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Steve Jobs – colossus or tyrant?

Hands up all of you who have one of the following: iPod, iPad, Mac computer, iPhone. Keep those hands up while I count how many of the rest of you have wished you had one?

I see a sea of hands. Millions of you have one of these devices ( 47million iPhones were sold in the first three months of last year and almost 23 million iPads).  Not bad for a company whose former CEO John Sculley once said that there was no future in computers for ordinary punters like you and me.

I’m one of the millions who’s helped Apple become a technology powerhouse. I’m writing this on my Apple MacBook Pro laptop. An Apple iPad is by my side, quietly downloading some e-versions of magazines as a result of a new service offered by our library system. Earlier on today, an hour’s session with the ironing board was made more palatable because I could plug in my iPod to catch up on some podcasts. Across the hallway comes the sound of music from the iPod sitting in the docking station next to my husband’s iMac workstation, helping him  meet a tight deadline from a client.

SteveJobsI tell you all this not because I am getting paid by Apple to promote their products or to show off about how much technology we have in our house.

The point is really to illustrate how much Apple and its products have become a way of life, made possible by the vision of one man — Steve Jobs  — whose authorized biography I have been listening to over the last few weeks on my commute to work.

I already knew some of the basic info about the extraordinary story that saw him ousted from Apple, the company he founded, only to buy it back again when it was on its knees 12 years later and turn around its fortunes with a series of breakthrough innovations.  On his death in 2011, President Obama  called him a visionary who “transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world.”

Walter Isaacson’s biography presents a very different picture however; a portrait of a man who would score zero for inter-personal and people management skills. Present your latest great idea to him and he would either dismiss it as ‘shit’ or get so enthused he’d want to control every aspect of it. This is a man who having insisted the only university he would attend was the liberal, but ultra expensive Reed College in Oregon, (causing his parents to use their life savings to fund his education) dropped out within the first year in protest at having to attend lectures. He was also a man who in his twenties believed so strongly in the power of a strict vegetarian diet that he didn’t feel any need to shower/bath regularly.

It’s a fascinating story and Isaacson does a great job of capturing the tension and drama of the internal machinations that led to his departure from Apple.

I’ve reached the point where his next passion; for animation, took the small and almost unknown Pixar company to a series of box office successes with Walt Disney and made Jobs a billionaire even without any interests at Apple.

Sunday Salon: Something old Something New


The two books I’ve been reading this past week couldn’t be more different. In one corner of the bedside table sits Claire Tomalin’s award winning biography of Samuel Pepys The Unequalled Self. And in the other corner is  The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, an author I’ve known of for years but never got around to reading.

I loved Tomalin’s book – my review is posted here.  Much of the information she presents was a revelation for me since all I really knew of Pepys was that he lived through the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London and captured his thoughts for posterity in his diary. I had no idea he was a key figure in government or that he was an avid reader and collector of books while also being somewhat of a rogue. Now I really want to read the diaries themselves.

It’s too early to give any thoughts on Muriel Spark’s novel. It’s set in ‘The May of Teck Club’, a kind of ladies rooming establishment opposite Hyde Park, London, ‘For the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London”. It concerns the lives of  its residents in the immediate aftermath of VE Day in Europe. So far all that’s happened is that we’ve been introduced to some of the main characters but there isn’t really any sense of a plot as yet.


Both of these texts are diversions from the book I should really be reading – Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  I’ve been reading this now for at least six weeks and the progress is painfully slow. I have about 80 pages left but try as I might I can’t read more than about 5 pages at a stretch. My husband simply can’t understand why I don’t give it up but having slogged my way through more than 500 pages I’m not going to give in now. Besides which, finishing it will mean I have made further progress on my personal challenge to read through all the Man Booker prize winners. I’m determined to finish it before year end so I can begin reading some of the stack that’s built up in the last few weeks. Going into a bookshop to buy gifts for the family was fatal – for every two I bought as presents to give away, I seem to have bought one for myself. Perhaps I should wrap them in Christmas paper and pretend they are a surprise present from a friend??



Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin

pepysPlague, fire, civil war,  treason, the fall of kings: Samuel Pepys experienced them all.  His was a life that coincided with one of the most momentous periods of English history and he recorded his experiences in meticulous detail in leather-bound diaries writing every day for nine years.

While these journals tell us much about Pepys the man, they still cover only part of his 70-year life.  His first entry is dated January 1, 1660 when he was 26 but he ends his endeavours on May 31 1669 when he was forced to stop writing because of an eye problem.  We learn much about his daily domestic routine, (what he ate and drank, the books he amassed in his library, his suspicions of his wife’s relationship with a dance master) and about landmark events such as the Great Fire of London as well as his many encounters with Royalty and politicians.

Such a rich source of original material would be a gift for any biographer but for Claire Tomalin they didn’t go far enough because they tell us nothing of Pepys’ childhood and education or, after the Restoration, his public disgrace and humiliation. Through extensive research and examination of contemporary letters and diaries, Admiralty papers, judicial reports, memoirs and biographies, she seeks to fill in these considerable gaps in Pepys’ story.

In The Unequaled Self, the tale she tells is an extraordinary one: a story of a man who rose from humble origins as a tailor’s son of one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in the seventeenth century. Tomalin shows how much of this was due to some wealthy and influential family connections to the Earl of Montague (later Lord Sandwich) who nurtured the education of the young boy and then helped him gain his first government position as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board.  He put his quick mind and aptitude for detail to work, supplementing his natural talents with private tuition in mathematics and using models of ships to make up for lack of real experience at sea.

His endeavours may have had lasting impact on the British Navy (he is credited with introducing a requirement that all new officers first pass an exam) but they did not endear him to many figures in the Establishment. They resented his close relationship with the Duke of York  who later became King James II; his growing wealth and his elevation to a yet more senior role as Secretary for the Admiralty. Pepys  was accused of bribery and threatened with incarceration in the Tower of London and then faced further humiliation when he was accused of harbouring Catholic sympathies. He survived both, continuing in his positions until his patron and friend, King James was forced to leave the country.

Tomalin tells the story with panache and energy. Although she has to resort to guess-work and surmise  on some occasions, she never stretches credulity too far. Nor, although much of what she writes is necessarily full of facts, she never allows that detail to get in the way of telling a good story. One of the most memorable episodes she tells is of the operation Pepys underwent to remove the bladder stone which had given him excruciating pain for decades. In Tomalin’s imaginative re-creation we experience the same tension Pepys must have felt as he was trussed and bound to the bed and sense every moment of the operation he suffered without the benefit of anaesthetic or numbing alcohol.

Tomalin treats her subject with warmth, enjoying his pleasure in ordinary human activities and admiring his curiousity, his love and support for learning and his intelligence. She acknowledges his egotism, his often bad treatment of the women in his life  and his lecherous behaviour but concludes that  these never dim his brightness so we ‘rarely lose all sympathy for him. His energy burns off blame.”   It’s a credit to Tomalin’s skill that we come to share her enthusiasm for this ‘most ordinary and the most extraordinary’ of men.


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