Wednesday, July 27, 2016

the last book I read

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian.

Meet Captain Jack Aubrey. A burly, bluff sort of cove, not perhaps the sort of man you'd sit down with for a nuanced discussion about politics or the binomial theorem, but a natural leader of men and an experienced naval commander. His skills are less well suited to land-based matters, and as the result of some unwise financial investments he finds himself in a state of mild disgrace as the novel opens, and jumps at the chance to take command of HMS Worcester for a mission to bolster the British blockade of Toulon. This is a tedious mission involving a lot of waiting around, and on a ship that is well-known to be badly-built, but Jack decides that it's still better than being beset by lawyers and creditors on land.

Meet Stephen Maturin. A doctor, Irish-Catalan by birth, and Jack Aubrey's closest friend and advisor and regular ship's doctor. Maturin is a shrewd and secretive character, as befits someone who does a bit of clandestine naval intelligence work on the side, so he and Aubrey are like chalk and cheese, but, hey, opposites attract. Maturin signs on to fulfil his usual ship's doctor role on the Worcester, the two say goodbye to their wives and off they go.

As expected the job they've been asked to do is exceptionally dull, basically involving sitting in one place in a line of ships and making sure no French vessels try to make a run for it. A bit of excitement is provided by a brief mission to a supposedly neutral port in Tunisia to try and provoke the French ships stationed there into firing first and starting a fight, but they basically just shrug Gallicly and refuse to be tempted, leaving Jack frustrated.

His mood is not improved by having to do some sneaky night-time duties to facilitate some of Stephen's spying activities, dropping him off via dinghy on a deserted bit of marshland (somewhere in the vicinity of the Camargue, we're invited to assume) and picking him up later after a botched mission, with his British contact in tow with an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound. Back at the blockade, things seem to be looking up when some of the French ships make a dash for it, and the British set off in hot pursuit, but the wind changes at a crucial moment and the French are able to return to port without any serious damage.

Having bent Worcester all out of shape in the furious pursuit, Jack takes her to Malta for repairs and is assigned his old frigate HMS Surprise for a delicate mission to the Ionian Sea (the triangular bit between western Greece and the bootheel of Italy, basically) - the idea being to play off some of the local beys against each other to Britain's advantage and retake some of the key islands (including Corfu) from the French. Having chosen the best strategic ally, Jack then finds himself becalmed in harbour (in what would be modern-day Albania) before escaping and launching a furious pursuit of one of the rival beys who wants to scupper Britain's interests. Meeting him at sea (and with Surprise outnumbered by two ships to one) a furious naval battle ensues with much indiscriminate dispatching of grapeshot and cannonballs flying around taking people's limbs off. Jack gets to work off some of his frustration at being denied a proper battle earlier by doing some proper boarding and cutlass-wielding activity, a surrender is obtained and Jack and his crew live to dress their wounds, claim some booty and head off for further adventures. Hurrah!

One of the things about picking books up randomly second-hand is that you often get hold of one that turns out to be part of a series, and the law of averages dictates that it'll seldom be the first book. So you then have to decide whether this is a self-contained story that just features some recurring characters (The Redeemer is a good example of this), whether you really need to read the series in order for it to make any sense (the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, for instance), or something in between: linked stories, recurring characters, probably better to read the whole thing in the right order but you can read individual ones and they'll still make sense (the Ripley novels, say).

The Ionian Mission probably falls into the last category (what posh literary types call a roman-fleuve): it's the eighth book in what's generally known as the Aubrey-Maturin series, which comprises twenty books (there won't be any more as O'Brian died in 2000). So while it's probably better to have read them in order in order to pick up on some of the references to previous adventures and to better understand how some of the minor characters fit into the overall context, it's certainly not essential.

The novels were published over the course of thirty years (1969-1999; The Ionian Mission was published in 1981) and describe events over a period of roughly fifteen years between 1800 and 1815. Their critical reputation has taken a gradual upward curve over the years, from being regarded as a sort of modern-day Hornblower saga to being the work of (as the blurb on the front of my copy says) "the greatest historical novelist of all time". I dunno about that, but I enjoyed it very much - the evocation of life on board ship is exceptionally vivid, even though O'Brian makes no concession to those who aren't familiar with sailing and naval terminology. The structure of the novel would be slightly odd if it were not understood that this is part of a long series - the "Ionian mission" of the title only materialises around page 250 of a 350-page book, and the battle with the Turks at the end occupies only the last 15 pages of the book. Stephen Maturin's brief spying mission is ill-explained and seemingly inconsequential as well, though I'm sure it fits in as part of a longer narrative.

More generally, certain conclusions about the series and characters can be drawn from this single instalment, most obviously that Maturin is a sort of authorial alter ego, with Aubrey perhaps representing some personality traits that O'Brian wistfully aspired to. Maturin also acts as a sort of Basil Exposition for various bits of arcane naval stuff, generally via the vehicle of having some lubberly hanger-on saying "I say, Dr. Maturin, what does the captain mean by "luffing"?".

So while I'm not sure that naval adventure fiction, however subtly and intelligently written, is ever really going to be My Thing, and I'm not going to be rushing out to stock up with the other 19 books in the series, I wouldn't rule out reading another one or two in the future.

Many people will know the novels through the film adaptation Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, which came out in 2003. The horribly-botched title reflects the idea that this was intended to be the first of a series of films, a series that in the end never materialised (although the first film was a modest commercial success), though there are still those who'd like to revive the idea. But it did at least perform the almost-impossible task of getting both the Hitchens brothers to agree about something - basically that the film was fine, but the books are better.

O'Brian also did some work as a translator of French literature into English, and I find that my knackered old Panther paperback edition of Henri Charrière's Papillon credits him as translator.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

if you notice this notice you will notice that this notice is not worth noticing

When we moved into our house in June 2010 one of the things my late predecessor warned us about was not to leave any vehicles parked on the pavement out at the front of the house, in contravention of the double-yellow markings. Not such a problem for us as we've got a driveway which can accommodate up to three cars, but it's occasionally tempting for visitors who don't want to go and park up round the corner for some reason - heavy stuff to load and/or unload, general laziness, that sort of thing. Leave your car there for a NANOSECOND, we were warned, and the long arm of the law will display its great vengeance and furious anger; and you will know their name is Gwent Police when they lay their vengeance upon thee.

Turns out that while this may have been true in the heady days of the mid-to-late-noughties, it isn't true any more. I don't want to get all EVIL TORIES WITH THEIR CUTS AND AUSTERITY AND THAT on your ass, but it is nonetheless true that most forces have seen numbers cut and, as much as I'd like police priorities to be primarily focused on my personal comfort and convenience and more generally being the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness, that shit ain't the truth. And one aspect of the cuts has been the general slackening-off of illegal parkers getting their collar felt.

Our little section of pavement is a bit of a honeypot for the illegal parker, as it happens, as there is a handy rank of shops over the road (Spar, kebab shop, post office, chemist, betting shop) with limited parking in front of them. So there's an understandable temptation for people to just pull up on the kerb, dash across the road, pick up a large doner and chips and then be off again. And in a sense I don't mind that, as long as parkers display a minimal level of sense and park in front of one of the many generous sections of wall that are provided (picture courtesy of Google StreetView, just in case that wasn't obvious).

It's really only when people ignore the wall sections and park across the end of our drive that annoyance ensues. I have on a couple of occasions arrived back from picking up the girls from school/nursery/childcare only to find a car abandoned across our drive with freely available sections of wall on either side.
Hazel has experienced the same thing and as she's more prone to getting all irate and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE about these things she suggested getting a sign made that we could put on our gatepost. So she and her sister Paula cooked up some wording and Paula got a sign made on a classy bit of Welsh slate as a birthday present. That was in May but I've only just got round to putting it up.

I should reiterate at this point that I had nothing to do with the wording other than auditing the spelling (at Paula's request). My personal view is that the words "Polite Notice" on a notice of this sort are either a) redundant, since it's obvious, or more likely b) passive-aggressive bullshit, since it's not really polite at all. But I really didn't feel that I cared enough to get involved. Anyway, the sign is up now, so we'll see whether people oblivious enough to park across a clearly visible driveway are inclined to stop and read a sign and modify their behaviour based on its wording. Personally I have my doubts.

Ironically, we've had fewer problems with inconsiderate idiots just lately, as the pavement space by our front wall has been partially occupied for the last three weeks or so by a small silver Nissan hatchback. It's parked quite neatly in front of the wall, so it's not inconveniencing us in terms of being able to get in and out, and it's positioned in such a way as to make it impossible to just swing onto the pavement and end up blocking our drive; you'd have to swing onto the bit of pavement in front of the house next door and then reverse back. Clearly people aren't going to do that, since the whole point of the manoeuvre is to park and abandon the car as quickly as possible with minimal repositioning.

But, on the other hand, it's clearly been abandoned, and sooner or later someone's going to set fire to it or break in and start sleeping in it. The reason it's no longer being driven becomes clear if you use the DVLA's vehicle enquiry service to look up its tax and MOT status: while it's taxed until the beginning of September, it doesn't have a current MOT. And sure enough if you have a sneaky look inside there is even an MOT certificate refusal printout on the passenger seat, which reveals some minor-sounding electrical issues and some more serious-sounding exhaust and emissions problems as the reason for failure.

In keeping with my low-ish level of concern about the situation I've been indulging in some gentle low-level trolling of Gwent Police on Twitter, just to try to prompt them to take an interest. I suspect that when I finally decide I'd like it towed away I may have to ring up and register some sort of official request, though.

Friday, July 22, 2016

celebrity fantasy edificylikey of the day

I could not begin to guess how many times my elder daughter has watched Frozen, but it's a lot. I myself have seen significant chunks of it on a number of occasions, though I've never watched it all the way through. Oddly, I am much more familiar with the second half of the film, as I generally seem to wander in around the time Elsa (or, to put it another way, Idina Menzel) is belting out the film's signature song, Let It Go. This does mean I generally catch the bit where Anna says to Kristoff "I want you to take me up the North Mountain" and I have to suppress a snigger.

As if the vocal gymnastics of the song didn't give her enough to do, Elsa also conjures up a spectacular crystalline ice palace out of thin air while she's singing. Well, she is magic, after all. It was only on the most recent viewing of the scene that it occurred to me what it reminded me of: the similarly spectacular crystal palace that Dr. Manhattan builds during his exile on Mars in Watchmen.

As always, I am far from the first person to make this connection, and, as this Slate article points out, there are a number of plot parallels as well: key character with extraordinary powers that they are obliged to rein in to be acceptable to society, voluntarily exiling themselves and giving those powers free rein. Dr. Manhattan doesn't sing, though.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


Among the huge collection of books that we read with Nia and Alys are a number that either Hazel or I had as children. Now there's a bit of a vetting and weeding-out process that these things have to go through before we approve them for consumption by our own kids, mainly to ensure that they aren't terrifyingly bloodthirsty religious tracts, unspeakably violent in some other way, or over the edge in terms of adhering to outdated sexist stereotype: you know, passive pretty princess in pink awaiting rescue by some muscular square-jawed prince in tights brandishing a MASSIVE SWORD in some eye-wateringly Freudian way.

I don't want to give you the impression that our childhood reading material was a horrendous parade of rape and disembowelment, and most of the books are fine. Which isn't to say that some of the "classic" fairy stories aren't a bit weird, though. There's the health and safety implications of uncontrolled eating of porridge off the pavement, for example, but consider also the hoary old tale of The Elves and the Shoemaker. What's going on there then? I mean, I get the basic thrust of the story, but why were the elves compelled to come in and do all that hard work in the first place? The shoemaker and his wife are basically a nice couple and they reward them in the end, at which point they skip gaily off never to be seen again, but I don't think we're meant to infer that they were doing all the cobbling in the expectation of reward. There's some back-story there that we're not privy to, I think.

Clearly the reason we're not given the elves' back-story in our Ladybird edition is that the authors and illustrators (whoever they were) were too busy shoehorning in a load of lascivious subtext. Take a look at the shoemaker and his wife.

He's a wizened little goblin of a bloke with a luxuriant white moustache, while she's clearly much younger and a bit on the buxom side. No wonder they're practically reduced to penury - he's got no time, still less inclination, to be spending hours hammering shoe-leather together when he could be upstairs hammering her nubile young flesh.

Even the title of the book is a smutty joke in innocent disguise. The Elves And The Shoemaker? Look at the initials: TEATS. Utter filth.

tanks for the memory

Here's one for the "coincidence?? OR IS IT??!?!!!? yes; yes it is" files - last night while I was cooking dinner I caught the second half of what turned out to be a repeat showing of an episode of Underground Britain on Channel 5. Quite interesting as it included presenter Rob Bell visiting the old Inchindown fuel storage facility near the Cromarty Firth, one of those things that's big enough to be measured in football pitches, as part of the ascending London bus/football pitch/Wales alternative chummy slightly patronising man-in-the-street SI scale of size comparison units.

One of the things that people inevitably do in large enclosed spaces is a bit of the old shouting, just to test out the echo and reverberation properties of the space. In an attempt to apply a bit of a sciencey gloss to this the programme wheeled in Trevor Cox, a physicist specialising in acoustics, who, it turned out, had made use of the space in early 2014 to set a world record for the longest-lasting reverberation. This Herald Scotland article gives a bit more detail, although strangely it does refer to him as "Steven Cox" throughout.

So then this morning I was listening to Radio 4 on the way to work, as I usually do, and Jim al-Khalili's The Life Scientific came on. Jim's guest? None other than Trevor Ruddy Cox, acoustic physics guy and possessor of the world record for longest reverberation. It fair makes you think: maybe there really is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will. Oh all right, no it doesn't.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

regarding Henrik

Among the ludicrous number of records set by the thrilling last round of the Open Championship at Royal Troon today, and Henrik Stenson's victory - lowest aggregate score (264) in major championship history, equal-lowest score in relation to par in major championship history, first Swedish player to win a men's major - the ones that resonate most closely with the particular obsessions of this blog are the two rounds of 63 that bookended the tournament. Not only were they made by the two men (Mickelson and Stenson) who contended for the title, but they illustrated perfectly the two ways in which 63s can be made. Stenson's was the textbook grandstand finish, winnng in style with a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th to become only the second man after Johnny Miller in 1973 (the very first 63 of all) to shoot 63 in the last round of a major to win. Mickelson, on the other hand, had a putt for a 62 which looked to be in all the way until it lipped out at the last moment, something that Johnny Miller, Nick Price and Tiger Woods (and possibly others) can sympathise with.

Stenson's round therefore becomes the seventh of the 29 to deliver a win, while, inevitably, Mickelson's becomes the 22nd that didn't - he becomes the sixth player to shoot one and finish runner-up. This year's Open also becomes the fourth major championship to include two separate rounds of 63, after the 1980 US Open, the 1993 Open and the 1995 USPGA.

Johnny MillerUS Open1973finalWONJohnny Miller
Bruce CramptonUSPGA1975second2ndJack Nicklaus
Mark HayesOpen1977secondtied 9thTom Watson
Jack NicklausUS Open1980firstWONJack Nicklaus
Tom WeiskopfUS Open1980first37thJack Nicklaus
Isao AokiOpen1980thirdtied 12thTom Watson
Raymond FloydUSPGA1982firstWONRaymond Floyd
Gary PlayerUSPGA1984secondtied 2ndLee Trevino
Nick PriceMasters1986third5thJack Nicklaus
Greg NormanOpen1986secondWONGreg Norman
Paul BroadhurstOpen1990thirdtied 12thNick Faldo
Jodie MuddOpen1991finaltied 5thIan Baker-Finch
Nick FaldoOpen1993second2ndGreg Norman
Payne StewartOpen1993final12thGreg Norman
Vijay SinghUSPGA1993second4thPaul Azinger
Michael BradleyUSPGA1995firsttied 54thSteve Elkington
Brad FaxonUSPGA1995final5thSteve Elkington
Greg NormanMasters1996first2ndNick Faldo
Jose Maria OlazabalUSPGA2000thirdtied 4thTiger Woods
Mark O’MearaUSPGA2001secondtied 22ndDavid Toms
Vijay SinghUS Open2003secondtied 20thJim Furyk
Thomas BjornUSPGA2005thirdtied 2ndPhil Mickelson
Tiger WoodsUSPGA2007secondWONTiger Woods
Rory McIlroyOpen2010firsttied 3rdLouis Oosthuizen
Steve Stricker USPGA2011firsttied 12thKeegan Bradley
Jason Dufner USPGA2013secondWONJason Dufner
Hiroshi Iwata USPGA2015secondtied 21stJason Day
Phil MickelsonOpen2016first2ndHenrik Stenson
Henrik StensonOpen2016finalWONHenrik Stenson

No mention of this year's Open will ever be complete without comparing the Mickelson/Stenson duel to the Watson/Nicklaus Duel In The Sun at Turnberry in 1977. I agonised about whether I should list that as the first Open I remember seeing when I was constructing this list, as I have a definite memory of seeing it, and the climactic bit on the 18th green (and Tom Watson's spectacular 1970s check slacks) in particular, as a small boy, but I couldn't say with absolute certainty that it was live, or reasonably near-live. I'm pretty sure it was, and it's not conclusively ruled out by our having been out of the country (as we were for the 1975, 1976 and 1979 Opens), but I decided I couldn't be sure enough to include it, so I went for 1981, which I was sure about, instead. Possible nicknames for this and future head-to-head duels at Open Championships are below, and can be tailored to the prevailing weather conditions as appropriate:
  • the Battle In The Breeze
  • the Fracas In The Fog
  • the Melee In The Mist
  • the Scrap In The Squall
  • the Disagreement In The Drizzle
  • the War In The Warmth

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

things can only get batter

Haven't done a recipe for a while, and those I have done in the last couple of years seem to have been mostly desserts. So here's a ridiculously simple one very much in the vein of the yogurt flatbread one from back in 2013, but if anything even more quick and idiot-proof. I got the original idea from a recipe printed on one of the paper inserts with one of our periodic organic vegetable boxes from Riverford, but plenty of versions are available on the internet, all pretty much the same.


You will need:

Chickpea flour (50g)
Warm water (150ml)
Olive oil (a teaspoon or so)
Salt and pepper

Those quantities will make a generous one-person pancake; scale up as required. Put the water in a bowl, grind the salt and pepper into it, dump the flour in, whisk it about a bit, add the oil (you could add other flavourings at this point if you want, some herbs maybe), whisk some more. Most recipes say to then leave it for a couple of hours, but mine got barely 20 minutes and didn't seem any the worse for that. Heat some olive oil in a pan, pour the batter in, leave it for a couple of minutes and then loosen it up with a spatula. Once it's acquired some colour on the bottom slide it out onto something ovenproof (baking tray, pizza stone, etc., or just leave it in the pan if you've got a posh ovenproof skillet) and stick it in the oven for 10-15 minutes.