Wednesday, November 30, 2011

abyssinia later: I'm off to hang with dahomeys

My brief dalliance with mid-20th century African history and politics in the last book post, as well as the interesting old bits of paper post a few days ago, remind me that I have been sitting (not literally) on some more interesting stuff for a while. As so often the more fascinated by maps you are the more interesting it'll be.

My sister Hannah gave us a book of photographs from the Magnum photographic co-operative last Christmas - fascinating in its own right, but almost more fascinating (to me, anyway) was the paper she'd wrapped it in, an old wall map of some sort. Clearly fairly old, judging by the names of some of the countries. But how old?

We all know the method for dating a dictionary: masturbation. I don't mean doing it, I mean looking the word up. Maps require a different approach, though, and the obvious one would seem to be: construct a table of date ranges from the names shown on the map, and the date of the map will be in the (hopefully narrow) band of dates that they all have in common. Let's check it out.

Europe and the Middle East first - a larger map can be viewed here.

  • Most obviously there is a united Germany, which means it must be before 1949 (or after 1990, but I'm ruling out that possibility). The presence of the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig suggests it's the post-Treaty of Versailles borders, i.e. after 1919.
  • Yugoslavia's borders suggest it's before 1941, it must also be after 1918 as Yugoslavia didn't exist before then.
  • Similarly Czechoslovakia didn't exist before 1918.
  • There's no Israel, so it must be before 1948.
  • The "Levant States" generally referred to the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon between 1920 and 1946; similarly Transjordan existed between 1921 and 1946 (at which point it became Jordan).
Let's take a look at Asia (bigger map here):

  • French Indochina existed officially between 1887 and 1954, after which it became North and South Vietnam and Cambodia.
  • India is still occupying all the territory now occupied by Pakistan and Bangladesh, which puts it before 1947.
  • Sri Lanka is still called Ceylon; the change happened in 1972.
  • Sakhalin is still in two bits, the lower bit being the northernmost prefecture of Japan - this situation lasted from 1905 to 1945 when the whole island reverted to belonging to the Soviet Union.
This is all very interesting, but we know where the real interest is going to be: Africa. Countries change their names there as almost often as I change my underpants - i.e. once every two or three years. So we should be able to narrow it down still further. Let's have a look (bigger map here):

So, if my identification of all those dates is correct, it would seem that we can conclude that this is a map of the world that dates from the mid-1930s, specifically between 1932 and 1936.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

read all about it

Much upheaval at Halibut Towers over the last few weeks, some planned, some not. More of that at tedious and unnecessary length later, but for the moment here's some by-products of a few trips up to our loft to lift up some boards and have a general root about and tidy up in advance of getting some electricians in to sort out the parlous and potentially fatal state of our wiring.

Among all the knackered old loft insulation, bits of polystyrene and wood and other assorted junk I found some bits of old newspaper that had evidently been used as makeshift packing and/or insulation back in the day. And when I say back in the day, I mean way back in the day, as upon closer inspection the bits I retrieved reasonably intact turned out to be from a copy of the South Wales Argus from Friday, January 20th, 1956. Here's a few scanned pages:

A few things to note:
  • There's a report on the first day's play in this unofficial Test match between England and Pakistan in Lahore.
  • Leslie Davey from Blaenavon was convicted of beating to death William Roberts, the man whom his wife had been "associating" with. Just to be clear for a 21st century audience, that means "fucking".
  • You could pick up a nice house in the Beechwood Park area (i.e. pretty much the exact location of Halibut Towers) for around £3,000.
  • Just to put that into perspective, a top salesman could expect to earn in excess of £1,000 per year.
There is (on the penultimate page) a list of the pubs in the Newport area where you could obtain a delicious pint of creamy Guinness (and these were the days when it was still OK to claim that it was "good for you"). Of the ones in Newport proper here's the current state of play:

  • The Cambrian Inn on Commercial Road appears to have met its demise fairly recently, as the building is still there, and still recognisably a pub, at least until recently.
  • J. Dobell and Bartholomew Ltd. on the High Street is long gone as far as I know.
  • The Griffin on Griffin Street is still there.
  • The Murenger House on the High Street is still there and remains probably the best of the city centre pubs; that said it's the only one on this short list that I've ever been in.
  • The Potter's Arms on Dock Street is now just Potters, a bit more trendy wine bar-y these days.
  • The Old Rising Sun on Shaftesbury Street is still there but is long since empty; it's on a bit of an awkward spot these days right on a roundabout under the giant Heidenheim Drive flyover.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

duvalwatch continues

There was an interesting article on the BBC website the other day about David Duval, one of my favourite golfers and a man whose recent trials and tribulations would have crushed the life out of a lesser man. Duval seems to have a Zen-like calm about him these days despite seemingly uncontrollably erratic form; the article describes his bid to qualify for his PGA Tour card for the 2012 season (and so far so good as he finished tied 2nd in the preliminary event).

The last time Duval got a mention here he had just finished tied 2nd in the 2009 US Open - after that he started off the 2010 season with a bang by finishing tied 2nd at the AT&T tournament at Pebble Beach. Results after that were a bit erratic, but included another top 10 at the Open late in the season, and a few other decent results meant that he kept his tour card by finishing 106th on the money list, his best result since 2002. 2011 was less good - after a couple of tidy results in the early tournaments including a tie for 9th at the Northern Trust Open the rest of the season was pretty dreadful and he ended up down at 152nd on the money list, outside the top 125 that retain their card by right.

Duval's struggles resonate with me in particular, as he's not just grindingly mediocre in an easily understandable way - he makes a lot of birdies, but just throws in the occasional disastrous quadruple bogey at inopportune moments, something I can relate to very closely. But there are plenty of fairly recent examples of players emerging from decade-long slumps to enjoy a string of late-career victories, Hal Sutton and current world number 5 Steve Stricker to name but two.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

the last book I read

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I've seen this little quote in various places, mostly unattributed - this link attributes it to Annie Dillard's book Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, though she is only quoting a story she heard somewhere else. Anyway, here it is:
I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' 'No,' said the priest, 'not if you did not know.' 'Then why,' asked the Eskimo earnestly, 'did you tell me?'
There are a few schools of thought regarding what you have to do to get to the Christian heaven (the particular branch of vacuous hand-waving nonsense concerned with this is called soteriology). Some say just being generally nice is enough, while others say no, you pretty much have to buy into the whole God/Jesus/crucufixion/rich man/eye of camel thing, otherwise you're fucked. Which, as this blog post observes, means that either all missionaries are arseholes, or God is.

Nathan Price clearly is of the get yourself in there and convert those heathen savages school of thought, and wouldn't have much truck with the Eskimo anecdote, judging by his decision to uproot his family from rural Georgia to the deepest darkest depths of the Congo in 1959. His wife Orleanna and his four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May clearly don't get much of a say in the matter.

Needless to say when they get installed it's not quite the parade of grateful pickaninnies queuing up to be delivered from their primitive unsaved state that they might have expected - the locals have their own gods, thanks, and they seem to be about as effective as any others, generally not wiping out the harvest and killing everyone with flood and pestilence unless they really feel like it. Plus the village chief derives part of his authority from supposedly having the ear of certain key guys in the existing hierarchy. So this new guy Jesus is going to have to display some pretty impressive chops if he's going to displace the incumbents, and Reverend Price is labouring under a few disadvantages, not least the language barrier, but also a general lack of aptitude for dealing with conflict. It's probably at least partly a lack of practice, there being not much in the way of rival snake-worshipping voodoo religions in 1950s Georgia, and not much sassy back-chat at home either, the Rev being an iron-fist patriarchal type.

The daughters, whose alternating voices most of the novel is written in (with occasional interjections from Orleanna) are a bit more receptive to their new surroundings and do their best to integrate with the new community, in their differing ways. Rachel, the eldest, affects a lofty disdain for all the undignified messiness of it all, a stance somewhat undermined by her gift for unfortunate malapropism. Meanwhile feisty Leah helps her father dig the vegetable garden and picks off targets with her home-made bow and arrow, all watched by her mute and crippled twin sister Adah and younger sister Ruth May.

The family survives various scrapes - Adah is briefly believed to have been eaten by a lion, Ruth May breaks her arm, the village is briefly overrun by army ants, and Rachel has to negotiate a series of misunderstandings which nearly result in her being betrothed to the village chief Tata Ndu. Eventually their luck runs out, though; Ruth May is bitten by a green mamba and dies. This is the last straw for Orleanna, and, having presided over the burial, she leads the rest of her daughters out of the village, on foot and in the clothes they stand up in, leaving Nathan to continue his ministry alone.

Having gone their separate ways, the family re-establish themselves in various far-flung locations. Orleanna and Adah return to America, where Adah is eventually cured of her disabilities and becomes a doctor. Leah stays in the Congo with her husband Anatole and witnesses the country's troubled metamorphosis into Zaire. Meanwhile Rachel is working her way through a succession of husbands and ends up running a hotel somewhere north of Brazzaville. The fate of Nathan is never conclusively established, but it is rumoured that he chose the wrong group of people to preach to somewhere deep in the jungle and got himself killed. The novel ends with mother and daughters, reunited, returning to a newly-renamed Congo to try to locate Ruth May's grave.

The troubled history of this particular bit of central Africa, and the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s in particular, is tightly interwoven with the story of the Price family; it turns out, for instance, that Ruth May dies on the same day as Patrice Lumumba is killed and much hope for a brave post-colonial world dies with him. Instead Joseph Mobutu siezes power, with American connivance, and ushers in 30 years of violence and corruption.

The historical stuff is all very fascinating, in fact in a way it's more fascinating than the Price family's African antics - the first two-thirds of the book, covering the family's time living in the village, is interesting in its own way, but not much of any real consequence happens until Ruth May's death, at which point the chronological pace speeds up and the last third of the book covers 35 years or so. You can bet that if this had been by Joyce Carol Oates, an author whose work it superficially resembles, that a great deal more misery and indignity would have been heaped on the family's heads. The all-female voice means that Nathan is a strangely remote figure, too - the inner thoughts and motivations of an evangelical Baptist missionary prepared to come halfway across the world to preach are potentially a good deal more interesting than those of his sixteen-year-old daughter, with the best will in the world.

On the basis of the two Barbara Kingsolver novels I've read, I'd say Prodigal Summer is probably the one to go for, which is not to say that there's anything terribly wrong with The Poisonwood Bible, just that I wasn't totally bowled over by it. I'd also suggest that if you want a novel about a charismatic and slightly deranged father-figure leading his young family into the wilderness with predictably tragic results, the novel you want is Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

you ain't seen me, right

A couple of brief supplementary bits after the last post:
  • We went to a few pubs in Edinburgh, most notably the excellent Abbotsford on Rose Street, which we went to while we were on our way to Calton Hill to watch the fireworks. The firework display was actually happening at Meadowbank Stadium a mile or so up the road, but we (and a lot of other people) decided we were too lazy and/or tight to get tickets so we hung around on top of the hill and watched from there. Anyway, the Abbotsford has many interesting local (or at least Scottish) ales, most notably Avalanche from the Fyne Ales brewery which I had a couple of and was very good.
  • If you followed the link to the Silent UK raid on the Forth Bridge you may have seen some of the other fascinating stuff on the site, most notably the infiltration of the now-defunct Mail Rail lines under London. The whole urban exploration thing is fascinating, I think - if you think so too then you will find much to enjoy at places like Forlorn Britain, Derelicte, Forbidden Places and PlaceHacking. If you're tempted to try and emulate any of their activities, just remember it's trespassing, almost certainly illegal and we never had this conversation.

you (now) know what I did last summer

Here's a few links to some recent batches of photos that may or may not be of interest:
  • Firstly, and rather belatedly, some photos from my wedding to the lovely Hazel back in June at the delightful Steppes Farm, which is in Rockfield just a few miles from Monmouth. The licensed venue for weddings at Steppes Farm is their restaurant, The Stonemill, which is also well worth a visit just for the food, which is excellent. They also serve excellent beer from the Kingstone Brewery, which is just a few miles away in Tintern - the Kingstone Gold is particularly quaffable, and I should know, as I quaffed quite a quantity of it on the day.
  • Secondly, the annual Swanage trip in September. You'll pretty much know the drill by now, and I've eased off on the obsessive documentation of the pub crawl(s), so there are fewer photos than in previous years. We did, however, branch out on the Sunday and go to Wareham, where, after a pitifully short token stroll up the river and back we did a tour of some pubs, most of which were quite good, the pick probably being The Old Granary, which in addition to having a scenic riverside location and some of the best Badger beer I've ever had, appears to have a strictly all-supermodel bar staff hiring policy in place, which is nice.
  • Finally, a brief jaunt to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago to do a recce for a wedding Hazel is shooting in December, as well as some standard touristy activities we didn't do last time we were there in February 2009. One of the things we did do last time was visit the Scotch Whisky Experience up by the castle, but as it was being refurbished at the time we got a somewhat cut-down version of the full experience - basically a room, a video, a PowerPoint presentation and a glass of whisky. This time, however, we got the full multimedia package complete with a trip on a little ghost-train style ride with carriages shaped like whisky barrels. And, equally importantly, more whisky (Old Pulteney, as it happens, on this occasion). Served, interestingly, in a room dedicated to displaying the world's largest single collection of Scotch whisky, collected by some guy from Chile and then donated. A fascinating historical document (of, in a lot of cases, distilleries that no longer exist and whiskies that can no longer be obtained, anywhere) but I really think buying this stuff and then not consuming it is missing the point a bit. We also rectified an omission from an earlier trip and climbed the 287 steps to the top of the Scott Monument. I should warn anyone aspiring to do this that the last section is very cramped and narrow; I am not especially fat (well, not massively fat, anyway) but I did struggle to cram my broad manly shoulders through the top section of the spiral staircase and emerge onto the top platform. Good views, though. And you get a certificate (see right). While Hazel was off doing wedding-related activity on the Saturday morning I took myself off on the train from Haymarket to North Queensferry (about a fiver for a return, and a trip of about 15-20 minutes) to have a look at the Forth Bridge. And very impressive too, although it was still somewhat shrouded in mist. So I went back to the station, got on a train going the other way, got off at Dalmeny on the other side of the bridge and wandered about the slightly larger and more interesting South Queensferry for a bit. By that time the mist had cleared and I got some quite good pictures, aided by the bridge being largely free of unsightly scaffolding for once. Those even more fascinated by bridges than me might want to get even more up close and personal, in which case try either this video of someone taking a lift to the top, or this account of some somewhat hair-raising ninja-stylee urban exploration.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

good heavens

Any form of social change which proceeds by little baby steps (as most of them do) will tend to be largely invisible to those participating in it unless they make a point of stepping back and reflecting on it. Hell, that applies to any form of incremental change; I still see the same face looking back out of the bathroom mirror as I did when I was 20, but I'm self-aware enough to know that that's an illusion.

It's instructive, then, to watch this clip from the BBC programme The Big Questions and reflect that it wouldn't have been so long ago that it would have been unthinkable for the intervention about 25 seconds in to have been made, and for the subsequent exchange to have happened. If for some reason you can't see the clip, here's a (slightly paraphrased) summary:
God-botherer: All aborted foetuses go to heaven. Totes. For real.
Sensible woman: By that rationale, doesn't that mean we've done them a favour by aborting them before they can get all soiled and sinful?
God-botherer: No. Also....look over there! [runs away]
Sensible woman: This whole "heaven" idea is patently ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, look at yourselves.
Some idiot: Aha, but you "believe" in money, and that doesn't exist, does it? HA! CHECKMATE!
Sensible woman: WTF?
Some idiot: Money. Doesn't exist. Ergo, a) there is a God, and b) I win.
Sensible woman: WTF?
The woman courageous enough to tell a room full of swivel-eyed goddists that they are idiots is Kate Smurthwaite, who is a stand-up comic, vice-chair of Abortion Rights UK, blogger and tweeter.

Now you might usefully choose to argue with the value of calling those who believe in heaven "idiots" (clearly by any objective measure they are idiots, but you might question the political effectiveness of telling them so). It's interesting, though, to compare that pretty mild rebuke with the reactions in the comments threads at the various sites where the video clip has been posted, a few of which are reproduced here, and a disturbing number of which take the form "how dare she - a woman - diss God? Someone should RAPE SOME SENSE INTO HER". Now it's not necessarily easy to tell which of these are genuine insane religious outrage, and which are just 14-year-olds trolling, and, in both cases, how much these sentiments are amplified as a result of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it puts "idiot" in perspective, anyway.

Of course the increasing social acceptability of vocal dissent from the status quo of religious nonsense being given uncritical approval is great - on the other hand the fact that there still exists a religious TV programme on a main terrestrial channel called The Big Questions is a bit depressing. As this tweet says, as far as God and religion go there really is only one "big question", and the answer is "no".