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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (FP: 1926)

Looking for somewhere reasonable to live close enough to his New York business interests Nick Carraway takes up residence in a slightly run down property in West Egg village. He quickly discovers that his neighbour is a mysterious self-made man known to throw lavish parties for celebrities far and wide. Rumoured to have made a fortune at bootlegging the owner of the property – Jay Gatsby – is quickly dismissed by Nick as just a piece of local colour. On the other side of the sound Nick discovers that an old college friend and his young wife (who Nick also knows) have taken up residence and is invited to dinner. Seeing Tom, and especially Daisy, again bring back pleasant memories and all is going well until Gatsby is mentioned by name. Invited over days later by the man himself Nick meets Gatsby for the first time and can’t help but be impressed. Gatsby too seems like he’s looking for a friend and the two men start spending some time together. Quickly it transpires that Gatsby needs Nick to do something for him. Explaining that he knew Daisy before her marriage he asks Nick to arrange an ‘accidental’ meeting so that they can become reacquainted. Despite misgivings Nick agrees and so starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

I was honestly in two minds about this book before I even picked it up. It had been on my shelves for a long time and I’d yet to start it. I’ve never seen any of the movies all of the way through and had assumed it was going to be about the lifestyles of the rich and shameless – which it kind of was. Of course it’s a 20th century classic and is taught in schools so it must have something going for it, right? So over 3-4 days I gave it a go. It was, thankfully, easy to read and, again thankfully, short. My copy runs to 188 pages. Those two things were, by and large, the good points. About the most sympathetic character in the book was the narrator, Nick. His function, as such, was to hold the story together. Tom, Daisy’s Husband, was essentially, a racist bully with no redeeming qualities and who was having a frankly ridiculous affair with the wife of a local garage mechanic. Daisy herself was pretty and had a ‘good voice’ but I found her weak, self-centred and not exactly love of my life material. As to Gatsby himself – decorated war hero, promoted to Major, self-made millionaire and literally a self-made man from the ground up, driven, focused, for want of a better word a hero. But, he was also socially isolated, manipulative, obsessed, and as far as I could tell, at least borderline psychotic. I really couldn’t understand his obsession with Daisy. Sure she was cute and all but she’d married someone else – who had money before Gatsby could make his – after she got fed up waiting for Jay to come back to her. She had moved on with her life whilst Gatsby hadn’t moved an inch in his. The secondary characters, Tom’s mistress, Nick’s love interest Jordan, the garage owner, Jay’s Jewish business partner and so on where, with the possible exception of Jordan, cardboard cut out people. I found myself quite quickly uncaring if any of them lived or died (again except Jordan).

The plot, such as it was, meandered all over the place and came across to me as a loose collection of ideas for a story tied together in the hope that something reasonable would appear. As far as I was concerned the appearance was barely perceptible and fleeting. I struggled all the way through with the idea that this was regarded as a great 20th century classic. I just couldn’t agree. At times frustratingly unfocused, racist, anti-Semitic, and just plain dull with dialogue even worse than Star Wars I’m just glad it was so short. I could see what he was attempting to do – tell a tale of ennui and nihilism in the upper echelons of American society but there are much better ways to tell that story than this one.  I doubt very much if I’ll be reading any more of his work.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Versatile Blogger (Nominee)

Sarah over @ All of the Book Blog Names Are Taken has nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award (Thanks!) and as part of that I’ve been tasked to say 7 things about myself so:

Seven Facts About Me

1 I don’t own a car. I have never owned a car. I have never driven a car (on a public road) and do not have a diving licence. I have never had a driving lesson and have never taken a driving test.

2 Three things happened around the age of 14. My brain ‘woke up’ and I noticed the world around me in super HD vision. I began reading voraciously (having hardly read a thing before that) and became a lifelong gamer. I suspect that all three things are related.

3 When I say to people that I have been a lifelong Atheist I am not exaggerating. I have never had any faith in any Gods or the supernatural. This is not something I decided later in life. It is something as fundamental in my make-up as my gender or my sexuality. It is not something I have acquired. It is something that I simply am.

4 I love debating things. My perfect talking mate would be someone open to new ideas, flexible in their approach and willing to ‘entertain’ ideas without necessarily holding them to be true. Above all else they would need to be able to argue a point without having emotion or personal identity issues associated with the subject at hand. My biggest bugbear is when someone says that they are up for a debate and who very quickly realises that their ideas are most definitely not open to question. It’s probably why one of my heroes is Socrates and why I completely understand why the authorities had him commit suicide to shut him up.

5 I have a reputation for being a rebel as well as for being difficult. Both viewpoints are only partially right. What some view as rebellion is actually only their surface contacts with my natural resistance to social convention. Most conventions I view as essentially harmless or meaningless. I understand why they are there and, generally, simply ignore them. A silly example is that I purposefully wear odd socks. Partially this is for practical reasons – sometimes one sock of a pair wears out first and I see no reason to then throw both of them away. But it’s also my way of saying that I’m not simply going to follow a ‘rule’ just because not doing so makes you look odd. My ‘strangeness’ which, I freely admit, has probably done me some social relationship ‘damage’ is because I refuse to conform to what other people expect of me pretty much no matter the cost. The more I’m pushed the more I resist and, so far, I have yet to reach the end of my resistant nature.

