The Moon and Sixpence

By W. Somerset Maugham.

Having gained some note as a writer, the narrator falls into the circle of a Mrs Strickland, and eventually meets her husband, Charles, a rather dull, inarticulate stockbroker, who suddenly ups and leaves for Paris, entirely abandoning his wife and children. “Cherchez la femme!” they all cry.

The narrator tracks Strickland down to a shabby hotel in Paris and quickly determines there’s no femme chercher (although back home, on the basis of some rumour, it’s decided that there really was another woman, and the narrator doesn’t dare to contradict the accepted narrative). Strickland is utterly unapologetic about his behaviour, and announces he wants to be an artist.

Five years later, the narrator, bored with London and life, decides to head to Paris, where he meets up with a Dutch artist, Dick Stroeve. Stroeve has no real talent as an artist (which seems to mean that he’s good at chocolate box paintings, but his work has no depth), but he is an excellent critic, and sees genius in Strickland’s paintings.

Strickland is just as abrasive as ever, and for most of the narrator’s time in Paris, the man’s painting are out of sight. The artist falls seriously ill and the kind-hearted, but buffoonish Stroeve nurses him back to health. Strickland repays the man by absconding with his wife, Blanche, and eventually driving her to suicide.

The narrator finally gets to see Strickland’s paintings, and like everyone else who subsequently comes into contact with them, regrets not acquiring some while they’re worth next-to-nothing; and then he never sees the man again.

Eventually the narrator ends up in Tahiti where he pieces together the rest of Strickland’s life from destitution in Marseilles to his arrival on the island, his marriage to Ata, his retreat into the bush, and his death from leprosy.

The Moon and Sixpence is allegedly about genius, but Strickland, who is constantly described as being inarticulate, comes across as verbally abusive and undeserving of the curious amounts of support which people give him from the narrator to the naively nice Stroeve to Captain Nichols in Marseilles. But as for the man being a genius, that rests on Strickland’s posthumous reputation, which Maugham never adequately succeeds in convincing the reader of.

Although Strickland is based on the artist Paul Gauguin, who is best known for his time in Tahiti, most of the novel is based in Paris. When the narrator and Strickland part company for the final time, there is an abrupt fracture in the book, although the narrator mostly avoids pontificating as he fills in the missing details of the artist’s life.

To some extent, though, Maugham has a clear predilection for pontification so that Strickland is often less important than the narrator blowing his own waffling trumpet. In fact, it appears that the narrator is not so much a persona of the author as he is Maugham writing himself into the life of a fictional artist based on a real-life one. Maugham also had a predilection for art, which features in more than one of his writings.

There is a reasonable amount of humour in the book where Maugham is mocking the pretensions of the age, but without, it appears, quite recognising that his portentous style would seem so dated and pretentious nearly a century later.

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Dominion

By C.J. Sansom.

Dominion is set in an alternative 1952 in a universe where Britain negotiated peace with Germany in 1940 and became a fascist puppet state run by Lord Beaverbrook. The Resistance is led by the ageing Winston Churchill while in Germany, no one has seen Hitler in public for two years.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant working in the Dominions Office, is recruited into the Resistance by Geoff Drax. He manages to get access to secret files which he photographs and passes on the information contained in them. In his haste, he accidentally leaves a sheet of paper from a different file in the wrong place.

At the same time, an old university friend of his, the timid Frank Muncaster, has been locked up in a mental hospital after pushing his brother, Edgar, out of a window after the latter told him about his work on the atomic bomb for the Americans.

The Resistance gets Fitzgerald involved, but the Germans have also heard about the incident between the Muncaster brothers and send Gunther Hoth, who has been hunting down the few surviving Jews in Germany. The Germans are keen to find out what the tight-lipped Muncaster knows.

The two matters come to a head and walk right into the Great Smog of 1952 where the Germans and collaborators in Special Branch narrowly miss capturing the party as it makes its way to the south coast (including a chat with Churchill) to a waiting US submarine.

Meanwhile, news come through that Hitler has died, and Germany collapses into civil war.

A brick of a book. It doesn’t pall, but I’m sure with some judicious editing, it could be reduced to 250 pages (from 690) and still be a ripping yarn. For example, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for “Frank Muncaster’s Schooldays” since Sansom frequently repeats how nervous the man is. Nor is there any real reason for Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah, to feature that much except as ’er indoors, as Arthur Daley would say. Does her side story, the death of Mrs Templeman, really contribute anything overall? Not really.

Fitzgerald may as well be wearing a T-shirt saying “Kiss me, I’m Irish” since every woman who crosses his path immediately falls in love with him, from Natalia, the mysterious Slovakian Resistance woman to the unfortunate Carol Bennett.

The Historical note at the end of the book also includes a tirade from the half-Scottish Sansom about the opportunistic SNP pre-independence referendum and pre-2015 elections. He also uses the Scottish Communist character, Ben, to lambast them as well.

Dominion isn’t a bad story, but it can be a bit of a trudge at times.

Is there life on Mars?

The Martian.

When a Martian storm turns out to be much stronger than predicted, the astronauts manning a base on Mars evacuate the place, but as they trek through the storm to their shuttle, a satellite dish hits Mark Watney, who is left behind, presumed dead.1

Watney survives, and finding himself stranded on Mars, must work out how he can stay alive long enough for the next manned mission to arrive there. Fortunately, he’s a botanist and he starts doing some indoor gardening, growing potatoes.

NASA eventually realises that someone is still on the surface of the red planet and manages to make contact with him. Plans are made to send a supply rocket, but it explodes not long after launch, and the only other plan is to send the Hermes (the mother ship) back to Mars to pick Watney up by sling-shotting it around the Earth and collect a Chinese supply ship at the same time.

“I’ve done the maths,” says the NASA scientist who doesn’t even recognise the man who runs the show. “It’ll work.”

Meanwhile, Watney loses all of his crops and must trek to another shuttle, but in order for him to reach the Hermes when it gets back to Mars, he has to strip it of most of its kit or he’ll never make it to the rendezvous point. But even without all the extra weight, he doesn’t quite make it, and must stab a hole in his suit for that extra propulsion to cross the gap to safety.2

It obviously wouldn’t make for a good film if Watney merely got on with his gardening for a couple of years, and nothing bad happened. In the best traditions of Hollywood, you know that the moment someone says, “Provided nothing goes wrong”, everything will go wrong, and it does. It could’ve been worse, though. It could’ve been Gravity-bad, with increasing levels of ludicrousness.

Matt Damon at least plays Watney as a personable individual. His banter with the rest of the expedition members is informally chummy and entertaining. Jeff Daniels is a bit bland as the head of NASA, and the scientists who aren’t in major roles are all typically nerdy because, er, that’s what scientists are. Oh, and the head of China’s space programme wouldn’t ever have grey hair. He would’ve been at the hair dye like almost everyone else.

Overall, The Martian is a decently entertaining piece of cinema even if it has to conform to The Big Book of Hollywood Disaster Film Clichés.

Notes.

  1. On this point, I have to wonder why the storm was strong enough to rip the dish off its mount and blow it hard enough to knock Watney 20m or so through the air, but neither affect the astronauts nor kill him.
  2. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation why the other five members of the expedition were able to fly back to the Hermes without any problems while Watney’s super-light spaceship can’t make it.

Now out on DVD. Then out on DVD

The Hateful Eight.

A bounty hunter, Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson), is taking some prizes to Red Rock when his horse dies on him. He hitches a lift with John Ruth (Kurt Russell), who is taking the notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Lee) to Red Rock to be hanged. A bit further up the road, they meet the man who is going to be the town’s new sheriff. Behind the coach is a blizzard.

