Tuesday, June 18, 2024

the last book I read

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.

So there's this woman, erm ... *checks notes* ... Charlotte Gray. Daughter of a First World War veteran, with whom she has a slightly prickly relationship, keen to help out with the Allied war effort now that it's 1942 and the Second World War is in full swing but a bit removed from the action in her native Scotland. 

So she relocates to London, that being the centre of the war effort, and takes a job at a doctor's surgery. It's not long before opportunities of various kinds come her way, though, largely through the time-honoured route of meeting people at parties: firstly a man called Cannerley who has some connections with the shady G Section who seem to organise clandestine activities in France, and secondly Peter Gregory, an RAF pilot, haunted by the loss of most of his friends over the past few years but still seemingly keen to conduct a daring sortie, all guns blazing, into Charlotte's knickers. 

Charlotte happens to be fluent in French after spending a lot of time there during her childhood, a thing that for obvious reasons is of intense interest to Cannerley and his organisation. After a few discreet meetings Charlotte is inducted into the organisation and given an initial mission: parachute into the occupied part of France, make contact with some local representatives of the Resistance and distribute some vital radio components. At the same time Peter Gregory is being given some orders of his own for an airborne mission into France.

Peter's mission starts first and Charlotte soon gets some bad news: he's gone missing. She decides that the best thing to do is get on with her own mission and see if she can locate him while she's over there. So after some rudimentary spy training (basically: don't do this) and some equally rudimentary parachute training (open door, jump out, try not to die) Charlotte finds herself jumping out of a plane and making contact with some people in the village of Lavaurette, including Julien Levade (codename Octave) who leads the Resistance operation. His father, a semi-retired painter, provides some cover for Charlotte (now going by the name Dominique) by employing her as a housekeeper in his rambling old mansion on the outskirts of the village.

Charlotte conducts various side quests while she's staying in Lavaurette, including travelling as far as Limoges to deliver some vital radio parts, all the while keeping an ear out for news of the fate of Peter Gregory. Charlotte's calmness and efficiency gain the respect of her Resistance colleagues and her superiors in London, but then Shit Gets Real as the flimsy pretence of the independence of the Vichy regime is crushed and the Nazis roll into town, bringing with them a ramping up of the existing regime of rounding up Jews and deporting them. This includes the parents of local boys André and Jacob, the boys subsequently being hidden by the Resistance in various locations around the village, but also old man Levade, betrayed by some weaselly local collaborators. After an I ASK ZE KVESTIONS show-trial at the Levade house the old man is carted off and loaded onto a train, while the local police are charged with guarding Julien and Charlotte. Julien facilitates Charlotte's escape, kills the collaborator and then flees into hiding. Charlotte, meanwhile, heads for Paris, partly with the intention of making contact with someone who can facilitate her return to England, but also partly to attempt to intercept André and Jacob, who were inevitably discovered by the Gestapo and taken away.

Peter Gregory, meanwhile, is alive and mostly well, though limping a bit after breaking his leg parachuting into a tree. By extraordinary good luck he was rescued by some people sympathetic to the Allied cause, and by further extraordinary good luck (his French being rudimentary at best) they manage to arrange his transit to Marseille where he meets up with some English-speaking contacts and is spirited back to England by a circuitous route traversing North Africa.

Charlotte makes contact with her man in Paris and arranges her transport back to England; she also visits the internment camp at Drancy where most of the deportees from the village are held, but the massive industrial scale of the operation prevents her from seeing any of the individuals she's looking out for, still less effecting some sort of daring rescue. With ruthless inevitability the process grinds on to its conclusion, with the internees either dying en route to the death camps (as old man Levade does) or surviving the trip only to then be exterminated in the gas chambers (as André and Jacob are).

Charlotte returns to London to be debriefed by G Section and mildly scolded for exceeding the terms of her original mission, and to be tearfully reunited with (and subsequently de-briefed by, oy oy) Peter Gregory. 

This is the third novel in Sebastian Faulks' loose trilogy of books about France - the other two are The Girl At The Lion d'Or, which I haven't read (although I was present at a book-signing for it with Faulks himself about 35 years ago), and Birdsong, which featured here in February 2015. All three feature the First World War as a major theme - Birdsong is mostly set during it and includes many scenes set in the trenches, and while Charlotte Gray is set during the Second World War it carries heavy echoes of the earlier conflict. Both the older Levade and Charlotte's own father are haunted by their memories of what took place, and Lavaurette is oddly demographically skewed by having a large proportion of a whole generation of men wiped out. 

I think on the whole Birdsong is a better book, as enjoyable as Charlotte Gray is - I think most of this is related to pacing; the Nazis only turn up and things Kick Off in a big way fully two-thirds of the way through the book. Before that we get a fair bit of scene-setting in England, including a brief sex scene which won Faulks the Bad Sex Award in 1998 (which he slightly humourlessly did not turn up to collect), and quite a lot of Charlotte hanging out with Julien and his father and blissfully bicycling from village to village in the sunshine delivering radio crystals and the like, which is lovely but oddly peril-free. The flipside of this is that when Charlotte encounters the full industrial efficiency of the Nazi killing machine she is, as resourceful as she is, utterly powerless to do anything about it, and André and Jacob's harrowing journey to their inevitable end is genuinely quite difficult to read.

