Thursday, October 26, 2006

Public Libraries Are Important

In today's Times journalist Helen Rumbelow argues for the replacement of public libraries with millions of 'personal' ones. The fact is, she says, that books are a lot cheaper to buy than in the past and with the Internet information is far more easily accessible with a few mouse clicks than a trip to your local library. Her article (,,1072-2421353,00.html) also points out that book-borrowing has declined by 40% in the past decade.

I love books and I love libraries. As a child I would spend hours after school reading in them. When I worked as a volunteer teacher in Eastern Europe I frequently visited the neighbourhood's library as a place where I knew I could sit and read and think in peace and quiet and for free. My mother visits her local library most days to catch up on the day's news and to browse community event notices among other things.

The fact is that a lot of people can't afford to buy books and build up their own 'personal library'. The internet is a remarkable innovation, but it's not without its flaws: it can be difficult to navigate, is filled with a lot of junk information that isn't peer-reviewed or fact-checked in any way, and it costs money. There's still a fairly large percentage of the UK population who don't have a computer or internet access at home.

Then there's the fact that bookshops are subject to commercial pressures that public libraries aren't - bookshops stock what titles they think they can sell and ignore the rest. Mass-market fiction and self-help manuals take precedence over most kinds of reference books, classic literature or poetry for example. Public libraries on the other hand can stock the widest range of books: browsing the average library shelf can be a fascinating experience.

Perhaps most importantly of all, public libraries in every high street - rich and poor, modern or not, urban and rural - remind us of the fact that learning is for everyone and that it is as much a community activity and interest as it is a personal one. A mind is best used when it is linked up with many others.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Why I am a Wingnut

Perhaps my favourite TV programme of the past few years has been the American Presidential drama 'The West Wing', starring Martin Sheen as President Josiah (Jed) Barlet.

I've always been fascinated by the United States - a nation founded not on a common language or religion or culture, but an idea - and fascinated too by its office of President. I can only begin to imagine what it must be like being the leader of the free world: to make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis, be the subject of intense media attention and speculation and to be the human face of what it means to be American.

Unlike so much on television, the 'West Wing' wasn't afraid to address complex issues and contentious debates. It made room for multiple points of view and highlighted both the gifts and the flaws of President Bartlet and his administration. As a viewer, I respect and appreciate that very much.

Friday, October 20, 2006

British v. American English

My book 'Born On A Blue Day' is currently being edited for its US release in January and it's fascinating to compare the two forms of English - British and American.

A lot of it comes down simply to spelling, to 'z's instead of 's's as in 'realize' (where I would write 'realise') and absent 'u's ('color' and 'harbor' instead of 'colour' and 'harbour'). Words of foreign origin are also spelled differently: 'synesthesia' where in Britain it is 'synaesthesia'.

More interesting are the different words, some of which I didn't realise/realize were used in that way. For example the American for 'pram' is 'carriage' (an old-fashioned word to British ears), a 'conker' is a 'chestnut' and a 'plaster' is a 'bandage' (something a British hospital would only use for serious wounds, not just a scratch or bruise).

George Bernard Shaw was perhaps right when he observed that England and America were 'two countries separated by the same language'.

Friday, October 13, 2006

How Much Of The World's Water Is Contained In A Cow?

This is one of the questions asked by interviewers of applicants for a place at Oxford or Cambridge University. It's claimed that with more and more students obtaining A grades at A-level universities are finding it increasingly difficult to choose between candidates, so make use of 'lateral thinking' questions like the one above.

I wonder if any of the readers of this blog would like to attempt an answer? I can contribute that a cow must hold quite a lot of water, because of the French expression: 'il pleut comme vache qui pisse' (It's raining like a cow pissing).

Friday, October 06, 2006

French Course Now Available

The Optimnem French course is now available. Find out more and try the first lesson for free at

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Debt As Negative Money

Recent media reports have highlighted the growing problem of personal debt levels in the UK. According to one, the average household debt is £7,754 excluding mortgages and £48,209 including them. The average owed by each adult in the UK is £25,545.

Part of the problem is how easy it has become for people in the UK to borrow heavily with loans and credit cards. Other countries, such as France, have much stricter rules regarding borrowing/lending money and a culture which is naturally suspicious of banks and their advertising.

Thought of most simply, debt seems bizarre - a form of money that makes you poorer. Imagine eating a food that made you hungrier. Yet borrowing is going up and up - the UK's total debt is rising by a million pounds every 4 minutes.

The effects of this can be devastating, including family breakdown, homelessness and suicide. More, such a culture deemphasises the virtues of thrift and self-control and makes it easier for society to ignore the plight of the most economically vulnerable for whom debt is often the only way they can make ends meet.

I think of debt as 'negative money' - a person with a debt of £10,000 has minus 10,000 pounds. Such a person would probably have to work for a couple of years just to pay off the debt and get back to '0'. Imagine that, working and earning for years just to reach the point where you have a fortune of zero!

The answer is to avoid debt as far as possible. Use a debit card instead of credit and save for things rather than take out loans. Overpay on your mortgage to save thousands in interest long-term. Spend within your means and discover the creativity in thrift. After all, any one can simply spend money but it takes skill and thought to save and use it wisely and carefully.