Friday, July 16, 2021

nip nip moray

A couple of whisky items in the cupboard to catch up on - I had a gratifying number of bottles for Christmas and my birthday, as I often do, and what then generally follows is me trying (usually unsuccessfully) to eke out the (relatively) lavish late-February whisky situation for the rest of the year. I think you would have to say that last year's selection probably included some more interesting stuff, or at least more stuff that I hadn't tried before, but there were a couple of new ones here, and I present them here for your perusal and edification.

Firstly, here's a Glen Moray. We've had one of these before but that one was a special edition finished in Chardonnay casks (but actually a good deal better than that makes it sound). This one, though labelled Elgin Classic, seems to be just the bog-standard edition and as such is very cheap in most supermarkets (typically around £20). The distillery is situated just outside the town of Elgin, smack dab in the middle of the Speyside region, on the banks of the River Lossie. A couple of things to note about that, firstly that Glenlossie might have been a more obvious name but by the time the Glen Moray distillery was founded in 1897 that name had already been taken. Secondly, while most Speyside whiskies take their water from rivers and streams that flow into the River Spey, it's not a condition of being a Speyside whisky (as I lazily implied it was here) - the Lossie flows directly into the sea at Lossiemouth.

Secondly, here's a bottle of Bunnahabhain StiĆ¹ireadair, which despite its fancy name (which means something like "helmsman" in Scots Gaelic) is the no-age-statement entry-level Bunnahabhain, enabling them, one might cynically say, to bump up the price of the 12-year-old version. Bunnahabhain hasn't featured on this blog before as you don't see it in supermarkets all that often, but it did get a mention here alongside the Allt-a-bhainne with which it shares some etymological roots. Coincidentally, while the Allt-a-bhainne makes much mileage out of its being unusual among Speyside whiskies in being lightly peated, Bunnahabhain's USP has always been that it's an Islay malt but (special editions aside) unpeated.

As with many coastal whiskies including Old Pulteney and Aerstone the claim is made here for a "brackish" or "briny" or "salty" tang to the whisky, a claim I expressed some mild scepticism about here, and the reviewer here expresses a similar slightly eye-rolling scepticism about as well. I think what he's basically saying is: if this is salty, I'm a Dutchman.

Anyway, let's get in there. The Glen Moray has the classic no-age-statement whisky thing of a big heady solvent-y whack of pear drops and magic markers when you have a sniff, and it's hard to penetrate to any actual whisky smells under that. That stuff all falls away when you have a taste, leaving only a bit of "hotness" that presumably derives from the young age of the whisky, and a general unthreatening Speysidiness that we've seen before in everything from the Tormore to the Tomatin. It's perfectly nice but relatively unmemorable and there are probably several things in a similar price bracket that would give you more bang for your buck. I mean, I know it's a single malt and all, but if you were to ask me if it compares to something like Johnnie Walker Black Label at a very similar price, I would say: no, not at all. 

The Bunnahabhain is pretty similar when you stick your nose in the glass: if anything at a robustly artisanal 46.3% (the Glen Moray is a bog-standard 40%) it's even more forbiddingly reminiscent of nail polish remover, though there is perhaps just a hint of something sweet and woody underneath. A different story when you have a taste, though, as there is a bit more depth here, with something a little bit earthy and vegetable-y underneath. As with a lot of whiskies at around the 46% mark this is one that might benefit from a splosh of water to open it up a bit.

Anyway, it's interesting from a purely academic standpoint as an unpeated Islay malt - unique as a standard offering though Caol Ila for one do occasionally knock out an unpeated malt as a special edition - and if you want a winner from this particular head-to-head match-up the Bunnahabhain would definitely be it. Both featurees here are a little polite for my taste, though. 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

the last book I read

A Mind To Murder by PD James.

The Steen Clinic is a reputable psychiatric institution in central London, a venue of choice for the well-heeled but troubled to come and either pour out their marital and sexual woes in the traditional couch-based environment, or, for the more severely afflicted, to undergo either the strapping on of the electrodes or being dosed up with LSD.

So while there's a certain amount of acid-induced shouting from time to time, not to mention the occasional sound of sizzling frontal lobes, it's a surprise to everyone at the clinic when a scream rends the air. The scream turns out to belong to Jennifer Priddy, a junior typist - she's absolutely fine, but the chief administrator, Enid Bolam, has been murdered by a combination of being clonked on the head with a large wooden carving and then having a chisel driven through her heart. The screaming is because it was Jennifer Priddy who discovered her body, sprawled across a pile of medical records in the basement archive.

Fortunately Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh is reasonably close at hand, as he's attending the launch of a slim volume of his poetry at his publisher's premises nearby. Yes, he's a cop, who seems to adhere reasonably closely to established police protocol, but is also a published poet, which makes him something of a maverick, policemen not being generally given to poetry. Also, dammit, he gets results. And surely a result here will not be too difficult to come by, as the clinic isn't the sort of place you can just wander into, do a bit of the old murdering and then wander out of again, and the murderer must surely be among the group of a dozen or so psychiatrists and administrative staff who are on the premises when Dalgliesh arrives. 

And so begins the round of interviews between Dalgliesh and the prime suspects, and, as always, some interesting details emerge that provide motives for a surprisingly large number of them. It becomes clear that Enid Bolam was a highly efficient administrator, and a person of rigid moral rectitude, but somewhat prickly and difficult to get along with. That in itself probably wasn't enough to motivate someone to kill her, but other factors emerge as well: did her probable successor as administrator Mrs. Bostock knock her off to accelerate her succession? Did her cousin Marion, a nurse at the centre, knock her off to accelerate her inheritance of her money? Did either Miss Saxon or Dr Baguley knock her off as revenge for her going to Dr Baguley's wife to reveal the details of their affair some months previously? Did general handyman Peter Nagle knock her off for some as-yet-unknown reason? The chisel came from his toolbox, after all, though it was accessible to anyone who knew where it was kept.

Dalgliesh's finely-honed detectorial instincts soon sniff out some more intrigue: Peter Nagle, in addition to possibly knocking off Miss Bolam, has also been, hem hem, "knocking off" Jennifer Priddy while using her as a life model for his fledgling painting career. Also, Miss Bolam had a couple of mysterious cryptic messages on her desk jotter, one of which appears to have been the precursor to an urgent phone call to the head of the centre's management committee requesting an urgent meeting, a meeting which never happened as the murderer got to her first.

Dalgliesh deduces that someone had been blackmailing one of the centre's previous patients, one who had been in for some treatment for some problems of an, erm, "sensitive" nature - shame if those were to somehow become public, right? Obviously it must have been someone who had access to the centre's confidential medical records, and therefore one of the same group as the murder suspects, and, moreover, and I'm sure you're ahead of me here, probably the same person. 

Dalgliesh realises that he needs to intercept the murderer before he has a chance to cover his tracks, and he and his stolid sidekick Detective Sergeant Martin rush over to the Steen Clinic just in time to prevent a second murder from happening and collar the perp, though not without a final twisty-turny shock revelation.

This was PD James' second novel, published in 1963, and so is a pretty early one from her long writing career (she died in 2014 at the age of 94 and was publishing novels well into the 2000s). It's a classic locked-room mystery and quite reminiscent of the Agatha Christie novels I read a lot of in my teens (my maternal grandmother had a massive collection), just with a bit of extra sexual frankness as befits the early 1960s. The hunt for the perpetrator follows the classic pattern of: well it must have been this guy - no wait it must have been someone else - no wait it actually was the first guy after all - HOLY LAST-MINUTE PLOT TWIST IT WAS SOMEONE ELSE. Dalgliesh's intuitive leap to realising it must have been blackmail-related and his mental reconstruction of the blackmailer's victim selection process enabling him to find the victim within about five minutes by consulting the patient card index is all a bit of a stretch, plausibility-wise.

This is the first PD James novel I've read, but I get the impression her later novels pushed at genre boundaries a bit more (this would include Children Of Men which is proper dystopian science fiction and was filmed in 2006). This is a pretty orthodox whodunit, though none the worse for that. It grabs your initial attention, holds onto it with a bit of twisty-turny misdirection and then delivers some exciting revelations at the end, all in just over 200 pages. As such it was like catnip for those looking for material for TV adaptations and was (fairly loosely, by the look of it) adapted in the 1990s as one of the series of Adam Dalgliesh mysteries broadcast on ITV and starring Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

the last book I read

World's End by TC Boyle.

It's 1968 and Walter van Brunt is doing some standard carefree hippy shit: caning a few beers at a local bar, smoking some weed, going skinny-dipping with a girl he's just met, doing some ill-advised acrobatics on some old shipwrecks out in the river and then hopping on his Norton Commando to head off home. So far so Easy Rider, except for the next bit where he misjudges a turn, skids off the road, whacks into a metal sign and ends up in hospital having his right foot amputated. That never happened to Peter Fonda, although he did end up getting shot and killed, so swings and roundabouts I suppose. 

Hang on, though, it's also 1949 and a group of civil rights activists are organising a concert featuring various luminaries of the movement including Paul Robeson. Certain segments of the local community, notably the van Wart family who own the land on which it's taking place, aren't terribly happy about this but given the secretive nature of the arrangements there isn't much they can do about it - unless someone were to traitorously reveal the details, of course.

Wait a minute, though, because it's also the 1660s and some of Walter's van Brunt ancestors are scratching out a meagre living on land owned by some of the van Wart ancestors. "Owned" is a troublesome word here, of course, as it wouldn't have been so long before that the land was largely inhabited by the natives who'd been there for centuries, and the Europeans' acquisition of it and subsequent treatment of the Kitchawank (all right, stop sniggering at the back there) and Wecquaesgeek Indians were dubious to say the least.

What links these three narratives is not only that many of the people bear the same names (van Wart and van Brunt, primarily) but also that the action described takes place in broadly the same place: the valley of the Hudson River in the modern-day state of New York. So we've travelled in time, but not in space

Life was tough for most people in the 17th century, and the van Brunts are no exception - their starting situation is tough enough, being obliged to work their asses off just to pay the rent to the van Warts whose land they farm, but on top of that they seem to be afflicted with some extraordinary bad luck. Son Jeremias has a close encounter with a snapping turtle at the river's edge which results in gangrene and the loss of a leg. Family patriarch Hermanus succumbs to, and barely survives, a bout of some unexplained eating disease that makes him devour entire oxen at a single sitting only to then be scalded half to death by his daughter Katrinchee and finish the job himself by running from the house in agony and falling off a cliff. Katrinchee herself brings shame on the family by running off with, and getting pregnant by, a Kitchawank called Mohonk, a union which eventually (after she's returned to the van Brunt household) produces a son, Jeremy Mohonk. As if all that were not enough, the van Brunt house is then struck by lightning and burns down, taking Hermanus' wife Agatha and son Wouter with it.

We stay with the van Brunts through the next couple of generations: it falls to Jeremias, as the only remaining male family member, not only to keep the line going, which he does, but to continue the family's tenancy of the van Warts' land, which he does, but in as surly and unhelpful a way as possible, which gets him, his son Wouter, and his strange, near-mute nephew Jeremy Mohonk (the first of a long line of Jeremy Mohonks spread throughout the book's three timelines) into a whole heap of trouble. What we learn, following the family through the generations like this, is that there seems to be a fatal flaw running through the male line which makes them which makes them betray family, friends and everything they stand for in unforgivable ways at moments of crisis. First Jeremias, having implicitly whipped up his son and nephew into a state of indignant rage at their treatment by the patroon, caves in and begs his mercy when Wouter and Jeremy get themselves captured and put in the stocks. Then, once Wouter has become the van Brunt family patriarch and further rebellions against the patroon's rule occur, Wouter sells everyone out (thus ensuring their summary public hanging) to secure his own release.

Fast-forward to the 1940s (the least-explored of the three timelines, mainly referred to in flashbacks by characters in 1968) and Truman van Brunt, Walter's father, is ratting out his concert-organising activist friends to the van Warts, an action which causes a riot and various injuries, though miraculously no lives are lost. 

And then here we are in the book's nominal "now", 1968, and Walter van Brunt is trying to decide what to make of his life. Reduced to one foot in the opening pages of the book, he drifts around, casually banging Mardi van Wart, daughter of the current patriarch, Depeyster (and cheating on his wife Jessica into the bargain), obsessed by his father's actions, and seemingly unable to escape the self-destructive instincts of his forbears. Eventually, after Jessica leaves him for his close friend Tom Crane and he contrives to have another motorcycle accident which costs him his other foot, he tracks down his father - who had basically disappeared after the riot of 1949, leaving his mother to slowly starve herself to death - in the remote northern reaches of Alaska and asks him to explain his actions back in 1949, whereupon he learns a bit more about the van Brunt family history, something Truman has obviously been investing the long winter nights studying.

Back in New York state, Jeremy Mohonk, the last of the Kitchawanks (no, stop it), has found a way of simultaneously revenging himself upon the van Warts for generations of mistreatment and perpetuating his line (basically by impregnating the current Mrs. van Wart). Meanwhile Walter, returned from Alaska, has to ask himself a question: can he transcend his family's past and his own apparent destiny, which would have him perpetrate some terrible act of treachery and betrayal upon his friends at around this point in his life, or should he just bow to the inevitability of it all?

This is the sixth TC Boyle novel to appear on this blog (bringing him level with Ian McEwan and Russell Hoban, but still two behind Iain Banks), and it is the earliest in his oeuvre to appear here, having been published in 1987 (the previous oldest, The Tortilla Curtain, was published in 1995). I'm not sure whether it's because of that that it seems a bit less focused than some of the later ones, by which I mean that there's just a sense that Boyle was revelling in the creation of his imagined world and the brilliance of the language he was using to describe it so much that he forgot to make the central plot plank that supposedly attaches the three timelines to each other make much sense. What are we to make of the supposed van Brunt curse that runs through the generations and makes the men do inexplicable things? Walter's Alaskan confrontation with Truman, though it is framed as the moment where some serious TRUTH BOMBS get DROPPED on Walter's ASS, doesn't actually tell the reader much they didn't already know. Is it some genetic thing, maybe related to Hermanus' bizarre eating compulsion that Walter briefly has a milder version of towards the end of the book, a bit like a messier version of fatal familial insomnia? And Walter's climactic succumbing to the curse, while dramatic, actually only results in some damage to a boat; no-one dies or anything, well, except Walter himself. None of the central characters has many redeeming features either, least of all Walter himself who is an unfocused, selfish, intermittently vindictive drifter. 

I'm never going to use the phrase "minor quibbles" in a book review again after this incident, but all I would say instead is: once it becomes obvious that a wholly satisfying tying-up of this plot point isn't going to be forthcoming you can just sit back and revel in the delights of the writing, which are considerable. It's not the best example of his work - Drop City is my favourite, closely followed by The Tortilla Curtain - but it's more engaging, thought-provoking, funny and subversive than at least 90% of fiction nonetheless, so still well worth a go. The judging committee of the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award evidently agreed with me; other winners to appear on this list are Independence Day, The Human Stain and Bel Canto.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

walking back to happiness WOOPBAH et cetera

It was our tenth wedding anniversary at the weekend so Hazel and I managed to wangle a quick break away (specifically, away from the kids, bless 'em) in Pembrokeshire. We borrowed (again) our friend Clare's chalet at the Pleasant Valley Heritage Park (now seemingly just branded as Heritage Park, which seems pointlessly bland and non-specific, but then I am not a marketing guru). Obviously among other things this location, and its proximity to Tenby in particular, allows me to recycle a lame joke I made here and speculate that we'll be going to Elevenby next year, Twelveby the year after that, et hilariously cetera.

Along with general relaxation, getting some reading done, and quaffing lots of prosecco we decided that we wanted to go for a walk on the Saturday (our only full day there). What I came up with was a walk along what used to be known as the Pembrokeshire Coast Path but seems now to have been absorbed into the larger Wales Coast Path for branding purposes (most of the signage says Wales Coast Path now, for instance). You'll recall that the main problem with coast paths is the difficulty of organising a satisfactory circular walk, unless you happen to be in the vicinity of a narrow-necked peninsula of suitable size or are prepared to sign up for a walk that takes a fortnight to complete. As with my trip to Devon a couple of years ago the best solution turned out to be to make use of public transport to get a suitable distance away from the start point, and then walk back. In this particular case there was a convenient railway line with stations at Kilgetty (a mile or so from where we were staying) and Penally (the perfect start point for our walk), so we made use of that. 

A quick note about pronunciation: I was pronouncing Penally's last syllable to match that of Llanelli, i.e. with the proper Welsh voiceless alveolar lateral fricative ll sound. It turns out this marks me out as some sort of hopelessly gauche amateur who may as well have the word TOURIST tattooed on his forehead, as actually Penally is the already-pre-Anglicised version of the name of the village, which in the original Welsh is either Penalun or Penalum, depending where you look. Either way it should just rhyme with Sally; imagine if you will a little alleyway populated entirely by stationery and writing implement shops - that's right, Pen Alley. I recall encountering a similar problem with the village of Llanfoist, near Abergavenny, which we went through on our Blorenge walk - this looks like it ought to be pronounced Llanvoist as a single f in Welsh is rendered as a v sound, but actually the Welsh name is Llanffoist and the single-f version is the supposedly tourist-friendly one. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Alexander Pope once said, thus conveniently proving my theory from here

One final digression: since there are no ticketing facilities at either Kilgetty or Penally and no-one came round during the twenty-minute train journey to collect monies and issue tickets we got the trip for free, which was nice for us but does raise the question of how much fare money these little regional railways with unmanned stations lose in uncollected fares from people who would have been quite happy to pay given the opportunity (it would have cost us about four quid each). I guess there is a calculation of fare loss versus the infrastructure cost of installing ticket machines and/or barriers at stations, and additionally, during the current pandemic, of the risk to on-train staff of coming through and conversing with the great unwashed. It seems like a problem there ought to be a solution to, though.

Anyhoo, the walk. Starting from the station you walk across the dunes, including crossing the south-western end of Tenby golf links, and emerge on Tenby's South Beach. The tide was out when we were there so we walked along the beach; if it's in then ploughing along the soft bit of the beach for a mile or so would probably be a bit of a slog and you might be better advised to take the path through the dunes or the one that hugs the course of the railway.

One way or the other you eventually arrive in Tenby; we'd had a leisurely lie-in before getting the train so we were there just in time for lunch which we did in two stages: first a refreshing pint outside the Harbwr Brewery - I had a pint of the Tamar's Tusk Pale Ale which was very nice. Duly rehydrated, we moved on to the Pembrokeshire Pasty & Pie Co for one of their stupendous lamb pasties which we ate on a bench overlooking the North Beach being balefully stared at by some large seagulls. Technically I'm not sure if birds salivate but these guys looked like they were giving it a go. 

The best section of the walk is the section of "proper" clifftop coast path between Tenby and Saundersfoot; once you get round the headstone at Monkstone Point it's a steady downhill walk into Saundersfoot where we had a pint in the Boat House (I had the Sharp's Atlantic Pale Ale). Then it was on through the old railway tunnels to Wiseman's Bridge for another pint (the Atlantic again) and a very tasty burger and chips in the Wiseman's Bridge Inn, and from there a short walk back to the chalet.

Route map is below (as always, right click and open it in a new tab to enlarge); this is off my phone app and phone signal is somewhat patchy in this part of Wales so the distance and altitude information was worthless. A separate calculation suggests that it was approximately nine miles (ten if you factor in the walk to the railway station right at the start). The highest point was probably somewhere just after leaving Tenby at no more than eighty metres or so above sea level. A few photos can be found here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

your cabbage awaits

But what, you'll have been thinking, has been going on in the spicy noodle arena? We don't seem to have heard about that for a while, and that's one thing that should have been relatively unaffected by the lockdown, since all that was happening by internet mail order anyway.

Well, I see that the last post where I presented an update to the ordering and consumption statistics was in January 2020, just after I'd done an order for 100 packets from my usual source, Wing Yip. This was a couple of months before the start of the first UK lockdown, and as you can imagine with myself and Nia at home seven days a week the consumption levels were fairly high. What I found when I had a look at ordering some more a few months later was that the prices had gone up quite dramatically, from 79p a packet in January 2020 to 97p a packet as of today (that's about what they were a year ago as well). I don't want to start accusing anyone of price-gouging, but is is certainly true that they must have seen a hike in demand, and for a while until things settled down it would have been either impossible or extremely difficult to get any from a physical supermarket.

The reasons for getting the noodles from Wing Yip in the first place were firstly that the unit price was lower than the supermarkets, so despite the P&P if you bought enough (100 at a go is plenty) you could save yourself some money, and secondly that they sell all sorts of other goodies as well, from strange green drinks with lumps of jelly in them to actual nice stuff like interesting curry pastes and kimchi. As I said here, I don't want to give the impression that I was munching fermented cabbage as a 5-year-old during our stint living in South Korea, because I've really only developed a taste for it in the last five years or so (I really was eating the noodles at that age, though).

Noodles can now be more cheaply obtained from supermarkets like Sainsbury's, or from Amazon, in both cases for a little over 80p a packet (and no P&P charges). That's great, but it leaves open the question of where I get my supplies of kimchi from. Some branches of Lidl seem to sell it, but none of my local ones do. 

So I did a bit of internet research and the general consensus seems to be that you can make your own without too much hassle or complexity. I mentioned this to Hazel and then forgot all about it, but fortunately she is a ruddy genius and got me a massive clip-top jar and some basic ingredients (mainly chilli-based) for my birthday. I won't attempt to rehash any of the gazillion recipes out there on the internet, but what they pretty much all have in common is the thing that lots of people around the world call napa cabbage but UK supermarkets tend to call Chinese leaf, garlic, spring onions and some form of chilli flavouring. There seem to be two schools of thought here regarding whether you should use the gochugaru (Korean chilli powder, on the left in the picture below) or the gochujang (a sort of paste made from chillies, beans and fermented brown rice) as the chilli flavouring; most of the recipes I saw recommended the former so I went with that. 

This video contains the distraction of the parallel making of another kind of kimchi out of a terrifyingly giant radish but otherwise gives a pretty good summary of the method, which is really pretty simple; soak the chopped cabbage in some salted water a bit to wilt it, make a fearsome-looking paste out of the crushed garlic and chilli powder and the shredded spring onions, mash the whole thing around until the cabbage is evenly coated (some cautious people recommend rubber gloves for this bit), put it in a jar, leave this at room temperature for 48 hours or so (mine got about 72 as we went away for the weekend but seemed none the worse for it). Then you just pop it in the fridge (a good seal on the jar is essential here if you don't want everyone else in the house moaning about their food stinking of kimchi), ideally leave it for another week or so, and eat. I would describe the results from my first attempt as FREAKIN' AWESOME.

Friday, June 11, 2021

the last book I read

The Other by Thomas Tryon.

The small town of Pequot Landing, Connecticut, seems like an idyllic place for a family to live, especially two teenage boys: plenty of room for them to roam wild and free, run, dig, have adventures, all that stuff. And Niles and Holland Perry, thirteen-year-old twin brothers, certainly see it that way - wide open fields to run through, old buildings and cellars to explore, ponds to swim in.

A couple of clouds loom on the horizon, though, most notably the recent death of the twins' father, in rather mysterious circumstances, smashed bloodily into the cellar by the ill-timed descent of its heavyweight wooden trapdoor. The twins' mother, Alexandra, has retreated to her bedroom with a clandestine supply of booze in the wake of this and emerges only rarely. The family is kept together by tough, pragmatic old Russian matriarch Ada, the twins' grandmother, who has a close relationship with the boys and teaches them a slightly mysterious semi-supernatural game involving projecting their consciousness into other living things: animals, birds, etc. Whoa, you'll be saying at this point, No Good Will Come Of It - well, wait and see.

Various peripheral family figures are also knocking about the place, including the twins' slightly annoying cousin Russell, his parents and various other aunts and uncles. And it's Russell who kicks off the series of unfortunate events that follows, by leaping unwisely from the barn into a pile of hay in which someone has unfortunately left a pitchfork, prongs upward.

Further tragic events follow: old Mrs. Rowe next door is found dead in her house, apparently of fright, and with some evidence of having received a visitor at or around the time of her death. And, finally, the twins' mother, Alexandra, takes a tumble down the spiral stone staircase leading to her upstairs room - she survives, but is left confined to a wheelchair and robbed of speech.

It is at this point (on page 173 of my 250-page copy of the book) that Ada, a bit more rooted in the real world than the rest of the family, takes charge of the situation and brings about the major plot-related rug-pull which throws a completely new light on everything that has gone before. I am going to describe that rug-pull for you now, so obviously MAJOR PLOT SPOILER ALERT: Holland is dead, and has been for a few months, having accidentally hanged himself while attempting to kill a cat in the well. This happened a few months after his father's untimely demise, but before the current run of incidents started.

This is such a neck-snapping turnaround that you can imagine the book just ending here, but it doesn't. It's unclear exactly what's been going on, and how much Niles himself knows about it, still less how much Ada suspects, but if any suspicion falls upon Niles at this point it's not enough to motivate anyone to do anything, as he still has the run of the place. And sure enough further events occur, most notably the disappearance of Niles' elder sister Torrie's new baby. Everyone else is still walking around with their heads in the clouds but Ada (finally) starts to suspect what's going on. Does Niles know what's happened to the baby? If he doesn't, maybe Holland does?

The baby's whereabouts are eventually revealed, in fairly spectacular circumstances, and while the rest of the family are still running about like headless chickens at the horror of it all Ada decides that enough is enough, and since she feels partly responsible, what with her encouraging the boys to play their weird consciousness-swapping game, she makes a heroic gesture and drags Niles off to the barn intending to set fire to it with them both inside.

I don't really know what my expectations of The Other were; I put it on my Amazon wish list after seeing it in some list of forgotten 20th-century classics. I think I was expecting some rather low-key psychological chiller/thriller, but it's actually considerably more lurid than that, the revelation about the fate of the baby in particular. It's never made completely clear what's going on with the whole Niles/Holland situation: the surface reading is that Niles (the nice one) has some psychological trauma that makes him assume the personality of Holland (the psychopath) at certain times, commit various atrocities and then not remember them afterwards. That's the non-supernatural version; there is another one which has something to do with the game the twins played with Ada and has Niles either acquiring some part of Holland's consciousness by doing their Vulcan mind-meld thing after his death or being possessed against his will from beyond the grave. I suppose there is another possibility, which is that Holland contrived to hang Niles in the well and has subsequently assumed his identity. There is a slim framing device involving an initially-unidentified narrator in some sort of secure mental facility, a narrator who it should not surprise you (if you've been paying attention) to learn is Niles (or perhaps Holland), who did not die in the great barn-burning after all.

The Other was quite a publishing sensation in when it came out in 1971: timing is all, and it surfed the same supernatural thriller boom as its rough contemporaries Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist (and Carrie a couple of years later). Unlike those two, which invoke Satan himself or one of his minor functionaries, the supernatural elements here are pretty light, and could by some readings be absent altogether. Thomas Tryon's back-story is interesting and unusual as well: a Hollywood actor for many years before branching out into writing in his forties. He was also executive producer for the film of Johnny Got His Gun

But is it any good? I find that a hard question to answer. The first half is a bit meandery, apart from Russell spearing himself to death, but the pace then picks up and really cranks up the melodrama and borderline hysteria after that, especially after the key revelation about Holland's death. Twins, especially identical ones, are a winner as a plot device as everyone agrees they are A Bit Weird and prone to all sorts of near-telepathic shenanigans and occasional identity-swapping for nefarious purposes, even when one of them isn't dead. 

I guess what I would say is: I enjoyed it quite a lot, and one of the things a book like this does is make you want to go back and read the pre-rug-pull bits again to verify, for instance, in a Sixth Sense sort of way, that no-one actually interacted with both twins at the same time in the first half of the book. I'm not sure I'd make any grand claims of literary merit, but that probably doesn't really matter.

Tryon wrote another supernatural-ish thriller, Harvest Home, a couple of years later, with similar success, from which (with maybe a dash of The Wicker Man added into the mix) Stephen King pretty clearly took inspiration for Children Of The Corn. The Other was made into a film in 1972.

One final mystery is why my NYRB Classics paperback edition has a picture of Jamie Oliver on the front of it; perhaps he was chosen as a representative of some creeping unnameable evil. A harsh but not completely unreasonable judgement, I'd say.

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

a phosphate worse than death

Every day, as I was saying only recently on Twitter, is a school day. And so I'd like to share with you a thing I learnt today as some sort of improving moral fable and a salutary lesson on the perils of assuming things, because if you do that you will, as I'm sure you're aware (at least I assume you are), make an ASS out of U and ME.

Anyway, you'll all be familiar with Trout Mask Replica, the seminal musical achievement of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, indeed I expect you spin that baby up once a week for the whole family to enjoy. Among the singalong pop nuggets on the album (released in 1969) is a song called Orange Claw Hammer, delivered a cappella in its album version. It's, erm, an acquired taste, which is partly why this version, supposedly from a radio broadcast in about 1973 and supposedly featuring Frank Zappa on acoustic guitar, is such a revelation, resembling, as one of the YouTube commenters says, a "psychotic sea shanty". It is genuinely, unironically, great, and the lyrics do make a crazy sort of sense, while still being fairly bonkers.

One of the things that I assumed was a bit of trademark Beefheartian wordplay was this bit:

Come, little one, with your little old dimpled fingers
Gimme one and I'll buy you a cherry phosphate

"Cherry phosphate", hahaha, I thought - classic Beefheart, juxtaposing fruity innocence with harsh incongruous chemistry to produce an arresting image while being literally physically impossible and/or poisonous if anyone ever actually attempted it.

I can't remember how I came across the link to this article that reveals that not only was a cherry phosphate an actual thing, but that phosphate drinks more generally were a popular item in post-war America. That link contains some instructions for extracting additional flavourings from cherry bark, with the reassurance that in the resulting brew "the amount of hydrogen cyanide produced is minuscule", which is about as reassuring as learning that cheap red wine contains only a relatively modest amount of arsenic. Basically what these drinks had in common was the use of acid phosphate (a solution of phosphoric acid with some mineral salts added) as an acidifying agent in place of, say, lemon or lime juice. You can still get it in certain niche outlets if you really want some. Similarly if you want to make an Ammonia Coke then you can still acquire the ingredients, though since I'm not partial to either ammonia or coke I'll be giving it a miss.