Wednesday, 30 September 2015

“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”

Today was the day that in 1868, the first volume of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published. The National Women's History Museum in the USA stated:

Alcott’s classic book for girls, which followed the lives of the sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, championed themes of individuality and self-discovery for girls—a departure from typical narratives at the time.

This was one of the first long novels that my mother read to me when I was little and I always found strength in the character of the passionate and artistic Jo. She was clever, independent, brave, stubborn and she desperately wanted to write. I found her adventures enthralling and she made me feel confident about being studious and intellectual in a culture where such things were not considered 'cool.' The book has some wonderful quotes...

“I don't pretend to be wise, but I am observing, and I see a great deal more than you'd imagine. I'm interested in other people's experiences and inconsistencies, and, though I can't explain, I remember and use them for my own benefit.” 

“I like good strong words that mean something…” 

“You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.” 

“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.” 

And then there is this fantastic little quote from another piece of Louisa May Alcott's work that always makes me smile:

“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”

I also have a special space in my heart for this novel because it is a small part of the close literary connection I share with my mother. In recent years we have read different books, pursued different interests and lived busy lives so it is harder to share a book together. But there was a time when I was younger when we shared these stories, classics such as Charlotte's Web, Little Women, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Sheep Pig and Little House on the Prairie. I honestly feel that my childhood and to certain extent, my character was shaped by what my parents read to me and encouraged me to read. Little Women was just one of those many literary adventures. I have read too many books in my life and it has 'turned' my 'brain'.... into a free and lively thing that can take me anywhere.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Belonging to a Little Part of a Big Thing

It is all rugby rugby rugby in our flat this weekend. My husband, Mr C, is a big rugby fan. I am not a massive sport fan, but I am a fan of communal events and international competitions. I love it when a bunch of countries come together to compete in a tournament whether it be sport, baking or dancing. It is always nice to see countries challenge each other in something other than warfare. So I was almost as excited as Mr C on Friday night when the Rugby World Cup opened. Waterloo Station was a hive of activity as thousands of spectators made their way to the famous rugby stadium in Twickenham. 82,000 people took their seats for the opening ceremony and it was broadcast live in pubs around the UK. 

Rugby is a nice sport, the fans are often made up of families, the players are paid less inflated salaries than professional footballers and it is a real 'team' sport. You can't win a match unless you all play together as a cohesive team. As my husband told me repeatedly during Friday evening, rugby apparently originated from the Rugby School in Warwickshire in 1823 when a school boy (named William Webb Ellis) picked up the ball during a football match and ran across the pitch with it. It amuses me to think of this fellow clutching the ball in his arms racing across the grass pitch, wind in his hair, laughing while his fellow team mates run after him yelling, 'Hey! This would make a fun game!' 192 years later and countries from all around the world are taking their turns to race across the field, ball in hand. And this year some of them are huge! One player is 6ft9!

An enormous amount of work goes into international sporting tournaments or any massive communal event in fact (which is sweetly show in the above video). The Rugby World Cup does not just involve the players, but the coaches, the referees, the sports therapists, the journalists, the catering staff, the broadcasters and commentators, the stadium staff, the fans and spectators, all down to the hot dog salesman and the guy in the mascot suit. It is a whole little community in itself. Watching the last few matches this weekend and hearing people in the pub, in local cafes and in the streets made me realise what a wide community it is and what the sense of belonging brings to people. I generally like to go my own way through life and I am very independent but I can't deny that sometimes I do enjoy the feeling of belonging to a wider group. I may never belong to the world of rugby (I can't say I am a proper fan) but I do remember feeling euphoric when Ireland won the Six Nations rugby tournament in 2009. I was sitting in a pub in Dublin with Mr C and drinking a 1/2 pint of Guinness. Guinness in Ireland is better than anywhere else in the world. It is so creamy it is almost like drinking alcoholic ice cream. The bar was full of Dubliners and the atmosphere was jubilant and electric. Part of being a member of a community is sharing the joy of the others around you. 

Sometimes I wonder what communities I belong to. In my heart I am a Londoner. London is a difficult and fickle community to be part of, partly because it contains almost 10 million people. In a city as big as London, it is easy to feel isolated and lonely. But if you look carefully, everywhere there are opportunities to belong. From bookclubs (my bookclub has around 10 members) to local action groups, religious communities and sports clubs, the city is full of thousands of smaller communities. Even when you least expect it, you find yourself belonging somewhere. Yesterday I went for an asthma review appointment at my local GP surgery. I have suffered from asthma for a few years and although it bothers me very rarely now, it is important to have regular check ups. Asthma can have very serious consequences if  not treated properly, so every 6 months or so, I visit my local nurse and have my medication checked and test my lungs by breathing through an instrument called a 'peak flow meter.'

The local nurse at my doctor's surgery is a nice woman, who has a small office at the back of the building and grows sunflowers by her window. Every once in a while a local tabby cat stalks by on the wall outside the window, sits down, lifts one striped leg and proceeds to wash it's butt. The nurse assures me that the cat always regards her and her patients with the utmost disgust, regardless of what the health issue being discussed in the office is. The nurse knows everyone in her catchment area, she sees her patients in the supermarket, at the bus stop and in the local park. She looks at me once and immediately states when she last saw me and asks after my husband. It amazes me how phenomenal her memory is, but then we are part of her community and it is her job to work with this community. 

I am also a fixture of this community without even trying to be. The local library staff know I live just down the road and the gentleman who owns the local stationary shop calls me by my first name when I pass by. On the way to the doctor's surgery yesterday, I stepped out of my block of flats and nodded to my neighbor across the road. He likes to sit on his front step when the weather is nice and the sun hits his front door in the morning. He takes off his shoes and opens a newspaper and watches the world go by. After I walked a few yards I came across Bruce. Bruce is a sturdy white cat. I actually have no idea what his name is, but Mr C and I call him Bruce and he seems to respond to the name enthusiastically. We actually dubbed him Bruce the Baptist, because he lazes around the front of the Baptist Church across the road. Bruce is a very vocal friendly cat, who pesters people outside the local library. He has been chased out of our local Waitrose supermarket, the library, people's gardens and the church, but always seems to manage to duck back in to these places whenever he feels like it. He is not a stray, he has a collar and is well fed and healthy, but he seems to view everyone on the street and the local area as his property. He even makes the traffic wait for him to cross the road. He gets tidbits from locals sitting on the bench next to library, he intimidates the local urban foxes who tear into our garbage and if I pet him for long enough he climbs onto my shoulders and purrs loudly while covering me in handfuls of white fur. Everyone greets Bruce and each day he inspects his territory. I can view the whole street from the window of my flat, I watch Bruce strut about, curling around the legs of passer-bys, I watch my neighbor turning his smiling face to the sun and every once in a while I hear our local Pavarotti singing drunken opera down on the high street. 

Our local tube station has several entrances and staircases. Sounds echo up and down and across the street outside from within the bowls of the underground. Our local Pavarotti seems to appreciate these acoustics and often he can be found, beer can in hand singing opera at the top of one for the staircases to the Northern Line Tube. He is left alone by the Transport for London staff, partly because he is a rather good singer and he is not causing any trouble. His voice floats deep and melodic across the ticket barriers and into the street outside. He sings everything: Ave Maria, Nessun Dorma, snippets from Carmen and the Barber of Seville. I look forward to hearing him, as much as I look forward to the West Indian platform announcer on the Victoria Line at Victoria Station who always says, 'Mind the closing doors my friends! Driver, take these beautiful people all the way home to Brixton!'

This is my community. It is made up of these local people, my sun-loving neighbor, the long-suffering librarians, Bruce the cat, the local Pavarotti singing his opera tunes, the Jamaican tube announcer spreading joy among weary commuters, the two creative sisters who run my favourite cafe, the man who owns a little gift shop selling beautiful smelling candles and tells me all about his holidays in the Lake District each year and the young student who stacks the scifi magazines in my local newsagent. I may not work for them like my community nurse does, but I know all of them by sight. They might not always remember me, but I make sure I smile at them when I see them, perhaps even nod my head, because in a big city like London, part of being in a community is acknowledging each other. Just like Charles Dance in the promotional Rugby World Cup video, no matter how small a part you play, if you join in, in a community, you can feel that you belong to something bigger than yourself. That sense of belonging, is a pretty fantastic feeling.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Branching out to pastures new...

Hello my fine online friends! Apologies for the silence. I have spent the last few days working, drinking copious amounts of coffee and wondering what to do with my life. Every once in a while I have what I would call, a little crisis of faith, where I think to myself: 'What the hell am I doing?' It only lasts for a few days before I prop myself upright again and get back to daily life. Part of daily life at the moment is working on the many hobbies I have outside of my paid profession. Oral history, blogging, writing, photography and the recent addition of colouring. But more on that later...

As I mentioned in a few blog posts ago, my friend Natalie and I are starting a blog. It is our little geeky project to provide us with some writing experience, pop culture criticism and a respite from the reality of daily life. So without further ado, I present to you our new blog!

An accurate representation of me watching TV

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Cinematic Portrayal of Loss

I have been thinking a lot about World War I recently. Last year was the centenary anniversary of the conflict (which was marked by several official events in the UK) and this year was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF - which was started in 1915 to try and bring an end to the war in Europe. I volunteered for WILPF last year and this year I have been blogging for them and doing oral history. They produced a short documentary about the origins of their organisation (you can watch it here:

My experiences with World War I have been purely academic. I do not know of any family ancestors who fought in the conflict and I have little personal connection to the British patriotism of Remembrance Day. My husband supposedly had relatives who fought in the trenches and he is far more British than I am. Most of my ancestors come from all over the world and the only British blood I have in my veins comes from the Welsh coal mines where a set of great grandparents lived and worked until they decided to leave for America. But I do know a lot about the First World War and I have my English education to thank for this knowledge. I am not sure what children learn in school nowadays, but back when I attended Secondary School, we studied World War I religiously. Year after year we studied it. I was still writing essays about the conflict in my final year exams when I was 18. The First World War seems to be such a part of British consciousness and culture, even more than the Second World War or the Blitz. It permeates our popular culture in literature, museums, art, ceremonies, films, TV, music, ballets, theatre and even musicals. I don’t remember exactly when I first learned of the conflict, I do have a hazy memory of my mother trying to gently explain to me what the concept of war was when I was little and perhaps too inquisitive for my age. I remember thinking that this idea was terrible and sad and that it was sitting on the horizon of my knowledge somewhere in the future. That someday I would learn about upsetting and scary things that I couldn't quite understand right at that moment in time. Of course I was extremely lucky not to experience conflict first hand as a child. I have had a charmed and peaceful life and I am very grateful for that fact.

The history education I received at school was first rate. History was and still is one of my favourite subjects. When I was 13 or 14 years old, after reading countless books, eye-witness accounts, war poetry and writing essays, I was taken on a school trip to the World War I battlefields in northern France. We all bundled into a coach and drove the long and boring journey to Dover, took a ferry and then crossed the border into France. Boys misbehaved at the back of the coach, someone got carsick and threw up into a plastic shopping bag, girls gossiped and the long suffering teachers tried to snooze. Once we were let out of the coach, we were little wild for having been cooped up so long in stiff coach seats and there was a lot of excitable running around and shouting. No one really quietened down until we were all reprimanded and gathered to observe a minute of respectful silence in front of a large stone war memorial. It was then when I began to think and reflect on my surroundings. I remember being angry. I was surprised at my anger. I had thought how exciting it would be to see all the places I had learned about during the year in my history classes. I thought I would feel sad. Perhaps a little tearful. But all I felt was anger, rolling around hot and hard in my stomach. Perhaps it was seeing all the rows upon rows of names carved into the stone memorial in front of me. Perhaps it was how small No Man’s Land looked. So much smaller than how I had imagined it. All that fighting each day for that little sliver of land! All the men who lay dying on this miserable length of grass and soil that took me no longer than 5 to 10 minutes to cross from one trench to another! What a waste, I thought. What a colossal waste of life! My instinct as a young teenager was to feel furious at how stupid war was. I wanted to write in every school essay how wasteful the war was, how we should remember that first and foremost every Remembrance Day. I remember that angry and startled version of myself with fondness because now I am so different. After years of reading the news of international conflicts throughout the world, of studying history at University and of witnessing the rise of global terrorism, I have graduated into a more worldly and cynical individual. Now my reaction to World War I is to feel very very sad, not rebellious and furious.

This change in my outlook was something I was reflecting on recently, as I have just finished reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain for the second time. I read it when I was younger, but reading it a second time has been a much more moving experience for me, partly because I now have a deeper experience of romantic love and life than I did when I read it first time around. For those of you who have never heard of the book, Testament of Youth is a memoir of Vera Brittain’s experiences during the First World War as a nurse, a feminist and her burgeoning interest in pacifism. It is a heart-breaking story, partly because all four of the young men that Vera was close to, her brother, her fiancée and two male friends perished in the war. One by one they left and never returned. Reading it now, I can see that writing the book was a cathartic process for her, a way of trying to deal with the grief that she felt at the loss of these beloved young men and the devastation that the young women of her generation experienced by being left behind.

Although it is a sad and deeply upsetting book, it is one of my favourites. I love how introspective Vera is and how beautifully she writes. I first read the book at University and I identified with her thirst for knowledge (although I am sure I never studied as hard as she did at university!) and her desire to be taken seriously as an intelligent woman. So I was intrigued when I read that a new film of the book was being released in 2014. I know that a film adaptation of a book is rarely as good as the book itself, but I am no intellectual snob and I actually like varying adaptations of a story. I wrote a few essays at university analysing different adaptations (screen, theatre, poetry) of Greek myths and each different form of media had its own merits. I have been known to read Jane Eyre and then watch three different screen versions of it and then see a play adaptation as well. I think my interest in different versions of the same story has its roots in my love of mythology. After all, what are myths? They are just the same story told orally from one person to another, each time taking on a new element or added embellishment as it is told from one storyteller to another. So while I am sure some people scoffed at the idea of reducing a 688 page book to a 2 hour movie, I was curious to see how the filmmakers were going to pull off adapting this highly emotional memoir on to the screen.

I watched the movie, directed by James Kent and written by Juliette Towhid, last week and I was not disappointed. True, it is an adaptation and not exact, some scenes were invented (although with good reason, which I will explain later) and some of the details of the memoir were omitted just because there is only so much information you can squeeze into 2 hours. What emerges is a beautiful film about grief and loss. In fact I felt the film focussed more on the experience of loss even more than the experience of war. Vera's journey is told entirely from her point of view, Any images of the trenches or of the Front that the audience sees, is entirely from her own mind and her own tortured imagination. Her world is made up of the countryside where she grows up, the family home, her college at Oxford and the hospitals she works in as a nurse. The camera follows her closely, bringing the audience intimately into her heart and mind and the emotions that play across her face. The close camera angles on her face making the story of this war conflict feel tragically intimate. The events of the war are cleverly told as well. At first the outbreak of war is a distant and uninteresting political development, Vera is so engrossed in securing an education at Oxford University and falling in love with her brother's school friend, Roland. She is young and excited and very innocent. The actress Alicia Vikander, who is actually Swedish, but adopts a very good English accent, does a fantastic job in what can only have been a very difficult role to play convincingly. When the War does suddenly rear its ugly head and confront Vera with horrifying and distressing consequences, Alicia portrays all the many conflicting emotions Vera feels so realistically that several scenes reduced me to tears.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain
The cinematography of the film is just gorgeous. The views of the English countryside, the costumes and the music were beautiful. I did feel that it was perhaps a little too beautiful. We don’t want to fall into the trap of making war seem gorgeous through the lens of a camera or lead to a mythologising of war, so it seems more palatable. Or even the pre-war period, which let’s be honest, was not a period of great societal equality in British history. Should we portraying these events with nostalgia or beauty? Could that be a danger when portraying any historical event through the medium of film?

A happy scene portraying the carefree days before the war
Wonderful detail by the costume department
Vera anxiously scans the list of war casualties in the newspaper
Vera as a nurse 
Despite my conflicted feelings on how World War I is portrayed in modern British popular culture, I must admit Testament of Youth was a very moving cinematic experience. As I expressed before, the film is more than just a war film. It is in fact a visual portrait of grief. This is shown in a very effective motif throughout the film: the theme of water. Vera goes for a swim in a local pond with her brother and his friends early in the film and at the end of the film she swims again but this time on her own, a single sad figure in the large empty pool. During the Armistice Day celebrations she takes refuge in a church and stands opposite a painting portraying people drowning in a shipwreck. She stares at the painting and imagines herself underwater, stripping off her coat and floating there in the depths. She is literally drowning in her grief, cut off from the rest of the celebrating crowds in this dark, silent and submerged world of sorrow. It is an incredibly powerful scene. Later in the film when she learns of her fiancé’s death, she stands on a beach and stares out to sea at a blank grey skyline and soft white foamed waves, as if she is reaching across the Channel to the battlefields of France with her very despair. The landscape is bleak and blank and holds no hope or comfort for her.

Vera by the sea
The film is filled with memorable moments and many of the scenes are so well shot they could be mini films or pictures in themselves. Some that I found particularly moving and interesting were Vera's father crying at a train station, while desperately trying to hide his tears from his family and the public milling around him by pretending to stare at the train timetables on a wall. Another powerful scene was Vera washing a soldier in hospital. Shocked by his nakedness, dirty body and smell, she awkwardly washes him until she thinks she hears him whisper her name and then as if realising that this man could be one of the men that she loves, she begins again and cleans him with determination, perseverance and care.  Later on, while stationed as a nurse in France, Vera, who is fluent in German, comforts a dying German officer, offering him the forgiveness he begs for. But perhaps one of the most memorable images from the film is Vera’s memory of the three young men (her brother Edward, fiancé Roland and friend Victor) walking ahead of Vera on a country path in Yorkshire and laughing. She walks behind them and watches them walk away ahead of her, not knowing they are walking straight towards no future at all. This memory is juxtaposed at the end of the film with the same landscape now empty of people, emphasising a whole generation gone, erased from the world. This is really the film's success. Not in being a completely accurate portrayal of Vera Brittain's memoir, but in conveying the absolute loss of life that war can cause.

A Colourful View of the World

So it is back to work after a long UK Bank Holiday weekend, during which, it..rained! Yes! It is the a universal truth acknowledged by all Brits that if you combine the country of the United Kingdom and an extra day off work tagged on to the end of a weekend you will receive torrential rain and grey skies. UK+Bank Holiday = Rain. Fact Of Life.

Scully accurately expresses that 'back to work' feeling.
Of course this morning, the sky was still grey, but since the population of the UK has to return to work today, it has been pretty dry and there has even been the occasional sliver of sunshine peaking through the clouds. The rain stops just as soon as we all have to go sit in offices and actually be productive. It figures. Not that I am complaining. I had a glorious number of days off work. I window shopped with my mother, ate roast chicken, visited the Royal Academy of Art, bought a fantastic new toy (a kaleidoscope!) went to see a movie in the afternoon, ate some salted caramel chocolate, played football in the park, coloured in a picture of a woman sitting in a giant teacup, cooked a full English breakfast for my husband, watched The X Files, did some new blog planning with my best pal Nat and read the New Scientist Magazine while in the bath.Oh and I did three loads of laundry. Gotta love it when you get a chance to do three loads in a row and end up having to hand wet laundry on door handles because you have run out of space on your drying rack. And I have actually been very productive at work today. I am one efficient busy little bee.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for my efforts with the August Break photo challenge. I have miserably fallen by the wayside and I could blame the crappy weather these last few weeks, but really I have been so consumed by work, household chores, writing, reading and movie-watching that I have not picked up my camera. My fingers are itching to swivel the lenses and press the shutter button, so I am going to extend my August Break challenge into September. Just be the odd one out. I have been taking photos with my iPhone, but I feel rather lazy if I don't use my camera and just rely on the phone. Using the phone does not challenge me as much in terms of composing the photo and adjusting the manual settings. I did take the below photo of my new kaleidoscope:

The colours inside
This was an impulse purchase in Covent Garden Market, while searching for a place to have tea with my mother. Both my Ma and I are very attracted to bright colourful things and we spent a good 30 minutes gazing at all the kaleidoscopes on the market stall and turning each one to observe the different patterns and mix of colours. The gentleman who makes these and sells them in Covent Garden had a whole range of them from tiny ones on key-chains to large heavy metal ones that needed two hands to hold them upright. There was something incredibly relaxing about turning the small discs on one end of the kaleidoscope while squinting into the small hole at the other end and glimpsing a beautiful tiny colourful internal world that constantly shifted into a hundred different patterns. After staring at each item and examining the prices, I decided on a medium sized kaleidoscope and passed over my hard-earned cash. I spent some of the weekend listening to the rain splatter our skylight window while I lay on the couch and squinted into my colourful new toy and shifted the beaded patterns.

So even if the sky may be grey outside, with my new kaleidoscope, I can indulge in my colourful view of the world any time I want!