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, 26 February 2015

"Cannery Row" by John Steinbeck

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem ..." writes Steinbeck as the very first line of this bijou book and he makes this tale of the poor people by the sea where the fishing boats bring their catch to be canned into a haunting, elegiac, beautiful symphony.

It starts by describing the key inhabitants of this town; in the words of the author his technique is simply to "open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves." The is Lee Chong who owns a grocery store that stocks everything, despite its seeming lack of space, a sort of Hilbert Hotel of capitalism. There is Mack and the boys who only work when they need to and who rent (rent-free) the Palace Flophouse and Grill which they have furnished with bits and pieces they have picked up in the street. There is Dora, the madam of the whore house, and her girls. And there is Doc who collects marine specimens and sells them to scientific institutions and collectors and who reads books and poetry and drinks beer for breakfast and listens to classical music on his gramophone and who entertains ladies when he can and who looks after all the assorted half-wits and ne'er-do-wells on the strip.

There are also a whole set of minor characters, each fully rounded, each with a contribution to make to the mystery of what it is to be human.

The story, such as it is, and it evolves slowly and gently, is about the party that Mack and the boys give for Doc, because Doc is one hell of a nice guy. Being Mack and the boys they have to earn money first so they can buy the whiskey that the party will need. To earn money they have to catch frogs that Doc will buy from them to sell on. To catch the frogs they have to borrow a pick up from Lee Chong and fill it with petrol and travel to the frog pond. But Mack and the boys are deeply flawed human beings, as are we all, and their best laid plans gang aft agley (to quote the poem which Steinbeck quotes in Of Mice and Men).

And Steinbeck combines both comedy and tragedy with his deep compassion and understanding of humanity.

His prose is beautiful. I will quote a few selections which I found particularly remarkable:
Hazel likes to keep a conversation going by asking questions. He isn't really interested in the answers. And he hates being asked questions because that means he has to answer them. "It meant casting about in his mind for an answer and casting about in Hazel's mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. Hazel's mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits."
"Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris."
"The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product."

A truly wonderful book. February 2015; 148 pages

Friday, 20 February 2015

"Blazing star" by Alexander Larman

This is the biography of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, who was a courtier at the court of Charles II during the restoration and famous for being a libertine, a rake, a wit, and the writer of some incredibly rude poetry. He died of tertiary syphilis at the age of 33.

OK. I am not very good at appreciating poetry. Rochester wrote mostly in couplets and I find it hard to get beyond that poetic form into true emotion. As a result, although I can often appreciate the wit in his verse I can rarely understand what Larman claims, which is that some special quality puts Rochester above anyone else writing usually bawdy ballads. Certainly his work doesn't touch Donne (whose brilliant biography by John Stubbs I reviewed here). The only two bits of poetry I remembered after closing the book are the witty ones:

  • firstly the one in which he coins the phrase 'Merry Monarch' to refers to Charles II. But in the original it is rather less complimentary than it sounds: "Restless, he rolls about from whore to whore/ A merry Monarch, scandalous and poor."
  • secondly (and this is ascribed to him) the spontaneous couplet "We have a pretty witty king/ Whose  word no man relies on./ He never said a foolish thing/ Nor never did a wise one."

As for his supposedly far-sighted libertarian (as opposed to libertine) views; there was not much instance of these in the book. He mostly toadied to King Charles except when he got drunk and then vandalised royal property or got a soldier killed. In any case, the politics were not carefully explained. It mentions the CABAL of five ministers without saying who they were. And I never really understood how there could be such flipping to and fro between the Roman Catholicism of court, the Test Act and the possible Exclusion Act and the 'Popish plot' witch hunts of Titus Oates.

He was a wit. He was a scandalous rake. He was probably bisexual (he seems to have pimped out his footman who was nicknamed Beautiful Buttocks). But thirty three years is not a long time for a full length biography and there are times, especially towards the end where he spent a long time dying, where the momentum of the story gets a little lost.

Larman dissects the court of Charles II, pointing out both the good (the reintroduction of theatre) and the bad (the extravagance and waste and the lack of care for the common weal). This is the job of the historian; on the one hand, on the other hand; letting the reader make up his own mind; faithfully chronicling the complexities of a world where no one is all good or all bad. Given how well Larman does this it is a little disappointing that he does not also apply this to the previous regime, the Cromwellian. Cromwell is 'the old hypocrite',  his thought is 'straightforwardly brutish', sympathisers are 'toadying' and his court is 'pompous and grandiose'. This is the use of rhetoric rather than argument and (because I am an awkward bugger) it makes me presume that Cromwell must have been better than perhaps he was.

I suppose I am an old Puritan who disapproves of Rochester and his antics. Perhaps he was a remarkable man but if he had such gifts it is a shame he didn't use them for more than his ultimately self-destructive pursuit of pleasure. Perhaps it is this that makes him so fascinating a figure to biographers.

