Thursday, March 23, 2017

headline of the day

Here's another example (from the Daily Mail) of a phenomenon you might call "subject slippage" or something similar - a bit like this one (and indeed this one) in that as written it appears to imply people doing things after their own deaths, in this case some sort of zombie sexual assault rampage, perhaps as a sort of beyond-the-grave revenge for her own ordeal (which, to be clear, happened while she was alive).

A few commas go a long way in this sort of sentence, just to demarcate where sub-clauses start and finish and give the poor old reader some chance of following what's going on. The first paragraph of the story basically just rehashes the headline, but does contain some mercifully sense-supplying commas:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

the last book I read

The Savage Wedding by Yann Queffélec.

Nicole is the daughter of the village baker somewhere in provincial France. She's nearly fourteen, looks eighteen, and has been conducting a tentative romance with Will, an American GI at the local army base.

That's all very lovely and innocent. Trouble is, the base is being closed down and Will is being shipped back to the USA, so he hatches a plan to rapidly (i.e. in a single night) accelerate his courtship of Nicole up to and beyond the point of physical penetration, forcibly if necessary. Needless to say it turns out force very much is necessary, and lots of it, especially when Will invites his mates Aldo and Sam to join in.

So the GIs swan off back home leaving Nicole brutalised, traumatised and, it transpires, pregnant. Despite her best efforts to induce a miscarriage with various quack herbal concoctions and a rusty spoon handle the baby (a boy, Ludovic) turns up robustly healthy, at which point Nicole and her parents banish him to the attic for several years, so as not to have to gaze upon the cause of the family's shame.

Scarcely surprisingly as a result of these non-standard parenting techniques Ludo turns out to be A Bit Odd, though clearly not mentally deficient in the way that his family insist that he is, largely for their own self-justifying convenience. Eventually Nicole embarks on a marriage of convenience with an older man, Micho, and Ludo moves into a bigger house with Nicole, Micho and Micho's older son Tatav.

So things seem to be looking up. Needless to say a spanner soon gets lobbed into the works: not only is Nicole extremely unreceptive to Micho in the bedroom, not surprisingly, she's also cold and dismissive of Ludo, since looking at him requires her to relive her ordeal every day. Eventually she persuades Micho (with the persuasive suggestion that with Ludo gone things might get a bit spicier in the boudoir department) to ship Ludo off to the children's home/mental asylum run by Micho's cousin Mademoiselle Rakoff.

There then follows a somewhat One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest interlude wherein Ludo is obliged to conform to the stultifying institutional regime, punished for minor non-compliances and generally encouraged to act like a mindless sedated vegetable, with visits from his family being the only ray of sunshine on the horizon. These visits are disappointingly intermittent, though, and always involve Micho (and occasionally Tatav), never Nicole. After a visit where Micho alludes darkly to some marital discord between him and Nicole, even these visits dry up and Ludo is forced to conclude that he's been abandoned.

There being no handy giant marble washstands to hurl through a window (and with his institution operating a slightly laxer security regime anyway) Ludo simply hops the fence one night and sets off to seek his fortune. He winds up in the coastal village of Le Forge, and, wandering off to the beach, discovers the beached wreck of a ship, the Sanaga, which he makes his home. It's not exactly luxurious, but after forced co-existence with Tatav and forced communal living at the institution the solitude is just what Ludo needs, and with occasional jaunts into the village for supplies and occasional interactions with the assorted types who frequent the beach he's reasonably happy, in his own way.

Further spanners are thrown, though, inevitably: it turns out that the wreck is only a shortish walk down the beach from Ludo's old family home, which sets him thinking about his mother again. He also learns that the hulk of the Sanaga is due to be cut up for scrap, and that questions have been asked in the village connecting an escaped lunatic from a local institution with the mysterious young man who's been living on the wreck.

Then, unexpectedly, Nicole turns up at the wreck. Has she come to finally declare her maternal love for her son, the only thing he's ever really wanted out of life? Answer: no, she's been sent by the authorities to lure Ludo out to a place where they can grab him, tranquilise his ass and drag him back to the asylum. But Ludo doesn't know that: all he knows is that providence has sent him an opportunity to resolve his feelings for his mother and he's going to seize it with both hands if it's the last thing he does. Or, indeed, that either of them do.

You'll see that this is not exactly a barrel of laughs, despite my occasional levity above. Given the subject matter it'd be easy for it to tip over the edge into lurid melodrama, but Queffélec's spare, ruthless prose style prevents any of that from happening. The central message is, basically, they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad. Obviously you feel sympathy for Ludo, whose life was irredeemably fucked up before he was old enough to know anything about it, but you also feel for Nicole - despite her being the principal agent of Ludo's upfuckery she was fucked up in her turn by her experiences at the hands of Will and his mates, and subsequently by the wholly unsympathetic treatment she got from her parents. Despite the grimness of the theme and the evident impossibility pretty early on of it ending well for anyone I enjoyed it very much. Queffélec is a better writer than, for instance, Michel Houellebecq, for all of Houellebecq's higher profile and notoriety.

