Wednesday, October 12, 2016

you better believe it

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

celebrity lookeylikeys of the day

I've got two for you today. Firstly, presenter of CBeebies science-y programme Do You Know? (one of Nia's current favourite things) Maddie Moate, and iconic 1980s teen movie star (and ex-niece-in-law of Angela Lansbury) Ally Sheedy.

Just as with the Sally Phillips/Martha Wainwright one, it's all about the smile. This particular smile involves flaring the nostrils and raising the top lip clear of the teeth before stretching it out into a straight line. They both have very slightly pointy chins as well.

Secondly, union leader and target of cartoonish tabloid hatred "Red Len" McCluskey, and legendary Who guitarist and occasional tabloid featuree Pete Townshend.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

custard's last stand

So my quest for the perfect use of my original fruity clafoutis recipe continues, with the expectation that eventually we'll hit on the ultimate one, at which point there'll be some sort of quantum singularity, the universe will fold in on itself and our current reality will be replaced with a new one featuring peace, harmony and a slightly differently-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.

This one may not be that recipe, but it's getting close. Or, alternatively, maybe it is, and the entire fabric of space-time has turned inside-out without my noticing. Then again I drive a Ford Mondeo and a Mini, so why would I notice?

So we've diverged from the original fruit-based recipes to a series of variations on what you might call bread-and-butter pudding. The plot twist this time was firstly to use a combination of diced-up Aldi vanilla brioche and McVitie's Jamaican Ginger Cake (two of them, actually) as the solid ingredients, and secondly to kick it up a notch by making some delicious toffee fudge sauce to go with it (as well as the obligatory ice cream). So the basic batter recipe is the same as for the pain au chocolat version, as follows:
  • 80g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • a pinch of salt
  • 750ml milk
Zizz all that together in a blender and you're done. More interestingly, the toffee sauce, the recipe for which I basically nicked from here (with some adaptations), is ridiculously easy to make and even more ridiculously delicious, though of course not especially suitable for those on a calorie-controlled diet. You will need:
  • 300ml double cream (i.e. one standard-size pot)
  • 175g soft brown sugar
  • 175g butter
  • one standard-size Cadbury's Fudge bar (or approximately 4-5 fun-size ones)
Melt the butter and sugar, stir in the cream, chop up the Fudge bar(s) into small bits, throw them in, stir it around till everything's melted and it thickens up a bit, serve. This makes over half a litre, so you might want to scale the quantities down. My batch served six people last night and a couple more with some breakfast pancakes this morning and there's still a bit left.

lay off of my blue suede shoes

Seems like only yesterday that I was unpacking my brown Teva walking shoes from their Amazon box and trying them on for the first time. But time passes, and you have to accept that things get older, change happens, and eventually you have to acknowledge that, hey, these shoes, while still exceptionally comfortable, are completely fucked and starting to fall apart, which'll be why water pisses into them when I wear them out in the rain. At this point you have to set sentiment aside, buy a new pair, throw the old ones away and move on.

So here, just to remind you, is the photo that accompanied the transition from my equally venerable, well-loved and constantly-worn Salomons to the Tevas, back in January 2010, and below it is a photo marking a similar transition from the Tevas (which, as you can see, have frayed and collapsed in on themselves over six-and-a-half years in a very similar way to Michel Houellebecq's face) to my jazzy new blue Karrimors, acquired at a bargain £31 online from Sports Direct.

I'm not sure I expect the Karrimors to last six-and-a-half years, but in a way they don't have to as they were less than half the price of the Tevas. In fact they were so cheap as to be three pounds cheaper than the latest pair of shoes we've bought for Alys, which, especially when you consider the quantities of materials involved, is a bit farcical.

Obviously it's the construction rather than the materials you're paying for. You'll recall my plaintive reference to "hilariously expensive tiny shoes" in this old whisky review, well here they are.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

runners and ryders

It's time to grit our teeth and look, bleary-eyed, through the bitter salty tears of defeat and frustration at the revised Ryder Cup cumulative scores analysis.

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 16½ 11½
2016 4 4 11 17
Totals 78½ 73½ 83 69 161½ 142½ 107½ 120½ 269 263

A couple of statterrific nuggets for you, in some cases referencing some observations in earlier posts:

Obviously the USA's convincing 17-11 victory at Hazeltine has brought the aggregate scores a bit closer; if you divvy up the aggregates between the 19 contests there have been since the format was expanded to incorporate Europe in 1979 you find that the "average" match score is now 14.16-13.84 to Europe. The equivalent figure prior to the 2016 contest was 14.33-13.66, so if you round to the nearest half-point that means we've gone from, on average, a narrow 14½-13½ win for Europe to a 14-14 draw.

For the first time (slightly surprisingly) in this format of the competition the US team won all three days: Friday 5-3, Saturday 4½-3½ and Sunday 7½-4½. Even the thumping US wins in 1979 and 1981 involved the loss of a day (Saturday and Friday respectively). Europe have won all three days three times: in 2004, 2006 and 2014.

Davis Love III last played in a Ryder Cup in 2004, while Darren Clarke last played, famously, in 2006. This bucks the general recent trend of the contest being won by the captain with the more recent playing experience.

Four of the European team (Fitzpatrick, Sullivan, Westwood, Willett) contributed zero points (by contrast, every single US player contributed something). This is exceptional even by the standards of previous heavy European defeats in 1979, 1981 and 2008, where the pointless players numbered two, two and zero respectively.

It's too easy to blame this on the large number of rookies in the team, of course, although six is quite a lot. Only once in modern Ryder Cup history has a European team included more: 1999, when there were seven and Europe were narrowly defeated. By contrast, there were also six in 2010 and Europe came away with a narrow victory, and five in 2004, 1997 and 1991: thumping win, narrow win and narrow defeat respectively.

I did see a bit of live TV coverage on Friday evening, briefly on Saturday afternoon and then when the match was already pretty much tied up on Sunday night. Most of my listening to the singles contest was via Radio 5 Live during a drive back from Derby. Now, imagine the raw visceral excitement of live radio golf commentary. It's not as good as seeing it, but it's pretty good. Now imagine that same commentary being hooted into a bowl of soup through a snorkel by an asthmatic walrus with Tourette's, with the associated wild swings in levels of volume, intrusive farty noises and general comprehensibility. What I'm saying here is that AM radio sucks and Radio 5 Live not being on FM is a major pain in the arse, unless you happen to own a car with a DAB radio.

Here are some reasons for optimism next time: the match turned on small margins this time despite the scoreline - remember Lee Westwood butchered two winning positions in the Saturday fourballs and the Sunday singles to lose both matches. Reverse those and the outcome of either of McIlroy or Rose's very close singles matches and it's 14-14. Away wins are still very difficult; the Americans have two in nine attempts: 1981 and 1993. To put it another way, by the time 2018 rolls around it'll be a quarter of a century since they won a Ryder Cup contest on European soil. Europe are in a transitional period at the moment with a generation of Ryder Cup stalwarts coming to the end of their careers: Westwood, Donald, Harrington and Poulter for instance. Those who made their debuts this time will be better and tougher in two years' time.

One major reason for pessimism: the Americans are finally taking the Ryder Cup seriously and we'll never win one again. Oh well, we've had a good innings.

Friday, September 30, 2016

cream pie with a cherry on top

Couple of follow-up notes on previous posts:
  • It appears that virginity auctions are still a thing, or at least still a thing that people claim to be doing in order to generate tabloid headlines, since I'm far from convinced that any of them are actually real. The latest one involves "Ariana, 20, from Russia" and an auction reserve of £130,000. Bidders can also bid for Ariana's 21-year-old friend and alleged fellow virgin Lolita (almost definitely her real name) at a similar price. If the same bidder should secure both ladies it's unclear how the logistics of the encounter would work, i.e. in series or in parallel, so to speak.
  • You may recall my brief post in which I alluded to cricket commentator Alan Gibson's comment about New Zealander Bob Cunis' surname ("neither one thing nor the other"). Well, it turns out that Gibson may have nicked the phrase from Winston Churchill, who used it (several times, by the sound of it) to describe architect and MP Alfred Bossom. I know this because David Owen mentioned it while plugging his new book on Radio 4's Midweek on Wednesday morning. So Churchill gets dibs on coining the phrase, unless of course there are any earlier citations out there, but I think Gibson's use is funnier, just because the two words you're meant to be thinking of are slightly more sniggery. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

to sir with love

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post: one of the things that always grates a bit about American sports coverage is the weird ultra-reverence they have for retired sports stars, Arnold Palmer being a good example. I suppose it's what Americans have instead of the grovelling servility towards the royal family that (some) Brits have. So you have the weird phenomenon of grown men referring to slightly older grown men as "Mr Palmer", for instance at the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament, where the winning golfer would be granted a brief regal handshake and an audience with the great man and would respectfully refer to him as "Mr Palmer" in the subsequent TV interview. Once again I should make clear that this isn't meant as a criticism of Palmer personally; his great rival Jack Nicklaus fulfils a similar role at the Memorial Tournament, for instance.

To a large extent this is an American cultural thing unconnected with sports; for instance I noticed it on the Today programme yesterday when Sarah Montague was interviewing Mike Williams, one of the last people to get off the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig alive when it caught fire after a blowout in 2010. Williams was on the programme to talk about the new film (called, imaginatively, Deepwater Horizon) which dramatises the real-life events and in which Williams is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. Many of Williams' answers were prefixed with "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am", a usage which seems quaintly archaic to British ears, unless you happen to be talking to the Queen, but which is still pretty common (with "sir" substituted for "ma'am" as appropriate) in America, with its use (I theorise) being heavily influenced by region, age and social class. My contention is that Southerners like Williams would tend to do it much more than, say, cynical and abrasive New Yorkers. Furthermore I can't imagine many male Brits who would expect their children's friends to address them as "sir", but I'm pretty sure there are parts of the USA where this usage would still be commonplace.

arnie: six under

Sad news for golf fans this week with the death of the legendary Arnold Palmer, the first proper multi-media golf superstar. You'll have no doubt been saturated with overly reverent obituaries in various media outlets, so what you'll be hungry for is a very mildly contrarian HOT TAKE on the whole Palmer phenomenon. And here it is.

So the standard folksy Palmer narrative goes something like this: stuffy tweedy old world of golf is ROCKED by swashbuckling devil-may-care young tearaway who rocks up to courses on his motorbike, drives the ball 600 yards while smoking a fag and wearing leather trousers and totally sticks it to The Man while simultaneously making golf into the multi-gazillion dollar industry that it is today. Now while I'm not denying Palmer's massive influence on golf in popular culture, and I should make it clear I have ABSOLUTELY NO AXE TO GRIND WHATSOEVER with Palmer as man, golfer or legend, I think that the story has acquired a sort of unquestionable mythic status over the years that there might be some value in examining.

Firstly, we all know that golf was basically played by sclerotic 76-year-olds with tweed plus-fours and luxuriant handlebar moustaches until Palmer wheelied in on his Raleigh Chopper with his baseball cap on backwards and showed those doddery old duffers what modern golf was really all about. The trouble with that is that Palmer was a relatively middle-aged 28 when he won his first major championship, the 1958 Masters. Compare that with the winners of the remaining 1958 majors and you find that US Open winner Tommy Bolt was a rickety 42, but Open winner Peter Thomson was 28 and so was USPGA winner Dow Finsterwald. The following year's US Open and Open champions, Billy Casper and Gary Player, were both younger than Palmer at 27 and 23 respectively.

But, but, but: it's not just about the age thing, it's about the swashbuckling aggressive style and the down-to-earth attitude and the casual cardigan-wearing, fag-smoking charisma. And there'd be no argument from me there, except to venture the thought that pre-Palmer there were some golfers who were more aggressive and hit the ball further than others, and furthermore came from relatively humble beginnings, Sam Snead being an obvious example. What made Palmer a superstar and Snead merely a very successful golfer was that Palmer's rise to fame coincided with an explosion in TV ownership and coverage of golf on TV, and the introduction of colour TV in particular. Furthermore Palmer had the good fortune and shrewdness to hook up with fledgling sports promoter Mark McCormack who wrung the best endorsement deals and TV rights out of what was available.

One of the things that makes sportspersons in general loved by millions is fallibility, the sense that it could all go wrong at any minute. People who exhibit that sort of human frailty are generally better-loved than the steely remorseless winning machines, who tend to be loved only in retrospect. So just as Palmer was better-loved than Nicklaus, so it was for Snead and Hogan from an earlier era, and Ballesteros and Faldo and Mickelson and Woods from a later one.

Following on from that thought, one of the interesting things about Palmer's career, particularly for those of us who are far too young to have seen him in his prime and only really remember him from various grey-haired valedictory appearances at major tournaments over the past 30 years or so, is how short his prime was in terms of winning major tournaments. He won his first in 1958 at the age of 28 and his last six years later in 1964 at the age of 34, a major-winning span shorter than that of, say, Andy North, and notably shorter than those of his contemporaries Nicklaus (24 years) and Player (19 years).

After his last win Palmer had 19 top-10 finishes in majors without ever winning another - I haven't done extensive research here but other multiple major winners who had a similarly long "tail" to their careers include Sam Snead (20 top 10s after his last major win at the 1954 Masters) and Tom Watson (19 top 10s after his last major win at the 1983 Open). A couple of other odd Palmer/Watson parallels: Watson was a comparatively youthful 33 when he won his last major (completing a major-winning span of 8 years), and, like Palmer, the only major missing from his CV was the USPGA, in which he lost a play-off to John Mahaffey in 1978. Palmer was second at the USPGA three times, in 1964, 1968 and 1970. Other golfers to famously be a single major short of a career Grand Slam include Lee Trevino and (currently) Rory McIlroy at the Masters and Sam Snead and Phil Mickelson at the US Open.

More importantly, Palmer's death means that there may now never be an appropriate time for Andy and me to pitch our Viz comic strip idea, a concept very similar to Captain Oats: The Polar Explorer Who's Always Exploring His Own Pole. Ours was called Arnold Palmer: The Golfer Who's Always Palming His Arnold and featured a golfer concocting various hilarious ruses to sneak off into the heavy rough or a bunker for a quick one off the wrist. History is vague as to whether this explains Palmer's legendary meltdown in the final stages of the 1966 US Open.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

the last book I read

The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert.

In Germany before the war, there was a man who had a son, The son, Helmut, is born with a weakened right side which means he will be unlikely to be suitable for manual labour. Instead, the boy develops an interest in photography, with some help from a local man, Herr Gladigau, who owns a darkroom where Helmut can hone his skills.

Once war breaks out, Helmut, ineligible for army service, documents events in his native Berlin with his camera, with some help from Herr Gladigau, who recognises the young man's talent. Soon, though, Helmut realises he's documenting stuff that he's not totally comfortable about, like the brutal herding of Jews and gypsies into trucks to be transported away who knows where. Eventually it becomes clear that the war has taken a turn for the worse (from a German perspective anyway) and Berlin comes under serious Allied bombardment. Separated from his parents, Helmut takes refuge in the old darkroom and continues to document events while Berlin is bombarded and the Allies close in.

