Wednesday, August 31, 2011

alive? would that I were, mr charteris, would that I were

The latest of the many tributes to recently demised broadcaster Robert Robinson was this programme broadcast in the 9am post-Today slot on Radio 4 this morning, called, and why not, A Tribute to Robert Robinson. Much gushing about Robinson's unmistakable voice, tremendous erudition and love of language and wordplay, and rightly so; all the more regrettable then that the first clip they chose to illustrate this, a bit of typically Robinsonian preamble about shop and pub opening times and the rituals surrounding them from the long-running radio programme Stop The Week, contained a snippet about the unacceptability of these places opening up "one parsec too early".

Unfortunately the parsec is an astronomical unit of distance (equal to about 31 trillion kilometres) and nothing to do with time, as anyone who's shared in the (so far) 34 years of geeky ridicule heaped on this bit of dialogue from Star Wars will know. Note also that the second clip features one half of celebrity couple Harrison and Calista Fordhart.


Also no mention (in the bit of the programme that I listened to, anyway) of Robinson's ownership of one of the world's more spectacular combovers, one which, moreover, he only started to sport relatively late in life, thus requiring anyone who'd been paying attention to his TV career to believe that he'd got less bald as he got older. Furthermore no blog post mentioning Robert Robinson would be complete without a link to the legendary Fry & Laurie Robert Robinsons sketch. Here's the real thing on Ask The Family just for comparison purposes.

Unfortunately the programme isn't available on iPlayer for some reason so you'll just have to take my word for it. At least one other person noticed though. An extra mark for being so clever!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

pray silence for the saxe-coburg-parker-bowleses

Marriage: it's a wonderful institution. But I don't want to live in an institution! Also, marriage: it's not a word, it's a sentence! Entertaining though all that sort of nonsense may be, the reality is that marriage is a wonderful thing, though, of course, very much like one's wife, it is not to be entered into lightly or carelessly. But what to do about names?

Back in the day, of course, the unquestioned convention was that the wife would discard her "maiden" name (what with being, hem hem, a virgin when she got married and all) and adopt that of her husband. But in these egalitarian times that doesn't always happen, and rightly so as it's a bit of reflexive patriarchical repressiveness that should be problematic to anyone who takes the trouble to think about these things at least a bit. Come to that the whole notion of the bride's father "giving her away" to the groom is a bit strange, and if I'm perfectly honest I'd have been as happy to have discarded that bit from our ceremony, but you have to have a bit of balancing out of what you want against what other people want, so I was happy to concede that one.

Back to the names, though. If we agree that the application of the groom's name is not very satisfactory, then we have to come up with a new and workable scheme. It won't be easy, but I'm confident that if we pour ourselves a nice glass of wine and put our heads together we can get the whole thing Straightened Out Once And For All in no time.

Now some people go for the double-barrelling thing; let's say Mr. Jenkins marries the comely and buxom Ms. Winforth - he remains Mr. Jenkins, but she becomes Mrs. Winforth-Jenkins and any of their offspring become known as the little Winforth-Jenkinses. Which is fine as far as it goes, but of course creates a couple of problems, firstly that the kids don't have the same surname as their Dad, which may cause some issues at school, and more fundamentally that this solution doesn't satisfactorily scale any further than one generation. I mean, let's say that in a separate incident Mr. Aquascutum marries Ms. Smythe, and the kids become the little Aquascutum-Smythes, and that some years later little Hector Aquascutum-Smythe marries little Perpetua Winforth-Jenkins. Well, what then? Do the kids become the Winforth-Jenkins-Aquascutum-Smythes?

Something better is required. So how about this - we adopt the same convention as for interspecies animal hybrids, so that the resulting couple and offspring acquire a name that is a sort of combined portmanteau version of the first half of one name and the second half of the other. Now there's still an element of patriarchy asserting itself here, as for hybrids the convention is that the male provides the first half of the name and the female the second (compare tigons and ligers, for example), but let's go with it for the moment.

So for the examples above, Mr. Jenkins and Ms. Winforth produce a brood of little Jenkforths, and when one of them marries one of the little Aquascythes we get a resulting litter of Aquaforths or Jenkfythes, depending on how the gender balance works itself out. It's implicit in this that both parents have to change their names as well, but that's not a huge departure from what wives are expected to do at the moment. There would have to be some scope for slipping the odd extra letter in here and there to avoid unfortunate results - Mr. Hunt marrying Ms. Cudd would produce a family of perfectly acceptable Hudds, but Mr. Cudd marrying Ms. Hunt would be problematic. Indeed myself and Hazel provide another example - our original names (Thomas and Hannant respectively) give the perfectly respectable Thomnant according to the rules, but if the genders were reversed you could end up with Hamas, which might be dodgy in some parts of the world.

You can have fun with celebrity couples according to this rule as well: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman become Tom and Nicole Crudman, Brian McFadden and Kerry Katona become Brian and Kerry McFatona, Peter Andre and Katie Price become Peter and Katie Andrice (and who could resist calling their kids Vindaloo and Dopiaza under those circumstances), and of course Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley become Michael and Lisa Marie Jacksey. And then there's Gavin and Gwen Rossfani, Chris and Gwyneth Martrow, Lewis and Nicole Hamzinger, Mike and Zara Tindlips, and William and Kate Windleton. You can probably make your own up if you like.

Monday, August 29, 2011

the last book I read

Notice by Heather Lewis.

Having a bad day? Our un-named narrator here is having a worse one, a whole unending succession of them in fact. Fleeing an abusive childhood and a spell in a juvenile institution, she dabbles with drugs and ends up working as a prostitute, picking up tricks in the car park of the local railway station.

As we join the proceedings she's just picked up a guy who seems to be after something a bit more spicy than the usual back-seat blow-job; he takes her home to meet his wife, Ingrid. After the moderately strange initial encounter - he makes her watch while he has anal sex with Ingrid on the living room carpet, and then takes her outside and fucks her on the bonnet of his car - a series of stranger sexual psychodramas is played out, always involving some S&M elements (bondage, belts, cigarette burns) and eventually involving the narrator moving into the couple's spare room. Which it transpires is spare because the couple's daughter (whose room it was) has left - whether by dying or just moving out it isn't clear, but there's a suspicion that the rough sex games are re-enacting some unspecified earlier abuse involving the daughter.

Eventually it becomes apparent that lives are going to be in danger if things continue, and the narrator engineers an escape. Kinky Bondage Incest Guy takes a fairly dim view of this, however, and shops her to the police, so that she gets arrested and sent to another institution for psychiatric evaluation. It's a bit of a mixed bag, this: on the upside she meets therapist Beth who seems to genuinely take an interest in her background and welfare, on the downside she is the subject of occasional rape by one of the male guards. Eventually Beth engineers her release on the condition that they continue their counselling sessions on the outside.

Once released the narrator resumes some of the elements of her old life - occasional visits to the station car park to pick up tricks, some of whom also have drugs to sell - but continues to see Beth. Things get more complicated when she and Beth start having a sexual relationship, though, doubly so because this is an unfamiliar sort of sex - more than just a business transaction or a raw assertion of power. Tell me more of this thing called love, James T Kirk.

Not really knowing how to deal with this sends our narrator into a tight spiral of picking up more and more dangerous tricks, getting abused by them and then getting some TLC from Beth while unloading a consignment of grief and guilt and remorse. Eventually a truly scary encounter with three of her former drug-dealing buddies and some guns and knives puts her out of action and forces some re-assessment of her life, and some searching questions: is she just doing this to feel alive after being numbed by her childhood experiences? Or is this just the increasingly reckless behaviour of someone who can't quite pluck up the courage to kill herself and is hoping someone else will eventually do the job for her?

Like the narrator, the town where all this happens and therefore the railway station which features heavily in the narrative are never named, but there's no doubt that we're on a one-way journey to Grimsville Central here. Unless you choose to detect a little bit of I Will Survive/what-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger defiance in the last chapter then the whole book could be read as one long-drawn-out suicide note, all the more believably so as Heather Lewis killed herself in 2002. This, her third novel, was published two years later in 2004 - apparently it dates from between the first two novels to be published (House Rules in 1994 and The Second Suspect in 1998) but was rejected at the time for being too dark and explicit. It's certainly hard to see this being a "goer", commercially speaking, and like The War Zone it's hard to describe this as "enjoyable" in the conventional sense. Like The War Zone this is about the indelible nature of childhood abuse, and how it fucks up your chances of ever having normal adult relationships once the damage has been done to the delicate wiring of the brain. So while it's hard to empathise with the central character's twisted self-absorption and constant lapses into self-destructive behaviour, it's easy to sympathise; this is how abused people act.

It's hard to criticise a novel like this that was clearly wrenched out of some very real personal anguish, but it is a bit one-note: all the male characters are uniformly bastards, and abusive controlling rapist bastards at that, and we never really find out much about Beth other than she is prepared to ignore the usual bounds of counsellor/counsellee propriety and possesses saintly patience and forgivingness. There's no sense that the narrator is ever going to be able to escape from the spiral of abuse and addiction and despair, and clearly the same was ultimately true of Heather Lewis herself. It's the sort of book that you're pleased to know exists out there among the Harry Potters and the One Days, but for all that it's not a place you're going to want to hang out all that often. If you do fancy checking it out here's a preview of the first three chapters, and here's Allan Gurganus's afterword to my Serpent's Tail paperback edition.

Friday, August 26, 2011

how do I Libya let me count the ways

Strange news today as the Libyan rebel forces sweep through the former Tripoli stronghold of Colonel Gaddafi. While Gaddafi himself is nowhere to be found, some of the stuff he left behind is interesting, none more so than the scrapbook revealing the former dictator's unrequited love for former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Not only that, but, if you remember, there were rumours of Condi herself having a bit of an unrequited thing for her former boss George W Bush, mainly prompted by a much-circulated (but, to be fair, based purely on hearsay and never recorded) story about a supposed Freudian slip at a private function whereby she referred to Bush as her "husb..." and then hurriedly corrected herself.

Talk about a bizarre love triangle. Also, as I'm sure you're picturing already, possibly the world's most disturbing spit-roast.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

e was givin it herbal, so I done im

Having made a start on the garden clearance a few weeks ago I decided it was about time I finished the job - which basically meant uprooting a load more buddleja, the remainder of which was no less tenacious than the first lot, as you can see by the size of the roots:


During the course of this activity I managed to spike the end of my thumb quite deeply (through a thick-ish pair of gardening gloves) on a bit of broken glass that was embedded in the flower bed; I should probably have gone and had a precautionary tetanus shot, as I don't think I've had one since before going to Africa in 2000, but, well, I didn't. The incubation period for tetanus is typically a week or two, so I think at this point I'm probably OK (as it's now been a couple of weeks and my entire body hasn't locked solid yet).


Anyway, minor comedy injuries aside it all went fairly well, as you can see from the before and after panoramas below (note that some electronic trickery has been used to render the first picture; do not adjust your computer).



Having done all that it seemed only right to make use of some of the freed-up flowerbed space, so I've stuck some more herbs in. Here they are:


Left to right: oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, basil, parsley, more thyme, chives. In my experience rosemary, thyme and chives are reasonably indestructible, so they should be OK. The basil is looking a bit sick but to be honest has survived longer than I expected; the parsley is looking a bit sick as well but only because I scalped it last night to put in with some fish.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

the last book I read

Laura Blundy by Julie Myerson.

Laura Blundy has just killed her husband. Messily. Stove his head in with a large bronze ornament, and then mashed his face in with a poker when he turned out to be still alive and twitching.

Obviously one doesn't do these things for no reason, and Laura's reasons are fairly simple: she's in love with Billy, a young man fifteen years her juinor. Actually it's not that simple, as Billy is already married to someone else, and has four children. He's been working as a labourer on various major projects in central London including the Embankment and Joseph Bazalgette's revolutionary sewer system. Which is a living, to be fair, but it doesn't compare with Laura's husband Ewan's income; Ewan is (or was) a surgeon, and met Laura under the slightly odd circumstances of having to preside over the amputation of her leg after she'd been run over by a hansom cab.

Laura's history is murky and mysterious - it transpires that the cab/leg incident followed fairly closely after her release from prison after a period of incarceration for some unspecified crime, and that she had a baby boy back when she was fifteen, which subsequently died. It seems also that despite being born and brought up in reasonably comfortable circumstances she ended up sleeping rough on the banks of the Thames, so that and the subsequent spell in prison presumably made her more receptive to Ewan's offer of marriage, especially given the prospect of having to return to her former life on one leg. Reduced circumstances, you might say.

So, anyway, there's Ewan, all smashed and mangled, and Laura has to work out a way of getting rid of him. Naturally she ropes Billy in to help, and they dismember Ewan and lug him down to the Thames in some sacks. Having weighted these down and lobbed them in the river, they consider their future, and conclude that there's really no option but to do a runner down to Folkestone and make a new life over in France.

This is where it all starts to get a bit weird. What are we to make of the fact that there is a grave with Laura's name on it? Or that Billy's history seems to be closely intertwined with Laura's dead son's? Or maybe he isn't really dead at all? Come to that, by the end of the book Ewan doesn't seem to be really dead at all either. What's going on?

I'm not sure I can be of much help here, other that to say we may be in similar territory to that occupied by Cloudstreet and William Golding's Pincher Martin, i.e. last thoughts of someone about to die - oddly, by drowning in all three cases, Laura having made reference several times to a previous attempt to drown herself in the Thames, which we're invited to conclude may have been successful after all. So does that mean Billy (the adult version, anyway) is a figment of her imagination? Or is he real, but being haunted? Search me. The gradual realisation that we may be reading a story narrated (and possibly made up) by a dead narrator is similar to that experienced by the reader of Winterwood, though without the same degree of frustration and bafflement. We're not really given enough information to be able to draw any solid conclusions; presumably the point is to illustrate the primeval pull of the mother/child bond, even (possibly) beyond the grave.

As usual Myerson is exceptionally good at conveying the messy practicalities of sex, childbirth and all that sort of stuff (as previously mentioned here); the same goes for the extended and somewhat gruesome descriptions of the leg amputation and the dismembering of Ewan's corpse. The general grinding tedium and horror of a life on the streets in Victorian Britain, not to mention the all-pervading filth and grime and the ever-present probability of dying a horribly protracted and painful death of some (these days) trivial ailment are all vividly rendered as well. Because I am a tedious literalist who likes loose ends tied up, not to mention an amoral soulless godless killing machine, I would have liked a bit more of a definite indication of what was going on at the end, rather than effectively being told to work it out or make it up for myself, as that seems to me like a bit of a dereliction of authorial duty. That gripe aside this is very good, though not exactly a barrel of laughs. I recommend the other two Myersons I've read - 1994's Sleepwalking and 2003's Something Might Happen - as well. Mentioning Winterwood above reminds me of the other book that this brought to mind - Richard Adams' powerfully strange 1980 novel The Girl In A Swing. Completely different setting, but similar in that it involves a woman with dark secrets in her past marrying an otherwise blameless man to escape from them, with some blurring of the line between what's supernatural and what isn't.

List-y trivia now: if I'm right this is the first book in this series to have a title that is just someone's full name. There have of course been previous entries that were just a single given name or surname (Justine, Mr. Phillips, Utz, Balthazar, Lolita, Walter, Kleinzeit, Chatterton, Demian, Mountolive), and a few that featured a full name in the title with some other words (The Truth About Lorin Jones, One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry).

Friday, August 19, 2011

go forth and mull-ify

Here's the second of the pair of Tobermory whiskies my father bought me as a wedding present: this is the peated version, which is marketed under the Ledaig label. Now you'll notice the similarity in terms of packaging to the unpeated Tobermory 10 featured here a while back; the general repackaging has included the Ledaig as well, which is now offered as a 10-year old expression at 46.3% ABV.

The old Ledaig, which was a bargain in various supermarkets, Morrison's in particular, carried no age statement, and therefore could probably be assumed to contain whisky that was something like 5-7 years old. The extra maturing time, as well as the increased ABV, makes quite a difference to the appearance, as you can see from this comparison shot: the old one was much paler and yellower, while the new one is richer and more golden brown.

None of which matters a tinker's cuss if they've ruined the whisky, of course, but I think it's safe to say they haven't: imagine if you will a cross between the smoky mackerel of the old Ledaig and the fermented cabbage of the new Tobermory, with a bit of sherry cask sweetness added, and you'd be in the right sort of ballpark. It's a rich smoky affair, less sweet than, say, the Ardmore, but richer and sweeter and less antiseptic than the Talisker or the Bowmore. I think it's really good, but it's fair to say Tobermory isn't the best-loved or most fashionable distillery. If things go to plan, though, I will be there quite lidderally in person on the second weekend in September, so I will hopefully have a chance to pick up some more of their product. Watch this space!

birdie num num

A couple of sporting updates and corrections: firstly my list of Test hat-trick takers who have also been hat-trick victims (which went: Darren Gough, Shane Warne, Stuart Broad) should also have included Sri Lanka's Nuwan Zoysa, who in addition to doing the hat-trick against Zimbabwe in 1999 was Mohammad Sami's second victim when he took a hat-trick for Pakistan against Sri Lanka in the final of the Asian Test Championship in 2002.

Secondly, the recently completed PGA Championship in Atlanta provides a further data point for my list of golfers who have shot a round of 63 in a major championship. Steve Stricker's first round was the 25th such round in major history, and he missed a very makeable putt of ten feet or so on the last green which would have given him a 62 and sole possession of the record, and incidentally rendered all my statistical analysis obsolete and pointless, so in a way I'm quite glad. I'll reproduce the whole table here so you haven't got to go and look it up.

PlayerTournamentYearRoundResultWinner
Johnny MillerUS Open1973finalWONJohnny Miller
Bruce CramptonUSPGA1975second2ndJack Nicklaus
Mark HayesOpen1977secondtied 9thTom Watson
Jack NicklausUS Open1980firstWONJack Nicklaus
Tom WeiskopfUS Open1980first37thJack Nicklaus
Isao AokiOpen1980thirdtied 12thTom Watson
Raymond FloydUSPGA1982firstWONRaymond Floyd
Gary PlayerUSPGA1984secondtied 2ndLee Trevino
Nick PriceMasters1986third5thJack Nicklaus
Greg NormanOpen1986secondWONGreg Norman
Paul BroadhurstOpen1990thirdtied 12thNick Faldo
Jodie MuddOpen1991finaltied 5thIan Baker-Finch
Nick FaldoOpen1993second2ndGreg Norman
Payne StewartOpen1993final12thGreg Norman
Vijay SinghUSPGA1993second4thPaul Azinger
Michael BradleyUSPGA1995firsttied 54thSteve Elkington
Brad FaxonUSPGA1995final5thSteve Elkington
Greg NormanMasters1996first2ndNick Faldo
Jose Maria OlazabalUSPGA2000thirdtied 4thTiger Woods
Mark O’MearaUSPGA2001secondtied 22ndDavid Toms
Vijay SinghUS Open2003secondtied 20thJim Furyk
Thomas BjornUSPGA2005thirdtied 2ndPhil Mickelson
Tiger WoodsUSPGA2007secondWONTiger Woods
Rory McIlroyOpen2010firsttied 3rdLouis Oosthuizen
Steve Stricker
USPGA2011firsttied 12thKeegan Bradley

So we continue the slightly surprising trend of a round of 63 only giving you a one in five chance of winning (5 out of 25). It's getting more difficult, too: while four of the first ten 63s resulted in wins (up to and including Greg Norman at the Open in 1986), only one of the subsequent 15 (Tiger Woods at the USPGA in 2007) has resulted in a win.

Here's the distribution of 63s by the major they were made in:
  • 2 at the Masters
  • 4 at the US Open
  • 8 at the Open
  • 11 at the USPGA
What this tells you about the relative difficulty of the tournaments I'm not sure; the US Open is generally regarded as the toughest major in terms of scoring relative to par, and yet there have been twice as many 63s as at the Masters. Odd when you consider that the US Open has been won with a score of ten under par or better just twice (Tiger Woods in 2000 and Rory McIlroy in 2011), while the Masters has been on no less than 25 occasions. Maybe it just tells you that professional golfers gradually get their eye in during the year and come the last major they're in the zone.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

dilutions of grandeur

You'll remember the protracted hoo-ha over the British Chiropractic Association's legal action against science writer Simon Singh, which for once resulted in an outcome pleasing to all right-thinking people everywhere, i.e. a comprehensive victory for Singh. Despite that whole business being a spectacular own goal for "alternative" medicine, this hasn't deterred others from boneheadedly failing to get the message.

The latest case is particularly interesting for a number of reasons; it involves the large multinational corporation Boiron, manufacturers of homeopathic "remedies" on an industrial scale, and a minor Italian blogger called Samuele Riva. Basically Riva made some snarky remarks, as bloggers do (and even I have been known to do from time to time), about a particular homeopathic product, and Boiron seem to have instructed their lawyers to get all lawyery on Riva's ass, as lawyers do, and indeed on the collective ass of his blog hosting people, and demand that they not only remove the offending posts and associated images, but shut Riva's blog down completely, immediately, and with extreme prejudice.

What makes this doubly delicious (aside from the inevitable Streisand effect and associated uncontrollable exposure and ridicule that Boiron will now be subjected to) is that not only is the "active" ingredient in the Oscillococcinum preparation diluted beyond there being the slightest chance of there being anything but water in the resulting liquid, but that the supposed "active" ingredient they started with doesn't even exist in the first place! While we're all having a good laugh about that, spare a thought for the poor duck which has been ritually beheaded (this is apparently important) and then had various portions of its heart, liver and pancreas wrung out into a test tube in order to extract this non-existent magic goop in the first place.

Then again, the whole point of homeopathy is that the smaller the dilution of the original ingredient the greater the effect, so maybe there's something supremely powerful about doing the same with an ingredient that NEVER EVEN EXISTED IN THE FIRST PLACE. Surely if you completed the process by not actually taking the remedy AT ALL you'd get something dangerously powerful that would probably blow your tits off.

Perhaps going after (with all due respect to Samuele Riva, who I'm sure is a fine upstanding individual) relatively inconsequential bloggers is a sign of the times; the big companies not wanting to get involved in a protracted and high-profile court case with someone (any of the TV companies who've made documentaries examining the subject, for instance) who might have the resources to fight back - clearly the last thing they would want is a forensic examination of the truth about the mechanisms and efficacy of homeopathy.

As an aside, the notion of producing homeopathic remedies in industrial quantities is a bit of a strange one to get your head around - is the repeated dilution automated? What about the succussion? I suppose in theory there's no reason why they couldn't be. I'm now picturing a huge warehouse with great ranks of flasks being slapped against pads of leather by robotic arms in perfect synchronisation, then the contents being poured into a much bigger vat of water, only for another robotic arm to dip a second test tube in, and for the whole process to begin again. Or, in the scenario where I ran the company, the same warehouse being entirely empty except for a standpipe in the middle with one bloke just filling bottles from a tap. I mean, why would you bother? The customer isn't going to know any different, after all.

Monday, August 15, 2011

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Golfer, winner of the 2009 Wyndham Championship and possessor of a slightly odd loopy Furykesque golf swing Ryan Moore, and showbiz offspring, TV presenter and general waste of space Jack Osbourne.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

the last book I read

Memory Of Snow And Of Dust by Breyten Breytenbach.

Meheret, an Ethiopian journalist and writer, is introduced to Mano, a mixed-race South African actor, at a writers' conference in Switzerland, the introduction being engineered by Barnum, a South African writer living in exile in Paris.

Mano and Meheret begin a relationship which takes them from Paris to Burkina Faso and back again; while in Africa Mano becomes involved with revolutionary politics. Soon an opportunity arises for Mano to travel to South Africa on the pretext of doing some preliminary research for a film based on Barnum's life, but with the ulterior motive of meeting with some revolutionary contacts within South Africa. However, someone has betrayed him and he is arrested, charged with the murder of a woman, and sentenced to death.

That's really about it for what you might call orthodox narrative. The remainder of the novel is a series of fragmented recollections of Meheret's Ethiopian childhood and remembered stories of her ancestors, letters from Meheret to her and Mano's unborn child, imagined reconstructions of conversations between Mano and his political colleagues, brief interludes depicting South African police brutality, and towards the end a series of letters written by Mano in his prison cell in the certain knowledge of his impending execution.

It's all very complex and allusive and, to be honest, rather opaque in places, perhaps for the same reasons that Falling Man was, i.e. a commendable desire not to be banal and clichéd and obvious in tackling a big and traumatic subject that most people know quite a bit about already (the arrest and imprisonment of political dissidents on trumped-up charges in apartheid-era South Africa). It's also impossible to separate the events depicted in the novel from real life, since Breytenbach lived in exile in Paris in the 1970s (he was unable to return to South Africa after marrying a non-white woman, in contravention of South African law at the time), returned clandestinely to South Africa in 1975 on a political mission, was betrayed, arrested, and imprisoned for seven years, returning to Paris on his release in 1982.

If you're like me, then you'll perhaps not be particularly familiar with Breytenbach's work (he's primarily a poet rather than a novelist), but the distinctive name will have you scratching your head wondering where you've heard it before. Well, I'll help you out: it was probably in the Spitting Image song I've Never Met A Nice South African - Breytenbach gets a mention at the end (at around 2:05).

Anyway, this is powerfully written and occasionally gripping, but to be honest there are probably better (or at least more linear, if linearity is the kind of bag you're into) novels about apartheid-era South Africa available, probably by either Nadine Gordimer or André Brink. Brink's A Dry White Season (later filmed), which, by an odd coincidence, sits right next to this book on my bookshelves, might be a good place to start.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

um bongo um bongo they drink it in the congo

There's riches and fame to be had from making an entire comedy act out of basically just coming on stage and saying "does anyone remember Spangles? Eh? Eh? Spangles?" Just ask Peter Kay. But I want to exhume malodorous old cultural items to a slightly more specific purpose than that, so forgive me. Or, alternatively, consider this: Pacers. They were like minty Opal Fruits, weren't they? Yeah? Do you remember?

My purpose here is as follows: the following is a list of adverts I remember from yesteryear (some are more yester than others), the last lines of which conveyed (and were deliberately calculated to convey, in my view), perhaps in addition to some trivial surface meaning, depths of transgressive perversity certainly not suitable for the time of day at which they were aired.
  • This first one is pretty well-known, and Googling the phrase in question revealed a fair amount of internet discourse about it. It's this NatWest advert, which according to its YouTube title is from 1991, but I'm with the writer of this list who reckons it must be from a few years earlier than that. The line here is, of course: "Course we do! It's not all work, work, work!", which just about provides the makers with some plausible deniability, i.e. they can claim the spotty little herbert featured in the ad was just referring to going out on the town, whereas in reality he was talking about taking his cute little curly-haired blonde colleague home, unlocking her vault and making a substantial deposit, followed by a speedy withdrawal.
  • That one was easy to find, however I've had less success with the other two, so maybe someone out there can help. The second one is from a bit more recently, maybe late 1990s, and I'm pretty sure it was an advert for a brand of coffee. The set-up is as follows: woman gets back from a weekend away to a flat she apparently shares with another woman in an upmarket young professionals sort of way, only to find that the other woman has had her boyfriend round for the weekend and they've been whooping it up by (among acts of a more penetrative nature, presumably) drinking flatmate #1's coffee, which, we're invited to infer, is a bit of a pre-agreed no-no activity. After a brief frosty moment, flatmate #1 decides to forgive and forget, and the two pals enjoy a cup of coffee together from the forbidden stash. As the camera pulls back, flatmate #1 says to flatmate #2, with just the ghost of a saucy smile playing across her lips: "So....did he enjoy my aroma?". Yeah, they'll say it's all about the coffee, finest Arabica beans from the Colombian mountainside yadda yadda yadda, but they know and we know there's a bit of an undertone of furtive knicker-sniffing wrongness here.
  • Thirdly, and, I think, broadly contemporary with advert #2 (i.e. probably late 1990s) there was an advert for what I think was probably some sort of telecommunications company, possibly BT, possibly someone else. In fact it possibly wasn't even telecoms at all; the only reason I think it was is that it mainly features a woman obviously talking to a (probably female) friend on the telephone. Now we're party to the first few bits of the conversation, which establish that there's some talk of men, and possibly recent nights out, that sort of thing. There's then some sort of voice-over or other distraction which drowns out the conversation, during the course of which the product sales pitch is delivered, and this ends just in time for us to watch and hear the woman say "What? Sideways?". Oooer matron, etc.
Any ideas? I'm on a horse.

Monday, August 08, 2011

headline of the day

This one in the Independent:

Seems a little harsh, unless they're talking about her sizzlingly unresolved sexual tension with Michael Portillo on This Week, in which case, well, maybe.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

i STILL don't beliiieeeeeve it!

In the interests of balance and fairness, and just for the epic lulz, I should draw your attention gently yet insistently towards this article in the New Statesman, which is a follow-up to the one featured here a while back wherein people list their reasons for believing in God (whichever particular version it is they believe in, from woolly philosophical abstraction to Old Testament psychopath complete with fire and smiting, and all points in between).

You'll be unsurprised (particularly if you read the associated blog post) that I didn't really find any of the reasons presented in the original article particularly compelling; you'll be equally unsurprised that I find the stuff in the non-belief article to be a lot better, though a lot of the responses are broadly similar to each other, as you'd expect:
  • Richard Dawkins is as sensible and understanding as ever about people's reasons to believe (nonsensical though they are) and the reasons why you really shouldn't - this won't stop him being painted as "aggressive" and "shrill", though, obviously, for reasons explored here.
  • Most of the others - Victor Stenger, Susan Blackmore, Michael Shermer, Jerry Coyne - just make the obvious point that they don't believe in God simply because there is no even remotely compelling reason to do so, i.e. any evidence, with the rider that the concept is badly-defined and slippery and meaningless anyway.
  • PZ Myers introduces a welcome note of ridicule by pointing out how ridiculous most of the beliefs and practices are.
  • They must have caught the usually affable AC Grayling on a bad day, though he is as usual entirely right.
  • The only people who drop the ball are Philip Pullman, who starts well but makes a last-minute swerve into the wishy-washy bullshit territory of agnosticism, and Ben Goldacre, who affects a weary disdain for the whole thing. At which point whoever interviewed him should have given him a sharp slap round the chops and said: I didn't ask you how much you cared, and I'm not asking you to get out and man the atheist barricades. What you clearly mean is that you've made up your mind not to believe and you're not very interested in discussing it. Which is a reasonable enough position to take, but if that's your position, get over yourself and say so and stop being such an arse.
Anyway, further discussion on both the belief and non-belief articles is available at the New Statesman website. As always, approach the comments sections with some caution as there is some weapons-grade stupidity on display; I exempt the very first comment on the non-belief article from that criticism, though, as it simply reproduces a quote from comedian Sean Lock, which really condenses the whole discussion down to its essence:
I don't believe in God because....I've thought about it.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

what I did at the weekend

Non-Canada-related this time, but just to finish the photo round-up: last Saturday I decided to head off up a few hills on my own, as I do from time to time. Now I've done quite a lot of the hills around the South Wales area, so I decided to head a bit further afield. Inspired by this list of Hewitts and Nuttalls in Wales (fiddly qualification rules aside that basically means mountains over 2000 feet) I hatched the scheme of ticking off as many as I could, a sort of parallel project to the Munro one that's already underway. The list contains 190 peaks, of which I have been up at least 24 - I say "at least" because without more rigorous checking there may be some subsidiary peaks I've climbed almost without noticing on the way to somewhere else.

Anyway, I noticed that there were three hills up in a little self-contained group in the Radnor Forest, so I decide to go and have a crack at them. I parked up in New Radnor, just off the A44 between Kington and Llandrindod Wells and did an anticlockwise circular tour taking in Whimble (not quite 2000 feet but, ironically, the most distinct "peak" of the lot), Bache Hill (2001 feet), Black Mixen (2133 feet) and Rhos Fawr (2165 feet). There's a bit of steep-ish ascent at the start, but for the most part it's fairly level walking on big heathery plateaus (plateaux?); Black Mixen and Rhos Fawr in particular would be boggy, treacherous and a featureless navigational nightmare in bad weather (fortunately it was quite nice on Saturday).

The trade-off you make by avoiding the more exciting, craggy, higher peaks is that you lose 99.9% of the people who might otherwise be up there with you. How much of a benefit this is will of course depend on your levels of curmudgeonly misanthropy; as far as I'm concerned it's great. Apart from a few New Radnor folk walking their dogs on the lower slopes I had the summit plateau entirely to myself all day. How relatively unfrequented these hills are can be seen by the amount of effort the Ordnance Survey make for you to be able easily to navigate them using their maps: the divide between Explorer sheets 200 and 201 cuts right down between Bache Hill and Black Mixen, and there's little or no overlap between the two sheets, so you need to buy both. You can bet that if that'd happened to Pen Y Fan they'd have moved things around to sort it out.

Anyway, as usual I took the GPS with me. Here's the route map (10.1 miles for the round trip, apparently) and altitude chart:



Also as usual I took the camera and took a few photos. Here they are.

canuck panic

Sorry, I know I'm boring you now. Two further Canada-related things: firstly you can find several hundred photographs from our trip here.

Secondly, in the light of my cryptid post of a week or so back it would be remiss of me not to point out that Lake Okanagan is legendarily home to the lake monster Ogopogo. I clearly remember having a set of 45 rpm 7" singles when we were kids that had various nursery rhymes and songs on them, one of which was a rendition (sung by a young-ish child as I recall) of this song. This article suggests that it was the song which lent its name to the monster (back in the 1920s) rather than the other way round.

well burger me

As for food, most of the time we were cooking our own, but there were a few exceptions. I've already mentioned Villa Caruso in Jasper, but while in Vancouver at the start of the trip we went to a couple of contrasting tapas bars, both good in their own way.

La Bodega is quite traditional, and none the worse for that, although we were a bit jet-lagged and knackered when we went there (I had to keep kicking Hazel under the table to wake her up), so I'm not sure we really appreciated it fully.

By contrast Bin 941 is what you might call a modern and funky twist on the same thing - the picture is of a small brick of houmous with some olives on top. It's far from a triumph of style over substance, though, the food was delicious.

We also had a steamed burrito from Steamrollers - nice enough, though I must say I'm not sure about the whole steaming concept, as it means the burrito ends up a bit soft and soggy. You want a bit of bite, really.

Finally, the big public market on Granville Island is a food-lover's wet dream - wall to wall fruit, veg, fish, sausages, booze, you name it. They also have various exotic fast-food outlets, including one where you can purchase a halibut burger. What's not to like?

ale seizer

In addition to wine sampling, we also stocked up with some Canadian beer, both for the RV trip and while we were on Vancouver Island. As with most places once you get beyond the bog-standard generic lager-y stuff (Molson, Labatts, Moosehead etc. etc.) there are some interesting smaller craft breweries making some more flavoursome stuff (usually labelled "IPA" or "Pale Ale"); as luck would have it a lot of these do 12-bottle variety boxes with a selection of their products for you to sample. Here's the selection we bought while stocking up the RV on the way out of Vancouver:


That's a box from the Okanagan Spring Brewery and a box from the Granville Island Brewery. We also bought a supplementary box of Alexander Keith's IPA along the way (it's thirsty work driving an RV) - this isn't particularly local, as it's brewed in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

When we got to Vancouver Island we stopped at a liquor store on the outskirts of Nanaimo to stock up - both the boxes we bought here are from breweries based on the island, one from the Lighthouse Brewery and one from the imaginatively-named Vancouver Island Brewery.


I think overall the Vancouver Island Brewery box was my favourite of all the ones we tried - the Piper's Pale Ale and the Sea Dog Amber Ale in particular were excellent. We also visited the bar at the Dockside restaurant when we were on Granville Island - they brew their own beer, and very good it is too, the Cartwright Pale Ale in particular.

o caaaanadaaaa

As some of you will already know (and you should if you've been paying attention), the lovely Hazel and I got married a few weeks ago. Now getting married is great and all, but arguably even greater is the freedom you get to then go on a great big holiday afterwards. We decided, with very little argument, to go to Canada.

We bookended the trip with a couple of days in Vancouver and four days on Vancouver Island, but the main thing we did was hire an RV (from the good people at Fraserway near the airport in Vancouver, most of whom seem to be German or Dutch for some reason) and go on a road trip. Thanks to the magic of Google I can create you a map of our itinerary showing you where we stopped, in fact I have done just that: here it is.

Here's a bit more detail about our route and what we did on the way:
  • Day 1: Vancouver to McLure: 249 miles. Quite a long day, as in addition to the distance involved we had to pick up the RV, get the tutorial on how to work the RV (in particular, how to empty the water and sewage tanks without getting knocked off your feet by a tsunami of your own assorted feculence), work out how to drive the RV (which are quite large, even the relatively compact 20-footer we hired, plus they have automatic transmission with a column shift, plus you have to drive on the right) and pick up food and drink supplies. So we didn't really have time for any sightseeing (we skipped our planned detour via Hell's Gate) and pretty much just turned up at the Pinegrove campground, had some food and beer and went to bed.
  • Day 2: McLure to Clearwater: 52 miles. A short hop here as we wanted to do some walking in Wells Gray Provincial Park. We did a hike up Pyramid Mountain and then a low-level tour of some waterfalls, of which Helmcken Falls is probably the most famous, but (in my opinion, anyway) Spahats Falls is the most spectacular. We then headed back to Clearwater to stay at the Dutch Lake campground.
  • Day 3: Clearwater to Jasper: 197 miles. We stopped off at Mount Robson on the way to have a bit of a look at it (sadly we didn't have time to shin up it), and very impressive too. We stayed at Whistler's campground, which is run by Parks Canada and is (just about) walking distance from town - taxis are available for the return trip if you're feeling too lazy/full/pissed. Note that in the national parks (Jasper being in Jasper National Park, surprisingly enough) you will need to pay a park fee of about ten dollars per day, in addition to any camping fees.
  • Day 4: in and around Jasper. We went on the Jasper Tramway which takes you most of the way up Whistlers Mountain (you can walk the rest of the way to the top, which of course we did). We then went on a boat trip on Maligne Lake, which contains Spirit Island, one of the most photographed locations in the world and currently available at a free desktop wallpaper gallery near you. We then went into Jasper, hit a couple of bars and went to Villa Caruso for dinner, which is very nice, though far from cheap.
  • Day 5: Jasper to Saskatchewan River Crossing: 123 miles. More importantly, this section is the top end of the Icefields Parkway, one of the world's great scenic roads. Along the way we stopped at the Columbia Icefield to explore the Athabasca Glacier - we went up onto the glacier in one of their specially-designed fat-tyred "sno-coaches" and had a bit of a wander round, and then joined a small group for a walking tour below the glacier foot to check out the local flora and fauna and see the evidence of the glacier's gradual retreat over the last 150 years or so. We stayed at the David Thompson Resort, half an hour or so up Highway 11 north-east of Saskatchewan River Crossing.
  • Day 6: Saskatchewan River Crossing to Radium Hot Springs: 196 miles. This is mostly the southern section of the Icefields Parkway, as far as Banff anyway. On the way we stopped of for a look at Peyto Lake and Lake Louise, both very pretty (and quite crowded, Lake Louise in particular). We then headed off to Radium Hot Springs, where in addition to checking in at the Canyon RV campground we had a dip in the therapeutic waters of the hot springs themselves, which are all very pleasant.
  • Day 7: Radium Hot Springs to Kelowna: 278 miles. Another long day, but we wanted to have two nights in Kelowna so that we could do a wine-tasting tour (Kelowna being the centre of the Okanagan wine region) and not have to worry about driving anywhere afterwards. So we didn't do much sightseeing on the way, except to stop off in Revelstoke for lunch. Beyond the mountain scenery the actual town of Revelstoke is pretty nondescript, so we didn't hang about, and headed off to check in at the Hiawatha RV Park.
  • Day 8: in and around Kelowna. We booked a wine tour with Wine Your Way tours, which turns out to be ex-sommelier Shalyn and her car. We did a tour of four wineries: Mission Hill, Rollingdale, Cedar Creek and St. Hubertus, by the end of which we had absorbed not only lots of fascinating wine information from our well-informed guide (despite feeling like we were starring in Sideways), but also samples of something like 25 wines and were a bit addled. In a futile attempt to soak up some of the wine we also called in at the Carmelis goat's cheese emporium and sampled some of their excellent wares, including some goat's cheese ice cream (and very nice too). My suggestion: try the Chabichou cheese and the St. Hubertus Pinot Blanc, they're both great.
  • Day 9: Kelowna to Hope: 233 miles. We drove south from Kelowna to Osoyoos to visit the NK'MIP Desert Cultural Centre, in the middle of a weird little arid desert micro-climate (certainly weird after walking on a glacier only a couple of days earlier anyway). After watching a presentation of a bit of traditional Native American snake-wrangling in the visitor centre we went out onto the nature trails to find a few rattlesnakes for ourselves; no luck though. We then headed on to Hope and stayed at the Kawkawa Lake campground.
  • Day 10: Hope to Vancouver: 94 miles. Part of the reason for stopping off in Hope was to make this last leg nice and short, as we had to drop the RV back by 11:30am. So no sightseeing, just a bit of last-minute tidying up and emptying of sewage tanks and back to the Fraserway depot. They were then kind enough to ferry us plus luggage over to the airport where we were picking up the hire car for the rest of the trip. But that, as they say, is another story....

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

tell me more about this thing called "wealth acquisition without Christ"

Strewth, here's a good one:
From: big.xandy@uol.com.br
Subject: RE:GOD BLESS YOU REAL GOOD!!!
To:

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

I am Mrs Fola Howard, daughter of Late Sherrif Kindimbu from West Africa, to be precise, Nigeria. I am 68 years old,my mother is From England, why my father is a Nigerian, and I'm an half cast by birth, I was married to Late Richard from England,and currently i am a new Christian convert,suffering from long time Cancer of the heart. From all indications, my condition is serious and according to my doctor it is quite obvious that I may not survive the sickness, although as a christian, I believe God and I know that I will not die, I will leave to declare the glory of God. My late Husband Late Mr.Richard A.Howard,he and my only son was killed by his family members,because he does not agree with them, I am presently leaving alone.Our Lord Jesus Christ is my comforter.

After the death of my husband,I made up my mind to travel abroad to leave the rest of my life and continue to do the work of God as a missionary. I c alled our lawyer and I instructed him to sell all my Husband properties and shares to enable me raise some money to continue my mission, which he successfully sold the Shares and some of the properties and he was able raise the sum of USD$9,000,000.00 (Nine million dollars) The fund is in cash,for the safety of the fund until i am able to travel out, he packaged the fund and it was deposited in a Bank for future claim, on behalf of my late husband.

Now that my sickness has gone to this stage, and the doctor's analysis is that i may not live more than 3 months got me scared and I want the fund to be used for the work of God all over the world through you,and to help the poor,widow, orphanage homes and also build a worship center for the Lord.

I have prayed and I told God to direct me to an honest Christian who will help me receive this fund and utilize it for things that will glorify the name of God. After my prayers,I searched the internet, and i found your email address and contacted you. Please if you are willing to use this Fund for the work of God, i will like you to send to me your private phone and fax number, full names and address, to enable me have a clue on whom you are, and also to enable me have confidence in you, and be rest assured, so that immediate arrangement can be made on how the Fund will be claimed by you on my Late Husbands Behalf as his Next of Kin and New Beneficiary I await to here your urgent reply.

Lastly, i honestly prayed that when the fund has been transferred to you, it shall be used for the said purpose, even if i am dead before then, because i have found out that wealth acquisition without Christ is vanity, and this gave me a good reason and i made a promised to God that the fund will be used to build His temple. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy spirit be with you. Amen.

Kindly contact me at my email address: flhoward@live.com

May God Bless you
Mrs.Fola Howard.
Well, the extreme religiosity is certainly new (though wasted on me, clearly), compared to previous efforts, but I'm a bit concerned about the casual reference to "My late Husband Late Mr.Richard A.Howard,he and my only son was killed by his family members,because he does not agree with them" - so I imagine they'll be totally happy to see 9 million dollars handed over to a complete stranger then.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

third time's the charm

Just a couple of further cricketing nuggets: it is of course true that the India team England have just brutally trampled into submission is not an absolutely full-strength one - they have been deprived of the services of their principal strike bowler Zaheer Khan (hamstring injury), talismanic opener Virender Sehwag (shoulder) and his regular opening partner Gautam Gambhir (elbow). All of whom could in theory be back for the third Test at Edgbaston, but which raises the question: does this count as a proper humbling of the world's top-ranked side if some of their best players were missing?

The trouble with answering "no" to that question is that it rules out regarding as "proper" victories many of the great triumphs of the past: does England's legendary Botham-inspired 1981 Ashes series win not count because Australia's best batsman Greg Chappell declined to tour that year? Does England's equally legendary Ashes triumph of 2005 not count because both of their victories (at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge) came in matches where Australia's premier fast bowler Glenn McGrath was absent through injury? Does Australia's 5-0 drubbing in the return series in 2006-07 not count because England were missing Vaughan and Trescothick? That last one is a bit of a stretch, admittedly, but you get the idea. To use a sporting cliché, you can only beat what's put in front of you.

Secondly, hat-tricks. If you have a look at the list of all 39 that there have been in Test history (Stuart Broad's at Trent Bridge being the 39th and latest) a couple of interesting statistical gems can be teased out:
  • there were 16 hat-tricks in the 504 Test matches in the 83 years between 1878 and 1961. This includes the only instance of two in the same match; even more remarkably both of those were by the same man, Jimmy Matthews; even more remarkably they were the only six wickets he took in the match, and even more remarkably the third victim in both cases was the same man, Tommy Ward.
  • there was then a bleak period of 603 tests and 27 years between 1961 and 1988 during which there was only one hat-trick, Peter Petherick's (on his Test debut) in 1976.
  • since then things have reverted to something resembling the pre-1961 frequency with 22 hat-tricks in 893 matches in 22 years between 1989 and 2011.
  • Broad becomes just the second man to be a hat-trick victim (i.e. someone's third wicket) and to take a hat-trick himself. Broad was Peter Siddle's third victim at Brisbane just eight months ago; the only other man to achieve the same thing was Shane Warne, who did it in the opposite order, taking a hat-trick in 1994 and then being Harbhajan Singh's third victim in 2001. The only other hat-trick-taker to feature anywhere in another bowler's hat-trick is Darren Gough, who was Warne's second victim in 1994 and then did the hat-trick himself in 1999.
  • there must be some scope for analysis of whose was the "best" hat-trick, by some measure of the excellence of the three batsmen involved. I'm not going to do the legwork, but you take total aggregate runs scored by the three batsmen as the metric then if I had to guess I'd say either Irfan Pathan's trio of Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, or Harbhajan Singh's trio of Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne would be pretty high on the list. You'd have to decide whether you were talking about total career aggregate runs per batsman, or career aggregate runs at the time of the hat-trick, of course. Tricky stuff.