Orcs and Oulipo – TLS piece by Peter Hoskin on Fighting Fantasy

There’s an affectionate piece on Fighting Fantasy books on the TLS website by Peter Hoskin (I am not sure if “TLS Online” means it will not appear in the print edition)

Some highlights:

The Fighting Fantasy books, which began with Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, are categorized as gamebooks. In each, the reader makes decisions about how the story will proceed. Do you want to go down the foul-smelling tunnel to the left, or up the rickety ladder to the right? Would you like to fight that monster, or run away in terror? Discovering the outcome of your choice, and making another choice, involves turning to a particular numbered section of the book. If you’re fortunate, you may eventually succeed in your quest. If you’re unfortunate, death awaits.

There is a brilliant cruelty to Fighting Fantasy, which is demonstrated by the treasure map in The Port of Peril. It took about half an hour of forking paths, monster encounters and dice rolls before I discovered that there was no treasure, and the real story was only just beginning. Half an hour in which I had been toyed with. “It’s like sprinkling petals towards quicksand”, is how Livingstone described the process when I spoke with him recently. “I really enjoy that”.

However, this isn’t cruelty for cruelty’s sake – at least not always. It encourages the reader to pay extra attention to the details of the story. My first death in The Port of Peril came when I decided to avoid a half-orc by hiding in a cellar. If only I’d remembered that I had moved an iron stove from a trapdoor to access the cellar, and the stove could just as easily be moved back by anyone who wanted to keep me down there. Heedlessness, in these books, is the quickest route to failure.

Some notes on the history of FF books:

The whole series began when Geraldine Cooke, then an editor at Penguin, asked Livingstone and Jackson to write a book about the craze that, through their company Games Workshop, they had imported into Britain – Dungeons & Dragons. They proposed, instead, a book that might allow people to experience the craze for themselves. This was D&D, but without the complex latticework of rules and equations, nor the need to corral several people around a table for a hard night’s play. This was a slimmer, solo experience.

Not everyone at Penguin was as broad-minded as Cooke. In Jonathan Green’s excellent book about Fighting Fantasy, You Are the Hero, Cooke reveals that one member of senior management was so unimpressed with the idea that he “la[id] his head on the table and howled with laughter”. His view, presumably expressed between guffaws, was that these interactive books would never catch on

I do wonder if Hoskin slightly overstates the influence of interactive fiction in this piece. We read:

Nowadays, many other writers are applying similar constraints to their work. The app version of Iain Pears’s novel Arcadia (2015) presents its readers with a sort of map that they can press their fingers to, allowing movement between different branches of the story. These branches were written to work alongside each other, but also with the software and within the dimensions of an iPad.

One novel does not a trend, or a school make… and there remains a gimmickiness to much interactive fiction. I say that as someone whose later childhood was fairly dominated by the “five fingered bookmark” Livingstone mentions in the last paragraph:

Perhaps we’ll see a widespread return of what Livingstone calls the “five-fingered bookmark”, used by adventurers who want to retrace their steps as soon as something goes wrong. This is cheating, really, although it’s also in keeping with the greatest lesson that Fighting Fantasy can teach. Every page is a precipice from which you can return. Die and try again.

Hoskin invokes B F Skinner and Oulipo in a brief survey of the precursors of the gamebooks, but misses one, earlier, precursor: William Gerhardie and Prince Rupert Lowenstein. I’ve written about this before:

One of his works I have yet to track down is Meet Yourself As You Really Are written with Prince Rupert Lowenstein, father of the Prince Rupert Lowenstein (or more properly, Rupert Louis Ferdinand Frederick Constantine Lofredo Leopold Herbert Maximilian Hubert John Henry zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, Count of Loewenstein-Scharffenec) who became financial manager of the Rolling Stones. In his biography A Prince Among Stones (which Sir Michael Philip Jagger, perhaps actuated by jealousy due to relative lack of names, responded: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think your ex-bank manager should be discussing your financial dealings and personal information in public”) the younger Lowenstein describes the work:

He [Prince Rupert] was a writer, or more precisely, he had had a modestly successful book first published by Faber and Faber … which he had written with William Gerhardi, a novelist, playwright and critic, born in St Petersburg to English parents, who was a renowned and pioneering supporter of Chekhov’s writing in the West. (Gerhardi was also a keen supporter or the Tsarina, whom he had met as a young man, and believed that the best influence in Russia was, contrary to all normal belief, that of Rasputin who had been violently against the war in Germany…)

Meet Yourself as You Really Are was a very early example of home psychoanalysis, one of those psychological quizzes that offers instant insights into your personality and psyche … You are asked a long list of questions about all aspects of your life, covering everything from childhood to phobia, social behaviour to daily routine. I remember one that asked ‘Do you like your bath water tepid/hot/very hot?’ … From these answers and a scoring systems, you could discover your personality type among multiple permutations (three million possibilities, the book’s strapline proclaimed) leading to a number of basic key type.

William Gerhardi and my father had decided to name these different types after rivers, so you might at the end of the process discover you were the Rhine, the Nile, the Tiber or the River Thames, the latter with its conclusion ‘You’re the sort of poor mutt who always pays.’


“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!


Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.

Piece on cardiac surgery in Times Literary Supplement

I have a piece in the current TLS – full text behind a subscription/paywall but here is a preview…

A Medical Education

In the current TLS I have a review of two books on cardiac surgery. One is Stephen Westaby’s  memoir of his career, the other is Thomas Morris’ historical perspective.


The full text is not freely available online, so here is the bit the TLS have made available to tease you all:

It is tempting to place Stephen Westaby’s Fragile Lives, a memoir of his career as a heart surgeon, in the category the journalist Rosamund Urwin recently called “scalpel lit”; following Atul Gawande’s Complications (2002) and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017), here is another dispatch from a world arcane even for the majority of doctors. To some degree, Westaby’s book follows the Marsh template. In cardiac surgery as in neurosurgery, life and death are finely poised, and even minor technical mishaps by the surgeon, or brief delays in getting equipment to theatre, can have…

View original post 80 more words

Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.


And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here

From “The Long, Long Life of Trees”, Fiona Stafford


In spring, you can feel life stirring in the barest twigs and the silhouetted catkins look as if a diminutive duck has run across the sky. One day the twigs are just beginning to thicken and brighten and bulge; by the next they are covered in pincer-paired leaves and pale, lime-white or pink-tinged blossoms. There is nothing tentative about these vernal explosions. When the days are longer, it is all sap and fresh smells, and the liquid calls of birds hidden in the drifts of thicker foliage. The bark has been through it all before, but the craggy faces of cherry tress seems less pinched in the bright light. By early November, when it is all dank and dark, the woods have a different taste, which does not quite match the ember-fall, sugar-brown shaken leaves.

Yeats on Kipling: “I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me”

A letter to the TLS:

Sir, – Jan Montefiore’s review of Alexander Bubb’s book on Kipling and Yeats (February 24) deserves a footnote. The Irish journalist Lionel Fleming, while on the staff of the Irish Times, met Yeats several times. On one occasion Yeats remarked: “It might surprise you to know what I am reading. It is Kipling. I dislike his works so much that I feel sure it must have something to teach me” (see Fleming’s Head or Harp, 1965).

University of Bamberg, 96045 Bamberg.

There’s also an interesting letter from Martin Scorsese responding to a review of “Silence” (at the same link)

Der Untergang (Downfall) – reviewed for SAU Blog, April 28th 2005

Downfall loomed large in 2005 as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps, at that point, the fact that some of the survivors of Hitler’s bunker were still alive made it all the more vivid as a story. It is an intense watch, with a lot of suicides (the wikipedia article Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany is worth reading for an overview of this phenomenon) which has, perhaps unfortunately, become best known because of the Hitler Reacts meme.

Here is my SAU review, which perhaps somewhat uncomfortably combines my evident enjoyment of the film with my recognition of the point made by Michael Burleigh forcefully in the TLS. It is also instructive to note Burleigh’s 2005 comment on Germany – “the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere” – the years since have heightened Germany’s power in the world considerably:

Der Untergang (Downfall)
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel
certificate 15, 2004

Watching Der Untergang in the cinema, what is most striking is the sheer strangeness of seeing a believable Adolf Hitler incarnated on screen. The opening scene is set in November 1942, and four young German women are shepherded to Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. One is to become Hitler’s secretary. One of these ladies is Traudl Junge, on whose memoir To The Last Minute, along with the historian Joachim Fest’s consultancy, the film is based.

