Shroud by John Banville

Picador, 2002, 416 p. (Borrowed from a threatened library.)

 Shroud cover

Axel Vander, an elderly academic on the east coast of the US, one-eyed and gammy-legged due to an unfortunate incident many years before, is contacted by a young woman who says she knows the secret of his past. They both travel to neutral ground, Turin, to meet. She is Catherine Cleave, called Cass. Somewhat precipitately, a sexual relationship begins between them. Though predominantly Vander’s story, even before their first encounter the narrative switches between their two viewpoints, his in first person, Cass’s in third.

His secret is that in the dark times of the early 1940s “Vander” (we never learn his “real” name) took on the identity of a childhood friend after that friend died and identity became something potentially dangerous. As a result, “Mendacity is second, no, is first nature to me. All my life I have lied …. to escape, to be loved, for placement and power. I lied to lie.”

Cass isn’t a simple blackmailer though quite why she seeks Vander out, or becomes his lover, remains obscure. And in the end it avails her nothing. She hears voices, as she suffers from Mandelbaum’s syndrome, a complex condition encompassing depression and delusion. She knows all about the Turin Shroud, which she wants them to visit together. (“He said he knew about fakes.”) Is there just a touch of the “too knowing” about this? Did Banville choose Turin for his setting only because of the Shroud – an obvious metaphor for the identity “Vander” has been wearing for most of a lifetime?

But Vander also compares himself to Harlequin, an inexplicable creature with no relationship with other human beings, and says, “I am an old leopard, my spots go all the way through.” His excuse for taking up with Cass is, “She was my last chance to be me,” asking rhetorically, “Is not love the mirror of burnished gold in which we contemplate our shining selves?” Then again, “There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text.”

When he professes to love Cass and tells Kristina Kovacs, his fellow academic and former one night stand, that he is willing to let her go, she replies, “Oh Axel, only someone incapable of love could love so selflessly.” A tale of contradictions, then, and of deceptions, revealed and unrevealed.

Be warned that Banville is fond of the obscure word or two. I hadn’t previously come across apocatastasis (restoration to the original or primordial condition) and pococurantish (demonstrating a tendency toward indifference.)

Pedant’s corner:- “the glass is clear” (The bottle banks have this wrong. Except when it is frosted, all glass is clear – even coloured glass: Banville meant colourless.)

Two More Glasgow War Memorials

These are in the grounds of the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow; near the Cameronians Memorial.

First the West of Scotland Branch of the Normandy Veterans Association Memorial:-

West of Scotland Normandy Landings Memorial

Nearby is the City of Glasgow Squadron Auxiliary Air Force Memorial. (One of the squadron’s Spitfires is on display in the Museum):-

City of Glasgow Squadron War Mem

2015 Hugo Awards

Old news now I suppose. The results are here.

The Hugo Awards are, or at least have been, arguably the most prestigious in Science Fiction.

This year is notable for “No Award” coming first in five of the categories: thus equalling the total of “No Award” for all previous winners in the entire history of the Hugos. This would therefore be an odd phenomenon.

The explanation, for those who are unaware of the stushie, is that two groups of fans calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies tried to game the system by creating lists of recommendations in the various categories and asking those of like mind to nominate these and vote for them in the final ballot. All of which is perfectly within the rules.

The beef of the puppies appears to be (I summarise) that they think the Hugos have in recent years been taken over by political correctness with people of colour, other minorities and women being (in their view) disproportionately represented on award lists. One faction of the puppies ascribes this as due to the actions of what they call “Social Justice Warriors.”

Another viewpoint is that since they failed to win in previous years the Puppies are just bad losers.

An overview of the controversy is here.

The Puppies claim that the stories which have been winning have been unreadable. This is certainly not true of last year’s novel winner Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I have this year’s novel winner The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Cixin Liu sitting on my bed-side cabinet awaiting reading for review in Interzone. I understand that had another nominee, put on the Puppies’ list without the author’s agreement, not withdrawn from the contest The Three-Body Problem would not have made it to the final ballot. This looks ironic given the Puppies’ view of minorities. (In Hugo terms a Chinese author is definitely a member of a minority.)

To counter the Puppy strategy some people had advocated voting “No Award” in every category in this year’s ballot. Quickly scanning the results it seems to me that the voters have taken their responsibilities seriously. The nuclear option of blanket “No Award” has been eschewed. Instead “No Award” seems to have been used in the sense for which it was intended; that if the voters considered no nominee merited the award they placed “No Award” first, otherwise they placed it after nominations considered worthy.

It may be, though, that the Hugo Awards are now damaged beyond repair.

Glasgow’s Art Deco Heritage 16: University of Glasgow

I don’t know precisely which building this is. It’s near the Physics (or is it still Natural Philosophy?) Building. I caught a glimpse of it on the path up from the Western Infirmary to the University but I couldn’t see a way round to its other side. Maybe next time I’m in the west end.

Art Deco Building, Univ of Glasgow

Dumbarton 0-2 Queen of the South

SPFL Tier 2, The Rock, 22/8/15.

OK. I admit it. It’s me. I’m the jinx.*

The three games we’ve won this season I’ve not been at. The three we haven’t won, I have. (Though this was the first time I’ve seen us beaten over 90 minutes.) And Queen of the South also kept their record of never having lost a goal at the Rock.

Queens were also more than a cut above either Queen’s Park or East Fife. They never looked in danger of losing said goal. I’ve just looked at the stats and they pretty much confirmed my impression. We only threatened with a Willie Gibson free-kick which the keeper pushed round the post.

Their first goal came when Mark Docherty got done by their wide man. The cross wasn’t cut out, came right across the goal and former Son Ian Russell did what he always does against us.

The second goal killed it (but to be fair, the first one had.) We switched off at a corner kick, allowing it to be played short and a cross to come in. Keeper Mark Brown was left exposed to try to contest the ball with their forward. Brown missed, the forward didn’t.

After that it was only a case of would they increase their lead? We never looked like reducing it. Debutant loanee Scott Brown came on but didn’t have much time to influence things, plus had a few wayward passes. Maybe when he’s had time to integrate with the squad. Midfielder Jon Routledge was given Sonstrust MOM. I couldn’t disagree. But he and Kevin Cawley were the only bright sparks. Garry Fleming just doesn’t look like a centre forward. He and strike partner Steven Craig never got into the game. From what I’ve seen of us so far this season it seems we’re going to struggle to score goals apart from set pieces. We got precious few set pieces today.

The main reason I went today was to try to buy a home top from the club shop. The queue before kick-off was so long I’d have missed some of the game. There was a steward blocking access at half time. At full time there was a sign up saying the shop was shut. I came home with no new top.

*I’m thinking of giving the game at Falkirk on Friday a miss. But it’s on BBC Alba. Will watching it on the TV make a difference?

PS:- I’m sad to see from the club website that three season stalwart Andy Graham has left “by mutual consent.” I think it’s fair to say new boss Stevie Aitken didn’t fancy him as first choice centre half. Sons fans will have fond memories of Andy. In particular his performance at Pittodrie in the cup quarter-final in season 2013-4 was immense.

Art Deco in Asmara

The Guardian this week published several pieces about the African country of Eritrea, which is ruled by a repressive regime.

The Guardian briefing about the country is here.

Two of these articles were, however, illustrated by photographs of Art Deco buildings – a relic of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) of which Eritrea was then a part.

I couldn’t find all of the photos from the print editions on the Guardian website but the main piece on the Art Deco buildings is here.

The Fiat Building in Eritrea’s capital Asmara is simply stunning:-

Fiat Building Asmara

This is the Cinema Impero in Asmara:-

Cinema Impero Asmara

And here is a café interior:-

Cafe in Asmara

The photographs shown here are credited in the Guardian to Natasha Stallard/Brownbrook.

Reelin’ In the Years 106: Teenage Rampage

I’ve not done one of these for a while.

The Sweet: Teenage Rampage

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

Queen’s Park 0-0 Dumbarton

aet 1-0. Scottish Challenge Cup, Hampden Park, 18/8/15.

Any triumphalism is now put firmly on hold.

Again we faced a lower league team packing the defence – Queen’s had six across the back at times* – again we failed to break them down.

OK, we did get a penalty right at the end of normal time but Garry Fleming blasted it over the bar.

I never at any time felt that we would lose a goal but then in the first half of extra time we did. Andy Graham dwelled too long on the ball near our penalty area and ended up losing it, leaving us undermanned at the back. The free attacker stroked the cross in.** After that we were a bit more open as we pushed up and there were a couple of close things. Our best efforts were a Willie Gibson free kick their goalie saved and a Garry Fleming effort with his right foot when his left might have been a better bet. He’s not really convincing as a centre forward.

Were the players perhaps not too bothered about this game? The league is probably more important. If so I hope they’re more focused when the Scottish Cup comes round. I wouldn’t like to see us exit that this way.

This was my first view of the revamped Hampden; a vast bowl of a stadium. A weird sight indeed with its serried ranks of empty seats. The attendance was apparently 587. I had meant to take my camera but left home in a bit of a rush and forgot it. Next time we play Queen’s? (I can’t see us being back at Hampden any other way.)

*Queen’s had a player with number 10 on his back playing at centre back. This is a defilement of the spirit of football. A no 10 shirt rightly belongs to a fantasista.

**Edited to add:- The linesman put up his flag for an attacker offside (who looked to be on the bye-line from where we were) in the run-up to Andy Graham losing the ball. For some reason the ref overruled the flag.

The Comet Sublimes

As viewed from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko sprays out gas just twelve hours before its closest approach to the sun (on this pass.) From Astronomy Picture of the Day, 15/8/15.

APOD 15/8/15

Pecdant’s corner:- USian alert? The APOD page says the comet’s primordial ices are sublimating. That would be subliming, then. In my understanding to sublimate is to suppress or divert an instinct.

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