Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Lady of Silences

I'm revisiting all my safe places this week - Tommy Stearns and I have been in conversation once again. My collected Tommy Stearns has pages falling out (round The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday), but I have never read Choruses from the Rock before. I have to say I don't think I was missing much, it's Tommy at his worst - fussy and misanthropic and in full misguided agreement with Damon Albarn that modern life is rubbish.

But next up were the Four Quartets. My mother has a copy of The Imitation of Christ by the C.15th mystic Thomas à Kempis that she claims she can open at any place and find something relevant to her life. My own Tommy-mystic's Four Quartets serve a similar purpose for me. Here we find Tommy in East Coker on having nothing to say right now:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Tommy, you might be a miserable auld fuck, but I should not doubt you. The Four Quartets have never let me down.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Roman Mysteries

CBBC have just started showing a glossy series based on the Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence. I haven't read the books, although from watching they seem to be like the Famous Five in Ancient Rome. That is not meant to be snide, I enjoyed the Famous Five books as a child very much, even if it did seem treachery to be reading something not published by Puffin.

I rather enjoyed this first episode, thought it was quite jolly. People ate snails and dormice, and explained who Vulcan was. Therefore it entertained, educated, and informed - tick! The stories centre around Flavia, the ten-year-old daughter of a sea captain living in Ostia. Flavia likes to find things out, and is a bit bossy (so, Julian). In the first episode she assembles her team: Jonathan, the son of the Jewish next-door neighbour; Nubia, an African slave that Flavia buys on impulse after hearing Jonathan's father, Dr Mordechai, say that it's not right to own people; and Lupus, a mute runaway who - in the books - has had his tongue cut out (not in the TV version, alas, although there was one point where someone asked him to stick out his tongue and I was sure they were going to go with it). So far Flavia is the only one who has had any lines, what with Lupus being mute and Nubia not speaking Latin, and Jonathan... well, not being the lead.

Which on one level is charming to watch: this very active, intelligent girl running about explaining what's going on to the people around her (and not once wishing she was a boy). But I do wish they hadn't made her so incredibly blonde: I mean, surely the daughter of a Roman sea captain living in Ostia wouldn't be so relentlessly... English? Combined with the young actor's lovely speaking voice, it's slightly disconcerting, like 1950s Britain's social structures have been plonked down into a Roman setting. Particularly when she's surrounded by these near-silent Others.

I'll carry on watching. It's hard to dislike a programme for which the information on the Sky box reads: "Flavia and her friends convince Admiral Pliny of the danger of Mount Vesuvius". Particularly when Pliny is being played by Simon Callow.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

All the time in the world

One of the things I was reflecting on about last night's Doctor Who ('The Lazarus Experiment') was how the action takes place in real time: the Doctor arrives, adventure unfolds - there are several changes of setting, but largely we follow what is happening as it happens. It's an obvious structure for television drama, although - again, obviously - not a necessary one: look at how different experiences of time are managed in 'The Girl in the Fireplace', to name just one example from the same show!

But it set me thinking about what it is that I might have been struggling with in writing in recent months, and I'm starting think that handling the passage of time has been my chief problem. Vignettes come very easily to me, but one review that I get quite frequently is, "I like this, but it's only a taster, there should be more. This story needs to be finished." Usually, on getting a review like this I'm confused: I go to a lot of pains to make vignettes coherent and self-standing, and I tend to think, "But I told the story I wanted to tell - how could there be more?" I've tended to think this sort of response is a function of that continuous story-telling impulse that is the mark the fanficcing mind ("Yes, but what about this gap here...") and I've moved on to the next vignette. Or to the next short story - and my short stories do have an unnerving resemblance to the form and structure of my favourite episodes of television, with tight structures and closely interlinked plots. (Intentionally, in some cases, like Closure or Proof.)

Because at the end of the day interconnectivity is what interests me (and what the novel seems best suited to treat). Because I most passionately believe in our deep connections to each other, across physical space and historical time, and I believe that obscuring these connections is the source not just of injustice but of individual unhappiness and social anomie. All of which I think are bad things, if that isn't clear, and which I have this furtive urge to mitigate.

I know I've tried to represent this connectivity formally in the past: I've constructed interconnected plots before (Hollow Men being the most complicated, I guess, but I think the multiple first-person narrative stories were a stab at it), but recently I've been hitting a wall in writing something long. Eighteen months ago I started on a novel which has everything going for it - an original setting, some great characters, some gorgeous symmetries and imagery, some beautifully crafted scenes... and it's completely stuck. I simply haven't been able to progress it beyond a certain point. I've rewritten the first 60,000 words over and over again. And now I've put it aside and thought, "OK, well, nice try, but let's leave it at that."

And then I woke up this morning, and I thought - it's about representing time, isn't it, about representing the passage of time. What I've been writing before has dramatized the effects of a set of interlocking circumstances as they erupt into some specific real-time action. And of course the novel can do more than this. And of course this is why you're reading and thinking about historical novels, And it seems so simple when I write it down, and I feel so stupid - that it takes so much for me to realize that I really can do whatever I want in this sandbox.

To think that all you need is a pile of paper and a working pen, and the time and space for thought and self-examination. What a thoroughly bizarre and wholly compelling pursuit this is.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Pinching the plot from Plutarch

I read through the introduction to Antony and Cleopatra last night, and it told me that the "problem" with it is that there has not yet been a "classic" performance of the two leads. Well, I think some brainy theatre wallah is missing a trick if they don't get James Purefoy and Lyndsey Marshall from Rome and stick them on stage. Because they have it all - the chemistry, the physicality, the appetite, the gender-bending, the tacky Posh'n'Becks/Victoria'n'Albert display, the no-longer-in-the-first-bloom-of-youth-and-therefore-even-sexier, um, ness. The works.

Alas, I can only find one picture online, which doesn't do justice to either the tissue thinness of Lyndsey Marshall's dresses or the shovelled thickness of James Purefoy's eyeliner. I'll keep looking - purely as a public service, you understand.

They even get the Isis and Osiris stuff in. After Antony has suicided, and Cleopatra comes and sees his body, she sits him in a chair and clambers into his lap, and rearranges his arms around her as she cries and talks to him. Rome is so bloody good.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

O tempora! ect ect

A bookshop couldn't sell me any Shakespeare today. A second one could, just not what I was after. Borders supplied. I merely note this in passing.

What I don't miss

What I don't miss about the US is the airconditioning. Oh, I'd miss it if I was there, absolutely, but it's good to be back in a climate where I don't need it and therefore can breath uncanned air. What I don't miss about Cambridge - the fucking bikes.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Lost, one future

So once I was home, I was able to see the final episode of Life on Mars, only several weeks after everyone in the UK. There'll be spoilers in this post for it, along with spoilers for Pan's Labyrinth and Brazil.

I'll leave you a little space so you don't get ruined.

I wish there was an lj-cut equivalent.

I'm starting spoiling after the beeps.


So Sam Tyler goes back to the future, finds he doesn't like it, and suicides - to wake up again in the Seventies. It's seen as a joyous act, but while I was charmed I was also troubled by it, to be honest - it seems something of a retreat, even a defeat. As if a choice has to be made between fantasy and reality, rather than allowing each to sustain and nourish the other, to make and remake each other. It's the same at the end of Brazil, only in Brazil it's all far more explicitly sinister: Sam Lowry retreats from an unbearable world of torture and the death of the woman he loves into a fantasy escape and life with his love in the mountains. I wish Sam Tyler had given the future another go. The Seventies weren't that great. The Noughties aren't that bad. You can even wear flares, Sam, nobody will laugh. They'll think you're being retro or copying that man off the telly.

All of which - apart from the flares - set me thinking again about the end of Pan's Labyrinth, when Ofelia is killed and triumphantly enters her father's kingdom to be crowned princess. But the big difference to me is that Ofelia doesn't choose suicide: she refuses to submit and is murdered as a result. Obviously it's still hard to see it as a happy ending (not to mention her options are pretty limited when she makes that choice), but nevertheless for reasons that are currently beyond me, I do think it's a victory. I think in part that's because we - watching that film - are a necessary part of its temporality. When we leave the rebels in Pan's Labyrinth, we know they're about to lose the war. But from our POV perhaps that seems different, and their struggle was worth it, and was ultimately - through the passage of time - transfigured into a different kind of victory. In Life on Mars, we're asked to disconnect from the past - the Testcard Girl reaches forward and switches off the telly, switches us off. It's a cool shot, but I don't want the transmissions from the past to be interrupted. I want to keep on remaking them. I don't want the end of history. I want my fantasists alive and well and ready to dream another day.