The friendly guard knocks on the door to see if Hitler is ready to receive the ladies. Slowly, Hitler emerges. He shuffles across the screen, oddly reminiscent of Nosferatu in Murnau’s and Herzog’s films. His voice, too, when he speaks, is strangely vampiric; throaty, guttural and rasping South German. This, along with his courtesy, gives him a tired, grandfatherly air. He is kind to the young women, putting them at their ease and asking them to drop the “Mein Fuhrer” business, before selecting the Munich girl Junge for an individual audition.

In his office, Hitler first fondles his dog Blondi, before telling Junge not to worry about making any typing errors, as no-one could make as many mistakes as he does while dictating (so to speak). In a trial dictation, Junge freezes up. The pressure of the moment gets to her. Hitler notices, and gently asks her to start again.

The action then shift to April 20th 1945, Hitler’s 56th and last birthday. He is spending it in Berlin, discovering that Russian artillery is shelling the city from a mere 12 kilometres away. Hitler is considerably less kindly to his military staff on discovering this news. Later, we see his bitter regret that he did not imitate Stalin and wipe out his officers, who are now failing to manoeuvre various armies largely existing in Hitler’s imagination rapidly enough to bring them to bear on the situation.

One objection made to the film – most notably by Michael Burleigh in the TLS – is that, far from being brave and ground-breaking, it is very much in line with a certain Germany tradition:

Successive German ambassadors to Britain have chided us about this country’s unhealthy obsession with the Third Reich. In fact, much of this obsession is a response to Germany’s own addiction to the Nazi past, as anyone can easily establish by flicking through publisher’s catalogues, Die Zeit and Der Spiegel, or channel-hopping German television. The obsession seems to be growing, for as the economy limps along, and the great currents of history flow elsewhere, Germany’s artistic finest again and again try to freshen up the old brown gang to showcase their talents, going where Grass, Beuys, Kiefer, Syberberg and all the rest have been many times before.

Of course, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film differs from the work of the artists Burleigh mentions in that it is in a popular medium, one bound to have a much greater reach than the works of Beuys or Kiefer. It has garnered enormous international attention as the first film to “humanise” Hitler, showing him being kindly to his dog and his secretary. Bruno Ganz’s central performance – praised for its brilliance by all critics I have read, including Burleigh – is remarkable. It is somewhat absurd to claim to find the portrayal of a man who died thirty-three years before I was born convincing, but based on newsreel footage and the simple fact that this portrayal is not that of a caricature Hitler foaming at the mouth, Ganz is an uncanny double.

I do not share Burleigh’s low opinion of the film’s artistic merits, but his suspicion of this film as part of a cult of Nazi-myth making is worth bearing in mind. Certainly considering the lovingly presented DVD packaging in Vienna I came across a few days after seeing the film in Dublin, (the film is already on DVD release in the Teutonic world) with its undeniable air of bunker-chic, I felt somewhat queasier about the whole enterprise. The Premium Edition DVD package features a cardboard case inside the main slip case, the dirty concrete colour of the bunker walls. The two DVDs nestle in this handsomely designed case, with little bits of bunker signage printed on the cardboard.

My queasiness is partly at the sheer power of the story. It would be one thing if it was a bombastic propaganda piece, filled with obvious national self-pity. The film is much more artful than that. As well as its considerable histrionic and artistic merits, any story of desperate men and women facing their last days on earth has a power to move. At various stages I found myself dabbing at tears, thinking at the same time that damn it, this is the end of Nazism, the end of the worst tyranny the world has known, here on the screen. Some of this is the simple, unsubtle power of the cinema screen. It is a rare film in which we feel the absolute absence of empathy with the protagonists. Some is the nature of what is being portrayed, and even the most ardent anti-Nazi would surely find the Goebbels children’s fate monstrous and tragic. But of course, that fate was chosen by Dr and Frau Goebbels, just as the fate of all the characters was chosen by Adolf Hitler.

There are many beautiful touches – the instant lighting of cigarettes all around the bunker when the Fuhrer expires, the burial party that has just hurled Hitler and Eva’s corpses into a hole to be consumed by petrol-fuelled flames forced to break off their last Heils to take cover from artillery fire – and, pace Michael Burleigh, it is a very impressive piece of film making. The music is striking, with its undertones of Wagner (Gotterdammerung seems never to be far from the imagination of those who deal with the last days of the Third Reich), but never overwhelming or emotional.

