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Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie
Midnight’s Children (5*)

Midnight’s Children won the Booker Prize in 1981 and was judged the best of the Bookers both in 1993 and 2008. I anticipated something outstanding. It certainly seemed so in the early pages:

       “One Kashmiri morning in the early spring of 1915, my grandfather Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth while attempting to pray. Three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and lay before his eyes on the prayer-mat, transformed into rubies. Lurching back until he knelt with his head once more upright, he found that the tears which had sprung to his eyes had solidified, too; and at that moment, as he brushed diamonds contemptuously from his lashes, he resolved never to kiss the earth again for any god or man.”

Yet, several times as I read through (and it is long), I began to think of it as a four star book rather than five.   

It tells the story of Saleem Sinai and his family, and the way that story intertwines with the bloody conflicts of the Indian subcontinent. We learn about the horror of the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 when the British Army opened fire upon a crowd of unarmed civilians killing 379 and injuring over 1,200, Indian independence and the partition of Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladeshi wars of 1971-72, and the bulldozing of the Delhi slums and forced sterilization programme of 1976. Country and family are intricately interconnected: Saleem believes he shapes history and that history destroys his family. This, though, is the fictional Saleem’s fictionalised version of history: “... in autobiography... what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe...” (p270)

It assaults the senses with all the terrible noise, dirt, heat and stench of India, and its awful, heaving inequalities. There are wailing widows, midgets, giants, army officers, magicians, film stars, black burqas, poverty, illness, deformity, addiction and disability. Old men crouch in the dust beside the road chewing betel nuts, expectorating streams of red liquid into a spittoon placed further and further away, while street urchins dodge past, playing chicken. Saleem Sinai has an enormous nose which is congested with mucus and constantly drips snot.

The central conceit is that the thousand and one children born during the hour after midnight on the 15th August, 1947, the moment of Indian independence, have magical powers. One can change sex at will, another can eat metal, one can travel through time and yet another can perform real magic. Those born closest to midnight have the greatest powers: Saleem, born on the stroke of the hour, is telepathic and can read minds. All of the Midnight’s Children are able to communicate through him. He hopes that they will work together towards the good of India, but they disagree, and their powers are seen as a threat. Later, Saleem loses his telepathy but gains a hyper-sensitive sense of smell.

Saleem portrays politicians as ridiculous and corrupt. Prime Minister Morarji Desai drinks his own urine for its health benefits (absolutely true, “the water of life”; and if you think that’s disgusting you might prefer bottled cow urine instead, available from at least one London shop on the shelf underneath the naan bread; Desai, by the way, lived to the age of ninety-nine; one wonders what he would have reached had he not drunk so much of his own pee).

The Nehru-Gandhi clan comes off worst. Indira Gandhi perpetrates electoral fraud, economic corruption, wars, genocide, and the destruction of the Midnight’s Children. With them she destroys all promise and hope for a better India. She is “The Widow”, portrayed as a wicked witch with centre-parted hair “snow-white on one side, blackasnight on the other, so that, depending on which profile she presented, she resembled either a stoat or an ermine”, an analogue of her economy. Her 1975 State of Emergency brought about the suspension of civil rights, the jailing of political opponents, slum clearances and the compulsory sterilization of over six million lower class men. The sterilization programme was overseen by her eldest son, Sanjay Gandhi, who has “lips like a woman’s labia” (you will never look at photographs of him in the same way again). 

During the 1982 Festival of India in London, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had clearly not read the book, invited Salman Rushdie to lunch with Mrs. Gandhi. Rushdie declined. The lunch went ahead without him, during which Mrs. Thatcher said that she thought Midnight’s Children “a fine contribution to the Anglo-Indian cultural bond”. Indira Gandhi sat impassive and stony-faced.

The passage Mrs. Gandhi found most offensive was an accusation that she caused her husband’s death by cruelly neglecting him. She sued for libel at the High Court in London, and won. The passage was removed from all future editions. Libel by a fictional character is still libel.  

Why did I doubt the brilliance of the book? The problem lies in its length and complexity, the frequent digression, the unfamiliar cultural, religious and geographical references, and the enormous cast of characters. It is like a Victorian or Russian novel. I think Rushdie must have done this deliberately to reflect the disorder of crowded, intermingling lives. Despite him giving them distinctive names such as Hairoil, Nussie the Duck and The Brass Monkey (names which sometimes change), I found it hard to remember how they all fitted in, or to care.

I did find myself thinking about the story a lot after reading (always the sign of a good book), and writing this has helped clarify things. Having now found lists of characters and vocabulary, I would get more out of it a second time, perhaps in a year or so. 

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Friday, 9 April 2021

Council Tax

It is once more that time of the year when the charges for council services and water go up. I have a note of what we have paid in this same house over nearly 30 years. 

Charges (£)
 1993-1994    2021-2022    increase
 Council Tax     562   1727    x 3.07
 Water and Sewerage    225   758  x 3.36

According to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, these bills would have multiplied just 2.08 times had they increased in line with consumer price inflation: i.e. the figures for council tax and water would have been £1,170 and £469. In other words, we are now paying half as much again as we did in 1993.

