Sunday, March 22, 2020

the last book I read

Imaginary Friends by Alison Lurie.

Roger Zimmern is a newly-qualified professor of sociology at Corinth University (fictional, but apparently modelled on Cornell) in upstate New York. Keen to impress the senior figures in his department, and the semi-legendary Tom McMann in particular, he readily agrees to participate in a study McMann is doing of a religious cult in a nearby small town called Sophis.

The Truth Seekers, as they call themselves, have a rather unique brand of vaguely Christian belief: certain extraterrestrial beings from the distant galaxy of Varna (all of whom have rather perfunctory names like Ro and Lo) have been observing Earth (their civilisation being well in advance of ours) in preparation for an in-person (or quite possibly in-betentacled-space-lizard) visit when the time is right and humanity has attained the necessary level of enlightenment. The unlikely conduit for all this information is a young woman called Verena Roberts, who lives with her aunt Elsie in Sophis and has attracted a group of a dozen or so acolytes who gather to hear the messages from Varna. These tend to arrive via a form of automatic writing which Verena goes into a sort of trance to receive.

Zimmern and McMann infiltrate the group, initially under the pretence of just being regular people who happen to be in the area, although this subterfuge doesn't last, and as it happens the Truth Seekers are quite chuffed to be deemed important enough to attract interest from high-falutin' big-city book-learnin' academic types. So the sociologists are accepted and quickly become part of the group, including being expected to fall in line with Ro's increasingly arbitrary behavioural guidance: some fairly severe dietary restrictions (no meat, for instance) and only non-organic fibres in clothing. But you have to comply, because you don't want to be the bad apple in the group whose non-compliance makes our glorious saviours put the flying saucers in reverse and bugger off back to Varna, do you?

Part of the reason McMann was so keen to study a group of this type was that pretty much all of them eventually encounter a problem: some sort of Coming is predicted, and eventually a specific date is attached. And since the whole thing is a mass delusion, eventually that date will pass and it will become apparent that the Great Event has not happened, and the group will either fragment and wither, or find some way of rationalising things and carrying on with its belief system reinforced (which seems surprisingly common, as utterly barking as it sounds).

Sure enough Verena announces that Ro and his mates (Bo and So and Zo, I shouldn't wonder) will be coming to Earth in a very literal physical undeniable landing-the-flying-saucer-on-the-front-lawn kind of way in just a couple of weeks' time, and everyone should ensure that they are spiritually prepared, laying off the corned beef and wearing drip-dry Crimplene slacks for the big occasion. This is the big day for Zimmern and McMann: what will happen? How will the group react when the inevitable happens?

All appears to be going as predicted when, despite much standing around chanting in the garden midnight comes and goes and no little green men have knocked at the door (although there is always the possibility of the entire fleet having been accidentally swallowed by a small dog). It's Verena's Aunt Elsie who finds a way out of the situation: what if Ro and his chums did visit, but via some sort of eleventh-dimensional pan-galactic gateway type shit beyond the puny power of our visual cortices to register, and moreover what if Ro were even now occupying the fleshy mortal form of....you, Tom McMann? McMann thinks for a minute and then goes: yyeeeesss, I think you may be right there, Elsie.

Unsure whether McMann is simply playing some complex sociological long game or has in fact taken leave of his senses, Zimmern gets what appears to be a conclusive answer the following morning when he and McMann return to the house. First Elsie drags McMann off upstairs for a close-quarters personal consultation with Ro of Varna, then just as Zimmern encounters Verena in the kitchen there is a knock at the door and Ken, a former group member and would-be suitor of Verena, arrives, whereupon McMann goes berserk, banishes Ken from the house at gunpoint and is shortly afterwards carted off by the police.

Zimmern subsequently visits McMann in the mental institution he's been confined to and finds himself unable to reach a conclusion on McMann's sanity. Was McMann's going along with Elsie's bizarre theory just part of a dedication to completing the study, whatever it took? Similarly, is McMann's claim to now be faking a continuing mental imbalance in order to conduct a study of the institution from the inside to be taken at face value, or is he just a loony?

This is the third Alison Lurie novel on this list, after The Truth About Lorin Jones and Foreign Affairs, but the earliest one in terms of its date of publication - it was her third novel, published in 1967 (the other two are from the 1980s). I'm not sure if that has anything to do with why I found it
less satisfying than the other two. Basically once the set-up is complete and the sociologists are embedded within the group very little of any consequence (or, arguably, interest) happens until right at the end when McMann suddenly loses (or appears to lose) his marbles. It's unclear who the target of the satire is here - if it's the cultists (and it presumably it at least partly is) then there's a suspicion of shooting fish in a barrel. To be fair there is probably also a more subtle point being made about the impossibility of observing people's behaviour from close quarters without unconsciously influencing that behaviour in some way. Nonetheless for a fairly short book (less than 300 pages in my Penguin paperback) it sags quite a bit in the middle, and could probably have been 50-60 pages shorter without suffering too much. I mean, it's not actually bad, but if you want Alison Lurie books then Foreign Affairs and The War Between The Tates are probably better places to start.

Friday, March 06, 2020

headline of the day

Not much competition for this title today: it pretty much has to be this one.


It's unclear from the article whether Shatner just emerged from a lengthy session with his and his ex-wife's respective legal teams proudly bearing a sloppy brimming bucket of warm horse jizz, or whether some other arrangement was put in place. Either way, I'm sure the legal negotiations were tough and gruelling, but Shatner and his lawyers showed some spunk and pulled it off. I expect you can make up your own jokes.

Monday, March 02, 2020

the last book I read

The Affirmation by Christopher Priest.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine. Or is he? He lives in London. Or does he? He's been spending a period of self-reflection in a borrowed cottage following a series of misfortunes - bereavement, redundancy, the break-up of a relationship - and trying to reconnect with his life by writing a sort of autobiography. Or has he?

Let's at least start by taking things at face value, or we won't get anywhere. Following his various misfortunes Peter Sinclair has borrowed a rural cottage from a family friend, rent-free for a period on the understanding that he will undertake various renovation and maintenance work during his stay. To try and knit his traumatised mind back together he undertakes a work of autobiography, trying to call upon all his memories to make sense of his life and the situation he finds himself in. After a couple of false starts he quickly abandons any attempt to write a "straight" factual account of his life, instead conjuring up a whole fictional world and embedding various loosely-disguised people and locations from his real life in it; this allows him the freedom to write what he wants to write and hope that some sort of deeper, truer truth will emerge from the fictions.

Parts of his supposedly "real" life turn out to be fictitious, though, when his sister Felicity (with whom he has a fractious relationship) turns up at the house and scolds him for having done no renovation work, and cluttering up the spare rooms with scores of empty bottles, and carts him off to her place in Sheffield so she can keep an eye on him. Peter takes refuge in his manuscript, and this time we follow him in.

Peter Sinclair is twenty-nine, and a citizen of the city of Jethra in the country of Faiandland. He's never left Faiandland before, but he's going to now, as he's just won a lottery to take a cruise through the scenic Dream Archipelago to the island of Collago, where he will be the lucky recipient of a medical treatment ("athanasia") which will make him effectively immortal. First port-of-call is the lottery company offices on one of the nearest islands, where he meets Seri, who works for the company; they soon embark on a relationship and she offers to accompany him to Collago.

