Saturday, October 06, 2018

the last book I read

The Ministry Of Fear by Graham Greene.

Arthur Rowe has got a lot on. Despite being a man of seemingly modest but comfortable means (sustained by an annual income from a mysterious source not involving having anything as vulgar or onerous as an actual job) he is troubled. By some really obvious things, like being a London resident during the height of the Blitz and therefore existing in a strange netherworld where you never know if you're going to wake up in the morning in your own bed or in an impenetrable pile of rubble with your entrails festooned across what remains of the street. Also by some non-obvious things, though, like having fairly recently been released from a psychiatric hospital after murdering his wife; it's not what it sounds like, though, as she was terminally ill and he eased her over the line to spare her further suffering (and ended up with a correspondingly light sentence).

Arthur is keeping himself to himself in a one-bedroom furnished flat when he happens to pop into a church fête and have a go at guessing the weight of a juicy and inviting-looking fruit cake (things that are in short supply, what with eggs being rationed and all). While he's waiting for the result he drops into the fortune-teller's stall and has a bewildering exchange with the woman running it wherein he is instructed to make an additional guess at a different weight for the cake. And sure enough that second guess turns out to be correct and Arthur wins the cake, though there is an odd stand-off as he tries to make off with his winnings, almost as if someone else was expected to win it.

It soon becomes clear that Arthur has stumbled across some weird shit and is now a person of interest to some shady types; sure enough one comes to visit him, wangles a piece of cake and some tea and attempts to poison Arthur, who only detects the poison because it happens to be the one he used to see off his wife. An awkward confrontation is avoided, however, when a bomb lands on the building and everyone ends up under a pile of bricks, though, miraculously, alive.

Arthur decides to take the initiative and visits a detective agency and also the charity that organised the fête, where he meets siblings Anna and Willi Hilfe, refugees from Austria. Willi in particular seems keen to help and takes him to see Mrs. Bellairs, the fortune teller, who happens to be holding a seance, which Willi and Arthur take part in. In classic murder mystery fashion the lights dim, everyone joins hands, there's a scream, and when the lights come up someone is dead with a knife in their back. Awkwardly for Arthur, it's the man next to him, and it's Arthur's knife.

Willi helps Arthur escape, but now he's on the run from the police. After rashly agreeing to deliver a suitcase for a man he meets in a park, he bizarrely ends up in a room with Anna Hilfe, at which point there's another brick-shattering explosion.

This time, Arthur wakes up in a nursing home, to be told that he's lost his memory and his name is Richard Digby. He is well cared for by the eccentric Dr. Forester, but it soon becomes clear that strange things are afoot. Eventually, as his memory starts to return, including remembering his true identity, Arthur decides that his life is in danger and escapes back to London, where he throws himself on the mercy of the police.

It turns out that the police aren't actually after him for murder after all, though, since no-one's actually been murdered. The police are very interested in the cake, though, since it apparently contained some top-secret microfilms which the government want back before they can leave the country and jeopardise the war effort. The policeman investigating the case, Prentice, takes Arthur along on a series of attempts to round up the spy ring responsible, most of which end with the deaths of the suspects, before Arthur himself joins some of the dots and realises that Willi Hilfe is the mastermind, and probably still has the microfilm in his possession. This is slightly awkward, because Arthur has struck up a fledgling relationship with Anna, but Queen and country must be protected, so Arthur confronts Willi as he's about to flee London on a train. Rather than allow himself to be captured, Willi shoots himself, leaving Arthur free to return to Anna and see if they can salvage their relationship from this momentary awkward patch.

I've mentioned in a couple of places Graham Greene's habit of classifying his books as Novels and Entertainments. This one is subtitled "An Entertainment", which isn't meant to convey some hilarious knicker-dropping farce, but rather something a bit thriller-y and plot-driven in contrast to the usual drink-sodden tortured Catholicism of the "serious" stuff. It is suggested that since this book's immediate predecessor (and one of Greene's best and most celebrated books) The Power And The Glory didn't make much money Greene felt obliged to write something a bit more in tune with the public appetites of the time. The distinction between the two halves of his output was something Greene abandoned in his later career - this compilation suggests there were only ever six novels published as "Entertainments", The Ministry Of Fear being the only one I own or have ever read.

It's still not exactly Jack Reacher, though, and most of the major protagonists are resolutely un-heroic and troubled by various moral dilemmas, and the ending is nicely ambiguous in terms of how much wholly necessary lying to each other Arthur and Anna's future relationship can stand. Greene's familiarity with the workings of wartime espionage was drawn from his real-life work for MI6; the late-career novel The Human Factor is probably the nearest thing to a le Carré-style espionage thriller that he ever wrote.

It's very entertaining (as befits its subtitle), Arthur Rowe is a sympathetic protagonist and (like all Greene novels) it doesn't outstay its welcome at between 200 and 250 pages of pocket-sized Penguin paperback. If you really only want the essential novels then (of the ones I've read) The Power And The Glory and The Heart Of The Matter are probably the ones you want. The Ministry Of Fear was filmed as Ministry Of Fear in 1944, a year after the book's publication, the film - as films do - seemingly flattening a lot of the book's subtleties in the pursuit of its Nazi spy plot.

Monday, October 01, 2018

win on a ryder

First thing to say after the Ryder Cup is that I'm delighted that my gloomy (and, to be fair, slightly tongue-in-cheek) prediction after the last one turned out to be wrong:
One major reason for pessimism: the Americans are finally taking the Ryder Cup seriously and we'll never win one again. Oh well, we've had a good innings.
Indeed I was so wrong that in the end Europe's victory (appropriately delivered, in the end, by their star player Francesco Molinari) was by an even more thumping margin than the USA's 2016 victory at Hazeltine.

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 16½ 11½
2016 4 4 11 17
2018 6 2 4 4 10 6 17½ 10½
Totals 84½ 75½ 87 73 171½ 148½ 115 125 286½ 273½

No time for a lengthy wallow in the stats, but to pick up on a couple of vital points from last time: Europe won all three days, just as they did in 2004, 2006 and 2014. All the Europeans contributed points, while three Americans contributed zero: DeChambeau, Mickelson and Woods. There was much pre-contest hoopla about how Woods' miraculous rejuvenation (culminating in his remarkable win at the Tour Championship last week) would extend to him being a new man as a player in the Ryder Cup (having been one of Davis Love III's non-playing lieutenants in 2016), but he failed to win a point and lost a singles match for the first time since 1997. Maybe he was just knackered.

I was in charge of entertaining three kids for most of the weekend so my viewing opportunuties were slightly limited, but I did take advantage of NowTV's offer of a month's Sky Sports coverage for the knockdown price of £12.99, which enabled me to keep up with the live coverage on my laptop. This compares extremely favourably with the cost of having a full Sky Sports package on the TV, something we've recently ditched as it's just cripplingly expensive. I daresay there are fiendish and probably borderline illegal ways of viewing this stuff for free, but this seems to work pretty well.

I suppose what the result shows more than anything is how much home advantage counts for: only six of the twenty modern Ryder Cups have resulted in away wins (four for Europe, two for the USA) and only two of the last ten (both Europe, in 2004 and 2012). By the time of the next European Ryder Cup in 2022 it'll be 29 years since the last American win on European soil and I would guess most of the US team wouldn't even have been born for the last one in 1993.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

huw are you, ooh ooh, ooh ooh

Some vaguely-related thoughts about naming coincidences prompted by a couple of things: firstly that I note we haven't done a bit similar to the ones about Nia and Alys for our third child, and third carrier of a Welsh name, Huw. Secondly, I was in a meeting the other day and my current project manager happened to mention that one of his neighbours is called Dave Thomas, whereupon I volunteered the (true) anecdote that I'd discovered only a few days previously that David Thomas was the name of one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims; the ninth of his seventeen known victims, murdered in September 1990.

It's a pretty common name, so there'll be a lot of Dave/David Thomases out there, of varying degrees of notoriety. Prior to Googling, the ones I could have told you about are:
As always Wikipedia has a more comprehensive list. As for people called Huw Thomas, there aren't as many as you might think; the most famous one being the current Head Of The Medical Household and Physician To The Queen. So if the Queen needs, for instance, a haemorrhoid lanced, old Huw is the man who gets to attend to the royal sphincter.

The Google predictive search thing that we did for the girls yields the following:

  • Huw Edwards is a journalist and BBC newsreader
  • Huw Evans appears to run a photographic agency
  • Huw Stephens is a presenter on BBC Radio Cymru
  • Huw Jenkins is a businessman and current chairman of Swansea City football club
  • Huw Irranca-Davies is a former MP and current member of the Welsh Assembly. His exotic surname is the result of combining his original one with that of his Italian wife; obviously they could and perhaps should have taken the more innovative approach described here and here and gone for something like Davianca or Irravies.
  • Huw Lewis Tyres pretty much does what it says on the tin
  • Huw Tudor appears to be an estate agent
  • Huw Chiswell is a singer
I would have thought, based solely on my gut feeling, that Huw would be a more understandable name to people east of the Severn Bridge than either Nia or Alys. And maybe it is, but the newly-released figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that actually it's the least-popular of the three in terms of current usage as a name for new babies.

As you can see from the charts (which also show trends over the last twenty years) Huw is currently the 943rd-most-popular baby name for boys (its Anglicised counterpart Hugh is 355th) with a mere 32 baby boys being given that name in 2017 (our Huw doesn't contribute to that number as he was - somewhat unexpectedly - born in 2016). Alys comes in at 541st on the girls' names list (Alice is 17th), and Nia is 303rd. Trend-wise both Nia and Alys are seeing a slow rise in popularity, while Huw is going the other way. These are combined figures for England and Wales, which in this particular case is a bit annoying as there is almost certainly a heavy bias towards Wales for each of those three names, and it would be interesting to see a lower-level view of the data.

A couple of other items on a similar theme, this time unrelated to members of my immediate family:

My old school, St. Bart's in Newbury, doesn't seem to have a "notable former pupils" section on its website (its Wikipedia page does, though), but if it did it would, possibly reluctantly but in the interests of accuracy, have to include the name of murky Brexit-funding shyster Arron Banks. The Wikipedia page fails to note that Banks was expelled from St. Bart's for reasons briefly touched upon here. Other St. Bart's alumni include historian Lucy Worsley (who I guess must have been a near-contemporary of my younger sister), and, appropriately enough only a week or so after International Talk Like A Pirate Day, actor Robert Newton.

Finally, I was having lunch the other day and popped the kitchen TV on to see what appeared to be (and indeed was) an adaptation of Stephen King's The Langoliers. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is one of my favourite things in the King canon and that I therefore should have been delighted. Unfortunately this had a strong whiff of made-for-TV about it (and indeed it was, as a two-part miniseries in 1995) and I didn't watch much of it.

The comments beneath the full 3-hour video on YouTube suggest my fears as expressed above were well-founded. The interesting thing (and the connection to the name-related stuff above) is that the character of the mysterious Brit Nick Hopewell is played by an actual British actor, who once played John Lennon in a film called Chapter 27 - a film principally about Lennon's assassin, Mark Chapman - and was once lined up to play Lennon in an earlier film but was ruled out of the role by Yoko Ono herself because of (presumably) the perceived bad karma generated by his name, which is (dramatic pause) Mark Chapman.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

the last book I read

House Of Sand And Fog by Andre Dubus III.

Kathy Nicolo has been having a hard time. She's struggled to overcome addictions to alcohol and cocaine, largely acquired as a result of her association with her husband Nick, who, having got sober at the same time, promptly upped and left her. She's been getting by on a succession of cleaning jobs in the San Francisco area, but as you can imagine they don't bring in a massive amount. Her one saving grace is the house she lives in, a nice place on a hill with a view of the Bay, left to her by her late father. At least no-one's going to take that away from her.

Well. Here's a valuable life lesson for you, kids: open official-looking post sent to your address, even if it doesn't have your name on it. Ignore it, as Kathy does, and you may find that the legal wheels have ground on to a point where a simple explanatory phone call can't set everything right. It turns out the local county have been pursuing someone for unpaid business tax and have attached the claim, erroneously, to Kathy's address. And now, because no-one's told them about their mistake, the police are at the door, the house is being compulsorily repossessed and is going to be auctioned off the next day. This is all a bit awkward, as Kathy's just got out of the shower and isn't really in a position to move all her stuff. Luckily, Deputy Lester Burdon, despite helping to facilitate her forcible removal from her house, turns out to have some Good Samaritan tendencies and hooks her up with a lawyer and a self-storage facility to accommodate her stuff while everything gets sorted out.

It's not going to be a simple matter, though, as it's too late to stop the auction going ahead, and the house is purchased (for a fraction of its actual market value) by Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian Army under the command of the former Shah who was obliged to flee the country with his family when the Shah was deposed and the current theocratic regime took over. Sadly having been a high-ranking army officer doesn't amount to a hill of beans in downtown San Francisco, and Behrani is obliged to take a series of menial jobs in order to make ends meet, all the while concealing the exact nature of his jobs from his wife and children by putting on a respectable shirt and tie every morning before leaving the house, only to get changed into more blue-collar clobber before starting work.

So this property auction is Behrani's chance to finally get a leg-up into respectable business by selling the property on at what's bound to be a considerable profit. But first he's going to luxuriate in his change in fortunes a bit, move the family in and have a few renovations done. And why not? All legal and above board, and the misfortunes of the previous owner are neither his fault nor his concern.

Meanwhile, Kathy is doing some sensible things, and some not-so-sensible things. The sensible things include getting her lawyer to straighten things out with the county, get them to admit their mistake and agree to pursue some sort of settlement with the new owner and get Kathy her house back. The not-so-sensible stuff includes going round for a snoop at the house, stepping on a plank with some nails in (debris from the ongoing renovations) and having to be disinfected, patched up and sent on her way by the colonel's wife, and also contriving to have her path cross with that of Lester Burdon again and getting drawn into a furtive relationship, largely motel-based at first but then involving the two of them camping out down by a river in an old fishing shack borrowed from a friend of Lester's, with much making of sweet sweet love down by the riverside while sipping on river-cooled beers. Yes, Kathy isn't really supposed to be drinking, but - hey - what could possibly go wrong?

It soon becomes clear that while the county are prepared to buy the house back from Behrani at the price he paid for it, he - understandably - wants something a lot nearer the full market value. It also becomes clear that Lester has fallen for Kathy in a big way and is even going to leave his wife and kids for her. Or is he? While he's away apparently breaking the news to them, Kathy has an attack of paranoia that he'll have a last-minute change of mind, goes into town for a couple of drinks, gets absolutely smashed, discovers Lester's gun under the seat of the car, drives to her old house, parks on the drive and attempts to shoot herself. On being rescued by Behrani and taken indoors, she immediately attempts to take a drug overdose in the bath, is foiled by the quick action of the colonel's wife and is put to bed to sleep the whole thing off. At which point Lester turns up and sees the colonel and his wife manhandling a semi-conscious Kathy, and it all Kicks Off in a Big Way. He smashes his way into the house and takes the Behrani family hostage, locking them in the bathroom overnight.

The trouble with impromptu kidnapping and extortion attempts of this sort, though, is that you really need to think through some of the consequences. How is Lester going to convince Behrani to sell the house back to the county so Kathy can have it back? He can't just march him into the property office with a gun to his head, after all. What's Behrani's incentive to co-operate? What's he getting in return? And if it's the safe return of his wife and teenage son, for instance, what's to stop him changing his mind once they're safely handed back over?

With these loopholes unresolved, Lester ploughs on anyway and leaves a still-drowsy Kathy in the house with Mrs. Behrani while he takes the colonel and his son Esmail downtown to get a cheque from the county. But teenage boys are hot-headed creatures and Esmail grabs Lester's gun (not loaded, as it happens) out of his belt and is promptly served with a hot lead sandwich by the local cops. On learning of his son's demise at the hospital and Lester's detention by the police, Behrani returns home to be confronted by Kathy, the instigator (in his eyes) of all the unravelling of his grand plans for his family, leaving him with nothing to live for.

You can, broadly, see where this is going. I won't spoil it for you by describing the ending in detail, but suffice it to say it doesn't go well for anyone. One of the interesting things about the book is having your natural optimistic inclinations that things are going to work out all right for at least some of the protagonists methodically closed down one by one by those same people's own actions and the relentless logic of the plot. If you like happy endings and life-affirming crap of that nature then it's safe to say this will be a fairly massive downer.

For a book with as relentlessly bleak an ending to work it's got to make you care about, and be interested in, the characters on the way, and the key thing here is that you need to be able to sympathise with both Kathy and Behrani, while recognising their character flaws that will eventually
drive them both towards tragedy. Kathy is basically a good person but a bit flaky, compromised by her addictions and drawn to men of suspect character, while Behrani is a man of honour and loyalty to those he loves but unbending and principled to a counter-productive degree, and moreover because of his cultural upbringing vexed at being crossed by a woman, especially one with a propensity for things like alcohol and extra-marital sex.

If the book has a villain it's Lester Burdon, not a cartoonish bad guy but a man with fatal weaknesses and an inclination to impulsive behaviour born out of his internal suspicion that he is (despite his choice of profession) actually a coward. It is he who gets Kathy back on the sauce, he who carelessly leaves his gun in the car, he who hoofs down the Behranis' door and thereby initiates everyone's ordeal which results in the tragic climax.

So: it's very good, it succeeds in making you sympathise with both major characters, it's definitely not a barrel of laughs, and there is (as with Drowning Ruth) just a suspicion of the plausibility of some of it being questionable if you stepped away and thought about it for a second. It's a deeper and more serious novel than the other Dubus featured on this list some ten years ago, Bluesman.

House Of Sand And Fog was filmed in 2003, a fairly heavyweight production starring Jennifer Connolly as Kathy (I'd envisaged her shorter and blonder) and Ben Kingsley as Behrani, a pretty perfect piece of casting I'd say.

More importantly, and I promise you this is a coincidence, House Of Sand And Fog was the Oprah's Book Club selection for November 2000, immediately succeeding its immediate predecessor on this list, Drowning Ruth. Coincidence? OR IS IT? Well, yes.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

getting shacked up

Well, both the Glen Marnoch and the Highland Park that I referred to in the previous whisky post (both of which I'd acquired the preceding Christmas) have now gone the way of all whisky in my house, which is to say down my neck. So I was on the lookout for something interesting and yet competitively-priced while in Tesco a while back and came across Shackleton Blended Malt, as pictured here.

The Shackleton in question is just about the only famous person of that name - unless you're well into 1950s and 1960s county cricket, anyway - Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. So what's the connection? Well, the legend on the bottle reads as follows: BASED ON AN ANTIQUE BLEND OF MACKINLAY'S RARE OLD HIGHLAND MALT WHISKY; THE SPIRIT SUPPLIED TO THE 1907 BRITISH ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION.

Clearly there's some thrillingly high-concept bullshit going on here. The inspiration for all this is the recovery in 2010 of some cases of whisky previously entombed in the ice outside Shackleton's old Antarctic hut. Mackinlay's is now owned by Whyte & Mackay and so the responsibility of sampling the original whisky (under carefully-controlled laboratory conditions) and recreating it fell to Whyte & Mackay's master blender and brand ambassador Richard Paterson, something of a showman (and, let's be honest, something of a pillock) with his theatrical whisky-throwing tasting performances.

Obviously Scotch whisky is big business, and to ensure maximum punter-fleecing engagement with the new brand a couple of versions were produced: one expensive premium one with the antique typeface and the faux-straw wrapper, and one more bog-standard one for the regular proles. No prizes for guessing which one I've got. The original whisky and the premium new one supposedly contain whisky from the long-defunct Glen Mhor distillery, individual bottles from which now fetch eye-watering prices. No indication if there's any of this in the economy version, but it is a blended malt (the old term "vatted malt" seems to be out of vogue these days) which means it's a mixture of malt whiskies from various distilleries, as opposed to a single malt which is a mixture of malt whiskies from the same distillery and a blended whisky which is a mixture of malt and grain whiskies (from various distilleries), Windolene, cat piss and hatred. The only other blended malt whisky that's been featured on this blog is Johnnie Walker Green Label.

Anyway, let's get in and have a sniff, and I'll tell you now if I don't get oilskin pantaloons, icy rowlocks, gangrenous frostbitten toes, penguin shit and early-20th-century British stiff upper lip I'm going to be sorely disappointed. And I am sorely disappointed, because this smells like perfectly pleasant but perfectly unremarkable 21st-century whisky. If you were under the impression it was a single malt you'd place it as one of any number of roughly interchangeable and largely indistinguishable Speysiders. There's just a hint of something vegetably going on, though nothing like the full cauliflower mashed into the chops and the oily roast parsnip slipped under the eyelid that you get with the Tobermory; perhaps a discarded carrot entombed for a century in the Antarctic permafrost and just exuding the faintest expiring puff of residual sulphur on being uncovered. Have a sip and it's much the same: sweet, no discernible peat, very pleasantly quaffable in an inoffensive kind of way. And that would be fine if it were not for the high-concept promotional hoo-hah that surrounds it - put it this way, I'll take it on trust that Richard Paterson and his team laboured intensively into the small hours over a period of months to replicate the exact taste of the original whisky in such a way that it could be knocked out for 22 quid a pop in Tesco, but if they had just bunged arbitrary amounts of four or five random Speysiders into a vat and said: fuck it, that'll do, I would probably have been none the wiser.

All of which is probably more of a reflection on my whisky preferences (which are generally for something a bit more zingy and aggressive) and lack of sophistication than anything inherently wrong with the whisky. And, I suppose, a general aversion to marketing bullshit; as always Bill Hicks says it more eloquently than I ever could.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

this is a brum do and no mistake

I had to drive to Birmingham and back today, which reminded me of another entry in the WHY HAVE THEY BUILT THIS ROAD THIS WAY IT'S LITERALLY MADNESS EVERYONE INVOLVED SHOULD BE KILLED hall of fame. This one has caught me out a couple of times before and occurs as you come along the M42 from east to west towards the interchange with the M5, which runs, broadly speaking, north-south.

So what happens is you're tootling along the M42 with a mental vision of peeling off to the left to turn onto the southbound M5, just like any other left turn you've ever made. So you drift into the left-hand lane only to notice at the vital moment that, hang on, the left-hand lane says M5(N) and the right-hand lanes say M5(S). What the hell?

As with the seemingly insanely convoluted nature of the A34/A303 junction as documented here, the key to understanding this is knowing the history of the junction. In this particular case, the reason that the junction appears to be back to front is that the original version only allowed access from M42 to M5 southbound, with an intended expansion to be added later that would have resulted in something much grander (and with the relevant slip roads peeling off much earlier) for the link to the northbound M5. It was only when the money and enthusiasm to do this ran out that the current bog-standard extra slip roads were put in to provide a northbound link as part of the existing junction. The two stages of the junction were opened in 1987 and 1989, as far as I can gather.

Another echo of an earlier post was provided by my radio listening on the drive back - I caught most of Michael Rosen's Word Of Mouth on Radio 4 on which his special guest was none other than Stephen Fry, a pretty safe bet as a guest on a show about language. The programme blurb contains a reference to Fry's enthusiasm for
the virtues of email and text as opposed to the sheer horror of having to talk on the telephone
which obviously resonates deeply with me, as I described in more detail here. The audio bit where he articulates the horror in more detail is towards the end of the programme and starts at about 24 minutes in.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

inconsequential sequential

Here's a funny thing, or rather two things. Firstly I noticed as I was publishing the Drowning Ruth book review last night that it was the fourth successive book review (i.e. an uninterrupted sequence of posts without any intervening ones that weren't book reviews). That's a fairly unusual occurrence, in fact the only similar one I could find (and I can't promise I scanned the entire archives exhaustively) was the sequence of four that ran from The Little Friend through Hotel Du Lac and The Tortilla Curtain to The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. Those four were all written within a couple of days of each other on our return from honeymoon in July 2011, whereas these most recent four span about a month. What it mostly is is reflective of the general drop-off in non-book-related blogging over the past few years; I'm conscious that this post right here breaks the sequence in what might be deemed a slightly contrived way, i.e. if I'd let nature take its course the next one might have been a book review as well that would have taken the sequence to five. Not so, I suspect, as I have a couple of other things in the pipeline, though the gestation period from idea to blog post is, as always, uncertain and highly variable.

Secondly, what I do once I've scanned the book cover for the review post and kept it to hand for reference during the review-writing process is place it back on the shelves in its appointed place (those shelves being arranged alphabetically by author's surname as are everyone's who owns more than one book and isn't LITERALLY INSANE). What I noticed when doing this was that Drowning Ruth slotted back into what is now a sequence of five books, all featured at various times on this blog, and all by different authors: A Sport And A Pastime, The Double, Nausea, Drowning Ruth and Vertigo. I'm fairly sure this is unique too (or I was, see below): longer continuous sequences exist featuring multiple books by the same author, for instance there is a sequence of nine comprising five William Boyds and four TC Boyles. These seem less satisfactory, partly because, unforgivably, I have no particular system for ordering books by the same author. Ascending order of publication date would be the rational choice, but I can't really be arsed to implement it.

Obviously on checking (and again this was by no means exhaustive) I find one other similar sequence in the J area comprising Rider On The Rain, The Piano Teacher, A New Dominion, Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry and The Illusionist.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

the last book I read

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz.

Amanda Starkey is a doting and dutiful aunt to little Ruth, taking on parental responsibilities after Amanda's sister (and Ruth's mother) Mathilda drowned after falling through the ice between the family's house on a Wisconsin lake island and the mainland.

So far so tragic and yet heart-warmingly stoical. Perhaps. But why is Amanda evasive about the exact circumstances of Mathilda's death, particularly when Mathilda's husband Carl returns from World War I and understandably has some questions about how he unknowingly became a widower in his absence? And why does Ruth keep insisting that she drowned too on that same fateful night?

Obviously we're going to find all these things out. Equally obviously the full details are only going to emerge right at the end, and you can't just skip straight to that bit because then you'd have a 20-page novel. Besides, the revelations only carry any emotional impact if you care to some degree about the characters. So we get some back-story. Amanda is six years or so older than Mathilda, and very much conscious of being the gangly awkward taciturn ugly duckling in comparison with her pretty, sunny younger sister, despite loving her dearly. And when Mathilda marries Carl Amanda is mildly resentful of his intrusion into their all-female world.

There is much jumping back and forward in time in this section of the book (it settles down into a more linear pattern later on once Carl has conveniently removed himself from the narrative by getting a job on a Great Lakes steamer that takes him away for months on end) - Ruth and Mathilda as children, Ruth, Mathilda and Carl before the war, Amanda, Carl and Ruth after the war - and the narrative shifts between three viewpoints: the omniscient narrator, Ruth, and Amanda. From all this tricksiness what we get is a view of the main protagonists: Amanda spiky, reserved, fiercely protective of Mathilda and Ruth, hardened slightly by her experiences as a wartime nurse in Milwaukee but still quite unworldly in other ways, as we see when she allows herself to be seduced by local entrepreneur and serial cad Clement Owens; Carl basically decent, not too bright, hampered by a wartime shrapnel wound which restricts his mobility, slightly bewildered by his daughter, vaguely resentful of Amanda for her proximity to Mathilda's death and unwillingness to tell him much about it; Ruth a strong-willed, independent girl haunted in some ill-defined way by her experiences the night her mother died. The person we get to know least well is Mathilda, but of course she spends something like half the narrative being dead.

It is in the wake of Amanda's fleeting, instantly regretted and seemingly inconsequential dalliance with Clement Owens that the plot starts to thicken. For those confused (and who could blame you) about the timeline, this is during Carl's wartime absence. Amanda finds herself pregnant, catastrophic news for a respectable spinster in 1916, confides in Mathilda, and the two of them cook up a plan to take themselves off, go and live in the house on the island until the baby is born, and then claim it was left with them by some passing girl that Amanda gave medical assistance to and either raise it themselves or pass it off for adoption by someone else.

It's about time we had another time-jump, though, so let's fast-forward a few years to when Ruth is in school. Ruth is a quirky and self-contained child regarded with some suspicion by her peers until she is befriended and given the implicit seal of approval by Imogene, the most popular girl in school despite being a couple of years younger than Ruth. Ruth excitedly reports back to Amanda about her new-found friendship only to be slightly wrong-footed by Amanda's lukewarm response. Of course what we know, since we're privy to Amanda's internal monologue, is that she's all HOLY UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES Ruth is now best buds with my own secret daughter who I gave to a woman in town to be brought up as her own.

We move on a few years and Ruth is now a young woman of twenty-one or so (Imogene being around eighteen). Ruth and Imogene are still best friends and are part of a little social set that attends a local college and messes around with boats on the lake. All is well until Ruth lets slip another nugget in conversation with Amanda, not only is one of their set none other than Clement Owens' son Arthur, he and Imogene have a fledgling romance going. HOLY UNINTENDED FREAKY INCESTUOUS CONSEQUENCES etc. Amanda panics and confesses all to Ruth about the truth of Imogene's origins, including the interesting snippet that she was born the same day Mathilda died. Between them Ruth and Amanda come up with a half-arsed scheme (a faked letter purporting to be from Arthur) for warding off the spectre of mutant two-headed children which, somewhat to Ruth's surprise, works. Imogene heads off to Chicago to seek her fortune, still unaware of her true origins, while Ruth decides to stick around and help out with running the family farm.

In these calmer circumstances the true events of the fateful icy night can be revealed, although after a series of incremental revelations throughout the story there isn't very much left we don't know: Amanda changed her mind about letting Mathilda bring up the baby and fled across the frozen lake, Ruth followed her, Mathilda pursued Ruth to bring her back, grabbed her and the struggle and their combined weight took them through the ice. The only question was whether Amanda had any sinister involvement and how she got the deep bite scar on her hand, but it turns out this was inflicted by Mathilda in a nobly self-sacrificing leave-me-save-yourselves moment.

This is one of those books which is tremendously thrilling but which is built on some plot contrivances which you suspect might collapse under their own implausibility if examined too closely. Amanda gets carted off to some sort of mental institution for ill-defined reasons (presumably some sort of delayed PTSD) some time after Carl returns from the war, but seems eventually just to decide to pull herself together and come home again without any long-term consequences. Carl vanishes from the story just before the fast-forward zoom (after which Ruth becomes the novel's central character) and is never heard from again; you'd think Ruth might exhibit some curiosity about her father, but apparently not. And it's not clear what narrative purpose Clement Owens' death shortly after his rendezvous with Amanda serves other than to keep alive until the closing pages the possibility that she might be an unreliable narrator and a murderess.

None of that quibbling should detract from the book's readability, though, and I enjoyed it. It does take a little while to get going but the second half in particular zips by very entertainingly. Amanda and Ruth are engaging characters in their own different ways; by contrast all the male characters are either well-meaning dimwits or bastards. Dark icy water with all its attendant danger and ability to hide murky secrets is perfect territory for a mystery - Surfacing (a very different book in all other respects) made use of a similar plot device. My copy carries prominent testimonial blurb from Anita Shreve, and if you didn't know the author of Drowning Ruth it's possible it might have been one of hers. The psychological thriller elements and murky secrets from the past being exhumed carry just a whiff of Barbara Vine, as well.

If you examine closely the image above you'll see that the cover of my copy (apparently a promotional copy given away with Woman & Home magazine) carries a logo informing the prospective reader that it was a recommendation of Oprah's Book Club, in September 2000. As with We Were The Mulvaneys and The Corrections this triggered a momentary snobbish sneer which I take no pride in, but, well, there it is. Other Oprah recommendations on this blog are Paradise, The Poisonwood Bible and The Road.

Friday, August 17, 2018

the last book I read

The History Of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield.

Philip (who is seven as the novel starts) and his mother are on an extended road trip. It's not entirely clear why, but most likely they are fleeing from Philip's Dad who has committed some unspecified offence. Probably just being A Guy, right, ladies? Anyway, they drive around California, Mom hooks up with random guys periodically, makes use of their credit cards for a while, things go sour, Mom and Philip move on. Well, it's a living.

A living that suits Philip very well, as it happens, Philip not being the sort of boy well suited temperamentally to cosy domesticity and routine, or at least not that sort of routine. So when Mom shacks up with Pedro and they stop their peripatetic existence to move in with him, Philip is a bit agitated. Now usually a slightly agitated seven-year-old would just throw a few tantrums, refuse to eat his chicken nuggets, that sort of thing. Not Philip, though, who perpetrates some sort of murky atrocity on Pedro using Pedro's own toolkit. Mom seems fairly sanguine about this but decides, probably wisely, that they should move on.

They soon settle again, though, not with a man this time but just seemingly on Mom's whim, in a rented house from where Philip starts to make some friends, most notably twelve-year-old Rodney and his sort-of-girlfriend Beatrice. Neither of these are necessarily a good influence and Philip gets involved with underage drinking, burglary and joy-riding. Meanwhile, Mom has withdrawn into herself and rarely emerges from her room. Then, unexpectedly, Philip's Dad turns up and tries to impose some order. And a good thing too, as it transpires that Mom is pregnant, though it's not clear who by.

Once again, though, Philip balks at the idea of domesticity and order, and goes increasingly off the rails with encouragement from Rodney. Or is it the other way round? Either way, Dad had better look out. Sure enough, one evening, with some help from Rodney, Philip trusses Dad up and gets to work with the toolkit again. This time, though, Beatrice has got wind of things and tipped off the police, who arrive and cart Philip off before he can do something irrevocable like saw Dad's head off.

Philip winds up in a correctional facility where he is probed and analysed by a whole team of psychiatrists, before they deem him worthy of release, whereupon he is reunited with Mom and Dad and the new baby. But how rehabilitated is he?

One way of answering that last question is: how reliable are Philip's first-person accounts of his supposed crimes? Are we perhaps in Patrick Bateman territory where it's not clear at the end of the novel whether any of the events really happened at all? Well, Dad genuinely appears to be recovering from some injuries when we re-encounter him at the end. But what happened to Pedro? And what happened to Mom to make her retire to her room and scarcely ever speak again?

Well, answers are not really forthcoming to any of that. We are meant, I guess, to simply revel in the transgressiveness of having an eight-year-old (Philip ages a year or so over the course of the novel) do some weird psychotic shit, though it's hard to imagine that we're meant to find Philip personally appealing or engaging. The problem is that Philip's actions might have a slight ring of truth (or at least plausibility) if he were, say, fourteen rather than eight - I kept wondering whether I'd missed a narrative time-jump wherein six years had passed and Philip's Jim Beam consumption, ability to drive a car (and see over the dashboard) and sexual fantasies about Beatrice made any sense, but nope, he's barely eight-and-a-half at the end.

It sounds terribly condescending to say it (yeah, come back when you've had your first novel published, bucko) but there is a definite whiff of First Novel about this (and it was indeed Scott Bradfield's first published novel, in 1989) - it just seems to be trying a bit too hard to be shocking and original and what's described ends up not feeling "real" somehow. This is tricky territory, obviously, since the events described in any novel are by definition not real, but there is some sense in which even the most outlandish stuff has to make sense within the boundaries of the novel's own logic. So the same basic criticisms could also be made of, for instance, The Wasp Factory, but that seemed to "work" in a way that this doesn't. So, you know, it's not uninteresting, I daresay he's written better things since, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it. But, then again, what do I know, since someone deemed it interesting enough to make into a film (with the cut-down title Luminous Motion) in 1998, starring among others Deborah Kara Unger who I remember from the film of JG Ballard's Crash.

Friday, August 03, 2018

the last book I read

Me And The Fat Man by Julie Myerson. 

Amy is just a regular girl in a provincial town (a thinly-disguised Bath by the look of it) trying to get by, with all the mundane day-to-day problems we all have: grumpy unsatisfying marriage, boring job as a waitress in a local bistro, lucrative side-business picking up punters in a local park and taking them off to a rented room for some perfunctory handjob/blowjob action. I mean, we've all been there.

One day during a shift at the bistro a man called Harris walks in and claims to know her from when she was a child. Amy has only the dimmest recollections of her early years, which were spent with her mother Jody on the fictional Greek island of Eknos (a thinly-disguised actual Greek island, for all I know) and which ended when Jody drowned in the Aegean in dimly-remembered but mysterious circumstances, whereupon Amy was re-homed in the UK with foster-parents Brian and Eileen.

Anyway, Harris claims to be an ex-boyfriend of Jody's from her pre-Greece days, but also to have visited Jody and Amy and her little brother Paul on the island. Wait, Paul? It turns out Paul also died in slightly mysterious circumstances when he was very young, and Amy hardly remembers him at all. Back in the present, though, Harris has a young friend slash ward slash flatmate called Gary that he's very keen for Amy to meet. Harris's story is that he also knew Gary's mother and has been fulfilling some sort of vaguely paternal role for the last twenty years or so, though Gary seems quietly dubious about some of this.

Harris is keen for Amy to come on a trip to Eknos with him, though it's not clear what he's hoping to get out of it. In any case, there is a spanner in the works: Amy and Gary have struck up a relationship and Amy finds herself pregnant. Amy and Gary set up house together (Amy's estranged husband having been brought up to speed with events by this point) and have a baby boy, Jimmy. Things are tough; Gary works in a bookshop and Amy has kept up with the waitressing (though not with the prostitution) so there's a bit of money coming in, but not much. But then baby Jimmy dies while having a nap in his pram and Amy goes off the rails somewhat, stealing his still-warm corpse from the hospital morgue, zipping it into a holdall and fleeing on a budget flight to Eknos. After narrowly avoiding the rapey attentions of her taxi driver (by bashing him over the head with a rock) she arrives in the village of Diakofti where she lived as a young girl. But, whoa, hang on a minute, what's Gary doing here already?

All is not as it seems, says Gary. No shit, Sherlock, says Amy. Don't rush off in a huff, says Gary, I've got to do my Basil Exposition bit and then we can discuss what's in that stinky holdall. So it appears that Gary has in fact been Greek all along, and was taken under Harris' wing in rather different circumstances from those originally described. Harris really did know Jody, and indeed appears to have been the father of Amy's younger brother Paul, but Jody apparently killed little Paul (at least semi-accidentally) and then herself shortly afterwards by some Reggie Perrin-style walking into the sea.

So what does all this mean? What were Harris' motivations in any of this? What does it mean for Amy and Gary's future relationship? Where are they going to bury Jimmy's malodorous remains? Should they give the holdall a rinse before using it for the return trip? None of that is completely clear (well, they do successfully bury Jimmy) since I'm not completely sure any of the plot knitting-together at the end really makes sense - that something bad happened to Paul, that it was probably Jody's fault and that her death probably wasn't an accident are all clear fairly early on; all the additional stuff about Gary and Harris is neither remotely plausible nor especially important. The key unresolved plot point we're presumably meant to muse on is: did Harris kill Jimmy? He was alone with him in the house while Amy was sleeping and gone when she woke up to find Jimmy dead, so he could have; but why? Long-delayed revenge on Jody for killing his son? Who knows?

As with A Man In Full these minor quibbles aren't that important; the important thing here is the general atmosphere of slightly spooky dread which is kept up throughout, a bit like in Richard Adams' The Girl In A Swing but without the explicitly supernatural elements. As with Laura Blundy (which was considerably more baffling) and also Sleepwalking and Something Might Happen Myerson conjures up a female protagonist whose motivations are rich and complex and opaque but involve fierce and intense feelings about sex and motherhood; obviously men regularly write female characters and vice versa but these are female characters it would be hard to imagine a man having written, or not nearly so convincingly anyway.

This is a pretty short book - 217 pages, small format - and zips by quickly, but leaves a strange and lingering impression. It's probably not as good as, say, Something Might Happen (which is quite a bit longer) but is well worth a read, especially if as I did you can pick up a copy for a pound from the splendid little second-hand bookshop tucked away round the side of Tredegar House.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

the second-last book I read

A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe.

Heeeeere's Charlie! Charlie Croker is a larger-than-life real estate mogul based in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixtyish now, he has a long and colourful history of college sports fame, real-estate wheeler-dealering, massive building projects and the obligatory ditching of the supportive original spouse for a leggy younger model. Resonance with present-day events, you say? Tell me more! The best bit is, Charlie has over-leveraged himself on, among other things, a ludicrous vanity high-rise project called Croker Concourse at the unfashionable end of Atlanta and now his creditors are coming after him. Summoned before the loans team at PlannersBanc, to whom he owes countless hundreds of millions, he faces the prospect of losing his country estate, his fleet of Gulfstream business jets and limousines, even his big mansion in the fashionable part of old Atlanta. Meanwhile, disgruntled PlannersBanc drone Ray Peepgass, who's involved in the Croker case, has some ideas about picking up some of Charlie's assets on the cheap via a not-strictly-legal series of shenanigans involving various shell companies and much smoke and mirrors.

It's not all about old Charlie, though. Here's Roger White, an up-and-coming black lawyer, speeding to a meeting with his old college pal Wes Jordan, who just happens to be the current Mayor of Atlanta. Wes has got wind of a potential scandal and wants Roger's help managing the fall-out. A local college footballer, Fareek Fanon, is accused of raping a white girl, Elizabeth Armholster, whose father is a prominent local businessman. Wes doesn't want the incident to result in racial unrest in the city and, regardless of the frights and wrongs of the case, would really just like it to die down and go away as quietly as possible.

At the other end of the social and economic pecking order, here's Conrad Hensley, who works as a picker in the massive freezer warehouses of Croker Global Foods in the Bay Area of San Francisco. It's tedious, gruelling and occasionally dangerous work, shifting massive boxes of frozen stuff weighing tens of kilos onto forklifts, but Conrad is conscientious and good at his job. That isn't enough to save him, though, as there's some ruthless downsizing afoot to help the Croker organisation reduce its costs, and they operate a strict last in, first out policy. So Conrad gets laid off. From this point indignities are heaped unrelentingly on him: having to report for job interviews he squeezes his car into (as he sees it anyway) the end of the legal parking zone, only to come back to find it being towed; on reporting to the pound to retrieve it he has to queue interminably and is then hit with some supplementary charges he can't afford to pay for. At this point he loses the plot, dashes off and breaks into the car pound to liberate his car, beats up a security guard and is subdued and thrown in jail.

Seasoned novel-readers will see where this is going: all these seemingly separate plot strands are going to come together in some way before the end. Charlie Croker and Roger White's stories intersect as follows: Mayor Jordan has decided that it would help defuse some of the feverish speculation over the Fanon case (not that there is a "case" as such since Elizabeth Armholster has declined to file charges) if former Georgia Tech alumnus and football superstar Charlie Croker gave a public statement describing the pressures young high-profile sportsmen are under and calling for calm. If he found it within himself to be able to do this, the city of Atlanta might find it within their power to intercede with PlannersBanc and get them to do something a bit less draconian with Charlie's crippling debts. The trouble is, Charlie moves in the same business and high-society circles as Elizabeth's father Inman, which would make things a bit awkward between them if he was seen to be sympathetic to Fareek Fanon. But, man, he really loves his country estate....

But wait, what of Conrad? Well, he's in prison, trying to keep his head down and not attract any attention from the various gangs of black, Hispanic or white supremacist types who might take over-prolonged eye contact as some sort of slight, or, worse, decide that he's got a real pretty mouth. Meanwhile thanks to a cock-up on the book-ordering front he's been landed with a book of the writings of Epictetus to read; not your standard thriller fare but actually he's really getting into a bit of the old Stoicism. After using a bit of the old philosophy, as well as the massive hands and forearms developed throwing eighty-pound boxes of frozen chicken around, to humiliate white supremacist head honcho Rotto, he is saved from the inevitable retaliation by a massive earthquake in the dead of night that splits his wing of the prison open like a ripe watermelon and allows him to escape. Via a couple of contacts from his days lugging frozen shit around he acquires a new identity and a job working as a care assistant in the Atlanta area, during the course of which he gets a gig looking after this old rich guy who's just had a knee replacement operation, a guy by the name of Charlie Croker.

So we come to the climactic tying-up of plot strands bit: will Charlie agree to make his speech? will his newly-minted friendship with Conrad and their conversations about Stoic philosophy have any bearing on the content? will he still be forced to surrender all his property to his creditors? will Ray Peepgass (who has struck up a bizarre relationship with Charlie's ex-wife Martha) get to execute his nefarious insider-trading scam and get filthy rich?

All of those questions are answered, though not in the way that one might expect, nor, one might argue, in a way that is particularly satisfying or really makes any sense. In a way this doesn't really matter, though; when the cake is as rich and filling (742 pages) as this it doesn't really matter if the last mouthful is a bit crusty and hasn't got very much icing on it. Inevitably (stretching the metaphor a bit) the ingredients in the rest of the cake aren't completely evenly distributed either - the fairly unnecessary sub-plot involving Ray Peepgass (and Charlie's ex-wife Martha, for reasons that are never particularly clear) contains a lot of stuff about how the scam operates and all the corporate smoke and mirrors which is no doubt meticulously researched but fairly uninteresting. It's the same sort of thing as all the Sumerian mythology in Snow Crash or (going back considerably further in my book-reading life) the lengthy sections dealing with the plotting and financing of the African coup in Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs Of War - I've spent months doing all this bloody research so I'm bloody well going to shoehorn it in somewhere, even if it does grind the narrative to a halt. By contrast the prison sections featuring Conrad (who is himself a bit of a problematic Mary Sue in an otherwise unmitigated sea of arseholes) are buttock-clenchingly thrilling, which is great but makes them seem like they've been parachuted in from another work altogether, most likely either The Shawshank Redemption or Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (which I see I've recommended here at least twice before).

I suppose what I (and a lot of heavyweight reviewers, at even more tedious length than me) am saying is: it's huge, flawed, but still hugely entertaining and easy to read despite its intimidating bulk. Very much like, in other words, its predecessor The Bonfire Of The Vanities, with which it shares some major plot points, principally a fascination with the lives and trappings of the super-rich and the device of having one of them, the central character (Charlie Croker here, Sherman McCoy there) brought down and humiliated by his own hubris and extravagance. It was a bit cheeky of Christopher Hitchens to start his review of A Man In Full with a snippet featuring drunken journalist Peter Fallow from The Bonfire Of The Vanities without acknowledging that Fallow was rumoured to have been at least partly modelled on him, as well as Anthony Haden-Guest and no doubt a few others. Indeed Wolfe seems to have a generally low opinion of his journalistic colleagues, most of the ones featured in A Man In Full being badly-shaven scruffy hungover shambling hacks. Perhaps this is just to throw his own real-life penchant for spiffy white suits into sharp relief.

Anyway, it's good, but definitely (just by virtue of its hugeness) falls into the category of books I like to call Projects; others in this list that occupy that category would obviously include Infinite Jest, plus a couple of others on the shelves I really should get to soon. I'd had A Man In Full on the bookshelves for probably the best part of a decade before being nudged into reading it by the prospect of an upcoming holiday with a bit of reading time, but also by Wolfe's death in May of this year. Wolfe thereby avoids the Curse Of Electric Halibut by a few months. Wolfe's only previous mention on this blog was during the course of this post about TC Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

France is de la Tour

Not much competition for Welshman of the Day today; obviously it's going to be Geraint Thomas, the man who won the Tour de France at the weekend, thus becoming the third British winner of the event (but, oddly, the first British-born winner) and the sixth British winner in the last seven years. That last sentence sounds a bit contradictory until you realise that in addition to Sir Bradley Wiggins' trail-blazing win in 2012 four of the wins were accounted for by one man, Chris Froome.

It's impossible to celebrate the unprecedented success of Team Sky in the Grand Tours - Froome has now won all three of them, the Tours of Spain and Italy being the other two - without also mentioning the cloud of doping suspicion and allegations that hangs over Wiggins and to a lesser extent Froome. No specific suspicion has ever been attached to Thomas that I know of, but he does ride for the same team and so there will be some suspicion by association, as unfair as that might seem.

Doping, and doping in the Tour de France in particular, is a long-running and complex topic and if anyone has any romantic ideas about the old-school cyclists being unsullied Corinthian paragons who lived on nothing stronger than a couple of glasses of red wine a night then they should read about Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx, among a host of others. Just as the selection of one drug and not another for prohibited status is at least partly arbitrary, so is the decision to expunge the wins of Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Floyd Landis from the record books but not, say, Anquetil, who was pretty open about his drug use.

Well, that turned out less celebratory than it should have, so I should follow up by saying that I'm convinced that cycling now is cleaner than it's ever been, but that equally people will find new ways to cheat and new drugs to take that aren't yet on the banned list. Equally, I've absolutely no reason to imagine that Geraint Thomas is powered by anything more sinister than leeks and Welsh cakes - on that subject I should say that I heartily endorse his choice of Tan y Castell Welsh cakes, as they are indeed the best.

I should also say that my wife photographed his wedding in 2015 and he is apparently lovely, and so is his wife. And he's called Thomas so I expect we're probably related.

Monday, July 16, 2018

not resting on my yannys

There are a couple of interesting things about the whole YANNY vs. LAUREL sound illusion thing that's been sweeping the internet lately, but before we can get to them it is The Law that I give you my opinion on the subject.

I suspect that if you first listen to the clip, as I did, on a mobile phone, then there's a higher likelihood that you'll hear "yanny", since that's the high-frequency bit and phones are generally rubbish at rendering lower-frequency sounds. Also, if you're on a phone, there's a higher chance you'll be somewhere with a bit of ambient noise going on, which may well swamp the low-frequency bits. That was certainly my experience, as I head "yanny" fairly clearly. Well, I suppose what I mean is I didn't hear any trace of "laurel"; I couldn't swear that what I did hear might not have been "yarry" or "yally" as it's weirdly rendered through some sort of speech synthesiser. Which specific version of the clip you listen to may have a bearing as well; mine was off Twitter so had very possibly had the Twitter upload algorithm compress the shit out of it.

Listen to the same sounds via a higher-quality link and on a laptop, though, and you may hear something different, The one near the top of this Guardian article seems about perfectly pitched to my ear, as I can hear either word depending on what I've preset my brain to listen for. If pressed to pick one I'd definitely lean towards "laurel", though. There are a couple of clips further down featuring some pitch-shifting which illustrate the nature of the illusion quite nicely.

BUT that's not the interesting bit. Too right it wasn't, you might say, at which point I would cordially invite you to - in the words of the great Lester Bangs - eat a bowl of fuck.

The first interesting thing is what this sort of thing - that is to say the laurel/yanny thing and the disagreement over what colour the dress was - reveals in terms of people's reactions to the disagreement. People more inclined to an authoritarian mindset get quite agitated by these things and tend to react with some variant of YOU ARE LITERALLY STUPID AND/OR INSANE AND/OR LYING IT'S OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK  HOW CAN YOU SAY ANYTHING ELSE, while those of a more analytical bent will say wow, that's really interesting, I wonder how that happens?

Colour perception in particular is a really interesting thing and another good antidote to inflexible thinking. It's important and healthy to realise that having colour boundaries going blue-green-yellow rather than, say, bleen-grellow is completely arbitrary and can vary between cultures, just as the convention that says we have a different name for "light red" (i.e. "pink") but not for "light blue" is completely arbitrary. Maybe it derives from the need to distinguish between things that are roughly the same colour as blood and things that aren't, just to avoid overlooking a medical emergency, but equally maybe that's just bollocks.

Anyway, personally I saw the dress as white and gold and continue to do so even though I know the dress is actually blue and black. Similarly I have never been able to see magic eye images even though I accept that they do exist, as tempting as it is to imagine that the whole thing is a conspiracy designed to waste my time by making me sit in front of swirly pictures making myself go boss-eyed. That one isn't down to colour perception so much, though, and I suppose my own known and medically-documented optical defects (I'm long-sighted) may have a bearing on it.

Now that we've got onto more general optical illusions I can throw in the one that prompted this blog post in the first place. I won't say anything about the specifics until the next paragraph, as it's so good I don't want to spoil it for you. Click here, read the article and look at the images IN ORDER and then come back.

As with all illusions, some will "see it" (although of course the trick here is "not seeing it", at least at first) and some won't. As the author says, though, the really interesting thing is to go back to the original image after "seeing it" and be unable to "unsee it", and, moreover, wonder how you failed to see it in the first place as the visual cues seem so obvious. I think that's one of the best illusions I've ever seen for precisely that reason: everything's there in plain sight.

An almost more interesting question, though, is: was the picture specifically taken to provide an illusion? Or was it just an accident? And given that the person taking it, and the person circulating it as an illusion (assuming they weren't the same person) could by definition "see" it, who was it that realised it'd make a good optical illusion, and how could they know, given the impossibility of "unseeing" it? Did they just say to a friend, look, here's a picture I took of a cigar sticking out of a wall, cool, huh? and have the friend go: hunh? WHAT cigar? Or, if it was specifically designed from the outset, who thought (and why) hey, I know what: if I take a picture of a cigar sticking out of a wall I bet people won't be able to see it? Wait, let me get my camera. And a cigar.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

my session obsession confession

I was in Tesco the other day perusing the special offer shelf for beery bargains, as one does, and I spotted this beer that I hadn't seen before.

So this is Clockwork Tangerine from the Brewdog brewery. It's listed as one of their "seasonal" offerings, which makes sense, nice hoppy IPA being a good summer drink lending itself well to being chilled in the fridge on a hot day. It's not completely clear from the description whether the citrus flavour derives solely from the choice of hops, or whether there really is a whack of tangerine flavouring in there. I assume not, but you never know.

I'm generally well-disposed towards Brewdog - their waterfront bar on the Bristol Bridge is a cool place, particularly in summer, the beer is generally very good, and there is a vast range of different stuff to try. My principal reservations are the general air of hipsterishness, the astronomical price they charge for the beer, and the fact that in general it's a bit too strong for my liking. Their flagship brew Punk IPA, for instance, is very nice, but 5.6% is a bit severe, particularly for a chilled IPA the whole point of which is to quaff large volumes of it on a hot day, and furthermore I'm reluctant to shell out six quid for four miniature 330ml cans of it when I could pick up six half-litre cans of, say, Tanglefoot (which also chills quite well, incidentally) for about the same price.

Back to the strength thing, though: note the legend next to the ABV statement of 4.5% here: "CITRUS SESSION IPA". I recall boggling in a very similar way over another beer of similar strength which was labelled in a similar way but which I couldn't remember the name of until I remembered I'd tweeted about it at the time:

This turns out to be Ease Up IPA from Adnams, very nice as I recall but at 4.6% conforming to no reasonable definition of "session beer" that I'd recognise. The problem, of course, is that there isn't a hard and fast definition, but if I were asked to come up with one then "less than 4% ABV" would probably be the first (and possibly last) item on the list.

I searched my own tweets for "session" expecting a single entry, but it turns out this is a thing I'd tweeted about a couple of other times as well, including a pretty much identical stab at a definition.

The point, I guess, is that this is beer that you can drink lots of while kicking back in the pub with friends and talking bollocks for a number of hours without emerging at the end of this, if you will, "session" foaming at the mouth and ready to punch a policeman. So you want something refreshing and flavoursome but reasonably light on the alcohol.

Back in the day the classic model for tied pubs was to offer three beers as standard: a lighter "session" ale, a premium "best bitter" and something a bit stronger for those that liked that sort of thing. So Fuller's have Chiswick Bitter (3.5%), London Pride and ESB, the late lamented Smiles had Brewery Bitter (probably around 3.5%), Best and Exhibition, Jennings have the standard Bitter (at 3.5%), Cumberland Ale and Sneck Lifter and even Courage had, in addition to the standard Best (blue pump-clip) and Directors (purple pump-clip) a lower-strength ale just called (I think) Courage Bitter, which had a cream/white pump-clip. I think it's the one pictured on the right here, and if this article is to be believed clocked in at a modest 3.2%, which might have been a bit watery even for a session (I don't know, because I don't think I ever tried it).

I guess part of the reason for their decline is the (partial) demise of the tied house - if you're obliged to carry beers from only one brewery then there's some value in having a selection. If on the other hand you're a free house and can source what you like from where you like, you're probably going to go with the premium product. Almost no-one who wants to carry a Fuller's ale, for instance, is going to plump for Chiswick Bitter over the mega-selling London Pride.

So I'm not trying to make this a fogeyish moan about how things were better in my day; for one thing I tend not to get to sit in pubs for long periods these days, so I tend to cash in on the more flavoursome premium product when I do get the chance. It's nice to have options, though. It's really more a moan about word usage and meanings - if "session beer" is a phrase that's ceased to have any meaning we probably ought to ditch it. If it's just being used to mean "beer you might want to drink more than one of" then just "nice beer" will probably do.