Tuesday, October 04, 2022

the last book I read

On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming.

The name's Bond; James aaaaahh well you know the rest. Hush hush, double-0 status, licence to kill, all that malarkey. Plus all the willing women you can eat, of course. But shut up, because this time Bond has met a Proper Lady, and she's a corker. Cool, enigmatic, drives fast, lives dangerously, plays cards, absolute FILTH in the sack, all the major boxes ticked. But it turns out she's got some psychological issues and Bond ends up having to rescue her from topping herself by walking into the sea at the exotic resort of Royale-les-Eaux (which you might remember from Casino Royale).

No sooner has Bond wrestled Tracy out of the surf than they are set upon by some goons and spirited away by boat to some secret location where Bond assumes they will be summarily executed and he will have to cook some fools in order to escape. Not a bit of it, as it turns out, as the abduction turns out to have been organised by Marc-Ange Draco, who is not only the head of the Corsican mafia but also, as it happens, Tracy's father. He explains the circumstances of his meeting and courting Tracy's English mother (a bit more rapey than most modern courtships) her subsequent death, Tracy's struggles with depression and his firm belief that what she really needs to keep her on the straight and narrow is the firm hand of a strong man to slap some sense into her and occasionally administer a brisk corrective rogering, and, moreover, his belief that Bond is that man and that he will pay him a million dollars to keep her safe.

Bond refuses the money, but agrees to keep an eye on Tracy on the condition that she undergoes some proper treatment for her depression. Meanwhile, work considerations intervene. Bond has been engaged in a cat-and-mouse battle with the shadowy SPECTRE organisation and its kingpin, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but the entire crew seem to have gone to ground. With a bit of help from Draco's European network of contacts, Bond gets wind of a mysterious count occupying a mountain-top retreat in the Alps who is currently engaged in a correspondence with the College of Arms to determine his right to the hereditary title he's claiming. Could this be our man?

After a quick five-minute visit to gain the rudiments of knowledge about genealogy, the British aristocracy, heraldic symbology and what have you, Bond assumes the identity of Sir Hilary Bray, Shield-Wrangler Pursuivant or some such nonsense, and cooks up a pretext for a personal visit to check certain aspects of Blofeld's claim in person. When he arrives, he finds that the count (who makes no secret of his identity as Blofeld) is running some sort of clinic for rich young women to cure them of their phobias by a combination of fresh air, exercise, some slightly odd hypnotic techniques and of course The Drugs. While providing a convincing veneer of doing genealogical research and interviewing Blofeld about his ancestry, Bond strikes up friendships with the girls to try and work out what kind of supervillain shit Blofeld is really up to. As luck would have it one of the girls, Ruby, not only seems keen on him but has a bedroom just down the corridor, so Bond sneaks out of his room one night, gives Ruby a teeth-rattling seeing-to and then listens in while she slumbers post-coitally and the hypnotic tape plays. It's a bit disappointing, though, just some shit about not being afraid of chickens.

The shit hits the fan pretty soon, though, when another Secret Service operative is captured snooping around the complex, brought before Blofeld, and clearly recognises Bond. Bond manages to shrug it off as the ravings of a badly-beaten madman but knows the jig will be up as soon as the thumbscrews are applied and the other guy talks. Sneaking out of his room in the dead of night he manages to steal some ski equipment and speed off down the mountain, hotly pursued by Blofeld's goons. He manages to outrun them to the nearest town where who should he literally run into but Tracy, seemingly having regained her marbles and just gadding about on the slopes. She helps him escape and return to England where he debriefs M and some chaps from the Ministry of Agriculture who are interested in one of Blofeld's previous patients and the outbreak of fowl pest that happened near her home just after she returned. The man from the Ministry is a pretty sharp cookie, as it turns out, and soon joins the dots to reveal Blofeld's dastardly scheme: hypnotise the girls to spread various crop and livestock diseases on their return to Britain, crash the economy, and make a fortune shorting the pound and anything else he can think of. 

Obviously Blofeld's monstrous scheme must be stopped: but how? Well, fortunately Bond has a list of all the girls' names, so they can be tracked down and detained and relieved of any anthrax they may happen to be carrying. But how to take down Blofeld's mountain lair? At this point Bond calls upon Draco again to rustle up a helicopter and some hand-picked Corsican badasses and mount a raid on the facility. This they do, but Blofeld has thought ahead and concocted an escape plan involving hurling himself down the nearest bobsleigh run on a tea-tray. Bond grabs his own tea-tray and pursues him, but loses him. The mountain-top lair is blown up in a satisfying way, though. 

After the dust has settled, Bond applied himself to other matters, specifically marrying Tracy and setting off on a honeymoon. As Bond stops the car to remove some of the wedding streamers and ribbons, however, a Maserati speeds alongside and empties a hail of bullets into the car, killing Tracy. 

As with Casino Royale it's hard not to view this through the prism of having seen the film several times. In this particular case the film (George Lazenby's only outing as Bond) follows the plot of the book pretty closely, and where it does diverge from the plot - to provide some opportunity for Blofeld to do the Let Me Explain My Evil Plan thing, and be a lot more specific about what the girls are being hypnotised to do - this actually helps quite a bit, as the book's having the guy from the Ministry extrapolate the whole plot from Bond's flimsy evidence was a bit implausible. Also a bit odd is the idea that neither Bond nor Blofeld would recognise each other, particularly jarring in the film when the audience knows that they've met in previous movies, even though it's masked a bit by both characters being played by different actors from previous films. It works in the book because in the only previous book to feature Blofeld, Thunderball, the two characters never actually meet.

Anyway, it does what it says on the tin and it's a better book than Casino Royale, though probably not quite as good as Dr. No which remains my favourite. My venerable pre-decimalisation Pan paperback has been on my shelves for probably upwards of 25 years. 

Monday, September 26, 2022


It's been a while, but evidently the Curse Of Electric Halibut has been biding its time, like a coiled python drowsily digesting its last victim (Joan Didion in December 2021) and has lazily flicked open a baleful eye and decided that the time is ripe for another victim. This time it's Hilary Mantel, recipient of mega-sales and fame (by serious novelist standards anyway) since the 2009 publication of Wolf Hall, the first of her trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell. Both Wolf Hall and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, won the Booker Prize, securing her membership of the select group of people who have won it more than once - JM Coetzee, Peter Carey and Margaret Atwood are the others, plus arguably JG Farrell if you count the retrospective award cooked up for novels published in 1970. 

Mantel had a perfectly respectable literary career before Wolf Hall, writing odd novels with a mainly contemporary setting. The late-career shift from odd novels with a modern setting to perhaps slightly less odd novels centred on real historical figures (though with some quite large liberties taken with strict historical accuracy) is vaguely reminiscent of Beryl Bainbridge. though Bainbridge's historical novels were pretty terse at around 200 pages and The Mirror And The Light, the concluding part of the Cromwell trilogy, is a meaty 875 pages.

Mantel was a relatively youthful 70 when she died, but had endured a lifetime of health problems mainly associated with years of undiagnosed endometriosis. Only Iain Banks, Michael Dibdin, Henning Mankell and Helen Dunmore were younger when the curse came for them, and only Alison Lurie and John le Carré had to wait longer after the initial book review for the icy hand of death to finally alight on their shoulder. 

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
José Saramago 9th May 2009 18th June 2010 87 1y 40d
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
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
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
David Cook 24th February 2009 16th September 2015 74 6y 205d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
William McIlvanney 7th September 2010 5th December 2015 79 5y 90d
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
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d
Joan Didion 14th December 2010 23rd December 2021 87 11y 12d
Hilary Mantel 22nd October 2010 22nd September 2022 70 11y 338d

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

going postal

Another series of tenuously-linked thoughts, if you'll permit me. Firstly, someone retweeted this tweet into my timeline the other day:

Now I'm all about the making unduly harsh snap judgments without giving people an opportunity to defend themselves, as you know, but still, this seems a bit over-the-top to me. Apart from anything else, who even uses snail mail these days? Certainly not The Kids, bless 'em, who are too busy doing things The Kids do these days like making TikTok videos and eating ass, so the opportunity to gaze upon a postbox frontage while posting multiple items and ruminate upon what all the various letterings stand for is a fairly niche thing in 2022.

I mean, I'm pretty sure if someone put the picture attached to the tweet in front of me I could have worked out what it must mean, but the only reason I know what the letters on the front of a postbox mean in relation to the royal cypher in particular is because we used to have a VR postbox in the village we lived in (specifically, this house) on the outskirts of Nottingham for a couple of years around 1981/1982, and I recall one or other of my parents explaining its significance to me. I'm obscurely chuffed with myself that I was able to drop the StreetView man right on the postbox's location first time 40-odd years later. Frustratingly, the lane was evidently too narrow at this point to squeeze the Googlemobile down so you can't actually see the lettering on the box, but fortunately someone's captured it here

Anyway, you'll be saying the name of the village (Normanton-on-the-Wolds) by emphasising the first syllable of NORmanton, right? I mean, like any normal person would. And, just to be clear, you would in this case be right to do so. But not in all cases, goodness me no. I have only a few memories of visiting nearby sites of outdoor interest during our briefish time living in Normanton - the watersports centre at Holme Pierrepont, the vast grassy expanses of Clumber Park - but I do have a clear memory of going for a walk on the banks of a large area of water and snooping round a church which was half-submerged in the water. This hazy memory only shimmered into sharp focus a couple of months ago when we went for a brief camping trip in Rutland, at a site a couple of miles south of Rutland Water. Among the other fascinating information available about Rutland Water (notably that it's the largest reservoir in England by surface area) is the semi-submerged church on its banks at Normanton, prominently featured in much of the tourist literature. We didn't actually have time to visit as part of this trip but I did have a chat with a knowledgeable bloke while scoping out some watersport activity and he talked briefly about the church, and I did do enough Googling to confirm that it is indeed the same church we visited 40-odd years ago, when the reservoir had only been in fully-filled existence for a year or two. Interestingly, though, he clearly and specifically pronounced it NorMANton with the emphasis on the middle syllable. A quick look at a map of the area reveals that there is a place called Manton a few miles to the west, so it's not utterly ridiculous to conclude that Normanton may be a contraction of "North Manton" and the contracted name has retained the accenting from the original name. Note that I'm leaving aside the obvious observation that it should really be called East Manton given its geographical position. 

There are quite a few other places called Normanton in England, notably Normanton le Heath in Leicestershire which featured in the lists here.

Anyway, a small selection of Rutland photos can be found here. It's not just British place-names - here's a list from Bill Bryson's excellent Mother Tongue featuring US place-names with counter-intuitive pronunciations:

I hate you, Butler

A couple of related things following the sudden death of rugby pundit and journalist (and former Wales rugby captain) Eddie Butler. Firstly that while I do retain some vague memory of seeing the Grand Slam game in 1978 and probably a handful of other less individually memorable games from the same era my formative rugby-watching years were in the early 1980s when pickings were a good deal slimmer in terms of Welsh wins, let alone titles and trophies. The statistics are stark: 1969-1979 brought eight championships (two shared), three Grand Slams and six Triple Crowns, while the period from 1980-2004 brought two championships (one shared), no Grand Slams and one Triple Crown (in 1988). Obviously I've chosen the dates carefully there for maximum impact, and things have picked up quite a bit since 2005, but it's quite a contrast. Butler came into the team and served a stint as captain during the early part of that era (his debut was in 1980).

I recall that during Butler's time in the Welsh team and particularly on his being named as captain in 1983 there was a bit of suspicion of him in some quarters owing to his public school and Cambridge University background (and not, presumably, something more appropriate like coal-mining). Similarly during his career as writer and broadcaster his penchant for slightly flowery poetic flights of fancy was a bit Marmite-y, and occasionally prompted the thought that he was enjoying the sound of his own voice more than the audience was. But his occasional commentary sparring with Brian Moore was always entertaining and clearly derived from mutual affection, like for instance this entertaining exchange about Gavin Henson's leg-shaving habits before he kicked the monster penalty that defeated England and started Wales' 2005 Grand Slam campaign.

He also did some interesting stuff outside of the narrow subject of rugby union, including this half-hour documentary about his birthplace and my place of residence, the city of Newport. Among the many interesting historical snippets included are a bit about the city's key role in the Chartist movement, the Newport Rising in particular, and the role of John Frost in all of it. Frost managed to avoid being massacred and lived to the ripe old age of 93, long enough to be pardoned for his role in the uprising, but not long enough to see various Newport landmarks being named in his honour including John Frost Square in the city centre and John Frost School.

We'll come back to the square in a minute, but the school illustrates the city's rather incoherent approach to commemorating its Chartist history: it was renamed (it was formerly plain old Duffryn High School) in 2015, but only two years earlier the city had approved the demolishing of the Chartist mosaic/mural in the city centre, albeit in a rather unprepossessing location on an underpass wall. 

Anyway, back to John Frost Square, in a roundabout sort of way (that's a hilarious pun, for reasons that you'll see in a minute) - I was delivering Nia to her best friend's house at the weekend for a sleepover and pointed out the big clock sitting on top of a pair of steel columns that occupies the roundabout at the entrance to the new(ish) Glan Llyn estate, which in turn occupies part of the western end of the vast Llanwern steelworks site. Anyway, I told Nia that I was vaguely aware that the clock used to be in the city centre somewhere and moreover had some sort of mechanism that opened up the top and did something dramatic on the hour.

Further investigation reveals that it is a mechanical sculpture designed by a guy called Andy Plant , was formerly situated in John Frost Square (between about 1994 and 2008, as far as I can gather - there is some info on that Wikipedia page) and did some fairly bonkers stuff as part of its on-the-hour routine. It does seem a pity that the mechanism isn't operational any more - I've no idea whether it's still in there but needs a squirt of WD-40 or if it's been removed, but if it's the former (as seems more likely, on balance) it seems a shame not to spend a bit of money repairing it. That said, it doing its thing in the middle of a roundabout might be deemed a bit of a distraction hazard for motorists and there might not be the appetite for another relocation (nor indeed anywhere for it to go).

Just to clear up another couple of Newport claims-to-fame in the Butler documentary: it is certainly true that Joe Strummer lived in Newport in the 1970s (when he went by the name Woody Mellor), but it seems to have only been for about a year between 1973 and 1974, so any formative influence on his later work with the Clash seems a bit dubious. Even more dubious is the claim that Newport was the place where the mole grip was invented, as there seems to be a general consensus that it was invented (admittedly under a different name) in Nebraska in the 1920s. Newport was certainly the centre for UK manufacture from the 1950s onwards, but anyone claiming that means they were invented here needs to, so to speak, get a grip. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

the last book I read

The Road Home by Jim Harrison.

Meet the Northridges - they're a twentieth-century family. From the state of Nebraska, they are living through some history. It's a tough place, Nebraska - the endless grassy plains, the rivers, the occasional tornado ripping through and destroying everything you own - and breeds tough people. And sure enough the family patriarch who narrates the first section here, John Wesley Northridge II, is an uncompromising and irascible old character, of half-Lakota ancestry, made almost entirely out of knuckles and gristle. Already an old man when we first meet him in the mid-1950s, he lives a fairly solitary existence on his remote farm, something that suits him very well, thanks very much.

The only people he consents to spend time with regularly are his old friend and neighbour Lundquist, his daughter-in-law Naomi (wife of his late son, John Wesley Northridge III) and, favourite of all, his granddaughter Dalva, only in her early teens in this part of the novel but already a fierce and independent girl not prepared to take any shit from anybody, including her grandfather.

John Wesley has an odd encounter with a Native American, Smith, who he has not seen since childhood, and decides that his life is drawing to a close and that some mental stock-taking is probably in order. He reminisces at some length about his younger life, lovers, wives, children, adventures, and frets about what will become of his family, especially Dalva, who by this time has already got herself knocked up by an unsuitable young man and had to give up the baby for adoption. 

