Sunday, April 14, 2024

the last book I read

The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

Meet Tom Ripley. Well, actually, we don't need to do that as we've already met him three times. So here he is, kicking back in his country house, Belle Ombre, in Villeperce, a short drive from Paris, with his wife, Heloise, occasionally trousering a small profit from the sale of one of the fake paintings he has a hand in, but mainly living off his wife and her rich parents. 

While wandering into the village for a nightcap - a bonnet de nuit if you will - and some cigarettes, Tom attracts the attention - the attention if you will - of a teenage boy who also turns out to be American. He says his name is Billy and he's staying in the area doing a series of cash-in-hand gardening jobs, keeping it casual as he doesn't have a proper work permit.

Tom and Billy agree to meet again, but Tom, who keeps a keen eye on the newspapers, both French and American, soon realises that Billy is in fact Frank Pierson, the missing son of a wealthy New England family whose patriarch, John Pierson, recently died in slightly murky circumstances when his wheelchair - ahem - "somehow" rolled off a cliff near his home. Billy readily confesses not only to being Frank but also to the murder of his father by giving him a helping push. 

Nobody knows (well, apart from Tom) about the murder, though; Frank's family are just worried about him and keen to find him. Frank doesn't really want to be found just yet, though, and Tom decides to help him out by arranging to get him a fake passport so he can travel undetected. Once this arrives Tom and Frank head off to West Berlin. The idea here is that this will be further away from the obvious areas where the Pierson family and the private detective they've hired might look for Frank, but it nonetheless carries its own risks, as Frank is recognised and kidnapped by a gang who then make the inevitable ransom demand. The family agree to cough up the cash in exchange for Frank's safe release and entrust Tom with the job of handing it over. Tom isn't especially keen on just handing over a couple of million dollars, though, and after one botched handover where he is regrettably forced to kill one of the kidnappers by staving his head in with the corner of a briefcase he hatches his own plan to rescue Frank. 

This plan, for reasons that are never entirely clear, involves Tom dressing up in full drag and hanging out in a gay bar. Part of it is evidently to be able to observe the kidnappers' attendance at a rendezvous without being recognised, but sheesh, just wear a fake moustache and a hat or something. Anyway, Tom clocks the kidnappers, follows them and ends up scaring them off from the house where they're holed up, rescuing Frank and avoiding any necessity to hand over any of the money.

Tom persuades Frank that now might be a good time to check in with his family and eventually return home; no-one suspects him, all he has to do is keep shtum and he'll be fine. Unfortunately Frank is not quite as untroubled by guilt at killing other humans as Tom is, and is also troubled by unrequited love for a girl back home called Teresa. Tom agrees to come to New England with Frank to ease his transition back into family life and act as some sort of getting-away-with-murder mentor. Tom is showered with praise and gratitude by the family when his role in Frank's rescue becomes clear, but Frank himself is behaving strangely, especially when in the vicinity of the cliff area where John met his demise. Eventually, as Tom prepares to catch a flight home, Frank slips away and throws himself off the cliff to his death. Tom reflects ruefully on this as he makes his way back to Belle Ombre, but eventually concludes eh, whaddaya gonna do, and resumes his comfortable life with Heloise.

As with all the Ripley books (this is the fourth) it's useful to take stock at the end of the book and ask: OK, so who did old Tom actually kill this time? In this particular case, unless he offed someone during the chaotic kidnap rescue and I missed it, it was only the one, the guy he twatted in the noggin with the briefcase during the first botched rendezvous. So the interest has to be found elsewhere, and in this case it's the relationship between Tom and Frank which develops during their meanderings around Europe (mainly Berlin and Hamburg). You might ask why Tom is taking such an interest, and investing lots of his own time and expense for a trip with no particular purpose other than to delay Frank's eventual return to his family. As always there's more than a whiff of suppressed homoeroticism here (not so suppressed during Tom's supremely gay drag excursion to the bar to spy on the kidnappers); other motivations might include a fascination on Tom's part with someone he knows to have committed murder but who seems to feel pain and guilt about it, emotions which are wholly alien to Tom. Some of the obvious potential avenues of criminality are swerved - lots of potentially nickable ransom money passes through Tom's hands without him making any attempt to keep any of it, and while you can sense the thought cross his mind he resists the temptation of offing the Piersons' family friend Susie, the only person who seems to suspect Frank.