The Savage Wedding won the Prix Goncourt in 1985 - this is one of the grands fromages as far as French literary prizes go, but I think this is the only winner that I've ever read. It was also filmed as The Cruel Embrace in 1987.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

celebrabbity druggylikey of the day

Another author who died recently - though not as a result of the Curse of Electric Halibut as none of his books have featured in this list - was Dutch author Dick Bruna, mainly famous for being the creator of children's cartoon rabbit Miffy. We had a couple of Miffy books when I was a child, and we have a couple for the girls now as they're still in print and the blocky, primary-colour line drawings and general air of benign cuddliness are very appealing.

A couple of Dick Bruna-related lookeylikeys, then, as a sort of half-arsed tribute. Firstly, Bruna himself and German author (and previous featuree and mentionee here) WG Sebald. Both slightly scatty-looking, grey receding hairline, moustache, glasses. Bruna (on the left) is slightly older in the picture here and while Sebald's moustache is Teutonically straight and minimalist, Bruna's has just a touch of the Salvador Dalí about it with its upcurled ends. As a means of telling the two apart, then, the straight 'tache/curly 'tache thing echoes the method of distinguishing bumbling detectives Thompson and Thomson from each other in the Tintin books (for info, Thomson without the "P" had the curly 'tache). More on this in a minute.

Secondly, here's the trite and no doubt highly unoriginal observation that multi-gazillion-dollar Japanese merchandising enormo-phenomenon Hello Kitty is pretty clearly a shameless rip-off of Bruna's Miffy. Judging by his reference to it in this 2008 Telegraph interview, Bruna was of the same opinion himself.

Lastly, an atypical swerve into inanimate object territory. Those who follow me on Twitter will know that we recently took delivery of our third child, Huw, after a 91-day hospital stay following his unexpected arrival 13 weeks prematurely. He's come home with a slightly daunting (though thankfully only temporary) drug regime for us to follow, including various vitamin and mineral supplements. One of them comes in the form of some largish effervescent tablets in a natty plastic tube, which instantly put me in mind of the tube (ostensibly containing aspirin) containing the secret fuel additive Formula Fourteen from the Tintin adventure Land Of Black Gold. The picture here depicts the tube about to be discovered and picked up by Thompson and Thomson, who mistake them (understandably) for actual aspirin and consume them, with hilarious consequences.

I'm pretty sure Land Of Black Gold was the first Tintin book I ever read, back when I was about ten, which would make it one of the first "adult"-themed books (not in that way) I ever read. I mean, they're a bit silly, and they have some knockabout slapstick stuff (mainly involving the Thompsons or Captain Haddock) but they have recognisably adult themes - in this case something slightly impenetrable to do with tainting Middle East oil supplies to corner the market in non-exploding oil products, a bit like what Goldfinger was planning to do with the gold in Fort Knox.

The Thompsons' strange pill-induced medical condition was obviously meant to be a bit of a running theme/joke, and they suffered a relapse in the next book in the series, Destination Moon, but I don't recall it happening again thereafter, so I guess Hergé must have got bored with it.

Monday, March 06, 2017

mosley dead? no, completely dead

If there's one thing that unites the octogenarian and nonagenarian novelists of the world, it's grasping Electric Halibut beseechingly by the trouser leg as he goes implacably about his business and asking WHEN, oh Lord, WHEN WILL THE KILLING STOP? Because, make no mistake, Electric Halibut's business is killing. He can't be bargained with, or reasoned with, and he absolutely will not stop, ever, until all novelists featured in this blog are dead.

The latest victim of the curse is Nicholas Mosley, whose novel Children Of Darkness And Light appeared here in September 2011. That was one of the later works of a career that spanned 60-odd years; nonetheless Mosley was still most famous for who his father was (and, to a lesser extent, who his half-brother is). At 93 he's the second-oldest entry in the list below after Doris Lessing.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d

Mosley's Guardian obituary provides another entry in the curious genre of obituaries written by someone who pre-deceased (by four years or so in this case) the obituary's subject.

Friday, February 24, 2017

can I get a witness

I had those Jehovah's Witnesses round the house again a couple of days ago, a scant six years after their last visit. This particular pair (and it seems to be pairs, usually) were middle-aged blokes, the one who did the talking being a bit Scottish, I think.

As before I was in the middle of working, so I kept it brisk and polite and didn't get lured into any sort of theological exchange of views, as tempting as it might be. I accepted the bit of literature they were offering, as I find these things quite interesting, in a "know your enemy" kind of way.

The interesting thing about this particular tract, and the way it was presented, is that the focus groups have obviously concluded (scarcely surprisingly) that getting all in-your-face with the God stuff straight away isn't really a goer, and that it's better to sneak up on all that via some other topic. So while I can't remember exactly how the current script goes, it's something like: I wonder whether you'd be interested in a leaflet on the subject of teen depression. Do you suffer from teen depression yourself? Or maybe know someone who does? Or just any teens in general? They might not appear to be depressed, but who knows, they might just be putting a brave face on it. Here's the front cover of the leaflet:

Now I'm evidently hopelessly ill-informed about religious publications, because while the title sounded a bit suss for a serious bit of medical/therapeutic literature, I didn't specifically know that Awake! is the name of one of the main Jehovah's Witnesses publications (the more famous one being The Watchtower). Nevertheless it took me about five seconds to smell a bit fat Goddy rat here, at which point I trousered the leaflet and bid them a cordial good day.

Flipping the leaflet over exposes the subterfuge, though, as there's lots of contact and website details on the back, below a random and slightly barking article about the Saharan silver ant which seems to be doing a bit of Just Asking Questions while obviously trying to make some sort of point regarding Intelligent Design. The feature article starts off innocuously enough by making some fairly obvious points about depression - you know, some people get it, some don't, it's a bit of a bore, it can be quite serious, it makes you feel a bit rotten, some people find going out for a nice walk helps - and waits till a couple of pages in before it starts making reference to Bible verses. It pointedly omits any mention of antidepressant drugs as a possible treatment, but aside from that (well, and the Bible verses) it's all pretty anodyne. It's not until a bit later in the leaflet that we get into the serious stuff with a prominent article on abortion. It's not actually as fire-and-brimstone as you might imagine, but does sneakily ramp up the evil quotient by making the un-evidenced claim of a link between abortion and depression. It doesn't, as far as I can see anyway, repeat the often-made and entirely bogus claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, but I wouldn't want to rule out the possibility of them having made that argument at some point. The print version does also attempt to reassure those who have had either a miscarriage or an elective abortion with the prospect of meeting their "unborn child" in heaven later, which sounds fucking delightful.

Preying on those in a state of mental vulnerability is of course standard practice for proselytising religions, as is a firm opposition to any treatment regime that doesn't involve embracing their particular belief system, in a very real and financially binding sense. Take a look at the Scientologists' bullshit "personality tests" and visceral hatred of psychiatry for another example - to be fair to the Jehovah's Witnesses they can't really compete with the Scientologists in the arena of overtly cartoonish evil and absurdity; whether this makes them more or less dangerous is an interesting subject for debate.

If you're wondering where the bonkers blood transfusion stuff is on the JWs' shiny new website, rest assured it's still there, and they're still bothering, for reasons I can't really fathom, to try to make the case that this is a stand based on solid scientific evidence, while later in the same article conceding that it's "a religious issue rather than a medical one". I would say "well, at least it keeps them off the streets", but clearly it specifically doesn't do that, or they wouldn't be ringing my bleedin' doorbell of a Wednesday afternoon.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

the last book I read

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies.

So here we are at the college of St. John and the Holy Ghost, affectionately known by its denizens as Spook, in a city which I don't recall being named but which we are presumably meant to infer is a thinly-fictionalised version of Toronto, that being where a great many of Davies' novels are set.

As all academic institutions do, Spook carries a varied cast of eccentric academic types: professor Clement Hollier, priest Simon Darcourt, exotic half-Gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, Hollier's graduate student and erstwhile lover, and John Parlabane, defrocked monk and ex-student at Spook, recently returned to the college in an impoverished state to presume on the generosity of his old friends Darcourt and Hollier.

Hollier, Darcourt and their devious colleague Urquhart McVarish are thrown together by the recent death of Francis Cornish, art collector and benefactor of the college - Cornish has named the three men, along with his nephew Arthur, as co-executors of his will. The elder Cornish's somewhat haphazard methods of cataloguing his art collection make the task of disposing of the collection somewhat time-consuming. The collection also includes a manuscript which may or may not be some unpublished writings by Rabelais, one of Hollier's key areas of study.

Many plot strands branch off here: Maria's Gypsy mother, her Tarot readings and her devious schemes to rekindle Maria's romance with Clement Hollier; Hollier's attempts to retrieve the Rabelais manuscript from Urquhart McVarish, who he suspects has stolen it, by getting Maria's mother to put a Gypsy curse on him; Ozias Froats and his research into human excrement; John Parlabane's attempts to get his dreadful autobiographical novel published.

Things reach an unexpected conclusion when the deaths of Parlabane and McVarish are discovered in quick succession, followed by the delivery of a letter to Maria and Hollier which turns out to be an extended confession-cum-suicide note from Parlabane in which he describes the lurid arrangement he and McVarish had agreed upon to satisfy McVarish's unusual sexual tastes, and the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game.

The novel ends with Arthur Cornish proposing marriage to Maria, and being accepted, and various publishing houses expressing a belated interest in Parlabane's novel in the wake of his posthumous notoriety.

Very much like the previous Robertson Davies novel in this series, The Cunning Man, this one features a lot of hugely entertaining philosphical discussion and digression on a whole host of interesting topics, but not a great deal actually happening until, to quote myself from the previous review: "a few deaths at the end just to tie up a few loose plot strands". It's not a book that appears to have been written out of a burning desire to make a particular point, unlike, say, Surfacing or The Dark Room. But that's fine, different books do different things in different ways. The character of Maria Magdalena Theotoky, in particular, is one you want to spend more time with, and as it happens The Rebel Angels is the first book in a trilogy, so the keen reader has the opportunity to do just that. Davies was a bit of a one for trilogies; all of his novels were grouped into threes except the last two (The Cunning Man was his last published novel) whose planned capping-off into a trilogy was thwarted by Davies' death in 1995.

Davies also sported, during his lifetime, one of modern literature's more spectacular beards.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

anatomy of a (joke) murder

As I'm sure most of you know, Twitter, in addition to being a hive of scum and villainy, has its own little unwritten rules and points of etiquette that change and mutate every few minutes, so that however constantly plugged-in you are, you'll always be a few steps behind. Well, I say "unwritten", but of course someone somewhere is probably documenting them (pointlessly, since it'll be instantly out of date) in an epic multi-tweet thread right now.

Anyway, my specific point here is this: those of us who tweet tweet about lots of different things, from HEYYYY HOW ABOUT THAT LOCAL SPORTS TEAM to OMG TRUMP IS GOING TO LITERALLY INCINERATE US ALL to HERE ARE SOME CUTE CAT GIFS. Also, from time to time we might want to share a joke of our own devising, in a throwaway sort of way, as if tossing out a witticism down the pub. Trouble is, a throwaway gag down the pub floats away on the ether and is gone, whereas unless you've got some very specific account settings on the go (or go around specifically deleting individual tweets) your tweet is going to be hanging around FOR EVER, or at least until Donald Trump gets us all incinerated and we revert to bashing each others' heads in with rocks for entertainment.

So let's say that there's a thing going on in the news, and you think to yourself: if we were discussing this in the pub I'd lob a gag in here, cos I've just thought of one. But I'm sitting at my desk in my pants, so perhaps a tweet will be more appropriate. But should I check to see if it's an original joke? I don't want to be accused of joke-theft; similarly while I don't expect to be immediately given my own radio show on the basis of a single tweet I don't want everyone moaning about me being LIKE THE GAZILLIONTH PERSON to do that gag this morning. But, equally, you don't want to spend an hour obsessively Googling to see if anyone's done the gag, because a) that's an hour that could be spent doing other stuff and it is JUST A JOKE after all and b) you'll inevitably find at the end of that process that you would have been first if you'd just bashed a tweet straight out, but now that you've spent an hour fannying about LIKE A GAZILLION PEOPLE have done it.

Case in point: the rather humorous lettuce shortage this week that everyone who pretends to like salad pretended to give two shits about before waddling out and picking up a KFC. The idea of it being Europe-wide triggered a synaptic thing in my gagular cortex, and I tweeted the following:
I immediately followed this up with a bit of faux-nonchalant weaselly arse-covering, as follows:
I thought no more of it until someone re-tweeted the following a bit later the same day:
So I thought: I wonder how many other people had the same idea? Turns out there were quite a few, most of them earlier than me, with the caveat that Twitter's time-stamping of tweets is a bit confusing.

All of these people can go fuck themselves, though, as they're as guilty of plagiarising stale jokes as I am. Check out these tweets from during the EU referendum campaign back in May and June 2016.

Is that the first time that particular joke was done? Well, in relation to the UK possibly leaving the EU, very possibly. But in a more general sense, the Remain/Romaine pun must have been done countless times before. Really this is a more general variation on the old non-Twitter-specific conundrum: who makes up jokes? We all know lots, but how many of those did we make up? Probably none. I suppose there's some value here in distinguishing between one-off punnery and properly-constructed jokes, though as always there's not a bright and well-defined line separating the two concepts. In fact this (i.e. where do non-groany/punny jokes come from) is essentially the premise of the Isaac Asimov short story Jokester, which I have in the early-1970s collection Earth Is Room Enough (as also mentioned here).

As always when talking about jokes it's worth repeating the old one about how deconstructing jokes is a bit like deconstructing your cat: you might learn something of interest but the cat will never be quite the same afterwards. As if to illustrate the point, I've no idea who thought that one up either.