Thank You, Mr. Moto, by John P Marquand

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Readers who come to John P Marquand’s 1936 novel Thank You, Mr Moto from the films starring Peter Lorre will probably be surprised to find that Mr Moto plays a relatively small part in the story (and the film with the same name bears virtually no resemblance to it at all).  Set in China, all the stereotypes are in play: inscrutability, disingenuousness, double-dealing, a complacent sense of superiority towards foreigners, and a lack of sentimentality and an indifference to suffering in a country where life is cheap.  Yet Marquand displays a respect and fondness for China and its people, highlighting their intelligence if not robust code of ethics.

The story is written from the viewpoint of Tom Nelson, an American expatriate living in Peking after a scandal at home obliged him to resign from his law firm.  A fluent Chinese-speaker, he has effectively gone native and considers he has as good an understanding of the Chinese mind and way of life as any outsider can.  Having turned his back on the difficulties of life he meets every challenge with the shrug ‘it doesn’t matter, does it?’’  He is supposed to be writing a book but doubts whether he will ever get round to finishing it.  Among his large circle of acquaintances are Jamison Best, a shady English cashiered major, an American woman Eleanor Joyce, in China for some dubious but unspecified purpose, Prince Tung, a down-on-his luck aristocrat and aesthete impoverished by the fall of the Manchu dynasty – and of course Mr Moto, a Japanese government agent (not ‘the private eye of the Orient’ promised on the cover of the 1960 Fontana Books edition).

Tom’s relationship with Eleanor Joyce is initially prickly but they become intertwined after Major Best is murdered and it quickly becomes clear that they are next through having had contact with him.  The plot hinges on rare Chinese paintings which Eleanor is seeking to buy for an American museum, not realising that the sale involves their theft from Prince Tung by a brigand, Wu Lo Feng, who is planning a raid on the unguarded city.  Best had been involved in the sale of the paintings but had double-crossed Wu and so was eliminated, with Eleanor and Tom targeted in case they had been told of the plot.  Backing Wu is a Japanese provocateur, Mr Takahara, who wishes to utilise the chaos Wu will bring to extend Japanese influence over China.

Tom, Eleanor, Tung and Moto are captured by Wu and Takahara, along with Tung’s paintings, and taken to a small abandoned temple.  All looks lost, however they manage to escape when Eleanor unexpectedly grabs Wu’s pistol.  Moto disposes of Wu and Takahara, and the planned insurrection is quashed.  Tung is astonished at the turn of events, Eleanor’s impulsive action representing as it does western ‘illogicality’, as his oriental fatalism had prepared him for certain death.  Tom and Eleanor find romance, while Tom finally realises that however much he immerses himself in it, he will never be truly at one with China.  He finds that even Tung, whom he had considered a friend, looks on him as inferior.  Acknowledging that the subtleties (essentially rendered as deviousness) of the Chinese mind will always elude him, Tom shakes off his previous negativity towards life, finding that by changing his circumstances, circumstances have changed him.  He and Eleanor plan to leave the country, but not before they say, ‘thank you, Mr. Moto.’

Ostensibly a thriller, with plenty of action, Marquand makes valid points about the difficult situation in China and the growing influence of Japan.  Yet Mr Moto, while working for the Japanese government and bent on extending his country’s influence, is portrayed sympathetically and the more aggressive Takahara is shown to be the villain, even though, as Moto himself acknowledges, their ends are not dissimilar.  What does separate them is that while Takahara is willing to sacrifice the Americans, Moto endeavours firstly to persuade Tom to leave China for his own safety then, when that fails, does his utmost to keep them safe.

The result is to make Japanese expansionism in the power vacuum of post-dynastic China seem reasonable; as long that is as it is not done aggressively, like Takahara’s methods, rather in terms of altruistically proffering a ‘helping hand’ to ‘backward’ nations, as Moto perhaps ironically argues imperialist powers have done in the past.  Unfortunately the wider Japanese project in south-east Asia, for which Moto represents its acceptable face, is not examined at all.  Perhaps for American readers, like Czechoslovakia for Neville Chamberlain, it was a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom they knew nothing.  But not for long: history proved to be on the side of Takahara in China, before the Imperial Japanese Army set its sights further afield and brought mayhem to the Pacific.

Grotesque, by Natuso Kirino

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Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino, author of Out is structured as a series of first-person narratives with changing narrators, some direct, others in the form of journal entries of the elaborated sort rarely found in real life.  Contributors are mainly an unnamed woman, plus her sister Yuriko Hirata and school friend Kazue Satō, the last two of whom had worked as prostitutes and been murdered within a year of each other.  The chief suspect, Zhang, a Chinese illegal immigrant who is accused of murdering both women, and who admits to murdering Yuriko but not Kazue, is also afforded a lengthy statement.  All three women had attended a prestigious educational institution.  Rather than cohering to present a rounded portrait, all the narrators, whose accounts intersect, are unreliable, necessitating the reader to evaluate their truthfulness against each other.

The main narrator is considered physically plain, whereas her younger sister Yuriko was so beautiful it seemed unnatural.  The elder harbours a lifelong resentment, not helped by having worked hard to enter the elite Q School, while Yuriko is able to coast because of her looks.  Once there, Yuriko becomes the standard by which her sister is judged and found wanting, rather than acknowledged for her intelligence.  Perhaps in defence, the older sister dismisses Yuriko as unintelligent, a verdict not born out by the quality of the writing in her journal.  Even so, harbouring nymphomaniac desires, Yuriko begins selling sex at school, and eventually drops out of education, becoming a high-class hooker who as time progresses finds that her desirability has a short shelf life, forcing her ever further downwards as her looks coarsen.  Despite an intense dislike for Yuriko, after her death her sister adopts her blind son Yurio, who appears to be as self-centred as his mother had been.  Possessing Yurio is a final victory over her sister.

Kazue is shown as a striver at school but an object of derision by her peers.  Her self-esteem issues manifest as lifelong anorexia, a way to exercise control over her environment.  Despite her best efforts she will still never fit in, and her strained efforts are contrasted with that of a more accomplished student, Mitsuru.  Kazue’s attempts take on the character of eccentricity and this continues after school.  She simultaneously holds down a job as a middle manager in a design and engineering firm while working as a prostitute, her behaviour in both spheres becoming increasingly erratic.  Bizarrely she uses her status as an analyst in a prestigious company as a selling point in her prostitute role, showing her business card to punters and boasting of her position.  Clearly blackmail is not a problem in Japan (another question her behaviour raises is how she lasted so long at her firm without being fired when she admits to spending all day cutting out newspaper articles, when not snoozing in a vacant meeting room).

Zhang’s section recounts his life in China, his escape to Japan with his sister, with whom he had an incestuous relationship, and her death, then his life on the margins in Japan.  Existence for peasants in rural China is shown to be hard, and prospects little better for them in the cities.  As with other accounts this is shown to be not necessarily accurate: his alleged closeness to his sister is belied by her abandonment of him, and the later possibility that he murdered her is floated.

Yuriko’s sister manages her relationship with the world by despising people, including, by her willingness to manipulate, the reader – it is worth bearing in mind that she has curated the accounts that make up the book, and is always quick to undermine them when the content doesn’t suit her.  The only person she seems to be tolerant of is her grandfather, though her liking of him is bound up with wanting to stay in the flat to which he has the lease, and she is quick to put him in a home when he becomes senile; not much sign of the famed Japanese reverence for the elderly on show here (the grandfather had fallen in with Mitsuru’s mother, who owned a bar, and he had sold off his prized bonsai trees to fund his new social life – the traditional ways cannot compete with the attractions of modernity).  Nor is she particularly hostile towards Zhang, rather fascinated by him.  She detests her sister, and her determination to define herself against Yuriko is expressed in her claim to still be a virgin at 40, but her obsession with Yuriko is a weakness which undermines her own self-worth as she continues to measure herself against her sibling.  The novel concludes with her fantasising about becoming a prostitute in turn, reasoning that women turn to prostitution through hatred of the world, in which case it would only be an expression of her standard view of others.

The book explores themes of a woman’s place in what is still a male-dominated, hierarchical system, and how women must accommodate to a male system in order to survive, whether at work or in the sex trade.  As Yuriko and Kazue age they fall further down the ladder of desirability until they are reduced to standing in the street, a trajectory Kazue embraces as her fate.  But Kirino also looks at how this environment affects women’s attitudes towards other women.  Ideology works by pitting the repressed against each other in order to preserve the privileges of the powerful, so the women are generally dreadful to each other instead of understanding that they have common interests against their oppression.  The girls at Q School show no solidarity, instead having a strict pecking order amounting to a caste system, bulwarked by extensive bullying.  They are divided into the insiders – self-assured and from rich families, from fashionable parts of town and generally pupils at the school from the time they were small – and the rest, the outsiders.  However much the latter might want to become the former, even if highly talented, they will never be able to bridge the divide (the narrator, living in municipal housing in a down-at-heel area, has no chance).  Despite the stereotype of the coy modest Japanese woman this is a highly sexualised society (think Hentai, selling used underwear and groping on trains, not to mention the paedophilic schoolgirl fetish).  Even in the house the situation for women is no better, with stay-at-home mothers despised for weakness and made to feel their powerlessness by the rest of the family.

Often considered culturally sophisticated by observers, Japanese society on this evidence is rigid, dysfunctional and misogynistic.  There is no escape; Mitsuru, the most intelligent and able of them all, but an outsider, becomes a doctor but goes to prison for terrorism while a member of a cult, and ends by marrying her old biology teacher, himself disgraced and having had to resign from Q School because his son had become Yuriko’s pimp (it was the teacher who had managed to get Yuriko admitted to the school as part of an experiment to see what effect she would have on the student body, an act he comes to regret).  Biology is destiny in Japan, it seems, and women have the cards stacked against them.  The elder sister herself, perpetually angry with the world, ends up in a series of unfulfilling jobs.  Not one woman in the novel does well, whatever her talents.  Some of the blame for the failure of the women to fulfil their potential is laid at the door of the education system and its propensity to damage genuine relationships.  Adding to the complication is the fact that Yuriko and her sister are mixed race, or ‘halves’, with a Japanese mother and Swiss father.  This affords them a degree of exoticism but also makes them quasi-outsiders in their own country which harbours a marked degree of xenophobia.  When his business fails the father moves back to Switzerland with their mother, who shortly afterwards commits suicide.  Typically Yuriko’s sister is indifferent to the act.

What poses initially as a crime novel and then supposedly an exploration of why respectable women would become prostitutes is in fact a satire on society that eschews the conventional trappings of the crime genre (we never learn who killed Kazue, assuming it wasn’t Zhang, but it doesn’t matter, the crucial thing is she was murdered).  While fooling themselves of their importance, men too are relatively powerless, resulting in a feeling of anomie pervading and subverting a social order that only appears poised on the surface.  Prostitution is shown to be a false mechanism for female empowerment as it works within a patriarchal system that prizes youth and beauty, yet in some sense all women must prostitute themselves to survive.  Kirino has written a rich but profoundly pessimistic book.

Death and Mary Dazill, by Mary Fitt

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Mary Fitt’s 1941 novel Death and Mary Dazill has a curious structure, switching from the present to the 1890s and back again, as it recounts the complexly shifting relationships that follow Mary Dazill’s introduction into a Victorian household as companion/governess to two motherless teenage women, Lindy and Arran de Boulter.  Unfortunately for all concerned their father promptly falls in love with Mary and proposes to her, setting off a chain reaction of mysterious deaths.  In the present, police Superintendent Mallett and a couple of doctors are visiting the local church for the funeral of a policeman.  They become acquainted with the tragic history of the family from the local vicar and his wife, the latter’s late mother having been peripherally involved in it.  The stimulus is the appearance of the now-elderly sisters, come to lay a wreath at the tomb of their brother and father, and it also emerges that Mary Dazill is buried elsewhere in the graveyard.

Mallett and the doctors hear about what went on fifty years before from the vicar’s wife while the reader is also privy to the events themselves, told as if that is what the audience in the present is hearing, though actually containing information they could not know about.  It’s an odd device when the entire story could have been told, more credibly, as a complete flashback, but it allows Mallett at the end, literally an armchair detective, to outline how the murders were probably committed.  The solution, while plausible, feels arbitrary as Fitt has not left a trail of clues for the reader to pick up.  Fitt has a dig at a certain sort of reader who claims to have solved a mystery while having done no such thing: ‘You’re exactly like the people who read detective stories: you suspect all the people concerned, and when the guilt is plain, you say, “I was right after all.”’  Really though, Fitt has given her reader little reason to suspect one character rather than another.

The emphasis though isn’t about the pleasures of the classic detective story but on the exploration of the dynamics of the household.  Mary Dazill is considered a cuckoo in the nest, yet her acceptance of an eligible husband with a large fortune is a reasonable act for a woman with distinct social disadvantages (her mother had murdered Mary’s father, who was with another woman) and alone in the world.  It is her aloofness which marks her as odd and suggests her undesirability as a wife and stepmother.  Yet we learn that while she is unconcerned if men fall in love with her – after all she does nothing to encourage it – she does herself have the capacity for emotional attachment, and ironically she falls in love with someone who does not reciprocate her feelings.

The women are better drawn than the men, who remain two-dimensional, and Mary Dazill’s enigmatic character is cleverly depicted.  It would have been easy to invest her with an air of melodrama, instead she is a quiet centre at the heart of the maelstrom, passive while the household falls apart around her.  Her name is entirely appropriate as she dazzles men, while alienating the women, until finally she has acted as the catalyst that deprives the family of its menfolk, leaving only unhappy spinsters to remember them.

Trotsky for Beginners, by Tariq Ali and Phil Evans

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Trotsky for Beginners, by Tariq Ali (text) and Phil Evans (images), was published in 1980 and marked a fruitful collaboration between two individuals identified with differing strands of Trotskyism: Ali the International Marxist Group – the British section of the Fourth International, founded by Trotskyists in 1938 – and Evans the Socialist Workers Party (though he left the SWP at about this time).  The result celebrated Trotsky just at the point IMG cadres were being urged to infiltrate the Labour Party.

It is a brief run-through of Trotsky’s life and ideas, bulked out by Evans’s cartoons alongside original pictures.  Together the authors paint a broad-brush portrait of Trotsky’s enormous contributions, theoretical and practical, to the cause of international socialism, not least the influence he had on Lenin.  The emphasis is on his power as a thinker, both in government and opposition, and his shrewd ability to see how historical forces would play out.

Naturally sympathetic towards its subject, still Ali and Evans are not afraid to admit that Trotsky made mistakes.  They show that his key weakness lay in his dislike of factionalism, which allowed him to be outmanoeuvred by Stalin, leading to his expulsion from the Central Committee, from the party, from the country, and finally to his murder in Mexico.  He was not a man who favoured backroom deals, and he underestimated those who did.  Stalin’s strategy of temporary alliances, isolating and picking off competitors from left and right of the party, worked beautifully, until there was none left to oppose him; Ali is particularly contemptuous of Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s flip-flopping.

The problem with the book’s format is that while it is intended for readers with little knowledge of Trotsky’s life and times, some background knowledge is necessary to be able to follow the complexities of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.  However a lengthy ‘who’s who’, covering organisations and individuals, helps to provide context, and there is a bibliography listing books by and about Trotsky.  It would have been worth including more on his role as organiser of the Red Army, and the final decade of his life as a prophet outcast is perfunctory.  His interest in social matters (as indicated by the title of a collection of his writings, Problems of Everyday Life) is entirely ignored.

More fundamentally, while Stalin’s Socialism in One Country and manipulation of foreign communist parties as instruments of Soviet policy are shown to have had disastrous consequences in China, Germany and Spain, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is not critiqued.  Trotsky’s ability with a pen is constantly noted, and his intellectual superiority to Stalin is obvious, but it would be facile to assume that his political defeat and the purges that swept away his political generation vindicated his ideas.  Perhaps more words and fewer pictures would have been appropriate to do Trotsky, and Trotskyism, justice.

