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

Friday, 31 August 2018

"Surpassing Ourselves" by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia

This is an inquiry into the nature of expertise. It is a carefully crafted academic study. However, you could use it as a self-help book if you wanted to become an expert. Beware! It is not easy and this book promises no short cuts.

The characteristics of expertise are:

  • That it is effortful: “If ease and naturalness are the criteria, then ... fish are expert swimmers and Olympic breaststrokers are not" (p 4). “Many experts ... are active, striving people. They work long hours, usually at something they consider to be quite difficult, and they tend to set standards for themselves and others that are always at least slightly beyond reach. When at liberty to do so, one of the first things they will admit is that they are deplorable ignorant.” (p 34) “A distinguishing characteristic of the most creative people in many fields is the sheer volume of their productivity.” (p 124)
  • It may involve specialization but it is not just specialization. 
  • It probably involves formal knowledge but it certainly involves informal knowledge. This is the sort of impressionistic knowledge, often based on formal knowledge, which is displayed in 'connoiseurship': "Connoisseurs are experts who possess highly developed impressionistic knowledge of whatever their speciality entails.” (p 55)
  • Fundamentally experts "choose to address the problems of their field at the upper limit of the complexity they can handle” (p 20). And they develop from novices to their position of expertise by "progressive problem solving" (passim); that is by never resting on their laurels but instead always “seeking out more difficult problems” (p 93) or “tackling more complex representations of recurrent problems” (p 94). "They work at the edge of their competence ... Working at the edge of competence is risky and taxing, but it yields two great benefits. It results in superior accomplishments ... and it leads to further growth as competence advances” (p 98). “Experts, we propose, tackle problems that increase their expertise, whereas non-experts tend to tackle problems for which they do not have to extend themselves.” (p 78). Non-experts seek to proceduralise their knowledge: “These processes of proceduralization continue until the originally problem-fraught activity becomes, as is said, ‘automatic’. Automaticity is the great freer of mental resources, but it is obtained at a cost. The cost is loss of conscious access. It becomes difficult to modify a well-practiced procedure.” (p 89) But the aim is to develop “performance that is ‘good enough’.” (p 91) After all, imost subcultures, as one learns “life becomes less problematic and learning tapers off ... the process of expertise is deviant.” (p 105) Experts seek continual improvement. The early ability to proceduralise provides “mental resources available to re-invest ... in the pursuit of new goals.” (p 79 -80)
  • This can result in the "experience of sustained pleasure" known as "flow" (p 103). “Flow ... requires a nice balance between ability and challenge. If challenge exceeds ability, the result is anxiety and frustration rather than flow. If ability exceeds challenge, the result is boredom. Combined with the inevitable effect of learning, this means that repetition of the same activity will eventually cease to produce the flow experience. It will get too easy. Something must be done to increase the level of challenge so as to bring it into harmony with the increasing level of ability.” (p 102)

But “if the process of expertise is so addictively enjoyable ... why doesn't everyone practice it and thus become an expert? Flow is much harder to achieve in some situations than others ... In many highly routinized jobs it is difficult to perceive problems. ... [In] work situations in which people perceive problems as insoluble ... anxiety is the dominant experience” (p 103 - 104). The sorts of environments in which expertise can be developed include:
  • Competitive sports in which as one improves one challenges others to improve which in turn challenges oneself to improve further. This is a bit like the dog eat cat aspect of natural selection results in evolution.
  • Science in which each scientist continually builds on the work of others in a partly competitive but essentially cooperative endeavour. “People outside the academic world who are aware of the amount of effort academicians put into journal articles are sometimes amazed or even outraged to learn that the journals do not pay their contributors anything.” (p 206) The motives involved in those who contribute include “desire for recognition and respect from the people one regards as peers ... desire to have impact ... and desire to participate in significant discourse.” (p 207)
  • Arts in which each artist puts their work out there and therefore is encouraged by comparing their work with others; this is quite similar to the way in which science works.
Therefore an expert-developing environment is one "in which the conditions to which people must adapt change progressively as a result of the successes of other people in the environment.” (p 106) “One adapts to changes that keep raising the ante, by setting a higher standard of performance ... through adapting, one raises the ante for others.” (p 106). Importantly, this implies that one can see the work of others. “The norm is for expertise to be shared.” (p 227) Those who work in isolation, for example teachers in their individual classrooms, will therefore find it more difficult to develop expertise. The development of wikipedia, too late for this book, makes this point: by changing the environment one achieved a cooperative but challenging development of expertise. Perhaps it should be the norm for learners to share the essays they write or to always work on problems on some sort of class wiki.

Experts also challenge themselves. They take risks. “The process of expertise is inherently venturesome.” (p 141)“What distinguishes creative experts from the common herd is ... that they take bigger risks ... and through this experience they develop a kind of knowledge that increases their likelihood of success. This is what we will call knowledge of promisingness.” (p 125) Critique is a good way of developing promisingness, “discovering elements of promise in a composition and helping the student develop those into something.” (p 149) “People on an expert track of development are continually striving against limits of their competence. For beginners, this means striving against the limitations that insufficient prior knowledge places on their ability to learn. For experts, the problems of insufficient prior knowledge never go away, however. The expert track of development keeps rising toward levels of increasing complexity of performance and understanding. This means that present knowledge is always superficial, simplistic, and fragmented relative to the knowledge the expert is trying to achieve.” (p 175)

For experts, goals emerge. "You start out off with a general intent to understand or learn more about something, and as you pick up knowledge it becomes clearer what it is you are trying to understand and what kind of knowledge it is you are constructing.” (p 163 - 164)

Other interesting ideas:
  • Reinvestment involves both conserving resources, so as to have something to reinvest, and putting these resources back into the activity itself rather than dissipating them or directing them elsewhere.” (p 82)
  • Experts learn patterns and this inevitably pushes them towards “deepening a rut that will eventually entrap them.” (p 109) but experts often avoid ruts for a longer than normal time because “tackling new problems has a rejuvenating effect ... old people who have started to shut down and vegetate can change dramatically by getting re-engaged in problem solving ... hormone levels and sperm count rise.” (p 110)
  • There are no experts who lack expert knowledge of their fields.” (p 44) 
  • People go through life trying to accomplish tasks and to understand things, using the existing skills and informal knowledge. From time to time these prove insufficient and people must resort to problem solving that draws on formal knowledge." (p 72)
  • Writers ... talk about how they go about the task of writing - how much revising they do, how they get from a vague notion to an actual draft, how they keep going.” (p 59)
  • The problem is not to explain originality. On close examination, practically everything we do from minute to minute is original. The problem is to explain how some people become expert at, so that they can fairly regularly, almost on demand, produce work that stands out from that of their peers.” (p 122)
  • Problem finding ... is part of virtually all real world problem solving. Real world problems are ...’ill-structured’, which means that one does not know in advance or knows only vaguely what would constitute a solution. In the course of problem solving the goal itself takes shape ... what one is after does not become fully specified until the task is finished. The goal ... emerges from the work itself.” (p 132)
  • Promisingness is the very thing that the student, because of inexperience, is least able to judge.” (p 135)
  • The requirements for developing creative expertise are deceptively simple: ... you must pursue creative goals and you must occasionally succeed ... an unbroken series of failures will not provide you with the knowledge of promisingness required for eventual success. For that reason, coaches or mentors can play a vital role in the early stages of a creative career, because they can start you along promising paths.” (p 147)
  • Students who are all trying hard to be good students may nevertheless be pursuing quite different goals - different notions of what it is to be a good student.” (p 160) 
  • In an expert subculture, the process of expertise is not exceptional. It is what people normally do.” (p 222)
  • We are trying to struggle along with the common law principle that you can do anything you want with what you happen to own or control, subject only to the constraints necessary to protect the rights of others. The potential consequences of actions taken by a giant petrochemical company, for instance, are too vast and long-range to be managed by such a feeble principle. Yet the only recognised alternative, central government planning, has failed so dramatically in Eastern Europe that the very idea survives only in remnants.” (p 223)

