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On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

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On keeping my brain alive

March 7, 2019

It’s something I never heard anything about when I was younger, perhaps because people hadn’t then tuned into it as an important idea, or perhaps because when you are young, certain things just don’t cross your radar, but as I enjoy my retirement, it’s hard to miss all the exhortations to do things that will exercise your brain, keep you mentally active, and –who knows – perhaps stave off the horrors of eventual dementia. I suspect there is some sense in not vegetating, but I’m not sure about deliberately taking new things on board just in the hope…

Do I keep my brain active? I hope so. I keep up my French and German in conversation groups here, and obviously when I’m travelling, and probably about a quarter of the books and novels I currently read are in French; I also read a monthly current affairs magazine in French. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’ as I found in those long years of being a parent, when holidays abroad faded somewhat into the background. I’m still quite proud that the French often have to ask what country I’m from – they can now tell I’m not French, whereas in the years just after I’d graduated, they often didn’t realise… And a few years ago I took up learning Spanish, with the aim of being able to manage some holidays in Andalucia eventually. I’m enjoying the mental challenges and have been fortunate in finding a really good teacher. I’m not sure what particular parts of the brain language learning uses, but I’m still fascinated at the way communication can come out in a different language without my having to do deliberate processing.

As a student, I taught myself to do The Guardian cryptic crossword, and it has brought me endless pleasure; there’s serious and tortuous brainwork involved – anagrams have always been my speciality – and I can do it by myself or with a friend. In my early teaching days a colleague and I had the goal of finishing the Times and the Guardian cryptics before the end of the school day, and succeeded more often than not. I’ve occasionally wrestled with even harder ones like Azed in the Observer, but haven’t the patience for them. My one small indulgence, in terms of actually paying for an app on my phone, is the one that gives me the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning: I download it before I leave the house and use it to while away idle waiting moments anywhere. Sudoku I’ve never managed to wrangle, unlike my other half, who whizzes through it; an aversion to numbers on my part, I thought until I came across Calcudoku, which I now enjoy, although at beginners’ level.

Those are the only ‘mental gym’ type activities I can bear; other than that it’s reading and writing, both of which I enjoy and do a lot. I have a very moralistic attitude to my brain, I realise, along the lines of “God gave you it, so use it!” Certainly, as I’ve grown older, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by how complex and wonderful an organ it is and what it’s capable of doing; reason should be capable of enabling us to live in a rather better and fairer world, but it hasn’t… and it seems a great shame that all those electrical impulses eventually just die away, after all those years of hard work, and accumulation of knowledge and experience.

How do you keep your brain agile?

Philip K Dick: The Simulacra

February 13, 2019

61e66jMA2ZL._AC_US218_Dick very skilfully takes us into a completely different world in only a couple of pages or so through carefully-chosen details; psi powers, his love of classical music and alien life-forms are immediately part of the future USA which is a matriarchal one-party state, which has just outlawed psychoanalysis and replaced it by drug therapy…whew!

I started to lose the plot literally and metaphorically when a time-travel strand was introduced, in which the government was scheming to go back and seek to alter history using figures from the Third Reich! It’s wild and fantastical, outside the bounds of SF as I recognise it (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms in itself) yet Dick does demonstrate a deep understanding of the nature of history and historical forces. There is also an immediacy to the future in that he posits a world where big business is far more powerful than government and politicians, and calls the shots.

It’s another unsummarisable story, which had me feeling that some of this Dick re-read that I took on is becoming a bit of a chore. The ending of this novel made little sense, really, and I found myself back with what I suppose is Dick’s meta-question: what is reality? But this isn’t one I shall be reading again…

Philip K Dick: Dr. Bloodmoney

January 31, 2019

51rslz-9fgl._ac_us218_I’m picking up my re-read of Philip K Dick’s novels after a Christmas break, and just finished re-acquainting myself with Dr Bloodmoney after forty years – so that must have been around the time I was working on my MA thesis. It’s hard to know where to start with it, really. If we go for the links with what’s gone before, then there are the first tentatives at colonising Mars, which in this novel are interrupted by nuclear war: the story jumps between the future of 1981 and 1988 and it’s clear that at some time in between these dates, US civilisation has been seriously disrupted by unspecified nuclear conflict. As usual, Dick makes the insanity clear: war was instantaneous, unexpected, nobody knew what it was about and it may have been an enormous mistake…

Or – and here Dick is off on another nature of reality trail – the war is caused by a madman who imagines that he is God and by concentrating his powers he can make war happen; he is plagued by his guilt at having been a nuclear research scientist responsible for an ‘accident’ at some time in the past, and obsessed with the need to atone for this. It’s certainly Dick’s most disturbing novel so far, for my money; he will go on to develop some of these ideas even further in Deus Irae.

