Monday, November 13, 2017

break on theroux to the other side

One thing I forgot to mention in the last book review was that Barefoot In The Head is full of allusions to the mystical writings and teachings of GI Gurdjieff and his acolyte and collaborator PD Ouspensky and various associated concepts (kundalini, for instance). None of it makes much sense, to be honest, but that's scarcely surprising since a) precious little of the rest of the book makes any sense anyway and b) the original teachings are a nonsensical mish-mash of stuff stolen from various religions and mixed with a bit of more up-to-date 20th-century self-actualisation bullshit.

One thing I did note on doing a bit of further reading was that Gurdjieff's concept of an enneagram (basically a bit of tosh involving a lot of bullshit numerology) put me in mind of the equally bullshit Scientology concept of an engram, a sub-conscious mental image of a traumatic event from a person's past which needs to be "cleared" before the person can achieve the same terrifying level of insight and mastery as, say, Tom Cruise. I don't think there's actually any etymological crossover between the words, and I have no idea if L. Ron Hubbard was influenced by Gurdjieff, but I wouldn't be surprised, because there are a lot of common themes of self-realisation through force of will and similar hogwash.

A couple of clips from the (still totally compelling and awesome, by the way) Cruise video were featured in Louis Theroux's 2015 documentary about Scientology which I (by chance) caught the other night.
I should say at this point that I'm not the biggest fan of Theroux's wide-eyed faux-naif approach to film-making, nor am I the biggest fan of the Nick Broomfield How I Failed To Make This Film  school of documentaries about thwarted documentary-making (and therefore largely about the documentary-maker rather than his purported subject), generally realised by attempting to get access to a figure or organisation who perfectly obviously was never going to agree to it in the first place.

That said, it turns out that Theroux's shtick is perfectly suited to what he ended up doing, which was wandering about trying to start conversations with the various packs of swivel-eyed numbskulls who were sent out to try and obstruct and disrupt his film, while, paradoxically, ending up providing it with most of its material. The bits where he hung out with Marty Rathbun and various jobbing LA actors trying to recreate scenes of alleged abuse by David Miscavige and others didn't really seem to have a point to them, other than to highlight the absurdity of the Scientology "tech" - basically a lot of shouting at inanimate objects. I mean, I myself shout at inanimate objects quite a lot, especially in the course of my occasional DIY activities, but I haven't tried to turn it into a religion.

A couple of quite interesting Theroux interviews (the first, absurdly, longer than the film itself) about the film are here and here. Note how Theroux is much sharper and less bumbly in real life than in the persona he adopts in the documentaries. Anyway, My Scientology Movie is a lot of fun, but ultimately just a series of episodes of amusing trolling of the religion, rather than a serious attempt to analyse it. If you want that you're probably better advised to watch Going Clear, released earlier the same year.

Going back to Gurdjieff, and sticking with the subject of films for the moment, the single fact about Gurdjieff that I knew in advance was his having possessed an absolutely tremendous moustache. Another absolutely tremendous moustache that's been in the news recently is Kenneth Branagh's monstrous face fungus in the role of Hercule Poirot in the remake of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express.

You'll note that Branagh's 'tache represents a considerable upgrade on the fairly neat and modest effort sported by Albert Finney in the 1974 film, a design emulated fairly closely by David Suchet in the long series of TV adaptations of the Poirot stories. The key consideration in remaking a whodunit, of course, is who dun it, and whether in remaking it you're going to mess with the original story in order to keep your viewers guessing. The answer here seems to be no, or not in any significant way, so if you remember the ending of the earlier film (and who doesn't?) then you're going to know how this ends, broadly speaking.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

the last book I read

Barefoot In The Head by Brian Aldiss.

It's the late 20th century, and there's been a war. So far so standardly post-apocalyptically dystopian, but this war was a bit different from your usual face-melting nuclear holocaust. Dubbed the Acid Head War, it culminated in some unnamed Middle Eastern state releasing bombs over parts of Europe that released aerosolised LSD (or some similar hallucinogen) into the air, thus sending the populations FREAKIN' MENTAL.

No immediate damage to infrastructure and all that stuff, but obviously people's capacity to use it in the designated responsible manner has deteriorated somewhat as they're all wandering around looking at the flashing psychedelic light show in their heads and going AAUUMMMNNNGGGHHH I CAN SEE THROUGH TIME. So there has been a general deterioration in society: rubbish piling up, lots of car wrecks on the roads, general breakdown of the rule of law, that sort of thing.

Into this bizarre world comes Colin Charteris. This is the name he has assumed as he drives up through Western Europe towards Britain, though in fact he is of Serbian origin (and therefore presumably originally called something else). We meet him making a stop-off at Metz; France was neutral during the Acid Head War and therefore escaped being directly targeted, though of course there's nothing in any international peace treaty to stop wafts of mind-bending vapour drifting over the German border or the English channel.

Charteris makes his way into Britain, and almost immediately starts to experience the effects of the gas (and presumably the tainted water supply): in the early stages this manifests itself as some weird time-dilation thing whereby he sees alternative versions of himself peeling away and taking other paths at points where decisions are made. He heads north, with no particular aim or destination in mind, and on the way picks up a rabble of assorted followers who see him as some sort of Messiah, for ill-defined reasons. He makes speeches at various impromptu rallies, as a result of which a larger group decides to head back south into Europe in pursuit of some equally nebulous final destination.

The group heads back through France and Charteris' Messiah status is cemented when his little sports car is destroyed in an accident but he miraculously survives! (It turns out he was travelling in another car at the time.) The group sets up camp and Charteris finds the time to impregnate his on/off girlfriend Angeline before they move on again into Germany and get themselves arrested, the Germans, stereotypically, having retained a bit more of a regard for The Rules even in the general lysergic haze.

