Tuesday, November 23, 2021

the last book I read

Outline by Rachel Cusk.

Our narrator is on a plane, from London to Athens. It emerges that she is a writer, and is going to Athens for a few weeks to teach a creative writing course. It also emerges, more obliquely, that she is fleeing some sort of disaster in her personal life involving the break-up of her marriage. On the plane she is sat next to a middle-aged Greek businessman with whom she gets into a lengthy conversation, mostly involving him telling her about his life, three marriages, triumph and disaster in business and his boat, which he invites her to join him on later in her trip if she has time.

And so the basic scaffolding of the novel is set up. All ten of the chapters basically comprise conversations with other people where they do most of the talking and our narrator imperceptibly reveals a few slivers of information about herself. So we meet Ryan, an Irishman also doing a summer-school teaching gig, who tells her about his Irish childhood, his brother, now living back at home after a stint in the US Marines and a brutal case of PTSD (or something similar), and his wife, at home looking after the kids while he hangs out at bars in the sunshine.

We meet, or rather don't meet, Clelia, the owner of the apartment where our narrator is staying - instead we attempt to extract some sense of her life and personality from the stuff she has left lying around in the apartment: books, ornaments, music. 

We meet the narrator's Greek friend Paniotis, and his friend Angeliki, a novelist. 

We meet the various members of the creative writing group, and we hear them tell stories of things they'd noticed on their way to the meeting, as part of an exercise.

We go to a restaurant and meet another of the narrator's friends, Elena, and her friend Melete, a poet, and they have a lengthy conversation exploring their views on, and (generally unsatisfactory) experience of, intimate relationships.

We make a couple of trips on the boat owned by the Greek businessman (and our narrator's neighbour on the plane over), including some swimming in the sea, much talk of wives and children and then eventually, and inevitably, a clumsy pass being made which our narrator shrugs off, while reflecting on her own wisdom in agreeing to a boat trip to secluded locations with a man she barely knows.

We re-acquaint ourselves with the writing group, this time delivering their responses to a request to write something explicitly fictional involving an animal of their choice. 

Finally we meet - slightly unexpectedly as she just arrives at the apartment first thing in the morning - the next occupant of the flat and of the creative writing slot at the summer school, who relates a tale of a conversation she had with the guy in the next seat on the flight over.

So imagine you've got some art materials, and a piece of paper, and you want to portray a person. You can just draw a person-shape on the paper and fill in eyes, mouth, clothes etc., or you can take some unrelated materials and stick them on the paper in such a way that the area of paper that remains un-decorated forms the shape of a person. So you've never explicitly set out to portray a person, but through doing seemingly unrelated things, you have. So the idea is that through all the story-telling here, some of it non-fictional (within the novel's own entirely fictional world) and some fictional (i.e. made-up people telling made-up made-up stories) a picture of the narrator will emerge, even though very little is ever explicitly stated. We know that there's been a marriage break-up, and that children were involved, and that it's all been a bit acrimonious - we even find out the narrator's name, although you have to keep your wits about you as it's mentioned exactly once (page 211 in my copy - it's Faye).

Of course what this partly is is a novel telling a story, that story being at least partly about story-telling itself - writing about writing, in other words, a phrase I see I used when describing The History Of Love back in 2013. I was reminded somewhat of Paul Auster's Invisible here as well, not so much because of any similarities plot-wise but because of its use of fiction within fiction, of characters in a story telling stories to each other, like the layers of an onion. One key difference is that Auster's novel is much more archly explicit about the whole thing being made up, whereas Cusk's book is well-documented as reflecting some of the circumstances of the break-up of her marriage, something she described considerably more directly in her book Aftermath. The central character is in some ways reminiscent of the title character in Alan Warner's Morvern Callar, in that a traumatic event happens right at the start of the book (some time before the start in Outline's case) and the main character then takes the initiative and decides to go off on her travels but thereafter takes an oddly passive attitude and just sort of drifts along with events.

It's an unusually-structured book, though certainly not unprecedentedly so, despite the breathless nature of some of the review blurb reproduced on the covers, presumably from people who don't generally read novels. It's quite short (249 widely-spaced largish-font pages) but it's one of those books written in intimidatingly long, unbroken paragraphs that makes it easy to lose the thread of what you're reading, especially if you're reading in bed and a bit tired. Not in the same league as The Autumn Of The Patriarch, but you do find yourself occasionally tracking back up to the start of the particular story you're in the middle of to remind yourself who's telling it.

I don't want that to make it sound like it's a difficult read, because it isn't, and I enjoyed it very much. It is, it turns out, part one of a loose trilogy all featuring the same central character, the subsequent parts being called Transit and Kudos

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

the last book I read

Family Album by Penelope Lively.

Everyone assumes their own family is completely normal and typical and that everyone else's family is pretty much the same, minor variations aside like some of the people having different names. I'd certainly assumed that our loose routine of Tofu Night every alternate Thursday, regular grooming of the family wolverine and occasional nude Wiccan ritual incantations under the full moon was just what everyone did and was slightly disoriented to find other families doing other stuff that they in turn assumed was completely commonplace.

The Harpers are no different in this regard, though they do have some idiosyncrasies of their own - six kids is an unusually large number, for starters, and they live in a sprawling ramshackle old Victorian house, Allersmead, the general upkeep of which is forever slightly beyond their means. Charles is an author of non-fiction books which sell in modest but decent numbers and Alison is an enthusiastic stay-at-home Mum and housewife, from a time when that was the default arrangement anyway and so didn't need any explanation. She is very content just to fire out kids on a regular-ish schedule and cook fabulous meals for everyone, with a bit of help from Ingrid, the live-in au pair.

So there is Paul, the eldest, a bit wayward, some drug-related run-ins with the law in his youth, never really settled into a job or a long-term relationship, and latterly living back at Allersmead. The rest of the children have scattered around the world while over-achieving conspicuously: there's Gina, a TV war reporter, Sandra, something big in fashion in Italy, Katie, who lives in America (if her professional status is ever mentioned I can't remember it), Roger, a doctor in Canada, and Clare, a dancer with a French dance company. So return visits to Allersmead are infrequent. Gina seems to visit the most as she is at least theoretically based in the UK, and, as it happens, has a new boyfriend, Philip, to introduce to her parents.

Their visit is the jumping-off point for some excursions back into the past: the kids' games involving trips down into the cobwebby cellar and just a bit more cruelty and weirdness than the adults ever got to know about, Charles' aloofness and inclination to retreat into his study with his books rather than get involved in the messy business of family conflict, Alison's inability to conceal from the other children that Paul was her favourite and that she was prepared to forgive him just about anything, a family holiday to Cornwall wherein various momentous things happened including Sandra losing her virginity and Paul getting arrested for drug possession, and the gradual shimmering into focus of the Big Family Secret: Clare is actually Charles and Ingrid's daughter, not Charles and Alison's. This was concealed from the other children at the time by sending Ingrid "away" for a bit and having her return with a baby supposedly just acquired from some acquaintances who didn't want it. Evidently each of the three adults has come to terms with this in their own way but it provides an explanation for Ingrid's never having left Allersmead, despite all the children having moved out long since (well, Paul excepted). Some family tension is provided by all the children having worked the situation out for themselves over the years, but never having broached the subject with the various parents; so everyone knows, and everyone (except maybe Alison) knows that everyone knows, but no-one can ever say anything.

That synopsis, and the novel's "will this do?" title, scream "formulaic" and I suppose in some ways it is: mildly eccentric middle-class family, scattered to the four winds by career progression, return one by one to the family home to confront some stuff from the past and - hey - discover something new about themselves. The novel's climax comes when Charles has a massive heart attack at his desk and dies, and the children have to co-operate to make funeral arrangements, Alison being completely incapable. Most of this section is written as a compressed series of e-mail conversation fragments rather than the more usual tearful family reunion, which clearly is how this sort of thing would play out in real life but seems not entirely satisfactory nonetheless. With Charles gone Alison has to face up to the reality of it being impractical for her and Ingrid to rattle round Allersmead in their old age, and confront the necessity of selling it and moving on.

So we're not breaking any new ground here in terms of form or subject matter, but that's OK, not every novel has to do that. I own eleven Penelope Lively books and they're all of an admirably consistent quality: According To Mark and Moon Tiger are probably the best ones but there really aren't any duds: Spiderweb is the other one to feature on this blog. I found Family Album to be oddly reminiscent of a Barbara Vine novel in places: lots of flashback narrative gradually revealing some incident in the past that's been carefully concealed. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, for instance, has something similar and also features a forbidding and aloof patriarch who may have taken some secrets to the grave with him. Family Album is delivered from a variety of viewpoints by a variety of voices; most family members get a turn and they are all unreliable narrators to some extent. 

Family Album was on the shortlist for the Costa Award in 2009: that year's list is well-represented on this blog as Wolf Hall was also on the shortlist and Brooklyn won the award. 

Monday, November 08, 2021

the last book I read

The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

It's hard to let go, isn't it? Still harder to back down and admit you were wrong about something, whether it's a small dispute with your neighbour over who owns a hedge, or the occupation of an entire country. So while you might think that France's decision in 1962 to say: "yes, OK, you are right, we did technically invade and colonise your country (Algeria in this case, though it was by no means an isolated incident in French history) without your consent so we're just going to quietly give it back, no harm no foul, no hard feelings, let's move on", would be universally viewed as the right thing to do, not everyone sees it that way. Indeed there are those who view it as a grotesque betrayal of French history and of the sacrifice of those free-born Frenchmen who fought and died so that France could continue stealing something that didn't belong to them. All the more enraging that it's the hero of wartime France, Charles de Gaulle, whose signature was on the agreement that handed Algeria back to its people. 

Not satisfied with just being a pit pissed off about it for a while, or just shrugging Gallicly and sparking up a Gauloise, a small group of mostly ex-Army extremists decides that The President Must Die. After one botched attempt in August 1962 to fill the president's entire motorcade with hot lead from the side of the road has failed, and the ringleader has been executed, what remains of the OAS top brass gathers in secret to discuss how to have another crack at de Gaulle, and hopefully fuck it up less egregiously this time. They quickly conclude that trying to organise something within OAS is doomed to failure as the entire organisation is riddled with government informants, and that the only way of having a chance of success is to hire a contract killer from outside France and ensure that no-one except them and the assassin know about it.

These guys don't advertise themselves in the Yellow Pages, though, so it's some time before the OAS have their man, a suave thirtysomething Englishman who decides to go by the codename Jackal. His demands are simple: give me a great big wodge of cash and I will devise a plan for taking out de Gaulle and carry it out; no need for you to know the details, you'll know when I'm done because the general's head will suddenly explode at some point in the next few months.

Obviously organising this sort of thing so that one gets the opportunity to take a pot-shot at one of the most powerful men in the world is quite a task, and it's still more complicated if one also wants to escape afterwards to have the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned retirement, sitting on a beach earning twenty percent. Luckily the Jackal already has a few contacts, including a gunsmith who can make him a bespoke sniper rifle that can be dismantled and smuggled through security, and a forger who can get him some of the very specific French identity documents that his plan requires.

The Jackal is not such a fool as to imagine that the authorities won't be looking out for him though. But how will they even know such a plot exists? Well, thanks to their network of informers they've been keeping tabs on the senior OAS men's whereabouts - holed up on a couple of floors of a hotel in Rome - and when their bagman Kowalski goes to pick up the mail he finds himself bundled into the back of a van and wakes up in a chair with crocodile clips attached to various delicate parts of his anatomy and faced by a group of government men who have some urgent questions they'd like answers to.

Once they have extracted a garbled confession from Kowalski that gives them a broad outline of the plot (and disposed of his charred corpse), the Interior Ministry tell the police to get their top man on the case. No, not this guy, Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel. Lebel's brief is simple: there's this guy - no, we don't know his name - who's going to kill the President - no, we don't know how, where or when - and we'd like him stopped. So if you could sort that out, that'd be great, merci beaucoup.

Lebel starts by contacting the police chiefs of various neighbouring countries to see if they happen to have the details of any contract killers who are still at large. UK Special Branch don't have any of those, but there was this chap Calthrop, formerly employed by an arms company, who was suspected of involvement in a political assassination in the Caribbean a while back. And there is this recent passport application in the name of a person who would be roughly the right age had he not died at the age of two. Could this be our man?

Meanwhile the Jackal is having a high old time in Europe, collecting his gun from the gunsmith, casually murdering the forger when he tries to blackmail him for some extra cash, and occasionally phoning in to his Paris OAS contact for updates and instructions. After a relatively trouble-free border crossing into France the Jackal starts to feel the net closing in and is obliged to assume a series of alternative identities as the police start to circulate descriptions of the old ones. Sadly he is also obliged to regretfully murder the countess he hooked up with at a hotel and has been, hem hem, "holed up" with at her chateau for a few days. 

He arrives in Paris as Per Jensen, a Danish priest, and quickly assumes the identity of Marty Schulberg, an American student - in both cases using passports he has stolen at airports during his European travels - and finally André Martin, a disabled war veteran with one leg and an crutch. No ordinary crutch, though, this one is a ingeniously-tooled set of screwed-together sections concealing the component parts of the Jackal's sniper rifle, which he quickly assembles once he has found an unoccupied attic room - not too hard in Paris in August as everyone's gone on holiday. Can Lebel put together the final pieces of the jigsaw and foil the assassin in the nick of time?

Well, you will only not know the answer to this if you imagine that Forsyth might write a sort of Inglourious Basterds style alternate-history story where de Gaulle dies (rather than dying at home seven years later as he actually did) and if additionally you've never seen the celebrated 1973 Fred Zinnemann film starring Edward Fox as the Jackal. The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book with only a couple of minor differences: the Special Branch guy whose dogged persistence yields the initial link to the Jackal is a Welshman in the book, but not in the film, presumably because Brian Cant's father-in-law felt more comfortable doing a Birmingham accent, and the episode in the book where the Jackal hooks up with a gay man in order to spend the night in his apartment (and avoid leaving a traceable trail at a hotel) has an unpalatable whiff of homophobia as written - everyone is a predatory screaming queen whereas in the film the guy the Jackal hooks up with is quite a nice harmless beardy chap who nonetheless gets brutally neck-chopped for his generosity. A few name changes aside that's about it; the 1997 film The Jackal is a much looser adaptation of the book, and I have never seen it, nor do I ever intend to, although apparently Richard Gere's Irish accent is quite a thing. 

Forsyth himself in real life is a fairly unpalatable right-wing character who has a pretty regular gig writing columns for tabloid newspapers denouncing the EU, climate change, etc., the usual stuff, so it's hardly surprising that some of this bleeds through into the novels. The Jackal is a sort of paragon of a certain right-wing idea of manliness, able to handle a gun, fake an ID, respray a car and do various engineering design tasks all without crumpling his suit, not to mention in his leisure time ferociously diddling a buxom fortysomething countess to multiple thunderous climaxes. 

I bought my old Corgi paperback copy of The Day Of The Jackal probably in excess of twenty years ago but have never got around to reading it (until now, obviously). I did have a prime Forsyth-reading period probably in my early twenties which encompassed The Odessa File, The Dogs Of War, The Devil's Alternative and The Fourth Protocol, the first two of which were adapted for films which I have seen (The Fourth Protocol was adapted as well but I've never seen it). The Odessa File is probably the best one as it at least features some characters that one might care about among all the relentless machinery of the plot. The film is very good as well. 

Anyway, this is very thrilling and enjoyable and I scooted through it pretty quickly, though just occasionally the evident thoroughness of the research occasions admiration rather than rapt involvement. Not as much as in The Dogs Of War, whose middle section sags unforgivably under the weight of endless bank transfers between holding companies. The Jackal himself is an intriguing James Bond-esque villain who we never get under the skin of or get any insight into the motivations of, and indeed whose real name we never know. If you're going to read one Forsyth I'd recommend The Odessa File, but to be honest if you just watched the films of that one and The Day Of The Jackal that might be all you'd need. 

Monday, November 01, 2021

to pen y fan, and dam the consequences

As previously advertised here, I had plans to do a walk up Pen y Fan with Nia on Friday. There were only two things which could have stood in our way: firstly disastrous ankle consequences from my walk on Monday, and secondly some sort of disastrous weather forecast which suggested that we would be imperilling our lives by even stepping outside the front door. Well, while the ankle was more painful than I'd hoped it would be, that certainly wasn't going to be allowed to stand in the way, and while the weather forecast wasn't great - persistent rain, intermittent low cloud and brisk winds - I'd describe it as fairly typical October Beacons weather, so off we went. 

It was immediately apparent that whatever the weather on the day, there had been a lot of rain recently, as there were a couple of spots where the minor road that leads up the side of Pontsticill Reservoir was completely covered in water. It looked (and mercifully was) pretty shallow in both spots, but the prospect of stranding myself and Nia in the middle of nowhere with pretty patchy mobile phone coverage and a broken-down car like, say, one of these idiots was not an appealing one. Anyway, we got through to the car park we were aiming for, just down the road from the Neuadd reservoirs. 

My plan was to go across the lower reservoir dam and straight up the steep ascent onto the Graig Fan Ddu ridge, thus getting the difficult bit of the day knocked off early doors, and then walk along to Corn Du and Pen y Fan and come back down the major path that runs from Bwlch ar y Fan back down to the dam. While we were getting booted and coated a man in a high-vis jacket with a National Park logo came up and engaged us in some chat about what our plans were for the day. He was evidently doing commendable humanitarian work ensuring that people weren't just about to swan off to the top in flip-flops and vests with carrier bags full of Stella, but I confess I bristled slightly at his gentle questioning and had to suppress an urge to say I KNOW WHAT I'M DOING THANK YOU VERY MUCH GOOD DAY TO YOU SIR. He did, to be fair, make the suggestion that given the weather forecast it might be more prudent to do the walk in reverse and take the more gradual route on the way up, thereby making it easier to abandon and come back down if the weather proved too horrible. I stubbornly declined to commit myself to any particular route during our conversation but privately conceded shortly afterwards that he was probably right.

So the upshot of all that was that the route we ended up taking was almost the same one as I'd done with Hazel and Robin way back in early 2009 (photos here) - the differences being that on the earlier walk we parked in the lower car park about half a mile back down the road at Pont Cwmyfedwen and also took in the extra peak of Cribyn on the way round. Route map and summit shot from Friday's walk are below.

Anyway, the main two things to say about the walk are firstly that in complete defiance of the weather forecast it was almost completely dry throughout (aside from some brief light drizzle on the way up and a brief but intense and stinging sleet/hail shower during the final descent) and for our lunch stop on the lower slopes of Cribyn and the ascent and summit of Pen y Fan itself it was positively sunny. Secondly, despite it being a fairly robust 8.7 mile round trip Nia gave every indication of thoroughly enjoying herself and certainly didn't seem to be nearing the limits of her physical capabilities. As for the limits of my physical capabilities the pain from my ankle was noticeable but not disabling, though there is as always a price to pay for the next 48 hours or so. 

One interesting thing that you can see from the small set of photos I took is the current state of the two Neuadd reservoirs. The pair of images below are from 2008 and 2021 and show that both upper and lower reservoirs are currently empty. In the case of the upper one that's because it's been drained because of concerns about the integrity of the dam. As I understand it the intention is that the reservoir be refilled once some sort of remedial action has been taken, but that there isn't currently a timescale for that. 

The situation with the lower reservoir is somewhat different, in that it's been conclusively decommissioned - the way they've done this is to take a big shallow V-shaped wedge out of the dam (unlike the rather ornate stone dam on the upper reservoir the lower one is/was just a big earth bank) to lower the water level and create a new spillway. To retain public access across the dam (which you used to be able to just walk across the top of) they've also built a footbridge across the new spillway. It's all been very nicely landscaped, as you can see from the pictures below - the older picture showing the intact dam is from that 2009 walk.

A final note while we're talking about reservoirs - the larger Pontsticill reservoir has a glory hole spillway which featured in the opening scenes of the BBC drama The Pact, which I cannot offer an opinion on one way or the other except to commend the splendid drone shot of the spillway featured about two minutes into the first episode and captured below.

the last book I read

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

So, our protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, has achieved what his illustrious mentor Cardinal Wolsey could not and contrived an end to Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, mainly by virtue of Cromwell's having the will to do what the other guy wouldn't, in this case separating the Church of England from the Catholic Church and telling the Pope to go fuck himself. 

No time to rest on one's laurels, though: Henry's pursuit of Anne (and marriage to her in 1533) was only partly predicated on her being a younger, more nubile model - it was partly inspired by the thought that she might be able to do what Catherine had not and provide him with a male heir to the throne. But here we are in the autumn of 1535 and no son has been forthcoming - Anne has produced a daughter, Elizabeth, and endured a couple of miscarriages, but that's it. And Henry is not a patient man. Anne, furthermore, is a bit spiky and opinionated and Henry's eye has begun to alight on Jane Seymour, an altogether meeker and more pliant type, and hey, who knows, maybe just waiting to rattle out a fusillade of male heirs, given the opportunity.

But the queen is not inclined to stand aside and make way for a younger successor by just conveniently retiring to a nunnery, nor would it be constitutionally acceptable for her to do so. So another way must be found: either her marriage to Henry was never valid in the first place for some reason (the same sort of ruse that was used on Catherine) or a reason must be found for her to be found guilty of some crime against the king (i.e. treason) and, hem hem, "removed" from the throne. The penalty for women found guilty of treason would be either burning or beheading, depending on the whim of the king, but, hey, omelettes, eggs, etc.

Naturally, as the go-to man for fixing all sorts of awkward problems, it falls to Thomas Cromwell to make what Henry desires to happen happen. He soon decides that a charge of adultery will be the best way to achieve this, and as it happens there are a few rumours flying around relating to a few younger members (fnarr) of the royal court. Henry is in his mid-forties by this time, increasingly overweight and increasingly incapacitated by gout and leg ulcers, and there is a suggestion that he may not be able to, perform the, hem hem, spousal duties in quite the way that Anne would like, making her inclined to look elsewhere. More surprisingly the list of potential suitors includes her own brother, George Boleyn, adding a bit of spicy incest action to the standard adultery charges.

In a sense it doesn't really matter whether any of the accusations is actually true (Wikipedia says, with splendid understatement: "Modern historians view the charges against her [...] as unconvincing"); their reading out in court and the clear knowledge of all concerned that it is the king's will to be released from his marriage to Anne and that this is the way that has been chosen for it to be done drives the whole process through to its inevitable conclusion pretty quickly. And so we arrive at a May day in 1536 as Anne ascends the scaffold to meet the French swordsman specially hired for the occasion and, shortly afterwards, her maker. 

This is, of course, the sequel to Wolf Hall which I read three years ago and I recall mildly criticising for taking a long time to describe the events of around six years. Well, Bring Up The Bodies is a shorter book (about 480 pages) but covers the events of a much shorter period (about nine months between autumn 1535 and summer 1536). Nonetheless it seems a much more compelling story than Wolf Hall and I would say I enjoyed it more. Maybe this is because less time is spent on Cromwell's home life (his wife and daughters having died during the first book) and therefore more time is spent in the orbit of Henry, a charismatic but terrifyingly impulsive and unpredictable character with the power of life and/or fairly immediate death over anyone in his vicinity. Maybe it's also because the bringing about of the end of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn is inherently more dramatic and bloody than the end of his previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon, involving as it does actual public bloody dismemberment rather than discreet shuffling off to a nunnery.

What the books are really about, of course, is Cromwell's ability to navigate Henry's moods, deliver the outcomes he wants, and avoid getting his own head cut off, something he is intelligent enough to know could come at any time. Cromwell is what Stephen King calls the "I-guy" here, the principal protagonist of a novel not written in the first person but constrained to being seen through the eyes of its main character. This does lead to some odd constructions where being able to say "I" would have made the meaning (i.e. in terms of who was being referred to) clearer:

Mantel makes this as unobtrusive as possible but once you start to notice it it becomes, well, noticeable. Cromwell is, in his own gruff and impenetrable way, starting to become a bit of a Mary Sue (or possibly Marty Stu) by the end of the second book, not because he is portrayed as being morally unimpeachable (he is ruthlessly pragmatic in all things) but because Mantel's affection for him (or at least her fictionalised version of him) is so obvious. She's going to have to let him go, though, because I assume that the third book, The Mirror And The Light, concludes with his inevitable fall from favour and execution. 

I enjoyed this more than Wolf Hall, for the reasons stated above: it just seems tighter and more focused. The portrayal of Cromwell and indeed all the major characters here shouldn't be taken as historically accurate or definitive, of course, and less sympathetic portrayals of Cromwell are available, notably in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons. Like Wolf Hall, and several other books featured on this blog, most recently The God Of Small Things and The Siege Of Krishnapur, Bring Up The Bodies was awarded the Booker Prize in 2012. It also won the Costa Book Award in the same year; recent winners featured here include Brooklyn and Middle England

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

bog standard

So obviously with ankle rehabilitation progressing well and new boots ready to be tested it only remained to find an opportunity to go and test ankle and boots out by going for a long walk. It's currently school half-term and Nia and I have been trying to tee up a crack at Pen y Fan, which she's very keen to do. That's pencilled in for the end of this week but I managed to wangle a free day yesterday as well so I took myself off for a walk after dropping the kids off at their grandparents' in Abergavenny. Now I've done a lot of walking in the vicinity of Abergavenny over the years: there's the Sugar Loaf, the Blorenge, the Black Mountain, Table Mountain above Crickhowell, Coity Mountain near Blaenavon and various Skirrids. So a lot of the obvious boxes have been ticked, and I fancied doing something new rather than re-doing something I'd already done.

The obvious area in the vicinity that I'd never set foot on was the big plateau to the south-west of Crickhowell, cut roughly in half by the B4560 running north-south across it, with the eastern half being Mynydd Llangatwg and the western half being Mynydd Llangynidr. So I planned a circular route, found a car park and set off. 

The first thing to say here is that this isn't a mountain walk in the classical sense: firstly because the car park is at about 440 metres and the high-altitude point of the day is at 541 metres, so there isn't a lot of ascent involved. Furthermore while the two areas either side of the road are each called "mountain" (that being what the Welsh word "mynydd" means) they are actually just one vast plateau with no obvious summits. The focal points of the day are the two trig points, the first one barely a mile and a half into the walk at 541 metres and the second at 529 metres atop a slightly more impressive pile of bits of shattered limestone about four miles to the east. The important thing to say about the first one is that this isn't even technically the summit of Mynydd Llangynidr - that is at 557 metres about a mile and a half to the west, but I couldn't see a way of including it in the walk without increasing the amount of exhausting slogging across trackless wastes to beyond the limits of even my sanity.

Getting from the first trig point to the second is the main challenge of the day - as you can probably imagine a vast flat area of mountain upland in South Wales is going to attract and retain quite a bit of water. The section from the first trig point to the road is basically OK, as is the section from the road to the intermediate high point here. Looking east from there across the slightly lower-lying area between you and the higher ground of Mynydd Llangatwg (the knobbly bit in the centre of the picture) is, I imagine, an experience not unlike gazing across the blasted trackless wastes of Mordor towards Mount Doom.

It's important to take an attitude of Zen-like calm and fatalism here: there's really no way of knowing in advance which is the best (which basically means driest) route, and so the thing to do is pick out a rough route by eye and then just go for it. In hindsight, though, it might have been better to go to the south (right in the photo above) of the two ponds rather than trying to pick a route between them. Around halfway through trying to do that I encountered a very wet section and no amount of hasty high-stepping over tussocks could prevent a certain amount of water from entering over the tops of my boots, instantly invalidating my intended testing of their waterproofing. The advantage of being in such an unfrequented spot is that you can bellow CUUUUNNNT as loud as you like and no-one will mind. 

Once you've gained the high ground of Mynydd Llangatwg, bagged its trig point and dropped off to the north to get out of the wind and eat a pork pie and a Granny Smith, you can quickly drop off the northern edge of the escarpment and down onto a path which hugs the contours along the bottom of the cliffs back towards the car park. I had expected this to be a longish and slightly tedious tail to the walk, but it's actually not quite as simple as that: the first section takes you through some interesting old limestone quarry workings and into the Craig-y-cilau nature reserve, part of the path through which follows the route of an old quarry tramway along a terrace halfway up the cliff. This is an absolute delight to walk after the tedious squelching that's gone before, and once that ends you drop down into some wooded valleys that are equally delightful, if a bit muddy and slippery in the wet. The path then leads past the raised bog at Waun Ddu - apparently very unusual and ecologically significant, though to be honest not much to look at. 

That's your lot for excitement, though, the tedious tail to the walk then materialises, just slightly later than expected, and you have to slog the last two slightly uphill miles along a road.

I can't honestly say I'd recommend this route to anyone but tedious hill-bagging completists and those of an obsessively misanthropic nature - after leaving the car park where there were a couple of guys in an army Land Rover doing mysterious army shit involving shouting into a radio a lot the next time I saw a human being was at around six miles in when I caught a glimpse of the top half of a farmer from about fifty yards away. I then passed within hello-ing distance of a young couple and an elderly lady and her dog while walking through the woods, but that was about it. I enjoyed myself, but I am aware that I find enjoyment in a whole variety of perverse activities that many would find unpalatable.

As an exercise in assessing boot comfort and ankle recovery it was pretty effective, though: marshy tussocky terrain like this is murder on the ankles even when they aren't injured. Twenty-four hours later I would describe my ankle as a bit sore, but not cripplingly so. We'll see what a shorter but steeper (and hopefully drier) walk on Friday does to it.

Route map (start at the green flag thingy in the top left corner and proceed anticlockwise) and altitude profile are below: the altitude profile illustrates how this is very much a walk of two contrasting halves. Note that the starting altitude (calculated by my phone's GPS) and, as a consequence, all the other altitudes, are about fifty metres too high.

I also took a few photos, which can be found here

Monday, October 18, 2021

maybe a reboot will fix it

One thing you can certainly say about me, in addition to all the less palatable stuff about being fat, bald and malodorous, is that I am not some sort of fickle fly-by-night flibbertigibbet when it comes to owning walking boots. This is partly because I am as tight as a gnat's chuff: walking boots are expensive and I want to be sure that when I purchase a pair they're going to last a while. Obviously I want them to be comfortable as well and that generally requires some outlay of cash, since in general you broadly get what you pay for, so there's a middle ground to be found between super-comfortable boots of solid gold that cost a gazillion quid and dirt-cheap boots that grind your toes off and leak like a sieve.

Leaking like a sieve, as it happens, is the thing that usually indicates that it's time to buy a new pair of boots, rather than anything absurdly dramatic like the soles falling off. And, just as the early-2007 Dartmoor trip finished off the old Berghauses, so it was for my 14-year-old pair of Salomon boots, under suspicion for a while for no longer being everything one might wish for in the waterproofing department and finally caught bang to rights during our soggy trip up the Blorenge in February, the second half of which was a fairly miserable cold squelchy experience.

As those of you who keep up with my insane ramblings on Twitter will know (it's mentioned in the Blorenge post as well), I've been suffering from quite painful ankle tendinitis for most of 2021 which has restricted my activities in the walking and running departments. Now that a proper full recovery finally seems to be in sight and I am under strict orders from the podiatrist and physiotherapist to go out and challenge myself with some exercise, my mind has turned to walking activity (I've already got back to the parkrun with Nia a couple of times) and I don't really want wet feet again. So we went over to Go Outdoors in Cardiff and I bought a new pair of boots. I've gone back to old-school leather Berghaus boots, partly because they were exceptionally comfortable and partly because this pair were on sale for 60 quid off.

As I said when I bought the last pair, the old Berghauses were probably the best part of 20 years old, and the Salomons lasted 14 years, so I have basically had two pairs of boots for the entirety of my adult life. Will the new pair see me into my grave, or at least into the twilight of my mountain walking career? We shall see.

Friday, October 15, 2021

cushlebrity woofylikey of the day

Come with me, if you will, as we continue our magical journey into the ever more esoteric realms of Things That Sort Of Look A Bit Like Each Other. We've done people, obviously, but also trees, religious buildings, cuddly toys, large Arctic islands, cartoon rabbits and tubes of tablets. In that vein, here's a cushion my wife bought the other day. It's fun and funky as an ornament but not actually very comfortable to lean on as it's rather tickly. Furthermore I was immediately struck by its resemblance to one of those dreadlocked Hungarian Puli dogs that look like some sort of high-maintenance grooming nightmare. I suspect if you took one of those, ripped its head and legs off (you might want to put an old sheet or some newspaper down first), disembowelled it and then stuffed it you would arrive at something that was a) more comfortable to lean on, b) cheaper to feed and c) quieter. 
On the other hand the RSPCA might be popping round for a word.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

the last book I read

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Hardest game in the world, the old art restoration game. I mean, you want to avoid the obvious atrocities like this, but there are more subtle and tricky considerations to grapple with. Can we get the layer of dirty and darkened varnish off, and maybe replace it with a new protective layer, without damaging the paint? If the artist himself made repairs at a later date, are they to be preserved, or removed in search of the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean? Does anybody really love anybody anyway

Fortunately experienced and competent art restorers exist, like for instance Julia, who, as we meet her here in Madrid, has just acquired an interesting work to spruce up: The Game of Chess, a 15th-century work by Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. Not just interesting in its subject matter - two Flemish gentlemen playing chess, based on real people, one of whom, intriguingly, had been dead for two years at the time the painting was done - but also because of what Julia finds when she gets the painting X-rayed (presumably part of the standard pre-restoration assessment process) and receives the results. Those results show that near the bottom of the painting, concealed by a subsequent layer of paint, are some words. Those words are "Quis necavit equitem?", or "Who killed the knight?".

You'll be ahead of me here, so: obviously a knight is a chess piece, and indeed one of the players has a white knight in his hand which he has evidently just taken from the board. But there is more, as there always is, in books longer than about half-a-dozen pages anyway: the player using the black pieces, Roger de Arras, is also "a knight" (the other guy is a nobleman of some sort) and, as we already know, had died a couple of years before the painting was created, after a brief but unpleasant argument with a crossbow bolt on a castle battlement. So does the inscription provide a clue to finding Roger's killer?

Julia and her old friend and art collector César engage the services of a local chess prodigy, Muñoz, to try and retrace the course of the chess game up to the climactic point captured in the painting, and of art historian (and, just to complicate things slightly, her ex-lover) Álvaro to dig into the painting's history and that of the people portrayed within it (the two men already mentioned plus the nobleman's wife, sitting demurely at a window watching the progress of the chess match). No sooner have they done this than Álvaro turns up dead in his shower, apparently having slipped and accidentally viciously bashed the back of his head in on the edge of the bath. Shortly afterwards Julia receives a small card, left by the entrance to her apartment, which contains some possible chess moves for extending the game portrayed in the painting. Is this some sort of coded warning to Julia? Is Álvaro's death connected? Is some chess-obsessed serial killer about to go on a rampage? But who? And why?

One possible motive might be to establish some public notoriety around the painting and thereby push up its value, in which case there are a few possible suspects: the painting's owner, Don Manuel Belmonte, his daughter Lola, Julia's friend and art dealer Menchu, her toy-boy lover Max, and oily auctioneer Paco Montegrifo. Menchu takes herself out of the running early doors by being murdered, and further cards containing further chess moves continue to arrive, with Muñoz keeping track of the current game position and developing a healthy respect for his adversary's chess skills (though not so much his penchant for actual murder). Hardest game in the world, the old chess game

Eventually Muñoz manages to work out the identity of the serial-killing chess enthusiast, and it turns out to be someone we already know, who unexpectedly turns out to have a chess-playing past, ended by the chastening experience of losing to a lesser player. Lying dormant for many years, the chess-playing bug (and associated killing frenzy) was rekindled by exposure to The Game of Chess

None of this really makes any sense, of course, but the same can be said for most detective novels. And while the unravelling of the mystery here is a lot of fun (even if, as usual with these things, the revelation doesn't really live up to the build-up), the main enjoyment comes from the associated detail about art and the analysis of the chess moves, both leading up to and following the capture of the white knight portrayed in the painting. It's the second book in this series to feature chess as a major plot point, The Queen's Gambit being the other. Art and painting also feature prominently, and I'd have had to look up some of the technical terms like craquelure if I hadn't already encountered them in What's Bred In The Bone

The Flanders Panel was made into a film called Uncovered in 1994, starring the lovely Kate Beckinsale as Julia. The linked trailer provides just the suggestion of some sexy sexy times that were absent from the book (it also seems to have relocated it to Barcelona). Despite the disappointingly low sexy sexy times quotient in the book I enjoyed it greatly; like The Queen's Gambit it's perhaps debatable how enjoyable you would find it if you had no chess background whatsoever. I'm trying to imagine how enjoyable I would find a book whose plot revolved around, I dunno, go or halma or something. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

the last book I read

Eternity by Greg Bear.

Strap yourselves into your ergonomically-moulded space-chair-o-pod, take a slurp of your rehydrated Soylent Green and let's recap at near-relativistic speed the events of Eon, to which Eternity is a sequel: at some point in the early 21st century, Russia and the USA are on the brink of nuclear war. As if to distract everyone's attention, a huge asteroid suddenly materialises in orbit around Earth and everyone falls over each other to get an expedition out to it. When they arrive they discover that it is hollow, clearly previously inhabited but now empty, and that the last of its seven internal chambers contains a gateway to a long, tubular mini-universe that appears to be of infinite length. Eventually it becomes clear that this object is from the future of our universe, or maybe just one of many possible futures. But where has everyone gone?

Down the tube, it turns out, via some conveniently hand-wavey science that allows large city-sized craft to travel at enormous speed down it with minimal energy expenditure, while the laws of thermodynamics light up a cigar and look the other way. Gateways can also be opened along what people come to call the Way, leading to other parts of the universe, or maybe other universes, or maybe just varied possible future versions of the same universe. But gateways are two-way things and a ruthless alien force, the Jarts, gain entry to the Way and really go to town fucking everyone's shit up, including opening a gateway into the heart of a star. To avoid everyone being incinerated by a nasty miasma of incandescent plasma, one party of current and future humans fires off down the tube at gargantuan speed to who knows where while the rest retreat back to the asteroid and sever the connection with the Way. 

And so here we are. As Eternity starts several plot strands featuring major characters from the previous book are picked up, including maverick physics whiz-kid Patricia Vasquez, escaping from the Way through a gateway to what she hoped was Earth but turned out to be a diverged future Earth where Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and his Macedonian culture continued to dominate. With no way (or indeed Way) back to her own world she lives to a ripely irascible old age, passing on some previously-unknown technology to the inhabitants and in particular a love of science and general feistiness to her granddaughter Rhita.

Meanwhile administrator and general voice of reason Garry Lanier is down on the real Earth overseeing aspects of its recovery after the continent-scouring nuclear war that occurred in the first book. Lots of this takes place in New Zealand, presumably because this escaped being a fiery radioactive hellscape, unlike the northern hemisphere continents. On taking a break from the old administering and going for a nature hike one day Lanier is somewhat startled to meet Pavel Mirsky, a former colleague who had been in the party that scooted off down the Way in the opposite direction at the end of the first book and whose presence here is therefore Literally Impossible. So, Pavel, where have you been? Well, Garry, I'm glad you asked - I've been to the End Of Time Itself and I have now returned to tell you about it. I may have to summarise some sections.

Meanwhile Olmy, agent of the Hexamon (the future-human civilisation that the current humans encountered down the Way) is on the asteroid (generally known as Thistledown) doing some strictly unauthorised research into a captured Jart whose body and backed-up mental state are stored in a top-secret vault in one of the chambers (backing up mental states to external storage for reconstitution into other bodies being a totally commonplace thing). Since everyone who had plugged themselves into the downloaded Jart mind-state so far has died, Olmy constructs an elaborate series of failsafes before downloading it into an implant in his own brain. But, you know, we can all see what's going to happen there.

Rhita Vaskayza (according to the spelling of Gaia, her alternative future Earth) has grown up into an inquisitive young woman to whom her now-deceased grandmother has bequeathed a lot of mysterious science-y artefacts. Rhita uses these to locate an active gateway into the Way at a distant location in "Nordic Rhus" (probably Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan) and gets permission to get an expedition together to try and find it. But, again, gateways allow entry and exit, and no sooner has Rhita located the gateway and opened it than a swarm of Jarts appears. Nice planet: we'll take it! Rhita and her expedition are taken through the gateway, extensively probed and hooked up to the Jart mind-grid for further observation.

Meanwhile, Pavel Mirsky has a message from [echoey voice] Beyond Time for the humans on Earth and on Thistledown: the Way must be destroyed. As magnificent a testament to human ingenuity as it is, it turns out to be like a tapeworm in the belly of the universe which will prevent some mysterious transcendent end-of-2001 shit from happening gazillions of years into the future. There are factions who have been campaigning for the re-opening of the Way anyway so this bit is agreed to, but once this is done and a hostile (presumably Jart) energy beam zaps out and kills a few people the second part (i.e. initiating the Way's destruction) is quickly agreed to as well.

Olmy's Jart, who has, wholly predictably, taken over all his key brain functions and is basically driving him around like a freakin' go-kart, proves an unexpected ally here, fashioning a hey-don't-shoot message for transmission down the Way to prevent further unpleasantness. Eventually the protagonists have to make the same sort of choices as at the end of the first book: retreat to Earth to live out their lives, take a gateway to another world, or try to outrun the wave of destruction down the Way to the end of time itself.

There are some books, including a few on this list (The Ionian Mission would be an obvious example, as I suppose would Tears Of The Giraffe and Mortal Causes), which are strictly part of a series but where it's not essential to have read all a particular book's predecessors before picking it up. Not so here, as I can't see how any of this would be comprehensible without having first read Eon. I did that in the late-1980s and bought this book immediately afterwards, before unexpectedly then leaving it over 30 years before reading it. To be honest a slightly shorter gap between the books might be better, just to have the events of Eon a bit fresher in the mind. 

One obvious advantage of a sequel to a gnarly hard sci-fi book is that you can skip some of the more substantial chunks of world-building exposition that bogged down some of Eon and just launch straight into the story in an already-built universe. In that sense Eternity is a more exciting, event-filled book than Eon, each of the several parallel strands having plenty to keep the reader interested.

One of the odd things about Eternity is how similar some aspects of it are to the work of Iain M Banks - there's the enthusiasm for planetary-scale engineering, but also some of the concepts around longevity-enhancement by constantly backing-up your mind-state and re-loading it into a series of youthful physical substrates. This also provides a means of ensuring your continued survival should you unexpectedly be killed falling off an asteroid or being cut in half by a space laser. The concept of "subliming" that features in some of the Culture novels sounds quite close to what Pavel Mirsky undergoes here as well. And the series of occasionally nightmarish simulations that Rhita's uploaded consciousness is subjected to by the Jarts is not dissimilar to the Hells from Surface Detail. The Jarts themselves are a bit like the Borg, existing only to joylessly assimilate other planets and secure their knowledge for some ill-defined perfected future version of themselves. Jart for Jart's sake, you might say.

The obvious other point of comparison is with Olaf Stapledon for attempting to encompass the entirety of space and time in a single book. Bear does at least slow down enough to feature some named characters and even make us care about them, a bit. On that subject, what purpose is served by having the Way's principal engineer, Konrad Korzenowski, carry the same name as Joseph Conrad I am not sure, but it can't be a coincidence. It's doubly hard to know whether the omission of the "i" from "Korzeniowski" was intentional, because my copy of Eternity is one of the most poorly-proofread books (from an actual non-vanity publisher, anyway) I've ever read. Subsequent editions may have ironed out some of the wrinkles but there are lot of mistakes and misspellings here (examples below). I recall mentioning the same thing with The Falls back in the early days of this blog; the situation here is, if anything, worse. 

Despite that, and despite lukewarm reviews in some quarters I really enjoyed this; my ongoing quest to read all the Culture novels aside, hard sci-fi is a genre I rarely dabble with so it's fun to dip a toe in occasionally. There is a third book in the series, Legacy, but this appears to be a loosely-linked prequel (to the extent that these terms have any meaning with all the looping time-travel going on) so I suspect this is where I'll leave it.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

another gutsy performance

In some ways it's hard to remember what "normal", pre-pandemic life was like, but if you concentrate hard enough I'm sure you can recall some aspects of it. Remember how we used to gambol in a carefree manner through grassy meadows? Remember how we used to - without really giving it a second thought - touch other people? I mean, not in that way, or not in Tesco anyway. Also, you remember how whales used to explode? It's a shame they don't do that any more, isn't it? 

Well, I'm pleased to be able to tell you that nature is healing, things are returning to normal and once again if you pop your head out of the window, in addition to the melodious sound of birdsong and the raucous guttural whooping of howler monkeys throwing bananas at each other, you may also hear the distant dull wet crump of an exploding whale. 

Here's one, for instance - apparently off the coast of California, and the type of whale isn't specified but I think it may be a gray whale. The original tweet which I quote-tweeted (see below) doesn't have any sound but this one does. It's not the hilarious series of colossal burping and farting noises that you're probably hoping for, though, just a couple of Californians going WHOOOOOAAAHHH DUUUUDE and WHAT THE FUUUUUUUCK.

One thing that seems odd on first watch (I mean apart from seeing a dead whale vomit up its own intestines) is the recollection that blue whales (and therefore, I rashly extrapolate, baleen whales in general) have quite narrow throats, only about big enough to swallow a football. So it seems odd that they could cram, for instance, an entire pair of lungs up through there. On reflection, though, this might actually be crucial as presumably it's this narrow aperture which enables the build-up of gas pressure which propels the internal organs outward. I think if you were to try and blow your own lungs out of your mouth (and I'm not suggesting you do) you would find quite a lot of pressure was required.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

rhino what you mean

A couple of further notes following the last three book posts: firstly while I'd had The Pope's Rhinoceros knocking around on my shelves for a decade or so (I don't specifically remember where I got hold of it but it may well have been on one of my strictly rationed trips to Hay-on-Wye), I first became aware of its existence some years earlier, during my participation in a truck safari in southern Africa in early 2000, something I see I mentioned towards the end of this 2008 post and even made reference to my travelling companions' selected reading matter. Well, while I'm pretty sure I recall working through several, the only book I specifically remember reading during the trip was John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces, something that earned me some hipster points with the two young American guys who were also on the truck.

There was also a compartment on the truck containing quite a few other paperback books, presumably partly populated by discarded offerings from previous travellers and offered up for the entertainment of current ones, on the understanding that you'd put your chosen book back when you'd finished with it. One of the books in here was an imposing tome called The Pope's Rhinoceros (the same paperback edition that I have) and I recall a conversation ensued about whether anyone had read it and whether someone might have a crack at it during the trip. Since it is literally impossible that I would embark on a trip such as this and fail to bring enough books, I passed at the time.

Back to the two young American guys, who were called Mike and Andy (no surnames for reasons which will become apparent in a minute) - during the last phase of our three-week trip which comprised a few nights in Victoria Falls they decided to cap the trip off by purchasing a load of assorted drugs. They'd managed to get hold of some LSD, and deeming just dropping it in the truck or while gazing on the thunderous watery magnificence of Victoria Falls from the usual viewing platforms to be a bit tame, decided to drop it so that it kicked in just as they were doing a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge which connects Zimbabwe and Zambia. I recall being in a local restaurant for a communal meal that evening and Andy, still evidently experiencing some after-effects, spending most of the meal under the table having a whispered conversation with a small carved wooden hippopotamus. 

They also managed to get hold of some weed, and since they had a plane to catch a day before ours, and since we'd partaken of some the night before, the stash ended up in the side pocket of my day-pack in order for us to make use of it round the campfire the following night. It was only on arrival at Victoria Falls airport to catch a plane to Harare that I remembered I still had the remains in my rucksack, whereupon I did a frantic dash for a secluded dustbin to empty it out and blow into the pocket to try and clear any last few telltale seeds and leaf fragments. There is of course a Sliding Doors-style alternate version of my subsequent life where I forgot to do this, got nabbed by the sniffer dogs once we encountered the less lax security regime at Harare airport, and was either summarily shot or spent the next 21 years in a Zimbabwean prison.

Secondly. an odd occurrence relating to the next book on the list, No Great Mischief. In a seemingly unrelated sequence of events, I first became aware of the existence of Canadian comic Norm MacDonald only about six months ago after following some random series of YouTube links. He was one of those guys who was extremely well-regarded by his peers, the sort of guy who'd be described as "the comedian's comedian" or something like that, which basically translates as: not as rich and famous as many of his contemporaries. Many of the YouTube clips (and there are a lot) feature him either being comically disruptive or spinning lengthy shaggy-dog stories on various late-night US talk shows, this being a loosely-structured format that seemed to suit him pretty well, a bit like his UK contemporary Sean Lock. Another thing MacDonald and Lock have in common is that they died this year, both relatively young (Lock was 58, MacDonald 61).

Needless to say after his five minutes of fond remembrance Norm MacDonald has subsequently been Milkshake Duck-ed. I'm certainly not dismissing the allegations, but I guess (just as with To Have And Have Not) you have to find a way of acknowledging that stuff without tipping someone's entire oeuvre down the memory hole. You would certainly have to say, for instance, that he seems to have taken a consistently dim view of female comedians and comedy writers. But, and I don't want to lay a heavy CANCEL CULTURE trip on you here, people contain multitudes, and it would be a shame to only admit to the public sphere those who have never expressed a single thought that deviated from current acceptable cultural norms (pun sort of intended). 

Anyway, back to the book link: in the course of the Jacques de Gautier/Jacques de Gatineau/baby dolphin story MacDonald mentioned his fluidly-named protagonist being from "Timiskaming, Quebec". His rambling, off-the-cuff style of delivery makes it sound as if that was a name he'd just made up on the spot, but not only is it a real place, it coincidentally features in a passage towards the end of No Great Mischief that I read no more than a day or two after first seeing the clip. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

the last book I read

To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.

Harry Morgan is a man. A man with a boat. A boat with many uses. The use that Harry wants to put it to is taking rich paying customers out on fishing trips between Havana and Key West. The use that quite a few people would like him to put it to is running various forms of contraband between those two locations: rum, guns, people, you name it.

Harry mostly resists the shady stuff, and wisely so as right at the start of the book we encounter him turning down a lucrative offer to transport some men to Florida and the men in question are promptly mown down by gunfire on leaving the bar. So it's dangerous work and best steered clear of. The trouble is, Harry's latest fishing customer, having been granted some fairly generous credit terms by Harry, chooses this moment to jump on the next plane out of Havana without paying, leaving Harry several hundred dollars out of pocket.

Harry has a wife and kids to feed, and times are hard generally as we're in the middle of the Great Depression, so what does he do? It seems he has little choice but to dip a toe into the murky waters of criminal activity. Despite his initial reluctance Harry seems like a natural for this kind of stuff, agreeing to transport some Chinese men from Cuba to Florida but then killing the money man (after the money has been handed over, of course) and putting the men ashore back in Cuba. Some further transporting of various illicit cargo enables Harry to keep his head above water, so to speak, but it's dangerous work and there's always the chance of a mission going tits up and ending in a hail of bullets. Sure enough on a booze-running trip Harry catches a bullet in the arm, makes it back to Key West (after dumping the booze overboard) but has his boat impounded by the US customs and ends up having his arm amputated above the elbow.

Life is tough for Harry, and it's not getting any easier. There are those who are living the high life in the bars of Havana and the marinas of Key West, though, hanging out on their luxury yachts swilling champagne. These people have worries of their own, of course: the progress of their latest love affair, fretting about the possibility of the wife having her own love affair(s), drinking too much, unwelcome scrutiny by the taxman, that sort of thing. Not quite as fundamental to actual day-to-day existence as Harry's, but it keeps them busy nevertheless. 

Harry, meanwhile, is still trying to make a living, a thing made more difficult by not having access to his boat (and by, you know, only having one arm). He borrows a boat from Havana bar-owner Freddy, and agrees to take some Cubans to Key West. It turns out the Cubans are intending to use the boat as a getaway vehicle after robbing a local bank, and they arrive on the boat toting some large guns and in a bit of a hurry, something they emphasise to Harry by shooting his crewman Albert dead. 

As they speed off across the Caribbean, Harry realises that they probably aren't going to pay him for the trip out of their profits from the bank job, and that it's far more likely that on successfully delivering them to their destination he will be the recipient of a hot lead sandwich. Fortunately Harry is a forward-thinking kind of guy and has stashed a Tommy gun in the boat's cabin. Once the boat is ot of sight and earshot of the shore and the Cubans have started to relax and knock back the rum, Harry whips out the Tommy gun and starts blazing away. Unfortunately it's a bit dark and while he successfully ventilates most of the Cubans he only wings the last one, enabling him to shoot Harry in the belly. Having properly dispatched the last Cuban, Harry hauls himself into a chair, points the boat back towards shore and prepares for either a long slow drift back to shore (the gun battle having ruptured the fuel tank) or a long slow bleed to death. 

One of the obvious things to say about To Have And Have Not is what an oddly-structured book it is. Harry's last acts as described above provide a good example: the climactic gun battle with the Cubans is done and dusted by page 130 (of 191); the remainder of the book is principally devoted to the Gordons and the Bradleys and their various inter-marital entanglements, which only intersect with the main narrative (i.e. Harry's story) right at the end, as the coastguard brings the bullet-riddled boat back into harbour (PLOT SPOILER: Harry is just about still alive, but dies). There is an odd disparity of tone between the exciting, desperate life-and-death stuff going on on Harry's boat and the relatively inconsequential rich-people-being-drunken-shits stuff going on elsewhere. No doubt part of that is deliberate (the Gordons et al are the "haves" to Harry's "have not") but the stories don't mesh together in quite the way it seems like they ought to. This makes a bit more sense when you find out it was created by combining a couple of originally separate short stories. One of the reasons that Howard Hawks wanted to change the plot quite a bit when he filmed it in 1944 (see below) was apparently that he thought it was Hemingway's worst novel. I haven't read enough of them to have an opinion, but it's certainly not in the same league as For Whom The Bell Tolls (the only other one I've read is The Old Man And The Sea, which is really an extended short story at best).

I saw the Bogart/Bacall film a long time ago and I can confirm that it bears very little resemblance to the book beyond featuring a guy called Harry (though he spends a lot of the film being called Steve) who has a boat. There were a couple of further film adaptations in the 1950s: The Breaking Point and The Gun Runners, of varying degrees of faithfulness to the book. 

One thing that will certainly have a jarring effect on the 21st-century reader is some of the language used to describe non-white people. A couple of examples below of stuff that would certainly be considered, erm, "problematic" today:

As you can see these sections are in the part of the book that's written in Harry's voice (some sections later are in the third person), so you could say: well, that's just how unreconstructed rufty-tufty 1930s guys would have talked, and you may very well be right. It is hard to see what could be done about it, assuming anyone thought anything should be done. Pulp all remaining copies and never speak of it again? That seems a bit excessive. A trigger warning in the acknowledgements at the front? Eh, maybe.