Saturday, September 14, 2019

brexilebrity lookeylikey of the day

Today it's legendarily suave and stylish Roxy Music front man Bryan Ferry and Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore. That's his official title; he apparently prefers to be known as one of the "bad boys of Brexit" or, perhaps even more embarrassingly, the "Brex Pistols", along with Nigel Farage and my fellow old Bartholomewian Arron Banks. Now, as the man said, that's a name no-one would self-apply where I come from, as it would mark you out as an unspeakable wanker. On the other hand, every single public utterance Wigmore is on record as having made would seem to bear out the theory that he in fact is an unspeakable wanker, so that might account for it.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

devon is a place on earth

While I was retrieving the GPX info for the Sugar Loaf walk off my phone I noticed that there was another file on there. This one turned out to be from the walk I did with some friends down in Devon back in mid-July.

After our triumphant conquest of Pen y Fan back in June 2018 we wanted another challenge that could be fitted into the same Friday-to-Sunday structure - i.e. arrive Friday, pub, walk on Saturday, pub, home again on Sunday. We decided that to make a change from hill-walking we'd try a section of one of the major coast paths, the South West Coast Path being generally easiest for everyone to get to, since the majority of the people involved live in the Bristol and Bath area.

Now there are a couple of obvious issues with doing a one-day walk along a section of one of these paths, the principal one being the difficulty of working out a circular route. If you're going to walk the whole way, i.e. start point back to start point, you've either got to find a section of coast of a very specific shape (a big narrow-necked peninsula, essentially) or you're going to end up doing around half the route not on the coast path. In general, public transport is your friend here, but even so that restricts where you can go, as you have to be able to find a sensible start point for the walk, a place to stay (implicitly also the end point of the walk) and a bus or train route that links the two and has services running at the time of day you want them. I would suggest that the time you want them should be right at the start of the day, as you want to get the bit where you're relying on public transport and timetables out of the way as early as possible and be master of your own destiny for the remainder of the day.

Despite all these constraints we managed to come up with something that fitted the bill just about perfectly: Jon found this Airbnb property right in the heart of Ilfracombe, and I devised a walk making use of the bus service between Ilfracombe and Braunton, the bus stop for which turned out to be right opposite our house.

From Braunton the idea was to walk out westwards along the B3231 (a bit of an awkward and dangerous undertaking as it turns out, as it's quite a busy road and there are no pavements or verges most of the way along), pick up the coast path around Saunton and then go via Croyde, Woolacombe, Mortehoe and various intervening headlands and beaches back to Ilfracombe. We didn't quite end up doing this as we almost immediately took a wrong turning and found ourselves up on the headland south of Croyde well above the lower contours where the coast path runs. So we decided to bypass Croyde and Baggy Point, head straight for Putsborough and walk along the beach up to Woolacombe, lunch and the first pub stop of the day.

As you can see from the route map below (opening it in a new tab is the best way to get a zoomed-in view) we decided to bypass Morte Point as well later on to speed things up, but we'd still put in a pretty respectable 16.2 miles by the time we got back to Ilfracombe. Pub stops on the way were as follows:
  • the Tides Inn in Woolacombe - formerly the Golden Hind when we used to come here for camping trips in the mid-1990s; I had a pint of St. Austell Tribute
  • the Ship Aground in Mortehoe - venue for some epic Doom Bar consumption on the first night of Doug's stag do in 2008; I had a pint of Sharp's Atlantic Pale Ale this time
  • the Grampus in Lee - new to me but a nice old-fashioned pub with nice old-fashioned skull-crushingly low headroom, especially challenging when entering its dimly-lit interior from the bright sunny garden; I had a slightly fusty and slightly over-chilled pint of Otter Ale
Back in Ilfracombe we hung out at the Ship & Pilot which was about 50 yards from the house, and had a delicious fish-based dinner on the Saturday night at Take Thyme, which Hazel and I went to when we stayed in Ilfracombe in 2009 and which I'm pretty sure is still run by the same couple. There seemed to be some sort of Morris-dancing festival on as well, featuring more tattoos and piercings and heavy-metal T-shirts than I would have expected - maybe it was these guys.

The altitude profile for a low-level walk like this looks pretty absurd as the vertical scale is grossly exaggerated, but here it is anyway. The highest point of the day was near the end of the walk on the cliffs between Lee and Ilfracombe.

We headed back fairly promptly on the Sunday but did have time to have a look at Damien Hirst's imposing mega-statue Verity which stands at the entrance to the harbour. It's impressive just by virtue of its sheer scale, but I'm honestly a bit meh about this sort of thing, and Hirst generally. We did have time also to stop off for lunch in the Castle in Porlock where we also watched the early stages of the cricket World Cup final.

Photos can be found here.

Monday, September 02, 2019

loaf actually

The kids were up at my parents' place in Abergavenny for a sleepover on Saturday night so I thought, rather than just mooching around in the garden or the park on Sunday, as delightful as that would no doubt have been, we'd go for a walk. Nia had been pestering me, after our Lake District adventures, to take her on another mountain walk, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get out and go for one.

