Thursday, December 29, 2011

this film is dragon on a bit

Here's a few plot spoilers to ruin the viewing experience for you should you decide to go and see the new film of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and you should, because it's really very good.

David Fincher's films, whatever their other qualities, are always visually stunning - Panic Room, Seven, Fight Club - and this is no exception. The eye-popping opening title sequence with lots of black figures and oil backed by a thunderous industrial version of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song is almost worth the admission price alone. Rooney Mara is exceptionally good as Lisbeth Salander - despite being skinnier than Noomi Rapace was in the Swedish film she's still not really physically tiny enough for the part, but there aren't many people who would be.

It's always interesting seeing a film where you've already read the book on which it's based - while this meant that the shock revelation that cuddly old Stellan Skarsgård is actually a serial killer with a hermetically-sealed porn dungeon under his house wasn't a surprise to me it did mean that I could spend some time spotting what they'd changed for the film. There's not much, to be fair, but the two main things seem to be:
  • the brief relationship Mikael Blomkvist has with Cecilia Vanger is omitted, presumably as it doesn't add much to the plot and since Blomkvist is already boning both Salander and Erika Berger it wouldn't have left any time for sleuthing. They've taken the opportunity to make Cecilia (played by Geraldine James, who is 61) slightly older than in the book.
  • the revelation of Harriet Vanger's identity is handled completely differently - in the book the sleuths hack into Anita Vanger's phone as she calls Harriet in Australia to tell her Martin Vanger is dead and she can come home, while in the film Anita never makes the call and Blomkvist works out that this is because she is Harriet Vanger, having assumed Anita's identity at the time Anita helped her escape from the family home all those years ago.
None of which particularly detracts from the film, and you have to cut some corners when adapting a 533-page novel, or you end up with a 6-hour film (it's still a pretty beefy 158 minutes). I look forward to seeing who they're going to get to play Ronald Niedermann in the two sequels. Maybe they'll CGI him like in the two Hulk films.

the last book I read

Old School by Tobias Wolff.

Our unnamned narrator is a student at a prestigious American public school - or, rather, what the Americans would call a private school, since their rules for naming these things follow more rational rules than ours do. Among the traditional values common to all such institutions - honour, loyalty, tradition, wearing ridiculously long scarves, belting out the school song every once in a while - this particular school has an especially strong literary tradition, and their status allows them to snare some pretty heavy literary names to visit the school and judge the writing contest that precedes each visit. The prize is a personal private audience with the writer, so competition is fierce.

As the book opens in late 1960 we're in the run-up to the visit of venerable poet Robert Frost, and the writing contest is in full swing. Our narrator, despite being one of the school's central literary clique and heavily involved with the production of the school's literary magazine, doesn't win this one, and nor does he win the one that follows it, a rather more controversial visit involving Ayn Rand. However, it is revealed that the next visit will be from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who just happens to be the narrator's literary idol.

So the stakes have been raised? But how to win? What to write? The narrator is convinced that something more soul-baring than his previous efforts is required, perhaps addressing his discomfort over his Jewish ancestry, something he has worked hard to conceal during his time at the school. Inspiration proves elusive until one day, while trawling the magazine archives in the school library, he comes across a story written for the magazine of a nearby girls' school a few years before which seems to express his feelings perfectly. Perhaps just a few tweaks, a change of narrator gender here, a change of name there.....

Things play out pretty much as you might have expected them to from this point: the narrator submits the thinly-concealed copy as his own work, it wins the contest, the meeting with Hemingway is arranged, but then at the eleventh hour the subterfuge is discovered and the narrator is expelled and sent home in disgrace. It's presumably of little consolation to him that (it now being mid-1961) Hemingway never attends the event anyway, preferring instead to shoot himself in the face with a shotgun.

And so we move on beyond the narrator's school days - bundled straight from school onto a train back to the family home he disembarks in New York and does various menial jobs there while trying to establish himself as a writer. Eventually succeeding in this, and having re-established his link with the school's alumni network, he is eventually invited by the school's new headmaster (who was a young teacher while the narrator was there) to be the visiting writer at the school's next event. Ah, the irony, the wheel, full circle, etc. etc., you get the idea.

The boarding-school coming-of-age thing is a well-used literary trope, so it's hard to read a book like this without some preconceptions; in particular it's hard to get through even the first half-dozen pages without replaying several scenes from Peter Weir's 1989 film Dead Poets Society in your head, though the book does have the considerable advantage of not featuring Robin Williams.

It's all beautifully written, and some of the set pieces are excellent - Wolff has great fun satirising Ayn Rand's loony worldview in the section recounting her visit, for instance - but it almost feels like three or four short stories (Wolff's more usual literary medium) linked together and padded out to novel length. I liked it, and the teenage boys coming of age in the hothouse environment of a boarding school is a classic literary setting (though I suspect in reality there's rather more furious wanking than portrayed here), but because of that you've got to do something pretty startling to stand out from all the other novels, films, etc. covering the same ground.

As an aside, while I hadn't read any of Tobias Wolff's work before (he's probably most famous for his autobiographical work This Boy's Life, which was made into a film in 1993), I have read The Age Of Consent by his elder brother Geoffrey Wolff, which is a different sort of beast altogether, a queasy tale of sexual abuse and suicide, but well worth reading.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the last book I read

Come Dance With Me by Russell Hoban.

Christabel Alderton, 54, is the singer with aging goth-rock stalwarts Mobile Mortuary. Elias Newman, 62, is a doctor specialising in the study and treatment of diabetes. Nothing so strange there, you might say; well, no, actually you probably wouldn't say that, but this is a Russell Hoban novel, so a certain amount of quirkiness is par for the course.

Anyway, Christabel and Elias meet at an art exhibition - Christabel has just got back from the toilets after having to go and throw up after coming over all unnecessary looking at Odilon Redon's Cyclops (which is a bit weird, to be fair). No sooner have they met and exchanged a few cryptic pleasantries than Christabel dashes off to the loo again, where Elias pursues her and thrusts his phone number under the cubicle door.

Christabel's reluctance to get involved in dealings with men is explained by her past problems with them: namely that several ex-lovers and her own four-year-old son Django have died in bizarre and/or mysterious circumstances, and she's a bit concerned that she's jinxed in some way. But eventually Elias' persistence pays off and they go on a few dates, culminating in a (chaste) night spent together at Elias' flat and then his attendance at a Mobile Mortuary gig in London, but then Christabel disappears from Elias' life as quickly as she had entered it.

A few enquiries among the other members of the band reveal that the tenth anniversary of Django's death is imminent and that Christabel has gone to Maui (where it happened) to commemorate the event. It also turns out that Django died by falling off a cliff, and, concerned about what form this commemorative activity might take, Elias hot-foots it to Maui to catch up with Christabel and persuade her that there might be things worth sticking around for.

Here's a funny thing: I bought this book in one of the numerous second-hand bookshops in Hay-On-Wye after reading Kleinzeit (my first Hoban) back in August 2010, and between then and it bubbling to the top of my pile of things to read (exactly a fortnight ago in fact) Hoban has died at the age of 86 - here are the obituaries from the Guardian and the Independent.

The general consensus from the obituaries seems to be that the mid-period stuff set away from Hoban's usual contemporary London is the pick of his work - stuff like Riddley Walker, Pilgermann and Fremder. Certainly Come Dance With Me (published in 2005) is much gentler than any of those (or than they sound, rather, since I haven't yet read any of them), and while it's still very playful and charming it's less wilfully odd than Kleinzeit was.

I suspect Hoban is one of those authors who you either "get" (in that you find the trademark quirkiness and occasional random tangents endearing) or you don't (in that you find them all a bit irritating); personally I found the two I've now read to be highly enjoyable. Come Dance With Me is as light as a feather even in comparison with Kleinzeit, which wasn't exactly War And Peace, but none the worse for that. And it's really short - 188 pages, large print, lots of chapter breaks - so you can knock it off in a few hours. Have a go.

Friday, December 23, 2011

my god: it's full of pies

I'm sure you recall with as much nostalgic affection as I do the old days of bartering, where you'd build a dry-stone wall for someone and he'd pay you in venison cutlets, or you'd shoe a horse for the priest and he'd repay you by forgiving you for all that shit you did, that sort of thing. Well, I'm pleased to report that the practice is alive and well here in South Wales - my talented and resourceful wife did a photoshoot for the good people at Mary Clark's Pies in Cardiff and in addition to paying her in actual cash they made up the shortfall with a big box of pies. Check it out:

A great big box full of pies is pretty good in itself; I'm pleased to be able to report that they are also very good pies - I know this as I've just eaten two of them in one sitting like a big fat greedy knacker. I'm off for a lie down now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

the last book I read

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

David and Harriet Lovatt aren't one of your groovy modern couples. They're a bit staid, a bit old-fashioned, you might even say, but after meeting at an office party and recognising each other as kindred spirits they're very much in love and have set up a nice little life for themselves in a sprawling old house, with plenty of room for the unfashionably big family they're planning to have.

Sure enough Harriet soon starts firing out offspring like bullets: Luke, Helen, Jane and Paul. Money is a bit of an issue, but David's father has a bit of spare cash knocking about between yacht purchases so he's prepared to help out, though the general consensus seems to be that David and Harriet should slow down a bit and perhaps discover the joys of effective contraception.

No such luck, however, as Harriet soon finds herself pregnant once again. This one seems different, though - painful and troublesome in the womb, and things don't improve when he finally batters his way out a month early. Ben is a strange, troll-like, Neanderthal creature quite unlike the angelic children that preceded him. But what is he really? A changeling? A throwback? It seems it's a bit more than just his generally unprepossessing appearance, as he lacks the other children's cheery disposition as well, is slow to learn and seems to have a generally malevolent streak. The other children soon learn to steer clear of him, and possibly with good reason as a couple of pets meet mysterious deaths and suspicion falls upon Ben.

Eventually Harriet and David find their home life disrupted to such an extent that they have Ben committed to an institution. The other children are delighted by this and home life returns to something approaching normality, but Harriet is racked with guilt and eventually makes the long drive north to retrieve Ben from the hellish existence he has been consigned to. Which is all very commendable, of course, but means that he's now back at home, with a good dose of post-institution trauma to add to his existing problems.

With Ben back the large family Christmas gatherings peter out, and as soon as the older children can they drift away from the house as often as they can, and eventually permanently. Ben, now approaching his teens, drifts into hanging out with a local motorcycle gang and, once he reaches secondary school, acquires a gang of followers of similarly misfit looks and behaviour. The book ends with Harriet and David seeing Ben on the TV news on the sidelines of a city centre riot, and considering selling the house and moving away (and, we're invited to infer, not telling Ben where they're going).

From my pitifully small sample of Doris Lessing's output I'd say the pattern that emerges is that the earlier ones like Briefing For A Descent Into Hell (1971) and Memoirs Of A Survivor (1974) are the weird hallucinatory ones, and the later ones like The Good Terrorist (1985) and The Fifth Child (1988) are told in a much more straightforward and linear way. I think the key to understanding The Fifth Child is to realise that the whole story is essentially told through the viewpoint of Harriet, who may or may not be completely reliable. Are we to assume that Ben is really as he's described, or is it just that Harriet can't cope with someone who diverges even slightly from her idealised notion of what a perfect child should be like (i.e. like her previous four angelic children)? Is Ben really the hideous troll-like creature of Harriet's description, or maybe just a bit slow, or maybe on the autism spectrum somewhere? So you can view it as a straight horror story of a family being menaced by a goblin-like changeling, or you can view it as a satire of nice middle-class liberal horror at having to cope with a child with mild mental impairment, who clearly isn't going to win any Olympic swimming medals or the Nobel Prize for Physics or anything like that, and their inability to come to terms with that being projected onto the (blameless) child. Clearly there are echoes of other books here, most notably We Need To Talk About Kevin, though as here I should point out that (apart from the suspicion over the pets) Ben hasn't actually killed anyone yet.

