to use the US military’s latest and most expensive project, the B-29 Superfortress, was to bomb the inflammable wood, straw and paper Japanese civilian cities with the newly invented napalm incendiaries which spilled sticky liquid fire over everything and everyone. They even built Japanese style urban dwellings to test the effectiveness of napalm.

Eventually, thanks to the discovery of the jet stream at the projected operating altitude of the B-29, these massive aircraft were sent night after night at low level to burn Japanese cities – and thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians – indiscriminately to the ground.

But ultimately, the book somewhat underplays the horror of these mass killings, other than to describe them in American terms. The planes were so filled with the stench of burned human beings that they had to be disinfected after the missions.

And yet they continued, even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a professor of history recently said in a conversation with me about this book, one problem is “the pigheaded belief that if it was Americans committing the atrocities, that somehow meant they weren’t “atrocities””. Actually, LeMay is reported to have said that if the Allies lost the war against Japan, he would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. He was fully aware of the fact that he was burning thousands to death, and however much the Japanese were depersonalised as “yellow monkeys” and the like, he was aware of the crimes he was committing. No wonder he was satirised in Dr Strangelove as General Jack D. Ripper.

To me, the book started with a reasonable idea – the story of the precision bombing, but it was full of facts which are disputable (for example, in 1936, were variable-pitch airscrews really standard? Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t get them until 1941). And the emphasis was on the wrong people in my opinion: Norden and Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) as examples. Not a recommended book if you know anything about WWII air power and strategy.

Bad blurb?

I’ve just received a list of the nominees for an award. The blurb below is for one of these, and it’s written by an established author, and published by an established firm. On Amazon, it has over 4,000 ratings, averaging four stars. This is clearly a book that people enjoy, but with this blurb, I don’t really understand why people are interested in it (names redacted).


A****, F****, E*****, and S**** are still young — but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

OK, so young people are aware of time passing. And they have sex and worry about it. And yes, young people are not perfect, and their relationships (sexual and other) ebb and flow. And they worry about all these things.

Why should I wish to read about these people? What makes them interesting or different? Is this the aim of this pedestrian blurb? To make me want to see why 4,000 Amazon readers think this is such a good book? I’m sure that a better blurb would sell more copies.

“Standing in the last lighted room before the darkness” – it’s a beautiful phrase, and one that many people will relate to. I think many generations feel that they’re the last hope of humanity, whether it be battling the evil Hun in the Great War, or the Nazis in the continuation of that conflict, or marching and protesting with CND about nuclear weapons, or even superglueing themselves to the M25 to raise awareness of climate change. So why are these four young people different? I’m not interested.

A book’s blurb blurb needs to show us why this book is so different from so many other books on the market (Amazon carries over 10,000,000 titles). This prose above just makes my heart sink, and excites me as much as a half-finished bowl of cornflakes.

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Time to start again with a blank sheet

New gadget – Kobo Elipsa

I’ve been looking for some time at the reMarkable tablet – a sort of note-taking device. However, there are two or three things about it which did not attract me to it, despite the rave reviews and the attractive appearance of the thing.

  • It’s basically a one-trick pony – you can write and sketch on it – and to a certain extent you can read ebooks on it, but it’s not an ebook reader
  • The synchronisation between gadget and computer seems to be rather clumsy
  • Price: this is not a cheap option

I’ve owned a Kobo of one kind or another for some time now (I think this that I’m describing here is my fourth – the first broke about 10 years ago and was replaced free of charge by Rakuten, and then I bought another one five years ago for my wife so she could download books in Japanese here in the UK, but she didn’t like it, so I took it over to replace my aged one whose non-replaceable battery was dying.

So when Kobo introduced a larger ebook reader with the ability to accept handwriting and diagrams, etc., as well as the ability to read and mark up PDFs, I decided to splash out. The cost (£350) includes pen and smart cover, which is considerably less than the reMarkable’s price.