And as it happens Abergavenny has its own mini-Matterhorn just next door ready to be conquered in the form of the Sugar Loaf. I've been up this a couple of times before but since it's a nice satisfying conical peak from just about all angles (unlike, say, the Blorenge) there are a multitude of routes up. The one we chose is apparently the most popular one, starting from a slightly cheaty 330 metres or so at the car park here and heading along the Mynydd Llanwenarth ridge to approach the summit from the west, then dropping off the south side of the summit plateau and looping back to cross the path up and head back to the car park. A round trip of around three and a half miles, so slightly longer than the Cat Bells walk, but less technical and scrambly towards the top. The summit is also the best part of 500 feet higher (in fact at 596 metres or 1955 feet it's almost exactly the same height as Haystacks, although that was a much longer walk), but I suspect we started from higher up as well so there probably wasn't much difference in terms of height gain. Anyway, everyone (me, Nia, Alys and my Dad) managed fine and gave every impression of enjoying themselves. We evidently chose our moment wisely, as at various times in the recent past the slopes and summit have been occupied by over-ambitious mobility-scooter drivers and a FREAKIN' LION.

As an aside, ascending via Mynydd Llanwenarth means I get to tick off the last item on the somewhat contrived Seven Hills of Abergavenny list, so that's nice. Route map and elevation profile are below.

While we were walking Nia enquired as to where the name of the mountain came from, since she's a bright and inquisitive girl and had noticed that it is made of neither sugar nor bread nor sports any evidence of either on its slopes. So I explained that a sugar loaf was an olden-days method of sugar delivery, these being days before you could just go and pick up a bag of ready-powdered product in Tesco, and that moreover some hills are reckoned to look a bit like one, though in the case of this particular hill it's hard to see the resemblance. It was only when I'd put a summit shot up on Facebook and my friend Jenny had trotted out the obvious gag that it occurred to me to wonder: how many other hills in the world bear the same name?

So obviously there's the one in Rio de Janeiro, which, to be fair, really does resemble a sugar loaf in terms of shape. As an aside, if you'd said to me before I visited the relevant Wikipedia pages: so that statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, that's on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, right? I would have said: yeah, sure, course it is. It turns out it's actually on top of a peak called Corcovado a few miles away.

Anyway, there are apparently three others in the UK which merit a mention on Wikipedia - one is also in Wales, over in Carmarthenshire, and while frankly insignificant in terms of height has its own railway station, briefly notorious a couple of years ago for being the least-frequented in Wales, an accolade whose publicising (echoing the interesting number paradox) instantly resulted in hordes of visitors. It's worth noting that the height figures on its Wikipedia page are wrong, since they relate to the Monmouthshire Sugar Loaf. The Carmarthenshire one looks as if it's about 330 metres or just under 1100 feet.

The other two in the UK which merit mention on Wikipedia are in Folkestone (pretty insignificant at around 170 metres and mainly of interest because the first mile or so of the Channel Tunnel carves under it) and in the Malvern Hills. Many others are available worldwide; Ireland has five, the United States has dozens. I daresay there's a book in it if you wanted to obsessively go and climb them all.

[EDIT: I took a small number of photos, including the obligatory trig point shot. These can be found here.]

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

the dead man's hand again; again, the dead man's hand

Today's theory, which is not about the brontosaurus, starts now and proceeds thusly: devoid of context it is almost impossible to distinguish between the following two things:
  • Bruce Forsyth's inter- and intra-game patter on Play Your Cards Right;
  • the lyrics of Motorhead's Ace Of Spades.
One corollary of this is that you can read the lyrics to Ace Of Spades in the style of Bruce Forsyth and quite plausibly imagine them being said during an episode of Play Your Cards Right, especially when combined with a few standard Forsyth phrases. The secret to doing a Bruce Forsyth impression, as if anyone needs to be told, is to tilt your head back slightly, thrust your lower jaw forward, warm up with a series of uvuvuvuvuvuvuvuv noises like someone trying to start a car with a flat battery, and then segue into the main bit. So if you close your eyes and picture an imaginary episode of Play Your Cards Right it's quite possible to imagine the following exchanges taking place:
If you like to gamble, I tell you I'm your man
You win some, lose some, all the same to me
Didn't they do well?
All right my love?
Playing for the high one, dancing with the devil
Going with the flow, it's all a game to me
To me, it's all a game
You know I'm born to lose, and gambling's for fools
You don't get anything for a pair, not in this game
Higher than a three.......
The Ace Of Spades
Obviously you've got to do the voice. DO IT. DO THE VOICE.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

morrison, morrisoff


This time it's venerable black American novelist Toni Morrison, as featured here only a few months ago. It was a little over nine years ago that Paradise featured on this blog, which represents the fourth-longest gap between the casting of the runes and the inevitable demon-summoning, after Anita Shreve, Justin Cartwright and Helen Dunmore. Morrison was 88, which is in a pretty popular range for this particular list: William Trevor and Ursula Le Guin were also 88, and 87 remains the most popular age for curse-related death with four victims. The average age is currently a smidgen under 82.

One other bit of related trivia: Toni Morrison and I share (well, shared) a birthday, February 18th. Other novelists to share this birthday include Nikos Kazantzakis, Wallace Stegner, Len Deighton and Jean M Auel.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d

Monday, August 12, 2019

headlines of the day

Here's one for the file of What Does Any Of This Even Mean headline-parsing challenges:

In order to have any chance of understanding that one you have to realise that it's a sort of ironic callback to this actual headline from a few days earlier:

This one actually refers to a real story whereby the Beresheet lander, operated by the Israeli SpaceIL organisation, crash-landed on the moon after its main engine failed at a crucial point during the descent - the point where it needed to fire to slow the craft down and prevent it crashing, basically. That was back in April but it has only recently emerged that the craft was carrying a scientific payload that included dehydrated tardigrades. These little guys, while known by some endearingly cutesy names such as "water bears" and "moss piglets", are in fact some of the baddest motherfuckers in the animal kingdom, being able to survive extremes of temperature (at either end of the scale), massive doses of radiation and exposure to the vacuum of space. So there's every chance they could survive on the moon's surface, though whether they'd ever be able to emerge from their dormant state and actually do anything (like eat or breed) is a different question. You can imagine that if they could it would be a short evolutionary journey to actual grizzly-sized solar-powered angry space bears, which might make future human trips to the moon dangerous for a whole host of completely new reasons. I should add that my knowledge of tardigrades, and all aspects of the animal kingdom, is greatly enhanced by watching Octonauts, just as my knowledge of world geography and landmarks of significance is greatly enhanced by watching Go Jetters.

Anyway, the reason for the second headline (chronologically speaking, first in its position within this post: do try to keep up) is that there is a school of thought which says: meh, there was probably some bio-contamination already on the moon anyway from long-ago asteroid impacts on Earth. I guess one has to also allow the possibility that some biological matter was attached to the spacecraft and humans that visited the moon during the previous round of manned exploration between 1969 and 1972 and various unmanned missions thereafter.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

the last book I read

Transition by Iain Banks.

Imagine a world where every toss of a coin, every tiny variation in some seemingly insignificant system, results in the spawning of another, completely independent reality, branching and re-branching like, erm, some sort of organism with branches. A tree! Yes, that'll do. A proliferating multitude of alternate realities, differing by perhaps only a tiny detail, a different-shaped gearstick on the Mini Metro, say. But perhaps we inhabit such a world already. I mean, how would we know?

Well, I'll tell you who would know. A group of people whose minds are not going to be blown by all this multiple simultaneous realities shit, and, moreover, have developed the technology to move between these multiple realities pretty much at will, with certain limitations. They call themselves The Concern, or, depending on your cultural background, L'Expédience, and they perform a sort of multiverse policing function while flitting between worlds, being able to glimpse the future consequences of certain seemingly insignificant events and take steps to prevent those events from ever occurring.

This is all a bit Prime Directive, of course, and one person's disastrous turn of events about which Something Must Be Done is someone else's wholly necessary and exciting developments. So even within the Concern there are disagreements, and for that reason a sort of High Council exists, headed by the practically immortal Madame d'Ortolan, to decide where events get left to take their course and where intervention is deemed necessary.

Our main protagonist, Temudjin Oh, is a sort of super-assassin entrusted with all the most difficult and dangerous missions. "Flitting" between worlds is achieved by the use of a specially-engineered drug called "septus", and in practical terms involves "landing" in another body for the duration of your visit, taking it over for a while and then vacating it again, presumably leaving the original occupant to return and wonder what's been going on, and perhaps why they seem to have just committed a murder and are in the process of being shot to pieces by whatever law-enforcing authority exists in this particular reality. Temudjin is viewed as being a bit of a loose cannon by Madame d'Ortolan and her advisers, mainly owing to his previous close relationship with renegade Concern operative Mrs Mulverhill, with whom they suspect (correctly) he is still in communication. Mrs Mulverhill believes that the Council under Madame d'Ortolan's leadership are out of control and pursuing a secret agenda of their own in violation of the Concern's original aims. Will Temudjin say leave me alone, Mrs Mulverhill and return to the fold or go fully rogue and try to bring them down?

This being an Iain Banks novel the narrative isn't presented quite like that though - it's broken up into sections headed with the character's name with no immediate clue as to how they interact. So there's The Transitionary (Temudjin Oh himself), Madame d'Ortolan, torturer-for-hire The Philosopher, London hedge fund trader wide boy Adrian Cubbish, and Patient 8262, occupant of a bed in some sort of sanatorium and seemingly trying to remember something hovering dimly beyond his mental reach.

This sort of set-up, where the reader is expected to do some dot-joining work while the main action unfolds, is just the sort of thing to get me salivating, and Banks does it very well. It's only a bit later as the plot is starting to unfold in a more orthodox manner that a few niggles start to form in the mind. For instance: the thing with the "flitting" between worlds being mediated by some sort of thing that the flitter has to physically consume, and moreover the achieving of unmediated flitting as a key plot point, are both straight out of Stephen King and Peter Straub's The Talisman, and the preventing "crimes" before they happen thing owes more than a little to Minority Report. The whole business with occupying other people's bodies and displacing their consciousness for a while raises a host of questions, none of which are really engaged with. Adrian Cubbish is the latest in a line of slightly tedious drug-crazed wisecracking cynics that also includes Complicity's Cameron Colley and Dead Air's Ken Nott. And there are a couple of trademark Banksian bolted-on bits of polemic which do little to move the plot along but are just there to allow him to vent some political opinions, most obviously in The Philosopher's lengthy opining on the pointlessness of torture, and indeed the existence of the character himself. And only someone really not paying attention, or just generally unfamiliar with how novels work, will fail to clock the true identity of Patient 8262 fairly early on.

None of that really matters, though, as this is generally a hoot and scoots along very entertainingly throughout. The Concern is another in the long series of Banks' imagined reality-controlling organisations unconstrained by considerations like material wealth, including most obviously the Culture, but in this case most closely resembling The Business in, erm, The Business. I would say it's the best non-M Banks I've read since Whit, but it was published under the Iain M Banks moniker in America and so exists in a sort of netherworld between the two. I suspect the rationale for leaving out the M was that all the action takes place on Earth, albeit a gazillion different parallel versions of Earth.

Friday, August 02, 2019

criclebrity lookylikey of the day

Here's one in commemoration of the Ashes series which kicked off yesterday: England opener Rory Burns and his (I think) relatively newly-acquired goatee beard, and actor Ethan Hawke.

Burns is 82 not out at tea on day 2 of the first Test as I write this, which is nice. Will he be part of the answer to England's opening batsman problems which have really been going on since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012? Well, that'd be nice, although he does have a fairly horrible twitchy shuffly technique - then again that never stopped Shiv Chanderpaul or current Aussie wonderboy (and, let's not forget, proven cheat and scoundrel) Steve Smith.

Monday, July 29, 2019

a nob's as good as a wank to a blind horse

You'll recall my celebration of the atavistic urge to draw cocks (preferably with all spunk coming out the end) on things: walls, hillsides, rooftops, fresh falls of snow - well, I think what I'm about to show you is an example of something similar, or just of extreme childishness, which may in the end be pretty much the same thing.

Images reproduced here just to save you some clickage. Original words were "mince" and "cute", fairly obviously.

The basic rule is: the Photoshop (or, more accurately, MS Paint) work must be extremely simple or I can't be arsed. Anyway, one of the photos I took of the Winking Owl bottle inspired a) a similar urge and b) the recollection that I'd done something similar a while back with a pack of walking socks I'd bought.

wine based blogging

Here's another one for the Slightly Sinister Weird Shit Concealed By Seemingly Innocuous Labelling Practices files. I buy quite a lot of wine from Aldi, primarily, and I'm quite happy to admit this, because it is quite nice and, moreover, super-cheap. I'm not a big connoisseur of wine, still less a wine snob, but I do broadly know what I like, and highly quaffable South African Pinotage and Australian Shiraz for less than four quid a bottle are very much up my alley, thank you very much. The Chilean Merlot, if you can stretch to an extra ten pence, and aren't a bit funny about drinking Merlot, is pretty good too.

The bottle of Winking Owl red that we acquired the other day set my Spidey-sense a-tingling, though. Nothing obviously wrong with it, like being blue instead of red, or making me instantly go blind and have a rectal prolapse, and let's face it we've all had a bottle of wine that made that happen from time to time, amirite? No, it was more a general sense that it wasn't as nice as the other bottles that went for a similar price (this one was a smidgen under four quid). Not battery acid or anything, just a general impression that made me do that quizzical plap-plap-plap thing with the mouth and hold the glass up to the light in a suspicious manner.

Closer examination of the bottle revealed a couple of interesting things: firstly that the alcohol content was quite low at 10.5% (most New World wine clocks in around the 13% mark), and secondly that the assorted disclaimers and guidelines about responsible alcohol consumption limits and recycling on the label on the back of the bottle included the odd legend "WINE BASED DRINK".

It turns out this stuff has been knocking around for a while, as there seems to have been a brief hoo-hah about it back in 2015 in the wake of this Daily Mail article. It being the Mail you should obviously take any numbers or maths within the article with a big pinch of salt - for instance the article makes the following claim:
Industry guidelines state that any drink containing less than 75 per cent wine must be described as a 'wine based drink'
A moment's reflection should reveal that this must be wrong, or at least incomplete, as it doesn't specify a lower bound, and therefore implies that you could sell, for instance, Ribena as a "wine-based drink". It'd also be nice to think that to be described unequivocally as "wine" a bottle would have to be, you know, 100% wine. Anyway, this industry insiders' website makes a much more plausible claim, as follows:
The International Organisation of Vine and Wine states that to be called a ‘wine based drink’ the product must contain a minimum of 75% wine, though producers do not have to divulge what the remaining 25% is made up of.
That has the virtue of actually making sense, though the second part is a bit worrying. You'd like to think the producers are just cutting it with some grape must or something, rather than Cillit Bang or dog sweat, but you never know. My brief encounter with it leads me to recommend fairly strongly that you spend the extra 40p or so and buy something that's actually labelled "wine". Opinions elsewhere on the internet vary quite widely: this reviewer is blithely unconcerned about the subterfuge, while this ostensibly quite in-depth article doesn't even mention the "wine based drink" thing but does enthuse at some length about what a relatively small amount of arsenic there is in it:
From the testing we've done, Gallo does it right. They try to be competitive and try not to have excess arsenic in their wines. To me that's proof that it's not necessary to have excess arsenic in wine.
When you consider that the eventual product could, presumably, legally be up to 25% arsenic, you have to salute their commitment to customer service. Cheers!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

in sixness and in death

Another quick follow-up to a previous post: Nutshell brings to six the number of Ian McEwan books I've read and reviewed for this blog, which is a record, jointly held with two other authors, Russell Hoban and Iain Banks. Banks of course sported an M from time to time depending which genre he was writing in: the six books featured on this blog comprise four with the M and two without.

Number of books Author(s)
6 Ian McEwan
Russell Hoban
Iain (M) Banks
5 TC Boyle
William Boyd
4 Lawrence Durrell
3 Cormac McCarthy
Stieg Larsson
Patricia Highsmith
William Gibson
Beryl Bainbridge

Of the people on this list, Bainbridge, Hoban and Banks were victims of the Curse Of Electric Halibut, while Durrell, Larsson and Highsmith avoided it by taking the wise precaution of already being dead before I started this blog in 2006. The others remain, as of today, alive.

chateauneuf du splat

One final Lake District holiday-related anecdote: during the trip we did a certain amount of sitting around drinking wine, as you'd expect, mostly after the kids were safely packed off to bed. During the course of one of these wine-facilitated conversations I made some expansive hand gesture, probably to illustrate the terrifyingly incisive political point I was making, and caught the rim of my wine glass in so doing, knocking it away from me and causing it to topple.

Now for most mere mortals that would be that: crash, splosh, tinkle, glass and wine everywhere and probably some unwelcome vinous tsunami with razor-sharp shards in it arriving in someone's lap. But because nature and years of ascetic self-denial and close study of the sacred texts have endowed me with the reflexes of a FREAKIN' NINJA, I was able to grab the glass with the same hand I'd nudged it with and attempt to right it before any wine was lost.

Sadly, a momentary loss of muscular co-ordination, a few extra foot-pounds of energy per second per second, and a slight misalignment of thumb and index finger on the stem of the glass resulted in a whiplash effect of startling speed and power whereby the base of the glass slid away from me across the table and the bowl of the glass swung towards me, ejecting about half the wine in a high-velocity spray into my face and onto the wall behind me, probably leaving a shadow in the wine splatter in the shape of a freakishly large human cranium. I was nonetheless able (ninja skills again) to keep hold of the glass and prevent it from either hitting the table and breaking or spilling the remainder of its contents. This is one of the few occasions where wearing glasses is a positive advantage, as I would otherwise have got an eyeful (possibly two) of red wine, which would probably have stung a bit.

This was all highly amusing, of course, and rightly so, to the other people around the table. But there comes a time when the laughing has to stop and the cleaning up has to begin. What I can tell you is that red wine on an emulsion-ed wall is a bit of a bitch to get off, and the standard bleach-enrichened surface cleaner sprays talk a good game but in practice only change red splodges and rivulets to dull grey splodges and rivulets. It was only a couple of days later when I found some actual honest-to-goodness concentrated bleach in a cupboard that I was able to don some Marigolds, return to the scene of the stain and get mediaeval on its ass with some proper caustic chemicals, with fairly miraculous results, which I assume saved us from having to make a shamefaced confession to the letting agents and have some of our deposit docked. One caveat: the wall in question was white; I can't vouch for the effects of applying neat bleach to a wall of any other colour.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

the last book I read

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.

They did a bad, bad thing. Well, strictly speaking they haven't done it yet, but plans are afoot for Trudy and her lover, Claude, to really cement their commitment to their relationship by doing a murder. The couple that slays together, stays together, and all that.

There are a few complicating factors, though, as if doing a murder and trying to get away with it were not complicated enough already. The primary motive for the impending murder appears to be that the London townhouse Trudy and Claude currently inhabit actually belongs to Trudy's estranged husband, John. So if John were, hem hem, out of the way in some way, Trudy and Claude would be free to realise the value of this asset (likely to be several million quid). Hence, murder. Oh, a couple of other things: Claude is John's younger brother, and Trudy is deep into the third trimester of being pregnant with John's baby.

The complicating factor in terms of the structure of the book itself should be revealed at this point, and it's this: the first-person narrator of the events described here is Trudy's baby. Yeah, you heard me. Obviously there are a host of questions about this device, and we'll come to those later if that's all right with you.

So anyway, it transpires that John knows about the Trudy and Claude situation, may or may not have a lover of his own (slightly flaky younger poet Elodie) and is quite keen to have his house back. So Trudy and Claude decide to accelerate their plans, and take the opportunity of John and Elodie popping round for a mature adult discussion to slip John an ethylene-glycol-laced fruit smoothie.

You might imagine that there would be some plot machinations at this point that would prevent poor old John (who seems harmless enough if a bit pompous and prone to public poetry declamations at unwelcome moments) from getting offed, but no, the police soon pop round to break the tragic news that he's been discovered face-down on a grassy embankment by the side of the M1. So Trudy and Claude have got what they wanted. But have they got away with it? As some Scottish guy once said: to be thus is nothing; but to be safely thus. Do the police suspect? Were there any incriminating fingerprints on the smoothie container? What has Elodie been telling the police?

When Chief Inspector Clare Allison pops round for an informal chat and a cup of tea, Trudy and Claude's paranoia goes up a gear? Is this just routine? Or is the Chief Inspector doing some sort of Lieutenant Columbo thing and secretly knows far more than she's letting on? Well, the answer, as always, is that it's the Lieutenant Columbo thing, and as Trudy and Claude rush around trying to find passports for a last-minute dash to some Central American country before the police return with the van and the handcuffs our narrator friend (remember them?) decides it's about time they put in an appearance in person.

So on the one hand this is a fairly simple tale about greed, lust and murder, and the near-impossibility of bringing off the latter in such a way as to be able to enjoy the proceeds, which in most cases (of the premeditated variety, anyway) is the whole point of the exercise in the first place. Just about everybody who reviewed it spotted that it's basically a retelling of Hamlet with a few twists. Just as with A Thousand Acres (loosely based on King Lear) I think it's probably better - apart from having to confess to your own literary ignorance - not to be intimately familiar with the source material, as it allows a better appreciation of the book on its own terms. As far as Hamlet goes I know it's set in Denmark, some people die and the central character talks a lot, but I don't think I've ever actually sat through it either on stage or screen.

As it happens, Shakespearian allusions aside, I don't think the central concept here (i.e. the foetus as narrator) really works, partly because it just collapses under the weight of its own absurdity. It doesn't really make sense for the narrator to be musing about how he (or she, it's never made clear as far as I know) has literally no idea what basic outside-world concepts like "blue" and "green" are about, and then later go on to describe in some detail his mother's pink sunglasses, or wax lyrical about the black cherry notes in his mother's choice of Pinot Noir. The absurdity of this central plot device is bothersome, outside of that this is a novel - unusually in McEwan's recent canon and unlike, say, The Children Act - not weighed down by its own seriousness and the thoroughness of the author's background research. It's just a bracing tale of unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, a bit of a throwback to McEwan's early work. That's all fine, but the nature of the narrator is a problem that some people will find it difficult to get past. Not so much the elephant in the room, more like the elephant in the womb, amirite? McEwan does acknowledge some of these problems in this Guardian interview, but basically laughs it off by saying: I felt like doing it this way, so deal with it. Which is fair enough, I suppose.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

illusions of grandeur

Just a quick round-up of a few other bits relating to our Lake District holiday a couple of months ago; a belated follow-up, to put it another way, to this post detailing all the hill-climbing activity. But it's not all about the hill-climbing activity, however much I might wish that it were. There is other stuff to do as well, much of it more suited to small children who don't fancy hanging off bits of rock, or who do fancy hanging off bits of rock but have parents who are a bit apprehensive about letting them do it.

Emma's excellent and diligent research found us (six adults, three kids) this spacious house in Braithwaite, just down the road from Keswick, and the starting point for our Coledale walk back in the heady pre-kids days of 2008. As with Keswick itself this is an excellent hub for getting to most bits of the Lake District, with the exception of some of the really gnarly remote bits like Wasdale. It was ideal for the three hill/mountain walks described in the earlier post; none of them required a drive of more than half an hour or so. Braithwaite also claims to have three pubs - we'd already visited the Coledale Inn as the finale to our walk in 2008, and revisited it here just to check it was still OK (it is). We also had a pint in the Royal Oak, which is about 2 minutes down the road from the house and has excellent Jennings ale. The third pub must presumably be the Middle Ruddings "country inn and restaurant" which is a few yards down the road in the other direction (i.e. away from the village).

Anyway, places we visited which were not either mountains or pubs during the trip included:
  • The Puzzling Place in Keswick - a quaint little place collecting various items grouped around the theme of optical illusions. More Nia's cup of tea than the younger two, to be honest, but they do have an Ames room, which is pretty awesome.
  • The World Of Beatrix Potter in Bowness-on-Windermere. Again, probably more Nia's thing than anyone else's, but very well done - lots of multimedia interaction and things to do as well as a "real" Mr MacGregor's garden (i.e. it was outside and had actual plants in it). Certainly a step up from the Peter Rabbit exhibit in Wray Castle that we visited on last year's trip - that one seemed more specifically tailored to people familiar with the TV series, which despite being of American origin is generally fine except for the bizarre driving rock soundtrack they throw in occasionally. Obviously one is required to exit through the gift shop, and obviously Nia persuaded us to buy her a boxed set of Beatrix Potter books, the little minx.
  • Whinlatter Forest - we came here last time as well, but it warrants a re-visit as there are lots of trails to explore and they had a different Donaldson/Scheffler-themed thing going on - last time it was The Highway Rat, this time Zog. For what it's worth I prefer Zog as a book, particularly to read out loud. I'd obviously like it noted that I recognise that the structure and metre adopted by The Highway Rat is a homage to Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman, and that's all very clever, but it breaks up the rhythm a bit when you're reading it. Zog also has a nice bit of feminist subversion of fairy-tale tropes at the end, as previously noted here. Zog was also famously read by Queens Of The Stone Age frontman and alleged Donald Trump lookalike Josh Homme in the CBeebies bedtime story slot a while back. Apparently a couple of other stories were filmed but have now been indefinitely shelved following some stereotypical drunken rock pig arseholery whereby Homme injured a female photographer at a gig in Los Angeles in December 2017. Absolutely no attempt will be made by me to excuse this behaviour, but it does illustrate a conflict between a desire to be edgy and ironic and interesting and keep the parents entertained (since clearly most if not all of the kids will have no idea who these people are) and the expectation that the chosen people will be exemplary role models for small children.
I've been experimenting with sharing albums via Google Photos rather than via the old gallery, so this album link can serve as a prototype. Initial testing suggests it works OK but if anyone passes this way and finds that it doesn't, drop me a comment or something.

Monday, July 01, 2019

the end of cartography

A quick follow-up to the last book post: The End Of Vandalism is, I think, the first book I've read since this book-slash-map-related post from June 2014 to contain a map (usual caveats apply, i.e. I haven't completely exhaustively scoured every intervening book to be absolutely sure). Here it is:

The original post was (slightly belatedly) prompted by my reading of Riddley Walker a few months earlier. That book does occasionally prompt a desire to orient yourself by looking at the map; to be honest The End Of Vandalism is such a benignly drifty narrative that the exact geographical details of where the various relatively inconsequential events happen seem neither here nor there. The one significant thing that does happen in a specific location outside of the general Grafton area is Louise's lengthy sojourn in Minnesota, and for obvious reasons that's not on this large-scale map.

The other thing to note is that on replacing it in its appointed place on the shelves I notice that there is now a five-book sequence running from A Natural Curiosity (the third book ever featured on this blog, way back in October 2006) through The End Of Vandalism, Bluesman and House Of Sand And Fog to Talking To The Dead. I notice from the original sequences post that the five-novel sequences there came with the additional constraint that the books had to be by five different authors, something we haven't quite managed here. But on the other hand, I've taken the picture now, so bollocks.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

the last book I read

The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury.

We're in some loosely-identified mid-west location (generally accepted to be Iowa, though I don't think it's ever explicitly identified), in the small town of Grafton in Grouse County. A place where not much happens, and such stuff as does happen is benignly overseen by laid-back sheriff Dan Norman. It's a small town, where everyone knows everyone, everyone's parents knew everyone's parents, and everyone knows everyone's business, which can be comforting and friendly, but can also be stifling and frustrating.

Some drama does crop up occasionally: Dan rescues an abandoned baby from a cardboard box in a supermarket parking lot and there is a brief flurry of excitement over who the mother is and whether she can be found. Meanwhile Louise Darling is finally tiring of her husband Tiny's petty criminal lifestyle and occasional violent outbursts, and after she sends him on his way she and Dan strike up a tentative relationship.

Tiny, meanwhile strikes off for various out-of-state locations where he does occasional manual work and gets involved with some slightly shady self-help group. Tiring of all this he eventually returns to Grafton, where he finds that Dan and Louise have moved in together, got engaged and subsequently married. It hasn't been all plain sailing for them, though: Dan has been suffering from insomnia, sleeping apart from Louise, and has engaged a therapist, although she finds him largely unreadable.

Eventually Dan and Louise get pregnant, and make all the usual preparations for having a baby, only for Louise to suffer a stillbirth at thirty-six weeks and nearly die in the process. As part of her recovery process she spends some time at a camp run by some friends in Minnesota, takes on some administrative duties to keep her busy and repeatedly extends her stay, seemingly to avoid having to return to her life in Grafton. Meanwhile Dan is up for re-election as sheriff, normally a formality but this time he's got an opponent with some serious money behind him and a willingness to wage a dirty-tricks campaign, masterminded by none other than the returned Tiny Darling. Needless to say Dan's problems are compounded by his mind not being fully on the job, what with one thing and another.

Eventually, as winter sets in, Dan makes the trip north to rescue Louise from her self-imposed exile, and on their return they effect a dramatic rescue of local teenager Albert Robeshaw and his girlfriend Lu Chiang who have got lost in a snowdrift. Louise returns to her job at the photography shop and when spring eventually rolls around everyone is all about the new beginnings and putting the past behind them.

As was the case with both A Stone Boat and The Leaves On Grey my perceptions of this book are probably skewed by the contrast with the book that immediately preceded it in this list, in this case Beloved. Just to be clear, I enjoyed The End Of Vandalism very much, but the story meanders along  very benignly, with the central characters bimbling along in their own slightly aimless way. Dan and Louise are the heart of the story here, and both are very endearing (and endearingly flawed) characters, though we don't actually learn very much about either of them. The only proper sense of danger or excitement is provided by the big set-piece where Louise and Dan lose the baby and Louise nearly dies, which provide a slightly incongruous contrast with the rest of the book. I suppose the starkest contrast with Beloved is that despite the majority of the action happening only a couple of states (and, to be fair, a hundred years) away, there are no discernible black characters here.

There are, it seems, a lot of people who would have The End Of Vandalism in their Great Novels Of The 1990s lists. I suppose I would respond to that by saying that I concur with the sentiment expressed in this review:
There's an awful lot here to like: the dialogue, the sly humor, the feather-light touch, the clean drive of the prose. All Drury needs is a plot for his work to really take off.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

I cunt believe it's not jeremy

There was nothing more inevitable than Jeremy Hunt's throwing his hat into the ring at the Tory leadership election resulting in yet more people calling him a cunt. The only question was: who would crack first under the unbearable pressure of an internal monologue yammering "DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT DON'T SAY IT" relentlessly at them?

It turned out to be Victoria Derbyshire, on her daily BBC news and current affairs programme, with a full and unashamed rendering, not the wishy-washy "Cu...Hunt" that some people come out with.

As we know, this particular verbal gaffe has a long and glorious history, some of it documented here on this blog but inevitably some of it slipping by unnoticed, by me anyway. The mashups/compilations included in these two tweets provide a good potted summary. The prospect of this becoming a global phenomenon and international heads of state bellowing CUNT at each other across the table at the United Nations is a delightful one, but must be tempered by the realisation that there is absolutely zero chance of Hunt winning the Tory leadership contest, and therefore becoming Prime Minister.

Sunday, June 02, 2019


A couple of thoughts on the death of Judith Kerr, venerable (she was 95) and celebrated children's author and illustrator:
  • If you had asked me to express an opinion on whether Kerr's Mog books were the origin of the general words "mog" and "moggie" to describe a cat (usually of a nondescript non-pedigree variety), I would probably have said that on balance I imagined that the expression pre-dated the books, but that I wouldn't want to stake my or anyone else's life on it. It turns out that the word does indeed pre-date the books, the first of which was published in 1970, the year I was born, and includes a character called Mr. Thomas (coincidence, or IS IT, etc etc). It apparently used to be a pet name for a cow and by some mysterious trans-species etymological osmosis became subsequently used for cats.
  • Kerr is one of those annoying names which can be pronounced in one of two ways and where there's absolutely no clue to which is the correct one from seeing it written down. In this case it can be "Kurr" (or, more correctly given its Scottish origins, "Kairr") or "Karr". Judith Kerr pronounced it the second way, as far as I can gather. Other examples include Sara/Sarah, which can be "Sair-rah" or "Sah-rah" with no chance of deciding which it is without advance knowledge, and the only advance knowledge you can have is that if you guess you'll choose the wrong one. And don't get me started on the whole Ralph/Rafe thing.
  • Kerr's most famous book is almost certainly The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which we, in common with most parents of young kids, have a copy of. It's always struck me that the tiger is a fairly obvious metaphor for sex, and in particular that an obvious subtextual interpretation of the surface story is that Sophie's Mum has been having a ferociously sexual extra-marital relationship, involving much smashing of crockery, urgent food-smeared couplings on the kitchen table and leaving her in a sweaty, sore, jism-festooned heap on the kitchen floor. The subsequent trip out to the cafe with Dad can be seen as him forgiving her for her infidelity and her settling back into the sausage-and-chips, half-a-pint-of-mild, once-a-week-with-the-lights-off regime with wistful regret but also a slight sense of relief. Needless to say I'm not the first person to think of this, as it's alluded to in this Guardian obituary, and was put to her a few times in interviews, where she played it with an impeccably straight bat.

  • I should point out that the first scurrilous image above is my own work; the second is stolen from this perhaps slightly ill-judged humorous tweet by the good people at Foyles Bookshop.
  • Judith Kerr was married to writer Nigel Kneale, probably most famous for his work on the various Quatermass serials and films. The only piece of his writing that I own, as far as I know, is the absurdly over-the-top (but absurdly entertaining) haunted-house story Minuke which I have in an anthology of supernatural stories published by, slightly bizarrely, Marks & Spencer. I got this as a present from my parents when I must have been about 16 and it's got some pretty serious heavyweight stuff in it. Minuke is based on an age-old and much-used premise: a house built on top of some old stones that conceal Unquiet Things that don't take kindly to being disturbed. It's basically the same plot as the South Park episode with the accursed pet store, not to mention Pet Sematary and Poltergeist.
  • Stan: So you just built your store on top of an Indian burial ground?!
    Shop Owner: Oh, hell no! First, I dug up all the bodies, pissed on 'em, and then buried them again upside-down.
    Kyle: Why?
    Shop Owner: Why? I don't know. I was drunk.

  • Kerr and Kneale's son Matthew is best known for his 2000 novel English Passengers, which I own and recommend to you highly. I see I mentioned this previously (and Kerr, in passing) here.

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.