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Darkest Peru

19 June, 2014 at 10:39 pm by belgianwaffle

One of the nicest things about travelling by train is that the free travel scheme means that there is always a good sprinkling of pensioners which is nice in itself but also they bring out the best in students (the other hardy perennials on the train) who are always very polite to them and help them with their bags and generally restore your faith in humanity.

Anyhow, I was on the train up from Cork on a Saturday and three elderly gentlemen, travelling separately fell into conversation about a hurling match between Limerick and Tipperary. One of them was a priest and one of the other men asked him whether he had ever been on the missions at all. He had – 12 years in Korea and 30 in Peru from which he had lately retired. Did he know the two girls who were arrested for drug smuggling? He did indeed, had spoken to them several times. He also opined that the prison where they were serving their sentence was one of the better ones in Peru, he having visited several others for many years. As Fr. Brown says, you can’t be a priest without knowing quite a bit about human depravity. Many anecdotes followed – the lives on other inmates, the altar boy who showed him a local remedy for swelling, how to handle snakes with a stick on the way to school – but my favourite related to Brazil.

One of the other men had visited South America and travelled around (our pensioners, an adventurous bunch) and asked the priest about Manaus. He had been there, he had much to say about the rubber trade. One interesting thing was that the ships transporting rubber had to take rocks back to Manaus as ballast. The last place they passed through was Cork and so all this Cork rock ended up in Brazil. He said that the opera house in Manaus is built from Clonakilty stone. I don’t know whether this is true, but I really hope so.

Here endeth the lesson.

Some Thoughts on High Finance

4 April, 2014 at 10:37 pm by belgianwaffle

Stay with me here, alright?

I was talking to my sister recently about her friend who is very bright and asked, “Did she come first in your class in college?”
“No,” said my sister, “in our class it was only really a fight for second place because we had Joe Soap in our class. He was the cleverest man, I ever met. It felt like he was only going to lectures to be polite to the lecturers.”
“What did he do after?”
“He went to Oxford and did a PhD in Chemistry but then he decided Chemistry wasn’t for him. We were all a bit depressed when we heard because, honestly, if Chemistry wasn’t for Joe Soap then it really wasn’t for anyone.”
“So what’s he doing now?”
“Oh, he’s a banker in the City of London.”

And it just struck me that the rewards associated with international finance do attract super-smart people who are used to being right and being the brightest people in the room. Do you think that makes it likely that they would accept that it’s all their fault if something goes wrong or that they would respect the regulatory authorities?

Sample size 1 as a colleague says when I produce these kinds of things but still.

I think I might go back and re-read my copy of “The Best and the Brightest“.

And What a First World Problem This Is or Zeitgeist, I Suppose

2 April, 2014 at 10:34 pm by belgianwaffle

Roisín Ingle is a journalist with the Irish Times. On Saturdays she writes a personal column.

Whenever I do something she seems to do it after and then write about it as though it were a brand new experience. On a large scale: I had twins, then she had twins. On a smaller scale: I read “The One Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out of a Window and Disappeared” for my bookclub and she read it for her bookclub; my children had lice; her children have had lice since Christmas.

Unreasonably, I concede, I find this mildly annoying. It is particularly unreasonable in the case of that book because every bookclub in the country read it. But yet.

I remember, years ago, reading about some woman who was dreading Mary Kenny having grandchildren. Said she, “She always does things just after me and somehow she always does them that bit better.” I suppose I should be grateful that Roisín Ingle’s approach is self-deprecatory. But yet, I am not.

The Classics Summarised

28 March, 2014 at 9:28 pm by belgianwaffle

We’re having a “Pride and Prejudice” moment here. You may recall that we went to see a play before Christmas and herself has read the novel. We saw the film with Keira Knightly. Mr. Waffle brought home the BBC series from the library and the Princess and I watched it together.

During that last, rather lengthy, process over several evenings, Michael annoyed us both by looking up briefly from playing on my phone [or “our phone” as he calls it] and saying, “So, Pride and Prejudice is basically about a bunch of girls who get married?”


23 March, 2014 at 10:03 pm by belgianwaffle

“Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg

This is not bad but it is very particular to Ms. Sandberg’s experience which, I suppose, is fair enough but it’s not everybody’s. One example she gives of women failing to seize opportunity is when they don’t sit at the table but meekly go to the chairs in the row behind. Someone did that to me at work the other day actually and I said to her afterwards, “Why didn’t you sit at the table?” and she said that she was worried there wouldn’t be room. Which is exactly the kind of thing Ms. Sandberg points to so maybe there is some universality there after all. I wouldn’t bother buying the book, if you’ve seen the TED talk. Apparently they’re going to make a film as well.

“The Brightest Star in the Sky” by Marian Keyes

I am quite fond of Marian Keyes. This is not her best work but it’s not too shabby either as my sister-in-law would say. Romantic comedy with a gloomy strip in the middle which reflects the author’s ongoing struggle with depression.

“Death of a Prankster”, “Death of a Sweep”, “Death of a Kingfisher”, “Death of a Dreamer”, “Death of a Valentine”, “Death of a Maid”, “A Highland Christmas” and “Death of a Snob” all by MC Beaton

This is utterly humiliating. I read my first MC Beaton with a sneer of disdain and asked my sister how she could bear to read anything so poorly written. It has since become clear to me that I am addicted and I am likely to read them all. They are all the same: Highland policeman in small area with alarmingly high murder rate is smarter than big city cops. Also has a lovelife in a small way. Has been in his early 30s since 1988 or possibly before. I suspect that if you are Scottish these stories are excruciating. I understand that they have been made into a television series with Robert Carlyle which I am quite pathetically keen to see.

“A Blink of the Screen” by Terry Pratchett

I am a bit Terry Pratchett fan but I wouldn’t recommend this. It is collected snippets from all sorts of places; something he wrote when he was 15, something from the back of a catalogue for a Discworld event, various miscellanea. All a bit underwhelming.

“Mutton” by India Knight

As in “dressed as lamb”. I haven’t read anything by India Knight before and this does have the occasional very funny turn of phrase. It’s about a woman in her 40s and her various romantic entanglements and whether it’s worth the effort (surgery, botox, cosmetic dentistry, living on air) to look as young as humanly possible. Some interesting ideas and good lines but it’s only alright in terms of character and plot.

“The Spinning Heart” by Donal Ryan

I think that everyone in Ireland has probably read this book. It’s the author’s first published work. It is dark and gloomy in a very small town Irish way; think Patrick McCabe or Ardal O’Hanlon’s underrated “Talk of the Town” – not funny at all, despite what you might think. I find this kind of small town Irish gloom a bit claustrophobic and the author’s plotting leaves a bit to be desired; it reads more like a series of short stories than a novel. That said, the writing is amazing and the characterisation outstanding (though rather too many characters). I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to try book two though.

“Anansi Boys” by Neil Gaiman

This is about twin brothers whose father is a spider god. If this is your kind of thing, this isn’t bad and it’s quite funny in places.

“The Man who Forgot his Wife” by John O’Farrell

Ever since I’ve read “Things Can Only Get Better” by this author, I have had a soft spot for him. That is an outstanding book. It’s a hilarious account of the life of a Labour supporter when the Tories ruled the roost. This book is not hilarious. The plot is clever. Essentially, a man who is divorcing his wife forgets everything and falls in love with her all over again. It is not done in a Hollywood fashion though. It has its moments but the lead character is unbearable, even to himself, as he starts to remember and its hard to care too much or to want the wife to take him back which – spoiler alert – she does.

The Fifth Wave” by Rick Yancey

A scifi offering which I would not recommend.

“If I Could Turn Back Time” by Nicola Doherty

Just because I am related to the author doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant. I read it at home while sick in my bed with a cold and it was very enjoyable.

“How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff

I really enjoyed this book for teenagers set in the near future after a war has cut off communications and food supplies. Our heroine is an American staying with cousins in England and the cultural contrast works well alongside the drama of the invasion.

“Trooper to the Southern Cross” by Angela Thirkell

I love Angela Thirkell but this was a bit different from her usual offering. It was originally written under a male pseudonym. It was based on her experience of travelling to Australia on a troop ship after the war. Not an experience which I think she found enjoyable. She is very hard on the character modelled on her husband and she is quite hard on herself. It makes me think that all of that home counties comedy comes from quite a sharp and, sometimes, unpleasant individual. Worth a read, though while there are comic moments, it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs and is sometimes actively unpleasant

“Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel

I quite enjoyed “Wolf Hall” and I was looking forward to this. I did enjoy it but I thought it was less successful than its predecessor (which was, itself, too long). I felt that Cromwell becomes less and less believable as she crafts him into a modern-day liberal saint. She is too in love with the character and while she can’t be blind to his defects (given that he has been a villain for hundreds of years) she dwells too much on his virtues. She makes him a character out of time rather than of his time. That said, I’m still going to read volume 3 when it comes out.

“Longbourne” by Jo Baker

This is quite a clever concept: the re-imagining of “Pride and Prejudice” from the servants’ point of view. I don’t think that it quite came off. The language was a bit hit and miss and it could be quite anachronistic in places. A quick flick through brings me to “those God-awful public dances” and there are quite a few expressions like that which jar. Well plotted though and certainly an insight into the rather grim lives of servants.

“Labyrinth” by Kate Mosse

I was bitterly disappointed by this book. There was a time when everyone seemed to be reading it and when I saw it in the library I thought it might be enjoyable. It’s a novel about the Cathars set in the present and in the 12th century. It isn’t fish or flesh. It’s certainly not literary fiction but its plot didn’t draw me in and drive me on. It’s mildly interesting on the historical fact front. I had heard of the Albigensian heresy, but I didn’t know much of the detail of the brutal repression. I asked my father (who knows everything) about it and he knew the story of the Dominican who killed everyone in a town, men, women and children and heretic and Christian alike on the basis that “God would recognise his own” which even by the standards of the time was considered memorably excessive. But I wasn’t really in the market for history by novel. Also, I continue to be amused by the automatic reaction that the word Jesuit inspires in the UK (creepy, untrustworthy) as against the automatic reaction here and I suspect in other traditionally Catholic countries (the Jesuits, so intellectual, so well got in the Church etc., having a Jesuit in the family used to mean that you are clever and quite possibly well connected also).

“The Examined Life” by Stephen Grosz

The author is a psychoanalyst and these are case histories. If this is what psychoanalysis is really like then it seems to be making a plausible guess at what triggered the problem and saying that this is the solution. It does not seem very scientific to me. Nevertheless, a very enjoyable and interesting read although it put me right off ever going to a psychoanalyst.

“Dear Life” by Alice Munro

This post is nearly as long as an Alice Munro short story at this stage. I really enjoyed this collection. I had read some of her work in the past and found it tough going but I found this collection drew me back again and again and I was putting aside other things to read it. I am not sure whether her style has changed or whether I like her better now that I am older. These short stories are all sad. They are slices of life and although things happen, that is not really the point. She is superb at drawing characters; not necessarily very nice or appealing characters but convincing ones. She writes beautifully. Well worth a read.

“For Who the Bell Tolls” by David Marsh

A book about grammar from the Guardian’s production editor. Not bad, if you like grammar books which, sadly, I do a bit.

“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

This was recommended to me by Town Mouse. It was a brilliant recommendation. If you are busy thinking perhaps there is something in this brain science about difference between men’s and women’s brains and map reading, then this is the book for you. The author goes through the research and unpicks it or points to where it is being used to sustain conclusions which give the researchers themselves palpitations. The conclusion is that the science of looking at brains is in its infancy and we are reading far, far, too much into the limited results we have to date. It’s all done in a thorough and entertaining style. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Too Soon?

6 February, 2014 at 10:48 pm by belgianwaffle

Herself has possibly started on a life of Georgette Heyer consumption. I started her off on “Arabella” and she progressed to “The Foundling”. Are these good choices? I remember I was a little older than her when I read “The Reluctant Widow” on holidays. I was desperate for something to read and I can remember sitting around the back of the tent, near the hedge, reading away while jobs were being doled out at the front. I cannot tell you how surprised I was when the hero and heroine married. “But she hated him.”

Books of the Year 2013

31 January, 2014 at 10:15 pm by belgianwaffle

This is only slightly belated. I nominate the following as the best books I read in 2013. [Obviously, my sister-law’s new book was the best read of 2013 but not listing for fear of an assumption of prejudice]. Here are the others in order of merit:

“Castlereagh” by John Bew
“Family Romance” by John Lanchester
“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua
“The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family” by Selina Guinness
“High Rising” by Angela Thirkell
“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson

I am absolutely astounded how much non-fiction features on the list, since I read a lot more fiction. I am, perhaps, more discriminating in my non-fiction choices. More detailed reviews below.

“Castlereagh” by John Bew

As you know, of course [as our paediatrician in Belgium used to say] Castlereagh was British foreign secretary during the Napoleonic wars and enjoys the unusual distinction of having a dismal reputation in both Ireland and England. When I mentioned to my father that I was reading a book on Castlereagh, the very first thing he said was “I met Murder on the way/ He had a face like Castlereagh” – this is also quoted on the dust jacket of the book [being immortalised by a romantic poet – Shelley in this case – is not always all it’s cut out to be], so Castlereagh is clearly a man in need of a revisionist biography. Cometh the hour, cometh the brilliant young historian. Step forward Dr. Bew.

The early part of this book deals with how Castlereagh grew up in an atmosphere of liberal Presbyterianism. I must say, I was singularly ignorant of this aspect of Presbyterianism and if you’d asked me for a list of words to sum up this religion, liberal would have been quite a lot further down the list than, say, dour. So, I was fascinated – a whole aspect of Northern Ireland opened up to my interested gaze. And then it moves to 1798; anyone who went to school in the republic of Ireland has learnt about 1798 as the uprising that really almost succeeded. It was rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant with the aid of the glorious French republic about to overthrow the oppressor’s yoke etc. etc. Castlereagh was active in suppressing the rebellion and then, for good measure, steered through the Act of Union after which dissolved the Irish Parliament and was a terrible blow for Dublin and Ireland. So not a popular figure in school history and, to be fair, revisionist or not, there is much in Bew’s description of Castlereagh’s conduct that makes him seem pretty unpleasant. That said, according to Bew [and he has lots of sources] Castlereagh genuinely believed that the Act of Union would bring about catholic emancipation which would have certainly been a huge achievement. The rest of the book adduces a fair amount of evidence that this was something that Castlereagh attempted to achieve throughout his career in the measure he could without rocking the boat.

This first part is full of great quotes about Ireland and the Irish parliament which, regrettably, could still be used today. End of Part I. The book is subtitled “Enlightenment, War and Tyranny”. At this point, I did feel that the repression of the 1798 rebellion was pushing it under the “Enlightenment” heading.

The second part of the book (war) deals with the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna. It begins by discussing Castlereagh and Wellington’s relationship in the course of the Napoleonic Wars and this remains a theme. The author points out that they were both Irish men born in Dublin in the same year. They also both became MPs in the Irish House of Parliament in the 1790s and knew each other well from Dublin. While I knew that Wellington and Castlereagh were both Irish, I hadn’t really given much thought to how this influenced their views on each other and helped their relationship to develop. It is odd to think of that epic contest of England and France being led on the English side by two Irish men. But, I suspect that they didn’t think of themselves as Irish men first. I wonder whether Castlereagh had an Irish accent though. I suspect he did because he went to school in Armagh. The bit on the Congress of Vienna is very interesting despite the fact that I had the slenderest grasp of its aims and conclusions before beginning to read it. This is the high point of Castlereagh’s career and he performed brilliantly. I am fascinated by how he resisted the idea of war reparations from France (in the face of stiff Prussian opposition – watch this space in 1870/1914) and how he wanted France to be a strong power. He wasn’t entirely motivated by noble disinterest. He wanted a strong France to ensure a balance of power in Europe and he was nervous about Russia’s influence.

Part III (the tyranny bit) sees him back in England hugely popular after his successes but becoming rapidly unpopular. Budgetary worries were a big issue. The war was very expensive. Pitt, famously, introduced income tax to pay for war with France in 1799 and people were not absolutely delighted to see it still knocking around in 1816 (only for a few more years they were told – oh how we laughed).

He was pretty down on radicals but, to be fair, his personal safety was regularly and alarmingly threatened by the mob and his experience of 1798 and views on the French revolution influenced his thinking throughout his life. Castlereagh did not always cover himself in glory. In Peterloo yeomen killed 11 and injured hundreds of others in an unarmed, non-violent crowd listening to a radical speaker. Our author gives a weak defence of Castlereagh’s position on this:

‘Peterloo’..was indefensible; the protest had been entirely peaceful. Castlereagh himself did not bear any personal responsibility for the atrocity. Indeed he was deeply troubled by the outcome of the event. But as the government’s spokesman in the Commons it fell to him to justify the conduct of the local magistracy and yeomanry to an outraged public.’

Castlereagh was very shaken by the Cato Street plot as well he might have been but the revolutionaries seem to have been, like many good revolutionaries, a bit short on the implementation strand of their plot.

Thistlewood hoped that the assassination of the cabinet would be a spur for a general uprising and [it was later revealed] that they planned to display the decapitated heads on Westminster Bridge as a signal for national uprising….On the morning of the plot, Thistlewood worte a manifesto for the public in preparation for the national uprising: ‘Your tyrants are destroyed. The friends of liberty are called upon to come forward. The provisional government is now sitting.’

As you might imagine, this did not end well for the revolutionaries.

[Spoiler alert] In the end, Castlereagh goes mad and cuts his throat. The author does convince that this was a man doing his duty according to his lights. His constant concern was to steady the ship of state and act in the United Kingdom’s best interests. To modern eyes, and even to many contemporary eyes, his position on radicalism and slavery are entirely indefensible but the author does a great job of putting these in the context which Castlereagh would have seen them.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, if you are at all interested in the period. One quibble is that the Quercus edition I read is full of typos. I don’t normally tend to notice this kind of thing but some of these were fairly egregious [the word whig substituted for wig, for example – obviously both Whigs and wigs feature in the text]. I think there’s an OUP edition available and, if I were you, I would go for that.

“Family Romance” by John Lanchester

This is a family biography by one of the last children of the empire. His father was born and grew up in the far east and so did he. His mother was Irish. Usually in these kinds of stories, the Irish mother is Anglo-Irish but this woman was not and he was clearly fascinated by her. She was born into a poorish farming family in the West of Ireland. She spent many years in a convent (before emerging and marrying his father) and he spends much of the book looking at her life and motivations. It’s an insider’s outsider view of an Irish life and, for an Irish person, a really fascinating slightly disorientating view. At the centre of the book (spoiler alert) is the fact that his mother lied to his father about her age. I think that this is viewed by Irish people and English people in quite a different way. He is appalled by this and worries about the affect of this life of deceit on her. But Irish people have a long tradition of lying about their age. When the state pension came in, there were armies of people who changed their age. My own great aunt’s age was only known when she began drawing the pension having seen no need to tell people (including her husband) that she was nearing 50 when she married.

It made me determined to write down as much as I know about the history of my own family. Written so far: nothing.

“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua

This is about a very ambitious mother and her very bright daughters and the contrast between the Western and Chinese ways of doing things. I found it very entertaining. As did the Princess and Mr. Waffle. Recommended all round.

“The Crocodile by the Door: The Story of a House, a Farm and a Family” by Selina Guinness

I really liked this book. I think it’s very well written and quite touching. It’s about a suburban girl who ends up, by degrees, owning her family’s big house and their farm, in the Dublin mountains. She is related to the Guinnesses but her family is the cadet branch and has no share in the brewing fortune. I was astounded that it divided our book club. I was in the minority. The majority didn’t like it much and found the author patronising and the book not particularly interesting though competently written. You’ll have to make up your own mind. For what it’s worth, I would recommend it very strongly and it is possibly the only book which my mother-in-law and I have both enjoyed.

“High Rising” by Angela Thirkell

These is a social comedy written and set in the 1930s. I found it great fun – nicely written and gently amusing. Did I welcome the fact that the character known as “the incubus” was Irish and had a mother stashed away in County Cork? Not entirely perhaps but I rose above it. She reminds me a bit of Stella Gibbons and Barbara Pym but not as sharp as either; a much more restful read though. Delighted to see that there are 28 of these books in the series (this is book 1). I intend to read them all. How wonderful to find a new writer to enjoy and see that she has a hefty back catalogue.

“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson

I have read all of Kate Atkinson’s books and I think that she is a terrific writer. That said, this got off to a slow start. It’s about getting a chance to live your life again and again and doing things differently to make it better next time. It’s a clever premise and it’s very well done. While this is still a very good book, it’s my least favourite of her books after “Not the End of the World” [short stories] and “Emotionally Weird”.

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