Tuesday, March 28, 2023

you don't know dick

So you might have seen news of the death of Dick Fosbury a week or so ago, and you'll have been hanging out in the pub with your mates going oh, yeah, Dick Fosbury, the Fosbury flop, you know, revolutionised the high jump - *slurps pint* - revolutionised it. You know, before Fosbury - Mexico, 1968 it was - people could jump about, oh, I dunno, this high *gestures at about knee height*, and then along comes this lanky Fosbury bloke and only goes and leaps clean out of the stadium! Backwards! Revolutionary. Course *colossal belch*, everyone does it now, innit. 

Well, I'm here to be the annoying guy at the next table who acts as a sort of human QI klaxon and goes WELL ACTUALLY it's not quite as simple as that. Thinking about it, this is a bit like the post I did after the demise of Arnold Palmer, with a similar disclaimer that it's not in any way having a pop at Fosbury, just making a couple of observations about how actual events get massaged into a sort of glorious mythic version which irons out some of the inconvenient messy complexities of actual reality.

A brief tangent: it was actually this tweet which prompted me to actually do a bit of research here:

There are some interesting responses in the comments, including the only other example which occurred to me - the switch in ski-jumping from an in-flight posture with the skis extended in parallel to one where they're in a sort of V-shape, which turns out to be considerably more aerodynamic for reasons I can't begin to fathom. I recall seeing (probably on Ski Sunday) a Finnish jumper called Matti Nykänen doing it in the 1980s and it eventually became the standard, just as the Fosbury flop did (with some caveats, see below). 

Anyway, Ian Leslie's tweet was evidently a bit of research in advance of this interesting article about Fosbury. I mean there is a bit of life-coach bollocks in there as well - "seize the adjacent possible", if you please - but even in that exact section there is an interesting point: Fosbury's innovation was only feasible, or safely feasible anyway, because of advances in landing mat technology.

The physics of the Fosbury flop are fascinating and stem from a realisation (Fosbury had a background in engineering) that it wasn't necessary for the whole body to be above the level of the bar at the same time (as, broadly, it was for the variety of previous techniques); indeed in a perfectly executed flop the centre of mass of the athlete passes under the bar. Think of it as exchanging the energy required to lift an entire bucket of water over the bar for the much lower energy required to use a hose to siphon the water over bit by bit. This video shows the progression through the years from the basic scissors (essentially just hurdling the bar; I'm sure you can make up your own jokes about furious scissoring in the women's event) of the early years to some variation of the Western roll in the 1920s and a gradual transition to the full straddle by the 1950s, and then Fosbury and his successors. Note also the equivalent video showing the progression of the ski-jumping world record with the switch to the modest V-shape in the early 1990s and the gradual exaggeration of the posture to the full spatchcock of modern jumpers. 

Here's the mildly contrarian HOT TAKE bit: you would think, from watching that video, which shows only floppers post-1968, that Fosbury's innovation prompted an immediate switch, by everyone, to the new technique, with a bit of embarrassed coughing all round at not having thought of it themselves. Not so, actually, as there was quite a lengthy transitional period where straddlers persisted and in fact claimed the men's high jump gold at the very next Olympics, in Munich in 1972 (for which Fosbury failed to qualify) and the women's high jump gold at the one after that, in Montreal in 1976. The men's world record was only claimed by a flopper in 1973 - Fosbury's Olympic-winning (and, to be fair, Olympic record-setting) height of 2.24 metres in 1968 was four centimetres short of the world record at the time. Moreover, the world record was reclaimed by a straddler, Vladimir Yashchenko, in 1977 and only relinquished finally to a flopper in 1980. As I see I said here, the world records for the two styles are still only ten centimetres apart, despite no-one having seriously competed with the straddle since about 1980. It's interesting to speculate how things might have panned out if Yashchenko's career hadn't been ended by a knee injury when he was only 20, and if his illustrious predecessor Valeriy Brumel, who raised the world record six times in about two years in the early 1960s, and was still the world record holder at the time of Fosbury's Olympic triumph, hadn't had his career ended by a motorcycle accident when he was only 25.

Furthermore, it's interesting to note that Fosbury may well not even have been the pioneer of this style; Canadian jumper Debbie Brill was also doing it in the mid-1960s and it's not clear who thought of it first or to what extent the two pioneers knew about each other. This article is the only one I can find which quotes Fosbury referring to Brill, but it's a bit vague. 

Lastly, it's also interesting to note the progression of the world records for the main jumping events (high jump, long jump and triple jump) and theorise that human progress in this area has stagnated. These are some of the longest-standing records in athletics:

  • Men's high jump: Javier Sotomayor, 1993 (30 years)
  • Women's high jump: Stefka Kostadinova, 1987 (36 years)
  • Men's long jump: Mike Powell, 1991 (32 years)
  • Women's long jump: Galina Chistyakova, 1988 (35 years)
  • Men's triple jump: Jonathan Edwards, 1995 (28 years)
  • Women's triple jump: there was a 26-year gap between 1995 and 2021 but subsequently the record has been raised twice by Yulimar Rojas. Still, you know, exceptions, rules, etc.

Maybe another similar technical revolution is needed. Or maybe we've just cracked jumping, as a species, and that's it, barring evolving some extra limbs or something.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three

Inspired by this tweet a month or two back to give the subject a bit of thought, I present to you now my collected Books Of The Year list wherein I nominate three from each of the years of this blog's existence (well, I only did one from 2006 as there were only a handful). Three seemed the right number to make the decision-making tricky from an average yearly sample of twenty or so. No particular rules except I tried to avoid picking two by the same author (not generally a problem) and tried not to agonise about it too much or spend too much time on it. 

The table below presents the list; I've spiced it up a little by including a piece of text (strictly unedited) from the original review which will hopefully either give a flavour of the book, ruin a key aspect of the plot, or just amuse. I may make this A Thing in future as part of the annual book round-up I try to do in January.

Year Author Title Comment
2006 Anita Shreve The Weight Of Water two parallel intertwined stories kind of story
2007 William Boyd Restless inevitable betrayals and double-crossings
TC Boyle Riven Rock traumatic formative sexual experiences
Joyce Carol Oates The Falls small fly in the ointment of her marital bliss
2008 Robertson Davies The Cunning Man all manner of throwaway literary and cultural anecdotes
F Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby driving off gaily in your Hispano-Suiza, getting your scarf caught in the wire wheels and strangling yourself
Anne Tyler A Patchwork Planet all you've got left to hold the reader's attention is your actual skill at writing believable characters
2009 Iain M Banks Inversions knife missile which she uses to escape, with impressively bloody results
Cormac McCarthy The Road what will you do when you meet people who will do those things, and more
Isabel Colegate The Shooting Party ruthlessly enforced social structures and strictures preventing you from ever saying what you really think
2010 Peter Ackroyd Chatterton only employed as a model because he was working up to running off with his wife
Joyce Carol Oates We Were The Mulvaneys periodically fleeing to the next one when anyone starts to rely on her too much or show her any personal affection
Stieg Larsson The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the obligatory secret subterranean porn dungeon for the hero to be rescued from in the nick of time as he is about to be buggered to death
2011 Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go hopefully we might carry on a bit longer, and avoid the organ-harvesting death squads
Tim Winton Cloudstreet much roistering and raging and rollicking, not to mention rucking and rogering
Patricia Highsmith The Talented Mr Ripley various psychological issues, like, you know, murdering people
2012 Iain M Banks Look To Windward but in fact on a deadly mission so secret EVEN HE DOESN'T KNOW WHAT IT IS!!!
William Boyd Ordinary Thunderstorms a man hiding in a hedge isn't really going to drive the narrative along, so we need more plot
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky Roadside Picnic the constant danger of getting arrested or shot or stumbling into a gravitational anomaly and getting turned inside-out
2013 TC Boyle Drop City a guy who can render his own bear-fat, make moose sausages and knock together a dog-sled with just a few bits of discarded porcupine guts and some whittling
Alison Lurie Foreign Affairs what sympathetic people might call "flighty", "free-spirited", "eccentric", etc., but the rest of us would just call "mental"
Ian McEwan The Innocent Progress down the tunnel towards the Russian sector continues, as does Leonard's progress down Maria's "tunnel", hem hem
2014 GB Edwards The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page all of whom disappoint him in some way with their laziness, stupidity, and embrace of modern ideas like the motor car, feminism or the television set
Russell Hoban Riddley Walker any notion of standard rules for spelling and grammar have gone out of the window, not that anyone has windows any more
Walter Tevis The Queen's Gambit eating properly, heading down the gym and, most importantly, cutting out the pints of white wine for breakfast
2015 Sebastian Faulks Birdsong getting better acquainted with Mrs. Azaire by going down on her comme une tonne de briques while René is out of the house
Richard Yates Revolutionary Road otherwise intelligent young people waking up one morning in their sterile little suburban box and realising that they don't know each other at all
Christopher Priest Inverted World necessitate a rethink of the policy of keeping the plebs ignorant of the outside world
2016 Marilynne Robinson Home before either his father dies or Jack's desire to disappear and be away from responsibility and scrutiny gets the better of him
Daniel Woodrell Winter's Bone everyone has too many guns, drinks too much hooch and is cooking up crank
EL Doctorow Ragtime falls out of a wardrobe while having a furtive wank
2017 Robertson Davies The Rebel Angels the circumstances in which he subsequently murdered McVarish during the course of an elaborate sex game
Yann Queffelec The Savage Wedding the persuasive suggestion that with Ludo gone things might get a bit spicier in the boudoir department
Kurt Vonnegut Cat's Cradle causes the sea, as well as all rivers, streams and groundwater on the planet, to solidify into ice-nine, instantly ending almost all life
2018 Russell Banks The Sweet Hereafter attach an actual face to the child in the back of the bus disappearing off a ravine into the cold murky water
LP Hartley The Go-Between they interrupt Ted giving Marian a practical farming tutorial, in particular a demonstration of some vigorous ploughing
Tom Wolfe A Man In Full a bit of a problematic Mary Sue in an otherwise unmitigated sea of arseholes
2019 Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains Of The Day Miss Kenton is wearing a sign that says AVAILABLE, or possibly RIDE ME LIKE ONE OF LORD DARLINGTON'S PRIZE MARES
Marilynne Robinson Gilead what's a respectable Reverend doing having a son in his late sixties, the randy old goat?
Iain Banks Transition one person's disastrous turn of events about which Something Must Be Done is someone else's wholly necessary and exciting developments
2020 Jim Crace Harvest ill-equipped to adapt to quickly-changing circumstances, and WAIT A MINUTE here are some circumstances quickly changing
Mark Z Danielewski House Of Leaves the fact that a corridor has just poofed into appearance out of freakin' nowhere
Alasdair Gray Lanark only if you're some sort of hopelessly gauche naïve ingénue who expects fictional narratives to follow a linear pattern, hahahaha
2021 John Christopher The Death Of Grass so a few people's lawns die, you might say, no biggie
Hilary Mantel Bring Up The Bodies actual public bloody dismemberment rather than discreet shuffling off to a nunnery
Arturo Perez-Reverte The Flanders Panel the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean?
2022 China Miéville The City & The City a city (takes drag on cigarette) .... OF THE MIND. Though, erm, also totally real (coughs)
Jim Harrison The Road Home a fierce and independent girl not prepared to take any shit from anybody, including her grandfather
Tim Winton Breath all good things must come to an end, even bracingly transgressive and dangerous under-age sex

Monday, March 20, 2023

the last book I read

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Cora's life seems pretty sweet, on the face of it*, if by sweet you mean relentlessly shitty and brutal. Born into slavery on the Randall plantation in Georgia, as was her mother Mabel before her, after her grandmother Ajarry was kidnapped and transported from Africa to America, Cora lives with a group of other slaves and works in the cotton fields. The slaves are kept fed and sheltered, after a fashion, but woe betide you if you fail to harvest your allotted amount of cotton, talk back to the white masters or try to escape.

Escape certainly seems like a pretty appealing option given the unrelenting hardship of day-to-day life, but the risks are appalling - a crack team of slave-catchers is just waiting to be unleashed and if you are caught you will be brought back to the plantation and executed in an appallingly protracted and public fashion pour encourager les autres

As it happens Cora's mother, Mabel, escaped from the plantation ten years or so previously and, despite the best efforts of elite slave-catcher Ridgeway and his men, was never caught. When her fellow slave Caesar comes to her and suggests an escape bid she is initially resistant but eventually agrees, and they set out across the swamps in the dead of night.

Caesar has been in touch with agents of the Underground Railroad, in real 19th-century America a network of safe routes for escaping slaves, but as depicted here an actual physical railroad with trains and tunnels and people maintaining secret stations in slave states. Cora and Caesar hook up with a sympathetic farmer who has access to an underground station and ride the rails up to South Carolina. 

Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Cora and Caesar's absence is swiftly noted and the slave-catchers sent after them, a team led by Ridgeway who is taking a personal interest in retrieving Cora after a rare failure in the pursuit of her mother. Cora and Caesar have found refuge in South Carolina, though, which operates a much more liberal regime, former slaves being provided with housing and gainful employment while, yes, technically still being owned by the state, but, hey, who's counting? And it's better than being back in Georgia swinging from a rope, right? Pay no attention to the medical staff taking blood samples for no apparent reason and the strong encouragement for black women to consent to being sterilised. I mean, it's for your own convenience - the state doing you a favour, when you think about it. 

Cora is starting to smell a rat when the decision to move on is taken for her - she gets wind of slave-catchers making enquiries and flees to the house of the local station agent for the Underground Railroad. And not before time as they are hot on her tail and burn the house down, leaving her to board the next available train and get off at the next available stop, which happens to be a partly-abandoned station in North Carolina. Well, North Carolina will be pretty much like South Carolina, right? Only, you know, further north and all. Well, not a bit of it as they have decided the whole slavery thing is just too much trouble and decided on a policy of just exterminating black people wholesale and instead shipping in Irish and Italians to do the menial jobs the slaves formerly did. Having been rescued by the station agent, Martin, a rather unlikely and reluctant hero, having inherited the job from his father, Cora is obliged to endure a miserable few months hiding in the attic of his house while awaiting an opportunity to escape. Eventually the inevitable happens and one of the neighbours denounces Martin and his wife Ethel to the authorities, Ridgeway and his henchmen turn up at the house, throw Cora in the back of the cart to be returned to Georgia and cart Martin and Ethel off to be summarily hanged. 

In some ways the fact that it was Ridgeway who was on hand to make the arrest is a good thing for Cora, as if it had been one of the local goons she would probably have been strung up and set on fire there and then. On the other hand now she has to endure a long and uncomfortable cross-country slog back to her old plantation with the likelihood of a more protracted and public death at the end of it. Fate intervenes, though, when, after they have crossed into Tennessee, the cart is held up by a group of black men who rescue Cora and leave Ridgeway and his men tethered with their own chains.

Cora, the group leader, Royal, and the others make their way (via the Underground Railroad) to Indiana, another (ostensibly at least) more liberal state, and take refuge at the farm of John Valentine, along with a host of other waifs and strays and runaways. Useful work is provided, there is an extensive library, Cora and Royal begin a tentative romance, all seems calm. But even here there is discontent, not so much internally to the farm but among their predominantly white neighbours. This big black community is all very well, you know, but all that fancy book-learnin' might give them ideas. And the next thing you know they'll be round here cutting our throats and defiling our daughters. Maybe it'd be better on the whole to have a bit of regrettable but necessary unpleasantness and rid ourselves of them. 

And so a mob descends on the Valentine farm, bent on general mayhem and destruction, except for the persistent Mr. Ridgeway who only has eyes for Cora, and, once he has captured her, the location of the Underground Railroad. Cora takes him to the nearest station she knows, under a remote barn rumoured to be the terminus of a long-abandoned branch line to who knows where. With the last of her strength she grapples Ridgeway off the rickety stairway down to the platform and, as he lies wounded on the ground, limps off down the tunnel. After an unknowable amount of time in the darkness she emerges near a road and hitches a ride on a wagon headed for Missouri and then west to California.

The history of slavery in the United States has, unsurprisingly, been a rich subject for various forms of art. Notable similarities with The Underground Railroad can be found in parts of Beloved, for instance, and some of it will seem familiar to anyone who's seen 12 Years A Slave. The principal difference is the conceit of having the railroad be an actual physical thing, rather than a metaphor. This provides an odd juxtaposition with the gritty realism of what's going on generally, since a) it's not an actual thing that ever existed and b) a moment's thought will make the whole thing fall apart. Leave aside that it's inconceivable that the stations would not have been found and the rails made impassable, where did all the metal come from? Didn't someone notice entire locomotives going missing? How did they stop the tunnels from falling in? What about ventilation? Wouldn't it be literally impossible to cope with the changes in elevation for an underground railway on a bigger scale than, say, a single city? Clearly all of these things are trivially true, but the idea presumably is that you hold one part of the book (the gritty realist bits) in one part of your mind and the other (the bits featuring the railroad) in another, and apply slightly different rules to each. Whether you can do that or find that the two parts rub together in an uncomfortable way is probably just a matter of taste, and of how much of a tedious literalist you are. It should be noted that quite a few of Colson Whitehead's earlier works have a fantastical and/or speculative element to them as well. My personal feeling is that while I did find the friction between the two elements occasionally troublesome, it didn't detract from the overall effect, which, I should make clear, was tremendously impressive. 

Other people who were tremendously impressed included the Pulitzer Prize committee for 2017, which makes The Underground Railroad the second novel I've read in 2023 to have received it, the other being The Overstory. Perhaps it's time for a recap of my Pulitzer list, which goes as follows: 1928, 1940, 1953, 1961, 1981, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2017, 2019. It also won the National Book Award the previous year; my updated list here goes: 1958, 1962, 1965, 1980 (paperback), 1988, 1993, 2001, 2016.

* I promise this is the last time I will do this

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

the last book I read

Tomorrow by Graham Swift.

Paula Hook's life seems pretty sweet, on the face of it: beloved husband Mike, nice dual income (she is an art dealer, he is the editor of a successful science magazine), nice house, two lovely kids (twins, Kate and Nick). And yet here she is, in the early hours of the morning, her husband snoring post-coitally beside her, fretting over the impending revelation of a family secret to the children, something she fears will change their lives irrevocably. It's a fully planned-for revelation. Paula and Mike having agreed long ago to do it shortly after the twins' sixteenth birthday, but it's still a daunting prospect.

So what is it? Come on, you know how this works: that would make for a very short novel, for one thing. No, we need to circle our way round to the central subject by adding in some explanatory context first, specifically a potted history of how Paula and Mike met (at Sussex University in the mid-1960s) and fell in love, awkward early meetings with in-laws (especially Paula's father Dougie who is, rather intimidatingly, a High Court judge), early married life, money worries (it is Paula who is the main breadwinner in their early years), and, as the years roll on, just a hint of a suspicion of a raised eyebrow from the in-laws about the lack of any kids being produced.

In fact Paula and Mike have done some reflecting on this situation already and have had some tests done which revealed that Mike has a very low sperm count. No worries, they conclude, we'll just tip the odds in our favour by throwing lots of sex at the problem. Some more years go by and it's clear this isn't working, though. It's only the slightly random acquisition of a cat, Otis, that prompts some reflection on this situation, as when Paula takes Otis to the vet he nods, sagely and says: ah, a child substitute. Do Mike and Paula want to just be cat people, or do they want to do something about it?

It's about here that the reader starts to get a glimpse of roughly where this is heading: something about Kate and Nick's parentage, or the circumstances of their early lives. A whole host of options here, from the sort of baby-abduction described in Swift's earlier novel Waterland to the more lurid stuff featured in The Midwich Cuckoos or The Boys From Brazil. The trouble with the (seemingly) endless deferral of the revelation, as demanded by the novel's own architecture, is that anything short of alien zombie Hitler is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. That said, the actual revelation here [PLOT SPOILER ALERT], which is that Paula and Mike were some of the earliest recipients of IVF (in 1978, the same year Louise Brown was born), probably would have seemed like a bit of a let-down on page one of a one-page novel. There is a little bit of extra spice, to be fair, in that Mike's rancid old jism being utterly useless for conception purposes even in a lab-assisted environment meant that donor sperm had to be used, and that therefore Mike is not the biological father of his own children. Even then, though, it's fairly thin gruel after 150-odd pages of Paula's tortured build-up.

Even though Tomorrow is fairly short at about 250 pages, there do seem to be a few episodes whose narrative purpose isn't particularly clear, unless it's just to bump up the page count. The whole business with Otis the cat is clearly meant to foreshadow the challenges and anxieties of having kids in some way, but really mainly serves to contrive a series of meetings between Paula and vet Alan Fraser, meetings which culminate in a stolen weekend together in a hotel when she's meant to be in Paris on an art-acquisition trip. The excuse Paula presents for this - she's preparing herself in some way for carrying another man's child - doesn't really make any sense. Similarly the episode shoehorned in near the end where Paula recounts Mike's rescuing both of the twins from drowning in the sea when they were younger doesn't seem to have any point other than to illustrate that Mike is a good swimmer and really loves his kids. 

There's plenty of good stuff here about how love and marriage evolves from the early carefree days of spending all day naked in bed together drinking champagne to the constraints imposed by having kids and how these radical transformations aren't better or worse, necessarily, just different. It's just that all that good stuff is hitched to a structure and a central revelation that seems to invite a shrug and an "is that it?". 

Quite a few of the reviews of Tomorrow made similar criticisms; I particularly enjoyed this Irish Times article which recounts an especially grumpy interview with Swift in the aftermath of a lukewarm review of Tomorrow. One thing that none of the ones I've read mention, as far as I can see anyway, is the structural similarity between Tomorrow and Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy. Unless I'm remembering it completely wrongly, that novel also features one half of a couple, up late while their family sleeps,  contemplating a life-changing announcement that they're going to make the following morning, though the nature of the announcement is quite different. The long-deferred revelation of something from a family's past is a common feature of Barbara Vine's novels as well, though generally the central revelation is of something a bit more juicy. 

Anyway, Swift is a fine writer but this is probably the weakest of the half-dozen or so of his novels that I've read; both of its predecessors here - The Light Of Day and Shuttlecock - are more satisfying. John Crace nails some of its flaws in this Digested Reads column. Waterland remains the one to read, anyway.