Friday, May 1, 2009

So farewell, Blogger.

Two years ago, we moved, my family and I, into our first whole house. I'd owned flats before, all three of which were great homes, but the time had come when we were in a position to buy a whole house. It was a house which needed a lot of work, rewiring, drainage, new joists for attics, central heating, windows, quite apart from plastering and bathrooms and kitchens. We had wonderful builders and it took them four months to make the place habitable. It took months after moving to get over the excitement of having our very own house, and even now, after two years, I still get a kick out of opening the front door and sitting in the living room or hanging out in the study because it is mine, yes, all mine (well, ours, since I do share it with my immediate nearest and dearest, but you get the picture).  I am experiencing that same kind of thrill now that my very creative and cool sister-in-law has designed a grown-up website for me in all my guises. I love the new website, it has many corners and quirks that are just up my street, and I know that just as I enjoy living in our house, I'll enjoy hanging out on the new, upgraded That Reading/Writing Thing complete with decent synopses of the books I have written, news about the books I am working on, plus possible radio projects, education articles and other added pleasure zones. Come and see for yourselves at

(and don't forget to re-subscribe to the RSS feed)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Julian Barnes - Nothing to Be Frightened of

The reviews for NTBFO were marvellous, I generally enjoy Julian Barnes in both his Barnes and Kavanagh guises, and I loved his last novel, Arthur & George, about the involvement of Arthur Conan Doyle in the trial of an Anglo-Indian youth falsely accused and convicted of mutilating livestock. Barnes writes with extreme clarity and perception of both his protagonists and George Edalji is particularly interestingly depicted, or at least to me, as a fellow half-sub-Continental. So I was well set up for NTBFO. I am still surprised by how moving and vivid and plain funny it is. Of course, it is erudite, littered with references and allusions to other great writers and also to perhaps greater thinkers, but it is also refreshingly full of the conundrum that beats at the heart of every really interesting book, which is our inability to know another's heart. Barnes writes about his family, and in particular his mother and his philosopher brother in lucid prose, and writes most perceptively about the impossibility of really getting to the heart of a character unless that character is fictional.

In exploring this impossibility, he touches on the perpetual attractions of fiction, from our Biblical heritage through Beowulf and the Wanderer, Chaucer's vivid pilgrims and Shakespeare's shining gallery of individuals. The best books achieve exactly what life does, which is to expose to us the quirks and twists and truths of human experience and nature, while preserving their mystery. We can never definitively know why Iago is so malevolent, why Viola is so sane and sage, how Hermione can forgive Leontes, we feel that these are not simply characters, but people. Dorothea's insistence on marrying Casaubon, Lady Dedlock's inner workings, Guy Crouchback's pain, when I think of these, I cannot believe that narrative will ever perish. Ultimately, the best stories, the ones that will go on and on for ever refreshing the parts no other artform can reach, will always be written down, shared, discussed, loved because they are full of people, and consequently, of radiance.

Curious to be reminded of this in a book about death - but sadder still to think that Barnes has been so closely touched in the last six months by death. The publication of the book was too closely followed by the death of Barnes's wife (and agent), Pat Kavanagh. Reading the book and knowing this makes his words all the more poignant. I am not sure he could have written with the same élan if he had had to write this book after October 2008. I am also relieved that it was written at all. Full of wisdom, light of touch, elegantly conceived and constructed, Nothing to Be Frightened Of is a wonderful, enriching book.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A week away...

Cross your fingers, TR/WT will be upgrading in a week or sister-in-law ( is designing me...we're working on the content at the moment, and hopefully will go live this time next week.

Reading/watching round-up

I'm reading some primary texts that the heroine of the current WIP might have read: Lucretius, who was still PNG where the Pope was concerned, but whose transmission of Epicurus's ideas through his poem On the Nature of Things had been widely translated and disseminated by humanists, and Boccaccio's Famous Women, which is really interesting because of the things that Boccaccio perceived as admirable qualities in women - primarily stoicism and intelligence and loyalty and honour, which he regarded as masculine qualities and consequently rare in women. Harrumph!

