10 January 2014

And a new one just begun

It’s that time of year where we try to set ourselves goals for the next 12 months. I have a profile on goodreads, but I’m a bit slack in updating my reading list, often I log on and find that I’ve read a few more books since I last looked at my ‘currently reading’ shelf. I then spend too much time trying to recall what I’ve read since, giving them a rating and occasionally a review.

There is on that site somewhere, a tick box where you can set yourself a target of how many books you hope to read for the year. I’ve always avoided this button, I can see trouble ahead.

I live in a house where three out of four of us want the television volume to be on an even number, if I had to choose a number of books, it would have to be a good round even number, such as 100. Now, that is a lot of books. Two a week (more or less).

If I was spending my mornings and evenings on the glorious London Underground and had a reasonably long journey, maybe, but I’m not. Taking in a holiday laying on a sunbed near a pool for a couple of weeks I could get the average up a bit, however last year didn’t do much laying around and reading. All-in-all I think I might struggle to hit my self imposed target.

And then quantity would rule quality, even if War and Peace could be counted as two books, it would be hard going to read it in a week, and so towards the end of the year I would be looking for short, easy-read books, consumed in a couple of days at the most, the prose barely registering on my brain.

Recently I downloaded a free ebook because… well it was free. What I have learned since getting a Kindle is that self-published free ebooks, almost without exception, need an editor or at the very least a proofreader, then again if they had those they wouldn't be free I know. This particular story read as if the writer had watched a lot of television detective series, took note of all the clichés, wrote out the couple of plots from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, tore them up and threw them up in the air and then wrote a first draft television movie script. There was something there, but it needed a lot more rewriting and, as I said, an editor. However, I read it in three tube journeys. and it would be one book ticked off my mythical list, but then does it come down to the number of pages or words? Would one Dickens equal two Ray Bradburys?

For this year I plan to finish my Anthony Price odyssey (and maybe The Iliad), re-read John le Carré’s Smiley novels (thanks to the BBC re-running Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and then hope that a couple of novels like Pure and Stoner fall into my lap like last year.

I’m not having a dry January either.


8 December 2013

She could set the place on fire

I recently consumed Fahrenheit 451 (on a Kindle, to be post-modern ironic), in this novel from 1950, Bradbury has society hiding behind front doors watching soap operas and game shows on wall-sized television screens, having little interaction with their neighbours. I’d read Dandelion Wine a few weeks before and Ray Bradbury’s nostalgia for his childhood of porch swings and new tennis shoes in the 1920s underpins Fahrenheit 451 just as much as the horror of book burning.

But if his vision has echoes in our 21st Century world, it seemed to me that we’ve already started the process of destroying our culture for future generations.

If you have, festering in the attic, a box of 35mm negatives or an old 8mm movie, even without a lightbox or a projector you will still be able to view the images embedded in the emulsion by holding them up to the window. With a good instruction book, a few tools and some spare parts I could imagine making a rudimentary projector or an enlarger. I developed black and white film at college and I’m sure that I could revive that particular skill. Those forgotten memories could be recovered with a little bit of knowledge and dexterity.

Still in that attic, in a damp mouldy cardboard box, will be some old children’s books and possibly some ancient football programmes. Once brought back down to civilisation, the printed words can be read, or if in a foreign language, translated with the aid of a modern day Rosetta Stone such as a Spanish/English dictionary.

That another box in the corner contains a selection of VHS tapes, permanent records of birthday parties, Christmas days and favourite television programmes from the 1980s. Hold those up to the light and see if that jogs your memory. I wouldn’t know where to begin if I had to build a video player, and imagine having to fabricate a monitor.

I link my Kindle to the laptop, open the folders and copy the electronic books onto the hard disk, from there I then ‘burn’ the files onto a disk. I file the disk on a shelf, confident that I’ve backed up my library and have safeguarded it from disaster. However, try and copy those files to another Kindle. Try and read that disk without a computer or DVD player. Hold that shiny piece of glass and plastic to the light.

We have access to Shakespeare because his plays were backed up onto technology that was future proof.

In a 1,000 years time society will either be more advanced and be able to construct whatever they would need to access our out-dated technology. Or, as is more likely, we’ve bombed ourselves back to the Stone Age, every word archived as 0s and 1s from Homer to Rowling will be lost.


Let’s keep the e-readers, smartphones and computers for convenience but keep a hard copy on our shelves. Just in case.

24 October 2013

You drink your coffee and I sip my tea

For the past few weeks I’ve been earning my crust not far from Dr Johnson’s house, and he would feel at home with all the coffee shops that are dotted in and around the area, although the coffee costs more that a penny nowadays. Most of these establishments are of the dastardly untrustworthy type; you know, the ones who forget to pay their taxes, but it seems that caffeine addiction is stronger and longer lasting than public moral outrage.

In a couple of million years time, archaeologists, probably alien archaeologists, will be excavating skeletons and scratching one of their two heads, puzzling as to why 21st Century man had their left arm permanently locked at a 90 degree angle, the hand frozen in an open grip. I understand why people want a decent cup of coffee in the morning although my addictions lie in a different direction, but why walk down the road carrying it in a waxed cardboard cup with a plastic lid?

Get up 20 minutes earlier, stroll down to the nearest café, sit down and drink from a china mug. Surely coffee tastes better if it’s not filtered through polystyrene. And as we all carry masses of technology around with us, you could get your coffee in a mug, sit down, check emails before going to the office and dare I say it: read. A free newspaper, a magazine or a book.

Most of us have to make an appearance at the coalface every morning and push our faces closer and closer to the grindstone, so why arrive rushed and stressed with half a litre of South America’s finest?

Earlier on this summer, I was keeping the wolves from my door near J M Barrie’s house, which meant that could spend lunchtimes in Kensington Gardens, spending half a hour in the sunshine reading, mainly of The Second World War or 1st Century Rome rather than of a boy who never grew up, instead of munching a Ready-to-Eat sandwich in front of the same computer screen that I’ve been staring at all morning.

Working on the cusp of The City of London where everybody is in a hurry and nobody has time to relax unless it’s outside a pub in the evening, and even then the smartphone is still in use, the laptop available. So I think it’s time to expand my Railway Station Lending Libraries idea to include Coffee Shops in the scheme to encourage harassed workers to sit and read a bit of Ray Bradbury in the morning while sipping a frothy coffee. I’ll be the one in the corner with the green tea and a Kindle.


5 October 2013

City of the Dead

On a recent visit to Paris, eschewing the usual tourist attractions we ended up spending the day with the dead. A bright, sunny Sunday morning found us in a queue (much against my pathological hatred of queuing, in fact my loathing of queues and the British acquiesce of standing in a neat line would have The Daily Mail apoplectic and demanding my deportation), waiting for the unimposing doors to open to the Catacombs of Paris. With visitor numbers limited and over a hundred steps down to the tunnels we slowly shuffled forward until we eventually descended to the cool, damp channels. After an hour or so of winding our way around passageways lined with bones and skulls we made our way back up to street level.

Back in London, a friend suggested that we read Pure by Andrew Miller. With a quick click I was spending my bus journey to work deep in the depths of the clearing of Les Innocents cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris. I had joked on Twitter that as I was on my way to Paris I was torn between Down and Out in Paris and London or A Tale of Two Cities for the train journey. It should have been Pure.

Fictional it might be, but cemeteries were cleared, bones were transferred to the abandoned and unused limestone mines. With storm clouds gathering on the horizon throughout the narrative, set just before the revolution, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is given the gruesome task of clearing away the past, and preparing it for the future. A visit to the Fontaine des Innocents would have been on the agenda if I’d read Pure before rather than after.

The afternoon of the same day was spent above ground. In Père Lachaise Cemetery. The monuments, some of them more like mini cathedrals, were incredible, a complete contrast with our morning’s trek under the streets. Oscar Wilde’s grave was protected by perspex, which is disappointing, apparently people were kissing the monument and the oil in lipstick was damaging the stone. Why? Does Wilde’s prose enflame such passion that only a trip to Paris and a snog with a gravestone will quell it? And how many people went home and read The Picture of Dorian Gray? Or is Wilde’s fame beyond his literary legacy?

Robert Harris’s new novel, An Officer and a Spy was all over the media when we came back to the real world. We had visited the École Militaire before boarding the Eurostar and had read of the Dreyfus Affair in the exhibition of French Military history. Serendipity. Another book for my Paris list.

L'empire de la mort, Paris, Catacombs, Pure

Skull, Catacombs, Paris, Pure

Skull, Paris, Pure


Oscar Wilde, kiss, lipstick, Père Lachaise, graveParis, Robert Harris, Dreyfus Affair




23 August 2013

Orange is the Colour

The new football season has started, therefore it’s the beginning of the nine months or so of travelling across London every other week to watch 22 over-paid, pampered, spoilt millionaires with the constitution of a newborn rabbit with osteomalacia.

Mingling with Neanderthal thugs on the tube, enduring their racist, sexist, violent chanting. Avoiding the away fans, as they are liable to slice your ears off and feed them to their children.

Drinking over-priced watered down continental lager while nibbling on a processed horse burger. Paying for the privilege of attending using our benefits or undeclared, untaxed earnings before going home and kicking the cat if our team has lost or knocking back another ten pints if we’ve won.

The first game of the season, like the first pint is the best. The crowd, no matter whom they support is full of optimism, maybe this year will be our year. And as this game takes place in August, with a bit of luck the sun is shining, Sky and the Premier League haven’t colluded to shift the kick-off time to around midnight then we can stroll to the game in shirtsleeves (well obviously I mean our nylon replica kits or offensive t-shirts).

With keys and ‘phone in one pocket and wallet containing an Oyster Card, enough money for fifteen pints and my season ticket (more of a credit card than a ticket nowadays) in the other, I was left with a dilemma; my Kindle doesn’t fit into my back pocket, despite the glossy TV ads, so I picked up an Airey Neave account of his wartime exploits, particularly escaping from Colditz, but it’s a fairly new paperback (2006) and was as wide as the Kindle. As I was walking out of the door, I grabbed Carry On, Jeeves (Penguin Books 1957) and as it was designed to, fitted it into my back pocket.

Sitting on the comfortable, air-conditioned Overground train on route to West London, I dipped into P G Wodehouse for the first time. I’d bought the paperback from a second-hand shop because it was a 1950s Penguin with the classic orange cover with a white panel, 2/6 on the outside, £1.50 on the inner. For some reason I’ve never read P G Wodehouse, I’ve not avoided or boycotted him we’ve just not crossed paths.

Very funny, lovely prose, I love the way Jeeves never walks into a room, he flows or glides or just appears. I had time to read a few stories on my way to the match, and even after 25 pints of Punchenberg Lager was able to focus and read a few more on the way back, including a description of Bertie Wooster’s exploits on Boat Race Night which ended up with He and his chum up in court the next morning.

As I left the station I tucked the book back into my pocket (shifting the Stanley knife and rolled up newspaper to the side to make room) and went back to my (increasingly) middle class life having spent the afternoon in a working class pursuit while reading of the upper class world of the early 20th Century.


By the way it was 2-0, What Ho!

Jeeves, Wooster, Wodehouse, Penguin