What you get in the box

The stylus is proprietary – you can’t use anything else. Happily, the stylus, which uses an AAAA battery (first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing) is nicely made, and the cover comes with a clip to hold it firmly. It’s pressure-sensitive, and you can use it as a brush, ballpoint, fountain, or calligraphic pen, with five (not fifty) shades of grey. There is also a highlighter and erase button on the barrel of the stylus.

And, when you come to use handwriting in the advanced notebook, you can convert handwriting to text with a double-tap of your finger.

Even works with diagrams and equations:

Export over USB or Dropbox as an image, HTML, or Word docx.

And for PDFs, it’s great. You can’t type comments, but you can scribble and handwrite (no conversion there as yet, but I expect it to come). Sync via a dedicated Dropbox folder. I’ve used this for proofing and editing already. It’s one of the reasons I bought this thing, and I’m happy that it does what it says on the tin, very effectively. Sync over USB or WiFi through Dropbox.

There’s a link to Pocket, which allows you to read longer Web articles offline. I’ve used that quite a bit already (there is also a very rudimentary Web browser, which I haven’t used. Also a few games, which I’ve looked at.

The thing goes to sleep after a time or when you put the cover on, and you can add a PIN to prevent others from looking at your work – I intend using this for meeting agendas and so on, as well as editing other people’s work, so even this elementary security is useful.

As an ebook reader, it’s great. The size of the page allows a decent amount of text per page, at a reasonable size for reading (as with all Kobos, you can load your own fonts via USB connection. And you can scribble over the page, drag to make a highlight from which you can add a note – and you can browse through all your annotations, listed with a preview. It’s about as heavy and bulky as a thin hardback book. You can read in bed with it, or sit in a chair and read comfortably. Built-in light, and a dark mode, which makes the text white on black. Haven’t used that yet. Press and hold a word for a dictionary definition.

WiFi is fast and reliable in my experience. Syncing is sometimes done for you, as when an edited PDF is closed, sending the edited file to Dropbox, where it can be read, with annotations, on a computer. There were a few freezes when I first got the thing, but there’s been a software update since I bought it, and I expect there to be more, adding features that I think are missing right now. Purchasing off the Kobo store, and moving books to and from the cloud (either Kobo, or Dropbox for non-Kobo ebooks is simple).

Well worth the experiment, IMHO. Already it’s been used for real live work and will continue to be used.

Oh, and one more thing. I’m not enriching Jeff Bezos with this thing.

Add questions as comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

The Aeronauts – REVIEW

This is a novelty for me – I tend not to watch many films, let alone review them, but this popped up on my radar, and I decided to watch it. I spend a lot of time in the 19th century with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and I’m fascinated by lighter-than-air flight (once went up in the Goodyear airship, and wrote a book about a fictional Zeppelin), so a story about both sounded interesting.

And so it proved to be. The special effects were very well done – there were some genuinely suspenseful moments, and some moments of sheer beauty and wonder. I know a little about these things, though, so there was something that I considered to be an inaccuracy – that the balloon didn’t inflate as it climbed and the external pressure decreased. The film said the balloon was constructed of a non-elastic material – silk – so perhaps that had something to do with it, but it didn’t seem right to me that it maintained the same shape as it climbed upwards.

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These high altitude balloons expand at high altitude with lower ambient air pressure.

As other reviews have stated, the scenes in the balloon kept getting interrupted by flashbacks – would a linear storyline have worked better? Quite possibly, actually.

Was the acting good? Yes, it was. I don’t follow actors, but these (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) worked well together. But the casting! Yes, I appreciate diversity in casting, but… Were there ever any Indian members of the Royal Society in the mid-19th century? I think not. Black faces in the crowd, OK? Eminent Indian scientist (and yes, I know of Ramanujam), not.

But the script!!! Ouch. As I mentioned earlier, I spend a lot of time in the 19th century – I am somewhat familiar with the way in which people, especially the middle classes, behaved towards each other. Even in moments of extreme peril, would the two characters have addressed each other by their Christian names? What would be a Victorian man’s reaction be to being asked to unlace a lady’s corset? And there was a lot of (forced unintentional) physical intimacy, which would have caused considerable embarrassment on both sides, even to someone as unconventional as Ms Jones’s character.

