Friday, January 27, 2023

the path of righteousness

A quick follow-up to the previous post which also serves as an opportunity to plug the fantastic map-related service provided by the National Library of Scotland. My particular favourite thing is the facility they provide to view old and new maps side-by-side on the screen. Here's the Gaer hillfort area in a contemporary aerial photo and (on the left) a map which purports to be from around 1900. I've reproduced the map bit below:

What you will notice (in the red circle) is that there used to be a tunnel under the railway, carrying some sort of path. If you zoom in on the contemporary map you will see that there are still some markings on the ground that suggest it might be still there, and sure enough if you drop the little yellow StreetView man at the end of Golden Mile View you can see it. The footbridge just south of the tunnel that goes over the river is still there, as it happens, and having been closed for a number of years was recently re-opened to provide access between the park and the new housing developments north of the river. 

Well, hurrah, you might say, problem solved. Yes, the inter-park access would be better situated at the bottom end of the park, but at least it exists. Trouble is it doesn't, for two reasons: firstly it looks from the StreetView picture as if the tunnel may be fenced off (though it's hard to see), secondly even if you could get there from Golden Mile View the M4 is now in the way of getting there from the Gaer hillfort area. 

Golden Mile View, by the way, is so named because of the section of railway which ran through Tredegar Park and was subject to tolls payable to Lord Tredegar, whose land it was, the name being an allusion to the substantial sums his lordship was trousering each time a train ran over the route. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

dum dum de dum dum de dum dum de PARK STRIFE

More non-book-related posts, for the love of God, you say? Electric Halibut hears your anguished cries and rides to the rescue on his wingèd steed, entirely naked except for a pair of rather splendid patent-leather riding boots and a dab of Blue Stratos behind the ears.

So, as I mentioned a while back, we moved house during 2022, and of course one of the things that does (unless you've literally moved to the house next door, anyway, which sounds literally insane but which some of our friends literally did a few years back) is put you in the vicinity of some different parts of the city, in particular interesting green areas which might be worthy of exploration.

So what the aerial photograph and map above show is some near-contiguous areas of green parkland in the general west Newport area, Newport being essentially divided into western and eastern halves by the River Usk as it makes its meandery way north-south through it. Those areas are, broadly speaking:

  • The little wooded area and park adjoining the northern edge of the mahoosive St Woolos Cemetery and accessible at its northern end from the roundabout on Risca Road; it is allegedly called Coed Melyn Park, which my rudimentary Welsh skills tell me just means "Yellow Tree Park". I can confirm that outside of certain times in autumn the trees are, in fact, predominantly green;
  • the parkland area containing the Gaer hillfort;
  • Tredegar Park (not to be confused with Tredegar House, below);
  • Tredegar House and its surrounding park (not to be confused with Tredegar Park, above).

I have marked those four areas on both images above as yellow, red, blue and a sort of pale mauve, respectively (going from north to south). As you can see they are all very much adjacent to each other, but the connections between them aren't as simple as you might expect. This, in a nutshell, is the point of this post. Let's have a look at them in turn, starting from the top. 

The first one is the connection between the bottom of Coed Melyn Park and the top of the Gaer hillfort; nothing fancy here but you can take a short walk from where the footpath emerges onto Western Avenue, cross Bassaleg Road via the traffic island and enter the park via its main entrance (there are several others along the park's eastern edge). So far, so good.

Take a walk in a broadly southerly direction through the park, maybe via a detour to the top of the hillfort (lots of trees so the location of the actual top is not particularly clear) along the recently-upgraded path and you will find yourself quite near, as the crow flies anyway, to Tredegar Park. So you'll be wanting, I would imagine, to continue your pleasant walk in that direction. Well, I've got some bad news for you, bucko, because there are some insurmountable obstacles in your way, specifically the River Ebbw and a railway line. If you want to continue to Tredegar Park then you'll have to follow the path round to where it ends at the gate at the end of Wells Close, find your way to the footbridge over the railway and then follow the roads round through the main car park and into the park. That's the green line on the map; the two red lines show imaginary crossings which would obviously be much better but would require some quite substantial engineering to bridge both railway and river. The only saving grace with the railway is that it isn't the South Wales main line (that takes a more southerly route to get to Cardiff and points west) but the more minor branch line to Ebbw Vale, calling at (among other places) Pye Corner as mentioned here

Let's assume you've now made the long trek round and have enjoyed all the various delights Tredegar Park has to offer - some outdoor gym equipment, football pitches, a playground, some pleasant riverbank areas - and fancy completing your journey by visiting Tredegar House and its pleasant grounds. Well, strap yourself in for a connecting journey of even more unimaginable complexity and inconvenience, as you'll need to exit via the car park and take one of two possible on-road routes to get round to the only available access points on the south side of the house. How much more convenient it would be, you might think, if one could simply traverse the busy lower reaches of the A48 as it approaches junction 28, where the two parks are probably a hundred yards apart, at most. I mean, you would need a footbridge to avoid being messily dispatched by an HGV, or possibly an underpass to avoid having to thread a footbridge around the ornate (and now unused) pair of gates that face the road at this point.

How utterly marvellous to be able to get on your bike up around Risca Road (in the vicinity of our new house, for instance) and cycle in traffic-free bliss all the way down to Tredegar House; yes, maybe a couple of points where you might have to dismount to traverse a bridge but, really, tish and pshaw to that, certainly in comparison with the current situation. So come on, Newport City Council, how about a bit of joined-up thinking?

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

if there's a russell in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now

After a period of relative inactivity comprising only one authorial death in a little over eighteen months, the Curse of Electric Halibut is back in business properly now, the latest victim being the third in a little over three months. This time it's American author Russell Banks, the title of whose 1991 novel The Sweet Hereafter eventually became too much of a temptation, the curse evidently having a keen sense of irony.

That book, the only one of his I've read, featured here in December 2018, which gives a curse length of just over four years. Banks was 82 which I suspect (and I should point out I haven't done the detailed calculations) shifts the average age hardly at all.

Banks is the second Russell to feature on the list, after Russell Hoban. That's not unique, as there are a couple of Williams and a couple of Johns on the list (and two people called James if you unpack JP Donleavy's initials), but his sharing a surname with another featuree (Iain Banks) is.

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
Greg Bear 4th October 2021 19th November 2022 71 1y 48d
Russell Banks 4th December 2018 7th January 2023 82 4y 35d

Monday, January 09, 2023

the last book I read

Count Zero by William Gibson.

Turner is a man who Gets Shit Done. Usually the messy kind of shit the big corporate overlords don't want to get their hands messy with as it involves activity on the borderline of legality, or well on the other side of it, like stealing stuff,  shooting people in the face, that sort of thing. Only one thing hampering Turner's acceptance of further work in that line at the moment: he hasn't got a body! Well, he has, or most of one, but it's in a a preservation vat in more separate pieces than he would ideally like at the moment. 

The benefit of being extremely useful to lots of rich and powerful organisations, though, is that they have an interest in seeing you get grafted back together after being messily exploded, and Turner's body (or all the bits of it that could be scraped off the street in New Delhi where he was dispatched, anyway) is soon rebuilt, his memories gradually re-enabled, and soon he finds himself recuperating in Mexico with a lady sharing his bed. You can't trust anyone, though, and it turns out she's just been testing him out to ensure he's fully recovered in every department, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Having reported back to her superiors that Turner seems fine, he is quickly picked up for a new assignment: arrange the pick-up and recovery of a guy called Mitchell who wants to defect from one slightly shady bio-software mega-corporation to another. This involves Turner and his team hiding out in the Arizona desert with a team of medics who will scan Mitchell for any bio-booby traps (his brain is wired to explode, his hair has the plague, his entire leg is a missile, etc. etc.) before he is jetted off to his new employers to do all the new joiner stuff like being shown where the coffee machine and toilets are.

Needless to say, things don't go entirely according to plan and the person that arrives at the desert location in a rickety ultralight is Angie, Mitchell's daughter. Realising something dodgy is afoot Turner grabs Angie and scarpers in a high-powered jet, just in the nick of time as the hideout and everyone and everything in it is vaporised in an explosion.

Let's park what we might call Plot Strand #1 for a moment and pick up the next: Bobby Newmark is a fledgling hacker and cyber-jockey, surfing the collective virtual reality of the matrix under the moniker Count Zero, which would be a lot cooler if it were not self-applied. Pretty much the first actual cyber-job he takes on, testing out some security-penetrating software for a contact, nearly ends in his death as he encounters some black ICE which attempts to liquidise his frontal cortex, and he is only saved by the intervention of a mysterious entity with a female voice. After this close encounter Bobby has become known to certain powerful entities and has to make use of some of his (not entirely trustworthy) contacts to facilitate escaping and staying hidden.

Meanwhile, Marly Krushkova, former art gallery owner currently in disgrace in the art world for inadvertently passing off a forgery as real (thanks to the shady activities of her no-good ex-boyfriend) is contacted by the agents of a mega-rich art enthusiast called Josef Virek with an assignment: find the artist responsible for the real artworks that her fake was modelled on. Budget effectively limitless, no particular set method, just follow your instincts.

Bobby's attempts to find out where his dodgy software came from take him to the Sprawl, the partly-derelict, mostly-lawless mega-conurbation that occupies most of the east coast of North America from Boston to Atlanta. Turner and Angie eventually make their way there, too, via a brief stop-off to hole up with Rudy's brother, a brilliant engineer and chronic alcoholic, and "borrow" his armoured hovercraft for the trip, something that immediately comes in handy as they are attacked by a couple of guys in a helicopter and Turner is able to use the hovercraft (and a great big gun) to shoot the 'copter down and ram it, killing the occupants, who turn out to have been sent by the people who hired Turner in the first place to tidy up some loose ends.

