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.