Monday, September 21, 2020

let there be slightly less light

In a poignant echo of the current pandemic sweeping the nation, I'm afraid I have to report the tragic demise of another kitchen light bulb, latest victim of the current highly-infectious outbreak of bulb demises that started in November 2019 after a gap of around four-and-a-half years and has now accounted for five of the twelve bulbs in the kitchen layout (we replaced one, so you only see four in the photograph below). The latest one was number 3 (layout diagram here), one of the first two to expire as part of the original experiment back in May 2014 and be replaced with IKEA LED bulbs. It therefore replaces its predecessor as the longest-serving bulb in existence (well, not any more) with a lifespan of 2329 days.

Friday, September 18, 2020

end of a century, oh, it's nothing special

Well, I promised you stats, and stats you shall have, specifically some comparisons of the components of my book-reading triple-century. The brief analysis of the first hundred books appears at the end of the review for the hundredth, Light On Snow, and the analysis of the second hundred has its own post here. I'll rehash some of the numbers from those here for comparison purposes so you don't feel obliged to flick back and forth comparing.

  • The third hundred took 2053 days to complete, compared to 1474 for the first and 1601 for the second - note that these are slightly different numbers from the original posts; I'm not sure what formula I was using there to do the calculations but I suspect it was wrong, albeit only slightly. In real money that's 5.6 years, compared with 4 and 4.4 for the first two.
  • On the other hand, the third hundred books were, on aggregate, the longest at 31,782 pages, compared with 28,361 and 30,761 for the first two. That still means the pages-per-day numbers were lower than for the first two at 15.5 - numbers for the first two were almost identical at 19.2 for both. That's largely a legacy of 2016 and 2017 both being very light in terms of book consumption, compared with other years anyway. For 2017 that can be partly explained by having a tiny baby who was either in hospital or at home being extremely difficult and time-consuming to feed, which certainly would have curtailed some of my reading opportunities. Since Huw only turned up at the tail-end of 2016 I'm not sure I can plausibly account for the figures for that year being so low, though.
  • Longest book for each hundred in chronological order: The Corrections at 653 pages, Infinite Jest at 1079 pages, A Man In Full at 742 pages.
  • Number of distinct authors for each hundred in chronological order: 93, 88, 92.
  • Number of authors who were new to me (generally, not just among books reviewed here) for each hundred in chronological order: 40, 36, 42.
  • Male/female split for each hundred in chronological order: 75:25, 72:28, 80:20. None of the selection is consciously by sex but it's interesting nonetheless that this is the most male hundred of the three (I noted a ten-month gap in this tweet - note that the book I was reading at the time was Imaginary Friends). Within the bounds of plausible random variation, though, I suppose, and it partly reflects my book-buying habits (from, in most cases, a few years back) as well as my current selecting-the-next-book-to-read habits, since I can only select from what's on the shelves.

Finally, an update to the multiple-blog-featurees table last displayed here. Note that the late Iain Banks (in his two incarnations) has now taken the lead on his own, with a few new authors slipping into the 3-book category.

Number of books Author(s)
8 Iain (M) Banks
6 Ian McEwan
Russell Hoban
5 TC Boyle
William Boyd
4 Lawrence Durrell
3 Cormac McCarthy
Stieg Larsson
Patricia Highsmith
William Gibson
Beryl Bainbridge
Jim Crace
Robertson Davies
Alison Lurie
Anita Shreve
Paul Theroux
Anne Tyler

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

the last book I read

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve.

It's 1929. So, already, no prizes for guessing a couple of key upcoming plot points. but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We're in New Hampshire, and Honora Willard has just become Honora Beecher after a fairly whirlwind romance with travelling typewriter salesman Sexton Beecher. They've been offered the chance to house-sit a delapidated ocean-front property, and, subsequently, to purchase it at a relatively bargain price, something Sexton arranges via some slightly shady financial shenanigans. No need for the little lady to worry her pretty little head by knowing about any of that stuff, though, of course. 

Meanwhile, Vivian Burton, slightly older and moving in slightly more elevated social circles, finds herself set up in a house at the opposite end of the beach after an ill-advised fling with Dickie Peets, a man with fingers in many pies, most of which turn out to be worthless when the bottom falls out of the stock market late in 1929. 

Meanwhile the plebs must do actual manual work to earn a crust and produce the fabulous consumer goods that the flapping classes like to consume. In the nearby town of Ely Falls, for instance, many men are employed by the local cotton mill, but times are getting tougher for everyone and the mill owners are looking to maximise profitability by cutting wages. What can the beleaguered workers do? Unionise their ass off and go out on strike, that's what. This being the United States such actions have the whiff of GODDAMN COMMUNISM about them, though (and to be fair there are a few actual Communist agitators about) and can legitimately be met with some violent retribution.

Having lost his typewriter-wrangling job following the economic downturn and some awkward revelations about his property-acquiring arrangements, Sexton Beecher finds himself having to take a job at the mill to keep some money coming in. When the strike is mooted, though, he lets slip that he has some typing and printing apparatus at home in his loft just ready and waiting to be used to print off inflammatory leaflets. So the entire strike committee relocates to Honora and Sexton's place for some serious revolutionary organising and some epic food and booze consumption (mostly courtesy of Vivian), not to mention some charged looks between McDermott, one of the strikers, and Honora.

This is all tremendous fun of course, but there comes a time when the partying and the printing of inflammatory leaflets has to stop and the serious striking and picketing has to start. And once it does there is a strong likelihood that the authorities (including the owners of the mill) will take a dim view of commie agitators in their midst. And so it proves - as soon as the strike begins, SHIT GETS REAL, violence erupts (not helped by Sexton's pulling a concealed weapon and blazing away) and some hired goons arrive to put an end to the strike, and indeed some of the strikers. This includes McDermott, but not Sexton, who, having been shot, escapes from hospital and goes on the lam, no doubt in a jalopy with frantic banjo music playing. In the aftermath of the violence and the continuing fallout from the Wall Street Crash, Honora occupies herself house-sitting for Vivian (her and Sexton's house having been repossessed by the bank) and acting as surrogate parent for young Alphonse, the barely-teenage mill worker that McDermott had previously taken under his wing.

