Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the last book I read

The Office Of Innocence by Thomas Keneally.

Father Frank Darragh is a rookie Catholic priest in suburban Sydney. It's 1942, so in addition to the usual presiding over mass, handing out communion and receiving confessions from bored housewives and furtive teenage masturbators, there are more serious concerns to think about, not least the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion. In the hope of preventing this from happening there is a sizeable contingent of American military personnel knocking around - trouble is, this situation causes a few problems in itself - mainly the same sort of problems the American GIs caused in Europe with their ready supply of nylons, chewing gum and cigarettes, the swines.

Here's an example of the sort of moral dilemma this creates: you're a young wife with a young child, your husband is away fighting and you've received word he's been taken prisoner. So with no guarantee you'll ever see him again, when an American officer takes an interest in you and casually lobs a few gifts around, do you play along a bit for the sake of the child, or rigidly guard your "honour"? Darragh's parishioner Kate Heggarty is faced with precisely this scenario, and while she's sufficiently troubled by it to consult her parish priest for advice, she's stubborn enough to refuse to guarantee that she'll favour rigid notions of right and wrong over pragmatism. So she's young, attractive, slightly tragic, and feisty with it, and Darragh finds himself drawn to her in a way not really appropriate for a Catholic priest. So he finds himself in an odd position when she is murdered, presumably by the aforementioned suitor.

Mind you, trademark Catholic guilt and anguish aside Darragh has a few other things to think about that don't necessarily tally with the standard teaching material in the Catholic seminary - a fellow novice priest who confesses to indiscretions with small boys and runs off to join the army, a black deserter who Darragh helps to bring to justice (though it's unclear just how just that justice will be) and a strangely amicable ménage à trois being conducted with all three protagonists living under the same roof. You know, it's almost as if the rigid and inflexible moral system taught in the Catholic seminary is hopelessly inadequate and ill-suited to the rich and spicy moral ambiguities and compromises of the real world.

As if this wasn't all difficult enough, religious and secular morality come into further conflict when Kate Heggarty's murderer (one Sergeant Fratelli) confesses to the crime - canon law dictates that Darragh can't pass on any of this information on to the authorities. Fortunately (in a way) when Darragh meets Fratelli in a dockside bar to persuade him to hand himself in and they're interrupted by a Japanese attack on the harbour, Fratelli takes it upon himself to try and strangle Darragh down a back alley, thereby giving himself away a bit and, once a rescue has been performed, resulting in his arrest and subsequent execution. Meanwhile Darragh, who has become intolerably boat-rockingly troublesome to the Catholic hierarchy, is sent away to recuperate and retaliates by enlisting in the army as a medical orderly and getting himself posted to New Guinea.

Like Our Lady Of The Forest this is a book whose message will inevitably be viewed through the distorting prism of one's own preconceptions regarding religion: is Darragh's escape into the jungle a much-needed period of contemplation and acceptance of the ineffable mysteriousness of God's purpose before joyfully returning to the fold, or the first stirrings of throwing off the shackles of the nonsense he's been indoctrinated with all his life? I know what I'd like to think, naturally. There are faint echoes of Graham Greene here as well, most obviously The Power And The Glory, though without quite the same level of agonised liquor-soaked moral complexity and despair. That it's a bit more strightforward than that isn't necessarily a criticism, though; this works as a pretty gripping wartime thriller as well, a sort of Antipodean Island Madness if you will.

Keneally is most famous for winning the Booker prize in 1982 with Schindler's Ark (later retitled Schindler's List to avoid confusing cinema-goers), but the only other book of his I've read is the earlier, angrier The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith (as mentioned in passing here and here).

all these death rays are affecting my poo

Strange goings-on in today's Daily Mail, you'll be not at all surprised to hear. This article tells us that after years of speculation the conclusive scientific evidence is finally in, and we are ALL GOING TO DIE OF HEAD CANCER if we keep up our oh-so-convenient wi-fi internet-browsing ways. Yes, the magic radiation wave thingies get into our heads and suck our brains out in a mysterious yet profoundly evil way not shared (for some unspecified reason) by other very similar forms of radiation like radio waves and, well, light and stuff like that.

You might at this point smell a rat, particularly at the journalist's regular protestations of being a Proper Scientist (actually he's an electronics engineer) and click on his name; if you do you'll find that the only other Mail article under his by-line is this very similar one from almost exactly a year ago. Interestingly this one carries a footnote that's absent from today's article:
Alasdair Philips is the director of Powerwatch, an independent organisation researching electromagnetic fields and health.
Riiiiight, OK. That'll be this Powerwatch, then - purveyors of electrosmog scaremongering and misinformation to the masses since, well, a while back. There's a whole slew of entertaining articles about them over at Bad Science, including details of some of the hilarious products they sell, including shirts made from "cotton electrocloth" and the fantastic BlocSock which is a sort of miniature sleeping bag you can put around your mobile phone to achieve the twin goals of shielding your brain from those nasty mobile phone death rays (that can penetrate bone but not cloth, apparently) and making whoever you're talking to sound like they're shouting at you from inside a sleeping bag. You can also get death-ray-proof window covering and paint, apparently. No tinfoil hats, unfortunately, but you can probably make your own.

That's all well and good, you may say, but what about a sober assessment of all the evidence for phone masts, wi-fi tower thingies etc. causing actual physical ailments in people. Well, OK, here it is: there isn't any. Nada. Zilch. Let's move on.

More interesting is how this reveals how some people's brains are just differently wired than others' - I'm not sure whether it's being conditioned by upbringing and education (or lack thereof) never to question any of your own assumptions, or being surrounded by people who just agree with you all the time (probably at least partly because it's in their financial and career interests to do so), but some people do genuinely seem to believe they can make things true just by really really believing in them, or by asserting them enough times, and seem to be genuinely baffled when reality (usually in the form of other people) intervenes.

As luck would have it the media spotlight (or at least a bit of it) is currently illuminating a perfect example of this: Gillian McKeith. Or, to give her her full medical title (and to resurrect a very old joke), Gillian McKeith. I haven't seen much of I'm A Celebrity 2010, but her behaviour on the show does seem to be that of someone whose perception of reality has been gradually corroded and eroded by choosing to lie to people, constantly, for a living. Needless to say she has some previous on Bad Science as well, and this most recent episode illustrates perfectly the failure of this type of person to grasp that they don't have the power to shape reality (even retrospectively) to suit their own agenda.

Lastly I point out with a certain degree of relish (and no particular originality; the Indy article linked above mentions it as well) the relative proximity in dates of birth of Gillian McKeith and Nigella Lawson (September 1959 and January 1960 respectively) and their sharply diverging views on what constitues a sensible dietary regimen. Now I'm not one of those who comes over all unnecessary about Nigella Lawson, and I've always thought those who did were exhibiting an unintentionally revealing desire to regress back to infancy and be smothered by mama's (or possibly nanny's) giant and comforting bosom, possibly while being fed treacle pudding and custard or something, in some disturbingly Freudian way. But it must be said that Nigella looks better on the sausages and cheesecake than McKeith does on the pumpkin seeds and alfalfa juice. Then again looking at Tupperware boxes full of other people's faeces would probably be a bit of an appetite-suppressant. You'd certainly skip the chocolate mousse afterwards.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

dam shame

We did another in our series of autumn walks last weekend, this time - having largely exhausted the possibilities of walks starting and finishing at Andy's place - starting from my place. We got the train from Newport to Pontypool and New Inn and walked back down from there via Llandegfedd reservoir and Caerleon. A nice satisfying 12.5 miles or so, the GPS-logged track of which (as captured by Andy, and expertly digitally stitched into a single image by me) can be viewed here.

A couple of other map-related points of interest: Llandegfedd reservoir was built in the early 1960s, so my 1948 Ordnance Survey map doesn't show it, as you can see below. I've included an intermediate map with the rough location of the reservoir outlined in blue (as for this earlier post about Wimbleball Lake in Devon).

As you can see, if you were to take a dip off the western shore near Sluvad Wood, you'd only have to descend a few feet before encountering the submerged remains of Pettingale village. I've no idea whether this periodically emerges from the waters in periods of drought, in the same way that Mardale Green occasionally makes ghostly reappearances at the head of Haweswater in the Lake District.

Anyway, as always, and despite it being a pretty grey and damp day, I took a few photographs, which can be found here.

prepare to peel back the skin and receive my purple majesty

Is it just me or is the name they've (they being Scottish vegetable wranglers Albert Bartlett) chosen for the new super-healthy purple potato a bit amusing, in a Finbarr Saunders sort of way?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

for relaxing times: drink some custard out of a shoe

Here's a nice little advert for the excellent Whisky Shop, a couple of whose branches I have visited, in Fort William and Oban - regrettably the nearest one to Newport appears to be in Oxford, which isn't very convenient.

It's a nice illustration of the simultaneous ridiculousness and invaluableness of whisky tasting notes - even the ones you don't agree with at least provoke some discussion, which is the whole point. I'm not sure about the "custard" for the Dalmore, for instance, though I can see the "leather" bit. I think it's much more like an old Chippendale writing desk smeared in marmalade. And I stand by "blowtorched corned beef" for the Bowmore, however much they might try to persuade me it tastes of grassy peat and peaches. On the other hand, the flaming Christmas pudding and seaweed for the Old Pulteney is pretty good.

Here's a couple of one- and two-item brief summaries for a few previous ones from my list:
Your other option whisky-ad-wise is to get some celeb in to whore himself out for a few shekels and a couple of free bottles of the vendor's product. If I were you I'd give Sean Connery a call, as he's got some previous with both Scottish blender Dewar's and, amusingly, Suntory in Japan, in a couple of ads very similar to the ones parodied by Lost In Translation.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

My records reveal that I haven't done one of these since ruddy February, so it's about time we did another. Here's stand-up comic and star of The Thick Of It and In The Loop Chris Addison, and Bad Science Guy and all-round media go-to guy for anything sciencey Ben Goldacre. Slightly mad hair and general air of skinny hyperactive nerdiness all round.

xenu seekers

Following yesterday’s glimpse into XenuCon ’07, I bring you an exclusive preview of David Miscavige’s speech from next year’s event, following some more revisions to the “tech”. Note that Miscavige’s 5-hour preamble (to rapturous whooping and applause) regarding a semi-colon in book 6 of the Mission Earth series is omitted to save space and time. And I don’t mean blog space, I mean LITERALLY THE VERY FABRIC OF SPACE AND TIME ITSELF, which would otherwise be destroyed utterly by some sort of thetan supernova. Anyway:
Miscavige: ...and so we see when we re-examine the text of New Dianetic Magnetokinesiology III: The Secret of NIMH we see that paragraph 3 from chapter 27 should actually be paragraph 26 in chapter 4. Imagine my embarrassment.


Miscavige: These revised texts are now available from Clambake Publications for only $49.99 per volume for each of the 37 volumes. Purchase is compulsory.

Audience: I'LL TAKE A DOZEN!

Miscavige: Your accounts have already been debited.

Audience: HURRAH!

Miscavige: And now a 3-hour lecture about acceptable clothing arrangements delivered in a tedious monotone.

Audience: BRING IT ON!

Miscavige: Basically everyone now has to wear their pants on their head. It's all in the book: New Horizons in Dianetic Electrohaberdashery 7: The Rise of The Machines. The newly revised version, naturally.


Miscavige: You do realise I'm just fucking with you now? I could basically say pretty much anything.


Miscavige: Ah, screw this, I'm bored now. No, wait, I’ve got an idea. Free Kool-Aid for everyone! Look at LRH while you’re drinking it! LOOK INTO HIS EYES!

Audience: AWESOME! croak.....
Well, we can dream. In the meantime Scientology continues to serve a useful purpose in demonstrating the absolute truth of Poe's Law, i.e. you really couldn't make this shit up. Except someone did.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

meet xenu boss, same as the old boss

I'm still fascinated by Scientology, I'm afraid, so here's a couple of video clips. Watch and enjoy them soon, before the lawyers have them removed.
  • Here's a longer version of the extraordinary Tom Cruise promotional recruitment video, complete with bizarre interjections about his important work giving away free nonsense books to schoolchildren and making his movie industry contemporaries buttock-clenchingly uncomfortable at awards ceremonies. There's also a hilarious award ceremony at some CoS gathering in 2004 at the end, wherein David Miscavige presents Cruise with the enormous Freedom Medal Of Valor or something similar. Actually it might be a normal-sized medal, since they're both small chaps. "So whaddaya say, we gonna clean this place up?", Cruise asks during his speech. A bit like the concentration camp guards did as they herded people off the trains into the gas chambers.
  • Possibly even more extraordinary is this immensely long video of a presentation by David Miscavige at a similar CoS event in 2007: I strongly recommend that you don't try and watch it all, because your cerebellum will turn inside out. However it's instructive to dip in here and there: basically it's a hugely protracted explanation of some editorial revisions to the standard Scientology "tech", aka L. Ron Hubbard's insane ramblings, which clarify and simplify LRH's true intentions, and also, purely coincidentally, mean that each and every Scientologist has to go and buy all the literature again at huge expense. Praise Xenu! The mind-boggling tedium of a madman describing, at interminable length, minor amendments to works of barking science fiction by another madman is almost hypnotic in short doses, but almost certainly fatal in large doses, so caution is advised.

I hope the videos have provided some entertainment value. That knock at your door is some Ray-Ban-clad black-suited goons from the Church of Scientology, here to re-orient your thetans.

Monday, November 15, 2010

incidental music spot of the day

Crime by whispery Swedish weirdstress Stina Nordenstam over the trailer for the series of Jimmy McGovern dramas the BBC are trailing heavily in the run-up to Christmas. My copy of And She Closed Her Eyes remains lost, sadly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

change down aguirre, man

After the disappointment of seeing Wales fail to batter their way over the line for a match-winning injury-time try against South Africa yesterday, I kicked back for the less stressful task of watching Scotland against New Zealand. I was intrigued as to the story behind the name of All Black wing José Aguirre, though - the sort of Spanish/French combo not really being an obvious name for someone of Maori origin. Perhaps his parents were fans of the great 1970s French full-back Jean-Michel Aguirre? Or maybe they were film buffs and big Werner Herzog fans? Or Spanish Civil War enthusiasts?

Needless to say the actual explanation turns out to more mundane - his name is actually Hosea Gear, younger brother of Rico Gear. How disappointing.

Friday, November 12, 2010

the last book I read

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark.

Into the humdrum late-1950s lives of the inhabitants of Peckham comes Dougal Douglas, hired by the textile firm of Meadows, Meade & Grindley to bring a bit of artistic vision into the lives of the firm's employees. Whether he achieves this particular objective or not is a bit of a moot point, but he certainly livens things up in a number of ways, few of them good.

For starters there are the various affairs being conducted in stereotypical closeted 1950s style by the boss Mr. Druce and Merle Coverdale, and also by Humphrey Place and his girlfriend Dixie. Not content with spreading mischief here Dougal also crosses paths with local heavy Trevor Lomas, as well as getting another job at rival firm Drover Willis. Despite overseeing an increase in absenteeism by a significant margin, and barely ever deigning to actually turn up to work himself at either of his employers' premises, Dougal manages to convince both employers that he's doing vital work.

So it appears that Dougal is some sort of minor imp or demon - an impression reinforced by the revelation that he has a couple of mysterious lumps on his head, remnants of some vestigial horns that he had removed at birth, according to Dougal, but if we've learnt anything by this stage it's never to trust what Dougal tells us. Eventually his corrosive influence spills over into provoking an actual real-life murder, and he decides it's time to move on.

Given what I've just described it's perhaps superfluous to say that The Ballad Of Peckham Rye is rather a strange book, but it is. You'll recall I alluded to Muriel Spark's work with reference to a few earlier books in this series by other authors (specifically William Trevor, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Thomas Ellis and Beryl Bainbridge); well, I think that while all these authors share a lot of characteristics, Spark is the oddest of them all. There's no sense in which any of the characters display any genuine affection for each other, nor inspire any in the reader; similarly while Dougal spreads a certain amount of mischief among the female employees there's never any suggestion of him getting his end away with any of them, nor indeed having any desire to.

I think of all the authors listed above Spark is the driest and most difficult to engage with, for all that her novels have a certain bone-dry black humour; by way of full disclosure I should also point out that the only other Spark novel I've read is Memento Mori which explores a lot of similar ground. This one is very easy to read, and very short (143 pages) and has a sort of devilish charm, but I just struggled to see what it was for. And being the arch-rationalist that I am, I wanted an explanation for Dougal's behaviour, i.e. was he just a troublemaker or the real honest-to-goodness spawn of Satan, a question that is deliberately left unanswered. And since Muriel Spark died in 2006 I can't even go and ask her. Bollocks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

doggy style

You'll recall I predicted that there was still some scope for improvement in the various drunken antics engaged in by rugby stars (of either code). Well, while it could be argued that Australian rugby league star Joel Monaghan's misdemeanours didn't quite have the epic range and variety of Craig Gower's extravaganza of obnoxious threatening shitfacedness, being photographed engaging in a sex act with a golden labrador takes some beating. This link is SFW, this one (which contains the original photo) probably isn't.

a long walk off a short pier

This is probably old hat, but one of my Facebook chums posted it so I thought I'd nick it: go to Google Maps, click on "Get Directions", type in "Japan" and "China" as start and end points, and then check out journey stage 43 wherein they want you to liven up your long journey by re-enacting a scene from Waterworld (though without evolving gills or getting a treasure map tattooed on your back):

If you can't be arsed with all that, just click here. Other journeys of this type are available: apparently the distance between China and Taiwan is short enough that there's really no point going to all the palaver of starting up the old jet-ski and putting your helmet on, and you may as well just swim for it:

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


It's November, and so we need something to offset the general gloom and depression caused by the clocks going back, hoodie-clad feral ne'er-do-wells sticking fireworks up cats' arses and the impending cavalcade of fake jollity and saturated fat that is Christmas. So here's your opportunity to vote in the annual poll run by New Humanist magazine to determine the biggest contributor to irrational boneheaded fuckwittery in 2010.

I have to start by saying that the 2010 shortlist isn't quite as strong as last year's - this is partly because previous winners can't be re-nominated, so that removes the Pope from the running straight away.

The current front runners are Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed and Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi; I'm slightly surprised to see them neck and neck, though, since I can't really see "tits cause earthquakes" being as poisonous as "rape is A-OK with me, hell yes". As for the others I've remained resolutely uncharmed by the revelation that Ann Widdecombe dances like Humpty Dumpty, preferring to focus on her being a dreadful reactionary God-bothering old harridan. On the other hand, now she's no longer an MP she's less influential than she used to be (though she does write a tremendously loopy column for the Daily Express). Baroness Warsi is annoying as while I'm entirely down with the idea of more Asian women in positions of power within government, it's mildly discouraging that the most high-profile one is such a fucking idiot. Lauren Booth and Terry Jones are just loons without any real platform to cause genuine harm.

At the end of the day it's got to be Prince Charles, though, hasn't it? The jug-eared inbred cretin. And his shortbread is overpriced as well.

Monday, November 08, 2010

headline of the day

Well, it's not really a headline, but check out the caption under the picture here:

They seem to have fixed it in the original article now.

Friday, November 05, 2010

the last book I read

Demian by Hermann Hesse.

Emil Sinclair has the usual schoolboy preoccupations - getting his lunch money nicked by Teutonic Gripper Stebson-alike Franz Kromer, fallings-out with his parents, some of those icky teenage feelings, you know, down there, plus a good dose of existential angst, of course.

So when he meets charismatic fellow schoolboy Max Demian the stage is set for a bit of master/disciple hero-worshipping action, especially as Max kicks off their relationship by "having a word" with Franz Kromer. He also gets Emil to question some things he had previously thought to be sacrosanct, like the authority and infallibility of his parents, and the Bible stories he learns at school. Max is an enigmatic type who lives with his equally enigmatic mother, and drifts in and out of Emil's life over the course of the next few years, usually at moments of existential crisis.

No prizes for reading between the lines of Emil's feverish worshipping of Max, complete with much experimental artwork being produced depicting Demian in various heroic poses, and much arch talk of struggling with (and yielding to) one's impure desires. Clearly you couldn't have hot man-on-man action in a novel published in 1919, not even a quick cathartic handjob, but the subtext is clear enough. Or at least it seems to be at first glance, but then you start to wonder: does Demian really exist? As the book goes on there's more and more introspective self-realisation and analysis, including a swerve into some mystical Gnosticism and worshipping of the god Abraxas (of which more later). Eventually World War I breaks out and Sinclair and Demian are drafted (separately) into the German army, sharing a climactic (and seemingly valedictory) scene after Sinclair is injured by mortar fire which again throws some doubt on how literally all this is meant to be taken.

Clearly what we have here is a classic Bildungsroman, wherein a youg boy emerges from the cosy cocoon of childhood and innocence and struggles to get to grips with a world largely indifferent to his existence, and tries to tackle the Big Questions like: why are we here? what does it all mean? what about those feelings I'm having, you know, down there? The same sort of thing, in other words, as a whole catalogue of other novels including The Levels and The Catcher In The Rye, but dealt with here with much more of a mystical-philosophical flourish. It's shorter and (for all the Abraxas business) less weird and hallucinatory than the only other Hesse novel I've read, Steppenwolf. And for all that (as with pretty much all coming-of-age novels) the central protagonist could do with a bit of a slap from time to time, it's easy enough to read and well worth a look, as it throws a few interesting ideas around, even if a lot of them are well-steeped in quasi-Buddhist mystical bollocks, for want of a better word.

A bit of a trans-generic artistic linkup for you now - the reason the name Abraxas was familiar to me is that it's the title of psychedelic Latino-jazz-rock combo Santana's second album, released in 1970 and one of the signature albums I remember from my childhood (fuller list here). I was always intrigued by the quotation that appeared below the track listing and the list of musical credits:
We stood before it and began to freeze inside from the exertion. We questioned the painting, berated it, made love to it, prayed to it: We called it mother, called it whore and slut, called it our beloved, called it Abraxas....
This is from Demian, and I'd forgotten about it until the penny dropped while I was reading the book: spooky (or not, take your pick). Interestingly the W.J. Strachan translation in my 1972(ish) second-hand Panther paperback reads slightly differently:
I stood before her and the nervous strain made my blood run cold. I questioned the picture, accused it, caressed it, prayed to it, called it mother, sweetheart, whore and strumpet, I called it Abraxas.
Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, so chalk another one up for that list as well.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

those goofy bastards

You thought this was just a bit of playful non-PC fun, right? Not so, according to this story. I'm not sure that cage allows enough room to dig and play. They should have fitted him with a leash instead.