Caputo Criscito Lievito Naturale and Caputo Viola 00 Flour

criscito1A biga or poolish is a form of bread starter or pre-ferment. Not exactly a true sourdough, it’s a way of developing complexity of flavour and a light, open texture, and still requires some planning ahead.

Since my problems with eczema* started, I’ve been experimenting with longer fermentation times for my pizza crusts. You should do this anyway, of course, but a busy life and a packed TV schedule make it too easy to opt for the lazy option of making a quick dough with 10g of instant yeast. Anyway, Saturday night pizza is sacrosanct, and it currently the only wheat-based thing I eat in a normal week.

Caputo Criscito is a means of making a long-rise dough without the need for a biga. It’s essentially dormant “ancient mother yeast”, which is reactivated in a dough by the addition of a small amount of live or instant yeast. So for a 48-hour dough, I added 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast; for a 24-hour dough I used 1/2 a teaspoon, though I could probably have gotten away with less.

Caputo sell their Criscito in a 1kg bag (it’s mixed with 00 flour), and recommend 30g per kilo of flour in a recipe. So for my 450g Saturday night pizza dough, I added a tablespoon, which worked out at 15g.

My first attempt was made with the last bit of Caputo Blue flour in the cupboard. I made the dough and left it in the fridge from Thursday night to around noon on Saturday. Then I left it out at room temperature for the early part of Saturday afternoon, before making up 3 dough balls, which I left for a couple of hours. Room temperature in our house is currently around 18°C, because we haven’t got the heating on yet and haven’t lit a fire.

The resulting dough was beautifully stretchy and cooked to an open, airy texture. I stretched it into rounds that were almost transparent in places. My wife loves thin crusts, but the cooked crust still had a structure of air bubbles, crunched when you bit into it and yet remained chewy. It was probably the best pizza dough I’d ever made.

Until this week.

pizzeriametroBIGInstead of my usual Caputo Blue, my latest 25kg bag of pizza flour is Caputo Viola (more like Lilac), a flour designed for long-rise doughs such as the tradition Roman Pizza a Metro (pizza by the metre). I obviously don’t have the means to make pizza a metro. Although I do have a rectangular barbecue stone in France that would allow for a slightly longer pizza, a longer peel or “pizza shovel” would cost about £60.

The recipe for dough made with Caputo Viola uses the whole 25kg bag (!), but I think it requires about 62% water to flour, as opposed to the 65% of Caputo Blue. In the event, I added a bit more water to make a quite wet dough.

I forgot to make it Thursday night (doh), so I made it Friday night with a little extra yeast, as I said above. Early Saturday afternoon, I divided it up into three balls, which by early evening were very well risen.

Again, this dough stretched out easily, and cooked (on the barbecue stone) to absolute perfection. The crust was crispy and chewy and put every single restaurant pizza I’ve eaten to shame. But it was also, far and away, the best crust I’ve ever made.

The only problem, for us in the UK, is getting hold of this stuff without breaking the bank. I bought mine from a vendor on Amazon, and just to buy Criscito on its own will set you back £12.09 for a 1kg bag… plus £16 delivery. I bought the Caputo Viola and Criscito in a package for £41.66, plus £26.10 delivery to the UK. This seems outrageously expensive, but if I set myself up as a Caputo distributor and used, say, Parcelforce 48 as a dispatch service, it would cost around £40 to send a 25kg parcel. So £26 is not so bad, after all. Worth it? Well, if you’re as obsessed as me, you simply cannot buy better flour in the UK.

*The eczema is currently under control, with just a hint, now and then, of itchiness on my left thigh [touches wood].

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Guerilla Media?

220px-Power_to_the_PeopleToday presenter, former political correspondent of the BBC, and obvious Tory Nick Robinson last week wrote an article in which he set out the challenges and attacks faced by the BBC and the mainstream media from the alternative media: the likes of The Canary and Westmonster.

Worth pulling apart.

Robinson raises the stakes to near hysteria when he describes all this with the language of warfare:

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise morale. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

They don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

I’m no fan of sites like the Canary. I’ve always regretted following links to them from Twitter. I don’t like the style or tone of their journalism, and I don’t like their obvious bias, even if I might share it. But they exist because of a well-founded perception that the BBC in particular has been letting us down, not just lately, but for year after year and month after month.

The BBC has a duty, baked into its charter, to be impartial. But, weasel-like, the BBC always manages to be a tacit supporter of the government of the day. Knowing full well that angry ministers can do a lot of damage to the institution via their friends in the right-wing media, the BBC is notoriously brown-nosed, no matter who is in power. They brown-nosed the neoliberal “New Labour” government too. Robinson tries to argue the opposite, citing times when government ministers complained about the BBC, but he’s being selective with the facts. He mentions Churchill complaining about the BBC during the General Strike of 1926, knowing full well that Lord Reith was ensuring that the broadcaster was quietly supportive of the government:

since the BBC was a national institution, and since the government in this crisis was acting for the people… the BBC was for the government in the crisis too.

Robinson says,

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.

This seems to imply that the BBC is spending much time reporting facts. Sure, it might tell us about a hurricane or two, feeding the usual oh dearism, but the real beef these alt. news sources have with the BBC is with political coverage, and in particular its apparent inability to be impartial to the truth.

This is what they do: debate. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their days at Oxford or Cambridge, but notwithstanding BBC editors’ love for them, debates can be rigged. For example, a debate between a completely unqualified and paid-for climate change denier (e.g. Nigel Lawson) and an actual climate scientist is not unbiased. Robinson justifies the airing of Lawson’s lies on behalf of the oil industry secretive charitable foundation he ‘founded’ with the idea that people with ‘alternative views’ should not be silenced:

They should be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so.

But Lawson didn’t “get his facts wrong”. He’s paid to tell lies on behalf of a powerful lobby, which hides the sources of its funding behind charitable status. By all means, get him on and challenge the “views” he’s paid to have. But make it fucking clear to the listeners that he’s there representing not ‘alternative views’ but the tiny and wealthy membership of a ‘charitable’ foundation that seems to be swimming in mysterious money.

Claim and counterclaim: that’s most often what the BBC reports when it comes to political issues. And they structure reports so that the most ‘important’ person goes first, and any responses to the claim being made are buried further down in the story. And in-studio debates, notoriously, are stage managed and constantly interrupted by hectoring presenters (or other guests who won’t shut up), hurried along, and cut short by artificially generated arbitrary deadlines dictated by weather bulletins and news summaries.

What the BBC could do, but never does, is demonstrate an impartiality to the truth. Rather than allowing, say, Boris Johnson to make a completely false claim about the amount of money that would go to the NHS following Brexit, the presenter could stop him — in his tracks — and point out that he’s lying. Could quote the Office of National Statistics at him, and therefore let him know in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to get away with telling such a lie on a BBC news programme. The popularity of a recent clip of NBC journalists challenging a lying contributor shows how hungry the public are for this kind of thing.

But they don’t do that. Instead, they demonstrate ‘impartiality’ by having someone else in the studio to make another claim that Johnson is lying, which just makes it all seem like a game, with the ‘winner’ being the person who repeats themselves the most, shouts the loudest, or speaks last, before the arbitrarily imposed cut-off point. This suits Johnson and his ilk down to the ground, insulated as he is by his family money from the consequences of anything he says.

Unfortunately, the alt. media that have come along are mainly just offering a different kind of bias. For Robinson to talk about these news sources as waging a war against the BBC/MSM is disingenuous in the extreme, because the real and present threat to the BBC has always been from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press, the Dailies Mail, Express, and Telegraph who have no interest in reporting the truth and every interest in destroying a national institution they see as a barrier to their profits.

The BBC follows their news agenda, focuses on their obsessions, giving disproportionate time to the bugbears of the political right: immigrants and the “undeserving poor”, and continually failing to reveal when contributors are representatives of right-wing thinktanks, or corporations, or simply nutty minority pressure groups. They give airtime to the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, offer blanket coverage of everything UKIP does, but more or less ignore, say, the Green Party, which probably has more members and more widespread support. And they repeated the attacks on Corbyn from the press as if they were news, lending credence to the idea that they are all Tories.

Star Trek: Discovery

star-trek-discovery-klingonsThis new Star Terk Trek arrived on Netflix UK without much fanfare. There was no more hype for it than there was for The Expanse, and there were no critic previews, so no big reviews dropped in the runup.

All of which makes me, someone who watched first run Kirk Terk on the BBC in 1969–70, slightly nervous about this series.

The double pilot episode of Star Trek Disco did not exactly make clear what the show’s premise is, and I don’t want to look it up, so all I have to go on is that we have a human protagonist raised by Vulcans who, as a first officer on USS Shenzhou is overdue for her first command. I think we’re around the time period of the Krik era, but there’s no sense that the timelines are going to overlap. I don’t think it’s going to be graphic designers in space, though.

But there are Vulcans, including Sarek, Spock’s father, and there are… Klingons.

Original series Klingons were simply heavily made-up white (?) men with fancy facial hair. Then came the brown-skinned people with forehead ridges on TNG. And now we have a range of skin tones including jet black and albino and more facial prosthetics than seems decent. 8 hours in the makeup chair etc.

But here’s the thing. Klingons are the most boring people in the Rats Kert universe. It’s like watching a rugby team play drinking games. And, oh, the subtitles.

Over the two pilot episodes, it felt like 50% of the time a bunch of actors in uncomfortable prosthetics were hacking up phlegm, and you had to read bloody subtitles, which weren’t about anything other than the usual Klingon blach blach blach.

So, the story, about an incident on the edge of Federation space that sets off a war, is a bit of a drag, and the pacing is badly affected by the extended sequences of people in rubber masks with hacking coughs. Groan.

And even after a feature length opening, our protagonist isn’t on a ship called Discovery, and in fact we haven’t been introduced to the ship. Nice title sequence, though.

B’TWIN HOPTOWN 500 FOLDING ELECTRIC BIKE

UPDATE: the bike has gone back to the shop for a refund. See below for why.

The other electric bicycle

As a counterbalance to the snarking from people concerning e-bikes being a form of “cheating”*, I like to enthuse about them whenever I can. It took a year or so, but eventually my wife couldn’t resist the siren call.

big_581d9bafe1a2480c8f1259ee16f079cf
Hoptown Top Ranking

The difference between us, though, is that while I was willing to spend around £3k of money-I-didn’t-have on my Kalkhoff, my Mrs will only spend a smaller amount of money-she-does-have. For me, I could have spent £1k, but I didn’t have that money, either, so whatevs.

So, with budget being an issue, she wasn’t ever going to get the bike I’d picked out for her in my money-no-object fantasies. (That, by the way, would be something like the Riese and Müller Nevo, in a build with a carbon belt drive and a hub gear – which would cost between £2879 and £3779 ) So, to Decathlon we repaired, and considered their range of reasonably-priced (and, to be fair, quite well reviewed) e-bikes. If you’re on a budget, they’re not bad.

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Riese and Müller Nevo

Bonus fact: the French government offer an up-to €200 refund, in order to encourage fitness and cycling.

Bonus bonus fact: Decathlon seem to have added this into the € price, because the one she got is just £599 in the UK.

Decathlon offer a town bike style model, the Elops, with a rear hub motor and a couple of price points, based mainly on battery size/life. But the model that caught my wife’s eye, not just because of its price, was the Hoptown 500, a folding electric bike. (https://www.decathlon.co.uk/C-811556-electric-bikes)

The Hoptown comes with a 6-speed Shimano drivetrain (derailleur), ergonomic grips, a gel saddle, and built-in front and rear lights. It has a 6Ah battery that gives a relatively small range of 15-25 km, which is good enough for going around town and for a short commute. If you have facilities for charging the battery at work, you could commute longer. For reference, my Kalkhoff’s enormous battery is around 13Ah, I think, so twice the capacity. And – because I am cycling fit – I’m getting up to 72 km (45 miles) of range on Turbo mode, which is the highest level of assist. So I can go to-and-from work (24 mile round trip) twice on a charge – possibly having to drop it down to Sport mode for the last bit.

big_b9d303f15bdc433fa45972a24c5fe2bcNow, the idea that a normal person would be able to lug this Hoptown thing onto the train and commute with it is laughable. It still weighs a lot for a folding bike. But for an electric model, it’s relatively lightweight. Furthermore, whereas my bike is too heavy to go on the car without the addition of an expensive tow-bar and platform bike carrier combination, the Hoptown actually folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car. It was even possible to load up all our summer holiday luggage (including art equipment, a guitar and amp, and the usual bags) and still get the Hoptown into the boot.

So. It’s an ideal solution for someone who wants to buy an e-bike and use it in two locations.

A test ride in the Decathlon car park was arranged, and, happy with it, we set off home with it in the boot.

Not so fast. The only model they had in the shop was the display model, and they couldn’t find the charger. Huh. So an employee drove over to the next town’s store (Montbéliard is just 22km from Belfort), and brought over another model, giving us the charger from that. Visions of Decathlon robbing the charger from Peter to give it to Paul until the end of time.

A few km from home, I dropped my Mrs off with the bike, and left her to ride into Giromagny and then home. This would be a good test of the bike, as the journey from Giro to Auxelles involves at least three pretty hard climbs.

Not long afterwards, she phoned me to complain that the bike’s motor had cut out. I drove out to meet her, and encountered some strange behaviour. Getting on the bike myself, I set off pedalling and the motor kicked in. And then failed again.

So the excuses started. It must be that the battery, which appeared to be fully charged in the show room, was still awaiting its first overnight charging cycle. Batteries are really the most vexatious aspect of modern life, aren’t they? We left it on charge overnight, and the next day fired up the bike again for Maiden Voyage Part 2: I Tell You, This Ship Is Absolutely Unsinkable.

Worked for a bit. Failed. Worked for another bit. Failed. Seemed to work again after using the brake, as if the brake was a switch that turned the motor on and off. Huh.

So we phoned Decathlon and arranged to take it back. The brake-switch thing wasn’t supposed to be a thing, they said.

Since they had the bike they’d “borrowed” from Montbéliard, they gave us that one instead.

So, new bike, new battery.

No problems.

Back in the UK, the bike is deployed, and the manual informs us that the battery will reach peak efficiency after 5 charge cycles. So we deal patiently with the foibles. Sometimes the motor just cuts out. You stop, and turn it back on again, and off it goes.

One of the issues with the building-to-a-budget thing is that you miss out on what turn out to be very useful features. My Kalkhoff’s display tells me how much battery is left, how far I can go on it, and so on. My lights stay on for a few seconds/minutes even when the motor is switched off. The Decathlon’s built-in lights go off when the motor does, so if you’re riding in the dark/fog on a country lane and the motor randomly cuts out, you become invisible to traffic.

Nevertheless, it mostly seemed to be working okay. So my daughter borrowed it one morning last week to ride to work/school with me. A proper test, because it’s a 50-60 minute ride on country lanes, and about 13 miles. It seemed to go quite well, with the motor cutting out only a couple of times. Not bad! (Number of times my Kalkhoff motor cut out: 0.) Again, we made excuses. It cuts out when you’re going faster than 25kph, and to save battery it switches off? Maybe? Or it’s perhaps overheating on the hills and needs a cooling off period? Or, actually, this was a really long ride for the quoted range of this bike, so the battery was probably on its last legs by the end.

Anyway, we got there, taking about 10 minutes longer than I normally do on my bike.

Took the battery out (it’s not very big, with limited range), put it on charge, and then put it back in for the ride home. The light on the charger was green, indicating a full charge.

And this is where the problems began. The motor cut out on my daughter a lot on the way home. It seemed to happen whenever she hit a bump, but it also happened at inopportune moments: at the bottom of a steep hill, usually. So we nursed it home, sometimes having to fold and unfold the frame in order to re-engage the battery, and the excuses stopped. This thing, just like the first one we had, was faulty.

Two for two.

Luckily, Decathlon is an international retailer, so we took it over to our local store and left it overnight. 24 hours later, they called back to say that the battery had been faulty, and they’d replaced it.

So now the bike is on its third iteration, but here’s the thing.

Riding an e-bike is a pleasure. It puts a smile on your face. It’s like cycling, but without the suffering. Think about that: it’s all of the pleasure of cycling (including good cardio exercise, because you are pedalling) without any of the protestant work ethic nonsense about suffering and pain. It’s better than driving a car. You feel good, you enjoy the sunshine and the countryside, you arrive at your destination only mildly perspiring and able to go about your normal day without wobbly legs.

But if you have a constant nagging anxiety that the thing is going to randomly let you down at the bottom of a hill? Not so much.

So I have my fingers crossed that my wife’s latest bike and battery combination will be reliable, but I don’t think I’d want to risk my daughter riding to school on it. Because it’s a long ride home on a heavy bike with no assistance.

UPDATE: In the event, the replacement battery caused problems almost immediately. It arrived with a full charge, but then when we plugged it in to charge it up, the LED indicator on the charging unit remained green. So I removed the battery from the bike and tried to charge it off the bike. This seemed to be working (red indicator, changing to green after a few hours), but as soon as my wife tried to ride it: fail. All of the same symptoms we’d seen before, so we took it back to Decathlon for a final time, and got a refund. Note that the £600 refund did not cover what she actually paid for it in € (given exchange rate and transaction fees).

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==The verdict

This ought to be the entry level for a lot of people. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike and felt that push in the back and the wind in your hair, you don’t want to stop. They are A Good Thing. But, if you can afford to spend more, you should. Get more range. Get a mid-drive motor (situated around the pedal cranks), get something German or that £4000 Trek Supercommuter. Spend upwards of £2k and you’ll be a lot happier.

My wife is actually going to order a bike costing twice as much: the Raleigh Stow-E Way (2017 model shown above, reviewed here), which will be arriving, hopefully, in early October. Watch this space. It looks like a much cleaner design, and has the battery behind the seat post.

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This isn’t cheating

*If an e-bike is cheating, then so is driving any car that is not a fucking Hamleys pedal car.

The Good Place

02-good-place-season-2.w710.h473After watching so much Grim and Gritty TV in the past few weeks, I was so pleased to be able to sit down in front of the pastel coloured comedy The Good Place, starring Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), Ted Danson (Cheers, CSI) and William Jackson Harper (The Electric Company).

Thanks to my podcast listening, I was aware of this show and its premise, and even knew something about how Season 1 ended, but that did not spoil my enjoyment of this well-written, funny, intelligent show.

Kristen Bell plays Eleanor, a woman who has died in a fairly ignominious way, and now finds herself going through the process of orientation in “the good place”.

“So who was right?” she asks Ted Danson, Michael the Architect, and he tells her that most of the major religions were a little bit right, but that a stoned Canadian speculating after a heavy night managed to be around 90% right.

Essentially, your deeds in life are added up (or subtracted) from your score, and if you come down with a high enough positive score, you go to the Good Place. Eleanor immediately realises that there has been a mistake: she definitely does not belong here. There has been a clerical error. This is confirmed when a note comes under her door with words to that effect. Living in fear of being exposed, Eleanor works with her “soul mate” (Harper), who is not her soul mate, to try to become a better person, and so fit in with her morally superior neighbours.

Each episode manages to be packed with many funny lines and situations as well as philosophical and ethical conundrums, along the lines of, is it ever okay to lie? Or, do motives matter? Or, do the ends justify the means? Such questions are familiar staples of beginner philosophy courses and give the show, which is at root a 22-minute single-camera comedy, a surprisingly intelligent depth.

I started watching in the early evening and ploughed through the whole of season 1 in one night. It’s just so watchable, and after a while each successive episode cliffhanger keeps you hooked on the basis that the next episode is not going to keep you up for very long.

I managed to stop myself just before the Season 2 opener, which I watched the following night. Netflix are dropping new episodes weekly.

Small, but perfectly formed, like its lead actor.

Recent viewings

The-Good-PlaceSeason 2 of The Expanse (finally) dropped on Netflix UK recently, and I struggled my way through it. Never has Lennon’s line from “A Day in the Life” been more germane. I kept watching, had to look, having read the book, but it was really hard not to give up on it because it was rubbish in so many ways.

Viz: 

  • The script was terrible. You can write this shit, but you can’t say it. Apparently. A perennial problem with filmed science fiction. The protomolecule and the asteroid belt and the thrusters and the vac suits. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it seem silly.
  • The acting was awful. Some really good actors can make something of a terrible script, so long as the story was good. But none of these people are convincing. Some are given too much screen time, others not enough.
  • The story was incoherent, fragmented, and slow moving. Nobody has an FTL drive, but they can hop across the solar system in minutes, when it suits them. Game of Thrones teleportation machine suited the plot in the recent Season 7, but in The Expanse, you just ask yourself what slab of rock people are running around on, and forget why.

Norsemen (Netflix), the Norwegian comedy about Vikings is like the old Chelmsford 123 with a bigger set and costume budget and a lot more gore and swearing. I found it okay, because I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly funny. With low expectations and a tolerance for nasty jokes, violence, and juvenile humour, it was watchable. The other members of my family, however, leave the room when it’s on.

Meanwhile, over on the NowTV box, Tin Star (Sky Atlantic) is a vehicle for Tim Roth, who plays a British cop relocating to that Canada for a quieter life. First episode starts off a little Northern Exposure before becoming something akin to the opening beats of Edge of Darkness. But then the whole thing becomes more like Blue Velvet, and any sense of tight plotting of a story arc deliquesces into apparently improvised scenes in which people do things that make no sense without any apparent motivation other than a thanatic* drive towards self destruction. The series had its moments, but I was left with a strong feeling that ten episodes should have been six.

American Vandal (Netflix) as a mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer, only instead of a miscarriage of justice about murder, it’s an act of vandalism: spraying dicks on staff vehicles in a High School staff car park.

Hmm. The problem I find with a lot of American humour is that it descends into scatalogical or sexual references that are probably funny if you’re the kind of person who thinks drawing cocks on whiteboards or exercise books is funny. In other words, this sophisticated parody of a certain style of documentary has a platform problem. It wants us to laugh at the serious treatment of a trivial subject — but it has a serious obsession with the trivial subject and not much else. You can’t really poke fun at these people if you are one of them.

Technically, it’s very good, and it was a good idea, but the dick jokes wear thin, and the point was well made after 3 episodes. There are 8 episodes, and the humour, notwithstanding certain reviews, was not subtle. When a reviewer says “subtle humour”, do they really mean, “not funny”? The twist ending was telegraphed too early on, also.

Finally, I got around to watching season 1 of Happy Valley (Netflix), which is well done but unremittingly grim. Like so much modern TV, it leaves you wishing for some escapism from your escapism, which is why I’m looking forward to The Good Place, which appears on Netflix UK from today.

  • Thanatos = death drive. Eros = sex drive. So Thanatic/erotic?

Calm in your eye

Okay, so we’re all a little disappointed that Florida didn’t disappear forever under a storm surge so high it reached the gold taps in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago upstairs bathroom. Mostly, though, I’m hacked off with wall-to-wall disasterporn BREAKING NEWS coverage of a storm that was always going to be in a lower category once it reached the land of the free two-for-one early bird dinner.

While I’d be the last one to let the media off the hook for their racially biased coverage (ooh, they only care if rich white people are affected), I’m pretty sure that the focus on Houston and then Florida was more to do with schadenfreude at seeing some Trump voters suffer (as they deserve to) than it was to do with concern about victims. When it comes to Texas, a climate change exacerbated disaster couldn’t happen to a nicer rabidly right-wing oil state.

And who among us wasn’t hoping that Trump’s Florida Winter Palace would be flattened by the winds?

But in the event, none of that happened because, as any fule kno, hurricanes lose force once they make landfall, and no matter how fast the winds might be, the actual storm itself moves too slowly for the 24-hour rolling updates of the 21st century News Beast to make any sense. It just gets boring. And hammers the audience for days with the spectacle of ruined lives, to which the only response is, as Adam Curtis observes above, oh dear.

As for donations: ask the banks and billionaires domiciled in the Caribbean. Ask the nation with the world’s biggest economy. Ask Texas-based ExxonMobil. Don’t try to guilt-trip the poor into helping the poorer.

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One of the kids took this photo of the sky as the thunderstorm hit

While I’m lucky not to have a long commute these days, I still undertake epic drives on a regular basis and it’s getting harder, I have to admit. This summer there were several brutal drives – the worst of which involved being blind on the road in poor weather conditions.

On the trip over, drive one, we were about to reach the end of the motorway section of the journey when we were hit by a thunderstorm so severe that the road disappeared under several centimetres of water. I’d experienced similar rain just once before, back when I was commuting 80 miles to Nottingham. I was on the M1 and it was chucking it, and the scariest bit was when I hit the brake and realised the discs were wet and — nothing happened for an extended moment.

But the M1, like most British roads, has catseyes™, those reflective glass balls of British genius, one of the few things to be proud of in this country (which is why I get the rage when they’re removed). So even on the darkest night, in the nastiest weather, you can see your lane.

When the thunder hit in France, I was driving up an incline with one of those slow vehicle lanes, but then I was at the top of the hill and the lane finished, and I couldn’t see the road, or the white lines, or the edge of the road, or the car in front of me, or the one behind me.

So I slowed down. But such caution is itself terrifying because not everyone seems to respond to danger. Or do some people just have x-ray vision? Anyway, you slow down to 50, 40, and then someone screams past you in what you think might be the outside lane, still doing 80.

And that was daylight.

The next brutal drive was when we left the East for a week on the Ile d’Yeu, and drove across France to get there. That’s 935km, 580 miles. London to Edinburgh is 396 miles, so driving across France is like driving London to Inverness.

We did it overnight, and the thunderstorm hit quite early in the drive, just as the sun had set. One minute we’re saying, ooh, look at those clouds, as we pass a service station, and within a kilometre, we were in the blackest night and I was again creeping along at 20 mph because I couldn’t see the flaming road. I crawled along for a few km, terrified of someone ploughing into our rear end at speed, and then pulled into a rest area (the kind without a service station). But it wasn’t for long, because the storm passed over and I drove on, heading away from the mountains as quick as I could.

You know when those French farmers drop loads of manure across the road in protests? I feel like dumping a lorryload of catseyes™ outside the APRR HQ.

catseyes-02

Our final brutal drive was this weekend, driving home. After a lot of warm weather, it had rained, and there was fog. So of course I was driving through the night (on 30 minutes sleep), and struggling to see the road in the absence of catseyes™. Even worse, there was a (long) diversion, taking us onto tiny, windy country backroads, which often didn’t even have white lines.

Bring on the self-driving cars, yes please.

Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Microcosmic

The Ile-d’Yeu is a 30 minute ferry journey from the French mainland, off the Vendée coast. 

vendee - 4

The Vendée is my favourite part of France: a different kind of landscape, with (I seem to recall) the second best microclimate in France. The Cote d’Azur gets first prize for sunshine, and has the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean and its beaches to boast of; but it also has overcrowding, endless traffic queues and nowhere to park. A few summers ago, we took a day trip to an island off the Southern coast, and encountered a fabulously beautiful beach on the clear turquoise sea which was a long but thin strip of sand — and there was not enough room on it to lay down a towel.

vendee - 6.jpgThe Vendée has a long coastline on the blue Atlantic (Le Grand Large) with vast sandy beaches interspersed with rocky sections which have tidal pools full of sealife. It’s a great base for a more traditional seaside holiday, for both sunbathing and rockpool exploration, for kite-flying, beach tennis, body surfing, and more. It would also be a great base for a biology/geography field trip, what with the life teeming in the rock pools and the different types of vegetation in the sand dunes as they progress inland. Best of all, even in the peak of summer season, the beaches are not so slammed that you can’t move. You can in fact spread out without finding your face in someone else’s crotch. In the South, if you manage to fight your way through the traffic and the wildfires to get somewhere; and if you manage to find somewhere to park; and if you manage to find a postage stamp sized patch of beach to sit down on, you are also surrounded by the strutting and preening of the Beautiful People (ugly oligarchs) and their giant yachts.

I love the architecture of the Vendée: white houses with red tiled roofs, blue shutters. There are variations on this, and people paint  their shutters different colours, but the traditional Vendée house has two small single-storey sections joined to a two-storey central section. The best of them squat in the dunes, or among the pines, and the sun bounces blindingly off the white sides, and there are no gutters because there’s a collective self delusion that it never rains.

vendee - 1The Ile-d’Yeu has a small port on one side, several sandy beaches, and a rocky coast with a ruined castle. Like a society, it has rules. Visitors are allowed, but not with their cars. Only islanders are allowed to have cars.

I was naively optimistic about this. Far too many beauty spots are ruined by the motor car. Let’s face it: everywhere is ruined by the motor car: towns, cities, countryside. But it’s especially jarring when you visit somewhere ancient and mediaeval, somewhere quaint and relatively untouched by modernity. I remember visiting the hillside fortress village of Gordes and being depressed by the unending stream of noisy traffic. And wherever you go, its a universal truth that even the pedestrian zones, the zones pietons, are blighted by the eternal presence of the busy-and-important person who decides  they are the exception, and so you are always dodging cars and vans as they edge forward at an ironic walking pace and you are forever encountering that peculiar sense of privileged entitlement which is a constant reminder that you live in a capitalist dystopia.

So! I was excited at the prospect of an island with very few motor cars and where everyone hires a bike. An egalitarian utopia of pedal power!

Every island is a microcosm of society

But of course, was disappointed. Of course, the people with cars, the locals, the islanders, asserted their privilege aggressively and selfishly, with no sense that they were part of a society. They treated bicycles as a nuisance to be dispatched, and were they ever determined to overtake — even if there were another 15 bicycles in front of the one they passed dangerously close — even if there was another slow-moving car in front of those 15 bicycles — and in front of that car another 15 bicycles, and so on, all the way into town. It was bicycles all the way down. But no! They must get past, because such is the privilege of car ownership. And of course, the tourists, bless them, mostly unused to the cycling life, were pathetically deferential to their superiors on four wheels and simply accepted this state of affairs, while I wanted to scream at the top of my voice, vous roulez a la vitesse d’un vélo, ou vouz achetez un vélo! Often, overtaken, I would pedal harder, catch up, overtake them, and then act as a rolling roadblock, sitting in front of them with my middle finger dancing in front of their windscreen. Fuckers! It’s not that I hate motorists; I am a motorist, after all. But I hate people who think they are more entitled, and there is no escape from them, ever. Up against the wall! Oh, okay, I admit it: I hate motorists, including myself.

vendee - 5Even worse, it turned out, that as well as hiring a bicycle from one of the myriad hire shops (including the horrifically named Bi-Clown), you could also hire shonky old cars, most of them vintage Citroens and Renaults. For a mere €80 par jour, you could lord it over the cyclists like a rich second-home owning Parisienne. What a way to conspicuously consume! Belching black smoke from a shitty old chugger for a week for the price of a half-decent bicycle. And while you’re at it, park on the pavement, why don’t you?

Eye-watering

It’s an island, so I personally don’t think longer than a week’s stay is necessary. There are only so many things to see, and the town is both small and expensive. I saw some wonderfully colourful cotton shirts, but at €70 apiece in the sale, they were beyond my means, as were most other things you saw in the shops, from tinned sardines to nautically-themed t-shirts. They did a nice line in branding: the island’s name shortened to an assertive YE on everything from polo shirts to wet bags and keyrings.

vendee - 3.jpgThe house we were renting was a  miracle in packin’  ‘em in. Including bicycle hire, we’re talking €5000 for the fortnight, split between a number of families. The first week, three or four families shared, and then we changed over for our week with four more. Each bedroom was constructed with a mezzanine, so that a poky room for two became a poky room for four. I think there were five bedrooms and at least three bathrooms. We got an ensuite bathroom to ourselves, which was a solid reminder to me that the ensuite bathroom or toilet is an abomination that Shouldn’t Be Allowed. Not with walls that thin!

The ethos was that everybody ate together, most of the time, which led to some late mealtimes as everyone drifted in and eventually got around to lighting the barbecue. If you’ve never cooked regularly for 15 people, here’s an example: one day I barbecued 2.5kg of chicken breasts with four trays of sausages, thinking this would be an excessive amount of food. The leftovers were enough to half-fill a cereal bowl. A huge pot of moules (mussels) was accompanied by four bags of oven frites. If I had my way, we’d have done our own thing, eaten when we were hungry, and not had to deal with such catering at scale.

There was lots of seafood, on which I’m not keen. Freshly caught tuna was sliced into steaks and grilled: good, especially with my improvised sweet/sour sauce made with apricot jam, vinegar, and chilli/ginger. But the next tuna brought in was eaten raw, sushi-style. Not my thing. There were also mullet, grey and red, and other huge fish (hake, I think, merlu in French), all caught locally. I would have liked the time to cook and prepare these creatively, but they were just cooked whole and consumed in scraps by the multitude.

As for bread, apparently the local bakery produced wonderful baguettes, of which 8-10 were dispatched daily. I even found a couple of fresh GF loaves on the island, and these were much better than the vacuum packed supermarket breads.

Things you realise they got wrong in Jaws

vendee - 7Jaws is set on an island, and they got right the idea that the “islanders” tolerate visitors only as an economic necessity. They also got right that arrival scene: with the hordes of people arriving by ferry from the mainland. But, in reality, most of the “islanders” are just rich people with second homes. They’re visitors themselves, and they should ride fucking bikes and stop trying to lord it over the rest of us. And the arrival scene is happening all the time, every 30 minutes, another boatload gets off to stay, and another boatload gets on to leave.

Chief Brody wanted to close “the beach” but on an island there is never just one beach:  there are lots of little beaches, and if there was a shark, there would be lots of places for it to operate, some of them — even on a small island — isolated and wild. And if there was a shark, it would probably feed 15 people.

Islands are hills in the sea

One difference between the Ile-d’Yeu and the mainland of the Vendée is that the island undulates a bit. Nothing too dramatic, but whereas much of the Vendée coast was reclaimed from the sea by Dutch geo-engineers hundreds of years ago* and is therefore mostly flat until you get about 15 miles inland, the island itself is a hill in the sea, which is higher in the middle, and has a rocky coast that does rise and descend steeply in places. None of this was beyond the ability of even temporary cyclists, but the nature of the bikes that you can hire made it harder than it ought to be.

vendee - 10The geometry of the bikes we hired was simply terrible. Even a mild incline would cause burning pain in your backside. I don’t know: the saddle wasn’t far enough back from the  pedals or something. So although you never really cycled more than a couple of kilometres at a time, you felt it in your legs when you arrived. Our longest ride was a circuit of about half the island on a day when the Atlantic swelled and there was wind and drizzling rain. It was bracing, though the younger you were, the less fun you found it. The kids and I were dreaming of a Mars bar and a coffee, and we came across a man with a van in an isolated cove who was offering both for €1 apiece to our unalloyed joy. But the youngest kid, their cousin, went into a steep decline. Problem with a cycling holiday, though: if you’re tired and you want to go home, you still have to pedal to get there.

*St. Benoist-sur-Mer, for example, is a few kilometres from the sea, these days.