About Me

My photo
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

Saturday, 31 August 2013

"The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason

In 1887 Edgar Drake, a Londoner who tunes Erard grands, is recruited by the War Office to travel to the Burmese frontiers of the British Empire to tune a piano for Dr Anthony Carroll, a British Officer who commands a remote outpost.

Immediately one suspects parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for the film Apocalypse Now). Is Carroll another Mr Kurtz, gone native and megalomaniac and perpetrating unspeakable evil on those he autocratically rules?

The journey to Burma is delightful. Drake, who has never left England before, travels by boat and train and pony, recording his impressions in letters to his much-loved wife. The descriptions are brilliant and bring an exotic flavour of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the East. Drake loves Burma. He adores the hill-top village of Mae Lwin in the Shan Hills where the Doctor lives. The Doctor is very civilised and believes the music will bring peace to this troubled region; certainly the natives in the village are peaceful and happy and seem to adore the Doctor. Edgar falls in love with the people, the countryside, and especially Burman woman Khin Myo. He has tasted the lotus and stays longer than he should.

But there are darker undercurrents. The Shan princes have formed the Limbin Confederacy which may oppose British rule. Enigmatic dacoit warlord Twet Nga Lu lurks in the jungle, ready to pounce. Who attacked the village before Drake arrived? And where does the Doctor go on his many diplomatic missions?

This is a haunting and lyrical evocation of Burma. There are seductive descriptions of the beautiful sights of town and countryside. As a piano tuner, Drake is particularly sensitive to sound and the description of notes and tunes are wonderful and exotic. Mason uses a particularly interesting technique of reporting some dialogue as though it were stream of consciousness.

Beautiful magic. August 2013; 348 pages

"Spain 1469 - 1714" by Henry Kamen

Spain was unified under the joint monarchy of Ferdinand of Aragon and devout Isabel of Castille. Their rule was so unified that everything was officially done jointly, even if they were apart: one day it was reported that "the king and queen ... gave birth to a daughter". The secret of their monarchy was that they travelled ceaselessly: their mediaeval style of monarchy depended upon the visibility of the monarch(s). In their annus mirabilis of 1492 they completed the Christian reconquest of the peninsula by capturing Granada, they expelled the Jews, and Columbus discovered America on their behalf.

But their only surviving daughter, Juana, had married a Habsburg and was mentally unstable. On the death of her husband she went completely bonkers. So the throne passed to her 17 year old son Charles who was also Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of Naples and the Netherlands. With Spanish America, Spain was now a super-power, although one whose empire was inherited rather than deserved. The heartland of Castille was simply not rich enough to sustain the imperial demands. Gold and Silver from the Americas helped Charles balance the books but a financial disaster was waiting to happen.

When Charles' son Philip (who had once been married to Mary of England) became king he immediately restructured his debts. Although he no longer ruled the Holy Roman Empire, which had been passed to Charles' brother, Philip still ruled the Netherlands which now revolted. The costs of fighting this rebellion spiralled. Despite adding Portugal to his realm (another dynastic inheritance although one he had t, briefly, fight for) Philip went bankrupt. More than once. The destruction of the Spanish Armada didn't help.

Financial instability continued under his heirs; the country continued to decline. The last Habsburg king was the victim of genetic in-breeding: his jaw protruded so much that he found it difficult to eat and he was probably infertile and possibly impotent. He had no legitimate heirs of his own body so he bequeathed the throne to the French Dauphin and so started the War of Spanish Succession. This ended with the loss of most of the rest of Spain's European possessions so the new Bourbon dynasty was able to concentrate on rebuilding the land.

Thus a patchwork of mediaeval states became an accidental empire which declined into a nation state. This fascinating tale rarely flags. There is so much of interest; much is relevant today. The concept of convivienza, for example, in which Spanish Moors and Jews coexisted with the Catholic population was replaced with the racist limpieza de sangre (cleanliness of blood); even converted Moslems and Jews were persecuted. The medieval monarchy was based upon personal rule but the Hapsburg Empire had to develop bureaucratic and ministerial rule. And a country receiving previously unheard of wealth from the New World plunged into debt and inflation.