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. August 2018; 247 pages

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

"Virgil's Aeneid" by David Ross

As Ross notes in his Preface "This is not a book intended for Virgilian scholars, nor on the other hand is it solely for 'the general reader', who, in the area of Latin literature at least, may be as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker." (p vii) It must therefore be asked whether this book falls between two stools. As a general reader I can asset that the answer is no. This extraordinarily well-written book intrigued and beguiled me. Yes, I have read the Aeneid (in translation) and I think it would be essential to have done so, or at least to be reading the Aeneid in parallel with this. But this book made me realise how much of Virgil's book I had missed; how much richer it was than I had appreciated. It made me want to re-read it with this as my guide. And it made me determined, some day, to tackle Virgil's other poetry, the Eclogues and the Georgics (not to mention rereading the Odyssey and trying Catullus).

This book is full of insights. I had never before appreciated that the Roman 'religion' was in essence a variety of pantheons, including the Olympic, grafted on to primitive animistic shadowy and vague powers such as Mater Matuta, Janus, Concordia, Castor, Fortuna etc; that “The ancestors of the Romans were, as Indo-Europeans. rather odd: they seem to have brought with them into Italy no gods and no mythology.” (p 80)  and one of the traditional invocations began “whether you be god or goddess” (p 63)  Even as late as "Cato's time (the first half of the second century) Mars could still be purely a spirit of the wilderness, though he had also, and for a long time, assumed the armour and the personality of Ares.” (p 65)

Nor had I appreciated that the chronology of Roman history is mainly invented, even regarding the date of the founding of the city. “The date that we view as traditional, 753 BC, was not established and accepted until 47 BC, on the authority of Varro, the greatest antiquarian scholar of his time, but it was entirely his invention.” He calculated that the Republic began in 509 BC and there were seven kings with an average reign of, say, 35 years each. (p 78) This is almost as good as Archbishop Usher's calculation of the date of creation.

Other insights included:
  • Virgil’s poem is a complete inversion of Homer.” (p 1)
  • Poetic meaning cannot be caught in the net of analysis, typified, catalogued, and stored away systemically in its proper drawer of a critical cabinet. The Aeneid does have meaning, but it has no answers.” (p 3)
  • Homeric narrative ... is strikingly different from the sophisticated literary narrative of secondary epic, in this respect: it is realistic, with the realism demanded by children listening to a fairytale. Every detail must be precise and logical.” (p 7) And just the tiny fraction of Homer quoted made me realise the power of the narrative.
  • The mundane experience of ordinary people living their everyday lives can become of literary interest only when given a significance that removes the experience from the everyday, that makes it mean something more.” (p 11)
  • The hero must do great deeds and must excel, but if he is to move us and have meaning, he must also fail, because failure is human, and the most human failing is death.” (p 12)
  • The difference between a Homeric hero at a time of crisis and Aeneas is simply this, that in Homer the hero then acts, decisively and without further hesitation, whereas for Aeneas there is no course of action possible, no way to resolve the conflict.” (p 13)
  • Divine action ... is human action in a pure state, a purity of absolute pettiness, of ambition and greed, of spite and pride; but pure also in that it need have no regard for its consequences” because the gods are immortal.” (p 72)

I even understood (most of) the discussion about the Latin hexameter and the reason for stresses and caesuras. 

Other great moments:
  • What is most obvious often receives the least attention” (p 1)
  • Apollonius’ Jason and Medea are subject to passions and faults all too human. Jason appears often as an incompetent, a bumbler, and a cad, and Medea is both the witch of towering passion and supernatural powers ... and also a naive girl experiencing love for the first time.” (p 6)
  • The traditional hero stands half-way between the gods and men.” (p 11)
  • Ignorance is fundamental to the human condition.” (p 76)
  • Whereas we walk down the road of life looking into the future as we go, the ancients sat in a railroad car facing to the rear, seeing only where they have passed; to see where they were going, they had to look back over their shoulders. This, in fact, is a far more realistic conception of the future than ours.” (p 106)
What a wonderful book. My mate Fred is good at picking books for me. Others he has selected which I recommend are:
  • The Feather Thief, a true crime story about a theft from a museum
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles  a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
August 2018; 152 pages

Sunday, 26 August 2018

"Golden Hill" by Francis Spufford

New York, 1746. 'Mr Smith' arrives from England and presents a bill for £1000 to the banking firm of Lovell, a considerable sum which the firm will struggle to pay. But he has to stay alive until Christmas Day to collect the money. Having had his wallet stolen he hasn't sufficient money to sustain himself till Christmas, let alone play the rich man, and he has to rely on appearance and credit. He has to escape over the rooftops from a murderous mob. Then there is doubt about whether the bill is a forgery and Smith a fraud, which is a hanging offence is proved. He also becomes a pawn in the politics between the Governor and the Chief Justice. This picaresque is rounded out with amateur dramatics, his love for a shrew, a sodomite and his slave, adultery in the baths, and a duel. Fantastic fun and some brilliant writing. We are truly immersed in the Georgian city.

Great lines
  • Someone was sweeping the long sleeves, and singing slow in an African tongue as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.” (p 18)
  • I rise in the morning and it takes all the effort of which I am capable ... to stuff the building sack full of whim-whams, impulses and contradictions back behind my face, and turn myself out for the day as a plausible secretary again.” (p 30) 
  • She trembled, like a plum already fermenting, about to burst in a mess of juices.” (p 115)
  • You may be the kind of dog who bites because she is chained up.” (p 146)
  • I take it as a Maxim, that One must skate on, though the Ice be thin; skate as fast as may be, as if the Footing be secure, even if it proves not so.” (p 156)
  • He had plainly learned that cardinal rule of selling, that you should never linger after the bargain is struck.” (p 178)
  • The snow - this time falling in fat, tumbling clots, as if the stuffing of furniture were being tossed over the balconies of heaven.” (p 199)
  • The production had crossed the elusive but distinct line between the early stages of rehearsal, where the nature of the production is still to seek for, and experiments are welcome, and that later stage where the effort to be aimed for is essentially agreed.” (p 201)
  • You were therefore endeavoring I thought to stand tall under a low Ceiling.” (p 224)
  • Life is a mess of accident.” (p 245)
  • Beauty - and rage, and bitterness, and solitariness, and a very foul temper; but first of all, beauty. You make everything else in a room look dull. your face is more alive than anyone else's, to me. All the other faces are dirty windows, to me, smeared with chalk and street-spatter; yours is clear through, to the soul behind.” (p 283)


A swashbuckling historical romance distinguished by its brilliant descriptive writing and the fabulous authenticity of its prose. August 2018; 299 pages

Saturday, 25 August 2018

"From Saxons to Speed" by Ian Freeman

This is a history of Bedford from its beginnings as a Saxon burh until and including the John Speed map drawn in 1610. It makes the fascinating point that most of the roads going itno Bedford aim directly for where the town bridge is now (although some such as Cauldwell Street have subsequently been modified near the bridge and others such as Foster Hill Road have had parks or buildings plonked in their path): this implies that the bridge is where the old ford was.

It is an excellent local history with lots of drawings of street plans and old buildings and some photographic illustriaons too. Nevertheless, I found it hard to envisage exactly where some of the places he was talking about were (and I have lived in Bedford since 1987). So even more maps would have been useful.

There was one bit with which I disagreed. The treaty between Wessex king Alfred (the Great) and Viking Guthrun in about 888 negotiated a boundary between Wessex and Daneland. It travelled from the mouth of the river Lea where it enters the Thames (thus keeping the City of London inside Wessex) up the Lea to the source at Leagrave, then due north to Bedford, and then along the Ouse to Watling Street (now in Milton Keynes), and then northwards along Watling Street. What was to the north and east of this line was Guthrun's and what was to the south and west was Alfred's. This implies that Bedford north of the Ouse was in Viking hands. But this book states on p22 that Bedford (the town centre north of the river) was an Alfredian burh (a fortified township) even though it does not appear in the Burghal Hideage (an assessment of the garrison need for towns in Wessex) and claims that the rectilinear pattern of the roads confirms this. It then (p 23) states that according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 915 Alfred's son Edward the Elder took possession of Bedford from the Danes and commanded that a burh be built south of the river. Although tradition believes that the King's Ditch surrounded this southern burh the book points out that the earliest written reference to this is in the 16th century and suggests that it was simply a ditch to protect the bridgehead for the burh on the north of the river. Given that the Danes attempted (unsuccessfully) to retake Bedford in 917 this might also suggest that Bedford was a Danish town in Guthrun's Daneland until 915; if it was ever Saxon (and Matthew Paris in the 13th century claimed that Offa was buried in Bedford in 796) it was therefore ceded by Alfred to Guthrun. So I suggest that Bedford was a Mercian town, ceded by Alfred to Guthrun in 888, and incorporated into Wessex by Edward in 915.

Another fascinating mention:

  • "Hooper's Hypothesis of hedgerow dating [suggests that] ... the age of a hedgerow is proportional to the number of different shrub species which can be identified in a 30m to 50m stretch ... each different species represents one century." (p 101)


A fascinating book for residents of this old town. The author has clearly done a great deal of original research. August 2018; 123 pages


Friday, 24 August 2018

"The bricks that built the houses" by Kate Tempest

This starts with a bang. Leon, Harry and Becky are leaving town in a fourth-hand Ford with ten thousand dollars in an old suitcase. They are fleeing Becky's uncles.

Then we scoot back four years to where it all began. Becky is a trained dancer and wants to join a company but all she can get is uncredited roles; she makes ends meet by working as a waitress in her uncle's cafe and as a masseuse. Harry and Leon sell cocaine; Harry (short for Harriet) meets Becky at a party and falls head over heels in love at first sight. Meanwhile, Becky meets Pete, unemployed and hopeless, and they start a relationship. Tempest follows these four as they intertwine through London. In particular she explores their parentages and we get potted biographies of each of the characters, as if she couldn't bear to waste their back stories. This reminded me of the sort of play where each character gets a moment in the spotlight, explaining who they are. I found this rather disruptive of the narrative. It was as if this book couldn't decide whether to be a thriller or an exploration of south London and the lives of that community.

This latter area is where the genius of this author lay. She is brilliant at observational writing. At the end of the book there is a description of a south London pub in the afternoon: "the shaven-headed woman, the pretty teenage boy, the square-faced strong-man, hard as nails, the peaceful quiet drunk whose grey dreadlocks brush his ankles, the pot bellies, skinny shoulders, bright eyes, closed eyes, red eyes, missing teeth, gold teeth, crooked teeth, the sharp suits and old clothes and battered shoes ... the pretty young drunks with their dogs and their hoods, tattoos and piercings, heavy old boots, sexy as new love, looking like an advert for a life you never had the guts to live. The curly-haired women with their swear words and the sharp tongues. Their hands on their hips, cleavage and perfume, and their lives stretch into the distance like railway tracks behind them. Always laughing ... This place is the jewel in south London's shackles." (p 395)

But if she can beautifully describe the glitter, Tempest can also chart the hopelessness in the lives of the people whose only chance of escaping the poverty of their trapped lives in their grim surroundings is the temporary oblivion that comes with alcohol or cocaine and sometimes sex or the peril-fraught path to riches through crime. This is shown particularly in the life of Pete, who is scared of the suits at the job centre, who blames the world for the fact that he has a degree and no job, who is so sunk in depression that it undermines his relationships with the woman he adores, and who blows it all on a riotous drink and drug filled afternoon. But all around Tempest sees "The pain of seeing a person grow into a shadow." (p 4) "Everybody's looking for their tiny piece of meaning. Some fleeting, perfect thing that might make them more alive." (p 124)

They are tense; this author is a genius at describing tension in the posture of the body: Leon's "short is damp with sweat, his arms sore at the wrists from gripping the wheel ... His face is screwed up with worry." Harry is "drumming her fingers, shifting her weight ... Her little body hunched in the back of the car, her limbs splayed out like the arms of a broken umbrella. ... Fear knots her shoulders and they spike together at her back like folded wings." Becky's legs "are crossed tightly, her elbows are tucked into her hips, she's biting her thumbnail. Her body is taut as a trip wire." (p 5)

Other wonderful observations:

  • "The sky is grey and muggy. It wants to rain. Skinny trees grow in cages along the pavement, litter shivers in threadbare hedges." (p 125)
  • "Somewhere nearby two women scream at one another and their voices bounce along the empty roads." (p 53)
  • "Hundreds of bodies move around each other." (p 13)
  • "His eyes are wide as empty tunnels" (p 21)
  • "The moment Paula saw John she felt her throat constrict; the blood flowed thicker through her veins. He felt it in his hair follicles and in the beds of his fingernails." (p 64) There are many descriptions of falling in love and in each case Tempest sees this is a moment of utter disruption and bewilderment.


Great phrases:

  • "Empty-eyed romantics going nowhere. Street lights and traffic and bodies to bury and babies to make." (p 3)
  • "People are killing for gods again." (p 3)
  • "They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things." (p 3)
  • "stare into the eyes of someone hateful that you'll take home anyway." (p 4)
  • "The nausea like an empty endless corridor inside" (p 9)
  • "Becky feels pride swimming through her, pausing at the shallow end to shake its hair and flex its muscles." (p 35)
Don't read this book for the story. Read it for the insight it gives you into the lives of the poor. Read it for the wonderful observations. It sounds that the overwhelming sense of hopelessness should be depressing but she manages to produce loving portraits of people who are struggling to keep their humanity alive in these bleak streets.

August 2018; 399 pages


Monday, 20 August 2018

"How I got into art school (and out of prison)" by William McLellan

This book also seems to be published under the title Wild Ride to Freedom.

