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.