Thursday, August 10, 2017

the last book I read

Sweet Caress by William Boyd.

Amory Clay has had a decent enough start in life, born into a pretty privileged upper-class family a few years before the start of World War I. Every family has its little challenges, though, and Amory's comes after the war's conclusion when her father, psychologically scarred by his experiences in a way that no treatment available at the time could have helped with, attempts to kill himself and her by driving his car into a lake.

As it happens, both Amory and Dad survive this experience, at least partly owing to Dad's poor planning in driving into a relatively shallow lake. Dad gets carted off to an institution in the wake of the incident and Amory spends a lot of time with her uncle Greville. Greville is a society photographer and the process of taking Amory under his wing includes taking her on as his assistant for various pretty tedious photo assignments with minor members of the aristocracy at society balls and the like. Amory demonstrates something of a natural aptitude for this and is soon entrusted with solo photography duties for some of the lower-ranking flappers and debutantes, while Greville hangs out at the parties, does a bit of schmoozing and tries to snag assignments with more exciting clients like the Prince of Wales.

Amory decides that she wants to pursue photography as a career, something Greville is happy to help out with by funding a trip to Berlin to get some secret photos of the furtive goings-on in the various late-night cabaret clubs. Greville also arranges the use of some gallery space on Amory's return to display the pictures, but they turn out to be a bit eye-watering for delicate late-1920s London sensibilities and something of a scandal ensues.

Amory finds it difficult to get work, until out of the blue she is offered a job with an American photo agency by its editor, Cleveland Finzi, who later becomes her lover. This first trip across the Atlantic is the start of a whole series of globe-trotting adventures, including some hair-raising ones as a war photographer during World War II. It's towards the end of the war that she meets Sholto Farr, a dashing military officer who just happens to also be the earl of some great tract of Scottish land. So Amory gives up the old photographing game (hardest game in the world, the old photographing game) for a while and devotes herself to being Lady Farr of Auchtermuchty (or something) and rather unexpectedly giving birth to twin girls - unexpectedly because she'd been given to understand that she was infertile after receiving a brutal kicking at the hands (well, feet) of some of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts while on an undercover photo assignment at one of their rallies in the mid-1930s.

Domestic bliss doesn't last, though, as it soon becomes apparent that the family pile has some crippling maintenance and repair bills that there isn't really the money to pay, and that one of the reasons there isn't any money is that Sholto (traumatised, like Amory's father, by his wartime experiences) is a raging alcoholic who has gambled away significant chunks of the family fortune in drunken visits to various London clubs. Moreover he hasn't been organised (or, to put it another way, sober) enough to get round to writing Amory into his will, so when he dies his first wife inherits the estate. Amory isn't actually too bothered about losing Castle Anthrax but does insist on being provided with somewhere to live (which turns out to be a cottage on an offshore Scottish island, which suits her quite well) and an income to provide for her daughters.

Peaceful semi-retirement doesn't really suit Amory, though, and despite being nearly sixty at this point (late 1960s) she decides that she needs to re-experience the thrill and danger of war photography and wangles herself a trip to Vietnam. We've all seen Apocalypse Now, so we know that it'll be a strange mixture of hanging around seedy hotels in Saigon smoking dope and interludes of shrieking terror when Amory and the young Australian photographer she's been hanging out (and sleeping) with head off on an ill-advised unsupervised jaunt up-country and get shot at by snipers. Amory gets some splendid photographs but quickly decides that she's too old for this shit and heads back home.

On her return she discovers that her daughter Blythe has taken up with some charismatic American guy and headed off to California to join his cult. So she heads off over there, with no especially clear idea about what she's going to do when she gets there, and sure enough Blythe, though a bit thin, insists that she's perfectly happy and in no need of rescuing. So Amory heads back to her Scottish island home and settles, happily this time, into retirement. The only fly in the ointment is the progressive neurological disorder she's been diagnosed with, something which makes her consider carefully the circumstances of her own death and ensure that she has the means at her disposal to bring it about at a time of her choosing.

The first thing to say about Sweet Caress is that it's a successor to Boyd's other two faux-biographical epics The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, though both of those had male protagonists. I'd like to think that the reason I don't think Sweet Caress is as good as either of those isn't just because Amory is a woman, although I suppose it might be a combination of that and Boyd being a man, cross-gender protagonists (in either direction) being notoriously hard to get right. Possibly for this reason it's hard to divine Amory's motivation for some of the things she does; you'd assume that a female photographer, especially an occasional war photographer (someone like Lee Miller, say), would be driven by an unstoppable urge to see and document what was happening, particularly in the face of the wall of institutional male bullshit that would have been placed in her way, but you never really get that impression from Amory, who seems to drift haphazardly into things.

The other problem here is one that's presented as a virtue, the interspersing throughout the text of various "found" photographs from Boyd's own collection, presented as examples of Amory's work. You can see how this must have seemed like a great idea, and an interesting extra challenge in constructing a novel - do you search for a picture that fits a narrative you've already written, or construct a bit of narrative specifically to enable the inclusion of an arresting image? - but it just seemed like a distraction to me. Once you know that these are real pictures you drift into wondering who they really are, and in any case while they're perfectly serviceable candid snaps none of them suggests a quality that could plausibly be the work of an internationally-known photographer.

The framing device (Amory's journal entries written in her Scottish cottage in the late 1970s) seem a bit tacked-on as well: you can see the point of this when the main body of the novel is written from the viewpoint of a different character (as in Birdsong, say), but since the main text is presented as being written, in the past tense, by Amory, it's difficult to tell the sections apart or see what the point of the occasional journal entries was, other than to tee up the last chapter where Amory contemplates a large whisky and an overdose of pills while jotting journal notes.

Enough quibbling: Boyd is incapable of writing an uninteresting book, and this is highly readable and I skipped through its 450 pages pretty quickly (being on holiday for a week helped). It'd be true to say, though, that I'd recommend quite a few other Boyds more highly, including most of the ones in this list, as well as Brazzaville Beach - still the best one, I think, although it was also the first one of his I read, so it's impossible to be objective. Note that Brazzaville Beach has a wholly engaging female protagonist, so it can be done.

Monday, August 07, 2017

the holiday delusion

We went on a brief holiday to Pembrokeshire a couple of weeks ago - a week in a cottage that I see from this post we'd previously stayed in in May 2010, back in the glory glory days of NO KIDS. Ah, memories. No, obviously kids are great, and ours are particularly awesome, but it must be said that there's less chance of ending up in Haverfordwest A&E on a wet Wednesday morning with a 2-year-old with a chest infection if you've taken the precaution of not having any kids yet.

But you don't want to hear about that. What you'll want to hear about is my habit of trawling through the bookshelves in holiday cottages to see what books have been made available for the casual holiday reader. I theorise that there are two main categories of holiday cottage book collection: firstly just the books that happen to be in the house anyway, perhaps from when the owners use the place themselves in gaps in the booking schedule, and secondly a collection specifically tailored to offer something for the bored holidaymaker who hasn't brought enough reading matter with him and therefore needs something to divert him on a rainy day. So there'll be a smattering of Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, maybe a couple of Lee Childs or a Norah Roberts or two for the ladies.

Obviously I am not such a fucking idiot as to go on holiday and not take enough books. Nonetheless I find it interesting to snoop around the bookshelves to see what's there, particularly if I detect that we're dealing with Holiday Cottage Book Collection Type A, as I like to call it, i.e. the more organically-accumulated stuff that's just there and presented with a take-it-or-leave-it shrug as if to say: these are our books. Deal with it.

As it happens the book collection at this particular cottage contains quite an eclectic mix of stuff, but a theme does start to emerge on closer perusal of the shelves. The first thing that caught my eye was this:


I'm sure that, like me, your initial reaction is to scoff and assume this is another collection of complaints about people not being able to wear giant dangly crucifixes while dispensing foodstuffs and the like, but apparently it's a more respectable scholarly work than that and more concerned with actual oppression involving actual killing of Christians, which undoubtedly does happen and is profoundly to be criticised and resisted. Nonetheless its presence points to a general concern with Chistian matters. Here's what we find next:



We're in more niche territory here, in particular a concern with religious revivals including the two major Welsh ones in 1859 and 1904/5. That said, while the copies here appear fairly elderly, most of these books remain in print, or at least did until recently.

The whole topic of religious revivals such as these is a fascinating one, involving such interesting concepts as mass hysteria, but I'm afraid I didn't delve into any of the specifics, largely because it was obvious that all of these books took the more standard praise-the-lord angle rather than a sober anthropological examination. In any case I was distracted by the next two:


These two are more in the standard modern religious apologetics vein, it being pretty cool and groovy these days to admit the concept of "doubt", as long as (as I've said before) it's understood that this is merely a ruse to make your faith seem more complex and nuanced and provide the illusion that it's been subjected to some degree of critical thinking, rather than there being any possibility of your "doubt" leading you to say something like: whoa, hang on a minute, this is all ridiculous.

There is an absolutely astonishing amount of this sort of stuff out there; just follow, for instance, some of the "people who bought this bullshit also bought this other very similar bullshit" links from the Amazon page for the Andrew Wilson book. One of the things you will notice if you do that is that Wilson wrote another book called Deluded By Dawkins?, another tiresome addition to the long list of similarly-titled books written as a riposte to Dawkins' own The God Delusion, a list that also includes Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion, David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion, David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions, Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion and many more. I'm inclined to view these people as utterly mendacious scoundrels just out to make a quick buck, but of course they may be driven by a genuine zeal to (as they see it) refute the misguided arguments that Dawkins presents and save some of their co-religionists from being lured away from faith and possibly (depending on your particular set of beliefs) eventually consumed by the fiery fires of hell for all eternity. I mean, I doubt it, but then again that just reflects my inability to believe that these people actually believe what they claim to believe.

As an aside, it's not just religious apologists who have co-opted the "The [insert thing here] Delusion" thing as a striking title for a book. A quick trawl of Amazon reveals the following:
- and many more. I don't think anyone's cashed in The Delusion Delusion yet, but I expect it's only a matter of time.

Anyway, moving on. Philip Yancey is quite a big deal in the world of evangelical Christian books, and Reaching For The Invisible God seems to be a sort of manual for those afflicted by doubt - a textbook example of what I was referring to above, in other words. So Christians who are afflicted by doubtful thoughts about God - because, hey, sometimes, it's like he's not there at all, right? - can read this and find some techniques for keeping faith and reality from coming into dangerously close proximity. Again, look at Yancey's list of publications and it's astonishing how much mileage (and, presumably, money) there is in this stuff. I suppose when you're writing about something about which no definitive claim can ever be made (because, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no "there" there) there's pretty much no limit to the ways you can spin things.

Peel back the skin of a groovy 21st-century Christian apologist, though, and you quickly reveal the same old lizard underneath, however much hey, we're all sinners, right flannel you try to wrap it up in.

None of this means that you should avoid booking a holiday at this particular cottage (in fact you should, as it's very lovely) nor that the owners are lunatics (we met them and they seem very nice), nor even that if you do go you should avoid reading the books, if that's the kind of bag you're into.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

amazing grace how sweet the round

Well, it had to happen sometime, and sure enough it eventually did on the Saturday of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale when Branden Grace shot a round of 62, thereby expunging the long list of 63s from the history books.

In a way there's a pang of disappointment as the 31-strong list provided some nice analysable data for the stats geek, whereas a 1-item list doesn't. But the relentless march of progress sweeps on and we all have to adapt to it.

Note that just as the old list yielded a 24-7 split in favour of shooting a 63 and not winning the tournament, so the 62 list currently stands at 1-0 in favour of not winning. The old 63 list, now frozen in time for ever, can be found here. Here's the miniature table of (men's) major 62s that results from Grace's round:

PlayerTournamentYearRoundResultWinner
Branden GraceOpen2017thirdtied 6thJordan Spieth

One of the things that Grace's round does is instantly render all future major 63s frankly meh-worthy and insignificant, just as Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont in 1973 did for all subsequent 64s. So poor old Li Haotong who shot 63 the very next day may as well not have bothered, frankly; well, apart from the colossal amount of prize money it will have earned him anyway.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

the last book I read

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer.

Mehring (we never find out his first name, as far as I know) is a middle-aged South African industrialist, a sort of southern hemisphere version of Sherman McCoy from The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Bored of the usual round of parties and desultory sex with bored pampered middle-aged housewives, he impulsively buys a few hundred acres of farmland without any particular idea of what to do with it.

Fortunately the land comes with some native custodians who keep things ticking over on a day-to-day basis, leaving Mehring free to drop in at weekends, stride around his fields pointing at stuff like he owns the place (which of course he does), bring his mistresses along for a bit of adventure and generally play at being the gentleman farmer.

Reality intervenes one day when Jacobus, Mehring's farm foreman, discovers a mysterious dead body in one of the fields. A black man, pretty clearly murdered, but the authorities seem strangely reluctant to get involved, so Mehring and his men end up burying the body where it was found with minimal ceremony.

The timelines are a bit fractured here, so we get a few flashbacks to, among other things, Mehring's relationship with his son, Terry, a floppy-haired barefoot fop who Mehring regards with a mixture of disappointment and suspicion, Mehring's former relationship with Terry's mother, and Mehring's former relationship with a girlfriend whose radical views brought her into conflict with the authorities and resulted in her having to leave the country. It's probably worth pointing out at this point that the book was published in 1974 and therefore represents the old South African apartheid regime, something that seems unimaginably distant now in these Rainbow Nation days.

A series of natural disasters befalls the farm: firstly a drought resulting in some localised fires which destroy some crops, and then later sever flooding which wash away some of the topsoil in the fields and expose the remains of the murdered man buried there. As Mehring contemplates having to flee the country himself following an ill-advised encounter with a coloured woman (probably, we're invited to assume, a set-up), Jacobus and the other custodians of the farm give the un-named victim a more formal burial.

Like a few other books in this series, the fractured timeline, limited clues as to whose head we're occupying at any given time or when the events being described are supposed to have happened in the overall span of time covered by the book make some demands on the reader, and some might find that unpalatable. I certainly found the other Gordimer I've read, The House Gun, to be a much easier proposition in terms of keeping up with what was going on.

Gordimer can pretty much do what she likes (or rather could, since she died in , though, by virtue of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and the Booker Prize for this book (in 1974, shared with Stanley Middleton's Holiday). A reasonably comprehensive list of Nobel winners featured on this blog can be found here. I would broadly agree with the opinion expressed here, which describes the book as "great writing, but not brilliant reading". It's quite tough going: the fractured narrative voice and timeline keep you working to keep up and as with any book whose narrative circles around in time there's a sense of not much conclusive happening: arguably, a couple of bits of severe weather resulting in some minor inconvenience and not much else.

Obviously the point of this is a meditation on 1970s South Africa, apartheid, and the role of the white man in despoiling the landscape and enslaving the native population. In that sense it's pretty effective, though I must say I enjoyed The House Gun, whose themes are much narrower and more personal, more. The fact that it's taken me over two months to read it should only partly be taken as a reflection of this: it's more a reflection of the limited time I have to read with our current childcare obligations. While having a shit and very occasionally in bed if the boy is asleep are the two main areas of opportunity at the moment, and neither of those allows for significant amounts of time.

The list of Booker-winning books featured here is still relatively small, and comprises (in no particular order, and with no guarantee of comprehensiveness) Midnight's Children, G., The Gathering, Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Sea.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

goose versus cock

A coincidental (or IS IT?) follow-up to the second half of the last post: my wife, who knows my penchant for chilli products well, bought me this bottle of condiment the other day - it is, as you can see from the bottle, sriracha mayonnaise. They have, disappointingly, missed (or deliberately spurned) the opportunity to call it what it's clearly crying out to be called, i.e. "srirachanaise". Other manufacturers of similar products have seized the opportunity with both hands. I can confirm that it's good stuff, though, a slightly mellower experience than the regular stuff as you might expect but still with a bit of oomph to it as a dipping sauce for, well, just about anything.

You'll notice that this is the Flying Goose brand, the same as my original bottle of sriracha (a few other Flying Goose variations are apparently available). As it happens this bottle has recently been finished and my new one (also purchased by my wife, bless her) is a bottle of the original Huy Fong "Cock" brand. So I thought a taste test might be in order.

You can see from the picture here that the Flying Goose sauce on the left is a bit darker and redder than the Cock sauce on the right. My initial taste impression was that the Goose brand is a bit richer, sweeter and fruitier while the Cock brand has slightly more of a chilli kick.