6 I’ve spent most of my adult life alone. This to an extent explains, at least partially, some of the other points listed here. It’s not that I don’t have friends – I do – just not that many. It’s not that people don’t like me – they do – but that I don’t need them as much as most people seem to. It’s strange. I actually don’t understand relationships and people very much probably because I don’t have a great deal of experience to go on. I’m probably on a spectrum of something with an exotic sounding name but I have no idea what that is. I do know that I don’t like being touched without my tacit agreement and people around me seem to have picked up on that. But it does annoy me when someone hugs other people and then just nods in my direction. Hey, I didn’t say that I’m not complicated…..

7 I’m not bothered by spiders, snakes, heights or most of the other standard phobias. I have no problem with clowns, birds, the number 13 or a whole host of the more exotic ones. I do have a healthy respect for water though. Being in a big ship doesn’t bother me in the least but I’m less than happy in water more than waist deep. So you can imagine how I was on a reasonably large boat on the Great Barrier Reef when I was asked to get off my ass and into the water. She was very cute so I said yes. After much cajoling I donned a wetsuit and went snorkelling – never having learnt to swim. After about 10 minutes I started getting used to the idea. After about 30 minutes I started enjoying myself. Then my friend convinced me to join him scuba-diving. I have to say that jumping off that boat in scuba gear was the bravest thing I have EVER done. Unfortunately I was so freaked out after gulping in water shortly afterwards I had to get out of the water and never went back. If I’d gone snorkelling on my own I might just have gotten over my fear of water…. 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

University entry 'should be background, not just exams'

By Sean Coughlan, BBC News education and family correspondent

10 July 2018

The university access watchdog says students' backgrounds should be taken into account when awarding places, to improve "equality of opportunity". A-level grades are a "robust measure" only if the applicants' "context" is also considered, Chris Millward says. Many universities give extra help to disadvantaged applicants - but a report warns of a lack of openness about how this operates. All Russell Group universities use some form of "contextual admissions". Top universities have faced accusations of being socially exclusive and recruiting too few applicants from ethnic minorities. But they also face scrutiny for being unfair to individual applicants who might lose out on places to disadvantaged candidates with worse results.

A report from the Fair Education Alliance campaign group says there needs to be much more transparency about how universities use the background of applicants when making offers and awarding places. The campaign group, of more than 100 education and business organisations, says this can include taking into account family income, whether an applicant lives in a deprived area or if they attended a school with poor exam results or where few pupils go on to university. There might be extra consideration given to applications from disadvantaged pupils or they might be offered places on lower grades. But the report says there needs to be much more clarity about these decisions and how different forms of disadvantage are defined. Research for the report, carried out by the University of Exeter, shows the extent of the challenge - with figures showing how few places in 2016 were awarded to applicants from areas with few young people going to university. The University of Cambridge had only 3% of entrants from such "low participation neighbourhoods", the University of Bristol 3.7%, Oxford 4.6% and Exeter 5.3%.

Mr Millward, the Office for Students' director of fair access and participation, said: "We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation to access to higher education." Universities are in charge of their own admissions, so the fair access director can encourage but not instruct. But Mr Millward said: "An ambitious approach to contextual admissions must be central to our strategy if we are going to make progress on access at the scale and pace necessary to meet the expectations of government, students and the wider public. A-level grades can only be considered to be a robust measure of potential if they are considered alongside the context in which they are achieved," he said. Sarah Stevens, of the Russell Group, said that all of its universities used "contextual data" in some form. "Qualifications and predicted grades are a key indicator of academic ability - but universities take a range of other factors into account to understand the applicant's achievements in context," she said. "This includes the school or college attended, where a student grew up, whether they are a care leaver, or whether they are the first in their family to enter higher education."

[So, ‘contextual’ admissions? Presumably leading to lower ‘standards’ for those considered to be or claiming to be in some way ‘underprivileged’ or ‘under represented’. OK, I get the issue – that pupils from poorer backgrounds have an uphill struggle to get to the top of the tree (to completely mangle my metaphors) but rather than addressing the actual, you know, problem the “Fair Education Alliance” want to ‘fix’ it at the other end. In other words rather doing the hard spadework of improving education at the shallow end of the social spectrum they want universities to wave a magic wand and let people into university because of ‘context’ as if that can in the click of fingers overcome the decades of struggle for people to gain their place in the sun. Not only will such students probably feel that they, deep down, don’t deserve their place but others will resent the fact that a (potentially at least) less able student got a place while they had to wait a year or needed to apply elsewhere. Plus what happens if a ‘contextual student’ drops out for a whole host of reasons. Not only have you not solved the problem you’ve potentially damaged the prospects of those whose (again potential) place was given to someone who failed to complete their degree. What a nightmare!]