That aside, despite its age Trotsky for Beginners holds up well, and Trotsky’s sincerity and integrity shine through the grim retelling of the tragedy that befell both him and his country.  It may, belatedly, attract some to the cause he espoused, and for which he died; even if not, it will surely encourage readers to recognise and confront tyrants, wherever they are found and whatever guise they assume.

The Cobb Book, by Ron Cobb


From the sticker it still sports I see that I acquired my copy of Ron Cobb’s The Cobb Book through the Book Marx Club, which would have been shortly after publication in 1975.  It collected a selection of his cartoons from his earlier books RCD-25 (1967) Mah Fellow Americans (1968), Raw Sewage and My Fellow Americans (both 1970), along with later work published in the Australian periodical The Digger and in The Los Angeles Free Press.  Yes, it oozes 1960s/70s counter-culture, but the scary thing is how relevant it still is.

One of the first cartoons is possibly his most famous: an old man sits on a bench in an urban environment of high rises staring with a smile at a solitary plant poking up through the concrete.  Ecology is the dominant theme of this part of the book, showing the devastating effect human greed and thoughtlessness are having on the planet.  Commercial interests only care for profit, so giant redwoods can be sacrificed for a shopping and hotel complex to be called, with no irony, ‘Sequoia Square’.

Unlike such developers, Cobb has a strong sense of irony: billboards showing rural scenes marked ‘scenic drive’ erected along a road hide the urban blight behind.  A board in another drawing saying ‘Caution: Breathing May Be Hazardous To Your Health’ next to a chock-full road vanishing in the haze is particularly pertinent at a time of emissions scandals.  To ram the message home, Uncle Sam salutes as he stands on the deck of a sinking ship in a sea full of rubbish, a sign declaring: ‘Warning! Military-industrial pollution … No swimming/no drinking/no bathing’.  It’s not subtle, but it is powerful.  To indicate that not everybody is affected equally, two middle-aged men in suits sit in the window of a restaurant drinking coffee while a man in agony desperately claws the glass outside.  ‘Looks like we’re in for another bad smog alert’ says one calmly.

That this situation is not sustainable is the theme of a cartoon divided into four sections showing a single location over time.  In the first section, stone-age hunters carry their kill towards their village.  In the second, a castle has arisen on the spot and a hay wagon trundles towards it.  In the third, modern ‘civilisation’ has arrived and the track is now a frantic motorway, the entire area under urban sprawl.  In the bottom section there is nothing left except a barren landscape.  Our wasteful way of life will vanish, but we will vanish with them.

One image, which must have been inspired by 2001 (1968) shows a proto-human armed with a bone chasing two animals, one saying to the other. ‘A stick or a piece of bone and they think they own the world!’  ‘They’ still think this, and of course they do.  In the next, two Neanderthals waving bones and lumps of wood at each other are replaced by modern men, one shooting the other with a gun.  Modern technology makes these things worse, certainly, but Cobb’s meaning is ambiguous.  Elsewhere he suggests capitalism is responsible for the state of the world, here the implication is that it is in our nature to be violent, in which case social changes will not improve the state of civilisation.

The 1969 moon landing spawned several pictures, some continuing the ecological theme, with rubbish floating even in space and Apollo 58 devoted to a clean-up of the lunar surface.  Anti-militarism, doubtless influenced by the two years Cobb spent in Vietnam, and the fear of nuclear conflagration, generated some graphic images.  Vietnam is specifically referenced, but Cobb could see how it would end – a burning peasant lies under the American flag, the corner of which has caught fire.

The military-industrial complex is built on consumption, and that comes in for stick as well, as individuals are told to consume and a television stands in the kitchen waiting to be fed a TV dinner.  In a prescient drawing, a robot labelled ‘automation’ turns to a human and says ‘Oh … haven’t you heard? – The industrial revolution is over … We won …’  Keeping it all under control is a repressive police presence (think Kent State shootings in 1970), aided by the conservative Church that fails to present any meaningful criticism of the status quo.  However, depicting anti-nuclear protestors standing behind wire in Nazi concentration camp attire, CND logo replacing the yellow star, may now seem crass.

Race relations naturally feature – Uncle Sam on top of a huge swastika marked ‘White Power’ crushing a small black boy operating a jack which says ‘Black Power.  The effort is making the swastika crack, shortly to disintegrate.  Two middle-aged white men oozing privilege are talking and one opines, ‘Trouble is – most niggers want white skin without havin’ ta earn it’, blithely ignorant of the implications of what he is saying.  Native Americans too are shown to have received bad treatment: a white family praying while celebrating thanksgiving are shown sitting on top of a mass grave of Indians.  Overseas foreign aid is used to dump unwanted goods and crush dissent inimical to American interests.  Elected government is a tool of shady forces; Richard Nixon is portrayed as a little boy on the beach building the White House and Pentagon out of sand, yet the implication is that he and his ilk will be washed away by the tide of history.

Cobb is naturally pro-hallucinogenic drugs, sees mental illness as a manifestation of capitalist civilisation, and education as a method of ensuring the learning of conformity.  The Australian government is pilloried towards the end for being an American stooge while having treated the aborigines in much the same manner the Americans treated their indigenous population.  The final image, on the back cover, shows a lorry driving off into the distance after having run down an aborigine and a kangaroo.


The cartoons are printed in large format and their stark graphic qualities give them maximum impact.  They look remarkable, and their hard-hitting effect has hardly diminished in the decades since they first appeared.  Depressingly, the same issues are with us and Cobb unsentimentally highlights what we are doing to the planet.  As the caption says in the first of a pair of drawings showing the Earth from space, ‘it’s the only one we’ve got’, and the caption in its companion adds, ‘Love it or leave it!’

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day, by Bruno Vincent

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Having done my share of constructing towers from Lego and bridges from drinking straws at company team-building events, I enjoyed this hybrid satire of vacuous corporate bonding and Enid Blyton-style adventure enormously. In it, Julian, George, Dick and Anne have grown up, though Timmy the dog is still alive.  They are all (apart from Timmy, obviously) working for the multinational Lupiter Fünckstein at its London headquarters where Julian has managed to wangle jobs for his relatives.  When they are sent on a team-building awayday in the sticks they find their well-established relationships under pressure.  The Secret Seven turn up as bitter rivals on the same course, with the difference that the Five’s shambolic approach is contrasted with the Seven’s superb organisational skills, though their high irritation factor is signalled by a propensity to play Kumbaya on massed ukuleles.

In the morning the Five have to undertake an indoor task, guiding blindfolded Julian as he navigates round pieces of paper representing landmines (tasteless to be sure, but an authentic-sounding challenge).  Thank goodness it was only bits of paper.  In the afternoon they are sent outside on an orienteering exercise, during which naturally they become lost.  Here the focus switches to an adventure more in keeping with the original stories, though with extra bickering, as if author Bruno Vincent had run out of ideas for making fun of the team-building industry.

In addition to the group exercises each member has had to do a personality test.  Their characters as defined by a crude paper and pencil questionnaire are credibly linked to the way they behaved as children, playing off Blyton’s stereotypes.  So they are categorised as leader (Julian), follower-on (Dick), renegade (George) and team player (Anne).  Unfortunately the Five discover that digging beneath characteristics which had never been examined is an uncomfortable process; moreover, such pigeon-holing can lead to friction, damaging hitherto productive group dynamics.  They eventually win through, more by luck than judgement, and they do it as a team even though on the basis of their scores they are abject failures.  But then, what do professional trainers with their abstract exercises and pop psychology know?

The book will appeal to anyone who either enjoyed the Famous Five as children or has had to endure ghastly team events stuffed with bullshit-bingo cliché.  I was particularly amused at Corporate Relations getting the best meeting room and food, at the expense of departments which actually made the company money.  Having begun my career as a thrusting young executive in British Telecom’s Corporate Relations Department I found that plausible: BT’s CRD in the 1980s was certainly full of senior ‘managers’ whose sense of entitlement was inversely proportional to their often less than stellar performances.

