Tuesday, December 01, 2020

light at the end of the tunnel

I will confess (and have done a couple of times before on this very blog) to a bit of a thing for disused railway lines, industrial archaeology and urban exploration. The way I rationalise the railway aspect of this to myself is that I have no interest in trains themselves and all the associated (as I sniffily deem it) geekery, but being impressed by the magnificence of a viaduct is no different from being awestruck by the magnificence of, say, St. Peter's Basilica, it's just a different sort of architecture. The further beauty of old railway architecture is that it can be combined with a rugged and windswept walk in the countryside (or, in certain circumstances, a nice bike ride), another thing that I am very keen on.

This extends to following a few enthusiasts on Twitter, which is how I caught sight of this tweet earlier today. 

This is the railway path between Keswick and Threlkeld in the Lake District which you might recall we walked along in 2008 but were then thwarted from walking along in a similar manner in 2018 by the damage inflicted by Storm Desmond in 2015, which had swept away a couple of old bridges. The picture below is from 2018; the one below it of me on one of the now collapsed bridges, probably irreparably weakening its superstructure with my colossal weight, is from 2008. 

I must say I expected that the rebuilding work would be massively protracted and would possibly never be completed, especially given the lack of progress that seemed to have been made in the couple of years between the damage occurring and our visit. However, things were evidently happening behind the scenes, and two completely new bridges have since been installed (and a third original bridge strengthened and repaired). Some details about the rebuilding project and some videos can be found here. More impressive in some ways than the bridge work was the re-opening of the buried tunnel under the A66 viaduct, whose bypassing by the old path necessitated a section of boardwalk which was a bit hilly and narrow, and therefore a bit awkward if you were either running or on a bike. 

[EDIT] Here's a photo I found from the 2008 collection which shows the eastern portal of the tunnel as it appeared at the time. You can just about see the curved brickwork of the very top of the tunnel opening above what was then ground level.

This video from the excellent people at Forgotten Relics gives a pretty good summary of the work that's been carried out. I'm looking forward to checking it all out on a future visit once, you know, all this (waves hands around vaguely) is out of the way. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

celebrity cookeylikey of the day

The Velvet Underground's bass- and viola-wrangler (and, hey, why not, Welshman of the Day) John Cale (pictured here in 1967) and absurd Turkish steak-wrangler and internet viral sensation Salt Bae (real name Nusret Gökçe, so, yeah, Salt Bae it is). Note that literally the only difference between them is that Bae's chin hair extends to a goatee whereas Cale restricts himself to a thing that I would call a "soul patch", but which apparently has various other names including a "jazz dot" and, incomprehensibly, a "Nollsey". That last one may of course just be a mischievous Wikipedia edit (the only person I could locate who goes by that name is this guy) and so should probably be taken with - no, wait for it - a pinch of salt.

Monday, November 23, 2020

the last book I read

Behind The Waterfall by Georgina Andrewes.

Jo Kelly is restless. Sure, she's got some useful qualifications and a nice steady boyfriend, Rick, but he's a bit squishy and unambitious and she has a yearning for adventure and to be doing things that matter in some way. So she signs up for a project to build water infrastructure with a women's group in Kenya, something that will put her engineering qualifications to good use.

Rick isn't especially happy about it, as Jo's assessment of the state of their relationship (basically that they're bimbling along amiably enough but not really going anywhere) is a bit of an unpleasant surprise to him, and harsh words are exchanged, but in a way this just makes Jo's decision to go easier. She arrives in Kenya and reports to the headquarters of the international aid agency she'll be working for, whereupon she is introduced to Mr. Katambo, the regional administrator for the village where she'll be living and working. He has taken it upon himself to provide transport for the long drive to Kingangi village, but the journey turns out to be even more protracted then Jo had anticipated, as several stops are made on the way to run various errands and drink beer.

This experience, and the discovery that the house Jo is supposed to be living in is a bit of a shambles, soon knock the corners off Jo's misty-eyed idealism, as do the thinly-veiled hostility and suspicion from some of the women she is supposed to be whipping into shape as a well-drilled self-empowered feminist water-engineering collective. But the country is beautiful, exotic and mysterious and the neighbours are friendly and generous. In particular Jo befriends Jerusa, the young woman next door, and through her meets Isaiah, a teacher at a local school and a fiercely intelligent political activist, with whom she starts a relationship. 

