Sunday, June 22, 2014

incidental music spot of the day

The opening bars of White Room by Cream over the opening moments of the Radio 4 adaptation of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? at 9pm yesterday evening. I caught the first 20 minutes or so of it at the end of a long drive back from Derby, long enough to also catch a snippet of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) later on as well.

Two filmic links, firstly that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was the basis (with the usual liberties taken with the plot) for Ridley Scott's classic 1982 film Blade Runner, and secondly that the canonical use of Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) in film is towards the end of Withnail And I as the two protagonists return to London. Get in the back of the van!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

the last book I read

Metroland by Julian Barnes.

Chris and Toni are a couple of 16-year-old schoolboys in suburban early-1960s London. In addition to the usual teenage pursuits of malodorous spottiness and relentless wanking they also cultivate some slightly more cerebral ones, mainly scoffing at the stupidity of their school contemporaries, despising the bourgeois sterility of their parents' lives and fantasising about heading off to France and being bohemian poetic types, France being the centre of all that is arty and revolutionary as well as containing lots of knowing Gauloise-toting French girls who are gagging for it.

We then jump forward to 1968, and Chris has realised at least part of his fantasy by being in Paris, on the flimsy pretext of writing a thesis about French theatre. He's soon enthusiastically pursuing the other half of the Paris fantasy as well, by meeting sultry French girl Annick and persuading her to relieve him of his virginity. So bound up is he with cashing in on the sex thing at every possible opportunity that the seminal events of May 1968 rather pass him by, something he's slightly embarrassed about in hindsight, particularly since Toni reminds him about it constantly.

The last part of the novel happens in 1977 - Chris has settled into his own version of suburban sterility and tedium, or so Toni would have him believe anyway. Married to Marion, the clever, down-to-earth English girl he met towards the end of his time in Paris, father to a young daughter and occupant of a steady job and a nice house, Chris certainly seems to have embraced the whole bourgeois middle-class thing with a vengeance. So why is he so happy? And is Toni really as scornful of Chris' lifestyle as he purports to be, or is he just jealous?

This was Julian Barnes' first novel, published in 1980, and follows many of the standard rules for first novels: most importantly, write about what you know. The bits describing Chris' childhood are supposedly reasonably close to being autobiographical - Barnes certainly did grow up in suburban north-west London, and the close ties with France are real, Barnes being if anything more celebrated as a novelist in France than he is in Britain.

It's pretty short (176 pages in my Picador edition) and less experimental than some of Barnes' later stuff, Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the World in 10½ Chapters in particular. It's very good on the business of how bright, slightly smug teenage boys act (and I know, because I used to be one), and raises some interesting questions about how youthful idealism mutates into a strong desire to do nothing more than just hang out with your wife and kids. It's fairly slight, though, and as with the rest of Barnes' books one ends up perhaps admiring the cleverness of it rather than really engaging with the characters. I would recommend the pair of love triangle books Talking It Over and Love, Etc. and the darker, slightly Ian McEwan-esque Before She Met Me. Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2011 for The Sense Of An Ending, having been nominated three times before - I think there may be just a hint of a lifetime achievement award being handed out there, just as for some other past recipients.

Metroland won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1981, as did A Good Man In Africa. The usual list can be found there. It was also made into a film - starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson among others - in 1997.

Monday, June 16, 2014

mapsolutely fabulous

Inspired by this quiz in the Guardian last week - which you should go and do first; I got a distinctly average 7/10, and that was aided by a couple of lucky guesses - I've harvested a few pictures of maps from some (fiction) books on my bookshelves. These are in no particular order, and I'm not promising that I've captured every book I own that contains a map, but as it happens this quick skim yielded a nice round ten pictures, so here they are. Have a look (click for embiggenment) and see if you recognise any. If it helps at all, four of these are from books which have featured in this blog - I have omitted the obvious one, Riddley Walker, since I've reproduced the map here before, and that would be too easy. Answers in comment #1, unless someone beats me to it.











Friday, June 13, 2014

bulbous developments #4

Right, you know the drill by now, so no frills, here's the low-down: latest bulb to expire was bulb number 11, which went a week ago on June 6th. This was another of the surviving 40W incandescent jobs, so no money/days calculation here. I just thought you might like to know.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

mine eyes have seen the gory of the nailing of the Lord

Just a follow-up to the last post, with reference to the 1970s Bible-stories book in particular - you might say, well, as long as you set up the context correctly, i.e. it's just some old stories and not actually true, where's the harm?

As it happens the book I've got - which a quick look at the front page reveals was given to Hazel for her christening in April 1978 - has some illustrations which reveal the child-friendliness of these charming old stories.

Here's the Great Flood - Noah and his family are all fine (animal poo build-up problems aside), sailing off over the horizon in their great big ark, but everyone else is completely fucked:

And then there's the first Passover - those who were foolish enough not to smear their front door with a sufficient amount of goat guts having their first-born arbitrarily killed:

Here's old Moses reading out the ten commandments - just to make the point that this is NOT A JOKE and God is REALLY SERIOUS about this shit, he's doing it in front of a blood-smeared altar upon which there are some pots with all manner of unspeakable animal remains in them:

Here's where this shit really gets real: Salome carting around the head of John the Baptist (looking a bit surprised, as I imagine you would be) on a plate:

And finally, from the otherwise more mellow and cuddly New Testament, here's that nice Jesus chap being nailed to a tree:

The point is that far from being a collection of cosy harmless morality tales, this is an unmitigated series of Bronze Age horrors with no redeeming moral message whatsoever, unless of course you actually believe your kids need to be traumatised into obedience lest they meet a fate far worse than any of those illustrated in unnecessarily lavish detail above, i.e. burning in hell for all eternity. Since that's all utter nonsense the best thing is probably to keep this well out of the reach of children.

By contrast, let me once again commend to you the work of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, partly because they're just terrific stories, but also for the subtle messages of equality and tolerance that get unobtrusively slipped into the books. Here's Tabby McTat's new owners, Prunella and Pat - it's never deemed worthy of special mention that they are a pair of middle-aged lesbians - why would it be, after all?

And the knights-rescuing-princesses thing is nicely subverted in Zog when Princess Pearl announces that Zog and the knight can just ruddy well cut out all that nonsense about fighting for her honour, as she doesn't need saving, thank you very much, and she's going to go off and be a doctor.

Try any of that stuff in the Bible, and they'll probably stone you to death. It's even worse than saying Jehovah.

first they came for the gruffaloes

I suppose there's an argument that Richard Dawkins provides a vital service for the rationalist community by acting as a sort of lightning-conductor for abuse and hatred, owing to his being atheism's most publicly-visible spokesperson. And it is true that a lot of the vitriol directed at him is entirely undeserved, and motivated either by a visceral reaction to the perceived threat to the cosy religious status quo, or by some hopelessly ill-thought-through notion of "balance" that shies away from his public statements as being too "strident".

That said, it is also true that some of his public pronouncements are ill-thought-out and badly-presented, and just confirm the view a lot of people already have of sceptics as joyless, humourless hyper-pedants, and of Dawkins himself as some sort of representative of the rationalist thought police, like a sort of cross between Professor Yaffle and Hitler. This is especially true of his Twitter feed, constrained as it is to 140 characters, which is a pretty hilarious record of ill-thought-out statements, general piling on by the rest of the Twitterverse, and then some huffy clarifications, grumpy retractions and complaints about people not understanding nuance or sarcasm or whatever.

The latest spat actually didn't originate on Twitter, but as a result of a speech Dawkins gave at the Cheltenham Science Festival, where, despite later claims that various media outlets had taken his words out of context, he pretty clearly did suggest that fairy tales are at least potentially harmful to children:
I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable.
Needless to say this generated something of a Twitter storm and required him to clarify his thoughts via various media outlets, though he still didn't seem entirely clear, simultaneously claiming that he'd never claimed fairy tales were harmful:
I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.
and that, well, maybe he had, but now he'd changed his mind:
If you did inculcate into a child's mind supernaturalism ... that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I'm now thinking they probably don't. It could even be the reverse.
Of course part of Dawkins' intention here would have been to draw a parallel with religion and its assorted implausible tales, it being a fairly common atheist trope to refer to them scoffingly as "fairy tales" - I've done it myself often enough. I think he's probably taking aim at the wrong target, here, though, unless there are parents who, in addition to reading these stories to their children, insist that they are LITERALLY true and that if you keep sucking your thumbs some crazy person really will come along and cut them off. It's not the implausible content of the stories that's the issue, but rather the fact that there is a subset of implausible stories that some people would have you believe are the literal truth, and furthermore get all punchy and bomb-y if you try to point out that they're not.

There is another problem, of course, which is: what's a fairy story? I mean, I grant you that the whole pumpkins turning into gold carriages, frogs turning into princes thing from what you might consider "classic" fairy stories is obviously not real, but then what of talking pigs? Dragons? And let's not forget there really is no such thing as a gruffalo. Strip away anything not corresponding to the real world and you discard something like 99% of children's literature (and indeed adult literature); you're really just left with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Haynes manual.

I was prompted to go off at a mental tangent by all this and think about how much I do, or should seek to, police my daughter's reading material. I don't so much mean the religious stuff, since we don't exactly get a lot of that pushed on us, although I did come across an old hardback Children's Bible Stories book in a pile of stuff the other day which I think must once have been Hazel's (I've hidden it again now). I think I'm more inclined to be all censor-y about the stuff that's pushing the gender essentialism, pink for girls, blue for boys, Disney princess tropes, since all that stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. We have acquired (by what means I'm not sure) a couple of books that I deem to be over the line in this regard, and I've made sure that they've been shoved down the back of the book rack where they're unlikely ever to be pulled out and read. I answer my own questions about whether I'm being too sensitive about all this by telling myself I can afford to be, given the blizzard of cultural influences in the opposite direction she'll be subjected to once she gets out into the world.

Of course this is fairly easy when you've got a large degree of control over what cultural influences your child is exposed to, but what about when they go to school? This is where you have to make some tricky judgments about what to let slide and what to dig in your heels about - just as I wasn't prepared to bow to prevailing cultural orthodoxy and have Nia christened, I certainly wasn't prepared to have her go to an overtly religious school, not least because there is usually some sort of entry test involving gauging the devoutness of the parents, and that would not have gone well.

But there will still probably be some absurd uniform rules, and inevitably there will be some sort of exposure to religion in one form or another. What about nativity plays, for instance? Do schools in general still do those, or is it just the fundamentalist Christian ones? Would I feel obliged to veto Nia's participation, or would that be heavy-handed? And what if the school organised an outing to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm? I think that might be the thing that tipped me over the edge into torching the place.

Monday, June 09, 2014

water way to plan a walk

Anyone reading the extraordinary weather predictions being made by the Daily Express late last week could have been forgiven for thinking that going out for a walk on Saturday would have been literally madness. I mean, who would willingly subject themselves to "hailstones the size of cricket balls", "DEADLY lightning strikes" and "extreme tornado activity", except someone in the grip of severe mental derangement?

Other weather forecasting methods are available, though, and the BBC Weather website actually reckoned that the place we were heading for would be relatively rain-free on Saturday. Additionally there is Dave's Rule Of Weather Forecasting, which has two parts, as follows:
  1. Chances are tomorrow's weather will be very much like today's;
  2. If you want to know what the weather will be like the day after tomorrow, wait until tomorrow and then apply rule 1. 
Incidentally it is true that there really was an extreme weather event back in 1843 ( this is the "Worst HAILSTORMS in 170 YEARS" that the Express refers to) which really did involve some severe hailstorms. I'm highly sceptical of the claim of "hailstones leaving craters FIVE FEET deep across England", though, even so.

Anyway, I can ruin the suspense for you now by revealing that, a bit of initial drizzle and a couple of brief squally showers aside it was shorts and T-shirts weather most of the day. Not a hailstone in sight, not even a little one.

This is the latest in a series of walks that has previously taken in a number of routes in the Gloucestershire area, as well as a couple in Wales. We decided for this one that we'd head over towards the western Brecon Beacons and have a tour of the Ystradfellte waterfalls. Basically these are sandwiched between the main peaks of Pen y Fan and its neighbours and the more remote Black Mountain (venue for my stag weekend in May 2011), about an hour's drive from Newport.

No great elevation involved - highest point is a smidgen under 300 metres - but a bit of up and down and some scrambling, particularly in the vicinity of the waterfalls, of which there are many: Sgwd Gwladus, Sgwd Clun-gwyn and Sgwd yr Eira being the most impressive of the ones we saw. Sgwd yr Eira is particularly noteworthy for having a path running across the rock face behind the waterfall which the intrepid walker can take if he or she doesn't mind getting a bit wet.

There's a fair amount of variation in the amount of water coming over the various waterfalls, depending on how much rain has fallen on the hills above the falls in the past few weeks. I'd say they were reasonably full but not exceptional yesterday, somewhere between the bare trickle they get reduced to in the summer and the raging torrents they become after persistent heavy rain. Compare for instance the picture of Sgwd Gwladus (the first picture) here, and the one here, and note the before and after pictures of Sgwd yr Eira here.

Here's the route map - if you can't get it to display big enough, try this one. We parked in the Dinas Rock car park in Pontneddfechan and did a clockwise circuit from there.

The GPS tracking info (from which that map is drawn) reckons the round trip was 10.8 miles, more than enough distance to justify stopping off for a cheeky pint of Rhymney Bitter in the Angel in Pontneddfechan before heading home. As always there are some photos, here. To augment the photos, Robin captured a couple of brief snippets of video footage in the vicinity of Sgwd Gwladus and behind Sgwd yr Eira.

Monday, June 02, 2014

the last book I read

Fanny Hill or Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure by John Cleland.

What is a bright, ambitious and, as it happens, comely and buxom young girl of fifteen to do when both her parents are carried off in quick succession by the pox and she is left without any means of supporting herself? You'll recall young Kate aka Bob being left in a similar situation in the first episode of Blackadder II and failing to heed her father's advice:
Father: I'm sad because, my darling, our poverty has now reached such extremes that I can no longer afford to keep us. I must look to my own dear tiny darling to sustain me in my frail dotage.
Kate: But father, surely...
Father: Yes Kate, I want you to become a prostitute.
Well, it turns out Kate's old Dad knew what he was talking about after all. After heading up to London to seek her fortune under the supervision of an older friend, who promptly abandons her, Fanny is taken under the wing of kindly old Mrs. Brown, who it turns out is a serial "rescuer" of young girls, and who provides them with bed and board and expects very little in return except a bit of the old whoring. Fanny is a bit taken aback by this, at least at first, being an innocent country girl, but soon gets the idea after a bit of gentle girl-on-girl action from roommate Phoebe, and a bit of hiding-in-the-cupboard voyeurism.

Just as Fanny's future seems to be mapped out, though, she meets a young man called Charles, sleeping off an excess of drink in Mrs. Brown's kitchen, and after a courtship lasting all of a couple of minutes the pair decide that they are in love and that Charles will take her away from all this and set her up as his mistress. So they slip away and spend the next few weeks living together, during which time Charles relieves Fanny of the tiresome burden of her virginity.

Disaster strikes when Charles is sent overseas at short notice by his father, and Fanny is once again left on her own. But she is a shrewd and resilient girl and soon gets herself set up as the live-in mistress of the wealthy Mr. H, whom she doesn't love but who treats her well enough. All goes well until one day she comes home early and sees Mr. H giving the chamber maid a good seeing-to, whereupon Fanny is roused to take revenge by seducing the delivery boy and is caught in the act by Mr. H.

So Fanny is out on the street again. But her adventures have given her a clear instinct for self-preservation, a head for money-making, and a pretty good idea of where her, hem, hem, talents lie. So it doesn't take long for her to get set up in the house of Mrs. Cole, another smart old madam, and really get to grips with the prostitutional life. And what a life! If she's not participating in eight-way orgies, there's riverside skinny-dipping action, some spicy flagellation and even a bit of through-the-keyhole spying on some hot forbidden penetrative man-on-man action.

But all good things must come to an end, and eventually Mrs. Cole decides she's getting too old for the old whoring game and retires to her little cottage (Dunwhorin, presumably) in the country. Landing on her feet once again, Fanny takes up with a kindly sixtysomething gentleman who just happens to possess a considerable fortune (which he soon makes Fanny the sole beneficiary of) and a dicky heart, leaving Fanny, still barely nineteen, a woman of considerable independent means. So when she meets Charles again, returned from his overseas trip but fallen upon hard times, she's in a position to make him an offer to their mutual benefit. And so to bed.

Fanny Hill is such a cultural and comedy staple that it's hard to know what to expect when reading it. You'll need to know that it was first published in 1749, and allegedly written piecemeal over the preceding 20 years, so there'll be some archaic language to get through. But, as with some other books, the unfamiliarity of the language really isn't much of a burden once you get used to it, and the flowery prose in which the central scenes are rendered can't conceal the utter filth they contain:
Standing then between Harriet's legs, which were supported by her two companions at their widest extension, with one hand he gently disclosed the lips of that luscious mouth of nature, whilst with the other, he stooped his mighty machine to its lure, from the height of his stiff stand-up towards his belly; the lips, kept open by his fingers, received its broad shelving head of coral hue: and when he had nestled it in, he hovered there a little, and the girls then delivered over to his hips the agreeable office of supporting her thighs; and now, as if he meant to spin out his pleasure, and give it the more play for its life, he passed up his instrument so slow that we lost sight of it inch by inch, till at length it was wholly taken into the soft laboratory of love, and the mossy mounts of each fairly met together. 
Basically the flimsy plot devices, such as they are, just serve as the scaffolding to hold the sex scenes together. It hardly needs saying that this is as rose-tinted a view of the business of prostitution as Pretty Woman or Belle de Jour, probably more so given that the action takes place in the mid-18th century, not exactly prime female-empowerment territory. Apart from anything else the vexed issue of contraception never really arises, except in that it's pretty clear that no barrier methods are being used. Fanny does get pregnant during her brief sojourn of living with Charles (and subsequently miscarries) but how all the rest of the uninhibited unprotected fucking isn't resulting in sprogs popping out everywhere isn't clear. On the plus side the whole notion of unabashed female hunger for, and enjoyment of, sex was a good deal more subversive then than it is now, and Fanny is a very engaging central character who clearly enjoys her job greatly, and not just for its money-making aspects. A bit like The Fermata, analysis beyond just revelling in the joyous filthiness of it all is probably missing the point.

There have been many under-the-counter-in-a-brown-paper-bag film adaptations of Fanny Hill over the years; the BBC did a rather more respectable one back in 2007, which necessarily took a bit more of a soft-focus approach to the sex (thereby, arguably, defeating the object) but which may be of interest to anyone wondering where they'd seen the female flatmate from those BT Infinity adverts before.

One last thing: it's unclear from the various online dictionaries whether Fanny Hill is the inspiration for the use of the word "fanny" to describe (US readers should probably stop reading now to avoid confusion) the female genitalia. It's listed as a possible derivation here; most other dictionaries don't offer any clues. My giant Chambers dictionary is similarly tight-lipped (ooer) on the subject.