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P. Webster "Phil W." (Lancashire)
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Terns (Collins New Naturalist Library, Book 123)
Terns (Collins New Naturalist Library, Book 123)
by David Cabot
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £35.75

5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting AND beautiful, 5 Jun. 2017
This is the second of the “New Naturalist” series that I have bought and studied, and both have been really excellent books. (My first was “Bird Populations” by Ian Newton, which I have also reviewed here on Amazon.)

The book is both interesting and beautiful – just like the terns it covers, in fact. Indeed, the book made me think of the view of the great nineteenth century scientist Alexander von Humboldt, that nature can and should be both studied scientifically AND appreciated aesthetically.

The text is very well written and informative, explaining the ornithology/science in terms that a layperson can follow. The book is also packed with lots of brilliant photographs which illustrate the behaviour of the birds. (I’m talking about the hardback edition – I don’t know what they would look like on Kindle.)

There are chapters on terns in general, covering food, breeding biology, migration, conservation etc. And then there are also separate chapters on each of the tern species that breeds in Britain and Ireland.

I found it particularly interesting to read explanations of the behaviour that I have actually seen in the wild. “Plunge-diving” is one example of this. Another is the close view I got recently on Inner Farne of a male Arctic Tern bringing a fish to its female partner, in the pre-egg-laying period, on the nest site they had settled on in preparation for producing and raising young.

In relation to conservation, it is worrying to read that several species of tern could end up on the endangered list if it were not for the fact that they are “on life-support systems” – that is, that their breeding colonies are under protective management.

If you enjoy watching terns and want to learn more about their lives and behaviour, you’ll love this book.

Phil Webster.


Life on the Wing: A Bird Chronicle from the pages of The Times
Life on the Wing: A Bird Chronicle from the pages of The Times
by Derwent May
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The Pleasures of Birdwatching, 25 April 2017
Not being a reader of The Times newspaper, I had not come across Derwent May’s birdwatching column in that upmarket corner of the Murdoch media empire. But I enjoyed this book, which has been compiled from items previously published in May’s column.

The book consists of May’s (often vivid) descriptions of his birdwatching outings and of the birds he encounters. But as well as being pleasantly descriptive, the book is also informative. For example:

(1) I knew that various species of plover feigned injury in order to lure predators away from their young, but I didn’t know that Reed Buntings did the same.
(2) I learned about the promiscuous sex lives of both male and female Wrens.
(3) I was surprised to discover that the most common British gull – and also the most numerous gull in the world – is the Kittiwake.

Each birdwatching walk or trip only takes up a couple of pages, so this book is ideal for dipping into on a day when you can’t get out on a bird walk yourself.

Phil Webster.


Spies Beneath Berlin
Spies Beneath Berlin
by David Stafford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The Berlin Tunnel, 31 Mar. 2017
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This book is a must for anyone who is interested in the world of Cold War espionage. It tells the story of how the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) organised the digging of a tunnel under the border between West and East Berlin. This allowed them to tap into underground telephone and telegraph cables used by the Russians.

The book paints a vivid and atmospheric picture of Cold War espionage in 1950s Vienna and Berlin, and of the wider tensions of the Cold War.

We also get anecdotes such as the fact that SIS drivers in Berlin were equipped with cars that had a dashboard control that operated rotating number plates, in order to throw off the scent anyone trying to “tail” them. (Ten years before James Bond’s similar gadget in the film “Goldfinger”.)

The tunnel was in operation for about eleven months. But the Russians new about the project even before digging began. The KGB had an agent inside SIS, George Blake, who kept them informed about the tunnel right from the start. Even so, the Russians apparently did not use the opportunity to give the West “disinformation”, because the KGB did not want to risk giving away the fact that they had a mole inside SIS.

Blake is an interesting character, in that, like Kim Philby, he was motivated by political principles. He never took a penny from the KGB. He genuinely believed that by spying for the USSR he was advancing the cause of a fairer and more peaceful world. He could see that capitalism was a system based on exploitation, a system which kept dragging the world into economic crisis and war, and a system which had given birth to the monstrosity of fascism. (We see similar developments today.)

But the fact is that the Russian state that Blake and Philby decided to serve had moved a long way from genuine Marxism. The 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, had been a genuine workers’ revolution, with working people exercising power through the “soviets” (elected workers’ councils). But by the late 1920s the gains and democracy of the revolution had been destroyed by Stalin and the bureaucratic ruling class that had usurped power and turned Russia into a state capitalist tyranny.