Some years ago, Simon Schama wrote in the New Yorker of the Hollywood films set in the past that betray a tin ear to the otherness of other times. He was writing about Amistad, Spielberg’s boring civics lesson steeped in modern mores and social attitudes, as well as the likes of Michael Collins. Mainstream Hollywood treats the past as a source of instant pseudo classiness, as opposed to a different world to be explored and chronicled with care and attention. Troy, with Achilles and Hector spouting sentimental and/or atheistic tosh that would have repelled Argives of any era, was a prime example.

Schama contrasted the usual Hollywood history with films like Aguirre, Wrath of God and The Return Of Martin Guerre, which truly inhabited the ultimate foreign country, the past. Of course, no film will ever be historically accurate in the pedantic sense of internet-based obsessives (and its worth noting that flatulent historical epics leached of anything that might trouble modern audiences in terms of morals or behaviour invariably employ legions of experts to ensure that the swords are the right length) but it is worth at least trying. Just as historical novels freighted with research flounder if they fail to capture an atmosphere or a mood of the past, an embarrassment of scholarly solecisms can be forgiven if this elusive atmosphere is captured.

Der Untergang, too, is a film which meets Schama’s test. It has an ear for the past that goes beyond the details of uniforms and weaponry. Aside from its emotional pull, the inevitable result of any filmed depiction of similar events, its power derives from this sense of being close to a documentary. Of course, no doubt a host of errors and conflations of facts are present, and this sense of historical authenticity is – always has to be – something of a sham. Burleigh notes, for instance, that while the film’s heroes are largely from the Waffen-SS, none of these are French or Latvian volunteers – which he identifies as a factor in making this:

a chauvinistic film with disagreeable undercurrents of German “victimhood”.

Burleigh also noted the coyness of the non-depiction of the Fuhrer’s suicide. I can’t recall seeing a film featuring so many self-murders in my life – indeed by the end so often have we seen SS men blow their brains out that it loses all impact – yet the central suicide is unshown.

We see a corpse wrapped in a blanket, and a bit of blood on the sofa, but not the annihilating moment. But then to show Hitler shooting himself might indicate a certain finality, the last thing anyone inadvertently collusive with Nazi myth-making seems to welcome.

It is the annihilating moment, and after Hitler departs the scene, the rest of the film is curiously flat. It is somewhat like, ironically, The Merchant of Venice, with things being nowhere near as interesting once Shylock departs in Act IV. Of what remains, the Goebbels family suicide is the most uncomfortable scene to watch. There’s a curious and disturbing sense that, having denied us the final sunset of Hitler, we are made to watch as if in compensation a mother’s infanticide of her own children. Interestingly, the camera cuts away too from Goebbels’ shooting of first his wife and then himself.

One can also sympathise with Burleigh’s observation that:

Rather than watching Hitler morosely shovelling down mashed potatoes and pulses in his claustrophobic underground empire, we could have had more ideological insights or something to give clues as to how this possessed nonentity came to power. The quotidian trivia are so distracting that you might almost miss the fact that this wreck of a man has slaughtered 6 million Jews.

Normally I have little sympathy with those who demand that directors achieve “balance” in their films, confusing filmmaking with coalition building. But I do in this case, firstly because of the enormity of the Nazi crime, and secondly because Hirschbiegel himself pulls away from the claustrophobia of the bunker to try and give us a sense of “balance”. In the only overtly mawkish touch in the film, we see a father desperately try and persuade his son, one of the children decorated by Hitler for their tank-busting endeavours, to abandon the struggle. The boy treats his father with contempt, until his companions are killed and he runs crying home to Papa. The vignette does tell us something of the destruction rained on the German people by the tremulous wreck incarnated by Ganz, but one feels that, if we are shown this, why not something of the horrors suffered by the Russians, or the Poles, or the Jews?

Der Untergang is a potent piece of work. As a work of cinematic art, it has much to recommend it. Any recommendation, however, has to come with an injunction to read about the men and events portrayed in it, and more especially the actions of those men which led to those events. Its power is impressive, but also proof of the superiority of the written word to visual drama to the achievement of an understanding of history.