For some strange reason I don’t read a lot of female writers. It’s not something that I’ve made a conscious decision about, it just happens to be that the majority of books that I have read are by male writers. However, I do read women writers from time to time and the books that I have read, with the odd exception, have been very good.
I forget where I saw it, but somewhere I was looking through a list of dystopian novels and on that list I saw the name Daphne Du Maurier and the book Rule Britannia – so I thought why not give it a try.
Shortly after I’d seen the book listed as dystopian, I was at a book sale of second hand books and found a 1973 copy of Rule Britannia and it’s been sitting on my to be read shelf ever since. Once started though, it’s a difficult book to put down. I don’t want to insult the writer but, based on this one story, I would sort of put her along side Enid Blyton….not because she’s writing for the under 12’s like Blyton, but because of her go to whoa style of writing. There’s no real sub plot, no intricate back stories, just a linear one plot story that introduces the characters to us and then rips along from start to finish. I liked it. A simple read.
It’s about a young lady called Emma who lives with her grandmother – who is an actress of old, now retired and in her 80th year – and six adopted boys of varying ages. They live in a big old house somewhere in Cornwall in the south west of England. Emma’s mother died and she was taken in by her grandmother. Her father is some sort of merchant banker and adviser of the wealthy, but he lives in London….when he’s not in Switzerland or Brazil.
The story is set in the early to mid 1970’s and was written in 1972. It tells a story of a financially bankrupt United Kingdom who have just pulled out of the European Community and appear to have struck some sort of deal with the USA.
The household awaken one morning to find that there is no mail delivery, the radio and TV are dead and there is a warship in the bay, disembarking American Troops, who soon arrive at their door. Theoretically there is meant to be an equal partnership in the newly named USUK, but to Emma and many others it looks more like a takeover bid.
Du Maurier is concerned not only with what would happen to her country – England – under what is virtually occupation, but also with the effect on human relationships. In Emma we are given a view of the occupation through clear young eyes. She can see both sides of the argument, but comes down squarely on the side of Cornwall and England. Lines are drawn between the American occupying forces and those who will benefit financially as a result of them being on British soil on one side and what Du Maurier describes as true Cornishmen on the other.
It’s an interesting concept and Britain’s bankruptcy comes about because the bigger finance becomes, the more complicated, more risky it also becomes. Britain as part of the European Community have to have a certain amount of trade with the member states and eventually depended too much on foreign trade, so after they withdrew from the EU, they were already under pressure. When the occupying forces took control of the shipping lanes and transport links, food, water and fuel are scarce and rationing begins.
It’s quite interesting to read the book and to see how many of the locals and farmers come together as a united front to supply one another with their basic needs. One of the adopted boys, Joe, has learning difficulties and can neither read, nor write. His forte is manual work such as cutting firewood and tending to the vegetable gardens, but even he can see how ridiculous it is for a country such as England, which had been forced to be virtually self sufficient during world war 2, to now be so dependent on foreign trade to supply its basic needs. He says more than 3/4 of the way through the story, after he had just traded a load of logs with a local farmer for milk and pork – “You see, it does work, community living. Our neighbours support us, we support them. We don’t need any money, we can live without it. If everyone did this, throughout the country, there wouldn’t be any need to trade outside. We wouldn’t get rich but we’d be happy, we’d be free….”
And that’s it in a nutshell really. Humans love to make simple things complicated. Tariffs, quotas, trade wars, economic sanctions….all these go away if we’re self sufficient.
There are a number of interesting characters in the book – Emma of course, her rather eccentric ex star of the stage grandmother – known to all as Madame…..but known to Emma as Mad, the six adopted boys who’s ages range from 3 to 19, display assorted strengths and weaknesses – all play off one another quite well, Emma’s father – who is more like a caricature than a real person, in a world of his own, Doctor Bevil Summers – who comes to the family’s rescue more than once, as does their neighbour a farmer called Trembath and the rather mysterious Mr Willis, aka Taffy – who can turn his hand to anything and has rather more tricks up his sleeve than anyone else around. I was sorry that the story had to end and I shall miss a number of the characters.
It’s the only book I have read of Du Maurier’s so I can’t say if it’s one of her best, or worse, or even typical of her work. I guess I need to read more of her novels. It’s not a brilliant book, it’s not something that you’re going to rave about and it’s uncomplicated, it’s not going to tax your brain – but its a good, easy, entertaining read and makes one wonder how life would be under occupation of the forces of another country – whether they were there at the invitation of your government or not.