Narratively that's obviously the right thing to do, a daring James Bond-style rescue mission being completely implausible, but it's a bit of a downer, and it makes the subsequent tearful reunions in England a bit hollow. This is no doubt intentional - my only quibble would be that the neatness of Charlotte's resolution of her mysterious childhood trauma involving her father is a bit nice and convenient, and the implication that, hey, the boys' deaths in the gas chamber weren't completely in vain because it in some way enabled Charlotte to get over being a bit upset about some childhood shit from twenty years earlier is a bit hard to swallow. Indeed you might reasonably ask: what was the sum total of Charlotte's achievements in France? Some minor courier work and encouragement to the Resistance, sure, but aside from making some cursory enquiries with his contacts she discovered next to nothing about Gregory's whereabouts while she was there and contributed precisely nothing to his safe return home, and, as mentioned previously, didn't manage to save any of the Lavaurette villagers from the gas chambers.

The World War II theme puts Charlotte Gray in the company of quite a long list of earlier books featured here - the review of The Reader has a list. Its having a person's full name as a title puts it on a slightly shorter list which also includes Laura Blundy, Riddley Walker and Fanny Hill. It was also filmed (starring Cate Blanchett as Charlotte) in 2001.

Monday, June 17, 2024

snorklebrity lookeyspikey of the day

Today's pairing features my son Huw, in the pool at our holiday house in Brittany a couple of weeks ago and borrowing some of his big sister's swimming accessories, in particular her face-mounted snorkel, and also the strange underwater artificial dinosaur hybrid submarine that I drew for my school yearbook at Bandung International School in Java in about 1979 (when I would have been about nine). Obviously the shape and positioning of the snorkel is the thing that brought the two together in my mind.

The drawing was accompanied by the following explanatory (well, sort of) text:

It's interesting to unpick all the things that (consciously or unconsciously) influenced both the drawing and the text in my nine-year-old mind:
  • The BBRFC on the creature's sleeve, and indeed the rest of the design of the T-shirt the creature is wearing, is a reference to Bandung Barbarians Rugby Football Club, a loosely-organised group of expatriates from various countries (mainly the UK, Australia and New Zealand) for which my father used to turn out. My recollection of the various rugby days out we went to during our time in Java was that they were mainly a pretext for epic beer consumption, probably mainly the product of the Anker brewery with whom the club seemed to have cooked up some sort of endorsement/sponsorship deal, judging by the club T-shirt I am wearing in the images below (probably taken at Pangandaran). The beardy guy piloting the craft is also probably modelled on my Dad, though I should point out he has never smoked a pipe as far as I know.

  • The general concept for the creature is clearly adapted/stolen from the Tintin book Red Rackham's Treasure which I read approximately a gazillion times. The smaller shark-based craft there was the brainchild of eccentric genius Professor Calculus. That's his English name, anyway, he was called Tournesol in the original French books. Translations into other languages are available, including, rather marvellously, Welsh; who knows what his name is there. 
  • Obviously kids love dinosaurs, and you can see bits from at least three separate dinosaurs in the design of the creature: the head with its distinctive crest is clearly a parasaurolophus, the big fin thing on its back looks as if it's from a dimetrodon, and the spiked tail is a bit like that of a stegosaurus, informally known in slightly tedious paleontological nerd humour circles as a thagomizer. The fins at the rear are presumably a hangover from the fish design I stole the idea from, and I have no idea why the front limbs seem to have their elbows on backwards.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

our father who art in heaven, I lost my mess in pew eleven

One other thing, also tangentially book-related: we went to a family gathering last week and it was held in the Community Centre in the village of Acton Trussell, which we've been to before as it's conveniently located near to several of Hazel's extended family. I see that I mentioned it briefly once before, as the book I was reviewing (William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows) was one that I'd acquired from their quite extensive shelves on a previous visit. I see that at the time there was an honesty box in place; this seems to have gone now, probably as a result of no-one carrying small-denomination coins around any more post-COVID. Instead there seems to be some sort of loose book-swap scheme in place where you're encouraged to swap in a book when you take one out. Sadly I didn't come armed with any spare books, so I am now in credit to the tune of a couple of slim paperbacks and need to redress the balance on my next visit. 

I was also musing over the name of the village in my head on the drive up as it seemed faintly reminiscent of something I remembered from somewhere else, and it finally came to me in the latter stages of the journey (somewhere on the M6 I'd guess) - the name of the fictitious village of Stackton Tressell inhabited by cross-dressing comedy duo Hinge & Bracket in their various radio and TV programmes (and the occasional sherry advert) in the 1970s and 1980s was (a bit of Googling revealed) based on the real-life village of Acton Trussell, which just happens to have been where Patrick Fyffe, who played Dame Hilda Bracket, was born. George Logan, who played Dr. Evadne Hinge, was born near Glasgow, since you ask. Dear Ladies, which ran on BBC2 from 1983 to 1985, is the particular Hinge & Bracket vehicle that I remember - I would describe it as gentle comedy evoking the occasional wry chuckle rather than any pant-wetting hilarity.

Also spotted on one of the notice boards in the main hall while I was there was this frankly mind-boggling bit of groovy-vicar desperate grasping at young-person relevance and engagement. I mean I genuinely think that if Jesus were with us today - and, in a very real sense, he is, of course - he'd be rolling about in a paddling pool full of custard, or whatever it is that Messy Church implies.

I mean, even if you can get past the Charlotte Church jokes, there's still a faintly sniggery element here, and it would be highly advisable for their promotional video segments to be a bit more careful about phrasing than they seem to have been about ten seconds in here; the phrase "people just coming in all their mess" would probably have best been avoided.

infiltrate my maoist falange

Just to illustrate the point about Shibumi, as fascinating and intermittently thrilling as it is, not being meant to be taken entirely seriously, here's a footnote which appears at the bottom of page 179 of my Headline paperback edition:

A couple of things to unpick here: firstly the reference to "Naked/Kill" is to a sort of unarmed combat technique, possibly of Hel's own devising (I can't remember), which allows you to kill people by sticking a styrofoam coffee cup up their nose, and the like. The later reference to "certain advanced sexual techniques" reflects some of the (fairly coy) descriptions of what Hel and Hana get up to in the evenings and inevitably prompts thoughts of Sting's infamous claims of seven-hour tantric sex sessions with the missus, poor woman. As this Guardian article says, that claim mainly derives from a drunken interview Sting and Bob Geldof did for Q magazine back in the 1990s.

As for the other claims, the first relates to the filming of The Eiger Sanction and describes a real-life incident, the death of British climber David Knowles during filming in 1974. The claim about the Milan art theft relates to The Loo Sanction, which is a loose sequel to The Eiger Sanction and features the same protagonist, Jonathan Hemlock. I have no idea whether the claim has any basis in truth, and I certainly can't find any citation apart from articles specifically relating to this footnote. 

And the choice of name for one of the fictitious terrorist organisations in Shibumi invites two responses: firstly the bit of rudimentary childish image-editing below to clip out a couple of letters, and secondly: Asian Dawn?

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

the last book I read

Shibumi by Trevanian.

Dangerous places, airports. Not only have you got to grapple with the unpalatable prospect of being strapped into a claustrophobic metal tube with 200+ sweaty malodorous strangers for many hours, with the low but nonetheless very real possibility of it all ending in screaming fiery death, but it's possible that you may stray into a check-in queue next to someone who someone else wants to make sure never gets on the plane in the first place, and get rubbed out in a hail of bullets instead.

When this happens at the airport in Rome to a group of passengers about to board a flight to Tel Aviv, it sets a whole series of balls rolling. Firstly, the CIA, who organised the whole thing as an operation designed to take out some Israelis who were on their way to do a bit of the old murdering of their own, of some Palestinians involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, conduct a lengthy investigation. The reasons why the CIA would want to intervene in such an activity are obscure and tortuous but basically involve oil and America's access to it; the reasons they do the in-depth post mortem is that there was a bit more of the old mortem than they'd envisaged, several random civilians regrettably having been ventilated as well. The other problem is that despite all the hot lead flying around the assassins only managed to take out two of the three suspects; the third, Hannah Stern, managed to escape.

Hannah is strictly an amateur at this sort of thing but has the address of a man who is very much a professional: Nicholai Hel, the world's greatest and deadliest assassin, a man who can kill you in a dozen different ways with a dozen different seemingly innocuous household items - a playing card, a paper clip, a fried egg, you name it. He is, if you will, a Hel of a guy. Hel also just happens to have been a friend of Hannah's uncle, Asa Stern, and she hopes that she can use this as leverage to persuade him to intervene to help her. The trouble is, Hel is basically retired these days, having made enough money killing the president of Paraguay with a fork to be able to afford a few nice houses, including the mansion in the French Basque country where he passes most of his time with his exotic Oriental girlfriend, Hana, occupying himself tending his garden, perfecting his go technique, exploring the extensive local cave systems and having eye-wateringly athletic tantric sex. 

But how, you may or may not be asking at this point, did Nicholai Hel become the man he is today? Anyone not asking that question, and perhaps just wanting the plot to crack on in an orthodox thriller-y fashion, is going to be a bit frustrated for the next couple of hundred pages, as we now get an in-depth back-story describing Hel's early years. And they are interesting and unusual: offspring of a Russian mother and Prussian father, both vaguely aristocratic, early years spent in Shanghai, fluent in Chinese, English, Russian, French, taken into the care of a Japanese general after the fall of Shangai and raised for the next few years in Japan (thereby adding Japanese to the language list), where he learned the rudiments of go and eventually became a master player.

After the Second World War Hel makes his killing debut in slightly odd circumstances: learning of his old mentor General Kishikawa's imprisonment he visits him and agrees to preserve the old man's honour and fulfil his debt to him by giving him the old judo chop instant death treatment under the noses of his captors. During his subsequent imprisonment he hones his physical fitness and unarmed combat skills and keeps his language skills sharp by talking to himself in multiple languages and learning Basque from some books that happen to be lying around. Eventually the CIA take an interest in Hel's unique abilities, suggest a deal whereby he does a bit of killing for them in exchange for his freedom, and his career is off and running.

Back to the present day, then, and once Hel has emerged from the complex bit of cave exploration he and his caving companion, bluff beardy Basque poet Le Cagot, have been busy with he hears what Hannah has come to say, and soon realises that there is really no decision to make, as the trail that Hannah will have left will be enough for the CIA, or rather the mysterious organisation called the Mother Company that oversees their activities, to pinpoint her destination and identify him.

Sure enough Hel's local Basque informer network soon lights up with news of strangers in the village. Rather than get into a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, Hel siezes the initiative by inviting them to dinner and seeing what they want, which basically boils down to: leave the Palestinians alone to do their thing, whatever it is, and your various retirement assets will be left alone, bar a small token punishment for inconveniencing the Mother Company. Also, nice house and girlfriend you have here, shame if they were to, you know, CATCH FIRE or something. 

Dinner is over, the goons leave, and Hel is considering accepting these terms, but then the Americans, in a bid to exert further persuasion, clumsily murder Hannah Stern, and Hel decides that the only way to proceed with honour is to get freakin' MEDIAEVAL ON THEIR ASS. So with the help of his old friend The Gnome, acquirer of spicy blackmail material and other negotiable items, Hel heads for London, cooks up an arrangement with the British Secret Service, and finishes the job that Hannah wanted him to do by rubbing out the Palestinians. 

But the Americans are bound to find out, and Hannah's death suggests that there's a rat in Hel's local informer network. And sure enough while Hel and Le Cagot are up in the mountains exploring a new cave, they return, cut Le Cagot's rope so he falls to his death, and roll some big rocks over the entrance to entomb Hel for ever.

Fortunately, during their previous explorations of the cave Hel and Le Cagot found what appeared to be a possible exit, via a sump occupied by a fast-flowing river. It's unclear whether a human could survive going through it without getting drowned and/or bashed to bits, but hey, whaddaya gonna do? It turns out that, as long as you're fairly slim and bendy, you can get through while only getting mostly drowned and bashed to bits, and Hel escapes, only to find that the Americans have also bombed his home, badly injured Hana, and, most unforgivably of all, mussed up the carefully-combed gravel in his Oriental garden.

So now comes the time for the this-time-it's-personal acts of revenge. Armed with The Gnome's choicest morsels (some papers relating to the Kennedy assassination) Hel confronts the Mother Company and persuades them to hand over the individuals responsible so that he can deal with them personally. This done, he retreats to the still-standing bits of his Basque mansion with Hana to consider his future. The leverage he currently has won't hold forever, and eventually they will come for him again, with more mess and danger and killing and the like. If the overall game cannot be won, how should one exit from the endgame with honour and dignity, at a time and in a manner of your choosing?

Trevanian (spoiler alert: not his real name) is best known for his 1972 debut novel The Eiger Sanction, made into a fairly so-so Clint Eastwood film in 1975. Interestingly it too revolves around a professional assassin persuaded reluctantly out of retirement for One Last Job - the other crucial thing about the book (bulldozed somewhat for the film version) is that it was meant as a spoof of the James Bond-style action hero thriller genre. The best way to look at Shibumi is as a similar sort of thing, maybe not a spoof exactly, but an exercise in knowingly testing what the boundaries of the genre will stand. Well, that's all very cute, you might say, but it's really a way of having your cake and eating it, isn't it - writing what basically amounts to a thriller, albeit an unusual one, and then loftily proclaiming your disdain for the whole genre while watching the dollars roll in from the paperback sales. 

Perhaps it's best just to enjoy the book on what appear to be its own terms, an exciting, highly idiosyncratic adventure story with an intriguing protagonist whose back-story is given an unusual amount of attention and depth. Some of this is just an excuse for Trevanian to indulge in writing at some length about subjects that clearly interest him: go and Japanese culture, the Basque region and its people and language, caving and rock-climbing.

The parts of the novel concerned with the fall of Shanghai and the subsequent Japanese occupation are highly reminiscent of Empire Of The Sun, while the two lengthy episodes inside the cave system are reminiscent of the thrilling escape sequence in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, though shorn of all the supernatural elements, and also Richard Church's classic children's book The Cave, which I see I mentioned here

Anyway, if you like a thrilling adventure story, but are a bit jaded with the standard stuff, and want something a bit more quirky and aware of its own inherent absurdity, then this will probably do you quite nicely. 

Monday, June 03, 2024

the second-last book I read

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd.

Nicholas Dyer is an architect, currently engaged in the building of several churches in central London. He is highly regarded, including by Sir Christoper Wren to whom he started his career as a sort of apprentice before getting commissions for work in his own right, and who still acts as a sort of mentor to him.

Dyer and Wren have a relationship clearly built on mutual affection and professional respect, but one with some friction caused by their different characters and worldviews - Wren is the arch-rationalist, as interested in the internal workings of the human body as he is in the physical laws that prevent church towers from falling down. Dyer, on the other hand, appears to be an adherent of some odd esoteric occult philosophy that he was initiated into by his childhood mentor, Mirabilis.

No harm in a bit of the old occult mumbo-jumbo, though, right? Or at least no more harm than in the standard default Christian mumbo-jumbo, anyway. Weeeeell, there is this thing that Dyer seems to require as part of the foundation-laying ceremony of each of his buildings - not throwing in the usual stuff like a few coins, but the freshly-murdered corpse of a human being - murders carried out, moreover, by Dyer's own hand. 

Now we do a wibbly-wobbly dissolve to the present day and Nicholas Hawksmoor, a maverick London cop, who doesn't play by the book, but, dammit, he gets results. Well, actually results have been in short supply of late, particularly in the current case which involves a series of murders whose victims keep turning up, mysteriously strangled, in the vicinity of a series of early-eighteenth-century churches. But why? And how?

You're not an idiot, so you don't need me to spell out that there are Rum Goings-On afoot here with the past echoing in the present, and indeed the present apparently echoing in the past as well. It's probably impossible to get a clear feel for what's going on without knowing at least some of the historical background that underlies the story being told here: Nicholas Hawksmoor was indeed an architect and acolyte of Sir Christopher Wren, and did indeed design and oversee the building of several churches in central London, most of which are mentioned here, although the church of Little St. Hugh where the past and present stories come together and time apparently collapses in on itself at the end of the book in some mysterious way is fictional.

So there are obviously quite a few questions to be asked here: what is the nature of the linkage between Dyer's murders and the present-day ones? What's going on with the half-formed and half-expressed idea that the churches form some sort of pentagram or other occult figure when drawn on a map? What is the significance of the authorial decision to have the modern-day detective carry the actual name of the historical figure, rather than the character who resembles him in just about every other way? And what of the shadowy figure also called Hawksmoor who haunts the periphery of the eighteenth-century part of the story and seems to harbour some ill-will towards Dyer?

I mean, I have some thoughts, but I should make it clear at this point that I have definitive answers to none of these questions; whether you enjoy the book or not probably depends on whether that matters to you more than just luxuriating in the chewiness of the prose. The eighteenth-century stuff with its Capitalisation of Nouns is a particular delight.

The general themes of history repeating itself and the past and present influencing each other in mysterious and slightly spooky ways is also a theme in Chatterton, the only other Ackroyd I've read. Hawksmoor is probably slightly denser and gnarlier, and Chatterton is probably a more purely enjoyable read, but both are excellent and twisty and thought-provoking.

Hawksmoor, Ackroyd's third novel (Chatterton was his fourth), won two of the major British fiction prizes on its publication in 1985 - the Guardian Fiction Prize (other featurees here are 1972, 1984 and 1987) and the Whitbread Novel Award (a recent-ish list is here).

Monday, May 20, 2024

a world in a grain of xand

Another men's golf major, two more additions to the list of record low rounds. You'll recall that that number has stood at 62 since 2017, and the list has now, as of the completion of the 2024 PGA Championship, expanded to five entries. Xander Schauffele's round on the first day at Valhalla is the more significant of the two as it provides the first example of a round of 62 leading to a victory, and also the first example of a golfer shooting the new(ish) record low score twice. You'll recall that Greg Norman and Vijay Singh were the only double-featurees on the old list. 

Branden GraceOpen2017thirdtied 6thJordan Spieth
Rickie FowlerUS Open2023firsttied 5thWyndham Clark
Xander SchauffeleUS Open2023firsttied 10thWyndham Clark
Xander SchauffeleUSPGA2024firstWONXander Schauffele
Shane LowryUSPGA2024thirdtied 6thXander Schauffele

Two further related topics: firstly I can't hear Xander Schauffele's name without mentally singing "every day I'm Schauffele" in the style of "every day I'm shufflin'" from LMFAO's 2011 dance-floor banger Party Rock Anthem.

Secondly I was struck by the oddity of Schauffele winning the PGA after Scottie Scheffler had won the Masters; in particular that the name of the winner of the second major of the year contained 88.9% (i.e. eight out of nine) of the letters in the name of the winner of the first major of the year (only the "r" is missing). But is this a record? Well, no, or at least not if you allow for the trivial case of the first two majors of the year being won by the same person (and therefore the rating being 100%). That's rare, but has been done a handful of times, most recently by Jordan Spieth in 2015. 

A wander through the archives will convince you that there have been years where the rating has been zero (i.e. no letters were shared) - Floyd and Pate in 1976, Faldo and Irwin in 1990, Immelman and Woods in 2008, Willett and Johnson in 2016 for example. In other years the numbers bounce around somewhere in between. More than 50% seems rare - for instance Phil Mickelson in 2010 shares 55.6% of the letters in his surname with Graeme McDowell, but if you look at the following few years you get 30% in 2011 (Schwartzel/McIlroy), 50% in 2012 (Watson/Simpson), 40% in 2013 (Scott/Rose) and 16.7% in 2014 (Watson/Kaymer). 

I'm going to conclude that the Scheffler/Schauffele sharing ratio is a record, without checking exhaustively, because it seems almost impossible that it isn't, and I can't be arsed to do the legwork. I haven't looked, and am not going to, at the equivalent comparison between second and third majors of the year, but if the upcoming US Open is won by newcomer Rendax Easelchuff I imagine that would also set a record. 

Sunday, May 05, 2024

the last book I read

East Is East
by TC Boyle.

Hiro Tanaka has a bit of a problem. And his problem is this: he's currently plummeting from the deck of a cargo ship towards the Atlantic Ocean. It should be emphasised that this is a self-inflicted problem, as he chose to jump - the ship is currently close(ish) to the American east coast (specifically Georgia) and Hiro has some slightly ill-thought-out ideas about making a better life for himself in the land of the free, but nevertheless he first has to do more immediate things like not drowning and heading in the right direction to reach land.

Fortunately Hiro's USA-dar is functioning correctly and he soon has the gamey tang of the east coast of Georgia in his nostrils. Before he makes landfall, though, he has a brief encounter with a boat, somewhat to the surprise of its two naked occupants, Ruth Dershowitz and Saxby Lights, who'd snuck offshore in Sax's boat for a bit of discreet al fresco boning. Ruth is an aspiring novelist, currently a resident at a writing retreat (run by Sax's mother) located on an island off the Georgia coast. This same island is where Hiro has eventually hauled himself ashore; after getting his breath back he is somewhat dismayed to discover that he's on an island with no way off except by boat, and therefore trapped unless he can enlist someone's help. 

His first couple of attempts at enlisting help don't go very well - he startles islander Olmstead White into burning down his own shack, and after being taken in by a rich elderly (and slightly dotty) lady and fed and clothed, on the mistaken assumption he is Seiji Ozawa, he has another chance encounter with the same guy and has to make a speedy exit. Reduced once again to skulking in the woods and scavenging for food, he eventually throws himself upon Ruth's mercy after an encounter at her writing shack. 

Ruth has a host of problems that taking on Hiro just adds to: Sax is great and all but occasionally a bit distracted by a mild obsession with his aquarium and acquiring exotic specimens to put in it, she is supposed to be producing some written output to justify her presence at the retreat and consumption of the lavish food and drink provided, and she's just learnt that her fellow writer, arch-rival and apparent megabitch Jane Shine will be joining the retreat for a six-week residency. 

Eventually Ruth's subterfuge is rumbled and Hiro is arrested, briefly - his own ingenuity and determination and the comical incompetence of the police result in him escaping, stowing away in the boot of a car and being driven away to freedom, Well, sort of freedom - he is eventually released from the boot of the car only to find that it's Sax's car and he's still in the vicinity of the Georgia coast, where Sax has come to escape all the hoopla around Ruth and for a bit of quiet fish-gathering for the old aquarium. Fat chance of that, as it happens, as Hiro flees into the swamp with the police in hot pursuit and also quite keen to probe how much Sax knows about his escape rather than letting him go off and swan about with a fishing net. They also want Sax and, in particular, Ruth's help to persuade Hiro to give himself up, Ruth being about the only American person he knows and trusts.

So Ruth helps to retrieve a sick and semi-conscious Hiro from the swamp and visits him in hospital, having seemingly accrued some scarcely-deserved journalistic kudos from the whole episode. Hiro, by contrast, has seen his dreams of making a better life in America crushed, and asks himself, what's the point of having a life if it's not the life I imagined?

Some of Hiro's problems, particularly at the end of the novel, derive from his devotion to the works and associated worldview of Yukio Mishima, a writer of interesting novels but a bit of a nutter and not really a healthy influence as a life guru. All of which results in an ending which is a bit of a downer and prompts a reaction of: oh - is that it?

That's not a general reflection on the book, which is generally very readable, as Boyle's books always are, although there is a bit of conflict between Hiro's story and Ruth's. Hiro's story is a rollicking adventure story with lots of incident while Ruth's is more of a pointed satire on writers and their assorted foibles and vanity. Both worthwhile subjects, but they rub along together slightly awkwardly - while we're in the company of the writers at the retreat (and I haven't done a page count but I suspect we spend more time here than with Hiro) we yearn for the more visceral stuff involving Hiro and his adventures, and while we're with Hiro we want to find out more about, for instance, where Ruth and Jane Shine's rivalry originated. There's some vague allusion to them having been at high school together but no more than that. 

Any novel set in south-east coastal America will draw comparison with Carl Hiaasen, most of whose novels are set in Florida and one, Skinny Dip, starts with the principal character falling off a boat into the sea, although she was pushed rather than jumping voluntarily. Calling your principal character Hiro is also reminiscent of Snow Crash, although Boyle stops short of anything quite as arch as Hiro Protagonist. 

Anyway, it's all very entertaining, though probably not as good as its immediate predecessor World's End, and certainly not as good as the later novels The Tortilla Curtain and Drop City. The latter remains my favourite Boyle of all.

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Anyone been wondering: what's that lanky guy out of The Verve been doing for the last 20-odd years? No, me neither, and to be honest you won't find out by reading this article on the BBC website which is basically just a promo piece for some upcoming solo gigs. What you will find, though, is that having avoided the stereotypical fiftysomething route of just getting really fat and bald, he's (we should give him a name: Richard Ashcroft) instead just got slightly more big-nosed and wrinkly while seemingly still retaining the leonine rock star mane - I say "seemingly" because he could of course be completely bald on top under the hat, indeed the whole hair could be one of those comedy hairpieces that's attached to the hat and lifts right off. 

Ashcroft and The Verve have parlayed quite a long and intermittently successful career of the back of maybe two years in the late 1990s when they coincided with the Zeitgeist, basically around the time of their third album Urban Hymns. In hindsight a lot of it sounds a bit one-paced and dreary these days - Sonnet would probably be the one to hang on to. 

Anyway, Ashcroft resembles no-one these days so much as 70s and 80s cannabis-smuggler, Welshman and late-90s celeb (surfing the same vaguely Loaded-esque ladsy Zeitgeist as Ashcroft) Howard Marks. You can make up your own The Drugs Don't Work jokes if you like. 

Friday, May 03, 2024

red is green and green is read, I've got this film stuck in my head

You might recall my doomed attempts to remember some identifying details about some long-ago and dimly-remembered TV advertising tag lines (details like what product they were actually advertising, for instance), and also this plea for assistance with some details of a half-remembered comedy sketch from the 1980s/1990s.

I also put up a request for assistance in placing a film based on an equally vaguely-recalled single scene which had stuck in my mind for some reason, presumably after seeing it, or part of it, on TV a very long time ago:
Well, I came across the tweet above earlier by means of some search I can't remember the purpose of now, other than that locating this particular tweet wasn't it, and was inspired to have another go at solving the mystery. I'm not sure whether my Googling keyword selection skills have improved since last time, or if the page I found didn't exist when I did the original search, but whatever the reason I'm pleased to be able to say that I have located the film in question, and it's called Battle Beneath The Earth, a fairly absurd-looking science-fiction thriller from 1967. I mean, some of the details I'd recalled above were pretty clearly wrong - it wasn't set during World War II, the dastardly Oriental villains were Chinese, not Japanese, and I'd remembered the hypno-brainwashing mantra slightly wrong - instead of this:
the new sun rises in the east; the west is dead
it's this:
red is green and green is red, the east sun rise(s) and the west is dead
But, you know, pretty close - crucially, close enough that using "the west is dead" as a search string and excluding the word "witch" from the results to get rid of all the Wizard Of Oz stuff reveals the existence of this page which contains both the quote (slightly misquoted, to my hearing of the original anyway, but good enough) and the title of the film. 

Pleasingly, I was able to validate that this really was the film I remembered by looking for the specific scene on YouTube, which has the full movie, for anyone interested in camp 1960s vaguely-racist paranoia. The specific brainwashing scene I'd sort-of-remembered is here

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

feeling a bit pauly

The latest victim of The Curse of Electric Halibut's relentless campaign of senseless slaughter is Paul Auster, who died yesterday aged 77. I try (albeit with occasional lapses) not to get into too much ghoulish speculation of the hand-rubbing WHO'S NEXT variety and therefore don't keep a list of who's got what possibly-terminal medical problem(s), but he'd apparently been suffering from lung cancer for a while

The book that brought Auster's life into peril was Invisible, back in April 2012, which makes it also the first new book I started after becoming a father (The Tax Inspector was the book I was in the middle of reading when Nia was born). The only other one of his I've read, The New York Trilogy (as the name suggests, originally published as three separate works), is probably the one most people would have you start with. If you're highly allergic to metafictional rug-pulls and general structural and stylistic tricksiness you might be best advised to give it a miss altogether, though. 

As recently as late 2020 the 12-year curse length would have qualified as the longest one ever, but a whole succession of slow-acting chickens have come home to roost since then, and Alison Lurie, John le Carré, Cormac McCarthy and current record-holder Milan Kundera have all met their demise after longer intervals. If you think about how the curse process works you'll realise that this (i.e. gradually longer intervals) is of course inevitable.

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 94 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
Cormac McCarthy 22nd September 2009 13th June 2023 89 13y 265d
Milan Kundera 27th March 2008 11th July 2023 94 15y 105d
Christopher Priest 6th January 2015 4th February 2024 80 9y 26d
Paul Auster 22nd April 2012 30th April 2024 77 12y 8d

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

here'th thumbthing interethting

You might recall, if you follow me on Twitter/X, and why in the name of God would you, that I have occasionally - as a twisted means of expressing my love for, and pride in, my kids, though in a typically British oblique and emotionally-repressed way - mentioned some of their fascinating genetic traits, all thankfully on the quirky and endearing side of the dividing line that separates them from the more extreme tentacly Lovecraftian horrors that must be DESTROYED WITH FIRE.

A couple of examples are below:

Another example follows: I'm not sure that we've applied a greater level of scrutiny to the boy in terms of his development after his early arrival and spending the first 91 days of his life in a series of gradually-larger plastic boxes with bleepy machines attached in hospital, but I suppose it's plausible that we might have. Anyway, one thing I've always noticed about Huwie is what I perceive to be his freakishly enormous thumbs. I have always taken this as an indication of future tallness as an adult once the rest of his anatomy catches up with his thumbs - as an aside, although he is currently slightly below average height for his age, the canonical example of teeny prematurity not being a bar to tallness and sporting prowess as an adult is recently-retired cricketer Stuart Broad, born at 28 weeks (Huwie was 27) but eventually a strapping 6 feet 5 inches.

However, it turns out that this may have been en error of perspective - I don't mean that I was accidentally holding the boy's thumbs really close, more that my expectations for appropriate child thumb size will have been influenced by my two daughters. And why not, you might say, except that Nia, who is generally curious about all things and now has a phone with access to the internet, ran into the kitchen the other day excitedly shouting "Dad, I've got toe thumbs!". Sorry, love, you've got what? "Alys has got them too!" Hang on, what?

Well, it turns out that "toe thumbs" are actually a thing, that particular phrase being one of several common colloquial descriptions of a genetic trait more properly called brachydactyly type D. This is the most common form of brachydactyly, supposedly affecting around 2-3% of the population. To illustrate, here is a parade of thumbs:

So you can see that Huwie's thumbnails are almost circular or perhaps even elliptical, with the major axis oriented vertically, whereas Nia's are elliptical(ish) with the major axis oriented horizontally and Alys' thumbnails barely exist at all. We're not fully comparing apples with apples here because Alys (like me) is an inveterate nail-biter while Nia and Huwie are not. Nonetheless there is a stark contrast between Huwie's thumbs, which give a general impression of tapering elegantly, and the girls' thumbs which are squared-off and stubby. No suggestion of any other genetic consequences of having weird thumbs, thankfully, and the only practical consequence is that neither of the girls will be able to play the guitar in the style of Richie Havens

So if it's an inheritable genetic trait, Dave, you'll be saying, what do your thumbs look like?

My desk isn't broken, by the way; I had to stitch two images together (badly) owing to a need to have a hand to hold the camera with. It's hard to be objective about something that, after 50+ years of looking at them, implicitly defines my mental image of what a "normal" thumb looks like, but I'd say I occupy a centre ground between Huwie and the girls. My ellipses are definitely horizontal but there's a bit more nail (even allowing for their bitten state) than, say, Alys has. 

Just for completeness, Hazel's are below. She has pretty regular vertical ellipses, so I have to conclude that it's me who is the carrier of the genetic freakery here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Masters weekend has just been and gone, and as usual provided some memorable golf as well as a few memorable incidents. I mean, nothing as dramatic as last year with actual trees falling over and endangering lives (thankfully and slightly miraculously no-one was injured), but there was an interesting incident during first round leader Bryson DeChambeau's slightly more chaotic second round when he pushed his drive at the 13th and decided to take an unorthodox route to the green via the 14th fairway. It all worked out pretty well in the end but did require the removal of an obstruction - a large wooden sign. DeChambeau's taking this task into his own hands provided an image which reminded me of something else, specifically the crucifixion procession in Monty Python's Life Of Brian

Out of the clubhouse, line on the left, one scorecard each.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

the last book I read

The Boy Who Followed Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

Meet Tom Ripley. Well, actually, we don't need to do that as we've already met him three times. So here he is, kicking back in his country house, Belle Ombre, in Villeperce, a short drive from Paris, with his wife, Heloise, occasionally trousering a small profit from the sale of one of the fake paintings he has a hand in, but mainly living off his wife and her rich parents. 

While wandering into the village for a nightcap - a bonnet de nuit if you will - and some cigarettes, Tom attracts the attention - the attention if you will - of a teenage boy who also turns out to be American. He says his name is Billy and he's staying in the area doing a series of cash-in-hand gardening jobs, keeping it casual as he doesn't have a proper work permit.

Tom and Billy agree to meet again, but Tom, who keeps a keen eye on the newspapers, both French and American, soon realises that Billy is in fact Frank Pierson, the missing son of a wealthy New England family whose patriarch, John Pierson, recently died in slightly murky circumstances when his wheelchair - ahem - "somehow" rolled off a cliff near his home. Billy readily confesses not only to being Frank but also to the murder of his father by giving him a helping push. 

Nobody knows (well, apart from Tom) about the murder, though; Frank's family are just worried about him and keen to find him. Frank doesn't really want to be found just yet, though, and Tom decides to help him out by arranging to get him a fake passport so he can travel undetected. Once this arrives Tom and Frank head off to West Berlin. The idea here is that this will be further away from the obvious areas where the Pierson family and the private detective they've hired might look for Frank, but it nonetheless carries its own risks, as Frank is recognised and kidnapped by a gang who then make the inevitable ransom demand. The family agree to cough up the cash in exchange for Frank's safe release and entrust Tom with the job of handing it over. Tom isn't especially keen on just handing over a couple of million dollars, though, and after one botched handover where he is regrettably forced to kill one of the kidnappers by staving his head in with the corner of a briefcase he hatches his own plan to rescue Frank. 

This plan, for reasons that are never entirely clear, involves Tom dressing up in full drag and hanging out in a gay bar. Part of it is evidently to be able to observe the kidnappers' attendance at a rendezvous without being recognised, but sheesh, just wear a fake moustache and a hat or something. Anyway, Tom clocks the kidnappers, follows them and ends up scaring them off from the house where they're holed up, rescuing Frank and avoiding any necessity to hand over any of the money.

Tom persuades Frank that now might be a good time to check in with his family and eventually return home; no-one suspects him, all he has to do is keep shtum and he'll be fine. Unfortunately Frank is not quite as untroubled by guilt at killing other humans as Tom is, and is also troubled by unrequited love for a girl back home called Teresa. Tom agrees to come to New England with Frank to ease his transition back into family life and act as some sort of getting-away-with-murder mentor. Tom is showered with praise and gratitude by the family when his role in Frank's rescue becomes clear, but Frank himself is behaving strangely, especially when in the vicinity of the cliff area where John met his demise. Eventually, as Tom prepares to catch a flight home, Frank slips away and throws himself off the cliff to his death. Tom reflects ruefully on this as he makes his way back to Belle Ombre, but eventually concludes eh, whaddaya gonna do, and resumes his comfortable life with Heloise.

As with all the Ripley books (this is the fourth) it's useful to take stock at the end of the book and ask: OK, so who did old Tom actually kill this time? In this particular case, unless he offed someone during the chaotic kidnap rescue and I missed it, it was only the one, the guy he twatted in the noggin with the briefcase during the first botched rendezvous. So the interest has to be found elsewhere, and in this case it's the relationship between Tom and Frank which develops during their meanderings around Europe (mainly Berlin and Hamburg). You might ask why Tom is taking such an interest, and investing lots of his own time and expense for a trip with no particular purpose other than to delay Frank's eventual return to his family. As always there's more than a whiff of suppressed homoeroticism here (not so suppressed during Tom's supremely gay drag excursion to the bar to spy on the kidnappers); other motivations might include a fascination on Tom's part with someone he knows to have committed murder but who seems to feel pain and guilt about it, emotions which are wholly alien to Tom. Some of the obvious potential avenues of criminality are swerved - lots of potentially nickable ransom money passes through Tom's hands without him making any attempt to keep any of it, and while you can sense the thought cross his mind he resists the temptation of offing the Piersons' family friend Susie, the only person who seems to suspect Frank.

It's not really as good as the previous three novels, to be honest: the narrative isn't as taut, even with the kidnapping, which is strangely drama-free, especially the eventual rescue. To put it another way, for a novel that's nominally in the "crime" genre (usual caveats about the fluidity of genre boundaries apply), there's precious little actual crime going on, certainly by our protagonist, who spends most of the novel (one brief murder aside, but, hey, who's counting) in protective avuncular mentor mode. It's fascinating to spend time in Tom's company, nonetheless, and revel in the knowledge that whatever he does he's going to get away with it and be able to return to domestic bliss with Heloise and his wine cellar at the end. Well, that's been true of all four so far; the one remaining book in the series, Ripley Under Water, might end with his spectacular death in a hail of bullets for all I know. Watch this space.