Tuesday, December 17, 2019

the last book I read

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
O-OOOOOOH-KLAHOMA where the wind comes sweeping down the plain
Where the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain
Um, well, yes, but in fact *record scratch noise* it's not quite like that in the mid-1930s. Sure, the wind comes a-sweepin' down the plain, but there ain't no rain, and consequently there ain't no wheat either. And those of you with first-class degrees in agricultural science and wheatonomics and farmology and the like will realise that that's BAD NEWS for the hordes of tenant farmers who depend on the crops to be able to feed and clothe themselves and pay the rent on their homes. Bad news for the landowners as well, of course, but they have the resources to absorb some misfortune of this kind, and in some cases it provides a convenient excuse to evict the tenants, demolish their dwellings and massively expand and mechanise their farming operations.

Tom Joad hasn't been doing a lot of the old farming lately, since he's been in prison for killing a man with a shovel in a fight. Freshly released from the state penitentiary, he's hitch-hiking his way across Oklahoma to get back to the family farm. When he arrives, having hooked up with ex-preacher Jim Casy on the way, he is surprised to find the family home abandoned and derelict, and it's only by a chance encounter with a neighbour that Tom discovers where the family have gone - over to Uncle John's place to gather up their possessions ready to make the great trek west to California, a green and luscious land of opportunity where the fruit fields stretch off over the horizon and there are jobs for everyone.

Once Tom has had his emotional reunion with the family, thoughts turn to loading up the family truck with as many of their possessions as it will hold, plus a dozen or so people. This done, they set off down the road, immediately realising that thousands of others are doing exactly the same thing.

Those of you with first-class degrees in geography will know that the United States is a pretty big place, and the route from Sallisaw, Oklahoma where the Joads live to Bakersfield, California where they end up is a little over 1600 miles, with some pretty big mountains in between. No mean feat in an overloaded jalopy, and it takes several weeks, with much rough roadside camping on the way. By the time they get over the state line into California the party has been depleted somewhat: both Grampa and Granma have died on the journey, Tom's elder brother Noah has decided to wander off and seek his own fortune, and Connie, fiancé of Tom's sister Rose of Sharon (universally referred to as Rosasharn by family members) and father of her unborn child has decided that he doesn't really fancy being a Dad and snuck off into the night.

The remaining Joads soon make the inevitable discovery that while there is indeed fruit and vegetables and cotton that need picking, there is also a massive influx of people like them desperate for work, and therefore not only is work scarce and a strict first-come-first-served policy is in operation, but some basic economics dictates that those offering the jobs are able to brutally slash the wages being offered, on the grounds that if you don't want to work at that rate, there are a hundred hungry desperate people in the queue behind you who will.

Of course a man's thoughts turn at this point to notions of worker solidarity, mass withholding of labour and things like that. This is a risky train of thought, though, as the authorities are brutally repressive of any activities which smack of GODDAMN COMMUNISM, and economic reality once again dictates that there will always be people desperate enough to break a strike and take the wages being offered anyway, as the Joads themselves do at a peach farm, largely through their own ignorance at what the people lined up outside the fence are shouting about.

Tom is a bright lad, though, and soon puts two and two together by talking to some of the protesters outside the farm, but in doing so gets involved in a fight with the authorities trying to clear out the protesters and clubs a man to death in making his escape. Once again the family is forced to move on hurriedly, concealing Tom in the back of the truck. They eventually find work picking cotton, but Tom can't work because he has to keep himself hidden to avoid detection, and Rose of Sharon can't work either as her baby is nearly due.

Eventually Tom's cover is blown and he has to leave the family. Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn, and the winter rains begin, ensuring that there won't be any work for at least three months. As the abandoned box car where they've been living is about to be flooded, the Joads head off on the road again, this time on foot.

Sooooooo it's not exactly a barrel of laughs, this, but, a bit like One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, it's actually a bit less grim and more uplifting than you might imagine. Family bonds, the unbreakability of the human spirit, the urge to help others even when you have little or nothing to give yourself, that sort of thing. What it also is is a book clearly fuelled by righteous anger at the relentless oppression handed out to the Joads and their kind, and an impassioned appeal for a system of government that didn't allow this sort of thing to happen. A lot of people interpreted this as being a manifesto for GODDAMN COMMUNISM at the time, although that didn't prevent it becoming a multi-million-selling publishing phenomenon when it first came out in 1939.

It is entirely coincidental that I was reading this during the period of the 2019 general election, but there's no escape from the historical echoes in the choice facing modern-day voters. Clearly Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed with me as one of his immediately pre-election tweets featured him and his cat perusing a copy of the book. You can skip actually zooming in on the watch as instructed as a) nothing very exciting is revealed and b) it's sadly all a bit academic now.

The Grapes of Wrath was garlanded with most of the major literary awards when it was first published, including the National Book Award (previous winners on this list include The Moviegoer, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Corrections) and the Pulitzer Prize (so you can add it to the list here). It also appears on the TIME magazine 100 novels list that many previous entries on this list (a non-comprehensive list is here) appear on. All that was also presumably a key factor in Steinbeck being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, although it has since been revealed he was something of a compromise candidate and the academy were a bit unsatisfied about the whole thing. It was also almost immediately made into a film, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

None of that stuff really amounts to a hill of beans in this crazy world, though, except in that it's indicative of a wide recognition that this is a major work of 20th-century fiction, a view with which I heartily concur. I am almost certain that my Pan paperback copy was one of the large stash of books I acquired at a 30% discount on leaving my job in the Town Bookseller in Newbury back in the early 1990s (On The Road was another, and I think possibly Midnight's Children too). I strongly recommend that you don't wait 27 years to read your copy.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

bombed between groins

I spotted this on Twitter earlier today:

This turns out to be from 2014, but I imagine the principal protagonist (who is from Taipei) still winces about it, and possibly finds himself unable to eat noodles without experiencing some sort of PTSD reaction. A couple of questions immediately spring to mind:
  • I mean, just generally, what was going on here? It turns out there is an answer, of sorts, involving, as you would expect, some exceptionally poor life choices;
  • Who the hell is "Chris Illuminati"? Does he even exist? Is he some sort of Nazi space lizard, under deep deep cover as a lazy recycler of internet content for "brobible", and secretly using his job as an excuse to laugh at us puny humans and our pathetic warm-blooded non-scaly antics?
  • Lastly, what does "cooking up ramen in a Speedo" mean? You'd think it meant he was actually using a pair of Speedos as a cooking pot, something that would surely be problematic from a flammability point of view, not to mention the issue of all the soup falling out through the leg-holes leaving a bulging gusset of half-cooked wet noodles. At least it might put the fire out. It turns out the original web page from which "brobible" shamelessly swiped most of the content phrased it slightly differently, although still not in a way most people would recognise as proper actual English (that would require an "s" on the end of "Speedo"). Maybe the extra "a" was added to foil plagiarism-bots hunting down shameless scrapers of website content or something;
  • Finally, note that the byline under this version of the story is equally stupid, though a bit less obviously lizardy.

I think the reason that some of the phrasing here is a bit odd is that this is an English translation of an original article in Japanese. Clearly a bit more care has been taken than just running it through Google Translate, though, since if you do that you end up with this

Friday, November 29, 2019

stay away from the light

Well, it looks like the honeymoon period is over for our kitchen light bulbs. Hot (or rather non-incandescently cool) on the heels of bulb number 4 expiring a couple of weeks ago another one has made the trip to the noxious bulb-interior recycling centre in the sky. This time it was number 10, which the record shows had previously expired on May 9th 2014 and then again on or around October 8th 2014. Apparently its first incarnation only lasted 10 days, and its second, if those dates are correct, lasted 152 days. So its third incarnation of 1878 days is pretty impressive, but the recent trend doesn't look so good. It's probably just a coincidence, though.

There was a suggestion in the midst of the original furious cycle of bulb explosions that positions 4, 5, 7, 10 and 12 were particularly prone to frying the bulbs that occupied them. That would suggest a higher-than-average probability of the next one being 5, 7 or 12. I'll be sure and let you know, but there is of course the possibility that it may happen several years from now, so don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

here comes the flood

I'm not sure what jogged my memory here, possibly Emma's recent post about last year's Lakes trip, but it occurred to me that I'd spent some time searching for online maps after that trip and I should probably share the results here, as The World Needs To Know and all that. I think it was driving down the A591 to get from Keswick to Ambleside and Windermere, a journey that involves a long section down the eastern shore of Thirlmere, that prompted me to wonder about what the lake looked like before it was made into a reservoir, as I was vaguely aware that, like Haweswater in the much more remote eastern reaches of the Lake District, Thirlmere was previously a natural lake.

Finding a pre-inundation map of Haweswater is relatively easy, since the reservoir wasn't filled until the mid-1930s. SABRE Maps has a few, for instance. Finding an old map of Thirlmere is a bit more of a challenge, since it's much older (raising of the water level started in the mid-1890s). SABRE doesn't have anything that old, and it was only when I stumbled across this supposedly Scottish-themed mapping site that I found what I was looking for - this is supposedly a reproduction of an Ordnance Survey map from 1867. Here are Haweswater and Thirlmere now, and pre-inundation, with a ghostly outline of the future water level added by me, just as I did here and here. This video, as well as giving some interesting background info, also contains some shots of maps of the old lake.

A couple of things to note: both of the old, natural lakes featured a prominent "waist" in the middle which almost divided them in two. Haweswater's two sections were widely known as High Water and Low Water, and Thirlmere's joining strait was often fordable and in later years featured a bridge. In both cases you can get an idea of the former lake's extent by looking at the underwater depth contour info (easier if you expand the images by opening them in a new tab first): in the case of Haweswater since the lake level was raised by almost exactly 30 metres, the 30-metre contour gives you almost exactly the shape of the former lake. For Thirlmere it's somewhere between 20 and 30 metres. 

Note that the old mapping site from which I grabbed the Thirlmere images also answers the question of what was in the little valley occupied since 1904 by the Wentwood reservoir (still empty, as far as I can tell; I haven't been up there for a while). The answer seems to be: pretty much nothing worthy of reproducing on a map, just a low-lying area of probably marshy grassland. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

the last book I read

Bear Island by Alistair MacLean.

The Morning Rose, a somewhat geriatric converted trawler, is steaming off into the Arctic Ocean with a film crew aboard, heading for Bear Island (a southerly outpost of the Svalbard archipelago) where they hope to do some dramatic location shooting with the snow and the dramatic cliffs and a bit of the old spume and all that. The crew numbers twenty-four, comprising directors, actors, camera operators and the like as well as some administrative types like accountants, and also Dr. Marlowe, the expedition's medical officer and our first-person narrator. A nice quiet gig for the good doctor, unless anyone is careless enough to fall overboard into the icy waters, you'd think, or at least you might think that if you'd never read a mystery thriller before. For it turns out that they have an extra passenger aboard ... [dramatic orchestral stab] ... DEATH.

It's not exactly been, if you'll forgive me, plain sailing, as the seas in this part of the world are a bit gnarly at the best of times, and a few cases of seasickness are to be expected. But when Antonio, the make-up artist, lurches off greenly to his cabin during dinner only to later turn up dead in a lake of his own vomit, things have entered the arena of the unusual. Even more so when a couple of the ship's stewards turn up similarly dead and a couple more film crew members are only rescued from a similar fate by Marlowe's robust anti-poisoning methods, basically involving administering colossal quantities of salt water to provoke uncontrollable vomiting. By the time the night is over the ship is basically knee-deep in spew and corpses.

Needless to say this puts the whole expedition in some doubt, but as they are nearly at their remote destination now, and there is a significant amount of money riding on the successful completion of the shoot, it is decided by the trip's organisers - led by corpulent director Otto Gerran - that it should continue as planned while the ship steams back to Norway and reports the incidents.

The island has some spartan accommodation which the party make use of, but even this close-quarters living doesn't stop our murderer(s) continuing their killing spree, and a couple of further people turn up dead. By this time it is revealed that Dr. Marlowe is perhaps Not What He Seems, and that he has some interest in the expedition beyond just making sure everyone has enough aspirin. It turns out Marlowe is an agent of the British Government here to investigate certain members of the film company for involvement in crimes dating all the way back to World War II.

Eventually the true purpose of the trip to Bear Island becomes clear - retrieving various items of Nazi treasure secreted in various caches on the island in the latter stages of the war, spiriting it back to the UK disguised as various items of film prop equipment, laundering the ass off it and getting clean away with flipping great wodges of cash amounting to several tens of millions of pounds, back when that was an amount of money worth getting out of bed for. But who is the mastermind? And why the seemingly indiscriminate killing spree?

Strip away the Arctic location and this is really just an Agatha Christie-style country house mystery transposed to a more exciting milieu. The murderer(s) must be from among the twenty-odd people on the boat (and subsequently deposited, bar the odd corpse, on Bear Island), so it's just a question of working out who it is. You would think the story's narrator, Dr. Marlowe, would be above suspicion, but there's always the possibility that the author is pulling a Roger Ackroyd on us. There's a lengthy and very Christie-esque bit of exposition at the end which could entirely plausibly be delivered by Hercule Poirot in a drawing-room in front of a blazing fire rather than by Marlowe inside a mock-up of a submarine lashed to a jetty on a remote Arctic island. Many aspects of Bear Island are reminiscent of what I think is the only other MacLean I've read, Ice Station Zebra, which shared an Arctic location, some general twisty-turniness of plot including some doubt over the reliability of the narrator, and some general killing.

