This year, on 21 April, Queen Elizabeth II turned 90.
To mark this milestone birthday a number of celebrations have been taking place this year, culminating in three days of events across the UK and the Commonwealth this weekend.
This afternoon an al fresco picnic lunch is being held along The Mall (the long, wide London street leading from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square). Trestle tables have been set up for 10,000 guests, many of whom represent the 600 charities of which the Queen is Patron.
A lunch on this scale requires a great deal of organisation and planning. Here are a few facts connected with today’s event:
More than 5000 metres of bunting has been put up along The Mall
12,500 waterproof ponchos have been made available in case of rain
33,000 cups of tea will be poured
40,000 sandwiches have been prepared
Each luncheon guest will receive a wicker picnic hamper packed with exciting goodies from Marks and Spencer showcasing British produce. A full rundown of what’s inside each hamper can be found here.
Earlier this year a book called “The Servant Queen” was brought out to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. It was produced by three Christian organisations and emphasises the role Christianity has played in her life and work. The foreword has been written by the Queen herself, and she is quoted throughout the main text. The book is 64 pages long, and has been beautifully produced with lots of photographs. I think it’s very well written and provides a fascinating insight into the Queen’s faith.
The Servant Queen
The Servant Queen
The Servant Queen
I have a copy of this book to give away. If you would like to be in with a chance to win it, please leave a comment below. Entrants are welcome from anywhere in the world and the winner will be announced a week from today, on Sunday 18 June.
“The dream shall never die” by Alex Salmond (2015), non fiction
This book was purchased while mooching around the bookshops of Wigtown in Galloway. My parents and I had been enjoying afternoon refreshments in the cafe of Beltie Books and were on our way out of the shop when a pile of books attracted my dad’s attention. He picked one up and splashed out the required £12.99. It’s a signed copy, which is a nice little bonus.
For several days after our holiday my dad was often to be found sitting quietly on a sofa deep in the pages of this book. At mealtimes he regaled us with amusing snippets from it. When he’d finished it he urged me to read it myself, and I gladly accepted the offer.
After a brief prologue and an introduction of around 30 pages, the meat of the book begins. It was as I started reading this part of the book that I discovered how engaging Alex Salmond’s writing could be.
On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland went to the polls to vote on the issue of Scottish independence. The question we had to answer was: Should Scotland be an independent country? The only possible answers were ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
In the run up to the referendum Alex Salmond, as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party), was campaigning enthusiastically on behalf of what was known as ‘Yes Scotland’, the main organisation in favour of independence. The opposition group, campaigning for Scotland to remain a part of the UK, was known as ‘Better Together’.
‘The dream shall never die’ is written as a kind of diary of events covering Yes Scotland’s 100 day campaign to persuade Scots to vote for independence. During this period there was a great deal of campaign coverage in the media, and constant speculation about which side was ahead in the polls and who was doing a better job of persuading voters.
One of the things about the run up to the referendum that stands out in my memory is how positive the Yes Scotland campaigners were compared with the Better Together lot. As Alex Salmond points out in the book, it’s far easier to be upbeat when campaigning for a positive outcome than when backing a negative.
This book benefits not only from the unique perspective gained by one of the campaign’s leaders, but from the entertaining way in which that perspective is conveyed. Alex Salmond’s sense of humour is evident throughout the diary-type entries. Far from being a dry and plodding read, as has been the case with some political observations I’ve read, I found it surprisingly fresh and engaging.
In the end, the people of Scotland voted against independence (the result was 55% against and 45% in favour of independence), and Alex Salmond took the decision to resign as First Minister for Scotland. The final sentence of his resignation speech was: “For me as leader my time is nearly over. But for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.” A rousing note to end on and an optimistic title for his subsequent book.
Earlier this year the SNP won a third term in government, now under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Next month the whole of the UK will vote in another referendum, this time on whether to remain in the European Union (EU) or leave. The question is worded so that there isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option. Instead, we’ll be asked: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
A recent opinion poll, published in The Scotsman newspaper yesterday, indicates that more people in Scotland want to remain in the EU than leave. This does not seem to be the case in England. If the UK votes to leave the EU, but Scotland wants to stay in, a second Scottish independence referendum will surely be inevitable. If that happens, Alex Salmond’s dream might well come true in his lifetime.
The recommendations on the back of this book are as follows: “An intriguingly quirky read” (Leslie Phillips), and “E F Benson crossed with Jerome K Jerome” (The Times).
I picked up this book in a second-hand bookshop on holiday in Wigtown a couple of weeks ago, when I was looking for something light and entertaining as bedtime reading.
The protagonist is a likeable English vicar who has murdered one of his parishioners but has, thus far, escaped justice. On the first page, reference is made to a previous novel (“A load of old bones”) which apparently tells the tale of this murder. The fact that I hadn’t read the previous novel didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this one, although now that I’ve read this one I’d like to read the first one.
The Reverend Francis Oughterard is Canon at St Boltoph’s in Surrey, and the book has a definite English flavour to it. The tale is told in the first person, mainly by Oughterard under chapters headed ‘The Vicar’s Version’, but also occasionally from the point of view of his cat, Maurice (chapters headed ‘The Cat’s Memoir’), and his dog, Bouncer (‘The Dog’s Diary’). Each of the voices is distinctive and I enjoyed the unusual touch of having the vicar’s pets give their angle on the story.
There was no specific mention of the decade in which the novel is set, but since the vicar has a car and a telephone and listens to the wireless rather than watching television, my guess is the 1950s.
Oughterard has a gift for getting embroiled in dodgy dealings and trouble of all sorts, but gives the impression that he would much rather lead a quiet, uneventful life. I got slightly confused between some of the female characters from the parish, but the main characters were, I thought, well described and convincingly written.
I enjoyed the setting, pace and style of this book and I’ll be looking out for more by the same author. I was interested to read on her website that despite being an English graduate who spent her working life teaching English Literature, she didn’t write any fiction of her own until well in to her sixties.
It was only when I was sixty-four and well retired, that out of idle curiosity I thought I might try my hand at a short story – just to see what writing fiction felt like. I found out: and to my ongoing surprise the Bones series is the result!
The first of the series, A Load Of Old Bones, was rejected by everybody – agents and publishers alike – and feeling that at my age time was running out, I felt forced to self-publish.
Being idle and having no business experience, this was a terrifying prospect but somehow it worked and the paperback sold well. And a year later, with the sequel Bones In The Belfry finished, I was much relieved to be offered a contract by the publishers Constable & Robinson. Jubilation all round
This information is of particular interest to me, given my current situation, and has given me some food for thought.
I would recommend “Bone idle” to anyone looking for a light, humorous novel. As indicated by The Times review, if you like Jerome K Jerome or E F Benson I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this.
“The secret life of the grown-up brain” by Barbara Strauch (2010), non-fiction
There are many books about the brain and how it functions, and I’ve read one or two, but this is the first I’ve come across that deals specifically with the brain during middle age.
While reading this book I assumed that Barbara Strauch was some sort of brain scientist herself, but it was only after finishing it that I learned she wasn’t a scientist at all. She had a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and I don’t think she ever worked as a scientist. She died last year of breast cancer, aged 63, and prior to that worked as the health and medical science editor and deputy science editor at The New York Times.
I was sad to learn of her death, not only because she was relatively young, but because it seemed so poignant after she had dedicated herself to this particular area of study. She died in what the book defines as middle age, i.e. loosely between the ages of 40 and 70.
It is during these years that the brain is now thought to be in prime condition. Anyone, like me, currently in this zone might find that hard to believe. I’m 44 and I’ve noticed in the last year or two that I more often struggle to find the word I want. This happens quite a bit when I’m writing, and if it wasn’t for the magic of a thesaurus I suspect I’d be a very frustrated and distressed individual.
Strauch argues that although we have a greater tendency to forget things and take longer to learn new skills during middle age, our brains become far more flexible and powerful than they were in our earlier adult years. In middle age we’re better at making sound judgments and finding solutions to problems, because we have a wider understanding of life and a greater appreciation of the possible consequences of our actions.
Part of the book that particularly interested me was the section on diet and how it might affect our brains. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed a system for ranking foods in terms of their antioxidant capacity, and this list is apparently responsible for the recent idea of blueberries being some sort of superfood. As a brief aside, this ties in with a programme I watched on TV recently that showed research being done into the beneficial effects of purple as a food colour. The consensus was that purple or dark red foods are especially good in terms of helping us age well. Blackcurrants came out far ahead of blueberries in that programme, but they were using a scale that tested for the presence of a particular chemical rather than the food’s antioxidant capacity.
Back to the book, and Strauch very helpfully details the top 25 foods on the USDA list. They are as follows: prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, garlic, kale, cranberries, strawberries, raw spinach, raspberries, Brussels sprouts, plums, alfalfa sprouts, steamed spinach, broccoli, beets, avocadoes, oranges, red grapes, red peppers, cherries, kiwifruit, baked beans, pink grapefruit and kidney beans. As you might have noticed, most of these foods are dark in colour, which is apparently a key to their success. Carrots, incidentally, come in at no.40 on the list, and tomatoes no.42.
As is virtually always the case in science, nobody yet fully understands how or why things work the way they do. One week we read in the newspaper that dairy products are good for us, the next they’re bad, and it can be very confusing to try and work out what we should eat, how much and what sort of exercise we should be getting, and what we can do to keep our brains in good condition as we age.
As Strauch says in her book, there are many factors at play in terms of the health of mind and body and some of these, such as our genetic make-up, we have no control over. Her message, however, is a generally positive one.
By middle age, our brains have trillions of carefully constructed links and pathways that make us smarter, calmer, wiser, happier. These are the connections that let us, in an instant, recognize the underlying patterns around us and make sound judgments – good choice, bad choice, friend or foe? By middle age, our brains navigate complex situations and complex fellow humans almost on autopilot.
I had been hoping that the book might include a practical section that neatly wrapped up all the research into a ‘how to live long and prosper’ sort of instruction manual. Sadly, there is as yet no one-size-fits-all answer to a long and healthy life for everyone, but drugs companies are currently working on a pill that might well slow down the aging process considerably. I’m not sure how I’d feel about taking an anti-aging pill. Something about that seems as if it would be going against the natural order. Then again, if it weren’t for the excellent modern healthcare I grew up with, I might well not have made it into my forties.
Only time will tell if there’s a sure-fire way of preventing our middle-aged brains from potential deterioration in later years, but in the meantime I’m going to keep that list of antioxidants handy and do my best to incorporate as many as I can into my diet.
“The sound of my voice” by Ron Butlin (1987), Fiction, 143 pages
The edition below was published in 1994 by Black Ace Books (ISBN 1-872988-16-4). It includes an introduction by Randall Stevenson.
This is the story of 34-year-old Morris Magellan, married with two children.
With a loving family and a successful job as an executive in a biscuit factory, he seems to have everything going for him. Unfortunately, he also has an addiction to alcohol which is on the verge of destroying all he has.
The tale is unusually told in the second person ‘you’ form, which made me feel almost as if I was inside Magellan’s head.
‘You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed. When your friends and business colleagues meet you they shake your hand and say, “Hello, Morris.” You reply, “Hello,” usually smiling. At home your wife and children – your accusations, as you call them – love you and need you. You know all this, and know that it is not enough.’
Ron Butlin manages to keep up this style of writing throughout the entire novel, which seems quite an achievement.
As I followed Magellan through his ups and downs, I felt I understood his warped view of himself. His periods of elation made me smile and I had a sense of sympathy for his self-deception. In this respect, Ron Butlin has done a wonderful job of engaging the reader with his protagonist.
When I was into the last quarter of the book I began to wonder how the author would manage to draw a close to the story. It seemed there was only one way it could go. Endings are the bits I always find the most difficult in my own literary attempts, but Butlin made it look easy. I found the ending very satisfying and it left me with an uplifting feeling of hope.
Many thanks to Ruth Orr, for so enthusiastically recommending this book and lending me her copy to read.