There's not a lot about art school. This is a memoir of prison life in Franco's Spain. Because he wanted to be an artist but couldn't afford to go to art school, McLellan decided to spend a year in Morocco drawing, funding it by selling LSD tabs smuggled from England (these were the sixties). The route lay through Franco's Spain. Although McLellan's drugs weren't found, he was arrested for joy riding, badly beaten up for trying to escape (he assaulted a guard in the attempt) and thrown into Modelo prison to await trial. This is the story of the mediaeval grimness of the prison and the friends who helped him survive. Prison also allowed him to remember his dreadful childhood. Finally he finds salvation through art: he ends up forging antiques in the prison workshop for the authorities to sell to tourists.

It is an extraordinary story and it is well written with a very clear structure . The childhood reminiscences are interspersed with prison scenes in a carefully measured way so you never get too much of either. The descriptions of prison life are matter of fact and it is the material itself that makes them gripping. I was hooked.

Brilliant descriptions:

  • "Sylvie had cried so much that I could taste the salt on her wet face." (p 38) Nevertheless, the dumped girlfriend is the only person to visit him in his more than six months in prison.
  • I waited in a wilderness of time until a distant commotion roused me.” (p 54)
  • His fingers ... were short, stubby and grubby, with almost non-existent nails - just little strips with the fingertips curling over them like mushrooms.” (p 134)
  • Men dressed completely in white pummelled pastry with such force that their tall white hats waved around the room like mushrooms in a hurricane.” (p 268) 


Hippy prison philosophy:
  • “Dope will get you through times of no money, better than money will get you through times of no dope.” (p 102)
  • Don't give up on the past - it forms the present.” (p 243)
  • By splitting things into boxes to classify them, the free-flowing unity of the world had been broken up and man had separated himself from it ... Animals didn't have words so they fitted into nature without thinking about it, but we saw ourselves as above nature and tried to control it. That's what words were used for - control.” (p 283)
  • I can do anything. There are no rules for me, only horizons.” (p 285)
  • Life is like a shit sandwich - the more bread you've got, the less shit you have to eat.” (p 332)
  • That's when you’re truly happy. When you forget to eat!” (p 359)

There were things that helped me understand about art and artists:
  • The clean white page of my book invited me to plunge into it like a pool.” (p 122)
  • I'd decided ... never to make a guide sketch in pencil so I'd have freedom to draw whatever came into my head. It meant I had to incorporate any mistakes into the design, but it was worth it.” (p 122)
  • “The subtle gradations in a tone ... were almost photographic.” (p 124)
  • I wanted the curve of the sugar bag to bulge with the weight of its contents.” (p 228)
  • I sort of knew what the yin-yang sign meant. The two fish shapes showed how the opposite sides of life flow together, meaning you couldn't have one without the other. Opposites worked that way in drawing too. You couldn't make something look bright unless you put something dark behind it.” (p 300)

And there were brilliant insights into the life of a poor and poorly parented child:
  • My dream was about the huge scissors cutting open the past, releasing the memories that are hidden for years.” (p 307)
  • I didn't like the wheezy way he breathed when he did it, or the long,cleaning up of the Vaseline.” (p 310)
  • Mum didn't work, but the place was always so filthy that none of us brought our school friends back. Sometimes I'd wash the dried-up porridge from the breakfast bowls and tidy up the room. I’d always leave a note on the tablecloth that said: The fairies have been.” (p 362)
  • I crept into the cold bed and curled up like a question mark so the sheets wouldn't stick to the blood.” (p 365)

A brilliant book. August 2018; 450 pages

Sunday, 19 August 2018

"An Abundance of Katherines" by John Green

Child prodigy Colin Singleton only dates Katherines (not even Catherines) and has just been dumped for the nineteenth time. His friend, fat Hassan, persuades him to take a road trip. They end up in Gutshot, a redneck town whose principal employer is a factory making tampon strings, and are hired to research an oral history of the town. Will Hassan get to second base with Katrina, will Colin complete his Theorem to predict the future of any relationship, and can he fall in love with a Lindsey?

Green, also wrote the brilliant The Fault in Our Stars and Paper TownsWhat he is so good at is taking normal life and finding in it both humour (I actually laughed out loud in a public mplace and I don't do that) and poignant truths about the human condition. These he expresses tersely and in the words of the characters so they seem part of the story but are actually very profound.
  • One of his general policies in life was never to do anything standing up that could just as easily be done lying down.” (p 1)
  • Mothers lie. It's in the job description.” (p 2)
  • Colin Singleton could no more stay cool than a blue whale could stay skinny.” (p 4)
  • Girls are very fickle about the business of kissing. Sometimes they want to make out; sometimes they don't. They’re an impenetrable fortress of unknowability.” (p 74)
  • They like their coffee like they like their ex-boyfriends: bitter.” (p 75)
  • Monotony doesn't make for painlessness. In the first century CE, Roman authorities punished St Apollonia by crushing her teeth one by one with pliers. ... After a while, having each tooth individually destroyed probably gets repetitive, even dull. But it never stops hurting.” (p 94) 
  • I think you can do whatever the fug you want to in your life, and that's a pretty sweet gig.” (p 131)
  • See, popularity is complicated, yo. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about liking; you have to really like being liked, and also sorta like being disliked.” (p 136)
  • Getting a gun in Gutshot, Tennessee, is easier than getting chlamydia from a hooker.” (p 137)
  • Katrina's easier than a four-piece jigsaw puzzle.” (p 142)
  • Moonshine can make you blind, and what I've seen of blindness so far hasn't really impressed me.” (p 145) What I’ve seen of blindness, Very good.
  • If people could see me the way I see myself - if they could live in my memories - would anyone, anyone, love me?” (p 147)
  • I'm full of shit. I'm never myself.” (p 148)
  • Nothing was happening, really, but the moment was thick with mattering.” (p 212)

Delightful. August 2018; 213 pages

"Perelandra" by C S Lewis

Before the Narnia books, Lewis wrote the "Cosmic Trilogy", a set of three sci-fi books in which the hero, Ransom fights for God against the Devil. Perelandra, which is set on Venus,  follows on from Out of the Silent Planet which is set on Mars. The third book in the trilogy, more dystopian than scifi and set on Earth, is That Hideous Strength.

Ransom is recruited by the Eleldil, the 'angels' who look after the solar system, to travel to Venus which is in a Garden of Eden situation. His mission is to persuade the Queen not to listen to the blandishments of his old adversary, Professor Weston, and therefore to avoid the Fall. This book is heavily allegorical and involves a great deal of theological argument, However, Lewis is a great writer and the passages of description (the surface of Venus is mostly Ocean covered with floating islands in which the mountains and valleys swap according to how they are positioned on the giant waves; this makes walking harder than gaining your sea legs on a boat but “like learning to walk on water itself” (p 44) are memorable. He can even make theology interesting and there are a lot of fascinating theological points which he makes.

In the first chapter 'Lewis' walks to Ransom's cottage to send Ransom off on his journey. This makes the main drama a story within a story (a frame narrative) and pays an obvious homage to The Time Machine by H G Wells. It is a great start as it describes Lewis as walking through darkness, assailed by fears and doubts, repeatedly wanting to turn back, and is itself a delightful allegory.

  • "I was afraid ... I might get 'drawn in' ... I suppose that everyone knows this fear ... the sense that a door has just slammed and left him on the inside." (p 3)
  • "This is a long, dreary road." (p 4)
  • "My opinion about sanity changed. Had it ever been more than a convention - a comfortable set of blinkers, an agreed mode of wishful thinking, which excluded from our view the full strangeness and malevolence of the universe we are compelled to inhabit?" (p 9)


I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. It was written in 1943 and is therefore imbued with the life and death struggle against Nazism in which so many young men sacrificed their lives. The only part of the book in which I lost interest was the last two chapters which follow the main drama and act as a sort of long-winded ceremony.

He is particularly good at spotting the paradoxes in our everyday lives:

  • "I felt sure that the creature was what we call 'good', but I wasn't sure whether I liked 'goodness' as much as I had supposed." (p 15)
  • "One can believe in anaesthetics and yet feel in a panic when they actually put the mask over your face. I think I feel as a man who believes in the future life feels when he is taken out to face a firing party. Perhaps it's good practice." (p 25)
  • He stood ... wondering how often in his life on Earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism.” (p 47)
  • He saw reality, and thought it was a dream.” (p 49)
There is a great description of men from the feminists point of view:
  • One felt them [men] there as a huge, dim multitude of creatures pitifully childish and complacently arrogant; timid, meticulous, unoriginating; sluggish and ox-like, rooted to the earth almost in their indolence, prepared to try nothing, to risk nothing, to make no exertion, and capable of being raised into full life only by the unthanked and rebellious virtue of their females.” (p 154) 

There is some useful advice for living:

  • Either something or nothing must depend on individual choices. And if something, who could set bounds to it?” (p 175)
  • The words ‘would have happened’ were meaningless - mere invitations to wander in what the Lady would have called an ‘alongside world’ which had no reality.” (p 180)
  • He was screwing his resolution to go and see a certain man in London and make to him an excessively embarrassing confession which Justice demanded. ... There had arisen before him, with perfect certitude, the knowledge ... The thing was neither more nor less dreadful than it had been before. The only difference was that he knew ... ... there was going to arrive a moment at which he would have done it.” (p 184)
There are some great descriptions:
  • "Blood and lungs and the warm, moist cavity of the mouth are somehow indicated in every voice." (p 12)
  • “A tall, white, shivering, scarecrow of a man.” (p 28)
  • He saw the golden roof of that world quivering with a rapid variation of paler lights as a ceiling quivers at the reflected sunlight from the bath-water when you step into your bath on a summer morning.” (p 37) 
  • Why ... are you making little hills and valleys in your forehead?” (p 82)
  • The body did not reach its squatting position by the normal movements of a man: it was more as if some external force maneuvered it into the right position and then let it drop.” (p 150)
  • All beautiful on the surface, but down inside - darkness, heat, horror, and stink.” (p 224)
  • “Beyond that were great halls still dimly illuminated and full of unknown mineral wealth that sparkled and danced in the light and mocked his eyes as if he were exploring a hall of mirrors by the help of a pocket torch.” (p 231)
  • A sailor’s look ... eyes that are impregnated with distance.” (p 254)
Other great lines:
  • Words are slow.” (p 39)
  • This was a calm which no storm had ever preceded.” (p 64)
  • A night is always a night whatever you do in it, as from this tree to that is always so many paces whether you take them quickly or slowly. and I suppose that is true in a way. But the waves do not always come at equal distances.” (p 69)
  • He was a man obsessed with the idea ... that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs contrive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God’s quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome.” (p 97)
  • The face which he raised ... had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it.” (p 134)
  • We have all spoken of a devilish smile ... the smile was not bitter, nor raging, nor, in an ordinary sense, sinister; it was not even mocking. It seemed to summon Ransom, with a horrible naivete of welcome, into the world of its own pleasures, as if all men were at one in those pleasures, as if they were the most natural thing in the world.” (p 134)
  • Among times there is a time that turns a corner and everything this side of it is new. Times do not go backward.” (p 72)
  • It [the devil] regarded intelligence simply and solely as a weapon, which it had no more wish to employ in it off-duty hours than a soldier has to do bayonet practice when he is on leave.” (p 158)
  • Could it be possible, in the long run, to wear clothes without learning modesty, and through modesty lasciviousness?” (p 167)
  • Inner silence is for our race a difficult achievement. There is a chattering part of the mind which continues, until it is corrected, to chatter on even in the holiest places.” (p 173)
  • That's why it's so important to live as long as you can ... Every man who is waiting to be hanged knows it. You say ‘what difference does a short reprieve make?’ What difference!” (p 210)
  • Our mythology is based on a solider reality then we dream ... gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.” (p 255) 
OK, so the story is massively allegorical and really only buyable by those ascribing to a quite narrow interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden. On the other hand Lewis is able to make some interesting theological points. And the whole thing becomes readable (except for the last two chapters, in my opinion) because he is a great writer who can both spin a yarn and develop it with powerful description. 

The Narnia books are lovable because of the simple adventure narratives and the cute and cuddly talking animals. They are appropriately written for children. These science fiction books are not bad for adult allegories.

August 2018; 282 pages

Monday, 13 August 2018

"Seven Days in the Art World" by Sarah Thornton

Thornton's first degree was in art history and her doctorate in sociology and this is a book written about the world of contemporary art using the technique of participant observation: “Although usually described as ‘fly on the wall’, a more accurate metaphor for this kind of research [participant observation] is ‘cat on the prowl’.” (p xvii)

Each chapter is based on the observations of a single day:

  • At an auction (Christie's in New York)
  • At a critique class in a prestigious Californian art college
  • At the Bern international art fair
  • At the Tate for the Turner Prize
  • At the offices of New York's leading art magazine
  • In the studio of Japan's leading modern artist
  • At the Venice Biennale

It is fair to say that these are observations of the upper end of the market.

The result is an in-depth portrait of a small but exclusive world which revolves around money. The collectors are fabulously wealthy (“I'm just an ordinary rich person ... These young billionaires with their private jets - they’re in a different league.” p 99), the gallery owners have multi-million pound turnovers. Even the artists command six figure sums. But there is actually very little explanation of the art. This is a high end portrait of an industry that seems governed by fashion rather than style, by trend rather than taste, by the story you can spin around you work rather than by the work standing up for itself (one lone voice cried “Never go to the wall text.” (p 54); in other words never read the words written on the gallery wall about the painting/ sculpture/ installation. “Artists shouldn't be obliged to explain their work ... ‘I don't care about an artist's intentions. I care if the work looks like it might have some consequences’.” (p 54)

As a sociological text it was fascinating: “Everyone is so full of shit ... it's like a tableau vivant of pretentious greed.” (p 18) But I learnt very little about art. “Contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists ... for many art world insiders and art aficionados of other kinds, concept-driven art is a kind of existential channel through which they bring meaning to their lives. It demands leaps of faith, but it rewards the believer with a sense of consequence.” (p xiv) This book has made it no easier to make that leap of faith. Indeed, the parade of rich sybarites provoked in me a reaction. If you start off thinking that much contemporary art is just an attempt to con the gullible, this book isn't going to change your mind.

The art world is rigidly hierarchical. The collectors are at the top.
  • Although the art world is frequently characterized as a classless scene ... it is also about excellence and exclusion.” (p xii) 
  • Although the art world reveres the unconventional it is rife with conformity. Artists make work that ‘looks like art’ and behave in ways that enhance stereotypes.” (p xv)
  • "He loves the art world because ‘it's a neutral ground where people meet and interact in a way that’s different from their class ghettos’.” (p 177)
No one really knows what is good
  • It can initially be difficult to distinguish innovators from charlatans, because the former challenge extent versions of artistic authenticity in such a way that they can easily look like pretenders.” (p 25)
  • The prevailing belief is that any artist whose work fails to display some conceptual rigor is little more than a pretender.” (p 53)
  • When people started to feel uncomfortable with the word avant-garde, they adopted the euphemism cutting-edge. Now ... emergent art.” (p 83)
  • I'm an atheist, but I believe in art. I go to galleries like my mother went to church. it helps me understand the way I live.” (p 93)
  • Artists are meant to find their own path, make their own rules, and compete with themselves. If they develop a habit of looking over their shoulders, they risk being derivative. But if they are completely ignorant of the hierarchical world in which they operate, they are in danger of being outsider artists, caught in the bog of their own consciousness, too precociously idiosyncratic to be taken seriously.” (p 118)
  • Artists and writers tend to revel in ambiguity. It is the gray areas that invite and challenge them to represent the world.” (p 36)
  • Changing the context of an object is, in and of itself, art.” (p 212)
  • The thin boundary between art and entertainment is slowly vanishing.” (p 247)
Other great comments
  • A painting that looks as if it were made with rather too many ingredients.” (p 97)
  • Reality is not what it seems to be. We build our belief systems with fragments of faith.” (p 125)
  • An objective opinion is an oxymoron, but that's never stopped us.” (p 150)
  • Sideline omniscience ... a heightened sense of enlightenment based on inexperience” (p 153)
  • You hear two auto mechanics and you have no idea what they are talking about ... there is a kind of poetry in their impenetrable phrases.” (p 158)
  • Many art educators see artists as autodidacts.” (p 63) 
  • Hindsight is essential to making sense of the contemporary.” (p 221)
  • Heat is the enemy of drag.” (p 222)
  • The nowness of now, which is quite obsessive, is actually a reflection of the consumerism that you see in the whole culture.” (p 235)
A well written and acutely observed sojourn in a world where fantasy seems to have taken over from real life.

August 2018; 253 pages




Friday, 10 August 2018

"Amo, Amas, Amat ... and all that" by Harry Mount

This book endeavours to convince its readers of the joys of learning Latin and, along the way, to teach, in a remorselessly traditional way,  the grammar and vocabulary necessary to undertake some translations. I thought that the second aim rather undermined the first. Had I wished to undertake the learning of Latin I would have purchased one of the teaching courses available, a Latin dictionary, and a Latin grammar. For all his delightful anecdotes, many describing his own education at private schools, the interesting asides and the somewhat waspish pillorying of celebrities such as Paul Gascoigne and Jeffrey Archer (Mount is clearly a Classics Master manque), the large chunks of rote learning required made this book too severe to be fun.

And I have a problem with the rigour expected on Latin students. Mount makes the point that Latin is, to all intents and purposes, now a dead language and that therefore there is less "wriggle room" is translating it. But Latin was a live language for well over a thousand years and there were at least three ages of literary Latin (Golden, Augustan, and Silver). To suggest that Latin did not evolve and mutate in that time is like suggesting that Chaucerian English and modern English are the same. I find it difficult to understand how someone can be so definite about the 'correct' way to decline a noun or the correct spelling of any Latin word. Did Romulus write the rules and then all Latin authors slavishly followed him? Or have we discerned the rules from an analysis of the surviving corpus? And were they really all slavishly adhering to the same standards?

At the start of the book, Mount is firmly on the side of the sceptics. He extols a book about Venice that avoids the "Accademia" and "four million Tintorettos"(p 17)He points out that Latin "was a language that people once used to talk about the weather and their sex lives; people laughed and cried in Latin." (p 25) He points out that "to say you need to understand Latin to understand English ... is as crazy as saying you need to understand Anglo-Saxon, German and Norman French to understand English." (p 27) He labels those who use Latin where there is a perfectly suitable English word as Wankers who only want to show off. “Since you can't split a Latin infinitive, because it's a single word, you shouldn't do it in English, or so the pedants say. That seems bloody stupid to me - Latin and English are two different languages.” (p 125). And he loves colloquial translations. “Who's ever said, ‘Sejanus, needing to be promoted, enjoined the centurions to go by, with or from home?’ Much better to say, ‘Sejanus was so desperate to curry favour with the emperor that he told all the centurions to quit the city by nightfall’.” (p 38)

But in the end he still wants you to learn all the declensions and the conjugations and the tenses and the genders and the gerunds and passives and the whole lot.

Towards the end there are a whole lot of grammatical terms, some of which are really rather useful, and an awful lot of phrases from Latin that we use nowadays, most of which I knew.

At the end of the book, Mount mourns the decline in the learning of Latin. As with so many other classicists, he misses the point. Latin, he proclaims, is worth learning by virtue of the access it grants you to some wonderful writing. I would not dispute that. But, Mr Mount, ars longa, vita brevis (which Mount tells me is a saying from Hippocrates although I always assumed that this gentleman spoke Greek). There are so many things that are worth learning and life is short. It is wonderful that my mate Fred, who lent me this book, is translating the Aeneid from Latin into English for fun. But I am really glad that I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge. I suspect Mr Mount considers the Sciences, and Engineering, and Maths to be functional subjects but, Harry, they are subjects that offer entrance to worlds of beauty and enchantment as much as Poetry or Latin or History or Art Appreciation. Or football, for that matter. We humans have created many things of beauty. Who am I to say that Physics satisfies the soul more than Latin? But when I watch a drunkard spit at a light bulb which subsequently shatters and I find I can understand the sequence of events in terms of a number of scientific sub-disciplines I do experience a little joy which is essentially spiritual. And who is Mr Mount to suggest that the thrills he experiences in translating Latin are more profound that that? And who are either of us to feel superior to a football spectator whose soul is moved and whose life is validated by a moment of sporting brilliance? No, Harry. The decline in the learning of Latin is not because on an inherent philistinism in modernity but because of the increase in so much of the competition. Schoolchildren don't learn less. They now learn other things.

And the decrease in rigour between O-level and GCSE is because GCSEs are designed to be qualifications that everyone can access. You were lucky to go to a private school. Most people aren't. But they deserve an education too. And they deserve, if they so wish, to study Latin. If you refuse to make it accessible, don't be surprised if it withers away.

Here are some interesting facts I gathered along the way:

  • The word ‘candidate’ evolved from the fact that Roman candidates for election wore togas covered in white chalk dust to make them stand out in a crowd.” (p 44)
  • The gerund is ... a way of turning a verb into a noun: so the gerund of ‘I love’ is ‘loving’.” (p 76)
  • The gerundive is ... a verbal adjective, meaning, ‘needing to be kissed/electrocuted/ glued’.” (p 77)
  • The name Amanda is also a gerundive, meaning ‘a girl that must be loved’.” (p 77)
  • Of course, bloody Wilfred Owen ripped the line off for his poem, Dulce et Decorum est, in 1917. Got shot a fortnight before the armistice. Serves him bloody right. That's what happens to boys who plagiarise.” (p 91)
And some interesting Latin words that I didn't know as well as I thought I did:
  • Codex: "Originally spelt caudex, it meant 'tree trunk'. Came to be used to mean a book of wooden tablets" and by extension a manuscript.
  • "Locum tenens - a substitute" later shortened to locum but also frenchified into "lieu-tenant"
  • Pari passu: "two enterprises being treated in the same way"
  • Passim "everywhere"
  • Quis custodiet ipsos custodes was used by Juvenal to refer to "the problem of finding men to guard women suspected of infidelity"
  • "Re ipsa loquitur - the thing speaks for itself": self-evident
  • "Vade mecum - go with me"
  • "Velis nolis" is the origin of will-ye nill-ye subsequently willy-nilly.

This book had many lovely moments but it hasn't convinced me to relearn Latin. August 2018; 269 words


Wednesday, 8 August 2018

"There, there" by Tommy Orange

Stories of urban Native Americans in and around Oakland, California. The prologue describes the background: the terrible history of genocide and persecution endured by the Native Americans. This suggests that the novel will be highly politicised. But when we start we discover that it is much more about the stories of individual people, some good, some bad, most damaged. And all living people with every right to love and respect. In the end this is not a plolemic on behalf of the much-wronged Native Americans as a chronicle of the tragedies of the wasted lives of poor people in any city anywhere in the world: “Go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness.” (p 21)

At the start this seems like a whole bunch of disconnected stories. Then it becomes apparent that there is a connection: all of the characters are connected to the forthcoming powwow soon to be held in the Coliseum at Oakland. But some are intending to stage an armed robbery for the prize money, others are intending to dance for the prize money, some are organising it, one is collecting video histories of Native Americans and will have a recording booth at the powwow etc. And then it becomes clear that many of these characters are related and that at the powwow will be a man and his estranged father and a woman and the man who raped her and three boys and their grandmother and so forth. One begins to fear that all these testimonies might be the stories of the dead.

So at the start all the stories seem disconnected. In part one the reader encounters four apparently unrelated characters. So this felt a bit of an uphill struggle. It is not till part two starts (one quarter of the way through) that the first story links to another. The four new characters in part two are all linked to the first story. About half way through we begin to repeat some of the stories and the book starts to resemble a more conventional novel. Then we are on a downhill ride to the shocking denouement.

There is no doubt that Mr Orange can write. The scenes at the end of the book were brilliantly described.

Great lines:

  • We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can't leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay - which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets.” (p 9)
  • The Drome taught me to look past the first look people give you, find the other one, right behind it. All you gotta do is wait a second longer than you normally do and you can catch it, you can see what they've got in mind back there. ... I know what it looks like when somebody’s trying to come up on me, like when to cross the street, and when to look at the ground and keep walking. I know how to spot a scaredy-cat too. That one's easy. They were that shit like there's a sign in their hands, the sign says: Come Get Me. They look at me like I already done some shit, so I might as well do the shit they’re looking at me like that for.” (p 17)
  • I ... watched the drunks move around under the glow of the streetlights, all stupid like moths drunk on light.” (p 22)
  • She lost hold of the plate she'd been drying. They both stared at pieces of it on the floor between them.” (p 35)
  • We don't have time, Nephew, time has us. It holds us in its mouth like an owl holds a field mouse. We shiver. We struggle for release, and then it pecks out our eyes and our intestines for sustenance and we die the death of field mice.” (p 36)
  • The individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity ,and there is real passion there, and rage.” (p 40)
  • The problem with Indigenous art in general is that it's stuck in the past. The catch, or the double bind, about the whole thing is this: If it isn't pulling from tradition, how is it Indigenous? And if it is stuck in tradition, in the past, how can it be relevant to other Indigenous people living now?” (p 77)
  • I think about my college days. About how long ago that was and how hopeful I'd been. How impossible my current life would have seemed to me then.” (p 77)
  • “It just seems like young people have taken over the place. Even the old people in charge, they're acting like kids. There's no more scope, no vision, no depth. We want it now and we want it new.” (p 82)
  • This world is a mean curveball thrown by an overly excited, steroid-fueled kid pitcher, who no more cares about the integrity of the game than he does about the Costa Ricans who painstakingly stitch the balls together by hand.” (p 82 - 83)
  • "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." (p 136)


August 2018; 290 pages

Sunday, 5 August 2018

"A thousand paper birds" by Tor Udall

This is the story of newly widowed Jonah, a music teacher at a Paddington comprehensive (but who might have been so much more had he persisted in his musical career after the second album). It is the story of why Audrey, his wife, grieving three miscarriages, died when she drove into a wall. And it is the story of Chloe, an origami artist with a track record of failed relationships. Can she and Jonah overcome their pasts and find love?

There are two other key characters: Harry, who appears to be one of the gardeners at Kew Gardens, and Milly, a little girl, who likes to play in the Gardens and to hang around with Harry having him explain to her anbout trees and flowers etc. From the start there are hints that something is slightly strange about Harry and Milly. In the first scenes Harry stalks Jonah as he travels to the funeral of Audrey. Why is Harry so keen to keep Jonah in sight and yet so certain that Jonah must see him? It becomes clear that Harry knew Audrey but the nature of their relationship is carefully witheld until almost at the end.

I found this a difficult book to evaluate. On the one hand it is charming with some beautiful lines of description and some moments of profound understanding of bereavement and loss. On the other hand I thought that the careful structuring of the book to delay the revelations about Harry and Audrey was too obvious: it felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into thinking one thing whilst dropping half-hidden hints that something else was going on; I guessed more or less the correct answer almost from the very start. On the third hand (there are always more than two!), although I didn't really care about Milly and Harry and their predicament, I was very involved in whether or not Jonah and Chloe would find a path to happy ever after.

And of course everyone is so relentlessly middle-class. I suppose that setting a book in Kew Gardens means that you will inevitably meet nice people but sometimes I long for a book in which bereavement and hurt can happen to people who work in a chicken stuffing factory or find it difficult to make ends meet. Here Jonah is a teacher in a comprehensive in Paddington but of course that isn't his true vocation; he has already had one career as a successful musician with two albums behind him so he is slumming it rather, darling. Chloe is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks but she is on her way to becoming a successful artist and can somehow already afford a warehouse studio even when she has to temp to make ends meet. Audrey was a translator. At least Harry is working class but then he is the gardener; there is a real sense that he knows his place.

And I find it hard to consider a book that uses this particular plot element as serious fiction. Yes, I know you could argue Wuthering Heights. Turn of the Screw. OK. Point made.

Nevertheless, this is a beautiful book for the very many beautiful descriptions and images and its profound understanding of aspects of humanity.

Nice lines:
Sun streams through the large sash windows, creating ghosts from avenues of dust.” (first page)
As Jonah sits down, his sadness spills on to the upholstered seats; it leaks and drips.” (p 9)
The weight on Harry's back is heavier than all the rain in the world. How can a man made of mist shoulder it?” (p 10)
Its wings are the colour of a bruise as it waits silently, like an old man wearing a coat of straggly feathers.” (p 10) Love colour of a bruise! Super pathetic fallacy.
He now seems like a scuffed shoe in need of a polish.” (p 14) Wonderful image.
He thinks that there should be a place in every town where people could put rescued or found things. Not just objects, but snippets of forgotten languages, or misused time ... It would be a safe for fleeting emotions - the first flush of love, or a particular scent on a sunny day that is never savoured again ... All this would be remembered: missed opportunities, mislaid friends, the smile of a wife.” (p 43)
He sees it all the time: the impulse to create at the core of the universe. It's in every sapling who's only ambition is to bear apples.” (p 44) (Core and apples?) But particularly striking in that one of the key characters has repeated miscarriages.
They walk along the dark cobbles then into the warm, shaking off the rain. As they go up to the bar, there are other people looking for a canopy of skin to sleep under. A refuge is not only made of bricks and mortar.” (p 55) ‘A canopy of skin to sleep under’ is a stupendous description.
He realises he is smiling ironically. It doesn't sit comfortably on his face, as if his features have been intruded upon.” (p 67)
They both stare at the little stone bridges that no one is allowed to cross. But Chloe ventures.” (p 77) More great pathetic fallacy.
The man is contorting himself into any shape is thinks this woman can love. He folds and unfolds his arms, as if he could fold himself into someone dependable, someone his wife could lean upon.” (p 78)
It is a lie they both recognise as faith.” (p 78)
The man in her bed moves his leg. Chloe takes out a pencil and draws his haunches, but as the life study takes shape she shades in another man's frame. The androgynous back becomes broad, Viking. She tries to capture the power of the sea, a tide through his muscles, but it isn't true: there's something of the fallen hero in the fragility between his shoulder blades ... At first she thought he was too old, his suit lame; but now she's interested in his body’s contradictions. Where does he hold tension - in his jaw, his hips ... His hand is supporting his head, she draws his fingers, trying to find the poetry that she knows is in his knuckles.” (p 91) Such a wonderful understanding of how an artist might see a person in their physicality.
He senses that the habits of humans are no different from those of birds. All creatures migrate home.” (p 115)
From balls to bone he knew he should have turned away.” (p 151)
On that first day she wondered if she was some kind of celestial being. But it didn't take him long to realise that she was human and lovely, flawed and engrossed in her own difficulties.” (p 152)
Her physicality is fluid one moment, self-conscious the next; a constantly changing thing that pulls his eye, makes him want to describe it. It's a run of quavers, unexpected rests, a shift in time signature.” (p 162)
The people who usually noticed him were children, not yet addled with civilization and logic. Or insomniacs, addicts and drunks, the kind who slipped between the cracks.” (p 191)
As they embraced under the sunlit trees he forgot that death was around him.” (p 191)
How can he explain that when the world’s memory of her fades, her impact will evaporate? That's when the dying really happens.” (p 223)
She rolls over and they lie like two corpses in a shrine. The silence drips from the ceiling and lands on to her brow. She wipes it off and sits up. Then she reaches for her knickers and pulls them on.” (p 232)
She wants to ask, who hasn't been broken? Who isn't also beautiful?” (p 235)
A gardener is pushing an empty wheelchair along Syon Vista, as if a ghost is being given a guided tour.” (p 243)
It is he who has drowned. ... He lingers in a liminal space: a threshold.” (p 272)
Who would venture towards this life of love and loss? ... Who would choose it?” (p 295)
A relationship is not a thing ... It's not an object you can hold or plan out on paper. It's a movement. Love is what you do. ... It's like listening to your wife when you're exhausted, remembering to unstack the dishwasher, or compliment her shoes. Countless little gestures, the daily attempt to see your partner anew.” (p 309)
He doesn't want to be unable to escape the nagging feeling that somehow he missed the boat ... [people who are frightened to die] have all experienced insufficient happiness.” (p 314)
Possible spoilers if you read the next bit

The names, of course, are carefully chosen:

  • Chloe is one of the names of Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility, whose daughter Persephone was abducted by the Lord of the Underworld. Demeter roamed the earth looking for her. When she found her she was allowed to bring her back to the living but, because Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds in Hades she had to spend six months in the Underworld for each six months above ground. By this the Greeks explained winter and summer. In Greek the name Chloe means 'green shoot' as in the new growth in plants
  • Jonah is the man who spent three days in the belly of the whale, presaging, perhaps, the three days that Christ was dead before his resurrection.

There are other resonances. Kew is a walled garden; paradise is Persian for walled garden and one of the parts of the book is called the Garden of Eden.


Thursday, 2 August 2018

"The Garden of the Gods" by Gerald Durrell

This is the final installment of the Corfu trilogy, which started with My Family and Other Animals and continued with Birds, Beasts and Relatives. All the usual characters are here:
  • Larry the writer with the world's best put-downs
  • Margo, searching for love and always mangling her expressions
  • Leslie, obsessed with guns
  • Gerry the naturalist with his dogs Roger, Widdle and Puke and an ever-growing bestiary
  • Mother, presiding over domestic chaos with all the governance of an anarchist
  • Theo who knows everything but is utterly modest about it
  • Spiro whose motto is: Don'ts yous worrys, Mrs Durrells, I will fixes it.
  • And the lecherous Captain Creech who tells women they are putting on weight but that “A thin woman's no good in bed - like riding a horse with no saddle.” (p 737) and who, having accidentally ripped off his partner's dress during a dance, exclaims "that's a fine pair of knickers you're wearing" (p 756)
There are new characters too of whom my favourite is JeeJee who turns out not to be an Indian prince (Prince is just his first name) and who falls from a window while trying to learn to levitate. And there is also the dreadful French Count who repeatedly insists that everything French is better than everything else and wears perfume: “He drenched himself in a scent so thick that it was almost visible and he had only to spend a second in a room to permeate the whole atmosphere, while the cushions he leaned against and the chairs he sat in reeked for days afterwards.” (p 620)

These characters interact in a series of hilarious mishaps which against had me laughing out loud. 

And there are the usual samples of Durrell's beautiful descriptions. 
  • Peaches, as orange or pink as a harvest moon, loomed huge in the trees, their thick, velvety pelts swollen with sweet juice.” (p 563)
  • "Trees had been groaning with the weight of cherries, so that the orchards looked as though some great dragon had been slain among the trees, bespattering the leaves with scarlet and wine-red drops of blood.” (p 563)
  • She was in a singularly sullen and recalcitrant mood, even by donkey standards, and annoyed me by deliberately treading on my foot and then giving me a sharp nip on the buttock when I bent down to pick up my fallen butterfly net. She took grave offence at the clout I gave her for this misbehaviour, so we started his expedition barely on speaking terms.” (p 565)
  • There was nothing straight about Mama Kondos; her diminutive body was bent like a sickle blade, her legs were bowed with years of carrying heavy loads on her head, her arms and hands permanently bent from picking things up; even her upper and lower lips curved inwards over her toothless gums” (p 574)

Other great lines:
  • “'Any man can avoid having three wives if he puts his mind to it', said Mother firmly.” (p 588)
  • You must remember - when we had the revolution and that cake shop was so badly damaged by the machine-gun bullets. Such unsafe things, I always think, machine-guns.” (p 683)
  • Mother blushed and stiffened. 'I have no intention of driving anyone mad, with or without knickers!' she said with great dignity.” (p 690)
  • In my village where I ‘ave my villa ve have a village idiot. He is charming, tres sympathique, but ve do not want to make him the mayor.” (p 696)
  • Like an early missionary, he was so concerned with himself that it never occurred to him that somebody might look upon him simply as a meal.” (p 711)
  • ‘Well, I'm supposed to be on a diet’, said Margo. ‘You can't go forcing me to have stuff like that’. ‘Nobody's forcing you, dear’, said mother. ‘You could always say no’. ‘Well you know I can't say no, so that’s forcing’.” (p 730)

Another fabulous helping of a feast. August 2018; 194 pages