Finished a slight chicklit, called Sugar and Spice, which reminded me why I don't really enjoy chicklit: 1) too much like reading a glossy magazine - total candyfloss; 2) whiny whiny whiny heroine. The heroines in too many of the chicklit books that I've read are too victim-y. Stuff happens to them, there is a passivity that doesn't really work for me. I remember watching Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky a little while ago, about a primary school teacher beautifully played by Sally Hawkins, who does meet an interesting kind of guy, and it struck me that the film was the material of chicklit, but of course, Leigh just makes it real and original where most chicklit books are too predictable.

Saw Duplicity with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, which was very light and fluffy, perfect for a Friday evening, with an especially bravura turn by Tom Wilkinson who is one of those totally watchable actors. Clive Owen fascinates me because he and my own DH look not dissimilar (tall, swarthy) but there are subtle differences, so I quite like watching CO to check where the differences are. This meant that when BBC1 showed King Arthur the other day, I was up for it, even though the reviews were distinctly lukewarm. Who are they kidding, it was terrific! Lots of hunky men galloping about very pretty scenery, lots of swordfighting and archery and good guys winning against apparently insuperable odds, and blissfully hammy dialogue. It's a classic Saturday afternoon action flick, taking me back to the days of Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis - bring on The Black Shield of Falworth and the Son of Ali Baba, The Vikings and best of all, Taras Bulba... King Arthur was an honorary mention in that category of film, and if you like the cheesy histo-flick, then it's a goody with a lot of tasty eye-candy for us ladies (Ioann Gruffud making beards look as good as they can get, Mads Mikkelsens, Hugh Dancy) and Keira Knightley not wearing much for the men in your life.

Also saw the Doctor Who Easter special, which I thought was a distinct improvement on the Christmas special - the oncoming evil was very creepy, and the plot hung together much better. There are those who worry about the doctor doing all this kissing of his guest companions, but I don't mind that terribly, and in this case, the heroine was a very kick-assy kind of girl who it would be lovely to see in action again. Despite her terrible fringe.

Finally, I have to confess to watching what has to be one of the worst series ever shown by the BBC, called All the Small Things. It has terrific actors in it - Neil Pearson, Sarah Lancashire, Sarah Alexander, Clive Rowe, but it is a humming, suppurating pile of over-ripe gorgonzola, cataclysmically addictive and I just can't stop watching it. It's the characters, who are ambulant clichés written larger than advertising hoardings, the plotting which is like one of those Early Learning Centre slot-the-shape in the hole 'first' jigsaws and the considerable gap between the set design and any form of financial reality - English lecturer with big suburban detached house, flat of special needs gardener looking like a spread in Living etc, Serbian economic migrants dining on elegant china with exquisite glassware, woman with no perceivable income in swish brand new minimalist flat with Liberace baby grand and matching poodle...Give me a break... until next week, when I will be watching again to see what implausibility will be foisted on me next.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Charles Murray and American Exceptionalism

Ah, The Sunday Times, that wonderful organ of the press guaranteed to make me riled pretty much every time I open it (I know which question that begs, but I think it's pretty dangerous to sit reading only the papers that make one feel the warm-fuzzy of recognition of one's own perhaps limited vistas and views in print). This week, it was a condensed version of Charles Murray's speech for the 2009 Irving Kristol lecture.

The lecture is a two-fold attack on certain ideas. Here we go:

"First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish--it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right."

Umm, sure, Mr Murray. That's why five out of the ten happiest countries are European...I'm not counting Iceland, as it is bang in the middle of the Atlantic and perhaps two years after the University of Leicester study on which I've based that assertion, is in a severe case of financial meltdown, but it is worth noting that there are nine European countries ahead of the US in the survey apart from Iceland.

Murray is mistaking the nature of Europe: despite the best efforts of the European Commission and Council, there actually is no 'European model' and there is no uniformity in the way in which governments approach the issues of social justice and regulation that exercise Murray. So he's fundamentally misunderstanding the way 'Europe' works.

Murray has an apocalyptic vision of Europe where because of falling birth-rates and increasing immigration 'from cultures with alien values' the 'European model' is doomed, the barbarians are at our gates and Europeans cannot and will not experience what he defines as Arisotetelian happiness, which he defines as a '
sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole'. As if America, with its huddled masses from here, there and everywhere is not the epitome of a country made by immigration from 'cultures with alien values' - it is not so long ago that only WASPS were welcome at most country clubs: if you were Jewish or Catholic or Asian, let alone black, fuggedaboutit. Oh, and as if our planet needs more and more humans.

Of course, my perspective from a hunka chunka Old Europe which has plenty of its own craziness (no need to do much more than mention the weirdness of Flemish-Walloon rivalry and Flem on Flem rivalry that continues to snap, crackle and pop in Belgium) is different. Murray is clearly a man jealous of our general trend towards long holidays (i.e. more than 10 days a year), beautiful countryside, fine food, excellent wine and beer, families who actually sit down and eat together instead of snarfing up microwaved garbage in front of the TV, town squares where people walk (yes, that most unAmerican of activities, walking) together and meet up and chat to their friends at cafes, watch lovely non-obese girls go by, and gaze in pleasure at the church spires where they are neither compelled to go nor to finance through tithes equivalent to 10% of their incomes, where science is well-respected and some might argue, rather too well-funded, where faith is a matter of private conscience not public display with all its attendant hypocrisy.

Murray builds his vision of happiness on four pillars: family, community, vocation and faith. He feels that America excels in modelling all of these four pillars, where the 'European model' is 'sclerotic'. This is based chiefly on his observation that Sweden is dotted with squeaky clean, well-maintained and empty Lutheran churches. He fails to acknowledge that in America, family is falling apart (let's look at those Palins, shall we, that model of American family life, held up before the Republicans as the way to go - I believe the latest in the soap is that Todd's half-sister is in the dock and Bristol won't let the father of her child see the baby). He fails to acknowledge that the American worship of the car has led to the destruction of the small independent retailer and the consequent emptying out of small-town America. He somehow misses the American worship of money that has led to the US producing a generation of Harvard MBAs who have happily led us to the poorhouse with their great sub-prime gimmickry and an equivalent worship of celebrity that permits vacant bimbettes like Paris Hilton to occupy people's minds to the extent that children in the US and UK believe that 'celebrity' is a viable career option. And finally, he cannot see that religion is a hypocritical straitjacket constraining the very science that he believes will come to substantiate his views.

So let's come to the science now...Murray believes that equality is a premise that will soon lose its underpinning thanks to advances in neuroscience. Interesting idea from a man whose Founding Fathers wrote: "
we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Equality and social justice are blind alleys according to Murray, and genetics will explain all. Well, not quite. Scientists are quite frank about their considerable uncertainty over the interface between nature and nurture: there are all sorts of studies going on, but genetic predisposition to breast cancer, say, is quite different to genetic predisposition to violence, which has been by no means proven...and the effects of diet, chemicals, pollution, tv and a host of other day to day influences on our personalities, hormones and behaviour are by no means clear. Of course, Murray has fallen for this kind of theory before - he is the co-author of the notorious book, The Bell Curve, which sought to explain all the inequalities and dysfunctions in US society and the particular lack of achievement in the Afro-American sections of US society based on IQ tests... The book was not properly researched or peer-reviewed and came in for a considerable pasting from real scientists like Stephen Jay Gould.

No surprise that Murdoch would provide a platform for Murray, given the press baron's anti-European views. But it only discredits him and his newspaper, for Murray, with his divisive, unsubstantiated and error-laden aspirations for American triumphalism - sorry, 'exceptionalism' - is the kind of man who takes the chic out of retro and stamps on it. The American Dream has been so thoroughly debunked by America's own thinkers and writers that it is quite odd to see an American claiming that Americans assume that they are in control of their own destinies just as the shadow of mass unemployment falls over a nation. Mass unemployment caused by handing over the destinies of the American people to free-market capitalists who have made a royal mess of just about every consumer market that exists in the US.

Anyway, if you'd like to laugh, roll your eyes or raise your blood pressure, here's the link to Murray's own words: