Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Half a Penny

The half penny was removed from circulation in this country in December 1984, twenty eight years ago, but somehow I found one lying on the street a few weeks ago. Added to the rest of my findings from this year it comes to £39.28½ (edited 31/12/2012). It is a curiously close figure to last year's collection of £40.50. I think we will have to wait a few more years to discover if it is statistically significant. I keep the coins in a little drawer and my end of year perk is to go out and buy a little treat. Last year, while Dunk browsed the Apple Store, I drifted casually into the Monsoon sale and came away with a lovely red velvet coat. I think that might be the place to go this year too.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Gingerbread creation

...cos who wants an ordinary gingerbread cottage.

2012 Reading Roundup Post

As the Three Wise Ducks bring gifts of oil, dynamite and a first aid kit to a baby owl in a canoe, watched over by a flock of rabbits, goats, deer and sea creatures, while a little devil lurks in nearby trees, we will be opening pressies and eating coconut ice. 
Another reading year comes to a close with the now obligatory round up of all the books I have read this year (or strictly since the last roundup in December 2011, War and Peace had been on the go since 2010). I am a terribly nostalgic person and like thinking back to the books I enjoyed. So 63 books, thirteen of them audiobooks. Most unexpected read of the year was 22/11/63 by Stephen King which I loved, but I think the best of the year has to be The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. I have loved all the Orange prize winners and have yet to be disappointed by anything that has come from either the long or short lists.

War and Peace by Leo Tostoy
At Paradise Gate by Jane Smiley
So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor
Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber
The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville
How it all Began by Penelope Lively
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewyka
Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor
So He Takes the Dog by Jonathan Buckley
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
11/22/63 by Stephen King
There But For The by Ali Smith
The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
15 Days Without a Head byDave Cousins
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark
Nothing to do but Stay by Carrie Young
Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
The Sealed Letter byEmma Donoghue
Canal Dreams by Iain Banks
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
This is Paradise by Will Eaves
The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard
Home By Marilynne Robinson
How to Breathe Under Water by Julie Orringer
26a by Diana Evans
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Walking Home by Simon Armitage
Dog by John Hegley
Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins
I Have Waited and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamada Ngozi Adichie
A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
Out of Breath by Julie Meyerson
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Poems Before and After by Miroslav Holub
The Secret Intensity of Every Day Life by William Nicholson
The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore
The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
Quiet by Susan Cain
On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski
Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
A Mile of River by Judith Allnatt
The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
On Writing by Stephen King
The Diary of Frida Kahlo
Unthinkable skies by Juliet Wilson

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Unthinkable Skies

I have been giving Juliet Wilson's poems a while to brew, I bought a copy of her book Unthinkable Skies from her a couple of months ago. Juliet is a keen environmentalist and lover of the natural world, and many of her poems reflect this, both admiration of nature and fear for its destruction feature prominently. 
In 'Amazonia' the wreckage of a plane lost in the jungle is subsumed under the encroaching urbanisation:
"Now the bones and wreckage
lie in arid suburban gardens
where at night, the ghosts of howler monkeys scream
and extinct parrots flutter through restless dreams."

Understated descriptions, like this in Autumn Red:
"Slanted light glances
on rosehips
and five shades of rowan berries."
In 'Evening Rain':
dance across the sky.
Chimney pots
glow with evening."
In 'Open Windows':
"Moon shadows luxuriate on the lawn.
The air whispers."
And in 'The Reformation of Silence' the "grasshoppers percussion" is contrasted starkly with the "Air-conditioning hums"

I really liked 'Mistaken Identity', a tiny poem in which a parent and child are birdwatching, and the parent claims to see a honey buzzard; the line, "Even at twelve I knew enough to disbelieve", speaks volumes about a shared passion and knowledge, and the relationship between them.
I liked them mostly because they are essentially reflective poems; they are not weird internal monologues but more 'I saw this and it made me think this'. A quiet little collection that will sneak up on you and catch you unawares.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Have a Hexipuff Christmas

We have returned to the idea of an improvised Christmas tree again this year. It was created by Tish and myself from lines of suspended hexipuffs outlined with lights and some of the smaller decorations pinned on. It kind of floats on space, simultaneously squashy and etherial : -) All I need to do now is make another batch of mince pies and we are ready to shut out the outside world for three days.
Seasonal greetings to all my visitors, I hope you enjoy however you might choose to celebrate the midwinter holiday.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Diary of Frida Kahlo

I have developed something of a fascination with Frida Kahlo, and this diary is a glimpse inside the mind of a woman who's image is so familiar. I am not sure what I expected from her diary, probably something coherent and chronological, what you get is artistic chaos. The book is an actual facsimile of her diary, each page reproduced as it appears, complete with smudges, blotches and crossings-out, with commentary and translation in the second half of the book. It is not a painter's notebook, not preparatory sketches or anything, the images are quite separate from her painting style which is very neat and stylised, they are informal and haphazard, sometimes mere doodles, sometimes wild colourful images:

There are letters throughout, often addressed to Diego, her adoration of him is repeated frequently, and some long pages of rambling, what she writes about is very much inside her head, they are musings on how she feels rather than any recounting of events, totally stream of consciousness. Dates are few and far between. Sometimes it sounds like she is just playing with words. Sometimes it reads as poetry though that may not have been her intention. 
I loved this piece about a childhood imaginary friend:
"I must have been six years old when I had the intense experience of an imaginary friendship with a little girl ... roughly my own age. On the window of my old room, facing Allende Street, I used to breathe on one of the top panes. And with my finger I would draw a 'door' ... Through that 'door' I would come out, in my imagination and hurriedly, with immense happiness, I would cross all the field I could see until I reached a dairy store called PINZON ... Through the 'O' in PINZON I entered and descended impetuously to the entrails of the earth, where 'my imaginary friend' always waited for me. I don't remember her appearance or her colour. But I do remember her joyfulness - she laughed a lot. Soundlessly. She was agile and danced as if she were weightless. I followed her in every movement and while she danced, I told her my secret problems." (p.246)

Everything she does seems to have symbolic significance, particularly from Mexican art and mythology and also political icons. She was a passionate communist and idealist, and fascinated by the history and culture of her own country and the potential the communism offered to Mexico. 
"1st. I'm convinced of my disagreement with the counterrevolution - imperialism - fascism - religions - stupidity - capitalism - and the whole gamut of bourgeois tricks - I wish to cooperate with the revolution in transforming the world into a classless one so that we can attain a better rhythm for the oppressed classes 2nd. a timely moment to clarify who are the allies of the Revolution Read Lenin - Stalin - Learn that I am nothing but a 'small damned' part of the revolutionary movement. Always revolutionary never dead, never useless." (p.251)

Her own physical state is of ongoing concern. Having contracted polio as a child, followed by a catastrophic bus accident at 18 she spends her entire life undergoing extensive medical and surgical procedures; as she says however, not sick but broken. She spent periods of her life bedridden and often in spinal casts, but would paint anyway. Although she is preoccupied with her medical problems her overriding emotion seems to be frustration that they prevent her accomplishing what she wants in life. She did suffer from depression and it has been suggested that she committed suicide, but she expresses happiness and hope just as frequently as despair. This painting of her feet I found the most poignant, painted prior to, and somehow prophetic of the amputation of her foot due to gangrene, the words say 'Feet what do I need them for If I have wings to fly'.
She is such a wonderful character with such a vivid imagination. She lived a life of huge contrasts, the long periods of illness and confinement contrasting with an intense involvement with and influence from a fascinating period of world cultural and political change. A true cultural icon. You can see her complete works here and you can see a clip of the film Frida on youtube here, the whole things can be watched on Lovefilm Instant.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

To Be Read Challenge 2013

I didn't do many reading challenges this year but decided to join for 2013 the TBR Pile Challenge over at Roof Beam Reader. The challenge is to read 12 books over the course of the year (nominating a list of 14 in case a couple fail to live up to expectations), the rule being that books have to have been in the pile for at least a year, and to be honest it was quite difficult to find a dozen that I have had that long. I have not bought a huge number of books over the last year or so, I still trawl the charity shops from time to time but much less regularly than before. The library has become my haunt of choice since I often read about something and want to read it and just immediately look it up in the catalogue. I work on the principle that with limited finances I can borrow books for free but you can't borrow yarn. Anyway here is my list (from the bottom of the pile) (author name will link to author info or website and when completed the title will be a link to the review):

  1. Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto (the only non-fiction, bought new probably 2010)
  2. District and Circle by Seamus Heaney (charity shop find)
  3. Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy (charity shop find after loving Small Island)
  4. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (part of challenge to read all his books)
  5. Austerlitz by W.G. Seabald (charity shop find, recommended by Susan Hill in Howards End is on the Landing)
  6. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (charity shop find, Booker longlist 2010)
  7. Unless by Carol Shields (charity shop find)
  8. Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue (so old I can't recall, same author who wrote Room)
  9. Wise Children by Angela Carter (another very old, think I may have started it once before)
  10. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon (charity shop find)
  11. Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope (might have been bought new)
  12. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (another very old, says Oxfam 49p, they charge at least £2.99 these days)
  13. Howards End by E.M. Forster (20p from box outside a charity shop)
  14. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (Orange Prize winner 2010, not on the pile here, to be borrowed from Julie)
I will do a recap at the end of the year to see how things have gone. I have a pile of three from the library that I will be working on first and maybe I will just pick a random number - ok, the first book will be number 4.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Telling the goddam story

"This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do - not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit." (Second foreword)

At the suggestion of pretty much everyone on the interweb I got a copy of 'On Writing' by Stephen King from the library. I read 11/22/63 earlier this year and loved it and would consider myself quite a King convert. This book is part autobiography, part writing advice. The back cover blurb implies to the reader it was written as a result of a near fatal accident, however much of the book had already been written prior to King being hit by a van in 1999. It traces the course of his writing life, from his early beginnings doing the high school newsletter, sending stories off to science fiction magazines through to the publishing of his first novel and onwards. It is modest and unsensational, emphasising hard graft (as most writing advice does) and the art of connecting ideas. I liked the tale of how he came up with Carrie, taking a story he was writing about a high school girl who is being bullied and then reading something about telekinesis, and putting the two things together. He makes it all sound so simple. The book has three main parts; a CV, a toolbox and on writing, followed at the end by the story of the accident and his subsequent recovery, but the whole book is scattered with snippets of advice. In the life story part he recounts many pieces of advice given to him by others and how it helped him. I like this one from the editor of a local newspaper he works for while at school:

" 'When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story,' he said. 'When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.' " (p.56)

In the toolbox he makes this neat little analogy about fixing a screen with his uncle Oren and having the right tool for the job in hand. He talks about grammar and sentence structure and gives us some wonderful examples at the extremes of writers breaking the rules. The idea being of course that you have to know the rules in order to break them effectively. He argues that it is paragraphs that are the important building blocks of writing. He takes small pieces of writing and picks them apart to point out why they work and what role each sentence takes in the process of the story. It was all very helpful. He highly recommends Elements of Style by Strunk and White as a standard text for writers. Basic advice such as avoiding the passive tense:

"I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of  England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty." (p.136-7)

and erasing adverbs from your writing (easier said than done I fear):

"Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. ... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point across. ...
Someone out there is now is accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day ... fifty the day after that ... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you can see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's - GASP!! - too late." (p.139-40)

 - followed by extensive examples of why he's right, how if you use the right word the adverb is just redundant. However then he also warns against using excessively elaborate vocabulary instead. The plea is for simplicity.
He goes off on other tracks too, talking about background research and how to get published. He gives advice on rewriting and editing, giving us a real example of his own work and the changes he made to it (the rule is always to cut!). I liked the bit about swearing and censors, about how things must have context and be real for the character. And then there's the questionable value of writing classes and retreats, which had me rethinking my recent plans. Here talking about his experience while taking two creative writing classes at college:

"I brought poems of my own to class, but back in my dorm room was my dirty little secret: the half-completed manuscript of a novel about a teenage gang's plan to start a race riot. ... This novel, Sword in the Darkness, seemed tawdry to me when compared to what my fellow students were trying to achieve; which is why I suppose, I never bought any of it to class for a critique. The fact that it was also better and somehow truer than all my poems about sexual yearning and post-adolescent angst only made things worse. The result was a four-month period in which I could write almost nothing at all." (p282-3)

The book is scattered with anecdotes from his life, people he meets and things they say. He is plainly a writer who notices and remembers things, the essence of what makes him successful I guess. You get ideas from paying attention to life. 
So here it is boiled down:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." (p.164)

"The space can be humble ... and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk." (p178)

"In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech." (p.187)

"This isn't the Taj Mahal we're visiting, after all, and I don't want to sell you the place. It's also important to remember it's not about the setting, anyway - it's about the story, and it's always about the story." (p.204-5)

Carhullan Army

'The Carhullan Army' by Sarah Hill has been on my library wish list for a long time, possibly from when Dunk and I heard part of the dramatisation on Radio 3 last year.

This is quite a book. It is set in northern Britain, in a post economic collapse, post climate change society, where an autocratic Authority controls everyone's lives; where they live, where they work, and most significantly their ability to have children. It is written in the form of a confessional transcript, the testimony of a prisoner, so you know right from the start that whatever happens it is not going to end well. A young woman abandons her life and husband to walk up into the wilds of the Cumbrian moors to find a mythical women's community. Not strictly mythical I suppose because she knows that they used to be there, knows their reputation, she's just not sure it still exists. It is told first person, so what we have is Sister's thoughts and reactions, her version of the story, as someone who goes seeking sanctuary, but also offering herself up to be of service to the army. To begin with it appears that they are survivalists, eking out a living from farming and hunting, having babies courtesy of a small group of men who live an even more abject and excluded existence in some huts down in the valley; they really are quite pitiable creatures and it felt slightly as if their purpose in the story was to highlight the forceful and dominant character of Jackie, the group's leader. Her initiation into the group is violent and cruel, designed to both break her and test her, but once accepted she settles into the life, works hard and forms bonds with the other women, but all the time curious about Jackie's 'unit' who patrol the moors. It is only as time passes that it becomes clear that while most of them are intent on simply making a life, Jackie is certain that their situation cannot be permanent and that time will eventually come for action. 

"The women from the moor took my arms. As they led me away around the thick outer wall of the farm I glanced up towards the fells. There was so little daylight that the horizon had almost disappeared. I squinted into the distance. The ground had lost its definition and the summit of High Street seemed to bleed into the teal of the night. The elements were combining darkly, but for a second or two I thought I saw a long row of black outlines, human figures, standing on the ridge against the sky. I could not be sure of it. But in that one glance, before I was pushed inside the narrow iron structure, there seemed to be a ring of people on the hillside above Carhullan. There were too many of them to count." (p.70)

The whole book has a dark brooding quality, the overshadowing of their existence by both the harsh environment and the implied threat from the Authority; this is no rural idyll. But there is this strong sense of common purpose and comradeship, a true community even in the face of differences of opinion. There's a certain amount of symbolism going on in the characters, each emphasising different qualities but they were very real people. What's not to like, it's got strong women characters, they are in pursuit of controlling their lives in the face of overwhelming odds, they are not afraid and never cowed, prepared to fight for what they believe in. It doesn't have to have a happy ending.

A mile of river

Quickie about 'A Mile of River' by Judith Allnatt which I have been listening to on audiobook while knitting Dunk's cable jumper.
This was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, set in the summer of 1976 (oh yes, I remember it well), I particularly enjoyed the bit about going to the fair, which was a significant feature of my own childhood. So Jess is a teenager, struggling with exams and other teenage stuff, as well as caring for her younger brother and father on their family farm. And missing her mother, who apparently abandoned them many years ago. Under the oppressive heat of the summer all sorts of things come to a head in her life as the farm struggles to cope and her determination to find out what became of her mother brings all sorts of stuff out of the woodwork. It is a lovely period piece, the atmosphere of the time, you notice some things that have been transformed by modern life and so many things that are exactly the same. It is a vivid portrayal of her fraught relationship with her father and the close and caring one with her brother, while all the time she is trying to get on with the process of growing up. She is a wonderful character, full of both strengths and weaknesses that makes her real and engaging. She has spent so long taking responsibility for things that when tragedy strikes she has to learn the hard way to trust others and accept help. 
Despite the fact that one of the tapes was so worn I had to miss it out, and it had a vital part of the plot on it, it was a lovely coming-of-age tale.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

10 Years

Royal Mail are very appreciative of my ten years service with the company; look they gave me a pen:-). My anniversary is strictly the 18th but I didn't like to quibbled over a few days.  Jo (assistant manager) arrived at my frame this morning with a little box, and very nicely gave me the option to have it presented publicly, an offer I swiftly declined. I feel vaguely proud of myself, there is a sense of achievement at sticking with something that is quite a physically demanding job, and while I am aware that there are about a million better ways I might have earned a living in the past ten years there are also several million much worse ways. And it's always nice to be appreciated. I won't go so far as to say I'm looking forward to the next ten but I can imagine there will probably be quite a few more.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Do's and Don'ts for Christmas Posting

Every December I think to myself 'why do customers do the same stupid things year after year, I should write to Moya about this.' It is an annoying time of year because people who don't send a letter from one year's end to the next suddenly start putting things into the postal system. Often they have really bad handwriting. If you are about to post your seasonal greetings cards and parcels here are a few bits of advice.

