Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Sin of Father Mouret

Zut alors! The fifth book in Zola's Rougon Macquart series achieved the remarkable feet of being completely mad, but also incredibly dull. The plot is straightforward enough: a fanatical priest has a nervous breakdown, gets sent to a remote country house to recuperate, falls in love with a 16-year-old girl, gets her up the duff, returns to the priesthood and drives her to suicide. That will save you from ever having to read the book.

For a so-called realist, Zola seems to have been under the influence of something when he wrote this book, with its interminable descriptions of plants and the crude metaphors for the fecundity of nature. The result reads like Gardeners World meets Debbie Does Dallas (not that I've ever watched Gardeners World, you understand), but is considerably less entertaining.

It's strange how such a great writer can be so erratic. I could understand if he was an enfant terrible who went off the boil or, conversely, got better with each work. But with the Rougon Macquart novels, the quality varies dramatically from book to book.

I'm now reading the sixth book, His Excellency Eugene Rougon and although the jury's still out, it's a definite improvement on its predecessor, thank God. Once that's finished I can reward myself with the first of Zola's great novels, L'assamoir. I can't wait.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Not how I meant it to sound...

A DVD-sized package lands on our doormat.

'What's this?' asks my wife, who remembers that I promised to stop buying DVDs.

''s a pirate copy of a film Jenny Agutter made when she was 15'

It is only when I see my wife's arched eyebrows that I realise how this sounds. She knows that like most men of my age I have a thing about Jenny Agutter, but has it reached the point where I'm buying dodgy DVDs of films she made when she was underage?

I try to explain the plot of the film, saying that she plays a schoolgirl but I realise that I'm digging deeper. Admittedly the sight of Jenny Agutter in school uniform appealed to me when I first saw the film, but in mitigation I was a schoolboy at the time. What impressed me most was the ordinariness of the setting and Agutter's brilliant performance and I have wanted to see the film again for years, but it has never been released on DVD.

I convince my wife that if she watches the film with me, she'll understand its appeal. She is still not convinced but agrees to see the beginning with me. Ten hours later we are sitting on the sofa watching the film and within minutes my wife agrees that it is brilliant.

I Start Counting was filmed in 1968 and is set in an anonymous new town in the south of England. The film is ostensibly a murder mystery, but the thriller element is incidental as the real theme of the movie is change and growth. We see Jenny Agutter's character changing from a child into an adult against a backdrop of a town where old buildings and a traditional way of life are being destroyed to make way for the new. As for Agutter's acting, it was one of the best things I've ever seen.

It's a mystery why this wonderful film hasn't been commercially released when so much rubbish is available on DVD. I would have thought that Agutter's name alone would guarantee commercial success. There are some decent pirate copies available on Ebay and until the film's owners have the good sense to make it available to the public, I'd strongly recommend buying one.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Brief encounter

I'm standing on the platform at Clapham Junction waiting for the doors of the train to open. Through the glass I can see a huge black man who looks as if he could beat up Mr T with his little finger. He has no discernible neck and seems to consist of pure muscle. During the five seconds that it takes for the doors to open, I have already managed to imagine a whole life for him and wonder what it must be like to know that you could beat the crap out of anyone you liked. What would I do with that power?

The doors open and I notice that he's holding a paperback in his right hand. A novel. As we pass each other I quickly look down to see what the book is. If I was locked in a room for a month, I would never guess the answer.

He's reading Catherine Cookson.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What do these two pictures have in common?

What's the common thread linking the items in these photos, which include a first edition hardback of Thomas Harris's novel Hannibal, a boxed VHS set of Sex in the City, videos of David Attenborough's documentary The Blue Planet and paperback copies of The Da Vinci Code and The Lovely Bones?

The answer is that they are all rubbish. Literally. Every item would have been dumped in a landfill site if the staff at the local refuse and recycling centre hadn't rescued them from people's dustbin bags. This is the room where all of the retrieved items are kept. There are CDs, picture frames, a bird cage, a four-volume Cassell History of England and, for some unknown reason, hundreds of golf balls.

I realise that VHS cassettes are now obsolete, although I would have thought that there are enough people with VCRs who would happily pay a nominal sum for many of these titles. It is appalling to think that they are probably going to end up buried in the ground, poisoning the soil.

But what really hurt was the books. I can't bring myself to throw any books away, not because I think they're sacred (I've worked too long in the book trade for that) but because I know that there are people out there who will read them. The books in the photo included novels by Stephen King, John Grisham, Peter Robinson, Josephine Cox, Michael Crichton and James Patterson - all bestselling authors. I'm sure that if these books' owners had bothered donating them to the local charity shop then they would have sold.

I visited this dump earlier today and deliberately took my son with me, as he's going through a very materialistic phase and spends most of his spare time pouring through the Argos catalogue. So far I've failed to win him over and when, last week, I spent ten minutes explaining clearly and concisely why money doesn't bring happiness he replied 'Dad, that's the most stupid argument I've ever heard.'

However today I think I made an impression. He seemed genuinely shocked by the piles of discarded computer monitors, televisions and electrical goods and when we entered the hut with the books, I saw a look of dismay and incredulity. We walked back to the car in silence as if we were leaving a burial. I wondered what the world would be like for my son's generation and whether we would be able to change things before it was too late, then he looked at me and said 'Dad, can I buy a fish tank?'

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What happens to the Christmas trees?

During the second week of January, a van drives around the local streets collecting people's redundant Christmas trees for a mere two pounds (which goes to charity). This year we had the smallest tree in the street by far. I like to think that this is because we are not vulgar and ostentatious. Our neighbours would say it's because we can't afford a decent tree.

Although it was small enough to throw in a bin, we dutifully paid up and watched our tree disappear to...well, where? Where do Christmas trees go? Are they burned in a huge Viking-style funeral pyre, pulped in a big Christmas tree crushing machine, or turned into Ikea furniture? To be honest I'd never really given the matter that much thought, but whether I cared or not, today I had my answer.

Some miles away there is an area of woodland which has been traced back to prehistoric times. It is very peaceful and the only sounds you can hear are birdsong, the twigs cracking underneath your feet and the panting of an approaching libidinous German shepherd.

But just beyond these woods there is a clearing, full of tiny Christmas trees...

I assumed that these conifers were part of an ordinary plantation, but during a visit today I noticed a baubel, dangling from one of the lower branches of a tree, then I spotted some tinsel and holly. This is where our Christmas trees go. Not to die, but to recover until they're ready for the next pantomime season.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Have you ever heard of sleevefacing? Apparently it started in Cardiff last year and is now a worldwide phenomenon with dedicated pages on Facebook and YouTube, with a book due to be published later in the year. So what is it?

If I said that sleevefacing was the art of holding a record sleeve photo in front of your face and taking a photo, that probably wouldn't sound very impressive. However, look at some of the results...

Amazing stuff. I can't wait for the book.

I knew nothing about sleevefacing until I read this item which is tucked away on the BBC News website. There is something touching about people going to so much effort over this essentially pointless activity. And they do it so well.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


A senior official advised ministers that a survey saying 655000 Iraqis died due to the war was "robust". - BBC News, March 2007

Is it just me, or has the word robust become one of the most irritating cliches in Britain during the last year? Every time a politician, public servant or businessman is being grilled by the media, they invariably mention this word at some point in the interview and it seems as if no Government initiative is worth it's salt unless it's 'robust'.

In the context of interviews, people usually use robust to describe a remedy for a balls-up. We don't want to hear the truth, which is 'We buggered it up but next time we'll try to be less crap' so instead we're told that measures are being introduced which will be more robust. Occasionally it's deemed necessary to introduce measures that are robust and resilient.

I would like to impose a cliche tax that would be imposed every time certain words or phrases were uttered. I would definitely include the following:

Yummy mummy
It's not rocket science
Going forward
High end
Moving the goalposts

Ballpark figure
Fast track
Core values
Get over it
At the end of the day

Heads up
Go the extra mile

And while we're at it, let's have a moratorium on cool, yay, hey and I'm good thanks.

Are we singing from the same hymn sheet?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Conquest of Plassans

I have just finished the fourth book in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of novels - only another sixteen to go. I might die first.

I started my quest in August 2006 which I realise is rather slow, but that's the only way I could face doing it. The received wisdom is that whilst Zola is a great writer he was also an erratic one and at least half of the Rougon Macquart novels aren't very good, which is why no modern translations exist for them.

I approached reading all twenty books like a marathon (not that I've ever run one).

I'd start full of energy and although the first six books weren't great I'd have the promise of L'assamoir (or The Drinking Den as it now seems to be called) to aim for. From then on, as my spirits flagged, the number of refreshment breaks would increase: Nana, Germinal, Earth, La Bete Humaine and The Debacle to get me through to the final novel, Doctor Pascal. However, after struggling through the third book - The Fat and the Thin - I was surprised to find myself completely bowled over by The Conquest of Plassans.

Zola was a social realist and his descriptions of France during the Second Empire are incredibly vivid. But sometimes, when Zola switches into panoramic mode, he gets carried away. The third novel successfully evokes the atmosphere of the Parisian markets, but there are only so many descriptions of fruit, vegetables and fish that one needs. As Roxette sang, Don't bore us, get to the chorus.

I approached The Conquest of Plassans with all the enthusiasm of someone reading a set text, but within a few pages I was hooked. The strength of this novel lies with the main characters, from the Rasputin-like Abbe Faujas to Francois Mouret, who is the nearest thing that French literature has to Homer Simpson. This was almost a great novel and it's a mystery why no modern translation exists.

Apart from the sharply-drawn characters, the other asset of this novel is that the narrative rarely flags and Zola resists the urge to describe every single item on a table. It is only let down by the unnecessarily melodramatic James Bond ending, which seems out of character with the subtle interplay of the first 280 pages. But that aside, this is a very enjoyable read and if you don't want to trawl through all twenty novels in the Rougon Macquart sequence, I'd strongly recommend La Conquete.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The view from the ground...

It's February 9th and I'm lying on the ground, basking in the sun. If it wasn't for the bare branches of the trees above me, I'd swear it was late March. I'm wary of attributing every spell of good weather to global warming, but I do remember having proper seasons rather than variations on a theme.

My son didn't want to come out. He has spent the whole week looking forward to playing Sly 2 on his Play Station, which I foolishly bought him for Christmas. I have grown to hate it. Every session ends in tears and shouting because it's impossible to save the game unless he's completed a level. But it's not unreasonable to ask him to stop after a couple of hours is it?

I am waiting for the day when he asks me why I waste even more time writing and reading blogs. I have prepared my arguments, which I only half believe.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

I'm chavin' it...

What's going on with McDonald's? I thought the whole idea was that the food was crap but at least it was fast and cheap. The other day I visited one of their restaurants for the first time in years, forced there by torrential rain, insatiable hunger and the absence of any alternative.

At first everything looked normal. There were the usual crackhead mums shoving fries into toothless infants whilst checking their phones for texts, a couple of old ladies hiding in the corner wistfully remembering the Lyons tea rooms and a lad in a shell suit who wasn't eating anything but seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere, judging by the moronic grin on his face.

But the food was completely different - healthy salads, fruit juices and wraps seemed to dominate the menu. Where were the quarterpounders dripping in grease, or the milkshakes consisting of 22 sugars and wood pulp (allegedly)?

I tentatively approached the counter and asked for one quarterpounder and a medium strawberry shake (I took great care to remember to omit the word milk). A girl with very poor skin looked up and asked 'Dwanamildil?' Thinking that there was a misunderstanding, I repeated my order and she repeated her question, adding 'It's cheapar.' I nodded and paid double what I was expecting before being told that I would have to wait. Wait! What has happened to fast food?

Five minutes later, Fagash Lil ambled over and wiped my table. My God, it's almost waitress service now. I felt as if I had been in a coma for twenty years.

This must be the post-Supersize Me McDonald's, trying to claw back its market share after several years of declining sales. It was a strange experience, but I'm relieved to say that the quarterpounder and milkshake tasted the same as they did in 1994, right down to those bloody gherkins. Indeed, like cockroaches after a nuclear holocaust, I bet the gherkins will still be there in 50 years' time.

Living frugally

I am not down-shifting, as I never up-shifted in the first place, but my financial circumstances are becoming a little precarious and I've recently embarked on a drive to live more frugally. At first the prospect of tightening the purse strings seemed fairly depressing, but the reality has been quite different. Indeed, in many ways it has been liberating.

Until I sat down and looked at our finances I had no idea how much money we were wasting, either by buying things we didn't need or paying too much when cheaper alternatives were available.

With these few simple actions I have saved over a thousand pounds:
  • Renting DVDs instead of buying them
  • Getting gas and electricity from the same supplier
  • Buying as many 'value range' dry goods as possible at the supermarkets
  • Joining the local toy library
  • Selling stuff on Ebay
Ebay has been particularly useful. I have been selling proof copies and first editions of novels and although the results have been mixed (15 pounds for a proof of Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, but no takers for a signed first edition of Saturday) I have made a bit of money and cleared some space. I've also sold DVDs and CDs and as I parcel up each sold item, I feel a sense of relief. The house is becoming emptier and more manageable.

It's strange how, within two generations, we've gone from being oppressed by an absence of things to an excess of possessions. My mother remembers the constant worry of not having enough money to buy essential things like clothes. Today, many wardrobes are bulging with unworn items.

I think things will change - they have to - and it's possible that the end of the consumer society as we know it will spell disaster, as our whole economy is based on persuading people to buy things they don't need. However, as long as we're not starving or shivering, we may be better off for it.

Monday, February 04, 2008


I know that this blog has become increasingly dull during the last few months. There are reasons for this, which I won't bore you with at the moment. To the few of you who still bother visiting The Age of Tedium, I promise to make amends in the not too distant future. But mine isn't the only boring blog. I have wasted an inordinate amount of time recently clicking the next blog button and visiting what is supposedly a random selection from the Blogosphere, although it does seem to favour Brazil for some strange reason.

I would say that at least 90% of the blogs I've seen are very dull. Most of them also seem to fall within a rather limited number of categories:

  • American family blogs, full of references to Jesus and the local church
  • Arty photos with long poems in Spanish
  • Sites claiming that a 22-year-old in Bracknell wants to be my 'fuck buddy'
  • Boring techno-geek sites about software
  • Journals of Asian high school kids written in 'txtspk'
  • Photos of newly born babies, usually with ghastly names like Kai or Teanna-Lee
  • Blogs by craft enthusiasts, displaying their latest piece of knitwear
  • Travel journals full of stunning landscapes that make me feel jealous
  • Random selections of photos of hunky celebs, cute animals and 'funny' pictures
  • The wit and wisdom of the President of Iran
I have just decided to give some substance to my rant by doing a quick blogsurf and it has confirmed my prejudices. I found two baby sites - one child was called Peyton, the other had the even more absurd name of Londyn. The USA certainly has cornered the market in silly names, but wherever the Americans go, Britain blindly follows and we are catching up.

I found a couple of Asian teenager sites with sentences like these: here we are ^^ -he is my secondary skul fren- frenship forever k?! n...dun scare of driving lar...

I've no idea why President Ahmadinejad should feature so prominently. The worst thing is that a lot of what he says make sense. Maybe there's a Muslim fundamentalist inside me waiting to get out, as I also once found myself thinking that Bin Laden had a point as well. But would I have to believe in God and grow a beard?

I once set myself a target to find a site that would be interesting enough to bookmark within 50 clicks. I failed. There were no John Selfs, Fiction Bitches or Bookseller Crows. Not even the least book-related book-related blog that you're reading now. So if you're consumed with doubt about the point of blogging and the quality of your material, just look at the competition.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Happy Birthday Elisabeth Sladen

If you're of a certain age (i.e over 35 or under 15), then the name Sarah Jane Smith might warm the cockles of your heart. Voted the most popular assistant in Doctor Who's 44-year history, Sarah Jane Smith left the Tardis in 1977, making a triumphant return 29 years later.

Elizabeth Sladen's portrayal of Sarah Jane was more believable than some of the screaming, 'dolly bird' assistants that preceded her. She played a character who was outwardly feisty but had a winning vulnerability.

Shockingly, I read that today is Elizabeth Sladen's 60th birthday! How has she managed to age so well? Has she utilised alien technology to slow down the aging process?

19th April 2011 - I have just posted a brief Elisabeth Sladen tribute in response to the very sad news of her death. Click here to view it.