Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Box of Delights by John Masefield

A topical post for Christmas; The Box of Delights is Masefield's fantasy of magic, dastardly deeds and box full of wonders that allows its owner to travel great distances instantly, to shrink in size, or to see into the past. Schoolboy Kay Harker, on his Christmas hols from school, becomes the guardian of the box when it's passed to him by a Punch & Judy man, and he spends the rest of the book trying to keep it out of hands of master criminal Abner Brown.

In his desperation to get hold of the box, Brown has kidnapped the bishop of Tatchester, along with most of the local clergy, and the millennial celebrations of the first Christmas service held at Tatchester Cathedral might be ruined. Kay must release the bishop as well as keep the box out of harm's way...

The action comes fairly thick and fast, although I rather felt that Masefield was making the whole thing up as he went along having sketched out the basics of the plot on the back of an envelope. He makes frequent allusions to his naval background and a cohort of Abner Brown's band of ne'er-do-well's turn out to be the crew of a pirate ship. The international drink of piracy is of course rum. Kay, shrunk down to the size of a mouse, passes them on his way to Brown's hideout, and they're in their cups:

As they slipped past the open door Kay glanced in. Oh, what a terrible scene was within! There, gathered round a table, lurching, shouting, swaying and clutching at each other to keep their balance, were the Wolves of the Gulf, all Benito's crew, whom the Rat would have described as marine cellarmen. On the table round which they lurched and carrolled were the remnants of a ham-bone without any dish, and a big bowl of rum punch. As Kay glanced, one of the ruffians fell forward with his head into the bowl. He splashed the rum over his head and another tried to set fire to him with a candle, but was too unsteady in his aim. All these men wore sea-boots, rough red caps and red aprons. No words can describe the villainy of their faces, all bronzed with tropical suns, purple with drink, scarlet with battle and bloated from evil living. "Sing diddle-diddle-dol," they cried. Then they drew their pistols and fired them at the ceiling, so that the plaster came down with a clatter. 

Fortunately, they're too juiced up to notice Kay spying on them, and he manages to fly to safety on the way back by exploiting the box to 'go swift'. Naturally, Kay saves the day in the end; the bishop is returned to his cathedral, Brown meets a watery end, and the whole thing is revealed to have been a dream all along and Kay is back at the beginning of the Christmas holiday. Hurrah!

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

I picked this up after reading that it had influenced Douglas Adams when writing the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although I feel that Vonnegut’s mix of surrealism, satire and science fiction is slightly more focused than Adams. His second novel, The Sirens of Titan deals with free will, something that seems in distinctly short supply in Vonnegut's universe.

Protagonist Malachi Constant is the richest man in 22nd century America. He is also soon to be an unwilling participant in the delivery of a small piece of metal required by an alien from the planet Tralfamdore stranded for millennia on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. He is informed by Winston Niles Rumfoord, a man who has been through a chrono-synclastic infundibulum and now exists at all points between Earth and Betelgeuse, that he will shortly be taken to Mars. Distinctly cool on the idea, Malachi decides to render himself incapable of flying to the red planet. The aftermath of his two month bender is horrific to behold:

Malachi Constant lay in the wide gutter of his kidney-shaped swimming pool, sleeping the sleep of a drunkard. There was a quarter of an inch of warm water in the gutter. Constant was fully dressed in blue-green evening shorts and a dinner jacket of gold brocade. His clothes were soaked. He was all alone. The pool had once been covered uniformly by an undulating blanket of gardenias. But a persistent morning breeze had moved the blooms to one end of the pool, as though folding a blanket to the foot of the bed. In folding back the blanket, the breeze revealed a pool bottom paved with broken glass, cherries, twists of lemon peel, peyotl buttons, slices of orange, stuffed olives, sour onions, a television set, a hypodermic syringe, and the ruins of a white grand piano. Cigar butts and cigarette butts, some of them marijuana, littered the surface. The swimming pool looked less like a facility for sport than a punchbowl in hell. 

The phone rings and he is informed that in the meantime he has bankrupted himself:

Malachi Constant of Hollywood, California, came out of the rhinestone phone booth stone cold sober. His eyes felt like cinders. His mouth tasted like horseblanket purée. He was positive that he had never seen the beautiful blonde woman before. He asked her one of the standard questions for times of violent change. “Where is everybody?” he said. “You threw ‘em all out,” said the woman. “I did?” said Constant. “Yah,” said the woman. “You mean you drew a blank?” Constant nodded weakly. During the fifty-six day party he had reached a point where he could draw almost nothing else. His aim had been to make himself unworthy of any destiny - incapable of any mission - far too ill to travel. He had succeeded to a shocking degree.

