Thursday, 8 March 2018

Brighter Writings from Bleaker House

Sometimes, when my cat is attempting to hunt something - usually a ribbon or an unsuspecting guest’s foot - he focuses on it for a while, builds up momentum through a strange wiggling movement and then goes barreling towards it at top speed. Other times, he retreats from the object of interest, takes up a subtle hiding place (apparently unaware that he is bright white and stands out against the orange floor tiles) and then plans how to sneak up on the object. So focussed is he on his goal that he doesn’t notice, until he literally falls over it, the other often better toy waiting in his path. I wonder if this is how writing works, at least how it works for Nell Stevens. So focussed was she on the need to write a novel that she didn’t see the brilliant story lying in wait along that path until, fortunately, she fell over it.The result is her wonderful book about trying to become a Writer. Potential Writers everywhere: form a disorderly queue to add another layer of meta to writing a book about writing, by writing notes from this book about writing a book about writing.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Show that Sank a Thousand Careers

I had in mind to watch Troy: Fall of a City twice: once with my classicist hat on and once with my ‘I like watching TV’ one. I thought that even if I became frustrated or struggled to enjoy aspects with the former hat on, the latter might be more successful. As it happened, I can’t face watching this show ever again. Nor is it so mentally taxing that I would need to watch it more than once to take it all in. In fact, I found I had time to start writing an article and make a cup of tea without missing much. Except maybe a few extremely sweaty sex scenes.

Films and TV dramas based on great classical texts tend to fill me with both joy and loathing. The number of children who take Ancient History based on having watched the dreadful 300 is great, right? A film has made them want to study a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, my own experience is that they aren’t that interested in finding out what Herodotus actually wrote about the Persian Wars. But then there are shows like Rome and obviously the film Gladiator and I reason that getting anyone talking about or interested in the ancient world must be a good thing.

Well. In walks the BBC’s new drama.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Bringing 'Dark Tales' into the Light

Haunting. Menacing. Horrifying. Nightmarish. These appear to be compliments when describing horror.

Aged 13, there was a period when sleepovers with friends were accompanied by the watching of a horror film. Despite protestations, I have therefore seen various numbers of Saw films in no particular order, The Ring, The Grudge, What Lies Beneath, Scream, Wrong Turn and the few parts of It during which I brought myself to look at the screen (not recommended). Not only did this result in sleepless nights and a fear of taking my eyes off the mirror in the bathroom, in case I blinked and found some monstrous being had appeared there, but I also could not see any reason to watch the films in the first instance. I did not find them entertaining or clever or cathartic. And they all seemed to end at random, as if the lead actress simply couldn’t back-brush her hair anymore that day or the writers had temporarily run out of horrendous uses for chicken wire, so that there was neither closure nor a great deal of sense in the ending but merely a certainty that there would be another film a year later in which much of the same occurred, very likely more violently.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Book of the Year? Perhaps Reservoir 13

In anticipation of the Costa Book Awards announcement on 30th January, I began feverishly to read Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. I stopped only when I forced myself to take a break and think some more on what I had read and, I’ll admit, to have a night’s fitful sleep before continuing. Between the afternoon when I had started reading and the morning when I finished, Helen Dunmore’s collection of poetry had won the award. I had announced just prior to this news that it was surely between Rebecca Stott’s In the Days of Rain and Reservoir 13. To me, the only reason it would not be the latter was that the novel won it last year and it was a different category’s turn.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Carrington Collection Part II: Surreal Fictional Reality

A game of draughts to decide who must throw the queen to the lions; a corpse remaining warm enough to hatch eggs; one hundred cats and a badger chasing a saint; games of Pigeon Fly; nymphs running through gardens cared for by nuns; sisters with wings drinking blood; rabbits feasting on decomposed meat; lovers stolen while you wait; young girls collecting the heads of poultry; masked balls with moustaches on the menu; underwear flying each day from a traffic island; society beauties knitting spiders’ webs; Russian rats trained for surgery; mothers who are cows, grandmothers who are umbrellas, live jaguars made of stone. And everywhere, horses. Horses leading you to Fearful parties, girls that become horses, magpies that become horses, rocking horses that become, well, horses, horses that trample a woman but are also the child in her womb…

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Carrington Collection Part I: Surreal Non-fiction

“I had recourse to my heritage of British diplomacy and set aside the strength of my will, seeking through gentleness an understanding between the mountain, my body and my mind. One day I went to the mountain alone. At first I could not climb; I lay flat on my face on the slope with the sensation that I was being completely absorbed by the earth. When I took the first steps up the slope, I had the physical sensation of walking with tremendous effort in some matter thick as mud. Gradually, however, perceptibly and visibly, it all became easier, and in a few days I was able to negotiate jumps. I could climb vertical walls as easily as any goat.”

Reading Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, I thought: what an insightful metaphor explaining her mental state, climbing a mountain representing her struggles during a breakdown. It’s not a metaphor, I realised on rereading. She really is trying to climb a mountain. ‘Jams’ in her mind were beginning to manifest themselves in physical symptoms. To Carrington at least, she really did have to lie down on the mountain before she could learn to climb it, following which she really did develop an accord with the animals she met on her walks, to whom she could go closer than other humans and speak with them through touch.

This is the nature of Down Below, the remarkable and harrowing account of her breakdown, incarceration in a mental institution and eventual escape – she recounts precisely what happened without false imagery. This is how she remembered it, how she saw the world then, perhaps to an extent how she continued to see the world.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Fickle and inconstant is woman, always

The Public Voice of Women

varium et mutabile semper femina – Virgil Aeneid V.569-570

Or, as rendered by David West, “Women are unstable creatures, always changing.”

A sort of wry smile would be shared around the room at university when we read sentences like this. A smug look that seemed to say, ‘ah, the ancients and their ways – of course we have come so far since then’. There was a sort of tacit agreement not to go too deeply into discussion about such assertions. You can’t call Virgil anti-feminist if feminism didn’t exist then right?

Well, what you can do is look at how some ancient views are embedded still in today’s society. Mary Beard has. In the first chapter of her manifesto, Women and Power, she highlights how some attitudes from the very earliest western literature still affect how we perceive women’s speech, particularly in public, today.

Brighter Writings from Bleaker House

Sometimes, when my cat is attempting to hunt something - usually a ribbon or an unsuspecting guest’s foot - he focuses on it for a while, b...