the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

Recent Reading

At last writing I had discovered the joy of old books - digital style - and it continues.

However, 'recent reading' now spans something like 18 months. This post has been kicking around for nearly that long. I kept adding books, but not finishing my mini-reviews. Some are still unfinished, but the growing list was becoming a bit much, so too bad. Here goes:

  • Alexandre Dumas: Ten Years Later: the third of the Three Musketeer books after Twenty Years After (it gets confusing, and gets worse yet). Ten Years Later is itself normally split into three separate novels in English, being The Vicomte de Bragelonne (which is also another name for the whole three-novel book; oh yes), Louise de la Valliere, and ending with The Man in the Iron Mask. To make it more confusing these 3 books were sometimes split differently and published as five books. If you're looking for an optimal translation (cf. my previous post), stitching old scanned versions together becomes an unholy mess.

    There is fortunately an easier solution: don't bother. The swashbuckling adventure of The Three Musketeers peters out into court intrigues, half-hearted stabs at ever-more fantastical alternative histories which have nowhere to go, and hundreds upon hundreds of pages of nothing much happening, before a saddish (and unsatisfying) ending.

    A note on The Man in the Iron Mask. Movies have been made of the book because the fundamental idea of some dude locked away with a terrible and dangerous secret is intriguing. In the book, it's a tangential disappointment which isn't central to the story and has no hope of going anywhere, because as the end of the story approaches, Dumas' wiggle room shrinks more and more, and in the end he has no choice but to snap back to the actual history of France at the time. Pfff.

  • George Eliot: Middlemarch: apparently one of the greatest English novels. I was underwhelmed, and took ages to finish the book. The subtitle is A Study of Provincial Life; on this score it succeeds, perhaps. The book is, in essence, a collection of portraits of people's ups and downs in a small town, with the main arch being a love story which boils down to Victorian repression and hand-wringing in the drawing room. If either of the two frustrated lovers had just come out and said "I dig you so!" in the first few chapters, the book would have been a lot shorter.

  • Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone: within a few chapters, Wilkie Collins was firmly my favourite Victorian author. The Moonstone is a whodunnit (by some accounts, the first), with some hilarious writing, the ending a little flat but worth it just to soak up the story and characters. Note to self: read Robinson Crusoe.

  • Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities: Best of times, worst of times and all that. The great Charles Dickens, but does anyone actually read his books? My bookshelves hold plenty of Dickens novels which I've never read. I decided to remedy that: albeit with an electronic version.

    My verdict: I can see why he's seen as a great novelist. Some of the characterisations are just masterful. With characters like Sydney Carton, Dickens takes a long pointy finger, digs it deep into your chest and twists everything around. Elsewhere, I found myself chuckling out loud on the train with some of the scenes involving Jerry Cruncher and his night time endeavours.

    Having said that: bleak, miserable, dark, sad, gloomy, bleak. Have I mentioned bleak? Very bleak. I'm compelled to read more of his novels, but about one a year is as much as I have strength for.

  • Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: after A Tale of Two Cities, I thought it was high time for some American levity. My recollection of Huckleberry Finn was bare feet and a Southern accent in some grainy TV show when I was a child.

    That's sort of accurate but hardly portrays the actual books. The Tom Sawyer novel, the first, isn't great, funnyish in places. Tom Sawyer's sheer orthogonality to world he was growing up in made it worth the read. Huckeberry Finn, the second novel, is more of a travel story, if you will, with an escaped slave, and a little more adventure and political commentary of the time.

    Which gets me to the hardest part of the novels: the racism. A few pages into Tom Sawyer, and I found myself reading something and thinking "woah, that's a bit heavy". This is Mark Twain, great American novelist? I started the books unaware that they were so controversial. Wikipedia put me right. You can't read novels from that far back without being exposed to the prejudices of the time, but there's prejudice, and there's prejudice. I know there are arguments about Twain using the racism to make the point, but that's not how I perceived it (contrasting to say, Herman Charles Bosman in South African literature). Twain's writing takes it all to a whole new level, I found it deeply uncomfortable.

  • Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer Abroad: a sequel to the above. Utter schlock. "Lions and tigers" in the Saharan desert. I saw mention that it was a parody. It is too rubbish to be even that. A waste of paper and ink, and my time.

  • Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name: three more Collins novels, in a row. The Woman in White is a mystery novel, a real page-turner, the battle of wits between Marian and Count Fosco the highlight of the book. Armadale is a sort of ... what? Thriller? Suspense? Family drama? Great read. Finally, No Name makes a social statement about illegitimacy. Some tragedy, some revenge, and some memorable characters.

I've now read Collins' 'four great' novels. Will my estimation of him drop if I move on to his others?

  • Charles Dickens: Bleak House: didn't take my own advice to wait a while before tackling Dickens again. Started Bleak House some time last year. The first chapter was an incredible polemic against the British legal establishment, the bile, the derision, the invective was second to none. Brilliant! What writing! Then Chapter 2 ... bam. To earth with a thud. Profoundly sad. Why did I start this book, why, why?

    I progressed thereafter by a page or two a month for a few months, before picking it up again early this year, forcing myself to just crack on with it. Within a few chapters I was hooked, and I'd now have to rank Bleak House as one of my favourite novels. The prose, the characters, again, just masterful. A fair amount of tragedy, but not as depressing as A Tale Of Two Cities, and just a pleasure to read.

  • Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South: a romance, a likeable heroine, a "social novel". Deals with class and poverty and industrialisation in a way which is sympathetic, but open-minded and not at all preachy. You sort of know how it's going to end but it was still fun to see it all work out.

  • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre: three Bronte sisters, all demanding their due. Anne, tick: I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, not the cheeriest of novels ever. Wuthering Heights, not read but seen it on TV a few times so know how that's all going to pan out, I'll read the book eventually anyway, and that'll be Emily taken care of. But for now, Charlotte.

Given her sisters' output, was bracing myself for some heavy going, and went from chapter to chapter waiting for things to go south, but they never did. Not breezy by any stretch, nasty people, nice people, no more than 'mild peril'. A bit too much Jesus for my liking, but I quite enjoyed it. Unless Wuthering Heights in novel form ends up having something which Wuthering Heights in TV form doesn't, Charlotte wins.

I've missed a few books, but these are the 'old' ones. The others will come separately.

{2018.02.08 22:14}

Christmas, Snow and New Year

It's late January, but never too late to mark the New Year. Christmas was a nice break, we had a bit more melt-almost-immediately snow in the days after Christmas (and - apparently - a dusting this past weekend - I was in Hull where there was more than a dusting, but that doesn't count for London reckoning), and now it's 2018.

I'm not nuts about 2018. Aesthetically, it's not a nice number, I liked the look of 2017 better. Oddly, I think 1918 looks better than 1917, but there is no reason to either preference, they're numbers dammit. I may also be a little negative because I know I'll mis-type the date for probably at least another month before muscle memory corrects itself, but then I didn't mind that so much a year ago.

I think that I am also less than enthused about the new calendar year because it's 2018, and we are very close to the end of this decade (3 years away, I hasten to note, not 2, but still). Did I feel the same in 2008? I probably did. We will soon be in the Twenties again, but with worse architecture.

Also, 2018 marks a century since the end of World War 1. Another important event in the century I was born into, and which shaped me, and the world I grew up in, will have happened over a century ago. It's a reminder of mortality, I guess. The centenaries will keep coming, and then I won't be around to see them anymore.

Anyhow, enough of that. Happy 2018!

{2018.01.23 16:47}

Snow Report 2017

I was remiss in January of this year and didn't blog about the snow we had. Rather late than never: we had some snow in January. And a hint more in December 2016, as I recall. Disappointing, as has become the norm: some heavy dustings, enough for a meagre snowman and nothing since.

This year, pretty much the same, without the snowmen. We had some snow yesterday - falling pretty heavily, which was really nice, but not sticking around, not the kind of stuff you trudge through thinking "I love snow", just the kind that turns to mud on the ground and leaves your jeans permanently mud-splattered and you thinking "is this it?".

I live in hope.

{2017.12.11 22:51}

Getting Things Done I

For years, every January sees a (broken) resolution about doing All Of The Things. Then come November (my birthday month), when I write my 'Reflections on Turning X' (which I like to do), it invariably has a gripe about how I wish I was on top of All Of The Things.

This is November, and the gripe was weighing on me this year as much as ever. So to get on top of All Of The Things, I started using Trello and bought Getting Things Done, by David Allen. It was first recommended to me nearly 14 years ago, and I've seen it mentioned a number of times since.

I've started reading it, and so far rather like it. The book describes a process for dealing with, well, All Of The Things. The main thrust of which is that you need to 'capture' everything you need to do or are thinking about, by writing it down, getting it on paper or into an In Tray. Then you 'clarify', which boils down to making an up-front decision about what to do about something, generally a 'next action', or just filing it or throwing it out, and then you do some organising and review everything regularly and yadda yadda. The latter part of that is rather vague, but that's because I'm still in the early stages of the book.

The capturing is the bit I'm most caught up in at the moment. The book's promise (premise, too) is that by getting everything out of your head and on paper, you begin to relax more because you know you have it written down and have a system that's going to take care of it. But it has to be everything, for your mind to trust it.

I started capturing, but at first it was anything but relaxing. Instead, it was as if I'd opened up a floodgate, and allowed a zillion repressed thoughts and ideas and worries to come out and play. I had insomnia for a couple of nights - I'd wake up in wee hours and start thinking about things, and "I really should write down..." (which isn't so easy at 3 in the morning in the dark with kids who bounce out of bed ready for the day at the slightest hint of parents waking up). Within about 5 days I'd filled up 16 pages of TODOs in my little notebook.

But then a funny thing happened. Only 2 new items made it to my list today. After nearly a week since I started, I can't think of more stuff to capture. And what's more, I've probably knocked off more small tasks in the past few days than I had all month. Regardless, if it accomplishes nothing other than me being more relaxed about the things I'm not doing, then that's better than before.

{2017.11.22 21:42}

Boys' Weekend

Ronwen's away for a long weekend, so it's a boys' weekend at home. Today is putting-off-doing-the-DIY and pizza and halloween chocolate mini-rolls. In other words, pretty much the same as if Mom were home but with a bit more "I want moooooommy" from time to time.

One small consolation for being at home without my dearest wife is that I get to sleep with the bedroom curtains open. On Thursday night that meant waking up during the night with heavy rain against our bedroom window.

I love the experience. It reminds me of one of my res rooms when I was university. My bed was right next to the window during what turned out to be a really wet summer, and I would regularly be woken up during storms with rain hammering against the glass right next to me.

The difference being that in the carefree days of being an idle student, I'd just go 'aaaaaaah I love rain' and roll over and go back to sleep, whereas on Thursday night I drifted off to sleep again thinking "dammit, I really need to fix the roof of the garden shed."

{2017.10.21 11:57}


I went to Budapest this past weekend. It's a beautiful city.

That is only sort of tangentially what this post is about.

Architecturally, Budapest is not London, but shopping-wise, it boasts many of the same retailers. And so you get that strange experience of the familiar with the unfamiliar.

The thing that tickled me the most, though, was that the hotel restaurant had Rama margarine, same logo and everything. What had hitherto felt like a quintessentially South African thing actually turns out to have been just another Unilever brand, kicking around in Germany for nearly a century, and available in over 96 countries.

At least we have Ouma.

{2017.09.15 22:16}

John Wick: A review in one line

They killed his dog and stole his car, so he shot them all in the face. Entertaining.

{2017.08.26 22:03}

Fly Tipping

This was all over the papers today: Travellers leave bath tubs, fridges and mattresses behind among 250 tonnes of waste after being evicted from field .

We've been following the story for the past few weeks. The field is just down the road from where we used to live, and my cycle route to and from work still takes me past it. With the recent heat, the area is starting to smell decidedly fruity, and I can't imagine the people in the expensive houses across the road are enjoying life very much at the moment.

A few years ago (when we still lived close by), plans were put forward to build flats on this field, and we got letters in our post boxes and petitions trying to prevent the development. Density and traffic and character of the neighbourhood etc etc. NIMBYism must've won, because nothing happened with the field. So when we first saw mention of the rubbish, I had chuckled and thought the owners would probably be saying "serves you right, enjoy the stench".

Reading this article though, the field is apparently co-owned by a group of local owners. Perhaps they bought up the land after the last episode? Were these the owners who were trying to develop the land?

Imaginations in the M-P household are running riot. Is there more to this than meets the eye? 250 tonnes of waste in 2 weeks, including bath tubs and fridges? That's industrial scale "doing stuff", but what? Nefrarious plots and schemes to reduce the value of the land before some developer swoops in to buy it and sling up flats, with local residents saying "fine, anything but more Travellers"? I wonder.

{2017.07.24 21:38}

Somerdale to Skarbimierz

A long but interesting article in the London Review of Books: Somerdale to Skarbimierz: James Meek follows Cadbury to Poland (via).

It covers the moving of one of Cadbury's factories from the UK to Poland, Cadbury's takeover by Kraft, how Poland has grown post-communism, helped by EU funding, the general migration of jobs to Eastern Europe, but without the kind of economic security which wealthy Western countries had previously enjoyed. All that, tied into Brexit and the effect on UK communities as well as Poland's current right-wing, increasingly authoritarian political landscape.

Overall I disagree with Meek's conclusions about the economics of it all, but there's enough reality in the article to challenge whichever political viewpoint one might hold. One can't ignore the social cost and injustices highlighted in the article, yet neither can one ignore the extent to which regulation and lots of state money results in perverse incentives and corporate capture.

My favourite line of the article is this:

These countries, until recently, were totally indifferent; they didn't pay attention to even more painful processes going on in Eastern Europe. The only advice they had for us back then was for us to work harder. We took it as good advice.

{2017.07.05 23:15}

That Turned Out Well

UK elections are over. Can the divisions now heal, the nation asks? I think not, if my Facebook feed is anything to go by. Everybody still hates everybody else.


  • Theresa May: hubris, meet nemesis.

  • Jeremy Corbyn: meet the opposition benches. Again.

  • Everybody else: soz.

{2017.06.13 22:09}

Being offline

Technology is great but I don't like the idea of voice-activated personal assistance devices, thank you, especially ones with an internet connection and which connect to the mothership.

At the same time, it's a given I think that they're going to become ubiquitous.

This xkcd hits the nail on the head. How will society deal with this 'intrusion' into our privacy? Do we get to the point where you go to visit someone and have to politely ask them what devices they have, and to unplug them from the wall? What about smart mobile phones?

{2017.04.17 22:59}

The Original Alternative Facts

Steven Landsburg:

To what extent have the churches, by training people to accept obvious nonsense without blinking, created the conditions in which Trumpism can flourish?

I was having a grumble about this just the other day. Fake news is suddenly a big issue, but human beings have been doing fake news and alternative facts for, like, ever.

(and to be fair, religious types are not the only ones guilty of it).

{2017.02.23 21:24}

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