Book Review: To Let (The Forsyte Saga part 3) by John Galsworthy

As this is the 3rd part of a trilogy, this review comes with an inevitable *spoiler warning*. If you haven’t read the first 2 parts, then this will be unlikely to make much sense to you. Link to part 1. Link to part 2.

We pick up the story in the 1920s with Soames and Jolyon now old men who haven’t spoken to each for a long time. They’ve brought up their respective families as strangers to one another. But could they remain separate forever? Of course not.

This volume is rather slow to get started as we are reintroduced to the surviving members of the Forsyte clan, as well as recounting the passing of those who haven’t survived this far. The story starts to gain a little traction when there is a chance meeting between Fleur, Soames’ daughter, and the youngest Jolyon, who is here mostly referred to as Jon. It is a meeting that the two sides of the family would rather had never happened, though Jolyon & Irene are more accommodating to Fleur than Soames is to the idea of her having anything to do with Jolyon ever again. In referring only to Soames, this is because his wife, Annette, is rather anonymous and is subdued under the force of his convictions. Some might think that this indicative of an element of misogyny on the part of Galsworthy’s authorship, though I see it as Galsworthy portraying Soames’ own misogyny.

The emphasis of the book drift in its focus, so while Soames has been the dominant character in the first two volumes, as he is now an old man, the force of Fleur’s personality starts to come to the fore and the narrative now begins to centre itself around her and her affairs. The chance meeting is followed up by a more deliberate meeting and so Jon and Fleur become friends, aware that they are related, but they are kept in the dark by their respective families, who wish for the past to be forgotten.

But as the friendship grows, the background narrative demonstrates a change in the way the world is working and how that threatens the traditional values that are held dear by the Forsyte family. An example of this may be seen in how various members of the family refer negatively to the rise of Labour as a political power, fearful that it may adversely affect their capital.

Things can no longer go on as they once had though there is a recognition that the once middle class name of Forsyte might now be regarded as upper class, that class can no longer enjoy the privileges that used to come with it. The young are ever more headstrong, as amply demonstrated in the forthrightness in which Jon and Fleur speak to their respective parents about their growing affection for one another, even in spite of the fact that there is another suitor knocking on Fleur’s door.

The pace of the novel picks up in the second half with the revelation to Fleur of how it came about that the two sides of the family separated. So we have a tension whereby she has fallen for Jon and he for her, but only she is enlightened as to the events of the family history that seek to keep them apart. Eventually Jolyon writes a letter to Jon to put his side of the story over and Jon and Fleur must decide between them if they are to marry, now that both are in possession of the facts. Whether they do or not, I will not spoil for you.

There is a marriage and there is a death. But whose, I shall leave for you to find out. The book ends with us looking once again at Soames and pondering if life has passed him by, with his obstinate character making him unable to enjoy the life he has had.

And so ends The Forsyte Saga. One is reminded of the first page of the first volume, where Galsworthy speaks of the affairs of the family as a small scale version of the affairs of nations. It seems the link got more and more tenuous as the Saga went on, but the quality of the writing did not. It is clear, with hindsight, to see why Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature with the citation mentioning The Forsyte Saga. It is a tremendous body of work, loaded with rich characterisations, a sense of time and place and all bound together with a riveting, yet believable narrative. It certainly took a long time to get through (interspersed with other reading, of course) but it was well worth it.

Trying to make sense of this mad world

The world is full of hatred, death and misery. The news over the last week has been especially draining on anyone who is emotionally affected by the goings on in the wider world. You could take your pick at any number of issues that have made the news to some extent and feel for those who have suffered in the acting out of these events. Foremost in my mind are:

  • The crash/shooting down of flight MH70
  • The current escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip
  • The expulsion of christians in Mosul
  • The Nigerian schoolgirls who were abducted and are still missing

You may have different things come to mind. Whichever news items we choose to be most enthralled by (I use that term deliberately) it almost invariably entails an emotional reaction. Yet any such reaction is almost certainly going to be negative. Knowing this, usually by experience of previously having been caught up in events over which one has little to no control, it is tempting to avoid these negative emotions by avoiding the news.

So I have sympathy with those who would remain less informed than they otherwise might be as they spare themselves from agony by exercising the one form of control they do have: the off switch.

But not all of us do choose the off switch. I am one of those who value being informed, in spite of the cost to one’s own spirit. The fact is that I feel helpless. I can read the news from a number of sources in order to see things from several angles. Yet what good is that? All I end up with is a slightly better informed view than before. Maybe I change my mind about who is right and wrong, or who is to blame. Maybe I might change my opinions based on what I read. Maybe the evidence backs up what I already think. But what good is that if it doesn’t help other people?

Just so my own position is clear: I am not pro or anti Israel. I am not pro or anti Palestine. I am for a total ceasefire on both sides of the conflict and I am anti killing people.

Sometimes all we have is prayer. All too often that doesn’t seem enough. We yearn for something more tangible yet the democracies in which we have put our faith seem compromised and slow to act to ensure an end to violence and a pursuit of justice. If God is the one in whom we can have faith to act justly, then why are so many faithful prayers seemingly unanswered?

Such thinking is the currency of the atheist. Yet do we rightly understand what peace is? What justice is? There are no simple answers to these questions or to the problems brought about by the decisions humans make when they dumanise one another and act unrestrained to destroy those they see as ‘The Other’.

100 years on from the start of the First World War, it seems that collectively we still haven’t learnt our lesson. So we continue to destroy and kill. Yet in all this, for those of us who stand against violence, there is hope. Nomatter how dim it is, we must never let it go out.

Book Review: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

A while back I set myself the task of reading what are possibly the two most influential books on the modern environmental movement. The first of these was Gaia which I read a couple of years ago. I may be a slow reader, but I do get round to reading as much as I can on my reading list. So it is that I finally got round Silent Spring.

This particular edition (Penguin Modern Classics, published in 2000) includes several introductions/prefaces. What quickly becomes clear from these is that the introductions were written for a British audience as it draws contrasts between the British environmental movement and the account that Carson presents in the main text. The other thing that is pointed out is that Carson found biochemistry as her secondary calling, having initially aimed to be a writer earlier in life. Therefore, it was a great delight for her to be able to write a book and I would say that in terms of the quality of writing, she is a lot more skilled than some novelists I have read.

The focus is on certain classes of chemicals (mostly chlorinated hydrocarbons) that have been used as insecticides, pesticides and herbicides. Though Carson notes that a more generic term is that is more appropriate is that they are biocides, or poisons. The fact is that if they are sprayed with the intention of killing a particular species, they are indiscriminate and affect the entire environment in which they are spread and the areas which are ecologically and geographically linked.

She begins with a short story. It is a scenario which acts as an executive summary of all the outcomes that have been observed and which are documented throughout the book. Only here, she brings them all together and envisions a town beset by every ill effect brought about by the use of such poisons. This serves as an executive summary, with the scene of death reminding me of The Andromeda Strain.

With this as her starting point, Carson then details a litany of ecological disasters that have been brought about by the use of the poisons she highlights. In the crosshairs of her criticism is DDT. Its effects are laid out in shocking detail. When talking of other poisons, she often compares them to DDT, even if they are more toxic. If a criticism can be made here, it is that Carson occasionally slips into the more generic use of the word ‘chemical’, even though she mostly remains specific. The danger this gives rise to is that a casual reader might just pick up on the generalities and become inclined to an opposition to ‘chemicals’.

Carson details how these poisons permeate the biosphere, extending their influence far beyond the areas they are intended for, including travelling through the food chain to ultimately poison some carnivores which have eaten creatures which ate leaves that were contaminated.

In her writing, Carson wanted to avoid littering the text with footnotes (contrast this with N.T. Wright!) so while she quotes some studies, the detailed references are left for the appendix. The main text then reads less like a scientific treatise and more like polemic. Yet the strength of the writing is not baseless invective; it is referenced, but the choice to keep the main text uncluttered and clear came at the price of having the evidence scientific evidence slightly off to the side, with the rhetorical power of the anecdote more prominent.

As I read through the first half of the book, one thought went through my mind. It was that the effects of the chlorinated hydrocarbons, though poisonous, were as much due to the method of distribution. Carson then addresses this issue with her criticism of indiscriminate spraying. Indeed, before reading the book, aware of its legacy, I was aware of some criticisms that it got DDT banned when it was really the broad-brush nature of its dissemination which was the cause of the poisoning that followed it. Every time I could myself thinking “what about this…” then Carson soon addresses the point.

An example of this would be that during her exposition of the effects of poisons on people and animals, one might wonder how the poisons actually act to produce the effects described. After all, without knowing how the environment is poisoned, there remains reasonable doubt over the cause of the effects noted. Yet Carson does go into some of the biochemistry to convey to the reader an outline of the science behind poisoning.

The book is not wholly pessimistic, though. Carson highlights alternative pest control methods, with specific emphasis on the introduction of natural predators. I think a fair criticism could be made here in that while she points to examples of successes, there is inadequate consideration of the wider ecological issues of introducing non-native species to a given area.

The afterword (written in 1998) looks at Carson’s legacy and the criticism the book received at the time by those who would lose out financially if her proposals were taken up. The most obvious example we see to today is the absence of DDT, now subject to a ban in over 26 countries. It may well be worth following up with a later volume, Silent Spring Revisited, by Conor Mark Jameson. For in concluding, it has to be noted that Silent Spring was a book for its time. As a result of the impact the book made, the 50+ years since it was written have not followed the trajectory Carson feared it might had her warnings not been heeded.

It will continue to be a book that divides opinion. In writing for a wider audience, some of the scientific detail has been sacrificed. But in the opinion of this reviewer, the weaknesses in precision should not detract from the direction in which the argument goes, which is sound.

A Friday Thought: Condemnation and the mallet

Condemnation can seem a terrible thing. Statements which condemn ideas, actions, people or whatever are almost wholly negative. Yet one of the things that is frequently condemned is failure on the part of others to speak a word of condemnation.

Examples of this can be seen all around us. In the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine, those who favour one side point to those who favour the other, condemning them for failing to condemn the violent and deadly actions undertaken by the side that they favour.

One can try to be nice and fluffy and say that we shouldn’t speak words of condemnation against one another. I’ve tried it. It’s not easy and sometimes the most worthwhile things in life aren’t easy. The alternative is to try to only be positive. Propose alternatives and always seek to be constructive.

Yet my thought now is that the two approaches must go hand in hand. Condemnation is a necessary tool of destruction. Yet it should not be wielded alone. As a mallet is a blunt instrument which, by itself, can do nothing creative,   so condemnation by itself does little good. But when combined with a chisel of positive alternatives, then with some skill and practice it may be possible to carve something new and beautiful from the plank of wood we previously bashed furiously with the mallet.

The analogy may be muddled (as I write this on Thursday night, it’s been a long day) but I hope the gist isn’t lost in the metaphor.

It is easy to be harsh, to condemn, to put down, to criticise. Those things have their place. But when we break something down, it must be directed with a plan in mind for the new creation that is to emerge from the wreckage of the old.

The poor advocate fallacy

The other day while I was on the train home, I was pondering a few logical fallacies, as one tends to do from time to time. They are fascinating things and serve as useful tool to sharpen up one’s thinking. I know that I have, from time to time, been guilty of committing some of them, though I doubt I am alone in that. In this pondering, I found myself thinking of the following situation:

  1. Person A is an advocate of proposition X. Person B is an opponent of proposition X. Or rather, they may be an advocate of proposition Y which is incompatible with proposition X.
  2. Let us suppose that one of these propositions is true. By their mutual incompatibility, the other is false. For the sake of argument, we may assume that proposition X is true and that Y is false.
  3. However, person A’s reasoning for believing proposition X is faulty. Precisely what the flaw is need not concern us. There may be a long chain of reasoning in which just one or two steps are in error. The chain of reasoning used by person A we will call P. So what we are saying is that P does not imply X. However, there may be another chain of reasoning which is correct, lets us call it Q, which does imply X.
  4. What happens then is that person B notices the error in P and highlights it. However, they then assert that because P does not imply X and that person A has used reasoning P (without knowledge or understanding of Q) that X is false.

This is what I would call the poor advocate fallacy. A has not advocated a false proposition, but the fact that they used poor reasoning to get there has, in the mind of B, undermined their argument. Thus B is guilty of trying to take a shortcut and instead of using a valid line of reasoning to assert the truth of Y (and thereby de facto falsifying X), they use the falsity of the reasoning P to incorrectly conclude the falsity of the proposition X.

In thinking this through, I tried to look it up but could not find the fallacy named as such. So this is an open question to you – is this fallacy known by another name?

Or, and I cannot discount this possibility, is my reasoning faulty? If so, though, does that have any bearing on the whether or not my assertion that there is such a thing as the poor advocate fallacy? Because if there is such a thing and my reasoning is faulty, might a detractor to this idea be guilty of the fallacy themselves?


Such are the musings that occupy my mind from time to time. The fact that this got published is partly due to inspiration from Revd Claire and her take on some much tougher philosophy than the simple logic I propose above.

(Guest Post) The housing bubble: a homeowner’s perspective

In response to my piece last week on the housing bubble from a would-be first time buyer’s perspective, my brother-in-law, Radionotme, has written from a homeowner’s perspective. 

Used under creative commons license. Picture by walknboston.

Used under creative commons license. Picture by walknboston.

As someone on the other side of the divide, as Simon puts it, I have to say I broadly agree with what he says. As with most things though, it’s not quite that simple.
To own your own home is an aspiration for most of us, although oddly in some cultures this isn’t the case at all. French, German and Japanese home ownership rates are less than 50% for example.
It is an aspiration I share, and am currently working towards.
Some would say that since I live in a house that I have a mortgage on, that I own that home. I’ll even refer to myself as a homeowner most of the time, but of course the truth is that I do not own the home. The bank, and in turn the institutions that the bank has borrowed from, own the home. If I miss a payment, then my home is at risk of being taken away from me. If I miss several, then this is virtually guaranteed. As such, I do not think I can truthfully say that I own my own home at this stage.
What I can say, is that I am fortunate enough to be on the property ladder. I agree with Simon, that renting is inherently more expensive that buying, but for different reasons. Renting is usually cheaper to start with than buying, but whereas rental costs will increase over time (dependent on market conditions), the price you have paid for a house is final, and the only changes to the monthly payments relate to the interest rate, which can go either up or down (though you may be forgiven for not realising that up is a potential direction for interest rates given the last few years!).
I am currently able to ‘enjoy’ the low interest rates in terms of how it affects my monthly payments, although I remain opposed to them when considering how they affect the wider economy. Even so, my mortgage payments take up between 30 and 40% of my take home pay.
When I first bought my home, and locked into a 6% interest rate for 5 years (oh, what a mistake with the benefit of hindsight), my mortgage payments were over half of my take home pay.
I expected however, and have so far fortunately been proven correct, that my take home pay would increase over time, and so that percentage of my salary that the mortgage payments took up, would decrease.
This plays into Simon’s figures, once you have the relevant context. Mortgages on average take up a smaller proportion of salaries, however that is in part due to people towards the end of their mortgage term won’t be paying much, when compared to those just starting out. Those people are often paying significantly more than their renting peers.
I’d also disagree that 5-10 years ago, prices were ‘cheap’. They may look that now, however even in 2003 there were warnings of an impending house price crash, and reports that houses were out of pace with wage growth. Although I’m on the property ladder, I jumped on years after some of my friends, and years before others. The ones who jumped on earlier were able to make more from the house price rises than I could, even though I bought 10 years ago, and they bought 13-14 years ago.
Finally, I take issue with the rather flippant comment that those on the property ladder don’t care about those not on it. We do, both for selfish reasons, and unselfish. I care deeply that my younger siblings, have and will have considerable difficulty getting on the ladder. I worry for my son, and whether he will be able to own the roof above his head when he grows up. I worry about the wider economy, and how the unending house price rises give rise to buy to let landlords, who have no interest but to make as much money as possible.
I agree that something needs to be done, but I have little faith that any of the main government parties are up to the challenge, or even that it is a problem that government alone can tackle. Whatever the solution though, it has to start with more ‘normal’ interest rates, that can encourage people to save, as well as to borrow.

The housing bubble: A would-be first time buyer’s perspective

Used under creative commons license. Photo by meddygarnet

Used under creative commons license. Photo by meddygarnet

Anyone who reads the economics section of the press can hardly have failed to notice the concern over house prices at the moment. While it can be easy to look at numbers and forget the humans behind them. I am just one of those humans and here I present a wholly individual anecdote, with some reflections on the wider economic scene. My circumstances won’t match everyone’s, but there may be echoes that are recognisable. And if the current housing market does not currently affect you adversely, then perhaps this may help you see things from another’s perspective. If anyone who is on the other side of the divide would like to respond, I would be very willing to host it as a guest post on this blog and give it equal publicity.

From the time I started my current career, shortly before I turned 23, I have aimed to save money. In so doing, I freely confess to having a selfish streak within me. I try to be generous where I can, so I save less than I can possibly could. The purpose of the saving has always been clear: it is for a deposit to buy my own home. Having abandoned any youthful hope of ever marrying, I know that I shall never have to spend money on a ring or two, a wedding or children of my own. Of course, that then precludes the possibility of marrying someone more wealthy who could contribute a lump sum towards the deposit. Though, given the average cost of weddings these days, if I were to contribute towards that I wouldn’t have a penny left towards a home.

So while I save, I wait. I acknowledge and am grateful that I am paid more than average salary for this country and that by virtue of having been born into the family and country that I was, I enjoy far more privilege than the vast majority of people in the world. That is just to put things in a little perspective.

If one cannot buy then the only viable alternative is to rent. Yet renting is inherently more expensive than buying. At the end of a rental period I own nothing more than at the start. With property ownership via a mortgage, when make a payment against the mortgage you have the expense of the interest but you also pay back some of the debt. When all the debt is paid, you owe nothing and you own a home outright. It takes decades to do, but incrementally, month by month, you will get there.

As someone who is forced to rent, there are several frustrations. There is what one might refer to as a ‘gap of years’. It’s not even a generational gap. Those who are 5 or 10 years older than me have owned their own homes since they were in their mid-20s, having had the opportunity to put a deposit on their homes when the prices were cheap and the deposit requirements much lower than they are now. As a consequence, it means that those who have mortgages, for an equivalent property, pay far less in mortgage repayments monthly than I do in rent.

As an indicative, rent alone constitutes about 35% of my monthly income after tax. This makes me fairly average for a renter, as a recent survey I read showed that the mode bracket for renters was 30-40% of their net income, while those with mortgages paid 20-30%.

The upshot of this is that those who need to save the most (in order to pay for the deposit) have inherently less disposable income than those who don’t need to save as much. But when this is coupled with the high rate of inflation on house prices, a wedge gets driven between those with property and those without. One of my personal irritations is the smugness I witness from some of those who were fortunate to be able to buy when they did. One person I know likes to boast that the increase in the value of his property on a month by month basis is greater than his net income. The same person then periodically ‘encourages’ me to buy, even though I have told him repeatedly that I cannot afford to do so. In his imagination, I must be able to save the tens of thousands of pounds needed in the space of a couple of months. I have tried making the point to him that now would be a good time to invest in buying a yacht and that it doesn’t matter whether or not he can afford it, he should just do it. Unfortunately, my sarcasm is rather wasted on him as he just doesn’t see the absurdity of his own (lack of) thinking.

To try to put some numbers on the matter, after some investigation, given my income, expenses and current amount of savings, I could probably afford a property up to the value of £200k. Unfortunately, the average price of a 1 bedroom flat where I live is around £330k. The answer is obvious, though, isn’t it? Move to somewhere less expensive!

If only it were that simple. Part of the reason I moved into London last year was because the overall fixed cost of living (rent + council tax + cost of commuting) was cheaper than when I lived in Sussex. Even though the rent is more expensive in the capital, the cost of train fares comes down by more than the rent goes up. So if I were to move back out of London again, then my cost of commuting goes up and therefore the amount I can afford to borrow goes down.

It could be argued that the M25 is a kind of vicious circle. Once you’re inside it, it becomes hard to leave again. A factor in this is the lack of reliability in the private train companies (Southern have been particularly bad this year). The fact that I now have 4 different routes home through London rather than the monopoly that Southern have on the Arun Valley line means that if one or two fail, I have backups I can take.

Another choice would be to move jobs entirely. I’m sure £200k would get me a decent home in my old stomping ground of County Durham. Yet an equivalent job would almost certainly not pay the same as I get in London and so again, the amount I could reasonably borrow would decrease. Then there would also be the problem of leaving a job where I have some level of job security (though is there really such a thing anymore?) and trying to secure a new one in a location where I don’t currently live.

That’s the essence of the problem. Those who got on the “housing ladder” don’t care that the bottom few rungs have come off; for them, it is up, up and away. I’m not arguing that this is inherently unfair, but it is indicative of a problem with our current economics. The low interest rates are partly what is driving this wedge between the propertied and those who aren’t. It means that those with mortgages pay little interest and those who are saving cannot keep their savings value up to speed with inflation. Ideally, the saving rate should be pegged to house price inflation, though I’m not sure any banks would be wanting to offer an 11.8% savings rate.

Another factor is the fashion for buy-to-let. Some buy-to-lets are necessary for the rental market to continue in existence, but I am yet to be convinced that the current number is right. In effect what a buy-to-let does is take a property off the market that could otherwise be bought by someone who needs to live there. Yet the person buying a buy-to-let property isn’t the one who lives there. So they are merely reducing the supply of housing which is exacerbating the problem of increasing prices.

It’s a big problem, which needs a coherent, holistic approach. Tinkering here and there is not, in my view, the best approach. So while we may come up with ideas to tax more heavily the buy-to-let landlords as a disincentive or plan the building of more homes, we need to look at the picture as a whole. Looking to the future, what we may end up with if the market direction continues as it is, is we end up with a generation who will not be able to save enough to ever afford a deposit and must wait until they bury their parents before a home of their own becomes a realistic prospect.

That’s my perspective. What’s yours?