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

Thursday, 30 April 2015

"Romanoff Gold: The lost fortunes of the Tsars" by William Clarke

When Tsar Nicholas I abdicated in 1917, the vast majority of the wealth of this fabulously rich absolute monarch became the property of the Russian state. After the Bolshevik coup of that year, when he, his wife and his children were sent to Siberia, they didn't have enough cash to live on although his wife and daughters still had jewels sewn into their underclothes. The assassination of the entire family at Ekaterinburg meant that other members of the extended Romanov family (at least those who were safe having fled abroad) believed they were entitled to the lost Romanov millions. Add to this the various frauds and imposters who claimed that they were members of the family who had escaped the Ekaterinburg massacre and who were attracted by the thought of the lost gold and diamonds and the chaos of the Red-White Russian Civil War immediately following the revolution during which trainloads of gold bullion with a variety of provenances seemed to wander around Siberia paying off guerillas, bandits, warlords and irregular troops, and you have a recipe for convoluted and protracted court cases.

Clarke has spent years trying to get to the bottom of who owned what and where it is now. What happened to the jewels and gold in Russia? Did the Romanovs have fortunes in gold deposits and bonds in foreign banks stashed away as a nest egg in case of revolution? And how can you separate an absolute monarch's private wealth from the wealth of the state?

This is a labyrinth which this book does little to clear up. The same sums are repeated many times, the same arguments made, so that one becomes confused or wonders whether there is not a significant amount of padding going on (a suspicion reinforced when the author starts by rather needlessly going over waht happened to the Tsar's family, most of which is well known and little of which had direct bearing on his argument). And in the end the answers seems to be a repeated no. There are no mysterious foreign deposits (and what there are are state funds that basically became a pay-off when the Bolsheviks reneged on Russian war loans). Various people accused of siphoning off Romanov wealth from an emigre banker to George V's wife were probably honest and decent people doing their best for the poor exiled Romanovs. The imposters were imposters. It's a bit of an anti-climax in the end.

What does distinguish this book (which is the 2007 Sutton Publishing edition published in Stroud, Gloucestershire) is the remarkably dreadful quality of its typesetting. Mistypings abound: Plish for Polish, 19398 for 1939 (or 1938?). Given the detailed and convoluted nature of the arguments with so many sums of money (often written in roubles, or roules on one occasion but also on guineas, pounds, dollars, Canadian dollars, and reichsmarks) even one or two misprints undermine one's confidence in the entire argument.

A very disappointing book. April 2015; 419 pages

A much better telling of the story of the Romanovs, albeit published before the DNA evidence established the truth of the Ekaterinburg massacre, is The File on the Tsar by Anthony Summers and Tom Mangold or, for a brilliant historical comparison of Nicholas II, George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II, try Three Emperors by Miranda Carter.


Sunday, 26 April 2015

"Going Postal" by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld Novel.

Conman Moist von Lipwig is recruited by Ankh-Morpork's Tyrant Lord Vetinari to run the defunct Post Office which has lost the competition with the semaphore towers to transmit messages across the Discworld.

This with Pratchett's usual verbal brilliance with at least one joke on every page, this is another fun fantasy novel. Pratchett is on a par with Wodehouse for style.

My favourite moments:

  • The hanging of Moist at the start.
  • When Lord V offers Moist a choice: either take the job or step through the door behind "and you will never hear from me again" (there is nothing beyond the door and that includes a floor)
  • When Moist asks Miss Dearheart "Would you like to have dinner tonight?" and she replies "I like to have dinner every night."
  • When Moist explains he was offered a "job for life".


But it's all brilliant really.

April 2015; 488 pages

Friday, 24 April 2015

"The Politics of Washing: Real life in Venice" by Polly Coles

Polly and her Venetian husband and their four children left their English village to live for one year in Venice. This is a memoir of their experiences.

