Thursday, May 28, 2015

from here to paternity

After the arrival of our second daughter Alys at the end of March I was determined not to spend quite as much time sitting around watching Deal Or No Deal as last time during my fortnight off. In any case, having a new baby around plus an energetic three-year-old changes the situation a bit, and my duties this time revolved more around helping to keep Nia involved and occupied rather than wrangling Alys, although I bow to no man in my ability to change shitty nappies and get copiously sicked on. So we had to find some places to go to keep us entertained. Here's what we came up with:
  • Fourteen Locks: I've been up here a couple of times before, but they've done some (lottery-funded, I think) restoration of some of the locks and a general tarting-up of the visitor centre. Also, there was a kid-centric activity day on involving a sort of duck-based treasure hunt up and down the towpath that runs from the visitor centre to where the canal ducks (you see what I did there) under the M4 near junction 27. 
  • Fforest Fawr: this is the woody area up to the north of Castell Coch, not the larger area of the same name (which just means "big forest") in the middle part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. There is an interesting sculpture trail including wizards, dragons and some artefacts clearly left behind by a passing giant. Needless to say we stopped in at the Lewis Arms in Tongwynlais on the way back for a pint and some fish and chips.
  • The Newport Wetlands bird sanctuary near Nash: I'm not an especially enthusiastic twitcher, but this is a great place for a bit of sea (well, estuary) air and a run about, even if you wouldn't know a snowy egret if you were pissing on one
  • Dewstow Gardens: this is a strange little Victorian fancy, lost for half a century but dug up and restored about 15 years ago. Lots of quirky little water features, underground grottoes and the like. Great for kids, as long as you're constantly vigilant for the many ways they can fall in things and drown. 
  • Caerwent: this is one of two major sites of Roman remains in the vicinity of Newport, the other being Caerleon. Basically Caerleon was the military garrison and Caerwent was the market town; the old town walls are still pretty impressively in existence and there are a couple of other buildings whose foundations are well-preserved and on display.
A selection of photos (also including some of Nia enjoying her birthday present, a garden slide) are here. Technically the next two are places we've been in the last week or so, rather than during my paternity leave period, but I include them as they're useful things to know about if you've got kids to entertain:
  • Bryngarw House: we ended up here after an abortive attempt to go to the Kite and Superhero festival at Margam Park last weekend. To be honest the festival bit didn't sound all that appealing to me, but the park is quite a nice place for a run about. By the sound of all the subsequent media coverage we did the right thing by bailing out after sitting in a traffic jam between M4 junctions 37 and 38 for an hour or so. Frankly anything involving getting parked without too much queueing would have seemed like bliss after that, and we didn't do much more than sit on the grass, have a picnic and go on various climbing frames and slides in the adventure playground, but it was all very nice. 
  • Perrygrove Railway: this is not only a perfectly nice little narrow-gauge steam railway but also features a couple of attractions irresistible to kids of all ages (including my own age): a treetop adventure and a miniature indoor village featuring lots of little hidden staircases and secret tunnels. I'm pretty sure I had more fun than literally anyone else here regardless of age during our visit, even if I did nearly get stuck a couple of times. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

keep that ginger where I can see it

Meant to add this to the book review: despite the depiction of Sebastian Dangerfield on a couple of the various covers that various editions of The Ginger Man have carried over the years (see below, for instance) there's no suggestion in the book that the title is meant to refer to Dangerfield's hair colour. I mean, he might be one of the gingers, but as far as I recall it's never mentioned.


Instead I read the title as either referring to the fairy tale The Gingerbread Man - "run, run, as fast as you can; you can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man", or possibly as referring to ginger in the sense of lively, zesty, as per definitions 4 and 7 here. This usage derives from the practice of "gingering" a horse to liven it up by shoving a piece of raw ginger up its arse. I don't think this is a thing unique to horses, as it happens, since I'm pretty sure I'd react in a similar way. And sure enough there is a (one hopes) consensual BDSM sex practice called figging which involves pretty much the same thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

the last book I read

The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy.

Sebastian Dangerfield is a bit of a boy. An American, in Ireland to study for a law degree at Trinity College, Dublin, he has married and had a daughter with an English woman, Marion, and they've rented a house outside Dublin. Now very often marriage and fatherhood mellows a man; there's a realisation of the need to settle down, provide for one's own future and for others, that sort of thing.

None of this applies to Dangerfield, clearly, though, as he embarks upon a rampage of drinking, petty theft, brawling, criminal damage, unpaid bills, hiding from landlords and creditors, non-attendance at lectures and general arseholery. Marion and baby Felicity have to move out of the house after a couple of spectacular plumbing disasters and increasingly frantic attempts by the landlord to extract rent payments, but Dangerfield is too busy exposing himself on a tram and pursuing local girl Chris to really notice.

Once he catches up with Marion in her new place of residence he's clearly unchastened by the experience as he continues his hell-raising ways, interspersed with the occasional bit of domestic violence, until Marion's patience is exhausted and she takes off to Scotland with their daughter. Thus freed of responsibility, Dangerfield ramps up the hedonism, seducing the lodger, Miss Frost, as well as another local girl, Mary, whom he persuades to promise to come to London with him, and to steal some money from her family to finance the trip.

Once in London he hooks up with some old friends and perpetrates several more drink-fuelled outrages before Mary turns up to join him, and so the familiar cycle of drunken abuse and morning-after remorse begins again.

The Ginger Man was something of a cause célèbre in the late 1950s and early 1960s owing to the tortured circumstances of its original publication, and its censorship-busting sexual frankness (Lolita, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer were all in the news for similar reasons at around the same time). So it would have been the sort of book there'd have been a transgressive thrill in owning.

Of course the sexual content, while not exactly tame, has by now certainly lost most of its power to shock, so it's interesting to read the book 60 years after its original publication and see how it stands up. I suspect it seems like less of a bawdy farce and more dark and tragic to modern readers, just because the trope of the carousing Irish drunk is a bit less appealing than it once was, and people are less willing to accept the subordinate role of women as long-suffering child-carers and occasional sex receptacles and/or punchbags with precious little agency of their own.

It's certainly true that apart from the drinking, fucking and fighting precious little actually happens in terms of plot, and Sebastian Dangerfield couldn't really be said to have much of a character arc, being just as irredeemable at the end of the book as at the start. That said, it is written in an endearingly manic stream-of-consciousness way, veering wildly between first and third person without warning.

I'm not sure that, if you ignore all the historical baggage, this is a great book, though it is a perfectly entertaining one. Like anyone who had instant success with his first book, Donleavy spent the rest of his career trying - and largely failing - to live up to it. Some disagree - the Modern Library, for instance, named it in their 100 best novels of the 20th century. It's clearly still a source of interest, as can be seen from this article about Donleavy (still alive at 89, though now clearly doomed to be a future entry on the blog reading list of death) from the Irish Independent just three days ago.

It's one of those books that seems ripe for screen adaptation, until you realise that not much happens and there's a lot of interior monologue that will be difficult to render on-screen. Nonetheless there was a TV adaptation done in 1962, somewhat sanitised no doubt, starring Ian Hendry as Dangerfield. It's also supposedly been a long-standing ambition of Johnny Depp to bring The Ginger Man to the big screen; nothing yet though.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Model and general showbiz socialite partygoing type Cara Delevingne, and Jay from various Kevin Smith films, as played by Jason Mewes and more usually seen in the company of Silent Bob (aka Smith himself). Beanie hat, hair, eyebrows, bish bosh, sorted.


I don't attend prestigious fashion shows or trawl the society gossip columns all that much, so I know very little about Cara Delevingne. One thing that strikes me, though, is the weirdness of her surname: if you skim over it as most people do you'd assume it's spelt "Delavigne" and pronounced vaguely Frenchly as "Deller-veen". Or, to put it another way, like Avril Lavigne's surname, but with a "De" in front of it. But look more closely: firstly it's "Dele-" not "Dela-", which is weird, since French doesn't work that way ("de le" being rendered as "du"), secondly there's a rogue "n" before the "g". So does that mean it's pronounced more Germanically as "Deller-ving-nuh" or something? I've no idea, and while this Evening Standard article gives some interesting background on her ultra-posh ancestry it doesn't help with any of that.

I expect it's some sort of upper-class shibboleth like the old Cholmondeley-Featherstonehaugh-Beauchamp thing where the nobs can chortle at the lower orders struggling with all these extra letters they've bunged in just to trip us up. Most people seem to just go with "Deller-veen", anyway.

oh, the freudianity

Hot on the heels of the John Inverdale moment, here's the BBC's Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith calling Nigel Farage a cunt live on air - it's about 18 seconds into this clip.


A little bit harsh, you might say, even for the leader of UKIP. What Norman Smith was trying to say, in relation to Farage's somewhat comical resignation and almost immediate un-resignation from the UKIP leadership in the wake of the general election, and after some reports of unrest over Farage's leadership, was "personality cult". So there's another entry for the many different ways otherwise respectable broadcasters can contrive to accidentally say the word "cunt". Here's a reminder:
I'm sure there are other people out there who will find other ways. The price of not accidentally saying "cunt" is cuntstant vigilance, as Eleanor Roosevelt may or may not have once said.

Monday, May 11, 2015

never ending tory, ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ah ah-ah-ah

So, as we all settle down to watch the government snooping on our private communications, gleefully gutting and privatising the NHS, ruthlessly squeezing the poor, disabled, unemployed and the suspiciously foreign, and just generally doing the usual bog-standard cartoonish supervillainy, what should we do?

Well, if "we" in this context means progressive left-leaning liberal types concerned with things like equality, fairness and social justice rather than things like tax breaks for the ultra-rich, screwing the underprivileged and sucking people's brains out through a straw, then your primary concern is going to be with the state of the Labour party, what went wrong this time, and what needs to happen between now and the next general election in 2019/2020.

1) Grow a pair, stand up for your record and stop trying to be the Tories. The biggest thing that prevented a Labour victory this time, aside from Ed Miliband's personal approval ratings, some ill-defined fears about the SNP, voters' understandable but misguided desire to give the Liberal Democrats a kicking, or, almost too horrifically to even contemplate, the notion that voting UKIP might be a good idea, was the success of the Conservative narrative regarding the economy, the deficit, and borrowing under the previous Labour administration.

That narrative goes something like this: Labour spent wildly, profligately, when they were in power, buying Bentleys for Polish plumbers and financing Bangladeshi lesbian dance collectives in Birmingham until the public coffers were empty and the whole country was in hock up the wazoo. Then, when the deficit was out of control and we, the people of the UK, were literally on the brink of all having to sell our children for medical experiments, the Conservatives stepped in, did what had to be done, including making tough decisions where necessary, and brought things under control.

It should hardly need saying that this is bullshit, but apparently it does, as that narrative seems to have been not only swallowed whole by the electorate, but also by the 2015 Labour party. Or, more likely, they decided that it simply wasn't possible to refute given the soundbite-y environment which they're obliged to inhabit during the campaign. That's the trouble: folksy narratives comparing national economies to households and talking of "tightening our belts" and "tough choices" play well with the public because they sound superficially plausible; unfortunately the idea that economies are just large-scale households is nonsense, and they behave differently in all sorts of counter-intuitive ways.

These paragraphs by 1996 Nobel economics laureate William Vickrey (from a longer essay here) are well worth reading:
Deficits are considered to represent sinful profligate spending at the expense of future generations who will be left with a smaller endowment of invested capital. This fallacy seems to stem from a false analogy to borrowing by individuals. 

Current reality is almost the exact opposite. Deficits add to the net disposable income of individuals, to the extent that government disbursements that constitute income to recipients exceed that abstracted from disposable income in taxes, fees, and other charges. This added purchasing power, when spent, provides markets for private production, inducing producers to invest in additional plant capacity, which will form part of the real heritage left to the future. This is in addition to whatever public investment takes place in infrastructure, education, research, and the like. Larger deficits, sufficient to recycle savings out of a growing gross domestic product (GDP) in excess of what can be recycled by profit-seeking private investment, are not an economic sin but an economic necessity. Deficits in excess of a gap growing as a result of the maximum feasible growth in real output might indeed cause problems, but we are nowhere near that level. 

Even the analogy itself is faulty. If General Motors, AT&T, and individual households had been required to balance their budgets in the manner being applied to the Federal government, there would be no corporate bonds, no mortgages, no bank loans, and many fewer automobiles, telephones, and houses.
Just to throw another Nobel laureate at you, here's a longish (but fascinating) piece by Paul Krugman on financial crises and government austerity drives (here's a slightly shorter piece by the same author). Also, here's a graph of the UK budget deficit from 1979 to 2012: as you can see running a deficit is entirely normal (the only times the budget has been in surplus during that period are 1988-1989 under the Conservatives and 1998-2001 under Labour). Note also that the deficit run by the last Labour administration was well within perfectly normal historical bounds until after 2008 (up to which point the Conservatives had pledged to match Labour spending pound for pound anyway), only increasing sharply in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2009. Note also that since the deficit has come down a bit (but not that much) since 2012 the coalition has now borrowed considerably more in 5 years than the previous Labour administration did in its 13 years in power.

It's worth noting also that the economy was recovering in early 2010 during the last days of the Labour administration, and then went back into recession during the early days of the coalition as George Osborne's austerity policies started to bite. Now one can argue about the causes of the recession, but the point is that the central charge of the coalition picking up a Labour economic shambles is, once again, bullshit.

Basically the problem with refuting the simplistic folksy narrative here is the same as the problem evolutionary scientists have when a creationist whips out the old "why are there still monkeys?" gambit. There's an obvious right answer, but it takes a couple of minutes to outline, and people will have stopped listening well before the end.

Another example of a fatal lack of self-confidence: Liam Byrne's infamous note left for his successor at the Treasury. Clearly just a silly (and highly ill-advised) joke, but, scarcely believably, allowed to be brandished by various Conservatives (including David Cameron himself in one of the BBC debates) as some sort of evidence of Labour's economic failure. It must surely have been possible to challenge this sort of nonsense directly and robustly - seriously? it was a joke; get a grip, man - but no-one seemed to have the will to do it, and so it became A Thing, just like the economic argument.

2) Elect a halfway-sensible new leader. There's not exactly a wealth of candidates, but I quite like both ex-Health Secretary Andy Burnham (who seems to be the current favourite) and Yvette Cooper, who will at least have a ready-made campaign manager now her husband Ed Balls is looking for a job. I can't see David Miliband being a realistic candidate, not least because he isn't an MP currently, but also because he's very closely associated with the Blair/Brown administration and he's got a bit of a toxic surname at the moment.

3) Come up with some arresting policies. Here's a couple for you - this is pretty much my manifesto should I ever run for government:
  • A combined affordable housing/green housing scheme. Provide some incentives for building affordable housing, but introduce legislation that says: any new house built in the UK must have one or more of the following built in: a rainwater/greywater collection and re-use system, solar panels, a rooftop wind turbine, a composting toilet. Hell, make it all of them.
  • Electoral reform. There's been a lot of retweeting of this chart about how the 2015 election results would have looked under a pure proportional representation system. That's slightly misleading for a couple of reasons: firstly, there are many variants between the current first-past-the-post system and "pure" PR like the alternative vote or single transferable vote systems, either of which are probably a more likely option than pure PR as they retain some connection with the old constituency system, secondly if people know in advance that every vote counts in a way that it currently doesn't they'd probably vote differently. So to anyone worried about the prospect of UKIP getting 82 seats I say: firstly, that's democracy, like it or lump it, secondly, I strongly suspect that wouldn't happen under a different system. Of course there's a bit of a catch-22 situation here, in that any government elected under the first-past-the-post system is going to have a vested interest in keeping the system that got it elected in place, so they're going to be disinclined to change it. This goes double for the Conservatives, the party for whom the phrase "vested interest in the status quo" was invented.
  • Compulsory voting. This is a bit of a sharp-intake-of-breath one for people: compulsory voting? As in: you can be prosecuted for not doing it? Well, think of it as being like jury service. It's only once every few years, so I think you can reasonably be expected to get off your fat arse and drag yourself to a polling station. Other countries have it and democracy has not collapsed.
  • Legalise drugs. Personally I favour across-the-board legalisation, since I see no rational reason for them to be illegal, but I accept that it might be better to have a phased approach which plucks some low-hanging fruit first. So let's start with cannabis. They tried it in Colorado, and, a year or so later, everything's still pretty mellow.
  • Abolish faith schools. Well, you couldn't expect me to get through a whole, fairly lengthy post without having a pop at religion, could you? Michael Gove, who is now, laughably, justice secretary, is a reliable source of horrible right-wing wrongness about just about everything, and this is one of those things. You can get rid of academies, too, while you're at it. The notion that education should be a) administered by the state and b) secular seems to me pretty uncontroversial, but maybe I'm just a crazy old dreamer.
4) the tl;dr version. Be a proper, left-leaning if not overtly left-wing, alternative to the Tories, and you will find that there is a public appetite for it. Aping their policies won't work, because the public will always be drawn to the self-abasing thrill of voting for something truly, chillingly evil rather than something just a bit evil. Also, if you don't get it together before the next election, and David Cameron is serious about standing down, there's the very real prospect of Boris Johnson being Prime Minister. So think on, and shape up.

Friday, May 08, 2015

celebrity lookeylikey of the day - election special

Just to be clear: these are not the answers promised in the previous post. Those are coming later. This, instead, is my tribute to our undisputed lizard overlord, now freed from the shackles of having to associate and negotiate with puny humans, and occasionally suck their brains out with his gristly proboscis and install some human-behaviour-mimicking brain parasites on the rare occasions when they look like causing trouble, like over tuition fees or something. Here he is in his vaguely-human but still not-quite-right form, and in his true form. Which is more horrifying?



conservapocalypse now

After the crushing disappointment of last night (to all right-thinking people who are not smirking old Etonian Nazi space lizards, anyway), there's been much talk of the 2015 general election following the pattern of the 1992 general election, and rightly so, as there certainly are some interesting parallels, mainly in the way the opinion polls had the two major parties running neck and neck in the run-up to polling day, only for it to be apparent from the early exit polls that the Conservatives were getting a much higher percentage of the votes than had been forecast, and then for the number of seats won by the Conservatives to exceed even the number forecast by the exit polls. That pattern was repeated almost step-for-step here, much to many people's chagrin, including my own.

