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, 23 April 2018

"Tourism" by Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal

Bhupinder, the narrator and protagonist, is a young male Sikh journalist who wants to be a novelist. His life is a sham: he reviews CDs without listening to them by rewriting the accompanying press releases. He likes having sex with women and he has some good friends, some of whom are moving on from a culture of heavy drinking and sleeping around, but he is weary and cynical.

Vogue called this book "tolerant". Perhaps the reviewer didn't read it. It must be the most intolerant book I have read for years. Bhupinder hates his fellow humans. Sometimes he has reasons. Two boys bullied him at school; in revenge he started supplying solvents from his dad's shop for them to sniff. Now he thinks: "Hopefully they'd graduated from lighter fuel onto heroin, lived as rent boys then died from syphilis, or maybe starvation." (p 118) [Leaving aside the ungrammatical 'hopefully'; a death sentence for being a school bully does seem disproportionately Draconian.] But more often Bhupinder hates whole groups of people.

He hates ethnicities:

  • "I hate poor white people. No one is more stupid or useless." (p 115) 
  • "Eastern Europeans ... make niggers look smart" (p 67) 
  • "The French! That bunch of cunts" (p 60) 
  • "I felt the shiver of disgust I sometimes feel when I look at white people." (p 236)


He hates the rich:

  • "She once said her dad must be paying her Filipino cleaner a fortune: 'Why else would she do such a shitty job?'" (p 55)
  • "an old white man and his young, highly passive-aggressive oriental wife. She probably wangled herself whatever she wanted: in return she'd look good and provide fellatio. That, no doubt, was the sum of their sex life; his heart wouldn't take much more and she was probably frigid. Women who like getting fucked don't marry old men." (p 207)


He hates the poor:

  • "There's nothing better for the people at the bottom than having a bunch of other saps brought in and dumped beneath them." (p 67)
  • "They're just another bunch of tramps, fighting the rest of us in this pigpen for the same fucking crap." (p 68)


He hates gays:

  • "pussy-loathing queers ... shit-head fag hags ... fruits" (p 195).
  • "faggamuffins and homeysexuals ... The love homos have for straight guys is the love that dares not speak its name. Like any other girl, the homosexual longs for a real man." (p 211)


He even hates DJs:

  • "DJs are, in essence, children's entertainers, but speak about their work as if it has substance and value in the world." (p 164)


Most of all he hates the ugly:

  • "The flesh is draped loose and rumpled over his bones; his shoulders poke obscenely from either side, his breasts hang like soggy dishrags. There's a hideous dignity to him, like an expensive, now haggard and disused, leather bag." (p 4)
  • "Fat and lazy people often use steam baths and saunas as a substitute for exercise, equating sweating to weight loss." (p 75)
  • "His dour face and parched complexion he'd achieved through hard drinking and a million cigarettes." (p 91)


He is obsessed with genetics. There are a lot of comments about how genetics make beauty, how slavery created a black man that white women long for, that Bhupinder's own ancestral home at a cultural interface has developed a mix of genes that has made him beautiful. Beauty, for Bhupinder, is the ultimate blessing. "I was grateful I wasn't ugly; I didn't have to strive for wealth to avoid a life of substandard sexual partners." (p 139) Beauty is often equated with blackness: "The magic of miscegenation: genes alchemised by a slap of the tar brush, even the ugliest honky can have enchanting offspring." (p 209)

There are times when he is absorbed in self-pity or self-loathing

  • "I could see the red sun setting on the corner of the city. Several million people were out there, ploughing several million furrows. Barely a handful knew or cared anything about me." (p 168)
  • "Most of all, I cried for me, the desperate first-born son who'd now have to pick up the tab, but couldn't afford the bill." (p 138)
  • "Nothing I've ever wanted has come true; I was tired of being let down. I was tired of my lingering, lifelong sense of incompletion. ...I hadn't wanted much from life: love, safety, a sense of belonging to somewhere or someone. Instead I had nothing." (p 162)
  • "I'm just a tourist ... I just look at the view." (p 85)


But normally he is unable to reflect on his own behaviour. "I'm a man of few talents; the one skill I have is the acceptance of disappointment." (p 162) he tells us but this is manifestly untrue. Every disappointment fuels his hatred of the human race. Whilst sitting in a steam bath recovering from a hangover he muses "I hate steam baths. I see no benefit in subjecting myself to unnatural heat, basting in my own fluids" (p 75) although two pages later he recognises that the steam is helping him "sweat out more toxins". In a gay club he thinks "It was inevitable that gay culture should fuse with that of rap music; they had so much in common: licentiousness, conspicuous consumption, misogyny and body fascism." (p 211) although this whole book is a misanthropic rant revelling in body fascism.

Why does he hate? Presumably because of his repeated failure. He is very bright (of course!) and should have become a doctor but he deliberately failed his A-levels. He then dropped out of University. He only goes home to his mother for a financial bailout. He can't even commit to attending his brother's wedding. He is desperate to escape. In one stunning image he observes a wasp and this does seem to reflect upon him (although he doesn't realise it): "A wasp raged against the glass, leaving dabs of venom on the pane as it fought to get out." (p 63)

If all this hatred is supposed to describe a portrait of a trapped wasp this book can scarcely be bettered.

It is a strangely unbalanced plot. It starts with the author (September 2003) in self-imposed exile. He then begins to tell the story of why he's there. In May (by implication 2002?) he starts an affair with white Sophie because she is best friends with Indian Sarupa whom he has been ogling in night clubs. Sophie and Sarupa represent an upper class London which Bhupinder angrily envies. Things happen although not a lot develops. He hangs out with black Michael (who hates even more virulently than Bhupinder), alcoholic rich pretty boy Luca, and gay Rory and his boyfriend restaurateur Sham. More things happen. Out of the blue a deus ex machina arrives that enables him to get hold of some money and go abroad. It is only in October 2004 that he finds out by email that he is a father (of a baby conceived in summer 2002 or at the latest summer 2003 suggesting either an extraordinary long pregnancy or a very slow email).

So this book has an unconventional plot and a lot of intolerance. It also has a substantial amount of utterly explicit sex. And it has moments of pure magic in some of its descriptions which, at best, are totally original and drill down to the essence of the thing itself:

  • "Sometimes she'd be the perfect ingenue, unsure of her wonderful new body." (p 3)
  • "Her pose unfolded into a mass of angles ... I slouched against the sofa as she stooped ridiculously in mid-air, her thin arm extended towards me ... she collapsed back into her seat, her magazine pose in shambles, a muddle of long limbs and bony joints." (p 21)
  • "her nostrils flared, showing empty hairless sockets." (p 47)
  • "Here I can see evening fall, like watching a scrap of paper held up by the air drift slowly down to earth." (p 7)
  • "He wore an ancient pin-striped suit and sipped a glass of Scotch, a forgotten cigarette cindered between his fingers." (p 11) I love 'cindered'!!!
  • "his idea of an alcoholic was a man who was too drunk to work" (p 108)
  • "I sat and listened to the people around me laughing and joking with one another: was anyone happy, or was everything a shroud, hiding one's mediocrity and sadness?" (p 162)
  • "Michael had ordered the mixed grill - glistening shapes of processed offal steamed on the plate before him" (p 68)
  • "The boys loitered and threw me caustic stares; stymied by religion, their love lives consisted of bitter, solitary masturbation." (p 74)
  • "I felt leaden and uncomfortable, utterly sullen." (p 75)

Julie Burchill has called this book "shocking and touched with genius" and I would agree. There are brilliant insights but too often the author's intent seems to provoke. I know I shouldn't judge a book by my dislike for the characters but there is so much naked misanthropy in this book that it detracted from the experience of reading it.

April 2018; 246 pages

Friday, 20 April 2018

"Saladin" by John Man

A biography of the 12th Century Islamic warrior who confronted Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade.

And what a man! Son of a provincial governor, Saladin was a Kurd born in Tikrit (later famous as the home of Sadam Hussein) who grew up in Damascus. He rose to become a mostly successful warrior and a ruler (under his emir and caliph) of an area stretching from Egypt to Turkey. He managed to combine ruthlessness where necessary with justice and mercy becoming famed for his chivalry, his trustworthiness and his generosity and doing his best to negotiate rather than fight. He destroyed the crusader states that had been set up after the First Crusade, reducing the Kingdom of Jerusalem to a tiny coastal strip (which didn't include Jerusalem) although having taken Acre he lost it again to the Third Crusaders,

And what a biography. I read Man's Genghis Khan about ten years ago and found it heavy going but this was a delightful read. There was sufficient scholarship but not too much and lots of fascinating facts and some interesting perspectives: the twelfth century problems of the middle east provide a carefully curved mirror in which to view today's issues. One might almost see modern Israel as a foreign (US) sponsored crusader state in the middle of a fragmented Islamic world; Sunni and Shi'a still scrap, the Assassins were the suicide bombers of their time, and today's civil strife in Syria with its shifting and reshifting alliances are an echo of the division of Saladin's day.

And it had two really helpful maps!

There were lots of bits I thought: I must find out more about this. That's always a good sign. But here are the very best of the good bits:

  • In Baalbek in Lebanon there are thousand tonne megaliths which are even today "the worlds's greatest hewn stones ... twenty times the weight of the megaliths of Stonehenge" (p 23)
  • "medieval Islam hungered for learning and inspired brilliant scholarship. Paper displaced papyrus, bookshops thrived, libraries graced the homes of the rich ... one street in Damascus had a hundred bookshops." (p 25)
  • "The only way to survive was to flee or to fawn: 'Kiss any arm you cannot break'." (p 43)
  • On Mount Qasiyoun just north of Damascus "Cain killed his brother Abel" (p 58)
  • "He lacks words for what he sees, and then lacks words to describe his own inadequacy." (p 60)
  • "seize the chance of undistracted study and seclusion before a wife and children cling to you and you gnash your teeth in regret at the time you lost." (p 62)
  • "a grim landscape of forested valleys and bare hills, surging like a wrestler's muscles" (p 68)
  • Frank Amalric sealed an alliance with the young Caliph of Egypt with "an ungloved handshake, a precedent utterly shocking to courtiers used to their ruler's untouchability." (p 90)
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a princess without a husband must be in need of a prince - acknowledged not by the princess, perhaps, but certainly by those with the power to choose the husband" (p 136)
  • "Raymond was a legend for his bravery, good looks, charm and strength: they said he could crush a stirrup with one hand (which seems a silly way to prove one's strength; a horseshoe, maybe, but why a stirrup?)." (p 136 - 137)
  • Saladin put the Melkites in charge of the Holy Sepulchre "a sect that traces its rituals back to the Apostles." (p 253)
  • "licentious harlots ... selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, ink-faced and unblushing" (p 272)
  • "Lord Shang, writing in China in about 400 BC ... advised that for those who rule might is right, power everything. Human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous, foolish and shifty. The only way to deal with them is to entice, terrify, reward and punish." (p 320)
  • "people who had endured terrible experiences, yet come through well psychologically ... shared a belief that the universe is fundamentally a supportive place, that it rewards action, and that any setback is a challenge to be overcome." (p 322)


A wonderful, extraordinarily readable biography. April 2018; 358 pages


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

"Defectors" by Joseph Kanon

Moscow, 1961. Simon, an American publisher flies in to talk to his brother who has written his autobiography; the autobiography of a defector. Frank worked for the precursor to the CIA during WW2 whilst stealing secreta and handing them to the Russians; after the war with the FBI hot on his trail he fled to Moscow. Now he works for the Service and lives with the other ex-Spies.

This is twilight world of deceit, half-truths and betrayal. This is the world of those who betrayed their country for an ideal and now live as half-trusted pensioners in a world they can't escape. This is the world of secrets and surveillance, of snow and shortages, of dreams and disillusionment.

This book might have been a masterpiece but the thriller format interferes. For a depiction of the topsy turvey world of soviet-era Moscow I preferred the brilliant Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge. Nevertheless, this book kept me turning the pages. I got a little confused about what was happening towards the end but decided I didn't care enough about the characters to try harder.

A couple of brutally written murders.

Some great lines:

  • "the secret there, his skin warm with it" (p 83)
  • "for a moment he wondered how he should feel about that, which of his selves to ask" (p 96)
April 2018; 290 pages

Sunday, 15 April 2018

"David Golder" by Irene Nemirovsky

Published in 1929, just after the Wall Street Crash, David Golder was the breakthrough second novel by French author Nemirovsky who subsequently wrote Suite Francaise, a trio of novellas that were unfinished when the author died in Auschwitz and were subsequently rediscovered in 1998.

David Golder tells the story of a rich man. At the start he refuses to enter into a risky deal with his partner who kills himself the next day, bankrupt. Golder then suffers a heart attack on the train journey to his posh villa in Biarritz where his wife and daughter are entertaining guests and leading extravagant lives; they forever bombard him with requests for money. He is on a treadmill. Can he get off? And will he be happy if he does?

It seems that the moments when he is and was happiest is when he is or was poor.

It is a strange plot. One repeatedly feels that one is reaching the climax, the big reveal, the transformation scene. But, like the reality of any addiction, there is always the moment when the best intentions meet the flawed humanity. In this way it is more honest than its fairy tale or Hollowood correlates. The near death experience of the heart attack on the train doesn't provoke a lasting change in his lifestyle. His life keeps on going up and down. Until the end. Just like real life.

The style is strange as well. Much of it is very intense and written from a perspective clautrophobically deep inside Golder's mind. This can scarcely be otherwise for the heart attack on the train scene. "He had time to think 'I'm dying', to feel he was being pushed, thrown over the edge of a precipice into an abyss, a crater, as narrow and suffocating as a tomb. ... deep, murky water that swept over him and was dragging him down, lower and lower, into the wide gaping hole." Of course a near death experience needs to be this intense. But it is also rather cliched. Melodramatic. It reeks of nineteenth century literature (and the introduction tells us that Nemirovsky was compared to Balzac and Dostoevsky) rather than twentieth.

A near death experience can be melodramatic. Less convincing to modern readers are the characters. Although Golder himself, rich banker wondering in late life what the point of it all is, can be nuanced, his grasping wife Gloria is a pantomime villain, his daughter Joyce is utterly spolit, her gigolo boyfriend a two-dimensional parasite, the doctor a quack who will tailor his diagnosis to suit the paymaster, Golder's friend Soifer an archetypal miser and so on. Yet this story was hailed as astonishingly mature when it was published; Nemirovsky compared to Balzac or Dostoevsky.

I wondered whether the character of Carleton Myatt, the trader in currants who travels to Istanbul on Graham Greene's Stamboul Train was based on Golder. But in Greene even the minor characters have quirks and peculiarities and, in particular, inconsistencies that put flesh on their bones.

Nevertheless, David Golder is only a short book and it is worth reading just for the verve with which Nemirovsky gallops through her plot.

Some good moments:

  • "He was crushing his face into his hands in shame." (p 98)
  • "'It's a long road', he said out loud
    •  'Yes', said Soifer, 'long and hard and pointless'." (p 122)




Friday, 13 April 2018

"The Country Wife" by William Wycherley

A Country Wife was written by William Wycherley, himself a noted Restoration rake, and perhaps based on a Roman play, the Eunuch by Terence.

I saw it at Southwark Playhouse Saturday (matinee) 14th April 2018 in a production that (slightly weirdly) transferred the costumes to the 1920s but left the dialogue in 1675 (good: don't mess with dialogue!!) The production brought out the bawdy farce elements and added some wonderful moments of physical humour: we all loved the character hiding behind the screen. There was a generally strong cast with some outstanding performances by Sparkish and Pinchbeck, Alithea and Margery.

Horner, a rake, spreads the rumour that he has caught an STD and been rendered impotent. As a result Sir Jaspar Fidget decides to trust Hormer with his wife and daughter and their friend. Meantime Pinchwife's new wife, just up from the country, has seen Horner at the theatre and wants to have an affair with him. Meanwhile Pinchwife's sister, Alithea, is engaged to marry Sparkish whose best friend Harcvourt has fallen in love with her. This is a farce of true love versus cuckoldry, reputation versus honour, and trust versus betrayal.

Lots of innuendoes and double entendres and a fair amount of farce.

Some great lines, although they are often uncomfortably un-politically correct:
  • Women of quality are so civil, you can hardly distinguish love from good breeding, and a man is often mistaken.
  • Your old boys ... who like superannuated stallions are suffered to run, feed, and whinny with the mares as long as they live, though they can do nothing else.
  • A mistress should be like a country retreat near the town; not to dwell in constantly, but only for a night and away.
  • ‘Tis as hard to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of women, as ‘tis to be a good fellow, a good friend, and a lover of money.
  • For my part I will have only those glorious, manly pleasures of being very drunk and there is slovenly.” 
  • He can no more think the men laugh at him than that women jilt him, his opinion of himself is so good.
  • Most men are the contraries to that they would seem.
  • The little, humbly fawning physician with his ebony cane is he that destroys men.
  • A marriage vow is like a penitent gamester’s oath, and entering into bonds and penalties to stint himself to such a particular small sum at play for the future, which makes him but the more eager, and not being able to hold out, loses his money again, and his forfeit to boot.
  • If a woman wants wit in a corner, she has it nowhere.
  • A beauty masked, like the sun in eclipse, gathers together more gazers then if it shined out.
  • Nothing makes a man hate a woman more, than her constant conversation.
  • Loving alone is as dull as eating alone.” 
  • Marrying to increase love is like gaming to become rich; alas, you only lose what little stock you had before.
  • A secret is better kept ... by a single person than a multitude


Thursday, 12 April 2018

"Sister" by Rosamund Lupton

Beatrice's sister goes missing days after giving birth to a still-born child. Is her art college tutor the father of the baby; has he murdered her? Did her psychologist fail to diagnose puerperal psychosis? Are the gene therapy trials a front for something more sinister? Or was she being stalked by Simon, a fellow student, for his photography project?

Although the narration, jumping back and forwards from Beatrice's confessional-style testimony at the Crown Prosecution Service to telling the story of her sleuthing, is rather off-putting there is plenty in this twisting tale to grip hold of. Until the end. I'd guessed what happened about a quarter of the way through and there was a lot of subsequent evidence that confirmed my solution. But I was wrong. Really? I don't think so. My solution was far better. There were a number of pieces of evidence that the author's thrilleresque solution simply failed to address. So I still think I was right and the author wrong. Perhaps there should be a sequel about this appalling miscarriage of justice.

And before that there were a lot of moments when professional people really didn't behave anything like the way professional people would behave.

Some great lines:

  • "The Big Apple with no core." (p 6)
  • "A siren is the sound of the twenty-first-century cavalry on its way." (p 52)
  • Psychiatrists are "a hot cycle for the personality, shrinking you down to something that fits a category in a textbook" (I guess that's why they're called shrinks).
  • "A hospital world with its own no-weather and no-time in which the aberrant crises of pain, illness and death were Kafka-like turned ordinary." (p 159)
  • "For me life has always been a mountain - sheer-faced and perilous." (p 227)
  • "I saw compassion on some faces as they looked at me, and its poorer cousin pity on others." (p 248)


April 2018; 358 pages

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

"Dodgers" by Bill Beverly

Four black teenagers from Los Angeles are sent by their gang leader to drive in a van to drive to Wisconsin to murder a Judge who is a forthcoming witness in a trial. One of them, the narrator East, is related to the gang leader. With him are his half brother Ty, a thirteen year old psychopath, fat Walter, a genius at forging id, and Michael, the nominal leader. East, who led a team of crackhouse lookouts till a police raid closed the house down,  sleeps in an abandoned office building but pops home from time to time to look after his alcoholic mother. He finds the journey across the country a revelation.

These are bad boys, bred bad, brought up to badness, on a mission to kill. But they are still teenagers and their deprivations show at every moment. You can't help liking East and dreading the likely outcome of his criminal behaviour. 

And then there are moments when the plot twists and you walk, unsuspecting, into an ambush.

Brilliantly plotted, with great characters, great dialogue and moments of lyricism. For example:
  • Michael laughed almost every time he talked. It wasn't that he thought everything was funny; it was like his sentence wasn't finished yet without it.” (p 47)
  • All East’s life the mountains had been a jagged base for the northern sky. ... He’d never seen them broken into what they were, single peaks dotted with plants scrub and rock litter, and the open distances between.” (p 66)
  • Wandering blind, their shadows spilling out in eight directions.” (p 71)
  • The windshield filled with sunrise working its way up to blue.” (p 92)
  • He could sense something about the chasm, all the time piled up there. Close to forever. more time than he had in a hundred lives like his.” (p 96)
  • Ty belonged to nobody now, an unknowable child, indolent as bees in autumn” (p 99)
  • A thunderstorm hovered, prowling its own road.” (p 101)
  • Trying to press his gut out like a toothpaste tube.” (p 102) This is when East is sitting in the toilet, constipated. The physicality of this book is tremendously honest. When he is beaten up it hurts.
  • Gym muscles down his belly like puppies in a litter.” (p 107)
  • But do they get a signal out here? Negative bars.” (p 157)
  • Flight, they called it. One part fear, one part the blindest excitement you’d ever known. It freed you from time, from who you were or the matter of what you’d done. You darted, like a fish away from a net, like a dog outrunning a dogcatcher.” (p 206)
  • If there were such a thing as far enough, it wasn't a place you could walk to.” (p 249)

What to compare it to? It has won awards from crime and thriller writing but it isn't really in that genre.  In some ways it is a novel about a troubled teenager growing up so it is a sort of Catcher in the Rye. The road trip reminded me of the road trip in John Green's Paper Towns. But the element of honesty about a boy trying to survive in a world with a different system of morality puts it into a class of its own.

Friday, 6 April 2018

"The Statement" by Brian Moore

Based on a real life case. A French war criminal, on the run in the south of France, is being followed both by assassins and the police. He is given refuge in religious houses. But how do the assassins seemingly know his every move? And who are they working for? Sinister forces are at play and they may reach right up to the highest echelons of government and their tentacles seem to spread through French Catholicism.

A well-written thriller by the author who also wrote the excellent The Colour of Blood

Some questions:
  • Why was it called The Statement?
    • This refers to the letter intended to be poinned on Brossard's corpse by the assassin once Brossard is dead. It is a statement that he has been executed for war crimes. But why name the novel after this? Rather than, for example, the fugitive?
  • How does Moore enlist your sympathy for Pierre?
    • Right at the start Brossard is a frail old man being stalked by an assassin. In the first chaspter Brossard is revealed as a cunning predator. He kills, ruthlessly. Almost immediately one is aware that he is a war criminal and a very dangerous man. No sympathy there. There are details (he is getting old, he has bad teeth, he has to keep moving, he has only three suitcases of possessions) which might enlist sympathy but after such strong early impressions I wasn't falling for it. So why did Moore choose to start like that?
  • Why are the two hired assassins only referred to by their initials?
    • The second assassin is given a girlfriend (to whom he lies) and a phobia about horoscopes. But by using initials Moore seems to be encouraging us to think that these men do not count. Their deaths do not matter. Except as it affects the game. 
  • The novel explores moral issues including those of forgiveness. To what extent this this raise the novel above the standard thriller format?
    • It is interesting how the characters are able to justify themselves. The priests consider that the secular world should not be allowed to impinge upon the religious world, that a confessed sinner is redeemed (although Brossard never shows remorse), that France lost the Second World War because the communists triumphed and that Brossard's role as a soldier for the right and for tradition somehow excuses him killing others.

Great lines:
  • The numbers of dead are exaggerated, no doubt, but what matter? Sin is sin in any number.” (p 52)
  • The roulette wheel had stopped and the steel ball of his luck had dropped into a losing slot.” (p 60)
  • Now that he himself was old, he no longer saw old men in a respectful light. Now, he looked at them for signs of failure: the faltering step on the stairs, the voice hesitating over a forgotten surname, the look of quiet deception when dimming ears have missed what was said.” (p 87) 
  • In the ninth decade ... men become stubborn and unyielding, unwilling to admit error now that judgement day is close.” (p 88)
    • This is thought by Brossard, the war criminal, but it is about others. He is thinking this to assess to what extent he might be able to rely on the way the other person has always behaved. But he isn't the least self-reflective. Is this the mind of a psychopath?
  • The young ... did not want to be reminded of the leprosy of age.” (p 163)

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

"Think like an artist" by Will Gompertz

This is a delightful little book. It is written in short chapters full of pithy aphorisms and delightful examples. Very readable!

Gompertz suggests that we can all learn to be creative if we do what artists do. He starts by pointing out that we are all artists because we all create. This gets lost a bit later on as he focuses on the art of painting. I think most of his points could be equally well made if he focused on scientists: scientists are "seriously curious", scientists are "tenacious grafters", scientists build their ideas on those of others, scientists are sceptics who constantly ask questions and so on. Perhaps all schools should be science schools. 

Here are his rules: 
  • Artists are enterprising
    • Artists are the CEO of their own businesses. They need to have an acute sensitivity for marketing and and implicit understanding of brand ... After all, they are in the business of supplying products have no real function or purpose.” (p 22) 
  • Artists don’t fail
    • If at first you don't succeed, don't try exactly the same thing again. You won't succeed, again.” (p 43)
    • Artists appear glamorous and blessedly detached, but in reality they are tenacious grafters.” (p 43)
    • It can be difficult to get started. We can feel that we don't have permission to test our talents ... somehow we are unworthy.” (p 51)
    • Everyone thinks they are a bit of a fraud; you just have to get over it.” (p 53)
  • Artists are seriously curious 
    • If necessity is the mother of invention, curiosity is the father.” (p 58)
  • Artists steal
  • Artists are sceptics
    • It is not simply about asking questions; they have to be the most revealing and pertinent questions.” (p 105)
  • Artists think big picture and fine detail
    • Delivering the big picture while focusing on the small detail ... requires your mind to constantly go back and forth, one moment concerned with the minutiae, the next stepping away and seeing the broader context. Spend too much time on the fine detail and you will get lost. But if you only think about the big picture you won't create or connect to anything.” (p 119)
  • Artists have a point of view
    • A point of view is not the same as a style. It is what you say, not the way you say it. And in the creativity game you're not really a player unless you have something to say.” (p 140)
  • Artists are brave
    • Boldness is required to release ideas into the world, even though it can feel alien and arrogant. I mean, who do I think I am? Some kind of genius? Surely there are far more talented people than me out there?” (p 162)
  • Artists pause for thought
    • When artists sit down in their chairs they switch personas. They stop being the creator and turn into a critic. ... Their hyper-critical eyes scrutinise the work for insincerity, sloppiness and technical mistakes.” (p 178)
He concludes that all schools should be art schools (having taught in state secondary comprehensives for 33 years I agree that he makes some extremely valid points about the factory style of education which seems utterly unsuited to the modern digital age but I think he underestimates the political inertia) and then reforms the economy so that we all have portfolio careers. Great stuff! 

More wonderful words of wisdom:
  • Artists, like a lot of us, fear being ‘found out’. But somehow they manage to summon up enough self-belief to overcome the self-doubt.” (p 12)
  • Artists don't seek permission to paint or write or act or sing; they just do it.” (p 12)
  • The very act of making and creating is deeply satisfying, life-affirming and rewarding.” (p 16)
  • Artists are no more courageous or noble or single-minded than the farmers who go to extreme lengths, in extreme weathers, to protect their herd.” (p 20)
  • I don't think there's a dignity issue in being a plumber. ... keeping water out of places you don't want it is a big deal.” (p 36)
  • Creativity isn't about making additions; it is about making subtractions. Ideas need honing, simplifying and focusing.” (p 96)
  • Piero [della Francesca] set himself the task of rethinking how the world should be represented in a painting, given the invention [by Brunelleschi] of mathematical perspective. ... He made the commitment to question everything afresh. All assumptions had to be challenged, starting with first principles.” (p 109)
  • Ernest Hemingway would sometimes spend hours on a single sentence. Not because he was attempting to write the perfect solitary line of text, but because he was trying to make that sentence successfully linked to the one preceding it and seamlessly lead on to the next - while also contributing something to the story.” (p 121)
  • Society puts enormous pressure on us to conform. It functions when we all adhere to agreed systems. We obediently drive our cars on a designated side of the road, use money as the accepted mode of exchange for goods or services received, and stand patiently in queues . It works. If we didn't respect these social conventions chaos would ensue and Society would collapse.” (p 169) 
  • Being employed can be a stifling and infantilizing experience, which is hardly conducive to creativity.” (p 198)

A remarkable book in which an enormous amount of insight is crammed into 200 small pages. April 2018; 201 pages

Monday, 2 April 2018

"The Book of Dave" by Will Self

Five hundred years from now England has been invaded by the rising sea and turned into an archipelago with an agriculturally based feudal society. There are two languages, that we would recognise today and a dialect derived from the speech of |London cabbies. The simple farmers of Ham subsist with a mammal called the Moto, a domesticated sub-human capable of speech, which they farm for its oil and its meat.

The religion of Ing is based on the Book of Dave, a London cabby around the year 2000, and its theology, its liturgy and its practices are based on Dave's life. Heretics, called fliers, are ruthlessly persecuted.

Carl, son of the Geezer, a heretic who preached a second testament of Dave, is on the cusp of becoming a man. But he and his teacher, queer Antone, have been found guilty of entering the Forbidden Zone and they  flee Ham and travel through the hostile islands of Ing, searching for Carl's dad.

This story alternates with chapters from the life of Dave himself, angry cabby going mad and alleged father of Carl, now lost to him through the machinations of ex-wife Michelle and her new lover Cal.

There are very many parallels between the two stories and, I suppose, there are meant to be allegorical parallels between  the Geezer, preacher of the second testament, and  Jesus. But the stories are merely a vehicle for Self to show off his dazzling abilities.

First he has imagined a dystopia and fleshed it out and peopled it and every detail is described so brilliantly that you are there. You understand the flora and the fauna and the strange social customs of the people. He does the same for present-day London. "the London diorama pivoted about him: the toothpick steeples and cruet cupolas of the remaining Wren churches, the steel braces and concrete Karnak of Broadgate and the Barbican, the AstroTurf lawns and inflated, latex walls of the Tower, the brass doorknob of the Monument. Downriver a flock of pigeons clattered over the petrified wharves on the south bank, where graduate stevedores in blue striped aprons loaded boudon noir into the holds of German financial engineers." (p 453) There are magical images (toothpick steeples), there is humour (graduate stevedores) and it is all crammed together as if he is using a pneumatic hammer to cram far more in than he is allowed.

Second he has imagined not just one new language but two. By the end of the book you can read fluently both cabbie cockney of c2000 CE
Eye sumtyms fink iss awl gon arsy-versy, yernowoteyemeen? Ve C az cumminta ve lan - ve lan az gon aht 2 C” (p 465)
and the derived patois of Ham 524 After Dave which this blog doesn't give me the script to write.


This comes with its own cabbie derived vocabulary in which the words are sometimes spelt in several different ways depending on whether they are modern cabbie or future cabbie and how rural the future cabbie-speakers are: bubbery for cloth (from Burberry), blisterweed (or blistaweed) for Giant Hogweed, butterboys and nolidj boys and fonies (footmen) and fuckoffgaff (posh house) and ...

So the creation of these languages is a stunning tour de force.

And then the characters. Dave the cabbie, angrier and angrier, his inner voice ranting misogynistically and racistly and misanthropically. He hates everyone. He has good reason to hate some of them. By the end you feel sorry for poor old Dave, more abused than abuser. Michelle his ex-wife and her rich husband Cal who, despite being a stock character, races round London trying to track down his mentally ill daughter and desperately wants to be a dad to depressed teenager Carl. And in the new world there is Carl, soon to be a man, the farmboy with a way with motos, the lad who has no dad and so is adopted by them all, and Antony, the heretic teacher.

And all of this rich tapestry is a vehicle for Self to set forth his own vision of the hell we are making or our world and the even worse hell we might end up with if we let the forces of intolerance win. What if, he says, what if we allow a new religion to grow up which is based on a testament of hate written by a madman. And what he very carefully doesn't say is: what if that is the situation we are in now.

At the end of the book there is a funeral held in a Church of England church. "It was a measure of the dissipation of the Church's doctrine - its moral authority knocked over as casually as a drunk topples a beer glass - that a suicide's funeral was to be held ... But then self-murder and the mildewed hassocks, the musty drapes, the tarnished communion rail, the worm-holy rood screen, the foxed flyleaves of the prayer books - it all sat well together ... they were all the same for the impotent figures who stood in the pulpit and peered down at pitiful congregations" (p 474) Self seems to despise the modern church. But his vision of a future world run by fanatical priests in the service of a religion of hate is so appalling that I think I'll take the worm-holy rood.

Other wonderful phrases:

  • It fits tighter than a ridged dick in a ribbed condom.” (p 37)
  • Adding his own can of pain to this slopping tank of loss.” (p 44)
  • people walked the street with the jerky motion of puppets, visible strings lifting styrofoam cups to their painted lips.” (p 47)
  • there were hotels so large other hotels could have checked into them” (p 50)
  • All kids lie to their parents at that age - but I lied more.” (p 105)
  • All vain, pretty young women require at least one who is less so, to offset their own allure.” (p 107)
  • The hick from the sticks, who ... has no more conception of the city he found himself in than a worm does of the apple it bores through.” (p 193)
  • Insanity stank out the confined space like an eggy fart.” (p 278)
  • he was shooting fast down the senescent rapids.” (p 280)
  • crack criminals who’d broken into their own psyches, stolen everything worth having and left only coiled turds on the carpet of their own consciousness.” (p 284) 
  • He hacked at himself with craft knives, he upended paracetamol bottles. His stomach had been pumped more often than he’d filled it. iI the revolving door through which he entered Heath Hospital have been attached to a generator, Steve could have provided enough power for his own ECT.” (p 286)
  • They ... were grateful for his unceasing eight-year-old twitter, birdsong in their rotten garden.” (p 326) Birdsong in their rotten garden - what a wonderful way to show the desperate relationship between the mother and father of this child
  • He wanted to be where he was a lad to every dad, where he wasn't a stranger or an oddity.” (p 372)
  • we hardly have time to bolt starbuck before we must be gone for our sightseeing tour” (p 373)
  • Dave had become a cabbie to miss out on the supervisory eyes that made adult working life another fidgety classroom.” (p 391 )
  • When he penetrated her, they moved into and out of one another with fluid ease, revving and squealing, before arriving quite suddenly.” (p 392) Sex in the style of a London cab.
  • I fink they're too stops short of Dagenham. mate. said the foxy-faced cabbie, and his mate crackled. Yeah, fucking barking!” (p 401)
  • Surely it's only a tosser who says he regrets nothing at all - it means he remembers nothing ... be-because to remember is to regret.” (p 466)
Wow.

April 2018; 477 pages

Thursday, 29 March 2018

"Myths of the Greeks and Romans" by Michael Grant

Yet another wonderful book lent to me by my mate Fred whose other contributions include:
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • The Mighty Dead: a superb analysis of the Iliad but an author who writes like a dream
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • The Song of Achilles  a wonderful novel by Madeline Miller
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
This loan was possibly in response to my lending him Mythos by the brilliant Stephen Fry; also heartily recommended.

To read Grant's book is a little like exploring in a slightly chaotic museum. Each chapter is based around a tale told by some wonderful writer; he starts with Homer and the Wrath of Achilles, and moves through the Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex by Sophocles to Virgil, Ovid and Apuleius. And having recounted the substance of the story he then tells you about its context, historical and archaeological findings, biographies of the writers and some description about the styles of work that they were using, and then their influences all the way through the Andre Gide. So even if you are, as I am, more or less familiar with the story itself, there is a wealth of other information. It's like web-surfing. One thing leads to another in a wonderful voyage of slightly haphazard discovery.

Some of the things I learned:

Thespis was the first dramatist whose name is known. “It may well have been he who converted ‘the answer to the chorus’ ... into a regular actor impersonating a character ... responding to the chorus not in a choral metre but in the characteristic iambic verse-pattern of tragic narration, imitating the cadences of speech.” (p 176)

The chorus complements, illustrates, universalizes, or dramatically justifies the course of events; it comments or moralizes or mythologizes upon what happens, and opens up the spiritual dimension of the theme or displays the reaction of public opinion.” TS Eliot suggestive that it makes things more intense by showing them to the audience twice. (p 177)

Aeschylus introduced “a second actor, which created the possibility of a dramatic situation or conflict.” (p 179)

Oedipus ... entered, as WB Yeats paraphrased the lines, through the door that had sent him wailing forth.” (p 229)

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex ... is more disturbing in its savagery ... suggesting at times the incantations of Christian liturgy and implications of Christian theology ... man is dominated but may find his own redemption, and light comes to Oedipus when he loses his eyes.” (p 232)

Xenophanes claimed that people created Gods in their own image:
Horses’ gods are like horses, like kine the gods of kine. 

‘Snub-nosed are the Immortals, and black’ the Ethiops say; 
But ‘No’ the Thracians answer, red-haired, with eyes of grey.” 
If there is one god how can he be fashioned in the likeness of man? (p 264)

In a fragment of his Sisyphus Critias suggests that humans invented gods replaced conscience. (p 265)

In a fragment of the lost Bellerophon Euripides suggests that the problem of evil means gods don’t exist (p 267)

Strabo believed Jason was looking for gold, and explained that the Cochians collected the dust from the river in fleecy skins. According to the Byzantine Suidas, the fleece was a parchment book explaining how to obtain gold by alchemy” (p 298)

The earliest known mention of a wife of Orpheus is in Plato's Symposium.” (p 310)

Orphism is close ... to the ascetic mystery religion and way of life established in southern Italy during the later sixth century [BC] by Pythagoras.” (p 313)

In the fifth century ... the Greeks invented ‘Romus’ (Rhomos) as a typical aponymous city-founder. In Italy, the form Romulus became current - ‘the Roman’ ... When the Greeks heard of Romulus, they differentiated him from Romus” which led to Romulus and Remus. (p 355)

The Etruscans became identifiable shortly before 700 BC as a separate civilization, occupied in trade, industry and agriculture, but particularly in piracy and war. They made great use of horses, introducing at the chariot to Italy. Etruscan strength came from the working of metals: the copper of Tuscany and the iron of Elba were perhaps what had tempted them to settle, and the whole of rorthern Etruria became a region of mines.” (p 365)

Deluge myths occur in thirty-four out of a specimen group of fifty among the world’s mythologies.” (p 400)

The Deucalion version [of the flood] ... may perhaps enshrine memories of a post-Paleolithic epoch in Greece itself, when central Thessaly became a lake.” (p 401)

Isn't it a joy?

March 2018; 430 pages

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

"Hold tight" by Harlan Coben

At the start of this book I was hooked by the ordinariness of the people involved and the dilemmas. We have a hot shot doctor married to a hot shot lawyer worried about their teenage son who is secretive and seems depressed following the suicide of his mate. So they put spyware onto his computer and start worrying about the strange emails he is receiving. These are dilemmas thoroughly rooted in reality. Other everyday situations involve their daughter's best friend who is being bullied at school following a foolish remark from a teacher, the son of the next door neighbour who is critically ill, and the parents of the lad who has killed himself who are splitting apart in their grief. There is a huge amount of potential drama here.

There is also a horrid man touring around in a white van beating women to death. He is a psychopath who gains pleasure from hurting people although his primary motive is that he is trying to extract information. At this stage it became difficult to suspend disbelief.

But a good whodunnit is a good puzzle. Don't worry about the stereotyped characters: the psychopath, the weak but enthusiastic teacher, the aggressive female lawyer who bullies everyone, the successful doctor who used to be an all-star hockey player, the brilliant policewoman and her colleague, the careless, should-have-been-retired-years-ago detective, the panoply of emo goths that represent America's youth.

But a good whodunnit is a good puzzle. There's always a twist right at the end. It's a shame that this twist involves someone who was given an alibi on page 270; an alibi that was never subsequently queried. Which I think is unfair to the reader.

Nevertheless, this book is written with Coben's usual energy. An even better book by Coben reviewed in this blog is Gone for Good.


Three great lines:

  • "For some reason, hurting strangers seemed worse. We all hurt those we love, don't we? But it was bad karma to hurt the innocent." (p 3)
  • "when you're busy you don't think of what should have been." (p 132)
  • "Maybe it is society, not war, that forces man to act in a way that's not in his true nature." (p 329)


March 2018; 432 pages



Sunday, 25 March 2018

"Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life" by Peter Godfrey-Smith

This is a beautifully written book about the intelligence of octopi and cuttlefish which are cephalopods. “If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is ... because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.” (p 9) Along the way it becomes an enquiry into what it means to have a consciousness. “For some animals, there's something it feels like to be such an animal. there is a self, of some kind, that experiences what goes on.” (p 10)

It starts tracing the evolution of the nervous system. After all, even bacteria can react to stimuli and therefore may be said to have some version of sentience:

  • The bacterium will swim in a straight line as long as the chemicals it senses seem better now than those it sensed a moment ago. If not, it’s preferable to change course.” (p 17)

The crucial factor is that the bacteria can in some sense detect the actions they themselves take. This feedback loop between sensory input and action and sensory input is the beginning of self awareness. And because one bacterium can detect things that other bacteria do it is the beginning of communication and socialisation. So when cells begin to get together in multicellular organisms we have the rudimentary mechanisms for a nervous system.

  • The receptors on the surfaces of bacterial cells are sensitive to many things, and these include chemicals that bacteria themselves tend to excrete” (p 18)
  • If a chemical is both produced and sensed by a particular kind of bacteria, it can be used by those bacteria to assess how many individuals of the same kind are around.” (p 18)
  • Chemicals that are made because they'll be perceived and responded to by others ... brings us to the threshold of signalling and communication.” (p 19)

At this stage I was getting excited. After all, Andy Clark in Surfing Uncertainty, working in the world of artificial intelligence, suggests that a computationally frugal solution for intelligence involves an organism making an expectation and comparing the sensory data with the expectation so that a simple error reduction algorithm can improve the expectation. This involves a feedback loop and here we see something similar being evolved from the simplest forms of cellular life.

G-S gives an example in technology developed to aid the blind. There is a system that uses a camera to change vision into tactile sensations on the skin of a blind person. The person soon learns to experience “objects located in space” BUT “only when the wearer is able to control the camera.” (p 80)

Of course, multicellular life had to evolve before cell specialisation could start developing proper nervous systems. But this wasn't as difficult as it might at first look. It has evolved independently more than once. “The transition to a multicellular form of life occurred many times, leading once to animals, once to plants, on other occasions to fungi, various seaweeds, and less conspicuous organisms.” (p 20)

And once predation begins (probably in the Cambrian) each organism must be aware of the others which adds further urgency to the evolution of sensory-action feedback loops. “From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.” (p 36)

The only thing that makes animals different is that they have greater capacity to take actions and so need to be even faster at sensing their own actions. “All living things affect their environment by making and transforming chemicals, and also by growing and sometimes by moving, but it is muscle that gives rise to rapid, coherent action on large spatial scales. It makes possible the manipulation of objects, the deliberate and rapid transformation of what is around us.” (p 82) This “interaction between perception and action” is critical. (p 83)

And the next stage for feedback loops is our own thoughts. G-S suggests that the internalization of language, “Vygotsky’s transition ... was also an important evolutionary event.” (p 152) He spends some time on inner speech:

  • When we look inside, most people find a flow of inner speech, a monologue that accompanies much of our conscious life.” (p 138)
  • Ordinary speech functions both as input and output ... We both speak and hear, and we can hear what we say. Even talking to yourself out loud can be a useful way of approaching a problem.” (p 144)
  • In speech, the creation of an efference copy enables you to compare your spoken words to an inner image of them; this can be used to work out whether the sound ‘came out right’.” (p 145)
  • This then means that we can “put together sentences that we don't intend to say, sentences and fragments of language that have a purely internal role. ... We can put things in order, bring possibilities together, can list and instruct and exhort.” (p 147) This is particularly useful for Kahneman’s [ref Thinking, Fast and Slow] “System 2” thinking, the “slow, deliberate style of thinking we engage in when we encounter novel situations ... [which] tries to follow proper rules of reasoning, and tries to look at things from more than one side.” (p 147)
  • This resonates with the “workspace theory of consciousness” (p 149)
  • Inner speech is especially prominent when “we bring attention to bear on our own thought processes, reflect on them, and experience them as our own.” (p 152)
  • When you write something for yourself to read ... it is a communication between your present self and a future self.” (p 155)

There is also an interesting argument about ageing. Why do species age at different rates: trees last hundreds of years, humans perhaps a hundred, cephalopods mostly two? The idea is that “When molecular accidents put mutations into the population ... the late-acting mutations will be cleaned out less efficiently than early-acting ones.” (p 166) “So mutations with good effects early in life and the bad effects later in life will accumulate; natural selection will favour them.” (p 167) Therefore some populations have evolved such that the bad mutations tend to affect them later in life ... and it seems like spontaneous ageing. The life-span is thus partly a matter of evolutionary chance and partly governed by the balance of reproduction and predation. When the octopus lost its hard shell it became much more susceptible to predation which meant that it had to live its life a lot quicker because, sooner or later, a sharp-toothed fish would eat it. Presumably humans are mostly prey to diseases which, sooner or later, will get them, so they are able to evolve genes which allow then to fight the diseases for a while even at the cost of dying later.

Other thoughts from this brilliant book:

  • Cuttlefish sometimes deeply ignore visitors to their watery world. “Being ignored so deeply makes you wonder if you are entirely real in their watery world, as if you are one of those ghosts who does not realise they are against.” (p 118)
  • When animals did crawl onto the dry land, they took the sea with them. All the basic activities of life occur in water-filled cells bounded by membranes, tiny containers whose insides are remnants of the sea.” (p 200)
A readable and intensely thought-provoking book. March 2018; 204 pages

Saturday, 24 March 2018

"Liquid Modernity" by Zygmunt Bauman

This book, written in the year 2000, explores our modern ideas from a sociological / philosophical viewpoint. It has some interesting alternative perspectives and it is written with passion, sometimes anger; it is extraordinarily readable.

His thesis is that the advent of 'liquid' modernity (the internet, the flexibility of new capital, the changing relationships within society) have created substantial and important changes in the way we live our lives.

Freedom
Thus, he discusses freedom. After all, we live in the 'free world'. But this tends to concentrate on political freedom: freedom of speech, of religion, and so forth. Most of us in the western world enjoy this and it is a very precious freedom. But many people are not economically free. Poor people rarely have control of their own destiny. They may not be technically slaves but they often have little opportunity to determine their lives.

Bauman points out, first, that being free doesn't necessarily mean being happy. This works the other way as well. “what feels like freedom is not in fact freedom at all; that people may be satisfied with their lot even though that lot were far from being ‘objectively’ satisfactory; that, living in slavery, they feel free and so experience no urge to liberate themselves" (p 17) But this is not allowed by the libertarians who suppose "that people may be incompetent judges of their own plight and must be forced or cajoled, but in any case guided” to seek freedom (p 17).

In fact most so called libertarians are very distrustful of the mob. In the past, political freedom and human rights were balanced by the suffocating moral code of society. Even today, one's freedom to speak one's mind may be severely curtailed by the social opprobrium one suffers should one's opinions be deemed politically incorrect. So freedom is a balancing act. Hobbesian libertarians “draw their credibility from the assumption that a human being released from coercive social constraints ... is a beast rather than a free individual ... social coercion is in this philosophy the emancipatory force and the sole hope of freedom that a human may reasonably entertain. ... There is no other way to pursue the liberation but to ‘submit to society’ and to follow its norms.” (p 20)

Identity and Individualism

In the old days, people were born into their identities but now you have to become your identity. (p 32) In early modernity the challenge facing people was to conform to “the emerging class-bound social types and models of conduct.” (p 28) “class and gender were ‘facts of nature’ and the task left to the self-assertion of most individuals was to ‘fit in’ in the allocated niche through behaving as the other occupants did.” (p 33)

Nowadays “we are presently moving away from the era of pre-allocated ‘reference groups’ ... the destination of individual self-constructing labours is endemically and incurably undetermined, is not given in advance, and tends to undergo numerous and profound changes before ... the end of the individual’s life.” (p 7) This means that “the burden of pattern-weaving and the responsibility for failure falling primarily on the individual’s shoulders.” (p 8)

Nowadays Big Brother, the punisher of individuality, no longer exists. Nor does Elder Brother, who guides the individual into their proper channel. (p 61) “Everything ... is now down to the individual. It is up to the individual to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity could be applied best.” (p 62)

And we need guidance. Bauman points out that TV chat shows are “daily compulsive viewing for millions of guidance-hungry men and women.” (p 68) However the only support offered is the self-help support group. “One may perhaps also learn from other people's experience how to survive the next round of ‘downsizing’, how to handle children who think they are adolescents and adolescents who refuse to become adults, how to get the fat and other unwelcome ‘foreign bodies’ ‘out of one’s system’, how to get rid of addiction that is no longer pleasurable or partners who are no longer satisfying. But what one learns in the first place from the company of others is ... advice about how to survive in one's own irredeemable loneliness” (p 35)

Shifting the blame
At the threshold of the modern era we have been emancipated from belief in the act of creation, revelation and eternal condemnation. With such beliefs out of the way, we humans found ourselves ‘on our own’ - which means that from then on we knew of no limits to improvement and self-improvement other than the shortcomings of our own inherited or acquired gifts, resourcefulness, nerve, will and determination.” (p 28)

That men and women have no one to blame for their frustrations and troubles does not need now to mean ... that they can protect themselves ... if they fall ill, it is assumed that this is happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, because they did not try hard enough to find a job what because they are, purely and simply, work-shy.” (p 34)


The relationship between the governed and the governors:
Modern life is like a caravan site: “Drivers bring to the site their own homes ... each driver has his or her own itinerary and time schedule. What the drivers wants from the site managers is not much more (but no less either) then to be left alone and not interfered with. In exchange, they promise not to challenge the managers’ authority and to pay the rent when due. Since they pay, they also demand. They tend to be quite adamant when arguing for their rights to the promised services but otherwise want to go their own ways and would be angry if not allowed to do so. On occasion, they may clamour for better service ... but it won't occur to them to ... take over the responsibility for running the place.” (p 24)

Certainly the bosses no longer want to look after people. “The contemporary global elite can run without burdening itself with the chores of administration, management, welfare concerns, or, for that matter, with the mission of ‘bringing light’, ‘reforming the ways’, morally uplifting, ‘civilizing’ and cultural crusades. Active engagement in the life of subordinate populations is no longer needed (on the contrary, it avoided as unnecessarily costly and ineffective)” (p 13)

Instead the prime technique is to relocate the blame for misery. “Being an individual de jure means having no one to blame for one's own misery, seeking the causes of one's own defeats nowhere except in one's own indolence and sloth, and looking for no remedies other than try harder and harder still.” (p 38) As in the Bible, the Israelites are being ordered to make bricks without straw “and the producers of bricks are told that solely their own laziness prevents them from doing the job properly.” (p 49)

But the destruction of collective action and the iconisation of individualism has left the poor, those "limited to their own, individually owned, blatantly inadequate resources.” (p 33)  without a weapon:

Too many opportunities

Bauman suggests that modern capitalism has, in order to keep selling, moved beyond need. In the olden days goods were produced to satisfy need. But "there is a bottom line to what one needs in order to stay alive and be capable of doing whatever the producer’s role may require, but also an upper limit to what one may dream of, desire and pursue while counting on the social approval for one’s ambitions ... whatever rises above that limit is a luxury, and desiring luxury is a sin. The main concern is therefore that of conformity.” (p 76)

We've gone beyond the 'luxury is a sin' point. And now we are moving beyond desire. This is because “it takes time, effort and considerable financial outlay to arouse desire ... Consumers guided by desire must be ‘produced’, ever anew, and at high cost".

In order to keep selling the capitalists must create a mind-set in which we are desperate for endless self-improvement. “The ‘my body a besieged fortress’ attitude does not lead to asceticism, abstinence or renunciation; if anything, it means consuming more - but consuming special ‘healthy’ foods, commercially supplied.” (p 80)

But this pursuit of wishes brings anxieties: “One thing the fitness-seekers know for sure is that they are not fit enough, yet, and that they must keep trying. The pursuit of fitness is the state of perpetual self-scrutiny, self-reproach and self-deprecation, and so also of continuous anxiety.” (p 78)

We used to admire those who could wait for things. But now we are too busy running to catch up with eternally receding goals. “No longer is the delay of gratification a sign of moral virtue. It is a hardship pure and simple, a problematic burden signalling imperfections in social arrangements, personal inadequacy, or both. ...In the casino culture the waiting is taken out of wanting, but the satisfaction of the wanting must also be brief, must last only until the next run of the ball, to be as short-lived as the waiting, lest it should smother, rather than replenish and reinvigorate, the desire.” (p 159) “To stay alive and fresh, desire must be time and again, and quite often, gratified - yet gratification spells the end of the desire.” (p 160) “One can think of no reason to stick to an inferior or aged product rather than look for a ‘new and improved’ one in the shops.” (p 164)

But there is too much to want.
"The world full of possibilities is like a buffet table set with mouth-watering dishes, too numerous for the keenest of eaters to hope to taste them all.” (p 62)
I just need to look at my bookshelves, stuffed with books I have bought but not yet got around to reading, and the Amazon 'later' list which has over one hundred titles on it, and the poster of a hundred books I 'must' read on which I have nearly half still to be read, to know that there is too much wanting in my world.

Of course this endless choice is only available to the monied. “The more choices the rich seem to have, the less bearable to all is a life without choosing.” (p 88)

Cities and strangers

The modern dream is to live in a community. But other people are dangerous. Defining a city as "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet" (p 94) Bauman suggests that such encounters require us to develop "civility" (p 95) a code of behaviour appropriate for an encounter unlikely to have either a past or a future. He suggests that the spaces we develop where encounters with strangers regularly take place (airport lounges, hotel rooms, motorway service stations etc) "do not require a mastery of the sophisticated and hard-to-study art of civility, since they reduce behaviour in public to a few simple and easy-to-grasp precepts.” (p 102)

But we are becoming so frightened of strangers that we are redeveloping gated communities (going back, perhaps, to the walled towns of the middle-ages) in which civility and community is ensured by the tight surveillance of security guards and CCTV (p 92)

Then we dump everything that is bad outside the walls. The “communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is ... hostile - a wilderness full of ambushes and conspiracies and bristling with enemies wielding chaos as their main weapons. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle which starts on the other side of the turnpike. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter.” (p 172)

Work

Once upon a time, we worked for our tribe. Work was “the collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake." This meant that work became elevated into a moral imperative. "All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that natural condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity; ranking men and women according to the assumed value of the contribution their work made to the species-wide endeavour; and assigning to work the prime place among human activities, leading to moral self-improvement and to the rise of the overall ethical standards of society.” (p 137)

This was a time when labourers were needed. Bauman suggests that the welfare state owes its origin to the need for the bosses to make sure that there was a supply of (healthy) labour ready to be call upon. “The unemployed were fully and truly the ‘reserve army of labour’, and so had to be kept through thick and thin in a state of readiness, in case they were called back into active service. ... More sceptical observers saw the welfare state as a collectively financed and managed sanitation device - a cleaning-and-healing operation to be run as long as the capitalist enterprise kept generating social waste it had neither intention nor resources to recycle.” (p 145)

But now there isn't enough work to go round. “Work can no longer offer the secure axis around which to wrap and fix self-definitions, identities and life-projects. Neither can it be easily conceived of as the ethical foundation of society, or as the ethical axis of individual life. Instead work has acquired ... a mainly aesthetic significance. It is expected to be gratifying by and in itself, rather than be measured by the genuine or putative effects it brings to one’s brothers and sisters in humanity ... let alone the bliss of future generations ... It is instead measured and evaluated by its capacity to be entertaining and amusing” (p 139)

Furthermore, the global economy means that mobile capital can roam the world while the less-mobile workers are stuck in one place. This in turn means that localised governments have to pander to capital. “To an unprecedented degree politics has become a tug-of-war between the speed with which capital can move and the ‘slowing down’ capacities of local powers ... A government ... has little choice but to implore and cajole, rather than force, capital to fly in ... In practice, all this means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a ‘flexible labour market’. More generally, it means a docile population.” (p 150) The only weapon governments have is their markets. “Capital is dependent, for its competitiveness, effectiveness and profitability, on consumers ... a labour force is but a secondary consideration.” (p 151)

Bauman suggests there are now four sorts of work: “People who invent the ideas and the ways to make them desirable and marketable ... those engaged in the reproduction of labour (educators or various functionaries of welfare state) ... ‘skin trades’ requiring face-to-face encounter with the recipients of service ... routine labourers ... the most expendable, disposable and exchangeable parts of the economic system.” (p 153)

Other ideas

  • Reality “is created by ...the stubborn indifference of the world to my intention, the world's reluctance to submit to my will, that rebounds in the perception of the world as ‘real’ - constraining, limiting and disobedient.” (p 17)
  • When authorities are many, they tend to cancel each other out. ... It is by courtesy of the chooser that a would-be authority becomes an authority. Authorities no longer command; they ingratiate themselves with the chooser; they tempt and seduce.” (p 64)
  • Heavy modernity was the era of territorial conquest. Wealth and power was firmly rooted or deposited deep inside the land - bulky, ponderous and immovable like the beds of iron ore and deposits of coal. ... Anything lying between the outposts of competing imperial realms was seen as masterless, a no man’s land, and so an empty space - and empty space was a challenge to action and a reproach to idlers.” (p 114)
  • The labyrinth becomes the master image of the human condition” (p 138)
  • If staying together was a matter of reciprocal agreement and mutual dependency, disengagement is unilateral.” (p 149)
  • Leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.” (p 155)
This is an amazing book. I might not agree with many of the things that has been said, and time may prove wrong, but there is no gainsaying that this is a brilliantly argued position and it certainly made me think.

March 2018; 200 pages




Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Love, Simon" by Becky Albertalli

Originally published as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda,

This is a YA novel set in an American High School and thus comparable to The Fault in Our Stars and, especially, Paper Towns both by John Green.

There is a great hook right at the start. Martin has read Simon's emails to Blue and discovered that Simon, 17, is secretly gay. Martin proceeds to blackmail Simon into setting Martin up on a date with Simon's friend Abby. But Simon has another problem too. He is falling in love, by email, with Blue who, he has deduced, also goes to the school. But he doesn't know who Blue is.

At which point there are a number of scenarios. Blue could be some old pervert tricking Simon into these emails and intending to lure him into a compromising situation and even rape. Blue could be Martin himself, twisting Simon round his little finger, or some other member of the class out to tease and humiliate Simon. Blue could (Simon hopes) be Cal who is stunningly hot.

Simon's other problem, of course, is giving Martin enough for Martin not to expose him. And of course he has to negotiate the pitfalls and perils of teenage sexuality complicated by the need to 'come out' (which means talking about his sex-life with his parents, gross) not to mention all the other problems that a kid at school growing up routinely has.

It's a great little story which twists and turns and keeps you hooked to the very end.



Great lines:
  • People are like houses with big rooms and tiny windows.” (p 18) 
  • The whole point of everything is to find a shore worth swimming to.” (p 18) 
  • My mum was the one who got obsessed with the idea that I had a girlfriend even though I had never had one before. I don't know why that came as such a freaking surprise to her, since I'm pretty sure most people start out never having had one.” (p 55) 
  • It's a little fucked up that teachers think they get to dictate what you think about. It's not enough if you just sit there quietly and let them teach. It's like they think they have a right to control your mind.” (p 108) 
  • Straight people really should have to come out, and the more awkward it is the better.” (p 147) 
  • My dad invented the concept of Simon logic ... it means wishful thinking supported by flimsy evidence.” (p 151) 
  • My heart is a pinball” (p 204) 
  • A couple of the girls put some junk in my hair to make it messy, which is basically like putting high heels on a giraffe.” (p 214)
March 2018; 303 pages

Sunday, 18 March 2018

"The End of Everything" by Megan Abbott

Lizzie and Evie are best friends growing up and experiencing the hormones of puberty that have started to make them see boys as more than nuisances. They share everything. So Lizzie thinks. Till Evie disappears.

Lizzie turns into the key witness. She identifies the car she saw and she knows who drives it, the father of a school friend; he too has disappeared. She finds the cigarettes he smoked as he was stalking Evie. She even breaks into the Shaw house to search for evidence the police haven't found.

Lizzie's amateur sleuthing stretched credibility. Were the police really so stupid firstly to believe Lizzie's often improbable lies which could so easily have been checked and secondly not to be a little more observant of the perpetrator's wife? And could we really believe that a thirteen year old girl, often clad in little more than a tee shirt and knickers, could spend so many nights roaming around a neighbourhood in lockdown after an abduction? Lizzie's mother seems repeatedly negligent and Evie's mother is almost a complete non-entity as is  Mrs Shaw; mature women in this story are faintly drawn to the point of invisibility.

At the same time she is always around Evie's house, comforting her father in a relationship which, from Lizzie's point of view although she does not necessarily recognise it, is swiftly developing into love. And there is the complicating factor of Evie's elder sister Dusty, the one that all the teenage boyts adore, the one who ought to be abducted if anyone is.

Told from Lizzie's point of view this is an interesting exploration of the love between young girls and older men. Lizzie's feelings were intense and sometimes slightly repetitive but always kept away from melodrama. The feelings of the other characters, which the narrator had to surmise from their words and actions, sometimes reaching different conclusions from the immature protagonist, were drawn with deftness and subtlety. At the end the precise natures of the relationships between Dusty and Evie and their father, and the feelings of Evie's dad for Lizzie, are always open to alternative interpretations.


  • "We were that close. Sometimes we blinked in time." (p 27)
  • "It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time." (p 27)
  • "An old velvet poster that said 'Mott the Hoople', which I always thought was a Dr Seuss book." (p 70)
  • "The awkward slouch of boys who grew so fast they themselves seemed bewildered by it, faintly dazed in their own skin." (p 73)
  • "You can't ever know anyone's private darkness." (p 148)
A haunting exploration of the feelings of a newly pubescent girl. March 2018; 246 pages

Thursday, 15 March 2018

"The Snow Kimono" by Mark Henshaw

A retired Parisian police inspector, Jovert, meets the retired Japanese professor who lives in the room underneath, Tadashi Omura. This man tells him about the daughter who was never his but whom he raised, the daughter who went off to meet her father when her father was released from jail. The father, once a brilliant novelist Katsuo, was Omura's childhood friend. And Omura tells of their lives and of the women Katsuo loved. It all got rather complicated.

And at the same time Jovert has been contacted by a woman claiming to be his daughter, born to him in Algeria after he had left the country, where he did secret work during the time of French colonial rule. And there are a number of women who impinge on Jovert's life.

All these stories are woven together like a Japanese jigsaw. "They are the so-called himitsu-e puzzles, puzzles so cunningly made that they either have an infinite number of solutions or solutions which are mutually contradictory." (p 44) This tapestry made with simple threads of haiku-like simplicity.

Of English jigsaw puzzles:

  • "No matter where you start ... you always end up in the same place. And you always know beforehand." (p 46)
  • "There's another way of looking at it ... it doesn't matter where you start, if you keep going, you will always find completion. What is important is that you start." (p 46)

Other memorable lines:

  • "If you want power over people, you have to go inside them, find out what they are afraid of. Be them." (pp 84 - 85)
  • "You-are-just-a-footnote, he said. A footnote. To-my-life. You-are-a-nothing, a zero, a meaningless cipher. He spat the words out. You're what happens when history blinks. Don't you see? You don't exist. Except as a function of me." (p 145)
  • "How many times have they sat on the terrace at night looking down at the jewelled city, or in the darkness of the lit garden, listening to the frogs, the slow tock, tock, tock of the water clock, the strings of a shamisen?" (p 192) I love the contradiction in the darkness of the lit garden.


A strange but compelling story. March 2018; 400 pages

Sunday, 11 March 2018

"Generation X" by Douglas Coupland

Belated teenage angst is to the fore in these three characters: Dag, Andy and Claire, who live in bungalows around a swimming pool in Palm Springs, California, paying the bills by tending bar. They could have been yuppies but they have turned their backs on all that for the sake of authenticity. And their parents don't understand them.


Three twenty somethings have dropped out of “The endless stream of pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause" (p 14) to tend bar and live in a Californian bungalow with a swimming pool. The problem is that their previous lives were meaningless but there isn't a lot more meaning in this one. They hate their consumerist society but they love the good things that money brings: "I sat there and babbled and ate the food, which, I must say, was truly delicious: a celery root remoulade and John Dory fish in Pernod sauce.

Perhaps it was intended to be a Decameron: posh people fleeing from the plague of consumerist nihilism tell stories to one another in the desert. But who wants to listen to the whinges of the spoiled?

I felt:
  • (a) they were a bit old for teenage angst
  • (b) they were fake and false and spoiled! (I sound so old!!!!) 
It is as if life isn't worth living but she is still going to floss.

It was all just a little bit too comfortable. They are not struggling to make ends meet; Andy flies home for Christmas. They work and they party. Perhaps this is a pattern in American tales of troubled youngsters. Holden Caulfield, a genuine teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, might be lonely and depressed and haunted by the sense that everything is false but he goes to private school, stays in a hotel in New York, rides around in cabs, goes to restaurants. Suicidal Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People has a rich lawyer father who gives him a car for his birthday. Perhaps only rich Americans have the time to spare for angst.

There were many moments of beautiful writing (“This is the same sun that makes me think of regal tangerines and dimwitted butterflies and lazy carp. And the ecstatic drops of pomegranate blood seeping from skin fissures of fruits rotting on the tree branch next door - drops that hang like rubies.”, p 10) and many more moments that really made you think:
  • Most of us only have two or three genuinely interesting moments in our lives, the rest is filler, and that at the end of our lives, most of us will be lucky if any of those moments connect together to form a story that anyone would find remotely interesting.” (p 29)
  • Marketing is essentially about feeding the poop back to diners fast enough to make them think they’re still getting real food. It’s not creation, really, but theft, and no one ever feels good about stealing.” (p 33)
  • After you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of Earth? ... What’s your takeaway?”(p 104)
  • I had a quick Scotch to grab a buzz.” (p 115)
  • My friends are all either married, boring, and depressed; single, bored , and depressed; or moved out of town to avoid boredom and depression.” (p 166)
  • When someone tells you they’ve just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality.” (p 166)
  • The only times I’ll ever get” (p 175)
  • We’re all lapdogs; I just happen to know who’s petting me.” (p 185)
  • But hey - if more people like you choose not to play the game, it’s easier for people like me to win.” (p 185)
It made me long for the days when Americans really dropped out, like the works of the immortal Jack Kerouac (On the Road etc)

But the best thing about it was at the bottom of every page there was either a bumper-sticker style slogan or a definition of a Generation X word such as “Hyperkarma: A deeply rooted belief that punishment will somehow always be far greater than the crime.

Many thanks to Danny and Mary who bought me this book as a gift.

March 2018; 208 pages

Thursday, 8 March 2018

"The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry

I have recently read Barry's Days Without End and so enjoyed it that I wanted to read another by the same author. This came highly recommended and was the Costa Book of the Year in 2008. It has the same structure: a rather rambling account of the vicissitudes of a life; just as you think you're going nowhere all the threads begin to come together and there is an exciting climax. And it has moments of exquisitely beautiful prose in which he encapsulates ideas and images with startling originality:

  • "We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.
  • "She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work."
  • "I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” 
  • Grief "is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back."

Lines such as these make me breathless with wonder.

Roseanne, once the most beautiful girl in Sligo, is one hundred years old and still with all her marbles and living in a decaying asylum in Roscommon. Dr Grene is the psychiatrist in charge and it is his responsibility to decide what is to happen to her: the asylum is closing down and the inmates are either moving to a brand new facility or being freed into the community with varying degrees of support. Dr Grene is further concerned that Roseanne's original incarceration might have been for reasons that nowadays no longer qualify as lunacy. There is a strong suspicion that she was locked up for her loose morals.

The narrative alternates between the autobiography that Roseanne is writing and hiding beneath her floorboards and Dr Grene's diary. The main thrust of the story, interrupted by Dr Grene's witterings, is Roseanne's life from being the daughter of the Sligo grave digger through to her marriage and beyond until she is admitted to the Sligo Mad House. The men in Roseanne's life include Presbyterians and Catholics, priests and policemen, and every shade of political opinion in an Ireland experiencing the civil war just after the Free State won independence from Britain, the backlash after the civil war as the de Valera government asserted control, the hard economic conditions and the fascist movements of the thirties and the neutrality of the Second World War. In many ways the turbulence of Roseanne's life mirrors the political turbulence of the young nation.

The prose can be awe-inspiring and insightful. This is from the first page:
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, ohl and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
(p 3)
What a start!

More moments of brilliance:
  • I was not indifferent to the boys ... I seem to remember thinking a sort of music rose from them, a sort of human noise that I did not understand. How I heard music arising from such rough forms I do not know at this distance. But such is the magicianship of girls, that they can transform mere clay into large and classic ideas.” (p 36) 
  • Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” (p 38)
  • As time goes on, as I am slowly like everyone else worn out, finding a tatter here and a tear there in the cloth of myself, I need this place more and more.” (p 46)
  • The trust of those in dark need is forgiving work” (p 46)
  • In a few years I will reach retirement age, and what then? I will be like a sparrow without a garden.” (p 46) 
  • For the life of me I did not know the soul of the person that stared back at me in my mother's mossy little mirror.” (p 57)
  • the devil's own tragedy is he is the author of nothing and architect of empty spaces.” (p 63)
  • She was like a painting with its varnish darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work.” (p 68)
  • A beard on a man is only a way of hiding something, his face of course. but also the inner matters, like a hedge around a secret garden, or a cover over a birdcage.” (p 102)
  • It is always worth itemising happiness, There is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can.” (p 148)
  • There are pits of grief obviously that only the grieving know. It is a voyage to the centre of the earth, a huge heavy machine boring down into the crust of the earth. And a little man growing wild at the controls. Terrified, terrified, and no turning back.” (p 172) 
  • We bury or burn the dead because we want to separate their corporeality from our love and remembrance. We do not want them after death to be still in their bedrooms, we want to hold an image of them living, in the full life in our minds.” (p 175)
  • We are never old to ourselves. This is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (p 185)
  • The world is not full of betrayers, it is full of people with decent motives and a full desire to do right by those who know them and love them. ... We are not wolves, but lambs astonished in the margins of the fields by sunlight and summer.” (p 186)
  • “I once lived among humankind, and found them in the generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of three or four that were like angels.” (p 277)
  • Is not most history written in a sort of wayward sincerity?” (p 289)
Wow.
March 2018; 303 pages





Saturday, 3 March 2018

"Periplous" by Lesley Saunders

This is a single poem in twelve linked sections. It is poetic recreation of the lost account of the Greek explorer Pytheas from Marseilles who supposedly circumnavigated the British Isles in c325 BCE.

A periplous is a sort of navigational log which lists the landmarks and safe anchorages so that subsequent sailors can find their way.

Each section has five stanzas; each stanza contains six lines of indeterminate syllable count and no discernible rhyming scheme. There is a final single line at the end of the poem which (I think) links with the theme of the next section.

The punctuation is as prose. There are no capitals at the start of the line unless it coincides with the start of a sentence. There is plenty of enjambment, including running the sentence on to the next stanza.

The poet seems to rely on juxtaposing images. One moment we are talking about "a woman washing/ another woman's hair in a pail" and the next "the psychogeography of rapefields/ and scythe-wheeled clearings".  In the section about Slavery we have a list of "POWs from Scythia Phrygia Lydia/ Syria Illyria", slavery in the classical world, and then we jump to "Ghana Guinea Benin" African slavery. In "Imagining Albion" we leap from the Greek philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes to a British twentieth century seaside resort.

She also mixes in sources from here, there and everywhere. Her three wrecked ships are the vessel that perhaps inspired Shakespeare's Tempest to the ship in Moby-Dick to one of Vasco da Gama's ships. So fact and fiction, muddled. She takes snippets of Latin poetry and Greek poetry and Portuguese songs and a Carol King song and Sloop John B and lines from an Anglo-Saxon poem ... If the source is originally written in a foreign language she preserves that. At least she usually gives the translation in the Notes. It reads like an attempt to rewrite The Waste Land

Regular readers of this blog know how this infuriates me. I think writing, whether prose or poetry, should be an attempt to communicate with the reader, not a display of the writer's erudition. There were a lot of things I had to look up when I was reading this poem.

Lines I liked:
... the candle-end

of a soul. I wept then
for the spent match of my life.

A reference to slaves as "floggable goods

Out there alone, I swam alone,

no friends, lovers,
it felt as if I were part of the ocean.” 


... little despot-god

of rainbows and tsunamis
Let’s make a songbook of the drowned

The last line is
O did you ever see a wild goose sailin’ o’er the sea” 
Which is, I suppose, the poet teasing us that we have been on a wild goose chase.

Hard work.

March 2018; 29 pages