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

Saturday, July 11, 2020

You too... Pal!
Just an Admin Thing….

I’ve been thinking (dangerous I know) about my ‘Religion’ label over on the right (now gone). It’s not a subject I read much about having lost a great deal of interest in the subject from the heady days of being a quite outspoken Atheist. It still holds *some* interest but I have almost zero interest in *what* people believe but I am rather fascinated in *why* they believe things. Anyway, the Religion based books (very) occasionally dropping into that category gradually became wider and wider in scope and were often out of the Religion slot unless you squinted at them HARD. So, I thought the label needed relabelling. I had a few ideas – Superstition or Supernatural – but they really didn’t seem appropriate (and to be honest both sounded rather derogatory!) so I finally decided on ‘Belief’ as a catch-all category which seems fine all round. So there it is…. Over on the right. Of course this doesn’t mean that there will be a whole truckload of Belief based books coming this way…. But there will be a few now and again…. Maybe around Halloween….. Maybe….. 

I'd *heard* about this but........ Jeeeeze..... [shudder]

Thursday, July 09, 2020

You Are..... Here.

Just Finished Reading: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (FP: 1929)

It isn’t really surprising that he had little or no respect for those in authority. After his mother’s untimely death Robert was shuffled off, by his seemingly uncaring father, to Public (AKA ‘Private’) schools of varying unsuitability. Bullied and worse by other pupils and teachers alike he hated almost every moment of it. Fortunately Robert was both academically gifted as well as being a fair boxer – as his fellow pupils and one particularly obnoxious teacher found out to their costs. Robert was also very good at making lifelong friends including one teacher at Charterhouse – the climber George Herbert Leigh Mallory (who died on Everest in 1924 aged just 37) – who leant the young Graves books and took him climbing. His progression to Oxford was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War when he enlisted almost immediately. Eventually sent into action on the Western Front he met and befriended the fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon before being injured and sent back to England to recuperate. At the Battle of the Somme he was seriously wounded by a shell fragment and was told (as he lay on a stretcher awaiting the casualty train) that he wouldn’t make it home alive. Needless to say he proved them wrong. Spending the rest of the war in a training camp he tried to teach raw recruits the basics for survival in the trenches. But one thing he never lost in all his time in the army was contempt for the generals who sent ill-trained and ill-equipped young men to their deaths in the thousands with no real understanding of what they wanted or what they were asking of their troops. From his testimony throughout this often heart-wrenching narrative the level of incompetence and indifference amongst the British officer class was staggering. You can feel the anger and the distain between every line.

As biographies go this was raw indeed. Graves opens his life to examination without asking anything in return (except maybe understanding). His experiences are laid out before the reader warts and all. He tells of his darkest thoughts, his mistakes, his romantic encounters (with both sexes) and his no holds barred experiences during the Great War and all of the pointless death he encountered there. All in all it’s really quite something to behold. His schoolboy experiences felt oddly Dickensian to be honest, but I suppose that they were so far out of my own experiences in a State education system 50 years later that Dickens or “Tom Browne’s School Days” was the only imagery I could fall back on. I know for a fact that I would have hated the experience just as much as he did. The fact that he not only became friends with Mallory but that he took him climbing (!) took my breath away. Just IMAGINE! I did a little bit of climbing in my 20’s (mostly as the prompting of a friend who was manic on the whole thing!) and enjoyed it – not having any great fear of heights helped no doubt – but the thought of Leigh Mallory *asking* you to go climbing with him…… [gulp] Then, of course, bumping into Sassoon in France! [shakes head, laughs] That sort of thing did seem to happen to some people! It does make me laugh though how famous people always seem to move in the circles of other famous people.

Despite the sometimes painfully raw moments this was an astonishing biography and rightly deserves its place as a modern literature classic. Not only will you learn a great deal about the formative years of a great poet and novelist but you will also get an insight into the society that created him and a harrowing look at life in the Western trenches. Highly recommended.       

Monday, July 06, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Traitor by Sydney Horler (FP: 1936)

It was the mistake that defined his life and almost cost him everything. On his return to the Western Front in August 1918 Captain Alan Clinton took the opportunity to meet his French lover in Paris before delivering his Secret dispatch to his commanding officer. Unknown to Alan, however, his ‘French’ lover was in fact a German secret agent who had arranged for his wine to be drugged and his dispatch copied. Once decrypted the message allowed the German forces to prepare for an Allied assault with disastrous consequences. Managing to cover up his part in the debacle Alan joined the British Secret Service in an attempt to assuage his guilt and to protect the country he had inadvertently betrayed. Seventeen years pass. Alan’s son, now a newly minted officer in the Tank Corps, is determined to ‘do something’ as his country heads to war with the old adversary. Hearing that a new caterpillar track is being demonstrated in the German capital he travels without official permission and becomes entrapped in an enemy Secret Service plot aimed at his country and his father. When he is discovered by the British and charged with treason who will come to his defence – especially if the cost is his father’s reputation and career.

After enjoying a few of the British Crime Classics that seem to be flooding the market these days I couldn’t really resist picking this up and one other (not by this author) cheaply in my favourite ‘remainder’ bookshop. The author is hailed as something of an institution from the 1920’s onwards and produced works at a prolific rate throughout his life (needless to say I had never heard of him until I saw this book for sale). Although the bones of the story were strong enough to carry the narrative – and actually there *is* a good story in there – the 30’s writing style really didn’t translate at all to the early 21st century. The story was rather overly contrived, the characters were, by and large, less than believable and their motivation questionable at best – although I did think that at least some of their motivations – honour, public face, class – probably meant much more in 1936 than it does in 2020. Some of the characters (actually both of the lead females) were almost believable and were definitely more nuanced than their male counterparts. Overall however this book had dated very badly in the 80+ years since its publication. An interesting enough read in places but not recommended for its general entertainment value.   

Saturday, July 04, 2020

A Ninth View from the Apocalypse.

I went back to work on Thursday! Or kind of anyway….. Ever since my Retirement coincided with the ‘End of the World as We Know It’ [Are REM making a packet of money out of this Pandemic or what??] I’ve been holding on to all of the Working from Home paraphernalia – laptop, phone etc – and last weekend they finally asked for it back. I was only too happy to oblige and so used Public Transport for the first time since March. These days it’s mandatory to wear a mask on the bus/tube and so on but that as OK as I’d previously picked up a few packets via Amazon. It did feel a bit weird though and I found myself hyperventilating until I took conscious control of my breathing. As a side effect it also started to steam up my glasses which is going to be MUCH fun during any winter travel! On my way back I started hyperventilating again but it calmed down much more quickly than the first time. I suppose it’s just something to get used to.

Chatting to my ex-boss we compared a lot of notes on how we’re both doing. He’s now back in the office alternate weeks which, after 3 plus months working from home, felt more than a bit strange. We also both laughed that us both being at work was the furthest either of us had travelled since March – which for me was only around 3 miles! How small (in some ways) our worlds have become since Zombie Dawn. The other thing that’s strange presently is that I haven’t used cash for any transactions other than to pay my window cleaner. I wonder what will happen post-vaccine. Will an almost cashless society be another unintended outcome of Covid-19? Maybe it will. It’s certainly accelerated a lot of other technological trends.

Naturally I’m still reading quite a bit and am presently averaging around 2 books a week as I had hoped pre-retirement. I would be doing a lot more in the garden if it’d stop raining for more than a few hours. Even so it’s looking a lot tidier than it was. I’m watching a fair bit of YouTube presently too – quite a bit of news but also a REALLY good history series covering WW1 week by week in over 600 10-15 minute slots. So that’s keeping my interested in the evenings when I’m too tired to read but not tired enough to go to bed. Plus I have a new solo game (care of the Steam Sale) called Oxygen Not Included which is a survival/resource game based inside what I think is the remnant of an exploded planet. It’s very complex, very cute (the guys you look after are little very cartoony people) and very engaging. I love it.

As the country continues to open up I’m holding back on doing anything too public oriented presently. I’m food shopping and that’s essentially it. I might do some other types of physical shopping but I’m not planning on movie outing, pubs, restaurants or anything like that. They’re still too risky seeing that nothing much has changed since the viral wave washed over us all. It’s all about risk management and risk reduction. You’ll never get it to zero but I’m going to try!

Whilst still not exactly enjoying my captivity I’m fully aware at how lucky I am in that I have no job worries or any other kind of worry to be honest. I do miss being with people (which came as a bit of a surprise to me to be honest – though it really shouldn’t have done) but I’m coping and am pretty much hunkered down for the long, long haul. Luckily I think I might just have enough books to see me through. Although my Amazon Wish List is calling to me……. Be Safe & Stay Safe. See you ALL on the Other Side!

Oh, I almost forgot…. I’ve created a few labels over on the right to reflect the ‘Current Situation’: “Post-Apocalypse” – covering all types of fictional world-ending, and “Pandemics” covering pandemics (obviously) in both fact and fiction and including these reports from inside the thick of it. Please use them as a resource to get through the End Times in one piece. 

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Just Finished Reading: The Joy of Missing Out by Svend Brinkmann (FP: 2017)

After really enjoying his previous book (Stand Firm – Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze which I reviewed back in May 2017) I was looking forward to reading his other two available works. I was a little disappointed that the book was only 97 pages not including notes, but, I thought, it will be worth every page…..

Unfortunately I thought this was thin in more ways than one. The general argument throughout the slim volume is this – you can’t have it all so don’t even try. Firstly you’ll be happier because of it and so will the planet when you stop striving to die with the most toys. Everything in moderation – essentially know when enough is enough and stop there. Stop working late at the office looking for that bonus to upgrade item X or event A because you won’t be satisfied with it once you get it anyway… so why kill yourself when you could (at least theoretically) be in a pub with friends actually having fun. So travel in Standard Class and stay in a 3* or 4* if you’re feeling flush, drive your more than adequate car for another year, stop trying to keep up with the Jones’s (who are actually trying the keep up with you) and just RELAX. Oh, and one last thing: If you’re in a relationship stop the constant looking to ‘trade up’ to a more "ideal" partner without at least giving things a chance – it’s really annoying!

That was essentially it: Get off that bloody treadmill and start enjoying the life that you have now. To me (who is a fully paid up rejecter of all things treadmill related – *long* before I retired) this all seemed rather obvious and possibly a little trite/patronising. But maybe my head wasn’t in the right place to find it all that useful. Full of good advice on the Good Life but preaching far too much to my particular choir for me to find it too informative or useful. Sadly a little disappointing.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Guess the 'Object'?
Just Finished Reading: Inequality and The 1% by Danny Dorling (FP: 2014)

Capitalism certainly didn’t create fiscal inequality but it most certainly exacerbated it – a lot! According to several figures I’ve seen, something like the 5 richest people have more wealth than the bottom billion. That’s wealth inequality on a truly awesome global scale. In this rather polemical review of this ever growing disparity the author says that this phenomena is one of, if not the, most important issues in the world today. Although the facts are indeed shocking I’m personally not convinced.

One other interesting piece of financial information I came across recently is that people on the ‘poverty line’ in most Western countries are still in the top 25% in terms of wealth globally. Essentially the poor here would be comparatively rich anywhere else. Of course most of the 99% barely interact with the 1%. We often live in very different worlds. But is this a problem? Sure, the wealthy are like Black Holes pulling more and more of the money supply to themselves but still we are, comparatively speaking, still generally better off than most of the world throughout most of human history. Damage is being done – but I don’t think it’s in the way the author thinks it is. I think that the most damaging aspects of extreme wealth are cultural rather than crudely financial. The ‘gravity’ of wealth generates its own particular ‘pull’. Wealth (and the greater the better) is seen – in movies, books and much else - as a prime good: something that should be strived for to the exclusion of almost everything else. But, ironically, the very act of striving for great wealth is also all too often portrayed as destructive to those who obsessively seek it – like poorly equipped moths attracted to a too hot flame. Wealth, our culture seems to tell us (that is the 99%), is something both to be striven for and essentially beyond our reach. It is an activity almost designed to both elevate the status of the already rich whilst, at the same time, prove that most (99% maybe?) are unworthy of attaining that status. In other words we are being stimulated by an unobtainable dream to work ourselves to death to achieve an unreachable goal – it is the brilliance of the Capitalistic system that has worked very well indeed.

To me at least the fact of wealth – even extreme wealth – is not the crux of the great economic problem. As I see it the problem is hinted at, indicated by, the great fiscal disparity between rich and poor. It is not that there are so few of the super-rich but that there are so many of the super-poor across the world. To twist an old saying: The Rich have ALWAYS been with us and, to be honest, they probably always will be. The challenge of the 21st Century and beyond is what we do about the *Poor* and most especially those living a hand-to-mouth life on the edge of existence itself. Naturally the Rich themselves can help in that regard – both through a reasonable level of taxation – that isn’t so easily avoided or evaded – and through being encouraged to invest in programmes designed to permanently reduce the absolute number of the poor and through public recognition of the exercise of the philanthropic impulse.

The author argues that countries with ever increasing fiscal inequalities are both unhappier in general (at both ends of the spectrum and not just at the shallow end) and more politically unstable. This may in fact be true. It is definitely in the best interests of the Rich not to leave the other 99% with nothing left to lose. Such societies tend not to last very long and when they inevitably fail that ending tends to be bloody. Although the author does make some valid points I think he fails in his larger argument that we cannot and should not learn to live with the 1%. It is entirely possible that such an argument does in fact exist but this book is not the place to find it. Overall rather disappointing.         

Sign of The Times?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

At least some groups are making money.........

Just Finished Reading: The Outlander by Gil Adamson (FP: 2007)

The Canadian wilderness, 1903. Mary Boulton, 19 years old, and self-widowed is on the run. She has no idea what to do except flee. With no money, no idea where to go and no knowledge of where she even is, she knows that her days among the living are numbered indeed. Sleeping in ditches after walking herself to exhaustion she can only hope and learn to accept her fate. Helped by an eccentric spinster her only answer is betrayal – with the theft of provisions and a horse. Her only driving ambition is to escape beyond her husband’s brothers reach. But where to go to avoid such implacable trackers. Only one place – up into the mountains, away from people, away from civilisation. However, Mary quickly realises that she has no skill for survival. She could be surrounded by food and not recognise it or simply freeze to death on the mountainside. On the edge of collapse she is discovered by another refugee from civilisation. A man simply know to the authorities and the North West Mounted Police as the Ridgerunner. Despite saving her life and despite a growing attraction she cannot stay in the mountains forever and he can never return to town. When they part they both think it is the end of things but Fate, it seems, has other ideas. Finally at peace in a mining camp every time Mary looks up into the hills she wonders what happened to the Ridgerunner. Meanwhile the brothers have hired an expert tracker and they are closing in on their quarry with revenge very much in mind.

I’m really not surprised that this stunningly good novel was shortlisted for The Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. After turning the last page and repeating the last two words of the narrative several times over – with a large grin on my face – I was already convinced that this was the best book I’d read in 2020. Mary is a great character who develops throughout the novel from a frightened and hunted 19 year old into a very capable young woman. The Ridgerunner, likewise, develops from an enigma barely able to interact with others and even an almost stereotypical ‘mountain man’ (although he was nothing of the sort) into someone who you couldn’t help but respect and root for. The cast of secondary characters – the Preacher in the mining camp and the owner of the camps store – are brilliantly rendered and were living breathing creatures full of hopes, dreams and all too real faults. No one here is perfect – far from it – but everyone in the book is a believable human being no matter the brevity of their time ‘on stage’ – from a family of American horse thieves to an Italian miner who can understand English perfectly but only speaks in Italian (which no one can understand!). For that alone this is worth reading. In many ways this is both a coming-of-age story (watching Mary grow beyond her original confines) and a love story between Mary and the Ridgerunner but there is FAR more to it than that simple distillation. There is a lot going on here. The story is very much a character driven tale of hope over adversity and not just for Mary. Nearly everyone encountered in this excellent novel are damaged in some way and are either living with the pain on a daily basis, coming to terms with loss or looking for a form of redemption. There is more of a lyrical quality in this book than I have experienced for quite some time. It was, at times, quite beautiful and I was deeply impressed by the writing skill of this first time author. Naturally as soon as I put it down I wanted to read her other works. At this point I was presented with both bad and good news. So far, this is her only novel. But the good news is that in 2021 she’ll be publishing a second – about the life of the Ridgerunner. Sounds like I’ll be buying a hardback next year…… Very highly recommended. 

Monday, June 22, 2020

Keeping it real & relevant.........

Just Finished Reading: The Nile – Downriver through Egypt’s Past and Present by Toby Wilkinson (FP: 2014)

Travelling at the pace of the river itself from the great dam at Aswan to Cairo and the Nile delta the author has chosen an ideal introduction to the great river and the country it gave birth to, for without the life giving properties of the Nile the millennia long occupation of Egypt would simply not have been possible. Not only does the Nile provide for extensive irrigation on both of its shores allowing the growth of much needed crops but periodic floods inundate the fields to replenish nutrients taken out by them each season. Generally each years surge is enough for one more growing season but some years the surge is insufficient and hunger follows. If the following year is also bad their follows famine and political strife. If the surge is too strong the floods devastate rather than replenish and chaos ensues. It is no wonder that the river itself was worshiped and so much of the early Egyptian religion centred on it and the creatures that inhabited its waters.

This periodic uncertainty ended with the control of the Aswan dam built with Soviet assistance during the Cold War. Other monuments to greatness are far, far older as the author outlines during his journey stopping off at iconic locations such as Luxor, Thebes, Abydos and Cairo. Although Egypt never cornered the market in monumental architecture it certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying. Temples, tombs and obelisks not only wow recent visitors but have been humbling both tourists and conquerors for centuries – so much so that they often removed items that had been in situ since before the Christian era. The Roman Empire, Napoleon and later the British during its mandate were notorious for their ‘acquisitions’ of antiquities many of which still grace the streets of Rome, Paris and London. I actually saw an obelisk in Rome that had been stolen by the Romans around two thousand years ago and was erected on one side of a main gate into the city. When it was stolen all of those centuries ago is was already three thousand years old. Antiquity never felt so old! I’ve also seen similar obelisks in Paris and London that must have amazed their citizens and certainly impressed me with the engineering obstacles overcome to get them to their new homes.

Naturally Egypt is awash in history and there’s no way a 300 page book can do it any justice. But what the author manages to do – in spades – is to bring out the majesty, the antiquity and the importance of a country that has been so important in global culture. Egypt has always fascinated the world and the craze for its artefacts, art and architecture has swept across the globe more than once – I actually have multiple mini-statues in my house of Egyptian gods (I am a CAT person after all!) – and its culture has had a profound effect on western civilisation for centuries. This delightful book really brings that alive. Full of interesting characters – from the ancient world to 19th century Europe – this is the kind of work that spawns 100 research paths into people and places that could keep you metaphorically digging in the sand for years. I have hardly touched upon the details in this book which is packed with little stories and insights and betrays a real love for the country on the part of the author. After reading this I can see why he admires the river and the country it brought to prominence so much. Definitely recommended for anyone with any interest at all in the ancient world or just one of the world’s most fascinating places. Much more on Egypt to come. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Thursday, June 18, 2020