Blake’s tragedy is that he dedicated his life to a totalitarian state which called itself socialist, but which was just as exploitative a system as the one in the West. (Whereas genuine Marxists were advocating the slogan of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism”.)

As someone once said with reference to the Cold War: “The Free World is not really free, and the Communist World is not really communist.”

Many of us enjoy the escapism of a good spy story, whether fictional or “true”, and there is something strangely fascinating about the shadowy world of the secret services. But we also need to remember that the real world of these secret services is a nasty one. They do not just spy on each other. They spy on (and often persecute) dissenting voices within their own countries, and they conduct dirty tricks such as the toppling of elected governments (as the CIA did in Chile, for example).

Phil Webster.


Bird Populations (Collins New Naturalist Library, Book 124)
Bird Populations (Collins New Naturalist Library, Book 124)
by Ian Newton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £43.79

5.0 out of 5 stars Factors affecting bird populations, 14 Mar. 2017
The content of this excellent book is summed up by the author himself: “This book is about bird numbers. It discusses why particular species are as numerous as they are... and why some species are increasing while others are decreasing.”

Newton distinguishes between short-term fluctuations in bird numbers (for example when there is a particularly bad winter) and long-term changes (such as those being caused by global warming).

He also draws a distinction between “natural” factors which affect bird population levels (those that do not involve human activities) and those factors which are the result of the impact that humans are having on nature.

“Natural” factors include: the availability of food and nest sites; competitors, predators, parasites and pathogens; and the weather. (Though some of these factors can be affected by humans, too.)

Examples of the human impact on bird population levels include: climate change; habitat destruction; modern agricultural practices; direct killing, such as the unlawful persecution of raptors; pesticides and pollution; domestic cats; and accidental deaths involving cars, overhead wires, wind-turbines, fences and fishing gear.

It makes my blood boil to read that: “On some estates where game shooting is important, continued killing of raptors is evident from the reduced densities of certain species there, the disappearance of breeding pairs during the nesting season, the finding of traps and poisoned baits, and the occasional prosecutions of gamekeepers who get caught.”

Of course, “...where game shooting is important...” in this quotation means where landowners make big profits by indulging those strange people (often rich city dwellers) who get pleasure from blasting large numbers of birds out of the sky!

This book is very readable, but it does have over 500 pages, and it is densely packed with information. So I’m not sure how many people will read it cover to cover. Personally I have read the opening and closing chapters in full, and then I have dipped into the rest, focusing on those topics which particularly interest me.

So far I have mainly studied the sections which deal with the human impact on bird populations. After all, as Newton says: “No birds in Britain and Ireland can now live in wholly natural environments (in the sense of being unperturbed by human activity)."

Finally, a word about the price of this book. The “official” price is an exorbitant £55.00, which will sadly put off many potential readers. At the time of writing, the price here on Amazon is £35.75, which is better, but still expensive. Fortunately I by chance saw a (brand new) copy for sale in a second-hand bookshop for £17.99. (Sorry, Amazon!) So it might pay potential readers to shop around.

A few years ago I wanted to read a book by this same author on “The Speciation and Biogeography of Birds”. This is also an excellent book, but it is even more expensive. (Currently £78.00 on Amazon.) So I resorted to ordering it through our local library (now closed thanks to government spending cuts!). Why do some natural history books have to be priced so highly?

Phil Webster.


Horse Under Water
Horse Under Water
by Len Deighton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Deighton’s Cynical Spy, 19 Feb. 2017
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This review is from: Horse Under Water (Paperback)
I first read this book over 50 years ago, when I was 14 years old. I thought at the time that the author had a great writing style, and that he seemed to be really knowledgeable and COOL. And re-reading the book now (for about the fifth time over the years), my opinion is just the same.

When Deighton’s first books were published in the early 1960s, they were welcomed as painting a more realistic picture of the world of espionage than did the fantasy world of James Bond. Whether it is actually a true picture or not, Deighton certainly makes you FEEL as if you are getting a glimpse of the real spy world.

In my view, Deighton’s first few spy novels are by far his best: “The Ipcress File”; “Horse Under Water”; and “Funeral in Berlin”. I feel that after this period Deighton went downhill, losing the lightness of touch and sharpness that characterise these early books.

This book is Deighton’s second. It is not as well known as “The Ipcress File” and “Funeral in Berlin”, probably because it was not made into a film like those two. (“Billion Dollar Brain” was also turned into a film, but in my view that film is best forgotten.)

