Monday, February 25, 2013

the last book I read

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.

Pearl Tull is dying. But do her family flock to her bedside? Well, in general, no, or at least not immediately. Son Cody and daughter Jenny have their own lives, families and problems and aren't dropping everything to rush over, and husband Beck left many years ago while the kids were small and never showed his face again. Pearl does have her younger son Ezra, who runs a restaurant in their home town of Baltimore, but that's largely because he lives with her, so he hasn't got much choice.

Perhaps the rest of the family have decided that Pearl is unlikely to cark it before there's been an opportunity for an extended series of flashbacks to various key moments from family history, and so it proves. We learn a bit about Pearl's early life, her brief marriage to Beck, the circumstances of his departure, and various incidents from the kids' formative years intended to illustrate their differing personalities, the short version of which is: Cody always thought that Ezra was his mother's favourite (and so he was), and this bred a simmering resentment over the years which culminated in Cody mounting a deliberate (and ultimately successful) campaign to steal Ezra's fiancee Ruth from him and marry her himself.

So as we haul ourselves back toward the nominal "present" of the book's timeline, we find Cody and Ruth and their teenage son Luke moving around the country following Cody's job, during the course of which he's been temporarily immobilised following an industrial accident. This makes him even more irascible than usual, and Luke decides to escape by hitch-hiking his way to Baltimore and Ezra's restaurant. Meanwhile Jenny is on her third marriage, this one to a jolly beardy type with six kids of his own (to add to her teenage daughter). Ezra has moved on from working for Mrs. Scarlatti at her restaurant to owning and running it after her death (so it's The Scarlatti Inheritance, hahaha) as well as changing the name from Scarlatti's to The Homesick Restaurant. There's a running joke about how over the years he's attempted to organise several family reunion meals at the restaurant but all of them have ended in disaster and in people storming out early for one reason or another.

So, anyway, Pearl eventually dies and the family gathers in Baltimore for the funeral and the obligatory meal at the restaurant. They are unexpectedly joined by their absent father Beck Tull, who shows up and re-introduces himself at the funeral, and is invited along for the meal. Maybe this will be the one where the whole family (Pearl aside, obviously) will stick around until the end?

It's odd reading this straight after Infinite Jest, the two being polar opposites in many ways - Infinite Jest all flamboyant metafictionalism and archness and verbosity, this (like all Tyler's work) all restraint and apparent narrowness of scope and ambition. I say "apparent" because there's a bit more depth and subtlety here than it at first appears, and in any case as I said in this previous Tyler review making this all seem effortless takes more, well, effort than you might think.

I've read a couple of articles which say that this is Tyler's favourite of her own books - my personal view is that I didn't enjoy it quite as much as A Patchwork Planet, partly because the central characters (i.e. the Tulls) are less interesting than A Patchwork Planet's central character, and partly because even less actually happens, outside of flashbacks anyway, which I deem not to count since that stuff has already happened by the time the novel starts (I realise this is a highly dubious and probably meaningless distinction). I do also think that Tyler is one of those novelists where (unless you're particularly obsessive) you probably don't need to read the whole oeuvre, because the level of variation is fairly low. None of which is intended as criticism, particularly, as I enjoyed it; it's hard not to enjoy an Anne Tyler novel. My slight chafing for something unexpected to happen or for someone to suddenly say FUCK is probably just the residual effects of reading Infinite Jest immediately beforehand.

Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 (Alice Walker's The Color Purple won it that year). Tyler was nominated again for The Accidental Tourist in 1986 - one of her most famous books, largely owing to the 1988 film adaptation - before eventually winning with Breathing Lessons in 1989.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Miranda's resident comedy love interest and eye candy for the ladies Tom Ellis, and French loose cannon and one-man rugby calamity factory Frédéric Michalak.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

it's a knockout, except when it isn't

One of the things I quite like about the World Matchplay Championship that's currently underway in Arizona is how straight knockout tournaments like this one fuck with the American idea of how sport is meant to work, i.e. that it should be driven by, and be a less-important adjunct to, the relentless selling of stuff, principally the sponsors' products.

After all, what sane corporate executive would design a tournament where Tiger Woods could go out in the first of the six rounds? And not only Woods, but his successors as world number one Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, and Luke Donald in round two as well. I mean, Stricker, Garrigus, Kuchar, these are all solid guys, you know, and your very own Poulter and McDowell, but they're not really going to play in Peoria. I think we need to get the marketing guys on this one and see if we can work Tiger back in somehow. Maybe a kind of plate contest/repechage kind of thing, leading to a lengthy series of end-of-tournament play-offs which last until we get the winner the guys on the board wanted all along.

It is of course true that (sticking with golf for the moment) your more standard four-day 72-hole strokeplay tournaments can be won by unexpected people - who would have foreseen the Elephant Man winning the recent Northern Trust Open, for instance? - but in general the format does tend to flatten out the unexpected stuff a bit. Obviously the major tennis tournaments work in the same knockout-y way, but I would suggest that the pool of potential winners there is much smaller, particularly for the men, so the scope for big upsets for the top seeds in the early rounds is lower. I'm not going to do the legwork and calculate how many of the recent men's Grand Slams have featured, let's say, at least two of the big four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray) in the semi-final line-up, but I imagine it might be a while back before you find one that didn't.

There are many weaselly ways of wringing out as much money as possible from a sporting event, almost always at the expense of what you might call the "purity" of the sport, and, more importantly, good sense. The classic one is to have what you advertise as a season-long league contest, run it as one for the first 99% of the season, and then piss all over the value of all that by having a contrived "play-off" thing, just so you can have the whole thing culminate in some sort of Grand Final at the end. Leagues, after all, are sometimes won before the last day of the season, and sometimes the vital points are gained in games not featuring two of the top teams, or even on a day when the winning team don't actually have a game at all! How you work out where and when for Justin Timberlake to whap one of Janet Jackson's tits out and jiggle it about under such a system doesn't bear thinking about. The Aviva Premiership (i.e. English rugby union) has worked this way for ten years or so now, and the slightly more complex FedEx Cup play-off series that follows the main golf season on the PGA tour is basically the same thing.

The other seemingly compulsory thing for team events that work this way is to adopt some sort of ludicrous team name. It's not sufficient for your team name simply to reflect the name of your local area, hell no. It's got to have some other meaningless bit attached to the end. of it. Now this isn't just some reflexive anti-Americanism, because I'm aware that this is an American thing, and in its original form allowed teams to have meaningful "nicknames" that eventually became part of the official name, and that's all fine: Boston Red Sox, Houston Oilers, Dallas Cowboys, etc. etc. It's a bit silly, but I'm not complaining. Requiring a suffix to your team's place-name and then just making up any old shit entirely unrelated to the place is very silly though: Sale Sharks? Sussex Sharks? I mean, sharks are cool and all, but that's just ridiculous.

I'm not sure I really have a point here, other than to say that money is usually a corrupting influence on sport, and in a wider sense Rupert Murdoch is a corrupting influence on pretty much everything.

Friday, February 22, 2013

electric halibut brackets mister brackets

Here is my theory, which, while not related to the brontosaurus in any way, is nonetheless mine, and I own it, and what it is too, and it goes as follows, and begins now: sausages and tennis are very similar, because they both come in two varieties, real and lawn. Granted the spelling isn't quite the same, but nonetheless I think it hits the nail on the head.

Continuing the Pythonesque theme, I've no idea what the motivation was for this article to appear in the Daily Mail today - probably a space that needed filling that there wasn't an obvious story about Kelly Brook or the Kardashians to occupy - but I don't think I'd ever fully registered that the satirical target of the Trim-Jeans Theatre Presents sketch was actually a real product that some people presumably actually bought and used. The mentalists.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

single to bumford mingeley, please

Needless to say this is very childish, but very amusing: an interactive map of sniggersome place-names from around the world. I presume a lot of these places share a similar set of problems, mainly tourists showing up to pose by the signs, chortle a bit and then bugger off again. Some people take souvenirs away with them; the inhabitants of Shitterton in Dorset got so pissed off with people constantly half-inching their sign that they had a new one made out of Purbeck stone weighing a ton and a half so that no-one could steal it.

A couple of the place names listed here have previously made an appearance on this very blog, specifically Brown Willy in Cornwall, Wankie (now, less amusingly, Hwange) National Park in Zimbabwe and Lord Hereford's Knob in Herefordshire. I have also been (briefly) to Lickey End, as we got towed to the car park of the Forest pub there by an AA man after my friend Mark's car broke down on the way back from Birmingham Airport after a trip to Barcelona in 1997.

Obviously no list of this sort can be exhaustive; even the large number of UK entries omits the splendid Jacks Bush between Andover and Salisbury in Hampshire, and the painful-sounding Sherburn-in-Elmet in Yorkshire. It also omits to mention the pretty Somerset village of Buckland Dinham, unremarkable enough in itself until you notice that it contains a Cock Road, and that moreover at the end of that road is a pub called The Bell. So if one were standing outside the pub one could in a very real sense be said to be standing at the Bell end of Cock Road. I know this because my friends Jon and Emma live in Buckland Dinham, and the pub organises the annual Buckland Beer Festival, which I attended way back in August 2006 when it rained almost constantly. Just to prove the point, here are some pictures.

Monday, February 11, 2013

infinite text

Last one on this subject, honest, but just to expand on the unsatisfactoriness of page count as a measure of novel length, here's a few lists of the longest novels in the English language. Now this is necessarily a subjective sort of thing - for instance, do multi-book linked series of novels count? Wikipedia clearly thinks so, as its list has Marcel Proust at the top of it. Interestingly the lists all have different numbers of items (ten, sixteen and nineteen respectively) but the general rule seems to have been to keep going until you hit Infinite Jest, then stop, since it appears as the last item on all of them.

Clearly word count is the most sensible measuring criterion for book length, and since Infinite Jest clocks in at just under half a million, I'd say the "average" novel is probably about 100,000 words. I arrive at this number by the following highly scientific method: divide 1079 by 5, which gives you 216; add 20% to compensate for the absurdly small font, infrequent chapter breaks and relative lack of dialogue in Infinite Jest, and that gives you about 260 pages, which probably isn't far off a representative average-sized novel. QED.

Ideally there ought to be some sort of law that requires publishers to include this information somewhere, probably in with all the ISBN stuff and authorial disclaimers at the front. They generally make a point of noting which ruddy typeface it's in, for goodness' sake, so let's throw in a piece of actual useful data as well.

incidental music spot of the day

Underneath The Stars by Kate Rusby over the closing credits to Professor Brian Cox's new BBC series Wonders Of Life. Here are a couple of questions that occurred to me during the program and on listening to the song at the end:
  • Why is Coxy presenting a series that's ostensibly about biology? Having watched most of last night's programme I have to concede that there is actually more physics and chemistry in it than I was led to believe by the trailers, but still it seems like a pretty blatant grab for the mantle of the surely-retiring-soon David Attenborough. John Crace makes the same point at the end of his Digested Reads piece in the Guardian. Nothing wrong with the content, in general, though it all goes a bit We Are All Made Of Stars at various points, and a bit Carl Sagan at others (actually this is kind of the same thing), and Coxy still manages to find the time to stand around gazing enigmatically at things and into the camera a bit more than those of us immune to his doe-eyed charms would perhaps want. Just to illustrate that, the image below is a montage of wistful gazing at something just off camera - a lemur, a black hole, a black lemur's hole, your guess is as good as mine - from the covers of his three BBC coffee-table series-tie-in books. 
  • What is it with Coxy and Kate Rusby? Is he a fan? Or is it a coincidence? That's the second time he's used one of her songs, after Falling was used over the end credits of Wonders Of The Universe (both songs are from the 2003 album Underneath The Stars). Of course it could just be that she's recorded some songs with suitable titles and/or lyrics, but this tweet suggests that Coxy may have had some input into the music selections, and, let's not forget, music is his first love.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

jest one more thing

A couple of follows-up to the previous post, which I felt was getting long enough as it was without throwing any extra stats-geekery in:
  • the 96 days that the book took to read is comfortably the longest book-reading duration in this list, beating the 66 days it took me to read Sunset Song;
  • that works out at 11.24 pages per day, which is, coincidentally, broadly the same sort of page rate as the previous book in this series, Clea, so I haven't been hanging about, it's just a really long book;
  • this also takes the record for the longest book in this series from the previous holder, Until I Find You - as I've suggested elsewhere this doesn't tell the whole story though, as Infinite Jest is printed in much smaller print at 44 lines per page instead of 38 for Until I Find You. The footnotes are printed even smaller, as it happens, but just taking the main text as the benchmark, if it were printed at 38 lines per page it would be 1249 pages long. And that of course doesn't take into account that there will be more words per line in the original owing to the smaller font size as well;
  • Sunset Song retains the title of slowest pages-per-day rate at a sluggish 3.91 pages per day (258 pages in 66 days). I'm not sure what else I was up to at the time (August 2008), but it is just pretty chewy going. The only other book in this list that occupied me for longer than 50 days was The Name Of The Rose at 53. 

the last book I read

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

You might have been wondering what had happened to the book reviews, given their usual schedule of one every couple of weeks or so. On the other hand you might not be able to muster the energy to give even the most slightly tepid of fucks about the whole thing. Whatever. Anyway, rest assured they have not been abandoned or abolished; it's just that when you tackle a 1079-page book you need to set aside a bit of time in the calendar. More on this later.

So, anyway. It's some unspecified "five minutes from now" in the near future, or some parallel version thereof - hard to tell because in this future all the years are corporate-sponsored, so we have the Year Of The Tucks Medicated Pad, the Year Of The Perdue Wonderchicken, the Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment (in which most of the action takes place), and so on. There's a lot going on, so let's dive in and meet the Incandenza family: oldest sibling Orin is a former tennis prodigy, current American football prodigy and rampant womaniser, younger brother Mario is a strange stunted malformed creature who nonetheless finds gainful employment at the Enfield Tennis Academy in Boston, where the youngest Incandenza sibling Hal is one of the Academy's brightest prospects. The Academy is run by their mother Avril Incandenza and was founded by their father James O. Incandenza, who was also a maker of bizarre experimental movies, right up to the point where he checked out of the tennis and movie businesses simultaneously by putting his head in a microwave oven.

The last movie James O. Incandenza made before his messy self-inflicted demise was one called Infinite Jest, a film of which it's difficult to make a critical judgment because it has the unfortunate effect of rendering anyone who watches it a drooling semi-sentient vegetable who if left unattended will starve to death rather than tear themselves away from the screen. The existence of such a thing is of interest to various political groups, including the usual suspects like the US government but also various groups of Québécois separatists of varying degrees of fanaticism, Québécois militancy having become more of a thing since the US decided to make the north-eastern US states (mainly Maine) a giant nuclear waste dumping ground called The Great Concavity, much to the chagrin of the people in Quebec at its northern border, who have been subjected to some fascinating and gruesome genetic mutations ever since. One group in particular, the wheelchair-bound les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, bound together in mutual fanaticism by their love of Quebec and their childhood passion for a dangerous pastime involving jumping railway lines in front of trains (and presumably failing, judging by how they've ended up), are looking for the master copy of Infinite Jest (the only one from which further copies can be made) in order to use it as a terrorist weapon.

Just down the road from the ETA is the Ennet House drug rehabilitation facility, peopled by various disreputable and unfortunate types including giant Don Gately, so committed to his new-found position of responsibility at the facility that he's prepared to put himself in the way of a couple of blasts from a shotgun in its defence and spend a good proportion of the novel in a hospital bed recovering, and Joelle van Dyne, ex-girlfriend of Orin Incandenza, ex-muse of James O. Incandenza (and star of at least part of the unviewable Infinite Jest) and now wearer of a face-obscuring veil on account of being maimed with concentrated acid by her own mother. Like pretty much everything here, it's a long story.

Copies of Infinite Jest start turning up in odd places, les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents close in on both the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House as places where information about the missing master copy may be found, and Hal Incandenza's behaviour becomes gradually more and more erratic, ostensibly as a result of his going cold turkey on his increasing marijuana habit in order to avoid falling foul of compulsory drug testing. And so things build towards a climax - will the master copy be found? Will the wheelchair terrorists be thwarted? What is wrong with Hal? Why did James O. Incandenza kill himself? Surely these questions will be answered.

Well, no, actually things just kind of stop. It's one of those books where you think, about 30 pages from the end, wow, the author is really going to have to work fast to tie up all the loose ends before the end of the book, and then about 10 pages from the end it dawns on you that actually he isn't going to do that at all. How cheated you feel by all this (particularly after having stuck with it for 1000 pages) will probably colour your feelings about the book.

One might go on to say: yeah, but plot schmot, this is really a book about other things: the emptiness of modern "entertainment", the nature of addiction, be it to TV, drugs, whatever, and tennis. Wallace, a junior tennis prodigy himself, writes at great length about tennis (both here and in non-fiction vein, for instance in this famous 2006 New York Times piece about Roger Federer), but he's at his best writing about the grinding reality of drug addiction and depression, two things he knew about from bitter personal experience.

The novel's enigmatic ending has given rise to a whole swathe of theories as to where the various unresolved plot strands were going to converge, most notably in this pretty convincing analysis by recently deceased internet activist Aaron Swartz. It's perhaps significant that Swartz's brief synopsis of how the timeline would have continued contains more actual plot and action than actually features in the book. So what the heck does Wallace fill 981 pages of narrative and 98 pages of footnotes with? Well, there's a lot of describing stuff in minute and excruciating detail (echoing Nicholson Baker who likes to do the same sort of thing), lots of fractured timeline stuff (the book's nominal "now" is right at the start when Hal has his breakdown in the interview room and is subsequently hospitalised, most of the action takes place in what we assume is the previous year, and there are various further flashbacks into the more distant past), lots of stuff at the start that doesn't really make sense until you've finished the book and really needs to be subsequently re-read (a bit like the first chapter of Lolita), lots of dazzling erudition and wordplay. It scarcely needs to be said that there is probably an excess of words here - the 20-odd pages Wallace takes to describe the annual ETA game of Eschaton, a sort of cross between tennis and Risk, could probably have been boiled down to one or two without much trouble, but he was evidently too pleased with the idea to cut it off before he'd wrung it dry - and the whole thing has an air of being written by a man slightly in love with his own articulacy and erudition, and one who perhaps having started a book and had it grow out of control didn't really know how to end it and eventually just had to say: stop, enough. No doubt there is another metaphor for addiction and compulsive behaviour in there somewhere.

Something of an insight into Wallace's mental processes can be gleaned from this TV interview in 1997 (shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest) - it's in four parts, but it's worth watching the whole thing just to recognise Wallace's awe-inspiring articulacy and intelligence and then to start thinking, whoa, this is a guy who thinks about stuff way too much, to a degree that's probably not healthy. It's not totally surprising to learn, therefore, that Wallace suffered from crippling depression for most of his adult life, and, tragically, after an experimental break from his usual medication in 2007, suffered a particularly acute depressive episode and ended up killing himself in September 2008. He thereby brings the number of suicides on this list to four (at least, I haven't checked everyone), the other three being Heather Lewis, BS Johnson and Richard Brautigan.

Off the top of my head, the only other novels I have on my shelves whose page-count exceeds 1000 are Leo Tolstoy's War And Peace (1444 pages), Stephen King's It (1116 pages) and Richard Adams' Maia (1129 pages). It's good to do this occasionally, and Infinite Jest is a good deal easier to read than some of the stuff written about it would have you believe, for all its archness and self-referentiality and frankly absurd length, and it's mostly pretty good fun. I might go for something a bit more digestible next time, though.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

bloody valentine's day again

It had been so long (22 years in fact) that no-one really believed it would ever happen, myself included, but suddenly last week Kevin Shields casually let slip that the new My Bloody Valentine album, the follow-up to 1991's legendary Loveless, could be out in "two or three days". Given his somewhat flexible attitude to deadlines in the past this was viewed with a degree of scepticism by most, but lo and behold on Saturday a new website appeared where the album could be purchased and downloaded. And purchase and download is exactly what I've just done: 13 quid for a digital download which is happening RIGHT NOW and a CD which will be in the post in a week or two. The individual tracks are available on YouTube as well, but I would reiterate the point that this is music that benefits from a bit of volume and full frequency-range reproduction, so you may not get the full effect through a set of tinny old computer speakers. The only track I've listened to yet is the album opener She Found Now, which is a mellow yet distorted number very much in the vein of Loveless's Sometimes, which is in no way a bad thing.

The reviews I've read have been generally complimentary to a pantingly moist degree, which is obviously more encouraging than everyone thinking it was utterly shit, but at the same time you wonder how much rock critics who have been writing about Loveless for the last 22 years might have emotionally invested in the new album being good, or at least worthy of another 22 years of critical essays. We'll see.

So, as with Tutti Frutti and Whoops Apocalypse, now I have to find something new to fret about. So here it is: can we please have a follow-up to Neutral Milk Hotel's remarkable 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea? This couldn't be more different from Loveless, based as it is mostly around Jeff Mangum's acoustic guitar, plaintive vocals and frankly barking lyrics (apparently a lot of it was inspired by the story of Anne Frank, but it's far from obvious) with various odd instrumentation layered over the top. Actually the album this reminds me strongly of is Gene Clark's No Other, not because they sound particularly similar but because they share the same sense of having been made obsessively in a darkened room with no concern at all for what any other contemporary albums sounded like or what anyone else was doing. And they both feature as a centrepiece a largely acoustic 8-minute song (Some Misunderstanding there, Oh Comely here). In a coincidental parallel with the My Bloody Valentine story, Jeff Mangum has recently emerged from a decade or so of reclusivity to play a few gigs. An album next? Who knows.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

half an hour later you just want more lupins

On the subject of food, here's a strange thing: the most excellent pan-Asian restaurant chain Wagamama has a website, wherein you can do some browsing of the panoply of spicy delights on offer. You can even include or exclude stuff based on your particular tastes or the particular food-based ideology to which you adhere; just go here and click on "dietary menu filter". Wait just a minute, though....

....lupins? I'm not aware of a lot of Oriental dishes that contain lupins, but that's probably just my culinary ignorance. I expect they're delicious with a bit of soy and wasabi. I think you would be well advised to avoid dishes containing sulphur dioxide (strictly that should be sulfur dioxide, regrettably), though, since it is, and I quote, "a toxic gas with a pungent, irritating smell". You may, if you wish to, make up your own jokes at this point about the side-effects of too much spicy Asian food.

the knead for speed

Haven't done a recipe for a while, so here's a good one. Now this is bread-related, and I don't normally do bread, or indeed baking of any kind, owing (as I've said elsewhere) to the degree of exactitude required in terms of ingredient quantities, preparation methods and timing. Also, baking recipes tend to involve flour, and while I am a cook of wild and savage brilliance, I am also a bit messy, so the whole kitchen area tends to end up with a light dusting of white, as if it had been caught in a snowstorm.

This is very very simple, though, and doesn't require painstakingly exact measurements, plus it takes a matter of minutes to make and a similar number of minutes to cook (with an hour or so in between), so it's great.