A wonderful tale, well told. August 2013; 275 pages

"The Guardian" by Nicholas Sparks

Newly widowed Julie has to choose between sophisticated engineer Richard and late husband's best friend, grease monkey Mike. Singer, the dog bequeathed by the late husband, obviously prefers Mike to Richard and we all know dogs can't be wrong about things like that because they have instinct. Then on page 16 Julie thinks of Mike while showering: "Now there was a guy who would make some woman happy one day."

If you are going to use a cliché to signal your happy ending you might as well do it before too many pages have gone. You wouldn't want your readers to suffer suspense, would you?

Singer keeps growling at Richard and Julie begins to worry why she doesn't feel anything for him, despite his charm. Obviously he is bad news. Then on page 93 Richard asks Julie why she is not wearing a locket he has given her. He has a "plastic expression" but he suddenly "seemed to snap out of the spell he'd been under". He is clearly a classic weirdo.

Many authors would now play with your beliefs. They would offer alternative villains. They would suggest alternative reasons for Richard's behaviour. Richard might do something truly altruistic. Not Sparks. By page 140 Julie is in love with Mike (no surprises there), by page 177 we suspect Richard killed his father, on page 206 he beats up two kids with a baseball bat and then pretends they stabbed him so they go to jail instead of him.

The book then turns into a thriller powered by the fact that the police can't imagine that Richard might be using a false name or that he might have stolen a car.  One male police officer is so small town and stupid that he makes Amos from the Dukes of Hazard look like a Nobel Laureate.

To be fair, Sparks writes some great one liners and he has a nice turn with dialogue (when he skips the clichés). But the plot was unbelievably predictable and the characters either goodies or baddies with absolutely no shades of grey.

A light read. August 2013; 431 pages

"Thinking, fast and slow" by Daniel Kahneman

This book is a sort of retrospective of the life's work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics by replacing the rational agent of classical Economics with a real person.

It seeks to divide human thinking into two systems; there are three ways he does this. In part one he compares the fast, intuitive ways in which we think with the slow, effort-full, rational ways of thinking. Because rational thinking is hard work we lazt humans tend to default to intuition which makes us more gullible. In part two he compares the rational agent of Economics (the 'Econ') with Humans. Part three pits the present against the past and shows how what we remember about what we experienced is rarely the same as what we experience.

Kahneman recounts the hundreds of experiments he has conducted during his long career. Many of them offer profound insights into how humans operate. It is clear that if one wishes to improve communications, improve pedagogy, or manipulate people better, there are lessons to be learnt.

One little quibble: many of these experiments were conducted with someone called Amos. Because I had skipped the introduction (I often read introductions at the end because I believe that if a book is strong enough it should stand without the introduction) I did not know who he was talking about. It was Amos Tversky, a long time collaborator, now dead. In some ways this book is Kahneman's tribute to Mr Tversky.

One thing I loved was the evidence base. Many of these experiments prove counter-intuitive conclusions. This hammers home the fact that we are not who we think we are. This book has a massive evidence base for Kahneman's view of humans, in contrast to the scarcely visible evidence base of Roger Scruton's The Uses of Pessimism.

A lot of what Kahneman has to say I have encountered before, for example in Nudge which was written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunnstein, both former colleagues of Kahneman. For example, I knew about anchoring and that algorithms give better long-range forecasts than expert opinions. Nevertheless, this is a brilliant introduction to these ideas  if you are new to the topic and possibly the most comprehensive text I have encountered (but also try Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland). My only real quibble is that Kahneman does not go into sufficient detail about Bayes Theorem (for which you need The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver).

Not only is this a book full of fascinating ideas but it is also extrememly readable. August 2013; 418 pages.

Friday, 30 August 2013

"The uses of pessimism" by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and a proponent of conservatism. Perhaps he is principally revered for his aesthetics: I can't comment on this. The present book is essentially philosophical and summarises some of the reasons why he so dislikes the opponents of conservatism.

This is the only Scruton book I have read so I can't generalise my comments but from my limited evidence it seems to me that this work is essentially reactive. He describes and attacks what he hates. He hates utopians and revolutionaries. Thus he attacks the French Revolutionaries and Mao.. In so doing it appears that he is guilty of the fallacy of the straw man. By attacking the worst excesses of his opponents, such as Hitler, terrorists and post-modern gobbledygookers, he seeks to undermine the moderates. But he doesn't seem to defend his own proposals.

However, my main concern with this book is that Scruton never provides any evidence for his assertions. He justifies nothing. For example, he supports 'free exchange' (free enterprise?) and the 'invisible hand' (Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market, one presumes) but he never defines these terms, he never provides any evidence as to why they are good (except that they are somehow opposed to what is bad and that they are 'traditional') and he certainly never explores the limitations of his ideas. He seems blind to the fact that the invisible hand of the markets does not always work perfectly, that theft and predation are a type of free enterprise; he seems blind to the fact that if 'America' does not enjoy global support there may be some reason other than the stupidity and wickedness of his opponents.

I came to Scruton from reading Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature and Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both hammer home every point with evidence: Pinker usually uses 'real' statistical data and Kahneman usually employs evidence from psychological experiments. But Scruton's arguments against transhumanism, for example,  come from Huxley's Brave New World, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Capek's The Makropulos Case. These are all works of fiction. They may be dystopian visions but they are not hard evidence. Again, he suggests that we only need originality "when circumstances change" (p 21) but he gives no evidence for this assertion. I look at the evolving world and see that nature continually creates novelty even when circumstances stay the same. Evolution may be massively wasteful but at least it seems to work. I worry about a world where we can stagnate and yet believe we can turn on originality as needed. Please, Mr Scruton, give me some evidence for your point of view.

A lot of his arguments rest on rhetoric using boo-words to damn. He criticises "the worst kind of optimism" (p37); presumably the worst kind is necessarily bad just as the best kind of optimism is good. He criticises "unscrupulous optimists" (p38) (does he applaud scrupulous ones?) because they create "folly and wickedness" (p37) and fall into fallacies which leave them "forever in darkness". He certainly knows how to lay extreme language on thick. At the same time, apparently without the slightest concept that there might be a speck of wood in his own eye let alone a beam, he tells us that these unscrupulous optimists damn their critics as "not just mistaken ... but evil." (p38) Scruton, heal thyself!

On page 49 he contends, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that "it is only in a society governed by the 'invisible hand' that true equality can be achieved: not an equality of property, influence or power, but an equality of recognition." Where is the evidence for the 'only'? Where is the evidence that 'equality of recognition' is the 'true equality'?

On page 50 he contends that we acquire freedom through "obedience" but he doesn't explain why or how and he doesn't explore whether it is possible to acquire freedom through any alternative method.

Again and again he builds a tower of conclusions, each one based on his own arguments and beliefs unsupported by external evidence. The result is a philosophical house of cards.

I was terribly disappointed by this book. Something is seriously wrong if this is the best philosophical justification that conservatism can muster. This book is little more than a list of unsupported assertions. The arguments lack evidence and lack depth. This book reads like the rant of a bar-room bigot seeking to convince by shouting reason down.

Embarrassingly weak. August 2013; 232 pages

"The Cleaner of Chartres" by Salley Vickers

I have already enjoyed Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel (five out of five) and Mr Golightly's Holiday (4.5 out of 5); she is an excellent novelist with an unusually lyrical style and an interestingly religious perspective on the world.

In this book, Agnes cleans Chartres Cathedral and private homes for a variety of interesting characters. Her story is interwoven with flashbacks to her history: her foundling origin, her convent upbringing, her illegitimate child, her alleged crime and her stays in mental hospitals.

In the present a variety of individuals, from villainous Madame Beck to heroic Abbe Paul, interact with Agnes and with one another. The past haunts the present. The tragedy builds. Will the holy innocent become the sacrificial scapegoat?

If you have read Vickers before you will recognise themes and characters. As in Miss Garnet's Angel there is a good-looking young man on a scaffold restoring art. As in Mr Golightly's Holiday and Miss Garnett's Angel, religion is an important theme; people consider and reconsider the nature of their relationship with God. Organised religion gets a bad press: the convent probably does more harm than good and most of the priests and nuns question their vocation. Paganism comes out well: there was a Platonic school at Chartres and Agnes cleans the famous labyrinth.

Some characters develop and grow but others (the good Abbe and the villainous Madame Beck are the obvious) are stereotypes.

All in all, therefore, this book disappointed me a little; it seemed to be a reworking of ideas Vickers had already explored. Nevertheless, it is a good read; I finished it within a day. Most of all it retains flashes of the Vickers beauty: the luminous and numinous prose which makes one want to slow down to savour.

August 2013; 297 pages

"Golden Lads" by Daphne du Maurier

The famous novelist does fact rather than fiction. This is the first part of the biography of Anthony and Francis Bacon. Written in the 1970s, Ms du Maurier brings her story-writing skills into the telling of history, creating characters and speculating on feelings while marshalling her material into a clear plot-line.

Wordsworth stated the "the child is father of the man" and Ian Mortimer in The Perfect King has suggested that "childhood is the most important" stage in life and therefore essential to a biography even though the early years are least likely to be well-documented. This biography starts on page one with their mother, Ann. She was a remarkable, a formidable, woman! Intensely protestant, she became a minor best-seller in Calvinist circles for her translations of Italian sermons. Fanatically protestant, her letters to her sons repeatedly warn them of the dangers of Roman Catholicism lurking in every foreigner and anyone else who might not conform to her strict ideals. Instead she insists that they behave in accordance with her highly limited and puritanical code. She moaned a lot! Not that it seems to have done any good at all.

Anthony spent most of his young life abroad, especially in France, mingling with Papists and fondling young pages. There is evidence that his Romish connections may have been because he was spying on behalf of Walsingham. There is also evidence that he probably was homosexual: he broke off an early engagement and never subsequently married, there are a number of reports about the young boys, and while in France he was accused of sodomy and only escaped being burned alive by the intervention of the future Henri IV of France.

Back in Britain he was more circumspect, at least in this respect. Becoming spymaster to the Earl of Essex was not in hindsight a brilliant career move. The Earl repeatedly fell out with Queen Elizabeth, once being placed under house arrest for laying his hand upon his sword after she boxed his ears for turning his ack on her and finally being executed for treason following an abortive coup.

Meanwhile Francis spent most of these years as a lawyer. He redeemed himself (and his brother?) following the fall of Essex by being part of the prosecution team at the Earl's trial. This despite the Earl repeatedly trying (although failing) to help him in his career: many historians have seen this as base ingratitude on the part of Francisd although it might have just been his way of extrication the Bacon brothers from the tricky situation in which the anyway-doomed Earl had already placed them.

Du Maurier highlights the crazy way in which Elizabethan finances worked. Both Bacon brothers spent huge amounts of their own money in pursuit of their patron's interests. Anthony paid many of Essex's spies from his own pocket; he also subsidised his brother because Francis had inherited nothing from their father. As a result of both brothers' expenses, they had to borrow, top mortgage and to sell much of their inheritance. This draw predictable and repeated complaints from their mother who was expected to live from the income of at least some of these properties; clearly this income dwindled with time. The Bacon's were not alone. The great Walsingham died in poverty because he had pauperised himself running and paying for Elizabeth's secret service. Given she escaped repeated assassination attempts and plots against her life and throne, this does seem somewhat ungrateful of her.

One thing that really annoyed me about this book is du Maurier's habit of quoting in French and Latin without offering a translation. I have ranted about this before! It seems to me that the author is saying: 'I am fluent in foreign languages and if you aren't then perhaps you are too stupid to read my book'. I beg all future editors not to allow this practice.

Despite this flaw, this is an interesting tale, engagingly told. I read it in a single sitting (albeit I was a captive audience on a ten hour flight to Cuba not forgetting the two hour train ride to the airport and the two hours sitting in the departures lounge).  It was particularly illuminating about Anthony, of whom I had not previously heard.

August 2013; 260 pages

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"The better angels of our nature" by Steven Pinker

Outstanding. Life-changing. Brilliant. Important.

This book should be required reading for politicians and journalists. It should be on the compulsory school curriculum.

Steven Pinker time and time again debunks perceived wisdom and puts forward a radically new way of seeing the world. And it is so readable. I thought Pinker's The Blank Slate was important; it changed my philosophy of life. This book is better.

Many people believe that the world is becoming more and more violent. Pinker shows that the reverse is true. Judging from the archaeological evidence deaths from warfare in prehistoric societies averaged about 15%; it is 14% in hunter-gatherer societies and 24.5% in pre-state societies. In the earliest states this reduces to 5%; in the modern world it is 1%. The same is true of homicides: the most dangerous US inner cities are safer than the most peaceful non-state societies. In fact Pinker reckons that becoming a state makes the citizens five times safer from violent death. The civilizing process of western Europe from early statehood to modern days has reduced danger of violent death by a further thirty times.

Developing a functioning state is therefore one of the principal ways of making a society safer.

Even states can be dangerous, sponsoring violence such as judicial execution. But nowadays we have all but abolished torture, slavery, judicial execution and mutilation, wife beating and marital rape, beating children etc. In most places of the world homosexuality and adultery are no longer capital crimes. This is not because we are more moral; Pinker points out that moral societies tolerate judicial executions for 'crimes' such as homosexuality, adultery and blasphemy. "The world has far too much morality" (p751). Nor is it thanks to religion. He points out that the Bible portrays a bloodthirsty and genocidal deity. "The theory that religion is a force for peace ... does not fit the facts of history." He believes it is because we have become literate, more educated and more able to use abstract reason.

He is convincing.

This book has too many wonderful ideas for me to adequately document them here. You have to read it. It is huge but his readability means that it is manageable. Give it a go. It might change the way you view the world.

Brilliant, life-changing and readable. August 2013; 841 pages.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

"English education" by Kenneth Lindsay

Kenneth Lindsay was a politician who sat as an MP for National Labour, National Independent, and independent (the last MP for Combined English Universities), serving as a Lord of the Admiralty and as a Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education. This book was written in 1941, during the Second World War and before the Butler 1945 Education Act.

It is a very brief (wartime paper rationing?) utterly one-sided history of education with a brief look at what might happen next. Some wonderful quotes:

  • HMI "move quietly among the schools befriending teachers".
  • "A wise head leaves his staff free to compose their own syllabuses within a general framework."
  • Examinations exercise "considerable control and sometimes tyranny over pupil and teacher alike".
  • "All recent researches of psychology compel us to think more of the individual child .... it becomes more and more difficult to reconcile a rigid and centralised scheme of examinations with this."

August 2013; 48 pages

"The marble faun" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Kenyon, a sculptor and his two painter friends, dark mysterious Miriam and blonde New England goody goody virginal 'Anglo Saxon' protestant Hilda do arty stuff in Rome and notice the resemblance of their innocent Tuscam friend Donatello to the famous Faun of Praxiteles. Entering the catacombs, Miriam gets lost and reappears with an ugly 'shadow' who had a strange psychological hold over her. Something dreadful happens which leads to a great deal of remorse and soul searching on the part of everyone except Kenyon. Months later he journeys into deepest Tuscany to visit the ancestral home of Donatello, aka the Count of Monte Bene. Remorse and soul searching continues: Donatello's innocent joi de vivre has become guilty gloom, Miriam has disappeared and Hilda positively wallows in guilt despite having nothing to be guilty of.

Romantic gothic hokum. The prose style is typically overblown Victorian: when Kenyon goes to sleep we are told that "Kenyon betook himself to his repose". There is so much of this, and relentless moralising, and cardboard allegorical characters, and condemnations of the Italians and their Roman Catholicism, and homilies on Art, that this book is nearly unreadable. Even the blurb on the back does not claim it as a great read but "both interesting and thought-provoking". According to wikipedia, Ralp Waldo Emerson called the novel "mush" though I would argue that it is a particularly inedible type of porridge.

Heavy going. August 2013; 317 pages