It is difficult to leave such a compelling central character to one side and write a fair comment on the book. It was clearly well researched and, apart from the little niggles I have mentioned above, the story was well told. I saw the film about Rochester starring Johnny Depp and I was glad I had read the book.

February 2015; 363 pages

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"Deep Time" by Henry Gee

This is a book about palaeontology, the study of fossils. That makes it sound very dry and dusty. By Henry Gee knows how to tell a good story and every chapter is full of reminiscences, such as when he was hunting for human remains with the Leakeys, his student work experience classifying fish fossils in the Natural History Museum or and who went to which pub during the disputes that introduced cladistics to palaeontology.

I also adored his chapter headings which show evidence of a wide range of reading far beyond I would have expected from a fossil hunter. But I guess you need a decent stash of books for the long dark desert nights:

  • Chapter 1 is called Nothing Besides Remains, quoting Ozymandias but adding a nice double meaning
  • Chapter Two: Hunting Unicorns, refers to a essay by Jorge Luis Borges about Kafka
  • Chapter 3: There are More Things, quotes Hamlet's remark to Horatio
  • And Chapter 7: Are We Not Men? is from a work by H.G.Wells

Gee's main thrust is to consider palaeontology as a science. He points out that fossils represent a few brief glimpses of bones out of millions of years of evolution. He reminds us that evolution is not purposeful nor is it a progression and that if we try to understand evolution from the point of view of creating adaptations that we see in the modern world we are assuming that the environmental conditions millions of years ago that led to the creation of a species were the same as now. So, for example, feathered birds might have had an evolutionary advantage millions of years ago for reasons we cannot now guess and it might have been entirely an accident that they are also useful skin coverings for an animal that flies.

From Gee's point of view the brilliant thing about cladistics is that it doesn't assume any heritage or ancestral linkages. It simply groups fossils by their features into 'sister-groups' and uses the Principle of Parsimony to derive the best possible tree diagram summarising relationships between the individuals.

Gee makes his arguments thoroughly; sometimes I thought points were repeated more than they needed to be. He also explains cladistics on a very simple level and I would like to have known a little more about these techniques, especially since cladistics can be used to explore the relationships (and thus possibly infer the ancestry) of Chaucerian manuscripts and of languages.

But on the whole this was a thoroughly enjoyable Science book about an area of Science I had not previously believed could be so much fun.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

"A Gun for Sale" by Graham Greene

Raven is a hired killer. He assassinates the old minister and his secretary. This put Europe (this book was written in 1936) on the brink of war as countries blame one another for the political killing. But Raven is paid £200 by Mr Cholmondley and when he gets back to his London flat he finds the police looking for him because the notes are on a list of stolen money. So Raven has to trail Cholmondley to Nottwich to seek revenge.

Also on the train to Nottwich is Anne, the actress girlfriend of Mather, the Scotland Yard detective who is pursuing Raven.

The joy of this thriller is the spare prose which Greene uses; this captures perfectly the bleak lives of the characters. And every character is brought to life, even the bit parts, from the medical student who, being made to strip at gunpoint, is acutely aware of the hole in his pants to the chorus girl who goes for a meal with the show's producer. "I fling myself at men," she says, "but I never seem to hit them" in a wonderful moment of humour almost at the very end of the book, straight after the tragic climax. As for Raven, he may be a crook and a murderer but he had a rotten start in life. We feel for him in his weakness and his shabbiness and his fears.

This book is indeed almost Shakespearean in its concern to flesh out even minor characters and the careful construction of the plot (and the slightly contrived web of coincidences that make up the main story). But the taut prose is pure Greene. In many ways  its dramatis personae reminded me of Stamboul Train. On the other hand, the way that Greene writes about murder and political conspiracy set firmly within a thoroughly everyday English context, with seediness and need and insecurity the background to all of us, high or low, is a little like The Ministry of Fear.

But this excellent book transcends them both.

February 2015; 182 pages

Sunday, 8 February 2015

"The Battle of Hastings 1066: the uncomfortable truth" by John Grehan and Martin Mace

Not that uncomfortable. These authors simply contend that the Battle was not fought on Battle Hill where Battle Abbey was built (allegedly with the High Altar being on the spot that King Harold died) but was instead fought on the far higher and steeper nearby Caldbec Hill. The argument convinced me in the first few chapters and I really did not need the authors to belabour it quite as much as they did.

Apart from being higher and steeper, Caldbec Hill was the meeting point of Harold's army. It was the point at which important roads intersected and where three hundreds met. The was a Hoar Apple tree to mark the spot of the assembly and one of the original sources states that this was where the battle was fought. In addition, it was near the forest and an early source tells of William seeing the Saxons coming out of the trees. It made no sense for King Harold to move from his highly defensible meeting place whilst he was still awaiting further reinforcements down hill to the much gentler Battle Hill where his men, who fought on foot, could easily have been mown down by the Norman cavalry. Furthermore many of the early sources agree that the battle, which unusually for mediaeval battles lasted all day, proved very hard for the Normans because they had to fight uphill. Finally, a significant moment in the battle came when some of the Norman cavalry rode into a ravine and were suffocated, one on top of the other. There is a likely river near Caldbec Hill where this might have happened but not near Battle Hill.

And there have been archaeologists digging on Battle Hill without turning up any significant evidence of the thousands of men who were killed in this battle. Perhaps they should be excavating on Caldbec Hill instead.

OK. I think these two historians have proved their point. Argument ( more or less) over. But this book could have been half the length and still convinced me.

February 2015; 154 pages

Saturday, 7 February 2015

"A Decent Interval" by Simon Brett

Brett has also written the Fethering mysteries featuring uptight Carole and 'healer' Jude, amateur lady detectives at a South Coast resort including Blood at the Bookies, the Corpse on the Court and Bones Under the Beach Hut, and the Blotto Twinks series of thriller meets P G Wodehouse including Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera. But the Charles Paris books are my favourites.

Charles is an ageing actor wedded to a bottle of Bells whisky and his estranged wife. After eight months resting he gets two jobs in a week. The first is a day filming body parts in close up for wallpaper for a documentary on the Battle of Naseby with a washed up director, a cameraman and a girl who does make up, props, catering and sleeps with the director. His second job is as the Ghost in a touring production of Hamlet starring the winner of a singing contest as Hamlet and the winner of a talent show as Ophelia. From the outset there is tension between the real actors and the stars (who effectively run the show, telling the director what to do). Then accidents start to happen.

I love these books because of the hero's cynical take on life and his career. He may be a luvvy but by goodness he works hard at his craft, when he isn't sabotaging his own performance with a little too much whisky before the show. I adore the way Brett peppers uncomplimentary reviews throughout ("as much backbone as spaghetti") and the way he strips the glamour from the profession ("It is a fact that all actors love gibbering parts ... There's nothing actors like better than being deformed and gibbering on stage .... There are even Oscars in it .... Daniel Day Lewis and Dustin Hoffman have done very well out of gibbering. And then again, coming back to basics, playing people who gibber is so much easier than playing real people.") And poor old Charles is really rather a dinosaur: he has a lot of trouble remembering that the feminists have decreed that actresses should now be called actors (though "he refused to think of them as 'actors' if he was going to bed with them") and that women are no longer the opposite sex but the complementary sex.

Deliciously grubby but still a good whodunnit. February 2015; 202 pages

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

"Bones under the beach hut" by Simon Brett

Another of Brett's murder mysteries featuring amateur lady sleuths uptight Carole and curvaceous Jude in the seaside town of Fethering. What makes these special is the delicious range of characters effortlessly sketched by the versatile Brett, including:

  • The girl endlessly rewriting her novel
  • The short and sandals wearing corrupt council official who supervises beach huts and his menacing side kick the beach security guard
  • The unmarried ex-schoolteacher self-important chairman of the Beach Hut Association who bullies his doormat secretary and collects naval memorabilia
  • The poisonous grandmother who endlessly criticises her daughter-in-law's raising of the grandchildren
  • The retired undertaker and his word puzzling wife
  • The drunken local artist who charges ridiculous prices for watercolours and who is supported by his wealthy wife

I loved it as I have enjoyed all the Brett's, including the Charles Paris books such as A Decent Interval Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera and the other Fethering mysteries Blood at the Bookies and The Corpse on the Court.

Monday, 2 February 2015

"The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" by Edgar Allan Poe

The hero stows away to sea but the ship is subject to a mutiny and is then wrecked. He survives via cannibalism and then travels to a warm part of Antarctica where he and his shipmates encounter hostile natives. The narrative is unfinished.

This is a very episodic novella. Thee seems to be little coherence. The theme of being buried alive is repeated but that seems coincidental. A promise that a broken bottle may have significance later is not honoured. An example of what seems to be a slapdash construction is that a faithful dog, who appears a bit like a deus ex machina when the narrative requires, later disappears without being mourned; he is presumably washed overboard in a storm but this is not explicitly stated. The unfinished ending, with a 'note from the editor' which explains that two or three chapters have been lost, seems to be an excuse for Poe not being able to see how to extricate his heroes from their latest predicament. Or he became bored.

On an interesting note, the dog is called Tiger and there is also a character called Richard Parker. Pym confuses Tiger and Parker in a dream. Of course, the Life of Pi, has a tiger character called Richard Parker; they are involved, like Poe's characters, in a shipwreck and there is some question as to whether the hero has just dreamt the tiger.

Overall I found this an unsatisfactory novel and nothing compared to the great heights that Poe can achieve. Nevertheless it clearly inspired James de Mille to write A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (whose very title reflects the influence of Poe who also wrote MS Found in a Bottle). This also tells of a strange race of beings in a strangely warm Antarctic. And H P Lovecraft wrote At the Mountains of Madness which also tells of strange alien beings although this time in a snowy Antarctica (and Lovecraft's creatures are clearly not men). Other possible influences might include Conan Doyle's Lost World. So Poe had massive influence on the genre.

February 2015; 161 pages