The plot isn't really the point here, though, and just as well since it's pretty minimal: Charteris drives in a loopy (in every sense) route around Europe with a motley band of followers to no particular purpose until he winds up in Germany, where, we are invited to infer (though it's left very vague) that he is killed, thus confirming his status as a latter-day Jesus Christ. No, the point is the language in which the book is written: fairly linear at the beginning as we start off in relatively un-psychedelic France, but becoming weirder as the drugs get a grip and eventually ending up as a great fractured mess of puns, allusions, mashed-together words and general nonsense that seems pretty clearly intended to echo other experimental works like Finnegans Wake (which I should point out I have never read beyond the first couple of pages, and almost certainly never will).

The other very clear authorial echo here is of JG Ballard, in general for the post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying gardens and abandoned helipads, but in particular for the stuff about the fragmentation of time, and the odd fetish for car crashes - there's even a section where one of Charteris' disciples re-enacts Charteris' spectacular crash for the purposes of filming it, a scene that is mirrored almost exactly in Ballard's own Crash. I say "echo" but it's important to be clear about the chronology here: Barefoot In The Head was published in 1969, Crash in 1973. That said, much of Crash is an expansion and re-working of some ideas from 1969's The Atrocity Exhibition, so it's unclear who thought of it first or whether any cross-pollination of ideas was involved. The thing that's unique to this book is the interludes featuring fragments of poetry and songs that sit between the chapters. Some of these are no more than a couple of lines but do actually serve to break up the fearsome density of the prose, like a refreshing mouthful of wine between courses.

I've read a few other books by Brian Aldiss, most notably the epic Helliconia trilogy (now apparently available as one colossal 1300-page volume) but also Greybeard and probably a couple of others. All are good, but none of them are anything like this. To be honest, while Barefoot In The Head is a fascinating and brave genre experiment I'm not sure it really works. The best approach is just to luxuriate in the richness and imaginative sweep of the language and try to let the meaning seep in by osmosis - you can be reassured that fuck all actually happens anyway, so if a few passages are impenetrably baffling you probably won't miss anything crucial.

But, as I've said before, a bit of bafflement is good to keep the brain supple. And, moreover, having had this book sitting unread on my shelves for probably 25 years since I picked up a copy for (if the scrawl on the cover is to be believed) the princely sum of 15p it's nice to finally knock it on the head.

It turns out, completely coincidentally, that Aldiss narrowly avoided being another victim of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut, having died on 19th August this year. I think I missed that at the time, so I didn't know he was dead until after I'd started this book. Rest assured that if he had been still alive he would have been on borrowed time anyway once I'd finished it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

featuring songs by Nine Inch Nails and Skrewdriver

I'll tell you what fascinates me about things like the new Nick Knowles album (yes, it's really a thing, it's happening, and there's nothing you can do about it), and it's not, perhaps surprisingly, the prospect of hearing that nice gruff stubbly cheeky DIY chap off the telly reinterpreting some standards in his own inimitable style in the comfort of my own living room.

Here's the thing: record companies aren't mugs, still less charities, and they wouldn't offer Nick Knowles the chance to make a record just because he'd always fancied it; there'll be an eye on the bottom line and the calculation was presumably that there'd be enough people out there who'd go and buy such an offering that it'd be worthwhile expending the (presumably considerable) cost of production, studio time, photography, physical production of CDs etc. etc. But who are the audience, and why are they buying it? One of the things that makes us impeccably progressive liberal types objectively better than you right-wing authoritarians is, after all, an urge to understand the motivations of others, to try and work out what drives people to do things, be it ISIS membership, paedophilia, incest or Morris dancing.

This article about Bradley Walsh (whose debut album Chasing Dreams went gold in 2016) confirms my suspicions; i.e. that it's mainly older people who disproportionately (i.e. compared with younger people) purchase physical CDs rather than streaming or downloading stuff off the internet. That's fine, but even then, you have to ask: what do you gain from having Bradley Walsh singing Fly Me To The Moon, rather than, say, Frank Sinatra? Even if you're not down with the whole Amazon thing and prefer actually going to a shop, Sinatra records are readily available, so why wouldn't you just pick up a compilation or something? Presumably not even the most wide-eyed fan of The Chase would make the claim that Walsh's version is better than Sinatra's, so why would you want it? I'm genuinely not having a pop here, I'm fascinated by how utterly opaque the thought process is to me. Take, I dunno, Victoria Coren as an example: it's well-documented that I like her personally in all sorts of inappropriate ways, and very much enjoy her BBC show Only Connect for its fiendish quizzing qualities. But do I therefore say: I would very much relish the opportunity to hear her attempt some sexy, husky, yet endearingly half-arsed and amateurish covers of the songs of seminal female recording artistes like Carole King, Janis Ian and Nana Mouskouri? No, I do not, and I'm not sure why anyone would imagine that I would.

I should add that I'm not ill-disposed towards cover versions per se, but these celebrity renditions (and the albums are generally almost exclusively cover versions) are not radical free-jazz disembowelments and reconstructions of classic tunes for kazoo orchestra, Tuvan throat singer and Bolivian ear-flute; they're very close retreads of the originals, so as not to frighten the horses. Really what I'm experiencing here is the same bafflement I get when one of the Britain's Got X-Factors throws up a Susan Boyle or a Paul Potts or similar who immediately knocks out an album of "standards" in time for Christmas, because, well, it's that nice lad off the telly, and well, he tries hard, doesn't he? And he's very devoted to his Nan, by all accounts, so that's nice.

But by jiminy it's a lucrative line of business for the record companies. I remember Ian McShane (post-Lovejoy but pre-Deadwood) knocking out an album called From Both Sides Now in the early 1990s, including a cover of the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. That seemed to me a bit of a quirky oddity at the time (though it may not have been, in fact everyone was probably at it; Russ Abbott to name but one) but everyone's at it these days. The most cursory Googling reveals recent album releases from Jason Manford, Alexander Armstrong, the aforementioned Knowles and Walsh, that nice Anton du Beke off the Strictlys, and an album of solo piano material from impressionist Alistair MacGowan. Sadly this one appears to have been played straight, rather than being a series of hilarious comedy caricatures of the playing styles of Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz and others.

Best of all is TV funny man and erstwhile Eastenders star Shane Richie, who clearly takes his music very seriously and would like you to know that his thing is totally different from these half-arsed johnny-come-latelys (KNOOOOWWLES!!! *shakes fist*) who just knock out an album in time for Christmas - although his album is, as it happens, out in time for Christmas. I should point out that the new album's title echoes the title of Trevor Nelson's Radio 2 show which, when I first heard it trailed, appeared to my ear to be called Trevor Nelson's Cunt Rissole, which caused some brief confusion.

But anyway, what I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that I Just Don't Get It. Now there are plenty of wholly admirable mainstream artists with a wholly admirable body of self-composed and self-played material, but whom I nonetheless Just Don't Get in some fundamental way, Bruce Springsteen being one obvious example. But in general those who like Springsteen (and in my experience those who like Springsteen REALLY like Springsteen) at least started with the music, that being primarily what he does. The idea that they would therefore be very interested in, let's say, seeing The Boss present his own daytime DIY-themed TV show (Carpenters On The Edge Of Town or something) seems a bit odd, though I daresay there might be an audience for it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

the last book I read

The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

Fiona Maye is a maverick High Court judge. She doesn't play by the book, but dammit she gets results. No, wait, that's not right: she literally does play by the book, because that's her job.

Let's start again. Fiona Maye is a respected High Court judge. Imagine Ally McBeal after 25 years and some promotions, and without all the comedy nonsense. Although, given her surname and the similarity in ages, I immediately imagined Fiona Maye as looking a bit like Theresa May, although without all the comedy nonsense.

Fiona has a couple of problems. The first is nothing she can't handle: a tricky legal case involving a family of Jehovah's Witnesses and the usual bullshit about blood transfusions - in this case the not-quite-eighteen-year-old son has leukaemia and will almost certainly die without an aggressive chemotherapy regime that will require blood transfusions, and the parents won't permit such abominations because, well, they're nutters. Does she allow that the nearly-but-not-quite-eighteen-year-old is old enough to make his own decisions regarding his own life (and, implicitly, death) or does she override the wishes of the parents and allow the appropriate medical treatment to be given?

Less simple is her own domestic situation; her long and generally happy marriage to Jack has settled into a nice little middle-aged rut. Well actually it's the rutting (or relative lack thereof) that's the problem: Jack is still a man, dammit, and wants to have one last glorious shot at proving there's still some lead in his pencil by having an affair with a younger colleague, and sort of wants Fiona's approval for him to go ahead with the idea and then settle back into domesticity afterwards.

Concentrating on the legal case rather than her disintegrating marriage, Fiona pays a highly irregular visit to the boy, Adam, in his hospital bed, and they bond over a shared love of poetry and music. Fiona delivers her judgment; scarcely surprisingly she decides to allow the hospital to continue the treatment regime in opposition to the parents' wishes. Not long afterwards she receives the first of a series of letters from Adam, telling her how the treatment (seemingly successful) has changed him and how he's broken free of the influence of his parents and abandoned his faith. Some time later, Fiona is at a legal conference in Newcastle when Adam unexpectedly turns up in person, having walked a long way in the rain to see her, and informs her that he's had this great idea about how he should move in with her.

Fiona manages to fend him off, and returns home to the first tentative stirrings of a reconciliation with Jack. Her time is further occupied by rehearsals for an amateur music recital (she plays the piano), and it's after a relatively triumphant performance that she gets some disturbing news: Adam's leukaemia returned a few weeks previously and (now eighteen and able to make his own decisions) he refused all further treatment (blood transfusions and all) and died.

Like McEwan's earlier novel Saturday this one revels in the minutiae of high-status professional types going about their expert business, and, like Saturday, is perhaps a little too keen to demonstrate the depth of research that's been done. Some of the in-depth legal stuff in the early pages of the book, for example, is tremendously effective at convincing the reader that McEwan has done a lot of background reading, but not quite so effective at moving the story along.

There is just a sense of some easy targets being aimed at here - I mean, it's pretty well understood by everyone outside the organisation that the Jehovah's Witnesses' position on blood transfusions is crazy, incoherent and dangerous; we don't really need a heavyweight High Court judge to tell us that. What point, you might ask yourself, was McEwan trying to make by writing The Children Act? Religious fundamentalists are a bit batty? High Court judges have difficult decisions to make involving balancing multiple competing interests? Teenage boys with an obsession with poetry are a bit irritating? All true, but all things most readers will have known before picking the book up. There's just a suspicion that we're meant to draw some conclusions about Fiona's childlessness and the possibility of this having a bearing on her legal decision-making or on the way she conducts her relationship with Adam, but I'm not really sure what conclusions those would be.

I'm probably being unnecessarily harsh, as this is intelligent and humane writing, and less ludicrous in its plot development than, say, Saturday. In terms of plot comparisons to other McEwan novels one can't help but observe the parallels with Adam's obsession with Fiona and Jed's more dangerous obsession with Joe in Enduring Love. I'll just say, as I always do, that there's just a suspicion that McEwan's elevation to the pantheon of Greatest Living Novelists has stifled his output a bit, and that the current self-consciously "serious" stuff isn't as good as the earlier, darker stuff.

The Children Act was adapted pretty much immediately on publication into a film (starring Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye) - I think the point made in this review is a good one, i.e. that it's quite a static novel and probably would have worked better as a stage play.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

gold (GOLD!); never believe what you're sold

We're still in the grip of some pretty brutal austerity measures here at Halibut Towers, so the whisky cupboard is still fairly modestly stocked. There was a time, back in the day, when the corridors of Halibut Towers flowed with whisky and I used to bathe in it and have it on my cornflakes of a morning, but sadly those days are just a glorious hazy sepia-toned memory now.

The current cupboard occupants are two bottles which I acquired around Christmas and, as it happens, hadn't had before. So here they are:

This is an Auchentoshan, which is one of the very few distilleries still operational in the Lowland region - the other major one is Glenkinchie, which I had a go at here. Auchentoshan claims to be the only distillery in Scotland to triple-distill its spirit (though this is quite common in Ireland) - indeed its funky (and annoyingly busy and flashy) website carries the tag-line "DISTILLED DIFFERENT" so they're obviously pushing that hard as their USP. In common with a lot of distilleries, they've moved away from having an age-statement whisky (typically a 10- or 12-year-old) as the entry-level whisky in the range in favour of one with some vaguely-evocative name. So Talisker now have Skye slotted in under the 10-year-old, Glenlivet now have Founder's Reserve under the 12-year-old, and Auchentoshan have this one, called American Oak to reflect the casks it was matured in (i.e. casks that previously held bourbon). This was offered for £20 in (I think) Asda, which seemed too good to miss.

Secondly, Johnnie Walker Gold Label. There is, at least in theory, an upward hierarchy of label colours here that goes Red, Black, Green, Gold, Blue, muddied slightly by all the other special editions and commemorative releases. Obviously that doesn't mean that's the order of everyone's preference, because people are all individuals. Gold Label typically goes for £45-£50 in the supermarket, which is slightly more than I would ever wish to pay for a bottle of whisky (unless it's the size of this one, or indeed possibly this one), but back before Christmas they were knocking it out in Tesco for £30 a pop, so obviously I snapped one up.

Rather sneakily, and with reference to the stuff above about no-age-statement whisky, they've changed the labelling (and presumably also the composition of what's in the bottle) in the past few years (Wikipedia reckons it was in 2013, The Whisky Exchange reckon it was in 2012, take your pick) - its previous incarnation carried an 18-year age statement, which meant that all the whisky used in the blend was at least 18 years old. You can see, economically, why they might want to back off on making this statement, though as far as I know the Black and Green labels retain their respective 12- and 15-year-old branding, which brings the Gold Label's place in the price hierarchy into question (since, needless to say, the loss of the 18-year-old branding hasn't been accompanied by a drop in price). Further enquiries reveal that there is now a Johnnie Walker Platinum Label which does carry an 18-year age statement and slots in price-wise between Gold and Blue. Bewildering, isn't it? Look out for the 21-year-old Johnnie Walker Ytterbium Label in the near future, as well as the ultra-budget Johnnie Walker Yellow Label which is just a mixture of WD40 and horse piss.

In common with all whisky blenders, Johnnie Walker keep the exact composition of their blends a closely-guarded secret, but it is said that Clynelish is one of the primary constituents of Gold Label - that ought to be good news as I liked the bottle of Clynelish I had very much.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin': let's neck some booze. Here are two modest snifters, the one on the left in the Penderyn-branded glass being the Johnnie Walker.

You can see that they're not much different in colour - the Auchentoshan is a bit lighter, which is pretty much what you'd expect from something matured in bourbon casks. These tend to be the lighter, biscuity ones like the Glenmorangie and the Knockando. It's got a definite magic marker smell, the 'Tosh (as I like to call it), as well as something a bit like buttered toast, maybe with just a hint of marmalade. It's surprisingly "hot" for something rated at only the bog-standard 40% ABV, but that may have to do with the age of the whisky (no age statement, remember). Like a lot of bourbon-cask-matured whisky (AnCnoc, to give another example) it's a little bit polite for my taste, but perfectly pleasant. If we're talking Lowland whisky, of the two I've had I'd say I prefer this to the Glenkinchie, but I wouldn't want to swear I could tell them apart in a blind taste test.

The J-Dubz (as I like to call it) is much sweeter-smelling, but also has something a bit deeper and more umami-esque about it, a bit like the Tobermory did. Same thing happens when you drink it, simultaneously creamy and a bit vegetabley. Gratin dauphinoise, perhaps. Again, it's perfectly drinkable and pleasant, and if you want a winner from this particular head-to-head, this would be it. I couldn't say how it compares to the previous 18-year-old incarnation of Gold Label, but what I can say is that I don't think the current one is as good as either the Green Label or the Black Label. The latter remains one of my absolute favourite things, if anyone's struggling for Christmas present ideas.

Friday, September 29, 2017

the last book I read

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.

Binx Bolling is doing all right. Successful in his stockbroking business, nice little house in the New Orleans suburbs, a steady stream of secretaries attached to his business who also double as pieces of ass for him to chase, and all this when he's not quite thirty yet.

On the other hand, he seems afflicted with a sort of malaise that he can't quite put into words. What's life all about? What is all the money-acquisition and secretarial ass-chasing really for? The only things that seem to anchor him to reality are his affection for old movies and his links to the wider Bolling family, a bunch of crusty old New Orleans types, especially his aunt who views him with a particular affection, and his cousin Kate, who seems even more bewildered by day-to-day life than Binx and who is clearly suffering from what would nowadays be described as some sort of bipolar disorder.

Binx drifts around New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras, mooching around at his aunt's house, hanging out at his mother's place on the bayou, persuading his new secretary Sharon to accompany him on a trip out to the coast for a bit of mild hanky-panky (even though she seems to have a fiancé). We learn a bit about Binx's family - his dead brother Duval, his disabled half-brother Lonnie - and Binx's own history, most significantly his military career and involvement in the Korean War, some or all of which may explain his slight detachment from reality.

Reality soon intervenes, though: Kate makes what sounds like - depending whose account you believe - a fairly serious attempt at committing suicide by taking an overdose of whatever tranquilisers she's currently on, and Binx impulsively asks her to marry him and accompany him on a business trip to Chicago. They dash off together, without telling anyone where they're going, and on their return Binx is hauled in for a dressing-down from his aunt, who regretfully informs him he's betrayed her trust in an unforgivable manner by whisking a vulnerable, drug-addled, potentially suicidal young woman away on a jaunt involving drinking and sex and all sorts of cavorting, and basically that he should never darken her door again.

But is that fair? Or is Binx finally starting to grow up, confront his feelings for Kate, and take on the (probably onerous) task of caring for her and keeping her out of trouble? One of the ways in which The Moviegoer is quite clever is that you never know which of those interpretations is correct, or which one the author intended you to take away. Moreover, even though Binx is basically Holden Caulfield a dozen or so years on, he's a bit more self-aware and mindful of other people's feelings and therefore a good bit less intensely punchable. It's hard to imagine Holden Caulfield having the rather sweet relationship that Binx has with his half-brother Lonnie, for example. One of the best things you can say about an essentially plotless novel is that it lingers oddly in the mind after you've finished it; The Moviegoer certainly does that.

This is another book that will regularly crop up on "best novel" lists; for instance it appears on the TIME magazine list that's been mentioned here a few times before. It also was the recipient (in mildly controversial circumstances, and at the expense of some illustrious titles including a previous entry on this list) of the venerable National Book Award in 1962, so you can add that year to the list here.

Monday, September 25, 2017

let there be shite

This (via Pharyngula) is absolutely tremendous: a new film (called, in slightly oh-what-a-giveaway style, Let There Be Light and starring former TV Hercules Kevin Sorbo) featuring an angry (shrill, even) atheist who writes a book purporting to dispose of the God question once and for all, engages in various ranty pseudo-debates with theists during the promotional book tour and is generally mocking and obnoxious towards anyone professing any form of religious belief. Not sure where they got the inspiration for that idea from.

No, wait: it turns out that this guy's son died a while back and in the wake of that he's been (as well as being a hopeless alcoholic and just generally an arsehole) angry with God! Like all atheists, deep down, right? But when he has a midnight joyride around town while swigging from a hip-flask and ranting at Jesus (again, we've all done it) and drives into a brick wall he has an authentic near-death experience (because these are totally and actually a thing) with the white-robed figures and the aaaahhh-ing celestial choirs and his actual dead son and decides, as you would, that God a) exists and b) wants him to give up the sauce, reconcile with his wife (played, conveniently, by the real-life Mrs. Sorbo, so not too much of a stretch) and get out there and evangelise his freakin' ass off.

Kevin Sorbo has some previous in this area, since he also played a shrill and obnoxious atheist in 2014's God's Not Dead (oh what a giveaway, etc. etc.) - a shrill and obnoxious atheist philosophy professor, in this case, who challenges one of his students to argue in class for the existence of God so that he can tear his puny arguments apart for his own amusement but eventually (hold on to your hats) is revealed to be just angry with God about the death of his mother. Unfortunately it turns out atheists are not only terrible careless drivers but also terrible cavalier jay-walking pedestrians and Sorbo's character gets run over. No near-death experience this time, more of an actual-death experience, but not before there's been time for a last-minute conversion to Christianity (via a handy priest who just happened to be passing at the moment of, erm, passing) and therefore presumably also a last-minute avoidance of the burning fires of Hell for all eternity. Basically these are Chick tracts in glossy film form; God's Not Dead in particular seems to be substantially based on Big Daddy?. That one is mild as Chick tracts go; others are considerably more lurid.

The atheist (probably just angry with God, etc. etc.) caving in and converting to religion (or more specifically Christianity given the culture this stuff happens in) is something of a trope in the evangelical community, largely as a reaction to the host of real-life stories of people abandoning their religious beliefs. As I said here I guess we have to accept that there are people who make the journey in this direction, as irrational as it is, but the overwhelming bulk of traffic is going the other way.

I've saved the most delicious snippet until last, though. Let's go back to the more recent film, Let There Be Light, and try to reconstruct the editorial conversation that must have taken place when the writing team were trying to set up some convincing context for Sorbo's faux-atheist rantings. What book title can we come up with that will give our exclusively Christian audience the biggest frisson of thrilling outrage against the unbeliever, and evoke dog-whistlingly as many other traits as possible that that audience also associates with them? Obviously you've got to have the word God in the title, y'know, like The God Delusion, that's a given, so spitball me a few ideas here. Brett? Erm.....Felching God? Mmmm, not sure how that'll play in Peoria, Brett. Remember when they had to change the title of that Bond film because no-one knew what Revoked meant? Maybe keep the vocabulary a bit more mainstream. Chad? about Aborting God?

I imagine an awed silence followed, and then everyone packed up and went home. You have to say that within the bounds of the film's own internal logic it's absolutely brilliant. You should know also that not only is there a God's Not Dead 2, not starring Kevin Sorbo but instead featuring Melissa Joan Hart who has evidently given up the old teenage witchcraft in favour of evangelical Christianity, but that plans are afoot for God's Not Dead 3, in comparison with which being barbecued by the fires of hell for all eternity starts not to seem so bad after all.

Friday, September 22, 2017

headline of the day

I know there's much speculation about the composition of the squad for the upcoming Ashes series in Australia, and England have a few headaches to deal with with regard to batsmen, since they only really have two of their top five sorted out, which is not what you really want at this stage. So it's a bit unhelpful for them to be publicly wishing injuries on potential opening batsmen.

