Wednesday, December 30, 2020

the year of not living dangerously

Well, here we are at the end of another year, one which has, on balance, sucked ass most egregiously for an exceptionally large number of people. I would include myself and my immediate family among that number while at the same time acknowledging that by most objective criteria we've been exceptionally lucky: my job enables me to work from home very easily (I'd already been doing it a couple of days a week since Huw's arrival in late 2016), we've all been healthy and virus-free (apart from the inevitable round of coughs and sniffles every time the kids went back to school) and we've managed to retain whatever meagre wisps of sanity we were in possession of at the start of the year. 

During the heady days of summer between the first and second waves of the coronavirus pandemic we managed to get away for a couple of camping trips, one in Devon and one in Yorkshire, but apart from that we were largely confined to barracks. One of the side-effects of being away less often is that I got a lot more reading done - at least, I assume that's the cause of the numbers you'll see below, but as I have precious little explanation for some of the peaks and troughs in previous years it could just be random variation. 

Anyway, here are some graphs (as always, click to enlarge) which chart some blog and book statistics for this year and also 2019, since I don't seem to have blogged about it at the time. Similar posts can be found from early in 2019, 2018, 2016 (twice), 2013 and 2012. Since I'm not going to finish my current book before the end of tomorrow, and nor am I intending any further blog posts this year after posting this one, I can now declare the blog activity closed for 2020. Statistical nuggets here include:

  • 2019 was a poor year for reading activity with 17 books and an aggregate total of 5147 pages, better than 2016 and 2017 where my time would have been partly taken up with wrangling a premature baby, but ahead of only 2014 in "normal" years. 
  • 2020, by contrast, was a bumper year with 24 books read (more than any year since the all-time high of 2011) and a mammoth total of 9223 pages, exceeded only by 2011, the year of my honeymoon and also the last child-free year of my life. The only other years in which I've read 24 or more books were 2007, 2009 and 2010, but none of them could match 2020's page count.
  • As a consequence, 2020's average book length smashed all previous records at just over 384 pages (2015 with 333 was the previous record-holder). Six of 2020's 24 books were over 500 pages; even 2011 only included four, 2007 one and 2009 none. Longest book of the year was House Of Leaves at 709 pages (some of, them, admittedly, only containing a single word); shortest was Behind The Waterfall at 199. 
  • Overall blogging frequency remains low by historical standards, but 2020's total of 68 posts (this one being the 68th) is the highest since 2016's 77. The book-reviews-as-a-percentage-of-total-blog-posts number just avoids being the highest ever at 35.29% (2018's was very slightly higher).

Friday, December 18, 2020

you must lower me into the steall

A couple of further notes on that Scottish trip, as my memory has now been jogged by looking at the photo gallery, and as I don't seem to have blogged about it at the time: we stayed in one of the cottages here between Glencoe village and Ballachulish; perfectly nice as I recall and well-situated for Glencoe and Fort William. Just to prove that point we'd stayed in the same cottage the previous year and knocked off a pair of Munros in each of those locations. The plan was to do something broadly similar this time. That's not quite how it went, though, and the reasons why not may have some general applicability for those planning and doing mountain walks. 

First attempted expedition was to do the Ring of Steall, one of the great Scottish horseshoe ridge walks, which incorporates four Munros with the option of a couple more if you start super-early and don't mind doing a couple of out-and-back detours from the ridge. Most people will find that four does them quite nicely. The standard route here is to park in one of the car parks up Glen Nevis directly south of Ben Nevis itself and then do the route in a clockwise direction, the start and finish point being at about twelve o'clock. One of the first things you have to do if you take this route is cross the Water of Nevis via the bridge in Steall Meadows. Meh, no biggie, you'll be saying. Weeeell, yeah, but this bridge is a little out of the ordinary. Here are pictures of me, and subsequently Jenny, crossing it.

It is a bit intimidating, and the consequences of falling off are unpalatable (I mean, you wouldn't die, but you'd get extremely wet), but it's not utterly terrifying once you're on. The wires are as taut as they reasonably can be, while still conforming to the laws of physics, so it's not like slacklining, but you do need to keep your mind on the job. Different people have different triggers for going a big rubbery one, though, and this guy (who ended up doing broadly the walk we were planning to do) seems to have bailed out and preferred to ford the river on foot. To be fair, the river was probably a bit shallower when he did it. Hazel was also, it's fair to say, not especially enthused about the prospect, but, in her defence, we'd just discovered she was pregnant with what turned out to be Nia, so a slightly raised level of caution was probably understandable. I have no pictures of Hazel crossing the bridge, probably because the inebriated-docker-strength swearing directed at me throughout fogged the images. At least, I laughingly said when she arrived safely on the other side, we don't have to come back this way. I should really learn to keep my mouth shut.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the next thing you have to do is ford another, smaller river just below a waterfall. Since it had been raining for the previous fortnight the waterfall was in spectacularly torrential spate - quite a sight, but it meant that a high proportion of the rocks that would normally present themselves as stepping stones were submerged, and after much searching around we concluded that there wasn't a way across that didn't carry a risk of getting either drenched or killed. So we turned back, somewhat reluctantly as it meant that we had to go back the way we'd come, including the bridge. It's actually not so bad on the way back as it's slightly downhill, although that does make getting on in the first place slightly more hair-raising as the drop is a lot longer.

Lessons here are: don't assume little blue lines on the map are insignificant streams which you can just step across, and remember river volumes are highly variable (we found the same thing here and on our ascent of Ben Lui in 2009 but managed to get round it with some radical route re-planning both times). Also, don't assume everyone in the group has the same triggers for going NOPE NOPE NOPITY NOPE, and be understanding when it happens at an obstacle that seems relatively trivial to you.

Anyway, we ended up driving back and going to Kinlochleven for the afternoon, firstly for a mooch around the ice climbing centre (and a visit to the bar, obviously), and thereafter for a session in the Tailrace Inn. We didn't go to the visitor centre, which houses The Aluminium Story, a guide to Kinlochleven's quite interesting industrial history - I forget whether we found it was closed or were just distracted by the prospect of a pint. The other pub that were are in right at the end of the photo gallery, incidentally, is the splendid Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, which I previously mentioned here.

Our next attempted mountain walk was to conquer the two Munros conveniently placed round the back of the cottage where we were staying - well, not exactly, but close by to the south of the A82 between Ballachulish and South Ballachulish (which, confusingly, is due west of Ballachulish, although it is south of North Ballachulish). These two (Sgorr Dhonuill and Sgorr Dhearg) form part of an overall group of peaks known as Beinn a'Bheithir, and are relatively benign in terms of height and difficulty. I have a feeling we didn't set out until relatively late in the day (after lunch, perhaps) as we were waiting for a break in the unrelenting downpour; I think we eventually decided to just go anyway as otherwise we would run out of daylight. We had intended to do this route, only anti-clockwise, to get the boring low-level bit on the road out of the way first. 

That should have been easy, and the entrance off the A82 onto the complex of forestry tracks that leads up into the valley from where you can scramble up onto the summit ridge is completely obvious (it's here). We nonetheless managed to waste a phenomenal amount of time scrambling about in a pathless wood failing to locate the path, probably owing to either mistaking a war memorial for a church or vice versa and leaving the road too early. Whatever the reason, we eventually emerged, wet and frustrated, onto the correct path and followed it for a bit, but before we could start gaining any serious height the heavens opened again and we soon decided that it was a bit too late in the day and we were already a bit too wet for an expedition of this magnitude and we should probably knock it on the head, particularly since the clouds which were dumping gallons of water on us were starting to shroud the summits a bit. You can get an idea of the conditions from the two photos below, which show Jenny and Hazel just about to set off from the cottage, and Jim showing his contempt for the whole situation by having a piss on some logs. 

The lesson here, apart from the obvious one of learn to read a map, you cretin, is that often the most difficult and frustrating bit of a walk, navigationally speaking, is right at the start while you try and find a way onto the hill you're aiming for while respecting the boundaries of other people's property and picking your way around all the other stuff (buildings, fences, walls, lakes, trees, branches of Screwfix) that you don't get so much of once you've gained a bit of altitude. Once you've done that it's also much easier to see where you're going and where you've been, and the contour information from the map and the terrain also helps. 

Just writing this blog post down has rekindled feelings of annoyance and frustration at being thwarted twice within the space of a few days (not to mention marooned on Mull in between), and a determination to one day get back and conquer the six Munros we missed out on, plus a few of the remaining 260 or so I haven't done yet. Obviously having been locked in the house for most of the last ten months hasn't helped either. Realistically this might have to wait ten years or so until the kids are old enough to come with us. Will I still be up for twanging precariously across a wire bridge at the age of 60? Of course I will.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

and you will know us by the trail of deadly toxins

You will of course remember this post from 2012 and my breathless excitement at having spotted an interesting Google Maps anomaly, something it turns out some people spend just about all their waking hours searching out and cataloguing. 

For those of you who don't remember, or can't be arsed to follow the link, the interesting anomaly was an aeroplane passing between what I referred to at the time as "the Googlecopter" (but would of course have actually been a satellite) and the ground just at the moment an image was captured, and thereby appearing to be parked rather inconveniently on the outfield at Bagshot Cricket Club. Google Maps' commendable desire to keep satellite imagery up-to-date means that the plane no longer appears (and nor does the one in Russell Square in central London).

Anyway, I was noodling around looking for some stuff up in the west Glasgow area the other day - a section of old railway path that I'd walked 20-odd years ago which turned out to be the section of National Cycle Route 7 running roughly west from Paisley Canal railway station - and my attention was drawn to what at first appeared to be a long straight section of motorway heading roughly north-west and culminating in what appeared to be an impressively long bridge to nowhere in particular. It didn't seem to be possible to drop the little yellow StreetView man onto it, though, so I zoomed in for a closer look.

So as you can see it's another aeroplane; I don't have the in-depth knowledge to say what type but it's a 4-engined type which means it can't be a Boeing 777 like the Bagshot one; I suspect it may be a 747. The extra info on the second image is the result of me trying to measure the length of the visible vapour trail - it's a little over 8 miles, but it would be a fair bit longer it if wasn't abruptly cut off at its south-eastern end by a transition in the satellite imaging. Of course the abrupt transition could also indicate the point at which the captain turned over the queen of diamonds and threw the switch to release the mind-altering chemicals in order to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

It would be a spectacular but largely pointless feat of engineering to build a bridge to span the western reaches of the Firth of Clyde at this point (a distance of about 4 kilometres), since the Cowal peninsula on the eastern side is a pretty sparsely populated place. Scotland has quite a few of these places along its eastern coast, usually knobbly peninsulas which are poorly connected to the main UK transport system: Knoydart, Applecross and Ardnamurchan are a few other examples.

I have a couple of low-key sort-of Ardnamurchan anecdotes for you: we nearly-but-not-quite went there in September 2011 as part of our last pre-kids Scottish distillery-and-Munro-bagging holiday. This was the holiday when we managed to bag precisely zero Munros as the weather was unrelentingly shitty throughout, but we did get to the Tobermory distillery. We did this by taking the smaller and less-frequented Lochaline-Fishnish ferry (the main riute goes from Oban to Craignure), which, it turned out, required a longish drive from where we were staying (at the western end of Glen Coe) along some tiny winding roads which skirt the vicinity of the Ardnamurchan peninsula before turning off south just short of the village of Strontian, after which the chemical element strontium was named (the element was first isolated from minerals mined in the vicinity). Anyway, the weather was rotten but the ferry was still running, but clearly the locals knew something we didn't, as you can see from the photograph below (that's our car).

Sure enough, after we'd done the distillery tour we made our way back to Fishnish only to discover that all ferry crossings for the rest of the day had been cancelled and we'd have to spend the night in Tobermory. Luckily we were able to find a B&B to book into, whereupon we went and got pissed. Every cloud, and all that. A small selection of photos from the trip can be found here - no mountain summits for obvious reasons but a few more amusingly windswept ferry pictures.

My reference to Strontian above inspired me to go and look at other chemical elements named after places and see how many I'd been to: there are some obvious ones like Americium, Francium (and Gallium, also named for France), Californium, Polonium (Poland) and Lutetium (Paris). It would be a stretch for me to claim Strontian, really, as we turned off a couple of miles short of it. The secret to bagging stuff in this list is of course to take a trip to Ytterby in Sweden, after which four elements are directly named and another four more indirectly. I expect there's a Wallander mystery set there whereby a succession of victims are dispatched with lumps of scandium, ytterbium, etc., or if there isn't, there should be.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

the last book I read

One Step Behind by Henning Mankell.

Meet Inspector Kurt Wallander. Again. Is he still keeping up his gruelling schedule of not playing by the book but - dammit - getting results? You bet your IKEA-cushioned Swedish ass he is. In fact he's dialled up the mavericity to near-critical health-endangering levels, and a visit to his doctor after a near-death experience of drowsiness at the wheel of his car reveals that he has incipient diabetes, a legacy of his general lifestyle habits which include long hours, little sleep, stress, gallons of coffee, poor diet and occasionally snarfing a couple of herring and a pound of lingonberries off a Billy bookcase.

But at the moment there's little time for lifestyle re-alignment, five-mile jogs and endless Ryvitas: crimes are afoot that require Wallander's finely-tuned detection skills to unravel. It starts with some missing persons - firstly a group of three young people, all good friends and known to be in the habit of organising themed "happenings" involving dressing up in historical costumes, and none of whom have been seen for some weeks. Their parents have received occasional postcards from other European locations, purportedly from their children, but one of them is suspicious that her daughter didn't write "her" postcard. Secondly, Wallander's colleague Svedberg, normally conscientious and punctual, hasn't been seen at work for a few days.

Svedberg's whereabouts are the first to come to light, after Wallander leads a group of police to check out his flat: he's in his flat, in a chair. Well, most of him is; some of his head and its contents is on the wall and there's a shotgun on the floor. A possible connection to the missing youths is provided by the revelation that Svedberg had been working on the case, but had seemingly kept the details of his enquiries secret from his colleagues.

Soon enough the three missing youths turn up, badly decomposed and arranged in a bizarre tableau on a secluded beach. Pretty obviously they haven't been there the whole time, or someone would have found them earlier, but that means that someone killed them, went to the trouble of concealing their remains, probably by burying them, and then later dug them up again and put them on display. But who? And why?

Further murders ensue: the fourth member of the historical dressing-up group (absent from the Midsummer celebration at which the other three were killed owing to a gastric bug) turns up, attempts to kill herself, and (after being rescued) flees to a remote island cottage owned by her parents, where she is pursued firstly by Wallander, who wants to ask her some questions, and subsequently by the killer, who wants to shoot her in the head, and does. Shortly afterwards the killer strikes again, shooting a young couple having some wedding photographs taken on a beach, and topping the photographer for good measure.

Wallander and his team are struggling to keep up; all they have to go on is a photograph found in Svedberg's flat of a woman supposedly called Louise who may or may not have been Svedberg's girlfriend. Circulating her photograph around the neighbouring police forces eventually yields a result: the Danish police identify her and Wallander eventually tracks her down to a bar in Copenhagen and confronts her, whereupon she almost immediately gives him the slip and disappears. Wallander quickly realises why: Louise is actually a man, and slipped out of the bar unrecognised after a quick wig and make-up removal. So was Louise's male alter ego Svedberg's gay lover? Is he the killer?

Wallander eventually realises that the killer's detailed knowledge of his victims' plans derives from his having opened and read their mail, and some cross-referencing of postal staff, their delivery shifts and the time and place of the killings finally leads him to knock on Åke Larstam's door. Larstam isn't just lounging around in his pants drinking Stella and watching Pointless, though: he has a detailed escape plan up his sleeve and evades the police once again. Riled by Wallander's interference, he decides to make him his ninth victim and breaks into Wallander's flat to wait for him. Here is the killer's one fatal mistake, though: Wallander rarely goes home, preferring to take occasional catnaps at his desk or in his car. When Wallander does eventually return Larstam takes a pot-shot at him but only succeeds in grazing his cheek, whereupon a chase ensues to some nearby woods, culminating in Wallander throwing off his diabetic lethargy, ambushing Larstam and clocking him one in the mush, rendering him unconscious and ready to be brought in for questioning.

And so to bed. Well, briefly, for there is some wrapping-up activity to be done including Wallander taking the plaudits of his colleagues for his rumpled maverick genius in solving the case and the rueful apologies of the pompous stuffed shirts at Sweden Central for questioning his methods. And then it's off for a well-deserved break, some fresh air and perhaps a green salad.

I purchased One Step Behind in some sort of BOGOF deal along with its predecessor Faceless Killers a few years back. Faceless Killers was perfectly fine, but I'm not completely sure I would have bought another Mankell/Wallander on the strength of it. However, since I already had this one and fancied a mystery thriller I thought I'd give it a go. And this seems to me a much better book, as tired as the old serial killer trope is. It certainly does the minimal job required of a mystery thriller, which is to make you intensely interested to find out what happens next, even though the final revelation is inevitably a bit of a disappointment. Wallander is an endearing protagonist, though it's hard to avoid maverick cop genre cliché in a field already populated by the likes of Aurelio Zen, Harry Hole and John Rebus, not to mention a whole slightly less rumpled parade of the likes of Wexford, Morse, Banks, Dalgliesh, Wycliffe et endlessly cetera

Seasoned thriller-readers (and thriller-watchers) will recognise a couple of plot points which echo other works: the means by which the killer gets detailed information about his prospective victims (intercepting their mail which he has privileged access to thanks to his job) is strongly reminiscent of the methods of Francis Dolarhyde in Thomas Harris' Red Dragon (though that was home movies rather than letters). And the episode where Wallander breaks into Larstam's flat to find it customised to Larstam's own requirements is vaguely reminiscent of the similar (though somewhat more over-the-top) scene in Se7en

One Step Behind is one of the novels adapted into a 90-minute drama starring dear dear Kenny Branagh as Wallander; judging by this clip of the ending a few substantial plot details were changed, notably Larstam's death, the involvement of Wallander's daughter and a cameo from Tom Hiddleston, none of which appears in the book.

tinker, tailor, soldier, corpse

Authorial deaths are like buses, you wait nine-and-a-half months for one and then two come along in quick succession. Although to be fair they are unlike buses in that you can't buy tickets; that would be a bit weird. Anyway, hot on the heels of the death of Alison Lurie earlier this month comes the death of spy novelist (and former actual spy) John le Carré (aka David Cornwell). Two le Carré books have featured on this blog, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold waaaay back in early 2008 and Our Kind Of Traitor in 2015.

Le Carré was 89, which slots him into seventh place in age order, below the six nonagenarians on the list. He also takes second place (or second-last place, depending how you look at it) in the curse length list at a little under 13 years. 2020 has now featured three authorial deaths; only 2013, 2017 and 2018 (four each) have more. Of course 2020 isn't over yet.

The current list is below; note that I've retrospectively swapped Iain Banks and Elmore Leonard (June 2013 and August 2013 respectively) as they were in the wrong order. 
Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d

Monday, December 07, 2020

spare me the lurie details

Alison, I know this world is killing you. Or, more specifically, the Curse Of Electric Halibut is killing you. It could not, however, be said that Alison Lurie, who died aged 95 on December 3rd, didn't have a pretty good innings. At 95 she wrests the title of oldest curse victim from the cold dead fingers of Doris Lessing, and moreover smashes the previous record for resisting the curse's inevitable clutches, The Truth About Lorin Jones having appeared here nearly 14 years ago in March 2007 (Anita Shreve was the previous holder of that record).

That was followed by Foreign Affairs in 2013 and Imaginary Friends in March of this year. The War Between The Tates is the other one I've read; it seems like a tired old cliché to say it, since it's the one that won the Pulitzer and everything, but Foreign Affairs is probably the best one. Then again maybe that's why it won the Pulitzer. 

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d

Sunday, December 06, 2020

the last book I read

Looking For The Possible Dance by A.L. Kennedy.

We're in Scotland. I know, I know, far from ideal, but that's where Margaret was born and raised and lives, so that's where we are. Raised mainly by her father after her mother flew the coop early doors - her father told her for a long time that her mother had died, but eventually admits this isn't true.

Margaret is of a generally bright and helpful disposition and works in some sort of community centre as a general helper - manning the tills in the café, helping with bookings and event organising in the community hall - despite the centre's manager, Mr. Lawrence, being a bit of a rum cove who might possibly hate Margaret, or might possibly want to sleep with her, or possibly both at the same time.

Margaret has a boyfriend, Colin, whom she met at university in England and had a thing with; there was then a gap and they then hooked up again later when they were both living back in Scotland. It's hard to be any more definite than that because one of the things that the book does is jump back and forth in time between (and even within) chapters without much identifying context as to when each section takes place. So you have to work it out for yourself as you go along. What certainly can be said is that the following events happen in some order and are described in the book: Colin and Margaret hook up again and have a relationship punctuated by at least a couple of further on/off moments. Margaret's father dies. Colin, while hanging about in the centre where Margaret works waiting for her to finish, has an altercation with a shifty bloke trying to interest some of the centre's patrons in some sort of dodgy loan scheme and sends him packing. Margaret gets involved with preparations for a ceilidh in the hall, despite Mr. Lawrence's misgivings (basically that it all sounds a bit rowdy and that dangerous levels of Fun may be involved).

What we can be reasonably certain of is that the last few events described happen in the following sequence: the ceilidh happens, and is generally a roaring success, except for the unfortunate appearance of Mrs. Lawrence, who turns, up, gets roaringly pissed, has to be rescued from the toilets by Margaret, is bundled into a car and taken home by Mr. Lawrence and then rather unfortunately chokes on her own vomit and dies during the night. Mr. Lawrence decides that this is all Margaret's fault and fires her from the centre on some made-up charges. Margaret, being currently in an "off" period in her relationship with Colin, arranges to head down to London and stay with a friend for a while. Meanwhile, Colin, just wandering down the street minding his own business, is bundled into a cab and spirited away by some shady gangster types who turn out to be associated with the loan shark that Colin ejected from the centre. They and their soft-spoken boss. Mr. Webster, warn Colin off from further meddling in their business affairs by beating him up a bit and then nailing his hands and feet to the wooden floor of an abandoned building. 

Some indeterminate amount of time later, after being reunited with Colin and helping him convalesce (since there is a whole host of things he won't be able to do for a while, like walk or wipe his own arse), Margaret follows through with her plan to go to London. Colin gives her an ultimatum: stay away forever or come back and be with him forever. What will she do? Place bets now!

This is the second AL Kennedy book on this list, and the first thing I'd say about it is that I thought it was a lot better than the other one, So I Am Glad, which I read back in 2009. That one was an incongruous mix of gritty realism and some odd supernatural elements, this one sticks mainly to the gritty realism, and all the better for it. Looking For The Possible Dance was actually Kennedy's first novel, published in 1993 (So I Am Glad was her second). There are some nice gently comic moments, mainly involving the motley crew of performers Margaret has to organise for the ceilidh, and Margaret and Colin are nice, earnest people, perhaps both without that protective shell of cynicism which enables other people to contrive to be looking the other way when bad things happen so they can plausibly avoid getting involved. The moments when the serious shit goes down at the end (Mrs Lawrence's demise after the ceilidh and Colin's naily ordeal) are a jarring contrast to all that, no doubt intentionally. What was also jarring to me was how similar Colin's ordeal was - incurring the wrath of some local Mr Big and getting nabbed by his heavies, taken to a discreet location and brutalised - to that undergone by Ken Nott near the end of Iain Banks' Dead Air, a book I read over seven years ago but, coincidentally, made reference to, and to that passage in particular, only a couple of weeks ago. No suggestion here that Colin is actually dead afterwards, though.

Anyway, I enjoyed this without being, to recycle a phrase from the So I Am Glad review, blown away by it. Nonetheless it won some awards when it first came out, most notably the Somerset Maugham Award in 1994. Previous books on this list to have won the same award include Metroland, A Good Man In Africa and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

I note that Kennedy's novella Original Bliss was made into a German-language film (under the title Gleißendes Glück) in 2016. The only thing I have to say about it is that unless its plot diverges quite sharply from that of the novella, which is a bracing but firmly unerotic tale of sexual perversity, the Plot Keywords section on that IMDb page may well lead to disappointment.

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

light at the end of the tunnel

I will confess (and have done a couple of times before on this very blog) to a bit of a thing for disused railway lines, industrial archaeology and urban exploration. The way I rationalise the railway aspect of this to myself is that I have no interest in trains themselves and all the associated (as I sniffily deem it) geekery, but being impressed by the magnificence of a viaduct is no different from being awestruck by the magnificence of, say, St. Peter's Basilica, it's just a different sort of architecture. The further beauty of old railway architecture is that it can be combined with a rugged and windswept walk in the countryside (or, in certain circumstances, a nice bike ride), another thing that I am very keen on.

This extends to following a few enthusiasts on Twitter, which is how I caught sight of this tweet earlier today. 

This is the railway path between Keswick and Threlkeld in the Lake District which you might recall we walked along in 2008 but were then thwarted from walking along in a similar manner in 2018 by the damage inflicted by Storm Desmond in 2015, which had swept away a couple of old bridges. The picture below is from 2018; the one below it of me on one of the now collapsed bridges, probably irreparably weakening its superstructure with my colossal weight, is from 2008. 

I must say I expected that the rebuilding work would be massively protracted and would possibly never be completed, especially given the lack of progress that seemed to have been made in the couple of years between the damage occurring and our visit. However, things were evidently happening behind the scenes, and two completely new bridges have since been installed (and a third original bridge strengthened and repaired). Some details about the rebuilding project and some videos can be found here. More impressive in some ways than the bridge work was the re-opening of the buried tunnel under the A66 viaduct, whose bypassing by the old path necessitated a section of boardwalk which was a bit hilly and narrow, and therefore a bit awkward if you were either running or on a bike. 

[EDIT] Here's a photo I found from the 2008 collection which shows the eastern portal of the tunnel as it appeared at the time. You can just about see the curved brickwork of the very top of the tunnel opening above what was then ground level.

This video from the excellent people at Forgotten Relics gives a pretty good summary of the work that's been carried out. I'm looking forward to checking it all out on a future visit once, you know, all this (waves hands around vaguely) is out of the way. 

Thursday, November 26, 2020

celebrity cookeylikey of the day

The Velvet Underground's bass- and viola-wrangler (and, hey, why not, Welshman of the Day) John Cale (pictured here in 1967) and absurd Turkish steak-wrangler and internet viral sensation Salt Bae (real name Nusret Gökçe, so, yeah, Salt Bae it is). Note that literally the only difference between them is that Bae's chin hair extends to a goatee whereas Cale restricts himself to a thing that I would call a "soul patch", but which apparently has various other names including a "jazz dot" and, incomprehensibly, a "Nollsey". That last one may of course just be a mischievous Wikipedia edit (the only person I could locate who goes by that name is this guy) and so should probably be taken with - no, wait for it - a pinch of salt.

Monday, November 23, 2020

the last book I read

Behind The Waterfall by Georgina Andrewes.

Jo Kelly is restless. Sure, she's got some useful qualifications and a nice steady boyfriend, Rick, but he's a bit squishy and unambitious and she has a yearning for adventure and to be doing things that matter in some way. So she signs up for a project to build water infrastructure with a women's group in Kenya, something that will put her engineering qualifications to good use.

Rick isn't especially happy about it, as Jo's assessment of the state of their relationship (basically that they're bimbling along amiably enough but not really going anywhere) is a bit of an unpleasant surprise to him, and harsh words are exchanged, but in a way this just makes Jo's decision to go easier. She arrives in Kenya and reports to the headquarters of the international aid agency she'll be working for, whereupon she is introduced to Mr. Katambo, the regional administrator for the village where she'll be living and working. He has taken it upon himself to provide transport for the long drive to Kingangi village, but the journey turns out to be even more protracted then Jo had anticipated, as several stops are made on the way to run various errands and drink beer.

This experience, and the discovery that the house Jo is supposed to be living in is a bit of a shambles, soon knock the corners off Jo's misty-eyed idealism, as do the thinly-veiled hostility and suspicion from some of the women she is supposed to be whipping into shape as a well-drilled self-empowered feminist water-engineering collective. But the country is beautiful, exotic and mysterious and the neighbours are friendly and generous. In particular Jo befriends Jerusa, the young woman next door, and through her meets Isaiah, a teacher at a local school and a fiercely intelligent political activist, with whom she starts a relationship. 

This is all very lovely, of course, but there are certain realities in a post-colonial country like Kenya that make an interracial relationship tricky. Is Jo just sleeping with Isaiah because she fancied an exotic shag? Similarly, is Isaiah just clocking up a notch on his bedpost so that he can boast to his friends later about fucking a white woman? Other questions arise as well: is Isaiah's commitment to political activism going to get him into trouble? Is Jo going to see any progress on her project or is she just going to spend all her time writing grant applications to various agencies? Will she be able to overcome Mr. Katambo's scepticism about having a female engineer in charge of his project?

Other realities intervene brutally when Jo's house is broken into at night by a gang of knife-wielding men, one of whom rapes her. She is then subjected to a further ordeal when she reports the attack to the police, the police chief asking why she hadn't resisted more, and implying that she must have either encouraged the assault or enjoyed it when it happened. In the face of this discouragement Jo nonetheless insists on bringing a case, and finds an unexpectedly resolute ally in Mr. Katambo. Isaiah, meanwhile, is notable by his absence, having been caught up in the events of the failed military coup in Nairobi. 

The wheels of justice turn slowly, though, and Jo returns to work and resumes living in her house. Rick travels out from England to spend time with her, and they resume their relationship in a non-committal sort of way. Rick eventually departs, and Jo's superiors at the aid agency inform her that they've regretfully decided that they can't guarantee her safety and that they're therefore terminating her placement. With the trial of her rapist in its final stages, a big fund-raising event for the village in the offing, and Isaiah now returned safely from Nairobi, Jo has to decide whether to try to make a future in Africa, or return home.

That's the story in rough chronological order - it's not presented that way in the book, though; we're plunged straight into Jo's night-time assault and rape on page one. The rest of the story plays out in a series of jumps backwards and forwards in time after that scene. This stuff never happens by accident, and the idea presumably was that the brutal opening would cast a shadow over the rest of the book, the scenes set before the rape in particular. It's impossible to view Jo's innocent delight at discovering the village and her neighbours, and her carefree outdooor fucking with Isaiah (including on a ledge behind a waterfall near the village, an episode which gives the novel its title) in quite the same light, knowing what we know.

It's a fairly short book (under 200 pages) which has some interesting points to make about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa, even those interventions made out of a genuine desire to help and do good, which cannot help but be tainted by the obvious fact of Western interference having fucked up many of these countries in the first place. Throw interpersonal and interracial relationships into the mixed-up mess of power structures and things get messy pretty quickly. 

Behind The Waterfall doesn't do anything terribly startling, but on its own terms I think it works pretty well, and Jo is an engaging central character. It makes a lot of the same points about Western intervention in post-colonial Africa as The Poisonwood Bible, though less luridly and more concisely. Other novels on this list to have been set principally in Africa include A Good Man In Africa (obviously) and Henderson The Rain King in central(ish) Africa and Memory Of Snow And Of Dust, The Conservationist, Age Of Iron, The Good Doctor and Frankie & Stankie in South Africa. 

Behind The Waterfall also won a Betty Trask Award (an award specifically for first novels) in 1988; the most recent book on this list to win the same award was Pig, whose review contains a links to a few others. 

Friday, November 20, 2020

this book is dead good

One further note following the Harvest post: the bit near the end where the hitherto sober, stolid and unadventurous protagonist Walter goes on a homebrew bender and then chows down a load of dubious mushrooms as a hangover cure is oddly jarring, the mushroom bit in particular, and the section which follows (basically most of the remainder of the book) has a weirdly woozy, spooked quality to it which could just be the after-effects of a skinful of ale and some hallucinogenic shrooms, but also just made me wonder: are we perhaps meant to infer that Walter has died? I guess the shrooms are the most likely culprit if so, and what follows would be some extended point-of-death hallucination à la Jacob's Ladder, or some sort of weird afterlife shit. A similar reading is much more explicitly suggested by Lanark, as I mentioned at the time.

Another book where this sort of reading is possible, and may even be the most sensible reading, is Iain Banks' Dead Air, which I read back in 2015. You'll recall the ill-advised drunken answerphone message which Ken goes on a wholly implausible breaking-and-entering spree to try to erase before sinister gangster type John Merrial can hear it, and the horribly efficient abduction of Ken by Merrial's henchmen once Merrial views the CCTV footage shortly afterwards. Ken, gaffer-taped to a chair in some dingy London basement, fully expects to be killed once Merrial has interrogated him a bit, and literally shits himself fairly early in the ordeal, just to prove he's taking things seriously. But, after a convincingly outraged performance from Merrial's wife Celia following the suggestion that she and Ken have been fucking (which they totally have been, needless to say), Merrial cools off a bit and lets Ken go, with strict finger-wagging warnings about what will happen to him if he ever blabs about any of this. 

I mean, maybe it's just me, but it strikes me that a proper ruthless gangster would probably just have Ken rubbed out at this point, rather than leaving him free to shoot his mouth off indiscreetly, something it was after all literally his job to do as a talk-radio host. So maybe the best approach is to view the brief epilogue where Merrial fucks off to Amsterdam semi-permanently and Ken and Celia are free to go semi-public with their relationship and eventually skip through the streets of Glasgow hand-in-hand as being as real as the last section of Vanilla Sky, only without quite as many Scientologists.

The really annoying bit about all this is that I'm convinced there's a small section in Dead Air, probably buried in one of Ken's pop-culture rants, which mentions a film or a book which uses this plot device (there have, after all, been many), something which is just possibly meant to foreshadow the book's ending and give you a clue about how to interpret it. Of course I'm fucked if I can find it now, short of re-reading the entire book, and it's too late to ask Banks himself for a ruling from the chair.

[EDIT] I'm going to break with tradition and put this here, rather than in another post: I found it, on page 232 of my copy. It's a brief discussion between Ken and one of his mates about the ending of Total Recall (the 1990 Arnie version), and the fairly respectable theory that the whole middle and end sections of the film were a dream and that Doug Quaid aka Arnie has never left the couch at Rekall. Is it meant to be a clue? Who knows?

Lastly, anyone following me on Twitter and wondering about the provenance of the various scurrilous cropped sections of text in this thread should wonder no longer: it is of course extracts from Moby-Dick

Saturday, November 14, 2020

the last book I read

Harvest by Jim Crace.

Walter Thirsk has got himself into a nice comfortable little rut; in fact so has everyone in his village. Cut off from regular passers-by in their sealed-off little valley they pass the years in simple country pursuits: planting barley, harvesting barley, making porridge and beer out of the harvested barley, occasionally throwing in a bit of wheat to mix it up a bit, some small-scale livestock husbandry, extreme suspicion of and open hostility to strangers, the usual sort of stuff.

The trouble with getting into this sort of a rut is that you can find yourself ill-equipped to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances, and WAIT A MINUTE here are some circumstances quickly changing just as the novel opens: a couple of the younger villagers, hopped up to the tits on some shrooms they've foraged in the local woods, accidentally set fire to the local squire's dovecote and roast all his prize doves. At roughly the same time a small group of strangers sets up camp just inside the boundary of the village. After a tense stand-off when the newcomers - two men and a woman - are discovered, a convenient ruse presents itself: why not fit them up for the dovecote fire? That way we get to put a veneer of justification on the ill-treatment we were itching to mete out anyway, these newcomers being strangers and all.

So the two men are locked up in the town pillory for a week, uncomfortable and humiliating (especially given that you presumably don't get let out when you need a shit) but not usually fatal. However, the older man is a bit on the short side and unexpectedly dies of strangulation after several hous of standing on tiptoe.

Further unwelcome change is afoot when the lord of the manor's brother-in-law turns up and asserts his right to have a say in how the manorial lands are managed (the current lord having married into the job rather than having any hereditary rights himself). Screw all this subsistence-level faffing about with barley, let's open up the field system a bit and get a couple of hundred sheep in here. The locals won't like it? Well, screw those guys, they'll have to get used to the idea.

Word gets around and disgruntlement ferments: one of the new lord's men is badly beaten and stabbed and someone kills the current lord's horse messily with an iron spike. Some of the village women are hauled before the new lord and accused of witchcraft and released only on the condition that they banish themselves from the village.

Suspicion is rife among the villagers, and falls particularly on Walter: firstly because an injury sustained while trying to fight the dovecote fire has meant that he's been unable to take part in this year's harvesting activities and therefore might have had some free time for a bit of the old treachery, and secondly because despite having lived in the village for many years and married a local girl (now deceased) he was not born there and is still in some sense an "incomer".

Gradually all the villagers except Walter drift away, afraid of further retribution. Walter is taken into the confidence of the lords up at the manor house and told to mind the village in their absence, not that there is much to mind as everyone else has upped and gone. The only other souls left in the place are the man still in the pillory and the woman, revealed to be his wife, who has been lurking in various now-uninhabited bits of the village. Walter releases the man from his confinement and persuades him to collaborate in an act of defiance against the new regime: plough the recently-cleared barley fields and sow them with winter wheat. This task complete, Walter retires back home to get pissed on some home-brew and sober up the following morning with some of the magic forest shrooms. Arriving back at the manor in a bit of an addled state he finds that the man has now been reunited with his wife and together the pair have trashed and robbed the place and are now conducting their own personal act of revenge by torching all the houses in the village. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, and not fancying waiting for the lords of the manor to return, Walter stashes some belongings in a rucksack and heads off out of the valley and beyond the village boundary stones to seek his fortune in the outside world.

This is, I think, the sixth Jim Crace novel I've read, three of which have featured on this blog: Arcadia, The Gift Of Stones and The Pesthouse (the other two are Quarantine and Being Dead). All are excellent, but I think Harvest is probably the best of all. I love a tale of time-travelling space zombies battling robot Hitler on an exploding neutron star as much as the next person, but there's something very appealing about a simple and unadorned tale told in a simple and unadorned style just saying: look, you see, here are people; this is how people are; this is how they treat each other; you see what happens. You'll recall that despite my enjoying The Pesthouse greatly I had a few quibbles about its structure and plotting: I have no such quibbles here. One thing that was unusual about The Pesthouse was that it specifically named its location (America, though admittedly that's relatively non-specific) - most other Crace books are very cagey about when and where they are set and how closely this is meant to resemble any real-world location. While we assume Harvest's location is England in the Middle Ages no specific indication is ever given, apart, perhaps, from Walter's surname which suggests a northern location.

Harvest won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013; previous winners featured on this blog include The Road, The Corrections, Midnight's Children and G. It also won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2015; the previous winner featured here is Remembering Babylon.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

findus crispy pandemicakes

We haven't done a recipe for a while, have we? I can see that I wrote down a very hand-wavey summary of what I did to make some spiced roasted pumpkin soup in this post from a couple of Hallowe'ens ago, but the last post I can find that actually had a formal list of ingredients in it was this one from 2016 for the latest incarnation of what I still think of as my clafoutis recipe, but these days is really a sort of cakey bread and butter pudding.

Anyway, here's a couple of things we've cooked up during lockdown - I say "we" as the girls, Alys in particular, are quite into a bit of the old cooking these days. The first is a sort of variation on some previous recipes which can be found here and here and which I tried as a means of using up some leftover mashed potato. The first thing to say is that you need less potato than you might think - if you've got enough to fill, for instance, one of those  ramekins that everyone has a stash of in the back of a cupboard, you've probably got enough for 3-4 decent-sized pancakes. Or, looking at it another way, if it's too much for you to say: fuck it, I may as well just eat that now, then it's probably enough to save and have a go at this with.

So, here's what you need:

Potato panbread flatcakes

  • Some leftover mashed potato
  • An exactly equal quantity, by volume, of self-raising flour (you're not an idiot, but just in case, the easiest way to do this is to empty the container you had the mash in into a larger mixing bowl, fill that now-empty container to the same level with the flour and then tip it in too)
  • Some liquid just in case you overdo the flour (pretty much anything will do, water for instance, or if you're feeling a bit more creative maybe some plain yoghurt)

Smash everything together in a bowl, cut it into as many fist-sized pieces as it will make, flatten then with either a rolling pin or a fist or both to about 3-4 mm thickness and place in a dry, un-oiled, non-stick pan for a couple of minutes on each side. Hey presto, potato-ey pancakey things which are somewhere between the farinata (which is a proper floppy pancake) and the yoghurt flatbreads (which are properly bready and quite stiff) in terms of texture, and very nice with a whole variety of things.

You'll be wanting some dessert after that, so here's a supremely simple chocolate cheesecake we made when my parents came over for a post-lockdown reunion the other day:

Chocolate cheesecake

  • 300g condensed milk (about 3/4 of a standard tin)
  • 300g soft cheese - I used light Philly; usually the full-fat versions are better for this sort of thing but it doesn't really matter here as the condensed milk whacks the fat and sugar content back up to dangerous levels
  • 200g dark cooking chocolate (anything but dark would make the end product far too sweet)

Make a standard smashed-up biscuits and melted butter base and put it in the fridge or freezer to set. Melt the chocolate, beat the condensed milk and soft cheese together, add the chocolate, beat some more, pour the resulting goop onto the biscuit base, refrigerate for a few hours, eat. Simple! These amounts fill what I think was a 10-inch flan tin; we made an initial experimental version in an 8-inch tin with ratios of 200g:200g:100g, which worked fine, although I think the slightly higher chocolate content in the second one improved things (as it generally does).

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

oh no, it's moby derek

A couple of further items related to Moby-Dick - firstly the 1956 Gregory Peck film, while the most famous adaptation of the book, certainly isn't the last word on the subject, far from it. There were film adaptations as early as 1926's silent The Sea Beast (featuring the immortal dialogue intertitles pictured here), later talkified as 1930's Moby Dick. Both films starred John Barrymore, but of course as admirable as Barrymore is, all anyone wants to know about these (and indeed any) adaptations is: how rubbish where the whale effects? From the brief clip I've seen I would say: not great, but not as rubbish as you might think. As with any effects achieved using a combination of scale models, carefully-shot articulated body parts and stock footage of real creatures there are some jarring scale transitions, from mildly irascible trout to something the size of a house, but this is hardly a problem exclusive to 1930s films; Jaws suffered from it too.

Subsequent to the 1956 adaptation there were several more, including a TV movie in 1998 (starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab and featuring a cameo from Peck), a film adaptation in 2010 starring, bizarrely, Barry Bostwick aka Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show as Ahab, and a TV series in 2011 starring William Hurt as Ahab. Anyway, here's the lowdown on the various whales in each of those adaptations:

  • 1930 - not bad, considering, though not particularly white
  • 1956 - appropriately gnarled and wrinkly and scarred and harpoon-laden and overall pretty good, considering, though a bit rubbery
  • 1998 - surprisingly rubbish - presumably some early CGI but far too clean and smooth and just generally fake-looking
  • 2010 - utterly ludicrous, no doubt intentionally since this was a film by The Asylum, the company that brought you the Sharknado series, not to mention Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus
  • 2011 - again, a bit CGI, but much better

That's restricting ourselves to films specifically named Moby Dick, but there are other works which owe it a debt, notably the 2015 film In The Heart Of The Sea, which is actually a rendering of the true story of the demise of the whaling ship Essex in 1820. So not a direct adaptation of Moby-Dick, but since the novel borrowed heavily from the Essex's story, and the film seems to focus on the battle with the whale rather than the subsequent murder and cannibalism activities, it's an adaptation in all but name.

Other non-filmic works have taken inspiration, or maybe just a name, from Moby-Dick, notably Led Zeppelin's instrumental song of the same name, which was mainly a vehicle for John Bonham to indulge in that most reviled of rock traditions, the drum solo. A just-about-tolerable four-and-a-half minutes in its original studio incarnation (about three minutes of which is drum solo), it was expanded to interminable length in concert, presumably to allow Plant and Jones to wander off and have a cup of tea and Page to bang a couple of under-age groupies. The version on the definitive Zeppelin live album How The West Was Won is 19 minutes long, which is a larger amount of time than I'm prepared to sacrifice to listening to a drum solo, as thunderously legendary a rock drummer as Bonham was. The other obvious song to mention here is Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride, inspired by the story of the Essex and which I see I've already mentioned here, as well as cashing in a couple of cheap gags, which I now feel that I can't do again here. Oh well, no use "blubbering" about it, hahaha.

Lastly, Moby-Dick is another in the intermittent sequence of books featured here which contain a map, a list which includes The End Of Vandalism back in mid-2019 and this list of books from around five years earlier which includes a few books I own which haven't appeared on this blog as well as A Small Death In Lisbon, The Name Of The Rose, Faceless Killers and Sunset Song of those that do. The map just shows the Pequod's voyage from Nantucket to the site of its eventual demise in the mid-Pacific. Here it is: