Sunday, May 19, 2019

the last book I read

Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Sethe has had a tough life, as pretty much anyone in her circumstances - poor, black, female - would have done in the United States of the 1850s. Born into poverty and slavery, part of a large group of slaves, including her husband Halle, employed (if that's the word) at the Sweet Home plantation under relatively enlightened conditions, all things considered, but, y'know, still slavery.

After a time the benign old geezer responsible for this relatively lax regime dies and the new regime is considerably more savage, whereupon Sethe decides that it's time to make a bid for freedom. Sending her three children out ahead of her, they find refuge in a house on the outskirts of Cincinnati with Halle's mother, Baby Suggs (no relation). Sethe, by now pregnant with her fourth child, later escapes herself (though without Halle) and makes her way by a circuitous and eventful route (including giving birth on the way, so yeah, eventful) to the house in Cincinnati to be reunited with Baby Suggs and the kids.

Happy ever after, right? Well, not exactly - Sethe's owners aren't too happy about Sethe's scarpering, still less her arranging for the scarpering of her kids, who would otherwise have been ready-made (and free) slave material themselves in due course, so they send a posse out to get her back. Sethe is not going back, though, and nor are the kids, even if she has to ensure their continuing freedom by, erm, sending them to a better place. So when the posse comes a-callin' to Baby Suggs' place Sethe takes the kids out to the shed and begins calmly slaughtering them. She is interrupted before she can get too far but does manage to dispatch her two-year-old daughter, Beloved, by slitting her throat.

On her release from prison Sethe finds that the slave-owners have cooled off considerably on the idea of having her crazy ass back, so she is free. A few problems remain, though, not least that the house now seems to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of what everyone (Sethe, Baby Suggs, Sethe's now-teenage daughter Denver) assumes is Beloved. It's only when Paul D, an old friend of Sethe from Sweet Home, turns up and performs a sort of impromptu exorcism (and then moves in) that calm is restored.

Not for long, though - on their return from an excursion the family discover a mysterious young woman sitting outside the house, who claims to be called.....Beloved. She also moves in and begins a strange relationship with Sethe and Denver, and a fractious but sexual one with Paul D which eventually results in him moving out of the house. Is she the returned (and possibly vengeful) spirit of Sethe's murdered daughter? Can Denver do anything to snap Sethe out of the spell that Beloved seems to have her under and return her to the world of the living?

The preceding few paragraphs provide a broadly linear and chronological sequence of the events described in Beloved. They are not presented that way in the book, though - the opening chapters take place around the time of Paul D's arrival on the scene and the preceding events are then filled in in a series of flashbacks. To an extent this mirrors Paul D's increasing understanding of Sethe's story, since he is unaware of her murderous past when he arrives at the house. There is also an interlude of brief stream-of-consciousness chapters from a series of shifting viewpoints (Sethe, Denver, Beloved) before the novel shifts back to the more regular third-person viewpoint.

What the general arc of the story is about is clear enough - the horrific atrocities visited by white people on black people during the formative years of the United States of America, the ways in which people find ways to retain some semblance of humanity even in the face of people who wish to strip it from them, the untameable force of the bond between parent and child, even when expressed in what seem like the most savagely irrational and destructive ways. What the purpose of the very specific supernatural sub-plot is is slightly less clear to me - clearly we are meant to conclude that Beloved was the ghost of Sethe's murdered child, but the purpose of her return is unclear - most likely to enact some form of retribution, but since she never quite gets to enact it it's not certain.

I confess (and I'm aware that this is me being a tedious hyper-rationalist) that the insertion of the supernatural stuff into an otherwise brutally realistic narrative bothered me slightly. I'm not sure it really added anything other than being a plot MacGuffin that acts as the catalyst for some revelations and spurs Denver on to her climactic actions at the end of the book. It's a testament to the power of the rest of the book that this minor botheration doesn't detract too much from it.

There is precious little apart from the two Toni Morrison books in this list that would qualify as "black American literature" (Chester Himes is perhaps the only other author who would qualify), which is an omission I feel slightly uncomfortable about. Morrison herself is clear about her membership of this group and in this interview administers a polite but steely-eyed and merciless curbstomping to an interviewer who has the temerity to ask: yeah, but when are you going to write a book about white people?

Beloved is the novel for which Toni Morrison is most famous and which is generally perceived to have been the one which won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (although that is, at least in theory, awarded for a body of work). It won the Pulitzer Prize and The American Book Award in 1988 - previous Pulitzer winners on this list are Independence Day, The Road, A Thousand Acres, Foreign Affairs, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey and Gilead. Nonetheless I think I probably enjoyed Paradise marginally more (Tar Baby is the only other novel of hers I've read, which is also very good), but this is a seminal work of late-20th-century American literature and you should read it. Beloved was made into a film in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey (as Sethe), Danny Glover and Thandie Newton.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

don't push me cos I'm close to the edge

We went on another week-long holiday to the Lake District last week, of a very similar format to the one we took around the same time last year. This time I'm going to do the mountain-walking activity stuff first, just because that's How I Freakin' Roll, motherfuckers.

You'll recall that last time I was enthusing about having got two big adults-only mountain walks in; well we didn't quite manage that this time, but for good and interesting reasons that provided opportunities to do other equally interesting stuff. So while the big 12-mile circuit of Skiddaw that I'd devised will have to be kept in the back pocket for a future trip, we did get a couple of days out on the hills with the girls which I was, as you can imagine, unfeasibly proud and delighted about to what I imagine will be a tedious and embarrassing degree. So be warned.

Anyway, straight in, no messing, here's what we did. These are in order of distance and difficulty rather than strict chronological order (which would go 1,3,2 with two-day gaps between, if you're interested):

1. Cat Bells

We found ourselves in a position to take the girls out for a walk while my parents were looking after the boy. This presented a bit of an opportunity, since Huw is not as keen as either of his sisters on spending large amounts of time in the Macpac baby- and toddler-carrying device, and it would have been impossible for him to walk up a decent-sized hill, as gung-ho about giving it a try as he probably would have been, for the first five minutes anyway.

So we decided to take the girls up Cat Bells as an exploratory first outing, as we'd got them both some new walking boots especially for the trip. I suspect it's highly likely that this particular walk is a first outing for many kids who go on Lake District holidays, though despite its cuddly reputation the last bit of ascent from the north side (the more usual angle of approach) involves some proper, though not especially hair-raising, hands-and-feet scrambling. So it's definitely not a casual stroll you can take a pushchair on.

It also just happens that the starting point at the north end of the ridge was only about 10-15 minutes drive from where we were staying in Braithwaite, which was handy - in fact we spent more time driving around looking for a parking space than we did getting there. In addition to being a sunny Easter Saturday there was also a fell-running event on, so parking was at a premium, and we only avoided having to park a prohibitive distance away by getting lucky with someone leaving as we were approaching.

With two fairly young children (Nia and Alys recently celebrated their 7th and 4th birthdays respectively) there are a number of ways this could have panned out, many of them not good: deciding they hated it two minutes in, needing a wee every five minutes, wanting to be carried on the rocky sections, et frustratingly cetera. I'm delighted to report, though, that the girls absolutely smashed it, Nia with her natural athleticism and Alys, slightly shorter and chunkier of leg, with her trademark implacable determination not to be outdone by her big sister.

I mean, I don't want to overstate the achievement, as the round trip was a little under two-and-a-half miles, but everyone gave every appearance of enjoying themselves. Having a glorious sunny day with beautiful views of the Newlands valley and Derwentwater throughout helped, of course. Route map and elevation profile are below. Note that this is a slightly different version of the walk from the one which occupied fourth place in the Ordnance Survey's Britain's Favourite Walks list a while back - that one drops off the summit to the east to walk back along the path above the lakeside road, while we dropped off towards the Newlands valley to the west to take a more direct route back to the car park.


2. Haystacks

Fired with enthusiasm by the Cat Bells trip, Nia demanded to do another walk, a demand I was obviously more than happy to accommodate, even at the expense of a longer adults-only walk. My Dad, who after a quite debilitating bout of pneumonia a couple of years ago, and a heart-related health scare (which turned out to be a false alarm) last year hadn't done any mountain walking for a while (and who, to be fair, is nearly 77) wanted an outing too, so we decided everyone's needs would be best served by having a crack at Haystacks. This would fulfil Nia and Dad's desire for a walk a bit longer and higher than the Catbells one, and would enable Hazel and me to tick off Haystacks, which we'd failed to conquer last year as part of our Buttermere walk. Alys, having eloquently made her point with the successful ascent of Catbells, was more than happy to sit this one out.

There's some overlap with the longer, higher Buttermere walk from last year: same parking place at Gatesgarth farm, and much of the route of ascent up Scarth Gap Pass is the route we took to get down from High Crag at the end of the walk. The Haystacks route goes all the way to the top of the pass (which links the Buttermere valley with the wilder, roadless and less-frequented Ennerdale) and then turns west up a shortish scramble to the top of Haystacks at 597 metres (1958 feet). There's a rocky pile at the top with two cairns, each with a metal pole embedded in it. It's unclear which is higher but it's probably the one nearer the Buttermere side; obviously you have to put a stone on both just in case.

There are a couple of reasons for climbing Haystacks - one is the Wainwright connection as it was one of old Alf's favourite spots and his ashes were scattered around Innominate Tarn (where we stopped for lunch); the other is the general delightfulness of the plateau just to the south-east of the summit. As well as the gentle grassy descent to Innominate Tarn there is the larger and slightly bleaker Blackbeck Tarn, not to mention countless other pools dotted here and there. There are also fantastic views across Ennerdale to the vast bulk of Pillar and the more shapely summits of Kirk Fell and Great Gable, and down the Buttermere valley to Crummock Water and Grasmoor.

The summit path eventually skirts round to the north-east towards some quarry workings and then drops off down the side of Warnscale Beck and around the lower slopes of Fleetwith Pike back to the car park. Route and altitude profile info are below. Overall it's a splendid walk that packs plenty of excitement into its five-and-a-half miles, and barring a couple of minor falling-over incidents on the way down both Dad and Nia survived unscathed. A pint (and a J20 for Nia) in the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere village helped to revive everyone.

A couple of points: firstly there'd be a case for doing the walk clockwise rather than (as we did it) anticlockwise, since that way you'd get the longish walk in along the old quarry road out of the way first and would get the best views of Haystacks' rocky frontage on the way up, rather than having it behind you on the way down. It would also place the summit slightly after halfway rather than slightly before it, which I think is probably preferable.

Secondly, impressive rocky frontage or not, and for all Wainwright's understandable affection for the place, you'd have to say Haystacks has a fairly tenuous claim to be thought of as a "proper" mountain in its own right, rather than just an interesting rocky outcrop on the ridge between the higher ground of High Crag to the north-west and the plateau below Grey Knotts and Brandreth to the east. That probably explains why most of the Wainwright guides (picture is from my copy of this one) give a slightly hand-wavey estimate of 1900 feet as its height - it was never considered significant enough to warrant a specific survey of its height until Alf's advocacy brought it into the public eye (it turns out old Alf underestimated it by 50 feet or so). You can get an idea of the problem (not that it actually is a problem in any real-world sense) by noting that while Haystacks is a Wainwright it is neither a Hewitt (since it's under 2000 feet) nor a Marilyn (since it has insufficient topographic prominence).



3. Helvellyn

My only non-negotiable demand on these trips is that I get one full day to do a Proper Ruddy Expedition accompanied by whoever wants to come, is going to be able to keep up and is prepared to fit in with whatever absurd set of arbitrary challenges and targets I have chosen to build into the route. And so here it is.

One thing that had been bugging me for a while was that while I'd been up Helvellyn before, via a gruelling and fairly un-scenic slog up its western flank from the A591 at the southern end of Thirlmere, I'd never done it via the route generally agreed to be the best, and moreover the most exciting bit of fell-walk in Lakeland, Striding Edge. So given that you really want to be tackling Striding Edge in nice weather, and Easter Monday was a glorious sunny day, off we went.

We parked in Glenridding, only about half an hour's drive from Braithwaite, and headed off up to Lanty's Tarn, a partly artificial tarn occupying a dip at the end of the ridge which overlooks Glenridding and Ullswater. Apparently Lanty is short for Lancelot, the guy it was named after; I didn't sample the water (the level was quite low and it looked pretty murky) so I was unable to ascertain whether it really was lanty. We then headed round to the south a bit to join a path taking a diagonally upward course towards the Birkhouse Moor ridge, the far end of which is Striding Edge. The spectacular views down into Grisedale at this point dulled the pain of the realisation that (thanks to some slightly careless path-spotting on my part) we were going to have to do a longer detour than planned to bag the cairn at the far north-eastern end of the Birkhouse Moor ridge, something I had deemed essential to a "proper" traverse of the ridge (see "arbitrary challenges and targets" above).

Having done the out-and-back detour to the cairn we started the climb up to Striding Edge. The term is loosely used to refer to the whole ridge to the south side of the glacial corrie occupied by Red Tarn, but on the ground it's pretty clear that the rocky tower known as High Spying How marks the start of the exciting bit.

