Friday, January 30, 2009

may you never make your bed out in the cold

As of today it's a pretty busy week for celebrity deaths: as well as John Updike a couple of other interesting people have hopped the twig and joined the choir invisible in the last couple of days:
  • John Martyn, legendary folk/rock/jazz/blues maverick, who died yesterday aged 60. Not totally surprisingly given his recreational habits and the fact that he'd had his right leg amputated in 2003, but sad all the same. A brutally honest appraisal of his musical output would coinclude that 1980's harrowing post-divorce album Grace And Danger was his last really good album, but most musicians would give their right arms (or indeed right legs) for a sequence of albums as good as the one that goes from 1971's Bless The Weather through the seminal Solid Air (no self-respecting record collection is complete without it) to the wildly experimental Inside Out, Sunday's Child, the ganjatastically funky One World and Grace And Danger.
  • Bill Frindall, Test Match Special's statistical guru. Slightly more unexpected as he was, as far as I know, in perfectly good health before contracting legionnaire's disease while on a trip to Dubai. As I've said before, cricket provides a wealth of arcane statistical data like no other sport, and Frindall was the ultimate fount of knowledge for all of it. You wanted to know how many bowlers had taken a wicket in their first over on a Tuesday in June while wearing red underpants, the Bearded Wonder would know.
Incidentally "fount of knowledge" is a commonly misused phrase apparently, and in fact one of those where the usage of the incorrect form ("font of knowledge") is outstripping usage of the proper one. Pull yourselves together, everyone.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Updike, Spike - yikes

Continuing my occasional series on notable literary deaths: John Updike died yesterday. One of the most celebrated of late 20th century American authors, his death follows those of Saul Bellow in 2005 and Norman Mailer just over a year ago. Philip Roth must be shitting himself.

By my calculations I've read three Updikes: Rabbit, Run, the mildly scandalous Couples and the slightly bizarre later novel Brazil. I do have a couple of others in the "to be read" pile, but I won't spoil the surprise for you. All good, though (Brazil aside) I can see why some people found his fixation with affluent white middle-class lives and middle-class concerns like wife-swapping and golf a bit stifling. But, as I've said before, if you want attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, you can always read some books by a different author.

The other notable thing about Updike is how he came, in later life, to resemble a slightly less manic Spike Milligan, as shown here.

the last book I read

So I Am Glad by A. L. Kennedy.

Picture the scene: you're looking for a new flatmate for your shared house in Glasgow, and a mysterious bloke turns up one day who claims to be the reincarnated spirit of Cyrano de Bergerac. Also, he seems to glow in the dark slightly. Well, we've all been there.

A little bit of background: the narrator, Jennifer, is a voice-over artist getting over a mutually abusive S&M-style relationship with a work colleague. The bits of back-story we are fed throughout the book reveal that her parents were somewhat kinky exhibitionists who thought nothing of having sex in front of her as well as in dangerous situations like while driving. We are told late in the book that they died in a car crash, and are invited to draw the unspoken but obvious conclusion, as well as the conclusion that it's because of all this that she now has difficulty with intimacy and hence the fetish for impersonal sex games, with the binding and the whipping and the chains and all.

Eventually Jennifer and Savinien (de Bergerac's real first name, just in case you didn't follow the Wikipedia link earlier) start up a tentative (and non-S&M-based) relationship, while all the time Savinien's memory of his previous life is gradually restored. After a few adventures prompted by the culture clash between his 17th-century upbringing and modern Glasgow he decides that he must return to Paris, specifically the district of Paris where he died in 1655 and where past and present come together at the end of the book.

There's really nothing wrong with any of this, but I can't say I was blown away by it. We have to assume, given that Savinien interacts with the other housemates in Jennifer's presence, that he's not just a figment of her imagination (unles she's seriously delusional), so the glow-in-the-dark stuff is never really adequately explained; I guess it's just meant to denote a general ghostiness. Also, once the initial mystery has been resolved (i.e. is he just a nutter or is he really Cyrano) there's not really anywhere tremendously exciting for the story to go.

But Kennedy has a readable and intermittently comic turn of phrase, as befits someone who occasionally moonlights in stand-up comedy. I think perhaps she's one of those writers who may be best suited to the short story medium - I read her collection Original Bliss a while back and thought it was very good.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Charles Darwin: currently nearing maximum subterranean angular velocity

I was watching BBC Four earlier and caught the second half of What Darwin Didn't Know, a programme presumably broadcast as part of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. All very interesting, and presented by the splendidly-named Armand Marie Leroi.

Search on Google for "what Darwin didn't know", though, without providing any other context, and you find links to some absolutely tremendous hogwash, for instance this and this and, for goodness sake, this. You're also only a couple of clicks away from this reading list, which you probably want to strap yourself into your tinfoil hat before diving into.

Couple of further points, firstly, as one of the central characters in Stephen King's excellent short novel The Langoliers keeps forcefully pointing out: time is very fucking short. With all the very real challenges facing the human race in the 21st century, do we really have the time or the available wood pulp material for stuff like Greater Than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists About God? I mean, do we? Really? How about for Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah Nyah; There Is Too A Santa Claus: A Small Incontinent Child Answers The Meanies Who State The Bleeding Obvious About Father Christmas (And Then Shits Itself)? Is that a useful and constructive use of our remaining time on this planet?

Secondly, even latter-day saints like David Attenborough get hate mail, and, unsurprisingly, it's about evolution, as it always is.

Thirdly, anyone interested in how life evolves and develops could do a lot worse than to read, along with the more orthodox Dawkins stuff like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, Ian Stewart's (no, not that one) Life's Other Secret, a fascinating account of how much of the seeming complexity of life follows from some fairly simple mathematical laws, without even the hand of genetics being required to guide the process. Which just illustrates even more forcefully the single basic central point that the anti-evolutionists fail to grasp: seemingly simple rules can and do generate mind-bogglingly and certainly at first glance counter-intuitively complex results. You really should read it, it's very good.

Friday, January 23, 2009

this article is the tops

While we were in Cardiff the other week I picked up a copy of Country Walking magazine, largely because its cover prominently featured a plug for an article about county high points, which I wrote a couple of posts about a while back.

And very interesting it is too, not least because they've used the old pre-1970s "traditional" county list including things like Huntingdonshire and Westmorland and various other places that have long since disappeared from the map. So it's more in line with this Wikipedia list than the one I was using. Hopefully the magazine's lawyers will forgive me if I reproduce the county map:

....and also the list of high points, complete with Ordnance Survey grid references (which can be plugged directly into Multimap, among other things).

In both cases you can click on the image for a larger version. The summit list has a lot of useful text in it so if you want a higher-quality PNG version you can obtain one here. The pedantically eagle-eyed among you will notice that the graphical representations of Berwickshire (too low - compare it with the picture for East Lothian which represents the same hill), Norfolk (too high) and Worcestershire (too low) are somewhat on the piss (the stated heights are correct).

I notice also that we've totally missed the boat on writing a book on the subject: Journalist Jonny Muir's book Heights of Madness , which describes the author's adventures touring round the country on a mountain bike scaling all the county tops, will be out in May. I wish it (through clenched teeth) every success, naturally.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

cliché, cliché: perhaps. but true

More interesting sporting phraseology: during the course of watching the final of the Masters snooker on Sunday night I noticed the commentary team toying with the word "genius" to describe Ronnie O'Sullivan, a probably not unreasonable description, as it happens. The phrase "genius is an overused word" was used, and true enough, it is. The trouble is, the phrase "genius is an overused word" is itself a cliché, as you'll discover if you try and do a Google search on it. Those who the phrase is used in relation to include:
Tune in again a year or so from now for an analysis of how the phrase ""genius is an overused word" is an overused phrase" is an overused phrase.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

bisch Bosch

A bit of a weekend of DIY here at Halibut Towers - firstly plumbing in a new Bosch dishwasher which we bought the other day:

This necessitated the purchase of much pipe-splitting T-jointage and extra lengths of waste pipe and the like, for which I was grateful for the presence of Hazel's dad in an advisory role to avert any Reg Prescott-style mishaps. Once the plumbing was complete we moved on to putting some shelves up (with the associated wall-drilling and Rawlplug action), and then to replacing the lights in the kitchen. This was deemed necessary for a number of reasons: firstly they were a bit old and manky, and secondly they hung down quite a long way from the ceiling, which in a room with limited headroom meant I was constantly hitting my head on them (when I wasn't scalping myself on the doorframe). So they had to go, and they have now been replaced by these bad boys:

Which is all good. One unexpected consequence of the spotlight upgrade, however, is the following, which I find slightly mysterious and spooky and I'm hoping someone can explain to me: there are two light switches by our kitchen doorway, and before today one of them operated the two sets of spotlights in the kitchen, and one of them operated the neon striplight in the utility room (where the new dishwasher lives). No longer though.


Switch selectedKitchen 1Kitchen 2Utility room


Switch selectedKitchen 1Kitchen 2Utility room

So in other words the set of spotlights nearest the door have migrated from being operated by one switch to being operated by the other, without any (intentional) change in wiring set-up. Weird, huh?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

now that's what I call a jumbo sausage

I've just been watching Could You Eat An Elephant? on Channel 4, the synopsis of which made it sound quite interesting - two chefs travel around sampling exotic food and examine our squeamish and irrational western prejudices to eating things like horse, beetles, dogs, etc.

There were a number of ways this could have been made really interesting: either just go all out to find the most disgusting things you can and have a go at eating them, or do a proper analysis of why we tend not to eat carnivorous mammals or insects, the cultural reasons behind which are quite interesting.

For reasons best known to themselves, however, Channel 4 did neither of these things, deciding presumably that wheeling in a couple of effete ponces to wander round wittering camply to each other while various transgressive delights were prepared for them and then refuse to eat them and bugger off was the way to go. It's the first rule of a program like this that the presenters have got to try the food, otherwise why bother? All we got was a series of interviews evidently done back in the UK where the two chefs explained their reluctance to try things (I didn't see the whole program but they turned down rat, elephant and monkey while I was watching) by saying, well, it's a bit disgusting, isn't it? That's the whole point, you berks. All the more surprising considering that one of them, Fergus Henderson, runs a restaurant in London devoted mainly to various forms of offal. Frankly if you offered me a choice between the chitterlings and some nice juicy elephant I'd be chowing down on old Babar every time.

They should have got Ray Mears and Bruce Parry in; they would have been ripping the legs off dogs and sucking their brains out through a bit of bamboo without a second thought.

on second thought, no, he was rubbish

A couple of footnotes to my previous post, and the bit about Matthew Hayden's retirement in particular:

The BBC Sport blog piece and its accompanying comments makes interesting reading, and sums up the general attitude of non-Australians to Hayden - respect for his intimidating aura at the crease and for his remarkable statistical achievements, but little affection, certainly far less than that afforded to Warne, Gilchrist and even Ponting.

One of the interesting things about Hayden is how few individually memorable innings he played. There are obvious exceptions to this; the double-century in a losing cause in Chennai in 2001, the pulverising 197 (and 103 in the second innings) in the first Ashes Test in Brisbane in 2006, and of course the briefly record-holding 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth in 2003; also the fact of being in such a phenomenally successful team (where everyone else was knocking out centuries at will as well) diluted the individual impact of Hayden's contributions a bit as well. But there is some statistical backing for this theory - Hayden's 30 Test centuries (sixth on the all-time list) included a surprisingly paltry five scores over 150. When you compare this with some of his contemporaries you see a notable contrast:
PlayerCenturies150+ scores200+ scores150+ percentage"Average" century score
Matthew Hayden305216.67146.14
Ricky Ponting3712432.43175.83
Steve Waugh3214143.75255.41
Brian Lara3419955.88184.03
Sachin Tendulkar4117441.46215.96
Don Bradman29181262.07234.47

And yes, I know Bradman wasn't a contemporary, but it's obligatory to have him in any cricket list.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

brimful of Ashes

2009 is Ashes year, in case you didn't know. After the debacle of the 5-0 whitewash in Australia a couple of years ago you might think Australia are favourites, and you'd be right, but I think recent events provide some grounds for cautious optimism.

1) Matthew Hayden's retirement means that just about all of the all-conquering Australian side of the late 1990s and 2000s have now retired, with the sole exception of captain Ricky Ponting. Since the 2006-07 whitewash Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Stuart MacGill and now Hayden have hung up their boots. It's hard to say how good Hayden really was, in such a batsman-dominated era, but clearly he was pretty good - you don't get a Test average in excess of 50 by accident. He was a pretty charmless character on the field, and a big hulking beetle-browed unsubtle bully of a batsman, but hugely effective nonetheless. Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey are excellent additions to the middle order, Stuart Clark (when he's fit) is an excellent bowler who will probably thrive in English conditions, and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin looks to be settling in quite nicely, but the loss of all those superstars must have an impact.

2) And that impact can be seen when you look at the last two Test series that the Australians have played: a 2-0 loss to India in India followed by the unthinkable - a 2-1 loss to South Africa in Australia, their first defeat in a home series for 16 years (and the first time they'd lost consecutive series in 20 years). Consider if you will that England played out an equally hard-fought series against the South Africans in the summer and lost in very similar circumstances - 2-1 after a couple of matches that could have gone either way and a consolation win for the home team in the last Test.

3) England are widely perceived to have shot themselves in the foot with the Pietersen-Moores resignation/sacking debacle earlier in the week. I take a slightly more optimistic view, since what it does mean is that England have now appointed as captain the man they should have gone for all along: Andrew Strauss. As long as Pietersen stays onside and Flintoff stays fit this could all work out quite nicely. Also, now that there's to be a new coach there might be a rethink of a couple of items of selection policy, specifically giving Owais Shah a fair crack of the whip in the Test team if certain batsman don't pull their weight (Ian Bell, for instance) and rethinking the decision to discard Matthew Hoggard after, essentially, one bad Test in New Zealand last winter.

4) Australia's next Test series is about as tough as you could imagine: South Africa in South Africa. England, by contrast, travel to the West Indies for a series they really should win fairly comfortably. A chance to build some confidence before the summer perhaps?

5) Could Simon Jones be fit in time? With his injury record, don't bet on it. A triumphal return in the Cardiff Test in July would be nice though.

Monday, January 12, 2009

where all the nobs hang out

Here's a couple of sets of photos for you - firstly the epic pond clearance up at my parents' place on the first weekend of the new year. The pond was choked up with several years' worth of fallen leaves and silt, so what better way to spend a weekend of sub-zero temperatures than to crack the ice off a pond and stand around in it shovelling out evil-smelling filth into a wheelbarrow? On the upside I'm quite impressed with my hastily-purchased ten quid B&Q wellies.

Secondly, Hazel and I went over to Cardiff this weekend, including a trip to Cardiff Castle, which I hadn't visited since I was about two years old (and my recollections are, as you might imagine, a bit sketchy). It's sort of a slightly less quirky twin to Castell Coch, in that it's largely the work of maverick Victorian neo-Gothic nutter William Burges. It's also more interesting historically, in that the central (and still largely intact) keep is much older; it's from an earlier 11th-century Norman castle. Not only that, but the outer walls are built on top of the walls of a first-century Roman fort. Photos can be found here.

Finally, an odd coincidence that struck me as we were getting the tour of the spectacular interior of the Burges-constructed bit of the castle: both Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch were built for the Marquesses of Bute. Now, not only is the current Marquess of Bute better known as racing driver Johnny Dumfries, but I knew the family surname, Crichton-Stuart, rang a bell somewhere. It was only later that the penny dropped that it's my fellow stag do attendee Edward's surname. It is genuinely amazing what you can find out in less than ten minutes on the internet: unless I'm much mistaken Edward is the great-grandson of the 4th Marquess of Bute. Edward and his lady friend Henrietta (proprietor of the Rare Tea Company) are pictured on the left (Edward on the left). I'd just like to say that they were both delightful company throughout, and at no time attempted to shoot me, use me as a footstool or otherwise incur my coarse proletarian wrath. Though of course they will be first against the wall come the revolution. Sorry about that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

enough, already

While I'm in the business of making unreasonable demands, can we also have an embargo on anyone ever again using Ain't Got No/I Got Life or Feeling Good (both by Nina Simone in their most famous incarnations) either as incidental music or as the soundtrack to an advert? Thanks.

Friday, January 09, 2009

probably the best deity in the world

Just when you thought the last few drops of delicious irony and schadenfreude had been wrung out of the atheist bus campaign, Stephen Green of Christian Voice jacks us up to a whole new rarefied level of irony at which you may find it difficult to breathe. Not from the altitude or anything, just from laughing too much.

You see, Mr. Green has seen fit to issue a legal challenge to the bus adverts (total donated now stands at over £140,000 - a day-by-day donation analysis is here, if you must), in particular the phrase "there's probably no god", on the grounds of things like "truthfulness", "substantiation" (not transubstantiation, that's something completely different) and "supporting evidence". No, really. No, really, I'm not joking.

And there's more. The provenance of the words attributed to Clifford Longley in this Guardian article seem to be in some dispute, but it's all good rich hearty soupy nonsense all the same. Particular highlights include the trotting out of the anthropic principle as if it were in some way a) new, b) an argument for a deity or deities and c) not a load of absolute flannelly old tosh, and, even better, the invoking of the Faraday Institute, of all places, as a good place to go for "information regarding the science". All credit to the Guardian commenters who rip it a new one pretty successfully, though.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

a short history of electric halibut's troublesome nether parts

One more thing while I'm here - is it just me or is the current vogue for self-consciously krayzee novel titles starting to get a bit irritating? Gabriel García Márquez and the other magic realists probably started it, but it all started to get a bit silly with Louis de Bernières and novels like The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman (not to mention that bleedin' mandolin business).

So now we've got such rib-tickling yet - hey! - thought-provoking fare as A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian, Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, Baking Cakes In Kigali, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Kalahari Typing School For Men and all manner of other smart-arsery.

Can we stop now, please? Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do....except perhaps my wife....and some of her friends....oh yes, and Captain Johnson. Come to think of it, most people like a good laugh more than I do. But that's beside the point. What we need is a return to sensible non-wacky novel titles like, oh, I dunno, Bleak House, or Nausea. Then I think we'd all be a lot happier. I know I would.

and the murderer

Forgot to mention another slightly odd connection with an earlier book - my copy of Lolita has a page (page 264, since you ask) missing - not completely physically missing as per Bluesman, but just blank where there should be print. It's pretty obvious since the previous page ends in the middle of a sentence. It happens to be a pretty vital page, as it's the one that contains the text of Lolita's letter to Humbert telling him of her current circumstances and asking for money; his visit to her in her new home precipitates his final pursuit and killing of Clare Quilty.

Luckily we are living in the future, so I was able to find a couple of internet resources containing the full text of the novel. This one is all nicely formatted as per the physical book, but it's not immediately obvious how (or if) copy-and-paste operations work, so I grabbed the relevant section of text from this one. A short bit of resizing and reformatting in Word, an appropriately scaled printout and a bit of wrangling with a pair of scissors and a Pritt-Stick later and - hey presto.... can't see the join, as Eric Morecambe used to say.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

the last book I read

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Or "that book by Nabokov" if you prefer, as this is the one that Sting was referring to. Pretentious? Lui?

Obviously we tend to think of the twentieth century as having followed a nice linear course whereby those strait-laced sexual and social attitudes of the 1950s (Lolita was first published in 1955) gradually gave way to the relaxed liberalism of the later decades. And in a lot of ways that's true, but imagine what the News Of The World might have made of a book in which a fortysomething European academic marries the mother of a twelve-year-old American girl solely in order to prey on her daughter, and, after the mother's convenient death (just as she was about to unmask him, having discovered his true designs) takes the aforementioned daughter on a two-year romp round the USA, stopping off at various motels in order to vigorously defile her on a regular basis?

The version I've got (pictured above) is a tie-in volume to the 1997 film - it's interesting in the light of the previous paragraph that in both this film and Stanley Kubrick's 1962 version the actress playing Lolita was older than the character from the book (Sue Lyon was 14, Dominique Swain was 15), and in both cases the actresses were attractive and quite, hem hem, mature-looking for their age. Whereas it's made clear in the book that Lolita is a girlish-looking twelve and not especially attractive. Not only that, but in both films the character's starting age is bumped up a couple of years from twelve to fourteen. Evidently there's only so much the cinema-going sensibility can stand.

I read a review which suggested that this book represents the flipside to Lady Chatterley's Lover, and I think there's a lot of truth in that: Lawrence's book uses some ripe language and bluntly carnal descriptions of the sexual act to tell a story that is, at its heart, pretty conventional (sexual repression bad, arbitrary class divisions bad, a good healthy sweaty rogering in the toolshed good), while Nabokov's book uses some arch, flowery descriptions as well as a fusillade of puns and literary allusions to decorate a story whose heart is one of utter monstrousness and depravity (the effective kidnap and repeated rape of a child).

Needless to say when the central protagonist, Humbert Humbert (at no point does he make any pretence that this is his real name), is a kidnapping paedophile the reader can safely regard him as the archetypal unreliable narrator - nevertheless Nabokov pulls off the trick of making him seem not a complete monster. We can safely assume, for instance, that Lolita isn't quite as much of an experienced and knowing little trollop as he claims, but when she disappears at the end of their sojourn round America we naturally assume that the coded messages he deciphers in the guest books of the motels he enquires at are just paranoid pareidolia (particularly as he is drinking increasingly heavily by this stage) - however it turns out that his fears are justified. Her abductor, Clare Quilty, who he eventually catches up with and murders in comically inept fashion, is such a cartoonishly evil paedophile and amateur pornographer as to make Humbert himself seem almost benign (as an aside, Riven Rock also featured a character whose characteristics were just exaggerated versions of the protagonist's, just to throw them into sharper relief).

It's all very very clever (you need to go back and read the faux-foreword again after you've finished the main bit to discover the ultimate fate of the two central characters, as I guarantee you won't have appreciated the significance first time round) as well as absurdly and inappropriately funny in places. You should read it. Just not in public while there are any tabloid photographers around. It's PAEDOGEDDON!