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

Sunday, 30 August 2009

"The Riddle and the Knight" by Giles Milton

This book searches for the truth behind the Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Giles Milton is the author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, a delightful account of the man who fought to keep a spice island from the Dutch and, even though he lost the battle, inadvertently won New York for England. This book is constructed in the manner of minority channels' documentaries that promise exciting revelations just before every commercial break; they last an hour but the meat is packed into the last ten minutes. In the same way Nathaniel's Nutmeg kept promising what was revealed in the last chapter; however there was sufficient colour to keep one going.

Similarly this book is really very thin on the ground in terms of actual discoveries and revelations and is heavily padded with (charming, interesting and funny) descriptions of the author's travels through the middle east in order to verify the truth about Sir John. I felt at times that the book was the script for a TV documentary in which the presenter wanders round modern day cities describing "the scenes Sir John would have seen".

Milton works hard to verify details of Sir John's book. This is necessary because many authorities point to the wealth of extravagant detail (eg "men with no heads") to suggest that Sir John never travelled or even that he never existed (although someone must have written the book). So Milton takes great triumph in discovering details that seem to suggest Sir John is wrong (a missing orb in a bronze statue of Justinian on horseback) and yet prove him right (the orb was damaged and was being repaired when Sir John was in town).

Milton also tries to track Sir John down and suggests he was born in St Albans, he visited Scotland in 1312; was pardoned for his role (with his overlord, Humphrey de Bohun) in the murder of Piers Gaveston in 1313; had his father ransomed from Bannockburn in 1314 (Robert Bruce had an English estate not far from Black Notley near St Albans where Sir John lived and contributed to the ransom); that he was a clerk who worked on negotiations between Edward II and Robert Bruce in 1320; that he sold land in 1321; then was involved with the 1322 abortive rebellion of Humphrey de Bohun which was put down at Boroughbridge and fled abroad. Exactly how he knew he would have to sell land in 1321 so he had the readies with which to flee the following year is not made clear. He then returned to England in 1356, wrote his book and died shortly afterwards.

Which is rather less than the 280 pages Milton takes!!!

Page 163 particularly annoyed me: Milton quotes a paragraph in Latin "the significance of which even my schoolboy Latin could detect" and then FAILS TO GIVE A TRANSLATION. Why do authors do that??? It is so affected: I can do Latin and I expect anyone who is reasonably well educated to do the same.

A mildly interesting book but so much more could have been made of it. Milton says he took ten months to research it. Doesn't show.

August 2008, 280 pages.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

"Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre

This is a rant. It is witty and amusing and packed full of information but nevertheless it is a 16 chapter rant. Ben Goldacre is angry about nutritionists, homeopaths and assorted quacks but not because they are deluded crackpots who are making a fortune from deluding the public. Ben is angry because they bring Science and in particular evidence-based medicine into disrepute.



So as part of this rant Ben educates the reader about the placebo effect, regression to the mean, controls, double-blinds, cherry-picking, meta-analyses and funnel plots and a huge number of other tricks and techniques that make the difference between scientific evidence and wishful thinking. This book can be a little hard going at times but it is worth the effort.



There are gems of humour:

How does a water molecule know ... to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov's faeces? I wrote this in a newspaper once, and a homeopath complained to the Press Complaints Commission. It's not about the dilution, he said: it's the succussion. You have to bang the flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that's what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid. p36



He also attacks directly Dr Gillian McKeith PhD ("or, to give her her full medical title Gillian McKeith") who is a nutitionist who believes that dark leaved vegetables are good for you because the chloroplasts will oxygenate you (chloroplasts work in the presence of sunlight; "it's pretty dark in your bowels: in fact, if there's any light in there at all something's gone badly wrong" and even if there was, you don't want the methane in your gut to mix with oxygen unless you desire spontaneous human combustion). He attacks Professor Patrick Holford who says that there are now oranges containing no vitamin C (so buy my supplements) and he fiercely attacks Matthias Rath who has used advertising campaigns to persuade South Africans that AZT is bad for HIV sufferers and they should instead use his vitamin pills.



He also attacks big pharma for using distorted medical evidence to sell its products.



