‘Underworld’ by Don DeLillo

I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.

Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.

It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.

Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.

We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.

It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.

There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.

UnderworldI am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)

In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.

Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.

Fashion Police Bulletin #3

Before we get going on our latest bulletin, the Fashion Police would just like to clarify their position on gender. That is…. we don’t care about gender. Identify how you like. Dress according to however you see yourself. (And in our humble opinion, unisex toilets would be a very civilising influence on those who identify as male. However, this is moving away from our role as arbiters of good fashion taste.)

Nevertheless, there are many- dare we say a majority- of people who do identify quite clearly with traditional male or female genders. Thus we use these terms when necessary, without implying that they are binding or exclusive, or that you should necessarily dress according to your stated or self-identified gender, if you wish to state it or self-identify it. Indeed, we saw a gentleman (for his beard implied to us that that was how he saw himself) in Southampton the other day in a very fetching dress and make-up. The Fashion Police applaud such individuality and flair.

Colour The Fashion Police find themselves in the happy position of being able to start this bulletin with thorough approval of the brighter shades that are making some sort of a comeback this Spring. This is most evident in shops, and seems to be trickling through to the high street. While it is generally not the Fashion Police’s role to be prescriptive, we thoroughly approve.

Ready-Ripped Clothing We hate to labour a point, but we are very perturbed to find that our views on ripped jeans (see Bulletin #2) have been ignored; in fact that there is evidence of ‘artfully’ ripped tops being for sale. In one horrific example, the holes looked much like bullet holes. Don’t do it (Penalty according to extent of pre-ripping.)

T-shirtWriting on T-shirts The other day we saw a young lady (for that is presumably how she self-identified) with a neat T-shirt, on which was printed the word “……imist”. The dots are to indicate that none of us could see the rest of the word. “Optimist”? “Pessimist”? “Soroptimist”? (We have never worked out what that last one means.) Now we could have stared intently at her chest until we could see the word clearly, but the male members of the Fashion Police felt this was inappropriate. The moral? Please don’t wear a T-shirt with writing on unless you are happy to have people look at your chest. Especially not long texts; some of us are not happy until we have read them all. No penalty; just a word to the wise. (I’ve been dying to use that expression since I heard it on EastEnders the other night.)

Sports Short In a well-known clothing store today there was a banner advertising a “Sports short”. In another part of the store there was a banner advertising “T-shirt and shorts”. Are we missing something? Is a “short” different from a “pair of shorts”? Is this a protest against an archaic use of the word shorts, as a plural for what is now a singular item? Or is it just sloppy thinking? You may well argue that this is totally outside the remit of the Fashion Police. You’d be wrong. Sort it out, P*****k.

Back-to-front Baseball Caps Still? Are they all taking the mickey? After all we have said?


My poetic heroes

Roger McGough. Brian Patten. T.S. Eliot. Adrian Mitchell. Robert Graves. Rupert Brooke. And did I mention T.S. Eliot?

What was this straight-seeming chap doing shaking the foundations of poetry; re-making it? He looked like a bank manager, for goodness’ sake. (Hey, fellow pedants, check out the discussions on the web about that apostrophe.)

As usual, I don’t know enough about it. I’m probably talking rubbish. Who cares? It’s my right to write rubbish and your right to ignore it.

But, T.S. Eliot….. “I grow old…. I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.” Just read it. Don’t try to ‘understand’ it.


An idle lexicographic collection

Just for my amusement. It’s so trivial I haven’t even shared it on Facebook.

This is merely a collection of phrases I like and want to preserve, as I feel some of them are dying out.

“We’re going to hell in a handcart……” A lovely evocation of despair. I thought this had disappeared, then I heard it used on the BBC TV programme ‘Midwives’ just after I started to write this. I tend to use it ironically!

It’s black over Will’s mother.” Used to describe a louring sky. I have no idea who Will or his mother might have been. Often used by my grandmother.

Often I feel it in my water: There is something I have a deep gut feeling about. This must be a pretty old one.

You are a person of sound bottom, meaning you are thoroughly reliable, not referring to your backside.

Where will it all end? Graveyard mould.” A cheery one of my grandmother’s.

OK U.S. marines, let’s go! This must have come from a film, and my children must have been sick of how often I used it. Along with this goes: Let’s move before they raise the parking rate!A song quote. No prizes for the source… anybody?

That’s enough of all this rubbish.

A Quick Word: Populist

How is it that ‘populist’ is a derogative word? What does it mean, anyway?

It appears to me that it currently is often used to describe a “view that is held by a large number of people but is however wrong”. (This is my middle-class, middle of the road, moderately well-educated understanding of the current situation; and please note that I am still sitting so resolutely on the fence as regards matters like Brexit that I have, as MSC would no doubt agree, got splinters embedded in my rear.)

My admittedly old print dictionaries (Collins and Oxford) do not have it. My Kindle dictionary (Oxford) gives the noun as a “person who supports or seeks to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people”. Hence the adjective. This is hardly derogatory and hardly my received impression from the 2017 media. So I went online to find out more.

Wikipedia says that populism mobilises “a large alienated element of a population against a government which is seen as controlled by an out-of-touch closed elite that acts on behalf of its own interests” and that it is often used pejoratively. (Wikipedia populist)

Other websites (there were over 12 million hits for populist) see populism as alarming (300 000 hits for populist & alarming) or a danger (500 000 hits for populist & danger).So it has presumably become a pejorative word. In what way?

Jeremy Corbyn, quoted on Sky News, criticises the populist right. (Sky News article) I found 615 000 hits for populist & left wing, with only 50 000 more for populist & right wing. Not a huge difference. Mr Corbyn, according to the Independent, is to be relaunched as a left wing populist. (Independent article) So it seems to be used for either left or right wing views, often in a negative way.

Obviously there is some confusion about a definition and, perhaps sadly, some misappropriation by left and right of the word “populist”, on its own, as a derogatory term to suit particular agendas. I find the definition of “supporting or seeking to appeal to the concerns of ordinary people” to be clear and useful; it would be nice if it were always to be used this way, if necessary linked to either “right wing” or “left wing” for clarity.

However, I don’t control the media……

Couldn’t think of a picture…..

‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ by Charles Dickens

I think that to read Dickens for pleasure in this day and age requires a certain mind set- and a good amount of time. Even though I now have plenty of time, I do not always afford reading Dickens the attention it needs. I do admit that sometimes having seen a dramatisation helps.

I jumped into Martin Chuzzlewit without much thought and have generally greatly enjoyed it. I have recently found that it helps to have a guide to the characters in Dickens, as in Trollope and Tolstoy (never him again). I drew my own character map as I read, a method I thoroughly recommend. Miss Oblique the Eldest suggested I publicise this, so I have. Please notice it only includes the main characters in England: there are American interludes. I apologise for any errors.


Notwithstanding this complication, there were times when I read this like an “easy” read. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted Mr Pecksniff to get his comeuppance and I wanted Tom Pinch to get the girl. I wanted marriages and happy endings, romcom fan that I am. I will leave you to discover if I got what I wanted.

This book has classic, rolling Dickensian sentences (occasionally opaque), lists and grand (sometimes grotesque) characters. I don’t think it’s his best.

Specifically, I find parts of Martin Chuzzlewit over-sentimental and overdone. Mr Dickens does at times signal what will happen so strongly that it is no surprise.

I was interested to look at the very good biography of Dickens by Claire Tomalin and to find she has a similar view. She considers it “long, confused and uneven” with “sickly sentimentality”, but points out that it has “scatterings of brilliance”. Dickens was apparently proud of it.

martin_chuzzlewit_illus2It’s worth noting that the novel is stunningly critical of the U.S.A. It finds very, very little positive. Despite this, the Americans still loved him and I think his opinion softened. Oddly enough, the illustration with this paragraph, of Mr Pecksniff and his daughters, is by Solomon Eytinge Jr., “from the 1867 U.S. edition published by Ticknor and Fields”. (It is public domain.)

This is not what I would recommend for a first Dickens novel, or even a second, but if you do get round to it I’d be delighted to hear if the chart was of any use.

Note: I read it on a Kindle. Useful for keeping track of characters, and free, but maybe I’ll read my next Dickens in a ‘real’ book; much easier flipping back a page or two- and there’s more to each page.

One year on


Much to my surprise, I realise that it has been one year since I published my first blog post. I started this blog to have an outlet for bits and pieces of thoughts and observations. I used to ramble on  to my colleagues. When I retired, I couldn’t let the long-suffering Mrs Oblique take all the strain, so started this. (Actually, Mrs O. doesn’t read it. Interesting.)

It also turned out to be a tool for me to clarify my thinking. Putting something into writing has always helped me. I almost feel I haven’t properly dealt with an idea unless I’ve written it down.

I didn’t do it to become famous, or make money, or attract legions of followers. Nevertheless, I did hope that a few people might read it.

Well I haven’t become famous, or made money, or attracted legions of followers; but I am very pleased to say that a few people have read it.

The statistics (which I don’t find entirely convincing) say that my 80 posts have attracted 683 visitors, who have viewed posts 1393 times. Yes, I am aware that many of these visitors are repeats, who for some reason have returned several times, or some who just humour their dad…. However, I am very gratified that I am getting read; and most astonished that the visits come from 32 different countries. I would have expected that most came from the U.K. and the U.S.A. I also have friends in Spain, France, Italy, Australia and others I apologise for neglecting. But the Lebanon? Serbia? Kenya? Japan? How wonderful even to have had one visit from each of these.

I haven’t restricted myself to one subject; that wasn’t the point. Most of the blog posts seem to have been about education, books or music. I write when I feel I have the need to say something, not to a plan. Sometimes the posts are written out in longhand beforehand, sometimes typed and posted straight away. I am happiest when Mrs Oblique can be persuaded to produce one of her wonderful illustrations. I have tried to ensure that all the others are copyright free.

The most popular post so far was Soft Machine at Talking Heads, probably because I publicised it on the wonderful forum at the wonderful website that is Planet Gong . I have enjoyed writing them all and have especially enjoyed getting comments, both on WordPress and Facebook. I have particularly liked playing with language, freed from the need to be in teacher mode. Oddly, I still like most of what I have written and even smile at it.

If you have been…. Thanks for reading. Did I say I liked comments?

(Sorry to tell you this, but I have ideas for at least another 22 posts. Watch this space.)