About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 31 March 2012

"Lyttelton's Britain" by Iain Pattinson

Pattinson is the man who wrote Humphrey Lyttelton's scripts for I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue and this book is a compilation of the descriptions of towns with which Lyttelton would introduce the programme.

Humph was a master of the double entendre and this book has a great selection of those. It also slags off every town. But somehow, reading the same basic joke time and again just gets boring. As a minute long introduction to a weekly programme this humour is often laugh aloud but in a book it gets a little boring.


March 2012; 221 pages

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

I have read Mantel's Beyond Black and thoroughly enjoyed it but Wolf Hall is such a doorstep of a book that I thought I would find it tedious.

For at least the first hundred pages it was a historical bio-epic of no especial literary merit. No way was it worth the Booker. I was interested by the character of Thomas Cromwell, depicted sympathetically rather than the black-garbed devil of historical propaganda. I was slightly annoyed by the first person narrative in the third person: Cromwell refers to himself as 'he' but it is written entirely from his point of view and you think his thoughts.

Then I began to seriously identify with his character. As Deputy  to a larger than life Headteacher I have been the fixer, the manager, the creator of possibilities and sometimes the hitman, always surviving within and by the favour of my boss. And yesterday at a meeting I started thinking to myself: 'What would Cromwell do in this situation'.

I was also desperate to find out what happened to him and why the novel is named Wolf Hall.

When a character in a book grabs you so completely then you have to admit that somehow the novelist has become a magician and you are enchanted by her spells. And that is why it won the Booker Prize.

Page turner.

March 2012; 650 pages

Monday, 19 March 2012

"Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War" by John Stubbs

It wasn't what I was expecting!

I thought in terms of straight history explaining the Cavalier but this was more a multiple biography, meandering from character to character.

It starts during the civil war when Captain Chudleigh, a messenger from the Royalist army at York, meets Davenant, Jermyn and Suckling in London.

We then reverse to the days of James I to someone called Carew, a young man who finds it difficult to settle into a career but enjoys writing poetry (and who during the Civil War rests in Wrest Park). We learn about Prince Charles trip to Spain to woo the Infanta da Castille (unsuccessfully) in the company of three other friends including the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. And we learn of Buckingham's subsequent career and assassination. Someone called Herrick who later becomes a country parson is working for the Duke. And so we start discovering that all these characters are known to the future because of their literary connections.

The two key characters are aristocratic gambler and petty poet Sir John Suckling (who is a known coward but soldier and cavalier and roue about town) and William Davenant, son of an Oxford innkeeper (and sometime Mayor) but godson (and illegitimate son?) of William Shakespeare who became a friend of Ben Jonson, a poet and playwright, a cavalier and courtier, famed for inhaling Mercury as a cure for syphilis which caused his nose to drop off, a fixer and smuggler during the Civil War, a failed coloniser of New Jersey, and the man who restored the Theatre during the restoration. But these two weave in and out of a huge cast. As well as Herrick we meet Milton, Marvell and Dryden, we meet Aubrey and Lovelace ("Stone Walls do not a Prison make nor Iron Bars a Cage") and Archbishop Usher of Armagh who calculated the age of the Earth, Izaak Walton (who as well as being a keen angler was part of the chain who smuggled Charles II's father's garter medal away from the failed Battle of Worcester, when Charles had to hide in the Oak, back to London to be reunited with its owner in exile abroad).

We find out about the English Olympics on Cotswold Hill and about Edward King who drowned on the way to Ireland and is famous for nothing else than the fact this his tragedy inspired Milton's Lycidas. We discover that near the start of the Civil War Queen Henrietta Marie spends a night with Shakespeare's daughter at New Place in Stratford. We learn about the great Viscount Falkland, England's first atheist, whose philosophical circle at Great Tew was destroyed by the Civil War; and how his legacy lived on when the Earl of Newcastle, a Cavendish, married a philosophical lady whose tutor was Thomas Hobbes and who spawned the scientific Cavendishes.

One whom I was ashamed never to have heard of was a neurotic Calvinist in Edinburgh named Archibald Johnston who practised law and, through chance as much as anything, became a co-author of the Scottish Covenant and thus one of the Scots whose interventions tipped the crown from Charles' head.

In short this is a ragbag of a book, full of strange characters. It reminded me of God's Philosophers.  It hangs together through an extraordinary narrative. People come and go, they wander in and out, like some chaotic play. And in the final analysis they gave birth to so much English poetry and so much of the modern world.

March 2012; 470 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2012

"Notes from Underground" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This slender Dostoevsky is a book of two halves. The first half is a philosophical tract written by a disillusioned embittered man who lives like a mouse under the floorboards hidden from the society that rejects him without even noticing him, plotting his revenge. But so full of introspection that he cannot act.

The second half is a fragment of a memoir about how he meets up with some old school friends whom he dislikes, how he acts the bitter rude boor, how he follows them to a brothel (but the give him the slip) and talks to a young fresh girl, how she subsequently comes to his flat whilst he is in a dispute with his servant, and how he (apparently) rapes her. Thus he spoils what his philosophical arguments tell him should not be spoiled. Thus he rejects any hand of friendship, compassion or love. And presumably thus he dooms himself to eternal punishment in his own private hell under the floorboards for the rest of his life.

The first half I found nearly unreadable; the second almost disappointingly short.

March 2012; 115 pages

Saturday, 10 March 2012

"Nudge" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

This 'hugely influential' book is really rather limited and boring.

These are the big ideas. None are original.

  • Human beings are not as rational as the ideal consumer portrayed by Economists.
  • Therefore, humans make choices based on rules of thumb such as 
    • Anchoring (based on the latest information you have; they demonstrate this by asking you to add 200 to the last 3 digits of your telephone number and guess whether Attila the Hun sacked Europe before or after this date; strangely for me the right answer was exactly equal to the last three digits of my telephone number added to 200!); 
    • Availability (we choose based on the evidence most readily available to us such as the horrendous aeroplane crash in the tabloids), 
    • Conforming to others, 
    • Overconfidence, 
    • the fact that we would rather avoid Losses than make Gains, 
    • seeking false patterns in random data, 
    • and sticking to the Status Quo. 
  • (All of these ideas are much better covered in Stuart Sutherland's Irrationality.)
  • A choice architect designs the way we are presented with a choice. There is no such thing as a neutral choice.
  • A choice architect can therefore influence our choice by manipulating the choice architecture in line with the rules of thumb. This is a nudge.
  • This is morally acceptable within the framework of libertarian paternalism if the nudges influence us to make choices that are in our own best interests. Our best interests can be demonstrated: no one ever makes a New Year's resolution to start smoking or exercise less. 

They need to spend some time defending libertarian paternalism from the American right. They argue that it is better that government should nudge us to do what is in our own best interest rather than to force us to do this. They suggest that not all government officials are necessarily incompetent or corrupt. (I think they could go quite a way further here and suggest that it is more likely that a civil servant will try to influence your choice in a way that is good and positive than that a capitalist seeking to maximise the profit of himself or his shareholders will. They do say: "One the face of it, it is odd to say that the public [choice] architects are always more dangerous than the private ones. After all, managers in the public sector have to answer to voters, and managers in the private sector have as their mandate the job of maximizing profits and share prices, not consumer welfare. Indeed, some of those who are most suspicious of governments think that the only responsibility of private managers is to maximise share prices." (p238) )

So far the book has been interesting though not revolutionary. The test of the pudding as always is in the eating. Here they apply their theories to a variety of spheres (health care, pensions, sub-prime mortgages etc; mostly from a US perspective). What do they come up with in terms of practical advice?

  • Default options are important but especially so when it becomes difficult to choose. Madly (because of fears of being sued) the default prescription option for seniors under the Bush health care legislation was to pick a plan at random even though in healthcare the past is a pretty good indicator of the future.
  • Transparency is good. They recommend that for investment plans etc banks are required to send annual statements detailing all charges to prompt people to consider whether they really made a good choice before. Generally information is good although when the choice becomes complex it becomes critical as to what information you present and how your present it. This too is part of choice architecture.
  • Escalators are good. People are more likely to save for their pensions if they are asked to set aside a small amount now with a commitment to an automatic increase every time they get a pay rise.

To keep choice architects on the side of the angels they suggest the slightly novel moral principle (they credit it to the moral philosopher John Rawls) that you should only do what you would not be embarrassed about. If you place mirrors into restaurants to nudge people into eating less you might be happy for this idea to be publicised; you might be less happy if you had used subliminal advertising to achieve the same end.

So overall this was an interesting book although I had encountered most of its ideas before and the practical applications do seem rather limited. I hope there is more potential for the essential idea.

March 2012; 260 pages

Sunday, 4 March 2012

"The Admiral Benbow" by Sam Willis

The Admiral Benbow is the name of the pub owned by Jim Hawkins and his mother where Billy Bones comes to stay before being found by Blind Pew in Treasure Island. John Benbow was also a naval legend.

Born around 1652 during the Commonwealth, there is little of certainty about John Benbow's early life. He may have worked on merchant boats on the Severn. He certainly saw some service in the Navy, fighting the corsairs of Algiers and defending the English colony of Tangiers (with Bombay, part of the dowry of Charles II's queen) becoming a skilled pilot. He may have been on of the unnamed pilots who guided William of Orange's invasion fleet through the Straits of Dover to land at Torbay at the start of the last successful naval invasion of England. Certainly his first patron, under whom he had served in the Navy, was Admiral Herbert who carried the letter signed by the seven conspirators inviting William to England.

Benbow's subsequent career was as a fighting captain who aggressively raided the French coast in 1693 and 1694 during the Nine Years' War before the Treaty of Ryswick of . He was also a skilled manager of both the Chatham dockyard and subsequently the Deptford dockyard. While at Deptford he leased John Evelyn's house at Sayes Court for three years during which period he was persuaded to sub-let it to Czar Peter the Great of Russia who was studying British dockyards as part of his grand tour of Europe. Also at this time Benbow was fast-tracked to become an Elder Brethren of Trinity House and served on the committee overseeing the construction of the great Naval Hospital at Greenwich by Christopher Wren; Newton was also on the committee and the bricks were supplied by factory owner Daniel Foe who later became famous for writing the great maritime romance of Robinson Crusoe.

Later he was sent on a reconnoitring voyage of the inadequately charted West Indies. On the outbound voyage he escorted Edmund Halley  who was himself mapping magnetic variations. Whilst cruising the Caribbean he searched for pirate Captain Kidd who was subsequently apprehended in New York and negotiated with the colonists of the doomed Scottish colony of Darien which bankrupted that country, forcing it into union with England so the Bank of England would pay their debts. (Strange how history repeats itself differently; the Scots banks have now again done their best to bankrupt England and they want their independence on the back of it!). Finally Benbow received mortal injuries in the first naval engagement of the Anglo-French War of Spanish Succession whilst his captains mutinied. The subsequent court martial became the first naval trial to be published in the newspapers, appearing a few months after the launch of the first English language regular newspaper the Daily Courant.

This was a rattling good yarn despite the frankly speculative nature of Benbow's early life and presents the story of a consummate sailor who was one of the first of a great tradition. It also mentions Hawke House in Sunbury-on-Thames!

March 2012; 318 pages