Monday, April 26, 2021

the last book I read

Leaving The Atocha Station by Ben Lerner.

Adam Gordon. He's a poet. And he doesn't know it! No, actually he totally does know it, because he's in Madrid, having wangled a poetry-related university fellowship. Literally the only downside of this is the vague but concrete expectation that he will eventually produce some actual works of poetry (his original remit was something to do with the Spanish Civil War) to fulfil the terms of the fellowship.

But in the meantime there is mooching about in bars to be done, not to mention smoking a considerable amount of hash and performatively reading Tolstoy in an attempt to look enigmatic and interesting and attract some exotic Spanish women. On top of the wine and the hash Adam also sports a pretty heavy-duty prescription tranquiliser habit (prescribed for some form of bipolar disorder), so we need to sound the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR klaxon here before we go any further.

Adam's Spanish is a bit sketchy (at the start of the book at least), but he finds a way to turn this to his advantage by feigning a sort of cool poetic inarticulacy, as if his inner thoughts are too complex, too profound to be translated into Spanish; this allows him to maintain a sort of enigmatic silence which people can interpret as they wish. Of course a sketchy understanding of what's being said to you can be a problem as well; early on in the book Adam reacts with inappropriate mirth to someone's confession of family tragedy and gets punched in the face. In order to recover from this incident he tells his friend Teresa, for reasons he cannot later recall, that his mother is dead, a lie which comes round to bite him on the arse later.

But generally it's a nice commitment-free drift through life, hooking up with attractive young Spanish women who seem prepared to take his pretensions to being a poet at face value and put up with his vagueness, lack of engagement with everyday life and general unreliableness. Reality does unavoidably intervene a few times, though, mainly at the points where Adam's life intersects with his university supervisor and some positive commitment to delivering work is required. At these points Adam's drifty vagueness gives way to blind sweaty panic at being Found Out, but he usually manages to busk through the crisis and resume his former existence. 

Reality intervenes in a major way when there is a major terrorist bombing near the main Madrid railway station (the Atocha station of the book's title) and many of his Spanish friends take to the street for acts of solidarity and protest. Adam can't really muster the energy to join in, and even when he has a pang of public spirit and gets in line to give blood, he eventually decides that the queue is too long, that he can't really be arsed and that meh, they've probably got enough blood already and moreover that he's slightly paranoid that they'll test his blood and find it fizzing with caffeine, Rioja, hash and prescription tranquilisers. 

Almost despite himself Adam negotiates a couple of reasonably successful public appearances, collaborates in the publication of a small pamphlet of his poems and has to face the unpalatable possibility that a) his pose of not really speaking Spanish properly won't wash any more as he is clearly fluent and b) his pose of fraudulently impersonating a "real" poet is just that, a pose - to paraphrase Teresa, he needs to stop pretending that he's only pretending to be a poet. The novel ends as he tries to decide whether to return to America or stay in Spain.

It goes without saying that the character of Adam is intensely slappable, with just enough self-awareness to prevent him being completely unbearable. How much of his disengagement and flattening of affect is down to his relentless tranquiliser habit, and how much is just him being an arsehole? How, amid all that, does he manage to woo intelligent and attractive Spanish women who are possessed of saintly forbearance and generally forgive him for serial acts of insensitive arseholery? Who knows? 

Leaving The Atocha Station is a shortish book written in a precise, drily humorous style and with some interesting things to say about art and artists and artists' tendency to self-analyse and second-guess their own motivations to an obsessive and counter-productive degree. Apart from the bombing, which happens at the periphery of Adam's sphere of attention, the most riveting section of action in the book is the IM conversation Adam has with his brother Cyrus wherein Cyrus relates an adventure he recently had in Mexico attempting (unsuccessfully) to rescue a young woman from drowning in a river. It is wholly typical of Adam's character that he later steals this story and passes it off as his own in an attempt to impress a woman. That a lot of the rest of it is about art, artists' motivations for creating art, people's reactions to art, people's reactions to their own reactions to art, and so on, may be off-putting to some people but I enjoyed it very much. 

Leaving The Atocha Station won the Believer Book Award in 2011 - the award is supposedly awarded to the "best written and most underappreciated" novel of the year, which makes the 2006 award going to Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem a little odd, as it won a gazillion other awards including the Pulitzer. Anyway, it is the only other winner I've read.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

saramago, saramagoing, saramagone

You may recall that after the death of John le Carré in December 2020 I did a bit of retrospective rearranging of the curse list as a couple of entries were in the wrong order. Well today I made a more momentous discovery, which is that there are three entire entries missing, one from way back in 2010 and two from 2015. It was Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago, who died in June 2010 after suffering from leukemia, about a year after his 2002 novel The Double featured on this blog, that I spotted first and by whom I was subsequently inspired to do a more general survey (though I make no claim that I still haven't missed someone). Not only did I miss Saramago at the time, but I also subsequently failed to register his death while mentioning him (and The Double) in this film-related post from last year.

