About Mark Pack

Mark Pack is a public relations expert, blogger and leading Liberal Democrat commentator. His website is here.

The strange obscurity of Eugene Burdick

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Mark Pack explains why the work of a now almost forgotten political novelist is worth seeking out…

A best-selling author shifting millions of books in the post-war decades, a renowned public intellectual, a friend of celebrities such as Marlon Brando, a highly respected political scientist and famous enough to feature in an advert for Ballantine Ale, Eugene Burdick’s career was tragically cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1965, aged just 46.

He’s now an almost completely forgotten figure, so obscure that the majority of his books do not even merit their own Wikipedia pages and the only people I encounter who know of him are those I’ve already shared the mystery of his obscurity with.

The unpopularity of his views on Vietnam – he combined liberalism with fierce anti-communism, making him a public supporter of the US government’s military intervention – don’t really explain this obscurity, especially as they trigged his novel turned successful Marlon Brando movie The Ugly American. Nor does his choice of topics, for three of his novels have themes which should make them frequent contemporary reference points.

The Ninth Wave, published in 1956, follows a political campaign complete with then cutting-edge innovations of opinion polling, computers and the use of campaign consultants. Though we now know – even in a world of Facebook and Obama – that data and numbers can’t quite predict and control political outcomes in the way the book lays out, the world has turned out close enough to Burdick’s picture of the future to make The Ninth Wave a prescient and still relevant story, and one that should be loved by people who are into the mechanics of politics, despite the rather uneven quality of the writing (caused in part by it being ‘written’ via dictation without subsequent editing.)

Loved too should be Burdick’s 1965 novel, The 480. The title is a reference to the 480 different groups the electorate has been divided into by that novel’s political campaign stars – a set of slicing and dicing closely based on the real work done by John F Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign.

As with The Ninth Wave, we know political campaigning has turned out to have a greater role for art than the pure-science envisaged in the novel, but once again it’s easier to see how the book could have remained a favourite of political geeks rather than one that faded into obscurity, especially given the JFK-approved veneer it gives to modern targeting techniques.

Then there is his 1962 Cold War nuclear drama Fail-Safe, co-written with Harvey Wheeler about a series of mistakes which result in a US nuclear bomber force heading off to obliterate Moscow. Made into a successful film directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau, its subsequent obscurity (save for a televised play in 2000) is at least more understandable in that the year of the film’s release, 1964, also saw Dr. Strangelove hit the cinema.

Fail-Safe may have been a good movie (and you can enjoy its trailer here) but Dr. Stranglove, with a similar subject matter, was an all-time classic movie.

Indeed, Fail-Safe was so similar to Red Alert, the book on which Dr. Strangelove was based, that legal action was taken for copyright infringement, with a view to delaying the Fail-Safe movie until after Dr. Strangelove has been released. The result was both an out-of-court settlement and Dr Strangelove indeed getting released first. (Somewhat confusingly, this Burdick work was originally was published in Britain with a different title – Red Alert – and with the author using a different name, Peter Bryant.)

Yet none of that really explains why Eugene Burdick has so firmly disappeared from view. So if you like political thrillers, Cold War dramas or both – take a look at his work and enjoy.

Aldous Huxley: When an author is just too successful

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The future seems to have converged on Aldous Huxley’s once brave predictions…

Rooting around for a new audio book recently to listen to on my daily commute – as there are only so many Bryant and May novels I can fill my days with – I decided to give Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World a try.

I remember reading it years ago. Or rather, I’m sure I must have read it years ago as there’s a copy on my bookshelf and I’m as likely to put an unread book on my shelves as I am to remove a book from my shelves and bin it. I trust my filing system over my memory.

A classic science-fiction novel, regularly rated one of the best English novels of all time? That’ll do nicely.

But then I started listening to it and found it remarkably plodding. Turgid rather than elegantly slow moving. Now, I know that in the linguistic analysis scales, if I’m not keen on Huxley, you should bet on Huxley being right and my tastes being flawed. Even I would. But what was it that didn’t work for me, 83 years after he wrote his masterpiece?