Once again, thank you for reading and I welcome any comments, likes, shares. Happy reading folks.
Eric Arthur Blair – better known by his pen name George Orwell – was a man very much ahead of his time. The novel 1984 was written in 1948 and published in 1949 – a year before Orwell’s death in 1950 (at the relatively young age of 47), and yet so much of what he wrote about in his novel has been mirrored in todays society. Here we are 70 years after his death and 36 years after the dreaded year – 1984 – and so much that Orwell wrote about is happening today.
For example, in the book, the world has been divided into 3 almost equal super powers. We have Oceania which is comprised of much of the English speaking world – The UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Naturally the USA are the leaders. We have EastAsia which is lead by China and we have EurAsia – mainly the European mainland countries lead by Russia. Then there is a mishmash of countries around the equator – many of the African countries, middle eastern countries and Indonesia. These don’t fall into any specific “Super Power region” but are in a constant state of being fought over, won or lost by the 3 super powers. Pretty much like the reality of today with three super powers the USA, Russia and China bossing the rest of the world around, particularly the USA who seem hell bent on extracting “their oil” from underneath the foreign sands of various middle eastern nations, gold and diamonds, precious metals and uranium from under African soil.
The super power countries (in the book) are constantly at war with one another, with little or no territory lost or gained except for the aforementioned equatorial nations. We come to learn from the book, that this constant war footing is what helps to keep the existing gap between the rich and the poor members of society. If spending on war was not necessary, the general standard of living could be lifted giving everyone access to running water, electricity, food, modern appliances, a car and more. And indeed is one of the 3 principles of “Big Brother and The Party” – War is Peace. The other 2 being Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength. Add to this a lot of little rules and the fact that everyone is spying on everyone else and of course Big Brother is watching, listening to and monitoring every move that everyone makes. This is made possible in the book by the Tele-screens in every home and every public building that both serve to broadcast news (propaganda) and are a means to watch – to see into every home and public building.
Back when Orwell wrote 1984, in 1948 or even in 1984 itself, the idea that the government was watching and listening to us all the time would appear to be very far fetched, but of course these days we have personal mobile phones (smart phones), laptops, iPads, smart watches, Fitbits, smart TV’s – even smart appliances – that are capable of transmitting pictures and sound to anyone who knows how to write a computer program. Every word, every deed, every text, every email, every photo or video we take on our smart phones can all be accessed by the government or other powers that be. It may not be Big Brother who is watching us, but it is big government or big business or big military…..the Secret Service, CIA, SIS, Five-Eyes….you name it.
Now the thing is, in the book, all this is controlled by a few people in the inner circle of the Party, with other lesser important party business being conducted by the outer circle of Party members. These two sets of people make up only 15% of the overall population. The general laborious jobs are done by the Proles – people like you and me – who make up the other 85% of the population. The Proles are kept in check by the Party faithful who make sure that the Proles are kept in a cycle of breeding, caring for children, working and being kept busy by trivia – such as arguing with their neighbours, drinking beer, watching football, movies and gambling. Throw into the mix the internet and on-line gaming (something that Orwell didn’t specifically name) and we pretty much have todays society. Kids are indoctrinated at an early age with information/misinformation that they devour and regurgitate as fact – never really thinking for themselves (because ignorance is strength) – the Proles ignorance as to how the world really operates is the Party’s strength. “We pledge allegiance to the flag….” – history is written by the victors and is not allowed to be questioned. Anyone who shows any inkling of being capable of intelligent thought is considered dangerous and is removed – they disappear – are vaporized. A few agents of the Thought Police spread false rumours and mark down and eliminate the few individuals considered by the Party inner circle to be a danger to the status quo. Much like the Patriot Act allows the US Government to disappear anyone who is considered a threat. To take people from their homes, places of work or simply off the street and hold them without charge, indefinitely, in a secret location or to execute them and get rid of the bodies without recourse. You don’t even have to have committed a crime – just appear as a potential threat. It may seem that I am singling out the USA as the main perpetrators of these Orwellian excesses, but most countries have a similar law allowing the government of the day to keep the people downtrodden and obedient. This is the job, in the book, of the Thought Police. Like I said in the opening paragraph, Orwell was a man very much ahead of his time.