It's not really as fearsome as its reputation suggests, but that comes with the assumption that you're reasonably sure-footed and have a good head for heights, as the ridge is narrow in places, worn smooth by a gazillion boots in others, and the drop-offs to either side are steep. In other words it demands your full attention. On the other hand it's not exactly a knife-edge and you can walk along the crest pretty safely most of the way, with a couple of bits where it's probably prudent to put a hand down for support. Weather obviously plays a part, rain, high wind or ice would make it a good deal more challenging. There are drop-off paths on either side most of the way along if it all gets too much; obviously I disdained these and stuck to the crest. There's another rocky tower at the far end where the ridge joins the wall of the mountain which requires a bit of climbing to get up and over, but then it's just a steep scramble up to the vast rocky summit plateau. You can see from the altitude profile below (around the 8km mark) that the overall gradient of Striding Edge in this direction is actually slightly downwards and you have to regain some of that height to get onto the top of the mountain. Note that this is another mountain where the trig point doesn't quite mark the summit; the summit (at 950 metres, 3116 feet, the third highest mountain in England after the two Scafells) is the rocky area with the cairn over by the big X-shaped rock shelter.

After some lunch we started back; the return route goes the other side of Red Tarn via Swirral Edge, which is nothing like as sharp as Striding Edge but requires a steep and intermittently awkward downward scramble to get onto. Once you're on it it's pretty easy walking to get along to the subsidiary peak of Catstycam (2917 feet); some people bypass this in favour of a path which skirts across the contours to the outflow of Red Tarn, but those people are idiots. A slightly pathless drop-off the other side of Catstycam enables you to rejoin the downward path without any retracing of steps, and then it's a longish but steady and straightforward descent back into Glenridding and a celebratory pint in the back garden of the Beckside Bar in the Glenridding Hotel. I had a pint of Thwaites' Wainwright Ale, which seemed appropriate.



The general convention seems to be to do the walk this way round, despite the slightly longer low-altitude tail on it, just because it seems somehow right to use Striding Edge as a means of arriving at the summit of Helvellyn shortly afterwards, rather than just as a means of getting off a mountain you'd already conquered. I can tell you from our experience on a reasonably busy day up there that you would also be going against the flow of traffic in a way you might find made life awkward on some of the narrower sections. Wainwright did it this way round in his preferred version of the walk, which differs from ours slightly in starting from Patterdale rather than Glenridding, and in taking in the detour to Lanty's Tarn on the way down rather than on the way up (picture is from this book). My track log tells me the version we did was a little under 10 miles, which seems plausible, but also that it involved around 5800 feet of ascent, which seems less so - yes, there was a fair bit of descent and re-ascent, but this is a good 1000 feet more than on the Scafell walk. Maybe my new shoes were just excessively bouncy.


Thursday, April 18, 2019

the last book I read

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami.

Our un-named narrator is a writer, though seemingly unburdened by the need to find regular work to pay the rent, buy food etc., which is nice. Living in Tokyo, he is haunted by memories of a mysterious and seedy hotel called The Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo that he once stayed in with an ex-lover (also un-named, for the moment at least).

Eventually, during one of his lengthy hiatuses between writing jobs, he finds himself compelled to return to Sapporo and seek out the hotel. He finds that it still exists, in its former location and under its former name, but bearing no physical resemblance to its former self, being a shiny modern well-appointed establishment. Nonetheless he books himself in and almost immediately strikes up a friendly relationship with one of the hotel staff. Her name is Yumiyoshi, which I think we're meant to reel backwards at the unusualness of, but as someone relatively unfamiliar with Japanese language, culture, and naming conventions unless it had been an obvious outlier like Godzilla or Kendo Nagasaki this distinction was always going to be lost on me, and probably on most other Western readers too.

Anyway, during a conversation with Yumiyoshi she reveals that she has had an odd experience while travelling in the hotel lift, wherein she was seemingly transported to an old, undocumented, dark, dank-smelling floor of the hotel. Sure enough the narrator mooches around for a while and eventually has a similar experience, though he is curious enough to explore the mysterious netherworld a little and end up in a room with a man in a sheep costume (who calls himself, reasonably enough, The Sheep Man). The Sheep Man explains (in rather vague terms) that the whole purpose of this murky parallel universe is to allow him (the narrator) to resolve some matters in his own life, find that which had previously been lost, and so on and so forth.

The narrator decides to return to Tokyo, but as he is about to leave acquires a travelling companion: Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl abandoned in the hotel by her feckless mother and entrusted to the narrator's care for the return flight to Tokyo. Yuki turns out not only to be your typical surly and uncommunicative teenager but also to be your slightly more atypical borderline clairvoyant, with an ability to sense bad stuff in the future (or, in some cases, the past) by physical proximity to objects.

On his return to Tokyo the narrator continues to keep an avuncular eye on Yuki, who is staying alone in her mother's apartment, but also rekindles a friendship with his old schoolfriend Gotanda, who is now an established TV and film actor and whom the narrator had seen in a film also featuring his old girlfriend from the (old) Dolphin Hotel, who tuns out to be called Kiki, and who furthermore seems to have disappeared.

The narrator and Gotanda become regular drinking buddies, and even share a wild night with a couple of high-class prostitutes. All good fun until one of them turns up murdered carrying one of the narrator's business cards, and he gets hauled in by the police for questioning. Eventually they have to release him, and he returns to his directionless routine of hanging out with Yuki, drinking with Gotanda and trying to track down Kiki, interspersed with some strange waking dreams/visions whose meaning is unclear but seem to portend death. But whose?

Eventually he takes Yuki out for the day in a swanky Maserati that Gotanda has lent him and she has a clairvoyant moment at the end of which she announces that Gotanda is Kiki's murderer. The narrator confronts Gotanda with this accusation and he confesses in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, and shortly after kills himself by driving his Maserati off a pier into Tokyo Bay.

This strand of the mystery resolved, the narrator returns to Sapporo and the Dolphin Hotel, renews his acquaintance with Yumiyoshi in a more satisfyingly penetrative way, and then almost immediately finds himself and her wandering the dank corridor's of the Sheep Man's mysterious netherworld. The Sheep Man is nowhere to be found, though. So does this mean his work is done? Both Yumiyoshi and the narrator have to pass through some mysterious wibbly-wobbly portal to emerge back in the hotel bedroom. So does this mean the loose ends are tied up and the narrator and his lady friend are free to live happily ever after?

I mean, who knows, frankly. A slavish devotion to, or insistence on, linearity of plot and definitive resolution of loose ends is probably incompatible with reading a Murakami novel anyway. For instance the whole business around who killed Mei, the prostitute from the narrator's wild foursome with Gotanda, is pretty much forgotten about, unless we're meant to assume that Gotanda offed her as well as Kiki. Maybe we are. This book, as most of them do, bimbles along in its own slightly dream-like way without it ever being very clear where it's going, nor even, at the end, whether we've got there or not. Which isn't to say the journey hasn't been an enjoyable one - all Murakami's usual tropes are here: sheep, women's ears, death, the main protagonist having to choose between one mysterious, unattainable and possibly dead woman and one more down-to-earth alive one. That last one can also be found in Norwegian Wood; the previous ones can be found in A Wild Sheep Chase to which Dance Dance Dance is apparently a sort of sequel. Whether it makes sense as a sequel I really couldn't say, as I remember very little about A Wild Sheep Chase other than that it featured sheep.

The books just mentioned are the only three Murakami's I've ever read. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favourite, partly because the plots, such as they are, are so wispy and dream-like and relatively inconsequential (I mean, people die, but they seem so unlike "real" people that it doesn't seem to matter) that they slip through your fingers like smoke as soon as you've put the book down. As enjoyable and readable and idiosyncratic as they are I have some sympathy for the view expressed in this article, which dares to suggest that the received wisdom that Murakami is a Great Novelist and long overdue for a Nobel prize may be a bit overblown.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

none more black

Belatedly, here's the post-Christmas whisky round-up. And a bumper year it was too, featuring some of the old favourites like Jura, Highland Park and Talisker, but also a couple of new ones. Also, if I'm honest, featuring a couple of pre-Christmas impulse purchases by me of things that looked tempting and were on special offer.

As with a few previous entries in this list, what I propose to do here is consider a couple of head-to-head contests, not to whack you over the head with some sort of Verdict, but to consider how whiskies differ from each other and what sort of things one might wish to consider when a) deciding what you like and b) choosing what to drink on that basis.

Let's start with Johnnie Walker. We've been here many times before, in a sometimes bewildering kaleidoscopic array of colours. We aren't actually adding to the list of colours here as the new bottle is Johnnie Walker Double Black. Ask yourself how much more black it could be, and the answer is: none. This is a variant on the existing Black Label, which as you'll recall is one of my absolute favourite things ever. The Double Black variant supposedly contains a slightly higher proportion of Islay whisky and has been matured in pre-charred casks, both of which mean that it should be slightly darker and smokier than the standard Black Label. The obvious difference packaging-wise here is the funky blue-grey smoky bottle and the wood-grain effect on the box.

Best thing to do here is to tee up a glass of this and a glass of the standard Black Label, and I just happen to have a bottle of Black Label in the cupboard (another Christmas present). I actually acquired the Double Black myself off Amazon as they were knocking it out for 24 quid a few weeks before Christmas.

So here we go. They're pretty much exactly the same colour, for starters, so it's not as if there's some sort of Loch Dhu ridiculousness going on. Smell-wise they're very similar, and despite the claim of an extra whack of peat in the Double Black I'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart at this stage. The Double Black perhaps just has a slight rubbery edge a bit reminiscent of the Oban whereas the standard Black is a bit more cakey. We're at the outer limits of perception now though, to be honest. I need a drink.

Well, the contrast is a bit more obvious when you have a taste; here the extra peat comes through pretty clearly. It's still not Laphroaig, though, as it's quite polite and wrapped up in some nice cakey sweetness, but it's definitely there. It's a very palatable variant on the standard product, but not exactly a radical tearing-up of the formula. I'd be hard-pressed to say which I prefer, partly just because they are pretty similar. Highly variable and mood-dependent, I should think.

Secondly, by contrast, a face-off between two single malts, neither of which I'd tried before. Here's a bottle of 12-year-old Aberfeldy which I got as a Christmas gift (from my sister, I think). Back in the days of Scottish Munro-bagging holidays we used to plan our accommodation around access to Munros but also access to a distillery to visit, and I recall one year we toyed with the idea of staying near Aberfeldy village, since in addition to the obvious pull of the distillery it would have provided easy access to the mighty peaks of Schiehallion and Ben Lawers. Anyway, we stayed somewhere else in the end and consequently I have never tried the whisky.

Aberfeldy is one of those distilleries (Ardmore is another, for instance) which were primarily started up to provide whisky for a particular blender's blends, in this case Dewar's.

The second whisky here is Tamnavulin, which seeks to refute the old adage about distilleries beginning with T being generally rubbish. This one was another self-purchased one as Tesco had it for 22 quid before Christmas and I hadn't seen it on sale in supermarkets before. This one is actually called Tamnavulin Double Cask (no age statement) and is apparently the first whisky officially released by the distillery for about twenty years.

We're comparing apples and oranges here to some extent as Aberfeldy is in the Highland region while Tamnavulin is in Speyside. But I make the rules and I say these two get to go head-to-head. Let's do this. The Tamnavulin is slightly darker, presumably as a result of what the blurb on the box describes as "a sherry cask finish", though it gives no indication of what the duration of this might have been. You would say (quite wrongly) from having a sniff that the Aberfeldy was the younger and rawer of the two, as it has a bit of a hot magic markers whiff to it, whereas the Tamnavulin is a bit more woody and mellow. When you have a sip the Aberfeldy has a bit of tongue-puckering dryness to it but is a bit richer than you might expect from look and smell, while the Tamnavulin steams in all Charlie Big Potatoes with the sherry wood and something a bit dark and sweet and dangerous like, say, the Boston Molasses Disaster, but doesn't really follow through on it and ends up a little bit thin.

I have to tell you I came in here expecting to tell you that I preferred the Tamnavulin, but actually on the basis of the tasting I've just done I'd have to give it to the Aberfeldy. Ask me another day and I'd very possibly give you a different answer, though. Both are perfectly fine, if a little polite for my taste. I'd suggest if this type of thing is specifically your bag going with whichever one is currently on special offer in your local supermarket.

Monday, April 01, 2019

trying times

I'm not sure how I ended up watching this hour-long compilation of Welsh tries - possibly residual enthusiasm after our glorious completion of the 2019 Grand Slam a few weeks ago, possibly just some lazy clicking on stuff in the YouTube sidebar, or just letting the auto-play sequencer have its way.

Anyway, it's a compilation presented (with, frankly, far too much inconsequential chit-chat for my liking) by a pair of wily little Welsh scrum-halves of differing vintage, Clive Rowlands and Robert Jones (also, as it happens, father-in-law and son-in-law). Rowlands is more famous as a coach and manager of Wales and the British Lions, but as a player captained Wales to a share of the Five Nations Championship in 1964 and an outright championship win and a Triple Crown in 1965. His most famous feat as a player may well have been in 1963, though, in this game against Scotland at Murrayfield. The general tone of the newsreel voice-over is all Topping Rugger Well Done Everyone Jolly Bad Luck Scotland which conceals the interesting tactical choices made by Rowlands, principally involving hoofing the ball into touch whenever he got his hands on it. There were apparently 111 lineouts (yes, yes, all right, lines-out, if you prefer) in the match, a figure you can instantly compare with, say, the recent Wales-Ireland match in Cardiff and discover that there were 29, and with Wales' previous match in Cardiff, against England, which featured only 17. Legend has it that this was one of the catalysts for the eventual worldwide adoption of the "Australian dispensation" which outlawed direct kicking to touch outside of your own 22. 

Jones was more my era, and a fine player too, though in a different mould from the rugged Welsh scrum-halves of my formative years like Gareth Edwards and Terry Holmes. Probably much to his chagrin Jones may end up being best remembered for his terrier-like scrapping with Nick Farr-Jones on the Lions' victorious tour to Australia in 1989. 

Anyway, the video is divided up, in a slightly contrived manner, into categories starting with tries by position: wingers, centres, half-backs (Gareth Edwards gets a whole section to himself here), forwards, and then there are sections on crucial match-winning tries, spectacular long-distance ones, and then at the end a top ten run-down featuring most of the usual suspects, and no surprises with the top two: Gareth Edwards against Scotland in 1972 and Phil Bennett, also against Scotland in 1977. "That try" by Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 was presumably ruled out of the running for not being scored in a Welsh jersey.

Anyway, the thing that caught my eye among the "match-winning" section was this try by Mike Hall against England in 1989, which turned a 9-6 deficit into a 12-9 lead which Wales retained until the final whistle to record the last of their 13 successive wins in Cardiff. It's the first time I've seen it since watching the match (as reminisced about here) live in a hall of residence TV room at Bristol University, and no amount of Google or YouTube searching will return the clip; you have to stumble across it as I did.

I'd forgotten some of the details beyond the basics of the hack-ahead and diving touchdown; one delicious detail that I had forgotten was that the two England players who principally conspired to let Wales in for the try were Rory Underwood and Jonathan Webb, the very same two players who were culpable for Ieuan Evans' try in Wales 10-9 victory at the same venue in 1993. 

As I mentioned and this article says, there has always been some doubt about the legitimacy of the grounding of the ball for Hall's try. The low quality of the video footage and the fact the the posts obscure some of the action make it difficult to reach a firm conclusion 30 years later, but to be honest it doesn't look as dicey as I remember it. It's interesting to reflect, though, on how one might retrospectively disallow some of the legendary tries of rugby history given the high-definition super-slo-mo multi-angle replays we've got access to these days. In addition to Hall's try there are probably a whole host of kick-and-chase touchdowns where the grounding might look a bit dubious on close scrutiny. A couple of obvious other examples: both the Barbarians try (Quinnell to Edwards right at the end of the move) and the 1977 Bennett try (Bennett to Burcher somewhere in the middle) feature passes which harsh critics might rule out for being forward. Elsewhere there are probably lots of undetected knock-ons, obstructions, feet in touch and clatterings into the corner flag to mar your retrospective enjoyment of great moments in rugby history.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

and why knot

It's a cliché, of course, but now that the vast majority of the time my work doesn't require me to dress up like an utter nincompoop the number of occasions when I have to wear a suit and tie are pretty small, and fall into the usual traditional categories: weddings, funerals and the odd christening.

I don't have much to say about suits except to crow briefly and unedifyingly about how I can still get into the suit I chose to wear on Wednesday (to a funeral as it happens) despite having purchased it in House Of Fraser in Glasgow in about 1998. The thing that is going to consign that suit to the dustbin of history in the not-too-distant future is not me getting too porky to wear it but the trouser crotch becoming unacceptably threadbare. Hugely conspicuous patching with bits of old underpant is fine for jeans but generally frowned upon for suits.

Ties are a different matter, though. I own quite a lot of ties, for reasons that are no longer particularly clear to me, if they ever were. I mean, you sometimes get one included when you buy a shirt, and if it's known that you have a job that requires tie-wearing then that provides a possible outlet for the unimaginative Christmas-present buyer. I did buy a lot of them myself, though; I can only imagine that I had such a dizzyingly large amount of disposable income back in the day that I had to find something to spaff it on.

I have a couple of problems with ties; firstly the obvious one of the occasions that typically require their wearing being a bit stiff and formal and not the sort of laid-back informal social events that I prefer. That said, in the picture featured here (from the wedding of some friends in Cardiff in about 2007) both I and the tie I'm wearing seem to have, hem hem, "loosened up" a bit. Just as a pointer, this sort of behaviour is generally considered less acceptable at funerals.

The second reason relates to anatomy. What I find is that for old-school formal shirts, certain assumptions are generally made by shirt manufacturers about how the size of your collar relates to the size of the rest of you (chest and waist measurements, principally). Here, for instance, my actual waist measurement of around 34 inches equates to a collar size of 16 inches, which in the unlikely event of it being physically possible at all could only be fastened at the cost of extreme crush injuries to trachea and carotid artery, and, shortly afterwards, death. A comfortable collar size of 17 inches, on the other hand, equates to a waist size of 38-40 inches and a general impression of not so much wearing a shirt as occupying a modestly-sized marquee. So the choice is generally between buying a shirt with a 16-inch collar and being pretty confident of a good fit, but abandoning any idea of ever being able to do the collar up, or buying a 16.5- or 17-inch collar and resigning myself to having to tuck great swathes of it in round the back, like trying to repack a recently-deployed parachute.

There is an alternative angle here: don't imagine that there is only one way to tie a tie. Most people go through their whole lives using the standard four-in-hand knot without ever really imagining that there are alternatives. The trouble with the four-in-hand for the chunky-necked individual is that its very simplicity, and in particular its ease of release, makes it unsuitable for use by those who have to fasten a tie over an unfastened collar button, as every flex of your powerful neck muscles will undo the tie a further notch until eventually you're wearing it as a belt.. In these circumstances a chunkier knot with slightly greater slip resistance is probably the way to go, and the Half Windsor is probably the easiest of these.

I first tied a Half Windsor knot for my wedding, as I felt something a bit grander and chunkier than the norm was in order, and the thing about silk ties (a colourful batch of which we had obtained for the wedding party) is that while they are all classy and shit they are quite slippery and sometimes quite thin.

I think on that occasion I was wearing a shirt that did up round the neck (the picture shows me losing a pint-drinking contest to my wife shortly after the completion of the formal ceremonial part of the day), whereas on Wednesday I found that the 16.5-inch collar attached to the shirt I'd chosen to wear was a bit restrictive, so I picked a chunky non-silk tie with a bit of a textured pattern on it, just to really get some friction going, left the top button undone, and cashed in the Half Windsor again. All seemed to work out OK without constantly having to fiddle and tighten as you sometimes find you have to do otherwise.

Don't imagine that the Half Windsor is the pinnacle of tie complexity or knot size, though: as the name suggests there is a full Windsor option available which is slightly more complex and results in a slightly chunkier knot. Even that is pretty conservative compared to some of the more outlandish stuff out there like the Trinity, the Eldredge or the van Wijk. Most of these are insanely ostentatious (and require an absurdly long tie) and therefore really only the preserve of Premiership footballers.

It's perhaps worth reflecting, though, if you find on reading the above that you have some sort of threshold at which sensible normal tie wear crosses over into absurd peacocking, how ludicrous it is that wearing a piece of coloured fabric round the neck has come to denote smartness and formality in some way.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

celebrity walkeylikey of the day

We've expanded the scope of the lookeylikey posts lately to include things like islands and tubes of effervescent tablets, so it was only a matter of time before we started featuring buildings. And so here's Talley Abbey, near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and from the particular angle portrayed in this picture posted on Facebook doing a pretty remarkable impression of the bow-legged monkey swagger of Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher (itself very probably based on an original walk by Ian Brown of the Stone Roses), as expertly parodied by Kathy Burke here


According to Cadw Talley Abbey is a Premonstratensian Abbey. Now you and I might have thought Premonstratensian was a thing the ladies suffered from once a month, but no, apparently it's some sort of sub-division of Catholicism, distinguishable from the gazillion other sub-divisions of sub-divisions of Christianity only by tiny differences in doctrine and practice that those of us outside the loop might find laughably piddling and inconsequential, but which throughout history have proved significant enough to prompt quite a lot of slaughtering.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

the last book I read

The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael.

University, eh? Well, we've all been there. Well, not literally all of us, though numbers are going up steadily.

Cambridge in the early 1950s was still a pretty exclusive place, though, so the people we meet there at the start of The Glittering Prizes have already lucked out in life's lottery to some extent, and have every expectation that their time at Cambridge will give them an additional leg-up into their chosen careers. But first there is much of the obligatory studenting to be done, with the swilling of ale and the shagging and the general being witty and brittle and ironic and fabulous.

Friendships are made, hearts are broken, people move on and we follow a small group of ex-students through into their subsequent lives. Principally this means following Adam Morris (that's him up there on the front cover, as portrayed by Tom Conti in the TV version - more on that later) into a career as Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist, but also his friends like theatre and film director Mike Clode, TV chat-show and current affairs host (and fairly obvious satiric version of David Frost) Alan Parks and other more minor characters.

Various questions are explored: to what degree is it acceptable to compromise your artistic vision or your personal morality in pursuit of fame and/or fortune? How much should you trust your friends? How much do a serious of fabulous triumphs in the arena of a Cambridge college debating society prepare you for the complexity and unpredictability of dealings with actual people in the real world?

The Glittering Prizes is best-known as a 6-part television series first broadcast in 1976; if I've understood the chronology correctly this book is a novelisation of the original TV series (rather than, say, the TV series being adapted from an original novel as is slightly more usual). It's obviously partly autobiographical - Raphael is as famous for film work as for novels, being responsible for screenplays for films such as Darling and Far From The Madding Crowd in the 1960s, and more recently Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999.

To be honest, while I've never seen the TV series, the novel is curiously unengaging, despite the fabulous wittiness of the badinage between the principal characters. Partly this is down to the number of characters we're expected to engage with in a novel of barely 300 pages - take Bill Bourne for instance, who we barely meet at all before he has his brief moment of being centre-stage in part five. In many ways Bill and his black American wife Joann are the most intriguing characters in the book, but we barely get a chance to get to know them before they're shuffled off stage. And despite Adam Morris being the central character it's hard to know what we're meant to make of him beyond his evident talent as a writer (he is the obvious authorial alter ego here), since despite being apparently touchingly devoted to his wife Barbara he's generally a fairly irritating character. There are a couple of jarring moments that root the book firmly in its era (it was published in 1976), not least the use by one of the characters of a bit of corrective intra-marital rape as a means of concluding a disagreement.

I don't want that to sound as if reading the book was an unenjoyable experience, because it wasn't - the sparkling dialogue zips by entertainingly enough (and it is pretty dialogue-heavy, as befits something that's essentially an adapted screenplay). I just struggled to see what it was for. To quote myself from an earlier book post: I don't want to get all "what was the author trying to say here", but, at the same time, what was the author trying to say here?

That was a fairly short book review by recent standards, so let me entertain you with a showbiz anecdote: a vague acquaintance with Tom Conti (via some family connections) was a key boast of my old school friend Mungo in the early 1980s. I forget the details of the claim, but the connection did inspire me to Google the name (Mungo's, not Tom Conti's) and I find that he is a senior economist at Oxford University, an outcome broadly in line with my expectations for his future life while we were at school together.

Monday, March 04, 2019

slapheadrity lookeylikey of the day

This is a bit of an echo of a long-ago lookeylikey post about bald people; I want to make it clear that I'm trying to do something a bit more considered than saying that all bald people look the same. Whether I have succeeded is for you to judge.

Here are cabinet minister and serial disaster area Chris Grayling, Vic Reeves' comedy sidekick and spirit-level enthusiast Les, and current PDC world darts champion Michael van Gerwen.


You'd expect Les to win the Most-Deranged-Looking Bald Guy contest hands down, but actually I think it's van Gerwen. Grayling evidently keeps his derangement more securely under wraps.

brexit: it's all getting a bit hairy now

One of the reasons I don't do as much blogging as I used to, in addition to the various reasons already mentioned elsewhere, is that the current political climate in both the US and the UK is pretty much anathema to the blogger who might want to make some facile but vaguely satirical points about current affairs. It's been said before, but the current political climate has rendered satire effectively redundant. Brexit is a jaw-droppingly stupid and self-destructive idea? Trump is a moron? Well, duh, as the kids say.

So while this post is tangentially Brexit-related, it's really mainly about other things. I was listening to the Today programme the other day in the car and there was a bit where John Humphrys was interviewing a woman about Brexit-related matters. Nothing out of the ordinary there, you might think, and you'd be right if it were not for the fact that she was sitting in the studio naked. This sort of stuff doesn't come across especially well on the radio, but it was apparently for real. Dr Victoria Bateman's point, as far as I can gather, is that "Brexit leaves Britain naked" and the best way to illustrate this is to turn up on various media outlets literally naked (or, alternatively, in a big coat which can be removed at the right moment) and with slogans daubed on one's torso to make that point.

Now obviously Dr. Bateman (a perfectly respectable academic economist at Cambridge University by day when she's not doing naked protests) is right about Brexit in a general sense (a lengthy lecture wherein she sets out her arguments is here, though you should be aware that she delivers most of it naked, so it's obviously NSFW), but of course being right doesn't automatically lead to you getting your own way, otherwise we'd never have got into this colossal mess in the first place. It might also have occurred to Dr. Bateman that this sort of thing has a distinct air of upper-class types horsing around about it, which might give you pause for thought after reflecting that one element of the Brexit vote (among many others) was a frustrated and self-destructive swipe at a perceived "elite". Imagine how a naked protest would be received if it were a working-class woman doing a tour of betting shops in Sunderland in order to get her kit off.

It should also be noted that Dr. Bateman has a certain amount of previous in this area; as far back as 2014 she was in the news for posing for a fairly mundane full-length nude portrait, the most interesting thing about which was that it was at the centre of a sex discrimination case brought against the company her husband James works for, partly as a result of old Jimbo enthusiastically showing it to people at work. Which is mildly ironic, since the point of the portrait, and indeed the thrust of most of Dr. Bateman's protests, is the objectification of women's bodies. Which is a fine and admirable thing to protest about, but there is just a suspicion - and maybe this is unduly cynical, I don't know - that the Brexit thing is just a convenient vehicle to keep her profile up.

Anyway, that lengthy preamble is really just by way of scene-setting: the thing that really struck me about all this was how the media chose to cover it - the "respectable" outlets did their best to be all groovy and unconcerned about it, while pixelating the hell out of various key areas for TV purposes. Some amusement can be obtained by seeing how people like John Humphrys, Owen Jones and the legendary Richard Madeley react at having to interview a naked woman. At the other end of the scale, you can imagine how the tabloids reacted. Interestingly, while the Daily Mail adhered fairly strictly to the rules regarding acceptable terminology (modesty = fanny, broadly speaking) the Daily Express went off the rails completely:
Dr Victoria Bateman took to the stage in her modesty last night
Hard to imagine what they thought that actually meant, although to be fair they did go on to say later in the same piece:
She then blasted UKIP in Cambridge for criticising a prior naked performance for lacking incredulity
That's even harder to parse; I assume that the last word is meant to be "credibility", but evidently the leering hack was too busy furiously wanking to proof-read his own article. Most of the rest of the reaction on the internet focused on her refreshingly laissez-faire attitude to pubic topiary, apparently an anomaly worthy of mention in these waxed and shaven times. Perhaps it's an ironic commentary on the amount of fannying about, beating about the bush, etc. etc. which has gone on in the Brexit negotiations.

In entirely unconnected news it should also be noted that Dr. Bateman has a book coming out fairly shortly. If only there were some way of getting some advance publicity.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

death's what you make it

It seems like an age ago that David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Prince died in fairly quick succession, although it was in fact just under three years ago. I wouldn't want you to think there's been nobody of any personal significance to me who has died in the intervening period, because that wouldn't be true; Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry and Chris Cornell are three obvious names that spring to mind.

Today's announcement of the death of Mark Hollis is a bit more personal, though, and I think that's partly down to timing - I recently tweeted the following in response to a request for the first album that really opened my eyes to the possibilities beyond the standard Top Of The Pops singles chart fare:

Another album that I got into around the same time was Talk Talk's The Colour Of Spring, which I got into off the back of the single Life's What You Make It. I remember seeing Life's What You Make It reviewed on the BBC Saturday morning show, which I guess would have been Saturday Superstore (though sadly I don't think it was the one featuring Margaret Thatcher), and hearing something intriguing in its thunking four-note piano riff. The accompanying album is one of the great albums of the 1980s, but as great as it is, and as great as songs like Living In Another World, I Don't Believe In You and Give It Up are (the latter powered by what can only be described as a HUGE STEAMING ORGAN), it barely prepares you for the following two albums, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock.

Spirit Of Eden (released in 1988) in particular was one of the key eye- and ear-opening albums of my late teens, and both it and Laughing Stock still sound pretty extraordinary today. Not "pop" or "rock" music in any recognisable sense, but not polite pseudo-classical chamber music either - Desire from Spirit Of Eden and Ascension Day from Laughing Stock have some rude and noisy guitar bits. I remember being staggered that you were allowed to do this sort of stuff, where you could spend three or four minutes establishing an atmosphere with just a few bits of wispy clarinet and the occasional ting on a cymbal, and huge expanses of silence. Of course the commercial reality is that they were only allowed to do it because of the considerable success of their previous two albums, and that given the subsequent sales figures they were only allowed to do it once (Laughing Stock was recorded for a different label). Hollis has said in subsequent interviews that he viewed Spirit Of Eden as a completely logical progression from The Colour Of Spring and fully expected it to achieve similar multi-million sales figures. I can see what he meant with the first bit (April 5th and Chameleon Day on The Colour Of Spring definitely point to some of the later stuff), as for the second bit I can only salute his positively heroic self-delusion.

The only other album Hollis officially released during his lifetime was his self-titled 1998 solo album, which is glacially slow, whisperingly quiet, absolutely riveting if you're in the right mood and the right environment, but which you almost feel you have to hold your breath while listening to so as to not disturb the ambience.

You'll want the last three Talk Talk albums and the solo album - if you decide (as you might) that you want a singles compilation to hoover up the best of the early stuff like It's My Life then several are available. You might go for the remixes and rarities collection Asides Besides because it includes remarkable stuff like John Cope and It's Getting Late In The Evening which they saw fit to throw away as single B-sides.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

the last book I read

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

The Reverend John Ames is in his mid-seventies and nearing the end of his life (he has some unspecified heart condition and is also just, you know, old), and is getting to the stage of wanting to put his affairs in order. What this entails, in his particular case (and unusually for a man in his mid-seventies), is writing a letter to his seven-year-old son to be read after his death wherein he tries to provide some guidance for the boy and something to remember him by after his actual memories of his father fade.

So what's a respectable Reverend doing having a son in his late sixties, the randy old goat? Well, John Ames was married briefly in his twenties to a woman called Louisa, but she and their baby daughter died in quick succession shortly after the baby was born. Ames then immersed himself in his ministry, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, until meeting a woman called Lila (thirty-odd years his junior) when she came to one of his church services, and eventually marrying her, Doing A Sex at least once and having the boy (whose name I don't think we ever learn).

Ames has lived his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, which is fictional but is apparently based on the town of Tabor, a place with a population of a thousand or so in the southwestern corner of the state, and therefore withing hailing distance of Nebraska and Missouri. He has sustained a lifelong friendship with another local minister (I know, right, how many do they need) Robert Boughton, also a man in the twilight of his years. All Boughton's seven children are grown adults, but that's not to say that they don't still prove occasionally troublesome. And as it happens, as Ames is writing his letter Boughton has two of his adult children staying with him, slightly unexpectedly: daughter Glory and son Jack, who is actually named John Ames Boughton as a nod to Boughton's oldest and dearest friend.

Jack is the prodigal son, the black sheep of the family, and various other clichés. He is also a well-read and thoughtful bloke, albeit of a sceptical nature, and keen to engage Reverend Ames in conversation on a variety of topics, not least the vexed question of whether his troubles were pre-ordained in some Calvinistic way, or whether he had a chance to be a good and respectable person and blew it by some wholly avoidable bad decision-making (and, by extension, which of those things would be worse). Part of the reason he's keen to engage Reverend Ames about it is that it's difficult to talk to his own father about it, for all the obvious reasons plus the fact that old Boughton's physical and mental health is starting to fail.

Among the things Jack tells Ames that he doesn't feel able to tell his own father are some of the details of the life he has temporarily fled in St. Louis; specifically, that he had a wife, Della, and a young son there. It's a bit more complicated than that, though, since Della is black. Not only does respectable white society (including most of Jack's prospective employers) take a dim view of this, so do Della's family, who view Jack as untrustworthy and do their best to warn him off.

Since old Boughton doesn't have much time left, Jack's siblings are on their way to pay their respects to the old man before he checks out. Jack is definitely not keen on a big family reunion and decides to head off before anyone else arrives, after a final conversation with Ames, who, having always been suspicious of Jack, finds himself warming to him even as he facilitates his flight from family responsibilities.

Gilead is a companion piece to Home, reviewed here in June 2016. The idea is that they describe essentially the same sequence of events from two different points of view. Home was centred mainly around Glory, but crucially was written in the third person; Gilead is presented as a letter from John Ames to his son and is therefore a first-person narrative. This makes it feel completely different, and introduces the possibility of Ames being an unreliable narrator. Not that he would ever lie, good Christian man and all, but there might be things that he omits out of a desire to shield the boy, or there might be stuff that he has just misinterpreted or misunderstood.

It's interesting to reflect on what we find out in Gilead that we didn't in Home; mainly a lot more detail about Ames' father and grandfather, a little (but only a little) about his relationship with his wife Lila, and, more surprisingly, a lot more about Jack's relationship with his wife Della, something that only really comes into focus right at the end of Home. As with Home this is a book shot through with religion, hardly surprisingly since both Robert Boughton and John Ames are ministers (although old Boughton was a much more peripheral figure in Home). Ames is clearly a good man, and after initially viewing Jack's return to the Boughton household with horror, warms to him over the course of the book as he learns more of his circumstances. Circumstances which of course are only difficult because of the institutional racism of 1950s America.

A first-person narrative of this sort is tricky to sustain without having the supposed writer of the narrative display implausible literary gifts or getting into awkward questions about how to bring about a plausible ending. It's very convincingly done, but it lends the book a slightly tight, stifling, claustrophobic quality, by contrast with Home which was written in a much more relaxed style and was therefore easier to read. John Ames, though obviously a man of compassion, and evidently softened somewhat in his old age by unexpectedly acquiring a wife and child, is still one of those slightly forbiddingly upright and austere religious types, whereas Glory and Jack, the main protagonists of Home, are a bit more flawed (considerably more so in Jack's case).

I suppose what I'm saying is that although Gilead might be the more impressive achievement from a literary standpoint, I found Home to be a more purely enjoyable read. Both are major works of 21st-century American fiction, though, and I would heartily recommend that you read them both. There is a third book, Lila, which as the title suggests focuses on John Ames' wife and overlaps with the narrative of the other two books.

Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005; other Pulitzer winners on this list are The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, Foreign Affairs, A Thousand Acres, Independence Day and The Road. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004; other winners here are Ragtime, A Thousand Acres and Wolf Hall.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

the last book I read

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima.

Noboru is a pretty normal thirteen-year-old boy. Well, it's a difficult age, isn't it? Presenting an appearance of conscientiousness and helpfulness to his widowed Mum, Fusako, while at the same time furtively spying on her undressing in her bedroom via a peephole in the wall between their rooms. Presenting an appearance of general respectability (at school, for instance) while at the same time hanging around in a gang of boys of the same age (led by a charismatic figure only referred to here as The Chief) who reject all the trappings of "civilised" society for some ill-defined philosophy involving rugged self-reliance and more nebulous concepts like "honour" and "glory". A bit of harmless teenage fun, boys being boys and testing boundaries, you might say, except for the occasional more disturbing activities like mutilating stray cats that they get into at the Chief's instigation.

One day Fusako and Noboru take a jaunt down to the docks (they live in Yokohama, so there's a lot of docks) and meet up with Ryuji Tsukazaki, second mate on a commercial steamer, who Fusako initiates a relationship with. When she brings him back to the house for the night Noboru spies on them through the peephole, and, upon witnessing the enthusiastic way Ryuji makes Fusako extend his gangplank and pipe him aboard, before vigorously sluicing down her lower decks, decides that Ryuji is his new hero and embodies all the masculine traits he finds most pure and admirable.

As sailors do, Ryuji has to head back off to sea for a number of months, but keeps in touch with Fusako by letter, and upon returning and being reunited with Fusako decides that his seafaring days are over and that he wants to settle down, put down some roots, marry Fusako, be as good a stepfather as he can to Noboru and find some other form of employment. That's all lovely, then, isn't it? Not to Noboru, though, who views it as an utter betrayal of all the lofty masculine ideals that Ryuji supposedly embodied. And for what? Being a father - the most contemptible role a man can fulfil, according to the gang's ethos.

So clearly this will not do. Noboru consults the gang, and The Chief hatches a plan. Here is a perfect opportunity, he says, for the gang to cover themselves in manly glory, while at the same time redeeming Ryuji from the sad descent into middle-aged respectability, corpulence and impotence that will surely follow on the heels of his meek surrender to Fusako's wishes. And how will this redemption be achieved? By a glorious and honourable (and probably messy) death, of course! Erm, run that by us again, Chief? Well, you remember what happened to the cat....

So Noboru takes advantage of Ryuji's desire to be a good father and arranges a secret meeting with him, ostensibly to do a bit of bonding and allow Ryuji to meet up with his friends. Ryuji is tickled by the idea and accompanies the gang out to one of their hideouts in the woods. They're decent enough kids, after all, just a bit boisterous; and who wasn't, at that age? But they're flatteringly receptive to some hoary old nautical anecdotes, and trusting enough to include Ryuji in their tea ritual, even if the tea is a bit weird and bitter-tasting, almost as if it zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz..........

The book ends at this point and what follows is never described, but we get the idea clearly enough. The idea that Mishima would have his characters follow through on such a plan is reinforced by knowledge of Mishima's own personal circumstances, in particular the circumstances of his death, by ritual suicide after a doomed attempt at a coup in 1970. Furthermore the ideas espoused by The Chief and his gang are not that far removed from those espoused by Mishima's group: a sort of yearning for a simpler, more honourable time when men were men (and women, presumably, knew their place), the emperor was still revered as some sort of demi-god and no-one had had their heads turned by hamburgers and transistor radios and all the other polluting elements of Western so-called civilisation. So while it's quite possible to read The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea as a sort of slyly black satire on what would nowadays be called "toxic masculinity" (a good article on that subject by a former book reviewee, Tim Winton, can be found here), the suspicion remains that actually Mishima wasn't being satirical after all and this is all a true reflection of what he believed.

None of which matters, actually - novelists, particularly dead ones, don't get to police other people's interpretations of their work, and it works very well as a shocking little parable either way. It's hard to know, of course, how much of this is Mishima and how much is the excellence of John Nathan's translation, since the original was written in a language that I can neither read nor understand. The anecdote related here about the novel's title is instructive about how much can be lost in translation, though: one possible literal translation of the original Japanese title Gogo no Eiko would be Tugging In The Afternoon, which while perhaps appropriate to a novel featuring a thirteen-year-old-boy as its protagonist perhaps doesn't convey the sense of the book's themes properly.

A couple of further points: this is the second novel on this list to have been originally written in Japanese (after Norwegian Wood), and it was filmed in 1976, though the producers took the bold (or, less charitably, insane) decision to relocate this quintessentially Japanese tale to Dartmouth and cast Kris Kristofferson in the role of the sailor.