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

Monday, 25 July 2016

"The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad

At present this wonderful little novel is being serialised on BBC One in three parts.

Joseph Conrad was a Pole who joined the British Merchant Navy as a young man, learnt English and became one of the greatest of English Novelists. His short novel Heart of Darkness is a searing indictment of colonialism and was adapted into the film Apocalypse Now.

The Secret Agent is Adolf Verloc who runs a small shop in Soho selling pornographic books and pictures; he lives above the shop with his wife Winnie, her mother, and Winnie's brother Stevie who is a 'degenerate', a 'special lad', a lad with special needs, perhaps on the autistic spectrum. But Verloc also works for the Embassy as agent Triangle; he infiltrates revolutionary groups (England was a haven for many European political dissidents including Karl Marx and Lenin) and informs on their activities. He also gives information to Inspector Heat of the Special Branch.

The first chapter is full of fabulous descriptions and beautifully laid breadcrumbs delivered with savage irony. Verloc is "a protector of society"; he "had an air of having wallowed, fully dressed, all day on an unmade bed"; "he found at home the ease of his body and the peace of his conscience"; he is "a very nice gentleman" with a "kind and generous disposition". By marrying Mr Verloc, Winnie reflects, she has ensured that Stevie "was pretty safe in this rough world" even though Stevie lost his job as an office boy after "he was discovered one foggy afternoon ... letting off fireworks"; persuaded to do so by two other office-boys.

Chapter two starts with a brilliant description of Mr Verloc walking through the streets of London. Here we find words littered such as "peaceful slumber", "harmoniously", "sedately", "benign vigilance" and "a town without shadows". "The only reminder of mortality was a doctor's brougham arrested in august solitude close to the kerbstone." And Verloc reflects that "all these people had to be protected ... the whole social order"; "his mission in life being the protection of the social mechanism". But devilish Mr Vladimir calls Verloc into the Embassy, attacks him as fat and complacent, requires action not information, and insists that he plants a bomb to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, the symbol of time.

Chapter Three describes the ineffective and lazy revolutionaries that Verloc has collected around him: Ossipon the ex-medical student who has a taste for the ladies (as they do for him); Karl Yundt, full of hate; Michaelis who has spent fifteen years in prison, is now released on parole, is a favourite of a certain elderly peeress, and is about to depart for the country to exchange a prison cell for a hermit's cell and to write a book about the religious experiences he has in jail. None of these will ever take the action Mr Verloc now needs.

Then, after just a quarter of the book has gone, we jump forward to the time when the bomb has exploded. The bomber has blown himself up in Greenwich Park, probably after stumbling over a tree root. We are treated to a sordid description of the remains in the mortuary: "the gruesome detail of that heap of mixed things, which seemed to have been collected in shambles and rag shops ... the by-products of a butcher's shop" including the details that there is gravel mixed in with the remains because bits had to be scraped off the ground with a shovel and that the first thing the wonderfully stoic constable collected was the bomber's feet. The Assistant Commissioner becomes involved, intent on taking Heat down a peg or two, and goes to the address found in a label in the overcoat, the address of Mr Verloc's shop.

We hit the fifty per cent mark, half way through, and we lurch back again in time. Winnie's mother goes into an almshouse leaving Winnie and Stevie with Mr Verloc. But Winnie and Stevie are with mum on the final trip in a cab, and Stevie is much impressed with the character of the cabbie who declares "This ain't an easy world ... 'Ard on 'osses, but dam' sight 'arder on poor chaps like me" which awakens Stevie's social conscience; he tells Winnie on the way home that it is a "Bad world for poor people". But Stevie believes that "Mr Verloc was good. His mother and his sister had established that ethical fact on an unshakeable foundation. They had established, erected, consecrated it ... Mr Verloc was obviously yet mysteriously good." I am getting those little shivers crawling over my skin as I recognise that I am in the presence of a literary genius. Omg, I thought.

Omg. Verloc is God. Stevie is Jesus. Winnie (who has not given birth to Stevie nor has she had children of her own) is the Virgin Mary. Stevie knows the world is bad and has an "unshakeable" belief that Mr Verloc is good; this belief has, ironically, been instilled in him by his mother and his sister. And Mr Verloc has chosen Stevie and taken him from Winnie and has sacrificed Stevie. Stevie has died, the innocent victim of self-sacrifice.

And Conrad hammers home this point. Beautifully breadcrumbed is the triangle symbol by which Verloc is known, the Trinity (and of course is twas forbidden to pronounce the name of the God of the Old Testament unless you were a prophet). Immediately after we discover that Stevie thinks Verloc good, Verloc becomes restless and goes out to wander the streets, despite the fact that "it was no earthly good going out". He has a terrible decision to make. He comes back and goes to bed with Winnie who asks:
"'Shall I put the light out?'
Mr Verloc snapped at his wife huskily.
'Put it out.'"
Oh that is genius.

And the next chapter starts. Verloc is back from the continent and Stevie continues to look at him "with reverence and awe", taking his bag with "devotion" and carrying his hat "reverently". Winnie, watching, tells her husband that Stevie "would go through fire for you ... that boy just worships you." As they walk down the street together she thinks that they "might be father and son".

Verloc takes Stevie off 'to stay with Michaelis'; when he returns alone, the boy having stayed there, he is shaking and his wife is concerned he has a cold. Then the police come. This is the point in the book where it is revealed that Stevie is the victim; Heat realises it and Winnie suddenly discovers what has been going on. Heat takes Verloc into the back room and Winnie listens at the keyhole. Heat advises Verloc to "clear out ... there are some of them ... who think you are already out of the world."

And then Winnie and Verloc are left. This is the best part of a wonderful book. Because we discover that Verloc has no understanding at all of how Winnie feels. It is as if Conrad is saying that God is so high that he cannot possibly understand the sadnesses of us humans.

Verloc is obsessed with his own troubles. He has been exposed, he will go to prison, he might face retribution from all the comrades he has betrayed in the past. And he is so wrapped up in himself that he cannot understand Winnie's point of view at all.

Conrad achieves this by using the everyday banal aphorisms that people use in times of grief. "Can't be helped," says Verloc. It wasn't after all his fault: "I didn't mean any harm to come to the boy." "Do be reasonable, Winnie," he says and "Don't be a fool, Winnie." "The eventuality he had not foreseen had appalled him as a humane man and fond husband. From every other point of view it was rather advantageous. Nothing can equal the everlasting discretion of death." "You'll have to pull yourself together, my girl" Verloc says, "What's done can't be undone ... You go to bed now. What you want is a good cry." She tells him she had thought he had a cold and he says "It was nothing ... I was upset. I was upset on your account." And later: "By heavens! ... I ran the risk of giving myself away to find somebody for that accursed job. And I tell you again I couldn't find anyone crazy enough or hungry enough. What do you take me for - a murderer, or what? The boy is gone. Do you think I wanted him to blow himself up. He's gone. His troubles are over ... Don't you make any mistake about it: if you will have it that I killed the boy, then you've killed him as much as I."

But she can't get over the fact that "This man took the boy away to murder him."

This is the awful climax of the book. After, Winnie hears the ticking of the clock, but she thinks the clock has stopped, and we are reminded that the bomb was an attempt on Greenwich, the source of time; the hearts stop beating; that God is eternal. Winnie seeks the help of Ossipon who, when he discovers that it is Stevie not Verloc who has died, says "The degenerate - by heavens!"

Right at the end, Ossipon meets the bomb-maker in a bar. Ossipon "could face no woman. It was ruin. He could neither think, work, sleep, nor eat. But he was beginning to drink with pleasure, with anticipation, with hope. It was ruin." And the last sentence is left to the bomb maker, the anarchist who goes about with a bomb under his coat so he can blow himself up is the police come to catch him. The bomb naker is (in our allegory) Death himself. He walks through the crowd. "He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men."


Breathtakingly brilliant.

July 2016; 249 pages

Mike Blamires points out to me that there are alternative interpretations of this great and classic text. He referred me to Joseph Conrad: Married to the Devil: The Secret Agent's Critique of Late-Victorian Gender Roles By Brandon Colas. This suggests that Winnie is the pivot around which all the characters are brought to destruction and puts her in the role of the Devil, the Serpent in the Garden (and in this regard quotes Ossipon who "saw the woman twined round him like a snake ... she was nor deadly. She was death itself - the companion of life" and, two paragraphs later when Winnie says: "Tom, you can't throw me off now ... Not unless you crush my head under your heel").

I agree. I think Conrad, like all novelists, was deliberately weaving several levels into his tale. Certainly there is a political aspect and there is the idea that if you fight terrorists with violence you are playing into their game, and there is a very sarcastic portrayal of the revolutionaries as lazy men who were parasites on women. Women again. The BBC have emphasised the terrorist thriller aspect of the story (by adding a lot of extra writing that is not in the original). The fact that there are alternative interpretations does not, I think, invalidate mine. Criticism should be a multi-dimensional game.

Friday, 22 July 2016

"How to connect with nature" by Tristan Gooley

I was a bit dubious about this book to start with. Within a few pages it had won me over. It is brilliant. Not only did it make me want to read it outdoors, so I could feel the fresh air on my skin and listen to the birds and feel at one with nature and at peace, but also it had some brilliant writing and some fascinating information. I made a note on almost every page!

After all, as Gooley points out, nature is a struggle for existence and "we are programmed to find conflict interesting. Movies, soap operas and boxing matches all rely on conflict." (p 13). So remember, "that's not a pretty flower you are looking at. It's a sex machine, whoring itself to the bees." (p 14)

He recommends eating nature. "People were up to 15 cm taller before agriculture, because 10,000 years ago their diet contained up to five times more plant types." But take care. "Boiling [water] does the best job of reducing the need for toilet paper in the subsequent hours." (p 37)

He has loads of helpful advice about how to notice nature more deeply. Don't do too much "It takes a certain immaturity to walk over twenty miles in one day and not feel your head overload with sensual input." (p 49) [I like the sensual rather than sensory!] The more you know, the more you notice but "a focused interest is a two-edged sword: it allows us to notice many things that pass others by, but it narrows the spotlight of our vision." (p 54) But the key thing is to be still. 'Still-hunting', practised by native Americans, is "picking a spot and waiting silently for prey to find you." (p 59) and works for observers as well as hunters. Every sound provides "information about time of day, time of year, local animals, present and future weather, navigation clues [including motorways!] and human behaviour." (p 57) And notice what doesn't move: "Our brains have learned to notice things that move, so if we make a special effort to look for things that are still we see a subtly different world." (p 57)

He gives lots of clues for understanding the landscape including knowing about rock types therefore soil types therefore prevailing plants, looking at tree shapes to determine direction (they bend away from the wind which in England tends to come from the south west and their branches are more horizontal on their south sides than their north) and to age conifers, and using both crescent moon to determine south and the Plough to determine north.

He doesn't neglect the human environment. After all, pigeons follow the lines of motorways and satellite dishes (in the UK) point south east. Plants that tolerate salt used to thrive at the coast but may now be found lining major roads that have salt spread on them in winter. And humans even have their own built in clocks: "Physiology students at Imperial College London are taught about circadian rhythms with the help of a rectal thermometer." (p 123) These clocks mean that 10 PM is "the most common time for lovemaking" (p 125) and our inbuilt calendars mean that "male testosterone levels peak in October ... more babies are born in the late summer months when there is more food around" (p 125)

He explains old wives tales, sometimes a little irreverently: "It was once believed that a childless woman could walk out naked to pick the St John's wort flower, and this would lead to her conceiving within the year ... walking about naked in midsummer might have been a good way of introducing new mates." (p 84)

Finally he shows how nature is good for us:

  • Surgical patients in hospital recover faster if they can see trees from the window
  • "People become more generous after they have seen pictures of nature" (p 128)
  • "The more green spaces in a neighbourhood, the lower the average body mass index of the children who live there." (p 128)

A brilliantly written and fascinating book. I wish I could recognise more trees (I can do Christmas trees, holly trees and weeping willows!) and bird songs (OK I can do cuckoo and cock crow).

July 2016; 144 pages

Thank you Dr Danny for lending it to me.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"Dolphin Island" by Arthur C Clarke

This is a (Puffin) kid's book that I read years ago. Johnny, an orphan living with an unsympathetic aunt, stows away on a hover cruiser that then sinks in mid-Pacific; he is saved by Dolphins taking him to an island where Professor Kazan (brilliantly characterised as "he had a kindly but rather distant expression, as if he wanted to be friends with everyone, yet preferred to be left with his own thoughts") is researching into Dolphin language.

This is a classic boy's adventure story (the ease with which the boy is disencumbered of parents and indeed any family at all is so typical, think Swallows and Amazons and hundreds of orphan sagas) that reminded me strongly of the Adventure stories of Willard Price. There is a lot of fact about coral reefs and the Pacific Ocean drip-fed in through the medium of talking about Johnny's swimming trips with his mate Mick. At the same time, Clarke builds the story around science that, at the time of writing (1962) looked promising: the hovercraft had just been invented and Behaviorism reigned supreme in Psychology from which Clarke mined details of computer-run education via learning programs and animal control using electric shocks to either the pain or pleasure centres of the brain.

And at the end, of course, Johnny has to be a hero in the aftermath of the hurricane, when the Professor is dying and there is a race against the clock to get help with the aid of those friendly dolphins.

Beautifully written: July 2016, 156 pages

Monday, 18 July 2016

"Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs

Naked lunch? William Burroughs remembers Jack Kerouac as coming up with the title and he himself didn't understand it at first but now he says that it is "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". Jack Kerouac remembers it as being entitled when Allen Ginsberg was reading it aloud and misread 'naked lust' (which never made the final text).

This book starts well, with an account of a junkie evading capture by the Narcotics police by jumping on a subway train. But the text at the start is pocked with explanatory notes woven into the text. Nevertheless, some of Burroughs razor sharp images come through.

But then the book degenerates. It becomes a procession of rude remarks about women, black people, Arabs, religions: Burroughs seems to be trying his hardest to offend everyone he can. He is obsessed with shit, there is the usual smattering of gay sex (reprising the idea in the Soft Machine that men ejaculate when they are hanged), and as with the soft machine he has a morbid fascination with insects and crustacea. And after the first few pages, the crystal observations seem to have deserted him, although there is a late stand. "It's a wildly unpretty spectacle" (p 177)

This is the book in which Steely Dan makes an appearance (there are three of them, they refer to robust metal dildoes). In this part, Burroughs becomes interested in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and I wondered with John Livingstone Lowes would have made of Burroughs had he analysed his work rather than that of Coleridge in his study of the imagination, The Road to Xanadu.

Although Naked Lunch is hailed as a prime example of the Burroughs 'cut-up' technique, where he supposedly wrote narratives and then chopped them up so that scenes and characters recur, this book has this technique less obviously than The Wild Boys, my favourite Burroughs so far, and The Soft Machine though it is done with rather more effect than in The Ticket that Exploded. Rather, it is assembled into vignettes in which one character or one theme is briefly explored. In the book, Burroughs claims that "You can cut into Naked Lunch at any intersection point" (p 187)(although the book is structured in that the cop chase at the beginning is mirrored by a similar scene very near the end) and "There is only one thing a writer can write about: what is in front of his senses at the moment of writing ... I am a recording instrument ... I don not presume to impose 'story' 'plot' 'continuity'" (p 184). I thought the book was summed up in another quote: "Vast adolescent muttering." (p 98)

Nevertheless, the book does have some fascinating moments. Burroughs had a vivid if diseased imagination and there are some ideas that make me want to write a story about them. Here are some other moments where the observation was acute, or the concepts original, or he was just funny:

  • "Fingers of rotten ectoplasm" (p 5)
  • "You know how old people lose all shame about eating, and it makes you puke to watch them?" (p 6)
  • "I am a ghost wanting what every ghost wants - a body" (p 8)
  • "mosaic of sleepless nights" (p 9)
  • "Hustlers of the world, there is one Mark you cannot beat. The Mark Inside ..." (p 11) 
  • "the threat of torture is used to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it. And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved." (p 21)
  • "Last night I woke up with someone squeezing my hand. It was my other hand ..." (p 56)
  • "Guess he can make his own penicillin" (p 60)
  • "ribs you could wash your filthy overalls on" (p 85)
  • "Sucking terror from needle scars" (p 194)

But when all is said and done, it wasn't his best. July 2016; 196 pages
Page references refer to the paperback of the restored text edited by James Grauerholz and Barry Miles and published by Fourth Estate in 2010

Sunday, 17 July 2016

"Sanctuary" by William Faulkner

The story starts with a stand off between Horace Benbow, a lawyer, and Popeye. Popeye has a pistol in his pocket, Horace has a book. Popeye takes him to Lee Goodwin's bootlegging place where Horace meets Lee's common law wife (who admits to prostituting herself to get a lawyer to get Lee out of jail once) and her baby, and Tommy. Popeye is a complex character who, Tommy says, is the "skeeriest durn white man I ever see", who is spooked by owls and by a little dog he once shot dead. As Tommy says, Popeye is "skeered of his own shadow" and as Benbow replies: "I'd be scared of it too ... if his shadow was mine."

The next day Horace (who is separated from his wife Belle and his step-daughter Little Belle) is with his respectable family in Jefferson discussing his widowed sister's new toy boy, Gowan Stevens, who learnt to drink at college and thinks that made him a gentleman.

Now the main action starts. Gowan meets Temple Drake, a young college girl, who is playing hookey, and they drive off but Gowan is drinking and he crashes the car. They are taken to Lee the bootlegger's house. And this starts a strange, dream-like (nightmare-like) sequence in which Temple, terrified by the threat that these people represent (Tommy the negro, the psychotic Popeye, Lee, even Lee's blind old dad) runs around from one place to the next but never actually does what Lee's woman advises her to, which is to run away from the house and keep running. Gowan gets drunker, has a fight with Lee's man Van, spends the night asleep and in the morning walks off, finds a town, arranges for a car to collect Temple, and then keeps moving, ashamed of himself but unable to return. Then Popeye shoots Tommy to get to Temple and Temple screams "Something is happening to me!" It is only much later that we discover precisely what.

Horace is now defending Lee who is accused of Tommy's murder. At the same time Horace is looking after Lee's wife but his sister refuses to let him look after her in the house they jointly own so he puts her into a hotel until she is run out of that by the church-going ladies of the town who are spreading rumours that Horace is sleeping with Lee's wife; the woman and her baby take refuge in the prison where Lee refuses to tell anyone about Popeye because Lee is scared that Popeye will seek him out and kill him. Feeling is running against Lee. Horace quotes the local preacher as suggesting "that Goodwin and his wife should both be burned as a sole example to that child; the child to be reared and taught the English language for the sole end of it being taught that it was begot in sin by two people who suffered by fire for having begot it." This is a grisly breadcrumb.

Meanwhile Popeye has taken Temple, who is bleeding heavily, to a brothel in Memphis (where there is "a line of office buildings terraced sharply against the sunfilled sky") where the madam, Miss Reba, moving "heavily from thigh to thigh", fat and short of breath, with two little pet dogs who know to be sacred of her when she returns from the cemetery where her man is buried (a wonderful character; she says that "you have to be born for this [prostitution] like you have to be born to be a butcher or a barber, I guess. Wouldn't anybody be either of them just for money or fun".) arranges for a doctor to help with the blood still coming from Temple's loins.

Suddenly, almost exactly half way through the book, we have a comic interlude. Two young lads, innocents, impoverished freshmen, arrive in Memphis and take lodgings at Miss Reba's brothel, thinking that it is a hotel. When they visit a brothel, one complaining that the experience costs three dollars and "ain't nothing worth three dollars you cain't tote off with you") elsewhere they have to sneak back in to their 'hotel' where all the ladies are married in case the proprietress discovers they have been naughty and throws them out! These lads are the reason that their uncle, a wonderfully venal state senator who dispenses cheap cigars to patronise poor people (they see right through him; they distrust him and dislike him), discovers the whereabouts of Temple, selling the information to Horace (and presumably elsewhere as well). When Horace finds her she tells him what happened although it is written to keep the reader guessing about the exact details: "It made a kind of plopping sound, like blowing a little rubber tube wrong-side outward.  ... I could feel the jerking going on in my knickers ahead of his hand..."

The twist comes in the courtroom and we discover exactly what happened to Temple in the subsequent lynching.

This is a fabulous book.

The plot is gripping, starting tense, becoming tenser, and the aftermath playing out in detail, with that wonderful comic interlude at almost exactly half way through.

The characters are perfect. It is only right at the end that we understand what has crippled Popeye's moral senses; we can pity even this personification of evil. Temple is a victim who, to some extent, colludes in her own victimhood, but at the same time she can be lustful and vengeful and cruel; she can be wicked but she is destroyed by what happens to her. Miss Reba is a brilliant madame with a wonderful love hate relationship with her dogs. And Senator Snopes is a perfect cameo.

There are some brilliant lines, including:

  • Perhaps it is on the instant that we realise, admit, that there is a logical pattern to evil, that we die.
  • Time's not such a bad thing after all. Use it right, and you can stretch anything out, like a rubber band, until it busts somewhere, and there you are, with all tragedy and despair in two little knots between thumb and finger of each hand.
  • The smoke-colored twilight emerged in slow puffs like signal smoke from a blanket.
  • People don't break the law just for a holiday
  • God is foolish at times, but at least He's a gentleman [says the lawyer but the ex-prostitute replies] I always thought of Him as a man
  • It does last ... Spring does. You'd almost think there was some purpose to it.
  • Night is hard on old people.
  • like a thin coating of tortured Tchaikovsky on a slice of stale bread

But the power of this book comes from the portrayal of society. The respectable people condemn the criminal underclass while at the same time using them. But it is when the two societies meet that tragedy occurs.

Stunning. July 2016; 219 pages

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The Fly in the Cathedral" by Brian Cathcart

From its very beginning, relating the 1909 discovery of Rutherford alpha particle scattering in which a final year undergraduate named Ernest Marsden saw something that contradicted all previous theories of the atom, Cathcart manages to capture both the tedium of live research science (Marsden has to follow a procedure including sitting in a darkened room for 20 minutes before taking observations; when he sees the 'wrong' thing he spends a week checking and rechecking every part of his apparatus before becoming certain of his results) and the excitement of discovery.

From there, Cathcart explains how Ernest Walton arrived at the old Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge where the world famous Rutherford resided (I had lectures there when an undergraduate in a lecture theatre which James Clerk Maxwell designed but most of the building at the time had been sealed off because it had been contaminated by the experiments of Rutherford and his team). This was 1927 when the laboratory was not as fertile as the glory days before the first world war and there was a certain pressure on all involved to make more ground-breaking discoveries. But to attack the nucleus would need particles moving extraordinarily fast so that they could overcome the electrostatic repulsion of the nucleus, so Walton, working with John Cockcroft, started to build a particle accelerator. Given that the National Grid was in its infancy, using transformers to up ac to the hundreds of thousands of volts they believed they needed and then building rectifiers and vacuum tubes capable of standing these high voltages without either bursting or electrocuting the experimenters (Walton had to crawl across a wooden floor to approach the wworkign apparatus) was a formidable technical challenge made possible mostly by Cockcroft who, having served with distinction in the war,  had previously worked with Metropolitan Vickers the electrical engineering company in Manchester (where my wife's gradnfather worked).

A number of other experimenters in the US were working on the same ideas, notably Tuve using a static generator designed by his friend Van der Graaf, and Tuve's childhood friend Ernest Lawrence who was building a cyclotron. Nuclear disintegration was also being studied by Joliot and Curie (the daughter) in Madame Curie's lab in Paris, and by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in Berlin.

And the quantum theorists were kicking off. The 1920s were the glory days of Rutherford's old buddy Nils Bohr in Copenhagen, and Werner Heisenberg and Max Schrodinger in Germany. Louis de Broglie's 1924 theory of wave particle duality was being discussed and an amazingly enterprising Russian named Gamow turned up one day at Bohr's lab in Copenhagen. Bohr was busy and Gamow was given an appointment in a few days time but after he explained he only had money to survive a single day the secretary took pity on him and he saw Bohr that afternoon who immediately arranged for him to stay. Gamow then worked out that wave function particles could penetrate the nucleus at much lower energies.

But Walton and Cockcroft toiled at their apparatus, evacuating tubes that leaked and sealing the leaks with Bank of England sealing wax (they later found that plasticine did a better job) for several years.

At this stage everyone knew that the atoms was composed of electrons orbiting (in set orbits) a very tiny nucleus which had protons in it. But the nucleus must also have either neutrons (Rutherford's theory) or electrons. The electrons were the favoured theory because beta radiation involves electrons leaving the nucleus; neutrons were purely speculative and scarcely mentioned in polite circles. So when Curie and Joliot discovered radiation flowing from a beryllium target that had been bombarded with radiation from polonium, everyone assumed that the neutral rays must be gamma rays even though they packed much more of a punch than seemed possible for gamma rays. But Chadwick, Rutherford's deputy at the Cavendish, revived the neutron theory and showed that they radiation was a stream of neutrons. This was in February 1932. Almost immediately a grumpy Rutherford told Cockcroft and Walton that they had better stop tinkering with their apparatus in an attempt to improve it and use it to fire protons at something. They set up a lithium target, fired the protons in and immediately discovered, still using the scintillation technique that Marsden had used, alpha particles.

Over the next few weeks they frantically repeated their results and worked out the implications whilst sworn to secrecy (Walton told his girlfriend, Cockcroft his wife, Rutherford told Bohr). The disintegration was caused because the protons were absorbed into the lithium nucleus which then spolit into two alpha particles. This was happening at a far lower energy than they had expected, partly because protons do the 'quantum tunnelling' described by Gamow at significantly lower energies than alpha particles but also because the quantum tunnelling is a probabilistic effect and they were generating millions more protons than had been available with the old techniques of relying on radium sources to emit alpha particles. Another 'problem' was that the alpha particles had higher energies that the energies of the incoming protons but this was resolved when it was realised that two alpha particles have a lower mass than a lithium nucleus and a proton and than this mass loss was being converted into energy through Einstein's most famous equation: E=mc2. They had split the nucleus.

This is a wonderful tale of impoverished graduate students in a worldwide fraternity working with string and sealing wax to do cutting edge research. Cathcart writes brilliantly, the tale fairly bowls along, and gives full play to the human stories behind the geeks.  The excitement of the times is vividly captured as is the hard work necessary and the oddness of the characters.

This is a fabulous book. It appears to be out of print. Why??????

July 2016; 274 pages

Another brilliant book about this time is The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo which tells the story of quantum theorist Paul Dirac.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The Waves" by Virginia Woolf

"The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it." But the waves is the whole damn point.

Six characters, three boys and girls, are revealed to us using the formula of a direct quotation and then 'said Bernard' or 'said Susan'. Always 'said' although these are their thoughts. Their very first statements are descriptions of what they see and hear: rings, slabs of yellow; these are soon turned into objects perceived. Shortly Louis hides from his friends and Jinny finds him and kisses him and Susan sees and is angry. Bernard begins to tell stories; Rhoda wants to be Jinny or Susan; Neville (I wonder whether Mr Neville in Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac is named after him?) becomes religious, Bernard develops a crush on another boy; Susan hates boarding school and counts the days until she is allowed home.

This is poetry dressed up as prose. It is very hard to read. I need to spend many more days reading it very slowly: there are some books which are meant to be read fast and loose and dome which you are meant to study line by line. But I read this book fast and loose for a first impression and, despite the density of the imagery and the difficulty I found on getting a good grip on the individual life stories, I gained a surprising amount. This is like glancing at an impressionist painting: you see the sea and the sky and the trees, you feel the moving of the wind, yet you know that a careful scrutiny will yield dividends. But on a first, furious reading I got an impression of every character and how they developed differently from the others. I understood some (I doubt all) of the things they did and the things that happened to them: who got married, what their jobs were (still no idea about Neville), who had children. Almost the best bit of the book was Perceval. They (at least some of them) had been at school with Perceval. He is the sort that everyone admires. As they approach 25 they hold a dinner to which he comes (late) to celebrate his departure for India. Shortly after, they hear the shocking news of his death. This affects each one of them in different ways; they remember him for the rest of their lives; it is a bit like remembering the day when Kennedy/ Elvis/ John Lennon/ David Bowie (choose your generation) died. In many ways the book is about Perceval and yet he is the one who doesn't appear on stage.

Some moments of liminality:
"we have invented devices for filling up the crevices and disguising these fissures."

Some moments of unintended self-parody:
"The only people in the streets are poor people hurrying."

I was overwhelmed by the brilliance of Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The Waves is a stunningly good book but, being so much more difficult to read, cannot have had as much impact. But I must read it again.

July 2016; 256 pages

Friday, 8 July 2016

"Hotel du Lac" by Anita Bruckner

The book starts with the protagonist, a romantic novelist called Edith Hope, staring out of the window of her room in the eponymous Swiss hotel on a world of greyness, shrouded in mist. She has been 'sent' to the end-of-season hotel as some sort of penance for the exposure of her long adulterous relationship with a married man called David.

In its early stages the book is full of beautiful observations about the predominantly female guests: the woman  who feeds her meal to her badly behaved dog, the greedy woman and daughter combination who love spending their money and who take Edith under their wing (ostensibly because she is alone but actually so they can talk at her and patronise her), the Comtesse who his in the hotel as a sort of retirement home having been put their by her son acting under the orders of his wife.

Into this grey world comes Mr Neville, a man dressed in grey. Disconcertingly, he knows Edith as her nom de plume. Later he seems to be able to read her mind and to know her better than she knows herself. Already slightly sinister, at the half way point of the story he reveals his moral code: "You cannot live someone else's life. You can only live your own. And remember, there are no punishments. Whatever they told you about unselfishness being good and wickedness being bad was entirely inaccurate. It is a lesson for serfs and it leads to resignation. And my policy, you may be surprised to hear, will ensure you any number of friends. People feel at home with low moral standards. It is scruples that put them off." (p 96) This is a man who lives up to the evil in the middle of his name (which makes me wonder about Miss HOPE and the very HotELduLac).

Following this very frank courtship, Edith goes on the last silent boat across the grey lake. This is a chapter reeking in mythic metaphor, to the extent of describing Mr Neville as a "curiously mythological personage". When Edith regrets joining Neville on the boat ("Ships, she knew, were often used by painters as symbols of the soul, sometimes of the soul departing for unknown shores. Of death, in fact. Or, if not of death, not of anything very hopeful.") she reflects on the inappropriateness of the adage that the devil finds work for idle hands: "One cannot even rely on Satan to fulfil his obligations." Mr Neville tells her that "as to vice, there is plenty to be found if you know where to look" and when she replies that she never seems to find it he suggests "that is because you do not give yourself over wholeheartedly to the pursuit. But ... we are going to change all that." And then he proposes. And as they prepare to disembark he says in two beautiful double entendres: "We must get off, Edith. Give me your hand." This, the penultimate chapter, is beautifully written.

The whole book is beautiful. A gentle comedy of manners, well observed, has become a wonderfully Mephistophelean temptation.

Other brilliant lines:

  • "everything that Mrs Pusey had said so far was of the utmost triviality. Clearly there were depths here that deserved her prolonged attention." (p 40)
  • "The beautiful day had within it the seeds of its own fragility: it was the last day of summer." (p 67)
  • "There is something quite heartening about ... simple greed." (p 96)
  • "Do me a favour ...I do not have any plans. I never have any plans. I should have thought that was fairly obvious by now. I thought you were supposed to be a writer. Aren't you supposed to be good at observing human nature, or something?  I only ask because you sometimes strike me as being a bit thick." (p 144)

A fabulous book. July 2016; 184 pages

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

"Black Mischief" by Evelyn Waugh

I'm reading this because a few days ago the BBC described Waugh as one of our greatest novelists.

This is a mildly amusing comic novel which is set in an African coastal nation ruled over by an Emperor (the grandson of an adventurer) who has just won a civil war against his father; the soldiers are mostly 'ignorant savages' of different tribes. The book attempts to make you laugh by lampooning the racial stereotypes of the various people in the Empire. To a modern eye it is entirely tasteless. It casually uses a number of words that are offensive today.

The question is: does one attempt to judge this book by the standards of its own time, when such things were unremarkable, or by the standards of today? After all, Huck Finn has the character Jim, a runaway slave, who is referred to using a word that is unacceptable these days. Othello is racially abused, as is Shylock. If Shakespeare and Mark Twain can get away with it, why can't Evelyn Waugh? Does it depend on how good the art is?

Waugh pokes fun at everyone from dinner partying socialites in England to poor black women. But he doesn't really construct characters. Shakespeare's Shylock is a rounded character and has strengths and weaknesses: Shakespeare is both presenting a racial stereotype and questioning it. But Waugh seems to accept the stereotypes he presents. This is lazy humour, cheap humour, and casts doubt on Waugh's status as a great novelist, let alone one of the greatest.

There are moments of witty humour eg "Basil came in, so unlike the barrister of her dream that it required an effort to recognize him." This reminded me of the light comedy of Oscar Wilde in the Portrait of Dorian Gray. But it isn't as clever as Wilde. It certainly isn't nearly as funny as P G Wodehouse.

Waugh has written better stuff. A Handful of Dust is slightly racist and also full of insubstantial wit but there are serious, even black, undertones which are well-handled. The Loved One is mostly superficial and meaningless but inoffensive.

July 2016; 221 pages

Monday, 4 July 2016

"The Decipherment of Linear B" by John Chadwick

This is the classic story of how in 1952 an architect, Michael Ventris, working part-time, deciphered the inscriptions on some clay tablets found in Crete, and later in mainland Greece, to show that they were written in a syllabic script based on a pre-classical Greece. It is thus a mix of archaeology, philology,and code-breaking. The triumph was all the greater because, as Chadwick points out, a cryptanalyst at least knows what language the code was written in whilst the prevailing view at the time was that these tablets were written in almost any language rather than Greek!

The book details how Ventris worked on the code, how he overcame doubt and triumphed. The story is telescoped into a few short years because Ventris was killed in a road traffic accident on the A1 in 1956. The author collaborated with Ventris immediately after Ventris had made the first breakthrough so this is, as much as any book can be, an insider's point of view. And what makes it wonderful is that it is written in the beautifully understated style of the 1950s, grey, academic and bloodless.

And yet, something of the excitement of dry, grey, bloodless, academic research can be seen. The first words are: "The urge to discover secrets is deeply ingrained in human nature" (p 1). The story of the breaking of the code is likened to nuclear fission: "finally there comes a point when the experimenter feels solid ground beneath his feet: his hypotheses cohere, and fragments of sense emerge from their camouflage. The code 'breaks'. Perhaps this is best defined as the point where the likely leads appear faster than they can be followed up. It is like the initiation of a chain-reaction in atomic physics; once the critical threshold is passed, the reaction propagates itself. Only in the simplest experiments or codes does it complete itself with explosive violence." (p 67)

An interesting story about the emergence of ideas from liminality.

July 2016; 157 pages

"Consilience" by Edward O Wilson

This far-ranging and brilliantly written book pleads the cause that science should be united with the social sciences, and the humanities, and the arts, and even ethics and religion, on the basis of the scientific method. The thesis is that biology, which accepts that is is linked to chemistry and physics, is the basis for psychology through the evolution by natural selection within the human brain of epigenetic rules, and that scientific psychology is (or should be) the basis for sociology, anthropology and economics. Wilson is predominantly a socio-biologist and presents compelling evidence for his point of view. This book thus complements, supports and is supported by Steven Pinker's brilliant book The Blank Slate.

He starts by celebrating the power of science:  "The idea of the unity of science ... has been tested in acid baths of experiment and logic and enjoyed repeated vindication. It has suffered no decisive defeats. At least not yet." (p 3). To those who fear the 'mad scientist', variously mythologised as Frankenstein, the forbidden apple from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden, and Icarus, the ultimate in hubris, Wilson responds: "Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings." (p 5)

He believes that the romantics led the reaction against the Enlightenment ideal of consilience, the unit of knowledge, when  Rousseau "invented the deadly abstraction of the 'general will' ... the rule of justice agreed upon by assemblies of free people whose interest is only to serve the welfare of the society and of each person in it ... Those who do not conform to the general will ... are deviants subject to necessary force by the assembly. There is no other way to achieve a truly egalitarian democracy." (p 14) but he points out that  "The Enlightenment ... was less a determined swift river than a lacework of deltaic streams working their way along twisted channels" (p 21) and reminds us that "What counts most in the long haul of history is seminality, not sentiment." (p 22) "Reductionism, given its unbroken strong of successes ... may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge of the physical world." (p 31) "The cutting edge of science is reductionism ... It is the research strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrably complex systems." (p 58) The present situation is one in which the "natural sciences have expanded to reach the borders of the social sciences and humanities" (p 71)

Wilson is at one with Dennett is his claims that "Mind is a stream of conscious and subconscious experience. It is at root the coded representation of sensory impressions and the memory and imaginations of sensory impressions." (p 119) and that "Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of" networks of neurons. These "create scenarios that flow back and forth through time. The scenarios are a virtual reality." (p 120) He thus denies the Cartesian theatre: "Who or what within the brain monitors all this activity? No one. Nothing. The scenarios are not seen by some other part of the brain. They just are. ... There is no single stream of consciousness in which all information is brought together by an executive ego. There are instead multiple streams of activity, some of which contribute momentarily to conscious thought and then phase out. ... The mind is a self-organizing republic of scenarios that individually germinate, grow, evolve, disappear, and occasionally linger to spawn additional thought and physical activity." (p 120)

I think therefore I am? Wilson questions the identity of the Self, seeing it as an actor improvising: "The self, an actor in a perpetually changing drama, lacks full command of its actions." (p 131) Free will is an illusion: "We make decisions for reasons we can sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully. Ignorance of this kind is conceived by the conscious mind as uncertainty to be resolved; hence freedom of choice is ensured. An omniscient mind with total commitment to pure reason and fixed goals would lack free will." (p 131): this implies that an omniscient God could not have free will; this is a fascinating theological restriction on God that I need to think about.

He revisits the nature-nurture debate, accepting that culture affects us but claiming that culture is an amalgam of the evolution of epigenetic rules which are prescribed by genes. "We know that virtually all of human behaviour is transmitted by culture. We also know that biology has an important effect on the origin of culture and its transmission. The question remaining is how biology and culture interact." (p 138) "Culture is reconstructed each generation collectively in the minds of individuals ... culture can grow indefinitely large ... But the fundamental biasing influence of the epigenetic rules, being genetic and ineradicable, stays constant." (p 139). This creates an unchangeable human nature. He has a great example showing how nature and nurture interact in the arrowleaf plant which has arrowhead leaves on land, lily-pad leaves in shallow water, grass-like ribbon leaves in deep water. Similarly, humans genetically predisposed to be fat can be thin with a significant dieting regime and "Later-borns, who identify least with the roles and beliefs of their parents, tend to become more innovative and accepting of political and scientific revolutions than do first-borns. As a result they have, on average, contributed more than first-borns have to cultural change throughout history." (p 152)

Culture itself evolves and Wilson suggests that this is because cultural evolution can facilitate survival faster than genetic evolution, thus enabling faster adaptation to environmental change and potentially explaining the success of our species. "The more successful epigenetic rules have spread through the population along with the genes that prescribe the rules. As a consequence the human species has evolved genetically by natural selection in behaviour. ... Certain cultural norms also survive and reproduce better than competing norms ... Culture allows a rapid adjustment to changes in the environment through finely tuned adaptations." (p 140) Culture exists in other species: "Wild chimps regularly invent and use tools. And the particular kinds of artifacts they invent, just as in human culture, are often limited to local populations." (p 145). 

He casts a new light on rationality itself! "I suggest that rational choice is the casting about among alternative mental scenarios to hit upon the ones which, in a given context, satisfy the strongest epigenetic rules." (p 199) But epigenetic rules ("rules of thumb that allow organisms to find rapid solutions to problems encountered in the environment") (p 213) are "typically emotion driven" (p 214) so "Rational calculation is based on surges of competing emotions." (p 227)#

He is fascinating on a wide range of topics including pre-verbal communication which is probably "our primate heritage" and includes:
  • "a male pheromone concentrated in perspiration and fresh urine. Perceived variously as musk or sandalwood, it changes sexual attraction and warmth of mood during social contacts." (p 174)
  • Touching: strangers: arms only; other parts of body for more familiar acquaintances; more familiarity with opposite sex (p 174)
  • "Dilation of the pupils": greater in women (p 174)
  • "Pushing the tongue out and spitting are aggressive displays of rejection; flicking the tongue around the lips is a social invitation, used most commonly during flirtation" (p 174)
  • Close eyes & wrinkle nose: rejection (p 174)
  • "Opening the mouth while pulling down the corners of the mouth to expose the lower teeth is to threaten with contempt." (p 175)

"The optimum sexual instinct of men ... is to be assertive and ruttish, while that of women is to be coy and selective. Men are expected to be more drawn than women to pornography and prostitution. And in courtship, men are expected to stress exclusive sexual access and guarantees of paternity, while women consistently emphasize commitment of resources and material security." (p 187)
The theory of the family: "The basic assumption is evolution by natural selection" (p 214)
"Families are basically unstable, but the least so in those controlling high-quality resources. Dynasties ... arise in territories permanently rich in resources." (p 215)
"The closer the genetic relationships of the family members .. the higher the degree of cooperation." (p 215)
"The closer the genetic relationship of the family members, the lower the frequency of sexual conflict." (p 215)
"Breeding males invest less in offspring when paternity is uncertain. If the family consists of a single conjugal pair, and one of the parents is lost, the opposite-sex offspring compete with the surviving parent for breeder status. When the father dies, for example, a still fecund mother is likely to enter into conflict with a son over the status of a mate he may newly acquire, and a son is likely to discourage his mother from establishing a new sexual relationship." (p 215)
"Stepfamilies are less stable than biologically intact families." (p 215)
"Reproduction within a family ... is increasingly shared when there is an improvement in the alternative option for subordinate members to disperse and start families of their own. Such forbearance is greatest of all when the members are genetically very close and when the cooperating individuals are siblings rather than parents and offspring." (p 215)
Economists tend to use "folk psychology" (p 223) Their "principle of rational choice" assumes "narrow self-interest" but people are also "variously altruistic, loyal, spiteful, and masochistic." (p 224)

"The arts are not solely shaped by errant genius out of historical circumstances and idiosyncratic personal experience. The roots of that inspiration date back in deep history to the genetic origins of the human brain, and are permanent." (p 242)

"Either ethical precepts, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience or else they are human inventions." (p 265) But if ethical rules "increased the survival and reproductive success of those who conformed" then epigenetic ethical rules could have evolved. (p 275)

"Rarely do you see an argument that opens with the simple statement: This is my starting point and it could be wrong." (p 268)

Pascal's wager: I might as well believe: if I am right I get eternity in heaven, if I am wrong I lose nothing. This could be turned around: "If fear and hope and reason dictate that you must accept the faith, do so, but treat this world as if there is none other." (p 274)

The naturalistic fallacy (to go from is to ought) is itself a fallacy: "To translate is into ought makes sense if we attend to the objective meaning of ethical precepts ... they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates, the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are willing to accept themselves for the common good." (p 278)
"One hunter considers breaking away from the others to look for an antelope on his own. If successful he will gain a large quantity of meat and hide ... But he knows from experience that his chances of success alone are very low ... In addition ... he will suffer animosity from the others for lessening their own prospects." (p 281) therefore those humans who cooperate have greater reproductive success and cooperation evolves. Therefore the prisoner's dilemma can be solved if "Honor does exist among thieves" (p 281)
"I found it hard to accept that our deepest beliefs were set in stone by agricultural societies of the eastern Mediterranean more than two thousand years ago." (p 4)

At then end he offers two warnings. 

First: we are destroying our environment. "At best an environmental bottleneck is coming in the twenty-first century." (p 320) "Economic miracles ... occur most often when countries consume not only their own material resources, including oil, timber, water, and agricultural produce, but those of other countries as well." (p 325) Life is becoming increasingly fragile:
"The more knowledge people acquire, the more they are able to increase their numbers and to alter the environment, whereupon the more they need new knowledge just to stay alive." (p 302)
"Greed demands an explanation." (p 302)

Secondly, we are about to become in charge of our own evolution.
"Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, is about to decommission natural selection, the force that made us. ... Soon we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become. Our childhood having ended, we will hear the true voice of Mephistopheles." (p 309)

This is an amazing book. July 2016; 333 pages 

Friday, 1 July 2016

"The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant

The is the story of Dinah, the only girl born to Jacob who also fathered Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Isaachar, Zebulun, Joseph (of the coat of many colours, yes, it gets a mention) and later Benjamin, the twelve tribes, by his two wives (sisters) and their slave-girls. When she grows up, Dinah falls for a handsome Hivite prince call Shechem and they sleep together. Simeon and Levi demand that all the Hivites be circumcised, which they agree to, and then "two days later, while they were still in great pain" Simeon and Levi massacre the Hivites, including Shechem, and take Dinah back. That seems to be the last of Dinah in the Biblical account but in this book she curses her family and flees with her husband's mother to Egypt where she has her husband's child and more adventures until she dies. All in all it is not a flattering portrait of the start of the chosen people.

There are bits of this book which are a bit blockbuster-like: there is a large cast, many of whom cannot be fully characterised, and a lot of action. Dinah becomes a midwife, like her aunty Rachel, and there is a lot of menstruation and childbirth; there is a strong femininist perspective about this book. It was well written but there were parts where I struggled to stay interested.

July 2016; 384 pages