Monday, April 24, 2023

the last book I read

Love Is Blind by William Boyd.

Meet Brodie Moncur. He's a tuner. What, a large pelagic fish of the mackerel family? Well, no. This guy tunes pianos for a living and is already building quite a reputation for himself in Edinburgh as the go-to guy in the piano-tuning game (hardest game in the world, the old piano-tuning game). Octaves all stretchy and flabby? E-flat a little too flat? Perfect fifths sound like diminished sixths? Brodie's your man.

Brodie works for the established Edinburgh piano-making firm of Channon's and has already proven himself a useful and resourceful employee, not just for his technical skill but also for some innovative and profitable business and sales ideas. So when the company decides to expand and start up a new showroom in Paris, Brodie is given the job of assistant manager, the top job obviously going to a member of the Channon family, regardless of their level of crookedness and incompetence.

Anyway, Brodie relocates to Paris and immediately comes up with a couple of profile-raising and money-making ruses for Channon's: firstly setting up a tuning and repair business in the local area, rather than having to ship something literally the size of a piano all the way to Edinburgh, and secondly acquiring the services of some high-profile pianists to play Channon pianos in some sort of prototypical product placement/sponsorship type of deal. Their main catch turns out to be John Kilbarron, a fiery Irish pianist, probably slightly past his sell-by date and these days a bit keen on the old sauce and occasionally unreliable, but still a big crowd-puller. Brodie is given personal responsibility for ensuring Kilbarron's pianos are tuned exactly to his specifications, including lightening the keys to accommodate some increasing weakness in Kilbarron's right hand (almost certainly connected to the epic booze consumption). 

During the course of his duties for Kilbarron (actually the Kilbarrons, plural, as John's brother Malachi acts as a manager for his brother) Brodie meets John Kilbarron's girlfriend and companion Lydia ("Lika") Bloom, an aspiring (but, we are invited to infer, slightly rubbish) opera singer. Brodie's interest immediately perks up: I wouldn't mind lifting her lid and adjusting her G-string, showing her my classical fingering technique, etc., and as it turns out the feeling seems to be mutual and they soon embark on a clandestine affair.

Several other things then happen at once: a dispute between the Kilbarrons and Channon's results in their contractual relationship being terminated, Brodie coughs up a gallon of blood, is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to the south of France to convalesce and on his return is sacked by Channon's after a series of financial irregularities is discovered. It is made clear to Brodie that non-one seriously suspects him, but the alternative (and, as it happens, correct) explanation is that the younger Channon is responsible, and blood is thicker than water, old chap, I'm sure you understand.

Brodie is therefore free to resume his employment with the Kilbarrons, directly this time, and accompany them to Russia for a lucrative concert tour. All the to-ing and fro-ing between St. Petersburg and the country dacha that their Russian benefactor has laid on provides some limited opportunities for Brodie and Lika to do some discreet boning, but evidently they're not discreet enough and they are discovered by Malachi. Malachi is shrewd enough to know that telling John would send him into an alcoholic spiral and endanger the concerts, but uses the knowledge as leverage to have Brodie and Lika do his bidding (item one: no more boning). Gradually the whole professional relationship deteriorates and eventually Brodie quits. This might not be so bad but he also takes the opportunity to subtly sabotage Kilbarron's piano so that that night's concert is a fiasco. The combined knowledge that Malachi has fucked his concert and his girlfriend is too much for John Kilbarron and he challenges Brodie to a duel. In turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg these are generally stylised affairs where both protagonists fire into the air, honour is seen to have been done (by virtue simply of turning up, presumably) and everyone goes home. Not so in this case as it soon becomes clear that John Kilbarron very much intends to kill Brodie in a very real and non-stylised sense, and Brodie only manages to escape his fate by wielding Lika's pistol that he has concealed about his person and shooting Kilbarron through the chest with it.

Apparently there are some legal consequences to shooting someone through the heart in a field, and bearing in mind these, as well as Malachi's likely lust for revenge, Brodie and Lika flee St. Petersburg and make a circuitous way through various European cities in an attempt to escape. But Malachi is relentlessly determined, and after their travels take them to southern France, then Edinburgh (incorporating a brief reunion with Brodie's family including dreadful old patriarch Malky Moncur) and then back to France again, they discover that Malachi is still on their trail. Eventually Brodie awakens in a hotel room in Nice to discover that Lika has left him and gone to present herself to Malachi, it being her he really wants. Brodie struggles to make sense of this and tracks her down to Paris where she reveals that she has been married to Malachi since she was eighteen and transferred her affections to John with his approval for the collective good of their business arrangements, but that a similar arrangement with Brodie was intolerable to him. 

Brodie mooches around Switzerland for a while making a living from piano-tuning but still has suspicions that Malachi has agents on his tail, and so decides in a more radical course of action: fuck right off round the world to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a destination he selects by literally sticking a pin in a map. Precious few pianos here but he finds work as an assistant to Page Arbogast, an anthropologist studying the local tribes. He is happy enough in his work but still experiences occasional paranoia about Malachi - will he pursue him even here? Will one of his tubercular attacks finish him off first? Will Lika free herself from Malachi and come to him?

Wikipedia tells me that this is Boyd's fifteenth novel; by my calculations I have read twelve of these fifteen, the only omissions being the early novel An Ice-Cream War, the faux-biography Nat Tate and the James Bond story Solo. By this stage you pretty much know what you're going to get and it's hard to avoid comparisons with other Boyd works - the obvious one is the broad similarities between the love story here and the one in The Blue Afternoon; lovers carrying on an affair despite the female protagonist being inextricably attached to someone else and planning to escape to grow old together but never quite managing to land the happy ending. Like Sweet Caress it's also something of a return to the biographical style of earlier novels like The New Confessions and Any Human Heart after a period of producing more plot-driven thrillers like Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms. One thing that you know you're going to get with a Boyd is a Ruddy Good Story - I'm suspicious of any attempt to group writers into "novelists" and "storytellers", usually because the latter category is used as an excuse for, or a badge-of-honour inverted-snobbery revelling in, horrible clunky prose, not something you could ever accuse Boyd of. 

That said, there are a few quibbles: the nature of the hold that Malachi has over Lika is never very well explained, and nor is the relentlessness with which he pursues Brodie (though to be fair I suppose he did kill his brother), and some of the ventures into music theory to explain the emotional impact of a particular piece of music have a whiff of authorial insistence in displaying the depth of his research. Brodie also seems to be irresistibly attractive to women: in addition to Lika there's a whiff of something with Brodie's Russian doctor, the young daughter of the Kilbarrons' Russian benefactor throws herself at him and at the end of the novel Page Arbogast makes it fairly clear that she is Well Up For It as well. 

But it's very good and tremendously readable, as Boyd's novels always are (this is the sixth to appear on this blog, which brings Boyd level with Ian McEwan in joint second place behind Iain Banks). I would say it's definitely better than its immediate predecessor Sweet Caress, and you'd probably have to go all the way back to 2002's Any Human Heart to find one that's better. The early-1990s pair of Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon remain my favourites, though. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

loched and loaded

It's been something like eighteen months so here's another whisky post. The main items of interest among a very gratifying selection of whisky delights at Christmas and my birthday were a pair of bottlings from the Loch Lomond distillery, something I'd never tried before and something you never used to see in the major outlets like supermarkets or Amazon. But evidently they've had a bit of a rebrand and a sales push of late and well, here we are.

The two bottles I have are the standard no-age-statement entry-level single malt which they have decided to call Loch Lomond Classic, and the 10-year-old expression (which interestingly doesn't seem to be listed on their website). The distillery itself is right on the Lowland/Highland region boundary in the same way as Glengoyne is; in fact Loch Lomond is slightly further south (and a few miles further west) than Glengoyne. Nonetheless it's classed as a Highland whisky.

What you'd broadly expect here is that the older whisky would be slightly darker and deeper and richer than the younger one, and that's pretty much what you get, The younger one has the slight magic-marker smell that young whisky has, but also just a hint of something fruity. maybe apples or pears. The older one is slightly sweeter, and, as you can see from the photo - it's the one on the right - darker, and also has just a hint of that parsnip/Marmite/leather-topped writing desk savouriness that slightly older whisky sometimes has. It seems kind of obvious to say that the older one is better, but, well, it is. Both are pretty polite, smoke-free whiskies of the sort you would expect from the Highland/Speyside region; as I've said before my preference is for something a bit more rough and ready but there's absolutely nothing wrong with either of these.

As I've said elsewhere, most distilleries manage to concoct some claim of being the oldest, highest, biggest, based on some slightly weaselly definition of the word in question. Loch Lomond doesn't exactly do this, but its bottles do carry a legend that says "since 1814" (you can see it in the picture above), which even the most charitable observer would have to say is a big fat lie of the sort that you would surely think would be legally actionable. Presumably just enough smoke can be blown up the impartial observer's ass by the fact that there was a short-lived distillery on the banks of Loch Lomond from 1814, even though it only existed for a handful of years and the new distillery, which opened in 1965, has no connection to it and is in a completely different location.

The other thing people know, or rather think they know, about Loch Lomond is that it's the whisky that Tintin's adventuring buddy Captain Haddock used to drink. Well, what's the problem with that, you might say - it's right there in the books, see?

Well, the problem is related to both the date-related slipperiness above and the multiple re-workings of the Tintin books over the years, something I previously mentioned here. In fact the panel from The Black Island featuring the train was originally drawn as containing Johnnie Walker whisky and only re-drawn to say Loch Lomond in the early 1960s when the early books were re-issued in colour. The re-issue dates and the date of the re-opening of the distillery are pretty close together, but it seems highly likely that the re-drawing work commenced before the new Loch Lomond distillery was even open, and it seems unlikely that Hergé was following upcoming developments in Scotch whisky so avidly as to have been aware of it. The most likely explanation is that he just chose a nicely generic Scottish-sounding name (perhaps with some help from his English translators) without any particular intention that it mirror the name of a real-life entity and the fact that it subsequently did is just a coincidence. OR IS IT, etc. etc.

Monday, April 17, 2023

killebrity lookylikey of the day

My elder daughter, as befits a massive Harry Potter fan who has read the entire novel sequence about nine times and has many assorted items of Potterobilia in her possession, has a Harry Potter-themed duvet and pillow set, which features among other cartoonish renderings of the principal characters Harry's pet snowy owl, Hedwig (yeah, I know, owls again). This is all well and good but to me the owl as rendered has more than a touch of the Jason Voorhees about him, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Let's do another one, this time involving actual people rather than delicious items of breakfast pastry and birds of prey. Here's Robert Z'Dar, your go-to man in the 1980s and 1990s for scary-faced psychotic villains in various movies of varying quality including Maniac Cop and (as pictured here) 1989's Tango & Cash, which I recall paying actual money to go and see in the cinema at the time of its release. Z'Dar's USP was, and there's no nice way of saying this, an absolutely freakin' massive lower jaw (due to a genetic condition called cherubism). Pictured alongside him is another man with a similar (though admittedly slightly less startling) chin: 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. 

As I said before this year's Masters tournament started, the 2023 version was the first one in eleven years to finish on Easter Sunday, usually a trigger for an outpouring of religious nonsense from the winner.  As it happens this year's winner, Jon Rahm, was a bit more understated about the whole thing (I mean, he could be a Satanist for all I know), but to counteract that here's Scheffler's own post-victory interview from last year, with much glorifying of God and similar horseshit.

owlebrity pastrylikey of the day

It was Alys's birthday a couple of weeks ago, and Alys is a big fan of cute wildlife of all kinds, and owls in particular, so one of the things we did to celebrate was take her to this owl sanctuary up at Festival Park in Ebbw Vale. It's a funny little place, to be honest, but to be fair it does what it says on the tin in that they have lots of owls, including a couple that they got out and allowed the kids to interact with. As an aside, you will recall that we visited another owl sanctuary (one with what I deduce to be a higher budget for general site maintenance and presentational stuff) in the vicinity of Kington in Herefordshire in 2015; Alys probably doesn't remember that one, though, as she was only about three months old at the time.

A week or so later as part of general birthday celebrations for both girls (Nia's birthday is a week after Alys's) we went to Center Parcs for the weekend, and had some treats for breakfast including some pains au chocolat as everyone loves them, including me. It was only when I chanced to look at one of them end-on that I was struck by its uncanny resemblance to the barn owl we'd interacted with a week or so earlier. See for yourself:

That picture is obviously cropped to just the relevant bit; the small item of prey that the owl's baleful gaze is fixed upon is in fact Huwie, as you can see here. I'm happy to be able to report that he was able to make good his escape without being torn apart by razor-sharp beak and talons, eaten and then burped up again as an owl pellet a short time later.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

the last book I read

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.

Meet Philip Marlowe: he's a maverick private investigator, who doesn't play by the book, but - dammit - he gets results. Actually, results - and the paychecks that come with them - have been a bit thin on the ground lately, so when he spots a suspicious-looking giant white guy entering a primarily black Los Angeles nightclub called Florian's, his finely-tuned detectival instincts tell him he should follow and take a look. 

Sure enough the guy, who turns out to be called Moose Malloy, also turns out to be fresh out of prison and looking for his pre-prison girlfriend, Velma (no, not that one). When the club's owner explains that the club has changed ownership since Velma's day and he can't help, Moose expresses his disappointment by snapping his neck like a stick of celery. After the police express minimal interest in the resulting case (the murder of a black man not really being the sort of thing to get them off their fat cop asses) Marlowe decides to investigate Moose's motive by seeing if he can locate Velma.

In quick succession Marlowe finds Jessie Florian, the ex-wife of the nightclub's former owner, who claims that Velma is dead, and gets a seemingly unrelated call from a man called Lindsay Marriott, who wants Marlowe to act as a sort of bodyguard for a trip to a nearby canyon for a rendezvous - something to do with delivering a ransom payment for a stolen jade necklace. And not without good reason, it tuns out, for no sooner have they turned up at the rendezvous point than Marlowe is coshed unconscious, and - the cosh-wielder having presumably got their eye in properly by this point - Marriott is coshed to death.

Some further lines of enquiry are opened up by Mrs. Grayle, the owner of the ransomed jade necklace, and by Jules Amthor, a supposed psychic whose name Marlowe finds secreted in the filters of some of Marriott's marijuana cigarettes. Mrs. Grayle is something of a minx - bored rich wife, older husband probably not cutting the mustard in the bedroom department - and makes it known to Marlowe that she is Well Up For It. Marlowe's encounter with Amthor is somewhat stranger - on being questioned by Marlowe about supplying the drugs to Marriott he has Marlowe escorted off the premises by some corrupt cops and entrusted to the care of a Dr. Sonderborg, who keeps him in a drugged stupor for a few days before Marlowe is able to escape. 

Using Mrs. Grayle's name as leverage, Marlowe manages to extract the information that Malloy may be hiding out in a boat moored just offshore outside of the city's jurisdiction and used for gambling activity. Malloy turns out not to be on board but Marlowe meets with the boat's owner, local bigwig Laird Brunette, who agree to make some enquiries within the LA underworld.

Marlowe arranges a date with Mrs. Grayle and when she turns up lands her with a surprise: he knows that she is Velma, and married her current elderly husband, the poor sap, under a false name. Moreover, he has her old boyfriend Moose, who she fingered to the cops for the crime that got him (falsely) put away, right here in the hotel bathroom and he'd really like a word. Mrs, Grayle is not having any of it, though, and shoots Malloy before making good her escape, only to be caught up with by the cops some time later and shooting herself rather than be taken in. 

The main things to say about Farewell, My Lovely are that a) it's very entertaining b) substantial parts of the plot don't really make any sense and c) that doesn't really matter. What I'm thinking of for b) are things like the bizarre interlude with Jules Amthor and Dr. Sonderborg, which read as if parachuted in from a completely separate novel. Oddly, this isn't far from the truth, as Farewell, My Lovely was a reworking of a few originally separate short stories. The point of it, though, isn't the seamless interlocking of all the plot elements but the overall style, some elements of which seem hackneyed now - rumpled cynical wisecracking private eye, chaotic domestic arrangements, complex and generally disastrous personal life, unconventional methods - but which Chandler and some of his contemporaries such as James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett were early exponents of.

Needless to say this stuff was and is tremendously popular material for films, and Farewell, My Lovely has been filmed a few times, though oddly only once under its original title. Most of the other Marlowe novels, including The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye have been filmed (often multiple times) as well.