Friday, October 30, 2015

that's a moray

Wait a minute - do you realise that it's over a year since the last whisky post? I'm not going to bang on about having two kids to feed and all that, as I've moaned about that in at least three previous posts, so enough, already. But nonetheless it's fair to say the halls of Halibut Towers haven't been flowing with endless streams of whisk(e)y over the intervening twelve months.

I have been able to rustle up the occasional few shekels for a dram or two, though, and this is probably a good moment to log a couple of items that were new to me.

So here's a half-bottle of Glenlivet (or "The Glenlivet" to give it it's official title) which I think I was bought for me either last Christmas or for my birthday in February. We have featured a Glenlivet before, here, but that was a very sherry-rich version not typical of the regular official bottlings. According to Wikipedia it's the biggest-selling Scotch whisky in the USA, and I would hazard a guess that the bulk of that is in the form of the standard 12-year-old, which is what I've got here.

As with the Glenfiddich, you'd expect very little to frighten the horses here, and sure enough it's very inviting. It smells very sweet, with just enough of a hint of cork and leather to keep you interested. You get the same when you taste it, with just a hint of something a bit fresher and zingier, like maybe Listerine. It's very quaffable, but the big pudding-y sherry monster version I had before is probably more interesting.

The other bottle is a standard-size Glen Moray I picked up in Tesco for £20 a couple of months back. Like Glenlivet, Glen Moray is a Speysider, but somewhat less celebrated, and often to be found at the bargain end of the supermarket ranges. But we're not at home to whisky label snobbery here, so I thought I'd give it a go. As it happens this isn't the standard no-age-statement version, but a 10-year-old that's been matured in casks that previously held Chardonnay wine. We've had a red-wine-cask Bruichladdich and a port-pipe-matured Glenmorangie here before, but I think white wine is a first. I also have to say I don't particularly like Chardonnay to drink (indeed I'm not big on white wine generally), so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

While it was obvious that something non-standard had been done to the Bruichladdich and the Glenmorangie, both by look and taste, I'm not sure I'd have known anything out of the ordinary was going on here if I hadn't read the label. It's the usual Rice Krispies and custard creams and bananas that you get with bourbon-cask-matured whisky, although there is a hint of magic marker in there as well, something you'd ordinarily associate with younger, rawer whisky like Penderyn. Maybe that's a bit of sharpness from the Chardonnay coming through.

They're quite similar, these two, as befits classic examples of the Speyside style, nothing to ruffle the feathers too much. As I've said before, my preference is for something slightly more rugged and outdoorsy, but there's absolutely nothing wrong with either of these. If I had to express a preference I'd probably go with the Glen Moray, as it's just a bit darker, richer and more interesting. I'm still not drinking any Chardonnay, though.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

avant moi, le déluge

A couple more photo galleries for you, documenting some recent travels. Firstly the annual Swanage trip (Swanage XIV according to the agreed though potentially confusing and/or inaccurate numbering system), conducted in general in much better weather than last year, although thanks to some torrential rain during the preceding couple of days we found the golf course under several inches of water on the Friday, and, while much improved, still somewhat soggy on the Saturday.

Sadly in my case the conditions induced a state of extreme mental derangement and Andy won both the Friday and Saturday competitions. But, y'know, whatever, let's adjourn to the pub. And just as well we did, as we managed to catch the thrilling last quarter of the Japan v South Africa match in the White Horse. The obligatory Sunday walk this time saw us get a lift out to Corfe Castle and then walk back along the dunes and heathland at the southern edge of Poole Harbour to Studland, where we had a richly deserved pint in the Bankes Arms before getting a bus back to Swanage. A whisker under 9 miles in total according to the GPS; route map is below.

Here's the traditionally-formatted entry for the Swanage history list:

Year Dates Transport and Pubs General Notes
2015 18-21 Sep Dave's Mondeo
The Crow's Nest
The Bull and Boat
The Square and Compass
The Bankes Arms (Studland)
Woodhenge. Waterlogged golf. Kirkwood's storm flaps. Jag and Japan in the White Horse. Walking to Scotland, and thence to Greenland. Topless bus action. 

Secondly we went back, with my parents, to the cottage in west Pembrokeshire we'd been to back in 2012, when Nia was just a couple of months old. Again, the weather was pretty good, which allowed a couple of trips to the beach at Abermawr, and also allowed Hazel and me the opportunity to get out for a walk on our own, something we don't get to do much these days. Just a low-level one of just over 9 miles, but nice to get out - Mum and Dad very kindly minded the girls for us.

All the GPS info above was captured on my phone using the BackCountry Navigator app, which is free as long as you don't mind a few easily-ignorable ads along the bottom of the screen, and despite sounding like a proprietary brand of buttplug is in fact excellent and very handy for impromptu navigation and track recording.

Anyway, Swanage photos are linked from the table above but can also be found here; Pembrokeshire photos are here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

the last book I read

Talk Talk by TC Boyle.

Dana Halter is making the best of the cards life has dealt her: profoundly deaf, she's making a living as a teacher at a school for the deaf, and she's on her way there via a stop-off at the dentist when her life falls apart. Stopped by a traffic policeman for the relatively minor infraction of running a stop-light, she's somewhat surprised to glance up after he's gone to run her licence through the computer to see him bellowing (silently) and pointing his gun at her.

It turns out Dana Halter is wanted for various crimes in several states; places in the main that Dana Halter has never been. Well, not this Dana Halter, anyway. Once the inevitable communication and mutual comprehension difficulties have been resolved it becomes clear that Dana has been the victim of identity theft. And so, after much delay and frustration, and landed with a bill of several hundred dollars for getting her car back from where it was impounded, Dana is free to go.

For all the heartache and inconvenience Dana has been caused, not to mention the damage to her future creditworthiness, investigating the crime doesn't seem to be a high priority for the police. Dana's life experiences have given her an uncompromising streak, though, and with a bit of help from her boyfriend Bridger Martin she locates the man who's stolen her identity and sets off across the country in pursuit.

The man who's stolen Dana's identity, Peck Wilson, has made something of a career out of it, and built a comfortable lifestyle on the back of it - nice car, expensive kitchen equipment, nubile Russian girlfriend, things he's understandably reluctant to give up. So when he realises the jig is up with the Dana Halter identity, he simply takes out a load of new credit in Bridger Martin's name and flees across country to New York state, with his (now slightly suspicious, but quelled with some shiny new trinkets) Russian girlfriend and her daughter in tow.

But Dana has the bit between her teeth now, and isn't going to take buggering off to the opposite side of the country for an answer. So she pursues him, Bridger in tow. The trouble is, both parties are so fuelled by relentless rage - Dana at the invasion of her life, and more generally the uncomprehending bullshit she has to put up with from the hearing world every day, Peck by his sense of entitlement to his comfortable lifestyle and his sense of it being due payment for having been wronged by the world and generally unappreciated in his former life - that they haven't really considered what they're going to do when the inevitable confrontation happens.

Actually, this is the problem with the book itself - as thrillingly as Boyle sets the plot up in the first few chapters, you get the impression he didn't really know what to do with it thereafter. Even if you can get past the fundamental implausibility of Dana and Bridger not going straight to the police when the fraudster is discovered, but instead phoning him up and tipping him off that they're onto him, you then have to endure a lengthy cross-country pursuit with no real idea what the purpose of it is, or what the protagonists imagine is going to happen at the end of it. And pretty clearly Boyle has no more idea than the rest of us, since the ending, once a couple of key confrontations have happened, is pretty unsatisfactory.

Just as in Riven Rock, though, Boyle is good at characters with a bit of light and shade and moral ambiguity - Dana is a blameless individual and clearly the injured party here, but a lifetime of enduring quizzical looks from people who assume she's mentally deficient has left her with a short fuse and a simmering sense of injustice, and Peck, while clearly a career criminal with a similarly short fuse, isn't completely irredeemable. There's not a huge amount about the details of how identity fraud works, but it's really just a MacGuffin to get the plot going anyway, and an excess of detail would probably have made for a duller book.

Dull is a thing TC Boyle, one of my favourite contemporary novelists, is incapable of being, and this is very entertaining and readable throughout, but it isn't one of his best books. I'd start with Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain if I were you.

Monday, October 05, 2015

the grim reader

Look upon my blogular works, ye mighty, and despair, for if my basilisk gaze should fall upon any part of your novelistic oeuvre and feature it on this blog, your days upon this earth are surely numbered and in due course you will feel THE ICY HAND OF DEATH UPON YE, just you wait and see.

Sure enough when Swedish crime author (most famously creator of detective Kurt Wallander, maverick cop, doesn't play by the book etc. etc.) Henning Mankell opened the front door this morning he found a gentleman in a hooded garment waiting for him who'd come about the reaping.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 2y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 7y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 7y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 7y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d

Mankell had been living with cancer for about a year and a half, so it wasn't totally unexpected, but nonetheless he's the third-youngest of the eleven authors on the list, and the curse length is well below the average of a little over four years. There's plenty of variation, from two months to nearly eight years, but the point is that CERTAIN DEATH AWAITS YE. Possibly with nasty big pointy teeth, possibly not.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

incidental music spot of the day

Led Zeppelin's Achilles' Last Stand over a montage of first-half highlights from the crucial England v Australia game in Pool A. Presumably chosen because its massive juddering riff and vaguely heroic subject matter symbolise the physical conflict of a top-level rugby game in some way, or maybe someone just thought it was a cool tune, which of course it is. Here's a live version from Knebworth in 1979 featuring Jimmy Page at the height of his cadaverous junkie zombie period.

Friday, October 02, 2015

the last book I read

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

It's the early 1970s, and Serena Frome, in her final year at Cambridge, is having an affair with a high-ranking MI5 spook, as pretty much everyone was doing in the early 1970s. Serena's lover, Tony Canning, is married, so things are inevitably going to end badly, but once they have it transpires that Tony has recommended Serena for a post at MI5.

Serena and the small number of female employees at MI5 (including a thinly-disguised Stella Rimington) have to wade through a mountain of sexist bullshit every day - again, par for the course for the early 1970s - but eventually Serena reaches a position of trust secure enough for her to be handed a key role in Operation Sweet Tooth, a long-term campaign to stealthily fund, via some convincingly-constructed charities and other "front" organisations, some writers broadly sympathetic to MI5's cause, which means, broadly speaking, right-leaning and anti-communist.

Serena is a voracious devourer of books - one of the reasons she got the job in the first place - so she's well-placed to assess possible candidates and make a judgment as to their suitability. Having chosen a candidate, Tom Haley, she is also nominated to play the part of the representative of one of the fictitious charitable trusts and persuade him to come on board, for an appropriate fee of course. Though the initial "persuasion" takes a relatively blameless route, Serena's ongoing monitoring of Haley's output and commitment to the project eventually starts to involve sleeping with him. As their relationship starts to get more serious, and one of Haley's short novels wins a serious literary award, Serena is faced with a dilemma: what should she tell him? Matters are soon taken out of her hands when some investigative journalism reveals not only the murky links between MI5 and the literary charities, but also Serena and Tom's relationship and Serena's involvement with MI5. What will Tom say when he finds out?

The first thing to say about Sweet Tooth is that although it appears to be a spy thriller (like, say, Reckless), it's actually a book about writing. McEwan has quite a bit of fun describing the synopses of some of Haley's early short stories, and borrowing extensively from his own oeuvre to do it, as well as throwing in a few cameos from his real-life 1970s chums (Martin Amis, for instance), and then right at the end delivers the twist which throws everything that's gone before into a different light. Seasoned McEwan-watchers will recognise that he pulled essentially the same trick towards the end of Atonement, a more ambitious book (but one which I nonetheless failed to completely get the hang of). Other books in this series that pull similar tricks include The Medusa Frequency, The History Of Love and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

The second thing to say about it is that I enjoyed it, though, as with a lot of McEwan's recent output, not as much as some of the earlier stuff. You expect a bit of le Carré-esque twisty-turniness once it's been established that there's an espionage story going on, for instance, and we never really get very much of that. In fact, for all that it's billed as a spy story, the actual work that Serena ends up doing is pretty far removed from anything resembling "spying" in the generally accepted sense, though I accept that this sort of thing probably went on back in the 1970s. Basically her job seems to have been some light literary criticism with a bit of extra-curricular shagging on the side; nice work if you can get it. As far as McEwan's novels in general go, I still say the late 1980s and 1990s stuff (including The Child In Time, Black Dogs and Enduring Love) is the best.