It is that he slowly, elegantly and in detail describes a vision of the future that was at the time shocking but now is common place. Partly because the world has moved towards the future he predicted – with genetic engineering and training of our instinctive mind the stuff of medical reality. Partly also because the sorts of dystopian future he depicts are now utterly common-place in any mediocre, middle of the road, special effects extravaganza Hollywood science fiction movie that comes and goes with barely a moment’s notice.

Of course it is to Huxley’s credit in large part that his vision of the future is so commonplace. It was so well thought through than 83 years on it still resonates, and so popular that 83 years on 1,001 others have copied it in its various ways. Just as with Tolkien, the novelty of Huxley’s writing is hidden under the numerous subsequent and inferior imitations. Orcs and programmable babies were both once novel.

It’s a remarkable achievement to have painted a picture of the future so long ago that it still works today as anything other than an anachronistic oddity. All the more so to have written it before the advent of computers or modern genetic engineering and yet to have captured many of their impacts so well. And it would be sacrilege to suggest anyone could edit it into a better, pacier novel.

But at least please forgive me if I only pay half-attention through the long descriptive passages as I find my way once again between the Victoria and Jubilee Lines.

I have learnt to hate the flashing cursor…

Mark Pack was tormented by a cursor – but to good effect (you can buy his book here).

I have learnt to hate the flashing cursor, sat at the top of a blank page in Microsoft Word. For many people, my discovery of something to hate about Microsoft Word, Microsoft or computers in general may seem rather belated.

My dislike of the old random crashes in the middle of work on a former computer didn’t make me hate it. More, it generated the sigh of disappointment that you get if a chocolate cake recipe is not up to the mark. A shame that something that could and should be so much better has failed to deliver. But not hate.

I have always had a soft spot for Microsoft computer products, especially as Outlook’s integration with gadgets and Excel’s all-round performance were for years so much better than that of rivals. Only the rise of Google and resurrection of Apple have started to change that.

Sure, I was weaned on WordPerfect and lapped up the elegant power of its codes. Please, please, however never make me have to use again one of those botched office suite combinations that WordPerfect was squeezed into.

As for Microsoft Word, I never really disliked the animated paperclip that much. (I actually find paperclips quite interesting, and have had to learn the hard way that telling someone you know three interesting facts about them is liable to leave you talking to yourself.)

Now, however, I have learnt the hate. Otherwise known as writer’s block.

It all started last year when I decided I wanted to do something a bit more than contribute yet another chapter to yet another book, write another pamphlet or do another Liberal Democrat campaign manual.

Writing a whole book on my own still felt too much of a leap, requiring too much non-existence time to somehow be found. Instead, a collaboration was formed with an ex-colleague and we hatched a plan for a book comprised of 100 tips – in other words, 100 short chapters, so however hard we found the writing surely we would always be able to force out another chapter one at a time, writing in bite-sized chunks.

How hard could that be?

Bloody hard, is the answer.

Things started well with the fantastic cafe at the top of Waterstone’s (to me it will always have an apostrophe) in Piccadilly providing the charming location for brainstorming sessions to come up with 100 ideas.

Some days the words flowed easily, spreading across the page with the same ease as breathing or blinking.

Some days were so different. Oh how I learned to hate the blank screen, its emptiness mocking my inability to turn years of accumulated knowledge into even mere scraps of disjointed sentences. No thought seemed the right commencement. No premise the correct starting point. No anecdote a relevant prologue.

Just the blinking cursor. Disappearing and then coming back as if to say, “Oh look. You’re not written anything. I’ll just appear here again, right where I was before. I’ll pop off again in a moment. Wonder if I’ll be coming back to the same location once more?”

Each time, eventually, the cursor was dislodged from its perch at the top left, peering over a blank page below. Painfully slowly at times it got pushed down the page, down down towards the word target for each chapter, as thoughts of quality were abandoned in a search just to get to the end and then thank the gods of chocolate for having a co-author who I could send off my words too and let him knock them into shape.

Eventually, hooray – all 100 chapters draft. Then it was time for the rewrites (and the discovery of a missing point that made the 100 become 101). And now finally, the excitement of the appearance of the book for pre-ordering, with real people handing over money – pounds and pence of their own! – to secure a copy. My epitaph can now be, “Once peaked just short of the 1,000 top bestsellers list on Amazon”.

Shortly too there will be the moment of exhilaration at seeing, touching and even smelling a hard copy of the printed version, enjoying the texture of a printed book in all its beautiful practicality.

