Saturday, September 29, 2007

In which (some) nice things are finally said about London

"A sprawling North London parkland, composed of oaks, willows and chestnuts, yews and sycamores, the beech and the birch; that encompasses the city's highest point and spreads far beyond it; that is so well planted it feels unplanned; that is not the country but it is no more garden than Yellowstone; that has a shade of green for every possible felicitation of light; that paints itself in russets and ambers in the autumn, canary-yellow in the splashy spring; with tickling bush grass to hide teenage lovers and joint smokers, broad oaks for brave men to kiss against, mown meadows for summer ball games, hills for kites, ponds for hippies, an icy lido for old men with strong constitutions, mean llamas for mean children and for the tourists, a country house, its facade painted white enough for any Hollywood close-up, complete with a tea room, although anything you buy from there should be eaten outside with the grass beneath your toes, sitting under the magnolia tree, letting the white upturned bells of blossoms, blush-pink at their tips, fall all around you. Hampstead Heath! Glory of London! Where Keats walked and Jarman fucked, where Orwell exercised his weakened lungs and Constable never failed to find something holy"

- Zadie Smith, "On Beauty"

(Because I don't have to explain why the only place in London I would consider moving to (from three minutes away from Regents Park) is three minutes away from the Heath)

To tell you the truth, it didn't start out that way. At first, we tried to convince ourselves that we were open to other neighborhoods. We would look at it if it satisfied two conditions - a reasonably large park close by, and 15 minutes to get to Kings Cross[1] (door to National Rail). Islington lost out because of the first condition, as did most of the close-to-City neighborhoods. Bayswater lost because of the second, and the other areas around Hyde Park weren't exactly our favorite neighborhoods. Not just because we couldn't afford it. But because what will we do around diplomats and American expats and Harrods shoppers and the Notting Hill crowd? That pretty much left our little neighborhood, north of Marylebone maybe a little way up to St Johns Wood[2]. But since one of the reasons for this moving idea is that we should try some other neighborhood (the other reason being getting a little more space, if possible), we had pretty much decided not to move. Then we gave in a little and said maybe the river will do instead of the park. That gave us the London Bridge area, east of the Tower Bridge but wait, the bankers! Oh no. If we moved there, our entire year will be spent bitching about the "high IQ morons" who live around us in these convereted warehouses. I mean, imagine Bill and moi living next to these bankers in Shad Thames. See, see now. I would so do that if I was writing one of those "undercover" books, yes.

So then we gave up on everything else and said yes, Hampstead is expensive and it has just the Northern Line and its not Zone 1 BUT it has the Heath. Which we so love. If there's one place in London that you won't hear me complaining about (or comparing to the city by the lake), its the Heath. And the Northern line from Hampstead will get to Kings Cross in less than 15 minutes. We should at least check the neighborhood out. We owe it to the Heath.

So it was on a glorious Saturday morning we got on a bus to check out the neighborhood. Out of habit, we just went straight to the Heath instead of getting down at the High St. Up Parliament Hill road, into the Heath and up the Hill. As usual, random mix of locals and tourists sitting on benches enjoying the view. Photos being shot. We do our usual comedy.

"You know someone's going to shoot us one of these days. Especially if we move here"

"Hey, freedom of speech remember?"

"Nonsense. You keep making fun of these people, they aren't going to tolerate it"

"Oh c'mon. These Brits are crazy. This is so like the whole Changing of the Guard thing. All they do is dress up and walk up and down for an hour and its some big deal. Tradition, my foot"

"Who said I don't agree? But you can't come to Parliament Hill every day and make fun of people who are here to see the skyline view"

"Skyline. Ha Ha Ha! Skyline, indeed. Rooftop view, I would call it. All these cute Victorian houses. Chal, lets count how many rooftops we see"

"People are staring at us"

"So? If the city doesn't have a skyline, it doesn't have a skyline. Just because you climb up a Hill, wait, a mound called Parliament and claim its a skyline doesn't make it anything of the sort."

"Enough, lets go"

"I love America"

"Too loud. Not the right sentiment in this liberal haven. Chal lets go"

The next couple of hours was spent in the Heath taking in everything you have read about already in the beginning of this post. We got lost a couple of times but that's what you are meant to do in the Heath so it turned out to be fine. Finally we got out and decided to walk up and down streets to see if they made sense. They did.

"Squirrel Hill[3] man"

"Too hep to be Squirrel Hill. I'd say Shadyside"

"I guess"

"Its the Shady Ave part of the Shadyside. Also that Amberson Ave types near where you and BM used to live"

"Yeah, but its all up and down like Negley. Hmm"


"So you like it?"

"I think so, yes. What's that?"

"Some street festival. Probably a block party."

"Looks nice. Good music"

"Way too many kids"

"Fuck, yes. Forget what I said. We won't live here"

"I know. Kids could be a problem. Plus even if we want to, they wouldn't let us live here. We wouldn't qualify"


A few minutes later we are at the Heath St.

"Dude, this is nice"

"I know. Such lovely cafes and these stores are nice too"

"Wait, whats that queue there?"


"Its some food stall. Wait, its a creperie. With 15 people waiting in line. I am going there"

"I don't know man. It looks like some general stall"

"You go do something else. I want crepes"

Bill comes back twenty minutes later.

"You have hardly moved!"

"That's because they make those crepes in front of you. Mouth watering, they are. Look, they are some big deal around here. They have all those press things written about them"

"Whatever. I am a little skeptical. But we will see"

We finally get out crepes. A slab of butter. Buckwheat batter. Chocolate and banana. All together. Bill gets the classic ratatouille. I take a bite. Bill's paying (for once). I take another bite. I cross the street and run away. There's no way in hell I am sharing this with him.

"Hey, where did you run away?"

"Here only. I was just looking at this bus timetable to see whether you can get to Kings Cross if the Northern line is not functioning. There's a bus that takes you to KC in 12 minutes. All's cool"

"So you have decided to move here?"

"Have you tried the crepe?"

"Not yet"

"Try it and tell me you don't want to move here"


"Orgasmic, isn't it?"

"Close. Close. Let me try yours."

"No...wait, here's a Waterstone's. A bookstore so close. See, good choice to move here. Come lets go in"

Inside Waterstone's. I am somewhere in popular fiction. Local author, it says, Julian Barnes. Zadie Smith. Hmm.

"Hey, you should come check this out"


"Come, check this section"

I follow Bill. A huge section. Jewish interest.

"Oh, I didn't tell you. I was thinking about it when I said Squirrel Hill. The area north of here, like north of the station and then going up to Golders Green"


"Its all supposed to be all majorly intellectual and all. Also, euphemism for Jewish"

"Okay then. We are moving here"

"Righto Mr Eli Feynman[4]. We are indeed moving here"

See, moving decisions are that easy. All you have to do is to get your priorities right.

PS: This doesn't mean we are moving. We haven't even started looking at flats. Excuse to check out neighborhoods really.

[1] For those of you who think I am mean to Bill, please read the sentence again. You will see how considerate I really am.

[2] I know, it gets a little too yuppie around here sometimes with all the LBS crowd moving in and all but you can't have everything, you know.

[3] Bill's very Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh

[4] I am not making this up. There was a time when Bill used to call restaurants for reservations under the name of Eli Feynman[5]. It was very interesting to watch people go crazy when we actually turned up.

[5] Coined by BM. Please to ask her for details

Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Falstaff's review of McEwan's On Chesil Beach here.

All Mela reviews up until now available here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Bill at the Barbican

At this afternoon's performance of A Disappearing Number, a play about Mathematics, creativity, infinity, mysticism, mortality and everything you can think about on those lines. I liked it, the stagecraft was excellent, the cast was good, the plot was contrived at times but overall worked for me. The main characters are Ramanujan, Hardy, a current day Math professor, a string theorist and a hedge fund guy, so let me see if I can get Bill to write something about the play.

So anyway, we are at this play, the theatre is almost full. Numbers thrown around everywhere. The opening scene, probably the best, starts with the professor writing numbers on the whiteboard and explaining that its integral to the evening's performance. Yes, yes, Riemann zeta, -1/12, 1+1/2+1/4+1/8... have all made their appearance already. Three minutes into it and Bill whispers:

"Yes, this is so cool"

"The numbers?"

"No. The Zeta"


"She gets the Zeta right. No one draws a perfect Zeta. Its not exactly an easy letter to write"

"If you say so. Shut up now"

Halfway into the play. By now, numbers are everywhere. Black board, screen, conversations, voice overs that junta's stopped paying attention to the numbers and are trying to concentrate on the play. Voice over of Ramanujan. He is on the ship from Madras to London and is talking about his journey. It goes something like this:

"We leave Madras which is at 13 degree latitude, 13 is a prime number and then we turn to XXX whose latitude is 7 which is also a prime number....(this goes on for sometime and finally)...into the English Channel and we reach London, latitude is 51 which is also a prime number"

This time, Bill's voice is loud and clear.

"No, its not"

Some 56 pairs of eyes turn towards us. Obviously everyone wants to see the man who dares to contradict Ramanujan (well, the one in the play). An uncomfortable 5 seconds and I am about to burst into laughter when Bill goes:

"Well, its still not prime. 3. Try 3"

This and that

Generally busy at work and stuff. So couple of random updates.

1. So I had to go to the US Consulate yesterday to get visa done[1]. (Aside - TR: Exactly how many times have you been to the States in the last ten years? I had eight entries and the form had enough space for at least four more. Or is this some special form you Profs have to fill?) Having not been to the US consulate in a while, I had forgotten how painful the experience is. So anyway, I was sitting in the waiting room cursing myself for not carrying a book when I saw this Visit USA Travel Planner lying around. Page 47 - a half pager about the great lake state of Michigan with a couple of pictures. The star picture looked familiar, so I looked again. Lake Michigan, yes, but the skyline was that of Chicago! Stealing the Chicago skyline to con poor Londoners to go to Michigan! WTF?

2. This whole magic realism thing. I love it, some of my favorite writers fall into this category but I always felt that I never completely got it. I wouldn't be lying if I say that for the most part, I am partial to the non-magic world. There, I have said it. Shoot me. Now for the part which is going me get me tortured. These writers who weave all this magic stories. Its not that they are not capable of doing the real world (yeah right, Marquez can't do real world), after all, the best of these writers are the ones who tie in the real so gloriously with the unreal (or the "internal" if you want to call it that), but its that they are just not serious enough about reality. I think at the end of the day they just don't care that much about it. But if you bloody well have so much passion for it and you can write about it so well, why do you need to resort to these magical experiments (especially when they are simply not your forte)? Why the fuck do you need Saleem Sinai when you have Animal? I don't get it. But apart from that, I loved it. If you read just one on the shortlist, read this book. It's a ride you won't forget that easily. Indra Sinha's Animal' s People. My pick for the Booker.

[1] Yes, yes, I am going to the see the city by the lake. The second reason why I took current job (first being the rent) was that I get to go to Chicago thrice a year. So cool, no?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A weekend with Sir Humphrey

Bill wanted to have a go at this bitching and conversations thing since he thinks I am spreading all wrong rumors about him, and moi, being all magnanimous offered him space. The real reason though, I think, is that he wants Professors to be all impressed with him too. So without further ado, I hand this over to Bill.

No, we haven't been watching Yes, Minister DVDs again. I have been trying to file our UK tax returns. A weekend of tax returns and these are the three things I have gained:

1. An intimate understanding of Sir Humphrey's mind
2. A light bulb moment when you finally realize how is it that this island ended up ruling the world and
3. An appreciation of American disdain for any form that has more than 5.5 boxes to fill

It all started innocently enough.

"We have to file these tax return things"

"We have to or you have to?"

"Separate forms but both of us have to"

"Inland Revenue doesn't send me love letters every other day. I don't have to fill anything"

"What nonsense?"

"That's what they do na. Every day there's a letter for Dr Bill. I haven't received anything from them"

"You haven't received that self assessment form that everyone has to fill?"

"No. So I think I don't have to file a return"

"And yet you make more than double I make"

"This country is vague that way"

"That doesn't sound right. Randomly they sent me so many letters asking me not to feel daunted. The tax returns are fun etc. etc. I think we both have to file"

"I told you - they just love you. And anyway, if you are so sure we both have to file, why don't you be useful for once and do the returns? I will give you my P60 and stuff"

"Okay, okay, how difficult can it be? 1040EZ in the US was an hour's work. Let us see, the key dates are 30 Sep 2007, 30 Dec 2007, 31 Jan 2008,..."

"Oh so it's not like we have to fill it now"

"They tell us exactly in paragraph 2.1, subsection a. ...

If you fill in a paper tax return, you must get it to us by 30 Sep 2007 if you want us to calculate your tax, collect tax through PAYE tax code, if possible, where you owe less than 2000 Pounds (If we receive your paper tax return before 30 Sep and process it before 30 December, we will still try to collect tax through your tax code. If your kitten dies before 30 November, you are allowed 17.2 extra days).

Uh, can you hand me the laptop so I can draw a flowchart?"

"Here it is. Just file it now and forget the other dates"

"Ok, here goes. Answer the questions 1.1 to 1.21, except 1.19..."

"That seems easy, 20 questions, look up a tax table, and you are done"

"... to find out if you are a resident.

Q 1, what date did you come in (only if before Apr 5 but not before 30 Sep)
Q2. Calculate the number of hours from entry in active employment (please do not count minutes spent travelling (round to the nearest half second)) .
Q3. Subtract the number of minutes in question 2.1 above from the sine of theta, where theta is two times your monthly salary expressed in radians."

"See, I told you this is made for you. I think I am going to cook now. If you are done by the time I am done, I will give you some Malabar fish curry. Ta ta"

"Wait, I can't work on this new-fangled Excel of yours. Give me my laptop with Linux and Perl"

"Okay, here it is. You can file the tax return in Perl"

"Notes for non-residents. Broadly you are a resident of the UK if you spend at least half of a tax year here, or regularly spend at least a quarter of each tax year here. Your precise position will depend on your particular circumstances, and the notes should be read accordingly. The notes will help you decide whether or not you should complete your tax return on the basis that you are:
  • Not resident in the UK
  • Not ordinarily resident in the UK
  • Not extraordinarily non-resident in the UK
  • Entitled to split year treatment
  • Not domiciled in the UK
  • Not domiciled in the EU
  • Not domiciled in the Commonwealth (Note: The USA does not belong to the Commonwealth, nor is it part of the European Union)
  • Not an ordinary resident of the Milky Way
Thirty three pages of questionnaires follow."

(Two hours later)
"Are you done? The food is ready."

"Yes I finished the resident form. We are apparently resident in the UK, and ordinarily resident for 2007, and domiciled in the Commonwealth, but not domiciled in the UK."

"Are we getting money back or not?"

"Don't be so American. There's only 12 more forms to fill, and then we can calculate our tax"

"Okay, why don't you fill up the forms. I have to meet some people after lunch, but I will come back and calculate our tax"

"Very clever, you get to look up a figure in the tax tables and I get to fill 13 forms, all designed by Sir Humphrey"

"Be thankful you don't have to complete those forms in triplicate. I'm off"

(six hours later)
"Hey, I am back. How did it go? Did you fill all the forms?"

"Oh, it got predictable after a while. Not so much challenge after all, at least after I solved that multivariate regression problem on page 22."

"If only that would guarantee a PhD! Anyway, I can look up the tables to calculate my tax"

"Oh yes, that is going to be real easy. Here, this forty-page booklet has all the information you will need to calculate your tax. I need some coffee, so see you in a bit"

"Yeah, but there are no tables in this booklet"

"Who said anything about there being a table? It has all the information. All 236 questions and 21 worksheets."

"All I am looking for is two numbers. You tell me a figure, I look it up to get the second figure. I write that, sign, and we are done"

"Not really. You take this thirteen forms, fill in the answers to the 236 questions, and you will get that figure. I have even underlined the relevant figures in the thirteen forms for you."

"Very funny. But didn't they say they will calculate your tax for you?"

"Yes, they will. But do you trust them to hand back your money? This is Sir Humphrey we are talking about here"

"Oh. How about we do this tomorrow? We can both do it together. That way we will finish real fast"

"I thought you said you are going to do this by yourself"

"Yeah but what if we do it wrong? You will have to double-check anyway. Why don't we do this together tomorrow?"

"Yeah yeah! I knew this."

Long time readers of this blog would have no doubt guessed what really happened in the morning. Madam had an urgent appointment and had to go away somewhere. I was stuck filling 236 questions.

"Hey, you done? Let's go out for lunch"

"Yeah. My tax was uncannily accurate, down to the hundredth of a pence. I don't owe them, they don't owe me."

"And what about mine?"

"Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (hereinafter referred to as HMRC) owe you a thousand and three pounds"

"What? Let's send this in today. Where do I need to sign?"

"There's just one problem. You need a Universal Tax Reference Number, but since they never sent you a form, you don't have one. You can't file this."

"Say that again?"

"Actually, by subsection 3a of Clause 31 of the Income Tax Act, 1988, as amended in 1995, 1996 and by Statutory Orders as appropriate, you aren't required to file a tax return if they don't send you one."

"Let me understand this. They don't owe you a penny, so they send you love letters every day asking you to file. I on the other hand am not required to file this, despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that they owe me a thousand pounds?"

"I think that's accurate"

"I don't believe this! These fucking bastards should be sent to be a firing squad. Stealing my money!"

"Actually, firing squad as a method of permissible execution was outlawed in 1949. Anyway, the question is moot, since we no longer have the death penalty (it was abolished in 1998 and even before was never a punishment for theft), and furthermore, you will note that the Bastardy laws were repealed in 1931!"

"Enough, Sir Bernard!"

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mister Pip

Falstaff reviews Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip here.

My review of the same book:

The blurb was all about the transformative power of books, and how a lone white man in a remote South Pacific island changes peoples' lives by reading Great Expectations to them during a blockade. Doesn't exactly sound promising, does it? That's what I figured too, and I gave up for a while after reading the first chapter. The book begins with the narrator talking about a white man nicknamed Pop Eye who used to drag his huge native wife through the village on a trolley in the afternoons. This Pop Eye guy even has a red clown nose. The writing was simple and engaging but really, I wasn't going to read another of these things. When it appeared on the shortlist a few days later, I felt vindicated - yes, look, they even put it on that shortlist, it can't be that good. Yesterday, I decided to give it one more try - after all, its about Great Expectations[1], how bad can it be?

Well, not bad at all. Its the best of the ones on the shortlist that I have read but that doesn't mean much as the other two are the McEwan and the Hamid. But that's really all that I can say about it! The story is set in the early 1990s, and it is narrated by Matilda, originally of Bougainville, now an immigrant Australian. Matilda is thirteen when the blockade begins. The world has forgotten their fertile little island, the boys have all gone to join the rebels ("rambos"), the "redskins" fly above in their choppers, the teachers have taken the last boat out. Mr Watts aka Pop Eye, the only white man in the village agrees to teach the children. He introduces them to Mr Dickens through Great Expectations. Matilda, like most other children immediately takes to the rimy mornings and the marshes of Victorian England, and falls in love with Pip and Joe Gaggery. To her mother's chagrin, Pip becomes more dear to her than the relatives in the family tree, or the God that her mother worships with a dangerous intensity. The situation worsens as is expected, and its only a matter of time before the redskins get to the village. Any world would be nice to escape to in such a situation, and (I guess) Dickensian England qualifies.

Jones's writing is simple but clever, folksy in a way, and his descriptions of the island and the people are charming. The problem though is that it doesn't go much beyond "charming". The characters are stereotypes, (though they speak in a really endearing manner) and its left to the reader to figure out why Pip should prove to be important to Matilda or anyone else for that matter. Its almost as if any other book or character would have done quite as well - why Pip? why Dickens? (As Falstaff points out somewhere in his review, one gets the feeling that Enid Blyton and the Famous Five would have done quite as well)

But wait, we aren't done with the story yet. Jones is not content with letting Pip live in his fictitious world, and this (sort of) saves the book. The redskins arrive, and seeing the beach-side shrine that Matilda built for Pip, they are convinced that Pip is a rebel and demand that he be handed over. With that, Pip is solidly in the island, he is one of them. Atrocities happen as expected and I don't want to give away the rest of the plot but will just say that it involves a story within a story narrative where Mr Watts spins his life, the stories of the islanders, and the story of Pip, basically everything that we have read so far into a neat yarn spread over seven nights. Interested? Go read.

Again, Jones is a clever writer, and I especially liked the way he describes the atrocities of war. So simple, understated, matter-of-fact and yet it conveys so much. The problem is that you don't really feel for the characters - I am reading about these brutalities thinking how clever the writing is, and not really about what the thirteen year old protagonist is going through and that doesn't seem quite right. Also, Jones unfortunately doesn't end the story in the island - he goes on for another fifty or so pages about Matilda's Dad, and Australia, and England and Dickens which is all very inane and serves no purpose whatsoever.

So did I like it? Yeah, it was nice. Pleasant reading. The writing is cool, some parts of the narrative are engrossing, and its good to see the author going beyond just the escapism theme. Worth a read, I would say. But it doesn't stay in the mind - because the characters are two-dimensional, the plot is contrived (which would have been okay if the characters were sketeched out well), and Jones tries a little too hard - he so much wants not to be the outsider, and he so wants us to like the characters that the effort is what shows up throughout. Not much in terms of results.

[1] Is there anyone in the world whose favorite Dickens is not Great Expectations? Really?

Why there is no point in Bill graduating...

(Via the Kid who seems to have nothing better to do than finding excuses for his brother)

From here. (Where else?)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Animal's Spirit

Falstaff's review of Indra Sinha's Animal's People here. I think he likes it - I didn't read the review in its entirety as I read a couple of chapters at the bookstore and would like to read it without any spoilers. So.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pollachi pookaran* needed!

As seen in front of the Council House this afternoon while walking to brunch at Marylebone. You thought they sent these buses off to the scrap metal yard, didn't you?

Oh, and here's a couple more. You never know what you run into when you walk by the Thames. I am beginning to appreciate camera phones, I think.

*Flower guy from Pollachi. Who should be the only guy decorating things during weddings.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Booker shortlist

Booker shortlist is out. Here.

On the shortlist, we have:

Darkmans by Nicola Barker
The Gathering by Anne Enright
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Animal's People by Indra Sinha

Mela reviews so far:

Darkmans by Nicola Barker
Self Help by Edward Docx
The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
The Gathering by Anne Enright - Falstaff
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - Veena
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies - Falstaff
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - Bill
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn - Falstaff, Veena
Consolation by Michael Redhill - Falstaff
Animal's People by Indra Sinha
Winnie & Wolf by A.N. Wilson

The shortlist includes a couple of books that I think shouldn't be there, but hey, there's a reason why they don't let me sit on these things! Its been a very unproductive work for me in terms of reading but hopefully can make up for that later in the month. Anyway, we still have a month to go, so if you have any reviews up, let me know.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

You know those people....

who cannot read maps and are for some reason, very proud of the fact that they say it to all and sundry. I used to wonder all the time who hangs out with these people, and today I have my answer. In fact, I even know who gets married to them. People who buy furniture from Ikea and then pay "assembly professionals" to assemble said furniture. Really. They deserve each other, don't you think?

In other unrelated news, the only thing (concerning work) that I know everything about, or rather, no one's accused me not knowing has become unrecognizable now. Microsoft's gone and done it again. Does anyone recognize this? (Please click on it to see larger picture in all its goriness..err..Macness)

No, its not iTunes people. Its Excel 2007. Bill (No, not you dammit, and no, you do not tell me to switch to Linux[1]), WHY? I take a break for a month and this is what you do?

[1] Anoop, that's for you too.

PS: On the bright side, all old keyboard shortcuts work. So all's not lost methinks.

Monday, September 03, 2007

More proof that I am not meant to work

So I decide that I better start working again if we are to pay next month's rent. Figure out job and get to work this morning. What's the first thing I hear once I get there? Tube on strike for 72 hours! Looks like God and the People have gotten together and decided that moi going to work is not a good thing.

Bill, are you listening?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Another Booker review as part of the Mela. Bill (yes, Bill. See what all some "well intentioned laziness" on my part can do!) on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach:

The billboards in London are announcing the film version of Atonement. As a person who really liked that book, I am very skeptical of a film version starring Keira Knightley, and by the director of last year's Pride and Prejudice, no less. What I would have no problems with, however, is with them adapting On Chesil Beach to the screen. It might even improve on the book, since it's hard to see how they could make it worse (famous last words).

Two days ago, I wouldn't have thought I would say this of a McEwan book. Even the books that are admittedly not his best, like The Innocent, for instance, are books I admire for his precise descriptions of mood, of characters. He can create an atmosphere that you know is fictional but are engrossed in nonetheless. With those expectations, this book comes across as even more of a disappointment than it would have been otherwise.

The story is about the honeymoon night of a young English couple, in the year 1962. Florence and Edward are trapped hopelessly in an old-fashioned conventionality, unaware of the approaching sexual revolution (nineteen-sixty-three, as Larkin tells us. I don't know much more, but this guy surely does). This is the first time either of them are going to have sex, and both carry a heavy baggage of anxieties and preoccupations. A lot of repressed emotions, things left unsaid, and endless fumbling later, the night will end in tragedy.

The plot of course is nothing to write home about, but McEwan can transform even the thinnest of plots and make it engrossing. This time he doesn't actually succeed, partly because the characters are extremely unconvincing caricatures. Florence comes from an upper class family, with an Oxford philosophy professor for her mother and a successful businessman for her father. She herself plays violin in a classical music quintet. (what else!) And Edward is from solid middle-class background, with all his friends gone to trade schools. He is busy trying to hide his country background at University by pretending not to know the names of trees. Not satisfied with this rich girl poor boy dynamic, we then get chaste girl horny boy also. Florence has once before run away screaming when Edward placed her hand on his groin. Edward cannot stop longing for sex, in the "long lazy afternoons, before going to sleep, after waking up" before his wedding.

McEwan seems to set out to explore the consequences of repression and decorum, in a polite English world. The mood is set by the very first sentence: They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. That sentence pretty much sums up the book. My problem with the book is that he never delivers on the promise of the sentence that follows: But it is never easy. Embarrassment is not unknown during a first-time encounter with sex even in our enlightened times, and surprising though it may seem, people actually did have sex before the sexual revolution (in industrial quantities too!). Exploring that era needs something more than a "Oh, they couldn't talk about it".