Wikipedia's page on Sea Glass refers to it rather sniffily as a "romance novel". I'm not sure I recognise that description, as there's plenty of grit here (and not much romance, unless you count McDermott and Honora's unrequited moonings). One thing that I was mildly concerned about when I chose to read it next (more on this in a minute) was that it might be too similar for comfort in style and tone to its immediate predecessor, Breathing Lessons, written by a female American author of roughly similar age. Actually the two books are quite different - Sea Glass has a historical setting, an undertone of righteous anger about working conditions in late-1920s/early-1930s America, and some actual killing at the end which makes Breathing Lessons' concerns seem quaintly parochial. One interesting bit of background detail here is that Honora lost several family members when she was a child in the Halifax explosion of 1917, a disaster whose ferocity and scale is almost incomprehensible even now - for instance the half-ton main section of the anchor of the ship that exploded fell to earth two miles away.

Anyway, I enjoyed Sea Glass very much, as I did the two previous Anita Shreve books that featured on this blog. You may recall that they were, respectively, the first and one hundredth books to feature here. Well, I can tell you that Sea Glass is the three-hundredth book I have rambled inconsequentially about here since late 2006. The missing milestone (i.e. the two-hundredth review, when I can only assume I didn't have a handy unread Anita Shreve book to fill the gap with, or didn't realise the milestone was imminent until too late) was Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I will concoct a stats summary in a separate post.

Monday, September 14, 2020

rigor portis has set in

It's been a busy few months what with being in the midst of a global pandemic and all, but life goes on. Well, for most of us, anyway, but not for those who feel the icy hand of The Curse Of Electric Halibut upon their shoulders, for their time has come and what must be done must be done. And, having been done, it must be documented here to serve as an everlasting monument to, I dunno, something or other. So mote it be.

Anyway, be all that as it may, it turns out that Charles Portis died back in February, less than two years after True Grit (by far his most famous work) featured on this blog. That's not in the same ballpark as the brutal treatment meted out to Michael Dibdin and Philip Roth, who were brutally dispatched a mere 59 days and 150 days after a book they wrote first featured on this blog, but it's fairly quick. Apart from Dibdin and Roth only Russell Hoban, Richard Matheson and James Salter were rubbed out more quickly. Portis was 86, which puts him pretty much smack in the middle of the median range for curse victims. Iain Banks and Doris Lessing, who died within six months of each other back in 2013, are the statistical outliers at 59 and 94 respectively.

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
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

incidental music spot of the day

A breathily-re-imagined version of Pink Floyd's Eclipse (the last song on their perennially humongo-selling 1973 album The Dark Side Of The Moon) on the trailer for Denis Villeneuve's forthcoming re-imagining of Frank Herbert's Dune

I have, to the best of my knowledge, never seen a Denis Villeneuve film, although I remember thinking that Arrival looked quite intriguing when it came out in 2016. I have read the source novel for his 2013 film Enemy, though, since it's José Saramago's The Double, as featured on this blog back in 2009. The film evidently took some liberties with the book, though, since the book does not end with an encounter with a giant spider.

I have also, as I've mentioned before, seen David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Dune, and, seemingly unusually among those who saw it, quite enjoyed it. I maintain that this is at least partly because I've never read any of the books (and can say with a pretty high degree of confidence that I never will). I thought the Guild navigators - basically giant freaky-ass rubbery space tadpoles transported around inside giant blacked-out railway carriages - were pretty cool in particular.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

the last book I read

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler.

Maggie Moran is approaching fifty, with long-standing attachments to her husband Ira and their family house in Baltimore. She and Ira have two grown-up kids, Jesse and Daisy, both a bit on the feckless side, who drift in and out between the house and other more self-sufficient accommodation.

As we join Maggie she is gearing up for a road trip to Pennsylvania for the funeral of the husband of her old college friend Serena. During the build-up to setting off for the trip we learn a few things about Maggie and Ira: he is an undemonstrative, methodical man who runs a local picture-framing business which he inherited from his father. His father isn't dead, though - no, he just decided that once Ira was of an age to take over the business, he (Dad) would declare himself too much of an invalid to continue running it, hand it over and retire upstairs to his armchair for the next several decades. This was done without much consultation with Ira, who nonetheless felt obliged to abandon thoughts of a medical career and assume full responsibility for his father and two sisters, both of whom suffer from varying mental afflictions which make them unable to live independent lives. Maggie, meanwhile, is somewhat more scatty, inclined to well-intentioned meddling in other people's lives, in particular those of her son Jesse, his estranged wife Fiona and their daughter Leroy. She is also an utter liability behind the wheel of a car, as we discover when she picks up the family car from a garage and promptly has an altercation with a truck which results in a section of bumper getting torn off.

Ira, evidently well-used to his wife's driving habits, takes the wheel for the trip to the funeral. When they arrive it transpires that Serena has had the somewhat eccentric idea of, instead of something more dirge-y and mournful, having the musical accompaniment to the funeral ceremony be a re-run of the songs from her wedding, and, moreover, sung by the original singers, mostly the funeral attendees, including Maggie and Ira. Ira refuses point-blank to be involved, but Maggie gives it her best shot. Back at the house for the wake Serena digs out some old movie footage of the wedding, and, possibly inspired by a sighting of her younger self, Maggie persuades Ira that a quickie in one of the bedrooms might be the thing to do. Disturbed by Serena in the fumbly early stages of this, they decide that this might be a good time to make their excuses, leave, and start the drive back to Baltimore. 

Ira is hoping for a speedy return home and a chance to put his feet up, but it turns out that Maggie has had an idea: why not make the shortish detour to where Fiona now lives (at her mother's house) and visit her and Leroy? Once they arrive and find Fiona and Leroy in but her mother out, Maggie decides to push her luck a bit further: why don't Fiona and Leroy come and stay for a couple of nights? She can get Jesse to come over and they can have a nice little reunion and - hey, who knows? - maybe rekindle their old relationship. To her mild surprise, Fiona agrees, even when her mother returns and takes a dimmer view of the idea.

So they return to Baltimore, Maggie gets on with preparing dinner, and eventually Jesse turns up to join them. While he seems genuinely pleased to see Fiona and Leroy, it soon becomes clear that the picture Maggie has painted for Fiona (and perhaps even convinced herself is true) of Jesse still pining for her and obsessively keeping mementoes of her under his pillow, isn't really true. Jesse has been playing with his metal band, setting himself up in his new apartment and getting through a series of girlfriends perfectly happily, thanks very much.

So after Jesse and Fiona have both done their storming-out-of-the-house scenes, Maggie and Ira are left alone together. No time to reflect too closely on what's just happened, though, still less the advisability of trying to interfere in other people's lives - Maggie and Ira have another road trip to contemplate the next day, delivering daughter Daisy to college. Perhaps she will be more receptive to some motherly guidance?

Breathing Lessons is the third Anne Tyler novel to appear on this blog, after A Patchwork Planet and Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, and deviates very little from the general structure of the previous two (and indeed most of Tyler's oeuvre): Baltimore setting, family drama with occasional moments of quirky and/or bittersweet comedy, very little in the way of rude thrusting assertiveness, guns, or liberal use of the c-word. I think the secret of which book or books you find you really like depends less on the plot details (since the level of variation is pretty low) and more on whether you find that you click with the central characters or not. As it happens I found Maggie generally slightly irritating rather than endearingly well-intentioned, and moreover (the slightly incongruous interlude in Serena's bedroom aside) somewhat prematurely aged in outlook for someone who is meant to be younger than me. You may recall I had the same issue with the central protagonist of Hotel Du Lac

So while this isn't my favourite Tyler novel (that'd probably be A Patchwork Planet) it's still impeccably well-written and has craftily well-hidden depths. What the hell do I know, though, because Breathing Lessons is the Tyler novel that the Pulitzer committee felt moved to bestow the Pulitzer Prize for fiction on, in 1989. Previous Pulitzer winners in this list include, in no particular order, Foreign Affairs, The Road, Independence Day, Gilead, A Thousand Acres, Beloved, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Bridge Of San Luis Rey. Breathing Lessons also appears in this Guardian best-novels-EVER list from 2015, at number 96, though it should be understood that the list is in ascending chronological order of publication rather than order of perceived merit. Other novels on that list which have featured on this blog include The Great Gatsby, Tropic Of Cancer, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Grapes Of Wrath (again), Under The Volcano, The Catcher In The Rye, Lolita, On The Road, Midnight's Children and Amongst Women.

Monday, August 24, 2020

the last book I read

Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving.

It's 1954, and we're in the inhospitable northern counties of New Hampshire, right up next to the Canadian border. It's a man's life up here, especially in logging season where the river drivers risk life and limb to get the logs downstream on the swollen rivers, breaking up logjams and occasionally dynamiting some sense into them. It's not all fun, though, and occasionally someone's footwork isn't nimble enough and they get crushed or drowned under several tons of moving timber.

This is where we come in, as Dominic Baciagalupo and his twelve-year-old son Daniel witness a young novice river driver slip under the logs and vanish without trace. Dominic isn't a log driver, though, he's a cook, running the cookhouse in the logging settlement of Twisted River. As you can imagine these are pretty rough-and-ready communities, populated by some robust types none too fussed about adherence to high-falutin' social norms like table manners or personal hygiene or sobriety.

Dominic has found a niche in the community, though, after settling there with his wife, Rosie, who subsequently died in a log-related accident out on the river while horsing around with Dominic and his grizzled river driver friend Ketchum. It's one of Dominic's subsequent girlfriends, Injun Jane, who provides the catalyst for most of the story that follows. She's the girlfriend of the local sheriff, Carl, a mean and ornery type who you don't want to get on the wrong side of, especially once he's got a drink or two inside him. That she is also Dominic's clandestine lover seems to have been a secret from just about everyone, including (somewhat implausibly) Danny, so that when he enters his Dad's bedroom to find a large dark-haired figure sitting on top of him in bed (she's a big unit, Injun Jane) he naturally assumes his father is being attacked by a bear and clocks the supposed assailant on the head with a cast-iron skillet with all the strength he can muster, killing Injun Jane outright. 

In a bold strategy, Dominic decides to dump Injun Jane's body at Carl's place, relying on Carl's habitual nightly drunken oblivion to make him assume that he might have offed her himself in a drunken blackout. In a much more sensible strategy, Dominic and Danny also skip town, telling only Ketchum about their intentions.

We now enter a series of sections set in various parts of the country at (very roughly) 15-year intervals, wherein Dominic and Danny move to a new location after learning (usually via Ketchum) that Carl may be onto them, occasionally assume new names, hook up with new partners and live a regular life for a while until the whole cycle begins again. Here's a very potted summary of the first few bits (the last sections cover a more compressed timeline, for reasons we'll get to later) with, for orientation purposes, Dominic and Daniel's approximate ages in each section:

  • 1954, Coos County, New Hampshire: Dominic 30, Danny 12. Action largely as above plus a bit of back-story regarding Rosie.
  • 1967, Boston: Dominic 43, Danny 25. Dominic hooks up with Carmella, the mother of the young river driver who dies at the start of the novel, and works as a chef at her family's Italian restaurant. Danny spends some time living in Iowa City after attending the University of Iowa and comes to Boston after the break-up of his brief marriage with his two-year-old son, Joe.
  • 1983, Windham County, Vermont: Dominic 59, Danny 41. Dominic continues to work as a chef; Danny becomes a published novelist. Both live in Iowa City for a while before relocating to Vermont. Joe becomes a teenager and goes off to college.
  • 2000, Toronto: Dominic 76, Danny 58. Another city, another restaurant. Danny is now a successful novelist. Joe has died in a car accident, an occurrence that ultimately costs Danny his relationship with Charlotte, a screenwriter. It is here that that Carl, still relentlessly pursuing the pair despite his advanced age (he's in his eighties) finally catches up with them, ironically through their supposed protector Ketchum's carelessness.

Once the pivotal second round of deaths has happened (SPOILER ALERT: this includes both Dominic and Carl) there are a couple of further sections: one in which Danny and Carmella (see the Boston section above) return to Coos County and the now-abandoned site of the Twisted River logging settlement to scatter (with Ketchum's help) Dominic's ashes and to allow Carmella to see the spot where her son died, and one set in 2005 where Danny is in his winter retreat on an island in Lake Huron and about to receive an unexpected visitor from his past.

The first thing to do with a John Irving novel is to tick off which of the major repeated Irving themes it includes. Irving's Wikipedia page doesn't include the summary table any more, possibly because of repeated wrangling over its contents, but I found a version in a 2011 version of the page which includes Last Night In Twisted River. As it happens I have edited the table slightly because I don't recall any significant mention of either prostitutes or wrestling.

