Saturday, 30 May 2015

My Autobiography by Guy Martin

This book has convinced me that not only should you never meet you heros, but you shouldn't read their autobiographies either. If you like Guy Martin and want to carry on liking him, look away now.

I'm not a fan of motorsports so I first found Guy on television. "Come and watch this," I said to my husband, "It's like Wolverine was a Northerner building a boat.". We marvelled at his sideburns, and occasionally at his engineering and once at nearly all of him when a steam-powered shower turned evil and he had to jump out of it in a hurry. Since then I've enjoyed How Britain Worked (a wonderfully comforting programme as every episode was the same; Guy would join some bunch of brown-coated old boys as they restored old bits of stuff and win them over with his no-nonsense northern tea drinking and ability to "Shave a couple of thou off that, lad". The best bit would always be Guy turning to camera demonstrating a nice interference fit and saying, "Look at that, eh? Trick as.", or some weeks, "It were proper graft though, in them days, weren't it?") and two series of Speed (a much less cosy programmme which frequently gave the impression that it might end with the words, "This programme is dedicated to the late Guy Martin").

I guess what I was expecting from this book was some exciting bits about high-speed crashes and also the inevitable dull bits about boring out cylinders and valve timing for the hardcore. In fact the book delivers both those things, but it also shows Guy in a much less lovable light than I was expecting. By the end I felt I was looking at a man who had just done whatever he felt like at every turn and was then left wondering why everyone was so pissed off at him.

And there are the various daft things he does which just you leave you shouting at him. Like the way that the man who is happy to try to drive round the Isle of Man at over 200 mph seems to end up cheating on his girlfriend cos he can't quite get together the guts to break up with her first. Or the way that when his Dad (who is every bit as uncommunicative as Guy himself) confiscates the works van after a series of driving offenses, Guy says something along the lines of, "I figured it was his way of telling me I was sacked from the family business," and I think, "Why didn't you just ring him up and ask him, you big eejit?". And then there was the incident where Guy bypassed the TT podium and went to the tea van instead, which I had wrongly attributed to his being an unassuming lad who liked his tea. Turns out he was having a big prima donna strop.

Despite all this, I still admire Guy (well, can I ride a motorbike at 200mph? Can I bugger. I'm on the breaks of my pushbike just going down the hill from my house to the main road) but I've stopped slightly fancying him.

Here's hoping he finally gets that TT win...

Monday, 9 February 2015

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

I sort of love the Mitfords. If ever you catch yourself believing that your own family are the craziest, most dysfunctional bunch ever to escape out of an ITV sit-com and into reality, you can look at the Mitfords and reflect that your lot are nowhere near. Are any of your sisters Communists or Fascists? Have any of them actually been imprisioned for being a danger to their country? Have they had a crush on Hitler? Or eschewed the company of humans in favour of chickens? Do your parents believe that educating girls will give them fat ankles and leave them unmarriageable?

In case anyone ever reads this and they are not familiar with the British aristocracy in the inter war period, I have prepared a brief rundown of the Mitfords. (I was going to make Mitford Top Trumps but I ran out time, patience and artistic ability.)

Know Your Mitfords

Muv: a.k.a Lady Redesdale. Posh tweedy lady who won't let her daughters mingle with the garstly bourgeoisie. In her book this is pretty much everyone so Mitfords don't get out much.

Farv: Appears in Nancy's novels as "Mad Uncle Matthew" who is always shouting, "You filthy sewer!" at effete young men and threatening to have them horsewhipped. Likes hunting. Dislikes everything else.

Nancy: The novelist. Wrote Love in a Cold Climate  and The Pursuit of Love.

Diana: Fascist. Marries Oswold Mosley of the British Union of Fascits and spends WW2 interred. Completely Barking.

Pam: A boring one.

Tom: a.k.a Tudemmy. The Boy. Less loopy than the girls. Possibly because he was allowed to go to school and meet people outside his own family.

Unity: a.k.a. Baud. Fascist. Has a crush on Hitler. Spends her time in Germany hanging out with top Nazis. Tries to kill herself by shooting herself in the head when rejected by the Fuhrer. Gives herself a horrific brain injury instead and lingers on for ages.

Jessica: a.k.a. Decca. Communist. Runs away to join The International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

Deborah: a.k.a Debo. Mocked by her older sisters for being a bit thick because all she wanted to do was marry a Duke and raise chickens but compared to being a Communist or a Fascist, that actually looks pretty sensible.

So This book is the autobiography of The Communist One. Jessica is also one of the youngest and while Nancy is being a Bright Young Thing and Diana is bringing shame on the family by divorcing*, Decca and Boud are stomping about the schoolroom being rather ineffectually home schooled by their mother and giving each other Chinese burns. For my money, the most normal thing in Decca's childhood is the weird games she plays with her siblings. In fact I think that Hure, Hare, Hure, Commencement (of unbearable pain) sounds like exactly the kind of game that my sister and I could really have got into.

The two sisters grow up without any other companions or anything to occupy themselves save reading and winding each other up. Jessica reads the pacifist literature spawned by the first world war and through that finds out about Socialism, Unity becomes a fully paid up member of the British Union of Fascists and Jessica moves further left into Communism, apparently to annoy her sister as much as anything else. Was this a time of extreme political views when all of politics was a lunatic fringe of some kind? Or is it just these girls in their insular, overheated world who have gone a bit odd in the reasoning department?

Long years seem to be spent grumpily hanging around the family home waiting for life to start. Jessica looks forward to "coming out"** as a signifier of adulthood but rightly predicts she won't meet any like minded young men in her season of balls. In this period of solitary moodiness she starts reading about the exploits of a distant relation in the press. Esmond Romilly has bought shame on his family by refusing to join the OTC, claiming to be a pacifist, escaping from Wellington public school and founding a Communist Bookshop. He sounds like just the sort of chap Jessica would like to meet, but unfortunately, he goes to fight the fascists in Spain*** and the mooning continues.

Then one day she finds out he's back in England and secures a weekend invitation to the same country house where he is convalescing. The pair seem to hit it off straight away and Esmond readily agrees to help her run away to the war in Spain.

I'm afraid I can't really take to Esmond Romilly. If he were from any other background, he'd be described as a wastrel and good-for-nothing. I think its his gambling addiction, plus the fact that he clearly fancies himself as a scammer and con artist (stealing from friends and family is apparently OK when you're a Communist). Despite this he falls for scam after scam himself, repeated losing all the money Jessica has earned on card games and bent horse races. Fortunately, being a Communist, she doesn't really mind about the money.  
In fact Jessica doesn't mind about any damn fool thing that Esmond does, he is a genius in her eyes and everything they do together is just one big romantic adventure. 

Together they go to Spain, fail to report on the war, get married, come back to London and hang out with other Communists, have a baby girl who dies of measles (I got very upset for them at this point. Man, I'm glad to live in the century that I do!) and go travelling across America while they wait for the war to break out.

According to Jessica, by 1938 it was obvious that war was coming but not at all obvious whose side Britain would be on. This is a million miles from the plucky-Britain-standing-alone-against-Hitler line that we have all been spun. While I'm not at all sure of Jessica as a reliable narrator of historical facts, I still recall a number of high-profile Brits (including the King) who were favourably impressed by the Nazis. 

The book ends with the outbreak of war and Esmond joining the Canadian RAF. I looked him up and he died soon after at only 23. He never had the chance to mend his ways and stop being an idiot. I guess if I was assessed on only the first 23 years of life, I'd look a bit bloody clueless too. Jessica goes on to live to a ripe old age, but that's in other books.

Overall I enjoyed the growing up with the crazy Mitfords parts of the book but found the Romily years hard going. Jessica writes well enough that I'd look for her collected letters to her sisters, but I'm not sure I can handle any more memoir. She's at her best pointing out the ridiculous behaviour of her family and herself. When it comes to everything else she seems very sure of her opinions but totally unable to marshal anything resembling an argument in support of them. Or perhaps she assumes that her readers want celebrity gossip more than they want politics or history but I could have coped with more Communist ideology and less guff about lovely people we met in the Hamptons. That's probably just me.

*Yes, I'm afraid that for the British Aristocracy in this period divorce was WAY more embarrassing than being a fascist. 
**As a debutant, not an LGBT.
***No, I don't know how you segue from pacifism to joining in foreign wars either.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Yes Man by Danny Wallace

In the run-up to Christmas this year, I had a big work deadline causing me stress. This was all I could think about until after it had passed. Afterwards I looked around and tried to organise myself a pre-Christmas night out. Unfortunately, everybody I tried had been booked weeks ago and I was forced to continue my run of staying in.

To make matters slightly worse, I asked my husband to recommend a funny book to cheer me up and he suggested  Yes Man by Danny Wallace.

The gist of the thing is that Danny has also got into a rut of not going out which he decides to break by saying "yes" to things he would normally say no to. But he has friends who ring him up and ask him. He doesn't have to play phone tag with people for days just to remind them he exists. His friends just ring up and all he has to do is say yes. The lucky c*nt.

Anyway, before long Danny is allegedly affirming his way to the good life, saying yes at work to a TV presenting job in which he tries to wind up a Buddhist monk by poking him.

But it isn't all plain sailing. There is the time he agrees to come along with his ex and her new boyfriend on a date, donating money to any charity which asks him, spending a lot of money on travel because an advert happened to be phrased as a question and meeting up for polite conversation with a stockbroker obsessed with Sarah Brightman.

There is also the ever-so-neat plot about the girl he loves who has returned to Australia. Will Danny's resolution to say yes to everything make him brave enough to move out after her and give it a go? (Clue: of course it bloody will). Call me cynical, but things like this make me doubt that half the events described ever actually took place (think for a moment about how boring, episodic and unstructured an account of anyone's real life would be). So bearing in mind that we've agreed between us that Mr Wallace needn't be strictly truthful, that we'll allow him some license in order to better entertain us, why isn't the ****ing thing funnier?

I suppose the book worked for me in that I moved from feeling properly sorry for myself to just being a run-of-the-mill grumpy old git.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson

Everyone likes bumble bees, don't  they? They are so plump and furry and vibratey like tiny flying cats with too many legs... So I have been reading this amusing book about them by the founder of the bumble bee trust.

I enjoyed the section on Dave's childhood attempts to help bees which frequently ended disasterously. Such as the time he finds some soggy ones struggling along after heavy rain, decides to dry them out on the kitchen hot plate and accidently grills them.

Much of the book deals with the challenges faced by bumble bees. These basically boil down to manmade problems caused by modern agriculture (loss of hedgerows and flower meadows) and the shortcomings of the bees that make them particularly vulnerable. Only the queen bees can hibernate to survive the winter... so a whole hive of bees has to find enough flowers throughout the spring and summer to make a few queens. Then the queens are unfortunately a bit rubbish at finding holes to hibernate in. They can get damp and go mouldy, or drown in wet winters or fall prey to a variety of fascinatingly disgusting parasites.

One useful but rather disappointing piece of information to come out of this book is that bees don't seem to particularly like the little encourage-the-bees houses for them that you can buy in garden centres. This is a shame as I'd like to provide bees with some quality accommodation, but at least it has saved me some money. Apparently the best we can do is to hope that bees decide to come and live in out walls or under our sheds.

Much of the day-to-day business of scientific bumble bee research turns out to be coming up with good ideas and then watching them fail. For example at one point Dave and his phd students reason that if dogs can be trained to sniff out drugs or explosives it should be possible to train them to find bumble bee nests. And so a couple of bumble bee sniffer dogs are expensively trained and paired with handlers. Although the dogs are able to demonstrate their skill in tests, when they actualy get out into the countryside they prove to be rather less good at finding bumble bee nests than their handlers. Effectively the sniffer dogs function as affable companions to human bee finders.

It would have been nice to have had a bumble bee identification chart so I knew which bee he was on about at any given time, but I guess you can look them up on the bumblebee trust website. And besides, Dave himself admits that some species can only really be told apart by cutting their toes off and sending them for DNA analysis.

The first and last chapters of the book deal with Dave's involvement in a project to reintroduce the short-haired bumble bee which has become extinct in Britain. I got quite excited a while ago when I spotted a story on the BBC, saying that these bees had been "successfully reintroduced". Unfortunately when I looked more closely this turned out to mean "haven't all died yet" rather than that a self-sustaining population had been estblished. Hang in there short haired bumble bees! And try not to go mouldy over winter...

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Friday, 16 August 2013

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I think it might have been Dr Johnson* who said that if you want to understand what nobody else does, you should read what everyone else is reading one year later. If, on the other hand you aspire to total cultural irrelevance, you should wait as long as I have waited to read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

In case you have forgotten in the intervening years, the book is set in a sort of alternative version of Regency England where magic has existed at one point, but the art has subsequently been lost. It is about two rival magicians who reinvent it: the dry-as-dust Mr Norrell and his sometime pupil the charming, cavalier Jonathan Strange.

So, about a decade ago my bookish friends either thought that this was the book the printing press was made for or over-long, over-hyped and impossible to finish. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Yes, it is very, very long. And most of the story seems to happen in the final 25% of the pages. But it's the kind of book you can loose yourself in.

And it's set in the Regency. In the time of Jane Austen and of Blackadder II. A time of fops and dandies and highwaymen! The Romantics! The Enlightenment! The era of Georgette Heyer's bodice rippers! I don't like to think of myself as a dreamy romantic but I think I have a bit of a thing for the Regency...

I like the way faeries are presented in the book; pitiless, inhuman creatures with powerful magic, driven by pride and vanity. Another aspect I enjoyed is the way that the Raven King, John Uskglass lurks in the backstory throughout the novel. A medieaval magician who ruled northern England then vanished abruptly leaving behind legends of his return. By the end we see that he has been manipulating the entire cast of the book in aid of political machinations in Faerie.

I think what I really liked about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is the fact that underneath it all the story is actually a bromance. The two main characters have a natural antipathy but eventually learn mutual appreciation. The world comes between them in the form of the Napoleonic wars, Strange's wife, malevolent faeries and Norrell's sychophantic hangers-on. In spite of all this, by the end of the book they are "chained together like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis"** but kind of loving it.

*One of very few historical characters from the Regency period not to feature in this novel.
**Thankyou, Mr Rimmer.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Just Put the Fracking Cheese Back and Nobody Gets Hurt

This week I have mostly been reading Who Moved My Cheese a self-help guide which is apparently An Amazing Way To Deal With Change In Your Life.

The book takes the form of a little parable about the inhabitants of a maze who live on the cheese they find in it. There are two mice, Sniff and Scurry who live by their simple mouse instincts, sniffing out new cheese and scurrying into action. Then there are two miniature humans who are encumbered by human thought patterns, expecting their cheese to go on forever and scared to venture out into the maze when their cheese supply runs out. One of the little people learns to laugh at himself for hanging around waiting for the cheese to come back and plucks up courage to venture back into the maze and start searching. Eventually he finds all manner of great new cheeses of types never encountered before.

It sounds patronising, but at it's not as bad as Paulo Coelho and at least it's short. The most appallingly-written part is the wraparound story about a bunch of people listening to the cheese parable and using it to deal with the changes going on in their lives but I guess no one reads self-help books for fully-realised characters.

On his way through the maze our tiny hero chalks up useful advice for anyone following him on the walls. My favourite was, "It is safer to search in the maze than remain in a cheeseless situation.". Very true. In contrast the least useful was,"What would you do if you weren't afraid?". Every time I try to answer that honestly I come up with something violent or unethical or just plain destructive. Basically, you should all thank your lucky stars that I am afraid.

Anyway, the advice is all very well but what about other people? None of the tiny people has tiny children looking up at them begging for cheese, or whining that the quest for new cheese has meant moving away from their friends. There are no spouses who carry on consuming cheese when there isn't any on cheesy credit cards (which are probably made of crackers). No one is an island and realising what you need to do does not necessarily make you free to do it. I have a horrible feeling that what you're meant to do is wheel out the cheese story and tell it to your family, employees or whatever. And I don't think that's going to wash this side of the atlantic. Not unless they're very easily led indeed.

In many ways the most interesting aspect of the is as an example at pacing and leading. These are rhetorical devices commonly used by hypnotists, politicians and other species of charlatan whereby you start with a statement everyone can agree with and slowly, step by step lead people by the nose into deeper, darker waters. One day I will use these techniques to write a self-help book of my own which will leave my victims, sorry, readers with a warm glow of empowerment and the overwelming urge to send me all their money. 

Monday, 30 January 2012


It seems like only yesterday I was enjoying youthful slang the older generation couldn't comprehend: phoning my 'rents, drinking pints of 'ken in student bars. Omg I used a lot of TLAs and had a rising intonation? Now I am on the outside and I have no idea whether the kids are alright because I don't understand a word:

A student I trained with at kung fu asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I was a software developer he said, "Aw, man, savage!". I don't even know whether that's good or bad!

Squealed by a youngster working in our sales dept, "Oooo, cool beans!". Makes me think of cold baked beans. Ugh...

From a conversation I overheard between two girls dressed like something out of Desperately Seeking Susan, "So, he's like, 'What's her complexion like?' And I'm like, 'Mmmm 'spretty vaz.'". WTF? Did I even hear that right?