Monday, November 12, 2018

the last book I read

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Ah, the Tudors. *tootly oboe music plays, jester prances around* We all think we know them, especially Henry VIII with his absurd tights and his comical wife-beheading ways. But...*oboe music stops abruptly*...what do we really know?

Well, in the case of Henry VIII, quite a lot actually. But what of his shadowy éminence grise Thomas Cromwell? The basic details of his association with Henry and the various offices he held are well known, but what was he really like? This is the question Wolf Hall attempts to answer, while also taking us into close proximity with most of the key figures from the era, most notably Henry himself, with much a-roistering and a-doistering, intrigue, strategic matchmaking, betrayal, and the usual occasional public disembowelments and beheadings. It's not for the faint-hearted, still less the loose-headed.

Cromwell's ascent is a pretty unusual and remarkable one, though - son of a drunken and abusive blacksmith, escaped at the earliest possible opportunity to Europe to sign up as a soldier of fortune in various intra-European theatres of war and seek his fortune, which he duly made as a merchant and lawyer before returning to England to set up as a respectable pillar of the community and, eventually, right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey. You're probably mentally picturing Orson Welles here, but we'll come to that a bit later.

Following Wolsey's downfall, which in turn followed his inability to arrange an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in a way which was also palatable to the head honchos of the Catholic Church, Cromwell moves into Henry's personal orbit and eventually becomes one of his most trusted advisors, especially after helping to facilitate the foundation of the Church of England, and, most importantly, providing an acceptable official validation for Henry's furious rogering of Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell has a personal life as well, of course, and we get some insight into it: he has a happy marriage to Liz Wykys (this is how the book renders her surname, Wikipedia renders it as Wyckes), but Liz and both their daughters die of the sweating sickness in 1529, leaving Cromwell's son Gregory as his only child. He does seem to be cultivating a bit of an affection for Jane Seymour in the second half of the book, but fate has, it turns out, other plans for her.

Being a trusted advisor to Henry involves being at his constant beck and call, and furthermore subject to his whims and mood swings, any one of which could be severe enough to cost you your head. Henry is a highly intelligent man of great energy and charm, but by the time Cromwell comes into his service has been gripped with a monomaniacal obsession: the production of a male heir. This is what drives him to ditch his wife of 24 years for a younger model (the first of a series), and Cromwell is the man who has to find an acceptably legal way of bringing it about.

The difficulty with describing the events of Wolf Hall is that they - the major historical ones at least - are extremely well known. Few periods in history are more thoroughly chewed-over than the period of Henry VIII's multiple marriages, the last five of which were crammed into a ten-year period between 1533 and 1543. So the historical novelist has to find something new to do with the material, and in this case that is to focus on a central but ill-documented figure, Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating and enigmatic figure whose rise to power is remarkable in an era of low social mobility. If you weren't born a nob then your chances of gaining access to the king's inner circle were pretty slim, so Cromwell most have had some exceptional personal qualities. As he is portrayed here he is regarded with great affection by the members of his family and household, despite his fearsome reputation as a facilitator of the king's wishes.

The other thing that makes considering Wolf Hall in isolation difficult is the large number of other works of art that portray events from the period and feature characters that also appear here, Cromwell himself included. So there's The Tudors, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Henry VIII And His Six Wives, and most notably to me, A Man For All Seasons. As I said in this earlier post which references Wolf Hall (and expresses some doubt on when I'd get round to reading it, which I suppose is fair enough given that it's taken me nine years) the portrayal of Cromwell in that film (played by Leo McKern) is fairly unsympathetic, whereas More is portrayed as wise, patient and generally saintly. In Wolf Hall, however, More, while clearly a brilliant man, is something of an insufferable prig and a hypocrite perfectly happy to preach peace and tolerance while sanctioning the vicious torture and public execution of heretics. Far from actively seeking his conviction and execution, the version of Cromwell portrayed here makes every effort to persuade More to bend and sign the pledge that the King wants him to sign so that he can then quietly retire to his books.

Wolf Hall of course had its own TV adaptation, with Mark Rylance portraying Cromwell. Those who haven't seen it should be warned that it is in fact an adaptation of material from both Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, so SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read the second book and you're also completely ignorant of the events of a pretty well-documented period of British history. For what it's worth I think Rylance, fine actor though he undoubtedly is, is a bit fine-featured for Cromwell, who is supposed to have had a rather thuggish appearance. By contrast Leo McKern is probably a bit pudgy for Cromwell as portrayed here. This brief snippet put me in mind of an immortal bit of narrative from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace:

As I rounded the corner, I felt muscular and compact, like corned beef.
For what it's worth I pictured Cromwell as looking a bit like Michael Elphick.

Anyway, enough of that nonsense. This is never less than compulsively readable, despite taking 650 pages to chronicle the events of around six years. There are points where you might wish things would crack on a bit, as enjoyable as it all is. All the previous Mantels I've read (including Eight Months On Ghazzah Street which appeared on this list in 2010) have been fairly slim and efficient in getting their story across; there is just a suspicion of a bit of flab here. None of which troubled the Booker committee, clearly, as they awarded it the Man Booker Prize for 2009 (its successor Bring Up The Bodies won again in 2012; the third volume remains in production). Wolf Hall therefore joins the list of Booker winners on this blog which includes Midnight's Children, The Sea, The Conservationist, G., Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Gathering.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

the spouse that roared

Ronald Reagan once said that the most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help". And as previously observed here Gore Vidal is reputed to have once claimed that the three most depressing words in the English language are "Joyce Carol Oates".

I'm going to go out on a limb here and claim that the three most terrifying and/or depressing words in the English language are: Military Wives Choir. Whoooaaah, there, you'll be saying, you've gone too far this time with your robustly controversial yet thought-provoking opinions. Have a pop at The Big Guy all you like, he can take it, but Our Brave Girls? You disgust me.


Let me see if I can walk you through it a bit:
  • Firstly, and most obviously, patriarchy. There's a sort of misty-eyed fantasy at work here which envisages these women sitting looking wistfully out of a window waiting for their husbands' return, clad in some demure and respectful clothing - nothing too overtly sexy but clearly not a manky old pair of pyjamas or a crusty comedy onesie either. In this scenario where the women are defined solely by being married to some guy in the forces, and possibly by the requirement to bring up his children during his periods of absence, maybe there is an expectation that they'll have lots of free time, not all of which can be spent wistfully gazing through windows, and therefore the little ladies, bless 'em, need something to occupy them. I mean, it's not as if any of them have jobs, right? No-one's going to be a lawyer, or a fitness instructor, or a financial advisor, or a thrusting senior executive at some major corporation, so why not get together for a bit of an old sing-song in your spare time, in between making jam and that.
  • Similarly, it's not as if anyone in the armed forces is a woman, right? Granted, they could still have wives, but that's not the wholesome corn-fed vanilla family scenario that we're thinking of here, is it?
  • This is a particularly pernicious example of what you might call the Nick Knowles effect, that is to say the inexplicable (to me, anyway) tendency of the record-buying public to purchase stuff based on whether they know of the people involved, and indeed imagine (clearly mistakenly) that they know them personally in some way, rather than on the basis of whether, you know, it's any good.
  • In this case that's reinforced by the weird and, I would contend, generally unhealthy reverence that the British public have for the armed forces. This goes double at this time of year when everyone loses their freakin' MINDS over appropriate poppy-wearing protocol. Combine that with the Nick Knowles effect above and you have a toxic situation where any criticism (such as: Christ, this is all a bit shit, isn't it?) basically prompts the response WHY DO YOU HATE OUR TROOPS and WHY DO YOU HATE BRITAIN and WELL WE'LL JUST GET INVADED AND RAPED AND MURDERED BY ISLAMOFASCIST COMMUNISTS THEN SHALL WE AS THAT'S CLEARLY JUST FINE WITH YOU. It's a short hop from here to showering people with abuse when they make a considered decision not to wear a poppy, or mindlessly recycling a load of Britain First propaganda.
  • Further to the Nick Knowles effect is the Gareth Fucking Malone effect whereby this supremely irritating nerdy bloke tries to get the country singing (endearingly amateurishly, naturally), to lots of furtive OH YOUNG MAN from the late-middle-aged TV-watching public. Malone was heavily implicated in the formation of some of the early versions of the Military Wives choirs, and is, as I think I may have mentioned above, really fucking annoying. I think it's another aspect of communal joinery-innery with the associated curled lip towards anyone who'd rather not, thanks very much.
It was on Chris Evans' breakfast show on Radio 2 that I heard the reference which prompted this post - shortly afterwards I switched over to Radio 4 to catch Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time about Marie Antoinette. About 27 minutes in there's a bit about how the French revolution and its instigators viewed the rights of women, and the verdict (230 years ago, let's not forget) was, and I quote: "women belong in the private sphere; man belongs in the public sphere". Plus ça change, and all that.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

for those about to rock

I can't quite remember what got me into watching rock-climbing videos on YouTube - I suspect I might have followed a few links after investigating the climbing wall facilities at Cwmbran Leisure Centre. Nia expressed an interest while we were scrambling around on the softplay area there recently and since a) I've never tried it and wouldn't mind having a go and b) she is a creature of River Tam-like grace and agility (though with less killing, hopefully) and I expect she'd be really good at it, I made a mental note to give it a go. Obviously that hasn't resulted in me actually doing anything about it, but all in good time.

Anyway, I ended up watching a few climbing videos, which are fascinating in their own way. One of the ways in which they're interesting is to contrast the activity involved with the sort of stuff I like doing on mountains and to envisage where the dividing line is between one and the other. On the one hand I have absolutely no interest in roped-up sport climbing, still less the sort of free-soloing that people like Alex Honnold do, which seems literally insane to me; on the other hand there is a point where the hands-and-feet scrambling I like, sometimes up quite gnarly semi-vertical rocks, such as those between the Càrn Mòr Dearg arête and the summit of Ben Nevis, or the upper reaches of the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, comes somewhere near to meeting up with the easy end of what you might start to call rock climbing. On the other other hand, at least Alex Honnold's ascent of El Capitan, bonkers as it may have been, was a venture with a specific real-world objective, that is to say the summit of the mountain; the really esoteric sport-climbing stuff that people like Adam Ondra do, as jaw-dropping as it is as a feat of athleticism, has no real-world "point" to it other than as a series of gymnastic moves that have to be strung together without falling off the rock.

Anyway, on a less serious note, there is a whole lexicon of climbing jargon which is largely impenetrable to the uninitiated. Take a look at this headline and see what springs to mind, for instance:


This is not, as you might imagine, some weird postal drug deal involving an Italian Jason Statham-alike, still less some weird sexual thing, but instead an article from a climbing website describing British climber Hazel Findlay's ascent of a tricky climbing route in Italy. The word "send", in particular, in this context is a shortened form of "ascend", and just means a successful climb of a route without falling off at any point. Past participle generally seems to be "sent" rather than "sended".

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

my little...pumpkinny-wumpkinny?

So, Halloween, then. Source of much annoyance, some of it caused by pedants who insist that the word should have an apostrophe between the two e's, some of it caused by trick-or-treaters, some of it caused by those who sniffily dismiss the whole thing, or some aspects of it (usually the trick-or-treating bit), as a piece of modern American-inspired nonsense. I don't want to get into the argument, but, as always, it's a bit more complicated than that.

My objection to trick-or-treating is not based on some spurious lazy knee-jerk cultural bias, but on the empirically sound and verifiable fact that I am a grumpy old misanthrope and I don't like strangers coming round my house demanding I participate in some lets-all-muck-in come-on-get-involved community jollity or some similar heart-warming crap. As it happens we very rarely get trick-or-treaters round our way as we're a bit off the main residential circuit and the occasional drive-by shootings probably make people a bit nervous. What I generally do is lay in a load of fun-size choccy bars as a precaution and then spend the following week eating them.

One thing that you'll probably be unable to avoid, particularly if you have children, is purchasing one or more pumpkins for the purposes of carving amusing faces into them. And, furthermore, having done that, fretting about whether you should make use of the giant gourd for some sort of recipe once the novelty of the amusing face-carving has worn off, rather than just leaving it outside the back door to decompose.


This year I was determined to make better use of them, especially as we ended up with three, only two of which were used for carving purposes. So I decided to make some soup, most of the traditional alternatives, pumpkin pie in particular, having a fairly unpalatable look to them.

I have a few general observations about soup, as follows:
  • firstly and most importantly, soup is predominantly, preferably 100%, liquid. There is, I am going to assert, no such thing as "chunky soup". If you have a bowl of that, what you have there is runny stew. I bow to no man, for instance, in my love for Welsh cawl, but calling it soup is a nonsense. 
  • one of the reasons for this is that I eat things when blitzed unrecognisably into soup that I wouldn't touch with a bargepole in their "natural" form. Celery is a good example; my hatred of it in its natural form is mainly a texture thing, so when it's pulped into soup (probably with the addition of some potatoes and stuff) it's just pleasantly peppery. The criticisms levelled at Heinz Big Soup here, for instance ("mainly pipes and gristle") would have been more difficult to level if it had all been blended up into an amorphous goop.
  • it's surprisingly difficult to over-spice soup. Bung in as much stock as you like, spice it up, chilli it up, you're very unlikely to overdo it. As you'll see below I had to chuck an extra consignment of spice mix into my soup to render it a bit more interesting.
So anyway, I made some pumpkin soup. I had two whole pumpkins, and I didn't want to end up with two gallons of soup, so I kept it simple - two pumpkins, a couple of onions, some garlic, various exotic spices. I chopped up the pumpkins into slices, slathered them in some spice mix (a mixture of some tagine paste I had in the fridge, some smoked paprika and a load of black pepper, as well as some olive oil and lemon juice) and chucked them in the oven for what ended up being a couple of hours. I then skinned them, put them in a big stockpot with the onions and garlic and a load of stock, simmered them for a couple more hours, put the whole lot through a blender, bish bosh, soup.

Slightly bland soup, to my taste, so I put together a small magic potion featuring some more stock, a dollop of some exciting Middle Eastern spice mix (as pictured) and a couple of spoonfuls of some Greek yoghurt, added that, and that seemed to improve things. It ended up being perfectly nice slightly spicy pumpkin soup, not the most thrilling taste experience ever, but, you know, it's soup, get over it. Here are a few pictures.








Tuesday, November 06, 2018

I know what I did last summer

We went on holiday to France back in July; our first proper trip abroad with the kids. We decided on France because it meant that we didn't have to engage with the shrieking nightmare of flying and could just get a ferry over and take the car to our eventual destination. We didn't want to shell out some lavish amount for luxury accommodation, partly because we were hoping to be either out and about doing stuff or hooning around in the pool most of the time, but also because times are hard and I am as tight as a gnat's chuff.

Fortunately France offers plenty of options in this area and we ended up booking in at Le Clarys Plage with Alfresco Holidays, who offer much the same sort of thing as the better-known Eurocamp. Basically this is a big holiday camp with static caravan accommodation of various sizes; pretty much perfect for our kid-centric requirements and with a pretty decent-sized supermarket right next door. It's just outside St. Jean de Monts, which is in the Vendée, which is basically the next bit down from Brittany on the west coast.

Anyway, it suited us very well, Nia in particular had a great time scooting down all of the waterslides a gazillion times a day, the supermarket is very handy, there are laid-on activities for the kids, and the main town beach (a short drive away) is nice and sandy, absolutely massive and has an extremely shallow drop-off which is great for paddling with kids, though slightly frustrating if you want a proper swim, as you have to walk out about half a mile just to get waist-deep.

We didn't get out and about as much as I'd anticipated, and with kids there's little hope of going off exploring the local geography, which is a shame as this part of the Vendée is a fascinating landscape of reclaimed marshland and drainage ditches. For those without tiny children in tow it'd be perfect for a cycling holiday if you didn't want to be bothered by hills. We did get out to a couple of places, though, most notably Le Château des Aventuriers an hour or so away to the south-east which has lots of mainly pirate-themed outdoor adventure quest stuff which was right up Nia's street. We also went out to Parc des Dunes which is a bewildering array of bouncy castles, luge runs, crazy golf, ball pits and waterslides. Again, great fun for the kids, but adults will want to ensure they've got a few litres of wine in to wind down back at the caravan afterwards.

One of the key considerations for British tourists venturing over to France for holidays is the stringent rules some French resorts apply in the trouser department, specifically the edict that a lot of places issue that long baggy board shorts are prohibited in the pool area and skimpy "budgie smugglers" must be worn instead. I completely understand the rationale here - people are inclined to wear board shorts as regular shorts out and about in town, down to the beach, etc., and then trail dust and dirt and shit back into the resort and plunge straight into the pool. So with a mind to complying with the regulations I purchased a pair of skimpy trunks before we left the UK. On arrival in France I noticed on our first trip to the supermarket that short but slightly less eye-wateringly revealing trunks were available for about four Euros, so I bought a pair of these as a backup, thereby ending up in the slightly farcical situation of having three lengths of swimming shorts to choose from.


As it turned out the rule seems to be largely unenforced at Le Clarys Plage, as plenty of people were wearing long shorts, but it's best to be prepared, and I daresay there are places where the shorts police will haul you off to the changing rooms if you transgress. As it happens the cheapo intermediate shorts offer the worst of both worlds, since they're not as baggy as the big shorts but not as stretchy as the skimpy ones and therefore more restrictive than either. I guess you do get what you pay for.

A modest selection of photographs can be found here; as reassurance for the squeamish I should state clearly that none of them feature me in the red shorts. The book I am reading in the comedy beer photo is this one.