Wednesday, January 24, 2024

the last book I read

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

West Germany, the late 1950s. Not such a bad place, though there are a few things brewing on the horizon, including the escalation of the Cold War resulting in the construction of the Berlin Wall. Michael Berg is just a regular fifteen-year-old, though, more concerned with those disturbing feelings, you know, down there than any wider geopolitical concerns. 

When he is struck down on the way home from school by an acute bout of sickness which turns out to be a precursor to an attack of hepatitis, he is helped by a gruff but compassionate thirtysomething woman from a nearby block of flats who helps him clean up and then sends him on his way. A bit later, having recovered, he decides to pay her a visit to thank her for her kindness, and finds himself having a mishap trying to help her get some coal out of the bunker attached to her apartment block, needing a bath and, well, you know, one thing leads to another and the next thing he knows he's getting FURIOUSLY TOWELLED OFF.

Michael and his lady friend, Hanna Schmitz, fall into a regular routine of him secretly visiting her, reading to her from various works of improving literature, them taking a bath together and then some furious bratwurst action. Hanna works as a tram conductor and is a fairly taciturn character seemingly keen to retain some emotional distance between herself and Michael. But why? Just a naturally reserved nature? An acknowledgement of their age difference, and, implicitly, the borderline abusive nature of the relationship (for all that Michael is going WAHEEYYYY and climbing on with some gusto)? Or something else?

Eventually the growing conflict between Michael's school studies and friendships with people his own age and his relationship with Hanna starts to be a source of tension, and one day he calls round to find she has upped sticks and left without leaving any contact details. Michael mooches around glumly for a while but then moves on with his life, although with some emotional hang-ups that blight his future relationships with women. 

Some years later, as part of an assignment for his course at law school, Michael is tasked with observing the trial of some former Nazi concentration camp workers for war crimes. To his surprise, Hanna is one of the defendants. After it emerges that she had people assigned to her in Auschwitz to read to her, and behaves oddly when accused of writing a report relating to the burning of some civilians in a church, Michael belatedly realises the truth: Hanna is illiterate, and is prepared to go to prison rather than reveal her secret.

After a punitive prison sentence is handed down, Michael once again returns to his life. He marries and has a daughter but the relationship ends in divorce five years later - blighted, we are invited to infer, by some unresolved issues on Michael's side. Eventually he re-establishes contact with Hanna by recording some readings and sending them to her in prison. Some time later, he receives a painstakingly written reply - Hanna has made use of her ample free time inside to start to learn to read and write. Michael never writes back, but continues to send the tapes in and occasionally receives a note in return. Some years pass and eventually Michael is contacted by the prison governor - Hanna is up for parole, it is highly likely that it will be granted, and Michael seems to be the only person she knows in the outside world. Can he help find some accommodation and employment suitable for a woman who'd now be about sixty? Furthermore, can he come and visit before her release date?

Slightly reluctant to re-open an area of his life he'd closed off and put under lock and key, Michael nonetheless feels some responsibility for Hanna, and so he comes to visit. As you might expect, after eighteen years of confinement (we'd be in the early 1980s by now) Hanna isn't quite as he remembers her - a bit older and fatter, but then aren't we all? Michael and Hanna talk in a cautious way about the trial, and about her earlier life during the war, and Michael departs. A short time later, on the day of her release, Michael turns up at the prison only to be told that Hanna had hanged herself earlier that morning, clearly a premeditated action as she had made no attempt to pack or prepare for her release. Michael is charged with carrying out the wishes contained in her will, which basically amount to making some small redress for her actions during the war by distributing a small sum of money to the surviving victim of the church fire.

So, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, then. It's quite a subject, isn't it? And a challenge to address fully in every aspect in a 200-page novel, so most novels that concern themselves with it don't even try, instead either focusing on a very narrow sliver of specific personal experience, or approaching the subject very obliquely while telling a different story. The book on this list with the most similar subject matter is probably The Dark Room; other novels featuring World War II and the Holocaust in particular as themes include The Nature Of Blood, The History Of Love, Turbulence, Island Madness, Empire Of The Sun (World War II but Japan, not Germany) and Free Fall, and much more tangentially as a sub-topic in FiskadoroNot That Sort Of Girl, The Book Of Ebenezer Le Page, Sweet Caress, Shuttlecock, Spies, Restless, A Small Death In Lisbon, The Remains Of The Day, Marathon Man, The Ministry Of Fear and What's Bred In The Bone. The particular angle being explored in The Reader is the most painful one for post-war Germans: easy to condemn Hitler, Goering, Himmler and all the conveniently dead cartoon bad guys, but what to think about all the other Germans who lived through the war and didn't heroically sacrifice themselves in acts of resistance to the Nazi regime? Could it have been possible by a series of small incremental life choices to have drifted into a position where you suddenly step back, reflect, and say, Christ, I am an actual MASSIVE Nazi - how did that happen?

In Hanna's case her illiteracy seems to have been a partial cause in her drift into becoming a concentration camp guard and thereby responsible for the lives and deaths of many people: she accepted the job as an alternative to a promotion within the job she held at the time with Siemens as she felt that would be likely to require regular written communication and therefore risk exposing her. Does that exonerate her? Of course not. Does understanding her circumstances help? Yes, although it's less comfortable to think of the people perpetrating the crimes (and remember that the cartoon baddies delegated the actual shooting and gassing to the ordinary folks) as regular people like us, as that prompts the thought: well, what would I have done? That's a question to which we might not find an honest answer very palatable. 

Anyway, I enjoyed The Reader without finding it as devastating and insightful as some of the critics evidently did. Maybe having this particular topic as your novelistic subject matter gives you a bit of a free-of-charge critical leg-up in the same way that having it as a filmic theme gives you a boost when Oscars season rolls around. Just ask Kate Winslet, who as if to prove her own point, won the Best Actress Oscar in 2008 for portraying Hanna in the film version of The Reader.

The Reader was of course originally published in German; the list here tells me that its predecessors on this blog are The Piano Teacher and Auto-da-Fé. One interesting side-effect of the translation is a bit of loss of subtlety with the novel's title: "reader" can imply silent or out-loud reading in English, whereas the original German title Der Vorleser specifically implies the latter (Der Leser would imply the former). Once again German has a compound noun for every occasion. 

Monday, January 15, 2024

the last book I read

Love And Summer by William Trevor.

We're in Ireland, probably 1960s or thereabouts, in the little town of Rathmoye. All the usual caveats about small towns apply here - everyone's business highly visible to everyone else, and moral judgment swiftly and ruthlessly dispensed, especially with this being 1960s Ireland and the whole S-E-X thing being wholly off the table, both in terms of talking about it or, God forbid, actually doing it.

Those would certainly have been old Ma Connulty's views on the subject, not that we can ask her, what with it being her funeral. Her two children, now middle-aged themselves, are left to dispose of her assets and attend to the family business (running a hotel/B&B). Most of the town turns out to pay their respects, including Ellie Dillahan, a convent girl employed as housekeeper to a local farmer, a widower whom she subsequently married. Also in attendance is Orpen Wren, former retainer to an old aristocratic family who lived in a grand house on the outskirts of Rathmoye. The family have long since moved away and the house is derelict, but Orpen has a few kangaroos loose in his top paddock, still imagines himself to be in their employ and carries around a sheaf of papers for safekeeping in anticipation of their eventual return.

Also hovering round the fringes of the funeral is a stranger, on a push-bike and brandishing a camera. This turns out to be Florian Kilderry, son of a bohemian Irish-Italian couple, both of whom are now dead, leaving Florian the sole custodian of a rambling country house a short bike ride from Rathmoye. Florian has been rattling around the house for a while, hanging out with his dog, mooning around wistfully remembering glorious summer days in the company of his gorgeous Italian cousin Isabella, whom he clearly remains hopelessly in love with, but is slowly coming to the realisation that he needs to snap out of it, get a grip, sell the house, which is in need of extensive renovation and clearly impractically huge for one person, and move somewhere else, probably England. 

Florian and Ellie strike up a conversation on one of her periodic trips into Rathmoye - her husband Dillahan preferring not to venture into town often as he fears gossip after the death of his first wife and child in a farming accident that was partly his fault. This all proceeds innocently enough at first but they are soon arranging secret meetings in one of the ruined houses outside the town. Ma Connulty's daughter, who does have a name but is pretty universally known as Miss Connulty, has noticed the change in Ellie's behaviour patterns, her Unsuitable Men radar especially sensitive after a similar brush with trouble in her own youth (and a clandestine trip to Dublin for a back-street abortion). 