Even after war, which may be construed as a warning from God, the remaining humans rebuilding their lives persist in behaving in the same old stupid and venal ways. Practical knowledge and skills are obviously vital for a surviving and recovering society: in the US they are a commodity, for sale as always.

As a narrative, it’s quite episodic and disjointed, though characters re-appearing provide some continuity. It’s a pretty nightmarish small-town world that Dick creates, of ordinary people as well as a host of mutations caused by radiation. The one unifying force in the crazy times is the prospective Martian colonist marooned by the war in orbit above the earth, broadcasting hopefully to those he passes over, and the forces of chaos are embodied not only by the scientist who has survived but also by an increasingly power-crazed ‘phocomelus’ – a survivor of the thalidomide drug which caused so much damage to newborns in Europe in the 1960s – who also enjoys supernatural powers.

It’s a worthwhile and chaotic read, with so many of Dick’s ideas up in the air at the same time that it lacks the power of many of his other more disciplined novels. But you have to admire the man and his ideas: he gets you thinking on so many different fronts…

Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

On photography

September 13, 2018

I’ve been taking photographs since I was 15, when a Polish cousin gave me a basic Soviet 35mm camera on my first visit to Poland. He was a keen photographer who had a darkroom of sorts at home, and when I got back to school in England I spent more time with a friend in the school darkroom learning about processing black and white film.

One of the first things I bought myself when I moved to Lancaster in the late 1970s was a good quality camera, an Olympus OM10, and I’ve never looked back since then. I’ve never been able to get my mind around very much of the technicality of exposure, depth of field and the like, sadly, having been rather useless at physics at school, so I’m sure I’ve never fully explored what this very rewarding hobby has to offer.

Whilst I do take some portraits from time to time, what I really like most is outdoor photography, of landscapes, nature and buildings, and this is where I take most time and care, because I want my shots to be good. I will spend ages waiting for people to move away out of shot so I get my picture without them; the same with trying to avoid having traffic in my pictures. I like to frame my shots carefully: when I used a film camera this was important because it was expensive to waste shots, and I suppose this is where I learnt the little I know about how to get a decent picture; now that it’s possible to take almost unlimited numbers of pictures with a digital camera, I’m still as careful with framing a shot, obsessive sometimes about getting the exact image I want in the frame. I try to remember the effect of a picture taken from a different height, ie not just at eye-level when I’m standing, and I also like shots that aren’t necessarily level, looking upwards in order to capture interesting aspects of an object or building. And finally, of course, photography allows me to create a record of my travels to enjoy later and bring back memories.

I enjoy going to exhibitions of photography, and am often astonished by what true professionals achieve. When I went to the Otto Dix exhibition at Tate Liverpool last autumn, there was an exhibition of portraits from the 1930s by the German photographer August Sander which was truly stunning, and while in Arles the other week I saw some fascinating monochrome landscapes and close-ups by a French photographer from the 1940s whose name I have, annoyingly, forgotten.

I also found myself reflecting on why I detest all those painted portraits in art galleries – old masters? – which seemed to me to be attempts at photography before its time, if you get my meaning, and yet which I almost invariably find utterly unbelievable and unconvincing. Photography does it perfectly, for me. It has something to do with sharpness of image, as well as use of light and shadow, and the close-ups that are possible with the newer medium. And somehow monochrome can enhance the image, whilst at the same time being less true to life than the colours of the portrait painters of the past. Maybe it’s also the informality that photography allows, that portrait painting couldn’t…. It seems to me, in my relatively limited understanding of both art and photography, that it was the invention of the latter that finally allowed art to break free of the constraints of being representative, and to move in new directions.

It took me a long time to accept digital photography, and to buy a digital camera -a modest Nikon D3100 – but I now do like the ability to take as many pictures as I like and then select and keep the most successful ones. And they don’t clutter up the world like packets of photos and albums did, and it’s a lot easier to spend time revisiting them…

August favourites: coda

August 31, 2018

That was an interesting month; hard work but enjoyable, and if you’ve read all those posts, you know a lot more about my choices and preferences than you did before (probably). It’s been quite a popular month in terms of visits, comments and likes, which is good. Thank you to everyone who visited, especially if you also commented. However, I also discovered, as I was writing, that not all my chosen subjects lend themselves easily to adequate treatment in a single paragraph or so; perhaps I will return to some topics in greater depth in the coming weeks and months.

Meantime, thank you all for reading and commenting; normal (?) service will now be resumed…

Paul Theroux: Deep South

May 28, 2018

51mXwxzI4VL._AC_US218_This book annoyed me; it felt like a lazy book, in need of decent editing.

I’ve enjoyed travel writing by Paul Theroux in the past, but it has been about his travels in other countries than his own; here he travels through the Deep South of the US for a year, visiting and revisiting at different seasons of the year. He clearly feels deep affection for his country and this part of it, strives to know the region and its people and to understand it, strives to describe and report fairly about a region that has experienced many troubles. And yet, ultimately, I was rather bored.

The book began badly for me, with Theroux mocking a good number of other writers who have made road trips around the US, attempting to show them up to be fakes or imposters who hadn’t travelled properly, who took short-cuts, who pretended to have done what they hadn’t.

It’s very loosely written, rambling often: sketches, vignettes, cameos, all trying to build up an accretive picture of the Deep South. For a non-American reader, there were too many names and too much detail, and no map at all; perhaps some of the names and places may be familiar to an American reader, I don’t know. Perhaps one needs to be an American and to be familiar with the country to appreciate the book, in which case sorry, but the writer hasn’t done his job properly.

There’s much interweaving of references to the literature of the South as well; I failed once in an attempt to read a William Faulkner novel (not that I’m proud of that), and his caustic and snarky remarks about To Kill A Mockingbird came across as the words of a man who thinks he knows the South better, and ‘real’ Southern fiction better, than everyone else. Maybe he does, but Harper Lee‘s novel is far more than he allows it to be…

The country comes across as quite scary in many ways; there’s the inevitable racism and violence, the gun shows, the details of events from the past. I was deeply shocked, even though I have read about it before, by the details of the abject and grinding poverty and third world conditions he describes in so many small towns in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. Shocked, too, by the stories about US military nuclear facilities, which fit into the Chernobyl pattern in terms of carelessness, sloppiness, lack of care for people and the environment.

I had been looking forward to reading the book and wanting to enjoy it, but didn’t; it needed editing to make it shorter and less shapeless, and a bit more thought for non-American readers, really. Sadly, it felt self-indulgent, in need of a bit more anger, perhaps…

Caveat emptor

November 27, 2017

A post about buying second-hand books, with a bit of a moan…

I’ve been buying second-hand books for years. Sometimes it’s because a book is out of print, sometimes I’ve come across something I didn’t know of in a shop and fancied reading it, and sometimes I go for a cheaper copy because I’m not that sure whether I’ll like something or want to keep it for very long.

There are two ways of buying a used book: from a real shop, and online. In a real shop, you know what you are getting, quality-wise: you can examine the book, its binding, and see whether there are any pen marks or anything else you don’t like about it. You will know if it stinks of ancient cigar-smoke. Some second-hand bookshops are a disgrace, so disordered that they could be tidied up by throwing in a grenade. I tend to leave in frustration. Most are reasonably organised. Most are reasonably priced, too, though occasionally it’s obvious an owner is having a laugh with his prices – think of a figure, then double it kind of thing. Charity shops are another issue: some haven’t a clue about pricing, in which case there are either amazing bargains to be had, or such silly prices for a book that again, you have to leave in frustration.

And then there’s the internet, now a veritable minefield, and where one is most likely to get one’s fingers burned. If what you click on is what you get, in terms of described condition, then that’s fine. Often it’s not. Second-hand shops generally adhere to quite a careful and detailed code for describing the state of a book when they sell online; others do not, particularly sellers on ebay, and on the aggregate websites like amazon, abebooks and the like.

What happens when something isn’t as described? You can take the hit – I don’t. I always complain. Amazon is pretty good and pretty prompt at dealing with issues, even though I have to confess that I don’t like dealing with this behemoth in any of its forms and avoid it as much as possible. You usually get a satisfactory conclusion – a full or partial negotiated refund. Abebooks – part of the amazon empire – isn’t so helpful, as I discovered a couple of years ago when a print-on-demand version of a rare book from India wasn’t as described. They abdicated almost all responsibility, wanted me to return the book first – to India! at my cost! and hope for a successful refund. Ha ha! Lesson learned, and abebooks has lost my business.

Others carp and cavil and try to fob you off with partial refunds, as World of Books did recently. But if a book is of such poor quality that it should never have been put for sale described as in VERY GOOD condition (!) then a partial refund for something you wouldn’t have given any money for if you’d actually seen it, is no consolation. Or, as with a two volume reference set that I could only source from the USA, which turned out, without advertising it, only to be selling volume 1 (!) – what is the point? Money wasted.

So, as I said, I complain. Politely, but moaning in full detail about my disappointment, with copious details of what has fallen short. Because I don’t think people should be allowed to get away with it, and it’s our inertia if we do nothing that encourages them to carry on in that vein. Most of the time, I have had my money refunded in the end. And the book, if useless to me , goes to a charity shop.

Whatever is for sale, it’s a jungle out there. I love the fact that I can find out about books I never knew existed, and can source them from all corners of the globe. As a book-lover, I wouldn’t be without it. I will pay good money for good books I’ve been searching for. But I will call out those sellers who think they can fob us off with rubbish, with books not as described, with stuff that belongs in a skip.

Normal service will be resumed in my next post…

On the Russian Revolution…

November 20, 2017

51Miyo3yZPL._AC_US218_51FPyNJH1-L._AC_US218_I’ve been aware that the centenary of the Great October Revolution was last week, in spite of the Putin regime’s efforts to ignore it, and I have been looking through some of my books of photographs and propaganda posters from that era as I have reflected on one of the key moments of the twentieth century, as well as one of its failed experiments. David King‘s Red Star Over Russia is astonishing, and if I don’t succeed in getting to the current exhibition at Tate Britain, this book will serve as a substitute. And Soviet Posters – the Sergio Grigorian Collection is also pretty good.

I have no flag to fly for Stalinism and its excesses, which included invading Poland and imprisoning my father along with tens of thousands of his comrades and, I suppose, indirectly led to myself… The Soviet economic experiment ended in failure, though how much of that was due to inherent weaknesses and how much to the determination of the rest of the (capitalist) world that it must fail at all costs, is very hard to say. And the Soviet Union and its horrendous sacrifices defeated the might of Nazi Germany; compared with the Soviet losses the West gave relatively little, and again, the leaders of the West were quite happy for the Soviets to bear the brunt of the losses and consequently weaken itself.

The Soviets also, in a sense, won the space race, in that their efforts and research led to many of the real and enduring successes, including the space stations, and international co-operation in space; compared with this, out of a sense of panic the US committed itself to winning the race to the moon, threw money at it and did win it, and promptly lost steam; NASA has never really been terribly clear since what its purpose is…

If everything about the Soviet system had been so grim and awful as Western propaganda liked (and still likes) to paint it, there would surely not be all the nostalgia for it that does exist in many of the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia itself, although again, the current hegemony does its best to bury it. So what do people miss? According to articles and interviews I’ve read, a sense of joint, collective endeavour, striving for a shared goal. Jobs for everyone. At least you had a job, however pointless it might have been, and you might have been sent to the back of beyond to do it; with it came a wage or salary, enough to provide the basics of existence. People did often say, ‘we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us’, but the grimness of unemployment was unknown.

There was basic housing, fuel, power and lighting at nominal cost, for all, too. The scandal of homelessness did not exist. Housing might have been cramped and basic, but it was there, and affordable, as was public transport at very low cost. Books, magazines, newspapers, cinema, theatre, all were subsidised.

What was wrong with the system? Everything was grim and grey; I went and saw it. Consumer durables were very thin on the ground, luxuries unavailable. You couldn’t say what you liked, criticise the government, have a meaningful vote, travel abroad… Religious practice was strictly curtailed or even forbidden.

What we have here is a classic case of the opposition of the two kinds of freedom, freedom from and freedom to: under the Soviet system, while you were free from a lot of things, you weren’t free to do a lot of things. And your response to these two freedoms or the lack of them, very much depends on where you are starting from. Many people on the planet – in the Third World, in less developed countries perhaps – might settle for freedom from; here in the West, having been tempted by the successes of capitalism for so long, it’s the freedom to that we want, and are horrified by the thought of not having. It’s all about perspective…

So between the efforts of the West and the failings of the system itself, the experiments failed. And we are taught that the experiment failed for ever, that there’s no point in trying again. But is that really the case?O

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