Friday, September 25, 2015

staycation vacation location

Here's a couple of photo galleries documenting a couple of small holidays we had during late August and early September. You might describe them both as "staycations", depending on your definition of the word - i.e. is it a break from work where you stay at home, or just a regular holiday where you don't leave the country? Both definitions seem to be in use. Actually, now I think about it, the first trip might contravene even the second, more generous definition, since we live in Wales and the campsite is in England, though only just.

Our first trip was to the Forest Holidays campsite at Bracelands, near Christchurch in the Forest of Dean. We've been here a couple of times before, once as part of our Forest of Death cycle trip in May 2008, and once almost exactly three years ago, when Nia was about the same age as Alys is now. This was the trip where the campsite entry barrier attempted to eat my old Ford Focus, a scenario we avoided this time in a few ways - firstly by not having the Focus any more, secondly by attaching a large roof box to the top of the Mondeo as a barrier (though I suspect it wouldn't have stood up to having a site entry barrier land on top of it), and thirdly by actually going to a slightly different place, the tent section of Bracelands having moved down the road a bit since we were there before. The site we were previously in now contains some little log cabins which look lovely, though they do seem to be eye-wateringly expensive to hire.

Secondly, we made a repeat visit to Bluestone in Pembrokeshire, this time with our NCT chums Huw and Zoe and their two children. Lots of the obligatory hooning around in the pool with the kids, one cheeky visit to the onsite pub for a pint (very decent Reverend James this time, though it is by no means my favourite thing - a bit dark and malty for my taste), and one bit of adult time (steady on, it's not what you're thinking) where we put the kids in the crèche for the morning and went off to do their High Ropes challenge, which is Go Ape! in all but name. Interestingly the only way in which the Bluestone version differs from Go Ape! proper - which we've done twice, once at the Forest of Dean and once at Margam Park - is that it doesn't include the Tarzan Swing into the big cargo net, which is the scariest bit as it requires a proper step off into the void. Perhaps they didn't want to traumatise the Mums and Dads too much before they went back to pick up the kids.

We also took a trip to the beach at Tenby, where Huw and I had a go at throwing a boomerang (one of these, I think) he'd recently acquired. I have thrown a boomerang precisely once before in my life, in a school field in Market Drayton in about 1992. On that occasion a good hour or so of attempts yielded precisely one successful throw and catch; here maybe half that time yielded two, plus a couple of near misses. Perhaps my technique is improving. Remarkably I have photos of both sessions: compare and contrast the differences in both boomerang technology (the 1992 model was an old-skool green wooden V-shaped one) and my waist measurement over the course of about 23 years. Note also how my beautiful daughter has done her best to photobomb the recent photo.

There are some quite interesting and extensive caves in the cliffs at the south beach at Tenby (the boomerang picture above is taken from a vantage point just in front of them), some brief exploration of which yielded the inevitable scalp injury which you can view below, and compare with the earlier one inflicted by the kitchen doorway at our old flat in Newport.

One of the myriad benefits of having a luxuriant thatch of head hair is a fraction of a second's early warning that you're about to hit your head on something, allowing you to take evasive action - plus of course a bit of padding in the event of an impact. If I'd still had the 1992-era haircut I'd have been fine.

Anyway, Forest of Dean photos can be found here, Pembrokeshire ones here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Topsy and Tim's Mum (as portrayed by Anna Acton) in the newish (and mildly controversial in some quarters) CBeebies adaptation of the venerable old book series by Jean and Gareth Adamson, and Dave Bartram, lead singer of 1970s pop stalwarts (and, in hindsight, much as I loved them at the time, ghastly cheesy novelty act) Showaddywaddy. Similar hair, cheekbones, enormous gob.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

come and have a rifle through my pottery barn

Here's a quick round-up of some recent arrivals in my Hotmail inbox. There's a lot of tedious low-level spam, which I won't bore you with, though I must say there has been a disappointing dwindling in the number of 419-type scam e-mails I get and also the amount of Arabic pornography.

I'm still getting mail from the barely-restrained potential spree killers at Bud's Gun Shop, though. Nothing as good as the bullet earrings for the wife, but I do like the way the latest assault rifle offer comes with a tasteful background of what appears to be (tastefully monochrome) blood and brain splatter, just to illustrate what you can expect to see when you decide to prove to your boss that you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it any more.

I've also had an e-mail from the apparently respectable retailer Pottery Barn; a receipt for a purchase I supposedly made on September 1st. Just to be clear, I have never bought anything from Pottery Barn, but I was interested to see what they thought I'd bought, especially as its original retail price was $121.99, though I apparently ended up paying a bargain price of $49.97. This was a branch of Pottery Barn in Edmonton, Alberta, which I apparently visited in person (i.e. rather than doing the whole thing over the internet), so these are Canadian dollars. At current rates of exchange that works out at £24.57 - not a fortune, but I'd want to know what I was spending it on. The trouble is it's almost impossible to tell from the description on the receipt (see below) which renders it as follows: CLFT CYL TBL LB BL.

Well clearly there's been a bit of radical disemvowelling and abbreviation here, so my best guess is that this is a CLEFT CYLINDER TABLE LABIA BALL, which I assume to be some sort of heavy-duty sex device which requires securing to a table prior to use.

Fortunately there's a product number on the receipt as well, and you can use that on the Pottery Barn website to retrieve the details you want. It turns out what's being described is CLIFT GLASS CYLINDER TABLE LAMP BASE, LIGHT BLUE. To which my reaction is twofold: a) how disappointing and b) bloody hell, one hundred dollars (Canadian, admittedly) for an empty bottle with a light bulb stuck in it. A two-and-a-half-feet high bottle (and presumably a reasonably large light bulb), but still.

Monday, September 07, 2015

the early-21st-century blog post of raw sexual frenzy

A couple of brief follow-up points from the last book review: firstly I should have noted that The French Lieutenant's Woman won a couple of literary awards, notably the now-defunct WH Smith Literary Award in 1970. The Shooting Party was the other recipient of that award to appear on this list.

Secondly, my old second-hand early-1970s paperback edition of the book carries a fairly sombre black cover with a detail from Richard Redgrave's 1844 painting The Governess, currently on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Just in case that was a bit downbeat for you, though, the whole thing is jazzed up a bit by carrying the following legend:

You know, with the best will in the world I'm not sure that's really an accurate description of what the book's about, or, at least, that description would lead you to expect a bit more, y'know, action than the page or so that the reader actually gets. Just as the description of the protagonist of Algis Budrys' Who? in the film version (aka Roboman) as THE KILL MACHINE WITH THE MEGATON MIND seemed to be trying too hard to sell what was actually some quite cerebral source material, this seems to be trying to knock out a few copies to unsuspecting lovers of bog-standard Victorian bodice-rippers, most of whom would (I suspect) have been sorely disappointed.

Similarly I always thought the chosen tag-line for the excellent Serenity - "They aim to misbehave" - was a bit of a strange choice, since it conjures up a bit of an image of a band of wacky space loonies having zany adventures. And in a sense that's what does happen, but for all the humorous moments it's a film with some deadly serious points to make, and if you were led to expect Spaceballs, well, again, disappointment is the most likely outcome. Then again that's the most likely outcome if you actually watch Spaceballs, too, so maybe it doesn't matter.

Lastly, here's an interesting interview with John Fowles from the Paris Review in the mid-1980s. There's a lot of interesting material in the Paris Review's Art Of Fiction series available online, including similarly in-depth interviews with a number of authors who have featured on this blog, including Vladimir Nabokov, Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Don DeLillo, Haruki Murakami, Jack KerouacGabriel García Márquez, Salman RushdieJoan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Hilary MantelWilliam Gibson and probably many others.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

the last book I read

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles.

Charles Smithson is your fairly typical upper-middle-class Victorian gentleman - no particular need to hold down a day job, in line for an unspectacular but perfectly serviceable inheritance, dabbles with a bit of amateur naturalism and paleontology and has even flirted with a bit of the racy revolutionary (and indeed evolutionary) thinking of scientists like Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

A bit of amateur naturalism and paleontology are two of the things on Charles' mind during his stay in Lyme Regis; the other principal one is spending some time with his fiancée Ernestina, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, and a perfectly delightful creature, though, in more modern parlance, not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

One windy day Charles and Ernestina are out walking on the Cobb, Lyme Regis' iconic harbour wall, when they spot a black-clad hooded figure at the far end, staring motionlessly out to sea. Ernestina, better-schooled in local lore than Charles, explains that this is a minor local celebrity known as The French Lieutenant's Woman, as well as by certain other less polite descriptions. Charles is intrigued, but thinks little more about it until, out walking in the Undercliff, happens unexpectedly upon the same woman, sleeping, and wakes her. Intrigued by the stories he has heard about her in town, he engages her in conversation when they have a similar chance meeting a few days later, whereupon he learns that her name is Sarah Woodruff and she works as a governess. He also learns something of her notorious liaison with the French lieutenant, although a lot of it raises more questions than it answers: since she seems completely sure that the encounter meant nothing to him and that he has gone forever, why does she moon around gazing out to sea as if watching for him?

Well, you can see what's going to happen here; Charles has fallen in love with Sarah, her enigmatic and independent nature and apparent revelling in her own notoriety providing a spicy alternative to the pretty but bland prospect of marrying Ernestina. Charles tries to escape the inevitable by using some of his contacts to get Sarah a job in Exeter, but then she sends him her address, he goes to visit her, and they have a brief and frenzied sexual encounter. Well, that's torn it. Quite literally, actually, as it turns out Sarah was a virgin, and therefore at least one part of her mystery Frenchman story was fabricated. But why would she do that?

Thoroughly obsessed now, Charles breaks off his engagement to Ernestina, thus ensuring himself a good dose of public disgrace and the making of some powerful enemies, and returns to Exeter to declare his love for Sarah. Only it turns out that Sam, his faithful manservant, wasn't so faithful after all and has failed to deliver the letter telling her to await his return. Pursuing her to London, he engages various private detective agencies to locate her, but to no avail. By now thoroughly pissed off with the whole affair, he jaunts off around the world for a couple of years, eventually ending up in America, where eventually he is contacted by his lawyer and learns that Sarah has been found. Hot-footing it back across the Atlantic, he finds her working in some slightly ill-defined capacity in the house of artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Can he persuade her that they can still make a life together?

Well, before you try to answer that question, let me just stop you and say: it's nowhere near as simple as that. While all this narrative has been going on, it's only been going on on the most pathetic level of reality. Even while the standard Victorian melodrama has been playing out, there's been plenty of authorial intervention to add late-20th-century historical context to what's been going on, and at various points the rug is pulled from under the reader completely: upon Charles' arrival in Exeter the author (Fowles, obviously, or some fictionalised version of himself) offers us a glimpse of a conclusion to the novel where Charles returns to Lyme Regis, marries Ernestina, they fire out a volley of puppies and all proceeds according to the original script. Then he crumples that ending up, throws it away, has Charles visit Sarah and give her a brief but pivotal scuttling, and alea iacta est.

That's not all, though: as Charles is travelling to London on the train, Fowles inserts himself physically into the narrative as the bearded stranger who shares his carriage, and looks at him while he sleeps to try to work out what to do with him next. Then, at the novel's conclusion, Fowles offers two possible endings to the novel, one where Sarah and Charles reconcile (and it's revealed to him that their brief liaison produced a child) and one where they don't (and he never knows). Which one is the "real" one? Well, none of this is real, the same as any novel. As with Invisible and a few other novels in this list, how frustrated you feel by this will depend on how much you're prepared to be made to think about what you're reading. It's all stuff that's been made up by some guy, it's just that traditionally he doesn't keep poking you in the shoulder to remind you.

Personally I'm quite partial to a bit of the old metafiction; the key to something like this is that the central story has to be engaging enough that it would work as a "standard" novel in its own right even if the author didn't keep hitting the pause button to walk you round the back of the set and show you the scaffolding holding the plot in place. And it does, although Sarah Woodruff's motivations for doing pretty much any of the stuff she does during the novel are as opaque at the end as they are at the start. Clearly she's meant to be some sort of proto-feminist heroine who doesn't need a man to define her, still less "rescue" her from anything, but she seems so quixotic that it's hard to know.

Here's John Crace's Digested Reads version from the Guardian. My even more digested version is: did I enjoy it? Yes, very much. I think Fowles is a novelist who, a bit like Lawrence Durrell, has waned a bit in critical regard in recent years, and I should point out this is the only thing of his I've ever read, but I thought it was excellent, very easy to read, and the metafictional dicking about was at levels that were acceptable to me, and telegraphed early enough that the rug-pull at the end wasn't that much of a surprise.

The French Lieutenant's Woman is as famous these days for its 1981 film adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, in, respectively, some extraordinary sideburns and a terrifying wig. I saw it a very long time ago, but it's only on reading the source novel that I appreciate the brilliance of the device that Harold Pinter came up with to convey the famous split ending: have an extra narrative involving the actors playing the characters in the film and give them and the "real" characters one ending each.

It's also another entry on the list of novels featured in the TIME magazine list of best 20th-century novels.