Constant is now destitute and desperate, the kind of poor fool who would accept a one way trip to Mars and a position in the Martian army... It’s not like he really had any choice in the matter. Human history, it transpires, has been manipulated for thousands of years, simply so that the Tralfamadorians can deliver a spare part to their stranded traveller. So much for free will.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

The third book in Banks’s Culture Series concerns Cheradenine Zakalwe, an agent for the Culture’s Special Circumstances unit, employed to change the destiny of other civilisations and planets by intrigue, dirty tricks or even military action.

Zakalwe is humanoid, but not of the Culture, and finds his first time on one of the General System’s Vehicles, the Culture’s immense craft carrying millions of people through interstellar space, quite bewildering. A fighting man, he is unused to a life of leisure and limitless recreation. However, he does find time to indulge in one of his favourite hobbies: drinking.

A GSV contains an interesting diversity of drinking companions and some of the people he meets are clearly alien, even more so than Zakalwe:

It had eight limbs, a fairly distinct head with two quite small eyes, curiously flower-like mouth parts, and a large, almost spherical, lightly haired body, coloured red and purple. Its own voice was composed of clicks from its mouth and almost subsonic vibrations from its body; a small amulet did the translating.

This particular alien is also an agent of Special Circumstances, and is quite happy to spend its downtime with other spies:

It banged its drink-bowl on the table to attract a passing tray. “Let’s have another drink; see who gets drunk first.” “You have more legs.” He grinned. “I think I might fall over more easily.” “Ah, but the more legs, the bigger the tangle.” “Fair enough.” He waited for a fresh glass. To one side of them was a small terrace and the bar, to the other a gulf of airy space. The ship, the GSV, went on beyond its apparent boundaries. Its hull was pierced multitudinously by terraces, balconies, walk-ways, open windows, and open bay doors. Surrounding the vessel proper was an immense ellipsoid bubble of air, held in side dozens of different fields, which together made up the Vehicle’s real – though insubstantial – hull. He took up the recharged glass when it arrived, and watched a puttering, piston-engined, paper-winged hang glider zip past the terrace; he waved at the pilot, then shook his head. “To the Culture,” he said, raising his glass to the alien. It matched his gesture. “To its total lack of respect for all things majestic.” “Agreed,” the alien said, and together they drank... The alien was called Chori, he found out later. It was only due to a chance remark that he discovered Chori was a female, which at the time seemed hilariously funny. He woke up the next morning lying soaked as well as soused half underneath a small waterfall in one of the acc section valleys; Chori was suspended from a nearby railing by all eight leg-hooks, making a sporadic clattering noise that he decided was snoring.

Sadly Banks does not tell us which of them ran out of legs first...

Sunday 6 October 2013

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Burgess’s magnum opus begins with one of the more striking opening sentences in English literature: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” So start the memoirs of Kenneth Toomey, successful if mediocre writer and playwright, homosexual, and brother-in-law to the late pope, Gregory XVII.

Roughly spanning the period from the Great War to 1980, Toomey’s dubious recollections are being gathered for the purpose of canonisation of Pope Gregory, Toomey being witness to a ‘miracle’ performed while he was still Don Carlo Campanati. Toomey is unable to stick to the story, however, and meanders across the events of the twentieth century, a few of which take place inside Nazi Germany. In 1937 one of his novels has been turned into a film by the regime and is being shown at a gala hosted by Goebbels. Kenneth finds the whole event pretty ghastly from the start, although the appearance of sparkling German wine improves his spirits:

I passed on into the huge brilliantly lighted reception room. The only uniforms were on the members of the Hitlerjugend, delectable boys with straight hair, probably performers in Hitlerjunge Quex. They carried the canapés round; gloved and whiteclad elders brought chilled Sekt, a wine I have always preferred to champagne.

It’s quite a spread of food and drink, although Ken steers clear of the grub:

...not only goulash, but a kind of rich soldier’s stew with bobbing sausages, pork cutlets with mushrooms and radishes, beef in a sauces of spiced mugwort, wobbling pink pyramids of saffron custard, a cream cake in the shape of a fylfot, a Tower of Babel chocolate confection reeking like a barbershop of rum, berries of the German forests, cheese the hue of lemons or of leprosy, and, like a warning of heroic times in store, wedges of tough black bread. I ate nothing but drank thirstily of the ample Sekt, while the two hundred or so others spooned in hard, some of them sweating. A godling in mufti who I did not doubt was of the special SS intake in whom not even a filled tooth was acceptable said to me, accurately, “You do not eat.” “No, I do not eat. But I drink.” and I drank, promptly to be refilled. “
Danke sehr.”

By the time the big speech by Goebbels is about to start Kenneth is feeling distinctly green about the gills. The poisonous little man begins his oration, bubbling with anti-Semitism and pomposity, while Ken takes a turn for the worse:

I had felt sick before and been saved by Sekt. Now I was beginning to feel sick of the Sekt. I would, I knew, shortly have to vomit. The Reichsminister seemed to have three or four closely typed pages still to get through. I started gently to move towards one of the open windows. The aims of the artistic policy enunciated by the National Chamber of Film might, said Goebbels, be expressed under seven headings. Oh Christ. First, the articulation of the sense of racial pride, which might, without reprehensible arrogance, be constructed as a just sense of racial superiority. Just, I thought, moving towards the breath of the autumn dark, like the Jews, just like the. This signified, Goebbels went on, not narrow German chauvinism but a pride in being of the great original Aryan race, once master of the heartland and to be so again. The Aryan destiny was enshrined in the immemorial Aryan myths, preserved without doubt in their purest form in the ancient tongue of the heartland. Second. But at this point I had made the open window. With relief the Sekt that seethed within me bore itself mouthward on waves of reverse peristalsis. Below me a great flag with a swastika on flapped gently in the night breeze of autumn. It did not now lift my heart; it was not my heart that was lifting. I gave it, with gargoyling mouth, a litre or so of undigested Sekt. And then some strings of spittle. It was not, perhaps, as good as pissing on the flag, but, in retrospect, it takes on a mild quality of emblematic defiance. When it got back to listening to Goebbels he was on to point seven, which did not seem very different to point one.

It’s an inauspicious start to his stay in the country, but Kenneth, as his memoirs testify, is certainly used to living a colourful life...

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Floyd on Hangovers by Keith Floyd

I’ve been meaning to post on this legendary book for a while now. Sadly, we finally discovered the fate of our last copy when we removed a whole load of rotting books from the bottom of a set of shelves in the lounge where the rain had made ingress. The leak is now secured, the walls dry, but Floyd on Hangovers ended up in the tip, so I’ve recently invested in a new edition.

Floyd liked a drink, although the trademark glass of wine during the filming was for show rather than getting sloshed, or so he claimed in his biography. Certainly by the time this was published in 1992, he had a reputation as a bon viveur, and who else could have published a book quite like this, declaring itself as an authoritative guide on the cover? There is also a five-day detoxification programme at the back of the book, which even includes a few recipes, for those of us who might have forgotten that he originally made his living as a chef. I certainly can’t think of anyone else who could written the following titled Findings on Congeners and Inner Peace:

If you have been foolish enough to drink three litres of Western Samoan Cabernet Sauvignon, before moving onto a slightly heavier port wine, significantly bottled in Hartlepool, then the three miserable looking judges sitting at the end of your bed when you wake will give you 9.8, 9.8, 9.9 respectively. If you really had wanted to beat this score, then you should have had several large Scottish ones before starting on the wine. However, this is a fine score, as the hamster gnawing away on your cortex will testify. 
It is not just the alcohol but all those beastly congeners, so prevalent in the fermentation process in the making of red wine and port, that would have scored a direct hit on the intestinal tract and the nervous system. Very often chemicals are added to the drink to make it look more attractive - brighter and clearer - and it is these chemicals, which, combined with the amount of alcohol, are frequently the cause of the worst kind of hangover. Generally speaking, brandy, dark rum, red wine, port and sherries are the worst offenders followed by Vermouth, beer, whisky and gin, and then white wine, lagers and the purest of all - vodka.
With all of this congener-laden alcohol on board the simple task of posting a cheque to pay the gas bill would become complex and so full of important decisions that just addressing the envelope, if you were able to find one, would seem like writing a summary of War and Peace. This is as low as it goes. You feel that you are on the wrong end of a telescope with ‘The Big Eye’ gazing down at you as you fumble around the bedroom trying to decide what’s best. 
This is the time when you need someone who is in a worse state than yourself. Talking about how bad you feel helps. If there is no one around, go to the nearest railway station and look at the guys who have been sleeping rough. Look at those faces ravaged by strong cider, Carlesberg Special Brew, metal polish and broken dreams. You may think you can hear the faint strains of a heavenly choir singing ‘Never, ever, ever again’! You may also feel that is only a matter of time before you join them. This is good. Do not dally too long. Stride along out through the bus exhausts and Kentucky Fried Chicken packets of life. Cancel all appointments. Find a field, preferably with a small stream gurgling nearby, and ponder the marvels of nature. Soon an inner spiritual light will start to glow inside you and the hamster in your head will begin to snooze. 
Now is the time to make a private deal with yourself that you must swear will be honoured for the rest of your drinking life. Never touch a drop of Western Samoan Cabernet Sauvignon again. 

Sage advice indeed...

Monday 16 September 2013

The Player of Games by Iain M Banks

The death of Iain Banks this year was a terrible loss to literature. He has at least left a prodigious output behind him with a fine body of both fiction and science fiction, as well as a paeon to the joys of whiskey. I have recently started reading a lot more sci-fi and when he announced his impending demise, it spurred me to read his entire set of Culture novels, in order...

The Culture, a sprawling, spacefaring human/machine utopian society, is the home of Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a great player of games, a master of strategy and skill. He is also bored, and therefore easily persuaded to travel to the fabulously wealthy and sadistically cruel Empire of Azad, where the outcome of the complex strategic game central to their society chooses who will be emperor.

Gurgeh is met with suspicion and hostility in Azad and his only friends are an ornithology obsessed library drone and The Culture’s representative in Azad, the louche and fast living Shohobohaum Za. One of the first things Za does when he gets the chance is to take Gurgeh out for a night on the toot, which ends in attempted blackmail, a fight and a quick escape for the two of them. Surprisingly, Gurgeh is not too keen to repeat the experience. Able to synthesise his own highs using glands in his body like all people in The Culture, he is also unable to understand quite why Za drinks as much as he does:

“Za,” Gurgeh said, sitting forward, chin in hand, elbow on knee, “Why do you drink so much? You don’t need to; you’ve got all the usual glands. Why?”
“Why?” Za said, his head coming upright again; he looked round as though startled to see where he was for a moment. “Why?” he repeated. He hiccuped. “You asked me ‘Why?’?” he said. 
Gurgeh nodded.
Za scratched under one armpit, shook his head and looked apologetic. “What was the question again?”
“Why do you drink so much?” Gurgeh smiled tolerantly.
“Why not?” Za’s arms flapped once. “I mean, have you never done something just... just because? I mean... it’s um... empathy. This is what the locals do, y’know. This is their way out; this is how they escape their place in the glorious imperial machine... and a fucking grand position it is to appreciate its finer points from too... it all makes sense, y’know Gurgeh; I worked it out.” Za nodded wisely, tapped the side of his head very slowly with one limp finger. “Worked it out,” he repeated. “Think about it; the Culture’s all its...” The same finger made a twirling motion in the air. “...built in glands; hundreds of secretions and thousands of effects, any combination you like and all for free... but the Empire, ah ha!” The finger pointed upwards. “In the Empire you got to pay; escape is a commodity like anything else. And it’s this stuff; drink. Lowers the reaction time, makes the tears come easier...” Za put two swaying fingers to his cheeks “...makes the fists come easier...” Now his hands were clenched, and he pretended to box; jabbing. “...and...” He shrugged. “ eventually kills you.” He looked more or less at Gurgeh. “See?”

Empathy, then... Sadly for Gurgeh, The Culture have more in mind than him just taking part in a great games tournament and by the end of the competition he may well need a very stiff drink.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

Some books deserve more than just further discussion and I would suggest that there is enough backstory and intertextuality in Ackroyd's novel about a series of gruesome murders in the East End to warrant another book entirely. (In the meantime this essay gives you a reasonable idea of how much he manages to cram into under 300 pages...)

In some respects the murders, perpetrated by the eponymous 'golem', are peripheral to a story about nineteenth century London which involves Karl Marx, George Gissing, music hall legend Dan Leno and a pastiche of Somerset Maugham's first novel.

Leno is mentor to Elizabeth Cree, who at the book's start is to be hanged for the murder of her husband. But is she also connected to the Limehouse murders? Ackroyd lets the readers draw their own conclusion, shrouding the golem's identity in the murk of history. Even Marx and Leno are briefly suspects, although instantly discounted as having anything to do with the crimes.

Leno and his art are examined at length and Ackroyd goes to great trouble to recreate the lost world of the music hall. His hero is an ultimately a tragic figure whose boozing got the better of him in the end:

“Hall people have their jealousies and their rivalries, but it’s all very mock-heroic. In any case, most of them drink too much to remember if they bear any grudges.” He may have been referring here to his own reputation as something of an ‘old sock’ or ‘blotting paper’; when Leno drank, he drank wildly and incessantly until he woke the following morning without a care in the world. He knew that, in his drunkenness, he would enact many of his familiar stage characters – but he took them to such fantastic and elaborate lengths that even his closest friends could not keep up with him. When he woke up, in a strange chair or upon an unfamiliar floor, he felt as much at peace as if he had performed an exorcism.”

Not exorcised enough, sadly. By the turn of the century his alcoholism and increasingly erratic behaviour had finished his career and he died in 1904, aged just 43.