This is all very lovely, of course, but there are certain realities in a post-colonial country like Kenya that make an interracial relationship tricky. Is Jo just sleeping with Isaiah because she fancied an exotic shag? Similarly, is Isaiah just clocking up a notch on his bedpost so that he can boast to his friends later about fucking a white woman? Other questions arise as well: is Isaiah's commitment to political activism going to get him into trouble? Is Jo going to see any progress on her project or is she just going to spend all her time writing grant applications to various agencies? Will she be able to overcome Mr. Katambo's scepticism about having a female engineer in charge of his project?

Other realities intervene brutally when Jo's house is broken into at night by a gang of knife-wielding men, one of whom rapes her. She is then subjected to a further ordeal when she reports the attack to the police, the police chief asking why she hadn't resisted more, and implying that she must have either encouraged the assault or enjoyed it when it happened. In the face of this discouragement Jo nonetheless insists on bringing a case, and finds an unexpectedly resolute ally in Mr. Katambo. Isaiah, meanwhile, is notable by his absence, having been caught up in the events of the failed military coup in Nairobi. 

The wheels of justice turn slowly, though, and Jo returns to work and resumes living in her house. Rick travels out from England to spend time with her, and they resume their relationship in a non-committal sort of way. Rick eventually departs, and Jo's superiors at the aid agency inform her that they've regretfully decided that they can't guarantee her safety and that they're therefore terminating her placement. With the trial of her rapist in its final stages, a big fund-raising event for the village in the offing, and Isaiah now returned safely from Nairobi, Jo has to decide whether to try to make a future in Africa, or return home.

That's the story in rough chronological order - it's not presented that way in the book, though; we're plunged straight into Jo's night-time assault and rape on page one. The rest of the story plays out in a series of jumps backwards and forwards in time after that scene. This stuff never happens by accident, and the idea presumably was that the brutal opening would cast a shadow over the rest of the book, the scenes set before the rape in particular. It's impossible to view Jo's innocent delight at discovering the village and her neighbours, and her carefree outdooor fucking with Isaiah (including on a ledge behind a waterfall near the village, an episode which gives the novel its title) in quite the same light, knowing what we know.

It's a fairly short book (under 200 pages) which has some interesting points to make about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa, even those interventions made out of a genuine desire to help and do good, which cannot help but be tainted by the obvious fact of Western interference having fucked up many of these countries in the first place. Throw interpersonal and interracial relationships into the mixed-up mess of power structures and things get messy pretty quickly. 

Behind The Waterfall doesn't do anything terribly startling, but on its own terms I think it works pretty well, and Jo is an engaging central character. It makes a lot of the same points about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa as The Poisonwood Bible, though less luridly and more concisely. Other novels on this list to have been set principally in Africa include A Good Man In Africa (obviously) and Henderson The Rain King in central(ish) Africa and Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, The Conservationist, Age Of Iron, The Good Doctor and Frankie & Stankie in South Africa. 

Behind The Waterfall also won a Betty Trask Award (an award specifically for first novels) in 1988; the most recent book on this list to win the same award was Pig, whose review contains a links to a few others. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

this book is dead good

One further note following the Harvest post: the bit near the end where the hitherto sober, stolid and unadventurous protagonist Walter goes on a homebrew bender and then chows down a load of dubious mushrooms as a hangover cure is oddly jarring, the mushroom bit in particular, and the section which follows (basically most of the remainder of the book) has a weirdly woozy, spooked quality to it which could just be the after-effects of a skinful of ale and some hallucinogenic shrooms, but also just made me wonder: are we perhaps meant to infer that Walter has died? I guess the shrooms are the most likely culprit if so, and what follows would be some extended point-of-death hallucination à la Jacob's Ladder, or some sort of weird afterlife shit. A similar reading is much more explicitly suggested by Lanark, as I mentioned at the time.

Another book where this sort of reading is possible, and may even be the most sensible reading, is Iain Banks' Dead Air, which I read back in 2015. You'll recall the ill-advised drunken answerphone message which Ken goes on a wholly implausible breaking-and-entering spree to try to erase before sinister gangster type John Merrial can hear it, and the horribly efficient abduction of Ken by Merrial's henchmen once Merrial views the CCTV footage shortly afterwards. Ken, gaffer-taped to a chair in some dingy London basement, fully expects to be killed once Merrial has interrogated him a bit, and literally shits himself fairly early in the ordeal, just to prove he's taking things seriously. But, after a convincingly outraged performance from Merrial's wife Celia following the suggestion that she and Ken have been fucking (which they totally have been, needless to say), Merrial cools off a bit and lets Ken go, with strict finger-wagging warnings about what will happen to him if he ever blabs about any of this. 

I mean, maybe it's just me, but it strikes me that a proper ruthless gangster would probably just have Ken rubbed out at this point, rather than leaving him free to shoot his mouth off indiscreetly, something it was after all literally his job to do as a talk-radio host. So maybe the best approach is to view the brief epilogue where Merrial fucks off to Amsterdam semi-permanently and Ken and Celia are free to go semi-public with their relationship and eventually skip through the streets of Glasgow hand-in-hand as being as real as the last section of Vanilla Sky, only without quite as many Scientologists.

The really annoying bit about all this is that I'm convinced there's a small section in Dead Air, probably buried in one of Ken's pop-culture rants, which mentions a film or a book which uses this plot device (there have, after all, been many), something which is just possibly meant to foreshadow the book's ending and give you a clue about how to interpret it. Of course I'm fucked if I can find it now, short of re-reading the entire book, and it's too late to ask Banks himself for a ruling from the chair.

[EDIT] I'm going to break with tradition and put this here, rather than in another post: I found it, on page 232 of my copy. It's a brief discussion between Ken and one of his mates about the ending of Total Recall (the 1990 Arnie version), and the fairly respectable theory that the whole middle and end sections of the film were a dream and that Doug Quaid aka Arnie has never left the couch at Rekall. Is it meant to be a clue? Who knows?

Lastly, anyone following me on Twitter and wondering about the provenance of the various scurrilous cropped sections of text in this thread should wonder no longer: it is of course extracts from Moby-Dick

Saturday, November 14, 2020

the last book I read

Harvest by Jim Crace.

Walter Thirsk has got himself into a nice comfortable little rut; in fact so has everyone in his village. Cut off from regular passers-by in their sealed-off little valley they pass the years in simple country pursuits: planting barley, harvesting barley, making porridge and beer out of the harvested barley, occasionally throwing in a bit of wheat to mix it up a bit, some small-scale livestock husbandry, extreme suspicion of and open hostility to strangers, the usual sort of stuff.

The trouble with getting into this sort of a rut is that you can find yourself ill-equipped to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances, and WAIT A MINUTE here are some circumstances quickly changing just as the novel opens: a couple of the younger villagers, hopped up to the tits on some shrooms they've foraged in the local woods, accidentally set fire to the local squire's dovecote and roast all his prize doves. At roughly the same time a small group of strangers sets up camp just inside the boundary of the village. After a tense stand-off when the newcomers - two men and a woman - are discovered, a convenient ruse presents itself: why not fit them up for the dovecote fire? That way we get to put a veneer of justification on the ill-treatment we were itching to mete out anyway, these newcomers being strangers and all.

So the two men are locked up in the town pillory for a week, uncomfortable and humiliating (especially given that you presumably don't get let out when you need a shit) but not usually fatal. However, the older man is a bit on the short side and unexpectedly dies of strangulation after several hous of standing on tiptoe.

Further unwelcome change is afoot when the lord of the manor's brother-in-law turns up and asserts his right to have a say in how the manorial lands are managed (the current lord having married into the job rather than having any hereditary rights himself). Screw all this subsistence-level faffing about with barley, let's open up the field system a bit and get a couple of hundred sheep in here. The locals won't like it? Well, screw those guys, they'll have to get used to the idea.

Word gets around and disgruntlement ferments: one of the new lord's men is badly beaten and stabbed and someone kills the current lord's horse messily with an iron spike. Some of the village women are hauled before the new lord and accused of witchcraft and released only on the condition that they banish themselves from the village.

Suspicion is rife among the villagers, and falls particularly on Walter: firstly because an injury sustained while trying to fight the dovecote fire has meant that he's been unable to take part in this year's harvesting activities and therefore might have had some free time for a bit of the old treachery, and secondly because despite having lived in the village for many years and married a local girl (now deceased) he was not born there and is still in some sense an "incomer".