The main character in the book is a man called Winston who is part of the outer Party and is employed re-writing newspaper articles, books, records – anything that is contra to the Party line. The problem is that the Party line changes constantly so history is being constantly rewritten. If the Party say that 2 plus 2 equals 5…..then this is fact and anyone who insists that 2 plus 2 equals 4 is a menace to society and has to be dealt with. The problem is that Winston is capable of logical thought and seeks out others who he believes have ideas in opposition to the Party line. One such person, Julia, even suggests that the rocket bombs constantly bombarding the area that the Proles live do not come from outside Oceania and are not fired by the enemy, as stated by the Party officials in the guise of Big Brother, but are in fact a product of the Party’s actions to keep the public feeling under constant threat and to bring out the most very basic patriotic feelings to unite the 85% with the party faithful against the common enemy of EastAsia or EurAsia – who ever the Party says that they are at war with at that particular time. In our society Julia would be called a conspiracy theorist. Again….does this sound familiar? How often, when a distraction is needed for the government to introduce stricter/tighter “security” – meaning removing certain public rights or freedoms – do we suddenly have a Terrorist attack or a threat of war from a Rogue Nation who have broken this or that rule….although exactly what rule is broken and the evidence of such rule breaking is never exposed to the light of day, or the public gaze.
How often have Terrorist plots been thwarted by the CIA and been given major media time? The answer is quite a lot. How many of the Terrorist plots thwarted by the CIA were actually masterminded by, funded by, armed by, or corrupted by the CIA? The answer is every single time. The only plots exposed by the CIA, over the years, have been the plots that the CIA operatives have had a hand in creating. Thus justifying their own jobs.
One also has to wonder how many of the terrorist events that have happened and were not thwarted by the CIA, or other nations equivalent department, were also a product of government or powers behind the government, rather than genuine terrorists. The conspiracy theorists are given that title by the state owned media in order to discredit them. If they were called “truth seekers” rather than “conspiracy theorists” maybe more people would listen to them?
How often have terrorist events happened the very day, or the next day, that the exact event was being trained for by special forces or the armed offender squad? The answer is too often. Take the 7/7 bombings in London – not only was the exact scenario being practiced – the bombing of buses and trains – but the exact same train stations were targeted in the event as in the training scenario. Even by a long stretch of the imagination, this is too coincidental. Similarly the Christchurch mosque shooting – police were two blocks away training for the exact same event. There is no smoke without fire and it seems to be the authorities who are fanning the flames. As a result we have armed police on the streets of Britain with stop and search rights, CCTV cameras on every street corner and in and outside every public building, on trains, on buses, in taxies, cameras on the major roads and motorway bridges monitoring the movement of the public. In New Zealand after the shooting the government moved swiftly to bring in new and very restrictive gun laws. Something that the American people can at least argue against with their constitutions second amendment.
Speaking of the USA – they have been constantly at war either with another country or fighting the war on terrorism or the war on drugs or the war on….whatever, since their independence. The problem in 1984 was how to keep the Proles working, the wheels of industry turning, the profits swelling the accounts of the rich, without increasing the real wealth of the world as a whole. As per the book, War is Peace – meaning – as mentioned earlier – that constant war footing and financing keeps the general population controlled and poor and unable to make the advances needed to improve their lot in life. Life is a struggle and they are kept in a constant cycle of work, eat, sleep, work – breed, to provide the next generation of drones that keep the system operating and the elites at the top of the food chain and getting richer. Orwell knew his stuff alright.
The only way that the Proles see of bettering their lot is by winning the lottery, which the Party rigs so that only small denomination prizes are actually paid out. The top prize rolls over and rolls over and finally jackpots and is “won” by a faceless, nameless person who may not even exist. Thus swelling the coffers of the Party faithful. Again….does this sound familiar?
In the novel 1984 we have a department which deals with “newspeak” – they whittle away at old words and phrases and bring in simpler, more suitable words that are acceptable to the Party – a kind of dumbing down – a reduction of peoples vocabulary. Similar things have happened in reality, but its not only a dumbing down of vocabulary but a general lowering of standards. This is reflected in our education system, where we change the exam system to make it easier to pass – in the media by the dumbing down of TV programs – we have fewer real news programs or documentaries and more “reality tv” or cooking programs or celebrity this or celebrity that. Its entertainment for the lobotomised. It keeps us controllable and suggestible to whatever the powers that be want us to believe – just like Big Brother and the Party control the Proles.
In the book the Proles and the outer party members are all controlled by the inner party and Big Brother (who himself may or may not exist). They are expected to tow the, every more stringent, Party line, and to conform in word, thought and deed. Anyone who does not conform is considered a pariah and suffers the wrath of the Party and also the general population who spy on and report one another to the authorities. Even family members report on one another, with children attending a sort of spy camp and given instructions to spy on and report on their own parents. It’s a constant threat. Does this sound familiar? Do I even dare to mention the PC society and the me too movement? So many things that were acceptable a generation ago are now frowned upon. Even humour is affected. Comedians dare hardly crack a joke for fear of being branded racist, sexist, ageist, anti-sematic, sizeist, homophobic, disrespectful of this or that person or group or religion or region or someone’s gender fluidity…or…or. Jobs can no longer be offered to the most qualified person – we have to get the right balance of gender, sexuality, race, religion….Any business or organization that does not have a 50-50 balance of males Vs females, particular in upper management, is considered sexist. Where does it stop? We’re constantly pointing the finger at non-conformists – just like the children in 1984 are exposing their parents as traitors. With all these divisions and distractions the elites will always be able to pull the wool over the eyes of the Proles. Divide and conquer has always and will always be the rule. Whether it be in 1984 or in real life….the lines are blurring more every day.
As a novel 1984 is an interesting story. Orwell was not just a writer, but a visionary. It’s a book that everyone should read for so many reasons. Just like one of his other books “Animal Farm” was a commentary on the Russian revolution – 1984 is a comment on the direction we are allowing our lives to be manipulated today, as we continue to trade freedom for “security”. It’s a thought provoking book. Definitely worth reading and discussing with family and friends.
I’ll just leave you with a couple of quotes from the book and ask you to think if it applies to how we are being manipulated in reality.
“know that this or that item of war news is untruthful and often the entire war is spurious and either not happening or being waged for purposes other than the declared one…….with Oceania (read USA) the undisputed master of the entire world”.
“The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought…..how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking, and the other is how to kill several hundred million people in a few seconds without giving warning beforehand”.
Regarding the morale of the masses “whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work”.
My next book is Daphne Du Maurier’s Rule Britannia – another dystopian novel. Nowhere near as extreme as 1984, it takes place in the 1970’s and concerns the take over of the UK by United States military. I’m already well into the book and will post a review once finished.
Once again, if you’ve stuck with me this far….thank you for reading….and your comments, likes, shares etc are most appreciated. What are you reading? Can anyone recommend any other dystopian novels?
I’ve just finished reading Zoe Daniel’s book Storyteller. It’s a memoir of her time as Asia based foreign correspondent for ABC tv.
The blurb on the front cover sets the scene for her stories – Only a few weeks ago I was a stay-at-home mum. What am I doing? But there’s no time for second thoughts now. My brain snaps into action and so does my mouth. ‘Flak jackets, helmets, gas masks – everyone, now!’
The book starts 3 years after Zoe gave up her position as African correspondent, to start a family. Now with very young children to consider, she begins to think about a return to the front lines of journalism by applying for the position of south east Asia correspondent for ABC. She is both excited and anxious when her application and interview are successful. She is eager to resume her career but now she’s going to be a working mother with 2 children under 3 who depend on her.
The book gives an important insight into how much work and effort goes into producing those short bulletins from the field, and often the danger involved just to get, sometimes something as short as, a 30 second report on air. It also makes clear the personal sacrifices that foreign correspondents (and their partners) make in order to bring the news into our homes. I have never really understood or appreciated this before. It was a real eye opener.
Zoe tries to balance her career with motherhood and this means moving the entire family to different parts of Asia with her….at one point using Cambodia as her base….Thailand another. Her life is spent on edge, waiting for the next phone call that will send her either into disaster zones or political turmoil, while bringing up 2 young children.
She covers political unrest and riots in Bangkok, a medical story in India, a tragic plane crash in Laos, the widespread destruction and loss of life in the Philippines due to Typhoon Haiyan, and political changes and challenges in Burma/Myanmar – to name but a few of her assignments.
I found it to be an interesting and entertaining read – learned a lot about how news teams put their stories together – the blood, sweat and very often the tears – and how they engage and often build relationships with the people they are reporting on.
Just as a post script. After this book was published, she then took up the position as bureau chief for ABC in Washington DC, during which time she covered the 2016 election and saw first hand the rise of Donald Trump from being a political joke to become president of the most powerful country on earth. She has been quoted as saying that she wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a second term in office.
Her 4 year stint which began in 2015 has just come to an end and she has returned, with her family, to Australia to set up a new home. One has to wonder however, based on past experience, how long it will be before she takes up another overseas post for ABC.
Already we’re almost 2 weeks into 2020 and I’ve been very tardy about writing my first post of the year. I guess I am still in holiday mode as far as my blog is concerned….something I need to remedy rather smartly. First off though may I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year – albeit a belated one.
When ever I commit myself to a rigid reading list for the year ahead, I always fail. So I decided to tackle my reading list month by month instead.
This month I’ll be dipping into Shaun Bythell’s second book about owning a bookshop – Confessions of a Bookseller. Just like his first book Diary of a Bookseller, it’s written in the form of a daily diary and includes some of the funny, or sometimes frustrating, events that occur each day while running his shop. The good thing about a book like this is that you can pick it up for a few minutes and read a day or two’s happenings and then get back to whatever task needs to be done. It’s an easy, humorous read and gives an insight into the life of a somewhat sarcastic book shop owner – the ups and the downs. I’m already a good way through the book…..maybe three quarters through. I’ve been dipping in and out of it for several weeks but don’t want it to end.
My second book is one I bought myself for Christmas with the money left over on my Wardini Book Shop voucher I got for my birthday. By Monisha Rajesh, Around the World in 80 Trains is a book I am looking forward to getting started on. As regular readers of my blog will already know, I love to travel and my favourite way to travel is by train. So this 45,000 mile adventure by rail should be a good fit. Michael Palin (one of my favourite travel writers) writes on the cover of the book – “Never too fast, never too slow, Monisha Rajesh’s journey does what trains do best. Getting to the heart of things. Prepare for a very fine ride.” I can hardly wait to get started.
The next book is one that my sister-in-law leant to my daughter-in law, who then decided that there was no room in her suitcase to take it back to the States with her. A quick look at the blurb on the cover had me interested immediately and I am now about a third of the way through Chris Hammer’s Scrublands. The blurb reads…“In an isolated country town brought to its knees by drought, a charismatic and dedicated young priest calmly opens fire on his congregation, killing five parishioners before being shot dead himself. A year later, troubled journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the anniversary of the tragedy. But the stories he hears from the locals about the priest and incidents leading up to the shooting don’t fit with the accepted version of events his own newspaper reported in an award-winning investigation. Martin can’t ignore his doubts, nor the urgings of some locals to unearth the real reason behind the priest’s deadly rampage.” It’s a wonderful yarn set in a very parched Australia and so many twists and turns are happening already. It’s going to be a great read.
Of course I am never content with having bookshelves full of book awaiting reading here at home, Oh no not I. We have several wonderful libraries where I live in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. In town (Hastings) is the main library and just up the road at Havelock North we have another, smaller but very well set up, library. A recent visit saw me pick up two books to bring home. The first on yet another of my passions, photography. By Boris Friedewald it is simply called Women Photographers – from Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman – and explores the lives, careers and works of the finest women photographers in the world. Eve Arnold, the first woman photographer to be admitted into the prestigious Magnum Agency once said “I didn’t want to be a woman photographer. That would limit me. I wanted to be a photographer who was a woman, with all the world open to my camera.” And as Gisele Freund said “It is the eye that takes the picture, not the camera.” And every picture the eye sees is directly linked to the person who made it.
The second of my library books is the memoir of Foreign Correspondent Zoe Daniel – Storyteller tells the story of how Daniel found herself thrust into the dangerous world of reporting news from some of the most inhospitable places in the world. She is one of the few women to combine the most demanding job – motherhood, with one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Storyteller is a timely reminder of the bravery and audacity of the men and women who bring us the news – the journalists, the local ‘fixers’, the cameramen (and women) – but above all it pays tribute to ordinary people who find them selves eyewitness to the extraordinary. I meant to read just the first page to give me an idea as to whether I’d enjoy reading this one or not. Suddenly I am 28 pages in and find my mouth is dry as I’ve been reading with my mouth open, completely agog!
So that’s my reading for January. I hope you’re reading something that has you spellbound. Back soon with another post. As always many thanks for reading and any comments, likes, follows and shares are greatly appreciated.
Firstly a quick apology for not posting for the last 3 weeks. It’s a been a hectic lead up to Christmas and I’ve been busy renovating our hallway – new ceiling, repairs, plaster and painting plus the hanging of a number of my black and white photos to turn the hallway into a photo gallery. So now Christmas is finally just a few hours away Id like to take the opportunity to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous new year…….and please buy someone a book from a real bricks and mortar book store.
What does Christmas mean to me? It’s a good question. I’m not particularly religious, nor do I believe in Santa (shock horror!). I don’t even follow the Pagan festivals….so why do I bother to celebrate Christmas? Here’s a little poem to help me get my thinking straight about what Christmas is all about…for me.
This was one of the books that I recently bought at the annual Hastings Lions Book Sale and the first one that I’ve decided to read. It’s a biographical memoir and follows on where his first book Tales of the Country, which I still have to read, left off. As mentioned in my post about the book sale, I’d already started the book more or less as soon as I got home and it only took three sessions of reading to get through it. His writing flows very easily and you find you’re unable to stop yourself speeding through the stories. Although each chapter is a stand alone story of his family and their life in the British countryside, they are in chronological order so it still, in a way, reads like it’s one story.
It’s not a new book, the ones at the book sale seldom are, and was published in 2007. But from my own experience, although cities change rather quickly, life in the countryside is much slower paced so the stories in this book will ring as true today as when first published.
Although he’s not quite in Bill Bryson’s league as far as one liners go, Viner can still throw in one or two lines to make the reader chuckle along the way, for example – “Applying a razor blade to one’s scrotum is not a job anyone should do in a hurry.” – this from a story relating to his preparation for a vasectomy operation. It’s certainly an attention grabber. Actually, on reflection, he and Bryson do have a lot in common as far as their writing styles are concerned. Both write in the same way that a favourite long-lived uncle would bumble his way through stories of his dim and distant past. Getting lost on the way and taking several side paths before getting back on track to finish the story….and on occasion just getting totally lost.
He’s moved his wife and three children from the city to an old manor house in the Hereford countryside to “live the country life”, but he’s totally inept at country living. His idea of success is being able to walk across a cow paddock without standing in a cow pat, however he does learn how to turn a sheep up the right way…..please don’t ask – read the book.
His predominantly self-depreciating stories cover everything from – being a Beater during Grouse shooting season… the first day known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, and to grouse as ‘Bollocks, Is It Already That Time of Year Again?’ – coming home to find that the builders who have come to repair his house have spent a whole day putting up scaffolding against the wrong wall – the disaster faced when finding his two dogs had been out savaging sheep – discussing the delights and the downfalls of country dining – the right and wrong way, from experience, to raise chickens – his experiences of being a very minor celebrity – his discovery that one of his neighbours is, or I should say was, a notorious Madame (Madame Whiplash no less) and more.
It’s a very entertaining read and I will certainly make an effort to track down both his earlier book Tales of The Country, and a later one called Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn, about the British on holiday. If they are anything like The Pheasants’ Revolt they will be witty and entertaining reads.
As I may have mentioned once or twice on past posts on this blog, I enjoy reading travel books and one of my favourite authors (along with Bill Bryson) is Michael Palin. His travel books usually accompany a TV series of the same name as his books. Since 1989, starting with his first ever travel book and accompanying TV show, Around the World In 80 Days, he was connected, almost at the hip it would seem, to the BBC. Usually, his travel series have multiple episodes. This latest book however, is presented alongside a TV show in only 2 parts, which has already been shown on British TV Chanel Five / ITV productions.
The last time Palin was anywhere near North Korea was back in 1997 for yet another travel book and show Full Circle, but he only got a glimpse of North Korea from the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone. This time he gets a tour of the demilitarized zone from the other side and a frank discussion with the officer in charge. North Korea or we should call it the DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – lays out the welcome mat and Palin, now in his 75th year, gets to see one of the most secret and mysterious countries on the planet.
Of course he doesn’t get free reign to go where he wants. He has two official guides who go everywhere with him plus other “ministry officials” who make sure that his guides don’t allow Palin to wander too far off the official track.
He gets to see pristine cities where the streets are almost empty of traffic, giant statues of past “Great Leaders”, and symbols and buildings commemorating the “Great Leaders”. He also visits a state of the art airport – with no planes and no flights, a street of tower blocks built within a year, that seem to house very few people and a massive, symbolic hotel with no guests what so ever. The DPRK seems to be as a country, much like a show home is to a yet to be built housing estate. Everything is there, it appears, as a front, but there is little substance and in some cases no actual function for the building/hotel/airport. As my grandmother used to say – “All fur coat and no knickers”. This was evident in the state of the roads. Within the capital city, the streets were first class, pristine if somewhat devoid of traffic. Once outside city limits though the highways were cracked and uneven – so that every journey felt like a ride inside a tumble dryer.
The first three days – which according to Palin felt like three weeks as it was such hard work to be able to achieve what they wanted and every step had to be negotiated – Palin, his director and film crew are under strict observation and are quickly shut down and moved to another location if anything occurs that may show the DPRK in a bad light. The people he gets to meet are, to begin with, all prearranged, preapproved and very much pro the ruling regime. After a while though, once Palin and company have proved themselves as willing to follow their minders guidelines, they are given a little more rope and get to interact with the general public – some of them rather the worse for drink – at a party in a park and also to enjoy the scenery of the hills and valleys on a hike in the countryside alone when their minders, not dressed suitably for the hike, leave them to it.
At one point they visit a farm – where the workers are in military uniform – and Palin “helps” a female farm worker with some weeding. The shoot couldn’t begin however until a tractor had been moved into the background – to prove that farms are not all manual labour in North Korea and that machinery is available (even if the tractor in question was around fifty years old). When Palin asked the female farm worker how he faired as a farmhand, she quite straight forwardly told him that he was “unnecessary”.
Even with the loosening of some of the rules, Palin only had to hint at a question critical of the regime or of the history of North Korea and he was pulled up short and sharp. He told one of his guides that in the UK “we are able to be quite rude about our political leaders”. But, not wanting to get drawn in to this sort of discussion she countered with “That’s what makes us so different. Our leaders are very great. They are not individuals, but represent the masses, so we cannot criticise ourselves, can we?” One wonders at what he and his guides discussed off camera that didn’t get put into the book – for the safety of the guides themselves.
There are a few extra pages at the end of the book, written by director Neil Fergusson, which covers his own earlier visit to North Korea to meet with officials and to discuss their filming schedule, rules and regulations. He had sent the North Koreans a wish list of places and people he would like to film, but on his arrival the “official schedule” looked absolutely nothing like what he’s asked for. Several days of negotiations followed before a schedule that was acceptable to both sides was reached. Despite promises and signed contracts it wasn’t until Palin and the film crew actually stepped on to North Korean soil that they realised that the shooting or the North Korea Journal was good to go.
In summarising the 15 day whirlwind trip, Palin says that although there are certainly some differences between how North Korea and for example Britain function as far as regulations and freedoms are concerned, there were far more similarities than he expected.
North Korea feels that it can’t let its guard down even slightly due to the ever present American military threat – no wonder it has the 4th largest army in the world. Almost a quarter of the entire North Korean population are members of the armed forces. These military personnel however also man the farms, the factories and the building sites, so you don’t see them all wandering around the towns and cities carrying weapons.
To directly quote a section of the final paragraph of the book, Palin says “…the trip has been an eye-opener, a chance to look behind the headlines and see this secretive country as few other westerners ever will. As Pyongyang recedes into the distance, we turn and exchange smiles. Of relief, but also of regret. One thing we all agreed on at our farewell meal last night is that none of us would mind coming back.”
All of the travel books by Michael Palin are of good quality and this one is no exception, except for being of smaller format than usual, as you can see from the photo below. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, witty and informative – filling in some of the unknowns about North Korea without being in any way controversial or overly critical. Palin is too nice a guy to stir things up just for viewing figures, or book sales. He was Knighted earlier this year (2019) for services to travel, culture and geography following his career as a writer and presenter of documentaries that have taken him all over the world. I do fear, having reached the age of 75, that this could be Palin’s last travel adventure. I hope not, but time will tell.
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