Cut to: 1945, and somewhere in Bavaria 12-year-old Lore is taking refuge in a farm with the rest of her family. It turns out Mutti and Vati are keen to keep a low profile as they were prominent local Nazis and don't want this to be widely known by the approaching Allies. Sure enough Mutti and Vati are captured and carted off to the interrogation and repentance facility, and Lore and her younger siblings are obliged to set out and trek across Germany to Hamburg to find their grandmother. It hardly needs to be said that this is a journey fraught with all manner of dangers; not only are the Allies keen to keep tabs on people and not have herds of unaccounted-for children roaming about the place, but the rule of law has broken down, everyone is starving, and what you might think of as normal societal norms don't really apply.

Not only that, but occupied Germany has been arbitrarily divided up into zones, each occupied by a different army, and while the British might send you on your way with no more than a cheery clip round the ear, stray into the Russian zone unawares and you could get shot. Sure enough, Lore's younger brother Jochen meets exactly this fate - that all the siblings don't meet a similar fate is largely down to their good fortune in meeting Thomas, a young German man also keen to get across Germany unmolested, for reasons of his own.

Lore, her siblings and Thomas strike up an uneasy alliance, and eventually they reach Hamburg and are reunited with grandma. Thomas prefers to keep a low profile, as he has his own reasons for avoiding scrutiny. Lore has to come to terms with the fact that the man who helped them and became their friend was not who he claimed to be.

Cut, slightly more jarringly, to: 1997, and Micha is a schoolteacher in Berlin who has recently become interested in his late grandfather's war activities. Grandfather, it turns out, was in the Waffen-SS and was imprisoned for 10 years or so after the war in a Russian prison camp. Micha becomes obsessed with finding out what his grandfather did during the war, particularly during his posting to modern-day Belarus. But does he really want to know? Certainly there were massacres of Jews in Belarus, just as there were in many other places. But could Micha's fondly-remembered grandfather have been involved? Does the fact that he was an affectionate grandfather (despite some dark rumblings of a drink problem) mean that he couldn't have been involved? Can you tell if someone has committed atrocities just by looking at them?

Armed with a grainy old photo of his grandfather, Micha travels to Belarus to see if anyone remembers the war, and his grandfather's part in it in particular. But how can he broach the subject with the locals, many of whom presumably had relatives who were killed by German forces? Hello, you don't know me, but I think my grandpa might have massacred your entire family; would you care to share any amusing anecdotes you can recall about him? And of course some of the Belarussians have their own murky pasts to conceal.

As with some other books in this series, The Dark Room raises the question: what is a novel? This one could arguably be more accurately described as three linked novellas, since there isn't the usual novelistic thing of some thread linking the stories together - Micha being Lore's grandson, or something like that, for instance. The three stories share the common backdrop of World War II, but that's about it.

Considered separately the three stories describe an upward curve, quality and compellingness-wise: I wasn't sure I saw the point of Helmut's story, and it's by far the shortest of the three, Lore's story is compelling just by virtue of the young-kids-in-jeopardy theme, but it's Micha's story that really resonates: there's a huge number of people in Germany, good, kind, considerate people in the main, who have direct blood ancestors who participated in genocidal killings on a massive scale only a couple of generations ago. How do you, as one of those people, deal with that? And how do you, as a novelist, explore the implications in a way that isn't trite and clich├ęd, given the amount of World War II-themed literature out there?

The inevitable lumpiness caused by the format aside, this is very good, managing to find a fairly fresh angle on some over-familiar events without being so oblique as to be incomprehensible. The bit right at the end where Micha and his girlfriend Mina have a baby daughter has faint echoes of the similar events at the end of Birdsong, but without the sense of the new life/new beginnings symbolism being trowelled on quite as thickly.

The Dark Room was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2001; I have now read four of that years' nominees (though not, as it happens, the winner) which, if the information here is still accurate, is some sort of personal record. [Actually, having had a look, I've read four of of the six for 1984 as well, including that year's winner, Hotel Du Lac.]