Speaking of Nobel Prizes, Doris Lessing became the oldest ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature when she was awarded it in 2007. As befits a sparky 88-year-old she gave no concession to the various reporters who wanted a soundbite out of her after the announcement was made. And while I think Briefing For A Descent Into Hell remains the one to read, The Fifth Child is (at only 159 pages, and large-ish print) a disturbing and thought-provoking little book and well worth a look.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

at our house, nathaniel sits on a spike

And now the mystery object round. So, mother and youngest child only: what's this?

I ask because I found it in my loft while I was clearing it out the other day. Some sort of early prototype satellite dish? A funky glass-topped table with the base missing? A chair for extreme masochists? An Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator?

Well, as it happens there is some writing on the glass bit, and it turns out to be a URL which directs you here. what do they do? Well, it turns out they make mannequins; well, someone's got to I suppose. And if you snoop around a bit you end up at the "support options" page, where the mystery is finally solved - what we have here looks like the "calf-spike" option. What our predecessors were doing with one of those I have no idea. Unless....

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

you can prove anything with facts

You know that thing that some people have whereby they take a kind of perverse pride in not reading novels? There's a bit in Sideways where Miles is picking up Jack from his in-laws' house to go on their weekend away and the subject of Miles' novel-writing comes up, and Jack's future father-in-law says something like: meh, I never read novels; when there's all this stuff to find out about the world why would I want to read something someone made up?

Strangely such people never seem to apply the same sort of logic to other artistic media. Films? Meh, I never go to see films - I just stay home and watch documentaries about rural llama husbandry in the lower Andes. Music? Meh, I never listen to music - I just listen to somebody reading out the Oxford English Dictionary and the Periodic Table on a constant loop.

In any case, the usual argument regarding finding out stuff about the world is bogus - I mean, never mind the obvious retort about finding out things about human nature etc. from novels, even the idea that you don't learn cold hard facts is bollocks on even the most cursory examination. Why yes, since you ask, I can and will furnish you with an example: on University Challenge the other night Jeremy Paxman asked a question which basically went: the tropical diseases kwashiorkor and [some other disease I've forgotten the name of; might have been marasmus I suppose] are caused by a deficiency of what? I knew the answer was protein solely because it gets a mention in The Poisonwood Bible (on page 514, see below) and I clocked the word at the time and went and looked it up.

Incidentally it is indeed a picturesque word, and derives from the Ghanaian for "the sickness the baby gets when the new baby comes", which is rather wonderful, although not for you if you get it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

the last book I read

The Gathering by Anne Enright.

Ah, bejaysus. It's not all Guinness and hurling over in Ireland, you know - there's a dark side to all the blarney, as this earlier entry in this list made clear, or at least I think it did, but then again I may not have had the faintest idea what the feck it was all about. Arse biscuits!

Anyway, the Hegarty clan are from Ireland, and as befits a bunch of reproductively incontinent Catholics, they have brought twelve children into the world. It could have been worse, mind you - old mother Hegarty had seven miscarriages as well. Old pa Hegarty evidently wouldn't leave her alone, the dirty fecker. So when Liam Hegarty kills himself by filling his trouser pockets with rocks and walking off Brighton beach into the sea, his sister Veronica is left with the task of rounding up the remaining siblings for the funeral.

As with a few other books in this series (the last two for starters, not to mention here, here, here and here) this establishing of the narrative in some nominal "present" is just to provide a structure to dive off into much assorted flashbackery - Veronica's currently troubled marriage to husband Tom, wistful reminiscences of her youthful relationship with American student Michael Weiss, childhood memories of the various siblings (Liam in particular) and some lurid speculation about the nature of her grandmother Ada's relationship with her husband Charlie and their landlord Lambert Nugent. It eventually becomes clear that Veronica's obsessive interest in this is because of her witnessing an incident of sexual abuse involving Nugent and Liam, in Ada's house, back when Liam was about nine years old. We are invited to conclude that it was this incident (and perhaps others like it, who knows) that sowed the seed that led to Liam topping himself thirty-odd years later; Veronica certainly seems to think so, anyway.

So we emerge back into the "present" to find the siblings gathering for the funeral, and a predictably motley bunch they are too: one priest, one successful businessman, one secret alcoholic, that sort of thing. After the wake when Mammy has been packed off to bed they crack into the booze and reminisce about old times - the expectation that something similar will happen after the funeral proper, however, is derailed somewhat by the unexpected arrival of one of Liam's old girlfriends and her son. Liam's son, also, it turns out. And so the wheel of life comes full circle, yadda yadda yadda.

While this is a great deal more linear and less opaque than Winterwood, it does suffer from being one of those books that doesn't contain a single character you can really like, or even care much about. Presumably Veronica is meant to be that person, but she's almost comically glum and joyless about everything, which makes it difficult. Liam, the golden boy of everyone's reminiscences, doesn't feature enough, even in flashback, for us to learn anything much about him except that he was a fairly cruel womaniser. And it seems that we're expected to swallow the implication that the abuse at the hands of Lamb Nugent was the reason for Liam's suicide without much compelling evidence being offered - I mean, fair enough, it may have been, but we want to avoid assuming causation where there isn't any, don't we? And the family drinkathon after the wake, which we assume is going to lead to truths being discussed and old wounds reopened, all that sort of thing, peters out without any of that after Veronica buggers off home early.

The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007 (making it the third Booker winner in this list after G. and Hotel Du Lac from 1972 and 1984 respectively) - the prizegiving blurb describes it as "exhilaratingly bleak" - well, I'd agree with the second half of that. I mean, it's fine, but.....hard to engage with, let's say. The one bit that's presumably meant to be uplifting, when Liam's son Rowan is wheeled out at the end, strikes a bit of a false note of tacked-on resolution after all the unremitting grimness that's preceded it. If it's a recommendation you're after here then what I would suggest you do is read Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship, which shares many of The Gathering's themes - female narrator, wayward brother, family gathering, Irish setting - but which is, for want of a better word, better.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

cnoc cnoc: who's there

More whisky now, as I've acquired a couple more bottles since last time. Firstly, here's the AnCnoc 12-year old, which I bought a duty-free litre bottle of on the way back from Scotland in September. AnCnoc is the rebranded output of the Knockdhu distillery, renamed to avoid confusion with Knockando, as featured here.

AnCnoc brands itself as a Highland Single Malt, thus putting itself in the same region as such diverse stuff as Dalmore, Clynelish, Old Pulteney and Ben Nevis. However, checking out the location of the distillery, right on the eastern edge of the Speyside region, gives you a better idea of what to expect. Far from resembling the toasty marmaladey delights of the Dalmore and the Ben Nevis, this is a lot more along the lines of the Cardhu and (ironically) the Knockando - sweet vanilla fudge followed by something a bit drier and more shortbread-y, maybe even slightly citrus-y, quite light in colour and taste, perfectly pleasant and quaffable, but perhaps not quite punchy enough to be truly memorable.

Next, Glenmorangie Lasanta. This is one of a range of special finishes that also includes Quinta Ruban (port) and Nectar D'Or (Sauternes) - this one is basically your bog-standard 10-year-old bourbon-cask-matured Glenmorangie given an extra two years in sherry casks and then bottled.

Now I'm mildly suspicious of fancy-dan finishing being applied to whisky - although both the Caol Ila and the Bruichladdich were perfectly nice - but the basic Glenmorangie product is full of lovely custardy goodness, so it's not as if they're trying to put lipstick on a pig here. And, sacrilegious though it might seem to say it, I reckon this might even be better than the standard product - the basic custard cream taste is still there, just wrapped up in a lovely warm jacket of comforting cakey sherryesque insulation that takes it more towards the territory occupied by the big sherry monsters like the Dalmore and the Aberlour.

Finally, Glenfiddich. It's taken a while to get round to by far the biggest-selling single malt whisky in the world, but Asda were knocking it out for a frankly derisory 18 quid last week so it seemed rude not to. We have of course featured a Fiddy here before, the Caoran Reserve, which (just to further undermine what I was saying earlier about special finishing) was really very good indeed. Anyway - read anything about the standard 12-year-old product and you'll discover that pretty much all of the reviews (like the Dalwhinnie heather thing) say "pears". I can sort of see what they mean, as there's something slightly fruitily astringent about it, though it could just as well be apples as far as I know.

The label blurb says it's a blend of sherry casks and bourbon casks, and sure enough (see below) colour-wise it's somewhere between the sherry-tastic Lasanta (on the left) and the bourbon-only AnCnoc (in the middle). Anyway, as you might expect from a gazillion-seller, there's nothing that's going to frighten the horses here, and I reckon the Caoran Reserve is better, but that's not really a complaint.

What, you want a verdict? All right: Lasanta first, Fiddy second, AnCnoc third. Happy now? That overall whisky league table is in the pipeline, honest.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

reverend evil

Here's a couple more gems from my inbox, of varying degrees of length, generosity and bewilderingness. Firstly this one:

I offer you the screenshot from my Hotmail inbox rather than just the text to illustrate the little cherry William has put on top of an otherwise rather mundane (well, apart from the 58 MILLION FREAKIN' DOLLARS) and matter-of-fact cake: he's a Reverend! No-one who holds the title Reverend could be an evil man. Surely.

It's not quite as pared-down to its bare essentials as this one, but it's pretty close. At least this one actually names a figure, rather than just saying, essentially: send money, get money, simples.

This one is a bit longer and more rambling. The opening greeting is a bit crawly bum-lick, though.
Hello dear,

I am Mrs. Sandra Collins I am a US citizen and am 68 years Old. I reside here in Denton, Texas; my residential address is as follows; 38 Wellington Oaks Cir, Denton, TX, United States. I am one of those who took part in the Compensation many years ago and I had paid over US$14,000 for the past years while in the US, trying to get my payment all to no avail.

So I decided to travel with my Son to WASHINGTON D.C with all my compensation documents, where I was directed by the (FBI) to contact Mr. Peter Okodua, who is a representative of the (FBI) and also a Human Right Activist at the COMPENSATION AWARD COMMITTEE currently in West Africa. However, he explained further in details that whosoever is contacting through emails are fake. In accordance with section 13(1)(n) of the international gambling act as adopted in 1993 and amended on 3RD July 1996 by the constitutional assembly.

Furthermore, I was re-issued a compensation sum of $600,000.00.Usd after all necessary clearance and legal documentations As directed for the claim of my Compensation payment which was released successfully.

In addition, I was fortunate to glance through the full information list of unpaid Beneficiaries in which this e-mail was addressed on that list.

In other words, you can stay in touch with Mr. Peter Okodua directly on the below details.


Name: Mr. Peter Okodua
Phone number: +234-703-767-4931

NOTE: I’ll advise you to stop all transactions whatsoever.

Thank You and Be Blessed.
Mrs. Sandra Collins
A couple of things to note: firstly that there is apparently a place called COMPENSATION AWARD HOUSE, which is pretty awesome, but, more importantly, we seem to have progressed to a sort of meta-419 scam here. The message is somewhat garbled and self-contradictory, but what I think Mrs. Sandra Collins is saying here is that she was scammed by advance-fee fraudsters, but found this great legal resource (the aforementioned COMPENSATION AWARD HOUSE, and the upstanding person of Mr. Peter Okodua in particular), who will sort everything out for you, including a generous compensation payment, for the payment of just this small and frankly insignificant fee! In advance!

Note that the sum involved is a relatively paltry 600,000 US dollars, small potatoes indeed compared to 58 million, but just remember that that one is A SCAM, and this one is TOTALLY REAL. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Monday, December 05, 2011

headline of the day

Well, I don't know, you do your best to make your little corner of the blogosphere a brighter place, and this is the thanks you get:

Actually this is an article from today's Independent taking the piss out of giant pandas for being ridiculously fat, lazy, fussy eaters and generally useless at sex. So not like me at all, then - after all I am a relatively unfussy eater, as long as you go easy on the eggs. On the other hand, I do like a nice bamboo shoot or two.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

abyssinia later: I'm off to hang with dahomeys

My brief dalliance with mid-20th century African history and politics in the last book post, as well as the interesting old bits of paper post a few days ago, remind me that I have been sitting (not literally) on some more interesting stuff for a while. As so often the more fascinated by maps you are the more interesting it'll be.

My sister Hannah gave us a book of photographs from the Magnum photographic co-operative last Christmas - fascinating in its own right, but almost more fascinating (to me, anyway) was the paper she'd wrapped it in, an old wall map of some sort. Clearly fairly old, judging by the names of some of the countries. But how old?

We all know the method for dating a dictionary: masturbation. I don't mean doing it, I mean looking the word up. Maps require a different approach, though, and the obvious one would seem to be: construct a table of date ranges from the names shown on the map, and the date of the map will be in the (hopefully narrow) band of dates that they all have in common. Let's check it out.

Europe and the Middle East first - a larger map can be viewed here.

  • Most obviously there is a united Germany, which means it must be before 1949 (or after 1990, but I'm ruling out that possibility). The presence of the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig suggests it's the post-Treaty of Versailles borders, i.e. after 1919.
  • Yugoslavia's borders suggest it's before 1941, it must also be after 1918 as Yugoslavia didn't exist before then.
  • Similarly Czechoslovakia didn't exist before 1918.
  • There's no Israel, so it must be before 1948.
  • The "Levant States" generally referred to the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon between 1920 and 1946; similarly Transjordan existed between 1921 and 1946 (at which point it became Jordan).
Let's take a look at Asia (bigger map here):

  • French Indochina existed officially between 1887 and 1954, after which it became North and South Vietnam and Cambodia.
  • India is still occupying all the territory now occupied by Pakistan and Bangladesh, which puts it before 1947.
  • Sri Lanka is still called Ceylon; the change happened in 1972.
  • Sakhalin is still in two bits, the lower bit being the northernmost prefecture of Japan - this situation lasted from 1905 to 1945 when the whole island reverted to belonging to the Soviet Union.
This is all very interesting, but we know where the real interest is going to be: Africa. Countries change their names there as almost often as I change my underpants - i.e. once every two or three years. So we should be able to narrow it down still further. Let's have a look (bigger map here):

So, if my identification of all those dates is correct, it would seem that we can conclude that this is a map of the world that dates from the mid-1930s, specifically between 1932 and 1936.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

read all about it

Much upheaval at Halibut Towers over the last few weeks, some planned, some not. More of that at tedious and unnecessary length later, but for the moment here's some by-products of a few trips up to our loft to lift up some boards and have a general root about and tidy up in advance of getting some electricians in to sort out the parlous and potentially fatal state of our wiring.

Among all the knackered old loft insulation, bits of polystyrene and wood and other assorted junk I found some bits of old newspaper that had evidently been used as makeshift packing and/or insulation back in the day. And when I say back in the day, I mean way back in the day, as upon closer inspection the bits I retrieved reasonably intact turned out to be from a copy of the South Wales Argus from Friday, January 20th, 1956. Here's a few scanned pages:

A few things to note:
  • There's a report on the first day's play in this unofficial Test match between England and Pakistan in Lahore.
  • Leslie Davey from Blaenavon was convicted of beating to death William Roberts, the man whom his wife had been "associating" with. Just to be clear for a 21st century audience, that means "fucking".
  • You could pick up a nice house in the Beechwood Park area (i.e. pretty much the exact location of Halibut Towers) for around £3,000.
  • Just to put that into perspective, a top salesman could expect to earn in excess of £1,000 per year.
There is (on the penultimate page) a list of the pubs in the Newport area where you could obtain a delicious pint of creamy Guinness (and these were the days when it was still OK to claim that it was "good for you"). Of the ones in Newport proper here's the current state of play:

  • The Cambrian Inn on Commercial Road appears to have met its demise fairly recently, as the building is still there, and still recognisably a pub, at least until recently.
  • J. Dobell and Bartholomew Ltd. on the High Street is long gone as far as I know.
  • The Griffin on Griffin Street is still there.
  • The Murenger House on the High Street is still there and remains probably the best of the city centre pubs; that said it's the only one on this short list that I've ever been in.
  • The Potter's Arms on Dock Street is now just Potters, a bit more trendy wine bar-y these days.
  • The Old Rising Sun on Shaftesbury Street is still there but is long since empty; it's on a bit of an awkward spot these days right on a roundabout under the giant Heidenheim Drive flyover.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

duvalwatch continues

There was an interesting article on the BBC website the other day about David Duval, one of my favourite golfers and a man whose recent trials and tribulations would have crushed the life out of a lesser man. Duval seems to have a Zen-like calm about him these days despite seemingly uncontrollably erratic form; the article describes his bid to qualify for his PGA Tour card for the 2012 season (and so far so good as he finished tied 2nd in the preliminary event).

The last time Duval got a mention here he had just finished tied 2nd in the 2009 US Open - after that he started off the 2010 season with a bang by finishing tied 2nd at the AT&T tournament at Pebble Beach. Results after that were a bit erratic, but included another top 10 at the Open late in the season, and a few other decent results meant that he kept his tour card by finishing 106th on the money list, his best result since 2002. 2011 was less good - after a couple of tidy results in the early tournaments including a tie for 9th at the Northern Trust Open the rest of the season was pretty dreadful and he ended up down at 152nd on the money list, outside the top 125 that retain their card by right.

Duval's struggles resonate with me in particular, as he's not just grindingly mediocre in an easily understandable way - he makes a lot of birdies, but just throws in the occasional disastrous quadruple bogey at inopportune moments, something I can relate to very closely. But there are plenty of fairly recent examples of players emerging from decade-long slumps to enjoy a string of late-career victories, Hal Sutton and current world number 5 Steve Stricker to name but two.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

the last book I read

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I've seen this little quote in various places, mostly unattributed - this link attributes it to Annie Dillard's book Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, though she is only quoting a story she heard somewhere else. Anyway, here it is:
I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, 'If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?' 'No,' said the priest, 'not if you did not know.' 'Then why,' asked the Eskimo earnestly, 'did you tell me?'
There are a few schools of thought regarding what you have to do to get to the Christian heaven (the particular branch of vacuous hand-waving nonsense concerned with this is called soteriology). Some say just being generally nice is enough, while others say no, you pretty much have to buy into the whole God/Jesus/crucufixion/rich man/eye of camel thing, otherwise you're fucked. Which, as this blog post observes, means that either all missionaries are arseholes, or God is.

Nathan Price clearly is of the get yourself in there and convert those heathen savages school of thought, and wouldn't have much truck with the Eskimo anecdote, judging by his decision to uproot his family from rural Georgia to the deepest darkest depths of the Congo in 1959. His wife Orleanna and his four daughters Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May clearly don't get much of a say in the matter.

Needless to say when they get installed it's not quite the parade of grateful pickaninnies queuing up to be delivered from their primitive unsaved state that they might have expected - the locals have their own gods, thanks, and they seem to be about as effective as any others, generally not wiping out the harvest and killing everyone with flood and pestilence unless they really feel like it. Plus the village chief derives part of his authority from supposedly having the ear of certain key guys in the existing hierarchy. So this new guy Jesus is going to have to display some pretty impressive chops if he's going to displace the incumbents, and Reverend Price is labouring under a few disadvantages, not least the language barrier, but also a general lack of aptitude for dealing with conflict. It's probably at least partly a lack of practice, there being not much in the way of rival snake-worshipping voodoo religions in 1950s Georgia, and not much sassy back-chat at home either, the Rev being an iron-fist patriarchal type.

The daughters, whose alternating voices most of the novel is written in (with occasional interjections from Orleanna) are a bit more receptive to their new surroundings and do their best to integrate with the new community, in their differing ways. Rachel, the eldest, affects a lofty disdain for all the undignified messiness of it all, a stance somewhat undermined by her gift for unfortunate malapropism. Meanwhile feisty Leah helps her father dig the vegetable garden and picks off targets with her home-made bow and arrow, all watched by her mute and crippled twin sister Adah and younger sister Ruth May.

The family survives various scrapes - Adah is briefly believed to have been eaten by a lion, Ruth May breaks her arm, the village is briefly overrun by army ants, and Rachel has to negotiate a series of misunderstandings which nearly result in her being betrothed to the village chief Tata Ndu. Eventually their luck runs out, though; Ruth May is bitten by a green mamba and dies. This is the last straw for Orleanna, and, having presided over the burial, she leads the rest of her daughters out of the village, on foot and in the clothes they stand up in, leaving Nathan to continue his ministry alone.

Having gone their separate ways, the family re-establish themselves in various far-flung locations. Orleanna and Adah return to America, where Adah is eventually cured of her disabilities and becomes a doctor. Leah stays in the Congo with her husband Anatole and witnesses the country's troubled metamorphosis into Zaire. Meanwhile Rachel is working her way through a succession of husbands and ends up running a hotel somewhere north of Brazzaville. The fate of Nathan is never conclusively established, but it is rumoured that he chose the wrong group of people to preach to somewhere deep in the jungle and got himself killed. The novel ends with mother and daughters, reunited, returning to a newly-renamed Congo to try to locate Ruth May's grave.

The troubled history of this particular bit of central Africa, and the Congo Crisis of the early 1960s in particular, is tightly interwoven with the story of the Price family; it turns out, for instance, that Ruth May dies on the same day as Patrice Lumumba is killed and much hope for a brave post-colonial world dies with him. Instead Joseph Mobutu siezes power, with American connivance, and ushers in 30 years of violence and corruption.

The historical stuff is all very fascinating, in fact in a way it's more fascinating than the Price family's African antics - the first two-thirds of the book, covering the family's time living in the village, is interesting in its own way, but not much of any real consequence happens until Ruth May's death, at which point the chronological pace speeds up and the last third of the book covers 35 years or so. You can bet that if this had been by Joyce Carol Oates, an author whose work it superficially resembles, that a great deal more misery and indignity would have been heaped on the family's heads. The all-female voice means that Nathan is a strangely remote figure, too - the inner thoughts and motivations of an evangelical Baptist missionary prepared to come halfway across the world to preach are potentially a good deal more interesting than those of his sixteen-year-old daughter, with the best will in the world.

On the basis of the two Barbara Kingsolver novels I've read, I'd say Prodigal Summer is probably the one to go for, which is not to say that there's anything terribly wrong with The Poisonwood Bible, just that I wasn't totally bowled over by it. I'd also suggest that if you want a novel about a charismatic and slightly deranged father-figure leading his young family into the wilderness with predictably tragic results, the novel you want is Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

you ain't seen me, right

A couple of brief supplementary bits after the last post:
  • We went to a few pubs in Edinburgh, most notably the excellent Abbotsford on Rose Street, which we went to while we were on our way to Calton Hill to watch the fireworks. The firework display was actually happening at Meadowbank Stadium a mile or so up the road, but we (and a lot of other people) decided we were too lazy and/or tight to get tickets so we hung around on top of the hill and watched from there. Anyway, the Abbotsford has many interesting local (or at least Scottish) ales, most notably Avalanche from the Fyne Ales brewery which I had a couple of and was very good.
  • If you followed the link to the Silent UK raid on the Forth Bridge you may have seen some of the other fascinating stuff on the site, most notably the infiltration of the now-defunct Mail Rail lines under London. The whole urban exploration thing is fascinating, I think - if you think so too then you will find much to enjoy at places like Forlorn Britain, Derelicte, Forbidden Places and PlaceHacking. If you're tempted to try and emulate any of their activities, just remember it's trespassing, almost certainly illegal and we never had this conversation.

you (now) know what I did last summer

Here's a few links to some recent batches of photos that may or may not be of interest:
  • Firstly, and rather belatedly, some photos from my wedding to the lovely Hazel back in June at the delightful Steppes Farm, which is in Rockfield just a few miles from Monmouth. The licensed venue for weddings at Steppes Farm is their restaurant, The Stonemill, which is also well worth a visit just for the food, which is excellent. They also serve excellent beer from the Kingstone Brewery, which is just a few miles away in Tintern - the Kingstone Gold is particularly quaffable, and I should know, as I quaffed quite a quantity of it on the day.
  • Secondly, the annual Swanage trip in September. You'll pretty much know the drill by now, and I've eased off on the obsessive documentation of the pub crawl(s), so there are fewer photos than in previous years. We did, however, branch out on the Sunday and go to Wareham, where, after a pitifully short token stroll up the river and back we did a tour of some pubs, most of which were quite good, the pick probably being The Old Granary, which in addition to having a scenic riverside location and some of the best Badger beer I've ever had, appears to have a strictly all-supermodel bar staff hiring policy in place, which is nice.
  • Finally, a brief jaunt to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago to do a recce for a wedding Hazel is shooting in December, as well as some standard touristy activities we didn't do last time we were there in February 2009. One of the things we did do last time was visit the Scotch Whisky Experience up by the castle, but as it was being refurbished at the time we got a somewhat cut-down version of the full experience - basically a room, a video, a PowerPoint presentation and a glass of whisky. This time, however, we got the full multimedia package complete with a trip on a little ghost-train style ride with carriages shaped like whisky barrels. And, equally importantly, more whisky (Old Pulteney, as it happens, on this occasion). Served, interestingly, in a room dedicated to displaying the world's largest single collection of Scotch whisky, collected by some guy from Chile and then donated. A fascinating historical document (of, in a lot of cases, distilleries that no longer exist and whiskies that can no longer be obtained, anywhere) but I really think buying this stuff and then not consuming it is missing the point a bit. We also rectified an omission from an earlier trip and climbed the 287 steps to the top of the Scott Monument. I should warn anyone aspiring to do this that the last section is very cramped and narrow; I am not especially fat (well, not massively fat, anyway) but I did struggle to cram my broad manly shoulders through the top section of the spiral staircase and emerge onto the top platform. Good views, though. And you get a certificate (see right). While Hazel was off doing wedding-related activity on the Saturday morning I took myself off on the train from Haymarket to North Queensferry (about a fiver for a return, and a trip of about 15-20 minutes) to have a look at the Forth Bridge. And very impressive too, although it was still somewhat shrouded in mist. So I went back to the station, got on a train going the other way, got off at Dalmeny on the other side of the bridge and wandered about the slightly larger and more interesting South Queensferry for a bit. By that time the mist had cleared and I got some quite good pictures, aided by the bridge being largely free of unsightly scaffolding for once. Those even more fascinated by bridges than me might want to get even more up close and personal, in which case try either this video of someone taking a lift to the top, or this account of some somewhat hair-raising ninja-stylee urban exploration.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

good heavens

Any form of social change which proceeds by little baby steps (as most of them do) will tend to be largely invisible to those participating in it unless they make a point of stepping back and reflecting on it. Hell, that applies to any form of incremental change; I still see the same face looking back out of the bathroom mirror as I did when I was 20, but I'm self-aware enough to know that that's an illusion.

It's instructive, then, to watch this clip from the BBC programme The Big Questions and reflect that it wouldn't have been so long ago that it would have been unthinkable for the intervention about 25 seconds in to have been made, and for the subsequent exchange to have happened. If for some reason you can't see the clip, here's a (slightly paraphrased) summary:
God-botherer: All aborted foetuses go to heaven. Totes. For real.
Sensible woman: By that rationale, doesn't that mean we've done them a favour by aborting them before they can get all soiled and sinful?
God-botherer: No. Also....look over there! [runs away]
Sensible woman: This whole "heaven" idea is patently ridiculous, isn't it? I mean, look at yourselves.
Some idiot: Aha, but you "believe" in money, and that doesn't exist, does it? HA! CHECKMATE!
Sensible woman: WTF?
Some idiot: Money. Doesn't exist. Ergo, a) there is a God, and b) I win.
Sensible woman: WTF?
The woman courageous enough to tell a room full of swivel-eyed goddists that they are idiots is Kate Smurthwaite, who is a stand-up comic, vice-chair of Abortion Rights UK, blogger and tweeter.

Now you might usefully choose to argue with the value of calling those who believe in heaven "idiots" (clearly by any objective measure they are idiots, but you might question the political effectiveness of telling them so). It's interesting, though, to compare that pretty mild rebuke with the reactions in the comments threads at the various sites where the video clip has been posted, a few of which are reproduced here, and a disturbing number of which take the form "how dare she - a woman - diss God? Someone should RAPE SOME SENSE INTO HER". Now it's not necessarily easy to tell which of these are genuine insane religious outrage, and which are just 14-year-olds trolling, and, in both cases, how much these sentiments are amplified as a result of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it puts "idiot" in perspective, anyway.

Of course the increasing social acceptability of vocal dissent from the status quo of religious nonsense being given uncritical approval is great - on the other hand the fact that there still exists a religious TV programme on a main terrestrial channel called The Big Questions is a bit depressing. As this tweet says, as far as God and religion go there really is only one "big question", and the answer is "no".

Sunday, October 30, 2011


We went to the Cowbridge Food Festival today, always a reliable source of tempting yet expensive gourmet items. Today's haul (pictured below) included:

We also popped into the Vale Of Glamorgan Inn as they were running a real ale festival. I had a couple of quite decent pints, which is always nice at a real ale festival where you're generally required to choose from a list of a dozen or so you've never heard of, but more importantly in order to get to the bar for the second of them I had to step around none other than legendary Wales and British Lions full-back JPR Williams. Given that the 17-month driving ban he picked up for a drink-driving incident in March 2010 will have expired only a couple of months ago I trust he had made alternative arrangements for getting home, seeing as how he was tucking into a pint with some gusto.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

the last book I read

The Very Model Of A Man by Howard Jacobson.

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, they say. And this one has a beginning, all right: the Beginning Of All Things, which, according to some people anyway, was exactly 6014 years ago last Sunday.

Actually we don't quite start from the very beginning, as this isn't principally God's story, any more than it is Adam and Eve's, though they all feature at various points. This is the story of Cain, a more significant figure in human history (or at least this mythical version of it) than most people realise. Think about it: the first human to be born, rather than just poofed into existence out of some dust or a rib-bone, and therefore the first baby, the first child, the first teenager, all that stuff, as well as possibly the first person with a belly-button. And, of course, as you'll know if you were paying attention in bible study class, the first murderer.

It's not quite a straight rehash of the Book of Genesis, though - Adam and Eve aren't the innocent fig-leaf-clad nymphs of popular legend, but instead a pair of cantankerous middle-aged types, while God is barely competent to take charge of the planet without accidentally magicking stuff into existence left and right. Meanwhile Cain amuses himself thinking up names for stuff - parsley! gazelle! molybdenum! - and growing various amusing mutant plants. All is well until Eve bears another son - Abel, the apple of his parents' eyes, and the source of much inevitable fraternal (and, ultimately, fratricidal) tension and resentment.

These post-Edenic reminiscences are revealed to be a series of public performance-art-esque readings given by Cain in his new dwelling place, Babel. Yeah, that Babel. What he's been up to since fleeing the familial home isn't clear, but he's now set up in Babel and seems to be something of a local celebrity, as well as a focus for fear and superstition among the local seers and sages and entrail-readers.

Anyway, Cain's rambling recollections eventually build up to the climax we and his audience have been waiting for, the story of how he killed his brother. Having delivered himself of this, he feels it necessary to escape from other people, and from the ground which cried out and betrayed him after he killed his brother. So, what better way to do this than to build a ruddy great big tower? That can only go well.

The Very Model Of A Man could be said to mark a key mid-point in Howard Jacobson's literary career - following the rollicking comic novels Coming From Behind, Peeping Tom and Redback (the last of these published in 1986, six years before The Very Model Of A Man in 1992), and preceding a six-year gap in his output (prompted, some say, by the lukewarm critical reception it got). It's certainly the least obviously comic of the novels of his that I've read, though it does still contain some cherishable turns of phrase, and is (as all Jacobson's books are) liberally marinated in concentrated Jewishness, with the obligatory kvetching and pessimism.

Beyond the surface cleverness and the bold choice of subject matter it's hard to see the point of it, though: it's not as if there's any particular surprise in the climactic revelation about Abel's death; we all knew that was going to happen, and there isn't even the consolation of any spectacular chainsaw dismemberment or anything like that; Cain just punches him in the head a few times and he carks it. In Cain's defence, though, bear in mind that Abel is the first person in human history to die - had God made it clear that this was even possible? This is all pre-Ten Commandments, don't forget, with the "thou shalt not kill" and all that stuff. Are we sure that Cain knew the possible consequences of his actions? What the point of all the surrounding scenes set in Babel is isn't clear either, beyond establishing, given Cain's treatment of his native girlfriend Zilpah, that a few years contemplating the error of his ways hasn't made him a nicer person.

A geographical footnote, while I remember: the half-built ziggurat at Etemenanki that Cain is offered as the starting point for his tower is a real place, a few miles south of Baghdad, and is even marked as "Tower of Babel" on Google Maps. Nothing but a few lumps of rubble left now, though.

No doubt Woody Allen is heartily sick of people hankering after "the early, funny ones", but my favourite Jacobson books are the first three. The later ones like No More Mr. Nice Guy and The Mighty Walzer are fine, but don't have the manic comic energy of the earlier ones. And The Very Model Of A Man is probably best described as an interesting experiment with some good moments, but overall it feels like an overwrought attempt to write something "serious" and "significant". Peeping Tom is probably still the one I would recommend, overall, though I should point out that I haven't read the more recent ones like the 2010 Booker winner The Finkler Question.