It is the day to day realities of everyday life that make this so fascinating. Venice has no cars, so delivering a washing machine involves a boat ride followed by a sack-barrow and a lot of trouble if there is a stepped bridge and if you live on the fourth floor because almost everyone in Venice lives in flats. Italian schools have a presumption that the teacher is always right so a teacher admitting that there is indiscipline in their class is challenging the parents to do something about it; the headteacher and his deputy utter bare-faced lies to maintain their position of power even though the solution proposed by the parents makes more sense than the status quo. When there is acqua alta (high tide) everyone goes about their daily business in wellies, even browsing in half-flooded bookshops. And everywhere there are the tourists.

The population of Venice has shrunk to 60,000; many Venetians are forced out by the high rents charged by landlords who can make more money from tourists. The tourists (16.5 million per year) outnumber the residents. In high season tourists clog the narrow streets and fill the waterbuses. So the residents hate the tourists and by extension almost all foreigners; xenophobic comments are made at Polly's children and she gets charged double the price for a coffee in a bar where she is not known. It seems unsustainable.

But what makes this really fascinating memoir a work of art is the lyrical quality of her prose. Open the book at random and you will encounter a brilliant sentence:

  • "Here on this dank November afternoon I am witness to a crumpling up of time"
  • "One aged crone shuffles, shoeless ... right-angled over her stick ... It is her saggy-stockinged feet that most strike me."
  • "A flurry of heat and effort and luggage."
  • "The diamond kites slide down from the skies, like charmed snakes."


Beautiful and brilliant. April 2015; 206 pages

Monday, 20 April 2015

"Big Bang" by Simon Singh

This is a delightful and fascinating history of cosmology up to and slightly after the near-universal (pun not intended) acceptance of the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe. Having taught Physics for 33 years I knew most of the Science and understood the arguments but there were still aspects I had not fully appreciated. These were carefully explained and I am confident that this book would be accessible to the general reader. Singh also explained the philosophical issues and weighed up the various arguments carefully so that their merits and demerits could be easily compared. But the icing on the cake was his affectionate portrayal of the very human astronomers and cosmologists who contributed to (or fought against) our present understanding.

There were so many characters. Here are just a few:

  • Fritz Zwicky, for example, was famously rude. His favourite insult was to call you a 'spherical bastard' because,just like a sphere, he thought you were a bastard whichever way he looked at you. 
  • Lord Rosse owned an estate in Ireland and gave up astronomy to look after his tenants during the Irish Potato Famine; he built a huge telescope on his lands but was rather foiled by the fact that there are two sorts of weather in Ireland: raining and about to rain. 
  • Walter Baade, a German emigre in USA during the Second World War experienced similar frustrations when the authorities decided that, as an enemy alien, he should be confined to his house between sunset and sunrise despite working on the Mount Wilson optical telescope. 
  • George Gamow, a practical joker, who had to defect from the USSR; his first attempt involved trying to canoe across the Black Sea which he had to give up after two days. 
  • Fred Hoyle, the proponent of the Steady State Theory, who shot himself in the foot not once but twice: first when he developed the theory for nucleosynthesis which removed a significant problem for the Big Bang theory and secondly during a radio broadcast when he scornfully referred to what was then called the dynamic evolving model as a Big Bang, thus creating a catchy name to popularise the idea.


The book ends with a short epilogue in which the continuing issues facing cosmology are outlined. Why is the expansion of the Universe apparently accelerating? What is the mysterious dark energy that might explain this? Why are the six numbers that govern the Universe so perfectly aligned that humans can exist? Does this mean that we are just one bubble in a multiverse? And most of all, of course: What happened before the Big Bang?

A thought-porvoking book that takes you for a ride through the mysteries of the Universe and yet explains them so well that you understand some reallt difficult science.

April 2015; 493 pages

Other books by this author:

  • Fermat's Last Theorem: I have not yet read this
  • The Code Book: I very much enjoyed this history of cryptography
  • The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets: a fun book about Maths which I have reviewed in this blog

Sunday, 19 April 2015

"One hand clapping" by Anthony Burgess

Burgess wrote five novels in twelve months in 1959/60; this was one of them. It shows no signs of being rushed.

Janet, the narrator, is an ordinary working class woman who stacks shelves in  a local supermarket and lives in a council house in Brancaster with husband Howard. Howard, orphaned by the blitz, sells used cars; he is an ordinary working class man except that he has a photographic memory.He uses this talent to win a television quiz show and then 'invests' the money on the horses to win big. Their lives are transformed: mink coats, posh hotels and foreign holidays. But Janet discovers new temptations and misses cooking baked beans on toast. And Howard, already traumatised by living under the shadow of the Hydrogen Bomb, finds extravagance meaningless, indeed demeaning.

Howard is a spooky character - Blitz-orphaned, Bomb-shadowed, talking and walking in his sleep - whose reaction to Janet's sister's suicide attempt is: let her die. Janet, the intelligent but ordinary girl forever worrying about her poor schooling, and conforming to the norms of 'people of her class' is a perfect counterpoint. They are torn between their old life and their new. Janet reluctantly embraces new horizons but decides that the orange sauce is bitter and the gravy cold. Howard reaches out to the new opportunities but realises he can never achieve them (he can answer mind-numbingly difficult quiz questions about books but he hasn't read them and he couldn't appreciate them if he had) and becomes embittered. As the story progress it becomes clear that the slightly sinister Howard has some dreadful plan in mind.

There are moments of shabby comedy. The TV show is supremely tacky And Janet and Howard are awkward and enraged by their new experiences. But the best line is: "The best thing to do, when you've got a dead body ... on the kitchen floor ... is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea."

(Burgess is the author of my second favourite first line of all time in his novel Earthly Powers: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.")

A beautiful story with a strong narrator voice, a gently inevitable plot, some fantastic characters and an overwhelming sense of the drabness of working class British life as the 1960s began. April 2015; 218 pages.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

"Huntingtower" by John Buchan

Set in the immediate aftermath of the first world war (and we are constantly reminded of the war from the scars of the protagonists to the remembered dead to the availability of Service revolvers), this is a Scottish adventure story. At the same time it is a modern myth with heavy overtones of fairy tale.

Dickson McCunn (his surname means son of a dog) has just retired having sold his very successful grocery business and decides (his wife being away at a spa hotel) to go on a ramble through the Scottish countryside. Despite his bourgeois profession he is a romantic at heart. Meeting up with a younger man, a poet who scorns romance, they embark on an expedition to take a look at a rather dishevelled stately home and discover a Russian Princess who has been locked up by villains with Bolshevik leanings who want to steal her jewels. Coincidentally, she is the Russian Princess that the poet fell in love with when he was being nursed back to health in Italy after being wounded on the front. Also by coincidence, a self-organised scout troupe made up of a Glaswegian boy gang called the Gorbals Die-Hards happen to be camping on the moor. So grocer Dickson and his boy band resolve to rescue the princess in distress.

The adventure that follows becomes even more incredible as the characters move back and forth across the moor. After springing the Princess from her perilous situation she then goes back there to do battle with the forces of evil, now reinforced from the sea.

So the plot is bizarre but what makes the book great is the wonderful descriptions of the Scottish countryside; the brilliant vernacular in which most of the characters speak (though some are speaking broader Glaswegian than others); the brilliant counterpointing of the heroic and the humdrum, the romantic and the practical, the poet and the grocer; the regular injection of humour when the book threatens to slide into farce; and the fabulous characters of Dickson, all the Die-Hards, and 'Aunt Phemie'. Even the rather silly and irrelevant poet has a trajectory to fulfil. The only poor characters are the villains who, apart from the slightly scary but farcically stupid innkeeper, are non-entities.

It is a fairy tale saddled with a silly plot but in the hands of a master storyteller like Buchan, it comes to life. April 2015; 211 pages

But if you're going to read Buchan, and you should, avoid the silly The Three Hostages and head for John Macnab and his masterpiece Witch Wood.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

"The call of the wild" by Jack London

This is a tale of a dog, narrated from the point of view of the dog.

Buck is a big fit dog living with a judge, his sons and grandsons when he is kidnapped and sold. He is very angry but brutally brought to heel with a club. When he becomes a sled dog he has a lot to learn but he is a quick learner and before too long he has fought and killed the lead dog and taken his place at the head of the team. But record breaking runs through the snow are exhausting and Buck and his team are very tired when they are sold to greenhorns. They do the best they can with overladen sleds and a driver who only understands how to whip dogs. He is rescued from them by a trapper and he conceives a deep love for this man. But the call of the wild begins to come to him and he spends more and more time in the forest.

A beautifully written novella by a man who has a real understanding both of how dogs think and the frozen world of the Yukon.

April 2017; 97 pages

Saturday, 11 April 2015

"The song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller

Patroclus, ugly duckling son of a minor Greek King, accidentally kills another boy who is bullying him and is exiled from his father's court to be fostered by the father of Achilles. As the two boys grow up together, hero worship on the part of Patroclus turns into a full blown crush and then desperate gay desire. Thetis, immortal nymph mother of Achilles does not approve and sends Achilles to Chiron the centaur to be educated; Patroclus follows. The Paris of Troy abducts Helen, the wife of Menelaus and the Trojan war begins. Achilles, promised glory, leads his men, the Myrmidons, to Troy and Patroclus follows.

This is the Iliad as narrated by Patroclus, who plays a minor but essential role. The love story is romantic and lyrical; the desire is always on the beautiful side of lust. The mythical creatures and the gods and half-gods are described with a reality that keeps them credible. Over-shadowing it all are the prophecies: that Achilles shall win immortal glory but die if he goes to Troy; that he shall not die before Hector dies; that he shall only die after the death of the 'Best of the Myrmidons'. Patroclus is sick with the knowledge that his lover shall die; he can imagine no life without Achilles.

The myth and magic, the love and death, are written in simple, unadorned prose. This makes the suspension of disbelief easier and the book builds to a haunting climax. The last few chapters are brilliantly and seamlessly done and the inevitable, expected ending is so unbearable and yet so right that it was difficult to read.

Brilliant. April 2015; 352 pages

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

"Wild Swans" by Jung Chang

"At the age of fifteen my grandmother became the concubine of a warlord general ..." is the first line of this book about three generations of remarkable women. The grandmother had bound feet and was born before the last emperor was toppled. Shortly after her daughter, the narrator's mother, is born she realises that the warlord is dying; this means that the warlord's wife will have sole possession of her and she might be sold into a brothel. So she engineers her escape, fleeing on horseback with her baby. Back in her home town she meets an old Chinese medicine doctor who falls in love with her and determines to marry her even though his three sons and their wives demand that he should not (the eldest even commits suicide). They marry and move town becoming poor and living by a sewer. But slowly his practice improves and they get richer and move into a nice house. The narrator's mother is growing up a remarkably determined and intelligent young lady, showing all the spirit of her warlord father and her concubine mother and all the compassion and humanity of her step-father.

Now the Japanese invade. Things become chaotic but the family manages to carry on, often hiding wounded soldiers. Once the Japanese go, the Kuomintang take over (and are very corrupt) and the civil war between them and the Communists erupts. This family, showing compassion and concern for the weak and the unwell, manage to have friends on both sides of the war but the narrator's mother starts to work secretly for the Communists, using a besotted Kuomintang soldier to help her. At last the Communists take over at which point she meets her husband to be, who is a high-ranking Communist having joined Mao in his enclave at the end of the Long March.

She and her new husband make a long journey to his province of Sichuan where he becomes a very high-ranking official and she a moderately high-ranking official. One of her complaints about her husband is that he is very puritanical and refuses whenever possible to do anything to help his family on the grounds that the new Communist order has no time for nepotism. So the kids are more or less neglected while the parents work all hours to create their new utopian society. They struggle with some of the edicts coming from Peking such as the requirement to find amongst their colleagues a certain percentage of traitors and 'class enemies'. They also struggle against the famine caused by Mao's Great leap Forward.

Then the Cultural Revolution begins and, having led privileged lives as high-ranking officials, they are denounced as 'capitalist roaders'. Ten years of Mao-inspired chaos ensues. The narrator is growing up; at the start she is besotted by her love for Mao but slowly she begins to realise that it is him, rather than corrupt officials, who has caused her family's miseries. She herself progresses from peasant to barefoot doctor to electrician to university student.