First impressions are that I prefer the Goose, but expect the Cock will grow on me (ooer) as I work my way through the bottle.

Monday, July 03, 2017

check out my monumental mason

I'm just about keeping my head above water blog-wise with the book reviews and the noting of notable things in the worlds of golfliterary death and people saying "cunt" on various broadcast media, but there's been a steep drop-off in the occurrence of blog posts dedicated to other, perhaps more frivolous, topics lately. There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly and most importantly we have a seven-month-old baby boy who occupies a substantial amount of our time, and secondly the ha-ha-here's-an-amusing-thought stuff and the hey-look-at-this-idiot-I-found-on-the-internet stuff tend to get posted on Twitter rather than here.

So here's an attempt at correcting that a bit, although it does involve some crossover with Twitter. Here's a tweet from the amusing Postcard From The Past account that I follow:


I was interested to know where the imposing building pictured was, and it turns out (via Google's clever image search facility) that it's the Scottish Rite Cathedral in Indianapolis, USA. Scottish Rite, it further turns out, is a branch of Freemasonry (splitters!) with, presumably, some key doctrinal differences in the rolled-up-trouser-leg, secret handshake and burying-your-tongue-on-a-beach areas. They also have an amusing and frankly baffling hierarchy of titles that can be attained, quite a few of which sound like slightly self-aggrandising euphemisms for one's Old Chap:
  • Secret Master
  • Intimate Secretary
  • Intendant of the Building
  • Knight of the Sword
  • Prince of Libanus
  • Chief of the Tabernacle
  • Knight of the Brazen Serpent
  • Commander of the Temple
I was intrigued as to why "Prince of Libanus" appeared to be named after a village in the Brecon Beacons, but it's more likely that it's a reference to the mountains in Lebanon from which the Welsh village also derives its name.

Anyway, join me as we dangerously train-surf from this train of thought onto another one travelling in a similar direction via Childish Sniggering Parkway towards Toilet Humour Central. Back in our university days my old mate Mario and I used to use the word "mason" as well as the word "como" as laboured euphemisms for the (itself inherently sniggersome) word "perineum", on the grounds that both can be preceded by the name "Perry". So one would arrive back at the hall of residence, throw oneself down in a chair and theatrically declare "phew, it's hot out there: my mason is awash" or "just been playing tennis; my como is in a right old two-and-eight". Indeed the perineum appears to be a particularly well-served area in terms of euphemisms; you wouldn't think people would need to refer to it directly that often, but evidently they do

I was reminded of all this the other day when browsing round the condiment aisle in Sainsbury's and discovering this product:


I don't know what sort of focus groups they fed the new name through, and I can see that there is a temptation to follow the existing convention of adding some product-specific prefix to the suffix "-naise" to indicate that you've stirred your product into some mayonnaise, but really it's hard to believe someone didn't raise an objection.

The inherent amusingness of the "peri" prefix in relation to Nando's is good comedy fodder elsewhere too, it seems.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

justin time for tee

Another major golf championship completed, and another round of 63 to report on. This one was at the US Open and was posted by Justin Thomas, a man with some previous form this year in posting super-low rounds after shooting 59 at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. That was in the first round of a tournament he went on to win, and his third-round 63 at Erin Hills put him a shot off the lead going into Sunday, but he shot a disappointing 75 to finish in a tie for ninth, thereby making the score 24-7 in favour of a round of 63 in a major not yielding a win.

The US Open prides itself on its reputation as the hardest major to shoot low scores at; it's therefore slightly surprising that three of the first five 63s (Miller, Nicklaus, Weiskopf) were posted at that tournament. Since then, though, there have been two in thirty-seven years - Vijay Singh at Olympia Fields in 2003 and now Thomas.

Thomas' 63 was of the long-putt-on-the-last-green variety, rather than the missing-a-putt-for-a-62 variety, as he achieved it via the fairly extraordinary feat of eagling the last hole, which measured 667 yards. I don't know off the top of my head whether posting 63 by eagling the 18th is a unique feat; I strongly suspect that it is. Slightly surprisingly Greg Norman's 1986 feat of posting a 63 by bogeying the last hole is not unique; Mark Hayes in 1977 did the same thing.

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
Jason Dufner USPGA2013secondWONJason Dufner
Hiroshi Iwata USPGA2015secondtied 21stJason Day
Phil MickelsonOpen2016first2ndHenrik Stenson
Henrik StensonOpen2016finalWONHenrik Stenson
Robert StrebUSPGA2016secondtied 7thJimmy Walker
Justin ThomasUS Open2017thirdtied 9thBrooks Koepka

A couple of vaguely contentious observations to finish with:
  • Erin Hills was the second new US Open course in three years. Now I know that Chambers Bay in 2015 copped quite a bit of criticism from everything from the quality of the greens (which were atrocious) to the unfairness of some of the run-off areas (criticism which could equally well be levelled at Augusta, but never is, because, you know, tradition and that). I think in general bringing new courses into the rota (which the USGA also did with Bethpage Black in 2002 and Torrey Pines in 2008) is a commendable thing to do, though, and something that the R&A could learn from with regard to the Open Championship. Course-wise the most revolutionary things they've done lately are to bring back some previously-used courses into the rota: Royal St. George's in 1981 (after a 32-year gap), Carnoustie in 1999 (after a 24-year gap) and Royal Liverpool aka Hoylake in 2006 (after a 39-year gap). They've done the same with Royal Portrush (after a 68-year gap since its only previous Open) for 2019, which I applaud, but what about introducing something new? Maybe an old traditional links course like Royal Porthcawl, or something a bit funkier like Kingsbarns? No choice would meet with universal approval but it would at least demonstrate the ability of the fusty old farts who comprise the R&A to think outside the box a bit. Some more food for thought here
  • Secondly, as magnificent as the two shots were that Justin Thomas hit to get on to the 18th green in two and give himself the eagle putt that he subsequently holed for a 63, it is somewhat ridiculous that he could go 3-wood, 3-wood, putt on a 667-yard hole. The discussion about golf equipment improvements and the constant increases in length that they bring is an old and hoary one and never seems to go anywhere, but most people seem to agree what the answer would be: specify some standard ball composition that all the pros have to use. Many people are wary of this, primarily as it might kill the golden goose of lucrative golf ball endorsements that the players currently make a fortune from, but, you know, they don't let Andy Murray bring his own balls to Wimbledon, he has to make do with what he's given. The obvious sporting precedent here is javelin-throwing, where numerous regulation changes regarding composition and aerodynamic properties of projectiles have been made over the last thirty years or so. Admittedly the consequences of doing nothing were rather more serious, involving members of the public being literally impaled in their seats, and the market of amateur javelinists wanting celebrity-endorsed products is rather smaller than it is for golf balls. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

election night special with david quimbleby

Hey, there was a general election recently. You might have missed it, so here are a couple of snippets. What I'm going to try and do is bring you a flavour of all the excitement solely through the medium of female journalists saying the c-word.

Firstly, in the grand tradition of many journalists who have gone before her, including Naughtie and Marr but many others as well, here's BBC reporter Ellie Price calling Jeremy Hunt a cunt.


And here's the BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg mangling the word "re-count". To be fair to her it was nearly 3am, about the time I was switching off and retiring to bed.



Tuesday, June 06, 2017

if only I could have dunmore to help

Generally, Electric Halibut is fair and proportionate and equitable in his dealing out of death - the last five literary victims of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut have all been over 80 - but just occasionally he likes to pluck someone younger to his icy bosom just pour encourager les autres. Don't get complacent, younger novelists. he says, this could happen to you.

Sure enough the latest victim, Helen Dunmore, was a fairly youthful 64, which makes her the third-youngest novelist on this grim list (Iain Banks at 59 is the youngest), and one of only five under 80 of the seventeen that are now on the list. Here's the latest list:

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d

You'll notice that Dunmore's curse was the longest to take effect of all, it being a little over nine years since the solitary book review, Talking To The Dead in March 2008. Your Blue-Eyed Boy remains the only other novel of hers that I've read.

She is also the third victim this year, which matches the three in each of 2015 and 2016, though of course the year is only half-gone, so it could be a massacre by December. 2013 is the deadliest complete year so far with four victims. Of course as time goes on and more new authors appear on the list the pool of potential victims increases, assuming that my acquisition of new authors to read books by outstrips the rate of their subsequent demise.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

celebrity lookeylikey of the day - junior non-celebrity edition

My two daughters are quite similar in lots of ways: both gorgeous (obviously), both fearsomely bright and articulate, both charmingly devoted to their little brother, both quite partial to my spicy Korean noodles. Equally, they are different in many ways as well. Some of these differences are probably the inevitable consequence of the order of their birth - Alys is probably slightly more shouty and assertive as befits someone who never had her parents' sole undivided attention and has always had to compete with her older sister.

It's fair to say that Alys is a bit more physically imposing than her sister as well - at two years old Alys is two inches taller than Nia was at the same age, and she's already only six or seven pounds lighter than her sister despite the three-year age gap. Nia is the graceful athletic willowy type, whereas Alys looks like she'll be more suited to the strength events like weightlifting or Graeco-Roman wrestling. Actually, a bit of research reveals that there is a type of central Asian wrestling called Alysh, so maybe that's the one she should go for.

So when they both dressed up in some fairy outfits that a friend of Hazel's had bought for them and posed for a photo I was immediately put in mind of Alys' resemblance to Mavis Cruet, the slightly rotund fairy from the classic early-1980s BBC series Willo The Wisp. This was broadcast in the classic 5:35 - 5:40 slot just before the evening news (which, in turn, was just before Nationwide) - the slot previously occupied by classics like The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers, as well as some more esoteric fare like Ludwig.



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

the last book I read

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

Our narrator, who may or may not be called John (he suggests, half-jokingly, that we call him "Jonah"), is an author researching a book about what some of the key players in the development of the nuclear bomb were doing on the day the first one was used in anger, at Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.

John's first person of interest is Felix Hoenikker, one of the principal developers of the technology that powered the atomic bomb. Hoenikker is dead, but his three children Franklin, Newton and Angela are still alive, though scattered across the globe. John corresponds with Newton Hoenikker and visits Felix Hoenikker's former hometown of Ilium, New York, but his research only really gets going when he gets sent on an unrelated reporting assignment to the small Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where it just happens that Franklin Hoenikker has been appointed successor-in-waiting to the island's dictator "Papa" Monzano, a delightful character given to keeping the population in line by occasionally impaling people on giant metal hooks.

These occasional impalements are usually for practising the island's de facto official religion, Bokononism, which despite being practised almost universally is officially banned by the government. Based on the writings of its founder, an Englishman called Lionel Boyd Johnson who found himself shipwrecked on the island, it's a typically Vonnegutesque mish-mash of cynical, fatalistic and occasionally baffling aphorisms, with Johnson aka Bokonon clearly intended to mirror cargo cult figures like John Frum.

