Friday, 29 October 2010

The Social Network

Saw this last night and it is a really first class film. It is rich, literate, quite beautifully constructed, fat-free and boasts an outstanding performance from Jesse Eisenberg (with excellent supporting performances, not least from Justin Timberlake). It has changes of pace, hard-won ambiguities, touches of comedy and drama from front to back. Thoroughly recommended.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

Philip Roth is one of the great describers of sickness. Was it The Anatomy Lesson that was almost entirely concerned with Nathan Zuckerman's back problems? Here he takes on polio, It is a very good book indeed, a book of Job for a Job who does not believe in God, and the tragic consequences of that unbelief. And, as always with Roth, the evocations of place are wonderfully done. This, I sometimes think, is his great trick: he puts us into a place so thoroughly (and without what you might call 'descriptive writing') that one has no choice but to believe. It is rhetorical genius, and therefore a joy to read, however sad the subject.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I don’t much like being critical of books – where does it get you? – but, despite its self-conscious bigness (and heavens, does it go on) Jonathan Franzen’s novel ‘Freedom’ has the word ‘dated’ running through it, stick-of-rock-like. This is emphatically a book for liberal-minded 50-somethings and if you’re under the age of 45 I would imagine you’d have trouble understanding what the fuss is about.

It does have the virtues of soap opera, in that one thing leads to another, and you want to find out what happens next, although there is an overwhelming dread (the same dread that keeps me from watching soap operas) that it is NEVER GOING TO END.

There are three central characters, none of whom you would want to spend more than about 5 minutes with if they existed (although the tobacco-chewing rock star Richard has his droll moments). They find that their ‘freedom’ is savagely curtailed by sexual desire. And that’s about it. The author bungs in lots of social history, politics and a seasoning of literature, in order, I suppose, to ‘contextualize’ his story, but what it comes down to in the end is sex and how it gets in the way of everything. And sex, as we all know, is fun to do but dull to read about.

What Franzen does to involve you in his characters’ lives is to write about them at enormous length. By about page 350, wanting to give up, you feel you have to get to the end in order to justify having read so far in the first place. The book is also remarkably monotonal; there is never any change of pace or voice. Even the passages supposedly written by one of the characters read exactly as though written by Franzen.

I had a little weep at the sentimental ending, but it was as nothing compared with my relief at having reached it. I daresay many commentators will regard this book as a great piece of social history a la Zola, but Tom Wolfe it sure as hell ain’t. It has none of the panache, nor indeed any of the sheer literary texture that Wolfe brings to his social realism. And it is unrelentingly liberal, indeed it reeks of a kind of intellectual orthodoxy that puts one in mind of some kind of Academy: this is work to please the elite. I’m glad I’ve read it because everyone is talking about it, but I also feel rather robbed of my time in having done so: I could have read, say, The Magic Mountain instead.

Western Whip Snake

Here are some Dutch people, far more courageous than I, with a Western Whip snake. This is the beastie that I fought and caught in my house in France. Personally I thought I was very brave. I didn't know that it was non-venomous... Apparently it is fairly useful having a Western Whip about the place, as it keeps the rodents in check.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Ryder Cup

There are any number of snobs who rather look down on golf as being an essentially suburban, bourgeois, and therefore a rather boring game. More fool them. This year's Ryder Cup was a cracker. Quite apart from the golf and the heroics and the rain and the team spirit and Wales, there was Jimenez's cigar and Darren Clarke's chain-smoking (I LOVE seeing cigarettes on TV), Mahan's wry smile when he fluffed his chip at 17 (the poor chap broke down later), and the chants of the crowd: "Two Molinaris, there's only two Molinaris", referring to the Molinari brothers; "where's the fairway gone?" to the tune of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, when the cloud came down on the course. There was G Mac, and there was Ian Poulter (a star if ever there was one - a strange combination of Churchill and David Brent, with a touch of Graeme Swann thrown in) and there was the Great Spirit of Seve. Top sporting action.

Cousin Iron Man

Shortly after bravely falling off an Alp and reconfiguring his facial elements my first cousin Wynn's son, Sion Fletcher-Rees, decided that the best thing to do would be an iron Man race. Of course. Just the job after a near death experience. I'm not sure what the precise distances are but suffice to say there is a 16 hour time limit. What follows is Sion's race report.

"Ironman France, Nice, 27th June 2010

Wake up on race day at silly o’clock in the morning, due to being just after the summer solstice it is already light. Eat a snickers and throw on the clothes that I had prepared. Start the mile-odd walk down to the start line, other athletes and their families and supporters are doing the same. Half of the walk is along the promenade des Anglais, where the marathon will be later, with a view out over the calm waters of the Mediterranean. The buoys for the swim are now inflated and seem very far away.

Get to the transition area, a last little look at the bike, though not much point as I have no tools with me, then comes the exposure. I take off my shorts and t-shirt revealing only speedos beneath, it seems I am the only athlete from 2700 who decided that a wetsuit was unnecessary. Apply some Vaseline to parts that I believe may rub during the swim then join the slow procession of worried men (and women)heading for the start line.

Standing on a beach now, hundreds all around me. A nervous word here, a half laugh there. The PA announces the ever-decreasing time until it all begins. Nothing for it now, already committed, just have to try and follow it through.

The air horn goes, within seconds the water is a mess of limbs and bodies. It is a case of wading until knee deep then lean forward and start to swim. The water is cold, not a real cold like English seas, but enough to cause shallow breathing. Stroke, stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke stroke stroke, breathe, try to get control of breathing and all of my limbs. Moderate success. The field starts to disperse a little, fewer hands pulling at my legs, no feet in front of my face. Reach the first buoy, 1km done, getting into a rhythm now, soon I have gone through the corners and heading back to the shore.

I decide that it would be a good idea to have a pee in the water, though there is ages of swimming to go. Too stubborn to stop, so attempt to go on the go, as it were. Fail. I reach the beach, with the help of a volunteer pulling people out and stagger through a checkpoint and go back into the water. I know it must be only 1.4km to go now. Then only 600m. I try peeing again to save time on the surface and eventually manage it without stopping. Hooray!

Out of the water and into the transition area, change and go.

Start of the bike leg is cautious, trying to make sure I don’t burn myself out. After 35km it feels like my whole abdomen will seize, then thankfully there comes a nice long steep climb for me to concentrate on. Overtaking lots of people, pain disappears. Keep overtaking, uphill is clearly my forte. All our race numbers have first names on them too, so start to play a game against myself guessing the nationalities of other riders. The Tierrys and Gastons make it too easy though.

Uphill finished, rinse some gravity aided travelling, tucked in on the tri-bars, as fast as I have ever ridden, fantastic. Back to Nice. The final section is alongside the marathon route, with lots of people on it. It seems long considering I have to do the distance eight times. Shit.

Start running. There and back four times. I ran for almost a lap and a half then start walking with occasional runs. Got de-motivated by figuring that I could complete the course within the 16 hour limit if I walked the rest of the way. Coming back during lap 3 I decide that I should run again, to see what the time is at the end of the lap. Almost 12 hours. Decided to go for sub 13 and ignore all the burning in my legs. Found other people to follow as pace setters. Cross the line after 12:55:45. Elated."

Obviously, one wonders what calamity might have befallen Sion had he not had that Snickers bar for breakfast ... Stupendous achievement in my view. I cannot begin to imagine how one even thinks of doing this sort of thing, let alone how one actually does it...

Friday, 1 October 2010

The Whales That You Make

for Kit

The whales that you make
out of unwhaleness: wood, tin,
abandoned elements, dive
and rise and breast an invisible ocean,
tremendous in this air
singing unheard songs
populating with fancy,
with the seeing-where-nothing-is,
our small, our unwhaled world.

Mine’s maybe a sleek three inches.
A thin umbilical attaches it to a stand
with a kind of utter balance
so that it may or may not be here,
its great bulk held tenuous
in its breaking moment
as the air parts and the sight
is delighted and a smile greets
the new made thing, the art.

Wynn Wheldon