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.]