Thursday, April 15, 2021

well, I just can't get over it

I was surfing Twitter the other day when I came across this tweet:

I thought to myself, hang on, that looks vaguely familiar, and not only that but Bassaleg (pronounced, slightly unexpectedly, Baze-leg) is in Newport, or rather on the western outskirts of it over by junction 28 of the M4. I had a quick look on Google Maps and it turns out to be here, spanning the sensibly-named Viaduct Way as well as the River Ebbw on its way into central Newport. The reason it looked familiar is that I'd driven under it a few months earlier on my way to pick up something Hazel had bought online from someone who lived in the newish housing estate north of the viaduct in the little triangle enclosed by the railway and the river. I can't remember whether it was Viaduct Close or Viaduct View, but what I will say is: good luck getting a view of the viaduct from Viaduct View, because it ain't happening.

Anyway, you can see from the original tweet that a bold claim is being made here, specifically that the Bassaleg Viaduct is, and I quote: "the world's oldest railway viaduct still in use". Claims of this sort are a bit like claims made by distilleries to be the oldest, biggest, highest, northernmost, etc. etc., in that you have to dive down into the small print of the claim that's actually being made to discover the weaselly qualifications it's hedged about with to make it applicable to the specific thing you want to big up.

In this case "viaduct" and "in use" are the two bits that hide a bit of weasellery. One of the things it becomes necessary to consider here (if, of course, you're in the tiny proportion of people who actually give a shit) is: what's the difference between a bridge and a viaduct? Also: what does "in use" mean? Still connected to the rail network and carrying usable track? Actually traversed by trains on some measurable schedule? Carrying regular passenger traffic?

The stock answer to the bridge vs. viaduct question is: a viaduct is a bridge with multiple spans. The reason that this matters in this particular case is that Skerne Bridge in Darlington, opened in 1825 (a year before Bassaleg Viaduct), is also still in use, but is definitely a traditional old-school bridge, with a single span over the River Skerne. Skerne Bridge, as it happens, also fulfils the most exacting version of the "still in use" condition, as it carries passenger trains on the Tees Valley Line to Bishop Auckland and points north. Bassaleg Viaduct, on the other hand, last carried regular passenger traffic in 1962 and since then (occasional enthusiasts' specials aside) has only been in use by goods trains to and from Machen Quarry, and those seem to be very infrequent these days.

Have a look at this Wikipedia page and search for "oldest" and you'll see why these distinctions matter: Causey Arch in County Durham is the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world, built exactly 100 years before Bassaleg Viaduct, but these days only carries pedestrians, as does Laigh Milton Viaduct in Scotland, built in 1812 and also, confusingly, making the claim to being the oldest surviving railway bridge in the world. Adjust that claim to "viaduct" and they might get away with it. 

Another little Newport oddity can be seen if you look at the area surrounding Bassaleg Viaduct (it's circled in red on the map below):

You can see that the viaduct is on a spur off the main line (it's the passenger line up to Ebbw Vale) and that there is a station on that line called Pye Corner. What's odd about this is that, despite that being an unusual name, there are two places called Pye Corner in Newport, one (this one) to the west of the city, and one to the east, a little over four miles away as the crow flies, shown below.

I've no idea what "Pye" in this context is meant to convey or how it derives etymologically. What I can tell you is that there is a location of the same name in London which claims to be the point where the Great Fire ended in 1666, and which is marked by a monument comprising a plaque and a little fella known as The Golden Boy of Pye Corner. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

keir and present danger

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter earlier after I saw this tweet on my timeline, which basically makes the claim that, on the basis of a recent interview, Keir Starmer, if he were to become Prime Minister, would be the first openly atheist Prime Minister of the UK. My first thought was: well, Keir Starmer's leadership of Labour may be distinctly underwhelming on a number of levels, but the statement of non-belief here is commendably clear and non-waffly and pretty unusual for a top-flight politician who might actually harbour some ambition of getting to be Prime Minister one day. 

You'll notice the response from Humanists UK, though, basically saying: yes, this is great, but it's actually not that unusual, as there have been plenty of atheist Prime Ministers, and here are a few examples. My original quote-tweet sounded a note of caution, mainly intended to emphasise how unusually direct I thought Starmer's statement was. I would describe Humanists UK's two subsequent replies as "brusquely dismissive" and "slightly defensive" respectively. I should add that I'm not intending any criticism of them as an organisation or their social media team individually here, but it is a useful exercise in proper critical thinking and scepticism not to take statements at face value, even when they are made by people whose worldview and aims you broadly agree with. It would be ironic, after all, if we were to have what you might call "articles of faith" which are recited by rote but never subjected to any scrutiny.

Taking Clement Attlee as the first example, just about all the Google hits for "Clement Attlee atheist" bring back the exchange referred to here which is his biographer Kenneth Harris' recalling (at an unspecified later date) of a conversation they had on an unspecified date, but almost certainly no earlier than mid-1950s, i.e. well after Attlee's stint as Prime Minister had ended in 1951, and probably after he ceased to be Labour leader in 1955. Attlee died in 1967 and Harris' biography of him, containing this brief exchange, wasn't published until 1982. I have no reason to doubt the basic truth of Harris' depiction of Attlee's beliefs, but I think that a) 15 years after your death and b) while still Leader of the Opposition and prospective Prime Minister are worlds apart when it comes to expressing them.

James Callaghan was a Baptist Sunday school teacher in his early life, and the standard Google result for "James Callaghan atheist" is a reference to a television interview in the 1980s where he supposedly professed his atheism. Again, I have no reason to doubt that that is true (although I haven't seen a transcript of the interview anywhere), but Callaghan's stint as Prime Minister ended in 1979 (when he was already 67) and he stood down as an MP in 1987.

Ramsay MacDonald seems to have roved about through various flavours of religious affiliation throughout his early life but to have arrived at what would these days be called humanism by the start of the twentieth century, well before his multiple stints as Prime Minister (the first of which started in 1924). In fact he served as President of the Union of Ethical Societies a couple of times in the early twentieth century, that organisation being a precursor to the British Humanist Association who have now changed their name to Humanists UK. 

Finally, what of dear old Winnie, the increasingly problematic saviour of Britain during World War II? Well, again, most of the obvious Google search terms yield results which all point back to the same source quote, which is one supposedly from a letter he wrote to his mother in his mid-twenties which includes the line "I do not accept the Christian or any other form of religious belief". On the other hand if you trawl through his most famous quotations looking for invocations of God and Christianity as key pillars of civilisation which need to be defended against, variously, Nazism, Communism, Islam, you name it, you will find many. 

So I think if you were to ask yourself the question: which of these people had made clear, unambiguous and widely-circulated public statements of non-belief prior to their being Prime Minister, I think you could only really come up with Ramsay MacDonald. On the other hand it's almost unimaginable that any of the people mentioned here would have been subjected to, or subjected themselves to, an interview where such intrusive questions would have been asked. Times change, and I, for one, view this as progress.

Friday, April 09, 2021

headline of the day

My views on the monarchy as an institution are fairly well-known, and as much as I am a terrible arsehole in a general sense I do recognise that it might be appropriate to allow a moment before steaming in with some WELL ACTUALLY observations. So in the wake of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh I will restrict myself to noting the unfortunate wording hastily cobbled together by the Guardian website sub-editors.

I mean you can't really complain about people mistrusting the press and other media if you've been peddling the same fake news for 73 years. 

Thursday, April 08, 2021

the last book I read

The Death Of Grass by John Christopher.

Ah, Britain. Where the sun shines (even if it rains a bit in between, as is only right and proper), people are civilised and life is generally trouble-free. A good, clean country, free of any of those nasty foreign germs that they have, you know, over there. But WAIT A MINUTE: something nasty is brewing in China; a new virus that, while originally seeming to be contained, eventually spreads across Asia and continental Europe and starts to batter at the gates of God's Own Country. Can people, on an individual basis, survive? Can civilisation, in a more general sense, survive?

You can see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. But, for the moment, this is where The Death Of Grass starts. The difference between this and that thing that you're all thinking of right now is (and I suppose the book's title is a bit of a giveaway here) that the virus is one which affects plants, specifically grasses. Feh, so a few people's lawns die, you might say, no biggie, but remember that the grass family comprises just about all the world's major grain crops. The first variant of what becomes known as the Chung-Li virus only affects plants of the Oryza genus, in other words rice. Bad for China, not so bad for Europe. But an apparently successful attempt by the Chinese to develop a crop spray to combat the virus has an unexpected side-effect: a minor strain of the virus, hitherto overshadowed by the voracity of the rice-specific variant, proves not only to be resistant to the spray, but, more importantly, to have a much wider appetite extending to all the members of the Gramineae family, which includes, wheat, barley, rye, oats, you name it. 

Let's meet some people: John Custance, the novel's main protagonist, a civil engineer and a generally resourceful and level-headed sort of guy, and his old friend Roger Buckley, a senior civil servant and a guy with a generally more cynical outlook. It's Roger's connections which allow him to get wind of the new wheat-destroying virus strain before it's official news, and furthermore to learn of the government's plan for what to do if things go properly disastrous: drop nuclear bombs on various major cities to vaporise the inhabitants and stop them spilling out into the surrounding country, which cannot produce enough food to sustain more than a fraction of them anyway.

John and Roger decide that a quick getaway from London is highly advisable. Roger also deems it highly advisable to acquire some firearms first, and so they stop off at a gun shop run by an acquaintance of Roger's, with the intention of overpowering him and taking some of his stock. It doesn't quite work out like that, as the gun-seller, Pirrie, is a bit more formidable than they'd expected, but on hearing their story he decides to tool up and come with them. 

They're only a few miles into their journey when they discover that they're already too late to just slip out of London unmolested, and they have to commit murder at a military roadblock to get away. It is clear that the flimsy trappings of civilised society are being shaken off quicker than anyone expected, and further proof is provided when the Custance's car is ambushed at a level crossing and John's wife Ann and teenage daughter Mary are taken away and gang-raped. Further retributive murderings are required to rescue them.

The group's intended destination is John's brother David's farm up in Westmorland (i.e. the southern part of what is now Cumbria). They make good progress as a three-car convoy but the roads are a conspicuous way to travel and eventually the inevitable happens and they are stopped at another roadblock (an unofficial one this time) on the outskirts of Masham. The party manning the roadblock relieve them of their cars and guns and leave them to set out on foot for the remainder of their journey. 

Progress is slow, as the Custances and Buckleys have their children with them (thankfully mostly teenagers), and it is clear that you need to be well-equipped, armed and ruthless to survive. Pirrie turns out to be all three of those things as, having concealed a gun from the raiding party earlier, he leads a raid on a farmhouse to restock with food and guns, regrettably having to murder some people in the process. Pirrie's ruthlessness turns out to have some unpalatable side-effects, though, as he then murders his own wife, Millicent (who has been serially unfaithful to him and clearly has her eye on John Custance), the calculation presumably being that he wanted to, she was not indispensable to the group in the same way as he was, and there were no longer likely to be any consequences for doing so. Furthermore he decides to take Jane, the daughter of the couple he murdered at the farmhouse and who they have brought with them, as his new wife slash sex-slave, because, again, who's going to stop him?

The group presses on, making use of now-unused railway lines to progress northwards, and acquiring more people on the way, something Custance feels is advisable to present a less enticing target for rival groups. By the time they arrive at the valley containing David's farm there are over thirty of them. 

Job done, though, right? Just have a chat with David, get his guys to swing open the big gate, have a nice cup of tea and wait for all this to blow over. Weeeeeell it's not quite that simple. John and David get to talk, but the situation is delicate: there are already too many people in the valley, and let's not forget everyone's going to be living on potatoes for the next few years, assuming they can grow enough. David has made it clear to his colleagues that John and family are to be admitted if they show up, but there's no way they can allow thirty-odd people in. John doesn't have Ann and the kids with him while this conversation is taking place, as Pirrie, the wily old fox, has kept them back to ensure they don't do exactly what David is now suggesting. i.e. slip inside, give everyone else the bird, nice cup of tea, etc.

So what to do now? John now has to make the regrettable decision that he can't allow his party to be kept out, even if it's on his brother's say-so. So he uses a bit of childhood knowledge (the farm used to belong to his grandfather) to navigate a safe course up the fast-flowing river that is spanned by the fence, get through to the other side and plug the men at the machine-gun emplacement before they know what's happening. Once the immediate risk of being machine-gunned inside-out has passed John opens the gate to the rest of his group and they take over command of the farm and valley. There have been some casualties, though: Pirrie took a bullet during the raid on the machine-gun emplacement and is dead, and so is David, who just happened to be taking a turn manning the gun when the raid happened.

Questions remain, with plenty of time to consider them. Will the people now barricaded into the valley be able to retain their civilised ways, especially after the cold-blooded killing that was necessary to get to safety in the first place? And what of the future? Will nature find a way to recover? Will the Americans come riding to everyone's rescue? Will there be enough food for everyone? What do you do if you're allergic to potatoes? The novel ends with most of these questions still to be answered.

Smart-arsed readers of speculative fiction like myself will read the plot synopsis on the back cover of this book and go: aha, well, I can see what's going on here, it's all a bit The Day Of The Triffids, isn't it? Those people will furthermore give a bit of a raised eyebrow to the promotional quote on the front cover (taken from the introduction) which compares it to Lord Of The Flies. Having read it I can see a case for saying it's a bit closer to Lord Of The Flies, even though the basic mechanics of the plot resemble The Day Of The Triffids in many ways. I don't really like the phrase "cosy catastrophe" which is usually applied to John Wyndham's work (and was apparently coined by Brian Aldiss who featured in the last post), as it has a sneery edge that I think is unfair, but I do see what it's meant to convey - a disaster happens and some middle-class people are mildly inconvenienced but band together to sort things out and get the kettle on. To lump The Death Of Grass into this genre would be a mistake, though, I think; the novel I've read which it is closest to is probably Cormac McCarthy's The Road (with maybe just an echo of On The Beach here and there). Both books look the inevitable consequences of apocalyptic events in the eye and follow them to their conclusion: John Custance and his crew cold-bloodedly murder people who have resources that they need - even, at the end, his own brother - and when others spot that Custance's wife and daughter are unarmed and inadequately protected they are brutally abducted and raped, and would probably have subsequently been killed if Custance and the others hadn't rescued them. Furthermore Pirrie's taking of Jane as basically his personal sex-slave is greeted with a shrug and an eh, what can you do by the rest of the group. This stuff is far from cosy, and it's hard to imagine any of it happening in a John Wyndham book. Partly for that reason The Death Of Grass feels a lot more modern than, say, The Day Of The Triffids, even though both were published in the 1950s (1956 and 1951 respectively).

The introduction which I briefly alluded to above is by Robert Macfarlane, this being the final book of the three which I got for Christmas for which he wrote the introduction - the other two were Climbers and Rogue Male. This one was written for the 2009 reissue of the book by Penguin after it had been out of print for many years. I highly recommend reading all three of them (the books, I mean, though the introductions are interesting as well).

Finally, yes, of course there are significant parallels between the events of the early part of The Death Of Grass and the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular I was put in mind of the early days of the initial lockdown when nobody really knew what was going on, it was almost impossible to get to a supermarket and when you did the shelves had been stripped bare. Newport is a fairly modestly-sized city as cities go but I recall feeling oddly claustrophobic and trapped - I imagine people in London must have had it worse. Obviously things settled down fairly quickly but it was a salutary reminder that the mutually-agreed societal conventions which keep people giving way at roundabouts, staying out of each others houses and not making makeshift flutes out of each other's femurs are more fragile than you might like to think. Diseases which attack wheat do exist, by the way, and global agriculture is by no means on top of all of them.

John Christopher (who wrote under many names including his real one, Sam Youd) is probably most famous among people of my generation for his young adult novels which were made into the TV series The Tripods in the mid-1980s. I remember watching a handful of episodes and being mildly diverted by it, but my main recollection is that it was terribly slow, especially compared with things like Doctor Who and Blakes 7 with which it shared some superficial similarities. Like both of those it suffered, in hindsight, from the quality of (and budget available for) its special effects. The Death Of Grass was made into a film called No Blade Of Grass (the book's US title) in 1970, featuring a slightly larger number of marauding motorcycle gangs than I remember from the book, and some tremendous work from Voice-Over Guy.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

with phallus aforethought

Before I start here I should probably issue a trigger warning for discussion of GIANT GENITALIA. Anyone still harbouring trauma from real-life adverse experiences with GIANT GENITALIA should probably consider bailing out now.

So: you'll recall my reference to the unexpectedly large passage in The Godfather dealing with Lucy Mancini and her, ahem, unexpectedly large passage. Most of this stuff happens well into the second half of the book, but Lucy does briefly feature right at the start of the book (at Connie's wedding) when she and Sonny Corleone sneak off to an upstairs room for a quick knee-trembler and it is made clear that only Sonny's gargantuan cock can satisfy her, sex with anyone else resembling chucking a cocktail sausage into a wheelie bin or some similar metaphor.

Via one of those odd synaptic brainfarts that occasionally happens at times like this I was put in mind of my teenage attempts to write a best-selling novel, in collaboration with my best friends Mungo and Tom. I've mentioned Mungo a couple of times here before, including referring to his current occupation in the world of economics; well, it appears Tom is now a well-respected lawyer doing work in the charity sector that sounds terrifyingly close to being Of Actual Benefit To Humanity in some way. And, assuming those photos are reasonably recent, still with an annoyingly full head of hair. He's still ginger, though, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. Anyway, I imagine both of them will be delighted to find that the Google crawlerbots have now linked their names with a frivolous blog post prominently featuring the words GIANT GENITALIA.

The GIANT GENITALIA connection is this: we were unsure as to the best subject matter for a novel but were very clear that we wanted enormous sales realising flipping great wodges of cash as rapidly as possible, so there had to be EXCITEMENT and ADVENTURE and thus almost certainly SEX. I can't speak for Mungo and Tom (well, actually I'm 99.9% sure that I can) but my actual experience of sex (furious and relentless wanking aside) at this point was restricted to fast-forwarding through James Herbert books trying to get to the good bits. So we started writing, and, keen to do the fun stuff before any of the tedious scaffolding that establishes the plot and characters, went straight to writing some sex scenes. I do recall that one of them was on a plane, for reasons I can't now recall and which we may have not bothered to provide at the time, and featured a female character uttering the immortal line "bored of that cockpit and want to try mine?" which I remember Mungo (who came up with it) being very proud of.

Anyway, there was a whole section of plot missing after that which would have explained how we got to the next section, which was set on an island, some unspecified apocalypse having happened in between to make humanity revert to more primitive ways. By some also-unexplained sequence of events - radiation effects, speeded-up evolution, experimental knob surgery, who knows - certain members (ooer) of the human race had acquired comically outsized genitalia. Just in case you couldn't imagine what that looked like we also did some sketches - mainly Tom, I think, who was quite a handy artist - which got stashed under my bed or in a cupboard somewhere and forgotten and were later discovered by my mother, which was nice. 

Just as well we abandoned our writing efforts, then, you might say, as no respectable publisher - outside certain niche markets, anyway - would countenance publishing a book containing this sort of lurid nonsense. And I would have agreed with you, right up until about a decade later when I first read Brian Aldiss' Helliconia trilogy of science fiction novels, in particular the final one, Helliconia Winter. Here, while the centuries-long winter takes hold on the planet below, the orbiting space station Avernus monitors and sends information back to distant Earth. The space station itself, though, experiences evolutionary changes over the course of its millennia-long vigil, some of them enhanced by experimentation by the scientists aboard - well, you've got to relieve the boredom somehow, haven't you? Some of these are of a nature oddly reminiscent of our own feverish teenage imaginings:

Aldiss, as it happens, has a bit of previous in the sex-writing department, having published a trilogy of novels in the 1970s - A Hand-Reared Boy, A Soldier Erect and A Rude Awakening - which is a loosely-autobiographical series of sex comedies well outside his normal science fiction genre. They're hard (ooer) to come by (ooer) these days, but second-hand copies can still be found. I can't vouch for them as I've never read them. 

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

the last book I read

The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

Heeeyyyyyyy, fuhgeddaboudit. I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse. Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes. EYYYYY I'M TALKIN' HERE; go get me a plate of meatballs and gabagool and some cannoli and never take sides against the family again. Capisce?

Happy now? OK. We're in New York, just after the end of World War II, and it is the day of Don Vito Corleone's daughter's wedding, a day on which, according to Italian-American custom, he cannot refuse to grant a favour requested of him. That being the case, and the Don having the power and influence to grant certain favours beyond the reach of most men, there is naturally a queue of wedding guests eager for a moment of the Don's time between his various father-of-the-bride obligations. Caution is advisable here, though, the granting of a favour will put you in the potentially awkward position of being in his debt, and one day the Don or his associates may come to you for repayment of that favour.

We also meet the rest of the Corleone family: daughter Connie, whose wedding day this is, eldest son Santino (known as "Sonny"), the heir apparent to the Corleone family empire but dangerously hot-headed and impulsive, second son Fredo, generally regarded as not the sharpest knife in the drawer, adoptive son Tom Hagen, the Don's personal lawyer, and youngest son Michael, just returned from military duty and accompanied by his American girlfriend Kay Adams. The family runs, according to official records at least, a business importing and distributing olive oil from Sicily, but in reality is one of the most powerful New York Mafia crime families. 

The Don's wish is that Sonny, as long as he mellows a bit, should inherit his role as head of the family businesses, and that Michael should continue to pursue a life outside of them in order to provide an avenue for the family businesses to eventually go completely legit and give up the old garrotting and murdering. Not just yet, though, as someone sells out the Don while he's making an incognito trip into New York and gunmen from a rival family put several bullets into him. The family soon learns that this is the work of a rival gangster, Sollozzo, working for another family, and also that the welfare of the Don, who miraculously survives the shooting but is now incapacitated in hospital, is being endangered thanks to the police captain, McCluskey, entrusted with guarding the Don but actually on Sollozzo's payroll.

It is clear that Sollozzo and McCluskey need to be taken out, but none of the usual guys will be allowed near them. Michael volunteers himself for the meeting that is to be arranged, and, with some family contacts providing prior knowledge of the meeting's location, manages to arrange the concealment of a gun on the premises with which Michael puts a cap in both men's asses, and is then obliged to flee to Sicily until the heat is off.

While Michael is away he conducts a romance with a local girl, Apollonia, but it is soon clear that he is not safe even in rural Sicily, as Apollonia is killed by a car bomb meant for him. Meanwhile back in America Sonny has been lured into an ambush and machine-gunned to death. 

Michael returns to America and takes control of the family, with the recovered but now semi-retired Don as his advisor, before his sudden death from a heart attack. Michael decides to relocate the family businesses to Las Vegas, where expansion is rapid and rich pickings are to be made in hotels and gambling. Before the move can be completed, though, there is some unfinished business to be concluded in New York: a ruthless campaign of revenge on the heads of the rival crime families and those involved (including some Corleone family insiders) in the attempts on the former Don's life. Thus Michael consolidates the Corleone family's position in New York, exacts revenge for the murder of Sonny and the attempted murder of the Don, and secures his position as the new Don.

These days The Godfather is somewhat overshadowed by the film of the same name, but it's important to be clear that the novel pre-dates the film by about three years (1969 compared with 1972) and was already a legitimate publishing phenomenon by the time the film was made. My copy, which I have had for at least 25 years and was a bit battered when I bought it, dates from before the film was made and proudly carries the claim that 6 million copies had already been sold. 

The basic story told here is the same as in the film, with the narrative set in the book's nominal "now" reproduced almost identically in the film. Certain bits are omitted - all the Vito: The Early Years stuff in New York was left until Part II (though the return to Sicily to carve up the old Don who had his father murdered isn't in the book), and the sub-plot involving Johnny Fontane (clearly modelled on Frank Sinatra) is omitted altogether, apart from the bit that's required to get us to the legendary set-piece with the horse's head. Also omitted is the extremely bizarre sub-plot involving Lucy Mancini* and her enormous vagina, which Las Vegas surgeon Jules Segal arranges to have tightened up (complete with quite lengthy surgical descriptions) and then makes enthusiastic use of, something probably not strictly in line with ethical medical practice. Some of the descriptive stuff around Johnny Fontane's various sexual encounters is slightly odd, also, for instance:

I think in general the films have more of a claim to be enduring works of art than the book, which is a tremendously entertaining thriller with some odd lumpy elements (see above). It's hard to appreciate 50+ years later how many of the now-ubiquitous Mafia clich├ęs originated here, as they're so baked into popular culture. What I can say is that the first film in particular (which, contrary to much current film critic orthodoxy, I think is by far the best) is one of the first properly "adult" films I ever remember specifically choosing to watch, rather than just being in the room while, for instance, my father was watching something. The only other film which made a similarly indelible impression was its near-contemporary The French Connection which I probably watched at a very similar age. 

* More like LOOSey Mancini**, amirite?
** More like LOOSey MINGini, amirite?

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

that's dentertainment

One of the things that will have been a major factor in determining the specific flavour of your COVID-19 lockdown experience, it seems to me anyway, is whether you have kids or not. Many people have (as part of a generally commendable look-on-the-bright-side attitude) written about how, hey, lockdown is tough and the general loneliness and sense of social dislocation is a mental challenge, but at least it's given them a chance to really get to grips with learning to knit, whittling that scale model of the Taj Mahal, playing the euphonium, and of course baking a bewildering variety of bread products, assuming that they'd panic-bought enough flour and yeast

As entertaining as those anecdotes are, my first thought is always: aha, there's someone who doesn't have kids. I mean I'll grant you we did have a half-hearted crack at making bread, but any serious hobbying designed to eat up several consecutive hours is a non-starter. I should add I'm not about to attempt to reach a verdict about whether a child-free or child-rich environment is better/worse/harder/easier in terms of surviving lockdown with sanity mostly intact, I'm just making the point that it would have been two very different experiences. As brilliant and generally delightful as our three kids are I will confess to finding the need to keep them constantly entertained a bit relentless at times, especially when combined with needing to keep up with schoolwork as well.

One of the things I expect a lot of people with kids have done during the period of enforced being-in-the-house is make dens, this being a thing that all kids love doing. I myself recall my parents having a set of rather bizarre brown foam-rubber furniture (probably an absolutely appalling fire hazard by modern standards) when we were kids, whose corner units, when flipped on their side, were perfect building blocks for dens. We don't have any of those, but as you'll see below the kids did manage to come up with some alternatives. Nia, as befits the oldest of the group, was generally chief engineer, with Alys providing labouring muscle and Huwie fulfilling a key quality assurance role by running into things and attempting to break them. 

So here is a pictorial summary of the 2020/2021 den-building season:

Number one is a solo effort from Nia. The legend on the front reads "Nia's umbrella den. Must have permishion." She insisted that she was going to spend the night in it, and subsequently did, commendably bloody-mindedly as it can't have been that comfortable. 

Use of umbrellas as a key element of den construction is going to become a bit of a theme, as you'll see. Luckily we have quite a few of them as Hazel has a stash of white parasol-style ones from her wedding photography supplies. 

The next one is an extension of the original concept to include a couple of extra umbrellas, some towels, a large number of clothes pegs and our pop-up Peppa Pig tent. An increase in the amount of interior room, but as you can imagine it's a bit of a complex labyrinth of umbrella-stalks once you're inside. 

The next one harks back to the original, but increases the headroom somewhat by introducing a couple of kitchen chairs into the mix. This one has a slightly yurt-y look to it, though we were unable to grout it with yak butter in the traditional manner as Asda were out of that as well.

Number four is similar to number two, but the addition of the two upright white parasols in the centre of the structure gives it a vaguely Middle-Eastern feel, or possibly just evokes thoughts of the Mound Stand at Lord's. 

Structural details of this next one are unclear except that it evidently encompassed one of the sofas. Huwie is revelling in the illicit thrill of being somewhere his sisters have probably forbidden him to be. 

A sudden shift of both location and design ethos for the next one as we relocate to the bunks in the girls' bedroom and a stark and simple design in white. There was a version of this which enclosed the top bunk (Nia's) as well via the addition of a couple of my old golf clubs and another couple of sheets, but I don't have a photo of it. I'm not sure whether Huwie is just messing about on the floor or has just been violently ejected from the enclosed lower bunk by the girls.

The next one is more of a pre-fabricated den, in that it's one of my old tents, which the kids insisted on sleeping in out in the garden. The original idea was that we'd put our family enormo-tent up and all sleep in it - what larks! - but tragically there wasn't room so Hazel and I had to take one for the team and sleep in our own bed. 

Those were all from the first half of 2020; what I like to call "denthusiasm" wore off a bit after that, or perhaps it was just my inclination to bother taking photos of them. Anyway, the next couple are from this year after we rediscovered our mojo. Here's one from February which all three of them insisted on spending the night in. You can see that it's basically three adjoining interconnected slumbering podules: Alys on the sofa, Nia in the middle on the floor and Huwie in the Peppa Pig tent. 

Finally, this one from a couple of weeks ago: no thought to sleeping comfort this time, just maximum unsupported internal span thanks to a light bedsheet-based design and use of four kitchen chairs. Once again the boy is taking his quality assurance role very seriously by seeing how many of the clothes pegs he can remove before the whole structure collapses on his head. 

So there you have it. I just get the feeling that we're starting to exhaust the possibilities now, so either we need to start getting back to normal life again or I'll need to start sawing up some furniture.