It soon becomes clear that in addition to the atomic bomb, Felix Hoenikker also invented another potentially world-threatening device: ice-nine. This is a new form of water, solid at and well above room temperature, and indeed most temperatures found on Earth. A single seed crystal can solidify an unlimited amount of water if it comes into contact with it. It further becomes clear that the Hoenikker children have ice-nine crystals in their possession, and that Franklin has used his to parlay his way into the top job in "Papa" Monzano's government.

The shit really hits the fan when Papa decides that his terminal cancer has become too painful for him to endure, and checks out in spectacular fashion by swallowing an ice-nine crystal and being instantly solidified. There then follows a frantic attempt to dispose of the body (and that of Papa's doctor who accidentally freezes himself) and ensure that no ice-nine fragments escape.

Franklin decides that he doesn't fancy taking over as dictator and offers the job to John instead. John reluctantly accepts, but his first act as ruler - overseeing an air display by San Lorenzo's ramshackle air force - ends in disaster when one of the planes crashes into the sea-facing wall of the presidential palace and causes the ruined palace to disgorge its contents down a cliff into the sea. This includes Papa's body, and its contact with the sea causes the sea, as well as all rivers, streams and groundwater on the planet, to solidify into ice-nine, instantly ending almost all life.

A few stragglers on San Lorenzo survive and huddle together to eke out their remaining supplies of food and water. John writes a memoir - well, you've got to keep busy - which it transpires is the book we've just read. At the end his wanderings around the ravaged remains of San Lorenzo bring him face-to-face with Bokonon himself, and they contemplate the end of the world together.

This is the second Vonnegut on this list, after The Sirens Of Titan, and it's interesting to note that that earlier book also featured a post-modern, possibly even post-religion religion ("Church Of God The Utterly Indifferent") presumably intended to make various satirical points about more formally organised religions, and why not.

Both this and The Sirens of Titan are from the early part of Vonnegut's writing career (Cat's Cradle was his fourth novel, published in 1963), which I suppose really means stuff published before Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, the book that made him a major literary figure. As such it's a bit more linear than Slaughterhouse-Five or some of the later books. I don't have a problem with non-linearity per se but I do think this is better than the more self-referential later books like, say, Breakfast Of Champions, and indeed is probably the best Vonnegut I've read apart from Slaughterhouse-Five, which is fairly obviously The One if one is all you want.

I note that the plot device of having the entire population of Earth killed off apart from a band of ill-equipped random people on a tropical island was one he re-used for his 1985 novel Galápagos, although The Event there happened near the beginning of the novel rather than near the end. The device of having it be revealed at the end of the book that the book the main character has been writing, or struggling to write, is this book right here, the one you've just been reading, is one that's cropped up in a few other places on this list, notably The Medusa Frequency and Sweet Tooth plus quite possibly one or two others.

My mid-1970s Penguin paperback edition (see above) has an arresting image of an atomic bomb on the cover with what's presumably meant to be a crystal of ice-nine in the centre. Note that while the book the narrator is writing is concerned with the day of the Hiroshima bombing, the weapon depicted here is clearly based on the implosion-type device used in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later - the Hiroshima device was of a different design.

Here's a long rambling interview with Vonnegut in the Paris Review - note that I've also (belatedly) attached a similar link to the end of the Bridge Of San Luis Rey post.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

to cut a long story short

Just a quick follow-up to expand slightly on my point about short novels from the last book post. I knocked together a list of ones that I thought were worthy of strong recommendation from my personal archives as a footnote to this book post from 2008. I was also making a point about how perfect short novels were for film adaptation, so, just to bring things up to date, here are a few short novels (which I arbitrarily define as being under 175 pages, just to suit my purposes) which have featured on this list since Utz which a) I would unreservedly recommend and b) have been adapted for the screen at least once:
If you want further recommendations this is one of those things, like cat GIFs, pornography, and, almost certainly, cat GIF pornography, which is well-served by the internet, which loves lists. A quick Google for "best short novels" yields several lists with a variety of interesting stuff on, many of which are new to me. Obviously people's opinions differ, and there are some differences in people's definitions of "short" (and indeed "novel"), and some of the lists strive to avoid the "obvious" stuff like Animal Farm and A Clockwork Orange, so there's an interesting spread of stuff here.

Monday, May 01, 2017

the last book I read

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

The eponymous bridge is a fabled and ancient wood and rope bridge of Inca construction somewhere on the road between Lima and Cuzco in Peru. One fateful July day in 1714 it suddenly collapses, hurling the five people on it at the time into the rocky ravine below to their deaths.

All five had lives that were already linked and intertwined in various ways, but of course now they will be inextricably linked forever in jagged plummety gnarly death. A Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, documents the lives of the dead in an attempt to make sense of a seemingly senseless and arbitrary tragedy. Had the people on the bridge done things in their lives that warranted those lives being ended in that way? Had their whole lives been leading up to this pre-ordained point in some way? Through Brother Juniper's research we learn a little about the five victims.
  • Doña María, the Marquesa de Montemayor, grand lady about town and writer of long plaintive letters to her daughter who has made an advantageous marriage and headed off to Spain with her husband. 
  • Pepita, the Marquesa's companion, assigned to her service by the convent she was brought up at. The Marquesa and Pepita have made a pilgrimage to a local shrine to bring good luck to the baby the Marquesa has just discovered her daughter is expecting. It doesn't bring either her or Pepita much luck, though, as on the way back they are careless enough to fall off a bridge.
  • Esteban, inseparable twin brother to Manuel, also raised at the local convent, with never a harsh word exchanged between the brothers (who in any case converse in their own incomprehensible language) until Manuel falls unrequitedly in love with Camila Perichole, an actress, and agrees to be a letter-writing go-between facilitating the progress of her various affairs with the local viceroy, various bullfighters and no doubt a few others. After Manuel's death Esteban signs up to go to sea with grizzled old Captain Alvarado and is just running some preliminary errands when he takes a fateful short-cut across the bridge.
  • Uncle Pio, mentor and confidante to Camila Perichole but recently estranged from her after she contracts smallpox and withdraws from public life. 
  • Don Jaime, son of Camila Perichole, entrusted to Uncle Pio's care by Camila Perichole after he visits her and persuades her to let him take the boy away. I'll keep him safe, he says. Better steer clear of that bridge then. Too late.
Brother Juniper slaves away at his research for several years, coming up with various crackpot mathematical formulae to measure people's intrinsic worth. You can imagine his disappointment when the church declares his book heresy, and indeed his further disappointment when he gets burnt at the stake as a result.

The book ends a number of years later, with Camila Perichole, now presumably recovered from the pox, and later Doña Clara, daughter of the Marquesa de Montemayor, visiting the abbess of the convent where Pepita and Esteban spent some of their formative years and appreciating the simple goodness of their mission. Maybe there isn't a design to all this, and life really is just about bimbling along trying to be helpful wherever you can without any particular expectation of reward?

The first thing you notice about The Bridge Of San Luis Rey is that it's very short - at 124 pages only The Leaves On Grey and Bonjour Tristesse of novels in this list are shorter. Plenty packed into that short length though; after the bracing in medias res opening we get some concise back-story for each of the protagonists and a bit of philosophical musing from Brother Juniper about What It All Means.


Just as there's something joyful about getting stuck into a really long book, there's something very satisfying about a really good short novel; a miniature croissant and an espresso instead of the full English and an urn of builder's tea. And this is a really good short novel - not that you need me to tell you that, as it's on various Best Of The 20th Century lists (it was published in 1927), including the TIME magazine list we've featured here a few times before. It has also been filmed a number of times, most recently in 2004 featuring quite the cast, although by all accounts it's a bit of a snore-fest (despite featuring at least five deaths), so approach with caution.

The Bridge Of San Luis Rey also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928 - half-arsed research suggests that it's the fourth Pulitzer winner on this list, after Foreign Affairs, The Road and Independence Day.

[Update: here's a lengthy 1956 interview with Wilder in the Paris Review.]

Sunday, April 09, 2017

the last book I read

Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Phileas Fogg is having trouble with the domestic staff at his house. It's not, as you might have imagined, in Medomsley Road, Consett, but in Savile Row, London. Mr. Fogg has just fired his valet for some comically minor infraction involving the temperature of his shaving water, and has just agreed to hire one Jean Passepartout, a Frenchman of adventurous and exotic past who's just looking for a nice quiet, safe, methodical job and has heard of Mr. Fogg's reputation as a man of constant and imperturbable routine. Little does he know Mr. Fogg is about to piss on his chips in a fairly major way.

Mr. Fogg is a member of the Reform Club, and a strong contender for Most Phlegmatic and Methodical Man Alive. This is a man who has his days and weeks mapped out meticulously in advance, so a typical week might look something like this:
  • Monday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Tuesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Wednesday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Thursday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
  • Friday: slaking of filthy shameful lusts with a tuppenny-ha'penny Whitechapel prostitute
  • Saturday: CLEANSE THE STREETS
  • Sunday: Reform Club for roast beef and whist
So it's something of a surprise, possibly even to Mr. Fogg himself, when as a result of a fairly innocuous discussion at his club he finds himself wagering £20,000 on being able to circumnavigate the globe in a period of eighty days or less.

So much for Passepartout's wishes for a bit of a quiet life, then; Mr. Fogg returns from the club, rounds up Passepartout and with barely time to pack a few changes of socks and a giant bag of cash, they're off. Needless to say Mr. Fogg has an itinerary mapped out in advance, but it's one that has precious little slack in it. All goes well until they attempt to take a train across India from Bombay to Calcutta and discover that the middle fifty miles or so of the railway have yet to be built. Unfazed, Mr. Fogg negotiates the purchase of an elephant (plus someone to drive it) and the party sets off across country. Along the way they encounter a funeral party including a young widow who it becomes clear is to be tossed onto the funeral pyre. As phlegmatic as Mr. Fogg is this will not stand and a rescue is organised, culminating in the travelling party plus the widow, Mrs. Aouda, escaping atop a galloping elephant.

Some complications: the party are being followed by a Scotland Yard detective, Fix, who is convinced that Mr. Fogg is a fugitive criminal responsible for a bank robbery back in London at around the time of the original wager. Fix's machinations mean that Mr. Fogg and Passepartout have to jump bail in Hong Kong, and then ensure that Passepartout catches the steamer to Yokohama but that Mr. Fogg and Mrs. Aouda miss it, necessitating a bit of private chartering to catch up.

Once reunited, the party proceeds on the long journey by ship across the Pacific and then by rail across North America. Things do not go completely smoothly and at one point they have to take a trip on a wind-powered sledge to get to Omaha in time to catch a train to New York. Once again they miss the scheduled ship and have to resort to chartering one, again, which takes them to Ireland, from where they have to travel by train to Dublin and thence by ferry to Liverpool, where Fix (who has tailed them the whole way) promptly has them arrested on suspicion of the original robbery. It soon transpires that the real robber has been caught and Mr. Fogg is free to go, but by this time he has missed the train to London (this being the last day of his appointed eighty days). He makes his way there as quickly as possible but arrives after the agreed hour, thus losing the wager.

Mr. Fogg retires to his rooms in a state of despair, ruined by the result of the wager, and contemplating doing the decent thing with the old service revolver. Some consolation is provided by Mrs. Aouda declaring her love for him and proposing marriage. But what will they live on? Fortunately for all concerned, Passepartout, while out making some arrangements for the marriage, happens to glance - WAIT A MINUTE - at the calendar and see that the date is a day earlier than he or Mr. Fogg thought. Cue a final mad dash back to the house and thence to the Reform Club to claim victory and flipping great wodges of cash.

This is one of those books it's hard to offer an opinion on, since it's so firmly embedded in popular culture. It's an enjoyable adventure romp which scoots by at a breathless pace, since there's barely 200 pages to encompass eighty days' worth of travel - though of course lots of it (the 20-odd days of voyage across the Pacific, for instance) is pretty uneventful. I think it's fair to say there's a bit of sly satire of national stereotypes going on here as well - Phileas Fogg the hyper-organised, meticulous, emotionless, buttoned-up Englishman who appears to have no inner life at all (he is, for instance, entirely uninterested in taking in any of the sights during the journey, preferring to mechanically tick off milestones in his itinerary), and Passepartout the impulsive, passionate Frenchman.

The central plot point here, of course, is the main characters' obliviousness to having crossed the International Date Line during their crossing of the Pacific - well, in fact no such official construct existed at the time the novel was written, but nonetheless if you travelled completely around the world you would find yourself having to adjust your calendar on your return. The idea that a man as meticulous as Fogg wouldn't have been aware of this before setting off, or that he and his party would not have become instantly aware of it on landing in San Francisco (which operated on the same calendar as London) is clearly absurd. The central premise of Fogg impulsively making the bet in the first place seems utterly incongruous as well - having spent most of the first couple of chapters being told how utterly predictable Fogg is we are then required to believe that he would volunteer to drag himself literally around the world just on the basis of a discussion over the papers in a gentleman's club. None of that makes it anything less than highly enjoyable to read, of course.

You'll notice my Oxford World's Classics edition features Wallace & Gromit on the cover - I'm not entirely sure why, to be honest, except that it was part of the South West Great Reading Adventure which formed part of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

not the face!

You might recall this fun bit of face-recognition software from a couple of years back that purported to tell you how old you looked. I was pretty sure I'd done a blog post about it at the time, but I can't find it now, so I may have just bunged a picture up on Facebook or something. Emma seems to have tested it far more exhaustively than I did, anyway. Just to check that link was still active I gave it an old Facebook profile picture (which I actually think is quite a good photo of me, taken in a beachfront ice-cream shop in Barry Island); I think I would have been 43 at the time so the result was quite gratifying, if unspectacular.


There now appears to be another link doing the rounds which allows you to upload a picture and have a piece of artificial intelligence tell you which celebrity face it resembles. As with all things this is a bit of a stunt to publicise some more serious AI development, but of course it's irresistible - who doesn't want to have it confirmed that they look like a young Paul Newman?


Wait a minute: Reid Hoffman? Who the hell is Reid Hoffman? Must be a glitch in the matrix; let's try a different picture.


Well, OK, let's have a look: Reid Hoffman is co-founder of business networking website LinkedIn and a billionaire. So what does he look like?


Well, clearly there are still some unresolved bugs in the software here - that appears to be a picture of some middle-aged fat bloke. Let's try again with a different picture - this one was taken in the Ernest Willows pub in Cardiff on a match day in about 2007.


Hmmm, well, it's different, at least. I've never heard of Michael Emerson either, but I expect Google can find me a picture.


Well, at least he's not as fat as the previous guy, though he is a bit more weaselly than I'd ideally have liked. It turns out I have seen him before, in the first Saw movie, and possibly here and there on TV as well as he seems to get about a bit. Let's have another go.


That is fairly surprising, though I suppose Michael Schumacher would have been photographed in sunglasses quite a lot, and I am leading with the chin slightly in this picture which probably makes it look a bit bigger.


This one (taken at Taupo Quads in New Zealand in early 2001) makes me wonder whether a) some sort of machine-learning may be involved whereby the algorithm recognises me as being the face from the previous picture and "remembers" that it offered up Michael Schumacher as a suggestion then, or b) whether it noticed the same tenuous resemblance as before and also spotted the four-wheeled vehicle,


Well, no four-wheeled vehicles here (this was taken a day or two after the previous picture after a trip down a hill in a zorb near Rotorua) and still with the Schumacher suggestions. Strange.


You'd think there must be some situational awareness being applied here, as I look nothing like Wayne Gretzky, but he is a man who must appear in a lot of photos featuring snow, ice and woolly hats.


Ah, fuck off with your Reid Hoffmans.


Marc Benioff is another internet entrepreneur, founder of cloud computing company Salesforce. I'm being generous with the picture as it was the only one I could find where he was wearing glasses. Also, he's fat! And he has a beard!


Time to stop depressing myself and try something different. Who does my elder daughter look like? Note that this picture was taken nine months or so ago (in a softplay area at Bluestone), before she did a faceplant onto the school playground and knocked out half of one of her front teeth and bruised the other one. So all the current searches would probably come back with Shane MacGowan or something. Uploading a photo where full dental integrity was still intact yields the following:


It turns out Angus T Jones is the kid from Two And A Half Men, which I've seen about five minutes of ever. I assume that the resemblance is supposed to be two the clean-cut kid version, rather than the straggly-bearded religious nutter he later became.