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

Thursday, December 31, 2020


 


Just Finished Reading: Proust and The Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf (FP: 2007) [229pp]

I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. It seems that I have always been reading signs, papers and books. Reading, to me, is as automatic as breathing. But weirdly there was a time when no one could read across the entire globe because reading, as a process, did not exist. Why? Because, not that long ago – in the grand scheme of things – there was nothing written that could be read. There was language but nothing written down – that had to be invented and then taught to others. It was a long and hard process and even had some early opponents who thought, rightly as it turned out, that the process of writing and reading would change things forever and would even change those exposed to it. Writing and reading would, hard as it is to believe at first glance, not only change the way people thought and remembered but literally change the structure of the human brain.

This fascinating book essentially had three streams starting with the various origins of writing in the ancient world and how some prospered while others fell into disuse and how writing (and reading) spread across the ancient world to aid commerce and record keeping. I did actually find it interesting that, like the invention of e-mail and Instant Messaging much later this official communication very quickly became much more personal with commentaries, love notes and graffiti quickly becoming as pervasive as book keeping and legal codes.

Teaching people to read turned out to be really hard and required intense effort both to teach and to learn that skill. This is one reason why early readers were so rare and so prized. It turns out that while we are ‘designed’ from birth to be talkers we are not ‘designed’ to be readers. That skill needs to be bolted on very much as an afterthought as it was not something that evolution made us ready for. In order for the brain to be able to read quickly enough for it to be of any use it needs to rewire itself in multiple ways. As in other realms one of the best ways to figure out who something works is to study when it doesn’t. Hence the in-depth investigation into reading ‘disorders’ gives a great deal of insight into how normally functioning brains learn to read text quickly and accurately to fully process the information it contains. As many people have discovered, both teachers and pupils, this is not always an easy path to follow and is one that takes years of concerted effort before it becomes, or at least seems, to be completely effortless.

Being a lifelong reader (or almost at any rate) I found this book to be completely captivating. Not only is the origin of writing fascinating in its own case I found myself most drawn in by the process of how brains teach themselves to read and I couldn’t help but relate it to my own childhood as well as watching other people struggle with the process. I remember my ‘a-ha’ moments when things suddenly made sense and that almost physical feeling of things falling into place and, of course, the joy of countless reading moments over the years that non-readers never experience. If you are a reader anything like me you will get a great deal from this book. Imagining how your own brain was re-wired from the inside by your own actions with the aid of parents and teachers who taught you to read is both weird and strangely satisfying. Definitely recommended. I shall be looking for her follow up book in 2021.  

Monday, December 28, 2020


 


 


Just Finished Reading: The Privateersman by Richard Woodman (FP: 2000) [250pp]

Back in Liverpool everything has changed for Captain William Kite. With his business partners turning against him and his wife and child dead from an epidemic sweeping the city he heeds the call of the sea and returns to Antigua to start trading along the Eastern coast of America. Now reacquainted with business partners in the Caribbean and Rhode Island William hopes that he can steer a new course and become the successful businessman he knows he can be. But it’s not only Williams’s life that is going through significant change. All along the Eastern seaboard there are rumblings of discontent and even talk of rebellion against the British establishment. When William’s ship is taken by ‘patriots’ to furnish their ‘Continental Navy’ the British authorities are either unwilling or unable to help in its recovery. Burning with indignation and seeking revenge against the men who took his livelihood away from him William returns again to the Caribbean where he takes command of his old sloop and fits her out as a privateer. When the British refuse his offer of assistance and any official capacity in the growing rebellion against British rule William and his crew decide to take things into their own hands. He will take back his lost ship and punish those who took it – no matter the consequence or the cost.

