About Me

My photo
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

Sunday, 31 March 2013

"All the king's men" by Saul David

This book chronicles "the British redcoat in the era of sword and musket" from the first standing army of Charles II in 1661 to the battle of Waterloo in 1815. It starts with a brilliant prologue describing the (closer than normally accepted) battle of Sedgemoor of 1685 when the irregular rebels of the Duke of Monmouth were defeated by a small royal army that contained the future Duke of Marlborough. It then proceeds through the Glorious Revolution, the anti-Jacobite wars of William of Orange and the War of Spanish Succession culminating in Marlborough's successes at Blenheim etc; the Seven Years War with the Canadian success of James Wolfe; the failures in the American War of Independence; and the triumphs of the Duke of Wellington both in India, the Peninsula, and at Waterloo.

This is an unashamedly 'great man' version of history although there are many moments when the ordinary private is squeezed into the story of the great generals. There are times when David seems uncritical: some of the old stories about Waterloo, for example, are repeated without comment: did Wellington really call Waterloo a 'close-run thing'? But by and large these tactics keep the narrative rattling along; it could easily have been very boring.

I am not really a fan of military histories. I find it incredibly difficult to picture a battlefield and the long descriptions of columns advancing and flanks and wheeling squares leave me hopelessly confused. The maps in this book help little. Some maps of inadequately labelled: I did not realise the idfference between cavalry and infantry on one map until I encountered a better-labelled map later in the book. And I found the campaign maps frustrating: some were on too small a scale so that places mentioned in the text were off the map and others were on too large a scale: one map, for example, showed the entirety of Wellington's Peninsular campaign even though he advanced and retreated over several years.

I always like to pick up trivia. It fascinates me that famous people are often woven in and out of narrative threads that are far apart. Thus the doomed Duke of Monmouth had earlier been exiled for his part in the Rye House plot which had been against his own father. James Wolfe drilled his men in using their bayonets held at the hip rather than the shoulder many years before his martyr's death. William Cobbett 'accidentally' enlisted as a soldier and had to flee England after bringing allegations of corruption against some of his senior officers. The grand old Duke of York who was not much cop as a field commander was a fantastic administrator of the army. And the Duke of Wellington allegedly came up with the name Thomas Atkins (a soldier who had died at Breda against the French in 1794) to go on the specimen page of the Army paybook, thus creating the immortal Tommy.

An enjoyable book with a careful mixture of great men and little. March 2013; 500 pages

Monday, 25 March 2013

"The making of Europe" by Robert Bartlett

This is a history of Christendom (Western Europe) during the Middle Ages (from 950 to 1350). It follows the expansion of the Normans into England and later Wales, Ireland and, at least culturally, Scotland. It follows the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors and it follows the expansion of the German speaking world around the Baltic and into the territories of the pagan Wends and Slavs. Even in Italy, the Christians drive down south and recover Campania, Calabria and Sicily. It is thus principally a story of expansion.

What drove this expansion? Was it the extraordinary vigour of the Franks? Was it the religion? Was it the  economic model of prototype capitalism? Or was it technology? Inventions such as the modern plough enabled German farmers to cultivate much more land than the pagan Wends and to increase the productivity of their farms. This in turn led to their ability to support more monks, warriors and merchants. And this drove expansion. Frontier Lords repeatedly found new towns and are able, because of the agricultural improvements, to invite colonising peasants on favourable terms knowing that they will make a profit even if they tax their peasants at a lesser rate.

What is remarkable about this story is how modern everything is. Founding charters talk of investments and profits. And yet things are strange. Ethnicity is principally a matter of language and religion; therefore one can change one's ethnic group by converting and learning a new tongue. For the multi-cultural populations that grow up in frontier colonies there is the expectation that each will be tried by their own traditional laws; it is only with time that unified laws for all people in the same region are developed.

And there are the novel institutions. The Benedictine monasteries are each individual, though following the one Rule of St Benedict. The Cistercians, however,are all bound through mother houses back to the great grandmother abbey of Citeaux. But the expansion of monasteries, which each require a significant capital outlay to found with sufficient resources to sustain themselves, is dwarfed when the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans which need much less investment expand. And Universities set alight the touch paper of learning.

So this is an extraordinarily fascinating period. But the book is really difficult to read. It is a scholarly work but the general reader will find it tedious. Bartlett spends too long mustering his evidence, and sometimes defending his sources and criticising other authorities, and too little time telling the glorious story of these years. This does not make it a bad book. For its audience it is great and I hope to keep it as a work of reference. But I was frequently bored.

Exhaustive and sometimes exhausting. March 2013; 314 pages

Sunday, 24 March 2013

"Last orders" by Graham Swift

Jack Dodds, Bermondsey butcher,  is dead and has requested that his ashes be scattered off the Pier at Margate. Friends and drinking companions Vic (funeral director), Lenny (ex boxer), 'Lucky; Raysy (who plays the gee-gees and knew Jack in the desert campaign of WWII) and adopted son Vince (second-hand car dealer) but not wife Amy have a day trip to Margate (via pubs in Rochester and Canterbury) to fulfill his wishes.

The story is told from the point of view of the characters although Ray is the principal narrator. As they travel through Kent they think about their present concerns and their past relationships with Jack and his wife. Told in authentic south London voices, the author uses hints and ambiguities to keep the reader guessing and piecing together the back story.

This is a tautly written and captivating read which won the 1996 Booker Prize. March 2013; 295 pages.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

"The Prague Cemetery" by Umberto Eco

It starts in a very Dickensian (that should probably be Balzacian) vision of Paris. A man who forges documents for a living has lost his memory and wonders whether he has a split personality, the other half being a Jesuit. His grandfather suffered from paranoid fantasies about the Templars, the Freemasons, and the Jews. Already within the first hundred pages we have met du Maurier discussing hypnotism and someone who might be Freud. So far, so reminiscent of Foucault's Pendulum (though it is many years since I read that).

Then we trudge through the forger's history, sometimes from the diary he is writing, sometimes from the notes added to the diary by the Jesuit half of his split personality, and sometimes from the perspective of the Narrator. We go through his time fighting with Garibaldi and his transfer to Paris. He then works for various secret services, getting involved in a variety of famous plots. He works to discredit satanists and Freemasons and Catholics and Jews. He is involved in the Dreyfus plot and writing the Protocols of Zion; there is a scene at a satanic orgy.

But it rambles. It is boring. Eco sometimes goers on for a whole page about nothing such as when he lists the Masonic titles of one character for twenty lines (pp 406-407). There are scenes which Eco calls coups de theatre  such as the meeting of rabbis in the Prague cemetery, the black mass orgy, and the bodies in the sewer; these are rather cliched. The forger-hero has almost no personality except for a love of good food (another opportunity for Eco to show off his erudition by listing dishes in French) and as a result I really couldn't care about him. Huge dramatic moments such as his first killing are thrown away because he has so little character that these are just another episode for him. As a result, the fact that he suffers from a split personality and has amnesia prompted by a crisis seems rather implausible.

Eco wrote the wonderful The Name of the Rose; this dreadful book is so disappointing.

Ramshackle and tedious. March 2013; 556 pages.

Friday, 15 March 2013

"The signal and the noise" by Nate Silver

Nate is the man who called 49 out of 50 states correctly in the 2008 US Presidential election; he has earned money from online poker as well as by setting up a baseball stats prediction website. It was therefore refreshing to find that he was so sceptical about the prediction industry.

His concerns are:

  • Human forecasters are unreliable because:
    • As humans we are prone to attending best to data that confirms our prejudices. 
    • Sometimes there are incentives to be biassed (people prefer weather forecasters who predict rain when it turns out sunny rather than vice versa so there is a perverse incentive to over-forecast rain)
    • As humans we like spotting patterns even in random noise
    • Many of use are 'hedgehogs' who specialise in one very big idea (rather than 'foxes' who generalise in lots of ideas) and we seek to tell 'stories' that use data when it adds to the narrative and explains it away when it doesn't
    • We're rubbish at estimating probabilities: in particular, we convert small probabilities into impossibilities and large probabilities into certainties
  • Most patterns in data are swamped by noise
  • Things such as earthquakes and stock markets follow a power law (probably because of feedback effects)  which makes statistical forecasting possible but exact prediction impossible: we know the chance of a big earthquake striking LA but we don't know when it will happen
  • You can only make a decent living from poker (or the stock market) while there are enough bad players/ investors in the pool whom you can exploit. As they drop out it becomes harder and harder to have an edge. 
  • Big data crunching methods ('data-mining') are likely to find patterns because if you have enough variables all wobbling randomly then for some time at least two of them will correlate. So the patterns data-mining finds are quite possibly false positives. 

This means that you need to start with a theory before looking at the data.

This means that Bayesian logic is the way to go to detect patterns. First establish your prior probabilistic expectations, then run the experiment or check the data and then refine your probabilities.

This was a good book though it didn't live up to my expectations. It was easy to read but I was a bit bored by the obsession with baseball.

I certainly learnt about Bayes! March 2013; 454 pages

Saturday, 2 March 2013

"The casual vacancy" by J K Rowling

Barry Fairbrother's death vacates a seat on the Parish Council of Pagford, chaired by grotesquely fat Howard Mollison. This opens up a feud about the future of the Fields Housing Estate and starts a chain reaction of anger, unburying resentments and leading to disaster.

Rowling's first adult book after the phenomenon that was the Harry Potter series is an update of Peyton Place. She starts like Peyton Place, introducing each of the large cast of characters in a short chapter. The small town of Pagford is an English version of Peyton Place: The rich characters mingle with the poor, connected through the school; every adult has a guilty secret: the only nice characters seem to be the man who dies at the start and his family; nhe teenagers hate their parents and vent their hatred so as to bring distress and destruction upon them; no one emerges victorious although some agree a truce.

It is well written: the plotting is tight and the characters are deftly drawn. She does dissect the complexity of the characters although many (for example, Shirley Mollison) lack depth. I read it swiftly, driven by a desire to know what happened next but at the end I didn't really care.

It begs for a sequel. It really is just like Peyton Place. February 2013; 503 pages.