Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sunday 21st October

One advantage of owning a kindle is that one can read new books at a fraction of the cost of Hardbacks, and not have to wait for the still-more-expensive-than-a-kindle paperback version to arrive.  As soon as I heard of McEwan’s new book I downloaded it to my kindle, and though I had a couple of others in the pipeline to read I couldn’t wait for this one.  I deliberately didn’t read any book reviews as I like my books to be a surprise, and I wasn’t disappointed.  There is a similarity in style in all of McEwan’s books, in that they are very beautifully written with a lot of what my writing teacher calls ‘show and tell’ where bits of the plot are drip-fed to the reader as you slowly become aware of the full plot.  And it is funny and sad and clever too, also a great idea is that the heroine is reading another character’s stories as he is being groomed for literary stardom.  So we get about four stories within the big story, although not the actual stories, just a clever readers synopsis of these books we will never get to read.  Maybe they are all discarded plots of McEwan himself, or just ideas that came to him as he imagined the possible output of his make-believe budding author.

The time-frame is one of my favourites too; the early seventies; and the sense of hopelessness and doom in describing the political ups and downs and the three day week are very nicely done, especially as we see them mostly from a right-wing perspective.  The novel is about M15, at a time when it wasn’t at all sure of its role anymore, and the characters are maybe a touch too caricatured but still quite believable.

Nice to see a female heroine so full of self-doubts, when most writers, especially female ones present their heroines as dauntless and feisty and so sure of themselves, when, especially back in the seventies women were only beginning to gain their place.  In any case there is nothing wrong with characters who are unsure and worried about how they appear to the world.  It is all the more believable for that.

A nice pace drives the story along to its more or less inevitable ending, although a clever literary device works very well in the end.  So, another highly enjoyable book from a writer at the top of his form; 8/10 I think. 

Sweet Tooth: A Novel

The Tooth Fairy

Saturday 20th October

I no longer believe in the tooth fairy, you know the one that takes your milk teeth away and leaves a sixpence under your pillow.  But, oh, if it were still true I would be richer today, but only by 2.5p in today’s devalued currency.  I had a tooth extracted on Thursday.  It is quite a long saga.  For years I was seen by Bernard Chan the polite Chinese butcher, sorry – I mean dentist, who was quite happy to keep filling and plugging the gaps in my teeth, brought on by years of neglect no doubt.  One day at my regular check-up Mr. Chan was gone, replaced by the charming Romanian Ilya Sapori, who said I should really consider getting all my bad teeth either replaced by implants or by bridges and crowns.  On the grounds of expense, though the crowns weren’t exactly cheap I opted for the latter and had about six crowns inserted in my mouth.  Along with whitening it certainly made a big difference and at last I had a passably respectable set of teeth.

That was two years ago.  At my last check-up I was recommended to see the hygienist who spotted a large cavity under a crown.  I was referred back to Ilya, who incidentally had not spotted the bad tooth two weeks ago.  He half talked me into having an implant and I returned to have the tooth extracted by a Dental Surgeon, who on examining the x-rays thought I should also have an adjacent wisdom tooth (still hidden in my gums) removed at the same time, to allow more room to do the implant.  At this point I started to have real second doubts, especially as they said that I should have a few days off work to get over the removal of the wisdom tooth.  I decided to just have the bad tooth removed which reluctantly they did, warning me that I may still have to have the wisdom tooth removed in three months time if I still wanted the implant.  No fear of that I can assure you.  I will not be having the implant done.  I will put up with one less tooth in my head for the remainder of my days; it is right at the back anyway so no-one will notice.

It makes me realise that the tooth fairy has been replaced by the tooth alchemist, who wants to turn all my teeth into gold, because at £1500 a time, implants are the game to be in.  Why it’s almost as lucrative as Banking.

Mr. Patch is poorly

Friday 19th October

I knew the moment I came in the front door.  I could hear nothing, no frantic scrabbling, no rush of paws tearing down the stairs, no bouncing dog through the glass inner hall door.  I opened the door and called out for Mr. Patch.  He came in slowly from the garden looking very sorry for himself, as if he had just been told off.  He avoided looking at me and disappeared behind the table.  Princess Polly was her usual over enthusiastic self, wagging not only her tail but the whole back half of her body in her excitement at seeing me again.  Actually she does this with everyone she meets, even complete strangers will be licked to death if they allow her too close, so maybe her enthusiasm is not specifically for me, but just for a human being who happens to have come to the house.  But Mr. Patch was hanging back, skulking almost and avoiding me.

Before I have taken my jacket off the usual routine is for me to say ‘Come on’ and the two dogs bound downstairs to be taken for a walk, but today no amount of ‘Come on’s’, ‘Walkies’, ‘Douggies’ or ‘Parky park’s’ or even the rattle of the leads made a difference to the surly Mr. Patch.  I took Princess Polly on her own.

Returning I discovered that Mr. Patch had just been sick and as if expecting to be reprimanded was hiding again.  Maybe he had licked a toad again, he simply cannot resist them, even though he is always ill and froths at the mouth after.  But no, no drooling saliva, just a shivering and the most hang-dog look a dog can give.

We decided that he had to go to the Vets, so off we sped through the rain to the Vet.  Temperature high, but not dangerously so, and still shivering, and feeling sorry for himself.  Three injections, antibiotic, pain relief and anti-vomiting, all of which he accepted without the least reaction, as if having three needles shoved into him was as nothing to how rotten he was feeling.

He seems to have slept well last night at least, but this morning he wasn’t eating and again didn’t want to go for his walk.  We are taking him back to the Vet tonight, hopefully he will have recovered somewhat.  So, come on Mr. Patch, hurry up and get better, we miss the mad frantic excitable dog you always were.

No-one would have planned it this way

Thursday 18th October

One of those catchy little business maxims is ‘Fail to plan, Plan to fail.’   Not an exact analogy, but the idea is that by failing to plan adequately you are in effect storing up disaster for yourself and you might as well have given up before you started.  It was fashionable a few years ago at business seminars, but in the real world there is only so much planning ahead you can do.  Having been involved in budget forecasting the hardest thing to predict is the level of your ongoing sales, and most costs follow on from those estimates.  Budgets are almost always wrong, and if correct it is by luck rather than planning.

One of the major differences between the world views of Communism and Capitalism is that the former depends on central planning, and the latter on the whims of the market.  And while it is true that central planning has failed spectacularly, so too has the market.  Maybe all human endeavour fails ultimately.  But when you look more closely, some planning does work; the Olympics were planned to death and yet they worked brilliantly well, just imagine if it had been left to the market with opportunism and the lowest common denominator winning out rather than excellence and hard work and yes, planning.

And look at our system where the market rules and factories are closed and thousands thrown out of work because the market price of something has fallen.  Just walk down any high street and see how many shops have changed hands in the last ten years, old expensive shop-fittings ripped out and thrown in skips and expensive new ones and new windows and false ceilings and lights installed, because the old firm can write it all off as a tax loss, and the new one can capitalize things over the length of the lease so it won’t affect the bottom line.  But what a waste of resources, even if in a way it does create more work elsewhere.  Why can we not create a system of sustainable industries that do not keep soaring and then crashing, which make steady profits that all in the enterprise can feel part of, rather than this ‘spiv’ economy where companies spring up and close, quick as a knife.  Or might that require a bit of planning.

Debenhams – The repository of lost souls

Wednesday 17th October

I needed a new watch battery and strap for my Mondaine Swiss Railway Watch; I knew John Lewis didn’t do repairs but thought they would know somewhere nearby which might, so I went in and asked.  Surprise, surprise; the answer was Debenhams.  I have always disliked Debenhams; possibly my antipathy was due to a former partner’s love of the shop, but actually I think it is the messiness of the store I dislike so much.  Compared to the regimental tidiness of John Lewis, Debenhams lacks any real character.  You know a John Lewis customer at once, decidedly middle class, a bit fuddy-duddy, changing yet changeless as canal water (as Viv Stanshall once remarked).  But who are Debenhams customers, the smart crowd are all in Zara or Next or Hennes, and the cheapo’s in Primark, so who shops in Debenhams?

I took my watch there and the man was very efficient and polite, it would take about thirty minutes so I wandered downstairs to the coffee shop.  And here I found the repository of lost souls.  The myopic man with milk bottle thick lenses and a belt holding his trousers up a few inches too high; a trio of muslim women clad head to toe in black with only letter boxes to view the world from; a couple of middle aged women in clothes twenty years too young for them, dyed and permed hair, far too much make-up and ridiculous florid pink spectacles; an old man in trilby and overcoat and trembling walking stick left to guard the coffee while his wife shopped; a black man who looked as if this was his first port of call after disembarking from Trinidad, looking frantically around him but recognizing nothing; a frumpy-dumpy mum of noisy twins who was the right side of twenty but looked the wrong side of forty.  A sad and depressing crowd, no one in a hurry to finish their solitary drinks, mopping up crumbs with their fingers from cakes they bought when they weren’t even hungry.  And I joined them.  While waiting for my watch to be fixed I too became one of the Debenhams people in the repository of lost souls.

Where are we now?

Tuesday 16th October

When the history of our be-knighted times comes to be written, what will be the conclusion; because for the life of me, I cannot see the way ahead.  Are we in some sort of terminal decline, with over-population eventually swamping the planet, or will our resources miraculously keep increasing to meet the new demand.  And more importantly how will those precious resources be shared out.  For most of my teenage years and my twenties I was convinced that the sweep of History was in the direction of more equality, more freedom, more socialism.  Was I then just another deluded fool infected with neo-communist theory?  Because I could see no way in which Capitalism would win in the long run, even though that long run might well outrun my own life.

But what none of us really appreciated was how the supertanker that is China could be turned around and how this so-called Communist state would succeed in turning itself into the powerhouse of the world, with what is maybe an even more vicious, heavily state influenced Capitalism.  Who needs Democracy – we can give you ever-growing Wealth and the chance to live a life of luxury and plenty when your very own grandparents almost starved and died penniless.  And America connives, as too do almost all the old European centres of freedom.  The old enemy Communism is dead, but maybe no-one has quite recognized the new one yet.

Or does the wheel keep turning, will the pendulum swing back and the values I treasure and believe in; human decency, kindness, sharing, altruism even, become refreshed and start to not only push back but to win.

I used to think that Capitalism would ‘eat itself’, that naked Greed would result in such a polarized society that it wouldn’t even be worth being rich if you had to live your whole life behind security gates.  That they would run out of countries to export poverty to, that if people hadn’t enough money to buy the very stuff they were producing then they must eventually rise up and change things.  I am not so sure these days.  Hopefully this is just the pessimism of age and the optimism of the young will succeed where we have failed.

Breakfast in IKEA

Monday 15th October

There we were, a small crowd of early ‘Ikea’s’, huddled round the locked entrance as the wind whipped around the under-store car park.  Dead on ten the doors opened.  We knew exactly what we were looking for, a fairly slim stand-alone kitchen cupboard, and after a couple of tries found exactly what we had in mind.  We noted down the Aisle and Location numbers and wandered through beds and carpets and bathrooms and on to the restaurant.  The store was still not taking money until 11, so we were going to have a coffee.  What we hadn’t realised was that almost everyone else had headed straight to the restaurant and were all munching away.  Maybe as a lost leader, maybe as an attraction in itself Ikea has a great self-service restaurant, even if they do insist on a few Scandinavian delicacies such as lingenberry juice and I kid you not, ‘Organic Moose Pasta’.   It is incredibly cheap and well made; six breakfast items for less than two pounds is almost a steal.  So we too had our breakfast, the coffee was re-fillable too, and for less than six pounds we had a great start to the day.

What we didn’t fully realise was just how many people had come simply for the breakfast. They weren’t buying anything at all, and of course there was nothing to stop you doing just that, though one hopes that some of Ikea’s other goods such as furniture and housewares may have crept into their consciousness. But there is a recession on, and you would be hard-pressed to manage a breakfast quite as good at home at that price.  We continued through an almost deserted store, through the market hall and into the collection hangar, found our bit of furniture exactly where it should be, loaded it on our trolley, paid and came home.

We had suddenly discovered a new institution, Breakfast at Ikea, and if we lived nearer we might manage it every Sunday.

IKEA Flags - ikea wallpaper

After the Big Bang

Sunday 14th October

After the Big Bang we jump and go ‘Oh!!!!’  But seriously how did all those neutrons, protons, electrons etc: form themselves into different atoms and molecules and then sort themselves out into Galaxies, stars, planets, moons and asteroids?  For something so random as an explosion it looks remarkably well-ordered to me.  The whole idea of the big bang is posited on observations that seem to show the Universe expanding, and maybe it is, but does that mean it was always expanding, or at the same velocity, or even in the same direction.  And if they are right, surely we can pinpoint exactly where the Big Bang occurred, though I have never actually seen or heard of this.