Many theories were put forward to account for this, notably Shy Tory Factor, the theory being that people who intend to vote for right-wing parties tend to selectively lie about their intentions to pollsters. There's a similar thing in the USA called the Bradley effect, but for all that these things have been given names I'm not convinced they exist. It's an awfully persuasive narrative for progressive liberal types, since it implies that conservatives are slightly ashamed of their voting intentions, and SO THEY BLOODY WELL SHOULD BE, right?

Another theory about 1992 is that when voters got in the polling booth and looked the ballot paper in the face they had a last-minute spasm about possibly returning Neil Kinnock as Prime Minister and decided to vote differently. I'm not sure I really buy that either, but since Ed Miliband's own personal approval ratings lagged behind his party's opinion poll ratings throughout the campaign, maybe something similar happened here. Who knows?

Anyway, Ed is no more, and neither is Nick Clegg, while slippery old Nigel Farage managed to fulfil the letter of his promise to resign if he didn't get elected in Thanet South, while making it mean pretty much nothing other than that he's off on his hols and might pick up the job again on his return.

I must confess to feeling a bit sorry for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats - I can't see how they could have done anything other than agree to the Conservative coalition after the 2010 election, given that the slump in Labour's vote meant that Labour plus Liberal Democrats (a more obvious match, on the face of it) wouldn't have had enough seats for a majority. Once that coalition arrangement had been put in place it was always likely to be a bit of a poisoned chalice, though, and when the inevitable happened and Clegg had to back off a key, high-profile manifesto pledge (in this case over tuition fees), they'd probably torpedoed their chances at the next election. Of course the irony is that the voters who turned away from the Liberal Democrats in droves as a punishment for not being able to curb the excesses of a Conservative government now find themselves having helped to install a majority Conservative government unfettered by any need to pay even lip service to keeping more liberal types onside. As if to prove the point, and as a sort of symbolic FUCK YOU to their erstwhile coalition partners, I see the Conservatives have immediately stated an intention to revive their horrifyingly illiberal snoopers' charter. Nice.

I must confess to feeling a bit sorry for Ed Balls as well: a lumbering and charmless politician no doubt but one who (since Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling aren't around to be blamed any more) became the focus of all the wholly bogus Conservative rhetoric about government borrowing under the last Labour administration, and wasn't either self-confident enough to refute it or nimble enough to dodge it. But, we'll always have Ed Balls Day.

Obviously there were a few high points, notably the deposing of George Galloway in Bradford (and his possibly getting prosecuted into the bargain, though sadly I imagine that almost certainly won't happen), Caroline Lucas keeping her seat for the Greens in Brighton, and my vote actually counting for something in returning Jessica Morden with a slightly increased Labour majority in my constituency of Newport East (helped, it must be said, by a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote).

So, doom and gloom, then? Well, frankly, yes. But I have answers! Watch this space....

Thursday, May 07, 2015

ruthless people

Chalk up another entry on the list of novelists who have been featured on this blog and subsequently died of shame, or possibly of a nasty case of cancer of the credibility. It was Ruth Rendell this time, an author whose name will draw a blank if you search for it in the book list here, since both of her books that feature on it - A Dark-Adapted Eye and The Blood Doctor - were written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

As it happens, while I've read a substantial number of other Vines, I've never read a Rendell either on or off this list. Basically the Rendells, in the main, at least in her early career, were the more orthodox "crime" novels, many of them featuring Inspector Wexford, while the Vines were the darker, stranger psychological dramas not necessarily featuring a "crime" in the usual sense at all.

So the full list now reads as follows:
  • Michael Didbin
  • Beryl Bainbridge
  • Russell Hoban
  • Richard Matheson
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Iain Banks
  • Doris Lessing
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine)
Both of these best-of-Rendell lists feature a single Vine novel, and in both cases it's A Dark-Adapted Eye. I'm not sure I agree that that's the best one, as excellent as it is, but I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favourite. Start with any of A Fatal Inversion, The Brimstone Wedding, King Solomon's Carpet or No Night Is Too Long and you can't go far wrong.