Fairyhell Marriage

Millions of words have been written about Princess Diana and even more pictures printed but we had to wait until after her death to learn that Andrew Morton’s biography  was based largely on tapes she recorded secretly with the author.

It’s a story to break your heart: a classic Grimm fairytale with enough evil stepmothers, ugly sisters and neglectful husbands to fill an entire library.  Diana’s married life – and possibly her life even before marriage – was utterly devoid of human warmth and compassion: according to her account during her worst hours the Royal Family, her husband and even her own sister failed to support her.  Buckle up and get on with it seems to have been the order of the day: but what must have made an intolerable situation far worse was having to present a smiling face to the world.  The world needed to believe in the fairytale of a commoner marrying a prince and living happily-ever-after: it was a fantasy in which the hapless couple were forced to be complicit as they were not only followed everywhere by cameras but cross-examined in interview after probing interview.  Diana must have felt she was carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders.  There were times when she wanted to cancel the wedding but once announced the preparations were like a rocket already launched and could not be stopped.  Imagine: it’s hard enough for a commoner to cancel a traditional wedding once preparations are in train; if you add into the mix the cold, inflexible royal protocols and an unprecedented level of press intrusion, you have a recipe for 360-degree hell.  On her wedding day she was sick with bulimia (who wouldn’t be?) and wanted to cut her wrists.  Had her marriage been happy the rest might have been tolerable, but it wasn’t: she had little in the way of love and support from her husband as he was always more interested in Camilla.

Diana must have been made of steel, because she not only survived this hell but made a role for herself, a role which seemed genuinely to use her gifts and talents.  She had the common touch and an ability to connect with ordinary people, particularly those suffering from AIDS and injured by land-mines.  But sadly the press never left her alone and although it’s not clear that they were directly responsible for her death, they surely must bear part of the blame.

The story of Diana has many possible narratives and in fairness her version is just that, a version.  I have no reason to doubt what she says, but every witness is partial and there are always other points of view: in a sense Charles was as much of a victim as Diana, being unable to marry the woman he loved and forced to wed for the sake of the succession.  In the past he’d have been able to carry on with Camilla in secret whilst presenting a respectable public face but modern levels of scrutiny make this impossible.  Besides nowadays the royals, like the rest of us, are supposed to marry for love.

The story also illustrates a paradigm shift, as pointed out in The Queen: a ‘shift in values’ between the old stiff-upper-lip of royal protocol and the more human and compassionate face which Diana represented.

I hope no future royal princess will receive that level of intrusion because we have no right to demand it of them.  They are not there to fulfill our dreams, we need to do that for ourselves.

Here’s the film:

https://bit.ly/2BDYj4Y

Kirk out

 

 

 

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Treadmills, Victorian Punishments

In the course of my novel writing I had reason to look up Victorian prison punishments (just because I’m using one as a metaphor) and was once again reminded of the horrors of these dark satanic gaols.  But then I got to wondering whether they might be an improvement on their predecessors because, however forbidding the buildings and however self-righteously punitive the punishments, there was at least an attempt to deter and rehabilitate rather than merely to inflict pain.  Then again the sheer bureaucratic vindictiveness of a treadmill which is horribly hard work but produces nothing, or a handle which has to be turned a certain number of times a day to no purpose (and which can be tightened at will by the guards; hence the name ‘screws’) give the lie to that theory.

We’re all in a prison of some kind; and at the weekend I went to see the classic ’80’s film 9 to 5.  I hadn’t seen this when it came out and I was struck by how much things had changed, both for the better and also very much for the worse.  Three women work in the office of a corrupt and misogynistic boss: one a recent divorcee (Jane Fonda), one happily married but blonde and busty (Dolly Parton) and one a highly efficient single mother who really should be running the place (Lily Tomlin).  After a series of insults, power grabs, unwanted sexual advances and hourly put-downs, the women get together and decide to change things.  Rather than merely getting drunk and fantasising about it (though they do that too) they take action.  When one of them accidentally poisons the boss by putting rat poison in his coffee they kidnap him from the hospital and tie him up in his own home, holding him hostage while they take over the office.  Of course it unravels in the end but everything turns out for the best.  It’s a great feel-good movie and very funny.  So what’s changed?

Well, the acceptability of sexual harrassment has changed (though perhaps not its prevalence, where some men think they can get away with it).  The position of women has changed.  We now have laws about equal pay; there are more women in positions of power, and so on.  So far so good.  What’s not so good is the way people treat each other: in spite of the boss’s contempt for his female subordinates everyone was far more polite than we are nowadays.  And there was more time: back then the idea of nine-to-five was the epitome of slavery but nowadays people are doing ten or twelve-hour days and answering emails in their sleep.  Not so good.

So my question is this: is it inevitable that when some things get better other things will get worse?

Two of the three actors turn up decades later in the excellent Grace and Frankie.  I absolutely love this series and there’s so much to say about it that it’ll have to wait for its own blog post: suffice it to say that it’s a comedy of old age, a sort of geriatric Friends.  One of the creators of that classic series, Marta Kaufmann, is involved in this story of two octogenarian women whose husbands have been conducting a gay love-affair for decades and who have recently come out and set up house as a couple.  Thrown together by circumstances, Grace and Frankie rub along and fall out as often as you’d expect a work-driven WASP and an aged hippy to fall out.  The series is broad-based and while Grace and Frankie are the centre, we also follow the story of the two husbands (equally diverse but far more compatible) and the grown-up children.  There’s a lot of comedy about ageing which is neither patronising nor in denial and it’s worth seeing for the San Francisco beach house location alone, so if you have Netflix I urge you to watch it now.

Look, it didn’t need its own blog post after all!

Kirk out

What is This Blog About?

I read just this morning some advice which suggested a blogger should always make it clear what their blog is about.  But this presents me with some difficulty because when it comes down to it, what actually is this blog about?

It’s easy to say ‘it’s a blog about writing’ – and in the main it is; but it’s about so much more than that.  The one thing I discovered when I began to blog regularly was that it is impossible to stick to one subject.  The mind lists where it will; there are many things I’m interested in and I want to share those interests with readers.  I want to connect: I want to philosophise and politicise and talk about anything I damn well please, from bricklaying (yes, I did that once) to road materials testing (also done) to knitting and poetry and short stories and poems about knitting and road materials and bricklaying (I haven’t yet written about the last two but knitting has proved a fertile metaphor for many things.)

I also want to blog about culture: I want to organise my responses to films and TV programmes, I want to write book reviews and share the poetry I love.  So in the main, it’s about connection.  Only connect would be a good alternative title for the blog if ‘A Writer’s Life’ weren’t clearer and more likely to – ahem – connect with readers.

One of the writing quotes I read recently was: ‘A writer knows a little about everything and is an expert on nothing.’  Now I think that’s exactly true: I am compelled to find out about all manner of things and would be just as engaged in finding out how fork-lift trucks work (indeed I have had that conversation with a friend who works at JCB) as with hearing about how other writers write.  I’m fascinated by these processes and not with any conscious intent of ‘doing research’ for writing: they just interest me.  As Chaucer said (or at least the Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale) ‘all human life lies within the artist’s scope.’  So there it is; all human life lies within this blog’s scope.

What is this blog about?  Everything.

What am I an expert on?  Nothing.

Except perhaps on writing…

And just for fun, here’s today’s writing cartoon:

Kirk out

No Woman

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film ‘Yes Man’.  It’s a highly enjoyable story of a man who says no to life; who never goes anywhere or does anything and is stuck in the same old job as a loans officer for a bank.  Then one day he goes to an empowerment seminar where he is persuaded to enter a ‘contract’ agreeing to say yes to everything – literally everything – that comes along.  It’s very different from the book; but what struck me about both book and film was this: just how impossible would it be to do this as a woman?  Totally, right?  Can you imagine – a woman going round saying yes to everything?  So maybe the best option for women would be to practise saying no, since traditionally women are supposed to be amenable, open, charming and supportive.  So what would ‘No Woman’ look like? *

Of course you’d have to be discriminating otherwise you’d have to say no to a good job offer or a gift or a holiday or some other opportunity.  But suppose you started saying no to all the things you really want to say no to?

I did this the other week.  If I have a weakness it’s a tendency to take on jobs which need doing and which no-one else wants to do.  If there’s a need in an organisation, some part of me feels the urge to rush in and Save the Day.  I’ve got better at this as time goes by and I no longer volunteer for things that don’t play to my strengths – but if jobs seem to be the sort of thing I’d be good at, I generally persuade myself that this is The Thing To Do.

A case in point: recently at a meeting, a vacancy was announced.  Immediately my ‘save the day’ urge kicked in – but I’ve learned caution so instead of volunteering I raised my hand and asked what the job entailed.  I deliberately and quite specifically said as a prelude to the question, ‘I’m not volunteering to do this.’  And what happened?  One week later I heard that no fewer than three people had said, ‘isn’t it great that Liz is going to be _______?.’  This got my back up somewhat and I said a very firm No right there and then.  It particularly annoyed me that my words hadn’t been heard; all that had registered was that I’d shown an interest, and that people leapt from that to thinking I’d agreed to do it.

All this is in stark contrast to the Quakers.  When there is a job to be done the Nominations Committee (of which I am a member) sit and reflect on who might be asked to undertake that role.  This can be a process which may evolve over weeks or months; or a name might come up immediately.  That person is then asked; whereupon they go away and reflect on it, again over a period of weeks or months.  They then come back to the Noms Committee with a response.  At no time is any pressure put on anyone to say yes.  The Quaker attitude is that jobs exist for people, not people for jobs.

Hmm.  Now, what else can I say ‘no’ to today?

Kirk out

(Or not…)

*  No Bob Marley jokes please

Zen + Zen = Zen

I’ve been reading a book of Japanese Death Poems lent to me by my son.  I was quite ignorant of the Japanese tradition of writing a poem at the point of death: it seems very strange to us that someone can not only know when they are about to die but stop to write a poem before they go; but I found these poems to be a great source of peace: all of us in the West need to learn to confront our own mortality instead of running away from it and trying to prolong our lives as much as possible.

https://bit.ly/2EcHWiG

I’ve also been watching a film about the Tamil mathematician Ramanujan.  Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan is an untutored genius with a brilliant intuitive mind who regards mathematics as a sort of worship and does his calculations in the sand of the temple floor.  He has a mind as beautiful as Nash’s but without any opportunity to share his insights; however a friend takes his papers to show the local British bigwig and he gets an opportunity to go to Cambridge and study under Hardy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._H._Hardy

Jeremy Irons (how I love that man) is perfect as the atheist Hardy, a man fighting on more fronts than the War which forms the backdrop to this narrative.  Prejudice is ingrained and Trinity College refuses to acknowledge that ‘an Indian’ could be brainier than they are.  But Hardy is also fighting Ramanujan himself, who cannot understand his insistence on ‘proving’ the arguments which he intuitively ‘sees’.  Intuition, in the West, is not enough: there must be proof, especially if Ramanujan is to be elected as a Fellow.  An opportunity to explore these cultural differences is missed; in fact missed opportunities are a feature of this film.  Stephen Fry has a cameo as British bigwig Sir Francis Spring who abruptly changes his mind about supporting Ramanujan (another opportunity for drama missed) and other supporting roles are underexploited, such as Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend and co-conspirator and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell; a man sympathetic to racial equality but realistic about Ramanujan’s chances of Fellow-ship.

A sad sub-plot involves Ramanujan’s young wife, separated from him by his relocation to England.  Their separation is cruelly compounded by his jealous mother who hides their letters, so that each thinks the other has forgotten them.  But once again the opportunity for drama is missed; the wife finds the letters and we fast-forward to a reconciliation, though sadly they have only two more years together before he dies of TB.

I’m very interested in the subject of multicultural maths.  Arabic cultures were fluent in maths and much of their art is based on patterns of numbers: I wonder if we are still as arrogant today as those Trinity scholars who thought the way of the West was the only way?

The film’s on Netflix now if you want to watch it:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787524/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_7

And I have a sneaking suspicion that in Zen mathematics 1+1=1…

Kirk out

Peterloo

It has been called the greatest historical event never taught (in the UK at least).  The Peterloo massacre, coming hard on the heels of the Battle of Waterloo to which the name ironically refers, was one of the most infamous events in British history, and yet it’s hardly taught at schools at all.  I studied history to A-level and it wasn’t even mentioned.  Mike Leigh’s film attempts to remedy this situation.

The film is a bit of a history lesson and at times feels like one, with references to the Corn Laws and Manchester’s lack of political representation thrown in.  The Corn Laws kept the price of corn artificially high by forbidding foreign imports, thus protecting the farmers but causing great hardship to working people.  This, coupled with the prevalence of so-called ‘rotten boroughs’, areas with no political representation, led to increasing discontent and eventually to a march and rally in St Peter’s Field in Manchester.

‘War and Peace’ never felt very far away: the film begins on a battlefield where a young bugler is staggering around, disorientated and confused among the smoke and dead bodies.  Peterloo happened in 1819, just four years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, and many of the scenes were reminiscent of dramatisations of Tolstoy’s great work.

Like ‘War and Peace,’ the film is an utterly breathtaking panorama.  The action does not centre on one character or group but moves like a diorama from scene to scene, group to group, character to character, in so doing building up a giddying picture of the Dickensian conditions (fifty years before Dickens) in Lancashire at that time.  

It seems ungracious to criticise aspects of the film and in any case all doubts were entirely blown away by the final scenes; but I think it’s fair to say that dialogue has never been Mike Leigh’s strong point: much of it felt clunky and unnatural and some of the rich and powerful characters were totally overdone, again calling to mind the worst excesses of an outraged Dickens.  But all this melted away as the scenes built to a crescendo.  Henry Hunt, the main speaker and a supporter of worker’s representation and women’s suffrage, works his way towards the rally at the same time as families are marching from all corners of Lancashire; men, women and children in their Sunday best clothes in joyful mood and not so much a stick or stone among them that could serve as a weapon.  Their demands are simple: repeal the Corn Laws and give them political representation.  The response of the authorities is (inaudibly) to read the Riot Act and then to send soldiers in to disperse the crowd; to charge, injure and kill.  Fifteen people died and hundreds were injured on that day.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peterloo_Massacre

Though far less deadly it reminded me of Amritsar as portrayed in ‘Gandhi’:

 

The Guardian gives it full marks:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/03/peterloo-review-mike-leigh-epic-history-lesson

although it doesn’t actually mention that Peterloo led indirectly to the establishment of the Manchester Guardian, the Grauniad’s forerunner;

https://www.theguardian.com/gnm-archive/2002/jun/06/1

And Mark Kermode seems to agree with me:

 

 

And here’s the trailer:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4614612/videoplayer/vi3720788761?ref_=tt_ov_vi

I urge you to go and see it.  Don’t wait for the DVD – go see it at the cinema.  You’ll thank me.

Kirk out

Hawking the Infinitely Prolonged

People are dropping like flies at the moment, and the latest to go is Stephen Hawking.  He was given two years to live after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and yet survived until the age of 76.  I’m trying to think of something clever to say about him, but zerothly has done it much better than I can, so all I’m going to do is put together a series of Hawking-related clips as a sort of half-arsed tribute:

https://zerothly.wordpress.com/2018/03/14/a-prolonged-history-of-stephen-hawking/#like-9043

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2980516/?ref_=nm_knf_i2

 

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09th4hf

These are, in order, zerothly’s blog post, the biopic The Theory of Everything, Hawking appearing in The Simpson’s and his voice in the latest Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Basically Hawking was up for anything and in spite of the monotone of his voice, had a great sense of humour: when asked when he’d made a mistake in A Brief History of Time, he replied, ‘I predict that I was wrong.’

Sorry I haven’t done this with my whole arse but I’m feeling a little cold-y and woolly-headed right now.

Kirk out