The atmosphere of these early Deighton spy stories is typified by the pages at the beginning of the 1960s Penguin paperback editions where information about the author is given. They are done as if they were files that some organisation held on Deighton. But the amusing thing is that the physical description and life-story given of Deighton in “Horse Under Water” are totally different from those given in “Funeral in Berlin”. This perfectly conveys the feeling that we are entering a world where nothing can be taken at face value.

“The Ipcress File” and “Funeral in Berlin” have plots involving the Cold War between the capitalist West and the so-called “communist” (I would say bureaucratic state capitalist) East. But this book is different in that the plot involves events relating back to the Nazis and the Second World War.

The book is best enjoyed as a series of vividly portrayed set pieces, rather than by worrying too much about the plot. For example, there is a really amusing little chapter in which our nameless hero attends a diving course at a naval base. (Deighton has said that this was based on his own experience on just such a course, which the Navy allowed him to attend while he was researching the novel.)

It has been rightly pointed out that the nameless narrator (who becomes Michael Caine’s “Harry Palmer” in the films) is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, but transferred from the world of crime to the world of espionage. The two characters certainly both have the same mixture of wise-cracking humour, cynicism, sharpness of mind, and integrity. (Though with Deighton’s character there is less emphasis on the last of these – his job involves more deviousness than Marlowe’s.)

The other “realistic” spy story writer who came along at about the same time as Deighton was John Le Carre. But I’ve always preferred Deighton (at least the early Deighton), as I find Le Carre’s books rather humourless and bleak. (Though the TV version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” with Alec Guinness is brilliant.)

These early Deighton spy stories are excellent entertainment, but we also need to remember that the real world of secret services is a nasty one. They do not just spy on each other. They spy on (and often persecute) dissenting voices within their own countries, and they conduct dirty tricks such as the toppling of elected governments (as the CIA did in Chile). There are no heroes or “good guys” in the real secret world: just villains on both sides.

Phil Webster.


The Ipcress File
The Ipcress File
by Len Deighton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The World of the Cynical Spy, 18 Feb. 2017
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This review is from: The Ipcress File (Paperback)
Len Deighton opens this classic spy story with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1:

And now I will unclasp a secret book,
And to your quick-conceiving discontents
I'll read you matter deep and dangerous...

When the book (Deighton’s first) was published in 1962, it was welcomed as painting a more realistic picture of the world of espionage than did the fantasy world of James Bond. Whether it is actually a true picture or not, Deighton certainly makes you FEEL as if you are getting a glimpse of the real spy world.

I first read this book 50 years ago, when I was 15 years old. (As well as having the book on Kindle, I’ve still got my 1966 Panther Crimeband paperback edition, which has pictures of Michael Caine and Nigel Green from the film version on the cover.) I thought at the time that the author had a great writing style, and that he seemed to be really knowledgeable and COOL. And re-reading the book now (for about the fifth time over the years), my opinion is just the same.

In my view, Deighton’s first few spy novels are by far his best: “The Ipcress File”; “Horse Under Water”; and “Funeral in Berlin”. I feel that after this period Deighton went downhill, losing the lightness of touch and sharpness that characterise these early books.

It has been rightly pointed out that the nameless narrator (who becomes Michael Caine’s “Harry Palmer” in the films) is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s private detective, Philip Marlowe, but transferred from the world of crime to the world of espionage. The two characters certainly both have the same mixture of wise-cracking humour, cynicism, sharpness of mind, and integrity. (Though with Deighton’s character there is less emphasis on the last of these – his job involves more deviousness than Marlowe’s.)

The other “realistic” spy story writer who came along at about the same time as Deighton was John Le Carre. But I’ve always preferred Deighton (at least the early Deighton), as I find Le Carre’s books rather humourless and bleak. (Though the TV version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” with Alec Guinness is brilliant.)

Although Deighton’s leading character (like Deighton himself, presumably) is on the side of the West, these books convey a cynicism about both sides in the Cold War. I am reminded of what someone once said: “The Free World is not really free, and the Communist World is not really communist.” This fits with my view, which is that big capitalists rule in the West; and that the so-called communist countries were/are in fact bureaucratic state capitalist regimes that had/have nothing to do with genuine Marxism (which advocates workers’ democracy).

“The Ipcress File” is excellent entertainment, but we also need to remember that the real world of secret services is a nasty one. They do not just spy on each other. They spy on (and often persecute) dissenting voices within their own countries, and they conduct dirty tricks such as the toppling of elected governments (as the CIA did in Chile). There are no heroes or “good guys” in the real secret world: just villains on both sides.

Phil Webster.


Z Cars 16 Hard to Find Z Cars Episodes from the 1960s on 2 DVD Discs (NB: These Titles Are Not Factory Produced DVD's and as such come with Paper Labels & Plastic Sleeves)
Z Cars 16 Hard to Find Z Cars Episodes from the 1960s on 2 DVD Discs (NB: These Titles Are Not Factory Produced DVD's and as such come with Paper Labels & Plastic Sleeves)
Dvd ~ Frank Windsor, Brian Blessed and others.. Stratford Johns

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sixties nostalgia AND great drama, 9 Feb. 2017
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I’ll firstly say something about the technical quality of this DVD set, and then comment on the programmes themselves.

As the seller of these DVDs honestly acknowledges, these are not professionally produced DVDs. So the picture quality is not good. The quality of the different episodes is actually variable: one or two episodes have sound and/or picture quality which is so poor that it makes them difficult (but not impossible) to watch. But most of the episodes are watchable, especially once you get into them.

It is also a bit of a pain having to fast forward over the episodes that you’ve watched to get to the one you want to watch next. But, again, this does not make the DVDs unwatchable.

What we really need is for someone to produce a digitally re-mastered version of these programmes. But until that happens, the person who has brought out this DVD set has certainly done us a favour.

What about these Z Cars episodes themselves? They are the first episodes of the programme from 1962. That was the year that I moved up from primary to secondary school, and I remember that it seemed that just about everybody watched Z Cars. In fact kids (and adults!) often used to go around singing or whistling the memorable theme music, especially if they saw a cop car.

Z Cars was much more realistic than previous police/crime series had been. (And more realistic than most since then, too.) It could be summed up as “social realism” with a nice sprinkling of humour. It was often hard-hitting, and it tackled issues such as domestic violence and juvenile delinquency. (One of these episodes was written by the left-wing playwright John McGrath; and later, in 1964, Ken Loach directed some episodes.)

When I first watched this programme in the 1960s, my favourite Z Cars copper was “Fancy” Smith, played by Brian Blessed. And watching now, over 50 years later, I still feel the same. Blessed is really excellent in this role.

In the 1970s Blessed was also excellent as the Emperor Augustus in “I, Claudius”. He played Augustus as an affable, friendly fellow, but one whose expression and eyes could suddenly turn as hard as nails. Blessed plays “Fancy” Smith in the same way, with the additional elements of being a likeable rogue and a bit of a bolshie. This early Brian Blessed was very different from the booming-voiced caricature that he adopted as his persona in more recent years.

The rest of the Z Cars team are good, too – especially Stratford Johns as Barlow and Frank Windsor as Watt.

I strongly recommend these programmes – both as 1960s nostalgia and as great TV drama.

Phil Webster.


No Title Available

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Take your Italian up a step, 15 Jan. 2017
My basic “bible” for teaching myself Italian at home has been (and continues to be) “Living Italian” by Maria Valgimigli and Derek Aust. It is a book that I would strongly recommend for anyone starting out on Italian.

But if you want to take your Italian up to a higher level, then this reference grammar by Maiden and Robustelli is an extremely useful tool.

It is a book to be dipped into, rather than one to work through cover to cover. For example, I have just been learning how the traditional Tuscan usage of “si” as “we” has spread into wider use, especially in the spoken language. So we get: “Si viene anche noi!” for “We’re coming too!”

The large number of useful examples of usage for each grammatical point is the best feature of the book.

The last two chapters are particularly useful. They cover formal and informal discourse and forms of address, and in more detail than I have seen elsewhere. So we learn that it would NOT be acceptable to say, “Ciao signora, si accomodi.” (Because the “ciao” is informal, while the rest is formal.)

And how about this as an example (not recommended!) of informal discourse? “Stai zitto o ti spacco il muso.” (“Shut up or I’ll smash your face in.”)

Phil Webster.


When Adam Delved and Eve Span
When Adam Delved and Eve Span
by Mark O'Brien
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.75

5.0 out of 5 stars The Peasants’ Revolt – An Inspiration, 23 Dec. 2016
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This excellent and inspiring little book starts off by painting for us a brief outline of “the medieval scene”, particularly of the class structure of fourteenth century feudalism.

Then the author goes on to outline the various factors that led to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, including the effect that the massive loss of life caused by the Black Death had on the balance of power in the class struggle between the lords and the masses, and the final spark of the imposition of the poll tax.

O’Brien then takes us on an exciting rollercoaster ride through the events of the revolt itself – a revolt which had virtually succeeded until the rebels made the mistake of trusting the lying king when he promised to accede to their demands.

The book ends with a chapter showing how this great revolt has ever since inspired hostility from writers associated with the ruling class and admiration from those who are on the side of the exploited and oppressed.

The book also throws an interesting light on the social role of religion. Firstly, religion was clearly the key ideological weapon used by the ruling class to keep the poor in their place. (“The divine right of kings” etc.)

Secondly, religion can comfort people in their suffering. As Marx said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

But thirdly, religion can also on occasions act as an ideological inspiration for the downtrodden to rebel. This is what happened in 1381.

Today, for those fighting against the injustices of the capitalist system, there is a set of ideas - Marxism - that can act as a guide for understanding the world and changing it. (I mean the genuine Marxism which advocates freedom, equality and workers’ democracy, not the Stalinism associated with the bureaucratic state capitalist dictatorships which have hijacked the name of Marxism.)

But in medieval times there were only religious ideas to inspire the rebels. A radical version of Christianity was put forward by people like the revolutionary priest John Ball. While the king and nobility claimed that God had ordained the structure of society, Ball said that social inequalities had been created by people, not by God, and could therefore be abolished.

O’Brien calls this “Christian communism”, and he has chosen as the title for his book part of the famous fourteenth century rhyme associated with John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then a gentleman?

Phil Webster.


The Long Depression
The Long Depression
by Michael Roberts
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Capitalism’s built-in problems, 14 Nov. 2016
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This review is from: The Long Depression (Paperback)
In this excellent book, Michael Roberts very convincingly applies Marxist economic theory to the concrete realities of the world capitalist economy.

In particular, he shows the central importance of Marx’s “law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall” in explaining the recurring crises of the capitalist system. Although there are countertendencies to this law, Roberts shows that the tendency will prevail over time.

He also shows that, although each crisis has its own specific peculiarities (such as the “credit crunch” of 2007), the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is the constant underlying cause of capitalism’s problems.

Roberts explains the difference between a run-of-the-mill recession and a depression. He says that we are currently enduring “The Long Depression”, which began in 2008, and that this depression is only the third in the last 150 years. (The first was from 1873-1897, and the second was from 1929-1939.)

Roberts also shows us in great detail how today’s crisis is playing out in all the different parts of the world, and ends up discussing the prospects for the future.

Capitalism is exploitative, wasteful and destructive; it causes wars and is destroying our environment. It has to be replaced by a democratically planned world economy. But, as Roberts says, “Capitalism can only be replaced by a new system of social organization through conscious action of human beings, in particular by the majority of people (the working class globally).”

I’m ninety per cent positive about this book, but I’ll just mention a few points of criticism.

Firstly, when explaining Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, Roberts does not give a full enough explanation of why labour is the only source of value and of surplus value, and hence of the profits grabbed by the capitalist class. In particular, he does not even mention Marx’s crucial distinction between labour and labour power.

For anyone new to Marxist economics, it would therefore be best to read an introduction to Marxist economics before tackling this book. (I would recommend “Unravelling Capitalism” by Joseph Choonara and/or “Zombie Capitalism” by Chris Harman.)

Secondly, Roberts makes no mention of the theory of the permanent arms economy, which was developed by some Marxists to explain the long post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s. (Again, this theory is covered in the books by Choonara and Harman.)

Thirdly, there is something lacking in Roberts’ description of the regime in China. He is quite rightly critical of China’s Stalinist rulers. He correctly points out that the system there “is not socialism by any Marxist definition or by any benchmark of democratic workers’ control.” But he describes the system in China as a “weird beast”, and thus in my view fails to see it for what it actually is: a system of bureaucratic state capitalism.

Fourthly, I have my doubts about Roberts’ attempt to incorporate Kondratiev’s “long waves” into his analysis. He acknowledges that critics have said that “there is no convincing theory or model to explain these long cycles, if they do exist”, but he nevertheless thinks that there is something in the idea.

Fifthly and finally, there is the minor criticism that there has been some sloppy proofreading for the book. So, for example, we have the phrase “…much useful things…”, and the following sentence: “Capital-reducing investments could also more productive.”

But overall, I strongly recommend this book. As I said, I’m ninety per cent positive about it, which translates into four and a half stars. I’ll go for five.

Phil Webster.


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