So this is all pretty straightforward, right? Jethra is London, the cruise represents some unfulfilled wish for travel and excitement, the athanasia represents, ooh, I dunno, fear of death or something, and Seri is just Peter's "real" ex-girlfriend Gracia with some of the inconvenient spiky corners (the argumentativeness, the penchant for self-harm, the sexual voraciousness) smoothed off.

Hold your horses, though: the Collago clinic is a bit more, well, clinical than Peter expects, and it is revealed that one of the side-effects of the athanasia treatment is a complete loss of memory. For this reason they ask patients to fill out a detailed questionnaire before signing the release forms. Aha, says Peter, I can save some time there, because I have this manuscript I wrote a short while back in an attempt to explain my life, and which I always carry around with me.

So the treatment is applied, and Peter's medical team (with help from Seri) attempt to rebuild his memories from the manuscript. The trouble is, they're having to edit as they go, because this is a semi-fictionalised account of Peter's life with all the names changed. This "London" place is obviously meant to be Peter's home town, Jethra, but some of the other stuff is less easy to decipher. What and when was "World War II"? Who is this "Hitler" guy? Who is Gracia?

We return to London, and to Gracia, now tentatively reconciled with Peter. All is not completely peachy, though, and part of the reason for this is Peter's increasing detachment and distraction. This, it turns out, is because the two worlds now seem to be bleeding into each other in some way and Peter is having occasional visitations from Seri. We assume these are hallucinations, but they are wholly convincing, and on one occasion, after Peter follows Seri on a lengthy wild goose chase via the Tube out to the London suburbs, seem to include lengthy periods of crossover into the alternate world. During this period Gracia attempts suicide, and when she recovers she and Peter have a climactic quarrel during which it emerges that the pages of his manuscript are blank, at least to everyone except Peter. As London and Jethra bleed into one another the novel ends halfway through a sentence, just as all the various versions of Peter's manuscript have done throughout the novel.

The trick of having a book-within-a-book mentioned in the text of a novel and then having it emerge at the end that the text of the novel is the text of the book-within-a-book is one that has featured here before, though not embedded in such an intricate puzzle-box mechanism. The obvious surface reading here is that Peter is a guy in our familiar "real" world having some sort of stress-induced breakdown, and that the imagined world is indicative of his mind's retreat from reality, perhaps temporary, perhaps not. This put me in mind of Doris Lessing's powerfully baffling Briefing For A Descent Into Hell which follows a similar pattern.

This is not the only possible reading, of course, an alternative one being that the intense apparent "reality" of the London world is a false memory implanted by the botched rebuilding of Peter's memory from his own fictionalised manuscript after the athanasia process. As this blog post says, rightly I think, how receptive you are to that reading of the text probably depends how much "science fiction" (the usual caveats apply here) you read, since it requires you to accept the Jethra world as the "real" one.

This is also a novel about writing, though, and the reader is expected to take note that it's absurd to view the London scenes as somehow more "real" than the Jethra ones, because of course the whole thing is made up. It's also about how fragile our sense of "self" is, and how that sense might survive a traumatic event like a complete brain-wipe, even if we could somehow restore the contents of our brain afterwards from a completely faithful backup, especially when you consider that you could do the same restore into a completely different blank brain in a completely different physical body. Would this be "you", too?

This is a much more structurally tricksy book than the other Christopher Priest book on this list, Inverted World - also the only other one I've ever read, though I have seen the film of The PrestigeThat doesn't necessarily mean it's a better book, although on balance I think it probably is. Many echoes of other books here - as well as Briefing For A Descent Into Hell I was reminded of Never Let Me Go for both the prominent plot point of some slightly hand-wavy medical treatment and the slipperiness of questions of identity (in that case because of genetic cloning rather than mind-wiping) and Solaris for some similar questions about the nature of "self" (there it was simulations wholly generated out of thin air). The whole looping structure of a book essentially writing itself (compared in the introduction to my Gollancz SF Masterworks edition to the famous Escher lithograph of two hands drawing each other) is also reminiscent of Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller.

In case it's not clear, I enjoyed The Affirmation very much; one reason I stress this is because I don't want Priest himself (still very much alive at 76) dropping in to harangue me in person, as befits someone who must occasionally Google his own name, if this slightly snippy intervention (assuming it's genuine, of course) on someone else's blog is anything to go by. This 2011 entry on his own blog reveals that he's not a man to shrug off an indifferent review, nor to allow the passage of thirty-odd years to diminish a grudge, even if his central point about reviewers barely reading the books they're tasked with reviewing is a reasonable one.

Lastly, The Affirmation is the first in a lengthy sequence of books in Priest's canon which carry two-word titles starting with "The". It's also the 21st book in this list to have a title in that format (i.e. The X where X is a single word) and the second on that list alphabetically, slotting in just behind The Accidental.

Friday, February 28, 2020

headline of the day

From Twitter, and not a crash blossom for once, this is just a bit....well, see for yourself:


It definitely has a bit of a Day Today/Brass Eye feel to it, in particular the references to paedophilia and the inability to avoid hearing it read out in Chris Morris' faux-concerned Michael Buerk voice.

Monday, February 24, 2020

getting blown off at the weekend

Two motivational celebrity quotes for you today. The first is from the great Bill Hicks, whose views on the desirability of exciting and diverse weather I wholeheartedly share (the bit quoted here was talking about the prevailing weather in Los Angeles):



Secondly, dear, dear Larry Olivier was apparently once quoted as saying something like: if you really want to be an actor, you will; if you end up not being one, you just didn't want it enough. Now this may very possibly be one of those motivational quotes that some Californian loony cooked up in order to sell his latest bullshit "life coaching" course to rich gullible people, and then decided it would acquire some unearned gravitas if he attached some famous person's name to it. Winston Churchill is the name people usually attach to these things, and indeed some people I know have this "quote" prominently displayed in their house despite its being pretty clearly late-20th-century psychobabble and not something Churchill would ever have said. CRITICAL THINKING, people.

I digress. The point of those two quotes, and their relevance to what follows, is to celebrate varied and exciting weather conditions, even those which are intermittently inconvenient, and to venture the theory that when conditions are a bit arduous and some on-the-hoof re-planning and re-prioritising may be required, a bit of mental fortitude may also be required to push through and achieve your objective, whatever it may be.

No doubt this is wisdom applicable to various situations, but here I specifically have in mind the walk I and my friend Alex did on Saturday. I had been granted a childcare-obligation-free day as a sort of birthday present to go and do a walk of my own devising, so I'd devised a new route up Pen y Fan, a mountain I have been up more times than I can remember, but even restricting myself to trips recorded on this blog ascended in 2008, 2009 (a post which includes a couple of summit pics from older, pre-blog, ascents), 2010, 2013 and 2018 plus an abortive attempt in 2007.

Those trips encompassed a variety of different routes in an attempt to keep things fresh and interesting - Saturday's route was meant to involve ascending via the Cefn Cyff ridge to Fan y Big, skirting round the south side of Cribyn to bag Pen y Fan, and then heading back to the summit of Cribyn and down via the Bryn Teg ridge. Both of those ridges were unexplored territory for me.

So we parked up at Cwmgwdi, the main car park for assaults on the eastern Beacons from the northern side, and set off. When we reached the farm at Cwmcynwyn, though, it soon became clear that the innocuous word "Ford" on the OS map hid a world of raging watery terror in the wake of Storm Dennis, and that the Nant Cynwyn brook, which you could probably step over in summer, was not going to be passable without full-body immersion and possibly death. So we devised plan B, which was to head up Bryn Teg instead, do Cribyn and Pen y Fan and head back down the Cefn Cwm Llwch ridge which takes you straight back to the car park.

Once we got onto the ridge, though, another problem presented itself. Not the usual rain or low cloud (visibility was actually pretty good most of the day), but being battered flat by high winds. An inconvenience you can laugh off when on a wide whale-backed ridge, but the last section up to Cribyn is a steep scramble up a narrow ridge with steep drop-offs on either side, and we reluctantly concluded that it probably wasn't a good idea. This presented a problem, though, as Cribyn had to be got over or round if we were going to get to Pen y Fan. So we adopted the time-honoured approach to crisis management and real-time route adjustment: sit down and have a pork pie and devise Plan C.

Having dropped off the eastern side of the ridge to facilitate wind-free pie consumption it became apparent that a bit of pathless but uncomplicated descent would enable us to intersect with the major path which crosses the east-west ridge at Bwlch ar y Fan. From here we skirted round the south side of Cribyn and up onto the Pen y Fan summit plateau, where we were once again exposed to the wind, and (as you can see below) barely able to stand for the summit picture - luckily there were some other nutters up there who were happy to do photo duty, as I wouldn't have fancied trying to wield a selfie stick. From there it was a straightforward but wind-battered descent back to the car park. A very respectable 9 miles in extremely challenging conditions, rather than the 12-13 miles the original walk would have been, but I was delighted just to get something meaningful done in the circumstances. Route map, altitude profile and summit shot are below. You'll note that the red-lined route forms the shape of a boot with Pen y Fan at the heel, appropriately given the amount of ASS that was KICKED by our efforts. A small number of photos can be found here.





the last book I read

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Madeleine Hanna is a student at Brown University in the early 1980s, studying English literature and with a particular interest in the "marriage plot" of the book's title: basically the way many 19th century classics are structured to bring the female heroine and her true love together at the end of the novel after subjecting them to various tribulations and challenges that nearly (but, in the end, not quite) thwart their evident destiny to be together.

It just so happens that Madeleine is involved in a love triangle of sorts (I know, what are the chances): between tall, intimidatingly intense and intelligent biology student Leonard Bankhead (who I pictured as looking a bit like Adam Driver, although one theory has it that he was based at least partly on David Foster Wallace), and theology student Mitchell Grammaticus. It's really only a sort of love triangle, though, because Madeleine and Leonard enter into a relationship that lasts beyond graduation and into the early stages of their respective post-graduate activities: Leonard does a stint at a lab in Cape Cod as a post-graduate placement and Madeleine accompanies him while applying for her own placements to further her English studies. Meanwhile Mitchell embarks on a lengthy period of travelling in order (presumably) to both Find Himself and forget about Madeleine; this takes him through Europe and on to India, where he finds himself working in Mother Teresa's Calcutta hospice, where he experiences some conflict between his religious inclinations and the grinding day-to-day realities of caring for the elderly and terminally sick, in particular the sheer amount of arse-wiping involved.

Back in New England Madeleine and Leonard are still together, but experiencing some difficulties, principally because of Leonard's increasingly crippling bipolar disorder (this being the 1980s it was still known as "manic depression" at the time). During manic episodes he is voluble, given to extravagant gestures of generosity and irrepressibly horny, while during depressive episodes he can barely leave his chair, puts on weight, neglects basic personal hygiene and expresses no interest in Madeleine whatsoever. Needless to say this makes his pursuing a career difficult, Madeleine's pursuing her studies difficult (since she is reluctant to leave him at home alone) and causes tensions with Madeleine's parents, with whom they end up staying for an extended period while looking for somewhere to live in New York.

Eventually things come to ahead after a trip into Manhattan to view a flat - Madeleine and Leonard and Madeleine's friend Kelly (who works for the real estate firm letting the flat) drift on to a party afterwards where they unexpectedly run into Mitchell, recently returned from India. Shortly after Leonard decides it's time to stop being a burden on Madeleine, hops on a train and disappears from her life (though it transpires he has gone to live in a remote cabin somewhere near his own parents' place in Oregon). Mitchell, after sofa-surfing with various friends in New York. ends up staying in Madeleine's parents house for an extended period. Here, surely, is his chance to make his move on Madeleine and round off the plot on a satisfying Austen-esque way. But is it what either of them really wants?

If you read a lot of fiction you'll end up reading quite a lot of books that specifically have A Point that they want to make and arrange the actions of their central characters to illustrate that point. Then there are novels like this, which just introduce you to some characters, fill in some detail to make them come alive for you and make you care about them a bit, and then tell a story about them. Getting all agitated about this sort of novel and saying: yes, but what's it for? is probably to miss the point of what novels are meant to be. That's not to say that there is literally nothing to take away from this beyond the story: it's very good on the relentlessness of mental illness and the reality of it not, in general, being a thing that people magically "get better" from, regardless of how much better and more convenient that would be narratively. Oddly, the only other novel I can remember reading that realised this quite so vividly was Kingsley Amis' Stanley And The Women, which was very good (and surprisingly sympathetic) about Stanley's son's schizophrenia, while being corrosively uncharitable about just about everything else.

The other thing that The Marriage Plot is is a book about books. So Madeleine's studies involve her reading a lot of books (something she does recreationally anyway, naturally) and a lot of books about books, and books about how to read books (Derrida and Barthes feature highly here). So there is a light veneer of metafiction here, something that becomes a little more archly explicit in the brief epilogue where Madeleine and Mitchell subvert the obvious romantic conclusion to the novel by talking about it in theoretical terms instead. It's not exactly a breaking of the fourth wall, as neither of them actually addresses the reader explicitly, but it feels a bit like it.

This is Eugenides' third and most recent novel; at three in 27 years he's not exactly prolific (The Marriage Plot was published in 2011 and remains his most recent novel). I read its immediate predecessor Middlesex, which was garlanded with multiple awards including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and enjoyed it very much, probably more than this one to be honest. Not that there's anything wrong with The Marriage Plot, and I enjoyed it very much, just that Middlesex had a - if you will - plot that had a bit more heft and significance to it. I suppose The Marriage Plot felt, like Middle England, a bit white and middle-class in comparison.

Monday, February 10, 2020

sentenced to death

The other point I was going to make in the last book review is that Jonathan Coe is one of those people who write broadly "literary" fiction to some critical acclaim and healthy sales but rarely seem to be in the running for major literary awards, of which the most prominent UK one is the Booker Prize. Now if I were one of the characters in Middle England (a Leave-voting one, naturally) I might tuttingly hypothesise that this is because Coe is a straight white male and that's the equivalent of being LITERALLY HITLER these days, political correctness having long since GONE MAD, and so on and so forth. In fact an almost exactly parallel scenario does arise in the book, when Sophie's husband Ian is passed over for a promotion in favour of his British Asian colleague Naheed, and sure enough Ian's mother trots out pretty much exactly that argument.

In fact, I suspect it's more likely to be for the same reason that David Lodge has never won - a general perception that the novels are a bit cosy and parochial and that the awarding committee prefer something a bit more exciting and formally experimental, at least in years where they're not doing the Lifetime Achievement Award thing I theorised about here. I suppose you could translate "exciting" as meaning "exotic" and therefore implicitly "non-white" if you really wanted to.

As it happens, though, with regard to the "formally experimental" bit above, Coe is reputed to be the current record-holder for the longest sentence published in English-language fiction, the epilogue to his novel The Rotters' Club being a continuous sentence apparently comprising 13,955 words. In this interview from 2002 he says he did it as a tribute to Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal, whose 1964 novel Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age is written as one long sentence.

This is one of those esoteric literary claims that is tricky to verify and is highly dependent on your precise inclusion criteria, a bit like the "longest novel" claim which I did a post about in the aftermath of reading Infinite Jest in early 2013. Of novels on this list the one that might have been in the running is The Autumn Of The Patriarch, which consists of several-pages-long sentences throughout and is therefore somewhat challenging to read.

Finally, quite a bit of Benjamin Trotter's participation in Middle England is in the form of mooning around reflecting on the past while repeatedly listening to the song Adieu To Old England by Shirley Collins (from her 1974 album of the same name), with the lyrics being prominently featured in the text, presumably to help conjure up some vaguely wistful feelings in the reader and leave them with a profound sense of, I dunno, something or other. I am a bit of a sucker for an English folk ballad, the more hilariously glum and misfortune-laden the better, but I must say this leaves me a bit cold. There isn't much of a tune and Collins has a much less appealing and expressive voice than her contemporary Sandy Denny or, more recently, Kate Rusby.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

the last book I read

Middle England by Jonathan Coe.

There is, I think, a reasonably convincing argument that there was a moment in 2010 when the UK's reality timeline diverged into two radically different futures: the normal one where everyone continued bimbling along, muddling through, not really worrying too much about customs unions, non-tariff barriers, regulatory alignment or overt and unashamed displays of racism (not to mention actual murdering of MPs in the street), and the shouty dystopian right-wing fractured hellscape we currently inhabit, and that furthermore that moment can be identified as the few hours during which the Gillian Duffy affair played out in the public eye. Perhaps there is even now a wibbly-wobbly parallel universe where Gordon Brown either remembered to remove his radio mic before getting in the car, or provided a more robust response to her criticisms than caving in and issuing a grovelling apology.
Broadly speaking, Middle England takes the same view, or at least it starts in the same place, in the run-up to the 2010 UK general election. That is where we meet most of the major characters: Benjamin Trotter, his sister Lois, her daughter Sophie, and various of Benjamin and Lois' schoolfriends - journalist Doug Anderton, publisher Philip Chase, and a few others. All of them would be in their early fifties (Sophie is younger, obviously) and will be familiar (in younger incarnations) to anyone who's read Coe's earlier books The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, to which Middle England is a loose sequel.

Benjamin is really the focal point of the story here, as he was in the two previous books, and he's currently living a comfortable enough life in a nice riverside cottage, single, no particular need to work for a living, spending a lot of time honing his magnum opus, a gargantuan novel with accompanying self-composed prog-rock soundtrack. Lois, meanwhile, is still married to, but living apart from, her husband, and their daughter Sophie is in the early stages of an academic career and nurturing a fledgling romance with Ian, whom she met when he was the instructor on a speed awareness course she was obliged to take.

Benjamin is persuaded by some friends (specifically Philip, who offers to publish the book for him) to trim his enormo-novel down by a couple of thousand pages to a brief novella encompassing the pursuit and subsequent loss of an ex-girlfriend and ditch all the other stuff (including the prog-rock soundtrack). Against all odds, it is a slow-burning critical success and gets longlisted for the Booker Prize. Meanwhile Sophie's relationship with Ian progresses through engagement, marriage and some post-marriage disillusionment at the realisation that basically he isn't as bright as her and harbours certain attitudes that might have been kept safely under wraps were it not for certain external factors, specifically the Conservative victory at the 2015 general election and David Cameron's offer of a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.

So you don't need me to tell you what happens next: wild and unpredictable forces are unleashed, MPs are murdered in the street, Britain votes to leave the European Union and an uncertain future faces everyone. Sophie and Ian manage, against the odds, and perhaps only temporarily, to hold things together, and Benjamin and Lois, disillusioned with the state of the UK, decide to move to France and open a B&B.

I read both The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle (published in 2001 and 2004 but set in mid-1970s and late-1990s respectively) but I find myself oddly unable to tell you much at all about what happened in them, other than some of the real historical background they played out against (the only point where the characters' lives intersected that I can remember was when Lois Trotter's then-boyfriend was killed in the Birmingham pub bombings). Perhaps this is because not a great deal actually does happen, a criticism that could probably be levelled at Middle England as well. There's an odd sort of contrast between the low-key personal concerns of the characters and the grand sweep of history that they play out against, and to be honest I'm not sure how well it really works.

One of the obvious problems with writing about Brexit in particular is avoiding the temptation to portray all the Leave voters as frothing racists; all the more difficult because a significant proportion of them undoubtedly are frothing racists. Coe is pretty good at identifying some of the long-term causes of Brexit - Thatcher-era hollowing-out of the industrial heartlands of (mostly) the north and the failure to replace them with anything; the increasingly London-centric focus of investment, the increasing feeling of people in the former industrial areas that they were being ignored by successive governments and therefore had nothing to lose by a destructive lashing-out, however irrational, when offered a rare opportunity to do so via direct democratic means.

The problem, I think. as with any novel that purports to closely track actual history, is avoiding just writing a series of editorials about the real events you're describing, and also convincingly entwining these real events with the lives of your fictional characters in such a way that it they seem to have a real impact. I'm not sure Middle England really carries off this second bit, largely because most of the major characters are too middle-class and comfortably-off to be affected in any fundamental way. To put it another way, anyone who is able to react to Brexit by upping sticks and moving to France to open a B&B with seemingly no pressingly urgent need for it to turn a profit is someone who wasn't going to be too badly affected by it in the first place, even if they'd stayed put.

However: Coe's novels are always intensely readable, the weird fracturing of personal and family relationships that undoubtedly did happen in the aftermath of the referendum when it became apparent that apparently simpatico people had voted in opposite ways is well presented, and most of the characters (Sophie in particular, who is a bit less cosily middle-aged than the rest) are broadly sympathetic. I think my favourite Coe novel is still the slightly odder The House Of Sleep, though.

Friday, January 31, 2020

cuddlebritoy lookeylikey of the day

My younger daughter Alys' cuddly pig, which she calls Piggy but I call Alf, for reasons which are entirely mysterious to her (and may be to readers of this blog even after reading this post), and ALF, the title character in the late-1980s American sitcom of the same name.

I never watched the programme very much, mostly because it was a bit shit, and I have to admit that I'd recalled ALF's face as hairy all over - the fact that it isn't makes the resemblance less close than I'd imagined. It's really the vertical nostrils (rather than being rendered as small circles as pig nostrils almost universally are) that twanged my mental synapses.


Thursday, January 30, 2020

celebrity paintylikey of the day

The guy from Grant Wood's iconic painting American Gothic, who is supposed to represent some sort of archetypal Iowan farming type but was in fact modelled by Wood's dentist, and science fiction author and cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, three-time featuree on this very blog. Every time I mention Gibson it is required by law that I point you towards Neuromancer and instruct you to read it, so here I am doing it.


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

the last book I read

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K Dick.

I dunno, you wait ages for a planet-scouring apocalypse and then two come along in successive book reviews. No mystery about the cause of this one, though, it's your standard nuclear armageddon doomsday scenario.

Let's wind back to 1981 first though (it's worth pointing out, just for context, that this was still 16 years in the future when the book was published in 1965, rather than 39 years in the past as it is now). America is still broadly recognisable, despite an incident nine years earlier (i.e. in 1972, if you're keeping up) where an accident during some nuclear weapons testing resulted in parts of Earth being irradiated. The man behind the nuclear weapons scheme is the enigmatic Dr. Bluthgeld, who we meet near the beginning of the book attending a therapy session with analyst Dr. Stockstill at his surgery in Berkeley, California. Bluthgeld has some guilt to work through, as you can imagine, and a fair bit of delusional paranoia, too; he imagines everyone knows who he is and is out to get him.

Meanwhile Stuart McConchie and his colleague Hoppy Harrington are just trying to earn a living repairing bits of electronics. Stuart is just a guy, but Hoppy is a bit more remarkable - born with no arms or legs, he has a series of mechanical attachments which permit him to get around and do stuff, but is also starting to develop some telekinetic ability, although (understandably) he's keeping this to himself at the moment. Hoppy's phocomelia was as a result of the thalidomide crisis, but the 1972 radiation incident resulted in a sharp increase in odd mutations and defects, and while there are no Chrysalids-style purges, affected people are viewed with some suspicion - people with Hoppy's condition are widely referred to as "phoces", presumably pronounced like "folks", which you'd think would cause some confusion.

Human endeavour presses on regardless of the odd setback, though, and this day in 1981 is special as it sees the launch of Walt and Lydia Dangerfield in a rocket bound for Mars. The watching millions don't get much opportunity to bask in the metaphorical glow of pride at humankind's ingenuity, though, as no sooner has the rocket reached orbit than nuclear conflict breaks out on Earth and people are basking (briefly) in the literal glow of actual fiery nuclear armageddon. But what caused it? Some confusion related to the Dangerfields' launch? Something to do with Bluthgeld himself?

Jump forward seven years and humanity is hanging in there; in California the somewhat reduced number of people have banded into little self-sufficient communities, one of which is lucky enough to have Hoppy Harrington as their all-round handyman and guy who knows how stuff works. Meanwhile Walt Dangerfield, stocked with all the food and water he could ever need, floats around in constant Earth orbit occasionally broadcasting to whoever's left down on Earth. Lydia Dangerfield, having witnessed full-scale nuclear conflict play out in widescreen technicolour below her, decided that rather than orbit the Earth for several years awaiting the inevitable, she'd just cut straight to the inevitable, and topped herself.

The community of which Hoppy is a part also includes Bonny Keller, Bonny's daughter Edie, and Bonny's ex-colleague Jack Tree, who is actually an incognito Bruno Bluthgeld. It also includes Edie's brother Bill, who everyone assumes is just Edie's imaginary friend, but is actually a sentient fetus in fetu embedded inside Edie and capable of some form of telepathy, including communication with dead people. It is Bill who first realises that Hoppy is up to something that he hasn't told the rest of the community about, and that moreover his telekinetic powers have increased greatly, something that becomes apparent when, after some further nuclear detonations which may or may not have been telepathically induced by Dr. Bluthgeld, Hoppy takes it upon himself to kill Bluthgeld telepathically. Hoppy is also, for reasons best known to himself, interfering with Walt Dangerfield's periodic transmissions and substituting his own fake ones in their place.

Eventually, just as the rest of the community comes to the realisation that Hoppy has become too powerful for them ever to be able to overpower him, Bill (with help from Edie) engineers a final Scanners-style mutant Vulcan mind-meld showdown to save humanity.

What are we to make of all this? Well, as with much of Dick's output, it's not entirely clear. Nuclear war is bad? Well, I think we can probably all agree on that. People are people, and will find a way to get along even in the most unpromising of circumstances? Yeah, sure, why not. The disabled are inherently twisted and evil? Well, steady on.

Dr. Bloodmoney occupies a slot, chronologically, in Dick's oeuvre between the fairly sober realism of The Man In The High Castle and the wild reality-warping mindfuckery of Ubik. And it's somewhere between the two stylistically and thematically, as well - the two sections are in different timelines but within those timelines stuff happens in a fairly normal orderly way. There is some doubt over how much influence Dr. Bluthgeld has over the various nuclear outbursts - we are invited to infer that it's only his paranoia that makes him think he's directly responsible for the main 1981 one, but he does seem to be directly responsible (by what means it's never made clear) for the later, smaller one, at least until Hoppy rubs him out. Hoppy's own motivations are never entirely clear, either, particularly in terms of what motivates him to fuck around with Walt Dangerfield's audio feed. We are invited to infer he's just a megalomaniac and resents the affection the general public holds Dangerfield in.

As I said earlier, that's (purely by chance) two broadly post-apocalyptic novels in a row. Apart from The Pesthouse, other novels on this list which could be described in the same way include The Road, Riddley Walker, O-Zone, and perhaps Barefoot In The Head, Cell, I Am Legend, The Memoirs Of A Survivor and Cat's CradleOn The Beach covers some overlapping themes but is technically immediately pre-apocalypse, while Orphans Of The Sky shares some themes of paranoia about genetic mutation. And the noble sacrifice at the end where an apparently innocuous character takes it upon themselves to sneak under the radar and eliminate a much more formidable opponent while their guard is down is quite reminiscent of the ending of The Midwich Cuckoos. And, of course, the thing with a vestigial conjoined twin with magical telepathic powers is reminiscent of Kuato from Total Recall, which in turn was based on the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, which was written by, you've guessed it, one Philip K Dick. What can I say, I guess the guy just liked conjoined telepathic mutants. And who doesn't?

I think this, the third Dick I've read after The Man In The High Castle and Ubik, is probably not quite as good as either of the other two, but there's still plenty to like here, even if it's not completely clear what Dick's point was. It should be said that much of the language used to describe disabled people, Hoppy in particular, by both the narrator and the characters, would qualify as "problematic" to modern sensibilities.

The other obvious thing to say about Dr. Bloodmoney is that it shares some similarities in both title and theme with the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove - even down to its sub-title (How We Got Along After The Bomb). The novel was written before the film came out, but published after, so the plot similarities (which are minimal beyond the general theme of nuclear warfare and the enigmatic eponymous character) are coincidental, the choice of title less so. I acquired my copy for the princely sum of one pound in the unlikely location of the RSPB shop at the Newport Wetlands nature reserve, which is well worth a visit for many reasons, not just cheap second-hand books.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

forever and ever, ramen

It's noodle-ordering time again, and I notice on a quick trawl back through noodle-related posts that I did a table a while back detailing my noodle consumption. A few years have passed since then so it seems right to bring it up to date.

