Sunday, 28 October 2012

You need an umbrella in this kind of weather

Last Thursday the writer Will Self came to the Arnolfini, Bristol to promote his new novel, Umbrella. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize which Hilary Mantel won with Bring Up The Bodies, Self's novel has mainly been discussed as a work of modernism.  Indeed, last week's edition of Start the Week on Radio 4 posited that whilst a modernist work may now be nominated for the Booker, something more conventional like historical fiction would always win it.

This comparison annoyed me and, moreover, struck me as erroneous.  Modernist writing is a form or way of writing with strong connections to a particular historical period (making Self's 2012 offering more unique).  It is not de facto simultaneously the narrative or genre or subject of a book.  Virginia Woolf's The Lighthouse, Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury or Eliot's The Wasteland are not at all about the same thing just because they are written in various modernist styles.  Therefore to say 'Mantel's book is about Cromwell and Self's is a modernist novel' is making a weak comparison.

As it is, Self does deal with many aspects and concerns of modernism and the modern period in his text, perhaps explaining why he self-consciously chose to also write in the style.  He also discusses hospitals, London, families, odd diseases, ageing and many other things. Self's book is modernist in two ways.  Firstly it is written in a modernist style and secondly it explores the modernist period by making the main protagonist, Audrey Death, representative of the mechanisation of the 20th century in Britain.

Too little of this has so far been discussed in criticism of the book.  Instead, as with all discussions about modernism, a trite comparison is made between the new text and Joyce's Ulysses - frequently succeeding in scaring potential readers away by implied ideas of it being impenetrable - and then little more.

When Self read a section from Umbrella, he did so in multiple voices.  Once I had got over how exciting it must have been to have him as a father who could 'do the voices' at bedtime, I also realised how much it added to the text.  Roughly, each piece of italicised text is said in a different accent - frequently cockney.  'Momentarily sandwiched between two sandwich men' with the sandwiched said in a cockney accent reads very differently to the entire sentence read all in RP.  A member of the audience had earlier made reference to Thomas's Under Milk Wood, and it is a good comparison to make.  Once Umbrella is read as a montage of all these different voices and sounds it is the very opposite of impenetrable, it bubbles up and out and around your ears.

Umbrella has a lot to say about modernism, the majority of which can only be accessed by those who bother to walk within the text rather than make one blanket comment about its surface structure.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Just for Kicks

The Happiness Machine

‘The Invisible Circus produces unique circus theatre experiences in a wide variety of unusual locations, from circus big tops and traditional theatres to site specific and promenade performances in disused industrial and historical buildings.’ The Invisible Circus

As a treat to ourselves for our hard work and fourth year endurance, we decided to take a trip to the circus. The Happiness Machine, seemed a promising title because we all deserved a smile on our faces.  Indeed it did make us grin, but it also made us ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and gasp and think and reflect.  I have been to plenty circuses in my time, and in my childhood years, the only things that I was left with were sticky fingers and popcorn leftovers stuck to my jumper. The Happiness Machine provides much more than just a showcase of bumbling clowns, silly gimmicks and cheap laughs. It is a symbolic and powerful performance criticizing how we have become slaves to the commercial world.

The main stage is taken over by a set of two-storey houses and their brightly lit windows gave us a sneak peek into the personal lives of the main characters whilst they are not on stage.  The first scene follows the story of an over-worked office worker as he teeters and staggers along a tight rope wire whilst trying to reach all of his deadlines. His skill becomes more visible as more work is piled into his inbox and it all becomes incredibly stressful. The choreography is a smart way of expressing how our work lives are at times overwhelming, all encompassing and exasperating.

The next few scenes are focused upon our consumerist society, sparkly ruby slippers and golden cleaning gloves are on all of the girl’s wish lists. Beautiful models take to the main stage, mincing around, lifting off into the heights of the tent on aerial hula hoops and show off the products in all of their glory.  But the poor old house wife is devastatingly let down after hoping and dreaming that the products will transform her into a new version of herself.  

In the final scene the couch-potato character finally appears on his favorite TV game show and the stage turns into a golden and glittery roller disco. His life is completed; he has won a chance to go through the ‘magic door’. The message ultimately comes down to the fact that we live in a sad world in which we dedicate much of our lives to television. We specifically put off social events because we have to be at home at 9pm to watch the next episode of our favorite soap.

It is quite a dismal reality, we can all relate to the scenes in some kind of way and I respect the Invisible circus’ attempt to provide a critical outlook on society. It is a smart technique to title the circus, The Happiness Machine because we really are happy. We are watching silly and entertaining stunts and tricks, our mouths wide open in amazement or in hysteria. The production copies the way in which television switches our minds off and subliminally forces us into zombie mode.  The final irony is that even though we are laughing, the happiness machine converts and transforms itself throughout the performance into the commercial marketing machine without us even realizing. 


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The buzz word.

This week sees the announcement of the short-list for the TS Eliot prize for poetry. Amongst stalwarts such as Simon Armitage and Sharon Olds there is newcomer Sean Borodale, nominated for his poem-journal ‘The Bee Journal’, which was published in July. 

Borodale’s journal reminded me of the prolific amount of poems devoted to bees. I recently attended a reading by Carol Ann Duffy, who has also written a collection on Bees (‘The Bees). Duffy spoke of Bees as inspiring her with their productivity, community and naturalness. Duffy also made mention of another poet who wrote of Bees: Sylvia Plath. 

In the work of Borodale, Duffy and Plath we have three generations of poetry on Bees. Although Britain has changed substantially in that period, the nature of their poems remain somewhat similar. There is something about Bees then, which is unchanging, persevering, and resistant to outside influence. Their pre-historic preservation again the whirring wheel of time makes them a subject which I envision poets will write of for generations to come. 

‘27th August’
The spider's season opens,
rat tooth-marks appear;
almost just a tempering of vision.
So, in a coat
I go up to the ochre house of you in there.
How bees touch and re-align their touch.
Light in migration;
noise of a body in continual repair ...
by Sean Borodale.

‘The Bee Carol’
Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight’s key;
all the garden locked in ice -
a silver frieze -
except the winter cluster of the bees.
Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.
Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.
Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive -
trembling stars cloistered above -
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.
by Carol Ann Duffy.

Sylvia Plath ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ -


A beastly beauty

With the sky soon to fall under the weight of Bond, it seems strangely perfect that a film narrated from the perspective of a feisty six-year-old from 'The Bathtub' should pull us with a mighty, unrelenting, "thump" back  to earth. With a Pan's Labyrinth-esque air of fantasy which entangles the imagination of a child with the dark depths of the reality in which they live, the film gains it's momentous strength from the way in which it's young protagonist, 'Hushpuppy', handles with great ferocity the collapsing world around her.

The carnal world of 'The Bathtub'- a patch in the marshy Louisiana Lowland- which is under the ominous possibility of flooding, becomes the startling, unnerving, yet heart-warmingly endearing, soil from which the film burgeons with monstrous  power. It is a film in which the characters and the world around them are inextricably linked- survival of one depends on survival of the other. The story line tumbles out of the screen in the most unpredictable of fashions, continuously drenching the stunned audience with loose music and stark images until we are left at the closing credits finally seeing through hindsight the film's puzzle-like cohesiveness.

This is a brilliant journey of survival, made all the more adventurous by the raw innocence of the perspective from which it is told. Go sea it.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The humble bicycle

In Vittorio De Sica's film Bicycle Thieves (1948) our beloved and most humble form or trasportation is for the central character Antonio Ricci, his means of survival. The only way in which this depraved husband and father of young son Bruno can fulfill his job as a poster-sticker, is if he owns his own bicycle. A greatest and most tragic dilemma occurs when on his first day of his newly acquired job, his bicycle, his life line, is stolen. Desperate and helpless, Antonio and his devoted son pace the streets of Rome in an attempt to recover this item that is most precious to the both of them. The Bicycle.
A Scene from Bicycle Thieves

The journey to find the bicycle becomes more than a rescue operation to discover the wherabouts of their captured item; the father and son relationship is tested and ultimately rocked. Antonio, in his angst steals a bike, resorting to the very act that deprived him of a livelihood. As a consequence, this bit of metal with two rickety wheels, handle bars and an un-comfortable seat; this 'thing' to get from place to place challenges the trust and faith between the two sorrowful characters. Antonio is humiliated and scorned by the un-sympathetic public and Bruno is left completely devastated and inconsolable; the great man he believed in is no longer. And what for? A Bicycle.

It is easy to forget the meaning of 'things.' Their place in our lives looses it's significance. We become accustomed to them, they are always reassuringly there, waiting for us at the end of the day, just as we left them. In an age when we have so much and are able to add to this 'muchness' at the swipe of a plastic card, or even a simple click of a button, we should take a thought for the 'things,' because one day we might actaully need them, and they may just not be there.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Escaping the Body

My favourite fashion blogger Susie Bubble recently completed the Nike Women's Half Marathon:

Susie's description of the journey from panting through 3 kilometres in her first training session to sobbing over the finishing line in San Francisco chimed true with experiences of my own. Since having a major back operation to correct scoliosis in September, 2010 the route back to making my body function again has been frustrating and arduous.

I abjectly hate my body much of the time.  Perhaps more so because adages about health mattering more than looks do not ring true.  I can cover my skin in pretty material, but I can't make my skeleton work properly.  X-rays of a body full of metal do not appear to represent me, maybe since although I know it is there, I cannot physically see the scar that covers it.  Boyfriends are used to tell me what it looks like.

However, one of the rare opportunities I get to experience feelings of appreciation for my body and test its limits is when I cycle.  Before my operation I became quite obsessed with cycling and getting fit..I used it as a way to exert some control over the body that was rebelling against me.  I lived on salads and always pushed myself to go as fast as I could over the 14 miles (7 miles each direction) I went through to work and back each day.  Toned legs and protruding clavicles let me pretend I could control and shape my body as I wished.

Nowadays - as those who know me will attest - I eat cake, drink beer and have clothes in my wardrobe I can no longer fit into.  I don't want to go back to starving myself.  I will never be remembered for being skinny and I cannot write (the thing I live for) if I am hungry.  What I still crave though, is the adrenaline of going slightly too fast down hill after getting dizzy fighting my way up the other side.

I have recently began cycling again and, like Susie, I am quite a wreck when I do so.  Gone are the days when I floated daintily along on my dutch bike in a floral flock.  These autumnal mornings I wheeze and wimper as I cut through the sludge of cold air.  My legs feel like they are wading through trench mud and I hate myself, curse myself, for being made of chubby beer fat and assorted aches and pains.

But I will get there.  Perhaps by next summer I will be able to enjoy half falling off my bike, a sweaty mess in the late afternoon heat, and diving into the shower.  After flummoxing through two years of pain, only imagining it as a means to an end, the aim is now to enjoy the journey once more.

Rosemary Ellen Cherry

Friday, 19 October 2012

Free falling

Following on from yesterday’s post.

Imagine being able to look over humanity, all of history, art, literature and love. Imagine looking downwards at our planet, seeing it in its entirety and its surrounding spatial infinity. Imagine floating up and beyond the earth’s hazy blue sky in what we mere mortals consider a wicker basket and a balloon. Just the other day, the 43 year old Felix Baumgartner, drifted into the heights of our sky, indeed into our upper atmosphere and freefell 23 miles, plummeting back down to our safe earthly ground. Let’s not forget that he is not the only space lunatic out there, Jospeh Kittinger was the first to set the record for the longest skydive, falling from the dizzying heights of 19.5 miles. I can only see them as an inspiration; they are two men, picked out of a crowd of 7 billion other people. They are my heroes, and my space Gods.

But sometimes I have to remind myself that they are human beings like the rest of us. Their mortal bodies have to endure a lot and be put under serious pressure. To even have a chance of surviving they have to wear 100lbs of space suit nonsense, they have to resist the bone chilling temperature of -55ÂșC and the lack of air and low pressure means bubbles begin to form in liquid and yes, that means that their blood could start to boil like a pan of hot soup. But these are just the minor risks of freefalling from our beautiful planet’s atmosphere. We forget that these space men are falling faster than the speed of sound. If they passed through the sound barrier, the airflow would change around them meaning that the pressure is bigger and badder, and would force them into an uncontrollable flat spin. Their blood would rush to the top or the bottom of their body and that is when it gets scary. But hey, guess what, these super space dudes survived and continue to live on in their epic hot air balloon legacy.

My free falling space daredevils make me daydream for hours on end. I imagine what they felt like on their ascent and descent; I imagine their fear, their free fall tumbling, their parachute jerking, stomach wrenching, epic and final landing. I think of situations where I introduce myself as the person who travelled faster than the speed of sound, I am a mortal sound-defeating bullet.  But for now here I am, a human happy to live my whole life with my two feet placed on this earthly ground.