Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Writer

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of a Harry Potter book – in that they’re both about apparently ordinary people living hidden lives. These thoughts of Harry Potter seemed relevant as the book opened, with scenes at a public school, where lonely new boy, Bill Roach, notices the arrival of a mysterious teacher. Children are imaginative. Some picture themselves as wizards or witches in a world of uncomprehending muggles. Others might believe they are secret agents, on a mission which their uninspiring fellow pupils know nothing about.

After the opening school chapter, we launch into a spy story, the central character, George Smiley, described as the sort of man Bill Roach might become as an adult. This description served as another hint that, in this Russian doll of a book, I was reading the boy’s story, where he imagines his future self pursuing a Russian mole working for British intelligence.

The title, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of course, comes from a nursery rhyme – tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor… This title sums up much of the novel’s subtlety. There’s a suggestion once again of that link with a childhood game, and of the way our roles in life, doled our arbitrarily in the words of the rhyme, are misleading labels for something more complex. After all, the book presents spies as indistinguishable from ordinary people. In fact spies are better at their job if they are indistinguishable from ordinary people. There’s also a nod in the rhyme to the interchangeability of roles between one side and the other, a situation of double agents who seem to be the embodiment of one system, when they also working for the enemy.

The job of writer isn’t in the Tinker Tailor title, but it could come just after Spy. Spies are often referred to as watchers in the book, and what is a writer if he or she is not a watcher, working for their own little agency? In this case the intelligence offered us is not perfect. Point of view flits about which can be confusing. The portrayal of women is hardly progressive. Nevertheless this was a dossier received with much interest at my own agency.

Main Street, A Journey Through America Past And Present

I didn’t know where to start a review of this book, so I decided to start at the beginning. The Puritan settlers are on the Mayflower sailing for the New World. What sort of main streets would they eventually have in their towns? Well, these people are famously seeking freedom, so it is unlikely they would be big fans of someone telling them how to build their town. On the other hand, they are not seeking freedom in the sense of running through meadows with flowers in their hair. Puritans are religious fundamentalists. They are looking for the freedom to be just as fundamental as they want to be.

So come forward a few hundred years and what do we find? We find a book about the odd, contradictory towns that evolved in America, trying to express freedom and fundamentalism at the same time. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, tells the story of Carol Milford, a clever and ambitious young woman, who at college harbours dreams of a career as a town planner. However, she marries a doctor, who persuades her to settle with him in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Gopher Prairie is about as far from town planning as you can imagine. This place has grown up piecemeal, as a centre for surrounding farms, where farmers can sell their produce, access a few basic services, and buy some essentials. The very fact that the town evolved in this unplanned manner, is supposedly an expression of the freedom of the American way. And yet there is also plenty of Puritanism about Gopher Prairie, curtain twitching, moralising and judgement. You can only be individual here in a narrowly accepted manner. If you are really out of the ordinary, a fey young man with artistic ambitions, or a young woman with new social ideas, the town’s idea of freedom will probably not extend to you. Ironically there is a sense of standardisation about this town which supposedly grew up in such a freewheeling rugged, individual, American manner. Carol discovers that ramshackle Gopher Prairie is virtually identical to many other towns in the American Midwest, as though they had all been laid out to some standard scheme.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is a long meditation on this peculiarly American combination of freedom and rigidity. It’s a big, sprawling book with no discernible plot, like a soap opera; but it’s lack of plot seems carefully planned. It’s not the most obviously exciting read, but it finds danger, excitement and drama hidden in the every day. There are a lot of scenes in kitchens, involving gossip, scandal, cooking, and the odd amputation of the injured limbs of farmers.

There were times when I wondered why I was wading through this interminable description of small town life, but I kept on going and was glad I did. Main Street is a good way to understand America and Americans, especially today as the country struggles with leaders of government who display aspects of dictatorship and chaotic incompetence, in lethal combination.

Ghost Quartet, Boulevard Theatre, Soho, 23rd November 2019

Written by David Malloy and first performed in New York in 2014, Ghost Quartet in a former age might have been described as an oratorio – musical storytelling on profound topics with an orchestra and soloists – though in the case of Ghost Quartet, orchestra and soloists double up and do both jobs. The concept album is perhaps the modern successor to this idea, and Ghost Quartet is indeed a kind of theatrical concept album. I was intrigued by the theatre poster, which by accident or design, mimics the cover of the famous album, Forever Changes, released by Love in 1967. So, anyway, oratorio or concept album, the idea is you have a sequence of songs held together by a kind of story.

Now, the story linking things up is not usually straight forward, and this is certainly the case with Ghost Quartet. There is a bizarre, time-travelling narrative involving, as far as I can tell, an astronomer who cheats on his wife with her sister, leading to the slighted wife vowing supernatural revenge on both husband and sister. This all plays out with reference to, amongst other things, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the jazz of Theolonius Monk, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and Arthur’s C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Oddity. I would advise not worrying too much about the story making sense. Can you tell me the story from Ziggy Stardust, for example? And if you can’t, does it matter? The story is a kind of chandelier where the bits that really stand out are all the lights hanging from it, rather than the frame.

The lights hanging from the chandelier of Ghost Quartet illuminated the theme of existence, of substance set against illusion. The show was full of ghosts and spirits. Here are a few examples:

The light of stars which has taken so long to get to our eyes, that the stars that made it don’t exist any more. The way people change so that a person can all but disappear even though they don’t do anything as dramatic as dying. Actors walking about on a stage portraying people who are not real. Audience members crossing the audience/actor divide by taking part in the production- I got to do some percussion with an egg shaker. The spirits handed out by the cast in the form of snifters of whisky, a drink which can make the clear lines of consciousness go a bit fuzzy.

By the end of the show, once you’ve drunk your whiskey and played your egg shaker, you might conclude it’s not strictly necessary to be dead to be a ghost, and not actually compulsory to be alive to be a real person.

Ghost Quartet was fun, moving, exciting and contemplative. It’s a modern oratorio, but whereas the oratorio in its original form was confined to churches and overtly religious themes, this is a concept album for everyone.

The Gift of an Aran Jumper

Me, wearing one of my grandmother’s Aran jumpers

My brother has been doing some research into our family history. It seems that both my mother’s parents had forebears who came from the north coast of Devon. In the nineteenth century members of their respective families crossed the Bristol Channel to Swansea, where they met and married.

Coincidentally, we recently took a family holiday in north Devon. During a visit to the village of Clovelly, I wandered down the impossibly steep, cobbled main street and ducked into a whitewashed house near the old fishing harbour. Here a talk was in progress on the esoteric subject of Aran jumpers. A local was telling us that each village along this coast once had its own style of heavy woollen jumper. I assumed the design on these garments was simply decorative. How quaint that each village should associate itself with a knitted pattern. Forget quaint. It turned out that part of the reason fishermen wore these jumpers was as a means of identification, so that if they drowned at sea, there was a chance they could be taken home.

Later, after doing some background reading, it seemed that the Clovelly local might have dramatised a little for the sake of tourists. You can’t say there was an official policy of wearing Aran jumpers as means of identification in case of drowning. What you can say is that, in an instinctive kind of way, these articles of clothing made by local women to similar patterns, were a powerful link with home. This was true figuratively, and perhaps even literally in the event of disaster.

Lynton, Devon, home to ancestors of my grandparents

The thing is, when my two brothers and I were young, my grandmother supplied us with a steady stream of beautifully made Aran jumpers. I now wonder whether they might have represented a tradition handed down from north Devon ancestors. My grandmother was following in the footsteps of women who tried to protect their menfolk, even when they were out at sea. Their work kept the men warm on a dangerous journey, and also acted as a candle in a window, which would continue to offer guidance back, even if the worst were to happen. Why would I decide, leaving for university, to take two of my grandmother’s jumpers with me? I suppose they reminded me of home. Who knew that the home they recalled went all the way back to a Devon cottage on a stormy night.

Although I took those jumpers to university with me, it saddens me that I did not fully appreciate their gesture of love, not only from my grandmother, but also from generations of women who came before her. The world has changed and nowadays women as well as men have a better chance of putting to sea, but it still moves me to feel that even as I was heading out of harbour, someone was trying to keep me warm and guide me home.

The Little Prince – Authors Are Not Little Gurus

The Little Prince opens with the author’s test to differentiate an enlightened child-like imagination from that of a serious-minded adult. This assessment involves a picture of a snake which has recently swallowed an elephant. Boring old adults, glancing at the narrow head and tail of the snake with a big lump in the middle, see a hat.

For me, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella gave rise to concerns about passing the snake test. How should I react to an odd story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara and meets a boy from outer space? This extraterrestrial boy reaches Earth via tiny asteroids variously populated by a king with no subjects, a drinker who drinks because he is ashamed of drinking, a business man setting about owning the stars, a vain man with no one to praise him but himself, a geographer who doesn’t know where anything is, and a lamp lighter who has to light and extinguish his lamps every few seconds on his minuscule world. The description of these characters might set me thinking about all kinds of topics, from materialism to the nature of power. The problem is, given the book’s fanciful tone, such an earnest reading seems wrong. It’s like failing the snake test and seeing a boring old hat. Conversely, seeing the book as nothing more than the hallucinogenic whimsy of an exhausted pilot probably wouldn’t be right either, bearing in mind that The Little Prince has sold hundreds of millions of copies, and enjoyed extensive critical appreciation devoted to its deeper meanings.

So what to do? One answer might be to view The Little Prince not as a work of spiritual guidance, but as a story, which is what it is. An author setting himself up as some kind of guru is always vulnerable to the fact that changing circumstances eventually make a nonsense of any advice. “See with your heart and not your eyes” is a famous bit of advice from The Little Prince. Well, yes I get the point, until I see people making emotional decisions when they would be better served acting rationally. This is where a story has an advantage over something more factual. A story in its fictional nature has a naturally light touch, offering a quiet and humane acknowledgement that any guidance it provides may have no substance at all.

This makes it hard to give a star rating on Amazon or Goodreads. Do I rate for good advice, or bad advice, or for no advice at all? I don’t know. As a purely personal kind of response I will give 4 stars to an interesting, quirky, funny and moving story.

Perfect Review Whatever

Perfect Sound Whatever is James Acaster’s account of his life in 2017, a year of stress, both personally and professionally, from which he took refuge in hundreds of albums released the previous year. As he accumulated these albums he built evidence for the humorous assertion that 2016 was the greatest year in music ever. But the humour hides a deadly serious intent to persuade you that 2016 really was the greatest year in music ever.

As chance would have it, I spent 2016 working my way through Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums of all time, a project culminating in a list of sixty favourite tracks posted on my blog. So I was always going to love the idea for Perfect Sound Whatever. But did I end up agreeing with this claim that 2016 was the greatest year in music? In answer I would like to mention the time when James has a late night snack in New York. He buys lasagna, heats it up, tucks in with a serving spoon and is disappointed. Later, drunk and desperate he turns to the now cold meal and discovers a magical transformation in its cold creaminess, with crispy bits around the edges. A few days after this gastronomic transfiguration, he tries to recreate the experience with another portion of the same lasagna, using the same oven and the same fridge, only to cook up a disgusting, chilly mess. The one variable in this experiment was the fact that James wasn’t drunk the second time. So, the moral of this tale is that there are two things to consider in judging the music of 2016 – the music and the person listening to it. James was going through a turbulent period in his life, and times of trouble can bring with them a kind of hypersensitivity. I recall very clearly listening to Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick when my father was seriously ill. Every tumbling note from Ian Anderson’s flute sounded like bird song. The Victorians used to say that hunger is the best sauce, and hunger for comfort is sometimes better than Hi-Fi when it comes to music. I think something similar happened to James. Sharpened awareness collided with a lot of good music, which turned out to be as delicious as that first serving of cold lasagna. But was that meal objectively delicious, or subjectively tasty? As George Harrison said in Savoy Truffle, “you know that what you eat you are, but what tastes sweet now turns so sour.”

So I don’t agree that 2016 was the best year in music ever. The evidence really boils down to the fact that lots of albums were released and James Acaster liked many of them. And the thing about the comic approach is that you can say it was all a joke anyway, when the background of personal trauma and the dedication to 2016’s music, all suggests that the premise of this book should not be dismissed as a joke. But my reservations don’t take away from James Acaster’s musical journey and what it meant to him. James, as most of us do at one time or another, felt lost and alone in 2017, and in those times music can be a saviour. From humanity’s earliest days, music has been a way of bringing people together, to work as a team. We see that in all kinds of music from sea shanties and marching tunes, to delirious sing-alongs with Blur at Glastonbury. Of course one lot of marchers can clash with another, so it makes sense to join not with one exclusive crew or marching band, but with the music of humanity in general; and James is very good at throwing himself across all kinds of musical frontiers. Along with hilarious accounts of wretched interactions with healthcare professionals, and disastrous dinner dates with sociopathic women, this musical eclecticism was the most attractive aspect of the book for me – a welcome antidote to the present political situation.

James was an occasionally grumpy, but mostly charming companion who thanked me for reading his book on its final page. The only thing I would suggest is that he is the sort of person who when in the grip of an enthusiasm is affronted if the world does not share his passion. There is a generosity here, and something more difficult, a sense that James’s experience should be everybody else’s. Perhaps the ability to go on your journey, whilst letting others go on theirs, is an equally generous approach. I think, to be fair, there is an acknowledgment of this in the book’s title, Perfect Sound Whatever, taken from a song by Jeff Rosenstock. A perfect sound can also be ordinary or imperfect. No one person, and no one time, has a monopoly on perfection.

Perfect Sound Whatever is an extremely funny and often moving book, with great suggestions if your music listening has become stale and in need of a shake up. I really enjoyed it.

The Nuances Of Seeing The World In Black And White

Terry Pratchett’s Dodger tells the story of a Victorian tosher, a practitioner of a now lost profession, which involved searching through London’s sewers for money or valuable items dropped in the streets above. The book is loosely based on historical reality, with our tosher hero meeting many famous Victorian celebrities – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, the civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette – Pratchett taking historical liberties to get all of these people together at the same London house party.

I think the book was most interesting in those sections that make you think about truth. This sounds academic and high falutin’, but really is better thought of in the heated context of tabloid news. At one point, Dodger, trying to smarten himself up for a meeting with his new friend Charles Dickens, goes to a barber for a shave. Unfortunately he chooses Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street as his barber. Sweeney turns out to be a former soldier suffering from PTSD, who has killed a number of his clients. Dodger, realising that the man is deranged, relieves him of his razor just as the police arrive. Dodger sees that Sweeney is ill rather than evil, but Charles Dickens in his role as journalist, explains how a nuance-averse public likes to see the world in black and white. So when Dickens writes the incident up in The Morning Chronicle, Dodger becomes a hero to Sweeney’s villain.

Charles Dickens, of course, portrayed a character called the Artful Dodger in his novel Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger lives with Fagin, a Jewish man who runs a group of youthful pickpockets. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger also lives with a Jewish man, the clever, artistic, cultured Solomon. So what’s going on there? Perhaps Pratchett’s quiet message is that the real Charles Dickens would have had to rewrite events somewhat for public consumption, just as he did in that imagined scene with Sweeney Todd. The real Dickens would have to make an ambivalent Dodger, who finds valuables people are silly enough to lose, into pickpocket Artful Dodger, who is much more clearly a criminal. The real Dickens might also have to work with a prejudiced, stereotypical view of Jewish people, so that Dodger’s Jewish mentor, a decent, kind and cultured man on the run from European prejudice, becomes miserly, sneaky Fagin.

This was the aspect of Dodger I found most interesting, the idea of truth filtered through the sort of writing that people will accept. Even the book’s modern narrative voice, seemingly immune to the prejudice of the past, has its limitations. This voice is far away from the events it describes, and muddles those events to get, for example, famous Victorians at the same party. At one point Buckingham Palace, seen through the eyes of light-fingered Dodger, becomes a “target rich environment,” a jarringly modern phrase. So this Pratchett narrative voice is just another point of view, not the truth.

I enjoyed all these thoughtful elements of the book. Less compelling was the plot, particularly in the second half, when it becomes a tale of derring-do in pursuit of justice and the love of a good woman. Overall, Dodger is a kind of Victorian melodrama meets modern YA adventure, infused with fascinating reflections on how people filter the world through what they read.

Trial By Error

I read this book because working in a pharmacy, I hoped that having an understanding of the psychological basis of error might be helpful in avoiding it.

The book starts with some history. In the early twentieth century Freud was pondering on apparent slips and “accidents” having a basis in the subconscious. I suppose according to Freud, if someone made a slip in dispensing medication it would be because they had some deep seated dislike of a patient, or harboured unconscious opinions about their treatment! Thankfully, other views from the early twentieth century have aged better. In 1905 Ernst Mach wrote that “knowledge and error flow from the same mental sources, only success can tell one from the other.” Mach is referring to the fact that certain helpful types of behaviour, can also cause problems. For example, people have the ability to learn skills which involve a high level of automatic facility, allowing musicians to play musical instruments, typists to type, drivers to drive cars – all without thinking about the mechanics of every string plucked, key pressed or gear changed. But this automatic facility, so useful in many situations, can be a liability when circumstances alter. Step from a manual car into an automatic and you can run into problems when your left foot wants to press a clutch that isn’t there. In a pharmacy, if you have dispensed hundreds of boxes of a medication in a particular strength, there is an opening for error when you come to dispense an unusual strength of that same medication.

I suppose an awareness of this kind of situation does potentially help guard against times when routine brings the possibility of diminished conscious control. But Human Error is not the book to go to if you want simple answers. First there are those bad outcomes arising from useful behaviour. Then there’s the sense that an error is rarely confined to one person. When things go wrong it is usually the result of lots of people making many decisions meeting varied circumstances, which finally lead down to the unfortunate individual who makes a blunder – the last piece in a malign jigsaw puzzle. Then there are the traps in all the means we employ to guard against error – automated systems leading to loss of skills in dealing with problems; or systems protected by layers of defence tending to soak up hidden deficiencies until there is a sudden failure. Oddly, I came away from this book with a greater acceptance of error, even in trying to find a way to avoid it. Error is inevitable, and if you make error a forbidden sin, then you can never discuss or learn from things going wrong.

It is perhaps ironic that Human Error is a highly academic book, which leaves nothing to chance in its numbered sections, sub sections and sub sub sections. It does not flow. Concepts have to be nailed down into endless acronyms, leaving me floundering amongst SLIMs, SLIs, THERPs, PSFs, PIFs and SUs. Even the name Three Mile Island gets turned into TMI. I did not enjoy wading through this academic acronym code. I can’t see any problem with calling Three Mile Island by that name as many times as required.

Nevertheless, if you can live with the style, and accept that you won’t find an easy prescription that will make you a more accurate, less error prone person, this is a very interesting book. I would recommend it to anyone working in a job where a small slip can have serious consequences; or to anyone making big decisions, where small, unintended consequences in those decisions can store up serious problems for the future.

A Poem Built With What3words

 

The view from humid.wiser.audit

 

What3words is a location app, dividing the Earth’s surface into 3m x 3m squares each with a unique three word name. Out on my bike at the weekend I started collecting word locations I might use in a poem. Here is the result, using some of the locations I rode through, combined with other locations around the world.

What3words

I stopped at a cafe where I found

Capers.anchovies.nuance

Collecting words.together.sounds

In a mood of sleepy.stop.salience

Like a cars.varying.guru

Using slick.laptop.glue

And stick.trumpet.type

I send my latest.scrap.invite

To arrive.train.alight

In my opinions.nest.igloo

The way there is over grass.parade.hint

Happy.stomp.hills

And walks.factories.print

In a field.readjust.fiction

Around the golfer.tree.diction

And via a wowed.blank.tone

And a balloon.patio.phone

I will give you a call and bring you gearbox.dispenser.home

Woodstock For Someone Who Wasn’t There

Woodstock 1969
Me, Mote Park 1969

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, three days of love and music.

In 2019, it is perhaps good to take a moment to remember Woodstock. This is not, I have to admit, because Woodstock and its time are a shining beacon, a state of grace from which we have fallen. The six year old me might have been running around in Maidstone’s Mote Park in August 1969. This was a point in my mother’s life that she recalled as “always sunny.” It wasn’t of course. In my own little world there were, no doubt, chilly days. And as for the world at large, take your pick of wars in Asia, or music festivals which failed to go nearly as well as Woodstock. Woodstock itself did not really indicate a new social promise. Keeping half a million people together in a field in increasingly unsanitary conditions could not have gone on longer than three days. Inevitably, all those people would then have to go back to their normal lives, to avoid dysentery if nothing else.

So Woodstock did not provide an escape from the world. It is more an idea of freedom than its reality. Fittingly, someone who wasn’t even at the festival wrote the definitive song about it. Joni Mitchell was in New York City in August 1969, fulfilling a prior engagement. Her song Woodstock came out of a dreamy longing that came from not being there.

In Woodstock, the singer meets someone on the road heading to Yasgur’s Farm. This festival goer comes out with some dreamy lines about about how people are made of stardust, and describes a desire to get back to the land and set their soul free. This sells it to our singer narrator. In asking to tag along we get these ambivalent lines:

Then can I walk beside you

I have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog

In something turning

So has she gone to Woodstock to feel like a cog in something turning, suggesting a positive sense of being part of something bigger than herself? Or has she gone to Woodstock to escape feeling like a cog turning in her mundane life in the city? It’s not clear.

Maybe she’s a cog no matter where she is, both in that negative city sense, and in the positive feeling of being part of something bigger than herself. Joni Mitchell didn’t actually get to Yasgur’s Farm, but the song suggests that you can feel like a turning cog anywhere – in a field in front of Jimi Hendrix, in New York, in Mote Park. The song suggests that if you look at it right, the world can be one never ending Woodstock Festival, where the sanitation needn’t be an imminent threat to public health.