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, 24 February 2012

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

The story of serial killer H. H. Holmes is interleaved with that of the creation, life and destruction of the Chicago World Fair of 1893; the 'Castle' of Holmes with its basement torture room, its crematorium kiln and its sealed gas chamber was a few blocks from the Fair.

The story is full of characters. The main protagonists are murderer Holmes, architect Burnham (the first architect of skyscrapers which began in Chicago and also the architect of New York's Flatiron building) and Landscape Gardener Olmsted (who also designed Central Park). 'Also starring' are Buffalo Bill whose Wild West Show was set up opposite the Fair and drew bigger crowds; Ferris who invented his wheel to be the Fair's answer to Eiffel's Tower; Frank Lloyd Wright, a young architect in a rival to Burnham's Chicago firm who was fired by his boss Louis Sullivan; and Patrick Prendergast, a mad Irishman who assassinated Chicago's mayor just before the closing of the Fair. Walk on parts include incandescent bulbs powered by ac, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Elias Disney, the father of Walt, who worked on the Fair; Shredded Wheat and even the Titanic.

But the reason I read this big book in two obsessive days is the power of the writing. The author weaves his story magnificently, dropping little hins about the triumphs and tragedies to come. And he has some wonderfully purple moments:

  • "Daylight faded to thin broth." (p30) 
  • "For this buttoned-up age .... it was a letter that could have steamed itself open." (p257)

And some great quotes:

  • "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood." Daniel H Burnham
  • "Damn your preambles! Get down to facts." Richard M Hunt

A brilliantly written book that contrasts the light and the dark at every turn.

February 2012; 442 pages

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

"50 Digital Ideas you really need to know" by Tom Chatfield

This series is very up and down. Some of the books are brilliant (Philosophy, Physics, Maths), some have got lots of good bits (Economics) and some have the occasional nugget of gold within considerable yawn (Literature). This is in the third category.

Bizarrely, Chatfield tackles each of the issues in terms of their history which, in the context of the internet, dates back to the old pre-web days of the 1980s. Sometimes he goes back all the way to the birth of computing. I suppose this was a good tactic because I knew less about this than anything else. Where I had some knowledge of a topic his necessarily shallow approach added very little to what I knew so I had little new to think about.

Disappointing. Useful for reference.

February 2012; 203 pages

Saturday, 18 February 2012

"Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman

Harrison lives with Mamma and Lydia. They have just arrived in London from Ghana; Mum is a midwife, Dad is still in Ghana with baby sister. Mum has to pay off Aunt Sonia's boyfriend Julius, a thuggish debt collector and people trafficker. Harri is learning about Britain and school and growing up in year 7.

There is so much to learn and the environment is dangerous. Ex Army Terry Takeway and his dog Asbo steal. Harri wants to join Killa's gang but initiation means doing bad things including mugging an old man from Harri's church. Miquita teaches Harri how to kiss. And Harri talks to the pigeon who becomes his guardian angel.

Harri and friend Dean decide to detect the murderer of a dead boy. As they stumble across clues they don't understand they place themselves further and further in peril. It is almost a race to see whether Harri will lose his life or his innocence first.

A well-crafted novel told from the point of view of a young boy who has so much potential in a world which has so much to lose.

This book was nominated for the 2011 Booker along with Jamrach's Menagerie but they both lost to A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Friday, 17 February 2012

"Drink: A User's Guide" by Tom Hickman

This 'irreverent encyclopaedia' considers alcoholic beverages from every angle. We learn how they affect the body and how they are made. We learn the history of boozing and we learn about the various cultures. We learn about drunkeness and drunks and about alcohol and the law and famous drinkers. A huge compenium of facts and some very funny asides.

Chatty, witty and informative.

February 2012; 288 pages

Thursday, 16 February 2012

"Obliquity" by John Kay

"Why our goals are best achieved indirectly."

Kay cleverly starts with what he calls "Franklin's Gambit". This is the assertion that we do not base our decisions on good reasons but that whatever we decide, we will subsequently find good reasons for backing our decision. This makes it hard to criticise this book. I didn't like it. Here are my reasons. But are they post hoc justifications for my instinctive dislike or are they the reasons which genuinely led up to my disliking this book?

I didn't like this book because I am suspicious of his evidence base. Like many such popular treatises he bases his arguments on selected anecdotes. As an economist he starts with examples where great businesses decide to focus on 'maximising shareholder value' and, he claims as a consequence' lost their way. He includes Boeing, ICI, Marks and Spencer and Merck as well as less known companies such as Litton Industries. But many great organisations lose their way and decline, partly because they fail to adapt to changing circumstances and partly no doubt purely because of regression to the mean. He is no doubt correct to analyse the failure of lobster fishery Prelude Corporation as down to the attempt to impose management methods from other industries to their own. As he points out: "You don't make fish, you hunt it. Your success depends on the flair, skills and initiative of people who cannot be effectively supervised" (p27).

He then broadens his argument to include Lenin's direct approach to modernising Russia and Le Corbusier's architecture to suggest that the direct approach to solving problems is always worse than the oblique approach. He suggests that anyone who believes that they can control a society or a complex business is both arrogant and unimaginative. And it is true that the Soviet Union collapsed and that many modernist buildings have been demolished. But Lenin and Stalin did (albeit brutally) drag a bankrupt, defeated, peasant nation into the industrial age despite the appalling trauma of the second world war.

Kay accepts that people need goals and objectives. But he seems to suggest that the goals should always be slightly off-target. Thus in golf: "you can only swing well when you can swing without thinking  about it" (p43) which reminded me of Ian Botham's advice to partner Graham Dilley as they went out to bat with England following on and facing an innings defeat at Headingley in 1981: "Let's give it some humpty."

For Kay, the way to success is 'Muddling Through' and this does strike a chord with me. Kay equates muddling through with evolutionary adaptation which he sees as a slow, small step, incremental process. Darwinian Natural Selection, Kay points out, has no designer, no watchmaker (not even a blind one). And (going back to Frankiln's Gambit) teleological explanations for success are flawed: giraffes have long necks because they have long necks. "We find intentionality and design where there is only chance and improvisation; directness where there is obliquity." (p118)

Kay has a lot of good points but he over eggs the pudding. He quotes Lord Kelvin as saying that "when you cannot measure something ... 'your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind'" (p71); Kay damns this as leading "directly to the modern curse of bogus quantification." (p71) But while he is correct to mock indices for things such as happiness this should not mean that you should fail to measure that which can and should be measured.

He makes an interesting point about optimism which goes against the prevailing wisdom that optimists are always the great winners who live longer and succeed more. He quotes Admiral James Stockdale who survived lengthy captivity as a Vietnamese prisoner and who observed that "those who died were typically optimists" (p126) because the dashing of their hopes left them nothing left to live for. Optimists need resilience it seems.

He admires the "pragmatic improvisation" (p128) of F D Roosevelt and gives him the line: 'Try something. If it fails admit it frankly and try another'; I had always been told that it was Truman who said apropos his policies: 'We'll just try them and if they don't work we'll try something else.'

He rightly complains about consistency and precedent. How often have I longed for a politician to say 'I've changed my mind'; this would be a sign of strength rather than the weakness the political journalists suggest. And he points out that the fear of setting a precedent can sometimes make it harder to do the right thing.

The idea that Quality Assurance is simply a way of finding reasons post hoc for what we know a priori works is naively oversimplistic. My maxim would be: 'If it ain't broke don't QA it'. QA's principal concern is not with justifying what is quality but with improving what is not quality. And the clever use of data is to ask questions not to find solutions. So if I study the performance tables for British schools in a scientific and enquiring way I may find patterns that prompt me to ask what might be the causes for various perceived effects.

Kay himself suggests limits to obliquity. George Soros has noticed that his back aches when he subconsciously perceives that something dodgy is happening. Awareness of this intuition enables him to investigate a situation more carefully. But Kay points out that Soros does not base his investment decisions on intuition but on careful analysis; even the hunch is based on years of laboriously acquired expertise.

Statements such as "Paris grew by muddling through, Brasilia by design; Paris is a great city, Brasilia is not." (p175) confirm that Kay's arguments lack depth. A lot of what people love about Paris are the great boulevards designed by Baron Hausmann. But even if the element of design within Paris was insubstantial, Kay still ignores the time frame. Possibly Paris was not a great city in its first century; evolution takes ages.

February 2012; 179 pages

Sunday, 5 February 2012

"The Invention of Murder" by Judith Flanders

A thoroughly enjoyable book.

Flanders trawls through the famous and not-so-famous murders of the 1800s and shows how they provided fodder for the broadsheet and newspaper business, and for the writers of melodramas and novels. We discover that the hunger for a story led journalists then as well as now to downright lies, inventions and deceit. The Times especially never let truth stand in the way of a good story.

She shows how playwrights and novelists embroidered real details of sordid crimes into their work. She introduced me to a vast array of melodramas I had never heard of before. She shows how Dracula, written two years after Jack the Ripper, incorporates many elements of the Ripper crimes into the text. She traces the antecedents of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and The Moonstone and of Inspector Bucket in Dickens' Bleak House. This aspect of the book reminded me of James Shapiro's 1599 which similarly showed how events surrounding Shakespeare in 1599 provided the material for the plays he wrote in that year. What impressed me was how thin a line there is between cheap sensationalist fiction and works of art. Dickens (who loved a good murder) frequently crosses the border into melodrama. Perhaps the difference is simply in the quality of his prose, as revealed to me in The Haunted House where the stories contributed by Dickens, Collins and Mrs Gaskell are simply better written than those contributed by the other, now less well-known, writers. Quality tells in the end.

She is also remorseless in her evidence that the lower classes received a much lower standard of justice than the upper classes: judges were biased against the poor, they could not afford counsel (and in many trials they only ever got to speak in their own defence because there were not defence witnesses), and all-male, all-bourgeois jurors equated respectable prosperity with honesty. Most killers were desperate. "Helen Blackwood, a Glasgow prostitute, shared a room measuring eight feet by six feet four inches with her lover, two other prostitutes who stayed there intermittently and two homeless boys, aged nine and eleven, whom she let sleep under her bed. This was reality."

There are moments when laws were changed. She shows how the mass spectacle of public execution became abhorrent to many (especially since so many murderers were pathetic rather than evil and especially since so many hangmen were incompetent) and changed to 'private' executions inside the prison (which then hoisted a black flag). And there is the wonderful moment when Thornton, having been acquitted of murdering the woman he had sex with and having the charge of rape dropped (because the complainant is dead) is rearrested for 'appeal of murder' which was a type of private prosecution brought by the bereaved family. "When called upon to answer, whether guilty or not guilty, Thornton .... took a pair of gauntlets, put one on, throwing the other on the floor" thus challenging the complainant [who was only a boy] to Trial by Battle. He got off the third trial and emigrated to America, leading a blameless life thereafter.

There are moments of humour. One murderer called Palmer was known as the 'Rugeley Poisoner'. The good people of Rugeley applied to the Prime Minister to change the name of their town; he agreed on condition that they named it after himself, Palmerston.

It is a rollicking good read but it is made even more special by her deliciously dry sense of humour shown in numerous asides of which these are but a few:

  • "Wills had a knack for turning theatrical fiction into untheatrical theatre: his adaptation of Jane Eyre drops the novel's dramatically interrupted wedding scene; instead, Jane is informed of Rochester's previous marriage in a letter."
  • "... a plot so confusing there is no real resolution  because, I strongly suspect, the author could not quite work out what had happened and understandably did not want to read it over again."
  • "... a notorious Secret Intelligence Office .... is so secret that the office has a brass plaque on the door: 'Secret Agent' it reads."
  • A story has a swallowed suicide note discovered at post-mortem: "This may trump Paul Ferroll's confession left in his wife's grace for 'least likely place to leave a confession'."
  • In another melodrama a female detective indulges "in that passion of all stage detectives, disguise, appearing as a nurse, a man and an Irish lad, as well as changing her frock (which fools everyone)."
  • "The Daily News merely reported Martha Tabram's death as a 'supposed murder in Whitechapel' - which since the woman had been stabbed more than three dozen times seems to stretch the meaning of the word 'supposed' past breaking point."
  • "The Times solemnly reported that the police were taking 'extra precautions': if they heard 'any cry of distress, such as 'Help', 'Murder' or 'Police', they are to hasten to the spot at once'. "What, one wonders, had their instructions been before?)
A fantastic book.

February 2012; 466 pages