Iain Banks is Dead
I'm very sad to learn that author Iain Banks died this morning of cancer aged 59.
I first came across his work back in the late 1980s, when a cool friend told me I must read The Wasp Factory a truly dark and innovative little novel, about a disturbed and very vicious teenage boy who lives alone with his father on a remote Scottish island.
It sounds very Ian McEwen, but it has an effortless flowing style and is less self consciously literary than McEwan's work. I was hooked. Over the next couple of decades I read much of Iain Banks' output, which ranged from the crap (Canal Dreams) to the excellent. Espidair Street and The Bridge are two of my favourite modern British novels.
Iain Banks' work was so good, I even read his science fiction, which was tremendously imaginative and (unusually) extremely optimistic. Many of his sci-fi stuff is set in an imaginary highly advanced association of planets and races collectively known as The Culture. It's a sort of thinking man or woman's version of heaven, with all work done by machines and individuals who reach their 30s and then stop ageing for the next three to four hundred years or so. It sounds ridiculous but it's carefully worked out and is logically consistent within itself. The short story The State of the Art is a good introduction to the wit and wisdom of the culture with it's superior-in-every-way men and women accompanied by intelligent machines.
If Banksy had a fault, it was that he was too prolific and obviously loved writing and publishing novels. For many years now I've stopped reading his books the month they were published, instead asking around before diving into one. Sadly the ideas seemed to dry up, the books gained length and whole output became a bit repetitious and samey.
I met Iain Banks twice, once in a bookshop in North London in 1996, and once another time at public reading somewhere else - maybe at a theatre but I don't remember it particularly well. At both occasions I was struck by how nice and approachable Iain was, and how much he enjoyed being an author. The other thing was the age of the audience. For some reason his books seemed to appeal to the young, both men and women, whose knowledge and admiration of his work saturated each question. At the North London event I eventually walked out without having my book signed as so many fetching young ladies were surrounding our hero.
I got the impression he enjoyed life and it's shocking and saddening that he's no longer with us.
Labels: Book review
Life is Good
A lovely late Spring evening.
The tennis has just stopped at Roland Garros, which is covered extensively by ITV this year.
I managed to get a manual finished and published to the company website earlier this afternoon.
A couple of executives gave a sensible and engaging presentation at work today.
Forgot to do my timesheet though...
Labels: My life
Measles and Mad Mel - My Prediction Comes True
As predicted here many years ago, the Measles epidemic in the Swansea area has already infected close to a 1000 mainly young people, and at least one young man is dead.
Nice work, Melanie Philips. I hope you feel really proud of yourself...
Labels: Mad Mel Phillips
Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, otherwise known as Maggie Thatcher or That Bloody Woman died this morning at the Ritz Hotel after a stroke.
She’d been going potty for years, a fact rather cruelly exploited by Abi Morgan, the screenwriter of The Iron Lady, a generally sympathetic and more or less accurate biopic released a couple of years ago. Meryl Streep was brilliant in the title role (did anyone expect anything less?) and the script imbued Margaret with a number of humanising qualities absent in real life, such as grace and a sense of humour.
I suppose the humourless quality of her personality is one of the many reasons I could never abide Margaret Hilda Thatcher; zero sense of humour it seems to me the one defining trait of all true fanatics. And a fanatic she was, or at least became, famously working till midnight, and then up again at 4am manic and driven, ready to greet another action-packed day of red boxes and meetings. None the less it probably did need a fanatic to break the will of those other fanatics; wannabe revolutionaries such as Arthur Scargill, Ted Knight and the other ‘brothers.’ It was always brothers, never the sisters of British trade union movement, whose leaders ruthlessly exploited a unique set of circumstances in post war Britain; lousy industrial relations, lousy managers, a ruling class that was losing it’s nerve, high demand, high employment and high inflation. The brothers had a good scam going, but like so many others who have a good scam, they always want that little hell-of-a-lot-more.
Thatcher took them on, collectively and individually, and I’ll never forget their faces as they trooped out of Downing Street after the one and only official meeting between the British Government and the TUC in the first week she took power. The meetings called Economic something or others were a legacy of Jim Callaghan’s pink socialism. That last gathering was over in under 15 minutes and never repeated. Some fools are already saying that Thatcher was a friend of freedom, and it’s true one of the many reforms she introduced and that New Labour was careful not to repeal was her insistence that trade union democracy was democratic; previously major strike decisions had been taken on a show of hands with all the opportunities for intimidation and miscounts that that implies. But true democracy was always optional for the priggish Margaret; hence the genuinely warm and friendly relations with turds like General Augusto Pinochet, President Suharto and the unqualified support of apartheid South Africa.
If the breaking of the unions was a necessary and long overdue evil, then I’m much less impressed by unnecessary evil of the Falklands War, often billed as Thatcher’s triumph. True it was started by a breathtakingly stupid move by a particularly stupid military dictatorship (has there been a clever one, since Julius Ceaser?). But what really grates is that the war was at least partially provoked by stupid and unimaginative spending cuts to the Royal Navy. The conflict was completely avoidable. Thatcher’s much despised predecessor Jim Callaghan (who as Chief Petty Officer Callaghan had served in the Royal Navy with distinction in World War 2), got wind of a possible invasion of the Falklands in the mid 1970s. He immediately dispatched several frigates and destroyers to the islands and discreetly made sure the move was known to Argentina. With the prospect of any landing craft having to fight their way through a naval battle before landing a single soldier, the invasion of the Falklands was quietly shelved. No lives lost, no ships sunk, no invasions and counter invasions, the kind of cold ruthless competence Thatcher herself was supposed to embody.
Once the triumphs over the brothers and Argentina are dealt with, the rest of the Thatcher legacy becomes more nuanced, less spectacular and more opaque. We’re still dealing with the effects of her economic policy. Pissed away on benefits was the once in a century North Sea Oil money, which could have been used for almost anything else more productively. She (I suspect half unwittingly) deregulated the banks, sold off the council houses, and (again half unwittingly) told manufacturing industry, mostly based in the ‘red’ North of England to go fuck itself. As a student living in Preston and then Manchester during the height of Thatcherism (1981 to 1986) and then as a junior employee in the booming South of England from 1986 to 1989, I think I can speak with some authority on the effects of her economic policies. Reading, Berkshire was booming, booming to the extent that the population had completely overrun the town’s services and the roads were a congested nightmare. Europe's largest housing estate, Lower Early was on the Easten flank. Build by building companies, it had not a single shop or church,just road after curved road of tiny Barret style houses. I hated my years in Reading, and have always turned down job offers in Thames Valley ever since. By contrast towns like Preston never recovered from the loss of manufacturing industry in the Great Recession of early 1980s. Legacies like long term unemployment, ‘ghost towns’ and depression in the North all date from that time, and it’s horrifying to think they are still very much with us. Manchester, by it’s sheer size and cultural assets, did manage to reinvent itself during the Blair boom of the naughties, but before that there were still the best part of two lost decades when the city lost it’s wealth and almost lost it’s confidence.
In short I was so scarred by the government and culture of Thatcher’s Britain that I ended up leaving the country just as soon as I could, and didn’t return until the dawn of New Labour in 1996.
So you might ask, how did Thatcher do it? How despite such flaws and horrors did she manage to win three general elections? In short, she was unbelievably lucky. 1979 and thanks to the brothers and their Winter of Discontent, anyone sane and breathing could have been elected Prime Minister. 1982, Thatcher is the most unpopular Prime Minister in polling history, running the most unpopular government in polling history. What happens? Argentina invades the Falklands and thanks to the outstanding efforts and professionalism of the British armed forces Thatcher wins a war and fights a “khaki election” against a split opposition the following year. 1987 the Labour Party is at its most extreme and unlikable, whilst the Social Democratic Alliance formed of moderate Labour Party heavyweights steals most of the moderate Labour Party vote. Thatcher is elected on around 30% of the votes as usual. 1992, and Thatcher has already gone power crazy and has been out of office for the best part of two years. That last fact is an important one – never underestimate the ruthless desire to win of the modern Conservative party – the most successful of all Western Democracies for the last 50 years.
I’ll finish with two things you didn’t know about Margaret Thatcher – she was an alcoholic who hit the bottle hard when chucked out in November 1990, and she privately despised Ronald Reagan as a twit with “nothing between his ears” – an opinion I share.
I only saw Margaret Thatcher once. It had been a long rather lovely day at Wimbledon, and I’d watched a compelling semi-final on Court No 1 between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard had won after poor Novak couldn’t continue from his blisters caused by an epic match the previous day (the tournament was blighted by bad weather for most of the fortnight). Wondering back past the outside of Centre Court, a crowd had gathered outside. Hoping for a sight of Roger Federer, we joined the crowd.
No such luck – out of the double doors comes a frail, somewhat bird-like little woman with famous but thinning hair and crazed eyes. It’s Margaret Thatcher and the crowd politely applauds.
Labels: UK Politics
I've been meaning to do a March 2013 entry to the blog for several weeks now, finally got around to doing it last night and.... watched The Girl Who Played with Fire instead.
I was 48 years old on Good Friday (Easter was early this year) and the new job seems to be going quite well, although the probationary period lasts three months so there's a way to go yet before I can completely relax.
Work on the edge of Cambridge means a 'new' (rather old) car; a 1998 Nissan Micra Shape model, which I know from past experience is boring to drive but extremely economical and doesn't attract joy riders. In fact it may be the car-thief equivalent of Barry Manilow CDs - completely unwanted and toxic.
Great news - after years of trying, the Wimbledon ballot delivered two tickets for the Women's Singles Final no less, although finding an unexpected £240 in a week was a bit of a struggle. Pictures and a report of the final in early July are to follow.
I've spent the past 7 days in a pleasant sort of limbo, having finished one job and about to start another in March.
The time has passed in a quick and pleasant manner. I've:
The frightening thing is what a nice life you can have limited to the above list. I don't miss my work at all, and in fact have scarcely given it a thought. This seems to fly in the face of a lot of research that claims work is crucial to an individual's sense of worth and identity. That maybe true of skilled professionals such as doctors and engineers, but surely most of us have rich and fulfilling lives outside work?
Anyway, it's been a very welcome break and I start the new job next week with a sense of purpose and focus that the short break provides.
- Slept late and gone to bed quite early
- Played silly computer games
- Read a couple of books
- Accompanied M on visits to walk dogs and feed a rabbit
- Eaten far to much and too often
- Bought a car and done some basic maintenance on it.
Labels: My life
Like many other people, I've always found January to be the hardest month of the year.
It's not hard to work out why; Christmas is over, and money is tight especially for us contract workers who don't get any paid holiday. Then there's the weather, which this month has been a mixture of comparatively warm and wet followed by bitterly cold with snow followed by warmer and wet and stormy.
My contract is coming to an end, and I've been experiencing the joys of job interviews. So far I've had two, both of which have necessitated a day off work (you lose, matey), both of which went to second interview (another half day's money down the drain, matey) and both of which have (so far) come to nothing.
The only consolation is that another lousy January ends at midnight, and that February will struggle to be as bad. I hope.
Labels: My life
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