Is it just possible, that despite our computers, our ‘understanding’ of the Laws of Physics, our brilliant radio and visual telescopes that we are actually as misguided as Copernicus and Gallileo were before us.  What if the true result of all human knowledge means a constant revision and re-writing, and re-understanding of what we thought was true only a few years ago.  This is certainly true of such things we can observe in our own lifetime like Medicine; how Doctors now treat Shock, or Heart Attacks or Strokes is quite different from when I was younger.  The corollary of course, is that this very ‘wisdom’ of today will almost certainly be superseded by cleverer clogs than us in the future.  You could say therefore ‘Why Trust anything, as it is almost certainly wrong, or will be in the future.’  But there lies the rub.  We live in the present and so in the present we must make our judgments.

And so back to the Big Bang; we are all living after the Big Bang, so interesting as it is, and unless another Big Bang is imminent, does it really matter exactly how it happened at all.

Before the Big Bang

Saturday 13th October

Two TV programmes in a row, you must think all I do is watch TV.  Not quite true, but I do love Horizon, especially when it is about Cosmology and the sort of Astro-Physics where mind-bending ideas are presented as completely plausible.  Personally while rejecting any sort of ‘Creator’ of the Universe religious claptrap, I have always been dissatisfied by ‘Big Bang’ theory.  How could all of the Universe, in its almost incomprehensible vastness have once been infinitesimally minute almost to the point of nothingness and then suddenly exploded and over 13.7 billion years have expanded to this size?   But even more astounding was the claim that before Big Bang there was nothing; that nothing existed at all.  No matter, no dimensions no laws of Physics and no time – and then for whatever unexplained reason Big Bang happened.

It is almost beyond question that Big Bang or something like it happened, though some physicists are even questioning this elegant theory upon which almost everything else rests.  The programme examined various ideas for what may have existed before Big Bang from the idea that we are but one of ’10 to the power of 7’ (an enormous number) Universes in existence, to their being about 10 different dimensions and when two of these touched the Universe was created, to string theory where observed distortions to the accepted theory such as some bits of the Universe travelling in the wrong direction, that is contracting rather than expanding are due to one of three possible other Universe coming too close to ours.

The two ideas I like best, though who knows what the truth will end up becoming, are that the universe is constantly expanding and contracting and when it gets too big and all matter is protons it all falls back on itself and then re-Big Bangs, and the other idea that our universe was created from a vast black hole in another Universe we can no longer see.

The biggest questions in the Universe are where did all this stuff come from, and how did it happen like this?  Of course scientists are very good at coming up with answers to how, when and where but the biggest unknown, which they struggle with, is WHY?

The galaxy Messier 100, or M100, shows its swirling spiral in this infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The arcing spiral arms of dust and gas that harbor star forming regions glow vividly when seen in the infrared.

Welcome to India

Friday 12th October

Wednesday’s BBC 2 at 9.00.  This quite remarkable and enlightening programme called ‘Welcome to India’ is a revelation.  I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it.  For a start it is full of optimism and admiration and enthusiasm, both about India the country, and it’s hard-working and desperately poor but enterprising people.  There isn’t a shred of self pity in the presentation, or the words of the narrator, or indeed the incredibly hard-done by subjects.  In fact quite the contrary, there is no hint of an apology for the fact that people have to live like this, in ramshackle huts or filthy shanty-towns besides railway lines or rubbish dumps, or for there being no welfare state at all for these people, or for the dangerous work they do, or for the way they are screwed over again and again by those with money and power.

And every one of these desperately poor people, scraping a living by going down drains and heaving up mud and shit to be ‘panhandled’ for tiny amounts of gold, or cutting up rusting ships with no safety measures in place, or melting down animal fat in stinking vats, are smiling and laughing and living their precarious lives in a far happier state than we in the West can ever hope to achieve. It also makes you realise that we are rich on the backs of, and precisely because this rank poverty exists.

It makes you wonder just how we in the privileged and pampered West would begin to manage if suddenly the safety nets of Welfare and Job Security and all the conditions of what we consider a decent society were to disappear. With only the market as arbiter and raw capitalism let loose would we resort to both the enterprise and the hard work of these wonderful people, or would we succumb to self-pity.  In some ways we have lost something which these people have, but I bet given the chance they would all readily swap places with us if they could.

Image for Gold Panning