Wednesday, May 31, 2023

maps and gaps

A couple of updates on topics of regular interest (yes, all right, of interest to me anyway): firstly, following the review of Killing Mister Watson, I should note that the book is another for the list of books with maps in, in this case a couple of maps of the south-western Florida area where the story takes place. It's just a general map of the area, no attempt made to highlight particular locations relevant to the story except The Watson Place, which as we saw is actually marked on general modern-day maps of the area anyway.

Secondly, a cricket-related update in recognition of the start of the home Test match season tomorrow: an update to a couple of occasional lists last visited here and here respectively. Firstly the list of batsmen with multiple innings scores of over 250 needs a couple of additions: David Warner of Australia and Tom Latham of New Zealand. The full current list with each joiner's date (i.e. the date on which they made their second and qualifying score) is below:
  • Don Bradman (1930)
  • Walter Hammond (1933)
  • Javed Miandad (1987)
  • Brian Lara (1994)
  • Graeme Smith (2003)
  • Sanath Jayasuriya (2004)
  • Virender Sehwag (2006)
  • Stephen Fleming (2006)
  • Kumar Sangakkara (2006)
  • Younis Khan (2009)
  • Ramnaresh Sarwan (2009)
  • Mahela Jayawardene (2009)
  • Chris Gayle (2010)
  • Hashim Amla (2012)
  • Michael Clarke (2012)
  • Alistair Cook (2015)
  • David Warner (2019)
  • Tom Latham (2022)
Both Warner and Latham are recent featurees on the other list, as well, which is the list of lowest never-made scores in men's Test matches. The lowest entry on that list, as it has been since Herschelle Gibbs made 228 in early 2003, is 229. Interestingly the next five gaps above it in the list as of 2015 (238, 245, 252, 263, 264) have now all been filled, and the next gap is now at 265. The most recent bit of gap-plugging was by Latham himself when he made 252 against Bangladesh in early 2022. 

the last book I read

Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen.

Welcome to the south-west Florida coast. A constantly-shifting landscape of sandbars, mangrove swamps, shallow rivers and islands. The sort of place that's hard to travel around without a suitable boat and extensive local knowledge, and even then one good cathartic hurricane can change everything. That river mouth you wanted to make use of to get to the sea? Yeah, that's way over yonder now. The island you wanted to visit? Gone. And the people on it? They're gone too.

So, as you might imagine, any ideas of property rights over any of the bits of low-lying land here are elastic at best, and even if they were agreed upon, who's going to enforce them? As a consequence, as you might also imagine, this is an ideal place for anyone who wants to discreetly lose themselves somewhere beyond the usual range of law enforcement. It's not a holiday camp, though: you've still got to be prepared to put the work in to build yourself a shelter and scratch some sort of a living out of the soil. But you may find that when it comes, as it inevitably will, to enforcing your own claim to the bit of land you lay claim to in the event of disputes, and maybe to extending your claims to other pieces of land already claimed by others, that a certain elasticity of morals is actually quite helpful, and that it may just come down to being prepared to do what the other guy wouldn't

Into this environment comes Edgar Watson, a man - in common with quite a few of his co-residents of the area - with a slightly murky past that he doesn't necessarily welcome close questioning about. He's acquired the claim on a decent-sized patch of land down at Chatham Bend and has some ambitious ideas about building a house, clearing the land, growing sugar cane and selling the syrup. All of which is just dandy with the neighbours, who don't object to one of their number showing a bit of zest for private enterprise; after all, a successful business brings job opportunities and the lure of making a bit of money off the back of others' initiative. I mean, some of the rumours about EJ Watson's previous life and exploits, some of which might have contributed to his decision to occupy this remote backwater, are a bit hair-raising, but who knows what the real story is. Watson himself sure isn't telling, and despite being a man of considerable personal charm has a quick way with a knife or a gun brandished in the direction of anyone asking questions which probe too deeply.

But Mr. Watson hasn't done anything untoward since he's been at Chatham Bend, pays his bills on time, and has even brought his wife and children down to join him. True, there have been certain rumours about some of the workers he's had on the island cutting down the sugar cane, including that rather than pay some of them for their labour Watson has arranged for them to meet with some sort of "accident". But the appetite to investigate the disappearance of a few itinerant (and mostly black) cane-cutters is pretty low. The brutal murder inflicted upon Wally and Bet Tucker in a claim dispute over a neighbouring island is less easy to shrug off, especially as Bet was pregnant at the time and some pretty reliable witnesses say Watson's boat was seen in the area, but there's just enough plausible deniability to dissuade the locals from pressing things. Part of the reluctance, of course, derives from the knowledge that any retribution would almost certainly have to be organised by the locals themselves, official law enforcement being located many miles away and almost certainly reluctant to get involved.

But what proof is enough proof? What level of violence against other claim-holders would convince people that they might be next and that some sort of collective action should be taken? Things come to a head when Leslie Cox, a figure from Watson's previous life who seems to exert some sort of hold over him, arrives in the area and is taken on by Watson as a sort of foreman. It's not long before the body count starts to ramp up dramatically, and in the wake of the Florida hurricane of 1910 the locals gather among the devastation only to hear the put-put-put of Mr. Watson's boat, and a terrible and irrevocable decision is arrived at.

In terms of the narrative structure of Killing Mister Watson, this is where we came in: the novel's prologue features the ritual execution of Watson by his former friends and neighbours and what follows is a lengthy flashback. So there's no doubt over what's going to happen at the end (as if the novel's title itself were not enough of a giveaway); what the rest of the novel explores is the gradual realisation by the locals that only their own actions are going to save them. It's also about the terrible glamour of the ruthless psychopath, and the furtive regard that law-abiding people who understand the social contract have for those who choose to ride roughshod over it. It is, it must be said, quite slow to build up to the point where the pivotal violence erupts, and features a varied cast of characters who it's sometimes hard to keep track of. But the evocation of the watery Florida landscape is excellent and Watson's deadly charm rendered in a way that makes it easy to understand how things happened they way they did. The intensely real evocation of a landscape and the characters that fit into it is somewhat reminiscent of The Road Home; as with Jim Harrison, Peter Matthiessen is best known for a film made from one of his earlier works, At Play In The Fields Of The Lord

The main point to make about the events portrayed here is that they did, in some form at least, actually happen, EJ Watson being a real person whose home was substantial enough (and its former owner notorious enough) to warrant inclusion on maps of the area even now. Many of the minor characters were also real people, including storekeeper Ted Smallwood whose premises still exist in Chokoloskee.

Killing Mister Watson is the first book in a trilogy, still available as three separate books but also as a condensed and re-worked single volume, Shadow Country, which won the National Book Award in 2008. As part of the promotional activity for that book here's an interview with Matthiessen from 2008 where he explores some of the book's themes.

Monday, May 22, 2023

amis is as good as amile

I'm a busy man, so it's rare for me to explicitly note authorial deaths here that aren't the direct result of my book-blogging activities. Lord knows the relentless (if irregular) schedule of slaughterings of published novelists keeps me busy enough without bothering to note the peaceful passing of those whose death I had no hand in. 

Nonetheless the death of Martin Amis at the age of 73 is a fairly big deal in literary circles, and I did read a few of his novels, so it probably warrants mention here. He has been mentioned here a few times before, as it happens, but mainly in connection either with his father, Kingsley Amis, or his great friend Christopher Hitchens. There is a sharply ironic twist to what I see I once referred to as Amis' "puppyish big-brother adoration" of Hitchens in the fact that he eventually fell victim to the same illness, oesophageal cancer.

The picture above shows the section of my bookshelves devoted to people called Amis, and as you can see alongside the eleven books I own by his father I have three by Martin: Dead Babies, Success and Money

Pretty much any list of Amis' best books will have Money as the top entry - I don't really have enough data to be able to offer an opinion, but it's very good, in a quintessentially 1980s sort of way: drink, drugs, general depravity, lots of authorial smart-arsery and showing-off including inserting himself into the narrative at one point, and indulgence of the author's penchant for jarringly fourth-wall-breaking character names (John Self here; later novels had characters called Keith Talent and Clint Smoker). I actually rather liked Success, partly because (rather like the later Julian Barnes novel Love, etc.) it featured a pair of principal male characters, one hugely flamboyant, one rather more introverted, and had the introverted one end the novel in rather better shape than the flamboyant one, something (no doubt reflecting my own personality type) that I found appealing. As for Dead Babies, his second novel, it's enjoyable enough in a scabrous sort of way, but pretty silly, and features a section which would have been a shoo-in for the literary Bad Sex Award had that existed in 1974. 

For completeness I should add that, while I never read the book, I have seen the 1989 film of Amis' 1973 debut novel The Rachel Papers, which I quite enjoyed, largely because it featured the lovely Ione Skye during the period of a couple of years where she was A Thing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

take it to the ridge

The last post was a bit of a downer, wasn't it? Failure, frustration, fuckery: the three Fs. Not what you want. So it's fortunate that I found a walk in the archives (from October 2022) which I hadn't shared here, this one proceeding largely according to plan, just to provide a bit of contrast. 

So you'll recall I mentioned here the idea of doing a long one-way traverse of the main Beacons ridge, probably from east to west, making use of two vehicles, and you'll also recall we did a sort of trial run of that approach here (though incorporating a slightly shorter walk).

We didn't actually do any of that stuff in the end, but I mention it because the walk which Alex found in a copy of Trail magazine (it's route 3 here) replicates much of the route of that long ridge walk, although it does it out-and-back stylee starting and finishing at the Storey Arms car park. I generally find out-and-back routes involving retracing significant amounts of ground a bit frustrating but this one looked like a good strenuous challenge and offered the prospect of ascending Pen y Fan twice in a single day, something I'd never done before.

So, anyway, we camped here the previous night so as to be able to get an early-ish start the following morning, and broadly replicated the walk from the magazine, though exercising the option of using the paths which bypass Fan y Big and Cribyn on the way back. Route map and altitude profile are below (open in a new tab for bigger versions). 

Our only other significant deviation from the magazine route - apart from a bit of faffing about towards the end of the outward leg to find the "proper" summit of Waun Rydd, which is a bit indistinct and not on the main path - was to loop back from Corn Du to the car park on a different path, one that turned out to involve a bit of annoying descent and re-ascent which isn't really what you want at the end of a strenuous 15-mile walk. It would in hindsight have been better to either go back the way we'd come up, or to loop around and take the path slightly further along which follows the contours round. But, overall, a good and challenging day out in great company and generally benign weather. The most challenging bit of the day, as you might imagine, is standing in the pronounced dip between Cribyn and Pen y Fan and girding yourself mentally and physically for the relentless ascent of 220 metres or so that needs to be done to get up and over Pen y Fan for the second time. 

A few photos can be found here. I've replicated the two summit shots from Pen y Fan below; note that I also tacked them onto the end of this Twitter thread

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

king marvellous

Remember the heady days of Wills-&-Kate-mania, back before his face started going all weird? Believe it or not that (i.e. their wedding) was as far back as April 2011, a date which I commemorated by fucking off up a mountain for the day (in, thankfully, splendid weather) and declining to engage with any of it on any level. Ah, memories. 

A lot has happened since then for all of us, William included, including some salacious, probably untrue, but nonetheless extremely entertaining rumours about his sexual preferences and most notably the recent demise of his elderly grandmother and the belated ascent of his father to actual King of the United Kingdom, remembering of course that we live in one of the more absurd of the gazillion possible parallel universes, one where concepts like Being A King exist as actual things. As part of the ceremonial transition from beloved public surrogate grandmother figure who was almost certainly an Actual Nazi in private to jug-eared halfwit and maker of overpriced oaty biscuits who inexplicably owns a significant chunk of Wales, there's a coronation ceremony to be held, where the great British public can enjoy many hours of wall-to-wall TV coverage of tens of millions of pounds being hosed up the wall so that an elderly man can be fitted with an absurdly impractical hat, which he will almost immediately take off and never wear again.

So, all in all, I concluded that it wasn't for me, and, since I was offered the opportunity by my patient and understanding wife to absent myself from proceedings for most of the day, I decided to go and walk up some hills. Adhering to the general (albeit loose) principle that I'd prefer to do a walk I haven't done before (even if some of the intermediate summits aren't new) I devised a walk of around 16 miles in the Black Mountains, on the grounds that that would provide a nice challenge that would occupy me for most of the day.

One obvious cloud on the horizon, no pun intended, was the absolutely atrocious weather forecast. But, if you've only got one day, you have to just do the thing you intend to do in the weather that presents itself, or stay home. So I packed up my waterproof gear and headed off, the plan being to park at the Pont Cadwgan car park, cross the road and head roughly westwards through the Mynydd Du forestry to the ridge which eventually leads north-west-ish to Waun Fach, the highest point of the Black Mountains (and which I visited once before as part of the epic 20-mile hike mentioned here), and then loop round the head of the Grwyne Fawr valley, bag the trig point on top of Rhos Dirion and then head back down the parallel ridge and eventually drop off the top of the ridge back down to the car park.

The tricky bit of most walks of this nature is getting started, in particular getting up above the fence-line marking the boundary between areas where you have to be careful about path-following to avoid straying into someone's property and open land where you can just wander where you like constrained only by the natural topography. This walk proved a rather extreme example of that for a couple of reasons: firstly that the weather forecast was unfortunately pretty accurate and the actual conditions provided weather that varied between annoying light drizzle and relentless heavy drizzle. This doesn't prohibit going out in it, but it does mean everything is several times more difficult and time-consuming, especially when you have a need to regularly consult phone and map for navigation purposes, and in this case it was both as the phone coverage was pretty much non-existent. The second reason was that it turned out that the people who manage the Mynydd Du forestry have been conducting a ruthless campaign of path closures recently, including pretty much all paths that lead up onto the ridge.

After an hour or so of fruitless trudging up and down forestry trails and occasional retracing of steps I decided to call it a day and head back to the car park to try a different route. Hilariously, it then took me another hour to find a route out of the forestry back to the road, and even more hilariously having regained the road and thought, well, at least it's just a regular trudge of a mile or so from here back to the car park, I then had to negotiate a flooded section of road by climbing a bank and scrambling into a hedge.

Scarcely believably, by the time I'd got back to the car and taken some of my frustration out on a pork pie and a couple of spicy Peperamis, I'd clocked up almost six miles of fruitless and increasingly enraged and waterlogged wanderings (roughly clockwise in the map below). I was reminded of our doomed attempts (in similar weather) to bag the couple of seemingly innocuous Munros behind our holiday cottage in Ballachulish in 2011.

I couldn't just give up and go home, though, partly because it was only lunchtime and there'd be a very real danger of still catching the tail-end of the coronation coverage, but also because I wanted to do a thing that actually achieved its original objective, however modest. As luck would have it my route back took me past the Fro car park, which is conveniently placed for a furious up-and-back assault on the Sugar Loaf from its north-eastern slopes, an angle from which, as it happened, I'd never been up it before (previous ascents were from south and, erm, also south).

The weather was still pretty shitty - not quite as rainy but very misty - but on a nicer day this would be a pretty good route up, nice steady ascent, probably some nice views. The only drawback is that there isn't an obvious way of making it a non-step-retracing circular walk without incurring a significant amount of low-level tedium at either start or end. I wasn't in the mood to worry about this and just smashed straight up, bagged the trig point and them came straight back down by the same route, four miles round trip, bish bosh, sorted. 

So, lessons: don't assume that getting to the start point will be straightforward, do as much research as you can but be prepared to be thwarted and have to replan either in a minor way or in a completely wholesale throw-plans-away-and-start-again way, do take an actual map in case of mobile signal blackspots, don't be put off by a bit of rain but do take some appropriate wet-weather gear and if you get completely fucked over doing your original thing, go and do another thing. As a life philosophy there's not quite as much there as there is in playing French cricket, but it's still good.