Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the last book I read

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.

It's August 1947, and great things are afoot, specifically the moment that India gains its independence from the cruel yoke of its colonial oppressors. Also, at the exact same moment in fact, Saleem Sinai emerges into the world.

Needless to say in a country as mahoosive as India he won't have been the only one to have popped into the world at the exact hour of India's independence, and so it proves. The group of children born in India between midnight and 1am on the big day (the "midnight's children" of the title) all share some unique qualities, not least the gift of telepathy, a gift they use to contact each other over great distances and share their experiences.

Saleem's own family are having some "experiences" of their own, some of which necessitate upping sticks and moving from Bombay to other places, eventually the newly-created state of Pakistan. It also emerges that Saleem is in fact a changeling, a nurse having switched him and another midnight child, Shiva, for reasons that are unclear, shortly after they were both born.

Enlisting in the army, where his freakishly enormous nose and highly-developed sense of smell make him useful as a tracker, Saleem gets involved in various military misadventures including the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the war resulting in the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971, during the course of which Saleem spends some time meandering around lost in the Sundarbans after a botched mission.

Returning to Delhi, Saleem once again gets caught up in the sweep of modern Indian history when Indira Gandhi's government uses the pretext of the 1975-1977 Emergency to push through a program of compulsory sterilisation. It turns out that Saleem's old nemesis and childhood rival Shiva has engineered the sterilisation of Saleem and all the "midnight's children" as part of a belated act of revenge at being arbitrarily cheated of his birthright. The whole process is about to begin again, though, possibly with added supernatural powers, assuming they're hereditary, as Saleem is left to raise the child of his dead wife, Parvati, a child who turns out to be Shiva's.

Midnight's Children won just about every major literary award going when it was published in 1981, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Booker Prize; it later went on to win the 1993 Booker of Bookers and the 2008 Best of the Booker award. It's the fifth Booker winner on this list after G. (1972), The Gathering (2007), Hotel Du Lac (1984) and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993).

So I'm evidently swimming somewhat against the tide here when I say that I found it something of an ordeal. The back cover compares it to both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The World According To Garp, which are both books I enjoyed immensely (and, in the case of Garp, have re-read probably half-a-dozen times), and I can see what they mean - epic sprawling family sagas covering many years in both cases, a good dose of "magic realism" in the case of One Hundred Years Of Solitude. But while they were both great, Midnight's Children just set my teeth on edge with its overabundance of detail, digression, flowery prose, and absence of any characters worthy of actually caring about or even identifiable as human beings from their behaviour. I think my central criticism really is that there's just TOO MUCH WRITING here for my taste. It made me long for a bit of Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy where ten times as much stuff would have happened and we'd have spent a tenth of the time hearing about it.

I should add that it's actually not just me who thinks this; I'll also add that one of the reasons it was such a slog for me is that my (early 1990s - like O-Zone this one has been sitting on the shelves for 20+ years) paperback edition is 463 pages, while the latest edition is 672 pages (though I think that includes a 20-odd page foreword). That (35 lines per page, medium-size print) gives you a better idea of the length of the book than my edition (43 lines per page, small print), which gives you the demoralising sense of not really getting anywhere.

All of which will help to explain why it's taken me 91 days since the last book review to read it, the second-longest stint on this list after Infinite Jest (at 96), which, to be fair, is something like twice as long. That's a pitiful 5.09 pages per day, which is second only to Sunset Song (at 3.91) in terms of slowness, and I have to say I'd rate Sunset Song as a much better book.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

chivas me timbers

Times are tough at Halibut Towers, just as they are everywhere else, so there's been precious little spare cash for spunking on extravagant whisky purchases lately. But I did spot a bottle of Chivas Regal 12 in Tesco the other day for a bargain 20 quid, so I snapped it up, just to avoid the unthinkable scenario of having nothing in the whisky cupboard.

Chivas Regal is the main rival to Johnnie Walker Black Label in the premium blend market; both proudly display a "12" on the packaging, which means that all the whiskies used to make up the blend are at least 12 years old. Just as Johnnie Walker have Cardhu as their main workhorse for producing whisky for their blends, Chivas have Strathisla, as featured here fairly recently. So it's a good bet that Strathisla accounts for a good bit of the malt content here, and indeed it says as much on the packaging. Those in the know say that it also contains whisky from the Longmorn and Glenlivet distilleries, among others, both of which are these days owned by Chivas' parent company Pernod Ricard.

It's a very comforting-looking browny-amber colour when you pour a glass, and similarly big and welcoming when you have a sniff. There's some woody nutty stuff here, but also the more usual magic markers, plus some bananas and what I think might be butterscotch Angel Delight. The packaging conjures up some expectations of it tasting like smoke-filled wood-panelled rooms and leather-topped writing desks, but it's not really like that at all. Like (not surprisingly) the Strathisla it's slightly drier than you'd expect when you have a sip, but there's still plenty of cakey goodness. To make the obvious comparison with the Johnnie Walker Black Label, this is slightly sweeter, less smoky, and I think generally less interesting overall, but still really good - once again, adhering to single malt snobbery will mean that you miss out on something well worth spending some time drinking. I think it's a more rounded and interesting whisky than the Strathisla, for instance.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

This article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian is very good, focusing as it does on the GQ award of Philanthropist of the Year to one Tony Blair, a thing which you'd assume was some sort of satirical performance art stunt until you realise that this is the magazine that's voted Boris Johnson Man of the Year in three of the last six years.

My concern here, however, is more about Blair's appearance these days. Here are two photos of him, one from 1997, the year of Labour's landslide election victory, and one from the GQ awards ceremony.

I mean, I've aged a bit in 17 years, but what I haven't done is turn into freakin' Skeletor.

Friday, August 29, 2014

a modest disposal proposal

I was standing around in the car park at Greenmeadow Golf Club with my friend Huw the other day having a conversation about death, as one does. Not, to be fair, a subject plucked out of the air on some morbid whim, but prompted by the evidence of a funeral wake just finishing in the golf club bar. Greenmeadow does what I would imagine is a pretty good business catering for funeral groups, since it's right next door to a crematorium.

Anyway, the question arose: what arrangements should the avowed atheist make for the event of his or her own demise? This is really a question about two different things:
  • what sort of an event do you want to organise and invite people to to pay their respects, express their grief (which you'd selfishly hope there might be a little bit of) and generally give you a bit of a send-off? 
  • what do you want done with your physical remains?
Death is arguably even more tied up with religious and magical thinking than birth and marriage are, and I suppose that's not surprising. One of the ways in which religions get their adherents to do as they're told is to dangle the carrot of eternal blissful reward in some imaginary better life that occurs after death. So since death is therefore an essential part of the process, indeed the essential part of the process, religion is able to make a big claim on overseeing the ushering of people from this life to the next. After all, you need to be sure that the right voodoo incantations are said at the right time, otherwise there could be a last-minute hitch and the deceased ends up in the wrong place.

Actually the two questions above aren't completely separate, since means of disposal of the physical remains often forms part of the massed send-off activities. Think of the countless comedy sketches involving massed mourners and coffins either being lowered into graves or trundling along the conveyor into the crematorium incinerator. Alternative methods are available, principally involving burial of the remains in some supposedly more "natural" way. In practice this means methods not involving embalming the body, and using more easily degradable containers for burial, either a fabric shroud or an easily degradable coffin.

While the "greener" burial options seem clearly better, burial in general seems to me absurdly wasteful of space. In these times of soaring world population and competition for space do we really want to be reserving significant areas for the burial of dead people? Take Newport as an example: there are three council-run cemeteries, two very big ones and one smaller one up in Caerleon. The Americans have this weird thing for above-ground burial, as well, which is profoundly strange. Just pop the deceased in a cupboard and pop back in to see them anytime! Except that certain natural processes will still occur, and there is a thing called exploding casket syndrome which sounds extremely undesirable.

Moreover, as anyone who's watched The Matrix will tell you, the human body has a considerable amount of energy locked up in it, and it seems a shame to allow this to go to no more useful purpose than feeding some worms and warming a patch of soil up a bit. I don't have the figures for how much energy a dead human contains, but when you consider that something like half a million people die in Britain every year, that's a lot of unexploited potential energy there.

So what are the options? Well, there are some obvious ones like just feeding the dead down a conveyor belt straight into power station furnaces. A milder version of this has already been tried, in Redditch, where the heat generated by the local crematorium was used to heat a nearby swimming pool. The fact that this proposal was met with some quite serious opposition from people who thought it was "weird" and/or "sick" just goes to show that people are intensely weird and irrational about death.

So what else? Well, here in Newport we recycle all our food waste, including discarded raw and cooked meat. Couldn't something on a larger scale work for dead people? You know, green-topped bin for general refuse, orange-topped bin for garden waste, pink-topped bin for deceased relatives. Other options are also available, but, well, you've got to draw the line somewhere.

I actually do think that the default option should be that the body becomes the responsibility of the state for disposal, and would be carted off for either composting or incineration at some central facility where any energy released could be captured and used for other purposes. You could still do the individual cremation or burial thing if you wanted, but at punitive cost. As far as my mortal remains are concerned, assuming you're not going to go with this idea I'd be quite happy to give them up for the greater good once all the re-usable organs have been harvested.

Friday, August 22, 2014


There have been a couple of moments of late where I considered adding a footnote so one of the many Richard Dawkins/Twitter/foot/mouth incidents, and then never quite got round to it. The only time I did get round to it what pushed me over the edge was only partly imagining I had something interesting to say, and partly the fact that I'd just knocked up an amateurish image mashup of Professor Yaffle in a Gestapo hat, so I wanted an excuse to use it.

In addition to the usual immediate hoopla in the wake of the last couple of incidents, there has also been a bit of more general discussion about whether Dawkins is an asset or a liability to the atheism "movement" (inasmuch as there is one) in general.

Just in case you missed them, the last couple of major twittersplosions have related to:
  • Dawkins' attempt to explain the fairly basic point that saying "X is worse than Y" doesn't imply approval for Y. Unfortunately (after warming up with a few innocuous ones) he chose the horribly inappropriate examples of being raped by an acquaintance or a stranger as X and Y, and then when people went: whoah, that's not cool, he threw his virtual hands up in faux-innocence and said, look, you can swap the order if you like, that's not my point. 
  • Then, this week, Dawkins got involved in a conversation about the horribly oppressive Irish laws regarding abortion, in the wake of some minor tinkering to make them slightly less horrible. It all started well, with Dawkins upholding the primacy of the woman's right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not, but then (possibly after some well-placed provocation) went spectacularly off the rails with Dawkins saying that the only moral choice in the event of discovering your foetus had Down Syndrome would be to abort. 
The tragedy here is that in both cases he had a semblance of a point. You visit any internet discussion of, say, female "circumcision", and there will be some clot on there complaining that no-one's mentioned male circumcision yet and that therefore WELL I GUESS YOU FEMINAZIS MUST THINK THAT'S JUST DANDY. The trouble is that quite apart from the foolish (or possibly deliberately provocative, depending on your viewpoint) choice of example, Dawkins himself was guilty of exactly the behaviour he was seeking to criticise with his behaviour at the time of Elevatorgate back in 2011. Possibly prompted by, ooh, about a million people pointing this out, he later issued a sort of mumbly half-apology to Rebecca Watson (though without mentioning her by name), which I guess we should take as progress of a sort, Dawkins not generally being big on admitting being wrong about anything.

Equally clearly there's nothing whatsoever wrong about defending reproductive choice; the whole point, though, is the word "choice". You can't on the one hand say yes, of course a woman should have full autonomy in matters relating to her own body, including terminating a pregnancy on demand if that's what she wants, without having to satisfy anyone that her reasons are acceptable, or, worse, undergo some unnecessary and humiliating invasive procedure beforehand, and then say, but, actually, this particular choice would be immoral and I disapprove.

Just to be absolutely clear, my position on this is that if a woman is pregnant with a foetus that she discovers, after the relevant tests, has Down Syndrome, and she wants to abort it, that's what she should do. Conversely, if a woman is pregnant with a foetus that she discovers, after the relevant tests, has Down Syndrome, and she wants to continue the pregnancy, that's what she should do. That's what "choice" means, no moral judgment implied or necessary.

One interesting corollary of that (moving away from the Dawkins discussion for a moment) is that I don't therefore see a rational argument for legislating against sex-specific abortion. That's not to say that I don't find the whole religious and cultural framework that dictates a lot of these decisions distasteful (although there is some evidence that its prevalence is overstated anyway), but the solution to that is to change the culture, not restrict reproductive freedom.

To answer the question posed in the second paragraph, which probably seems like months ago, there's no doubt that Dawkins has, in the past, been an exceptionally powerful advocate for atheism, mainly through The God Delusion - which, regardless of your opinion of its literary merits, has been the catalyst for large numbers of people to "come out" as atheist - but also through his just being a high-profile person, who was already independently famous for other things, who was also an atheist and not afraid to say so.

I suppose there's an argument that he has, in a way, been the victim of his own success - because the godless community is now so large and so vocal (though still a tiny minority compared to the religious one), particularly online, it's become more inclusive as well, and the previous stereotype of an atheist as an oldish, academic straight white guy no longer applies as much as it did. Add to that the widening of the "atheism" movement to incorporate a whole bunch of other social justice issues like feminism, gay rights, etc., all of which fit nicely under the banner of more general "rationalism", and Dawkins seems more and more like a representative of the past. A bit like that beloved old grandparent who you love having round for Sunday lunch, but you've got to watch him because he will eventually come out with something phenomenally racist.

The problem, though, is that out in the wider world Dawkins is still the public face of atheism for a lot of people, and because a lot of these people are knee-jerk authoritarians there will be an assumption that his pronouncements reflect the opinions of atheists generally. And those who have an interest in maintaining the religious status quo will say: see, told you all that God Delusion stuff was rubbish, now let us all bow our heads in prayer. To ease the frustration of all this, here's a handy infographic (from here) to allow you to navigate these incidents more easily:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


It's that time of year again, where I stock up with a vast quantity of Korean noodles to see me safely through the winter. This year's batch are now safely stowed in the utility room (see picture) ready for gradual consumption over the next year or so, or in a more concentrated burst should it all kick off when Barack Obama and his fellow NATO heads of state are in town in a couple of weeks and we have to barricade ourselves into the house until it all calms down.

As you'll be aware, it's the excellent Wing Yip that I get my internet noodles from, and one of the things their website does is keep a history of details of past orders. So I can see at a glance exactly when I placed an order, and how many packets of noodles I ordered each time. I can also see the occasional extra products I ordered at the same time, so I can for instance remind myself of the can of Famous House Grass Jelly Drink that I ordered as a bit of a dare, and of the fun we subsequently had in the office trying it when it turned up. Here's a couple of pictures:

Basically this is a sort of murky greeny-brown liquid with little cubic lumps of green jelly in it, not especially attractive to look at, although of course that is entirely a product of culture and upbringing. It's well popular in Asia, so they must presumably like the look of it. Other versions are available that are heavier on the jelly and lighter on the liquid and for which I imagine you might need a spoon.

In addition to the somewhat faecal appearance, I was slightly put off by the jelly as I'm not particularly fond of drinks with "bits" in, fruit juice for instance. My view here is: either it's food and I need to chew it, or it's a drink and I don't; don't start blurring the boundaries. But for the full experience you need to consume the whole thing, jelly and all, so I did. I can't honestly say it was all that pleasant, but it wasn't especially unpleasant either.

Back to the noodles: it occurred to me that it would be of interest (if possibly only to me) to work out how many packets of noodles I'd got through over the last 6 years or so since I put the first bulk order in. So here's the order history:

Order dateQuantityUnit price

Working out how many packets I get through per year is slightly tricky because I don't eat all the packets I order; there are a few people at work who usually take a few off me. A completely unscientific pulling of a number out of my arse results in a figure of 15% of each order passed on to other people (note that I don't say "given", since I do expect payment). Apply this across the board and you end up with a figure of roughly 470 packets of noodles consumed by me in the last six years, at a rate of one just under every five days. Say three a fortnight, give or take. Note that I'm also ignoring the fact that something like 90% of the packets I eat these days are shared with a small person; I'm not about to try and account for that as well though. Here's a year-by-year chart; no definitive number for 2014 yet but all the indications are that it'll smash all previous consumption records.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the full fonty

It was as recently as September 2007 that I mentioned having attended a christening, and the attendant difficulties this poses for the committed atheist. I promised to expand on this a bit and then never did; well, we went to another one last weekend which prompted me to finally follow that post up. I should say that we have been to a few during the intervening 7 years as well.

So, anyway, you get an invitation to a christening. These are family occasions of great significance to those who choose to participate in them, sometimes because of genuinely deeply-held religious convictions, but just as often because of long-standing family tradition or adherence to perceived social norms, that sort of thing. And often the people who choose to participate are friends and want you, the aforementioned atheist, to be there and share their day with them. So what do you do?

The short answer to that is: you must do what your conscience dictates. Personally I don't find that I feel it necessary to refuse to attend altogether; that strikes me as a bit churlish. There are limits to what I'm prepared to participate in once inside the church, though - most obviously, if anyone ever asked (and I don't suppose they would) me to be a godparent to their child I would have to thank them politely and sincerely for thinking of me and then decline, given the nature of the vows you have to make. In the event of the untimely demise of the parents I'm good for all manner of support, but I'm not going to promise to bring up the child in the Christian faith. And I don't buy that whole thing of: well, just say the words, it doesn't really mean anything. No, if you're going to the trouble of setting up the framework in which these words are said, then they do have meaning, and promises are important things which I take very seriously.

