Tuesday, September 25, 2012

dixon of cock green

It's very easy to get caught up in the gleeful schadenfreude surrounding the Andrew Mitchell affair, and there's no doubt that with the whole "pleb" thing he could hardly have chosen a word more toxic for a Conservative politician (well, I suppose "peasant" might have been worse), revealing as it does the furious jackbooted Nazi space lizard lurking under the ill-fitting human disguise. In the light of that, the amusing revelation that during his time at Rugby school he was a "stern disciplinarian" and earned the nickname "Thrasher" comes as no surprise whatsoever. His BBC profile also reveals that he used to work for investment bank Lazard Brothers. Lazard. Lizard. Coincidence? I think not.

What struck me as slightly odd, though, was the notion, seemingly unchallenged and accepted by everyone involved in the associated media scrum, that you can be arrested for swearing at a police officer. It certainly seems that this is true, usually under the provisions of the 1986 Public Order Act or for the older offence of causing a breach of the peace. Now I'm certainly not saying that some drunken nutter wandering round a quiet residential area at 2am shouting "CUUUUUUUNT" at the top of his voice shouldn't be subject to some form of legal sanction, but just saying, for instance, "fuck" in the context of a heated exchange with a police officer shouldn't be enough to get you arrested, unless we're still living in the 19th century and no-one's told me.

Police officers are meant to be rufty tufty types who can restrain hardened crims if necessary, after all; they shouldn't be swooning and reaching for the smelling salts if someone says "bollocks" to them. Similarly, if I can't be arrested for saying "shitcakes" to someone I know, or some random stranger who doesn't happen to be a police officer, then I really don't see why the police should be any different. This Guardian article has a good summary of the current position, certain aspects of which the police spokespeople seem a bit embarrassed about discussing, and probably rightly so. Note that you can also be arrested for telling a mounted police officer (very politely, without swearing) that his horse is gay.

Monday, September 24, 2012

the last book I read

Millennium People by J.G. Ballard.

David Markham is a psychologist (a typically Ballardian occupation) all set to jet off to America on a conference when a bomb goes off at Heathrow Airport, killing three people, including, it later transpires, Markham's ex-wife, Laura. Markham's current wife, Sally, persuades him to investigate the incident as a way of exorcising his remaining feelings for Laura (who ran off with one of Markham's work colleagues).

Markham's investigations lead him to a group of middle-class revolutionaries in the gated community of Chelsea Marina - radical paediatrician Richard Gould, priest Stephen Dexter and sexy but brittle Kay Churchill. Their activities range from silly stunts to actual destruction of property, from smoke-bombing a branch of Blockbuster to burning down the National Film Theatre.

But what are they rebelling against? It seems the middle-class are the new working-class - mortgaged to the hilt, school fees to pay, payments to keep up on the BMW, holidays in Provence, all of which leaves precious little for day-to-day living. Yes, they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it any more.

But it's not all Adam and Jocasta tying their pashminas to the wing mirrors of their Volvo estates and driving around throwing leftover lentil couscous at the police - there are more sinister undercurrents at work, inspired by Richard Gould and Stephen Dexter and culminating in the bombing of Tate Modern, causing more deaths, and then the doorstep execution of a blandly anonymous but popular (and coyly never named) female television presenter. Menwhile the residents' protests (led by Kay Churchill, who David Markham has started a relationship with) culminate in a pitched battle with the police, who eventually withdraw and leave the residents to their own burning houses.

But what has been achieved? The residents of Chelsea Marina who had left gradually drift back and things return to normal. Not for Richard Gould, though, who has greater things on his mind, specifically assassinating the Home Secretary who is doing a post-riot visit to Chelsea Marina. Largely by accident Markham foils this, allowing the lurking police marksmen to give Gould a hot lead sandwich and acquiring a small degree of heroic status for himself into the bargain as he returns to leafy suburbia with Sally.

I remember saying back when Ballard died in 2009 that he'd spent the last decade or so of his life essentially rewriting the same novel several times; certainly the sequence that goes Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, Kingdom Come (his last published novel) all share a number of themes: boredom, urban alienation, technology as a means of enslavement rather than liberation, the gradual flattening out and deadening of emotion (what Ballard rather grandly called "the death of affect") and the associated need for people to re-assert their humanity through acts of increasing perversity and violence. Millennium People scores over its two predecessors by being located in a more recognisable setting (the previous two being set in Spain and France respectively) but loses out by virtue of the central plot being less convincing - the violence and depravity in the previous two books had a genuine edge of danger to it, but the middle-class revolt here just seems a bit silly, Richard Gould's psychotic urges aside. There's a bit of other sneaky working in of references from earlier works as well - Markham's wife Sally's fetishistic use of her crutches, despite the injuries she sustained in a tram accident in Portugal having long since healed, echoes the various bizarre episodes with surgical harnesses and calipers in Crash, still Ballard's most notorious work.

Crash is still the book you want, to be honest; I would suggest also that unless you're an obsessive completist you probably only want one of the late-period foursome mentioned above, and as entertaining as it is Millennium People probably isn't it - I would go for Super-Cannes if I were you. Ballard's writing style remains completely inimitable - the obsessive re-use of certain words ("matrix", "stylized", "psychopathology"), the public school/RAF habit all the male characters have of addressing each other by their surnames, the general sense that real human beings don't behave anything like this, the bracing moral and sexual perversity.

I stand by my earlier assertion that Ballard is a writer probably best served by the short-story format, though, so in addition to Crash, Super-Cannes and the weird Heart Of Darkness-esque fable The Day Of Creation you need to have the two collected volumes, as well as the frankly uncategorisable The Atrocity Exhibition. That should do you to be going on with.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

incidental music spot of the day

Low by Cracker over some of the player background info sequences on Sky Sports' coverage of the final round of the Tour Championship. Cracker's 1993 album Kerosene Hat, on which Low appears (Get Off This is the other famous-ish song on it) is a bit of a forgotten 90s classic. Here's the official video for Low, starring the lovely Gina Gershon, and here's a live rendition from the Conan O'Brien show.

If you liked those, allow me to direct you to the ludicrously crunchy and catchy Teen Angst from their self-titled 1992 debut album. If the YouTube comments are to be believed the video was filmed on the Virginia ranch owned by the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, and he puts in a few brief appearances in the video zooming past on a motorbike, the video pre-dating by four years or so the drug-related mishap that put paid to any further motorcycle shenanigans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

willy make it? no

Here's something I forgot to add to the previous post, but to be honest it was starting to get a bit long anyway. One of the things we did with Jenny and Jim was to go and have a crack at climbing to the top of Cornwall's highest point, Brown Willy, not exceptionally high at 420 metres (1378 feet) but nonetheless the county high point.

It's actually a pretty short walk from the car park at Roughtor, just down the road from Camelford, but nonetheless we had to leave Jenny and Jim to make the final assault on Brown Willy by themselves as Nia decided that she really didn't want to be in her nice comfy Baby Bjorn any more and was going to tell us about it at considerable volume until we took her back to the car.

All a bit galling, but some trawling through old photographs convinces me with about 95% certainty that I have been up Brown Willy before, at the very tail end of 1999 - I'm almost certain that the photo below shows me at the top in some nasty misty weather and in a hideously ill-judged jeans and baseball cap combo. I know it was somewhere in the vicinity and that spindly summit cairn is pretty distinctive - the nearby summit of Rough Tor is nothing like it, for instance.

The other obvious things to say about the photo are to observe firstly how huge my glasses are and secondly how young I look; then again I was at that point still in my twenties, by about a month and a half. It's been a tough decade.

time off in Looe

Here's a few notes on our trip to Cornwall last week - a sort of combination family holiday for the three of us combined with a substitute for the annual Munro trip (which Nia is a bit young for yet, though I have high hopes of bagging a few with her in future) with Jenny and Jim, who joined us for the second half of it.
  • We stayed in St. Germans, which is just a few miles into Cornwall over the Tamar Bridge from Plymouth. Our cottage was rented from here and was very nice, bar a few low beams which the 6-foot-plus holidaymaker needs to be vigilant of.
  • St. Germans has a railway station, which I had contemplated using for a quick trip into Plymouth for a look around combined with a crossing of the Royal Albert Bridge (as a companion piece to my earlier Forth Bridge crossing), but which we never got round to in the end. More importantly it also has a very nice pub which not only serves St. Austell Tribute and Proper Job (which I'd previously had on our trip to Exmoor 18 months ago), both of which were excellent, but also does take-away fish and chips which we availed ourselves of on Friday night, and very nice too. 
  • In addition to St. Austell Cornwall is home to the excellent Sharp's brewery in Rock, home of the ubiquitous Doom Bar, and also Bays brewery, based in Torbay, which I hadn't encountered before but whose Topsail I had a very nice pint of in the Devonport Inn in Cawsand village. 
  • The railway arrives from Plymouth by way of the impressive St. Germans viaduct, which we wandered down to have a look at. Since there are dozens of these on the Cornish main line they were largely built on wooden trestles when they were first constructed in the 1850s as it was cheaper, but all of these have now been replaced by stone structures. In many cases (though not St. Germans, as it happens) this was done by building the stone viaduct alongside the wooden one, re-aligning the tracks across the new one, and then dismantling the trestles. The structures left by this process (many of which are still visible) are known locally as "Brunel's stumps". 
  • St. Germans is named after St. Germanus of Auxerre, who I knew I'd mentioned in a book review a while back. I'd assumed it must have been The Name Of The Rose, what with that being quite lidderally chokka with priests and saints and whatnot, but it turns out to have been this one
  • St. Germans is on the northern edge (the A38 marks the "official" boundary, inasmuch as there is one) of what some call the "forgotten corner of Cornwall", basically the bit south-east of St. Germans principally comprising the Rame peninsula and Torpoint. It's slightly ironic that it was improvements in transport infrastructure that worsened the problem as the building of the Tamar road bridge in 1961 funneled most of the traffic away from the previous best route into Cornwall, the Torpoint ferry
  • Cornwall's most famous culinary export is of course the Cornish pasty, a product I have to say I've never been all that keen on. If you're exceptionally hungry then a pasty will do a job, but I've always found them a bit dry and carb-heavy. A bit more meat, less potato and perhaps a spot of gravy would pep things up very acceptably; of course some would say well, yes, but that would just turn it into a pie, to which I say, well, so be it. It's like a chip butty - I like bread, and I like chips, but all mashed together it's just too much. Lose the chips, bung a couple of sausages in there, sorted.
  • You'll be expecting photos, so here they are

Monday, September 17, 2012

the last book I read

On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

Before we start, chalk up another one for the list entitled Books I Bought Like A Gazillion Years Ago And Started But Never Finished Before Finally Getting My Thumb Out Of My Arse And Finishing Them, as previously alluded to a couple of times before on this blog, though just as I forgot Good as Gold when chalking up The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, I in turn forgot about this one when chalking up Good As Gold. Which means that while aside from the heavyweight duo of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina (heavyweight in literary significance terms in both cases, and in actual physical terms in the latter case) I can't think of any others, that's not to say there might not be a couple more knocking around somewhere. I think this one was purchased in the big book-buying splurge I perpetrated when leaving my summer job at the Town Bookseller in Newbury in a last desperate cashing-in of my 30% staff discount, which means that it's taken me something like 22 years to get round to reading it all the way through.

So, anyway - Sal Paradise is an aspiring writer, scraping by in New York on the remnants of a military pension and handouts from his aunt, when he meets wild and crazy guy Dean Moriarty, a charismatic and unrestrained free spirit who persuades him to come on a road trip across the USA via Denver to San Francisco. After various crazy adventures Sal eventually ends up staying in and around Los Angeles for a while before rustling up the bus fare and heading back to New York.

Some months later Sal is with some relatives in Virginia when Dean gatecrashes the party with his wife Marylou (one of several he has in various parts of the country) and persuades Sal off on another trip, firstly to deliver some furniture for Sal's brother and bring Sal's aunt back to Virginia from New York, and then off across the country again to San Francisco, via New Orleans this time. Despite all the jazz-soundtracked nightlife and the crazy cats they meet on the way, Sal is eventually disillusioned by Dean's increasingly erratic behaviour and returns once again to New York.

The third trip starts a bit differently as Sal, bored and friendless in New York, sets off by bus to Denver to seek out Dean. They wangle a deal to deliver a new car to some guy (who may or may not be a mobster) in Chicago, and - just as the guy who entrusted the car to two crazy drunken bums should have foreseen - rag the arse off it, bounce it in and out of several ditches on the way and generally turn up in Chicago a couple of days early with the tyres on fire and the whole thing a smoking clapped-out wreck.

Finally, jaded with all this shuttling about between American cities, Sal, Dean and their new buddy Stan Shephard get hold of another car and go careering off across the border into Mexico, an exciting world of hot weather, spectacular scenery, cheap dope and accommodating underage prostitutes. After going hog-wild for a bit, as one would, they rock up in Mexico City, where Sal picks up a nasty dose of dysentery and is laid low for a while, whereupon Dean abandons him to head back north for more adventures. Chastened by this, and also lured both by the prospect of making a proper living from his writing and settling down with his new lady friend, Sal decides to knock the travelling on the head, leaving Dean to continue his wild adventures without him.

Kerouac famously based On The Road on his real-life travelling experiences, but had to change the names of the protagonists - Dean Moriarty, for instance, is a thinly-disguised Neal Cassady, just as Sal Paradise is Kerouac himself, and various other famous counterculture figures like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs play minor roles as well. Kerouac's claim of having knocked the book out in one big stream of consciousness over a three-week period seems to have been largely bogus, though.

To be honest it's a book probably best read in one's late teens, perhaps shortly after reading The Catcher In The Rye, as the themes of restlessness and longing for some ill-defined better and more exciting existence free of the stifling conformity and humbuggery of the older generation are very similar. To the more jaded eye the wild and crazy adventurers just conduct a series of largely unsatisfactory circular trips, constantly short of money and constantly alternating between feeling stifled and restless when at home and yearning for companionship and stability while on the road. The book is also suffused with Kerouac's love of jazz, and the newfangled bebop of the 1940s and 1950s in particular; I have to say that I've always found jazz mostly to be either plinky-plonkingly banal or noisily impenetrable depending on the particular genre (bebop would generally fall into the latter category), so Kerouac's writings on the subject, while evidently reflecting a deep love of the music, didn't do much for me. I think perhaps it's just hard to take jazz seriously after The Fast Show's merciless skewering of its self-importance. Niiiice.

What On The Road clearly also is is a thinly-veiled love story between the narrator and his fabulous unfettered male hero, in exactly the same way as The Leaves on Grey, Demian, The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes (which Sal reads on one of his lengthy cross-country bus journeys) were. Interestingly in real life it was apparently Cassady and Ginsberg who were actually lovers.

The multiple journeys described in On The Road would seem to lend themselves perfectly to a map illustrating all the various destinations, but oddly such a thing doesn't seem to exist - here's an interactive map of the first trip, and here's one in Kerouac's own hand from the excellent Strange Maps. Slightly more tangentially, here's a series of remarkable graphical representations of the novel's text by artist Stefanie Posavec. [Postscript: here are a couple of maps - of varying degrees of clarity - showing all four trips.]

Finally, it just so happens that a film based on the book is due for release shortly. I can't make a recommendation either way regarding the film, but - for all its seeming like a bit of a period piece now with its talk of real gone cats digging each other and the like - it's a book you should probably have on your shelves. Just to be clear, that also means that you should read it, rather than just sit on it for 22 years.

On The Road also features in the Time magazine list of 20th century novels that's been mentioned here a few times before.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

headline of the day

Startling news from the normally normally sedate environs of Cirencester:

Just in case you thought that this was just some sort of inadvertent crash blossom in the main headline, the same thing happens again in the second paragraph:

Now it's been a while since I had anything from a kebab van, probably 20 years or more, but I do recall that every time I did I woke up the next morning feeling like I'd been physically attacked and severely beaten during the night. Now I know why!

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

publish and be drammed

My wife and baby daughter are away for a couple of days, so it's time to kick back, pour a glass of something brown and volatile, and later maybe catch up on some sleep. But first there's a bit of a backlog of unblogged stuff lurking in the whisky cupboard. This will not stand.

First up, Lagavulin. This is a bottle of the standard 16-year-old, which is pretty old for an entry-level whisky - there is a cask strength 12-year-old, but it's not widely available - and generally priced accordingly at around 40 quid. Fortunately my father was generous enough to buy me a bottle for my birthday back in February.

Lagavulin is from Islay, like the Laphroaig and the Bowmore, so you pretty much know what to expect, i.e. smoky peatiness, with a side order of peaty smokiness. It's quite dark, certainly compared with the Laphroaig, as befits something that has spent 16 years sitting in wooden casks. The colour puts it nearer the Bowmore, and it's similar when you have a sniff as well - it's sweeter than the Bowmore, which was noticeably salty, but there's the same rich undertone of something umami-y, maybe a meat pie or a Cornish pasty. Taste-wise it's tremendously rich and round and sweet as well, with the trademark antiseptic after-sting that you get from the peat. If anything it's perhaps just a fraction too sweet and rich for my taste, but it runs a close second to the Bowmore as my favourite Islay whisky of the ones I've tried so far.

Speaking of Islay whisky, you'll remember the Bruichladdich, which was a non-typical unpeated one and a pretty non-typical pinkish colour as well, thanks to being finished in casks that previously held Banyuls wine. Well, here's another pink(ish) whisky: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban. This is part of the same series of "special" finishes that included the Lasanta - that one got a couple of years in casks that previously held sherry, while the Quinta Ruban gets a couple of years in casks that previously held port (these are traditionally known as "port pipes", for some crazy reason). One of the side-effects of port maturation is a definite subtle pink colour.

This is noticeably sharp and fruity when you have a sniff - quite similar to the Bruichladdich in being quite grapey and redcurranty, though this is less raw and estery since the base whisky is much older (12 years as opposed to an unspecified number probably no greater than 5). It's much more mellow and gently fruity when you drink it as well, though there's a sense that the gorgeous custardy mellowness of the standard Glenmorangie is having a bit of a fight with the sharp red fruity acidity of the port finish. That could of course be me being a reactionary old duffer, but while this is very nice it's not as terrific as the Lasanta, nor even the basic 10-year-old Glenmorangie.

Finally, another whisky that I'm glad to say I didn't have to pay for - this is a Signatory bottling of a 14-year-old Glenlivet originally distilled in 1996 that my fellow whiskyologist Jim bought me as a baby head-wetting present back in May. I'd never drunk Glenlivet before, but it's one of the classic Speyside enormo-sellers, second only to Glenfiddich worldwide in sales terms. This one is from a single sherry cask and is very dark, certainly much darker than the standard 12-year-old, which I think is from a mixture of bourbon and sherry casks. Anyway, with the caveat that I can't comment on what the standard bottlings are like, this is a great big sherry monster, a bit like the Glenmorangie Lasanta and the Aberlour, without having the almondy tang that the Aberlour has. It's got just a hint of something darker as well, like Marmite or creosote (but, hey, in a good way). As "standard" Speysiders (which aren't generally my favourite thing) go this is a good one, ideal when you want something rich and warm and cakey and comforting and the wild and woolly stuff like the Lagavulin seems a bit daunting.

Here's a colour comparison for your edification and reference: left to right, Lagavulin, Glenmorangie, Glenlivet. I offer this basically to illustrate my point about the pinkness of the Glenmorangie (in the middle), the other two being your basic mid-brown, though note how the Glenlivet is darker despite being a couple of years younger.