Monday, October 30, 2006

If I were....

Maybe it's a little early in my life to be doing this meme, but, inspired by my new found fellow higher education policy blog acquaintance Rand, I decided that maybe tonight is a good night for a little self-reflection. Husband is sat watching you-know-who playing a Premiership football match and I've had a wonderfully crappy day at home feeling very ill and unable to go to work. So, anyway, I feel the need for a little self-reflection.

If I were rich...

I would quit my job, have Husband quit his job and we'd buy a big house somewhere remote - Northumberland probably - and just chill out for a few years. Then we'd have a couple of kiddies and a little Scottie dog and spend our time growing vegetables; maybe I'd be able to do a PhD in blissful isolation from stress and strain. I'd give my mother-in-law and her partner enough money to not have to worry ever again and convert a few farm buildings so that family and friends could come and stay and share our happy existence.

If I were smarter...

I would have been able to make it back to school at 17 and take Maths and Physics at A-level to go and study astronomy at university. I'd have got a first in that and got a scholarship to do an MSc and PhD. Right now I'd be a post-doc researcher looking into the influence of dark matter on the visible universe. Even ignoring fantasy life, at the moment I just wished that I'd had the foresight to figure out that I wanted to do a PhD and check that my MA entitled me to Research Council funding for said PhD.

If I were a more disciplined writer...

I wouldn't have written my MA thesis in 4 weeks flat and maybe I'd be happier with it than I am. I'd also have started this blog and my book blog a while ago so that I had a better record of my life and so fill in the holes that my swiss cheese memory leaves behind. I think I probably might have carried on doing creative writing as well - might have a few published short stories under my belt and a novel on the way. Maybe I should try that novel in a month thing...

If I were more ambitious...

I would have applied to Cambridge for my undergraduate degree not to Leeds. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I'm the person that I became because of going there; I think I would have been very different now if I had attended Cambridge. I guess maybe my problem wasn't lack of ambition but lack of vision.... maybe they would have accepted someone with as rocky an educational history as me.... well Oxford is on my research list for PhD supervisors maybe I'll be a Oxbridge girl one day soon.

If I were better organised...

I would always have my work clothes ironed and packed lunch made the night before. There wouldn't be a stack of un-filed bills and other various paper based detritus constantly lurking on the dining room table. The two bags of clothes for the charity shop that have been in the understairs cupboard since we moved would have made it back into circulation. I would already be reading higher education policy stuff now and not reminiscing about 'Landscape and Memory' by Simon Schama.

If I were not a complete idiot in my (early) twenties...

I would have made more of my time as an undergraduate - debating society, yoga classes and student representative - rather than just lots of studying and a fair few men. I would have a had a brief fling with a certain someone not got engaged and had to leg it 3 months before I was due to marry him! But then without those things I wouldn't have been brought to the point where I met my husband; so as idiotic as they were I wouldn't take them back..... but I might have amended them a little.

I think I need to do this again in a few years.... actually doing this every few years might keep me on the right track.

Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

In all my blissful ignorance I have to say I went in to this film pretty much blind. I knew it was about the McCarthy era. I knew it was directed by George Clooney. I knew it was in black and white. Now that I've watched it, I wish I'd known a little more about the story it was trying to tell.

I feel like I only picked up around 1/3 of the plot, and a much lower proportion of the insinuations and the undercurrents. This was a complex film - in all the right ways. So I'm not going to try and tell the plot in miniature here. That isn't what this blog is for. It's to force me to think about what I watch, what it means, how it is put together - why it was made here, now (or there, then).

Good Night and Good Luck is beautifully filmed. The quality of the monochrome is silky; it's almost tangible. I don't know if that is due to a particular photographic process or because we're so used to seeing only the poorer quality of old black and white films. This smoothness seems to help the viewer skim over the 'bumpiness' of the film. It helps to ease some of the tension generated by the immensely politically dangerous situation that the journalists and their families find themselves in.

That is what struck me most about the film. It wasn't really about the 'big politics' of the history it was trying to convey what it meant to the individuals to be pushing the (at the time very limited) boundaries of free speech in a supposedly 'free' society. It made me think about the extent that a true 'thought police' existed in America at that time. If you spoke out you lost your job, possibly your family and your home. The men depicted decided that it was worth putting their livelihoods and in some sense lives on the line to give the public a chance to see the other side of the argument.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Jesus Debate: Modern Historians Investigate the Life of Christ by Mark Allan Powell

Well my alternating fiction/non-fiction hasn't quite worked so far but I've been getting through this one in sections in between my tromp through novels. I have a very (at times worryingly) large collection of books from my undergraduate theology and religious studies degree; all of which I love and cannot bear to part with. My academic personality is most definitely schizophrenic - fully involved with my current career in higher education policy, wistfully longing for my days as a scholar of religions and drifting off into sexology on occasion.....

I should, at this point, lay my cards on the table and state that I am not a Christian in any way shape or form. I do, however, have a great interest in Christianity from a historical and sociological perspective - hence why I took a religious studies degree and still read about Christianity now.

Anyway, I remember enjoying this book immensely when I took a module on 'The Historical Jesus' with wonderful Professor Elliot who had proper professor wispy white hair and taught in his academic robe (for those who don't know me, I'm only 26 so that was very unusual!). The book is a neutral point of view survey of the developments over last few decades in the theories of who the historical person of Jesus actually was. Back in the early 19th century many historians declared that Jesus as a historical figure never existed which, even at the time must have seemed ridiculous, as there is more documentary evidence for him than for Julius Caesar - from Christian and non-Christian sources.

Since those heady days of denial the debate has most definitely moved on a fair bit although no real consensus has emerged. The book gives a summary of six of the 'biggest' readings of the historical Jesus that are floating around today - including that of the much vaunted 'Jesus Seminar'.

I like reading about the historical origins of Christianity. A fair proportion of Christians pay no attention to the 'historical' Jesus as they say that their relationship is with the post-Easter, eternal Jesus - fair enough. Another proportion, who take the Bible as the unerring, divine account of events would find the research into the historical Jesus as either blasphemous or extremely worrying as it treats the Bible as a historical source document pretty much like any other and therefore in need of scrutiny not blind acceptance. Many of the scholars of the historical Jesus are committed Christians and therefore do not find the process of picking apart the Bible - investigating how it was written, by whom, and how it was put together, as well as looking at sources that didn't make it - disturbing in the slightest, but actually help them understand their faith.

A wide range of 'Jesuses' (?) are put forward from a totally Hellenised Cynic philosopher with no interest in the supernatural; to a totally Jewish eschatological prophet interested in the political overthrow of the Roman authorities and the restoration of the true Israel. Each theory uses a slightly different set of criteria to decide which pieces of evidence can be deemed 'authentic' which often lead to radically different tellings of the story. Ultimately I think all the 'Jesuses' are interesting to both the Christian and the non-Christian reader. As a Christian who Jesus actually was does (in my humble opinion) matter - if you believe he had to become truly human to take on the sins of humanity. As a non-Christian, Jesus has to be one of the most influential historical figures of all time - just look what has been done, both good and bad, in his name.

All the way through the story of the 'Quest for the Historical Jesus' and the 'Jesuses' presented by current scholars the book is constantly pointing at a sub-narrative - there must have been something about this man that was special, for his memory to last so vividly and have an impact 2000 years after his death. Other Jewish prophets (and prophets of other religions) came and went..... why do we not, for instance, have a world religion based on the teachings of John the Baptist? What was it about Jesus (and Mohammend, and Buddha) that meant his image - no matter how distorted from what he was like as an earthly figure - remains a subject of both veneration and inquiry.

I am perfectly happy to accept among my Christian friends those whose faith is satisfied by a basic acceptance of the tenets of Christianity and supplemented by a personal relationship with God - they have no need of this book. But for those who wish to know who their God was whilst he was on this Earth this is a great way to start and will lead them on into an understanding of how, when and by whom the Bible was written.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A whole load a blarney!

We have returned from the Emerald Isle! Why are holidays so stupidly short (and so tiring for me)? After a bit of a dodgy start to the trip in Cork - I was dizzy and headachey so a city was not the place to be - we did have a lovely time. A few shocks were:
  • total lack of decent road signange and practically no 'village signs' (and what signs there were were for places that weren't on the map)
  • stupidly high house prices for the size of population (3.5million) and average salary (so dream of selling up and moving to live and being self sufficient there is out of the question)
  • amazing number of new houses (mainly dormer bunaglows?) dotted around the otherwise pristine countryside
  • knackeredness of Cork city itself (obviously had not been polished to a gleaming shine for the capital of culture in 2005).

Anyway now for some pics and commentary. After the semi-trauma of Cork we headed east onto 'great island' to visit the town of Cobh/Queenstown/Cove (depending on what you're reading). The old rail station has a very good museum telling the 'Queenstown Story' as this is the port form which around 3.5million emigrants left island for the Americas.

The weather on the Friday was lovely (despite the sky in the Cobh picture) but we knew bad weather was coming so we decided to head for the south-westerly most point of Ireland and get soaked by the rain and battered by the wind. Mizen Head was spectacular. It took 3 hours to drive the 75 miles or so from Blarney but was definitely worth it. Before crossing the very scary (dripping with rust, covered in scaffolding, 30m in the air) bridge we refuelled at the new visitor centre. We managed to wait just long enough for the torrential rain and so headed out and got well and truly soaked.

    Sunday, despite the weatherman's predictions, was lovely. We headed south of Cork to the fishing town of Kinsale. Very pretty, very busy as Munster were playing Leicester in the Heineken Cup so the pubs were packed and the Guiness was flowing. We headed out to the Old Head of Kinsale to visit the lighthouse and see where the Lusitania sunk (brining the USA into WWI). Chugging along we suddenly came across a large wall, razor wire and a substantial sign saying 'Members and Guests only'. The entire headland had been turned into a golf course with no public access. As we got out of the car to go for a wander where we could we saw several other cars do exactly the same thing. Somehow you just don't expect a large chunk of coastline to be inaccessible even if it is a golf course. Luckily around the corner was the most wonderful little bay packed with surfers (although note old lady paddling by hitching up her skirts on the right). Could quite happily live there for the rest of my days - gorgeous. Back to Kinsale for tea at the White Lady hotel which was fabulous also.

    For our last day we decided to drown our sorrows at the Old Midleton distillery - home of Jameson's whiskey - and home of the largest copper still in the world. After an interesting tour and purchase of 'ladies cut' jameson branded rugby top we declared the location a success and headed out to the coast to Ballycotton bay to say 'Farewell and see you soon' to the green and pleasant land.

    Since arriving back at 12.30am Tuesday morning my fair sister has been over to visit. She let me do a mini 'Trinny and Susannah' on her in Cheltenham with £750 spent in 6 hours. Ended up totally knackered out and I had one of my 14 hour kip days to day - needless to say I didn't make it to work. Still worth it though!

    The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

    Again a second book from an author who I have a feeling is going to become one of my firm favorites. I read 'A Garden of Earthly Delights' by Oates back in spring. It was published in 1967 and was her second novel. 'The Falls' was published in 2004 and has got to be something like her 30th novel (I can't be bothered to count). There are similarities between the works but if anything I think 'Earthly Delights' is the more 'serious' work but maybe I'm wrong. The interesting thing is that both books use the story of a woman's life as a lens to tell history and make social commentary and so I'm wondering if this is the way that Oates always rights and therefore why she is often considered a 'Great American Writer'. 'Earthly Delights' deals with the depression and is written like Steinbeck but without the romanticism. 'The Falls' has as its historical motif the infamous 'Love Canal' class action suit - the first action of its kind in the USA - connecting environmental pollution to human health effects.

    I was actually surprised at how small a role Love Canal actually plays in the book - the summary on the back cover of my copy indicates that it is central to the plot. The initial failed suit however is merely the catalyst for the breakdown of the second marriage of the protagonist Ariah Burnaby. We follow Ariah from the suicide of her first husband on the morning after their wedding night - by throwing himself over Niagara falls. Through her second marriage, birth and childhood of three children, death of her second husband (also by the Falls but this time murdered) and her children's quest in early adulthood to discover the story behind their father's death.

    I found the book gripping and quite moving. The character of Ariah is complex from the outset as it is clear that she is not the most mentally stable of women even before her first husband's suicide. Her overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt and her own interpretation of the karmic effects of the happenings of her life drive her story through the book and have a massive (and almost unavoidable) impact on those around her. At first I thought that 'The Falls' lacked the unity of story of 'Earthly Delights' but come to think of it both books hop around - bringing their 'main' characters in and out of focus as she uses the story to bring into focus political and social questions as well as those of marriage and family.

    Well, I've still got another 30 or so books and dozens of other works to get through. I can see that Ms Oates will be keeping me busy for many years to come!

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006

    The little things

    After yesterday's bummer of a post I thought maybe it was time for a little light humour. Been working at home today which is always cheers me up (except for the fact that Gilmore Girls is no longer on the Hallmark channel at 12.00pm). Attempting my version 4 of a new organogram which will hopefully finally past muster with the senior managers - oh what a life I lead! Anyway, what prompted me to write this post was two things:

    Firstly, today's comedy conversation between husband and I:
    Scenario: Husband clearing out fridge of dead things before going to Sainsbury's....

    -Husband: what are you doing with these eggs in the fridge?
    -Me: they're fine (husband doesn't understand eggs, he has a fear of them)
    -Husband: no these ones in a bowl
    -Me: those are mangoes

    Well I laughed..... Secondly, I thought of another '3 things' thing: what you never want anyone to see you doing (with possible exception of husband, long term boyf).

    My 3 would be:
    - Jogging up the stairs in my pyjamas holding on to my boobs so they don't give me a black eye (this is what gave me the idea)
    - Using depilatory cream
    - Vomiting

    Come on... what are you're 3?

    Monday, October 09, 2006

    Blue is the colour

    Had a good cry last night; first one in ages. Fed up with being ill and all that means for marital harmony (and a few things that I don't think I want to mention this publicly.... Adventuring Jen will understand....). More talking to follow tonight probably although probably not as Husband is working late on his magical adding up devices.

    Getting a bit antsy about my first 'performance review' at work. I'm halfway through my 2 year contract and so I feel its a bit more important than it might otherwise be. Feel the need to be this big career woman and have a plan. Both plans and lack of plans terrify me though so I'm stuck in the middle at the moment. Also terrified about what 'constructive criticism' I'm going to received. Boss is lovely but I'm a bit fragile at the moment so I'm worried anything will set me off.

    Just trying to hang on to my sanity for another 10 days or so before we head off on Husband's surprise birthday weekend. Hopefully our first proper break since getting married will help us both sort out heads out.

    Did have a comedy moment this weekend. We washed both cats. Lyle submitted fairly freely and enjoyed being toweled and then dried with the hairdryer. Tate was little less convinced of the benefits of the process and freaked out when I turned the hairdryer on - so he stayed wet for hours. They both look decidedly less scraggy and now smell absolutely gorgeous - we shampooed them with Herbal Essences Rainforest Flowers (I hope it isn't toxic to cats). Never washed a cat before but as the wonderful pair are long haired I thought it might be worthwhile getting them into the habit.

    Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

    This was an 'Illiteracy Club' read (my work book club) chosen by our Head of Finance. I already suspected that we liked the same kind of books and this confirms it.

    I really enjoyed this book - so many characters and an increasingly bizarre plot that adds humour to what could have been the premise for a Robert Ludlum type thriller if it chose to be. The basic plot is: party for Japanese diplomat in South American Vice-President's house; terrorists break in and take hostages; hostage situation goes on for an in-ordinately long amount of time.

    I think the key to the success of the book is mix of hostages and the mix of terrorists and how they build relationships between each other. The terrorists turn out to be fairly mild mannered as terrorists go and when they realise the hopelessness of the situation rather than resorting to violence they drift off with the hostages into a more pleasant alternate reality. In truth except for one man who is missing his wife most of the characters would rather stay in the mansion forever - rather than face the disappointment that returning to the real world will bring.

    The only real weakness of the book for me was the epilogue. Wholly unnecessary and the sort of thing a Hollywood director would stick on the end so it ended on a more positive note. I wish I had just not read the last few pages and the sappiness (and unlikeliness) really bugged me.

    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Pretty pants and stripey suits

    Shopping part 1: Made into Cheltenham on Sunday for an hours shopping. Allegedly to find some nice dark shirts to go with Husband's new ganster style suit (everything is currently boring pink, white or blue) but out the corner of my eye I spotted a lovely suit from East. Black wool with fine silver pin strips - short fitted jacket and long skirt. Fitted perfectly with the image of the victorian school mistress that I am cultivating this season. So kerching went the cash register and off went I smiling at my accidental purchase. Now all I need is a cameo to go at the neck of one of my blouses and I'll be all set. I wore it yesterday and it is so warm and comfortable I'm sure I could chastise many young men whilst wearing it.

    Shopping part 2: After Husband put his finger through a hole in a pair of my knickers whilst doing the washing yesterday I decided to invest in some new attire for me nether-regions. I would like to take this opportunity to praise the rise of the shortie knicker. It keeps your bum warm but screams 'hipster' not 'old enough to have a broken hip'. Treated myself to 6 pairs - 2 white, 2 nude-ish and 2 black with pattern. Will have to force myself to throw out an equal number of pairs when I get home. Prancing in pants will also take place later.

    Sunday, October 01, 2006

    The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

    Another 'second read' after a much enjoyed (if that's the right word considering much of the contents) experience with 'Atonement' back in February. It was also another £2 remainder purchase.

    The novel is only 100 pages long (exactly if I remember correctly) and I read it yesterday in bed with my cat Tate (and later my husband). The back cover doesn't give much away except that its about a couple who have been together some time and an encounter which changes there life. This 'moment of impact' is the same device that McEwan uses in 'Atonement' and so I was expecting it to occur at the start of the narrative - when in reality it occurs in 'Comfort' at the end.

    Their are some beautiful observations of how a relationship can run after several (but not many) years together. The rare love-making, the lack of intimate conversation and the forgetting of how to have fun with each other. When the mysterious stranger figure of Robert terms up he seems to initially take them out of their comfort zone enough to re-enervate their sexual and romantic relationship.

    For me this change - amidst beautiful descriptions of what must be Venice - would be enough. But McEwan takes it darker, and then darker still. I'm not sure how this relates to the majority of the book and whether the book is any greater or lesser for inclusion. The feeling of being drawn into an 'Eyes Wide Shut' in some ways overwhelms the pedestrian charm of the rest of the novel. Yet I suppose that is what draws you on to the terrifying (and still to me baffling) conclusion.

    'Enduring Love' is sat in my reading stack so I will get around to my 3rd McEwan before long - although I've already attempted it once. We shall see.