Saturday, November 29, 2008

the last book I read

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell.

This is the second novel in the celebrated Alexandria Quartet, the first of which, Justine, I read back in January 2007.

To recap quickly, the narrator has retreated to an unnamed Greek island to reflect on his time in Alexandria, his affair with the enigmatic Justine and the various goings-on among the diverse expatriate community.

The second book covers pretty much exactly the same period of time as the first, but from a slightly different perspective - the narrator, Darley, has received a manuscript from his friend Balthazar which throws a new light on the events described in Justine - most obviously Darley's view of his relationship with Justine herself, which, it transpires, was largely a smokescreen for Justine's relationship with the British novelist Pursewarden, who subsequently commits suicide.

So we're in Rashomon territory, as a second viewpoint of a series of events reveals the subjectivity of the first - and, by implication, the second as well. The next book in the series, Mountolive, describes the same sequence of events from a third viewpoint.

As with the first, there's a lot of idle swanning around, and, for a novel sequence ostensibly about "modern love", surprisingly little in the way of passion - not that I demand pages and pages about people's inner thighs, or bodily fluids squirting about all over the shop, but there's a lot of talking and precious little in the way of evidence of actual shagging.

For such a wordy and cerebral (some might say "pretentious") novel, though, it's all quite readable. I suspect that by the end of Mountolive I'll be chafing for an end to the navel-gazing and some progression of the plot, though.

Friday, November 28, 2008

album of the day

Greendale by Neil Young & Crazy Horse.

File this one under spooky coincidences. I was singing along with the final track on this album, Be The Rain, in the car on the way to work this morning after it popped up as part of a random iPod sequence. Then, later, I popped in to Strange Maps in an idle moment at work only to find the album cover staring up at me from this post. The map on the cover is the connection, of course - an interactive version can be found at the album's website.

Followers of Neil Young are subjected to an emotional rollercoaster over the course of his uniquely diverse and mercurial album-releasing career; my take on it goes like this:
  • 1970s good - his self-titled 1969 debut solo album is a bit ropey, but thereafter it's generally excellent, if wildly eclectic, up to 1979's Live Rust.
  • 1980s equally wildly eclectic, but generally not in a good way, from the bizarre vocoder experimentation of Trans up to the lumpy garage/synth-rock of Life. 1988's This Note's For You was an interesting genre exercise, but 1989's Freedom is the only essential 1980s Young album.
  • first half of the 1990s pretty good - from the indispensable Ragged Glory through to Sleeps with Angels in 1994.
  • thereafter stylistically all over the place as ever, but with slightly more uneven results quality-wise.
Anyway, back to Greendale (no, not that Greendale). It's very stripped-down garage-rock for the most part, particularly stark given the absence of Crazy Horse's second guitarist Frank Sampedro. Since the band don't do anything as poncy as overdubs this leaves some of the songs sounding a bit thin, especially when Young heads off on a lengthy solo excursion without the usual chunky rhythm guitar in the background. Also some of the songs are a bit on the long side, particularly Carmichael, Grandpa's Interview and Son Green, each of which check in at over 10 minutes.

Generally speaking it's one of his better recent albums, though. And Be The Rain is a terrific closer, despite featuring a winsome hippy choir warbling "be the magic in the Northern Lights", "we've got to save Mother Earth" and the like, and Young bellowing incomprehensibly through a megaphone, which shouldn't really work. But it's a cracking tune and there's some increasingly manic guitar-strangling towards the end.

The Strange Maps page has a couple of interesting links, most notably this Word magazine list of album cover locations with embedded Google Map facility. You'll be wanting to know that the cover of the Amadildoes' Very Pissed-Off!! was shot in a toilet in Horsens in Denmark, for instance.


Those new Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads are quite a cute response to the Apple ads of a while back.