Will it all have been worth it? Most certainly. Have I yet made it up with that cursor? Most certainly not.

Why I love books

Mark Pack on why he can’t stop dabbling with a gadget that might be old but is quite a way from being obsolete.

Pile up my work and personal gadgets on a table at home and what do you find? One desktop computer. Two portable computers. One iPad. Two Blackberries. An iPod. A digital camera. A mobile WiFi hotspot. And quite simply the best USB accessory ever, a funfair from Hong Kong.

Then take your eyes away from the picture of gadget addiction and let them roam up any of the walls. You will see books, books and more books. I like my gadgets, but I love my books. There is no e-book reader in that monument to technology on the table.

What is it that makes me love books and spurn electronic book readers? It is the wonders of the printed format.

My books are ultra-reliable, with the text always instantly accessible the moment I take one off the shelf.

Even when a book suffers a catastrophic failure and the spine gives out, scattering pages on the floor, it is easy and quick to recover. Restoring corrupted data is a snip when it is a collection of pieces of paper, each one containing a sequential ordering system serial number telling you how to restore the data. (That’s page numbers to you and me.)

The books never need charging or recharging. I have books I have owned for decades, using and abusing them many times. Yet they are still always there, fully primed ready to be used the next  time. Paper life is measured in centuries, not the measly hours of battery life.

Clear my table of those gadgets and I can start with but one small book in my hand. When I want to branch out and refer to another book, it can take a place on table, open at the right place. To be joined if I wish by another book, and then a dictionary, then an atlas, then one more book and on and on until I have dozens of books scattered in front of me, all easily reachable and with my eyes able to dart instantly back and forth.

Not even a web browser groaning under multiple tabs or a computer with multiple screens can get close to providing the feast of visual information in front of me that the printed word can present.

And then there is the search. Oh of course, electronic books have their electronic word search. But searching simply for matches on precise words is the Ryanair of searching. Brutally effective and very limited.

With my printed books I can search using the full range of my memories. Memories of heavy books, small books, colourful books, plain books, something read near the end of a chapter, that book with the weird line spacing, something seen next to some photos, something where I turned the corner of a page. All the wonderful different variety of clues that half lodge in my memory can help me locate information in the way that a text search box spurns with its fanatical narrowness.

Books do memories well, and memories are not just for searching. They are for savouring. The battered book. The water damaged spine. The coffee marks on the cover. The blood stain on the inside. The folding and refolding of edges on certain pages. The notes scribbled in margins. The smudge of lipstick on the edge. The scattered range of items used as bookmarks, little history mementoes themselves. The occasional inscription in a childhood book from a long-forgotten adult or in a birthday present from a long-cherished friend. A book is far more than the collection of printed letters on its pages.

It is, moreover, a safe place for memories. Books are a permanent format for permanent ownership. No worries about future legal changes or technological discontinuities suddenly depriving me of books or making them unreadable. No fuzziness about whether you own or are just renting a book. Purchased and mine; simple and easy.

So it should be, for a book is far more than a mere transmission mechanism for words. It is a memory, an entertainment and a form.

E-readers with their obsession about weight and size and screen resolution are like those who go to see a play with a stopwatch in one hand and a clicker in the other, counting up how many words per minute they get out of that night’s play.

It is the performance that entertains, entrances and educates, not the mere use of an optimal transmission mechanism.

The look, the touch, the smell, the convenience, the memories – they make books lovable. Proper books, printed books, permanent books.

The Acta Diurna, or how the Romans had an internet-savvy approach to information

The Dabbler’s communications expert Mark Pack reflects on how there’s nothing new under the sun, at least in communications: there’s another thing the Romans did for us.

Before the internet, before computers, before even electricity, the Romans had a communications technology that showed an understanding of how to get the right information into the right hands which is still highly applicable to the online world.

The Acta Diurna were daily public notices, posted up in public locations around Rome. Lesson one – put your information where the audience is.

The content mixed dry official news such as the latest magistrates to have been elected with news of greater human interest, such as notable births, marriages and deaths or strange omens. Lesson two – spice up information with interesting human colour. (Or, in the 21st century, a photo of a cat. Though Pliny the Elder did recount a story he read in them about a dog who faithfully followed his dead master’s body into the river at the funeral.)