A bit of noun/adjective confusion here, of course, which makes this a classic crash blossom in common with many others noted on this blog (my favourite is this one, though strictly that one is noun/verb confusion).

Friday, September 15, 2017

the headmaster ritual

Last one on this topic, honest. The other thing worthy of mention in the box of old books was this one: Amazon Adventure by Willard Price. The series (of which this was the first, published in 1949) has cropped up tangentially in a couple of earlier posts - back in the day I owned at least a couple of others as well, definitely Underwater Adventure and Whale Adventure but possibly one or two others. In addition to the ones I owned I think I worked my way through reading most of the others, most of them probably from Newbury library. They're pretty good (though Hal in particular is a proper old Mary Sue), and there's lots of good zoological info in there related to the various exotic creatures they capture. These days I get my fascinating creature facts from Octonauts, incidentally.

Lastly, I've found another school prize book on my shelves. My school year was either the last or last-but-one year to take O-Levels (and, for some of the dimwits, CSEs) before the introduction of GCSEs in 1988. It turns out I was the recipient of the school O-Level Chemistry Prize (in what would probably have been 1986), which I think I'm right in saying is second only to the Nobel Prize For Chemistry in terms of prestige.

The book I appear to have chosen is Eyeless In Gaza by Aldous Huxley; my suspicion is that I may have chosen this partly for the small transgressive thrill of having the headmaster hand me a book on stage with an exposed (or, at least, translucently gauzily draped) nipple and arse on the cover. It's a "Gaza strip", hahaha. Oh, please yourselves. Speaking of headmasters, you'll notice that the headmaster's signature is different on this one from the one from three years earlier. Both signatures (the first one in particular) are amusingly illegible, so to clarify the first is that of Basil Cooper (universally known as "Baz" to his pupils) who was headmaster of St. Bart's from 1960 to his retirement in 1985, the second is that of his successor Robert Mermagen, headmaster from 1985 to 1994, and who apparently died in 2004 (I assume Baz is long since demised or he'd be about 200). Some history can be found here - apparently Mermagen's successor Stuart Robinson is still headmaster as of 2017.

the story of my life

Here's part two as promised. Another multi-part book series that I was well into in my formative years was Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, which comprised twenty books, of which I appear to own fourteen.

Wait a minute, you'll be saying, there are sixteen books in that picture. Well, yes, but if you look closely you'll see that Mystery Mine is in there twice. Interestingly (or not) the Armada edition in the middle of the picture is about 25 pages shorter than the older Merlin edition at the bottom. A flick through the first couple of pages of each reveals that some dialogue has been trimmed, presumably to speed up the narrative for late-1970s kids with their Raleigh Choppers and their Sony Walkmans and their short attention spans.

Wait a freakin' minute, though, you'll be saying, we're still one book over. That's because the barely-legible fourth book down is The Master Of Maryknoll, written by Saville but not part of the Lone Pine series. I can't remember much about it except that its missing-parent-accused-of-some-vague-misdemeanour-resolved-in-tearful-reunion-at-the-end story is somewhat reminiscent of The Railway Children.

The Lone Pine books I don't have a copy of are Mystery At Witchend, Saucers Over The Moor, Sea Witch Comes Home, Man With Three Fingers, Strangers At Witchend and Where's My Girl?. Of those I definitely have read Where's My Girl? and I definitely haven't read Mystery At Witchend; I couldn't say for sure either way about the others.

What I'd say about these books 30-odd years later is that they're a bit prissy (though not quite the full Enid Blyton), some of the characters are a bit Mary Sue-esque (David Morton in particular), the younger Morton twins were irritating characters even when I was in my early teens, and that by the end of the series there were just too many Lone Piners to keep track of, and that as a side-effect of that my favourite character, resourceful but taciturn farm boy Tom Ingles, wasn't in them nearly enough.

What they share with the more spooky books in the previous post, though, is a powerful sense of place, most of them being set around the Long Mynd in Shropshire (here's me and Hazel standing on top of it in 2008). The Garners had Alderley Edge and the Coopers had the Thames valley in The Dark Is Rising and north Wales in the later books.

Onward. Here is my collection of Jennings books. You'll notice that I again have one duplicate (or one pair of duplicates, depending how you look at it), since I have two copies of Jennings Follows A Clue, one from 1959 (the hardback) and one from 1974.

Earlier generations would have obsessively hoarded Billy Bunter books in much the same way, and indeed my father has quite an extensive collection, most of which I have read. Despite there being some overlap in the period in which they were written - Charles Hamilton aka Frank Richards died in 1961, and the Jennings books were mostly published between the early 1950s and the early 1970s - the Jennings books feel much more modern. That's partly because that overlap is a bit of a red herring - while Bunter novels were being published into the 1960s, they reflected the attitudes of when the original material was written back between the wars - but also probably reflects the differing outlooks of the respective authors. The Jennings books have much more of a sense of boys being boys, muddy scabby little herberts constantly yammering away between themselves on a variety of topics totally incomprehensible to adults, rather than swanning around in starched collars quoting Latin aphorisms.

All of these school series have their own argot, and while the Bunter books have their share of I say, you fellows, yarooooo and getting a ghastly impot from old Quelchy, the Jennings books feature old Wilkie getting into a frightful bate, teachers having supersonic earsight, much confusion over rhino and occasional trips to see the Archbeako. It's probably only nigel molesworth who has made a similar contribution to the English language.

Books that I didn't find but which I did own and would very much like to find include:
  • My Roald Dahl books, which I'm pretty sure included Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Danny The Champion Of The World and at least one or two others;
  • I Am David by Anne Holm - a tale of escape and adventure which I think I'd always assumed was set during World War II but is actually situated somewhat more vaguely in history than that; it also has a Railway Children-style parental reunion at the end;
  • The Cave by Richard Church - oddly enough there was a copy of this book on the shelves at the cottage we stayed at in Pembrokeshire a couple of months back. While I was tempted to nick it my hand was stayed by the terrifying amount of religious literature surrounding it on the shelves; word would be bound to get back to the Big Man somehow. This book (as the name suggests) features some thrilling underground adventures very similar to the antics in The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, though without the whole being pursued by goblins thing;
  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier - a disturbing story of hijack, kidnap, violence and betrayal, exciting and baffling in equal measure. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

the loft-hatch is rising

Great excitement here at Halibut Towers this week as a trip to the loft to retrieve some supplies for the boy yielded the unexpected bonus of a box of old books I must have liberated from my parents' loft a while back and then consigned to our loft. Obviously this isn't all the books I owned when I was a wee nipper as I was something of a bookworm and that would have been a lot of books, but it's a selection featuring some key authors and was obviously the result of a careful selection process.

Most importantly, in the light of the most recent book review, here's my Alan Garner collection:

You'll be unsurprised to hear that I got straight in there and skim-read The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath over a period of a day or two, and I'm delighted to report that they are as strange and compelling as I remember them from when I first read them at an age I would guess at being somewhere between ten and thirteen. My copy of The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen bears the sticker pictured on the right on its inside cover, the "prize" (awarded by my school, in case that's not clear) taking the form of a book token that could be spent on whatever you liked. I'm pretty sure that I had already read the book long since by this point, probably after getting it out of the library, and that this version was just me acquiring a copy for my own bookshelves.

Anyway, if you require only one Garner this would be it, the incursion of magical forces into a recognisably real world being far more compelling (to me, anyway) than some wholly imagined world peopled with, say, hobbits. As Garner himself says:
If we are in Eldorado, and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it's a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancs, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possible the reader will too.
As well as the supernatural bits, the lengthy section set in the old mines under Alderley Edge where the children and their dwarf companions escape from their pursuers is viscerally thrilling and the bit where they have to crawl head-first into a sump with no knowledge of where (or if) they would emerge into the air still sends a shiver down the spine.

The Moon Of Gomrath is wilder, darker, and probably less good (but still pretty good). The Owl Service is more adult, more opaque and points the way to some of the more demanding later stuff like Red Shift. It's easy for Elidor to get overlooked in this company, but actually I'm pretty sure this was the first Garner I read, so I still have a soft spot for it. It would also have been one of the first "young adult" (rather than "children's") books I ever read, so it sits at a crucial point in my reading life.

It would have been a couple of years later (so at an age of around fourteen or fifteen) that I started reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series; I think that it was The Dark Is Rising that I read first, although it's actually the second book in the series. The first, Over Sea, Under Stone, sits apart from the others in many ways - it was written many years before (published in 1965, with the rest being published between 1973 and 1977) probably (I would guess) without being intended at the time to be the start of a series, and has only one character in common with The Dark Is Rising, and that isn't made explicit anywhere until the two sets of characters are brought together in Greenwitch. This is the shortest of the five books and beyond fulfilling the key function of tying the first two books together it's nowhere near as memorable as either The Dark Is Rising or the last two books in the series, The Grey King and Silver On The Tree, which are where the magic (quite lidderally) really happens.

Again, the real trick here is to introduce a wholly convincing supernatural world that sits alongside and occasionally intersects with one that is recognisably our own mundane day-to-day meat-and-potatoes world. As well as the similarities it's interesting to note the differences between these books and the Weirdstone pair - no non-human creatures like svarts and dwarves here, and the mythology that the series draws on is mainly Arthurian and Celtic (and Welsh in particular) while the Weirdstone books mainly draw from Norse mythology.

Anyway, if you want intelligent books for ten- to fifteen-year-olds with a supernatural edge and plenty of excitement I can't think of anything I'd recommend more highly than all of the above. I did find a few more books in the box which are also worthy of mention, but I might save that for part two as this post is already long enough. So be off with you and get off my lawn with your footballs and your fidget spinners and your Snapchats. Bloody kids.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

hail mary full of grace; watch this stuff dissolve my face

A few things that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks because they put me in mind of previous blog posts. Basically where Electric Halibut leads, the rest of the world eventually follows, even into areas they'd be better off keeping well out of.

So, here's an interesting article about death and the options for clearing up and disposing of its physical consequences, specifically your foetid reeking carcass, lying about seeping noxious fluids into the carpet and generally causing a nuisance. Several previous blog posts have addressed this tricky and sensitive issue with varying degrees of insensitivity, from speculation about using dead people for food to ingesting them in a slightly different way to some slightly more considered thoughts about how ludicrous and wasteful our current arrangements are and what alternatives might be available.

Well, here's a new one: alkaline hydrolysis. As this fascinating article explains, your mortal remains can now be reduced to their component molecules by a process involving nothing more sinister than your corpse being pushed into a giant steel cylinder and liberally marinaded in caustic chemicals for a couple of hours. The resulting residue comprises some powdery bone fragments which you can presumably bag up and take home if you wish to and some soupy liquid which is apparently benign enough just to be flushed down the drain. Obviously that sort of eco-friendliness potentially comes at a price and I don't know how noxious the production process is for the body-dissolving chemicals, or how well it would scale to industrial levels of demand. But the end product is certainly more space-efficient than just burying people, and there are some tremendous buzz-words like "resomator" and "cremulator" to get to grips with. In fact "crem u l8r" is probably how they sign off their texts when arranging the disposal of a loved one.

In a bizarre echo of this post from a couple of years ago, a cricket match between Surrey and Middlesex a couple of weeks ago was abandoned after the arrival of an arrow on the pitch. Technically this one was a crossbow bolt, but it still seems to have been fired from some distance away with little heed to where it might come back down to earth. All good fun until someone loses an eye, of course, and this arrow (unlike mine) seems to have remained fitted with its flesh-piercing metal tip, so it could have done some damage if it had hit anyone.

Lastly, the glory-hole spillway at Lake Berryessa, as mentioned here, was in action for the first time in around eleven years earlier in 2017. Back in the technological Dark Ages of 2007 no-one would have imagined being able to fly a remote-controlled drone out over the lake to have a look down into the mouth of the maelstrom, but of course these days that's as easy as you like, and here is the resulting video. I joked in the original post about inadvertently swimming or boating into the hole and being killed; of course it inevitably turns out that someone has actually done this: Emily Schwalek in 1997. On a happier note, during the decades-long periods between overflowings the outflow tunnel is good for all sorts of other adventures for the intrepid explorer armed with some rope and a skateboard.

So once I've run it past my legal team my will is going to be changed to specify a new method for the disposal of my remains: caustic resomation/cremulation followed by the loading of the residual particulate matter into a small pouch that can be attached to a crossbow bolt and fired in a glorious arc into the foaming mouth of a glory-hole spillway in full spate. What a way to go.

Friday, August 25, 2017

the last book I read

Boneland by Alan Garner.

Colin Whisterfield is a bit of a rum cove. Actually, that's Professor Colin Whisterfield to you, brilliant nucleo-quanto-astro-physicist or some such, working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. His main work involves making minute observations via the mahoosive Lovell Telescope; Colin's particular obsession is observing the Pleiades, for reasons he only dimly understands, but which involve his sister's disappearance when they were both children.

Colin is not a man generally given to only understanding things dimly, as he has complete day-by-day recall of everything he has ever done. The trouble is this only extends back to the age of thirteen, before which he can barely remember anything at all, and where efforts to remember prompt severe anxiety attacks.

Colin has been passed through the hands of several mental health professionals before he encounters Meg, an unconventional lady psychotherapist much given to motorbike-riding and with a healthy disregard for the normal proprieties of practitioner-patient interaction. With her help (after a few false starts) they start to make some progress in piecing together what happened to Colin and his sister, by the (in hindsight fairly obvious) means of examining local records of the time. And, sure enough, Colin did have a sister, and there was some furore in the local press at the time when she left the farmhouse where she and Colin were staying in the dead of night, took one of the horses, and rode off to who knows where. The horse was later discovered on an island in a nearby lake, but Colin's sister was never seen again.

Let's leave Colin for a minute. Intercut with his bits are some episodes featuring an unnamed protagonist who we are invited to infer inhabits some time period in the Stone Age, though roughly the same Cheshire location. This person appears to be the custodian of some ancient wisdom which enables him to keep the world turning on its axis via some arcane rock-cutting ritual he himself only dimly understands. But, it is implied, if he fails in his appointed duty at its appointed time then some catastrophe will befall the world and some really Bad Shit will happen. As these episodes play out we are invited to infer (well, I think we are) that this guy is only one in a long line of appointed carriers-out of this ritual, and that maybe Colin himself has some connection to it.

One of the ways in which Colin's "issues" manifest themselves is in increasingly vivid encounters with some whispery spectre - sometimes heard, sometimes dimly glimpsed - who may or may not be his sister and whose motives are unclear. She seems keen to warn him away from Meg, though - but why? What is Meg up to? And what of Bert, Colin's taxi-driver friend who seems to know Meg, seems to know Colin's transport requirements before Colin knows them himself, and seems also to work for a taxi firm that doesn't actually exist?

Will Colin solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance? Will Meg's identity be revealed? Will our Stone Age friend successfully complete his appointed task and keep the sky from falling on our heads? Will any of this be revealed to make any sense?

One thing you can say in answer to that last question is that Boneland will almost certainly make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read the two books to which it is a very belated sort-of-sequel, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath. Those two are, at least in theory, books for children (or "young adults", because apparently that's a thing now); Boneland is most definitely not a children's book. Its writing style and the whole business of the fractured timeline with events in the present echoing those in the past is very reminiscent of Garner's 1973 novel Red Shift, which also involved a stone tool being buried and dug up again as one of the ways in which the story starts itself anew.

Garner is generally pretty scornful about The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen these days, but it was one of the key books of my early teenage years and I must have re-read it well over 20 times over the years. The Moon Of Gomrath is a darker and scarier proposition and certainly carries the implication that Susan's brushes with the magical world have carried her well beyond the point where she can ever be free of it and return to a normal life.

Garner's writing style has gradually become more and more terse and economical over the years, and Boneland doesn't throw the reader any easy pickings. I couldn't say with any certainty, for instance, that I understood any more about Susan's fate at the end of the book than at the beginning. In general the bits of the book that work really well are the flashbacks to the stone age, which are written in a rhythmical, poetic style suggesting stories burnished and refined by being passed down from generation to generation. There's also just a hint of the baton of humanity being passed from Neanderthal man (or some close relative) to his Cro-Magnon successors in the same sort of way as in William Golding's The Inheritors or Jean M Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear. Anyway, these sections are great, the lengthy present-day exchanges of dialogue between Colin and Meg less so, largely because they resemble how actual 21st-century humans speak only fleetingly. Meg's identity is hazy - clearly some sort of supernatural entity, it seems at one stage as if we're being invited to wonder if she may be an aspect of the Morrigan, the sorceress from the two earlier books, but her influence seems in the end to have been a benign one.

So while you would think that if the urge took you to finally pick up and write a conclusion to a story you'd set down nearly fifty years earlier, that you'd have some pretty specific way in which you wanted to round the story off. You would think that, but I'm not sure I see what it is; that may of course be a failing on my part. Boneland is intriguing and baffling, and these are not bad things, necessarily. The main thing that I came away from it with, though, was an urge to go back and re-read the previous two books.

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.