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, 31 January 2010

"Company of Liars" by Karen Maitland

As the Black Death strikes England a group of travellers (a relic-seller, a magician, two runaway lovers, a story-teller, a mid-wife, two musicians and weird wyrd rune-casting albino girl) flee before it. They all have a secret (they are all liars) and before their journey is through some will pay for it with their lives...

A very well-written historical ensemble novel with a bit of magic in the mystery. The characters are well drawn and the plot keeps moving. The details of the journey are engrossing, especially the shrine of John Shorne at North Marston which is a real place in Buckinghamshire just south of Winslow; the holy well is still there. The other places mentioned are also real.

I enjoyed the book and was interested to see how deftly she sketched the characters. I think the secret is to know the back story inside out and then the characters will begin to speak and interact for themselves; the plot then drives them through situations but they respond as real people.

Monday, 25 January 2010

"Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Why anyone would want to be a Politburo member given that most of them spent every day and most nights terrified that the KGB would take them, torture them and murder them and if not them their wives. Whenever they talked to Stalin there was a risk they would say the wrong thing. Amazingly, many of them did dare to disagree and some of those got away with it. But many of them were terrified much of the time. Is power really that alluring?

How on earth they got any work done given that Stalin would invite them night after night to dinners which went on till the early hours in which they all got drunk. But at the same time they were running huge ministries and fiefdoms.

Some times they competed for Stalin's approval beyond decency. His chef de cabinet was so proud when his daughter was chosen to present a bouquet to Stalin on his seventieth birthday, despite that fact that Stalin had murdered the girl's mother, the chef's wife. The little girl, now an old woman, still admires Stalin.
 
This book is a fascinating description of the courtiers of power, those who are willing to debase and humiliate themselves, to lie, cheat and kill, and do anything to stay close to the centre of power. Stalin's court was a gangster mob of brutal thugs who were terrified of him and yet unable to stop themselves looting, stealing, having orgies.
 
It is also an amazing chronicle of the madness of torture and the gullibility of those who believed that there might have been smoke behind fire. One KGB boss, arrested and tortured, confessed to having sex with his son and his daughter, and his KGB boss, and breaking into the British Embassy and having sex with the Ambassador!
 
I hadn't realised that Stalin's secret police used the crude torture method of beating people until their eyes popped out. I thought they were sophisiticated a la Darkness at Noon.
 
As well as all the evil, the book is a tribute to the endurance of people. Men and women who slaved in labour camps for ten years. Soliders who were tortured and then called back during the war to fight alongside their torturers.
 
And survivors. Molotov survived Stalin, Khruschev and Brezhnev, dying after Gorbachov had gained power. Stalin's daughter Svetlana spent some time in sheltered housing in Bristol. Mikoyan, who had carried Lenin's coffin, attended JFK's funeral.
 
But my favourite is Lenin's chef who had previously cooked for Rasputin and later cooked for Stalin. He became Vladimir Putin's grandfather!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

"Hideous Kinky" by Esther Freud

Hideous Kinky is a charming short novel published in 1992 but clearly set in the days of the Hippy Trail to Marrakesh. Perhaps the author, who was 5 in 1968, was the little girl who tells the story. Esther Freud is the daughter of Lucian Freud, the painter (and thus the neice of Clement Freud and the great granddaughter of Sigmund Freud); she travelled with her Mum until she was 16 and then went to drama school.


The girl travels with her mother and her sister, Bea (and John who owns the van, and Maretta, John's mad wife who doesn't talk, and Danny who does magic) to Marrakesh. Danny jumps ship in Tangiers and very quickly John and Maretta go home. Following a magical interlude with the fabuolously wealthy Luigi Mancini (who claims to know her father who wore silver and gold waistcoats; Mancini's house later vanishes in the manner of the Arabian nights) Mum shacks up with Bilal. Running out of money (they are clearly living on maintenance but it is irregular and, given the Moroccan postal service, extremely irregular) they move to a lodging house. They become poor and hungry. Bea goes to school and starts to learn Arabic. They holiday by a lake, sleeping in the open. They hitch or travel by bus. They are dirt poor (at one stage they are reduced to begging) but there is a lot of life that is magical and colourful and exciting. Mum is utterly irresponsible (at one stage she leaves Bea with friends for months; when she returns the friends have gone and they have to search Marrakesh for Bea) but she never seems short of a boyfriend.

The main delight of the story is the reconstruction of the sights and sounds and smells of Marrakesh. My picture was taken in the main square at night when it turns into a bustling market with many food stalls: the narrator often ate there when Mum's money had arrived. But my favourite line is when Mum has joined a religious community; the circle of men and boys around the holy man sing hymns "in a chorus that rose to a violent crescendo and then sank to a sigh ... leaving a soft silence hanging in the air with no noise but the whisper of perspiration trickling down the walls."

