Tuesday, December 06, 2016

incidental music spot of the day

Smashing Pumpkins' Bullet With Butterfly Wings on the new trailer for WWI-themed first-person massacre-fest Battlefield 1. Previous trailers for the same game featured Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes (strictly it's a remixed version of the original), which has a similarly ominous bass-driven opening section, although as tediously pointed out here, it's not technically played on a bass guitar at all.

I'm a big fan of Smashing Pumpkins, but I'd be an even bigger fan if their music was mixed differently - in common with most of the songs on the otherwise excellent Siamese Dream, Bullet (which is from the ludicrously ambitious follow-up double album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness) has the guitars too low in the mix compared to Billy Corgan's vocals, for my taste anyway. The guitars should really fizz and roar out at you in the chorus, with the vocals having to make themselves heard over the top, and that doesn't quite happen.

With reference to that earlier list, Bullet With Butterfly Wings could be a starting entry on another, similar list: songs where there's a vocal-only bit (the "the world is a vampire" line) before the backing music kicks in. I daresay there are hundreds of these, so I'm not going to attempt to construct another list, but you can have Accidents Will Happen by Elvis Costello & The Attractions as your second entry if you like.

Back to TV adverts for a moment, and with reference to this old post musing on when Appletise turned into Appletiser: at what point did adverts for the myriad labour-saving electronic gizmos manufactured by Braun stop pronouncing it "Brawn" and start pronouncing it "Brown"? You'll remember these excruciating 1980s adverts - don't be distracted by the implication that you might want to curl your hair in the middle of a tennis match, listen instead to the pronunciation of the manufacturer's name. Then compare and contrast with these newer adverts. Weirdly, the new rule doesn't seem to have been applied consistently - this advert which appears to be very new still has the old Anglicised pronunciation.

A couple of the recent adverts opt out of saying the name altogether, or indeed saying anything at all, preferring either to give us some words and pictures over a moody electric piano backing, or just to dispense with the product altogether and give us some artfully-posed soft porn featuring the lovely Jessica Alba. And who could blame them?

It's "Brown" with a UK/US "r" sound, mind you, not "Braun" with the full European back-of-the-throat rasp. I guess there's only so much Anglophone audiences can take; plus, I suppose, the full Germanic bark might have conjured up thoughts of a couple of people who bore the name not so long ago who you might not want associated with your grooming products - unless, I suppose, your marketing guys wanted to imply that, for instance, your depilation products would conduct a MERCILESS SWEEP through your lower limb areas, eliminating everything in their path.

Monday, December 05, 2016

just another marnoch monday

Almost exactly thirteen months after complaining that it'd been almost exactly thirteen months since the last whisky post, here's another whisky post. Now I wouldn't want you to think that I'd had no whisky at all since that last post, because that wouldn't be true, but I have been ticking over on either things I've had before that just happen to be on special offer (Highland Park, Chivas) or a couple of things that are just no-age-statement versions of things I've already tried (Glenlivet Founders Reserve, Ardmore Legacy).

Anyway, I was in Aldi the other day and I spotted their own-label Glen Marnoch whisky on the shelves. This particular one claims to be an Islay single malt and was on offer for the bargain price of £17.99.

You have to trust, with these things, that the manufacturers and bottlers are adhering to the rules regarding whisky, which are pretty simple: you can't call it a single malt if it isn't one. That means that the whisky hre must have all originated at a single Scottish distillery. and it must be at least three years old.

I don't suppose I'll be shocking you too much when I say that there is no such place as Glen Marnoch, still less a distillery there. So one might speculate: which Islay distillery did the whisky come from? My guess from sampling the highly quaffable contents would be that it's either a Bowmore or a Caol Ila, but the whole point of these things is that the cheapo bottlers' purchase of the source casks is contingent on their keeping schtum about where they got them from. Anyway, it's very good and an absolute steal at less then twenty quid. I'm very much hoping to get some more whisky, some of it with the names of real distilleries on the labels, for Christmas, but this'll keep me going until then.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

the last book I read

Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo.

Zeno Cosini is a middle-aged businessman from Trieste attending a psychoanalyst in order to give up his lifelong smoking habit. In an attempt to break his patient's seemingly intractable addiction, the psychoanalyst suggests that Zeno write a memoir of various key moments from his life.

So we learn of Zeno's relationship with his father, up to and including his father's death. We learn of the rather haphazard method he chose of acquiring a wife: ingratiating himself with the local Malfenti family and then working through the daughters in reverse order of attractiveness, starting with pretty but serious Ada who has no interest in him at all and then finishing with plain but amiable Augusta, with whom, paradoxically, he has a long and happy marriage.

A theme starts to emerge here; Zeno bumbling through life, borne along slightly passively by events, never actively evil or malicious but occasionally thoughtlessly self-centred, and in the end succeeding almost despite himself. We see this in the next section of the novel wherein he describes his exceptionally half-arsed business venture with Guido, husband of Ada, and a man who Zeno simultaneously admires and resents for his successful courtship of her. The venture founders owing to both its founders' comical ineptitude and laziness and Guido's weakness for gambling on the stock market, though after Guido's subsequent suicide Zeno manages to win back most of the losses via some equally ill-advised gambling.

The novel ends in Trieste in 1916 with World War I underway and Zeno reflecting on his completed memoirs and deciding to abandon his psychoanalysis and, presumably, crack back into the fags in a big way.

The back-cover blurb for my Penguin Modern Classics version of Zeno's Conscience includes novelist Paul Bailey's claim for it being "arguably the greatest comic novel of the twentieth century". I don't know about that, but then again I don't know what the criteria are for judging. Actually making me laugh out loud? A tiny tiny handful of books have done that, and if you were making the judgment solely on that criterion I'd probably give the title to Lucky Jim. By far the funniest section of the book is the first bit describing Zeno's repeated failed attempts to give up smoking; given that this is a tiny fraction of the book it's slightly odd that so many descriptions of the book imply that this is what it's about. My copy is no exception: the back cover blurb describes it as a "devilishly funny portrayal of a man's attempt to give up smoking and make sense of his life". It's certainly the latter, indirectly, but the former is really just part of the set-up of the framing device. Nonetheless, as you can see, the designers of the front cover artwork deemed it significant enough to make it the main theme of the image.

So given that I wasn't literally pissing myself laughing throughout, it wasn't completely clear what the purpose of it was, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. And critical opinion seems firmly decided that it's a classic of comic modernist fiction, so I defer to their judgment. I guess maybe the stylistic tricks just don't seem quite as daring and unfamiliar as they would have when it was first published in 1923. Zeno himself is an endearingly unreliable narrator, which means that one certainly shouldn't take his versions of his courtship of the Malfenti girls or his personal and business relationship with Guido at face value. You certainly shouldn't read too much into its having taken me 78 days to read it; it's just that I've been busy with other stuff lately. Nevertheless that's the third-longest reading stint in the history of this blog after Infinite Jest and Midnight's Children (96 and 91 days respectively) and just ahead of Sunset Song at 66 days.

Other notable things: while I was in the process of reading Zeno's Conscience I happened to listen to this year's Reith Lectures on Radio 4 featuring philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and one of his lectures, on the subject of "Country", coincidentally used the experiences of one Aron Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo to illustrate its central thesis. Svevo was also, during the first decade of the twentieth century, tutored in English by none other than James Joyce, and made use of the connection to get Zeno's Conscience more widely published and distributed. Finally, Trieste during World War I also featured heavily in John Berger's G.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Hunky square-jawed hero Eric's manservant (no, stop it) from Disney's The Little Mermaid, the Ladybird tie-in book of which is one of Nia's current favourites for bedtime reading, and current Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, more formally known as The Lord Rees of Ludlow, if you like that sort of thing.

I should add that I've never seen The Little Mermaid, and neither (as far as I know) has Nia, but having read the original story to her from an old book of fairy tales a while back I can confirm that it's a phenomenally grim and joyless tale with some suspicious undertones of puberty, menstruation and general horror of female sexuality (and all the other stuff being a punishment for expressing it). None of which are things that'd play well with the target audience for Disney animated films, so they took the liberty of removing most of that stuff and giving the film a happy ending. Incidentally the manservant's name, as far as I can tell, is Grimsby, perhaps an ironic nod to the grim undercurrents that got sanitised out of the final glossy feel-good product. Or perhaps not, and that's just his name. Sometimes a manservant is just a manservant, as Freud definitely didn't say (the jury's still out on the cigar thing).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

clever trevor

So, farewell, then, William Trevor. Alas, we hardly knew ye, cut down in the prime of life at a mere 88 years old by this blog's continuing senseless rampage of authorial slaughter and carnage. The book review that eventually did the trick after a slightly longer than usual six-and-a-half years was The Children Of Dynmouth back in 2010. The only other Trevor novel I've read was 1994's Felicia's Journey (filmed in 1999), which is probably slightly better, though, I should add, not exactly a barrel of laughs.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 2y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 7y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 7y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 7y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d

William Trevor's Guardian obituary also provided the second example in the last couple of weeks of the slightly jarring sight of an obituary for a recently-dead person carrying the byline of someone who predeceased them, in this case by about six years.

Here's Trevor's contribution to the Paris Review's Art Of Fiction series in 1989.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

common as muck

Here's a sort of global version of the UK-only surname distribution tool - stick your surname in here and you'll get some indication of how prevalent it is worldwide. Now fairly obviously Thomas is a popular and widely-distributed name (the 264th-most-common surname in the world, apparently) but there are still some interesting nuggets that can be plucked out of the information provided:

  • Thomas is the 4th-most-popular surname in Wales (only Jones, Davies and Williams rank above it), but only the 8th-most-popular in England, 99th in Scotland and 403rd in Ireland;
  • It's well popular in the Caribbean, featuring in the top ten in Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, United States Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands;
  • You have to go a bit further south for the place with the most Thomases, proportionally speaking: Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Thomas is the most popular surname here, although as there are fewer than 10,000 people spread across the various islands that only amounts to a few hundred individuals, some of them possibly albatrosses;
  • There are a few countries at the bottom of the list with only a single Thomas in the whole country. Comparing the "Frequency" and "Rank" numbers for these reveals some interesting variation in what you might call surname diversity in various countries. Have a look at the last three entries on the list, for instance:

    So Tajikistan and Burundi are about the same size, but apparently Tajikistan has 11,831 distinct surnames (if we assume that Thomas occupies last or joint-last place on the list), while Burundi has only 1,253. Even more remarkably, Mauritania, with only about a third of the population, has a whopping 38,063 distinct surnames. Similarly, San Marino appears to have many more distinct surnames than Eritrea, despite only having something like 5% of the population.
As for the other list, interesting contrasts can be provided by using my wife's unmarried name, Hannant, as input, since it's far more unusual (219,619th-most-common worldwide). Apparently there are 855 of them in England, but only one in Wales. Whether that's Hazel, her sister Paula, or some third party as yet unknown isn't clear.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

you better believe it

While in a lot of ways I think the religious-focused topics on In Our Time on Radio 4 are among the least interesting ones they do, there's always just the possibility that they'll set Melvyn Bragg off on one of his occasional tirades against "militant" atheism. He had just the suspicion of a moment during last week's programme about Lakshmi, but I think in the end either his heart wasn't really in it or he realised that he didn't really know where he was going to take it. I've gone to the trouble of listening to it back a few times and I think this is a pretty accurate transcript:
I mean, the thing about these, these stories is that we tend - some people, foolishly, foolish people, tend to, foolishly, belittle them, but they're - I think they're heroic, and they're very moving, again and again, whichever civilisation - these are people like us, without the tools of knowledge which we have, the caravan has not moved on and yet they're determined to make sense of the world, where they came from, what happens in every particular and they determinedly create these things, it's amazing to see; well, to read.
You could see where he was going with the first bit; it's the same complaint as he made a while back (while, entirely coincidentally, plugging his latest book), on that occasion with much more explicit reference to Richard Dawkins, always the go-to guy for people wishing to paint atheists as some sort of humourless secular Taliban. The accusation he was making is a huge straw man anyway: no-one "belittles" the stories as stories, or claims that as stories they are of no value or cultural interest. People do, however, point out that historically a lot of people have believed that these stories were literally true, and that this is of course nonsense.

The concern seems to be (and let's not forget, Bragg self-identifies as an atheist) that if you take all these charming and fascinating old stories - and they are charming and fascinating, from an anthropological and cultural perspective, as well as being intermittently ridiculous, bloodthirsty and horrific - and explicitly make the observation that they aren't actually factual re-tellings of events that actually took place (and, in this specific case, that Lakshmi doesn't actually exist), that will somehow suck all the air out of them like a punctured football and they will be drained of all value and interest. I actually don't think this is true, and in any case Bragg and his guests happily threw phrases like "creation myth" around, and most definitions of "myth" implicitly or explicitly include the idea of its describing something fictitious. And yet still there seemed to be the idea that if someone actually said: wait a minute, let's just be clear, none of this stuff about floating around on a lotus flower over an ocean of milk is actually true, is it? - that some precious fragile thing would be shattered and lost forever, and moreover that such an observation would be harsh or "disrespectful" in some way. I was put in mind of the old Monty Python sketch about building blocks of flats by hypnosis, and them being perfectly safe as long as the residents kept believing in them.