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?

Friday, July 15, 2022

the last book I read

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler.

Nicky Marlow is having a day of mixed fortunes; tears and laughter, light and shade, sausage and mash, that sort of thing. No sooner has he persuaded his lady friend, Claire, to agree to marry him than he gets a summons from the boss of the engineering firm for which he works to tell him that they're letting him go. No reflection on his work and all that, old chap, but times are tough and the company needs to make some savings.

Getting married is great and all, but it's taking on an extra mouth to feed, this being the mid-1930s and there being no chance of Claire taking on the role of main breadwinner. Sure, there are upsides, like getting your shirts ironed and easy access to eye-watering acts of unspeakable sexual depravity, but a regular income is essential. So Marlow has to get out there and find a new job, and it's not easy. Having been rebuffed by various firms he's starting to despair when Claire, a level-headed and resourceful sort of girl, hands him a newspaper cutting advertising a job which, while it's for a British company, is based in Milan. Fortunately Marlow speaks near-fluent Italian, having (rather implausibly) learnt the language from an Italian bloke he once shared a flat with, and - slightly reluctantly - applies for and gets the job.

The firm in question - the Spartacus Machine Tool Company Limited, based in Wolverhampton - turns out to manufacture armaments, or more accurately the machines required to turn them out, and has a lucrative contract with the Italian government to supply them and ensure their upkeep and maintenance. This being the mid-1930s that government is the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a man who's becoming increasingly pally with that Hitler chap over in Germany. But I expect that won't cause any complications at all.

So Marlow heads off to Milan and almost immediately discovers that things aren't going to be quite as simple as just making sure the books are in order and solving any practical engineering problems that might arise. Firstly it turns out that there was only a vacancy because his predecessor, Ferning, died in mysterious circumstances. Furthermore when Marlow is offered Ferning's former lodgings these turn out to be absurdly luxurious and way beyond what Ferning's salary could plausibly have supported. And a few of the staff in the Spartacus office don't really seem to do anything much, but nonetheless the local foreman Bellinetti seems sensitive about any suggestion that they could be let go. 

Things start to come into focus when Marlow is visited by a General Vagas, apparently a former contact of Ferning's. Marlow assumes that he must be a former business contact of Ferning's but after a couple of meetings Vagas makes a suggestion: for a discreet fee, payable directly to Marlow and outside of any business relationship with the company, he, Vagas, would be interested in details of orders for Spartacus' products: who, when, how much, etc. All information that the general could acquire by other menas without bothering Marlow, but who has the time? And how much more efficient to get it from the horse's mouth, and ensure adequate, nay generous, reward?

Marlow begins to see how Ferning was paying his hotel bills, but his pesky British sense of fair play makes him balk at accepting the offer. He has every intention of refusing Vagas' offer when he comes into contact with his new neighbour, Zaleshoff, an American also trying to run a business in Milan. Zaleshoff, it turns out, is already acquainted with Vagas and urges Marlow to cultivate a relationship, accept his offer and then feed Vagas bogus information that he and Marlow can cook up between them. Zaleshoff also lets slip that he believes Vagas to be an agent of Nazi Germany, and Vagas in turn (when he and Marlow next meet) accuses Zaleshoff of being an agent of Soviet Russia. So who should Marlow trust? And what happens if the Italian authorities find out?

Well, we get to find out the answer to that question fairly quickly, as Vagas' treacherous wife denounces everyone to the rozzers and a warrant is issued for Marlow's arrest. Fortunately his new best friend Zaleshoff (and his mysterious sister, Tamara) is on hand to help him escape in thrilling style by jumping from moving trains, walking miles across country in the dead of night and eventually trekking the last few miles to the Yugoslav border in the snow, with a bit of help from a batty old mathematician and his daughter who put them up for the night and guide them towards the border crossing and safety. It only then remains for Marlow to have a final confrontation with Vagas (who has also escaped from Italy) in Belgrade, and then make the journey back to England to Claire and a new and less dangerous job.

It's interesting to compare Cause For Alarm (published in 1938) with, say, The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915): Richard Hannay is a slightly aristocratic rugged outdoorsman, endlessly resourceful, ruthless when the situation demands it and by handy coincidence an explosives expert, something that comes in handy at least once. Nicky Marlow, on the other hand, while certainly no fool, is just a regular middle-class guy, slightly naïve in imagining that business and politics can be kept separate, especially when the business in question is manufacturing weapons that will be used to kill people, perhaps even British people. The main difference, though, is the overall tone and general flavour of the authors' respective political sympathies, something neither John Buchan nor Ambler made much attempt to hide. Buchan's are generally right-wing and authoritarian, whereas Ambler is clearly coming from a perspective of being much more sympathetic to left-wing causes. It's notable how sympathetic the character of Zaleshoff is, despite it being transparently obvious to everyone, Marlow included, that he is not American at all but a Soviet agent. In that sense (i.e. left-wing leanings, spicy moral ambiguity) it's quite a modern novel for 1938, much more so than, say, its rough contemporary Rogue Male, which was closer to The Thirty-Nine Steps.

This is the first Eric Ambler novel I've read, but he was apparently very highly-regarded by people like Graham Greene and John le Carré and I found his economical and drily humorous prose style to be very readable. Only a couple of minor criticisms: the little interlude towards the end where Marlow and Zaleshoff hole up in what turns out to be the house of elderly and previously eminent mathematician Carlo Beronelli who (on discovering Marlow's familiarity with some of his earlier work) gives Marlow a sneak preview of his new work, some utterly barking ramblings on the subject of perpetual motion, is perhaps a little odd, and breaks up the momentum of the narrative a bit. And the final showdown with Vagas doesn't really resolve anything in an especially dramatic way, other than by confirming that he definitely is a Nazi spy. But it's very good, and my tidy 2009 Penguin Modern Classics reissue was less than a pound in the St. David's Hospice charity shop just round the corner from our new house, which was nice. 

Thursday, July 07, 2022

the last book I read

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.

So there's this girl, Rachel. And she's on a train. I mean, not all the time, just twice a day as part of her commute. It's a suburban branch line connecting with one of the main London termini and the trains trundle along in a fairly leisurely way, calling at all the intermediate stations and occasionally stopping at signals. One of the regular stopping points happens to be round the back of a row of suburban houses whose back gardens slope gently towards the line so that passengers (Rachel included) can see in. 

Rachel amuses herself by imagining some back-story for the couple who she occasionally sees sitting on their back terrace and who she calls Jason and Jess. So far so normal, just a bit of harmless fun, right? Well strap yourselves in as we throw the points lever, pass a signal at danger, kick over the drinks trolley and make a screeching diversion to Unreliable Narrator Central, with an intervening stop at Shady Ulterior Motive Parkway. It quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is something of a Hot Mess - not only is she an alcoholic given to necking a couple of bottles of warm Chenin Blanc for breakfast, but her inappropriate drunken antics have resulted in her losing her job and only keeping up the charade of commuting to London and back to conceal the fact of her sacking from her friend Cathy, from whom she is renting a room. 

There's more, though: it further transpires that Rachel used to live in the house a couple of doors down from the one Jason and Jess live in, with her now-ex-husband Tom. Their marriage ended as a result of Rachel's escalating drinking, their failure to have children, and eventually Tom's infidelity with Anna, the woman who is now his wife and who lives with him and their baby Evie in the house. So Rachel's interest in Jason and Jess is not just innocent idle daydreaming, and only intensifies when she sees Jess in the garden kissing a man who is not Jason, and shortly afterwards reads of Jess's disappearance in a newspaper. Only it turns out she isn't called Jess, of course, she's called Megan, and her husband (and inevitable prime suspect in her disappearance) is called Scott.

Rachel is troubled by these developments. She's got a few troubles closer to home to worry about as well, though, like the night she went to Blenheim Road (where Megan, Scott, Tom and Anna live) and then woke up, bloodied and bruised, in her bed the following morning with almost no recollection of what had gone on in between except vaguely frightening memories of shouting and violence. Furthermore when Cathy returns to a flat liberally festooned with piss and sick she's not best pleased and threatens to throw Rachel out if she doesn't get a grip on her drinking. 

Rachel decides that she needs to tell Scott about her sighting of Megan and the other man in the garden. But how to do it? Obviously going there in person is a Really Bad Idea, partly because Scott might actually be a murderer, but also because it would involve going past the front of Tom and Anna's house, and Rachel has a bit of previous for acts of drunken harassment and has been warned off going near them on pain of getting the police involved. But the magical effects of a couple of cans of ready-made gin and tonic make it seem like a really great idea, so off she goes. 

The mystery man turns out to be Megan's therapist, Dr Kamal Abdic, who promptly gets hauled in by the police for questioning, but then released again for lack of evidence. It now transpires that Megan was pregnant at the time she dies, but that neither Scott nor Kamal was the father. In order to solve the deepening mystery Rachel realises that in addition to sobering up occasionally she's going to have to remember what happened on her lost night, how she sustained her injuries, and what she saw. The gradual recovery of this information leads her to re-assess certain moments from her past life which she assumed she'd misremembered in a drunken haze, and realise she'd been gaslit by someone she'd previously trusted and who may be harbouring some secrets relevant to Megan's disappearance.

The narrative actually presented in the book isn't quite as linear as that, as it intersperses the main first-person viewpoint (Rachel's) with Megan's (mainly in flashback from a year or so before the main series of events) and Anna's. Megan in particular has some interesting back-story including the accidental death of her baby daughter some years earlier. Anna's sections provide a bit of context for some of Rachel's weird drunken stalky behaviour, but don't add a lot else until right at the end when they become highly relevant. I mean, I don't want to reveal all the details, and maybe I'm just an idiot, but I can tell you that I only had the big OOOOOHHH RIIIIGHT moment wherein I clocked what the answer was going to be on page 298 of a 409-page book, which is not bad going for a novel with a fairly limited number of major characters (and therefore suspects).

As always the key consideration with a novel of this type is: did it keep me wanting to know what happened next? And the answer is: yes, very much so, as can be gauged by my zipping though it in less than a week. Rachel is an alternately endearing and infuriating central character and the alcoholic's cycles of WAHEEEEYY I'M ON THE SAUCE EVERYTHING'S BRILLIANT followed by OHHHH FUCK WHAT HAVE I DONE are pretty well rendered. The mystery is resolved without Rachel having to turn into some booze-crazed Wallander/Rebus flawed detecting genius either.

Lots of points of similarity with other similar works in the same genre, as you can imagine, for instance the business with Megan's baby daughter has a touch of the Barbara Vine about it - long-buried past crime for which the only punishment the perpetrator received was years of internal guilt and torment. Seeing something fleetingly from a train and then having to piece together the fragments to reveal a crime is a trope that's been used quite a few times in the crime genre, notably in Agatha Christie's 4:50 From Paddington, a book I once started and then never finished, as described here. The crime-related thriller/female author/slightly unreliable female narrator/publishing mega-sales sensation thing is oddly reminiscent of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, published a year or two earlier, although its narrator (and I should add that I've never read it) seems to be a proper psychopath rather than a drunk. Like Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train was made into a major film which relocates the action from Oxfordshire to suburban New York, although the character of Rachel (played by Emily Blunt) remains English.

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: