ATOM! Abingdon Festival of Science & Technology

diamond light

The Diamond Light Source

Our town of Abingdon-on-Thames is situated in one of the real science hubs of the UK. Apart from all the science faculties in Oxford to the north, just south of the town is the Harwell campus – home of the Diamond Light Source and the Rutherford Appleton Lab. To the SE is the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy home of JET – the Joint European Torus and other high-powered projects.  This is what Professor Frank Close told us on Thursday evening, introducing an evening of ‘Converscience’ the opening event of ATOM! held at my daughter’s school.

Frank_Close_2011Frank is a professor of particle physics at Oxford and the first ‘Converscience’ of the evening was with Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnett FRS – the noted cosmologist who discovered pulsars in 1967, despite pirate radio stations broadcasting on the frequencies reserved for astronomical research!

Bell told us about how she made her discovery.  As a post-grad radio-astronomer, she had to analyse up to 96 feet of paper print-out every day, and after about 3 miles of paper, she gradually realised that there was a regular anomaly of interference.  She worked out the pulsing was occurring in sidereal time – so it couldn’t be man-made.  Her bosses took a lot of persuading – what if it were an alien transmission?  She christened it the LGM1 – Little Green Man 1. To her immense relief, she found a second pulsar (her ‘Eureka moment’) and then two further ones which finally proved to her bosses that they weren’t of alien origin. They in fact came from neutron stars, which had previously been theorised, but pulsars were completely new.

'Miss Jocelyn Bell', 1968However, when the discovery was published, her name wasn’t first on the paper, and she didn’t get the Nobel prize, her boss did.  Instead, she got the Sun headline ‘Girl discovers little green men’ – the media attention was intense and she said, ‘I felt like a piece of meat.’

When the converscience was thrown open to the audience, there were plenty of questions about women in science – apparently only 12% of astronomers are women in the UK, compared with over 30% in Argentina.  She made a plea for more women to study science, and for engineers in particular – the Higg’s Boson couldn’t have been discovered without the engineers who built the Large Hadron Collider.

We soon returned to pulsars though and the question of how you would know if the pulses were from an alien intelligence. She replied that she’d expect some kind of code – a repeating pattern perhaps.  Anyway, over 2000 pulsars have now been discovered, and still no little green men.

robin inceAfter the interval, the comedian Robin Ince took to the stage, and gave us a high-speed short version of his 3 hour science stand-up routine!  Radio 4 listeners may be familiar with him through his programme The Infinite Monkey Cage, co-hosted with Professor Brian Cox – Ince told us how he is the ‘enthusiastic idiot, the antimatter version of him‘ (Cox, that is).  He was actually quite funny (although a little loud and definitely hyperactive). He told some great true science stories including about Darwin’s nose, Richard Feynman and the aurora borealis, and he showed some stunning pictures from a Tumblr blog called WTF Evolution! – do check it out.

This was followed by a final converscience between the three – and with three sceptics on stage, the question of whether science and religion could ever be reconciled came up. Professor Close put his reply rather well – there are ‘Hows’ and ‘Whys’ – science is a how, religion is a why, Bell (who is a Quaker) added that she had no problems with it as they both have sense of wonder.

I was helping sell books at the event, and of course I succumbed to buying a copy of Ince’s tome – Robin Ince’s Bad Books Club: One man’s quest to uncover the books that taste forgot.  Nothing to do with science, but it looks rather fun.  I got him to sign my copy, and he wrote:

‘To Annabel, beware lighthouse keepers posing as novelists. Robin Ince.’

Hmm! Cryptic…

Night two of ATOM! to follow this evening – a lecture by Jim Al Khalili about quantum biology.  I’m doing the book-stall again (natch!)

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A screenplay novelisation …

A Million Ways to Die In The West by Seth MacFarlane

Seth_MacFarlaneThere’s no denying it – Seth MacFarlane is very talented.

Apart from being very handsome, he’s an award winning animator – having worked for Hanna-Barbera after college, he’s the creator of Family Guy, co-creator/producer of American Dad, the comedy film Ted, and he acts/voices many characters. He sings too (wonderfully – I’ve seen him with John Wilson’s orchestra) and had a hit album of standards. Now he’s written a book – sort of…

When I saw his name attached to a comedy western novel A Million Way to Die in the West, I pre-ordered a copy – in fact I forgot I’d pre-ordered it and bought it again – so I have a spare.  It wasn’t until the book(s) arrived, that I found out that the novel is based on a screenplay by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild for a movie of the same name.  A little searching brought up the film poster below – it’s released in May.

millionwestposter_large It’s the tale of a mild-mannered sheep farmer called Albert Stark who’s fed up with life on the American frontier.  It opens just past high noon and Albert’s been waiting for the guy who challenged him to a duel to turn up.  He’s late, Albert’s a coward and he uses his opponent’s tardiness to wriggle out of the duel which would have meant certain death.

Louise is the object of Albert’s affections – she promptly dumps him after the non-duel for Foy – the extravagantly bewhiskered and over-dandified owner of the town’s moustachery.

Albert’s one friend Edward isn’t much help. Edward is a simple and happy soul who is engaged to Ruth, a Christian whore who doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, (apologies in advance for the quotation below):

‘Where’s Ruth? She coming to church?’
‘No, she has a ten o’clock blumpkin,’ Edward answered matter-of-factly.
Albert stared at him, confused. ‘What’s a blumpkin?’
‘It’s when a man receives fellatio while he’s making stool. They just invented it in Italy, and it’s become popular here.’ Edward smiled with pride in his awareness of world affairs.
‘Receives fellatio? You make it sound like a Communion service,’ Albert said.
‘Well, it’s just the process.’
‘So, a guy gets his dick sucked while he’s taking a shit.’
‘Albert, don’t use those words, Edward said with indignation. ‘It diminishes Ruth’s work. She takes a lot of pride in doing a good job.’

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Yes, this is the level of the humour in this story.

What can Albert do to get Louise back?  A mysterious lady stranger may hold the answer – when Albert rescues Anna from danger in a bar-room brawl, they hit it off, and become friends. Anna turns out to be a regular Annie Oakley, and teaches Albert how to shoot.  But before he can put his new-found skills to use, Anna’s past catches up with her when the notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood, the deadliest gunman in the west, comes to town…

I think the movie is going to be hilarious – sort of like Deadwood done for laughs – it has an all-star cast and looks great from the publicity photos.

The book though, because it was written up from a screenplay, is a little thin, not enough added to it to make it entirely successful as a novel.  It has it’s moments – there are some great funny gags, and even a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, but there is an awful lot of toilet humour – the film I imagine being aimed at late teens and upwards audience.

There was nothing wrong with the novel, it entertained and was very easy to read, it just lacked a bit of substance.  This is one occasion when I can say – I’m sure the film will be better than the book, and as a lover of westerns, I will probably go and see it. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Million Ways to Die in the West by Seth MacFarlane, pub March 2014 by Canongate, 208 pages, hardback.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – what a film!

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterImaginthe-grand-budapest-hotel-featurette-the-storye one of those old grand spa hotels from the early 1930s in an Eastern European alpine setting – a destination in its own right, busy, happening and very posh. Fast forward a few decades to faded grandeur marred by 1970s orange everywhere, near-empty, peopled just by the curious, or those on a bargain package… such is the plight of The Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s latest film.

What happened to the hotel? What was it like in its heyday?  Framed as a story within a story within a story, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H. – the best, the most attentive hotel concierge you’ve ever seen, and the events that got him into trouble.

Ralph Fiennes is Gustave, the concierge with an attention for detail nonpareil, who keeps all his old lady clients, including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Madame D. a dowager on her last legs, ‘entertained’.

The hotel has a new Lobby Boy – Zero, played by Tony Revolori, whom Gustave takes under his wing. Gustave will teach him to ‘Anticipate the needs before the needs are needed.

When Madame D. dies, they go on an adventure together.  Against the wishes of her sons (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe), she had left a priceless painting to Gustave.  In a moment of impulsiveness, Gustave takes the painting and runs – leaving him open to being prime suspect when it becomes clear that Madame D was murdered.  A series of hilarious capers ensues as Gustave is caught, escapes, and seeks out the truth.

The look of the film is sumptuous. All the interiors are plush and lush, or dark and brooding as needed. It is always snowing in this alpine region, but it never feels cold – strange that.  However, having made the wonderful stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (my favourite Wes Anderson film until now), the director has built in some animated sequences too – the hotel from afar is seen as a cut-out against a screen backdrop and there are trademark scenes of running characters seen in silhouette against the sky – they blend perfectly into the action.  References abound too – from the police inspector’s fox head badge to scenes of long, and I mean really long, ladders. I loved all this.

Then there is the cast – I can honestly say that I can’t think of another film that has so many cameos of star quality as this one.  Apart from Gustave, Zero, the nasty brothers and Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer, the other main parts are all small but lovely – Harvey Keitel’s tattooed prisoner, Ed Norton’s police inspector, Tilda Swinton possibly stand out, but they are all wonderful.  All of Anderson’s usual collaborators are there, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman too.  (Doesn’t Adrien Brody look a proper gorgeous villain with that ‘tache?)

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Dominating though is Fiennes as the normally unflappable Gustave, who when flapped is totally hilarious, other times effortlessly charming, the perfect host, and always just slightly camp, darling.  Revolori makes an excellent foil – although he does get cross when Gustave can’t help flirting with his girlfriend (Saiorse Ronan).

zweig

I haven’t mentioned the music yet either – lots of balalaikas – I adore balalaikas so much I’ve bought the soundtrack album.  In fact I want a balalaika too!

Now I can’t wait for the book of Stefan Zweig writings that inspired the film to arrive now…

This film is vintage Anderson, quirky, quietly hilarious, brilliantly acted, and with an exceptional attention to detail. It was utterly, utterly fab, and I’d go and see it again without a doubt (if I wasn’t too busy).

Whatever happened to …?

…Paul Micou

micou

Whilst I was sorting out my chunksters the other day I came across six novels by an author I’d much enjoyed reading back in the 1990s. His name is Paul Micou, and I wondered what had become of him. An American; since graduating, he’s lived in London and then France.

A little research later, it turns out that he wrote another couple of novels in 2000 and 2008 – and apart from a couple of Kindle singles, has published nothing since. Only his last novel is still in print.

As I know many of you like searching out books, I thought I’d write about the first few to introduce this author to you.  Here are his eight novels…

Micou books

I was immediately drawn to his first novel published in 1989. The premise of The Music Programme sounded like something straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Set in a fictitious African country, the employees of a US-funded UN programme have been living it up but panic sets in when an inspector arrives.  I remember it as hilarious.

The Cover Artist (1990) is about an artist who makes more money passing off the expressionist paintings done by his black labrador Elizabeth as his, than his own works. My memory of this one is hazy, but I did love the dog.

The Death of David Debrizzi (1991) is his best-known novel, and possibly his best. The titular David was a child prodigy on the piano. He had two teachers, one English, one French.  The novel is told by Pierre Marie La Valoise (the French one), who is staying in a Swiss Sanatorium. When La Valoise hears that Sir Geoffrey Flynch has published a biography of David taking full credit for the boy’s, he has to retaliate. Some great comic set-pieces in this one.

I’ve only told you about the first three, because although I know I enjoyed three more my memory of reading them is even more hazy.  Micou has a great comic style though; these novels are gentle satires with a lot of humour and some spice. A bit William Boyd meets Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) via Richard Russo, and perhaps with a dash of Waugh and Tom Sharpe.

I’ve ordered a copy of his last novel, and found I had the seventh lurking unread on my shelves, so eventually my Micou collection will be complete – but I rather hope he decides to write some more…

Have any of you read Paul Micou’s books?
What other authors have fallen off the radar that you’d recommend

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Confessions of a Map Dealer by Paul Micou

My first encounter with Richard Brautigan …

It was last summer when Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings was participating in the Beats of Summer fortnight of reading from the Beat Generation, that I resolved to read a book by Richard Brautigan. As I am not a fan of On the Road or The Naked Lunch (bored by the former, weirded out by the latter), I thought I should branch out and try another Beats author before consigning them all to my bottom shelf. Viv Stanshall Richard_BrautiganOn Karen’s recommendation I chose Richard Brautigan (left), particularly because of his physical resemblance to Viv Stanshall (right). Then which book to read? A little research led me to Sombrero Fallout – (1976), not because it is one of his slightly less well-known books, but because the new Canongate edition has an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, and on the back is a quote from Auberon Waugh ‘Mr Brautigan writes five thousand time better than [Jack] Kerouac ever did‘. Viv, Auberon and Jarvis – good omens don’t you think? So, enough faffing around – to the book…

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

sombrero falloutThis is a short novel with dual linked narratives. The first, the title one, concerns a short story that a celebrated author is having problems with.

It concerns a sombrero that falls out of the sky in front of the Mayor of a small town, his brother and an unemployed man – who will be the first to pick said headgear up? However, the author isn’t satisfied with his story so far, so he rips it up and throws it in the bin where it takes on an absurd life of its own.

The second strand concerns the author and his ex-girlfriend. He is mourning the end of his relationship with Yukiko, a beautiful Japanese woman with long dark hair. She had split from him after two years, because she needed more from life than giving of herself to this author. The narrative flits between the author, who is obsessing about everything, but mainly her, and Yukiko who is asleep beside her cat, dreaming.

I mentioned the author obsessing about things. At one point he realises he is hungry, but can’t have a hamburger because he had one the day before – but he really wants a hamburger, unless …

After he had exhausted all thoughts of eating hamburgers, his mind entertained the possibility of a tuna fish sandwich but that was not a good idea. He always tried very hard not to think about tuna fish sandwiches. For the last three years he  had been trying to keep thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches out of his mind. Whenever he thought about tuna fish sandwiches, he felt bad and now here he was thinking about a tuna fish sandwich again after he had tried so hard not to think about them. …
Often he would find himself unconsciously picking up a can of tuna in the supermarket before he realised what he had done. He would suddenly find himself halfway through reading the contents on the can before he knew what he was doing. Then he would look startled as if he had been caught reading a pornographic novel in church and quickly put the can back in the shelf and walk away from it, trying to forget that he had ever touched it. …
The reason for this was a fear of mercury. …
When they discovered a few years ago that there was more mercury in tuna fish than normal, he stopped eating it, because he was afraid that it would accumulate in his brain and affect his thinking which would lead to an effect on his writing.
He thought his writing would get strange and nobody would buy his books because they had been corrupted by mercury and he would go crazy if he ate tuna fish, so he stopped eating it.

The extracts above from a two and a half page chapter entitled ‘TUNA‘ show the typical iterative nature of Brautigan’s narrative in this novel.  Each thought gets repeated, expanded upon, repeated, expanded upon and so on. This reminded me of the idée fixe of the ‘wing-backed chair‘ in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which I read last year.

This process happens in the sombrero story too, which becomes a tale of mass hysteria, very much in the vein of James Thurber’s The Day the Dam Broke, (see here) but far weirder and with guns!

The mention of Thurber reminds me that I haven’t told you that the author in this book is a humorist – but one totally without a sense of humour!  He is also attractive to women and good (enough) in bed. One wonders if Brautigan is having a laugh at himself in his portrayal of the author?

The role of providing a strain of sanity between the madness of the sombrero and the self-pitying of the author is Yukiko. She is calm, enigmatic, and strong. I liked her very much.

Boy, I chose an interesting book for my first read of 2014.  I didn’t find it particularly funny; although it has its moments, the whole sombrero strand got too out of hand for me – I far preferred the story of the author and Yukiko.

I certainly see something in Brautigan’s writing though that I like, and I bought two further novels by him on spec from Canongate’s pre-Christmas sale!.   Thank you Karen for encouraging me to read him, (Calvino soon, I promise).   (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sombrero Fallout (Canons) by Richard Brautigan, Canonage 2012 edition, luxury paperback, 224 pages.

There was I, ready to cull some books …

… when I got totally distracted after only consigning one book to the charity shop pile by this little gem…

Pistache by Sebastian Faulks.

pistacheOriginating from the BBC Radio 4 literary quiz, The Right Stuff, each week contestants would do a little party piece at the end of the show as one writer attempting the style of another author, book or genre etc. – they were usually terribly comic, and always very clever.

Sebastian Faulks was one of the team captains, and he retooled his party pieces into this expanded collection of his pastiches, or pistaches. Once I’d started leafing through for some of my favourites, all thought of book culling went out of the window.

So we have Ernest Hemingway writing a Christmas round robin, Jane Austen in the 1830s – sorry 18-30 holiday, Richmal Crompton’s Just William grows up into an estate agent, and so on.  One clever one that grabbed me particularly was:

Dylan Thomas writes a cereal advert …

The force that through the green gut drives the food
Is each morning taken mortal fibre, tockticking,
Clockworking, regular in motion
Of day and wind and
Under milk good soaking of rough husk
Of hill-high rough-age in tough
Tock-ticking, regular,
From the farm in the blossoming hill through the mill
From bole to bowel to hwyl
Where gesture and psalm ring-
It is your thirtieth day to heaven
Consecutive,
In all dark, all black,
All brown, all Bran.

We also have George Orwell confronting the real 1984 – ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the miners were striking. …’   and hilariously – Sherlock Holmes has a conversation with Motson  (John ‘Motty’ Motson, was a wonderfully verbose football commentator).

I chuckled my way through these, wishing there were more (there will be a second volume next year), and now I have to go and cook dinner – no more time for book-culling today!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

Books in Bath and a French Farce

Yesterday my daughter and I went to Bath, it’s only an hour and a half from us, and the delights of the city are many. Yesterday was all about shopping, dining and theatre – we’ve done the heritage bit on previous visits.  We arrived in time for lunch (Nandos), then got stuck into shopping…

One of the key shops to visit was Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, a rather wonderful and well stocked bookshop, where I indulged a little of course, buying Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version, and an American import paperback Smonk, by Tom Franklin – a western that’s been on my wishlist for ages.

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Dinnner was at Jamie’s Italian in Milsom Place, which is one of those posh little arcades of eateries and design shops.

Then our evening entertainment was at the Theatre Royal, a small but lovely theatre which has a formidable reputation for staging pre-West End runs of plays with top actors. Our mid-stalls seats turned out to be about the best in the house…

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The play we went to see was A Little Hotel on the Side by Georges Feydeau, adapted by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame). Feydeau was a prolific author in the Belle Époque era, and was famed for his farces.

This was not the first Feydeau/Mortimer farce I’ve been to. Back in 1989, I saw a production of A Flea in Her Ear at the Old Vic starring Jim Broadbent. It was hilarious. Flea, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece, was written in 1907 and involves: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments amongst its plot elements.

Feydeau HotelHotel, meanwhile which was written in 1894 is about: mistaken identities, affairs, a seedy hotel, servants and speech impediments.  OK, they’re standard farce ingredients – just shuffle them about!

It’s about two couples, the Pinglets, and the Paillardins.  Mr Pinglet (Mr P), a builder, is rather hen-pecked by his domineering wife – he calls her the ‘hornet’, whereas Madame Paillardin feels ignored by her architect husband. Mr P and Mme Paillardin decide to have an affair and as Mr Paillardin will be away on business and Mme Pinglet is going to visit her sister, they set up their assignation at the Free Trade Hotel.  Before all this is to happen, Mathieu, a ‘friend’ of the Pinglets from their holiday turns up hoping to stay with them, and having brought his four daughters with him. Mathieu has a stutter, but only when it rains (loads of scope for f, f, fu, fu*, functioning type laughs there).

Needless to say, with his brood unwelcome at the Pinglets, they decamp to the hotel, where the Paillardin’s nephew Maxime is also planning to lose his virginity with the Pinglet’s maid, and Mr Paillardin has been legitimately hired to investigate poltergeists and ghosts.  So everyone, except Mme Pinglet, is in the same place at the same time. Mathieu and his girls are mistakenly given the same room as Mr Paillardin, who sees the girls in their nightdresses as ghosts and runs away.   There is much door-slamming – and Mr P and Mme Paillardin never manage to get a kiss before the police arrive on a raid and a lively chase ensues. Caught, Mr P says his name is Mr Paillardin, and Mme Paillardin gives her name as Mme Pinglet to the police. Mr P pays FFr5000 bail.

The next day, we’re back at the Pinglet’s house, and Mme Pinglet arrives back from her trip in a real state – her carriage’s horse had bolted and she ended up in a ditch. She declares her love for Mr P, saying ‘You nearly lost me!’ – only nearly he thinks.  Then a writ comes from the police for Mme P saying she must confirm her identity, and similarly one arrives for Mr Paillardin – of course neither were there at the time – how will this all be resolved?

An all-star cast was led by Richard McCabe, fresh from his Olivier award opposite Helen Mirren in The Audience, and maybe familiar on TV as one of Ken Branagh’s Wallander crew.

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In the late 1980s McCabe was at the RSC, and I will forever remember him as Puck in John Caird’s 1989 punky tutus and bovver boots staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (far right, with John Carlisle as Oberon).

Now in his early fifties, he made a wonderfully fleshy Mr P. His comic timing, facial contortions and asides to the audience were brilliant.  He was aided by Hannah Waddingham (whom we last saw as the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz), was his toweringly tall and overbearing wife – a very scary woman!  Robert Portal and Natalie Walter played the Paillardins, he all brusque, she suitably histrionic, Tom Edden was manic as the stuttering Mathieu and, in what is little more than an extended cameo, Richard Wilson (familiar to many as Victor Meldrew in TV’s One Foot in the Grave), was the rather downbeat seen-it-all-before hotel manager.

It had some hilarious moments of slapstick and double-entendre, and everything happened at breakneck pace, yet there was something slightly not quite right about the ending, which was a little sudden.  I wasn’t sure that everything had been resolved satisfactorily – but that was deliberate on Feydeau’s part commenting on the Parisian upper classes habits of bending the rules to fit themselves apparently.

All in all this was a really fun performance in a great little theatre. We had a good time and it made a change from the unaffordable West End at less than half the price, and we were home before midnight.  A great day out.

Stieg Larsson meets Forrest Gump but way better …

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury

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You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to tell the others of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.
So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old People’s Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out – into the flowerbed.
This manoeuvre required a bit of effort, since Allan was one hundred years old. On this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old People’s Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.

Thus begins a great comic caper and adventure.  We chose this as our book group choice for April, and it was a great success, charming all of us.

As you’ll have already surmised, Allan is prone to act on impulse. He makes it to the bus station – buys a ticket for the first bus leaving, and steals someone else’s suitcase! He can’t explain why he did it. Later after getting off the bus randomly, meeting a chap called Julius, a bit of a scoundrel but who is up for an adventure, they open the case to find it’s full of money – only to discover that its owner is on their trail.

A brilliant caper ensues, with Allan and an increasing cadre of friends, who will all take a share of the money, traverse the country, pursued by the suitcase’s owners, and the police.  Allan and Julius manage to remain one step ahead, while accidentally disposing of their pursuers one by one in some very imaginative and funny deaths that beat Stieg Larsson hands down.

However, after the opening chapters we start to alternate between Allan’s present predicament, and his life story – which is like a history of the 20th century. Having become an explosives expert, he accidentally blows up his house, and homeless goes off on a whim to Spain, where he accidentally saves the life of General Franco. He ships out to the USA where he meets President Truman, and accidentally helps Oppenheimer towards the solution on making an atomic bomb.

By now, you’re getting the picture, and we were all thinking – who will he meet next?  Well, he seems to meet most of the 20th century’s key movers! It’s notable though, that the moment he gets close to these historic figures, and is invited to join in the politics, Allan jumps ship and goes somewhere else, maintaining his strict neutrality and, nearly always, manages to remain friends.

Allan has an engaging naïvety that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump, sailing through life having amazing experiences, yet remaining unfazed by it all.  He is also a 20th century equivalent of Alfred Nobel, 19th century inventor of dynamite, initiator of the Nobel Prize, a man who travelled a lot, lived in several countries and learned many languages.

Although broadly a comedy, there are small pauses for serious matters now and then; managing to be committed as a young man for his learned propensity for blowing things up, Allan was a victim of the Swedish forced sterilzation programme. He was destined never to have an heir, although he never mentions this, he just gets on with life.

Allan’s story gave us plenty to talk about, and the imaginative demises for the hoodlums after the suitcase, and the encounters with all those famous people gave the chuckles.  This is such a fun and easy read – if you’ve not read it yet, do take it on holiday – if summer ever comes!  (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Hesperus Press, 2012, paperback 385 pages.

A “perfick” entertainment…

It’s not often that you can successfully combine a phrase and idea from a Shakespeare sonnet – number 18 as it happens. You know the one that begins:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

… with the sort of family that TV’s Del and Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses would be proud to be descended from – and make a big-hearted comedic story that really works! Well, that’s what H.E.Bates did in his 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May.

The Shakespearean title refers to the Kent countryside at the start of the fruit-picking season, and there’s more Shakespearean resonance in the central family of the book who could be picked straight from the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Larkins are a big family with a lust for life, and a flair for wheeling and dealing – they could be the Trotter’s country cousins, which brings me back to the TV. For you see, Del Trotter, Peckham wide-boy, was played by David Jason for over a decade from the early 1980s. In the 1990s he went on to play Pop Larkin in a TV adaptation of The Darling Buds, (which also featured a young Catherine Zeta Jones).

I didn’t watch the TV adaptation, I only caught little snatches of it. Call me a snob, but in those days I watched little TV on the commercial channels! I probably missed a gem, for when reading this book, it was David Jason, Pam Ferris, Catherine Z-J and Philip Franks I visualised as Bates’s main characters –  and I was delighted to find that they didn’t jar at all!  They were actually pretty close to the versions in the Beryl Cook painting on the cover of my paperback – which actually came after the TV series. But now on to the book itself…

‘Perfick wevver! You kids alright in the back there? Ma, hitch up a bit!’
Ma, in her salmon jumper, was almost two yards wide.
‘I said you kids alright in there?’
‘How do you think they can hear,’ Ma said, ‘with you revving up all the time?’
Pop laughed again and let the engine idle. The strong May sunlight, the first hot sun of the year, made the bonnet of the truck gleam like brilliant blue enamel. All down the road, winding through the valley, miles of pink apple orchards were in late bloom, showing petals like light confetti.

Scene set, we’re introduced to the Larkins, all tucking in to huge ice-creams and bowling their way home.  They have six children, five girls and a boy – all with idiosyncratic names.  They live in what could only be described as almost a rural idyll – a big cottage with bluebell wood, stream, chickens scratching in the yard – and a muddy scrapyard on the side.

Their eldest child, Mariette was named for Marie Antoinette, but Pop thought that was too long, so they shortened it.  Mariette thinks she’s pregnant, but her parents don’t seem too bothered about it, although it’s soon obvious they’d like to get her paired off as soon as possible. An opportunity soon presents itself with the arrival of the taxman!

Mr Charlton, a young and impressionable civil servant sent to get Pop to fill in his tax return, is instantly smitten by Mariette. Pop will do anything to avoid paying any tax, and he, Ma and Mariette turn on the charm offensive big-time, wooing Charley, and before he knows it, he’s virtually part of the family.

This central story is interwoven with many sketches from the Larkin’s lives – fruit picking, Pop doing a deal on an old Rolls Royce, Pop saving the local gymkhana by offering his field for it, more shenanigans with the neighbours, and, all through the book is Ma – loving her kitchen and producing huge mountains of food for everyone. Ma and Pop regard their brood with great pleasure, and their relationship is rock solid, earthy and loving …

A moment later she turned to reach from a cupboard a new tin of salt and Pop, watching her upstretched figure as it revealed portions of enormous calves, suddenly felt a startling twinge of excitement in his veins. He immediately grasped Ma by the bosom and started squeezing her. Ma pretended to protest, giggling at the same time, but Pop continued to fondle her with immense, experienced enthusiasm, until finally she turned, yielded the great continent of her body to him and let him kiss her full on her soft big mouth.

The Larkins are irresistible and irrepressible! It was lovely too to see Mr Charlton gradually lose his inhibitions and join the gang who were never going to take no for an answer.

In keeping with the book’s Shakespearean roots, the Larkins are all nature-lovers. They all know, however, that the chickens in the yard will end up on the table sooner or later, they’ll have had a good life though.

This short book was absolutely charming, full of good humour with some sparkling dialogue.  It’s a top class gentle comedy, and the good news is that Bates wrote five Larkins novels, so I’ve got four more to look forward to, as I fell in love with this cheeky family. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. Penguin paperback 160 pages.
The Darling Buds of May

Four candles? No, fork’andles. ‘Andles for forks!

For anyone in the world who doesn’t know what I’m going on about, I suggest you pop over here and watch this sketch by the Two Ronnies, which is one of the funniest things ever, (and Wikipedia explains the whole thing further).

There’s a whole industry of tribute merchandise that has grown up around the Four Candles sketch. Loads of T-shirts … but also candles.


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Why the four candles? Well Gaskella is four today!

Thank you to everyone who has ever visited, returned, subscribed, linked, commented on, or just passed through my blog. I do hope to see you all again.

Meanwhile help me celebrate with another GIVEAWAY!  I’ve saved up four of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year but don’t have space to store, to give to you. They’re all in near new condition – just a little edge scuffing, no spine creases. It’s open world-wide, but outside Europe, mailing will be by surface. Pick which book you’d like to win, or go for a random draw. You have until tea-time on Friday 21st to enter.

Just tell me the best book you’ve read this year, that I’ve not read. You might want to check on my 2012 Reading List and Titles Index, both tabbed at the top of the page.  So, here are the books on offer, with links to my reviews…

  • Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes (Review)
  • On the Cold Coasts by Vilborg Davidsdottir (Review)
  • The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (Review)
  • I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh (Review)

Good luck!