Following on from The Guineaman (this was actually both books wrapped in a single cover hence why I read them so close together) this was an even better adventure as William fought for his livelihood against the backdrop of the American Revolution. Although much time was spent at sea a fair amount of time was spent in Providence, Rhode Island where William and his business partners were regularly harangued by trouble makers describing themselves as ‘patriots’ which ended with William losing his ship but gaining a future wife. I have actually long wondered at what happened to loyalists both as the Revolution grew and afterwards. Presumably some of them fought with the British, some moved West(?), some moved to Canada or to England and others stayed in place and took whatever consequences came their way. Presumably some of this was of the more nasty kind? Obviously as this was William Kite’s story it colours the books views of the rebel forces which are generally seen as loudmouthed bullies and braggarts picking on the weak. The British authorities are treated almost as harshly seen as arrogant and, frankly, stupid in the face of real revolutionary fervour. This is encapsulated in the Battle of Bunker Hill which William witnesses and is tangentially involved in which should have been a walk in the park to the British army but turns into a political and military disaster because of astonishingly poor British leadership. I actually know very little about the Revolutionary War – but that will change – so can’t vouch for the veracity of the tale but it did have the feel of correctness about it. Overall this was a cracking read with lots of interesting asides, plenty of sailing around (including during a hurricane) and even a bit of (very clever) naval combat to round things out. I’ve been impressed with both of these books but this one took things to the next level for me. I shall try to pick up the next book – only available presently in expensive hardback or Kindle – at some point next year. I’ll also be seeking out other books by this author. Definitely recommended and more naval adventures to come from the steam age as well as the age of sail.         

Saturday, December 26, 2020


 

 A Fifteenth (and last of 2020) View from The Apocalypse

Well, Christmas has gone and New Year is just ahead of us so it’s time to look back at the Apocalypse… Remember those heady days when we could greet people with a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek? Those days will be coming back but not just yet. We just need to be patient for a little while longer. Better times are coming I assure you.

It’s been a hard road for many I know. I’ve been one of the fortunate ones in many ways. It was weird leaving work in March/April as this really kicked off. It’s as if I’ve been on ‘pause’ for the whole time waiting for someone to press ‘play’ again and things can get back on track. Luckily I haven’t had to risk daily contact with others and honestly hunkering down at home hasn’t been a huge problem. I’ve had the odd twinge, the odd wobble, the odd period of low level anxiety but that’s about it. With only 4-6 months (probably) before I get the Covid vaccine things could have been a whole lot worse for me and mine. My Mum (who is 84) had her first shot just before Christmas and is due for her follow up shot on, I think, 12th Jan ’21. Both myself and my brother (both in our 60’s) are a little further down the present list so expect to be vaccinated around Easter time. If its anything like the recent Flu vaccination programme I went through a few weeks ago it’ll be fast and efficient. Gotta LOVE the NHS for stuff like this. I expect that things will be, largely, back to normal(ish) by the summer – despite new variants of Covid popping up across the UK and now the rest of Europe. The vaccine manufacturers are confident that their vaccine will cover the new stuff too. It just looks like the new variants are more contagious rather than anything that new or that nasty (or nastier!).

No matter what happens we’ll be much better prepared for the next Pandemic unless we have to wait another 100 years like last time. Unfortunately, with population increase, habitat destruction and ease of global travel I doubt if pandemic outbreaks are going to go away anytime soon. Bad as it has been the Covid-19 outbreak could have been a whole lot worse. This was a shot across the bows that we need to get our act together globally so the next one doesn’t have anything like the economic effects Covid did or kill anywhere near the number of people it has and will continue to do so over the next 4-6 months. It’s extremely impressive that highly effective vaccines have been produced in such a short time. That alone shows the power of the biotech industry across the world. That’s a huge advantage in our favour going forward. We do need to be spending a whole lot more on surveillance and monitoring though to catch the next one early and, hopefully, kill it in its own backyard.

But things are definitely looking up. Vaccines are being produced and are already going into people’s arms. This will happen in increasing numbers in the early part of the New Year and, little by little, we’ll push Covid back where it belongs, in the margins and into the history books. We just need to hold on for a little while longer. Wear a mask when you need to, wash those hands, stay away from people when you can and look forward to better days. I know that I am. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020


 


Just Finished Reading: When the Clyde Ran Red – A Social History of Red Clydeside by Maggie Craig (FP: 2011) [301pp]

As the 19th century progressed the already industrialised area around Glasgow in Scotland – Clydeside – exploded in activity with everything from shipbuilding to the new Singer sewing machine factory complex producing wealth on truly staggering level. Little of this wealth, however, trickled down to the men and women who laboured long hours in often dangerous conditions to produce it. Labour was in the early stages of organisation and new Trades Unions began to make their demands on working hours, safety and wages. Not surprisingly these, often very limited demands, fell on deaf ears and more often than not resulted in banning of unions, sacking of ‘trouble makers’ and lockouts. Living on the very edge of financial security such actions could push whole families into a state of destitution and abject poverty. There were, as always, two ways to proceed – give in or fight. Whilst not always successful the Clydesiders chose, when pushed, to fight. This is their story – or indeed whole host of stories – from the Singer Strike of 1911 over wages and conditions, to the shop girls who worked 12-14 hour days with a 20-30 minute lunch break, no opportunity to sit down and often no toilet facilities (to say nothing of minimal wages). This was the story of the beginnings of the Labour Party in Scotland that came into being – along with the great Labour founders such as Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald (the first Labour Prime Minister) – to address those issues the existing Liberal Party either could not or would not. This was the story of the Red Scare of 1919 when the British government, terrified of a Bolshevik Revolution on the streets of Glasgow had tanks on those streets to prevent it happening. This was the story of support for the General Strike of 1926 and for the International Brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War and much else besides.

Told with passion by a local author who grew up in that community and whose relatives and ancestors were part of the story itself this was an interesting insight to events over the last 100 years that shaped a region and a movement for the protection of working people and improvement of their living conditions which were often unbelievably dire with high infant mortality, low life expectancy and other problems associated with poverty and harsh working conditions. I know a little about Scotland and somewhat more about the early days of the Labour Party but this narrative took you down onto the streets, into the slums and factories and onto the dockyards where the late effects of the Industrial Revolution had created both great wealth and great suffering. Definitely an interesting and informative read especially if you’re interested in Labour history and the growth of Socialism in industrial areas. More on this area to come!

Monday, December 21, 2020


 


 


Just Finished Reading: The Guineaman by Richard Woodman (FP: 2000) [216pp]

England, 1755. William Kite is convinced that, despite his innocence, he will hang if they find him. So he runs towards the only place that he can think of to save himself – the port of Liverpool. Determined to gain access to the first ships master that will have him his luck suddenly changes and he is hired as ships surgeon on the Guineman Enterprize. Completely na├»ve to the ways of the sea, and even the very trade mission they are on, William throws himself into all aspects of the ships operation and even gains the grudging admiration of the captain and crew. But William is going to be tested to his very limit as the cargo of slaves bound for the West Indies is loaded and the awesome responsibility of ensuring that as many as possible of survive the passage rests on his shoulders. As he starts his duties he is torn by sympathy for his charges and his duty to the ship and its master. Crossing the Atlantic for his first time disaster strikes as Yellow Fever starts to ravage the ships compliment. If he can survive he might become a financially independent young man – but first he must bring the ship to port. Once in Antigua he is far from sorry to see the back of the slave trade but still needs to make a living for himself and his new ‘family’. Again at sea and trading throughout the Caribbean he is developing a deep love for the ocean only to see the dark clouds of war on the horizon. The Seven Years War is about to break out and throw all of Williams plans into doubt.


I picked up a two volume book – containing this and the second book in the series (reviewed shortly) – some years ago and, as usual, propped it up on my bookshelf and promptly forgot about it. But lately I’ve developed a strange hankering for all things nautical so thought it was about time to give it a go. I was so pleased that this rather short though packed book was a delight from end to end. Firstly William Kite is such a great character. He does have a slightly anachronistic ‘modern’ feel to him but that might either be to resonate more with a modern readership or it might simply be my misunderstanding or ignorance of the times he lived through. Either way he is definitely the true hero of the piece. As much of the time is spent either at sea or in conversation about trade at sea there is a heavy sprinkling of naval terms and much of this is not explained – as it shouldn’t be between people who have spent much of their lives on the oceans. Some is explained to the younger William but much needs to be picked up by context or a quick Google search if required. This is nowhere near as thickly spread as a Patrick O’Brian novel but be warned you might end up knowing more about spinnakers and reef sails that you ever imagined that you would need to. Naturally as a goodly chunk of the novel is about the trans-Atlantic slave trade there is a fair amount of brutality and offensive language that might upset more sensitive readers. But I certainly guarantee that any such imagery and language is many times less than the reality of the situation. The author handles the unfortunate trade in other humans with as much humanity as he can in the context of the times and, though both disturbing and distressing shouldn’t cause too much outrage – at least not enough to stop you reading. There is certainly nothing here for ‘entertainment’ value and the author, through his characters, gives a nuanced discussion of the trade a hearing that is worth reading. Overall this is an excellent book and a great introduction to the main character William. It is well paced and has very few faults (actually the only one that springs to mind is the too often repeated fear that William will need to answer for his suspected crime if he ever returns to England). I will definitely be searching out more of the author’s works. Many more naval adventures to come!
  

Thursday, December 17, 2020


 


Just Finished Reading: Anything Goes – A Biography of the Roaring Twenties by Lucy Moore (FP: 2008) [355pp]

There is most definitely something about the 1920’s. It was very much an age of excess after the privations and horrors of the Great War which were exacerbated by the deaths of the Spanish Flu that accompanied its end. The fact that the 20’s roared to the extent they did had much to do with the inevitable reaction to 5 years of mass death.

This often fascinating look at the era focuses very much on the American experience rather than taking a more global look at things. It is a rather well-trodden path but one that does bare repeating both for its well-known highlights as well as those many factors that slipped past the casual historian. There is, naturally, the crazy idea of Prohibition and its inevitable opportunity for crime to get truly organised to provide alcohol to the millions of people who still wanted it. There is the frenetic sound of Jazz and the shimmy of the Flappers who danced to it. There was the Harlem Renaissance centred in New York that looked forward to growing emancipation and recognition of Black Americans. There was the growing literately scene exemplified by people like F Scot Fitzgerald (who popularised the idea of a ‘Jazz Age’) and its links with the burgeoning influence and power of Hollywood and the beginnings of media fuelled Celebrity culture. There was the clearly out of his depth President Warren G Harding who asked on arriving in the Whitehouse if there was some sort of instruction book to tell him what to do. This, no doubt, after his election committee staff heaved a collective sigh of relief that none of his affairs had become public before inauguration. It was the era of Big Business when regulations fell like leaves in Autumn, profits boomed and the Stock Market rise was confidently predicted to go on forever (spoiler alert – it didn’t). But it was also the age of civil unrest, of fear of the foreigner, the anarchist and the Bolshevik: after all the Russian Revolution of 1917 was fresh in everyone’s memory and the Russian Civil War was still ongoing. Likewise is was a time of resurgence for organisations like the KKK which gained widespread membership across the US. It was an age of hope and looking towards the future – exemplified by figures like Charles Lindbergh and looking back to a more comfortable past – exemplified by the stage managed Scopes ‘Monkey Trail’. Finally the era fuelled on excess crashed along with the Stock Market in 1929 showing, if it still needed to be highlighted, that the age did nothing at all half-heartedly.

It was undoubtedly a strange time for everyone who managed to live through it. The most interesting things I took from the narrative was both how different things were 100 years ago at (arguably) the start of the modern era as well as how much was both recognisable and familiar. Many of the themes we are struggling with today on both sides of the ‘pond’ were either present and accounted for or just visible in the background – from identity politics (both racial and gender), to political incompetence and corruption, to the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Little it seems is new under the sun. This was both an easy and informative read and I think just about everyone will pick up something new about this largely familiar epoch. Definitely an interesting slice of American history. Recommended.

Monday, December 14, 2020


 


 I see why they call it Fall.


Just Finished Reading: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero (FP: 2018) [442pp]

Thirteen years ago, that summer 1977, the Blyton Summer Detective Club hit their high point with the capture and arrest of the Sleepy Lake ‘Monster’ – actually a low-life fortune hunter who had been terrorising the local area. But that was then, this is now – 1990. What the papers didn’t report (after all why would they?) were the local animal mutilations as well as what they didn’t know so couldn’t report. For thirteen years the surviving members of the Detective Club had kept a secret - the pretend ‘monster’ they captured that night wasn’t the only beast prowling the dark. That night they had encountered something real, something both ancient and malevolent. For thirteen years they had all been having nightmares about the night they stayed in the spooky house on the lake, trapped in the basement while real monsters tried their best to get inside. For thirteen years they had been hiding, each in their own way. But Andy (don’t call her Andrea!) has had enough of this shit. Just out of prison (not exactly with permission) she has decided to get the band back together again and go back to Sleepy Lake. The plan is a simple one. She’ll pick up genius biologist Kerri (hiding as a waitress with a drinking habit), Tim the grandson of their trusty Weimaraner from that summer and Nate the horror nerd presently in a mental institution. Luckily Nate is still in touch with Peter, the jock and ex-movie star. Unfortunately he can’t really tell anyone that fact as Peter has been dead for years. Once everyone is together they’re going to find the REAL monster of Sleepy Lake and kick its knobbly ass all the way back to whatever realm is came from. Or die trying – so probably that.

OK, as a fan of the original Scooby-Do cartoon (don’t even get me STARTED on the Scrappy-Do abomination!) this just jumped out at me. Just imagine, a homage to said classic cartoon but written for adults (and don’t get me STARTED on the 2002/2004 movies!) by someone who obviously loved the series as much as I did. Despite its repetitive format the thing I really liked/loved about Scooby-Do – OK, apart from Scooby himself whom I loved dearly! – was the fact that EVERY WEEK these meddling kids both outwitted adult bad guys and at the same time proved EVERY WEEK that there was a rational explanation to all of the supposed ‘spooky’ events going on that regularly fooled the adults around them. Every week rationality won over superstition. That message really got pounded into my young brain (along with my hero of the day Spock on Star Trek:OS). So here we have something different. The Scooby-Do motif has been updated and up-adulted. The team are now in their mid-20’s and have all been scarred by a brush with the REAL supernatural, so much so that they are either in heavy denial, in a mental hospital or dead (suicide is suspected). But starting from that admittedly low base they – prompted or honestly pushed by Andy – decide to do something about it and face the monster that comes into their dreams more often than not every night. It’s a nice format – you get to see what happened to the gang years after the original cartoon ended (did you ever wonder about that?) and you get to see them kick real ass in the more modern/adult style complete with shotguns, axes and a fair amount of ectoplasmic gore (which naturally evaporates in contact with oxygen!). As a fan of the carton I can honestly say that I had a LOT of fun reading this. I laughed out loud more than once, there was a cosy sense of nostalgia and more than enough dramatic and creepy moments to keep me glued to the pages. The only slight criticism I did have was that the end ‘boss fight’ went on just a bit too long but I understand why he did it. Definitely recommended to Scooby fans. Oh, and the dog was GREAT. He was almost my favourite character and was ‘drawn’ by someone who obvious knows the canine mind! Oh, and Andy is gay… probably…. Or maybe just for Kerri, it’s complicated…… [lol]   

Thursday, December 10, 2020


 


Just Finished Reading: The English Monster or The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass by Lloyd Shepherd (FP: 2012) [398pp]

Plymouth, England 1564. Young Billy Ablass is starting to make his way in the world. Sent with a letter of introduction from his Father-in-law he is set on voyaging with Captain John Hawkins to make his fortune – enough to start a pig farm in his home village and settle down with his new wife. Sailing from England Billy sees this is a temporary adventure, a temporary break in a life already planned far into the future, a future of marriage, children and happiness. But life at sea is not at all what Billy expected it to be, it is brutal, vile and dangerous not only to the body and the mind but also to the very soul.

Wapping, London 1811. Thames police officer Charles Horton is alerted to a disturbance on the notorious Ratcliffe Highway. An argument had been heard by passers-by and then, suddenly, nothing. Just inside the open door he sees the first body, horribly murdered. On the stairs he finds the shop owners wife, dead and in the basement, most horribly of all a baby, killed in its crib. Days later a nearby tavern is the scene of a second slaughter with the owner, his wife and others killed most brutally. But who is responsible for this reign of terror. Horton is determined to find out using new techniques of detection and a precise logical mind. What he helps to uncover will call into question the deeply held beliefs of law officers throughout the area and even task the Royal Society to explain the inexplicable.

This is honestly a very strange book. It is as if the author had two interesting ideas that individually could not be made into a viable novel – so decided to stitch them both together. The strange thing is – it worked. It worked very well indeed. Essentially the story flips between the ‘transactions’ of Billy Ablass which has a decided fantasy element and the investigations of Charles Horton which is pretty much a standard (and very good) historical crime story. As both stories progress we start to suspect, and then finally learn, how they are linked which is when things start to get rather strange! Half of the interest to me, to be honest, was watching how the author so skilfully stitched this Frankenstein monster of a book together like a first class surgeon. Not only were both elements of the story – which were very different in tone for the most part – handled really well but the characters throughout had been designed in such a way that you just HAD to know what became of them. Even the minor characters were more than adequately filled out with backstories and believable motivations. Likewise the ending did not disappoint and even more than adequately set up the sequel which I shall be tracking down next year. Overall this was a rather odd but highly entertaining fantasy historical crime novel. Definitely recommended if you fancy something out of the ordinary.