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

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

"Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott

Sub-titled 'Some instructions on writing and life', this book offers perceptive and delightful insights into the world of the writer. Write for the sake of writing, she urges. Don't write to be published. Publication won't change your life: you'll still be as screwed-up after being published as you were before. Write because it is the best possible way of creating art out of an exploration of what it means to be human. Therefore it is hard. Therefore you will have to expose your worst side to the world. And therefore it is rewarding.

That sounds a bit intense.The book is really funny. She sees the humanity within the experiences she describes and so she is like a wonderful stand-up comic doing observational comedy. She describes how she took her three year old son to see a dead baby and how he gave the baby a ball, in case they play catch on the other side, and a small toy time-travel car for reasons she doesn't understand. She writes about a day out at the Special Olympics. There is warmth and laughter and humanity and, yes, sometimes, a little tragedy.

Did I learn how to write? I learnt to enjoy the writing process and not obsess about where the written product is going to end up. I learnt to focus on tiny bits and get them right rather than trying to do too much. I learnt to work every day and to use all the material I possibly can. I learnt that I am not good enough yet, and that I may never be good enough, but if I work hard and steadily and try to write the truth every day that I will one day be better. And that should be good enough for anyone.

A brilliant, wonderful and enjoyable book. April 2014; 237 pages

Sunday, 20 April 2014

"The life and strange surprising adventures of Daniel Defoe" by Richard West

The man born Daniel Foe was an extraordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. Born in the year of the Restoration of Charles II, he lived through the Plague and Fire of London, the Glorious Revolution, the Union with Scotland, the first Jacobite risings, and the South Sea Bubble. He was a rebel, fighting with the Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor, a hosier, a maker of bricks and pantiles, a bankrupt, a pilloried pamphleteer, a prisoner, a journalist, a secret agent and finally a writer responsible for Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and  A Journal of the Plague Year as well as many other titles. With such a cv he is an obvious subject for biography.

Richard West faces some difficulties. Defoe loved to mix fact and fiction and his own accounts of his own life are inconsistent, contradictory and partial. There is no record of his birth. So West has relied a great deal on Defoe's own writings, whilst warning us about them. This means extensive quotes. West also quotes from historians about the period but concentrates almost exclusively on Macauley and Trevelyan. There is a feeling that West has done insufficient independent research and has relied too heavily on a limited number of sources.

But the book rattles on until the middle when the journalist becomes the author. You might think that this is where the story would become compelling. For 236 pages, Defoe has led an exciting life but now he is going to become the author of the famous books. Suddenly, West goes weird. Robinson Crusoe is described, with two other books, in twenty pages. Twenty three pages are devoted to A Journal of the Plague Year with two other works of historical fiction. Moll Flanders and Roxana merit twenty five pages. Then 84(!) pages are given to his three volume travelogue, A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain. This one work is thus given more space than all his fiction put together!

Moreover, West attempts little in the way of literary criticism. Most of the descriptions of the books are taken up with an exhaustive summary of their plots. I would have been far more interested to know how Defoe came by the ideas for these books, what they shed upon his life (West does note the repeated obsession with money that was a probable legacy of Defoe's bankruptcy), how they were received by his contemporaries (both Crusoe and Flanders were best-sellers), and how they influenced future writers. But West only mentions in passing the fact the Moll Flanders was published the year before The Beggar's Opera was first performed and he is virtually silent on the presumable obsession with crime that Georgian society must have had at the time. As for the 84 pages on the Tour, most of this is devoted to discussing each place Defoe went to (or claims he went to).

In short, I felt the first half of the book was a triumph but I was extremely disappointed in the second half.

April 2014; 408 pages

In A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, Diana and Michael Preston make the point that Robinson Crusoe was in poart based on the best-selling travel books of William Dampier who was on the expedition that marooned Alexander Selkirk, the model for Crusoe, and on the expedition that rescued him!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

"Restoration" by Rose Tremain

I read the sequel, Merivel, to this book first.

Robert Merivel is an orphaned medical student who successfully treats an ill spaniel belonging to Charles II; this leads to his preferment at court and eventually to his being installed as the master of a Norfolk country estate as the nominal but cuckolded husband of Charles' latest mistress. But he falls in love with the woman and incurs the king's wrath.

The story rambles from Fenland madhouse to Cheapside lodgings. There seems no coherence or purpose to the tale. As with the sequel, it is a picaresque. It works because it explores the character of a remarkable man, a frail mortal who can laugh at himself, an Everyman in whose flaws and sufferings we can recognise ourselves.

Monday, 14 April 2014

"The Watchers" by Stephen Alford

This is a history of the Elizabethan espionage services. Because Elizabeth I continued her father's breakaway from Roman Catholicism and because she never had a clearly nominated successor there were many attempts to replace her by assassination, coup or invasion. The pope called for her replacement, branding her a heretic and a bastard with no legitimate right to the throne and therefore exonerating in advance any Catholic who might kill her. Mary Queen of Scots, who was for 29 years the next in line for the English throne and who was a member of the ultra-RC Guise family, was the focus for a number of attempts to replace Elizabeth, even when a deposed Queen under quite strict house arrest in England. Philip II of Spain, once King of England as the husband of Elizabeth's elder sister Mary, always threatened even though it was not until 1588 that he managed to launch the Great Armada invasion attempt (and there was a second Armada in 1596 which was wrecked by a storm off Finisterre before the English discovered it was on its way). And there were a number of assassination attempts (though some might have been more due to the zeal of rival intelligence services to discover plots than actual attempts). So there was a need for England to have people involved in what we know call espionage but they then called spiery.

First Sir Francis Walsingham ran a very successful intelligence service which, amongst other things, 'discovered' (or maybe manufactured or provoked) evidence for the Babington Plot in which Mary Queen of Scots appeared to assent to a plot to kill Elizabeth. After his Walsingham's death in 1590 the Earl of Essex and Sir Robert Cecil ran rival intelligence services (Cecil's prevailing and eventually, although this is after the book finishes, preventing the Gunpowder Plot).

This book chronicles the spies who worked for them, decoding ciphers, collecting information, penetrating conspiracies, acting as double agents and agents provacateur and disseminating disinformation. Some of these shadowy spies are working for ideals, others for money, others because they are fascinated by aspects of a life where one is never whom one seems to be. Many of them are turncoats and one often wonders how any spymaster could be certain that his men would not turn their coats a second time.

Alford's book has moments of extraordinary interest, especially when he describes the spies in the shadows. Concentrating on the characters as he tends to does mean that sometimes the narrative is not chronological and it is sometimes a little confusing when he repeatedly returns to an event to describe it again from a different point of view. Furthermore, not all of the spies are as interesting as their colleagues and there are moments when the story drags. I also would have liked more details about the spycraft; it would have been fun to have learned more about the ciphers used (Simon Singh's The Code Book has a fascinating chapter on the Babington code cipher which shows how a technical discussion of code-breaking can be very readable).

Overall, however, Alford's book keeps the interest going and throws light on what must be one of the murkiest areas of history. April 2014; 325 pages

Sunday, 13 April 2014

"Moll Flanders" by Daniel Defoe

A best-seller in 1722 by the man who had also written Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders is a sort of Rake's progress about a lady who descends (quite slowly) into iniquity. Born in Newgate and raised first by gypsies (a common theme in 18th Century fiction and a strange paranoia of the times) and then by the parish, the lady who later becomes known as Moll Flanders (although she makes it clear that this is a pseudonym, the trade name she used when she later became a famous thief) dreams of becoming a gentlewoman. As a companion to the daughters of a family she is first seduced by the elder son and then marries the younger. Following his death she marries a spendthrift linen-draper; when he runs off she marries (bigamously, though this doesn't seem to be important) a man who takes her to Virginia where she discovers that he is her brother And this is important; she is horrified by incest); she then oscillates for a while between widowhood, being a mistress and marrying again. As in Jane Austen, the purpose of marriage is to improve one's fortune and therefore much effort is made to conceal her relative poverty: finally everything goes wrong when both herself and her new husband discover that they have both tricked one another into marrying for money and they are virtually destitute. However, Moll never really sees the need to work for her living, so poverty is a relative matter, and she never worries too much about supporting her children, most of whom she discards with little care. Finally, staring poverty in the face, she resorts to theft and begins a long and successful career as pickpocket, shoplifter and opportunistic sneak thief.

This is a fascinating insight into the morals and morality of early eighteenth century London. Without an effective police force, criminals could only really be caught 'in the act' by a hue and cry and then turned over to the authorities. One notorious criminal .mastermind', Jonathan Wild, ran a criminal gang and acted as crime boss, fence, 'recoverer' of stolen property for reward, and thief-taker. Moll's exploits, written when Jonathan Wild was at his height, seem based on the story of one of his female associates. He became iconic as a base for literary stories including 'The life of Jonathan Wild' by Henry Fielding and 'The Beggar's Opera' by John Gay (first performed in 1728).

Although there are some rather slow passages where Moll painstakingly analyses the moral dilemmas facing her (albeit from a very materialistic moral viewpoint), there is a lot of action. Little of it would seriously shock the modern reader: Moll is never a whore in the modern sense of the word although she often refers to herself as this because she has sex with men whilst she is unmarried, or married to someone else, or married illegally (eg incestuously). Her thieving is essentially opportunistic (it reminded me very much of 'Harry the Valet', the jewel thief). What seems appalling to her are abortion (which she goes to some lengths not to commit) and incest (which she commits accidentally).

Seen from a modern perspective, Moll is a deeply flawed woman. She casts her children away, marriage is a financial transaction, she has no compunction about her victims (a fact she admits herself) and even after her repentance in the face of death and redemption she is still more than happy to build the foundations of her new life as a businesswoman on the ill-gotten gains she has amassed from her life of crime.

I enjoyed Moll Flanders. Although there were moments when I struggled, there were also moments when the narrative had me hooked. Nowadays its principal delight is probably as a social commentary of the criminal underworld of London in the early 1700s but it is still well worth reading as a story.

April 2014; 317 pages

I have just finished reading a biography of Daniel Defoe. He was an extraordinarily interesting man who lived from the Restoration of Charles II, through the Glorious Revolution, till the Jacobite Rebellions of the early Georges.

Monday, 7 April 2014

"The Late Scholar" by Jill Paton Walsh

This is another Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Jill Paton Walsh based on the characters created by Dorothy L Sayers and continuing the story from Walsh's The Attenbury Emeralds.

With affection and gusto, Paton Walsh returns Wimsey back to an Oxford College where, as visitor, he has to adjudicate in a fellows' dispute as to whether they should sell and mediaeval manuscript to purchase some farmland which they might then develop for much money. Although I enjoyed dipping myself back into some much-loved characters I was again disappointed by the plot. One by one the dons are being bumped off and the methods used seem to correspond to the previous cases investigated by Lord Peter (and written up as fiction by his wife, Harriet Vane). For this reason, this novel should come with a huge spoiler alert (although it might be argued that no-one would read these books if they hadn't already exhausted the authentic Peter Wimsey corpus). Such clues as there are seem transparent: one of the dons has being sneaking over to Cambridge to buy detective fiction and, yes, it is the one I thought it would be and, yes, he is the villain even though he has next to o motive apart from insanity. Improbably, among these few fellows there is another murderer as well! He also has little in the way of credible motive.

So as a whodunnit it fails but as fan-fiction it gives you that cosy sense of having been amongst old friends. Paton Walsh drops real people into the text: Wimsey's brother-in-law Charles Parker asks to drink in the pub where he can see C.S.Lewis (whose theological works he admires) and Tolkien gets a mention.

A fun read but not a great whodunnit. April 2014; 356 pages

Sunday, 6 April 2014

"To sell is human" by Daniel Pink

I described Pink's Drive as "a fantastic and deeply thought provoking book". 

This suffers by comparison. Drive proposed a revolutionary third type of human motivation, neither derived from biological necessities (Maslow's hierarchy of needs) nor from externally imposed rewards and punishments but from the intrinsic pleasure of contributing such as is experienced by those who write wikipedia

The present book seeks first to convince the reader that we are all in the sales business: teachers 'sell' the idea of learning to pupils; doctors 'sell' to patients the treatments on which patients must sometimes gamble their lives. In other words, any employment which involves perusading anyone else to do something is, in Pink's view, selling.

Pink also suggests that the old fashioned stereotype of a seedy salesman seeking to rook his 'prospect' is precisely that, old-fashioned. That sort of salesman can only operate in a market in which there is 'information asymmetry'; for example, when the man selling the used car knows whether it is a clapped out old lemon or a juicy peach but the customer doesn't know this. Pink suggests that in the internet age information is rarely asymmetric and therefore the old-fashioned sales can no longer exist. Rather, the modern salesman has to be an advisor, helping the client navigate a landscape in which information can be deafening and sometimes conflicting and confusing.

Then Pink offers training for the new-style salesman. They have to be:

  • attuned to the customers needs
  • buoyant to cope easily with repeated rejection but not to ignore sings of how they can improve
  • clear about what problems they can solve for their clients and how to solve them


Then Pink offers a variety of exercises to help trainee new-style salesmen improve things such as their Pitch. 

And what started out as a book with interesting ideas becomes just another sales training manual.

Don't get me wrong: some of the ideas are interesting and there are one or two neat tricks that I would like to adopt. But this book has nothing like the mind-altering impact of Drive.

April 2014; 233 pages