Tuesday, 14 July 2009

One small step ....

I've been glued to the swathe of TV programmes celebrating the 40th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I can just about remember watching them at the time, back in 1969, at the tender age of six. Just that irregular 'peep' noise that accompanies the footage of the astronauts is enough to engulf me in a wave of nostalgia about that historic moment, and the world we inhabited back then.

And I've been thinking about how that world differs from the one we inhabit now. I grew up reading every science fiction book I could get my hands on. I was fascinated by the whole concept of space travel. I was glued to 'Star Trek' every week. I told the careers advisor at school that I wanted to be an astronaut. I would stare up into the night sky until I thought my head would explode with the sheer vastness and mystery of it all.

Do kids still do that? Somehow it seems to me that awe has gone as much out of fashion as science fiction. Forty years on and we just seem so earth-bound. My children seem far more interested in their ipods than alien civilisations. We're all so obsessed with economic and environmental doom that it feels like we never look skywards any more. Even Star Trek has gone down the pan. The latest film was a relentless action-fest, packed with special effects but lacking any of the thought and intelligence of its predecessors.

Yes, the space program was expensive, but nothing compared with the world's military budgets. The US spent around $26 billion getting a man to the moon; in 1968 alone its defense budget was more than $78 billion. And the Russians spent a great deal less in getting to the big cheese.

And what we gained was immeasurable: wonder, excitement, hope and, most importantly, a sense of global unity. An estimated 500 million people worldwide watched Neil Armstrong take that incredible, daring, groundbreaking leap for mankind. And probably every single one of them was in the grip of the same emotion - awe.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

F*ck, B*gger, Sh*t

Every now and then everything falls apart. And I mean EVERYTHING. It'll happen over a few days, invariably just before my period. It's like the Universe tires of sending me those good ol' life challenges in dribs and drabs, and decides it may as well bundle them all up and drop them on me all in one go.

1. I have a major row with my partner, fuelled largely by his decision that it's a very good idea to spend ALL weekend digging the vegetable garden, leaving me feeling like a single mother. I lose all perspective. I fantasise about leaving him; killing him; burning his socks; breaking off our so-called engagement. And spend that night fuming in the bed in my den.

2. The hot water decides to take a holiday - naturally said partner is away at the office. Cheerio personal hygiene.

3. I get the mother of all migraines. The kind that's still there when you wake up on Day Four. The kind that barely flinches when you bombard it with a hefty dose of naratriptan, washed down with two paracetamol and codeine.

4. Finally get an evening to myself. Tuck myself up in bed with my laptop and my Lovefilm DVD. What a treat! Insert the DVD. It doesn't play. Or rather it does play, but only in French. And my French is still too crap to have a clue what they're on about.

5. Said partner - we've made up by now - calls to say his office was burgled on the one and only evening when he'd left both his laptop and two digital cameras in it. Between them they contained every single photo and video we've taken over the last six years. And no, he didn't back them up.

6. My ex-husband's new car breaks down, which of course means I have to either lend him mine or spend several days ferrying the kids back and forth when they're supposed to be with him. I'll probably have to lend him the money to repair his car too.

7. Drive ten miles to the gym. Just about have time for a workout before I have to be elsewhere. Open my PE kit. Have brought two T-shirts and no shorts. The woman in reception, who refuses to lend me one of the ten thousand pieces of lost property gear they have boxed up round the back, suggests I work out in my silk skirt. I wonder if I could strangle her with it.

8. My eldest son bunks off university, arriving back at his dad's announcing that he plans to quit. He doesn't even bother to call me. No one tells me what kind of a state he's in so when I'm drafted in to drive him to the station - see above - I end up giving him a piece of my mind about treating me like crap, etc, completely oblivious to the fact that he's on the brink. Or that I am.

And all this in just one week. Along with all the every day irritations that give life its edge. I have reached that point where I've stopped even bothering trying to cope. I have shut myself in my den with a large glass of wine and I am feeling very, very sorry for myself. And for anyone else who happens to cross my path.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Oh hell...

My partner unearthed this on the internet the other day. It's so brilliant I just have to pass it on:

Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)?

This is an actual question given on a University of Washington chemistry mid term. Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law, (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following, and received the only 'A' grade given:

"First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving. As for how many souls are entering Hell, lets look at the different religions that exist in the world today.

Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.

Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as souls are added. This gives two possibilities: If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose. Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it? If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms. Teresa Banyan during my Freshman year, "...that it will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you", and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then, #2 cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze."

Oh, to be even half as clever ....

As Good as It Gets

Okay. I wrote bits of a book. Some time later, I wrote other bits. I thought I had a book. But then again, I wasn't sure. I put it in a back drawer.

Several years later, I took it out again. I read it. It made me laugh. It made me cry a bit too. Hey, this book isn't so bad, I thought. This book might just be a real book.

I tidied it up. I tweaked it. I sent it off. One agent asked for the full manuscript. Two said no right off. The first agent wrote back saying they'd talked about it a lot but basically it didn't work. I put the book back in the drawer and sulked for a year or so.

I got the book out again. I read it. I still liked it. I still had the nagging feeling that something was missing. I sent it off for a literary critique. The author who critiqued it also had the nagging feeling that something was missing. She had the nagging feeling that a lot was missing. It was a very flawed book, she said.

I sulked for another year. Then I dragged myself on an Arvon course. Then another. On the second, one of the tutors made a couple of really helpful suggestions. I went home and wrote a new subplot for the book. It was undeniably better. But I wasn't sure. I was worried for my book. I didn't want to send it off again prematurely into the world.

So I waited. I worried some more. Then I tweaked it and sent it off for another literary critique, this time with a different agency. The nice lady said nice things about the book. She said it could be a real book. And she made some really helpful suggestions.

I've acted on those suggestions. I've written in new bits and I've gone over and over it until I don't think you can see the joins. I've read it through a hundred times. I've changed words in sentences over and over until the words swim and the sentences don't seem to make sense any more.

Today I finished. Today, I've finally had to admit that this book is as good as it's going to get. It's time for this little would-be book to go out and try and make its fortune.

And I am terrified.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Haven't we been here before?

I used to be a real Lynch fan. I practically knew every line in 'Eraserhead' off by heart. I was glued to 'Twin Peaks'. Loved 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild at Heart'.

Twenty odd years later I sat down to watch 'Mulholland Drive'. Two hours later I really wish I hadn't bothered. It was like a protracted deja-vu. A rehash of all the old Lynchian themes he'd done to death years ago. All that 'mysteriousness', that obsession with the macabre. The stage scene that was just a replay of 'In heaven' in 'Eraserhead'. Scary strange people with odd expressions and maniacal laughs. Dreamlike sequences. Impossibly convoluted 'plots' which are actually nothing but inane meanderings posing as complexity. Years ago I might have been captivated, convinced there was some inner meaning to it all. Now I was just bored. There's no meaning here. It's just idiotic. All surface and image. Not profound, not mysterious, just ridiculous.

And more than that, there's something really quite repellent about Lynch's fetishistic obsession with women and their appearance. The way he likes to make them look all wooden and vulnerable and doll-like. The hints of violence - bruises on the prostitute's arm, the druggy woman collapsing on stage. There is really a nasty underbelly to Lynch's psyche that makes me very glad I don't have any personal acquaintance with him.

All in all, I was left wondering what's the problem here - that I grew up or David Lynch didn't?

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Nihilism and Dystopia

Okay, I guess it was my fault. I chose the book. I fell for the blurb on the back cover and the 80 odd 5* reviews on amazon. And I tried to read it. By the time the book club meeting came around I had ploughed through 450 pages of "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry. The sort of book reading where you have to promise yourself a treat if you make it through another chapter. (In this case said treat was a few more chapters of Haruki Murakami.)

And everyone at the book club loved it. And had finished it.

I'll leave aside the fact that this book has, in effect, no plot - indeed the first half is nothing really more than backstory - and often reads like an Indian party political broadcast, and just focus on what really irked me. And here I'll make another confession. I've no intention of finishing this novel, which is a rare thing for me - I usually feel it's a point of honour to get to the closing pages, even if I'm truly suffering in the process. But in this case I checked out those amazon reviews a little more thoroughly, and found out that the remaining 200 odd pages basically involve one sadistic turn of event after another, until all the characters are all but annihilated. 'Utterly without hope', seems to be the consensus of this work of apparent genuis.

Now, with a tendency towards depression and an overdeveloped capacity for worry, I tend to avoid 'utterly without hope'. And I also happen to believe that it has no place in literature. I loathed Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" for this very reason. I'd throw in Michel Houellebecq's "Atomised" onto that heap, and possibly toss on J G Ballard's "Cocaine Nights" for good measure. Then set light to the lot. Farenheit 451, anyone?

I'm not saying all novels should be uplifting, not at all. But there should be some purpose in all that negativity. Take George Orwell's "1984", which I read at the tender age of 12. Negative, yes. Depressing, perhaps. Nihilistic, no. "1984" was a warning, an intelligent exploration of totalitarianism. There was sense and meaning in the protagonist's suffering. Ditto Kafka or Dostoevsky - they're not exactly giving us a sunny view of the world in their novels, but they are nevertheless truly satisfying reads.

But what point is Rohinton trying to make in so torturing then abandoning his central characters? What message are we supposed to take from McCarthy's relentlessly awful portrayal of the end of the world? It's like watching a slasher movie where everyone winds up dead. You're left wondering what's the point of it all? And in my opinion, that feeling has no place in good literature.

Which forces me to evaluate what I do think is the 'point' of literature. Why are we drawn to fill our lives with stories? What purpose do they serve? And what makes a satisfying story, and transcends it into art? I've concluded that the answer is human nature. Good art, good stories, tell us something about ourselves, about our light and dark sides, about our potential and the pitfalls along the way. If you're at all interested in exploring this further, I can do no better than point you in the direction of Christopher Booker's absorbing opus magnus "The Seven Basic Plots". It sounds reductive. It isn't. It provides one of the most conclusive explanations I've come across as to why art and story is so important to us.

Stories need a beginning, middle and end. They need conflict, and they need resolution. They need a satisfying conclusion, although that doesn't necessarily mean a happy ending. And we need to learn something along the way, or see some part of our basic human psychology reflected in the 'hero's' journey, which is alway, fundamentally, a psychological journey. The protagonist either matures, and is saved - comedy - or fails to mature, and is lost to himself and the world that surrounds him - tragedy. But taking a character or set of characters and throwing impossible circumstances at them is not literature. You may as well just watch a cat torturing a mouse, then biting off its head.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008


I read a fair bit - at least by most people's standards. And I watch quite a few films. And the vast majority of what I read/watch leaves me feeling just so-so. Take it or leave it. Though now and then I'll think something is good. Maybe very good. Five-stars-out-of-five good.

And then - very, very occasionally - you come across something which is another-order-of-magnitude good. Something which just takes your breath away and doesn't give it back until you turn the last page or watch the closing credits roll up in front of you. And you realise that what it's all been for. That's why you've ploughed through all those novels or sat through all those movies. To get to here.

Last year I got there with Victor Pelevin's The Clay Machine Gun. Last night I found myself there again when I watched a film I knew nothing about - I had simply popped it onto my Lovefilm list after seeing an interesting review. Magnolia. Where was I in 1999 when this was released? What was I doing? How could it possibly have come to a point where, nine years later, I'd never even heard of this film?

I won't even try to describe it to you - beyond saying that it follows the interlocking lives of a series of characters in Los Angeles - but it was absolutely captivating. Several minutes into the opening montage I had that feeling of absolute 'rightness'. That sense that there was absolutely nothing in the world I'd rather be doing at this moment than sitting here, laptop propped up on my knees, watching what was unfolding in front of me. And three hours later (yes, it's long, but then, hell, so is War and Peace) I was still captivated. And open-mouthed. Literally. Towards the end my jaw actually dropped, I was so astounded and moved and transfixed by what was happening on the screen.

This is a work of consummate genius, at once puzzling and heart-rending and wise and funny and tragic and uplifting. The acting is astonishing. I've never been a particular fan of Tom Cruise but in Magnolia he proves he's more than than just a pretty face with one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen. The musical score is hypnotic, and the frog scene is probably the most dramatic use of special effects in cinema history.

If only everything in life were this good.