Wednesday, September 28, 2011

headlines of the day

It appears, tragically, that the story of Percy Foster, dwarf, porn star and Gordon Ramsay lookeylikey, and his tragic death in a badger sett in mid-Wales was made up. Which is a terrible shame, as it generated some cracking headlines, of varying degrees of hysteria - the first is from Sky Australia and the second from the inimitable Sunday Sport (where the story seems to have originated).

Apparently real, though, however much it might sound like something out the Final Destination movies, is this story of a bloke who managed to fall into a clothes horse - and not in an understandably fatal manner like out of an aeroplane or anything, it was from ground level.

there's nothing like a tight end in frilly pants

Following on from my pointless bitching at the tail-end of the last post, here's another thing that always strikes me as odd - more in amusement than anger this time.

Have you noticed how people mangle the fairly simple French word lingerie? You know, bras and pants and stuff. I don't know (just as an aside) if there's some sort of ISO standard for the threshold of skimpiness and frilliness which marks the boundary between bog-standard "underwear" and Sunday-best "lingerie", but clearly some sort of dividing line exists, however arbitrary. Anyway, while standard French pronunciation would require the word to be rendered "lan-jer-ee", with the middle syllable all but swallowed if you're doing a proper French accent, more often than not people render it "lon-jer-ay" for reasons I can't begin to imagine. The Wikipedia article linked above reckons this a specifically US pronunciation, but I've heard it in the UK as well, probably more often that the proper one in fact (though I should point out that I don't hang out in social circles where the word lingerie crops up all that much in day-to-day conversation).

More importantly the picture on the right isn't posed, or at least not in quite the way you might think; no, there really is a Lingerie Football League (in America, naturally) where young ladies play American football while wearing their underwear (and a token amount of protective clothing). I think I'm right in saying that this is the most awesome sport ever invented anywhere, ever.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

salander hope and glory

I've now seen a couple of trailers for the English-language version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and, well, it looks like it might be pretty good. David Fincher has a track record of interesting stuff, the cast is certainly suitably stellar, and Rooney Mara has undergone a pretty dramatic Lisbethification process by undergoing an eye-watering selection of piercings and a disastrous haircut. In fact I'd say, solely on the basis of appearances, that she's closer to Lisbeth Salander as written than Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish adaptations, as she's more frighteningly skinny and intimidating-looking. By contrast I think Michael Nyqvist is probably closer to Mikael Blomkvist as written, Daniel Craig being a bit clenched and buff for the role - despite being a thinly-disguised authorial alter ego, and therefore irresistible to women, Blomkvist is meant to be a bit rumpled and out of condition.

Now there is a school of thought that says that it's axiomatic that the Swedish adaptation is better, what with it being Swedish and all. I view this as being an aspect of the same kind of Scando-fetishism that unquestioningly rates things like Let The Right One In and Wallander as better than, say, UK or US vampire films and detective dramas just because of the exotic setting - and the sneaking suspicion we Brits have that the Scandinavians are all having a constant akvavit-fuelled sauna-based sex orgy while we're doing it with the lights off and our socks on.

There may be a language snobbery element to it as well - the original film being somehow more authentic because it's in the original Swedish, acted by Swedish actors. Well, the trouble with that (apart from the inherent difficulties with subtitled movies) is that it's a ridiculous double standard - am I to be pilloried because I didn't read the novel in the original Swedish? Because, I didn't, I read it in English.

This raises another vexed question, though, the question of accents. Here is an English-language film set in Sweden, featuring people who are meant to be Swedish. So should they speak with Swedish accents? That way lies the danger of ending up sounding like the Swedish chef on the Muppet Show. On the evidence of the trailer, Rooney Mara is sporting a bit of a Swedish accent, and Stellan SkarsgÄrd sounds a bit Swedish (but then of course he is Swedish), while the rest of the cast who speak any significant amount of dialogue (mainly Daniel Craig and Christopher Plummer) stick with pretty bog-standard unaccented English.

All of which is fine by me - you're asking for a fair bit of suspension of disbelief just by having foreign characters converse in English, and if you go too far by having people identify their nationality solely by accent you run the risk of ending up in Allo, Allo territory, which clearly no-one wants. The only alternative is sticking rigidly to the original languages, which you can get away with if you're Quentin Tarantino, but not otherwise.

On an almost completely unrelated topic, but just while we've got the word "tattoo" in our collective head, can we all stop pronouncing French actress Audrey Tautou's surname as if it were the word "tattoo"? Read it, notice the "u" after the "a", realise it must be pronounced "toe-too", do so, move on with your life, stop annoying me. Ditto "sudoku". Japanese word, three syllables, clearly and unambiguously must be pronounced "soo-doh-koo", simples. So what's with probably more than 50% of people pronouncing it "suh-doo-koh"? I literally can't fathom whether it's some sort of mass hysteria, word blindness, laziness or just blithering stupidity, but people do it all the time. LOOK AT THE LAST LETTER! IT'S A "U"! HOW CAN IT BE PRONOUNCED LIKE AN "O"? Oh, it makes me mad.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

total loonar e-clips

I think it's perhaps time for a bit of a round-up of some recent religious lunacy. Remember, I seek this stuff out so that you don't have to.

Firstly, there's been a couple of bits in the news recently about the campaign to raise a bit of consciousness about barking religious lunacy being taught in British schools, under the weaselly guise of Intelligent Design. Here in the UK we scoff superiorly at the constant battle in the USA to combat those who want to try to sneak creationism into the curriculum, or edge evolution out of it, in an "it couldn't happen here" sort of way, but it can and it may unless we get our act together. We've been bumbling along just assuming no-one would be so stupid as to try and sneak religion into the science classroom up to now, but the campaign's assertion is that we now need some specific guidelines, and they're probably right.

The campaign already has an impressive number of heavyweight signatories, including, inevitably, Richard Dawkins, who got wheeled out on Radio 4's PM programme earlier this week to provide a bit of contrast to the dim bulb they'd dug up to argue for teaching the controversy or some such nonsense - Simon Morris, who is apparently a science teacher to some kids in London, poor bastards. It's not a very edifying exchange, largely because Morris is such a dimwit, but it at least illustrates that there are people out there who really believe this stuff, and some of them could be teaching your kids.

That was just to warm your blood up to a gentle simmer so you don't sprain anything when I unload this next lot on you.

Here's an amusing article in the Washington Post that seeks to allay the fears of anyone who thinks that the latest crop of high-profile Republican politicians is looking to install some sort of Christian theocracy in the USA in the unthinkable event that any of them should ever get within spitting distance of power. One paragraph from the article bears repeating here as it is just too delicious for words:
As I have explained before, Christians who seek to participate in the political process do so not as an attempt to install some type of theocratic rule, but to ensure that the government fulfils its God-ordained role in society to promote justice, provide security, and protect the God-given freedoms of its people.
That sort of level of complete lack of self-awareness really is quite remarkable. Not content with trying to drag the USA back to the 19th century, swivel-eyed Stepford Wife looney tune Michele Bachmann has dived into the murky waters of vaccine paranoia this week by claiming that the Gardasil HPV vaccine gives you brain cancer or something. I mean, it's a bit late for the religious right to be making up this sort of thing; everyone knows their objection to the HPV vaccine, and it is that once free of the mental shackles imposed by the risk of cervical cancer their previously virginal and innocent 12-year old daughters will instantly turn into dead-eyed cum-gargling crack whores, a bit like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver but without the cute outfits.

Next, back to Radio 4: I'm glad to say I missed philosopher John Gray's programme about the conflict between science and religion - glad because on the basis of this summary he seems to have spent the entire show making an absolutely colossal insufferable arse of himself. Basically this is the tweedy beardy Terry Eagleton/Rowan Williams argument that chuckles indulgently at atheists having got hold of the idea that religious people do anything as gauche and obvious as go around ACTUALLY BELIEVING IN ANYTHING, goodness me no, it's all about ritual, about shared experience, about something metaphorical, I'm not sure exactly what but it's a bit like art and literature and shit, and who could honestly say they aren't moved and inspired by those? Mmmmmmm? Isn't it?
Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth. Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories. Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.
To which there are two responses: firstly, that is not an accurate representation of religion as practised by 99% of the world's religious people, who do indeed believe some pretty specific things, and believe them pretty firmly, thank you very much, my word yes. Secondly, as this comment at Ophelia Benson's Butterflies And Wheels captures very pithily, if you're making the assertion that atheists are missing the point, being overly literal etc. etc., by insisting that believers believe in stuff like the virgin birth, the resurrection, all that jazz, then what I'm going to need you to do is sign, in the presence of all your Christian brethren, this public declaration that says that those things are all bullshit. Then we can proceed to the debate about metaphor and stuff like that. If you find yourself unable to do that, well then we're not missing the point after all, are we?

Speaking of the startlingly be-eyebrowed Archbishop of Canterbury, he was in the news as well this week, musing about how to spread the word of Christianity in these secular times. Apparently one of the difficulties is that atheism is so darn cool these days, what with Richard Dawkins practically outdoing Jay-Z for space on schoolkids' iPods, and that makes promoting fusty old Christianity a bit tricky, what with all that going to church and hanging out with old people. Nothing to do with, erm, reality or any of that stuff, apparently.

Finally, there's been some furious behind-the-scenes work going on in the top theology labs to try and arrive at a position on the Genesis creation myth that doesn't instantly collapse into absurdity when compared with science, or, to put it another way, reality. Now the obvious way to do this is just to say: well, it's a nice story and all, but it's just a bodged-together conflation of various other old creation myths and there's absolutely no reason to suppose it bears any relation to the actual history of the earth and the human species, both of which are reasonably well understood by other means. Heck, it doesn't even manage to be consistent with itself, let alone external reality.

If you hold to the position that that option is inadmissable, then you have a problem - either you say, yep, Genesis is a metaphor for something, but all that other stuff about the gays and not coveting your neighbour's ass is totally meant to be taken literally, or you say, well, it's not literally true, I mean, there wasn't really a talking snake, but it reflects reality nonetheless. The latest way to do this is to latch onto the concepts of known historical human population bottlenecks and more specifically the concepts of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam and try and shoehorn all that into the story. Basically what this article says (and you could be forgiven for missing it among all the tortured rambling) is that Adam and Eve weren't the first two humans, but that instead they carried some sort of "soul gene" and then subsequently an "original sin gene" that then spread throughout humanity. Yeah, I know. Never mind that y-Adam and m-Eve lived about 60,000 years apart, and that the bible pretty explicitly leaves very little wriggle room on the question of Adam and Eve being the first humans, if it eases the constant ache of cognitive dissonance then I suppose it's of some value to the devout. But, you know, there is an alternative - just get rid of it all, like having a really big cathartic shit. You'll feel so much better.

the last book I read

Children Of Darkness And Light by Nicholas Mosley.

Harry is a journalist, slightly rumpled and morally compromised and borderline alcoholic in that way that journalists in fiction usually are (and maybe in real life too; who knows). Harry is off from his London home up to Cumbria to investigate some confusing stories of a group of children who've had visions of the Virgin Mary.

Harry has some previous in this department as he encountered something similar during his time in Bosnia covering the conflict there in the mid-1990s (presumably in or near Medjugorje); he's also not unhappy to get away from London as he's been having a torrid time with his wife Melissa, to the extent of leaving her with a black eye after an argument. He's also got his eye on comely journalist colleague Janice who is heading up to help cover the same story, and is looking forward to the prospect of some discreet hotel-based action.

When he arrives, though, he discovers that things are a bit less clear then they appeared. He has a series of strange encounters on the beach near the hotel he has chosen to check into, which also turns out to be near a nuclear facility (presumably Sellafield) at which there has recently been some sort of leak or other crisis. Not only that, despite choosing the hotel on a whim they seem to have been expecting him, especially alluring receptionist Ellen who tells him where he can find the children.

He then has a series of increasingly strange encounters with the children, and especially Gaby, a young girl of twelve or thirteen who turns out to be of Bosnian descent. First he encounters her in a barn at a farm, before she is taken away in a car by a man who may or may not be from Social Services, then he meets all the children during some strange fishing ritual back at the beach, from where they go to the house of kindly wheelchair-bound Mrs. Ferguson, who is conducting some mysterious scientific experiments in the local area, and then later they all head back to the hotel where Harry ends up in his room with a group of naked twelve-year olds (including Gaby) in his bed and him and Ellen sharing a mattress on the floor.

So not much rugged investigative journalism being done yet then, indeed the story Harry was chasing seems to be largely forgotten as he heads back to his home in London. Expecting to be reunited with Melissa he finds her missing and son Billy sharing a bed with his schoolfriend Jenny, whose parents seem to be undergoing some relationship trauma she's escaping from. A series of further mysterious encounters ensue - first in a local pub with Janice, who instead of hooking up with Harry in Cumbria has rekindled a relationship with Charlie, who now works as a security officer at the nuclear facility but was formerly a soldier in, among other places, Bosnia. Then he meets up with Melissa and they find Billy, Jenny and Gaby near some abandoned buildings down by an old canal. Seeing a light from another warehouse they sneak a look inside, only to find some sort of weird Operation Spanner-esque BDSM sex orgy going on, complete with all sorts of eye-watering nailing and fisting activities. Deciding to do a bunk from the scene before the police arrive, they escape down the canal in a rowing boat.

Finally - the boat-based escape having been successful and family life returning to normal - Harry returns to Bosnia to follow up some threads from the original story, and during the course of another encounter with some orphan children and a mysterious nun gets a new perspective on what's been happening.

Some novels conform pretty closely to your expectations - expectations built up, assuming you're not already familiar with the author, by reading the blurb on and inside the covers while browsing around the bookshop (one of the second-hand shops in Hay-on-Wye in the case of this particular one). Some, on the other hand, don't - this is one of those. The first couple of chapters are pretty solidly down-to-earth as they set the scene of Harry's unhappy home life, occasional drink problems and possible burgeoning romance with Janice. Once he gets to Cumbria, though, it all gets increasingly weird and dream-like, no-one seems able to have a normal conversation without talking past each other in a portentous way, and Harry drifts through the series of strange situations without (seemingly) feeling the need to question or take a grip on events. Whether the kids really have had some sort of visitation, what's been going on at the nuclear facility, what's up with the tangential references to child abuse and Social Services' involvement, what Mrs. Ferguson was up to with her experiments, whether Melissa really has been having an affair, what's going on with Jenny's parents, how Billy and Jenny and Gaby ended up together down at the canalside House of Fisty Sex Games - all these questions are left unanswered.

There's a general air of dreamy and slightly queasily erotic mysticism running though the book, and Mosley has some slightly odd stylistic tics, most jarringly phrasing all the thoughts that run through Harry's head as questions, even though most of them are just statements. This Observer review nails it quite nicely - while generally favourable it is peppered with phrases like:
  • virtually story-less
  • without the slightest concession to straight narrative
  • teeters on the edge of wilful eccentricity
  • anarchic attitude towards punctuation
  • an obliquely original species of novel
In fact this can safely be characterised as a fairly odd book in general, and though I enjoyed it I did find myself wondering what the hell was going on at various points, and how much of this stuff was meant to be really happening, a problem I had to a greater or lesser extent with a few other books in this series, notably Laura Blundy, Winterwood and Memoirs Of A Survivor.

Interestingly, as I only discovered after finishing the book, Nicholas Mosley is the eldest son of Oswald Mosley, and the half-brother of Max Mosley, who of course would have fitted right in at the warehouse sex orgy at the end of the book, as long as someone was wearing a Nazi outfit. But, as they say, you can't choose your relatives - Mosley overcame this shaky start to win the Whitbread Prize in 1990 with his novel Hopeful Monsters. Even more fascinatingly this is the second book in the last half-dozen that has had a title in the format X of Y and Z, this being the other.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Kudos to legendary American rock band REM for bowing out with dignity this week, rather than just milking it on the live circuit for the next 20 years in the face of dwindling album sales and musical relevance.

REM's history is in a very real sense my history in terms of having a genuine interest in music - it was when I went to Bristol University in 1988 and discovered the Fry Haldane record library in the Students' Union that I really got an idea of the breadth and range and weirdness of what was out there waiting to be listened to - one of the first things I really got into was REM's fifth album Document, and, after it was released the following year, 1989's Green - these two were the albums that really launched them onto the world stage.

It's fair to say that this was probably a good time for them to go - my view is that all of their first ten albums, from the mysterious jangly mumblings of 1983's Murmur to the wild experimentation of 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, are pretty much essential, but that New Adventures was their last really good album, the rest being fine but not startlingly good, with the exception of 2008's back-to-basics rock thrash Accelerate. So you could say that it was drummer Bill Berry's decision to quit in 1997 that did for them, and you might be right.

The first really major rock gig I ever went to was an REM gig as well, at the now-defunct Wembley Arena in what a bit of research tells me must have been June 1989. Even with a bit of allowance for rose-tinted spectacles this is still in the top two or three rock gigs I've ever been to, the opening blast through Finest Worksong being a proper hairs on the back of the neck moment (you can see footage from that tour on the excellent concert DVD Tourfilm). I also saw them at the also-now-defunct Cardiff Arms Park in 1994 touring in support of Monster. My principal memory of that gig is standing watching their encore rendition of Let Me In, Michael Stipe's grungy lament for Kurt Cobain, with my sister sitting on my shoulders and some drunk bloke singing along next to me after having spent the previous five hours or so swigging red wine out of a 2-litre Coke bottle.

My advice for the REM novice is to start with 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, still their finest moment, proceed to Document and Green and then take it from there. Everyone should own some REM albums.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

the last book I read

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson.

A bit of a rum cove, Robert Neville. Holed up in his house drinking whisky and obsessively sharpening bits of wood every night, by day he stalks the streets of Los Angeles breaking into people's houses and hammering wooden stakes into them. Well, you've got to have a hobby, haven't you?

And it's not like Neville can take up something more social like joining a book group, because he is the last man on earth. Or, at least, the last one unaffected by the wind- and insect-borne plague that has transformed the rest of the human race into something resembling vampires - pale-skinned, sensitive to daylight and garlic, active at night, and with a disturbing habit of biting people on the neck and sucking their blood. No, the book group idea is definitely out.

So Neville lives out a grim existence - roaming the city by day staking slumbering vampires, and skulking in his boarded-up house at night while they throw rocks and shout for him to come out. Eventually he decides that he really has got to find a hobby, and starts researching the possible origins of the plague, and conducting experiments on some of the vampires, both the living and the undead (there are both kinds) to try and work out how the disease works. He eventually concludes that it is some sort of blood-borne bacterium, so powerful that it can animate the human body in search of sustenance even after death.

Out roaming the city one day Neville finds himself not alone for once - a young woman, Ruth, is out walking in a field. He catches up with her and persuades her to come back to the house with him, where they talk, though Neville is still suspicious - is she immune or infected? Gradually the tension thaws, and after a brief sexual encounter Ruth agrees to undergo a blood test. While Neville is looking through his microscope at the results, she clouts him over the head with a mallet and escapes.

When he awakes he finds that she has left him an explanatory note - she was a spy sent by a group of infected people (living ones, the undead ones being just zombie-like automatons) who are trying to find treatments and possibly cures for the disease, but who have had loved ones killed in their beds by Neville, who they see as some sort of rampaging bogeyman who must be stopped at all costs. She urges him to flee before the death squads come for him, but it's too late - one day they do come, and, while slaughtering all the undead vampires, they capture Neville and imprison him.

Ruth comes to see Neville in his prison cell and illustrates the error of his perspective to him - it is the still living infected population who are the last hope of the human race, not him; he is just a savage leftover of a dead race who must be put down like a dog before he can do any more harm. In a last show of compassion she slips him a couple of suicide pills so he can at least escape being made a public spectacle of.

It's a brave man who tries to put a new spin on the old vampire legends - Bram Stoker's Dracula remains the definitive vampire story, but it doesn't attempt to address vampirism in any sort of scientific way, preferring to stick with the old tropes about vampires being able to shape-shift into giant hounds and bats and the like, as well as providing the source material for Bela Lugosi to deliver a couple of the greatest lines in movie history. Even more modern vampire novels like Stephen King's Salem's Lot adhere fairly closely to the supernatural explanations. I Am Legend makes a commendable attempt to ground the vampires' lifecycle and behaviour in the real world, though, which I suppose makes it more of a science fiction novel than a horror novel, assuming that those terms mean anything.

I Am Legend has been filmed three times, as The Last Man On Earth in 1964 (featuring a hilariously miscast Vincent Price as the protagonist), as The Omega Man in 1971 (featuring Charlton Heston in the second of his trio of science fiction appearances, between Planet Of The Apes and Soylent Green) and finally as I Am Legend in 2007 (featuring Will Smith). All of those films saw fit to mess with the basic storyline in one way or the other, the downbeat ending in particular - as with The Talented Mr Ripley, it was obviously decided that there was only so much that the cinema-going audience would put up with.

The post-apocalyptic setting echoes a few other books, for instance Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Stephen King's The Stand. King, who is a big fan of Matheson and wrote the afterword to my Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition, also stole pretty much wholesale the segment where Neville buries his wife Virginia and has her reappear, undead, on his doorstep, for the finale of Pet Sematary. The last-minute switch of viewpoint throwing all that has gone before into a new perspective is similar to the one at the end of William Golding's The Inheritors. Anyway, it's a miniature masterpiece (at only 160 pages), and you should read it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

the last book I read

The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

A bit of a rum cove, Tom Ripley. Fingers in pies, a few little shady ventures on the go, most recently a bit of low-level financial confidence trickery, but nothing serious. I mean, it's not like he's murdered anybody.

When Herbert Greenleaf hails him across a New York bar, then, Ripley's first reaction is to guiltily assume one of his schemes has been rumbled, but in fact Greenleaf has recognised him as an acquaintance of his son, Dickie. Overestimating the closeness of their friendship (something Ripley actively encourages him in), Mr Greenleaf offers Ripley a job - go to Italy, where Dickie has been swanning about for some time at his father's expense, and persuade him to return home, join the family business and generally knuckle down to adulthood and responsibility.

Since Mr Greenleaf is covering all his expenses, Ripley readily agrees and sets off for Italy. Once there he contrives a supposedly chance meeting with Dickie, who is sunning himself on the beach with his American friend Marge Sherwood. A bit of stalking activity later and Ripley is being invited to move from his hotel into Dickie's rented house. His burgeoning friendship with Dickie and his virtual monopolising of his company leave Marge feeling excluded and resentful, and when Ripley starts aping Dickie's clothing and mannerisms she becomes suspicious of the nature of their relationship. Dickie starts to have similar qualms himself after he comes back to the house to find Ripley wearing his clothes, and there is a cooling-off of their friendship. Seeing his free ride on the Greenleafs' money coming to an end, Ripley persuades Dickie to come on a farewell trip to San Remo, during the course of which they go out in a dinghy and, seeing that they are out of sight of land and other boats, Ripley impulsively murders Dickie by caving his head in with one of the oars and then weighs his body down with the anchor and dumps it over the side. He then takes the boat to a secluded spot near the shore and scuttles it.

So now what? Well, Ripley has a few tricks up his sleeve, like some impersonation and signature-forging skills, so he decides that he's going to become Dickie Greenleaf for a while. He gathers up Dickie's clothes and passport from the house and heads off to Rome, where he puts his forging skills to good use by writing some letters: to Dickie's parents assuring them that he's still alive and that they should continue sending him the allowance cheques, and to Marge suggesting that perhaps they shouldn't see each other for a while.

Obviously the subterfuge of Ripley being Dickie is only going to hold for as long as he can avoid meeting anybody who knew Dickie while he was still Dickie, i.e. alive. So when Dickie's old friend Freddie Miles calls round, Ripley has to do some frantic reversion into being Tom Ripley for a while; trouble is, the housekeeper knows him as Dickie Greenleaf, and so eventually, after some sitcom-style misunderstandings, Freddie smells a rat and comes back to confront Ripley about it, at which point Ripley has little choice but to murder him with an ashtray, bundle his lifeless body into his car and dump it among the tombs lining the Appian Way.

Things are starting to get complicated: the police are sniffing round after finding Freddie Miles' body, and they're also concerned that this Tom Ripley bloke seems to be missing, and both men knew Dickie Greenleaf and saw him not long before they disappeared. So Ripley (as Dickie) decides to lie low in Sicily for a bit until the heat's off. Eventually he has a better idea - return to Italy, revert to being Tom Ripley again, and pretend to have been off touring round Italy and be unaware of all the fuss. So he contrives to turn up in Venice and report to the police to confirm that he's not actually missing after all.

So the question now becomes: what's happened to Dickie? In due course Dickie's father (with a private detective in tow) and Marge turn up in Venice to ask Ripley the same question, and Ripley steers them towards concluding that he must have killed himself, possibly out of remorse after murdering poor old Freddie Miles, or possibly not. All seems lost when Marge finds Dickie's rings in a trinket box at Ripley's rented house, but (after briefly toying with the idea of murdering her) Ripley manages to persuade her that Dickie gave them to him for safekeeping shortly before vanishing, almost as if he was not coming back, eh Marge? Fortunately Marge seems convinced.

So Ripley seems finally to be clear of worry. The only remaining fly in the ointment is that now he's not Dickie any more the regular income has dried up. In fact pretty much everyone seems to have concluded that Dickie is dead. So with one last facsimile of Dickie's signature Ripley produces a fake will on Dickie's old typewriter (which he then disposes of in a canal) leaving everything to Ripley. Problem solved!

Having your major protagonist be an amoral murderer would have been revolutionary enough in 1955, letting him get away with it and leaving him with a nice house in Venice and access to his victim's trust fund even more so. It's interesting that both film adaptations of the book, Plein Soleil aka Purple Noon in 1960 and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley in 1999, changed the ending to give Ripley a bit of comeuppance. In the earlier film Dickie's body slurps up from the deep at an inopportune moment, and in the Minghella film Ripley is portrayed as having embarked on a homosexual relationship with an Englishman, Peter Smith-Kingsley (who appears briefly in a much more minor role in the book), whom circumstances then dictate that he has to kill to avoid being rumbled, at, presumably, some psychological cost to himself as well as the risk of being discovered as the killer.

It seems a shame that they had to make the gay subtext explicit in the later film, because, well, it stops being subtext, then, doesn't it? The thread running pretty clearly through the book is that Ripley (in addition to various psychological issues, like, you know, murdering people) is probably at least partly a repressed homosexual (possibly like the narrator of Demian). That seems pretty clear from his tortured relationship with Dickie, and also his attitudes towards Marge: resentment of her relationship with Dickie at first, and a more general dislike later. It's interesting that the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge in the Minghella film makes her a great deal more attractive than she's portrayed as being in the book, but of course in the book we're seeing her through the distorting lens of Ripley's sexual disgust. The other thread that runs through the book is the passing of the old class divisions - Dickie and Freddie Miles' attitudes to Ripley are slightly disdainful, as he doesn't have their urbane upper-class manners and easy social skills, or the right old school tie, but he comes out on top in the end as he's not only cleverer than they are, but not as effete and sybaritic and lazy. That's your actual meritocracy in action, right there. And murder, also.

Convincing portrayals of proper psychopaths in fiction are quite rare; there's Hannibal Lecter, but he's a cartoon character compared to Ripley, who displays all the standard symptoms - poor impulse control, little or no empathy, a plausible veneer of normality, no guilt or remorse for his actions - but without the pantomime silliness. I suppose there's an echo of Lolita here as well, in that the central character has few redeeming features and commits a whole slew of atrocities throughout the book, but we still retain a bit of sympathy for him at the end, probably more so for Ripley than for Humbert Humbert, actually.

Anyway, this is terrifically sly and clever stuff, as long as you haven't got the sort of highly developed moral sense that demands that people who do wicked things get strung up good and proper for it. In fact it's so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

the blend is nigh

Let's clear up the last two un-sampled whiskies in the cupboard. These just happen both to be blends, so it seems only right to do them together. The only blended whisky we've featured here previously was the mighty Johnnie Walker Black Label (that bottle has just bitten the dust, as it happens), so it's about time we did some more.

Firstly, Jameson Special Reserve. This is a first as it's an Irish whiskey (and therefore carries an extra "e"), although I did allude way back in the early days to having recently finished a bottle of 10-year-old Bushmills. This bottle was given to me by our excellent and generous Irish friends Mark and Lorna when they popped in at our post-wedding barbecue, and it's only now, a couple of months later, that I've got round to broaching it. This carries a 12-year age statement, which means all of the whiskey in it is over 12 years old - this one is to the standard Jameson as Johnnie Walker Black is to Johnnie Walker Red, if you like.

Though the raw ingredients and most of the preparation process are pretty much identical, Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky in a few important ways, most notably that almost all Irish whiskey is triple-distilled - with a very few exceptions, notably Auchentoshan, Scotch whisky is distilled only twice. In theory this makes the end product a bit smoother and more refined. Also worth noting is that while Jameson is marketed as a blended whiskey, and indeed so it is, being a mixture of malt and grain whiskies, all the whiskey contained in it is produced at the Jameson distillery. This is in marked contrast to how almost all blended Scotch whisky is made; in the main the blending houses don't produce their own whisky (though they might own distilleries elsewhere whose output they have first dibs on), and they source the constituent bits from a wide variety of places.

Right, stand aside, I'm going in. It's all shortbread and honey with just a whiff of something more estery like pear drops or whiteboard cleaner; very inviting. Have a sip and it's still sweet and biscuity - if you didn't know what it was you might well assume that it must be one of the more mellow Speysiders like Knockando or Cardhu, though I think it's a bit more interesting than either of those.

The second bottle is a litre of Johnnie Walker Green Label I picked up in the duty-free shop at Heathrow before we went to Canada; remarkably it survived ten days in an RV and the return flight without getting either broken or consumed. Green Label is the next one up the hierarchy from Black Label, and a 70cl bottle will generally set you back about 40 quid, so a litre for a smidgen under £30 seemed pretty good to me. The next one up, Gold Label, generally retails for around £60, and the top one (one-off absurdly expensive specialities aside), Blue Label, will set you back something like £150, so it's unlikely I'll be shelling out for either of those in the near future.

Actually, technically Green Label isn't a blend, it's a vatted malt, which means that it's 100% malt whisky (unlike blends which contain grain whisky as well) from various distilleries. As well as the odd dash from other places the box claims that it's principally a blend of Caol Ila, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Talisker, all of which are at least 15 years old (compared with 12 years for the Black Label). Well, I've never tried Linkwood, but Caol Ila and Talisker are both pretty robustly smoky, and Cragganmore has a bit, too, so you'd expect the blended end result to be pretty aggressive.

So it's a bit of a surprise when you dip a nose (your own, ideally) in to find that it's pretty friendly - very rich and intense and cakey, but it's not shoving a burning peat brick in your eye in quite the way you might have expected. It doesn't seem to be any smokier than the Black Label, for instance. It's all rich dark raisins and sherry when you have a sip, too, and now it seems less smoky than the Black Label. There's a bit of an after-zing on the tongue from the peat, but it's really quite civilised. It's really tremendously good, but you almost wish it was just a little bit rougher and more sweary and punchy.

Of the two I'd have to say I prefer the Johnnie Walker, just because I like a little bit of a backhanded smoky slap round the kisser, but they're both very good. Ask me whether I prefer the Green Label or the Black Label, though, and I'd struggle to give you an answer, at least without a large glass of each, a big leather chair and a couple of hours to think about it.