Monday, 31 March 2003

The Victorians & Options

Listening to:

Bruckner, symphony no. 4 in E flat major “Romantic”.

Just read:

A. N. Wilson, The Victorians.

This is an irritating, and generally incoherent book, partly redeemed by its coverage of what was an interesting period, full of interesting people, and by Wilson’s fine eye for interesting, illustrative and often witty quotes. It’s incoherent because Wilson provides no real structure to his book. His chapters are arranged in a chronological order, but there is nothing else to link one chapter to another. Worse still, the individual chapters are also incoherent in themselves. When beginning a chapter, one gets little sense of where one will be at the end of the same chapter. Wilson seems to think that his chapters should be like essays. Even a collection of self-contained articles would be better than this because the reader would get some impression of an argument or thesis being advanced by the text.

If these many essays (there are 43 chapters) were consistently informative and engaging, I’d probably forgive Wilson his incoherence. The essay is possible of great things in well-qualified hands. And I think Wilson generally does well with his chosen form: his leaps and links from one subject area to another are not too awful in most cases. No, this book’s most significant flaw is that Wilson consistently says things designed to irritate me.

My fundamental problem with this book is that Wilson is profoundly anti-modern. He is a conservative who believes that life in the country before 1820 was probably better for everyone. He waxes lyrical about rural paradises and spends a lot of time decrying life in cities. He doesn’t ever really address the fact that cities grew in this period because of large scale migration from the rural paradises; the inhabitants clearly thought life in the cities was better. He rants long and often about how awful city life was, but gives little time to the fact that the self-same Victorians were busily improving city conditions the whole time.

Wilson is typically English in his attitude to agriculture: he seems to think that war-enforced self sufficiency followed by typically European levels of protectionism (and overproduction) have been a good thing. But Wilson can’t really decide what he thinks, because even as he reckons that protectionism and general government interference in the economy would be good in this case, he is scathing about government initiatives and reforms in areas such as primary schools. Initiatives of this sort are scathingly dismissed as Benthamite. He is admiring of Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury (in fact, the aristocracy tends to receive a great deal of admiration), who helped bring in legislation to reform working practices in factories and mines, but he dismisses other reforms as Government interference in people’s liberty. It boils down to whether or not something can be seen as a cocking a snook to the evil capitalists and laissez-faire types. If they’re put out by a reform, it’s good. Otherwise it’s Benthamite.

Another irritating feature of Wilson’s book is his tendency to fawn over his heroes. These include Disraeli, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Cardinal Manning and Prince Albert. To read Wilson is to be exposed to the view that if Prince Albert had only lived a little longer, the First World War might have been averted. People who opposed his heroes tend to get short shrift, which means that Gladstone is regarded pretty negatively throughout. For example, Wilson wants to blame Parnell’s downfall on the English Liberals (led by Gladstone), but has to admit that it was the Irish Home Rule party that really brought him low. Further, after Parnell’s affair with Katherine O’Shea was publicised, it was the supposedly non-puritanical Irish who repeatedly failed to elect his faction in various bye-elections.

Finally, I was extremely irritated by Wilson on Darwin. On the strength of one book by Michael Behe, he claims that natural selection has no answer to the objection that intermediate forms (for structures like eyes and wings) are not plausible. This is nonsense, and it’s obvious he didn’t do any research into the issue. It seems clear that he looked for something out there to confirm his prejudices and cited it as support. (Behe’s book, Darwin’s black box is effectively demolished in this review.) Another science nitpick: Wilson also claims that

By then [the 20th century], Wittgenstein really had refuted Russell’s ideas about the foundations of mathematics...

This is nonsense, and one can only imagine that Wilson says it because he wants it to be true.

So, what, if anything, redeems this book? Being a series of essays, it’s pretty undemanding, and also generally entertaining. Wilson covers the literature, art, politics and journalism of the period pretty well, so that chapters of his that stick to these fields are interesting and readable. He also gives major events (Crimean War, Indian Mutiny, Boer War, Parnell’s career) well-written narratives. As I said initially, he also has a impressive selection of quotes littered through his text.

Michael Thomsett, Getting started with options.

I bought this book at the recent Lifeline Bookfair. It’s all about options, explaining the terminology and concepts, as well as why and how one might go about trading them. It’s written for an American audience, but I imagine the concepts are applicable in other markets too. I found Thomsett’s book very interesting, and generally well written. Apart from terminology, I learnt two important things:

  1. You don’t need to exercise an option in order to make a profit with one. You can just sell them on after their value has appreciated. Equally, you can sell on an option in an attempt to cut losses. This is obvious in retrospect, but wasn’t something I appreciated.

  2. It is possible for individuals to sell options as well to buy them (I’d previously imagined that only institutions would sell options), and that there are circumstances in which this is sensible. In particular, Thomsett explains covered call writing very well.

There's a lot else too, but these felt like they opened my eyes the widest. I don’t have spare speculation dollars to hand for investment in option markets, but if I did, I would view the prospect of doing so with some pleasure.

To read next:

Anthony Bourdain, A cook’s tour.


hello,i have to write about the victorians and there life styles eg. city living conditions , work conditions and the countryside.i loked up "victorians"but it didnt come up with any thing use full, if u would like 2 email me that would be helpful.
thanks gemma.

Posted by: gemma at May 21, 2004 06:43 PM

I wouldn't particularly recommend Wilson's book, but you could read just about anything by Dickens to get a vivid picture of Victorian life in London. “Bleak House” is particularly good in this respect.

A good non-fiction primary source is Mayhew, who was a London journalist of the period.

Posted by: Michael at May 22, 2004 11:24 AM