Book Corner



Catherine The Great – Robert K Massie

This is a masterful biography of Sophia Augusta Frederika of Anhalt-Zerbst, the daughter of a minor German aristocrat, who at the age of 14 was betrothed in an arranged marriage by her ambitious mother to the heir to the Russian throne, Peter. Prior to her marriage, she converted from Lutheranism to the Russian Orthodox church, being persuaded there was very little difference between the two, and tool on the name Catherine. Her marriage was unhappy, Peter being more content with playing with his toy soldiers than performing his conjugal duties. Eventually Peter assumed the throne when his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth died, but his pro-Prussian sympathies meant that he was deeply unpopular. A palace coup, led by the Orlovs, removed Peter – he was eventually assassinated – and Catherine was crowned Empress. Her rule (1762 to 1796) is generally regarded as one of the golden ages of Russian history. Catherine was a great advocate of the Enlightenment – she corresponded extensively with the likes of Diderot and Voltaire – and became the most pre-eminent collector of art, establishing the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Russia successfully expanded its territories during her reign, taking the Crimea and what is now the Ukraine from the Ottoman empire and, with Prussia and Austria, partitioning and absorbing much of Poland-Lithuania. Catherine was interested in public health and spearheaded the campaign for inoculation against smallpox by being inoculated herself.

Catherine had a succession of “favourites” but the most influential in her life were Grigory Orlov (who was one of five brothers who had leading roles in the coup) and Potemkin.

The book is a rip-roaring read, particularly in describing her early life and the events leading up to the coup and her accession to the throne. The second half takes a more thematic approach to her reign and loses a bit of impetus as a result.

Nonetheless, a hugely impressive and informative book and one I would thoroughly recommend.


An Injury Is Much Sooner Forgotten Than An Insult

lord chesterfield


I’ve always fancied myself in the role of a modern day Lord Chesterfield dispensing words of wisdom to my offspring. Sometimes, however, the actions of your sprogs can drive the most high-minded and enlightened parent to despair.

Witness the astonishing attack on his three children by, appropriately enough, retired nuclear submarine captain, Nick Crews. The latest disaster to befall one of them produced a torrent of despair and vitriol. I quote (selectively) – “with last night’s crop of whinges and tidings of more rotten news for which you seem to treat your mother as a cess-pit, I feel it is time for me to come off my perch… it is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you in your own way dished out to us… (if it wasn’t for the grandchildren) Mum and I would not be too concerned as each of you consciously, and with eyes wide open, crashes from one cock-up to the next. It makes us weep that so many of these events are copulation driven and then helplessly to see these lovely little people being so woefully let down by you, their parents”.

Crews goes on to say that is fed up with “being forced to live through the never-ending bad dream of our children’s under-achievement and ineptitude” he signs off by saying he only wants to hear from them again when they have something positive to say and is bitterly, bitterly disappointed.

I suspect he speaks for many a parent.


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Five

Einstein’s Brain

Without question, Albert Einstein deserves his place in the pantheon of clever bastards. After all, this self-taught physicist developed the theory of general relativity.

When he died in 1955, aged 76, his brain was removed and Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who autopsied him, sliced his brain into numerous thin slices for examination. What became apparent when comparing Einstein’s grey matter with that of lesser mortals was that the frontal lobes, associated with abstract thought and planning, had unusually elaborate folds. It is thought that the more folds there are creates extra surface area for mental processing, allowing more connections between brain cells and making it easier to draw on distant cells for cognitive reasoning. The same unusual folding patterns were observed in his occipital lobes which are used for visual processing. The left and right parietal lobes which are used for spatial tasks and mathematical reasoning are also unusually asymmetrical.

His brain was of average size – weighing 1,230 grams – but in comparison with all other brains investigated, only Einstein’s had these unusual folds and grooves.

