Wednesday 14 December 2011

Kindles for Christmas

I couldn’t wait. I bought mine last week.

It’s not a very exciting gift anyway. Like so many electronic things it takes a bit of getting going, a bit of getting into. And by the time you’ve done that the thrill has gone.

Then what? Well you can read books of course. You download them from Amazon’s Kindle store or elsewhere and can keep lots of ‘em - all stored in a thing as thin as a calculator and about the area of a ‘real’ book.

But what’s this ‘real’ in quotes for? I have already downloaded a book by Mark Twain on the Mississippi basin and another by Frank Close all about Antimatter (which interests me). They are both real books; that is I could, in principle, enter a book shop and buy them. Of course the book shop would not necessarily have them. But they could order them for me, electronically. And some time later I could pick them up , physically.
The decision to buy a Kindle was easy. Its cost was covered by a cheque from Amazon for $100. The cheque’s arrival was a complete surprise, then I recalled that I had put my book on Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone into the Kindle store (not then an easy task) on my return from China. It’s already an eBook in my own “shop” (, but that is not getting quite the number of hits that Amazon gets!

Why was the cheque for exactly $100 I wondered? I learned that Amazon only send payment when sales have reached that round sum. Anyway, in a way, Amazon paid for my Kindle!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a rather well-known writer has re-written my Hedy Lamarr book - and is attracting rave reviews in the States where he is hailed as the man who discovered Hedy’s inventive talent. Well , that’s life, somewhat inevitable perhaps ... there were two biographies released on Hedy last year and no one owns a good story – it’s maybe how you tell them. Or, as Churchill had it: first it’s who saying it, second it’s how they are saying what they are saying and third it’s what’s said.

The Kindle wave has now swept over me. Since April 1 of this year Amazon has been selling 105 Kindle eBooks to every 100 paper books! And though it is the giant there are plenty of other suppliers pumping out eBooks. Gone are the days when eBook stores were replete with badly written sci-fi and eroticism from unknown authors. It’s quite normal for new books from well known publishers to be released in paper and electronic form nowadays. And there’s lots of free stuff around too, including many fine classics.
So I’m spending a lot of time preparing my stuff for sale through Kindle and Smashwords.

My great hope is the novel I wrote that is based on my Asian experiences: Shaken by China. It’s up there in the eBooksphere right now. However, the challenge is bringing it to anyone’s notice. I suppose that’s always the challenge. I’ve kept the price low ($2.99 or £1.91). Nevertheless, just how can readers stumble across it? They find my Hedy Lamarr book because they do searches for her name, but a novel is very different thing.
As an experiment I put my collection of short stories from Turkey (Turkey Trove) into the Kindle store recently. That’s a bit more of a target for searches so we will see. Becoming a publisher is quite exciting, but also exacting and potentially depressing.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Moment

Travelling to Oxford on our long journey from La Fresneda in Spain I was once again reminded of the beauty of France: the wide rivers, the quiet villages, the elegant houses. Yet, for all of that, we left the glorious cathedral of Chartres and raced frantically towards Belgium, arriving in Ostend at about seven on a darkening evening. The reason for this mad dash into yet another country is quite simple: beer.

Britain produces by far the best, and the greatest variety, of draft beers in the world. Meanwhile, Belgium produces the best, and widest variety, of bottle beers in the world (in my humble opinion) France produces some good bottled beers but it is, naturally, more wine than beer oriented. In the lovely village of Antonin en Noble Valle we paid 4 euros for a small glass of Leffe beer. Appalled at the cost we bought four bottles for less than 4 euros in a small supermarket next day and that was the moment: yes the moment that we decided to plough on into Belgium and fill the van with Belgian beers. On the last night of our trip I had my magic moment as I savoured a bottle of Maresdous Triple (10%) and followed it by many different beers. Next morning I sought out a supermarket near the port and blew 70 euros or so on a variety of bottled bliss which should provide me with many moments of relish on those cold winter’s nights that we were about to cross the channel to endure.

I have just finished ‘The Moment’ by Douglas Kennedy. I am a fan of his page turners and, though it took me a little while to get into The Moment, I soon become gripped by the book - as always. He does spin a good tale. The Moment is about love suddenly gained then equally suddenly lost. It is about betrayal and deception, and, of course, failing to grasp … the moment.

Kennedy cleverly locates the love affair in a divided city: pre-liberalised Berlin. He portrays the German Democratic Republic (the red side) as an Orwellian state where the Stasi do a very efficient job as the thought police; where almost everyone is controlled by them; and where the majority of people are informers for them. Room 101 for the female half of the intense love affair at the centre of the book is permanent separation from her cherished baby son. Betrayal, for the (American) male half, is her deception as an agent of the Stasi.
In a complex and rich tale Kennedy focuses on the moment where both lovers lose their moment and spend the rest of their lives regretting the loss, condemned to a life of compromise and regret, their experiences always blighted by the shadows of that great affair. 

Intriguingly, my reading of the book was shadowed by a very real deception. Whilst I worked doggedly on my stone hut Margaret was at home secretly reading the book; she just couldn’t wait until I had finished it so that she could begin. One night over dinner when I was just a few pages from the end she confessed that she had already read the whole thing, always carefully preserving my book marked page and never revealing the plot or denouement.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

The two bar trick

Our village of La Fresneda is small, but it does have two butchers, two bakers, a swimming pool, a restaurant, a chemist, and, of course, a bar. In fact when the swimming pool is open it provides a bar so, in the summer, there are two. And in the past the restaurant also had a bar, so there were three.
Nonetheless, the main bar, the one where major items of gossip are exchanged over coffee, where football is reverently observed, where tricks for growing the largest radish are shared between close friends, where the growing number of retired (jubilados) meet for cards and take their one drink of the day, where the paseos pass and the mayor scoots by at least three times a night, this bar is Bar La Plaza (the bar in the main square).
Bar La Plaza is nothing special. A single room some ten metres long with toilets at one end. There is a bar on the left which surrounds the open plan kitchen and, of course, centre stage, a large screen TV. When I first came here the bar was run by the only slim woman in the village. She had ejected her alcoholic husband from both the bar and her life and was subsequently pursued by both village carpenters. One had the deepest voice that I have ever heard and became her barman. The other made gifts of shelving and cupboards and became her lover.
Finally she left the bar to start a laundry business. The barman carpenter died and the lover carpenter returned to his wife. She is still slim and catches many an eye as she walks about the town, but not that of the remaining carpenter: they ignore each other.
After she left Ramon and Montsie took over the bar. They gutted the place and installed garish clusters of red lights more suited to a city night club. They were going for the younger set of which there are rather few in the village. At first they adopted a guise of charming hosts but as time passed and the same few villagers came and went, buying little and sitting long, they changed.
Ramon sat at the most distant point in the bar barely visible behind his laptop which he shared with one of the new intake of bikers who had moved to the village. Any call for a drink was met with obvious reluctance as he slowly moved to the bar, his eyes loath to leave the screen. Montsie, when present, sat dejectedly behind the bar or talked to some of the biker set offering service with a scowl when required.
I was mortified. The bar, yes the bar, in the village of my second home was becoming the last place I would want to drink on earth. I seriously considered selling up and locating elsewhere in Spain. Then, one night as we were dining in a nearby village with Spanish friends, we heard that they had “buen noticia” (good news). Ramon and Montsie were leaving. New people were taking the bar. Phew.
Balthazar and Ampora were a very different couple. He was a lethargic man of few words whose main interest seemed to be holidays in hashish rich countries. She was a delightful lady of impressive appearance and with good English. We liked them, they ran a good bar.
But this time when we returned to the village they had gone, new people were running the bar, and this was not the only shock. The place next door had been turned into a bar as well: and the proprietors of this new bar were none other than Ramon and Montsie! I just could not believe it, I really could not.
The new owners of the original bar were delightful. Miguel and his son Raul hailed from Barcelona and had bought the lease on the place without being told anything of the plans for the second bar. Miguel is an affable, pipe smoking Spaniard with a long pony tail and his son is an athletic looking twenty something with good English and a desire to practice it. We have stuck with them, though our loyalty is somewhat contorted since they are new. Other loyalties in the village run along family, friendship or enemy lines. We watched with interest who goes where. Visitors to the village are confused. They sit at the outside table of one bar and use the toilet of the other, order drinks from one and food from the other. Ramon and Montsie scan the fast emptying plaza in the hope of new clients. They barely look at us since we do not visit their bar much, if at all, and perhaps they can sense that we remember and our remembrance stirs their own memories.
Last week Ramon the elder passed my little building site. He is the father of Ramon the younger and is the local antique cum rag and bone man and a dominant local character.  I was surveying the stones delivered to me by Enrique the builder who fell to his death from roof of a house nearly a year past. The stones are rubbish and I can only use them after a great deal of shaping. I told Ramon that I needed stone and he said that he had some – no charge. No charge, from a man who wheels and deals? I went to see the stone, it was good. I rolled it down the hill to the road and arranged for a man with a tractor to help me transport it. I paid him well and later pressed an envelope into the shirt pocket of Ramon who looked surprised and amused.
But now I am in debt to the Ramons. Should I use the new bar or stick with Miguel who tells me that he wants to start a nudist campsite in the countryside near our village. Meanwhile our friends from the Netherlands are appalled that the local council should give permission for another campsite since they already have one nearby. We are confused by mixed loyalties and are too old to remove our clothes publicly, but we watch with interest this healthy rivalry knowing that whatever trick is pulled there is only room for one camp site and one bar in this village. I can hardly tear myself away – but Britain calls: there is guiding to do and decoration to be done.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Travelling with Samuel Johnson and Harry Potter

Johnson and Potter are unusual travelling companions perhaps, but literally acceptable.
Very occasionally we rent out our house in Spain. Recently We had a one week booking which left us homeless, so we took a trip in the camper van. My wife suggested that we travelled around our own area (the Mataranya) but I felt the need for pastures new so we ventured to the Ebro River and  the Monsant area of Catalunia.
It was a nice trip with no set agenda except a beginning and an end, yet we quickly dropped into a daily pattern. I went running most mornings, then had breakfast inside or outside the camper van whilst reading a little. Usually we managed to find beautiful setting for our overnight stay, though not always. After a shower we explored the village that we were visiting or I went for a longer walk. Later we moved on, stopping at some pleasant location for a picnic lunch in transit.
Then came the hard part. It was intensely hot that week though we were in the latter part of September. Our camper does get very stuffy so we had to find somewhere, usually in a village, that had a little shade from the sun. Now such spots are in great demand even though the villages are thinly populated (one had only 40 or so souls within it according to the priest). If we were lucky then we parked in a shady spot during the hottest part of the day and either slept or read or wrote - the villages were spookily quiet at this time in the afternoon as they too slept, or read or wrote.
At five or so we toured our current village in search of bars and restaurants. We then spent the rest of the evening drinking cold beer, often followed by tapas and cold red wine. Then home (the campervan) for a carjillo (coffee with anis), a bit more reading, and so to bed.
I read Harry Potter for educational purposes. I read a little each day. I read in Spanish in the hope that it will improve my poor understanding of the language, and I read professionally since Potter and his friends, like it or not, are of great interest to many of my Oxford tour groups. I am currently reading the sixth book but during the trip could find little in it which related to Monsant.
I was also reading  Samuel Johnson’s report of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, mostly because I visited his birthplace in Lichfield recently and was moved to buy the book of his, and Boswell’s, describing their travels, as a memento of my visit. I included it in my bundle of books for Spain (we both have a real fear of finding ourselves without reading matter and are hoping for Kindles this Christmas) and, though I have not completed it, I found his notes an excellent companion to my own travels.
Johnson describes his journeying without becoming embedded in a diary-like itinerary. He hitches everything to experiences within the Hebrides, but regularly launches off into fascinating philosophical trails discussing anything from human migration to the price of cows. He has an inquiring mind and an apparently encyclopaedia- like recall.
Monsant shares with the Hebrides a low population and a lack of industry, but it is clear that the people of this mountainous area were richer or perhaps more industrious than the Scots. The houses of the lovely Monsant mountain villages are old yet they are clearly better built and certainly much taller than the stone huts described by Johnson. Water is a problem in both locations, though for diametrically opposed reasons. Monsant is very dry and relies on collected water and irrigation, The Isle of Sky, in Johnson’s time was, so boggy that there were no roads and only the locals could safely traverse the island.
I am home now, but still reading Johnson and Potter. One of the most enjoyable accounts by Samuel Johnson, the compiler of of course of our first comprehensive English dictionary, is the Highlanders’ willingness to answer any question: quickly and with immense authority. However, follow up questions quickly dissipated that confidence, diluted the answer and sometimes actually resulted in a completely different tale. This is so like the Cotswolds that my reading of it aloud even made Margaret (the implacable supporter of Stow-on-the Wold superiority) chuckle.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Lorna Done and the Spanish

We bought our house in Aragon at the end of 1999 and celebrated the millennium there. We knew little about the area, its history, flora, fauna and culture beyond what our daughter (and personal search agent) had shown us. However, we did sense that this was an area that had been somehow insulated from the modern world for much of the century and yet was on the cusp of change.
Not completely insulated of course: our village had electricity and all that comes with it. There were motor cars and tractors and refrigerators and so forth. Yet there will still people climbing the extreme slopes to their homes laden with huge bundles of firewood, donkeys occasionally tramped the streets bearing even huger bundles, and shepherds often blocked the roads as they led their vast flocks of sheep and goats to pastures new. Not for nothing did the Spanish speak of Teruel, our province, as the place that no one goes to and no one come from despite the fact that some locals displayed defiant signs saying “Teruel existe”  in the back windows of their cars.
I have just read Lorna Done for the first time. We read it as the inaugural book of our newly formed, and now defunct, family book club: I was the only one to have finished the tome in time for our discussion meeting! I enjoyed the novel and had the delight of becoming obsessed with it. I can recall thinking as we sat in the plaza of our village at two in the morning and just part the way through a long fiesta night, “I wish I was at home reading Lorna”.
For those who have read the classic you may recall that “John Ridd” should have been the title. John is the narrator and the book is mostly about his life as a farmer. Of course the Doones and his Lorna have a key role in the plot, but John’s life and times is the soil upon which the story grows. (As an aside I doubt very much that R D Blackmore would ever have achieved fame had he chosen my alternative title: there is something beseechingly attractive about the name Lorna Doone.)
John’s life, when he is not yearning for Lorna, is almost exclusively focussed on food: planting, tending, harvesting, collecting, breeding, butchering, eating, sharing – these were the verbs that define much of John’s life, and much of the lives of the people in whose time the book portrays.
And so too with the people of my village of La Fresneda where the conversation used to be redolent with much the same verbs, though in the local tongue. However, these were the old brigade. In the last ten years or so they have mostly retired (at least formally, people who have worked the land never entirely retire) and the village has become different. Incomers have arrived (ourselves included), the road system has been improved, many of the houses have been renovated, and agriculture, though still important, is no longer number one. The incomers are local youngsters who set their sights on the big cities for their future; other incomers are retirees or evacuees following some dream and bringing their own culture; there are also foreign workers who specialise in building houses and building their own version of the country that they have left.
Naturally food is important to the incomers, even though it is not their focus. They produce little or nothing, obtaining their food from the supermarket and having little knowledge, or interest, in its origin. Farms and huertos (smallholdings) are increasingly disused and those that remain are often managed by one man and his machines.
Traditions still abound and will take a long time to die or adapt, but already I can see this happening. A friend in Oxford recently told me that the Spanish did not dance. I was amazed to hear such a thing about this, the country of flamenco and fiestas. Yet on the last night of our own fiesta the people did not dance! Local groups were playing pop music and the crowd simply stood around and listened. There was the occasional, uncontrolled outburst of dancing by individuals, but this was soon suppressed by peer (not beer) pressure. I was nonplussed and had to return to the scene a number of times during the night simply to check my earlier observation. This is so sad. The Spanish without their dancing would be like the English without their pubs.
Fortunately all is not yet lost. The previous five nights of the fiesta were accompanied by dancing and a fiery bull. And a week or so after the main fiesta we had another one: this time based on food, wine, rum, figs, and lots and lots of dancing.

Friday 26 August 2011

Hate Paris, Love France

Frank Sinatra’s version of “I Love Paris” became the centre piece of my last lessons in China. According to the lyrics he had a very good reason for loving the place: his love was there. I have every reason for avoiding it.
The cheapest way to begin our long journey from England to Spain is usually via the Dover ferry. We land at Dunkirk or Calais and then face a major obstacle – Paris. I have been trapped in the city’s dense traffic three times before: once when lost and twice when trying to drive into, or out of, the centre. Now I give this city of myth, art and romance a wide berth; the only decision facing us is whether to circumnavigate the place to the west or the east.
This time we turned right, heading towards Rouen, the city whose name only the French can pronounce and where Joan of Arc was burned even though the English could have saved her. I write “headed for” advisedly since this characterises our journeys through France. We are really heading for La Fresneda, our village in Spain: all else is a daily surprise. We almost never take the toll roads even though they draw us at times like a magnet attracting a wandering steel ball. For us France is an unimaginable number of roundabouts, shunned cities, pretty villages, green woods and hills cut by wide attractive rivers, ancient churches and impossibly lovely chateaux, decorated by staring meadows of sunflowers.
Each day we find somewhere nice to eat our lunch: a lunch based on fresh, crispy French bread and cheese. And every night we find a suitable town or village in which to park, dine and sleep. It is mostly a pleasurable adventure with many a wrong road leading to delightful discoveries. As we roll along the secondary roads we discuss our perfect overnight stop. The place must not be too big (though I do like the occasional night on the town), yet not so small that there is no choice of restaurants and bars. It should be beautiful, have an interesting church, a river (hopefully with somewhere beside it to park our little van for the night) and have at least one person walking the streets clutching a French loaf. We are not always lucky, but do get to stay in some delightful places.
This time Bauge seemed a clear winner. We could be seen there looking into estate agent’s windows pointing at the intriguing bargain houses in this ancient and historical place which gave us the Plantagenets. Bauge even had a planned walk which guided us to a series of informative noticeboards througout its contorted, multilevel streets and, though the river was small and provided no parking spots, we found a place to lay up in a large tree-lined car park beneath an imposing chateau now used as the tourist information centre. But for all of that Bauge was not the perfect overnight stop. The place was in decay, its teenagers in revolt and the local council showed a weird tendency to build quite inappropriate modern monstrosities instead of utilising the many large buildings of character that were slowly deteriorating through neglect. The Hotel de Ville was a disappointing black and glass structure that could easily, and hopefully, be lost in Milton Keynes.
Then, lost again, we arrived at Brantome. It had everything, including a splendid river that we could park beside and enough Gallic buildings to satisfy everyone. The streets were generally narrow and bordered by interesting houses. It had parks and even (for those who must) a large park for camping cars. We loved it: the location in a narrow valley, the rushing river, the abbey, the stately trees, and the people walking home with their French loaves. It had a variety of bars and restaurants; in fact we spent the latter part of the evening listening to an Englishwoman with long blonde hair, a bluesy voice and an acoustic guitar: great.
There was a downside. There are rather too many English people in Brantome. In fact it seemed to be full of them. Clearly our love of the place is shared and the news of its beauty has spread. The horde had got there before us. Is this so bad? Should we expect to have a lovely town like Brantome to ourselves? Would the blues singer have been there for us alone? Ah, the problems of travel.
Now this liking for France, which has grown as we travel through it, is strange. Our adopted second country is Spain: we have grandsons there, we have a house there and we now have an orchard and olive grove there. We have lived there (on and off) for twelve years and we love it: we love the liveliness, friendliness, and anarchy of the Spanish. We live in a beautiful area and we have friends there. We have seen babies grow to teenagers and have been truly saddened by the deaths of people who have become part of our lives. The aridness of the area in which we live and its stark beauty is still a wonder to us and a complete and utter contrast to England.
Perhaps like many people we are subconsciously seeking England, but elsewhere: an England with all the good bits (summer, manners, privacy, pubs, honesty, etc), and none of the bad (football hooliganism, riots, churlishness, winter, etc) and France, coquettish, rural France, pretends, in places, to offer that mirage. The truth of course is quite different. The man ambling by with the loaf under his arm may well wish you “Bon soir” but he is really wondering if you are a football hooligan and whether his local restaurant with its perfect table clothes can stand another invasion.
So now we are in La Fresneda, the village we were always heading towards. It is fiesta time, and time itself has been suspended (dancing starts at one in the morning), health and safety has been banished (the fiery bull rampages around the village spilling its load of flying fireworks on the laggards who are unable to escape),, deafening music echoes through the narrow streets, and our fifteen year old grandson came home at 5 a.m. pissed last night. Welcome to Spain. Again.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

I’m part way through this famous book yet when I mention it to friends they all seem to have read it yonks ago. Nevertheless I find it very moving, partly because it’s reports of raw war are recounted without an ounce of romanticism, partly because the tight descriptions kick off a note of stark reality in my mind, and maybe because the sense of essential camaraderie enforced by simple necessity rings so true.

That said, I suppose all that can be written about war has been – and has been analysed so much that it has been stripped of any mystery.
Meanwhile the Western front is anything but quiet. I try to imagine what our Chinese friends must be thinking as they see buildings and cars burning in the streets of London (assuming any of that news penetrates the Great Fire Wall - China is keen on filtering out insurrection). The Chinese believe that we live such stable, secure, well ordered and wealthy lives – and that includes those that actually have visited England. Meanwhile the rats are leaving the sinking stock exchange in a wave of blind panic that devalues perfectly healthy corporations in a sea of increasing irrationality. No doubt some in China must look on with wry self-satisfaction holding their mental “the end is nigh” placards aloft yet wondering who will buy the exports on which their current unspent wealth is built and who will pay the interest on those piles of US government bonds. We do live in interesting times.
Meanwhile the mundane seeps into my life. I once, tongue in cheek, described, in writing, my ambition as the “vain pursuit of polymathy”. I did not mean that I wished to be a reconstructed Christopher Wren (a true polymath); more that I wanted to accrue the necessary skills to survive, intellectually and practically, in a changing world. But the toilet cistern has knocked me from this pedestal. Toilet cisterns were simple once, there was little to go wrong and everything that did was easily fixed. Now the operational parts are made of plastic and are irreparable. Inventiveness has overtaken maintainability and, worse, I have to confess that I do not know how my cistern works – nor did the two plumbers to whom I showed the plastic valve assembly. They recommended that I replaced the whole mechanism with an alternative valve which, though plastic, works as the old ones used to do.
What’s my point? If western civilisation is teetering on the edge of a precipice what are the chances of survival if the toilets cease to work and are irreparable? OK that seems extreme, but think about it. What can you repair now? Your car probably has a tiny computer controlling the engine functions etc, your mobile is packed full of impenetrable integrated circuits and so is your TV and radio, and your toilet is full of plastic bits that cannot be fixed. What’s more your fridge is probably a sealed unit and your washing machine is electronically control and so packed that even replacing a belt is a task that requires robotic arms. Don’t worry though, the power stations will quickly shut themselves down so no electrical device will work anyway and you will be quite unable to recharge the battery of your mobile which wouldn’t work anyway because the entire mobile system has failed. Ah, dystopia here we come.
Meanwhile I’m off to Spain. Is that a good idea? It may be. I will be working on my stone hut which has no electricity (until I install a solar panel at some time), and when it’s finished I will be able to sit inside whilst the Spanish economy crumbles around me- if it hasn’t collapsed before that. They call it “la crisis” over there. I just hope that “la crisis” hasn’t damped the Spanish appetite for partying. It’s fiesta time when we arrive: four of five days of fun, frolic and music (electricity supply allowing).

Thursday 14 July 2011

The Meaning of Everything

The subtitle of this blog is the title of a book by Simon Winchester. His book is actually the biography of a book: one of the most famous books in the world. I found the tale it contains fascinating partly because it is mostly set in my city of Oxford. The tale describes the conception and long, long gestation period of the Oxford English Dictionary.
James Murray, the man who edited the OED through many storms and devoted his life to its production, lived and worked quite near to my current home in Oxford for many years, yet only regarded himself as a “sojourner” here. To contain and process the massive number of quotes exemplifying the use of words waiting to enter the dictionary Murray had a large tin shed built in his back garden. It was called the “scriptorium” and, at the insistence of a neighbouring academic, had to be sunk partway into the ground so that in Murray’s words, “no trace of a place of real work shall be seen by the fastidious and otiose Oxford.”
I recognised the word “otiose” in Murray’s quote. I liked its form and sound, but could not remember what it meant and had no access to a dictionary at the time. Fortunately I soon found myself in the delectable town of Lichfield and quickly realised that this was the birth town of Samuel Johnson – ex-student of Pembroke College, Oxford. I visited the house-cum-bookshop in which he lived – now a wonderful museum-cum-bookshop – and soon found a copy of his famous dictionary.
Johnson’s is by no means the first dictionary of English, but is claimed to have been the most comprehensive and soon became the standard reference work. It also set a new paradigm for dictionary production based on quotes from the literature: the paradigm adopted for producing the OED. I quickly flicked through the pages of Johnson’s dictionary - surely I would find “otiose” within its word-packed two volumes.
It wasn’t there. I was shocked and disappointed. It did not strike me as a new word. I mentioned the omission to the museum’s garrulous and helpful manager. He checked that I had not been mistaken and then searched the web for the meaning (which is: idle; indolent, ineffective, futile). Touchingly this all led to a spirited discussion on obscure words within the shop section of the museum – a very Johnsonian outcome I thought.
So now I had refreshed my memory of the word otiose, but I was left with a question. Was Murray’s impression of Oxford in the late 19th century correct – and is the place still fastidious and otiose? It’s my guess that Murray’s comment was influenced by the reaction of his immediate neighbours and his difficult relations with the OED publisher (the Oxford University Press). After all he would have often cycled by the new science building (now the Natural History Museum) in Parks road and could hardly have ignored the industry of those working within it.
Murray died in 1915, thirteen years before the completion and publication of the first complete version of his dictionary. That publication celebrated seventy-one years of hard work for editors, compilers and volunteers: a Herculean effort which must represent the antithesis of otiosity. And a year before Murray died William Morris had produced his first motor car in Oxford laying the foundation for a growing industry in the city which still remains a key source of employment and is hardly the world of the otiose. But perhaps Murray directed his comments towards the academics who were too fastidious to engage in the world of work – are there any of those left in Oxford today I wonder? I wouldn’t know since I too am a sojourner (happily) and very much on the first of the town and gown divide.

Friday 24 June 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

I am back having emerged from the protective wall that the People’s Republic of China provided to ensure that I was not corrupted by access to Facebook, YouTube and my own Blog during my stay in that country! My release almost coincided with that of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei – but my lips are not sealed.

I guess that most people have suffered the effects of culture shock. It is not particularly nice in that it alienates you from the people amongst whom you are living. One symptom of this dysfunction that appeared during my Chinese adventure was an angry reaction to starers. When I first arrived at the school being stared at was novel and almost aggrandising. It is difficult to believe that our appearance is so different to the local Chinese when their phenotypes are so diverse (I had a boy in one of my classes who was tiny by any standards and another who could almost pop the ball directly into the basket). Nonetheless we did stand out evoking reactions ranging through shock, amusement or fear. One young lady walked into a stationary car whilst ogling us and we caused some near traffic accidents for which we could surely not be held responsible.

Whilst in a good mood I stared back at the starers, laughed at the laughers, said hello - in Chinese - to the smilers (the majority) and ignored the ignorant. But in a darker mood I found the experience of being an innocent spectacle intensely irritating: this is culture shock; there are other symptoms.

We left China in stages, finally easing ourselves through the decompression chamber and escape hatch usually known as Taiwan. As our departure approached my wife became more and more excited; she was even perky as we stepped off the plane at 5 a.m. following a long, double hop flight. My spirits balanced hers precisely: depression fogged my mind as home drew closer.

Dragging forty kilogrammes of luggage (really) along St Giles and the Woodstock Road I failed to respond to the waiting sights of the Ashmolean Museum, the Martyr’s Memorial or St John’s College. I barely glanced at the Eagle and Child and its opposition, the Lamb and Flag, despite a six month respite from real ale. I do not believe that I even bothered to glance at the inspiring sight of the Radcliffe Observatory or into the mystery of tree-lined Plantation Road. My consciousness was filled with the pain emanating from body parts injured during my Asian sojourn and my task as a determined packhorse.

I found little joy in entering our neat little apartment or in the task of unpacking. I noted without surprise that a tribe of immigrants had hidden away in the large suitcase: they were those tiny ants that penetrate the tightest of packaging in search of food. I sent them to another world. Margaret’s enthusiasm was soon assuaged by sleep and I stepped out to do some essential shopping. I found the environment full of irritants. The church opposite had sealed off its gardens and installed cameras as a result of anti-social visitations. People did not look nice: they did not look at me, they did not speak, they did not stare. There seemed to be an excessive number of dubious people around: dossers, alcoholics, lunatics. This is reverse culture shock and it happened in the leafy luxury of North Oxford.

And so my depression, already billowing, descended. I found little of interest or of joy. I did not even enjoy my first beer festival on the second night. I inwardly criticised the beer, the people drinking it, the place where it was held, the speeches made at regular intervals, the food – everything. I was not good company and I humbly apologise to the good friend who took me there.

The next day I led my first tour. Taking a party around Oxford after six months absence is a great challenge to the brain. As a guide you store up an immense cache of knowledge over a long period of time. On any one tour you only utilise a small percentage of it – but you do not know what you will need of your database or when and where. There is no way of checking that the information is there – the cache is just too immense. The only test is to do a tour, in fact to do many different tours. This test did get my adrenalin flowing especially when coupled with the fact that I was called urgently by the tourist centre in the morning with a heart sinking “why aren’t you here” message (they had given me the wrong time for the tour). So I rushed into action and it helped. There were a few things missing. I could not remember the title used by the head of Exeter College (rector). The name of St Peter’s College eluded me and the middle order of the Tower of Five Orders (Ionian). But these omissions are easily dealt with and I really enjoyed my first tour. Great bunch of people. And from this point on reverse culture shock began to diminish.

Today, though still unable to run, I revelled in a walk around my area and admired the sturdy Victorian residences washed with cool sunlight and dappled with the shadows of grand trees. People looked nicer and their behaviour had become more or less normal to me. I have been weaned back onto real ale in my favourite pub and have even enjoyed a party in the gardens of our cluster of apartments.

So what is inverse culture shock all about? Travel, especially the prospect of travel, promises new dawns and sunsets, new lands and people, new experiences and ideas, and it still excites me. Perhaps it is not therefore surprising that the end of a long period of travel is, for me, synonymous with bathos. Sure, I am pleased to see friends and relatives, meet fellow drinkers and landlords in my favourite pubs, renew acquaintanceships, and see the beauty of Oxford and Cotswolds again. I have missed the people and the places.

The problem for me, I think, is that returning is exactly that:  a return rather than a venturing forth. Yes, I missed fish and chips and baked beans and cheese, and yes I missed some home comforts – and they are all great to indulge in once more, but they are satisfying rather than stimulating. And so I will now slide happily back into my enjoyable rut and plan the next adventure.

I suspect that I now know the solution to my ailment, my reverse culture shock, but am not willing to accept it fully just yet. Probably it involves leaving something at home that I cannot really do without.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

I've been deblogged

I have been temporarily barred from accessing my own blog! I am currently in China, teaching English near a town called Fuping which is near to the fabled city of Xian with its protective army of terracota warriors. We shall be here for a contract period of four months so I hope to be blogging again in June.

Why access to the blog is denied I cannot say. I did write about the Philpinnos and their cocks, but surely that's not a banning offence? I did visit Taiwan for two weeks as well but surely it cannot be that. Maybe it is all part of the G double oh GLE problem here.

Meanwhile I am sending emails to interested parties. I f you want to be placed on the distribution list then please email me at You cannot keep a good man down. But am I good? And who determines goodness - my goodness?

Sunday 13 February 2011

Transporting the Soul

One of the books that I carried took with me on this Asian trip was The Dig by John Preston. I think it is a fine book, but I am biased. In my life the longest period that I have lived in one place was for fifteen years in a small Suffolk town called Woodbridge. Nearby is Sutton Hoo a place that became famous when Basil Brown unearthed the burial ship of an Anglo-Saxon king; a royal burial ship that quite remarkably had remained untouched since its incarceration some fifteen hundred years ago.

The book is semi-fictional tale of the dig from the points of view of Basil Brown, Mrs Pretty the owner of Sutton Hoo, and various other key players. There are personal details to give pep to a story that might otherwise not expand to a full novel; there is a sensitive portrayal of the dispute between the local amateur archaeologist (Basil) and the experts drafted in from Cambridge and London; and for me there is the added bounce of recollection: places in Woodbridge are mentioned that I once knew really well.

The treasure discovered in the Sutton Hoo burial ship was amazingly intricate and the find proved that the English Dark Ages were not so dark at all. However, what darkened the soul of Woodbridge was the transporting of the treasure to the British Museum. Naturally local people felt that it should have been held locally and displayed in the context of East Anglia where King Radwald had reigned. This loss is still felt, and the book explains Mrs Pretty’s odd decision to some extent.

In the Philippines boats are used for their true purpose: with more than 7000 islands boats are in the blood rather than the reverse. Rusty ferries ply between the islands and delightful bumboats buzz around them - their bamboo outriggers giving stability and character; their occupants mostly engaged in fishing of one sort or another. However, in this deeply religious desperately distributed country the serious business of transporting souls is left to the roads rather than the sea: roads that can be as choppy as the sea in some places. I find Philippine road transport fascinating, especially public transport. We have now travelled on pedicabs, habal-habals (literally pigs mating, actually multi passenger motorbikes), trikes ranging from motorcycle and sidecar to motorcycle and covered trailer, jeepneys (jeeps of astonishing length and decoration), vans with open tops, vans with air-conditioning, and an astonishing range of vintage buses. All of these heave, hiss, pant, roar, belch and grind along heavily congested roads mostly at speeds which are well below the limits of western countries.

Why so slow and why so congested? There are private cars here, but not many and they are not the source of congestion. The problem has much more to do with the strange uses made of the roads and in some cases their poor condition coupled with an almost complete lack of pavements. Here are a few of the uses that I’ve noted in the weeks that we have spent here:

1. Ambling (Philippinos do not walk and certainly do jog)
2. Drinking (overspill from the roadside bars and karaoke joints)
3. Chatting
4. Shopping (the shops often push right up to the road and at least one into it)
5. Drying (anything from rice to corn to coconuts laid on sheets or directly onto the road)
6. Grazing (usually tethered cows, goats, water buffalo, chickens)
7. Sleeping (I have had to circumvent a patchwork of prone dogs on some motorcycle rides)
8. Repair (anything from all of the vehicles listed above to aircon units and boats)
9. General retail
10. Urinating (mostly males who smile and engage you in conversation whilst peeing)
11. Parking (of course)
12. Watching (at regular intervals there are ‘resting stations’ for sleeping, chatting, observing)
13. Travelling in the wrong direction (can be very scary)

All of this slows progress to a speed somehow suited to this moist and hot climate and its cheerful ‘que sera, sera’ (in Tagalog ’ bahala na’) people, but does result in a constant beeping of horns from the lower orders and bellowing from the large buses and trucks. It is not the music to transport souls to, but, blended with the outdoor karaokes and discothèques, is the music of the Philippines.

Thursday 3 February 2011

The Philippino men and their cocks

Soon after arriving in the Philippines you become vaguely aware of something different, something strange. It is not one of the obvious things like climate, people, buildings, or language: it’s something else, something fairly ordinary yet not so ordinary; something that’s constantly in the background; in Manila there are sounds that you would certainly not hear in central London or any other big city that I have visited. And there’s something else, not remarkably special but just a little odd: men carrying cardboard boxes. The boxes are about the size of carrier bag, perforated and tied with string. There is something alive inside these boxes. Sometimes they make an unmistakeable sound.
Then you see your first tethered chicken (cock actually) and perhaps a man carrying one under his arm: gently, respectfully, even lovingly, and everything falls into place. The men of this country are obsessed by cock fighting. In most countries the display of magazines for sale is much the same even if the language differs: there are car magazines, computer magazines, angling magazines, girly magazines and so on. Here in the Philippines the displays are dominated by what, in translation, must be “Cock Fighters Weekly”. Really and truly. I have a photo of a magazine stall from the streets of Manila and there are at least seven different cock related magazines, all displaying a fine specimen, undoubtedly a champion.
I became obsessed. I had to know what this thing was all about. In Miagoa I met the deputy mayor in a bar. He was drinking with a local lawyer and an engineer: the engineer was a cock man. He had the least English so the other two talked about him and his hobby. They told me that many wives felt jealous of their husband’s cock because he paid it more attention than her. They told me that the cock was better fed than the children, that the cock was given special food to enhance its fighting ability, that the cock was even given steroids and other drugs which makes the loser inedible.
Later I met Eddy who had been a seaman (in common with so many Philippino men) and was now retired, running a small resort near Miagoa. Behind his house was a field dotted with little huts and tethered to each was a cock. I soon found that there are thousands of cock-rearing enclosures like this in the islands. Eddy showed me his pride and joy, a three time winner and very good looking bird. He had won Eddy 10,000 pesetas in one of the fights. Eddy breeds cocks and sells them to a middle man in Manila who sells them on to individual cock fanciers. Cocks are big business in this country.
I had to see a fight. In a way I was repelled by the whole business, but I still felt the need to observe it – even though I am quite determined never to attend a bull fight in Spain since I regard bull fighting as particularly cruel. Cock fighting is different I reasoned, they do it anyway and no one is sticking barbs into their shoulders to weaken them.
In Bais City, Negros, we walked a long way to a beach. The beach was quite disappointing but the walk was fun. We were constantly greeted by the people who live in the ramshackle huts that we passed. Children smiled and waved, hard-faced beachcombers forever resting in hammocks shouted “Hey Joe”. We took a trike back; we had been over-greeted and could take no more. Along the way I spotted something going on and thought, “aha cockfight”. I stopped the trike driver and he seemed to agree that there was a cock fight. In fact what I had seen turned out to be preparations for a beauty contest that evening, but people were climbing the steep slope alongside the arena - and some were bearing cocks. I asked around and there was indeed cock fighting up there somewhere. I immediately started to ascend. Mrs Walters demurred. A sudden aversion to the bestiality of the cock fighting world? No, she thought the slope was too steep/dangerous/slippery. I helped her up one slope by holding her hand. Trouble was that I had difficulty getting the impetus needed to rise as she hesitated behind me. The second slope was worse and when she saw an old man slip she would not go further. I went on alone then returned to report that it was pretty easy beyond the sharp muddy slope. We managed it with some difficulty and at last got to the cockpit. There were lots of people there, almost entirely men. There were also lots of men with cocks. A heaving group surrounded the almost invisible pit (just a flat, fenced square further down the slope). I couldn’t see much and wondered whether I really wanted to. I tried to photo the fight from above. Typically in this country one man wanted to move me to the front, he kept on and on but I did not want to be in the crush or to spoil things for the people really taking part. M could see even less than me on account of height (in fact she didn’t really see a fight at all). We wandered around. I watched a man removing the knife that they tie to one of the spurs from his dead cock; blood spotted the area around him. I could not gain any sense of his emotional state since he was fixated on the task in hand. We looked at the knife stall. It reminded me of a cutlery box, very shiny sharp knives about four centimetres long with a clip at the end for the cock’s leg. This use of a knife seems unnecessarily cruel. I put this view to a Philippino in a bar later. He looked puzzled then said, “But the winner has to kill the loser”.
There were stalls selling beer of course with enormous bottles of Red Horse on display. Then I found a gap with some vantage to one side of the pit and managed to get a view. Each fight starts with the owners holding and stroking their cocks. There is a referee between them. Some announcements are made. The birds are poked at one another but not released, their hackles rise. Their knives are wiped by the referee and their feet carefully cleaned by their owners. All is ready for the fight and an enormous cacophony of shouting arises from the crowd. Hands being held up with fingers extended. This is the betting phase and I could not understand it. The cocks are then pushed at each other and released. They fight in a furious flurry of feather that I could not disentangle and nor could my camera. Within a minute or so one is lying prone. The referee then picks up both birds and if the prone one is still alive pokes them at each other and releases them again. There is another fight, the victor seeming to peck at the eyes of the loser. This process is repeated until the loser is dead.The victor is held up and those who bet for it cheer loudly. Payment is then made and the whole thing repeated. Each bout is about ten minutes, the fight itself probably three. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but as I led M down a different slope, this time with steps, I was glad that I had witnessed it. I don’t think our presence either encourages or discourages the practice.
What an odd activity it all is! It is a natural pursuit and mostly the fights take place on a Sunday in this land which claims a population 90% Christian, mostly RC.  On the next leg of our exploration of this strange but fascinating country we saw an advert for a six cock fight offering a first prize of 2.5 million pesos! That’s about £35,000 – a fortune to most Philippinos who mostly live in very poor housing and certainly do not have a car. That’s why public transport here is so varied, so good and so cheap. But that’s another story.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The last hotel room in Iloilo (22/1/2011)

As often happens when travelling we had help. The lady we met on the flight from Manila to Iloilo (pronounced ee-lo ee-lo) told us that she had a brother who worked in the airport and he would advise how best to get to the city (we were still smarting from taxi problems in Manila). She was true to her word: the brother, a big man in uniform was soon found. He asked what hotel we were staying at, I said that we did have one and he then pronounced the chilling statement “All hotels are full for Dinagyang”. We discovered that Dinagyang is a big festival to celebrate Santa Niño, an effigy of Jesus found by the Spanish. We didn’t even know that it was on – what great luck. Of course it did mean that we had nowhere to live – but I’m an optimist, something always turns up. A young man was delegated to guide us to someone who could help. We followed him through the airport only to arrive at a hotel booking office which we could easily have found ourselves. There was no one there, the place was deserted. Perhaps there really were no hotel rooms left in Iloilo. I had found a potential place – the City Corporate Inn – in the guide book. I mentioned this to our helper and he whisked us away to a taxi where various people flustered around us to get us into the cab – once again we could have done all of this ourselves but the people of the Philippines are so kind.
The journey into Iloilo city was interesting. After the airport the scenery became quite rural with cows grazing in open fields. The road itself was filled with the famous jeepneys – very colourful long-wheelbased jeeps with a capacity of maybe 16 passengers on the two long bench seats and a loading of upwards of 30 at busy times. Many seemed to be under repair at the roadside. Regular notices appeal to everyone’s innate morality “Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not make promises that you cannot keep.” The traffic thickened as we hit Iloilo. Jeepneys were joined by motorcycle combinations with a capacity for three passengers and a possible loading of 10! And there were trikes and bikes and cars and buses and fumes and jams and hooting and tooting above the constant roar. It was getting dusky as we arrived at the hotel. It had a decent foyer which was encouraging. But it was full. I asked the receptionist if there were other hotels nearby. And so this delightful young woman began making a series of calls to other hotels to find us a room. At the end of each call she said thank you and my heart sank a little lower. By the time she had called five my optimism was beginning to desert me. I thought we would have to move to another city – and time was getting on. I think it was the 11th call that was different. She invited the owner of her hotel to take over to take the call. This lady talked for a while then told me that the Harbor Town Hotel had a room. I smiled. She told me the price – three times her own rate, I stopped smiling. She asked if that was OK then pointed out that I had no choice, I agreed. We were soon whisked off with our two backpacks and other clutter in another taxi to the Harbor Town Hotel. It was not far away and the driver charged us very little. It seemed rather noisy and there was bunting fluttering everywhere. It looked as if we were right in the middle of the festival – great.
It was not easy to talk to the receptionist because the music from the street was so loud. Finally we were shown to our room which at three times the basic rate should be good. As we stepped out of the lift on the third floor the sound of music was even louder. Worse still we turned to the right – in the direction of the music. We struggled up the corridor straining against the booming bass. The porter stopped at the last but one door, then changed his mind and took us to the very last door room, 308, which could easily have been Orwell’s 101. The room itself was not bad. It was a bit worn looking, but had the essential feature of aircon. However, the noise was deafening.  I found that it was a little quieter in the bathroom but not much. Maybe we could sleep in the shower cubicle.
Just beyond our room the corner of the hotel was rounded and glazed forming a sort of viewing area. We could look down on the main street with its canopy of densely fluttering bunting and the two corners of the side street that the hotel was actually in. On each corner there was a pyramid of loudspeakers maybe eight high. The biggest array of speakers I have ever seen outside of an auditorium. Fed from some recorded source, these were our immediate neighbours.
I told Margaret that it was possible to drive people mad by prolonged exposure to loud noise. I don’t think she heard me. I went down to the reception to demand a quieter room. They told me I had the last room in the hotel. One young man said that this is the way they like to enjoy themselves during the festival. I asked when the music stopped and was given two times for “the curfew”: 9pm and 10pm. That was good – but I doubted that it was true. I knew already that the Philippinos were never in too much of a hurry. Meanwhile the thumping went on, threatening to crush my skull. We escaped, leaving the hotel to find a quieter spot until curfew time. We had to pass in front of those awful speakers and felt the woofers flapping our clothes as we did so. We blocked our ears with our fingers as we walked by, much to the amusement of some of the early dancers who pranced in front of the ear denting array.
The streets were packed with people and lined with stalls. Everyone seemed happy and many smiled at us or said hello. Things got better and better as we distanced ourselves from the monster speakers. Then we approached more speakers and discovered that many street corners had similar arrays beating out pop music dominated by the bass line. We learned to hurry past them with our ears blocked and at last found a live stage. The crown was massed in front of it but we found an open air bar of sorts at the side and were given star treatment by the owner, a flat-faced large lady with dark brown skin and a ready smile. Beer (San Miguel Pilsner) arrived. It was not bad. Two bottles later all was well. Margaret was a little tipsy; I was enjoying the music of a couple of local kids who were much loved by the crowd.
We roamed around and found another stage. It was 10pm. The group was about to finish. The curfew was real, we thought. Once again seats were vacated so that we could sit and drink beer. The music went on – and on – and on. And it was great. The Philippinos are great performers and the exact opposite of shrinking violets. Finally they said their final, final goodbyes and the music ended. Suddenly there was silence apart from the movement of the crowds and the fluttering of the bunting. We found our hotel with difficulty. And we found that it was silent. Glory be, the monstrous array was curfewed. I studied the wiring for possible direct action later. We went to bed at gone midnight and were rocked awake by the audio monster at 7am. Unbelievable! No lie in for us that day.
Fortunately it was Sunday: the main day of the festival. I saw the tribes assembling when I went running. The main parade of warriors, dancing girls, placards praising the mayor and advertising Coca-Cola, men dressed as lizards but looking like animated bananas, an inflatable Santo Niño, lads disguised as spiders and crickets, and so on and on, filed past. Thankfully those awful speakers were silenced so that we could hear the drums of the tribes as they competed for a big cash prize and an even bigger development award.
We had a great day, even got ourselves tattooed on the street (the arm actually, henna actually). And we survived another night of music and beer. Problem now is that communication between us has become difficult. I say something like, “Look at that jeepney over there, its stuffed to the gunnels.” And Margaret turns to me saying, “Just look at the number of people in that Jeepney.”
Still, we did get the last hotel room in Iloilo! I hear it could have been worse, what?

Friday 14 January 2011

A cold shrug from Atlas.

I’m sitting in my top coat with two pairs of socks on my feet and a mug of hot jasmine tea at my side. I am the victim of the inverse snow effect. Britain does little to prepare for snow because it’s rarely a problem. The Taiwanese do nothing to prepare for winter because it’s so short. The temperature is about 12 degrees which doesn’t sound bad, but coupled with extremely high humidity constantly refreshed by near constant rainfall and a nasty cold contacted (I think) from two feverish Australians who tried to bag our seats on the plane to Hong Kong. All this coupled with a complete dearth of heating and a prevalence of restaurants which are little more than frontless tents leaves me depressingly cold, stultifyingly cold.

On the bright side I have finally finished reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It was recommended to me by a friend and I am grateful to him. The book is large in scope, in size, large in almost every conceivable description. When I was less than quarter of the way through it really seemed to me that the book was spent; there was little more to add to the story, but I was so wrong. That early part provided a solid platform for what was to follow.
It is not an easy book to categorise. It is a novel of course – though much more than just a novel. It is certainly a book on moral philosophy and yet could be regarded as a work of science fiction. It contains romance, sex, intense relationships, evil, good, heroes and “rotters”. It has a good story line which is both complex and satisfying. It also contains long political/philosophical speeches: one which is made by the near-perfect man (John Galt, a scientist and philosopher) lasts for three hours and I must admit that I skipped some of it. As a radio broadcast, which it purportedly was, it would certainly have lost most of its audience. The book is a sociological study and an outright attack on socialism.
Whilst I was deeply engrossed in reading Atlas Shrugged I met a man who knew of the author’s writing. He dismissed her work in two words: “right wing”. But short labels are as dangerous as short books. Atlas Shrugged is a big book – in all respects.
For anyone who has not read this book the basic theme is that society is gradually being taken over by looters, liars, and power grabbers who do their dastardly work in the name of the public good. These people produce nothing and expect those with ability to supply their needs. They are evasive, forever avoiding straight statements and burying their true meaning in obfuscation. On the other side are the producers: the entrepreneurs who bravely risk all to achieve their own happiness meanwhile providing for the needy by creating jobs, technology, food and so on. These people are pure in spirit and expect to trade rather than beg.
The story focuses on the Taggart railroad network which I guess is a symbol for the core functioning of an industrial society.  Ayn Rand, writing in the 50s, would undoubtedly annoy today’s liberated women by her constant and regular use of the generic “men” which for  her includes all human beings. Yet she places Dagny Taggart, a dynamic young woman who holds the centre ground of the book, as the true controller of the vast Taggart network whilst her brother (a looter and rotter) has the figurehead role.
The vocabulary and some of the prose is dated: there is an awful lot of chuckling which we rarely seem to do nowadays. It is quite amusing to meet so many “rotters” and smokers. Smoking is a given for everyone in the book which seems odd to a 21st century reader. Yet for all of that the introduction of a motor that draws its power from static electricity, the use of speech activated locks and other technological innovations have stood the test of time. The action is mostly quite gripping and the intensity of feeling between Dagny and her various lovers is convincingly described without overt sexuality. And, the three hour speech aside, the moral philosophy is nicely hidden away within the action and is rarely obtrusive.
I liked this book and was very impressed by it. There was much that I could relate to and it certainly made me think about our own society. I was a convinced socialist in my youth and had to learn a lot about human nature before I escaped its bewitching, naïve, goodness.  The world created by Ayn Rand is a simplification of our own, but the rotters are certainly about and seem drawn to power. Sections of our society are overly dependent on hand-outs from central government and rewards are often not related to achievement – bankers pay being a topical example. But perhaps post-industrial England is something that Ayn Rand did not envisage. We did not become the People’s Republic of England and the need for producers in the strange service-oriented economy that obtains right now is minimal – at least in the short term.
Much as I enjoyed the book , when my friend offered me another by Ayn Rand I refused – I need a rest. Atlas Shrugged has been a good travelling companion in Spain and Asia. My copy has tiny print and has tested my eyesight sorely – maybe destroyed it, but it has accompanied me through a minor crisis in which I was refused permission to enter Taiwan from Hong Kong on New Year’s Eve, and it came with me into mainland China where I waited for the Hong Kong British Embassy to reopen after its public holiday. Finally it came with me to Taiwan and endured the damp cold of a sub-tropical winter. I have now given it to my son who lives on this green island and who celebrated his 31st birthday with us last night. However, I doubt that he is quite ready for Ayn Rand at his age.
Like all good books I miss it now that I have finished it. But there’s plenty more books to read - that’s why my backpack is so heavy. Why, oh why can’t I make the transition to eBooks? I will, just give it time.