Monday, February 24, 2014

bakerman is baking bread

I caught an episode of Danny Baker's Rockin' Decades a week or two ago on BBC4, always a good place for the occasional unexpected item of interest. This one focused on the 1990s, this being apparently the third in a series, the first two of which featured, you'll be surprised to hear, the 1970s and the 1980s.

The 1990s was really "my" decade in terms of music, by which I mean the decade where I really got my horizons broadened and got exposed to some genuinely interesting and quirky (and in some cases, utterly unlistenable) stuff. Well, actually that period would include the very tail-end of the 1980s as well, which just illustrates the slightly contrived nature of carving things up into separate decades, not to mention the focus on "rock" rather than "pop", as if that really means anything, and the insistence on restricting the discussion to just British bands. But, well, you've got to impose some structure on an idea that presumably started life as Danny and some mates just chewing the fat down the pub.

Even those who find Danny Baker less irritating than I do would probably have to concede that he's never found a TV format that really worked - he's good on the radio where he can just hog the mic for a couple of hours and ramble on about whatever takes his fancy, but on TV you tend to be a bit more constrained by programme structure and length. And the format of Rockin' Decades only sort of works - the ostensibly unscripted chatty bits are fine, but there's an awkward gear-change every time Baker leans forward to deliver an obviously scripted interjection (usually introducing a clip) across his guests and straight to camera. And you can almost smell his resentment at having to let anyone else talk, given that that's time during which he has to stop talking.

The guests were fine, generally, both Josie Long and Alexis Petridis seeming genuinely enthused by being able to give their personal obsessions (with David Devant & His Spirit Wife and Earl Brutus respectively) an airing. Louise Wener had the least to say, so I should probably just observe that she is still quite foxy even though she's inevitably a bit more mumsy-looking these days, and that while Sleeper weren't all that great you should probably have Inbetweener and Sale Of The Century even if you don't have anything else.

The programme skipped across a couple of my favourite British 90s albums a bit quickly for my liking - Primal Scream's Screamadelica was passed over slightly sniffily as a shameless bit of dance-rock bandwagon-jumping and My Bloody Valentine were mentioned in complimentary terms but then passed over for a bit about Chapterhouse, of all people. And they never (to my knowledge) mentioned Teenage Fanclub at all - Grand Prix would be in my top five British albums of the 90s without a doubt.

The only thing that got my hackles up a bit was the section right at the end where everyone was asked to nominate an album - Alexis Petridis nominated Oasis' Be Here Now, which was a sort of archly ironic non-choice, and Josie Long had a Belle & Sebastian album which I suppose is fine if you like that sort of thing - I wouldn't have chosen either but they at least conformed to the programme's stated inclusion criteria. However - Louise Wener chose Garbage's first album, which is good, and which I own, but which is surely at least 90% American. I mean, yes, Shirley Manson is Scottish, but the rest of the band are American, and the album was recorded and produced in the US. Worse, Danny Baker chose XTC's Oranges And Lemons - nothing wrong with it, and they are at least definitely British, but it was released in 1989! And he must have known this, because a) he's supposed to be generally knowledgeable about music but also b) it must have been staring him in the face from the back of the vinyl LP he was holding up! If you're going to have rules, however arbitrary, then have enough respect for your audience to adhere to them, otherwise you'll just look like you're taking the piss.

Sadly none of the three programmes in the mini-series is now available on iPlayer, but here are a few YouTube clips from the 1990s edition.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

mapocalypse now

One of the many fascinating things about Riddley Walker is the little map at the front of the book which makes sense of some of the corrupted place names in the book and puts the whole thing in some sort of geographical context - it's basically set in Kent after it's been radically re-landscaped by the ill-defined nuclear disaster and what we can assume to be some accompanying rise in sea level.

Here's the map (right-click and open in a new tab to enlarge):

Note how both the Isle of Thanet (aka The Ram) and Dungeness (aka Dunk Your Arse) have been severed from the mainland, while the low-lying land separating Sandwich from the sea and most of the Isle of Sheppey have been submerged. The funny thing about this is how similar it looks to this map of the same area at around the time of the Saxon invasion of Britain, so probably 5th century AD or so.

I'm not sure when Dungeness was joined up to the mainland, but the Isle of Thanet remained a proper island until the late 17th/early 18th century, separated from mainland Kent by a waterway known as the Wantsum Channel. This eventually silted up, but its course - south from Reculver, then east to the mouth of the modern-day River Stour between Sandwich and Ramsgate - can be clearly seen on modern-day Ordnance Survey maps:

In the light of what's been happening to the Somerset Levels recently, it's sobering to reflect, while making use of this virtual sea-level readjustment tool, that it would take a sea-level rise of no more than about 3-4 metres to return Thanet (and Dungeness) to being an island.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

the last book I read

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

It's 2000-2500 years after some unspecified nuclear disaster occurred in the vicinity of Canterbury. And not your low-key Chernobyl-type event with a few abandoned towns and some radioactive sheep, either, this was your full utter devastation for hundreds of miles, not a living thing left unincinerated, the ground barren for generations kind of thing.

Humanity survives, as humanity will, though in somewhat reduced circumstances - civilisation has regressed to dark-ages semi-anarchy with small bands of scavengers scratching a living off the land and avoiding the jaws of the packs of marauding feral dogs. One of the things that they scavenge is the half-buried remnants of the old pre-apocalypse industrial landscape, huge metal and concrete structures whose purpose they have no idea of. The only entertainment is provided by travelling showmen who perform a sort of adapted Punch & Judy show ("The Eusa Show") incorporating garbled elements of the supposed events leading up to The Event.

Our eponymous hero decides he wants to see a bit more of the world after seeing his father killed while trying to extract some giant metal artifact from the mud and abandons the (relative) safety of his local community to wander the old grassed-over highways of Kent and try and make sense of things. As he does so he discovers more of the garbled history of pre-apocalypse England, but also the dangers that the insatiable human need to understand poses. To borrow a line from another post-apocalyptic novel, Stephen King's epic The Stand:
All of that stuff is lying around, waiting to be picked up.
Sure enough there is a sort of miniature arms race going on as rival groups try to acquire sulphur to make rudimentary gunpowder - the other two ingredients being readily available. Given how utterly clueless these people are about proportions, safe ignition methods and the like, they are soon re-enacting The Event in miniature and wiping themselves out. Riddley takes it upon himself to take an updated version of The Eusa Show around in an attempt to prevent mankind from haphazardly working its way up to a point where it can once again destroy itself.

As it happens the plot here is, to a degree, secondary, which is just as well as not a huge amount actually happens. The most startling feature of Riddley Walker is the language in which it's written - since paper is a bit on the flammable side a disaster capable of rendering human flesh into two little bubbling pools of fat in a pair of shoes in a matter of nanoseconds is certainly going to destroy any written matter in the vicinity, and therefore the ability to read and write is a rare one, and even for those (like Riddley) who do possess it any notion of standard rules for spelling and grammar have gone out of the window, not that anyone has windows any more. Try this for size:
She said, 'Its some kynd of thing it aint us yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals … Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome, Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part. I dont think I took all that much noatis of it when I ben yung. Now Im old I noatis it mor. It don't realy like to put me on no mor. Every morning I can feal how its tiret of me and readying to throw me a way. Iwl tel you some thing Riddley and keap this in memberment. Whatever it is we dont come naturel to it.'
There's no getting away from the fact that this makes the book difficult to read, and requiring of a considerable investment of effort on behalf of the reader. This is not unique, of course, the most obvious other example being the Nadsat in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Other novels to dabble with this sort of thing include Iain M Banks' Feersum Endjinn (which I should say I've never read, but whose phonetic argot seems very Riddleyesque), and of course Nineteen Eighty-Four, though that restricted itself to some academic discussion of Newspeak rather than attempting to render any of the narrative in it.

The most obvious point of comparison is with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Riddley Walker arguably being much the same story but with a much more immediately destructive initial event and 2000+ years of distance. In a way it's a more optimistic novel than The Road, though, as at least it's clear that organic life will survive, in whatever form, at least until humanity works out a way of obliterating itself again. The Road retains the implicit possibility that despite the commendable will to survive of the protagonists, the utter collapse of plant life may mean that humanity is fucked.

The other principal thing this has in common with The Road is that it is absolutely essential reading for anyone who is even slightly interested in modern fiction. Ignore the "science fiction" tag, as I think we've established that these words have no meaning. It's very different from the other two Hobans in this list, Come Dance With Me and Kleinzeit; those are charmingly playful, this is deadly serious.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

paternoster qui es in sheffield

You might recall my post about lifts from a few years back, and the embedded link to this fascinating New Yorker article on the same subject. I can't remember how the subject came up, but we were having a conversation at work the other day that touched on the concept of the paternoster lift, and occasioned some speculation over whether there were any still in operation anywhere, or whether health and safety considerations had seen them all replaced by more enclosed and less potentially limb-severing modes of inter-floor transportation.

Just to back up a bit, the paternoster lift is a series of open-fronted boxes attached to a chain mechanism that describe an endless loop up one side of a vertical shaft, around the top, and back down again (and around the bottom and back up again, and so on). It moves (albeit pretty slowly) continuously, so passengers just step on and off as required. I imagine there's a bit of practice required in order to master the timing, just as with stepping on and off escalators.

So there are a couple of obvious questions that occur to everyone at this point, and they are:
  • what happens if you stay on to the top (or the bottom)? Do you come back round upside down? Or some more severe variant like inside out, or something? The answer, reassuringly, is no (to both);
  • what happens if you leave some part of your anatomy hanging out of the front of the compartment, or trip on your way in or out and land half-in/half-out of the compartment? The answer is that in theory modern set-ups are required to have various failsafe arrangements involving infra-red beams, hinged sections of floor and the like which mitigate the risk of getting cut in half like the doctor out of Damien: Omen II. I'm not volunteering to test any of them, though.
As with the blue police box thing, you'd imagine locating a definitive list on the internet of the few remaining ones would be easier than it actually turns out to be, but it does appear that there are a few left in the UK, mainly, for some reason, at universities. I suppose maybe there was an overwhelming demand from the students for them to be retained just for their curiosity value and potential for amusing student pranks. There are also a few left in continental Europe, for instance in Prague, Hamburg and this rather magnificent one in Copenhagen.

The one at the Sheffield Arts Building is reputed to be the largest one in the world, though I'm not sure how reliable that claim is. Others in the UK can be found at Leicester University and the Albert Sloman Library at the University of Essex. The Leicester one is notable for featuring in this video dating from the very early days of the #neknominate craze back in May 2013, when just downing a perfectly normal pint of lager in vaguely amusing circumstances was deemed sufficiently "out there" to qualify. These days unless you're riding a horse through Tesco, drinking a pint of your own urine with live goldfish in it, or just killing yourself by necking a gallon of neat vodka, industrial valve cleaner or molten plutonium you may as well not bother.

Back to lift-related matters - the Wikipedia page claims that there have been 5 deaths in paternoster lifts between 1970 and 1993. Since the expectation is that these would be more dangerous than standard lifts, that seems quite low, although without some context in terms of deaths per passenger journey it's a bit meaningless. I've seen a statistic of 20-30 deaths in standard lifts per year in the USA, but most of these are maintenance staff rather than standard passengers, and therefore a large proportion weren't technically in the lift when they got killed.

Of course there is a sub-category of lift accidents involving genuine punters and not being in the lift, and that is the one involving people stepping into open lift shafts when the doors open at the wrong time. The most famous recent incident of this was when former racing driver Stirling Moss plummeted down the lift shaft in his own home, but there have been many others, plus a recent near miss at the Sochi Winter Olympics. In most of these cases my genuine sympathy is diluted by just a light splash of criticism: at least have a look before just stepping through the door, surely?

If the paternoster lift still seems a bit tame for you, and you demand a more exposed and dangerous way of travelling between floors, try the belt manlift as deployed at various factory facilities. You really don't want to be attempting to go "round the top" on this one, though.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

the last book I read

A Sport And A Pastime by James Salter.

It's the mid-1960s, and there's not much for young American men to do while mooching around avoiding the draft except to go off to Europe and have adventures. That's what our un-named narrator is doing, hanging out in a house owned by some friends in Autun, a small mid-French town near Dijon. Just generally swanning around, hanging out with similarly indolent expatriate American types, drinking too much and half-heartedly lusting over other people's wives, until he one day encounters twentysomething college dropout Phillip Dean.

The two strike up a friendship, and no sooner have they done so than Dean in turn strikes up a relationship with a young waitress, Anne-Marie Costallat, and the two are soon at it like rabbits. Once this preliminary scene-setting is out of the way (we're about a third of the way into a slim 190-page book at this point) most of the rest of the book is an account of a sort of meandering road trip taken by Dean and Anne-Marie in an old convertible that Dean has "borrowed" in slightly murky circumstances from an American friend. Their principal activities on this road trip are a) driving around, b) having dinner and c) fucking, and really the first two are just extended foreplay for the third.

Eventually, as all wistful accounts of That Last Golden Summer do, things come to an end - Dean comes to the end of his money, or at least to the end of the series of top-ups he's engineered by borrowing money from his friends, the narrator included, and has to cash in his remaining funds to pay for a flight home. Naturally there are protestations of love and promises to return that no-one really believes, though presumably the expectation would have been of a gradual petering-out of letter-writing through apathy, rather than the more shocking conclusion of Dean's death in a car crash, news which the narrator has the responsibility of breaking to Anne-Marie.

As anyone who skims the shortlists for the Literary Review's annual Bad Sex Award will know, writing about sex convincingly and without it being either horribly un-erotic or unintentionally hilarious is a very difficult thing to pull off (ooer), so if, as here, you're hanging an entire book off it (a book in which precious little else actually happens) you'd better make sure you get it right. And to be fair, this is very good, neither ridiculously flowery and metaphorical, off-puttingly mechanical, nor framed in any sort of Hollywood-esque soft-porn soft focus where no-one has any body hair, both partners always come at the same time and no-one farts halfway through or has to sleep on the wet patch afterwards.

It was still fairly racy to write about this sort of stuff when A Sport And A Pastime was published, in 1967, and it's still pretty graphic by modern standards. It's amusing from a historical perspective to note that while there is a whole uninhibited variety of standard fucking, and a couple of fairly matter-of-fact excursions into anal sex, the single episode of fellatio in the book is framed as something thrillingly transgressive. But it's commendably modern in Anne-Marie's hungry and enthusiastic involvement - she's not just coyly compliant while Dean is getting his rocks off, she wants hers too, and there's no suggestion that she's unrecoverably scarred when Dean abandons her to return to America. A few tears, a bit of Gallic shrugging and a Gauloise and she's as right as rain.

Of course, the quality of the writing aside, one has to ask, while reading: these are the narrator's words, not Dean's, and since we can presumably rule out either the narrator being psychic or Dean having handed over his personal sex diary for publication before jetting off home and emulating his namesake's demise, how does he know all these details? We're presumably invited to infer, again, some level of unreliable-narrator-hood here, with an undercurrent of what one might call Gatsbyitis, i.e. a sub-textual love story between the older, wiser, more inhibited narrator and his fabulous, unfettered, tragic friend whose experiences he lives vicariously through.