Alistair MacLean has been dead for 30-odd years now, and most of his most famous books were written 20 years or more before that (Bear Island is from 1971), so it's easy to forget what a big deal he was sales-wise. It's unclear what the source of the numbers in the list on this Wikipedia page is, but they're pretty big numbers. Apart from MacLean, the only authors to feature on both that list and this blog are Stephen King, Ian Fleming and Hermann Hesse.

Like Fleming, MacLean's attitude to women raises a bit of an eyebrow these days - there is one occasion when Dr. Marlowe, the nearest thing the book has to a hero, responds to a woman being mildly traumatised by yet another death by hitting her. The general level of alcohol consumption by just about everyone is pretty astonishing, too - I know it's the Arctic, there's not much to do, and you need the odd tot of brandy to keep the cold out, but just about everyone is sloshing back the scotch like it's going out of fashion. MacLean himself struggled with alcoholism most of his life, so maybe this is either a sneaky attempt to normalise his own habits, or just an assumption that everyone else drank as much as he did.

Anyway, Bear Island is good fun, not especially plausible if you think about it for more than a few moments, quaintly old-fashioned in many ways, and, as with most MacLean novels, obvious film material. The hit rate with MacLean adaptations was surprisingly low, though: for every Guns Of Navarone there were a dozen duds, and by all accounts Bear Island is one, despite a fairly stellar cast including Donald Sutherland and Vanessa Redgrave.

Monday, November 11, 2019

there is a light that never goes out

In hindsight, one of the genuine high-water-marks of this blog in terms of excitement and red-hot bleeding-edge consumer affairs relevance was the glorious ten-month period where I tracked in tediously unnecessary detail the regular self-immolation of my kitchen spotlight bulbs before the completion of the transition from last-millennium partially-on-fire bits of literal hot glowing metal to modern-day LED technology which basically, as I understand it anyway, involves nothing more sinister than opening up a tiny wormhole to a dimension of pure evil and chaos to harness some of the intense malevolent energy within in an entirely safe and environmentally neutral way.

The last post on this admittedly fascinating subject was in May 2015, at which point I expected (and said as much at the time) that that would be an end of it, as the full complement of LED bulbs would surely last all the way through to the eventual heat death of the universe, or the date that we eventually move out of our current house, whichever comes first. Not so, though, as it happens, as I discovered a couple of days ago that one of the bulbs has, in a very real sense, expired.

But WHICH ONE was it, I hear you, or possibly just the voices in my head, shout. Well allow me to keep you in delightful suspense for just a moment longer with something slightly tangential but still, as you'll come to realise in the fullness of time, relevant. I acquired a new phone a couple of months ago to replace my old Samsung Galaxy A3 which was getting a bit knackered and had always been slightly flaky in the camera department. The new one is a Samsung Galaxy A40, so pretty similar, though inevitably just a few millimetres larger in every dimension. The one thing that's startlingly different about the new phone is how much better the camera is, and in particular how brilliant the built-in wide-angle lens is. I mention this because you'll recall the slightly confusing multicoloured bulb diagram from the original series of posts, and my doomed attempts to provide a real-world version of it through the medium of lying on the kitchen floor taking photos of the ceiling. Well finally, thanks to this spiffy new camera, I can make that dream a reality. Have a gander at this:

So as you can see the bulb that's bought the farm is number 4, which my research tells me blew twice during the period of the original survey, on or before May 17, 2014 and then again around September 23rd, 2014. So the stint which has just ended lasted around 1875 days, which at the original going rate for LED bulbs of 4 quid a pop works out at just over 0.21 pence per day. Compare that with the rates of up to 25p a day I was pissing away on the here-today-literally-gone-tomorrow old incandescent bulbs and it seems like pretty good value; even more so when you consider (just to get a quick plug for my wife in here) that our current Utility Warehouse package will get any expiring LED bulbs replaced for free.

Friday, November 08, 2019

sexlebrity lookeylikey of the day

The husband of newly-installed White House religious advisor (and, it hardly needs to be said, frothing batshit lunatic) Paula White, and big-haired (and, tragically, weak-hearted) sex guru Daddy from The League Of Gentlemen. Juliet Bravo!

There are many more levels to this than just a superficial and slightly alarming resemblance, though, Firstly, it turns out that Paula White's husband isn't just Some Guy, he is in fact Jonathan Cain, a pretty big deal in some quarters as the keyboardist in Journey, themselves a pretty big deal in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s and mainly famous in this country for their 1981 hit Don't Stop Believin', digitally revived sales-wise in the late 2000s as a result of featuring in various TV shows. You can imagine that a relationship of this kind wouldn't work unless both partners were fully on board with the whole Jesus thing, and Cain's resulting "spiritual awakening" (no, stop it) has apparently caused some intra-band tension.

It's hard to put your finger on why people like Cain look odd, and I think it's partly a visual discrepancy between perceived facial age (Cain is 69) and hair colour, but partly also what I see I once called Rolling Stones Syndrome.

Paula White herself, who is 53, has a slightly curious appearance as well, which I wouldn't like to speculate upon the reasons for, but could be the result of some sort of procedure a bit like this one.

Lastly, the "Daddy" episode (it's episode 4, The Medusa Touch) is from series 3 of the League Of Gentlemen, which, in my opinion at least, marks the point at which the show jumped the comedic shark from the early, funny stuff into the more macabre stuff which eventually morphed into shows like Psychoville and Inside No. 9. That said, The Medusa Touch is one of the better episodes from series 3, not least because of the repeated references to Rummikub as a sort of foreplay device. It just so happens that I played Rummikub for the first time ever earlier this summer on a camping trip and found it to be a) good fun, especially if accompanied by plenty of wine, b) a bit like rummy, as you'd expect, but with plastic tokens instead of cards and c) not particularly erotic.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

the last book I read

The Circle by Dave Eggers.

Whoa, dude, Mae Holland is pretty stoked. She's just landed the job of her dreams at the Circle, an all-encompassing IT organisation with elements of all of the major real-world internet and social media gargantucorps, a sort of Snapstagramazon or Facetwoogle if you will. No more mundane clocking in to her old cubicle at the utility company she used to work for, and sneaking out for a rubbery sandwich from the canteen at lunchtime, now she's fully jacked into the matrix at a big multi-screen workstation in a massive open-plan glass and aluminium office with all nutritional whims catered for by in-house chefs, from a slice of gluten-free granola and goji berry cheesecake to a kohlrabi and wombat smoothie.

Working at the Circle (based, as these things always are, in the general San Francisco region) is pretty much everyone's dream job, and competition is fierce; Mae has had a bit of a head start in being able to leverage a connection with her old college friend Annie who is a high-ranking Circler and who was only too happy to put in a good word for Mae.

The Circle is all about the total immersion in social media, and the company expects some pretty extreme devotion from its employees (though it doesn't do anything as un-groovy as call them "employees", of course) including outside of "normal" working hours. Mae soon has a couple of odd interactions with people who have evidently mined her social media history for data and then got all huffy when she doesn't immediately respond to suggestions for future interaction. Clearly total immersion is the expected behaviour, so Mae throws herself in and soon becomes something of a minor Circle celebrity.

There is a world outside the Circle, of course, though with the on-site chefs and on-site dormitories available for hire to employees, it's easy to avoid most of it if you want to. Not so easy in Mae's case, though, as her parents live an hour or so's drive away and her father is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. The company's generous medical scheme covers his condition, which is great, but the oldsters don't really seem to "get" Mae's new job. And her ex-boyfriend Mercer is implacably opposed to increasing internet reach into people's lives.

But these old Luddites just don't grok the Circle's mission; a mission which becomes clearer with the adoption by some people of what's called "going transparent", i.e. wearing an on-body camera at all times and streaming the footage live to the internet so people can interact with it. Mae herself adopts this after having the temerity to go on a nocturnal sea-kayaking expedition, getting picked up by the police and subsequently hauled up before Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle's founders, for an Informal Chat about Her Future at the company.

Further complications arise in the area of interactions with men: after an unsatisfactory dalliance with the nerdy and slightly creepy Francis, Mae meets and enters into a slightly furtive relationship with the mysterious Kalden, who seems to flit unchallenged around the Circle's campus and have an unprecedented level of access to stuff but not show up on any searches or have any sort of social media profile.

Mae's internet celebrity continues to blossom now she's "gone transparent", and with the support of Circle management she agrees to be the figurehead of the company's latest mission: digitising and archiving all historical film and video footage, applying face-recognition technology to it and constructing a database of everything anyone has ever been filmed doing, ever. I mean, nothing could possibly go wrong with that, right? And who would Mae like to nominate for a real-time search to see if the internet community can crowdsource his location? Well, why not grouchy old Mercer? Nothing will convince him of the benign nature of immersive internet reach into people's daily lives, after all, than sending a drone to his remote shack to bring the entire internet all yammering simultaneously RIGHT INTO HIS FACE?

Needless to say that idea ends very badly. And Mae finds Kalden trying increasingly frenziedly to make contact with her, and when they find a way of doing it that won't be immediately broadcast via Mae's camera, he reveals the reason for his unprecedented access rights and begs her to help him change the company's course, for the future of humanity, before it's too late.

Dave Eggers is the author of a number of somewhat uncategorisable books that straddle the fiction/non-fiction boundary, including What Is The What and A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius. I have the latter on my bookshelves and recall enjoying it, as harrowing as some of it is. The Circle is definitely fiction, though of course the phenomena it satirises are very real things. Much of the detail is slyly plausible, like the blandly benign names given to outrageously invasive bits of technology like the SeeChange video cameras which are ubiquitously attached to walls and, eventually, people, and the superficially plausible arguments in favour of total freedom of information about everything offered by the Circle's evangelists. Equally, much of it is odd and unconvincing, like Mae's meekness and compliance in the face of the increasingly invasive demands being made of her, and the high-speed chase late in the novel where Mercer's car is being pursued by drones with Mae's voice booming out of them before he "logs off" in the most emphatic way, a sequence which reads as if cut-and-pasted in from a completely different novel. And for all the interesting ideas presented in the body of the novel, the one bit Eggers didn't have any great ideas about was how to end it satisfactorily.

So it's far from perfect, but highly readable, as evidenced by my having gobbled up its nearly 500 pages inside two weeks. It did put me in mind of a couple of other things, in particular Isaac Asimov's short story The Dead Past (which I mentioned in passing here), which concerns rather different technology but describes essentially the same dystopian outcome. Here's the last page on my copy of the short story anthology Earth Is Room Enough:

It was apparently made into a film in 2017, though I must say it passed me by, despite featuring some heavy names including Tom Hanks. Anyway, I will now hit "Publish" and, in due course, some automated process will post a link to this post up on Twitter, where it will be available to the entire world, only an infinitesimal sliver of whom will ever know about it. The irony of this is not lost on me, by the way.

Friday, October 25, 2019

up your ayers

Interesting to see that the Australian authorities have now banned altogether the hitherto merely frowned-upon tourist practice of climbing to the top of Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock if you're as old as me).

I have mixed feelings about this, for a number of reasons, and perhaps this is one of those situations where it 's useful to examine what you think, to see if you can work out why you think it, or at least why you think you think it. Here's a few things which I simultaneously hold to be true, and which it may be possible to mash into a coherent worldview which gives due weight to all of them:
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe own the land of which Uluru and the nearby Kata Tjuta formation form a part
  • the local Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe also believe various mystical tales involving the rock and its origins, and that the rock houses the spirits of their ancestors in some way
  • none of these beliefs is, in fact, true
  • climbing up big bits of rock and standing on top of them is exhilarating and fun
In general I'm very wary about rules or conventions which would require people who don't adhere to a particular belief system to modify their behaviour to mollify those who do adhere to that belief system, as you can clearly see how that's problematic in a huge range of situations. It would allow Christian fundamentalists to deny women abortion access, Muslim fundamentalists to restrict women's clothing choices, Jews and Muslims to stop me eating delicious bacon, and I'm sure you can think of a few of your own. Beliefs are not immune from factual examination just because those who hold them are historic victims of oppression (which Australian Aboriginal people certainly are) or have held them for greater than some arbitrarily-chosen amount of time.

On the other hand, you do have to temper the hardline atheist view with some cultural sensitivity, or, to put it another way, consider not being an arsehole just to make a point. I think there's a more obvious anti-arseholery argument against those who decided to strip off at the top of Mount Kinabalu, for instance, and then spend quite a lot of time and effort baiting Malaysian officials about it afterwards. Climbing up on top of a big rock to have a look around seems relatively benign in comparison, and it was pretty much inevitable that there would be a massive spike in people wanting to do it before the ban came into force. It is also worth pointing out that quite a few people have died attempting the climb, some through falling off and some as a result of the heat. Clearly accidents can happen, as demonstrated by the unfortunate young lady in the current Google Maps summit picture.

Obviously an element of this is my own enthusiasm for standing on top of things, and I can say reasonably confidently that if I went to Uluru (which I never have) I would be awestruck and would want to admire it from the ground from as many angles as possible but would also be slightly frustrated at the knowledge that a perfectly feasible route existed by which I could climb to the top but for some people not wanting me to.

I think the best approach is just to see it as a property rights issue and not bring religious matters into it: it belongs to them, so they get to say how it is enjoyed by others. Somebody not wanting me to eat a bacon sandwich is one thing, someone objecting to me devouring one in their front room is something else.

So given that you can't go up it, you have to go round it. Wikipedia reckons the circuit walk is 5.8 miles; that sounds reasonably achievable in a few hours, but I presume that's hugging the perimeter fairly tightly. It  may well be that better views are afforded by going back a bit and walking round keeping a distance of, say, 200 metres. How much further would that make the walk, though?

Well, if you assume that Uluru is sort of elliptical then you come up against a quite interesting mathematical phenomenon that I was previously unaware of: unlike for a circle (and all the straight-sided polygons, obviously) there is no nice neat equation for the circumference of an ellipse, and so you have to rely on approximations. As it happens, while I'd assumed it was either elliptical or a sort of rounded-off rectangle, Google Maps reveals it to actually be more of a lumpy rounded-off triangle that reminds me slightly of one of those prehistoric flint arrowheads (the arrow, in this case, pointing almost due east).

What Google Maps also provides is a distance calculating facility, which I have used before to scope out and assess the feasibility (this is highly company-dependent, obviously) of possible walking routes. Two possible Uluru circuits are presented below, differing by about a mile and a half.

I think that difference is probably slightly less than I would have guessed it would be. Jesper Parnevik's caddy had a very similar experience back in 1999.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

shelf abuse

We recently had to get an electrician in to sort out some dodgy wiring, and the location of the fault turned out to be above the main light fittings in the lounge, or, to put it another way, under the floorboards in our bedroom. This was not great news, as our bedroom, like everyone else's, is a bit of a mess of piles of children's books, discarded clothing and countless Tesco carrier bags full of our own decomposing faeces.

More importantly the bit of carpet that needed to be rolled back sat under my bookshelves, so we were faced with the unpalatable prospect of having to dismantle them. But, no use sitting around crying and generally dilly-dallying, what must be done must be done. And in fact it was a less onerous job than you might imagine, largely because of the clever modular IKEA IVAR shelving that houses the books. These shelves have occupied at least three different houses over the years so I'm reasonably well-practised at dismantling and remantling them.

Once the problem had eventually been located and fixed, it only remained to rebuild everything. You can't (well, assuming you're not literally insane) just chuck stuff back on the shelves willy-nilly, though - when you own something like 900 fiction books you need to put them in an order (alphabetically by author's surname, obviously) that will allow you to subsequently find something when you want it. Additionally, I do of course have an electronic record of which books I own which is very helpful in ensuring you're getting the books back on the shelf in the right order with no gaps, since filling gaps later involves much shunting of books along to accommodate the new entries and the associated wailing and gnashing of teeth. Much better to get it right first time.

A thing struck me while I was refilling the fiction section, though:

Fortunately when you have a database at your fingertips you can check this stuff very easily. Here is my book collection grouped by first letter of author's surname:

Letter Total Read Unread Unread%
A 62 56 6 9.68
B 114 107 7 6.14
C 49 45 4 8.16
D 52 49 3 5.77
E 12 9 3 25.00
F 74 69 5 6.76
G 38 35 3 7.89
H 55 54 1 1.82
I 11 10 1 9.09
J 15 13 2 13.33
K 44 41 3 6.82
L 65 61 4 6.15
M 71 62 9 12.68
N 7 6 1 14.29
O 17 15 2 11.76
P 22 16 6 27.27
Q 1 1 0 0.00
R 12 9 3 25.00
S 56 48 8 14.29
T 37 33 4 10.81
U 6 5 1 16.67
V 15 14 1 6.67
W 37 37 0 0.00
Y 2 2 0 0.00
Z 1 0 1 100.00

As you can see, my tweet did not lie - the first half of the alphabet accounts for more than three times as many books as the second half, 662 to 213. I would imagine some sort of discrepancy in this direction exists among the entirety of novels published in English, since the second half of the alphabet contains a few more gnarly letters like Q, U, X (the only letter I have no novels under) and Z, but surely not a threefold discrepancy. 

B is the top-ranking letter with a stonking 114 books; if you rank all those with over 50 books in descending order you get the phrase BFM LASHD which coincidentally is a codename for some of the more eye-watering sexual practices I like to indulge in at weekends.

Monday, October 21, 2019

the last book I read

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen.

We're in Florida, and political fixer and lobbyist and general all-round sleazeball Palmer Stoat is out hunting rhinoceros. Wait, you'll be saying, rhinoceros? In Florida? Well, yes, courtesy of the Wilderness Veldt Plantation, a slightly shady operation specialising in acquiring cast-offs from zoos and elsewhere and presenting them in a vaguely convincing wilderness location so hunters can come and bag them for their trophy collections.

When he's not taking pot-shots at geriatric pachyderms, Palmer's day job involves greasing the wheels of various political schemes, and of course creaming off some nice fat fees for doing so. The latest one involves the development of an island off the Florida coast, facilitated by the building of a shiny new bridge. Many snouts are in this particular trough, including Robert Clapley, a real-estate developer, Dick Artemus, the current state governor, and Willie Vasquez-Washington, another local politician. A nice little stitch-up seems to be coming together which will enable everyone to profit from the development scheme - well, everyone except the current inhabitants of the island, mostly toads. The developers have thought of this, though, and are having an environmental assessment done just to ensure that they won't be wiping out any endangered species.

Things start to unravel when Palmer Stoat indulges in one of his other favourite pastimes - throwing litter out of his moving pick-up truck onto the highway verge - and attracts the attention of Twilly Spree, slightly unstable and excitable eco-campaigner. Twilly is one of those convenient novel characters who is independently wealthy (an inheritance from his real-estate-developer father) and therefore can get on with doing plot development stuff rather than anything tedious like having to go to work. He decides that Palmer needs to be taught a lesson, and having failed to achieve the desired results by dumping a truckload of refuse in his car, ups the ante somewhat by breaking into his house and kidnapping his dog. In the course of this kidnap he encounters Palmer's wife Desie who tells him that the best way to get back at Palmer is to mess with his bridge project.

So Twilly decides to ransom the dog (a black labrador called Boodle whom Twilly renames McGuinn) to get Palmer to call off the project. Palmer is quite fond of the dog and does try to get the bridge delayed so that he can get him back, but it's not solely his project any more and others are very keen to press on with it and involve various heavies to try and ensure it gets pushed through. These include Mr Gash, who has a fetish for listening to real-life 911 calls on his car stereo, Karl Krimmler, the construction foreman who has a hatred of nature after once being bitten on the scrotum by a chipmunk, and, most barkingly of all, Clinton Tyree, former Florida state governor who now lives a hermitic existence in the Florida wilderness and subsists largely off roadkill.

Much skullduggery ensues, a few people get knocked off (mostly by being bulldozed under the island with the toads), Twilly hooks up with Palmer's dissatisfied wife and strikes up a friendship of sorts with Clinton Tyree. For all this, though, it still looks as if the bridge is going ahead. In the end it is Robert Clapley's obsession with his two East-European girlfriends which is the project's undoing. He has an obsession with Barbie dolls and is gradually funding a series of cosmetic operations which will turn the girls into human versions: blonde hair, giant tits and all. To keep them interested he wants to obtain some rhino horn extract which has aphrodisiac properties the girls find irresistible, and so he persuades Palmer to organise another trip to the Wilderness Veldt Plantation to bag one. But Twilly, Tyree and McGuinn have followed them and ensure that the hunt doesn't quite go to plan.

This is the second Hiaasen I've read after Lucky You way back in 2007. It shares a lot of features, which seem to be general Hiaasen themes: Florida setting, humorous crime-based plot involving political corruption and an ecological angle, lots of crazy assholes doing a bunch of crazy asshole shit. Sick Puppy struck me as slightly more ludicrous and over-the-top than Lucky You, but I may just have forgotten some of the wilder stuff in the intervening twelve years. I suspect Hiaasen may be one of those authors where a couple of books is all you need and the themes might start to get a bit repetitive after a while, though that's not to say there's anything wrong with either of the books on this list; they're highly entertaining, if a bit silly at times.

A couple of things which set off literary echoes of other works of fiction: Karl Krimmler's hatred of nature after the chipmunk incident reminded me vaguely of the character Cap in Stephen King's Firestarter who developed an obsession with snakes after Charlie's Dad did one of his freaky Jedi mind tricks on him, and one of the major characters (Clinton Tyree) being nicknamed Skink reminded me of the identically-named (though much less sympathetic) character in Willard Price's Underwater Adventure, who in a quite adult bit of plotting engineers the death of one of the other characters by making him (admittedly rather implausibly) step in a giant clam and be drowned by the rising tide while attempting to free himself by sawing his own foot off. Don't have nightmares, kids!

Thursday, September 26, 2019

the last book I read

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming.

So. The name's Bond. James Bond. Codename 007. Licence to...well, I expect you know the rest. Let's imagine - as difficult as that obviously is - that we've just met.

Bond is an agent of the British intelligence agency MI6, sent to the French seaside resort of Royale-les-Eaux to compete in a high-stakes card game with a shady character called Le Chiffre, who is a financier of the Soviet espionage agency SMERSH. The idea is that Bond (a skilled and experienced gambler) will be good enough to beat and bankrupt Le Chiffre, who is using SMERSH funds as part of his stake, thereby ensuring that some big Russian goons will shortly afterwards turn up to cash in Le Chiffre's chips in an unpleasantly brutal way, thereby saving MI6 the trouble of getting their hands dirty.

Bond is a loner, a man who likes to get things done, a maverick secret agent, if you will, who doesn't play by the book but - dammit - gets results. Nonetheless with the high stakes (in every sense) here he has a bit of a support network including René Mathis of French intelligence and Felix Leiter of the CIA, as well as an assistant from MI6, Vesper Lynd. Bond is far from happy about having to work with a woman, since they are flaky and unreliable in a crisis, and prone to swooning, attacks of the vapours and being distracted by shiny jewelled trinkets and fluffy kittens at key moments. Plus of course they provoke The Urges, and no man can think straight when a foxy female colleague is just standing there giving him the female vibes. Any red-blooded man, and Lord knows Bond is one of those, my word yes, is pretty much bound to get a bit distracted and rapey under such trying circumstances, and that's how missions get endangered.

Vesper actually turns out to be perfectly competent, despite making Bond go a bit funny, you know, Down There, and actually she makes for a convincing bit of arm candy for Bond to parade around the casino and blend in with the other high rollers. But soon business must intervene and it's down to a high-stakes game of baccarat for many millions of francs (which, unless I misunderstood the maths, turns out to be a disappointingly small many thousands of pounds when translated back into Proper Ruddy Money). Bond does well for a while but then loses his entire stack to Le Chiffre on the turn of a card. Disaster! Fortunately his new buddy Felix Leiter has some CIA funds he's prepared to put at Bond's disposal and, back in the game, he wins the crucial winner-takes-all hand and cleans Le Chiffre out.

And so to bed. Well, not quite, as after a celebratory small-hours dinner Vesper gets lured out to the front of the hotel on some pretext and promptly bundled into a car by some thugs and driven off at high speed. Bond gives chase but is forced off the road, trussed up and taken to an out-of-the-way location for a bit of a chat with Le Chiffre, who'd quite like his money back. And why wouldn't he, since SMERSH are breathing down his neck. So he decides to torture its location out of Bond by the not-at-all-weird method of tying him naked to a chair and repeatedly whacking him in the balls with a carpet beater. Bond is made of stern stuff, though, and just as Le Chiffre is on the verge of giving up and cutting Bond's tackle off with a bread knife the SMERSH guys arrive, kill Le Chiffre and his henchmen, give Bond a gruff nod and an "all right?" and then leave again.

Safely back in hospital and waiting for his balls to shrink back down so that he can get his trousers on again, Bond is reconciled with Vesper and they agree to escape for a holiday once Bond is discharged, whereupon they can explore their burgeoning feelings for each other and Bond can make sure the old chap is still in working order. And so it is, apparently, but after a few days' blissful rogering Vesper becomes convinced that she is being followed, becomes strangely quiet and uncommunicative and eventually kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills, leaving Bond a note explaining that she'd been blackmailed by SMERSH into becoming a double agent. Women, eh?

It's almost impossible to judge this, the first James Bond novel, published in 1953, on its own merits now, given Bond's subsequent history, especially on film. It's a very effective and gripping thriller which I raced through in a couple of days, although you could argue not a great deal actually happens - Bond beats Le Chiffre at cards, Le Chiffre isn't very happy and duffs him up, Bond recuperates with his girlfriend who turns out to be a spy. One might also observe that most of the key plot points on which the novel turns and by which Bond prevails in his various challenges are down to blind luck and not any super-ninja spycraft from Bond: the turn of a card at baccarat enabling him to beat Le Chiffre, the SMERSH agents turning up at just the right moment to rescue him from the torture room, and their subsequent decision not to just bump him off too for good measure.

Just like Tropic Of Cancer there are some general problems with women here, mainly a very similar feeling that despite the furious pursuit of women Bond (and by extension Fleming) doesn't actually like them very much. And passages like this are definitely a little bit, erm, problematic for modern sensibilities:

This is, I think, the third Bond novel I've read, both of the previous two being a very long time ago, and I would say it's better than The Man With The Golden Gun (which turns out to have been the last one, published posthumously in 1965), but not as good as Dr. No, which contains a ludicrously thrilling escape sequence about halfway through which was almost completely omitted from the film, largely because the effects budget presumably didn't stretch to the climactic battle with a giant squid.

Speaking of films, Casino Royale was of course the first film starring Daniel Craig as Bond, and just about all of the events in the book are included in the film, plus a lot more other stuff to compensate for the minimal action. The only major change is the switch from baccarat to Texas hold 'em to make the cardplay more comprehensible to modern audiences. The less said about the earlier 1967 comedy version, on the other hand, the better.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

the last book I read

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller.

Our un-named narrator - let's call him "Henry Miller" - is a struggling American writer leading a nomadic existence in Paris in the 1930s, theoretically with the purpose of squeezing out a book (perhaps this book?) but in practice mainly involving a series of minor, temporary writing gigs interspersed with lengthy periods of poverty and squalor, hanging out with other bohemian types in a series of seedy digs, occasionally sponging off better-off acquaintances who have a more lavish supply of cheese and wine, and always with an eye to a bit of the old whoring on the side.

None of the motley crew of chancers and layabouts who comprise Miller's social circle are exactly what you'd call "a catch", but hoo boy the Parisian ladies love a louche literary type who might read them a bit of saucy transgressive poetry before attempting to get into their knickers, and Miller and friends appear to be beating them off with a shitty stick, despite the fairly rudimentary contraceptive options available, the constant threat of the clap (more serious in the pre-penicillin days of the mid-1930s) and, in Miller's case at least, the presence of a wife, Mona, back in the United States.

A bit like in On The Road, a lot of the male characters here (Miller included) seem stuck in a never-ending loop of relentlessly priapic pursuit followed almost immediately by post-coital dissatisfaction and wistful reminiscences of the wife back in New York presumably awaiting news of great literary success, fame and fortune rather than a virulent dose of the clap and a wicked red wine hangover.

It's largely superfluous to try and describe the plot here, since there isn't one: basically Miller drinks and whores around Paris for a bit, briefly gets a teaching post in Dijon which is stiflingly dull and quiet in comparison, relocates to Paris, gets back into the drinking and whoring and reflects wistfully on his wife and contemplates the possibility of a return to America. FIN.

The plot isn't really the point, here, of course, and Tropic Of Cancer wasn't banned in the USA and UK for the best part of thirty years (between its original French publication in 1934 and its first legal US publication in 1961) for "not having much of a plot", but instead for being "obscene", a quaintly anachronistic concept now but one which exercised legal minds quite a lot back in the day. And to be fair if you have some sort of bingo card of Forbidden Words then Tropic Of Cancer is going to score pretty highly on it - 85 years after its publication I could not off the top of my head name a book I've read which features the word "cunt" more often, for instance.

It's interesting to compare Tropic Of Cancer with another celebrated and groundbreaking work of fiction, Lady Chatterley's Lover, whose early history followed a similar course (published in groovy unshockable Europe in 1928, not published legally in the UK until 1960). That aside they're quite different books, though: for all its readily satirisable ey-oop-yer-ladyship-appen-I'm-gunna-fook-thee content the sexual stuff in Lady Chatterley reflects an actual human relationship and carries some genuine erotic charge, despite a bit too much post-coital philosophising. You don't at any point get the sense that the various protagonists in Tropic Of Cancer actually like women very much, which probably explains the fleeting and unsatisfactory nature of most of the sexual encounters. It's certainly unclear what the women get out of it, in general, apart of course from a raging dose of the clap. Tropic Of Cancer is also more inclined to use the word "cunt" in a way that modern readers might find problematic, i.e. as a derogatory slang term for a woman rather than as a biological descriptor for a part of the female anatomy.

But, you know, the purpose of transgressive fiction is to transgress, as joyously and spectacularly as possible, and this pretty much does what it says on the tin. Despite being essentially plotless and featuring a cast of characters who are generally unappealing and untrustworthy, and indeed despite barely being a novel at all in any real sense, being really just a loosely-fictionalised summary of Miller's own bohemian existence in Paris in the 1930s, it still bowls along with a reckless energy which sucks the reader in. It goes without saying that it features on most "best novels of the 20th century" list, including the TIME magazine one which has featured here many times before, but also this wider-ranging Guardian one from 2015. It was adapted into a film in 1970 starring Rip Torn as Miller, which appears to have updated the original 1930s setting somewhat. Probably more relevant to the modern moviegoer is 1990's Henry & June, which isn't exactly an adaptation of the book but recounts some of the real-life circumstances of its writing and publication, including Miller's infatuation with French writer Anaïs Nin.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

brexilebrity lookeylikey of the day

Today it's legendarily suave and stylish Roxy Music front man Bryan Ferry and Leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore. That's his official title; he apparently prefers to be known as one of the "bad boys of Brexit" or, perhaps even more embarrassingly, the "Brex Pistols", along with Nigel Farage and my fellow old Bartholomewian Arron Banks. Now, as the man said, that's a name no-one would self-apply where I come from, as it would mark you out as an unspeakable wanker. On the other hand, every single public utterance Wigmore is on record as having made would seem to bear out the theory that he in fact is an unspeakable wanker, so that might account for it.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

devon is a place on earth

While I was retrieving the GPX info for the Sugar Loaf walk off my phone I noticed that there was another file on there. This one turned out to be from the walk I did with some friends down in Devon back in mid-July.

After our triumphant conquest of Pen y Fan back in June 2018 we wanted another challenge that could be fitted into the same Friday-to-Sunday structure - i.e. arrive Friday, pub, walk on Saturday, pub, home again on Sunday. We decided that to make a change from hill-walking we'd try a section of one of the major coast paths, the South West Coast Path being generally easiest for everyone to get to, since the majority of the people involved live in the Bristol and Bath area.

Now there are a couple of obvious issues with doing a one-day walk along a section of one of these paths, the principal one being the difficulty of working out a circular route. If you're going to walk the whole way, i.e. start point back to start point, you've either got to find a section of coast of a very specific shape (a big narrow-necked peninsula, essentially) or you're going to end up doing around half the route not on the coast path. In general, public transport is your friend here, but even so that restricts where you can go, as you have to be able to find a sensible start point for the walk, a place to stay (implicitly also the end point of the walk) and a bus or train route that links the two and has services running at the time of day you want them. I would suggest that the time you want them should be right at the start of the day, as you want to get the bit where you're relying on public transport and timetables out of the way as early as possible and be master of your own destiny for the remainder of the day.

Despite all these constraints we managed to come up with something that fitted the bill just about perfectly: Jon found this Airbnb property right in the heart of Ilfracombe, and I devised a walk making use of the bus service between Ilfracombe and Braunton, the bus stop for which turned out to be right opposite our house.

From Braunton the idea was to walk out westwards along the B3231 (a bit of an awkward and dangerous undertaking as it turns out, as it's quite a busy road and there are no pavements or verges most of the way along), pick up the coast path around Saunton and then go via Croyde, Woolacombe, Mortehoe and various intervening headlands and beaches back to Ilfracombe. We didn't quite end up doing this as we almost immediately took a wrong turning and found ourselves up on the headland south of Croyde well above the lower contours where the coast path runs. So we decided to bypass Croyde and Baggy Point, head straight for Putsborough and walk along the beach up to Woolacombe, lunch and the first pub stop of the day.

As you can see from the route map below (opening it in a new tab is the best way to get a zoomed-in view) we decided to bypass Morte Point as well later on to speed things up, but we'd still put in a pretty respectable 16.2 miles by the time we got back to Ilfracombe. Pub stops on the way were as follows:
  • the Tides Inn in Woolacombe - formerly the Golden Hind when we used to come here for camping trips in the mid-1990s; I had a pint of St. Austell Tribute
  • the Ship Aground in Mortehoe - venue for some epic Doom Bar consumption on the first night of Doug's stag do in 2008; I had a pint of Sharp's Atlantic Pale Ale this time
  • the Grampus in Lee - new to me but a nice old-fashioned pub with nice old-fashioned skull-crushingly low headroom, especially challenging when entering its dimly-lit interior from the bright sunny garden; I had a slightly fusty and slightly over-chilled pint of Otter Ale
Back in Ilfracombe we hung out at the Ship & Pilot which was about 50 yards from the house, and had a delicious fish-based dinner on the Saturday night at Take Thyme, which Hazel and I went to when we stayed in Ilfracombe in 2009 and which I'm pretty sure is still run by the same couple. There seemed to be some sort of Morris-dancing festival on as well, featuring more tattoos and piercings and heavy-metal T-shirts than I would have expected - maybe it was these guys.

The altitude profile for a low-level walk like this looks pretty absurd as the vertical scale is grossly exaggerated, but here it is anyway. The highest point of the day was near the end of the walk on the cliffs between Lee and Ilfracombe.

We headed back fairly promptly on the Sunday but did have time to have a look at Damien Hirst's imposing mega-statue Verity which stands at the entrance to the harbour. It's impressive just by virtue of its sheer scale, but I'm honestly a bit meh about this sort of thing, and Hirst generally. We did have time also to stop off for lunch in the Castle in Porlock where we also watched the early stages of the cricket World Cup final.

Photos can be found here.

Monday, September 02, 2019

loaf actually

The kids were up at my parents' place in Abergavenny for a sleepover on Saturday night so I thought, rather than just mooching around in the garden or the park on Sunday, as delightful as that would no doubt have been, we'd go for a walk. Nia had been pestering me, after our Lake District adventures, to take her on another mountain walk, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get out and go for one.

And as it happens Abergavenny has its own mini-Matterhorn just next door ready to be conquered in the form of the Sugar Loaf. I've been up this a couple of times before but since it's a nice satisfying conical peak from just about all angles (unlike, say, the Blorenge) there are a multitude of routes up. The one we chose is apparently the most popular one, starting from a slightly cheaty 330 metres or so at the car park here and heading along the Mynydd Llanwenarth ridge to approach the summit from the west, then dropping off the south side of the summit plateau and looping back to cross the path up and head back to the car park. A round trip of around three and a half miles, so slightly longer than the Cat Bells walk, but less technical and scrambly towards the top. The summit is also the best part of 500 feet higher (in fact at 596 metres or 1955 feet it's almost exactly the same height as Haystacks, although that was a much longer walk), but I suspect we started from higher up as well so there probably wasn't much difference in terms of height gain. Anyway, everyone (me, Nia, Alys and my Dad) managed fine and gave every impression of enjoying themselves. We evidently chose our moment wisely, as at various times in the recent past the slopes and summit have been occupied by over-ambitious mobility-scooter drivers and a FREAKIN' LION.

As an aside, ascending via Mynydd Llanwenarth means I get to tick off the last item on the somewhat contrived Seven Hills of Abergavenny list, so that's nice. Route map and elevation profile are below.

While we were walking Nia enquired as to where the name of the mountain came from, since she's a bright and inquisitive girl and had noticed that it is made of neither sugar nor bread nor sports any evidence of either on its slopes. So I explained that a sugar loaf was an olden-days method of sugar delivery, these being days before you could just go and pick up a bag of ready-powdered product in Tesco, and that moreover some hills are reckoned to look a bit like one, though in the case of this particular hill it's hard to see the resemblance. It was only when I'd put a summit shot up on Facebook and my friend Jenny had trotted out the obvious gag that it occurred to me to wonder: how many other hills in the world bear the same name?

So obviously there's the one in Rio de Janeiro, which, to be fair, really does resemble a sugar loaf in terms of shape. As an aside, if you'd said to me before I visited the relevant Wikipedia pages: so that statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio, that's on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, right? I would have said: yeah, sure, course it is. It turns out it's actually on top of a peak called Corcovado a few miles away.

Anyway, there are apparently three others in the UK which merit a mention on Wikipedia - one is also in Wales, over in Carmarthenshire, and while frankly insignificant in terms of height has its own railway station, briefly notorious a couple of years ago for being the least-frequented in Wales, an accolade whose publicising (echoing the interesting number paradox) instantly resulted in hordes of visitors. It's worth noting that the height figures on its Wikipedia page are wrong, since they relate to the Monmouthshire Sugar Loaf. The Carmarthenshire one looks as if it's about 330 metres or just under 1100 feet.

The other two in the UK which merit mention on Wikipedia are in Folkestone (pretty insignificant at around 170 metres and mainly of interest because the first mile or so of the Channel Tunnel carves under it) and in the Malvern Hills. Many others are available worldwide; Ireland has five, the United States has dozens. I daresay there's a book in it if you wanted to obsessively go and climb them all.

[EDIT: I took a small number of photos, including the obligatory trig point shot. These can be found here.]