It feels like we are paying half as much again for half as much. There used to be better bus services, the dustbins were emptied more often, roads and footpaths were better maintained, there were more libraries and they were open for longer, there was an enormous choice of adult education classes in arts, crafts, sports, languages and practical subjects at a wide range of locations, there were literary and arts festivals, and concerts with visiting orchestras.

As regards water and sewerage, why should that be so much more expensive (I know, it will cost less with a water meter when the kids have finally left)? Is it because of leaks, or because of privatisation and profits?  

I don’t want to get into the murky, smoke and mirrors world of local government finances (especially the funding of schools and the police) other than to summarise Which? magazine in that the money raised from council tax goes towards funding local services such as maintaining roads, collecting bins, providing bus services, cleaning streets and social care. 

That last category accounts for one heck of a rapidly growing proportion, now approaching 60%, nearly £26 billion per year. The Local Government Association adds: “As a result, councils may have no choice but to spend much less on other important services like fixing roads or maintaining parks and libraries.”

Monday, 5 April 2021

Occupational Therapy Corners

The last post about the stair rail attracted more comments than usual. They ranged from the resigned to the resolute. The gist seems to be ‘hold on tight as you descend the slippery slope.’

As mentioned once before, Mrs. D. is an Occupational Therapist. Not everyone knows what they are or what they do. When I went to register our son’s birth, the clerk asked for the mother’s occupation and then wrote “Occupation Therapist” on the certificate. “No,” I said, “it’s Occupational Therapist – it has ‘al’ at the end.” If I hadn’t checked again, I would have left that office with a certificate showing the mother as an “Occupation Therapistal”.

Occupational Therapists provide equipment and therapies to help people regain their daily lives after serious illness or injury. Mrs. D. therefore very much approves of stair rails and anything else that make homes safer. She also informs me that our stairs, being straight, will be perfect for fitting a stair lift.  

Another previous post, from 2019, included this picture of our kitchen. You may notice that the cooker hood protrudes at just the right height for clumsy tall persons to hit their heads. It has quite sharp corners. Heads tend to bleed rather a lot. I’ve now done it once too often. It’s much better today, thank you. I’ve just spotted that the cooker hood now has these neat enhancements. I call them “occupational therapy corners”. What next?

Thursday, 1 April 2021

New Month Old Post: Stair Rail

(First posted 9th October 2018)

Soon after moving to our current home nearly thirty years ago, I fitted a handrail to help my ageing father and struggling mother-in-law get up and down stairs. They hauled themselves up, breathless, with stiff backs and aching knees, and then eased themselves down, woodwork and bone groaning as one.

I brought it home on top of the car, which was a bit risky because at 14 feet long (4.25 metres) it stuck out both front and back. It’s a pig’s ear handrail – a reference to the cross-sectional shape, not the quality of fitting.

Neither my father or mother-in-law need it now, but even in my darkest moments, I never imagined that I would. 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Niall Deacon: Twenty Worlds

Niall Deacon:
Twenty Worlds: The Extraordinary Story of Planets Around Other Stars (1*, but possibly 5* for some)
I have a backlog of books to write up. 
Twenty Worlds is a clear account of difficult concepts explained by means of well-chosen analogies to make them accessible to non-specialists. Enthusiasts of the undoubtedly brilliant scientific reasoning behind astronomical discovery might well give it five stars (there is, after all, no shortage in the universe) but I couldn’t finish it. Unjustly, under my system, that scores only one.

It is a personal starring system, as personal as the giving and receiving of books. You express how much you like a particular book – namely Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox’s The Planets, reviewed previously in November – and receive others perceived to be similar. This isn’t. My expression should have been more specific. What it does is to select twenty planets orbiting distant stars and explain the methods by which they were discovered, and what they tell us. They have names like 51 Peg b. There is little about what these worlds might be like.

There are some interesting ideas. For example, how can we know there are planets around distant stars if our telescopes cannot see them? It turns out, in a sense, that when a planet orbits a star, the star also orbits the planet. It is a bit like a seesaw with you or me on one end and an elephant on the other. It would balance, but the balance point would be very close to the elephant. Strictly, Jupiter does not orbit the sun, it orbits a balance point just above the sun’s surface. The sun orbits the same balance point. Viewed from a distance, Jupiter’s orbit makes the sun appear to wobble towards and away, and from side to side. The earth makes it wobble too, but almost undetectably because the earth is much smaller and lighter than Jupiter. The earth-sun balance point is inside the sun close to its centre. This phenomenon reveals only huge, heavy planets.

But how do we know a star wobbles when we cannot even see that? Another analogy explains it: the Doppler Effect, i.e. the way the sound of a fire engine changes from a higher to a lower pitch as it passes by. This happens because, when the fire engine is moving towards you, the sound waves are closer together than when it is moving away (the waves still travel at the same speed but are emitted from increasingly closer points and then increasingly distant points). The same happens with light. So, if the orbit of a planet causes a distant star to wobble repeatedly towards and away from us, the frequency of the light keeps changing. The spectrum of light from a star contains dark lines where some frequencies have been filtered out by local conditions, and these dark lines will oscillate towards one end and then the other end of the spectrum. That is what we are able to detect.

It gets cleverer, such as detecting planets by variations in the brightness of stars as planets move in front of them, and analysing the spectrum of light emitted by a planet to determine the constituents of its atmosphere. It is even possible to photograph some of these planets: the book includes a picture of four white spots around star number HR 8799 and discusses the imaging techniques that make this possible. 
And so it continues. In essence, this is astrophysics without the mathematics. I gave up. Lazy, I know, but just like in a neutron star, electron degeneracy pressure was unable to stop my brain from collapsing in upon itself and pulsing out radio waves.

If you find this fascinating, this may be the book for you.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath:
The Bell Jar (5*)

Another classic not read until now, prompted by the recent news story that permission has been granted for a devotee of the author to be buried near her in the same churchyard at Heptonstall, Yorkshire. Despite living two hundred miles away, the 44 year-old woman has long admired Plath’s writing and had felt “profoundly spiritual” during a visit to the church. It illustrates the strength of attachment some still feel for Sylvia Plath and her stories and poetry.

Published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and not under her own name until posthumously in 1967, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a Roman à clef novel giving a fictionalised account of events from her life.

Esther Greenwood, a clever young woman who sails through school, wins scholarships and writes brilliantly, secures an internship with a prominent New York women’s magazine. Initially, she muddles through, despite being socially out of her depth and unimpressed by the glamorous lifestyle of the magazine and its editor, Jay Cee. This first half of the story amuses and entertains, rather like The Catcher In The Rye, but better, with a likeable female story teller.

The imagery is rich and abundant. She sees her life spread out before her like the branches of a fig tree, with wonderful futures like fat purple figs beckoning and winking at the tip of every branch, but:

“I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” (Chapter 7)
The signs that all is not well are there from the start in the way she dwells upon things, such as her ex-boyfriend, virginity, the subservience of women, death, medical specimens of dead foetuses in bell jars and the execution of the Rosenbergs – the American couple convicted of spying for the Russians.
“I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick … I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive along your nerves” (Chapter 1)
It is a portent of what is to happen to Esther. She descends into mental illness and is treated by a psychiatrist who administers electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) in a brutal way, after which she refuses further treatment. As her mental state worsens, she contemplates various means of suicide. This is a difficult and disturbing part of the book to read.
“I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three...nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” (Chapter 10)

Eventually, she hides in the cellar and overdoses on sleeping pills, but survives. With the support of the benefactress who had funded her scholarship, she is treated at an upmarket psychiatric hospital where she receives insulin therapy and further ECT, and begins to recover her sanity. The story ends in a degree of hope and optimism, and is by no means as depressing as it might sound.

Plath’s own early life followed a similar course: born Boston, Massachusetts, academic brilliance, a spell at Mademoiselle magazine, mental illness, a suicide attempt, psychiatric treatment and recovery. She began to write poetry and short stories, and won a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge University, England. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes, a later Poet Laureate, and had two children, but separated when she discovered he was having an affair. In the following months she wrote many of her most acclaimed poems, but then began to sink back into depression. She took her own life a month after The Bell Jar was first published, aged 30. Many hold Hughes responsible.

Some of us will have experienced bleak periods in our own lives – I once had persistent thoughts of jumping down a seven-storey stair well at work – but hopefully nothing like this. Mine have always been due to situations and circumstances rather than from within: reactive rather than endogenous. What an intense and troubled soul she was:  

The video link to her reading of her poem Ariel (in which she becomes, among other things, the horse she rides) if you cannot see it:  

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

Facial Animation

Back in December, I posted a piece about the automatic colourisation of black and white photographs. One of the web sites I mentioned, MyHeritage, has now added a new feature called Deep Nostalgia which animates faces. “Animate the faces in your family photographs”, it says. “Experience your family history like never before”.

It gives me an excuse to re-post this wonderful picture, taken before a boat trip from the Yorkshire seaside resort of Bridlington in 1929.

First, let’s look at what face animation does to our Prime Minister’s official photograph. The result may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition. 

Where photographs have multiple faces, the tool crops out and animates one at a time.

I animated five of the faces from the automatically colourised version of the 1929 photograph, and put them together in the following video. They are (1) my grandad on the right, (2) my dad standing behind him, (3) the Somerset Maugham lookalike in the hat on the left (there is a crease in the original photograph), (4) the woman behind him, and (5) the wiry-haired man behind her:

I don’t know why some video segments are longer than others. I think the woman comes out best but it doesn’t really endear them to you. I certainly didn’t “spend the evening balled up in tears” as the following news report implies. It also touches upon the dangers of these tools.

The MyHeritage site only allows you to animate five faces before asking for money. However, my experiments were carried out in collaboration with my very good friends Mickey Mouse, Billy Liar and Seán ÓEigeartaigh. Between us, we were able to do it without paying. Their assistance was greatly appreciated. 

 Video links if you can’t see them: