Saturday, June 30, 2012

the last book I read

The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco.

Join me if you will for a journey to the wild and lawless world of 1327, where bands of rogue monks roamed the land, a-theoligisin' and a-quibblin' over minor points of biblibal interpretation, and occasionally a-disagreein' to such an extent that they had no way of a-resolvin' the argument other than for one side to set the other on fire a bit until they shut up.

Into this hive of scum and villainy one monk, William Baskerville, walks alone - a maverick monk, who doesn't play by the book, but God dammit he gets results. Dammit, chief, if I haven't cracked the case by vespers the senior abbot can have my badge! Dammit, Baskerville, you're too close to this one - you're off the case! Go and investigate those potato thefts from the lower kitchen.

I'm not sure I can keep this up for a whole review, to be honest, so let's start again. It's 1327, during the period (1309-1377) when the Catholic popes resided in Avignon rather than Rome. As part of the ongoing theological wranglings over this situation, the aforementioned maverick monk William Baskerville and his young sidekick Adso travel to a monastery in northern Italy to attend some formal discussion about Biblical interpretation, which would of course seem laughably trivial were it not for the distinct possibility of occupying the wrong side of the argument getting you taken outside and set on fire. William is particularly at risk in this area as he is a big fan of the newfangled empiricism and critical thinking as expounded by Roger Bacon and William of Ockham, ideas some would feel were dangerously inimical to religion (and they would of course have been right).

Anyway, other matters soon arise to occupy the monks - one of them is found dead, having apparently thrown himself out of a window in the monastery's library, access to which is jealously guarded, lest dangerously subversive texts should be seen by those not well-enough versed in sophisticated theological ignoring of reality to be immune to them. Hot on the heels of that, and amid lurid rumours of some hot forbidden monk-on-monk action, another monk is found upended in a vat of pig's blood, another is found drowned in the bath-house, another has his head caved in with a religious ornament and another keels over in the prayer-stalls, apparently poisoned.

William's awesome powers of deduction eventually enable him to crack the secret code that leads to some hidden rooms within the labyrinthine library, the solution to the mystery and the person behind the killings. After a classic let-me-explain-my-evil-plan manoeuvre followed by a textbook you'll-never-take-me-alive gambit the whole library, and subsequently the whole monastery, ends up going up in flames, with the book that was the key MacGuffin consumed as well.

A 500-page book, large sections of which are devoted to descriptions of the machinations of corrupt 14th-century religious types and arcane disagreements over scriptural interpretation, even while interspersed with monks being offed in entertainingly lurid ways, won't be for everyone, especially as the aforementioned MacGuffin - the legendary lost second volume of Aristotle's Poetics, supposedly a scholarly study of comedy, which the (admittedly insane) antagonist thinks is going to destroy religion by making people laugh at it, is a bit on the disappointing side after all the build-up. And William's theory that this is all some sort of hugely complex serial-killing spree based on the book of Revelation turns out to be a great deal more coherent and interesting than the actual explanation. No doubt that's all part of Eco's fabulously post-modern plan, though. The book is supposedly chock-full of literary allusions and puns, the odd one or two of which I spotted, most obviously that William of Baskerville is basically Sherlock Holmes in a habit.

It's all much more fun than a novel about 14th-century monks has any right to be, though. I haven't seen the 1986 film, though that didn't stop me visualising William as Sean Connery throughout. I can only assume that the film omitted much of the theological discussion, or it would have been about eight hours long.

The Name Of The Rose won, in addition to most of the significant Italian literary awards, the Prix M├ędicis ├ętranger in 1982, which means it qualifies as an addition to the list here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

he's having a go at the flowers now!

Couple of good examples of religious nuttery this week - more specifically the unthinking assumption that people are going to defer to your barking views just because they are long-standing enough to have acquired some public figure in a disastrous hat who's officially employed to try to make them sound respectable.

Anyway, let's start with Ricky Gervais. Now while I salute Gervais for being a high-profile atheist, I am by no means an uncritical fan of his stuff. While The Office was a work of genius, and Extras had its moments (the moments featuring Kate Winslet in particular, plus of course this bit), and the Ricky Gervais Show in its various formats has its moments too (though I'm not as convinced as Gervais seems to be that Karl Pilkington is a creation of comedic genius), I think he's probably jumped the shark comedically, certainly if Life's Too Short was anything to go by. The old argument that "I'm not promoting these views, I'm satirising them" is the same one made by Johnny Speight about Alf Garnett, after all, and there were those who weren't totally convinced by it. And his deeply unconvincing "blimey, I had no idea it meant that" reaction over the whole "mong" episode was a bit shit, really. None of this is particularly relevant here except to make the point that I certainly don't deem him to be immune from criticism. But the title of this week's Daily Mail article should give you pause for thought:

Now then: one of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong. One of these things....OK, I'll stop now. But you get the general idea; the point is that dwarves....exist. Disabled people....exist. Whereas God....well, you know what I think, but all but the most fire-and-brimstone (funda)mentalist would agree that there's some room for debate on the subject. This bit is quite interesting too:
'Some people are offended by mixed marriage. Some people are offended by equality. Do you know what I mean?’  This straw-man defence, equating his critics with reactionary bigots, isn’t uttered in anger. Gervais is enjoying the banter. But I think it gets to the nub of what he’s about.
Couple of things here: firstly that's not what a straw-man argument is; a straw-man argument would require him to attribute to his critics views they don't actually hold, whereas that is actually a pretty accurate summary of their position. Secondly, what's wrong with equating those who oppose mixed marriage with reactionary bigots? They are reactionary bigots.

Also of interest is the story of the German court that decided that male circumcision done at the parents' behest for religious reasons amounted to "bodily harm". Now this doesn't equate to the passing of a law against it, and the ruling seems to be "not binding" in some rather woolly way, but as the setting of a precedent it's certainly a welcome step.

Say what you like about the Germans - their strange taste in shorts, being a bit too good at penalty shoot-outs (and football in general), that whole starting two world wars thing, centuries of anti-Semitism, David Hasselhoff - but they do generally take a commendably robust attitude to not giving nonsense special treatment just because it happens to be religious nonsense, the obvious other example being their no-bullshit approach to Scientology, which is after all pretty much 100% concentrated bullshit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

celebrity jeremylikey of the day

Shouty TV host and lowest-common-denominator chav-baiting shitehawk Jeremy Kyle, and star of various big-budget blockbusters including Bourne Legacy and Avengers Assemble Jeremy Renner. The big comic-book adaptation stuff leaves me pretty cold, I suspect largely because I'm not a comic-book buff in the first place, but it would be remiss of me not to point out that Avengers Assemble features the fabulously sexy Scarlett Johansson in a rubber catsuit, not to mention kicking a certain amount of ass while wearing a cocktail dress and shackled to a chair.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

what's that vor?

Just a couple of additions to the previous list of stuff:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

if it ain't pembroke don't fix it

Here's a few snippets of potential interest to accompany my photographs of our trip to Pembrokeshire last week - be warned that the photo gallery contains an unnecessarily large number of photos of my beautiful baby daughter being impossibly cute and adorable in a variety of ways, for which I make no apology whatsoever.
  • We stayed at a cottage at Treseissyllt Hafod, which is available for hire via the Pembrokeshire Coastal Cottages website. Plenty of accommodation space, nice gravelled courtyard area for parking and barbecues, huuuuge kitchen, all very nice.
  • Just down the coast are the interesting beaches of Abermawr and Aberbach, both of which were presumably at one time your basic bog-standard little tidal harbours with estuarial mud-flats and the like, but following an enormous storm in 1859 (on the 25th of October, to be precise) now have high shingle banks shielding the area behind the beach from the tides, and as a consequence the protected areas are now little marshy nature reserves teeming with plant life and no doubt all sorts of fascinating creepy-crawlies as well.
  • In addition to all this Abermawr has a surprisingly rich industrial history, particularly for a place relatively inaccessible by road. Not only was it the landfall point for an early pair of undersea telegraph cables between Britain and Ireland, but it was for a while intended to be the terminus of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway (this eventually ended up being at Neyland, further south - the branch up to Fishguard was added later). There seems to be some dispute over how much preparatory work was actually done at Abermawr, but supposedly there are some earthworks which you can find if you take a walk in the woods in the south-west corner of the beach. We didn't really have time to do this, though.
  • An interesting feature of Pembrokeshire (and some bits of Carmarthenshire) is the historic enclave of cultural and linguistic (and possibly genetic) Englishness that exists in its south-west corner. This is colloquially known as Little England beyond Wales and its border known as the Landsker Line. This is 15-20 miles south of where we were staying, and is illustrated quite nicely by this map (from the excellent Strange Maps) of the distribution of Welsh speakers in Wales.
  • That is indeed a Buff that Nia is wearing in the photo - baby-sized Buffs are available in a variety of colours and designs. My advice is to go for the pirate bandana configuration (which is what Nia is sporting) as this offers maximum size adjustability for small heads.

Monday, June 18, 2012

what a tangled Webb we weave

Just a quick post-US Open round-up:

The eventual winner, Webb Simpson, in addition to being a dead ringer for Owen Wilson, provides an unprecedented second consecutive example (after Bubba Watson at the Masters) of a major winner being a namesake of an earlier winner of the same major championship, the earlier winner in this case being Scott Simpson in 1987. Interestingly, both Simpsons won their championships at the same course. This isn't unprecedented, as a lot of the various Morrises and Parks in the early days of the Open Championship won their titles on the same course (Prestwick, mostly), and of course Bubba Watson and Tom Watson won their Green Jackets on the same course, though that doesn't really count since the Masters is played on the same course every year.

Simpson also provides a second consecutive example of a major championship winner being a tedious God-botherer - I can't find any video clips of his full winner's speech (though there are several of the moment when he got interrupted by some drunk bloke in a Union Jack hat) but this article provides a couple of quotes, notably this one:
I probably prayed more on the last three holes than I've ever done in my life, and that kept me calm and got me home in 2 under.
So God, in additon to all that prurient spying on people wanking, takes a personal interest in the outcome of golf tournaments, and indeed personally intervenes in their outcome, though always sufficiently subtly to be undetectable - the ball being borne aloft on a little silver cloud by a choir of warbling cherubim and moved in a mysterious way to the hole while the clouds part and a big booming voice intones YOU DA MAN, WEBB would be a bit of a giveaway, presumably. But what if Webb and Bubba came up against each other in a play-off? Or would it be more of a pray-off? Eh? Eh? How would God know who to help out? Whoever had done the least wanking that week, I suppose.

Anyway, Simpson's Goddy tendencies are well-known - he's got a freakin' degree in religion, for goodness' sake - and the UK media's reaction to this provides an interesting contrast with the US one. Check out BBC commentator Andrew Cotter's tweet in the immediate aftermath of the win:

Now I think that's pretty funny, but that level of flippancy and irreverence from a professional journalist in relation to religion simply wouldn't fly in the US, an attitude of uncritical reverence to nonsensical voodoo bullshit being pretty much compulsory.

Note that the USA Today article I linked to earlier contains some textbook use of the word "clutch" in its usual golfing context as well.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

look at that man commentary his words

Latest missive from the strange planet on which Tiger Woods' ex-coach and current Sky Sports summariser Butch Harmon lives - a planet where they speak a language almost, but not quite, entirely unlike English. This is his reaction to an excellent recovery from sand by young amateur prodigy Beau Hossler during the early stages of round 3 of the US Open yesterday:
Nurse! Time for Mr. Harmon's medication.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

that's celsius 232.78 in new money

A quick post to commemorate the death of Ray Bradbury, who died a couple of days ago aged 91. I have to confess Bradbury falls into that category of people entitled People You Are Surprised To Find Are Still Alive, or rather a closely related category entitled People You Are Surprised To Find Were Still Alive Until Very Recently On Reading Their Obituary. Listening to the Today programme this morning reminded me that another member of the first category is Bradbury's fellow science-fiction author Brian Aldiss, not much younger than Bradbury at 86, who they wheeled out for a few complimentary reminiscences.

As it happens I've read a great deal more of Aldiss' work than I have of Bradbury's - all I've read of Bradbury's work are various short stories (the medium in which he mostly worked) including those in my ancient Penguin paperback collection The Day It Rained Forever, and the classic novel Fahrenheit 451, which everyone who aspires to being a fully rounded human being should read. In many ways Fahrenheit 451 occupies the same sort of niche in Bradbury's output as The Man In The High Castle occupies in Philip K. Dick's, i.e. a slightly uncharacteristic downbeat dystopian political satire among all the wild fantastical stuff in the other books, though it must be said on comparing the two that it's (entirely typically of both men) a great deal clearer what Bradbury was on about.

Fahrenheit 451 was filmed in 1966 starring the lovely Julie Christie among others - I've never seen that one, but I do have a bit of a soft spot for the 1969 Rod Steiger film The Illustrated Man, based on a couple of Bradbury short stories from the collection of the same name.