Billed as ‘Enid Blyton for grown-ups’, Quercus are jumping on the updated Ladybirds bandwagon with their series.  There is a market for books which simultaneously allow older readers a shot of nostalgia mixed with cynicism about the modern world, and the infantilism of team building makes the topic a perfect match for a parody built on a Blytonian-style substructure.  Vincent shows that these allegedly bonding events companies insist on sending their hapless employees on are pointless, definitely time-wasting, and potentially corrosive of professional relationships – some things are better left unsaid in the work environment, especially if you despise your co-workers.  As George amply demonstrates, the strain of having to pretend to be positive while bored witless during team exercises is best countered with lashings of alcohol.

Five Go on a Strategy Away Day was a quick read, so I thought the £7.99 price a little steep, though because these books are so popular it is possible to pick them up cheaply (mine was 40p, which I thought reasonable).  Now, having learned about the career developments of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, I’m curious to know what the Five Find-Outers and Dog have been up to recently.

California and the Golden Gate Bridge in photographs

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California Then and Now: People and Places, by Karl Mondon (and others), 2013.

Building the Golden Gate Bridge: Courage – Ingenuity – Vision, by Susan Tasaki (ed.), 2012.


California Then and Now

As the title indicates, this chunky small-format book juxtaposes photographs old and new to show how locations in California have changed, or not, over the decades.  The old one are archival images ranging from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s drawn from the Library of Congress, the Charles W Cushman Collection at Indiana University, San Francisco Public Library and the inevitable Getty Images; the new ones were, with some exceptions, taken by Karl Mondon, a California-based photographer.

Despite the subtitle this is more about the places than it is the people in them, with passers-by generally peripheral (a set taken in Haight Ashbury around 1967 an exception).  Rather than a single pair of photograph displaying then and now, there are often a number taken at different times, illustrating a site’s evolution.  Mondon has not slavishly recreated distances and angles but it is usually easy to match across periods.   Captions are confined to location and date, and commentary is absent apart from the very brief introduction.  Thus, for example, the reader is not told why a photograph taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station and captioned c. 1947 has the date May 19 1939 on the arrivals board.

Some localities have changed remarkably little over the decades, others have been completely transformed.  Almost half of the 400-page book is devoted to San Francisco, and the major differences here are the erection of tall buildings and the quantity of trees the modern city has compared even to the 1950s.

San Francisco is less changed than Los Angeles which on this evidence has lost a larger proportion of its old buildings, though there are enough for meaningful comparisons, including some superb ones from the 1930s.  Other places in the book include Long Beach, Pasadena, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Venice.  Catalina Island and San Diego have sections to themselves.  There is some repetition of ‘now’ scenes, but on the whole this is an enjoyable survey of a small part of California’s diverse topography.


Building the Golden Gate Bridge

In California Then and Now there are several photographs of the Golden Gate, including one of the area around Fort Point and across the strait taken in 1930, upon which someone has superimposed a ghostly outline, an artist’s impression, of the bridge which would shortly take shape.  Another dates from July 1934 during construction.  Building the Golden Gate Bridge, published by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, draws on the holdings of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District to document the bridge’s progress.

A short but informative introduction provides the background, from 1919 when the project was first mooted.  Remarkably, when the plan finally got off the ground in 1930, at a time of deep economic depression, no federal funds were available and finance was secured locally and with backing from Bank of America.  Construction began in January 1933 and the bridge opened in May 1937, linking San Francisco and Marin County.  As well as the engineers and managers who constructed the bridge, the book is a tribute to those with the vision to see how much a link would transform the bay area and who fought for the idea in the face of those who said it was technically impossible across such a wide expanse of water beset by strong currents and unfavourable weather.

Unsurprisingly for such a major project, the work was extensively photographed.  Those included here were taken by Charles M Hiller and Bev Washburn, often in difficult circumstances, and reveal month by month the steady rate at which the bridge took shape.  The images are accompanied by helpful captions.  The series begins in about 1932 before building began, showing how he strait originally looked, and concludes with the first vehicles crossing on 28 May 1937.  The volume is a record of an amazing achievement, photographed in beautiful black and white.  The subtitle – ‘Courage – Ingenuity – Vision’ – is well deserved as an accolade to those who took the ambitious proposal and made it reality.

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