Monday, July 04, 2022

the last book I read

Great Apes by Will Self.

The artist Simon Dykes is living the basic London minor media celebrity lifestyle to the full: we meet him at the opening of an exhibition at a gallery, sipping some wine, and then moving on to a club to meet his girlfriend Sarah, whereupon they hoof a heroic amount of dodgy cocaine, go home and rut like crazed weasels for the remainder of the night.

Pretty much standard showbiz debauchery so far, then, but when he wakes up the following morning he finds that his girlfriend has literally GONE APE. Literally as in LITERALLY turned into a big hairy gibbering chimpanzee, along with, it turns out, the rest of the world, and indeed Simon himself. This is, needless to say, a surprising and disturbing development.

Simon finds coping with this radical change in circumstances tricky, since his attempts to communicate with his simian companions result in much furious shrieking and hooting and gesticulating but not much meaningful communication. Simon is carted off to a secure facility for his own protection and there comes under the wing of Zack Busner, a maverick psychologist with some unconventional ideas about treatment.

Once some of the basic communication issues have been ironed out - chimps communicate mainly through sign language with vocalisations just added here and there for emphasis - Simon comes to realise that the chimps inhabit a world very like our own, with planes and cars and art galleries and the like. There are differences, reflecting some specifically chimply modes of behaviour, such as an obsession with inspecting each other's arseholes, and a robustly uninhibited attitude to public sex, including with one's own children. Humans, meanwhile, occupy in this world the status of affectionately-regarded primate cousin, and are paraded in zoos for public entertainment and occasionally repatriated to their natural habitat in the African jungle.

Simon assumes that whatever is terribly wrong with the world will at some point just snap back into human form and everything will be all right again, but in the meantime he and Busner try to reintegrate him into polite(ish) chimp society and try to examine some of the underpinnings of his delusion. Is he a chimp imagining he is human? Or a human imagining he is a chimp? Working on a theory that reconnecting with some of his estranged family members may help spark some sort of mental recalibration, Busner arranges a meeting with Simon's ex-wife and children, which in turn prompts an expedition to see humans in the wild in Africa. Will reconnecting with other humans help Simon rediscover his humanity?

This is the first Will Self novel I've read, though of course I am pretty familiar with him as a general public intellectual and occasional figure of fun on TV comedy shows. Despite Shooting Stars being, in general, a hoot, Self has always come over as a rather humourless character (some of this is him playing a role, of course, but still) just a little bit too impressed with his own fearsome intellect and vocabulary. His public image has also suffered a bit in the aftermath of an extremely messy public divorce from his wife, the late journalist Deborah Orr.

So I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy Great Apes quite a bit, while absolutely agreeing with the assessment in this Guardian review that it "doesn't seem to go anywhere much". It's fairly obvious early on that that's what's going to happen (i.e. no particularly satisfying resolution) and that the best thing to do is just strap in and be borne along by the scatological glee of the whole enterprise - every second sentence has the chimps inspecting their own arseholes, complimenting the shiny magnificence of each other's arseholes, or - when a female in oestrus approaches within grabbing range - jumping on and humping away furiously for a few seconds before calmly resuming the conversation.

The Point, inasmuch as there is one beyond the scatological glee, is to hold up a mirror to our own uncontrollable urges and conventions regarding things like social interaction, communication and sex, as well as make some slightly clunky points about racism by having the chimps treat their close relatives, the bonobos, as some sort of underclass only fit for menial jobs. I'm not sure any of that works especially well, and it's probably better just to enjoy it like a chimp rampaging round a china shop throwing its own shit about - nothing especially constructive happens, but my goodness the chimp has a lot of fun doing it.

It's hard to avoid some obvious cultural references, most obviously Planet Of The Apes (the urge to have Simon's girlfriend be called Janet rather than Sarah for punny potential must have been almost irresistible) and the odd business with horse-sized dogs and dog-sized horses (kept as house-pets by the chimps) is oddly reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels. Neither of those comparisons really stands up to very close scrutiny, but they occurred to me while I was reading it, so I offer them to you anyway.

Friday, July 01, 2022

comiclebrity pumpylikey of the day

It struck me during a futile attempt to use it to inflate some tyres on my daughter's bicycle the other day...

...that my electrical tyre-inflating device with its twin illumination beams on the front was a dead ringer for some sort of flying craft that I'd seen somewhere. A bit of further thought dredged up the right answer from the memory banks: the crime-fighting craft used by Nite Owl in Alan Moore's Watchmen. It's far from clear in the book what method of lift and propulsion the craft uses, as it's far from aerodynamic (a sort of stumpy ellipsoid) but we're presumably meant to infer some sort of non-magical propulsion system as it's only Dr. Manhattan who has any "real" superpowers. 

Conversely it's very clear what powers the digital pump: a cable which allows it to be plugged into a car's lighter socket, which is great but does mean you need to be in the vicinity of a car to run it, which prompted a bit of a head-slapping moment when I brought it into the house to pump up the bike tyres with. I suppose I could have carted the bike out to the street and done it there, but it was dark and I couldn't be bothered, so I just used the manual pump in the end, which as it happens was necessary to accommodate the two different valve types anyway. I have subsequently bought one of these gizmos to facilitate in-house automated pumpage.

Anyway, see for yourself:

Sunday, June 19, 2022

phil yer boots

I note that after the sad death of Welsh rugby legend Phil Bennett last week his legendary try against Scotland at Murrayfield in the last game of the 1977 Five Nations Championship has, as the kids say, "gone viral". So I thought a bit of wholly unnecessary micro-analysis might be in order.
Firstly, yes, yes, all right, the pass from Bennett to Burcher about halfway through the move was probably forward, albeit marginally (and Bill McLaren does say as much during the replay on the BBC coverage).

Secondly, for all the excitement of the build-up - Fenwick's starting the move off after getting the ball from JPR Williams, Gerald Davies' side-steps and hand-off, Bennett's intervention, Burcher's improvised quarterback-style overhead pass - the real magic happens within the space of about a second just after all this. Firstly Steve Fenwick has to wait for Burcher's floaty pass to arrive and then ship it straight on pronto before being ploughed into the turf by a Scotsman:

And then, just after this, it's easy to miss just how much work Bennett still has to do to get past the last two Scottish defenders:

Lastly, even as Bennett touches down and the crowd, and Bill McLaren, go wild, note how David Burcher keeps it real by deeming the try worthy of a prolonged celebration amounting to a single clap before pulling himself together after such an unseemly emotional outburst and trotting back to the halfway line for the conversion. Different times.

Wales won the game 18-9, by the way, giving them the second of four consecutive Triple Crowns, two of which were upgraded to Grand Slams, including Bennett's last Wales game against France the following year in which he scored two tries. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

the last book I read

by Elias Canetti.

A rum cove, this Peter Kien. An eminent sinologist living in a mid-European city (never named but most likely a thinly-fictionalised Vienna), he generally eschews the many professorships and guest lecturing gigs he is offered (thanks to an inheritance he can live off without having to work much, which is nice) in favour of hanging out in his apartment with his gargantuan book collection. I mean, who in their right mind would choose books as more palatable companions than people, right? Oh all right then. 

But there are tedious administrative chores to be attended to - cooking, dusting, unblocking the toilet, that sort of thing - and eminent sinologists have too much of the old eminent sinology (hardest game in the world, the old eminent sinology game) to do to be bothered with such trivial matters. So Kien hires a housekeeper, Therese, a robust woman of middle-aged years, and after she shows an unexpected interest in his books Kien rashly proposes marriage, despite having very little idea of what the, erm, practical details involve.

Things start to unravel pretty quickly after that. After a botched attempt at conjugal beastliness Kien and Therese retreat to separate areas of the apartment, and after things escalate further Kien finds himself cast out of his own apartment and onto the street. This causes a couple of obvious problems: firstly he is separated from his beloved books and secondly he has to interact with other members of the human race, something he is ill-equipped to do. He ends up in a dingy club and meeting with a chess-playing dwarf, Fischerle, who saves him from being beaten up and having his money stolen, but then befriends him with the intention of swindling him out of his money. Kien's mental state is starting to fray round the edges somewhat by this stage and he spends a considerable amount of time every night arranging his wholly imaginary library in his hotel room.

Therese, meanwhile, back in the apartment, has struck up a relationship with the apartment block's concierge, Benedikt Pfaff, a man considerably less prissy than Kien about asserting his conjugal rights for services rendered. Somehow Therese, Pfaff and Fischerle cook up a scheme to relieve Kien of a substantial sum of money by pawning all of his books and when Kien discovers the plot and a scuffle ensues everyone ends up down at the police station. 

In a moment of clarity Kien manages to get a telegram off to his brother George, an eminent psychiatrist, who makes his way across Europe to help. George, in contrast to his brother, is a pragmatic and can-do sort of bloke and he quickly sorts out the Therese and Pfaff situation, retrieves all the pawned books and reinstates Peter in his apartment. So, everything's peachy again, right? Well, in a tragic failure of literally his core area of expertise, George has failed to spot that Peter has undergone some sort of catastrophic mental collapse as part of his ordeal, pushing him from A Bit Odd to Properly Deranged and precipitating the climactic act of self-destruction that ends the story.

So, what do we make of this? The short answer is: fucked if I know. A slightly longer answer might involve a list of books on this list to which this has some similarities: I'd say those would include Demian, Nausea, Hunger and probably a few others: one obvious theme here is young (or youngish - Peter Kien is supposed to be about forty) men with no pressing need to work for a living swanning around having rich internal monologues with little direct relationship to reality. It's unclear, for instance, what's going on with the section where both Peter and Therese seem to believe that each has murdered the other, or in the section where Fischerle gears up to head off to foreign parts to make his fortune as a chess grandmaster only to be messily murdered instead. 

What it's supposed to be All About is highly debatable, though it is certainly the case that a generally low opinion of women is a theme throughout. The general critical opinion seems to be that the character of Benedikt Pfaff, who is certainly portrayed as a violent and brutish type who may or may not have sexually abused his own daughter, is some sort of criticism of totalitarianism in general and the fledgling Nazi regime in particular. People in general struggle to communicate with and understand each other? Well, sure. People who love books are dreadful and deserve to die in a fire? Hmmm, not so sure about that.

This was Canetti's only novel, published in 1935 (but not published in English until the late 1940s). The bulk of his literary output seems to have been collections of essays on various topics, but the other thing for which he is most famous is the non-fiction work Crowds And Power, published in 1960. Overall his literary output seems thin for a Nobel laureate, but nonetheless the committee (who are undoubtedly more knowledgeable than me) awarded Canetti the literature prize in 1981. 

It's not an easy or comfortable read, but I quite enjoyed it in a perverse sort of way. It has a violent energy that's quite bracing, although there are peaks and troughs - I found the middle section involving Fischerle and Kien's extended travels round the city tougher going than the other sections involving Kien and Therese and the apartment. The fact that it took me over two months to get through it is partly a reflection of the density of the prose and partly of the fact the we moved house halfway through and opportunities for reading diminished somewhat among the ensuing chaos. Whatever the reason the only books on this list I read at a slower pages-per-day rate were Sunset Song, The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Midnight's Children, Zeno's Conscience, The Bridge Of San Luis Rey, The Conservationist, The Human Stain and Tropic Of Cancer. I certainly wouldn't describe all of those as gnarly and impenetrable, so clearly there are other factors at play here, like for instance the intervention of non-book-related life events, a balance Peter Kien would have done well to learn to observe. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

goodbye, cubey tuesday

Halibut Towers has always been a location of the mind, not tied to anything as mundane as actual physical bricks and mortar, concrete and steel, wattle and daub, cowshit and bits of twig and what have you. And just as well, as our recent house move means that I'm currently sitting in the fourth physical manifestation of Halibut Towers since the birth of this blog back in late 2006 (one in Bristol, three in Newport). More on the move and the new house later (well, maybe) but here's a specific thing that caught my eye when we moved in.

Our predecessor left quite a considerable quantity of what you might call "bonus house contents" - or less charitably "random stuff", or less charitably still "shit" - in the house when he vacated it. Overall that's been a pain in the arse, though there have been a few things that we decided we might keep. Anyway, this item is really neither of these things but as it's just sitting quietly on a mantelpiece minding its own business and staying out of the way I'm fairly neutral about it.

So, it's a calendar. Big fucking deal, you might say, and you'd be mostly right, but the detail of its construction caught my eye. As you can see it's basically two cubes which you have to juggle around to make the correct number for the day of the month. Again, big fat hairy deal, you might say, but I was prompted to wonder about the distribution of the numbers across the two cubes, as you can't just randomly distribute the digits across the twelve available spaces and assume it'll work, as there may be numbers you need that you won't be able to make. Before we get into any theorising, here are the numbers on the first cube (0, 1, 2, 6, 7, 8):

And here are the numbers on the second (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5):

The secret with these things is not to try and bite off more than you can chew and come up with some all-encompassing Theory of Everything right off the bat, but instead make some obvious statements and see where they lead you. Here's a couple:

  • You need a 1 and a 2 on both cubes, for two reasons: firstly that they need to pair with every other number to make 10-19 and 20-29 and there isn't enough space to store all the second digits on a single cube, and more obviously that you'll need to be able to make 11 and 22.
  • You need a 0 on both cubes, for the first reason above (but not the second, as the zeroth of May is not a thing).

So each cube has three faces already spoken for by the digits 0, 1, 2. That leaves us with six faces as yet unoccupied, and the digits 3-9 to accommodate. Well, that's us fucked, then, you may be saying, because that's seven digits to fit in six spaces. And indeed we would be EXCEPT for the saving grace that you don't need two separate digits for 6 and 9 because you can just turn one upside-down to get the other (and the additional saving grace that you don't need a 69th of May, still less a 96th of May).

It is my assertion that it doesn't particularly matter how you distribute the remaining digits and the arrangement we have here of 3, 4, 5 on one cube and 6, 7, 8 (and by rotation 9) on the other is purely arbitrary. I guess the way to convince yourself of this is that none of the digits 3-9 ever have to be paired with another from the same range and there'll always be a 0, 1 or 2 on the "other" cube to pair with regardless of where they end up.

As always, needless to say I'm not the first person to ponder this problem: others including the great Martin Gardner have kicked it around as well.

Friday, April 29, 2022

sounds like a cue for a song

The World Snooker Championship is on again, which means it's time for some pointless bitching about how the scoring system is all wrong, or something like that. Well actually I'm totally over all that now and have moved on with my life, and so should you. No, today's snooker-related post (also a music-related post, as you'll see) was inspired by this tweet:

What this tweet is alluding to, of course, is the 1986 hit single Snooker Loopy by The Matchroom Mob featuring Chas & Dave. You'll note if you watch the linked clip that Chas & Dave solve the problem by emphasising Meo's Italian ancestry rather than his relatively modest snooker career achievements. You'll recall with a cringe as well the bits at the end of each verse where the player featured in that verse sings the last line himself, with results that might be described as charmingly amateurish, if you were literally insane and/or deaf. 

Snooker Loopy is enough of a cultural trope that you'll notice I used snippets of its lyrics as the titles of at least two snooker-related blog posts, the one I linked to above and this one from a year or so earlier. 

Anyway, back to the song, and the Tony Meo verse in particular - one thing I remember being baffled by at the time and which has become no clearer in the intervening 36 years is: what the heck is Meo actually saying in his one line of what you might loosely call "singing", if you were literally insane etc. etc.? Well, you might say, here's where your multifarious lyric websites come in handy. This one for example offers up the entire verse as follows: 

Now ol' Meo as we all know's
Got loadsa dappa suits
London bred and he keeps his head
'Though he's got Italian roots
Emotional but he keeps his cool
'Til he reaches the finals
And whether he wins or whether he don't
"I always bite me eyeballs"

I mean, what? Leave aside the physical impossibility of biting your own eyeball, at least without removing it from its socket first, still less the impossibility of playing professional-level snooker afterwards, why would you be doing that? Most of the other lyric websites say the same thing, though of course there may be a certain amount of websites just copying each other's content going on here. This site chooses to take a rather prissy approach to potentially offensive content and not only asterisk out the word "balls" which features several times but also render Willie Thorne's name as "W***** Thorne". More confusingly they render Meo's line as "I always b*** me eyeballs" which is a bit mystifying and should surely be "I always b*** me eyeb****" for consistency anyway.

Other variations are available including here, here and here. A quick recap of the main contenders:

I always bite me eyeballs
I always b*** me eyeballs
I always wipe me eyeballs
I always pipes his eyeballs
I always pipe me eyeballs

Strangely, while you might be raising an eyebrow (or an eyeball) at the last two, it's these, or more specifically the last one, which turn out to be correct, as confirmed by the late Chas Hodges himself, or possibly whichever prankster ran his Twitter account in 2012. See for yourself:

I expect you'll be experiencing the same mild disappointment as when we finally discovered, together, what the B-52s were saying in Love Shack. But there you are, no use piping your eye over spilled satin and silk, as Chas would have said. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

the last book I read

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

So there's been a global pandemic of an airborne flu-like viral disease. I mean, stop me if you've heard this one before. This one is a bit more deadly than COVID-19, though, and has taken out around 99% of the global population.

We're going to tell this story via jumping between various timelines, though, so come with me now to fair Toronto where we lay our scene, and verily and forsooth and hey nonny nonny and all that stuff we're in a theatre, and we're Doing A Shakespeare, King Lear in fact. Playing the king is none other than celebrated film actor Arthur Leander, a bit balding and past his prime and in the throes of divorcing his third wife but making a return to the theatre, his first love, the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, all that stuff. 

Actually, Arthur is feeling a bit peaky tonight as he has some sort of flu-y bug that he picked up somewhere (it's never very clear where). He is unable to keep this a secret for long as halfway through the play he has a massive heart attack, scrapes agonisingly down the scenery and expires on the floor. It's never completely clear whether we are to assume that he died of the flu virus which has already made landing in North America, or just carked it in an unrelated incident. Either way, his death soon pales into insignificance as the virus rips through all major cities, giving those trapped in them a terrible dilemma - try to get out? but how? in a car? all the roads are gridlocked - stick around? but where is safe? and how do you get food? and what happens when the water and electricity go off?

We now zoom forward twenty-odd years to a post-pandemic world. One obvious difference: not nearly as many people. Most of those who have survived do so outside of the cities, which are vaguely alluded to as chaotic mass graveyards. But there's no TV or internet, so what do you do in the small gaps of leisure time that remain in between the life-and-death struggles for survival? Well, what the Travelling Symphony do (as the name suggests) is rove around and play music to the people who remain in the various scattered settlements, as well as enacting some Shakespeare plays. The cast of actors and musicians has changed over time as people have come and gone, but one of the principals as we meet them is Kirsten, who just happens to have been a child actor in Arthur Leander's fateful production of King Lear back in the before times.

The Travelling Symphony pass through many towns on their roving travels, generally around the southern end of Lake Michigan, to mixed receptions and crowds. I mean, that's showbiz, right? But things change when they pass through the small settlement of St. Deborah by the Water - they've visited before, but since then the town seems to have been taken over by some slightly odd culty religious types, led by a smiling young man just referred to as The Prophet. The Travelling Symphony do a performance and are then invited to stay, or, if they don't fancy that, to leave one of their young women as a bride for the prophet, whereupon the more savvy members of the troupe smell what's in the air and organise a very swift packing up and moving on, heading for the airport terminals at Severn City where it is rumoured that there is a Museum of Civilisation - a repository of old artefacts: mobile phones, credit cards, passports and the like.

Turns out that's not the end of it, though, as hot on the heels of the discovery that a child from St. Deborah by the Water has stowed away with the company, two of the sentries sent out from the place where they've stopped to camp fail to return from their patrol. What's going on?

Probably about time for another excursion into the past - we get some insight into Arthur Leander's early life and in particular his relationship with his first wife Miranda. Miranda spends much of her time working on her comic-book opus Station Eleven, a sort of science fiction graphic novel thing. It further transpires that by a sequence of coincidences one of the few printed copies of Station Eleven has ended up in the hands of Kirsten, who reveres it as some sort of holy relic. 

Kirsten and her friend August go off on a foraging expedition in the morning following the sentries' disappearance, ahead of the main group, who they expect to catch them up. But when they get back onto the road, the caravan is nowhere to be seen. What's going on? 

All becomes clear as Kirsten and August meet an advance patrol from the prophet's group on the road, and see that they have a hostage with them: Sayid, one of the sentries who disappeared from the camp. One thing that surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland teaches you is some serious survival skills, though, and Kirsten (who is some sort of knife-throwing ninja) and August (who carries a bow and arrow) dispatch the patrol with brutal efficiency and rescue Sayid, who tells them that the Symphony got wind of the prophet's group and changed course to avoid them, and moreover that the prophet's group group are just behind them and they should probably get moving. Too late, though, as they are discovered, and brought out from their hiding place at gunpoint. 

Redemption arrives in the nick of time from an unexpected source, though, and the group reunite with the main body of the Travelling Symphony, whereupon they complete the journey to Severn City Airport and meet the much larger group who have lived there ever since the airport was used as a venue for diverting flights away from major cities in the early days of the pandemic. But do they stick around in relative safety, or continue their travels, maybe to the south where there are rumours of settlements where people have managed to get the power back on?

Any novel depicting the onset of a viral pandemic and the aftermath of the societal breakdown that follows in its wake will have to bear comparison with many other novels in a similar genre, most obviously Stephen King's epic The Stand. If you remove the requirement for the apocalypse to be specifically human-viral in nature then you can add The Road, O-Zone, Riddley Walker, Dr. Bloodmoney, Cat's Cradle, When She Woke, The Pesthouse and The Death Of Grass just from the list of previous featurees on this blog. 

The Stand is the obvious point of comparison, though, and the contrasts are interesting. Both focus on the early days of the outbreak (though Station Eleven's timeline jumps around a lot more), but Station Eleven explicitly avoids getting into the detail of the collapse of society and the associated murder and cannibalism and instead jumps forward twenty years to the relative tranquility of the post-pandemic routine, though of course you can still be randomly raped and murdered at any time. This is obviously a carefully-considered authorial decision, the idea presumably being to focus on the uncrushable nature of the human spirit and the humanising influence of Art, but it makes the post-pandemic sections oddly light on peril. Obviously there are some other differences as well, most notably The Stand's explicitly supernatural elements. 

The sections featuring Arthur Leander, his first wife Miranda, and her graphic novel which finds its way into Kirsten's hands and functions as some sort of metaphor for the post-pandemic world are interesting in their own way but to my mind occupy too high a percentage of the book, and the whole graphic novel sub-plot seemed to be striving for some significance that I couldn't quite grasp. While perfectly adequately entertained I found myself keen to get back to what Kirsten was doing and see where that strand of the story was going. 

So, anyway, is Station Eleven as good as The Stand? No, but they are different books and that's a high bar to clear anyway. Is it nonetheless excellent? Yes it is. It was made into a TV series in 2020 (with seemingly some significant changes to plot and characters), filming ironically being disrupted by the onset of a global viral pandemic, though thankfully a slightly less deadly one. The rapid onset of societal panic here is very reminiscent of the turmoil of the early days of COVID-19 (again, differences of scale and severity notwithstanding) and the general feeling that as great as they are in normal times a big city with a gazillion other people is just the worst place to be when things all Kick Off in a big way.

Station Eleven also won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2015, an award which (as its name suggests) is for novels classified as science fiction, something which seems a bit of a stretch here. The same could be said of the 2010 winner, which just happens to have been the previous book on this list, The City & The City. Those are the only two winners to feature on this blog, but authors who have featured here who won the award for different books include Margaret Atwood, Christopher Priest, Neal Stephenson and M John Harrison