The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard

This was another 99p download, and, hot on the heels of The Honjin Murders, another detective novel with a Japanese connection. One of our protagonists here is Umiko Wada, the general factotum to Kazuto Kodaka, who runs an agency specialising in uncovering corporate espionage.

So far so good. A Tokyo-set thriller, you might think. But then a client comes in who wants her husband’s death in London, decades before, to be investigated, and it falls to Wada to travel to England, posing as the widow.

And it’s in England that we meet our second protagonist, Nick Miller, a private school teacher and artist who is vaguely troubled by the fact that he never knew his father. And now that his late mother is out of the picture and his wife is away with friends, he decides to bite when an old family acquaintance contacts him.

By coincidence, this acquaintance is also Wada’s connection in London, and both she and Nick are thrown into the plot when the connection doesn’t connect.

So this turns out not to be the Tokyo-set story I was anticipating, but a more international, country-hopping, zig-zagging thriller, which takes us from London to Cornwall, then New York, Rekjavik, Rotterdam, Cambridge… with Nick and Wada independently investigating different ends of the same mystery. It’s an entertaining read, though with an oddly light tone, considering the body count herein. This lightness of tone is also picked up in the cover design, with its quirky font, and all-in-all there’s a mismatch between the marketing and the contents, so that you end up feeling the publisher didn’t know how to pitch this.

There’s also a climate crisis angle, which is unexpected, and which also seems to have nothing to do with the novel’s cute title, which in the end doesn’t have much to do with anything. Wada is introduced as the kind of person you don’t notice, but then everybody seems to notice her, so the title really doesn’t work.

All of that mismatching makes this interesting, because it reflects the two narrative strands, with two protagonists, one of them very aware of what the bad guy is capable of, and the other thinking that he’s tidying up some loose family ends. So it works, if you like, because it does not work.


Texting her sister: “Dad’s dying”

Oof, but the cycling has been harder than usual this summer. I do not have climbing legs at the best of times, but this year I have really not enjoyed my rides.

I do not get a kick out of suffering on the bike, I hate hills, and I do not have the power to weight ratio to manage big climbs. I don’t even belong in the same company as proper cyclists, which is one reason why I mostly ride solo.

But this year is particularly difficult, and I find myself making more excuses than usual not to ride.

I think there are a number of factors, starting with the wet spring and early summer. On top of everything else, I’m a fair weather cyclist, so when it rains as much as it has this year, I don’t get out. I’ve only commuted to work a handful of times. Towards the end of the summer term, when the weather was okay, I still didn’t cycle to work because circumstances dictated that I needed the extra hour in the morning to get things done.

On top of this, I haven’t ridden my road bike in France for a whole year. Normally, arriving at the end of July, I’d have had Whitsun half-term week and Easter to put some proper hill kilometres into my legs. But when I took the bike out on the first day of this holiday, it had been eleven months since I tackled a serious climb.

The legs are bad, but the lungs are worse. I’d gotten pretty good at keeping my breathing steady and under control when climbing hills, but this year I keep having to cry halt so I can get my heart and lungs under control. A couple of minutes is all it takes, but I’ve lost my faith.

This morning, the kid and I rode up to the St. Antoine forest, which is one of our favourite rides. Instead of climbing up the Planche des Belles Filles, you take a left turn towards the Ballon de Servance and ride up to the Goutte des Saules waterfall at St. Antoine, which is quite enough of an effort for me, thank you very much. But before you get to that left turn, you’re climbing up a false flat of about 11 kilometres – which means you’re travelling steadily uphill even before the road kicks up into the forest. And when we paused after that first 12km or so, I was coughing like a tubercular poet who’d been living on a diet of absinthe and opium. Felt so bad, sick with it. My daughter was texting her sister with her concerns. Please don’t let me conk out on her in the middle of a ride.

After that I rode on for a few hundred metres on wobbly legs before walking up a short steep bit, which rested my legs enough to get me the rest of the way to the waterfall.

And things turned around from there. We sat around for a decent interval, knowing we were stopping at my in-law’s on the way back, and waiting till my wife texted to say she was on her way there in the car. Elodie suggested I stick the bike in the back of the car to avoid the last climb, but I was feeling better.

The pleasure of this particular ride is the 12km all the way back down the valley, on a road that’s mostly not steep but always pointing slightly downhill. It’s fairly smooth, too, so you can get in a high gear and put some speed on. My legs are fine going down like that. I’m not a fan of steep descents, but this is my kind of road.

So we reached the in-laws and stopped for a while, some apple juice, some popcorn (!), and then we rode back up the hill to our place. And it was fine, really. No hyperventilating, knees and hips hurting (as per), but the road never seeming particularly steep. The apple juice got me there.

I choose to think that this mixed bag of a ride is a bit of a turning point. We have ambitions to ride around to Fresse and the Col de la Chevestraye, which is my absolute upper limit when I’m at my fittest. But maybe I’ll wait a couple more weeks to try that.

Latin rhythms

So the Tories want to bring back Latin, another education dead cat distraction to get them through another week, and Mary Beard is on board with this.

I studied Latin myself, got a B at O Level, back in the mists of ’79, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you what good it did me. Partly, I was attracted by the promise of a school trip to Pompeii, which never happened (class too small, not enough takers), and partly I didn’t want to do Physics, and partly I suppose I did have an interest in ancient Rome, thanks to Rosemary Sutcliff (probably).

What did we read? Dido and Aeneas, which I barely remember anything of; some Pliny letters (including his account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius; and the Cambridge Classics series of easy readers about the life of Caecilius and his family, his slaves, his dog, in the last days of Pompeii.

It was a small class, about 8 of us I think, including two of my favourite girls, which was a bonus, and our school boasted, not one, but two teachers, neither of them particularly inspiring. But it does make you think, 40-odd years later, when the government reckons to pilot Latin in 40 state schools (about 1% of state secondary schools in England), that a single school had two teachers capable of teaching the subject way back when.

But did it do me any good? The control version of me in a parallel universe did Physics instead, and scraped a B in that, taking the subject no further. And, er, that’s abut it. I don’t think Latin made me better at other languages (I got a B in French to go with my B in Latin), and I was always good at English anyway. It didn’t really even help in Biology, which made me want to shoot myself in the face whenever we did phyla.

Yes, probably all that Latin gifted me was a vague annoyance whenever someone says “aquariums” or “stadiums”, and the tiniest bit of rage whenever someone who works in the media says “mediums”.

Am I better informed, do I have more general knowledge than most? Probably, but I don’t think Latin is to blame. I read a lot and I’ve got a PhD. Do I think young people should have the opportunity to study Latin in state schools? Sure, whatever, as long as they can also do art and music and film and media studies. But don’t stand in front of me and try to argue that Latin has more value than media studies in this world of misinformation and propaganda and charlatan populists. And please don’t try to argue that a political class with a classical education is at all capable of running the country in a just and equitable way.

If I had to pick three “minority” subjects I’d value more over Latin – especially at A Level – I would pick Art History, Anthropology and Creative Writing. So stick Classics up your arse along with Oxford and Cambridge and let’s make forelock touching as dead as a dead language.

Mysteries from all over

The Honjin Murders (Japan)

Seishi Yokomizo’s Japanese mystery classic was first published in 1946, but was only translated into English (by Louise Heal Kawai) in 2019. So for non-Japanese speakers, this is a fairly recent novel. 99p on the Kindle, so I downloaded.

Kosuke Kindaichi is the investigating detective, in the first of his 77 outings. He’s a bit of a Holmes, I suppose, claiming to solve mysteries through the power of his intellect, though there’s also something of the Columbo about him. He presents as an eccentric, not caring about his appearance, wearing outlandish clothes and with unkempt hair. Victims of British political life over the past decade may need a trigger warning on that last aspect.

It’s a ‘locked room’ mystery, which references and pays homage several western writers and novels. There’s snow on the ground, so there’s an absence of footprints, but I wasn’t terribly interested in the ingenious solution to the double killing.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t enjoying the book. What I liked about reading it was the way it established a sense of place, and exposed me to a culture very different from my own. The significance of the publication date made me think of An Inspector Calls, and the way Priestley wanted his audience to think about social change. The case takes place in the pre-War, militaristic Japan, which is building up to the war against China which will merge into the Pacific War of 1941-5. But the narration is taking place after Japan’s defeat, and Yokomizo wants to write about the impact modernity on rural Japan, something crucial to the motive behind the crime.

Overall the effect is one of Golden Age meets Hardboiled, because there’s a darkness at the heart of this story.

The other interesting aspect for me was the narrative technique, with the fictive author’s voice quite clear at many points, and several examples of what Genette called metalepsis (the shifting of narrative levels), as different fragments of evidence were introduced. In this sense, The Honjin Murders feels like a modernist text as well as a murder mystery: a murder mystery about murder mysteries.

The Trespasser (Ireland)

This is the sixth (and last, so far at least) of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. As with the others, the narrator here is different from the previous book(s), but in this case, we have the same pair of detectives as we had in the fifth in the sequence, The Secret Place. Antoinette Conway is the only woman in the squad at the time of the setting, and the only black person. She is being harassed constantly and trusts none of her colleagues, except maybe Stephen Moran, her partner, who narrated The Secret Place.

The problem is, even Steve she can’t bring herself to trust fully.

A young receptionist turns up dead in her own living room – another locked room mystery, although as someone points out early on, if the front door is on a Yale lock, you only have to close it and it’s latched. The victim is kind of plastic beautiful, notes Conway, working really hard to look a certain way, and her house is a spotless simulacrum of twee perfection.

I’ve read other reviews claiming the book was so full of twists and turns that it’s never what you think it’s going to be, but here I have to demur. It was exactly what (and who) I thought it would be. Maybe I’ve read too much of this genre, but the perp and their connection to the case was obvious almost from the start. That said, you don’t really read Tana French for the mystery. You read for the claustrophobic atmosphere of the squad room, the paranoia, the tension, the uncertainty about who you can trust and who’s pissing in the narrator’s locker and spitting in her tea.

It becomes unbearable at times, with long interrogation scenes that make Line of Duty seem like the twaddle it really is. I did have to look up spoilers just to settle my nerves.

Both good reads, a cut above your big font thrillers with Girl in the title.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear

This second in the White Space series, published in 2020, is some more of your touchy feely science fiction, and while I largely enjoyed it, I did start to lose patience with the narrator, whose every action was delivered with a triple dose of self reflection and third guessing, so that by the end I confess I was speed reading and no longer enjoying it. Of the first in this series, Ancestral Night, I wrote,

Enjoyable stuff. A bit too much of the modern trend for touchy feeliness when you’re reading for the plot, but nothing insurmountable.

I’ve got no problem with touchy feely science fiction. I like the idea that I’m reading something that is determinedly non-violent and not militaristic. Our protagonist here is a kind of interstellar search and rescue paramedic/ER doc, and I appreciate the fact that she looks for solutions to problems that don’t involve discharging weapons or blowing things up. This takes me all the way back to some of the first science fiction I ever read: Arthur C Clarke, or even Larry Niven. My difficulty here is that I do think that the balance between deliberation of consequences and being stuck inside somebody’s pathologically circling thoughts tends rather towards the latter. As with the latest Becky Chambers, I felt in the end that the constant concern with whether we were about to offend the various alien species and fellow space medics was too much.

By all means, the different pronouns, the alien ideas of gender, the syster species, and so on, but once we’ve established that there is a friendship and a degree of trust between people, can we not stipulate that people aren’t going to be offended? I honestly think that you cannot live like that. Consideration between pals, of course, but tippy toeing on eggshells around them is no basis for a healthy relationship. As I said, it becomes pathological, and there’s certainly a hint towards the end that our narrator is probably a little too detached at all times. Which I do get: this is a character in constant neuralgic pain who is never not aware of her own body, who relies a lot on technology to help her function. But as I said, there’s a balance to be struck here, and I think some of this would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

All of which drags this down a bit because, well, it became a bit of a drag. Otherwise, it’s still enjoyable stuff: a long-lost generation ship turns up in an unexpected place. There’s a distress call, and then hints of sabotage as things begin to go wrong. Our medic is called upon to play detective. It’s all very interesting, but the big reveal doesn’t have much impact because it gets lost in the weeds of the near solipsistic narration.

Lazy Beatles

photo: Iain Macmillan

One of the many remarkable things about The Beatles was the way they could produce brilliance without even trying very hard. We all know the story of Magical Mystery Tour and how its reputation was really ruined by its time slot: that something that was strictly for the fans ended up being forced upon an overfed Christmas nation who rose up as one and cried, what is this shit?

But the real Magical Mystery Tour, the eleven o’clock on BBC2 in colour Magical Mystery Tour of our hearts, was something to watch when the Olds had gone to bed and we had the living room and the television to ourselves. It was stuffed full of Pythonesque humour, surreal moments, and oneiric music clips, but it was also the result of what I call Lazy Beatles: the can’t-be-bothered Beatles, who were let loose when they stopped touring and Brian died and they didn’t have to do anything they didn’t want to.

Paul sketched some stuff in a circle, there was no script, they didn’t bother hiring a director, and everything was just improvised.

(Although the truth was that Lazy Beatles had been getting away with it for a while before Brian died. Their overdubbing ADR on Help! is quintessential Lazy Beatles, but also excellent.)

Did they do the voices for Yellow Submarine? Lazy Beatles let someone else do it. Did they appear on Top of the Pops and other music television shows around the world? Lazy Beatles made ‘short films’ in which they mimed to their records. And when they couldn’t be bothered to mime anymore, they just messed around.

Did they play the planned Big Concert at the Pyramids or Pompeii after the rehearsals of January 1969? Lazy Beatles went up on the rooftop. Whenever they were faced with a choice between doing something that looked like hard work and the other thing, they did the other thing. The result? legend. They are my role models.

Did they go somewhere fancy for the cover shoot of Abbey Road? Lazy Beatles went out to the crossing and grudgingly crossed the road a few times while Iain Macmillan took six photos. And I’ve said it before, but the reason nobody can quite get the pose right when they have their own photo taken on the Abbey Road zebra crossing is that people aren’t angry, impatient, or lazy enough to get the strides quite right. The Beatles Bible has a telling quote from Lennon:

“‘We’re meant to be recording, not posing for Beatle pictures’—that’s what we were thinking”

You look at the complete six photo collection, and you can see the trajectory: desultory, distracted, grumpy, then angry and impatient, and finally, done with it. In the last photo of the six, Lennon is angled towards the recording studio, not even willing to cross the road in a straight line, impatient to be back indoors. The fifth one, the money shot, is the one where you can tell they’ve gone, Pythonesque again, Right! That’s it! This is the last one, come on, don’t fuck it up this time.

Lazy Beatles win every time.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

I’m late to the Slough House party, mainly because every time I try an espionage writer other than Le Carré, I end up feeling vaguely disappointed. The problem of course is that Le Carré is a cut above, not just fellow genre authors, but any writer you’d care to name from the last 70 years.

I’ve tried the Station series by David Downing; Alan Furst; Frank Gardner (god help me); Graham Greene; Antony Johnston; Stella Rimington (god help me); and any number of non-fiction authors. There’s always that feeling of vague disappointment, that it’s thin gruel, or all plot and no narrative voice.

Which brings me, sneaking in at the back door, to the Slow Horses party, and Mick Herron, “the John Le Carré of our generation”, according to a quote from Val McDermid in all the publicity material surrounding the now seven strong series. 

Excuse my saying, Val, but I thought John Le Carré was the John Le Carré of our generation? At least up till a year ago.

Most of Le Carré’s work concerned the activities of Six, the Foreign Intelligence Service, or the innocents caught up in their machinations. Herron’s Slough House is part of Five, the domestic intelligence service, one hop over from Special Branch, or whatever it is they’re called these days.

In my perception of the various services, Five were the flat-footed plodders in comparison to the high flying risk-takers of Six, who operated out of embassies around the world and stood around checkpoints in Berlin during the cold war, lighting cigarettes with an engraved Zippo, and waiting for some deep cover agent on a bicycle.

And this is the impression you get of the denizens of Slough House: the conceit here is that these people are so far down the totem pole that they’ve been exiled to a sub-branch of a sub-branch of the intelligence services, having fucked something up or pissed somebody off so badly that to be called a flat-foot would be a step up.

Exiled to a dingy, anonymous office across the road from the Barbican, these are people who trawl through intercepts and tweets, property records and transcripts, looking for patterns, anomalies, anything they could pass up the food chain for somebody more senior to deal with.

That’s the set up, but of course none of the above would make a good novel, so something has to happen and it does. River Cartwright, bitter at his recent exile, jumps over the wrong garden fence and it all kicks off.

Whether the plot fully hangs together, I’m not sure, but there is a lot of plot, and there are twists and turns throughout. It’s entertaining, holds your interest, and keeps you turning the pages.

But it’s not Le Carré. Take, for example, the occasional shifts in viewpoint. In Slow Horses, these p.o.v. shifts happen in the usual way: a paragraph ends, there’s the gap of a line, and the next bit begins with a different point of view. Standard stuff, and not badly done, but there’s not real sense that the voice of the narrative changes with the shifting viewpoint. This is not what happens in Le Carré, where his roving ‘camera eye’ will shift between different characters in the same scene, changing vocabulary and syntax as it goes, moving back and forth with the deftness of a close-up magician flipping cards.

You read Le Carré not (just) for the plot, but for the style, the narration, the sense that you, the reader, are entering the wilderness of mirrors. When he pulls the rug out from under your feet, it’s not just entertaining: he can leave you feeling the same sense of helpless anger and frustration that his characters feel, the same sense of injustice.

There’s a deadly accurate sketch of a Boris Johnson-like politician in Slow Horses, written in 2010 and all the more powerful because of what we know in 2021. You see him getting away with it in the fiction in the same way that he’s been getting away with it during Brexit and the pandemic. And yet, and yet: I’m not really sure why it’s there. It doesn’t seem to be integrated or germane in the way that Le Carré would make it. Obviously, I know slippery and ambitious politicians are germane to the shitshow of the real world; it’s just that Herron doesn’t quite convince me in the way he writes about them.

But I should stop quibbling, shouldn’t I? Le Carré is gone. This is entertaining enough that I would pick up another in the series, so watch this space.

It’s what people wanted

the boiler in the basement blew

We’d just got on the Eurotunnel train when the news came through that the government had u-turned on their decision not to require quarantine for returning double vaxxers from France.

Oh well.

If it had been left up to me, I’d have given up on this trip long ago: the universe doesn’t want you to go. But my wife hasn’t seen her family or friends in a year, and she had a house sitting there empty. Last summer, when travel was nowhere near as fraught as it is now, we arrived to find at least three wasp nests around the property, which is before you get to the waist-high grass and other neglected items.

This time, the major issue was that the boiler had stopped working. It’s flaky at the best of times, regularly requiring a reset to shut off the loud beeps, and with nobody here, somebody decided the best thing to do was to unplug it. So this Heath Robinson affair, which looks like an industrial boiler sploodged into a domestic setting, was turning on, but no hot water was reaching the taps. At some point, the water leaving its tank in pipes was around 84ºC, probably not recommended, but it wasn’t getting as far as the tap.

Enter my engineering genius brother-in-law, who is always busy (currently putting up insulation in his new house build – not his first time at building his own house) but brought his tools around and… well, would you know what to do with an engineer’s stethoscope? And another question: how many pumps does your home boiler have? In England, I reckon ours has just the one. Water–boiler-pump. Right?

This weird French thing has three. One pumps the water from the boiler to the water tank; the next from the water tank to the taps. And the third pumps water around the central heating. Anyway, two out of three pumps weren’t working, their electric motors seized. How did we know? Stethoscope. You could hear the first spinning away, the second silent, apart from the distant sound of the first (which is right next to it), and the third was making an electrical transformer noise, the motor trying to spin, but failing.

Water drained from system, screwdriver in, pump turned manually, et voila. Fixed by the man who builds nuclear electricity generators for a living, with a stethoscope and a screwdriver. Then he went back to installing the plasterboard insulation in his new garage, which is bigger than our house in the UK. The reason he’s doing this and not the building firm he hired to put the shell of the house up is that he is such a perfectionist that he would not tolerate walls that were less than perfect.

(See if you can spot which “loft space” is ours)

The house is currently in the state that boggles the mind, with flexible hoses everywhere carrying the electrical wiring across the floors, soon to be covered with the underfloor heating system, and positions fro furniture, television, appliances, marked out with spray paint. So of course the sockets with built-in USB are going to come up by the piece of furniture that will serve as the phone-charging table. And so on. The heating and ventilation system will be super efficient, served by a so-called “Canadian Well”, which will bring air from under the ground into the house, instead of the freezing air of winter or the broiling summer heat. With 40cm of thermal insulation in the ceiling and even insulation under the roof tiles, even the loft (also bigger than our house in the UK) won’t get hot in the summer. And it has to be big enough to house some of his vintage motorcycle collection: the ones he doesn’t use.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, apart from the non-functional boiler, we suspect some mice have made their way from the woodpile in the barn through to the back of the kitchen cupboard where they’ve been having a party. So while my brother-in-law wires in the USB sockets for his family’s phones, we’re trying to cover the holes of the Rodent Superhighway.

It was a long drive, a fraught and epic journey, with enough anxiety to make me feel sick, but I’m glad we’re here.

A word about MyHealthCheck private PCR testing: fucking useless. Testing under the rules, 72 hours before travel, posting off in the Royal Mail Tracked 24 envelope, and we received the results, in one of our cases, about 96 hours later. Tracking the parcel was interesting: mine was received twice at the Royal Mail distribution centre, 24 hours apart.

Plan B was a pit stop lateral flow test in Southend on the way down to the Channel Tunnel. Friendly Maja in the hairdressers there emailed our travel certificates – all in one convenient message – inside an hour, while we were still on the way to Folkestone. All of which got us under the wire just before the change in France’s status, but I’m going to forget all about that for a few weeks.

One last thing: thanks to Brexit, my passport was stamped for the first time in Europe since I went to (then non-EU) Spain in 1983. Welcome to the future. Cheers.

Gotta get out of this place

Not so long ago, I was eyeballing the Covid case numbers in France and comparing them unfavourably with the UK and inwardly begging my in-law country people to sort themselves out. I was always vaguely optimistic they’d turn it around in time for us to be able to travel this summer.

Welp. They did, I guess. Just under 25,000 cases in the last seven days, although (worryingly) that represents a 63% increase on the previous seven days. Delta driven, no doubt. Meanwhile, the UK also “turned it around” — in the wrong direction. Over 211,000 cases in our last seven days, which is 31% more than the previous seven days. Fucksake!

When it comes to the causes of this *cough*football*cough*, I can’t help thinking that this third (or is it fourth) wave was entirely avoidable. When I see people in pubs enjoying a maskless pint with close friends (as in, too close, less than two metres close) in advance of the next big game, I do not share their joy or excitement. I just think, Animals. As in, We gotta get out of this place.

The difference between third this third wave and the first is that I actually know people this time around who have had it. I also knew people (my wife’s brother and his entire family) who had it in the second wave, but they were in France, whereas the people I know who have (had) it are people I work with. Given that I’ve been working in a school and encountering hundreds of people every day, it seems remarkable that, until now, the virus seemed like a distant and theoretical thing, something that was happening to other people, mostly in inner-cities. And apart from the students, the people I know who have had it have had two jabs, and they’ve felt rotten too. None of this asymptomatic stuff.

So, yeah, have your football tournament, but don’t then whine to me about the “risks” of the government’s “reckless” plans for July 19th. Imagine how much more relaxed we’d all feel without the football. Bollocks to the football.

A bunch of parents were called into school on Friday to pick up their kids who were having to self-isolate. And there some of them stood in the car park, about 50cm apart, maskless, chatting away like it was 2019 and they hadn’t just been called in from home to collect someone at risk of catching a deadly virus.

It’s been a year since my wife saw her parents, brother, friends and other relatives. It’s fair to say that, however the rules affected me, she’d have been getting there by hook or by crook. On paper, I’m allowed to travel as the spouse of a French citizen, but in this case the paper isn’t metaphorical. There is a lot of admin to do, a lot of boxes to tick, and a lot of expense to go to.

None of which guarantees they’ll let us on the train, and I won’t believe we’re going to make it until we’ve made it. We’ll be turning up on Friday with signed declarations, evidence of double vaccination (and hoping they won’t baulk at the particular vaccine brand/batch), and – hopefully – evidence of a negative and wildly expensive covid test. Because the free ones we’ve been getting through work are utterly useless when it comes to travel, which makes you wonder why they aren’t utterly useless for school/work testing.

Anyway, where do I stand on this July 19th stuff? By all means, acknowledge the incompetence and corruption of this government throughout this pandemic, but don’t prevent me from going to France, where I’ll be safely distant from busy town centres, shops, pubs, restaurants, infected students, and drunken galoots in England shirts.


The washing machine is making a funny noise. It’s an LG model which has been pretty decent until now, though I’m sure it’s long past the 10 year warranty on its motor. Just in the last month or so, there’s a kind of grinding sound coming from it, which I’m sure is a precursor to general failure.

Of course, while I had half an eye on the washing machine, it was the microwave that just gave up. Last night: fine. This morning: nothing. Changed fuse: nothing. I especially resent the microwave because the whole product category is shit. I’m half-certain that almost nobody does anything with a microwave other than chuck something in and push the button to warm it up. What I want is: a button; a timer. What I get is: 100,000 buttons, sub-menus, special settings and other ‘features’, none of which I’d ever use; and if I did want to use them, I’d forget how and need to consult the manual every time.

My main oven is limping along, also not working properly. It’s a fan oven, and the heating element in the fan doesn’t work. There are still the top (and bottom?) elements, so the oven works in some modes, but not all, and your guess is as good as mine as to how reliable cooking temperatures and times are. Talking of time, I’ve forgotten how to adjust the clock, and I’ve never known how to use its timing functions, beyond the (up to 60) minute timer. I want a new oven, but (again), I don’t want one with all these modes and buttons. It’s just feature bloat, as with the televisions that come with apps and which listen to everything you’re saying in your living room, and report to Samsung, or whoever, what it is you’re watching.

Feature bloat afflicts almost every technology until it starts to impinge on usability, at which point it’s time for a revolution. Apple’s obsession with removing buttons on phones has created a whole swathe of people who don’t know how to switch them off, or perform a reset. A hardware reset button is a beautiful thing. My current laptop doesn’t have one, and I miss the reassurance of being able to mash down on a button for 10 seconds or whatever to force the computer to reseat itself in the universe. One of the joys of the Kindle Oasis is that you can turn the pages with actual buttons, and it’s so much nicer (and cleaner) than using a touch screen.

We use the microwave for a limited set of things. Warming milk for sauce making; re-heating tea; cooking frozen peas; heating up the occasional ready meal; defrosting bread in a pinch. With this latter, I do not use the “defrost” button, which is useless. I just give the bread a series of quick zaps. Why would I spend time pushing buttons and listening to beeps in order to defrost a third of a baguette? None of this is rocket science, and yet the amount of technology thrown at this simple food-heating exercise is ridiculous. It’s as if they still expect us to be impressed by the “invisible” warming of food, which is a zombie concept like the “laser display board” mentioned in the radio comedy I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

I resent having to get another one, but the minor inconvenience of not being able to warm up leftovers quickly, or having to cook peas in a saucepan – like an animal – just tips the balance.

Before all this (*waves hands*), we had a week in the Alps in that last “normal” summer, and there was a washing machine in the flat that was impressively quiet. To the point that you could be a metre or so away from it and say things like, “Weren’t we going to do a load of washing?” and hear the reply, “It’s running.” So I’m kind of looking forward to getting a new, silent, washing machine, but I’ve baulked at replacing the fan oven, partly because I still hope not to be living here after I retire.

Retirement has been uppermost in my mind after this particular week at work, but I need to do a few years yet. A colleague suggested you could go a bit longer (and boost the pension) if you went part-time, which is a possibility, except that my ideal part-time doesn’t exist. It should though: it’s a genius idea I have.

My wife has been part-time for years, 4 days a week. Fine. But what if, instead of 4 days a week, you could take the equivalent weeks as extra holiday? A school year is 38 weeks, so that means a 0.8 part-timer is effectively working just over 30 weeks. In other words, in my ideal scenario, I’d work from September to the beginning of June, which is effectively when the final year students are done. Give me mostly exam groups to teach, and then redeploy my other classes to a reciprocal part-timer, one who will work fewer hours through the year and then pick up some extra in the last two months to make up their hours to whatever decimal they’re aiming for.

I’d even, happily, set and work mark online (for exam groups in the first year of their course) for this hypothetical other teacher, as long as I could do it from France.

Dream job! A utopian idea that leaves me feeling sad, thrown back into this reality, and wondering if I can stand another five years of it.