Like I say, though, it's only someone exceptionally oblivious to my views on these matters that would ever ask me to be a godparent, so a much more likely scenario is just that I'll be a member of the congregation. Obviously that makes it a bit easier to "lose" oneself, but there are still rules:
  • I don't get involved with the massed responses to the various protestations of faith and rejection of Satan and all his minions and that sort of stuff;
  • I'll have a bit of a sing if it's a tune I know - I mean, why not? That bit about the "purple-headed mountain" in All Things Bright And Beautiful gets me every time, though;
  • I don't get involved with the whole ingestion of bread products thing, however many people who've parked themselves on the wrong side of the pew from me might have to squeeze past me to get out. And none of that "just a blessing, please, father" stuff either; I'm staying firmly in my seat;
  • In the unlikely event of some groovy vicar engaging me in conversation during (or indeed after) the service about some aspect of the liturgy I will not give nodding consent, either explicitly or by omission, to any of the Goddy stuff. We came perilously close to having to implement this rule at the weekend as the vicar was doing the rounds of the various children in the congregation asking when they'd been christened; if he'd got to Nia we might have had to have a conversation he wouldn't necessarily have relished. 
I don't want all that to sound like it's a big ordeal, because it really isn't, but you do have to decide which bits you're going to let slide and which bits you're going to refuse to assent to. It's not really that difficult, and the desire to spend time with your friends generally overrides the desire to be needlessly awkward. Ceremonies where bits of delicate anatomy were being severed would be more problematic, naturally.

Where the circumstances are more directly under my control I'm prepared to be a bit more hard-nosed about it, though, so stuff that I deemed non-negotiable was:
  • I wasn't going to get married in church
  • I wasn't going to have Nia christened
Fortunately Hazel (while a bit less up-front about it) is generally as unimpressed with these voodoo rituals as I am, so there wasn't much of a conflict. I think generally if you get to the stage of getting married and/or having kids and you're all surprised to be having major disagreements about this sort of fundamental stuff then you probably have to conclude that you don't know each other well enough to be doing either.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

knowing your arts from your elbow

Having roundly mocked the Desert Island Discs choices of both Hilary Devey (in a post mostly dedicated to Margaret Thatcher) and Sister Wendy Becket, as well as mocking the musical illiteracy of Heather Rabbatts, it behooves me in the interests of fairness and balance to give credit where it's due on hearing a generally interesting and excellent series of choices last week.

I suppose it's almost axiomatic that a professional musician would take a bit more of an interest in music and be a bit more generally knowledgeable about it than Joe Public, so it probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that Guy Garvey of Elbow came up with some good stuff. I suppose the surprising bit is that he managed it despite his own band putting out stuff that I find, in the main, grindingly dull. I recall having a Twitter conversation a while back wherein I described their best-known song and the new wedding first-dance tune of choice One Day Like This as "a great lumbering flightless turkey of a song", a description I stand by unreservedly. I also feel obliged to invoke Alan McGee's splendid description "bed-wetters' music"; although he coined that in reference to Coldplay I think it does the job here too.

Anyway, Elbow's musical failings, myriad though they are, are not the subject here. In general, Garvey came across as a pretty decent bloke, and, though one might quibble over the specific song choices, Tom Waits, Joan As Police Woman, Public Enemy and Sly And The Family Stone are pretty irreproachable. I can't claim any knowledge of Joseph Canteloube, other than that he seems to have been named after a type of melon, but a few observations about the remaining selections:
  • Talk Talk's New Grass is the best thing on their last proper album, 1991's Laughing Stock. This is not music you can listen to while doing the washing up, this is music that demands your full attention and rewards you for it. Here's some fascinating audio of Talk Talk's main man Mark Hollis talking about the album's recording process.
  • Joni Mitchell's A Case Of You is one of the best things on her classic 1972 album Blue, but interestingly Garvey specifically chose a much later version because he liked the sound of her voice. Fair enough, but I think the fresh jangly charm of the original is much better. That's some sort of dulcimer she's playing in the clip. Sadly these days Mitchell seems to be spending a lot of time campaigning to have the entirely imaginary Morgellons syndrome recognised as an actual thing, instead of something useful like making music.
  • I know very little about Jolie Holland, but the song she's singing here is an adaptation of the WB Yeats poem The Song Of Wandering Aengus, which has special significance for me as it was the poem I chose to be a reading (read, impeccably, as I knew it would be, by my sister Emma) at my wedding to the lovely Hazel back in June 2011.