It's not really as good as the previous three novels, to be honest: the narrative isn't as taut, even with the kidnapping, which is strangely drama-free, especially the eventual rescue. To put it another way, for a novel that's nominally in the "crime" genre (usual caveats about the fluidity of genre boundaries apply), there's precious little actual crime going on, certainly by our protagonist, who spends most of the novel (one brief murder aside, but, hey, who's counting) in protective avuncular mentor mode. It's fascinating to spend time in Tom's company, nonetheless, and revel in the knowledge that whatever he does he's going to get away with it and be able to return to domestic bliss with Heloise and his wine cellar at the end. Well, that's been true of all four so far; the one remaining book in the series, Ripley Under Water, might end with his spectacular death in a hail of bullets for all I know. Watch this space.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

the last book I read

Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

A child is sitting on an exterior step, by the front door of a house, having been banished from the house. It's not clear what relation the people in the house are to her - parents? adoptive family? random strangers? - but she has clearly committed some transgression, probably something as innocuous as crying, or asking for more food.

Her name is Lila, and the woman who comes to collect her is called Doll. They clearly already know each other, and Doll may or may not live in the house, but is Lila being rescued, or abducted? Whichever it is, they're stuck with each other now and, it turns out, for the next few decades, on and off. Doll is a volatile character given to obsessive sharpening of the pocket knife she carries on her at all times and isn't shy about getting all slashy and stabby with, given enough provocation. 

The pair drift apart and back together - Lila spends some time as a prostitute in St. Louis but decides to give up the old whoring game (hardest game in the world, etc etc) and get a regular job as a cleaner in a hotel, which she holds onto until Doll suddenly turns up on her doorstep liberally festooned in her own and someone else's blood, and then subsequently escapes from police custody to presumably die somewhere. 

Lila decides that upping sticks and moving on again might be the thing to do at this point, and after many wanderings finds an abandoned shack near a stream on the outskirts of a remote Iowa town. This town turns out to be Gilead, and on one of her occasional forays into town she takes refuge from a rainstorm in a church and catches the eye of preacher John Ames. Ames is sixty-something (we're invited to infer that Lila is perhaps in her thirties, but with the face and body of someone who's endured a tough life) and a widower since his twenties, but apparently still with enough sap in the veins to be intrigued by Lila, both as a potential soul to be saved and possibly also in, you know, That Way

Their rough and awkward courtship is not without some problems, mainly on Lila's side; a life spent moving from place to place builds a steely self-reliance and a reluctance to form attachments, lest that lead to disappointment, betrayal, or just a sense of obligation that might tie you to a place for longer than you'd otherwise like. There is also some self-doubt: am I allowing myself to be persuaded just because of the prospect of security, protection, food and a long-term roof over my head, rather than the supposed "proper" reasons, like love?

Lila and John Ames are married, to the slight bewilderment of the townsfolk who view her as some sort of strange semi-feral creature, and fairly shortly after that Ames successfully impregnates her, the randy old goat. This puts a new perspective on Lila's situation: sure, she could just up sticks and hoof it into the night even now, either before or after the child is born, but now she has two other people whose feelings she needs to consider. 

This is 1950s rural Iowa, so childbirth and its immediate aftermath isn't a risk-free process, and there are a few bumps in the road: a major snowstorm while Lila is waiting for her labor to start which threatens to cut them off from medical help, and the general scrawniness of the child when he finally arrives, which prompts some concern over whether he'll survive. But he does, and the book ends with Lila contemplating her elderly husband cooing over the new arrival in the kitchen, her contentment tempered with the knowledge that John Ames probably won't live long enough to see him grow up.

That last thought prefigures the events of Gilead, the first novel in this loose series, wherein John Ames, having been given a gloomy prognosis for his heart condition, writes a letter to his seven-year-old son, Robert. Lila is the third novel in the series (Home being the second) and has a different structure from the first two: Gilead was a series of letters, Home had multiple viewpoints, Lila is much more narrowly focused on Lila's own viewpoint, which is an interesting one but makes for a slightly more claustrophobic read. We don't really meet any of the wider cast of characters from the earlier books, John Ames aside - old man Boughton (whose children provide most of the narrative in Home) pops up here and there but that's about it. 

So this is more of a character study than the other two books, its themes being the damage childhood trauma and hardship inflict, and the difficulty of shaking that stuff off later in life, even when fate hands you something on a plate that you ought to view as a good thing. Kick a dog for long enough and even kindness may be repaid with a savage bite on the ankle. To put it another way, they fuck you up, your mum and dad, even if it's just by being entirely absent from your life. 

My harsh critical judgment here is that Lila probably isn't quite as good as the other two books in the series, but that it's very good nonetheless. As with the other two books, both of which feature a religious minister as a major character, there a strong religious thread here, and Robinson's opinion on the subject is pretty clear, but it stops just short of being an irritant for the godless reader. The fourth book in the series, Jack, features (as its title suggests) Jack Boughton, a major character in each of the first two books and as a flawed and godless type himself by far the most interesting character in the series. I assume that the fourth book will be the final one, but I guess I only do that by drawing a subconscious parallel with the Alexandria Quartet (featured on this blog here, here, here and here) whose structure the Gilead books echo, in a broad sense anyway, by having the same series of events described from multiple viewpoints. Another consideration here is that Robinson is 80 and has averaged four to six years between books in the series, so, you know, Just Saying

Anyway, Lila won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2014, just as Gilead did in 2004. My list here goes: 1975, 1991, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

the last book I read

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.

Our un-named narrator is a young boy on the cusp of his teens living with his father and siblings in Lincoln, Illinois, his mother having been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Her death has had a quietly shattering effect on the family, his father in particular, thrown into having to care for three children on his own while struggling to process his own grief. 

Eventually he starts to emerge back into normal life, re-marries and decides to make a fresh start in a new house, built to his and his new bride's design. Our narrator spends some happy hours playing in the dangerous and half-finished house, climbing on high narrow roof timbers and the like, some of it in the company of Cletus Smith, son of a tenant farmer on a nearby farm. The two boys' tentative and monosyllabic friendship is soon shattered by events outside of their control and understanding.

Cletus' father, Clarence Smith, rents and farms a plot of land next to a similar plot of land rented and farmed by Lloyd Wilson. Both men have wives and children to support, but also strike up a gruff and monosyllabic friendship with an unspoken level of understanding about help being freely available when required, be it with milking cows, gathering harvests, getting a chicken out of a threshing machine, you name it.

All of this goes to shit in a rapidly unravelling spiral when Lloyd falls in love with, and starts an affair with, Clarence's wife, Fern. However discreet you are - and Fern is not especially discreet - it's almost impossible to keep this sort of thing a secret, not in rural Illinois in the 1920s anyway, well before the availability of end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messaging. Lloyd's wife gets wind of it first and leaves him, taking their daughters with her, and Fern soon spills the beans to Clarence. Given the literal impossibility of two men having a conversation about this kind of stuff, Clarence and Lloyd just start to avoid each other. 

This uneasy truce can't last, especially as Fern and Lloyd are still managing to meet up occasionally in the barn for a speedy and teeth-rattling seeing-to. Fern decides to twist the knife by suing Clarence for divorce, and succeeds in doing so, thanks to some smart lawyering. This results in Clarence having to relinquish the farm and prompts a swift descent into drinking and despair. Things clearly can't get any worse for him, so why not just perform a cathartic act of revenge and then remove yourself from the world?

And so we arrive back at where the novel started, with the sound of a pistol shot in the early hours of the morning, and the subsequent discovery of Lloyd's body by his young son, and of Clarence's body by the police when they drag a local lake. One obvious consequence of all this is a number of youngish children losing a father, and more particularly Cletus being moved away with his mother, who (probably wisely) feels that a completely new start somewhere else would be in order. Other than one random unspoken encounter in a school corridor in Chicago some years later our narrator never sees him again. 

You'll recall I read Maxwell's much earlier novel They Came Like Swallows a few years ago (five, now that I check) - by "much earlier" here I mean much earlier; that book was published in 1937, So Long, See You Tomorrow was published in 1980. It was the sixth and last novel of Maxwell's long but intermittent career - he published short stories as well and had a prolific day job as fiction editor of the New Yorker for nearly forty years. Despite the 43 years of separation the two novels have lots in common, most notably the fact that their narrator appears to be the same person: mother lost to flu in 1918, tick, big brother missing a leg, check, father stricken by grief, yep. Given the close parallels with Maxwell's own life it's not certain to me whether it's meant to be literally the same character (called Bunny Morison in the earlier novel, unnamed in the later one), two separate characters who happen to have been given the same back-story (largely adapted from Maxwell's own), or whether the later novel is an attempt to rewrite and refine the earlier one. This seems unlikely given the differences in the stories they tell - They Came Like Swallows is very claustrophobic and takes place almost entirely in the family home, whereas So Long, See You Tomorrow just uses that stuff as a framing device and most of its narrative takes place on the neighbouring farms. 

My Vintage paperback copy has a foreword by Ann Patchett, whose previous appearance on this list in her own right (Bel Canto was the book) puts this book in a group with Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, LanarkTrue Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit. It also includes this paragraph:

I think I probably agree that the later book is better, but I very much enjoyed them both and recommend them highly. The contrast with a book like Foucault's Pendulum couldn't be more stark (and their juxtaposition is not a complete coincidence; I often like to follow a long book with a short one) - this is short, completely serious, acutely insightful into how people are and how they behave, and pared of all but the most essential words. 

So Long, See You Tomorrow won the National Book Award in 1982, so you can add that year to the ones listed here

Monday, March 11, 2024

the last book I read

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Meet our narrator, Casaubon. Why is he called Casaubon? Or, more accurately, why has the author decided to give him that name, and what did he expect the reader to take from it? Well, briefly, Isaac Casaubon was a classical scholar and philologist in the 16th and 17th centuries (his son Meric studied in similar areas) and there is also a character of the same name in George Eliot's Middlemarch (a book I have not read, I should point out, and am 99% sure I never will).

Bloody hell, you might be thinking at this point, I'm only on page one of a 600+-page book and already I need to have access to an online encyclopaedia to keep up with all the meta-textual references and stuff. How am I going to cope for the rest of the six freakin' years it's going to take me to finish it?

Well, you'll have to find your own coping strategy, but what I would offer is that you should probably come to a Zen-like acceptance that your level of unassisted erudition is almost certainly not equal to Umberto Eco's and that you're probably going to miss the significance of a reference here or there. By all means look something up if it piques your interest, but don't spend months and years looking up every single name; in any case some of them will be made up. To put it another way, get over yourself and just read the freakin' book already.

So: when we first meet Casaubon he is in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, looking at the eponymous pendulum and musing on the physical laws that govern its motion. It turns out he's not just there to have a look at that, though, as Mysterious Shit is afoot which necessitates him secreting himself in the museum after closing time and awaiting the arrival of a group of people to carry out some arcane ritual. What ritual? How does Casaubon know about it? Why does he care? That will take a 500-page flashback to explain.

Some years previously, Casaubon, a devotee of arcane lore about secret societies and the Knights Templar in particular, is living in Milan when he meets Belbo and Diotallevi, who work for a publisher called Garamond and want to make use of his particular area of knowledge to review a manuscript that's come into their possession. Garamond, it turns out, is a serious publishing house but also operates a separate arm which does vanity publishing for nutters with enough money to self-finance their crackpot books. This is all a lot of fun, but the guy who submitted the original manuscript, Colonel Ardenti, suddenly disappears in mysterious circumstances. Could there be something in his conspiratorial ravings after all?

Casaubon spends some time living with a woman in Brazil and while he's there meets an elderly man called Agliè who introduces him to various local voodoo rituals, suggests that these and the whole Templar thing are all interconnected in some way, and hints that he may in fact be the near-immortal Comte de Saint Germain. Casaubon's relationship eventually goes to shit and he returns to Italy, where he discovers that Garamond have taken on Agliè as some sort of consultant and that Belpo and Diotallevi have really ramped up the Templar conspiracy angle. Belpo has acquired an early home computer and is experimenting with feeding in all sorts of stuff and having the computer spit out plausible links: the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Jews, the Nazis, you name it. 

Again, this is all tremendous fun and generates a series of increasingly outlandish, wide-ranging, interlinked theories which Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon call "the Plan". It's all just a lot of imaginative weaving together of disparate conspiracy elements with no basis in reality, though, isn't it? OR IS IT? Easy to dismiss the cancer that ravages Diotallevi as just a coincidence, rather than some sort of karmic retribution for meddling with things that should not be meddled with; not so easy for Belpo to dismiss the feeling that he's being followed and perhaps manipulated by sinister forces, especially Agliè who seems very interested in knowing everything that Belpo knows about the Plan. 

Eventually Belpo is blackmailed into travelling to Paris to meet with Agliè and his associates at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, which you'll recall is where we came in. Once the shady group has convened and Casaubon has extricated himself from his cramped hiding-place to observe their nefarious activities, a bizarre ritual ensues involving much in the way of voodoo incantations, ectoplasm, speaking in tongues and the like and culminating in Belbo's death. Casaubon, while escaping unseen, nonetheless feels certain that They, whoever They actually are, are Onto Him, and flees to the country, abandoning his wife and young child, to await them inevitably catching up with him.

So *cracks knuckles* what the hell is going on there then? Well, lots of different things, some of which almost certainly went over your humble blogger's head entirely unnoticed. There's obviously some satire on people exploiting the lucrative market for the sort of Grail/Templar hokum put about by books like The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail (published six years before Foucault's Pendulum, in 1982) and, many years later, The Da Vinci Code, some further satire on vanity publishing in general and still further satire on the sort of post-modern school of criticism and philosophy that completely unhitches itself from any necessity to check in with the real world to see if what you're saying actually makes any sense. The Foucault of the book's title is obviously the pendulum's inventor Léon Foucault, but also quite probably Michel Foucault, philosopher, activist, and slightly queasy advocate of underage sex.

But what are we to make of the intersections with the real world, in particular the Night At The Museum interlude at the end where Belpo and his girlfriend Lorenza appear to be actually killed? There's no mention of the police arriving either on the night or the following morning when the museum opens and various murder victims are presumably found cluttering up the exhibits. Did any of it actually happen? 

Trying to apply any sort of gritty real-world seriousness here is probably a mistake, though, as it's all just a fabulously droll and playful post-modern joke, albeit one that in my view drags a bit in the telling. Some of the passages where Belpo, Diotallevi and Casaubon expound at great length on increasingly convoluted iterations of the Plan really start to go on a bit and have the feel of authorial showing-off. None of the characters here really give off any feel of behaving like actual humans; the closest is probably Casaubon's wife Lia, but even she displays implausible levels of arcane knowledge while trying to debunk the wilder excesses of the Plan, and is in any case roundly ignored for her trouble. 

So it's all tremendously clever, and generally pretty easy to read, though some will find the lumpiness of the structure and the length of some of the more treacly expository passages off-putting, or at least frustrating. For what it's worth I enjoyed The Name Of The Rose quite a lot more. 

Monday, March 04, 2024

celebrity lookeylikeys of the day

I have two for you today - now in theory I could parlay that into two posts in a pathetic and transparent bid to bump the blog stats up, post frequency and aggregate numbers not being what they once were back in the pre-marriage, pre-kids glory glory days of 2008, but you know and I know that that would be a shameful and hollow sham and a travesty and I respect you (yes, even you) too much to do it.

So here's Dan Hartman, successful songwriter of the 1970s and 1980s and occasional solo artist in his own right (1985's I Can Dream About You is probably the one you remember if you're of a similar age to me), and Kim Hughes, Australian batsman of the late 1970s and early 1980s, most remembered - rather unjustly - for his luckless stint as captain during the 1981 Ashes series when he was on the wrong end of Ian Botham's various legendary deeds, and for resigning the captaincy in a tearful hot mess in 1984. 

