Monday, January 15, 2018

valley of the dulls

Sorry to do a follow-up to a follow-up, but I remember how I happened across the Spurn story now: I was fiddling with an Ordnance Survey map (probably my ancient copy of OL13 that I took on last weekend's walk, and which is now extremely crispy and held together with a substantial amount of tape after repeated soakings) and had a recollection of the QI segment about Britain's dullest (i.e. most featureless) map square, which turns out to be in the vicinity of Ousefleet in north Lincolnshire. A few other contenders are linked here: this one just north of the Solway Firth must have been a strong contender in terms of actual on-the-ground features, but contains quite a bit of writing which any map-trawling algorithm would need to know to ignore.

The convention seems to be to look at the 1:50000 Landranger series; even in Ousefleet if you zoom in to 1:25000 there's all sorts of fascinating drainage ditches and the like to be seen. As marvellous as this is from a nerdy academic perspective these places are all phenomenally dull by their very nature on the ground, and by virtue of their physical geography probably boggily nightmarish to traverse. Dull as ditchwater, in fact, quite literally.

Ousefleet is in the vicinity of Scunthorpe, which in addition to being a canonical example of the difficulty of writing sensible text-parsing profanity filters is a sort of marginal entry on the list of amusing UK place names, a subject I addressed at greater length (and with more sniggering) here. Note that photographer Dominic Greyer has made a career (and very nice too) out of spotting and documenting this sort of stuff, and in addition to books now offers all sorts of merchandise if you would like to buy your loved one a mug with, for instance, BELL END emblazoned on it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

a low spurn count

Here's a bit of a round-up of some bits and bobs that probably don't merit a blog post of their own:

I was going to make the point (but forgot) in the account of my Black Mountains walk that this is a particularly good time of year to be up on these hills - not just because a glorious crisp sunny winter's day is a good time to be up a hill pretty much anywhere, but specifically because these hills have a reputation (entirely deserved) for being boggy, even on top of the ridge. This is partly geography - they're big whale-backed ridges with flat tops, rather than the more exciting rocky arĂȘtes that you get in, say, Snowdonia - but partly just a reflection of how relatively un-scary and easily accessible and therefore highly-populated they are, and therefore the amount of erosion that takes place. In some places they've laid some flat stones to form a path and prevent you disappearing up to the knees in peat.

Anyway, the point is that good times to be up there and avoid excessive boggy squelchiness are high summer, when there's been a chance to bake off some of the water (though it's never completely dry) or in sub-zero winter temperatures when everything's frozen solid. You do have to address a few different problems then, though, like not slipping over and shattering a hip, especially at my age.

Other walk-related news: I've uploaded some pictures to the photo gallery, something I mean to get round to doing more often. New Year's resolutions, again.

Speaking of New Year's resolutions, another was to get the old blogging frequency up a bit, as 2017 was the least bloggy year on record with a pitiful 44 posts. Now there are obviously some mitigating factors here, not least being preoccupied with The Boy, but since he's now trundling round the house in his walker shouting the odds and ripping telephone directories in half I'm very much hoping that I'll have a little more time to think about other things in 2018. There is also the Twitter factor, i.e. the increased likelihood that if I see some amusing link or have some throwaway comment to make on current affairs I'll do it on Twitter rather than here. I suspect I will never regain the dizzy heights of 2007 when I cranked out 282 posts, and I'm fine with that, but my limited aspiration is to arrest the decline whereby every year since 2010 has seen fewer posts than the year before. Given the paltry output I managed in 2017 that should be a lowish bar to clear. 

Here's a couple of graphs:

Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of 2017 you can see that while my reading habits were affected a bit, the total number of books I read didn't see the same steep drop-off as the general blog posting did. As a consequence the "book posts as a percentage of overall posts" number is at an all-time high of 29.55%. 

As it happens this seemingly small drop-off (13 books against 15 in 2016) masks the extent of the fall a bit, as it turns out that 2017 also holds the record for shortest average book length (253 pages) and therefore fewest overall pages read (3292 compared with 4404 in 2016). Here's some more graphs:

Lastly, and completely unconnected to blogging or statistical nerdery, I can't remember exactly what series of link-following led me to this article about the Spurn peninsula in East Yorkshire, but you'll (possibly) recall that Hazel and I visited it way back in August 2007 (so this is one of those 282 posts). We drove on the excitingly rough and evidently frequently repaired and re-routed track down to the car park by the old lighthouses and had a bit of a walk around (it is, as you can imagine, rather exposed and windy). Well, it turns out that back in December 2013 there was a particularly vicious storm which washed away a section of the road, as well as most of the vegetation and sand dunes which hold the peninsula together, and you haven't been able to drive down there since.

You'll recall that the general (though not completely uncontroversial) consensus is that the spit has been destroyed and re-formed (slightly further west each time) many times in the past, typically every 250 years or so, and that it's overdue for such an occurrence to happen again but that it's been held at bay by a series of shoring-up measures dating back to the 1850s. Well, it sounds like nature has finally found a way through. You can see the damage pretty clearly on Google's latest satellite photo - pre-2013 (have a look here, for instance) there was a narrow green strip running all the way along. So it'll be interesting to see what happens now, given that the authorities seem to have plumped (probably rightly) for a policy of managed retreat, i.e. letting nature take its course. What you would expect to happen is for future storms to eventually carve a permanent channel through the breach and then gradually eat away the spit all the way down to the end, and then for the longshore drift and silt deposition process to start to build a new spit from the mainland end. Note that we're talking geological timescales here, though - none of us is going to see it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

a mountain sense of excitement

It's always nice to at least make a start on fulfilling a New Year's resolution early doors, less than a week after New Year's Day in this particular case. The resolution was the pretty bland one made by approximately a gazillion people across the country: get a bit more exercise. In my own case one of the ways I wanted to do this was by getting back into some regular mountain expeditions, and as it happened I had a free day yesterday (Hazel and her sister Paula having cooked up some childcare activities not specifically requiring my assistance) and, moreover, the weather forecast was for it to be cold, but clear and sunny.

That sounded like perfect walking weather, so I quickly came up with a route incorporating some terrain I'd walked before (and some I hadn't) and which involved not too long a drive to get to the start point. What I ended up with was parking in the free car park at Llanthony Priory and setting off up the steep path up the side of Loxidge Tump that eventually brings you out on the top of the ridge which carries a section of the Offa's Dyke Path. Once I'd joined that it was a long and fairly flat ridge walk all the way to the trig point at the top of Hay Bluff. Then (replicating a section of this walk from March 2011 in slightly different weather conditions) I dropped down across the Gospel Pass road, up onto Lord Hereford's Knob (fnarr, etc) and then down the Daren Lwyd ridge back into the Vale of Ewyas and back along the road to the car park.

Route map (created here) and altitude profile (via GPS Visualizer) are below; as always do the right-click/open in new tab thing for a better view (same goes for the photos above).

Since physical geography doesn't arrange itself expressly for the convenience of the walker there are always ways in which a walk could be improved (see this one for instance). Here's a few thoughts on this one:
  • as you can see from the altitude profile, the initial mile-and-a-half or so involves quite a steep ascent. It's nowhere near as steep as the graph makes it look, as the vertical scale is exaggerated somewhat, but it certainly gets the lungs going early doors. This is pretty much inevitable when you want to join a ridge halfway along; the only way to avoid this would be to do the whole ridge in a giant horseshoe walk (a bit like this one) starting somewhere near Pandy, but that would be a long walk and in January there probably wouldn't be enough daylight to do it;
  • it would be nice if there were a definite summit to attain, ideally at the highest point of the day. The highest point of the day was actually the top of the Black Mountain at 703 metres, but this is almost impossible to pinpoint as it's only fractionally higher than the ridge on either side and isn't marked by anything useful like a trig point or even a cairn;
  • once you come off the Daren Lwyd ridge at Capel-y-ffin the walk back along the road is longer than you'd ideally like - you don't mind a mile or so just to warm down and loosen up the legs, but this is around three miles, which gets to be a bit of a slog by the end;
  • given the amount of exercise I've had in the past year or so (very little, mainly owing to being preoccupied with a baby boy with some medical and feeding challenges) I probably should have eased back into hill-walking with something about half the length (the track log says it was 15.3 miles) and not attacked it at quite the berserk speed that I'm inclined to adopt when I'm off the leash and out on my own. 24 hours later I'm in the early stages of what I expect to be a fairly crippling bout of DOMS; all my own fault of course.
Nonetheless it was great to be out for the day, and the weather was about as perfect as you could expect in early January: crisp, cold and sunny, no cloud on the tops at all (but plenty of snow), pretty much exactly as forecast. It did start to get rather windy once I got to Hay Bluff and continued to blow until I dropped off the steep end of the Daren Lwyd ridge and got out of it. A ridge walk in the Black Mountains? Hey, more like a FRIDGE walk in the WHITE Mountains, amirite?

Friday, January 05, 2018

mounds of love, by Kate's bush

Here's a couple of recent news (or, more accurately, "news") stories which revisit some stuff featured a few years back right here on this very blog.

Firstly, here's a disturbing tale of dismemberment featuring a faulty elevator which may have just been badly maintained or could have been, like, possessed by Satan in some way. I mean, it's possible, right? It's disturbing partly because of the basic detail of the story as related in the text, but also because of the graphic video of the incident embedded in the Daily Mail story which auto-plays as soon as you open the page. So, for that reason, please observe this prominent TRIGGER WARNING before you click through to the story.

You'll recall a couple of previous lift-related posts wherein I describe my wholly rational suspicion of them as a vertical transportation device, even though we're told they are Perfectly Safe and accidents Hardly Ever Happen, just like planes. That's all precious little comfort to the Chinese lady involved in the leg incident, assuming they managed to get her to hospital before she bled to death, and still less to the unfortunate Russian lady involved in this incident in 2014. No point rushing her to hospital, sadly. Oddly, that Daily Mail story is dated exactly one day after my more recent lift-related blog post (if you look at the comments you'll see I noted this at the time). Coincidence? OR IS IT?!!?!? Well, yes. And then there's this Spanish lady, messily dispatched by a lift (ironically, literally in a hospital this time) shortly after giving birth to a daughter. The angry and vengeful lift gods clearly have it in for the ladies at the moment.

Secondly, while I don't pay much attention to my blog stats any more - partly out of laziness, and partly because there are some suspicious patterns in the visit activity which I suspect are bot-related and render the stats a bit meaningless - I can tell you that my most-visited blog post of all time is still this one from 2010 about the lovely Alice Roberts and her televised skinny-dipping activities. Just to save you the trouble, I can reveal that it's not nearly as exciting as you (and everyone else visiting the page) were probably hoping. But seven years on in these days of Naked Attraction you've got to give the viewers at least a little bit of what they want, so when Kate Humble stripped off for similar reasons for her new series Kate Humble: Off The Beaten Track it was obviously felt obligatory to flash a bit of arse on camera. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and - just to be clear - I'm certainly not uninterested in Kate Humble's bottom, I was a bit vexed that the various furiously masturbating tabloid journalists embedding the video clip in their stories couldn't muster the one-handed keyboard skills to type the exact location of the lake Kate and her companion were frolicking in. Somewhere in Snowdonia was the best they could do, though I accept it's probably only me that cares. Anyone hoping for a furtive glimpse of, hem hem, "humble pie" will be disappointed, though.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

the last book I read

Stick by Elmore Leonard.

Ernest Stickley jr. is a little bit whooaaahh, a little bit wheeeyyy, a bit tasty, a bit dodgy. He's a geezer. Leave your car lying around, he will nick it. As a consequence, as we meet him he's just finished a seven-year stretch for armed robbery and is in the market for something to do.

Something to do, in the short term, turns out to be hanging out in Miami and tagging along as assistant bagman to his old friend Rainy while Rainy does a delivery for Chucky Buck, a local drug dealer. What Rainy and Stick don't realise is that this particular payment is to one of Chucky's key suppliers, Cuban gangster Nestor Soto, in compensation for Chucky accidentally involving some of Nestor's men with some undercover cops at the cost of some money, product and inconvenience to Nestor. Moreover, the compensation deal comes with a little extra spice: Chucky's agreed, as part of his penance, that Nestor's men get to kill the bagman.

As it turns out, it's Rainy who actually carries the bag, and promptly gets his ass ventilated for his trouble. But a second bagman wasn't part of the plan, and Nestor's boys see him as just an added bonus, so Stick has to make a sharp exit, pursued by a hail of bullets. So now Chucky's boys and Nestor's boys are looking for Stick. So he should probably leave town, right? Well, the thing is, Chucky had promised Rainy five grand for making the delivery, and, since the delivery was made, Stick reckons that money is now owed to him. Also, Stick's ex-wife lives nearby and Stick hasn't seen his now-fourteen-year-old daughter since she was seven and is keen to reconnect. And, in any case, he's not the sort to be scared off by some Cuban heavies with big guns.

So after a chance encounter with local wheeler-dealer Barry Stam in a car park - during the course of which Stick helps Barry out by breaking into his Rolls-Royce - Stick gets a job as Barry's chauffeur, a job which comes with free accommodation in the servants' quarters of Barry's massive mansion in Bal Harbour. Barry has many connections in the local area, including foxy investment advisor Kyle McLaren (who, it turns out, is a bit susceptible to the rakish charms of slightly shady types like Stick), but also to Chucky and Nestor, whom he occasionally has over to the house for business and social meetings, occasions at which Stick is expected to be in attendance as barman and general dogsbody. Awkward.

One of Barry's latest schemes is to try and get his local contacts (Chucky and Nestor included) to invest in a new film project that a producer friend is trying to get off the ground. The initial version of the project gets a pretty dim reception, mainly due to the concept being a bit shit and the financing arrangements technically illegal, but Stick starts to see a way whereby he might be able to cook up a scam to persuade Chucky to invest in a (completely fictitious) re-jigged version of the film project, thereby relieving him of the five grand he owes Stick plus a substantial extra wedge for good measure. The trouble is he needs to find a way to do this without either torpedoing his burgeoning relationship with Kyle (who, while susceptible to Stick's personal charms, is a bit dubious about being involved in actual lawbreaking) or getting himself killed by Chucky or Nestor's goons, who are already looking for an opportunity to discreetly waste him anyway.

As I said back at the time of reading Riding The Rap in 2009, you know what you're going to get with an Elmore Leonard book, and Stick ticks most of the boxes - sly characterisation, snappy dialogue, twisty plot, a bit of humour, a bit of sex and violence, 300 pages tops, bish bosh, sorted. This one (published in 1983) is a pretty good one. The main reason it's not as good as the really good ones (Killshot is probably my absolute favourite) is partly related to the thing I mentioned in the Riding The Rap review about re-use of old characters. This is an early example (possibly the first, I haven't checked) of this, Ernest Stickley having previously appeared in 1976's Swag. There's just a suspicion that Leonard likes the Stick character a bit too much - having him, for instance, bone Barry's bimbo girlfriend Aurora, Barry's 'luded-up wife Diane and Kyle (though the last encounter is a bit unsatisfactory, presumably because he's knackered and/or dehydrated by then) all in the same night is just a bit implausible and doesn't really serve to advance the plot very much. Stick is also generally just a little bit too cool and on top of every situation, though the same criticism could be levelled at Raylan Givens (from Riding The Rap) and probably a few other Leonard protagonists as well.

Stick was filmed in 1985, starring Burt Reynolds in the title role. Not a bad bit of casting, I'd say, though I already knew about the film before I'd read the book, so maybe it was inevitable that I pictured Stick as looking a bit like Burt Reynolds anyway. I've never seen it, but it seems to follow the disappointing pattern of a lot of Leonard adaptations by not being very good. This seems to have been caused by a bit of monkeying with the script including the tacking-on of a climactic bit involving Stick rescuing his daughter from some kidnappers (nothing of the sort happens in the book), but also by Reynolds having a director (one Burt Reynolds) unwilling to rein him in and get him to conform to the character in the book a bit more. As Siskel and Ebert say, the film (as it is with all Leonard's books) is right there on the page, you don't need to tart it up or change it.

Speaking of films, one thing that struck me here is that Stick is a bit of a prototype for the character of Chili Palmer from Get Shorty, one Leonard book which was filmed pretty successfully. Both have the same real first name (Ernest), both are shady types who drift into involvement with the movie business and bring their real-life experiences to bear on bringing some realism to movie scripts written by soft Hollywood fat-cat types with ponytails. The action in both books also starts off in Miami, though Get Shorty swiftly relocates to Los Angeles. There's even a bit where a principal villain gets pushed off a balcony.

As I've said before, if you read the late-1980s sequence that goes Glitz, Bandits, Freaky Deaky, Killshot, that could be all the Leonard you'll need. There really aren't any bad ones, though.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

the last book I read

The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Coleman Silk is an ex-professor of classics and former dean of faculty at a New England university. Despite being of retirement age (seventy-one) the "ex" bit was not entirely of his own volition; he resigned a couple of years before the book opens to avoid the fall-out from an accusation of racism following some careless (or entirely blameless, depending on your point of view) use of language during a lecture.

Various things were set in motion by these events: Coleman's wife Iris died (a death caused, in Coleman's mind at least, by the stress of the racism affair), Coleman engaged his friend, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to help write a book repudiating the accusations, and Coleman embarked on a relationship with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who survives by working multiple menial jobs in the local area including some cleaning and janitorial duties at the university.

Even though Coleman has no marital ties, has left the university, and therefore it's not really any of anybody else's business, the relationship ruffles some feathers in the local community. Faunia's ex-husband Lester, a Vietnam vet with a nasty case of PTSD and an associated simmering disdain for the rest of the human race, gets wind of things and is none too pleased. Delphine Roux, Coleman's ex-colleague at the university, takes it upon herself to mount a feminist crusade to rescue Faunia from the filthy patriarchal old scrote who's just out to exploit and demean her.

Coleman cools off on wanting Nathan Zuckerman to be the agent of his literary revenge and decides just to chill out and concentrate on banging Faunia; unfortunately Lester Farley isn't too keen on letting them get on with that unmolested and after a couple of highly-charged encounters at Coleman's house ups the ante somewhat by running Coleman's car off the road into a ditch and killing both of them. It's at Coleman's funeral (through a meeting with Coleman's sister) that Zuckerman makes the shocking discovery that far from being of Jewish descent, as he'd always allowed people to think, Coleman was in fact African-American, and had made the conscious decision after leaving the US Navy as a young man to cut all his real family ties and pass for white, this being the best way for a plausibly pale-skinned black man to get on in post-war America. Zuckerman decides that this would be a much better subject for a book than what Coleman had originally suggested, and decides to call it The Human Stain.

So we're in the realms of revelations of the "and that book was.....THIS ONE that you've just been reading, haha" variety, just as we were with Sweet Tooth and a few others over the lifetime of this blog (a few other examples are linked to from that Sweet Tooth review). Nathan Zuckerman is pretty clearly an authorial alter ego, a means for Roth to effectively insert himself into the story, though not as obviously as in The Plot Against America and various others which feature a central character called Philip Roth.

The central revelations about Coleman's ancestry and the general unfolding of the plot don't happen as linearly as I've described them above; there is a lot of hopping about along the story's timeline and shifting of narrative viewpoint: mostly Zuckerman, but occasionally Faunia, Delphine Roux or Lester Farley. While Faunia's inner motivations are directly relevant to the plot, a load of backstory about Dephine and a couple of interludes describing Lester's outings with his post-Vietman support group trying to re-integrate him into polite society serve a purpose which isn't ever very clear. Delphine Roux, in particular, seems to exist only as a receptacle for some disproportionate authorial hatred (of, presumably, educated and uppity women, or perhaps just women in general) in a way that's faintly disturbing. Her motivations for doing any of the things she does are entirely unconvincing, and she just seems to be a personification of some notions of "political correctness" that Roth dislikes. Indeed there seems to be a general inclination to rail against the mostly imaginary concept of "political correctness" here, from the idea that Coleman should be held entirely blameless for some intemperate - though unintentional - use of racially-charged language to a more understandable distaste for the prurience and hypocritical puritanism underlying the Clinton impeachment hearings that happen in the background to the story (which is set in 1998).

Seventysomething authors need to be wary of this sort of stuff lest it make them seem like some out-of-date old git; Roth is too clever and writes too well for that charge to stick, but there was an unpalatable undertone of "the world's gone mad" which left a slightly sour taste. A few other quibbles: while it seems that Faunia has been lying about being illiterate, she's not meant to be highly educated, and the same goes for Lester and Coleman's sister Ernestine. Nonetheless they all have lengthy expository passages which seem far too wordy and articulate, almost as if written by a professional novelist who couldn't quite bring himself convincingly down to their level.

Quibbles aside this is powerful stuff; its central themes of identity and how we choose to define ourselves to others are still highly relevant. It's a deeper and more serious book than Portnoy's Complaint, the only other Roth I'd read, though that was one of his early works, published in 1969. The Human Stain won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001, as did Bel Canto and Independence Day. It was made into a film in 2003 featuring a few odd casting decisions: Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk (I'd pictured him as looking more like Alan Arkin) and Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman (much younger than in the book where he's meant to be a rough contemporary of Coleman).

Roth is one of the holy trinity of modern American novelists, along with John Updike and Saul Bellow, both of whom have featured here before, and both of whom are dead (though in both cases the death bit came first). Roth's days on this earth are of course now numbered.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

sage and uncle stuffing and granberry sauce

A couple of examples, as if further proof were necessary, that Electric Halibut surfs the very bleeding edge of the Zeitgeist, protected only by a stout pair of comfortable shoes. It's all about death, but then, isn't everything, ultimately?

Firstly, I heard a bit on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 the other day about an attempt to set up a facility in Sandwell in the West Midlands to do what's now apparently being euphemistically referred to as "liquid cremation" or "water cremation" but is basically the same alkaline hydrolysis process that was referred to here (the people doing it seem to have settled on "resomation" as a nicely incomprehensible brand identity). Given the objections that were raised to the ridiculously benign and environmentally-friendly proposal to use the heat generated by a crematorium to heat a swimming pool (not far away, in Redditch, so maybe this is a West Midlands thing) you can imagine the sort of bullshit complaints that people will have raised here, and sure enough the project has been indefinitely delayed because people didn't like the idea of the harmless liquid residue being flushed down the drain, and thereby indirectly into the drinking water system.

No-one raising this objection could offer any logical reasoning for objecting, just an ill-thought-out "yuck" response and some annoyance at being obliged to think about death, something most people are intensely weird and irrational about. What they imagine happens to all the decomposing liquid goop that drains out of bodies buried in cemeteries I have no idea, let alone all the actual shit that gets flushed down people's toilets every day.

Secondly, anyone considering the standard salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table might want to consider a third cruet option to jazz up their Christmas roasties and sprouts a bit: the cremated ashes of a loved one! That's what Debra Parsons from Folkestone is going to do this year, and why not? Well, I mean, I can think of a few reasons, but maybe that's just me being up-tight and conventional about post-death rituals. And there I was laughing at people who think death can be transmitted into a swimming pool by heat in some way!

Just to be half-serious for a minute, I'm not convinced that either laughing at or uncritically nodding approval of what are clearly some deep-seated and Complex Issues is really serving Debra Parsons' best interests (her mother's best interests are pretty much irrelevant at this stage), but presumably the various newspapers paid her for her time, so I suppose it's all good. I imagine the inevitable gargantuan Boxing Day morning shit will have an extra poignancy to it for her as well. Anyway, the important point, as always, is that I thought of it first! As it happens I do think my method is better - if you must do it on Christmas Day then wash the capsule down with some celebratory bubbly or something, rather than ruin a perfectly good Christmas dinner by sprinkling grit all over it.