Tuesday, March 30, 2021

that's dentertainment

One of the things that will have been a major factor in determining the specific flavour of your COVID-19 lockdown experience, it seems to me anyway, is whether you have kids or not. Many people have (as part of a generally commendable look-on-the-bright-side attitude) written about how, hey, lockdown is tough and the general loneliness and sense of social dislocation is a mental challenge, but at least it's given them a chance to really get to grips with learning to knit, whittling that scale model of the Taj Mahal, playing the euphonium, and of course baking a bewildering variety of bread products, assuming that they'd panic-bought enough flour and yeast

As entertaining as those anecdotes are, my first thought is always: aha, there's someone who doesn't have kids. I mean I'll grant you we did have a half-hearted crack at making bread, but any serious hobbying designed to eat up several consecutive hours is a non-starter. I should add I'm not about to attempt to reach a verdict about whether a child-free or child-rich environment is better/worse/harder/easier in terms of surviving lockdown with sanity mostly intact, I'm just making the point that it would have been two very different experiences. As brilliant and generally delightful as our three kids are I will confess to finding the need to keep them constantly entertained a bit relentless at times, especially when combined with needing to keep up with schoolwork as well.

One of the things I expect a lot of people with kids have done during the period of enforced being-in-the-house is make dens, this being a thing that all kids love doing. I myself recall my parents having a set of rather bizarre brown foam-rubber furniture (probably an absolutely appalling fire hazard by modern standards) when we were kids, whose corner units, when flipped on their side, were perfect building blocks for dens. We don't have any of those, but as you'll see below the kids did manage to come up with some alternatives. Nia, as befits the oldest of the group, was generally chief engineer, with Alys providing labouring muscle and Huwie fulfilling a key quality assurance role by running into things and attempting to break them. 

So here is a pictorial summary of the 2020/2021 den-building season:

Number one is a solo effort from Nia. The legend on the front reads "Nia's umbrella den. Must have permishion." She insisted that she was going to spend the night in it, and subsequently did, commendably bloody-mindedly as it can't have been that comfortable. 

Use of umbrellas as a key element of den construction is going to become a bit of a theme, as you'll see. Luckily we have quite a few of them as Hazel has a stash of white parasol-style ones from her wedding photography supplies. 

The next one is an extension of the original concept to include a couple of extra umbrellas, some towels, a large number of clothes pegs and our pop-up Peppa Pig tent. An increase in the amount of interior room, but as you can imagine it's a bit of a complex labyrinth of umbrella-stalks once you're inside. 

The next one harks back to the original, but increases the headroom somewhat by introducing a couple of kitchen chairs into the mix. This one has a slightly yurt-y look to it, though we were unable to grout it with yak butter in the traditional manner as Asda were out of that as well.

Number four is similar to number two, but the addition of the two upright white parasols in the centre of the structure gives it a vaguely Middle-Eastern feel, or possibly just evokes thoughts of the Mound Stand at Lord's. 

Structural details of this next one are unclear except that it evidently encompassed one of the sofas. Huwie is revelling in the illicit thrill of being somewhere his sisters have probably forbidden him to be. 

A sudden shift of both location and design ethos for the next one as we relocate to the bunks in the girls' bedroom and a stark and simple design in white. There was a version of this which enclosed the top bunk (Nia's) as well via the addition of a couple of my old golf clubs and another couple of sheets, but I don't have a photo of it. I'm not sure whether Huwie is just messing about on the floor or has just been violently ejected from the enclosed lower bunk by the girls.

The next one is more of a pre-fabricated den, in that it's one of my old tents, which the kids insisted on sleeping in out in the garden. The original idea was that we'd put our family enormo-tent up and all sleep in it - what larks! - but tragically there wasn't room so Hazel and I had to take one for the team and sleep in our own bed. 

Those were all from the first half of 2020; what I like to call "denthusiasm" wore off a bit after that, or perhaps it was just my inclination to bother taking photos of them. Anyway, the next couple are from this year after we rediscovered our mojo. Here's one from February which all three of them insisted on spending the night in. You can see that it's basically three adjoining interconnected slumbering podules: Alys on the sofa, Nia in the middle on the floor and Huwie in the Peppa Pig tent. 

Finally, this one from a couple of weeks ago: no thought to sleeping comfort this time, just maximum unsupported internal span thanks to a light bedsheet-based design and use of four kitchen chairs. Once again the boy is taking his quality assurance role very seriously by seeing how many of the clothes pegs he can remove before the whole structure collapses on his head. 

So there you have it. I just get the feeling that we're starting to exhaust the possibilities now, so either we need to start getting back to normal life again or I'll need to start sawing up some furniture. 

Friday, March 26, 2021

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Today's pair is Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Most pictures of Kahlo have a rather severe look to them as she wasn't really into smiling for the camera, and the particular image of Whittome you see here is a screengrab from a Zoom call that I saw posted on Twitter where she has her hair in a more scraped-back style than usual and is unsmiling throughout, probably as a result of being forced to listen to Alastair Campbell. To be fair she is usually less severe in both demeanour and hairstyle (not, just to be clear, that I demand that female MPs are all smiley and unthreatening; they can of course present themselves however they like).

I guess my fridakahlometer is still calibrated to a higher degree of sensitivity than usual in the wake of reading The Lacuna.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

the last book I read

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré.

George Smiley is in a bit of a rut. He's in enforced early retirement from MI6 (colloquially known as "the Circus") after a botched mission involving an attempted rendezvous with a Russian double-agent in Czechoslovakia, which resulted in a Circus field agent getting a pretty substantial hot lead sandwich. It wasn't Smiley's project, but rather the brainchild of his superior and mentor Control; nevertheless its failure resulted in the disgrace not only of Control but of anyone perceived to be one of his close associates. 

Still, a chance to relax from the old spying game and spend a bit more time with the wife, I expect. Well, not exactly, as Smiley's wife Ann is chronically, serially and fairly publicly unfaithful to him. So he spends his time trying to ignore her infidelities (which she mainly has the decency to conduct elsewhere anyway), catching up on a bit of reading and occasionally mooching down to his club for dinner.

So it's probably something of a relief when he's contacted by someone from the government with a proposition for him: discreetly investigate the allegation that there is a Russian mole in a high-up position within the Circus itself. The Ministry has had a tip-off from maverick field agent Ricki Tarr that something rum is afoot - Tarr is a bit of a loose cannon, to say the least, but his story seems pretty convincing.

Smiley already knows that his former colleague Percy Alleline has succeeded Control as head of the Circus, and that part of the reason for his promotion was an apparently wildly successful project called Operation Witchcraft which involved the acquisition of sensitive Russian intelligence from an apparent KGB double-agent. But can the information be trusted? Has Alleline's ambition to secure his own position as Control's successor overridden his caution about accepting this stuff at face value?

Smiley decides to dig into both Operation Witchcraft and Operation Testify, the Czech mission which eventually cost Control his job. Unfortunately Control himself can't shed much light on anything as he died shortly after being ousted. Smiley enlists the help of Peter Guillam, a former close colleague and someone still within the Circus organisation, to discreetly acquire information for him which he no longer has access to.

It soon becomes apparent that Operation Testify was Control's attempt to acquire the name of the Circus mole; Control knew of his existence and had narrowed his identity down to one of five men, all in the Circus top ranks: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon (known to be one of Ann's ex-lovers), Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase and Smiley himself, given the respective codenames Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and Beggarman. Moreover it transpires that the Circus field agent, Jim Prideaux, who got ventilated when the operation was betrayed not only survived but was eventually spirited back to Britain, told to forget everything and found a job teaching at a boys' school. Smiley visits Jim and gets a full briefing on the events in Czechoslovakia, Jim's shooting and subsequent interrogation by the KGB, including the shadowy Karla, Smiley's Moscow opposite number and nemesis.

With some help from Tarr and Guillam, Smiley engineers a fake crisis to give the impression that the Russian double-agent's cover has been blown, in an attempt to flush out the Circus double-agent. Smiley waits at the safe house in the expectation that the Russian double-agent (in reality a triple-agent, or maybe that just makes him an agent again, I'm not sure) and the Circus mole will rendezvous there to discuss what to do next. Sure enough they do, and Smiley and Guillam collar the Circus mole, who turns out to be Bill Haydon. Haydon is held at a secure facility pending his handover to the Russians, but he never gets a chance to sample his new country's hospitality - Jim Prideaux, university friend and possible ex-lover of Haydon, finally in full knowledge of Haydon's betrayal of him before the Czech trip and that he was prepared to let Jim die rather than be exposed himself, pops a cap in Haydon's ass while he's out walking in the prison grounds.

I recall having a conversation with my father about le Carré back when I was a teenager (possibly prompted by my reading of The Little Drummer Girl) and him dismissively saying "oh, it's all just I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew". I mean, I can see what he was getting at, but it is an odd position to take for someone quite into twisty-turny detective fiction - Dad is a big Georges Simenon fan, for instance. Perhaps part of it, in the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in particular, is a failure to realise that while it's set in the wold of international espionage, it's really a whodunit in the same way as an Agatha Christie novel, just with the big reveal and associated explanations done in a dingy room in a London safe house rather than in the drawing room of Lord Muck's country mansion.

This is the third le Carré novel to feature on this list, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Our Kind Of Traitor (since filmed) being the other two. George Smiley plays an important but minor role in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published eleven years earlier and in which Smiley is some indeterminate number of years younger (his age in the various novels in which he features defies the normal rules of linear time as he always seems to be around sixty). The later novels The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People form a loose trilogy with this one. Of the ones I've read (a tiny percentage of the huge number le Carré wrote before his death last year) I'd say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the best. The only "action" in the traditional sense is the dramatic events in Czechoslovakia, which are described only in retrospect near the end of the novel, but it still manages to be intensely gripping. The way it does this is only partly by the minute detail of espionage activities and tradecraft, but also more subtly by examining the things that motivate people to do what they do, especially when those things involve intense personal danger for little obvious reward, and nebulous ideas like "country" and "loyalty". 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been adapted a few times, most famously the 1979 television series starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, and the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman. I was a bit young to remember the TV series, and in any case (as mentioned here) spent all of 1979 outside the UK. I do remember the 1982 adaptation (also starring Guinness) of Smiley's People, though, as my then-schoolmate Mungo was a precocious le Carré aficionado, probably via his father who was a senior civil servant and may well have been an actual spy for all I know. I did see the 2011 film when it came out and thought it was very good, in an authentically drab and glum and rainy 1970s sort of way. Slightly more tangentially le Carré's work was pretty clearly the inspiration for some Fry & Laurie sketches

Sunday, March 21, 2021

blessed are the teleconferencers

Today's pair are our literal actual Lord and Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ, and Hollywood actor Chris Evans. 

A couple of footnotes: while Chris Evans has been in many enormously successful movies (most famously playing Captain America in what I naïvely assumed was about three films but actually turns out to have been at least ten) the only thing I have actually seen him in (without the beard, as it happens) was the ludicrously entertaining whodunit Knives Out which I watched a couple of months ago, and which I thoroughly recommend. Evans' performance, like everyone else's, was somewhat overshadowed by a scenery-chewing turn from Daniel Craig who sports a tremendously chewy accent throughout which I assume is meant to emanate from the vicinity of New Orleans, though I couldn't comment on its accuracy.

As for the other guy, the specific picture here is from a leaflet delivered to our house by those lovable old God-botherers and science-deniers the Jehovah's Witnesses. Social distancing rules dictate that it came through the letterbox with a covering note rather than via the in-person route, and I reproduce the note here, as well as the leaflet content - I feel justified in leaving the contact info on as presumably they want to reach as large a potential audience as possible and would appreciate a signal boost. 

Things to note: despite the slightly clumsy wording in the note, I don't think we're meant to infer that Jesus Christ himself is available in person for consultation via the medium of Zoom. Secondly, anyone inclined to skip the linked video (you may even be able to scan the QR code in the image) Why Did Jesus Die? on the grounds that they already know the answer to be "because they nailed him to a tree" should be aware the video probably takes a slightly less literal approach to answering the question. Finally, the slightly baffling reference to a "pearl of high value" in the last image alludes to Matthew 13:45-46; as always with parables the meaning is a bit opaque, but if you assume all parables basically resolve to a) give all your money to the church and b) go and evangelise your freakin' ass off so that others may do the same, you won't go far wrong. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

the last book I read

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.

Oh, Mexico; it sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low. Well, Harrison Shepherd isn't here on holiday, it's just the latest in a series of short-term homes he's shared with his mother, Mexican by birth and currently shacked up with some slightly shady Mexican businessman in the coastal location of Isla Pixol.

Subsequently, as Mother's relationships come and go, Harrison moves around, spending time in both Mexico and the United States, and occasionally spending some time with his father, who lives in Washington DC. It's while attending a DC boarding school that Harrison starts to suspect that he may not be as other boys, in that he doesn't share their interest in other girls.