Secondly, Huwie recently got Neil Gaiman's Pirate Stew out of the library, and among Chris Riddell's many splendid illustrations of the motley piratical crew is this flamboyant chap, who, I'm sure you'll agree, closely resembles Dave Navarro, guitarist with Jane's Addiction since their formation in the mid-1980s and with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers for quite LIDDERALLY One Hot Minute in the mid-1990s. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

peat repeat

You'll recall my frustration at being thwarted in my plans to do a long circular walk in the Black Mountains back in May of last year. As I unexpectedly had a couple of days' leave to use up I found myself at a loose end yesterday and decided to go and have another crack at it. After the extreme fuckery involved with trying to pick out a route up through the forestry last time I decided to keep any involvement with it minimal this time, and not get involved with the area I was in last time at all. 

There are two car parks on the road up the Grwyne Fawr valley, the first being Pont Cadwgan where I parked last time, and the second, further up towards the reservoir, which just seems to be called Mynydd Du (Black Mountain). This is where I parked this time and headed up in a roughly north-east direction to get onto the long ridge just before the summit of Chwarel y Fan, which makes the rather grandiose claim to being the highest point in Monmouthshire. I mean, I daresay it is, but it's not a summit in any real sense, just the high point of the ridge which gradually descends from north-west to south-east. It does have a cairn, though. 

So the first thing you'll notice here is that I'm attacking the walk anticlockwise, rather than clockwise which was the intention last time (not that you'd know from the route map). This is partly because the car park is on that side of the road, partly because most of the clearly-visible paths from near the car park head in that direction (and I was keen to get a fast start and defer any navigational fuckery until later) and partly because my loose rule-of-thumb for walks dictates having the high points (the summits of Waun Fach and Pen y Gadair Fawr) in the second half of the walk. 

Anyway, once on the ridge the route proceeds almost dead straight north-west towards the trig point at the summit of Rhos Dirion (at 713 metres, 2339 feet) - again, a summit in name only as it just marks the point where the long ridge ends and drops off the steep northern face of the Black Mountains escarpment. At this point you turn 90 degrees left along the ridge that heads up over Pen y Manllwyn towards Waun Fach, which, as I'm sure you'll remember from 2010, is the highest point in the Black Mountains. You'll also recall that when I went up it then it was after a period of very dry weather and it was still a treacherous boggy nightmare on the summit plateau. Well, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the National Park authorities, starting in what seems to have been around 2015, have done some extensive restoration work and landscaping on the top of Waun Fach and the surrounding area, created an understated summit monument (with a little OS logo embedded in it, just so you know it's legit) and laid some paths by dumping what a quick back-of-a-fag-packet calculation suggests must have been SEVERAL GAJILLION TONNES of stone and gravel up there. Before and after summit pics (i.e. from 2010 and yesterday) are below. 

In addition to being able to stand at the summit for a photo without gradually slurping knee-deep into a peat bog, you can now walk along a pleasant gravel path across the summit plateau and (via a bit of down and up again and, yesterday, quite a bit of slightly slippery ice and snow) to the neighbouring summit of Pen y Gadair Fawr, which is a much more satisfying mountain summit but happens to be about ten metres lower than Waun Fach. I don't make the rules. From there you drop off the east face of Pen y Gadair Fawr for a steepish descent back down to the Grwyne Fawr valley. Suspicions of further navigational fuckery which arise as you approach what appears to be an unbridged and unfordable section of river at the bottom of the slope are curtailed as the path takes a sharp right turn along the riverbank to a footbridge which takes you back onto the road and back to the car park. 

Overall, a round trip of around 18.3 kilometres or 11.4 miles, considerably shorter than the original walk would have been (this post suggests the full circuit from Pont Cadwgan via the trig points on Crug Mawr and Bal Mawr is about 20 miles) but more than enough on a chilly February day. Considering the time of year the weather was pretty good - high cloud, no rain - but it was quite windy most of the way round. Not as bad as on this trip up Pen y Fan, but still a bit exhausting after a while.

Back up a bit though, Dave, you'll be saying: what about this whole path-landscaping thing? I'm slightly uncomfortable about that. Shouldn't we just leave the landscape to do its thing without constraining it and making life easier for people? No-one has to go up there, you know; if you don't fancy getting your boots muddy maybe you should just stay at home and do some macrame or something. What next? A train up, like on Snowdon?

I see what you mean, but bear in mind that the previous set of prevailing conditions up on top of Waun Fach in particular - vast expanses of black mud, everyone taking their own route to try and keep their boots dry and trampling all the plant life - was a man-made thing as well, and one of the reasons for constraining people to walk a nice dry path is that now everyone goes the same way, stops eroding the peat and trampling all the wildlife and lets the rest of the summit plateau return to its former state. And what about the paths elsewhere? Would you have those removed as well? It'd make mountain hiking a considerably slower and more tedious business. No, we just have to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. And, after all, when you think about it, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot LIKE LIFE.

Route map and altitude profile are below. Open in a new tab for larger versions, as always, and note that the altitudes are 50-odd metres too high. This seems to be a feature of my phone's GPS rather than the visualisation software. 

don't be skirridiculous

Been out for a couple of walks recently that seem worthy of note (hey, it's my blog) so here's the first.

It was my birthday a couple of weekends ago so we headed off up to my parents' place in Abergavenny for tea and cake. On the way I'd decided that we should have a crack at the Skirrid as it's a fairly short walk, I'd only been up there once, twenty-odd years before (on what collective family memory seems to think was Boxing Day 2000, which sounds plausible), and it was a nice sunny day.

Note that this is Ysgyryd Fawr ("big Skirrid"), not to be confused with its little brother Ysgyryd Fach ("little Skirrid") which is nearer Abergavenny, lower, and generally less interesting. The main feature of the big Skirrid is the major landslip which appears to have cleft the mountain in half when you approach it from the correct angle (from the north or south, broadly speaking - the photo below is looking from the north). I should say here that "big" is strictly relative - it's 300-400 feet lower than both of its near-neighbours the Blorenge and the Sugar Loaf

It's a pretty straightforward walk and there's a dedicated car park which pretty much constrains your route - we went clockwise round the route shown below which basically means a nice gradual uphill ramble through some pleasant woodland to a perfect lunch spot sitting on some big rocks right in the middle of the cleft of the landslip (the top left corner of the red route). What you would normally do then is carry on and skirt round the north side of the hill and head for the summit by one of the paths that go up it from that side (the major one which carries the Beacons Way approaches from the north-east). However, Hazel's boots - quite a decent pair of Meindl ones, albeit 15+ years old - had decided to throw a spanner in the works by disintegrating and partially shedding their soles. So we effected a makeshift repair with the bootlaces and my trouser belt and sent her and my Dad back along the low-level path to avoid further disintegration. That left me and the three kids, and Nia, sensing an opportunity for some fun, suggested that we just smash straight up the slope in front of us to get to the top rather than messing about with any more low-level walking. 

Needless to say I was up for it, and so too, commendably, were Alys and Huwie, so we went for it. I did manage to persuade them to take a slightly diagonal route rather than attempting to scramble straight up a cliff, and, as usually happens, once you get in close to the slope it's easier than it looks from a distance. We all got onto the summit plateau safely, doubled back, bagged the trig point and then walked back along the full length of the ridge before dropping down through the woods to the car park. A round trip of somewhere between 5 and 6 kilometres depending whose electronic device you believe. Nia's Fitbit gave the higher number but she did a lot of running off ahead and doubling back and occasionally diving off into the woods to climb a tree, which the more sober walker might decide to skip. Anyway as walks of around three-and-a-half miles go it's packed with interest and I recommend it. As you can see from the map there is a low-level path around the other side of the hill as well which you could take, as Emma and Ruth seem to have done here

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Red Bull Formula 1 head honcho Christian Horner, currently *cough* in the midst of some, erm, personal issues, and Scottish comedian and internet provocateur Limmy, whose current incarnation as a video game streamer on Twitch I find somewhat baffling but which clearly makes him happy and pays the bills, so it's all good. The longer-form TV stuff he used to do is pretty good, and the things like the compilation of short clips originally posted to Vine featuring his increasingly deranged plasterer is a thing of bleak Beckettian brilliance.