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.