Sunday, February 21, 2021

the last book I read

Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale.

Rachel Kelly is a painter, originally American but settled since her twenties in Cornwall (Penzance, specifically) with her husband Antony. Together they have settled into a comfortable old-ish age, their three surviving children widely scattered and living their own lives.

Rachel has at various points in the past been quite famous but her reputation has faded somewhat in recent years, as her work has changed from large, ambitious, chaotic, semi-abstract work to smaller, more figurative pieces. When the gathered family (well, most of it) clear out her attic studio following her sudden death from a heart attack, though, they discover that she has had a late surge of creativity and has been working on a series of abstract works in her older style, on massive canvases.

The impromptu family gathering gives us a chance to get to know the family, and, in a series of flashbacks to various past times and to various different characters' viewpoints, Rachel herself. What is immediately clear is that she was not an easy woman to live with, either as a wife or a mother, and all the children carry some scars from her treatment of them over the years. The main reason for this is that Rachel suffered from bipolar disorder, which at the time would have been called manic depression. Most of the time she took a cocktail of drugs to manage it, but felt that they dulled her creativity, and was not convinced of their safety in pregnancy (this latter reason could of course partly have been a ruse to indulge the first), and so used to take occasional holidays from the regime, during which time her behaviour could be erratic.

Both of her surviving sons, Garfield and Hedley, are slightly timid and wary of asserting themselves, presumably as a result of not wanting to create any ripples to disturb Rachel's calm moods or draw attention to themselves during the darker ones. As a result of this Hedley is having a hard time communicating his discomfort to his lover, Oliver, an art gallery curator, over Oliver's new friendship with another wild and unpredictable female artist. Partly to avoid confronting this situation Hedley agrees to stay on in Penzance to look after his father and assist him with delving into Rachel's early life, something she was extremely cagey about while she was alive.

During this period the last of the children unexpectedly shows up - Morwenna, known to all as Wenn, always the black sheep of the family and the major inheritor of Rachel's artistic talent, but also Rachel's mental disorders, which have meant her living a strange nomadic sort of life with lengthy gaps where none of her immediate family knew where she was. 

Antony's internet pleas for information eventually bear fruit in an unexpected way: Winnie MacArthur, who turns out not only to be Rachel's sister but to have known her by a completely different name, Joanie Ransome. Clearly this warrants some explanation, and Winnie, evidently reasonably comfortably-off and with some free time, agrees to travel to Penzance to share the information that she has. 

And so we come to the last two sections of the book, which finally confront the two questions the reader has been fretting over for most of the second half of the book, both of which seem to have been equally pivotal to Rachel's life: what exactly happened to Rachel's youngest son Petroc, killed in a car accident in his mid-teens? And what the heck is with the Joanie Ransome/Rachel Kelly switcheroo?

Rachel's back-story is a fascinating one including much teenage angst, early manifestations of her mental disorder, commitment to a mental institution and an exciting escape in the company of one Rachel Kelly (remember our Rachel is still Joanie Ransome at this point) and, upon Rachel's meeting an unfortunate demise under the wheels of a train, assuming her identity and fleeing to Europe to start a new life.

The Petroc segment, which is actually the one which concludes the book, doesn't add a great deal to what we already know, since it finishes before the actual moment of Petroc's death, mown down by a drunken driver (almost certainly someone he knew) on a country lane while walking back from a party while Antony and Rachel were on a rare trip abroad to New York for a show of her work. His sunny optimism - he's just lost his virginity and left his older siblings Hedley and Morwenna happily dancing - is made all the more poignant by our knowledge of what is about to happen to him.

To be honest, the sequencing of those two bits (i.e. shifting them right to the end) is slightly odd, and as I said above the Petroc segment doesn't really add much, other than that it was nice that he got to get his end away before he died. The penultimate section is really the key one, in that it explains how Rachel Kelly came to be Rachel Kelly in the first place. This section and the whole sub-plot around Joanie/Rachel has a slightly incongruous Barbara Vine feel to it, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it feels like it belongs in a slightly different novel, and the whole suitcase mix-up which enables the identity swap is a bit of a clunkily implausible MacGuffin

But the rest of it is good, the family dynamics in particular being very convincing, as are the highs and lows of Rachel's moods, and there is a general warmth and optimism towards humanity throughout, even its more damaged examples. You have to balance a sympathy for what must have been a debilitating condition with a recognition of the monstrous selfishness and cruelty of her behaviour towards her children, and the feeling that surely even under the most oppressive moods you retain the power to choose to behave differently. I mean, maybe you don't, I really don't know. There is an amusing/appalling interlude with Dame Barbara Hepworth in St. Ives that Gale's afterword is at pains to stress is a fiction, although she does seem to have been a bit peculiar in real life.

Antony is the character who feels a bit underwritten; as it is he's a bit implausibly saintly and forbearing, although we are invited to infer that this is because of his active involvement with the Quaker movement. I am a bit dim so I found repeated reference to his circle of Friends with a capital F a bit odd until I clocked that this is how some Quakers refer to each other. The only other criticism that one might make of the book is that it's all very white and middle-class; I think this isn't really a fair criticism of one book - it might be a fair criticism of me if books of this type were all I ever read, but I like to think that's not the case.

Patrick Gale's website contains some interesting notes on the writing of Notes From An Exhibition, and a link to a video clip wherein he is interviewed about it by Stephen Fry.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

the last book I read

The House Of The Spirits by Isabel Allende.

Welcome to a coyly-unnamed South American country, definitely not explicitly referred to as Chile anywhere, but equally definitely Chile if you know anything of South American 20th-century history and the author's own personal history. 

We begin in the del Valle house, where Severo and Nívea live with an indeterminate number of children (it's never quite clear how many), most noticeably Rosa, a supernaturally luminous beauty, and younger sister Clara, possessed of mysterious clairvoyant and psychokinetic powers. Rosa is engaged to be married to a young man called Esteban Trueba, who as the novel opens is away seeking his fortune by overseeing digging operations at a gold mine.

Severo has political ambitions, and his profile rises sufficiently for him to acquire some powerful enemies, some of whom arrange to have him killed. Luckily for him, but unfortunately for Rosa, she drinks from the poisoned wine before he has a chance to do so, and dies. Eventually receiving word of her death and making the long and arduous trek back to the house, Esteban is grief-stricken and heads off to spend the next several years tending his family hacienda. The organisational and management challenges of this perk him right up, as does his habit of enthusiastically exercising his droit du seigneur on the daughters of his tenants, or, to put it another way, being a big old rapist. As an inevitable consequence of this there are a multitude of little Estebans running around the place, all of which he refuses to acknowledge as his own.

Refreshed by a lengthy stint of farm management, horse-riding and rape, Esteban returns to the del Valle house, and, being of a pragmatic turn of mind, requests Clara's hand in marriage instead. Clara is an odd young woman who has spent most of her teenage years entirely mute by her own choice after Rosa's death, but to everyone's surprise immediately abandons her wordless ways and says "yeah, go on then".

Esteban and Clara move into their own house away from Severo and Nívea (who are gruesomely dispatched in a car crash shortly after) and set about starting a family: daughter Blanca and twin sons Jaime and Nicolás. The family divide their time between their city home and the family hacienda, Tres Marías. It is during their time at Tres Marías that Blanca makes the acquaintance of Pedro Tercero García, and they eventually become lovers.

Esteban Trueba harbours political ambitions, and when a potentially powerful supporter, Jean de Satigny, comes to stay at Tres Marías, Esteban encourages him to have the run of the place. While on a midnight stroll Jean happens upon Blanca and Pedro Tercero in a state of naked post-coital slumber after some carefree rutting on a riverbank, reports his find to Esteban, and uses the resulting leverage to request Blanca's hand in marriage. She accepts, seeing an opportunity to legitimise the child (Pedro Tercero's, obviously) she is carrying. Jean de Satigny seems unperturbed by this arrangement, and uninterested in pressing his own attentions on Blanca. The reasons for this are soon revealed: Jean has some more, erm, esoteric preferences which seem to mainly revolve around arranging the household servants into erotic tableaux and then photographing them. Candid photography, he asked him knowingly, etc. Blanca and her daughter, Alba, flee back to the Trueba house.

Esteban, now a senator, detects that change is in the air, and sure enough soon the previously unthinkable happens and a socialist government is elected. Cue much rejoicing from the lower orders, but also outrage from the previously untouchable ruling classes. After some meetings in darkened rooms it is soon decided that the election result cannot be allowed to stand, for the greater good of the country. Fortunately a compliant media and the military need only a small nudge to push them over the edge into full-blown authoritarianism, and a military coup soon ensues, with assurances that the ensuing period of martial law and curfew will be short-lived - just until the immediate threat to the country has passed - as will the accompanying reign of terror visited upon anybody defying the regime's wishes or perceived to be plotting against it. 

This is a problem for Alba, now a feisty young woman, in particular, as her boyfriend Miguel is a dedicated campaigner for social reform and not about to let a little thing like being under immediate sentence of death deter him. No-one is safe, though, and Jaime, a doctor resolutely removed from politics, is arrested on the grounds of having treated the socialist President and therefore being under suspicion as a sympathiser. After being brutally tortured and presented with a confession to sign, he refuses, and is promptly killed. Soon enough the secret police come for Alba as well, and she ends up in the hands of Colonel Esteban García, who reveals himself to be the first of Esteban Trueba's horde of illegitimate children, and to have nursed a lifelong thirst for revenge upon the family. After being subjected to rape and torture, Alba is eventually released (after Esteban Trueba has managed to exert the last vestiges of his influence on the ruling regime), and she and Miguel are reunited. Esteban Trueba, now ninety, dies, Blanca and Pedro Tercero flee to Canada to escape the regime, but Alba and Miguel remain in the family house, awaiting the birth of Alba's child.

As I said at the start, it's never explicitly stated that the country in which The House Of The Spirits is set is meant to be Chile, but the events in the last section of the novel identify it as Chile pretty unequivocally, in particular the overthrowing of the government of Salvador Allende (Isabel Allende's father's cousin) by the military regime overseen by Augusto Pinochet which ruled the country from 1973 to 1990. The character "The President" is clearly meant to be Allende (the circumstances of whose death are still in dispute), and the occasional character "The Poet" is presumably meant to be Pablo Neruda, who also died in slightly mysterious circumstances in 1973 and who previously featured on this blog in a more light-hearted context here

Magic realism is a slightly lazy and unsatisfactory catch-all term for a whole variety of works by a whole variety of authors, many of them South American but many not, many of them featuring vivid multi-generational family sagas with themes both of real-life political struggle and odd supernatural elements, but some not. What you certainly can say about The House Of The Spirits is that it owes a heavy debt to the foundational work in this genre, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, certainly in terms of the multi-generational family saga bit, but also in some specifics, for instance: The House Of The Spirits features a character called Rosa the Beautiful and One Hundred Years Of Solitude features a character called Remedios the Beauty; both characters barely utter a word during the novels but are worshipped for their supernatural beauty before dying young.

I mean, clearly there are worse books you could choose to emulate - my only critical comments would be that the way the authorial voice is managed is a bit confusing in places. There are bits that are narrated in the first person by Esteban Trueba and bits (the majority of the narrative) that are written in a third-person omniscient style by an unknown author, or at least unknown until right at the end when the author is revealed to have been Alba, basing much of the text on a series of notebooks handed down to her by her grandmother Clara. Until you know this, some of the transitions between authorial voices are a bit jarring, and the transition between the colourful family saga with occasional tragic bits for the first three-quarters of the book and the full-blown fascist torture nightmare at the end is a bit jarring as well, although of course this could very well have been intentional. The brief and bizarre episode with Jean de Satigny's nudey photo habits put me in mind of the similar episode in Picture Palace

Other books which could loosely be said to fall into the same genre among non-South American authors include Midnight's Children and most of John Irving's back catalogue. You'll recall that I was resolutely unimpressed with Midnight's Children but a big fan of most of Irving's work (The World According To Garp in particular), so you can see that it really depends in the individual merits of the individual work, and I can say without reservation (apart from the very minor ones above, anyway) that I thoroughly enjoyed The House Of The Spirits, which is another book that has probably been sitting on my shelves for the best part of 25 years. The only other thing I would say is: we've all had ex-girlfriends who were quiet, enigmatic, hard to fathom, and those would be the Climbers of the ex-girlfriend world; conversely we've all had ex-girlfriends who were theatrical, intense, and seemingly constantly teetering on the edge of near-hysteria. Spending a significant amount of time with The House Of The Spirits is a little bit like spending time with a girlfriend of the latter sort: exhilarating but exhausting and something you should probably verify that you're in the mood for before you start.

As you can see my copy is a tie-in edition to the 1993 film - if ever there was a book that deserved the epithet "unfilmable" I would have thought it was this one, but they had a go, bless 'em, with a stellar cast (most of them jarringly white) even if they probably had to drop 70-80% of the plot.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

cricizen kane

I was prompted by the recent resumption of near-normal Test cricket in New Zealand, and in particular by the record-breaking feats of Kane Williamson, to revisit a couple of previous posts featuring deep cricket stat-nerdery and do my best to out-nerd them in some way.

Williamson's innings of 238 against Pakistan in Christchurch was of particular interest to me as it was the first innings of 238 in the 145-year history of Test cricket. You may recall my post from a few years back (January 2013 to be precise) about the esoteric study of yet-to-be-made individual innings scores in Test cricket, and the subsequent flurry of pant-moistening excitement in late 2015 when several entries on that list were knocked off in quick succession. 

Since the compilation of my original list by painstaking manual methods in 2013 I have developed some fiendishly clever automated methods for extracting statistics related to this subject, and I am both proud and, yes, all right, slightly aroused to present some of the results here.

The first thing to say is that there was an error in my original list: the inclusion of 114 as a score which was once the lowest un-made score in a Test match was an error, and the first occurrence of that score was not by Herbert Sutcliffe in 1929 but by Jack Hearne in 1912 (Sutcliffe's innings was actually the fourth 114 in Test history). So the revised progression looks like this:

ScorePlayerDateMatchSpan (time)Span (Tests)
100JT Tyldesley3rd July 1905ENG v AUS28y 110d84
110WH Ponsford19th December 1924AUS v ENG19y 169d73
125PGV van der Bijl3rd March 1939RSA v ENG9y 261d90
139ED Weekes11th April 1955WI v AUS16y 39d133
171IR Redpath11th December 1970AUS v ENG15y 244d271
186Zaheer Abbas23rd December 1982PAK v IND12y 12d267
199Mudassar Nazar24th October 1984PAK v IND1y 306d54
218SV Manjrekar1st December 1989IND v PAK5y 38d134
224VG Kambli19th February 1993IND v ENG2y 80d84
228HH Gibbs2nd January 2003RSA v PAK9y 318d423


The five lowest "missing" scores in Tests are now 229, 252, 265, 272 and 273. The last ten innings which plugged a gap on the list were as follows:

ScorePlayerTeamOppositionDateVenue
238KS WilliamsonNew ZealandPakistan03/01/2021Christchurch
335*DA WarnerAustraliaPakistan29/11/2019Adelaide
264*TWM LathamNew ZealandSri Lanka15/12/2018Wellington
303*KK NairIndiaEngland16/12/2016Chennai
269*AC VogesAustraliaWest Indies10/12/2015Hobart
290LRPL TaylorNew ZealandAustralia13/11/2015Perth
245Shoaib MalikPakistanEngland13/10/2015Abu Dhabi
263AN CookEnglandPakistan13/10/2015Abu Dhabi
294AN CookEnglandIndia10/08/2011Birmingham
293V SehwagIndiaSri Lanka02/12/2009Mumbai (BS)

At the other end of the scale, multiple occurrences of the same score for the same batsman: the highest individual score to be made more than once by the same batsman is 203, by Shoaib Mohammad and Shivnarine Chanderpaul (twice each), the highest individual score to be made three times by the same player is 158 by Kevin Pietersen, the highest individual score to be made four times by the same player is 105 by Alastair Cook and the only batsman to make the same individual score on five separate occasions is Virat Kohli with 103.

The only two instances in Test history of a batsman making two identical scores in excess of 100 in the same Test match were a pair of 105s by Sri Lanka's Duleep Mendis in 1982 and a pair of 101s by Pakistan's Misbah-ul-Haq in 2014, the second of those 101s being at the time the joint-fastest century in Test history in just 56 balls (New Zealand's Brendon McCullum has since taken sole possession of the record).

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

the last book I read

Climbers by M. John Harrison.

Mike is a young-ish guy living in the Greater Manchester area (he has a house in Stalybridge for most of the novel), working various menial jobs but spending most of his time hanging out with a motley bunch of individuals who spend virtually all their spare time rock climbing in the various outcrops and escarpments within easy reach in the Peak District and the Pennines

Mike is a latecomer to the group and a bit younger than most of the others: Normal, Gaz, Mick and sort-of group leader Sankey, a middle-aged former semi-celebrity in rock-climbing circles. Mike soon immerses himself deeply in the esoteric world of rope, bolts, chalk and boots, and of laybacks, jamming and boulder problems.

But what has prompted Mike to locate himself here and take up such an all-consuming hobby? We learn, in some oblique flashbacks, that Mike came up here from London after the breakdown of his marriage to Pauline, a bookshop owner, probably slightly older than him (nothing as straightforward as a bald statement of people's ages is ever offered). It's unclear exactly what the cause or the exact circumstances of the marriage breakdown were, just as it's pretty unclear why Mike and Pauline chose to get married in the first place.

Mike and his climbing chums continue their relentless pursuit of thrills and novelty on various bits of rock around the country, sometimes driving hours in someone's knackered old car, the seats piled high with rope and reeking climbing boots, for a couple of hours supping tea out of a Thermos and contemplating a rain-sodden slab of rock too wet to climb, only to then have to pack everything up and come home again. Normal and Mick have patient and long-suffering wives; Sankey lives alone, so when he falls thirty feet to his death off a relatively innocuous climb he's scooted up several times before it falls to Mike and Mick to sort out his personal effects. Mike has started up a tentative correspondence with Pauline in London, but she seems to have pretty firmly Moved On, so he contents himself with discreetly boning Normal's wife.

Following Sankey's death the group drifts apart: Mick gets a job making professional use of his climbing and abseiling skills but which takes him away from home most of the time, and Normal acquires a new daredevil climbing buddy whose company he seems to prefer. Mike is left, as the novel ends, sitting on a Cornish clifftop he has just scaled, contemplating his future.

As I've said before, I have no particular interest in rock-climbing per se, although it comes close enough to the sort of stuff I do like doing for me to see the appeal of it, and as I said here, the gnarlier end of the sort of mountain scrambling I do like to do is only a fag-paper away from the more elementary end of roped-up rock-climbing. The key difference, I think, other than the necessity of putting your trust in other people's competence (i.e in terms of safe belaying procedure, secure placement of bolts, reliable rope manufacture) to a degree I find unappealing, is that the scrambling is a means to an end, that end being successful arrival at the summit of the mountain, rather than an end in itself. 

Nonetheless there's enough overlap for me to find the subject fascinating; whether someone completely uninterested would enjoy Climbers I'm not sure, but I think there's a good chance that they would. The central technical subject matter aside it's an odd, bleak sort of book; for all the outdoor activity portrayed here there's very little sense of the glory of the wilderness and being out in nature miles away from civilisation - most of the locations are within easy reach of cities like Manchester and Sheffield and occupy that odd sort of polluted hinterland where city and wilderness meet and you can climb up a wall of millstone grit within sight of old colliery workings and fly-tipped sofas, usually in grey drizzle. Published in 1989 and set at least half a decade earlier, there's a sense of Thatcher-era industrial stagnation and despair here which imbues everything with a sort of greyness even when the sun is supposed to be shining.

It's an oddly vague, detached group of characters as well: the central character, Mike, drifts through the narrative without us getting to know him very well or having much insight into his motivations, other than that he's clearly throwing himself into the climbing activity and its associated subculture as a means of avoiding confronting the reasons why his marriage broke down. It's only through a bit of careful reading between the lines that we deduce that Pauline's daughter Nina died in hospital after falling onto a glass-topped coffee table and that this may have been the event that precipitated their break-up, Mike having been very fond of her. Similarly it's only made explicit that Mike has been sleeping with Normal's wife right at the end when someone specifically brings it up in conversation.

M. John Harrison is better-known as a writer of quirky science fiction, Climbers being something of an outlier in his oeuvre. I enjoyed it very much, though, and I think what I said about The Moviegoer applies equally well here: it lingers oddly in the mind after you've finished it. Testament to the excellence of its recreation of the climbing experience (it's evidently at least partly autobiographical) is that it was awarded the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 1989, a prize almost exclusively awarded to non-fiction books. 

This is the second book I got for Christmas which carries a foreword by Robert Macfarlane (whose own The Wild Places won the Boardman Tasker prize in 2007); as with its predecessor Rogue Male it's a book intensely preoccupied with landscape and the outdoors and people's relationship with it. As with Rogue Male the text of the foreword is largely reproduced in a Guardian article which you can read without needing to purchase the book; here it is

Monday, January 25, 2021

the last book I read

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Lemuel Gulliver is a ship's surgeon, travelling the world dispensing late-17th-century medical wisdom and treatment, which probably just amounts to some leeches, the odd mustard poultice and a bit of trepanning. He is also, as we will see as the book goes on, somewhat accident-prone in terms of what happens on his various sea voyages, or the ones he undertakes during the course of the story related here anyway. I expect he would offer up in his defence twenty-odd years of previous trouble-free sailing where he didn't at any point suffer shipwreck, piracy, mutiny etc. and then wash up on the shores of an undiscovered country populated by giant exploding badgers, and fair enough, I suppose. 

Anyway, we're getting slightly ahead of ourselves here. Gulliver's first voyage starts uneventfully enough, but in the Indian Ocean the ship, her crew already depleted by sickness (which the ship's surgeon, you will note, hasn't been able to do much about) is swept onto rocks and sinks. Gulliver is fortunate enough to wash up on land, and, exhausted by his swimming efforts, lies down on a grassy patch for a nap. 

When he awakes, he finds himself unable to move on account of being securely guy-roped to the ground by a gazillion tiny cables, tended by a gazillion tiny people, no larger than his thumb. Once he and his captors have managed to make themselves understood to each other, after a fashion (since they speak different languages), his captors agree to free him on the understanding he doesn't go on a big stompy rampage and crush them like ants. 

Once Gulliver (who, as luck would have it, has a pretty remarkable gift for languages) and his captors have been able to make themselves understood to each other, some details emerge: these are the Lilliputians, basically people like Gulliver but on a smaller scale, and with the same nonsensical inter-personal and inter-nation wranglings. Lilliputian society is riven between the two main political parties whose main disagreements are over the appropriate height of shoe-heels and which end to crack your breakfast egg in the mornings. Similar absurd disagreements have caused a long-running feud, occasionally erupting into open warfare, with the neighbouring island of Blefuscu.

Give the Lilliputians their due, though, they do their best to accommodate Gulliver's vast bulk, the vast bulk of his appetite for food and drink, and the vast bulk of his resulting faecal deposits, which must be something of a health hazard. Relations only cool when Gulliver refuses to use his enormous comparative size to crush the puny Blefuscudians and arrange their enslavement by the Lilliputian emperor, and then later when he puts out a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it, and, in an equally real sense, his chips. Under imminent sentence of death, he escapes to Blefuscu, where he fortuitously happens upon the remains of a normal-sized boat which he is able to make seaworthy and use to escape.

And so the pattern is set for subsequent voyages: Gulliver accepts a job on a ship sailing from Britain, some calamity occurs and he is separated from the ship and its crew, he washes up in an unknown and undocumented land, has some crazy adventues, and contrives to escape and return home.

Sure enough, after his return to England, reunion with his wife and family, acceptance of a new job on a new ship, and setting off on a new journey, things go pear-shaped again. After being blown off course and sighting an unknown land mass, Gulliver is sent ashore with a landing party, from whom he quickly becomes separated (and who he never sees again). Soon he is captured by a giant (roughly the same size relative to him as he was to the Lilliputians) and carried off to a local farmer's house. Luckily he is left in the care of the farmer's daughter, who takes a shine to him and has a little wooden house made for him which he is transported around in. 

This, it transpires, is the land of Brobdingnag, where people are just like you and me except for being seventy-foot behemoths. Gulliver and his young protector Glumdalclitch soon attract the attention of the ruling classes and are brought before the king, who desires to know more about Gulliver and the land of tiny people whence he came. Gulliver describes English life and politics at some length and he and the King find some minor differences of doctrine and procedure to express mutual bafflement over. But in a land of giants Gulliver is in a state of near-constant peril, and after a near-miss with a mischievous monkey who grabs and runs off with him, Gulliver's wooden box is picked up by a bird of prey who then drops it in the sea. After drifting for a while the box is picked up by a regular human-sized ship, lashed to its side, and Gulliver is rescued. 

Unchastened by his latest brush with death, and after a brief period of recovery at home in England, Gulliver soon sets off again. This latest sea voyage is curtailed by an attack by pirates, who maroon Gulliver on some rocks, from where he is eventually rescued by the inhabitants of a bizarre flying island. This is the island of Laputa, which houses the ruling classes of the regular land-based island of Balnibarbi. A rum lot, to be sure, given to enforcing their will on the lower (literally) orders by hovering the island over them and blocking out the sun, or in extreme cases dropping the island on top of them and squashing them into strawberry jam. When Gulliver descends to Balnibarbi and has a scout around he finds it populated by an equally strange group of "scientists" engaged in a hare-brained selection of projects to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and the like. Once again he contrives to make his excuses and leave, and makes his way via the lands of Luggnagg and Glubbdubdrib, both of whom, in different ways, have power over life and death, without it really making anybody very happy, and thence to Japan, from where he is able to find passage back to England.

Finally, he undertakes another voyage, this time as captain, despite his dismal recent track record of actually keeping ships afloat or remaining on board for any length of time. Sure enough, barely have they set off than the crew mutinies and sets him ashore on a remote island. This island turns out to be populated by a race of intelligent horses, the Houyhnhnms. These guys keep as livestock a race of hairy-arsed humanoid animals called Yahoos, who are generally dim, quarrelsome and troublesome. Assuming Gulliver to be a slightly less noisy and hairy Yahoo, they are suspicious of him at first, but grow to respect his intelligence and relatively civilised ways. As always Gulliver picks up the language quickly and is soon neighing away like he's just won the Grand National. 

In contrast with his reserve towards the inhabitants of all the other lands he has visited, Gulliver embraces Houyhnhnm society wholeheartedly, the Houyhnhnms having no concept of lying or deceit. Gulliver decides that he would be quite happy to live out his days alongside his Houyhnhnm "master", but is thwarted by a change in the political climate: it is decided that the Yahoos should be culled, as they're generally more trouble than they're worth, and despite Gulliver's erudition he is still generally regarded as a shaven Yahoo. So his master offers him an ultimatum: construct one of these "boats" of which you speak and use it to make good your escape, or suffer castration and/or death. Gulliver reluctantly chooses option A and sets out across the ocean, and, as is his habit, is almost immediately rescued by a Portuguese ship and returned, eventually, to England. Reunited with his wife and family, Gulliver retires to private life, leaving only the manuscript of his memoirs with a sympathetic publisher and the occasional urge to munch through a trough-full of oats and fall awkwardly jumping a hedge and have to be put down.

So obviously while this is a rollicking adventure story it is also your actual Satire, though the exact targets of the various sections are probably less clear now than in 1726 when it was first published (the oldest book on this list so far, beating Fanny Hill into second place). It is generally accepted that Lilliput and Blefuscu are meant to be England and France, and pretty clearly the various science-y buffoons in part 3 are meant to represent the Royal Society and its various luminaries (Isaac Newton, for instance, died around the time of the book's publication, possibly of shame, possibly not). I am in general agreement with George Orwell (and this essay in particular) that there is an odd shift of tone in part 4 and that Gulliver's extreme reverence for Houyhnhnm society is odd given how totalitarian and, more importantly, deadly dull it is. I mean, never mind the fundamental implausibility of these creatures being able to construct even rudimentary buildings without the benefit of opposable thumbs. Yeah, good luck holding that hammer, losers. 

It doesn't really matter if you can't immediately identify who the King of Brobdingnag is meant to be a satirical version of, though, as you can still relish the adventure anyway. It's no surprise that most adaptations of the book (and there have been many) only feature the first two sections (Lilliput and Brobdingnag) as these have a pleasing mirror structure whereas section 3 of the book is a bit unfocused and section 4 is just a lot of talking horses (a bit of a challenge pre-CGI). It's all good fun, though; what is also fun is looking at the original maps included in the text and trying to work out which actual locations the fictional kingdoms are meant to be near.


Lilliput seems to occupy some of the area actually occupied by western Australia, Brobdingnag seems to be a massive peninsula attached to the west coast of North America, the various kingdoms described in part 3 are an archipelago east of Japan and the land of the Houyhnhnms is south of Australia. I draw your attention to previous book/map posts herehere and here

The other obvious point to make about Gulliver's Travels is its enduring influence on other, subsequent works of speculative fiction. One can recognise from many other places the recurring theme of stranger in a strange land trying to get his head around strange creatures with strange cultural habits and eventually concluding, hey, are these strange cultural habits really any stranger than our own, when you think about it, and also, hey, deep down these guys are really just regular guys like us, scale factors and the odd extra limb aside. The general tone of the last section whereby a human, all puffed-up with his own importance and imagined status as the pinnacle of civilisation, strays into the domain of another species which turns out to be far in advance of our own culturally and regards us as little more than partly-domesticated savages, is a common theme from elsewhere as well. It's also hard to read the last section without realising that it would only take a very small twist to a couple of plot points to turn it into Planet Of The Apes

Sunday, January 17, 2021

parklife!

Another weekend, another walking trip to explore some green areas within a 20-minute walk of our house, another Newport park to add to the list of lockdown discoveries.

Beechwood Park, just round the corner, is our go-to park of choice for quick and easy running about, going down slides and climbing on stuff entertainment, and it's big enough that you can usually find a new and unusual way of making your way through it. I did notice, though, that there was another, smaller park area over just a few streets to the west, labelled as Woodland Park on the map. 

As always, although it didn't look like much on the map, there was plenty of interest to keep the kids happy once we'd got there, including the orthodox grassy park areas but also a couple of interesting wilder wooded areas, some of which contained some low walls whose purpose wasn't obvious but which seemed to indicate that buildings had once occupied part of the site. As always with a green area smack dab in the middle of a city there was a regrettable amount of random rubbish and occasional dogshit strewn about, but generally it was fine and the kids had a lot of fun exploring and climbing on the large number of felled trees around the place (precautionary fellings due to ash dieback, as far as I could gather).


We'll come back to the mysterious building remnants in a minute: one thing that struck me as I was walking round the wooded area was the number of low tree stumps which seemed to have little plastic plugs embedded in them, like the ones pictured below. No sooner had I stooped down to take a picture of one than Nia shouted at me from a few yards away to come and look at these weird bits of plastic she'd found in a tree stump. Nia is a terrifyingly bright and inquisitive girl still not completely cured of the opinion that I know lots of stuff about everything, so I was disappointed to have to add another data point in support of the obvious truth, which is that I am just busking being an adult and in fact know almost nothing about anything. 


Anyway, if you Google something like "plastic inserts in tree stumps" you can find the answer very easily, and it turns out that these are little plugs containing noxious stump-killing compounds to prevent regrowth. To be fair, that is broadly what we'd guessed they were at the time. You can get them in bulk here, if you have a ruthless campaign of tree-slaughtering in mind. 

Back to the mysterious apparent ex-buildings: further internet research reveals that Woodland Park as a publicly-accessible entity didn't exist until after World War II (unlike Beechwood Park which was opened in 1900), and before that date was largely occupied by a house called Gaerwood House and its grounds. After this and its unfortunate occupants were bombed into oblivion during World War II, the area was turned into a public park and a memorial (which we failed to spot) was placed in a prominent spot. Whether the walls we saw in the woods were part of the house, or were the remains of some other more proletarian housing bombed flat in the same raid I couldn't say.

As always, historical map sites are a source of almost endless interest, if you happen, like me, to have an almost endless interest in old maps. The excellent SABRE maps site yields this map (supposedly from the 1950s) which still shows a prominent house in the middle of what is now the park. I've marked the park boundary (roughly) in green and the house (if it was Gaerwood House, presumably just a flattened ruin at this point) in red. Some further info on the park's history, plus some photos, can be found here

Another excellent old map site yields this map from 1937 which has Gaerwood House specifically labelled and reveals that it is indeed the red one on the other map.



Saturday, January 16, 2021

soon may the bloggerman come

This seems at first glance like it fits into the lookeylikey category, but strictly it doesn't as I'm very confident these are literally the same people in two different (but thematically linked) contexts, and indeed locations.

Anyone who hangs out on Twitter for any length of time will be aware that trends come and go, things happen, literally everyone is talking about them, they mutate into memes that people copy, retweet, etc., then five minutes later they've been forgotten. Already in 2021 we've had Bean Dad Twitter, Tasing Himself In The Balls To Death While Doing A Terrorism Guy Twitter and now Sea Shanty Twitter

Those of us with a cultural connection to Wales will of course puff ruminatively on our pipe-stems (made out of a hollowed-out daffodil in the traditional manner) at this point and chuckle indulgently at the kids suddenly discovering the joys of close-harmony male voice singing, as this is something of a cultural fixture over here. And there is something rather magnificent about a group of Welshmen of a certain age, probably with a couple of fortifying pints of Mr. Brain's finest ale inside them, belting out Men of Harlech or something similar.

Anyway, while perusing one of the latest of the mashed-up multi-layered versions of Wellerman, the current undisputed number one Twitter sea shanty, I noticed that someone had tweeted a link to this rather splendid rendition of Bully In The Alley, a song in a very similar style ("bully" in this context is apparently one of the seemingly limitless collection of words that just means "drunk"). The thing that immediately grabbed my attention, apart from the barrel-chested magnificence of the guy leading the singing, was the white-bearded guy on the left of the line-up. I felt sure I'd seen him before. Here he is:


Fortunately I am blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a prodigious memory and I recalled almost immediately where it was. When it was was slightly more hazy, but a bit of searching through some old photos yielded this, taken in a shop doorway (presumably chosen for its pleasing acoustics) in Swanage in 2009. 


While the bearded guy on the right with the distinctive shorts and thumbs-in-pockets stance is clearly the guy on the left in the video, notice also how the guy next to him with the distinctive hairline and left-hand-on-ear pose is almost certainly the guy leading the song in the YouTube video. Just a minute there, Sherlock Columbo, you'll be saying, this is all a bit speculative; white-bearded guys in shorts and sandals and rotund types with their fingers in their ears must be ten a penny in folky circles. And I hear what you're saying, but a bit of research (including reading the text below the YouTube video) reveals that these guys are members of a folk troupe called Kimber's Men. If you look carefully at the contents of the open case at the bottom of the Swanage photo you'll see that these guys are offering CDs for sale, and, although the resolution is a bit sketchy, I think you will agree that the upright one is the one pictured here.


Further evidence is provided by the alternative rendition of Bully In The Alley delivered here - the bearded guy in the middle is pretty clearly the guy on the left in the Swanage photo. Just to be clear, this smaller group is Kimber's Men, the large group in the first YouTube video presumably being swelled by the presence of a load of other singers - it was apparently captured at the Deal Maritime Festival in September 2013. 

If you follow the link to the Kimber's Men website above you will note that the white-bearded guy is absent - this is apparently because he died in 2017. His name was Joe Stead and he was evidently something of a legend in folky circles. 

Traditional British folk music carries an unpalatable whiff of real ale and Morris dancing to most people (not that I am averse to the whiff of real ale, as you know) but it's something I like a lot, in carefully calibrated doses. To be honest the fact that it's a thing best enjoyed live in a slightly cramped and sweaty pub just adds to the attraction for me. The reason that Kimber's Men were hanging out in Swanage in the first place was because our visit in 2009 happened to coincide with the Swanage Folk Festival, and I cannot deny that among the many musical acts on display there was quite a bit of Morris dancing, most of it thankfully centred on the wide open areas on the seafront (the esplanade, if you will) rather than in the pubs. Pictures from that trip can be found here.

Friday, January 08, 2021

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

One thing you notice if you spend a significant amount of time in the company of CBeebies, as I do, is that there are people who seem to be in everything. Justin Fletcher is probably the most obvious example, but within the range of the programmes that my children watch Andy Day (someone who put in a previous appearance on this list) seems to be ubiquitous at the moment. There's Andy & The Band, there's Andy's Dino Toybox, and then there is the seemingly endless number of variations on the theme of Andy's Wild Adventures, Andy's Dinosaur Adventures, Andy's Aquatic Adventures, and many more, most of which have a similar structure: benign but strangely incurious boss Mr. Hammond, tech-savvy sidekick Jen, and Andy himself, able to travel through time and space in his magical jeep, and, in some versions of the show, shrink to minute size at will.

That's all by the by, though, as my interest here is in Mr. Hammond. Obviously he's the boss so they wanted a dramatic heavyweight to play him, but who'd have thought they's be able to wangle dear dear Kenny Branagh (himself a previous featuree on this list). 

Obviously it's not really Kenneth Branagh (it's Adam Astill, apparently), but the resemblance is striking: hair, face shape, stubble and the complete absence of any visible lips.



the last book I read

Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household.

Our unnamed narrator has been a bit of a silly boy. Not content with the life of a slightly bored upper-class well-off playboy, he decides to make use of his big-game hunting expertise to bag the biggest prize of all: a coyly-unnamed dictator in a coyly-unnamed middle-European country (but absolutely no prizes for guessing who the author had in mind in a novel first published in 1939). His motives for such an adventure are, at this stage, unclear, and he claims to have done the stalk purely for sport, never intending to pull the trigger. At least, that's what he tells his interrogators when they capture him, his plan having been foiled by a momentary change in wind direction causing him to pause with his finger on the trigger for long enough for a patrolling guard to spot him and cosh him on the back of the head.

Clearly his captors aren't going to let him live, although, having tortured him and generally roughed him up quite a bit they need to make his death look like an accident. So they dangle him off a nearby cliff and leave him to fall off at his leisure, which he duly does, only to land in a bit of marshy ground that prevents him from dying, though not from leaving substantial amounts of back and arse skin and the occasional lump of flesh attached to the cliff face on the way down. 

Finding himself unexpectedly alive, if a bit scraped, our muddy hero takes himself off to a nearby tree to convalesce, having the presence of mind to lay a false trail to a river a short distance away to throw his pursuers off the scent. Once his arse cheeks have knitted together enough to allow him to walk he heads off to try and make his way out of the country and eventually back to England. This seemingly impossible task is aided by his acquisition of a boat, thanks to an interaction with a sympathetic native he meets near the river. Using the boat to reach a port where British ships dock (again unnamed but quite likely Hamburg) he wangles his way onto a boat headed for London by striking up a rapport with the ship's mate, hides out in an unused water tank for a few days and eventually slips off the boat and into London.

It soon becomes clear that his pursuers aren't going to do anything as civilised as shrug and go home again once a national boundary has been crossed, though, and our hero finds that he has a tail, which he loses in the most emphatic manner by dragging him onto the live rail at Aldwych. This is great in the short term but does mean that the British police are now very interested in him as well, so a swift exit from London is required. So after collecting a wedge of cash our hero makes his way to Dorset, a place he knows well, and decides to go to ground until things blow over. Going to ground is what he literally does, in fact, finding an old holloway choked with vegetation where he can dig a primitive shelter into one of the side banks. Even here he is not safe, though: although evading the police is relatively straightforward, evading the agent that the enemy have sent to flush him out is less easy. 

After the enemy agent, masquerading as an Englishman called Major Quive-Smith, has picked up his trail and made an abortive attempt to shoot him, our hero retreats to his hideout, only to find that the Major has taken up residence in the farmhouse across the next field on the pretext of doing some shooting. There follows a game of cat-and-mouse which ends with the subterranean hideout being discovered and barricaded shut with its occupant inside it, whereupon Quive-Smith conducts an interrogation through a ventilation-hole to discover the would-be assassin's motives. These are opaque even to the would-be assassin, but are teased out over a few days of questioning: the narrator had a lover whom he brought to this location but who was involved in international relations in some way and was eventually captured and shot by agents of the power that Quive-Smith represents. This was what prompted the hunting expedition, and yes, of course he intended to pull the trigger.

What Quive-Smith does not know, though, is that our hero has been busy inside his cramped quarters, in gaps in the conversation, and has been building a MacGyver-style makeshift ballista out of some animal innards and wood. And the next time Quive-Smith puts his eye to the ventilation tube he finds himself getting ventilated in a pretty big-ass way with a catapulted piece of ironmongery through the frontal lobe. Our hero quickly digs himself out of his shit-infested hellhole, nicks Quive-Smith's clothes and passports, waits for the obligatory villainous sidekick to show up, kicks the shit out of him and makes him drive to Liverpool to make good his escape by boat to Tangier. Once there he assumes one of Quive-Smith's many identities (finding, fortunately, that they look quite similar) and slips back into mainland Europe, resolved to having another pop at taking out the dictator, and not fucking it up this time. 

When I was a teenager I had a hardback compilation (sadly I don't have it any more) of stories called something like Great Escape Stories, which contained extracts of various classic works including Airey Neave's They Have Their Exits, Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, almost certainly The Great Escape, this chase sequence from Dick Francis' Dead Cert and the opening chapter of Rogue Male, which plunges the reader into the action immediately after the narrator has dropped off a cliff into some mud and is a quite ridiculously thrilling piece of writing. Almost more remarkable than that is how the action is never allowed to flag, even when the narrator spends (in a novel of 180 pages) most of the time between about pages 70 and 160 hiding in a hole in the ground. 

It's easy to see Rogue Male's influence by reading just about any thriller written since; in particular you can see its echoes in the character of James Bond: capable, resourceful, laconic, intensely interested in women but wary of attachment, not blinded by patriotism but with a keen sense of right and wrong and capable of merciless brutality when the situation demands it. In terms of Rogue Male's own influences, I have never read John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915) but it seems an obvious influence as a tale of pursuit, although of course part of the point of that (as I recall anyway) was that Richard Hannay was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused, whereas our narrator here is not.

It's only fair to point out that, in common with most novels published in 1939, this contains a fair amount of the old racism and sexism. Among the good things that it contains are a genuine affection for the outdoors, nature and the natural world; the only sentimental moments that the narrator allows himself are with the large cat that co-habits the sunken lane with him and he calls Asmodeus, whose innards (after Quive-Smith kills him) provide the twangy bits for the makeshift crossbow, in an it's-what-he-would-have-wanted sort of way. It's easy for this sort of admirable twig-whittling enthusiasm (enabled by the privilege of being well-off enough to have leisure time) to curdle into a scorn of the squishy townies with their full-time jobs and no idea how to gut a stoat and make it into a hat, and it's a short journey from there to the sort of blood-and-soil ideas that, ironically (given Rogue Male's central plot premise), Hitler among others espoused. Robert Baden-Powell, for instance, the poster-boy for robust outdoor pursuits and plenty of jolly campfire songs and whittling, was quite a big fan of both Mussolini and Hitler.

None of that matters, though - this is an absurdly thrilling read which I recommend unreservedly to anyone. The introduction by Robert Macfarlane (who I previously mentioned here) recounts his (ultimately doomed) efforts to find the location of the hideout in the vicinity of Chideock in Dorset, We did some walking round here when we stayed in a holiday cottage near Bridport in 2013 so we may have come close to stumbling across it ourselves. Robert Macfarlane also, as it happens, wrote the foreword to two more novels which I got for Christmas (all in the overdue-reissue-of-neglected-classic genre); no clues but I will mention it here when I get to them.

Rogue Male has, it hardly needs to be said, been filmed a few times, firstly as Man Hunt in 1941 and then as  a TV movie starring Peter O'Toole in 1976, which also saw Michael Sheard aka Mr. Bronson from Grange Hill in the role of Adolf Hitler which he reprised in the third Indiana Jones movie in 1989. 

Monday, January 04, 2021

it's a bit parky out there

So this is basically The Lockdown Diaries part 2, part 1 being the preamble to the last post of 2020 which actually turned out to be the usual nerdy obsessing over blog stats and book-related trivia. 

One of the things that the rules dictate during the periods of more draconian lockdown is that you can go out for exercise, but that you have to do it from home, i.e. no driving to local beauty spots, still less hooning off to the Brecon Beacons to get up a mountain, more's the pity. So Nia and I have established a regular running regime, currently focused on the 4.7-kilometre round trip from our house which featured in this earlier post. In the three months since that post Nia's personal best for that route has improved from 28:34 to 26:42, which suggests to me that some time during 2021 or 2022 at the latest she will be slowing down to wait for me rather than the other way round. 

For trips out as a family of five a slightly different approach is required, and the best approach is to head for a green area and just let the kids explore and run about. None of the areas within walking distance of the house can measure up to the vast majestic splendour of the Siberian taiga or the Okavango Delta, but you have to take what you can get. As always if you're forced into a minute examination of your local neighbourhood to try to wring maximum value out of it it's surprising what little hidden gems can be found in close proximity to your doorstep. This list basically expands on the earlier one here which listed some parks and other green areas we'd discovered in Newport. Here's a few places we've been during lockdown:

  • The nearest area of proper wild-ish country to where we live is the green space on the other side of the M4, generally known as St. Julian's Park. There are a few obvious ways into this from where we live - the path from the top of Beechwood Road which goes under the M4 at the elevated section between junctions 24 and 25, the path from further up Christchurch Road which goes over the top of the M4 via a footbridge, or further along towards Christchurch village via the open space known as the Lookout (or possibly the Viewpoint, depending who you ask). Anyway, it's apparently crawling with interesting plant and animal life, documented on this official checklist. Personally I wouldn't know a devil's-bit scabious if I was pissing on one, although I do have the remarkable Seek app on my phone, which I was sceptical about but which turns out to be very good. Anyway, we've been over here a few times, including the walk below whose middle section involved, as all the best walks do, us bimbling around getting lost, blundering into a cemetery and eventually winding up at our intended destination slightly wetter and later than intended.


  • Less spectacular, but nearer the house, is an intriguing little diagonal slash of green in the middle of the area of otherwise fairly dense housing just east of where we live, marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Lawrence Hill. That's the name of the general area, not the green bit which I'm pretty sure isn't significant enough to warrant its own name. Anyway, if you walk along Christchurch Road to the bridge over the M4 you can cut down a footpath which brings you out at the top of this little area, and then walk back down it to get home again. The aerial view is a bit deceptive as it suggests you'd be able to gambol about all over; in fact the slope (downhill from the M4) is very severe and you can't really do anything but stick to the central path, but it's a nice place to spend 15-20 minutes if you just want a quick bit of fresh air.

  • Lastly, on New Year's Day we went out to explore the green area we'd spotted a few times off Aberthaw Road, just a couple of minutes from the house (and avoiding the steep initial climb that's required to get to any of the places up the back of the house). I had been here once before; as I recall I had the boy with me in some carrying device (probably the Baby Bjorn) and had come out for a walk in a desperate attempt to get him to go to sleep. I'd stayed on the roads most of the way and just cut into the park right at the bottom to do a circuit of Lliswerry Pond (the park as a whole doesn't seem to have a name). If you come into the park at the top, off Aberthaw Road, you find it's a much bigger grassy area than it appears to be from the road and quite a good spot for a run about. Lliswerry Pond, where we ended up, is apparently the flooded remnants of a quarry and supposedly a good angling spot, if hauling rancid mutant dace out of a muddy pond and then throwing them back is the kind of bag you're into. I recall being able to do a complete circuit of the pond on my previous walk (probably a couple of years ago), and Google Maps' satellite view still shows a complete path, but we found that a section of the path on the south side had been closed off in a pretty permanent-looking way, presumably either because of bank subsidence or because that corner's proximity to the main railway line provided an easy access point for feral youths wanting to cause mischief.

getting stuck in at the crease

It's nice to see poor old Jeremy Hunt finally catching a break and someone else stepping into the breach to get called a cunt on broadcast media. This time it was the turn of Pakistan cricket captain Mohammad Rizwan, currently leading his team on a tour of New Zealand, one of the few places in the world where you can currently hold a sporting event in front of an actual non-socially-distanced crowd of actual people, thanks to New Zealand's spectacular success at containing COVID-19.

Rizwan can feel a bit aggrieved, as he'd just contributed an invaluable 61 to help Pakistan out of a hole after an early clatter of wickets. Nonetheless he'd have returned to the pavilion and taken off his pads only to be informed that one of the local TV commentary team had just called him a cunt.

As you can hear on the video below, the problem here is the commentator's attempt to say "counter-punch" to describe Rizwan's innings of 61 off 71 balls, but somehow he manages to end up saying "a real cunt" with some vehemence. 

This isn't a completely unprecedented way for someone to find a way of saying "cunt"; this example from the radio is quite similar (in that Lynn Bowles was trying to say a word starting "count" and mangled the vowel sound for some reason).

kanpur mumbai mysore pune

 A couple of footnotes from yesterday's book review:


Sunday, January 03, 2021

the last book I read

The Siege Of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell.

We're in India, in 1857. Nice enough country, India, if it wasn't for the bally natives, what? I mean, the civilising influence of the Empire has made it a nice enough place to live, although the bally heat is a bit trying, especially for the ladies, bless 'em, but there are always elements who, instead of accepting a perfectly reasonable offer of several years of gainful work as a reliable punkah-wallah, get ideas about ejecting the British altogether and running their own affairs. Dashed disrespectful, frankly.

Here is the town of Krishnapur, populated with a fairly typical crew of British people from all strata of society - the Collector, Mr. Hopkins, the Dunstaple family - soldier Harry, daughter Louise, just mooning around waiting for a suitable proposal of marriage from a suitable chap, and their father, a doctor - and George Fleury, recently arrived in India, a vague acquaintance of the Dunstaple family and already with an eye on Louise.

Rumours of unrest filter through from nearby towns, but it seems to be only the Collector who thinks that something major is afoot, until the bloodied survivors of a rebellion in a nearby garrison arrive and everyone retreats inside the Residency and attempts are made to fortify it against an imminent attack.

And an attack is indeed imminent, as the local sepoys start peppering the Residency and its occupants with musket and mortar fire. While the Residency has a reasonable supply of ammunition and weaponry, not everyone inside is trained or cut out for siege warfare. Obviously there are a lot of women and children, but anyone else of fighting age - Fleury, for instance - is pressed into service to man a cannon and shovel some grapeshot. Fleury actually acquits himself pretty well, but there are inevitably casualties which diminish the fighting force still further, and the ammo and food supplies can't hold out forever. 

As the siege wears on, the trappings of mid-19th-century civilisation begin to slip away. After giving corpses a proper burial becomes too tiring and hazardous they are simply tossed down a well, and as food stores dwindle and hunger takes hold there is an unseemly scrabble for the remaining goodies with tins of peaches being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Those without the resources to acquire this stuff have to make do with whatever they can scavenge: horses, dogs, insects.

Gradually it becomes clear that the entire Residency cannot be defended any more and the occupants retreat into the most easily-defended section to make their final stand in the dwindling hope of rescue. Just at the last moment, though, rescue does arrive in the form of a battalion of British soldiers, allowing most of the principal characters - Fleury, Harry, Louise, the Collector - to escape with their lives.

The Siege Of Krishnapur was one of the early winners of the Booker Prize in 1973 - between G. in 1972 and The Conservationist in 1974, both previously featured on this blog - and seems to be one of the few Booker winners whose critical regard has gradually risen over the years. While I wouldn't make the sort of hyperbolic Best Book Ever claim that this piece makes, I think I can see why that is. I very much enjoyed the skewering of absurd colonial attitudes, the unthinking racism and the lack of curiosity about how the natives might feel about having their country occupied by a bunch of port-swilling toffs (it's heavily inspired by the real events of the siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857). One thing the general tone of comic satire does is clash slightly jarringly with the sections of the book which deal unflinchingly with the disposal of the dead and the appallingly primitive medical treatment of the (just about) living, who are variously depicted as dying in childbirth, losing body parts to gangrene or, in the later stages of the siege, succumbing to cholera and scurvy. I'm not completely sure there is a smooth transition between the comic bits and the rotting-corpses bits, which just emphasises the point I've made before that black comedy is a wickedly tricky thing to bring off successfully. Similarly, the sections where the two doctors Dunstaple and McNab argue publicly and at length over their competing theories regarding the origin and transmission of cholera have the feel of passages Farrell wrote and felt were too good to throw away, even though they slow the narrative down. 

None of which should imply that I didn't enjoy this, because I certainly did. There's no chance of Farrell joining the list of authors who have been victims of the Curse of Electric Halibut, as he died at the early age of 44 near his home in Ireland after falling off a rock while fishing in the sea. In addition to the 1973 Booker, Farrell was retrospectively awarded the Lost Man Booker Prize for Troubles, published in 1970 and ineligible at the time (along with all other novels published in 1970) because of some amendments to the eligibility criteria. The Siege Of Krishnapur was also shortlisted for The Best Of The Booker in 2008 (if you have sharp eyes you can see a reference to this on the cover of my edition), one of a few Champion Of Champions awards the Booker has rather self-indulgently cooked up over the years, most of which end up giving an award to Midnight's Children, for reasons I cannot imagine.