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James Christie (Perth, Scotland)

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Fool's Gold: Story of North Sea Oil
Fool's Gold: Story of North Sea Oil
by Christopher Harvie
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing account of dreadful failure, 9 Sept. 2012
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Christopher Harvie's account of Britian's relationship with the gift horse of North Sea oil may be nearly 20 years old, but it is still a valuable and sadly isolated critique of government failure over three decades.

Harvie later served as an SNP MSP and his political leanings show through in his criticisms of various Labour and Tory governments. However, this is far from a nationalist tract. It is no rant about Scotland's oil. Harvie fully justifies his claims that governing politicians had neither the competence nor the inclination to manage the development and production of the oil effectively. Labour's Tony Benn and, to a lesser extent his Tory counterpart, David Howells emerge with some credit as Energy Secretaries with some grasp of what they were trying to do.

For the most part, however, it is a dispiriting story of politicians who lacked any vision of how North Sea oil could provide any lasting benefit to Britain. Indeed, there was astonishingly little sign that they saw any need for vision. Long term investment in infrastructure? Restructuring British industry? Preventing an oil fuelled exchange rate destroying British manufacturing? Adopting a long term energy policy for the UK? Such possibilities were glibly dismissed as irrelevant. The real priorities were tax cuts, and an untramelled free market in which the oil majors could crack on with it, with the minimum of government oversight or union involvement. The tragic, avoidable consequence was Piper Alpha, a disaster that had it roots in political attitudes towards oil production, but for no politicians were ever held accountable.

Since Piper Alpha, and since the issue of this book, improvements have been made to safety and the conditions of offshore work. However, the short termism, the lack of interest in long term vision, which was a feature of the first three decades of North Sea oil have persisted, and this book goes a long way to explaining the mindset that led to this.

Throughout the tale the awkward and embarrassing contrast is the competent and thoughtful management that Norway brought to the management of their windfall. Harvie's writing style is occasionally somewhat laboured and can prove a slight distraction, but that is a minor criticism. This is an important and engrossing book that addresses a dreadful failure of the British political class.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 10, 2012 12:13 PM GMT

In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes
In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes
by Ronald Fraser
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful insight into modern Spanish history through the experience of one famiily, 12 Mar. 2012
There are two quite distinct strands to this book and Mr Fraser successfully weaves them together.

It is the intensely personal, close and claustrophobic story of one man and his family over forty years. It is also a fascinating picture of a part of rural Spain that has been transformed utterly from grim 3rd world level poverty to modern affluence over the last 80 years. This story concerns only the first 40 years of this period, up to 1970, and should be read by anyone who knows Andalucia only as it is now.

Accounts of Spanish politics and history usually focus on the big picture, but Fraser concentrates on the small detail, looking at how war and politics played out with individuals on the local level (as he does to great success with his classic "Blood of Spain"). What comes over is how messy, arbitrary and personal the story becomes at this level.

People could be murdered because of personal grudges, with politics being a mere pretext. Where politics was the decisive factor one's fate could be entirely arbitrary, with luck (wrong place and wrong time) being crucial. People with no great political commitment died, while others who were more involved might escape lightly. Just as personal enmity might lead to death a personal friendship might trump political differences.

An intriguing aspect to the story is the suspicion, probably well founded, that the local policeman believed that Cortes was hiding in the family home. However, he had no wish to do anything so long as Cortes stayed hidden. If Cortes had emerged he would have been obliged to arrest him. Such nuances and human touches add colour and texture to the stark historical and political themes.

Fascinating though the political, historical and social insights are, the book's success ultimately depends on its gripping story of one family; of parents living a secret marriage bringing up a daughter who grew from infancy to adulthood and marriage, trained to deny all knowledge of the father hiding at home. It is a fascinating story, very well told.

Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern
by Simon Winder
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining & insightful (though occasionally irritating), 12 Mar. 2012
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Like some other reviewers I struggled to get past Simon Winder's inability, or unwillingness, to speak German. I am of course familiar with this peculiarly British trait, but it staggers me that anyone can love a country, spend so much time in it, and even write a book on it without taking the trouble to learn the language. Worse, he passes it off as an amusing character foible.

However, once I got past my irritation at that point, which he labours embarrassingly at the start, I soon got into the book. I found his style engaging and amusing, though on occasion he doesn't realise that he's sailing over the top and adding flourishes that draw attention to himself, rather than illuminating the subject.

It is the story that Winder tells that matters; the story of Germany's place in Europe and how it came to be the country that it is. Winder is successful in making sense of the big historical picture, a picture that we in Britain struggle to see, conditioned as we are by our experiences in the 20th century. It is easy to forget, or even be entirely unaware, that Germany was seen as one of the good guys by Britain up till the end of the 19th century. It was at different times a passive victim and a vital ally in the perennial wars against the real European villain, France. Even as late as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 Britain was instinctively more favourably disposed towards Prussia.

With the interesting partial exception of Frederick the Great's Prussia Germany was one of the more civilised, intellectually lively and unthreatening parts of Europe from the middle of the 17th century until German unification.

Winder is skillful and successful in conveying this very accurate, but alternative (to British eyes) version of Germany. There is so much to admire about Germany, and the dreadful 20th century doesn't diminish earlier German achievements, which we are still able to enjoy long after the Nazis.

It is also worth mentioning the complicated relationship between the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of the German peoples, which took many centuries to settle down into Austria-Hungary and the endless variety of more or less independent German states that eventually united to form Germany. This is a recurring theme of the book, and Winder never forgets that "Germany" has always been much more than the current Federal Republic.

Winder does allow personal idiosyncrasies to distract the reader. His lack of enthusiasm for mountains, and his dismissal of the Baltic coast suggest that he is more comfortable with English landscapes. His judgement may be suspect in that respect, but that is his problem rather than ours! Of far greater significance is his comment that when the Red Army "killed, raped and looted" its way though Germany at the end of the Second World War it was "a vast act of retribution, which it is impossible not to see as nearly legitimate". The Wehrmacht behaved worse in the Soviet Union, but that doesn't alter the fact that the Red Army's depredations were criminal. "Nearly legitimate" is going too far and it jarred.

To be fair, the irritations are small parts of the book and I very much enjoyed the vast majority of the 440 pages. The book gave me enough pleasure and insight to justify a 5 star review, but the foibles and failings keep it down to 4. I still recommend it strongly, however.

It's All About The Memories
It's All About The Memories
Price: £2.32

5.0 out of 5 stars A great piece of oral football history, 1 Mar. 2012
This book will always be very important to Dundee supporters like me as a reminder of an amazing season. However, it will also have a place in helping other people understand something about what being a supporter means, and what a club like Dundee means to its supporters.

The book consists largely of interviews, which give the key characters the chance to tell their own story. It's a valuable piece of oral football history and I am sure that future writers and researchers will come back to this book. In particularly, it should also be a useful resource for anyone who wants to learn about the astonishing financial shambles of the football industry.

Aside from the financial issues, the book's a marvellous sporting tale of a tiny squad going on an improbably long unbeaten run in the most difficult circumstances, culminating in real "Roy of the Rovers" moments like Neil McCann's winner against Raith Rovers (the book's cover).

After seeing my club going into administration twice in the last 10 years I've become convinced that far too few supporters understand why football is in such a mess. Worse, the footballing authorities don't get it either, and the press are largely clueless too. It's a complex subject and the authorities and football journalists usually address superficial symptoms in a glib and sometimes ill informed way.

This book doesn't attempt to delve into the deep underlying problems, but it explains how financial disaster panned out at one club. Reading the book it's much easier to understand how it all happened, stage by stage, with people taking disastrous decisions that seemed right at the time. Other clubs, perhaps many, will go through the same traumas. The system is set up in a way that makes it inevitable.

Slapping 25 point penalties on clubs that hit the rocks doesn't address the real problems. It would help if people in positions of power and influence read this book and think about the issues. In particular they should read the contribution of Laura Hayes, the club's secretary. People like Laura deserve better.

Executive's Guide to Solvency II (Wiley and SAS Business Series)
Executive's Guide to Solvency II (Wiley and SAS Business Series)
by David Buckham
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £65.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good introduction to a complex subject, 22 Feb. 2012
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At 156 pages this is a readily digestible introduction to a highly complex subject. Digestible is relative, however. It is still heavy going, but there's no getting round that if one wants a serious introduction to what Solvency II entails.

I strongly approved of the emphasis on the need for data quality and consistency. The huge problems of achieving quality and consistency across an insurance company are, in my experience, seriously underestimated. Managers assume that there will be few problems, and that any problems there might be won't amount to a serious obstacle.

I've only two reservations. The discussion of the problems with the data hint at the difficulty in testing the new software required. However, that is my particular area of interest, and I'm possibly being unfair in expecting the authors to get into the those particular concerns in a short book.

The second point is possibly more serious. There is hardly any mention of the problems and controversies associated with Solvency II, merely brief observations about the difficulties that smaller insurers may have. The possible damaging impact of Solvency II on the pensions industry, the resulting controversy and the possibility that the EU may backtrack are not covered.

Solvency II may be a very good thing, but it does present huge practical problems, and there is a downside. This book perhaps presents slightly too rosy a picture. However, if one uses it as a basic primer to the complexities of the subject then it is possible to make sense of the controversies. In a short book that is probably as much as one can hope for. It provides a very good start, but not a full education, and that is the aim of the authors. Making this topic accessible is extremely difficult, so it would be churlish and nitpicking to award it less than 5 stars.

Theirs Is the Glory - Men of Arnhem [DVD]
Theirs Is the Glory - Men of Arnhem [DVD]
Dvd ~ Theirs Is the Glory

46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a very unusual tribute, 17 April 2007
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This film is very unusual in that it used the soldiers who'd taken part in the battle only 11 months previously to recreate it on site. They were still serving soldiers, and that gives it an authenticity lacking in most war films. My father fought at Arnhem, and appeared in the film with a small speaking part. It was moving seeing and hearing my 21 year old father in this context.

He told me a story about how vivid the whole experience was for the "actors". There was a scene where two stretcher bearers had to carry a casualty on a stretcher when mortar shells started falling. There were charges placed in the ground, ready to be exploded at the right moment. The two soldiers set off carrying their casualty, and then when the charges started exploding the casualty leapt from his stretcher and dived for cover along with the other two. For these men, the war was more than just a memory.

Watching this film in the knowledge that these were the actual soldiers, in the very spot where they'd fought makes this film more moving and compelling that it could have been if professional actors had been used. Yes, the acting is a bit wooden at times, but everything else is movingly realistic.

Inca Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru
Inca Kola: A Traveller's Tale of Peru
by Matthew Parris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable account of travelling in Peru in the 80s, 2 Mar. 2007
Initially I was reluctant to buy this book because I was looking for books about contemporary Peru when I first went there in 1997. Inca Kola was written in the late 80s, when Peru was on the verge of collapsing into chaos and civil war, and the political situation was completely different from now or even the late 90s. I thought a book from the 80s would be hopelessly dated.

However, I eventually bought it after my third trip to Peru, and found it to be a delightful account of visiting a country I'd come to know a little, and love a lot.

Yes, some things have changed dramatically since Parris's trip. The political and security situation is far, far better, but serious poverty, inequality and racism remain. So much of what Parris writes about is instantly recognisable. Peruvian culture won't change in a hurry and neither will the people - warm, incredibly hospitable and nosy, utterly cavalier and irresponsible in dealing with regulations and authority.

Much of Parris's book is timeless, and most of the rest is a fascinating account of visiting Peru at a time when no sensible tourists wanted to go there. It's a delight to read.

Dundee: Champions of Scotland 1961-62 (Desert Island Football Histories)
Dundee: Champions of Scotland 1961-62 (Desert Island Football Histories)
by Kenny Ross
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you support the Dee ...., 20 Feb. 2007
... you've just got to have this book! It sets the background and then tells in detail the story of those incredible two seasons when Dundee FC won the league then reached the last four of the European Cup.

The Winter War: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40
The Winter War: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40
by William R. Trotter
Edition: Paperback

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent account of a little known war, 20 Feb. 2007
This book should be read by anyone interested in Finland. You cannot understand the country without knowing what happened to it during the Second World War.

It is scarcely believable that a country with a population the same as Scotland was able to defy the Soviet Union and remain free. In 1939 Stalin presented the Finns with an ultimatum. They had to hand over a large part of the country so that the Soviet Union could push the frontier back an acceptable distance from Leningrad. The Finns refused and the Soviets invaded.

The Finns fought heroically and skillfully, inflicting massive casualties on the Soviets. Eventually weight of numbers told, and the Finns were forced to surrender. However, their skill and ferocity in the field had persuaded the Soviets that an occupation would be a costly nightmare and the Finns were able to keep their freedom, in spite of the fact that a puppet regime of Finnish Communist exiles had been set up, ready to take power once the Finns were defeated.

The Finns were able to retain their independence even after they attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, trying to regain their lost land. Again, they were ultimately defeated but the Soviets had no wish to try and tame the Finns by occupation. However, that is another story, covered only in a postscript to this book.

The Winter War had huge later significance in the Second World War. Hitler was convinced that the appalling performance of the Red Army meant that it would be no match for the Wehrmacht. The Soviet troops were badly trained, hopelessly equipped, and led by disgracefully incompetent generals who sacrificed huge numbers of men by their callous and inept tactics.

Stalin, meanwhile was forced to realise that the much vaunted Red Army had been rendered feeble and brainless by his purge of the office corps. The fifteen months between the end of the Winter War and the German invasion of the Soviet Union were well spent desperately reforming and strengthening the army.

This book is engrossing and very readable. I recommend it enthusiastically.

In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-45 (Paladin Books)
In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-45 (Paladin Books)
by Robert Fisk
Edition: Paperback

31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping account of Ireland during the war, 20 Feb. 2007
I thought I was quite well informed about modern Irish history and entitled to argue my opinions, but after reading this book I realised what a simplistic view I really had.

I found the book gripping and surprisingly readable. It kept luring me on, making me want to know and understand more about the terrible predicament that the Irish found themselves in. Of course, the Irish experience during the war was better than any of the combatant nations, but the dilemma facing the Irish was unusual and very difficult. Their closest neighbour and most important trading partner, was also their ancient traditional enemy (from the perspective of Irish nationalism) and was fighting a war against an unspeakably evil regime. There was no solution for the Irish government that was both principled and would keep the former Irish Free State united (technically it was known simply as Ireland at this time).

Fisk makes clear the problems faced by de Valera's government and ultimately it is hard to say that this often charmless bunch called it wrong. The Irish state emerged from the war free and safe, but still without Northern Ireland. One can easily argue that they should have joined the fight for civilisation, but after reading the book I certainly couldn't agree. De Valera just didn't have the option. Joining the war on the Allies side would have torn the country apart.

Fisk's account makes the major combatants look unprincipled, in the case of Britain (and Churchill in particular) and plain daft, in the case of the Germans and their naive reading of Irish history and the Irish political situation. However, principled behaviour is seldom a realistic option when the future of the nation is at stake, a fact that de Valera and Churchill were both keenly aware of.

This is an essential book for those who are interested in Ireland and its history. It makes uncomfortable reading for those with extreme and entrenched views on Irish history, but is fascinating and rewarding for those who just want to learn, rather than have their prejudices confirmed.

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