Saturday, March 29, 2008

scent of a woman

Here are a couple of amusing Onion articles satirising.....well, I hope it's obvious what they're satirising. America is a weird and schizophrenic place, it hardly needs saying. Then again if everyone was a sane and rational non-lunatic there wouldn't be such rich source material for the satirists. Yin and yang, if you will; it's almost like it was designed that way. Hold on a minute.....

I suspect the satirised/satiriser divide is broadly along the lines of recent US election maps, such as the one below from 2004:

So you've got your Democrats (in blue) sitting in their beachfront condos in their loafers sipping lattes and reading The Onion, and then you've got the Republicans in the Bible Belt sitting in their tractors eating onions.

If religio-political satire doesn't float your boat, how about masturbation and oral sex? Articles about them, I mean.

Those last two are probably SFW, just about; this one most definitely is not. But is it for real? I've no idea. Surely not? Needless to say it's German.

it gets tiring being right all the time

Let me give you a couple of examples in a purely cricketing context following my last couple of posts on the subject:

Stephen Fleming's scores during the recent New Zealand v England Test series (won 2-1, not entirely convincingly, by England) were as follows: 41, 66, 34, 31, 59, 66. A microcosm, if you will, of his entire Test career: get in, score between 30 and 70 fairly briskly, look a million dollars, get out, go back to the pavilion, have a nice sit down and a cup of tea. As he himself said, with disarming modesty, after his last innings at Napier: "If I had scored a hundred, it would have been an anomaly".

No sooner do I big up Virender Sehwag on his return to the Indian Test team than he goes completely berserk against a pretty decent South African bowling attack at Chennai yesterday to score the fastest Test triple-hundred ever made. Inevitably there was an element of after the Lord Mayor's show about today, and he only added 10 runs to his overnight 309 before he was out, but he has already rendered some of my carefully-crafted stats out-of-date: his 319 off 304 balls breaks his own record for the highest score made at more than a run a ball, he joins Don Bradman, Javed Miandad and Brian Lara in scoring 250+ more than twice, and Bradman and Lara in scoring 300+ twice, and he extends his consecutive 150+ scores record to ten.. His 257 runs on day 3 is also the most runs in a day for 54 years.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

the last book I read

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera.

I don't like leaving books half-read; once I've started I'll generally plough on to the end even if it turns out not to be as great as I thought it'd be. There are very few books on my shelves that I've had a go at and not finished - as far as I can remember (as the initial attempt was 10+ years ago in each case) they were all abandoned temporarily to go and read something else (probably a new Stephen King or something) and then never returned to, i.e. not just thrown back on the shelves because I couldn't get on with them. A quick scan reveals three, in fact, and they are Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Or at least they were, because I've tidied up that last loose end now. By an odd coincidence, one of the principal characters in TULOB (as I'll refer to it from here on) owns a dog which she calls Karenin after Anna's husband (though, oddly, it's a female dog).

A bit of background: Kundera is from the former Czechoslovakia and was involved in the Prague Spring of 1968, eventually relocating to France in 1975, where he has lived ever since. Unsurprisingly his experiences are reflected in his novels, this one for instance. Quite a bit of it is set in 1968 and plays out against a background of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion, though it's highly non-chronological and jumps around all over the place as well.

The story: Tomas is a doctor, Tereza is a photographer. They meet, fall in love and marry, though Tomas continues to sleep with other women, most notably his mistress Sabina, an artist. Sabina in turn is involved with Franz, an academic. Their bed-hopping and various other activities are really just a jumping-off point for various philosophical musings, most prominently (as it's the inspiration for the novel's title): if we only have one life, does anything we do really matter? If so, shouldn't we just do what we want to all the time? On the other hand, if we do only have one life, isn't anything we do so insignificant as to be futile?

Any book which sets up its characters just to illustrate a philosophical point is going to have a problem, particularly when the authorial voice intrudes as often as it does here:
Tomas's son belongs in the same category. Let me call him Simon. (He will be glad to have a Biblical name, like his father's).
And that problem is making you believe enough in the characters to care when good or bad things happen to them (like, for instance, the oppressive workings of the Communist regime - both Orwellian and Kafkaesque, you might say, depending on how pretentious you are - and also the author killing most of them off in various ways at the end of the book). I'd say Kundera just about manages it; I was in no danger of abandoning the book halfway through this time.

A more wide-ranging (and longer) critical essay is available here: the book was also made into a well-regarded film starring recent Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis and the lovely Juliette Binoche. Never seen it though.

Let me start a new way of ending these posts - themes referenced in other books in this series:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

he's short, he's fat, he's got a spotty back, Jeffrey Archer

Here's the internet as a force for good again. Yes, I know, there's still an awful lot of naked women doing all manner of eye-watering things with root vegetables, but still. Actually, I say "awful" - in fact some of it's fantastic. But anyway.

Time was if you wanted to construct a completely fictitious past for yourself, you could probably get away with it if you were brass-necked and brazen enough about it all, just because of the sheer time and effort involved in anyone checking up on you. Fat insane fraudster and loony religion-inventor L. Ron Hubbard is a good example. Jeffrey Archer is a more recent one - it was only when he started getting involved in juicy liaisons with prostitutes that people (Michael Crick, most persistently) started checking up on all the other stuff like whether he'd actually been to Oxford University and various other stuff.

Trouble is, in this age of mass media and the internet, anyone can check up on pretty much anything, relatively easily. So if you're inclined to make something up, especially if you're in the public eye, think carefully. Advice that Heather Mills would have been well advised to heed before concocting various bullshit stories about being kidnapped as a child and being recommended for a peerage by a mysterious "Lord MacDonald", not to mention omitting to mention her former career as a nude model in, hem hem, "educational" videos. Did she really think nobody would check? The brief but highly entertaining hatchet-job McCartney v McCartney: The Ex Files on ITV1 the other night told the full sorry tale. I have to confess to a certain amount of sympathy for Heather Mills - in a divorce dispute with everyone's favourite cuddly mop-top multimillionaire professional Scouser there was no mystery as to whose side the public would be on - but she does seem to have lost her marbles a bit lately.

Hillary Clinton finds herself in a similar position at the moment - I have no idea what posessed her to go off on a tangent about dodging sniper bullets on a trip to Bosnia in 1996, but she surely can't have imagined that no-one would dig up some film, or at the very least some contemporary newspaper articles, to show that she'd made the whole thing up. I suspect Bill taught her everything she knows.

As I always say, honesty really is the best policy. Not particularly for moral reasons (though obviously there is that aspect too) but just for purely lazy and utilitarian reasons. If you lie you instantly have to maintain two versions of reality in your head, and remember which one you've fed to which people. Not only that but someone, somewhere, will check up on you. Obviously if you can avoid committing share fraud, having numerous affairs, consorting with prostitutes and persuading people to lie about it for you in court, that helps as well. To recycle an old Archer joke: I saw Jeffrey Archer lying in the street yesterday. Well, he was in the street, I just assume he was lying. Boom boom.

One corollary of all this is that it would be almost impossible for someone like Frank Abagnale (subject of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, also on TV a few nights ago) to get away with what he did even once, let alone repeatedly for five years. Which isn't to say there are no longer opportunities for fraud, just that your fraudster is more likely to be sitting in his bedroom fiddling with a computer than jetting around the world on Pan Am getting serviced by stewardesses.

Just so I'm not accused of being less than even-handed in my treatment of the Democratic presidential candidates, here's the Hitch getting a good head of steam up about Barack Obama's nutty religious mentor.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

now that's what I call a Good Friday

We went for a bit of an exploratory walk around Newport on Good Friday with our friends Hannah and Mark. I took a few pictures, which can be viewed here. Before the whole thing descended into a pub crawl we saw a few places of interest which were new to me:

  • The striking Newport City footbridge was opened just over a year ago and takes you over the Usk from central Newport to.....
  • Rodney Parade, home ground of Newport RFC and the Newport-Gwent Dragons. I presume on match days there's some form of security in place to prevent you just wandering in off the street, but the place was deserted on Friday and the gates were open, so we had a bit of a snoop around. Then we wandered back over the Newport Bridge to.....
  • Newport Castle. It's not the most spectacular or well-preserved castle in the world, or even South Wales, but I can't help feeling the city could make a bit more of it. It's slightly awkwardly situated right between the main road and railway bridges into the city, and hemmed in on the landward side by a roundabout (it originally extended back quite a way into what is now the city centre, but that's all gone) but they could at least let you have a wander round what's left.
Then we checked out some pubs. We started in the Pen & Wig at the bottom of Stow Hill - very nice draught Bass (a pleasant surprise as a really good pint of Bass is a rarity these days - cheap too) and nice potato wedges, and then moved on to the Red Lion a bit further up the hill - very good Black Sheep and Deuchars IPA, and a pool table. Once we'd dragged ourselves away from there we had a quick pint of Everard's Pitch Black stout in the Six Bells at the top of the hill, and then we went to the recently opened Swan Lake Russian restaurant next door. And very nice too. The beer (and the complimentary vodka, and the couple of bottles of Georgian wine) have dulled my recollections a bit, but the food was very good, borscht and all.

Monday, March 24, 2008

the Easter Bunny dies for our sins, and is promptly eaten by me

Haven't done a recipe for a while, so here goes.

Rabbit Casserole

I learnt this from my mother many years ago, but I have a feeling it may have been a Delia Smith recipe originally. It's not listed on her website, though she does have a few ideas for big-eared lagomorphs.

First, catch your rabbit. If that sounds like a lot of unnecessary hard work, buy some. You used to be able to get rabbit joints or occasionally bagged up diced rabbit from Waitrose and sometimes from Sainsbury's, but I haven't seen any of the high-street supermarkets selling it for a while now. However, we were in the covered market in the centre of Newport on Saturday and we discovered that the excellent D Cueto Butchers stocks whole rabbits. Great big fresh juicy ones, too, with (it turned out) the innards still in.

Before any cooking can commence, the rabbits need preparing. This is not for the faint-hearted or squeamish, so it's a good test of whether you're a "proper" carnivore or not. If you have an attack of the vapours at having to snap backbones with a meat cleaver or pull kidneys out with your bare hands, consider switching to a primarily cheese sandwich-based diet. Us hardcore types do it with a fairly severe red wine and port hangover as well, just to test ourselves. Here's an in-progress shot:

You see what I mean about fresh. For anyone who isn't a student of anatomy: heart at the top just by the ribs, liver in the middle, kidneys at the bottom. And here's a nice pile of portioned-up rabbit (given a quick rinse as well to get the last few bits of fur off) ready for the pot.

Now for the rest of the ingredients. And here they are (except the bacon which I only remembered at the last minute):

So that's:
  • a couple of onions
  • some garlic (mine is the lazy variety out of a jar; obviously fresh is better if you can be arsed)
  • some mushrooms
  • some decent mustard (Maille Dijon as pictured is excellent) - a generous teaspoon or so is all you need
  • some herbs - sage is pretty much compulsory; I bunged a bit of thyme in as well
  • some juniper berries, crushed; the best way is gently but firmly with a meat-tenderising hammer on a chopping board. A rolling pin is an alternative, but you do tend to get a bit of tiddlywinks-style action going on whereby the berries fire across the room and break windows. You want about 20-30 of them for a big casserole (two whole rabbits), less for a smaller one or it'll just taste like you've boiled everything in neat gin.
  • two cans of cider. As I don't drink the stuff these are just some leftovers from a party. Strictly some decent scrumpy would be better than Magners ersatz "traditional" Irish cider lovingly brewed in a million-gallon vat in a missile silo on the outskirts of Dublin, or possibly Birmingham, but this was all I had in the house. Again, one can would probably do normally, but I had a lot of rabbit.
  • Salt & pepper
Ingredients not pictured:
  • Some bacon (half a packet or so)
  • Some chicken stock. Or vegetable, it's up to you.
Right, so: chop up and fry the onions, bacon and garlic. Dust the dismembered rabbit bits in some flour and throw them in. Add the juniper berries, herbs and a good grind of black pepper at this point as well. Cook for a few minutes then (before it all starts to stick to the pan) pour in the cider and the stock, which you've stirred the mustard into to dissolve it. Chop up the mushrooms and add them as well. Here's what you end up with:

All you have to do now is turn the heat right down, pop a lid on, and go away and do something else for 2-3 hours. Then cook up something to go with it (mash is good) and eat:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

just pop your clothes on the chair

A couple of new links on the blog sidebar you'll be needing some further details on - both photograpy-related, as it happens. So not only can you come here for your fill of erudite book reviews, astute political analysis and extreme religious intolerance, you can get some nice piccies done at the same time, at (depending on your requirements) one of the following places:
  • Hazel's new website - as it's new it's a bit light on content at the moment, but there is a portfolio section with some examples of previous work. Anyone requiring photographs of weddings, portraits, corporate events, etc. in the South Wales area (or nationwide if you make it worth her while) should drop in.
  • My sister Hannah's website. Anyone wanting rock gigs photographed, both in performance and backstage, in the London area, should have a look here.
In both cases I'm led to understand that no offers of work accompanied by large quantities of cash will be refused.

just to prove the point

Last word on this, I promise - here's my driving test report, with the bits that would enable Al-Qaeda to steal my identity and drive a 1.6-litre Ford Focus at high speed into the Houses of Parliament concealed. The "steering" fault was me hitting the kerb at the test centre approximately 2.6 seconds into the test; I'm happy to say things improved after that (only four minor faults in all!). Notice also how the post-test signature at the bottom right is completely different from the pre-test signature at the top left - I was struggling (successfully as it turned out, just about) not to go a big rubbery one all over the examiner, so my hands weren't too steady.

The other thing that's been bugging me is who my examiner, Bob, reminded me of, and I've just worked it out - Jeff from Peep Show, as played by Neil Fitzmaurice. Only Welsh instead of Scouse.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Arthur C cark

Legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke died in Sri Lanka yesterday, aged 90.

As a writer I would say Clarke was more of a source of ideas than a great writer in the literary sense - the most obvious and famous example of this being the (loose) adaptation of his short story The Sentinel into Stanley Kubrick's seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey. That said I can't say I've read a huge amount of his stuff - I think the only book of his I actually own is the short early novel Earthlight.

But he was very influential, and a man of clear-thinking good sense and scepticism:

I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide whether we have any future.
This is further demonstrated by his firm instructions for his funeral arrangements. I am reminded of Woody Allen's quote about death at this point as well:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.
My instructions for my own funeral arrangements can be found in this earlier post.

momentous news

I passed my driving test on Monday. This is quite a major moment for me, so permit me to bang on about it at some length.

It's been a long and tortuous process, characterised by brief flurries of activity separated by years of inactivity, and I can tell you that the test that I passed on Monday was either the fourth or fifth that I've taken since my driving career began 20 or so years ago. I couldn't honestly tell you which of those it is, as my recollection of how many tests I took back when I was a teenager is a bit hazy; it was either two or three. If I had to guess I have a feeling it might have been three, which would make it five overall. But it doesn't really matter, except inasmuch as anyone who might have the notion I've been taking a couple a year since I was 17, and would now be somewhere in the 40s, would be wrong. I'd be skint, for one thing - lessons, not to mention test fees, don't come cheap.

