A Start In Life by Alan Sillitoe

A Start In LifeA Start In Life by Alan Sillitoe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d never read any Sillitoe before because I had this idea that he was dour, northern, kitchen-sinky and just not for me. I was wrong. Our amoral “hero” features in a picaresque series of events, peopled by colourful characters into whom we just keep on bumping in unlikely coincidences and ludicrous situations. It’s a bumpy ride.
Sillitoe is a fantastic technical writer who always has the right words and expressions at his command. The book shows its age in its female characters who are always complicit in their own dreadful mistreatment, but the book piles along and before I knew it it had gone. Good stuff.

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Try to stay awake

10 minutes late is the new normal and doesn’t even merit a “sorry”.

Oh great“, I hear you say (or “Oh greewt” which is what my banana-fingers wrote first of all), “here’s another blog about how the trains are messed up, as if there weren’t more of those every day than there are trains”.

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Add pictures for more page hits they said. So here’s a picture of a goose to drive up the stats.

Consider this a vent or rant so that I can get on with my life afterwards. You can get on with your life sooner than that: can I recommend “A Series of Unfortunate Events” on Netflix?

This is not a kick against Southeastern Trains in particular. They are crap but not uniquely so, as shown by the wails of overprivileged rail travellers from all over the land.

We have something in the nature of a contract* with these train people which goes like this: “I give you nearly all my money, and in return you do your level-best to provide me with train services in accordance with the timetable that you kindly provide. I understand that asteroids or bombs will provide you with an excuse to reroute the train and I’m OK with that”.

Most of our railways have been there since before Charles Dickens grew a beard. The advantage of this is that railway companies have had over 150 years to work out how long it takes a train to get from any given station to any other station. If you start at Warrington Bank Quay and want to go to Glasgow Central, 150 years of expertise has shown us that you can do that in about 3 hours. Or, you want to go from Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge, depending on how many stops the train takes in, you should do it in 45- 55 minutes. 150 years of experience has informed the makers of the timetable, that, barring alien attack or the like, you can do these trips within these times comfortably. Experiences of something called “punctuality” have shown us there’s a fair bit of slack built in to these timetables so that trains can spend an extra minute or two at a station if there’s a wheelchair or similar to be loaded or unloaded.

And yet.

If stations were people, they’d be those people who act all suprised when you go to see them even though they knew you were coming, and make you wait outside looking into other people’s back gardens while they tidy away their mucky books.

If signals were people they’d be the people who pretend to be out when you ring the bell, thinking you must be Jehovah’s witnesses.

10 minutes late is the new normal and doesn’t even merit a “sorry”.

Most companies operate a “Delay Repay” scheme, whereby if you are delivered to your destination more than 30 minutes late you can fill in a form to get a bit of your money back. This is by way of compensating you for missing your connection, flight, aunty’s wedding etc. The main effect of Delay Repay is to make ’29 minutes late’ a punctuality target in someone’s Key Performance Indicators and brings no good to the service.

I composed this bilious diatribe in my head while involuntarily inspecting a golf course while stationary this very day. I feel I could play that hole blindfolded, and I don’t even play golf.

* I know it isn’t a contract. The small print tells us this in a small way. Small print is for weasels**.

** unfair to weasels.

Book Review.

The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler's Fight for His MotherThe Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother by Ulinka Rublack

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A intriguing book. It sat on my Amazon wish-list from the time I first read about it until I had to admit defeat and buy it myself. It covers topics about which I knew little: Johannes Kepler & the time and atmosphere in which he lived. It isn’t a study of Kepler’s work: for that you have to look elsewhere – to begin with, try the BBC In Our Time episode about him.

It is a story of the world poised between what we think of as medieval superstition and the era of scientific discovery, a time when discovery is still in the service of and constrained by religion and in which inconvenient old ladies can be subject to barbaric treatment, but in which a select few begin to see past that into a rational, humanistic future and lose patience with the old ways. Kepler is caught in the middle, an accomplished astronomer and mathematician who has to set aside his work to save his own mother from torture and the stake.

The visitor to a calm, ordered, quiet old German town today, with its quaint painted Rathaus and cobbles is unlikely to feel that ancient atmosphere of suspicion and sudden lawless terror that was once there, and which is brought out well, if understatedly, in this book:

“Katherina had guarded her attractive daughter Margaretha against young lads who had sometimes ‘pushed in the door of her house [to gain access to] the daughter.'”.

(p.259)

I need only add that the (hardback) book is a pleasure to hold, contains many pertinent illustrations and, er, smells really nice!

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Letter to the editor

jtp0jana89xb8fmuf5vgI wrote a letter to When Saturday Comes (@WSC_magazine) in response to a reader who spoke of the toxic history between Watford FC fans and those of Luton Town. It’s unlikely that they’ll print it as it’s far too specifically partisan, so here it is instead. (Note added 19/1/16: Wrong! It appears in WSC’s letters page in issue 360, Feb 2017)

Dear WSC

Tim Turner in WSC 359 tells us that Watford‘s relationship with Luton Town was always toxic. He is so right. I was a solid Luton supporter until & after I actually moved to Watford of all places in the 80s. My divorce from Luton came during the time of fences and plastic pitches and I became that creature, “the man who always looks out for their results”, while getting my football fix at various non-league grounds around NW London.

My visits to Vicarage Road had been as an away supporter, and I was always dismayed at the supine, suburban atmosphere. Kenilworth Road always buzzed and jumped, and that was my template for what football supporting should be. We found “Elton John’s Taylor-Made Army” cringeworthy and, to be fair, we hated their success.

Living in Watford, I tried to get to like the team, but it was a dead loss. My last attempt was a game against Port Vale, and as Vale’s Martin Foyle powered a shot into the Watford net my half-standing, smothered “yes!” told me that I would never ever make the transfer – either that or I had been harbouring a secret Port Vale passion all this time.

But here’s the thing: years later, Luton have been through the wringer and I’ve only been distantly interested, but I’ve still never stopped hating Watford. There’s no logic to it and I’m sorry for it: these days I live on the South Coast and am a later-life scarf-carrying Hastings United ultra, unthreatened by Watford, yet here I am, a vaguely intelligent man, “well stricken in years”, still getting that little buzz when they lose. I may never grow up.

What I didn’t add as another reason for my dislike is the shafting Wealdstone FC got from Watford when they entered into an ill-advised groundshare at Vicarage Road. A good club with top-class supporters nearly went to the wall, and Watford got a new stand out of it.

Book Review

Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalJane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found it fascinating. Based on deep reading of the texts and the author’s own and others’ research we find there is a good deal more to the works of Jane Austen than meets the eye. Perhaps some of the theories are a bit of a stretch but everything here throws new light.

Also contains biographical information, showing that biographies of Austen quickly run to ‘might-haves’ and ‘maybes’ to fill their page-count.

Recommended to all Jane Austen readers.

*I just gave an actual Austen book 5 stars: I’m sure Ms Kelly won’t begrudge being given one fewer!

Note: since I wrote this a gent called Arnie (@janeaustencode, http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.co.uk) has been in touch, alleging, at the very least, that Helena Kelly may have borrowed some of his thoughts and writings for this book without giving him any credit. This little blog hardly seems the place to start a fight but if if the want to have a snarl at each other comments are enabled below!

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Jayne Mansfield Park

I just thought of a way of rewriting Mansfield Park…

I just thought of a way of rewriting Mansfield Park in which our heroine is, instead of being a breakable, probably consumptive, mistreated valetudinarian type, a heartily healthy and unfeasibly pneumatic blonde bombshell.

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Fanny Price

It needs some fleshing out (hur hur). I can’t help thinking that Mrs Norris, who is, surprisingly, not a cat but an aunt, might have had something interesting to say and Sir Thomas would have crept up to the East Room for a chat a good while sooner.

Instead of marrying that pill Edmund at the end, Fanny probably goes off with Henry Crawford in his borrowed BMW and is decapitated on the A509 Wellingborough bypass.

Yep, I’ve got this.

A book review

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was what you might call a reluctant Janeite. I suspect there are a lot of us out there, especially among us men. From being force-fed ‘Emma’ in sixth-form I was in denial – I recognised the writer’s quality without properly seeing that her stories are more than just tales of closed societies of young idle people wasting their time before being married off. I’ve begun to see to what extent I was wrong, and Mansfield Park has helped greatly with that process.
Even some quite ardent lovers of Jane Austen have trouble with Mansfield Park, or, more particularly, they have trouble with Fanny Price. She’s not “feisty”; she lacks heroic quality; she’s weak. Broadly, she commits the sin of not being Elizabeth Bennett. These criticisms are true as far as they go, but here’s the thing: the book tells us exactly why and how she’s all this, how she copes with and ultimately overcomes her troubled upbringing and ends the book as a fully-rounded & admirable person.
Here’s a girl, less than healthy, certainly neglected and conceivably abused at home, taken as an act of charity from her parents and placed in a high-class environment already packed with well-to-do, self-assured older children and adults who, with one exception, treat her with anything raging from condescension to disdain to simple ignoring, so that she almost always feels she is only at Mansfield Park on sufferance. Should she ever show “ingratitude” or independence of spirit, there is Mrs Norris to tell her how lucky she is to be among such superior society at all. If at any time she receives what seems to be preferential treatment there is always someone to remind her of her lowly status. The only adult who appreciates her is too idle and self-absorbed to be any help, and the only one of the children who supports her becomes neglectful when he falls in love. Is it any wonder that Fanny is less than self-confident?
The story of the book for me is how she acquires her inner strength: as others fail and show their feet of clay she consistently increases in power without ever losing that essential eighteenth and nineteenth century attribute, modesty. And this rise comes organically and feels true, and through this I cannot be one of the anti-Fanny crowd.
For me any weakness in the book comes late. The inevitable marriage feels contrived and even possibly objectionable: maybe another outcome would have been too difficult to pull off without upsetting conservative readers, but this somewhat bolted-on happy ending, while it doesn’t spoil a marvellous book, feels unwanted.

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