Thursday, July 17, 2014

gene therapy

I note that it's something like eight years, back in the very earliest days of this blog in fact, since I last enthused about Gene Clark's 1974 album No Other. And I need very little encouragement to enthuse about it, since it is one of the most remarkable albums of the 1970s or any other decade for that matter.

The specific catalyst for this post, however, is my discovery of this video of a concert at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in New York in January of this year, wherein an assortment of members of various hipster-ish bands re-enacted the entire album in its original running order. A recipe for some sort of horrific car-crash, you might think, but actually it genuinely seems to have been done with a good deal of care and love, and the results are for the most part pretty splendid, especially given that the album's sound wouldn't have been the easiest to reproduce in a live setting (Clark himself never attempted to tour in support of the album on its original release).

My personal highlights are the two songs featuring Fleet Foxes' front-man Robin Pecknold, Life's Greatest Fool and Strength Of Strings, partly because they showcase the stupendous female backing vocal ensemble. I must also mention From A Silver Phial, not so much because Hamilton Leithauser makes an especially memorable job of the vocal but because it remains one of my favourite songs. It's a pity that the high-definition video doesn't include the encores, as then I could have linked to a better-quality version of Victoria Legrand's spooky version of Clark's Hear The Wind, but it's still worth a listen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

house of the tiling fun

When we moved into our current house in June 2010, it was with the knowledge that there would be a few things we'd want to change around the place. I think unless you're moving into some sort of pristine showhome or you're a gazillionaire and you've designed the place down to the last detail, from the cocktail bar and recreational ball pit in the conservatory to the cocktail bar and recreational studded sex harness in the bedroom, then it's likely that you'll at least want to apply a lick of paint here and there to freshen things up, even if you're not knocking walls down.

Our predecessors (the male half of whom - the previous occupant of my shed - is now sadly deceased) had been in the house for 30-odd years, and some of the decor was obviously of similar vintage. That weird shiny vinyl wallpaper with the swirly patters or the bumpy embossed stuff is all a bit 1970s - indeed so, I would argue, is the whole concept of wallpaper. So that had to go from a couple of places, as did the strange chain attachment hanging from the ceiling in the spare bedroom. Aha, you'll be saying, the recreational sex harness. Well, maybe, but the story we were told is that my male predecessor was a former amateur boxer and that it had at one time been the attachment for a punch bag. You may choose to believe that story or not as you wish.

Anyway, not to get ahead of myself, here's the order in which we tackled the various decoration & renovation tasks. Where there is a link on the room name/description this will take you to a photo gallery.

1) second downstairs reception room - this was the first priority as it was intended to be Hazel's client reception & album viewing area and would enable her to relinquish the separate office space she was renting for this purpose at vast expense. Bit of wallpaper stripping, a lick of paint and some new light fittings, nothing too major.

2) the master bedroom - second priority as my wife refused to allow me to erect my IKEA bookshelves until we'd painted the wall they were going to sit in front of. Wallpaper stripping and painting mainly - sounds simple but it's an absolutely gargantuan room with lots of fitted cupboards, so it was all a bit fiddly in places.

3) the spare bedroom - this room featured possibly the most bizarre decor in the whole house, as most of one wall had been given over to wall-to-ceiling cork tiles for who knows what purpose - thankfully my fears of finding my predecessor's mother-in-law walled up behind it proved groundless. Less thankfully they were an absolute bastard to remove and necessitated getting the wall where they'd been replastered afterwards. There was also some furniture which had been fitted flush with the wall and floor by removing the relevant sections of skirting board and carpet, thus also necessitating complete replacement of both. And then there was the recreational sex harness as mentioned above.

4) what is officially one of the two small bedrooms towards the back of the house, and had been my "office", but was then designated as Nia's room (or "the baby" as she was then, as she hadn't been born when we started) and so needed to be converted. The usual de-wallpapering (some particularly horrible grey swirly vinyl stuff) and painting, plus converting the cupboard containing the boiler and water tank into a storage cupboard for baby clothes via an ingenious removable shelving system of my own design.

5) The garden. The first of the really big tasks, and the one I'm retrospectively most proud of. The garden was in a bit of a state as my predecessor had planned to build a one-storey extension at the back of the house, and had done various ground clearance activities in preparation for this as well as building a low breeze-block wall with various wire wall ties protruding from it. The bits that weren't a horrible sharp concrete and wire-based death trap were a jungle of buddleja and various other invasive plants. The impetus for this was - again - having Nia and being aware that once she was properly mobile she'd need access to a garden that wasn't going to rip her face off as soon as she set foot in it. So what we did was:
  • tidy up the smashed concrete driveway by extending it to the back door and putting some nice neat brick edging on it
  • remove about a quarter of the decking area to increase the area available for putting a lawn on - on removing the decking boards it turned out that a lot of the superstructure was rotten anyway, so it would have had to go one way or the other. Under the decking was a 4-inch thick layer of concrete that I had to hire a breaker from the good people at HSS (which happened to be about 50 yards down the road) to smash up, and under that was a foot-high layer of loamy soil that probably hadn't seen air or daylight for about 30 years.
  • cover up the ugly breeze-block wall by facing it with some nice big railway sleepers that we got from the timber yard in Crumlin. We decided to extend the sleepers down the side wall to make a sort of long low bench when we discovered that the lawn level was in danger of being below the bottom of the wall, and that the wall didn't seem to be sitting on any meaningful foundations.
  • fill up the areas enclosed behind the railway sleepers to make some raised beds for planting vegetables in.
  • use the earth from under the decking to level the rest of the garden up in preparation for making a lawn.
  • dump 6 tons of topsoil onto this area and then lay some turf on top of that (in what turned out to be freezing temperatures and torrential rain)
  • put a child-proof fence around the edge of the decking area to avoid any plummeting incidents
  • extend the side wall upwards by about 3 feet by putting a fence on top of it
I'd never done any hard landscaping of this sort before so I was extremely grateful for the assistance of my ex-brother-in-law Ray, who'd offered us his expertise and assistance in "tidying up" the garden as a wedding present back in June 2011, without (I suspect) quite realising what he was getting himself into.

6) the downstairs bathroom. This is located in a little brick lean-to structure at the back of the house, the best theory for the original purpose of which that I've heard is that it was probably the coalshed. That would explain the obvious bricked-up door on the outside wall, and the fact that the current entrance door from the utility room appears to have been knocked through at a later date. Anyway, it's handy to have a downstairs bathroom, but this one was a bit delapidated and contained a rather manky shower cubicle as well as a ragged hole where our old boiler used to be (it's now been replaced by a much smaller one in a cupboard in the kitchen). I hadn't planned to segue straight from finishing the garden into starting the bathroom, but then the shower packed up necessitating a bit of emergency plumbing (basically cutting off and capping some pipes) and that seemed like a good moment to start a bit of general demolishment.

So what I did was:
  • rip out the shower cubicle and its floor tray
  • smash all the tiles off the wall and floor
  • brick up the hole in the wall where the outlet flue from the old boiler had been
  • get a man in to relocate some of the pipework, specifically the inlet pipes for the wash-basin and the shower, replace and skim the ceiling and install a new window to replace the old rotten one
  • attach battens to the external-facing walls and then plasterboard them (among other things allowing concealment of the inlet pipes)
  • do the same for the internal walls but by sticking the plasterboard directly to the walls
  • concrete in the shower waster pipe so as to allow a "wet-room"-style floor tiling arrangement (i.e. by building a slight slope into it)
  • build a brick plinth for the wash-basin to stand on
  • build a stud wall to enclose the future location of the "back-to-wall" toilet cistern
  • seal and waterproof plasterboard and floor in preparation for tiling
  • tile the floor (preserving the slope towards the shower drain but also ensuring that the door could still be closed and that there wasn't a step between utility room and bathroom for people to trip over)
  • install the toilet and cistern
  • tile the walls
  • build a cupboard where the old boiler used to be
  • install the washbasin
  • tidy up, make good, etc.
  • christen the toilet by having a big shit in it

So, in my mind at least, that concludes major DIY operations in and around the house for the foreseeable future. That doesn't mean that I can put my feet up completely, as there are numerous other bits of more mundane maintenance that need taking care of: some broken guttering needs replacing (which I'm going to get a man in for), the roof on the porch by the back door is somewhat leaky and rotten, I need to put some more shelves up in the shed, and the side wall could do with repointing. No rest for the wicked....

Sunday, June 22, 2014

incidental music spot of the day

The opening bars of White Room by Cream over the opening moments of the Radio 4 adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? at 9pm yesterday evening. I caught the first 20 minutes or so of it at the end of a long drive back from Derby, long enough to also catch a snippet of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) later on as well.

Two filmic links, firstly that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was the basis (with the usual liberties taken with the plot) for Ridley Scott's classic 1982 film Blade Runner, and secondly that the canonical use of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) in film is towards the end of Withnail And I as the two protagonists return to London. Get in the back of the van!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the last book I read

Metroland by Julian Barnes.

Chris and Toni are a couple of 16-year-old schoolboys in suburban early-1960s London. In addition to the usual teenage pursuits of malodorous spottiness and relentless wanking they also cultivate some slightly more cerebral ones, mainly scoffing at the stupidity of their school contemporaries, despising the bourgeois sterility of their parents' lives and fantasising about heading off to France and being bohemian poetic types, France being the centre of all that is arty and revolutionary as well as containing lots of knowing Gauloise-toting French girls who are gagging for it.

We then jump forward to 1968, and Chris has realised at least part of his fantasy by being in Paris, on the flimsy pretext of writing a thesis about French theatre. He's soon enthusiastically pursuing the other half of the Paris fantasy as well, by meeting sultry French girl Annick and persuading her to relieve him of his virginity. So bound up is he with cashing in on the sex thing at every possible opportunity that the seminal events of May 1968 rather pass him by, something he's slightly embarrassed about in hindsight, particularly since Toni reminds him about it constantly.

The last part of the novel happens in 1977 - Chris has settled into his own version of suburban sterility and tedium, or so Toni would have him believe anyway. Married to Marion, the clever, down-to-earth English girl he met towards the end of his time in Paris, father to a young daughter and occupant of a steady job and a nice house, Chris certainly seems to have embraced the whole bourgeois middle-class thing with a vengeance. So why is he so happy? And is Toni really as scornful of Chris' lifestyle as he purports to be, or is he just jealous?

This was Julian Barnes' first novel, published in 1980, and follows many of the standard rules for first novels: most importantly, write about what you know. The bits describing Chris' childhood are supposedly reasonably close to being autobiographical - Barnes certainly did grow up in suburban north-west London, and the close ties with France are real, Barnes being if anything more celebrated as a novelist in France than he is in Britain.

It's pretty short (176 pages in my Picador edition) and less experimental than some of Barnes' later stuff, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in particular. It's very good on the business of how bright, slightly smug teenage boys act (and I know, because I used to be one), and raises some interesting questions about how youthful idealism mutates into a strong desire to do nothing more than just hang out with your wife and kids. It's fairly slight, though, and as with the rest of Barnes' books one ends up perhaps admiring the cleverness of it rather than really engaging with the characters. I would recommend the pair of love triangle books Talking It Over and Love, Etc. and the darker, slightly Ian McEwan-esque Before She Met Me. Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense Of An Ending, having been nominated three times before - I think there may be just a hint of a lifetime achievement award being handed out there, just as for some other past recipients.

Metroland won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981, as did A Good Man In Africa. The usual list can be found there. It was also made into a film - starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson among others - in 1997.

Monday, June 16, 2014

mapsolutely fabulous

Inspired by this quiz in the Guardian last week - which you should go and do first; I got a distinctly average 7/10, and that was aided by a couple of lucky guesses - I've harvested a few pictures of maps from some (fiction) books on my bookshelves. These are in no particular order, and I'm not promising that I've captured every book I own that contains a map, but as it happens this quick skim yielded a nice round ten pictures, so here they are. Have a look (click for embiggenment) and see if you recognise any. If it helps at all, four of these are from books which have featured in this blog - I have omitted the obvious one, Riddley Walker, since I've reproduced the map here before, and that would be too easy. Answers in comment #1, unless someone beats me to it.











Friday, June 13, 2014

bulbous developments #4

Right, you know the drill by now, so no frills, here's the low-down: latest bulb to expire was bulb number 11, which went a week ago on June 6th. This was another of the surviving 40W incandescent jobs, so no money/days calculation here. I just thought you might like to know.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

mine eyes have seen the gory of the nailing of the Lord

Just a follow-up to the last post, with reference to the 1970s Bible-stories book in particular - you might say, well, as long as you set up the context correctly, i.e. it's just some old stories and not actually true, where's the harm?

As it happens the book I've got - which a quick look at the front page reveals was given to Hazel for her christening in April 1978 - has some illustrations which reveal the child-friendliness of these charming old stories.

Here's the Great Flood - Noah and his family are all fine (animal poo build-up problems aside), sailing off over the horizon in their great big ark, but everyone else is completely fucked:

And then there's the first Passover - those who were foolish enough not to smear their front door with a sufficient amount of goat guts having their first-born arbitrarily killed:

Here's old Moses reading out the ten commandments - just to make the point that this is NOT A JOKE and God is REALLY SERIOUS about this shit, he's doing it in front of a blood-smeared altar upon which there are some pots with all manner of unspeakable animal remains in them:

Here's where this shit really gets real: Salome carting around the head of John the Baptist (looking a bit surprised, as I imagine you would be) on a plate:

And finally, from the otherwise more mellow and cuddly New Testament, here's that nice Jesus chap being nailed to a tree:

The point is that far from being a collection of cosy harmless morality tales, this is an unmitigated series of Bronze Age horrors with no redeeming moral message whatsoever, unless of course you actually believe your kids need to be traumatised into obedience lest they meet a fate far worse than any of those illustrated in unnecessarily lavish detail above, i.e. burning in hell for all eternity. Since that's all utter nonsense the best thing is probably to keep this well out of the reach of children.

By contrast, let me once again commend to you the work of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, partly because they're just terrific stories, but also for the subtle messages of equality and tolerance that get unobtrusively slipped into the books. Here's Tabby McTat's new owners, Prunella and Pat - it's never deemed worthy of special mention that they are a pair of middle-aged lesbians - why would it be, after all?

And the knights-rescuing-princesses thing is nicely subverted in Zog when Princess Pearl announces that Zog and the knight can just ruddy well cut out all that nonsense about fighting for her honour, as she doesn't need saving, thank you very much, and she's going to go off and be a doctor.

Try any of that stuff in the Bible, and they'll probably stone you to death. It's even worse than saying Jehovah.

first they came for the gruffaloes

I suppose there's an argument that Richard Dawkins provides a vital service for the rationalist community by acting as a sort of lightning-conductor for abuse and hatred, owing to his being atheism's most publicly-visible spokesperson. And it is true that a lot of the vitriol directed at him is entirely undeserved, and motivated either by a visceral reaction to the perceived threat to the cosy religious status quo, or by some hopelessly ill-thought-through notion of "balance" that shies away from his public statements as being too "strident".

That said, it is also true that some of his public pronouncements are ill-thought-out and badly-presented, and just confirm the view a lot of people already have of sceptics as joyless, humourless hyper-pedants, and of Dawkins himself as some sort of representative of the rationalist thought police, like a sort of cross between Professor Yaffle and Hitler. This is especially true of his Twitter feed, constrained as it is to 140 characters, which is a pretty hilarious record of ill-thought-out statements, general piling on by the rest of the Twitterverse, and then some huffy clarifications, grumpy retractions and complaints about people not understanding nuance or sarcasm or whatever.

The latest spat actually didn't originate on Twitter, but as a result of a speech Dawkins gave at the Cheltenham Science Festival, where, despite later claims that various media outlets had taken his words out of context, he pretty clearly did suggest that fairy tales are at least potentially harmful to children:
I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable.
Needless to say this generated something of a Twitter storm and required him to clarify his thoughts via various media outlets, though he still didn't seem entirely clear, simultaneously claiming that he'd never claimed fairy tales were harmful:
I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.
and that, well, maybe he had, but now he'd changed his mind:
If you did inculcate into a child's mind supernaturalism ... that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I'm now thinking they probably don't. It could even be the reverse.
Of course part of Dawkins' intention here would have been to draw a parallel with religion and its assorted implausible tales, it being a fairly common atheist trope to refer to them scoffingly as "fairy tales" - I've done it myself often enough. I think he's probably taking aim at the wrong target, here, though, unless there are parents who, in addition to reading these stories to their children, insist that they are LITERALLY true and that if you keep sucking your thumbs some crazy person really will come along and cut them off. It's not the implausible content of the stories that's the issue, but rather the fact that there is a subset of implausible stories that some people would have you believe are the literal truth, and furthermore get all punchy and bomb-y if you try to point out that they're not.

There is another problem, of course, which is: what's a fairy story? I mean, I grant you that the whole pumpkins turning into gold carriages, frogs turning into princes thing from what you might consider "classic" fairy stories is obviously not real, but then what of talking pigs? Dragons? And let's not forget there really is no such thing as a gruffalo. Strip away anything not corresponding to the real world and you discard something like 99% of children's literature (and indeed adult literature); you're really just left with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Haynes manual.

I was prompted to go off at a mental tangent by all this and think about how much I do, or should seek to, police my daughter's reading material. I don't so much mean the religious stuff, since we don't exactly get a lot of that pushed on us, although I did come across an old hardback Children's Bible Stories book in a pile of stuff the other day which I think must once have been Hazel's (I've hidden it again now). I think I'm more inclined to be all censor-y about the stuff that's pushing the gender essentialism, pink for girls, blue for boys, Disney princess tropes, since all that stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. We have acquired (by what means I'm not sure) a couple of books that I deem to be over the line in this regard, and I've made sure that they've been shoved down the back of the book rack where they're unlikely ever to be pulled out and read. I answer my own questions about whether I'm being too sensitive about all this by telling myself I can afford to be, given the blizzard of cultural influences in the opposite direction she'll be subjected to once she gets out into the world.

Of course this is fairly easy when you've got a large degree of control over what cultural influences your child is exposed to, but what about when they go to school? This is where you have to make some tricky judgments about what to let slide and what to dig in your heels about - just as I wasn't prepared to bow to prevailing cultural orthodoxy and have Nia christened, I certainly wasn't prepared to have her go to an overtly religious school, not least because there is usually some sort of entry test involving gauging the devoutness of the parents, and that would not have gone well.

But there will still probably be some absurd uniform rules, and inevitably there will be some sort of exposure to religion in one form or another. What about nativity plays, for instance? Do schools in general still do those, or is it just the fundamentalist Christian ones? Would I feel obliged to veto Nia's participation, or would that be heavy-handed? And what if the school organised an outing to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm? I think that might be the thing that tipped me over the edge into torching the place.