Monday, December 30, 2013

turning over a new leaf

Here's the obligatory (and yet strangely unnecessary) annual statistical micro-analysis of my reading and blogging habits. General blogging first: all I have to say here is that unless I cough up another post tomorrow (which is unlikely, especially since I deem throwing in a one-liner just to get the numbers up to be caddish and unsporting) this year will pip 2012 by one blog post as my least bloggy year yet at a measly 109 posts. I wouldn't want you to think that this means that my enthusiasm for the blogging project is waning, it's just that I've been doing a lot of home improvements and toddler-wrangling and I just don't get as much time as I used to. 2007 remains the benchmark for frenzied blog activity with a monster 282 posts.

As for the book-blogging sub-genre, 2013 is the year in which the stats reveal I've read the fewest books since records began (in 2006) - a paltry 19. Last year's 21 was the previous low, with 2011's 33 being the glorious zenith of my reading activity, no doubt helped by a two-week honeymoon during which I guzzled down several (among other activities, if you know what I mean, and I think you do).

Interestingly, though, if you do the sums by total page-count instead of just numbers of books, 2013 actually comes out ahead of 2012, by 5995 pages to 5985.

As you'd expect, 2011 is well ahead with a whopping 10597 pages. So the question you'll be asking is: which year did I read the longest books, on average? And the answer, astoundingly, is also 2011 with an average book length of 321.12 pages. 2013 comes second on that list with an average length of 315.53 pages, bolstered no doubt by Infinite Jest being the first book of the year. 2008 is the year with the lowest average length, as I spent the entire year reading a selection of flimsy pamphlets with an average length of a mere 273.95 pages. Hardly worth bothering, really.

when in abergavenny do as the abergavennians do

I took my father out for a post-Christmas walk earlier today to clear a bit of the tryptophan and saturated fat from the artery walls. Nothing especially interesting in that, I suppose, nor indeed in our choice of walk, which was to tackle the far from awesome challenge of the Little Skirrid aka Ysgyryd Fach, conveniently situated within walking distance of Mum & Dad's new(ish) house, just the other side of the railway station and the A465. A round trip of around three and a half miles, and an ascent to the dizzying height of around 270 metres (886 feet), but quite a nice walk, if a little soggy and slippery underfoot.

Apparently the Little Skirrid and its more interesting big brother Ysgyryd Fawr (generally just referred to as "the Skirrid") a couple of miles up the road are two of the hills known collectively as the Seven Hills of Abergavenny. The others are the two best-known Abergavenny hills, Blorenge and Sugar Loaf, and the three minor hills Deri, Rholben and Mynydd Llanwenarth, all of which are really just outlying ridges on the south side of the Sugar Loaf without obvious "summits". Those given to occasional attacks of cynicism might conclude that the last few were added out of desperation just to get the number up to the magical seven (i.e. the same number as Rome). Further half-hearted lazy internet research reveals that this is a fairly common claim made on behalf of a whole host of places.

Anyway, here's the GPS track log and altitude profile, for what it's worth - the round trip took us just under two hours, but in slightly less treacherous underfoot conditions you could probably knock half an hour or so off that.

Our intention had been to pop into the Great Western by the railway station for a cheeky pint on the way back, but it was shut, unfortunately. The one Abergavenny pub recommendation I can give you is that the Hen & Chickens in the centre of town is excellent.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

the last book I read

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf.

It's the mid-19th century, and we're in north-eastern Australia. Lachlan Beattie and his two cousins Janet and Meg are out playing and exploring along the boundary of their family property when a strange ragged human figure appears and prostrates himself before them, claiming in broken English to be "a British object".

This, it turns out, is Gemmy Fairley, born and brought up in London, former dogsbody at a timber mill and apprentice to the local ratcatcher and later a ship's boy, cast ashore when he contracted some fever that the crew were presumably keen to avoid catching. Taken in by an aboriginal tribe, he spends the next sixteen years living with them and learning their ways before the gradual incursion of the white man into their territory brings back memories of his former life and offers the opportunity of escape.

Gemmy's sudden appearance causes some consternation among the small pioneer community - English-born he may be, but sixteen years of outdoor living have left him browned and weatherbeaten and not much resembling any of the members of a community featuring a high proportion of bluey-white Scots. On top of that, how long do you, as a white man, have to live among savages before some vital spark of civilised humanity is extinguished and you become irredeemably one of them? And don't they have access to some sort of mystical congress with some Great Spirit of the land who can move the very trees and rocks to do his bidding? So what if Gemmy has surrendered himself just so he can be their eyes and ears within the white community? After all, it's not as if anyone asked the blacks' permission to steam in and start cutting down trees and building roads and the like. Maybe they're a bit pissed off about it?

Gemmy himself doesn't participate in any of these discussions, preferring to keep himself to himself and just do odd jobs round the farm owned by Jock McIvor (Lachlan's uncle and Meg and Janet's father) in exchange for bed and board. But this doesn't prevent all the community's irrational fears being projected onto him, or the finger of suspicion being pointed at him when various random mishaps occur, as they inevitably do. So eventually it's decided that it would be best if Gemmy were removed from the heart of the community and went instead to live with old Mrs. Hutchence on the edge of town - she'll be happy to take him in, and everyone already considers her to be a bit batty anyway.

We then leap forward fifty years to the time of the First World War. Janet is a sister in a religious order and Lachlan is a government minister. He comes to visit her partly out of brotherly concern and partly on official business - both he and she have been publically found to have been (entirely innocently) in contact with people of German origin for various reasons during a period of intense public paranoia, something which is probably going to ultimately cost Lachlan his job and Janet a period of unwanted notoriety.

The point of the epilogue, presumably, is to illustrate the universality of the points being made in the main part of the novel - tribalism, xenophobia, general suspicion of outsiders and anyone who seems to be operating according to an even slightly different set of social norms from one's own, be they German or Aboriginal or whatever. The tension with the aboriginals is particularly, well, tense, because of the way in which the European settlers have taken over their lands without much in the way of negotiation. This was a central theme of the previous Malouf novel in this list, The Conversations At Curlow Creek, a similarly slim volume (200 pages or so) that didn't go out of its way to explain itself but left the reader to do a bit of work for himself. I actually think this one is better, for all that Gemmy himself drifts out of the narrative about two-thirds of the way through and we never conclusively find out what happens to him. The point, I suppose, is that the specific details of his fate are not really the point.

The specific plot device of a person of European origin emerging from the Australian bush to attempt to re-integrate themselves into white society (with varying degrees of success) has been a theme featured in a couple of previous novels in this series, notably Strandloper and A Fringe Of Leaves. As in those books the central character here is based on a real person, in this case James Morril.

In addition to being shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize (which was eventually won by Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as featured here quite recently) Remembering Babylon won the inaugural International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1996; my list here goes: 1996, 2000, 2002.

incidental music spot of the day

Led Zeppelin's thumping Good Times Bad Times on the trailer to the new film American Hustle. The film looks fine, if a little bit Son Of Casino, and does feature the very delightful Jennifer Lawrence, a woman of robust good sense on a variety of topics, not least hotel room butt plug etiquette.

A more interesting topic for discussion, though, might be: is this song the greatest track 1, side 1, album 1 of all time? Or, in proper English, the greatest opening track of a debut album ever? There are a gazillion lists of Greatest Debut Albums, all featuring some fine stuff, and almost without fail featuring Led Zeppelin's eponymous debut album very highly, but I can't think of one on these lists or elsewhere that features an opening track that grabs you by the throat quite so effectively. Here's a selection of runners-up, though, just off the top of my head:
  • Foxy Lady by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, from the album Are You Experienced? I once read the rhythm track to this described as being like a sine wave, which is simultaneously wrong (it's fairly basic 4/4) and sort of right in that the riff seems to speed up and then slow down again.
  • Do It Again by Steely Dan, from the album Can't Buy A Thrill. Steely Dan are either desperately hip or hideously unfashionable these days; I haven't really kept track. Anyway, this has one of the great intros, so good in fact that it was stolen wholesale for Belinda Carlisle's Circle In The Sand 20-odd years later.
  • Tears Of Rage by The Band, from the album Music From Big Pink, as featured here.
  • 6'1" by Liz Phair, from the album Exile In Guyville, as featured here.
No doubt there are many more. I suppose the candidates will be those bands who sprung into existence (at least in terms of recorded output, anyway) pretty much fully-formed (Zeppelin, say, or more recently Oasis), rather than easing into an album-releasing career gradually with a few minor works (Queen, U2 or Radiohead, say).

Friday, December 13, 2013

not the face!

I have a couple of footnotes to add to the Last And First Men book review; here's the first.

One of the cool things about my SF Masterworks edition (off the top of my head this is the third book in that series I've featured, The Sirens Of Titan and Roadside Picnic being the other two) is Les Edwards' arresting cover art. It seems inexplicably to have been given a weird dull grey-blue wash in the latest edition, but mine is the original multicoloured version.

The stump of some monument to man's ambition, resourcefulness and hubris that dominates the foreground of the image is a nice touch that evokes either Shelley's Ozymandias or the end of Planet Of The Apes (or possibly both), depending on your cultural preferences. Look a little closer at, it, though, and you'll see something else.

See it? Here, let me help you.

Whether this was deliberate on the artist's part or not I couldn't say. I'd be inclined to guess that it was, just because that bit resembling a nose seems a little too perfect to be a coincidence - it's even got nostrils! But, well, you never know - seeing things that aren't really there is pretty much the definition of pareidolia (or possibly apophenia) after all.

Seeing weird faces in random shit is always amusing, so once again I draw your attention to the splendid Flickr group entitled Hello Little Fella, and of course to the house, cats and many other things that look like Hitler.

the last book I read

Last And First Men by Olaf Stapledon.

How do you like your novels' scope? A minute dissection of a single day? A decade-spanning love story? A family saga spanning centuries? Well, how about the freakin' entire two-billion year history of mankind in all its various forms? How do you like them apples? That ambitious enough for you?

So, the First Men. That's us, with all our digital watches and complex hire-purchase agreements, yet essentially still barely-domesticated shaven apes with unsavoury urges and unsatisfactory methods for conflict resolution. After a couple of thousand years of wary peace and occasional paroxysms of slaughter mankind eventually finds a way (via an uncontrollable runaway nuclear reaction) of all but wiping himself out and rendering most of the planet an uninhabitable blasted wasteland.

The few traumatised stragglers who do remain (mostly the crew of an Arctic exploration ship who happened to be at sea in a nice chilly remote polar region when the doomsday event occurred) find themselves having to repopulate the earth. The radically changed environment (and something of a genetic bottleneck) eventually results in a race of long-lived, big-brained giants: the Second Men.

These great lanky freaks bestride the earth for many millions of years until encountering an unexpected nemesis: Martians! Life on Mars takes a somewhat different form, however: a sort of sentient green cloud of micro-organisms that can harness radiation to have large-scale physical effects - knocking houses down, turning people inside-out, that sort of thing. The Martians' interest in Earth is due to the gradual drying-out of the Martian environment and the tempting lushness of the planet next door. The current inhabitants of Earth aren't giving the place up without a fight, though, and eventually annihilate the Martians with some sort of virus, which also has a devastating effect on Earth, so much so that the giant Second Men are gradually replaced by the smaller Third Men. These little guys aren't intellectual pygmies, though, far from it, and soon start doing some bizarre genetic engineering experiments culminating in the giant-brains-in-silos The Fourth Men.

The Fourth Men don't get out much, what with just being brains the size of a two-storey house, and soon use their fearsome mental powers to devise the Fifth Men, another more mobile race of twelve-foot colossi a bit like the Second Men. And, like the Second Men, it's an external threat that does for them, this time the rapid decay of the Moon's orbit which necessitates packing up and leaving earth. With Mars still a diseased wasteland Venus is pretty much the only option, but some pretty severe terraforming is required before it's habitable, not to mention the extermination of the indigenous life-forms who aren't too happy about the situation.

The radical changes in environment found on Venus trigger further changes including a regressive monkey-like phase (the Sixth Men) a brief foray into flying (the Seventh Men) and a progression back towards where they started (the Eighth Men). But then further cosmic upheaval: the sun enters an expansive phase of its lifecycle and threatens to engulf Venus. Honestly, it's just one thing after another. So a bit more genetic engineering produces the Ninth Men, pre-designed for life on their new home on....that's right, Neptune.

Living on Neptune, as you can imagine, poses a few challenges, and a rapid proliferation of human forms ensues, some more successful than others, culminating in the Eighteenth Men, the apex of the species, who live in happiness, harmony, unlimited energy and leisure for many tens of millions of years before the sun enters another phase of its lifecycle. This time, though, there's nowhere else to go, and the whole species is obliged to contemplate its own demise. A few speculative vials of genetic material are fired into the vast wastes of interstellar space in the hope that they might land somewhere hospitable and start the whole cycle again, but essentially the Eighteenth Men have to come to terms with being the Last Men. Well, we've had a good innings.

Last And First Men was published in 1930, and is cited as an influence by many subsequent science fiction writers, notably Arthur C Clarke. Coincidentally, given her recent demise, my Gollancz SF Masterworks edition features an afterword by Doris Lessing, whose own novel Shikasta was pretty clearly influenced by it. It's probably a book more talked about and cited as an influence than actually read these days, which is a pity, as its scope and ambition are unusual if not unique. There can't be many books which don't even dwell long enough on anything resembling a human life-span to bother giving a single character a name. Ideas featured in countless other subsequent works fly by at bewildering speed: terraforming, ethical issues of the Star Trek Prime Directive variety but also the ethics of wiping out whole species, even when they're trying to do the same to us, post-scarcity society, genetic engineering and increased lifespan and what do do with all those years given that you haven't got to work (this last topic is very reminiscent of Iain M Banks' Culture series as featured multiply here).

It's certainly true that the impersonal nature of the storytelling (an inevitable consequence of the timescale Stapledon chose to grapple with) won't be for everyone, and the book is a bit slow to really get off the runway - there's perhaps a bit too much imaginary future history on Earth before the nuclear conflagration, although the criticisms that (given that a lot of it supposedly occurs on dates which are now in the past) it's "inaccurate" or "silly" seem a bit nonsensical, seeing as they're criticisms I've never seen levelled at, say, Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle, which operates along similar lines. It's only once contemporary Man has eliminated himself that the story really starts to kick along, though, so having that happen on (roughly) page 100 of a 300-page book is probably pushing it a bit. And, it hardly needs to be said, although Stapledon's grasp of the (at the time) youthful sciences of quantum physics and genetics is remarkably good, there are numerous inaccuracies - Stapledon's estimate of the age of the universe is too large by a factor of about 1000, and given what we now know of its structure there's no way anyone could live on Neptune, however highly evolved and/or engineered they were.

But there's lots to admire here, much of it surprisingly modern-feeling for 1930, notably Stapledon's scorn for religion and wholehearted enthusiasm for a post-religion world, largely because it enables lots of guilt-free sex. I very much like that he didn't cop out at the end and give man some sort of get-out of casting aside physical existence and ascending to some purely spiritual/mental realm, as that would have been bollocks - nope, the sun's going to explode, you're all going to die, deal with it. Stapledon's other great work (also in the SF Masterworks series), 1937's Star Maker, scoffs at Last And First Men's pitiful lack of ambition and offers a history of the entire freakin' universe.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

can I push your stool in for you?

Here's a tempting offer the good people at New Scientist made me in a promotional e-mail the other day:

Eeeewww. Well, we've all overdone it on the shiitake mushrooms from time to time, but I wouldn't necessarily be offering the results to anyone else. Luckily it turns out not to be that sort of stool.

It still doesn't look all that appealing, though, to be honest. The accompanying promotional blurb gives a bit of background info:
This is certain to be the most-talked about item of furniture you ever own. New Scientist is offering one lucky reader the chance to win a beautiful stool made by artist Philip Ross from the reishi mushroom.
Here's a few links explaining what Ross is up to; it's all quite interesting in a freaky sort of way, and of more obvious practical use than the food-related art projects of Cosimo Cavallaro. And presumably if you have a bit of a food crisis you can just grate a bit off the side of your stool and rustle up a tasty risotto.

Monday, December 09, 2013

we must probe deeply into our souls

You can always tell a really good inadvertently doubly entendresque web news headline by the speed with which it's retitled; luckily the pages linking to it sometimes take a bit longer to be updated. So here's this morning's post-crushing-Ashes-defeat headline from the BBC Sport website. As you can see the page itself was swiftly retitled; the link on the home page was left around a bit longer, though - long enough for me to capture it anyway.

It's not clear whether Alastair Cook actually said those exact words; if so maybe it was a subtle commentary on England's inexplicably pitiful performances in the series so far. They certainly have been playing like a bunch of "our souls".

This is not the first time this particular fnarr-fnarr combination of words has been used for comic effect, of course, whether intentionally or not. Steve Coogan's short-lived Latino crooner creation Tony Ferrino didn't have many properly funny moments, but the epic The Valley Of Our Souls was one of them. Don't imagine it's only the low-brow end of the cultural spectrum that does this stuff, though: here's Leo Tolstoy getting a cheap laugh in a very similar way.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

turning the tables

Hard to believe it's been eight months since I've been up a proper mountain - how times change, small children, yadda yadda yadda, you've heard it all before - but as my good friend Huw and I both found ourselves at a loose end today we decided to capitalise by getting ourselves out into the hills for the day. As much fun as the snowy Beacons trip was, I was quite pleased to see more normal conditions today - pretty warm for early December, no rain, and no snow up on the tops.

We decided to head up to Table Mountain just north of Crickhowell, maybe forty minutes drive north-ish from Newport. This, regular blog readers may remember, was the start point for my epic Black Mountains horseshoe walk back in April 2010. We didn't feel inclined to a walk of that length (nor would there have been enough daylight to do it), so once we'd knocked off the trig point on Pen Allt-mawr we dropped down into the valley to the east of the main ridge and followed the contours back round the hill to our starting point.

Actually, Table Mountain is a bit of a misnomer, since strictly that is the name given to the small hill (with an Iron Age hill-fort on top) between Crickhowell and the first "proper" peak of Pen Cerrig-calch. I have heard the larger hill referred to as "Table Mountain" as well, though, and while that's technically incorrect you can see why people do it, the long flat-topped summit with trig points at either end being particularly distinctive when viewed from east or west.

Anyway, that's all well and good, you'll be saying, but make with the mappage already. So here it is - 10.8 miles according to my GPS track log, so a pretty respectable day out. I did also take a few pictures, which can be found here. What I forgot to photograph was either the Bear in Crickhowell where we popped in briefly on the way back to the car or the excellent pint of Butty Bach I had there. You'll just have to drop in and see for yourself.

Just by way of contrast, here's me on top of the Table Mountain above Cape Town in January 2000.

Friday, November 29, 2013

headline of the day

Today's Daily Mail in particularly fine stating the bleedin' obvious vein:

In other shock revelations, if you look like a duck, walk like a duck and quack like a duck then the latest research suggest you may well be a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae.

Monday, November 25, 2013

distinctly average

An extraordinary amount has been written, and rightly so, on the occasion of the retirement from Test cricket of Sachin Tendulkar, the most prolific international batsman of all time. As with Doris Lessing, there's not much for me to add, so instead I'll dive off at a couple of tangents.

Tendulkar finished with a Test match average of 53.78, which puts him 13th on the all-time list for batsmen who have made over 3000 Test runs. It also puts him in as the latest entry on one of those esoteric cricket lists which I'm so fond of. Let me see if I can explain.

The last man to finish a career of any significant length (again, let's say 3000 runs as a cut-off) with a higher average than Tendulkar, was, rather surprisingly, Australian Greg Chappell all the way back in 1984. Plenty of people have had higher averages in mid-career - Tendulkar himself was averaging over 56 as recently as January 2012, Ricky Ponting averaged between 57 and 60 for a couple of years between 2006 and 2008, Jacques Kallis currently averages over 55, Kumar Sangakkara nearly 57 - but it's all about how you finish. So you might go on to ask, well, who was the last player before Chappell to finish a career with a higher average? And before him? And so on and so forth.

So you end up with the following chart:

Sachin Tendulkar201353.78
Greg Chappell198453.86
Garfield Sobers197457.78
Ken Barrington196858.67
Don Bradman194899.94

The way to read this is: for each entry in the list, no-one who has come after has finished with a higher career average. So if Sangakkara, say, retires tomorrow with his current career average of 56.98, he will instantly erase Chappell and Tendulkar from the list.

The other great debate during most of Tendulkar's career was: who's the greatest batsman in the world? And the two main candidates were almost always Tendulkar himself and the great West Indian Brian Lara, as disrespectful as that might seem to the likes of Kallis and Ponting. I was lucky enough to watch them both bat many times, and my personal view is that for all Tendulkar's metronomic consistency the more mercurial Lara played more individually memorable innings, including the unprecedented feat of breaking the world record for the highest individual Test score twice. To put it another way, if you offered me the opportunity of watching one of them bat for a couple of hours, I'd take Lara.

An interesting contrast between the two players can also be obtained by examining the manner of their exits from Test cricket. Tendulkar departed with all manner of pomp and razzamatazz, but at the end of an extended slump in form, at least by his own high standards (his last Test century having been as long ago as January 2011), whereas Lara had made a double-century against Pakistan in his penultimate Test, and another hundred in the one before that, and was ousted from the captaincy and the team by some shady political wranglings.

Compare, if you will, the last three years of each player's career.


PeriodMatchesInningsNot OutRunsAverage10050
Dec 1990 - Jun 2003961685840451.552141
Nov 2003 - Nov 200635641354956.33137


PeriodMatchesInningsNot OutRunsAverage10050
Nov 1989 - Oct 2010171280301424056.964958
Nov 2010 - Nov 201329493168136.54210

The inescapable conclusion is that Tendulkar probably hung on a bit longer than he should have, whereas Lara could have had another two or three years of prime run-scoring; interesting to speculate how the record books might have ended up looking under those circumstances. Or not; please yourselves.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

count your lessings

Much has been written following the death of Doris Lessing, who died on Sunday at the impressive age of 94. So I won't add much except to link to a couple of obituaries and tributes, as well as to my two blog posts on her books Memoirs Of A Survivor and The Fifth Child.

Quite a few of the articles make the point that she was a chronicler of interesting subjects whose main attribute was her intellectual restlessness and interest in tackling challenging subjects, rather than being an especially soaringly lyrical prose stylist, which I suppose is fair enough. As I said here, I think Briefing For A Descent Into Hell is probably my favourite of the small subset of her prodigious output that I've read (which comprises five novels, by my count, plus a sixth that's sitting on my shelves yet to be read), although I do have a bit of a soft spot for Shikasta, the first of the Canopus In Argos series. This is partly because it's an interesting (if somewhat baffling) read, but also because its lukewarm critical reputation illustrates the literary world's sniffy distaste for anything with even a whiff of science fiction about it. Lessing, as it happens, is on record as saying that these were some of her favourites of her own books. Here she is appearing on Desert Island Discs in 1993.

Far more interestingly, Lessing becomes, by my calculations anyway, the third author featured on this list to die subsequent to my reading one or more of their books, the other two being Michael Dibdin and Russell Hoban. This provides a third category to add to the more prosaic "alive" and "dead" to draw up this list of all 147 authors featured on the book list since its inception:

Died since first book review6

Now the sharp-eyed among you will be saying: hang on, I thought you said there were only three in the Personally Killed By My Book Reviews category, and so I thought, but in doing the basic skim of Wikipedia for research purposes I discovered that there were two more - Richard Matheson, who died in June, and Elmore Leonard, who died in August. All I can say of Matheson is that the only book of his I've read, I Am Legend, is excellent, as for Leonard I would say a case could be made for him being one of the great novelists of the second half of the 20th century; as with Lessing's science fiction stuff, though, he was hamstrung by writing what arbitrary literary critical convention deemed to be "genre" fiction - in Leonard's case crime thrillers, broadly speaking. If you must have just one, I'd say go for Killshot.

[POSTSCRIPT: actually the figure should be six, since it should also include Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010. I did mention that here, but I must have subsequently forgotten about it.]

the last book I read

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

It's 1968, and Paddy Clarke is ten years old. He lives in Barrytown, north Dublin, a fairly grim area in reality, but in the minds of Paddy and his friends it's outer space, Wembley Stadium, the bottom of the sea, whatever they need to facilitate their games.

Meanwhile at home Paddy has to cope with his annoying younger brother Sinbad (as annoying as similarly-aged younger siblings always are, his two much younger sisters being far too young and too female to bother about), and his parents - generally good and well-intentioned people, but with just an undercurrent of tension and some increasingly fraught arguments after the kids have gone to bed.

Among the blizzard of anecdotes, the fantastical games, the endless questions, the religious indoctrination, the bunking off school, the casual childhood cruelty, the scatological humour, the booting, biting and bollocking, one thing becomes clear: Paddy's parents are going to split up and there's nothing he can do about it. And as and when that happens, assuming that it happens with his Dad leaving, as generally happens, then at that point Paddy will become the man of the house, and that will mark an end of childhood.

Very much like the other Roddy Doyle book I've read, The Van, this is a series of not necessarily chronological anecdotes rather than a more standard linear narrative. The one major thing that happens plot-wise - Paddy's father leaving - happens literally on the penultimate page, so there's not much time to chew over reactions to it. That's not the point of the book, of course, the point being to evoke intensely what it's like to be ten years old, and to elicit some sympathy for Paddy's circumstances despite also being reminded of what filthy vindictive little bastards ten year old boys are. And in those terms it's very successful - this really is how little boys act, the little shits. While I'd have ideally preferred a bit more narrative drive, the fact that it's taken an age (46 days) for me to read it is more down to my having been busy with a load of household DIY tasks during spare moments over the last couple of months and not having much spare time to read.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Booker Prize in 1993, thus becoming the fourth Booker winner in this list after G., The Gathering and Hotel Du Lac.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

having a funny turn

We went over to see our friends Jenny and Jim at the weekend, since they're imminently going to be elbow-deep in nappies and arse cream and all manner of other baby-related stuff. They have also pushed the likely date of our next Munro-bagging trip back by a couple of years, but hey, I'm not bitter.

Anyway, Jenny and Jim live in Alton, which is one of those places there isn't a really obvious route to from Newport. I'm not saying it's difficult or awkward, just that once you get to junction 13 of the M4 there are a few routes you can take, all of roughly equal time and distance. You can carry on along to junction 11 and down the A33 (this is what Google Maps tends to recommend) or you can get off the M4 at junction 13 and then head down through Newbury and Basingstoke on the A339 (this is what Hazel's satnav tends to recommend) or you can get off at junction 13, carry on down the A34 and cut off to the east at any of a number of places as far down as the M3 (this is what we normally end up doing).

What we did on Saturday was get off the A34 at the junction with the A303, head east as far as the junction with the M3 and then cut across country through Axford and Ellisfield to Alton. Not a bad route, all in all, though almost certainly only fractionally different from any of the others. What makes it interesting is the extraordinary navigational contortions you have to go through to turn left from the southbound A34 onto the eastbound A303. Left turns, even between grade-separated dual carriageways, are normally the easiest ones; just bung in a slip road and you're done, but not here. Check it out:

As with all seemingly mad road design decisions of this sort, there's a bit of history involved here, not to mention geography. There was until recently a pub sitting right in the crook of the junction, in the northeast quadrant, where the south-to-east sliproad would have gone, and no doubt the proprietors were a bit dubious about having a sliproad ploughing through their garden. Add to that a couple of awkwardly-sited bridges making widening (to accommodate sliproads) difficult, some analysis of traffic volumes for each leg of the interchange (the assumption presumably was that traffic for points east along the A303 would have already taken the A339, this being before the building of the Newbury bypass in 1996) and probably a lack of budget for major earth-moving operations and we end up with the current colossal clusterfuck where the left turn involves a dizzying turn through 450 degrees (not to mention traversing two roundabouts) instead of the usual 90.

The splendid SABRE maps website and its even more splendid historical map database gives some interesting historical context. The junction started as just a little spur joining two roads together, then when traffic volume and speed started to make that a bit dangerous it was turned into a roundabout, and only in the 1980s did it mutate into the full spaghettified nightmare.

It's a bit ironic if the pub (which you can see marked on both maps) was a factor in not building the obvious road layout, since I would guess that it was precisely the decision to redraw the road layout that was the death knell for the pub's business. You can see from the pictures that in both of the first two configurations traffic in all four directions would pretty much have had to come past the pub's front door, or at least within sight of it, whereas in the new configuration the pub was relegated to being at the end of a little spur off a slip road in the shadow of a couple of bridges. Scarcely surprising then that business dried up and the pub closed in 2008, the site now being occupied by a scrap metal recycling centre.

Tempting as it is to imagine that they do, road planners don't actively set out to fuck things up, it's just that it's sometimes hard to piece together in retrospect all the constraints they were under at the time stuff was designed and implemented, most significantly the need to use what's already in place as the basis for any future developments. There's an interesting parallel between this sort of evolution and biological evolution, which operates under precisely the same sort of constraints. Magicking up new features from thin air is the sort of thing a "designer" might do, and therefore exactly what tends not to happen, features instead building on and amending stuff that's already there. The classic example of this is the 15-foot detour made by the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the neck of the giraffe.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

porky days and porky nights

As my wife will tell you at prodigious length at the slightest provocation, my daughter takes after me in a large number of ways. For one thing, she loves my spicy noodles - it's a rare occasion indeed when I get to enjoy a full bowl all to myself any more without a small person tugging at my elbow and saying "Daddy, noonles" (that being Nia's version of "noodles") until I twirl up a forkful and deposit them on her plate. That's not really a complaint, as it is rather adorable, but still.

Another way in which she resembles me is in her love of books. We've mostly moved on from the simple flap-based board books now to actual stories, many of them featuring the work of the stupendous Julia Donaldson, mostly in collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler. Another thing we've embraced fairly recently is the cute anthropomorphic porcine world of Peppa Pig - not so much the TV programmes, as they're on Channel 5 and we're still pretty loyally bound to CBeebies, but we do have a lot of Peppa Pig clothing (mainly cast-offs from Nia's cousin Kira) and, now, a book.

There's something a bit rum about this book, though - maybe a few sample pages will help you see what it is:

1. Crikey, it's raining, a lot

2. Wow, seems like the whole world is flooded; unless you've got a boat you're pretty much screwed.

3. At last the waters recede, leaving boats high and dry on top of hills, and a bird brings a green frond as a symbol of rebirth or some such shit.

4. And there was much rejoicing.

So, yeah, it's basically the Great Flood/Noah's Ark story from the Bible. Now while I'm instinctively disapproving of any attempt to shoehorn crypto-religious nonsense into kids' heads, I suspect that the motive here was more likely to have been the desire to borrow a story whose authors weren't going to be around to sue for breach of copyright.

In any case, even if the Christian churches were somehow able to get a case together, it would be a pretty hypocritical one, seeing as how the Genesis flood story is itself just a mish-mash of various older folk-tales, most notably the Sumerian Epic Of Gilgamesh. Pretty much every civilisation that started up by farming the delicious fertile soil of river flood plains (and that covers pretty much all of them) had, for obvious reasons, folk tales featuring catastrophic flooding, spun retrospectively as a necessary cleansing act by the gods as punishment for some vaguely-specified acts of depravity and/or disloyalty.

So I think I can manage an indulgent shake of the head here, rather than a full-on book-burning. By the time Nia gets to school she'll have been brutally schooled in critical thinking anyway, so if anyone tries to do any proselytising she'll be well-equipped to tear them a new one.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

psst: your IMPENDING FIERY DEATH light has just come on

Here's a Bloke Skills-related confession: I am neither especially interested in, nor especially knowledgeable about, cars. Just to be clear, I'm very enthusiastic about the benefits of having one - getting to places outside the normal range of public transport, a mobile lockable storage facility for stuff, emergency rain shelter, all of that, but I don't have particularly strong opinions about brands and models, and I certainly don't have much knowledge about the internal workings of cars beyond being able to change a wheel in an emergency and knowing how to top up the oil and the washer fluid. Oh, and I have changed a fuse a couple of times.

So you might argue that my lack of enthusiasm for deep research into what car would be best to buy back when I was buying a car for the first time is what led me to the safe and unexciting choice of the Ford Focus. To which I would say a) yes, you're probably right, but also b) why would "excitingness" be a criterion anyway? I mean, who cares, really? And there's also c) yeah, but my choice has been borne out as a pretty good one given how little trouble the Focus has been over the five and a half years I've owned it and the getting on for 85,000 miles I've put on the clock.

One of the key considerations when owning a car, particularly one of advancing age (the Focus is about 12 years old now), is making the judgment of when it becomes more trouble than it's worth, i.e. when the niggly maintenance issues that inevitably crop up start costing more to fix than the residual value of the car. While I don't think we've reached that stage yet, it is undoubtedly true that I've had more trouble with the car in 2013 than in the previous four years put together.

The only time the car had broken down before this year was in the depths of winter not long after I'd bought it when a coolant hose froze and cracked on a particularly frosty morning causing the car (ironically) to overheat. The first I knew about it was when the little yellow engine management light came on on the dashboard as I was passing the Severn Bridge toll booths (in the non-paying easterly direction) and the car had a sudden loss of power. A quick tow to a garage from the AA and a new hose and that was sorted.

This year, by contrast, in addition to an MOT bill running to several hundreds of pounds to replace a load of suspension parts, I've had a couple of incidents. Firstly, when on the way from home to the motorway one morning, the yellow engine management light started flickering on and off intermittently, there was a sudden loss of power and the engine started to chug lopsidedly like an old tractor. I managed to limp back home and called out the AA man, who plugged his little diagnostic gizmo into the socket under the dashboard and determined that there was a misfire in one of the cylinders. A new ignition coil pack and some new HT leads sorted that at relatively modest cost, at least until the exact same thing happened a couple of weeks later. I was a bit concerned that this indicated some major problem with the engine management computer, but the AA man assured me that, nah, it was probably just a dodgy ignition coil, replaced it at no charge, and to be fair to him it's been fine since.

Then, a month or so ago, as I was driving back to the office after a lunchtime trip to B&Q, the engine light came on again. A constant light this time, and accompanied by no discernible problem with engine sound or power, but a bit worrying nonetheless. The lack of any obvious problem gave me a bit of a dilemma, though - ignore it for a bit, or take it somewhere and get it diagnosed? A no-brainer, you might think, until you see how much motor maintenance people want to charge you just for plugging in a code reader and reading the results out to you. Halfords Autocentres and Kwik-Fit both wanted about 40 quid, and while I daresay there might be an independent who'd do it a bit cheaper it still seemed a bit of a wedge for 2 minutes work. So I decided to take a punt on buying a diagnostic scanner gizmo off the internet, as they're readily available on Amazon, and as it happened this one was available for a mere 13 quid. Obviously I was also taking a punt on the engine not eating itself while I waited for it to arrive, but luckily I got away with it.

So anyway, when I plugged the unit in (having located the port under the steering wheel and located a suitable flat-bladed screwdriver to remove the cover) it told me that there was a single fault logged on the computer, specifically code 0420, which translates as Catalyst System Efficiency Below Threshold (Bank 1), which further translates as, basically, your catalytic converter isn't operating at maximum efficiency. To which, after 12 years and over 140,000 miles, I say both meh and also no shit, Sherlock. Most of the sites which give you more detail about these codes do also specifically say that a cylinder misfire can cause some damage to a catalytic converter owing to the unburnt fuel that then ends up in it, so that makes sense I suppose. I'll keep an eye on it, but since I'm not currently experiencing any obvious loss of power or difference in fuel consumption you'll excuse me if I'm not rushing off to throw money at the problem.

All of that extremely lengthy preamble brings me to my point, though, which is this: in these days when we can put a man on the moon and work out the most complex hire purchase agreements it really ought to be obligatory for cars to display a bit more helpful diagnostic information in the event of the computer detecting a problem - at the very least the diagnostic fault code (or codes), but preferably a bit of explanatory text as well. I'm delighted that we've come as far as having an international standard for the codes, but there's absolutely no reason why the engine computer, having detected and logged a fault, should then say to you: something's wro-ong! but, hey, I'm not going to tell you what it is, because IT'S A SECRET, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! As an aside, the only general rule I've been able to glean off the internet is that, in the absence of an indication of what the fault code is, in general a flashing engine management light is more serious than a constant one.

The good people at American motoring website Jalopnik have decided that they agree with me, and, additionally, that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. As one of the commenters very eloquently puts it:
you need to have some way of differentiating "screw the gas cap back in, idiot" from "pull the hell over: impending fiery death"
So in addition to a couple of pithy articles on the subject they've created an actual White House petition to get some form of automatic decoded OBD display mandated on all new cars. The petition seems to be inaccessible now, though - you just get redirected to the petitions home page instead. So I expect that means it'll be getting passed into law any day now, or something.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

velvet six feet underground

I suppose I'm bound to have heard Walk On The Wild Side on the radio a few times as a child, but my first conscious exposure to Lou Reed (who died earlier this week) was at my aunt and uncle's house in Pangbourne in what I suppose would have been the mid-1980s. Not that my (at the time) fiftysomething aunt was heavily into the New York art-rock scene, you understand, but my cousin Martin had a copy of a Velvet Underground album (I think it was the out-takes and unreleased stuff compilation VU) which he was playing almost constantly.

It was a painful childhood rite of passage for me to realise that my (sadly now deceased) slightly younger cousin was cooler than me in almost every respect, but there it was nonetheless. I recall Martin being heavily into The Smiths as well at around the same time and driving everyone to distraction playing What Difference Does It Make? incessantly. I think I was probably still mostly listening to Queen and Dire Straits and ZZ Top at the time - much of which I stand by, but it's squarely in the box marked "mainstream" rather than "alternative", inasmuch as those descriptions have any meaning.

Anyway, it wasn't really until I got to university and discovered the record library in the student's union building that I decided to sample some Velvet Underground stuff for myself. One of the things crazy young people do is test out the boundaries of their own and others' musical tastes by having the most "out there" music in their collection, whether by virtue of having really long songs, being impenetrably noisy, or just being plain bonkers. The Velvet Underground's second album White Light/White Heat (the first record of theirs I ever owned) ticks most of these boxes - I Heard Her Call My Name features some ear-bleeding feedback, Sister Ray is 17 minutes long (and pretty noisy), and The Gift is a bizarre spoken-word piece (read by John Cale).

The Velvets only released four official studio albums, and you probably want all of them. Personally I can take or leave the stuff featuring Nico on the first album, but the rest of it (I'm Waiting For The Man, Heroin, Run Run Run, Venus In Furs) is terrific. The self-titled third album is easier on the ear, but not smearing everything in feedback obliges the band to get some stronger songs together, and What Goes On might just be my favourite Velvets song of all. To paraphrase myself from a few years back, if you don't get a head-nodding atavistic thrill from Reed and Sterling Morrison's lengthy jangly guitar outro, you basically probably just don't like rock music very much. Fourth album Loaded is fine too, not least because it's the one with Sweet Jane and Rock And Roll on it.

Other things you ought to have are the aforementioned VU compilation and also the two-CD live album from 1969 (the one with the green cover with the woman's arse on it). Worthwhile live rock albums are like hen's teeth, but I reckon this is one of them. I can't speak for the 1993 live album, but I can say that I saw them play live on the same tour from which the live album was taken, as they played at Glastonbury at the end of June 1993 (the live album was recorded in Paris, so don't bother trying to hear me in the crowd).

Reed's solo career was considerably more patchy, and I'm not the biggest fan of 1972's Transformer, but you probably ought to have it for Rock Significance alone. The other solo album you really should have is 1989's New York, which I think is the best non-Velvets thing he ever did. Some would argue for 1973's Berlin and 1982's The Blue Mask as well. I've never listened to the notorious Metal Machine Music, so you're on your own there. I do have a copy of the wide-ranging compilation NYC Man from 2003, which cherry-picks the (supposedly) best bits from the rest of his output, though as with any compilation there are those who quibble with the song selections.

It was rumoured around the time of New York that anyone wanting to interview the legendarily curmudgeonly Reed would have to endure an hour-long discussion about the minutiae of guitar amplifier set-up and miking technique before being allowed to proceed to actually being able to ask any proper questions. Reed was probably at least partially taking the piss, but the results of his devotion to getting the guitar sound just so can be witnessed in the terrific clean chunky sound of Romeo Had Juliette (the opening track of New York), and the (by contrast) blissfully buzzy and distorted sound in the otherwise very silly Egg Cream from 1996's Set The Twilight Reeling.

[alternative blog post title: "white light white sheet"; take your pick.]

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

oh all right, sorry about hitler

Inspired by this disturbing and effective series of consciousness-raising adverts, and also by my earlier research activities in a similar vein, I offer you this series of Google auto-complete samples using the word “atheist”, just to illustrate the level of esteem atheists are clearly held in around the world. Note that this does not mean that I am seeking to equate the oppression experienced by atheists around the world (real though it is) with that experienced by women, just to use a similar illustrative technique to make a similar point.

As a control experiment I tried substituting a few other religious groups for “atheists” – in general the results for “Christians” are relatively anodyne, with the other religions varying depending how threatening and scary and generally brown and bearded and foreign they are perceived as being by the presumably predominantly American (and therefore predominantly Christian) internet-using public who influence Google’s algorithms. Except for the Scientologists, of course, everyone hates them.