Saturday, 9 January 2021

Letter to my book club

Letter to the Bookworms book club in Stockholm prior to a discussion of Steven Hawking's A Brief History of time:

Greetings one and all from afar.

I wonder whether you know in which country people read the most? According to an annual survey of reading and literacy, the list is topped by India, with an average of 10.42 hours per person spent reading each week, which is surprising considering so many of its 1.3 billion people live below the poverty line and literacy is probably far from universal. (In the world as a whole, only 86 per cent are said to be literate - 90% for boys, 83% for girls. By comparison, a hundred years ago only 12% could read and write.)

In second place is Thailand with a weekly average of 9.24 hours, while China is third with eight hours. Sweden comes in seventh with 7.06 hours. How these statistics are compiled, I've no idea. China is the country which publishes most books, a staggering 440,000 in a year, but I haven't seen anything to indicate what kind of books they are. One-third of all books published in the world, however, are in the ‘romance genre’, (which the Bookworms have been mercifully spared from.) The average age of people who read ‘romance’ books is 42. The vast majority are women; 16% are men.

The second most prolific book-publishing nation is the United States, with 304,912 in the past year. The UK comes third with 184,000. One table is topped by the Swedes. It is headed ‘News Junkies’. 85% of the population are said to read the news more than once a day. Again, what kind of ‘news’ is not specified. I trust that Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are not included.

Finally, let us all take comfort from the list of benefits claimed for reading. They include reducing stress levels, developing stronger analytical skills, improving memory and concentration, reducing the likelihood of certain diseases, expanding your vocabulary and improving you writing skills. So read away!

Which brings me to Steven Hawking and his Brief History, in trying to read which most of the benefits I am supposed to gain suddenly evaporated. Unable to concentrate on such a vast amount of information for more than half a chapter at a time, unable to remember much of what had come previously (as one who has not studied physics), increasingly stressed as my appalling ignorance became clearer with every page, I eventually gave up for the time being, but have promised myself I will return and try to read at least half a chapter a week, (or perhaps a month), as soon as I have recovered sufficiently to do so.

As so often, however, a majority of the online reviewers are much more at home with the book than I am, but then very many of them are extremely familiar with the subject and at least one of those I have seen admits to being a physics Ph.D. When I looked, both the Amazon US and UK sites had 186 virtually identical ‘global’ reviews with an average rating of 4.7. Goodreads, which counts ratings and reviews separately, had 307,896 ratings and 9,029 reviews.

Purchased for my son for his birthday,” writes one of the 5-star people. “He is a physics fanatic, and although Stephen Hawking is not his favourite scientist, I figured every budding scientist should have read A Brief History in Time.” Unfortunately, I have never been a budding scientist. “Isn't it amazing,” writes another reviewer, “that a person can read a book like A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and come away feeling both smarter and dumber than before he started?” Where I am concerned, it is definitely not both, just dumber.

It’s quite short and generally a quick read,” writes a third member of the 5-star brigade. Quick for him maybe, but not the likes of me. “Not every page is filled with mind-blowing/numbing theories and brain-busting equations,” he continues. “Some of it is just history, say on Newton and such. However, there were a few pages worth of passages where my wee brain felt like it was getting sucked into a black hole...mainly during the black hole segment.” I would unfortunately have to replace the words ‘a few...’ with ‘many if not most’.

To put me further to shame someone else states, “This is an absolutely magical book, both objectively and for me specifically. I first read it when I was about 9 or 10.” That was from the gentleman with a Ph.D in physics. I was puzzled by this person though when he wrote, “It's such a concise, understandable introduction to the field that I’m determined to get my girlfriend (a linguist with no real interest in physics) to read it. Not just because I think she’ll understand it, but because I think she will enjoy it!” Can you really enjoy something like that without understanding it?

Come down to the 3-star level and here is someone I can agree with. “ times it is very clear that the reader needs a certain level of knowledge to understand what he’s talking about. As such, Hawking makes certain assumptions as he shifts from concept to concept which left me a little confused.” And another 3-star reviewer writes, “Stephen Hawking’s book is easy to read, but harder to comprehend. In every chapter came a point where my brain couldn’t hold another permutation of a theory...” Easy to read, but harder to comprehend?

A two-star person wrote, “I probably understood half of what I read, which I’m happy with. If I could fully grasp the whole book I’d probably have a better job and be much richer.”

Someone else pointed out that the book tops the list of ‘bought but not read’.

Now that I can fully understand.

Happy Zooming.


Monday, 16 November 2020


It started with a Californian heatwave. Where I was, the temperature rose to thirty-five degrees Celsius, followed by highs of thirty-eight and a couple of days with a scorching forty-two! Then came a prolonged night-time thunderstorm, with countless lightning strikes igniting the tinder-dry vegetation. Many of the innumerable small fires soon merged to form large conflagrations spreading their ugly fumes and flames to threaten everything and everyone in surrounding areas.

By the morning, ash was raining down on us through the increasingly acrid air. An official warning went out: Be prepared to evacuate! To think, I had come for a short family visit in March, yet here I was five months later, marooned by the pandemic and now, along with everyone else, threatened by fire.

What to do? We decided to pack what we could and head initially, the next day, to an in-law's place some fifty miles away. “Take only what is of value to you,” the kids were told. “Provided into doesn't take much room.”

The situation has growing ever more ominous by the time we finally departed, well aware that the family could have seen the last of their house and home with all but the few belongings we were taking with us. The children were deposited with the in-laws while we went to check on somewhere to stay. We were fortunate. Many people had nowhere to go and had to rely on emergency arrangements made by local authorities or organisations, everything complicated by the need for social distancing. In our case, a relation of the in-laws had a temporarily empty flat we could use not far from San Francisco airport. We went there, left some things – then drove back to the fire-threatened house to rescue what else we could. The air, thick and tinged with an orange glow, was painful to breathe. Inside, items were quickly collected, including clothes and food from fridge, freezer and cupboards. This time, before we had left a mandatory order to get out had been issued. Incredibly, we later learned that some people refused to go and had to be forcibly removed. All roads into the area were then closed.

We collected the kids and arranged our temporary refuge as comfortably as we could. From there we were able to follow the fight against the flames. Press conferences and fire-fighters' briefings from the command and control centre set up in the local park just a few hundred metres from the family's home, were shown online. We also continually checked air quality on the Purple Air site. Single figures were best, but anything under fifty on the scale used was still shown as acceptable. Where we had come from it was well over four hundred.

But even in our new location the air wasn't always good. All depended on the winds, as pollution from other fires, and there were many of them, could easily drift in our direction. Compared to what we had left behind, however, it was fine. And three times we drove to a coastal area where the air was fresher, for an evening walk.

We remained refugees for eight days. By then the fire – 'our' fire – was sufficiently contained for us to be allowed back. It had destroyed more than nine hundred homes, but our area was now considered safe. At most, two thousand four hundred people had been fighting the flames, ringing them in, denying them fresh fuel. Weather permitting, helicopters and a fixed-wing plane joined the battle. When we walked past the park now we could see dozens of long vans marked 'mobile sleeping trailer' or 'mobile shower trailer' drawn up on the grass. The fight, though being steadily won, was not yet over.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Watch Your Words

 Once upon a time, English – Old English that is – had lots of inflections, those little word endings that alter depending on number, gender and grammatical function. If you are a native speaker of the language you have probably never wondered over the fact that English adjectives never change, for example. Thus you can have a green light or a thousand green lights, the word green remains the same. It wouldn't in most other languages.

With few exceptions, the only change to nouns is the addition of an s in the plural. And there is only one gender. But in Old English woman, quean and wife, for instance, were masculine, feminine and neuter respectively! Foot was masculine, hand feminine and eye neuter and words that agreed with them had to be adjusted accordingly. Such complications you do not have to think about today.

But, there is one big, potentially puzzling, or sometimes hilarious, drawback. When almost all the inflections have disappeared, you have to watch out for your word order. Get them the wrong way round – and who doesn't at times? – and you can cause confusion, or laughter. How about this quoted in the BBC Radio 4 News Quizz comedy programme. It was taken from a parish magazine somewhere in England:

Join us on the 2nd and 4th of the month for Brexit with hot sausages aimed at children under 10 years old.

Or this, seen at an English launderette (US laundromat):

Automatic washing machines: please remove all your clothes when the light goes out.

Or this:

The painting went to the elderly gentleman with the heavy gilt frame.

So watch your words. Or where you place them.

Adapted from How To Write Much Better English.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

My Life in Houses


My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

This a book club choice. If you thoroughly enjoy one detailed description of rooms and houses after another, it is definitely something for you. But for someone who isn't at all enthralled by a continual succession of such accounts, the question in my mind from the start was what on earth can there be to sustain interest?

I could find very little. A touch of humour would have helped. Nay, an outsize overdose of it. But this is straight-faced, straight-laced writing. Some greater insight into climbing up the socio-economic ladder from a rented home on a working-class council estate in Carlisle to owning a large house in London, a weekend cottage in the Lake District and a holiday home in Portugal all at the same time, might have helped. Alas, there was little of that either. Even the autobiographical background is minimal and also very sketchy. For example, Forster suddenly reveals that she got married from one of her homes and out of nowhere we learn she has a husband, not a word about him having previously been mentioned. And like her parents and children, he remains a shadowy figure. There tends to be more detail about wallpaper than her family. And as I was not waiting with baited breath to discover whether there would be a sitting tenant in the next abode or noisy neighbours, I can only label the book – for me – a colossal bore. Moreover, it adds insult to injury in exceeding its proclaimed mandate by describing houses other people lived in (Elizabeth Barret Browning and Daphne du Maurier) in addition to Forster's own.

I fear this made me maliciously hope she would discover all her dwellings were suffering from untreatable dry rot, woodworm, leaking roofs, ditto drains, flooding and severe subsidence, while a horde of the most obnoxious sitting tenants, who had been temporarily absent and whom she didn't previously know about, suddenly turn up to claim their right of abode. Plus that the neighbours on either side and at the back are the loudest and most abusive people on the planet. It might have injected some spark of life into the book. At best, I thought it could have made a series of articles in a House & Home-type magazine.

The others in the group may well have had very different views. In my exile, I still don't know, although the meeting at which it was to be discussed has been held. Most of the online reviewers would certainly disagree with me – but then a large percentage of them proclaim themselves to be Forster admirers on the basis of her other books. When I looked, both the UK and US Amazon sites had 150-odd 'global' reviews, i.e. they were substantially the same, and both had an average rating of 4.6 (!). GoodReads had 76 reviews and 605 ratings, with an average score of 3.9.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

Swedish cooking - 1

The first Swedish cookery book was published in 1650, but a couple of hundred years went by before such books were in anything like common use. A very popular volume containing some three thousand recipes and much else, was published in 1878-79 by a Stockholm doctor called Charles Emil Hagdahl. Naturally, he had an interest in food’s healing qualities. Thus he stated that lettuce was found to have such a cooling effect on burning amorous feelings in medieval times that nuns at a particular convent were advised to eat lots of it. However, he realised people had been consuming it for hundreds of years without curing the complaint and was uncertain whether love had grown stronger or lettuce weaker.

From: What You Should Know About Sweden

Monday, 12 October 2020

Frankie and Stankie


Some thoughts on Trapido's book: I came to it expecting to read an illuminating tale of life in apartheid South Africa and was greatly disappointed as this aspect, although undoubtedly there to some degree, is completely overwhelmed by so much else. I could certainly have done without most of the little girlie with her favourite doll or dolls stuff and the endless, schoolgirl ramblings around best friends, teachers, their pets and clothes etc. etc. The more it went on, and on, the more it made each Kindle page cry out “Time to abandon ship and spend time on something more rewarding.”

The book is as clearly autobiographical as anything I have read that claims to be something else. But it is also in some part a family history, with largely irrelevant details about all the German relatives, who then disappear off stage, plus a potted history of the country after the arrival of Europeans, but especially in the apartheid era. Add the parts together and what do you get? Definitely not a coherent whole. Whatever it is, it's nothing I would call a novel.

If there is no plot – and there is no plot – the writing must sparkle enough to maintain interest. The author has indeed been praised at times for her fine prose. Hmmm. Well, I found little to admire about her way with words in general, whereas for me at any rate, there were some severe lapses that made my tummy complain. When I read about men who had to bend their heads in order to “affect an entry”, that “nobody else can take its sequence on board”, that “her mum will have an absolute fit” (what are absolute and non-absolute fits and is there something between?), and when “cranial undulations” came along to crown it all, there was not only a severe disturbance to my literary digestion, but my poor innocent Kindle was placed in grave danger of being tossed into the Californian wildfires. After that, though, I could almost have forgiven the second sentence in Chapter eight for being sixty-two words long. Almost.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Surprise, surprise


A family visit to loved ones who live six thousand miles away, isn't for an afternoon, a day or a weekend. So when I arrived early in March it was for a three-week stay. More than six months later I'm still with them. Unable to forecast the future, I hadn't reckoned on a pandemic leaving me marooned. And even months into my prolonged presence here, I didn't dream that I, and they, would become evacuees, with ash falling from the sky and wildfires breathing their foul breath upon us. But then they say life is full of surprises. Unfortunately, not all of them are pleasant.