A lovely story; it has been made into a film starring Kate Winslett.

January 2010; 186 pages

Saturday, 9 January 2010

"The Fatal Englishman" by Sebastian Faulks

This is a collection of "three short lives"; short in the sense that each is less than 110 pages long and short in the sense that none of the three men lived past 32.

Christopher Woods was a promising young English artist who knew Picasso and Cocteau whilst living in Paris in the 1930s. Whilst developing his art he travelled round Europe with his sugar daddy. He painted a portrait of Constant Lambert who named his son 'Kit' (Christopher's nickname). With Ben Nicholson he discovered Alfred Wallis at St Ives and decided to set up an artists' colony there (although he never actually settled there himself, preferring Brittany. Back in London and contemplating marriage he threw himself under a train.

Richard Hillary was a pilot in the Battle of Britain. Having been horribly burned in a crash he was given plastic surgery, wrote a book about his experiences, then talked his way back into RAF flying, crashed again and killed himself and his navigator.

Jeremy Wolfenden was the brilliant son of Jack Wolfenden, a headteacher and civil servant who became famous for chairing the Committee which recommended the repeal of the law against homosexuality. Jeremy was a Colleger at Eton and then, after National Service, went to Oxford. He lived a promiscuous gay life whilst it was still illegal; his friends included Kit Lambert who later managed The Who. He became a reporter for the Times and subsequently the Moscow reporter for the Telegraph. In Moscow he got mixed up with the Secret Intelligence Service (he was friends with and later married the maid who worked for the embassy couple who ran spy Godfrey Wynne who ran Russian Oleg Penkovsky) and the KGB (following a honey trap with a Polish boy or possibly a Russian waiter or possibly both). Later he went to Moscow; after the FBI reactivated him as a spy he drank himself to death.

On Green Dolphin Street by Faulks (also reviewed in this blog) is clearly based on Wolfenden's life.

Faulks writes beautifully and I found this a fascinating book.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

"What I talk about when I talk about running" by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a Japanese writer whose works (Kafka on the shore; Norwegian wood) I have often seen in shops but never read. This must change. Witawitar is a beautiful read. He reflects about his life as a long distance runner (it even gets quite exciting towards the end when he is wondering whether he will complete the New York Marathon and a Japanese Triathlon) and his life as a novelist.

His prose is simple and sparse and elegant but there are moments of real beauty:
"The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn't exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn't. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in." page 17

There are also moments of true thought-provoking philsophy:
“When I saw the Charles River again, a desire to run swept over me. .... Time had passed, students had come and gone, I'd aged ten years, and there'd literally been a lot of water under the bridge. But the river remained unaltered. The water still flows swiftly, and silently, toward Boston Harbor. The water soaks the shoreline, making the summer grasses grow thick, which help feed the waterfowl, and it flows languidly, ceaselessly, under the old bridges, relfecting clouds in summer and bobbing with floes in winter - and silently heads toward the ocean."  page 13
"The end of a race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with out lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean that existence has a meaning." page 115

I loved this little book.

January 2009; 180 pages

Friday, 1 January 2010

"The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes is well known (though not by me)  for his biographies of Shelley and Coleridge and here he moves from the romantic poets to the scientists of the romantic era. He endeavours to trace the ancestry of our modern image of "the scientist": he examines the point at which the natural philosopher at home with both the arts and the sciences (eg Herschel, musician turned astronomer; Davy, poet turned chemist; Coleridge, dilettante scientist turned poet) was replaced by the two persons of Snow's Two Cultures; he decribes the genesis of the myth of the mad scientist in Victor Frankenstein; and he charts the growing atheism inherent in the discoveries that made a Creator more and more remote.

But best of all the book has vivid stories and personalities which Holmes brilliantly brings to life (even though he quotes far too much from Davy's poetry!)

He starts with Joseph Banks with Captain Cook savouring the delights of that Pacific paradise, Tahiti. We then move onto the story of William Herschel and his discovery of Uranus. Ballooning comes next, then Mungo Park explores Africa; Sir Humphrey Davy invesitigates Laughing Gas; Mary Shelley writes Frankenstein; Davy invents the Safety Lamp and then falls out with everyone including his wife and Michael Faraday and finally the era closes with Charles Babbage and young Sir John Herschel leading towards Charles Darwin.

Here is a selection of my favourite bits which I marked.

p83: In 1772, William Herschel, having decided to grind his own lenses to make a reflecting telescope in Bath (where he conducts concerts in the Pump Rooms) buys grinding and polishing tools from John Michel, "a Quaker astronomer who had retired to Bath nursing some strange, unacceptable ideas - such as the existence of 'black holes' in space from which light itself could not escape".

p94: Perhaps there is room for a History of Scientific Error which could show that mistakes in Science are at least as influential to the progress of right ideas as the triumphs. In a footnote, Holmes points out that Romantic Science created three myths: the lone scientific genius, the Eureka moment and the Frankenstein nightmare.

p101: In 1781, Herschel having discovered Uranus he went to London to meet "wealthy Deptford astronomer Alexander Aubert" and to dine with Sir Joseph Banks at the "Mitre Club, a tavern much favoured by Dr Johnson." NB: Herschel used lenses made by Dollond whose company, founded in the 1750s, later grew into Dollond and Aitchison!

p106: The publisher Joseph Johnson of St Paul's Churchyard not only published an influential History of Astronomy by Bonnycraft but also published William Blake, William Godwin, William Wordsworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

p111: On 31st July 1782 the Herschel's went to live in Datchet. Later they moved to Slough.

p113: In 1811 Keats won A History of Astronomy by Bonnycraft as a school prize; he then went on to compose On looking into Chapman's Homer in 1816 in which he describes Herschel's discovery of Uranus: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken"

p132 On 1st December 1783 (ten days after the Montgolfier hot air balloon) the first hydrogen ballon was launched by Dr Charles from the Tuileries in front of a crowd estimated at 400,000; Benjamin Franklin, US ambassador in Paris watched it and was asked what use it was: he replied: "What's the use of a newborn baby?" I previousl;y believed this to be something Faraday said.

p152: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the first man to cross the English Channel by balloon in 1785, later founded a "Balloon Academy on the Stockwell Road in Vauxhall".

p156: Napoleon took 4 balloons with him to Egypt in 1798 but they were destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of Aboukir.

p198 Pierre Laplace who, in 1799, used Herschel's nebula theory of star formation to explain the formation of the solar system, was asked by Napoleon where God was in his work and replied "Citizen First Consul, I have no need of that hypothesis."

p199: Herschel also discovered infra-red light in 1800.

p250: In 1797 Gregory Watt, son of James, lodged with Grace Davy, mother of Humphrey. Later Gregory would pass Humphrey's name on to his dad who i n turn recommended him to Dr Thomas Beddoes of Cliftonm near Bristol who then employed Humphrey as lab assistant at his (slightly quackish) pneumatic hospital in which Humphrey investigated the treatment of diseases using gases including Carbon Monoxide (which nearly killed Davy) and Laughing Gas (which made his reputation).

p291:  By 1803 Davy had moved to London and was giving incredibl;y popular science lectures at the Royal Institution (one included the concept of the carbon cycle). These were so popular that Albemarle Street became the first One-Way street to control carriage congestion.

p295: Humphrey Davy gave 5 Bakerian lectures at the Royal Society between 1806 and 1810. These lectures had been founded in 1775 by Daniel Defoe's son-in-law. In the first lecture Davy argued that the different forms of electricity (in Leyden jars, and generated by Voltaic piles, stormclouds, electric eels, and by friction) were all the same and were a form of bipolar (postive and negative) energy.

p308: surgeon John Hunter dissected bodies in Great Windmill Street in Soho.

p328-330: Victor Frankenstein may have been based on Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776 - 1810) who invented the dry-cell storage battery and discovered ultra-violet light in 1803 worked at Jena using huge Voltaic piles to galvanise animal corpses. He then moved to Munich to continue experiments that were described as "most convincing" and "disgusting"; abandoned his wife and three children and died penniless and insane in 1810 aged 33.

p338: Humphrey Davy married Jane Apreece who, during her lonely 1st marriage, went to Geneva and made friends with Madame de Stael becoming the heroine of Corinne.

p383: Greenland pack-ice melted in 1815 and was believed to be a precursor of climate change.

p420: Andrew Crosse, who lived at Fyne Court in the Quantocks, had installed in his ballroom an "'extensive philosophic apparatus' with which he later claimed to have generated spontaneous life forms .... It contained large, gleaming electrical condensers, which were linked to a network of copper wires strung through the trees .... designed to pick up massive charges of static or 'atmospheric' electricity. The largest condenser was marked with a blasphemous warning notice: Noli Me Tangere - that is,m 'Do not Touch Me' .... the risen Christ's first words to Mary Magdalene".  So he could have been the original of Dr Frankenstein.

p441: Sir John Herschel wrote a philosophy of natural science in which he reckoned the scientific method to be tripartite: the inductive gathering of facts, the emergence of a general hypothesis and the testing of that hypothesis.

p448: Coleridge, aged 60, attended the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Cambridge in 1833.

p460: David Brewster, more famous for his work on polarisation, invented the kaleidoscope.

A brilliant book.

Januray 2010; 469 pages.

I have now read Holmes' biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: also worth a read!