Order dateQuantityUnit priceDaysConsumption rate
15/07/2008300.4529637
07/05/2009600.5926682
28/01/2010800.5932091
14/12/2010800.6532889
07/11/2011800.5929599
28/08/20121000.5939991
01/10/20131200.49318138
15/08/20141200.55392112
11/09/20151200.65299146
06/07/20161200.65266165
29/03/20171200.70239183
23/11/20171200.70263167
13/08/20181200.70280156
20/05/20191000.79233157
08/01/20201000.79tbctbc

By a bit of Excel-fu that must remain top secret I've converted those by-order-period stats into friendlier by-calendar-year stats. Here you are:

YearTotal
200817
200967
201091
201191
201297
2013103
2014128
2015123
2016156
2017177
2018163
2019157
2020tbc

As you can see, consumption seems to have levelled out at somewhere between 150 and 180 packets per year, or a fraction under one every two days. What has most notably changed since the last statistical assessment is that Nia has progressed from stealing a few noodles from my bowl to having half a pack of her own (with some frankly rather tedious saving of half-sachets of soup powder between servings) to just having a complete packet to herself as she does now. The gradual increase and subsequent levelling-off of the consumption profile probably reflects that. 

What's also interesting to consider is my egg consumption, especially since I consume no eggs in their original form, and therefore stirred into noodle soup is about as close as I get to consuming one directly (I suppose I may consume the odd one as a binding agent in a tortilla or a frittata from time to time). I tend to use one for a 2-packet saucepanful of noodles, which probably means I end up consuming about half an egg per bowl. If we further assume I consume about half the packets that get consumed, that works out, at current rates of consumption, at something like 40 eggs per year. That must account for upwards of 90% of all the eggs I ever ingest, I should think, for all that other foods may contain small amounts, along with small amounts of lupin and sulphur dioxide.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

the last book I read

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace.

We're in North America, probably a few hundred years in the future. Seasoned speculative fiction readers will realise that there'll be one of two things happening at this point: either everyone will be scooting around on jet-bikes and some people will have started to evolve into super-intelligent shades of the colour blue, or everyone will be beating each other's heads in with rocks and Kevin Costner will have partially evolved into a fish.

Which one of these it is becomes apparent fairly early on as fiery redhead Margaret is escorted up a hill by her grandfather and left to see out her quarantine period in a rough turf-roofed hut (the Pesthouse of the title) with only a couple of jugs of water and the odd carrot for sustenance. Margaret has the flux, a virulent disease that occasionally sweeps through and ravages whole towns, and the standard treatment (in the absence of any proper medicine) is just enforced quarantine for the victim and checking in a week or so later to see if they're alive or dead.

As it happens, Margaret isn't as alone as she thinks: brothers Jackson and Franklin Lopez are passing through on their way east and Jackson has been obliged to go on ahead when Franklin sustains a knee injury and has to rest up for a couple of days. Abandoned at the top of a hill above the town of Ferrytown (so called because of its key location on a major river), he is caught in a torrential rainstorm and seeks shelter in the only available place, a rough turf-roofed shack that turns out to have a single sleeping occupant.

As meet-cutes go the movies have probably done better ones, but you've got to make do with what you've got. Once it has become clear that Margaret is going to live (although she is still very weak) they set off back down the hill into Ferrytown, only to discover that everyone is dead, seemingly just killed where they lay during the night with no signs of a struggle. They clearly can't stick around, so they set off east, hoping to catch up with Jackson.

A momentary pause for some minimal exposition might be in order here. Firstly, the cause of all the deaths in the village is known to the reader, as it's described in early chapters: a landslide in the lake just up the river valley from Ferrytown causing a limnic eruption which sends a ground-hugging cloud of deadly poison gas scudding down the valley to asphyxiate anything in its path. People of a similar age to me may remember the Lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon in 1986. This is a minor event in comparison to some momentous event or series of events in the past which have caused the remaining and much-reduced population of North America to regress to something like Middle Ages levels of civilisation and technology. There is a general idea among the remaining population that travelling east to the coast is the thing to do, and that ships depart from there across the seas to other lands, perhaps less afflicted by whatever happened here. Anyway, on with the story.

Margaret and Franklin travel east, sometimes along the shattered remains of long-abandoned highways, sometimes through rougher and wilder country. Some people that they meet along the way are just regular folks trying to get along, but some, inevitably, are marauding gangs of murderous rapists who will whittle a makeshift flute out of your tibia as soon as look at you. Ironically, Margaret's affliction (from which she soon makes a full recovery) is a help here as her shaven head (a well-known sign of the flux) makes people reluctant to come near her. It doesn't help Franklin, though, when a gang of the aforementioned murderous rapists comes upon their little group and carts off all the able-bodied men (Franklin included) as slaves.

So Margaret is left in charge of a rag-tag group comprising her, an older couple, and their baby granddaughter. After a close encounter with some more rapey ne'er-do-wells Margaret becomes separated from the grandparents and finds herself in charge of the baby. She comes upon a religious community called the Finger Baptists who take in weary travellers and feed and shelter them, as long as they're prepared to earn their keep through work and are prepared to surrender all their worldly possessions. Well, Margaret doesn't have any of those, so it strikes her as a pretty good deal, and she spends the winter with the baby (originally called Bella but re-christened Jackie) under the protection of the Finger Baptists.

Spring arrives, and as we know, in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of raping and pillaging defenceless religious communities. So it's not a complete surprise when Margaret is interrupted in her duties ensuring an orderly queue at the well by a raiding party of men with swords bent on a bit of the old slaughtering. Margaret is a determined and resourceful woman, though, quickly realises what is afoot and steals one of the raiding party's horses and has it away through the open gate towards freedom. What is a complete surprise, though, is to encounter Franklin, still a captive, outside the gate, having been set to work collecting booty for the gang. On seeing Margaret Franklin does a Chief Bromden, hurls a washstand through a window, clubs a gang member unconscious, steals a horse, and makes good his escape with Margaret.

Now on horseback and able to travel a bit faster (baby notwithstanding) they soon reach the coast, but it soon becomes clear that while there are ships available, staffed by people who seem oddly-dressed and carrying unfamiliar items of equipment, it's almost impossible to get on one unless you are a young able-bodied man or a nubile young lady who takes the first mate's fancy. So while Franklin, a strapping and imposing specimen, could probably get on, he would have to abandon Margaret, which he's not prepared to do. Eventually they decide to head back west, into a land that everyone is abandoning, and eventually arrive back where they started, up above Ferrytown, in the Pesthouse, waiting for their moment to strike out westward into the unknown.

No post-apocalyptic novel published in the mid-2000s can escape a close comparison with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It and The Pesthouse were published within a year of each other (2006 and 2007 respectively) and share some key themes: the aftermath of some vaguely-described disaster (The Road alludes to "a long shear of light and then a series of low concussions" from which we're clearly meant to infer some sort of nuclear event; all The Pesthouse offers as a clue is the line "for how could anyone not know by now how mischievous the world could be?" during the description of the lake disaster), two people struggling across a shattered landscape littered with remnants of previous occupants, occasionally menaced by those who have thrown off the vestiges of civilisation altogether and are prepared to do the unthinkable to survive.

The differences are perhaps even more stark, though: this is really a love story rather than a fable of crushing doom. It's never in much doubt that Margaret and Franklin are going to come out OK and together - even during their enforced separation the reader is pretty confident that some way will be found (in, as it turns out, extraordinarily unlikely circumstances) to reunite them. In that way it's a book with a sort of sunny optimism about it - what remains of America is still a sunny verdant land of plenty, for all that people are queuing up to leave, unlike the grey murky hellscape of The Road. It's not just The Road of which echoes can be found: some of the odd rituals of the Finger Baptist cult put me in mind of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and the whole business of exchanging your personal freedom for security by putting yourself in the hands of a restrictive regime who might not be too willing to allow you to leave left me thinking of Efrafa in Watership Down, though that was a heavy-handed allegory for various totalitarian regimes rather than organised religion specifically.

That I found The Pesthouse oddly unsatisfying in parts is really only down to a few things, many of them matters of taste rather than "proper" criticisms: I wanted to know what had happened to destroy the cities and regress civilisation, and was frustrated that nothing was offered to explain. I thought the story meandered a bit in the middle, since Margaret and Franklin's enforced separation was clearly just a prelude to their reunion and they weren't doing anything interesting enough in the meantime to take my mind off it. Finally, I found the ending where they just schlepped all the way back to where they started rather anticlimactic: rather than a satisfying rounding-off of the story, it just made me wonder what the point of any of it was.

That said, Crace's prose is always a pleasure to read, Margaret and Franklin quickly become people you are engaged with the fortunes and fate of, I scooted through it in a week and a half or so, and the fact that it was a less complex, ambitious and allegorical book than I was expecting at the start (and, perhaps, less so than either of the two previous Craces on this list, Arcadia and The Gift Of Stones) is hardly the author's fault; he wrote the book he wanted to write. As tremendously readable as this is, though, I think Quarantine is still the Crace novel that you want.

This Guardian review, which offers a few very mild criticisms (with which I mostly agree, since they echo some of the ones above) was written by former double book-list featuree and recent death-list featuree Justin Cartwright.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

I am the county count, and I love to count counties

A quick follow-up to my last post in which I controversially claim that vast swathes of Eastern England do not exist - here is a very unscientific survey of counties which end in "shire" and some details about their associated towns, or rather the implied associated town that you end up with if you strip off the "shire" from the county name. There are a host of caveats to this, most obviously that the concept of a "county" is, like many other things, a more loosely-defined and ambiguous thing than you might initially suppose. As an obvious example, what we're really talking about here are the ceremonial counties of England, but these are really only retained as a quaint historical artefact these days, and the "proper" county list contains a whole host of self-administering metropolitan areas which make the map a lot messier and render concepts like "county town" problematic.

CountyImplied townDoes it exist?County town?
BedfordshireBedfordYesYes
BerkshireBerkNoNo, Reading
BuckinghamshireBuckinghamYesNo, Aylesbury
CambridgeshireCambridgeYesYes
CheshireCheChester doesNo, Chester
DerbyshireDerbyYesYes
GloucestershireGloucesterYesYes
HampshireHampSouthampton doesYes
HerefordshireHerefordYesYes
HertfordshireHertfordYesYes
HuntingdonshireHuntingdonYesYes
LancashireLancaLancaster doesNo, Preston
LeicestershireLeicesterYesYes
LincolnshireLincolnYesYes
NorthamptonshireNorthamptonYesYes
NottinghamshireNottinghamYesYes
OxfordshireOxfordYesYes
ShropshireShropNoNo, Shrewsbury
StaffordshireStaffordYesYes
WarwickshireWarwickYesYes
WiltshireWiltWilton doesNo, Trowbridge
WorcestershireWorcesterYesYes
YorkshireYorkYesIt's complicated

So as you can see the vast majority have an associated town which does exist and is, in most cases, generally accepted as being the county town, inasmuch as that term has any meaning any more. The exceptions are interesting and perhaps warrant a few extra notes:
  • There is no county of "Yorkshire" any more; I include it merely to note that York exists (which I'm sure you knew anyway). Yorkshire is divided into four these days (North, South, East and West, broadly speaking), and even after this subdivision North Yorkshire still manages to be England's biggest county.
  • Huntingdonshire doesn't exist any more either, if it ever did. I include it, like Yorkshire, just because it conforms to the pattern I'm trying to illustrate.
  • The only county which definitely still exists (my earlier protestations aside), has an associated town which exists, isn't complicated by any internal metropolitan subdivisions and where the associated town isn't the county town is Buckinghamshire, presumably because Buckingham was deemed too insignificant.
  • Cheshire is not, sadly, named after Che Guevara, nor indeed after Che Stadium.
  • There is a subset here of counties which don't have a name which is just a town with "shire" on the end, but which nonetheless derive their name from a town. It's easy to see how this works for Lancashire, Cheshire and Wiltshire, less so for Hampshire, and much less so for Shropshire (which does indeed ultimately derive its name from Shrewsbury, via some serious mangling).
  • The interesting outlier here is Berkshire, which is the only one not to derive its name from a town in some way. The current theory seems to be that it derives from a large wooded area on a hill, there evidently being nothing more interesting lying around to name it after.
  • Both Devon and Dorset historically carried a "shire" on the end of their name which has since been trimmed off. Dorset derives its name from the name of a town (Dorchester), Devon does not.
  • Borsetshire, by contrast, has retained its "shire", presumably so you can sing (to the Archers theme tune, of course) "let's all go to Borsetshire, it's a made-up county" and have it scan properly.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

the scouring of the shire

I went to Northampton the day before New Year's Eve. Nothing so very remarkable about that, you might say, but you'd be wrong, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the journey there from Newport is a bit of a twisty-turny cross-country route making use of short sections of no fewer than six motorways: the M50, M5, M42, M40, M45 and M1. This motorway-hopping isn't exclusive to trips to Northampton; our occasional trips to see our friends Jenny and Jim who live near Melton Mowbray involve the same first three motorways and then M6, M69, M1 to finish. Any lengthy trip not going either directly north-south or following one of the radial routes out of London will probably be pretty similar. In both cases the trip involves traversing the entire length of at least one motorway - the M50 in both cases and the M45 and M69 respectively.

I'd never been on the M45 before but it is actually Quite Interesting, mainly for historical reasons: it was one of the first to be built, at the same time as the first section of the M1, and its junction with the M1 at what is now junction 17 (more exotically known as the Kilsby Interchange) is the oldest free-flowing motorway-to-motorway interchange in Britain. Yeah, I know, right? It's generally derided as being a bit of an irrelevance these days (most traffic now takes the M6 slightly to the north), but as with all these things that's a question of perspective. If you live in Dunchurch or Daventry it's probably pretty handy, just as the quaint old M50 is to me, should I wish (as I often do) to get from South Wales to the Midlands and beyond.

Secondly, Northamptonshire is smack dab in the middle of a part of the country that I am pretty confident, even now, doesn't actually exist. Here is a rough approximation of my mental map of southern Britain:


So as you'll observe, there are two main things to take away from this:

I am constantly in a state of amazement to discover that Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire share a border, since I deem Gloucestershire to be yokelishly West Country, cheese rolling and all, and Oxfordshire to be solidly Home Counties, dreaming spires, floating languidly around in a punt wearing cricket whites.

But the fact that I am forced to accept that southern Britain narrows dramatically once you get north of a line connecting the upper reaches of the Severn and Thames estuaries makes it all the more implausible that, conversely, stuff, still less several counties worth of stuff, exists between what I've deemed above to be the Home Counties area and the vast featureless expanses of East Anglia. This mythical zone includes things like Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and the aforementioned Northamptonshire, and maybe Cambridgeshire as well, although I'm pretty sure Cambridge exists. I think this problem is compounded (and maybe the Cambridge thing is a good counter-example here) by all of the mythical counties being "shires" whose associated town is, although theoretically real, completely devoid of any significance that might anchor it slightly in the real world. I mean, Bedford, maybe, Northampton, possibly, but Buckingham? Hertford? These are absurd fantasy creations of some sort of SimCountry simulation set in a slightly wider geographical area that has the room for all this stuff. Huntingdonshire was exactly the same, but at least it had the good grace to eventually stop even claiming to exist.

Perhaps part of my resentment of Hertfordshire, just to take it as an example, derives from my discovery that it does not contain a town called Tillit, and that therefore the story about pub landlady Lucy Lykes and her postal address must be apocryphal. That address, for those of you unfamiliar with the gag, is as follows:

Miss Lucy Lykes
The Cockwell Inn
Tillit
Herts

There supposedly once was a pub of that name in Liverpool, but it has gone now. The gag doesn't work without the rest of the address, anyway (and even in its original form you have to deliberately mispronounce "Herts" as "Hurts" rather than "Harts"), although I suppose you could have gone with something like:

Miss Lucy Lykes
The Cockwell Inn
Upper Mersey Tunnel

Anything with the word "cock" in it is worthy of a snigger, though, and it just so happens that the person (a friend of Hazel's) that we were visiting lives round the corner from a pub with the proudly unadorned name of The Cock. I wanted to canvass her opinion on the place, but I couldn't think of an acceptable way to phrase the question. There is also a Bants Lane, if you like that sort of thing.

Friday, January 03, 2020

the last book I read

The Folks That Live On The Hill by Kingsley Amis.

Harry Caldecote has basically done all right for himself, in a low-key sort of way. A reasonably well-known and respected man in his particular field (something involving libraries and books, never described in any detail), acceptably comfortably-off in semi-retirement, single after two marriages and divorces but with a lady with whom he has an occasional, hem hem, "arrangement", a member of a local club, regular at the local pub, all nice and cosy and well-organised.

The fly in the ointment, as it is in pretty much all Amis' books, is Other People. In Harry's case there are several of these, mostly relatives of one form or another, whom Harry feels alternately irritated by and responsible for. There's Bunty, the daughter of one of his ex-wives (i.e. his ex-stepdaughter), nice enough but a bit unassertive and currently in a relationship with a woman called Popsy who has an occasional penchant for domestic violence. There's Desmond, restaurateur, Bunty's ex-husband, pathetically desperate to woo Bunty back even though he has a new relationship on the go with a woman at the restaurant and Bunty has made it abundantly clear she's batting for the other team these days. There's Piers, Harry's actual son, generally feckless and unreliable and always on the lookout for money to fund his latest slightly shady business venture. There's Clare, Harry's sister, widowed and currently sharing Harry's house (in the fictional London neighbourhood of Shepherd's Hill). There's Freddie, Harry's brother, occasional poet, married to the frightful Désirée. And there's Fiona, related even more tenuously to Harry than Bunty (she's his first wife's niece), but nonetheless inclined to give out Harry as her emergency contact when she needs to be rescued from a state of drunken collapse in some drinking establishment or other, which happens fairly frequently.

As all of these various hangers-on bumble through their own triumphs and disasters - Freddie's poetry gets published again after a gap of 30-odd years, Popsy's campaign of violence against Bunty intensifies, Fiona pinballs from sobriety to drunkenness and back again - Harry is offered a chance to escape by the offer of a job in America, generous package and all, which would see him though to a very comfortable retirement. Obviously it involves physically relocating, which would free him from some of his perceived obligations. But can he find a way of extricating himself? Does he really want to?

This was one of Amis' last novels, published in 1990; he died in 1995. While his novel-writing career spanned 40 years, from Lucky Jim in 1954 to You Can't Do Both in 1994, my main Amis-reading career spanned probably no more than three or four years, from approximately 1987 to 1990, from reading Lucky Jim to reading this novel's immediate predecessor Difficulties With Girls and spanning about ten of his books. One of the odd things about compressing an entire oeuvre into such a short time is that you can observe the main protagonist and authorial alter ego rapidly aging with the author from Lucky Jim's eponymous twentysomething hero, all about the beer-swilling and occasional fisticuffs and the enthusiastic pursuit of women, to the later novels' protagonists who just want to be left alone to their undemanding daily routine of nipping down the pub for a few bevvies and a bit of a complain and then having a bit of a snooze, and don't want to be prised out of their comfort zone or have to do anything that might aggravate their gout. You would have to say, I think, that there was a general souring of the worldview of the characters as well - I note that I defended Amis against charges of misogyny in this old post; well, I think what I would say in 2020 is that his misogyny is just a particular aspect of a generalised misanthropy and inability to understand other people in general. One thing that you certainly could say is that while many of the men in the novels pursue sex with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and are occasionally rewarded, there is never the slightest sense that any of the women involved enjoy the experience at all and do it out of anything other than perceived obligation or some sort of husband-snagging ulterior motive. The central sexual encounter in Take A Girl Like You, for instance, which cements Patrick and Jenny's relationship, is unequivocally an act of rape. As it happens most of the female characters here are reasonably sympathetically portrayed, with the exception of Désirée, while most of the male characters are mendacious half-wits, with the exception of Harry, who, it is made clear, really does grudgingly care about people and is capable of genuine kindness, while also being something of a pompous flatulent buffoon.

It's an odd experience reading a Kingsley Amis novel for the first time in at least 25 years (not counting occasional skim-re-readings of sections of Lucky Jim). I can instantly recognise what I liked about them the first time round: the merciless skewering of pretension and bullshit, the enthusiasm for the physical act of drinking and getting drunk and the associated meticulous planning that is sometimes necessary, the comic set pieces. What I also recognise is what gradually led me to stop reading them: the accumulating bitterness, the feeling that the central protagonists were getting less and less like me and more like a succession of sad, grey, pissed old men worrying about their bladders and prostates, and, more prosaically, the feeling that I'd read all the good ones and would probably be better occupied reading other things. The Folks That Live On The Hill, while not as corrosively bitter as Jake's Thing or Stanley And The Women, and perfectly fine in its own way, certainly isn't going to change my opinion that if you just read Lucky Jim (one of the best comic novels ever written) from his early period and the Booker-winning The Old Devils from the later period, that would probably be just about all you'd need.