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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

bevan knows I'm miserable nye

It's a few days late for the official anniversary but let me commemorate the 70th birthday of the National Health Service by appointing as Welshman Of The Day its primary architect Aneurin Bevan.

The really interesting thing about the inception of the NHS, a much-beloved institution by all right-thinking people, many of whom are currently rightly concerned for its future, is how unlikely it all was, and how several different things had to align in order for it to happen, any one of which could have scuppered the whole thing by its absence.
  • Bevan's own personal drive, deriving in large part from his Welsh working-class background, was a major factor. The historical narrative which has Great Men standing head and shoulders above their contemporaries and achieving Great Things is generally wrong, or at best a gross over-simplification, but if Bevan hadn't been in the role of Health Secretary at the time, would the changes have been driven through? My friend Ben wrote this article as part of Welsh History Month in 2015 which gives some interesting context.
  • Secondly, the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the general mood of optimism and brotherly love, perhaps accompanied by a general flattening of the class hierarchy after everyone's shared experience of warfare and existential peril, all of which led to the Labour landslide in the general election of 1945 and a massive political mandate to do a bit of the old socialism. But it was a fairly narrow window of opportunity: Labour won the 1950 general election only narrowly and then lost in 1951 after an ill-conceived snap election designed to increase Labour's slim majority. Clearly no-one would be foolish enough to try a similar gambit nowadays, hahahaha. Imagine!
So what do we conclude? Most obviously that it's very possible none of this would have happened but for the unique set of circumstances that existed in the wake of the Second World War, and therefore: no Hitler, no National Health Service. There, I've said it. Obviously Hitler never lived to see the scheme come to fruition, which is a shame as I gather the NHS leads the world in reconstructive testicular surgery and the treatment of cranial gunshot wounds.

Finally, no blog post mentioning Nye Bevan can fail to address the question of what Nye Bevan would have done in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

celebrity/sealevelly lookeylikey of the day

A couple for you today, the first of which illustrates a similar sort of problem as I have with making jokes on Twitter, i.e. how much checking should you do into whether someone else has thought of the same thing already? Obviously with the lookeylikeys there isn't the time-critical element as there is with twitteryjokery, but one could still just Google the two names, or consult one of the other places that specialise in this sort of thing.

In this particular case a Google image search for pictures of the two people in question revealed a few places where the connection had already been made. Nonetheless here's former javelin world champion Fatima Whitbread and CBeebies presenter (usually of programmes involving him being chased by CGI dinosaurs) Andy Day.


There are two rules of children's TV presenters: one is that despite their youthful appearance and brightly-coloured trousers they're always older than you think. Andy Day, for instance, is 37. The other is that bored Mums and Dads forced to sit in front of CBeebies and similar channels for lengthy periods will start to have inappropriate sexual fantasies about the presenters. Most of the top 10s I've seen have been compiled by Mums and are therefore almost exclusively male presenters, and always feature cuddly Justin Fletcher disturbingly highly among the more obvious beefcake (Andy Day included). Lists compiled by Dads are less common but can still be found; all I'd say about this one (which features Topsy & Tim's Mum as previously featured here) is that - while I agree about Maddie Moate - any list of this nature that doesn't have the lovely Cat Sandion at the top of it is a worthless sham and a travesty.

Secondly, a non-human-related one: who's noticed that the Orkney island of Eday is basically just a short, fat, upside-down version of the Russian island of Sakhalin? I know, more like who hasn't noticed, right? Take a look:


Eday on the left, slimmed-down upside-down Eday in the middle, Sakhalin on the right. Stubby at the top, big hooky peninsula on the right about halfway down, narrow isthmus, and then fatter again at the bottom. Kind of like the brontosaurus, but different. Now I'll grant you there is a bit of a difference in scale, since Eday is a modest eight-and-a-half miles long and Sakhalin is a more generous 589 miles along its north-south axis.

Sakhalin has featured once before on this blog, as befits the 23rd largest island in the world; you can't get through the best part of twelve years of blogging without mentioning it at least once. It was mentioned here in connection with its former representation as being split (along an east-west line just above the hooky peninsula) between the Soviet Union and Japan. I have a (possibly wholly imaginary) recollection of seeing it represented like that in reasonably up-to-date atlases during my childhood, so there is a question of when that stopped being the default representation. The Soviet Union basically annexed the southern bit (formerly known as Karafuto Prefecture) in 1945, and gradually repatriated those living there to Japan, and Japan officially renounced its claim over its former territory in 1951. When western European and American mapmakers, whose countries were probably fairly hostile to Soviet expansionism, started to bow to the inevitable and just show it as part of the Soviet Union I couldn't say, but it could have been a bit later even than that.

An alternative map-dating guide can be found here.

Monday, June 25, 2018

good morning and here is the vagina, I mean news

By my reckoning no-one's called Jeremy Hunt (or anyone else) a cunt on live TV or radio for just over a year. Well, that run ended today as Today presenter Justin Webb dropped a big old c-bomb during a news item about social care costs (about 10 seconds into the clip below):
There is some suggestion in this Radio Times article that Webb managed to swerve the gaffe at the last moment; Webb and some ex-colleagues are certainly spinning it that way. But have a listen to the clip: he might have just about managed to chop the last "t" from "Cunt", but that makes no difference whatsoever, it basically sounds the same.

Webb thus joins a long and distinguished list of broadcasters who have suffered such an outburst on live TV or radio, many but by no means all of them relating to an attempt to say Jeremy Hunt's name. Previous inductees include:
That list is by no means exhaustive, even when you add in the extra items linked to from the Bill Turnbull and Norman Smith posts, including Nicky Campbell's thrilling life-or-death struggle with the words "West Kent Hunt". The Niki Cardwell one also includes a bonus penis from football pundit Mark Lawrenson.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

A partly World Cup-themed offering today, almost certainly the one and only time you'll see the World Cup mentioned on this blog, football not really being my thing generally. But nonetheless here's Roberto Baggio, Italian playmaker of the 1990s and the man rather unfairly most remembered for punting the crucial penalty attempt over the crossbar in the shootout at the end of the 1994 World Cup final, thus handing victory to Brazil; and here's Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac's creative powerhouse during their commercial zenith in the late 1970s and on-off member of the band since then during their many reunions. Bizarrely, the latest plot twist in the ongoing soap opera of the band's existence is the firing of Buckingham in April of this year in the lead-up to a major tour, and possibly even more bizarrely his replacement for that tour by a couple of guys including Neil Finn, formerly of Crowded House.



Wednesday, June 20, 2018

the pen is heightier than the sward

Mountain hiking, Paul, is very much like making love to a beautiful woman. As exciting as it is to conquer a new one every week, there is also something to be said for approaching a familiar one from an unfamiliar angle - you may find some interesting nooks and crannies you were previously unaware of, and although much of the terrain will inevitably be well-trodden - including, indeed, by other people - the new approach will hopefully make it fresh and interesting nonetheless.

And so it was that when a weekend away with some friends involving a couple of overnight stays in Cardiff was mooted, and it was furthermore mooted that we might have a crack at Pen y Fan on the Saturday, I took it upon myself to scope out a route. Just as with many other well-frequented mountains (Snowdon is the classic example) there are a number of "standard" routes up Pen y Fan.

I ruled out the quick route up from Storey Arms on a few grounds: firstly it'd have been almost impossible to park (or at least not legally) on a Saturday in June, and secondly it's just not that interesting a route. It's the shortest route up, involves the smallest height gain (since the car park is at the crest of a hill on the A470 so you get a head start) and there's no scrambling, but that is as a result of being on the more featureless side of the mountain. Also, crucially for a misanthrope like me, there are hordes of people trekking up and down this route who I have no desire to interact with or even see for longer than necessary.

Other routes can be had from the south, including from the car park in the Taf Fechan forest where we parked for the walk documented here and also from the car park a bit further up the road near the Blaen y Glyn waterfalls where we parked for the snowy walk documented here. Both are good, the second route somewhat longer than the first. Both still don't really approach Pen y Fan itself from its best side, though; to do that you need to come at it from the north. I have been up from the car park at Cwmgwdi on the Brecon side a couple of times before, as documented in the two photo galleries linked to here (plus bonus paella recipe). On both of those two walks we went straight up the ridge at the back of the car park, took in the summits of Pen y Fan and Cribyn and then came back down via the old Roman road that runs along the east side of Cribyn's north ridge.

Now according to my current set of rules for optimum walk enjoyment (as explained at length here and here) we should really have done those last two walks in reverse, i.e. with the boring on-road flat bit between the bottom end of the Bryn Teg ridge and the Cwmgwdi car park first, and then dropping off the ridge straight back into the car park at the end. So I decided we'd adhere to the rules this time, which means doing the walk marked on the map below anti-clockwise, thereby getting the walk along the road from the car park to the car park at Nant Cwm Llwch out of the way early doors while we were still all banterous and enthusiastic rather than have to do it at the end when we were all dead-eyed and monosyllabic. One could of course park here instead and then do the walk in reverse, but this way round enables you to traverse Corn Du and Pen y Fan in that order, thus adhering more closely to another of my arbitrary rules, i.e. that ideally the main objective of the day should be around two-thirds of the way into the route.



This is probably a more satisfactory walk overall then the other one starting from the same place, as it includes a close encounter with the pretty lake of Llyn Cwm Llwch just before the steep ascent up onto the main ridge, and provides the best angle for appreciating the steep northern face of the two main peaks. As with any walk, it was enhanced by having nice sunny weather (occasional wispy cloud on the tops aside) all day, and by excellent company including a couple of victims of my stag weekend walk who volunteered for further punishment. I'm very keen on solo walking, but it's nice to have a big group sometimes to keep each other entertained and motivated. It was pretty quiet on the ridges, but the two peaks were very busy with people who'd come up the other way, and there was something of a scrum to get the obligatory summit selfies.


There are still routes up that I haven't tried - I've never gone straight up either of the ridges which lead directly to the summits of Cribyn or Fan y Big, and there is a fantastic high-level traverse you could do starting in the vicinity of the Talybont reservoir dam, ascending via the Twyn Du ridge, and then ticking off all the peaks before dropping off via Pen Milan into Libanus. You'd probably need two cars for that one, though.

A small selection of photos can be found here. The gurning shot at the end of us in a restaurant is taken in Wahaca in Cardiff city centre, which is a sort of Mexican tapas/street food place which I recommend highly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I love it when you call but you never call at all

I was just catching up with some recent posts on the fascinating Language Log and I came across this one which includes a link to this webcomic. The discussion on the post and in the comments is around the last frame (captured over there on the right) wherein the featured character (who is apparently called Amber) bemoans her social anxiety about making phone calls.

I'm reassured to find that this is, as the kids say, A Thing, because I've always hated making phone calls. There is some suggestion in the comments that this is a generational thing and that it's particularly prevalent among younger people who've never known a world whenever there wasn't, at a minimum, text messaging or e-mail as an alternative, not to mention Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. etc. There may be something in that, but it certainly doesn't mean that older people don't experience the same thing - my birthdate of 1970 puts me squarely in the middle of Generation X, for instance. Maybe the even older generations didn't suffer from it so much because the phone seemed like such an amazingly cool and convenient gadget compared with the previous methods like writing letters or physically going round to someone's house to talk to them.

A couple of observations specific to my own experience:

There is a sense in which the current generation don't know they're born, and that is that the overwhelming majority of voice calls these days are made via mobile phones. There are several major advantages to this, firstly that mobiles have caller display built-in so you can almost always see who's calling you, especially if it's someone you know. Secondly, a mobile is personal to you, so normal patterns of usage dictate that if you phone someone's mobile either the person you want to talk to will answer, or no-one will. In the old days of landlines that wasn't necessarily the case and there was always the possibility of having to have an unwanted conversation with your girlfriend's Dad, or a mocking older sibling, or - in the imaginary scenario of, say, phoning a male friend who had a father and at least one male sibling, all of whom sounded fairly similar on the phone - having to choose between a couple of nightmare conversational scenarios:
ME: *dials number*
MYSTERY PERSON: Hello?
ME: Oh, hi. Um, is Pete there?
MYSTERY PERSON: This is Pete, you idiot.
ME: *dials number*
MYSTERY PERSON: Hello?
ME: Oh, hi, Pete, it's Dave.
MYSTERY PERSON: This is Graham, you idiot. 
Obviously these very specific issues are focal points for anxiety for people who probably suffer from general social anxiety in other areas as well. That's certainly been the case for me in the past, though I've found I care less about this stuff as I've got older. Of course that may be partly explained by now having all these other channels to keep in touch by as well. Expansive, easygoing, "normal" people who don't suffer from these anxieties will find the whole thing mystifying, just as they tend not to understand the value of things like Facebook to people who find keeping in touch by other means stressful.

I also recall having a conversation with a friend, roughly my contemporary in terms of age, who expressed the opinion that they didn't use things like text messaging much as they struck them as impersonal and rude, preferring instead to talk directly. I remember expressing some surprise at this and saying that I thought it was the other way round. A text, after all, will just sit in your inbox until you're ready to read it, whereas a phone call demands your attention right now, regardless of what you're doing (which is why many people will nowadays precede a call with a text or something just to ensure it's a good moment).

Again, the extent to which you're bothered by all this probably reflects the degree of general social anxiety you suffer from. When I reflect on the fact that, back in my day, if you wanted to ask someone out on a date, you had to phone their house on a landline and very probably speak to one or other of their parents and know that the conversation was probably being scrutinised even after the phone got handed over, it seems mildly amazing to me that 30-odd years later the world isn't a jungle-infested wasteland devoid of any remnants of the human race whatsoever.

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.