Sunday, December 30, 2018

the last book I read

Earthlight by Arthur C Clarke.

It's two hundred or so years in the future and Earth is getting a bit crowded and, in any case, living on the same old planet where your species originally evolved from small single-celled organisms is sooo last millennium, don't you think? So we had this amazing idea of knocking through to next door! We had the surveyors in and it turns out it's not a supporting orbit, so we moved some of the heavy telescopes into the Moon first and then moved across ourselves a few months later. I mean, it's a bit quiet, and there's not much atmosphere, if you see what I mean, but it's home, isn't it?

We'll come back to the atmosphere later. Actually in this particular imagined future Man has moved out well beyond the Moon, to Mars and some of the moons of the outer gas giants. The organisation that unites these far-flung outposts is called The Federation, a name that will be familiar to viewers of Star Trek and Blakes 7, among others, though their jurisdictions encompassed some considerably more exotic and far-flung places. They are unable to cut their ties to Earth and do the whole to-infinity-and-beyond bit, though, as much as they might like to, because they are reliant on Earth and its unique geology to get hold of certain raw materials that they need. Earth-dwellers, are in turn, simultaneously a bit scornful of these hoity-toity spacefarers, and probably a bit jealous as well, and are a bit grumpy about sharing. So there is a state of uneasy tension, and while there hasn't been a war for a couple of hundred years everyone's taken the precaution of having some continent-melting laser rayguns and the like stashed away just in case.

Into this charged situation comes a man called Sadler, visiting the Moon from Earth ostensibly on a tedious and mundane accountancy audit but actually on a TOP SECRET mission to try to root out a spy who has been sending classified information to The Federation, particularly about the TOP SECRET spacecraft landings and exploratory mining activity happening in the Mare Imbrium, just over the horizon from the main observatory which houses almost all of the Moon's permanent inhabitants.

Sadler interviews most of the major potential suspects, including the observatory's Director, Professor Maclaurin, but beyond categorising his interviewees by how likely he thinks they are to be a mole he doesn't get very far in terms of collecting hard evidence. Meanwhile two astronomers from the observatory have taken a jaunt in a roving vehicle on their day off and have discovered the mysterious dome in the Mare Imbrium, and had their collars felt by its security people into the bargain, so word is all over the observatory. Since they now know of its existence the same two guys get tasked with a vital mission: transport an Earth scientist out to the dome so that he can help implement a new weapon system in time for the attack which is expected to be imminent.

And sure enough no sooner has the boffin been successfully delivered than some giant ships materialise, hanging in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't, and swiftly getting into raining down some serious intergalactic death ray action on the dome, turning most of the surrounding terrain into a lake of boiling lava. The dome remains unscathed, though, at least for the moment, and eventually unleashes its own secret weapon, an electromagnetically-propelled jet of metal plasma which can cut a spaceship in half like a knife through butter. Unfortunately one of the crippled halves of the spaceship falls to earth (well, moon) on top of the dome, destroying it and killing everyone inside, but by this time the battle is won and the Federation ships are in retreat. Hurrah! Lest there be any hard feelings, one of the Earth ships helps to effect a daring rescue of the crew of a crippled Federation warship just before its central reactor explodes, tearful vows are exchanged never to fight again, and peace and serenity reign. There is an epilogue many years later wherein Sadler returns to the now much-expanded Moon settlement to reveal the identity of the mole, but it turns out he did it for well-intentioned reasons and it all turned out OK, so, hey, no biggie.

I was a fairly voracious consumer of science fiction back in the 1980s but this is, as it happens, the first Arthur C Clarke book I've ever read. My guys back in the day were Asimov and Heinlein, with a few excursions into the weirder stuff like Brian Aldiss and more modern fare like Greg Bear's Eon, which borrows a few of its major themes from Clarke's 1973 novel Rendezvous With Rama. What I can tell you on the basis of this one (first published in this form in 1955, though it's an expanded version of an original story published a few years earlier) is that Clarke is very good on the science bits and the interesting ideas, less good on the portraying of actual characters who appear to be normal functioning human beings. The structure of the novel is also, basically: a) everyone talks about how there's probably going to be a war, b) there briefly is one, c) it ends, with the first section occupying the first 120 pages of a 158-page novel.

I would describe it as a fairly minor science fiction novel, for all that there are some interesting ideas, not least the metal-plasma doomsday device (which inspired an actual project called, rather splendidly, MAHEM). One of the ways in which this is interesting is as an historical artifact, since it was written 14 years before man first set foot on the Moon, and proposes some things which we now know to be wrong, like the Moon having a wispy atmosphere that can support some primitive indigenous plant life. But it's good fun, fairly brief, and I've had it on the shelf for something in excess of twenty years, so it's nice to finally get round to it. Clarke himself is of course most famous for his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey and for presenting some readily-satirisable TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s.

Friday, December 21, 2018

the last book I read

A Landing On The Sun by Michael Frayn.

Jessel (no, not that one) is a mid-ranking civil servant in some anonymous government department in Whitehall, dutifully producing and reviewing various reports requested by mysterious superiors and then carefully filed and never read by anyone. One day a slightly more interesting piece of work lands on his desk: review the circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, one of Jessel's predecessors in a similar job, who fell to his death from the roof of a government building 15 years earlier (which according the the novel's internal timeline would have been in 1974, in the early days of the second Wilson government).

There's been a cursory report on the incident on file for a while, but it's been rumoured that a television company are sniffing sound for some material for a documentary and might find the incident to be of interest, so Jessel is tasked with having another look and making sure there are no skeletons lurking in the closet. Jessel has some personal interest in the case because he vaguely knew Summerchild through being in an orchestra with his daughter Millie while they were both at school, though Summerchild's death scuppered any fledgling romance.

The first thing Jessel discovers is that Summerchild had been involved with the start-up of some ill-defined government Strategy Unit, part of whose initiation had involved the hiring of an Oxford professor of philosophy, Elizabeth Serafin, and the locating of the Unit (basically just Summerchild and Serafin) in a little-used attic room in a secluded corner of some government building. Jessel finds his way up to the attic and finds it little-changed since the Unit used it, and various boxes of documents lying around which he starts to sift through. Some of these documents turn out to be transcripts of discussions between Summerchild and Serafin which were originally recorded on cassette tapes; it also transpires that after the Unit's transcriber, Mrs. Padmore, resigned, further conversations were taped but never transcribed. Jessel finds these tapes in a cupboard in the kitchen next to the attic room and starts the lengthy job of listening to them.

And a rum experience it is too. The early exchanges are mainly about defining the Unit's terms of reference, which are very vague and have something to do with Quality Of Life, which Serafin takes to mean that part of their job is defining what that phrase means, and by implication (since the two concepts seem to overlap) what "happiness" means. Inevitably discussions around this subject start to pull in details from the two protagonists' personal lives: Summerchild is apparently happily married with a teenage daughter (Millie), Serafin is married to a famous philosopher and has two older sons but we are invited to infer that the marriage is no longer a very happy one, and further to infer that this is because of his repeated infidelities.

To Jessel's further appalled fascination, the conversations captured on the tapes go on to reveal that Summerchild and Serafin were conducting a clandestine love affair in their little attic hidey-hole, to the extent of basically moving in together. They'd brought cooking equipment in, an airbed, and had even taken to climbing out of the skylight in the kitchen to sunbathe on the roof.

But even poorly-defined projects have targets and people whose job it is to monitor them, and eventually the hands-off approach that had been taken to the Strategy Unit is put aside and management types come calling to check on progress. Finding Summerchild and Serafin ensconced in domestic bliss rustling up lunch in the kitchen with the airbed propped up against the wall prompts something of a review of the project's aims and viability, and when Summerchild next arrives he finds that the locks on the attic room have been changed. He's able to get into the room via some hair-raising manoeuvres round the outside of the building, but then finds that the phone has been cut off as well, so he can't contact Serafin to tell her. Escaping up through the skylight onto the roof, he attempts to find another way down, and, Jessel concludes, accidentally falls to his death while trying to scale a wall of the old Admiralty buildings.

There are a couple of things that we have to remember here: firstly that all that we're learning about the Summerchild/Serafin relationship and everything that went on up in the attic room is derived from Jessel's listening to the tapes, and a lot of the time he's trying to work out what's going on from various obscure distant banging noises. So there's a possibility that he's completely misinterpreted things and has constructed a whole fantasy world from some half-heard sounds on a tape; we are invited to assume that Jessel has it about right, though, and we don't get the sort of rug-pull that we get at the end of The Conversation which throws everything that has gone before into doubt. But the possibility remains. Secondly, it would have been fairly straightforward for Jessel, on the wholly justified pretext of government business, to have gone to see Serafin, still alive and living in Oxford, and talked to her about the whole affair, but he doesn't.

Frayn has lots of fun with the early business of the Strategy Unit as Serafin leads Summerchild through some philosophical discussions about happiness - some of this reminded me a bit of the sort of stuff you get in David Lodge's books (like, for instance, Thinks...). We never really get any feeling for why the two main protagonists fall hopelessly in love with each other, or exactly how they conduct their relationship under the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. If they're humping on the desk then either Jessel is too polite to mention it or they've turned off the tape recorder.

This is a lighter and less serious book than the other Frayn on this list, Spies, for all that it ends with the death of one of the principal characters. It doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the start, and once you think you've got into the rhythm of it it doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the end either. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, and while I didn't think it was as good as either Spies or Headlong, the only other Frayn I've read, I still enjoyed it very much.

A Landing On The Sun was made into a BBC Screen Two drama in 1994 (Frayn himself wrote the screenplay), starring Robert Glenister (who I have LITERALLY MET in real life, albeit briefly) as Jessel and Roger Allam (best known to those with small children as the narrator of Sarah And Duck) as Summerchild. No clips of this appear to exist on YouTube, although I did find what appears to be a complete Screen Two adaptation of an earlier entry on this list, The Children Of Dynmouth.

The book also won the short-lived Sunday Express Book Of The Year prize in 1991. I have read all but two of these (the entries for 1989 and 1992) and two of the winners have also previously featured on this blog: The Colour Of Blood and Age Of Iron.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

the last book I read

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

It's all ill wind, as they say, that blows nobody any good. Disasters in foreign countries, volcanic ash grounding flights, fewer people going abroad, more people taking staycations, more money for the domestic tourism industry. Everyone in the world going blind simultaneously after unusual meteor shower activity, good news for homicidal ambulant rhubarb.

Even the seemingly no-upside occurrence of a packed school bus crashing through a guardrail and careering down a slope into a watery pit causing the deaths of fourteen children, all from a small close-knit nearby town, presents opportunities for some, specifically lawyers hoping to get together a class action suit and sue someone's ass in a mutually lucrative manner.

So here is Mitchell Stephens, one of the group of lawyers who have appeared in the chilly upstate New York town involved in the tragedy. Stephens tells himself that he is different from the others, though, as he is motivated by a higher purpose: not just the money, though that provides some comfort, but also the public and financially painful punishment of those who are deemed to have failed in their responsibilities to keep people safe. So, in a very real sense, there is a moral obligation to bring legal action in the wake of these tragedies, in order to modify people's behaviour so that future tragedies can be avoided.

At least, this is what Stephens tells himself, and us, in the section of the book which is presented in his voice. But is he being honest with himself, with his potential clients, and with us? The same questions can be asked of the other people whose voices we hear in the book, in particular bus driver Dolores Driscoll and local man and Vietnam veteran Billy Ansel, who are the only people who could give a conclusive answer to how fast the bus was going - Dolores because she was driving it, and Billy because he was following behind in his pickup as he often did, waving to his two kids on the back seat of the bus. No-one wants to blame Dolores - the locals because she is a respected member of the local community, Mitchell Stephens because she hasn't got any money and would be a dead-end in terms of securing a substantial payout. Billy, whose wife died of cancer a while back, has also been knocking off local motel-owner Risa Walker for some time without her husband's knowledge, so he is at least on some level capable of deceit.

The real spanner in the works, though, comes from an unexpected source: Nichole Burnell, who survived the crash but at the cost of being paralysed from the waist down. Mitchell Stephens wants Nichole to testify at the hearing, because she is a real survivor of the crash (unlike all those dead kids who can't speak for themselves) and as a pretty former cheerleader now confined to a wheelchair will present a tragic figure and hopefully jack up the amount of damages that can be won. Nichole is conflicted about all this, for a number of reasons: she doesn't want to lie to the hearing about anything, she is troubled by her being of more value to the lawyers and her family half-paralysed than when she was healthy and, most importantly she can see a way of revenging herself on her father, who has been sexually abusing her for many years.

So Nichole cooks up a story about Dolores Driscoll exceeding the speed limit before the crash, which pretty much torpedoes any chance the lawyers have of making any money out of the case. That's all very cute, of course, and it gets the case thrown out, thus exacting Nichole's revenge on her father, but of course it effectively puts the blame on Dolores for the deaths of fourteen kids, something everyone, not least Nichole and Dolores, will have to live with.

Here is, in some ways, an answer to the question of why people read "literary" fiction, inasmuch as that is a thing that has any meaning. Plot-wise the actual key event is over before the novel's timeline even starts, and is only referred to in flashback, and even then not in any great detail. It's a novel all about people's emotional reaction to the almost unimaginable tragedy of losing a child (multiple children, in some cases), and the train of perfectly natural reactions which follow which only serve to make the general situation worse. That is the thing good fiction does: make you nod in recognition that yes, this is how people act, and also make you sit back and say, well, yes, I hadn't quite looked at it like that before.

I'm very suspicious of statements about how you can only really appreciate certain things once you become a parent, as if it's literally impossible to imagine that you might be devastated at the death of your own child without having a specific child to imagine being devastated about. On the other hand I suppose it does just give a specific focus if you're able to attach an actual face to the child in the back of the bus disappearing off a ravine into the cold murky water, never to return.

Just like Marathon Man, The Sweet Hereafter is most famous for its film adaptation, featuring Ian Holm in the lead role of Mitchell Stephens and the recipient of many awards. Mitchell Stephens is specifically depicted as a tall skinny man and so it's interesting to note that the actor originally lined up to play him was Donald Sutherland, much closer to his physical depiction in the book. I have seen the film, though, a long time ago, and as I recall Ian Holm does a pretty good job.