The full test history is, if my assumptions above are correct:
  • Three in the late 1980s when I was about 18. I don't recall much about them, except that I failed one when the examiner had to make a "verbal intervention" (which equates to an instant failure, not surprisingly) when I was about (as he saw it, anyway) to kill a cyclist.
  • One in March 2000 after a course of lessons with BSM. No complaints about the tuition; the flow of the course was broken up a bit by a badly-timed three-week trip to Africa right in the middle of it, and a couple of cancelled lessons after I got back when I was in bed with what at one stage might have been malaria, but later turned out to be the slightly less serious Not Malaria.
  • And finally a week-long intensive course from the good people at Safeway UK, and in particular my excellent and unflappable instructor Paul, culminating in a test on Monday morning at the Newport test centre. Here's a tip for you: if you're planning a test in Newport, make it at about 8:40am, so that there's a good chance the examiner will avoid the rush-hour traffic jams in the town centre, and instead take you off up the dual carriageway towards the M4 and into sleepy suburban Ringland for the usual driving around and manoeuvring activities. I believe it's Route 15 in this list of official test routes.
It also seemed advisable to pass the test before they made it any more complicated; since I took my first one in about 1988 the following additions have been made:
  • the theory test
  • the parallel parking manoeuvre
  • the hazard perception test
  • the bay parking manoeuvre
  • the "show me, tell me" questions
  • the extension of the test length up to a maximum of 48 minutes
So it seemed like a good idea to get it out of the way now before you have to assemble the car from a pile of random parts and make your own petrol out of some coal before setting off. I have to buy a car. Despite Andy's best efforts to get me to buy a Land Rover to facilitate future Swanage trips, I think I might start with something a little more practical.

All that remains before I end this self-indulgent rambling is a quick roll-call of those whose generosity and patience I have exploited over the years. This is not exhaustive, so feel free to be offended by your omission if you like.
  • the lovely Hazel
  • my friends, work colleagues and occasional sporting opponents Robin, Andy and James
  • my parents - other notable family-related mentions include my brothers-in-law Ben and Ray
  • my ex-girlfriend Anne
  • my friend and exciting sports-car owner Alex
  • my friends and fellow cheese-racing enthusiasts Mario, Tony, Martyn, Jon, Steffen, Andy and Ian
  • my ex-work colleagues Andy and Paul (aka Yorkie)
  • my ex-landlady Catherine
  • my old schoolfriends Mark, Andrew, Peter, Lucinda and Pippa
Thanks everyone. The frequency with which you'll be asked for lifts should now decrease. Conversely, the frequency with which you'll be run off the road, to death, by me, may go up slightly to compensate. Swings and roundabouts.

Monday, March 10, 2008

the last book I read

Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore.

Nina and Isabel are sisters. Isabel has just had a baby. Nina heads down to her sister's country house in Sussex to help out with the baby.

So far, so simple. However.....Isabel's pregnancy was a troublesome one, and culminated in an emergency delivery and a hysterectomy. So, no more kids for her. Also, Nina and Isabel had a baby brother, Colin, who died in infancy, in circumstances which initially appear to be a bog-standard cot death, and later appear to be something a good bit more sinister. Isabel is skinny and neurotic about food to the point of anorexia, and, we're invited to deduce, probably about sex as well, while Nina has a healthy appetite, in both departments.

So there are some undercurrents swirling around here. Things get more complicated when Nina starts an affair with Isabel's husband Richard, mainly based around some somewhat indiscreet couplings in the gardens. The tensions this creates, combined with the unresolved issues from the past (some fairly major ones, to be fair) set the scene for things to End In Tears in a pretty big way, and we're not to be disappointed.

Dunmore's later novel (chronologically speaking, though earlier in terms of the order of my reading them) Your Blue-Eyed Boy had a similarly compelling atmosphere of menace and Unresolved Stuff from the past being allowed to fester poisonously. She writes very well about the messiness of sex, pregnancy and childbirth as well, in the same way that Julie Myerson does. They even look a bit similar as well. Spooky.

An un-plot-related aside: the titles of both the novels I've just mentioned are taken from poems: Talking To The Dead is from Autobiography by Louis MacNeice (scroll down a bit to the September 20th entry), and Your Blue-Eyed Boy is taken from Buffalo Bill's by e e cummings (this is the title of the poem by convention as it's the first line; cummings didn't go in for anything as bourgeois as titles). Both rather good, in my opinion, though I am no sort of poetry expert.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

day of the triffid

One of the selling-points of our new house in Newport was the little patio garden at the back. Nice and low-maintenance, no lawn-mowing required, enough room to grow a few herbs and, more importantly, enough room to fit the new gas barbecue in and leave room for a couple of chairs.

However, there were a few maintenance tasks that needed to be done. Most pressing of these was tackling the unspeakable alien Thing that lurked menacingly at the back of the garden, against the wall of the warehouse that backs onto our garden wall.

Here's Google Maps' current aerial photograph of the house, garden and warehouse:

Note the green leafy growth (it's ivy, mainly) covering the end of the warehouse roof. Some time between when the Googlecopter made its last pass over the house (summer 2007, I would guess) and when we moved in, some sort of catastrophe occurred whereby the whole shebang peeled off the wall and slumped into our garden, like this:

Fortunately my Dad is both an enthusiastic gardener and a glutton for physical punishment, so we took advantage of some unexpectedly fine weather to set to work. This is the sort of gardening I really like - none of this nonsense about being able to tell the difference between a crocus and a chrysanthemum, just red-blooded wanton destruction. After a full day's labour the monster lay slain, and all manner of wildlife was rendered unexpectedly homeless. As a bonus we discovered some quite nice plants, and also a mysterious (locked) door apparently leading into the back of the warehouse, visible in the "after" picture here:

A more comprehensive photographic record of the day can be found here. I'm off to shower the bits of bird's nest out of my hair now.

Friday, March 07, 2008

mmmmm.....anis kockens

I should point out that I haven't just randomly happened upon a picture of Cock Soup on the internet or something like that; I actually scanned in the pictures from a packet which I have in my possession, thanks to Doug. Thanks to Doug I also have a bottle of the slightly amusingly named Noilly Prat vermouth. Not something I would choose to drink, but it is actually quite a handy thing for putting in white sauces for things like fish and chicken, like this.

Noilly Prat features on this comprehensive list of amusing brand names (generally food & drink), conveniently arranged alphabetically so you can start at Aass and go from there. I think the one pictured here is probably my favourite, though. Two they don't have which (unlike most of the products listed) are readily available in the UK, and have always struck me as a bit unfortunate, are Onken yoghurt and Haribo sweets.

David Icke: still nuts

Properly nuts too. In other news: large ursine quadruped defecates in forested area. But only because the Illuminati told it to.

stats amazing

Cricket is an absolute goldmine for the sort of statistical geekery displayed in my previous post, so here's a couple more related things which you will either find a) fascinating or b) tedious, largely depending on whether you're me or not.

Mentioning Stephen Fleming and Virender Sehwag in the same post reminds me that they are two of the select group of (by my calculations) nine men who have scored more than 250 runs in a Test innings on more than one occasion. And those men are, in no particular order: Fleming, Sehwag, Sanath Jayasuriya, Don Bradman, Walter Hammond, Javed Miandad, Kumar Sangakkara, Graeme Smith and Brian Lara. Bradman (five times) and Javed and Lara (three each) are the only men to do it more than twice. Smith is unique in doing it in consecutive matches, against England in 2003.

Sehwag holds another record as well, in that his passing 150 at Adelaide against Australia means that the last nine times he's made a hundred, he's gone on to exceed 150. Not even Bradman can top that.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


In today's busy dog-eat-dog world, don't you often find yourself in the position of having little or no time for food preparation, but needing to get something hot and meaty and deeply satisfying inside you? I know I do. Well, the good people at Grace Foods have your welfare in mind, and are proud to present: Cock Soup.

There's a recipe suggestion on the back of the packet as well - interestingly it suggests making mini-dumplings out of flour and water and cooking them in the soup. So, to recap, then: cock. And balls.

Incidentally I know that "escallions" are spring onions, but I've no idea what "1 large cho-cho" is. Use your imagination.

stand by for a stat attack

What with the New Zealand v England test series kicking off this week, I think a cricket-related post may be in order. Particularly as this series marks the end of the career of one of New Zealand's finest cricketers, Stephen Fleming. Holder of most of the major batting records for his country - most runs (after his 41 in the first innings at Hamilton, another 84 will see him into the company of the 31 other men to reach 7000 Test runs), most appearances (111 if he plays in all three tests) and most catches - 167 after the first innings at Hamilton, which puts him second on the all-time list after Mark Waugh, and second in terms of catches per innings after Bob Simpson. The only batting record Fleming doesn't hold is the most centuries, where his nine lags well behind Martin Crowe's 17. In fact no other batsman to pass 7000 runs has scored less than 15 Test hundreds; this poor conversion rate probably holds Fleming back from being rated in the top rank of batsmen. As a captain, though, generally having to marshal some fairly thin resources, his reputation is pretty much assured.

Also recently retired is Australian wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist. No reservations here about his place among the greats - most dismissals by a wicketkeeper (a record he's been swapping with South Africa's Mark Boucher regularly recently), most centuries by a wicketkeeper (17), most sixes (exactly 100) and smashing the second-fastest century in Test history against England in the last Ashes series. It's worth pointing out, in fairness, that Viv Richards 56-ball century against England in 1986 was made on the small and cosy St. John's ground in Antigua, whereas Gilchrist's 57-ball effort was made on the vast wastes of the WACA in Perth, where the boundaries are somewhat longer.

Speaking of quick-scoring batsmen, it's good to see Virender Sehwag back in the Indian team; he's far too good a player not to be India's regular test opener. His performance in the final test of the recent Australian series in Adelaide, where he scored 63 and 151, should keep him in the side for a while. Sehwag holds two of the top seven spots on the list of fastest double-centuries in Tests; the second of these set him on the way to one of Test cricket's more esoteric records: the highest score ever made at more than a run a ball (254 off 247 balls).

Finally, one of Test cricket's more venerable records bit the dust this week when Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie put on 415 for the first wicket against Bangladesh, beating Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy's 413 for India against New Zealand back in 1956. This means that 6 of the 10 major Test partnership records have been equalled or broken within the last 12 years - the oldest remaining one is Jack Fingleton and Don Bradman's 6th-wicket record of 346 made just over 71 years ago. What price that one making a century?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

the internet is reading my mind

Well, just to illustrate my point about coincidences - no sooner have I put a book post up which references my earlier book post reviewing William Boyd's Restless, than I see the latest Strange Map, which is a map of South America as envisaged under Nazi rule. Or at least that's what the Americans were meant to think it was; it was actually all a fiendish British Intelligence ruse to persuade the USA to join the war.

The coincidental bit is that the incident described in the text is described almost identically in Restless, in fact in the fictionalised account in the novel it was Eva, the main protagonist, who was responsible for the map being found in the way it was.


the last book I read

Thinks... by David Lodge.

You generally know what you're going to get with David Lodge: it's likely that there'll be an academic setting, most likely a university of some sort, there'll be an underlying theme which the various characters illustrate various aspects of during the book by their words and actions, and while they're doing that there'll be a spot of bed-hopping to spice things up. Layered on top of that there'll be a little bit of metafictional meddling, but nothing too alarming or experimental.

So, bearing that in mind....Helen Reed is a moderately-successful novelist, still grieving the recent death of her husband, Martin, and starting a job as a visiting lecturer at the (fictional) University of Gloucester. Ralph Messenger is a cognitive scientist, minor celebrity and serial skirt-chaser based at the same university.

So with our Lodge checklist to hand, we can tick off the following points: we've already covered the academic setting; the underlying theme is consciousness and the mind, what it is, where it comes from, how we might describe and measure it, that sort of thing, the obvious conflict here being between Ralph's scientific approach - encompassing some interesting thought experiments, AI and a brief foray into the Prisoner's Dilemma and game theory in general, all fascinating topics in their own right - and Helen's more touchy-feely instincts deriving from her slightly lapsed religious beliefs and, more obviously, her status as a chronicler of human behaviour in her novels. The bed-hopping aspects are taken care of by Ralph's attempts to persuade Helen into the sack, despite his marriage to, and Helen's developing friendship with, Mrs. Messenger.

The only trouble with having a "theme", particularly one that your readers may not be familiar with, is how to get over all the necessary exposition without revealing all the scaffolding and bits of string holding the book's superstructure together, or ending up being insufferably didactic and patronising (to see how profoundly irritating a book of this sort can be, try Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder). Lodge does this by presenting most chapters of the book as the journal entries of the two main protagonists (with the inherent dangers I mentioned in an earlier post), Helen's being orthodox diary entries, Ralph's being more stream-of-consciousness dictaphone transcripts. The third-person narrative voice which starts intervening among these chapters gives the whole thing a rather lumpy and uneven rhythm, though of course this may be intentional.

Couple of complaints: the first is a very general one whereby whenever authors write about computer technology (even basic stuff like e-mail and Word documents) they always get it wrong, and secondly the pivotal revelation halfway through the book regarding Helen's late husband seems like a rather unlikely coincidence (though of course you could argue that coincidences are by definition unlikely). Lodge seems to like coincidences, though - the plot of his earlier novel Small World was full of them, to a degree I found a bit annoying. The presentation of the literary pastiches which Helen gets her students to write illustrating some of Ralph's thought experiments seemed a bit unnecessary as well, or at least it seemed a bit unnecessary to present them all, in full, except as a bit of authorial showing-off.

But, that said, it was very readable, though probably not as good as the earlier novels Changing Places and Nice Work. Just to hark back to an earlier post, Small World and Nice Work were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984 and 1988 respectively; my suspicion is that Lodge's novels are a bit too cosy and orthodox to win, good though they are.

Monday, March 03, 2008 his jewel-encrusted ceremonial stasis orb

This is very funny indeed, particularly if you've grown up with Star Wars, and, at the same time, find the flummery of the Catholic church somewhat ridiculous. More at Adam Buxton's website.

confused badger swims backwards to Mongolia, we hear

I won't pretend that it doesn't give me a bit of a smug glow of Britocentric satisfaction to note that the classic cryptic crossword has never really caught on in the USA. It seems somehow implausible to picture some hot-shot New York lawyer fretting over 14 Across during his lunch hour when he could otherwise be out eating sushi and generally chewing ass, or whatever it is they do. No, cryptic crossword wrangling seems to me to be an inherently slightly tweedy and British thing to do.

However, if you like puzzles and wordy stuff in general then I recommend it as excellent brain exercise. And it's a skill that has to be learnt - no-one is born knowing how to solve cryptic crossword clues, you have to learn the tricks the setters use to try and simultaneously show you the answer and throw you off the scent. I learnt it from my father, who in turn learnt it (I think) from his mother-in-law (i.e. my maternal grandmother).

Once you know what to look for, there's a sense in which cryptics are easier than the "concise" crosswords which the newspapers also carry, in the sense that there's no room for ambiguity; you've either no idea what the answer is, or you know you've got it, for instance: "Hoofed animal (5)" could be any of HORSE, HIPPO, SHEEP, etc., etc., but "Caught a pirate smuggling hoofed animal (5)" gives you either head-scratching incomprehension, or TAPIR unambiguously (it's hidden in the first three words - I just made that clue up, incidentally, and I think it's rather good).

The best way to start, if you don't have an enthusiast handy to teach you, is to sit down with a copy of the paper and a copy of the answers, and try to work out why they're the answers. The following resources may be of use:
If you're really stuck then there are numerous online resources which may also be of use. I think there's a sort of moral continuum at one end of which is doing the whole crossword without recourse to any reference material at all, slightly further along are the online equivalents of a printed dictionary and encyclopaedia (probably OK), and definitely nearing the cheaty end of the spectrum are anagram-solvers and word-fitting applications. But, in a crisis, go for it.

Obviously the anagram application is like a red rag to a bull, so let me conclude by revealing that a list of anagrams of electric halibut includes the following:

I liberate clutch
cute liberal itch
chili bear cutlet
cute itchier ball
hurtle icicle bat
bluer tit chalice
heretical bi cult
tactile club hire