Tuesday, October 20, 2020

shite entertainment

Generally I like the Headline Of The Day candidates to be freshly-minted and just plucked at the moment of perfect ripeness from whichever website has bunged them up without proof-reading them properly first. This one is a little different as it's from around eighteen months ago, but has some present-day resonance for me in ways which I'll explain shortly. Here it is:

There's quite a bit to unpack here, so let's start with the simple stuff: Blippi is a supremely irritating American children's TV creation who has become a gazillionaire by the seemingly simple method of bouncing around seemingly abandoned trampoline parks, softplay centres, playgrounds and skateboard parks making lots of high-pitched squeaking noises and gurning at the camera in a way that young children (my 3-year-old son among them) find as irresistible as some people find injecting heroin into their own eyeballs on a skanky old mattress under a highway overpass. 

When I first encountered Blippi back in the early days of the coronavirus lockdown (I think it was Alys who happened across him first) I jokingly tweeted that he was a bit like Pee-wee Herman (true) but at least he wasn't a sex criminal (also true, but, well, wait and see). 
Blippi does, it turns out, have some back-story of his own, though - in his case (in contrast to Pee-wee Herman) from before his kiddy-centric fame happened rather than after. He is the creation of someone who these days goes by the real-life name of Stevin John, but seems to have been originally called Steven Grossman. The reason for the name change seems to have been his real name's uncomfortably close proximity to Steezy Grossman, the name of his youthful comedy alter ego as whom he made several videos whose content is definitely not for kids, including one notorious one where he takes a gargantuan splattery (and, as far as I can gather, real) shit over a friend in a toilet cubicle. 

Needless to say now that he's a MASSIVE HIT with the under-fives he's not very keen for his MASSIVE SHIT with the number twos to keep popping up in internet searches, so there has been a fair bit of legal effort expended on suppressing the video wherever it pops up. Just to be clear, I haven't seen it, nor am I especially keen on seeking it out, but I expect you could if you really wanted to. I'm not judging you, any more than I'm judging Blippi or suggesting that he is not a fit and proper person to be entertaining small children, as long has he keeps his anus out of it. I think this is a not unreasonable expectation of any children's entertainer, to be honest.

Monday, October 12, 2020

follow the gourd

One of the things that's kept me at a reasonable level of fitness during lockdown is Nia's love for running, which has acted as an incentive for me to get out and get some exercise periodically. I mean, I do have indoor options which I make use of as well, but it's nice to get out and get some fresh air while pounding the streets occasionally. Ordinarily we'd have the weekly parkrun (of which we have a choice of two in Newport) to go to, Nia having graduated around the start of 2020 from the leisurely kiddy-friendly junior one (2 kilometres) to the proper adult one (5 kilometres), but of course that's all been shelved during the pandemic as, even outdoors, lots of sweaty people in close proximity breathing heavily and coughing all over each other isn't a good thing.

This is a pity, as Nia clearly has a genuine aptitude for this stuff, and as the lean willowy type is perfectly built for endurance running (and indeed endurance activities in general). But we've made the best of it by finding some routes we can do from the house, including the nearly-parkrun-distance one we did at the weekend.

The second tweet here is actually what this blog post was meant to be about, though I seem to have digressed onto the running topic more than I intended to. No matter. The watermelon conversation started when we ran past a piece of squashed discarded watermelon on the pavement and I humorously speculated that it must have fallen off a watermelon tree, only to be scoffingly informed that watermelons weren't native to the UK, and was there actually such a thing as a watermelon tree? At which point I had to confess that I'd no idea what sort of plant a watermelon grew on. The Twitter thread went on to list some other fruity items whose parent plant and general appearance in their natural milieu aren't quite what you (or in any case I) might expect. 

Anyway, it turns out there is no such thing as a watermelon tree, and indeed a moment's consideration of the size and weight of a fully-grown watermelon will tell you that they must grow in contact with the ground in the style of, say, pumpkins - indeed it turns out that they belong to the same family of gourd-like plants, the Cucurbitaceae. As it happens we have a member of that family taking over a significant portion of our herb and vegetable patch at the moment; it's a pumpkin plant which we bought as a bit of a joke in the spring but seems to have thrived, and in the process spread itself out laterally, as these things do, right across the front of the vegetable patch, through the herb patch, through the decking railings and onto the decking. I'm going to need to be scrupulously careful about keeping the shed door locked or it'll be in there too. 

Obviously, it now being mid-October, what would be ideal, and give some purpose to the whole plant-growing exercise, would be for the plant to now burst gloriously forth with a select but shapely crop of pumpkins which we could use for Hallowe'en entertainment purposes (and, if supplies permit, perhaps some hearty soup afterwards). It is only in the last few days. however, that any sign of meaningful fruit production has been apparent, right at the tip of the plant up on the decking. As you can see it's all fairly minimal at the moment, but my experiences with growing courgettes tells me that these sneaky bastards can double in size overnight, so I'm not giving up hope yet. I just need to make sure I harvest them before this happens.

Going back to unexpected fruit/plant appearance for a moment, the two I mentioned in the Twitter conversation are probably worth noting here: firstly, the pineapple. Hard to say in hindsight what I was expecting, but a single upright fruit presented on a low-slung shrubby throne of frondy leaves almost certainly wasn't it. Even this is outdone by the humble cashew, though - neither the honest-to-goodness down-to-earth (literally) utilitarian rusticness of its apparent near-relative, the peanut, which just minds its own business under the ground, nor the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin matter-of-factness of a true nut like the hazelnut, just growing straight out of its parent tree like it was the most natural thing in the world. No, the cashew emerges into the world via a freaky space alien arrangement involving being extruded out of the arse of some lumpy apple-like fruit and just hanging there like a tenacious turd until harvested. 

The basic rule for both fruit and nuts is: whatever you might think you know is wrong, and, furthermore, knowing that whatever you might think you know is wrong won't help you, because you'll still be wrong anyway. Is a peanut a nut? No, you fool, it's a legume. Is a banana a fruit? No, you fool, it's a berry. Is the big clearly-a-fruit apple-like structure in the picture above a fruit? Is the smaller clearly-a-nut hard-cased thing under it a nut? No, and no, obviously. The apple thing is an accessory fruit and the cashew "nut" is the true fruit (of which the bit we habitually eat is a seed). Honestly, you can see why people just give up and eat crisps instead; at least you know where you are.

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

they practically own south america

My mother, who evidently keeps an eye and ear out for these things, alerts me to a couple of appearances of our mutual relative and science fiction author Olaf Stapledon in popular culture. Firstly, she was watching the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (the one featuring Leonard Nimoy, a very young Jeff Goldblum and Donald Sutherland's memorable screechy alien finale) and noticed a brief piece of dialogue featuring Veronica Cartwright's character and one of her mud bath customers, wherein the customer extols the virtues of Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds In Collision and she recommends that he also read Stapledon's Star Maker

There is an important distinction between the two works, though: Star Maker is explicitly a work of fiction, whereas Worlds In Collision purports to be a work of non-fiction, though in reality it is as much of one as, say, Chariots Of The Gods

I have never read Star Maker, as it happens, although I do have a copy in the to-be-read pile. You may recall that I have read Last And First Men, though - those two books are Stapledon's most celebrated works, although he did write a lot of other stuff.

Last And First Men has its own, more recent, popular culture intersection, it turns out: this film with a voice-over by Tilda Swinton, which premiered in Berlin earlier this year. Rather than being a formal adaptation of the book (Swinton's voice-over is taken exclusively from the last two chapters) it is mainly a vehicle for the music of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (more famous among mainstream film buffs for his score for the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory Of Everything), and features lingering shots of various immense pieces of abstract architecture. The film was largely made in 2017, but was only completed after Jóhannsson's death the following year.

The immense monuments featured in the film are mainly located in the former Yugoslavia and are a fascinating subject in their own right. Known as spomeniks, there are mainly Tito-era memorials to World War II, placed in some bizarrely remote and inhospitable locations which just accentuate their otherworldliness. Many of them still exist, in varying states of disrepair.

Back to Worlds In Collision for a moment: I used to own a work of that name, but it was a copy of the 1991 Pere Ubu album rather than Velikovsky's book. By far its most well-known tune (sung by one of my many namesakes) is I Hear They Smoke The Barbecue, a quirkily catchy pop nugget which references another branch of pseudoscience, the various hollow earth "theories". Coincidence? Or IS IT??!?!?!? I expect you know the answer by now.

[FOOTNOTE] A couple of things I meant to add: firstly that the static black-and-whiteness of the images, the voice-over and the general gloomy elegiac tone of the Last And First Men clips put me strongly in mind of Chris Marker's short film La Jetée, now available in full on YouTube and well worth half an hour of anyone's time. Secondly, the 1978 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is a pretty good remake, as remakes go, of the original 1956 film (which in turn was an adaptation of Jack Finney's 1955 novel); further remakes from 1993 and 2007 are also available, but since I've never seen them I have no opinion to offer.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

did he say that? he shaw did

One thing that struck me while reading All Shook Up was the names of the three different sections of the book, as pictured below:

In particular, the title of Part II, He Do The Police In Different Voices, seemed like such an oddly-constructed phrase that I assumed it must be a reference to something else. And sure enough it turns out to have been the original working title of TS Eliot's The Waste Land, Eliot himself lifting the phrase from a section of dialogue in Charles Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, his last completed novel before his death in 1870.

The other thing that struck me about the phrase was how I immediately started singing it in my own head to the tune of the "we love our love in different sizes" line from The Beautiful South's 1998 single Perfect 10. It's the same sort of transgeneric synaptic brainfart that resulted in these two posts from way back in 2007 and 2008. It's a good song, but The Beautiful South are one of those groups (Prefab Sprout would be another British example) who do clever, literate pop songs that I can appreciate the craft and cleverness of without ever being hit by them in quite the visceral way I like to be hit by music.

Noticing random scansion matches isn't a thing I came up with myself exclusively, though - following on the heels of this XKCD strip there is now a Twitter account devoted solely to tweeting the titles of Wikipedia articles that can be sung to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. What a time to be alive, etc. etc.

Finally, a couple of notes on my use of the phrase "Stakhanovite schedule of furtive handjobs" in the All Shook Up post - I have a vague memory of reading a thing on the internet ages ago that was either a parody of a piece of Harry Potter fanfic as penned by Martin Amis, or (less likely) actually was a piece of Harry Potter fanfic penned by Martin Amis. Either way, it included a memorable (if slightly pervy) phrase about Hermione Granger administering "Stakhanovite handjobs in the showers" which I chose to recycle here. Needless to say if you search "Hermione handjob showers" or similar on Google (and I strongly suggest you don't do so at work) you will be directed to a series of Pornhub links featuring a succession of dead-eyed Emma Watson lookalikes (well, if you squint a bit, as you'll probably be doing anyway), which are diverting enough in their own way but don't help tracking down bits of literary satire. It is of course possible that I dreamt the whole thing anyway.

The "Stakhanovite" reference here is to Alexey Stakhanov, Soviet hero and holder of various implausible records for mining productivity presumably achieved in the red heat of a Communism-crazed patriotic frenzy. We can have a good laugh about transparent Soviet propaganda, of course, but inevitably there were British examples as well, during the Second World War in particular. One that I hadn't encountered until a couple of days ago was Frank Laskier, a gunner in the Merchant Navy whose escape (at the cost of one of his feet) from a sinking ship after a German attack made him a perfect choice to be subsequently wheeled out (not literally, he'd had a prosthetic foot fitted by then) on various newsreels to whip up some avenging sentiment and break the news to his sweetheart Mary that she would have to wait until he'd finished the filthy business of dispatching the Hun before she could expect any filthy business of her own. 

Anyway, to cut these ramblings short, the thing that really interested me was Laskier's closing words in the clip here:
Do you think I'm going to let them get away with that? Not likely. Not pygmalion likely!
Listening to that, and the last bit in particular, has an oddly jarring effect - clearly the word "pygmalion" is meant to be some sort of minced oath, but devoid of some explanatory context I think most people (myself included) wouldn't have the first clue of why it's being used here. The answer is that George Bernard Shaw's play of the same name was one of the first plays to feature the word "bloody" as a profanity (albeit a pretty fucking mild one by today's standards), and the 1938 film, which retained the line, was also one of the first to use it. Laskier's cut-glass RP accent is a historical curio, as well, especially when you know that he grew up around Liverpool docks and would probably have started out with an impenetrable Scouse accent - there are echoes of Pygmalion again here as Eliza Doolittle undergoes a similar transformation, indeed this is part of what makes her use of "bloody" notable. Truly the past is a foreign country

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

the last book I read

All Shook Up by William Bedford. 

It's the late 1950s (which year is never specified exactly but the Elvis song which gives the novel its title was released in 1957) and Stephen Godard is living on the east coast (presumably Lincolnshire) with his mother and father when his father, a policeman, gets a new posting in charge of an American Air Force base, in the same general area but inland. This entails the whole family upping sticks and moving to a new house in the vicinity of the base, which is being used (the base, not the house) to store the new Nemesis nuclear missile, this being the height of the Cold War and all.

Stephen isn't terribly impressed about the move, but soon makes the best of it and makes some new friends: brittle, cynical Matthew, robust, sporty Barbara and enigmatic, scholarly Caroline, all of whose parents have some connection with the base.

Stephen and his friends are all in their mid-to-late teens and therefore at that age when firstly those feelings, you know, down there, start to make themselves known, and furthermore an age where they are expected to move seamlessly from being provided for at home and school to providing for themselves at college and in employment, the nature of which they are meant to have some clear ideas about. Like many teenagers, though, Stephen doesn't really know what he wants to do with his life. Stephen's father, on the other hand, has some pretty firmly-held views on the subject: Stephen should join the police force like his father, instead of poncing around with book-reading and other suspect activities like some sort of namby-pamby lah-di-dah poofter.

Stephen finds himself unable to resist his father's will and joins the police as a cadet, although he chafes at having to submit to the rigid hierarchical regime, and finds himself traumatised by some of the police reports (complete with gruesome photos) that he is required to read through. Meanwhile he hangs out with his friends quaffing cider down at the local pub and conducting a fledgling romance with pretty, enigmatic Caroline, happy to adhere to a Stakhanovite schedule of furtive handjobs but unwilling for the moment to go any further.

All the stuff that's parked on Stephen's doorstep has an impact on his life as well, though: the local police (with Stephen in tow) conduct a raid on a local house which is being used as a brothel (with many of the American military personnel from the base as clients), and the world finds itself facing the prospect of imminent fiery armageddon as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, and the base mobilises to prepare for the unthinkable possibility of having to deploy the Nemesis missile.

After it becomes clear that life in general is, in fact, going to go on, it also becomes clear that life as Stephen and his friends have known it is going to end - not only is everyone heading off to college, but Nemesis is being decommissioned and the base shut down, which means Stephen's father will be posted somewhere else. Caroline's father is being posted to the United States and Caroline will be going with him and attending university over there, so Stephen and Caroline enjoy a last few glorious weeks of valedictory fucking before she departs and Stephen finally screws up his courage and resigns from the police force to take up a college place to study to be a journalist.

There is a sense in which all coming-of-age novels, including the ones which have appeared on this blog (a list which includes Pig, The Levels, Demian, Bluesman, The Leaves On Grey and My Summer Of Love among others) cover much the same ground, i.e. the transition from childhood to adulthood, complete with some awkward fumbly furtive sticky couplings (though Stephen and Caroline seem to get the hang of it pretty quickly) and then a sense of things coming to an end as the principal character and his or her contemporaries head out into the world to seek their fortunes. In particular there are some echoes of The Levels here as Caroline, slightly posher and richer than Stephen, does her effortless social mobility thing and flits off leaving Stephen a bit more tied to his original location (college course notwithstanding). 

So you're never going to be able to avoid cliché completely, but within its self-imposed constraints I think All Shook Up does a pretty good job. There is an odd sense in which we get to know Stephen less well than, say, Matthew and Barbara, but maybe this just reflects that at that age (and perhaps any age) nothing is more mysterious to us than our own motivations for doing any of the things we choose to do. The specific details of the novel's location resonated with me, not because I'm at all familiar with Lincolnshire but because some of my formative years (during the Cold War) were spent living within a small nuclear warhead's throw of a fully tooled-up American Air Force base at Greenham Common. If the base in All Shook Up was meant to resemble a real one then it was probably Hemswell

Friday, September 25, 2020

transports of delight

Nia and I fulfilled a long-held ambition last weekend when we went down to the Transporter Bridge and did the high-level traverse of the bridge via the walkway at the top, rather than via the gondola at the bottom. Obviously this is only an option for foot passengers, as you'd struggle to get a motor vehicle up the steps, and you will have to pay a couple of quid extra for the privilege of climbing the 200-odd steps to the top and walking across.

Anyone thinking of doing it should be armed with the knowledge that it's pretty airy and exposed up there and the walkway is not some solid structure made out of stout timber planks (although old photos show it used to have some) or sheet steel but instead some flimsy looking mesh that you can see straight through down to the river below, and which flexes slightly worryingly under your feet as you walk on it. The top of the gondola mechanism which basically just clanks back and forth on rails passes disconcertingly close below your feet as well. I would say if you're in any doubt whether you'll like it or not, chances are you probably won't. Nia was fine, and I'm pretty much OK with heights (though the significant traces of rust and corrosion around some of the bolts in the superstructure gave me pause for thought); my main worry was that while I wanted to get some photographs I was acutely aware of the catastrophic consequences of dropping my mobile phone.

Blog readers with long memories may recall that I'd been across the bridge before back in late 2010 with Hazel, Doug and Anna as part of a general mooch around Newport involving several pubs, back in the pre-kids, pre-pandemic days when you could just do that sort of thing. Photos from last weekend's walk can be found here

Like I say, we'd been planning to do it for a while, as Nia shares my predilection for climbing on top of stuff - what finally prompted us to do it was the news that the bridge is due (as of this coming weekend, in fact) to shut down for a 2-year programme of repairs and maintenance, and that this would therefore be our last chance to do the walk before early 2023. I was half-expecting that we'd be thwarted at the eleventh hour by some draconian pandemic lockdown measures being imposed, but luckily we managed to dodge those by a few days. 

Blog readers who follow me on Twitter may be aware that the bridge has its own Twitter profile; one of the great joys of this is seeing the exchange of tweets between it and various other historic bridges, including the nearby Clifton Suspension Bridge but also an entertainingly banterous rivalry with the only other working transporter bridge in the UK (and one of only six worldwide), the Tees Transporter Bridge in Middlesbrough. It sounds terribly disloyal to say it, but I think the Middlesbrough bridge (also currently closed for maintenance, as it happens) is prettier, as it's slightly chunkier owing to its self-supported construction (the Newport one is cable-supported, a bit like a suspension bridge, complete with chunky cable anchorages on either side) and moreover is currently painted a rather fetching shade of blue. There is, as it happens, a bridge just upriver of the transporter bridge called the Tees-Newport Bridge, and much of the steel for the construction of the Newport transporter bridge (it opened in 1906, five years before the Middlesbrough bridge) came from the Dorman Long steelworks in, you've guessed it, Middlesbrough. Coincidence? or IS IT??!!!? As always, yes: yes it is.

There is a third, smaller, non-operational transporter bridge in Warrington which a band of stalwart enthusiasts are conducting a surely doomed attempt to secure some funding to renovate, and, as you'll recall from this earlier post from our trip to Liverpool for the Open Championship in 2014, there used to be another one, larger than either of the two surviving ones, crossing the Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal between Widnes and Runcorn. There is actually some footage of this on YouTube - this longer clip from the 1930s and this one dating from just before the completion of the replacement fixed bridge in 1961, which was quickly followed by the old bridge's demolition. Newer transporter bridges, and there aren't many, are generally somewhat smaller, including this rather charming miniature hand-operated one in Germany

Monday, September 21, 2020

let there be slightly less light

In a poignant echo of the current pandemic sweeping the nation, I'm afraid I have to report the tragic demise of another kitchen light bulb, latest victim of the current highly-infectious outbreak of bulb demises that started in November 2019 after a gap of around four-and-a-half years and has now accounted for five of the twelve bulbs in the kitchen layout (we replaced one, so you only see four in the photograph below). The latest one was number 3 (layout diagram here), one of the first two to expire as part of the original experiment back in May 2014 and be replaced with IKEA LED bulbs. It therefore replaces its predecessor as the longest-serving bulb in existence (well, not any more) with a lifespan of 2329 days.