Tuesday, May 24, 2011

cheer up, it's not the end of the world

As so often, what's so interesting about all the nonsense surrounding the latest Judgment Day prediction is not so much the specifics of the prediction, which is based on some loony numerology which you'd clearly have to be dumber than a bag of hammers to have believed, but the post hoc rationalisation employed by those who believed it in order to prevent their heads from imploding after we inevitably all woke up on May 22nd to find that we were all still here.

The notion of the "rapture", whereby the righteous and virtuous are all simultaneously hoovered up off the earth to everlasting glory and bliss at God's right hand on a given date was pretty much originated (or at least popularised) by a bloke called John Nelson Darby in the mid-19th century. After the salutary lesson of the Great Disappoinment in 1844, when the first attempt at attaching a specific date to it ended in predictably ignominious failure, those predicting the apocalypse have got a bit better at explaining away the series of failed predictions, and more importantly enabling the faithful to perform the necessary mental contortions to keep believing. The usual explanations include:
  • our devotion to preparing for the big day, and our fervent commitment to believing in it, have resulted in a stay of execution for everyone: praise be! This seems to have been the approach taken by the devotees of the barking UFO cult in the classic book When Prophecy Fails.
  • it really did happen, but in some subtle way that we aren't yet devout enough to understand. We must redouble our efforts, in order that we may get a second chance: praise be!
  • sorry guys, we got the maths wrong; this numerology stuff is tricky, you know. Here is a new date to prepare for: praise be!
In Harold Camping's case he's plumped for the third option (with perhaps just a smattering of the second): scarcely surprising in some ways as he's already been wrong about previous dates in 1988 and 1994. Your new date is apparently October 21st, so be sure and get your worldly affairs in order.

An even more amusing form of cognitive dissonance is that exhibited by those who ridiculed Camping for making Christianity look ridiculous, including, deliciously, Answers In Genesis - these are the people who not only run the ludicrous Creation Museum in Kentucky, but who are also planning to build a ruddy great replica of Noah's Ark elsewhere in the same state.

Lest you imagine that Ken Ham's insane carpentry posse are some bunch of freakish statistical outliers, boggle for a moment at the fact that a survey from last year reveals that 41% of Americans rate the likelihood of the second coming of Jesus happening by the year 2050 as "probable" or better, and 23% say it'll definitely happen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

the last book I read

A Good Man In Africa by William Boyd.

Morgan Leafy is a mid-ranking British diplomat in the fictional African country of Kinjanja. This is not exactly a prime posting, as his status-conscious superior Arthur Fanshawe seems only too painfully aware, but then again Morgan is not exactly prime diplomatic material, being a little too fond of a drink, chasing after bored expatriate wives and general work-shyness than in climbing the career ladder.

Morgan's deviousness and poor impulse control lead him into some awkward scrapes: firstly he catches a dose of the clap from his on-off native Kinjanjan girlfriend Hazel, and this leads to an ill-tempered encounter with abrasive Scottish doctor Alex Murray and an embarrassing evening with Fanshawe's daughter Priscilla - having pursued her vigorously (her general posh spoilt appallingness being mitigated in Morgan's eyes by her spectacularly pert breasts) he then has to fight her off on the very night she has decided will be, you know, The Night, deciding (wisely, for once) that any short-term gratification would be outweighed by the long-term consequences of giving the boss's daughter a dose. Needless to say she is none too happy about this and soon takes refuge in the arms of Dalmire, one of Morgan's diplomatic colleagues.

Morgan has other things to think about, though, as Fanshawe soon gives him a top-priority assignment - get to know Sam Adekunle, a local politician, businessman, landowner and general high-roller. Adekunle is intending to run for president in the forthcoming elections and the British want to make sure he's on-side in advance of that, to the extent of being prepared to offer a little light bribery, which should do the trick, because, well, your African loves shiny trinkets and the possibility of a trip on an aeroplane, doesn't he?

Well, actually it seems that Adekunle is a bit more sophisticated than that, and it becomes difficult to tell who's manipulating whom. Morgan soon resolves this by rather unwisely sleeping with Adekunle's British wife, Celia, and Adekunle promptly starts blackmailing him. It turns out that Adekunle would like a bit of bribery done as well, this time of the seemingly incorruptible Alex Murray, who is on the approval board for a piece of property development work that will make Adekunle a large sum of money as long as the deal is approved.

The trouble is, not only is Murray seemingly a pillar of dour upstanding prickly Scottish moral rectitude, but Morgan's attempts at striking up a friendship haven't gone well. Following the vexed encounter at the clap clinic Morgan has tried to enlist Murray's help in getting the body of one of Fanshawe's domestic staff, Innocent, removed from the grounds of the diplomatic residence after she's been struck by lightning. Not only does Murray refuse to help (as it's outside his jurisdiction), none of the other native staff want to help either until someone has paid for a local medicine man to exorcise the bad ju-ju left by the lightning god.

Things come to a head, as they inevitably will - Morgan makes a half-hearted attempt to fulfil his obligation to Adekunle by trying to bribe Murray during a round of golf, Murray naturally refuses and threatens to go to Fanshawe to tell him what's been going on. Meanwhile Adekunle has won the election, but there's some doubt as to whether the result will stick, as some local protest groups view Adekunle as a British stooge, and there seems a possibility of a military coup d'état as well. Besieged in Adekunle's residence with Adekunle, his supporters and the Fanshawes, Morgan suddenly finds himself siezed with an urge to do the right thing, with unexpected consequences....

This was William Boyd's first novel, published in 1981 when he was 29. Among the myriad bits of advice given to aspiring writers, "write about what you know" seems to be a favourite, and that is what Boyd has done here - he was born in Ghana and brought up in Ghana and Nigeria. "Copy a proven formula" might be another, as this reads very much like Boyd set out to write a modern African-set version of Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. Morgan Leafy and Jim Dixon are very similar characters - the preference for drink and women over notions like work and duty, the irritating boss who makes ludicrous demands of them, the loathing of humbuggery, pretension, affectation and old-fashioned social hierarchies, the catalogue of indignities heaped on them during the course of the respective books, some through their own venality and laziness, some through bad luck. In both cases there's an early dalliance with what might be considered the "right sort of girl" (Priscilla here, Margaret in Lucky Jim), only for that to be abandoned in favour of someone a bit more down-to-earth and interesting (Celia Adekunle here, Christine there, although Celia and Morgan don't get the happy ending that Jim and Christine get), and also a no-nonsense Scot who helps cut through the web of intrigue built up by the central character (Murray here, Julius Gore-Urquhart there). This being 1981 instead of 1954 Boyd felt able (or possibly obliged) to throw in a bit more sex and death, but the strong similarities remain.

None of which is to dismiss this as juvenilia, or hopelessly derivative, or anything like that, as it's very funny and readable - in any case, if you're looking for a literary template you could do a lot worse than Lucky Jim, one of the best comic novels ever written. It's just interesting to see the progression from this to The New Confessions in 1987, and my two favourite Boyds Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon in the early 1990s. Those are better books, I would say, but they're more complex and less funny, so it really depends what you're after.

Anyway, A Good Man In Africa won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1982 - as if to prove my earlier point Lucky Jim won it in 1955. My list goes 1955, 1964#2, 1976#2, 1981#1, 1982#1, 1989#2, 1996#2, 1999#3. It also won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1981, and was made into a film in 1994, the poster for which as displayed here reveals some rather underhanded promotional tactics as it features Sean Connery most prominently despite his playing the pretty minor role of Alex Murray, and doesn't feature Colin Friels (who plays Morgan) at all.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

more bristalgia

Here's a couple more things in similar vein to the last post:
  • firstly here's another demolition film, this one showing the dismantling of the old Severn railway bridge in 1967, seven years after it had been partially demolished by having two barges driven into it - just in case that wasn't destructive enough they were both laden with various highly flammable and/or explosive materials, so you can imagine what happened next. Ironically the bit that wasn't instantly destroyed in the accident seems to have been pretty tenacious as it took until 1970 to finish the dismantling job. All that's left these days is a few stumps visible at low tide and the stone base of the swing bridge section that used to span the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal.
  • a more recent bit of disappeared Bristol is the old flyover that you used to have to go under on the bus to get to Temple Meads railway station. Built in the late 1960s as a temporary relief measure it was only demolished in 1998 when the grandly-named Temple Circus Gyratory was built, so I remember it well. The idea was to provide a one-way-only short-cut from Temple Way to Redcliffe Way (which ploughed through the middle of Queen Square at the time). I only went over it in a car a couple of times, but it was very narrow and bumpy and frankly rather alarming. Anyway, some nostalgic photos can be found here, here and here. If you can't get your bearings I've helpfully drawn in virtual green crayon on a map, below.

viaduct? vy not

Talk amongst yourselves for a bit while I indulge my odd obsession with maps, industrial architecture in general and old railway remnants in particular. I was trying to remember, in the aftermath of going out cycling for the first time since last year, where it was that I'd been cycling in the Newport area a while back and gone over the top of a quite impressive viaduct. Eventually I remembered that it was on the cyclepath between Pontypool and Blaenavon - my recollection is that I came here for a quick bit of bike-checking and training in advance of the Forest of Dean trip back in May 2008. That seems about right as I remember it was one of the first excursions I did after getting the car in April.

Anyway, the viaduct in question is properly known as the Garndiffaith viaduct, apparently, and does indeed carry a cyclepath over the top, although it's my recollection that it's heavily fenced on either side of the track which spoils the view a bit - presumably this is not so much to prevent suicidal cyclists from cycling the four miles or so up from Pontypool just to hurl themselves off the parapet as to prevent local ne'er-do-wells from lobbing chunks of masonry onto passing cars down on Viaduct Road. Like the nearby viaducts at Hengoed and Cefn Coed it's built on a gentle curve; whether this is something enforced by Welsh geography or just Welsh architectural whim I have no idea. Anyway, the Cefn Coed link is from the fascinating Forgotten Relics website, something of a guilty geeky pleasure for those fascinated by abandoned bridges, hidden tunnels and the like. So much so I've added it to the sidebar.

While much remains to be sought out and casually trespassed on, much stuff has inevitably been obliterated by the ruthless utilitarian jackboot of progress. Here's a good example from my long-time place of residence, Bristol: the bit of the Frome valley now occupied by Eastville Tesco, Ikea and junction 2 of the M32 was previously spanned by the impressive Clay Bottom viaduct (colloquially known as Thirteen Arches viaduct to locals), which ran east-west across the river valley (while the M32 now goes north-south along it). The only evidence nowadays that it was ever there is the continued presence of its smaller sibling a few hundred yards further along at Royate Hill. Ignore the Google aerial view which suggests that some horrific tectonic incident has befallen it, it's still intact and in fact these days houses a miniature nature reserve.

How did they get rid of the bigger one? Well, they blew it up. If you don't believe me, have a gander at this fairly remarkable bit of old footage from 1968 which shows them doing exactly that (the picture above is a still from the same film). The excellent SABRE maps website provides before and after maps for comparison.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the last book I read

Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell.

This is volume three of the Alexandria Quartet, following on from Justine and Balthazar as previously featured here. As I mentioned there, the first three novels cover essentially the same period of time and describe broadly the same series of events, but from different perspectives: Justine is schoolteacher Darley's naïve first-person recollection of his affair with the mysterious Jewish temptress of the title, while Balthazar is his subsequent reflections on the same events in the light of a series of letters sent to him by the eponymous doctor.

Mountolive gives yet another view of the same events, but this time it's a rather more orthodox third-person narrative. I suppose it's a bit like those extreme close-up shots they used to ask people to identify on Ask The Family (with the highly-mimicworthy Robert Robinson), which as the camera pulled out would usually be revealed to be a toilet brush or a potato masher or some such household implement - the progression through the three books representing, in a very real sense, the gradual pulling back to reveal a wider and deeper view of the toilet brush, I mean events.

Anyway, the eponymous David Mountolive is a career diplomat who has just landed a prestigious posting as British ambassador to Egypt. The novel starts with a flashback to his earlier time in Egypt as a young man, when he was engaged in a torrid older woman/younger man relationship with Leila Hosnani, whose son Nessim is now married to none other than Justine. Ah, what a tangled web, etc. etc.

While Justine's dalliances with Darley and Pursewarden were portrayed in the first two books as just the typical casual infidelities of your average bored Alexandrian nympho housewife, it transpires here that they are part of a fiendish plan hatched by Nessim and his Coptic Christian brethren to resist the encroachment of Arabs (and, more generally, Islam) into Egypt and the marginalisation of the Copts from political life and power. One of the ways in which they choose to do this is by supporting the Jews in Palestine by supplying them with arms (the novels are set in the years preceding the Second World War, i.e. prior to the formation of the modern state of Israel). Mountolive has got Pursewarden to secretly gather information for him about what Nessim is up to, and it's the knowledge of Nessim and Justine's betrayal that induces Pursewarden to top himself. As the net closes in Nessim is obliged to "take care of" his loose cannon of a brother, Narouz, in a lake-based execution scene very reminiscent of Michael and Fredo in The Godfather Part II.

The change of viewpoint makes this quite a different book from the previous two - Durrell's prose is still pretty thick and chewy, but the third-person perspective provides less scope for florid internal agonising and more space for a bit of narrative drive, not that that much actually happens even then. The general critical consensus seems to be that this is the weakest of the quartet, but actually I enjoyed it at least as much as the other two, perhaps more.

Now that we've examined events from every possible angle, the fourth book in the series, Clea, promises to move things along time-wise and provide some plot resolution. All we know at this stage about the title character is that she is a painter, much mentioned in the first three books but seldom featured directly, and that pretty much everyone seems to either have been or still be in love with her. Since I read Justine in January 2007 and Balthazar in November 2008 that means respectively 22 and 30 months between books in the series; if that pattern continues I should get round to reading Clea in 38 months' time in July 2014.

Incidentally a film based on the Alexandria Quartet, Justine, was released in 1969. Anouk Aimée stars in the tile role (here's a trailer); although she's plausibly exotic-looking I'd always pictured Justine looking more like Isabelle Adjani. It's not generally regarded as being much good, and shouldn't be confused with this rather more racy film of the same name which came out in the same year.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

guillotine some sense into 'em, is what I say

Yeah, all right, last word on this for the moment - here's the Independent's Johann Hari with a cogent summary of the viewpoint of those of us subject to a hot flush of cringing embarrassment every time the royal wedding gets a mention. If you prefer a spoken-word version of the same article, try this.

Just to nip another inane response in the bud, and to re-use a phrase from the last (unrelated) post, I have, in general, no personal animosity towards the individuals who collectively comprise the British royal family, with a couple of exceptions which I'll come to in a minute. In particular, while I suspect that on a personal level they are achingly dull people you wouldn't want to be trapped in a room with, William and Kate seem like a personable enough couple, and from William's past pronouncements it's very possible that they would have preferred a low-key ceremony of their own devising like everyone else gets, rather than the ludicrous Disneyland spectacle they were required to participate in. The point is that they got no choice - heaven forbid they should have decided they didn't want a church wedding at all, or to marry but not have any kids, or not marry but have kids anyway, or rope Kate's sister Pippa into a ménage à trois (come on, you would, wouldn't you?), or any of the other choices they'll never get to even consider. This sort of talk is usually the lead-in to the next monarchist canard, which goes something like: see, they do a difficult and demanding job; you wouldn't want to do it, would you? To which the answer is no, I most certainly would not, so let's abolish the job altogether; that way no-one has to do it. Problem solved.

Some useful resources for those confronted with the usual pro-monarchy nonsense can be found here.

Scrolling back through some of Johann Hari's old Independent articles provides this useful hook from which to hang a paragraph or so about the less benign side of the royals. Even if we leave aside the flirtation with Nazism (whitewashed nicely in The King's Speech) there's still Charles' hare-brained obsession with quackery, religion and some other bullshit too vague to be worthy of a name. Since we're unlikely to see any change to the current system under the current monarch, I think perhaps the best-case scenario is for Charles to succeed to the throne and be unable to resist the temptation to hold forth on various topics in stereotypically blithering and ill-informed fashion and to interfere with government policy-making in exactly the way the current Queen has been scrupulously careful not to do. I think if we suddenly acquire a politically-engaged King, and a massive idiot to boot, public patience could wear thin quite quickly.

More importantly, what the heck was Princess Beatrice wearing on her head (see picture above) for the wedding? Theories I've seen so far include:
  • antlers
  • an octopus
  • a stylised representation of the female reproductive system
I would love it if it were the last one, but it seems unlikely. A strong contender for Scariest Eye Make-Up of the day, as well.