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.