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.