Monday, September 26, 2022


It's been a while, but evidently the Curse Of Electric Halibut has been biding its time, like a coiled python drowsily digesting its last victim (Joan Didion in December 2021) and has lazily flicked open a baleful eye and decided that the time is ripe for another victim. This time it's Hilary Mantel, recipient of mega-sales and fame (by serious novelist standards anyway) since the 2009 publication of Wolf Hall, the first of her trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell. Both Wolf Hall and its 2012 sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, won the Booker Prize, securing her membership of the select group of people who have won it more than once - JM Coetzee, Peter Carey and Margaret Atwood are the others, plus arguably JG Farrell if you count the retrospective award cooked up for novels published in 1970. 

Mantel had a perfectly respectable literary career before Wolf Hall, writing odd novels with a mainly contemporary setting. The late-career shift from odd novels with a modern setting to perhaps slightly less odd novels centred on real historical figures (though with some quite large liberties taken with strict historical accuracy) is vaguely reminiscent of Beryl Bainbridge. though Bainbridge's historical novels were pretty terse at around 200 pages and The Mirror And The Light, the concluding part of the Cromwell trilogy, is a meaty 875 pages.

Mantel was a relatively youthful 70 when she died, but had endured a lifetime of health problems mainly associated with years of undiagnosed endometriosis. Only Iain Banks, Michael Dibdin, Henning Mankell and Helen Dunmore were younger when the curse came for them, and only Alison Lurie and John le Carré had to wait longer after the initial book review for the icy hand of death to finally alight on their shoulder. 

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
José Saramago 9th May 2009 18th June 2010 87 1y 40d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
David Cook 24th February 2009 16th September 2015 74 6y 205d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
William McIlvanney 7th September 2010 5th December 2015 79 5y 90d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d
Joan Didion 14th December 2010 23rd December 2021 87 11y 12d
Hilary Mantel 22nd October 2010 22nd September 2022 70 11y 338d

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

going postal

Another series of tenuously-linked thoughts, if you'll permit me. Firstly, someone retweeted this tweet into my timeline the other day:

Now I'm all about the making unduly harsh snap judgments without giving people an opportunity to defend themselves, as you know, but still, this seems a bit over-the-top to me. Apart from anything else, who even uses snail mail these days? Certainly not The Kids, bless 'em, who are too busy doing things The Kids do these days like making TikTok videos and eating ass, so the opportunity to gaze upon a postbox frontage while posting multiple items and ruminate upon what all the various letterings stand for is a fairly niche thing in 2022.

I mean, I'm pretty sure if someone put the picture attached to the tweet in front of me I could have worked out what it must mean, but the only reason I know what the letters on the front of a postbox mean in relation to the royal cypher in particular is because we used to have a VR postbox in the village we lived in (specifically, this house) on the outskirts of Nottingham for a couple of years around 1981/1982, and I recall one or other of my parents explaining its significance to me. I'm obscurely chuffed with myself that I was able to drop the StreetView man right on the postbox's location first time 40-odd years later. Frustratingly, the lane was evidently too narrow at this point to squeeze the Googlemobile down so you can't actually see the lettering on the box, but fortunately someone's captured it here

Anyway, you'll be saying the name of the village (Normanton-on-the-Wolds) by emphasising the first syllable of NORmanton, right? I mean, like any normal person would. And, just to be clear, you would in this case be right to do so. But not in all cases, goodness me no. I have only a few memories of visiting nearby sites of outdoor interest during our briefish time living in Normanton - the watersports centre at Holme Pierrepont, the vast grassy expanses of Clumber Park - but I do have a clear memory of going for a walk on the banks of a large area of water and snooping round a church which was half-submerged in the water. This hazy memory only shimmered into sharp focus a couple of months ago when we went for a brief camping trip in Rutland, at a site a couple of miles south of Rutland Water. Among the other fascinating information available about Rutland Water (notably that it's the largest reservoir in England by surface area) is the semi-submerged church on its banks at Normanton, prominently featured in much of the tourist literature. We didn't actually have time to visit as part of this trip but I did have a chat with a knowledgeable bloke while scoping out some watersport activity and he talked briefly about the church, and I did do enough Googling to confirm that it is indeed the same church we visited 40-odd years ago, when the reservoir had only been in fully-filled existence for a year or two. Interestingly, though, he clearly and specifically pronounced it NorMANton with the emphasis on the middle syllable. A quick look at a map of the area reveals that there is a place called Manton a few miles to the west, so it's not utterly ridiculous to conclude that Normanton may be a contraction of "North Manton" and the contracted name has retained the accenting from the original name. Note that I'm leaving aside the obvious observation that it should really be called East Manton given its geographical position. 

There are quite a few other places called Normanton in England, notably Normanton le Heath in Leicestershire which featured in the lists here.

Anyway, a small selection of Rutland photos can be found here. It's not just British place-names - here's a list from Bill Bryson's excellent Mother Tongue featuring US place-names with counter-intuitive pronunciations:

I hate you, Butler

A couple of related things following the sudden death of rugby pundit and journalist (and former Wales rugby captain) Eddie Butler. Firstly that while I do retain some vague memory of seeing the Grand Slam game in 1978 and probably a handful of other less individually memorable games from the same era my formative rugby-watching years were in the early 1980s when pickings were a good deal slimmer in terms of Welsh wins, let alone titles and trophies. The statistics are stark: 1969-1979 brought eight championships (two shared), three Grand Slams and six Triple Crowns, while the period from 1980-2004 brought two championships (one shared), no Grand Slams and one Triple Crown (in 1988). Obviously I've chosen the dates carefully there for maximum impact, and things have picked up quite a bit since 2005, but it's quite a contrast. Butler came into the team and served a stint as captain during the early part of that era (his debut was in 1980).

I recall that during Butler's time in the Welsh team and particularly on his being named as captain in 1983 there was a bit of suspicion of him in some quarters owing to his public school and Cambridge University background (and not, presumably, something more appropriate like coal-mining). Similarly during his career as writer and broadcaster his penchant for slightly flowery poetic flights of fancy was a bit Marmite-y, and occasionally prompted the thought that he was enjoying the sound of his own voice more than the audience was. But his occasional commentary sparring with Brian Moore was always entertaining and clearly derived from mutual affection, like for instance this entertaining exchange about Gavin Henson's leg-shaving habits before he kicked the monster penalty that defeated England and started Wales' 2005 Grand Slam campaign.

He also did some interesting stuff outside of the narrow subject of rugby union, including this half-hour documentary about his birthplace and my place of residence, the city of Newport. Among the many interesting historical snippets included are a bit about the city's key role in the Chartist movement, the Newport Rising in particular, and the role of John Frost in all of it. Frost managed to avoid being massacred and lived to the ripe old age of 93, long enough to be pardoned for his role in the uprising, but not long enough to see various Newport landmarks being named in his honour including John Frost Square in the city centre and John Frost School.

We'll come back to the square in a minute, but the school illustrates the city's rather incoherent approach to commemorating its Chartist history: it was renamed (it was formerly plain old Duffryn High School) in 2015, but only two years earlier the city had approved the demolishing of the Chartist mosaic/mural in the city centre, albeit in a rather unprepossessing location on an underpass wall. 

Anyway, back to John Frost Square, in a roundabout sort of way (that's a hilarious pun, for reasons that you'll see in a minute) - I was delivering Nia to her best friend's house at the weekend for a sleepover and pointed out the big clock sitting on top of a pair of steel columns that occupies the roundabout at the entrance to the new(ish) Glan Llyn estate, which in turn occupies part of the western end of the vast Llanwern steelworks site. Anyway, I told Nia that I was vaguely aware that the clock used to be in the city centre somewhere and moreover had some sort of mechanism that opened up the top and did something dramatic on the hour.

Further investigation reveals that it is a mechanical sculpture designed by a guy called Andy Plant , was formerly situated in John Frost Square (between about 1994 and 2008, as far as I can gather - there is some info on that Wikipedia page) and did some fairly bonkers stuff as part of its on-the-hour routine. It does seem a pity that the mechanism isn't operational any more - I've no idea whether it's still in there but needs a squirt of WD-40 or if it's been removed, but if it's the former (as seems more likely, on balance) it seems a shame not to spend a bit of money repairing it. That said, it doing its thing in the middle of a roundabout might be deemed a bit of a distraction hazard for motorists and there might not be the appetite for another relocation (nor indeed anywhere for it to go).

Just to clear up another couple of Newport claims-to-fame in the Butler documentary: it is certainly true that Joe Strummer lived in Newport in the 1970s (when he went by the name Woody Mellor), but it seems to have only been for about a year between 1973 and 1974, so any formative influence on his later work with the Clash seems a bit dubious. Even more dubious is the claim that Newport was the place where the mole grip was invented, as there seems to be a general consensus that it was invented (admittedly under a different name) in Nebraska in the 1920s. Newport was certainly the centre for UK manufacture from the 1950s onwards, but anyone claiming that means they were invented here needs to, so to speak, get a grip. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

the last book I read

The Road Home by Jim Harrison.

Meet the Northridges - they're a twentieth-century family. From the state of Nebraska, they are living through some history. It's a tough place, Nebraska - the endless grassy plains, the rivers, the occasional tornado ripping through and destroying everything you own - and breeds tough people. And sure enough the family patriarch who narrates the first section here, John Wesley Northridge II, is an uncompromising and irascible old character, of half-Lakota ancestry, made almost entirely out of knuckles and gristle. Already an old man when we first meet him in the mid-1950s, he lives a fairly solitary existence on his remote farm, something that suits him very well, thanks very much.

The only people he consents to spend time with regularly are his old friend and neighbour Lundquist, his daughter-in-law Naomi (wife of his late son, John Wesley Northridge III) and, favourite of all, his granddaughter Dalva, only in her early teens in this part of the novel but already a fierce and independent girl not prepared to take any shit from anybody, including her grandfather.

John Wesley has an odd encounter with a Native American, Smith, who he has not seen since childhood, and decides that his life is drawing to a close and that some mental stock-taking is probably in order. He reminisces at some length about his younger life, lovers, wives, children, adventures, and frets about what will become of his family, especially Dalva, who by this time has already got herself knocked up by an unsuitable young man and had to give up the baby for adoption. 

We then shift narrators and jump forward nearly 30 years to the mid-1980s, and Nelse, who we soon learn is Dalva's son, is contending with some challenges of his own: his slightly ill-defined job as some sort of nature ranger, his clandestine relationship with his girlfriend J.M., inconveniently married to someone else right now, and the recently-acquired knowledge of his true parentage and the desire to know more, maybe by actually meeting in person. Eventually after much indecision he decides to seek out Naomi and Dalva, on the flimsy pretext of doing a bird survey on their land (a subterfuge that soon collapses once he meets them). After an initial period of wariness he is soon integrated into the family and decides to stick around for a while, a decision cemented by J.M.'s coming to join him, having ditched her no-good husband at the cost of a couple of black eyes. 

So far so idyllic, but there is a cloud on the horizon: Dalva has been nursing some unspecified abdominal pains that she should really have been to the doctor about a while back, and when she does she finds that her worst fears are realised and she has a fairly advanced case of ovarian cancer. This prompts a bout of pre-death contemplation of her own (though somewhat more premature than her grandfather's as she is only in her mid-forties), and she enlists Nelse's help to set a few matters straight before she embarks on her final road trip to end things in a manner of her own choosing rather than in a hospital bed.

The narrative described, above, as engaging as it is, isn't really the point here - it's more about the background against which it all takes place, encompassing nearly a century of American history from Wounded Knee onwards. It's also about the individual characters, principally the assorted narrators: John Wesley and Nelse as already mentioned, but also Naomi, Paul (John Wesley's other son) and Dalva. It's also, more than most novels, about the physical landscape within which it's set and the living creatures (not just human) who inhabit that landscape, and also the characters' physical connection with the natural world, be it through work-related physical effort, recreation or carnality.

I discovered after having started The Road Home that it's actually the sequel to an earlier novel, called simply Dalva. I am here to tell you that I didn't feel like I was missing anything here by not having read that already, but that I do now intend to seek it out and read it, as I enjoyed this tremendously. Harrison is probably best-known for Legends Of The Fall, a short novel from 1979 made into a film in 1994 starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins among others. Another story from the same collection, Revenge, was also made into a film starring Kevin Costner in 1990.

I suppose if one were being hyper-critical one might say the first half of The Road Home is better than the second, John Wesley Northridge II's voice being the most compelling one telling the most compelling story, and once Nelse's section that follows it has finished all the major revelations have happened, apart from the news that Dalva is going to die. This is minor stuff, though, and I recommend it highly, although you should be aware that it's a big book in every sense - 446 pages in a too-big-for-the-bookshelves format the same size as House Of Leaves