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

Monday, 10 December 2018

"The Unspeakable Skipton" by Pamela Hansford Johnson

Hansford Johnson was a prolific novelist who wrote 27 novels between 1935 and 1981 as well as collaborating on two detective novels, writing eight plays and a book of poetry, translating Anouilh, and writing a memoir, a work of sociology and several critical works. She was a friend of Dylan Thomas and her second husband was C P Snow.

The Unspeakable Skipton is about a dirt-poor novelist living in Bruges. He relies on an allowance from a cousin and from the occasional cheque from his publisher. He resents both of these and writes vitriolic letters of abuse which causes them, unsurprisingly, to cut him off. Otherwise he makes a living by ripping off tourists. He is a pimp and a fraud.

This is a great story and a wonderful character study of the artist as an obsessive and it has some woderful characters. But what really excited me were the magnificent descriptions:
  • The sun has begun to set ... in a moment the quay would shine like a square opal in all the marvellous colours known to man and, better yet, with marvelous colours to which no man had yet fitted a name.” (C 1)
  • A miraculous evening. The sky broke like an egg into full sunset and the water caught fire.” (C 1)
  • "The swans glimmered in the rustic dust like washing left out all night.” (C 2)
  • She went into her usual jelly-dance of silent laughter” (C 2)
  • It was Sunday morning and all the bells were rocking the bright sky about, boxing its ears with their glorious hands.” (C 4)
  • Tantrums of rain burst across the Grand’ Place, wild winds, stiffened by the sea, scolded the cafĂ© blinds and slapped the skirts of the women over their legs.” (C 5)
  • The trees had been lichened with frost.” (C 7)
  • A side street looking like a crack in the wall between two tattered hotels.” (C 10)
  • He subsided into his own bulk as a pig does when it sits down.” (C 11)
With writing as good as this, one wonders why Hansford Johnson never because as well known as some of her contemporaries.

  • Other great lines:
  • “It was disgusting to have the naked toes rubbing together, the sweat rolling between into grey crumbs.” (C 1)
  • There was nothing except smell to indicate the various income levels through which he passed, since the whole staircase was shabby; but the first floor smelled of dust and biscuits, the second of stewing steak and cheese and the first of ether and flowers.” (C 2)
  • Unlike his fat friend, he looked not made for pleasure, but for disillusionments of an amusing nature.” (C 3)
  • He walked slowly across the square, feeling their eyes, like four pairs of prongs, upon his retreating form.” (C 3)
  • His thoughts running round like mice on a treadmill.” (C 4)
  • To work on this book was perhaps the greatest pleasure Daniel had ever known. When he did so he was not a man but a god, improving not only upon a beautiful earthly creation, but upon a creation already divine.” (C 4)
  • He was joyful, knowing genius in himself, burning tall and steady as a candle flame on a windless night.” (C 4)
  • The Flemish masters introduce, behind the figure of the Madonna, perhaps through a small window, little scenes of domestic life.” (C 6)
  • Doubt stirred like a centipede, one foot and then another: slowly.” (C 8)
  • You can't accuse Duncan of not respecting women ... he has respected at least four since we came here.” (C 19)
  • If my friend Flavio had any sense he would relax and let himself go to seed; because really there is nothing so young as seed.” (C 22)
  • In the old days, before God had settled upon a policy of temperateness and detachment, lightning would have wriggled from His hand to strike the blasphemer down.” (C 23)
  • Not that I am accusing you ... of being dirty minded. Where no mind exists, it Is impossible for there to be either dirt or cleanliness.”(C 24)
  • He despised Dante, a little, for his lack of enterprise in leaving so many of the less-advertised sins unaccounted for.” (C 27)

December 2018'196 pages

Saturday, 8 December 2018

"The Camden Town Murder Mystery" by David Barrat

An exhaustive account of the murder of a prostitute, Emily Dimmock, in Camden Town in 1906. It seems unlikely that the author has left an stone unturned. Nevertheless, he cannot conclusively name the culprit. The most likely suspect seems to have been Robert Wood, a young man who had been seen consorting with Emily and whose postcard arranging a rendezvous with Emily on the night she was killed was found in her flat. Wood's subsequent behaviour was to lie repeatedly and to attempt to manufacture an alibi. However, amid much public celebration, Wood was acquitted at his trial. No one else was ever charged.

This book is an incredibly full account of every detail surrounding the murder, including that Camden Town was named a former Attorney General who lived at Camden Place in Chislehurst, that Emily once worked as a chamber maid at the Swan Hotel in Bedford, that one of the witnesses at the trial was an extraordinarily dodgy character who specialised in arson insurance claims when living in New Zealand and who dies in Australia as the result of an explosion whilst setting up another arson-based insurance fraud. Lots of really interesting stuff. Unfortunately the author's habit of chasing down every alley and revealing every detail left me reeling. It was difficult enough given that Emily associated with many dodgy men (she worked as a prostitute) and so there was a plethora of suspects but I found it very difficult to see any sort of Wood for the multiplicity of trees.

December 2018; 313 pages (of small print)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

"Torch" by Cheryl Strayed

In the first chapter a woman is told that she has incurable cancer; she will be dead within the year. The next two chapters in which she attempts to tell her kids, who are reacting like kids react to their mother, the teenage adolescent boy with surly anger and the college student girl with the expectation that all this will just be her mother manipulating her, are truly hard to read because you know how awful these utterly normal kids will feel when they realise that their mum is not for ever. Brilliantly realistic.

And then she dies and it continues, chapter after chapter, as these three bereaved people, husband/ step-father, daughter and son, muddle through mistake after mistake on their tragic journey through grief to acceptance. Life needs to be lived and if they haven't forgotten her they have to move on, mostly by fucking other people in a instinctive if primitive response to replace death with birth.

Chapter after chapter was so hard to read. Everything was so mundane, so everyday, so utterly in your face brutally real, and I had to go on, like Bruce and Claire and Joshua, because you have to go on to find out what they next day brings, even though you dread what it might reveal. Even though you are shouting at the character 'don't do that' you know they will and they are the better person for it.

Here is a moment in which reality intrudes into authorness. Joshua is being asked by a counsellor how he feels: “He felt sleepy and hungry and he yearned for a cigarette, but he thought it unwise to mention any of those things.” (C 15) This book so ups reality!

Unbelievably good.

A few, a sparse selection, of the wonderful moments:

  • She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine.” (C 1)
  • junk mail, addressed to him in computer-generated cursive handwriting, a trick disguised as something real.” (C 4)
  • The three of them had the same hair. Not blond, not brown, but something in between: the faded yellow of grass where an animal had slept.” (C 5)
  • she had to weed the garden that she’d planted.” (C 5)
  • Slowly, stingily, she forgave them without their knowing about it.” (C 5)
  • It was the exact size of the hole in the solar eclipse paper plate, a pin of light through which the entire sun could radiate, so bright it would blind you if you looked.” (C 5)
  • She saw her parents in their most distilled form, being precisely who they’d always been. The people who sent her garbage in the mail. The people who made her cry each Sunday. The people who would gladly give their lives to save hers.” (C 5)
  • She felt numb and stuffed and fuzzy, weightless and yet weighted. As if her veins had been filled with wet feathers.” (C 5)
  • He’d been bullied, throughout his childhood and adolescence, to tell her whether she was fat, whether she should get highlights in her hair, whether her butt seemed hideously large, or her thighs too squat. Whatever he said, she never believed him or took his advice; she simply presented the same questions to him all over again the next time.” (C 6)
  • ‘It isn’t that I am against faith,’ she said warily. ‘I’m against the thinking that says that humans are shameful and bad’.” (C 7)
  • He wondered if it were possible to add up all the people he’d thanked over the course of his entire life, whether that sum would be equal to the number of people he thanked on the one day that his wife’s body was to be sealed in a wooden box, shoved into an incinerator, and burned, at an extremely high temperature, to ashes.” (C 8)
  • He thought of his mother, of parts of her he had never thought about before, of her lungs and her brain, her heart and her hands.” (C 10)
  • She couldn’t see David anymore in the light that she’d seen him before, and she didn’t know whether this new way of seeing him had been distorted by her grief or unveiled by it. Whether her life with him was fraudulent or the best thing she had."
  • "She came to see that her grief did not have an end, or if it did, she would not be delivered there. Grief was not a road or a river or a sea but a world, and she would have to live there now.” (C 11)
  • Claire wondered about her youth. This was it, she supposed, and it seemed that it would go on and on and on. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. It was like walking across a desert without a hat.” (C 11)
  • he would stop loving her. Of course he would. How easy it was not to love her.” (C 11)
  • He’d heard it already, all around town, without actually having to hear the words. So soon, so soon, like an inane bird swooping over his head, calling to him everywhere he went.” (C 15)
  • He wanted to promise her something, to say that things would go back to the way they were, or that they would be different than they had become, but he loved her too much to lie and needed her too little to make it true.” (C 15)
  • each night he would allow himself to cry, but only for thirty seconds.” (C 16)
  • She was suddenly giddy with the foreignness of being here, which collided with an almost surreal familiarity.” (C 17)
December 2018;

Saturday, 1 December 2018

"Don't let go" by Harlan Coben

Written in the present tense, this thriller has a no-holds-barred cop-investigator solving a crime that seems to link to the death of his twin brother fifteen years earlier. The tension builds up to the half-way point when the whodunnit element starts to give way to thriller writing. There's plenty of raw violence involved. And of course, there are always several twists at the end.

But Coben is the king of the one-liners:

  • "Daisy wore a clingy black dress with a neckline so deep it could tutor philosophy." First line of the book! Great start.
  • "She could feel the eyes of the male patrons crawling down her bare legs like earthworms." Still on the first page.
  • "The mark peered into the class of whiskey in front of him as though he were a gypsy with a crystal ball." We're on the second page now. The image is easily available.
  • "Money can't buy you happiness ... but if you handle it right, money buys you freedom and time, and those are a lot more tangible than happiness." (C 7) Not sure you can describe either freedom or time as tangible but you get the idea
  • "The food is 'farm to table', though when you order eggs, I'm not sure what other route they'd go." (C 7)
  • "This is one of the moments when words would be like an appendix - superfluous or harmful." (C 9)
  • "I can't unring that bell." (C 14)
December 2018; 347 pages

Other Coben books reviewed in this blog:

Thursday, 29 November 2018

"The Great Divorce" by C S Lewis

This is a thought-provoking book on how to be a good Christian written in a very readable and entertaining manner. It is written by the great C S Lewis who also write:
Works of Science Fiction (or as he might have called it scientifiction) which are Christian allegories:

The Narnia books for children (which are also Christian allegories):

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Prince Caspian
  • The Magician's Nephew
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
  • The Horse and His Boy
  • The Silver Chair
  • The Last Battle
Mediaeval literary criticism (the day job):
CSL imagines a bus trip from the dreary and lonely town of Hell through the sky into Heaven. And he imagines all the excuses the inhabitants of Hell make either not to get on the bus in the first place or to return to Hell after their journey.

His thesis is that in order to enter and stay in Heaven you have got to relinquish your self-centredness. As he says in the Preface: “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys”

Some people use excuses not to get on the bus:
  • A moment later two young people ... also left us arm in arm. They were both so trousered, slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither, but it was clear that each for the moment preferred the other to the chance of a place in the bus.”
  • Others don’t like the company on the bus.
  • Some don’t think there will be room for them.
The newcomers in Heaven are Ghosts. They are greeted by the more substantial Angels who try to persuade them to stay. The Ghosts who can’t be persuaded include:
  • Those who insist on their rights and don’t want Charity.
  • Those who insist on their own opinions if they feel justified in them. 
  • Those who think that their lives would be improved if the Management changed the system: “What would you say if you went to a hotel where the eggs were all bad; and when you complained to the Boss, instead of apologising and changing his dairyman, he just told you that if you tried you’d get to like the bad eggs in time?
  • Those who are too ashamed to be seen in the company of angels.
  • Artists who are too in love with Art: “If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you'll never learn to see the country"
  • Mothers who love too fiercely.
  • Those who try to make others sorry for them and use this to manipulate others: “Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom by pity.”

The problem is that this means it is very hard to get into Heaven and CSL is worried by this: “If these Solid People were as benevolent as I had heard one of two of them claim to be, they might have done something to help the inhabitants of the Town - something more than meeting them on the plain ... How if this whole trip were allowed the Ghosts merely to mock them?” One answer offered is that “The sane would do no good if they made themselves mad to help madmen.” Another is that the great spirits of the blessed are just too large to squeeze into the narrow and cramped confines of Hell. I'm not sure that either truly address the question.

To enter Heaven CSL says we have to lose our self-centredness:
  • The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’. ... There is always something they prefer to joy ... Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.
  • Did ye never know a collector of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them?
  • No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” 
  • There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It's not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels."
  • The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.
  • What we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved.” 

Other great aphorisms include:
  • To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” with the answer “If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for"
  • "Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.
  • Jesus ... was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience.
  • "Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.

But one of the best things about a C S Lewis book are the brilliant descriptions:
  • Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering.
  • My attention was caught by my fellow passengers ... Now that they were in the light, they were transparent ... They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.
  • One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless - heavy thought in the face of an infant, and frolic childhood in that of a very old man.”
  • The bus was full of light. It was cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then - there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus - I caught sight of my own.” 
  • If a corpse already liquid with decay had arisen from the coffin, smeared its gums with lipstick, and attempted a flirtation, the result could not have been more appalling.
Biographies about C S Lewis reviewed in this blog include:
November 2018; 118 pages

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

"A Question of Blood" by Ian Rankin

Detective Inspector John Rebus is in hospital with a pair of has a pair of bandaged hands when his sidekick Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke tells him that a criminal with whom Rebus had been seen drinking the night before has been burned to death and that two schoolboys have been shot to death in the common room of their public school. These cases both look open and closed: Rebus was on the scene and has scalded (or were they burned) hands; and there is an ex-SAS soldier gunman with the two dead boys who shot himself. But as Rebus and Clarke seek for the gunman's motive, as usual, all is never quite as it seems in the world of Edinburgh crime.

Another classic outing for one of the better detective series.

In fact there is a moment when Rankin transcends his genre. John Rebus goes to Alan Renshaw, the bereaved parent of one of the boys in the school shooting, who happens to be his cousin. He finds him in the loft, playing with his dead son's discarded racing car track. The two men play with the kit for a while until reminiscence gives way to anger. This scene provides one of the very best  portraits of the grief of a bereaved parent that I have read.

The many bits of business possible for a character with heavily bandaged hands is a master-class for novelists. Lighting a cigarette and lifting a glass to his mouth (favourite occupations for Rebus) offer original descriptions; wearing gloves elicits 'fascist' comments; Rebus needs Clarke to drive for him.

Rankin is also particularly good at providing a new twist on sayings. Many of these are too diffuse to quote but they offer an original way of viewing the character.

  • "Patience: the one thing he had no time for." (C 1)
  • "The woman was not cooking with a full set of saucepans." (C 13)
  • "The kettle's trailing the pot one-nil at half-time." (C 14)

Other interesting quotes:

  • "Inside, the flat was musty. There was a fug which could have been bottled as eau de Bachelor." (C 3)
  • "What was he watching for? Because it satisfied the voyeur in him? He'd always enjoyed surveillances for the same reason: glimpses into secret lives." (C 16)

A great addition to the Rebus corpus. I also recommend:

November 2018; 440 pages

Monday, 26 November 2018

"Ulysses Found" by Ernle Bradford

Based on a lifetime of sailing the Mediterranean in a small boat, this book locates the places in Homer's Odyssey. Homer often gives precise sailing instructions and detailed descriptions of harbours (the exception is the clearly mythical voyage to the land of the dead) and Bradford uses these to trace the voyage. Sometimes Bradford agrees with classical sources (almost everyone locates Scylla and Charybdis in the Messina strait between Sicily and Italy) and sometimes he disagrees but in every case he has excellent reasons for his identification. Of course, this all assumes that Homer was working with a sailor or sailors or at least with their log books, even when, as Bradford admits, citing the lack of any encounters with other voyagers in the Odyssey, the Greeks of Homer's time never adventured into the Western Mediterranean.

This is a brilliant, fascinating, well argued and convincing book and the meat of the argument is perfectly spiced with anecdotes about the author's own adventures.

The route that Bradford suggests makes sense both in terms of directions, times and likely speeds, and the descriptions of land. In short, Bradford suggests Ulysses travelled north from Troy to raid the Thracian coast near Mount Ismaro. He was then driven by a storm to the Island of Djerba off the Libyan coast, the Land of the Lotus Eaters. He then travelled north to the land of the Cyclopes in SE Sicily, north to Ustica (the Island of Aeoleus) and again north to Bonifacio on southern Corsica, the Land of the Laestrygonians. He then travelled east to Circe's island (actually a headland) on the Italian coast north of Naples. After Circe he travelled west through the r (to the Land of the Dead) and then back to Circe. Leaving her again he went via the Isles of the Sirens (just south of the Sorrento peninsula) through the Messian straits (Scylla and Charybdis) to Taormina in Sicily where grazed the Cattle of the Sun. He spent years on Calypsos island (Malta) before finally travelling home via Corfu (the Land of the Phaeacians).

I've created a series of maps for this which can be found here

Fascinating bits:

  • Odysseus means ‘son of wrath’. But Ulysses derives from Olysseus which comes from O Lukos, ‘the wolf’
  • When young U is wounded in the thigh by a boar in a hunting accident. “This wounding in the thigh seems to equate him with a number of eastern gods, Tammuz, Adonis, and Cretan Zeus, all of whom were wounded and killed by a boar. These stories all stem from a Phoenician source.” 
  • The rudder, as we know it today, was a north European invention, and probably originated in the Baltic. This axled, hinged rudder was still considered something of a modern invention when used in the caravels of Henry the Navigator in the early 15th century. It was unknown in the classical world.
  • Odyssey ca C12 BC: “ the Cretan, or Minoan, seapower had collapsed before invaders from the north ... the Phoenicians had not yet founded their colonies on the North African coast.
  • Polyphemus has ‘eyebrows’ in the Odyssey: “It is not till later times that he becomes monophthalmic.
  • Garlic itself has long been associated with magical properties ... s late as the 14th century ... we find that garlic was reputed to neutralize the lodestone, thus putting the magnetic compass out of action.
  • Comparatively few rivers of any size flow into the Mediterranean, and it loses by evaporation two-thirds more than it receives from its rivers. This steady loss is made good by an inflow of water from the Atlantic.” This will allow U to drift back to the Med after visiting the ‘land of the dead’.
  • The two mountains which face each other across the Strait were called ‘The Pillars of Melkarth’ by the Phoenicians. They took their name from the twin pillars of the great temple of Melkarth in the city of Tyre. ... Melkarth was not only a sea god in Phoenician mythology, he was also Lord of the Underworld, and it was between the pillars of the Strait of Gibraltar that he was believed to dwell.” which is why C sent U to Gibraltar to go into the Underworld.
  • Baltic Amber was being imported overland into prehistoric Greece centuries before the Homeric period.
  • It was the Phoenicians who first gave the island its name, Maleth or Malet - the Shelter, Haven, or Hiding Place ... the word ‘Calypso’ in Greek means ‘hidden’ or ‘hider’, and the Homeric words for Calypso’s isle, Neesos Kalupsous, can best be translated in English as ‘The Island of the Hiding Place’.
  • The Maltese archipelago was inhabited many centuries before the basin of the Mediterranean was flooded.

Great quotes
  • I do not think that anything is lost by attempting to find a skeleton - however magnificent the cupboard that hides it.
  • Ulysses was the shopkeeper with his thumb on the scales, and an eye for the girls, handy with a knife in a dark alley, and at the same time in some strange fashion or other, capable of honesty - or was it of great consistency? - over most of the major issues.” 
  • When men return from war it is their record as fighting men which usually determines their immediate position in society. Inevitably within a short time the standards of judgement change, so that often the war hero turns out to be a peace-time failure.”
  • In Trapani I have felt history as heavy as a plush curtain. ... One's own life is seen as no more than a minute drop of resin oozing from the trunk of some giant tree.
  • Places are little in themselves, you must earn them by your voyage.

A wonderful voyage.

November 2018; 221 pages