All the while Harrison has been obsessively keeping diaries, something he continues to do after he returns to Mexico, following a hasty and early exit from school. The diary covering this period has been conveniently destroyed, but we are invited to infer that there was some sort of homosexual scandal necessitating a swift departure. While looking for work in Mexico City Harrison is employed as a plaster-maker by celebrated muralist Diego Rivera and eventually becomes a permanent live-in member of his household staff, which also means falling into the orbit of Rivera's charismatic wife, Frida Kahlo

Harrison graduates from plaster-maker to cook, which means providing for the wide selection of guests the Riveras play host to, mainly people who share their radical socialist politics. The ante is upped considerably in 1937 when none other than Leon Trotsky and his entourage come to stay, and Harrison, in addition to his cooking duties, is put to work as Trotsky's secretary. Trotsky keeps up a furious schedule of work in exile, as well as finding the time to have an affair with Frida, the randy old goat. Harrison comes to think of him as a friend, which makes it all the more painful when Trotsky is assassinated in August 1940. All of the members of the household come under suspicion, and, fearing that the contents of his diaries may be of interest to the police, Frida arranges for Harrison to flee to the United States on the pretext of delivering a batch of her artworks to a museum.

Once back in the USA, Harrison has to find a new career, and after his war work is completed and his father dies he moves out of the city to Asheville, a small town in North Carolina, where he busies himself writing a historical novel, set in Mexico. Slightly unexpectedly this is a huge hit, as is its sequel, and Harrison unexpectedly becomes a celebrity. So far so terrific, but now we're into the late 1940s and full-blown COMMIE PANIC. No-one is safe from being interrogated about their past, nor from being obliged to sign forms proclaiming their ideological purity and their dedication to America, Mom, apple pie etc. So when the FBI come sniffing around Harrison, as a high-profile author and semi-celebrity, and start asking: so, is there anything in your past life that might be of interest, honesty obliges him to say: well, not really, unless you count that time I LITERALLY LIVED WITH TROTSKY.

The FBI's interest in Harrison does not go unnoticed in Asheville, and rumours soon start to circulate about the exact nature of Harrison's military discharge and the propriety (or otherwise) of his relationship with his faithful stenographer and assistant Violet Brown. When Harrison is summoned to give an account of himself in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he decides that this might be a good time to leave Asheville and return to Mexico, not that this is likely to put him beyond the FBI's reach if they did decide to pursue charges. Harrison has other ideas in mind, though, and after he and Mrs. Brown return to Isla Pixol Harrison disappears after going for a swim in the sea. He is presumed dead, and his will is discharged which leaves pretty much everything to Violet. It is only on the death of Frida Kahlo three years later that Violet receives a trunk of items, including many of Harrison's clothes and possessions from his 1930s residency in Mexico, but also a note from Frida which suggests that all may not be as it seems.

This is the third Barbara Kingsolver book I've read, and the second to appear on this list after The Poisonwood Bible nine years ago (Prodigal Summer is the other one). It's a book of two halves, really, the first mainly concerned with Harrison's time associating with the real-life characters who populate the Rivera residence(s). Frida Kahlo is the focus here, an extraordinarily magnetic character and seemingly irresistibly attractive to men despite being partially crippled and suffering from all manner of other health problems, many of them the legacy of a horrific bus accident when she was eighteen when she was impaled by a piece of wreckage. The second half of the book is mainly concerned with the absurdity and injustice of the anti-communist paranoia of the 1940s and 1950s, and the terrible and bitter irony of a country attempting to combat infiltration by a supposedly sinister and totalitarian regime by proscribing and criminalising the inner thoughts of its citizens. There is an odd parallel here with the previous book on this list, Johnny Got His Gun, in that its author Dalton Trumbo (who is briefly mentioned in this book) was blacklisted by the same committee. 

While this is generally very enjoyable, and by no means a slog despite its considerable length (670 pages), a couple of criticisms nonetheless: firstly it is a bit slow in places, and secondly Harrison Shepherd is a rather bloodless and passive character, content to be swept along by the stronger will of others (his mother, Frida, Trotsky, even Violet Brown) rather than initiating anything major himself. Partly this is a limitation of the novel's chosen structure: if you write a novel featuring real-life characters interwoven with your fictional ones, there is a limit to the extent to which the fictional characters can interact with and materially affect the lives of the real ones. If you were to have, say, Harrison Shepherd assassinating Trotsky, or intervening heroically to prevent his actual assassin Ramón Mercader from doing the deed, you're into the Inglourious Basterds realm of alternative history. I was put in mind of this passage (referring to principal protagonist Arthur Dent) from Douglas Adams' So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, not otherwise a book with many points of similarity to this one:

To be fair to Harrison, overt and publicly-apparent fucking of the sort that he would be interested in (i.e. with other men) would be as certain a route to public ostracism and possible legal proceedings in the 1940s as having suspected Communist tendencies.

There is an odd parallel with current events as well, in that some of the later section takes place during the US polio epidemic of 1948, and so there is a widespread quarantine in place which prevents people meeting face-to-face, especially in Asheville which is portrayed as a polio hotspot

The Lacuna won the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly various other things including the Orange Prize) in 2010; previous winners on this list are Bel Canto, We Need To Talk About Kevin and Home. Nonetheless if you were to ask me for a single Kingsolver recommendation I would still point you towards Prodigal Summer

Monday, March 15, 2021

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Today it's Theresa May's former chief of staff, advisor and election strategist Nick Timothy, and Bridget McCluskey's former chief of PE staff, bullying advisor and expulsion strategist Geoff "Bullet" Baxter.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

just say N2O to drugs

Here's a supplementary item to add to yesterday's Mystery Object round, and it's another one you might want to wash your hands after handling, although to be fair that applies to pretty much everything at the moment. I was loading small children into the car to deliver them to school/childcare when I spotted the item below nestling on the edge of our driveway, next to the wall.

Now I'm not as up with current drug fashions as I used to be but I reckoned there was a pretty good chance that this was an item of drug paraphernalia. It's a similar shape to something like an amyl nitrite capsule, but those are usually glass as they're designed to be crushed. A moment of reverse Google image searching revealed that this is a nitrous oxide canister, huffing laughing gas being apparently all the rage at the moment. Not much else to laugh about, to be fair.

The Sun is of course the best place to go for some cold hard facts on this subject, but even viewed through the lens of some right-wing moral panic nitrous oxide seems to be relatively benign, with the obvious caveats which apply to pretty much anything, i.e. don't attempt to operate heavy machinery while under the influence, inserting pressurised gas canisters directly into bodily orifices is probably a bad idea, and there is an upper limit to the amount it's safe to take and going beyond that may have unpleasant and permanent consequences. All of which advice (apart from the sticking gas canisters in your arsehole bit) applies equally well to more socially acceptable stuff like, say, gin.

There is also an amusing typo in the first Sun article which, if it were true, would make the drug considerably less appealing to its users:

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

cheesy walkers

Here's another lockdown jaunt in the Newport area: having pretty much exhausted the supply of green spaces accessible on foot from the house we got in the car to make the short jaunt over towards junction 27 of the M4 and the Allt-yr-yn nature reserve (note for non-Welsh people re. pronunciation: something like "all-tureen" will probably do). I'd been here a couple of times before for solo walks and you can also end up in pretty much the same place if you follow the canal south and under the M4 from the Fourteen Locks visitor centre. The canal in question is the old Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, the main arm of which ran up from central Newport to Brecon, and which is still navigable in places, though not, as it happens, the section here which runs along the north side of the nature reserve and separates it from the M4. 

Anyway, between the road where we parked and the canal there are some interesting woodland areas to be explored, including a couple of clearly man-made ponds. Just like with Woodland Park there is a back-story here involving a big house that no longer exists, in this case called, unsurprisingly, Allt-yr-yn House. Old maps (the one below is from 1937) show it but the main building seems to have gone now. There was also a lido which seems to have sat above the couple of ponds we explored; it's unclear exactly how much of that remains but I don't recall seeing anything, and we would have walked around pretty much the exact area where it would have been. I expect it was probably landscaped into a natural-looking pond when the area was made into a nature reserve. 

That was very nice and I recommend it highly; a few photos from our walk can be found here. We also did a walk up around Usk which, while much less interesting as a walk, did yield another entry for my occasional Mystery Object contest. Here is a pile of them in a field (the complete pile was considerably bigger and must have comprised a couple of hundred):

And here are a couple of closer views of the one I picked up and brought home with me:

As always someone on Twitter either had the knowledge or was prepared to put in the legwork to find out what it was, and it turns out these are "biomarbles" which are typically used as a hi-tech filtration device for various kinds of noxious industrial and farming effluent. The web page here is a bit vague about what their actual real-world application is, as it's obviously for industry insiders who know what things like "a perfect solution when surface area is more important than voidage" mean. There is an explanatory (well, sort of) video, though. Obviously the implications of finding a large number of them just dumped in a field is that they've probably already been used for their primary purpose, that is to say filtering noxious solids out of noxious liquids, and so a thorough wash of the hands is very much in order.

Monday, March 08, 2021

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Relentlessly monotonic electrobore with occasional tuneful moments Gary Numan, and relentlessly tedious contrarian with occasional stopped-clock moments Claire Fox. My moment of recognition was prompted by seeing the photo reproduced here in this tweet commemorating Numan's 63rd birthday, which is today. The tweet says 62nd, incidentally, but Wikipedia disagrees. Looking that up also reminded me of the amusing factoid that Gary Numan is 13 days older than Gary Oldman