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

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:


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?
BerkshireBerkNoNo, Reading
BuckinghamshireBuckinghamYesNo, Aylesbury
CheshireCheChester doesNo, Chester
HampshireHampSouthampton doesYes
LancashireLancaLancaster doesNo, Preston
ShropshireShropNoNo, Shrewsbury
WiltshireWiltWilton doesNo, Trowbridge
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

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.