Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan

A memorable date…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The 28th of June 1919 is one of the very few historical dates I never forget. One hundred years ago today, the victors and vanquished of “the war to end all wars” gathered in Paris to sign the treaty that brought the Great War officially to an end – the Treaty of Versailles. On the same day, in a small town in the north of Scotland, my grandmother gave birth to her youngest son, my father, conceived while her husband was home on leave from that war. Twenty years later, the world would be plunged into another devastating war, and my father would spend six years of his youth fighting in it.

The generally accepted view is that the harsh terms meted out to Germany in the Treaty contributed to its economic collapse, creating the conditions in which Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and thus were a major contributory cause of the Second World War. In this book, Margaret MacMillan looks in depth at how the Treaty was formulated and argues that, flawed though some of its terms were, the peacemakers did as well as they could in fairly impossible circumstances. She goes further, arguing that the reparations demanded from Germany were not as punitive as previous historians have suggested, and can’t be seen as having led directly to WW2.

I’ll start by saying MacMillan failed to convince me of the latter, but mainly because I felt her argument was based on something of a false premise. In fact, I felt she over-emphasised the importance that history has given to the reparations element of the Treaty, thus enabling her to knock down an argument that few people would make in quite such black and white terms, except as a convenient shorthand. I was once tasked at University with writing an 800-word essay on the causes of the First World War, and found it an impossible task because how can one possibly condense so much complexity into such a tiny word count? (MacMillan herself took 500 pages to do it, in her later, excellent book, The War That Ended Peace.) Saying that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles caused WW2 seems to me the equivalent of saying that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused WW1. It’s true, but not the whole truth.

The Big Four – David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S.

In fact, though, her argument is only a tiny part of the book, crammed into a few pages at the end. The bulk of the book is a detailed look at the negotiations that led up to the Treaty and, like the war itself, ranges far beyond western Europe in scope. Macmillan first introduces us to the main peacemakers – the heads of government of the Allies. She sketches their characters and explains their motivations as they sat round the table – Wilson of the USA and his desire for a League of Nations, Lloyd George trying to defend and expand Britain’s empire, Clemenceau of France, after repeated Franco-German wars desperate to take this opportunity to crush Germany so it couldn’t represent a future threat, and Italy’s Orlando, out for a land grab of the other side of the Adriatic.

MacMillan then takes us around the world, nation by nation, explaining how and why the peacemakers decided to carve them up and reshape them in the way they did. Some of their motivations were altruistic, to protect minority ethnic populations within nations and to give (some) peoples the right to self-determination. Some were designed to build a bulwark between western Europe and the newly revolutionary Russia. Some were simply a matter of expedience – the art of the possible. And some were frankly down to national greed and expansionism. Many of the decisions they made are still reverberating today, such as the uneasy amalgamation of different ethnicities and religions crammed together and called Iraq, or the decision to create a Zionist homeland for the Jews in land belonging to the Palestinians. The dismissive treatment of Arabs and Asians, and non-white people generally, isn’t unexpected but it’s still breath-taking in its arrogance, and we still pay the price for it every day. That’s not to say that the peacemakers could have somehow waved a magic wand and made all these problems disappear, and to that extent I agree with MacMillan. Even at the time, though, many warning voices were raised but ignored.

Spectators climbing over furniture to watch the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919

MacMillan writes well and clearly, and spices the dry facts up with anecdotes that are revealing about the various personalities involved in the process. I’m afraid I have to admit shamefacedly to being far more interested in the major western powers than in all the little nations in the Balkans and the splintering Ottoman empire, so I found some chapters considerably more interesting than others, but that’s down to my biased worldview rather than MacMillan’s writing. While I found it tedious to learn all about these amalgamated countries which were created after WW1 only to disintegrate again post-WW2, I found that many of the sections gave a great deal of insight into the origins of some of our on-going problems today – Syria, Palestine, Iraq, even the background to the philosophical reasoning behind the rise of ISIS, although this book was published in 2001 before that became a thing. Closer to home, it also explains a lot about what happened in western Europe over the next couple of decades, and in the US and the Far East, too, to a degree. Perhaps the scope is a little wide, so that some parts, such as Japan and China, felt rather shallow and rushed, but that in itself gives some idea of the immense complexity the peacemakers were forced to deal with in a short space of time.