Gradually all the villagers except Walter drift away, afraid of further retribution. Walter is taken into the confidence of the lords up at the manor house and told to mind the village in their absence, not that there is much to mind as everyone else has upped and gone. The only other souls left in the place are the man still in the pillory and the woman, revealed to be his wife, who has been lurking in various now-uninhabited bits of the village. Walter releases the man from his confinement and persuades him to collaborate in an act of defiance against the new regime: plough the recently-cleared barley fields and sow them with winter wheat. This task complete, Walter retires back home to get pissed on some home-brew and sober up the following morning with some of the magic forest shrooms. Arriving back at the manor in a bit of an addled state he finds that the man has now been reunited with his wife and together the pair have trashed and robbed the place and are now conducting their own personal act of revenge by torching all the houses in the village. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, and not fancying waiting for the lords of the manor to return, Walter stashes some belongings in a rucksack and heads off out of the valley and beyond the village boundary stones to seek his fortune in the outside world.

This is, I think, the sixth Jim Crace novel I've read, three of which have featured on this blog: Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones and The Pesthouse (the other two are Quarantine and Being Dead). All are excellent, but I think Harvest is probably the best of all. I love a tale of time-travelling space zombies battling robot Hitler on an exploding neutron star as much as the next person, but there's something very appealing about a simple and unadorned tale told in a simple and unadorned style just saying: look, you see, here are people; this is how people are; this is how they treat each other; you see what happens. You'll recall that despite my enjoying The Pesthouse greatly I had a few quibbles about its structure and plotting: I have no such quibbles here. One thing that was unusual about The Pesthouse was that it specifically named its location (America, though admittedly that's relatively non-specific) - most other Crace books are very cagey about when and where they are set and how closely this is meant to resemble any real-world location. While we assume Harvest's location is England in the Middle Ages no specific indication is ever given, apart, perhaps, from Walter's surname which suggests a northern location.

Harvest won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013; previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, The Corrections, Midnight's Children and G. It also won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2015; the previous winner featured here is Remembering Babylon.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

findus crispy pandemicakes

We haven't done a recipe for a while, have we? I can see that I wrote down a very hand-wavey summary of what I did to make some spiced roasted pumpkin soup in this post from a couple of Hallowe'ens ago, but the last post I can find that actually had a formal list of ingredients in it was this one from 2016 for the latest incarnation of what I still think of as my clafoutis recipe, but these days is really a sort of cakey bread and butter pudding.

Anyway, here's a couple of things we've cooked up during lockdown - I say "we" as the girls, Alys in particular, are quite into a bit of the old cooking these days. The first is a sort of variation on some previous recipes which can be found here and here and which I tried as a means of using up some leftover mashed potato. The first thing to say is that you need less potato than you might think - if you've got enough to fill, for instance, one of those  ramekins that everyone has a stash of in the back of a cupboard, you've probably got enough for 3-4 decent-sized pancakes. Or, looking at it another way, if it's too much for you to say: fuck it, I may as well just eat that now, then it's probably enough to save and have a go at this with.

So, here's what you need:

Potato panbread flatcakes

  • Some leftover mashed potato
  • An exactly equal quantity, by volume, of self-raising flour (you're not an idiot, but just in case, the easiest way to do this is to empty the container you had the mash in into a larger mixing bowl, fill that now-empty container to the same level with the flour and then tip it in too)
  • Some liquid just in case you overdo the flour (pretty much anything will do, water for instance, or if you're feeling a bit more creative maybe some plain yoghurt)

Smash everything together in a bowl, cut it into as many fist-sized pieces as it will make, flatten then with either a rolling pin or a fist or both to about 3-4 mm thickness and place in a dry, un-oiled, non-stick pan for a couple of minutes on each side. Hey presto, potato-ey pancakey things which are somewhere between the farinata (which is a proper floppy pancake) and the yoghurt flatbreads (which are properly bready and quite stiff) in terms of texture, and very nice with a whole variety of things.

