Sunday, January 31, 2016

don't you need some doggy to love

Couple of further follow-up observations on old blog posts - firstly, continuing the 2016 theme of celebrity deaths I note the demise of Paul Kantner, songwriter, singer and guitarist with Jefferson Airplane, and, subsequently, Jefferson Starship. It should be noted that he'd quit the band before they mutated, unforgivably, into Starship. Kantner seems, endearingly, to have remained committed to his early counter-culture ideals and sticking it to The Man in general into his 70s. Here's the Airplane rattling through Volunteers at Woodstock in 1969.

Secondly, what is it with Australian rugby league stars and inappropriate sex acts with dogs? You'll recall the strange case of Joel Monaghan and his ill-advised dalliance with a golden labrador in 2010 - well the latest drink-fuelled atrocity is Mitchell Pearce's equally ill-advised drunken dry-humping of a small poodle-like creature at an Australia Day party, captured by an unnamed third party on video and now, inevitably, all over the internet. As boneheaded as this is I'm not sure it compares with Monaghan's exploits, since as far as I can see at no point does Pearce's penis directly contact, still less enter, any part of the dog. If I were him I'd be more embarrassed, in hindsight, at my blatant lack of shame or concern about what appears to be a large piss-stain on the front of my shorts. It is alleged he'd pissed on the sofa as well.

Interestingly, Mitchell Pearce was also involved in one of the most legendary of all pissed-up Aussie rugby league rampages, Craig Gower's terrorising of a golf resort in 2005 - it was he, aged about 16, who was chased "in a threatening manner" by Gower and subsequently vomited on. Maybe that incident made more of an impression than he realised at the time.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

look, it's moby's dick

Couple of further cetacean observations: firstly that there was a bit about the whale strandings on the Today programme this morning which included the claim that the sperm whale's brain is the largest of any animal that has ever lived. I'm not disputing the claim, since it's true, but it does seem to be begging a flippant response along the lines of: well, that's as may be, but they're not very fucking bright, are they? The big blubbery cretins. Harsh? Perhaps.

Secondly, there seems to be a bit of a journalistic thing of calling sperm whales "gentle giants". I'm not sure where this comes from, but while you could argue for the description being appropriate for the big filter-feeding rorquals like the blue whale, sperm whales are actually some bad-ass motherfuckers. For one thing, they eat squid, including the big ones, and they have been rumoured to attack and sink ships, though there's some doubt as to how likely that is. It hasn't stopped Hollywood basing the plot of the new movie In The Heart Of The Sea around it, though. The film is a fictionalised version of the story of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex as previously mentioned here - I couldn't speak for the whole film but the trailers are heavy on the whale-wrangling and boat-smashing and light on the murder and cannibalism.

Lastly, most of the news stories about the recent strandings mention that the whales were all male - as it happens you ought to be able to work this out just by looking at the pictures of the corpses. Honestly, you don't know where to look. Gentle giants? More like genital giants, amirite?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

whale whale whale whale whale how very nice

As well as keeping you up to date with the latest developments in cock graffiti the world over, here at Electric Halibut we also ensure that you've got your finger on the pulse when it comes to exploding whales, not that any of these big blubbery oafs have a pulse any more, apart from a small seismic blip when they explode.

As it happens there's been some big exploding whale news this week as part of the more general whale-related goings-on on the Norfolk and Lincolnshire coasts, where a group of sperm whales have got themselves stranded, and subsequently died, in the biggest sperm whale beaching ever recorded in Britain. It seems to be part of a larger pattern of beachings as there have been a dozen more on the northern coasts of the Netherlands and Germany in the last couple of weeks. As always, the reasons why these mass beachings occur are opaque and subject to much wild speculation: sonar? sea pollution? climate change? dwindling food supply? blind chance?

It's been reported that one of the whales washed up in Skegness has "exploded" - don't be expecting anything as spectacular as some of the whale detonations of the past, though (though to be fair at least one of those was artificially enhanced) - what seems to have happened here was a bit of a venting of foul-smelling air once one of the biologists cut into the whale, a pretty common occurrence by all accounts. There may yet be some scope for a whale explosion of a different kind, though, as the fifth whale to be found appears to have come to rest on a former weapons range on the Lincolnshire coast, a site rumoured to contain much unexploded ordnance. So it could just take a bit of shifting of sand or internal organs, the whale rolling into a slightly different position, and kablooie, hallelujah, it's raining whale. Watch this space.

the last book I read

The Sea by John Banville.

Max Morden, art critic and historian, has come to a nice quiet guest house in a quiet Irish seaside town in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Anna, from cancer. Not just any old guest house, though, but the former residence of the Grace family who he knew as a child, mainly through their twin children Chloe and Myles.

So we're in That Last Golden Summer territory here, or more specifically that sub-category That Last Golden Summer At The End Of Which That Thing Happened Where My Whole Life Went To Shit. So while he's ostensibly retreating to the coast to regroup after his wife's death and concentrate on making some progress on his latest book, on French artist Pierre Bonnard, Max is actually mooning around drinking too much and reflecting on his childhood visits and his friendship with Chloe and Myles.

Chloe was your standard spiky slightly feisty tomboyish type, while Myles was altogether stranger, web-toed and practically mute, although that didn't stop him and Chloe having that near-telepathic thing that twins have (at least in fiction). Their parents, Mr & Mrs Grace, also employed a governess, Rose, whose life Chloe in particular enjoyed making a misery. Max tagged along for trips to the seaside and other adventures, although seemingly more through proximity and convenience than through any great mutual liking.

So Max continues (in the book's nominal present) to fester at the guest house while his recollections flit between Chloe and Myles and more recent memories of his wife Anna's final days in hospital. Eventually he gets around to describing The Thing that happened to tear the Graces' lives (and to a lesser degree his own) apart - one of those sticky pre-adolescent sexual awakening things followed by a shocking and self-desctructive act of twinly solidarity by Chloe and Myles.

The whole "elderly person retreats to remote location to reflect on their life and That Golden Summer while the past threatens to catch up with them in unexpected ways" thing is a trope well-used in modern fiction, indeed the only other Banville on this list, Eclipse, is structured in a very similar way, as is The Heather Blazing and no doubt one or two others. The Sea is probably better than either of those, just because the queasy, claustrophobic cusp-of-puberty thing is always fascinating, and the contrast with Max's recollections of Anna's death is stark. That said, the pivotal event raises more questions than it answers and doesn't really fit with what we've been told about the twins up to that point.

But of course this is partly the point, since one of the things the book is about is the unreliableness of memory, even of fairly recent events like Anna's death, let alone childhood stuff from 50-odd years ago. The point is also that things like the plausibility of some of the key moments isn't really the point, the point being to revel in the richness of Banville's prose even as you think: well, that business with Chloe and Myles was a bit thinly-explained and unsatisfactory, wasn't it? And how much of this is meant to be taken as reliable recollection, since Max's arbitrary naming of the two nearby villages as Ballymore and Ballyless is pretty clearly not meant to be taken to resemble their real names?

The Sea won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 (not without some controversy), beating, among other shortlisted novels, Never Let Me Go. This makes it - I think - the sixth Booker winner on this list, after G., The Gathering, Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Midnight's Children. If pressed I'd have to say I think that Never Let Me Go is a better book, but I did enjoy The Sea, probably more than either of the other two Banvilles (Eclipse and The Book Of Evidence) I've read - Banville's gift for a beautifully-crafted sentence make you inclined to forgive him for some meanderingness and implausibility of plot.

The Sea was made into a film in 2013, presumably with some smoothing out of the timeline. Plenty of heavy types in the cast list, though.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Recently-deceased Eagles mainman Glenn Frey, circa the turn of the 1980s (i.e. around the time of The Long Run, after he'd dispensed with the 1970s bandit moustache and cut the flowing locks back to a quintessential 1980s mullet), and David Naughton, star of the classic comedy/horror film An American Werewolf In London and of pretty much nothing else since as far as I know.

As well as his very brief movie career, David Naughton apparently had a singing career of similarly brief duration, comprising the phenomenally cheesy slice of disco nonsense Makin' It, which was a US top ten hit in 1979.

Friday, January 22, 2016

the phallus of righteous justice

It seems so obvious in hindsight, but if you're thinking of defacing large areas of land with crude portrayals of giant spurting cocks - and who hasn't at least considered that at one time or another? - then actually snow is pretty much the perfect medium. Yes, you can go around with a can of weedkiller, possibly concealed up a trouser leg Great Escape stylee, and kill some grass, or hang precariously off a roof while daubing it with paint, but it's a lot of effort, and there'll probably be some sort of community service court order served on you whereby you have to go and clear it up afterwards, unless you can persuade your local council to do it for you.

Snow, on the other hand, is easy to manipulate, and - unless you live in Antarctica - there's a transient, ephemeral nature to it so that it'll eventually fade away without any intervention being required. The extra element of cleverness with this one in Gothenburg, Sweden is that it was drawn (at some degree of personal risk to the perpetrator, one assumes) on a frozen lake in a park, so that it was a while before the dead corporate hand of The Man was able to come up with a Health & Safety-compliant way of removing it. 

The rather glorious footnote is that one of the officials tasked with removing the original, relatively small snow cock was so racked with guilt at what he had done that he organised the construction of a much larger, many times more magnificent cock in a nearby park.

As stupendous as this is, the guy who constructed it has made a bit of a schoolboy error: a crudely-daubed cock is not complete unless it has all spunk coming out of the end. Honestly, it's like these people know nothing.

If even snow-based cock-daubing seems a bit high-risk for you, then how about this: going out for a walk or a jog or a run with your GPS device and trying to make your route conform as closely as possible to the shape of a cock. It almost goes without saying that there is a whole website devoted to people drawing GPS cocks. If you have access to an aeroplane you can do much the same thing on a somewhat larger scale

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

headline of the day

Just as with my unseemly (for a fortysomething father-of-two, anyway) chortling over the contents of children's books here, the amusement factor here is mainly around the inherent sniggery amusingness of the word "flaps".

It's actually the headline for this fairly grim story about the current Tongan obesity crisis, and the problem of richer countries unloading their cheap unwanted cuts of meat on poorer countries. Nonetheless you'd think they could have rustled up a female New Zealand lamb exporter to enthuse about how the Tongans love the taste of her flaps, can't get enough of her flaps, despite the unusual smell, etc. etc.

Just in case we need a bit of orientation, the BBC article includes this helpful diagram.

already gone

Just to illustrate my point about my relationship with David Bowie's work being one of interest and respect rather than the intense love that some people had, the death of Glenn Frey yesterday resonates much more closely with my listening habits over the last 30 years or so. Despite my Dad's record collection having some solid American rock stuff like the Steve Miller Band and Santana I don't recall him ever having any Eagles, so I couldn't say exactly where I was first exposed to them, although of course growing up in the 1970s I'd have been bound to have heard some of their stuff just through a sort of cultural osmosis. It's actually quite possible that I was aware of Frey through hearing The Heat Is On on Top Of The Pops before I'd even heard of the Eagles.

What I can say is that I owned this compilation album during my student years and played it to death, usually in Doug's company. Particular highlights that I can recall are the "hilarious" post-drink-consumption call-and-response routine we used to do to Lyin' Eyes, and a visit to our student flat on Redland Road by the local constabulary after we'd been playing Hotel California at high volume out of an open window at about 3am. Great days.

That compilation CD, and the copy of One Of These Nights (aka the one with the Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy theme tune on it) that I used to own both disappeared in the Great Bristol CD Disappearance of 1995, when a whole box of CDs went missing during the course of a move between flats (on the upside that did include my copy of Bridge Of Spies by T'Pau, which I can now plausibly deny ever having owned). I replaced the compilation with this (very) slightly more comprehensive one.

Frey did most of the lead vocal duties on their more orthodox country-rock tunes, which means that he sang most of the early stuff (Take It Easy, Peaceful, Easy Feeling, Tequila Sunrise, Lyin' Eyes) and was gradually replaced by Don Henley for the more straight-ahead rock stuff they got into later in their career after Bernie Leadon left and Don Felder and Joe Walsh joined (One Of These Nights, Hotel California, Life In The Fast Lane, The Long Run). There were various things I did a lot of at university that became so over-familiar that I don't do them all that much any more, including eating substantial quantities of mince and tinned tuna (though not at the same time), and listening to the Eagles falls into the same category. So I can't say I listen to a lot of Eagles stuff these days (though as with Bowie I daresay there's a couple on the in-car iPod selection*), but one of the side-effects of that is that it's nice to rediscover how great most of it is when I do listen to it, although Best Of My Love and New Kid In Town are still pretty dreary.

I saw the Eagles in concert on one of their many lucrative nostalgia tours on 17th June 2006. I can date it this precisely because having travelled down from Bristol with my friend Alex I then wandered off into the night after the gig to meet up with some friends in Fulham in order to go and see the tennis final at Queen's Club the next day. The Eagles line-up featured Henley, Frey and Walsh from the "classic" era - no Don Felder, who'd had an unrecoverable falling-out with Henley and Frey a few years earlier, and no Randy Meisner, who'd been replaced by Timothy B Schmit before the recording of The Long Run in 1979. They did actually have a new album to plug at the time, but mercifully kept that material to a minimum and focused on just doing a greatest hits package.

There's been a bit of a historical critical backlash against the Eagles, just because they were so unbelievably successful, and there are those who resented their gradual transition from country-rock band to orthodox rock band, and would have you listen exclusively to the Flying Burrito Brothers instead. As it happens I do very much like a bit of Flying Burrito Brothers, but you shouldn't be ashamed of listening to the Eagles too, no matter what the Dude says. Part of the criticism seems to be that the Eagles (and Frey in particular) were just a bit too interested in hits and money and success to be "proper" credible musicians. I don't know about that, but this lengthy and interesting Rolling Stone piece from 1975 reveals Frey to be a very shrewd and ambitious character, and one not afraid to steamroller others in pursuit of perfection. But, as he himself said, bands are not democracies.

[* actually, no - the current 172-song selection contains NO Eagles material whatsoever.]

Sunday, January 17, 2016

hello and welcome to snatch of the day

The junior doctors' strike has put Jeremy Hunt's name back on the front pages of late, so it was pretty much inevitable, especially given the BBC's considerable previous in this area, that someone was going to call him a cunt live on air at some point. Bravely throwing herself on the grenade this time was BBC 6 Music's Niki Cardwell, who dropped the c-bomb during a news bulletin. Despite the sub-headline and the embedded media clip this Mirror article doesn't actually allow you to "Listen to BBC newsreader's unfortunate slip-up", since the relevant moment is obscured by an unnecessarily deafening bleep. However some excellent person has put together a YouTube collection of some of the best inadvertent (or was it?) Jeremy Cuntery, including the classic Jim Naughtie and Andrew Marr moments; Niki Cardwell's slip-up is at about 0:52.

A break from all the relentless cuntery was provided last Saturday by Match Of The Day rentapundit Mark Lawrenson, who during a seemingly innocuous piece of analysis about Everton managed inexplicably to mispronounce Steven Pienaar's name (it's at about 0:22 into this clip). Gabby Logan coped about as well as could be expected, under the circumstances.

Friday, January 15, 2016

john, I'm only carking

Yeah, so this is my Bowie post. Deal with it.

Shock revelation: I was never an enormous Bowie fan. I have some of his music, sure, but it's never been one of the central planks of my regular music listening, stuff I keep returning to. I would guess that whenever I refresh the 200-odd tunes on my 1GB iPod Shuffle (which I primarily use for in-car entertainment) there's more often than not a Bowie song on there somewhere, but not lots, and not always any at all. [Actually, hang on, hang on, let me have a look - my current 172-song selection includes three: Ziggy Stardust, Suffragette City and TVC15] You can get some idea about how serious a fan I was by looking at the Bowie albums I actually own: one reasonably definitive (at the time of its release in 1993) singles collection and the first Tin Machine album. In my defence I should say that while Tin Machine are now generally reviled, the album was widely regarded as a bracing back-to-basics return to form for Bowie at the time, and that some of it still sounds pretty good, opening track Heaven's In Here in particular.

I think there are a few reasons, as excellent as much of the music is, that I wasn't ever a proper Bowie fan. One is that I'm slightly too young - the archetypal super-dedicated Bowie fan would be about ten years older than me, so that they would have been in their early teens at around the time that Ziggy Stardust propelled Bowie to freaky global superstardom in 1972. Another reason is that the constant assuming of different characters for the songs makes the whole thing a little arch and calculated for my taste. I suppose the way I would put it is: my preference is for people to totally be "in" their music, rather than standing an ironic distance away from it and pointing at it.

All that said, I don't think you could name another rock artist who had a greater cultural influence, and he seems (drug-crazed incidents aside) to have been a good bloke who also (despite spending decades in the United States) seems never to have lost his bone-dry British sense of humour. It's slightly surprising, given his facility for slipping between on-stage personas, that he was a fairly ropey actor - my last sighting of him was as a deeply unconvincing Nikola Tesla in the otherwise excellent The Prestige in 2006.

Here's an interview plus a few songs from his appearance on the Dick Cavett show in late 1974, notable for raucous performances of Young Americans and Footstompin' (originally by the Flairs and whose riff provided the basis for Fame, one of my favourite Bowie songs) and also, in the early stages of the interview in particular, a vivid demonstration of how a raging cocaine addiction turns you into an emaciated sniffy twitchy paranoid nutter.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

a tome with the halibuts

Couple of footnotes to yesterday's yearly blogging round-up: despite the book count being the equal-second-lowest on record at 19, closer analysis reveals that the total page count was quite high, higher in fact than any year since the annus mirabilis of 2011 when I managed to get through 33 books, helped by, among other things, a lengthy honeymoon and no kids. 2015's page count totalled 6330 pages, a considerable improvement over last year's 4988.

You'll be ahead of me here and already observing that a high page count combined with a lowish book count must mean the average book length was quite high, and sure enough 2015's average book length of 333.16 is the highest on record, comfortably exceeding 2011's 321.12. While 2011's selections included a 924-page book (Until I Find You) and a 746-page book (The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest), 2015's selections included nothing longer than The Redeemer at 562 pages. On the other hand 2015 included only two books of under 200 pages, whereas 2011 included eight, and even 2014's paltry 16 books included five. So it's all about the consistency.

happy blogmanay

Time for the New Year roundup of last year's blog stats and some points of interest, mainly (or more likely only) to me. The numbers down and to the right a bit don't lie, and last year was, by a small margin, my least bloggy year yet, only a late splurge of three posts on December 29th getting me up into three figures.

2015's total of 101 posts is the lowest ever for a completed year, just below the previous year's 104. Things were looking promising when I'd clocked up 59 posts in the first half of the year, compared with 45 in 2014, but then things went into a steep decline with only 42 posts in the second half of the year, compared with 59 in 2014. Game of two halves, innit.

On the other hand, I logged 19 book reviews in 2015, which exceeds the previous year both in absolute and percentage terms (i.e. the percentage of total posts that were book reviews).

Speaking of books, I note that in my ongoing attempt to smash the patriarchy my reading of A New Dominion straight after The Dispossessed represents just the tenth occasion during the lifetime of this blog where I've read two female-authored books in succession. On three of those occasions I've gone on to scale the dizzy heights of a third one as well, as follows:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

the last book I read

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell.

It's fair to say there are more hospitable places to grow up than the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Not just because of the brutal winters and the general harshness of day-to-day existence, but also the way the isolated communities work - very insular, snooping into other people's business is frowned upon, government and law-enforcement are despised, very male-dominated, everyone has too many guns, drinks too much hooch and is cooking up crank, a ferociously addictive and occasionally explosive home-made form of methamphetamine, on their back porch.

This goes double if you're an intelligent, independent young woman in your late teens like Ree Dolly, since your typical career path would be something like: get inadvertently knocked up in some drunken encounter, shotgun wedding, more kids, mind kids and home while hubby is out dealing crank or in prison.

Ree has some more specific problems of her own at the moment, though: her father Jessup has been up in court for being caught cooking up crank and is due back imminently for a further hearing. It's not exactly the first time this has happened, but it transpires that firstly Jessup has gone missing, and secondly that he put the house in which Ree, her mother and two younger brothers live up as surety for his bail, and so if he doesn't turn up in court the house will be taken and Ree and her family will be homeless.

So Ree decides that she'd better go and ask around and see if she can find out what has happened to her father. This is more problematic than it sounds for a number of reasons. Firstly, Ree is effectively the head of the household in Jessup's absence (and he is invariably absent) because her mother is no longer quite the full ticket (for ill-defined reasons) and tends to just sit around watching the TV or staring into space all day. So Ree is effectively bringing up the boys, which she does by teaching them important life skills like how to shoot a shotgun and gut and skin a squirrel. The other problem is that "asking around" about pretty much anything can get you beaten up or shot in the Missouri Ozarks, especially when it's connected with obviously criminal activity that some of the people you're talking to will also be involved in. Sure enough after a few dead ends, including scary unpredictable crank-crazed Uncle Teardrop, Jessup's brother, and a few dire warnings not to pursue her enquiries, Ree winds up on the doorstep of Thump Milton, nth cousin and feared family patriarch, and is the recipient of a fearsome beating at the hands of some of his womenfolk.

Time is starting to run out, and Ree is increasingly convinced that Jessup is dead. Trouble is, even if he is, she'll have to prove it to the cops' satisfaction in order to escape having the house repossessed. Eventually, satisfied that she isn't about to snitch to the cops, certain family members decide to take pity on her and give her what she needs. Jessup, it turns out, not wanting to go down for a long stretch, had decided to snitch on some of his counterparts himself, some of them family, and brutal retribution was exacted. Some of the same Milton women who gave Ree the kicking earlier take her off to a remote lake where Jessup's body is submerged, roped to an engine block, and kindly assist her in sawing his hands off so they can be presented to the police as proof of death.

Winter's Bone is probably most famous for the multiply-Oscar-nominated film based on it that was released in 2010 (the book was published in 2006) starring the lovely Jennifer Lawrence as Ree. I haven't seen the film, but (from what I've seen) apart from changing the gender of one of Ree's younger siblings and reducing the amount of snow it looks like a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. And why wouldn't it be, as it's a ruthlessly spare 190-odd pages with barely a word wasted, and with an intensely appealing central character. That's not to say that it's flawless - the first half is better than the second, largely because Ree has more to do in the first half. Once she's been incapacitated by a near-fatal beating a lot of the second half of the book consists of her being driven around (sometimes wuzzy and half-asleep on turbo-painkillers) and shown things by various people, which drives the plot along and all but isn't as satisfying as her doing things for herself. I suppose one might also say the happy-ish ending is slightly unexpected after the fairly relentless bleakness that's gone before it, but the book has done a good enough job of making you root for Ree that it just about works.

These are minor quibbles, though, and I wouldn't want you to think I'm not recommending the book, because I most definitely am. There's more than an echo of Cormac McCarthy about it in the sparseness of the language and the violence, though without most of McCarthy's signature stylistic tics.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

headline of the day

This (although it's from the BBC website) is one of those tabloid-esque pack-as-many-nouns-in-a-row-as-you-can-and-see-if-it-still-makes-sense-type-of-things, which occasionally overlaps with the crash blossom category:

This one isn't really a crash blossom, it's just a bit jarring to the eye, not least by virtue of containing the word "penis", still a fairly unusual word to see in a headline, tabloid or otherwise.

As it happens the item Michael McFeat was queuing up for was a sausage made out of horsemeat, so I must say I'm slightly baffled as to where the major offence arose from. If sausages in Kyrgyzstan contain the same sort of meat as they do in this country I certainly wouldn't want to be putting my hand on my heart and claiming they were 100% penis-free.

Not to be outdone, Kyrgyzstan's much larger neighbour Kazakhstan has as one of its national dishes a thing called qarta, which is fried boiled horse rectum. You'd hope that as well as boiling and frying it they'd give it a bloody good rinse first.

the last book I read

A New Dominion by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Ah, India. Land of contrasts, contradictions and a chicken tikka masala for the lady. And don't forget the pickles. Into this enticing place, in some slightly indeterminate time probably in the 1960s, come Raymond, a Cambridge-educated English "aesthete" much given to travelling with his mother (so yes, yes, obviously a repressed homosexual) and Lee, a young English woman on a sort of spiritual quest to "find" herself - and where better to do that than India, especially in the 1960s. I mean, if it was good enough for the Beatles...

Raymond hangs out a lot with Gopi, a young Indian student, for reasons that are beyond his capacity to admit to himself (but plainly obvious to the reader), while Gopi's reasons for indulging Raymond are clear enough - free bed & board, being generally indulged and, at least as yet, not being made any unpalatable demands of. Meanwhile Lee has become acquainted with Asha, an Indian princess, widow and general sybaritic layabout much given to unsuitable liaisons with much younger men. So when Gopi is introduced to her, her eyes light up.

Lee and a couple of other Western women, Margaret and Evie, find their way to a spiritual retreat at an ashram run by a charismatic guru, Swamiji, who seems to have a way of making na├»ve tourists fall under his spell, even when, as Margaret does, they contract some health problems that (as all health problems would) would be better dealt with by modern medical attention than by a herbal poultice, some chanting, and a nice saag aloo.

Raymond becomes concerned for Margaret's health and tries to persuade the community that she would be better off seeing a doctor. Meanwhile Lee has first-hand experience of the reasons for Swamiji's interest in young Western women when he rapes her in his hut at the ashram. Gopi is dismayed to find that his family have arranged a marriage for him to a woman he has never met as part of some complex part-exchange arrangement involving his sister marrying his bride-to-be's brother.

Lee escapes from the ashram and she, Raymond and the reunited Gopi and Asha set up a retreat of their own (but with rather more self-indulgence and booze) at an abandoned mansion owned by Asha's family. But the modern world is starting to encroach on India and the mansion is under threat from big business interests who want the land to set up a factory. Meanwhile Margaret's health problems finally become serious enough for her to leave the ashram (with Evie's help) and seek out Lee and Raymond. Unfortunately by the time proper medical assistance is provided, the hepatitis Margaret has been incubating for a while has pretty much devoured her liver, and she dies. Gopi decides to flout his family's wishes and stay with Asha, Raymond decides to return to England and see his mother, and Lee, having not conclusively found herself yet, sets off on further travels to who knows where.

Like most people who'd heard of her at all I'd assumed RPJ, as I like to call her, was Indian - not so, in fact, as she was German by birth, educated in Britain and emigrated to India in her twenties upon marrying an Indian architect. She's best known for her screenwriting activities, principally during her long association with Merchant Ivory Productions which saw her win Oscars for A Room With A View in 1987 and Howard's End in 1992. She also won the Booker Prize in 1975 for her most famous novel Heat And Dust (also filmed), which, according to Wikipedia at least, makes her the only person to win an Oscar and the Booker. A New Dominion is the novel which immediately precedes Heat And Dust in her output, published in 1972.

Anyway, as you might expect, this is very sly and well-observed; you might say that maybe RPJ is a sort of expatriate member of the group of ladies mentioned here - female writers of similar age (RPJ - who died in 2013 - was around five years older than Beryl Bainbridge, Alice Thomas Ellis and Penelope Lively, and around ten years younger than Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald) who wrote smart, dryly humorous, shortish novels. My reservations with this one mirror my reservations with some of the ones by the other authors (Winter Palace and the Ballad Of Peckham Rye, for instance): the author's expert skewering of everyone's shortcomings (or, I suppose, to put it another way, the author's populating the book exclusively with people with obvious and easily-skewerable shortcomings) means that it's hard to find a character in the book whose fate you really care much about. I suppose there's some point being made about Western tourists' unrealistic quasi-mystical expectations of India, a country after all populated like any other by regular people just trying to make a living, and that some of the country's traditions are (or were at the time of writing) about to be swept away by the relentless tide of progress, or, depending on your perspective, "progress". It's fine, but I can't honestly say I was bowled over by it.