Sunday, September 28, 2008

Consigning Ms Ranty McRant to the recycle bin

I've decided that I have to stop succumbing to the addictive horrorfest that is the US election season. I've always been interested in the US elections, ever since living in Wash DC as a small child. Early memories include my father ringing my mother to collect him because his bus home had been stopped by demonstrations - when we picked him up he was crying because making his way through the melee, he'd caught some tear gas; buying patisserie from a bakery in the Watergate complex and not quite understanding why the place was in the news all the time; and being fascinated by the name Spiro Agnew because I thought he was something to do with making those Spirograph drawings where you pin one wheel down on a piece of paper and then build up cogs around it to create mesmerising even spiral patterns.

But this time, I really don't think I can stomach any more. While I am pro-Obama (surprise surprise, what liberal European isn't?), I don't think he's going to be any panacea. He gives me the impression of being as bright as Bill Clinton, but not as savvy, nor as slippery. I don't know whether that makes him better or worse, but I do know I really really do not want the McCain/Palin ticket anywhere near the White House. But what's the point of following this whole jamboree at all? This is something I can do absolutely nothing about.

It seems very unfair that the rest of the world that we have absolutely no say in elections that will influence the direction of our world for the next four years...although perhaps from the tumultuous events of the last few weeks, perhaps we have seen the beginning of the end for US hegemony. I'm hesitant but we're looking at a resurgent Russia and a commercially powerful China. Both may yet catch cold, but Russia, as McCain says, is awash with 'petro-dollars' and lo, he sees in Putin's eyes the old message: K-G-B. Does this mean Putin has three eyes? I'm digressing - back to the point that perhaps the reason that the US election is so addictive is our very powerlessness in the face of the mighty US electorate - most of which won't vote. Although this year, they might.

Perhaps it is this total lack of control/direct participation that makes the elections such a compelling car-crash. And which turns me into Mrs Ranty McRant of Rantby, Rantshire, Great Ranting, of the Rantiverse. How do I rant? Let me count the ways - actually, I won't, but suffice to say that while I wasn't wild about Reagan, I never ever came close to obsessing as I currently do about the awfulness of the prospect of McCain/Palin. And really, I have better things to do with my time. So just one last look at my favourite sites over the past few weeks. Adieu, Huffington Post, farewell,, hasta la vista to the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal. My ranting days are over. There shall be no more cakes and ale. Yeah right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Re-entering Dunnettworld

Well, my reading rates have tailed off after that magnificent burst of activity during the summer. This month, I have gone back to the habit of having about 3 books on the go at any one time, and then of course, there is marking, the masters and planning and preparation to be done.

So what is on the Currently Open but Unfinished pile?

Solomon & Lord: disappointing Miami law-thriller-romance. Promising reviews from the likes of Carl Hiaasen and Harlan Coben, but it's mushy and the characters are more like tv-movie characters than real people. Nearly finished.

The French Renaissance Court, Robert Knecht: this one I am really enjoying. It is proper history, but also accessible to people like me who are not academic historians. And it is a beautiful book to handle, lovely quality paper and reproductions, along with competent, concise prose exploring a complicated and complex subject.

King Hereafter, Dorothy Dunnett. I've been saving this since I bought it in 2001 just after DD died and I knew there would be no more books. It's the story of Macbeth, but not as we know him from Shakespeare. Instead, it is one of DD's classic recreations of period, focusing not on 15th or 16th century Europe, but on 11th century Scotland, and it is wonderful. I wasn't in the mood when I first picked up the novel, but now there is a group read on one of the Dunnett webgroups and it is at a steady pace, not too fast, allowing us all plenty of time to tease out meanings, observe the subtleties and work our way through the labyrinth of names and places that are a little familiar, but not totally so. I was surprised to encounter Lady Godiva, frex.

Dunnett's modus operandi is layering detail on detail to build her world, and to write about intelligent heroes surrounded generally by intelligent and perceptive observers. We rarely enter the hero's point of view, most frequently encountering him through the perceptions of others, which are opaque and driven by their own agendas, and she is quite extraordinary in capturing the way internal and external drives conflict and mesh to drive events. She is like a scientist turning a specimen over and around, searching out its secrets, its crannies and its depths, and yet leaving still some mysterious glamour over the reader. Once she has you in her grip, that's it, you are hers forever as a reader. When I look at the complete set of DD novels, the audiobooks and the interaction with my fellow fans over the internet, I cannot quite believe that it is now 22 years since I first read her books, and 26 years since I first heard her name, recommended in glowing and passionate terms by a literature don at Georgetown University.

Her throne remains empty. There are other writers of historical novels, certainly, but no one really to compare with her. Patrick O'Brian, perhaps, although he died the year before she did. I think the closest I've come recently is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, although they are slighter and more fantasy-oriented, and Megan Whalen Turner's Eugenides books, although they are alternative history and aimed squarely at the YA rather than the A market. I don't mean to diss either writer when I say they don't really compare.