But....if I were dithering over which kind of computer to buy, I'm not sure I'd be swayed by the appearance of quantum woo-meister, Intelligent Design advocate and 1998 Ig Nobel Prize winner Deepak Chopra around 49 seconds in - he's the guy doing the "not a human doing, a human being" bit towards the end. Actually I think he may be a "human doing" of some sort. What a massive tool.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

sausage squad up the blue end

I didn't attribute the Irish Independent article I linked to a couple of posts back to anyone in particular, because the web version didn't carry a by-line. It appears, however, that the culprit was Irish journalist Mary Kenny. A very similar article appeared in The Guardian last week, similar even down to the re-use of words - "gloomy blighters" this time. I'm not sure whether that's better or worse than "miserable blighters". In any case the word "blighters" always reminds me of the Reverend Charlie "Drooper" Hyper-Squawk Smith and his chums. But I digress.

If anything the Guardian article shades the Irish Independent one for sheer mind-boggling stupidity - largely because of this paragraph, which I think I may get framed and mounted somewhere:
Far from relaxing and enjoying life, most atheists I have encountered are gloomy blighters with a depressing and nihilistic message that there is no purpose to life so where's the point of anything? They so often fall into the category defined by GK Chesterton: "Those that do not have the faith/Will not have the fun." You only have to attend one of their dreary humanist funerals to see that – I am never going to another of those, just to be made miserable.
Yeah, those humanist funerals are so dreary. Unlike those church ones - I went to the church funeral of a couple of family members a couple of weeks ago, and I can tell you I laughed my fucking tits off. We were literally rolling in the aisles pissing ourselves, spraying silly string around, throwing custard pies, the lot.

The opening sentence is worthy of note, as well:
As I believe in freedom of opinion – as well as God – I have no problem with London's buses carrying the slogan "There is probably no God"; although I would admire the bravery of the advertisers more if they added "or Allah".
This is an increasingly common response by Christians to any perceived slight on Christianity - the assertion that the perpetrator of the slight wouldn't dare to make a similar statement about Islam for fear of getting his hands cut off, or an commercial jetliner flown into his face, or something like that, usually with a note of wistful regret that Christians aren't allowed to do all that stuff. So common, in fact, that it's acquired its own epithet: fatwa envy. Which I think is rather apt. I first encountered the phrase in the wake of the Pharyngula crackergate episode, but it seems to have spread since then.

Swanage: the slightly more sober version

Here's a few photos from our trip down to Dorset at the weekend. Hazel was keen to re-enact some of the activities from our annual Swanage weekends, so we had a curry, went to play golf (but failed as the course was shut) and then went to some pubs and got drunk.

Later in the weekend we went for a walk around Studland and Old Harry's Rocks and then took the Sandbanks ferry over towards Bournemouth to visit our friends Hannah and Mark and their new(ish) baby daughter.

The photo shows me in the legendary Square And Compass in Worth Matravers. Note that I seem to have made a fairly elementary beer-drinking error in plumping for the tiny pint in my hand, instead of the gargantuan one on the table in front of me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

dreary? moi?

A couple of contrasting views on the atheist bus story - the always amusing Daily Mash takes a humorous view of the situation, while the Irish Independent plumps for the barkingly insane view. Apparently atheists, in addition to being "miserable blighters", "dreary and austere puritans", "deeply unpleasant" and "caustically intolerant", are DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE for such horrors as the miserable death of Baby P by our promotion of a godless lifestyle that is, literally, a LIVING HELL.

Well, it's a viewpoint, certainly. I for one know that if I wasn't so heavily sedated I'd be out stabbing old ladies in the groin, ripping the heads off budgies and turning hamsters inside out.

It's at times like this that we need an appeal for sanity.

a dose of unadulterated child's piss

You'll remember, of course, the TravelJohn in-car piss-bag, and the Advanced Mission Extender Device in-plane piss-bag. Two very similar products; here's one with a slightly different purpose, but with a broadly similar theme (i.e. piss).

The Whizzinator is a fully-integrated artificial piss and prosthetic penis solution for the determined drug-abuser. It's ideal for the sportsman attempting to avoid mandatory testing while walking around with a blood supply positively frothing with illegal steroids. Also available are a couple of supplementary products: the Number 1 on-demand liquid urine delivery system, and the Yellow River dehydrated piss capsules.

Amusingly, in a spooky echo of the child's piss scene in Withnail & I (about four and a half minutes into this clip) a couple of celebs have genuinely been caught trying to use these things: American footballer Onterrio Smith and movie star Tom Sizemore. In a shocking display of sense of humour failure the makers of the device have now been convicted of conspiracy in a US court.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

ah, Mr Bond, I've been infecting you

Time for a couple of brief film reviews:

We went to see Quantum Of Solace at the cinema last week. After having heard somewhat mixed reviews I have to say I quite enjoyed it. The new Bond films are still rather uncomfortably in the shadow of the Jason Bourne films, so there's a slight unevenness of tone between the ramping up of the bone-crunching brutality and the ditching of the camper aspects of the Brosnan Bonds like John Cleese's gadgetmeister and the one-liners, and the retention of the recognisably Bondian features like the cars and the absurd plot MacGuffins - in this case we are required to believe that someone could build a couple of enormous reservoirs in the Bolivian altiplano without someone noticing by, say, having a look on Google Maps. Other noteworthy things: a nicely understated in-joke with the Gemma Arterton character's name (revealed only in the closing credits of the film, but also on her Wikipedia page, just in case you don't want the joke spoiled), and one of the more tuneless Bond themes, despite being written by the estimable Jack White. To be fair Casino Royale's theme wasn't great either, only being redeemed by Chris Cornell's gravelly tones.

I watched Underworld: Evolution on TV last night. One of the more stupid films I've ever seen, and the final speech (delivered by Kate Beckinsale in a voice-over as the camera skims across a lake) is a breathtakingly cheeky almost word-for-word rip-off of the speech at the end of Terminator 2 (delivered by Linda Hamilton in a voice-over as the camera skims along a road - about 4:40 into the linked clip). Also, the main male protagonist appears to be essentially Wolverine from X-Men (miraculous self-healing and all) with a less tragic haircut. But no film is without any redeeming features, and Kate does appear in skin-tight black fetish gear throughout, except for the brief moments where she slips out of it for an entirely gratuitous (and probably NSFW, though you don't really get to see anything) sex scene. I suspect in real life getting out of a black rubber catsuit and boots would involve a bit more yanking and squeaking, but, hey, artistic licence I suppose. A several-hundred year old vampire assassin having sex in a metal packing crate with a vampire-werewolf hybrid? Move along, nothing to see here.

The only cheekier bit of film plagiarism I can recall recently was 28 Days Later nicking its entire plot, wholesale, from The Day Of The Triffids.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

oh, Canada

I went over to the Millennium Stadium on Friday night to watch Wales play Canada. Unless you book months and years in advance, or you're a member of a rugby club that has some sort of block allocation, or you shell out a million pounds for a season ticket, it will tend to be only these kind of games against relatively minor (no disrespect to Canada) opposition that you'll be able to get in to see. The flipside of that is that at least these are matches you can reasonably confidently expect Wales to win.

Friday's match was no exception to this rule, but it wasn't a particularly thrilling game. Possibly the most exciting moment was the unveiling of the new change strip, which is a particularly migraine-inducing shade of banana yellow. This is apparently to fit in with the SA Gold sponsor's branding on the front, and is in no way an attempt to screw some more merchandising cash out of the gullible supporter.

A couple of pictures (of no great quality as they were snapped with my mobile phone) can be seen below.

friend only to the undertaker

I knew I had a third bullet to add to my previous post: the Adam Curtis documentary contains much mention of WWII Allied soldiers having vivid dreams about stuff that it was unthinkable to talk about and that therefore they had suppressed conscious thought of.

Coincidentally this is precisely the theme of Ari Folman's animated documentary film Waltz With Bashir, showing at a beardy arts cinema venue near you soon (here, for instance), though probably not at your local popcorn-selling enormoplex, more's the pity. The war in question here is the 1982-1983 Israel-Lebanon conflict, and the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982 in particular. Here's a short trailer for the film.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it

Thanks to the Bad Science blog sidebar (in which much good stuff can be found, much of it splendidly frivolous, some of it not) for this link to the first part of Adam Curtis' BBC2 series The Living Dead from 1995.

Apologies for getting all serious on your ass, particularly after the botty-related theme of my recent postings, but there are a couple of points that seem to be relevant here:
  • However alien the footage of wide-eyed Hitler Youth acolytes barking out Nazi slogans mights be, however much the marching crowds and the swastikas on sticks might seem to be an artefact of the past, the more general lesson is that the sort of hyper-nationalism embodied in all that, with the associated subsuming of individual reason and morality to the needs of the state is (wait for it) A Bad Thing. That might seem an obvious point to make, but somewhere down the other end of the scale is the sort of unthinking US exceptionalism exhibited by the Bush regime - the notion that, for instance, clearly it's OK for the USA to have nuclear weapons (or "nucular weapons", just to take a cheap shot at Bush for a moment) but, equally clearly, it's not OK for, say, Iran to develop the same technology. And furthermore for any questions which might require a more nuanced view of things, like "why is that?" to be met with either blank incomprehension or the equivalent of the child sticking its fingers in its ears and making the "lalalalalalala" noise. Obviously the hope is that the new regime might take a more balanced view of the world. We'll see.
  • The Second World War is the texbook example of a "just war"; the battle to free Europe from the yoke of Nazi totalitarianism, to stop the systematic extermination of the Jews (and whoever else the regime took exception to) and, into the bargain, to foil Japan's Pacific expansion plans. Should it become clear (as it certainly does if you scratch the surface of pretty much any of the accepted version of history), that the simple Manichaean view of things won't really do, what then? What of the supposedly just conflicts of the nebulous War On Terror, which even on the surface are considerably less clear-cut morally and politically? Just in case you were expecting an answer, the answer is: I don't know. Acknowledging that it's a bit more complex than a bunch of square-jawed GI Joes liberating the huddled masses from the evil snickering hook-nosed bearded towel-headed camel-jockeys is a good start, though.
Parts two and three of the series are also available and are well worth a watch, being in the excellent tradition of thought-provoking BBC documentaries that I've previously bigged up here. I'm sure I've also linked to this famous clip from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man somewhere before as well, but I can't find it, so I make no apology for doing it again. The associated YouTube links includes this one to a TV religion versus atheism debate hosted by Melvyn Bragg a few years back. Notable bits include the remarkable gravity-defying bouffantness of Bragg's hair, and some intelligent panellists, including Gore Vidal, in somewhat more eloquent and sober form than, more recently, on election night.

Friday, November 14, 2008

oooh, no, matron

I will conclude this brief incontinent flurry of arse-related items by linking to the following news story from a couple of weeks ago: vicar gets potato stuck up arse. Top marks to The Sun's headline writers for whoever came up with the one they've attached to this story.

A couple of things to note beyond the general hilarity of the story - it was nice of The Sun to include a photograph of a potato, just in case anyone was unaware what a potato looked like (the only thing that could have improved things would have been the caption "a potato, yesterday"). I assume this wasn't the actual potato in question - if it was I guess they must have given it a rinse first. Also, note the quote at the end from "a hospital trust spokeswoman":
Like all busy hospitals we do see some unusual accidents. But our staff deal with them in a discreet, professional and kind way.
Er, yeah. By telling the tabloids all about it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

other news in brief

Continuing the death theme, drummer Mitch Mitchell died yesterday. This now means that a) all three members of the original Jimi Hendrix experience are now dead, what with bassist Noel Redding dying in 2003, and Hendrix himself...well, you probably know about that, and b) the curse of the rock drummers continues, what with Moon and Bonzo checking out early, Rick Allen narrowly avoiding doing so, and of course Spinal Tap's legendary problems with drummers, as described here.

Interestingly, when I said "Mitch Mitchell" to Andy, he said "what, the bloke who invented the Spitfire?". It turns out he's been dead for over 70 years, principally from arse-related problems, as it happens, though there's no suggestion these were of the same nature as Joanna Lumley's.

Also in the news: Chuck Norris lays down the law to America's new president-elect. Remember - no-one comes near Chuck Norris....and lives. Chuck's ramblings originally appeared on the always highly entertaining WorldNetDaily, home of such charming special offers as this groundbreaking exposé of Barack Obama's real intentions towards the USA. Basically turning everyone into commie Muslim paedophiles, as far as I can tell.

More entertaining idiocy from the inimitable Bruce Anderson in this week's Independent: this article grudgingly acknowledging Obama's overwhelming US election victory actually manages the double whammy of casual racism:
A lot of blacks need to be told to get off thy bed and work.
and patronising sexism:
A lot of conservative Republicans think that Mrs Palin is a feisty girl who ought to be encouraged.
Nice work. Possibly even better, if that were possible, is today's article commemorating Prince Charles' 60th birthday, which is so cringingly sycophantic and shoe-horns so many occurrences of the word "intellectual" into its first few paragraphs that you'd assume Bruce must be taking the piss out of the jug-eared dimwit, if you didn't know better.

Jurassic cark

This is ostensibly to continue my habit of acknowledging the deaths of major writers - like, previously, Michael Dibdin, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer, though, ironically, having just read one of his books, I missed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's death in August - but in reality it's just an excuse to re-use the joke I used on the occasion of Arthur C Clarke's death in March.

Anyway, be that as it may, Michael Crichton died this week. As with Norman Mailer, this puts me in the position of acknowledging the work of someone quite famous without ever actually having read any of it. I have nonetheless had quite a bit of exposure to it through having seen several films he had a hand in - The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park and Sphere were based on novels he wrote, and he also directed Westworld and Coma, as well as being one of the creators of the TV series ER. Actually I can't remember whether it's The Andromeda Strain that I've seen, or The Satan Bug, as they do seem quite similar. Could be both, of course.

All reasonably entertaining stuff - less admirable is the fact that he was a prominent global warming denialist, even going as far to write a whole novel (State Of Fear) expounding his views on the subject. The anti-science undercurrent was pretty obvious as early as Jurassic Park, though (even from the film adaptation - I suspect it was stronger in the book, though as I say I haven't read it).

Global warming "sceptics" are notoriously sensitive to criticism (as well as hanging out on the internet a bit more than is probably healthy) so it was no surprise to see this entirely reasonable (though not exactly complimentary) article attract a fair number of loons. Even my humble blog experienced a bit of a spike in comments when I happened to allude to the subject in passing a while back.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Via Strange Maps and Pharyngula: here's an interesting sequence of maps showing the voting distribution in last week's US presidential election. Among the interesting things to note is that the population-compensated area scale and the local vote distribution make Florida look even more like a big veiny cock than usual.

More entertaining maps can be found here and here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

music list of the day

Songs that pull a specific lyrical trick on you: refer constantly to a woman by name, or by use of the phrase "my baby" or something similar, and then reveal, late in the song, that she's - wait for it - a real baby, or at least a small child of some sort. Oh, my aching sides.

joanna bumley

I don't know what sequence of random external stimuli made my train of thought turn to the subject of Joanna Lumley's anus, but it happens to us all from time to time, as I'm sure you're aware.

The only reason I mention it is this: does anyone know where the persistent arse-related rumour about Joanna Lumley originated? I would call it, as most do, a "persistent internet rumour", but I'm aware that it pre-dates most people's contact with the internet. I first heard it when I was a student at the tail-end of the 1980s, and I can tell you I'd never done any internetting at that point. That said it is now all over the internet, though there's no indication of where it originated. There are even two Facebook groups dedicated to perpetuating it. Most strange of all is its mention as an aside in a brief article about something quite disturbing. Links are all pretty much SFW in terms of images etc., by the way, though there is some sweary language (understandably lavish use of the word "arse", mainly).

Apparently the rumour about Bob Holness playing the saxophone solo on Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street was started by Stuart Maconie; no-one's taking responsibility for this one though, as far as I can see.

But there isn't a Snopes article debunking it, so I therefore conclude that it must be true. In support of this conclusion I offer you this apparently real news story about a woman in Germany who went into hospital for a routine leg operation but instead emerged having been fitted with an artificial anus.

["Darmausgang" appears to be German for "anus", by the way. Literal translation would be something like "intestinal exit", which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense. Be careful to capitalise the first "D" or you get "california exit", which is a bit weirder. Maybe that's where they make the plastic ones?]

Maybe Joanna was the victim of a similar mix-up?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

the last book I read

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

It's 1962 and Edward and Florence Mayhew have just got married and are staying in a hotel near Abbotsbury, at the north-west end of Chesil Beach. We join them as they toil through a grey and rubbery roast beef dinner, and contemplate in their differing ways an impending sexual initiation that promises to be equally grey and rubbery.

The date of 1962 is obviously carefully chosen, falling as it does smack in the middle of the period, in Philip Larkin's words, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP", during which sexual intercourse was, supposedly, invented. Things evidently haven't kicked off properly yet, as both Edward and Florence are still virgins. Edward is pretty keen, despite his understandable nervousness, but Florence views the whole thing with horror; indeed she has a fastidious dislike of any kind of physical intimacy, even kissing. So the omens aren't promising, and when, after some awkward fumbling and clumsy removal of garments, Edward's fears of, in the quaint phrase of the time, "arriving too early" prove to be all too prescient, Florence panics and makes a run for it.

Incidentally, I know Edward had been, hem hem, "leaving himself alone" for a while prior to the wedding night, but his performance here:
filling her navel, coating her belly, thighs and even a portion of her chin and kneecap in tepid, viscous fluid
- would seem to indicate a potentially profitable future career in the porn industry. People pay good money for that sort of performance.

Anyway....Florence flees out onto Chesil Beach, and (after getting some trousers on) Edward goes out after her. A brief and unsatisfying exchange of views follows, at which point Florence hops in a taxi and buggers off. And, erm, that's about it, really.

This is, again, a very short novel - 166 pages, but the large and widely-spaced print means it's even shorter than that makes it seem; if it were printed as small as the Solzhenitsyn book I doubt whether it would be much more than 100 or so. All that there's time for apart from the bald description of the wedding night are some neatly-drawn sketches of the protagonists' family backgrounds - sufficient to get across the point that Edward is marrying slightly "above himself", and also to offer just the merest sniff of something odd going on with Florence and her father on their trips away together on his yacht which might offer an explanation for her frigidity.

If you can't even be arsed to plough through 166 large-print pages, then a light-hearted one-page synopsis of the novel by fellow novelist Jim Crace can be found here.

After the wedding night ends the remainder of the novel takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the rest of the characters' lives (Edward's, mainly). After spending 160 pages describing (with a few digressions) an hour or so, covering the next 50+ years in less than ten pages feels like a bit of a neck-snapping change of pace, and I'm not sure what the purpose of it is, or what the novel gains from it.

I think this is a more engaging book than Saturday, though, which I found unconvincing for reasons I can't really put my finger on. I think it's probably just that I tend to agree with the assertion (made here and more indirectly here) that McEwan's recent output is slightly more cosy and sober and self-consciously "literary" and "writerly" than his early, punky, macabre stuff. If I had to recommend a place to start I would go for the wonderfully weird and disturbing short story collection First Love, Last Rites and then move on to the mid-period novels The Child In Time and Black Dogs.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

well done, everyone

My faith in America is at least partially restored, despite my deep (and, it turns out, thankfully, unfounded) suspicion and paranoia about the voters' ability and inclination, in the privacy of the voting booth, to put an X in the box of an uppity black man who had the audacity to be smarter than them (and, slightly more stereotypically, better at basketball too).

Particular highlights included the Democrats winning Florida in a rather sweet bit of revenge for the shameful debacle back in 2000, and also the defeat of Senator Elizabeth Dole by Kay Hagan in North Carolina in the wake of Dole's press campaign vilifying Hagan for associating with - whisper it - atheists. No word yet, as far as I can see, on comedian Al Franken's campaign for the Minnesota senator's job, but it looks like it could go either way.

Monday, November 03, 2008

fire walk with me

Here's a selection of random pub encounters from the last few days, for your edification and possible future drinking and dining pleasure:
  • Last Thursday we went to The Ship Inn at Alveston for a few drinks and some food after work. Food very good, beer also good (the Charles Wells Bombardier I had was, anyway), just a suspicion of the pub decor being out of the Cottagey Country Pub In A Box Kit, and just a suspicion that they were more focussed on the dining experience than the drinking experience, but overall a nice place.
  • On Saturday we went over to Chepstow to meet up with my friend Alex for some lunch as it was her birthday. We met up in the Rising Sun at Woodcroft, which, as it happens, is now owned by Alex's father. Food very good indeed, beer (Reverend James - just the one unfortunately as I was driving) also excellent. We then went for a walk with a selection of dogs owned by various family and friends - a black labrador, a Great Dane, and a collie/lurcher cross (no, really) - who then proceeded to attack each other, which was nice.
  • On Sunday evening Hazel had a photography assignment in Bridgend photographing a fire-walking event to raise funds for the Gofal Cymru mental health charity. I tagged along as it sounded like it might be interesting - I'd seen fire-walking on TV before and it's been an impressive-looking fire-pit in a field with some mystical Native American stick-waving going on, not to mention people stomping across bellowing "cool wet grass, cool wet grass" as they go. That said, there is something inherently annoying about fire-walking, what with all the mystical bollocks about the Power Of Positive Thinking and summoning the mystical shade of Johnny Two-Sprouts, your Cherokee spirit guide, to usher you into the state of Zen-like calm required, etc. etc. Sure enough the people doing this one seemed to have been put through a two-hour pep talk before being unleashed on the hot coals; Christ knows what they filled the time with once the basic safety instructions (shoes off, walk, don't stop) were out of the way. I should imagine there was a certain amount of fist-clenching and whooping.
    Anyway, it transpired that the event was taking place in the car park of the Riverside Tavern in Bridgend, round the back of Tesco's. A less impressive setting than I'd imagined, and I can't in all conscience recommend the pub to you, on the grounds that it appears to be a bit of an arsehole of a place. However, here's some firewalking pictures for you.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

the last book I read

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an inmate in a Siberian prison camp for dissidents against the rule of Josef Stalin. During the course of a single day he has a series of zany slapstick adventures, while trying to avoid finding out the result of the top-of-the-table clash between Moscow United and Omsk Rovers.

Actually, no, it's not quite like that. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is an inmate in a Siberian prison camp for dissidents against the rule of Josef Stalin, and the novel does take place over the course of a single day, but otherwise it's more in line with what you might expect: the grinding hardship, the dreadful food, the forced labour, the boredom, the bitter cold and snow, the arbitrary brutality and injustice, and the relentless de-humanising of the inmates. Solzhenitsyn was writing from bitter personal experience, as he'd been an inmate in a prison camp in Kazakhstan for eight years between 1945 and 1953 (the novel was first published in 1962).

It's very short (143 pages), and written in a very stark and no-frills style; oddly enough though it's not nearly as grim as you might imagine. Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that the day being described here is actually a pretty good one by prison camp standards; Shukhov manages to wangle some extra food (grim grey fishy soup though it may be), his work team spends a day building a wall (a job he quite enjoys), and he even manages to scrounge enough tobacco for a quick snout before bedtime. Of course the very fact that these small victories constitute a good day throws what an average day must be like into sharp relief, and of course Shukhov has ten years' worth of days like this (or worse) to endure.

There must be a sub-genre of books whose plot plays out over the course of a single day (without too many digressions or flashbacks, which would be cheating) - Ian McEwan's Saturday (one of his lumpier and less satisfying novels, in my opinion, incidentally) is the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Needless to say Wikipedia has a list, though.