About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Life of Alcibiades" by E F Benson

Alcibiades was such a flamboyant and important part of the history of Athens when it was experiencing its golden age that I was surprised to find this rather old biography the only one available (although a new one is being published on 4th August this year). It is by E F Benson who also wrote the Mapp and Lucia books. It is 'of its time' so that the homosexuality prevalent in Athens is a love whose name Benson scarcely dares mention: it is the "abnormality which was the normal condition in nearly all Greek states of this century."

Alcibiades was a rich nobleman in democratic Athens. Orphaned at three he was fostered by the great Pericles, prime minister of Athens for 30 years. Alcibiades was the most spoiled playboy, drinking and whoring with the best of them. He was beautiful. He sponsored seven chariot teams in the Olympics and came 1st, 2nd and 4th. He became a soldier and was rescued in battle from likely death by his best mate Socrates who really really fancied him. As a politician he did his best to persuade Athens to send an expedition to Sicily and, when they did, became one of the generals leading it. But when he was gone he was accused of profaning the Eleusinian mysteries and a ship was sent to arrest him. He escaped, sailing to Sparta, the enemy of Athens. Here he became traitor, telling Sparta exactly how they could defeat Athens. When the King went off to follow the battle plans Alcibiades had drawn up, A repaid the Spartans' hospitality by cuckolding the King. He had therefore to leave Sparta. He became involved in the endless naval battles in the Med, the Aegean and the Black Sea and in the three way diplomacy between Athens, Sparta, and Persia. He was reconciled with Athens and led them to victory after victory on the seas. But he failed to prevent Sparta allying itself with Persia; he became imprisoned by a Persian satrap and had to escape. Finally, after a naval defeat suffered by an inexperienced Admiral appointed by Alcibiades, Athens told him to sling his hook and he went off to Thrace to found an independent kingdom there. It was in the bay beneath his castle that Athens suffered her final calamitous naval defeat which led to the Spartan victory in the war, Alcibiades slipped off yet again to a Persian hideaway but he was discovered and assassinated by Persians at the instigation of the King of Sparta who was still sore about the bastard child he had to look after.

What a life!

Some bits:

  • When Pericles was followed home by a man shouting insults, having arrived at home and realising it was already dark he sent a slave out with a torch to light the man all the way home. (p 27)
  • Benson quotes Nepos saying "In him nature seems to have tried what she could do." (p 28)
  • "Vicious, insolent, adorable, detestable, brilliant and fickle, with the face and body of a god" (pp 28 - 29)
  • Benson also quotes Hesiod saying "Sweat is the threshold of many virtues" (p 31)
  • Perciles passed a law decreeing that no free-born Athenian could marry anyone but another free-corn Athenian ... and then fell for foreigner Aspasia who could only become his mistress and mother of his bastard son. (p 35)
  • "It must have been most trying to the temper to be the wife of Socrates." (p 47)
  • "The flesh ... warred against the spirit; the two were like a pair of ill-matched horses harnessed to a chariot ... and the wicked black horse of the flesh had to be tamed, and its wanton desires beaten out of it" (p 49)
  • "men blindfolded and groping in a delirious darkness" (p 91) 
  • "to drain the pond ... and leave Sparta gasping like a stranded fish." (p 96)
  • "no more a debate than is the squeak of a rabbit in the teeth of a weasel" (p 107)
  • "his object being ... first to produce chaos out of existing order, and then a new order, with himself at the head, out of chaos." (p 138)
  • "No man has ever lived who is consistent with himself; he is a polity of conflicting and contradictory motives which somehow he grafts on to the stock of his individual entity." (p 154)


One wonderful spell-check typo: the "status quo ante helium" instead of the "status quo ante bellum".

Overall this is a book 'of its time'. It is more a historical novel than a history: Benson works with a few sources and manages to divine the character and motivations of his hero. There is quite a lot of apology: the whole gay thing is mutated from what Benson regards as bestial passion into a chaste and platonic adoration of beauty; here Benson has no evidence other than his own prejudices. Were we to do the same we might assume that Benson, who never married, was himself gay but repressed what he saw as wicked and wanton desires. That would be sad if that were the case.

It is well written and enjoyable. July 2017; 277 pages

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

"Edward II" by Christopher Marlowe

I saw this play at the Tristan Bates Theatre on Tuesday 29th Septmber 2017. It was performed by Lazarus Theatre Group. I also saw them perform Marlowe's Tamburlaine. I review their production at the end of this review of the script.

Edward II was the probably gay king who doted on Piers Gaveston which made all the nobles angry because Gaveston lorded himself over them and enriched himself at their expense. So the Barons, including Roger Mortimer, rebelled and, after one defeat which led to many of them being executed as traitors, captured Gaveston and lynched him. Ed II found himself some new favourites, the Spencers, and bunged Mortimer in the Tower but he escaped and fled to France where he met Queen Isabella, Edward's wife, who was on an embassy to her brother the King of France to try to negotiate a peace treaty. Mortimer and Isabella began an affair and invaded England in the name of Edward's son, prince Edward, later Edward III. Ed II was captured and famously done to death in Berkeley Castle by having a red hot poker thrust into his anus.

Marlowe was a brilliant playwright who was also responsible for Dr Faustus. The difference between Marlowe and Shakespeare? Marlowe's iambic pentameters are almost all end-stopped. He has very few caesuras and even fewer enjambments. This makes his verse a little less natural, a little more boring. But he is still a maestro.

The original manuscript is not divided into acts but into 25 scenes. Some of these scenes are brief, a few very long. Many of the scenes in the middle of the play are rather busy with plot: Marlowe does have to tell quite a complicated history of battles won and lost and allegiances changed. But the start of the play, with Edward's love for Gaveston, and the end where Edward is forced to abdicate, is mistreated in prison and is finally murdered is brilliant.

The play opens with Gaveston, having returned from exile and newly arrived in London, reading (presumably rereading) a letter from the King Edward II summoning him back from banishment. He is petitioned by three poor men for jobs and treats them arbitrarily. He doesn't want poor men but poets and musicians:
"My men like satyrs grazing on the lawn
Shall with their goat-feet dance an antic hay [a grotesque country dance];

Sometime a lovely boy in Dian's shape,

With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive tree
To hide those parts that men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring."

Scene 4 starts with the nobles signing a petition for Gaveston's rebanishment but they are interrupted by EdII and G entering and sitting side by side on thrones. As Lancaster observes:
"Your grace doth well to place him by your side,
For nowhere else the new Earl is so safe."
The Lords basic problem seems to be that G is a commoner. They force Edward to banish G again.

Now the Lords have gone and King Ed is left with G. His queen comes in. This is an interesting three parter. Gaveston accuses Isabella of being involved with Mortimer. Then Edward decides that Isabella is indeed "too familiar with that Mortimer" and so he tells her she can't have him if he can't have Gaveston; she has to reconcile the lords or be banished from the court.
Isabella says to Gaveston:
"Villain, 'tis thou that robb'st me of my lord."
and he replies (with an interesting variant of the thou/ you)
"Madam, 'tis you that rob me of my lord."

But Isabella is forced to beg the Barons to unexile G. They do.

Scene 6 starts with the King and court eagerly awaiting the return of G.
"They love me not that hate my Gaveston".
When he rocks up Edward greets him with words of love; the lords 'welcome' G by scornfully reciting his titles. He gets mad, insulting them as beef-eaters (and therefore slow, ox-witted, a favourite French jibe)
"Base leaden earls that glory in your birth,
Go sit at home and eat your tenants' beef"
There's going to be war.

The Barons force the King to flee Tyneside and capture Gaveston as he heads for Scarborough. They sentence him to death.
"I thank you all, my lords; then I perceive
That heading is one, and hanging is the other,

And death is all."
But the Earl of Pembroke's men rescue him but Warwick then unrescues him and lynches him.

On hearing the news that G is dead, Edward mourns:
"O, shall I speak, or shall I sigh and die?"
Spencer (Jr) persuades Ed to swear vengeance. The war is not yet over. After a battle the Barons are captured. Edward has won. Edmund D of Kent, the King's brother, attempts to broker peace but Edward orders him away and sentences Warwick and Lancaster to death and Mortimer to the Tower. But Mortimer escapes and flees with Kent to France.
"Fair blows the wind for France; blow, gentle gale,"
In France they meet Isabella and Prince Edward, Isabella starts her affair with Mortimer and they reinvade England, defeating and capturing Edward in a monastery, disguised as a monk.
"But what is he, whom rule and empery
Have not in life or death made miserable?"
Edward is told he must go to Kenilworth. He replies:
"Must! 'Tis somewhat hard when kings must go.
...
A litter hast thou? Let me have a hearse,

And to the gates of hell convey me hence,

Let Pluto's bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon's shore"
The soon to be executed king's men mourn:
"We are deprived the sunshine of our life.
Make for a new life, man; throw up thy eyes,

And heart and hand to heaven's immortal throne,

Pay nature's debt with cheerful countenance."
Scene 20: Leicester is trying to persuade Edward to resign his crown. Edward is bemoaning his captivity:
"But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

My nobles rule; I bear the name of King. 

I wear the crown, but am controlled by them 
...
Whilst am lodged within this cave of care"
And he argues back and forth, taking the crown off and putting it back on again, begging:
"let me be King till night 
...

But day's bright beams doth vanish fast away."
At last he abdicates, saying:
"Commend me to my son, and bid him rule
Better than I."
Berkeley appears with a letter to take Edward to his castle.
"Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial".

Scene 24: Edward is being kept in a very damp and smelly dungeon:
"the sink
Wherein the filth of all the castle falls

...

And there in mire and puddle have I stood
This ten days' space; and lest that I should sleep,
One plays continually on a drum.
...
My mind's distempered and my body's numbed,
And whether I have limbs or no, I know not.
O would my blood dropped out from every vein
As doth this water from my tattered robes."
tormented by his jailers. Lightborne arrives and murders the king with a red hot spit newly from the fire. Edward screams and dies.

Scene 25: Back at the palace. The news arrives. King Edward III is cross. He tells his mum
"Forbid me not to weep; he was my father,
And had you loved him half so well as I,

You could not bear his death so patiently."
and then he sentences Mortimer to beheading and Isabella to the Tower
"Weep not for Mortimer,
That scorns the world, and as a traveller

Goes to discover countries yet unknown."


The Lazarus production reduced the play to 90 minutes by cutting out the Spencers and the bit where Mortimer goes to the Tower but escapes (with Kent) and the bit where Isabella goes to France, meets up with Mortimer and returns at the head of an army and the bit where Edward is captured disguised as a monk. This certainly simplifies things! It still leaves all the flip-flopping politics of Isabella, forced to defend her husband's boyfriend and managing to persuade Mortimer to rescind the second decree of banishment, and the turning of Kent. It also simplified the capture and execution of Gaveston.

What was left was a play ostensibly about a King, deposed because he loved a man, and it was billed as Marlowe's gay play. But Marlowe offers much more than that. It has been said that all of Marlowe's plays are about a man overreaching himself. Edward II's 'fatal flaw' was not his love for a man. At one point the elder Mortimer (in this production they were brothers rather than uncle and nephew) reminds his nephew of all the great men who had lovers including Alexander, Hercules, and Socrates; it would seem that Edward II's problem is that he is not a great man. EdII flings titles, honours and riches at Gaveston (and when attempting reconciliation with the rebellious barons he bestows honours on them too); it is his weakness that is the cause of his downfall. His tragedy is perhaps that he doesn't really want to be king. What he wants is his lover. And it is he who oscillates. The ostensible changing allegiances of Isabella, Mortimer and Kent are merely external signs of the terrible wavering to and fro of EdII. Even at the end he tries to cling to his crown. And perhaps a sub-theme of this play is that if you would sacrifice all for love, as Edward does, then make sure your love is worthy. This play showed very well that Gaveston was a spoilt little boy who throws piss at the Archbishop of Canterbury and who flaunts his riches in the face of poor men (although the scene at the start with the three men seeking employment was not included in this production). It isn't really about being gay. It is about being weak.

The murder of EdII was superbly done. After the long sequence in which he begs to keep his crown he is placed face down on a table. All the lords (who have stripped to their underpants, put on plastic aprons and grotesque masks) then hold him down. His underpants are then stripped off and a large mace is thrust towards his anus. The lights go off and he screams; there is the sound of something splattering. The lights come on again and Ed is naked, lying on his side, curled into a foetus; blood is pouring from the ceiling splattering him and the floor. He stays like that until the end of the play (when he is given a towel to protect his modesty has he takes the bow). A stunning end.

The final scene of this play has the new King, Edward III, denouncing and condemning his mother and her lover, Mortimer. This was done in the Lazarus production by a telephone call which was very clever (I wish the acoustics had been a little better).

Incidentally, the story of Edward II and his possible escape from imprisonment rather than his horrible death forms part of the background to Robert Goddard's Name to a Face, a thriller with several historical back stories. Roger Mortimer's fascinating life story is brilliantly told in Ian Mortimer's biography The Greatest Traitor. Mortimer (Ian not Roger) outlines his theory that Edward II escaped execution in Medieval Intrigue. The brilliant life of Edward III, the son of EdII and Isabella, is told in a wonderful Ian Mortimer biography: The Perfect King



Sunday, 23 July 2017

"The Fifth Gospel" by Ian Caldwell

Ian Caldwell co-wrote The Rule of Four, an exciting thriller based around the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an obscure Renaissance erotic dream-work.

Father Alexander is a Greek Catholic priest who lives in the Vatican with his son; his wife has gone missing. He receives a phone call from his brother Simon, a Roman Catholic (and therefore unmarried) priest who summons him to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's private gardens, where there lies the body of Ugo, a man they both worked with, who was preparing an exhibition which would authenticate the Shroud of Turin (the radiocarbon dating that exposed it as a mediaeval forgery is explained away as contamination) and reveal the Fifth Gospel. It seems that someone is prepared to kill within the Vatican in order to prevent the exhibition taking place.

This is a thriller. The plot sounds like the Da Vinci code. The conventions of the genre are observed. But...

I truly believed in these characters. The relationship between the protagonist and his son allow the author to show that violence is terrifying and destabilising. The human side of the priesthood is brilliantly shown both here and in his relationships with the other workers in the Vatican, many of them drivers or security staff or gardeners, men with whom Father Alexander grew up, men with whom he shares memories of boyhood and football and girlfriends. There is a continual concern about making ends meet in a city state where there is no tax and subsidised food but where the wages are paltry. The religious side is beautifully done as well. Father Alexander shows intense compassion and the acceptance of human frailty; it is his overwhelming love for his family that drives him to do the things he does.

There is one stunning moment in which ordinary people and theology are stupendously mixed. Father Alexander recalls a boyhood excursion to Rome to see an illegal bare knuckle fight. It is sleazy, sweaty, there is a crowd of young kids hooked on blood. "The children were stretching out their arms to touch the fighters who passed by, grabbing the hems of their shorts as if they were a disease they wanted to catch." (p 152) This is a brilliant contrast to the austere world of the Vatican, especially when it resonates with the idea of pilgrims touching relics or lepers touching the hem of Jesus' cloak. Fabulous!

Great moments:

  • "Consciences must not get as dirty as bedrooms or dishes ... since they take much less time to clean." (p 1)
  • "The darkest mistakes can be forgiven, but they can never be undone." (p 1)
  • "Only at the very end of his life did he get a promotion, and it was the kind that came with wings and a harp." (p 2)
  • "After Father died, she told me that it felt strange to have hands anymore, what with no one to hold them." (p 2)
  • "Every Catholic boy, on the worst nights of his life, goes to bed wondering if animals like us are really worth the dirt God shaped us from." (p 3)
  • "The priests reconsecrated St Peter's, the way they always do when a pilgrim jumps. But no one can reconsecrate a child." (p 10)
  • "When I told Peter we were safe, I wasn't even being hopeful. I was lying." (p 58)
  • "All Christians believe the business of human life is to pay down the debt on old sins." (p 61)
  • "Different. He knows this word. A slinky synonym for worse." (p 89)
  • "John's word true almost always means the invisible realm of the eternal." (p 121)
  • "Life has taught this boy to string nets beneath his hopes." (p 184)
  • "He rushes to answer the door and it's like watching a train careen into a dark tunnel." (p 264)

A brilliantly conceived thriller.

Another Vatican-based thriller is Conclave by Robert Harris.



Wednesday, 19 July 2017

"The Trowie Mound Murders" by Marsali Taylor

This is the second book in the Shetland series starring intrepid sailor and part time sleuth Cass Lynch, her blond Norse God Anders and his pet Rat, DI Gavin Macrae and old Shetlander Magnie and all the other villagers, some good, some sinister. It follows the excellent Death on a Longship and precedes the utterly brilliant A Handful of Ash

Two mysterious boats come to the marina at Brae. David and Madge in the magnificent but unnamed motorboat annoy Cass and arouse her suspicions with all their questions; Peter and Sandra in the yacht want to investgate the archaeology of the Trowie Mound, and ancient neolithic earthwork. But Peter and Sandra go missing and then, one night, their yacht sails off into the night and disappears and Cass hears the haunting cry of the Selkie out at sea. Somehow all this is linked to the theft of artworks from houses which are being exported via Shetland to the Faroes and further afield. And who is making the pornographic films at the deserted house?

A brilliant murder mystery with a completely logical solution and a chase at the end. It is the realism of the characters that really makes this series stand out from others. When Cass is shut up in a dark space you can really feel her fear of the dark. The police share with her what they can but the reader can share with Cass the thrill of working out whodunnit without any artificial separation between forensic evidence and psychology. But best of all is the thorough grounding in the Shetlands. The scenery is beautifully explained and the people are real. Major characters have mixed motives and flaws. Kids are kids and grown ups are kids grown up. The pain of bereavement is honestly felt. As the book nears its climax we go to an agricultural show and it is just like any other agricultural show and the things that happen there are trivial and real and powerful and true.

Some moments:

  • A great first line: "'I know how you got that scar', the boy said, eyes travelling along the ragged indentation that ran across my cheek." (p 1)
  • "It was ill luck to go round against the sun in Shetland." (p 159)
  • "A blackbird shrilled his alarm call from the twisted sycamore at the back of the house." (p 160)
  • "I let out a relieved breath that I hadn't known I'd been holding." (p 161)
  • "I think you are half-mongoose, like the old English stories by the grandfather f the man who makes the cakes." (p 193)
  • "A west Highlands-style burn tumbled down the hill, wooded by spiky-branched electricity pylons." (p 201)
  • "The yellow boots fidgeted like a pony who's been asked to stand still." (p 214)


Some of the chapters are introduced by a Shetland proverb of which my favourites were (which I have translated into English):

  • A silk Monday makes a canvas week.
  • The stone that lies not in your path breaks not your toes. (Mind your own business)
  • It's not for the rabbit's good to be over friendly with weasels
  • What's foreborne should always be forsworn
  • He's the main string of the fiddle
  • Angry folk are always worse than angry cattle
  • Seldom comes a dove from a crow's nest

A wonderful book. July 2017; 327 pages

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

"When you are engulfed in flames" by David Sedaris

This is a book of short, humorous, essays which reflect on the oddnesses in the way we humans interact with one another. In some ways these are like the scripts for a stand-up comedian of the 'observational humour' variety. There aren't many jokes, the humour depends on a slow build. I heard Sedaris read one of these stories on the radio and I laughed aloud several times. Although so far as I can tell what he read was word for word identical with how it appears, I only laughed aloud once or twice at all the other stories in the book. I guess it is the way he tells them. Or perhaps reading is different.

Given the nature of the stories it is difficult to select single lines that give any idea of how funny Sedaris can be but here are a few:

  • "A bow tie announces to the world that you can no longer get an erection." (p 57)
  • "I wanted my first time to be special, meaning that I would know the other guy's name" (p 65)
  • "Mess with me, and I'll stick my foot so far up your ass I'll lose my shoe." (p 79)
  • "'Most people, most humans, receive a present and say thank you', I told her
  •        'Not when they get garbage like that, they don't'" (p 95)
  • "here the pathologists used hedge clippers to snip through rib cages." (p103)
  • "It's funny the things that run through your mind when you're sitting in your underpants in front of a pair of strangers." (p 113)
  • "One gets an idea of the tireless, hardworking immigrant who hits the ground running - or, more often, driving." (p 162)
  • "Take the crows that descend each winter on the surrounding fields and pluck the eyes out of newborn lambs." (p 170)
  • "If it played non-stop in a skanky-smelling dorm room, he's got it." (p 173)
  • "I could light a cigarette without thinking. Now I don't light it and think so hard about what I'm missing that there isn't room for anything else." (p 283)

"I can't make out the list of ingredients, but they taste vaguely of penis" (p 287)

July 2017; 22 stories; 310 pages

I have also read Let's explore diabetes with owls by the same author.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"That's what brothers do" by Derekica Snake

Teenage Brant offers himself to the loan shark that wants to make his sister into a prostitute because their father has fallen behind on loan repayments. As Brant embarks on five years as a porn star and rent boy he comes to fall in love with his pimp. After his apprenticeship Brant starts to work for the Organization but his beauty and talents soon endear him to the chief gangster whose sex toy he becomes.

This novel is essentially gay porn doubling as wish fulfilment. The hero Brant is both beautiful and intelligent. There are explicit sex scenes. There are some very mixed-up emotions. Brant is beaten and whored out by a vicious gangster; Brant adores him. Most of the characters are brutal thugs or victims; Brant is usually submissive victim but can turn thug. The author's psychological insight seems to be that people can be trained like unruly puppies and that when, once beaten or cowed into submission, they lick the hand that feeds them the expression in their eyes is one of love.

It is a self-published book and it suffered from the lack of a good copy editor: there were misspellings and some sentences that didn't make sense. And perhaps curtail the author's use of the expression 'toasty warm'.

There were some haunting scenes:

  • The confrontation in which Brant offers to be a prostitute in the place of his sister
  • The family reunion where Brant's past is revealed to those of his sisters who were unaware of it; their shocked reactions.
  • The lovers' tiff after which Brant is left in the street: "Now, I think I know what a family dog feels like when it gets dumped off on the side of the road." (p 58)

There were also potentially brilliant scenes:

  • Brant's first porn film. Up to this point, so far as the reader is aware, Brant has never experienced gay sex. In the film he is penetrated both orally and anally. This must have been a traumatic experience yet the author is more interested in the plot.
  • The family reunion. His sisters have just found out that Brant has been a male whore for five years so that they could live normal lives. Yes, they might be disgusted but this should have been a lot more grand opera than the little tiffs we had here.

All of the mixed up morals needed far more exploration than given here.

I did at one stage think that this was a retelling of the Faust story. Perhaps it was. It could have been a fantastic story; I read it on the basis of the premise and the premise is great. But I was too disappointed by the potential not met to enjoy it properly.

With a less perfect central protagonist and a slower telling of some of the key moments this could have been a great book.

July 2017, 250 pages



Friday, 14 July 2017

"Portrait of a Man" by George Perec

Quoted from  Michael Leiris 'Manhood': "Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and, like some, I have more or less returned from it."

What a stunning start: "Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like the trails of slightly glinting snot ... I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned." (p 29 but it's the first paragraph).

Gaspard forges art works for Madera and Rufus; he has been their forger for twelve years. But this last commission, the Protrait of a Man, the Condottiere, has driven him to question what hhe has been doing. Can he stop being a fake, a creator of fakes, and find authenticity? In murder?

Some great lines:

  • "Behind you are masks. In you there is nothing. A desire to carry on living. A wish to die." (p 51)
  • "Everything you do has a price, you should know that. ... Everything has to be paid for and the cost is often high." (p 52)
  • "Wasn't it the case that all he had done for years was to glide over the surface of things?" (p 55)
  • "The bedazzlement of life." (p 60)
  • "His wrinkled and calloused hands lay on the arm of the chair and sometimes shook a little." (p 74)
  • "the appallingly slow agony of living a life that was no longer of any use." (p 75)
  • "He had pushed his plate away with a gesture of great weariness." (p 76)
  • "The life that for a moment he had thought he held in his hands, that compact, dense sum of collected memories, his quest, had shattered into a million pieces, into self-directing meteorites, each with its own life from now on, maybe still connected to his own but ruled by mysterious laws whose constants he did not know. Once again memories sharpened and then sometimes suddenly exploded and split up into a myriad impressions, into fragments of life it would have been fruitless to try to make sense of, give direction to, or separates from each other. Splinters and shreds. As if the landscape of his past life had just suffered a cataclysm. As if he no longer had the world in his arms. Did not yet have the world in his arms." (p 85)
  • "This deep chaos was like the chords played by an orchestra before the conductor mounts the podium." (p 85)
  • "In the half-light, to begin with, he had used each hand to put the glove on the other." (p 87)
  • "Blood, black and warm, as alive as a snake or a squid, trickling between the chair legs." (p 88)
  • "The tally was easy. Zero plus zero. That's all." (p 107)


Densely written beautiful prose. July 2017, 169 pages

Monday, 10 July 2017

"The Colour of Blood" by Brian Moore

On the very first page there is an assassination attempt on the Cardinal of a communist-controlled Eastern European country. Narrated from the Cardinal's viewpoint, the reader follows the Cardinal as he is arrested and escapes. But who has arrested him? And who is trying to kill him? And why? And why now? And what has this to do with the proposals from some of his priests that the church should be organising protests against the regime.

A brilliant, fast-paced thriller deep in Graham Greene and Hitchcock if not Kafka territory.

"The chickens, pecking dementedly, darted this way and that with worried, nervous looks." (p 31)
"The sun rose in the sky behind a gauzy morning mist." (p 32)
"The Colonel did not finish the sentence but, instead, drew on his cigarette and expelled smoke in a burst as though he were miming an explosion." (p 38)
"A wish granted is a wish destroyed." (p 107)
"I am alone now: not hidden but hiding." (p 107)
"The truck driver's head and shoulders were silhouetted suddenly in the theatre of the opened truck doorway." (p 119)

Wonderful from start to finish. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1987.

July 2017; 191 pages

Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Death on a Longship" by Marsali Taylor

Chronologically the first Cassandre Lynch murder mystery. The first one I read was the third in the series: "A Handful of Ash" which is brilliant. I have now also read another stunner: the second in the series: The Trowie Mound Murders

Cass arrives back in Shetland as skipper of a replica long boat being used to make a film about Vikings; the star is doubled in the action scenes by her own twin sister who is having an affair with Cassie's dad who wants to cover Shetland with wind turbines. When Cass discovers a body on board her ship whodunnit? Was it someone from the film, or someone wanting to sabotage the film, or a wind farm protester, of Cassie's dad? And why had Cassie's handsome Norwegian shipmate deserted his watch on the night of the murder?

And will Cass, haunted by the death of a boyfriend, ever get a man?

My only problem with this book is that I read it out of order. When you have a series with long-running characters it is difficult to maintain a full list of suspects: those that appear in later books are more or less ruled out as the killer in an earlier book.

The wonderful thing about Marsali Taylor's work isn't the lyrical descriptions of Shetland scenery or the cleverly constructed plot but the reality of the characters. Cass is a character to whom we can all relate: coping with unparently parents, haunted by the past, half envying the settled life of her married friends but lured by the freedom of the sea, attracted to others but unwilling to commit. The only character I hated was Kenneth, the teacher (I used to be a teacher), about whom nothing good can be said: even he must have had a redeeming feature!

Some fantastic moments of misdirection too. I loved the Anders/ Michael relationship.

I have to source book 2.

Some great lines

  • "His nose was slightly skafe, as if he had fallen out of too many trees in his youth." (p 7) Who needs to have a translation? I just wondered if it was related to 'skew-whiff'.
  • "It wasn't a propitious week, with the silver disk of the moon draining away." (p 10)
  • "His sour mouth stretched into what, for him, could pass as a smile." (p 70)
  • "Her gaze drifted over my shoulder again, then sharpened to flint." (p 70)
  • "He had that annoying teacher's habit of repeating everything." (p 74)
  • "I heard their penguin cackle echo round the room." (p 100)
  • "I'd been too busy looking at rigging to distinguish ropes." (p 125)
  • "If you left him alone to work at his own pace, you could bet your last mooring rope on his answer." (p 127)
  • "That is like saying you do not need to listen to music. You will not die without it, but you may want to listen. Life is much more full with it." (p 136)
  • "He had the makings of a very good sailor if he managed to stay undrowned." (p 177)
An excellent book.

Friday, 7 July 2017

"The Yellow Dog" by Georges Simenon

Needless to say, a Maigret novel, atmospherically set in a French coastal town. The town is dominated by a quadrumvirate who meet in the local cafe every night and from time to time enjoy the services of the waitress: the Mayor, the Doctor (who doesn't practice), the ex-Journalist and the Wine Dealer. The last is mysteriously shot in the stomach and there is a yellow dog skulking around at the time. is it the vagrant with the larger feet who is to blame?

I think the appeal of Simenon is that he can use a few sentences to swiftly create a mood or a character:

  • "Here and there a scrap of paper scuttles along the ground."
  • "Maigret seemed to have the awkward manner of a petit bourgeois visiting an aristocratic house."


It is sparse and underwritten but that is how it achieves its bleak mood.

A nice bit of noir. July 2017; 134 pages

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

"Milton in America" by Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd is a prolific author of many, many books. Those I have read (links are to reviews in this blog) are:

Fiction:
  • Hawksmoor: stunningly brilliant; spooky; dark
  • The Last testament of Oscar Wilde
  • Chatterton: flitting in between London 1770 and London 1856 this is a thoroughly enjoyable read about reality and forgery, plagiarism and originality, truth and lies
  • The House of Doctor Dee: a timeshifting novel that didn't quite work for me
  • Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem
  • The Lambs of London: vary enjoyable with some beautifully subtle dialogue
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein: an interesting conceit but rather heavy going though with a nice twist at the end.
Non fiction:
  • Thames: an immense tome: great as reference but not to read (there are several pages just listing all the St Mary's churches on the banks of the Thames!)
  • Dickens: a superb biography
  • Blake: an immensely thorough yet at the same time readable and indeed enjoyable biography
  • Chaucer
  • Wilkie Collins: a brilliant bijou biography
  • Newton
This is a strange book. The first half ('Eden') is narrated in part by Goosequill, a poor London boy whom Milton hires as secretary and guide (Milton being blind) and in part by letters from Milton to an English acquaintance: there is a certain amount of comic potential derived from the fact that Milton regards Goosequill as a clown and a fool whereas the reader sees Goosequill save Milton's life in a shipwreck and tenderly care for him and put up with his tantrums . M & G go to America and find a puritan village which elects to be lead by the famous John Milton and to call itself New Milton

Halfway through the book, in the 'Fall', Milton wanders off and, in mystical scenes, appears to break his leg, be cared for by the Indian heathen savages he so detests and regain his sight. On his retirn his puritan zeal is intensified. Where he had been intolerant not he is bigoted. The target for his wrath is a bearby village of Papists who get on with the local Indians and preach tolerance, as opposed to the narrow-minded puritans of New Milton. Goosequill does his best to mediate but Milton's fierce hatred of anything that is not his version of the truth whips up the flames of war. This second section of the book is mostly narrated in the third person omniscient point of view.

Peter Ackroyd's prose is brilliant but difficult to capture in quotes. His true genius is in the way his characters interact. The way in which Goosequill tells his story to his new wife, with various asides about babies and making love, and her 'get along with you' rebuttals, is a masterclass.

  • "He was all toughened and weathered, and I suspected that there was a great deal of ale within him somewhere." (p 35)
  • "I tremble to think of the sordid sperm engendered by their lustiness". (p 95)
  • "If he had worked me harder, there could have been a burial service." (p 119)
  • "They do not worship their god because they say that, being god, he will do them no harm." (p 134)
  • "Where there is glory, there must also be terror, where there is reverence, there must be fear." (p 145)
  • "Even Gods have lived in the woods ... does not Dante write that the trees contain the souls of suicides? ... In the dark wood of this world I lost my way." (p 198)
  • "The blind man wandered ahead and, weeping, through the dark wood took his solitary way" (last line; echoes of Dante; and, of course, Paradise being truly lost).


A fascinating story about how intolerance breeds tragedy. I suspect that the way Milton muddles up racism with religious intolerance and the way he confuses heretical religious practices with sodomy is intended to resonate with us today; Ackroyd is using the religious battles of yesteryear as an allegory of our own intolerances and bigotries today.

July 2017;

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

"Seven brief lessons on Physics" by Carlo Ravelli

This was the last book read by my dad before he died. He was an electronics engineer all his life. He worked on radar during World War II. Later he worked on the very first computers, meeting Alan Turing and Norbert Weiner. After that he researched radiocarbon dating, discovering that a fragment of wood found on Mount Ararat wasn't old enough to come from the Ark, and finally he worked as part of the team that created radio-controlled clocks.

In fewer than 80 pages, Rovelli talks about General Relativity, Quantum Physics, Cosmology, Particle Physics, Loop Quantum Physics, Thermodynamics and the nature of time, and Ourselves; I have taught Physics for 33 years and I have been a human for even longer and yet I still, repeatedly, learned fascinating things from this brilliant book. Plus it is superbly written and it tells so eloquently of the joys and challenges of being a scientist.

Just some of the brilliant insights from this wonderful little book.
  • "the gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself." (p 6) This is a triumph of Descartes over Newton: a vortex space rather than one filled with action-at-a-distance. Space undulates. :
    • light curves round heavy objects
    • time goes more quickly at altitude
    • black holes exist
    • "space cannot stand still; it must be expanding" (p 8)
    • "space moves like the surface of the sea" (p 9)
  • "Why does the periodic table have this particular structure, with these periods, and with the elements having these particular properties? The answer is that each element corresponds to one solution of the main equation of quantum mechanics." (p 15)
  • "an electron is a series of jumps from one interaction to another. When nothing disturbs it, it is not in any particular place. It is not in a 'place' at all." (p 15)
  • Loop Quantum Gravity proposes that space is quantised in very small linked rings: "Space is created by the linking of these individual quanta of gravity" (p 41) 
  • "The passage of time ... is born in the world itself in the relationship between the quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time." (p 42). 
  • "Our universe may have been born from a bounce in a prior phase, passing through an intermediate stage in which there was neither space nor time." (p 47)
  • "How the gravitational field behaves when it heats up is still an unsolved problem. ... when heat is diffused to the gravitational field, time and space themselves must vibrate ... what is a vibrating time?" (p 56)
  • "There is a detectable difference between the past and the future only when there is flow of heat. Heat is linked to probability; and probability in turn is linked to the fact that our interactions with the rest of the world do not register the fine details of reality ... due to the limitations of our consciousness we only perceive a blurred vision of the world, and live in time." (p 60)
  • "The heat of black holes is a quantum effect upon an object, the black hole, which is gravitational in nature. ... The heat of black holes is like a Rosetta Stone of physics, written in a combination of three languages - Quantum, Gravitational and Thermodynamic - still awaiting decipherment in order to reveal the true nature of time." (p 62)
  • "We are like an only child who on growing up realizes that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one among others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are." (p 65)
  • "All things are continually interacting with each other, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about each other." (p 68)
  • "It would be absurd to ask whether 'I' can do something different from what the whole complex of my neurons has decided: the two things ... are the same." (p 71)
  • "Our reality is tears and laughter, gratitude and altruism, loyalty and betrayal, the past which haunts us and serenity." (p 74)
  • "We are nature, in one of its innumerable and infinitely variable expressions." (p 74)

  • "And to the very last: doubt." (p 19)

What a way for my dad to end his reading career.

Magnificent. July 2017, 79 pages