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, 20 June 2013

"How I won the yellow jumper" by Ned Boulting

Boulting is an ITV sports' commentator who has specialised in the Tour De France since 2003. When he started he knew nothing about cycling racing which is more or less the position I am in now. Desoite having read his book. He writes for the army of sports fans, and cycling fans. It is a little sad that the bookwas published before Bradley Wiggins shot to national prominence by actually winning the TdF for Britain and before Lance Armstrong admitted using drugs; this makes the book outdated already.

Most of the book is a good-natured romp through France. He celebrates the courage of riders who fall off their bikes into barbed wire fences and then get back on again, still bleeding, to race eighty miles. He celebrates the dogged endurance of those who toil up mountains. He celebrates the madness of the army that follows the tour: the caterers and organisers, the lorry drivers, the journalists, the fans. He chronicles the difficulties of finding accommodation when an army has come to town, of getting your laundry done, and of holding TV interviews in multiple languages. A lot of this is wry humour and most of it is enjoyable although it got somewhat tedious towards the end. There is only so much you can brag about the life of a sports reporter. But mostly I enjoyed it.

My main problem with the book is that he seemed to assume that I, the reader, would have a similar level of knowledge to him. I suppose this is fair in a book aimed at the fans. I imagine his face and name are known to a lot of people. But I thought it was a little strange given (a) that he knew nothing about the TdF when he started and (b) his job is to communicate.

For example, it was cute to find that he comes from Bedford which Is where I live. But he talks about Stanley Street and Tavistock Street as though the whole world will know what he is talking about. Again, he regularly talks about the peloton ; this is something to do with the how the cyclists group together on the race, I think, but he never explains it and I don't really know what it is. A classic statement is "No Bastille Day! No Richard Virenque!" I know what Bastille Day is but I have no idea who Richard Virenque is. Time and again I was left in the dark; I think by the end I realised how little I cared.

His lack of explanation is all the more ironic when I think of the things I know (Wiggins winning and Armstrong doping) that he doesn't at the time of writing. So there is a curious, unsettling mismatch between what he knows and what I know.

The classic example is when he laughs at himself for saying in his very first TdF commentary that a certain rider has "kissed goodbye to his chance of winning the yellow jumper." He recalls this moment with shame. It took me another fifty pages before I realised what his mistake had been: apparently maillot jaune should be translated as yellow jersey.

At which point I realised that I didn't really care. I'm just not a fan.

Mildly amusing. June 2013; 376 pages

Friday, 14 June 2013

"Mud, sweat and gears" by Ellie Bennett

My favourite travel book of 2013!

Ellie and her mate Mick cycle from Land's End to John O' Groats. But unlike my stepson Simon who, with his friend Josh, cycled the 'official' way in 13 days, Mick and Ellie go the pretty route over 23 days and via as many real ale pubs as they can possibly fit in.

MS&G is one of the funniest travel books I have read since Round Ireland with a fridge by Tony Hawks. I raced through reading it. It has a delightful combination of self-deprecating wry humour with close observation of the foibles of others that make Bennett a natural comedian. For a first book it is brilliant.

Fabulous fun. June 2013; 291 pages



Thursday, 13 June 2013

"Lost at sea" by Jon Ronson

This is another selection of Jon Ronson's articles about weird people. Ronson talks to robots, investigates attempted high-school shootings in an Alaskan town obsessed with Christmas, goes to a UFO convention with Robbie Williams, investigates mysterious deaths and suicides (there is a shocking piece about people who 'fall overboard' from cruise liners) and Jonathan King's conviction for sex crimes.

The brilliance of Ronson is the way he writes about extraordinary people and events in humdrum and banal terms. When he is with a group of Real Life Super Heroes confronting drug dealers he uses very short sentences to describe an incredibly exciting moment. He points out that he is wearing only a cardigan. After the event he tells the vigilantes that he is going to bed. The juxtaposition of the special with the everyday makes Ronson's writing fascinating, exciting and funny.

I was a little concerned that he repeats the story of Kitty Genovese who was killed in 1964; he states that "at least thirty-eight bystanders saw her lying there and did nothing." This repeats an urban legend started by the New York Times. Closer investigation, for example in Superfreakonomics or even wikipedia suggests that there were about a dozen witnesses of the attack, most of whom heard something (they certainly didn't see her lying there') but only two were aware that it was more than a quarrel. Even Ronson doesn't always get it right.

But

I'd read many of the stories in previous Ronson collections. Of the 26 stories I have read at least 7. That is more than 25%. The purchase price was £8.99 so I reckon that Ronson owes me at least £2.25.

I mean, what did he gain? 26 stories are a lot; he could have published a book with only 19 stories in it and I would still have been willing to pay £9 and enjoyed the 19 new stories. But now I feel cheated.

There is some small print on the title versa page which acknowledges that "portions of this book have appeared previously, in slightly different forms, in Out of the ordinary, What I do..." both of which I have read. So I can't say he didn't warn me. But he himself contains about the small print used by credit card companies which he calls the "tiniest of letters .... infinitesimal print." Perhaps someone who crusades on behalf of the weak and the gullible will be concerned with the reactions of one of his readers: I felt cheated.

I've now bought 5 of his books. Perhaps I won't buy any more.

June 2013; 471 pages but you don't have to read all of them if you've read some before.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

"The house of Doctor Dee" by Peter Ackroyd

Twenty years ago I read my first Peter Ackroyd novel: Hawksmoor. It flitted between now and the seventeenth century when architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, somewhat in the shadow of Christopher Wren, was building some London churches and incorporating some rather odd occult features. The seventeenth century portions of the book were written in a brilliant pastiche of the then style. I thought it was a wonderful book.