Turner and Angie end up holed up in the same apartment as Bobby and his friends, whereupon it turns out that Angie is the female voice who saved Bobby earlier, and that moreover she has some bio-implants that enable her to jack into the matrix without having to engage with any computer hardware. Furthermore both she and Bobby have had cyber-encounters with mysterious beings of seemingly limitless power who seem to adopt the personas of voodoo gods when interacting with humans. 

Marly, meanwhile, has travelled all the way into low-earth orbit to discover the creator of the artworks, which turns out to be an AI entity inhabiting an old mainframe satellite. It further transpires that Virek doesn't have much interest in art for art's sake but instead has detected some AI/bio-software elements in the artworks and wants to make use of that stuff to get him out of his vat and give him effective immortality. The various protagonists of the various strands of the story have to come together to stop him.

Count Zero is a sort of loose sequel to Neuromancer, one of the seminal works of 20th-century speculative fiction (as I have banged on about tediously here before). It doesn't share any major characters with the earlier book but is clearly set in the same fictional universe, a small number of years later (its relationship with Neuromancer is similar to Idoru's with Virtual Light, if you like). There is just a tangential mention, easy to miss in passing, of a couple of people who are clearly meant to be Molly and Case, Neuromancer's principal protagonists, and Turner's physical disintegration and rebuilding here is very similar to Case's neurological destruction and rebuilding at the start of Neuromancer. The mysterious AI entities who control much of the plot (the squishy puny humans merely scuttling round enacting their plans in the physical world) are presumably meant to be fragmented versions of Wintermute and Neuromancer, the earlier book's twin AIs.

Purely as a rollicking adventure story Count Zero probably works better than Neuromancer; just as with Bring Up The Bodies and Eternity part of this is down to being a sequel and therefore being able to skip a lot of world-building exposition and just crack straight on with the plot. If you're only going to read one it should probably still be Neuromancer, though, just for its genre-redefining cultural significance. There is a third book, Mona Lisa Overdrive, in what's generally called the "Sprawl trilogy", although if you can read the green text at the top of the accompanying image here you'll see my edition renders it as the "Neuromancer trilogy". Anyway, Count Zero is tremendously good fun and still startlingly prescient about the internet, rampant commercialism, societal decay and the dangers of AI given that it'll be 37 years old this year. 

A couple of cultural echoes of other stuff: firstly the "slamhound" that catches up with Turner in the novel's first paragraph is very reminiscent of the Mechanical Hound from Fahrenheit 451 which was used for a pretty similar purpose, although it was all about the stealthy lethal injections rather than the more messy exploding. Finally the voodoo entities crop up elsewhere as well, Baron Samedi featuring heavily in Live and Let Die, and Papa Legba in the late-period Talking Heads song of the same name

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

the year of blogging dangerously infrequently

Here's the annual blog stats roundup, including graphs, if you like that sort of thing. The main headline news here is that this year (well, last year now) squeaked past 2017 by a single post to avoid being the joint-least-blog-post-y year on record at a paltry 45 posts. However, since 2017 included an all-time-low of 13 book reviews, while 2022 included a pretty healthy 23, that means that 2022 featured a measly 22 non-book-review posts while 2017 featured 31. There being more book posts than non-book posts is also a first for a calendar year. I can't really put my finger on a specific reason apart from the one I've already mentioned a few times which is that a lot of things that might have once ended up being blog posts end up on Twitter instead; to put it another way now that I have three kids I no longer have the free time or energy for extended blog ranting about a topic that piques my interest and might just do a short but sweary quote tweet or something instead.

Anyway, graphs follow. Note that following my realisation that I'd done the sex balance graph in a really stupid way last year I've recalibrated the scale to just show the percentage of books that were by female authors.

A few statistical highlights: although I read fewer books and fewer aggregate pages in 2022 than in either 2020 or 2021 (maybe increased opportunity for non-housebound activity after two years of intermittent lockdowns?) each of those three years featured higher book and page counts than any year since the all-time high of 2011. Longest book of the year was The Hydrogen Sonata at 605 pages, shortest was The Thirty-Nine Steps at 119 pages. The average book length in 2022 was around 323 pages, down from the 2020 high of 384 but just above the overall historical average of around 309. The percentage of books by female authors was down a little on last year at a fraction over 26%; this is nonetheless still a little higher than the overall average of just under 25%.

One other book-related matter: I took the plunge and registered with Goodreads for reasons that are slightly opaque to me right now, but I am taking the trouble to keep the book list updated in parallel with the blog list. If anyone is thinking of doing the same thing themselves, the most important thing to be aware of is that there is a bulk import facility that saves you having to type the details for 300 books in one-by-one, assuming that you have some sort of personal database somewhere (yes, of course I do) that permits exporting to some sort of Excel file for subsequent massaging into the appropriate import format.