The novel was based on some true-life events; for once their fictional depiction actually seems less shocking and lurid than the events themselves.

Monday, November 26, 2018

the last book I read

Marathon Man by William Goldman.

Thomas "Babe" Levy is a history student at Columbia University and an aspiring marathon runner, with dreams of emulating his running heroes Paavo Nurmi and Abebe Bikila. Babe's father was a Jewish professor brought down by being suspected of communist sympathies during the McCarthy era, and who eventually killed himself, and Babe's studies are building towards the dissertation which he hopes will clear his father's name.

Babe has an elder brother, Doc. A more assertive character, Doc is a high-ranking executive in the oil industry and drops in on Babe's New York apartment occasionally to keep a benign eye on his little brother. At least, this is what Babe thinks Doc does for a living; the truth is somewhat more exotic and dangerous, as we'll see.

Meanwhile, murky things are afoot. After an elderly German called Kaspar Szell (though this is not the name he went by publicly) dies in a car accident in Manhattan, his son, Christian Szell, leaves his hideaway in Paraguay and travels to New York. This is a high-risk activity for Szell, since he is a high-profile Nazi war criminal and a former associate of the notorious Josef Mengele, and there are quite a number of people who might like to Have A Word if he ever popped his head over the parapet. But sometimes risks need to be taken, and this is one of those times; Szell senior had been the custodian of a large stash of diamonds Szell junior had stolen or extorted (in exchange, presumably, for more merciful treatment) from prisoners in Auschwitz, and occasionally sold off a few to realise some cash for his son. Now that this arrangement is defunct, Szell wants to come and collect the diamonds so that he can handle these matters himself. He can't really delegate the task to anyone else, as much as he might like to, as the diamonds are held in a safety deposit box at a bank and it has to be a family member who acts as a proxy.

The problem is that the various middle-men you have to associate with to facilitate this sort of international money-laundering are inherently untrustworthy, even when, as here, some of them work for murky branches of the US government. Szell's associate with the codename Scylla, for instance, works for The Division, some murky plausibly-deniable adjunct of the CIA. On arrival in New York Szell arranges a meeting with Scylla in a secluded spot by the banks of the Hudson and, unable to satisfy himself of Scylla's trustworthiness, guts him like a fish with a retractable blade that he keeps up his sleeve for exactly this sort of occasion. But was Scylla the only threat to Szell's safety? Did he have any associates? Was there a contingency plan already in place in the event of Scylla's demise? It's an occupational hazard to men like him, after all. It turns out, though, that Scylla is Only Mostly Dead, and drags himself off to an unknown destination.

Meanwhile, across town, Babe is at his apartment when he hears the door open and his brother Doc appears, bloodstained and clutching his stomach, and collapses and dies in Babe's arms. Babe is, as you might expect, a bit taken aback by this, and taken still further aback when some serious-looking men in dark suits and crew-cuts turn up and explain that Doc was a government operative, codename Scylla, and moreover that whoever did this to him is likely to come after Babe once they discover that Doc/Scylla made it to Babe's apartment before dying.

Sure enough Babe, who has agreed to remain in his apartment while the government guys monitor it (not very well, it turns out), finds himself abducted by some burly types, taken to an abandoned warehouse and strapped to a chair while a disturbingly softly-spoken German unrolls a bag of dentist's tools. Szell knows what a tough and determined character Doc was and suspects that he imparted some information to Babe before he died. But how to be sure? Perhaps a bit of the old unanaesthetised impromptu dentistry will persuade Babe to cough up the details. You never know what will happen when you monkey around with the body's periodontal atrium, after all.

After much drilling and probing Szell concludes that Doc didn't say anything useful, and hands a bleary Babe over to his henchmen to dispose of discreetly. If we know anything about henchmen, though, it's that they are idiots, and Babe manages to clear his head and ignore his throbbing teeth for long enough to make a run for it, and use his marathon training to outpace and outlast his pursuers.

Meanwhile Szell has decided that to hell with the risk, he wants those diamonds, and takes himself off to the jewellery district to get some valuations before going to the bank to collect the stash. But - the irony! - the jewellery quarter is heavily populated by elderly Jews and a couple of them recognise Szell from Auschwitz. Szell extricates himself from an awkward encounter with some further slashy blade-work and decides to just head straight for the bank. He collects the diamonds, but before he can make good his escape he is confronted by Babe, who takes him off at gunpoint to a secluded spot in Central Park for a final confrontation.

When I purchased this book (on one of my occasional trips to Hay-On-Wye, I think, probably at least 15 years ago) I assumed it was a novelisation of the famous 1976 film. Not so, as it happens: the novel was published in 1974 and almost immediately snapped up for filming (Goldman also wrote the screenplay). It's just about a perfect book for filming: fast-moving, not much time wasted on characterisation or internal monologues or lengthy scene-setting, and consequently very little was changed for the film. The only major differences that spring to mind are that the film has the two Szells being brothers, presumably because it would have been implausible for the minor Szell character to be Laurence Olivier's father (Olivier was 69 when the film came out), and the ending is different, presumably to provide something a bit more dramatic than the book's downbeat ending, though the same characters live and die each time.

The film's most famous scene, featuring Olivier's repeated "is it safe?" is lifted faithfully from the book, and pretty much hits the jackpot for movie villainy: not only is the guy a Nazi, he's also a dentist! I haven't seen the film for many years and I think certain scenes may have got mixed up in my memory with scenes from The Boys From Brazil, which also featured Nazis, Paraguay, Josef Mengele (though much more centrally) and Laurence Olivier (though in the role of a Nazi-hunter).

Anyway, back to the book: it's brutally effective, has no pretensions to be anything other than thrilling, which it undoubtedly is, and doesn't outstay its welcome at around 230 pages. It finally made its way to the top of the "to read" pile after I noticed William Goldman's obituary a few weeks ago.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

blowing smoke up your aerse

In a sad echo of the fate of many polar explorers throughout history, the Shackleton has failed to survive the winter - or, to be strictly accurate, failed even to survive the autumn, since by most people's reckoning winter doesn't start until December 1st at the earliest. I don't want to get into an argument about it, but there it is.

Aerstone is, like the Shackleton, a fairly new thing. Unlike the Shackleton, though, this is a single malt rather than a blended malt. It's produced by Grant's, a major player in the blended whisky market but also as owners of Glenfiddich responsible for the biggest-selling single malt whisky in the world and also, arguably, through their marketing decision to push Glenfiddich single malt whisky as a premium product in the 1960s and 1970s, largely responsible for the single malt boom which has followed. Note that this particular Grant family are, as far as I know, unrelated to the Grant family who founded the Glen Grant distillery.

It's not completely clear from the website, for reasons we'll come to in a moment, but all the available evidence suggests this is distilled in Grant's own distillery in Girvan, where they make a lot of grain whisky for their blends, but also the Ailsa Bay single malt. It comes in two versions - the one I've got here is called Land Cask and there is one called Sea Cask. Supposedly Land Cask is smoky whereas Sea Cask is less so and benefits from being matured in warehouses in close proximity to the sea.

As with the Shackleton you can get more than a whiff of high-concept marketing bollocks here. The claim being made for Aerstone is that the simple binary choice available "simplifies" the whisky experience in some way. And maybe it does for the average punter who just wants something nice for the cupboard in case someone comes round and wants a glass of whisky. My requirements are not complex either, mind you: I just want a clear statement of where the whisky that's in the bottle was distilled, what sort of casks it's been in, how old it is and some sort of guidance as to flavour, most importantly the sort of peat/smoke content involved. The problem here can be illustrated by these two articles from the same well-established whisky website, one claiming that the Aerstone whiskies are "both sourced from unspecified distilleries" and the other claiming that "both expressions are distilled at the Ailsa Bay distillery in Ayrshire". The second is correct, I think, but the wider points made in the second article are valid, principally that this doesn't really simplify things and may in fact do the opposite. Of course it's important to remember that the bottom line here isn't simplification, it's sales.

As regards the flavour claims made for the two whiskies, I'm very sceptical of claims made that whisky matured in warehouses near the sea acquires some sort of salty tang off the sea air. I'm really not sure that I see how this would work. It's a claim often made for Old Pulteney, for instance, which is perfectly lovely whisky, but while I note that I did use the word "salty" when I tried it I'm far from convinced that a) that had anything to do with the location of the cask storage facility or b) I could identify it as definitively more "salty" than any other random whisky in a blind taste test. The linked article above also makes the good point that for seasoned whisky-buyers having the one labelled "Sea Cask" be the non-smoky one is a bit counter-intuitive, most smoky whisky being the product of coastal or island distilleries (most famously those on Islay).

But, at the end of the day, Brian, it's just some pleasantly tangy brown liquid that you drink and either like the taste of or don't. Moreover, both Aerstones are currently on offer for £20 at Tesco, a full tenner off the price quoted in this "ten best single malts" article.

It'd be a pretty poor show if a whisky marketed as simple and straightforward didn't do what it said on the tin, and this is indeed quite smoky. Nearest points of comparison are probably the Ardmore and the Islay Glen Marnoch. It's less fishy and vegetably than the Ledaig, less rich and sweet than the Lagavulin, and less beefy than the Bowmore. Thoroughly nice and quaffable, though, and any reservations I may have about it are purely based on my impatience with marketing bullshit rather than the taste.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

the last book I read

The Go-Between by LP Hartley.

No, it's the old stripy orange Penguin version. Yes, that's right, went for three-and-a-half bob back in the day. Line drawing on the front, yes. You do? Oh, that's wonderful. And the name? Yes, it's LP Hartley.

Good old Electric Halibut. Not just here for the nasty things in life, like Brexit or murder, but also lame jokes based on 1980s Yellow Pages adverts. Though I can't say that the surname coincidence my joke turns on is as funny as this scurrilous re-voiced version. I will just mention in passing also that JR Hartley appears to be committing the cardinal sin that most people on TV and film commit, which is hanging up the phone without saying goodbye. How rude.

Now no-one likes a good laugh more than I do, except perhaps my wife, and some of her friends, but none of this tomfoolery actually gets us to the content of the book, so let's knuckle down and focus.

So. Leo Colston is a man in probably his mid-sixties, single and mildly disappointed with life, rummaging (in the novel's nominal "now", which would be the early 1950s) through an attic full of old stuff from his childhood and finding a diary whose origin and purpose is at first a mystery. It's only when he finds that he can operate the combination lock by touch and almost without thinking that some long-suppressed memories come roaring back and we're ready to drop out of this obvious framing device, have the screen go all wibbly-wobbly for a few seconds and to be landed in the actual story.

The actual story takes place in the summer of 1900 when Leo is approaching his thirteenth birthday. He's been required, as many middle-class boys would have been, to endure the hell of boarding school with all its strict hierarchies, unwritten rules, bullying and all the other petty atrocities that small boys inflict on each other every day. But the summer holidays are approaching and Leo has been invited to spend a good chunk of them at the house of Marcus Maudsley, a boy he is friendly with at school. This "house" turns out to be Brandham Hall in Norfolk, a proper country house with the columns and the servants and the grounds and the various exciting outbuildings.

So it's immediately obvious that Marcus' family are considerably higher on the class scale than Leo's. They're nice enough people, but intimidating in that way that terribly posh people are, since there are various unspoken rituals and rules of etiquette that us proles are unaware of: how to dress for dinner, which order to use the forks in, no shitting on the carpets, that sort of thing. Mrs. Maudsley is kind but slightly fierce and Mr. Maudsley doesn't say much but is aloof and mysterious in a stereotypical Victorian Dad kind of way.

Obviously Marcus is slightly more human, and he and Leo have various adventures inside and outside the house while exchanging some slightly Jennings & Darbishire-esque banter. But then Marcus is struck down with measles, leaving Leo rattling around the house at a bit of a loose end. He is partly taken under the wing of Marcus' elder sister Marian, who is old enough to be intoxicatingly adult and mysterious but not old enough to be intimidatingly adult and mysterious, and on whom Leo develops a bit of a crush.

He still has plenty of free time, though, and spends some of it exploring the surrounding grounds, including those parts maintained by tenant farmer Ted Burgess. After Ted catches Leo sliding down a haystack on the farm, and tends to the knee he wounded in the descent, they strike up a conversation about the folks back at the big house, and Ted entrusts Leo with a secret mission: deliver a letter to Miss Marian.

So you can see what's happening here, I'm sure. These days this sort of thing would be a lot simpler - it's not just that communications technology has moved on, so that Ted could just WhatsApp Marian some dick pics if he chose to, it's more that the class barriers that made a relationship between a farmer and the daughter of a posh family impossible no longer exist. Impossibility schmimpossibility, though, as far as Marian is concerned, and when Leo's mission is accomplished and Marian has her letter she decides that Leo will be the postman who can occupy himself taking a series of letters back and forth without anyone else in the house knowing about it; doubly important because the local squire, Lord Trimingham, has his eye on Marian and an engagement is rumoured to be in the offing.

The exchange of letters (and we are invited to assume, actual meetings facilitated and scheduled by the letters) continues for the next few weeks, as does a spell of exceptionally hot weather (July 1900 really was exceptionally hot). There is a nobs v. village folk cricket match in the grounds of the big house where various charged glances are exchanged between Marian and Ted, and where it's clear that Marian is impressed by Ted's repeated smiting of the ball with his large bit of wood, and wouldn't mind getting her googlies entangled with his middle stump, not to mention stroked expertly through the covers etc. etc., and wherein Leo also makes a bit of a name for himself by taking a spectacular catch to dismiss Ted and win the match for the nobs.

But like all That Last Golden Summer stories, it can't last, and it all goes to shit in the end. Marcus recovers from the measles, which constrains Leo's free time somewhat, and Marian and Lord Trimingham announce their engagement. Leo assumes that will spell the end of Marian's desire to pass notes to Ted, and experiences some pangs of conscience when it becomes apparent that this isn't the case.

Things finally come to a head on Leo's thirteenth birthday: Marian's luck finally runs out as she is rumbled in the act of trying to give Leo a letter, she cooks up some nonsense story about visiting Granny as a cover, the weather finally breaks and it starts to rain (WOOP WOOP METAPHOR ALERT) and Mrs. Maudsley, who is clearly not an idiot, drags Leo off to take her to the outbuildings where they interrupt Ted giving Marian a practical farming tutorial, in particular a demonstration of some vigorous ploughing.

Everyone reacts in quintessential British style, once Marian has got her knickers back on anyway. Leo has an attack of the vapours and suppresses the memory of the events for the next fifty-odd years, Mrs. Maudsley never speaks of it again, Marian marries Lord Trimingham as planned and Ted pops off back to the farm to do the decent thing and shoot himself. The screen goes all wibbly-wobbly again at this point and we snap back to Leo at sixtysomething; now he has regained his memory of the events he takes himself back to Norfolk to see what has become of the Maudsley family. The answer seems to be that most of them have been killed off in various wars, but Marian is still alive and agrees to meet Leo. The meeting is facilitated by the current Lord Trimingham, Marian's grandson, who is aware that his grandfather is actually Ted Burgess rather than the last-but-one Lord Trimingham and consequently bears something of a grudge against his grandmother. Can Leo repeat his former role as go-between and smooth things over?

Rather like Pride And Prejudice, nothing I say about The Go-Between is likely to have any effect on the critical reverence in which it is held, not that I have anything especially critical to say about it. Structurally I can see the point of the framing device (more so than the one used in Birdsong, for instance), as it demonstrates how the events of 1900 killed off any desire for intimacy in Leo's later life; that said, the mini-adventure Leo goes on back to Brandham at the end of the book seemed neither especially convincing nor narratively necessary.

It's a sly and subtle book that can be read on various levels. The obvious surface reading tells you it's about the inflexibility of the old class system and the beginnings of its dismantling (echoes here of the two Isabel Colegate books on this list, though they were set a dozen or so years later), it's about childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence where you're expected to acquire a full understanding of certain matters without anyone having to explain them explicitly to you, and obviously it's about love and its blindness to barriers of class. I think this article by Ali Smith gets to the heart of some of its other subtleties quite well, firstly that it's a novel that sits oddly out of time - there's a frankness to some of the descriptions of Ted's physicality that seem quite modern, certainly compared to the period in which the book is set, and it's clear at the end that Ted and Marian are actually fucking, not doing any of the more innocent things that used to be included under the euphemistic banner of "making love". That said, compared to a lot of its 1950s contemporaries (it was published in 1953) it still seems quaintly innocent. Ali Smith also makes the point that it's not difficult to view Leo's reservations about intimacy as closeted homosexuality; whether this was intentional or not on Hartley's part I couldn't say.

Anyway, it's nice to read a book widely regarded as a 20th-century classic, and put it down saying: yes, I can see that. Just as it's nice in a different way to dispense hot piss over a book that doesn't (in my opinion, of course) live up to its hype.

The other thing to say about The Go-Between is that it was made into a celebrated film in 1971, starring Alan Bates and the lovely Julie Christie as Ted and Marian. I have the vaguest recollection of watching most of this back when I was quite young (probably closer to Leo's age than Marian's) and being quite riveted by it, though I probably had no more idea about "spooning" than Leo at the time. It's notable that the film's opening preserves the opening line of the novel, one of the most famous in literary history.

Monday, November 12, 2018

the last book I read

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Ah, the Tudors. *tootly oboe music plays, jester prances around* We all think we know them, especially Henry VIII with his absurd tights and his comical wife-beheading ways. But...*oboe music stops abruptly*...what do we really know?

Well, in the case of Henry VIII, quite a lot actually. But what of his shadowy éminence grise Thomas Cromwell? The basic details of his association with Henry and the various offices he held are well known, but what was he really like? This is the question Wolf Hall attempts to answer, while also taking us into close proximity with most of the key figures from the era, most notably Henry himself, with much a-roistering and a-doistering, intrigue, strategic matchmaking, betrayal, and the usual occasional public disembowelments and beheadings. It's not for the faint-hearted, still less the loose-headed.

Cromwell's ascent is a pretty unusual and remarkable one, though - son of a drunken and abusive blacksmith, escaped at the earliest possible opportunity to Europe to sign up as a soldier of fortune in various intra-European theatres of war and seek his fortune, which he duly made as a merchant and lawyer before returning to England to set up as a respectable pillar of the community and, eventually, right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey. You're probably mentally picturing Orson Welles here, but we'll come to that a bit later.

Following Wolsey's downfall, which in turn followed his inability to arrange an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in a way which was also palatable to the head honchos of the Catholic Church, Cromwell moves into Henry's personal orbit and eventually becomes one of his most trusted advisors, especially after helping to facilitate the foundation of the Church of England, and, most importantly, providing an acceptable official validation for Henry's furious rogering of Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell has a personal life as well, of course, and we get some insight into it: he has a happy marriage to Liz Wykys (this is how the book renders her surname, Wikipedia renders it as Wyckes), but Liz and both their daughters die of the sweating sickness in 1529, leaving Cromwell's son Gregory as his only child. He does seem to be cultivating a bit of an affection for Jane Seymour in the second half of the book, but fate has, it turns out, other plans for her.

Being a trusted advisor to Henry involves being at his constant beck and call, and furthermore subject to his whims and mood swings, any one of which could be severe enough to cost you your head. Henry is a highly intelligent man of great energy and charm, but by the time Cromwell comes into his service has been gripped with a monomaniacal obsession: the production of a male heir. This is what drives him to ditch his wife of 24 years for a younger model (the first of a series), and Cromwell is the man who has to find an acceptably legal way of bringing it about.

The difficulty with describing the events of Wolf Hall is that they - the major historical ones at least - are extremely well known. Few periods in history are more thoroughly chewed-over than the period of Henry VIII's multiple marriages, the last five of which were crammed into a ten-year period between 1533 and 1543. So the historical novelist has to find something new to do with the material, and in this case that is to focus on a central but ill-documented figure, Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating and enigmatic figure whose rise to power is remarkable in an era of low social mobility. If you weren't born a nob then your chances of gaining access to the king's inner circle were pretty slim, so Cromwell most have had some exceptional personal qualities. As he is portrayed here he is regarded with great affection by the members of his family and household, despite his fearsome reputation as a facilitator of the king's wishes.

The other thing that makes considering Wolf Hall in isolation difficult is the large number of other works of art that portray events from the period and feature characters that also appear here, Cromwell himself included. So there's The Tudors, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Henry VIII And His Six Wives, and most notably to me, A Man For All Seasons. As I said in this earlier post which references Wolf Hall (and expresses some doubt on when I'd get round to reading it, which I suppose is fair enough given that it's taken me nine years) the portrayal of Cromwell in that film (played by Leo McKern) is fairly unsympathetic, whereas More is portrayed as wise, patient and generally saintly. In Wolf Hall, however, More, while clearly a brilliant man, is something of an insufferable prig and a hypocrite perfectly happy to preach peace and tolerance while sanctioning the vicious torture and public execution of heretics. Far from actively seeking his conviction and execution, the version of Cromwell portrayed here makes every effort to persuade More to bend and sign the pledge that the King wants him to sign so that he can then quietly retire to his books.

Wolf Hall of course had its own TV adaptation, with Mark Rylance portraying Cromwell. Those who haven't seen it should be warned that it is in fact an adaptation of material from both Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up The Bodies, so SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read the second book and you're also completely ignorant of the events of a pretty well-documented period of British history. For what it's worth I think Rylance, fine actor though he undoubtedly is, is a bit fine-featured for Cromwell, who is supposed to have had a rather thuggish appearance. By contrast Leo McKern is probably a bit pudgy for Cromwell as portrayed here. This brief snippet put me in mind of an immortal bit of narrative from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace:

As I rounded the corner, I felt muscular and compact, like corned beef.
For what it's worth I pictured Cromwell as looking a bit like Michael Elphick.

Anyway, enough of that nonsense. This is never less than compulsively readable, despite taking 650 pages to chronicle the events of around six years. There are points where you might wish things would crack on a bit, as enjoyable as it all is. All the previous Mantels I've read (including Eight Months On Ghazzah Street which appeared on this list in 2010) have been fairly slim and efficient in getting their story across; there is just a suspicion of a bit of flab here. None of which troubled the Booker committee, clearly, as they awarded it the Man Booker Prize for 2009 (its successor Bring Up The Bodies won again in 2012; the third volume remains in production). Wolf Hall therefore joins the list of Booker winners on this blog which includes Midnight's Children, The Sea, The Conservationist, G., Hotel Du Lac, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and The Gathering.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

the spouse that roared

Ronald Reagan once said that the most terrifying words in the English language are: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help". And as previously observed here Gore Vidal is reputed to have once claimed that the three most depressing words in the English language are "Joyce Carol Oates".

I'm going to go out on a limb here and claim that the three most terrifying and/or depressing words in the English language are: Military Wives Choir. Whoooaaah, there, you'll be saying, you've gone too far this time with your robustly controversial yet thought-provoking opinions. Have a pop at The Big Guy all you like, he can take it, but Our Brave Girls? You disgust me.

Let me see if I can walk you through it a bit:
  • Firstly, and most obviously, patriarchy. There's a sort of misty-eyed fantasy at work here which envisages these women sitting looking wistfully out of a window waiting for their husbands' return, clad in some demure and respectful clothing - nothing too overtly sexy but clearly not a manky old pair of pyjamas or a crusty comedy onesie either. In this scenario where the women are defined solely by being married to some guy in the forces, and possibly by the requirement to bring up his children during his periods of absence, maybe there is an expectation that they'll have lots of free time, not all of which can be spent wistfully gazing through windows, and therefore the little ladies, bless 'em, need something to occupy them. I mean, it's not as if any of them have jobs, right? No-one's going to be a lawyer, or a fitness instructor, or a financial advisor, or a thrusting senior executive at some major corporation, so why not get together for a bit of an old sing-song in your spare time, in between making jam and that.
  • Similarly, it's not as if anyone in the armed forces is a woman, right? Granted, they could still have wives, but that's not the wholesome corn-fed vanilla family scenario that we're thinking of here, is it?
  • This is a particularly pernicious example of what you might call the Nick Knowles effect, that is to say the inexplicable (to me, anyway) tendency of the record-buying public to purchase stuff based on whether they know of the people involved, and indeed imagine (clearly mistakenly) that they know them personally in some way, rather than on the basis of whether, you know, it's any good.
  • In this case that's reinforced by the weird and, I would contend, generally unhealthy reverence that the British public have for the armed forces. This goes double at this time of year when everyone loses their freakin' MINDS over appropriate poppy-wearing protocol. Combine that with the Nick Knowles effect above and you have a toxic situation where any criticism (such as: Christ, this is all a bit shit, isn't it?) basically prompts the response WHY DO YOU HATE OUR TROOPS and WHY DO YOU HATE BRITAIN and WELL WE'LL JUST GET INVADED AND RAPED AND MURDERED BY ISLAMOFASCIST COMMUNISTS THEN SHALL WE AS THAT'S CLEARLY JUST FINE WITH YOU. It's a short hop from here to showering people with abuse when they make a considered decision not to wear a poppy, or mindlessly recycling a load of Britain First propaganda.
  • Further to the Nick Knowles effect is the Gareth Fucking Malone effect whereby this supremely irritating nerdy bloke tries to get the country singing (endearingly amateurishly, naturally), to lots of furtive OH YOUNG MAN from the late-middle-aged TV-watching public. Malone was heavily implicated in the formation of some of the early versions of the Military Wives choirs, and is, as I think I may have mentioned above, really fucking annoying. I think it's another aspect of communal joinery-innery with the associated curled lip towards anyone who'd rather not, thanks very much.
It was on Chris Evans' breakfast show on Radio 2 that I heard the reference which prompted this post - shortly afterwards I switched over to Radio 4 to catch Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time about Marie Antoinette. About 27 minutes in there's a bit about how the French revolution and its instigators viewed the rights of women, and the verdict (230 years ago, let's not forget) was, and I quote: "women belong in the private sphere; man belongs in the public sphere". Plus ça change, and all that.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

for those about to rock

I can't quite remember what got me into watching rock-climbing videos on YouTube - I suspect I might have followed a few links after investigating the climbing wall facilities at Cwmbran Leisure Centre. Nia expressed an interest while we were scrambling around on the softplay area there recently and since a) I've never tried it and wouldn't mind having a go and b) she is a creature of River Tam-like grace and agility (though with less killing, hopefully) and I expect she'd be really good at it, I made a mental note to give it a go. Obviously that hasn't resulted in me actually doing anything about it, but all in good time.

Anyway, I ended up watching a few climbing videos, which are fascinating in their own way. One of the ways in which they're interesting is to contrast the activity involved with the sort of stuff I like doing on mountains and to envisage where the dividing line is between one and the other. On the one hand I have absolutely no interest in roped-up sport climbing, still less the sort of free-soloing that people like Alex Honnold do, which seems literally insane to me; on the other hand there is a point where the hands-and-feet scrambling I like, sometimes up quite gnarly semi-vertical rocks, such as those between the Càrn Mòr Dearg arête and the summit of Ben Nevis, or the upper reaches of the Black Cuillin on the Isle of Skye, comes somewhere near to meeting up with the easy end of what you might start to call rock climbing. On the other other hand, at least Alex Honnold's ascent of El Capitan, bonkers as it may have been, was a venture with a specific real-world objective, that is to say the summit of the mountain; the really esoteric sport-climbing stuff that people like Adam Ondra do, as jaw-dropping as it is as a feat of athleticism, has no real-world "point" to it other than as a series of gymnastic moves that have to be strung together without falling off the rock.

Anyway, on a less serious note, there is a whole lexicon of climbing jargon which is largely impenetrable to the uninitiated. Take a look at this headline and see what springs to mind, for instance:

This is not, as you might imagine, some weird postal drug deal involving an Italian Jason Statham-alike, still less some weird sexual thing, but instead an article from a climbing website describing British climber Hazel Findlay's ascent of a tricky climbing route in Italy. The word "send", in particular, in this context is a shortened form of "ascend", and just means a successful climb of a route without falling off at any point. Past participle generally seems to be "sent" rather than "sended".

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

my little...pumpkinny-wumpkinny?

So, Halloween, then. Source of much annoyance, some of it caused by pedants who insist that the word should have an apostrophe between the two e's, some of it caused by trick-or-treaters, some of it caused by those who sniffily dismiss the whole thing, or some aspects of it (usually the trick-or-treating bit), as a piece of modern American-inspired nonsense. I don't want to get into the argument, but, as always, it's a bit more complicated than that.

My objection to trick-or-treating is not based on some spurious lazy knee-jerk cultural bias, but on the empirically sound and verifiable fact that I am a grumpy old misanthrope and I don't like strangers coming round my house demanding I participate in some lets-all-muck-in come-on-get-involved community jollity or some similar heart-warming crap. As it happens we very rarely get trick-or-treaters round our way as we're a bit off the main residential circuit and the occasional drive-by shootings probably make people a bit nervous. What I generally do is lay in a load of fun-size choccy bars as a precaution and then spend the following week eating them.

One thing that you'll probably be unable to avoid, particularly if you have children, is purchasing one or more pumpkins for the purposes of carving amusing faces into them. And, furthermore, having done that, fretting about whether you should make use of the giant gourd for some sort of recipe once the novelty of the amusing face-carving has worn off, rather than just leaving it outside the back door to decompose.

This year I was determined to make better use of them, especially as we ended up with three, only two of which were used for carving purposes. So I decided to make some soup, most of the traditional alternatives, pumpkin pie in particular, having a fairly unpalatable look to them.

I have a few general observations about soup, as follows:
  • firstly and most importantly, soup is predominantly, preferably 100%, liquid. There is, I am going to assert, no such thing as "chunky soup". If you have a bowl of that, what you have there is runny stew. I bow to no man, for instance, in my love for Welsh cawl, but calling it soup is a nonsense. 
  • one of the reasons for this is that I eat things when blitzed unrecognisably into soup that I wouldn't touch with a bargepole in their "natural" form. Celery is a good example; my hatred of it in its natural form is mainly a texture thing, so when it's pulped into soup (probably with the addition of some potatoes and stuff) it's just pleasantly peppery. The criticisms levelled at Heinz Big Soup here, for instance ("mainly pipes and gristle") would have been more difficult to level if it had all been blended up into an amorphous goop.
  • it's surprisingly difficult to over-spice soup. Bung in as much stock as you like, spice it up, chilli it up, you're very unlikely to overdo it. As you'll see below I had to chuck an extra consignment of spice mix into my soup to render it a bit more interesting.
So anyway, I made some pumpkin soup. I had two whole pumpkins, and I didn't want to end up with two gallons of soup, so I kept it simple - two pumpkins, a couple of onions, some garlic, various exotic spices. I chopped up the pumpkins into slices, slathered them in some spice mix (a mixture of some tagine paste I had in the fridge, some smoked paprika and a load of black pepper, as well as some olive oil and lemon juice) and chucked them in the oven for what ended up being a couple of hours. I then skinned them, put them in a big stockpot with the onions and garlic and a load of stock, simmered them for a couple more hours, put the whole lot through a blender, bish bosh, soup.

Slightly bland soup, to my taste, so I put together a small magic potion featuring some more stock, a dollop of some exciting Middle Eastern spice mix (as pictured) and a couple of spoonfuls of some Greek yoghurt, added that, and that seemed to improve things. It ended up being perfectly nice slightly spicy pumpkin soup, not the most thrilling taste experience ever, but, you know, it's soup, get over it. Here are a few pictures.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

I know what I did last summer

We went on holiday to France back in July; our first proper trip abroad with the kids. We decided on France because it meant that we didn't have to engage with the shrieking nightmare of flying and could just get a ferry over and take the car to our eventual destination. We didn't want to shell out some lavish amount for luxury accommodation, partly because we were hoping to be either out and about doing stuff or hooning around in the pool most of the time, but also because times are hard and I am as tight as a gnat's chuff.

Fortunately France offers plenty of options in this area and we ended up booking in at Le Clarys Plage with Alfresco Holidays, who offer much the same sort of thing as the better-known Eurocamp. Basically this is a big holiday camp with static caravan accommodation of various sizes; pretty much perfect for our kid-centric requirements and with a pretty decent-sized supermarket right next door. It's just outside St. Jean de Monts, which is in the Vendée, which is basically the next bit down from Brittany on the west coast.

Anyway, it suited us very well, Nia in particular had a great time scooting down all of the waterslides a gazillion times a day, the supermarket is very handy, there are laid-on activities for the kids, and the main town beach (a short drive away) is nice and sandy, absolutely massive and has an extremely shallow drop-off which is great for paddling with kids, though slightly frustrating if you want a proper swim, as you have to walk out about half a mile just to get waist-deep.

We didn't get out and about as much as I'd anticipated, and with kids there's little hope of going off exploring the local geography, which is a shame as this part of the Vendée is a fascinating landscape of reclaimed marshland and drainage ditches. For those without tiny children in tow it'd be perfect for a cycling holiday if you didn't want to be bothered by hills. We did get out to a couple of places, though, most notably Le Château des Aventuriers an hour or so away to the south-east which has lots of mainly pirate-themed outdoor adventure quest stuff which was right up Nia's street. We also went out to Parc des Dunes which is a bewildering array of bouncy castles, luge runs, crazy golf, ball pits and waterslides. Again, great fun for the kids, but adults will want to ensure they've got a few litres of wine in to wind down back at the caravan afterwards.

One of the key considerations for British tourists venturing over to France for holidays is the stringent rules some French resorts apply in the trouser department, specifically the edict that a lot of places issue that long baggy board shorts are prohibited in the pool area and skimpy "budgie smugglers" must be worn instead. I completely understand the rationale here - people are inclined to wear board shorts as regular shorts out and about in town, down to the beach, etc., and then trail dust and dirt and shit back into the resort and plunge straight into the pool. So with a mind to complying with the regulations I purchased a pair of skimpy trunks before we left the UK. On arrival in France I noticed on our first trip to the supermarket that short but slightly less eye-wateringly revealing trunks were available for about four Euros, so I bought a pair of these as a backup, thereby ending up in the slightly farcical situation of having three lengths of swimming shorts to choose from.

As it turned out the rule seems to be largely unenforced at Le Clarys Plage, as plenty of people were wearing long shorts, but it's best to be prepared, and I daresay there are places where the shorts police will haul you off to the changing rooms if you transgress. As it happens the cheapo intermediate shorts offer the worst of both worlds, since they're not as baggy as the big shorts but not as stretchy as the skimpy ones and therefore more restrictive than either. I guess you do get what you pay for.

A modest selection of photographs can be found here; as reassurance for the squeamish I should state clearly that none of them feature me in the red shorts. The book I am reading in the comedy beer photo is this one.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

One of the slightly irritating features of Twitter is the tweets that pop up in your timeline flagged (in small type below) as "Promoted", which basically means it's an advert someone has paid to thrust uninvited under my nose while I'm scrolling. One that popped up a number of times recently was a trailer for the new film Vice, which appears to be a satirical comedy-drama focusing on Dick Cheney's term as vice-president of the USA. Cheney, a fascinatingly reptilian character, is portrayed in fairly remarkable fashion by Christian Bale - remarkable for the amount of weight gain he had to do for the role, as well as needing to look older than he is (Bale is a fairly youthful 44, Cheney was 59 when he became vice-president, and a fairly prematurely-aged 59 at that having already had at least three heart attacks). It's sort of the opposite of the more disturbing transformation Bale underwent to portray the title character in weird psycho-thriller The Machinist.

I'm not planning on rushing out to see Vice, but Bale's transformation looks pretty startling and his resemblance to Cheney is pretty close. Sam Rockwell as his boss George W Bush does a pretty good job as well, certainly managing a closer physical resemblance than Josh Brolin in W, who was just a bit too square-jawed and rugged and not quite shifty enough.

All the pizza-guzzling and sitting around could have been avoided, though, if they'd just employed the bloke who played the other Lebowski in The Big Lebowski (one of my favourite films, I feel obliged to point out). The character was played by David Huddleston and I can only speculate that the reason they didn't employ him to play Cheney is that at the time of filming he'd been dead for two years.

Anyway, here are Cheney, Bale as Cheney and Huddleston as Lebowski.

Secondly, here's another island-based one after the roaring success of my earlier post featuring the Russian island of Sakhalin. Sakhalin at 23rd-largest island in the world is pretty piddling small beer compared to today's contender, though, as it's the 5th-largest. Not nearly enough is made, in my opinion, of the resemblance of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to a small dog, maybe something like a West Highland White Terrier (just because they have stubby legs and are appropriately snow-coloured). Partly this is because, you know, who gives a fuck, but also because to really see it you have to rotate the standard north-upwards map view through about 135 degrees and clear away some of the clutter of smaller islands that get in the way. Luckily for you, I've done it for you, so voilà:

As it happens we have four Westies in our house. They are spliced together side-to-side (not, thankfully, end-to-end in some hideous Canine Centipede arrangement) and are holding the lounge door open when they're not being kicked around by the kids.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

the last book I read

The Ministry Of Fear by Graham Greene.

Arthur Rowe has got a lot on. Despite being a man of seemingly modest but comfortable means (sustained by an annual income from a mysterious source not involving having anything as vulgar or onerous as an actual job) he is troubled. By some really obvious things, like being a London resident during the height of the Blitz and therefore existing in a strange netherworld where you never know if you're going to wake up in the morning in your own bed or in an impenetrable pile of rubble with your entrails festooned across what remains of the street. Also by some non-obvious things, though, like having fairly recently been released from a psychiatric hospital after murdering his wife; it's not what it sounds like, though, as she was terminally ill and he eased her over the line to spare her further suffering (and ended up with a correspondingly light sentence).

Arthur is keeping himself to himself in a one-bedroom furnished flat when he happens to pop into a church fête and have a go at guessing the weight of a juicy and inviting-looking fruit cake (things that are in short supply, what with eggs being rationed and all). While he's waiting for the result he drops into the fortune-teller's stall and has a bewildering exchange with the woman running it wherein he is instructed to make an additional guess at a different weight for the cake. And sure enough that second guess turns out to be correct and Arthur wins the cake, though there is an odd stand-off as he tries to make off with his winnings, almost as if someone else was expected to win it.

It soon becomes clear that Arthur has stumbled across some weird shit and is now a person of interest to some shady types; sure enough one comes to visit him, wangles a piece of cake and some tea and attempts to poison Arthur, who only detects the poison because it happens to be the one he used to see off his wife. An awkward confrontation is avoided, however, when a bomb lands on the building and everyone ends up under a pile of bricks, though, miraculously, alive.

Arthur decides to take the initiative and visits a detective agency and also the charity that organised the fête, where he meets siblings Anna and Willi Hilfe, refugees from Austria. Willi in particular seems keen to help and takes him to see Mrs. Bellairs, the fortune teller, who happens to be holding a seance, which Willi and Arthur take part in. In classic murder mystery fashion the lights dim, everyone joins hands, there's a scream, and when the lights come up someone is dead with a knife in their back. Awkwardly for Arthur, it's the man next to him, and it's Arthur's knife.

Willi helps Arthur escape, but now he's on the run from the police. After rashly agreeing to deliver a suitcase for a man he meets in a park, he bizarrely ends up in a room with Anna Hilfe, at which point there's another brick-shattering explosion.

This time, Arthur wakes up in a nursing home, to be told that he's lost his memory and his name is Richard Digby. He is well cared for by the eccentric Dr. Forester, but it soon becomes clear that strange things are afoot. Eventually, as his memory starts to return, including remembering his true identity, Arthur decides that his life is in danger and escapes back to London, where he throws himself on the mercy of the police.

It turns out that the police aren't actually after him for murder after all, though, since no-one's actually been murdered. The police are very interested in the cake, though, since it apparently contained some top-secret microfilms which the government want back before they can leave the country and jeopardise the war effort. The policeman investigating the case, Prentice, takes Arthur along on a series of attempts to round up the spy ring responsible, most of which end with the deaths of the suspects, before Arthur himself joins some of the dots and realises that Willi Hilfe is the mastermind, and probably still has the microfilm in his possession. This is slightly awkward, because Arthur has struck up a fledgling relationship with Anna, but Queen and country must be protected, so Arthur confronts Willi as he's about to flee London on a train. Rather than allow himself to be captured, Willi shoots himself, leaving Arthur free to return to Anna and see if they can salvage their relationship from this momentary awkward patch.

I've mentioned in a couple of places Graham Greene's habit of classifying his books as Novels and Entertainments. This one is subtitled "An Entertainment", which isn't meant to convey some hilarious knicker-dropping farce, but rather something a bit thriller-y and plot-driven in contrast to the usual drink-sodden tortured Catholicism of the "serious" stuff. It is suggested that since this book's immediate predecessor (and one of Greene's best and most celebrated books) The Power And The Glory didn't make much money Greene felt obliged to write something a bit more in tune with the public appetites of the time. The distinction between the two halves of his output was something Greene abandoned in his later career - this compilation suggests there were only ever six novels published as "Entertainments", The Ministry Of Fear being the only one I own or have ever read.

It's still not exactly Jack Reacher, though, and most of the major protagonists are resolutely un-heroic and troubled by various moral dilemmas, and the ending is nicely ambiguous in terms of how much wholly necessary lying to each other Arthur and Anna's future relationship can stand. Greene's familiarity with the workings of wartime espionage was drawn from his real-life work for MI6; the late-career novel The Human Factor is probably the nearest thing to a le Carré-style espionage thriller that he ever wrote.

It's very entertaining (as befits its subtitle), Arthur Rowe is a sympathetic protagonist and (like all Greene novels) it doesn't outstay its welcome at between 200 and 250 pages of pocket-sized Penguin paperback. If you really only want the essential novels then (of the ones I've read) The Power And The Glory and The Heart Of The Matter are probably the ones you want. The Ministry Of Fear was filmed as Ministry Of Fear in 1944, a year after the book's publication, the film - as films do - seemingly flattening a lot of the book's subtleties in the pursuit of its Nazi spy plot.