Ellie imagines herself to be in love with Florian, his talkativeness and interest in her a refreshing change from her kind but taciturn husband, prone to haunted silences when his thoughts turn to his first wife. Florian seems to be taking a more measured attitude to the whole thing, recognising that Ellie is taking all this more seriously than he is, and that realistically their tentative relationship isn't going to survive him selling up and leaving. Eventually a firm date for the new owners to move in and for Florian to leave Rathmoye is agreed upon - will Ellie's increasing desperation induce her to some sort of indiscretion that will prompt more than the vague murmurings that have been heard in Rathmoye so far? Will Miss Connulty be able to intervene and bring Ellie back down to earth? Will Orpen Wren's slender grip on reality make him say the wrong thing to the wrong person and inadvertently reveal something? 

Well, you can see any number of ways in which this might end, especially if the answer to some of the above questions is "yes" - Ellie attempting to run away to England with Florian, Dillahan finding out and coming after Florian with a shotgun, Florian being racked with guilt and throwing himself off the roof, that sort of thing. Nothing as lurid as that happens, though - Florian heads off to England and Ellie returns to Dillahan and the farm and the status quo is broadly restored.

Some previous William Trevor books - certainly the two I've read, The Children Of Dynmouth and Felicia's Journey - have had an undertone of something slightly weird and troubling going on in the background. Nothing like that here - in fact I would agree with Sebastian Barry's assessment of Love And Summer as "fabulously benign", without intending it as quite as much of a compliment as Barry does. There's an interesting and salutary contrast with this book's predecessor on this list, Ancillary Justice, here - if you're not going to write a thrilling story of space warfare and treachery, and instead choose to write a book where precious little happens (even between Ellie and Florian - by the third or fourth episode of chaste hand-holding in a flowery field the impatient reader is tempted to get a bit JUST FUCK ALREADY) you have to hold the reader's attention in other ways, in particular by acute observation of how people are; how they act and interact with each other, what they say, and, equally importantly, what they don't say. Trevor is masterful at this and there's plenty of it here, though the edge of tartness, the salt in the caramel if you will, in the other books mentioned above probably makes them a more rounded and satisfying read.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

let me show you my BOTY

Last of the book-related housekeeping for 2023 - I'd forgotten that I'd introduced the idea of doing a sort of loose Books Of The Year thing back in March; that post retrospectively collected all the years up to and including 2022. I had suggested doing it every January for the previous year's collection of books, without, cleverly, actually definitely committing to anything. Well, here I am doing it; these are my nominations for 2023. As before, the Comment text is lifted verbatim from the linked review as a sort of amuse-bouche, if you will.

Year Author Title Comment
2023 William Gibson Count Zero his brain is wired to explode, his hair has the plague, his entire leg is a missile, etc.
Tarjei Vesaas The Ice Palace her semi-frozen corpse should slurp out of the ice and spoil someone's picnic
Colson Whitehead The Underground Railroad Well, North Carolina will be pretty much like South Carolina, right? Only, you know, further north and all

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

the last book I read

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

Breq is on Nilt. That sounds like a diet supplement involving two delicious milkshakes per day, or a product that can supposedly reverse the effects of male pattern baldness, but it is in fact a planet. And a pretty cold and inhospitable place it is too - inhospitable not just in terms of the dark and chilly climate, but also the natives, who are a bit, well, inhospitable, especially to mysterious strangers. 

Breq is there for a very specific reason, but has to do some basic stuff first like finding somewhere to stay and some stuff to eat, and it's in the course of doing this that she trips over a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street. So what, you might be saying, just shrug and move on, like I do whenever I encounter a naked dead body face down in the snow in the street, but Breq has noticed that, by an extraordinary (to say the least) coincidence, this person is known to her, and so she feels obliged to do something, especially when it turns out that the supposed dead body is in fact Only Mostly Dead

So here's where we back the old spaceship up, turn it around a bit, and get some exposition in. The way this works here is that alternate chapters describe Breq's adventures on Nilt, and then the interwoven chapters describe a series of events which took place about twenty years earlier, on a different planet, Shis'urna, when the current single human entity known as Breq was an AI in charge of a vast starship, Justice of Toren, and an army of ancillaries. These are humans, captured and stored in suspended animation after one of the dominant civilisation's frequent annexations of whole planets, which are made use of as sentient drones when required by hoicking them out of their vat of preservative goop and downloading the ship's AI consciousness into them, in the process unceremoniously yeeting whatever consciousness was previously occupying the physical substrate. 

There are some complex political machinations going on on Shis'urna but the outcome of all of it is a massacre of some of the natives at the behest of the visiting Lord of the Radch, head honcho of the dominant civilisation. Some of this massacring is done by some of Justice of Toren's ancillaries, these guys having the great advantage (as far as the higher powers are concerned) of obeying orders immediately and unquestioningly, even when those orders are a bit on the genocide-y side. The Lord of the Radch, whose name is Anaander Mianaai (it's not clear whether Anaander is a given name or a title, but it doesn't really matter) later appears on board Justice of Toren, and after a series of odd events and a few more deaths engineers the total explodey destruction of the ship, with only a single ancillary surviving by launching an escape pod in the nick of time.

And so we're sort of back up to date - just to join the dots for you, in case you're not keeping up, the single ancillary, formerly known as Justice of Toren One Esk, is Breq, now the sole vessel for the ship's entire AI consciousness but with some all-too-human quirks, such as a love for music - a bit of retained consciousness or brain wiring from the original occupant of the body? - who knows? Breq and the now-revived corpse, who turns out to be a Radch officer called Seivarden, who briefly served on Justice of Toren many centuries before, find their way off Nilt after a series of adventures and head for the Radch galactic HQ to confront Anaander Mianaai, and, in Breq's case, kill her with a special weapon whose acquisition was the reason for her being on Nilt in the first place.

There is a problem with just turning up and popping a cap in Anaander Mianaai's ass, though, quite apart from there being a whole crack team of security personnel whose sole job it is to prevent anyone from doing it, and it's this: many centuries before, Anaander Mianaai had her consciousness copied into a whole host of physical bodies, presumably at least partly to prevent exactly this sort of thing (i.e. being assassinated) from happening. The problem is, as Breq herself is discovering, consciousnesses loaded into physical bodies and then left to do their own thing diverge and develop their own ideas about things, and some of the unexplained events that have been happening (including Justice of Toren's destruction) are as a result of Anaander Mianaai essentially being at war with multiple other versions of herself.

Nonetheless Breq (disguised as a traveller from a faraway galaxy) and Seivarden rock up at Radch Central where Anaander Mianaai's main residence is and attempt to engineer a meeting. However, Anaander Mianaai didn't get where she is today without being pretty shrewd, and thanks to her own army of AIs is able to determine that the newcomer isn't who she says she is, and is therefore able to be prepared when Breq makes her move. There is a limit to how prepared she can be though, and so there is a climactic shootout and spaceship battle, at the end of which it appears that most of the properly deranged Anaander Mianaais have been rubbed out and an uneasy truce prevails.

Ancillary Justice was Ann Leckie's first novel, published in 2013 and garlanded with just about all the major science fiction awards in that year and 2014. The most significant ones were (as always, my list indicates the ones I've read; links are to reviews on this blog):

Before I say anything else I will say that I enjoyed it very much and was entertained throughout. Breq is an appealing central character with some easily-graspable motivation to put right a wrong that was done - whether any of the actions she ends up taking go any way to achieving this is a moot point, but that was no doubt intentional. The moral and philosophical questions raised by the whole concept of ancillaries are interesting, and presented without bashing the reader over the head with them or getting into a tedious blizzard of exposition. 

A few quibbles, though: the early chapters set on Shis'urna are a bit slow compared with the excitement going on in the other story strand and the reader is inclined to skim through them to get back to the exciting stuff. It's also not completely clear what was so special about the gun that Breq acquired on Nilt, or at least what was special enough to make it worth a risky expedition to an icy planet. And the ending is a bit unsatisfactory; something that makes more sense when you realise that Ancillary Justice is the first book in a trilogy (its successors being called Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy), and some plot strands had to be left dangling for the sequels to pick up on. The business of using she/her pronouns for everyone regardless of their biological sex (a concept we are invited to infer does still exist) is an interesting one but you do get a bit YES YES ALL RIGHT I GET IT with it after a while. But why is it important to know what sex anyone is? Well, we can manage without, but it's just extra information, like knowing how big they are or how many limbs they've got. Whether Leckie thought it was an interesting device for doing a bit of a rug-pull and disorienting the reader or was trying to make some other point I couldn't say.

The main criticism, if it can be called a criticism, though, is that the whole thing had a strong whiff of Iain M Banks about it, without, I would say, being quite as good. Things like ships with near-omniscient (and occasionally quirky) AIs and near-immortality through constant body-swapping are well-worn Banks tropes (though by no means exclusive to him), the business with the Radch's uneasy truce with the hugely-advanced and largely incomprehensible Presger alien civilisation is reminiscent of some of the stuff in Excession, the quest for a powerful and possibly mythical weapon is familiar from the most recent Banks on this list, Against A Dark Background, and the device of having two stories - one in the "present", one in the past - take place in alternate chapters is familiar from Use Of Weapons, although here both strands do at least move forwards in time, thankfully. Even Breq's name partly echoes that of the principal female protagonist in Surface Detail; I think Banks might have drawn the line at having an alien species called the Rrrrrr, though. I mean, I get it, it's our best approximation with our puny human throats to their REAL name, but still.

Anyway, it was good but I'm probably not going to be rushing out to acquire the sequels; if I happen to see them going cheap in a second-hand bookshop then, well, maybe.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

will no-one rid me of this turbulent school

I was inspired by my mention of going to school in West Bridgford in the early 1980s to try and find the two schools I went to. We were only in the area for about eighteen months, and our collective recollection (and I'm leaning heavily on Emma's memory for some of this) is that our school attendance comprised the last two terms of the 1980/1981 school year and the entirety of the 1981/1982 one, which basically means that we moved up around Christmas 1980 and back in the summer of 1982. 

An odd side-note, similar to this (also school-related) one in how it illustrates the slipperiness of memory: I vividly recall being sat in front of one of those old tall TVs on a cart that schools used to have, at my primary school in Newbury, watching (bizarrely in hindsight) a cricket match, which I have mentally filed as being one of the early skirmishes of the 1981 Ashes series but which in fact must have been one of the matches against the West Indies from the previous year. I have equally vivid memories of watching some of the later Tests of the 1981 season in our house in Normanton-on-the-Wolds, which I'm provisionally prepared to accept are genuine, as they at least fit in with the known timeline of reality. The other possibility with the wheelie-TV school cricket anecdote is that it was the 1981 Ashes and I've mentally mis-located it geographically. I don't think so, though.

In fact, bollocks to it, I'm going to do a full list of all the schools I ever attended. Here we go:

  • Let's start right at the beginning with Victoria Park Nursery in Newbury - not a school in the strict sense but I would imagine some light learning stuff was probably done in addition to the finger-painting and napping. I mainly include it so that I can also include this tremendous photograph of me (second from right, possibly asleep), my friend Pippa (fifth child from left, in front of the bishop's right knee) and the Bishop of Reading, who I think at the time was a bloke called Eric Wild, although I can't be completely sure as the job changed hands during 1972, which was probably around the time the photo was taken. 

  • So then there was St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Primary School, also in Newbury. I'd have gone here during the 1974/1975 school year, just about all of it I think as we flew to Korea around July 1975.
  • While we were in Seoul (July 1975 to December 1976) I attended Seoul Foreign School, which I mainly recall being intimidatingly huge (to a five-year-old, anyway) and run mainly by Americans - presumably a legacy of the large military presence dating back to the Korean War and beyond, although that can't be the full story as it was apparently founded as long ago as 1912. It's on Google StreetView, as most things worldwide are, but I can't say I'm struck by an overwhelming sense of oh yeah, that place on looking at it.
  • Back to Newbury and St. Joseph's between the start of 1977 and about September 1978.
  • Then off to Java and Bandung International School (now apparently called Bandung Independent School and occupying a different physical location), which by contrast with Seoul Foreign School was an endearingly half-arsed educational facility whose teaching staff was largely drawn from the pool of expatriate wives (including my own mother for a while). 
  • Back yet again to St. Josephs, up to what I reckon (see above) to have been Christmas 1980 ...
  • ... when we moved to the Nottingham area and I started at St. Edmund Campion primary school, or St. Edmund Campion Catholic Voluntary Academy, as it is apparently now named in a not-at-all-sinister way. This would have comprised the last two terms of my last year at primary school, or Year 6 under the current naming/numbering scheme.
  • Next up is The Becket School, also in West Bridgford, where I attended for the whole of the first year (again, what would now be Year 7). More on this in a minute.
  • Finally, in 1982 we moved back to Newbury and I started at St. Bartholomew's, where I saw out the rest of my school career in relative tranquility after what I calculate to be eight new starts in about the same number of years.
Upon trying to find the two West Bridgford schools on the map I was quickly able to locate St. Edmund Campion, but as hard as I could squint at the location of the Becket on StreetView I couldn't make it tally with my memory. It turns out that that's because it relocated to an entirely new location in around 2010. That's all terrific, and the new buildings are very impressive (if featuring some terrifyingly Goddy exterior decor), but where was the old location? The school's own website is frustratingly vague on the subject and it was only finding this property feature in the Nottingham Post that led me to it. Locate Brewill Grove on the map, drop the StreetView man on the main road looking towards it, and wind the date back as far as it will go - that turns out to be 2008 in this case, but it's far enough - and there it is, just as I remember it. If you apply the same date to the StreetView view at the new site you can see the new school under construction. You can then wind the date gradually forward to see the progression from working school to closed and slightly overgrown school (and a bit of a target for urban explorers, it seems) to half-demolished school to new houses to not-quite-as-new houses with bigger hedges.

The other thing to note about the new-look Becket is that the names of the school houses have changed. In my day there were four: Augustine, Fisher, Gregory, More - I was in More which I'm pretty sure was green. I don't know how new pupils were allocated to houses - I'm pretty sure there was some sort of hat involved, or that may be another misplaced memory. Anyway, the new school has expanded this to six and, in keeping with the new school's exterior decor choices, has really upped the Goddiness factor in a big way by including several people (Edmund Campion among them, but also Nicholas Garlick and Robert Ludlam, clearly taking time out from writing The Bourne Identity) primarily famous for being martyred in spectacularly gruesome ways. 

I mean, I suspect what's actually happening here is that the Goddiness levels in both schools (which I would rate as High on an arbitrary scale that I've just invented) have remained roughly constant since I was there, but that it just didn't occur to me at the time to notice or question it in the same way it does now. St. Joseph's was fairly Goddy as well, St. Bart's less so, and the schools I went to abroad still less. 

Monday, January 08, 2024

cache for questions

Here's a map of a short walk we did with some friends when we went up to Leicestershire to visit them for New Year. We had, collectively, five kids with us, so a twenty-mile route march was out and in any case would have cut unacceptably into drinking time. We ended up performing a slightly complex set of manouevres involving a car in order to ensure that smaller people who didn't want to do the whole walk and might potentially get a bit whingy and risk PISSING ME OFF had an opt-out and in the end it was only three of us (me, Jim and Nia) who did the whole route (around five miles) on foot. 

No claim will be made by me here that this was the most exciting or challenging walk ever, therefore, but I offer it up nonetheless to illustrate that if you're interested in what goes on around you you can find quite a bit to interest and intrigue even on a short, low-level walk such as this.

Start and end point was at our friends' house in Stathern, which I have obfuscated the exact location of just in case anyone decides to go and burgle it. We then walked along the road towards the neighbouring village of Harby before heading north just after the old railway bridge and linking up with the towpath of a disused canal before making our way into Harby, where we had a couple of pints in the pub and then headed back via the more direct on-road route.

Some points of interest along the way: firstly the old railway bridge and the railway it used to carry. This was the slightly cumbersomely-named Great Northern and London and North Western Joint Railway which meandered its way around Leicestershire in a mainly north-south direction. Its main business was goods but there were passenger services (ending pre-Beeching in 1953), and there was a station serving both villages called, imaginatively, Harby and Stathern, whose approximate location is marked by the purple star on the map. As with any station designed to serve two communities, it was roughly equidistant from each and conveniently accessible from neither. 

As if that were not interesting enough, Nia reminded me to have a look at my geocaching app and see if there was anything in the vicinity. I discovered not only that there was, but that there was one right under the railway bridge - cue a lot of scrambling around until we eventually found it under a log by the side of the northern bridge abutment.

I see I've mentioned geocaching a few times on Twitter before but the only mention on this blog seems to be in this post from 2008 wherein I was a bit sniffy about it. Well, all I can say is that was pre-kids and it's a lot of fun hunting them out with the kids and gives them a little bit of extra impetus to agree to outdoor activities. The link earlier in this paragraph includes details of the app, of which there is a free version more than good enough to facilitate some entertaining hunting; give it a go. Top tip: take a pen with you as quite a lot of them have log books and only the really lavishly-appointed ones have an accompanying pen, still less one that works.

So then there's the canal - this is the old Grantham Canal which ran from, you've guessed it, Grantham, to West Bridgford on the southern outskirts of Nottingham (and where I went to school for a couple of years in the early 1980s - I mean, not in the canal specifically) where it joined the River Trent. It's pretty reedy and silty and overgrown these days though still just about recognisable as a waterway. 

Finally, once we'd squelched along the muddy towpath to Harby we called into the Nag's Head for a couple of reviving pints. They'd evidently done their research and knew we were coming, as they'd facilitated a nice home-from-home vibe by having Brains SA on tap, and very nice too. Needless to say we lingered a while longer then we'd originally planned, so when everyone else piled into the car to head home the remaining three of us had to stumble back along the road in the dark. Luckily the roadside verges were fairly wide and my phone flashlight was just about up to the job of helping us see where we were going and avoid getting killed by occasional speeding cars. While we're on the subject of pubs we also called into the Montero Lounge in Melton Mowbray on New Year's Day for lunch. 

Finally, my mention of Melton Mowbray there reminds me to remind you that if you're visiting the area you will be in the middle of both Melton Mowbray pork pie country and Stilton cheese country, so make sure you eat some. I'm not big on blue cheese but I did ensure I ate a pie while I was there. 

Sunday, January 07, 2024

reading, blogging and arithmetic

It's early January, so as well as reflecting on your New Year's resolutions, and how soon you can get away with discreetly abandoning them, it's time for the 2023 blog stats round-up, and some deep stattery relating to my book-reading habits in particular. 

One thing that I've been troubled by in recent years is that while the book-related posts are pretty much a given, as I have a pretty strict regime of doing a post-read review on every fiction book I read, the non-book-related posts have taken a dive lately. 2024 wasn't exactly a bonanza year for that stuff but did at least feature 36 non-book-related posts (weeeeell, strictly, 36 posts that weren't specifically reviews of a book I'd just read; some of them were almost certainly book-related) alongside the 23 book reviews. The book posts therefore comprised around 39% of the total, less than 2021 or 2022 and arresting an inexorable rise over the lifetime of this blog.

Focusing on the book stuff specifically, 2023 was almost exactly identical to 2022 - exactly the same number (23) of books read and a page count only 31 pages different. Longest book was The Overstory at 625 pages and shortest was its immediate successor The Ice Palace at 139. The average book length of 324 pages is actually quite high by historical standards; the only years with higher numbers were 2015, 2021 and the absurd statistical outlier, 2020, which I apparently spent reading a series of colossal doorstops. I guess never leaving the house that year freed me from the constraint of having to be able to physically carry my current book. 

Where was I? Oh yes, SEX. Sex sex sex. Well, it was only a furious last-minute thrust wherein three of the last four books were by female authors that brought 2023 to a thunderous climax and thereby up to parity with 2022, with six out of 23 books by women. At 26% that ratio just scrapes over the overall historical average of just under 25%.

Anyway, here's the usual set of graphs. 

Finally, this Washington Post article from this week contains the chart reproduced below which tells you where your book-reading habits put you among the general population. To be clear, this will be a sample cohort comprising American people, and I might make the assumption that Brits read more books on average, but I actually have no reason to think that's true. Anyway, my 23 books puts me between the 88th and 92nd percentile. And yes, the implication of the top line on the chart is that 46% of people completed zero books during the year.

Friday, January 05, 2024

four candles

I tell you what, the life of a tedious atheist is not an easy one, especially at Christmas. I know I don't complain much about it on here these days, but only because the weight of the world has crushed my spirit and, you know, what's the point of anything any more, really? Nonetheless there is a fine line to be walked between going WELL ACTUALLY every time anything vaguely religious is mentioned and nodding along in acquiescence to all of it, just for a quiet life. 

A good example is Christmas carol singing, which I quite like, not because I am filled with religious fervour at celebrating the birth of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, but because communal singing is quite a nice cultural tradition, especially when it's cold and dark outside. The difficulty here is that if you want to do it you will very probably have to put up with quite a bit of religious nonsense interwoven with the occasional carols, since in general even the Christmas Eve singing happens in the context of a religious service, albeit mercifully shorn of the really heavy-duty praying and sermonising.

We decided that it might be nice to take the kids along for a bit of a sing this year and so we decided to go to the afternoon carol service at a nearby church. This turned out to be St. Mark's, a short drive away, rather than St. John's just around the corner, purely owing to scheduling convenience. Both churches are affiliated with the Church in Wales, which is broadly the Welsh equivalent of the Church of England. St. John's does allude on its website to being "firmly in the Tractarian/Anglo-Catholic tradition"; fortunately I neither need nor desire to know what the fuck that means, nor how significant any of these minor doctrinal differences are.

Anyway, it was perfectly nice, and they stuck mostly to the well-known favourites in terms of the carol selection, though disappointingly didn't finish will the usual cathartic bellow through O Come All Ye Faithful. There wasn't a huge congregation, probably 60-80 people at most, and so I did encounter the slight catch-22 situation you can find yourself in here, particularly if your voice is on the low side compared to the rest of the singers: you can't really work out if you're singing in tune without singing loudly enough to hear yourself, by which time it's a bit late. In a larger crowd making a bigger noise you can do it more discreetly, or at least conclude that it doesn't matter because everyone else will be carrying the tune along.

There were a couple of readings and a bit of slightly protracted audience participation in terms of populating the stable/manger diorama thingy they'd set up at the front of the church. Some odd differences in scale aside (tiny cow, mahoosive sheep, etc.) they stuck to the traditional animal line-up, rather than the wildly variable cast of characters you see at school nativity plays - fish, scuba divers, spacemen etc. 

The only thing that was out of the ordinary was that after the main business of the service had concluded the congregation trooped over to the back of the church to participate in some bizarre voodoo ritual involving candles and oranges. Those of you who have been paying close attention to my Twitter feed over the years, or just generally know more about stuff than I do, will recognise this as a Christingle.

"A Christingle" is the correct usage, by the way, as the term refers to the object itself, which is, as you can see, just an orange with a candle stuck in it and four cocktail sticks skewering some marshmallows and raisins. 

The question you might usefully ask yourself here is: why does this tradition, apparently cooked up out of thin air by some guy in Germany (not, as you might have assumed, a guy called Chris Dingle) a couple of hundred years ago, seem so bizarre and the metaphors (the orange represents the world, the skewered sweets the four seasons, or possibly the four "corners" of the earth, etc.) so contrived, while the other stuff more central to Christianity's core belief system (the whole Nativity thing with the wise men bringing gifts, the resurrection, the subsequent water/wine business) is given, if not exactly a free pass, some nodding respect even by non-adherents? Any claim that the latter is different because it's based on stuff that actually happened is dubious at best, so you have to conclude that it's mainly about age. Two hundred years is not enough for bizarre shit to fossilise into unquestioned tradition, so I guess the Christingle thing is still in what I like to call the Scientology Zone

Anyway, the kids had a nice enough time without coming away filled with religious conviction. Nia is old enough to find the religion thing quite interesting, from a cultural/anthropological perspective, and we did have a conversation on the way home wherein I explained my theory of religion's persistent cultural "stickiness"; basically that it's useful for a community to have shared "stories" to help identify each other, and it's actually more useful for these to be fictitious than for them to be true. More on this here, mainly in the paragraph featuring the Captain Cavemen image, if you want to skip past all the stuff about Noel Edmonds. 

Overall it was quite nice, my squirmy discomfort with some of the more nonsensical elements aside, like being expected to intone a solemn "Amen" at the end of some craven pleadings to a potentially vengeful deity. I was, as I always am, conscious while singing of the absurdity of some of the lyrics - I definitely got a sideways look from Nia at "offspring of a virgin's womb" during Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and another one at "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see" a few moments later, at which I was presented with a mental image of Jesus wearing Lady Gaga's meat dress from the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards.

Finally, that BBC link contains the following paragraph, inadvertently revealing of the charming innocence of the showbiz reporter in the face of smutty innuendo:
Slashed to the thigh, and featuring a cowl neck, the dress came with matching beefy boots, hat and meat clutch. "I never thought I'd be asking Cher to hold my meat purse," said Gaga as she picked up her award for the Bad Romance video – perhaps unaware that Cher doesn't eat meat.