August 2013
28 August 2013 ~ Eleanor Catton's  The Luminaries

I gave up after reading a quarter of this giant of a book. And I would not have made it that far but for my admiration for Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal and the mostly gushing reviews for the The Luminaries.

What stopped me was not finding substance, the problem I have with many books that over-rely on mystery. The novel conveys that truth is elusive and perspectives on it change from person to person. There is some insight into the way a gold rush community worked in Victorian times and a smattering of New Zealand history. But Rose Tremain covered similar territory in The Colour with language that was just as good, superior characterisation and without the astrological whimsy.

I don’t insist that novels have something to say about the modern human condition. Books such as Wolf Hall have gripped because they bring history to life. The Luminaries felt contrived from the start. What Victorian gentleman could be induced to admit to twelve strangers, amongst whom he is about live, that his father is a bigamist?

I don’t know if Moody was telling the truth; perhaps the rest of book reveals he didn’t. But whether his tale stands or not, it would be the oddest thing to admit even to the rough and tumble characters of a frontier town.




23 August 2013 ~ Eleanor Catton's  The Luminaries

I thought Eleanor's first novel, The Reharsal, was stunning and all the more so for a work written by someone in her early twenties.  If I had one regret it was that the novel had little to identify it as the work of an autor who had lived most of her life in New Zealand. 

So I was pleased to hear that her second novel, The Luminaries, was set in New Zealand, albeit the 1860s. I picked up a copy this week and needed both hands. It's a monstrous 830 pages, but I won't  mind if it is as good as The Rehearsal

Like her first novel, The Luminaries,  is published in the UK by Granta and has a distinctive and attractive cover.




18 August 2013 ~ Earthquakes and Machismo

Some of my family were living in Christchurch when that city experienced major earthquakes; 7.1 in September 2010, 6.3 in February 2011 and 6.3 in June 2011. In fact, my brother, Brendon, was MP for Central Christchurch at the time. What had been a busy job became an extremely demanding one. Part of the reason he lost the next election was the impact of the quake and over thirty aftershocks that registered between 5.1 and 6.2 on the Richter scale. The continuing seismic activity on top of widespread damage to properties led many to leave the centre if not the city. Such was the disruption that the New Zealand census was deferred for two years.


Brendon and his wife, Philippa, returned to Blenheim at the top of the South Island  after he lost his seat. Over the last four weeks, that area has experienced several strong tremors, many of which had their epicentre near Seddon, a town 23 km to the south of Blenheim. A 6.6 quake on August 16th caused  damage to homes and infrastructure. People living in the lower part of the North Island have felt several of the quakes located near Seddon. In addition, some recent quakes have been located in the North Island and Wellington has suffered from damaged buildings and disrupted services . 

Wellington sits on several fault lines. Its last big quake in 1855 lifted certain areas between two and three metres. Part of the central business district near to the harbour is built on land that was underwater before 1855. Residents know that another "big one" is overdue as a major quake happens there on average every 90 years. Even a minor tremble has Wellingtonians wondering if this is the start of a devastating upheaval.

My most frightening earthquake experience happened in Wellington 1981 during a trip  from the UK after I had been living in London for three years. I was working in adult education and made arrangements to meet a number of people in that field in New Zealand, including a man at the Department of Education. I was delighted to learn that my meeting with him would take place in Old Government Buildings, which date from the 1870s. They stand not far from parliament and once housed all of New Zealand’s government departments as well as ministerial suites and the cabinet room. OGB is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and much admired for the architecture, which includes an elegant entrance via a portico. I had been inside Old Government Buildings a number of times when I was General Secretary of the Student Teachers Association of New Zealand.

My meeting with the Education official was going well when the building shuddered. We were on the third floor. I wanted to run outside and stand away from structures, but my host kept talking as if nothing has happened. Eventually I stopped worrying and had almost forgotten the tremor when there was a stronger one. Again the civil servant looked unperturbed and I found myself competing with his machismo by concealing my fear. But I was so frightened I stopped listening until enough time had passed for me to breathe more easily.

Old Government Buildings, Wellington.  
Photo uploaded from Wiki Media.

Then another sizable jolt and still he prattled on as if nothing had happened. I felt so uneasy that I did what I could to hasten the end of the meeting without appearing rude. I said I would see myself out  left via the first exit I found, which was at the back of the building. And at the rear a gang was at work replacing the  original wooden piles with concrete posts. The jolts had been due to parts of the building being either jacked up or lowered.




14 August 2013 ~ Computer Games, Web Trawling & Writing

Thirty years ago, I worked with Lionel, who spoke of his addiction to Space Invaders, one of the first computer games and the first I can recall seeing in public places.


Lionel described how a girlfriend gave him an ultimatum in a pub when he was about to play; “You have to choose between me and Space Invaders”.


He claimed to have responded by asking if she had any change she could give him before she left.


Perhaps it was this that made me wary of computer games when I was an early adopter of other aspects of new technology, such as word processing via a mainframe in 1982 and obtaining an MA with the help of an Amstrad bought in 1987. I think I also recalled how addicted I was to pinball machines in the 1960s. I would have played them for even longer had money been no object.


Even without playing computer games, I recognise that my computer activity has an addictive element. I enjoy the challenge of finding information on the web. And more than that, the searching seems to mask if not undo stress. It has a hypnotic quality. I can remember coming home from tiring days at work and finding release in trawling the Internet to find, for example, what Leisure Connection would prefer as few people as possible knew about.


The same thing has happened with Carlton Leisure over the last two weeks. The problem is that I have found far more than I expected. And the trails keep widening. I have found and posted 47 examples of faked questions and answers placed on the Internet by people who elsewhere are busy promoting the travel brands involved in the Q&As. In addition, I have identified 31 fake reviews submitted by people who elsewhere are web hacks (in the sense of content writers) for the same brands.


The upshot of all this for my fiction writing is that I have done very little in the last fortnight. And while computer screens can be hypnotic, writing for me brings far more satisfaction. In any case, I work on most of my fiction via my PC. Given the chance, I even make my earliest notes for a story or set down the ideas for a novel via screen and keyboard.


I am looking forward to resuming fiction writing tomorrow. I miss it. And while trawling is soothing, putting together the information for the web is less fun, whereas writing or editing fiction is usually very enjoyable.


To date, I have heard nothing else from the solicitor who suggested I had defamed Carlton Leisure. I still don’t accept the allegation. However, even if it was true, Carlton Leisure have failed to prevent people who write web content for them acting as systematic liars and cheats. This sort of shoddy and sharp practice has the potential to do far more damage to a company than any views an individual might publish.




2 August 2013 ~ Alleged Defamation & Coincidence

I have received two threatening letters from solicitors in the last decade. The first concerned the website I have run since 2004 about the failings of Leisure Connection, a company that once had the lion's share of municipal contracts to manage sports and leisure centres. The firm didn’t like what I wrote at Leisure Connection Watch and I received a letter from their solicitor. You can see what they alleged and my response to it on LCW. I never heard from the solicitors again.

 

Do I feel smug to have seen off Leisure Connection's legal Rottweiler? No. A girl drowned in a Leisure Connection-run pool in Maldon in 2008. I wonder if this tragedy might have been avoided had my campaign been more effective. Leisure Connection was recently fined almost £200k when you add in the costs they were ordered to pay in the case brought by the HSE following the drowning. The firm had been reducing lifeguards below the minimum required. Further details of the court case.

 

I plan to greatly cut down time spent on Leisure Connection Watch from November. That is when the contract for my local leisure centre gets handed over from to a new and not-for-profit company. But just as I was hoping to reduce my consumer activism, another issue has led me to create a second campaigning website

This time the company that has riled me is a travel agent called Carlton Leisure. And Carlton Leisure also dislike criticism being made public and got their legal firm, Olephants, to trumpet at me. You can see the recent solicitor’s letter and my reply to it via Carlton Leisure Watch. And by examining the small amount of content already on my new site you can see why the travel agent deserves some critique.

 

One of the themes of The Bush Baptist is coincidence and the significance that some people attach to flukes. I don’t myself. My view is that so many things happen there are bound to be strange twists of fate from time to time. I find them, or at least people getting the willies over coincidences, amusing apart from the poor souls who live in dread of their significance.

 

A small coincidence arose from Carlton Leisure Watch. One of the employees I have reported on claims that the company has an office in Pinner. I couldn’t resist adding a postscript to that page, which I reproduce here.


As for Catherine's claim that Carlton Leisure is located in Pinner, I beg to differ.

Carlton Leisure's office is near Rayners Lane Station and Rayners Lane is as much a district of Harrow as Pinner.

 

Put the company's post code into Harrow Council's website and it tells you the address is in Rayners Lane Ward. 

Some maps do blur the distinction. However, Ladbrokes plc, which has it headquarters not far from Carlton Leisure's office, gives its address as Rayners Lane.

The reason some refer to Pinner rather than Rayners Lane largely comes down to prestige. I have written about the snobbery of London place names in two novels.

  • "I had assumed that Belsize Park was the nearest station to Deadman Lane because I had not yet learned that a London district can expand or contract depending on its name’s cachet. For example, middle-class West Hampstead spreads at the expense of blue-collar Kilburn and every year the border between bijou Highgate and utilitarian Holloway slips a little further downhill. Not appreciating such biddable boundaries..."  from The Bush Baptist
  • "My parents were at the bottom of the street’s social hierarchy when they arrived, but at least no locals knew about their origins. And while some in our street claimed to live in Pinner, because houses in that adjoining suburb tended to be bigger, Rayners Lane was achievement enough for Gordon and Maud."  from Mr Vitriol.

E-book versions of The Bush Baptist and Mr Vitriol are available for £3 via Payhip in Epub, Mobi and PDF formats. Printed copies of Mr Vitriol are available from Amazon UK and The Bush Baptist print version will be sold by Amazon shortly. In the meanwhile, printed copies can be bought from the publisher, Feedaread.