Among the slightly more obscure repeated themes not mentioned in the table above which feature in Last Night In Twisted River are: severing of major characters' left hands (The Fourth Hand), premature deaths of major characters' children (The World According To Garp, A Widow For One Year, The Hotel New Hampshire), blowjobs in cars with unfortunate consequences (The World According To Garp), and the innocent actions of a male child resulting in the death of an adult woman with far-reaching consequences (A Prayer For Owen Meany).

The first thing to say about Last Night In Twisted River is that I enjoyed it significantly more than the only other Irving on this list, Until I Find You. Some of the stuff I didn't like so much was due to the way the novel is structured: we get the big ratcheting shifts in timeline as in the list above, but what then happens is a lot of tracking back to fill in and catch up on the events of the preceding fifteen years or so, which basically amounts to a series of framing devices for flashbacks. It's only when we get past Dominic's death that any significant amount of the action takes place in the novel's nominal "now". This is purely a matter of stylistic preference and it won't bother everyone, but I found it slightly frustrating. It goes without saying that the central plot device of Carl's relentless pursuit of Dominic and Danny isn't even slightly convincing once the immediate aftermath of Injun Jane's death has passed, but MacGuffins gotta MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, probably.

This is also the most explicitly autobiographical novel of Irving's long career, many of Danny Baciagalupo's biographical details mirroring Irving's own, and it's about writing in a way that even The World According To Garp wasn't. It also includes an Author's Note at the end where Irving describes some of the details of the novel's unusually long gestation, and takes a few veiled swipes at high-falutin' literary types who disdain the sort of big, plot-driven fiction that Irving specialises in. 

A couple of links with other entries on this list: Irving was involved, along with John Updike and others, in an entertaining literary spat with Tom Wolfe around the time of the publication of A Man In Full in 1998. Finally this pretty complimentary Guardian review of Last Night In Twisted River is by Giles Foden, whose own Turbulence featured here in 2014.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

on ilkley moor sans chapeau

One thing that has always intrigued me, and almost certainly no-one else in recorded history, and which I was reminded of while we were up in Yorkshire a couple of weeks ago: the prevalence in the north of England of place names which have a French bit in them, usually the word "le" embedded between two English words, sometimes spliced together with hyphens, but equally sometimes not.

I was actually reminded of this not so much by our activities during the week - we stayed at the Crow's Nest campsite up on the clifftops between Filey and Scarborough - but by reminiscing about our trip to the nearby North York Moors between attending two weddings (in Hull and Middlesbrough respectively) waaaay back in the glory glory days of 2007, before my spirit was crushed by a mortgage, three kids and male pattern baldness. While map-reading during a walk from the Spiers House campsite where we stayed during that trip I recall sniggering at there being a nearby village called Hutton-le-Hole - there is also one a couple of miles away called Appleton-le-Moors. 

In this as in all things it's worth validating your own assumptions, so in addition to the obvious question - what's this English/French mashup naming convention all about, then - I asked myself another one: is it actually the case that this type of place-name is more prevalent in the north of England?

All you need to come up with an answer to that question is a bit of persistence and a list of place-names, ideally segregated by what county they're in. Wikipedia has one of these, and there is also the Gazetteer of British Place Names which seems to have a few smaller settlements listed that Wikipedia omits. Search for any place name with "le" or "la" embedded in it, whether hyphen-spliced or not, and here's what you end up with:












Alsop en le Dale




East Riding of Yorkshire


Thorpe le Street



Layer de la Haye

Greater London


St Mary-le-Bow












Donington le Heath
Normanton le Heath
Stretton en le Field



Ashby de la Launde
Barnoldby le Beck
Barnetby le Wold
Burgh le Marsh
Gayton le Marsh
Gayton le Wold
Holton le Clay
Holton le Moor
Kirkby la Thorpe
Kirmond le Mire
Maltby le Marsh
Mareham le Fen
Normanby le Wold
Stainton le Vale
Sutton le Marsh
Thornton le Fen
Thornton le Moor
Thorpe le Fallows
Thorpe le Vale
Welton le Marsh
Welton le Wold



Brighton le Sands

North Yorkshire


Wharram le Street



Aston le Walls



Sturton le Steeple

South Yorkshire


Adwick le Street
Brampton en le Morthen



Walsham le Willows

Tyne and Wear





Fisherton de la Mere

Counties with zero occurrences (omitted from the table to save space) are Berkshire, Bristol, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Norfolk, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Surrey, both Sussexes, Warwickshire, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Worcestershire.

So, as you can see, Lincolnshire is the clear winner here with 23, followed by North Yorkshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Essex (the major statistical outlier here), Derbyshire, Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear, of those that have more than one occurrence. Essex is the only one of those that could unequivocally be said to be in the South. Looking at the data on a map will probably make it clearer.

So, as you can see, if we draw an arbitrary but not unreasonable north-south dividing line from the vicinity of King's Lynn across to mid-Wales, respecting county boundaries all the way across, what we find is that the numbers above the line total 70, whereas the numbers below total just 11. Not only that, but the five counties running consecutively from Lincolnshire up to Tyne and Wear up the east coast total 50, a whopping 62% of the total.

A closer look at the results also reveals that, of the 81 items, 5 have an "en" in front of the "le", while three of the four that have "la" instead of "le" have a "de" in front of the "la". Those with "en le" can reasonably be taken to convey "in the", and most of the "de la" items correspond to an old ruling family who had that as part of their name.

It's surprisingly difficult to find any non-crackpot theories as to what the rest (i.e. the ones with the single "le") are about. The most persuasive theory I've seen (which I'm pretty convinced is correct) is that this is a variant on the archaic French word lès (or occasionally lez), often used as a conjunction in place names and just meaning "near".

That's all terrific, but one obvious question remains - why, if this is a legacy of (presumably Norman) French influence, is the concentration skewed towards the north of England, since, all other things being equal, you'd expect there to be a sort of gradient from high to low depending how far from France you were, i.e. with the highest numbers on or near the south coast.

Note also that there are other French-flavoured place names which don't conform to the le/la structure, like Buckland-Tout-Saints and Stoke Mandeville - those two just acquired the names of the powerful Norman families who owned most of the land, but other etymological routes are probably available. There's also Hartlepool, which started out as "Hart-le-Pool" but then got squashed into its current form. That would be one more for Durham, but rules are rules.

Friday, August 14, 2020

too much monkey business

Whisky round-up part two, as promised, if somewhat belatedly. Here are two whiskies very slightly (but only very slightly) more out of the ordinary than the two in the last post.

Firstly, Monkey Shoulder. This is actually an example of what's currently called a blended malt (formerly a "vatted malt"), i.e. it's a mixture of single malt whiskies from more than one distillery. These are not all that common and I think we've only featured a couple here before: the Shackleton a couple of years ago and Johnnie Walker Green Label waaaay back in 2011. The Monkey Shoulder website is heavy on visual bedazzlement and exhortations to make various tasty and exotic cocktails using their whisky, but correspondingly light on specifics about what's actually in it. I recall reading something when it first came out that said that it was a blend of whiskies from the three Dufftown distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons: Balvenie, Kininvie and Glenfiddich - apparently these days all they're prepared to commit themselves to is "various Speyside single malts". The name is a slightly cutesy reference to a sort of repetitive strain injury that malt shovellers would get.

Secondly, Allt-a-Bhainne, a relatively young distillery in Scotch whisky terms as it was opened in 1975, primarily as a supplier of whisky for the Chivas Regal blend. They also have a tremendously swooshy and colourful website, but one which fails to answer certain fundamental questions like: so what does Allt-a-Bhainne mean, then? and how are we meant to be pronouncing it? Fortunately Wikipedia and Google Translate both come to our rescue here: it means "milk-stream", and the "bh" is a "v" sound. Anyone who, like me, has tried to get their tongue round Munro names in the past will probably know this already. My original assumption that the Scots Gaelic "allt" (the bit that presumably means "milk") was related to the identically-spelt Welsh word, one of many which basically just means "hill", was evidently wrong. The "bhainne" bit also appears (in a slightly mutated form) at the end of the name of the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay (Wikipedia says "The name Bunnahabhain is an anglicisation of Bun na h-Abhainne, Scottish Gaelic for Mouth of the River").

Anyway, Allt-a-Bhainne's USP is that, unusually for a Speysider, it is lightly peated. They've only fairly recently started marketing single malts as opposed to just piping everything into the big Chivas mixing vats. This is the basic no-age-statement version.

So, to work. The Monkey Shoulder is quite magic-marker and pear-drop-heavy when you take a sniff, but in an appealing sort of way. It is one of those whiskies where the smell promises sweetness and the taste delivers unexpected dryness, though, relatively at least. Like many of its predecessors this could pass for a perfectly quaffable Speysider largely indistinguishable from several other perfectly quaffable Speysiders.

The Allt-a-Bhainne, on the other hand, while not dissimilar to the nose, delivers just a little spike of peaty sharpness when you take a sip; not the full recently lit barbecue/unfavourable wind direction/scorched turf brick to the gizzard that you get with stuff like the Lagavulin or the Bowmore or the Laphroaig, but just enough to make it distinguishable from the aforementioned bog-standard Speysiders. I actually like this quite a lot; certainly if you want a recommendation from the four whiskies featured in the two most recent posts, this would be it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

sriracha comin' atcha

Here's a follow-up to the chilli sauce post of a few years ago and this more specific sriracha taste comparison one from a year or so later. As an adjunct to my relentless bulk purchasing of noodles I usually order a couple of other products as well, sometimes basic essentials like kimchi, for which I have developed a bit of a habit, but sometimes more outlandish stuff like the grass jelly drink from 2014 which still haunts my nightmares. A while back I ordered a couple of bottles of sriracha of a couple of brands I hadn't tried before, and I note that I have not yet opined on their merits in this forum. Furthermore, as I was running low on my regular go-to sriracha (Flying Goose brand) I instructed my wife to keep an eye out for it when she went to Sainsbury's last weekend. She returned with two bottles with a red cap/nozzle instead of the normal green, which turns out to be the extra-hot variety, and so since I now had multiple untested srirachas (srirachae? srirachata?) I decided a comparison might be in order.

Left to right in the picture below are: my regular (and, as you can see, nearly empty) green-capped Flying Goose sriracha, the newly-purchased red-capped turbo nutter Flying Goose sriracha, and a larger bottle of Chef's Choice sriracha purchased from Wing Yip with a previous noodle order some time back. A blob from each bottle is presented on the chopping board in front of them.

What I conclude from my experience here with the Chef's Choice sriracha in particular, and also from its hitherto-unblogged predecessor, the excellently-named Healthy Boy brand, is that there are at least two schools of thought when it comes to things you might decide to label "sriracha" - one is the orthodox darkish red chilli sauce of the type represented by the Flying Goose and Cock brands, as well as various other branded versions, and the other is a lighter-coloured, generally slightly milder and sweeter product of the sort represented by the Chef's Choice and Healthy Boy brands which I would describe as more a sort of hotter version of the sweet chilli sauce widely sold in supermarkets. Nothing at all wrong with it, but I wouldn't describe it as "sriracha", exactly. 

Anyway, as you can see, the red-capped version of the Flying Goose brand (one of a bewildering variety of variants available) is slightly darker than the regular version, as befits something which presumably has a higher concentration of chillies in it. I'm pleased to report that while being appreciably hotter than the green-capped variety it is not absurdly, inedibly hot and is in fact very good, maybe even better than the regular variety (caveat: I am extremely fond of spicy food and have quite a high tolerance for Scoville units).

Moving on, here are a couple of slightly different bottles: this is the more Central/South American variety of chilli sauce, specifically a smoky variety made from chipotle chilles. I encountered the Asda version pictured on a camping trip and was quite impressed: it's not particularly hot, but it is very tasty and a thoroughly excellent accompaniment to a sausage sandwich, for instance. I don't shop in Asda very often - not through snobbery or anything, just geographical convenience - so when I was in Tesco a while back I picked up a bottle of Wahaca-branded sauce of a similar description. I was quite impressed with the restaurant food when I visited their Cardiff branch a couple of years ago, but I have to say this isn't as tangy as the Asda version, so I'd recommend that one instead. As you can see I've gone to the trouble of making a trip to Asda to stock up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

headline of the day

Picture the scene: YOU, a hardworking professional helicopter pilot for hire, get the call to deliver a BOAT to a HOSPITAL, pronto. But WHY does a HOSPITAL need a BOAT, you think to yourself, but, as befits a consummate professional, you don't stop to actually ask piddling inconsequential questions like this - no, you leap into action, fire up the helicopter, attach a boat to it, presumably dangling below via some sort of rope, and set off as fast as you can (while observing all the rules of the air applicable to helicopters with boats dangling beneath them, naturally: you're a professional, albeit ruggedly unconventional and with a fine disregard for the pompous stuffed shirts at Helicopter Central) for the hospital. You're just crossing the car park heading for the rooftop helipad and the crack boat-untethering team that the hospital administrators have assembled there when disaster strikes: the rope frays and the boat plummets two hundred feet to the ground, pancaking some unfortunate bloke just gingerly returning to his car after a minor surgical procedure on some troublesome haemorrhoids. NOOOOOOOOOO, you wail to yourself in the cockpit, WHYYYYYY did I buy that cheap foreign rope instead of some stout reliable English rope? But it's too late, and you skulk morosely off back to base to cultivate a ferocious drinking habit and a vow never to fly again until disaster move cliché demands it. Tomorrow's newspaper headlines read as follows:

I'll let you into a little secret: the story above is a fabrication, devised specifically to lead the unsuspecting reader to the headline above, gleaned from the BBC News website earlier today. Needless to say this is a crash blossom, and it was in fact the man (who had been crushed by a boat) who was flown to hospital, not the boat itself. Also needless to say, or at least I would hope so, is that my intention here is to mock the careless headline-writing of the people who maintain the BBC website, rather than the plight of the man who had the argument with the boat. I wish him all the best for a speedy recovery, and hope that he SAILS through the experience without being, erm, KEELed.

Previous crash blossoms on this blog (the Language Log link above has lots more) can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and my all-time favourite one here

Monday, July 13, 2020

the last book I read

by Colm Tóibín.

Let's examine the options open to young Irish womenfolk in the early 1950s: grow up, meet a nice man in the village, squeeze out a platoon of kids (Catholics, don't forget), raise and care for them largely single-handed while your husband is either off tilling the soil or knocking back the Guinness down the pub, live to an exhausted and embittered old age, die. Or possibly, not meet a nice young man, live to a ripe and embittered spinsterish old age. If you don't fancy either of those, then your remaining options can be enumerated as follows: nun. 

To be honest, Eilis Lacey isn't the especially ambitious type and is reasonably sanguine about the whole nice young man/kids route through life. But when her older sister Rose - more outgoing, more socially confident and on the face of it more likely to be the one to flee in search of a brighter future life - makes use of some of her contacts to wangle Eilis a job and some accommodation in Brooklyn, Eilis doesn't feel able to refuse.

She starts to wish she had, though, on the trip across - a rough crossing from Liverpool which Eilis mostly spends confined to the cramped third-class cabin vomiting copiously and competing for access to the shared bathroom with the people in the next cabin along. But eventually that particular ordeal is over, and the land of opportunity is reached. 

Eilis moves into the house run by Mrs. Kehoe, a mostly kindly but spiky old bird who takes a dim view of nonsense, which encompasses everything from intemperate unladylike levity at mealtimes and failure to behave with the proper decorum to the more serious stuff involving relations with Men, particularly Unsuitable Men, i.e. those who might try to tempt the girls into inappropriate behaviour like smoking, drinking and noisily penetrative sexual intercourse. Precious little time for Eilis to get involved with any of that in the short term anyway as she's busy making herself indispensable at her job in Bartocci's department store during the days and attending to her own personal betterment at bookkeeping and accountancy classes in the evenings.

But you've got to let your hair down sometimes, and eventually Eilis agrees to go to a local dance with some of the other girls from Mrs. Kehoe's, and meets a nice young man called Tony. Tony seems nice, and a series of chaste and respectful dates ensues, although Tony does get a little bit frisky in the sea at Coney Island, as men tend to do. Eilis is invited to meet his family, a typically demonstratively hand-wavey and meatball-obsessed bunch of Italian-Americans, and all seems to be proceeding in the time-honoured manner until Eilis receives a bombshell from home: Rose has died unexpectedly of a hitherto-unsuspected heart defect. Eilis dithers a bit but then decides that she needs to go home to see her mother. Tony is sympathetic to Eilis' plight, but not so trusting of her promises to return that he doesn't seek to secure their relationship status by a) sleeping with her and b) arranging a quickie registry-office marriage before her ship sails. 

Her mother, while obviously genuinely devastated at the loss of her elder daughter and primary companion, isn't above a bit of emotional blackmail to get Eilis to prolong her stay in Ireland. Obviously Eilis has to keep herself amused while she's looking after Mum, and she does so by re-inserting herself into her old life, including going on what amount to a couple of double-dates with her friend Nancy, Nancy's fiancé George, and George's friend Jim Farrell. Jim seems like a nice lad and is obviously quite keen on Eilis, which presents Eilis with something of a dilemma: stay in Ireland with Jim or return to Brooklyn and Tony. Obviously option A carries a few problems, not least the fact that she and Tony are already married to each other. Eilis is not the ruthlessly decisive type, so basically she drifts around putting off making a decision until her two worlds start to bleed into one another and the decision is effectively made for her.

Here is the opposite end of the novelistic spectrum from the absurdly showy, ostentatiously complex stuff like House Of Leaves. This, by contrast, is deceptively simple, written exclusively from Eilis' fairly naïve and innocent perspective, and with the slightly darker stuff buried where you have to look quite carefully for it: Rose's motivations for sending Eilis off across the Atlantic, Bartocci's pioneering choice to allow black customers into their store, Eilis' more senior colleague Miss Fortini's slightly too intimate interest in helping Eilis try on bathing suits for her trip to Coney Island with Tony, Tony's own seizing on Eilis' vulnerability in the wake of Rose's death to get his end away.

Some or all of the above could have been avoided if Eilis had been a less infuriatingly passive character with barely any agency of her own. That, combined with the stultifyingly oppressive social mores of 1950s Ireland (and 1950s Irish-Americans in New York), makes this in some ways a slightly frustrating read, but of course that's a reflection of the prevailing reality of the period in which the book is set, rather than a criticism of the book itself or its author. I didn't, for what it's worth, think it was quite as good as Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship (a book with a more contemporary setting). The other Tóibín on this list is The Heather Blazing

Brooklyn won the Costa Novel Award in 2009, as did a couple of recent featurees here (the Picture Palace review contains a full list), and was made into a film in 2015

Monday, July 06, 2020

celebrifry woodylikey of the day

Just looking through some photos from a couple of walks we've done in the last couple of weeks, and found this photo of a rather splendid old oak tree that we encountered by the side of the path between the car park at Llanfoist Crossing and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Llanfoist Wharf. I'd been up here before as part of our ascent of the Blorenge in late 2009, but not (I think) since. I daresay the tree hasn't changed much in the intervening ten-and-a-half years.

