About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 30 July 2009

"A fool's alphabet" by Sebastian Faulks

By the author of Birdsong.

By a strange coincidence I read this in the shadow of Vesuvius; the book starts "Vesuvius was erupting".

The book traces the first 41 years of the life of Pietro in an alphabet of places that are significant to him. These are not, as the rubric referred to in the book implies, places where Pietro has spent a night; they include A=Anzio where his father was injured which led to a meeting with his mother and M=Mons where his grandfather fought. Many of the places are also embedded in other places as reminiscences. However the demands of the form makes the narrative flicker backwards and forwards through time. It becomes difficult to work out key details about Pietro's life; sometimes this is enough to make you keep reading but at other times you are just plain confused. The overall impression (surely the author's intention) is that life is a random jumble of events, some of which have significance far beyond their apparent importance.

It does get you wondering what your biographical place alphabet would be. Here is a first attempt: Athens, Bedford, Cambridge, Downing (?), Eton, France, G, H, I, J, Kingston, L, Malvern, N, O, Paris, Q, Rome, S, T, U, V, Wootton, X, Y, Z. Some of these might need further work!

July 2009, 274 pages

Monday, 27 July 2009

"Testimony" by Anita Shreve

This novel begins explosively as a headteacher at a posh private school in Vermont watches a video of three of his male adult students having sex with an underage female student. He immediately thinks of expulsion and cover up although he is upset because he recognises and likes the male students involved. The book then explores, through the viewpoints and testimonies of each ofthe people involved, including the parents, the ramifications of this single act. As a fiction the book is excellent, "uncluttered" in Steph's phrase, and each different voice is captured so that you really get an impression of each of the characters. The book is sympathetic to each of the character's viewpoints, although the girl (totally not a victim) is clearly an utter airhead.

There are a number of moral issues left hanging. Given that the headteacher's own sex life is scarcely a model of rectitude (he slept with his wife the night that he met her at a party) it is difficult to understand why what the boys did was so totally awful that it led to such shame. Yes it was filmed and yes she was underage but older boys sleep with younger girls regularly and the sky does not always fall in. The other question is whether the school should have attempted to cover up: the consequences of what happens after the press find out are so awful that a cover up is the best thing. If this could have been just 'boys will be boys'it would have blown over.

A powerful and thought-provoking book, somewhat American in its love of details and the way it wrings the last drops of drama from the situation. Well-constructed although rather clearly constructed.

July 2009, 305 pages

Sunday, 26 July 2009

"Garibaldi; invention of a hero" by Lucy Riall

This is not really a biography at all but an examination of why Garibaldi became this extraordinary hero who could, almost single-handedly, overthrow the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Riall's thesis is that Garibaldi was invented by Mazzini to fit the current model of a romantic hero. Taking the cue from Walter Scott's historical romances and other romantic fiction, Mazzini and Garibaldi together concocted a persona that was based on the real man but meant much more. Mazzini then used the exploding new medium of journalism to propagandise Garibaldi even whilst he was still a revolutionary gaucho in Montevideo. Garibaldi also took past in this project of mythologisation with his speeches, his writings and,above all, a carefuly cultivated dress. Riall points out that after the disasted of Rome, when Garibaldi tried to get a job with the regular armed forces of Piedmont, Garibaldi's dress was as befitted a slightly elderly middle class general.But when he went on this pirated ship to capture Sicily with his Thousand the last thing he did before stepping aboard was to change his clothes to his trademark red shirt,feathered hat and poncho. Garibaldi manufactured and cultivated his brand and, Riall maintains, this was the secret of his success.

He was the romantic hero come to life.

An intriguing hypothesis but is you want a book about Garibaldi I would start elsewhere.
July 2009, 392 pages

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"The Ascent of Money" by Niall Ferguson

This book is subtitled A Financial History of the World and tells the story of finance from Mesopotamian days to the 2007 credit crunch. It accompanies a Channel Four TV series, traces of which can be seen in the prose (there are frequent references to places which are clearly camera shots: the East End of Glasgow, Memphis, and Stowe House for example).

It is not organised as history but in themes (presumably the programmes). Thus: one chapter considers government bonds, one traces the history of shares, one considers insurance and one property. There is a considerable emphasis on the recent turmoil on the financial markets; as a history it has a definite bias to the more recent. There are many interesting moments; I was, for example, charmed by the anti-capitalist antecedents of Monopoly. But there are also occasions when I wanted to know more, more, more: he mentions the Dutch Tulip bubble and the South Sea bubble both of which I know something about but I wanted more; he tantalisingly mentions (twice) the collapse of Overend Gurney but he never tells us what happened. Not only this but I was left floundering by his explanations of what a hedge fund is; and of put,call and swap options.

All in all this was an interesting book but not a fascinating one and it left me frustrated with a lot of unanswered questions.

July 2009, 362 pages

Monday, 13 July 2009

"Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is best known, according to the Daily Telegraph, for the Sandman series of graphic novels. This is my first Neil Gaiman book. It is an adult version of a Terry Pratchett book but not so funny.

When 'Fat' Charlie Nancy's dad dies he discovers that he is the son of the trickster God Anansi, the Spider. Then Charlie's brother Spider turns up. Within a day Spider has stolen Charlie's fiancee and enmeshed Charlie in a fraud. But Charlie's attempts to get rid of Spider have even worse consequences.

There are some delightfully funny parts of this book: the characters, especially the old ladies, are convincing and the situations are those classic comedy situations which are totally and utterly ridiculous but are less than a feather's breadth away from everyday embarrassing reality. Gaiman can write some classic prose (and some classically cliched prose) and there was one moment when I actually laughed aloud: Grahame was "ready, as the poet said, to risk it on a turn of pitch and toss. He had risked and he had won. He was the pitcher. He was the tosser." (Chapter 8).

I enjoyed the reality bits but I thought the god bits were a bit unsubtle. I would have preferred the story to have been entirely real except for the hint of mystery when the gods are acting.

Gaiman writes fluently. Although he audaciously mixes myth and reality he is NOT one of "fiction's most audaciously original talents" as it says on the back. In many ways the book is deeply unoriginal. The character of the evil but slimy theatrical agent is standard, as is the ice mother-in-law; most of the plot elements are predictable (night out leads to hangover leads to problems at work); there are homages to Reggie Perrin amongst other works; the demi-God Spider discovers that he needs real love from a real woman rather than his cool magical life; the story theme sounds like a novelist justifying himself. All in all this was a fairly standard romp and Pratchett is wittier.

July 2009, 451 pages

Sunday, 12 July 2009

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

I massively enjoyed Gladwell's Tipping Point and quite enjoyed his Blink but I found this book rather lightweight in comparison. Like the others it was extraordinarily easy to read (less than two days) but the first two books seemed to be bursting with strange ideas whilst this one recycled a few ideas I had met before.

The book is an attempt to describe why some people (Bill Gates, Jewish lawyers, the Beatles) are especially successful. Here is the Gladwell formula:
  1. You have to be born at the right time. He notes that star Canadian ice hockey players tend to be born in the first three months of the year. This is because the cut-off date for junior players is 1st January. Thus those born in January are physically more mature and stronger than their youth team mates born in December; this difference is crucial when talent scouts pick young players; those picked then get more practise and match experience and so develop into stars. Furthermore, Bill Gates was lucky to be young when the computer industry was taking off and the most successful Jewish lawyers were all born in 1930 or 1931 so they escaped both depression and WWII.
  2. You have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. Getting the opportunity to do this is mostly luck. Bill Gates happened to go to a school which bought an early computer; he happened to live near a university that offered him free overnight access (there was a bug in the program so he got it free). The Beatles played Hamburg. Gladwell believes the success of Chinese immigrants to America is because of the culture of rice paddy farming: whilst European peasants worked hard at planting and harvest they lazed through the rest of the year; rice paddys need such careful planned cultivation that a rice farmer can never relax. 10,000 hours of hard work adds up to success.
  3. You have to come from a culture that will allow you to succeed. The rice paddy example above is an obvious one but Gladwell also mentions deleterious cultures such as the vendetta culture of the Appalachians (imported from the Irish and Scottish border countries apparently) to the high PDI (power distance index) culture of Korea and Guatemala responsible for plane crashes (because First Officers don't dare to tell their Captains that they are running out of fuel or about to fly into a hillside).

Of particular interest to me were the bits about education. Gladwell points out that middle class children are parented in what he calls concerted cultivation. Thus through the holidays middle class kids are taken to museums and made to read books. On p257 he shows that children from every class (Low, Middle or High) make about the same improvement over their school year. But High class children continue to improve during the vacations. Middle class children improve slightly but much much less than High class; Low class children lose ground in holidays. "The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long" (p260).

I was, of course, also interested in what the aeroplane crashes taught about the dynamics of a management team.

An interesting book but, on the whole, a disappointment.

July 2009, 285 pages

Sunday, 5 July 2009

"Edward I: A great and terrible king" by Marc Morris

This is a biography written about a fascinating king whose life was full of chivalry and derring do: this is a swashbuckler of a biography. I absolutely loved this book. It is exactly my sort of history: kings, battles and politics. But there were also loads of interesting snippets about the middle ages and items that raised questions about what happens nowadays. Here are many snippets I adored:

Edward's father was Henry III, son of King John. Henry was a pretty feeble king, not very good at warfare and prone to policy reversals that veered from wimpishness to ferocity: the classic poor leader. One of the few good things about Henry was his reverence for Edward the Confessor, after whom he named his son (Edward was the first king to be given a Saxon name since the Conquest - there had been two Guillaumes, three Henris, a Ricard and a Jean). This reverence also led Henry to rebuild Westminster Abbey in the gothic form with which we are now familiar.

Edward's mother was Eleanor of Provence whose maternal uncle, Peter of Savoy, came to England to advise her. Henry gave Peter a house on the Strand in London (p7) which later became Savoy House and is now the Savoy Hotel and Theatre.

The later part of Henry's reign, whilst Edward was an active teenage prince, was taken with the struggle against Simon de Montfort. This was the 'Baron's War', a civil war in which de Montfort fought for the administrative reforms known as the Provisions of Oxford (1258). De Montfort won the Battle of Lewes (1264) against a numerically superior royalist force but was the defeated and killed at the Battle of Evesham (1265). In the intervening year, de Montfort ruled England at the head of triumvirate who 'advised' the king; he also summoned a parliament. This was not the first parliament (Henry had already been summoning parliaments which he expected would agree to new taxes but didn't). What made de Montfort's parliament a first was that he asked every county and selected boroughs to elect two representatives each and send them to Westminster. This was therefore the first elected representative parliament. His intention was clearly to pack it with his men because his support was strong among the towns but weak amongst the aristocracy.

Simon de Montfort's son, Guy, later took revenge for the death (and mutilation) of his father by assassinating Henry of Altmain, his cousin, in the church of St Silvester, in Viterbo near Rome (p106). For this act of wickedness he was placed in the seventh circle of Hell by Dante in the Inferno.

Hugh Bigod was the younger brother of Roger Bigod, a leading member of the council of fifteen set up by the provisions of Oxford. His father had been one of the 25 "sureties" of the Magna Carta. In 1258, Hugh was sent out on a "countrywide judicial tour to correct all manner of wrongdoings" (p41). He became Chief Justiciar of England between 1258 and 1260 and was succeeded by Hugh Le Despencer.

It was during Henry III's reign that the legends about Robin Hood began. When Henry wanted money he found himself unable to raise it via loans or taxes so he encouraged his officers (eg the sheriffs) to raise money via fines. The story about young Robert of Locksley, Earl of Huntingdon, being deprived of his inheritance may reflect the punitive measures adopted by Henry III after the Battle of Evesham: rebels were deprived of their lands and known as the Disinherited. "One group laid waste to the counties of East Anglia; others began to create similar havoc in the Midlands and in Hampshire." (p76) The Hampshire leader, Adam Gurdon, was based in Alton Woods. Prince Edward, heir to the throne, personally defeated Adam but was "so impressed with the skill of his adversary that he allowed him generous terms of surrender" (p76). Robin Hoodlike indeed!

When Edward decided to go on crusade he summoned a special parliament to Northampton, presumably "because of its spectacular Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by a knight of the First Crusade [Simon de Senlis] in imitation of the original he had seen in Jerusalem" (p83).

When Edward's queen (Eleanor, just like his mother, but she was Eleanor of Provence whilst he married Eleanor of Castille) dies Edward erected an Eleanor Cross at every place the funeral procession stopped overnight on the way from Lincolnshire to Westminster Abbey. Some crosses still survive (eg at Hardingstone in Northamptonshire) whilst others (Charing Cross) don't. After the funeral, Edward spent Christmas 1290 in Ashridge in Herfordshire. He held a parliament there.

About this time the Maid of Norway, who was the last heir of King Alexander III of Scotland, who had conquered the Isle of Man before riding his horse off the edge of a cliff during a storm, died on the sea voyage from Norway to claim her kingdom. As well as becoming Queen of Scotland she would have married Edward of Caernarfon, Prince of Wales, Edward I's last surviving son (one of his now dead elder brothers had been called Alfonso, Queen Eleanor having come from Castille, so we might have been ruled by King Alfonso!). Not only did the Maid's death ruin the chances of uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland but it also threw the succession for the Scottish crown into complete confusion with 13 different claimants including Florence, Count of Holland (so Scotland could have had a King Florence!; later Edward arranged for Florence to be kidnapped, in the course of which he was murdered). Edward manipulated this confusion until he was granted overlordship of Scotland and appointed chair of the committee that eventually awarded the throne to John Balliol, son of the man who founded Balliol College in Oxford.

Scotland was, at this time an ethnic melting pot of ancient Britons (around Galloway), Anglo Saxons from Northumbria (around Edinburgh), Vikings (Hebrides and Orkneys) and Irish (the 'Scottii') (p241).

In 1293 Edward married his daughter Eleanor (confusing family, mother, wife and daughter all called Eleanor) to Henry III Count of Bar. Bar was where Joan of Arc came from some centuries later.

Edward used Italian bankers called the Riccardi. Basically he granted them customs duties from wool in return for loans. But when their bank failed (classically, by being unable to cash in investments when required to return deposits) Edward arrested them. Banking was still a dodgy business; only the Jews were allowed to practice usury. But anti-semitism built up in England partly because people borrowed from the Jews and then couldn't repay so their estates were forfeit but because the Jews couldn't hold land the estates were bought up for a song by speculators who included Edward's Queen. This got to the point at which the landowners who made up the parliament more or less forced a not very unwilling king to expel the jews in return for being granted a tax.

In April 1299 Edward held a parliament in Stepney! (p317)

In 1304, during the siege of Stirling Castle, Edward's troops used gunpowder (p343). They also used a huge trebuchet called the Warwolf (lup de guerre).

In 1303 the crown jewels were stolen from Westminster during a nationwide crime wave which included thugs called trailbastons (because they dragged big clubs called bastons along the ground behind them) (p 346).

Edward of Caernarfon (Prince of Wales) had a manor in Kennington (which was turned into a Palace by his great grandson the Black Prince) where today the Oval is part of the Duchy of Cornwall and thus owned by the present Prince of Wales.

Another royal residence mentioned is Sheen. This was a manor house just to the east of what is now Richmond Bridge; it later became Sheen Palace and then Richmond Palace. This was where, in 1305, the Commissioners for Scotland went down on their knees to pay homage to Edward I.

When Edward II was knighted vows were said over two golden swans which "set a fashion for swearing oaths on birds for the next two centuries." (p355)

Edward I died at Burgh on the Sands in Cumbria whilst preparing to invade Scotland again. His body was buried in Westminster Abbey in a plain box of black Purbeck marble. An inscription was added in the sixteenth century but this seems to have been a copy of one that dates from at least 1320. The inscription reads EDWARDUS PRIMUS SCOTTORUM MALLEUS HIC EST PACTUM SERVA. This translates as Edward I Hammer of the Scots is here. Keep the Vow. This would have been the vow that the nobility of England "had all sworn at Whitsun 1306 ... to avenge the rebellion of Robert Bruce" (p378).

Gosh I enjoyed this book.

July 2009, 378 pages



Saturday, 4 July 2009

"Stuart. A life backwards" by Alexander Masters

This is the biography of Stuart Shorter, homeless man. It starts with his death and moves backwards through the prison sentences and, hostels, crimes etc to his traumatic childhood. It seeks to explain how the 'chaotic' homeless have beome who they are. It is the story of a remarkable man who suffered tremendously at the hands of nature, his family and 'The System' and is yet perceptive, funny and wise.

As well as the story of Stuart we have the framing story of the developing friendship of Stuart and Alexander. The catalogue of misunderstanding as Alexander tries to explain the inexplicable (Stuart) is extraodrniarily funny. I suppose the humour was the last thing I expected in a book about such a grim topic and yet it is perhaps the funniest and most charming biography I have ever read.

Funny and also moving; Mark Haddon calls it 'Bollocks brilliant'; I agree.

June 2009, 292 pages