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January's Books

I am sure I read another novel but I have no idea what it was. I read most of this lot before I started working full time.

The Time of the Angels, Iris Murdoch JJJJ A weird little novel about the sinisterly eccentric vicar of a non-existent City church (it was destroyed in the war). The setting is foggy and claustrophobic and the seven characters loom in and out of it. I enjoyed this less than the others.

A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Iris Murdoch JJJJJOoh this is a scinitllatingly nasty novel about a cynical academic showing how easy it is to make the complacent ruin their cosy lives, mostly through the self-importance conferred by the opportunity for drama and intrigue. Possibly my favourite Murdoch so far.

A Word Child, Iris Murdoch JJJJJ I love the way her books are clearly parables, and thus implausible, but still utterly convincing. I want to live in Murdoch's London. The hero of this novel is a damaged civil servant with a tragic past that comes back, spectacularly to haunt him. The details of the meals and living circumstances of the down-at-heel are beautifully observed.

An Accidental Man, Iris Murdoch JJJJJ Another book full of appalling but fascinating people, again set in London. She's very good on the way women perceive themselves, and are attuned to other's perceptions of them. The man at the centre of the novel is brilliantly sketched. I'd love to have her write a novel about the Sisters of Sanctimony or the Tiresome Polyglomerates and skewer, with forensic clarity but never without compassion, all their petty vanities and hypocrisies.

the Philosopher's Pupil, Iris Murdoch JJJJJ I really couldn't put this down. Definitely my favourite one so far, despite what I said above about the other one. This is set in a fictional spa town I wish I lived in and is full of fascinating and vile people. The philosopher at the centre is a sort of monster, like all her academics, it seems.

Cocaine Nights, J G Ballard JJ I read this so I could teach it. Dystopia lalala, middleclass delinquency lalala, you don't get art without criminality lalala, in the future everyone will live in a gated community and video their wife-swapping lalala. It's about as truly prophetic as Mystic Meg. I can see why ponceyarsey critics like it; because it's about men who read like ponceyarsey critics doing a bit of highly stylised, intellectualised rape and murder. If M&S did rape and murder... He writes about sex as if he had never had it. At one point the main bit of female totty says, mid-shag, "Don't forget my anus". Almost as over-rated as Sebastian Faulks.

Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth JJJJJ This script is a bloody marvel and I really wish I'd made it to the play. It's fascinating state-of-England play that has a rural setting and isn't entirely pessimistic. This is lyrical, absurd, tragic and hilarious all at once. It is a fine rebuke to Blair's Britain. I might stage a bit of it with my pupils if I get the job I am applying for. Another one I had to read for work, as my pupil is writing an essay comparing it to Cocaine Nights.

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare JJJJJ As close as Shakespeare gets to chick lit, really. I am annoyed I am teaching this as it just isn't as juicy as e.g. The Tempest or Twelfth Night. Also I have to use the Kenneth Branagh video, a.k.a Posho Luvvy takes all his luvvy mates on holiday. I think I've just got a downer on it because I use it in the uber-tiring evening class.
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chewing gum for the eyes

Clive James used to front a TV programme in the eighties that was all about how peculiar and inferior foreign TV was at the time. Those crazy Japs, allowing themselves to be tortured with scorpions and publically humiliated to win a tiny prize! Those racy Scandiwegians, getting their knobs out in adverts for margarine!

I pretty much stopped watching TV in 2000. Coming back to it last year, three quarters of the channels were like watching that Clive James prog on a loop; he worst of the rest were the Prick or Chick or Sociopath channels, where you can watch Top Gear, Friends or Hitler 24 hours a day. If you are in the tiny minority of viewers that is over forty, vaguely literate, and prefers thinkywanks to porn, telly these days seems to be beamed from another planet, not just another country.

And if you spend a decade listening to Radio 4, when you return to TV, everyone on the mainstream channels seems to be twenty and pretty with wonderful teeth, terrible diction and a mediocre vocabulary. Whenever I see someone ordinary-looking and articulate presenting a TV programme now, I just assume they must be one of the ones who got there through nepotism, rather than the casting couch.

This bland, glossy-toothed uniformity extends to politicians. If the party leaders were mugggers, and you happened to be mugged by one of them in one of the six remaining remaining square feet of the UK that's not covered by CCTV, and they mocked up a photo fit from your desription, how on earth would you tell which one it was? This is why radio is better, it's eay to tell them apart when you are forced to listen to their voices and delivery: Braying and no brains? Cameron. Whining and no backbone? Clegg. No points and no balls? Milliband. At least in the eighties, you could tell the political satire from the news, because the political satire was the one with puppets in. These days, after only a moderate quantity of gin, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between Newsnight and In the Thick of It.

Children's TV is a bit better but meant it when I said recently that The Gruffalo was much more sophisticated than Dr Who In fact it was infinitely better on all counts. Why should I care? I am not a Who fan, and both are only children's programmes, after all. But, arguably they are important precisely because they were made for children; because they were about the only two original, made for TV, drama specials for children/whole family viewing, because they were made by the BBC which we pay for and which doesn't have to woo the advertisers and can afford, literally, to be a bit good. The Gruffalo wasn't just charming; it was inventive, thoughtful, clever. The mouse is a much better hero than Dr Who, because he relies on his wits. He also to face the genuine threat of being eaten, others creatures do get snaffled by predators, so unlike Who, all the bad stuff isn't simply diffused with a sonic screwdriver and a dose of nauseating sentiment, usually related to the importance of families and love. I pity those thousands of unfortunate children watching it in search of an imaginative escape from their own unpleasant families.
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don't plague a rise or take on loan

Arsebiscuits. I thought the lovely Richmond Library website was going to record all my books, but it only records the most recent, so I can't presently remember/record all the book I read since I last posted a book doodad.

Ragtime, E L Doctorow JJJJI read this ages ago and loved it, so bought the tatty old copy that being junked for pennies by the library of the last college I worked in. I first read it before I had ever taught creative writing, so on the second reading two days ago, the first thing that struck me was "Oh dear, this is an egowanky bloke book". Every creative writing class had a tedious bell end who produces overwritten pretentious tosh, and who invariably responds to criticism with a dismissive, "I don't want my writing to be accessible/commercial" roughly translated as "I am a misunderstood genius and you don't know what you are talking about". I am being horribly unjust to Doctorow, of course, but while this is, in places, gorgeously written and brilliantly American about America, in places the medium drowns out the message, and the writer in uncomfortably present on the page.

Shades of Grey,Jasper Fforde J I got this from the library and ditched it after a couple of chapters. I love the Tuesday Next books, have never been attracted by the nursery crimes ones, but just couldn't get on with this. It's a sort of sci-fi fantasy where people are hierarchised according to their ability to see colours, which makes it to me, one massively over-extended metaphor.

House of Mirth, Edith Wharton JJJJJ I love Edith Wharton. She can unveil a character in a line. Published in 1905, is about the snobbery of American society at the turn of the century, and the impossible choices faced by women of limited means in that society. She's deliciously sharp about the men and women who make hypocrisy work for them, and even the nominal hero is too weak and self-regarding to save the woman he loves. Vivid and engaging.

Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton JJJJJ Even better than the above. It's also about a woman on the periphery of society and once again the hero doesn't come off too well. This followed by the Doctorow would make a very introduction to American Hypocrisy 101 or Why They Make Such a Ridiculous Fuss if Someone Flashes a Nork at the Superbowel (I am aware of the preceding typo, but I am leaving it anyway).

Obstacles to Young Love, David Nobbs JJJJ This is rather good, and was written by the chap who wrote the book the Reggie Perrin was based on. It's about a pair of star-crossed lovers, taxidermy and growing up in England if you're about the same vintage as me. It's effectively a romance, but a fine and cynical one.

Next of Kin, John Boyne JJ A sort of thriller, a bit patchy but quite engaging as the 1930s setting is depicted very well. The characters are not sufficiently involving for one to give much of a toss about the eventual outcome, though.

Call for the Dead, John le Carre JJJJJ A Smiley novella. Vintage le Carre, and wonderful. George Smiley is the thinking person's Dr Who, really.

The Naive and Sentimental Lover, John le Carre ? I read this book in the early years of secondary school and it really resonated with me; it seemed to confirm some of my views of adulthood, or what it meant to be an adult. I didn't enjoy rereading the first few pages, and didn't want my cynicism and knowingness as an actual adult to colour my memory of the book, so I took back to the library.

The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West JJJJJ This is a bloody magnificent book. It's phenomenally well-written, wise and strangely moving. It's about the human stories and the linking of characters in the period before the Russian revolution. If you are interested in Russia, or how European culture came to be the shape it is, read it. Appallingly, it is out of print. I read a library copy, bought a secondhand Amazon copy for perfectlyvague's Christmas present and was delighted to find a copy in a charity shop a couple of days ago for me.

Pride and Prejudice,Jane Austen JJJJJ I'd never read this before. yes, yes, I know. I'm an English teacher and I am supposed to rave about Austen, but I did Persuasion for A Level and detested it. I've always dismissed it as the thinking woman's chick lit. I enjoyed it enormously, however, and was astonished at the cracking pace. I love how it serves as a giant flashing warning not to make the wrong marriage - so anti-chick lit, really. As with Wharton, the women are much stronger, bolder and more sharply drawn than the men. I've said before that educated women either fancy Mr Darcy or Heathcliff. I still prefer Heathcliff (I doubt Darcy would be much fun in bed) but they are both pretty tiresome, really. Give me George Smiley any day.

Saturday, Ian McEwan JJ I've loved everything by McEwan except this and Amsterdam. This was bloody awful, frankly. It's a day in the live of a brain surgeon; a smug, wealthy, self-regarding, pathetically competitive brain surgeon. It's not stream of consciousness, as that would scare off the middlebrow, and it might be better if it were; all the while I was reading it I kept thinking how much better Mrs Dalloway - a day in the life of an MP's wife - is, compared to this. The plot and characters are equally unlikely, and the 'moral' clunkingly obvious.

The Apple, Michel Faber JJJJJ This collection of short stories is a companion volume to The Crimson Petal and The White and features incidents before and after the novel. As good as the novel and a delight for fans.

Wedlocked: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match, Wendy Moore JJJJJ This is a rollicking good read. I love posh historical celebs just as much as I detest the lowbrow living ones. Almost everyone in this book is ghastly, deliciously so, and the activities of the villain genuinely gasp-worthy.

A Proper Education for Girls, Elaine di Rollo JJJJ This is a darkly funny historical novel with nods to Evelyn Waugh. The female leads, a pair of sisters, are bright and very much the heroes of their own stories. If I had a teenage daughter, I'd give her this book. It would make a very good antidote to Twilight.

Wuthering Heights, Emily BronteJJJJJ I got my lovely Folio edition back, so spent an afternoon on the sofa with a bottle of claret, some cheese and this book. I know it very well and have always loved. The narrators are brilliant; the calm and rational voice of Ellen Dean, refusing to approve the lovers' folly and the thing that drew me into when I was a child, Lockwood pulling faces at Heathcliff's dogs.

The Unicorn, Iris Murdoch JJJJ I picked up six brand new Murdoch novels in a charity shop for a quid each. I like her novels. They are seldom credible, but intellectually satisfying and full of delicious little observations about human nature. I'm halfway through my third of the haul now, and am really struck by the vividness and significance of the settings, and how each novel has a figure at the centre who is a sort of lacuna. This is an odd, tense, creepy novel about a woman who is a sort of prisoner/princesse lointaine in a remote Irish mansion. She's a bit like a cross between Virginia Woolf, Alan Bennett and Dostoevsky.

An Unofficial Rose, Iris Murdoch JJJJJ I loved this. Almost everyone in it is like someone I know, and some of them are like people I wish I didn't know.

To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf JJJJ I struggled to reread this, and kept getting distracted. I think the tightness of the setting, which makes it very intimate means it loses something of the, for want of a better way of putting it, the universality of Mrs Dalloway.

Other books read this year:
Gruffalo bluff-calling


I didn't mean to watch Dr Who. I meant to watch El Cid. I'd have enjoyed that as much as I enjoyed The Gruffalo's Child. The latter was more sophisticated than Dr Who.

I loved Dr Who when I was a kid. I didn't take to the Christopher Ecclestone one, because I didn't like the earth-centric family drama cheesy schmalz, and that has got worse with each series, as far as I can tell. I've only seen the Christmas ones and half the first one with Matt Smith.

Today's really irritated me. The same old shit about families and love saving the day, only this time with a bit of eco-bollocks, and bits derived from Middle Earth, Narnia and Oz. I don't like it because the Doctor is now a supernatural being, rather than a sci-fi hero. He's Santa-plus-Jesus. The really irritating bit was when he explained the eco bit to the Earth Mother (gag), starting off with some cod science and switching to something fluffy about souls for the stupid earth person, just as he'd implied that fairies come from another planet to one of the kids. And you can, apparently summon the Doctor Fairy just by wishing.

This irritates me because it's both lazy and arrogant. This series just rips off all the tired old Judeo-Christian-Pagan mash-up standard mythologies but gives them a cod scientific explanation. I am quite sure that threequarters of the audience at the Brian Cox thing I went to a couple of weeks ago are Dr Who watchers, and obviously the kind of geeks who loves snopes, myth-debunking and evangelical atheism. This way the smartarse atheists get all the same magic and codswallop as the godbotherers, but still get to sneer at the godbotherers because their mythological being back from the dead put a ludicrous scientific spin on it.

If that wasn't enough to switch off, it's the realisation that Who is worse than chicklit. At leat in chicklit the female lead gets her man in the end, unlike the bint in Who who can't act and was clearly cast for leg-flashing ability. I was left with a horrible vision of dozens of woefully unattractive geek men exasperating their girlfriends by declaring 'I can't commit or see you all the time because I'm like a timelord' *hand*staple*forehead*.
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oh dear

Dr Who (the atheist Jesus) contains Narnia, Dents (those tree things from Lord of the Rings), Bill Bailey and an ecological message. I fear the imminent outpouring of geekwank and may have to runs screaming from the internet.
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my favourite school dinner

I've only received three Christmas cards so far this year. This is rather saddening, because it's a very visible reminder that I'm not teaching. If I were I'd have had loads by now from colleagues and pupils, as for most places it's the last week of term. My last job was in a tiny, crappy independent stage school and I got deluged by my pupils with cards and chocolates and ornaments and toiletries and bottles of wine.

For the ten years before that I worked in FE colleges, where one has much less sustained and close contact with students than one does in a school and the majority of students are far from well off. Getting cards and little gifts from those pupils was consequently rarer and much more touching.

I think the best gift I ever got was a packed lunch. Most FE colleges struggle to timetables lessons for all those pupils on vocational (or even A level) courses who need to resit their English GCSE to get a grade C. The East London college where I was working was no exception. I had about half a dozen pupils from the Engineering Faculty who missed an hour of their resit class because it clashed with their main course. They were nice kids, so I arranged to make up the hour at lunchtime on another day. Don't assume I was particularly diligent; I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't been sure they would attend, do the work and pass the course. This caused some problems for my timetabling, on paper at least, as I was already so far over the usual contact hours for a full time post that I was getting overtime (which in FE teaching, like nursing, means you get a lower hourly rate for the extra work).

My boss (one of the worst managers I've ever had, and the one I talked about in the radio thing) grudgingly agreed to let me do it, and insisted on going into the class and giving them a pep talk about 'How Jane is giving up her lunch break to teach you and won't get any lunch, even though she is incredibly busy already and has far too much to do'. This wasn't quite true, as though I was busy, it was mainly because he had dumped so many of his administrative responsibilities on me (a dereliction of responsibility sanctioned by HR and senior management as being good for my 'continuing professional development' because he wouldn't have done the work properly or promptly, but had been there far too long for it to be politic or cost-effective for anyone to start pointing out that he was unfit for purpose). I wasn't quite missing my lunchbreak, either, as one week in three I would have had a free lunch as part of my attendance on the Equality Committee. When I stopped attending that committee to teach my little group, there was three line whip to get me to come back. I would rather teach for three hours than sit in a meeting for one (much as I would rather cook for an hour than wash up for ten minutes), and I would rather have picked okum for three hours than discuss equality policy for an hour; it was with genuine glee that I realised the hour the kids were available was that hour.

The committe chair was the Quality Manager (the second highest paid person in the college - on at least three times my salary). Equality is an important part of Quality because OfstEd take equality (or equality and diversity, as it is now known) very importantly; so importantly than a school can be rated as 'good' overall, if it gets equality right, but still can't manage to get half of its' pupils through English and maths GCSE. This peculiar approach to eduactional priorities is why lots of primary schools in London can afford full-time Diversity Officers, but don't have libraries. She thought the class should be cancelled. I wouldn't cancel it and danced on the unimpeachable moral highground of teaching responsibilty, waving my metaphorical two fingers at her. Then she took another tack, and claimed that their were Health and Safety implications to me teaching so many hours. Health and Safety is very important because OfstEd etc etc. My Union Rep nearly pissed himself when she used this strategy, given how cavalier her - and the college's - attitude normally was to painfully overloaded teaching staff. She got her way eventually, but at least the concession was that money was found to pay an agency teacher for that hour. Challenge the notion that the Equality and Diversity are important and you'll be branded a racist and a dinosaur, but in my career all I have ever seen the Equality and Diversity industry provide is a lot of cushy jobs for largely white middle class people - not just the ones in the schools and colleges, but the hierarchy of bureaucrats in the Dept of Education - with no beneficial impact on educational achievement or the life opportunities of the most vulnerable. Whilst I have every sympathy for the teachers, nurses, librarians etc who went on strike recently over their pensions, I'd cheerfully see whole tranches of public sector workers losing their jobs entirely if I thought there was any hope (ha!)the money spent on them would be put to good use elsewhere in their departments.

Back to my packed lunch. Two of my pupils in that little group were sisters, asylum seekers from Afghanistan. They were completely guilt-tripped by my asshat boss's comments, not least because they were such recent immigrants that they still thought that meals were things that always contained vegetables and should be eaten sitting down in company at appointed intervals in the day. It would't have occurred to them that I could happily wolf down a plate of cheesy chips (the college canteen's speciality) in about three minutes between lessons. They were deeply sorry for me when, at the end of term, they realised I was going to miss my section's Christmas lunch (not the toxic waste served up by the canteen, but proper food made by the tiny in-house restaurant run by the catering school of the college).

Knowing I was missing my lunch, the girls got their mum to make me a packed lunch, having first ascertained that I liked all sorts of food and didn't have any weird dietary restrictions, by deliberately starting a conversation about food in the previous lesson. The tupperware box they gave me had rice with raisins and saffron, little herby meat balls, lentilly stuff, and a salad and a sweet light flatbread. It was my second lunch of the day, but I am greedy and it was delicious and impossibly thoughtful and touching and I ate every scrap.

What made it so touching was that I knew their circumstances. Their father had been killed by the Taliban for his radical views (exemplified by his desire to educate his daughters). Their younger brother had been abducted by their maternal uncles who were clearly planning to kill their mother and abduct them. They lived in a one-room bed-and-breakfast bedist and only had an illicit electric ring to cook on. Read what I've just written and it would seem to give the lie to all the Daily Mailist tosh about bogus asylum seekers and unchecked immigration. Except, as if their lives weren't hard enough, the other vile problem they had to deal with harrassment by Taliban sympathisers in London. Some of these were fellow Afghans, but significant numbers are from the adjacent region of Pakistan, with the same language and customs. Many of them had pretended to be Afghans to get into the UK by claiming asylum. As another student commented ruefully to me, you really don't want to be around people who have the money, the power and the connections to impersonate asylum seekers. Of course, you can't make any criticisms about the imcompetence of immigration controls - least of all of the asylum process - with being branded a racist and a dinosaur . They and their mother, and their friends in similar circumstances had to be scrupulously vigilant about their personal security, often having to move at short notice if they were threatened. Some asylum seekers don't just disappear into a passportless criminal underclass when the Home Office lose track of them, some of them end up in shallow graves in Epping Forest.

They were lovely girls. They have probably graduated by now, and are hopefully being busy engineers or IT bods.
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popular science

Last night, thanks to itsjustaname's generosity as a result of silentetx being poorly, wardytron and I went to see the Uncaged Monkeys show at the Hammersmith Apollo.

Blimey, the crowd were well-behaved and geeky. This was a shame in some ways, because I think both Robin Ince and Josie Long could do with performing before a crowd that was a bit more Glasgow Empire and a bit less Radio 4. Josie Long definitely needs to have some abuse, orange peel and possibly broken glass thrown at her. The resultant ducking might have made her schtick funny, rather than like being pestered by a shouty drunk on the last train home. At least she stood fairly still, whereas everyone else bounded up and down the stage nervously, whilst sweating and shouting. Perhaps tehy need to find a better dealer.

The sciency bits were great, especially the video montage of the Apollo space missions. The fact that they were preaching to the extremely converted, though, did make it feel a tiny bit like being at a Moonies convention. I'm pretty sure Ben Goldacre could have dropped the phrase 'This morning I buggered and eviscerated a newborn and then ate its entrails' into his tirade and immediately got an approving cheer from the audience.

It's possibly a testament to my essential frivolity, but during the Apollo video - prefaced by a really heartfelt introduction and at points deeply moving - I was distracted by the thought of just how insanely cool my hair would look in zero gravity.

My favourite bit was the juggling act, Feeding the Fish who were shiny and sparkly and brilliant, like human fireworks.

One thing that struck me during the show was just how out of touch I am with current tastes in intellectual totty. Loads of women I know bang on about the sexiness of Brain Cox, for instance, whom to me looks like the lovechild of Michael Gove and a large toadstool (even more perplexing is the heartthrob status of Benedict Cumberbatch, surely the secret spwan of Frankie Howerd and a golden retriever). I reckon you could make a passable Ben Goldacre realdoll out of a box of pepperami and some shredded wheat.