You'll be wanting some dessert after that, so here's a supremely simple chocolate cheesecake we made when my parents came over for a post-lockdown reunion the other day:

Chocolate cheesecake

  • 300g condensed milk (about 3/4 of a standard tin)
  • 300g soft cheese - I used light Philly; usually the full-fat versions are better for this sort of thing but it doesn't really matter here as the condensed milk whacks the fat and sugar content back up to dangerous levels
  • 200g dark cooking chocolate (anything but dark would make the end product far too sweet)

Make a standard smashed-up biscuits and melted butter base and put it in the fridge or freezer to set. Melt the chocolate, beat the condensed milk and soft cheese together, add the chocolate, beat some more, pour the resulting goop onto the biscuit base, refrigerate for a few hours, eat. Simple! These amounts fill what I think was a 10-inch flan tin; we made an initial experimental version in an 8-inch tin with ratios of 200g:200g:100g, which worked fine, although I think the slightly higher chocolate content in the second one improved things (as it generally does).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

oh no, it's moby derek

A couple of further items related to Moby-Dick - firstly the 1956 Gregory Peck film, while the most famous adaptation of the book, certainly isn't the last word on the subject, far from it. There were film adaptations as early as 1926's silent The Sea Beast (featuring the immortal dialogue intertitles pictured here), later talkified as 1930's Moby Dick. Both films starred John Barrymore, but of course as admirable as Barrymore is, all anyone wants to know about these (and indeed any) adaptations is: how rubbish where the whale effects? From the brief clip I've seen I would say: not great, but not as rubbish as you might think. As with any effects achieved using a combination of scale models, carefully-shot articulated body parts and stock footage of real creatures there are some jarring scale transitions, from mildly irascible trout to something the size of a house, but this is hardly a problem exclusive to 1930s films; Jaws suffered from it too.

Subsequent to the 1956 adaptation there were several more, including a TV movie in 1998 (starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab and featuring a cameo from Peck), a film adaptation in 2010 starring, bizarrely, Barry Bostwick aka Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Ahab, and a TV series in 2011 starring William Hurt as Ahab. Anyway, here's the lowdown on the various whales in each of those adaptations:

  • 1930 - not bad, considering, though not particularly white
  • 1956 - appropriately gnarled and wrinkly and scarred and harpoon-laden and overall pretty good, considering, though a bit rubbery
  • 1998 - surprisingly rubbish - presumably some early CGI but far too clean and smooth and just generally fake-looking
  • 2010 - utterly ludicrous, no doubt intentionally since this was a film by The Asylum, the company that brought you the Sharknado series, not to mention Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus
  • 2011 - again, a bit CGI, but much better

That's restricting ourselves to films specifically named Moby Dick, but there are other works which owe it a debt, notably the 2015 film In The Heart Of The Sea, which is actually a rendering of the true story of the demise of the whaling ship Essex in 1820. So not a direct adaptation of Moby-Dick, but since the novel borrowed heavily from the Essex's story, and the film seems to focus on the battle with the whale rather than the subsequent murder and cannibalism activities, it's an adaptation in all but name.

Other non-filmic works have taken inspiration, or maybe just a name, from Moby-Dick, notably Led Zeppelin's instrumental song of the same name, which was mainly a vehicle for John Bonham to indulge in that most reviled of rock traditions, the drum solo. A just-about-tolerable four-and-a-half minutes in its original studio incarnation (about three minutes of which is drum solo), it was expanded to interminable length in concert, presumably to allow Plant and Jones to wander off and have a cup of tea and Page to bang a couple of under-age groupies. The version on the definitive Zeppelin live album How The West Was Won is 19 minutes long, which is a larger amount of time than I'm prepared to sacrifice to listening to a drum solo, as thunderously legendary a rock drummer as Bonham was. The other obvious song to mention here is Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride, inspired by the story of the Essex and which I see I've already mentioned here, as well as cashing in a couple of cheap gags, which I now feel that I can't do again here. Oh well, no use "blubbering" about it, hahaha.

Lastly, Moby-Dick is another in the intermittent sequence of books featured here which contain a map, a list which includes The End Of Vandalism back in mid-2019 and this list of books from around five years earlier which includes a few books I own which haven't appeared on this blog as well as A Small Death In Lisbon, The Name Of The Rose, Faceless Killers and Sunset Song of those that do. The map just shows the Pequod's voyage from Nantucket to the site of its eventual demise in the mid-Pacific. Here it is: