Friday, May 30, 2014

paris in the the spring

We've been on a couple of trips lately that have generated some photos, so this is mainly just somewhere to hang the links from. A few explanatory notes, though:
  • Hazel and I went to Paris on the Eurostar at the beginning of May, a quick 48-hour jaunt organised (and, more importantly, paid for) by Utility Warehouse, who Hazel does some work as a distributor for in addition to her photography activities. I can't give you the promotional spiel for UW, but if you want to have a look at what they have to offer, start here. Anyway, the point is we got a free trip to Paris out of it, staying at the very nice Hyatt Regency Paris Étoile out at Porte Maillot on the north-eastern corner of the Bois de Boulogne. Not much time to do anything out of the ordinary run of touristy stuff, but we did take a twilight river cruise on the Bateaux-Mouches on Friday night, and took advantage of a glorious sunny day on the Saturday to do a walking tour of Paris, starting at the Eiffel Tower and heading out to Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur. Photos can be found here
  • A couple of weeks later we went off on a family trip (i.e. with Nia this time) to Bluestone in Pembrokeshire. This is a self-contained family holiday village complete with shops, pub (featuring excellent Doom Bar), swimming pool and various sporting activities. The best description I can give you is that it's a little bit like a cross between CenterParcs and The Prisoner, but without all that unpleasantness with the giant beach balls if one should stray beyond the boundaries of the complex. We verified this by venturing out a couple of times, once to cycle around Canaston Woods and once to go to the seaside at Freshwater East, which is lovely and - largely because it's not right next to a town with shops and toilets and amusement arcades and the like - very quiet. We also called into Tenby on the way back home, which is much more in the stereotypical British seaside town vein, but still very nice, and features the Pembrokeshire Pasty & Pie Co.'s excellent shop just a couple of minutes' walk from the beach. Photos can be found here.

filamentary, my dear Watts on

More exciting developments with the kitchen lighting, so I hope you've got your Bulbsplosion Bingo cards handy. First to expire was bulb number 12, one of the surviving 40W incandescent bulbs of indeterminate age (but given the general instability it's probably a few months at most), which gave out on May 24th. No pence per day calculation for this one, for obvious reasons.

Then, on May 27th, two more - firstly bulb number 7, another of the valiant surviving incandescent 40W brigade.

Also, bulb number 1, the first of the 28W halogen bulbs to expire. This one clocked up 28 days, which at an initial cost of £4.28 works out at an eye-watering 15.3p per day.

You'll notice that I'm lagging behind a bit on replacing the blown bulbs. I should get on and do this as I may as well use up the remaining ones in the cupboard, plus it'll also make it easier to track which ones go phut. I'm not intending to purchase any more until I've got some more conclusive evidence of which ones I should be buying. I suspect it'll end up being the LED ones, but I don't want to jump the gun. It's also important to be self-aware enough to recognise my natural inclination towards believing it's the IKEA bulbs that are the best, just because a bulb-buying trip to IKEA will also afford me the opportunity to stock up on meatballs and bizarre fish products.

Monday, May 19, 2014

the last book I read

The Blood Doctor by Barbara Vine.

Martin Nanther is a writer and, as Lord Nanther, a hereditary peer entitled to sit in the House of Lords. This right derives from his inheriting the peerage bestowed on his great-grandfather Henry Nanther by Queen Victoria - Henry Nanther having served as one of the Queen's senior physicians for many years.

Martin plans to write a biography of his great-grandfather, his interest having been piqued by some old documents which came into his possession after his mother's death which reveal some interesting titbits from Henry's personal life: he kept a mistress in London for many years, and married his wife Edith only after having previously been engaged to her younger sister Eleanor, that engagement ending when Eleanor was brutally murdered and her body thrown from a train.

Henry's medical speciality was diseases of the blood, and so he was invited to be Queen Victoria's resident expert on the so-called "royal disease" of haemophilia, from which her son Leopold suffered and of which her daughter Alice was a known carrier, Alice being responsible for infecting the Russian royal family as well.

Martin's suspicions are aroused when he starts researching his family tree for the biography, since several branches of it seem to feature sons who died very young, including Henry's own son George. This has a particular resonance for Martin as he and his second wife Jude are trying to conceive a child, but Jude has suffered a series of traumatic miscarriages. Is there some similar "bad blood" in the Nanther line?

Martin's family research leads him to various family members he had never even known existed, and to Switzerland, where pioneering studies of haemophilia were done in various isolated mountain communities, and where Henry was known to have been on several walking holidays in the mid-19th century. Is there a link between this and the mysterious early deaths of some of the male Nanthers? And who killed Eleanor? Was Henry involved? And if so, why?

You'll recall from the other Vine in this list that there are various themes that run through a lot of the books, and many of them are present here - the events that form the book's central puzzle (there is no "crime" in any meaningful legal sense) are over 100 years in the past and have to be uncovered by careful research involving lots of poring through letters and diaries, and there's a bit of homosexual subtext in that it's suggested Henry chose to do the things he's eventually revealed to have done after the death of his, hem hem, "close friend" Richard Hamilton in the Tay Bridge disaster in 1879.

The Vine books don't stand and fall on the quality of the central mystery, and just as well - I couldn't at this point tell you what it was in any of Asta's Book, The House Of Stairs or The Brimstone Wedding, though I read and enjoyed them all. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy's central protagonist having to flee and assume a new identity after accidentally giving his brother a blowjob in a sauna sticks in the mind, for some reason. The revelation of what Henry has done here is neither especially surprising nor at all plausible, but in a way it doesn't matter.

This is the most recent of all the Vines I've read, and they do seem to have gradually bulked up over the course of her career - the early ones are all around 300 pages, The Chimney Sweeper's Boy and Asta's Book are over 400 and The Blood Doctor is a beefy 466 pages. To be honest rather too much of this is taken up with meticulous family tree reconstruction that has the reader constantly diving back to the explanatory chart at the front, and none of which is as exciting as all the (literally) gory detail about haemophilia and its transmission. There's a lot here about "blood" in all its literal and colloquial senses - haemophilia, Martin and Jude's struggle to conceive (which turns out to be due to an unrelated genetic disorder), the House of Lords and the abolition of hereditary peers.

It's very good and very readable, but if you want some Vines I would suggest you try some of the earlier ones - A Fatal Inversion, The Brimstone Wedding, King Solomon's Carpet and No Night Is Too Long would do for starters.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

bulbous developments #2

We've been away for a week, and it appears that another few bulbs took this as their opportunity to say "goodbye, cruel world" and "hasta la vista, baby" and furiously incandesce themselves into oblivion. Actually, one couldn't wait and gave up the ghost before we'd even left, but we found two more had committed filamentary seppuku on our return. You'll be wanting to tick these off on your Bulb Bingo card, so here they are:

Firstly, bulb number 10, which went on May 9th - this was an incandescent 25W job, which at 99p for 10 days works out at, let's say, 10p per day.

Then on our return today, two more. Firstly bulb number 4, one of the new batch of incandescent 40W ones, which at £1.49 for 18 days works out at a smidgen under 8.3p per day.

Then, later, bulb number 5, another incandescent 25W one, which at 99p for 18 days works out at 5.5p per day.

So by the rule I've just invented (but which seems reasonable enough) that says the expensive bulbs need to perform at least as well as the longest-lasting incandescent bulb, the required minimum expiry dates for the 4 quid LED bulbs and the £7.98 energy-saver are now 73 days and 145 days from their respective installation dates, or, to put it another way, July 19th and September 21st. Watch this space.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

bulbous developments #1

Great things are afoot - the first two bulbs from the sample group as featured in this post have gone phut and, indeed, kablooie. And already the results are interesting - it was two of the high-powered incandescent 40W bulbs that went (at roughly the same time, on Monday 5th), as you might expect, but it was two of the new ones rather than two of the old ones that had already been cycled on and off an indeterminate number of times.

If you care to refer to the original bulb layout diagram, it was bulbs 2 and 3 that expired. This is actually quite opportune, in a way, as I just happen to have in my possession two new IKEA LED bulbs which I can now slot into the two gaps that have just opened up.

At first glance they are less blue than I was led (see what I did there?) to believe they might be - they are broadly the same sort of yellowish hue as the incandescent bulbs. Their "colour temperature" rating is 2700K, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

Anyway, now the science bit: the two dead bulbs both lasted a pitiful 6 days each, at a cost of a smidgen under 25p per day. At that rate of attrition the LED bulbs only need to last 16 days to be better value, but I'd hope they might manage a bit longer than that. Time will tell.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

didn't they do whale

Those of you who have been keeping an eye on developments with the possible imminent exploding whale situation in Newfoundland should be advised that it now looks as if the whale has taken the less exciting course of action and sprung a slow leak, making it now very unlikely that it's going to go pop or, indeed, kablooie. I know this because I've been keeping up with the latest news at which has all the information you need, and the latest picture shows the whale all deflated and wrinkly, like a week-old party balloon.

Which is a pity, in many ways - though I expect the residents of the small Newfoundland town where this latest blubbery behemoth washed up are fairly relieved not to have their houses festooned in rotting whale entrails - because exploding whales are awesome, as I seem to remember saying towards the end of this earlier post. One should never miss an opportunity to link to the video of the Oregon whale-dynamiting in 1970, for instance, so here it is. No video exists, as far as I know, of the actual moment the Taiwanese sperm whale went off, though there is plenty of the gory aftermath.

There are a couple of other notable incidents, though - this one from the Faroe Islands where a sperm whale explodes while a marine biologist is trying to cut it open, and this one from Uruguay where the same thing happens (in a slightly less spectacular way, it must be said) while a whale carcass is being loaded onto a truck for disposal. I think the best of the rest is probably this one from somewhere in the Netherlands - what really makes it is the unflappable yellow-coated guy just phlegmatically sucking on his pipe as the malodorous tentacly Lovecraftian horror unfolds all around him.

the last book I read

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis.

Elizabeth Harmon is just eight years old when both her parents are messily killed in a car crash and she becomes an orphan and, as orphans do, gets packed off to an orphanage in Kentucky. This place likes to keep its potentially trouble-making youngsters nice and placid and compliant, and achieves this with some questionable drug-dispensing practices, basically involving keeping the kids dosed up with enough downers to pacify a rhinoceros.

So far, so One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, you might say, and, well, perhaps. But Beth's escape comes not from getting lobotomised and then asphyxiated by a seven-foot Native American, still less from hurling a stone washstand through a window and then jogging off into the night. No, Beth discovers that she has a freakish aptitude for chess after a chance encounter with the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, while running a menial errand for a teacher. Mr. Shaibel is a keen player and grudgingly agrees to show her the rules. Needless to say she is soon running rings round him, and soon becomes something of a local curiosity, being periodically wheeled out to perform exhibitions against local school teams, whom she slaughters mercilessly despite playing twenty of them at the same time.

It's only when Beth is adopted by odd couple Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley that her chess career really takes off. Once Mr. Wheatley has disappeared on an endless "business trip" that it soon becomes clear he isn't coming back from, Beth decides to enter a local chess competition (having "borrowed" the entry fee) and wins. Mrs. Wheatley, previously a bit dismissive of Beth's chess obsession, now starts to sit up and take notice, and the two of them develop a nice little routine - Mrs. Wheatley organises the travel to chess tournaments, arranges the hotel and various other administrative stuff and then spends the rest of the time mooching round the hotel getting discreetly sloshed, and Beth takes care of the chess - the prize money from the tournaments pays all the bills.

The only downside of this arrangement is that Mrs. Wheatley has a bit of a tranquiliser habit, not to mention a bit of a booze habit, and some of these habits start to rub off on Beth, who was already a pretty regular consumer of the little green pills that they used to give out at the orphanage. Mostly she can keep it under control, but when Mrs. Wheatley expires after a bout of hepatitis on a chess-playing trip to Mexico, Beth is left to look after herself, and soon embarks on a gruelling dawn-to-dusk schedule of wine and gin consumption that leaves her fearful of having fried the precious brain cells that are the source of her freakish aptitude for chess.

Beth decides to invoke some help from her former dorm-mate at the orphanage, Jolene, the sort of sassy, no-nonsense black sidekick we're all familiar with from the movies. Soon enough Jolene has Beth eating properly, heading down the gym and, most importantly, cutting out the pints of white wine for breakfast. Beth's chess is soon restored to its former potency, and after a hard-fought win in the US championships she enters a couple of international tournaments, where she will inevitably come face-to-face with the Russians, and their intimidating world champion, Borgov.

Chess isn't an obvious subject for a novel, and it's a testament to Tevis's skill that the descriptions of chess games that occupy a fair chunk of the narrative of the novel are as exciting as they are. I used to play occasionally, so I know the basic rules (though I never played enough to be any good), and I recall a bit of the hoopla around the hilariously paranoid antics at the Karpov-Korchnoi world championship showdown in 1978, and the brief flurry of prime-time British TV chess coverage during the Kasparov-Short championship match in 1993. So I do have a bit of an interest, which raises the question of how interesting the novel would be to someone completely unfamiliar with the game. I suppose if you ignore the title and the picture on the front you've only got yourself to blame.

Anyway, Beth Harmon is an interesting, though not especially sympathetic character - we're presumably meant to draw some conclusions about the parallels between the sort of personality that is well-suited to endless poring over chess theory and the sort of personality that can't stop itself shovelling in the gin and pills. Harmon's being a woman is also interesting; at the time of the novel's publication (1983) no woman had ever made any serious impact at the highest level of chess, although seven-year-old Judit Polgár had no doubt already played her first games. There are some elements of heavily-disguised autobiography here as well  - Beth's early promise, brief going off the rails and triumphant return echoing Tevis's own early successes with The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth (both famously filmed), a couple of decades of alcoholism and then a late flurry of novels (including this one) before his death in 1984.

I'd say this is as much of a little forgotten gem of late-20th century American fiction as Stoner, even though it's less self-consciously literary. A couple of further coincidental parallels: the action in The Queen's Gambit starts just as Stoner's ends, in the mid-1950s, and both books have forewords by other authors who feature in this list - John McGahern there, Lionel Shriver here.