Saturday, December 23, 2017

the last book I read

The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Coleman Silk is an ex-professor of classics and former dean of faculty at a New England university. Despite being of retirement age (seventy-one) the "ex" bit was not entirely of his own volition; he resigned a couple of years before the book opens to avoid the fall-out from an accusation of racism following some careless (or entirely blameless, depending on your point of view) use of language during a lecture.

Various things were set in motion by these events: Coleman's wife Iris died (a death caused, in Coleman's mind at least, by the stress of the racism affair), Coleman engaged his friend, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to help write a book repudiating the accusations, and Coleman embarked on a relationship with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who survives by working multiple menial jobs in the local area including some cleaning and janitorial duties at the university.

Even though Coleman has no marital ties, has left the university, and therefore it's not really any of anybody else's business, the relationship ruffles some feathers in the local community. Faunia's ex-husband Lester, a Vietnam vet with a nasty case of PTSD and an associated simmering disdain for the rest of the human race, gets wind of things and is none too pleased. Delphine Roux, Coleman's ex-colleague at the university, takes it upon herself to mount a feminist crusade to rescue Faunia from the filthy patriarchal old scrote who's just out to exploit and demean her.

Coleman cools off on wanting Nathan Zuckerman to be the agent of his literary revenge and decides just to chill out and concentrate on banging Faunia; unfortunately Lester Farley isn't too keen on letting them get on with that unmolested and after a couple of highly-charged encounters at Coleman's house ups the ante somewhat by running Coleman's car off the road into a ditch and killing both of them. It's at Coleman's funeral (through a meeting with Coleman's sister) that Zuckerman makes the shocking discovery that far from being of Jewish descent, as he'd always allowed people to think, Coleman was in fact African-American, and had made the conscious decision after leaving the US Navy as a young man to cut all his real family ties and pass for white, this being the best way for a plausibly pale-skinned black man to get on in post-war America. Zuckerman decides that this would be a much better subject for a book than what Coleman had originally suggested, and decides to call it The Human Stain.

So we're in the realms of revelations of the "and that book was.....THIS ONE that you've just been reading, haha" variety, just as we were with Sweet Tooth and a few others over the lifetime of this blog (a few other examples are linked to from that Sweet Tooth review). Nathan Zuckerman is pretty clearly an authorial alter ego, a means for Roth to effectively insert himself into the story, though not as obviously as in The Plot Against America and various others which feature a central character called Philip Roth.

The central revelations about Coleman's ancestry and the general unfolding of the plot don't happen as linearly as I've described them above; there is a lot of hopping about along the story's timeline and shifting of narrative viewpoint: mostly Zuckerman, but occasionally Faunia, Delphine Roux or Lester Farley. While Faunia's inner motivations are directly relevant to the plot, a load of backstory about Delphine and a couple of interludes describing Lester's outings with his post-Vietnam support group trying to re-integrate him into polite society serve a purpose which isn't ever very clear. Delphine Roux, in particular, seems to exist only as a receptacle for some disproportionate authorial hatred (of, presumably, educated and uppity women, or perhaps just women in general) in a way that's faintly disturbing. Her motivations for doing any of the things she does are entirely unconvincing, and she just seems to be a personification of some notions of "political correctness" that Roth dislikes. Indeed there seems to be a general inclination to rail against the mostly imaginary concept of "political correctness" here, from the idea that Coleman should be held entirely blameless for some intemperate - though unintentional - use of racially-charged language to a more understandable distaste for the prurience and hypocritical puritanism underlying the Clinton impeachment hearings that happen in the background to the story (which is set in 1998).

Seventysomething authors need to be wary of this sort of stuff lest it make them seem like some out-of-date old git; Roth is too clever and writes too well for that charge to stick, but there was an unpalatable undertone of "the world's gone mad" which left a slightly sour taste. A few other quibbles: while it seems that Faunia has been lying about being illiterate, she's not meant to be highly educated, and the same goes for Lester and Coleman's sister Ernestine. Nonetheless they all have lengthy expository passages which seem far too wordy and articulate, almost as if written by a professional novelist who couldn't quite bring himself convincingly down to their level.

Quibbles aside this is powerful stuff; its central themes of identity and how we choose to define ourselves to others are still highly relevant. It's a deeper and more serious book than Portnoy's Complaint, the only other Roth I'd read, though that was one of his early works, published in 1969. The Human Stain won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001, as did Bel Canto and Independence Day. It was made into a film in 2003 featuring a few odd casting decisions: Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk (I'd pictured him as looking more like Alan Arkin) and Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman (much younger than in the book where he's meant to be a rough contemporary of Coleman).

Roth is one of the holy trinity of modern American novelists, along with John Updike and Saul Bellow, both of whom have featured here before, and both of whom are dead (though in both cases the death bit came first). Roth's days on this earth are of course now numbered.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

sage and uncle stuffing and granberry sauce

A couple of examples, as if further proof were necessary, that Electric Halibut surfs the very bleeding edge of the Zeitgeist, protected only by a stout pair of comfortable shoes. It's all about death, but then, isn't everything, ultimately?

Firstly, I heard a bit on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 the other day about an attempt to set up a facility in Sandwell in the West Midlands to do what's now apparently being euphemistically referred to as "liquid cremation" or "water cremation" but is basically the same alkaline hydrolysis process that was referred to here (the people doing it seem to have settled on "resomation" as a nicely incomprehensible brand identity). Given the objections that were raised to the ridiculously benign and environmentally-friendly proposal to use the heat generated by a crematorium to heat a swimming pool (not far away, in Redditch, so maybe this is a West Midlands thing) you can imagine the sort of bullshit complaints that people will have raised here, and sure enough the project has been indefinitely delayed because people didn't like the idea of the harmless liquid residue being flushed down the drain, and thereby indirectly into the drinking water system.

No-one raising this objection could offer any logical reasoning for objecting, just an ill-thought-out "yuck" response and some annoyance at being obliged to think about death, something most people are intensely weird and irrational about. What they imagine happens to all the decomposing liquid goop that drains out of bodies buried in cemeteries I have no idea, let alone all the actual shit that gets flushed down people's toilets every day.

Secondly, anyone considering the standard salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table might want to consider a third cruet option to jazz up their Christmas roasties and sprouts a bit: the cremated ashes of a loved one! That's what Debra Parsons from Folkestone is going to do this year, and why not? Well, I mean, I can think of a few reasons, but maybe that's just me being up-tight and conventional about post-death rituals. And there I was laughing at people who think death can be transmitted into a swimming pool by heat in some way!

Just to be half-serious for a minute, I'm not convinced that either laughing at or uncritically nodding approval of what are clearly some deep-seated and Complex Issues is really serving Debra Parsons' best interests (her mother's best interests are pretty much irrelevant at this stage), but presumably the various newspapers paid her for her time, so I suppose it's all good. I imagine the inevitable gargantuan Boxing Day morning shit will have an extra poignancy to it for her as well. Anyway, the important point, as always, is that I thought of it first! As it happens I do think my method is better - if you must do it on Christmas Day then wash the capsule down with some celebratory bubbly or something, rather than ruin a perfectly good Christmas dinner by sprinkling grit all over it.

Friday, December 15, 2017

elektrischer Heilbutt: jetzt mit farbstoff

One thing I noticed while sitting around in a pair of crusty urine-soaked underpants morosely swigging neat whisky out of the bottle the other day was the small print on the back of my (now empty) bottle of Auchentoshan, in particular some stuff that appeared to be in a foreign language.

If you're struggling to read it, perhaps because you're sitting around in a pool of your own piss swigging whisky out of the bottle and the salty tears of despair and self-loathing are making your vision go all wibbly-wobbly, what it says is:
Mit farbstoff. Farven justeret med karamel.
The first thing that's slightly odd about this is that it's not in English; the second thing that's slightly odd is that it's actually in two different languages. The first bit is in German and just means "with colourant" or "with dye"; the second bit is is Danish and means "colour adjusted with caramel". What both of them signify is that there has been the addition of a quantity of E150a during the bottling process to darken the colour of the whisky.

I was in Tesco a few days later and snapped a few pics of some more bottles that bore the same legend. This is by no means a comprehensive survey, it's just to illustrate how widespread the practice is. From top to bottom these are Ardmore, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Old Pulteney respectively.

The whisky community are a funny and perhaps slightly obsessive bunch, and there is much discourse around the rights and wrongs of artificially colouring whisky. A lot of this stems from the entirely nonsensical idea that whisky is some sort of "natural" artisanal product, water from the crystal-clear distillery stream, peat-fired stills stoked by some Groundskeeper Willie-esque be-kilted lunatic striding in through the mist every morning with a hod of peat on his sinewy shoulder, the resulting spirit lovingly filtered through the unruly ginger pubes and down the milky inner thighs of a laughing freckle-faced Scots lassie while the evocative skirl of bagpipes wheezes wispily from a nearby glen, and finally re-collected and left to mature in a rustic barn, tended lovingly by some infinitely wise bearded custodian until the mystically-divined moment of perfect readiness and then being drunk in chunky tumblers by square-jawed types in Aran sweaters in front of a roaring log fire while munching on shortbread. In fact it's a highly industrialised process and whisky acquires colour and flavour from plenty of places not directly related to its original distillation, most obviously the casks in which it's matured. It's worth also noting that those who claim that they can taste the caramel in the finished product are almost certainly lying or mistaken, unless perhaps you go for one of the comedy "black whisky" products like Loch Dhu or CĂș Dhub, which claim to derive from heavily charred casks, and maybe they do, but you can bet your ass they also have a colossal amount of E150a dumped in as well. And don't get them started on chill-filtration!

I can't honestly say I'm much bothered about it either way; a gazillion other food and drink products have far more noxious colouring and flavouring products in them and they haven't done me any harm, my word no, apart from these terrible headaches and the occasional murderous rages and blackouts. What amuses me about the labelling is the weaselly nature of a clearly English-language product bearing statements in (I assume) only the languages of the two countries which legally require explicit disclosure of these kinds of additive, in (presumably) the hope that most people's eyes (including the subset of people who might care to the point of going and buying something else if it were printed in English) will just skate over it uncomprehendingly. 

I suppose, just to backtrack on that slightly, what may be a concern is if the whisky producers are using caramel colouring to give a false impression of age to the sort of no-age-statement whisky that many are now offering as their entry-level product. The Bowmore shown here is a good example: I have a bottle of this, it's called No. 1 and it's cheaper than the 12-year-old that I tried a while back (and liked very much). But is it as good? Well, to be blunt, no - it's perfectly nice and quaffable but doesn't have the depth that the 12-year-old has. And that's pretty much what you expect from something containing whisky that hasn't matured for nearly as long (a good chunk of it is probably between 5 and 8 years old). Obviously from an economic perspective the younger and rawer the spirit you can foist off on the consumer the better it is for you, long-term storage being an expensive business. Whether it's better for the consumer is another matter. Caveat emptor, though, innit, as they say in Denmark.

Monday, November 13, 2017

break on theroux to the other side

One thing I forgot to mention in the last book review was that Barefoot In The Head is full of allusions to the mystical writings and teachings of GI Gurdjieff and his acolyte and collaborator PD Ouspensky and various associated concepts (kundalini, for instance). None of it makes much sense, to be honest, but that's scarcely surprising since a) precious little of the rest of the book makes any sense anyway and b) the original teachings are a nonsensical mish-mash of stuff stolen from various religions and mixed with a bit of more up-to-date 20th-century self-actualisation bullshit.

One thing I did note on doing a bit of further reading was that Gurdjieff's concept of an enneagram (basically a bit of tosh involving a lot of bullshit numerology) put me in mind of the equally bullshit Scientology concept of an engram, a sub-conscious mental image of a traumatic event from a person's past which needs to be "cleared" before the person can achieve the same terrifying level of insight and mastery as, say, Tom Cruise. I don't think there's actually any etymological crossover between the words, and I have no idea if L. Ron Hubbard was influenced by Gurdjieff, but I wouldn't be surprised, because there are a lot of common themes of self-realisation through force of will and similar hogwash.

A couple of clips from the (still totally compelling and awesome, by the way) Cruise video were featured in Louis Theroux's 2015 documentary about Scientology which I (by chance) caught the other night.
I should say at this point that I'm not the biggest fan of Theroux's wide-eyed faux-naif approach to film-making, nor am I the biggest fan of the Nick Broomfield How I Failed To Make This Film  school of documentaries about thwarted documentary-making (and therefore largely about the documentary-maker rather than his purported subject), generally realised by attempting to get access to a figure or organisation who perfectly obviously was never going to agree to it in the first place.

That said, it turns out that Theroux's shtick is perfectly suited to what he ended up doing, which was wandering about trying to start conversations with the various packs of swivel-eyed numbskulls who were sent out to try and obstruct and disrupt his film, while, paradoxically, ending up providing it with most of its material. The bits where he hung out with Marty Rathbun and various jobbing LA actors trying to recreate scenes of alleged abuse by David Miscavige and others didn't really seem to have a point to them, other than to highlight the absurdity of the Scientology "tech" - basically a lot of shouting at inanimate objects. I mean, I myself shout at inanimate objects quite a lot, especially in the course of my occasional DIY activities, but I haven't tried to turn it into a religion.

A couple of quite interesting Theroux interviews (the first, absurdly, longer than the film itself) about the film are here and here. Note how Theroux is much sharper and less bumbly in real life than in the persona he adopts in the documentaries. Anyway, My Scientology Movie is a lot of fun, but ultimately just a series of episodes of amusing trolling of the religion, rather than a serious attempt to analyse it. If you want that you're probably better advised to watch Going Clear, released earlier the same year.

Going back to Gurdjieff, and sticking with the subject of films for the moment, the single fact about Gurdjieff that I knew in advance was his having possessed an absolutely tremendous moustache. Another absolutely tremendous moustache that's been in the news recently is Kenneth Branagh's monstrous face fungus in the role of Hercule Poirot in the remake of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express.

You'll note that Branagh's 'tache represents a considerable upgrade on the fairly neat and modest effort sported by Albert Finney in the 1974 film, a design emulated fairly closely by David Suchet in the long series of TV adaptations of the Poirot stories. The key consideration in remaking a whodunit, of course, is who dun it, and whether in remaking it you're going to mess with the original story in order to keep your viewers guessing. The answer here seems to be no, or not in any significant way, so if you remember the ending of the earlier film (and who doesn't?) then you're going to know how this ends, broadly speaking.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

the last book I read

Barefoot In The Head by Brian Aldiss.

It's the late 20th century, and there's been a war. So far so standardly post-apocalyptically dystopian, but this war was a bit different from your usual face-melting nuclear holocaust. Dubbed the Acid Head War, it culminated in some unnamed Middle Eastern state releasing bombs over parts of Europe that released aerosolised LSD (or some similar hallucinogen) into the air, thus sending the populations FREAKIN' MENTAL.

No immediate damage to infrastructure and all that stuff, but obviously people's capacity to use it in the designated responsible manner has deteriorated somewhat as they're all wandering around looking at the flashing psychedelic light show in their heads and going AAUUMMMNNNGGGHHH I CAN SEE THROUGH TIME. So there has been a general deterioration in society: rubbish piling up, lots of car wrecks on the roads, general breakdown of the rule of law, that sort of thing.

Into this bizarre world comes Colin Charteris. This is the name he has assumed as he drives up through Western Europe towards Britain, though in fact he is of Serbian origin (and therefore presumably originally called something else). We meet him making a stop-off at Metz; France was neutral during the Acid Head War and therefore escaped being directly targeted, though of course there's nothing in any international peace treaty to stop wafts of mind-bending vapour drifting over the German border or the English channel.

Charteris makes his way into Britain, and almost immediately starts to experience the effects of the gas (and presumably the tainted water supply): in the early stages this manifests itself as some weird time-dilation thing whereby he sees alternative versions of himself peeling away and taking other paths at points where decisions are made. He heads north, with no particular aim or destination in mind, and on the way picks up a rabble of assorted followers who see him as some sort of Messiah, for ill-defined reasons. He makes speeches at various impromptu rallies, as a result of which a larger group decides to head back south into Europe in pursuit of some equally nebulous final destination.

The group heads back through France and Charteris' Messiah status is cemented when his little sports car is destroyed in an accident but he miraculously survives! (It turns out he was travelling in another car at the time.) The group sets up camp and Charteris finds the time to impregnate his on/off girlfriend Angeline before they move on again into Germany and get themselves arrested, the Germans, stereotypically, having retained a bit more of a regard for The Rules even in the general lysergic haze.

The plot isn't really the point here, though, and just as well since it's pretty minimal: Charteris drives in a loopy (in every sense) route around Europe with a motley band of followers to no particular purpose until he winds up in Germany, where, we are invited to infer (though it's left very vague) that he is killed, thus confirming his status as a latter-day Jesus Christ. No, the point is the language in which the book is written: fairly linear at the beginning as we start off in relatively un-psychedelic France, but becoming weirder as the drugs get a grip and eventually ending up as a great fractured mess of puns, allusions, mashed-together words and general nonsense that seems pretty clearly intended to echo other experimental works like Finnegans Wake (which I should point out I have never read beyond the first couple of pages, and almost certainly never will).

The other very clear authorial echo here is of JG Ballard, in general for the post-apocalyptic landscape of decaying gardens and abandoned helipads, but in particular for the stuff about the fragmentation of time, and the odd fetish for car crashes - there's even a section where one of Charteris' disciples re-enacts Charteris' spectacular crash for the purposes of filming it, a scene that is mirrored almost exactly in Ballard's own Crash. I say "echo" but it's important to be clear about the chronology here: Barefoot In The Head was published in 1969, Crash in 1973. That said, much of Crash is an expansion and re-working of some ideas from 1969's The Atrocity Exhibition, so it's unclear who thought of it first or whether any cross-pollination of ideas was involved. The thing that's unique to this book is the interludes featuring fragments of poetry and songs that sit between the chapters. Some of these are no more than a couple of lines but do actually serve to break up the fearsome density of the prose, like a refreshing mouthful of wine between courses.

I've read a few other books by Brian Aldiss, most notably the epic Helliconia trilogy (now apparently available as one colossal 1300-page volume) but also Greybeard and probably a couple of others. All are good, but none of them is anything like this. To be honest, while Barefoot In The Head is a fascinating and brave genre experiment I'm not sure it really works. The best approach is just to luxuriate in the richness and imaginative sweep of the language and try to let the meaning seep in by osmosis - you can be reassured that fuck all actually happens anyway, so if a few passages are impenetrably baffling you probably won't miss anything crucial.

But, as I've said before, a bit of bafflement is good to keep the brain supple. And, moreover, having had this book sitting unread on my shelves for probably 25 years since I picked up a copy for (if the scrawl on the cover is to be believed) the princely sum of 15p it's nice to finally knock it on the head.

It turns out, completely coincidentally, that Aldiss narrowly avoided being another victim of the ongoing Curse Of Electric Halibut, having died on 19th August this year. I think I missed that at the time, so I didn't know he was dead until after I'd started this book. Rest assured that if he had been still alive he would have been on borrowed time anyway once I'd finished it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

featuring songs by Nine Inch Nails and Skrewdriver

I'll tell you what fascinates me about things like the new Nick Knowles album (yes, it's really a thing, it's happening, and there's nothing you can do about it), and it's not, perhaps surprisingly, the prospect of hearing that nice gruff stubbly cheeky DIY chap off the telly reinterpreting some standards in his own inimitable style in the comfort of my own living room.

Here's the thing: record companies aren't mugs, still less charities, and they wouldn't offer Nick Knowles the chance to make a record just because he'd always fancied it; there'll be an eye on the bottom line and the calculation was presumably that there'd be enough people out there who'd go and buy such an offering that it'd be worthwhile expending the (presumably considerable) cost of production, studio time, photography, physical production of CDs etc. etc. But who are the audience, and why are they buying it? One of the things that makes us impeccably progressive liberal types objectively better than you right-wing authoritarians is, after all, an urge to understand the motivations of others, to try and work out what drives people to do things, be it ISIS membership, paedophilia, incest or Morris dancing.

This article about Bradley Walsh (whose debut album Chasing Dreams went gold in 2016) confirms my suspicions; i.e. that it's mainly older people who disproportionately (i.e. compared with younger people) purchase physical CDs rather than streaming or downloading stuff off the internet. That's fine, but even then, you have to ask: what do you gain from having Bradley Walsh singing Fly Me To The Moon, rather than, say, Frank Sinatra? Even if you're not down with the whole Amazon thing and prefer actually going to a shop, Sinatra records are readily available, so why wouldn't you just pick up a compilation or something? Presumably not even the most wide-eyed fan of The Chase would make the claim that Walsh's version is better than Sinatra's, so why would you want it? I'm genuinely not having a pop here, I'm fascinated by how utterly opaque the thought process is to me. Take, I dunno, Victoria Coren as an example: it's well-documented that I like her personally in all sorts of inappropriate ways, and very much enjoy her BBC show Only Connect for its fiendish quizzing qualities. But do I therefore say: I would very much relish the opportunity to hear her attempt some sexy, husky, yet endearingly half-arsed and amateurish covers of the songs of seminal female recording artistes like Carole King, Janis Ian and Nana Mouskouri? No, I do not, and I'm not sure why anyone would imagine that I would.

I should add that I'm not ill-disposed towards cover versions per se, but these celebrity renditions (and the albums are generally almost exclusively cover versions) are not radical free-jazz disembowelments and reconstructions of classic tunes for kazoo orchestra, Tuvan throat singer and Bolivian ear-flute; they're very close retreads of the originals, so as not to frighten the horses. Really what I'm experiencing here is the same bafflement I get when one of the Britain's Got X-Factors throws up a Susan Boyle or a Paul Potts or similar who immediately knocks out an album of "standards" in time for Christmas, because, well, it's that nice lad off the telly, and well, he tries hard, doesn't he? And he's very devoted to his Nan, by all accounts, so that's nice.

But by jiminy it's a lucrative line of business for the record companies. I remember Ian McShane (post-Lovejoy but pre-Deadwood) knocking out an album called From Both Sides Now in the early 1990s, including a cover of the Joni Mitchell song of the same name. That seemed to me a bit of a quirky oddity at the time (though it may not have been, in fact everyone was probably at it; Russ Abbott to name but one) but everyone's at it these days. The most cursory Googling reveals recent album releases from Jason Manford, Alexander Armstrong, the aforementioned Knowles and Walsh, that nice Anton du Beke off the Strictlys, and an album of solo piano material from impressionist Alistair MacGowan. Sadly this one appears to have been played straight, rather than being a series of hilarious comedy caricatures of the playing styles of Alfred Brendel, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladimir Horowitz and others.

Best of all is TV funny man and erstwhile Eastenders star Shane Richie, who clearly takes his music very seriously and would like you to know that his thing is totally different from these half-arsed johnny-come-latelys (KNOOOOWWLES!!! *shakes fist*) who just knock out an album in time for Christmas - although his album is, as it happens, out in time for Christmas. I should point out that the new album's title echoes the title of Trevor Nelson's Radio 2 show which, when I first heard it trailed, appeared to my ear to be called Trevor Nelson's Cunt Rissole, which caused some brief confusion.

But anyway, what I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that I Just Don't Get It. Now there are plenty of wholly admirable mainstream artists with a wholly admirable body of self-composed and self-played material, but whom I nonetheless Just Don't Get in some fundamental way, Bruce Springsteen being one obvious example. But in general those who like Springsteen (and in my experience those who like Springsteen REALLY like Springsteen) at least started with the music, that being primarily what he does. The idea that they would therefore be very interested in, let's say, seeing The Boss present his own daytime DIY-themed TV show (Carpenters On The Edge Of Town or something) seems a bit odd, though I daresay there might be an audience for it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

the last book I read

The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

Fiona Maye is a maverick High Court judge. She doesn't play by the book, but dammit she gets results. No, wait, that's not right: she literally does play by the book, because that's her job.

Let's start again. Fiona Maye is a respected High Court judge. Imagine Ally McBeal after 25 years and some promotions, and without all the comedy nonsense. Although, given her surname and the similarity in ages, I immediately imagined Fiona Maye as looking a bit like Theresa May, although without all the comedy nonsense.

Fiona has a couple of problems. The first is nothing she can't handle: a tricky legal case involving a family of Jehovah's Witnesses and the usual bullshit about blood transfusions - in this case the not-quite-eighteen-year-old son has leukaemia and will almost certainly die without an aggressive chemotherapy regime that will require blood transfusions, and the parents won't permit such abominations because, well, they're nutters. Does she allow that the nearly-but-not-quite-eighteen-year-old is old enough to make his own decisions regarding his own life (and, implicitly, death) or does she override the wishes of the parents and allow the appropriate medical treatment to be given?

Less simple is her own domestic situation; her long and generally happy marriage to Jack has settled into a nice little middle-aged rut. Well actually it's the rutting (or relative lack thereof) that's the problem: Jack is still a man, dammit, and wants to have one last glorious shot at proving there's still some lead in his pencil by having an affair with a younger colleague, and sort of wants Fiona's approval for him to go ahead with the idea and then settle back into domesticity afterwards.

Concentrating on the legal case rather than her disintegrating marriage, Fiona pays a highly irregular visit to the boy, Adam, in his hospital bed, and they bond over a shared love of poetry and music. Fiona delivers her judgment; scarcely surprisingly she decides to allow the hospital to continue the treatment regime in opposition to the parents' wishes. Not long afterwards she receives the first of a series of letters from Adam, telling her how the treatment (seemingly successful) has changed him and how he's broken free of the influence of his parents and abandoned his faith. Some time later, Fiona is at a legal conference in Newcastle when Adam unexpectedly turns up in person, having walked a long way in the rain to see her, and informs her that he's had this great idea about how he should move in with her.

Fiona manages to fend him off, and returns home to the first tentative stirrings of a reconciliation with Jack. Her time is further occupied by rehearsals for an amateur music recital (she plays the piano), and it's after a relatively triumphant performance that she gets some disturbing news: Adam's leukaemia returned a few weeks previously and (now eighteen and able to make his own decisions) he refused all further treatment (blood transfusions and all) and died.

Like McEwan's earlier novel Saturday this one revels in the minutiae of high-status professional types going about their expert business, and, like Saturday, is perhaps a little too keen to demonstrate the depth of research that's been done. Some of the in-depth legal stuff in the early pages of the book, for example, is tremendously effective at convincing the reader that McEwan has done a lot of background reading, but not quite so effective at moving the story along.

There is just a sense of some easy targets being aimed at here - I mean, it's pretty well understood by everyone outside the organisation that the Jehovah's Witnesses' position on blood transfusions is crazy, incoherent and dangerous; we don't really need a heavyweight High Court judge to tell us that. What point, you might ask yourself, was McEwan trying to make by writing The Children Act? Religious fundamentalists are a bit batty? High Court judges have difficult decisions to make involving balancing multiple competing interests? Teenage boys with an obsession with poetry are a bit irritating? All true, but all things most readers will have known before picking the book up. There's just a suspicion that we're meant to draw some conclusions about Fiona's childlessness and the possibility of this having a bearing on her legal decision-making or on the way she conducts her relationship with Adam, but I'm not really sure what conclusions those would be.

I'm probably being unnecessarily harsh, as this is intelligent and humane writing, and less ludicrous in its plot development than, say, Saturday. In terms of plot comparisons to other McEwan novels one can't help but observe the parallels with Adam's obsession with Fiona and Jed's more dangerous obsession with Joe in Enduring Love. I'll just say, as I always do, that there's just a suspicion that McEwan's elevation to the pantheon of Greatest Living Novelists has stifled his output a bit, and that the current self-consciously "serious" stuff isn't as good as the earlier, darker stuff.

The Children Act was adapted pretty much immediately on publication into a film (starring Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye) - I think the point made in this review is a good one, i.e. that it's quite a static novel and probably would have worked better as a stage play.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

gold (GOLD!); never believe what you're sold

We're still in the grip of some pretty brutal austerity measures here at Halibut Towers, so the whisky cupboard is still fairly modestly stocked. There was a time, back in the day, when the corridors of Halibut Towers flowed with whisky and I used to bathe in it and have it on my cornflakes of a morning, but sadly those days are just a glorious hazy sepia-toned memory now.

The current cupboard occupants are two bottles which I acquired around Christmas and, as it happens, hadn't had before. So here they are:

This is an Auchentoshan, which is one of the very few distilleries still operational in the Lowland region - the other major one is Glenkinchie, which I had a go at here. Auchentoshan claims to be the only distillery in Scotland to triple-distill its spirit (though this is quite common in Ireland) - indeed its funky (and annoyingly busy and flashy) website carries the tag-line "DISTILLED DIFFERENT" so they're obviously pushing that hard as their USP. In common with a lot of distilleries, they've moved away from having an age-statement whisky (typically a 10- or 12-year-old) as the entry-level whisky in the range in favour of one with some vaguely-evocative name. So Talisker now have Skye slotted in under the 10-year-old, Glenlivet now have Founder's Reserve under the 12-year-old, and Auchentoshan have this one, called American Oak to reflect the casks it was matured in (i.e. casks that previously held bourbon). This was offered for £20 in (I think) Asda, which seemed too good to miss.

Secondly, Johnnie Walker Gold Label. There is, at least in theory, an upward hierarchy of label colours here that goes Red, Black, Green, Gold, Blue, muddied slightly by all the other special editions and commemorative releases. Obviously that doesn't mean that's the order of everyone's preference, because people are all individuals. Gold Label typically goes for £45-£50 in the supermarket, which is slightly more than I would ever wish to pay for a bottle of whisky (unless it's the size of this one, or indeed possibly this one), but back before Christmas they were knocking it out in Tesco for £30 a pop, so obviously I snapped one up.

Rather sneakily, and with reference to the stuff above about no-age-statement whisky, they've changed the labelling (and presumably also the composition of what's in the bottle) in the past few years (Wikipedia reckons it was in 2013, The Whisky Exchange reckon it was in 2012, take your pick) - its previous incarnation carried an 18-year age statement, which meant that all the whisky used in the blend was at least 18 years old. You can see, economically, why they might want to back off on making this statement, though as far as I know the Black and Green labels retain their respective 12- and 15-year-old branding, which brings the Gold Label's place in the price hierarchy into question (since, needless to say, the loss of the 18-year-old branding hasn't been accompanied by a drop in price). Further enquiries reveal that there is now a Johnnie Walker Platinum Label which does carry an 18-year age statement and slots in price-wise between Gold and Blue. Bewildering, isn't it? Look out for the 21-year-old Johnnie Walker Ytterbium Label in the near future, as well as the ultra-budget Johnnie Walker Yellow Label which is just a mixture of WD40 and horse piss.

In common with all whisky blenders, Johnnie Walker keep the exact composition of their blends a closely-guarded secret, but it is said that Clynelish is one of the primary constituents of Gold Label - that ought to be good news as I liked the bottle of Clynelish I had very much.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin': let's neck some booze. Here are two modest snifters, the one on the left in the Penderyn-branded glass being the Johnnie Walker.

You can see that they're not much different in colour - the Auchentoshan is a bit lighter, which is pretty much what you'd expect from something matured in bourbon casks. These tend to be the lighter, biscuity ones like the Glenmorangie and the Knockando. It's got a definite magic marker smell, the 'Tosh (as I like to call it), as well as something a bit like buttered toast, maybe with just a hint of marmalade. It's surprisingly "hot" for something rated at only the bog-standard 40% ABV, but that may have to do with the age of the whisky (no age statement, remember). Like a lot of bourbon-cask-matured whisky (AnCnoc, to give another example) it's a little bit polite for my taste, but perfectly pleasant. If we're talking Lowland whisky, of the two I've had I'd say I prefer this to the Glenkinchie, but I wouldn't want to swear I could tell them apart in a blind taste test.

The J-Dubz (as I like to call it) is much sweeter-smelling, but also has something a bit deeper and more umami-esque about it, a bit like the Tobermory did. Same thing happens when you drink it, simultaneously creamy and a bit vegetabley. Gratin dauphinoise, perhaps. Again, it's perfectly drinkable and pleasant, and if you want a winner from this particular head-to-head, this would be it. I couldn't say how it compares to the previous 18-year-old incarnation of Gold Label, but what I can say is that I don't think the current one is as good as either the Green Label or the Black Label. The latter remains one of my absolute favourite things, if anyone's struggling for Christmas present ideas.

Friday, September 29, 2017

the last book I read

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.

Binx Bolling is doing all right. Successful in his stockbroking business, nice little house in the New Orleans suburbs, a steady stream of secretaries attached to his business who also double as pieces of ass for him to chase, and all this when he's not quite thirty yet.

On the other hand, he seems afflicted with a sort of malaise that he can't quite put into words. What's life all about? What is all the money-acquisition and secretarial ass-chasing really for? The only things that seem to anchor him to reality are his affection for old movies and his links to the wider Bolling family, a bunch of crusty old New Orleans types, especially his aunt who views him with a particular affection, and his cousin Kate, who seems even more bewildered by day-to-day life than Binx and who is clearly suffering from what would nowadays be described as some sort of bipolar disorder.

Binx drifts around New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras, mooching around at his aunt's house, hanging out at his mother's place on the bayou, persuading his new secretary Sharon to accompany him on a trip out to the coast for a bit of mild hanky-panky (even though she seems to have a fiancé). We learn a bit about Binx's family - his dead brother Duval, his disabled half-brother Lonnie - and Binx's own history, most significantly his military career and involvement in the Korean War, some or all of which may explain his slight detachment from reality.

Reality soon intervenes, though: Kate makes what sounds like - depending whose account you believe - a fairly serious attempt at committing suicide by taking an overdose of whatever tranquilisers she's currently on, and Binx impulsively asks her to marry him and accompany him on a business trip to Chicago. They dash off together, without telling anyone where they're going, and on their return Binx is hauled in for a dressing-down from his aunt, who regretfully informs him he's betrayed her trust in an unforgivable manner by whisking a vulnerable, drug-addled, potentially suicidal young woman away on a jaunt involving drinking and sex and all sorts of cavorting, and basically that he should never darken her door again.

But is that fair? Or is Binx finally starting to grow up, confront his feelings for Kate, and take on the (probably onerous) task of caring for her and keeping her out of trouble? One of the ways in which The Moviegoer is quite clever is that you never know which of those interpretations is correct, or which one the author intended you to take away. Moreover, even though Binx is basically Holden Caulfield a dozen or so years on, he's a bit more self-aware and mindful of other people's feelings and therefore a good bit less intensely punchable. It's hard to imagine Holden Caulfield having the rather sweet relationship that Binx has with his half-brother Lonnie, for example. One of the best things you can say about an essentially plotless novel is that it lingers oddly in the mind after you've finished it; The Moviegoer certainly does that.

This is another book that will regularly crop up on "best novel" lists; for instance it appears on the TIME magazine list that's been mentioned here a few times before. It also was the recipient (in mildly controversial circumstances, and at the expense of some illustrious titles including a previous entry on this list) of the venerable National Book Award in 1962, so you can add that year to the list here.

Monday, September 25, 2017

let there be shite

This (via Pharyngula) is absolutely tremendous: a new film (called, in slightly oh-what-a-giveaway style, Let There Be Light and starring former TV Hercules Kevin Sorbo) featuring an angry (shrill, even) atheist who writes a book purporting to dispose of the God question once and for all, engages in various ranty pseudo-debates with theists during the promotional book tour and is generally mocking and obnoxious towards anyone professing any form of religious belief. Not sure where they got the inspiration for that idea from.

No, wait: it turns out that this guy's son died a while back and in the wake of that he's been (as well as being a hopeless alcoholic and just generally an arsehole) angry with God! Like all atheists, deep down, right? But when he has a midnight joyride around town while swigging from a hip-flask and ranting at Jesus (again, we've all done it) and drives into a brick wall he has an authentic near-death experience (because these are totally and actually a thing) with the white-robed figures and the aaaahhh-ing celestial choirs and his actual dead son and decides, as you would, that God a) exists and b) wants him to give up the sauce, reconcile with his wife (played, conveniently, by the real-life Mrs. Sorbo, so not too much of a stretch) and get out there and evangelise his freakin' ass off.

Kevin Sorbo has some previous in this area, since he also played a shrill and obnoxious atheist in 2014's God's Not Dead (oh what a giveaway, etc. etc.) - a shrill and obnoxious atheist philosophy professor, in this case, who challenges one of his students to argue in class for the existence of God so that he can tear his puny arguments apart for his own amusement but eventually (hold on to your hats) is revealed to be just angry with God about the death of his mother. Unfortunately it turns out atheists are not only terrible careless drivers but also terrible cavalier jay-walking pedestrians and Sorbo's character gets run over. No near-death experience this time, more of an actual-death experience, but not before there's been time for a last-minute conversion to Christianity (via a handy priest who just happened to be passing at the moment of, erm, passing) and therefore presumably also a last-minute avoidance of the burning fires of Hell for all eternity. Basically these are Chick tracts in glossy film form; God's Not Dead in particular seems to be substantially based on Big Daddy?. That one is mild as Chick tracts go; others are considerably more lurid.

The atheist (probably just angry with God, etc. etc.) caving in and converting to religion (or more specifically Christianity given the culture this stuff happens in) is something of a trope in the evangelical community, largely as a reaction to the host of real-life stories of people abandoning their religious beliefs. As I said here I guess we have to accept that there are people who make the journey in this direction, as irrational as it is, but the overwhelming bulk of traffic is going the other way.

I've saved the most delicious snippet until last, though. Let's go back to the more recent film, Let There Be Light, and try to reconstruct the editorial conversation that must have taken place when the writing team were trying to set up some convincing context for Sorbo's faux-atheist rantings. What book title can we come up with that will give our exclusively Christian audience the biggest frisson of thrilling outrage against the unbeliever, and evoke dog-whistlingly as many other traits as possible that that audience also associates with them? Obviously you've got to have the word God in the title, y'know, like The God Delusion, that's a given, so spitball me a few ideas here. Brett? Erm.....Felching God? Mmmm, not sure how that'll play in Peoria, Brett. Remember when they had to change the title of that Bond film because no-one knew what Revoked meant? Maybe keep the vocabulary a bit more mainstream. Chad? about Aborting God?

I imagine an awed silence followed, and then everyone packed up and went home. You have to say that within the bounds of the film's own internal logic it's absolutely brilliant. You should know also that not only is there a God's Not Dead 2, not starring Kevin Sorbo but instead featuring Melissa Joan Hart who has evidently given up the old teenage witchcraft in favour of evangelical Christianity, but that plans are afoot for God's Not Dead 3, in comparison with which being barbecued by the fires of hell for all eternity starts not to seem so bad after all.

Friday, September 22, 2017

headline of the day

I know there's much speculation about the composition of the squad for the upcoming Ashes series in Australia, and England have a few headaches to deal with with regard to batsmen, since they only really have two of their top five sorted out, which is not what you really want at this stage. So it's a bit unhelpful for them to be publicly wishing injuries on potential opening batsmen.

A bit of noun/adjective confusion here, of course, which makes this a classic crash blossom in common with many others noted on this blog (my favourite is this one, though strictly that one is noun/verb confusion).

Friday, September 15, 2017

the headmaster ritual

Last one on this topic, honest. The other thing worthy of mention in the box of old books was this one: Amazon Adventure by Willard Price. The series (of which this was the first, published in 1949) has cropped up tangentially in a couple of earlier posts - back in the day I owned at least a couple of others as well, definitely Underwater Adventure and Whale Adventure but possibly one or two others. In addition to the ones I owned I think I worked my way through reading most of the others, most of them probably from Newbury library. They're pretty good (though Hal in particular is a proper old Mary Sue), and there's lots of good zoological info in there related to the various exotic creatures they capture. These days I get my fascinating creature facts from Octonauts, incidentally.

Lastly, I've found another school prize book on my shelves. My school year was either the last or last-but-one year to take O-Levels (and, for some of the dimwits, CSEs) before the introduction of GCSEs in 1988. It turns out I was the recipient of the school O-Level Chemistry Prize (in what would probably have been 1986), which I think I'm right in saying is second only to the Nobel Prize For Chemistry in terms of prestige.

The book I appear to have chosen is Eyeless In Gaza by Aldous Huxley; my suspicion is that I may have chosen this partly for the small transgressive thrill of having the headmaster hand me a book on stage with an exposed (or, at least, translucently gauzily draped) nipple and arse on the cover. It's a "Gaza strip", hahaha. Oh, please yourselves. Speaking of headmasters, you'll notice that the headmaster's signature is different on this one from the one from three years earlier. Both signatures (the first one in particular) are amusingly illegible, so to clarify the first is that of Basil Cooper (universally known as "Baz" to his pupils) who was headmaster of St. Bart's from 1960 to his retirement in 1985, the second is that of his successor Robert Mermagen, headmaster from 1985 to 1994, and who apparently died in 2004 (I assume Baz is long since demised or he'd be about 200). Some history can be found here - apparently Mermagen's successor Stuart Robinson is still headmaster as of 2017.

the story of my life

Here's part two as promised. Another multi-part book series that I was well into in my formative years was Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, which comprised twenty books, of which I appear to own fourteen.

Wait a minute, you'll be saying, there are sixteen books in that picture. Well, yes, but if you look closely you'll see that Mystery Mine is in there twice. Interestingly (or not) the Armada edition in the middle of the picture is about 25 pages shorter than the older Merlin edition at the bottom. A flick through the first couple of pages of each reveals that some dialogue has been trimmed, presumably to speed up the narrative for late-1970s kids with their Raleigh Choppers and their Sony Walkmans and their short attention spans.

Wait a freakin' minute, though, you'll be saying, we're still one book over. That's because the barely-legible fourth book down is The Master Of Maryknoll, written by Saville but not part of the Lone Pine series. I can't remember much about it except that its missing-parent-accused-of-some-vague-misdemeanour-resolved-in-tearful-reunion-at-the-end story is somewhat reminiscent of The Railway Children.

The Lone Pine books I don't have a copy of are Mystery At Witchend, Saucers Over The Moor, Sea Witch Comes Home, Man With Three Fingers, Strangers At Witchend and Where's My Girl?. Of those I definitely have read Where's My Girl? and I definitely haven't read Mystery At Witchend; I couldn't say for sure either way about the others.

What I'd say about these books 30-odd years later is that they're a bit prissy (though not quite the full Enid Blyton), some of the characters are a bit Mary Sue-esque (David Morton in particular), the younger Morton twins were irritating characters even when I was in my early teens, and that by the end of the series there were just too many Lone Piners to keep track of, and that as a side-effect of that my favourite character, resourceful but taciturn farm boy Tom Ingles, wasn't in them nearly enough.

What they share with the more spooky books in the previous post, though, is a powerful sense of place, most of them being set around the Long Mynd in Shropshire (here's me and Hazel standing on top of it in 2008). The Garners had Alderley Edge and the Coopers had the Thames valley in The Dark Is Rising and north Wales in the later books.

Onward. Here is my collection of Jennings books. You'll notice that I again have one duplicate (or one pair of duplicates, depending how you look at it), since I have two copies of Jennings Follows A Clue, one from 1959 (the hardback) and one from 1974.

Earlier generations would have obsessively hoarded Billy Bunter books in much the same way, and indeed my father has quite an extensive collection, most of which I have read. Despite there being some overlap in the period in which they were written - Charles Hamilton aka Frank Richards died in 1961, and the Jennings books were mostly published between the early 1950s and the early 1970s - the Jennings books feel much more modern. That's partly because that overlap is a bit of a red herring - while Bunter novels were being published into the 1960s, they reflected the attitudes of when the original material was written back between the wars - but also probably reflects the differing outlooks of the respective authors. The Jennings books have much more of a sense of boys being boys, muddy scabby little herberts constantly yammering away between themselves on a variety of topics totally incomprehensible to adults, rather than swanning around in starched collars quoting Latin aphorisms.

All of these school series have their own argot, and while the Bunter books have their share of I say, you fellows, yarooooo and getting a ghastly impot from old Quelchy, the Jennings books feature old Wilkie getting into a frightful bate, teachers having supersonic earsight, much confusion over rhino and occasional trips to see the Archbeako. It's probably only nigel molesworth who has made a similar contribution to the English language.

Books that I didn't find but which I did own and would very much like to find include:
  • My Roald Dahl books, which I'm pretty sure included Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Danny The Champion Of The World and at least one or two others;
  • I Am David by Anne Holm - a tale of escape and adventure which I think I'd always assumed was set during World War II but is actually situated somewhat more vaguely in history than that; it also has a Railway Children-style parental reunion at the end;
  • The Cave by Richard Church - oddly enough there was a copy of this book on the shelves at the cottage we stayed at in Pembrokeshire a couple of months back. While I was tempted to nick it my hand was stayed by the terrifying amount of religious literature surrounding it on the shelves; word would be bound to get back to the Big Man somehow. This book (as the name suggests) features some thrilling underground adventures very similar to the antics in The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, though without the whole being pursued by goblins thing;
  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier - a disturbing story of hijack, kidnap, violence and betrayal, exciting and baffling in equal measure. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

the loft-hatch is rising

Great excitement here at Halibut Towers this week as a trip to the loft to retrieve some supplies for the boy yielded the unexpected bonus of a box of old books I must have liberated from my parents' loft a while back and then consigned to our loft. Obviously this isn't all the books I owned when I was a wee nipper as I was something of a bookworm and that would have been a lot of books, but it's a selection featuring some key authors and was obviously the result of a careful selection process.

Most importantly, in the light of the most recent book review, here's my Alan Garner collection:

You'll be unsurprised to hear that I got straight in there and skim-read The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath over a period of a day or two, and I'm delighted to report that they are as strange and compelling as I remember them from when I first read them at an age I would guess at being somewhere between ten and thirteen. My copy of The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen bears the sticker pictured on the right on its inside cover, the "prize" (awarded by my school, in case that's not clear) taking the form of a book token that could be spent on whatever you liked. I'm pretty sure that I had already read the book long since by this point, probably after getting it out of the library, and that this version was just me acquiring a copy for my own bookshelves.

Anyway, if you require only one Garner this would be it, the incursion of magical forces into a recognisably real world being far more compelling (to me, anyway) than some wholly imagined world peopled with, say, hobbits. As Garner himself says:
If we are in Eldorado, and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it's a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancs, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possible the reader will too.
As well as the supernatural bits, the lengthy section set in the old mines under Alderley Edge where the children and their dwarf companions escape from their pursuers is viscerally thrilling and the bit where they have to crawl head-first into a sump with no knowledge of where (or if) they would emerge into the air still sends a shiver down the spine.

The Moon Of Gomrath is wilder, darker, and probably less good (but still pretty good). The Owl Service is more adult, more opaque and points the way to some of the more demanding later stuff like Red Shift. It's easy for Elidor to get overlooked in this company, but actually I'm pretty sure this was the first Garner I read, so I still have a soft spot for it. It would also have been one of the first "young adult" (rather than "children's") books I ever read, so it sits at a crucial point in my reading life.

It would have been a couple of years later (so at an age of around fourteen or fifteen) that I started reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series; I think that it was The Dark Is Rising that I read first, although it's actually the second book in the series. The first, Over Sea, Under Stone, sits apart from the others in many ways - it was written many years before (published in 1965, with the rest being published between 1973 and 1977) probably (I would guess) without being intended at the time to be the start of a series, and has only one character in common with The Dark Is Rising, and that isn't made explicit anywhere until the two sets of characters are brought together in Greenwitch. This is the shortest of the five books and beyond fulfilling the key function of tying the first two books together it's nowhere near as memorable as either The Dark Is Rising or the last two books in the series, The Grey King and Silver On The Tree, which are where the magic (quite lidderally) really happens.

Again, the real trick here is to introduce a wholly convincing supernatural world that sits alongside and occasionally intersects with one that is recognisably our own mundane day-to-day meat-and-potatoes world. As well as the similarities it's interesting to note the differences between these books and the Weirdstone pair - no non-human creatures like svarts and dwarves here, and the mythology that the series draws on is mainly Arthurian and Celtic (and Welsh in particular) while the Weirdstone books mainly draw from Norse mythology.

Anyway, if you want intelligent books for ten- to fifteen-year-olds with a supernatural edge and plenty of excitement I can't think of anything I'd recommend more highly than all of the above. I did find a few more books in the box which are also worthy of mention, but I might save that for part two as this post is already long enough. So be off with you and get off my lawn with your footballs and your fidget spinners and your Snapchats. Bloody kids.