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.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

the tweet smell of success

A quick blog-related public service announcement: those of you who are paying attention may have noticed the addition of a groovy real-time(ish) Twitter feed in the sidebar, just in case you hadn't had enough of my tedious fucking opinions about stuff and disappointingly puerile sense of humour after dipping into the blog. As with all things blog-related and indeed Twitter-related I did it solely for my own amusement; it's actually pretty easy and reasonably idiot-proof instructions can be found here and here.

why can't he see, he's lumley to me

Here's another one for the file marked: is it a coincidence? Or is it perhaps....Something More? No, it's just a coincidence.

When I dashed off my jokey tag-line at the start of the Milan Kundera book review a few months back, I was dimly aware that I was paraphrasing (in addition to Flash Gordon) something I'd actually read on the back of a book way back in the dim and distant past.
there's this guy, Bernard, and he only has fourteen hours to save the Earth! There's only one problem: HE HASN'T GOT A HEAD.
I thought no more of it until a rambling and wide-ranging conversation with a couple of work colleagues the other day brought forth (can't remember why) the name Brian Lumley, author of various lurid supernatural fantasy novels, mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The series of novels he's most famous for is the Necroscope series, and it occurred to me during the conversation that it was on the back of one of these that I'd seen the blurb that I nicked the parodic version above from (though frankly, as you'll see below, I've toned it down somewhat if anything).

The book in question is the second in the series, titled Necroscope II: Wamphyri! That's not my exclamation mark, it's part of the title. Sadly I can't find a back cover image to go with the front cover one reproduced here, but both that Amazon page and Lumley's own website reproduce the blurb originally printed thereon:

…Thoughts they can express only through Harry Keogh, Necroscope. For that's Harry's talent, and his burden: he reads thoughts of the dead in their graves – and the thoughts of the UNdead!. Except…the undead are thinking things that are totally – unthinkable!


Yulian Bodescu's mother fainted at the tomb of Thibor Ferenczy, vampire. Corrupt from birth, now Yulian feels a strange compulsion: to discover his real father and spread his works abroad. Only Harry Keogh, prisoner of the metaphysical Möbius Continuum, can stop him. Harry's other big problem is this:

Tremendous. I should add that I've never read any of these books, as they always seemed a bit on the pulpy and ludicrous side, and furthermore shading over into the realms of fantasy, something I've always steered clear of. Of course there is at best a fuzzy and ill-defined line between what you might call supernatural horror and fantasy, both of which are predicated on the existence of some sort of supernatural realm in a way that, for instance, science fiction isn't. I was never a big consumer of horror fiction outside of Stephen King (very little of whose output, I would contend, really falls into that category) and the occasional James Herbert anyway.

I should also make clear that to the best of my knowledge Brian Lumley is not in any way related to Joanna Lumley, and is therefore unlikely to be able to, so to speak, shed any light on her anus.

Friday, September 02, 2016

the last book I read

Blood Hunt by Ian Rankin.

Gordon Reeve is a man. A man with a past. A past including Things. Things you don't want to know about. As the back cover blurb says, he is "a professional killer with an anger management problem". So when his brother Jim, an investigative journalist, turns up dead in San Diego and Gordon takes the call as nearest next-of-kin, his ex-SAS instincts are aroused as soon as he turns up out there and finds the local police insisting on a verdict of suicide while being slightly evasive about certain details.

It turns out Jim had been into a story, something to do with the BSE crisis in cattle in (in Britain anyway) the early 1990s, and the received wisdom that it was the rendered remains of sheep, not to mention their own relatives, that calves were being fed that was to blame for the epidemic. Jim was investigating an alternative theory, something to do with organophosphate fertilisers, that led him in quick succession to Co-World Chemicals (manfuacturers of said fertilisers, among other things) and an untimely death.

Gordon retraces some of Jim's investigative steps and soon finds himself coming to the attention of some dubious characters, firstly on his home turf in Scotland and later when he visits Jim's journalist friend Marie Villambard in rural France. Gordon sees the first lot off easily enough, but the second encounter results in a bloodbath, Marie's death, Gordon's being pursued by Interpol and his suspicion that an old acquaintance from his murky past may be about to make a reappearance in his life.

Gordon returns to America and, via some murky SAS-fu involving some more violence and some judicious illegal drug use, manages to extract some information about Co-World Chemicals and their illegal drug research. Having satisfied himself of the reasons for Jim's death, he turns his attention to his old army colleague Jay, his former partner on a doomed mission behind Argentinian lines during the Falklands War. Jay doesn't really care about the ins and outs of CWC's corporate crimes, he just wants to gut Gordon like a fish and piss in his dead eye sockets.

So Gordon decides to make his last stand on his home turf, one of the small islands off the coast of South Uist. Having ambushed Jay and his hired goons there and reduced their numbers, he leads them back to the hills of South Uist where he offs them one by one before a final showdown with Jay.

As you can see from the cover picture above, this was one of a series of books that Ian Rankin published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey; there were three of them published between 1993 and 1995. The purpose of the pseudonym was presumably to differentiate these books from those published under Rankin's own name, which apart from a couple of very early ones are all set in the Rebus universe. There's plenty of precedent for doing this, from Stephen King/Richard Bachman to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine; reasons range from just needing another outlet for unreasonable prolificness to wanting to experiment with other styles and/or genres. As Rankin himself says in this interview:
The Harveys were big, fat airport-type thrillers: you'd buy one for a flight and you'd chuck it away at the other end. But they kind of let me go off the leash a little bit and let me do things that I couldn't do in the Rebus books.
Rankin's own website, and the modern printings of the Jack Harvey books, have reverted to crediting them to Rankin alone now, which is the convention I've adhered to above. I've only ever read a couple of Rebus novels: certainly Black And Blue, and possibly one or two others. They're pretty good, and Rebus is an engaging character despite occupying a similar niche to Kurt Wallander, Aurelio Zen, Ze Coelho and Harry Hole and various other maverick cops who don't play by the rules but (dammit) get results. Blood Hunt is more in the orthodox thriller genre than any of those, and suffers a bit from an adherence to standard thriller cliché, not least in the Didn't You Kill My Brother thing that kicks off the plot, just as in, say, Get Carter. The basic plot MacGuffin involving the BSE/organophosphate thing sort of dwindles off into irrelevance after the halfway point as well, aside from the wholly implausible episode where Gordon doses up a couple of key people with burundanga and extracts video confessions. The climactic section is really just Gordon and Jay trying to kill each other with no reference to any of the main plot, just their shared Falklands experience a dozen or so years previously.

So it's all good fun, and very entertaining, but fairly cliché-ridden, and no amount of arch quirky touches like having Gordon Reeve's cat be called Bakunin or Marie Villambard's dog be called Foucault is going to change that. If you want Rankins then I'd suggest sticking to the main Rebus stuff; if you want an intelligent and brutally gripping non-supernatural thriller then I still can't think of anything I'd recommend more highly than Tim Willocks' Green River Rising.