We then shift narrators and jump forward nearly 30 years to the mid-1980s, and Nelse, who we soon learn is Dalva's son, is contending with some challenges of his own: his slightly ill-defined job as some sort of nature ranger, his clandestine relationship with his girlfriend J.M., inconveniently married to someone else right now, and the recently-acquired knowledge of his true parentage and the desire to know more, maybe by actually meeting in person. Eventually after much indecision he decides to seek out Naomi and Dalva, on the flimsy pretext of doing a bird survey on their land (a subterfuge that soon collapses once he meets them). After an initial period of wariness he is soon integrated into the family and decides to stick around for a while, a decision cemented by J.M.'s coming to join him, having ditched her no-good husband at the cost of a couple of black eyes. 

So far so idyllic, but there is a cloud on the horizon: Dalva has been nursing some unspecified abdominal pains that she should really have been to the doctor about a while back, and when she does she finds that her worst fears are realised and she has a fairly advanced case of ovarian cancer. This prompts a bout of pre-death contemplation of her own (though somewhat more premature than her grandfather's as she is only in her mid-forties), and she enlists Nelse's help to set a few matters straight before she embarks on her final road trip to end things in a manner of her own choosing rather than in a hospital bed.

The narrative described, above, as engaging as it is, isn't really the point here - it's more about the background against which it all takes place, encompassing nearly a century of American history from Wounded Knee onwards. It's also about the individual characters, principally the assorted narrators: John Wesley and Nelse as already mentioned, but also Naomi, Paul (John Wesley's other son) and Dalva. It's also, more than most novels, about the physical landscape within which it's set and the living creatures (not just human) who inhabit that landscape, and also the characters' physical connection with the natural world, be it through work-related physical effort, recreation or carnality.

I discovered after having started The Road Home that it's actually the sequel to an earlier novel, called simply Dalva. I am here to tell you that I didn't feel like I was missing anything here by not having read that already, but that I do now intend to seek it out and read it, as I enjoyed this tremendously. Harrison is probably best-known for Legends Of The Fall, a short novel from 1979 made into a film in 1994 starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins among others. Another story from the same collection, Revenge, was also made into a film starring Kevin Costner in 1990.

I suppose if one were being hyper-critical one might say the first half of The Road Home is better than the second, John Wesley Northridge II's voice being the most compelling one telling the most compelling story, and once Nelse's section that follows it has finished all the major revelations have happened, apart from the news that Dalva is going to die. This is minor stuff, though, and I recommend it highly, although you should be aware that it's a big book in every sense - 446 pages in a too-big-for-the-bookshelves format the same size as House Of Leaves

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

the last book I read

Wintering by Derek Johns.

The Palmer family have just arrived in a small village in the vicinity of Glastonbury Tor. There's Jim, Margaret, and the kids, Billy and Sarah. Billy is slightly older and is probably about ten, maybe a little older, though the exact details are left fairly vague. The family previously lived in Bath and had a pretty nice comfortable middle-class life thanks to Jim's job as a car dealer, but following some unwise (and possibly slightly murky) business deals that went tits-up Jim has now been declared bankrupt and been forced to downsize. He's got a job in a gentleman's outfitters in the village run by a cousin of Margaret's.

Jim finds the new job stifling and unexciting and harbours a general resentment at his reduced circumstances, despite it being very clear that it was his greed and poor judgment that led to his bankruptcy. He's also a good-looking man in his mid-thirties with an eye for a pretty girl, and in his lunch-hour trips to the local pub catches the eye of Liz Burridge, a buxom young lass with ambitions to move on up and make something of herself beyond the stifling confines of the village, and possibly also No Better Than She Ought To Be. 

Meanwhile Billy and Sarah have started at the village school, with all the usual challenges of strict new teachers, unfamiliar lunchtime procedures and brutish classmates who want to ensure no threat to their dominance of the playground by giving you a precautionary kicking. Billy in particular is a bright and inquisitive boy and is soon fascinated by the stories surrounding Glastonbury Tor - King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus, all utter hogwash of course but good fun nevertheless.

Margaret, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with Leonora Vale, the slightly witchy and eccentric lady who lives nearby, and has also tentatively involved herself with the local amateur dramatic society, who are in the early stages of preparing a production of Noël Coward's Private Lives. Margaret takes the part of Amanda, with the younger Sibyl being played by none other than Liz Burridge.

So Liz has a part in Private Lives, but is also, if you will, putting some life in Jim's private parts, when opportunity presents itself. Speaking of opportunities, Jim has also accepted a lucrative side job delivering a package for shady local character Gordon Towker to an associate of his in London: no names, no pack drill, no questions asked, etc. This provides a nice little pay day but also some worry when Towker and a couple of his associates are arrested for handling stolen goods shortly afterwards.

Meanwhile Billy is doing well at school but is starting to have certain awkward yet fascinating feelings, you know, down there. He's also getting out and about around the village increasingly independently with his schoolfriends, and on a trip out to check out the Big School that he will soon be going to spots his father in a car with Liz Burridge. He hasn't got her ankles up on the dashboard, exactly, but Billy knows enough about the world to know that they're kissing, and that they shouldn't be. 

The opening night of Private Lives rolls around, and Jim realises a few things: firstly that Margaret has interests and talents outside of making his tea and looking after his children, and secondly that she's pregnant and hasn't told him yet. In combination with his having recently assumed a greater level of responsibility at the shop (following Margaret's cousin being taken out by a stroke from which he is unlikely to fully recover) this prompts a bit of an epiphany: perhaps it's time to knuckle down, accept his culpability for the collapse of his former business and cut down on the skirt-chasing a bit.

No people turning into chimps, murders, Nazi espionage or homicidal poetry here: this is a quiet, low-key sort of story with not even a crashing spaceship to break the calm. Like many novels of this type, though, there's more to it than meets the eye and actually quite a bit going on: Jim's dalliance with Liz, brush with criminal activity, and confrontation with his past mistakes; Margaret's assertion of her independence, partly via the play, partly via her friendship with feisty old bird Leonora (and of course she knows about Jim's affair, just as she's known about most of the previous ones); Billy's sexual awakening. Sarah is the only one who doesn't have much to do beyond make up the numbers and be occasionally annoying to her brother, as younger sisters do. Will Jim's newfound maturity and devotion stick beyond the moment the next fabulous arse comes into view? Will Margaret stand for it this time if he does stray? Will Billy perfect his wanking technique in time for Big School? Who knows?

The exact date when all this is set is left slightly vague, but some references to Harold Macmillan suggest we're in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, probably slightly before (according to Philip Larkin anyway) sexual intercourse was invented and still within Britain's long post-Second World War hangover. Despite what you might call (rather unfairly I think) its relative lack of ambition I enjoyed it very much: the Somerset Levels location and some of the narrative being seen through the eyes of a young(ish) boy put me in mind of The Levels. I'd never heard of Derek Johns before picking this book up in a charity shop in Brecon last week, but supposedly this is the first book in a series of four featuring Billy at various stages of his life and collectively known as The Billy Palmer Chronicles

Monday, August 01, 2022

no fibyn, it's cribyn

We had a family holiday up near Brecon last week, in this spacious barn conversion that my parents managed to find. Aha, Brecon, you'll be thinking, well that's awfully handy for walks in the Beacons and the like, to which I would say: no shit, Sherlock. But how to get away from childcare responsibilities for the day?

As it happens there are a couple of solutions to that conundrum: one is that Nia is pretty keen to come on these walks after her triumphant debut up Pen y Fan back in November of last year. The other is the presence of grandparents who, while still pretty sprightly and up for walks, aren't necessarily going to be coming up mountains any more and who therefore might be up for hanging out with Nia's younger siblings. Alys is on the cusp of being up for this sort of stuff as well, actually, but was ruled out here after finding that she has become quite lidderally too big for her boots.

So, anyway, a mountain walk. Pen y Fan, as the highest peak in the area, exerts a strong pull, but how to get up it in a way that provides some fresh challenges? The answer lies in a combination of an idea first explored (unsuccessfully) here and one mentioned here - from the first link the idea of ascending via the Bryn Teg ridge and the steep northern side of Cribyn, and from the second the idea of taking two cars, dropping one off, and then doing a non-circular walk ending in the location where you'd left the first car. Nothing like as grand as the full east-west traverse I'd mooted there, but since we had two vehicles at our disposal we thought we'd give it a go, not least because it offered the prospect of ending the walk at a pub, rather than at a remote car park in the middle of nowhere. 

Apart from a slightly vexing walk in along lanes and farm tracks to get to the start of the ridge (which is shorter than the ones either side of it coming down from Pen y Fan and Fan y Big) the approach to Cribyn is a delight, much more so this time than last time as we weren't being smashed into the turf by gale-force winds. The sight of Cribyn ahead offers the exciting prospect of some steepness and scrambling, and there is a bit, but as almost always happens once you're actually on the ridge it's far less daunting than it seems from below. Getting from Cribyn to Pen y Fan is always a bit of a ball-ache as it involves a substantial descent and re-ascent, and to break this up the saddle between the two usually offers a good spot for a pork pie and a breather. Pen y Fan to Corn Du, by contrast, involves no more than 30-40 metres of re-ascent and once that's out of the way it's downhill all the way into Libanus, the two main walking routes peeling off the ridge to left and right about half a mile beyond Corn Du and the track along the top of Pen Milan being grassy and relatively unfrequented. There's a bit more yomping along country lanes at the end than you'd really like, but, crucially, the two-car approach allows you to park car number one right next to the Tai'r Bull in Libanus village and then pop in for a pint of Butty Bach before driving back to the Cwmgwdi car park to collect car number two. Overall walk distance was about 9.1 miles, not much more than the 8.7 miles that Nia and I did from the south side in November but accompanied by slightly more complaining towards the end, mainly (I think) due to a bit more high-level descent and re-ascent and a longer relatively uninteresting tail. So it goes.

Connoisseurs of childishly sniggersome words will note that Libanus (home of the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre, and mentioned previously in this post, mainly concerned, as so many blog posts are, with Freemasonry, mayonnaise and arses) is generally pronounced like how polite sophisticated people say Uranus, i.e. with the accent on the first syllable rather than the second. With that in mind those people may also find it amusing that the route map forms the shape of a slightly saggy arse.

Our summit photo (no need to contort oneself for a selfie as it's like Piccadilly Ruddy Circus up there on summer days and there's always someone you can get to take the photo for you) features as the last entry in a linked tweet thread featuring some Pen y Fan summit shots from yesteryear. Some general holiday photos including walk photos can be found here.

the last book I read

Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk.

Carl Streator (not, it turns out, his real name) is a journalist; in common with most journalists he is occasionally assigned stories that require delicate handling, or, to put it another way, require him to be intrusive into the private grief of others. But, hey, it's a living.

Carl's current assignment is investigating sudden infant death syndrome, or, more colloquially, cot deaths, or, since we're in the USA, crib deaths. Carl has noticed that a lot of the deaths have a common factor: the presence at the death scenes of a particular book of bedtime songs and poems open to page 27, the location of a particular lullaby of African origin. 

Carl is, it turns out, the ideal person for this particular gig, because he inadvertently killed his wife and young daughter twenty-odd years previously by reading them the same poem. And one of his early interviewees, Helen Hoover Boyle, who killed her young son with the poem in a very similar way, turns out to know a lot more about it than she's letting on, at least at first.

Once Carl gains Helen's confidence a bit more she reveals what she knows: the lullaby is an African "culling song", used to usher the old and sick peacefully into the netherworld, and somehow found its way from the private collection of a man called Basil Frankie into the publicly-available anthology that was found at the death scenes. Helen, it turns out, is in possession of a lot of Frankie's old curios and artefacts (and, we are invited to assume, may have offed him herself as revenge for allowing the song to become public) and believes the song came from a wider book of magical incantations called a grimoire which she would dearly love to get her hands on. Helen also earns a nice little living offing people to order by reading the poem to them, and Carl, whose profession has made him someone well-able to quickly memorise and regurgitate text, soon finds that he has a similar power, and carves a swathe through some unsuspecting passers-by before he can get his murderous impulses under control.

Having decided that deaths on an unprecedented scale could ensue if the poem's power ever became public knowledge, Carl and Helen (accompanied by Helen's assistant Mona and her boyfriend Oyster) set off on a cross-country road trip to find and destroy all remaining copies of the anthology in which it appears. But the prospect of the power of life and death is an intoxicating thing, and once it becomes apparent that the grimoire was in Helen's possession all along Mona and Oyster make a bid to grab its power for themselves, and Carl and Helen find themselves having to unite to thwart them.

The idea of words alone being able to kill is a fascinating one and by no means unique to Lullaby - give the delivery medium a twist to make it seeing something rather than hearing it and both the Ring film series and Infinite Jest used something very similar. Cell was closer to Lullaby's premise, though its protagonists didn't technically die (though as good as, you might argue). The closest thing I can think of, and something that fascinated me when I read a piece about it in some "real-life mysteries" book when I was a teenager, is the Hungarian song Gloomy Sunday, allegedly responsible for a swathe of suicides (mainly in Hungary - a place, it should be said, with a notoriously high suicide rate anyway) over several decades, eventually including its own composer, Rezső Seress.

So it's an interesting premise, but as enjoyable as Lullaby is I think I would tend to agree with the Guardian review here when it says that Palahniuk suggests several routes the story could take but then doesn't actually choose to explore any of them, focusing instead on a lengthy book-burning road trip. Obvious questions include: how did the poem get from Basil Frankie's private collection into the public domain? What would happen if someone with technical know-how got hold of it? Could you (and we're back in Cell territory here) broadcast it widely, maybe subliminally, hidden in another signal? Could you commit suicide by reading it to yourself, or recording it and then playing it back?

Very much like Choke, the only other Palahniuk I've read, this is very funny and full of sharp pop-culture references but oddly meandering and unfocused once the central premise has been established. One associated piece of trivia: Jack Palance's real name was Palahniuk (it's Ukrainian - I mean, his name wasn't "Jack" either, to be fair) and they were apparently distantly related. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

fancy a cormorant? well how about a shag then

Another post expanding on a bit of passing Twitter nonsense: the purpose of the original poster in tweeting the clip in the tweet below was to mock the seemingly uncaring attitude of the baseball batter to having just injured a menial member of the groundstaff. The thing that struck me, though, was (as my quote tweet says) the description the commentator gives of the job the guy was doing before he got pinged by the ball.

It's a staple of lazy British humour that Americans don't understand the British usage of the word "shag", i.e. as a common euphemism for sexual intercourse, basically a slightly milder version of "fuck". It's not quite as simple as that, though, firstly because I suspect the Austin Powers films have brought the UK usage into the US lexicon a bit more, but also because there are US usages that are equally foreign to UK ears. 

There are actually a surprisingly large number of meanings for the word "shag", many of them common to both US and UK English: from shag pile carpets and shag tobacco (collectively, I suppose, nouns that could be back-formed from the related adjective "shaggy") to various large seabirds of the family Phalacrocoracidae. The US-specific ones include the dance craze that gave this 1989 film its title, and more specifically a meaning that we don't have at all in the UK as far as I know: to chase after something at speed. Highly amusingly to UK audiences it's usually combined with either "ass" or "balls" in standard US usage, "shag ass" having a general sense of hurrying or getting moving, broadly similar to "haul ass", and "shagging balls" having the specific meaning of collecting up all the balls whacked to various corners of the practice ground during baseball practice and returning them for re-use.

So I think the conclusion here is that if someone asks you for a shag in the UK it's pretty obvious what they're talking about; in the US you could and probably should respond to their question with one of your own, specifically: ass or balls?