Tuesday, June 25, 2019

the last book I read

The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury.

We're in some loosely-identified mid-west location (generally accepted to be Iowa, though I don't think it's ever explicitly identified), in the small town of Grafton in Grouse County. A place where not much happens, and such stuff as does happen is benignly overseen by laid-back sheriff Dan Norman. It's a small town, where everyone knows everyone, everyone's parents knew everyone's parents, and everyone knows everyone's business, which can be comforting and friendly, but can also be stifling and frustrating.

Some drama does crop up occasionally: Dan rescues an abandoned baby from a cardboard box in a supermarket parking lot and there is a brief flurry of excitement over who the mother is and whether she can be found. Meanwhile Louise Darling is finally tiring of her husband Tiny's petty criminal lifestyle and occasional violent outbursts, and after she sends him on his way she and Dan strike up a tentative relationship.

Tiny, meanwhile strikes off for various out-of-state locations where he does occasional manual work and gets involved with some slightly shady self-help group. Tiring of all this he eventually returns to Grafton, where he finds that Dan and Louise have moved in together, got engaged and subsequently married. It hasn't been all plain sailing for them, though: Dan has been suffering from insomnia, sleeping apart from Louise, and has engaged a therapist, although she finds him largely unreadable.

Eventually Dan and Louise get pregnant, and make all the usual preparations for having a baby, only for Louise to suffer a stillbirth at thirty-six weeks and nearly die in the process. As part of her recovery process she spends some time at a camp run by some friends in Minnesota, takes on some administrative duties to keep her busy and repeatedly extends her stay, seemingly to avoid having to return to her life in Grafton. Meanwhile Dan is up for re-election as sheriff, normally a formality but this time he's got an opponent with some serious money behind him and a willingness to wage a dirty-tricks campaign, masterminded by none other than the returned Tiny Darling. Needless to say Dan's problems are compounded by his mind not being fully on the job, what with one thing and another.

Eventually, as winter sets in, Dan makes the trip north to rescue Louise from her self-imposed exile, and on their return they effect a dramatic rescue of local teenager Albert Robeshaw and his girlfriend Lu Chiang who have got lost in a snowdrift. Louise returns to her job at the photography shop and when spring eventually rolls around everyone is all about the new beginnings and putting the past behind them.

As was the case with both A Stone Boat and The Leaves On Grey my perceptions of this book are probably skewed by the contrast with the book that immediately preceded it in this list, in this case Beloved. Just to be clear, I enjoyed The End Of Vandalism very much, but the story meanders along  very benignly, with the central characters bimbling along in their own slightly aimless way. Dan and Louise are the heart of the story here, and both are very endearing (and endearingly flawed) characters, though we don't actually learn very much about either of them. The only proper sense of danger or excitement is provided by the big set-piece where Louise and Dan lose the baby and Louise nearly dies, which provide a slightly incongruous contrast with the rest of the book. I suppose the starkest contrast with Beloved is that despite the majority of the action happening only a couple of states (and, to be fair, a hundred years) away, there are no discernible black characters here.

There are, it seems, a lot of people who would have The End Of Vandalism in their Great Novels Of The 1990s lists. I suppose I would respond to that by saying that I concur with the sentiment expressed in this review:
There's an awful lot here to like: the dialogue, the sly humor, the feather-light touch, the clean drive of the prose. All Drury needs is a plot for his work to really take off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

I cunt believe it's not jeremy

There was nothing more inevitable than Jeremy Hunt's throwing his hat into the ring at the Tory leadership election resulting in yet more people calling him a cunt. The only question was: who would crack first under the unbearable pressure of an internal monologue yammering "DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT" relentlessly at them?

It turned out to be Victoria Derbyshire, on her daily BBC news and current affairs programme, with a full and unashamed rendering, not the wishy-washy "Cu...Hunt" that some people come out with.

As we know, this particular verbal gaffe has a long and glorious history, some of it documented here on this blog but inevitably some of it slipping by unnoticed, by me anyway. The mashups/compilations included in these two tweets provide a good potted summary. The prospect of this becoming a global phenomenon and international heads of state bellowing CUNT at each other across the table at the United Nations is a delightful one, but must be tempered by the realisation that there is absolutely zero chance of Hunt winning the Tory leadership contest, and therefore becoming Prime Minister.

Sunday, June 02, 2019


A couple of thoughts on the death of Judith Kerr, venerable (she was 95) and celebrated children's author and illustrator:
  • If you had asked me to express an opinion on whether Kerr's Mog books were the origin of the general words "mog" and "moggie" to describe a cat (usually of a nondescript non-pedigree variety), I would probably have said that on balance I imagined that the expression pre-dated the books, but that I wouldn't want to stake my or anyone else's life on it. It turns out that the word does indeed pre-date the books, the first of which was published in 1970, the year I was born, and includes a character called Mr. Thomas (coincidence, or IS IT, etc etc). It apparently used to be a pet name for a cow and by some mysterious trans-species etymological osmosis became subsequently used for cats.
  • Kerr is one of those annoying names which can be pronounced in one of two ways and where there's absolutely no clue to which is the correct one from seeing it written down. In this case it can be "Kurr" (or, more correctly given its Scottish origins, "Kairr") or "Karr". Judith Kerr pronounced it the second way, as far as I can gather. Other examples include Sara/Sarah, which can be "Sair-rah" or "Sah-rah" with no chance of deciding which it is without advance knowledge, and the only advance knowledge you can have is that if you guess you'll choose the wrong one. And don't get me started on the whole Ralph/Rafe thing.
  • Kerr's most famous book is almost certainly The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which we, in common with most parents of young kids, have a copy of. It's always struck me that the tiger is a fairly obvious metaphor for sex, and in particular that an obvious subtextual interpretation of the surface story is that Sophie's Mum has been having a ferociously sexual extra-marital relationship, involving much smashing of crockery, urgent food-smeared couplings on the kitchen table and leaving her in a sweaty, sore, jism-festooned heap on the kitchen floor. The subsequent trip out to the cafe with Dad can be seen as him forgiving her for her infidelity and her settling back into the sausage-and-chips, half-a-pint-of-mild, once-a-week-with-the-lights-off regime with wistful regret but also a slight sense of relief. Needless to say I'm not the first person to think of this, as it's alluded to in this Guardian obituary, and was put to her a few times in interviews, where she played it with an impeccably straight bat.

  • I should point out that the first scurrilous image above is my own work; the second is stolen from this perhaps slightly ill-judged humorous tweet by the good people at Foyles Bookshop.
  • Judith Kerr was married to writer Nigel Kneale, probably most famous for his work on the various Quatermass serials and films. The only piece of his writing that I own, as far as I know, is the absurdly over-the-top (but absurdly entertaining) haunted-house story Minuke which I have in an anthology of supernatural stories published by, slightly bizarrely, Marks & Spencer. I got this as a present from my parents when I must have been about 16 and it's got some pretty serious heavyweight stuff in it. Minuke is based on an age-old and much-used premise: a house built on top of some old stones that conceal Unquiet Things that don't take kindly to being disturbed. It's basically the same plot as the South Park episode with the accursed pet store, not to mention Pet Sematary and Poltergeist.
  • Stan: So you just built your store on top of an Indian burial ground?!
    Shop Owner: Oh, hell no! First, I dug up all the bodies, pissed on 'em, and then buried them again upside-down.
    Kyle: Why?
    Shop Owner: Why? I don't know. I was drunk.

  • Kerr and Kneale's son Matthew is best known for his 2000 novel English Passengers, which I own and recommend to you highly. I see I mentioned this previously (and Kerr, in passing) here.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

the last book I read

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Sethe has had a tough life, as pretty much anyone in her circumstances - poor, black, female - would have done in the United States of the 1850s. Born into poverty and slavery, part of a large group of slaves, including her husband Halle, employed (if that's the word) at the Sweet Home plantation under relatively enlightened conditions, all things considered, but, y'know, still slavery.

After a time the benign old geezer responsible for this relatively lax regime dies and the new regime is considerably more savage, whereupon Sethe decides that it's time to make a bid for freedom. Sending her three children out ahead of her, they find refuge in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati with Halle's mother, Baby Suggs (no relation). Sethe, by now pregnant with her fourth child, later escapes herself (though without Halle) and makes her way by a circuitous and eventful route (including giving birth on the way, so yeah, eventful) to the house in Cincinnati to be reunited with Baby Suggs and the kids.

Happy ever after, right? Well, not exactly - Sethe's owners aren't too happy about Sethe's scarpering, still less her arranging for the scarpering of her kids, who would otherwise have been ready-made (and free) slave material themselves in due course, so they send a posse out to get her back. Sethe is not going back, though, and nor are the kids, even if she has to ensure their continuing freedom by, erm, sending them to a better place. So when the posse comes a-callin' to Baby Suggs' place Sethe takes the kids out to the shed and begins calmly slaughtering them. She is interrupted before she can get too far but does manage to dispatch her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, by slitting her throat.

On her release from prison Sethe finds that the slave-owners have cooled off considerably on the idea of having her crazy ass back, so she is free. A few problems remain, though, not least that the house now seems to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of what everyone (Sethe, Baby Suggs, Sethe's now-teenage daughter Denver) assumes is Beloved. It's only when Paul D, an old friend of Sethe from Sweet Home, turns up and performs a sort of impromptu exorcism (and then moves in) that calm is restored.

Not for long, though - on their return from an excursion the family discover a mysterious young woman sitting outside the house, who claims to be called.....Beloved. She also moves in and begins a strange relationship with Sethe and Denver, and a fractious but sexual one with Paul D which eventually results in him moving out of the house. Is she the returned (and possibly vengeful) spirit of Sethe's murdered daughter? Can Denver do anything to snap Sethe out of the spell that Beloved seems to have her under and return her to the world of the living?

The preceding few paragraphs provide a broadly linear and chronological sequence of the events described in Beloved. They are not presented that way in the book, though - the opening chapters take place around the time of Paul D's arrival on the scene and the preceding events are then filled in in a series of flashbacks. To an extent this mirrors Paul D's increasing understanding of Sethe's story, since he is unaware of her murderous past when he arrives at the house. There is also an interlude of brief stream-of-consciousness chapters from a series of shifting viewpoints (Sethe, Denver, Beloved) before the novel shifts back to the more regular third-person viewpoint.

What the general arc of the story is about is clear enough - the horrific atrocities visited by white people on black people during the formative years of the United States of America, the ways in which people find ways to retain some semblance of humanity even in the face of people who wish to strip it from them, the untameable force of the bond between parent and child, even when expressed in what seem like the most savagely irrational and destructive ways. What the purpose of the very specific supernatural sub-plot is is slightly less clear to me - clearly we are meant to conclude that Beloved was the ghost of Sethe's murdered child, but the purpose of her return is unclear - most likely to enact some form of retribution, but since she never quite gets to enact it it's not certain.

I confess (and I'm aware that this is me being a tedious hyper-rationalist) that the insertion of the supernatural stuff into an otherwise brutally realistic narrative bothered me slightly. I'm not sure it really added anything other than being a plot MacGuffin that acts as the catalyst for some revelations and spurs Denver on to her climactic actions at the end of the book. It's a testament to the power of the rest of the book that this minor botheration doesn't detract too much from it.

There is precious little apart from the two Toni Morrison books in this list that would qualify as "black American literature" (Chester Himes is perhaps the only other author who would qualify), which is an omission I feel slightly uncomfortable about. Morrison herself is clear about her membership of this group and in this interview administers a polite but steely-eyed and merciless curbstomping to an interviewer who has the temerity to ask: yeah, but when are you going to write a book about white people?

Beloved is the novel for which Toni Morrison is most famous and which is generally perceived to have been the one which won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (although that is, at least in theory, awarded for a body of work). It won the Pulitzer Prize and The American Book Award in 1988 - previous Pulitzer winners on this list are Independence Day, The Road, A Thousand Acres, Foreign Affairs, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey and Gilead. Nonetheless I think I probably enjoyed Paradise marginally more (Tar Baby is the only other novel of hers I've read, which is also very good), but this is a seminal work of late-20th-century American literature and you should read it. Beloved was made into a film in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey (as Sethe), Danny Glover and Thandie Newton.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

don't push me cos I'm close to the edge

We went on another week-long holiday to the Lake District last week, of a very similar format to the one we took around the same time last year. This time I'm going to do the mountain-walking activity stuff first, just because that's How I Freakin' Roll, motherfuckers.

You'll recall that last time I was enthusing about having got two big adults-only mountain walks in; well we didn't quite manage that this time, but for good and interesting reasons that provided opportunities to do other equally interesting stuff. So while the big 12-mile circuit of Skiddaw that I'd devised will have to be kept in the back pocket for a future trip, we did get a couple of days out on the hills with the girls which I was, as you can imagine, unfeasibly proud and delighted about to what I imagine will be a tedious and embarrassing degree. So be warned.

Anyway, straight in, no messing, here's what we did. These are in order of distance and difficulty rather than strict chronological order (which would go 1,3,2 with two-day gaps between, if you're interested):

1. Cat Bells

We found ourselves in a position to take the girls out for a walk while my parents were looking after the boy. This presented a bit of an opportunity, since Huw is not as keen as either of his sisters on spending large amounts of time in the Macpac baby- and toddler-carrying device, and it would have been impossible for him to walk up a decent-sized hill, as gung-ho about giving it a try as he probably would have been, for the first five minutes anyway.

So we decided to take the girls up Cat Bells as an exploratory first outing, as we'd got them both some new walking boots especially for the trip. I suspect it's highly likely that this particular walk is a first outing for many kids who go on Lake District holidays, though despite its cuddly reputation the last bit of ascent from the north side (the more usual angle of approach) involves some proper, though not especially hair-raising, hands-and-feet scrambling. So it's definitely not a casual stroll you can take a pushchair on.

It also just happens that the starting point at the north end of the ridge was only about 10-15 minutes drive from where we were staying in Braithwaite, which was handy - in fact we spent more time driving around looking for a parking space than we did getting there. In addition to being a sunny Easter Saturday there was also a fell-running event on, so parking was at a premium, and we only avoided having to park a prohibitive distance away by getting lucky with someone leaving as we were approaching.

With two fairly young children (Nia and Alys recently celebrated their 7th and 4th birthdays respectively) there are a number of ways this could have panned out, many of them not good: deciding they hated it two minutes in, needing a wee every five minutes, wanting to be carried on the rocky sections, et frustratingly cetera. I'm delighted to report, though, that the girls absolutely smashed it, Nia with her natural athleticism and Alys, slightly shorter and chunkier of leg, with her trademark implacable determination not to be outdone by her big sister.

I mean, I don't want to overstate the achievement, as the round trip was a little under two-and-a-half miles, but everyone gave every appearance of enjoying themselves. Having a glorious sunny day with beautiful views of the Newlands valley and Derwentwater throughout helped, of course. Route map and elevation profile are below. Note that this is a slightly different version of the walk from the one which occupied fourth place in the Ordnance Survey's Britain's Favourite Walks list a while back - that one drops off the summit to the east to walk back along the path above the lakeside road, while we dropped off towards the Newlands valley to the west to take a more direct route back to the car park.

2. Haystacks

Fired with enthusiasm by the Cat Bells trip, Nia demanded to do another walk, a demand I was obviously more than happy to accommodate, even at the expense of a longer adults-only walk. My Dad, who after a quite debilitating bout of pneumonia a couple of years ago, and a heart-related health scare (which turned out to be a false alarm) last year hadn't done any mountain walking for a while (and who, to be fair, is nearly 77) wanted an outing too, so we decided everyone's needs would be best served by having a crack at Haystacks. This would fulfil Nia and Dad's desire for a walk a bit longer and higher than the Catbells one, and would enable Hazel and me to tick off Haystacks, which we'd failed to conquer last year as part of our Buttermere walk. Alys, having eloquently made her point with the successful ascent of Catbells, was more than happy to sit this one out.

There's some overlap with the longer, higher Buttermere walk from last year: same parking place at Gatesgarth farm, and much of the route of ascent up Scarth Gap Pass is the route we took to get down from High Crag at the end of the walk. The Haystacks route goes all the way to the top of the pass (which links the Buttermere valley with the wilder, roadless and less-frequented Ennerdale) and then turns west up a shortish scramble to the top of Haystacks at 597 metres (1958 feet). There's a rocky pile at the top with two cairns, each with a metal pole embedded in it. It's unclear which is higher but it's probably the one nearer the Buttermere side; obviously you have to put a stone on both just in case.

There are a couple of reasons for climbing Haystacks - one is the Wainwright connection as it was one of old Alf's favourite spots and his ashes were scattered around Innominate Tarn (where we stopped for lunch); the other is the general delightfulness of the plateau just to the south-east of the summit. As well as the gentle grassy descent to Innominate Tarn there is the larger and slightly bleaker Blackbeck Tarn, not to mention countless other pools dotted here and there. There are also fantastic views across Ennerdale to the vast bulk of Pillar and the more shapely summits of Kirk Fell and Great Gable, and down the Buttermere valley to Crummock Water and Grasmoor.

The summit path eventually skirts round to the north-east towards some quarry workings and then drops off down the side of Warnscale Beck and around the lower slopes of Fleetwith Pike back to the car park. Route and altitude profile info are below. Overall it's a splendid walk that packs plenty of excitement into its five-and-a-half miles, and barring a couple of minor falling-over incidents on the way down both Dad and Nia survived unscathed. A pint (and a J20 for Nia) in the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere village helped to revive everyone.

A couple of points: firstly there'd be a case for doing the walk clockwise rather than (as we did it) anticlockwise, since that way you'd get the longish walk in along the old quarry road out of the way first and would get the best views of Haystacks' rocky frontage on the way up, rather than having it behind you on the way down. It would also place the summit slightly after halfway rather than slightly before it, which I think is probably preferable.

Secondly, impressive rocky frontage or not, and for all Wainwright's understandable affection for the place, you'd have to say Haystacks has a fairly tenuous claim to be thought of as a "proper" mountain in its own right, rather than just an interesting rocky outcrop on the ridge between the higher ground of High Crag to the north-west and the plateau below Grey Knotts and Brandreth to the east. That probably explains why most of the Wainwright guides (picture is from my copy of this one) give a slightly hand-wavey estimate of 1900 feet as its height - it was never considered significant enough to warrant a specific survey of its height until Alf's advocacy brought it into the public eye (it turns out old Alf underestimated it by 50 feet or so). You can get an idea of the problem (not that it actually is a problem in any real-world sense) by noting that while Haystacks is a Wainwright it is neither a Hewitt (since it's under 2000 feet) nor a Marilyn (since it has insufficient topographic prominence).

3. Helvellyn

My only non-negotiable demand on these trips is that I get one full day to do a Proper Ruddy Expedition accompanied by whoever wants to come, is going to be able to keep up and is prepared to fit in with whatever absurd set of arbitrary challenges and targets I have chosen to build into the route. And so here it is.

One thing that had been bugging me for a while was that while I'd been up Helvellyn before, via a gruelling and fairly un-scenic slog up its western flank from the A591 at the southern end of Thirlmere, I'd never done it via the route generally agreed to be the best, and moreover the most exciting bit of fell-walk in Lakeland, Striding Edge. So given that you really want to be tackling Striding Edge in nice weather, and Easter Monday was a glorious sunny day, off we went.

We parked in Glenridding, only about half an hour's drive from Braithwaite, and headed off up to Lanty's Tarn, a partly artificial tarn occupying a dip at the end of the ridge which overlooks Glenridding and Ullswater. Apparently Lanty is short for Lancelot, the guy it was named after; I didn't sample the water (the level was quite low and it looked pretty murky) so I was unable to ascertain whether it really was lanty. We then headed round to the south a bit to join a path taking a diagonally upward course towards the Birkhouse Moor ridge, the far end of which is Striding Edge. The spectacular views down into Grisedale at this point dulled the pain of the realisation that (thanks to some slightly careless path-spotting on my part) we were going to have to do a longer detour than planned to bag the cairn at the far north-eastern end of the Birkhouse Moor ridge, something I had deemed essential to a "proper" traverse of the ridge (see "arbitrary challenges and targets" above).

Having done the out-and-back detour to the cairn we started the climb up to Striding Edge. The term is loosely used to refer to the whole ridge to the south side of the glacial corrie occupied by Red Tarn, but on the ground it's pretty clear that the rocky tower known as High Spying How marks the start of the exciting bit.

It's not really as fearsome as its reputation suggests, but that comes with the assumption that you're reasonably sure-footed and have a good head for heights, as the ridge is narrow in places, worn smooth by a gazillion boots in others, and the drop-offs to either side are steep. In other words it demands your full attention. On the other hand it's not exactly a knife-edge and you can walk along the crest pretty safely most of the way, with a couple of bits where it's probably prudent to put a hand down for support. Weather obviously plays a part, rain, high wind or ice would make it a good deal more challenging. There are drop-off paths on either side most of the way along if it all gets too much; obviously I disdained these and stuck to the crest. There's another rocky tower at the far end where the ridge joins the wall of the mountain which requires a bit of climbing to get up and over, but then it's just a steep scramble up to the vast rocky summit plateau. You can see from the altitude profile below (around the 8km mark) that the overall gradient of Striding Edge in this direction is actually slightly downwards and you have to regain some of that height to get onto the top of the mountain. Note that this is another mountain where the trig point doesn't quite mark the summit; the summit (at 950 metres, 3116 feet, the third highest mountain in England after the two Scafells) is the rocky area with the cairn over by the big X-shaped rock shelter.

After some lunch we started back; the return route goes the other side of Red Tarn via Swirral Edge, which is nothing like as sharp as Striding Edge but requires a steep and intermittently awkward downward scramble to get onto. Once you're on it it's pretty easy walking to get along to the subsidiary peak of Catstycam (2917 feet); some people bypass this in favour of a path which skirts across the contours to the outflow of Red Tarn, but those people are idiots. A slightly pathless drop-off the other side of Catstycam enables you to rejoin the downward path without any retracing of steps, and then it's a longish but steady and straightforward descent back into Glenridding and a celebratory pint in the back garden of the Beckside Bar in the Glenridding Hotel. I had a pint of Thwaites' Wainwright Ale, which seemed appropriate.

The general convention seems to be to do the walk this way round, despite the slightly longer low-altitude tail on it, just because it seems somehow right to use Striding Edge as a means of arriving at the summit of Helvellyn shortly afterwards, rather than just as a means of getting off a mountain you'd already conquered. I can tell you from our experience on a reasonably busy day up there that you would also be going against the flow of traffic in a way you might find made life awkward on some of the narrower sections. Wainwright did it this way round in his preferred version of the walk, which differs from ours slightly in starting from Patterdale rather than Glenridding, and in taking in the detour to Lanty's Tarn on the way down rather than on the way up (picture is from this book). My track log tells me the version we did was a little under 10 miles, which seems plausible, but also that it involved around 5800 feet of ascent, which seems less so - yes, there was a fair bit of descent and re-ascent, but this is a good 1000 feet more than on the Scafell walk. Maybe my new shoes were just excessively bouncy.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

the last book I read

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami.

Our un-named narrator is a writer, though seemingly unburdened by the need to find regular work to pay the rent, buy food etc., which is nice. Living in Tokyo, he is haunted by memories of a mysterious and seedy hotel called The Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo that he once stayed in with an ex-lover (also un-named, for the moment at least).

Eventually, during one of his lengthy hiatuses between writing jobs, he finds himself compelled to return to Sapporo and seek out the hotel. He finds that it still exists, in its former location and under its former name, but bearing no physical resemblance to its former self, being a shiny modern well-appointed establishment. Nonetheless he books himself in and almost immediately strikes up a friendly relationship with one of the hotel staff. Her name is Yumiyoshi, which I think we're meant to reel backwards at the unusualness of, but as someone relatively unfamiliar with Japanese language, culture, and naming conventions unless it had been an obvious outlier like Godzilla or Kendo Nagasaki this distinction was always going to be lost on me, and probably on most other Western readers too.

Anyway, during a conversation with Yumiyoshi she reveals that she has had an odd experience while travelling in the hotel lift, wherein she was seemingly transported to an old, undocumented, dark, dank-smelling floor of the hotel. Sure enough the narrator mooches around for a while and eventually has a similar experience, though he is curious enough to explore the mysterious netherworld a little and end up in a room with a man in a sheep costume (who calls himself, reasonably enough, The Sheep Man). The Sheep Man explains (in rather vague terms) that the whole purpose of this murky parallel universe is to allow him (the narrator) to resolve some matters in his own life, find that which had previously been lost, and so on and so forth.

The narrator decides to return to Tokyo, but as he is about to leave acquires a travelling companion: Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl abandoned in the hotel by her feckless mother and entrusted to the narrator's care for the return flight to Tokyo. Yuki turns out not only to be your typical surly and uncommunicative teenager but also to be your slightly more atypical borderline clairvoyant, with an ability to sense bad stuff in the future (or, in some cases, the past) by physical proximity to objects.

On his return to Tokyo the narrator continues to keep an avuncular eye on Yuki, who is staying alone in her mother's apartment, but also rekindles a friendship with his old schoolfriend Gotanda, who is now an established TV and film actor and whom the narrator had seen in a film also featuring his old girlfriend from the (old) Dolphin Hotel, who tuns out to be called Kiki, and who furthermore seems to have disappeared.

The narrator and Gotanda become regular drinking buddies, and even share a wild night with a couple of high-class prostitutes. All good fun until one of them turns up murdered carrying one of the narrator's business cards, and he gets hauled in by the police for questioning. Eventually they have to release him, and he returns to his directionless routine of hanging out with Yuki, drinking with Gotanda and trying to track down Kiki, interspersed with some strange waking dreams/visions whose meaning is unclear but seem to portend death. But whose?

Eventually he takes Yuki out for the day in a swanky Maserati that Gotanda has lent him and she has a clairvoyant moment at the end of which she announces that Gotanda is Kiki's murderer. The narrator confronts Gotanda with this accusation and he confesses in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, and shortly after kills himself by driving his Maserati off a pier into Tokyo Bay.

This strand of the mystery resolved, the narrator returns to Sapporo and the Dolphin Hotel, renews his acquaintance with Yumiyoshi in a more satisfyingly penetrative way, and then almost immediately finds himself and her wandering the dank corridor's of the Sheep Man's mysterious netherworld. The Sheep Man is nowhere to be found, though. So does this mean his work is done? Both Yumiyoshi and the narrator have to pass through some mysterious wibbly-wobbly portal to emerge back in the hotel bedroom. So does this mean the loose ends are tied up and the narrator and his lady friend are free to live happily ever after?

I mean, who knows, frankly. A slavish devotion to, or insistence on, linearity of plot and definitive resolution of loose ends is probably incompatible with reading a Murakami novel anyway. For instance the whole business around who killed Mei, the prostitute from the narrator's wild foursome with Gotanda, is pretty much forgotten about, unless we're meant to assume that Gotanda offed her as well as Kiki. Maybe we are. This book, as most of them do, bimbles along in its own slightly dream-like way without it ever being very clear where it's going, nor even, at the end, whether we've got there or not. Which isn't to say the journey hasn't been an enjoyable one - all Murakami's usual tropes are here: sheep, women's ears, death, the main protagonist having to choose between one mysterious, unattainable and possibly dead woman and one more down-to-earth alive one. That last one can also be found in Norwegian Wood; the previous ones can be found in A Wild Sheep Chase to which Dance Dance Dance is apparently a sort of sequel. Whether it makes sense as a sequel I really couldn't say, as I remember very little about A Wild Sheep Chase other than that it featured sheep.

The books just mentioned are the only three Murakami's I've ever read. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favourite, partly because the plots, such as they are, are so wispy and dream-like and relatively inconsequential (I mean, people die, but they seem so unlike "real" people that it doesn't seem to matter) that they slip through your fingers like smoke as soon as you've put the book down. As enjoyable and readable and idiosyncratic as they are I have some sympathy for the view expressed in this article, which dares to suggest that the received wisdom that Murakami is a Great Novelist and long overdue for a Nobel prize may be a bit overblown.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

none more black

Belatedly, here's the post-Christmas whisky round-up. And a bumper year it was too, featuring some of the old favourites like Jura, Highland Park and Talisker, but also a couple of new ones. Also, if I'm honest, featuring a couple of pre-Christmas impulse purchases by me of things that looked tempting and were on special offer.

As with a few previous entries in this list, what I propose to do here is consider a couple of head-to-head contests, not to whack you over the head with some sort of Verdict, but to consider how whiskies differ from each other and what sort of things one might wish to consider when a) deciding what you like and b) choosing what to drink on that basis.

Let's start with Johnnie Walker. We've been here many times before, in a sometimes bewildering kaleidoscopic array of colours. We aren't actually adding to the list of colours here as the new bottle is Johnnie Walker Double Black. Ask yourself how much more black it could be, and the answer is: none. This is a variant on the existing Black Label, which as you'll recall is one of my absolute favourite things ever. The Double Black variant supposedly contains a slightly higher proportion of Islay whisky and has been matured in pre-charred casks, both of which mean that it should be slightly darker and smokier than the standard Black Label. The obvious difference packaging-wise here is the funky blue-grey smoky bottle and the wood-grain effect on the box.

Best thing to do here is to tee up a glass of this and a glass of the standard Black Label, and I just happen to have a bottle of Black Label in the cupboard (another Christmas present). I actually acquired the Double Black myself off Amazon as they were knocking it out for 24 quid a few weeks before Christmas.

So here we go. They're pretty much exactly the same colour, for starters, so it's not as if there's some sort of Loch Dhu ridiculousness going on. Smell-wise they're very similar, and despite the claim of an extra whack of peat in the Double Black I'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart at this stage. The Double Black perhaps just has a slight rubbery edge a bit reminiscent of the Oban whereas the standard Black is a bit more cakey. We're at the outer limits of perception now though, to be honest. I need a drink.

Well, the contrast is a bit more obvious when you have a taste; here the extra peat comes through pretty clearly. It's still not Laphroaig, though, as it's quite polite and wrapped up in some nice cakey sweetness, but it's definitely there. It's a very palatable variant on the standard product, but not exactly a radical tearing-up of the formula. I'd be hard-pressed to say which I prefer, partly just because they are pretty similar. Highly variable and mood-dependent, I should think.

Secondly, by contrast, a face-off between two single malts, neither of which I'd tried before. Here's a bottle of 12-year-old Aberfeldy which I got as a Christmas gift (from my sister, I think). Back in the days of Scottish Munro-bagging holidays we used to plan our accommodation around access to Munros but also access to a distillery to visit, and I recall one year we toyed with the idea of staying near Aberfeldy village, since in addition to the obvious pull of the distillery it would have provided easy access to the mighty peaks of Schiehallion and Ben Lawers. Anyway, we stayed somewhere else in the end and consequently I have never tried the whisky.

Aberfeldy is one of those distilleries (Ardmore is another, for instance) which were primarily started up to provide whisky for a particular blender's blends, in this case Dewar's.

The second whisky here is Tamnavulin, which seeks to refute the old adage about distilleries beginning with T being generally rubbish. This one was another self-purchased one as Tesco had it for 22 quid before Christmas and I hadn't seen it on sale in supermarkets before. This one is actually called Tamnavulin Double Cask (no age statement) and is apparently the first whisky officially released by the distillery for about twenty years.

We're comparing apples and oranges here to some extent as Aberfeldy is in the Highland region while Tamnavulin is in Speyside. But I make the rules and I say these two get to go head-to-head. Let's do this. The Tamnavulin is slightly darker, presumably as a result of what the blurb on the box describes as "a sherry cask finish", though it gives no indication of what the duration of this might have been. You would say (quite wrongly) from having a sniff that the Aberfeldy was the younger and rawer of the two, as it has a bit of a hot magic markers whiff to it, whereas the Tamnavulin is a bit more woody and mellow. When you have a sip the Aberfeldy has a bit of tongue-puckering dryness to it but is a bit richer than you might expect from look and smell, while the Tamnavulin steams in all Charlie Big Potatoes with the sherry wood and something a bit dark and sweet and dangerous like, say, the Boston Molasses Disaster, but doesn't really follow through on it and ends up a little bit thin.

I have to tell you I came in here expecting to tell you that I preferred the Tamnavulin, but actually on the basis of the tasting I've just done I'd have to give it to the Aberfeldy. Ask me another day and I'd very possibly give you a different answer, though. Both are perfectly fine, if a little polite for my taste. I'd suggest if this type of thing is specifically your bag going with whichever one is currently on special offer in your local supermarket.