The House of Doctor Dee bears many resemblances. Matthew inherits a strange house in Clerkenwell. With his friend Daniel, a transvestite who has some strange connection with his dead father, Matthew discovers that the house was once owned by famous Elizabethan magician and alchemist Dr John Dee. The narrative jumps back and forth between the sixteenth century doings of the strange doctor and the increasingly haunted Matthew.

But it just didn't work for me. The ramblings of Dr Dee are so interleaved with his occult imaginings that I found it hard to read. There are dream sequences that are not much different from day reality. Matthew also has dreams and it is difficult to decipher whether the ghosts are in his head or real. The story seems to have little structure and there are a lot of events that just don't seem to fit: why does Matthew defecate in his own garden and who is the tramp with the dog who seems to defy time?

Perhaps it was just a little too weird for me. June 2013; 277 pages

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

"Convoy" by Caroline Davies

This is a book of poems about the battles around Malta in the second World War. It is written from the points of view of some of the combatants. Some of them are on Royal and Merchant Naval ships in a convoy trying to bring essential supplies to the besieged Maltese; some poems are written as if by fighter pilots struggling to keep the German and Italian bombers from bombing the island into submission.

As a history of this part of the war it has its interests and I was certainly keen to find out whether ships (and people) survived or not.

But it isn't my sort of poetry. I am an old-fashioned unsophisticated sort of chap when it comes to poetry. I like scansion. I like rhyme. In short, I like structure. If a poem doesn't have structure it has to be remarkably good to qualify as a poem. The difference between prose and this sort of poem, for me, is in the language. Poems can use words to convey feelings and ideas as precisely (although in an entirely different way) as a cryptic crossword. Thus 'the force that through the green fuse drives the flower' works as a line of poetry because of the alliteration; when Wilfred Owen rhymes nervous with knives us and war with wire it is the use of the false rhymes that put us on edge; when Rudyard Kipling talks about 'Boots, boots, boots, boots' it is the monotony of that rhythmic tread that defines the poem. Poems use the music of words.

There are moments in this book when that works. On page 38, in 'Don't...' we are told that 'The sky holds splattered smudges of ack-ack' which works (and I especially like the word 'hold') up until the 'ack-ack'. But a lot of the poems use dry unemotional words. To be charitable, one might assume that this is a deliberate attempt by the author to represent the stiff-upper-lips of the boys. But I don't understand why this is a book of poems.

Interesting as history with occasional moments of poetry. June 2013; 95 pages

Monday, 3 June 2013

"The philosophical breakfast club" by Laura J Snyder

This is a 'group biography' of four young Cambridge men who started eating breakfast together and embarked upon a project to reform natural philosophy. In so doing they coined the term 'scientist' and re-established Baconian induction as a technique: there had been worrying recent moves to assert the primacy of deduction in Science which would have led to sterility. More specifically, these four were:
William Whewell, a carpenter's son who become Master of Trinity, originated the natural Sciences tripos (in the process inventing the subject of History and Philosophy of Science), and founded the British Association
Richard Jones, who did pioneering work in Economics
Charles Babbage who invented the computer
John Herschel who followed his father William as an astronomer, discovering nebulae, and worked with Fox Talbot on the invention of photography.

It is especially nice how the biography brings out the different personalities of these four men. Jones was often ill and prone to depression. Babbage was very irascible (in his later life he became obsessed with the noise that organ grinders made with the result that street urchins teased him by banging kettles whenever they saw him); he fought with everyone; his perfectionism meant that neither of the computers he designed were ever built. Whewell learned to use his fists as a poor boy at grammar school; later he rode horses 'hard' and was eventually killed by a truculent steed. Herschel was sweet-natured.

The insistence on induction (or rather, like Bacon, they believed that science should proceed not like a spider, who in an analogy with deduction, spins webs from a single thread, nor like an inductive any who piles up leaves, but like a honey bee who gathers nectar and then transform it to honey) led them to react against Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy in which he tries to devise Economics from first principles, like Cartesian science or Euclidean geometry. They also recommended, following Bacon again, that scientists should seek out "crucial experiments that could definitively decide between two rival theories" (p114). Jones's analysis of Economics also refuted the population trap of Malthus.

A lot of what they did prepared the ground for Darwinian evolution (Whewell was very worried by the possibility that evolution would damage religion but when the Origin of Species was published he recognised the strength of its arguments and kept quiet unlike many less cautious contemporaries). For example, Babbage used a feedback mechanism on a working model of his Difference Engine to show to an audience that included Darwin how a mathematical rule could be automatically modified by the machine. He then suggested that by analogy the Creator could have designed the world such that species evolved rather than having to intervene whenever he wanted a new species.

Whewell also dabbled in architecture, explaining that the crucial feature of the Gothic style was not the pointed arch which had been suggested a priori but, through an inductive look at the evidence, that churches aimed for vertical spaces rather than horizontal spaces thus requiring mechanisms such as the pointed arch.

Whewell also introduced the concept of consilience. For Whewell, what made Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation so strong was not just that it had predictive ability (for example in predicting the existence of Neptune), although that was important, but that it unified a number of diverse fields, in Newton's terms terrestrial dynamics and celestial dynamics. After Whewell's death one of his students, a lad called James Clerk Maxwell, unified Optics and Electromagnetism in an even greater act of consilience. This section leads to a bit of a howler when Snyder states that Maxwell calculated the speed of electromagnetic radiation to be 310,740,000 miles per second when she means metres per second!

This review gives a small flavour of the many fields that these great but rather too little known scientists illuminated.

This is a fantastic book, incredibly readable and so interesting. June 2013; 368 pages