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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”.

Do you mind if I say something to you?

30 January, 2014 at 10:03 pm by belgianwaffle

These words rarely bring good news. I am tired of acquaintances and, indeed, strangers, telling me to wear a helmet on my bike. It is hard to rehearse the pros and cons of this argument with a passer-by. If people would stop telling me that my handbag will be stolen because I have it in my basket, that would also be welcome. During a lifetime of cycling, including in rough parts of the city, no one has ever tried to pinch my bag and nor have I heard of anyone ever having a bag stolen in these circumstances. Do me the credit of thinking that I have considered the risks and it’s a chance I am prepared to take. Or as I say to my nearest and dearest, “Have you idiot-proofed that suggestion?”

The other day, as I was shepherding the children out of our local cafe, a woman approached me, “Do you mind, if I say something to you?” I tensed up. “You have a lovely way with your children.” This is quite the nicest thing a stranger has ever said to me. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

Do share the most annoying thing that people say to you.

Stuff

29 January, 2014 at 11:48 pm by belgianwaffle

My siblings pressed upon me a random collection of children’s books which they gathered up at our parents’ house in Cork. They included the very popular Krazy annual.

This is a source of fascination to our childminder as it dates from the year before she was born.

There was also an illustrated “Bible for Children” which my mother used to read every night. My brother repeatedly begged to hear about the plagues, so there was quite a focus on locusts and rivers of blood in our bedtime stories which is, I feel, unusual. It was funny to look through the old and very familiar 70s pictures. Herself picked up the book and read it through. At the end, she announced that the Bible should be over 18s. She doesn’t approve of the story of Bathsheba. Indeed, who would?

Catastrophe

28 January, 2014 at 11:26 pm by belgianwaffle

I have two parents and between them, they have broken 3 hips since last March. My poor mother broke her second early on Friday morning. Now that I am a veteran of the procedure, I am no longer appalled that she and my brother spent 12 hours in A&E before she got onto a ward [Is it worth pointing out that she and my father have what our Minister for Finance calls “gold plated” health insurance?]. Since both of the last hips were broken on bank holiday weekends, that meant it was days before the operation. This time, my mother had her operation on Saturday after being admitted just after midnight on Friday night which was pretty good going. My brother and sister who are both in Cork have been visiting and minding but I was down at the weekend and although it was good for me to see her, the benefit to the patient was pretty negligible as she was still sleeping after the operation for all of my time there.

I am becoming very familiar with the hospitals in Cork. I particularly enjoy the disembodied English voice at the main entrance to the University Hospita which tells visitors to sanitise their hands. It also says, vainly, to the smokers in their dressing gowns who are sucking on their cigarettes in the wind tunnel nearby that “This is a smoke free campus.” Then acknowledging reality it goes on to add sternly, “Your smoke is disturbing patients in the cardiac and cancer wings overhead.” Frankly, I would be surprised, if this were the case, given the chill wind whistling though the underpass where the smokers huddle.

I fear my mother’s recovery from this will be long and slow. Alas. Cheerful broken hip stories in the comments please.

Aging Gracefully

19 January, 2014 at 9:34 pm by belgianwaffle

My esteemed father-in-law, retired captain of industry, was 70 today. He celebrated by running around Howth head. I am not joking. He won his race category but, as he pointed out, since there were only two people in the category, this was not as great a victory as it might seem.

Herself made buns to celebrate:

Oh Dear

11 January, 2014 at 10:08 pm by belgianwaffle

Herself: The teacher asked how many degrees there were in a circle today.
Me: Oh right, you’ve been doing the circle for a while now.
Herself: Yes, and [boy] said, ‘What size is the circle?’
Me: Did the teacher cry?
Herself: She was crying inside.

Basking in Reflected Glory

10 January, 2014 at 10:12 pm by belgianwaffle

One Sunday, the Princess did a second reading, Mr. Waffle did a bit at the start of mass and all the children did prayers of the faithful. I didn’t do anything, though, as Mr. Waffle pointed out, “We’re not the ones who need practice with our public speaking.”

As Mr. Waffle was doing his bit, a neighbour in the seat behind poked me in the ribs and said, “He’d be perfect for RTE.” I assume, a compliment. The American priest said mass; we’re getting used to him. At the end, he singled out herself for particular praise, “I would like to compliment the young lady who read the second reading; it’s a difficult text and she read it beautifully.” Everybody dutifully clapped and herself was mortified, though pleased. This kind of announcement in the church is, of course, the kind of thing I normally despise but, like many another thing, it’s never so bad when you’re involved yourself.

I think I have reached the high water mark in church engagement. From here, it’s all downhill. Indeed, Michael has recently begun pumping the air when the priest says “Mass is ended” which is unwelcome.

Messages

9 January, 2014 at 9:33 pm by belgianwaffle

People who add items to the shopping list in this house have plenty of opinions:

Small test, see if you can guess what the item that looks like “unandell” might be.

Not Touching

8 January, 2014 at 10:05 pm by belgianwaffle

Herself: What is your life expectancy?
Me: I don’t know. Don’t worry, it’s really long.
Herself: What exactly?
Me: It’s an average, you know, I could live longer than my life expectancy.
Herself: But what is it?
Me: Maybe 80.
Herself: You’re not middle-aged any more then.

Touching

7 January, 2014 at 10:03 pm by belgianwaffle

Mr. Waffle came home from football with a nasty cut on his arm from a fall on the astroturf. Daniel asked anxiously whether the physio had been called on to the pitch.

After Sales Service

6 January, 2014 at 9:53 pm by belgianwaffle

I was chatting to a woman whose father used to work as an engineer at Ardnacrusha recently. This is Ireland’s most famous engineering project – so famous there is even a great, almost Soviet style picture of its construction. She tells me that Siemens still sent a man over from Germany to check on it every year when her father was working there in the 70s and 80s and, for all we know, they still do today.

She also told me that at 10 he showed her how to float concrete. Whatever floats your boat and all that.

Contraband

5 January, 2014 at 11:51 pm by belgianwaffle

A friend asked me for book recommendations for her great nephew who is the same age as Michael and Daniel. I consulted with the boys. They had somewhat different recommendations but top of the list for both was Captain Underpants. I reported this back. My friend told the boy’s mother who said, “No thank you, my son has a reading age of 12 and doesn’t need to be reading about farts and poo.” I was sorry all round – sorry for the little boy and sorry for my friend and sorry for me. The boys inquired whether the Captain Underpants had gone down well and I told them my tale of woe. Michael pointed out anxiously that one of the books which features Dr. Poopy Pants has very little farting but I felt that he was missing the point. He took it very much to heart. The next time he saw my friend, he took her aside and whispered in her ear, “I can give you my Captain Underpants books and you can smuggle them to your nephew.”

Tell me, do you have small boys in your house? Where do you stand on the question of the wonderfulness of Captain Underpants? A google search tells me that the internet is somewhat divided.

Like a Fine Wine etc.

4 January, 2014 at 11:48 pm by belgianwaffle

Daniel and Michael are reading the Narnia books and they are using the editions I got myself at their age which are falling to pieces due to extensive re-reading over the years. Michael asked me whether they were valuable. “No,” I said, “they’re not first editions or anything, why do you ask?” “It’s just that, if you had them when you were a child they must be really old.”

That’s right, that’s why they’re printed on vellum.

Related: Michael is on “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and has taken to running around the house shouting “poop deck, poop deck!” See how each generation gets new meaning from these books?

Windy

3 January, 2014 at 2:09 pm by belgianwaffle

Yesterday we went up to the Dublin mountains for a walk amid howls of dismay from the boys. They always object vociferously but they always seem to enjoy it when they get there. It was very windy at the top.

But sunny:

If a bit boggy:

We ran into one of the boys’ classmates who was out walking with his parents and brothers. The boys were all rather muted. “Was it strange to meet Eoghan here?” I asked. “Yes,” said Michael and he didn’t shout and say rude poems like he does in school.”

We went to Johnny Fox’s for lunch, possibly the most touristy place in Ireland outside Killarney. The walls are bedecked with photos of bemused visiting dignitaries as the protocol division of the Department of Foreign Affairs has clearly decided that no head of state can visit Ireland without taking in a trip to Johnny Fox’s. There were, however, two notable exceptions: there was no Barack Obama (although there was a picture of the owner’s niece having a pint with him in some other public house) and no Queen Elizabeth. On the plus side the Queen’s private secretary had written a letter saying how much she regretted not being able to take part in a “hooley night” in Johnny Fox’s. Quite.

Music to his Ears

2 January, 2014 at 11:45 pm by belgianwaffle

Herself: Do you remember that Peanuts cartoon when Schroeder knows all about Beethoven?
Michael: Yes, he knows his date of birth and death and all the things he did in his life.
Daniel: Yes, like how he made himself deaf from listening to his own music.

Happy New Year

1 January, 2014 at 11:39 pm by belgianwaffle

How have we been since December 24 you ask?

The Princess was very keen to go to midnight mass (at 9 on Christmas Eve) to sing with her choir. I wanted us all to go together but felt it was too late for the boys. She promised faithfully to go to mass again on Christmas day with all the family so herself and Mr. Waffle went to mass on Christmas Eve and she sang a verse of “Away in a Manger” on her own and she was delighted with herself. On Christmas Day, she dutifully went to mass again (as did her saintly father). The choir were given the day off in recompense for the night before so it was just the organist and the choir director who sang solo. The director spotted herself and asked her to do a reprise of her “Away in a Manger” after communion: “Do the first verse and we’ll see how you’re doing after that.” So away she went. The organist accompanied her quite brilliantly; speeding up and slowing down as necessary. To be fair to the Princess, she sang clearly and in tune. After mass, a number of people congratulated me on her performance including one woman who said that the Princess “made the mass”. A comment which was, theologically, probably not entirely appropriate but was nonetheless very welcome to the singer’s mother.

The presents went down well and Santa played a blinder. Daniel in particular was delighted with his Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 which he had described as “urgent” on his Christmas list. Michael got a bop it which is a strangely compelling toy. Mr. Waffle has banned its use in the car. The Princess got a zoomer which is an electronic voice activated puppy. Like Siri, I think he is less comfortable with Irish accents than English or American ones. I heard her say repeatedly to Zoomer “Sit, sit, sit.” She achieved varying results. As he lay on his tummy at one point, I heard her say “That’s grand Zoomer” which I’d say was fairly baffling to Zoomer. She also got “The Screwtape Letters” at her request. On Christmas day, she said, “I feel bad going to mass after starting to read that book.” I pointed out that it was not a manual but a system of warnings. “Oh,” said she. This is clearly going to end well.

On the food front, those who said that turkey is a big chicken were right. It was all pretty painless though, oh Lord, there is a lot of it and my parents-in-law who came to us for Christmas dinner are not heavy eaters.

On the 26th we went orienteering with the cousins. It was a beautiful day and very sunny though icy.

It made a pleasant contrast to our trip last year when the weather was, frankly, inclement. Oh yes, a happy memory:

We have just returned from a trip to Cork where we stayed in our saintly friends’ house again – they were in Spain for Christmas so we moved in. We went down on the 27th amid apocalyptic storm warnings but all was well.

There were many more presents in Cork including a Skylanders swap it set which the boys played almost constantly. The highlight for the Princess was probably a trip to the ice rink. A year of roller blading means that she is better than all the rest of us combined on the ice. The boys enjoyed it somewhat less.

We found a dead dolphin on the beach (not included in atmospheric beach shot below):

On Sunday Michael was outraged to discover that he was expected to go to mass twice in one week. I assured him that mass in the country was much shorter than mass in Dublin. Mass was at half eleven and we arrived at 11.28. When we went in, they were on the “Our Father”. We had relied on the internet for our information but the internet had let us down. Clearly mass had started at 11. We slunk to our seats in shame (this was the wilds of east Cork, it’s not like we were going to get to another church) and left again at 11.40. Michael said, very perkily, “You’re right, mass is a lot shorter in the country.”

We drove back to Dublin yesterday. Under the stairs, there was a very strong odour of raw poultry. We had a very good look round but found nothing. I can’t help remember how we never found the head of the pigeon that the cat caught a couple of weeks ago. After that trauma, Mr. Waffle and I just managed to stay awake to midnight. Clearly a good omen for the new year. And today we mostly stayed around the house and some friends came to visit. The boys and I went to see “The Desolation of Smaug” where they were delightfully terrified. And no work or school until next week. Hurrah. Now, if only we could find the source of that smell.


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