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

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

"The world according to Bertie" by Alexander McCall Smith

This is one of the '44 Scotland Street' series of novels which were originally published in the Scotsman in daily instalments; hence it retains very short chapters (there are 100 in this book) which each explores a short relationship. it therefore reminded me of the BBC Radio 4UK soap opera The Archers which has six fifteen minute episodes every week (for over 65 years) and in which each episode has a maximum of six characters or, alternatively, of the Sex in the City series of books.

The story meanders from one character to another, chronicling the trials and tribulations of their daily lives, avoiding the high drama of most books but weaving a fascinating tale of everyday Scottish folk. It works because it has some terrific characters:

  • Angus the painter whose beloved dog Cyril has been impounded and may be put down for biting.
  • Incredibly handsome and vain parasitic Bruce who moves in to the flat of rich heiress Julia. But she plans to entrap him as her husband.
  • Bertie the 6 year old stat saxophonist whose life is dominated by his mother Irene who insists that he practises, that he plays with girls, and that he regularly visits his psychotherapist (who looks eerily similar to his new little baby brother Ulysses). Irene (one of the few characters who doesn't have her own voice) also dominates her husband Stuart by the simple technique of fiercely insisting on that which is not true ie that she is always in the right and he is always in the wrong.
  • Student Pat and Matthew, the millionaire in whose art gallery she works. Will they, won't they?
  • Anthropologist Domenica and her friend and neighbour Antonia who has an affair with her polish builder Markus even though the only English word he can say is 'brick'.


Brilliant or beautiful bits:

  • "Perhaps her mind had filled in the rest, filled in the hair with the gel" (p 13)
  • "In the interstices of the big things of this world ... were the hidden, small things; the small moments of happiness and fulfilment." (p 33)
  • "People fell in love in all sorts of places; anywhere would do - amidst the noise and fumes of the daily world, in grim factories, in the most unpromising of offices, even, it would seem, amongst the din and dirt of roadworks." (p 33)
  • "We are here whether we like it or not, and by and large we seem to have a need to continue." (p 42)
  • "Some strange English accent; you know how they mutilate the language down there." (p 103)
  • "Then all those stories about Edinburgh being full of icy types are false?
  •        Absolutely, said Angus, frostily." (p 133)
  • "Wolf and Bruce were sexy; they dripped with sexual appeal, if one can drip with such a thing. Dripping came into it somewhere" (p 135)
  • "The average boy, he knew, had the average mother, and his mother was not that." (p 155)
  • "It did not do to think about sex on Heriot Row." (p 174)
  • "a city of cultivated, outward respectability beneath which there lay a world of priapic indulgence." (p 174)
  • "if you took the middle-class away the city would die ... just as it would if you took away the people who did the hard, thankless jobs, the manual work that was just as important in keeping things going. That ... was why class talk was so utterly pointless: everybody counted." (p 199)
  • "There's a hearth from which freedom has been excluded." (p 204)
  • "He had endured long periods of being uncluttered, and, on balance, he preferred to be cluttered." (p 268)
  • In the middle of a wonderful chapter full of tension in which a female student is entertained for afternoon tea by a lecturer and his wife, who seem weird in that they are so refined and so normal and so nice, so that you are constantly expecting something dreadful to happen, as the student leaves she meets a boy on the stairs: "She looked into his face, a face full of freckles, and saw that he had grey eyes. For a moment, both stopped, as if they were about to say something to one another, but then the boy looked away and continued up the stairs. Pat felt uneasy. It was as if she had seen a fox." Fabulous!
  • "There were plenty of studies on debt bondage patterns elsewhere, but few, if any, on such bondage in urban, Western societies." (p 318)
  • "What tyrant has had a happy childhood?" (p 327)
Charming. I think I might be sold. I might have to read the others in the series. August 2017; 329 pages


Saturday, 12 August 2017

"Why fairy tales stick" by Jack Zipes

This scholarly essay on fairy tales seemed a little muddled. I was never quite sure why Zipes believed that fairy tales stuck. There are, he tells us, 50 to 75 fairy tales in the western literary canon that are told over and over again ... but he never lists them. There is a theory of memes that he mentions without ever espousing. A few fairy tales (Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Blackbeard, and Hansel & Gretel) he goes into in detail and he discusses a huge number of versions in both literature and film. But there seems no coherent message. He suggests, from time to time, that these tales are "overtly patriarchal and politically conservative in structure and theme and reflect the dominant interests of social groups that control cultural forces of production and reproduction", and almost in the same breath he points out that "paradoxically, the fairy tale creates disorder to create order" (p 15) so that these tales can be subversive of established social order. If there is a message it is that these tales are "survival stories with hope" (p 27) and explore issues such as rape (RRH), step-relations (Cinders), the displacement of the young by the old and the old's reaction to that (Snow White), domestic abuse (Blackbeard) and child abuse (H&G)  and by so doing prepare children for these possibilities in the world, presumably on the ground that forewarned is forearmed. 

Along the way he told me many fascinating things. 
  • Many early collections of stories were framed by a 'frame tale' such as Boccaccio's Decameron Sercambi's Novelle, Sarnelli's Posilicheata, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
  • A successful meme must be: "capable of being copied in a faithful way", fecund so that "many copies can be made", "able to survive a long time" (p5); "a meme must be relevant to stick" (p 7); to be replicated a meme must be assimilated in a mind, retained in a memory, uttered, transmitted (p 8)
  • Red Riding Hood has been around since at least the version of Egbert of Liege (1022 - 1024) in which  a 5 yo girl who wears a tunic of red wool given to her by her godfather "goes out at sunrise, footloose and heedless of her peril" and is attacked by a wolf
  • Fairy tales "have sought to uncover truths about the pleasures and pains of existence" (p 42)
  • "There is no evidence that a separate oral wonder-tale tradition or literary fairy-tale tradition existed in Europe before the medieval period." (p 44)
  • "The plot generally involves a protagonist who is confronted with an interdiction or prohibition that he or she violates in some way. Therefore, there is generally a departure or banishment and the protagonist is either given a task or assumes a task related to the interdiction or prohibition." (p 49)
  • "names are rarely used in a folk tale; characters function according to their status within a family, social class, or profession; and they often cross boundaries or transform themselves. It is the transgression that makes the tale exciting; it is the possibility of transformation that gives hope ... Inevitably in the course of the action there will be a significant or signifying encounter." (p 49)
  • "The protagonist, endowed with gifts, is tested once more ... the success of the protagonist usually leads to marriage; the acquisition of money; survival and wisdom; or any combination of these three. ... At the centre of attraction is the survival of the protagonist under difficult conditions." (p 50)
  • "In the oral wonder tale, we are to marvel about the workings of the universe where anything can happen at any time ... Nor do the characters demand an explanation - they are instinctively opportunistic and hopeful ... The tales seek to awaken our regard for the miraculous condition of life ... those who are naive and simple are able to succeed because they are untainted, naturally good, and can recognize the wondrous signs." (p 51)
  • Perrault's tales 1694 - 1697 (and this is some output!) included:
    • Puss in Boots
    • Thumbelina
    • Bluebeard
    • Cinderella
    • Sleeping Beauty
    • Little Red Riding Hood
  • Anatole France wrote a version of the Bluebeard legend in which the hero is always unfortunate in marriage: his wives are mad, strange or stupid, and each time the wife dies in an accident. The 7th wife marries him for his money and plots with her brothers to murder him.
  • "The storyteller is ... a thief who robs treasures to give something substantive to the poor." (p 242)

An interesting book but I was confused as to its thesis. August 2017; 243 pages

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

"Name to a face" by Robert Goddard

Another classic Goddard mystery, narrated by the protagonist but, rather disconcertingly, in the third person. After a prologue in which a murder occurs long ago we land in modern day Monaco where small business owner Tim Harding is persuaded by a millionaire friend to spend a week in Penzance bidding for a family heirloom. While there he meets someone whose face he is sure he recognises from the past but she has never met him. Nevertheless they fall in love as theft and mystery begin to surround them. For the heirloom is a dead ringer for a ring stolen from the body of a shipwrecked Admiral in 1707 and somehow it relates to a diving death, a long forgotten murder and a mysterious monk at the time of the Black Death.

Goddard is back on form and when he is on form the result is a cracking read.

Also reviewed in this blog are:



"The dead are dead. You can't bring them back. And you can't avoid joining them sooner or later." (p 223)
"Gary appeared to be locked in some fierce debate with himself, the darting of his eyes signalling the trading of points." (P 271)

A pretty good thriller. August 2017; 472 pages

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

"The Voices Within" by Charles Fernyhough

This very accessible book is about thought. Many (all?) of us seem to have a voice within our heads talking to us. Sometimes these thoughts conduct dialogues. For some people these voices seem not to be their own thoughts; sometimes this sort of voice-hearing is pathologised and voice-hearers can be labelled as schizophrenics or mystics. Fernyhough tells us the very latest research on our inner voices. But he also considers non-academic sources including:
  • Literature especially 'stream of consciousness' fiction (Fernyhough himself writes fiction): 
    • In Chaucer's Book of the Duchess the 'Man in Black' "spak noght/ But argued with his owne thoght," (p 93)
  • The difference between the commandments of the gods in the Iliad and the dilemmas of Ulysses in the Odyssey
  • Sports stars commanding themselves out loud to eg focus on the ball
  • The private speech of children playing
  • Silent reading (first observed  being done by  St Anselm by the not-at-the-time-Saint Augustine)
  • Guardian angels

The four voices many of us hear are: (all p 44)
  • "Faithful friend (associated with personal strength, close relationships and positive feelings)"
  • "Ambivalent Parent (combining strength, love and caring criticism)"
  • "Proud Rival (who was distant and success-oriented)"
  • "Helpless Child, distinguished by negative emotions and social distance"
Many many fascinating moments:
  • We are so committed to the privacy of our inner thoughts that "its alternatives - mind-reading, telepathy and thought invasion - can be sources of humour or horror." (p 4)
  • "having a brain gives you: a ringside seat for a show meant for you alone." (p 4)
  • "Thoughts are typically coherent: they fit into chains of ideas which, in no matter how haphazard a fashion, are connected to what has come before." (p 7)
  • "Some of the mysteries of inner speech become more comprehensible when we rcognise that it has the properties of a dialogue." (p 15)
  • "establishing a shared language ... rather than squeezing people's varied experiences into pre-existing categories" (p 29)
  • "Dialogic thinking seems to be a useful tool for creativity" (p 107)
  • "Self-talk gives us a perspective on ourselves that might be a key ingredient for thinking in a flexible, open-ended manner." (p 113)
  • "Very strong evidence for a link between hearing voices and early adversity, particularly childhood sexual abuse. ... A does-response relationship was also observed ... good evidence that an effect is causal" (p 206)
  • "People who live through horrific events often describe themselves dissociating during the trauma. Splitting itself into separate parts is one of the most powerful of the mind's defence mechanisms. ... Bentall's analysis is consistent with (although doesn't prove) the idea that trauma ... causes dissociation ... which then causes hallucinations." (p 208)
  • "Voices, then, might give us important clues about the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self." (p 209)
  • "Doing that internal speaking silently will also have clear evolutionary benefits. Talking to ourselves won't be much good if it betrays out position to a predator ... One reason why private speech 'goes underground' in middle childhood is probably that talking to yourself out loud is rarely sanctioned in Western schools. " (p 250)
  • "I myself am most likely to experience a full-blown inner conversation when I am grappling with a dilemma. There is almost no research on this topic." (p 252)
This is a great introduction to a fascinating topic. August 2017; 259 pages

Sunday, 6 August 2017

"A certain smile" by Francoise Sagan

This novel is billed as the sequel to Bonjour Tristesse but works perfectly in its own right.

The narrator, Dominique, is a student at the Sorbonne in Paris; her boyfriend and lover is Bertrand, another student; she is getting bored by the rather possessive Bertrand. She meets Bertrand's uncle Luc and his wife Francoise; she very much likes them both but she falls in love with Bertrand and spends two weeks of the summer holiday with him at a hotel in France. If anyone learns their secret Francoise and Bertrand will be hurt. And can Dominique give Luc up after two weeks?

The joy of this book is the perfect way she describes a relationship with another person: the irritation and the awkwardness, the lust and the disgust, the hopes and the anxieties. It also says what it is to be young: to be hopeful, to be fearful, to be bored, to be easily amused, to treat time as if it was unlimited, to be aware of one's own mortality and one's own powerlessness, to turn frustration into cynicism.

There are so many flashes of light' These are but a few:

  • "She talked, I listened; she gave advice and I ceased to listen." (p 15)
  • "I realized there were many people who ... treated their bodies like precious playthings to use for their amusement." (p 21)
  • "My life was slipping away, and I did nothing except sneer."
  • "Listen to the trumpet. It's not only free from worry but it is necessary to the band." (p 49)
  • "I confined myself to kissing his eyes, his mouth, all the features in that new face which the lips discover after the eyes have feasted on it." (p 64)
  • "We would drift slowly ... towards death, always talking of the temporary nature of our stay." (p 67)
  • "The pale dawn over an inhuman sea, the motionless boats, the mad, grasceful crowd of gulls roosting on the hotel roof." (p 67)
  • "I entwined my hair with his." (p 70)
  • "Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks." (p 72)
  • "I would be falling from a great height, and during my descent I would be alone, terribly alone." (p 72)
  • "What does a human being think about on an empty beach, facing an empty sea?" (p 74)
  • "I had believed it was my story." (p 110)
  • "I was a woman, and I had loved a man. It was a simple story; there was nothing to make a fuss about." (p 112; last lines)


August 2017; 112 pages


Friday, 4 August 2017

"The Gustav Sonata" by Rose Tremain

Other books by this author that I have read are Restoration and its sequel Merivel, which I very much enjoyed. She seems to enjoy writing plots which meander gently through a life, allowing the reader to slowly construct the identity of the protagonist. This is much of the same.

Gustav in a young Swiss boy in the aftermath of the second world war growing up with his mum. His dad was a policeman who died. They are poor. His best friend is Anton, a piano prodigy, whose father is a banker; they are rich but they have a mysterious background having moved from Bern and perhaps having been refugee Jews. His mum is bitter and twisted and Gustav has a loveless childhood.

Part two goes back to before Gustav's birth and explores how his mum met his dad, the ups and downs in their relationship, and why his dad was a hero. To some extent it shows why his mum is like she is.

Part three moves us to the 1990s. Gustav and Anton are now grown up, their characters formed by their upbringings. Will anyone find love?

In a Guardian podcast Tremain points out that the book has a sonata structure: act one is the exposition, act two the development, and act three is the recapitulation. Certainly there are mirroring moments such as when Anton takes a girlfriend to Davos which really upsets Gustav; he was similarly upset when his mum stopped him going ice skating with Anton and Anton took a girl instead.

A lot of this book is about self-control. In an interview with Waterstones, Tremain says "We live in such an angry world. Even domestic dramas on the TV are framed around confrontation, loss of control and feelings of inadequacy and hatred. These are disastrous cultural paradigms to offer to the next generation. I really fear for what my grandchildren will perceive ‘normality’ to be. I hope my novel reminds people that stoicism, kindness and self-control can often be a better route to arriving at a longed-for destination – both public and private - than hair-trigger fury." When Gustav first meets a weeping Anton at kindergarten he tells him: "My mother says it's better not to cry. She says you have to master yourself." Gustav has to be like Switzerland. Gustav has learned this lesson so young that it never leaves him. There are only one or two times in the whole novel that he loses control. Anton, in completer counterpoint, is brilliant but spoiled, the archetypal romantic genius, whose music career is ruined by stage fright, who has lovers but never stays with them for long, who throws up his career as soon as he gets the belated chance of fame. Is this why they are such good friends?

In the Waterstones interview Tremain says that she tried "not to reveal all of what is in Gustav’s heart, but to just give the readers enough indicators to enable them to work it out. It’s my belief that readers love to do a bit of work and not have everything spelled out and underlined for them. Honour the readers’ abilities." In my book group we were very appreciative of that.


There are some beautiful and profound moments:

  • "A hesitant way of moving ... as if afraid of discovering, between one space and the next, objects - or even people - she had not prepared herself to encounter." (p 3)
  • "There was silence in the room for several minutes and this silence felt like a kind of suffering." (p 25)
  • "That's the thing about the world ... you just don't know why the things that happen happen" (p 65) and I suppose this book is trying to explain them.
  • "it was easy to project this forward into the future - as though there were no future for him, but only this: a man crawling along, growing older year by year, searching for things which other people had cast aside." (p 73" Foreshadowing!
  • "the world in which people deserve things or do not deserve them is passing away. Europe is at war. Fairness is now becoming a word without meaning." (p 149) As if it ever was for Gustav!
  • "He looks down at the wooden floor, where the butts of cigarettes from last night's drinkers still lie, and he thinks how shabby the world is and how tired and old and full of discarded things." (p 180) Gustav as a man. But as a boy he used to help his mum clean a church and picked up discarded fag ends and extracted the tobacco from them. He has always been the man on the margin, living with the remnants of other people's lives.
  • "Wasting time changes the nature of time." (p 213)


This is a sad book but it speaks profoundly about the lives of those who are not at the centre of the stage but, like Prufrock, are attendant lords.

August 2017; 308 pages

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

"Reaper Man" by Terry Pratchett

A Discworld novel. Other reviewed in this blog include

  • Carpe Jugulum in which Lancre is invaded by a family of vampires
  • Going Postal in which Moist has to reform the postal service for Lord V.
But there are lots of others and all those I have read have been great.

In this DEATH, wj=ho always speaks in CAPITAL LETTERS, is retired. This causes an unfortunate disruption to normal services. In other words, Ankh Morpork is in chaos.

Pratchett maintains his usual blend of twisted metaphysical insight with jokes ranging from wonderful to brilliant:

  • "seconds, endlessly turning the maybe into the was."(p 8)
  • "there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone." (p 11)
  • "gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity." (p 15)
  • "It's the difference between morning dew on a cobweb and actually being a fly." (p 33)
  • "If you could do a sort of relief map of sinfulness, wickedness and all-round immorality, rather like those representations of the gravitational field around a Black Hole, then even in Ankh-Morpork the Shades would be represented by a shaft." (p 47)
  • "Mrs Evadne Cake was a medium, verging on small." (p 73)
  • "Doing it without the right paraphernalia is like taking all your clothes off to have a bath." (p 101)
  • A funeral is "a reverential form of garbage disposal". (p 122)
  • "that long nasal whine which meant that folk song was about to be perpetrated." (p 168)
  • "JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING IS A METAPHOR DOESN'T MEAN IT CAN'T BE REAL." (p 194)
  • "Cities - big sedentary creatures growing from one spot and hardly moving at all for thousands of years. They breed by sending out people to colonise new land." (p 202)

But this is just a taste of the brilliance. He can by funny and wise, and funny and touching at the same time. Wonderful. August 2017; 285 pages