Sunday, 23 February 2014


I just wanted to write a note on Em. I said a few posts ago that she'd been very ill, though she seemed to be on the mend. However, she died in the early hours of this morning. It was not a surprise, it's been a very difficult week with no certainties, until yesterday early evening when it became apparent that it was inevitable. 

It's hard right now to not think of these past few days. It's been so tiring, but because I am still so proud of my little hen I don't want to get into what happened, I just want to share two of my favourite pictures of her and soon, once the horribleness of this month has past I'll be left with these images, many many more like them, and all the fun memories we've all had, and the recent events will blur and fade off. It was, I should say, mercifully peaceful. 

I'm so proud of my pet. She was, as I've said, a good hen. They've all progressed very well since we rescued them in June. And I thought I should write some words because I do write about them all a lot. They're all important hens. 

So, above is Emily in a tree during a wander in the forest, and below Emily in the long grass. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Wordless Wednesday.

By request: my first editions of Le Rêve and La Debacle, Émile Zola's signature, and his carte de visite, which says, "Avec mes plus vifs remerciements".

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Hard Times - For These Times, by Charles Dickens.

"Bitzer," said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, "have you a heart?"
"The circulation, sir," returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, "couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart."
Hard Times - For These Times was published on the 1st April 1854, 160 years ago (almost), and, incidentally, 156 years before Prime Minister David Cameron's speech in 2010 when he claimed, "We are progressive Conservatives". 

It is Dickens' shortest novel: my Penguin Popular Classics edition is a mere 268 pages. Unlike most of his other novels it is not set in London (it's set in the fictional Coketown, which bares resemblance to both Preston and Manchester), and it is comparable with Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (also serialised in 'Household Words', and following Hard Times: the series began in September 1854, and ran until January 1855 before being published as a complete novel later that year). John Ruskin said this was his favourite novel by Dickens because of it's exploration of "important questions", and, at the time of writing The Great Tradition (1948), it was the only novel by Dickens that F. R. Leavis felt showed Dickens' strength and genius (F. R. Leavis would later revisit Dickens and revise his opinion in subsequent books). Karl Marx once said of Dickens that he "issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together". Hard Times, I believe, is an excellent example of this, and its relevance to today's politics secures its place (if there was ever any doubt) as an essential classic.
"Smoke serpents". A picture of 19th
Century industrial Manchester.

Hard Times is divided into three books: 'Sowing', 'Reaping', and 'Garnering', which comes from Galatians 6: 7 - "For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap". This immediately sets the tone for a novel with a strong moral message. The major theme is education, with strong, heavy reference to utilitarian philosophy and economics; utilitarianism (founded by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill) is, put simply, the belief that a moral act is one that ensures 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. This, combined with the self-interest of laissez-faire economics (i.e. 'the free market'), is lethal, as Dickens shows in his novel.

Thomas Gradgrind, an MP and retired merchant, brings up his children according to his philosophy - "In this life, we want nothing but Facts, Sir; nothing but Facts!" Dickens goes on to describe their education:
They had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture room.
Two of his sons (who barely appear in the book) are Adam Smith and Malthus. Malthus refers to the Rev. Thomas Malthus: those who have read A Christmas Carol (published eleven years before Hard Times) may already be familiar with him, indeed I wrote a little about him in December. He is the author of An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), in which he argues,
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.
This is known (as I said in the December post) as "the Malthusian catastrophe", and is echoed by Scrooge's comment, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Adam Smith has been on the £20 note since 2007.
Charles Dickens was on the £10 note between
1992 - 2003. The quote on the £20 note reads,
"The division of labour in pin manufacturing (and
the great increase in the quantity of work that results)"
Adam Smith was an 18th Century economist and philosopher; a proponent of laissez-faire economics, although neither he nor Malthus used the phrase. For him, the market may be viewed as a natural system, and the laissez-faire approach was a moral approach that reflected mankind's liberty (a contemporary example of this, and the similar attitude of "pas trop gouverner" ["govern not too much"] would be Cameron's scrapping of 80 000 'red tape' documents two weeks ago). Furthermore, by the self-interested pursuing  of capital, society as whole benefits (guided by what Smith called "the invisible hand"). Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations (1776),
As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.
Although I've said the characters Adam Smith and Malthus barely appear in Hard Times (in fact, I think they only appear once) it's important I think to have some idea about the philosophies of the men who inspired Mr. Gradgrind so much he named his children after them.

Thomas Gradgrind's friend Josiah Bounderby is almost entirely interested in himself, money, and power. What's worse is that he sees himself superior for his money-making ability (he is, as he never tires of saying, "a self-made man" - "a commercial wonder," Dickens wryly notes, "more admirable than Venus"), telling a member of the circus,
"You see, my friend," Mr. Bounderby put in, "we are the kind of people who know the value of time, and you are the kind of people who don’t know the value of time."
And even worse than that, in attitude that is very prevalent today, Dickens writes of Bounderby's ilk -
Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?
David Cameron.
Today in the United Kingdom, we're encouraged to be entrepreneurs, for as Smith wrote, by pursuing one's own financial interests, we secure a happy future for society. It is not a good thing, it is a great thing. In October 2013 David Cameron wrote for the Mirror in a reminder to support local shops over Christmas,
Their future success will determine our success.
This isn't just about numbers and statistics either.
Small traders ­represent something much deeper about the British spirit. They are aspiration personified.
I have nothing but respect for people who strike out on their own, build something from scratch then work day and night to make it a success.
These are the values we need in Britain today and they are national heroes.
It is, in accordance with Smith and repeated by Cameron, morally right to make money. The Conservative Party thus believe that it isn't simply a-moral not to make money, but immoral, and so those who cannot make money, those who are unemployed for example (not the only example, of course) are actively demonised, most famously in the case of Mick Philpot. In May 2012, Philpot and his wife deliberately set fire to their home causing the death of their six children. In April 2013, a day after sentencing, George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) said,
Philpott is responsible for these absolutely horrendous crimes and these are crimes that have shocked the nation; the courts are responsible for sentencing him. 
But I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state - and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state - subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had. [quoted on the BBC News website]
George Osborne.
In Hard Times, Bounderby merely remarks of an injured man, "'Serve ’em right,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘for being idle.’" Now, in 'these times' as Dickens would say, the poor are hated yet more. To quote Owen Jones (author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, 2011),
Hatred against those receiving benefits is out of control in Cameron's Britain. The Tories transformed a crisis of capitalism into a crisis of public spending, and determined that the most vulnerable would make the biggest sacrifices. But taking away support from the disabled, the unemployed and the working poor is not straightforward. It can only be achieved by a campaign of demonisation – to crush any potential sympathy. Benefit recipients must only appear as feckless, workshy scroungers, living in opulent quasi-mansions with wall-to-wall widescreen TVs, rampaging around the Canary Islands courtesy of handouts from the squeezed taxpayer. Benefit fraud does exist – according to Government estimates, it is worth less than 1 per cent of welfare spending – but the most extreme examples are passed off as representative, or as the "tip of the iceberg". The reality is all but airbrushed out of existence.
(I strongly recommend that people read this article to see the effects of such attitudes).

Bounderby and Gradgrind's friendship is almost like capitalism meeting utilitarianism. Caught in between are Gradgrind's oldest children Tom and Louisa, victims of circumstance; victims of a utilitarian education. One of the main themes in Hard Times is, after all, education. "Fact!" is the word that the utilitarianists live by, and "fancy" is abhorred. On discovering his children looking at the circus folk, Gradgrind exclaims,
‘You! Thomas and you, to whom the circle of the sciences is open; Thomas and you, who may be said to be replete with facts; Thomas and you, who have been trained to mathematical exactness; Thomas and you, here!’ cried Mr. Gradgrind. ‘In this degraded position! I am amazed.’
Needless to say, Dickens bitterly attacks the system; in one of my favourite passages, a utilitarian school master is described thus,
So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
Michael Gove.
I am not the first person to liken Mr. M'Choakumchild (wonderful name!) with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, and teachers in the United Kingdom would do a much better analysis than I can possibly do. Interestingly, Michael Gove twice referred to Thomas Gradgrind in a speech from October 2011 (with no irony), whilst the likes of Morwenna Ferrier (for the Telegraph) write of Gradgrind,
He liked to tick boxes, a sort of Michael Gove for Victorian times, obsessed with figures and targets and curriculums.
It is true, Michael "Gradgrind" Gove (as Rob Maher referred to him on Twitter) is not an advocate for what Gradgrind and M'Choakumchild would dismiss as 'fancy' -
'Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn't fancy,' cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. 'That's it! You are never to fancy.'
The re-emergence of the 12 times table, for example, is but one example of his 'anti-fancy' campaign.  The stripping of English Literature as a "core" GCSE subject another (an interesting article from Polly Toynbee on the subject here). And, furthermore, as The Independent reported in July 2013,
In history, Mr Gove will stick to his guns, insisting that pupils learn their UK history chronologically – rather than focus on topics such as the Nazis or the Tudors, the most popular option in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, Gove advocates a "military ethos" in schools. From the Department of Education's website,
Promoting military ethos in schools helps foster confidence, self-discipline and self-esteem whilst developing teamwork and leadership skills. Past experience from both the military and education sector has demonstrated how these core values help pupils to reach their academic potential and become well-rounded and accomplished adults fully prepared for life beyond school.
From this alone, as with the schooling system of Hard Times, education is not fun, and nor ought it be. We can only be grateful for the rejection of 10 hour school day pledge.

Clearly, Hard Times is as relevant today as it was then. Things have changed of course, yet this novel remains For These Times. It's an astonishingly dense book, but so very worthwhile the read. There is much I haven't touched upon - two of the central characters, Sissy Jupe and Stephen Blackpool, for example. And the dehumanisation of the workers, "the Hands". But because of time constraints, and that this post is getting epically long, I shall have to curtail. It is, though, so very relevant. What is reaped in Hard Times we see in the second generation of Gradgrinds, Tom and his sister Louisa, and what is garnered - well, I won't spoil the end of the book. What we see in Hard Times is classic Dickens, that intricately weaved web, like the webs we see later in Hugo's Les Misérables (1862) or Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-72).

Tuesday, 11 February 2014


Emily's back home! She's much better after her paraffin treatment, and the blockage is much reduced. She still has a lump, and she'll need to stick with the paraffin for a few more days, but things are much more hopeful, infinitely more hopeful than last night.

Right now, she's asleep on my knee (as you can see by the picture she was having a wander about on the desk earlier), she's had some Ready Brek from the vet, then when she came home she had some mash, and some salad, and she's had a good drink of water. Obviously she's quite sleepy, but she's had her lunch with Anne and Charlotte, had some food by herself, and when she wakes up I'll take her out into the garden for half an hour. 

So, things are greatly improved! Last night was awful, so I could do with some sleep myself! But, yes, things are so much better. I think within the next week or so she'll be back to being on form!

Monday, 10 February 2014

Classics Spin, and other things.

It's really the other things I want to blog about, but I'll start with the spin - the number was 20, and I got Frenchman's Creek by Daphne du Maurier. I'll maybe start that next week.

It's been a vile week, hence my blog silence. I said a week ago things were stressful, but things have got worse. Emily, who I said was under the weather, is very ill now. Right now she's at the vets, and that alone brings tears to my eyes because she's ill, and she's by herself in a strange place and I hate to think she's upset. I suppose chances are she's asleep so these tears are unnecessary. It appears she has some kind of blockage, and she won't survive if it goes untreated. The medicines she's had today have a 50% chance of working, and if they don't work she'll need surgery, which only has a 30% chance of success. I'm trying to be positive about it, but I feel gloomy in general and a bit worn out by everything. So many big, horrible things to think about, thus it's hard to distract myself. Nothing nice is happening, nothing at all. I'll know what's happening tomorrow, the vet is ringing at 8.30am. Emily is a lovely, beautiful hen, and as you all know my hens are pets so (this should go without saying, but I've heard "It's only a chicken!" too many times) it's the same as a much loved dog or cat being dangerously ill. I miss her. I hope that we'll be bringing her home tomorrow. It's horrible to think that she doesn't understand what's happening to her. I hope she's not missing her sisters.

So. Aside from that. Well, I was planning on writing a post on both Hamlet and Hard Times, and I'll probably get round to that some time. And reading - I seem to have lots of books on the go, but I can't get into any of them. I started The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway earlier and that looks quite hopeful, so maybe I'll read that tonight.

Hopefully I'll post tomorrow with some good news. Until then...

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Classics Spin #5.

It's the fifth Classic Club spin, and I love a Classics Spin! It's the first one on this blog, but everyone knows the rules: list twenty books left on your list, and next Monday a number will be announced. 

Without futher ado:

  1. Lawrence, D. H. - The Rainbow 
  2. Stevenson, Robert Louis - Kidnapped 
  3. Kundera, Milan - The Unbearable Lightness of Being 
  4. Haggard, H. Rider - She 
  5. Fowles, John - The French Lieutenant's Woman 
  6. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr - August 1914 
  7. Amis, Martin - London Fields 
  8. Elliot, George - Adam Bede 
  9. James, Henry - What Maise Knew 
  10. Lawrence, D.H. - Sons and Lovers 
  11. Du Maurier, Daphne - Jamaican Inn 
  12. Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms 
  13. Blackmore , R. D. - Lorna Doone 
  14. Graves, Robert - I, Claudius 
  15. de Balzac, Honoré - Cousin Bette 
  16. Goncharov, Ivan - Oblomov 
  17. Rushdie, Salman - The Satanic Verses 
  18. Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans 
  19. Trollope, Anthony - Is He Popenjoy? 
  20. Du Maurier, Daphne - Frenchman's Creek
The ones I want the most - Adam Bede, Lorna Doone, and Is He Popenjoy?, and the ones that I want least: London Fields (I really wish I hadn't included it), The Satanic Verses, and The Last of the Mohicans

Meanwhile, I'm in the middle of Hard Times, and I honestly cannot wait to write a review when I finish. It is so so relevant. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014


I'm glad to start by saying that it does at least feel like February. The year, so far, is not going at the break-neck speed of 2013. And the weather is about right - the wind is howling through the trees, rain lashing down, and Lord, it is cold! But, some good news - this week I saw the first snowdrops! Very very heartening. 

I have to be honest - January was not a good month. As I am quite superstitious, I did expect this, though that's not helping greatly! At the minute, though, I'm just working on keeping things calm and peaceful, and trying to isolate what is stressful rather than let it sit with me day in and day out. This is not an easy thing to do. But, as I say, I anticipated that it would be a difficult month, which is why from very early on I've been more looking forward to spring rather than feeling bad that 2014 has got off to such a difficult start, and I'm just trying to accept that this is meant to be so. 

As I mentioned, one of my New Year's resolutions was to work on a task every day that would contribute to the ultimate spring clean. I am so glad I did this, because the house is now virtually junk free! In fact, I think I might go as far as to say it is junk free, although I've not quite finished. I have three perfect rooms, one well on it's way to being entirely finished, one that does need re-painting (the junk-free utility room, packed full of spiders. Well, one - I've seen one, but it's enough to make me want to cut my losses and set fire to the room - it is a very big spider), and two that need just a little work. So, come spring, all that will need to be done is the usual tidying and cleaning, which really won't take long. It has been a very productive month! 

The hawk standing where
Trotwood usually stands.
Hen news: it has to be said that Emily had more stress than any of us put together. A week or so ago a hawk managed to get in and get stuck in the aviary. I heard her shouting (Emily makes an odd sort of barking noise if something's wrong) and I ran downstairs, found Anne and Charlotte hiding in the utility room, and then found Emily standing in the doorway of the left hand side of the aviary, feathers puffed out, wings out, stepping towards the hawk with every bark she made. The hawk wasn't after her, it was (she, I should say, I think this is a female hawk) was trying to get out and couldn't. Eventually I managed to get the hawk out (sadly I had to clean up after it - it has brought in a chaffinch), and that was pretty much that. However, since then, Emily has been rather withdrawn. She wasn't visibly hurt, and she is still eating and I've seen her playing in the dust bath, but she is very quiet at present and spending more time by herself. She's come for cuddles more and fell asleep on my knee, which isn't like her, but as I say she's eating and she's in good condition. I hope in a few days time or so she'll forget about it. I am very proud of her, though. She's the dominant hen, and I suppose this is why. I'm amazed, thinking back, that she had the opportunity to run away and safely hide, but she opted instead to try and take on the hawk. Thankfully the hawk wasn't interested in her. And as for the other hens - Charlotte is back to her former glory, and Anne is as sweet as ever. I've noticed she's prone to bouts of jealousy, which I didn't see coming - if Charlotte or Emily is on my knee, she jumps up and pecks them until they get down, and twice now when she's seen me holding Emily she's flown on me and tried to land on my shoulder (she got up to my elbow and walked the rest of the way). But yes, they're all well, as are the budgies - they are their usual noisy selves. Oliver got stuck behind a bookcase a few weeks ago and it was quite an operation getting him out, but to his credit he kept very calm. 

As for books and blogging. Well, I said I wanted to blog more, and write more reviews, and I think I have managed to achieve that! This month I've written nine reviews or commentaries:
Without meaning it to be, it's been quite a Woolf month! As for the books I read but didn't review:
  • Hamlet, by William Shakespeare (I will be reviewing this, probably next week).
  • The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling.
  • Big Sur, by Jack Kerouac.
  • Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs.
A good reading / blogging month, and I've read two of my TBR Challenge, two Russians, and one chunkster (The Moonstone - I don't think Les Misérables counted as I started in in 2013).

Finally, I bought rather a lot of books this month! I'll start with a very special one, and actually I had it bought for me - it's Le Rêve by Émile Zola - a first edition, which is so lovely, and it's sitting next to my first edition of La Debacle. I'm very proud of them! The books I bought myself (cheap second hand, I might add):
  • Big Sur by Kerouac.
  • Titmus Regained by John Mortimer (the second of a trilogy, my mistake).
  • The Awkward Age by Henry James.
  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James.
  • The Nibelungenlied (a prose translation)
  • Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
  • Trollope by Victoria Glendinning 
  • No Name by Wilkie Collins
  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
  • Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
  • The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte Yonge
  • Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Fagles.
I don't believe I've ever bought as many books in one month. But I remain unapologetic.

So, that's January all done and dusted, then, and it wasn't all bad. February?

For starters - Fanda is hosting a Dickens month, which I'm looking forward to! I said I'd read either David Copperfield or Great Expectations, both of which are on my 25 re-reads list, however I am very drawn to Hard Times, which I'm planning on starting this evening. I also want to keep going with Ovid (I've not been blogging about it, but that doesn't mean I'm enjoying it any less, I'm just planning on writing something when I've finished). I still haven't started Das Kapital, but at some point this year I will! And I do want to read The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola (this is what I call an "afternoon read", that is to say I want to devote a lot of attention to it, however free afternoons are few and far between, but I will will read it in February). February is African-American Literature Month for The Classics Club, so I'd like to read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and finally, generally, I'd like to work a little more on my Classics Club list. So far, I've read 147 out of 180, however I think probably about October time I'd read 145 out of 180, so progress has stalled quite a bit. I keep thinking about Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore, which is on my list, and I have sort of begun it, but the idea of Hard Times keeps distracting me. So, maybe after, I'm not sure. Other than that, no real plans or themes. I will say that I keep seeing War and Peace discussed. It's tempting....

There are my plans and reflections, then. Happy February, everyone!

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