Truly, he was a cut above the rest of us.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


I Am A Grateful Grapefruit


Bjork’s typically oddball quote when she received the 1998 Brit Award was probably the last time this humble, tangy citrus fruit hit the headlines so, being an aficionado of the odd half from time to time, imagine my surprise to read that eating the fruit can have harmful effects on people taking medication. This is because, apparently, the grapefruit (and other varieties of citrus fruit) contains a group of chemicals called furanocoumarins which inhabit the stomach and inhibit the activation of certain drugs. So taking one of 43 types of prescription  medicines at the same time as ingesting a grapefruit means that there is more of the active drug in the body than was intended, leading to potentially harmful side-effects. There is no escaping from these wretched furanocoumarins – they are present in all forms of grapefruit, whether in juice form, concentrate or the fruit itself.

For readers who either want to avoid this menace or to experiment with a new form of legal high, the list of drugs predicted to interact with grapefruit include

  • Drugs used to treat cancer (crizotinib, dasatinib, erlotinib,everolimus, lapatinib, nilotinib, pazopanib, sunitinib, vandetanib, vemurafenib)
  • Drugs used to treat or prevent infections (erythromycin, halofantrine, maraviroc, primaquine, quinine, rilpivirine)
  • Drugs used to treat high cholesterol (atorvastatin, lovastatin, simvastatin)
  • Drugs used to treat heart and blood vessel conditions (amiodarone, apixaban, clopidogrel, dronedarone, eplerenone, felodipine, nifedipine, quinidine, rivaroxaban, ticagrelor)
  • Drugs affecting the central nervous system (oral alfentanil, buspirone, dextromethorphan, oral fentanyl, oral ketamine, lurasidone, oxycodone, pimozide, quetiapine, triazolam, ziprasidone)
  • Drugs used to treat nausea (domperidone)
  • Immunosuppressants (cyclosporine, everolimus, sirolimus, tacrolimus)
  • Drugs used to treat urinary tract conditions (darifenacin, fesoterodine, solifenain, silodosin, tamsulosin)

Side-effects can include rapid heartbeat, complete heart block, kidney damage, blood clots and damage to bone marrow.

You have been warned!


Book Corner


Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Like most people who have had any exposure to Ford Madox Ford (not to be confused with Pre-Raphaelite painter, Ford Madox Brown or a car Henry Ford didn’t make), it was through his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier. However, I was prompted by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the tetralogy known as Parade’s End for the BBC to explore his oeuvre further.

The four novels were published between 1924 and 1928 and concern themselves with the life of Christopher Tietjens, a government statistician from a wealthy landowning family. The first volume (Some Do Not..) – FMF is fond of the aposiopesis – is set before the First World War, the second (No More Parades) and third (A Man Could Stand Up) during the war and the fourth (Last Post) following the war.

Themes running through the tetralogy are the horrors of war, sexual passion and madness. The story revolves around Tietjen’s doomed marriage to Sylvia, a deeply repelling and unhinged character, the uncertainty that their son is his and his unconsummated affair with suffragette Valentine Wannop who may also be the illegitimate daughter of his father. Sylvia is the polar opposite of Christopher, modern, promiscuous, Catholic whilst he is a conservative Anglican and Latinist stuck in the eighteenth century. Wannop is also another version of modernism, a suffragette, but as a consummate Latinist she is more in tune with her lover.

Like war, sexual passion is depicted as another version of madness – Sylvia says that men just go to war to rape innumerable women – and most characters are described at some point as mad or on the verge of madness – the only rock of sanity seems to be the French mistress of Tietjen’s brother, Mark. Even in the fourth book there is no peace for Christopher who is continually harried and tormented by Sylvia who is out to destroy him and all he holds dear (including the totemic (in every sense of the word) Great Tree of Groby, his family home).

The second and third volumes describe the horrors of trench life but are interspersed with humour and a damning critique of the governing classes. Unlike the TV adaptation, much of the work features the thoughts and recollections of the key characters and visits and revisits the same events from different perspectives.

I found the books satisfying, enormously enjoyable but quite demanding of the reader. I would recommend a break between each course – all four courses in a sitting may be just a bit too indigestible.