Sunday, December 13, 2009

Memory of Running by Ron McLarty

Just finished reading this book - it is incredible!

Ron McLarty had finished this book about 10 years ago but no publisher would accept it so he placed it on the internet as an audio book - with him reading it. Stephen King found it and proclaimed it 'as the best book you couldn't read'. Then there was a bidding war for someone to publish it and when he asked the publishers why they refused it before no one would give him an answer.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lost Parasol

Lost Parasol by Sandor Weores

You must read this.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Read Read Read Read Read, listen to this podcast first

Prof Goldberg on Conspiracy Theories

This podcast from the International Spy Museum makes for scary listening. Very interesting though.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

San Martin - Super Saint

"The Dominican prior had to forbid Martin from continuing to miraclify (please excuse the verb). And to show the dutiful, obedient spirit of this servant of God, the biographer relates how, just as Martin was passing by a scaffolding, a bricklayer fell from thirty or forty feet above. Our lay brother stopped in his tracks and yelled - "Wait a second, brother!" And until Martin got back with permission from the prior, the bricklayer was suspended in mid-air."

Ricardo Palmer, 'Peruvian Traditions'.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Terra Sigillata

These few verses are from the above poem by Sandor Weores described as Epigrams of an Ancient poet. I find it difficult to understand these verses but perhaps they are something about being a poet:

"A red-fingered child pats grey cakes at the seaside,
I ask fo one, he says no, not even for a real cake, no.
Well now, old prophets, what do you want from me? the twenty four
sky-prisms, when I look blind into hearts and read them.

. . .

'You say you're God's offspring: why do you scrape along like paupers?'
'Even Zeus himself, when he takes human steps on earth,
begs bread and water, parched, starved as a tramp.

. . .

Crime has majesty, virtue is holy; but what is the troubled heart worth?
There, crime is raving drunk and virtue is a jailer."

Monday, October 26, 2009

The adventurers

W. H. Prescott's book ' The history of the conquest of Peru' is much maligned because Prescott was a blind scholar who never visited Peru. I found his book because the last time I was in Peru it was the only history *in english* that was available. He does a good job of bring together all the sources he has. To me, this is history writing, before modern academics made it objective - and boring. The passage represents the spirit of adventure:

"On crossing these woody eminences, the forlorn adventurers would plunge into ravines of frightful depth, where the exhalations of a humid soil steamed up amidst the incense of sweet-scented flowers, which shone through the deep gloom in every conceivable variety of colour. Birds, especially of the parrot tribe, mocked this fantastic variety of nature with tints as beautiful as those of the vegetable world. Monkeys chattered in crowds above their heads, and made grimaces like the fiendish spirits of these solitudes; while hideous reptiles, engendered in the slimy depths of the pools, gathered around the footsteps of the wanderers. Here was seen the gigantic boa, coiling his unweildly folds about the trees, so as hardly to be distinguished from their trunks, till he was ready to dart upon his prey; and alligators lay basking on the borders of the streams, or gliding under the waters, seized their incautious victim before he was aware of their approach. Many of the spaniards perished miserably in this way, and others were waylaid by the natives, who kept a jealous eye on their movements and availed themselves of every opportunity to take them at advantage. Fourteen of Pizarro's men were cut off at once in a canoe which had stranded on the bank of a stream."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Episode in a Library

A blonde girl is bent over a poem. With a pencil sharp as a lancet she transfers the words to a blank page and changes them into strokes, accents, caesuras. The lament of a fallen poet now looks like a salamander eaten away by ants.
When we carried him away under machine-gun fire, I believed that his still warm body would be resurrected in the word. Now as I watch the death of the words, I know there is no limit to decay. All that will be left after us in the black earth will be scattered syllables. Accents over nothingness and dust.

Zbigniew Herbert

[pronounced 'ezbegnief']

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Los Angeles Essential Book List

Los Angeles Essential Book List

I have a new facebook group and anyone is invited to join and contribute their favourite books about Los Angeles.

Monday, August 24, 2009


This entry features Lee - a girl I used to work with.

Yesterday Lee took great relish in explaining how her ex-husband was having a circumcision. At first he wouldn't tell her then she got Dean, her son, to call him up the stairs and then down again because he walked as if he had crapped in his pants. She also said he warned her 'if I get an 'you know' I will tear my stitches!'
This guy in front of me is wistfully looking up in the air listening to his walkman.
I'm sitting on the 8:02 58 Conway bus and town is very quiet. I've just realised green oranges aren't as nice as red.
There was a girl in town with a blue leather coat, grey hat, white gloves, eating a red apple, it was like watching a painting or listening to a new single she looked so cool.
I hate working alone all day.


I am going to start a new series for this blog. These are diary entries from an old notebook I found.

January 2000


While I was in London I decided to search out the places Newman might have gone to get some idea of how he might have experienced it.
He was born here and there is a plaque on the Bank of England saying this is where or nearabout where he was born. Once when I was sitting at home I saw an OU programme talk about the Oxford Movement and how its legacy was put into All Saints, the opposite of All Souls, an evangelical Anglican church and that it was located directly behind All Souls.
The only problem was which direction was it behind All Souls. And as you can imagine on Regent Street my pocket A to Z was quite crowded.
Amazingly stars on the map representing Post Offices are more visible than the small cross of a church.. It looks quite simple on the map to find the cross on Margaret Street but the streets behind Regent Street are a maze with at least five stories and even street names aren't much good because the streets aren't clearly marked and change abruptly.
I ended up walking for what seemed like hours. It was early on a Sunday morning, there was no one around apart from an old lady walking with a very large and fiersome looking dog.
I eventually found the street but still couldn't see a church. When suddenly, a man came up to me, 'Are you lost?' he said. I smiled and replied,
'I'm looking for a church.'
He was a very prim man, dressed in black he had a wide brimmed black hat and in his limp hand he was holding a long thin cigarette. He said he knew the church and pointed out it was beside two lamp posts. He said he would be going there himself in five minutes and he would meet me.
I went into the church, it was incredibly ornate and the smell of incense hit you as soon as you went in. I went to sit down, said a prayer and left. I put a note in the visitors book saying I apologised, I was the guy in the baseball cap.

All Saints, Margaret Street

Friday, August 21, 2009

What should I read next?

Good site. Clunky but in a good way. This is how I discovered Macdonald, I put in 'In dubious battle' and got Ross Macdonald. In essence very similar to Amazon but certainly worthwhile supporting and you should read about how you can create your own list

Ross Macdonald

Over the last week I have read 'The Barbarous Coast' by Ross Macdonald. An incredible read, I couldn't put it down honestly. I haven't been reading that much crime fiction lately but this guy just comes at you like a blast. Deeper and more psychological than the original hard boiled writers such as Chandler or Hammet - this is what I've been told because I was no expert but it didn't take me long to realise because along with the macho tough guy narratives you get dream sequences such as the following:

"Hollywood started as a meaningless dream, invented for money. But its colors ran, out through the holes in people's heads, spread across the landscape and solidified. North and south along the coast, east across the continent. Now we were stuck with the dream without a meaning. It had become the nightmare that we lived in. Deep thoughts."

All that whilst he had been knocked out by the bad guys and things were about the get worse on what started as a rollercoaster ride and ended up almost flying through space.

Archer the main character has a deeper side to him and in a later passage he gives the following pep talk, (trying to persuade the sister of a victim that she doesn't have to do all the things the bad guys tell her to do) which convinces me to take Las Vegas off my list of places to go:

[The girl says 'they made me feel like life was not worth living'] "That's the way the jerks want you to feel. If everybody felt like a zombie, we'd all be on the same level. And the jerks could get away with the things jerks want to get away with. They're not, though. Jerkiness isn't as respectable as it used to be, not even in L.A.. Which is why they had to build Vegas."

This is one of the best maybe the best book I have read all year. This definitely deserves the title - book of note.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Maker's Mark

In Richard Sennett's 'The Craftsman' I am reading about the difference between theory and practice. A craftsman is trained to practice a process - such as making bricks. A theorist has a general level of education which makes him sufficient to study any theory. In the Roman world the lowly life of the slave brickmaker was an anonymous life but a highly significant life considering the majestic building that were built out of brick. When the slave dares to make a mark on his bricks to declare 'his presence' that is a rebellious act:

"The historian Moses Finlay wisely counsels against using a modern yardstick to read ancient maker's marks as sending signals of defiance; they declare, 'I exist' rather than 'I resist'. But 'I exist' is perhaps the most urgent signal a slave can send."

This is the mark of Domitii. The following is a short explanation:

Found in Mugnano in Teverina, a tiny village some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Rome, the furnaces belonged to Tullus and Lucanus, brothers of the Domitii family, as an inscription found on the road leading to the brickfield confirms: "iter privatum duorum Domitiorum" (private road of the two Domitii). The furnaces provided bricks for grandiose buildings such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Market of Trajan and the Diocletian and Caracalla Baths, said archaeologist Tiziano Gasperoni, who discovered the furnaces.

I am also struck by a slight synchronicity here between the mark on a brick of a worker and the workers strike of 'In Dubious Battle' both are the attempts by the worker to let their voice be heard. To proclaim their existence and possibly, their defiance of the big bosses.


I have been reading John Updike's 'The Early Stories' again and have decided to follow the stories 'Too Far To Go' (TFTG). I have reached 'Nakedness'. It covers the realisation of a husband of the 'first' time he really sees his wife naked. There is both the acceptance that we are mere physical bodies but also he draws attention to the story of Adam and Eve and how when they discovered their sinfulness they also discovered the shame of nudity.

It also features this episode when they stray on to a nudist beach and watch what happens when a policeman decides to walk in and have a look:

"The nudists, paradoxically, brought more clothing to the beach than the bourgeoisie; they distinguished themselves, walking up the beach to the point, by being dressed head to toe, in denim and felt, as if they had strolled straight from the urban core of the counterculture. Now as the young cop moved among them like a sorrowing angel, they bent and huddled in the obsequious poses of redressing.
'My God,' Joan said, 'it's Massacio's Expulsion from Paradise.' And Richard felt her heart in the fatty casing of her body plump up, pleased with this link, satisfied to have demonstrated once again to herself the relevance of a humanistic education to modern experience."

Massacio - Expulsion from Paradise

Saturday, August 01, 2009

A life of labour

Good review

Following on from the last post - this book reviewed above looks good.

In Dubious Battle

I continue to read 'In Dubious Battle' and almost every page is delightful. Steinbeck has captured the spirit of the worker perfectly. The struggle between the worker and the bosses is the struggle of this book. The bosses need their apples picked and they only have a certain number of weeks the bosses have reduced the wages and the workers have gone on strike.

Almost every page has something to quote. The plight of the worker, the plight of those who try to help, to improve things is captured in this small quote at the end of ch 8. The person talking here is mac, the hardened communist, down to cause trouble, he is talking to Jim, his newest recruit. Makes you wonder why we do anything:

"Everybody hates us; our own side and the enemy. And if we won, Jim, if we put it over, our own side would kill us. I wonder why we do it. Oh, go to sleep!"

Even now, after 50 years we still have traveling workers, workers who get paid the lowest wages, Mexicans for examplewho travel into US to do the agricultural work.

Physical influence

Along with the power of resources - money, personality, expertise Charles Handy lists physical power, the power of 'might' in the life of an organisation. To be honest I never expected but can understand the last paragraph:

"Whilst physical power is less respectable in our society than all other power sources there are signs that it is increasingly becoming the power of last resort when the other sources appear ineffective, or too closely balanced against opposing sources. Ulster, lock-outs, mass demonstrations are all examples of this phenomenon."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Fragility and the evolution of our humanity

Ecce Homo

There is something about Xavier Le Pichon that reminds me of Teilhard. As one of the pioneers of plate tectonics he discovered that the behaviour of the earth can tell us something about human communities. I would encourage everyone to read this essay and listen to the podcast,

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Not that I would boast but my daughter - Isabella, 15 months old is an excellent writer. She can write her own name!

The truth about Globalisation

More agony for steel workers

I recently bought the above book by Philippe Legrain. Legrain seeks to point out that the anti-globalisation protestors have to a certain extent misunderstood globalisation. Globalisation is blamed for all our troubles too easily.

Even though this book was written in 2003 on Thursday I heard the above news about the loss of steel workers jobs and even though the recession is blamed there does seem to be a trend for a loss of unskilled jobs and in general these job losses were blamed on other countries doing the same job for lower wages - globalisation.

Legrain points out that in the USA the amount of imported steel is extremely limited and controlled. You can't really blame cheap labour for the massive job losses that have been experienced. In developed countries it is more likely to be the increase in technology that causes job losses. At Sparrows Point Steel plant in Baltimore 3500 workers produce as much steel today as 30,000 workers did in the past. It is important that if we decide to protest that we know what the problem is first. Perhaps we need to be honest and admit to ourselves that technology is our invention and it does cause job losses. Once we know the problem - we can work on the solution and the devastation facing those steel workers in NE England would suggest that we still have not worked this problem out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009



This is wonderful - just came across it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In Dubious Battle

I am convinced I made a previous post about 'In Dubious Battle' but I can't find it. You can always tell a good book when you pick it up after 4 months and in one page it blows you away!

The basic story is this guy joins up with the communists in depression era USA and goes traveling with migrant workers to start up strikes. They come across a group of men and the leaders daughter is about to give birth. They step in and the traveling companion pretends to be a doctor. The baby is born and he asks his friend - I didn't know you had a medical background, I don't he said but it was a risk worth taking and I got everybody working together. Leaders have to have a method - a way of making people see that everyone is different, everyone wants to make individual gain but if people work together, they can achieve more than what they would achieve if they did it on their own.

It may be a little bit out of fashion but it is good to see that fiction can still grasp the essence of a political or philosophical theory in one page that we might struggle to grasp otherwise.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How intolerable life would be without books and bookshops

Can't help but agree and fully endorse this comment by Andrew Marr:

Books and Bookshops

The Champion of the World

Stories from the New Yorker also included the original adult story on which - 'Danny the Champion of the World' is based by Roald Dahl. It must have seemed an odd choice for the New Yorker, a story about poaching in middle England in the 1940s. It has the same humour, the twist in the tale that Dahl's stories have but it is fresh and original and it doesn't have the strained seriousness that some of his other stort stories have. I found it a joy to read.

The Golden West

I started to re-read 'Stories from the New Yorker 1950-60' this week. There was a curious story called 'The Golden West' that I started some time ago. It features a Hollywood party at the end of the 1950s. The boom years of Hollywood are over and the remaining executives and film industry tycoons are hanging on for dear life with very little work about but still retaining the glamorous lifestyles and all the tension seems to come to the surface at this dinner party around a swimming pool in the Hollywood hills.

As seems to happen to me I was reading in 'The Independent' today that the exact same thing is happening in Hollywood today because of the recession:

Mass sacking of Hollywood agents

A cunning mixture of the whimsical and the deadly serious, a couple are having an argument. The male of the couple owns a production company and despite everyone's worries about the business his only concern is the problems with his wife. The latest argument occurred after the wife - who sleeps in a different room because the husband snores, came in to the room and made a funny face at him. Thinking he was asleep but no, he was only pretending to be asleep and he saw the funny face and was deeply offended. As events proceed it gets sillier and more serious all at the same time which kept me entranced.

The story is by Daniel Fuchs - who I haven't heard of but was a joy to read. Last week I went to a seminar on bullying and harassment. I couldn't help but think if the tutor would define it as harassment - if I went in to my bosses office and thinking he was asleep made a funny face at him but in reality he was only half asleep and he saw me do it. Would he be able to make a complaint against me? From this you can tell how interesting my job is!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Project Bedbug

Back to the 'Tunnels of Cu Chi', I find this project hard to believe. Thought up by the Limited Warfare Laboratory (LWL) the idea was to carry a box full of bedbugs as they could smell human flesh and would let out a yowl of excitement. This yowl could be measured and it could warn against ambush attacks.

"The project collapsed when it was discovered that the bedbugs couldn't control their excitement. They became so deliriously happy at just being carried about by GIs that they were too busy 'swooning with delight' to warn their patrons of any approaching Communist ambush."


Friday, April 17, 2009


To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

From An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman.
p. 40 Ch. 1, Sct. 1.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The tunnels of Cu Chi

A few weeks ago I managed to pick up a copy of 'The tunnels of Cu Chi' by Tom Mangold and John Penycate. It is the story of how the tunnels were created by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

There were approximately 300 miles of tunnels beneath Vietnam that were created during the French war of independence. The tunnels created a unique method of warfare. A Viet Cong could get out of a tunnel fire and then disappear back into the tunnel. They even had tunnels that had trap doors inside US compounds - so that they could jump out at night, shoot at will and then disappear!

In the words of Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Linh:

"There were no set battles, but everyone who could fire a rifle did so. We used them for constant surprise sniper attacks, and we used them, most importantly, for observation. Thanks to the tunnels, we could remain with the Americans, see how their troops behaved and reacted, watch their mistakes."

The Americans went to war trained for set-piece confrontations, they were confused and demoralised by the way the enemy appeared and disappeared. This seems to be a classic example of 'single loop thinking'. They went prepared with one solution but the method of warfare was not prepared for the unique nature of the tunnels. If they looked back in their history it was guerilla warfare that they used to gain independence from the British. They had not thought deeply enough about the problem they were presented with.

As they discovered the tunnels, they had no idea how to fight against them. They used smoke to reveal trap-door exits but there were times when American lives were lost when the smoke they used suffocated the soldiers going down to fight the Viet Cong.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Double Loop thinking

I have been reading 'Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics' by Ralph Stacey and again he has written about something that is so completely obvious that it has to be right.

Double Loop thinking is the idea that we have to take a double loop with all the decisions we make. The world is dominated by 'single loop thinking' ie what has happened before will obviously happen again. So if you are expert, one solution is all you need for no matter how many problems you come across. This is how we risk 'skilled incompetence' because we ignore change and eventually the consequences of a 'single solution' build up into a severe backlash - such as the financial crisis we have at the moment. For too long we have solved our financial problems with one simple answer - ignoring any danger signals and ignoring sources of fundamental change. So much change that single loop thinking becomes extremely dangerous.

Double Loop thinking means that we not only adjust actions to consequences but we also question and adjust the mental model that produced those actions in the first place because change is constant and one solution that worked in the past may produce a result in the short term but may have long term negative consequences because we have not examined the fundamental unconscious mental model - the reason the problem occurred in the first place.

This is why we have so many problems in society, we think we can use solutions that worked 10 years ago today when too much change has occurred and it does not work. We need more thought about what is happening and why. Sadly deep thinking about problems does not seem to be important.

Single Loop thinking is 'lazy' thinking, it was first proposed by Argyris and Schon (1978).

I have written about this before - see the following post - Easter 1940

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Roland Burris

The Replacement: The rise of Roland Burris

I have been reading the above article about Roland Burris. Although I imagine most people are interested in the controversy surrounding him and Barack Obama, I have found his background fascinating. I can certainly understand the determination and the will to become a lawyer following this story about what happened to his father.

In terms of the charges of corruption that have been made against him, a look into his background would seem to suggest that Burris is not your usual politician.

Centralia is roughly on the same latitude as Louisville, and, even after the Second World War, Southern ways prevailed. In 1951 and 1952, the local N.A.A.C.P. tried and failed to integrate the public swimming pool, and the following year the city’s African-Americans decided to try again. This time, Burris’s father, who worked for the Illinois Central and served as the vice-president of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., travelled to East St. Louis to hire a lawyer to push the integration effort; the elder Burris laid out a hundred dollars as a retainer, a considerable sum at the time, given that he was making around forty cents an hour. Roland, who was fifteen, was chosen to test the ban with a group of his friends over Memorial Day weekend. “We headed out to the pool; we bought our ticket,” Burris told me, as we sat in his Senate office. “They sold us a ticket, because there was all this build-up before. They knew we were coming. You could see the whites lined up all outside, and here are these five little black kids with two chaperones. And they had to line up on the outside as well. And we went in; we showered; went out; swam in the pool. No incident. No issue.”

For the Burris family, though, the successful effort had an unhappy postscript. The lawyer, an African-American, never showed up in Centralia and disappeared with the retainer. “If we, as a race of people, are going to get anywhere in this society, we’ve got to have lawyers and elected officials who are responsible and responsive—that’s what my dad said, and it resonated with me,” Burris told me. “I was never in any serious trouble, but I’d beat up on people. I was a tough little kid. And I changed my whole attitude. Went back to high school my junior year. I took one of my brother’s suits that he had left home from college, got one of my dad’s white shirts, ’cause I didn’t have a tie, and I went to school my junior year dressed up. I made myself two goals. One, I want to be a lawyer. Number two, I want to be a statewide elected official of Illinois.”


Saturday, March 28, 2009

World Without End

Ken Follett has written a majestic epic about medieval life in England between 1327 and 1361. Whilst it is a moderately good read, the story revolves around 4 children who grow up the period of the plague and wars between France and England. At times it is almost a marginally better textbook on medieval history with diverse themes such as cathedral design and the evolution of weaving machinery. It is just a pity they could not write a textbook like this on environmental geochemistry - perhaps that will be the book I will write.

This book has kept me going over the past three months, it is comforting to have a 1000 page 'thriller' to read. The characters are interesting, in particular there is a girl who is accused of witchcraft, becomes a nun, lives with a man in the monastery and then writes a famous textbook on medical treatment of the plague.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Three Tales from The Arabian Nights

I was amazed and entranced by the new translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons of the Arabian nights. They have just released a preview book with three stories - Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, Judar and his brothers, Ma'ruf the Cobbler. Honestly I could not put this book down. I was whisked into the exotic magical world of the Arabian Nights and believe me with my job - that is just what you need!

You would not believe the hassle I had in buying this book. If you want to buy it, write down this ISBN - 9781846141584. Something to do with the fact that about half a million 'fantasy' novels have 'arabian nights' in the title.

A complete translation of 'A thousand and one nights' in 3 volumes is about to be released from Penguin - first volume this august. With 800 pages, judging by the preview if I buy it I may never go out again!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Return to Oxford

I am still reading 'Loss and Gain' by Newman. The following is a passage describing Reding's return to Oxford facing the prospect of telling his friends that he will convert to Roman Catholicism and is happy to face the inevitable social scorn that will be thrown upon him. In the 19th Century it was not possible to graduate from Oxford unless you were anglican.

"He had passed through Bagley wood, and the spires and towers of the university came on his view, hallowed by how many tender associations, lost to him for two whole years, suddenly recovered - recovered to be lost for ever! There lay old Oxford before him, with its hills as gentle and its meadows as green as ever. At the first view of that beloved place he stood still with folded arms, unable to proceed. Each college, each church - he counted them by their pinnacles and turrets. The silver Isis, the grey willows, the far-stretching plains, the dark groves, the distant range of Shotover, the pleasant village where he had lived with Carlton and Sheffield - wood, water, stone, all so calm, so bright, they might have been his but they were not. Whatever he was to gain by becoming a Catholic, this he had lost; whatever he was to gain higher and better, at least this and such as this he could never have again."

I did a photo search for Bagley wood and this photo came up. It seems to match.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009

It is with regret that I heard today that John Updike died early on Tuesday morning. He was 76 years old. John Updike specialised in making the mundane magical.

The following obituary is from 'The Independent':

John Updike did not "advance" the novel, and he was not an experimental writer; he was innovative more in what he wrote about – sex in particular – than in any technical sense. Yet he was a prolific writer on a Trollopian scale, his stylistic mastery the more remarkable for its abundance. And the best of his novels, which appeared overthe course of six decades, make him one of a handful of American writers whose work in the second half of the last century will be read in the second half of this one.

Paradoxically, given his intense intellectuality and mandarin prose, Updike wrote his best work about ordinary life, especially in his tetralogy about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike's own background, at least superficially, was itself "ordinary". He grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, 100 miles from New York City, but in cultural terms a backwater. His parents were educated people – his father taught high school maths; his mother had an MA – but of modest background, and though not straitened, the family's circumstances, particularly during the Depression years of Updike's boyhood, were lean.

An only child, Updike spent much of his childhood in the company of adults – his maternal grandparents were very much around – and the solitude he felt was reinforced when the family moved from town to a farm when he was 13. His isolation was increased by a childhood stutter that made occasional appearances throughout his adult life, and by the skin affliction psoriasis, a complaint which seems mild only to non-sufferers. Neither popular nor unpopular among his peers, he was average at sports and unprecocious with girls, but he liked to read and draw from an early age.

A taste for the mysteries of Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner seems at odds with the expansiveness of his own adult work, but Updike later noted that it "did give me some lessons about keeping a plot taut." A more sophisticated literary palate was developed by a near-addiction to The New Yorker, for which a kindly and more sophisticated aunt annually bought a subscription for the family.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Updike did very well indeed (graduating summa cum laude). He later attributed this to arriving at college as something of a tabula rasa on which the lessons of his Cambridge, Massachusetts instructors could be received without the impediment of premature opinions. He also joined and eventually became editor of the famous Harvard Lampoon, the comic paper of the university which itself later spawned its famous eponymous descendant, the National Lampoon. He wrote poems, sketches, stories, and drew cartoons; by the time Updike had graduated, both a story and a poem had been accepted by The New Yorker, then beginning its post-war ascent.

Attending the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford for a year, Updike (newly married to Mary Pennington, a fine arts major from Radcliffe College) was visited by Katharine White, the legendary fiction editor of The New Yorker (and wife of one of its most famous contributors, E.B. White). After this anointment any indecision about a future as a writer or one as an illustrator was resolved when he was offered a writing job at the magazine by its legendary editor, William Shawn. Living on Riverside Drive, Updike proved an adept writer of the short pieces that fill the Talk of the Town section at the front of the magazine, and he began regularly to place short stories as well. But after two years he'd had enough:

I felt oppressed by New York. I attended a party... attended by a lot of old New Yorker hands, all grizzled and old and hard-drinking. I looked at them with my naïve provincial eyes and thought, do I want to wind up like this? I thought not.

He moved to Boston's North Shore, no longer a member of the magazine's staff. It was a risk of sorts, for had he stayed Updike doubtless would have risen in the ranks of editors/contributors at what was becoming America's pre-eminent cultural magazine. Yet leaving freed Updike to focus on the fiction he wanted to write, and it freed him, too, to return to the background of his youth as a subject – the background that was to provide him with his most famous character, Harry Angstrom, the eponymous Rabbit.

Yet his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair (1959), was a mild, polished piece of work. Set in the future in an old people's home in New Jersey, it seems designed to show off the precocious facility of its young author's prose. In its muted comedy quite similar to Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, a writer Updike admired, it is none the less an apprentice work. Another early novel, The Centaur (1963), reads like an intellectual exercise, its straightforward plot of the relationship between a father and son needlessly complicated by an allegorical scheme that makes the father a modern-day Chiron and his son Prometheus. It exasperated many critics, including the New York Times lead reviewer, Orville Prescott, who found it "lost in a maze of pretentious experimentation."

The self-conscious artistry of these early works was curiously similar to the very early novels of his contemporary, Philip Roth, and of Saul Bellow a decade before. If he did not share their sense of ethnic exclusion, Updike, for all his WASP-ness, was also an outsider, the product of small town and farm America, who seemed keen to show that he was now operating in an intellectual milieu where he belonged. Yet as with Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March or Roth in Portnoy's Complaint, Updike's strengths as a writer really first emerged when he returned to the environment of his childhood, an America a million miles away from the Algonquin Hotel.

Rabbit Run (1960) is the story of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, 26 when the story begins, a former high school basketball star who now makes a living demonstrating the MagiPeel Kitchen Peeler to housewives in five-and-dime stores. His is the classic story of an ex-athlete baffled by the subsequent failure of life to repeat his adolescent triumphs. Married to Janice, who drinks too much, with one son and another child on the way, Harry finds his life changed when he falls for Ruth Leonard, a woman on the fringes of prostitution whose alternating toughness and vulnerability stir Angstrom in an unprecedented way. He leaves Janice for Ruth, resists the entreaties of the local vicar to return, but goes back to the alcoholic Janice after she accidentally drowns their new-born baby in the bath. The freedom once felt on the basketball court remains elusive, though at the novel's end there is the powerful sense that Angstrom will keep trying to find it:

His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

It is a fairly simple story of an ordinary man, but told in extraordinary language. To many readers Rabbit's thoughts seem outlandishly complex, improbably articulate, but the dialogue of the book is entirely plausible. Updike defended himself vigorously:

In a novel, you have to give the characters eloquence and not be constantly chopping them down to what you think is the correct size... Everybody senses more than they could say. A novelist tries to give people the words to express what in fact almost everybody does feel.

If there was beauty and subtlety in an ordinary life, there was, he argued, a beautiful eloquence lurking in an ordinary man. And he never believed that writing should be invisible; aesthetically he could not be further from the likes of minimalist stylists such as Raymond Carver:

I think people know... that this object in front of them is a page of words. What I really like in a book is the sense that the writing is itself entertaining.

Three more Rabbit novels were to follow over the decades, charting the characteristic rise of Rabbit into the solid middle-class affluence so widespread in post-war America. Rabbit Redux (1971) was inspired by the tumultuous events of the 1960s in America, which led Updike to wonder what his earlier hero would make of them. The domestic tables have been turned, for it is Janice now who leaves Rabbit, for Stavros, a car salesman. Staying at home with his young son Nelson, Rabbit soon takes up with an 18-year-old runaway named Jill, and for a time this odd ménage prospers, as Rabbit overcomes his fearful distaste for the emerging counterculture of marijuana and rock 'n' roll.

The arrival of Skeeter, however, a black militant friend of Jill, brings an unsurvivable tension to the household, culminating in a fire that kills Skeeter and Jill. The irruptions of racial conflict, sexual liberation and the overhanging influence of the war in Vietnam are injected so obviously into Rabbit Angstrom's life that some critics complained, but 40 years on these themes seem brilliantly positioned, since it was precisely humdrum lives that were affected most by the '60s.

All four Rabbit novels present a protagonist whose sexuality is intense, aggressive, sometimes destructive. Depicted with unsparing candour, this sexual preoccupation is particularly strong in Couples (1968), Updike's account of the marital mores of 10 couples living north of Boston in Massachusetts. Often described as an upscale Peyton Place, Couples is in fact a beautifully written novel which captures the emotional misconduct and misalliances of adultery as much as the vividly described physical details of its extramarital couplings. It put Updike on the cover of Time magazine, and made him a mass best-seller for the first (and virtually only) time.

It seems oddly innocent now, especially in its depiction of a middle-class world whose inhabitants have so little to do of real importance that they are almost forced into the emotional dramas of "open marriage". The writing here is richer than in the Rabbit novels, but equally acute:

'I love you' was pulled from him like a tooth. The mirror above the basin threw him back at himself. His flat taut face looked flushed...

Updike's own marriage had ended in 1974 (he married again three years later, to Martha Bernhard, a former member of the Updikes' social circle) and his work in the 1970s revolves unsurprisingly around marital life and marital discord. Adultery featured again in Marry Me (1976), the story of two couples' relationship, set in 1962 American suburbia. A Month of Sundays (1975) is more complex: it has a clergyman for a hero, a glib philanderer sufficiently schooled in contemporary theology to rationalise his most untheological ministering to female members of his congregation.

Throughout his career, Updike wrote short stories, many of them for The New Yorker and classic examples of the magazine's fiction – elegantly drawn portraits of middle-class life, focused on marital tensions, elliptical rather than dramatic. They are beautifully executed, but lack the alternating exuberance and despair of the master of the genre, John Cheever, or even the narrative momentum of an underrated writer, John O'Hara.

An extraordinary exception is the story "A&P". Much anthologised, it is told from the viewpoint of a young man working in a supermarket. Prospect-less, he is, like Rabbit, an example of Updike's vision of what he might have been had he not left his own small-town roots. Three girls enter the shop fresh from the beach, wearing bathing suits, suggesting a mix of sexuality and affluence entirely absent from the store clerk's dreary life. When the shop owner chastises the girls for being improperly dressed, the young man impulsively quits – in a gesture of defiance we see at once is based as much on despair as pique. As he leaves and goes outside:

I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course... and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me thereafter.

In Rabbit is Rich (1981), as the title suggests, Rabbit has been sucked into the rampant affluence of post-war America's middle class. He is the owner now of a Toyota franchise, an indication in the oil embargo years of the late 1970s that America can no longer stand aloof from the world. The book's main concerns, however, remain essentially domestic, and Rabbit's persisting feckless sexuality threatens to destroy his already-difficult relationship with his son. The material security afforded Angstrom for the first time cannot disguise his continuing spiritual malaise which, as in Rabbit Redux, seems emblematic of the unease and uncertainty now afflicting the nation.

In Roger's Version (1986) Updike was writing at his finest, this time about a mildly malevolent hero, a middle-aged professor of divinity at Harvard, whose sexual preoccupation is made worse by his knowledge that his sexual abilities are waning. He becomes besotted by the louche, foul-mouthed half-niece who appears on the scene, and is convinced his own wife is dallying with an evangelical computer nerd. It is in many ways an unattractive story, suggesting that Updike himself saw the demeaning aspects to Roger's obsessiveness, but his descriptive powers remain extraordinary:

I changed her diaper; her skin was delicious to touch, fine-grained and blemishless, like silk without the worminess.

Or describing how a house was built in the early 20th century:

... the working classes and the work ethic were still hand in hand and skilled labor was cheap, as shown by a quiet outpouring of refined details.

The relentless realism of the Rabbit novels was counterpoised by other efforts more obviously imagined – in The Coup (1978) an ex-dictator tells the story of his rise and fall in the imagined African state of Kush. It is a tour de force, since Updike, like Saul Bellow with Henderson the Rain King, had never set foot on the African continent. Fifteen years later, in Brazil (1994), he again tackled an utterly alien culture in his tale of two lovers who live out a modern version of Tristan and Iseult.

Updike also refused to be confined to contemporary settings, and his interest in the American past inspired his play Buchanan Dying (1974) about the last days of one of the country's more obscure presidents, caught in the middle of the increasing conflict between North and South in the pre-Civil War years. Updike returned to Buchanan in his later novel, Memories of the Ford Administration (1992), about an American historian involved in the short-lived Ford presidency after Watergate. And in In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), Updike traces the century-long impact on his descendants when a Presbyterian minister loses his faith one afternoon. Other novels, including Toward the End of Time (1997), were set in the future, and had a small but discernible sci-fi aspect.

This diversity seemed wilful and reflected the extraordinary gifts of a writer who could put his hand to pretty much anything – he even published five children's books early in his career. Yet Updike's most successful work was reiterative. He repeated the success of his satirical take on Jewish-American novelists, Bech (1970), with Bech is Back (1982) and Bech at Bay (1998). Less light-heartedly, he concluded his Rabbit novels magnificently with Rabbit at Rest (1990). Retiring early, Harry Angstrom now spends most of his time at his condo in Florida, playing golf, alarmed at his testosterone's decline and struggling to make sense of his past. His suspicion that he once fathered a child by his long-ago lover, Ruth Leonard, is confirmed. When he dies, playing "hoops" with a baffled bunch of black teenagers, he is only 56, but seems appropriately played out after Updike's penetrating dissections of his character each decade.

Despite his abiding interest in the state of everyday life in his own country, Updike was neither sophisticated nor very cogent in the limited exposure he gave his own political convictions. But then he never claimed to be. During the Vietnam War he penned the dissenting article "On Not Being A Dove", which briefly threatened to tar him with a reactionary label. What saved Updike from notoriety among his liberal-minded peers, however, was his own obvious uncertainty about his politics, his high standing in all other respects among an East Coast liberal elite (exemplified by The New Yorker), and his essential personal niceness.

What the article reflected, more than anything, was his own optimism about his native country and his belief that however misguided its conduct, the motivation at work was inherently benign. As he said with almost Boy Scout buoyancy, "... I still believe inthe American Dream... in America you have the sense... it's a country without a government we need to be afraid of." In the controversial Terrorist (2006) he portrays, not altogether successfully, a Muslim-American protagonist, Ahmad, who turns against his country, a perspective which Updike obviously finds difficult to imagine fully, just as he seems uncomfortable with violent ambitions. As he admitted in an interview:

Having avoided violence in my life, I tend to avoid it in my fiction. Which is wrong, since violence is part of life. Yes, maybe it's a key part of life... I'm a man of domestic adventures almost exclusively.

Over the years Updike became in many senses an Establishment figure, and won virtually every prize of note in the States. The Nobel Prize eluded him, whether through the caprice of one Stockholm judge, as was rumoured, or a sense of diminishing returns in the later work. He was not always popular with his peers: John Cheever, whom he liked and admired, did not return the affection, though his disdain was less for Updike's work than, perhaps, a sense that Updike lived in a trouble-free zone which Cheever did not inhabit. Bellow, too, resented Updike, perhaps understandably since at least part of the composite caricature of the Jewish-American novelist-hero of Bech was based on him. There was also some sense that he was too overtly careerist. He saw writing as a trade, and admitted that he had never kept a journal because he wouldn't be paid for it.

A frequent reviewer, Updike's criticism was generous, wide-ranging, but not always incisive, since any edge to it was watered down by the gentleness of the man. One exception was the novelist Tom Wolfe, whose dreary novel A Man in Full was the object of a rare Updike debunking, self-confessedly settling scores for Wolfe's devastating satire of Updike's sainted William Shawn, written 30 years before for the Herald Tribune. Updike claimed he disliked reviewing his American contemporaries since this was territory "where envy or friendship enter in and distort the honesty of the book report." He made exception for younger writers such as Anne Tyler, whose praises he sang long before she was famous; he also praised an unlikely mentor, Henry Green, whose work he claimed, surprisingly, as a seminal influence.

He wrote frequently enough about golf to publish a collection (Golf Dreams, 1996) but though entertaining, his pieces were handicapped by his own manifest mediocrity at the game. He seemed intent on finding something in golf that isn't there; the best golf writing either accepts that golf is life or that golf is just a game, but never that golf is somehow a metaphor, made vivid by elevated prose.

As a poet, Updike's work had the recognisable technical merits of rhyming and scanning, and pleased the kind of reader who finds all poetry post-Walter de la Mare incomprehensible. It stands in relation to his prose much as the poems of Kingsley Amis do to his and is roughly of the same calibre – worthy, capable of being enjoyed (especially Telephone Poles, 1963), but entirely unexceptional.

His greatness, then, did not stem from the undoubted multiplicity of his talents, or from the amazing amount he wrote. It lies instead in the best of his novels, where he married his ever-astonishingly accomplished style to characters and situations that reach our hearts. Of course, even in fiction, it seems there can be too much of a good thing, and the sheer volume of books he wrote eventually set in motion a critical backlash, especially among the young. A certain fatigue had set in, particularly noticeable in his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008). The voice, the epitome of an educated New Yorker-reading postwar man, seemed less enlightened in the world of a new century. The late David Foster Wallace went so far as to describe a later Updikean protagonist, and by implication Updike himself, as "an asshole".

Updike's personal opinions were too marked by an intense desire to learn and do the right thing to merit this kind of derision. The aspects of his characters that seem outmoded and reactionary today, in particular the simple lusts of men living in a pre-feminist age, are incontestably reflective of the times they depict. In this sense Updike presented a mirror to America in an age when all seemed possible, a country not yet uncertain of itself. It was a mirror built of words that showed Americans themselves.

Andrew Rosenheim

John Hoyer Updike, writer: born Reading, Pennsylvania 18 March 1932; married 1953 Mary Pennington (marriage dissolved, two sons, two daughters), 1977 Martha Bernhard; died Beverly Farms, Massachusetts 27 January 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

Joint troubles of wooden aircraft WWI & WWII

Read to this passage from 'Structures' by J.E. Gordon and listen to what he is really saying to us today:

"In England, in both wars, we manufactured very large quantities of wooden aircraft, which always seemed to be having joint troubles of one kind or another.
As far as aircraft are concerned this was not wholly surprising, for I remember being shown, right inside vital glued joints in the main structure:

1. A pair of scissors
2. A first-aid manual (pocket size)
3. No glue at all

On the whole I do not think that most of these accidents were caused by sub-normal or abnormal people; I am afraid the guilt lies with very ordinary people, and that was just the trouble. Naturally, people get tired or bored, but I think the root of the matter was much deeper than that. Very few of those who made, or failed to make, these joints had any personal experience of a situation in which the failure of a joint could cause a fatal accident, though collectively they had a great deal of experience with things like cupboards and garden sheds, where the strength of the joints mattered very little. All our efforts to persuade them that a badly made joint was morally equivalent to manslaughter foundered on a deeply held folk tradition that it was silly to fuss about such things and that strength is a boring subject anyway. All this would not have mattered so much if it had not been practically impossible to inspect the joints properly after they had been made."

Seriously, I think even though times have changed we can't rely on policies and on other people doing what they are told. We are all ordinary people and a policy can't expect to stop people getting bored or tired, some people might say policies increase levels of boredom!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Solution to the Italian Job

The Royal Society of Chemistry had a competition to see who could come up with a solution to the dilemma at the end of the 'Italian Job'. A homonym solution was suggested as follows:

Twelve-year-old Thomas Nixon's homonym solution was for the gang to sing until they all got "frogs" in their throats. The frogs start to jump up and down which rocks the bus. They use the "rocks" to weigh down the end of the bus.

Eventually, the gang's throats become sore from the singing. And with the "saw" they cut the gold bullion in half. Because two halves make a whole - the gang could sneak the gold through the "hole".

See BBC for story:

Solution to Italian Job

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


As you will be aware I read an eclectic variety of publications. In 'Psychologies' magazine, I was reading an article on 'awe'. Supposedly a neglected emotion. I don't think it was neglected yesterday, after Obama's speach everyone was saying they were in 'awe'.

Awe has been connected with mysticism and religion in the past but the article argues that it is an innate experience that we all experience, atheists or otherwise.

The article states:

"Awe means feeling more totally and completely alive than we thought possible'

Whatever it means or implies, it is certainly something we need more of.

One of the benefits of awe is a deeper sense of humility. When we experience or glimpse something more significant than ourselves it is a great antidote to self-absorption. It also means that when times aren't as good we can return to that moment of awe to increase our resilience.

6 signs of awe:

1. Experiencing a sense of vastness that exceeds our imagination.

2. Feelings of fear beyond the level of surprise sometimes elevated to the level of dread.

3. Physiological changes including goosebumps, chills, increase in heartbeat.

4. Feeling a diminished sense of self, experiencing a blurring of boundaries between self and other.

5. A focus on what exists externally rather than internally.

6. An intense desire to connect with whatever inspired awe and to make a committment to more caring relationships with others and the world in general.

Some people have said that this sense of 'mystic experience' either proves God or disproves God because it seems to be in-built for us but whatever the reason behind it - go out and find it!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Assurance of Hope

Christopher Howse in his excellent anthology ' The Assurance of Hope', writes that hope is not something like 'stress therapy' it is based on the promise of God's plan for the future. Hope is not the hand that the drowning man puts up above the wave, hope is the hand that reaches down to save you from drowning.

In fact the popular idea of 'comfort' or 'relaxing' to distance ourselves from our worries is no real answer. It is like falling asleep in the snow.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why feathers?

The below poem is one I found in 'Structures' by J. E. Gordon. He explains how pterodactyls and bats were succeeded in evolution by birds with the use of feathers and then asks why don't we use feathers. There must have been a few fun moments when he worked for the RAF and asked his superiors why his planes remain like pterodactyls and don't use feathers. The answer is that feathers provide higher manoeverability. Take for example a plane or a helicopter and add trees, they are not able to fly through trees but birds are able to live in trees and that shows how their wings can adapt to the air and allow them to fly through things, avoiding damage. Feathers provide protection against bumps, they were used by the Japanese to creat armour - they are very good at preventing damage from swords. Feathers are extremely sensitive, nobody really understands the fracture mechanics of a feather. Apparently the US Army lives on chickens and there is a mountain of feathers somewhere - wouldn't it be great to put them to good use.

Bats and pterodactyls

Take from the goblin his crinkly face
His pointed ears from the gnome;
Borrow the nose of a leprechaun
An smuggle it carefully home;
Sew bawkie fingers to banshee wrist;
Stitch gossamer vellum between;
Fit legs to straddle with knees atwist
From a body of velveteen.

Douglas English (from Punch, 11 July 1923)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Inca proverb

We must spare out enemies or it will be our loss, since they and all that belongs to them must soon be ours.