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*....la 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.

Friday, February 09, 2018

take a hike, asshole

I saw the countdown of the last 20 or so walks in Britain's Favourite Walks a week or two ago, many of them very familiar to me. It was of special interest as we're off to the Lake District for a week in early April and I harbour ambitions to get out for a day in the mountains at least once during our time there, and, moreover, lots of the most popular walks in this list are in that area, not surprisingly.

Obviously a few quibbles about the selection criteria: I get that you've got to grab the interest of as wide a spectrum of people as possible, from your Nan who just wants a mile or two on unchallenging terrain with a nice view and a nice tea shop at the end, to the more hardcore scrambling enthusiast who'd prefer to shin up Buachaille Etive Mòr in a blizzard. That said it does seem a bit of a stretch to include things like the West Highland Way which at over 95 miles is clearly a multi-day proposition if you're going to do the whole thing and therefore more of a gruelling mini-holiday than what most people would consider "a walk".

Also, a lot of the items on the list are what you might consider destinations rather than walks. A piddling distinction, perhaps, but most people love, say, Rhossili beach (myself among them) without being especially attached to any particular single walk that has it as the main destination. So let's say two people nominated two completely different walks featuring Rhossili as a highlight: do they get considered as two separate items? Or bundled together under the same heading? That consideration is quite pertinent to the slightly surprising number one walk on the list, Helvellyn. The classic walkers' route up here is via Striding Edge, but that won't be for everyone, indeed Julia Bradbury chose to take a different and slightly less gnarly route up via Glenridding Common. So is the winning walk specifically "Helvellyn via Glenridding Common", or is it "any walk that happens to have Helvellyn as its primary objective"? It's slightly unsatisfactory.

Anyway, these are minor quibbles. The top ten featured five walks in Lakeland (only three-and-a-half of them involving serious mountains) and two in Snowdonia, with the remainder dotted elsewhere across northern England. There were only two (number 3, Malham in the Yorkshire Dales and number 10, Mam Tor in the Peak District) that I hadn't done. Here are the ones I had:

1. Helvellyn: I say "slightly surprising number one" just because I'd assumed it'd be one of the country high points like Snowdon or Scafell Pike, but it is obviously a fine and noble mountain, and with a special place in my memory as it's the first serious mountain I ever climbed, back in the late 1980s when I would guess I was about 15 or 16. We climbed it from the Thirlmere side (from the car park here, I think), which is a pretty direct route to the summit but not the most scenic angle of ascent. I've never been back since, which of course means that I've never been across Striding Edge, something I definitely want to rectify before I get too crumbly and decrepit to do it.
2. Snowdon: I can't actually remember how many times I've been up here, but it must be half a dozen or so, most recently in typically grim weather in 2009. Again, there are half a dozen or so "classic" routes up the mountain, and the programme didn't commit to any specific one. I rather like the circular route ascending via the Snowdon Ranger path and descending by the Rhyd Ddu path, not least because it ends at a pub. If you're in a hurry, like at the end of the Three Peaks Challenge, then up the Pyg and down the Miner's is the way to go.
4. Cat Bells: This is the "half" in my three-and-a-half Lakeland mountains, because at 451 metres (1480 feet) it's really only a hill. The walk here has it as the focal point, but if you're serious then it's just the first stop-off on the classic Newlands horseshoe walk, the high point of which is Dale Head at the far end of the Newlands valley, which (as you can see) features a rather splendid summit cairn.
5. Scafell Pike: I've been up here twice, most recently a furious yomp up from Wasdale at about 4am as the middle summit of the Three Peaks Challenge. This is the most challenging of the three walks for several reasons - you're starting in the dark at around 2am which is psychologically quite difficult, although it was a warm dry night when we did it in 2006, and it's the sharpest and steepest of the three ascents and the scramble up onto the summit dome is scree-y and challenging. But it's all worth it to see the sun rise over the trig point at 4:30am before scooting back down to the minibus for a bacon sandwich. The other time was in the late 1980s, probably the second major peak I did after Helvellyn, via the longer (but better) route from the farm at Seathwaite.
6. Tryfan: this is a terrific mountain that I've only been to the top of once, in some fairly stinging wind and rain in the mid-1990s. The picture shows me trying to hold onto a loose-fitting woolly hat next to the Adam and Eve rocks which mark the summit. It was definitely not a day to attempt the leap between the two rocks, though.
7. Buttermere: this is the low-level walk around the lake which we did on a family trip to the Lakes in the late 1980s. I don't recall much about it except there being a rock tunnel at one point.
8. The Old Man Of Coniston: one of our earliest Lakeland peaks, back in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
9. Dunstanburgh, Northumberland: the castle is the point here and there's not too much fuss about how you get there, though a walk along the beach is nice. The equally impressive (and slightly less ruined) Bamburgh castle is a couple of miles further north, also right on the beach. We had a family holiday in the area in May 1981 - I can date it this specifically as I recall watching the England v Scotland football match on the TV in our holiday cottage, Scotland winning through a John Robertson second-half penalty.

Monday, February 05, 2018

the federer bureau of investigation

A couple of thoughts after watching a bit of the men's Australian Open tennis final the other day. Firstly, I should lay my cards on the table and say that I'm delighted that Roger Federer won, as I'm a big fan and I'd like to see him stay ahead of Rafael Nadal at the head of the overall list of Grand Slam singles title winners. I have no beef with Nadal, I should add, as he is wholly admirable and gives every indication of being a lovely bloke, but it seems right to me that Federer, the best all-round tennis player I've ever seen (not that I am any kind of expert) stays at the top of the list. Even the most ardent admirer of Nadal, and there are many (including a substantial contingent of The Ladies, if you know what I mean, and doubtless a few of The Guys too), would have to admit his tennis is a bit more based on power, supreme fitness and bloody-minded persistence and perhaps doesn't have the aesthetic grace and finesse of Federer's. Plenty of overused clichés are available:  the open-topped sportscar versus the Sherman tank, the rapier versus the broadsword,, the sgian-dubh versus the shillelagh, if you want something a bit more Brit-centric.

Another reason is that despite both players having achieved the career Grand Slam, Nadal's Grand Slam singles record looks a bit more uneven than Federer's as it's more skewed towards the tournament he's won the most, the French Open. Ten out of his sixteen titles were won here, compared with eight out of Federer's twenty being at Wimbledon. So it occurred to me to wonder: what if we built a list of Grand Slam winners ordered by how many singles titles they'd won that were not at their favourite event? The idea is that this would be some crude measure of their versatility across different tournaments, different surfaces, different times of year, all that stuff. So here's the starting list (shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia): everyone who's won more than five Grand Slam men's singles titles.

PlayerTotal Australian OpenFrench OpenWimbledon US Open
Roger Federer206185
Rafael Nadal1611023
Pete Sampras142075
Roy Emerson126222
Novak Djokovic126132
Rod Laver113242
Björn Borg110650
Bill Tilden100037
Fred Perry81133
Ken Rosewall84202
Jimmy Connors81025
Ivan Lendl82303
Andre Agassi84112
Richard Sears70007
William Renshaw70070
William Larned70007
René Lacoste70322
Henri Cochet70421
John Newcombe72032
John McEnroe70034
Mats Wilander73301
Laurence Doherty60051
Tony Wilding62040
Jack Crawford64110
Don Budge61122
Stefan Edberg62022
Boris Becker62031
Frank Sedgman52012
Tony Trabert50212

And here's the re-ordered list if you exclude the one they won the most:

PlayerFavourite tournamentNumber of titlesCorrected number
Roger FedererWimbledon812
Pete SamprasWimbledon77
Rod LaverWimbledon47
Rafael NadalFrench Open106
Novak DjokovicAustralian Open66
Roy EmersonAustralian Open66
Björn BorgFrench Open65
Fred PerryWim / US35
Ivan LendlFrench / US35
Andre AgassiAustralian Open44
Ken RosewallAustralian Open44
John NewcombeWimbledon34
Mats WilanderAus / French34
René LacosteFrench Open34
Don BudgeWim / US24
Stefan EdbergAus / Wim / US24
Bill TildenUS Open73
Jimmy ConnorsUS Open53
Henri CochetFrench Open43
John McEnroeUS Open43
Boris BeckerWimbldeon33
Frank SedgmanAus / US23
Tony TrabertFrench / US23
Jack CrawfordAustralian Open42
Tony WildingWimbledon42
Laurence DohertyWimbledon51
Richard SearsUS Open70
William LarnedUS Open70
William RenshawWimbledon70

Obviously this is very satisfying to me as it places Federer head and shoulders above the others. It also shunts a lot of the oldsters down to the bottom of the list as back in the day travelling from your home country to other parts of the world was a ridiculously time-consuming undertaking and so a lot of people didn't bother. So Bill Tilden drops from 10 to 3 and the serious one-tournament wonders like Sears, Larned, and Renshaw drop to zero. It's harsh, but fair. Let's try another formula - multiply everything together! Hang on, though, anyone who hasn't done the career Grand Slam will get a product of zero; we'd better add one to everything first, just to be fair. So someone who's won all the Grand Slams once will get a Grand Slam Factor or GSF of 16, whereas someone who's won one of them four times will end up with a GSF of 5. That sounds about right; consistency and versatility is what we're trying to reward here.

Player Total Aus French Wim US GSF  
Roger Federer206185756
Rafael Nadal1611023264
Roy Emerson126222189
Rod Laver113242180
Novak Djokovic126132168
Pete Sampras142075144
Fred Perry8113364
Andre Agassi8411260
Ivan Lendl8230348
Ken Rosewall8420245
Björn Borg11065042
Jimmy Connors8102536
René Lacoste7032236
John Newcombe7203236
Don Budge6112236
Bill Tilden10003732
Mats Wilander7330132
Henri Cochet7042130
Stefan Edberg6202227
Boris Becker6203124
John McEnroe7003420
Jack Crawford6411020
Frank Sedgman5201218
Tony Trabert5021218
Tony Wilding6204015
Laurence Doherty6005112
Richard Sears700078
William Renshaw700708
William Larned700078

The biggest casualties are the two-Slam wonders Borg and Tilden, while the consistent three-Slam guys like Rosewall and Lendl get a leg-up. Once again the oldsters get shunted to the bottom of the list, but, I mean, come on, guys, make an effort - if you can't be bothered to live in the right era of history with high-speed travel and communications, not to mention sports psychologists and Lucozade, then I've no sympathy for you.

That said, I expect if you come up with some suitably contorted formula you can probably work your guy to the top of the list. There's a challenge for all you Laurence Doherty fans out there.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

why did the halibut cross the ocean? to see his flatmates

In a shocking and shameful dereliction of duty and a betrayal of everything that this blog stands for, I note that we have only done one halibut-related post in the last FIVE FREAKIN' YEARS, and that one was really just a passing mention before my attention wandered onto the subject of Katy Perry's tits. Oh sure, there's been Halibut Towers this and The Curse Of Electric Halibut that, but that butters no parsnips compared to raw unadorned data about large flatfish of the genus Hippoglossus.

The previous proper halibut post from October 2012 was mainly concerned with the catching of a whopping 186-kilogram specimen off the coast of Norway (as you'll see from the following stories, Norway is pretty much Halibutsville Central when it comes to big ones). In similar vein, today's Daily Mail carries a story about a British fisherman landing the "world's biggest ever halibut" while on a fishing trip to, you've guessed it, Norway. So what you'll be thinking is: wow, I wonder how big that was - the 2012 one made no claim to be a record-breaker but this one must be bigger than that, at the very least. So you'd perhaps be surprised to learn that this one weighed in at a mere 153 pounds, which is a fraction under 70 kilograms. It turns out that this is one of those records where you have to read the small print carefully - it's the biggest "shore-caught" halibut on record, the other monster ones being presumably landed onto boats.


Undeterred by this the fisherman carried out one of the primary obligations of the halibut-wrangler, which is to lie down next to the fish and pose for the photo. The canonical measure of halibut size (in contrast to giant squid size, where the standard London bus is used) from the selection of things deemed to be understandable by Joe Public, who has literally no idea how much a kilogram weighs, is some hand-wavey estimate of how many human-meal-sized portions it would yield. You'll recall my scepticism about the number quoted for the 186kg specimen - the claim made here is as follows:
The fish made 160 fillets, which would be worth around £4,000 to a high end fish restaurant
Two obvious thoughts: firstly that is under a sixth of the number of portions claimed for the 186kg halibut, a fish a little over two-and-a-half times as large. Since I found the original estimate implausible, maybe that's OK, though. But, secondly, if you do the price calculation, 160 portions fetching £4000 works out at 25 quid a portion. Can that be right? Well, Waitrose charge £28.99 a kilo for halibut, which works out at between £5 and £7 for a fairly normal-sized portion. Maybe "high end" restaurants (whose suppliers won't be charging as much as Waitrose, don't forget) really do apply that much of a mark-up.

Anyway, the proper world record for catching a halibut, no ifs, buts, maybes or nonsense about having to be standing on the shore, on a Tuesday, wearing a woolly hat and blue underpants, is a gargantuan 233kg specimen (although the Daily Mail, as is their wont, stick bloody-mindedly to various forms of imperial measurement throughout) caught by German fisherman Marco Liebenow back in 2013. "Heavier than a wild gorilla", apparently. A wild one, mind. Wild? I was absolutely livid, etc.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

the last book I read

Matter by Iain M Banks.

Here on Earth we take the whole planet occupation thing for granted. Simply evolve over a series of aeons from single-celled amoebae floating around in the primordial soup and over time progress in a leisurely manner to the current pinnacle of development occupying a comfy wing-backed chair puffing ruminatively on a pipe-stem perusing the paperwork for some complex hire-purchase agreement, all without ever really considering whether we're entitled to be here or not.

On a Shellworld, however, things are a bit more complex: these are artificially constructed worlds (the exact construction methods and the identity of the architects being a bit of a mystery) with various species (depending which Shellworld you choose) acting as custodians and getting to pick and choose who occupies each of the many concentric levels. So you might have humanoids on one level, beating the shit out of each other as humanoids do, and then some giant whale-creatures on the water-filled next level, and some freaky-ass motherfuckers resembling sentient hot-air balloons floating about on the next level, with the whole thing overseen by some gigantic blue lobsters. A bit more like renting a room in a shared house than just casually inheriting an entire planet.

Anyway, this particular Shellworld, Sursamen, has the usual motley selection of occupants, but our main concern is with the Sarl, basically humanoid types who occupy one of the levels, and conform very precisely to humanoid cliché by being bloodthirsty slaughtering warlike types. As we join the action there's a battle going on, during the course of which the current king, Hausk, is mortally wounded and is unexpectedly ushered into the netherworld by his supposed right-hand man, tyl Loesp. Unknown to any of the regicidal mob, the king's son, and the rightful next king, Ferbin, witnesses the whole thing and flees for his life with his comedy manservant, Holse.

Ferbin was never especially keen to be king, although pretty keen on cashing in on the whole playboy prince thing with the drinking and the whoring and the like. But that doesn't mean he'll be happy to hand the throne over to the man who murdered his father. As it happens, though, Ferbin has some other family contacts: his sister, Djan Seriy Anaplian, left home many years previously to join a shadowy organisation called The Culture (ahaaaa, etc. etc.). So he and Holse set off to find her.

It turns out that not only is Djan Seriy Anaplian a citizen of The Culture (I can't improve on "AI-moderated anarcho-utopia" from here so I'm just going to re-use it), she is an operative with Special Circumstances, the super-exclusive ultra-badass black-ops division who can kill you just by looking at you. Furthermore, she was on her way to Sursamen anyway in an unofficial capacity to pay her respects to her dead father, and is happy to turn it into something a bit more official. The added complicating factor is that Djan and Ferbin's half-brother Oramen remains on Sursamen, theoretically as Prince Regent, awaiting the occasion of his eighteenth birthday whereupon he will inherit the throne from tyl Loesp, who's been appointed some sort of Lord Protector. The trouble is, as everyone but Oramen knows, tyl Loesp isn't going to let that happen and is going to ensure that Oramen meets with an "accident", probably of the furiously stabby variety, some time before his birthday.

In the meantime Oramen is being kept out of trouble by being sent to oversee the excavations of an ancient city gradually being exposed by the retreat of a gigantic waterfall. This process is exposing some seriously strange shit, and when winter arrives and the whole falls area freezes over this allows excavations to continue behind the falls, whereupon some seriously strange shit is revealed, of the planet-endangering variety. Luckily, Djan, Ferbin, Holse and a small army of Culture drones and sentient missiles arrive at this point and embark on a furious pursuit to the planet's core to try and avert disaster.

Seasoned Banks readers will detect more than a whiff of Inversions here - vaguely mediaeval civilisation, with access to some relatively advanced weaponry (e.g. basic firearms) thanks to some judicious (or foolhardy or meddling, depending on your point of view) nudging by previous Culture involvement, and a badass female Special Circumstances agent. Obviously there is a raft of hard sci-fi stuff that Inversions didn't have - the Shellworlds, all the various alien ships that Ferbin and Djan hitch lifts on, the apocalyptic battle at the end in which (SPOILER ALERT) pretty much everyone dies.

The usual points about the morality of super-advanced civilisations intervening in the development of less-advanced ones are chewed over here (just as they were in Inversions). There's an obvious parallel between the actual physical hierarchy of levels on Sursamen and the implicit multi-level hierarchy of civilisations that runs from the Sarl up through the Oct who administer the day-to-day running of the Shellworlds, the Nariscene who supervise them, the Morthanveld who oversee them and the Culture who in turn consider themselves above all of the others.

Like all Banks' books this is not without flaws: it drags a bit in the middle between Ferbin leaving Sursamen and returning in the company of Djan, in particular during the interlude where they encounter former Special Circumstances agent Xide Hyrlis, whose function seems mainly to be tedious about multiverse theory for a number of pages and then refuse to be of any help whatsoever. And as thrilling as the bit at the end where they blast around the giant turbines and gears at the planet's core is, it all seems a bit compressed (60-odd pages out of 600) and a jarring change of pace given the leisurely unfolding of what's gone before, and the flashing and banging distracts you from the fact that precious few of the Big Questions raised are actually answered. Like, for instance: why do the Iln have such an implacable thing for destroying Shellworlds? And why, if you have such an implacable thing on the go, choose to achieve it by getting yourself buried in silt for several millennia and revived by a suitably advanced civilisation, rather than just, you know, popping off and doing the job straight away?

In the implicit league table of Culture novels that everyone who's read more than one of them keeps in their heads I would say this is in the mid-range along with The Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons - better then Excession which I found a bit tedious, but not as good as Consider Phlebas, Look To Windward or Inversions. It's all good fun and never less than compulsively readable, though, so no complaints.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

dry January? more like DIE January

Another day, another gratifyingly early fulfilment of a New Year's resolution, this one being to really step up the brutal and relentless culling of authors who have previously featured on this blog. It's still January and we've already clocked up one, that one being sci-fi/fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, whose book The Dispossessed featured here just over two years ago and who died yesterday aged 88. That's actually fairly quick work by the usual standards of the Curse of Electric Halibut - only Dibdin, Hoban, Matheson and Salter were knocked off more quickly.

I also need to fill in a missing entry from 2017, since JP Donleavy died on 11th September and I seem to have missed it. Unless I've missed anyone else (which is quite possible) that takes the current count to nineteen.

As it happens January 22nd isn't the earliest start to a year of authorial slaughter; 2017 started as early as January 2nd with the demise of John Berger. The belated inclusion of Donleavy means that 2017 is now the joint-deadliest year on record with four deaths, a record it shares with 2013.

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

valley of the dulls

Sorry to do a follow-up to a follow-up, but I remember how I happened across the Spurn story now: I was fiddling with an Ordnance Survey map (probably my ancient copy of OL13 that I took on last weekend's walk, and which is now extremely crispy and held together with a substantial amount of tape after repeated soakings) and had a recollection of the QI segment about Britain's dullest (i.e. most featureless) map square, which turns out to be in the vicinity of Ousefleet in north Lincolnshire. A few other contenders are linked here: this one just north of the Solway Firth must have been a strong contender in terms of actual on-the-ground features, but contains quite a bit of writing which any map-trawling algorithm would need to know to ignore.

The convention seems to be to look at the 1:50000 Landranger series; even in Ousefleet if you zoom in to 1:25000 there's all sorts of fascinating drainage ditches and the like to be seen. As marvellous as this is from a nerdy academic perspective these places are all phenomenally dull by their very nature on the ground, and by virtue of their physical geography probably boggily nightmarish to traverse. Dull as ditchwater, in fact, quite literally.


Ousefleet is in the vicinity of Scunthorpe, which in addition to being a canonical example of the difficulty of writing sensible text-parsing profanity filters is a sort of marginal entry on the list of amusing UK place names, a subject I addressed at greater length (and with more sniggering) here. Note that photographer Dominic Greyer has made a career (and very nice too) out of spotting and documenting this sort of stuff, and in addition to books now offers all sorts of merchandise if you would like to buy your loved one a mug with, for instance, BELL END emblazoned on it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

a low spurn count

Here's a bit of a round-up of some bits and bobs that probably don't merit a blog post of their own:

I was going to make the point (but forgot) in the account of my Black Mountains walk that this is a particularly good time of year to be up on these hills - not just because a glorious crisp sunny winter's day is a good time to be up a hill pretty much anywhere, but specifically because these hills have a reputation (entirely deserved) for being boggy, even on top of the ridge. This is partly geography - they're big whale-backed ridges with flat tops, rather than the more exciting rocky arêtes that you get in, say, Snowdonia - but partly just a reflection of how relatively un-scary and easily accessible and therefore highly-populated they are, and therefore the amount of erosion that takes place. In some places they've laid some flat stones to form a path and prevent you disappearing up to the knees in peat.

Anyway, the point is that good times to be up there and avoid excessive boggy squelchiness are high summer, when there's been a chance to bake off some of the water (though it's never completely dry) or in sub-zero winter temperatures when everything's frozen solid. You do have to address a few different problems then, though, like not slipping over and shattering a hip, especially at my age.

Other walk-related news: I've uploaded some pictures to the photo gallery, something I mean to get round to doing more often. New Year's resolutions, again.

Speaking of New Year's resolutions, another was to get the old blogging frequency up a bit, as 2017 was the least bloggy year on record with a pitiful 44 posts. Now there are obviously some mitigating factors here, not least being preoccupied with The Boy, but since he's now trundling round the house in his walker shouting the odds and ripping telephone directories in half I'm very much hoping that I'll have a little more time to think about other things in 2018. There is also the Twitter factor, i.e. the increased likelihood that if I see some amusing link or have some throwaway comment to make on current affairs I'll do it on Twitter rather than here. I suspect I will never regain the dizzy heights of 2007 when I cranked out 282 posts, and I'm fine with that, but my limited aspiration is to arrest the decline whereby every year since 2010 has seen fewer posts than the year before. Given the paltry output I managed in 2017 that should be a lowish bar to clear. 

Here's a couple of graphs:



Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of 2017 you can see that while my reading habits were affected a bit, the total number of books I read didn't see the same steep drop-off as the general blog posting did. As a consequence the "book posts as a percentage of overall posts" number is at an all-time high of 29.55%. 

As it happens this seemingly small drop-off (13 books against 15 in 2016) masks the extent of the fall a bit, as it turns out that 2017 also holds the record for shortest average book length (253 pages) and therefore fewest overall pages read (3292 compared with 4404 in 2016). Here's some more graphs:



Lastly, and completely unconnected to blogging or statistical nerdery, I can't remember exactly what series of link-following led me to this article about the Spurn peninsula in East Yorkshire, but you'll (possibly) recall that Hazel and I visited it way back in August 2007 (so this is one of those 282 posts). We drove on the excitingly rough and evidently frequently repaired and re-routed track down to the car park by the old lighthouses and had a bit of a walk around (it is, as you can imagine, rather exposed and windy). Well, it turns out that back in December 2013 there was a particularly vicious storm which washed away a section of the road, as well as most of the vegetation and sand dunes which hold the peninsula together, and you haven't been able to drive down there since.

You'll recall that the general (though not completely uncontroversial) consensus is that the spit has been destroyed and re-formed (slightly further west each time) many times in the past, typically every 250 years or so, and that it's overdue for such an occurrence to happen again but that it's been held at bay by a series of shoring-up measures dating back to the 1850s. Well, it sounds like nature has finally found a way through. You can see the damage pretty clearly on Google's latest satellite photo - pre-2013 (have a look here, for instance) there was a narrow green strip running all the way along. So it'll be interesting to see what happens now, given that the authorities seem to have plumped (probably rightly) for a policy of managed retreat, i.e. letting nature take its course. What you would expect to happen is for future storms to eventually carve a permanent channel through the breach and then gradually eat away the spit all the way down to the end, and then for the longshore drift and silt deposition process to start to build a new spit from the mainland end. Note that we're talking geological timescales here, though - none of us is going to see it.