The party arrives at Minnie’s, where they find the cast of Reservoir Dogs, but no sign of Minnie or Sweet Dave. Ruth and the stagecoach driver drink poisoned coffee and die, while Warren and the sheriff start putting two and two together. There’s the inevitable shoot-out when it’s revealed that Domergue’s brother and the rest of the gang are there to rescue her.

The sheriff and Warren finish off the job which Ruth started, and after three hours, the film is over.

The Hateful Eight is like an extended version of Reservoir Dogs set in the Wild West. Some viewers will not doubt find that the film drags because of its length, but I don’t seem to have been in that mood.

It is full of the usual Tarentinesque violence and blood. Domergue’s face gets increasingly bloody one way or another as the film progresses.

The twist, if you want to call it that, is that the sheriff is not quite the dimwitted rustic clown the rest take him to be.

Not advisable for anyone who is not keen on blood, violence and a three-hour-long film.

I now pronounce you Chuck and Larry.

Chuck and Larry are firemen, but in order to scam the system (for all the right reasons), they pretend to be a gay couple and get married.

Dull and frequently embarrassing. (Also, Adam Sandler as a babe magnet? Don’t think so.) The 1970s rang part way through and said it wanted its tacky comedy back. I watched it on and off, but mostly ignored it.

Fast and Furious 7.

Yes, I know. Vin Diesel and chums drive fast cars and engage in the most ridiculously OTT stunts and storyline you can imagine. Jason Statham… Yeah, ’nuff said. Dwayne Johnson… ’Nuff said there, too.

Poignant send-off for the late Paul Walker who was killed in a car crash in real life while the film was in production.

The lights went out

The clocks all stopped.

Yesterday at lunchtime, Astrill stopped working. The connection was there, but nothing was getting through, and although I was hoping it might be a temporary problem, it remains dead this morning, with none of the connection modes working.It is hard not to conclude that Nanny is behind this.

There’s been no mention of this so far via, say, the Shanghaiist, which often reports such matters.

I recently saw an article via Facebook, reporting that some security expert thought that Astrill and Express VPN’s encryption had been cracked, but Nanny was allowing them to be used as a means of spying on the users (which won’t mean the likes of me, but rather the people who count for something).

The real problem is gmail, which has been my main e-mail address for about ten (?) years now, and which is where all my contacts are and a good deal of useful information. If Astrill really has been blocked, there will come a time where I will need access to gmail. As it is, my inbox will now fill up with messages I get from various sources on a daily basis.

I’ve also been wondering whether the block also has anything to do with the news that Tiβet will be closed to foreigners in March.

As for any news about the current state of affairs with Astrill, I’m unable to check Facebook to see whether there’s been any word about this, and whether anything is being done about it; or can be done. The timing does make it appear that third-party interference is to blame.

Oddly enough, I can access the Astrill website, but the message at the bottom of the page says “We’re offline” when usually it says the opposite.

As for WordPress, I’m surprised I can even access it, and even though I can, it’s only partly functional. The menu bar at the top of the screen has vanished, and I only have the option of logging out. I can, as you can see, post messages, but I’m having to write this in HTML because the visual editor doesn’t appear.

About an hour later. I’m now on Astrill in stealth mode, but on my old laptop. I’ve sent Astrill a message more as an advisory that there may be problems here. I assume the problem is probably China, but can’t be certain; nor can I say why Astrill works (to a point) on the 5755, but not on the V15. OpenWeb seems to be down. I was getting that old error message on the 5755 that OpenWeb had crashed. The other possibility is that W10 is working its magic.

Whether I use a VPN or not, the message on the Astrill site still says they are offline, which is a little unusual since there’s been no time I’ve ever seen that message regardless of the time I visit them.

The next day. Astrill seems to be all right again this morning. OpenWeb is now functioning normally. Scare over.

In the ensuing days. Well, Astrill is sort of working. OpenWeb was out again a couple of days ago, but has since returned with a heavily reduced number of servers available. In spite of this, it seems to be working adequately.