Friday, April 20, 2018

the last book I read

Pig by Andrew Cowan.

Danny is in his mid-teens, probably 15 or 16, and lives with his parents and slobbish elder brother Richard in some unspecified run-down edge-of-town location. His grandmother and grandfather live nearby, or at least they do until the first couple of pages of the books, wherein Granny ups and dies, leaving Grandad all alone in the house. Not all alone in the garden, though, as the couple are the improbable custodians of a fucking enormous pig.

Grandad is judged unable to cope on his own in the house (not to mention incapable of heavy-duty pig management) and is shunted off to an old folks' home where Danny visits him regularly (no-one else seems to bother much). Danny also volunteers to look after the pig, which basically involves boiling up malodorous vats of vegetable leftovers and redistributing pigshit across the vegetable patch.

Danny is a considerate and helpful boy, but he also has some ulterior motives for wanting to spend time over at his grandparents' old place. Firstly it provides a respite from his family: Mum, brother Richard but also his Dad, intermittently drunk and punchy and permanently grouchy from working on the night shift. Secondly Danny has struck up a fledgling relationship with Surinder, an Asian girl from his school whose family run a local mini-mart, and is keen to get her alone in an undisturbed location so he can get to know her on a deep and personal level, and then get her knickers off.

This is all peachy for a while but no matter how much fun Danny, Surinder and the pig are having, there are certain realities that must be faced up to. Firstly, Danny's grandparents didn't own the house so at some point the council are going to want it back, either to rent out to someone else or to sell off to the group of property developers who are sniffing around the area. Secondly, pigs need care and maintenance and occasionally get sick and need veterinary attention. Thirdly, certain elements of the community aren't very happy about having Asians in their midst and certainly wouldn't be very happy about discovering fraternising of this sort going on.

So, inevitably, things come to a head and Danny and Surinder are left to contemplate their futures, which are probably going to be lived separately. As for the pig, well, I don't want to ruin it for you, but chances are the pig doesn't have a future, guys.

So we're in That Last Golden Summer territory, with just a bit of quirky weirdness and uneasiness on the side. Danny and Surinder's relationship is sweetly convincing, comprising, as most teenage relationships do, equal parts a) mooching around together not saying anything b) bickering and c) fucking. That said, once the initial plot elements have been put in place - the family, the pig, Surinder, the cottage - the plot meanders a bit until the slightly low-key All Is Revealed moment, whereupon the book pretty much ends.

The novel this most reminded me of was Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden: adolescent kids alone in a house, some slightly transgressive sexy sexy times, things decaying ripely around the central characters until eventually someone notices and All Is Revealed. There are some elements of Peter Benson's The Levels as well: local boy meets slightly exotic non-local girl, she grants him access to her chamber of magical secrets for a glorious season before buggering off to bigger and better things leaving him to stay.....local.

It's perfectly good in its unstartling way, and won all sorts of First Novel awards when it was published in 1994, most notably the Betty Trask Award and The Authors Club First Novel Award, both of which The Levels also won in 1987. Other Betty Trask Award winners on this list are The Hunter, The Dark Room and My Summer Of Love.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

the great british lake-off

We had a week's family holiday in the Lake District last week. As you can imagine if you know me at all, this will have comprised lots of wholesome fun with the kids at various family-friendly locations, plus occasional escapes to go and conquer big spiky mountainous bits of rock. I'll get to the mountain stuff later, but here's a brief summary of the rest of the activities, including links for those who might be in a similar situation (i.e. young kids to keep entertained).
  • We stayed in a couple of cottages at Low Briery, a self-catering holiday park on the north-eastern outskirts of Keswick. "Holiday park" makes it sound a lot more Butlins-y than it actually is, and the main buildings are actually the remnants of an old bobbin mill, with various static caravans and some cute "pods" having been added to increase the size of the accommodation available. There's precious little information about the site's former use on the Low Briery website, but there are some information boards at the site of the former railway halt on the old line that runs along the southern edge of the site, one of which yields the snippet that the mill ceased production in 1958.
  • The railway path probably warrants a few words in its own right as it's a well-known and widely-used route that we've made use of on previous holidays to get to, among other places, the Horse & Farrier at Threlkeld. Anyone wanting to make use of it should be aware, though, that two of the bridges over the River Greta were washed away in some heavy flooding at the end of 2015, and have not yet been replaced, and that a third is structurally unsound and closed. This means quite a considerable detour to get anywhere east of Keswick by this route, though thankfully you can still get into Keswick from Low Briery down the path (it's just over a mile). Plans are afoot for renovations, including re-opening the tunnel buried under the A66 bridge whose bypassing currently adds a rather unsatisfactory hump in the otherwise nice friendly gradient. There is even a project afoot to try to lobby for the route to be re-opened as a proper railway, though (while I can see the argument that there'd be a market for it) it all sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky to me.
  • Wray Castle - on the western shore of Windermere, England's longest and largest lake. This is really a Victorian house built in the style of a castle, and as such doesn't have all the exciting historical stuff that proper castles have - portcullis mechanisms, lots of old armour and halberds lying around, that sort of thing - and so has to work a bit harder to provide interest. They've made a reasonable job of it although you do get the impression that they've had to work to stretch the content they have been able to produce over the entire house. There's some stuff about the house's original female owner and the general shittiness of being a woman in early Victorian times, and a lot is made of the fact that Beatrix Potter stayed here while on a family holiday in the 1880s, including a whole section of the house given over to recreations of parts of the Peter Rabbit universe; Mr. MacGregor's garden, Peter's burrow and the like. We made use of the launches operated by Windermere Lake Cruises to get to and from the castle; these make a round trip from Ambleside via Brockhole on the eastern shore of the lake which has more kid-friendly outdoor fun stuff but which we didn't have time to stop off and visit. We did also get some good views from the lake of what is now the ritzy Pullwood Bay holiday apartment complex but which we used to know as Huyton Hill when it was a slightly more downmarket group of holiday lets which we used for several family holidays back in the 1970s and 1980s, though strictly Huyton Hill was the name of the preparatory school which occupied the site between 1939 and 1969. 
  • Mirehouse - just out of Keswick on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake (note: the only Lake District lake to legitimately include the word "lake" in its name, all the others having a "mere" or "water" instead which renders the addition of "lake" superfluous, nay indeed pleonasmic), this is a more orthodox country house with some grounds which include some woods and streams to keep the kids amused. I didn't actually go here as I was doing mountain stuff at the time; more on this later.
  • Lakes Aquarium - this is down at Newby Bridge on the skinny southern tail of Windermere, so it was a convenient place to stop in on our way home. Is it the most amazing aquarium in the world, with a lavish selection of eye-poppingly astonishing wonders of the deep? Well, no, not really, but it's well-set-up and keeps the kids amused, even if most of the inhabitants are ducks and fish rather than giant squid and hippopotamuses. They haven't even got a megalodon
Tune in next time for some links to photos plus details of exciting mountain adventures. THRILL as I climb the two highest mountains in England IN A SINGLE DAY!!!! RECOIL in AWE as I GO UP some OTHER mountains!! CRINGE as I consume TWO SPICY PEPERAMIS and a PORK PIE!!! ET CETERA!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

the last book I read

True Grit by Charles Portis.

Life isn't easy in the old West. The rule of law is a tenuous thing and often the manner of its application depends on whose jurisdiction you happen to be in that day. So if you've got a bunch of no-good rootin' tootin' varmints riding into town and shooting up the sheriff, you'd better hope that you've got recourse to a lawman who'll get the job done.

Mattie Ross has a host of problems. Her father Frank has been shot dead by a man, Tom Chaney, who took advantage of Frank's good nature, got him to give him a job and a roof over his head, and then shot him in cold blood, stole some gold from his cold dead hands and scarpered. Mattie wants Tom brought to justice, and why wouldn't she, but there's a problem: she's a fourteen-year-old girl. And while these days we're all groovy and inclusive and let fourteen-year-old girls be astronauts and Prime Minister and everything, back in the old West things were a little more traditional.

So the first thing Mattie has to do is find someone to agree to bring Tom Chaney to justice. This turns out to be reasonably easy, as Marshal Reuben J "Rooster" Cogburn is in town and is just the sort of man for the job, if he can stay off the sauce long enough. The second thing she has to do is persuade Rooster that part of the deal is her coming along on the trip, as she is a girl of unusual determination and wants to see justice done with her own eyes. Needless to say Rooster isn't particularly keen, as there's bound to be a lot of high-speed galloping, punching, drinking and farting involved and Mattie is likely to cramp his style.

But Mattie is relentless, and her offer of money is persuasive. They set off, accompanied by a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (pronounced "La Beef" and not to be confused with either the correctly spelled version of that surname sported by footballer Frank Leboeuf or the utterly bonkers version sported by Shia LaBeouf) who has his own reasons for wanting to catch up with Chaney. It appears that Chaney has taken up with a band of outlaws led by notorious wrong'un "Lucky" Ned Pepper and has fled into some remote part of what is now Oklahoma.

The trio head off in pursuit of the outlaws and Rooster cooks up a scheme to ambush them at a hideout they're known to have made use of before. All goes according to plan until LaBoeuf starts loosing off his gun before the outlaws are in position - a gun battle ensues during the course of which several outlaws are killed, but not Tom Chaney or Ned Pepper, who escape. So the pursuit continues until they catch up with the outlaws again when Mattie has an unexpected encounter with none other than Tom Chaney when collecting water at a stream near their overnight camping spot. Mattie manages to pull her gun and shoot him, but not fatally, and he grabs her and drags her back to the Pepper gang's hilltop camp with Rooster and LaBoeuf in hot pursuit.

There then follows a brief stand-off wherein Chaney and Pepper threaten to throw Mattie into a rattlesnake pit unless Rooster and LaBoeuf beat a retreat. This they do...OR DO THEY? When Pepper and a couple of his henchmen leave Chaney in charge of Mattie and ride off, they are ambushed by Rooster who charges at them kamikaze stylee with guns a-blazin'. This tactic is surprisingly successful until Pepper shoots Rooster's horse out from under him and moves in for the kill, only to be picked off by a long shot from LaBoeuf's rifle. The day is not yet saved, though, as Chaney bashes LaBoeuf over the head with a rock, whereupon Mattie shoots him, but the recoil sends her tumbling into the rattlesnake pit, whereupon it further turns out that Chaney isn't quite dead after all. Fortunately Rooster has freed himself from under a dead horse and arrives in the nick of time to apply a bit of lethal competence to the situation by dispatching Chaney properly and, with a bit of help from LaBoeuf and Mattie's horse, rescuing Mattie from the pit. The day is not yet saved, though, as Mattie has a broken arm and has been bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake, so Rooster sets off at breakneck speed to deliver her to a doctor and save her life.

I'd imagine most people's reaction to discovering that there is a book called True Grit would be, like me, to start by assuming it's a novelisation of the celebrated 1969 film (for which John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn), and then, on discovering that the novel came first, to assume that it therefore must be some forgotten 1890s relic that was dug up by an astute Hollywood researcher, and then finally to be rather surprised that it was actually published in 1968, the year before the film was released. It's a book that has the feel of oldness without actually being old, a bit like the song Long Black Veil as mentioned here. The 1969 version is still the definitive movie, despite the 2010 Coen Brothers remake being a better film in just about every way - Jeff Bridges is closer to Cogburn as written (John Wayne essentially just plays a grumpier John Wayne in an eyepatch), Hailee Steinfeld gives a remarkable performance as Mattie Ross (all the more remarkable for being thirteen at the time, unlike Kim Darby who was twenty-one when the original film was released), and (from my recollection anyway) the film keeps Mattie as its focus more than the earlier film did, and rightly, since the story in the novel is told in her voice.

Like Winter's Bone this is a book that succeeds by making you like and care about its young female protagonist - Mattie is relentless in her pursuit of justice, determined not to be taken advantage of, scathingly puritanical about adult vices and generally un-self-aware to a wryly amusing degree. It is a sad reflection of the times she lives in that being an intelligent, independent woman not prepared to take any shit from useless feckless drunken men lends a sort of inevitability to the framing device which depicts Mattie as an elderly spinster recounting her exciting youthful exploits.

As revisionist Western novels go this is slyly subversive rather than brutally so (in the manner of, say, Blood Meridian) but it makes very clear that the nominal "good guys", Rooster Cogburn in particular, are morally compromised to some degree, and moreover that this is inevitable. It's slyly amusing, too, it a deadpan sort of way.

A more obscure connection to some earlier entries in this list is provided by the foreword to my 2005 paperback edition: as with The Queen's Gambit and Stoner this is written by a different previous featuree here, in this case Donna Tartt.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

A high culture/low culture mash-up today, you might say, if you were as snobbish and patronising as me; Chilean politician, poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and whimsical Northern philosopher and occasional bathtub pilot Norman Clegg from Last Of The Summer Wine. Yes, ALL RIGHT, I photo-edited in the pipe in the second picture, but that doesn't necessarily undermine my point.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

the last book I read

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Our protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is a writer trying to write a biography of some 18th-century French political type. Being a Frenchman of philosophical bent this mainly involves hanging around various coffee shops and bars shrugging moodily and not doing a lot of writing. He has retreated to the coastal town of Bouville (a thinly fictionalised Le Havre) to avoid the distractions of the varied fleshpots of Paris, but has still been managing to have it away intermittently with the proprietress of a local café, Françoise, and spend a lot of time mooning about in the library without really achieving very much.

Antoine is wrestling with some key philosophical concepts, in between knobbing local businesswomen and quaffing claret: since God does not exist to guide our actions towards some ineffable target, how should we live? What should we do? Should I light up another Gauloise? If I can't understand my own life even as I'm living it, what chance do I have of understanding someone else's, and what's the point of trying to document it? Is there any meaningful response we can give to these questions other than a Gallic shrug and another glass of vin ordinaire?

Roquentin mooches around some cafés with his friend (who he calls the Autodidact) and has a reunion with an old girlfriend, Anny, one that he seems to be expecting to provide some revelation that will bring everything into focus, or maybe just an opportunity to get his end away, but ends up being somewhat unsatisfactory. Anny leaves on a train with her new boyfriend, and it is revealed that the Autodidact has a bit of a thing for underage boys, a revelation that gets him beaten up by the custodian of the local library.

Roquentin abandons his plans for writing his book and resolves to return to Paris. He stops in to see Françoise for a cheeky drink before he leaves, only to find that she seems to have a new man on the go as well. Ah...*lights Gauloise* vie, eh? FIN.

It's easy to satirise this sort of thing, of course, and there's a sketch comedy trope (Monty Python are probably partly to blame) of the intense Frenchman with a cigarette and a beret staring at a chair going "zis chair.....exeeests, non?" to applause and adoration from various chic female acolytes. I should also say that while I've read a few definitions of existentialism, the philosophical school with which Sartre is primarily associated, and various of the principles of which Nausea is supposed to exemplify, I'm still not terribly clear what it's all about, other than a general rationalist acknowledgement that there's no divine purpose to anything and we've got to extract our own meaning from life. Maybe that's all there is to it.

Hanging about in cafés not doing very much is only possible, of course, if you have some means of paying for all the coffee and croissants and fags, and it turns out that Roquentin has some sort of income, possibly from an inheritance or something, that absolves him of any obligation to get off his arse and earn a living. This certainly makes it easier to devote all of your time to contemplating What It All Means and scoffing at the bovine unreflectiveness of those who have to grab a quick omelette between shifts down at the Gauloise factory. In that sense this is a book with a lot of similarities with previous books in this series, Hunger, DemianThe Moviegoer and The Catcher In The Rye in particular; all of those could be said to embody existential angst in one way or another. As with all of those books, increasing age (i.e. mine) probably carries with it an increasing desire to reach in and give the main protagonist a bit of a slap and tell him to get a grip.

Nonetheless, for all the potential intimidatingness of the philosophical baggage, and despite the fact that (as with most books of this type) pretty much nothing happens, this is actually pretty easy to read and has a certain lugubrious humour in places. If you're on a desperate quest for some meaning in your life and are expecting this book to provide it, you'll probably be disappointed, but it's probably an unrealistic thing to expect of a novel anyway.

Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, though he famously refused it - just as with the Oscars, though, the academy don't care and award it to you anyway. The Hunger review contains some links to other Nobel laureates on this list, though with no guarantee it's comprehensive. It won't, for instance, include 2017 winner Kazuo Ishiguro, featured here.

A couple of other footnotes: my old (1970s, I'd guess) second-hand Penguin Modern Classics edition carries a reproduction of the painting The Triangular Hour by Salvador Dalí. Reproductions of old paintings as cover art seem to have been a feature of this particular incarnation of the series: see also Tortilla Flat. Secondly the sharp-eyed among you will have spotted that the record-breaking sequence of one-word book titles now extends to four. I can exclusively reveal that my next book is a multi-worder, so that's your lot.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and, as of his unexpected (to him at least) firing yesterday, ex-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former showbiz publicist and convicted sex offender (and, as of December, former living person) Max Clifford.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

behold the LAKE OF DEATH

I'm sure you'll agree with me that there's pretty much nothing in life as fascinating as a partially-drained reservoir. I mean, yes, fine wine, ladies' bottoms, experimental Bulgarian cinema, free-form jazz, improvised contemporary dance, these all have their place. But there's a sort of illicit thrill in seeing stuff that's normally hidden under a featureless sheet of water, especially when you consider that it's a sort of unexpected reversal of the original reservoir creation process, whereby things that had been quite happily existing in the open air minding their own business for a substantial amount of time were inexorably consumed by the rising waters, never to be seen again, OR SO WE THOUGHT, etc.

Now of course most of the time what emerges when reservoirs get drained is mundane and unappealing stuff like shit-encrusted shopping trolleys, dead fish, rusting old car bodies and the like. But occasionally, when the original reservoir (the larger ones, typically) submerged human settlements, maybe even villages, these can occasionally emerge when the reservoir is either partly or completely drained for maintenance, or when drought conditions cause the water level to drop.

Here's a couple of good examples:
  • As linked before from this post, here's a tremendous resource about the drowned village of Mardale Green at the southern end of the Haweswater reservoir in the Lake District, which occasionally slurps clear of the water in exceptionally dry conditions. An exceptionally rich and comprehensive resource about the history of the place and its occasional re-emergence is here, although a word of warning must be issued about some exceptionally horrible 1990s website design. Top marks for sloppy hack journalism go to the Daily Mail for this tremendously badly-researched graphic from 2014 which misrepresents the location of the village by several miles.
  • When the Lac de Guerlédan in Brittany was drained for maintenance towards the end of 2015 the lake bed was opened up to tourists to come and have a look around. Not just the usual knackered old buildings this time but also the remains of some lock structures on the old Nantes-Brest canal, a significant section of which was submerged when the lake was filled in the 1920s. It seems to have been filled again by early 2016. 
Anyway, I mention all this because when we went up to Wentwood woods for a quick walk on Sunday we passed Wentwood reservoir on the way, and I couldn't help noticing that it is currently nearly empty - apparently for maintenance of one of the take-off towers. I took a photo (looking towards the dam), though inevitably I was constrained to standing in the worst possible position, looking right into the sun. This is a much better picture, although it seems to have been taken about a year ago, so the maintenance work is obviously taking a while.

Since Wentwood reservoir was opened in 1904 I don't have access to a map which shows the area before the reservoir existed, so I can't do the sort of illustrative thing I did here and here. There didn't appear to be any exciting submerged farms or villages to report, although that doesn't mean there was nothing exciting to be found by the sharp-eyed observer, unless you consider a headless, handless, footless corpse shackled to a ceramic kitchen sink to be perfectly commonplace, in which case remind me never to accompany you on a fishing trip. Let's just be thankful the killer didn't have access to a glory hole spillway, or the body may never have been found.