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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.


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Monday, 29 February 2016

Eccentrics?

Tuesday, February 29th., Comarques, Thorpe-le-Soken.

As regards the great invasion scare, the two batteries 'stood by' yesterday morning from 4 a.m. till sunrise and today from 5.30 a.m. till sunrise, already to move off - except that bits were not in harness. The reinforcement which came in a hurry from Colchester here consists of convalescent wounded gunners from the front, appointed only to light duty and to extreme emergency duty. The whole East coast has been in alarm about a possible German invasion for the last week or so, but I haven't believed it and still don't. How do these alarms arise I wonder? Frankly, if a raid did occur the coastal defences would simply not have a look in against the picked Germans who would land. They are not only third rate, but very badly generalled. Indeed it is comic and is so regarded by the officers who are intelligent. I just feel sorry for the men who have been sleeping out night after night on the Clacton shore in rain and snow. It is always those at the bottom of the pile who suffer for the eccentricities of their 'superiors'.  

Speaking of eccentricities I sometimes wonder if I am regarded as rather eccentric? I am thinking particularly of my desire (some would call it an obsession) to have things 'just so' I have always liked to have things placed properly; to my way of thinking it is about feeling comfortable. I know some readers found Edwin Clayhanger's finickiness rather amusing but in fact I was more or less describing myself, or at least how I would be were I in Edwin's shoes. Sometimes I wish I could be in Edwin's shoes! How delightful not to be married, to be the master of one's own time, to have a sufficient income and a house just suited to one's purposes. Thinking about things as I am this evening I wonder if it was really credible that Edwin should have forsaken all that comfort for what - Hilda may have been very charming and he no doubt anticipated sexual rewards, but it couldn't last, and he must have known that? Anyway I shall stick to my routines in the face of knowing smiles, and maybe will have the last laugh, quietly of course.


Saturday, 27 February 2016

Wish you were here

This novel by Graham Swift is contained within just a few hours of the lives of a couple who own and manage a holiday caravan site on the Isle of Wight, but it expands beyond those limits to involve the reader in the history of those characters; not so much there factual history, but their thoughts and feelings as we are invited to look back on their lives. To me this is the book's strength, but also its weakness.


Image result for swift wish you were hereThe thing is that Swift makes his reader work hard. He wastes no words on introducing his characters, or setting their scene - we have to construct that for ourselves. Swift's approach is minimalist as regards information he gives the reader about where to locate these people. He doesn't even describe them except in a vague sort of way as they appear to others. And yet he gives us more insight than we might think necessary about their thoughts, imaginings and motivations. This seems to me to be an odd combination. I like the idea of having to work as a reader and it strikes me that if Swift gave a little more context, a little more dialogue, a little more of how the characters physically see each other, and a lot less detail about their thought processes, then this would be a better book. But it is Swift's book not mine, and clearly what he is interested in is their mental state.


The central character, middle aged eldest son of a failed dairy farmer who has committed suicide, is stricken by guilt about almost everything that has ever happened to him, so it seems. And he appears likely to destroy his relationship with his wife in spite of the fact that she has been slowly and successfully making him into a more contented man. The catalyst for his fall back into depression is the death of his estranged soldier brother. Swift is good at the atmospheric things and builds tension very successfully, but the denouement is disappointing. Also there are, for me, some false steps when additional people are introduced (purchasers of the farm, an army major, a vicar and a policeman) and we get something of their thoughts as well which appear to not add to the narrative in any useful way. It's as if Swift can't resist speculating about what his characters would be thinking/feeling and doesn't want us to miss out. To me it would be better if he told us what these people were doing in relation to the central characters, and what they saw when they saw them.

It reads as if I didn't enjoy this book but I was in fact quite gripped by it. There is no doubt that Swift has a gift for capturing the chaotic thought processes that most of us experience, the vacillations and 'what ifs' we are prey to. I just felt it could have been even better.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Marriages!

February 2016
 Comarques, Thorpe-le-Soken.

Last month I published "These Twain" the last part of my Clayhanger trilogy. It is selling well both here and in the USA. Several people whose opinion I value have commented on the authenticity of the marital conflict between Edwin and Hilda. It is authentic because it reflects my own experience! I wonder now why I married, though it seemed a good idea at the time. There is the sexual side of things of course but the price for fleeting moments of sexual release seems inordinately high.

Perhaps Marguerite is a particularly difficult woman, certainly she is very temperamental, but I suspect that the struggle for power in a relationship goes on in most marriages, at least outside the labouring classes. There the issue would be resolved in favour of the man by means of a few sharp blows, or it would be surrendered. In the more 'enlightened' strata of society the war is prolonged and hard fought, subtly contested and rarely brought to a satisfactory conclusion. That is my experience.


Only a few days ago I was ambushed one night by Marguerite. She came into my room as I was preparing for bed (we have separate bedrooms)and I thought it was to say good night. I have an established ritual of getting ready for bed, of which she is perfectly aware - it is perhaps too poetic and artistic but easy to accommodate. She said: "Is it good night or .....? I said: "It is good night". Presumably this was an invitation to engage in sexual activity, but I was unwell and exhausted whereas she was evidently stimulated by amusements in London during the day. She became upset and tearful, which surprised me extremely and cost me a very bad night, the third, and I was in no way to blame. I have never been able to get the idea of jealousy out of her head so I no longer try, but I find it rather offensive. She seems to think, or at least she alleges, that her trips to London offend me but in fact they don't and often she returns in a 'frisky' mood which I enjoy if I am in good health. She is still an attractive woman and though I am now nearing 50 I can still 'keep my end up' as they say in the Five Towns!

Where will it all end? I intend to struggle on, and in fact, with all my war work, I have little time to think seriously about any alternative. Maybe we will find some sort of accommodation but I doubt it. Perhaps when the war is over there will be more opportunity for distraction and so less conflict, but I am not optimistic. Will the marriage between Edwin and Hilda survive? About as long as mine I should think!

Friday, 19 February 2016

Varieties

I am wondering if there is just one David Mitchell or if the name is a cover for a group of writers with distinctive styles who are not otherwise able to get published? Take "Black Swan Green" for example and compare it with "Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet", or with "Cloud Atlas", or "Boneclocks". Can these really be by the same writer?

Image result for david mitchell black swan greenBSG is a story told in the first person as if by a 13 year old boy, so the first thing to say is that, in my view, no 13 year old is that articulate. But once you as reader come to terms with Jason's ability with words (and Mitchell makes him an embryo 'poet' to make this more plausible) the story and characters are sufficient to carry you through. Essentially this is a book about growing up in the modern world (though it is set in the 80s) where peer popularity is everything, sensitivity is to be avoided at all cost, and bullying is in the natural order of things. However Mitchell can't resist making points along the way about war, gypsies, musical appreciation and stereotyping. Not that these detract from the story because they are woven in very naturally, apart perhaps for the gypsies which seems less authentic. 

I liked the period atmosphere, the Falklands war, Thatcherism, class markers, gender roles and teaching in transition. Not so sure that any school could be quite as bad as the one Jason attends, but then again I wasn't at school in the 80s so am in no position to say. I am guessing that Mitchell was so this may reflect his own experience?

Where will he go next? More strangeness of the "Boneclocks" sort or back to more conventional story-telling? Maybe he will try writing from a female perspective? The man can certainly write and I am looking forward already to his next work.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Judgements

I have been struggling for some weeks now to find a book that really engaged my interest. Several have caught my attention at the library, but having taken them home and settled down to read I quickly lost interest - two dimensional characters, predictable plot devices, bad sex scenes, inauthenticity. By the way, how is it that some books seem to draw our attention as they sit on the shelves in a library or in a bookshop? I am guessing that long experience has given serious readers a sort of sixth sense, but it hasn't been working for me lately!


Image result for McEwan Childrens actYesterday however I borrowed "The Childrens Act" by Ian McEwan and have finished it already. A short novel but beautifully constructed, full of interesting detail and insight and superb characterisation. Helpful I suppose that the main characters are about my sort of age, but not my background, and McEwan brings them to life superbly. The central character is a female judge, dealing with family issues, particularly things like the custody of children where there is dispute. In the book she has some very difficult cases to deal with, rather profound moral dilemmas, and at the same time is trying to cope with problems in her own marriage. The writing is often very powerful, especially in my view the scene where Fiona (the judge) is talking in hospital to a seriously ill teenage boy. I felt as if I was sitting in the corner of the room listening to their conversation. Now that is my idea of writing!

It may be time to re-read McEwan's other novels rather than searching for some elusive new experience.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Smoke and Mirrors

The UK government has committed itself to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global strategy to tackle climate change. One element of this reduction is the conversion of a major power station (Drax) from burning coal to biomass. The claim that this is in fact beneficial is open to doubt.

The Drax power station is the largest in the UK and generates between 6 and 7% of the country's electricity. It was built to generate electricity by burning coal, but over the last 10 years has been undergoing a conversion to burn biomass instead. Biomass is organic, plant-based material sourced from forests, forest residues, and dedicated energy crops that are not suitable for other uses.(1)


Coal is a fossil fuel and is a stock of carbon captured from the atmosphere by ancient forests. Carbon flows back into the atmosphere as CO2 when coal is burned thus increasing the stock of greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming. Biomass also contains carbon which has been captured by trees and other vegetation from the atmosphere, and carbon is released when it is burned. However, proponents of biomass use argue that overall significantly less harm arises from its use. In fact some would go so far as to say it is 'carbon neutral'. This claim is largely based on an assumption that biomass is waste material from sustainable forests which regenerate and recapture the CO2 from the atmosphere returning it to the stock held in the biosphere.

Drax claims that 122 kg CO2/MWh (kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per Mega watt hour of electricity generated) is emitted in its biomass units. It compares this to coal emissions of around 1,018 kg CO2/MWh and gas at around 437kg.(2) The Drax biomass conversion is part of the reason the UK's coal use fell below 50 million tonnes in 2014 and this contributed to a 9.7% reduction in UK carbon emissions in 2014, a record for a year with a growing economy.(3) The UK government is so committed to the Drax project that it has guaranteed the conversion cost (4) and is using the data to claim to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions.(5) However, significant questions have been raised regarding the methodology for calculating the impact of biomass burning. For example Biofuelwatch, an independent organisation providing information about the environment, claims that biomass is as harmful to the atmosphere as fossil fuels.(6) An independent analysis of biomass impact in the USA concluded that “for biomass replacement of coal-fired power plants, the net cumulative emissions in 2050 are approximately equal to what they would have been burning coal”.(7) A report by one of the UK government's own departments concluded that “the energy input requirement of biomass electricity generated from North American wood used by the UK in 2020 is likely to be significantly greater than other electricity generating technologies, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and wind.”(8) A thorough investigation by Climate Brief, a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, came to the conclusion that it was impossible to determine, on the available evidence, if biomass was or was not helping to solve climate change.(9)

The evidence is unclear because there is no standard methodology in use which takes account not only of the direct emissions from the power station but factors like forest growth rates, how much of the biomass is 'waste', what time scale to use, transportation, and what environmental impact the trees would have if not harvested. What is clear is that the directors of Drax, and indirectly the UK government, are using the most favourable assumptions when making their calculations and thus showing significant benefits. This is important not just for this project but because similarly questionable schemes may be operating worldwide throwing into doubt claims about progress in tackling global warming.


References

(1) Drax website -frequently asked questions http://www.drax.com/biomass/benefits-of-biomass/#sthash.x8x18tvD.dpuf See also diagram at the end of this paper


(3) Drax website policy statement http://www.drax.com/biomass/sustainability-policy/

(4) Department of Energy and Climate Change website https://www.gov.uk/government/news/drax-biomass-backed-by-uk-guarantee


(6) Biofuelwatch website - frequently asked questions http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/biomass-faq-2/#C6


(8) Stephenson and McKay Lifecycle Impacts of Biomass Electricity July 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/349024/BEAC_Report_290814.pdf


Friday, 5 February 2016

Disappointed

Sometimes books just let you down. Or I suppose I should say that it is the authors who somehow just can't maintain their high standard every time - how horrid of them!

I just managed to get to the end of "The Difference Engine" but it was a close run thing. I nearly gave up with only about thirty pages left to read, which would have been a record for me I think. This was a novel which started well and went downhill; steeply downhill as it got towards the end. I had been drawn to it, having read "Neuromancer", by the author's name, and also by its reputation as a 'cyberpunk' novel - sounded fascinating. Additionally it was labelled as an 'SF Masterwork'. The fact that it was a collaboration with someone else (Bruce Sterling) should have rung alarm bells - in my experience when a well-known author collaborates it seems to be a case that he has run out of ideas and is lending his name to someone else whose book it is in fact. But maybe I am wrong.

Image result for difference engine gibsonAnyway, I liked the premise of this book - an alternative history of Victorian England - and the introductory female character seemed interesting, but she soon disappeared to be replaced by a series of two dimensional characters who failed to gain my enthusiasm. It seemed to me that the authors had researched the Victorian period in a fairly superficial way and had thrown into their melting pot every personality and situation they could think of, then mixed it all up and finally worked a story in. Obviously I didn't expect it to be convincing in the sense that a contemporary novel would be, but fewer ingredients and more attention to development would have been good. As for the sex scenes!! I seem to recall from "Neuromancer" that Gibson alluded successfully to sex without actually getting into gory detail, and succeeded admirably by doing so. I can only assume that it was the work of the collaborator that gave us these rather crass interludes.

So, for me an opportunity missed and a great disappointment. Not that I have given up on Gibson, but I shall avoid any further collaborations.