Rich people would send scribes to find the latest Acta Diurna, make a copy and bring it to them. Provincial governors too would keep in touch with the news by having copies made and despatched to them. Caesar didn’t go round threatening to feed people to the lions for breaking his copyright. Lesson three – make it easy for people to share your information and it will spread far.

Whilst out of power, Cicero was moved to complain about the contents of the Acta Diurna for giving others a false impression of what he had been up to: “I receive letters from princes of foreign states thanking me for the part I have taken in making them kings, while I did not even know that there were such persons in the world”. Lesson four – if you want to influence what people think about you, don’t leave it to others to do all the communication.

Or in other words – when someone tries to dazzle you with the wonderous newness or fiendish technicalities of a communications medium, remember that the basic principles remain much the same.

The world’s least successful fort?

Whilst recently going polar bear watching in Canada, I visited what must be a very strong contender for the world’s least successful military fort.

Construction of the Prince of Wales Fort, at the mouth of the Churchill River on the Hudson Bay in Canada, started in 1731 (probably; though the plaque on it says 1733), to replace a previous wooden affair. The inhospitable and far-flung location meant construction went not only slowly but really slowing. It was not until 1772 that it was completed, 41 years on.

It was meant to be a modern design displaying the very latest in fortification knowledge, but it was a design that was badly flawed as was discovered when a cannon was test fired for the first time on site. The recoil on the canon was greater than the width of the wall, meaning that each time a canon would be fired there would be a big risk of it recoiling back and falling off the inside edge of the wall on which it was positioned. Appropriate for Carry On Up A Fortress perhaps, but not very practical. As a result, the walls had to be nearly doubled in width during the construction.

A decade after it was finished, the fort went into action for the first time. A French expedition under Admiral Jean-Francois Galaup arrived, finding the fort without any soldiers and only 39 civilians. The absence of soldiers was not completely surprising as the fort had been a private construction by the Hudson Bay Company, but even so with a mere 39 people to possibly defend the fort against the French ships their commander, Samuel Hearne, wisely decided to surrender without a shot being fired.

Forty years in the making and handed over without a shot being required; the world’s least successful fort?

Dabbler Heroes: Tim Goodman

I’ve never met Tim Goodman. I don’t know what he looks like [see above, Ed.]. I don’t know what he does most of the time. I don’t know if that’s his real name or a professional nom de plume. I don’t even know which country he lives in. Or if he’s alive.

But I do know he has given me hours of entertainment thanks to his amazing abilities at narrating audio books. His voice brings characters, scenes and plots to live in a way that adds to the impact of the original author’s words just as an actor adds to the writing skills of a playwright.

For me the London-based Bryant and May detective series without Tim Goodman is like the Bryant and May series without Bryant or without London.

Yet whilst actors get as much – if not – more attention than those whose words they bring to life on the small or large screen, on the stage or even on the radio, those who narrate books are mostly unsung. Think Hercule Poirot and most people will think David Suchet. Think George Smiley and most people will think Alec Guinness. But however good the audio book narrator, they never make it into the same thought.

Frequently barely mentioned in the packaging or online descriptions and rarely acknowledged for the skill they bring to the job, they are the unsung heroes. You only have to listen to an audio book with a narrator who is worthy and competent, but no more, to appreciate how much the very best contribute to our entertainment.

So here’s to Tim Goodman and his colleagues who are at the top of their profession and provide so much extra enjoyment to those of us who enjoy audio books.

1p Review: Graham Greene’s The Human Factor

Mark Pack does his best to avoid thinking about how many blog pieces he writes and how many chocolate pieces he eats. Blogging is usually at his own site and Liberal Democrat Voice, which he co-edits. Chocolate is usually milk, preferably with crunchy bits. When doing neither he used to be Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats (running the internet general election campaign in 2001 and 2005) and is now Head of Digital at MHP Communications. He is, and forever will be, one year older than email.

One of the problems faced by authors of printed novels is that however engrossing the story, each time the reader turns the page there is that physical indication of how far away they are from the end of the story. Makes of TV shows face a similar problem of known ending times, though it is one that film makers have more freedom to avoid. In real life some sequences of events turn out surprisingly straight-forward or finish sooner than expected, but in reading a book you have that constant physical reminder of when the story will end.

One of my favourite books is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the way it suffers from this is a classic of the genre. As the number of pages remaining diminishes yet the plot apparently is still in its early stages, the reader knows that some major plot trickery is afoot – and that clue makes it easier to guess what it might be and, even if not guessed, it makes the trick less surprising when it happens.

Graham Greene’s Cold War espionage novel The Human Factor (available for a penny here) manages to avoid this trap because even when you know you are on the penultimate page it is still far from clear if the story’s resolution will be a success for the West, for communism or for ambiguity and if the main characters will be left happy, sad or in limbo. Yet the ending manages not only to wrap up the plot but to do so without any implausibly high-paced drama in the final pages.

Greene is able to do that because his book is one of characters more than action. As with The Defection of AJ Lewinter, the moments of drama are not central to what the book is about. In The Human Factor, Graham Greene’s ambition was, he explained, “to write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service. I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life”.

Not only are the key moments of drama few, some of them even happen without being recounted directly in the book. Instead, the novel spends much time on detailed prosaic accounts of its characters domestic lives. The spies in this book are as much private individuals who happen to have a job in espionage as spies who happen to have a private life.

There are moments too of humour, and those who know me and my love of chocolate won’t be surprised to know that the repeated jokes about Maltesers (at the time of writing, a novel and unusual form of chocolate in the UK) particularly appeal.

The book is nominally about a suspected leak in a small sub-section of the British Secret Service, but this is really just the backdrop to a study of characters and the potential for mystery over who the leaker really is does not get much time in the book, especially if you spot the fairly big clue early on.

Given Greene’s skill with characters that is no weakness in the book but instead a strength, for it leaves more scope for the personal struggles of his characters. That makes for a well-balanced book that is easy to read and yet leaves much to ponder about how people should act.

The 1p Book Review – Robert Littell: The Defection of AJ Lewinter

Mark Pack does his best to avoid thinking about how many blog pieces he writes and how many chocolate pieces he eats. Blogging is usually at his own site and Liberal Democrat Voice, which he co-edits. Chocolate is usually milk, preferably with crunchy bits. When doing neither he used to be Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats (running the internet general election campaign in 2001 and 2005) and is now Head of Digital at MHP Communications. He is, and forever will be, one year older than email.

Cold War espionage novels make for a crowded field and one in which the elegant conversations of The Defection of AJ Lewinter (1p from here)have been unjustly forgotten. In part that may well be because the book elegantly builds to a fantastic last line – but a last line that one cannot really retell without giving away the whole book. Nor can one really appreciate the full stylish grace of the plot’s construction until it is capped by that last line.

As a result, there is little of the plot that a reviewer who respects yet-to-be readers of the book can say of the plot other than, “Trust me, it’s worth the read” or a brief account that makes the book sound much like dozens of other novels.

That would be to miss its charm. What can be said is that the different quality of this espionage thriller is reflected in there being but one death in this thriller – a death that is all the more shocking for the book’s understated tone. It is also a book in which the characters talk and talk and talk. There is a plot and there is action, but this is a thriller that would never make it as a Hollywood action epic.

There are traces too of black humour too as a Cold War defection leaves both sides unsure as to whether they are the real loser from the switch and where the truth lies. AJ Lewinter is a physicist who has done military research and then, on a trip to Tokyo, defects to the Soviet Union. Not only the Americans but also the Soviets want to know why. For the Americans, why has he gone, what did he know and when did his loyalties end, and for the Russians, why has he come, what does he know, why did he switch – and is he a plant?

As characters mull over what may be true and what may be misdirection from the other side, thoughts of bluff, double-bluff and treble-bluff are discussed, but without the plot every spiralling into implausible complexity. Littell’s prose is often sparse, using precision to paint swift pictures of characters before getting into the main business of the conversations. His description of KGB man Pogodin is particularly fine: “one-quarter Marxist, one-quarter humanist, and one-half bureaucrat”.

That is the beauty of Littell’s writing – a simple set-up with a simple dilemma, yet complexity and ambiguity spirals away as people’s thoughts, rather than implausible plot twists, add to the uncertainty and make the situation twist and turn. It is a book that pleases with its swish cleverness, not with pulse-quickening moments of action. It is an unconventional masterpiece.