This book is 676 pages long but the action hardly ever flags. There is so much to tell and the style is simple and sparse, allowing the action to tell the story. Where there is description it is usually to extol the beauties of China's countryside and the elegance of her old way of life; these delicate and fragrant details are perfect counterpoints to the brutality and mindlessness of the mob.

But the main message is contained in the balance between two men. Jung Chang's father is a dedicated and inspired Communist official who is instrumental in creating what is successful in Sichuan immediately following the Communist takeover. But his idealism blinds him to everyday humanity: he is sharp with no blurred edges. When he is denounced he goes mad. He is cured after treatment in a mental hospital but he is a broken man and he realises how badly he has treated his wife and family. On the other hand, Jung Chang's step-grandfather, the doctor, is a model of enlightened humanity who marries the love of his life, an ex-concubine with a warlord's child, and protects many people at great risk to himself.

Idealism must be balanced with humanity.

This is a fantastic book about a remarkable family living through unbelievably turbulent times. It is a warning against dogmatism and an inspiring tribute to the human spirit.

April 2015; 676 pages


Friday, 3 April 2015

"Judas" by Peter Stanford

It is difficult to write a book about someone when the evidence base is as small as it is for Judas; there are just twenty-two mentions of Judas in the gospels. As a result, much of the book dealt with the resonances of Judas through history and interpretations of the Judas legend through art right up to Jesus Christ Superstar.

The book starts, as all serious works seem to these days, by a chatty account of the author doing his research, in this case looking around the nunnery in Hakeldama, the Field of Blood outside Jerusalem where Judas is supposed to have met his end. He then progresses to the gospel accounts, showing how the story of the betrayal of Jesus grew from the earliest sources, the epistles of Paul, in which Judas is not mentioned by name, to Mark's gospel which mentions Judas three times but recounts only the bare facts of the betrayal, to Mark and Luke who begin to give more motivations and finally John who adds dialogue and incident. This analysis of the story points out the three great mysteries:

  • What would have happened if Judas hadn't betrayed Jesus? If there had been no crucifixion it would have undermined the whole point of God sacrificing his own son for the atonement of the sins of humanity. So Judas was necessary to the divine plan. Jesus seems to acknowledge this by showing fore-knowledge of what Judas is about to do at the Last Supper. So was Judas just a pawn in God's master-plan? And if he was, then can he be held guilty?
  • The crucial message of Jesus is forgiveness of one's enemies. So why wasn't Judas forgiven? When Jesus died on the cross he descended into hell and 'harrowed' it, releasing the sinners who had died before the resurrection. Judas would have been there by then (having remorsefully committed suicide). So why wasn't Judas released?
  • Why did Judas kiss Jesus in the act of betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane? The traditional answer is that Judas had to identify Jesus but over the past week Jesus had scarcely been unidentifiable: he has overturned tables in the Temple and staged furious face to face debates with the authorities. The kiss was not necessary. Yet it is included even in Mark's stark account.


From this last point, Stanford elaborates a theory that made me sit up and think: it is the details that seem to be superfluous that are most probably authentic. The gospel writers were writing to an audience and for propaganda purposes. They may have made things up in order to hammer home doctrinal points. One can therefore suspect everything in the gospels but the least suspicious are the details that really don't matter. Another example Stanford makes is the moment when Peter and another disciple run to the tomb but the unnamed other runs faster than Peter. A silly little detail, and therefore probably true,. he concludes.

What else did I learn from this book?

  • Judas had a father called Simon Iscariot. The sharing of the surname suggests that they both came from Qeriot, a town south of Jerusalem, which makes him the only disciple not from Galilee.
  • Judas was often called 'Judas the Jew' (although all the disciples and Jesus himself were Jews) and therefore used to engender anti-Semitism through the ages.
  • Judas is often shown in profile in mediaeval art to symbolise the fact that he is two-faced.
  • Judas often wears yellow and has red hair in medieval art; these are both symbols that he cannot be trusted.
  • Judas is often portrayed with red spots or rough blotchy skin; one French name for measles is the Judas disease.


Although there are times when I felt the book could have been a little shorter, in view of the limited primary evidence, Stanford has produced a readable history and an enjoyable book. April 2015; 276 pages