Friday, June 08, 2018

the last book I read

A Kind Of Loving by Stan Barstow.

Eeeeh, it's grim oop North, ah tell thee. Happen tha'll get home from't pit and be all ready for a reet nice sit down with a cuppa and the wife'll have you out in't back yard mucking out t'whippets.

I'm not sure I can keep that up for a full blog post, if I'm honest, so let's start again. Vic Brown is a Yorkshire lad (it's never explicitly stated, but probably early twenties at most) from a working-class family. He's a reasonably bright lad, and he's doing his best to better himself a bit by getting a job as a trainee draughtsman at a local manufacturing firm. While working here his eye is drawn to one of the girls in the typing pool, Ingrid Rothwell.

Now it's the late 1950s, so you can't just do what you'd do nowadays, which would probably be a bit of Facebook stalking, some light flirting on WhatsApp, then off for a cheeky Nando's and maybe a bit of clubbing before heading back to the flat to ravenously gobble each other off and then beat each other's lubricated parts with a series of increasingly outlandish knobbly sex toys until they go off. No, things move a bit slower than that, and the proprieties must be observed. No-one wants to be getting a "reputation" and besides, everyone lives with their parents and old Ma Rothwell isn't going to stand for any monkey business, and that includes the sound of her daughter being noisily penetrated in the next room. We're also pre-pill, so anyone contemplating going "all the way" runs a terrible risk.

So there's a bit of fairly chaste courting, during the course of which Vic comes to the realisation that, while he's very interested in getting into Ingrid's knickers, she's not really that interesting in other ways. Vic dabbles with high-falutin' ideas like listening to Tchaikovsky (via his work colleague Conroy) and reading Dostoyevsky and Joyce (via his brother-in-law David) and Ingrid is more interested in a night in in front of the TV and an occasional outing to the bingo. But you can't argue with the primeval urges, and after a bit of off-and-on dating Vic finds himself on her in a big way in a discreet outdoor location.

So, obviously, you can see where this is going: Ingrid finds herself pregnant, Vic feels obliged to do the decent thing and marry her, awkward meetings with parents ensue, especially old Ma Rothwell who is something of a battleaxe, a wedding is hurriedly arranged, the newlyweds move in with the bride's parents (having nowhere else to go) and an awkward routine is established. Vic isn't exactly a hellraiser but finds not being able to come and go as he pleases a bit stifling, and can't even rely on some now-wholly-above-board conjugal action of an evening as Mum and Dad being in the next room makes it a bit awkward.

Eventually Vic comes home from work to find that Ingrid has taken a tumble downstairs at home, been rushed to hospital and subsequently had a miscarriage. Ma Rothwell didn't see fit to phone him at work to tell him, so he arrives at the hospital after Ingrid has been put to bed for the night and has to go home again. Needless to say this only stokes further resentment and after Ingrid has come home the atmosphere becomes even more fraught. One night Vic escapes from the house and goes on a bender with an old mate; on returning he finds Ma Rothwell still up and an altercation ensues during which he tells her what he thinks of her and signs off with a flourish by spewing on the carpet.

Assuming that he has burnt his boats with the Rothwells, Ingrid included, Vic does a runner early the next morning and throws himself upon the mercy of his sister, Chris. She isn't quite as uncritically supportive as he was hoping, but does raise the possibility of Vic being able to rent the flat below hers. Upon arranging a meeting with Ingrid to discuss this Vic finds her surprisingly receptive to the idea. Perhaps they can make the best of the situation after all?

So obviously we're in kitchen-sink drama, angry young man territory here, all of it eminently satirisable, just as with Sartre. The hellishness of the cycle of boy meets girl, they both have urges, accidents happen, both are forced into a marriage neither really wants, bloke becomes uncommunicative drunk while girl becomes frustrated shrill harridan is very well laid out and provides a bracing antidote to the sort of Daily Mail woolly nostalgia that got us, among other things, Brexit. This, right here, is the soft-focus 1950s idyll that we're being asked to hanker nostalgically after (those of us who can remember it in the first place). There are a whole raft of books in this genre and, as good as this is, there are others that are probably better. John Braine's Room At The Top, for instance, is probably the best of the "serious" ones (or at least the ones that I've read, anyway), and Kingsley AmisLucky Jim is the best of the comic ones. There's nowt wrong with this, though, although it is very much of its time and has some linguistic tics which are slightly jarring now: Vic's constant referring to women as "bints", even affectionately, for instance.

A Kind Of Loving was filmed in 1962 - directed, coincidentally, by John Schlesinger, who also directed the film of the previous book in this series, The Day Of The Locust. Schlesinger also directed the film of The Innocent in 1993.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

roth: a thad loth

Today sees the Curse Of Electric Halibut in particularly deadly form, as we learn of the death of American novelist Philip Roth. Roth was the last living member of the trio of white male American novelists often mentioned in the same breath - John Updike and Saul Bellow being the other two - and who were often held up as the pinnacle of American late-20th-century literature. Note that I'm not saying I think this was a justified view, as admirable as they all are individually - it's very white-male-centric and no doubt Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, not to mention Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie, would have something to say about it, as would countless others not featured on this blog.

Anyway, my review of The Human Stain from last December did contain the throwaway observation that "Roth's days on this earth are of course now numbered". That is of course trivially true for anyone who's not already dead, but since he was 84 at the time it seemed a reasonably safe bet. Well, that number turned out to be five months almost to the day, which gave him time to celebrate his 85th birthday in March, but not much else. Even the value in the "Curse length" field (the second-shortest one in the list after Michael Dibdin) in the updated table below seems to act as a final Jewish kvetch against the injustice of it all: "Oy! 150d?"

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d

Monday, May 14, 2018

the last book I read

The Day Of The Locust by Nathanael West.

Tod Hackett is a young and talented artist. Hardest game in the world, though, the old young and talented artist game, and it's not really putting food on the table, so Tod has got a job as a trainee set designer with a Hollywood studio. This doesn't exactly provide untold riches either, but at least keeps a roof over his head and allows him to get a sneaky insight into the movie-making process and interact with some assorted Hollywood types.

And a motley bunch they are too: from enraged dwarf Abe Kusich to lanky cowboy impersonator Earle Shoop and his Mexican sidekick (and occasional on-screen Native American impersonator) Miguel, all desperately trying to make it in the film industry but basically all just scrabbling around for a few crumbs dropped from the high table and having to take on trivial and demeaning work just to make ends meet. Most significant from Tod's point of view is Faye Greener, an aspiring actress who lives in the same apartment block as him.

Faye is an attractive young lady of no particular talent who becomes the object of Tod's increasingly violent sexual fantasies. In the real world she has no particular interest in him as a prospective partner; he's too "nice" and not rich enough. Instead she supplements her minimal acting income with some lucrative escort work for the shadowy Mrs. Jenning - a bit of the old whoring, in other words. This doesn't seem to be too much of an imposition for her as she seems quite partial to The Sex, carrying on off-screen with Earle and possibly one or two others. Not Tod, though, and not Homer Simpson (yes, I know, we'll come to that later), the slightly simple accountant whose spacious house Faye talks her way into living in.

A series of increasingly bizarre episodes ensues: Homer and Tod have an encounter with Adore Loomis, the supremely irritating child actor (imagine!) who lives with his pushy mum (imagine!) next door. Miguel organises a cockfight in Homer's garage. There is a wild party at which Faye has sex with Miguel, mainly for the purpose of making Earle jealous, seemingly successfully as a punch-up ensues. Eventually Tod finds himself in a crowd of people who have gathered for a downtown movie premiere. Crowds are fickle things of volatile mood and when Adore Loomis' taunting of Homer Simpson eventually cracks Homer's placid exterior and he gives the boy a savage beating, a riot ensues and Homer is swept away in the crowd. Tod is swept away too but manages to work his way clear of the crowd and is eventually rescued by the police.

The Day Of The Locust was published as long ago as 1939, but feels more modern than that (a sort of reverse True Grit syndrome, if you like). It's a pretty broad satire of Hollywood and the desperate cast of hangers-on who populate its seedy underbelly. Pretty much no-one here is an appealing character - Tod is the nominal hero of the book and seems like a basically decent guy, but the regular fantasies of clubbing Faye over the head with a bottle and raping her suggest there may be something darker going on. It's really more of a series of episodes than a grand sweeping narrative targeted towards making some specific point, and it's hard to know what to make of the ending where Tod is driven away in a police car cackling to himself while the city descends into rioting and chaos. Has he been driven insane? Or has he come to his senses and realised the absurdity of the life he's been living? No doubt the intention was that it could be taken either way.

It's entertaining, and short and snappy at under 200 pages. I'm not sure, for all that, that I'd be including it in any 100 best 20th-century novels list (not that I have any plans to compile one). TIME magazine did, though, so it joins a few others on this list like (among others) Blood Meridian, The French Lieutenant's Woman, On The Road, The Moviegoer and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. Incidentally the claim in that TIME article that West and his wife were killed in a car crash on their way to the funeral of F Scott Fitzgerald is not corroborated anywhere else as far as I can see. The car crash bit is true, and Fitzgerald had died the day before, but there's no documented connection between the two.

The Homer Simpson connection is an odd one; Matt Groening is on record as claiming that Homer was named after his father, but this article confidently claims a direct link with The Day Of The Locust. It could of course be both.

There was a film of the book made in 1975 with some heavyweight names on board, including Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson. I expect you could construct a good pub quiz question out of that. It also stars the guy who keeps getting punched by Bruce Willis's wife in the Die Hard films as Tod Hackett.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

marnoch depression is a frustrating mess

Let's do another whisky post, wherein I bemoan the fact that I don't get to do whisky posts any more because I've got five kids to feed and all. No, you fuck off, it's my blog.

So you'll recall my pleasant surprise when the Glen Marnoch whisky I bought from Aldi a while back turned out not to be a mixture of turps, cold tea, razor blades and despair, but instead was quite palatable. And all this despite Glen Marnoch being a figment of someone's imagination, a mythical Shangri-La where the rivers flow with cheap non-distillery-specific whisky.

And so it came to pass that someone bought me a bottle of Glen Marnoch, the Speyside one this time (the previous one being the Islay-flavoured edition), for Christmas. Whether they'd been inspired by my blog post of almost exactly a year earlier I couldn't say, but anyway, there it is. I did get a couple of bottles of other stuff as well, which was very gratifying, but I'd had all of those before.

So how to assess this one? Well, the best thing would seem to be to start by having a look at it. I note, first of all, that nowhere on the bottle or the packaging carries any sort of warning, in any European language, about the amount of industrial food colouring in it. So that's nice. What I decided was that I should pour what you might call a reference dram of something else of a broadly similar colour, so I chose Highland Park, partly because it's my favourite thing and partly because I happened to have some in the cupboard. Here they are side by side, the Highland Park on the left, slightly lighter as you can see.

There's some stuff on the bottle which makes reference to things like butterscotch, toast and marmalade. I'm not sure I get much of that: butterscotch maybe, but if you want toast and marmalade then my recommendation is that you get hold of some Dalmore. It's a pretty standard sherry-infused Speysider - speculating which distillery it came from is pretty futile given the ludicrously huge number currently in existence, but it's certainly not dissimilar to the Glenlivet and Glenfarclas that have featured here before. There's all the usual leather-topped wooden writing desk stuff that you usually get with sherried whisky, plus a suspicion of something vegetably which is a bit reminiscent of the Tobermory.

It's not as distinctive or interesting in its own right as any of the ones I've just mentioned, but perfectly quaffable and a steal at around £18. The Highland Park reference dram kicks its arse, though.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

I've got a pike you can hike it if you like

As promised, a follow-up on the earlier post about our week's holiday in the Lake District. Part one was mainly ticking off some low-level and mainly kid-friendly activities, part two is all about the lung-busting assaults on various lumps of rock of varying degrees of spikiness and steepness.

A brief historical interlude: I remember being slightly confused when it was revealed, in probably my early teenage years, that the Lake District, in addition to having lots of lakes, as the name suggests, also contains a substantial number of large mountains. And, moreover, the Peak District, whose name suggests exciting rugged lumps of rock, in fact contains almost nothing of that nature at all, but rather a lot of rolling moorland plateaus and fairly gentle hills. I should add that I don't think we ever went on holiday there as kids so I don't know it nearly as well as the Lake District. I did go there for a week with my ex-girlfriend Anne in what was probably about 1999, mainly to do some cycling on the Tissington and High Peak trails, but we also (at my insistence I suspect) went up Kinder Scout, an experience I can't honestly describe as all that thrilling. Wikipedia describes it as a "moorland plateau" rather than a mountain, and my recollection is that the location of the actual summit is far from obvious - the rain and fog on the day we went up wouldn't have helped.

Anyway, back to the Lake District - I went on this particular holiday with high hopes of doing some proper mountain hiking, but tempered by an expectation that there was a good chance of weather, conflicting scheduling or childcare requirements conspiring to thwart me. As it turned out, however, not only did I manage to organise two proper days in the mountains, with different but equally delightful company each time, but we managed to bag excellent weather for both.

The Buttermere Fells

My first idea for a day out was to tackle the group of fells on the south side of Buttermere, none of which I'd ever been up before. These are variously known as the "Buttermere fells" or the "High Stile range" and principally comprise Red Pike (not to be confused with the slightly higher mountain of the same name over in Wasdale), High Stile and High Crag. They're not supremely high as Lakeland fells go - High Stile is either the 29th, 11th or 33rd highest peak in the area, depending whose list you use - but it's reasonably easily accessible via the Honister Pass, very popular and provides a nice circular walk starting and finishing at either Gatesgarth Farm (where we parked) or in Buttermere village. Which of these you choose may dictate which direction you choose to do the walk in, for reasons outlined here, i.e. it's probably preferable to have the long flat section at the start rather than the end. Starting from Gatesgarth we decided to walk along the lakeside path and tackle Red Pike first, thereby ensuring that we'd end up dropping off the ridge pretty much straight back into the car park. The path up to Red Pike from the lake is pretty steep and gets very crumbly and scree-y towards the top, but this is by far the most strenuous section of the whole day, and once you get to the summit there's a very inviting broad grassy ridge leading towards High Stile.

The main thing you notice being up on the ridge is that its central location within Lakeland affords the most comprehensive views I can ever remember seeing. Obviously it being a very clear day helped, but from Red Pike you get spectacular views of Crummock Water and Ennerdale Water and from High Crag in particular amazing views of Pillar directly across the valley and also the Wasdale group, in particular Great Gable, Kirk Fell and the Scafells.

We had intended to take in Haystacks as a little detour while dropping off the ridge, as it was legendarily Wainwright's favourite mountain and the place where his ashes are scattered, but unfortunately we didn't have time. Here's the route info and elevation profile; it was a mere 7.1 miles according to the track log, but still took us most of the day, although we didn't get started until nearly 11am.

The Scafells

It's generally accepted that the Lake District has four peaks of over 3000 feet: Scafell, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Skiddaw, although Scafell disappears from certain lists which have particularly stringent relative height requirements. Prior to this trip I'd been up Scafell Pike twice and Helvellyn and Skiddaw once each, so Scafell itself was a major omission from my mountaineering CV. As luck would have it Ray not only hadn't been up Scafell, he hadn't ever been up Scafell Pike either, so the possibly tricky job of selling a trip to bag the two highest mountains in England in a day turned out to be quite easy.

One of the most challenging aspects of climbing mountains from Wasdale, which is the best place to attack the Scafells from, is that it's extraordinarily time-consuming to get there. It took us the best part of an hour and a half to get to the National Trust car park at Wasdale Head from Keswick, despite their as-the-crow-flies separation being little more than ten miles. Having got there, though, it was straight into some lung-bursting climbing up the path alongside Lingmell Gill to Hollow Stones at the base of the crags which protect the two peaks. 

The original plan had been to search out and ascend Lord's Rake, Wainwright's preferred route up Scafell, an exciting scree scramble up a cleft in Scafell Crag which leads (especially if you take the option of the West Wall Traverse about halfway up) pretty directly to the summit. For some years this route had been subject to some severe safety warnings as a rock fall had resulted in a large chockstone being precariously wedged in the middle of the rake about halfway up in such a way that it could fall at LITERALLY ANY MOMENT and turn nearby hikers into strawberry jam. Needless to say LITERALLY ANY MOMENT turned out to be the best part of a decade later in 2016.

So, encouraged by the prospect of not being mashed to a gristly pulp by a rock the size of a small car, we headed up the scree slopes below Mickledore to have a look for Lord's Rake. It's hidden from view most of the way up from Wasdale and only really becomes obvious when you get to the Mickledore side of it and look back, at which point it's completely obvious. Unfortunately what was also completely obvious was that it was full of snow, presumably snow which had been there all winter. The snow we encountered on our brief reconnaissance expedition certainly had a treacherous icy crust on it, so there was every chance the snow in the rake would have been in the same state. We reluctantly concluded that while it probably would have been fine with an ice axe and a pair of light crampons each we weren't really equipped for it in shorts and T-shirts, so we had to arse-toboggan back down some scree to Hollow Stones and have a rethink.

Other routes up Scafell from Mickledore all encounter the same problem: the great bulk of Broad Stand which stands in the way of access to the summit plateau and is pretty much off-limits unless you're equipped with proper rock-climbing paraphernalia. So the usual route is to drop off Mickledore to the east (i.e. away from Wasdale), skirt round the bottom of Broad Stand and then head steeply up to the little natural amphitheatre that houses Foxes Tarn. 

As with most forms of physically challenging activity, half of the battle is mental, and there was a bit of a low moment when we realised we'd have to do another scree scramble up to the Mickledore ridge and then drop down 800 feet or so to get round Broad Stand, then do a scrambly ascent of Scafell, then do the whole height loss and regain again in reverse to get back to Mickledore in order to head up onto Scafell Pike. But we had a drink and a choccy bar, gave ourselves a stern talking to and set off.

And, in fact, although the height loss is frustrating, the Foxes Tarn route is actually quite good fun, in particular the section where the "path" heads up a rocky cleft which contains a stream and which requires some proper hands-and-feet scrambling. It doesn't take long to get to Foxes Tarn, which is little more than a greenish puddle but sits in a very lovely natural amphitheatre (presumably a glacial cirque). The main path up from there to the summit area is a crumbly scree-y nightmare, so having gone up that way and bagged the summit (where there is an obvious cairn but no trig point) we descended via some grassy slopes on the other side of the tarn to get back to where we came up. Once we were back at Mickledore we headed up onto the great stony dome of Scafell Pike, which contains no technical difficulties but occasionally requires a queueing system to get your trig point photo. I'd be intrigued to know the ratio between people summiting Scafell Pike and people summiting Scafell on any given day, but I'd imagine it'd be in the ballpark of 10:1 or maybe more. Having done the summit formalities we headed off the north end of the summit dome and eventually rejoined the path down to Lingmell Gill and the car park, from where we drove the mile or so down the road to the Wasdale Head Hotel where we had a reviving pint in Ritson's Bar before tackling the drive back to Keswick.

Here's the route map and elevation profile. Note that I've put some arrows and numbers on the map in an attempt to make sense of the spaghetti-like route we ended up taking. This one was only 6.9 miles lateral distance according to the track log, but packs over 4700 feet of ascent and descent into that distance, so it's pretty unforgiving. Open the images in a new tab for a full-size view.

Photos, including rugged mountain activity but also the more child-friendly stuff described in the earlier post (and combining some of mine and many more nicked from Hazel and Emma), can be found here.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

the last book I read

On The Beach by Nevil Shute.

It's 1963. We're in Melbourne. Melbourne's nice, isn't it? The sea, the cricket, the Royal Exhibition Building, all that stuff. Plus, that whole thing about southern Australia being the last place on Earth not ravaged by nuclear firestorms and lethal radioactive fallout. That stuff really puts a damper on your holidays, let me tell you.

Let's step back for a moment. There's been a nuclear war, centred mainly in the northern hemisphere. As far as anyone can tell, it was started, not by any of the major powers kicking off at each other, but by a combination of actions by Albania and Egypt. Sounds implausible, you might say, but don't forget World War I was caused by some Serbian nutter plugging an Austrian prince. Anyway, gradually the major powers are drawn into the conflict and eventually just empty their nuclear arsenals at each other in an orgy of mutually assured destruction. And these aren't the nice cuddly nuclear bombs either, the ones that just scour the earth flat and then bid you good day, no, these are the really nasty dirty ones that produce a shroud of radioactive filth that circles the entire earth for decades.

The trouble with radioactive fallout is that the darn stuff just won't stay where it's put, and the natural cycles of wind and weather carry it inexorably south into all the southern hemisphere countries that have just been sitting there minding their own business.

So this is where we come in. Australian naval officer Peter Holmes has been seconded as a liaison officer to what remains of the US Navy fleet, which has divided itself between South America and Australia. The submarine that's stationed in Melbourne is under the command of Dwight Towers and he and Peter strike up a good relationship, good enough for Peter to invite Dwight up to stay at his house and meet his wife Mary, baby daughter Jennifer and their friend Moira Davidson.

So in many ways life is going on as normal. But there are certain practical problems like a lack of fuel, and some slightly different ones, like: what are acceptable topics of conversation? It's well-known that the radioactive cloud is on the way south, and that in no more than a few months everyone will be dead, but you don't really want to spend the whole evening talking about that. Also, with Dwight around, do you ask after his wife and children, knowing as you do that they were probably all turned into pork scratchings a while back?

Dwight and Peter are called in to be briefed for a mission: take the submarine across the Pacific to Seattle, from where an intermittent radio signal has been picked up. There almost certainly can't be anyone left alive, but it'll be an opportunity for a reconnaissance mission, and it'll keep the Navy boys busy for a month or so. Just be sure to stay submerged the whole time once you're in the contaminated zone and just snoop around via the periscope. So they trek northwards and send a man ashore in Seattle (in full protective gear) to find the source of the radio signal, which turns out to be a broken window frame intermittently banging on some old radio equipment which is connected to a still-working generator. It's not possible to see much from sea level, still less periscope level, but the conclusions are clear enough: everyone's dead.

So the submarine returns to Melbourne, and everyone gets busy with the important business of waiting to be turned inside out by nuclear radiation. Some take up dangerous hobbies like driving cars at unsafe speeds and getting messily killed, some drink themselves into a stupor, some do the more palatable bucket-list stuff like going hiking and fishing, some decide not to wait and check out early by using the suicide pills that the Australian government has made available to everyone. Peter goes home to his family and, as they all start to succumb to radiation sickness, has to make the unthinkable decision to give his baby daughter a lethal injection before he and the wife chomp down on the suicide pills. Meanwhile Moira is sitting in her car watching Dwight take his submarine out into the bay to scuttle it, while munching on her own pill.

The end of the human race and most other life on Earth is, you won't need me to tell you, a pretty heavy downer, and it's clear pretty early on here that there's not going to be a miracle cure or an alien intervention or anything like that: everyone we meet in the early pages of the novel is going to be dead by the end, after only a few months of novelistic timeline have elapsed. But, as in Never Let Me Go, this just serves as a sly reminder that we're all going to die, and the frantic attempt to cram everything else you want to do into the time you've got left is just a more compressed version of what everyone has to do with their lives anyway.

There are a few fairly obvious criticisms that could be made here: everyone's stoical and stiff-upper-lip to an almost comical degree, society continues to function despite everyone being under imminent sentence of death and there doesn't seem to have been any descent into lawlessness and looting and violence. In reality you suspect things might have got a little bit more Lord Of The Flies by the end. I mean, Peter does take a garden bench from a shop in the last few days without paying for it, but it's a very middle-class sort of looting. The interlude where top boffin John Osborne races his Ferrari and ends up winning the Australian Grand Prix is a bit odd as well and seems to have been pasted in from a completely different novel, presumably just because Shute liked cars and wanted to put some racing sequences in.

This doesn't really matter, though, as the central story is so compelling. It's oddly reminiscent of Stephen King's The Langoliers in some ways: everything playing out against the backdrop of some Really Bad Stuff approaching relentlessly and unstoppably, although in that story there turned out to be an escape route after all. It doesn't flinch from some of the more unpalatable business like having to euthanise your own one-year-old child, although Shute enables the reader to maintain some emotional distance by referring to baby Jennifer as "it" throughout, which may just have been how people (or, more specifically, men) referred to small children in the 1950s (the novel was published in 1957) but seems a bit odd to modern eyes.

Anyway, it's very good, and though Shute isn't as hugely popular or fashionable these days as he was in the 1950s and 1960s, it's well worth reading. It's natural film material and was pounced upon almost immediately for an adaptation in 1959, and then again in 2000.

Friday, April 20, 2018

the last book I read

Pig by Andrew Cowan.

Danny is in his mid-teens, probably 15 or 16, and lives with his parents and slobbish elder brother Richard in some unspecified run-down edge-of-town location. His grandmother and grandfather live nearby, or at least they do until the first couple of pages of the books, wherein Granny ups and dies, leaving Grandad all alone in the house. Not all alone in the garden, though, as the couple are the improbable custodians of a fucking enormous pig.

Grandad is judged unable to cope on his own in the house (not to mention incapable of heavy-duty pig management) and is shunted off to an old folks' home where Danny visits him regularly (no-one else seems to bother much). Danny also volunteers to look after the pig, which basically involves boiling up malodorous vats of vegetable leftovers and redistributing pigshit across the vegetable patch.

Danny is a considerate and helpful boy, but he also has some ulterior motives for wanting to spend time over at his grandparents' old place. Firstly it provides a respite from his family: Mum, brother Richard but also his Dad, intermittently drunk and punchy and permanently grouchy from working on the night shift. Secondly Danny has struck up a fledgling relationship with Surinder, an Asian girl from his school whose family run a local mini-mart, and is keen to get her alone in an undisturbed location so he can get to know her on a deep and personal level, and then get her knickers off.

This is all peachy for a while but no matter how much fun Danny, Surinder and the pig are having, there are certain realities that must be faced up to. Firstly, Danny's grandparents didn't own the house so at some point the council are going to want it back, either to rent out to someone else or to sell off to the group of property developers who are sniffing around the area. Secondly, pigs need care and maintenance and occasionally get sick and need veterinary attention. Thirdly, certain elements of the community aren't very happy about having Asians in their midst and certainly wouldn't be very happy about discovering fraternising of this sort going on.

So, inevitably, things come to a head and Danny and Surinder are left to contemplate their futures, which are probably going to be lived separately. As for the pig, well, I don't want to ruin it for you, but chances are the pig doesn't have a future, guys.

So we're in That Last Golden Summer territory, with just a bit of quirky weirdness and uneasiness on the side. Danny and Surinder's relationship is sweetly convincing, comprising, as most teenage relationships do, equal parts a) mooching around together not saying anything b) bickering and c) fucking. That said, once the initial plot elements have been put in place - the family, the pig, Surinder, the cottage - the plot meanders a bit until the slightly low-key All Is Revealed moment, whereupon the book pretty much ends.

The novel this most reminded me of was Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden: adolescent kids alone in a house, some slightly transgressive sexy sexy times, things decaying ripely around the central characters until eventually someone notices and All Is Revealed. There are some elements of Peter Benson's The Levels as well: local boy meets slightly exotic non-local girl, she grants him access to her chamber of magical secrets for a glorious season before buggering off to bigger and better things leaving him to stay.....local.

It's perfectly good in its unstartling way, and won all sorts of First Novel awards when it was published in 1994, most notably the Betty Trask Award and The Authors Club First Novel Award, both of which The Levels also won in 1987. Other Betty Trask Award winners on this list are The Hunter, The Dark Room and My Summer Of Love.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

the great british lake-off

We had a week's family holiday in the Lake District last week. As you can imagine if you know me at all, this will have comprised lots of wholesome fun with the kids at various family-friendly locations, plus occasional escapes to go and conquer big spiky mountainous bits of rock. I'll get to the mountain stuff later, but here's a brief summary of the rest of the activities, including links for those who might be in a similar situation (i.e. young kids to keep entertained).
  • We stayed in a couple of cottages at Low Briery, a self-catering holiday park on the north-eastern outskirts of Keswick. "Holiday park" makes it sound a lot more Butlins-y than it actually is, and the main buildings are actually the remnants of an old bobbin mill, with various static caravans and some cute "pods" having been added to increase the size of the accommodation available. There's precious little information about the site's former use on the Low Briery website, but there are some information boards at the site of the former railway halt on the old line that runs along the southern edge of the site, one of which yields the snippet that the mill ceased production in 1958.
  • The railway path probably warrants a few words in its own right as it's a well-known and widely-used route that we've made use of on previous holidays to get to, among other places, the Horse & Farrier at Threlkeld. Anyone wanting to make use of it should be aware, though, that two of the bridges over the River Greta were washed away in some heavy flooding at the end of 2015, and have not yet been replaced, and that a third is structurally unsound and closed. This means quite a considerable detour to get anywhere east of Keswick by this route, though thankfully you can still get into Keswick from Low Briery down the path (it's just over a mile). Plans are afoot for renovations, including re-opening the tunnel buried under the A66 bridge whose bypassing currently adds a rather unsatisfactory hump in the otherwise nice friendly gradient. There is even a project afoot to try to lobby for the route to be re-opened as a proper railway, though (while I can see the argument that there'd be a market for it) it all sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky to me.
  • Wray Castle - on the western shore of Windermere, England's longest and largest lake. This is really a Victorian house built in the style of a castle, and as such doesn't have all the exciting historical stuff that proper castles have - portcullis mechanisms, lots of old armour and halberds lying around, that sort of thing - and so has to work a bit harder to provide interest. They've made a reasonable job of it although you do get the impression that they've had to work to stretch the content they have been able to produce over the entire house. There's some stuff about the house's original female owner and the general shittiness of being a woman in early Victorian times, and a lot is made of the fact that Beatrix Potter stayed here while on a family holiday in the 1880s, including a whole section of the house given over to recreations of parts of the Peter Rabbit universe; Mr. MacGregor's garden, Peter's burrow and the like. We made use of the launches operated by Windermere Lake Cruises to get to and from the castle; these make a round trip from Ambleside via Brockhole on the eastern shore of the lake which has more kid-friendly outdoor fun stuff but which we didn't have time to stop off and visit. We did also get some good views from the lake of what is now the ritzy Pullwood Bay holiday apartment complex but which we used to know as Huyton Hill when it was a slightly more downmarket group of holiday lets which we used for several family holidays back in the 1970s and 1980s, though strictly Huyton Hill was the name of the preparatory school which occupied the site between 1939 and 1969. 
  • Mirehouse - just out of Keswick on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake (note: the only Lake District lake to legitimately include the word "lake" in its name, all the others having a "mere" or "water" instead which renders the addition of "lake" superfluous, nay indeed pleonasmic), this is a more orthodox country house with some grounds which include some woods and streams to keep the kids amused. I didn't actually go here as I was doing mountain stuff at the time; more on this later.
  • Lakes Aquarium - this is down at Newby Bridge on the skinny southern tail of Windermere, so it was a convenient place to stop in on our way home. Is it the most amazing aquarium in the world, with a lavish selection of eye-poppingly astonishing wonders of the deep? Well, no, not really, but it's well-set-up and keeps the kids amused, even if most of the inhabitants are ducks and fish rather than giant squid and hippopotamuses. They haven't even got a megalodon
Tune in next time for some links to photos plus details of exciting mountain adventures. THRILL as I climb the two highest mountains in England IN A SINGLE DAY!!!! RECOIL in AWE as I GO UP some OTHER mountains!! CRINGE as I consume TWO SPICY PEPERAMIS and a PORK PIE!!! ET CETERA!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

the last book I read

True Grit by Charles Portis.

Life isn't easy in the old West. The rule of law is a tenuous thing and often the manner of its application depends on whose jurisdiction you happen to be in that day. So if you've got a bunch of no-good rootin' tootin' varmints riding into town and shooting up the sheriff, you'd better hope that you've got recourse to a lawman who'll get the job done.

Mattie Ross has a host of problems. Her father Frank has been shot dead by a man, Tom Chaney, who took advantage of Frank's good nature, got him to give him a job and a roof over his head, and then shot him in cold blood, stole some gold from his cold dead hands and scarpered. Mattie wants Tom brought to justice, and why wouldn't she, but there's a problem: she's a fourteen-year-old girl. And while these days we're all groovy and inclusive and let fourteen-year-old girls be astronauts and Prime Minister and everything, back in the old West things were a little more traditional.

So the first thing Mattie has to do is find someone to agree to bring Tom Chaney to justice. This turns out to be reasonably easy, as Marshal Reuben J "Rooster" Cogburn is in town and is just the sort of man for the job, if he can stay off the sauce long enough. The second thing she has to do is persuade Rooster that part of the deal is her coming along on the trip, as she is a girl of unusual determination and wants to see justice done with her own eyes. Needless to say Rooster isn't particularly keen, as there's bound to be a lot of high-speed galloping, punching, drinking and farting involved and Mattie is likely to cramp his style.

But Mattie is relentless, and her offer of money is persuasive. They set off, accompanied by a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf (pronounced "La Beef" and not to be confused with either the correctly spelled version of that surname sported by footballer Frank Leboeuf or the utterly bonkers version sported by Shia LaBeouf) who has his own reasons for wanting to catch up with Chaney. It appears that Chaney has taken up with a band of outlaws led by notorious wrong'un "Lucky" Ned Pepper and has fled into some remote part of what is now Oklahoma.

The trio head off in pursuit of the outlaws and Rooster cooks up a scheme to ambush them at a hideout they're known to have made use of before. All goes according to plan until LaBoeuf starts loosing off his gun before the outlaws are in position - a gun battle ensues during the course of which several outlaws are killed, but not Tom Chaney or Ned Pepper, who escape. So the pursuit continues until they catch up with the outlaws again when Mattie has an unexpected encounter with none other than Tom Chaney when collecting water at a stream near their overnight camping spot. Mattie manages to pull her gun and shoot him, but not fatally, and he grabs her and drags her back to the Pepper gang's hilltop camp with Rooster and LaBoeuf in hot pursuit.

There then follows a brief stand-off wherein Chaney and Pepper threaten to throw Mattie into a rattlesnake pit unless Rooster and LaBoeuf beat a retreat. This they do...OR DO THEY? When Pepper and a couple of his henchmen leave Chaney in charge of Mattie and ride off, they are ambushed by Rooster who charges at them kamikaze stylee with guns a-blazin'. This tactic is surprisingly successful until Pepper shoots Rooster's horse out from under him and moves in for the kill, only to be picked off by a long shot from LaBoeuf's rifle. The day is not yet saved, though, as Chaney bashes LaBoeuf over the head with a rock, whereupon Mattie shoots him, but the recoil sends her tumbling into the rattlesnake pit, whereupon it further turns out that Chaney isn't quite dead after all. Fortunately Rooster has freed himself from under a dead horse and arrives in the nick of time to apply a bit of lethal competence to the situation by dispatching Chaney properly and, with a bit of help from LaBoeuf and Mattie's horse, rescuing Mattie from the pit. The day is not yet saved, though, as Mattie has a broken arm and has been bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake, so Rooster sets off at breakneck speed to deliver her to a doctor and save her life.

I'd imagine most people's reaction to discovering that there is a book called True Grit would be, like me, to start by assuming it's a novelisation of the celebrated 1969 film (for which John Wayne won an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn), and then, on discovering that the novel came first, to assume that it therefore must be some forgotten 1890s relic that was dug up by an astute Hollywood researcher, and then finally to be rather surprised that it was actually published in 1968, the year before the film was released. It's a book that has the feel of oldness without actually being old, a bit like the song Long Black Veil as mentioned here. The 1969 version is still the definitive movie, despite the 2010 Coen Brothers remake being a better film in just about every way - Jeff Bridges is closer to Cogburn as written (John Wayne essentially just plays a grumpier John Wayne in an eyepatch), Hailee Steinfeld gives a remarkable performance as Mattie Ross (all the more remarkable for being thirteen at the time, unlike Kim Darby who was twenty-one when the original film was released), and (from my recollection anyway) the film keeps Mattie as its focus more than the earlier film did, and rightly, since the story in the novel is told in her voice.

Like Winter's Bone this is a book that succeeds by making you like and care about its young female protagonist - Mattie is relentless in her pursuit of justice, determined not to be taken advantage of, scathingly puritanical about adult vices and generally un-self-aware to a wryly amusing degree. It is a sad reflection of the times she lives in that being an intelligent, independent woman not prepared to take any shit from useless feckless drunken men lends a sort of inevitability to the framing device which depicts Mattie as an elderly spinster recounting her exciting youthful exploits.

As revisionist Western novels go this is slyly subversive rather than brutally so (in the manner of, say, Blood Meridian) but it makes very clear that the nominal "good guys", Rooster Cogburn in particular, are morally compromised to some degree, and moreover that this is inevitable. It's slyly amusing, too, it a deadpan sort of way.

A more obscure connection to some earlier entries in this list is provided by the foreword to my 2005 paperback edition: as with The Queen's Gambit and Stoner this is written by a different previous featuree here, in this case Donna Tartt.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

A high culture/low culture mash-up today, you might say, if you were as snobbish and patronising as me; Chilean politician, poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and whimsical Northern philosopher and occasional bathtub pilot Norman Clegg from Last Of The Summer Wine. Yes, ALL RIGHT, I photo-edited in the pipe in the second picture, but that doesn't necessarily undermine my point.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

the last book I read

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Our protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is a writer trying to write a biography of some 18th-century French political type. Being a Frenchman of philosophical bent this mainly involves hanging around various coffee shops and bars shrugging moodily and not doing a lot of writing. He has retreated to the coastal town of Bouville (a thinly fictionalised Le Havre) to avoid the distractions of the varied fleshpots of Paris, but has still been managing to have it away intermittently with the proprietress of a local café, Françoise, and spend a lot of time mooning about in the library without really achieving very much.

Antoine is wrestling with some key philosophical concepts, in between knobbing local businesswomen and quaffing claret: since God does not exist to guide our actions towards some ineffable target, how should we live? What should we do? Should I light up another Gauloise? If I can't understand my own life even as I'm living it, what chance do I have of understanding someone else's, and what's the point of trying to document it? Is there any meaningful response we can give to these questions other than a Gallic shrug and another glass of vin ordinaire?

Roquentin mooches around some cafés with his friend (who he calls the Autodidact) and has a reunion with an old girlfriend, Anny, one that he seems to be expecting to provide some revelation that will bring everything into focus, or maybe just an opportunity to get his end away, but ends up being somewhat unsatisfactory. Anny leaves on a train with her new boyfriend, and it is revealed that the Autodidact has a bit of a thing for underage boys, a revelation that gets him beaten up by the custodian of the local library.

Roquentin abandons his plans for writing his book and resolves to return to Paris. He stops in to see Françoise for a cheeky drink before he leaves, only to find that she seems to have a new man on the go as well. Ah...*lights Gauloise* vie, eh? FIN.

It's easy to satirise this sort of thing, of course, and there's a sketch comedy trope (Monty Python are probably partly to blame) of the intense Frenchman with a cigarette and a beret staring at a chair going "zis chair.....exeeests, non?" to applause and adoration from various chic female acolytes. I should also say that while I've read a few definitions of existentialism, the philosophical school with which Sartre is primarily associated, and various of the principles of which Nausea is supposed to exemplify, I'm still not terribly clear what it's all about, other than a general rationalist acknowledgement that there's no divine purpose to anything and we've got to extract our own meaning from life. Maybe that's all there is to it.

Hanging about in cafés not doing very much is only possible, of course, if you have some means of paying for all the coffee and croissants and fags, and it turns out that Roquentin has some sort of income, possibly from an inheritance or something, that absolves him of any obligation to get off his arse and earn a living. This certainly makes it easier to devote all of your time to contemplating What It All Means and scoffing at the bovine unreflectiveness of those who have to grab a quick omelette between shifts down at the Gauloise factory. In that sense this is a book with a lot of similarities with previous books in this series, Hunger, DemianThe Moviegoer and The Catcher In The Rye in particular; all of those could be said to embody existential angst in one way or another. As with all of those books, increasing age (i.e. mine) probably carries with it an increasing desire to reach in and give the main protagonist a bit of a slap and tell him to get a grip.

Nonetheless, for all the potential intimidatingness of the philosophical baggage, and despite the fact that (as with most books of this type) pretty much nothing happens, this is actually pretty easy to read and has a certain lugubrious humour in places. If you're on a desperate quest for some meaning in your life and are expecting this book to provide it, you'll probably be disappointed, but it's probably an unrealistic thing to expect of a novel anyway.

Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, though he famously refused it - just as with the Oscars, though, the academy don't care and award it to you anyway. The Hunger review contains some links to other Nobel laureates on this list, though with no guarantee it's comprehensive. It won't, for instance, include 2017 winner Kazuo Ishiguro, featured here.

A couple of other footnotes: my old (1970s, I'd guess) second-hand Penguin Modern Classics edition carries a reproduction of the painting The Triangular Hour by Salvador Dalí. Reproductions of old paintings as cover art seem to have been a feature of this particular incarnation of the series: see also Tortilla Flat. Secondly the sharp-eyed among you will have spotted that the record-breaking sequence of one-word book titles now extends to four. I can exclusively reveal that my next book is a multi-worder, so that's your lot.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Ex-CEO of ExxonMobil and, as of his unexpected (to him at least) firing yesterday, ex-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former showbiz publicist and convicted sex offender (and, as of December, former living person) Max Clifford.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

behold the LAKE OF DEATH

I'm sure you'll agree with me that there's pretty much nothing in life as fascinating as a partially-drained reservoir. I mean, yes, fine wine, ladies' bottoms, experimental Bulgarian cinema, free-form jazz, improvised contemporary dance, these all have their place. But there's a sort of illicit thrill in seeing stuff that's normally hidden under a featureless sheet of water, especially when you consider that it's a sort of unexpected reversal of the original reservoir creation process, whereby things that had been quite happily existing in the open air minding their own business for a substantial amount of time were inexorably consumed by the rising waters, never to be seen again, OR SO WE THOUGHT, etc.

Now of course most of the time what emerges when reservoirs get drained is mundane and unappealing stuff like shit-encrusted shopping trolleys, dead fish, rusting old car bodies and the like. But occasionally, when the original reservoir (the larger ones, typically) submerged human settlements, maybe even villages, these can occasionally emerge when the reservoir is either partly or completely drained for maintenance, or when drought conditions cause the water level to drop.

Here's a couple of good examples:
  • As linked before from this post, here's a tremendous resource about the drowned village of Mardale Green at the southern end of the Haweswater reservoir in the Lake District, which occasionally slurps clear of the water in exceptionally dry conditions. An exceptionally rich and comprehensive resource about the history of the place and its occasional re-emergence is here, although a word of warning must be issued about some exceptionally horrible 1990s website design. Top marks for sloppy hack journalism go to the Daily Mail for this tremendously badly-researched graphic from 2014 which misrepresents the location of the village by several miles.
  • When the Lac de Guerlédan in Brittany was drained for maintenance towards the end of 2015 the lake bed was opened up to tourists to come and have a look around. Not just the usual knackered old buildings this time but also the remains of some lock structures on the old Nantes-Brest canal, a significant section of which was submerged when the lake was filled in the 1920s. It seems to have been filled again by early 2016. 
Anyway, I mention all this because when we went up to Wentwood woods for a quick walk on Sunday we passed Wentwood reservoir on the way, and I couldn't help noticing that it is currently nearly empty - apparently for maintenance of one of the take-off towers. I took a photo (looking towards the dam), though inevitably I was constrained to standing in the worst possible position, looking right into the sun. This is a much better picture, although it seems to have been taken about a year ago, so the maintenance work is obviously taking a while.

Since Wentwood reservoir was opened in 1904 I don't have access to a map which shows the area before the reservoir existed, so I can't do the sort of illustrative thing I did here and here. There didn't appear to be any exciting submerged farms or villages to report, although that doesn't mean there was nothing exciting to be found by the sharp-eyed observer, unless you consider a headless, handless, footless corpse shackled to a ceramic kitchen sink to be perfectly commonplace, in which case remind me never to accompany you on a fishing trip. Let's just be thankful the killer didn't have access to a glory hole spillway, or the body may never have been found.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

get in the bach of the fan

It was my birthday at the weekend. No need for congratulation or commiseration, particularly, although if you really want to make some sort of donation I'm sure we can come to some arrangement. No, I mention it because among the splendid array of presents I received was an item that cannot be grasped in the hand, still less worn or drunk or inserted into any bodily orifices, but is nonetheless of inestimable value to the busy father-of-three: a day with no obligations and positive encouragement to get myself out and get up some mountains.

But where to go? I decided I didn't want to go anywhere I'd been before, which actually didn't leave a large number of decent-sized peaks in the Brecon Beacons area, because I've been up most of them at one time or another, But I remembered looking over to the west while trudging up Fan Llia on this previous walk almost exactly two years ago and noticing an interesting bulky mountain just across the valley. This turned out to be Fan Nedd, so I devised the walk below to bag it.

A couple of points to note: Fan Nedd isn't actually the high point of the walk; that's Fan Gyhirych (725 metres, 2379 feet) a couple of miles to the west, which is a more stereotypical Beacons peak: relatively gentle slope on the south side (i.e. the side you walk up, unless you're a nutter) and a big steep gouged-out glacial cliff on the north side. The Pen y Fan range to the east and the Black Mountain to the west (of which the summit of Fan Gyhirych provides spectacular views on a good day) are the same.

This is probably a better walk than the Fan Fawr one, for reasons related to the ones explored here. The crucial factor is that you do it clockwise: this gives you a nice long 4-5 mile walk in along sections of the old Sarn Helen Roman road and the Beacons Way before you hop over a stone wall near the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave network (watch out for sinkholes) and join a vehicle track that takes you most of the way to the summit of Fan Gyhirych. From there you cross over a col to the north-west ridge of Fan Nedd and the steepest bit of ascent of the day before traversing the length of the summit ridge and dropping down steeply back to the Blaen Llia car park. My GPS track log says it was 11.8 miles in total. The altitude profile tells the story, although you need to ignore the height info as that seems to be on the fritz - the high point of the day is 725 metres, not 405 metres. Think of it as height relative to the start point, I suppose.

These are remote hills and nowhere near as frequented as, say, Pen y Fan - we saw, if my recollection is correct, seven other people all day, all near the summit of Fan Gyhirych, and passed near enough for a greeting to three of them. It'd be pretty bleak in bad weather, but as it happened barring a couple of brief flurries of light rain and snow we had dry conditions and good visibility all day. Cloud height is the single most important factor on these walks - it doesn't really matter if it's raining, as long as you've got appropriate clothing, but if you can't see where you're aiming for then you can easily get into trouble.

Going back to what I was saying above, the things that make this a good walk clockwise - a relatively gentle walk in, all the high-altitude excitement concentrated into the second half of the walk, a quick no-messing-about descent off the final summit back to the car park - would make it a bad one anti-clockwise. You'd have a brutal initial ascent straight up the south side of Fan Nedd, and then once you'd got off Fan Gyhirych a long and energy-sapping walk out without the prospect of further excitement to keep you going.

Trig point news: there's one on top of each of the main summits. The one on Fan Nedd has been given a lick of white paint and a dragon stencil, the same as Fan Fawr and Hay Bluff and a few others; the one on Fan Gyhirych hasn't, possibly because it was deemed to be outside of the painting crew's jurisdiction but maybe because it's got a chunk missing at one of the bottom corners and is sitting in a mini-lake and therefore may not have long left before it falls over and goes the way of the one on top of Waun Fach in the Black Mountains.

I took a few photos, which can be found here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

fancy a threesome?

Historic times here at the Electric Halibrary. Let me explain: you will of course recall that at the end of the review of Heather McGowan's Schooling in 2014 I observed that it was the 42nd book in the series with a one-word title. Well, that number has gone up to 54 in the intervening three years, and, fascinatingly, while the 42 comprised 21.65% of the total of 194 books up to that point, the subsequent 12 comprise 22.64% of the total of 54 books I've read since that one. So I'm keeping up a pretty consistent percentage, without putting any conscious thought into the book selection process, or at least not any conscious thought that takes the number of words in the book's title into account.

The real story here though is that since Exposure follows on the heels of Matter and Stick it's the first time in the entire history of this blog that I've read three monolexic titles consecutively. You can gasp in disbelief all you want, but it's true. Deal with it. There have been eight previous occasions where I've read two consecutively, as follows:

the last book I read

Exposure by Helen Dunmore.

Simon and Lily Callington have a nice enough life - a house in Muswell Hill, three children aged between five and eleven, decent jobs; she works part-time as a teacher, he has a mid-ranking job at the Admiralty. They're not rich but they get by OK.

Simon is fairly unambitious and has no aspirations to ascend into the higher echelons of the organisation where the serious covert intelligence work (or, if you will, spying) takes place, but he does associate professionally with those who do, most notably Giles Holloway, the man who helped Simon get the job in the first place. No doubt Giles had been impressed at Simon's ability to keep a secret, since the two of them had previously been lovers, something even Lily doesn't know about. Since we're in 1960, this sort of thing becoming public knowledge would be a pretty big (and career-ending, and prosecution-inviting) deal.

Giles is a valuable asset, and speaks fluent Russian, which is handy, but he's also a little bit of a loose cannon and quite partial to The Drink. One night these things come together with unforeseen consequences: he's taken home some Tip Top Super Secret documents which absolutely shouldn't have left the office, and while perusing them with a few tumblers of whisky takes a tumble down the stairs from his study and shatters his lower leg. In desperation he phones up Simon from the hospital and persuades him to pop round and collect the incriminating briefcase and sneak it back onto his desk at the office somehow.

Simon manages to accomplish the collection bit, but quickly forms the opinion that getting the briefcase back into the office without being caught red-handed with a load of documents he has no business seeing will be almost impossible. So he dithers a bit and hides the case in the wardrobe. Fortunately Lily is made of more pragmatic and decisive stuff, partly as a result of having been born in Germany and escaping with her mother to England just prior to World War II. So she grabs a spade, pops out to the back garden under cover of darkness and buries the briefcase in a secluded thicket. And just in the nick of time, because some slightly sinister men from some shady government department have come to the front door and would like to have words. And in Simon's case those words are "you're fuckin' nicked, sunshine".

So Simon is in prison, and obviously not bringing in any income, so Lily has to rent out the house to an American family and rent a cottage in a little village on the end of a branch line on the Kent coast. The children start attending the local school and Lily does some housekeeping work for a rich local widower. Meanwhile things are at something of an impasse: the document can't be found, so Simon can't be linked to it directly, although someone has planted a camera in his desk at the office. It can't have been Giles, as Giles is still in hospital and, having survived a brush with gangrene, now discovers that he has galloping lung cancer and hasn't long to live.

It's all very untidy, and Giles' superior, the charming, silver-haired, urbane but slightly sinister Julian Clowde, is determined to tie it all up so that he, in particular, can't be incriminated. Having failed to "get at" Giles in hospital thanks to the intervention of a stereotypically formidable matron, he takes the train to Lily's village to see if he can, hem hem, "persuade" her to be a little more helpful. He has, however, made two crucial miscalculations: firstly, Lily's childhood experiences have left her with a steely determination, and secondly when you threaten a woman's children you enter a WORLD OF SHIT.

Like Restless and Sweet Tooth this comes with some of the trappings of a Cold War spy thriller without actually being one (of the three, Restless probably comes closest). It's very good on the details of post-war Britain: the stifling repressiveness of the class system, the bland farty cabbageyness of the food, the residual suspicion of foreigners, and very good on the details of what it's actually about, which is the fierce irrationality of love (especially for one's own children), the fragility of what seem like firm ideas like "home", the difficulty of really knowing other people, even those one lives with. The plot, such as it is, is all tied up rather neatly at the end, and the climactic episode with Julian Clowde menacing Lily on the beach is a bit of an incongruous swerve into action thriller territory given the fairly glacial pace of what's gone before. It's also worth observing, as this Guardian review does, that the book essentially re-enacts the plot of The Railway Children.

Lily, who's really the principal protagonist here, is a very engaging and intriguing central character, and you certainly want to keep reading to see what happens next, even if, when you get to the end, you find, on reflection, that not much really has. Exposure probably isn't quite as good as the other two Dunmore novels I've read, Your Blue-Eyed Boy and Talking To The Dead, but it's still pretty good. I should add that I acquired it before Dunmore's death in June 2017, and that wasn't a conscious factor in my decision to read it now, it was just the next cab off the rank.