Friday, July 22, 2022

fancy a cormorant? well how about a shag then

Another post expanding on a bit of passing Twitter nonsense: the purpose of the original poster in tweeting the clip in the tweet below was to mock the seemingly uncaring attitude of the baseball batter to having just injured a menial member of the groundstaff. The thing that struck me, though, was (as my quote tweet says) the description the commentator gives of the job the guy was doing before he got pinged by the ball.

It's a staple of lazy British humour that Americans don't understand the British usage of the word "shag", i.e. as a common euphemism for sexual intercourse, basically a slightly milder version of "fuck". It's not quite as simple as that, though, firstly because I suspect the Austin Powers films have brought the UK usage into the US lexicon a bit more, but also because there are US usages that are equally foreign to UK ears. 

There are actually a surprisingly large number of meanings for the word "shag", many of them common to both US and UK English: from shag pile carpets and shag tobacco (collectively, I suppose, nouns that could be back-formed from the related adjective "shaggy") to various large seabirds of the family Phalacrocoracidae. The US-specific ones include the dance craze that gave this 1989 film its title, and more specifically a meaning that we don't have at all in the UK as far as I know: to chase after something at speed. Highly amusingly to UK audiences it's usually combined with either "ass" or "balls" in standard US usage, "shag ass" having a general sense of hurrying or getting moving, broadly similar to "haul ass", and "shagging balls" having the specific meaning of collecting up all the balls whacked to various corners of the practice ground during baseball practice and returning them for re-use.

So I think the conclusion here is that if someone asks you for a shag in the UK it's pretty obvious what they're talking about; in the US you could and probably should respond to their question with one of your own, specifically: ass or balls?

Friday, July 15, 2022

the last book I read

Cause For Alarm by Eric Ambler.

Nicky Marlow is having a day of mixed fortunes; tears and laughter, light and shade, sausage and mash, that sort of thing. No sooner has he persuaded his lady friend, Claire, to agree to marry him than he gets a summons from the boss of the engineering firm for which he works to tell him that they're letting him go. No reflection on his work and all that, old chap, but times are tough and the company needs to make some savings.

Getting married is great and all, but it's taking on an extra mouth to feed, this being the mid-1930s and there being no chance of Claire taking on the role of main breadwinner. Sure, there are upsides, like getting your shirts ironed and easy access to eye-watering acts of unspeakable sexual depravity, but a regular income is essential. So Marlow has to get out there and find a new job, and it's not easy. Having been rebuffed by various firms he's starting to despair when Claire, a level-headed and resourceful sort of girl, hands him a newspaper cutting advertising a job which, while it's for a British company, is based in Milan. Fortunately Marlow speaks near-fluent Italian, having (rather implausibly) learnt the language from an Italian bloke he once shared a flat with, and - slightly reluctantly - applies for and gets the job.

The firm in question - the Spartacus Machine Tool Company Limited, based in Wolverhampton - turns out to manufacture armaments, or more accurately the machines required to turn them out, and has a lucrative contract with the Italian government to supply them and ensure their upkeep and maintenance. This being the mid-1930s that government is the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, a man who's becoming increasingly pally with that Hitler chap over in Germany. But I expect that won't cause any complications at all.

So Marlow heads off to Milan and almost immediately discovers that things aren't going to be quite as simple as just making sure the books are in order and solving any practical engineering problems that might arise. Firstly it turns out that there was only a vacancy because his predecessor, Ferning, died in mysterious circumstances. Furthermore when Marlow is offered Ferning's former lodgings these turn out to be absurdly luxurious and way beyond what Ferning's salary could plausibly have supported. And a few of the staff in the Spartacus office don't really seem to do anything much, but nonetheless the local foreman Bellinetti seems sensitive about any suggestion that they could be let go. 

Things start to come into focus when Marlow is visited by a General Vagas, apparently a former contact of Ferning's. Marlow assumes that he must be a former business contact of Ferning's but after a couple of meetings Vagas makes a suggestion: for a discreet fee, payable directly to Marlow and outside of any business relationship with the company, he, Vagas, would be interested in details of orders for Spartacus' products: who, when, how much, etc. All information that the general could acquire by other menas without bothering Marlow, but who has the time? And how much more efficient to get it from the horse's mouth, and ensure adequate, nay generous, reward?

Marlow begins to see how Ferning was paying his hotel bills, but his pesky British sense of fair play makes him balk at accepting the offer. He has every intention of refusing Vagas' offer when he comes into contact with his new neighbour, Zaleshoff, an American also trying to run a business in Milan. Zaleshoff, it turns out, is already acquainted with Vagas and urges Marlow to cultivate a relationship, accept his offer and then feed Vagas bogus information that he and Marlow can cook up between them. Zaleshoff also lets slip that he believes Vagas to be an agent of Nazi Germany, and Vagas in turn (when he and Marlow next meet) accuses Zaleshoff of being an agent of Soviet Russia. So who should Marlow trust? And what happens if the Italian authorities find out?

Well, we get to find out the answer to that question fairly quickly, as Vagas' treacherous wife denounces everyone to the rozzers and a warrant is issued for Marlow's arrest. Fortunately his new best friend Zaleshoff (and his mysterious sister, Tamara) is on hand to help him escape in thrilling style by jumping from moving trains, walking miles across country in the dead of night and eventually trekking the last few miles to the Yugoslav border in the snow, with a bit of help from a batty old mathematician and his daughter who put them up for the night and guide them towards the border crossing and safety. It only then remains for Marlow to have a final confrontation with Vagas (who has also escaped from Italy) in Belgrade, and then make the journey back to England to Claire and a new and less dangerous job.

It's interesting to compare Cause For Alarm (published in 1938) with, say, The Thirty-Nine Steps (published in 1915): Richard Hannay is a slightly aristocratic rugged outdoorsman, endlessly resourceful, ruthless when the situation demands it and by handy coincidence an explosives expert, something that comes in handy at least once. Nicky Marlow, on the other hand, while certainly no fool, is just a regular middle-class guy, slightly naïve in imagining that business and politics can be kept separate, especially when the business in question is manufacturing weapons that will be used to kill people, perhaps even British people. The main difference, though, is the overall tone and general flavour of the authors' respective political sympathies, something neither John Buchan nor Ambler made much attempt to hide. Buchan's are generally right-wing and authoritarian, whereas Ambler is clearly coming from a perspective of being much more sympathetic to left-wing causes. It's notable how sympathetic the character of Zaleshoff is, despite it being transparently obvious to everyone, Marlow included, that he is not American at all but a Soviet agent. In that sense (i.e. left-wing leanings, spicy moral ambiguity) it's quite a modern novel for 1938, much more so than, say, its rough contemporary Rogue Male, which was closer to The Thirty-Nine Steps.

This is the first Eric Ambler novel I've read, but he was apparently very highly-regarded by people like Graham Greene and John le Carré and I found his economical and drily humorous prose style to be very readable. Only a couple of minor criticisms: the little interlude towards the end where Marlow and Zaleshoff hole up in what turns out to be the house of elderly and previously eminent mathematician Carlo Beronelli who (on discovering Marlow's familiarity with some of his earlier work) gives Marlow a sneak preview of his new work, some utterly barking ramblings on the subject of perpetual motion, is perhaps a little odd, and breaks up the momentum of the narrative a bit. And the final showdown with Vagas doesn't really resolve anything in an especially dramatic way, other than by confirming that he definitely is a Nazi spy. But it's very good, and my tidy 2009 Penguin Modern Classics reissue was less than a pound in the St. David's Hospice charity shop just round the corner from our new house, which was nice. 

Thursday, July 07, 2022

the last book I read

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.

So there's this girl, Rachel. And she's on a train. I mean, not all the time, just twice a day as part of her commute. It's a suburban branch line connecting with one of the main London termini and the trains trundle along in a fairly leisurely way, calling at all the intermediate stations and occasionally stopping at signals. One of the regular stopping points happens to be round the back of a row of suburban houses whose back gardens slope gently towards the line so that passengers (Rachel included) can see in. 

Rachel amuses herself by imagining some back-story for the couple who she occasionally sees sitting on their back terrace and who she calls Jason and Jess. So far so normal, just a bit of harmless fun, right? Well strap yourselves in as we throw the points lever, pass a signal at danger, kick over the drinks trolley and make a screeching diversion to Unreliable Narrator Central, with an intervening stop at Shady Ulterior Motive Parkway. It quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is something of a Hot Mess - not only is she an alcoholic given to necking a couple of bottles of warm Chenin Blanc for breakfast, but her inappropriate drunken antics have resulted in her losing her job and only keeping up the charade of commuting to London and back to conceal the fact of her sacking from her friend Cathy, from whom she is renting a room. 

There's more, though: it further transpires that Rachel used to live in the house a couple of doors down from the one Jason and Jess live in, with her now-ex-husband Tom. Their marriage ended as a result of Rachel's escalating drinking, their failure to have children, and eventually Tom's infidelity with Anna, the woman who is now his wife and who lives with him and their baby Evie in the house. So Rachel's interest in Jason and Jess is not just innocent idle daydreaming, and only intensifies when she sees Jess in the garden kissing a man who is not Jason, and shortly afterwards reads of Jess's disappearance in a newspaper. Only it turns out she isn't called Jess, of course, she's called Megan, and her husband (and inevitable prime suspect in her disappearance) is called Scott.

Rachel is troubled by these developments. She's got a few troubles closer to home to worry about as well, though, like the night she went to Blenheim Road (where Megan, Scott, Tom and Anna live) and then woke up, bloodied and bruised, in her bed the following morning with almost no recollection of what had gone on in between except vaguely frightening memories of shouting and violence. Furthermore when Cathy returns to a flat liberally festooned with piss and sick she's not best pleased and threatens to throw Rachel out if she doesn't get a grip on her drinking. 

Rachel decides that she needs to tell Scott about her sighting of Megan and the other man in the garden. But how to do it? Obviously going there in person is a Really Bad Idea, partly because Scott might actually be a murderer, but also because it would involve going past the front of Tom and Anna's house, and Rachel has a bit of previous for acts of drunken harassment and has been warned off going near them on pain of getting the police involved. But the magical effects of a couple of cans of ready-made gin and tonic make it seem like a really great idea, so off she goes. 

The mystery man turns out to be Megan's therapist, Dr Kamal Abdic, who promptly gets hauled in by the police for questioning, but then released again for lack of evidence. It now transpires that Megan was pregnant at the time she died, but that neither Scott nor Kamal was the father. In order to solve the deepening mystery Rachel realises that in addition to sobering up occasionally she's going to have to remember what happened on her lost night, how she sustained her injuries, and what she saw. The gradual recovery of this information leads her to re-assess certain moments from her past life which she assumed she'd misremembered in a drunken haze, and realise she'd been gaslit by someone she'd previously trusted and who may be harbouring some secrets relevant to Megan's disappearance.

The narrative actually presented in the book isn't quite as linear as that, as it intersperses the main first-person viewpoint (Rachel's) with Megan's (mainly in flashback from a year or so before the main series of events) and Anna's. Megan in particular has some interesting back-story including the accidental death of her baby daughter some years earlier. Anna's sections provide a bit of context for some of Rachel's weird drunken stalky behaviour, but don't add a lot else until right at the end when they become highly relevant. I mean, I don't want to reveal all the details, and maybe I'm just an idiot, but I can tell you that I only had the big OOOOOHHH RIIIIGHT moment wherein I clocked what the answer was going to be on page 298 of a 409-page book, which is not bad going for a novel with a fairly limited number of major characters (and therefore suspects).

As always the key consideration with a novel of this type is: did it keep me wanting to know what happened next? And the answer is: yes, very much so, as can be gauged by my zipping though it in less than a week. Rachel is an alternately endearing and infuriating central character and the alcoholic's cycles of WAHEEEEYY I'M ON THE SAUCE EVERYTHING'S BRILLIANT followed by OHHHH FUCK WHAT HAVE I DONE are pretty well rendered. The mystery is resolved without Rachel having to turn into some booze-crazed Wallander/Rebus flawed detecting genius either.

Lots of points of similarity with other similar works in the same genre, as you can imagine, for instance the business with Megan's baby daughter has a touch of the Barbara Vine about it - long-buried past crime for which the only punishment the perpetrator received was years of internal guilt and torment. Seeing something fleetingly from a train and then having to piece together the fragments to reveal a crime is a trope that's been used quite a few times in the crime genre, notably in Agatha Christie's 4:50 From Paddington, a book I once started and then never finished, as described here. The crime-related thriller/female author/slightly unreliable female narrator/publishing mega-sales sensation thing is oddly reminiscent of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, published a year or two earlier, although its narrator (and I should add that I've never read it) seems to be a proper psychopath rather than a drunk. Like Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train was made into a major film which relocates the action from Oxfordshire to suburban New York, although the character of Rachel (played by Emily Blunt) remains English.

Monday, July 04, 2022

the last book I read

Great Apes by Will Self.

The artist Simon Dykes is living the basic London minor media celebrity lifestyle to the full: we meet him at the opening of an exhibition at a gallery, sipping some wine, and then moving on to a club to meet his girlfriend Sarah, whereupon they hoof a heroic amount of dodgy cocaine, go home and rut like crazed weasels for the remainder of the night.

Pretty much standard showbiz debauchery so far, then, but when he wakes up the following morning he finds that his girlfriend has literally GONE APE. Literally as in LITERALLY turned into a big hairy gibbering chimpanzee, along with, it turns out, the rest of the world, and indeed Simon himself. This is, needless to say, a surprising and disturbing development.

Simon finds coping with this radical change in circumstances tricky, since his attempts to communicate with his simian companions result in much furious shrieking and hooting and gesticulating but not much meaningful communication. Simon is carted off to a secure facility for his own protection and there comes under the wing of Zack Busner, a maverick psychologist with some unconventional ideas about treatment.

Once some of the basic communication issues have been ironed out - chimps communicate mainly through sign language with vocalisations just added here and there for emphasis - Simon comes to realise that the chimps inhabit a world very like our own, with planes and cars and art galleries and the like. There are differences, reflecting some specifically chimply modes of behaviour, such as an obsession with inspecting each other's arseholes, and a robustly uninhibited attitude to public sex, including with one's own children. Humans, meanwhile, occupy in this world the status of affectionately-regarded primate cousin, and are paraded in zoos for public entertainment and occasionally repatriated to their natural habitat in the African jungle.

Simon assumes that whatever is terribly wrong with the world will at some point just snap back into human form and everything will be all right again, but in the meantime he and Busner try to reintegrate him into polite(ish) chimp society and try to examine some of the underpinnings of his delusion. Is he a chimp imagining he is human? Or a human imagining he is a chimp? Working on a theory that reconnecting with some of his estranged family members may help spark some sort of mental recalibration, Busner arranges a meeting with Simon's ex-wife and children, which in turn prompts an expedition to see humans in the wild in Africa. Will reconnecting with other humans help Simon rediscover his humanity?

This is the first Will Self novel I've read, though of course I am pretty familiar with him as a general public intellectual and occasional figure of fun on TV comedy shows. Despite Shooting Stars being, in general, a hoot, Self has always come over as a rather humourless character (some of this is him playing a role, of course, but still) just a little bit too impressed with his own fearsome intellect and vocabulary. His public image has also suffered a bit in the aftermath of an extremely messy public divorce from his wife, the late journalist Deborah Orr.

So I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy Great Apes quite a bit, while absolutely agreeing with the assessment in this Guardian review that it "doesn't seem to go anywhere much". It's fairly obvious early on that that's what's going to happen (i.e. no particularly satisfying resolution) and that the best thing to do is just strap in and be borne along by the scatological glee of the whole enterprise - every second sentence has the chimps inspecting their own arseholes, complimenting the shiny magnificence of each other's arseholes, or - when a female in oestrus approaches within grabbing range - jumping on and humping away furiously for a few seconds before calmly resuming the conversation.

The Point, inasmuch as there is one beyond the scatological glee, is to hold up a mirror to our own uncontrollable urges and conventions regarding things like social interaction, communication and sex, as well as make some slightly clunky points about racism by having the chimps treat their close relatives, the bonobos, as some sort of underclass only fit for menial jobs. I'm not sure any of that works especially well, and it's probably better just to enjoy it like a chimp rampaging round a china shop throwing its own shit about - nothing especially constructive happens, but my goodness the chimp has a lot of fun doing it.

It's hard to avoid some obvious cultural references, most obviously Planet Of The Apes (the urge to have Simon's girlfriend be called Janet rather than Sarah for punny potential must have been almost irresistible) and the odd business with horse-sized dogs and dog-sized horses (kept as house-pets by the chimps) is oddly reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels. Neither of those comparisons really stands up to very close scrutiny, but they occurred to me while I was reading it, so I offer them to you anyway.

Friday, July 01, 2022

comiclebrity pumpylikey of the day

It struck me during a futile attempt to use it to inflate some tyres on my daughter's bicycle the other day...

...that my electrical tyre-inflating device with its twin illumination beams on the front was a dead ringer for some sort of flying craft that I'd seen somewhere. A bit of further thought dredged up the right answer from the memory banks: the crime-fighting craft used by Nite Owl in Alan Moore's Watchmen. It's far from clear in the book what method of lift and propulsion the craft uses, as it's far from aerodynamic (a sort of stumpy ellipsoid) but we're presumably meant to infer some sort of non-magical propulsion system as it's only Dr. Manhattan who has any "real" superpowers. 

Conversely it's very clear what powers the digital pump: a cable which allows it to be plugged into a car's lighter socket, which is great but does mean you need to be in the vicinity of a car to run it, which prompted a bit of a head-slapping moment when I brought it into the house to pump up the bike tyres with. I suppose I could have carted the bike out to the street and done it there, but it was dark and I couldn't be bothered, so I just used the manual pump in the end, which as it happens was necessary to accommodate the two different valve types anyway. I have subsequently bought one of these gizmos to facilitate in-house automated pumpage.

Anyway, see for yourself: