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:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Deborah 13: Servant of God & Scandal

I finally caught up, thanks to the wonders of YouTube with a doc I'd meant to watch when it was on BBC3, namely Deborah 13: Servant of God. The programme is an extended biography of a 13 year old girl whose parents are devout members of the United Reform Church. The parents,as the mother put it, 'allow the Lord to open and close the womb so we allow God to give us many children as he wants to give us.' This means Andrew and Ruth have eleven children. Deborah is number 4, and the documentary interviewed her over the course of 9 weeks, including the few days she spent with her brother in Buxton, where he's studying to be a chef.

The family come across as loving, warm, full of cuddles, kisses, and then the little touches of fanaticism emerged: the morning Bible meeting, the annual puppet show warning holiday makers at the local campsite of the hell-fire that awaits them come judgement day; the children lulled to sleep by online creationist preachers or bible readings. The children are home-schooled, and come across as articulate, funny and as well-adjusted as any child except that they are brought up in isolation from modern culture. The house seems to have few books other than the Bible or biblical-related literature, from Deborah's tracts which she uses to help her proselytise at the stray lambs of Bridport and Buxton to children's books of David and Goliath, no television, but plenty of computers and internet access, the parents clearly trust their children, and they by and large seem to live an idyllic lifestyle of romping the fields and playing with one another. Deborah has internet pen-pals, but her social life is bound up with her family.

The only disquieting element is Deborah's insistence on her own faith. But then, children often experience a phase of intense devotion - I remember my own friends around the time of confirmation suddenly taking up Bible reading and discussion with considerable fervour, sporting crosses and heading off to Chapel with enthusiasm. I might have gone in for a muted version of same myself. I remember secretly cycling off to Sunday services at the Episcopal church in Aberdeen as a student, largely for comfort at a time of homesickness, a reminder of the patterns and rituals of childhood. My only reservations regarding Deborah were that she seems to have absorbed a particularly grisly and gloomy approach to religion, convinced that we are all innately evil, doomed to hell which was for an imaginative child, clearly a terrifying prospect. She is also taking refuge in the common creationist view that scientific theories are unproven beliefs and consequently, no more valid than her own beliefs.

The documentary was irritating primarily for its omissions. I wanted to know more about the rest of the family, I wondered about the motives of young Matthew, the 20 year old 'making his own life in Buxton' in bringing his sister face to face with modern youth and mores and I really wondered about what the parents thought of their daughter presenting their faith in such a weird and wonderful light for gawpers to watch. But I did not feel the revulsion and anger that others have felt towards the programme and towards the Drapper family. I absolutely approve of eating as a family together, spending as much time together as possible, of not having TVs in rooms (and I go further than the Drappers, because our children don't have computers with internet access in their bedrooms either). It struck me as nothing but refreshing when Deborah couldn't identify Posh Spice or Britney.

What would be interesting would be to revisit Deborah and her brother Matthew in perhaps seven or eight years, when she is hitting her twenties and he is heading out of them. Quite coincidentally, I have been watching with one class the film Son of Rambow, about a small boy brought up in a Plymouth Brethren family and rejecting the narrow vision he was permitted in the sect. Deborah's situation seemed far less hemmed in and restricted - but I wondered what her parents' response would be if any of their flock showed signs of rejecting the teaching they had ingested.

Meanwhile, I picked up my monthly romance, this time a book that has received pretty much A all around the review zone, but for me it was a bit of a meh. Same old, same old, characters didn't seem real, situation didn't ring true, and it was all Ye Olde Englande teashoppe type setting, where suddenly you were deep in rural England only a few hours by carriage out of London. I know places like Fulham and Hampstead were villages two hundred years ago, but we were back in Fake-Disneyfied-England where there are castles round every corner and instead of living in a proper house in Mayfair our earl owned a Gothic/Tudor pile which took up a whole block...Sigh. The last decent historical romance I read was An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan and that was last summer.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Shakespeare didn't make his wife THAT miserable!

I'd always assumed (I think like most people) that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and I saw no reason to believe that he was anyone other than that guy who was born during April 1564 in Stratford upon Avon, until a couple of colleagues began muttering about Marlowe and various other candidates. Since then, I've read up a little on the issue, and I remain convinced that Shakespeare was Shakespeare. As far as I can see, those who feel that someone else did the writing and our Will was a front for some better-educated nobleman who didn't want to be associated with the grubby business of making plays base their fundamental objections to Will being the author on a mix of snobbery and an inadequacy in themselves rather than in the man from Stratford.

I've just ruled out a major candidate for myself - the 17th Earl of Oxford. Apart from the fact that he died in 1604, before a number of Shakespeare's masterpieces were written, I never knew much about him, but in the course of reading some women writers of the Renaissance, I recently did some background research into his first wife, Anne Cecil. Edward de Vere treated her absolutely monstrously: he was raised as a ward of her family, so knew her from early childhood, they married when she was 15 and they had several children together. Four years after their marriage, she bore her first child, a daughter. De Vere repudiated both his wife and his child, largely because her father (Lord Burghley) refused to pay Oxford's outstanding debts or save his treasonous uncle, Norfolk (who had been plotting against Elizabeth I) from execution.

Oxford circulated rumours that his wife had had an affair while she was pregnant, and rejected her entirely on the birth of their daughter. After five years of letters and petitioning, he took her back. It was widely acknowledged in court circles that Anne had never been unfaithful, but nonetheless, Oxford's treatment caused her considerable humiliation. He was explicit in letters and conversations with cousins that he intended to ruin his wife because of the humiliations he felt that his father in law had heaped on him.

He did take her back five years after the repudiation, they had more children, and she died in 1588 in childbirth.

Apart from the deep implausibility of an active courtier of Elizabeth I having the time to write over 100 sonnets and 40 plays as well as several longer poems, apart from the tricky fact of Oxford's demise occurring before the composition of masterpieces such as Lear, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, The Tempest and A Winter's Tale, apart from the fact that Will Shakespeare was quite educated enough to have written his own material, there is the uncomfortable fact that few supporters of De Vere address, of his thoroughly unpleasant personality and morals. De Vere was a man of his time - dismissive of womenkind in general and his wife in particular, and clearly incapable of imagining let alone writing women such as Rosalind, Beatrice, Portia, Viola. And while he might have as personal characteristics the charm and intelligence of thoroughly unpleasant characters such as Iago and Richard III, Oxford clearly lacked characteristics such as compassion, ambiguity and self-knowledge that produced a Benedick, a Hamlet, a Brutus or Cassius, a Richard II...

Reading Shakespeare, day in, day out, attempting to help children to understand his genius and his talent has only confirmed to me that Will Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon wrote his own plays and was not an original man, but a man who managed to synthesise and reframe key questions of his own age in a way that continues to intrigue and perplex modern readers and audiences. Recently, I've read Peter Ackroyd's biography, Anthony Nuttall's exploration of his ideas and Jonathan Bates's account of his influences and the more I read by Shakespeare himself and of Shakespeare, the more convinced I am that one quite extraordinary man was responsible for the range of poetry and plays that we have as part of our literary canon today. Instead of wasting time trying to make the scanty facts of the plays and the life fit alternative possible writers, people with doubts should return to the works themselves. Whoever wrote them was a consummate man of the theatre, who knew his audience inside out and understood his own and others' humanity better than virtually every other writer before or since - with maybe the odd honourable exception for Homer, or Chekhov, say.

The honest truth is that it does not matter who wrote Shakespeare's oeuvre - we should simply thank the fates or Fortune's Wheel that they were written and survive to enrich us still.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rolling Stone rocks on the financial crisis

Here's a link to an article that explains exactly how and why we are all in a deep dark, smelly, paddle-free environment:

The article explores the seedy world of AIG and its big cheeses, as well as all those CDOs and CDSs which were basically betting instruments for testosterone-led risk-munching monkeys, not to mention the regulators who were well, meant to regulate...

The author, Matt Taibbi, is flip, fluent and very very angry. It's long, lucid and well worth the time.

I particularly liked his analogy of the debt peddlers as alchemists - about 1 in every 1000 might have been a genuine good guy, but basically, most alchemists were con artists just like the investment managers who have made the mess.

BTW, although I am generally pro-Obama, I have read my Krugman and don't believe in the rescue package. But I suppose it is like the emperor's new clothes: enough of the world's stockbrokers seem to believe and perhaps that will be enough to restore confidence. Until the next big bank is discovered to have sat on its own cookies and reduced them to crumbs.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Aigamemnon (A Fragment)

If you like Greek drama and are in search of a little catharsis, look no further than Crooked Timber where the whole AIG bonus business comes in for a little Sophoclean perspective:

And that's all folks - deadlines to meet.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sex kittens and fruit-eating bats

I'm still seething over an article I read in yesterday's paper - I know I should know better than to take too seriously an article in the Sunday Times Style section, but somehow, this one really got to me. It's called 'Where did my sex kitten go?' and it's written by a man called Simon Jones. Here's the link:

To sum up: Simon fell in love with Frances, glamorous medical career woman. According to the article, she pressured him first into marriage and then into having a child. Once the baby was born, she became, according to him, 'overweight, unfit... a boring frump'. So he had an affair with another woman he met through his work in a hospital, Maria. When she issued him with an ultimatum, he told Frances, who punched him and f***ed him, but the next morning he left to move in with Maria. Who then pressured him into marriage and a child. Now Simon feels betrayed and he has decided to put himself first.

He rather glosses over the fact that it is ten years since he left Frances, and that Maria had her baby only nine months ago. He bewails the transformation of hot, intelligent women into obsessive mothers. And while he doesn't spell it out, it is clear that he is contemplating ditching Maria and his second daughter just as he ran out on Frances and his first daughter.

I read this article with my jaw dropping further and further at Simon's totally skewed and deeply offensive perspective. He makes the sweeping generalisation that all women are treacherous liars. He objectifies his women, longing for independent sex kittens who provide sexual services with a side helping of decent conversation. He holds the women in his life solely responsible for the predicament he is in, instead of thinking that just maybe, he should have stood up to them and stuck to his principles if he was so anti-marriage and anti-child. And now he has fathered two children by different mothers with no real intention of providing them any of the stability or guidance that a father should provide. Chiefly because he doesn't understand that those are the responsibilities once you've caved in and agreed to breed, and of course, he has the commitment of a fruit-eating bat. Sheesh, no wonder his ex-wife is 'frosty' and his elder daughter doesn't seem to like him much. Actually, the surprise to me was that such a witless, whingeing windbag had managed to persuade two intelligent career minded women to have sex with him at all. Maybe he looks like Brad Pitt or Jake Gyllenhaal, but somehow, I think probably not.

I too have met the obsessive mothers: a very brief flirtation with mother-baby groups in Brighton was one of the many spurs that encouraged me back into the workplace, because all the conversation about nappies, cracked nipples and competitive parenting spooked me. But women usually snap out of this pretty promptly - certainly within a year or so, if nurtured and cherished by their partners. But he doesn't seem to have taken the time with Frances, and since he is writing about nine months after his second wife has given birth, he clearly isn't giving her much time to bounce back from the birth.

Simon does describe how he generously upped the hours of the cleaner and brought takeaway dinners home so Frances didn't have to cook. He bought her jewellery and perfume, brought home champagne and flowers. He doesn't mention looking after his daughter, or talking to his wife. His perspective on what makes a decent, loving man is pitifully limited and superficial. His frustration that he is no longer the centre of attention is only going to increase a woman's natural insecurity and encourage her to focus on the baby that is unconditional in its demands and desires. Stuff doesn't cut it.

So what does cut it? Pacing the floors at 3am with a colicky baby while letting your wife sleep; looking after the baby so she can have some time to herself, whether she chooses to spend that getting back into shape or having a bath and reading Vogue; cooking once a week and then making sure the kitchen is immaculate afterwards; showering her with hugs and kisses without applying pressure to have sex (which I think many mothers fear for anywhere between weeks, months and years after giving birth for a multiplicity of reasons usually explored in full in any good pregnancy guide); reading pregnancy and parenting guides; letting her wallow in the weirdness that is motherhood, especially the first time round; organising the babysitter if you want a night out together; understanding that with patience, affection, respect and humour, women will emerge from the hormonal fog that clouds their perspective.

I suppose, really, I was as much saddened by this pitiful article as angered, because it illustrates that there are still men out there who are utterly stupid. At least, in Simon's case he has been honest. Now, as a real service to woman- and mankind, he should tattoo himself with the words: 'complete fool, avoid like the plague' - that would save him from any further difficulties with commitment and fatherhood.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Banker in January, Teacher in June

So, there's this plan that all the people who are being booted out of the financial services sector can usefully fill all the gaps in the teaching profession, notably Maths and Science, where it is true, teachers actually qualified in their subject areas (e.g. a physicist teaching physics) are thin on the ground and often deeply uninspiring even where they do exist. Even better, there's a plan to train the hordes ditched by the City in six months. Applications to teacher training courses are up by 30% in some shortage subject areas, and we want these people up and at our kids as quickly as possible.

It made me think about the skills that cross the great divide between banking and the classroom.
  • First of all, it will take no time at all for converts to adapt their jargon to the world of education, where we talk of empowerment, level playing fields, outcomes and assessment, NCLS, QCA, Ofsted and all the other verbiage easily understood for those with experience of low-hanging fruit and Bullshit Bingo.
  • The politics of the office are fully applicable to the subtle and at times vicious territorial wars of the staffroom - coffee mugs at dawn.
  • The bellow as practised by traders, whether on the floor or via a phone is an ideal form of communication in a busy classroom.
  • The smarming up to clients and soothing of savage egos is just what is needed to calm agitated headteachers or the skunk-addled teen following a post-prandial spliff.
  • Wading one's way through Financial Service Regulations is surely a suitable training for reading up on the Department for Children, Families, Schools and Kitchen Sinks policy documents - after all, the Bankers seem to have pretty much ignored regulatory control with little adverse effect.
  • Regular visits to lap-dancing clubs are ideal training for handling adolescent females: indeed, our converted bankers may bond when they recognise those students who are too tired to do their coursework because they were writhing the night away at Spearmint Rhino.
The only area that will come as a real and perhaps deal-breaking shock to the bankers is school food, but of course, Jamie, with his River Café background, is sorting that side of things out, although umpteen thousand pound bottles of Petrus are unlikely to be available even in the most enlightened of school canteens.

Six months seems crazily long for a conversion course - I should think the finer points of teaching could be easily assimilated in a month or six weeks by the brilliant minds that have plunged us into the worst financial crisis that the UK has known. And if they are truly hopeless in the classroom, they will soon be fast-tracked into headships so that they can wreak even more havoc in a management role.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Generation Kill

We have one ep of Generation Kill to go, and I've finished reading the book. Reading the book was a really good idea, because it made the TV series somewhat (not wholly) more comprehensible although it has left me with a near unconquerable urge to end every sentence I address to someone else with the term 'dawg'.

Enjoy is not the right expression for engagement with GK. Evan Wright is a decent writer, he allows himself a moment of indulgence when he talks very briefly once in 400 + pages about his own therapy and issues, the story he tells is really interesting, and I did come out of the book feeling more sympathetic to Marines than when I went in. Both book and tv series capture that horrible mix of boredom and sheer confusion/terror that seems to epitomise warfare since 1914, and in the tradition of WW1 war writing, by and large the senior officers come off as remote and a little careless with their men's lives, there is incompetence and there is genuine heroism. One of the facets of this depiction of combat that struck me was the miracle that more Marines weren't killed/maimed.

War stories like this are fascinating and paradoxical. The camaraderie and wit, the banter and companionship make the life seem almost attractive, but there are balanced descriptions of the repulsiveness of the meals, the layers of grime and footrot thanks to a life of no apparent hygiene facilities, not to mention the consequent stomach problems ranging from squits to full on dysentery, and also most seriously, the brutalisation that comes with the territory. Military units go to the heart of our purpose here: they are at once deeply artificial, and also more intensely real - and they are adrenaline factories for young men (and I suppose, increasingly, young women) who find the buzz of extreme situations addictive.

Minion number 2 is at that stage of experimenting with career choices, telling me when he is a 'growed man' he will be a firefighter, no, a policeman, no, a cook, and maybe a pizza delivery man. When we hit soldier, my devout hope was that this would be another flash in the pan moment. Noel Coward advised Mrs Worthington against putting her daughter on the stage, and on the basis of the experiences described in GK, where extremely expensively trained Reconnaissance Marines were used experimentally by strategists playing with a new way to fight wars, I'd tell Mrs Worthington to keep her boy out of the military too. On the other hand, I'd recommend the book and the TV series to anyone interested in modern warfare.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book moan/review

I know I should know better by now. I know that by and large when I read about a Top Top book on certain websites, the book is probably not one that I would necessarily rate. But it was a reviewer I respect and trust, and it was a rave for the book being unusual in its historical setting, which was 16th century, a period I am really interested in and its location, which was Saxony, although the author kept referring to it as Electoral Saxony - I'd have preferred either Saxony or the Electorate of .... but that's just me being nitpicky. And here's the rest of my nit-picking. Bloody big nits for me, but maybe not so huge for other readers.

1) The excessive use of Mayhap and Nay. Perhaps, maybe and no would have been fine. But sprinkling the mayhaps does not impart a sufficient 16th century feel to modern day speech patterns, as in 'mayhap you will tell me what is going on with you?'

2) Straightforward incorrect usage: 'disinterested in their food' should read 'uninterested in their food', 'the thought chaffed at her' should be 'chafed' - there's a bit of that, which may not be the author's fault, but it shows sloppiness somewhere in the publishing process and does make me turn book in hand to face the wall against which I might begin wishing to bang the book.

3) Anachronisms. 'Candy' was not a word used widely until the 18th century and to extrapolate and use the term as a euphemism for the general or specific deliciousness of a woman (as in say, a 50 cent song) is even less likely to be a plausible 16th century term of endearment. And then there were the sugar beets. Yes, beets have been around forever (apparently there's an image of something looking like a beet in a pyramid) but no sugar extracted until 1590 at the very earliest, so a beet would not have been called a sugar beet....just a beet. I know, veering into nit-picky territory again. I am also not convinced that an ex-noblelady/nun would be quite so much into the hoeing and tilling of the kitchen garden.

4) Infodump - the extremely detailed description of the process of printing in 1525 was given a bit of dressing because the heroine (wife of a printer) goes to his workshop to tell him essential plot stuff, and gets to gaze at her hero-husband doing his print-setting business, but essentially, there was a lot of the author going, 'looky here, I know about this stuff, see see what the kind professors that I consulted told me, isn't it cool' - and yes, frankly I do think the complexity and sheer hard work of running a printing press in the 16th century is fascinating and cool, but that is because I am a saddo bookaholic who goes on quarterly visits to the Plantin Moretus house to get me my fix of printing house experience. But even for me, the four-five pages of detailed explanation was Too Much, as were the rather clunkily delivered chunks of history about peasant revolts.

5) And this is where we start getting to my moment of revelation. I suddenly put my finger on exactly why by and large the historical romances that I have read apart from one honourable exceptions (Jo Beverley step forward), have filled me with a sense of irritation bordering on ire. It is this: the authors have taken the sexual stereotypes that dog US culture and applied them to their characters. That bloody MarsMen/WomenVenus nonsense, The Rules, all the nonsensical ideas about how men and women relate (or fail to relate) to each other are quite often regurgitated. As in this example: 'women needed conversation as well as sexual intimacy; they were odd that way'. Now while I can just about see some weird inhabitant of a David Foster Wallace short story thinking that way, I can't see a normal 16th century man even beginning to have such ideas. For me, that sentence was a total face-palm moment.

6) Partly as a consequence of 5) above, and partly because of other cultural factors regarding what makes a suitable hero and heroine, the hero and heroine of this book, Wolf and Sabina, are total cookie cutter jobs. They have the personality of boxes recently vacated by in his case, a fridge, and in hers, maybe a TV. She has lots of long (black, brown, red, chestnut, wheat-coloured, honey-coloured - delete which is applicable) hair which he likes to run his hands through. I can't remember what colour his hair was, but she did find it adorable when he ran his hands through it when agitated. He had big hands. She had midnight blue eyes, his were green and they glowed in the dark. Her nose was straight, his was a bit wonky because it had once been broken. He was big, she was little. Both their eyebrows seemed to have independent ideas about arching themselves. Sabina was very very kind and nice and lovely, and won the love and support and undying affection of all members of his household, especially his 3-year old daughter. She reminded me a bit of Giselle in Enchanted. Unfortunately, Wolf was nothing like Patrick Dempsey's cynical lawyer. He was even more of a lunkhead than Prince Charming.

7) Lame set-up involving stinky stepfather, adoption, inheritances and legal stuff which didn't ring true. Plus I don't know how easy it was to do cross-class marriages in 16th century Saxony, but I was pretty sure that it was a lot more complex and socially unacceptable for printer guys to marry the daughters of barons. The plot was just strung around the interaction of hero and heroine.

On the plus side, at least the sex scenes took place in the plausible arena of a marriage. There's quite a bit of build up and then we have a big kama sutra section in the middle and then it's all rather taken as read.

So there we have it, a moanathon in my long search for a decent romance. If I haven't put you off, the book was called The Legacy, by T J Bennett.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The coolest TV show ever

Of course it's Mad Men. Every single detail from the casting to the set dressing and camera angles and music choices are intelligent, layered, complex and fascinating. And no, I don't really fancy Don Draper. I think John Hamm is amazing and I love watching him, but also all the other denizens of Sterling Cooper, the little and large secrets and tensions and quirks that emerge so gently as the series unfolds. Apparently there are those who dislike it for being too slow - but that is part of its wonder and cool. Wiener and his team of writer/producers aren't afraid to take time, leave ends dangling, create small mysteries that may never be answered.

Of course, it's got a great pedigree: Wiener, the guy who devised it, was a Sopranos graduate, and it took me a little while to place the reptilian Pete Campbell, who under the brylcreem and baby-face was Vincent Kartheiser, formerly known as Conor, Angel and Darla's son who did some havoc-wreaking of his own very effectively, and Marti Noxon, writer/producer on Buffy, was involved in Season 2.

We glommed up season 1 on DVD and are now waiting week by week for S2 to unfold on the BBC. I'm busy proselytising the show's wonders to my fellow-box-set addicts at work, and this forces me to work out what it is I love about the show. Part of it is sheer nostalgia: at one point, Don and the guys are drinking out of little spherical tumblers with a silver band that were exactly like a set my parents owned: the silver band tarnished and faded in the '70s. Betty and Don threw a bridge party at which their 8-year old daughter Sally was busy mixing Tom Collinses for the guests, taking me back to being taught the basics of booze blending, and there was a shot of the kids sitting on the stairs, listening to the grown-ups, because sleep was elusive. Sally has Lanz of Salzburg PJs - I had the nightgown. So, a big part of the appeal is seeing my childhood resurrected.

But there's more to it than that. The characterisation of every single role, even down to the secretary who says perhaps 3 lines in one episode, or the hot Asiatic waitress offering Don Draper consolation, is inhabited by an inner life fraught with the compromises and contradictions innate to human existence. I can't remember seeing such consistency in a cast, such wealth of subtext and subtlety in a show. For the first time, I feel as though I am seeing a great novel made palpable and real, the interface between my imaginings and the page brought to life, and it is all gloriously, unapologetically adult - not in a smutty porn way, but in that for once, the producers and writers of a show are treating their audience as sentient, thinking beings.

The themes of the show are classic, huge: the nature of the American Dream, the significance of the blurred boundaries between appearance and reality, the search for happiness, the meaning of's all there, brave, ambitious and unashamedly brilliant. The third series is contracted - let's hope Wiener has been given the raise that will keep him at the helm of this
gorgeous, poignant piece of tv that reveals so much through its prism into our past.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Recent and current reading

Last week I finished Last Train to Kummersdorf by Leslie Wilson, a vivid and pacy book about two teens stuck in a collapsing Germany as the Soviet army approaches. Great characterisation, unusual plotting and a spirit of optimism overcome the moments when my WSD antennae were on the point of pinging. Effi and Hanno seem (from the perspective who spends quite a bit of the working day with the age group) plausible 15-year olds, and it was refreshing to see WW2 from their perspectives, which were different - he had (necessarily) joined the Hitler Youth, while she was actively involved in resistance activities. The book moves fast, the writing is economical and effective but there are harrowing scenes, so be warned, not one for the under-13s. I will be teaching it next year. Ultimately, it is uplifting as well as unexpected.

Another very different, but equally engaging read was the terrific How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, a very funny craft book I'd heartily recommend to anyone aspiring to take up the pen or assault the keyboard in the hope of publication and JK Rowling type success. Wry, dry and aphoristic, it is worth reading for the succinct exemplars of bad practice which had me rofloling during a what seemed like an interminable week.

Not so engaging: If I should die before I wake, by Han Nolan, which is a bodyswap with a white supremacist girl into the body of a Jewish girl in 1940s Warsaw...while nowhere near as maddening as Boy in Striped Pyjamas (which entered my list of top 5 bad books, although not quite displacing DVC), I find the modern day girl's slang and personality unreal, and I think the device of sick child being transported back to Holocaust has been done before and better executed. Perhaps also, it is that Nolan's work is informed by a religiosity that seems over-preachy and consequently misplaced. Far better, in my view are Morris Gleitzman's Once and its sequel Then, and Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, as well as Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic. Not to mention non-fiction accounts e.g. Livia Bitton Jackson and Magda Denes, as well of course as Anne Frank.

Totally mind-bending and amazing - my ongoing read of Cryptonomicon, which has been sitting on my shelves for 4 years now. At NY, I noted the complete Baroque cycle on the shelves of a friend, and he raved, so I finally got round to picking up my own Stephenson and am off on a crazy read. Cryptonomicon is quite a guy's book - well, three/four male protagonists, lots of code-breaking and war stuff, and hidden treasure and erotic digressions involving stockings with seams up the back, but it is also amazingly structured with great cliffhangers - how did he survive that??? is a question that keeps cropping up. I do think it could have been pared down from its 910 small-font pages by excising perhaps, frex, the disquisition on how to eat Captain Crunch cereal...and other little meanders, but then I think to myself, thank God there are publishers brave enough to take on Stephenson and all his wild excesses, because better a book with wild excesses than more tedious literary slop. Half of me can't wait to finish so that I can get onto Quicksilver, the other half of me just wants to relish what I've got.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ben Goldacre, Brain Gym and drinking the Koolaid

One of the funner parts of my job is checking out the English newspapers for articles suitable for use in torturing second language students (sorry, that should be 'for reading comprehensions and oral test materials to enrich my second language students' English'), and today, I came across Dr Ben Goldacre's wonderful Bad Science blog. Dr Ben has the potential to be a nauseating Wunderkind (1st in something hideously scientific from Oxford, while just editing the odd student rag here and there), but mercifully, he has taken up the mantle as debunker in chief of nonsense medicine. He's currently in terrible terrible trouble with a London radio station for pointing out how irresponsibly the media has dealt with the whole business of the MMR vaccine since Andrew Wakefield's now deeply discredited research suggested the link between the jab and autism, with specific reference to a recent segment on a chat show which has led to legal action against him. Which is just stupid of LBC, but as has been noted elsewhere, doing the stupid is something that comes very easily to good old Homo not so very Sapiens.

While exploring the Bad Science blog (, I also came across his ranty mcrant against Brain Gym, which included some links to priceless Youtubery (Brain Gym turns Evil frex) and to last year's Newsnight in which various properly qualified scientists debunk Brain Gym's claims to make children work harder and better, while Paxo eviscerates one of the Californian 'educators' who invented and now flog Brain Gym as a 'learning system' to help children concentrate better - because btw, schools have to buy Brain Gym. And the trainers to come in and spend a day or so teaching teachers to teach Brain Gym. Which costs money. In fact, quite a lot of moolah. Provided by you and me, the taxpayer.

We came across Brain Gym in the course of our ongoing educational adventures with Minion Number One. Minion Number One is pretty much an identikit of his parents at the same age: he looks intelligent because his nose is always in a book of some sort, he has a capacious memory for trivia, he has the co-ordination of a newly-born giraffe, and he is pretty idle when it comes to exerting himself over the tiresome stuff that they want you to learn in school, partly because he knows most of the facts already due to snarfing up horrible histories and spotty science and grievous geography and assorted encyclopaedias on dinosaurs, evolution and the way the world works, and could care less about the skills like having neat handwriting.

This troubles teachers - not so much secondary school teachers, but primary school teachers were phased by his ability to recite the Latin names of all known birds of prey while being utterly unable to tie his laces or write more than three lines of our composition on Autumn. So they donned their white coats and tested him and tried him out with Brain Gym and all sorts of other activities.

Now, as a teacher, I'm willing enough to don my own white coat and explore the wilder shores of ways and means to encourage small boys to do what they are told and jolly well get on with their sums. But luckily, apart from having developed a reasonably honed BS detector of my own, I have a husband who drinks no Koolaid of any variety and will come up and dash the glass from my hand if I seem to be poised to swallow the latest guff. I did investigate Brain Gym, and I thought, well, it can do no harm - except that people actually do believe it works, of course.

In our case, it is clear that Brain Gym has made absolutely no difference to our child's progress. Increased confidence in his physical abilities through learning to swim, a great experience going on a long skiing trip plus drama and tennis lessons of a non-competitive variety have all helped him feel easier in his skin. Hurray. A combination of growing up and getting fed up of parental nagging has improved his concentration skills so we're now looking at perhaps 6 or even 12 lines for the pesky compositions required of him. So far, so normal male child as far as I am concerned.

Anyone whose children are exposed to Brain Gym would do well to watch the Newsnight segment, and perhaps their alarm bells too will be set off by the information from a teacher/trainer person that doing one particular move would improve children's 'languaging skills' - clearly Brain gym had significantly increased that particular woman's ability to massacre her own tongue. In fact the general demeanor of the headteacher and her colleagues at the primary school filmed for the segment struck me as spookily Stepford, and that is what really concerns me.

I've been a teacher for 16 years now, and one of the most frightening thing about being a teacher is just how unworldly and easily influenced some colleagues can be (and to any of my current colleagues who might happen to read this, I do not mean you!). I mean, I do know that many of my fellow humans are gullible, ignorant and quite cosy too. But we teachers are meant to be training up children to question, to think, to explore, to test, to push the boundaries. Yes, this drives me absolutely bananas when my own child can never ever bloody let anything go in an argument, but on the other hand, at least he's no yes-guy. Which means that if he is ever in a Piper Alpha situation, he will do the counter-intuitive and jump into the sea rather than let himself be burnt to a cinder because regulations dictate that you should never jump into the sea. I hope. (Of course, I hope that he is never in a PA situation at all.)

I suppose this gets to the heart of the paradox of educational establishments. We are meant to be encouraging individuality and independence in our charges, but actually, we want them all to conform to certain norms of behaviour and discipline. And that is why Brain Gym has currency. Unfortunately. Because like the calisthenics performed by Japanese factory workers and the daily hymn-singing of the UK public school, or the training chants of Marines, any collectively performed activity helps build a collective mentality, and it is much easier to control a collective mentality than one where children's brains zing all over the place. Watching the zinging is a lot more fun and ultimately much more productive for society and the individual...but it is messy and inconvenient and difficult to manage. Getting the kiddies to drink the Koolaid is much easier.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Stephen King on Meyer furore

Well, all the poor man said was: 'JK Rowling is a terrific writer but Meyer can't write worth a darn.'

And lo, the waters parted, and the chosen raged and fired many curses and thunderbolts of doom at the infidel heathen who dared criticise their beloved Queen of Sparkly Vampire Stories.

I read Carrie and some other Stephen King when at school, but didn't develop a taste for him much, and more recently, I read his book On Writing, which follows the US creative writing school of cutting out all extraneous verbiage, and I have read Twilight, skipped the two middle ones and skimmed BD. I can't comment on King's writing abilities, but I would have to agree with his assessment of Meyer. She can't write worth a darn.

Still, she has many readers who all love Bella and Eddie, and who have bought the book and seen the movie, and ensured that there will be sequels to the movie.

I cannot understand why all the Twifans are getting so heated - there's no shame in reading the compulsive crackfiction that is the Bellassey, especially if you keep your head about you and can admit that there are aspects of Meyer's technique that could be improved.

Personally, I do think that Meyer has now probably profited sufficiently from her dream, and might usefully spend the rest of her time raising her kids and counting her dosh instead of inflicting more vampire fantasies on the rest of us...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


On Sunday, I was in a church for the first time since last July when we buried my godmother, Kate Mortimer. It was a joyous occasion, the christening of my youngest niece, also a Kate. But I'd forgotten that during the course of a service, during the formal prayers, the custom is to remember our dead, which became a rather emotional process. Then today, I heard that Kate's memorial service has been organised and one of those waves of missing her washed over me but I thought rather than being miserable, I'd call up some of my favourite Kate memories, for she was, as other of her friends have noted, a truly life-enhancing spirit.

My very first meeting with Kate was when I was five, in Washington. My father had come across her in the World Bank, and was very taken with her - smart, snappy, very English, and a bridge-player. I think she came over for lunch one weekend, and she talked to me, which was quite unusual for most of my parents' friends, all in their twenties and thirties, deep into career mode. I must have made her laugh, and I seem to remember that there were other weekend lunches at various places like Nathan's and Clydes, great burger joints where they played Creedence Clearwater, where she would always find a bit of time to chat to me.

When my parents split, my mother moved out first to Kate's flat, just round the corner from one of my favourite Washington places, Dumbarton Oaks. It had a great playground, and she had a cat (Barnaby, rather wary of a somewhat bewildered seven year old), and a copy of the Lord of the Rings about which she was very enthusiastic. I started and I did get to the end of Fellowship before we moved on. Quite soon after that, I was sent off to school in the UK while my parents tried to sort out their divorce, and Kate too left the World Bank to join the Cabinet Office. She lived in a fantastic flat in Warwick Avenue - yes, the place that Duffy sings about. She was my guardian while my mother organised herself to move back to the UK, so she drove me down to school and came to spring me for days out in Brighton and half-terms. She had a beat up Mini, fawn, with red seats, and I was taken for half-terms to friends and family. I remember on one occasion, we went to her then boyfriend's parents' house somewhere in the North, and I was allowed to watch Dr Who which involved big robot things trashing London while John Pertwee tried to sort things out. I did hide behind the sofa and Kate had to coax me out to go to bed. She read to me, in her crisp, no nonsense way, probably something Rosemary Sutcliff.

Then there was Burford, where her family had a millhouse, and later, Penrith, where her parents retired to an Old Rectory. Her mother was as wonderful as Kate, very matter of fact, shaped rather like Mrs Tiggy Winkle, warm, with a delighted chuckle when someone got a tricky crossword clue or helped with the washing up. They shared a great love of good walks, lively books, ideas, and an unostentatious robust Anglican faith. When I decided I wanted to be christened, I asked Kate to be my godmother and she was very supportive, although I'm not sure my motives were of the purest. I was ten, and tired of my rather freaky foreign names, so getting baptised provided me the opportunity to have a good solid English name - but Kate never quite got the hang of it, and used one of my freaky foreign names when I worked with her in my very first proper job after leaving university, which has become the name that I am known by all and sundry.

Kate was an exemplary godmother - she gave great presents, super treats, and a little later, houseroom. My mother and I moved into the house she bought in Hammersmith with her first husband (that boyfriend whose parents we'd visited), and so began my ten most settled years. Although I was at boarding school, Ravenscourt Park was my home. We lived on the top two floors, Kate and John in the basement and main floor. The house was the scene of wonderful parties, small and intimate, rather bigger and louder but all full of laughter, good conversation and Kate's wide and eclectic bunch of friends. My mother and I were not the only people to whom Kate offered shelter - there was Fred, who wrote jokes and Ernie who was researching a biography of Ken Tynan, there were always friends dropping in from the US or Europe, people with sharp minds who challenged me and pushed me, made me question and rethink my solipsistic teenage positions. And we played games, hung out reading papers, went for walks, fed each other's cats, borrowed coats. Kate had a wonderful snickering laugh and a great appreciation for the sillier side of life. She loved Brando and James Dean and the Rolling Stones. I remember wading through the record collection, making mix tapes and reading series of books from her and John's library - The Saint books, James Bond, Bulldog Drummond. She was always reading something, often thrillers and mysteries, but we shared the ability to hoover up books and it gave me great pleasure later to introduce her to books, just as she had shared her favourite reads with me.

One of the best of times was the arrival of Andrew, her son, who was a gorgeous pudgster of a baby, mad about Skeletor and He-Man. I felt really honoured when Kate asked me to be one of his godmothers, so there we were back at St Mary's church on Paddington Green. Kate chose one of the best hymns, Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning, and there was a party afterwards - another one.

Soon afterwards, Kate brought an old friend from the World Bank round. He was gentle and quite quiet, but with a definite twinkle in his eye. Bob had a daughter, Anne, and four grown-up sons from previous marriages. Anne was only a couple of years older than Andrew, and the pair of them had some battles royal, jockeying for position in their extended family. Bob bought a barn down in Devon, tucked in a little valley near Okehampton, and quite soon, Kate sold up in London and moved down to Devon full time. Together, they converted the old barn into a glorious living area, and the house was always warm and full of family and friends, wonderful meals, the scent of Bob's bread, the squeaks and giggles and wails of children, including my own. There were long walks on Dartmoor, pub lunches and again, wonderful parties celebrating Bob's 70th and her 60th, the sorrow of losing her beloved sheepdog Tommy and the pleasure of raising Sunny, her next dog, trips to the beach - one of my recent memories is of Kate taking great pleasure in her new Saab with GPS, which took us the most circuitous route to the north Devon coast via farm tracks and flocks of geese. But perhaps I'll miss most of all, her wonderful directness which could sometimes slip into the most colossal tactlessness, causing offence and hilarity in equal measure.

How lucky I have been - I lived with Kate, worked with her, benefited enormously from the way she shared her great gifts for friendship, dedicated slog and sheer fun. And now, it's time, in honour of Kate, to learn and live by her example, giving the warmth of friendship, putting in the hours at work, and relishing the possibilities for laughter and simple pleasure in the warmth of the sun and the brush of the wind, the sun glinting on the waves.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Good Childhood? or a Good Life?

The Children's Society published its report into children's upbringing in the UK, parading around the same old chestnuts about split families, rubbish schooling, excessive advertising and so forth as the causes of the UK's failure of its children - we stand 21st out of 26 European countries assessed for their treatment of children.

Naturally, there was lots of handwringing in the Sunday papers and on the radio, but what interested me about this were the two questions that children were asked in the survey the CS carried out in 2005 on which this report is based:

1 What are the most important things that make a good life for young people?
2 What things stop young people from having a good life?

The phrasing of these questions strikes me as likely to produce a set of responses from children that reflect very much the fundamental malaise of not just British childhood, but Britain in general - which is that we receive very little training in understanding the nature of a really, genuinely good life, in the sense that Epicurus or Augustine, or Plato, frex, might have thought of such a thing. Those of middle age and above will think of a sitcom about a couple of suburbanites taking up subsistence farming in Surbiton, and everyone else will think of what they would do if they won the lottery or married a footballer or were in a band better than the Arctic Monkeys.

My children are being raised in an international school environment where right from the start of their schooling, they have some form of ethical training - in the primary years, this often covers such key elements as why we need to brush our teeth and feed our guinea pigs, but it does evolve, until eventually, they take a compulsory course in Philosophy. While you can see a rudimentary start to this in primary schools, the PHSE course in which this probably naturally slots is already crammed with useful titbits on citizenship and binge drinking and 'pass-the-penis' games with condoms - PHSE tells you enough about the British approach to thinking about ethics, which is to create an acronym for a weekly timetable session in which we can shove all the non-curriculum issues for which the government suddenly wants us to take responsibility since it is clear no one else is going to face up talking to the students about them.

The whole business is further obfuscated by the nonsensical Brit tendency to have denominational schools where narrow religious perspectives are fostered. But the real issue in the UK is that we are uncomfortable with abstraction. We are race of pragmatists who prefer lovely crisis situations where we can demonstrate sang-froid and stiffen our upper lips, or in the post-Diana era, let ourselves go and sob uncontrollably while muttering about our sense of devastation and loss. So it's impassivity or wallowing that seem to be our current models.

The problem with the UK is not that we provide bad childhoods for our children, but that we are utterly unclear on what a good life is and should be for any of us. We've been seduced by the raw capitalism on show in the US, but that has turned out to be a pup, we give longing glances at Europe but reject (with some justice) the compromises necessary to fit in wholly with the European project (whatever that nebulous thing is), and we sit shivering in our island fastness conscious of malaise but unable to dispel it.

At present, you cannot access the Recommendations that the Children's Society has in mind in response to its report. But here are my recommendations for Britain:

1 Make time to sit and talk to people, especially your family. Turn off the phone and the TV, eschew the internet, lose the Playstation and retire the Wii, make a nice cup of tea and sit with your family and ask them about proper stuff. Not have they had the car exhaust mended, or where shall we go for our next holidays, if indeed, we can afford any, but why do we do the things we do, and what are the ways in which we could improve our lot in life. Spend time with the people you love and spend that time doing fun things.
2 Do something for someone else. Water your neighbour's plants while they are away, a sponsored walk, the shopping for your elderly auntie, cover a colleague's essential tasks while s/he is looking after their chicken-poxy child.
3 Examine your own prejudices and confront them. We all have them. Intellectually, we may know they are wrong, we may not know that they are wrong at all, but go out of your way to talk to that person who is different from you and who gives you the heebie jeebies.
4 Read a book - ah, it was bound to get in there sooner or later. Or go to an art gallery, or listen to a different sort of music to the sort you normally listen to, watch some dance, anything that removes you from the place where you are and opens a door to another place. That is one of the essentials of art.

The article I read this weekend which gave me much more to celebrate was Matthew Parris's account of how he got back into reading and finally read Middlemarch, including George Eliot's fabulous sentence:

“If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence”

It is not that we in Britain set out to shortchange our children - it is that we have already short-changed ourselves. But it is possible to develop that keen vision and to survive the roar - in fact, it is essential, if we are to live a good life.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


A while ago, in fact, about 20 years ago, I had my first story published. Company Magazine ran a competition, looking for crime stories with a female focus. The idea jigged around my head for a while, and then one morning, I woke up and there was this story in my head. I think it took a few hours to get the first draft down, then a couple of weekends to tweak and rewrite, and then I posted it off and did my best to forget about it.

I came third, I think. A cheque for £50, and the story was published in an anthology. I was invited to a reception at Murder and Co, just off the Tottenham Court Road at that stage (it's on Charing Cross Road, just up the road from Leicester Square now). There was champagne and Liza Cody. I was given a copy of the anthology, which is there rubbing dustjackets with various short story collections on the shelves, and then I turned my hand to other stuff. Like my scintillating best-seller, European Natural Gas Markets, and moving to China and directing a couple of plays and then onto the regency romance market, and moving to Brussels and all that life business like marriage and minions and mortgages. That story, Box, was long-forgotten.

Here in Brussels, we lived with Radio 4 Long Wave for quite a while, to the point where even the cricket-averse DH knew who Freddie Flintoff was, until we hooked up with a satellite and now we get Radio 4 FM but via the TV. It comes with little captions so you can see what you are listening to...There is a point to this digression, because imagine my surprise this afternoon, when I glance at the TV and what catches my eye but my maiden name, and there, read by Joanne Whalley (OMG, the heroine of one of my all time favourite TV series, Edge of Darkness), was Box. I listened to it in a sort of weirded out trance, because it was at once familiar and totally strange. I'd heard it in my head for quite a while as I was writing it, but hearing someone else read it, a competent actress who gave it life and flavour and an accent, that was the most wonderful sensation, particularly after a day of the customary stresses associated with dealing with hormonal adolescents and paperwork and marking exams and and and.

And if it had been another day, the likelihood of my hearing it at all would have been remote - what a piece of luck and timing that I actually came across it. The nicest kind of serendipity.

If you'd like to listen too, you can follow the link for the next 7 days:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aaghgh death of book, death of book, agh agh

Bloggers I like (John Green, Dear Author, Smart Bitches etc) are all discussing the way the US publishing industry has recently been exploring the nether reaches of the U-bend in the Crapper of Fate (pls xcse coarseness, but that's how they all make it sound). Apparently book sales have collapsed and all is doom and gloom. But but but - I checked out an interesting site run by Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books - here is his industry sales review which runs up to Oct 2008 (when the fact that a hedge fund was chief shareholder in one of the biggest US conglomerates, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt screwed them royally):

Check out the table about 2/3 of the way down the page - it shows the sales, and for the last 5 years, US book sales have run around $16.5bn per year...This year it looks as though it will be less because November saw a 14% plummet, and who knows what December brought - although maybe Santa bought a few books - he was certainly generous with the printed matter in our London/Brussels axis.

But the thing that baffles me altogether is this constant moan about the decline of the market - there have never ever been so many readers in the world - literacy rates may be proportionally lower globally especially since cute folk in organisations like the IMF and World Bank have helped poor countries switch money out of essentials like education in favour of paying interest on 'strucutural adjustment' funding. But overall, the number of people who learn to read continues to increase, little by little. Of course, their disposable income for books is shrinking at the moment, but the fact of the matter is if the right books are published, people will buy them and they will buy them more than ever right now, because books are a much better way of escaping the glooms than DVDs, say, or reruns on TV.

This is because reading is interactive and requires us to lose ourselves in a different time and place. The problem is that publishers at the moment have been burned by their own stupidity so badly - offering humongous advances for rubbish that won't sell (hmm, step forward sleb bios of ex-Big Bro contestants and Strictly Come Dancing judges), while failing to understand that by and large, fictions readers don't want more of exactly the same, but do want something just as good, if not better. Which is a subtle distinction that requires a punt every now and then, the kind of punt that takes imagination and people who understand about books. Which hedge fund managers by and large don't. Nor, clearly, as we are all discovering to our cost, do they seem to know much about their own business.

What all this means is publishing fewer books, more of which are crummy, thus deterring readers. What publishers need to do is publish more varied and interesting titles and build up small niche markets with print-on-demand technology offered through amazon and other retailers - because everywhere there are niche markets. And they need to ditch their sales guys and the big cars and get the authors out there pimping their own books, because no one can sell a book like a passionate author (take a look at John Green, frex). So - drive down the unit costs of book production - but not the editorial costs, because the one thing most books need nowadays is a lot of pruning and sometimes, slashing and burning, - save the planet by cutting down on paper costs and lumping around big heavy boxes of books which then get pulped, and get authors to work their markets through their own websites and through readings, offering courses and all the other things that most writers have to do already because so few of them as it is can make a decent living out of just writing. Plus, maybe, just maybe, some detailed research into the various genre markets.

Romance is alive and well because the romance genre, long snubbed, has gone out and built its own market through magazines and websites and now blogs and webrings, from AAR to great author pages. The readership is faithful and focused and is prepared to shell out for books because in tough times, you can save up for a couple of weeks, or a month and go out and buy 3-4 books in a hit. And if you are lucky, one or two will be good enough for re-reading, but otherwise, most romance readers have their stash of keepers that they will wheel out when the going gets touch (just as I did last week with one of my favourite Ibbotson books, The Morning Gift). There are lessons to be learned from the Mills & Boons of this world, who generally seem to be able to ride out recessions...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Williamson and the Holocaust

My attention was caught by two items today - the first, on the BBC website, where a debate presenting the case for and against preserving Auschwitz, has opened, and the second, the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops who were not properly bishoped in 1988, including one who does not believe in the Holocaust.

This chap is called Bishop Williamson, who believes that 'there is no serious historical evidence' for the murder of several million Jews in the gas chambers. He believes that between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews were killed by Nazis, 'not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber'. He refers to the Holocaust as 'quote unquote, The Holocaust'.

Williamson gave an interview in Germany last November to Swedish TV which demonstrates a wilful and bordering on wicked misinterpretation of data and semantics. He cites the work of Fred Leuchter, a strange being who offered his services to US states for the 'improvement' of their execution systems, but would then threaten to offer his services to the defendant in appeals against the death penalty to testify that the equipment to be used by a particular institution to put someone to death was faulty...unless they used his services. Given that I am virulently anti-death penalty, I certainly don't feel sympathy for the prison governors shaken down by Leuchter, but I am saying that his integrity perhaps isn't that credible, certainly not sufficiently for some Bishop-not-Bishop to cite him as an historically reliable source on gas chambers...

But what got me in the interview (apart from sheer shame that this noodle purporting to peddle the word of the Lord happens to be an Englishman, educated at Winchester and Cambridge) was his statement that his beliefs were based on truth, and that therefore they must be good, because all truth was good. He did not see the trap he had fallen into - his words were not true, could not be true, because there is abundant thoroughly documented and verified evidence for the existence of gas chambers operated by the Nazis. So his words were not truth, and therefore, based on his own syllogism, must be wicked, or evil, or bad, or whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, why are any of us paying any attention to this crazy nutter, given that he believes that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were staged by the US government?

I suppose it is because, in my case, I cannot understand remotely how anyone can deny the Holocaust - especially someone born during the war, who grew up through the 1950s and 60s with the revelations and trials and memoirs coming thick and fast, not to mention the dense body of documentation - plans, aerial photographs, orders and reports that survived the Nazis' attempts to conceal their crimes. In Williamson's case, I wonder how a man of considerable education (though clearly limited erudition beyond his narrow vision of the Catholic church) can so calmly and foolishly deny what is so easily verifiable. Perhaps the clue lies in that phrase, narrow vision - a vision which is so confined by his theology that he has lost all sight of humanity, of genuine intellectual curiosity and of any humility.

What frightens me most about Williamson is not the bizarre lunacy and repellence of his many views, but the fact that this man has been rector of numerous seminaries for the training of young priests and is currently busy in Argentina continuing his work of warping the world-views of those he's allegedly educating. What Benedict thinks he is doing by rescinding the order of excommunication is unclear - possibly mending schism in the ranks of the Catholic church. But mending a schism between the mainstream and a bunch of about 5,000 extremists which is likely now to sour Catholic-Jewish relations seems like a truly bizarre move. So Benedict clearly woke up one morning thinking, 'Hmm, shall I invite the Lefevrists back into the fold, thus irritating and angering swathes of people in all faiths who'd never heard of this bunch of RC extremists or shall I leave well enough alone?' Ah, well, Popes have made bad calls before and no doubt will again. In the meantime, I suppose we should be thankful that Williamson is safely tucked away in Argentina.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A New Era??

So, the razzle dazzle and the hoopla is over, some are masking their disappointment over The Inaugural Speech while others celebrate its steady, focused approach, and for the first time since 1993, we have a president that the world actually seems to like. And for the first time ever in my lifetime, I see a president I really admire.

My first president was Lyndon B Johnson, but I can't really say I remember him, let alone admired or despised him.

Next up came Tricky Dicky... we all remember how that ended.

Oh, yes, then there was Gerald Ford, who just kept falling over. Followed by Jimmy Carter. Since he has left the Presidency, Carter has grown as a statesman (although I am aware that there are those who loathe and detest him), but as POTUS, I cannot say he impressed. There was the Iran hostage crisis and that unfortunate picture of him deyhdrated and faint as he tried to run in a Washington race.

Reagan was the president of my student days and no, I did not think he was remotely admirable. Even though the Evil Empire crumbled on his watch, that was due more to economic and political movement within the USSR than pressure from the US Administration.

Bush Sr - hmmm. Well, he didn't have Alzheimer's. But he was lacklustre. There was cronyism, there was the slippery slope to dishing out contracts to pals for wars that hadn't been declared just hanging about in the atmosphere. There was a failure to make the most of opportunities and there was economic gloom.

Then came Clinton, and while I respect his intelligence and appreciate his act, admiration is not something I can quite feel for someone who was so heavily compromised both before and while in office by the air of sleaze that surrounded his dealings - almost certainly within the letter of the law, but I always have an image of Hill and Bill like jackals circling their next carcass. And the whole Monica business did bring the White House into disrepute. Although I think he governed creditably enough, the good stuff that happened economically in Clinton's era was more a lucky break than an intended outcome. He also set up some of the deregulation that has landed us in the current fiscal castastrophe. At the end of his eight years, I had a sense of disappointment that was immeasurably deepened by the defeat of Al Gore by Bush and the GOP party machinery.

While Bush Jr was a gift to the satirists, I find myself wishing he had not been quite so easy a target with his malapropisms (terriers and bariffs...), his gaucherie (Yo Blair!), his blithe insouciance in the face of suffering - proudly showing off the latest green gadgets on his Crawfordsville ranch as New Orleans disintegrated. Admirable...I don't think so.

So what is it about Obama that makes me admire him? Number one, he's 'fessed up to his mistakes in print, in two books which he himself has written.

Then there is his sheer intelligence. Apart from the numerous endorsements of his professors and colleagues, the media coverage has shown time and time again, a man who is not afraid to think before opening his trap. He likes thinking, he has run the bid for the presidency with a startling competence and while of course running a country is different, he is a man who seems to be able to manage others, while engendering loyalty and encomia of great fulsomeness.

Secondly, he is his own man. He looks at a situation and does what he thinks is right. Like the dinner for John McCain. He is doing his best to create a bi-partisan government focused on rebuilding a country trashed by its leaders. Because currently the US does look like a frat-house on a Sunday afternoon. There's garbage strewn everywhere, ripped sofa cushions, stained upholstery, someone did spew in the corner, there's the scent of rancid alcohol and stale smoke, and the semi-conscious corpses of the kids who couldn't handle the stairs unbecomingly slumped like rag-dolls across the floor. The Cheneys, the Madoffs, the Fulds, they've had their fun, and pissed on the American and quite a few other people while they were at it.

But another admirable thing about Barack Obama is that he also likes a joke and some fun, he enjoys dancing with his wife, cuddling his kids and talking to his friends. Where Dubya continues to seem like a bizarre puppet,maybe what Pinocchio did when he grew up, Obama seems like a real person, and now that all the razzmatazz is done, he will roll up his sleeves, sit down to read, think, discuss and debate with the exceptional minds he has appointed to help him, and work out both short and long-term options. When he makes decisions, he will have the humility and common sense to explain them, and he will also be able to remind us all that he is not Superman or Iron Man, he is just another human, and that he may make the wrong decision, or the unpopular decision.

The papers in the UK have been full of the usual British caveat-construction, but you know, I looked at Obama a while ago, and I don't expect miracles. But what I think the Americans have managed is to appoint someone compassionate and sensible who will explore what he can deliver rather than promising the moon, and then he will deliver, explaining it to us all in coherent, structured and elegant language that encourages us to strive for the heights instead of allowing us to wallow in complacency or incompetence.

Sarah Palin attacked Obama for being a man of words - but without words, we are no more than posturing apes. Obama makes us more than that, and perhaps that celebration of the word, of language and of soaring and searing rhetoric, speeches that put us on the spot as much as the expectation of them puts him on the spot, is the gift for which I admire him the most.

So, yes, a new era, an era of eloquence and damned hard slog. Somehow, it seems like an improvement on the era of obfuscation, lies and misunderestimation that has now passed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stretching out and courting sailors

Many thanks to Celia Rees - I started teaching her wonderful YA novel Pirates! this week, and on the book's website, she lists some of the songs she used as inspiration, including I Courted a Sailor by Kate Rusby, which sent me back to this wonderful singer. I bought Sleepless when it first came out years ago but didn't really get into her. Then I youtubed her and ended up downloading Hourglass, her first collection of songs. On which there is the heartbreaking I am stretched on your grave, a song that sends shivers up and down my spine and calls up all sorts of images to mind. Rusby has a voice that is smooth but raspy and the accompanying musicians - accordion, flute, fiddle and acoustic guitar, produce a rich, evocative layering of sound that is pure magic. A whole catalogue of loveliness awaits.

Somehow, I've managed to download some additional widget for iTunes called Genius which is meant to provide recommendations (ahem, get you to go and spend more money, perhaps their fight back against amazon going the downloadable route). But Genius is currently sending me apologies that it isn't working fully and btw here's the list of top 10 downloads, featuring Beyonce and Britney. But being in the mood for folk, the idea of listening to the bouncy vacuous beats seems utterly risible.

It was with a shock that I realised that I knew I am stretched on your grave from both Dead Can Dance and Sinead O'Connor's versions, but the song never grabbed me by the throat and shook me until I heard Rusby's version. Curious how some voices, some arrangements of sound just go right to one's heart, or rather whatever strange part of our brains it is where we respond to music.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

War Horse

What a way to start the year - traipsing from Brussels to London, 91 students in tow, to visit the Imperial War Museum in the morning and see the National Theatre's production of War Horse in the afternoon.

Over the years, I've seen many many plays, in all sorts of venues and all sorts of styles. I can think of all sorts of standout performances, I've had wonderful entrancing times in the theatre, but War Horse went straight into the top five or so of theatrical memories. It was exhilarating, heartbreaking, wild, and one of those rare occasions when the adaptation transcends the source material. Morpurgo's book is a lovely book, but the complete physical experience of the play is so visceral, so vivid and so extraordinarily focused in performance that it becomes much more than a story about a horse surviving World War One. I don't think I've ever seen a cast work so fluidly and effectively to create real art: every single person on stage totally gave themselves over to the piece.

Of course, there is the technical magnificence of the horses - extraordinary pieces of engineering, matched by the physical labours of the actors manipulating the heads, the hindquarters and the forelegs while making utterly believable horse sounds - the chill of the screams of horses cut down by machine gun fire will not leave me.

In addition, there were wonderfully light comic touches, and the changes made to the plot (scenes cut and backstory added) were not lightly executed, but carefully thought through. The main scene setter was a shred of screen across the back of the stage, used to project the wonderful drawings of Rae Smith, who designed the set with Handspring, the company which created the puppets - although the horses are more like sculptures than puppets.

Many of the plays I've seen in the last ten years have been at the National, and their visual inventiveness is one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre there. War Horse was one of the richest in terms of sheer spectacle. Having now read the reviews my students have written about the production, I feel vindicated in hauling them untimely from their beds for their journey to the western front. War Horse is a glorious endorsement of all that is best in theatre, a wondrous example of when everything falls into place and makes magic.

The play is sold out at the National, but is transferring to the West End - booking until the end of September. Prices are up from the National's incredibly reasonable 10-45/seat, but it is worth seeing this piece at any price.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reading resolutions

The TBR pile is 86 books big, plus a couple more that are coming through the post. Last year, I read 109 books... that means that if I read everything in the TBR pile, I should see the year through to October without buying any more books, especially since some of the babies in that pile are seriously long.

Of course book lust will grab me and I will feel that I simply cannot do without a quick hit from Amazon...but I am going to do my uber-best not to order any more books until the TBR pile is down below 50. There are some great reads in there. I've winkled out the books that I've started and really won't finish (S. Meyer's New Moon, step forward, ditto AM Holmes' This Book will Save your Life). So that is resolution number 1.

And in this Darwin Bicentenary year, I am going to read The Origin of the Species.

Meanwhile, I've finished The Thirty Years War, which was a slog, although I do think I am now clear on the differences between Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III and I certainly know who Maximilian of Bavaria is, though I am still confused about Margraves and Landgraves, Electors John George, George John, Frederick, Charles Lewis of Saxony, Brandenburg etc etc etc.

Have now started Dark Fire by CJ Sansom, and Matthew Shardlake is better than ever - I am really going to eke out Sovereign and Revelation, because this guy is good....The worldbuilding is flawless, the characterisation sympathetic and the stories convoluted and intriguing. Yes, 80 pages in, I did end-read, and now I can settle back to see how the tale unfolds, because of course, it's not the way that it ends, but the way that it is told that matters.

Which reminds me of the joys of Jarvis Cocker, who edited the Today programme on Wednesday morning and used as his thought for the day the words of Alan Watts, an Englishman who devoted his life to philosophy and exploring Buddhism. Cocker chose an excerpt of Watts talking about the way we are so goal-oriented - and as a teacher, peddling the notion that one must jump through hoops to achieve one's full potential, the extract resonated. I suppose my real resolution for reading this year is to encourage the students I teach to believe in reading themselves, to take up and relish reading so that it becomes innate to them, and thence, a consolation, a revelation, a refuge, a door opening up new worlds and new ideas. Not because they should, not because they must, but because they can read. How lucky they are to have such possibilities before them.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome 2009

What a good start to the year, tea in bed listening to In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg, guests: Melissa Lane, Anthony Grayling and Roger Scruton, discussing Boethius and the Consolations of Philosophy! You won't be able to listen to it yet, as it is repeated tonight at 9:30pm, but from then, you can go to the In Our Time website and click on Listen Again to have consolation enough to calm the most savage breast.

Resolutions -

1 Get going on proper work for the dissertation
2 Go for more walks in the Belgian countryside
3 Finish first draft of The Apprentice, vol 1 in the hairy people and blood-guzzling countesses saga.

Those are the public resolutions. I know what I've got to do, so I'm going to go and do it. In the meantime, am just wrapping up CV Wedgewood's history of The Thirty Years War... what a book. What a Dame! Well worth the read.

Who knows what 2009 will bring - but let's hope that it isn't as bad as it could be. To you and yours, all the very best for the 12 months ahead.