January 11th, 2008

Chicken Out

This is the week for being nice to chickens. I've watched celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's three films about how he tried to turn his home town of Axminster into a free-range paradise and tonight his pal- fellow celebrity chef Jaimie Oliver- has a related programme in which he's going to be killing chickens on stage and cooking chicken nuggets and similar atrocities in front of a live audience in order to sicken us to our stomachs.

It's spilling out into the real world too. Jaimie said something that angered Sainsburys- for whom he makes all those lovely blokey ads- and has been forced to issue an apology. And now the word is that Sainsbury's is going to be writing to all of us who own one of their in-store nectar cards to explain how tenderly they love their chickens.

Ever felt you were being got at? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a very nice chap but if I found him loitering by the chiller cabinet in my local Tesco's and he tried to browbeat me into buying the more expensive cuts (as he did in the film- and I'm amazed Tesco allowed him to do it) I'd get pretty annoyed. A lot of people in Axminster got pretty annoyed too and wrote nasty things about him in the papers- like he was only doing it to big up his own (very expensive) farm shop. Poor Hugh, how he suffered. A prophet is not without honour save in his own country and among his own people.

So? Well I'm a natural contraian but I don't suppose I'm the only viewer who started off supporting Hugh and ended the week wanting to shout, "fuck off, posh boy".  Because, see, I'm  on Hayley's side. Hayley is the magnificently assertive, single mum who participated in all Hugh's little projects and publicity stunts and was last seen popping into Tesco's for her two factory-farmed birds for a fiver. And she didn't do it sneakily either. All along she stood up to Hugh's blandishments and bullying.  Yes, she kept saying (in so many words) it's very sad about the chickens but they are only chickens and free range is for those who an afford it, not me.

(A couple of people on a discussion site Ailz frequents said, "Well look at her, she's fat. She could afford real meat if she laid off the cakes"- which made me really, really cross. Nice one, Hugh, you've set up someone much poorer than you as a national hate figure. Someone poorer and braver.)

But here's the rub- the Devil's equation.  Animal cruelty means Hayley's kids can eat meat. Take the cheap chickens off the shelves in Tesco's and the poor can't afford roast dinners. Hugh's had no answer for Hayley except  to go all shruggy and teary-eyed and self-pitying. He's a rich man and his pal Jaimie's a rich man and for all their down with the real people blather I just don't think they get it. 

An Instance Of The Fingerpost: Iain Pears

First of all- thank you veronica_milvus for giving me this book.

A slow start. Unattractive characters. But hang on in there- it'll all make sense later on.

And then...

But here's the problem: if I say anything about what happens next it'll be a spoiler. This is a book full of twists and surprises.

So my hands are tied. I don't suppose I'm giving too much away if I say you're in for a Rashomon experience. Four narrators, all with a different angle on the same story. Reliable or unreliable-  well-  what do you think?

We've touched down in mid 17th century Oxford. The monarchy has been restored but the issues and hatreds of the Civil War are still bubbling under. We're living in a police state. Boy, you'd better conform or you're not going to get that preferment. A lot of the characters are real people- famous people like Robert Boyle, John Locke, Christopher Wren-  and not so famous people like Cromwell's spymaster John Thurloe (think George Smiley only darker). This is a mystery novel, right? Sort of Brother Cadfael but a lot more intellectual? Erm, yes- so far as it goes...

Lots of historical detail. TMI. Lice, mud, vomit, baths once a quarter- but only if you're particularly fastidious about personal hygiene. 

But, of course you have to suspend a whole truckload of disbelief. These are 17th century people writing as no 17th century person ever wrote- using narrative techniques that were only developed in the 19th century. Ah well, novels are always pretending to be things they're not. Does David Copperfield convince as an Autobiography? No, not really.

But the 17th century mindset comes across convincingly.  No Mary Sues round here. These narrators believe in some pretty screwy things. And there are lots of lovely, sly jokes at their expense.

So, a big, historical, mystery novel- very ambitious- a bit like Name of the Rose in fact?  Well yes- and that comparison should give us pause. Because the Name of the Rose- though it works excellently well as a mystery- is also something else. And this? Well the same applies. At the heart of the mystery nestles a very different kind of story- but exactly what kind of story doesn't become apparent until the last few pages. All I'm going to say is I found the climactic revelation extremely moving. 

Have I said too much?  I hope not.