Overall, then, although I found it hard going in places and found myself unconvinced by MacMillan’s attempt to absolve the Treaty from its role in contributing to WW2, I learned enough to make it well worth the time spent reading it. Sometimes, though, I think historians shouldn’t work quite so hard at finding a “revisionist” angle…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 196…

Episode 196

Wow! I think this may be the biggest fall ever in my TBR – down 6 to 225!! Partly this is because I abandoned a couple that weren’t working for me and partly it’s to make room for a bunch of books I’m expecting to arrive in the next week or two. But still! I’m feeling like a winner…

Here are a few more that will be appearing on court soon…

History

In a couple of months, it will be the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War and, it’s often said, paved the way towards the Second. In this highly regarded book originally titled Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan tells the story of the negotiations and decisions of the peacemakers, and disputes some of the commonly held opinions on the outcomes of the treaty. Since I hold those commonly held opinions, she’s got her work cut out to change my mind…

The Blurb says: Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Centre stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who with his Fourteen Points seemed to promise to so many people the fulfilment of their dreams. Stern, intransigent, impatient when it came to security concerns and wildly idealistic in his dream of a League of Nations that would resolve all future conflict peacefully, Wilson is only one of the larger-than-life characters who fill the pages of this extraordinary book. David Lloyd George, the gregarious and wily British prime minister, brought Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab delegation. Ho Chi Minh, a kitchen assistant at the Ritz, submitted a petition for an independent Vietnam.

For six months, Paris was effectively the centre of the world as the peacemakers carved up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals, and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China, and dismissed the Arabs. They struggled with the problems of Kosovo, of the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews.

The peacemakers, so it has been said, failed dismally; above all they failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have unfairly been made the scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. She refutes received ideas about the path from Versailles to World War II and debunks the widely accepted notion that reparations imposed on the Germans were in large part responsible for the Second World War.

A landmark work of narrative history, Paris 1919 is the first full-scale treatment of the Peace Conference in more than twenty-five years. It offers a scintillating view of those dramatic and fateful days when much of the modern world was sketched out, when countries were created–Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel–whose troubles haunt us still.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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English Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is a new edition that OWC have published this month, so I slipped it onto my Classics Club list. I feel I may have read it before as a teen, but I’m not sure. So either it’ll all come flooding back to me when I start reading… or it won’t! It’s huge…

The Blurb says: The greatest ‘state of the nation’ novel in English, Middlemarch addresses ordinary life at a moment of great social change, in the years leading to the Reform Act of 1832. Through her portrait of a Midlands town, George Eliot addresses gender relations and class, self-knowledge and self-delusion, community and individualism.

Eliot follows the fortunes of the town’s central characters as they find, lose, and rediscover ideals and vocations in the world. Through its psychologically rich portraits, the novel contains some of the great characters of literature, including the idealistic but naive Dorothea Brooke, beautiful and egotistical Rosamund Vincy, the dry scholar Edward Casaubon, the wise and grounded Mary Garth, and the brilliant but proud Dr Lydgate. In its whole view of a society, the novel offers enduring insight into the pains and pleasures of life with others, and explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, and, above all, human relationships.

This edition uses the definitive Clarendon text.

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Fiction

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins via NetGalley. I chose this one purely based on the blurb and because of the Malaysian setting. It will be my introduction to Tash Aw so I don’t know what to expect, but it sounds good…

The Blurb says: A murderer’s confession – devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable – which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.

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Crime

Courtesy of Vintage Digital via NetGalley. Another debut which claims kinship with some of the greats of contemporary crime writing. The last time I read a book claiming to be “perfect for fans of Peter May” it provoked an extremely blunt review from me. I’m hoping this one will fare better…

The Blurb says: A stunning, atmospheric police procedural set against the grit of Inverness and the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands, this is the first book in the DI Monica Kennedy series.

Sixteen-year-old Robert arrives home late. Without a word to his dad, he goes up to his bedroom. Robert is never seen alive again. A body is soon found on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. Detective Inspector Monica Kennedy stands by the victim in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape. Instinct tells her the case won’t begin and end with this one death.

Meanwhile, Inverness-based social worker Michael Bach is worried about one of his clients whose last correspondence was a single ambiguous text message; Nichol Morgan has been missing for seven days. As Monica is faced with catching a murderer who has been meticulously watching and waiting, Michael keeps searching for Nichol, desperate to find him before the killer claims another victim.

From the Shadows introduces DI Monica Kennedy, an unforgettable new series lead, perfect for fans of Ann Cleeves’ Vera, Susie Steiner and Peter May.

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Classic Club Spin #20

And the winner is…

Hurrah! For the first time in ages, the Classic Club gods picked one I’m actually looking forward to reading!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

FictionFan Awards 2013 – History/Biography/Politics

Drum roll please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2013.

What, I hear you all asking breathlessly, are the FictionFan Awards? (Oh, you didn’t ask? Never mind, I’ll tell you anyway…)

THE CRITERIA

 

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2012 and October 2013 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

 

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

History/Biography/Politics

Crime/Thriller

Science/Nature/Environment

Literary Fiction

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2013

 

THE PRIZES

 

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

HISTORY/BIOGRAPHY/POLITICS

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

live from downing streetLive from Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media by Nick Robinson

The BBC’s own Political Editor tells the history of the symbiotic relationship between politicians and the press, from its earliest days through to the end of the Gordon Brown era. A fascinating and very readable account given added interest by Robinson’s own involvement in the media over the last couple of decades. He gives a thoughtful analysis of the BBC’s reputation for unbiased reporting and argues that bias may become unavoidable in the internet era. The later parts of the book have an introspective air about them, as Robinson seems to re-assess some of his own actions throughout his career.

Click to see the full review

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the war that ended peaceThe War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

A thoughtful, well-balanced and detailed account of the decades prior to the First World War, showing the fears and power-plays that led to a devastating war that nobody wanted. A very accessible book that focuses on the individuals involved as much as the nations, and tells us not just about the politics, but also how both military planning and public opinion impacted on the drive towards war. A salutary reminder that peace can’t be taken for granted.

Click to see the full review

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the men who lost americaThe Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

Scholarly but accessible, this book looks at the inevitability or otherwise of Britain’s loss in the American War of Independence. O’Shaughnessy introduces us to each of the British commanders and politicians (including George III) who were in charge of the running of the war, and argues that in most cases they don’t deserve the opprobrium heaped on their individual heads. Well written, informative and enjoyable, the book tells as much about the military and naval campaigns as it does about the politics.

Click to see the full review

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wealth and powerWealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century by Orville Schell and John Delury

An absolutely fascinating book that takes an in-depth look at the psyche of China through the words and writings of its leading thinkers. Starting from the mid-19th century and bringing us up to the present day, the authors show how the encroachment of the Western empires and defeats at the hands of enemies within and without led, not just to the fall of the empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but to the creation of a national mind-set that has kept the aim of achieving ‘wealth and power’ at the heart of Chinese politics ever since. Illuminating and thought-provoking, this explains (without justifying) some of the excesses carried out as China sought to regain her position as a world power.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2013

 

Unfinished Empire

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

In this immensely interesting book, Darwin covers the last 500 years of history to show how the British Empire grew to its enormous size and then gradually contracted in the late-19th and 20th centuries. He does this by breaking the huge subject down into a series of themed chapters that makes it approachable and easy to follow. He shows how similarities and differences in the approach to controlling the empire depended on local circumstances; and gives a very clear picture of the global and historical context, placing the British Empire as one of a line of empires that have risen and fallen throughout history. In fact, while obviously the book is primarily about the British Empire, its scope and clarity of presentation made me feel almost as if I were reading a history of the world over the last half-millennium.

In what has been a great year for histories, biographies and political books, this one stands out because of its sheer scope and Darwin’s ability to present a vast amount of information in a way that made it accessible and enjoyable.

Click to see the full review

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Next week: Best Literary Fiction Award

The War that Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan

“Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the war that ended peaceAs a Brit, studying the First World War at school in the seventies, memories of the Second World War were still fresh enough amongst parents and teachers that there was never really a question that the Germans were the ‘bad guys’ in both wars while we (the Brits, primarily, though a little bit of credit was occasionally given to the Allies) were the knights in shining armour. Enough time has passed since both wars now for a more rational view to be taken and this book by Margaret MacMillan is a well balanced, thoughtful and detailed account of the decades leading up to 1914.

MacMillan begins by giving an overview of the involved nations as they were at the turn of the century – their political structure, alliances and enmities, their culture and economic status. She then takes us in considerable depth through the twenty years or so preceding the war, concentrating on each nation in turn, and going further back into history when required. She introduces us to the main players: political, military and leading thinkers. She explains how and why the two main alliances developed that divided Europe and shows the fears of each nation feeling threatened or surrounded by potential enemies. And she shows how this led to an arms race, which each nation initially thought would act as a deterrence to war. Throughout she draws parallels to more recent history and current events, sometimes with frightening clarity.

Family at war - Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II (Photos : Getty Images)
Family at war – Nicholas II, George V and Willhelm II
(Photos : Getty Images)

In the mid-section, MacMillan discusses public opinion and cultural shifts, highlighting the parallel and divisive growth of militarism and pacifism and how the heads of government had to try to reconcile these factions. She indicates that, although the peace movement was international, that at times of threat, the membership tended to split on national lines – an indication that the movement would falter in the event of war, as indeed it did.

Next MacMillan explains the development of military planning and how these plans gradually became fixed, allowing little room for movement when war began. She explains that the Schlieffen Plan assumed war on two fronts and that, when it came to it, the military insisted that it wasn’t possible to change the plan at the last moment to limit the war to the Eastern front, with all the implications that had for ensuring that France and therefore Britain would become involved. MacMillan also shows how the plans of each nation assumed an offensive, rather than defensive, strategy, taking little account of how modern weaponry would change the nature of warfare. Thus, when the war did come, the leaders still expected it to be short and decisive rather than the long drawn out trench warfare it became.

Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen Plan

In the final section, MacMillan walks us through the various crises in the Balkans and elsewhere in the years leading up to the war. She makes the point that not only did these crises tend to firm up the two alliances but also the fact that each was finally resolved without a full-scale war led to a level of complacency that ultimately no country would take the final plunge. And in the penultimate chapter, she takes us on a detailed journey from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand up to the outbreak of war, showing how each government gradually concluded it was left with no alternatives but to fight. In a short final chapter, she rather movingly summarises the massive losses endured by each nation over the next four years, and gives a brief picture of the changed Europe that emerged.

Overall, I found this a very readable account. MacMillan has a clear and accessible writing style, and juggles the huge cast of characters well. I found I was rarely flicking backwards and forwards to remind myself of previous chapters – for me, always the sign of a well-written factual book. As with any history, there were parts that I found more or less interesting. I found the character studies of the various leaders very enlightening, while I was less interested in the various military plans (though accepting completely MacMillan’s argument of their importance to the eventual inevitability of war). I got bogged down in the Balkans (always a problem for me in European history) but in the end MacMillan achieved the well-nigh impossible task of enabling me to grasp who was on whose side and why. This is a thorough, detailed and by no means short account of the period, but at no point did I feel that it dragged or lost focus.

Lions led by donkeys
Lions led by donkeys

One of the problems with the way I was taught about WW1 was that we tended to talk about the nations rather than the people – ‘Germany did this’, ‘France said that’, ‘America’s position was’. MacMillan’s approach gives much more insight, allowing us to get to know the political and military leaders as people and showing the lack of unanimity in most of the governments. This humanised the history for me and gradually changed my opinion from believing that WW1 was a war that should never have been fought to feeling that, factoring in the always-uncertain vagaries of human nature, it could never have been avoided. This isn’t MacMillan’s position – she states clearly her belief that there are always choices and that the leaders could have chosen differently, and of course that’s true. However, it seemed that by 1914 most of them felt so threatened and boxed in that it would have taken extraordinary courage and perception for them to act differently than they did, and inaction may have meant their country’s downfall anyway. A sobering account of how prestige, honour and national interest led to a devastating war that no-one wanted but that no-one could prevent. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 5…

Episode 5

 

A slight change to TBR Thursday this week, due to the fact that this has been a terrible week for the old TBR. A combination of NetGalley, Amazon Vine and my own total lack of willpower means my list has grown to a ridiculous and out-of-control 104! So instead of adding yet another, I thought I’d share some of the books already on there that I’m looking forward to reading over the next few weeks…

Courtesy of NetGalley:

 

the war that ended peaceI remember once being asked to write an essay explaining the causes of the First World War in 800 words. This book looks as though it will go into the subject in considerably more depth…

“Beginning in the early nineteenth century, and ending with the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, award-winning historian Margaret MacMillan uncovers the huge political and technological changes, national decisions and – just as important – the small moments of human muddle and weakness that led Europe from peace to disaster. This masterful exploration of how Europe chose its path towards war will change and enrich how we see this defining moment in our history.”

*****

elizabeth of yorkInexplicably, I’ve never read any of Alison Weir’s books. Time to remedy that…

“Elizabeth is an enigma. She had schemed to marry Richard III, the man who had deposed and probably killed her brothers, and it is likely that she then intrigued to put Henry Tudor on the throne. Yet after marriage, a picture emerges of a model consort, mild, pious, generous and fruitful. It has been said that Elizabeth was distrusted and kept in subjection by Henry VII and her formidable mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, but contemporary evidence shows that Elizabeth was, in fact, influential, and may have been involved at the highest level in one of the most controversial mysteries of the age.

Alison Weir builds an intriguing portrait of this beloved queen, placing her in the context of the magnificent, ceremonious, often brutal, world she inhabited, and revealing the woman behind the myth, showing that differing historical perceptions of Elizabeth can be reconciled.”

*****

Bellman & BlackI’ve seen some reviews of this that have been disappointing, but all from people who had read Diane Setterfield’s first book and felt this didn’t live up to expectations. I haven’t read The Thirteenth Tale so am intrigued to see if I’ll enjoy it more…

“Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born.”

*****

Courtesy of Vine:

 

sense and sensibility trollopeWhat was I thinking? A remake of Sense and Sensibility for the modern age?? Yeuch!! I absolutely know I’m going to hate this…unless of course I love it…

“Joanna Trollope’s much anticipated contemporary reworking of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility will launch The Austen Project and be one of the most talked about books of 2013.

Two sisters could hardly be more different. Elinor Dashwood, an architecture student, values discretion above all. Her impulsive sister Marianne displays her creativity everywhere as she dreams of going to art school. But when the family finds itself forced out of Norland Park, their beloved home for twenty years, their values are severely out to the test. Can Elinor remain stoic knowing that the man she likes has been ensnared by another girl? Will Marianne’s faith in love be shaken by meeting the hottest boy in the county? And when social media is the controlling force at play, can love ever triumph over conventions and disapproval?”

On the upside, it’s a great excuse to re-read the real thing…

*****

Pre-orders:

jeeves and the wedding bellsThis could be as big a mistake as Sense and Sensibility…or it could be wonderful…

“A gloriously witty novel from Sebastian Faulks using P.G. Wodehouse’s much-loved characters, Jeeves and Wooster, fully authorised by the Wodehouse estate.

Bertie Wooster, recently returned from a very pleasurable soujourn in Cannes, finds himself at the stately home of Sir Henry Hackwood in Dorset. Bertie is more than familiar with the country house set-up: he is a veteran of the cocktail hour and, thanks to Jeeves, his gentleman’s personal gentleman, is never less than immaculately dressed. On this occasion, however, it is Jeeves who is to be seen in the drawing room while Bertie finds himself below stairs – and he doesn’t care for it at all.

Love, as so often, is at the root of the confusion. Bertie, you see, has met Georgiana on the Côte d’Azur. And though she is clever and he has a reputation for foolish engagements, it looks as though this could be the real thing…”

*****

saints of the shadow bibleAnd finally, most eagerly anticipated, my beloved Rebus! One I know for sure I’ll love…won’t I?

“Rebus is back on the force, albeit with a demotion and a chip on his shoulder. A thirty-year-old case is being reopened, and Rebus’s team from back then is suspected of foul play. With Malcolm Fox as the investigating officer are the past and present about to collide in a shocking and murderous fashion? And does Rebus have anything to hide?

His colleagues back then called themselves ‘the Saints’, and swore a bond on something called ‘the Shadow Bible’. But times have changed and the crimes of the past may not stay hidden much longer, especially with a referendum on Scottish independence just around the corner.

Who are the saints and who the sinners? And can the one ever become the other?”

*****

All blurbs are taken from either Amazon or NetGalley.

What do you think? Any of these that you’re looking forward to too? Or are there other new releases you’re impatiently awaiting?