Anyway, I snapped a photo because from one angle you can clearly see something resembling a face; I say "clearly see" but of course what I mean is see something with a sufficient number of markers in the right places for the weird wiring of the human brain to go into a pareidolia frenzy and go FAAAAACE LOOOOK IT'S A FAAAAACE. 

But whose face? Well once you've got past the usual Green Man and Ent references you notice that the nose and the prominent chin point in slightly different directions. This and the general air of benign treely wisdom immediately made me think of broadcaster, author, actor, polymath and general National Treasure Stephen Fry. Obvious, isn't it?

I don't mean to be mean, but look at your mean

I recall a question being asked on some cricket forum or other, possibly this one: who is the worst best player in Test history? In other words, who has (considering batsmen as an example) scored the most runs at the lowest average? That turns out to be an almost impossible question to answer, but one answer given was Mike Atherton, who has the lowest batting average of any player with over 6000 runs. This seems a bit harsh on Atherton, a fine and combative batsman and a key player in the not-exactly-world-beating England teams of the 1990s, but it set me off on a train of thought which resulted in the tables below.

As with the tables here, here and here, a bit of preparatory mental calibration is probably required: for each of the entries in the batting table, no-one has made more runs at a lower average.

RT Ponting (AUS)1681337851.85
AN Cook (ENG)1611247245.35
GA Gooch (ENG)118890042.58
AJ Stewart (ENG)133846339.54
MA Atherton (ENG)115772837.69
N Hussain (ENG)96576437.18
CL Hooper (WI)102576236.46
MV Boucher (ICC/SA)147551530.30
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)113453130.00
IA Healy (AUS)119435627.39
RW Marsh (AUS)96363326.51
SCJ Broad (ENG)138321118.66
SK Warne (AUS)145315417.32
HMRKB Herath (SL)93169914.64
CEL Ambrose (WI)98143912.40
M Muralitharan (ICC/SL)133126111.67
JM Anderson (ENG)15111859.63
CA Walsh (WI)1329367.54
GD McGrath (AUS)1246417.36
LR Gibbs (WI)794886.97
FH Edwards (WI)553946.56
DE Malcolm (ENG)402366.05
PT Collins (WI)322355.87
MS Panesar (ENG)502204.88
ST Gabriel (WI)452004.76
BS Chandrasekhar (INDIA)581674.07
N Pradeep (SL)281324.00
CS Martin (NZ)711232.36

This seems a bit harsh on Ricky Ponting in particular, but he just happens to be second on the overall list of highest Test run-scorers and to have an average that's a couple of runs per innings lower than that of the top man on the list, Sachin Tendulkar.

It is interesting to see that there are a few distinct zones on the list: once you get past Ponting and Cook you're into the English Batsmen Of The 1990s Zone featuring Gooch, Stewart, Atherton and Hussain and providing an insight into why England didn't win a lot during that era: not enough runs. Then there is a brief Wicketkeeper-Batsmen Zone featuring Boucher, Healy and Marsh, and then a Long-Serving And Distinguished Bowler Zone in reverse order of batting competence (Broad through Gibbs, say), and then a Proper Incompetents Zone at the end. Obviously there are probably people with a Test average of zero from one or two innings, but the rule of thumb I applied was to go down as far as Chris Martin, fine bowler but famously one of the worst batsmen in history, and then stop. As it happens he has the lowest average of anyone with over 100 Test runs, so that provided a nice sensible cut-off point anyway. Martin and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar are the most distinguished members of the select club of players who have more Test wickets than runs.

Here's the bowling table - this time the qualifying criterion is: no-one has taken more wickets at a higher average.

SK Warne (AUS)14570825.41
A Kumble (INDIA)13261929.65
Harbhajan Singh (INDIA)10341732.46
DL Vettori (ICC/NZ)11336234.36
Danish Kaneria (PAK)6126134.79
MM Ali (ENG)6018136.59
FH Edwards (WI)5516537.87
RJ Shastri (INDIA)8015140.96
CL Hooper (WI)10211449.42
Mohammad Sami (PAK)368552.74
SR Tendulkar (INDIA)2004654.17
MN Samuels (WI)714159.63
Rubel Hossain (BDESH)273676.77
IDK Salisbury (ENG)152076.95
Mohammad Sharif (BDESH)101479.00
KP Pietersen (ENG)1041088.60
S Chanderpaul (WI)164998.11
EAR de Silva (SL)108129.00
MA Atherton (ENG)1152151.00
CA Davis (WI)152165.00
NM Kulkarni (INDIA)32166.00
S Matsikenyeri (ZIM)82172.50
CS Nayudu (INDIA)112179.50
KLT Arthurton (WI)331183.00
RS Bopara (ENG)131290.00
Naeem Islam (BDESH)81303.00

Once again there are some distinct zones here, the Distinguished Spinners Zone at the top (Warne through Kaneria), the All-Rounders Zone (Ali, Shastri, Hooper), and then a mixture of specialist bowlers with short and unproductive careers and specialist batsmen who occasionally turned their arm over as light relief, say at the tail-end of a drawn game. Note that you don't see the long list of long-serving batsmen (Pietersen, Chanderpaul and Atherton apart) to match the bowlers in the other list; this is just a consequence of the way the game works. Even confirmed number 11 batsmen like McGrath and Walsh have to bat reasonably frequently; no-one has to bowl. For example, Alastair Cook's long and distinguished 161-Test career included a paltry three overs as a bowler, although to be fair he did take one wicket during those overs, which incidentally gives him an overall strike rate (i.e. balls per wicket) of 18.00, far superior to even the likes of Dale Steyn.

But I digress. Players who appear on both lists are Mike Atherton, Carl Hooper, Daniel Vettori, Shane Warne and Fidel Edwards. Note also that the top men from the overall batting and bowling lists (Tendulkar and Muralitharan) each appear on the opposite list here.

Monday, June 29, 2020

the last book I read

What's Bred In The Bone
by Robertson Davies.