  1. Know the correct address of your F&F  -  if you are not sure check it. Go to the Royal Mail Postcode Finder and be sure to copy it down carefully. Letters are sorted by a machine that reads the postcode, if you get it wrong the letter will be delayed by being sent to the wrong office.
  2. Check the size of your card and put the correct postage; you can use the price finder tool on the Royal Mail website to check, some larger cards may need a 'large letter' stamp. If you put something, even a small item, into the envelope with the card and it is fatter than 5mm you need a 'large letter' stamp. Even though it's Christmas we will surcharge your F&F if you have not put enough postage on, this will include a £1 admin fee on top of the unpaid postage. 
  3. Even if you are posting it to somewhere local and think the intended destination is obvious always write the full address. If not it may end up mis-sorted and will disappear down the black hole of the returned letters office.
  4.  If you can't remember the house number don't just miss it out or put a question mark and hope for the best, give someone a call and find it out. The road might be very long, and while I personally would probably go to the bother of checking through to find the right house some less dedicated people might just send it back as 'address incomplete'. 
  5. Do not write 'Granma and Grandad' or 'Auntie Jean', use the person's full name, i.e. with surname, that way, if you have the number wrong or it is unclear or the ink gets smudged, there is a chance of it arriving at the correct house.
  6. While it is very nice if you want to get your young child to write the address, we very much want to encourage youngsters to use the postal system, please write it again in clear printing underneath. 
  7. If you know you have poor handwriting then please PRINT.
  8. Do not use fancy Christmassy gold or silver pens, especially on red envelopes, they are illegible.
  9. Please seal the envelopes on your cards, do not just tuck the flap inside. This is especially important on large cards as other smaller cards can become caught inside and transported to the wrong office. 
  10. While we're on the subject of size, don't buy cards so tiny that you can barely fit the address and a stamp on, they are just plain annoying to deal with and can get lost at the back of the sorting frame.
  11. If sending a card to someone you have not heard from since last Christmas put a return address on the back, that way if they have moved you will get the card back and you won't have to wonder why you don't hear from them any more.
  12. In fact the 'put a return address on the back' rule applies to everything you put into the postal system at any time.
  13. If you've moved in the last year post early, and then all the people you forgot to send change-of-address cards to will know where you are.
  14. DO NOT just wrap your parcels in Christmas wrapping paper - it is not robust enough to withstand being passed through the system and will arrive in tatters . It annoys me that post offices still seem to take parcels from people that have been badly wrapped. Also don't add ribbons, they won't survive either. Use brown paper.
  15. If you know your F&F are not at home during the day consider sending your parcel to their work address. If you are ordering something online and you are not at home during the day consider having it delivered to your work address.
  16. Beware slightly of those padded enveloped, they are pretty good but I always add extra sellotape to the seal. Buy a size that fits the item reasonably snugly, if it can slide around inside the envelope it is more likely to tear, particularly important for items with sharp corners.
  17. Bear in mind that packets are tipped in and out of sacks several times in the course of their journey, so wrap them accordingly. Anything fragile will survive much better packaged in a box rather than a padded envelope.
  18. Last posting dates can be found here.
(Disclaimer: this is not official Royal Mail advice)

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Digging in the Dark

I bought 'The Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton some time after Dunk and I went to Oxford where we saw an exhibition about his work. What is good about this book is that it is very much written for the non-academic reader, for someone who might ask the question, "What's the use of philosophy?" It has a reputation for being cerebral and remote from real life, when in fact it is quite the opposite, and is concerned essentially with the way that human beings choose to live.

"Every society has notions of what one should believe and how one should behave in order  to avoid suspicion and unpopularity. Some of these societal conventions are given explicit formulation in a legal code, others are more intuitively held in a vast body of ethical and practical judgements described as 'common sense', which dictates what we should wear, which financial values we should adopt, whom we should esteem, which etiquette we should follow and what domestic life we should lead. To start questioning these conventions would seem bizarre, even aggressive. If common sense is cordoned off from questions, it is because its judgements are deemed plainly too sensible to be the targets of scrutiny." (p.9)

It seems to be the job of philosophy to do just this, even if, as poor Socrates found, it annoys people so much they demand your execution. So through the millennia philosophers have set out to question assumptions about the way humans live. Socrates was executed on the order of a jury of 500:
"Socrates would naturally have conceded that there are times when we are in the wrong and should be made to doubt our views, but he would have added a vital detail to alter our sense of truth's relation to unpopularity: errors in our thought and way of life can at no point and in no way ever be proven simply by the fact that we have run into opposition.
What should worry us is not the number of people who oppose us, but how good their reasons are for doing so. We should therefore divert our attention away from the presence of unpopularity to the explanations for it." (p.29-30)

The book is a browse through the variety of worries and concerns that human beings suffer, and the ways in which various philosophers have addressed these concerns. Rationality seems to be at the root of most philosophy, the use of reason and logic to understand. I like this one from Epicurus on death:

"Epicurus was especially concerned that he and his friends learn to analyse their anxieties about money, illness, death and the supernatural. If one thought rationally about mortality, one would, Epicurus argued, realise that there was nothing but oblivion after death, and that 'what is no trouble when it arrives is an idle worry in anticipation.' It was senseless to alarm oneself in advance about a state which one would never experience." (p.59)

Epicurus is very in tune with the current notion of downshifting and simple living, with him emphasis on satisfying the simple basic needs of human beings and avoiding excessive consumerism, placing more value on things like simple pleasures and the importance of friendship. Botton's definition of an 'acquisitions list' for happiness consists of: a place to live, friendship, 'to avoid superiors, patronization, infighting and competition', thought, and (tongue in cheek I guess) a strange obsession with Madonna by Giovanni Bellini.

We then move on to Seneca. What I enjoyed so much was that each chapter gave me a whole new way of looking at things, and that I found ideas within each philosophy that were already part of my own thinking, but articulated them in a way that I have never bothered with. Seneca introduces the element of 'Fortune' into human affairs, that things happen to people and it was not a moral judgement on them:

"We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing  will ever be the same again. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the latter that Seneca invoked the goddess. ...
The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favours, the rudder a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies. She would scatter gifts, then with terrifying speed shift the rudder's course, maintaining an imperturbable smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear in a landslide."

His 'praemeditatio' sums it up:
"The wise will start each day with the thought ...
Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said 'a day' had granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires." (p.91)

An idea of 'justice' is inculcated in education and in most religions; that if you are honourable you will be rewarded, if you are bad you will be punished. Then when you have acted correctly but bad things happen there ensures confusion, a feeling that maybe you were bad after all and deserve the punishment. There is an appeal to 'injustice', which shows a continued belief that the world should be fundamentally 'just'. But it isn't. Seneca's own life became a perfect example of his philosophy at work; he loses everything after falling out of favour with Claudius, a situation which could have led to self-blame, bitterness and resentment, however:

"Seneca's political failure did not have to be read as retribution for sins, it was no rational punishment meted out after examination of the evidence by an all-seeing Providence in a divine courtroom; it was a cruel but morally meaningless by-product of the machinations of a rancorous Empress."

While it sounds like it could potentially be a little depressing I found it quite enlightening, because he also emphasises that events and inanimate objects are not deliberately conspiring against you, that nature and the world are neutral in relation to your existence. It is kind of at the root of that slightly twee quote about accepting the things you cannot change, changing the things you can and wisdom to know the difference. Sometime, despite this, people so often give too much weight and importance to things and events outside their control. It is not a recipe for passivity and acceptance but for the use of reason to not waste energy trying to alter the genuinely inevitable, but to save it for the things that are alterable. A neat little conclusion:

"To calm us down in noisy streets, we should trust that those making a noise know nothing of us. We should place a fireguard between the noise outside  and an internal sense of deserving punishment. We should not import into scenarios where they don't belong pessimistic interpretations of others' motives. Thereafter, noise will never be pleasant, but it will not have to make us furious." (p.105)

"When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, 'Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher.' " (p.108)

The book then jumps several hundred years to Michel de Montaigne, who lived in France in the 16th century. The influences however travel as thread through history, since everyone has been influenced by those who came before, and such a thing is never more true than when it comes to philosophy. The ancient greeks loom large right through to the modern day thinkers. Montaigne was another who worked hard as questioning the assumptions of his culture, but also to question the authority of great thinkers:

"It is tempting to quote authors when they express our very own thoughts but with a clairty and psychological accuracy we cannot match. They know us better than we know ourselves...

But rather than illuminating our experiences and goading us on to our own discoveries, great books may come to cast a problematic shadow. They may lead us to dismiss aspects of our lives of which there is not printed testimony. Far from expanding our horizons, they may unjustly come to mark their limits. ... 

Their genius inhibits the sense of irreverence vital  to creative work in their successors. Aristotle may, paradoxically, prevent those who most respect him from behaving like him. He rose to greatness only by doubting much of the knowledge that had been built up before him, not by refusing to read Plato or Heraclitus, but by mounting a salient critique of some of their weaknesses based on an appreciation of their strengths." (p.161-3)

What I really liked about him is that he thought, and reiterated frequently, that leading an ordinary quiet life gave you just as much insight into the human condition as being in the thick of politics and 'society'.  And he was equally critical of pretension in writing and philosophy:

"It is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children. Yet the association between difficulty and profundity might less generously be described as a manifestation in the literary sphere of a perversity familiar from emotional life, where people who are mysterious and elusive can inspire a respect in modest minds that reliable fear ones do not. ...

Every difficult work presents us with a choice of whether to judge the author inept for not being clear, or ourselves stupid for not grasping what is going on. Montaigne encouraged us to blame the author. An incomprehensible prose-style  is likely to have resulted more from laziness than cleverness; what reads easily is rarely so written. Or else such prose masks an absence of content; being incomprehensible offers unparalleled protection against having nothing to say." (p.157-8)

Schopenhauer gives us our consolation for a broken heart; a philosophy born, I felt, out of his own inability to find love. He defines for us the life force, or will-to-live, the thing that disrupts our rationality and makes life so damn difficult.

"He felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, who rarely saw the light of day and whose offspring look like gelatinous worms - but who still did everything in its power to survive and perpetuate itself. ...

We do have one advantage over moles. We may have to fight for survival and hunt for partners and have children as they do, but we can in addition go to the theatre, the opera and the concert hall, and in bed in the evenings, we can read novels, philosophy and epic poems - and it is in these activities that Schopenhauer located a supreme source of relief from the demands of the will-to-life. What we encounter in works of art and philosophy are objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language or image." (p.199) (and the quote continues here)

And thus:
"We must, between periods of digging in the dark, endeavour always to transform our tears into knowledge." (p.202)

"Few philosophers have been thought of highly for feeling wretched. A wise life has traditionally been associated with an attempt to reduce suffering: anxiety, despair, anger, self-contempt and heartache.

Then again, pointed out Friedrich Nietzsche, the majority of philosophers have always been 'cabbage-heads'. " (p.205)

Who would have thought that Nietzsche would have been the one to make me laugh. My ex studied Existentialism at university and Nietzsche was much a topic of conversation in our house for a while, from whence the expression 'existential angst' entered my vocabulary, and very useful it has been too. Botton's description of it however I found to be much more positive and life affirming than I had understood. He understands life as the balancing of pain and pleasure, that life's satisfactions are nothing unless hard earned:

"Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples, and ask yourself whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible. ...

Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable." (p.215)

So, a clumsy and woefully incomplete and incoherent examination of a wonderfully enlightening book. It has inspired me to read some more philosophy and to try and get my head round some new ideas. The best advice however comes, again from Nietzsche, right at the end, and I read it as NaNoWriMo finished. However it puts the 30 days nicely into perspective. How to write a novel:

"One has only to make a hundred or so sketches for novels, none longer than two pages but of such distinctness that every word in them is necessary; one should write down anecdotes every day until one has learnt how to give them the most pregnant and effective form; one should be tireless in collecting and describing human types and characters; one should above all relate things to others and listen to others relate, keeping one's eyes and ears open for the effect produced on those present; one should travel like a landscape painter or costume designer ... one should, finally, reflect on the motives of human action, disdain no signposts for instruction about them and be a collector of these things by day and night. One should continue in this many-sided exercise for some ten years; what is then created in the workshop ... will be fit to go out into the world." (p.217)

Oh well.


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