So I am enjoying my last unread Dunnett novel, savouring it, relishing it and drawing out the pleasures of a stay in the Dunnettverse, a world of riches and insight, led by a sure-footed guide in full command of her facts and faculties.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

In praise of populist entertainment

This year like no other I am in thrall to the cracktastic circus that is the US Election trail, but last night I managed to behave like a normal human being and go out to the movies with my friends. We were determined to see Mamma Mia!, and how could I resist it? I have to say, opening moment with Amanda Seyfried were dodgy, I had a kind of weird out seeing Dominic Cooper looking buff and tanned and sincere since it was only last week that I saw him in concentration camp issue pyjamas smugly assuming that he wasn't a victim of the latest selection in the extraordinary God On Trial. Then Streep started singing, and I was a goner.

I've never been a huge Streep fan, but Mamma Mia! won me over entirely. Her singing was terrific and she kept the show on the road until the support staff were safely in place, in the form of Christine Baranski and Julie Walters. Now there have been dismissive reviews of the movie, but it deserves every ounce of success and kudos for various reasons - first and foremost that the real leads are mature characters in their 40s/50s, secondly for its sheer exuberance and enthusiasm and finally for its simplicity and lack of cynicism. It is a wonderful night out and Judy Craymer who devised the show and pushed to make the move is a genius.

The other piece of populist entertainment that I'd like to celebrate is the Simpsons. Without the Simpsons, my life as a teacher would be infinitely harder. It may be different in America, but in Europe where most people prefer secular humanism to churchgoing, it is increasingly difficult to teach those classics which are littered with Biblical references. Lo, the Simpsons descends in clouds of glory, for within the series are embedded the cultural markers not just of our age, but of ages past. I checked out with a class of 14 year olds the identities of Cain and Abel, Joshua, Jonah, the Whale, Samson, David and Bathsheba and Solomon, and they were all able to relate the Simpsonic circumstances in which these Old Testament figures had been namechecked. Thank you to the erudite, literate, witty writers who have made this teacher's life so much easier.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Where we were and where we should be

I was driving home from work, around 5pm British summer time, when I heard the news. The car swerved a little, my shocked response roused a shattered 4 year old experiencing his first days of formal schooling and when I went to the supermarket to pick up some essential supplies, everyone else seemed subdued and zoned out. We couldn't believe it, and the whole series of attacks which we watched over and over and over as our TV screens, governed by broadcasters as dazed and mesmerised as the rest of us, seemed like shots of a Hollywood movie. What did it mean? What were the implications and ramifications?

They weren't what I'd hoped for, that's for sure. I still can't believe that we rolled over so the Bush and Blair administrations could shaft us royally with the phony dossiers and 'war on terror' garbage. I still can't believe that Afghanistan is more of a basket case than ever. I still can't believe that the US voted Bush back in four years ago so he could oversee the shelling out of billions more dollars to his war contractor buddies and the melt-down of the US banking system. Yeah, I know that sub-prime and the collapse of Bear Stearns are not the direct responsibility of the US government and the Bush more properly known as Bozo the Clown. But my, wouldn't the US have been better equipped for the inevitable downturn in the housing and financial markets if they hadn't had several hundred billion dollars of war debt slung round their necks?

When I read Rory Stewart's fascinating trek across Afghanistan, The Places in Between, I was captivated by his depiction of a country which at last, post-Taliban, seemed to have some chance for revival. The book is set in 2002, and Stewart (clearly bananas) goes for quite a long 6 week walk across the centre of Afghanistan. Afghanistan as others have pointed out, is a place that exerts a strange and potent fascination, a remote place, unconquerable and opaque, a possible home to some Shangri-La valley apart from its opium, its appalling human rights record, its worse women's rights record...Of course, where we should be is a world where instead of distracting us with Saddam Hussain, the US and Nato actually tackled Afghanistan with a long-term development plan reinforced by troops who did not bomb the natives when they tried to get married/go to the market/head for the mosque, but actually built things and encouraged legitimate trade and public debate and the opening of schools, the revival of women in the workplace and the integration of Afghanistan into the global economy. Instead we had Iraq.

Today, I read Lucy Carrigan's moving words over at the Huffington Post ( and I wondered whether the majority of Americans might not just possibly reject the morally and fiscally bankrupt policies of McCain and the Republicans who are pulling his strings, and opt for a team which will make it their priority to get America financially and economically back on track, and make America a country that the rest of the world can admire rather than distrust, fear and even loathe.

And I urge those who have forgotten what 9/11 was really like to go to Youtube and look up Rufus Sewell and his touching reading of Simon Armitage's poem written to commemorate the fifth anniversary, "9/11: Out of the Blue".

Monday, September 8, 2008


I've been reading Katie Fforde pretty regularly since her first book came out sometime when I was in China about 15 years ago. Her novels are gentle, cosy reads about comfy women usually in their 30s/40s discovering or rediscovering their faith in humankind in general and mankind in particular. There's a soothing familiarity to her plot-lines in which slightly or more-than-slightly ditzy female encounters mysterious and brooding chap and eventually, after encountering some sleeping policemen (can't go so far as to describe them as bumps), achieve an HEA. The books are all set in a slightly mythical but pleasant England, perhaps Cotswold-ish or Somerset or Gloucestershire where people have big range cookers and cottages. They are really high-quality braingum, and I have loved them fairly uniformly, but reading Going Dutch, her latest paperback, turned into a terrible chore.

It was the usual problem: I started off not terribly entranced by our heroines - there was Dora, who was a silly girl in her early 20s who had succumbed to pressure to get engaged but then ran out on her wedding day and takes refuge with her best friend's mother, who was dumped for a younger woman and has left the family home to live on a barge on the Thames. Both Dora and Jo are rather dull, although Dora is duller and drabber. They are both in recovery, and their recovery by and large seems to include intravenous cups of tea. Now I know that tea is a great panacea, and I have just finished my afternoon cuppa as I type, but non-stop tea-drinking does not a great plot make, even when the cups of tea are being made for nice and mysterious chaps helping you cross the North Sea in a barge. And one falls off, and they rescue him and when they are all in Holland, both Dora and Jo finally get off with their swains and eventually get home so that they can live happily ever after. That's it. I skimmed the last 50 pages. I cannot say I'm bursting to read my next Katie Fforde unless she's miraculously discovered some character variation and a touch more excitement plot-wise.

Then I turned to the travails of Ariel Manto and have become hooked. Ariel is not a nice girl, still less a nice woman. She's an obsessive, dodgy doctoral student faced with the mysteries of the multiverse and her adventures are utterly bizarre and compelling. I am really enjoying The End of Mr Y, and I can't end-read because I had a look and I can see it won't make complete sense unless I've read the book sequentially, although I have my notions. It felt as though my reading glands had suddenly been given a shot of bicarb mixed with vinegar - fizz running through the synapses and all systems go.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Season of school and frenzied stationery purchases

This year, I was ready for school. Farewell to the pig-squeals ringing through the house as one boy discovers that another boy is infringing personal space/changing the tv channel/dismembering another trashy Star Wars toy, goodbye to the moans of "I'm bored"/'Why can't I watch TV/play on the Wii/use your computer" and hasta la vista to the expensive and sometimes tedious provision of activities to amuse.

I did manage to read over 30 books, some of which (as you can see from the posts in July and August) were amazing, some of which were not. I wrote my first play, which was very satisfying, even if it isn't exactly Shakespeare, and I managed not to write a word of fiction in August, which I think might be a healthy break because now I'm brimming with ideas, although time seems to have vanished, because all I can do is chase my tail this first week of school, a situation exacerbated by the annual scramble to supply Minion 1 with his necessary school supplies... paintbrushes, gouache paint, boxes, exercise books and sports bags, staplers, sellotape and scissors, pencil cases, rucksack and coloured markers - you get the picture.

Meanwhile, I am 'agog and aghast' (as Alice Miles in the Times described it) over the nomination of spooky Sarah Palin to the McCain campaign. She has the gravitas of Basil Fawlty aligned with the religious views of the Christian equivalent of an extremist ayatollah. She seems ruthless in her own self-promotion, and while many a man has sacrificed his family on the altar of his own ambition without picking up much flack, she is hardly a poster-girl for the women's movement - she seems to me to have much in common with Margaret Thatcher in her approach and attitude to her fellow females.

The extent to which the outcome of the Presidential elections are dependent on visceral emotions and personality is absolutely petrifying. A schoolchild can see that McCain and Palin are dangerous, hypocritical and frighteningly incompetent - McCain on record as saying he doesn't understand economics, Palin fingered by her fellow-Alaskans as a financial nincompoop when it came to handling the revenues for a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. And she's a book-banner, a supporter of the aerial shooting of wolves and bears, a creationist who is prepared to push the teaching of creationism as a valid scientific alternative to evolution, and someone who believes that the US presence in Iraq is God's plan, that US troops are God's troops.

I really really hope the Republicans with their vote-stealing machinery and gubernatorial trashing of electoral lists do not nick this election as they've stolen the last two. Obama and Biden seem like savvy operators with some morals and standards. I'm sure they've both played the slimy Washington game as people who are in Washington must, but they do have conviction - without the passionate intensity that identifies both McCain and Palin.

" TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."

Yeats seems more prophetic than ever. I wish he weren't.