Archive for July, 2016

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.

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The cull…

July 16, 2016

Yet another clear-out of several boxes of books!

It seems to be getting easier. Reference books are being culled ruthlessly; many are seriously out-of-date and I’d have replaced them long ago in the paper days; now they can go as I know where to find the information I want online. There’s still some sentimental attachment to seeing a familiar tome on the shelves, but it’s waning.

I’ve realised, too, I can part with a lot of the travel guides I’ve accumulated over the years; maps I still keep, as I know better than to rely totally on satnav, and, although I find the maps app on my phone helpful, it’s not often it can give you a big enough and clear enough overview of an unfamiliar town or city to enable you to avoid mistakes or long-cuts… But I can do so much of the homework I need to do before I set off, and travel lighter.

I’m able to be rather more ruthless with novels, too. Anything pre-1923 is available to download and read, so I only keep my best copies of favourite novels; the rest, particularly if I’m unsure whether I’ll read them again, can go. I’ve become a lot clearer about what I like and don’t like as I’ve grown older, which means I can decide pretty definitely whether I’m ever going to allocate more eyeball-time to re-reading a certain book or not. If not, off you go!

There was a time when having a library meant having books, and having them on display, as a way, I suppose, of reminding myself and others, that I’d read a particular book. Now my library is much more a ‘these I have loved’ project, and is therefore shrinking. I’m aiming for the day – haven’t reached it yet! – when I will go through my entire collection and select, deliberately, only those I definitely intend to keep, and will abandon the rest…

What is still difficult is to avoid buying more books. I have cut the number down that I buy each year from about seventy or so to about half this, but that’s not good enough. I don’t have enormous wish-lists like I used to; I feel that I’ve probably read ‘enough’ about certain subjects and so don’t need to buy the latest new book; I can avoid local bookshops and second-hand shops and even charity shops, but it’s harder when I’m away and am lured into thinking, ‘well, there could be something really exciting in here..’. Or when I pass through France and have to look to see if there’s anything that I know I’ll never come across back home.

Without being morbid, I do admit to myself that I have a limited amount of time left, and that there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in old certainties, which means re-reading those books that I’ve known and loved before, the old favourites, in the sure knowledge that I’m not going to be disappointed.

The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories Part 1

July 14, 2016

51L5bqa127L._AC_US160_It’s beginning to make me cross, now: you would expect that someone who’s not English, not British, who doesn’t speak British English, who’s not familiar with nineteenth century English history, and who wanted to write a story set in Victorian London would at least pass a draft of it to someone who was more familiar with those places and times and say, “Please would you read this for me and tell me if I’ve made any glaring errors?” So, why the hell don’t they? Why does so much downright tosh end up in print?

Rant over; let’s take a slightly more considered look at this volume, which is by no means as awful as the last one I reviewed the other week. By and large, a lot more attention is paid in these stories to accuracy in the Victorian language register, as well as details of the setting being more carefully considered, and so the whole is rather more convincing. We also do see Holmes engaged in a decent amount of detective work. This book is, however, also marred by small but annoying proof-reading errors. There’s more sense of real interplay between Holmes and Watson, although still a number of writers seem to think Watson is Holmes’ assistant, in the sense of office-boy or runaround, which jars a lot. Occasionally I did find myself thinking, “How did an editor let this through?”

But there are some yarns that are very good, convincing throughout, in Conan Doyle’s original vein. About half of them are good reads, and I’ll mention specifically The Song of the Mudlark, The Tale of the Forty Thieves, The Strange Missive of Germaine Wilkes, The Aspen Papers, The King of Diamonds, and The Seventh Stain: this last one is probably the best in the collection. And here’s the crux of things, which I’ve slowly arrived at in my reading of the pastiches: it’s not enough just to really enjoy the original stories: you need to be able to do several things well. First and foremost, you need a decent plot, the one thing that Conan Doyle doesn’t give you. There needs to be a decent (and appropriate) crime or mystery – something sensational, twentieth-century therefore out-of-place won’t do. Plenty of types of crime don’t appear in the original stories, which were written for a family magazine. Holmes needs to investigate the scene of the crime properly, find clues, make deductions, come up with a theory which he doesn’t fully share with his readers, and finally solve the problem in a convincing and satisfying manner: no sudden deus ex machina will do.

Conan Doyle gives a writer the rest, if s/he will but take a little care: there’s a ready-made, long-standing detective and colleague and their relationship, which a writer can develop and extend quite effectively if they understand it; there’s a setting – Victorian London – which works perfectly well if you can reproduce it accurately, and goodness knows, there’s enough information out there to help – and there’s a more general narrative style and structure for the genre, which most detective stories seem to use…

A writer who has actually read the stories of the canon should know that London does not have ‘tenements’, nor houses with thatched roofs in the city centre, that Jews in nineteenth century would not have spoken Hebrew together (!), that ‘bars’ were not open at all hours of the night… I could go on, but there really is no excuse for this sort of ineptitude, or for an editor letting it through. People may write such tosh out of a supposed love of the original stories, but I’m disappointed when I end up reading it. If you think I’m too much of a purist, too bad: like many Holmes fans, I grew up from an early age with the originals, and have always wanted more, but they do have to be (nearly) as good! I’m really not sure whether I’ll be bothering with the other three books in this series…

Eheu fugaces

July 13, 2016

Nobody can really prepare you for retirement: the day when, after everyone has said very kind and appreciative things about you, and remembered the high-points and achievements of your career, and wished you well, you put your stuff in the car and set off home for the last time, knowing that you will never make that journey again with the same purpose. All those years are over; your job and classroom now belong to someone else…

Many sighs of relief; the clouds of stress and pressure and expectation lift. You celebrate, relish the air of freedom; September arrives and you can set off on holiday rather than return to the daily grind. But, you now need a new purpose and motivation in your life.

I have slowed down a good deal over the last few years. I’m older, and I don’t need to rush to fit everything in; no-one is breathing down my neck. I have certainly been able to read rather more than I used to, and have very much enjoyed writing this blog, which arose partly from my wish to continue sharing my enjoyment of reading, and partly because I realised that I could be a writer, on a small scale. I have been able to go off and study and watch Shakespeare rather than teach it; I was never able to go on the course before, because it runs the week before Whitsun half-term.

I’ve always enjoyed languages. My first degree was actually joint honours, French and English Literature, and I’ve been keeping up with my French through reading newspapers, and also novels and some history in French. I’ve been able to join a German class and tried to improve my German to a stage where I can now hold a reasonable conversation. In the last three years I have also taken up Spanish, a new challenge which is keeping my brain alive. And I’ve been able to go back to yoga, which I enjoyed very much when a lot younger. It’s different now, being rather more about sustaining flexibility and suppleness of limbs, which needs rather more attention as I’ve grown older.

My main pleasure has been travelling. When a student I travelled a good deal in Europe and a little in North Africa, and I always intended to do more of this when I had the freedom. I go off walking in the Luxembourg Ardennes every spring. I’ve spent several trips walking around and exploring the various battlefields of the Great War, a project that arose from many years of teaching the literature of that period to students. These trips have been very informative and very moving. I’ve achieved a lifetime’s ambition and visited the various places in Germany associated with JS Bach. And I have lots more projects in the pipeline. Then there are the trips and holidays that Cheryl and I take together, to art galleries, museums and especially to the seaside…

I have grown to love gardening, too. I’m not the head gardener: I just do the heavy work, the weeding and the fruit harvesting. It’s incredibly relaxing (well, apart from the digging) and peaceful. It’s something I never understood when I was younger – I always saw it as incredibly boring. And now I love it.

It’s taken quite a few years to realise that I can do what I like when I like, and in some ways this freedom feels like a return to the hippy days of my youth. And yet, there often feels to be something lacking… it’s taken a long time to realise and understand this major change, which is that nothing matters any more. I don’t have a career, and students who depend on my hard work. Our children are grown and have lives of their own. In the end, nobody cares what I do, and whilst that’s clearly liberating in one way, it’s also rather alarming in another: every day I must create and sustain a purpose and meaning to the rest of my existence. This is my task and mine alone, and nobody can really explain this to you, it just happens, and it’s a shock.

On no longer being a teacher

July 12, 2016

It’s now coming up to five years since I taught my last lesson, walked out of the classroom and my career as an English teacher came to an end. It took a long time for what that meant to really hit me; recently I’ve been thinking about what it actually meant.

A major change – the major change, I’ve realised – is that I now spend most of my time, not with young people, energetic, lively and with the world and their futures before them, but with people of my own age and older, with a far different outlook and rather narrower future prospects. I continue to miss my students, some of whom I’m still in contact with via social media, and they are now developing careers and lives of their own, becoming so much more than the young people I came to know within the four walls of a classroom. One of the great things about being a teacher, as well as one of the sadnesses, is seeing your students outgrow you. I miss the liveliness of the classroom, the interaction, the discussions and arguments, the continually being kept on my toes by the need to be a couple of steps ahead of them all. And I miss my teaching colleagues, too.

But this piece is not intended as a retired teacher’s wallowing in nostalgia. I have tried to keep up with my subject, and what is going on in the world of teaching and education since I bade it farewell, and have been shocked by what I’ve seen: the political games continue, the examination specifications continue to be changed far too frequently, teachers and their students are ever more at the mercy of data managers and bean counters seeking new ways to weigh the pig. Entry to university seems to have become even more complicated, and certainly far more costly; students rightly seek to know if they are getting value for money, and my impression is that often they are not.

The most shocking thing that has been brought to my attention, by a former teaching colleague, is the effect of all the pressure and stress on the mental health of school students, reflected in the increasing numbers experiencing quite serious problems and needing professional help for them.

I’m both horrified and outraged by what’s happening. All of education is transformed into a highly competitive business; instead of offering support and help to young people at a formative stage in their lives, who are trying to get to know themselves and find their way, we are subjecting them to often unbearable levels of stress and pressure.

Children must begin to learn to read and spell and climb onto the academic treadmill before they are ready, at an age when they should be playing; they must be tested regularly and told they are not succeeding or not up to average (by people who don’t understand the concept of an ‘average’); students must choose – at an age when they may not be ready to make choices – subjects for study that may restrict, constrain and limit their future lives, careers and happiness, not subjects that they enjoy, necessarily, but ones which they are told will set them up for future financial success – allegedly. And, when they might be enjoying the freedom to be students at university, before settling down to the relative seriousness of a working life, they are already saddling themselves with a mountain of debt.

All of this was happening while I was still teaching, but it has got far worse; I wouldn’t want to be trying to advise my students on wise and sensible choices. I’m profoundly grateful that I was educated in a more relaxed, more generous and more liberal age; I used to explain this to students and tell them that I felt they were also entitled to such treatment; a country like ours needs to be investing in its future, not auctioning it off to the highest bidder…and a rich country like ours can surely afford it.

And so, although I started off by saying what I missed about teaching, I’m also very glad I am retired. Perhaps this is a natural aspect of growing older: not that one looks back and says, ‘Things were better in my day,’ but that one realises – even if not yet fully accepting it – that life has moved on, is now passing you by, and that the torch has been passed to younger hands. Other minds than mine now have to wrestle with these issues.

Inarticulate responses

July 11, 2016

Reading has been such an integral part of my life – of me – for so long that sometimes it gets in the way of other things. Following those words on a page, instantly processed by my brain, reflected on, agreed or disagreed with, moderated, absorbed or rejected, is second nature. And I find this presents me with serious challenges when faced with other similar and yet very different stimuli.

I’ll try and be clearer. Along with reading I also enjoy listening to music, mainly classical, but some jazz. The input to my brain, my consciousness, my mind, is very different – no words! – and I’m far less sure what goes on, and what to do with it. Sounds don’t operate like words, obviously, don’t produce the same sort of response in my brain, in me; my response is mostly emotional – I think. But then my response to what I’m reading can also be emotional, and yet it’s not the same…

I enjoy art – huge generalisation there! – some kinds of art, painting from the time of Turner onwards, some sculpture, some strange conceptual art. Joseph Beuys fits in there somewhere. And I find responding to pictures and sculptures even more challenging. I can happily sit or stand and stare for ages; sometimes I have an intellectual response, which is easier and means I can talk about what I’m seeing; sometimes it’s a purely emotional response, and sometimes, quite honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on. I’m mesmerised or entranced by what I’m looking at; I think I like it, but couldn’t really begin to tell you why… I realise that I don’t really have enough of the tools, or the necessary language (English teacher speaking here!) to explain my response.

And then I find myself wondering: is that OK? Is it necessarily like this, or is it because something was lacking in my earlier education? I don’t really think it matters that much, and yet, as I feel quite articulate in my specialist field of literature, I’d really like to be able to be like that, too, in my response to other areas of the arts.

My musical education at school was pretty non-existent; my voice broke early and I was bribed not to sing; I never had the opportunity to learn an instrument; most musical notation and terminology verges on the incomprehensible. And yet listening to the music of Bach has brought me as close to heaven as I’ll probably get. I can hear the complexity – that some call mathematical – and I can appreciate the genius; I can feel a man drawn to God. The late Beethoven String Quartets I find eerie, haunting even, and compelling, but that’s about all I can manage to articulate.

I never really had any education in art, either, apart from some very interesting and helpful stuff on architectural history at one point. My practical attempts at art of any kind were futile. Later in life, I have come to enjoy photography, which I find satisfying, and I have accepted this is as far as I’ll get.

If any artist speaks to me, it’s Turner, who to me is an impressionist before his time, whether in his huge canvases – particularly of Italy – or in his smaller watercolours and sketches; he does marvellous things with light, and can suggest a whole through the merest stroke of a pencil or dab of a paintbrush. But again, I can’t really get further than that in articulating what is is that affects me, moves me deeply, entrances me.

When I think more deeply, I realise that my responses to music and painting resemble my responses to poetry, when out of the words carefully chosen come images, words far less concrete than those I consume so voraciously when I read. But then it comes to me as I reach the end of this piece: the real problem is the words, which get in the way.

Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier’s Voyages

July 5, 2016

516mwIMxYxL._AC_US160_I’m still unclear exactly what a pirate or a buccaneer is, even after reading this book, and it’s evident that the boundaries in the past were a lot more fluid and vague than we think nowadays. A good deal of William Dampier‘s career was official, and a certain amount of it was not. What comes out from this book, an abridgement of several that he wrote, is that he was an interesting and learned character, as well as, for someone allegedly piratical, a touch cowardly… He seems not to have been a good commander of men, and a fairly disastrous privateer, although some of these aspects of his life are rather open to dispute among those that research such things.

The book I read is a reprint of an earlier Folio Society volume that annoyingly only reproduced three of the five maps accompanying that volume.

Dampier travelled widely in the lawless and not very knowledgeable late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; he’s the first recorded Englishman to have set foot on and recorded his visit to New Holland, the landmass that we now call Australia.

The most striking thing about this pirate – if he really was one – is his observant nature: he observes and describes carefully, in a scientific manner, all sorts of unknown flora and fauna he encounters in various lands whilst travelling: sloths, alligators, various sorts of monkey, hummingbirds… there is much new knowledge in what he records, which was taken seriously by savants back home. He discovered, by observing its production, what cochineal really is. And, it is clear that, in the days before Harrison‘s famous clocks and the later work on longitude, that what he was best at was navigating; various of his charts and observations were in use long after his time. His writings on navigation and his other scientific research influenced later scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. He also wonders about time zones…

Dampier was living in very interesting literary times, too, and his accounts of his voyages certainly seem to have precipitated the eighteenth century interest in travel writings and stories of desert islands; he encounters Alexander Selkirk, whose true story is the origin of Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe; shortly after that novel came Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels. The line between true and invented was very blurred in those days. Not a terribly exciting read, but fascinating from a number of angles.

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