Wednesday, December 28, 2016

the black rabbit strikes again

I feel as if I should write something brief to mark the death (at a pretty respectable 96) of Richard Adams, if only to exonerate my own blog from suspicion. While I have read a few of his books, none of them were within the lifespan of this blog, and so the Curse of Electric Halibut cannot be blamed. As you'll see I have referred tangentially to a couple of his books within some old posts, though.

Obviously he's mainly famous for Watership Down, and rightly so as it's a classic. As with all books nominally classified as children/young adult literature there's probably an optimal age to read it, maybe early teens. I think I was probably about fifteen when I picked up the old Puffin edition (pictured on the right) that my parents had had lying around on a shelf for years, but I can't really remember. Many people's recollections will have been coloured by the 1978 film, and if I'm honest I couldn't swear with complete confidence which order I encountered them in, i.e. I might quite possibly have seen the film first. The loathsome Art Garfunkel song aside it's actually pretty good and a very faithful adaptation of the book.

My other reason for writing this post, though, is to steer you away from Watership Down and onto some other stuff. Looking at his slim list of novels I actually find I've read all of them apart from the last one, Traveller. All of the ones I've read are well worth a look:
  • Shardik is a dense and complex fable set in an imagined world (map reproduced here) which would have been intensely reader-repellent to probably 90% of the people who read it thinking it was going to be Watership Down with bears. Adams apparently considered it the best thing he ever wrote, and he may have been right.
  • The Plague Dogs is probably a bit more in the young adult-friendly vein than Shardik, and it's very good, and was also filmed. I haven't seen this one, but unusually they changed the book's happy ending for a more downbeat one; usually it's the other way round. This is really the only one of Adams' other novels that reads like an attempt to write something similar to Watership Down; it's certainly the only other one to feature anthropomorphic animals (the bear in Shardik is less central to the story than the cover art and blurb suggest and is utterly wild and unpredictable), and it's really the only other one that'd be suitable for, or comprehensible to, children and young adults. 
  • The Girl In A Swing is a complete departure from any of the other books: definite adult theme, no animals of any kind. It's a sort of queasily erotic mystery story with possible supernatural undertones. I had no idea until five minutes ago that this one was also filmed, in 1988.
  • Maia is a sort-of prequel to Shardik; like Shardik it's really a book for adults, not least because there is quite a lot of sexy sexy times in it (cover art featured here). For a book of over a thousand pages it's a hoot to read and I've done so at least twice. No necessity, in my opinion, to have read the much more gnarly and complex Shardik first unless you want to; this one is much more of a rollicking adventure story. It also features the only fully-realised and convincing female characters in the Adams oeuvre; the females in Watership Down, for instance, being an afterthought and only brought into the new warren be impregnated by Hazel and his chums.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

the last book I read

Pilgermann by Russell Hoban.

There have, regrettably, been quite a few times during human history when it's been tricky and/or downright dangerous to be a Jew. Germany in the last years of the 11th century, for instance. Sure, you can get by, but you have to accept certain constraints on your activities and movements. Certainly if, as the (unnamed) protagonist here does, you decide to take advantage of the opportunity to slip a length of kosher bratwurst to the local tax-collector's wife and than saunter back through the streets in a smug post-coital haze, you may find yourself in trouble. And trouble is certainly what our hero finds, as he's set upon by a mob who lop off his Jewish jewels and leave him to bleed to death.

While lying in the street bleeding (though not, as it turns out, to death) our protagonist cries out to God for deliverance and is rewarded with a vision of Jesus telling him to go (after going home and tidying up a bit) on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Quite the trek from Germany, but, having little to keep him where he is, he sets off. As if the ever-present threat of getting murdered were not enough, he acquires a motley group of travelling companions, of various degrees of actual concrete existence outside his own head: the headless corpse of the tax-collector he cuckolded, the pig who ate his discarded genitals after he was attacked, a strange bony figure called Bruder Pförtner who appears to be a manifestation of Death.

Like a great many pilgrimages to Jerusalem, this one is fated never to reach its destination: captured while hitching a ride on a boat, our hero is sold into slavery to a merchant called Bembel Rudzuk, a man of philosophical bent who is immediately persuaded to grant Pilgermann (the name he's now using for himself, which just means "pilgrim") his freedom. His original quest now derailed somewhat, Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk head off to the ancient city of Antioch, where they decide to use a spare piece of land to build an enormous tile pattern with a tower in the middle - the layout of the tiles (featured on the front of my paperback version, if you look closely) is a design thought up by Pilgermann and meant to represent some philosophical concept or other.

This is all well and good, but real life must intervene, and Pilgermann and Bembel Rudzuk find themselves caught up in the siege of Antioch, this being the time of the Crusades. As well as the group of apparitions that accompanied him to Antioch, Pilgermann is now troubled by visitations from what appears to be a harbinger of his own death, more frequently as the crusaders, led by the terrifying Bohemond, draw closer to the gates of the city. It looks like he won't be getting to Jerusalem after all.

This was the novel that Russell Hoban wrote immediately after Riddley Walker, in 1983. It's similar in being an outlier relative to his normal output inasmuch as it's not set in the present day; while Riddley Walker was set a couple of thousand years into some speculatively imagined future, Pilgermann is set 900-odd years in the past. While Riddley Walker was a challenging read because of the bizarre argot in which it was written, Pilgermann is challenging because of the density of some of the more theological passages, and the blurring of fantasy and reality. But what they both have in common, despite the playfulness of some of the prose, is that they're deadly serious, whereas some of Hoban's other books have a whimsical edge to them. I actually think this might be even better than Riddley Walker, despite being pretty gnarly going in some of the more theologico-philosophical passages. I certainly think that the 3-4-year period that saw both books' publication was the pinnacle of Hoban's career, for all that much of the other stuff is charming and challenging in its own way.

That said, while it's fairly obvious what it's about on the surface, i.e. 11th-century Jew gets turned into a eunuch and heads for Jerusalem only to get diverted to Antioch with hilarious and ultimately fatal consequences, if you were to ask: yes, that's what it's about, but, you know, what's it actually about? I'm not sure I'd be able to give you a convincing answer. While the book is suffused with religion, for instance, it's not clear what either the narrator's or the author's views are on the subject. This is no bad thing, as you don't necessarily want to be whacked over the head with a Verdict. Best to just revel in the richness and weirdness of it all and marvel at how lightly Hoban wears his erudition.

Parallels with other books in this series:
  • the entire novel being dictated by the dead spirit of the main protagonist is familiar from The Lovely Bones and The Birthday Boys, though the narrator here is a bit more explicit about his situation;
  • the business with Bruder Pförtner and his undead chums priapically rampaging their way around the place, raping small children and fornicating with pigs is strongly reminiscent of some of the bizarre rapey interludes in The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr. Hoffman.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

prior knowledge

Here's another one for the slightly esoteric category People Who You Would Have Been Mildly Surprised To Discover Were Still Alive Had You Not Just Discovered They Were Dead. In this case there probably has to be a Well, If You've Even Heard Of Them At All rider attached, as Jim Prior wasn't one of the most famous or illustrious of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet ministers (he also served in the Cabinet under Edward Heath).

The only reason that I remember Prior, who left the Cabinet when I was 14 and not really particularly politically engaged (like most 14-year-old boys I had more immediate matters to worry about, like disturbing feelings for girls and troubling goings-on, you know, down there), is that he is the only actual person, living or dead, that I have ever portrayed on stage, during the course of an intermittent and far from glorious thespian career.

Let me set the scene for you: I was 10 or 11, in my last or last-but-one year at primary school, and it had been decided that the top couple of classes would put on a show of some sort for the parents (I can't remember, but probably at Christmas). Instead of some sort of glorified nativity play or a musical adaptation with some endearingly amateurish hoofing and singing, the young and enthusiastic teaching staff decided to really stick it to The Man by presenting a searing satirical portrait of early-1980s Britain. So the slightly bemused 10/11-year-old cast were required to portray, among the characters that I can remember, Maggie the Snatcher (scarcely very original), Sir Geoffrey Howe Nowe and, in my case, Cardinal Prior. Beyond those names I have literally no recollection of what any of it was about, other than that Maggie had most of the lines and I didn't get very many. I certainly can't tell you, for instance, what satirical purpose it served to have Prior be a cardinal, thereby joining the small list of dramatic cardinals that includes Cardinal Wolsey, Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Fang.

As far as I could gather the thing was mainly the brainchild of one of the teachers, Mr. Kicinski. A perfectly nice bloke, as I recall, whose enduring tragedy is that his laboured political satire was nowhere near as amusing as the nickname his pupils came up with for him: Mr. Kitchensink. I should add that despite his being a tall rangy guy with a beard and the similarity in the names, I am at least 85% sure that he didn't go on (perhaps enraged by his thwarted ambitions in the sphere of the dramatic arts) to be the Unabomber.

My principal other claim to stage fame is my appearance in the school production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! in what must have been 1979, when I would have been nine years old. I'm able to date it reasonably confidently as it was during our time in Bandung, which basically comprised the whole of 1979 (the only entire year I have ever spent outside the UK) plus a couple of months out of each of the adjoining years. My role was a non-speaking one as a member of a troupe of lovable cockney street urchins who did a bit of a tumbling routine, a thing that required what seems in hindsight like months of rehearsal, which must have left precious little time for actual lessons. The picture shows me (on the left) and my sister Emma showing off our costumes at home.

The principal roles in Oliver! are Oliver himself and Fagin. In our production the role of Oliver was time-shared between two people, both girls, as it happens, but as far as I recall the role of Fagin was the same person every time, possibly because it required a slightly older actor, and possibly just because it's a demanding role and they couldn't find more than one person capable of doing it. The person who ended up with the role, to general agreement that she was by far the best thing in the play, was an American girl called Veronica Winegarner. That's a sufficiently unusual name to be Google-able, and a bit of elementary cyberstalking reveals that she is now married to writer Eric Paul Shaffer and lives in Hawaii. That's her on the right in the photo in this blog post; I'm 99% sure that's the same person.

The only other time I can remember being on stage in front of an audience is as part of the sixth form revue we put on during my time at St. Bart's in Newbury. A combination of tediously "edgy" self-written material and lazy rehashes of classic sketches, my involvement was in the latter category as me and my friend Stuart did a version of this Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch. I played the psychiatrist and was utterly brilliant; Stuart played the patient and was fine but had a tendency to forget his lines which required some hasty ad-libbing to get around. Anyway, that was it: the theatre's loss was the IT industry's gain, or possibly the other way round.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

headline of the day

Attempt, if you will, to parse this gem from the BBC News website today: Corpse sex kill threat man gets 45 years.

So who was making the threat? The corpse? And if so, what was the nature of the threat? To kill people (or maybe just one particular person, this "man") by having sex with them in some sort of horrific zombie rape/murder rampage? More likely (if we exclude the various zombie scenarios) that it was the man making the threat, but if the corpse then becomes the object of the threat, "kill" doesn't hold much power, a corpse being dead already and all. Indeed making pretty much any threats to a corpse ("sex" included) is a fairly futile activity.

So what's going on? The (very) slightly revised version of the headline on the main story page isn't much help, but it turns out that it was the "man" making the threats, which basically involved first turning living people into corpses by murdering them, and then doing the sex bit afterwards, sex with living people apparently being a bit complex and involving a lot of red tape and potential misunderstandings. Better to murder them first and then save the sexy sexy times until afterwards. Plus it presumably saves any awkwardness over who pays the bill after dinner.

This is one of those headlines where any kind of comprehensibility evaporates once the sub-editors have applied the space-saving journalistic convention of just mashing a load of nouns together without any explanatory prepositions, conjunctions or pronouns. Previous examples from this blog can be found here, here and here. Language Log calls it a "noun pile-up", which I think is pretty good. Previous examples can be found here, here and here - almost inevitably it turns out that they've spotted today's as well, and indeed written nearly the same blog post, although in a slightly more sober academic tone without so much freaky zombie sex. Take your pick.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

incidental music spot of the day

Smashing Pumpkins' Bullet With Butterfly Wings on the new trailer for WWI-themed first-person massacre-fest Battlefield 1. Previous trailers for the same game featured Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes (strictly it's a remixed version of the original), which has a similarly ominous bass-driven opening section, although as tediously pointed out here, it's not technically played on a bass guitar at all.

I'm a big fan of Smashing Pumpkins, but I'd be an even bigger fan if their music was mixed differently - in common with most of the songs on the otherwise excellent Siamese Dream, Bullet (which is from the ludicrously ambitious follow-up double album Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness) has the guitars too low in the mix compared to Billy Corgan's vocals, for my taste anyway. The guitars should really fizz and roar out at you in the chorus, with the vocals having to make themselves heard over the top, and that doesn't quite happen.

With reference to that earlier list, Bullet With Butterfly Wings could be a starting entry on another, similar list: songs where there's a vocal-only bit (the "the world is a vampire" line) before the backing music kicks in. I daresay there are hundreds of these, so I'm not going to attempt to construct another list, but you can have Accidents Will Happen by Elvis Costello & The Attractions as your second entry if you like.

Back to TV adverts for a moment, and with reference to this old post musing on when Appletise turned into Appletiser: at what point did adverts for the myriad labour-saving electronic gizmos manufactured by Braun stop pronouncing it "Brawn" and start pronouncing it "Brown"? You'll remember these excruciating 1980s adverts - don't be distracted by the implication that you might want to curl your hair in the middle of a tennis match, listen instead to the pronunciation of the manufacturer's name. Then compare and contrast with these newer adverts. Weirdly, the new rule doesn't seem to have been applied consistently - this advert which appears to be very new still has the old Anglicised pronunciation.

A couple of the recent adverts opt out of saying the name altogether, or indeed saying anything at all, preferring either to give us some words and pictures over a moody electric piano backing, or just to dispense with the product altogether and give us some artfully-posed soft porn featuring the lovely Jessica Alba. And who could blame them?

It's "Brown" with a UK/US "r" sound, mind you, not "Braun" with the full European back-of-the-throat rasp. I guess there's only so much Anglophone audiences can take; plus, I suppose, the full Germanic bark might have conjured up thoughts of a couple of people who bore the name not so long ago who you might not want associated with your grooming products - unless, I suppose, your marketing guys wanted to imply that, for instance, your depilation products would conduct a MERCILESS SWEEP through your lower limb areas, eliminating everything in their path.

Monday, December 05, 2016

just another marnoch monday

Almost exactly thirteen months after complaining that it'd been almost exactly thirteen months since the last whisky post, here's another whisky post. Now I wouldn't want you to think that I'd had no whisky at all since that last post, because that wouldn't be true, but I have been ticking over on either things I've had before that just happen to be on special offer (Highland Park, Chivas) or a couple of things that are just no-age-statement versions of things I've already tried (Glenlivet Founders Reserve, Ardmore Legacy).

Anyway, I was in Aldi the other day and I spotted their own-label Glen Marnoch whisky on the shelves. This particular one claims to be an Islay single malt and was on offer for the bargain price of £17.99.

You have to trust, with these things, that the manufacturers and bottlers are adhering to the rules regarding whisky, which are pretty simple: you can't call it a single malt if it isn't one. That means that the whisky here must have all originated at a single Scottish distillery. and it must be at least three years old.

I don't suppose I'll be shocking you too much when I say that there is no such place as Glen Marnoch, still less a distillery there. So one might speculate: which Islay distillery did the whisky come from? My guess from sampling the highly quaffable contents would be that it's either a Bowmore or a Caol Ila, but the whole point of these things is that the cheapo bottlers' purchase of the source casks is contingent on their keeping schtum about where they got them from. Anyway, it's very good and an absolute steal at less then twenty quid. I'm very much hoping to get some more whisky, some of it with the names of real distilleries on the labels, for Christmas, but this'll keep me going until then.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

the last book I read

Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo.

Zeno Cosini is a middle-aged businessman from Trieste attending a psychoanalyst in order to give up his lifelong smoking habit. In an attempt to break his patient's seemingly intractable addiction, the psychoanalyst suggests that Zeno write a memoir of various key moments from his life.

So we learn of Zeno's relationship with his father, up to and including his father's death. We learn of the rather haphazard method he chose of acquiring a wife: ingratiating himself with the local Malfenti family and then working through the daughters in reverse order of attractiveness, starting with pretty but serious Ada who has no interest in him at all and then finishing with plain but amiable Augusta, with whom, paradoxically, he has a long and happy marriage.

A theme starts to emerge here; Zeno bumbling through life, borne along slightly passively by events, never actively evil or malicious but occasionally thoughtlessly self-centred, and in the end succeeding almost despite himself. We see this in the next section of the novel wherein he describes his exceptionally half-arsed business venture with Guido, husband of Ada, and a man who Zeno simultaneously admires and resents for his successful courtship of her. The venture founders owing to both its founders' comical ineptitude and laziness and Guido's weakness for gambling on the stock market, though after Guido's subsequent suicide Zeno manages to win back most of the losses via some equally ill-advised gambling.

The novel ends in Trieste in 1916 with World War I underway and Zeno reflecting on his completed memoirs and deciding to abandon his psychoanalysis and, presumably, crack back into the fags in a big way.

The back-cover blurb for my Penguin Modern Classics version of Zeno's Conscience includes novelist Paul Bailey's claim for it being "arguably the greatest comic novel of the twentieth century". I don't know about that, but then again I don't know what the criteria are for judging. Actually making me laugh out loud? A tiny tiny handful of books have done that, and if you were making the judgment solely on that criterion I'd probably give the title to Lucky Jim. By far the funniest section of the book is the first bit describing Zeno's repeated failed attempts to give up smoking; given that this is a tiny fraction of the book it's slightly odd that so many descriptions of the book imply that this is what it's about. My copy is no exception: the back cover blurb describes it as a "devilishly funny portrayal of a man's attempt to give up smoking and make sense of his life". It's certainly the latter, indirectly, but the former is really just part of the set-up of the framing device. Nonetheless, as you can see, the designers of the front cover artwork deemed it significant enough to make it the main theme of the image.

So given that I wasn't literally pissing myself laughing throughout, it wasn't completely clear what the purpose of it was, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. And critical opinion seems firmly decided that it's a classic of comic modernist fiction, so I defer to their judgment. I guess maybe the stylistic tricks just don't seem quite as daring and unfamiliar as they would have when it was first published in 1923. Zeno himself is an endearingly unreliable narrator, which means that one certainly shouldn't take his versions of his courtship of the Malfenti girls or his personal and business relationship with Guido at face value. You certainly shouldn't read too much into its having taken me 78 days to read it; it's just that I've been busy with other stuff lately. Nevertheless that's the third-longest reading stint in the history of this blog after Infinite Jest and Midnight's Children (96 and 91 days respectively) and just ahead of Sunset Song at 66 days.

Other notable things: while I was in the process of reading Zeno's Conscience I happened to listen to this year's Reith Lectures on Radio 4 featuring philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and one of his lectures, on the subject of "Country", coincidentally used the experiences of one Aron Ettore Schmitz aka Italo Svevo to illustrate its central thesis. Svevo was also, during the first decade of the twentieth century, tutored in English by none other than James Joyce, and made use of the connection to get Zeno's Conscience more widely published and distributed. Finally, Trieste during World War I also featured heavily in John Berger's G.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Hunky square-jawed hero Eric's manservant (no, stop it) from Disney's The Little Mermaid, the Ladybird tie-in book of which is one of Nia's current favourites for bedtime reading, and current Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, more formally known as The Lord Rees of Ludlow, if you like that sort of thing.

I should add that I've never seen The Little Mermaid, and neither (as far as I know) has Nia, but having read the original story to her from an old book of fairy tales a while back I can confirm that it's a phenomenally grim and joyless tale with some suspicious undertones of puberty, menstruation and general horror of female sexuality (and all the other stuff being a punishment for expressing it). None of which are things that'd play well with the target audience for Disney animated films, so they took the liberty of removing most of that stuff and giving the film a happy ending. Incidentally the manservant's name, as far as I can tell, is Grimsby, perhaps an ironic nod to the grim undercurrents that got sanitised out of the final glossy feel-good product. Or perhaps not, and that's just his name. Sometimes a manservant is just a manservant, as Freud definitely didn't say (the jury's still out on the cigar thing).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

clever trevor

So, farewell, then, William Trevor. Alas, we hardly knew ye, cut down in the prime of life at a mere 88 years old by this blog's continuing senseless rampage of authorial slaughter and carnage. The book review that eventually did the trick after a slightly longer than usual six-and-a-half years was The Children Of Dynmouth back in 2010. The only other Trevor novel I've read was 1994's Felicia's Journey (filmed in 1999), which is probably slightly better, though, I should add, not exactly a barrel of laughs.

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
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d

William Trevor's Guardian obituary also provided the second example in the last couple of weeks of the slightly jarring sight of an obituary for a recently-dead person carrying the byline of someone who predeceased them, in this case by about six years.

Here's Trevor's contribution to the Paris Review's Art Of Fiction series in 1989.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

common as muck

Here's a sort of global version of the UK-only surname distribution tool - stick your surname in here and you'll get some indication of how prevalent it is worldwide. Now fairly obviously Thomas is a popular and widely-distributed name (the 264th-most-common surname in the world, apparently) but there are still some interesting nuggets that can be plucked out of the information provided:

  • Thomas is the 4th-most-popular surname in Wales (only Jones, Davies and Williams rank above it), but only the 8th-most-popular in England, 99th in Scotland and 403rd in Ireland;
  • It's well popular in the Caribbean, featuring in the top ten in Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, United States Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands;
  • You have to go a bit further south for the place with the most Thomases, proportionally speaking: Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Thomas is the most popular surname here, although as there are fewer than 10,000 people spread across the various islands that only amounts to a few hundred individuals, some of them possibly albatrosses;
  • There are a few countries at the bottom of the list with only a single Thomas in the whole country. Comparing the "Frequency" and "Rank" numbers for these reveals some interesting variation in what you might call surname diversity in various countries. Have a look at the last three entries on the list, for instance:

    So Tajikistan and Burundi are about the same size, but apparently Tajikistan has 11,831 distinct surnames (if we assume that Thomas occupies last or joint-last place on the list), while Burundi has only 1,253. Even more remarkably, Mauritania, with only about a third of the population, has a whopping 38,063 distinct surnames. Similarly, San Marino appears to have many more distinct surnames than Eritrea, despite only having something like 5% of the population.
As for the other list, interesting contrasts can be provided by using my wife's unmarried name, Hannant, as input, since it's far more unusual (219,619th-most-common worldwide). Apparently there are 855 of them in England, but only one in Wales. Whether that's Hazel, her sister Paula, or some third party as yet unknown isn't clear.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

you better believe it

While in a lot of ways I think the religious-focused topics on In Our Time on Radio 4 are among the least interesting ones they do, there's always just the possibility that they'll set Melvyn Bragg off on one of his occasional tirades against "militant" atheism. He had just the suspicion of a moment during last week's programme about Lakshmi, but I think in the end either his heart wasn't really in it or he realised that he didn't really know where he was going to take it. I've gone to the trouble of listening to it back a few times and I think this is a pretty accurate transcript:
I mean, the thing about these, these stories is that we tend - some people, foolishly, foolish people, tend to, foolishly, belittle them, but they're - I think they're heroic, and they're very moving, again and again, whichever civilisation - these are people like us, without the tools of knowledge which we have, the caravan has not moved on and yet they're determined to make sense of the world, where they came from, what happens in every particular and they determinedly create these things, it's amazing to see; well, to read.
You could see where he was going with the first bit; it's the same complaint as he made a while back (while, entirely coincidentally, plugging his latest book), on that occasion with much more explicit reference to Richard Dawkins, always the go-to guy for people wishing to paint atheists as some sort of humourless secular Taliban. The accusation he was making is a huge straw man anyway: no-one "belittles" the stories as stories, or claims that as stories they are of no value or cultural interest. People do, however, point out that historically a lot of people have believed that these stories were literally true, and that this is of course nonsense.

The concern seems to be (and let's not forget, Bragg self-identifies as an atheist) that if you take all these charming and fascinating old stories - and they are charming and fascinating, from an anthropological and cultural perspective, as well as being intermittently ridiculous, bloodthirsty and horrific - and explicitly make the observation that they aren't actually factual re-tellings of events that actually took place (and, in this specific case, that Lakshmi doesn't actually exist), that will somehow suck all the air out of them like a punctured football and they will be drained of all value and interest. I actually don't think this is true, and in any case Bragg and his guests happily threw phrases like "creation myth" around, and most definitions of "myth" implicitly or explicitly include the idea of its describing something fictitious. And yet still there seemed to be the idea that if someone actually said: wait a minute, let's just be clear, none of this stuff about floating around on a lotus flower over an ocean of milk is actually true, is it? - that some precious fragile thing would be shattered and lost forever, and moreover that such an observation would be harsh or "disrespectful" in some way. I was put in mind of the old Monty Python sketch about building blocks of flats by hypnosis, and them being perfectly safe as long as the residents kept believing in them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

celebrity lookeylikeys of the day

I've got two for you today. Firstly, presenter of CBeebies science-y programme Do You Know? (one of Nia's current favourite things) Maddie Moate, and iconic 1980s teen movie star (and ex-niece-in-law of Angela Lansbury) Ally Sheedy.

Just as with the Sally Phillips/Martha Wainwright one, it's all about the smile. This particular smile involves flaring the nostrils and raising the top lip clear of the teeth before stretching it out into a straight line. They both have very slightly pointy chins as well.

Secondly, union leader and target of cartoonish tabloid hatred "Red Len" McCluskey, and legendary Who guitarist and occasional tabloid featuree Pete Townshend.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

custard's last stand

So my quest for the perfect use of my original fruity clafoutis recipe continues, with the expectation that eventually we'll hit on the ultimate one, at which point there'll be some sort of quantum singularity, the universe will fold in on itself and our current reality will be replaced with a new one featuring peace, harmony and a slightly differently-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.

This one may not be that recipe, but it's getting close. Or, alternatively, maybe it is, and the entire fabric of space-time has turned inside-out without my noticing. Then again I drive a Ford Mondeo and a Mini, so why would I notice?

So we've diverged from the original fruit-based recipes to a series of variations on what you might call bread-and-butter pudding. The plot twist this time was firstly to use a combination of diced-up Aldi vanilla brioche and McVitie's Jamaican Ginger Cake (two of them, actually) as the solid ingredients, and secondly to kick it up a notch by making some delicious toffee fudge sauce to go with it (as well as the obligatory ice cream). So the basic batter recipe is the same as for the pain au chocolat version, as follows:
  • 80g plain flour
  • 140g caster sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • a pinch of salt
  • 750ml milk
Zizz all that together in a blender and you're done. More interestingly, the toffee sauce, the recipe for which I basically nicked from here (with some adaptations), is ridiculously easy to make and even more ridiculously delicious, though of course not especially suitable for those on a calorie-controlled diet. You will need:
  • 300ml double cream (i.e. one standard-size pot)
  • 175g soft brown sugar
  • 175g butter
  • one standard-size Cadbury's Fudge bar (or approximately 4-5 fun-size ones)
Melt the butter and sugar, stir in the cream, chop up the Fudge bar(s) into small bits, throw them in, stir it around till everything's melted and it thickens up a bit, serve. This makes over half a litre, so you might want to scale the quantities down. My batch served six people last night and a couple more with some breakfast pancakes this morning and there's still a bit left.

lay off of my blue suede shoes

Seems like only yesterday that I was unpacking my brown Teva walking shoes from their Amazon box and trying them on for the first time. But time passes, and you have to accept that things get older, change happens, and eventually you have to acknowledge that, hey, these shoes, while still exceptionally comfortable, are completely fucked and starting to fall apart, which'll be why water pisses into them when I wear them out in the rain. At this point you have to set sentiment aside, buy a new pair, throw the old ones away and move on.

So here, just to remind you, is the photo that accompanied the transition from my equally venerable, well-loved and constantly-worn Salomons to the Tevas, back in January 2010, and below it is a photo marking a similar transition from the Tevas (which, as you can see, have frayed and collapsed in on themselves over six-and-a-half years in a very similar way to Michel Houellebecq's face) to my jazzy new blue Karrimors, acquired at a bargain £31 online from Sports Direct.

I'm not sure I expect the Karrimors to last six-and-a-half years, but in a way they don't have to as they were less than half the price of the Tevas. In fact they were so cheap as to be three pounds cheaper than the latest pair of shoes we've bought for Alys, which, especially when you consider the quantities of materials involved, is a bit farcical.

Obviously it's the construction rather than the materials you're paying for. You'll recall my plaintive reference to "hilariously expensive tiny shoes" in this old whisky review, well here they are.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

runners and ryders

It's time to grit our teeth and look, bleary-eyed, through the bitter salty tears of defeat and frustration at the revised Ryder Cup cumulative scores analysis.

Year Foursomes Fourballs Doubles Singles Overall
1979 3 5 11 17
1981 2 6 10½ 4 8 18½
1983 4 4 4 4 8 8 13½ 14½
1985 4 4 5 3 9 7 16½ 11½
1987 6 2 10½ 15 13
1989 3 5 6 2 9 7 5 7 14 14
1991 2 6 6 2 8 8 13½ 14½
1993 5 3 13 15
1995 5 3 2 6 7 9 14½ 13½
1997 5 3 10½ 4 8 14½ 13½
1999 10 6 13½ 14½
2002 8 8 15½ 12½
2004 6 2 5 3 11 5 18½
2006 5 3 5 3 10 6 18½
2008 7 9 11½ 16½
2010 5 3 5 7 14½ 13½
2012 3 5 3 5 6 10 14½ 13½
2014 7 1 3 5 10 6 16½ 11½
2016 4 4 11 17
Totals 78½ 73½ 83 69 161½ 142½ 107½ 120½ 269 263

A couple of statterrific nuggets for you, in some cases referencing some observations in earlier posts:

Obviously the USA's convincing 17-11 victory at Hazeltine has brought the aggregate scores a bit closer; if you divvy up the aggregates between the 19 contests there have been since the format was expanded to incorporate Europe in 1979 you find that the "average" match score is now 14.16-13.84 to Europe. The equivalent figure prior to the 2016 contest was 14.33-13.66, so if you round to the nearest half-point that means we've gone from, on average, a narrow 14½-13½ win for Europe to a 14-14 draw.

For the first time (slightly surprisingly) in this format of the competition the US team won all three days: Friday 5-3, Saturday 4½-3½ and Sunday 7½-4½. Even the thumping US wins in 1979 and 1981 involved the loss of a day (Saturday and Friday respectively). Europe have won all three days three times: in 2004, 2006 and 2014.

Davis Love III last played in a Ryder Cup in 2004, while Darren Clarke last played, famously, in 2006. This bucks the general recent trend of the contest being won by the captain with the more recent playing experience.

Four of the European team (Fitzpatrick, Sullivan, Westwood, Willett) contributed zero points (by contrast, every single US player contributed something). This is exceptional even by the standards of previous heavy European defeats in 1979, 1981 and 2008, where the pointless players numbered two, two and zero respectively.

It's too easy to blame this on the large number of rookies in the team, of course, although six is quite a lot. Only once in modern Ryder Cup history has a European team included more: 1999, when there were seven and Europe were narrowly defeated. By contrast, there were also six in 2010 and Europe came away with a narrow victory, and five in 2004, 1997 and 1991: thumping win, narrow win and narrow defeat respectively.

I did see a bit of live TV coverage on Friday evening, briefly on Saturday afternoon and then when the match was already pretty much tied up on Sunday night. Most of my listening to the singles contest was via Radio 5 Live during a drive back from Derby. Now, imagine the raw visceral excitement of live radio golf commentary. It's not as good as seeing it, but it's pretty good. Now imagine that same commentary being hooted into a bowl of soup through a snorkel by an asthmatic walrus with Tourette's, with the associated wild swings in levels of volume, intrusive farty noises and general comprehensibility. What I'm saying here is that AM radio sucks and Radio 5 Live not being on FM is a major pain in the arse, unless you happen to own a car with a DAB radio.

Here are some reasons for optimism next time: the match turned on small margins this time despite the scoreline - remember Lee Westwood butchered two winning positions in the Saturday fourballs and the Sunday singles to lose both matches. Reverse those and the outcome of either of McIlroy or Rose's very close singles matches and it's 14-14. Away wins are still very difficult; the Americans have two in nine attempts: 1981 and 1993. To put it another way, by the time 2018 rolls around it'll be a quarter of a century since they won a Ryder Cup contest on European soil. Europe are in a transitional period at the moment with a generation of Ryder Cup stalwarts coming to the end of their careers: Westwood, Donald, Harrington and Poulter for instance. Those who made their debuts this time will be better and tougher in two years' time.

One major reason for pessimism: the Americans are finally taking the Ryder Cup seriously and we'll never win one again. Oh well, we've had a good innings.

Friday, September 30, 2016

cream pie with a cherry on top

Couple of follow-up notes on previous posts:
  • It appears that virginity auctions are still a thing, or at least still a thing that people claim to be doing in order to generate tabloid headlines, since I'm far from convinced that any of them are actually real. The latest one involves "Ariana, 20, from Russia" and an auction reserve of £130,000. Bidders can also bid for Ariana's 21-year-old friend and alleged fellow virgin Lolita (almost definitely her real name) at a similar price. If the same bidder should secure both ladies it's unclear how the logistics of the encounter would work, i.e. in series or in parallel, so to speak.
  • You may recall my brief post in which I alluded to cricket commentator Alan Gibson's comment about New Zealander Bob Cunis' surname ("neither one thing nor the other"). Well, it turns out that Gibson may have nicked the phrase from Winston Churchill, who used it (several times, by the sound of it) to describe architect and MP Alfred Bossom. I know this because David Owen mentioned it while plugging his new book on Radio 4's Midweek on Wednesday morning. So Churchill gets dibs on coining the phrase, unless of course there are any earlier citations out there, but I think Gibson's use is funnier, just because the two words you're meant to be thinking of are slightly more sniggery. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

to sir with love

Just a quick follow-up to the previous post: one of the things that always grates a bit about American sports coverage is the weird ultra-reverence they have for retired sports stars, Arnold Palmer being a good example. I suppose it's what Americans have instead of the grovelling servility towards the royal family that (some) Brits have. So you have the weird phenomenon of grown men referring to slightly older grown men as "Mr Palmer", for instance at the conclusion of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament, where the winning golfer would be granted a brief regal handshake and an audience with the great man and would respectfully refer to him as "Mr Palmer" in the subsequent TV interview. Once again I should make clear that this isn't meant as a criticism of Palmer personally; his great rival Jack Nicklaus fulfils a similar role at the Memorial Tournament, for instance.

To a large extent this is an American cultural thing unconnected with sports; for instance I noticed it on the Today programme yesterday when Sarah Montague was interviewing Mike Williams, one of the last people to get off the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig alive when it caught fire after a blowout in 2010. Williams was on the programme to talk about the new film (called, imaginatively, Deepwater Horizon) which dramatises the real-life events and in which Williams is portrayed by Mark Wahlberg. Many of Williams' answers were prefixed with "yes, ma'am" or "no, ma'am", a usage which seems quaintly archaic to British ears, unless you happen to be talking to the Queen, but which is still pretty common (with "sir" substituted for "ma'am" as appropriate) in America, with its use (I theorise) being heavily influenced by region, age and social class. My contention is that Southerners like Williams would tend to do it much more than, say, cynical and abrasive New Yorkers. Furthermore I can't imagine many male Brits who would expect their children's friends to address them as "sir", but I'm pretty sure there are parts of the USA where this usage would still be commonplace.

arnie: six under

Sad news for golf fans this week with the death of the legendary Arnold Palmer, the first proper multi-media golf superstar. You'll have no doubt been saturated with overly reverent obituaries in various media outlets, so what you'll be hungry for is a very mildly contrarian HOT TAKE on the whole Palmer phenomenon. And here it is.

So the standard folksy Palmer narrative goes something like this: stuffy tweedy old world of golf is ROCKED by swashbuckling devil-may-care young tearaway who rocks up to courses on his motorbike, drives the ball 600 yards while smoking a fag and wearing leather trousers and totally sticks it to The Man while simultaneously making golf into the multi-gazillion dollar industry that it is today. Now while I'm not denying Palmer's massive influence on golf in popular culture, and I should make it clear I have ABSOLUTELY NO AXE TO GRIND WHATSOEVER with Palmer as man, golfer or legend, I think that the story has acquired a sort of unquestionable mythic status over the years that there might be some value in examining.

Firstly, we all know that golf was basically played by sclerotic 76-year-olds with tweed plus-fours and luxuriant handlebar moustaches until Palmer wheelied in on his Raleigh Chopper with his baseball cap on backwards and showed those doddery old duffers what modern golf was really all about. The trouble with that is that Palmer was a relatively middle-aged 28 when he won his first major championship, the 1958 Masters. Compare that with the winners of the remaining 1958 majors and you find that US Open winner Tommy Bolt was a rickety 42, but Open winner Peter Thomson was 28 and so was USPGA winner Dow Finsterwald. The following year's US Open and Open champions, Billy Casper and Gary Player, were both younger than Palmer at 27 and 23 respectively.

But, but, but: it's not just about the age thing, it's about the swashbuckling aggressive style and the down-to-earth attitude and the casual cardigan-wearing, fag-smoking charisma. And there'd be no argument from me there, except to venture the thought that pre-Palmer there were some golfers who were more aggressive and hit the ball further than others, and furthermore came from relatively humble beginnings, Sam Snead being an obvious example. What made Palmer a superstar and Snead merely a very successful golfer was that Palmer's rise to fame coincided with an explosion in TV ownership and coverage of golf on TV, and the introduction of colour TV in particular. Furthermore Palmer had the good fortune and shrewdness to hook up with fledgling sports promoter Mark McCormack who wrung the best endorsement deals and TV rights out of what was available.

One of the things that makes sportspersons in general loved by millions is fallibility, the sense that it could all go wrong at any minute. People who exhibit that sort of human frailty are generally better-loved than the steely remorseless winning machines, who tend to be loved only in retrospect. So just as Palmer was better-loved than Nicklaus, so it was for Snead and Hogan from an earlier era, and Ballesteros and Faldo and Mickelson and Woods from a later one.

Following on from that thought, one of the interesting things about Palmer's career, particularly for those of us who are far too young to have seen him in his prime and only really remember him from various grey-haired valedictory appearances at major tournaments over the past 30 years or so, is how short his prime was in terms of winning major tournaments. He won his first in 1958 at the age of 28 and his last six years later in 1964 at the age of 34, a major-winning span shorter than that of, say, Andy North, and notably shorter than those of his contemporaries Nicklaus (24 years) and Player (19 years).

After his last win Palmer had 19 top-10 finishes in majors without ever winning another - I haven't done extensive research here but other multiple major winners who had a similarly long "tail" to their careers include Sam Snead (20 top 10s after his last major win at the 1954 Masters) and Tom Watson (19 top 10s after his last major win at the 1983 Open). A couple of other odd Palmer/Watson parallels: Watson was a comparatively youthful 33 when he won his last major (completing a major-winning span of 8 years), and, like Palmer, the only major missing from his CV was the USPGA, in which he lost a play-off to John Mahaffey in 1978. Palmer was second at the USPGA three times, in 1964, 1968 and 1970. Other golfers to famously be a single major short of a career Grand Slam include Lee Trevino and (currently) Rory McIlroy at the Masters and Sam Snead and Phil Mickelson at the US Open.

More importantly, Palmer's death means that there may now never be an appropriate time for Andy and me to pitch our Viz comic strip idea, a concept very similar to Captain Oats: The Polar Explorer Who's Always Exploring His Own Pole. Ours was called Arnold Palmer: The Golfer Who's Always Palming His Arnold and featured a golfer concocting various hilarious ruses to sneak off into the heavy rough or a bunker for a quick one off the wrist. History is vague as to whether this explains Palmer's legendary meltdown in the final stages of the 1966 US Open.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

the last book I read

The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert.

In Germany before the war, there was a man who had a son. The son, Helmut, is born with a weakened right side which means he will be unlikely to be suitable for manual labour. Instead, the boy develops an interest in photography, with some help from a local man, Herr Gladigau, who owns a darkroom where Helmut can hone his skills.

Once war breaks out, Helmut, ineligible for army service, documents events in his native Berlin with his camera, with some help from Herr Gladigau, who recognises the young man's talent. Soon, though, Helmut realises he's documenting stuff that he's not totally comfortable about, like the brutal herding of Jews and gypsies into trucks to be transported away who knows where. Eventually it becomes clear that the war has taken a turn for the worse (from a German perspective anyway) and Berlin comes under serious Allied bombardment. Separated from his parents, Helmut takes refuge in the old darkroom and continues to document events while Berlin is bombarded and the Allies close in.

Cut to: 1945, and somewhere in Bavaria 12-year-old Lore is taking refuge in a farm with the rest of her family. It turns out Mutti and Vati are keen to keep a low profile as they were prominent local Nazis and don't want this to be widely known by the approaching Allies. Sure enough Mutti and Vati are captured and carted off to the interrogation and repentance facility, and Lore and her younger siblings are obliged to set out and trek across Germany to Hamburg to find their grandmother. It hardly needs to be said that this is a journey fraught with all manner of dangers; not only are the Allies keen to keep tabs on people and not have herds of unaccounted-for children roaming about the place, but the rule of law has broken down, everyone is starving, and what you might think of as normal societal norms don't really apply.

Not only that, but occupied Germany has been arbitrarily divided up into zones, each occupied by a different army, and while the British might send you on your way with no more than a cheery clip round the ear, stray into the Russian zone unawares and you could get shot. Sure enough, Lore's younger brother Jochen meets exactly this fate - that all the siblings don't meet a similar fate is largely down to their good fortune in meeting Thomas, a young German man also keen to get across Germany unmolested, for reasons of his own.

Lore, her siblings and Thomas strike up an uneasy alliance, and eventually they reach Hamburg and are reunited with grandma. Thomas prefers to keep a low profile, as he has his own reasons for avoiding scrutiny. Lore has to come to terms with the fact that the man who helped them and became their friend was not who he claimed to be.

Cut, slightly more jarringly, to: 1997, and Micha is a schoolteacher in Berlin who has recently become interested in his late grandfather's war activities. Grandfather, it turns out, was in the Waffen-SS and was imprisoned for 10 years or so after the war in a Russian prison camp. Micha becomes obsessed with finding out what his grandfather did during the war, particularly during his posting to modern-day Belarus. But does he really want to know? Certainly there were massacres of Jews in Belarus, just as there were in many other places. But could Micha's fondly-remembered grandfather have been involved? Does the fact that he was an affectionate grandfather (despite some dark rumblings of a drink problem) mean that he couldn't have been involved? Can you tell if someone has committed atrocities just by looking at them?

Armed with a grainy old photo of his grandfather, Micha travels to Belarus to see if anyone remembers the war, and his grandfather's part in it in particular. But how can he broach the subject with the locals, many of whom presumably had relatives who were killed by German forces? Hello, you don't know me, but I think my grandpa might have massacred your entire family; would you care to share any amusing anecdotes you can recall about him? And of course some of the Belarussians have their own murky pasts to conceal.

As with some other books in this series, The Dark Room raises the question: what is a novel? This one could arguably be more accurately described as three linked novellas, since there isn't the usual novelistic thing of some thread linking the stories together - Micha being Lore's grandson, or something like that, for instance. The three stories share the common backdrop of World War II, but that's about it.

Considered separately the three stories describe an upward curve, quality and compellingness-wise: I wasn't sure I saw the point of Helmut's story, and it's by far the shortest of the three, Lore's story is compelling just by virtue of the young-kids-in-jeopardy theme, but it's Micha's story that really resonates: there's a huge number of people in Germany, good, kind, considerate people in the main, who have direct blood ancestors who participated in genocidal killings on a massive scale only a couple of generations ago. How do you, as one of those people, deal with that? And how do you, as a novelist, explore the implications in a way that isn't trite and clichéd, given the amount of World War II-themed literature out there?

The inevitable lumpiness caused by the format aside, this is very good, managing to find a fairly fresh angle on some over-familiar events without being so oblique as to be incomprehensible. The bit right at the end where Micha and his girlfriend Mina have a baby daughter has faint echoes of the similar events at the end of Birdsong, but without the sense of the new life/new beginnings symbolism being trowelled on quite as thickly.

The Dark Room was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2001; I have now read four of that years' nominees (though not, as it happens, the winner) which, if the information here is still accurate, is some sort of personal record. [Actually, having had a look, I've read four of of the six for 1984 as well, including that year's winner, Hotel Du Lac.]

Thursday, September 15, 2016

lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a dahl's eyes

So it was Roald Dahl Day on Tuesday, which is apparently a thing that's been going on every September 13th (his birthday) for about ten years; this one is a bit more noteworthy though as it would have been Dahl's 100th birthday, had he not inconsiderately upped and died at the age of 74 in 1990.

In celebration of this Nia's school had a Roald Dahl Day of their own, where the kids were invited to dress up as characters from the books. Nia is still a bit young to know about the books, but we (well, principally Hazel) had a go at making her a Roly-Poly Bird costume which I think turned out pretty well. Nia's school posted a few pictures on Twitter, but as far as I can see none of them included her, so here she is:

The Roly-Poly Bird featured in The Enormous Crocodile and The Twits. I'm pretty sure I read The Twits once, but it wasn't part of my formative Dahl-reading experiences, which included Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, James And The Giant Peach and Danny The Champion Of The World. I can't quite remember when I first read one of his books, but I'd have been somewhere between 8 and 11, which is probably fairly typical. 

I'd say Danny The Champion Of The World is probably my favourite, as it seems the most generally well-disposed towards humanity and has a satisfying father-son relationship at its heart. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is his best-known book, and I loved it, but it was hard to find a character to identify with. Willy Wonka is too wild and unpredictable to be totally comfortable with, and it's hard to get behind his decision to basically withdraw completely from human interaction. I mean, I like chocolate more than most people, but come on. Obviously Charlie Bucket is the character you're meant to root for, and I did, but he essentially buys into Wonka's life-denying attitude by agreeing to take over the factory at the end. The sequel Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator was just a bit silly, notwithstanding the Vermicious Knids, which were pretty cool.

I own the two adult short story collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You as well, plus the bizarre novel My Uncle Oswald which basically revolves around stealing sperm samples from various early-20th-century male celebrities by slipping them a potent aphrodisiac (or, to put it more judgmentally, raping them).

The other thing about Dahl, and the problem a lot of people have with the uncritical celebration of his much-loved works, is that he seems to have been somewhat of a massive shit in real life. This manifested itself mainly in some general racism and in particular some virulent anti-Semitism. There isn't much you can say to excuse this sort of thing: 
There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean there is always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.
I mean, if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but they were always submissive.
 So we're back in the territory of worrying about whether the stature of works of art should be diminished by their authors' unpleasant personality traits. Is the genius of Johnny B Goode diminished by Chuck Berry's being a scrofulous old pervert? Is Ender's Game less of a science-fiction classic because Orson Scott Card is a homophobic nutter? Is Two Little Boys made even more loathsome by its association with convicted sex offender Rolf Harris? Is Mein Kampf less of a work of genius because Adolf Hitler.....well, you get the idea.

But of course the trouble is that it's perfectly plausible, indeed likely, that a different personality would have produced different works of art, or indeed quite possibly no works of art at all. Were Chuck Berry's tight little nuggets of barely-suppressed lust (Sweet Little Sixteen and the like) the by-product of his priapic personal habits? More than likely. Is Roald Dahl's fictional universe where 99% of adults are horrible, particularly the fat ones (Dahl seems to have reserved a particular hatred for fat people), and youth and goodness ultimately prevail, reflective of his own childhood experiences and the adult those experiences made him into? Quite probably. Happy people have no stories, as the song says.

So I think it's entirely appropriate to celebrate Roald Dahl's work, loved as it is by millions, but also to acknowledge his personal foibles. This is a doubly difficult balance to strike with someone whose primary audience was children; my judgment in this case was that even an exceptionally bright four-year-old like Nia would probably not understand what I was getting at if I'd tried to explain. In any case you don't want her spoiling everyone else's day by turning up with a placard saying ROALD DAHL WAS A FUCKER, still less coming out with some mangled version of the story like MY DADDY SAYS HE HATES ALL THE JEWS or something.