Monday, 24 September 2018

Summer Reading Round-Up

When I was a bartender I used to read, on average, a book a week. Now I consider myself lucky if I get through a book in a month. Here's my summer reading round-up:

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

As you folks probably know better than I do, a 9-5 job and the demands of a small child are not conducive to keeping up with the latest developments in Chinese Science Fiction. Thus, I am only on the second volume of Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem sequence. The titular forest is a fabulous metaphor for a particularly depressing answer to what is sometimes called the Fermi Paradox. (Paradoxically, the Fermi Paradox isn't actually a paradox).    

Where's Spot? by Eric Hill

Spot isn't the star of 'Where's Spot?' On first reading, you wonder whether the author is going to pull a Beckettian swerve and have the eponymous hero absent: a Godot-like anti-presence. On the 199th reading, even the planned surprises in 'Where's Spot?' cease to be surprising (especially now that Finn Jr has ripped off two thirds of the flaps). However, a quest narrative with a strong female lead and a false ending/twist (no spoilers) is a Gold Standard that fiction writers consistently fail to meet. And Eric Hill did it in fewer than fifty words!  

Who's Who When Everyone Is Someone Else by CD Rose

When my aunt asked me for recommendations for her book club, this was my immediate suggestion. The tale of a minor academic visiting a street-shifting unnamed European city to deliver lectures on unread books to dwindling numbers of attendees. The reader gets to sit in on each of these lectures and explore the city and meet a number of its quirky inhabitants. 

With my currently limited schedule for reading books aimed at adults, I am looking forward to revisiting WWWEISE and, if you already know how Where's Spot? ends and your book group is divided on the merits of Chinese science fiction, I recommend you check out the latest from CD Rose.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Three Ways to Hinder Freedom

Like Schopenhauer, I tend to think of freedom as an essentially negative concept. Freedom is a sort of absence of hindrance. Most obvious in the physical sense - freedom is not being constrained in any way. In case you haven't got round to reading Schopenhauer's The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, I won't reveal how he goes on to demonstrate that the freedoms of morality and intellect are similarly negative concepts deriving ultimately from self-consciousness. We'll just take it as an assumption.

I've been thinking about freedom quite a bit recently because my son Finn Jr has just turned one year old and is demonstrating considerably more will than in the early months.

Happy Birthday, Finn Jr!  

Like most humans, Finn Jr just wants to be free. He doesn't want to be constrained by encumbrances such as clothing, bathtime, naptime, cupboard door locks and stairgates.

My job as parent is basically to be the hindrance to his freedom. At this age - mobile but pre-linguistic - this essentially means turning myself into a literal physical barrier between my son and the various dangers of the house. My reasoning often runs thusly: if I lie down and let him poke me in the face, at least he won't be swinging on the door of washing machine and ramming drawers closed on his tiny fingers. This activity (along with following him around the garden steering him away from the nettles, foxgloves, rhubarb leaves and rose briars) now takes up most of my own 'free' time.

I think of this as 'Stage One' hindrance of freedom.

Stage Two will consist of purely vocal control. It's marvellous to see parents of older children who have instilled a modicum of obedience in their offspring. Enough to make them safely follow instructions to 'Stay in the Park'. I also see plenty of counterexamples: children who wilfully ignore their parents' sage advice. I strongly suspect wilfulness is an innate quality and the amount a child has is down to a genetic lottery.

Once a child is significantly older and off enjoying life out of earshot of the parent, I guess both parties start to experience freedom. In this third stage, the only way a parent can hinder that free activity is by whatever ethical system they have managed to impart to the child. 

Not being of a religious bent, I don't get an ethical system off the shelf. Which is good news in terms of eating pork and avoiding casual misogyny, but rather labour intensive as I have to research and devise one from scratch.

The second of Schopenhauer's two fundamental problems of ethics is concerned with the basis of morality and this seemed like a good starting point.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Back to College

When I was a teenager, I knew everything. Twenty years later, I have many doubts. If things carry on this way, by the time I am seventy, I could be as wise as Socrates: who was certain only that he didn't know anything. 

With this in mind, it may seem odd that I have been made a mentor to the office apprentice - surely it should be the other way around? In order to become a mentor, I had to complete a short course at the local further education college.

Further education colleges have changed a bit since my day. Between 1996 and 2003, I spent a happy few years dropping in to (and out of) the colleges of Dorset and south Somerset, studying a plethora of subjects and making some good friends. The biggest change was the banks of computers everywhere and the rigorous signing in programme. I thought of the leftist anarchists that used to wander on to campus in Yeovil College for a debate, they wouldn't get very far at this establishment.

After my identity had been sufficiently verified and a VISITOR lanyard strung around my neck, I was shepherded into a glass box where another half dozen or so mentors were waiting. The glass box was to screen out the noise of the computers that filled the rest of the room. 

In time-honoured tradition, we had to wait while a technician was found to fix the link between the laptop and the electronic whiteboard. There was some uneasy ice-breaking introductory remarks. We had to say our names and what we hoped to get out of the course - "an afternoon off work" was probably the truthful answer in most cases.

I managed to alienate myself early on by making a joke that relied on knowledge of the Odyssey. The lecturer was explaining that the term 'mentor' comes from the tutor that Odysseus left in charge of his son when he went to fight in the Trojan war.

"...and we all know how it ended for Telemachus!" I quipped.

But nobody did.

So I had to explain that, upon Odysseus's return, father and son set about slaughtering all the men in the palace that have come there to court Penelope (who in fairness to them, has been essentially single for 20 years).

I kept quiet after that.
Couldn't find my copy of the Odyssey. So this'll have to do.


Saturday, 28 April 2018

Leaf Encounter

Many have struggled to define Englishness. The anthropologist Kate Fox and the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman have book length studies on the subject. A fondness for village greens and cricket may be invoked, as might: picnicking at the seaside, a tolerance for queuing and a national obsession with tea. It has been remarked before that you can tell a true-hearted Englishperson, because they will make you tea once and then always remember how you take it. Never lie about how you take your tea, you may not get a chance to revoke it. I speak from experience.

For reasons apparently mysterious to anyone else who has ever tried it, I drink only very weak gunpowder green leaf tea made with the first pour of a still boiling kettle into a warmed porcelain mug. To me, this method makes a beautiful golden-coloured brew that tickles the tongue with a peppery freshness and leaves a lingering honey-sweetness on the palate. However, an ex-girlfriend of mine always described it as “...that fucking pondwater you drink...” so: to each their own.  

The perfect cuppa?

On my first day at what I still call ‘my new job’ despite having been there 14 months, I went in armed with my own porcelain cup and 100g of the Tea Junction’s finest gunpowder green.

Obviously, the last thing a person should do when attempting to ingratiate himself with his new colleagues who have kindly offered to make him a cup of tea is announce that they all have to learn a new method of making tea. So my plan was to get in first with the offer to make a round of teas, memorise how everyone took theirs and then just have hot water top-ups for the rest of the day. However, as I was settling in, someone else got their offer of making tea in first. When asked how I take mine, I panicked and said ‘white no sugar’.

Naturally, the kindly man who was making the tea committed this to memory and for the next two months I either had to decline his offer of tea or pretend I was so engrossed in my work that I had forgotten about the brew he made me so I could surreptitiously pour it away and make my own. He left the company after I’d been there two months so fortunately neither of us had to go through the embarrassment of me owning up to my nervous lie.

The reason behind the lie was of course the clash created by an intensely individualistic person trying desperately not to seem different from anyone else - and ,if you’re still looking for a defining characteristic of Englishness, it might be staring you in the face.