Wednesday, 4 June 2014

What Katie Didn't Do Next: prequel/sequel/reboot fatigue

As I listened to a rapturous radio review of Death Comes to Pemberley recently, I realised that I am a near-obsessive anti-sequel kind of person. There's been a rash of them recently. Aside from the usual movie franchises there's been every conceivable reinvention of old and new stories...prequels, re-boots, re-imaginings, revisitings, rehashings....we suddenly need to know how Batman begins, what happened after Darcy and Elizabeth got married, how Sherlock and Watson met and pretty much unravel every remaining literary and film mystery for the common enlightenment.
How did this happen? (Maybe I should write a prequel - How Prequels Came To Hollywood...) There's no denying most people seem to lap up the "what happened next/before/inbetween" idea almost with as much relish as reliving the original stories they are inevitably based on. It's not just that sequels are the most obvious form of standing one's own work conveniently on the shoulders of another man's genius (to (inaccurately) quote the beleaguered Laurie in Little Women - and no, I didn't read Jo's Boys. Not sorry.) Sometimes it works - I actually break my own rules for Batman Begins and Wide Sargasso Sea, the latter arguably the highest form of the prequel art in that it morphs into its own, independently brilliant and vivid story. So it's not just that I look down on the laziness of it.
I think it goes back to being a kid, and reading books, and falling in love with the idea of the story - a distinct, unique imagining of a person, place or event in its own fictional space and time. When I got older and learned about character development and back story and plot devices, I still couldn't get past the idea of the perfectly formed 'Once upon a time...'
I distinctly remember crying actual tears at the discovery that Anne of Green Gables was not allowed to remain the carrot-haired precocious little girl of my imagination, but - shock! horror! - actually grew up and like, got married and stuff. I just didn't want to know. It's not that I thought L Montgomery made a bad decision writing about the rest of Anne's life, or that the character wasn't worthy of a life beyond the bullied, ginger little orphan she was. It's just that in my mind, it was done. It was a Thing. A perfectly imagined tale of a perfectly imperfect character who didn't need any more, or less, explaining to make me fall hopelessly in love with her. And that goes for nearly every early literary experience I had - Little Women, The Secret Garden, Oliver Twist (although thinking about it Dickens' main characters based on an exhaustively detailed life story premise, thereby pre-empting his inclusion in the prequel disaster. Clever guy), Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and even, weirdly, books that were designed to be part of a series, rather than a standalone event - I had one copy each of Nancy Drew and the Chalet Girls which I read over and over again, never wanting to read any more. I'd like to think that this was some sort of juvenile defying the retailers' ploy to get you buying more and more books, but in fact I just didn't want to know anything else about those characters. It was done. Move on.
So apart from Batman Begins I'd say my anti-prequel/sequel/reboot sentiments stand for pretty much every cinematic experience, bar the excellent Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight trilogy which arguably stands alone as an experiment in a different kind of narrative continuation, revisiting, rather than rebooting the characters because you know what? They're so brilliantly constructed and the story is so REAL it's just a case of dropping in on them to see what's going on rather than attempting a rewrite of their history or a lame follow-on to their original story. And I'm not talking about SERIES of films either, so you know, that lets the likes of Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible (no really! I love it!) and Bond (actually hate it but still) off the hook. I'm talking about the useless appendage to an original idea that was, for example,  Batman and Robin, Speed 2, Grease 2 and others marvellously listed (so I don't have to) by here. I'm not saying I'm onto something original here (although I wish I was then maybe someone would pay me a ridiculous amount to write a sequel) - disappointing movie sequels are well-documented and a pet peeve of many a movie critic, geek or even casual observer.
No, what really gets me is the drift from producers of massive multi-million dollar megahits thinking they can eek a bit more out of the franchise to people, quite sane, normally educated and insightful people (like, say, the interviewers of Radio 4) start raving about television adaptations of these prequel/reboot/rehash fiascos as if they are as brilliant as the originals themselves. WHAT ARE THESE PEOPLE THINKING?! So Darcy dies - WE COULD HAVE IMAGINED THAT IF WE WANTED TO RUIN ELIZABETH'S LIFE! Wickham's a criminal - well, DUR! This is not imaginative thinking. This is the kind of terrible sadistic trick your mind plays when you finish reading a chapter of Pride and Prejudice just before bed and it gets mixed up with your own dismal, boring and frankly unhelpful life experiences. 
Worst of all it intimates a sort of terrible disrespect for your reader, as though the poor souls couldn't possibly fully understand this particular story without someone more informed, like a script writer without an original bone in his body or an author running out of their own ideas, to extrapolate it for them. To these patronising keepers of the televisual landscape I say: We KNOW Sherlock and Watson had to meet! We KNOW Lewis probably did his own detective work without Morse one day. We KNOW Little Women didn't STAY little. We KNOW all these things. We probably thought about them ourselves at some point. Because, you know, reading helps your IMAGINATION. The definition of imagination, by the way, is "the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." So, by definition, taking us through the history and future of every cherished literary life we've ever known does not edify but encourages a LACK of imagination, the very essence of literary and visual arts and the thing the human race is in desperate need of in all walks of life.
Imagine if we applied the prequelsequel philosophy to great works of art. What if an artist reimagined Van Gogh's painting of the chair from a different angle, or showed us what was missing from Monet's Water Lilies scene, or reconstructed the rest of Tracey Emin's house without the bed (heaven forbid), perhaps revealing that she's not quite the scuzzy bohemian we all thought she was but actually had like, a desk with water bills on it and little post-its reminding herself to buy milk. Would the critics love it? Would they hail it as a great new work of imagination? I guess not. 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Who is Mrs Jones anyway?

So I'm of the generation that read Bridget Jones's Diary and felt that it was a defining literary moment (before we were told it was a defining literary moment). Me and my friends wrote one another Bridget-style emails (minus the obsessive weight records - none of us cared) and dreamed about Mr Darcy (the literary one and the Bridget Jones one) and we all got annoyed when the film came out because it 1. Featured an American actress in a quintessentially British role; 2. Crassly cast Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, thereby defeating the entire irony that the book's romantic trajectory was based on and 3. Was actually quite good, really (to use a Bridget-ism). So far, so obvious.
But now the third book is out and Darcy, y'know, dies, and it feels like Helen Fielding has forgotten why we all loved Bridget in the first place. Which was because, of course, she was absolutely nothing like us whilst being everything we liked about us but were told we should disapprove of - an over-drinking, under-exercising smoking singleton whose friends were more important than her family and whose career path was as confusing as her love life. So the Bridget of now, the Bridget we'd love to hate but secretly love, would obviously be a happily married yet surprisingly unhappy childless 40-something year old with a fondness for luxury weekends away to remind her of the good life she abandoned to marry her impossibly-21st-century saviour of a husband who insists on doing all the cooking and leaves her feeling like an average housewife who still can't get the hang of the exercise bike and opts for drinking a bottle of wine with friends instead of exercising, occasionally adopting a 'healthy lifestyle' out of guilt but giving up after the first bag of satsumas runs out. Life has turned out pretty well for this Mrs Jones but she finds no voice in the Sunday newspaper columns or on the radio or on the telly, where celebrity super-couples and their 15 children share the limelight with impossibly young singletons with their tongues out taking pictures of themselves as they get drunk (thank goodness there's no digital photographic evidence of our drinking days), all looking so made up and so 'alternative' yet more mass-marketed than ever. It's not that Mrs Jones is the smug married she thought she'd turn into, it's just that she's not sad about not being single any more either. She's found music and books and films that she likes and she doesn't feel the need to share these beyond her immediate friends, who she still counts as closer than family and occasionally goes out with, no selfies required.
Maybe this Mrs Jones doesn't have a media counterpart because she is boring. Or maybe she's just too nuanced to be reduced to the Dear Diary lists she once found so life-affirming. Either way, I'd like to resurrect Mrs Jones and find out what she thinks of this now that we have to live in. So watch this space.
Oh, and read my next post which is sort of a postscript to this one. I know, I'm contrary. So sue me.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Walking like Virginia Woolf

I took it step by step. One after the other, one after the other, in rythm to the music in my head. I knew nothing, thought nothing, felt nothing, except the urge to keep moving, keep walking, keep passing by as quickly as I could as though perhaps I could walk myself into nothingness, pass out of this world completely by the mere pushing of my feet against the limits of the material world. As I pushed, my surroundings receded before me like scenery on a stage, shifting, changing, one vista giving way to another with no thought for the passing of time or the limits of physical movement in space. It was like time travel...walking so fast that maybe I could speed up time and arrive at a new place, free from the constraints of the present and pure in its unrealised state. I knew that this was impossible but still my feet propelled me forwards and my hope increased with the oxygen levels pumping through my body by my hyper-anxious heart. As concrete changed to grassy plains and rocky pathways I felt the scenery shift again, opening up a vast space in which only mist and damp and the sweet smell of soil mixed with rainwater were allowed. I ploughed in with my magic feet, this time pushing harder, wishing I could sink into that bog and embalm myself in nature's bath, like the women in Seamus Heaney's poems, rolling, ever rolling into a freezing calm that intrudes every vacuum in my body, permeating every pore and capturing this moment forever. Instead I dragged my now aching body to the highest peak of the nearest park, high above the city, nobody's home, just a forgotten plot on a topographical map of middle class meanderings. It was cold. Rain coated the side of my body facing the wind. I let my body slap down on the concrete monument marking the peak, like a slab of meat ready to be butchered. I longed for someone to tear away one soul and replace it with another, calmer, cleaner version that could find its way home and be happy. Instead I finally caught my breath and with stinging eyes blinked at my new surroundings. The scenery of my final act. It was high enough to be mistier than the street, my head just poking into raincloud, wet and windy and surrounded by empty moss green fields divided criss-cross by muddy paths, rising to another, lower, peak where I knew, rather than could see, there to be a knoll of darkest evergreens and a rocky face the other side which succeeded in fooling most walkers into a sense of being closer to the Peak District than they really were.
I breathed deep. Now what? I had already walked further than my pain stricken back had taken me for many months. The speed which had propelled me to the top had left my legs heavy and tired. I was on empty and far from help. I contemplated rolling back down the hill but even my tired limbs could not submit to such freefall. I felt the anxiousness that had cramped my entire body into a speed-walking machine melt away. I was tired. I was cold. I needed rescuing. But what from?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The trouble with death is…

The trouble with death is you have to live with it. Unlike some poets or supernaturalists I don’t believe it’s like a shadowy presence that haunts the living. It’s more like a scar. A part of you that has irrevocably changed, been reversed by a natural process that you have no control over. When the wound that caused it is open, weeping and painful, people tend to it regularly, doing everything they can to help it heal, stop the bleeding, keep it clean and free from infection that might fatally linger. But once healed, the wound slowly starts to fade and before long only those closest to you ever notice it or even remember it’s there. Sometimes you’ll be in the bath and see that little patch of tenderised skin, pallid and delicate where living flesh and blood used to be. You’ll run a finger over it to check it’s still as proud as it used to be, and, disappointed, realise that it’s losing its prominence as the years go by.

I am lucky though. One scar, a mere flesh wound some may say. There are those whose hearts have been broken and crushed so many times, if you could peel away the chest you would see a heart like the flesh of a burn victim, seared and tightening around the vital organ, threatening to strangle it completely. My 90-year-old friend, let’s call him Alfred, has lost mother, father, siblings and two wives. Not a soul in the world is left to him but one brother in Australia who has just lost his wife, and another that’s gone AWOL for no reason whatsoever. He lives, but each memorial that comes around the scar gets a little thicker, its clutch on his heart a little stronger, and his memories of being alive, really truly living, fade like the rhythm of the blood, now barely pumping around his wizened frame.

It’s four years and four months since I lost my mum but that’s not the memorial date I’m thinking of today. August 28th was mum and dad’s anniversary, and we always made a big thing of it in our house. It was a family present day, all of us getting in the spirit, giving one another gifts and, when my brother and I got older, throwing mum and dad the occasional surprise party.

Since she died we have kept the tradition, although I barely know why any more. It seemed another excuse to supplement the memorial of her death, one day not being long enough to commemorate such a full life, as if two could really make much more of a difference. Or maybe we just wanted to remember being a family, having good times, Greek plate smashing at mum’s favourite restaurant or the fun of trying to guess what she was wrapping for us behind the closed door of her bedroom.

But despite the good memories for me there was always a tinge of sadness in those days. Extreme excitement or pleasure always gets me in the throat like the lump before tears, being, as I fatefully am, never able to switch off my brain to the awareness of the passing of time, the fleeting nature of the very happiness I should have been enjoying. There were years, in the recession of the 90s, when I wished we could ignore the day, forget that there was anything to celebrate because I didn’t want my dad to spend money we didn’t have trying to live up to the idea of a ‘proper’ celebration. There were times when it seemed ridiculous to celebrate a marriage that seemed so up and down, at times strained, as all marriages are. I was young of course, I didn’t realise the rollercoaster that comes with loving someone, and indeed being frustrated with them, as with your own flesh. Another thing mum and I will never get to relate on, now I am married and understand her yet cannot sympathise, because she is gone.

Towards the end, these wedding anniversaries got more elaborate, or maybe more desperate, as if we could distract her from dying by creating a day so special it would drown out the cancer and all the pain that went with it. We took her to Claridge’s and ate til we felt sick, drank champagne and wished it made us feel happy. I suddenly felt that maybe my na├»ve sense of sadness in those early years was somehow prophetic, that I had known all along there would come a time when all celebrating seems pathetic, a pregnant pause before we can all get on with the process of grieving.

So now, it seems futile to celebrate an occasion that belongs to half of a partnership already rent in two. After all, marriage is about partnership, propping each other up, halving the load. It seems bizarre, macabre even, to celebrate something that has been mortally wounded, like a paraplegic celebrating the day his legs were blasted to smithereens by an enemy shell. Far from indulging in some special treat to mark the occasion, I feel like pulling apart my ribcage and showing the stripes on my heart, proudly commentating on the progression of the wound: “Look! That’s the bit that happened every time mum pumped the bile from her cancerous stomach into a bowl for me to empty in the bathroom sink!” People will remark, appreciatively, and ask if it’s still painful, safe in the knowledge that I will politely reply, “Oh it’s amazing what they can do these days, I barely notice it now. Human instinct to survive, you know.”

 Of course, if marriage is forever and you believe, as I do, that death is merely an interruption, there’s even less reason to mark another year in the gap between the living and the dead. We each have our own waiting to do. Hers in rest, ours in the agitating turmoil of life.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A rare gem

Every now and again whilst browsing around online for my job, I come across some strange choices of words or malaprops due to poor spelling, grammar, punctuation or just the sheer speed at which things are often thrown together in the online world.

But rarely have I ever found a phrase as nauseatingly offensive as this one, used by a certain company that will remain nameless, for their Twitter description:

"Feverishly nurturing juxtapositions from seeds into eggs with the lightest of carbon footprints"

I don't know if it's the use of the words feverishly, seeds and eggs in the same sentence (inappropriate), the fact that they've related carbon footprints to art (which is what the company actually does - would you have guessed it from that description? I thought not) or just the fact that it plain doesn't make any kind of sense, but it made me stop dead in my tracks, turn up my nose, and wish the written word had never been invented and that we all still communicated in yelps and yowls.


I feel the need to read something beautiful as an antidote. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Feelin' feline

We’ve got some new additions to our family. Meet Margot and Inez – our new kittens!
This is them when they just arrived home:
They’re just moggies really, although their mum was half Burmese so that makes them about a quarter I guess?! They’re beautiful if a little timid.
It throws up some interesting loyalty issues with our delightful first cat, Enid (a boy – we thought it was a girl to start with and when it turned out differently, well – why wouldn’t you want a cat called Enid?! So he’s gotta live with it). We love Enid like he was a real child. Issues, I know. We’ve got issues. But my lovely husband decided he wanted more kittens and when we found these little lovelies we couldn’t resist.
Already they’ve got stuck in the piano, refused to move out of the safety of their bed, and got their heads stuck in the holes of the makeshift box we used to transport them home.
Something tells me we might rue the day we made this decision…although there’s something deliciously LARGE about our new family when you list us by name. We are now:
Nick, Natasha, Enid, Margot and Inez
I think the phrase for it is Safety in Numbers. And it feels good. Just ask these two:

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Stuff I've forgotten I learned #1

There are many advantages to living next door to a school. The natural alarm clock that is the morning school run. Seeing the moments only parents normally get to experience - first day, bad day, home-early-feeling-sick day. The constant reminder that life used to be divided into such tiny chunks. (Really, it's amazing they get to do any actual learning in between all those breaks...)

Of course there are disadvantages, which include potty-mouthed parents, litter blowing over the wall into our garden and a constant refrain of "MISS! CAN WE HAVE OUR BALL BACK?!?!" every single time I go home for lunch. But still.

One of the benefits I noticed today (whilst walking home for lunch - when do I do any work?) was being reminded of stuff I had forgotten. Specifically, that most exciting of events known mysteriously as 'cycling proficiency'. Even the word, 'proficiency.' It's got to be the only time that word is used in a sentence.

Cool stuff like that gets pushed out when you get older, one-in, one-out style: in goes another internet password, PLOP! Out goes a times table. In goes a useless piece of marketing jargon, PLOP! Out go the lyrics to the first musical you were in (Wizard of Oz - I was a flower. Aaah).

I watched over the playground fence as they wobbled around, cycling helmets on (another thing I haven't used since school), attempting to ride one-handed and learning how to move to the middle of the road ("what?! IN FRONT of the cars?!") when turning all came flooding back.

I'm still not sure what I was most proud of, that I managed to get through my test without wobbling off, or the shiny green rectangular badge I got at the end of it, that I wore proudly on my school jumper for ooh, at least a week, until I realised it wasn't "cool" which was why I was the only one wearing it. Even then I only downgraded it to my pencil case.

It got me to thinking of the other things I probably learned and have since forgotten - like how to convert pounds into kilograms, how to make a dove joint, what pipe cleaners are for or the first time I read a story all by myself (when did I learn to read? I imagine that was a pretty cool eureka moment, but I've yet to find anyone who can objectively remember the exact point they worked it out. Weird).

Anyway, I'm not one for pointless nostalgia but it was nice for a moment to remember how little things like that were so exciting.

And besides, I reckon the impact of school sticks with us in even more profoundly biological ways. Like the 3.30-4pm slump. A narrow but distinct window during which my body gives up and only caffeine or chocolate (or both) will get me through to the end of the working day. Try telling me that's got nothing to do with my body still being fine tuned to the sound of the school bell...