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.