We are back in the company of most of the principal protagonists of The Rebel Angels, indeed pretty much all of those who made it to the end of that book alive: clergyman and author Simon Darcourt, exotic gypsy temptress Maria Magdalena Theotoky, or Maria Cornish as she now is, and her husband Arthur Cornish, banker and heir to most of the estate of his uncle, art critic and collector Francis Cornish.

These people, who we already know slightly from the first book, which focused on the machinations around disposing of old Francis Cornish's will, are really only here to provide a framing device for the main story, which is that of Francis' life. And, like any seemingly normal life examined in close detail, it turns out to be slightly stranger than you might imagine.

Born in a small Canadian town (Blairlogie, supposedly modelled on Davies' own real-life childhood home of Renfrew, Ontario) in the early years of the twentieth century to a French-Canadian mother and a father (also Francis Cornish) who was literally from Cornwall, Francis jr.'s early experiences were a mixture of the commonplace (awkwardness at school, in his case due to being the posh boy from the "big house") and the more unusual, specifically his discovery of his secret elder brother, also called Francis - a pin-headed, furiously masturbating imbecile - locked away in an attic room and secretly cared for by a couple of domestic servants. One of these servants, Zadok Hoyle, also works as the local undertaker and takes Francis under his wing. In particular Zadok encourages Francis to pursue his love for art and drawing, through the slightly macabre method of allowing Francis to sketch the corpses at the funeral parlour.

Francis soon leaves Blairlogie for higher education in Toronto and then subsequently at Oxford, where he makes a few key acquaintances: his cousin Ismay, who he falls in love with, Tancred Saraceni, a famous art expert and restorer of Old Masters to whom Francis becomes a sort of apprentice, and some chaps from MI5 who feel that Francis might be their sort of chap and might like to do some discreet snooping for them. It turns out that Francis' father (also Francis, if you're keeping up) spent many years doing some similarly shady work.

Ismay eventually succumbs to Francis' patient wooing, only for it to transpire, shortly after their marriage, that the child she is carrying isn't his, and that she doesn't really love him at all, and that furthermore she's going to scarper with her lover and would he mind terribly making sure the child is provided for? Chastened by this experience Francis throws himself into his work, and as it happens MI5 have plenty of that for him as World War II has just kicked off. Coincidentally the work they want him to do involves close collaboration with his old mentor Tancred Saraceni, in a complex scheme based in Germany involving restoring old artworks and shipping them out of the country only to then arrange for their acquisition by the Nazi regime in the hope of acquiring some valuable non-German artwork in exchange. 

Francis hones his own painting skills during this period and finds that he has a natural affinity with the styles of the paintings he is restoring, so much so that he produces a large triptych depicting the marriage at Cana and allows it to be passed off as a genuine work. This is the cause of some slight awkwardness during Francis' post-war involvement in the various groups redistributing artwork hoarded by the Nazis (the real-life subject on which the film The Monuments Men is loosely based) when the painting is presented for analysis by the assembled group of experts. But the subterfuge holds, and Francis doesn't feel compelled to confess.

Already with no particular need to work for a living, Francis then finds himself the sole beneficiary of Tancred Saraceni's will, the contents of which include several Swiss bank accounts where much mysteriously-acquired money has been squirrelled away. Back in Canada, Francis devotes the rest of his life to collecting art that takes his fancy, and to being a slightly cantankerous mentor and advisor to some younger Canadian artists.

So now we do the wibbly-wobbly dissolve back to the framing device, just in time to witness Arthur Cornish reluctantly give his blessing for the biography Simon Darcourt is proposing writing about Francis, on the grounds that, hey, what Bad Stuff could possibly be revealed that might tarnish Francis' - and by association the whole Cornish family's - reputation?

The first thing to say here is: I've set that last paragraph up to imply that the the last novel (The Lyre Of Orpheus) in the trilogy will feature Darcourt's biography of Francis Cornish and may feature his as-yet-undiscovered forged works in some way. Of course it may very well feature no such thing; you should note that I had a pretty confident idea of where the third Matrix movie was going to take the story after seeing the second one, and that turned out to be totally wrong as well. I still maintain, incidentally, that my idea for the third movie was better than the actual third movie, which was rather disappointing.

Anyway, back to the book. This is a book which delights in its own erudition, and Davies' evident extensive knowledge of art. It's making some sly points about art forgery as well, the most obvious one being: how to determine the inherent "value" (not necessarily, or not only, monetary) of a work of art? Should it just be from a consideration of the work on its own merits devoid of any context? Or does its provenance matter? i.e. whether it is by who it purports to be by, and is from the era that it purports to be from? Does the exact same scene painted in the exact same style using the exact same materials (and, if you like, for the sake of argument, the exact same sequence of brushstrokes) have a different intrinsic value if painted by, say, Van Dyck in the 17th century, or Eric Hebborn in the 1970s?

Francis Cornish himself is an odd character whose only fully satisfactory personal relationship appears to be be the resolutely no-strings-attached one he has with Ruth Nibsmith, the governess at the German country house where he does his wartime restoration work with Saraceni. There is just a suggestion late in the book of some previously unexpressed homosexuality in his (strictly platonic) relationship with younger art critic Aylwin Ross, though this all gets rather complicated when Ross kills himself after an ill-advised attempt to use government money to purchase a batch of artwork including, ironically, Francis' own The Marriage At Cana

For all the depth of research and general erudition on show here, this isn't as much fun as The Rebel Angels, partly because of the structure - a framing device set up to facilitate a dive into stuff we already broadly know the outcome of removes some of the potential suspense of a more "real-time" structure, by which I mean we already know Francis lives to a ripe and wealthy old age, so he's not going to be unexpectedly murdered by the SS during the war, or disgraced and impoverished by his forgery becoming public knowledge. And there is just a whiff of fogeyish distaste for "modern" art (which basically seems to mean anything done during the twentieth century) which I found slightly unpalatable. 

There's nothing wrong with this, though, and it was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize, a prize eventually won by Kingsley Amis' The Old Devils, a book which (as I've said before) I like very much. I can get behind The Old Devils being ahead of What's Bred In The Bone in the running; if I were being completely honest I'd have to say that the benefit of hindsight leads me to conclude that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (the only other one I've read off that year's shortlist) probably should have won.

Off the top of my head the only other book on this list to prominently feature art forgery as a plot point is Ripley Under Ground. Ooh, no, wait, there's Chatterton as well.