‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

‘Llyfr Glas Nebo’ gan Manon Steffan Ross

I write this review with some trepidation and feel that I should issue a word of caution to anyone who decides to read this. It is unusual9781784616496_300x400 that I review a book which I have read that was not in my mother tongue. I have commented on books that were in a second language to me, but usually I was commenting as a learner of the language and discussing the book from this standpoint. This time things are a little different.

I became aware of this book because it won the prose medal at this year’s National Eisteddfod in Cardiff. Hearing this and because I have high regard for the author and her work I was eager to read it. I was also aware that there was a degree of hype around the book. Unusually there was quite a buzz on social media with recommendations coming from every corner.

The short story, or novella, is Manon Steffan Ros’s metier. There are few who are as able to condense so much emotion and thought into such well written small packages. Whether this is in her column, in Golwg, or through her novels, especially her contributions to the Stori Sydyn series, she is the master of the elegantly written but powerful piece. Therefore I was quite ready to go with the flow and believe the hype that I read.

This is the problem with the book. As I expected it is extremely well written; the descriptions of places are evocative and her portrayal of characters make them, and their relationships, come alive in the reader’s mind. No reader will forget the first description of Gwdig the unusual hare (I don’t want to give any spoilers so I will say no more) or the last description of Dwynwen. The writing is excellent, this is not the problem.

The writing style is simple and easy, very easy to read, and the story flows quickly. However, at times, it has the feel of a book from the Stori Sydyn series, as if it has been written for those reluctant to read or early in their lives as readers. It describes but doesn’t delve and this is disappointing. The hype, and the medal, lead one to expect more and this is a shame. This is not the author’s fault, but arises from inaccurate reviews and  from the medal process itself, as entries must be less than 40000 words. Also some of the literary references that pepper the story seem clunky and out of keeping. They have the feeling of being there to please the judges in a literary competition rather than as natural aspects of the story.

Read as science fiction, or a post-apocalyptic novella, it is enjoyable but rather lacking. There is very little science and this is not always correct, similarly with the self-sufficiency, this has not been developed accurately. In particular the scenes relation to animals, and their deaths, suggest that the author has little first hand experience of these events.

I therefore am uncertain on how to recommend this book. It is a good, if slight, read. Second language readers like myself will enjoy this and will find it useful. I am sure that many will enjoy it as a slim volume to while away an evening. But science fiction fans, or post-apocalyptic survivalists, are going to be disappointed, as I fear are many who are moved to purchase by the hype.

3-out-of-5-stars

 

 

 

‘The Undoing Project’ by Michael Lewis

Ask people to name those who have helped us understand the human mind, or helped us to understand why we act in the way we do, and it likely that only a handful of names will be found in the replies. Freud and Jung will be the most common answers by far. This is rather sad as, important as their insights were, the work of these luminaries is now rather aged, much of the work is outdated, or has been surpassed by better explanations, or has been shown to be simply mistaken. Much of it was understandable when viewed though the lens of the Viennese culture at the time, but under the scrutiny of a modern lens it is found seriously lacking. However, they were giants of their day and were lofty shoulders on which others have stood and seen further.

These more recent giants are much less well known. Though their work is far reaching and has much better explanatory power their names remain less likely to be known. Despite their work altering the practice of medicine, causing economists to rethink their premises, changing how sportsmen play and are chosen, and even altering how the military and legal systems operate, they are still far from being household names. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky are the names of two of the most important psychologists of the last century and “The Undoing Project” is the story of their friendship and their work.

This book is essentially a dual biography220px-TheUndoingProjectFrontCover it follows their lives and the lives of some who were affected by their work. As they were Israeli academic psychologists  their lives were also bound up in the history of the birth of Israel and the wars that accompanied this. As a consequence the book is lively and exciting as we see the development of their friendship, the discovery of their psychological insights, the application of these insights in medicine and industry and the unfolding of the situation in the Middle East. There are no slow sections in this book, it is densely packed but very readable.

Despite being readable and often like a thriller, ‘what will happen next”, it does not shy away from discussing the psychological research in reasonable detail. It explains their research on heuristics in judgement, explains why our view of ourselves as simply rational beings is difficult to hold, and shows some of the surprising factors that can influence our decision making. It could act as a introduction or summary of their theories but for a fuller review Daniel Kahneman’s own book “Thinking, fast and slow” is recommended.

Hopefully this book will bring more the  modern psychological work into the public eye and allow us to  view ourselves with more useful scientific insights. Knowing the limitations of our rationality, the factors which influence our decision making, and the common sources of our errors might make us less likely to fall into to error and perhaps be less easy prey to those who know these factors and use them to manipulate our choices.

4-out-of-5-stars


PS : the only caveat I might add is that there is a fair bit explained through the medium of American sports. This is awkward for a European reader. If female sexuality was a “dark continent” to Freud , then my ‘dark continent’ is the mystery that is  baseball and basketball.

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!

The End of the World Running Club. (Adrian J. Walker)

While I was cleaning our holiday let, in 51NXDkgb5VLpreparation for the next set of visitors, I noticed an addition to the bookcase. This book, “The End Of The World Running Club” by Adrian J . Walker, had been put on the shelf on it’s side (It was this that drew my attention to it). I had a quick look at the cover and the blurb on the backpage and decided I would give it a try. It was not the type of book to which I am normally drawn though I had enjoyed the post-apocalyptic tale of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and thus knew it was possible to tackle important themes in this potentially depressing genre.

The book starts at the end of the world with a bang, literally a bang, as an asteroid shower hits the UK ending life as we know it. Interestingly the opening scenes take place in Edinburgh and the Lothians which was a pleasant surprise and the geography, or what is left of it, was well and accurately described. The main protagonist, Edward Hill, and his family survive the initial strike but soon become separated and find themselves at different ends of the British Isles. This sets up the premise for the book; Edward must race, against time, from one end of Britain to the other for the sake of his family.

Unfortunately, Edward is an overweight, un-fit, sluggard who has had a lifelong aversion to healthy activities and in no fit state to undertake a run like this. But heteams up with a few others and they start their odyssey. During the run they meet number of people, both good and bad, and issues of trust and survival are discussed. The characters are well drawn, believable and, our heroes, are likeable. There is a great deal of the self-deprecating humour that is characteristic of the UK and Australia as Edward considers his failings and shortcomings as a man and, especially, as a husband and father. Some of these passages are ‘laugh out loud’ funny (as my wife trying to sleep will testify). Unfortunately,  I think this aspect of the humour was behind many of the poor reviews on Goodreads where reviewers found Edward unlikeable as he spends a great deal of the time considering his failings rather than ever blowing his own trumpet. I suppose that is possible that this particularly ‘blokeish’ humour may be off-putting to some, though I found it enjoyable.

It is when Edward, and the other characters, consider their difficulties and how they will face up to them that the meat of the story develops. They have to face adversity, learn responsibility, trust and endurance. These lessons are drawn by very human scenarios in extreme circumstances. The humanity of the characters makes these situations credible and make us empathise with the players and care what happens to them. These are frail people not heroes and it is easy to imagine yourself in their shoes. As a consequence this book rips along at a fast pace and even though it is lengthy (466 pages) I found that I read it in a few eager sittings. As the story neared its end and the conclusion drew into view I really didn’t want it to happen and could happily have read on.

This is an excellent holiday novel, one to pack for beside the pool. It is also an excellent choice as bedtime reading. Either way don’t expect it to last too long.

 

Whatever you call it – Autumn, Hydref, Herbst, Foghar, or Fall – it’s here!

I tend to agree with the Irish Meteorologial Office and think that Autumn (fómhar) has started. They follow the old gaelic tradition that Autumn is comprised of August, September and October. In Welsh the month of July is named Gorffennaf which is literally the end (gorffen) of summer (haf) and I have lived in Britain long enough to know that November is winter. So, however we dress it up, after July, and before November, is Autumn in my book. This, without any shadow of doubt, is my favourite season, the one which surpasses all the others. Summer is too hot, Winter is too cold and Spring is too busy. Autumn has that perfect mix of an ideal climate and productive nature. This is the season when rural life blossoms. Each village and small town will have its local Show where produce and craft can be displayed. Then, following these, the area’s social life will start to resume after the lull of the summer.

These last weeks have started to feel truly autumnal. The temperatures have dropped, the colours have started to change in IMG_20180816_111531.jpgthe trees and the produce following summer is everywhere. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hedgerows. Dues to the long hot spell in summer the berries have done much better than usual and we will need to start collecting blackberries (Mwyar Duon). The hedges are heavy with berries and they have started to ripen. If we leave it too late we will lose out to the birds who always know when the berries are ready and get up earlier in the morning than we do.

We will have the grandchildren around to help us making the collection and this year there will be a larger educational component. Because of the hot summer the berries have done well. This also means that the honeysuckle berries are also prolific. The children will need to be taught IMG_20180816_112839.jpghow to tell them apart . Although they are not greatly poisonous, and one would have to eat heroic quantities to come to harm, they are toxic and can cause gastrointestinal upset if eaten. It will be a good lesson to explain that although things may be superficially similar that doesn’t mean they are equally good, or bad.

The blackberries are a welcome free crop and I anticipate a much larger store of jam this year than before. Our other free crop this year came in the form of honey. Our bait-hive attracted awp-1534427766814..jpg swarm of bees and after a relatively short sojourn there we found they had produced a reasonable stock of honey. This honey, though slightly cloudy, is very pleasant in taste and was a very welcome present from our new visitors. It is the season when the shelves in the pantry start filling up, getting ready for the start of winter.

One task that starts again at this time of year is the chipping of the goat yard. During the spring and summer the goats find plenty of material to eat while out browsing in the meadow.  On wet days, that we see during autumn and winter they are not keen on venturing far from the yard and the comfort of their sheds. Unlike sheep, goats do not have lanolin in their wool, and thus are much less tolerant of rainy weather. During this time when I have edging work to do on the fields I cut down the overhanging branches IMG_20180816_125755.jpgand feed them to the goats.  They then strip off every leaf, especially quickly when it is their favourite trees (oak, ash, willow and beech). I then cut the branches into staves or firewood depending on shape and size. The remainder is put through the chipper to create useful animal bedding. The bedding, once it has been mixed with animal urine and faeces and rotted down for a period, is then gradually added to the compost pile. Nothing is wasted if it can be avoided.

One other useful product of this process is the protection of my mental health. You can take all your “stress balls” and relaxation strategies and through them out of the window. If you have something on your mind, something or someone bugging you, or a problem you can’t solve then get out the Earthquake Woodchipper and fire her up. You will now be engulfed in a wall of angry woodchipping noise; if you want to mutter, grumble or swear no-one will hear a word you say. The pleasure there is in throwing branches down the chipper, to hear them splinter into a myriad of chippings, is difficult to describe. You can’t imagine who, and what, I have put through that chipper in my imagination! We are lucky we are still free to think what we like and there are no thought crimes (yet) or I’d be writing this from the computer in the prison library.

Even without its benefits for mental health I’d have to recommend this chipper. Electric chippers and shredders are always too weak and you end up spending more like clearing them than using them. As they say, if it hasn’t got the ability to take your arm off its not strong enough ! You need a petrol engined model. This one uses the four-stroke Briggs and Stratton engine and meets the most vital criterion for petrol driven appliances – it starts on the first pull! It is noisy but you could wear ear-protectors if this was an issue for you. The European version comes with some safety attachments absent on the American model (It is dangerous to put your arm down the cutting chute – who would have guessed?). I guess that Americans are recognised as being able to think unlike we Europeans who need to be protected from such dangerous activities.(*)

As is so often the case in life, the problems of physical and mental health sometimes have their solutions in the world of work and activity. In our steady march towards a world of leisure we might well be marching in the wrong direction.


Sorry about the quality of this video, it hard to work with a camera balanced in the rim of your hat.


 

 

(*) I have worries about these safety modifications. I found that the raised bin in the shredder, and other attachments, made the machine harder to use. Also as you spent time trying to bypass the difficulties caused by these safety additions you started to place yourself in danger while operating the machine. I am not sure that these modifications increase operator safety and fear they may even impair it.

 

 

 

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Eli i bob dolur yw amynedd

I came across this Welsh idiom this week while reading. ‘Eli i bob dolur yw amynedd roughly translates as Patience is the balm for all tribulations. Certainly, through most of my life I have found this to be largely true; with time and patience most, if not all,  problems and trials are able to be endured or overcome. The trick is to have the patience to deal with them. This is possibly the benefit of growing old.

When I was a young man I had a tendency to tackle all problems head on. I saw life as a series of challenges that I needed to face and overcome. In the main, this gung-ho approach served me fairly well for the more mundane problems in life. However, looking back I can also see that when I made bad decisions these were often made rashly. I will admit that caution and hesitancy may have lost me some opportunities but these are outweighed by the times caution and patience have let me do the right thing in times of major dilemmas.

The major religions tend to view patience as one of the main virtues in life, indeed, it is listed as one of the seven Virtues. In Christianity it is viewed as a gift from the Holy Spirit, Judaism likewise sees patience as one of the greatest personal traits people can display, in Islam patience (sabr) is one of the greatest virtues and necessary to become closer to God, and Bhuddism and Hinduism also extol patience as one of the essential virtues. The stoics also noted the importance of patience when dealing with life’s trials.

Unfortunately we not born patient. We are born impulsive, hungry, needy and rash. We need to learn to be patient which only comes by experience. As we meet problems we learn that initial quick fixes are often temporary and longer term strategies are often better. We learn that, even if we can not effect a change then life will do it for us. We learn, with experience the trust of the old Persian saying “This too shall pass“. With patience you are able to endure and wait until change, which you are impotent to effect, takes place. This kind of patience needs strength. It is often easier to rail against the fates and try to do something, anything, just in the hope that it will make a change. This pattern rarely works any more than chance and does have a high likelihood of changing the situation for the worse.

As a society we are less patient. We dislike waiting and “want it now“, we are less tolerant of others and often expect them to attend to our needs.  We want fast foods, quick fixes, instant delivery and instant gratification. This is a more childlike way of living and not a sign of growing maturity. Impatience my even, in part, contribute to our growing obesity crisis. As John Komlos from the University of Munich said in 2004 :-

“People have tried to look at a lot of reasons why Americans are getting so overweight. But nobody has thought about the idea of connecting it to impatience. .. .. If you are willing to forgo present satisfaction for future benefits, you are patient. If, however, you want your satisfaction right now, then you are going to have that extra dessert and that extra ice cream and you are not going to be able to forgo the pleasures of today.”

The Type A personality structure has, as one of its facets, impatience and it has long been known that there are a number of health disadvantages associated with the Type A personality cluster.

In relationships patience is the keystone. There will always be times when partners disappoint or annoy us. Loving someone is learning to understand these differences and living with them. Impatience will throw away a relationship early if it has not fulfilled immature demands which will lead for frequent, shorter relationships which will, by necessity, be less satisfying. Patience allows us to learn about each other; to decide if change is needed and, if so, who is best to change. Patience allows a relationship to grow and become deeper and stronger. New friends are excellent but nothing compares to old friends who have stuck with you, been patient of your foibles, and are our real social capital.

We can always be certain that we will face adversity. How we face adversity may be the thing which determines what kind of person we are. Leo Tolstoy recognized that when in battle “The strongest of all warriors is these two : Time and Patience”.  Patience is the greatest skill we have in our armoury. It is now waiting but how we act while we wait , how we manage to keep our composure and avoid rash and imprudent action. Even when all hope seems gone, patience and the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’ may help us endure. Let’s hear it for patience another old-fashioned virtue that needs reclaimed.  Proclaim patience, it is the key to our success.

‘Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go’

William Feather

 

 

Viewer Discretion Advised

 

If I was looking for an artistic excuse for including this video I could claim it is my attempt at Slow TV. But really this is not the reason. The reason there is a video from a fat, elderly, bloke wheezing on a bicycle is because of the second reason I write this blog.

My first reason for writing the blog is to help me gather and clarify my thoughts. To force me to focus and try and form a view on current events and culture. I feel I need to ensure that I am not simply accepting ‘the party line’ and committing my thoughts to print forces me to look at them and assess whether they are sufficiently logical and formed to be published. Once I have stated them publicly I can assess whether people are horrified, nonplussed or in some degree of agreement. In some regards this function of the blog replaces the political debate I had when living in the city although any debates I recall were all conducted within narrow parameters of the political parties designated stances.

The second reason, and the one applying here, is to act as a diary for myself. I hope to look back, as on a journal, and see what I used to think and feel and either enjoy these memories or feel embarrassed by my naivety.  This video is firmly in this camp. At the moment, as part of my fitness routine, I cycle daily. I do varying numbers of a lap outside our farm. I am aware that in the future I may not be able to do this. No matter how good my exercise, age and infirmity will still come knocking, and I may no longer be able to cycle. This is now such a part of my routine I want to be able to remember it, hence this video. It is a lap taken on a grey, drizzly day and catches all my wheezing and panting so it is not a tidied up version of my routine. I think despite this I’ll still look back on it and think I was lucky to be able to do this each day, this mile or so of road gives me great pleasure.

I assure you there is nothing of interest in the video, no twist in the tail, no surprise event. It is quarter of an hour of pedalling through lanes, it is a quarter hour of your life you won’t get back so, if you watch, find where the fast forward button is located and use it liberally.