ETA: I woke up this morning to make connections between this and Moorcock's criticism of something Tolkien wrote about the uses to which fantasy can be put. China Mieville sums up Moorcock's position in this interview: "In On Fairy Tales [Tolkien] says, 'Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison walls?' The fantasy writer Terry Pratchett puts it very simply: 'Jailers don't like escapism.' The trouble is that, as Michael Moorcock pointed out, jailers love escapism--what they don't like is escape."

But I think I'm with Pratchett on this one - jailers don't like escapism either, at least not of a certain kind. Because surely imagining the possibility of a way out is a precondition of enacting a way out. So it seems again that Sam Tyler's is a retreat backwards, not a push forwards. Ah, what do I know? You'd like to think you'd still be giving it your best pop while they're dragging you out to the firing squad, but who knows when you might end up following Sam Tyler and Sam Lowry into the consolation of your own mind, or for what reason.


The Visitor

In Spanish he whispers there is no time left.
It is the sound of scythes arcing in wheat,
the ache of some field song in Salvador.
The wind along the prison, cautious
as Francisco's hands on the inside, touching
the walls as he walks, it is his wife's breath
slipping into his cell each night while he
imagines his hand to be hers. It is a small country.

There is nothing that one man will not do to another.

- Carolyn Forché

Home again

I am back in the UK for a bit, sadly, since M. isn't, and that's just rubbish, frankly. We watched The Life and Death of Peter Sellars before I came back. Geoffrey Rush is extraordinary in it, playing not just Sellars (impeccably), but also playing other characters in the style of Sellars doing the actors playing them... if you follow me. So Peter Vaughan plays Sellars' Dad, and Rush does Sellars playing Vaughan playing Sellar's dad. Quite brilliant. My favourite bits were set around Dr Strangelove: something feels strange about them, and then you realize it's because you're seeing all those famous sets and images in colour. (Also, Stanley Tucci is hilarious as Kubrick.)

It didn't change my opinion that Sellars was a total shit, in fact rather reinforced it, but that doesn't make much difference - still a great film.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007


I am down and safe. In the middle of nowhere, with limited net access. There is a fantastic supermarket of joy and a shop that sells me bagels and coffee. Best of all - the silence. Yesterday I knocked out 5000 words and still had time to sit around reading about Jane Austen.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

On the road

Venice tomorrow. Packing is done. But am I taking enough to read?

First three books of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. A piece of fanfic I've been fiddling with for days. Mansfield Park. Surely this will keep me going?

Perhaps I should pack something else slim...

Monday, 2 April 2007

One is starved of Technicolor up there

I decided to disprove my film=B&W / TV=colour rule by watching A Matter of Life and Death and Pleasantville.

A Matter of Life and Death never fails me. Neither does Pleasantville, for that matter, but because I saw it post-adolescence, I don't automatically think of it when I'm listing "films I love". This time, because I had recently been talking about the thoroughly stunning Pan's Labyrinth, I found myself watching the development of the brother and sister relationship.

I went and read some of the IMDB comments on A Matter of Life and Death. Someone said they thought it was rubbish. So someone explained why that might not be the case. And the first person thanked them for an enlightening reply. Internet in ideal speech situation shock. Most people just roundly abused the original poster, though, so let's not get too excited.

My weekend pills and booze hell

I watched the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line over the weekend, which turned out not to be "my pills and booze hell" but a country and western romcom, i.e. it followed the exact structure of a romcom, but held off on the comedy. I like musical biopics because the narratives are usually uncomplicated, and you're going to get good music. I direct you to What's Love Got to Do With It? and, of course, the phenomenal A Song To Remember which culminates in Cornel Wilde as Chopin liberating Poland with a European tour. Smashing stuff.

The weekend was of course primarily about the Who, and I watched back 'Smith and Jones' this morning with subtitles. I started watching television with subtitles so that I could follow plots and exercise at the same time (the deep-throated grind of the exercise bike obscures dialogue), and then I discovered that it actively aids my enjoyment of drama because I have such a strong connection to the written word that it means I'm reading the script along with looking at the pictures.

The Jane Austen season on ITV1 came to a not-bad-actually conclusion with an adaptation of Persuasion that had a lot to live up to, and didn't blow it until the very end, when the defter plotting of the novel was chucked for a rather silly sprint by Anne around Bath, trying to catch up with Wentworth. Still, it's hard to spoil Persuasion for me, because I'm just putting the emotion in for myself. I liked some of the handheld camera work, which brought the viewer's POV into scenes - very suitable for this most intimate of her novels.

I finished up my own Audrey Hepburn season with Breakfast at Tiffany's, which I was convinced was in B&W, and turns out not to be. Which led me to my single insight of the weekend: films are better in black and white, television is better in colour. This, manifestly, is truth, but why should it be so? Why, dammit, why?

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Lies they told me about Troughton

That The Underwater Menace is rubbish. That The Macra Terror isn't all that. They aren't right.

Both of them remind me of McCoy stories (which counts as praise on this journal): 'The Underwater Menace' has the same anarchic glee of The Happiness Patrol. And it has the fun design too (Atlantean fascists! Fish masks! Shell-shaped skullcaps! The world's dodgiest priest!) and bad puns ("Come on, Ben, we've got other fish to fry!").

'The Macra Terror' is a dream-team cross between Delta and the Bannermen and The Happiness Patrol (with perhaps a smidge of Paradise Towers?). None of the episodes exist and I wonder - given all those perky "Work is fun!" jingles - whether it works better as radio, but then I look at the Big Brother pictures and more fascists costumed on a BBC budget and of course the giant crab - and think, "Wow."

So if they do animate another story, I hope it's one of these two. And I'll never believe the so-called authorities again. Nothing in ze world can shtop me now!

Friday, 23 March 2007

Getting the girl

This post will contain spoilers for Roman Holiday, Notting Hill and Legally Blonde, although if you are worried about being spoiled for romcoms, I don't think you're quite getting the genre.

I hadn't realized until my current rewatching of Roman Holiday the extent to which it influences Notting Hill. Replace the princess with the film star, and there you have it. There's even the press conference set piece at the end. The main difference is that in the '50s Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn have to part. But by the '90s, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts can be together. And that, o my sisters, is progress.

Both films also contain one of my favourite romantic narratives: rich girl and poor boy in love. This has something to do with reconfiguring patriarchy, I'm sure. You can join up the dots yourself.

I also thought as I was watching how much fun it would be to have a Bujoldian version of Roman Holiday. Gregor would be in the Audrey Hepburn role, of course, and someone like Elli Quinn would have to be in the Gregory Peck role. Of course, Bujold largely does this herself in The Vor Game, but it's all a lot more dramatic and serious in that, and without the romance. Something lighter and more comedic - and romantic - is what I had in mind. Still set in Rome, mind you.

While on the subject of romcom, my recent viewing of Legally Blonde brought home the extent to which the romance is actually between Elle (Reese Witherspoon) and Vivian (Selma Blair). They follow the classic romcom track: initial dislike and hostility, tentative and guarded overture, misunderstanding and massive fallout, ultimate reconciliation. Elle's romance with her professor, Emmett, has no real trajectory in comparison. In fact, all you need to do is replace the caption: "Emmett is going to propose - tonight" with "Vivian is going to propose - tonight", and you would have a genuinely perfect film. It's pretty damn close already.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Going, going...

One of my life-fantasies is a Reggie Perrin style disappearance and re-emergence as a totally new human being (marrying my own widow in the guise of my long lost brother not an essential part of this scenario). The temptation to do the first half of this fantasy while I'm in North Carolina is very strong, but what I do want most of all is time and space to work; and I'm very hopeful that the lack of house distractions will let me do this. The thought of an empty period of time, in a new place, right now seems a little like heaven.