The other two were David Cook, whose novel Walter featured here in February 2009, and William McIlvanney, whose novel Weekend featured the following year, both of whom died in 2015.

Saramago was 87, which affects the mean and median ages for authorial deaths pretty much not at all. The thirteen months or so the curse took to take effect on him makes it the third-quickest-acting on the list, the only two ahead of it speed-wise being the fates visited upon Michael Dibdin and Philip Roth. Cook was 74 and McIlvanney 79, so they drag the averages down a tiny amount (though I can't be bothered to do the maths); likewise at around 6 and 5 years respectively they slot into the middle of the curse length statistics.

It's been nearly fifteen years now, so there is an ever-widening list of novelists whose days may be numbered. A quick and fairly unscientific scan of the list suggests there are around twenty living featurees who are over 80 years old, and at least one (Milan Kundera) who is over 90. I mean, they might all have many years in them yet, and good luck to them; watch this space is all I'm saying.
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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

the last book I read

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Rahel and Estha (a girl and a boy, respectively) are fraternal twins. A bit like Topsy and Tim, only in Kerala, India, and without their Mum looking like the lead singer of Showaddywaddy

We meet the twins' extended family and get some of their back-story: mother Ammu is a feisty and hot-headed character who rebelled against her parents' wishes for her at a young age and ran off to Calcutta, where she entered into a hasty and short-lived marriage with a man who turned out to be an alcoholic, and which ended with her returning to the family home with the twins. We meet Ammu's brother, Chacko, who also flew the nest as a teenager and took up a place at Oxford, marrying an English woman, Margaret, and having a daughter, Sophie. This marriage too is fairly brief and Chacko returns to the family home. Ammu and Chacko's parents die and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma takes over as stereotypical interfering Indian matriarch

The twins have that sort of weird ultra-close semi-telepathic relationship that twins sometimes have, and live in their own little fantasy world. Meanwhile the family business producing fruity pickles rumbles on being intermittently profitable and occasionally falling foul of trade union activity and political activism. 

Things bimble along until several events happen at once. Ammu begins an ill-fated relationship with a local man, Velutha, a worker at the family pickle factory and an untouchable. Chacko's ex-wife Margaret's second husband, Joe, dies in a car crash and she and Sophie come to India to visit Chacko. Sophie strikes up a friendship with the twins. Ammu's forbidden relationship with Velutha comes to light and she is locked in her room in the family house. In her rage at being locked up, harsh words are exchanged between her and the twins, and they decide to run away; Sophie insists on coming with them. The group take a boat across the local river and it capsizes; the twins swim to safety but Sophie drowns. As a result of a vexatious complaint raised by Baby Kochamma after discovering Ammu's affair, the police come to Velutha's house (where the twins are also hiding out), beat him to within an inch of his life and drag him off to a cell (where he subsequently dies). Rahel remains in the family home but Estha is sent away to live with his father. 

Fast-forward to twenty-odd years later and Rahel and Estha's paths intersect again at the family home, where Baby Kochamma is still alive (just) - Estha has been sent back after his father retired and emigrated to Australia, and Rahel has returned after marrying and living in America for many years. Can they come to terms with everything that happened, after not having seem each other since the immediate aftermath of Sophie's death?

So, a family saga with some tragic elements, you'll be saying, all relatively straightforward. Well, not so much, because the story is a fractured series of episodes presented in non-chronological order, with the central events (Ammu's disgrace and Sophie's death) presented as already having happened in some of them, without us knowing any of the details. We only get a full account of what happened right at the end, and each chapter is presented with a challenge implicitly attached to it: where does this episode fit?

The God Of Small Things won the Booker Prize in 1997, not without some controversy. All I can say is that the only other book I've read from that year's shortlist is Jim Crace's Quarantine, which I would have no hesitation at all in saying is a better book. That's certainly not to say that The God Of Small Things is a bad book, though some of the fractured timeline stuff did seem to carry a whiff of First Novel-itis, i.e. the desire to show originality and complexity at the expense of just relaxing, getting over yourself and telling the story you're trying to tell. I wasn't sure what the purpose of the twenty-years-later framing device was, either, since the twins don't really do anything except mooch around barely talking to each other until right at the end when they decide to Do An Incest for reasons which aren't very clear. The Picture Palace review had a round-up of literary incest previously featured on this blog. 

Previous novels on this list which have primarily taken place in India include Midnight's Children, A New Dominion and The Siege Of Krishnapur, with minor sub-plot episodes featuring in The Marriage Plot and Around The World In Eighty Days. Since Midnight's Children seems to be the benchmark here, let me say that despite The God Of Small Things being far from perfect, I enjoyed it considerably more. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

a bridge too far

Sticking with the subject matter of the previous post for a minute: let's assume that the current rather tenuous claim of the Basseleg Viaduct to the title of "oldest still in use" lapses, by virtue of it being no longer economically sensible to keep the track and infrastructure maintained for the very occasional trains that run up to the quarry. Questions arise at this point: firstly, which viaduct takes over the title? And the answer to that is: I don't know. A very quick scan of the Wikipedia page linked in the last post suggests it might possibly be the Sankey Viaduct between Liverpool and Manchester, which already makes the vague but grandiose claim of being "the earliest major railway viaduct in the world".

The second question is: what happens to the structure then? And the answer is: it depends. If it's lucky it might get repurposed to carry a cycleway following the course of the old line, like the one at Garndiffaith I rode across many years ago. If it's unlucky enough to be in the way of the relentless march of progress then it may get blown up, like the Thirteen Arches Viaduct in central Bristol (which had to make way for the M32) or the much earlier demolition of the Pwll-y-Pant viaduct near Llanbradach, immortalised on film with some splendid Mr. Cholmondley-Warner commentary here and here

That's all well and good for the spectacular big-ticket items that span vast distances, but what of all the little over- and under-bridges that crop up along a stretch of disused railway? Well, the bridges that carried the railway itself over obstructions like roads can just be demolished, if that's what you want to do and the old line hasn't been repurposed in a way that means a through route needs to be kept. Over-bridges are more of a problem, since they tend to carry something you want to keep (again, most likely a road) over the course of the old railway. 

There has been a certain amount of hoo-hah on Rail Infrastructure Enthusiast Twitter in recent weeks at the announcement by The Man of an intention to divest himself of responsibility for the continuing upkeep of these structures by burying a good many of them under many tons of earth. The Man in this case is the body responsible for the monitoring and upkeep of all the remaining bits of old line, former trackway, bridges, tunnels etc. This is now known as the Historical Railways Estate, but formerly rejoiced in the rather more Eeyore-ish name of the Burdensome Estate. And you can see why, to be fair, as the job basically involves keeping an eye on some crumbly old stuff while someone figures out what to do with it, while also ensuring it doesn't get so crumbly that bits of it fall off and injure people.

It is certainly true that infilling structures like this precludes the possibility of the old trackbed being used for other things, like cycle routes, or even revived rail routes, and moreover that some of them have historical and/or aesthetic and/or architectural value in themselves, and moreover that it's not deranged to be suspicious of government's stated motives for doing stuff, nor to question their cost/benefit calculations. I suppose you do have to ask of the advocacy groups, though, as persuasive as the case they make seems: is there in fact any bridge or part of old pre-Beeching railway infrastructure that they would be prepared to let go? Is this (points at randomly-selected structure) particular farm track overbridge so valuable that it must be preserved in perpetuity? 

Is a compromise solution sometimes acceptable if it keeps the route open? And are the ambitious future plans of wild-eyed oil-bespattered train nerds to run their heritage railway route along an old trackbed really a good enough reason to commit government funds to infrastructure upkeep? 

I leave those questions with you. As blunt and aesthetically-unpleasing as burying stuff under kilotons of sand and rubble is, though, it has been applied as a solution to structural concerns with some much larger structures, including some that you would assume were far too large to bury, or at least not without the resulting pile of stuff having an impractically wide footprint (but where just blowing the whole thing up wasn't an option because of a desire to keep trains running across the top of the structure). But that didn't stop engineers in the early 20th century burying the impressive Kilton Viaduct in North Yorkshire under what was calculated to be 720,000 tons of mining spoil.

A couple of what appear to be even larger ones are available in Connecticut, USA: the Lyman Viaduct towered 137 feet above the valley it traversed before it was entombed inside a giant embankment (oddly, in the same year - 1913 - as the Kilton Viaduct), as was the nearby Rapallo Viaduct. Obviously before you dump all the dirt you have to provide a means for the waterway(s) to continue flowing, unless you want to create a reservoir as well; generally this was done with some massive concrete culverts. The ones under the Lyman Viaduct are big enough to walk through

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.