Friday, February 05, 2016

voodoo chilli (slight reburn)

I have a bit of a thing for spicy food, as anyone who's kept up with my periodic documentation of my Korean noodle fetish will know. That love for chilli-based stuff extends to having a few bottles of chilli sauce in the fridge, just in case anything needs spicing up at short notice. My collection doesn't begin to compare with that of my friend Jim, who has a whole kitchen cupboard full of various chilli-based weaponry, most of it probably technically illegal under some UN chemical weapons treaty. Here's my current hall of fame:

From left to right:
  • a somewhat elderly (best before some time in 2012, but I'm pretty sure no germs can survive in there) bottle of Encona West Indian chilli sauce. This is nice, quite sharp and vinegary, but still good as a plate-side dipping sauce;
  • a bottle of Flying Goose brand sriracha sauce - purchased in Tesco a couple of days ago. More on this in a minute;
  • some bog-standard Thai-style sweet chilli dipping sauce from Asda, pretty mild;
  • a bottle of Heinz-brand green sauce supposedly made from jalapeno peppers, not as fiery as you might think, and also probably a number of years past its best before date;
  • a bottle of Mama Sita's Hot Pepper Sauce - this is supposedly made from a chilli called Labuyo that is cultivated in the Philippines, very similar to Tabasco but a bit hotter;
  • your basic bog-standard Tabasco - no self-respecting bacon sandwich or Bloody Mary should be without it;
  • a bottle of Fiesta peri-peri sauce from (I think) Aldi.
I was prompted to compile this list by purchasing the bottle of sriracha sauce on a whim in Tesco a couple of days ago, and discovering that not only is it ferociously addictive, but also that there is a whole sriracha sub-culture out there engaging in furious debate about which one is the best. The original one is produced by Huy Fong in the distinctive green-topped bottles from their factory in Irwindale, southern California (in the news a year or so ago after suspicions of noxious chilli sauce fumes spilling out into the town and inconveniencing people) and is, amusingly, known in some jurisdictions (thanks to the rooster logo) as "cock sauce". Most of the imitators try to emulate the big clear bottle/green squirty top convention, including the Flying Goose brand that I've got hold of here.

These are all within what I deem to be the acceptable boundaries of good sense when it comes to chilli sauce - my rule of thumb being that if licking a few drops off your finger causes either a heart attack or severe finger and tongue blistering and the need to quaff three pints of full-fat milk afterwards, then you've strayed into the realms of comedy sauce products which are no use to anyone for any actual culinary purpose. Despite that there is a bit of an arms race going on to create things that rate highest on the Scoville scale of chilli intensity. Consider that both the sriracha and Tabasco (and probably the Encona as well) rate at about 2000-2500 Scoville units - the Mama Sita's might be a bit hotter; then consider that Dave's Insanity Sauce, one of the trailblazers for pointlessly hot and inedible sauce products, weighs in at about 180,000 units. Then consider that some of the products made by Blair's rate at over 10 million Scoville units. Then ask: why?

Thursday, February 04, 2016

the last book I read

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis.

A man walks into a remote Kentucky town. Not your typical Kentucky town-dweller: tall, pale, skinny. His name is Thomas Jerome Newton, and he's from another planet.

Having made a few exploratory trips into town from the site where his spaceship crash-landed to sell various items of precious metal jewellery, partly to raise some initial cash and partly to verify that he can interact with humans without being detected, Newton moves on to more ambitious pursuits, like building up a multi-million-dollar business empire off the back of various patents for technological wonders, knowledge of which he has brought with him from his home planet.

It's difficult to start and maintain such a business without becoming publicly-known, though, still less without having to trust other people to do some of the work for you. Among the people Newton chooses to trust are borderline-alcoholic housekeeper Betty-Jo and physicist Nathan Bryce. He needs Bryce's help for his Big Secret Project, which turns out to be building a spaceship - this spaceship will return to Newton's home planet Anthea (supposedly in our own solar system, though Newton is cagey about exactly where; it pretty much has to be Mars, though) which has been ravaged by war and drought, and bring back a small number of surviving Antheans to live on Earth, co-exist with humans and, through their prior experience and superior technology, save the human race from annihilating itself and rendering its planet a wasteland.

Obviously it would be unwise just to blurt all this out and expect people to go: yup, OK then, here, let me help you with that Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator. So Newton maintains the pretence of being an eccentric, though human, businessman by continuing to wear the fake nipples and contact lenses that disguise his true form. Eventually Bryce starts to smell a rat and rigs up an X-ray machine to capture an image of Newton, weird alien internal structure and all, without his knowledge; eventually Newton is forced to confide in Bryce that yes, he's from another planet, but we come in peace and just want to help you avoid blowing yourselves up. None of that nice planet, we'll take it stuff, good lord no.

Inevitably, though, the authorities get wind of what's going on and take a more paranoid view of the whole situation. So they spirit Newton away to an undisclosed location and get down to some serious probing. Having failed either to conclusively establish that he's from another planet, or get him to confess his plans for world domination, they're obliged to let him go, but not until they've done a couple of last-minute tests on him. Unfortunately one of these tests involves shining high-power X-rays into his eyes, blinding him.

So Newton's plans for sending a ship to Anthea are thwarted. When Bryce finds him again, supping gin in a bar in New York, some sort of political crisis is happening which makes Newton's help more vital than ever. But why would Newton - blind, alcoholic, and with no hope of ever seeing anyone from his home planet again, now that the planetary alignment has shifted - want to bother helping?

The Man Who Fell To Earth (first published in 1963) is most famous for the 1976 film based on it starring David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton - Bowie's first major film role and probably still his most successful one, playing some drug-addled emaciated weirdo not being that much of a stretch for mid-70s Bowie. I must confess I haven't actually seen the film, but the book is a tight, fairly short and highly entertaining and provoking read. As always it's about things other than nipple-less aliens building space rockets: more general alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone else, that sort of thing. It's suggested that it may be at least partly autobiographical, and the struggles with alcoholism certainly echo Tevis's own.

There are echoes of other science fiction here: the thing of a representative of a tired, weakened, enervated civilisation on its last legs but still technologically in advance of our own looking for a new start on our green and fertile planet has been done a few times elsewhere. There are also a few echoes of Algis Budrys' Who?, not least in the general Cold War paranoia, but also in the central character's being a figure of suspicion to the authorities, not conclusively enough that they can pin anything on him, but just enough for them to never be able to leave him alone.

The other Tevis in this list, The Queen's Gambit, is probably better, but this is also very good, in its understated way. My edition (featuring a picture of David Bowie from the film) is a Sight & Sound special edition that I assume was originally given away with a copy of the magazine.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

don't you need some doggy to love

Couple of further follow-up observations on old blog posts - firstly, continuing the 2016 theme of celebrity deaths I note the demise of Paul Kantner, songwriter, singer and guitarist with Jefferson Airplane, and, subsequently, Jefferson Starship. It should be noted that he'd quit the band before they mutated, unforgivably, into Starship. Kantner seems, endearingly, to have remained committed to his early counter-culture ideals and sticking it to The Man in general into his 70s. Here's the Airplane rattling through Volunteers at Woodstock in 1969.

Secondly, what is it with Australian rugby league stars and inappropriate sex acts with dogs? You'll recall the strange case of Joel Monaghan and his ill-advised dalliance with a golden labrador in 2010 - well the latest drink-fuelled atrocity is Mitchell Pearce's equally ill-advised drunken dry-humping of a small poodle-like creature at an Australia Day party, captured by an unnamed third party on video and now, inevitably, all over the internet. As boneheaded as this is I'm not sure it compares with Monaghan's exploits, since as far as I can see at no point does Pearce's penis directly contact, still less enter, any part of the dog. If I were him I'd be more embarrassed, in hindsight, at my blatant lack of shame or concern about what appears to be a large piss-stain on the front of my shorts. It is alleged he'd pissed on the sofa as well.

Interestingly, Mitchell Pearce was also involved in one of the most legendary of all pissed-up Aussie rugby league rampages, Craig Gower's terrorising of a golf resort in 2005 - it was he, aged about 16, who was chased "in a threatening manner" by Gower and subsequently vomited on. Maybe that incident made more of an impression than he realised at the time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

look, it's moby's dick

Couple of further cetacean observations: firstly that there was a bit about the whale strandings on the Today programme this morning which included the claim that the sperm whale's brain is the largest of any animal that has ever lived. I'm not disputing the claim, since it's true, but it does seem to be begging a flippant response along the lines of: well, that's as may be, but they're not very fucking bright, are they? The big blubbery cretins. Harsh? Perhaps.

Secondly, there seems to be a bit of a journalistic thing of calling sperm whales "gentle giants". I'm not sure where this comes from, but while you could argue for the description being appropriate for the big filter-feeding rorquals like the blue whale, sperm whales are actually some bad-ass motherfuckers. For one thing, they eat squid, including the big ones, and they have been rumoured to attack and sink ships, though there's some doubt as to how likely that is. It hasn't stopped Hollywood basing the plot of the new movie In The Heart Of The Sea around it, though. The film is a fictionalised version of the story of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex as previously mentioned here - I couldn't speak for the whole film but the trailers are heavy on the whale-wrangling and boat-smashing and light on the murder and cannibalism.

Lastly, most of the news stories about the recent strandings mention that the whales were all male - as it happens you ought to be able to work this out just by looking at the pictures of the corpses. Honestly, you don't know where to look. Gentle giants? More like genital giants, amirite?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

whale whale whale whale whale how very nice

As well as keeping you up to date with the latest developments in cock graffiti the world over, here at Electric Halibut we also ensure that you've got your finger on the pulse when it comes to exploding whales, not that any of these big blubbery oafs have a pulse any more, apart from a small seismic blip when they explode.

As it happens there's been some big exploding whale news this week as part of the more general whale-related goings-on on the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts, where a group of sperm whales have got themselves stranded, and subsequently died, in the biggest sperm whale beaching ever recorded in Britain. It seems to be part of a larger pattern of beachings as there have been a dozen more on the northern coasts of the Netherlands and Germany in the last couple of weeks. As always, the reasons why these mass beachings occur are opaque and subject to much wild speculation: sonar? sea pollution? climate change? dwindling food supply? blind chance?

It's been reported that one of the whales washed up in Skegness has "exploded" - don't be expecting anything as spectacular as some of the whale detonations of the past, though (though to be fair at least one of those was artificially enhanced) - what seems to have happened here was a bit of a venting of foul-smelling air once one of the biologists cut into the whale, a pretty common occurrence by all accounts. There may yet be some scope for a whale explosion of a different kind, though, as the fifth whale to be found appears to have come to rest on a former weapons range on the Lincolnshire coast, a site rumoured to contain much unexploded ordnance. So it could just take a bit of shifting of sand or internal organs, the whale rolling into a slightly different position, and kablooie, hallelujah, it's raining whale. Watch this space.

the last book I read

The Sea by John Banville.

Max Morden, art critic and historian, has come to a nice quiet guest house in a quiet Irish seaside town in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Anna, from cancer. Not just any old guest house, though, but the former residence of the Grace family who he knew as a child, mainly through their twin children Chloe and Myles.

So we're in That Last Golden Summer territory here, or more specifically that sub-category That Last Golden Summer At The End Of Which That Thing Happened Where My Whole Life Went To Shit. So while he's ostensibly retreating to the coast to regroup after his wife's death and concentrate on making some progress on his latest book, on French artist Pierre Bonnard, Max is actually mooning around drinking too much and reflecting on his childhood visits and his friendship with Chloe and Myles.

Chloe was your standard spiky slightly feisty tomboyish type, while Myles was altogether stranger, web-toed and practically mute, although that didn't stop him and Chloe having that near-telepathic thing that twins have (at least in fiction). Their parents, Mr & Mrs Grace, also employed a governess, Rose, whose life Chloe in particular enjoyed making a misery. Max tagged along for trips to the seaside and other adventures, although seemingly more through proximity and convenience than through any great mutual liking.

So Max continues (in the book's nominal present) to fester at the guest house while his recollections flit between Chloe and Myles and more recent memories of his wife Anna's final days in hospital. Eventually he gets around to describing The Thing that happened to tear the Graces' lives (and to a lesser degree his own) apart - one of those sticky pre-adolescent sexual awakening things followed by a shocking and self-desctructive act of twinly solidarity by Chloe and Myles.

The whole "elderly person retreats to remote location to reflect on their life and That Golden Summer while the past threatens to catch up with them in unexpected ways" thing is a trope well-used in modern fiction, indeed the only other Banville on this list, Eclipse, is structured in a very similar way, as is The Heather Blazing and no doubt one or two others. The Sea is probably better than either of those, just because the queasy, claustrophobic cusp-of-puberty thing is always fascinating, and the contrast with Max's recollections of Anna's death is stark. That said, the pivotal event raises more questions than it answers and doesn't really fit with what we've been told about the twins up to that point.

But of course this is partly the point, since one of the things the book is about is the unreliableness of memory, even of fairly recent events like Anna's death, let alone childhood stuff from 50-odd years ago. The point is also that things like the plausibility of some of the key moments isn't really the point, the point being to revel in the richness of Banville's prose even as you think: well, that business with Chloe and Myles was a bit thinly-explained and unsatisfactory, wasn't it? And how much of this is meant to be taken as reliable recollection, since Max's arbitrary naming of the two nearby villages as Ballymore and Ballyless is pretty clearly not meant to be taken to resemble their real names?

The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (not without some controversy), beating, among other shortlisted novels, Never Let Me Go. This makes it - I think - the sixth Booker winner on this list, after G., The Gathering, Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Midnight's Children. If pressed I'd have to say I think that Never Let Me Go is a better book, but I did enjoy The Sea, probably more than either of the other two Banvilles (Eclipse and The Book Of Evidence) I've read - Banville's gift for a beautifully-crafted sentence make you inclined to forgive him for some meanderingness and implausibility of plot.

The Sea was made into a film in 2013, presumably with some smoothing out of the timeline. Plenty of heavy types in the cast list, though.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Recently-deceased Eagles mainman Glenn Frey, circa the turn of the 1980s (i.e. around the time of The Long Run, after he'd dispensed with the 1970s bandit moustache and cut the flowing locks back to a quintessential 1980s mullet), and David Naughton, star of the classic comedy/horror film An American Werewolf In London and of pretty much nothing else since as far as I know.

As well as his very brief movie career, David Naughton apparently had a singing career of similarly brief duration, comprising the phenomenally cheesy slice of disco nonsense Makin' It, which was a US top ten hit in 1979.

Friday, January 22, 2016

the phallus of righteous justice

It seems so obvious in hindsight, but if you're thinking of defacing large areas of land with crude portrayals of giant spurting cocks - and who hasn't at least considered that at one time or another? - then actually snow is pretty much the perfect medium. Yes, you can go around with a can of weedkiller, possibly concealed up a trouser leg Great Escape stylee, and kill some grass, or hang precariously off a roof while daubing it with paint, but it's a lot of effort, and there'll probably be some sort of community service court order served on you whereby you have to go and clear it up afterwards, unless you can persuade your local council to do it for you.

Snow, on the other hand, is easy to manipulate, and - unless you live in Antarctica - there's a transient, ephemeral nature to it so that it'll eventually fade away without any intervention being required. The extra element of cleverness with this one in Gothenburg, Sweden is that it was drawn (at some degree of personal risk to the perpetrator, one assumes) on a frozen lake in a park, so that it was a while before the dead corporate hand of The Man was able to come up with a Health & Safety-compliant way of removing it. 

The rather glorious footnote is that one of the officials tasked with removing the original, relatively small snow cock was so racked with guilt at what he had done that he organised the construction of a much larger, many times more magnificent cock in a nearby park.

As stupendous as this is, the guy who constructed it has made a bit of a schoolboy error: a crudely-daubed cock is not complete unless it has all spunk coming out of the end. Honestly, it's like these people know nothing.

If even snow-based cock-daubing seems a bit high-risk for you, then how about this: going out for a walk or a jog or a run with your GPS device and trying to make your route conform as closely as possible to the shape of a cock. It almost goes without saying that there is a whole website devoted to people drawing GPS cocks. If you have access to an aeroplane you can do much the same thing on a somewhat larger scale