At the end he describes the MRSA hoax and the MMR vaccine scandal. Some time ago the press went to town about MRSA in British hospitals. Much of the evidence came from swabs that journalists sent to a single lab in Northamptonshire which turned out to be run by a man with a mail-order PhD who had set up his lab in a garden shed. The MMR scandal was based on a single, anecdotal paper; none of the controlled medical trials have found any evidence whatsoever to suggest that MMR causes autism.



So Ben perhaps reserves his greatest anger for journalists. When they "stood by" the MRSA lab analyst we had the scenario of "a tabloid journalist telling a department of world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology." p284.

This is what Ben believes: "the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years; but there is an attack implicit in all media coverage of science: in their choice of stories, and the way they cover them, the media create a parody of science. On this template, science is portrayed as groundless, incomprehensible, didactic truth statements from scientists, who themselves are socially powerful, arbitrary, unelected authority figures. They are detached from reality; they do work that is either wacky or dangerous, but either way, everything in science is tenuous, contradictory, probably going to change soon and, most ridiculously 'hard to understand'." pp224-225

Ouch! This is scary stuff. How on earth do we counteract this? Scientists are used to being paid peanuts while arts graduates swan about doing sod all and earning much more. But this lazy journalistic parody is actually dangerous because it promotes quacks, cranks and crackpots which, in the end, kill people. Science is the only method of enquiry which has produced progression in our understanding of the world. We cannot afford to lose it.

At tne end Ben proposes a number of websites to look at to enthuse young people with the excitement and discipline of science: badscience.net would be a good place to start.

An important book.

August 2008, 339 pages

Thursday, 20 August 2009

"Mutual Aid" by Peter Kropotkin

Prince Pyotr Kropotkin was a Russian anarchist ("The Anarchist Prince") whose studies of zoology led him to the belief that cooperation between individuals is at least as important a factor in evolution as cooperation. He then extended this concept to a consideration of history and society: he endeavoured to show that, if left to themselves, individuals will cooperate and that therefore a society free of laws is possible (hence the anarchism). Mutual Aid is his principal scientific offering to back up these ideas. It was written in England in the 1890s.

The discipline of sociobiology has now superseded Kropotkin's work. It is now clear that altruism and cooperation have evolutionary advantages; it depends on your ecological niche. Certainly it would be surprising if social animals such as humans did not have some instinctive programming towards cooperation within their family, group or tribe. It seems to be a case of in-group/ out-group: soldiers will sacrifice themselves for their comrades whilst doing their utmost to kill their enemies. Mutual Aid is interesting in the extensive evidence that it chronicles for co-operation and for the its interpretation of the history of mediaeval guilds but it is not astonishing to most people.

Points of interest:
  • In bees "both periods of scarcity and periods of an unusually rich supply of food lead to an increase of the robbing class." p19 This is an interesting fact which, if true, needs explanation.
  • His interpretation of "savage" and "barbarian" history seems to fail to acknowledge the necessary difference between hunter-gatherers and agriculturists. His village is essentially a tribe with land attached. p80
  • He sees the dark ages as a time when individual communities developed democratic institutions which were only later destroyed by the nation building of post-mediaeval war-lords. p103 and p105
  • Markets enjoy special and necessary protection from feuds: trading necessitates trust. He shows that, in history, markets enjoyed legal immunities. p118
  • He claims that workers only worked 48 hours per week (or 8 hours per day; Sunday off) in the middle ages. p121
  • "At the beginning of the eleventh century the towns of Europe were small clusters of miserable huts .... Three hundred and fifty years later .... the land was dotted with rich cities ..." p128
  • He describes the Eiffel Tower as "a meaningless scaffold" p130
  • He believes that modern society has abdicated responsibility for justice to policemen and for looking after other people to taxes; quite a modern Tory point of view! p140
  • "To speak of the natural death of the village communities in virtue of economical laws is as grim a joke as to speak of the natural death of soldiers slaughtered on a battlefield" p144
  • "Henry the Eighth not only ruined the organisation of the guilds but also but also confiscated their properties, with even less excuse and manners ... than he had produced for confiscating the estates of the monasteries. Edward the Sixth completed his work." p160. A historical fact of which I was unaware.

I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would and there were some interesting insights. However, whilst it might have been revolutionary at the time it has rather been superseded by the principles of sociobiology as articulated by eg Stephen Pinker.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

"The Perfect King" by Iam Mortimer

This is a biography of Edward III. It is most noticeable for the astounding suggestion that Edward II was not murdered after his assassination (by a red hot poker inserted into his anus) but was taken to Italy and kept there for many years until his death. Edward III was told that his father had died (after being deposed and held captive), accepted the story, told it to others, accepted that he was true king (initially a puppet of his mother, Isabella, and her lover Roger Mortimer) and did not find out until after Edward III had in turn deposed Mortimer.

The book is well written. It begins with the breathtaking coup against Mortimer in which some bold knights entered Nottingham Castle through a secret passage and kidnapped Mortimer. One cannot keep up at this sort of romantic level but there is loads of excitement in Edward's life: he won battles in France and Scotland against all the odds using the then revolutionary tactics of projectile warfare (Britain had longbowmen); there were jousts and tournaments and chivalric knights battling alone against many opponents and then escaping and swimming the moat; there were intrigues and politics and important new laws; and Edward invented the Order of the Garter. This is a film script waiting to happen.

Mortimer starts with Edward's childhood, pointing out that "of all the stages in the life of a resourceful and imaginative individual, childhood is the most important and the most difficult to understand." Even for a king. Edward's childhood was in particular conditioned by the deposition and imprisonment of his close and affectionate father by his mother and Roger Mortimer, a man (and more or less a step-dad) whom Edward must have admired for his courage and administrative and political skills but must also have feared and hated for keeping him, Edward, a subservient puppet.

Edward, born in November 1312, was brought up first in the manor house at Bisham which had belonged to the Knights Templars until their 1312 dissolution and then taken to Wallingford Castle which had been the home of his father's 'friend' Piers Gaveston.

In January 1324 Mortimer persuaded parliament to depose Edward II. Edward III refused the throne until Edward II had abdicated (which he did reluctantly having been convinced that he could abdicate in favour of his son or he could let Mortimer seize the throne). For the next few years Edward III was a puppet king, even after the announcement that his father was dead. Mortimer fought with the Earl of Lancaster (one of Edward II'scousins) until the Earl capitulated "near Bedford" (I cannot find a clearer reference than the Annales Paulini) in 1328. Soon after, in 1330, the Earl Of Kent (a brother of Edward II) discovered (some say he was set up) that Edward II was still alive and conceived of a plot to spring him from Corfe Castle; this being discovered, Mortimer demanded that Kent be executed for treason and Edward III was obliged to confirm this sentence although the soldiers all refused to carry out the sentence and they had to find a latrine cleaner, himself sentenced to death, to behead the Earl in exchange for a pardon.

This was March. By October the coup against Mortimer had been staged; he was taken to the Tower and, because he had escaped there in 1323, he was walled in. He was hanged at Tyburn.

By 1332 Edward was sponsoring Edward Balliol who was trying to regain his father's Scottish crown. At Dopplin Moor, Balliol's army was well out-numbered by that of Donald Earl of Mar but the English archers destroyed the force of the Scottish cavalry, for the first time showing the destructive power of longbows. In this campaign a Scottish pirate called John Crabb who was harassing English ships off Berwick was captured by Edward's Sir Walter Manny; he became Edward's expert on naval warfare. Still later, Edward Balliol was surprised at Annan and escaped by riding bareback in his nightshirt to Carlisle. Edward also developed cannon. Already, in 1327, when Edward was on campaign in Scotland with Roger Mortimer, the army had used what they called 'crakkis of wer' which were probably bronze, vase-shaped cannon which shot arrows more than 1km. Edward manufactured both cannon and gunpowder at the Tower of London. Edward finally led his men into battle against the Scots at Halidon Hill outside Berwick where the English annihilated the Scots in a fight to the death.

Religious debates were important in Edward's time. Wycliffe attended his court and William of Ockham was around.

In March 1337, Edward created his son Duke of Cornwall. This was England's first Duke. Ian Mortimer argues that the boy could not become Prince of Wales until Edward II (who had not abdicated that title) was truly dead; this is ancillary evidence to the theory that Edward II survived (on 6 September 1338 Edward met 'William le Galeys' (William the Welshman) who Mortimer believes was his father). Edward also created six Earls choosing mostly men who had helped him overthrow Mortimer: Montagu (Salisbury), Henry of Grosmont (Derby), William Bohun (Northmapton), Hugh Audley (Gloucester), William Clinton (Huntingdon) and Robert Ufford (Suffolk).

There is a suggestion that Edmund, Edward's seventh child, was illegitimate. He was born at least 16 days pre term if Edward conceived him. He was born at King's Langley (which had been Edward II's favourite manor); he was belatedly made an earl at an age much later than his brothers; he was not mentioned in his father's will.

Edward supported John de Montfort in his claim for the Duchy of Brittany against his half-niece Jean who had married the French king's nephew Charles de Blois.

The Prince of Wales crest of 3 Ostrich feathers originally belonged to the blind King John of Bohemia who had commanded the French vanguard at the battle of Crecy (yes, despite being blind) and, realising the battle was lost, had ridden into battle and died with his knights holding his bridle. When Edward II met the Black Prince after the battle the Prince handed his father the ostrich plumes with the words Ich Dien (I serve). The archery-led English victory at Crecy annihilated the French, killing eleven potentates and many thousands of Frenchmen for an English loss of 300 men. Crecy was the victory of dirty little commoners with longbows against aristocratic knights; it led to the death of feudal society. The power Edward had now led to the capture of Calais (despite King Phillip of France bringing an army to Sangatte; he retreated before fighting). During the siege in 1348 Edward was told that King David II of Scotland had been captured after the battle of Neville's Cross in Durham. King David lived in various places during his long captivity (11 years) including Odiham Castle which had been built by King John's, probably because it was half way between Windsor and Winchester.

William of Wykeham directed the rebuilding of the royal apartments in Windsor Castle in 1358. Wykeham also worked on Sheen Palace in 1358. Edward also built Eltham Palace in 1350, Henley in 1351 and, in 1353, a manor house at Rotherhithe where he spent £1,064. All this was during the aftermath of the Black Death. Wars, plague; England must have had a fundamentally very sound economy!

At the Battle of Poitiers, in 1356, the Black Prince commanded an outnumbered army which again destroyed a French army, this time capturing the King of France (by now John). So Edward had two kings in captivity at the same time, surely an unequalled feat. The French King John was lodged in the Savoy Palace.

Edward started JPs and Quarter Sessions. This legislation which he enacted in 1361 set up a system which is still going today more than 600 years later.

Edward's son Lionel married the daughter of Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan; Petrarch attended the wedding. Chaucer's father was Edward's butler; Chaucer got captured on one of Edward's French campaigns and Edward contributed to the ransom. Langland wrote in Edward's time. It was during Edward's days that English became used in parliament and a law required court proceedings to be in English; this was the moment that English became the dominant language of England as attested by the birth of English literature at this time.

Edward held many (almost annual) parliaments and became the first monarch to regularly grant parliamentary requests; his legislative programme was therefore mainly shaped by the people. In return for this he received generous taxes to prosecute his wars and build his palaces. The first speaker (who became quite critical of Edward) was the steward of the Earl of March (Roger Mortimer's great-grandson!) called Peter de la Mare.

Finally, Ian Mortimer believes that the majority of English people of English ethnicity will have Edward III in their family tree! He might have been my ancestor!

A brilliant book.

August 2009, 402 pages

Monday, 10 August 2009

"My favourite wife" by Tony Parsons

I haven't read this author before.

This is a slightly predictable story about a hot shot lawyer who goes to work in Shanghai; he is corrupted by the neo-colonial lifestyle in the Wild East and falls in love with a Chinese girl and has an affair with her after his wife and daughter have returned to Britain. The story is redeemed from the simplicity of a morality fable by the sincerity of the love shown by the lawyer to both wife and mistress, and by the strong character of the wife whose actions are in large part responsible for the lawyer's situation; in short there are genuine dilemmas posed here and no character is perfectly black or white.

The story is set against the colourful background of a town in which poor people are getting rich quick by exploiting other even poorer people. Genuine clashes of culture are explored and real economic dilemmas posed: is the capitalist way of enriching some while exploiting others right; should there be any limits on how a person exploits their talents to make money to survive (ie is prostitution OK?).

So it is a good story and even-handed in its treatment of most of the characters, so why didn't I enjoy it more? In some ways it was too well written: you could see the hallmarks of thorough research, the moral debates were too structured and too staged. One character's destruction was too obvious; Shanghai was too black and white a setting; the final pay off was too goody goody; the main character was too hot shot (given all the time off he kept sneaking one wondered how he ever got any work done at all let alone "he was billing more hours than anyone in the firm"). In short, the characters seemed like puppets against a theatrical background rather than flesh and blood. I never really believed.

August 2009, 405 pages

Thursday, 6 August 2009

"The Periodic Table"by Primo Levi

Levi is an Italian Jew from Turin who studied chemistry and worked as a chemist throughout the second world war, including (having been captured as a partisan) just outside Auschwitz. This book tells stories from hislife which are linked to one element or another. Thus, in one job he uses potassium to purify benzene and almost burns the lab down; at anothertime an acquaintance gives him a piece of uranium he had acquired from Germans feeling to Switzerland at the end of WWII.

It reminded me a little of Faulk's A Fool's Alphabet in its somewhat artificial structuring (but it is at least chronological) but more of Richard Feynman's Surely you're joking Mr Feynman which is a much more amusing scientific autobiography .

Nevertheless, this was an interesting read.

August 2009, 232 pages

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

"The Dante Club" by Matthew Pearl

This book has a puff from Dan Brown on the front which made me fear the worst. Happily it is nowhere near as bad as The Da Vinci Code; indeed it is nearly as good as The Rule of Four.

Set in Harvard in 1865 it chronicles Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J.T. Fields, the Dante Translation Club, as they prepare the first American translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. But there is an evil professor at Harvard who seeks to stop them, damning Dante as obscene (and Catholic). Worse, a psychopath is killing people in ways that mirror punishments described in the Inferno.

Amusing hokum. As a whodunnit there were not nearly enough clues to identify the psychopath although one (a la Da Vinci Code) was obvious; as a thriller it was far too interested in the characters of the four famous Club members and the ins and outs of the Inferno and Dante's life and character. Me being an unusual reader I found these the most interesting parts of the book and I am now resolved to read The Comedy (and maybe the Vita Nuova as well) and to find a biography of Dante.

August 2009, 420 pages

Sunday, 2 August 2009

"The Cross-Legged Knight" by Candace Robb

This is an Owen Archer mystery, set in York in the days of Edward III. It is a whodunnit.

As such it is well researched. I learned a lot about medieval herbs and healing (Owen's wife is an apothecary) and the difference between a tanner and a tawyer (who dealt in the hides of small animals only). I enjoyed the way the mediaeval people are described as if they had real concerns and normal lives; they work hard and live in their time. But I felt that the book spent too much time trying to educate me about the middle ages and too little time establishing characters. There are also rather more loose ends than Agatha Christie would leave.

A quick and simple read. An entertainment but not a great whodunnit and certainly not a great piece of literature.

August 2009, 367pages

Saturday, 1 August 2009

"On Green Dolphin Street" by Sebastian Faulks

I found this book in the library of the Hotel Majestic Palace in Sorrento and quicklyrealised it was the only readable thing there. Actually it was a fantastic find.

Charlie is a diplomat at the Washington Embassy at the start of 1960; he is falling apart through a combination of financial problems, a general world-weariness and depression, and the excessive amounts of alcohol he drinks to keep the blues away. Mary, his wife, falls for Frank, a journalist assigned to cover the Kennedy-Nixon election. As their affair develops she has to choose between her family life with her alcoholic husband and her children (sent to boarding school in England) and her dying mother and grieving father, and the passionate love she feels for Frank.

Faulks handles with brilliance the feel of the age, the children doing A-bomb drill, the jazz, the cold war (and the scenes in Moscow are stupendous). He writes about the experience of the two men in their respective wars, killing for their country, and their meeting in the mess that is Dien Bien Phu. He writes about grief and alcoholism and passionate love and bereavement and boarding school and, best of all, about the futility of existence seen through a depressive's eyes.

I wanted to scream at the end.

This was a wonderful book, my favourite of his that I have read so far. It certainly trumps Birdsong!

August 2009, 335 pages