Yoghurt flatbreads

You will need:
  • Equal quantities (by weight) of flour and natural yoghurt - I used 250g of each and that made about half-a-dozen decent-sized flatbreads. Plain flour will do fine, wholemeal would be great, you could even drop the quantity a bit and top it up with something interesting like gram flour or potato flour.
  • Baking powder - for the quantities above a couple of teaspoons will do.
  • Other ingredients - I just chucked a few black onion seeds into mine, but you could add anything you like: tomato puree, herbs, cheese, olives, you name it.
That's it, really. Chuck everything together in a bowl, mix it all together, finish off by giving it a bit of a bash together with your hands (you don't need to do much kneading, just make sure it's all mixed properly). Then just park it in a bowl, put a tea-towel over it, and leave it for an hour or so.

When you come back, rip snooker-ball-sized lumps off the dough, flatten them out with your hands (or a rolling-pin, if you must) and put them in a fairly hot dry non-stick frying pan (you don't need any oil) for no more than a minute or so each side. What you're looking for is something a bit more substantial than a chapati, but not as big or thick as a naan. They're best eaten hot as they will go a bit twangy when they're cold, but you can easily soften them up and revive them in a toaster even a few days later.

Monday, February 04, 2013

wotcher cock

Say what you like about corner-shop Spar mini-mart places - yes, people go in there in their pyjamas and slippers, but they're conveniently located and open if not exactly all hours then certainly a lot of hours. More hours than Waitrose, certainly, and in any case I'm more likely to have a sudden need for milk or bread at an inconvenient hour than I am to have a sudden need for lark's tongues or wren's livers.

My local Spar is particularly convenient, as it's quite literally just across the road. It is staffed by some slightly eccentric people, though (and customered by some slightly eccentric people as well, some of them in pyjamas, but that's another story). One of the slightly eccentric things they do is fling chummy endearments at people while handing over change, in that lovable proletarian way that makes uptight middle-class people like me uncomfortable and at a loss for a response - maintain a regal silence and be thought of as all hoity-toity, or weigh in with an ill-judged gor-blimey-strike-a-light-what-about-the-Arsenal-then-bunch-of-wankers-if-you-ask-me-I'm not-racist-but-I'd-send-them-all-back-I'd-pull-the-bleedin-lever-meself and just look like a cock.

Top choice among the terms of endearment on offer from the (almost exclusively female) staff at my local Spar are the ubiquitous (and regionally non-specific) "babe", and a word that could be "doll" but which is actually almost certainly "darl" (as in "darling"), which I think is a typically South Wales usage. All of which set me to thinking: there must be some regional pattern to these things. I recall having to take regular-ish business trips to Chesterfield a few years back, and the endearment of choice there was "duck", just as I vaguely recall it was when I lived in the Nottingham area as a child.

So here's a quickly cobbled-together regional terms of endearment map, with no claims to be comprehensive or indeed accurate, but just to illustrate the sort of thing that could be done with the appropriate research. As always, click for a bigger version:

It would be remiss of me to miss the opportunity to plug the still fascinating Strange Maps at this point; a tangentially related (in that it involves the British Isles - and yes, I know my map omits Ireland) entry is here - a map of the British Isles based on the distribution of first letters of place names.

Another map link shortly; firstly my ramblings about eccentric local supermarkets reminds me of the branch of Somerfield (it's now a Co-op according to Google StreetView) at the top of St. Michael's Hill in Bristol, next door to the legendary Highbury Vaults. In addition to toilet-related celebrity encounters this was also the scene for the following immortal piece of staff/customer dialogue, just in front of me as I queued up:
Vaguely Oriental-Looking Guy: Hello.
Slightly Eccentric Checkout Operator: AAAAH! WE MUST NEVER FORGET THE SAMURAI!
VOLG: Erm, yeah. Um - I'm not Japanese. 
SECO: Oh, right. Three forty-six please. 
Comedy gold. Anyway, this other map: in similar vein to the ones linked here, here's an excellent spoof London Underground map illustrating the secret to writing a story for the Daily Mail. The associated article is here.