Basically, the lack of realistic characterisation spoiled the film for me. While I enjoyed the premise and the cinematography, the dialogue and characterisation spoiled it for me. Maybe I’m just fussy, but this worked for me on the same level as the RDJ films which use the name of “Sherlock Holmes” – an entertaining romp set in a fictional past, while pretending to be historical.

Four stars (out of five) for entertainment, one for period feel.

If Only They Didn’t Speak English (Jon Sopel) – REVIEW

A book that looks at America and Americans – the premise of the title is that the USA is a very foreign country indeed – very far away from the UK in many deeply fundamental ways, but because they speak English, we think of them as slightly eccentric siblings, rather than distant relatives with very different  worldviews to those we have in Britain.

Continue reading “If Only They Didn’t Speak English (Jon Sopel) – REVIEW”

Halloween is coming

Unknown Quantities is now available for pre-order and will be on sale from Halloween (the paperback will also be available on that date ). However, I will be happy to send a free ebook copy (EPUB or MOBI) to the first ten people to contact me, in exchange for a review somewhere.Unknownback@1.5x

  • Bee-bee – a rag doll who helps her owner cope with life’s ups and downs
  • What you find in a skip – it can be surprising
  • Babysitter – something nasty in the Coopers’ woodshed
  • Time thieves – they steal time and dreams and energy
  • Ships in the night – “as night turned to day, he started to understand the truth”
  • Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey – a sincere tribute to William Hope Hodgson’s classic ghost-finder
  • The story that wrote itself – sometimes an author gets help from an unexpected source
  • Gianni Two-Pricks – be careful what you take from others – even when they’re dead
  • Lady of the Dance – movement as message
  • Me and my Shadow – or is it really my shadow?
  • What Happens Afterwards? – when you die on the operating table, what’s next?

Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW

Sorry about the silence recently. Some of it has been an enforced silence (minor surgery with subsequent complications) and some has been connected with things I am not allowed to talk about (no, I haven’t joined MI6 or MI6 or GCHQ, but there are secrets which must remain hidden for the nonce*).

Anyway, I recently bought a copy of Hell’s Empire, an anthology of weird/horror tales around a common theme.

Imagine Them – the demons of Hades, the Empire of the Damned, the Dukes and Earls of Hell, commanding legions of the damned to battle against the heartland of the Empire on which the sun never sets. Martini-Henrys and Maxims bark and chatter against fanged, clawed horrors that rip off heads and splay intestines in obscene eldritch patterns. Continue reading “Hell’s Empire – John Linwood Grant (ed) – REVIEW”

Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm

I suppose quite a few people are familiar with this phrase (the one about the woodshed, I mean), and some people might even know where it comes from – I used it myself just the other day. However, I’d never read Cold Comfort Farm until now, and I regret not having done so before.

As a non-fan of D.H.Lawrence (as a novelist, though I do like a lot of his poetry), I particularly enojoyed the book, and it actually had me laughing out loud on the train as I read it.

Continue reading “Something nasty in the woodshed – REVIEW of Cold Comfort Farm”

Out of Bounds (Val McDermid) – REVIEW

I knew Ms McDermid’s name, but had never read any of her books until I picked this up in the library. It sometimes takes me some time to get into a new series – a new world, set of characters, and outlook, but this was an exception.

The world of DCI Karen Pirie is just such a new world for me, for a number of reasons.

Continue reading “Out of Bounds (Val McDermid) – REVIEW”

The Man who Would be Sherlock – Christopher Sandford – REVIEW

This is in some ways a strange book (click here for the Amazon page). Sandford explains at the beginning of the book that this is not a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, nor is it a minute reexamination of the Edalji and Slater cases – the two criminal cases which Doyle regarded as miscarriages of justice and worked to right wrongs.

However, the book does go into some details of ACD’s life, and also provides a summary of both cases as it concentrates on the almost obsessive side of the man’s life which wished to see “fair play” in all things. Continue reading “The Man who Would be Sherlock – Christopher Sandford – REVIEW”