Monday, August 24, 2020

the last book I read

Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving.

It's 1954, and we're in the inhospitable northern counties of New Hampshire, right up next to the Canadian border. It's a man's life up here, especially in logging season where the river drivers risk life and limb to get the logs downstream on the swollen rivers, breaking up logjams and occasionally dynamiting some sense into them. It's not all fun, though, and occasionally someone's footwork isn't nimble enough and they get crushed or drowned under several tons of moving timber.

This is where we come in, as Dominic Baciagalupo and his twelve-year-old son Daniel witness a young novice river driver slip under the logs and vanish without trace. Dominic isn't a log driver, though, he's a cook, running the cookhouse in the logging settlement of Twisted River. As you can imagine these are pretty rough-and-ready communities, populated by some robust types none too fussed about adherence to high-falutin' social norms like table manners or personal hygiene or sobriety.

Dominic has found a niche in the community, though, after settling there with his wife, Rosie, who subsequently died in a log-related accident out on the river while horsing around with Dominic and his grizzled river driver friend Ketchum. It's one of Dominic's subsequent girlfriends, Injun Jane, who provides the catalyst for most of the story that follows. She's the girlfriend of the local sheriff, Carl, a mean and ornery type who you don't want to get on the wrong side of, especially once he's got a drink or two inside him. That she is also Dominic's clandestine lover seems to have been a secret from just about everyone, including (somewhat implausibly) Danny, so that when he enters his Dad's bedroom to find a large dark-haired figure sitting on top of him in bed (she's a big unit, Injun Jane) he naturally assumes his father is being attacked by a bear and clocks the supposed assailant on the head with a cast-iron skillet with all the strength he can muster, killing Injun Jane outright. 

In a bold strategy, Dominic decides to dump Injun Jane's body at Carl's place, relying on Carl's habitual nightly drunken oblivion to make him assume that he might have offed her himself in a drunken blackout. In a much more sensible strategy, Dominic and Danny also skip town, telling only Ketchum about their intentions.

We now enter a series of sections set in various parts of the country at (very roughly) 15-year intervals, wherein Dominic and Danny move to a new location after learning (usually via Ketchum) that Carl may be onto them, occasionally assume new names, hook up with new partners and live a regular life for a while until the whole cycle begins again. Here's a very potted summary of the first few bits (the last sections cover a more compressed timeline, for reasons we'll get to later) with, for orientation purposes, Dominic and Daniel's approximate ages in each section:

  • 1954, Coos County, New Hampshire: Dominic 30, Danny 12. Action largely as above plus a bit of back-story regarding Rosie.
  • 1967, Boston: Dominic 43, Danny 25. Dominic hooks up with Carmella, the mother of the young river driver who dies at the start of the novel, and works as a chef at her family's Italian restaurant. Danny spends some time living in Iowa City after attending the University of Iowa and comes to Boston after the break-up of his brief marriage with his two-year-old son, Joe.
  • 1983, Windham County, Vermont: Dominic 59, Danny 41. Dominic continues to work as a chef; Danny becomes a published novelist. Both live in Iowa City for a while before relocating to Vermont. Joe becomes a teenager and goes off to college.
  • 2000, Toronto: Dominic 76, Danny 58. Another city, another restaurant. Danny is now a successful novelist. Joe has died in a car accident, an occurrence that ultimately costs Danny his relationship with Charlotte, a screenwriter. It is here that that Carl, still relentlessly pursuing the pair despite his advanced age (he's in his eighties) finally catches up with them, ironically through their supposed protector Ketchum's carelessness.

Once the pivotal second round of deaths has happened (SPOILER ALERT: this includes both Dominic and Carl) there are a couple of further sections: one in which Danny and Carmella (see the Boston section above) return to Coos County and the now-abandoned site of the Twisted River logging settlement to scatter (with Ketchum's help) Dominic's ashes and to allow Carmella to see the spot where her son died, and one set in 2005 where Danny is in his winter retreat on an island in Lake Huron and about to receive an unexpected visitor from his past.

The first thing to do with a John Irving novel is to tick off which of the major repeated Irving themes it includes. Irving's Wikipedia page doesn't include the summary table any more, possibly because of repeated wrangling over its contents, but I found a version in a 2011 version of the page which includes Last Night In Twisted River. As it happens I have edited the table slightly because I don't recall any significant mention of either prostitutes or wrestling.

Among the slightly more obscure repeated themes not mentioned in the table above which feature in Last Night In Twisted River are: severing of major characters' left hands (The Fourth Hand), premature deaths of major characters' children (The World According To Garp, A Widow For One Year, The Hotel New Hampshire), blowjobs in cars with unfortunate consequences (The World According To Garp), and the innocent actions of a male child resulting in the death of an adult woman with far-reaching consequences (A Prayer For Owen Meany).

The first thing to say about Last Night In Twisted River is that I enjoyed it significantly more than the only other Irving on this list, Until I Find You. Some of the stuff I didn't like so much was due to the way the novel is structured: we get the big ratcheting shifts in timeline as in the list above, but what then happens is a lot of tracking back to fill in and catch up on the events of the preceding fifteen years or so, which basically amounts to a series of framing devices for flashbacks. It's only when we get past Dominic's death that any significant amount of the action takes place in the novel's nominal "now". This is purely a matter of stylistic preference and it won't bother everyone, but I found it slightly frustrating. It goes without saying that the central plot device of Carl's relentless pursuit of Dominic and Danny isn't even slightly convincing once the immediate aftermath of Injun Jane's death has passed, but MacGuffins gotta MacGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, probably.

This is also the most explicitly autobiographical novel of Irving's long career, many of Danny Baciagalupo's biographical details mirroring Irving's own, and it's about writing in a way that even The World According To Garp wasn't. It also includes an Author's Note at the end where Irving describes some of the details of the novel's unusually long gestation, and takes a few veiled swipes at high-falutin' literary types who disdain the sort of big, plot-driven fiction that Irving specialises in. 

A couple of links with other entries on this list: Irving was involved, along with John Updike and others, in an entertaining literary spat with Tom Wolfe around the time of the publication of A Man In Full in 1998. Finally this pretty complimentary Guardian review of Last Night In Twisted River is by Giles Foden, whose own Turbulence featured here in 2014.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

on ilkley moor sans chapeau

One thing that has always intrigued me, and almost certainly no-one else in recorded history, and which I was reminded of while we were up in Yorkshire a couple of weeks ago: the prevalence in the north of England of place names which have a French bit in them, usually the word "le" embedded between two English words, sometimes spliced together with hyphens, but equally sometimes not.

I was actually reminded of this not so much by our activities during the week - we stayed at the Crow's Nest campsite up on the clifftops between Filey and Scarborough - but by reminiscing about our trip to the nearby North York Moors between attending two weddings (in Hull and Middlesbrough respectively) waaaay back in the glory glory days of 2007, before my spirit was crushed by a mortgage, three kids and male pattern baldness. While map-reading during a walk from the Spiers House campsite where we stayed during that trip I recall sniggering at there being a nearby village called Hutton-le-Hole - there is also one a couple of miles away called Appleton-le-Moors. 

In this as in all things it's worth validating your own assumptions, so in addition to the obvious question - what's this English/French mashup naming convention all about, then - I asked myself another one: is it actually the case that this type of place-name is more prevalent in the north of England?

All you need to come up with an answer to that question is a bit of persistence and a list of place-names, ideally segregated by what county they're in. Wikipedia has one of these, and there is also the Gazetteer of British Place Names which seems to have a few smaller settlements listed that Wikipedia omits. Search for any place name with "le" or "la" embedded in it, whether hyphen-spliced or not, and here's what you end up with:












Alsop en le Dale




East Riding of Yorkshire


Thorpe le Street



Layer de la Haye

Greater London


St Mary-le-Bow












Donington le Heath
Normanton le Heath
Stretton en le Field



Ashby de la Launde
Barnoldby le Beck
Barnetby le Wold
Burgh le Marsh
Gayton le Marsh
Gayton le Wold
Holton le Clay
Holton le Moor
Kirkby la Thorpe
Kirmond le Mire
Maltby le Marsh
Mareham le Fen
Normanby le Wold
Stainton le Vale
Sutton le Marsh
Thornton le Fen
Thornton le Moor
Thorpe le Fallows
Thorpe le Vale
Welton le Marsh
Welton le Wold



Brighton le Sands

North Yorkshire


Wharram le Street



Aston le Walls



Sturton le Steeple

South Yorkshire


Adwick le Street
Brampton en le Morthen



Walsham le Willows

Tyne and Wear





Fisherton de la Mere

Counties with zero occurrences (omitted from the table to save space) are Berkshire, Bristol, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Norfolk, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Surrey, both Sussexes, Warwickshire, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Worcestershire.

So, as you can see, Lincolnshire is the clear winner here with 23, followed by North Yorkshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Essex (the major statistical outlier here), Derbyshire, Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Tyne and Wear, of those that have more than one occurrence. Essex is the only one of those that could unequivocally be said to be in the South. Looking at the data on a map will probably make it clearer.

So, as you can see, if we draw an arbitrary but not unreasonable north-south dividing line from the vicinity of King's Lynn across to mid-Wales, respecting county boundaries all the way across, what we find is that the numbers above the line total 70, whereas the numbers below total just 11. Not only that, but the five counties running consecutively from Lincolnshire up to Tyne and Wear up the east coast total 50, a whopping 62% of the total.

A closer look at the results also reveals that, of the 81 items, 5 have an "en" in front of the "le", while three of the four that have "la" instead of "le" have a "de" in front of the "la". Those with "en le" can reasonably be taken to convey "in the", and most of the "de la" items correspond to an old ruling family who had that as part of their name.

It's surprisingly difficult to find any non-crackpot theories as to what the rest (i.e. the ones with the single "le") are about. The most persuasive theory I've seen (which I'm pretty convinced is correct) is that this is a variant on the archaic French word lès (or occasionally lez), often used as a conjunction in place names and just meaning "near".

That's all terrific, but one obvious question remains - why, if this is a legacy of (presumably Norman) French influence, is the concentration skewed towards the north of England, since, all other things being equal, you'd expect there to be a sort of gradient from high to low depending how far from France you were, i.e. with the highest numbers on or near the south coast.

Note also that there are other French-flavoured place names which don't conform to the le/la structure, like Buckland-Tout-Saints and Stoke Mandeville - those two just acquired the names of the powerful Norman families who owned most of the land, but other etymological routes are probably available. There's also Hartlepool, which started out as "Hart-le-Pool" but then got squashed into its current form. That would be one more for Durham, but rules are rules.

Friday, August 14, 2020

too much monkey business

Whisky round-up part two, as promised, if somewhat belatedly. Here are two whiskies very slightly (but only very slightly) more out of the ordinary than the two in the last post.

Firstly, Monkey Shoulder. This is actually an example of what's currently called a blended malt (formerly a "vatted malt"), i.e. it's a mixture of single malt whiskies from more than one distillery. These are not all that common and I think we've only featured a couple here before: the Shackleton a couple of years ago and Johnnie Walker Green Label waaaay back in 2011. The Monkey Shoulder website is heavy on visual bedazzlement and exhortations to make various tasty and exotic cocktails using their whisky, but correspondingly light on specifics about what's actually in it. I recall reading something when it first came out that said that it was a blend of whiskies from the three Dufftown distilleries owned by William Grant & Sons: Balvenie, Kininvie and Glenfiddich - apparently these days all they're prepared to commit themselves to is "various Speyside single malts". The name is a slightly cutesy reference to a sort of repetitive strain injury that malt shovellers would get.

Secondly, Allt-a-Bhainne, a relatively young distillery in Scotch whisky terms as it was opened in 1975, primarily as a supplier of whisky for the Chivas Regal blend. They also have a tremendously swooshy and colourful website, but one which fails to answer certain fundamental questions like: so what does Allt-a-Bhainne mean, then? and how are we meant to be pronouncing it? Fortunately Wikipedia and Google Translate both come to our rescue here: it means "milk-stream", and the "bh" is a "v" sound. Anyone who, like me, has tried to get their tongue round Munro names in the past will probably know this already. My original assumption that the Scots Gaelic "allt" (the bit that presumably means "milk") was related to the identically-spelt Welsh word, one of many which basically just means "hill", was evidently wrong. The "bhainne" bit also appears (in a slightly mutated form) at the end of the name of the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay (Wikipedia says "The name Bunnahabhain is an anglicisation of Bun na h-Abhainne, Scottish Gaelic for Mouth of the River").

Anyway, Allt-a-Bhainne's USP is that, unusually for a Speysider, it is lightly peated. They've only fairly recently started marketing single malts as opposed to just piping everything into the big Chivas mixing vats. This is the basic no-age-statement version.

So, to work. The Monkey Shoulder is quite magic-marker and pear-drop-heavy when you take a sniff, but in an appealing sort of way. It is one of those whiskies where the smell promises sweetness and the taste delivers unexpected dryness, though, relatively at least. Like many of its predecessors this could pass for a perfectly quaffable Speysider largely indistinguishable from several other perfectly quaffable Speysiders.

The Allt-a-Bhainne, on the other hand, while not dissimilar to the nose, delivers just a little spike of peaty sharpness when you take a sip; not the full recently lit barbecue/unfavourable wind direction/scorched turf brick to the gizzard that you get with stuff like the Lagavulin or the Bowmore or the Laphroaig, but just enough to make it distinguishable from the aforementioned bog-standard Speysiders. I actually like this quite a lot; certainly if you want a recommendation from the four whiskies featured in the two most recent posts, this would be it.