Monday, 11 December 2017

Who Do I Think I Am? Part 3...

Welcome to the 3rd and final instalment in the 'Who Do I Think I Am?' trilogy. Memory whizz kids may remember the previous two instalments - 1 - where I explain how I have very little knowledge of my long-dead Grandfathers, and 2 - where I share the only thing I really know about my paternal Grandad, Alf - that he survived the Halifax explosion of 1917 and wrote a diary detailing what he saw.

Me and Dom. Waiting for bags
at Halifax Airport
Tired.
This week, myself and four other family members went to Halifax, Nova Scotia to be there for the 100th anniversary of the explosion - the largest human-made explosion before nuclear weapons. I had little idea about what to expect. All I'd been told by anyone who'd previously visited was, 'Wrap up warm' and 'Canadians are lovely'. Aside from that I didn't know how the trip would pan out. I imagined that my Dad would look at the waterfront for a bit, and then we'd find a nice restaurant and eat and drink lots. Classic Bond family activities. Beyond that, I had no expectations.

Here are some things I learnt while I was there.

1. Halifax is a beautiful city.
2. People from Halifax are called Haligonians.
3. Haligonians are the nicest people in the entire world.


No really, they are. Everyone we met was interested in why we were there. At first I thought this was because we had a great story to tell. But the truth is that everybody had a great story to tell. Loads of people have a connection with the explosion because it was so far reaching and devastating. We met people from various places that had travelled to Halifax like us, to be there for the Centenary. So it wasn't that we were unique. It was just that everyone we met was utterly lovely and made us feel like we were part of the history of it all. I knew it in my head before I went, but I felt it for real whilst I was there.

Display along the waterfront.
A model of the Niobe. This was ship
that Alf Bond was on.
So what did we do? How did we commemorate the explosion? Well, the day before the anniversary was classic school trip territory. We went to the Maritime Museum! There was a great deal of focus on the explosion (natch) with posters along the waterfront detailing biographies of local heroes, and a large section of the museum describing not just the explosion but the after effects of rebuilding the city. 

Vincent Coleman - train dispatcher.
He stayed where he was to
alert an incoming train to stay clear, via Morse
Code. He knew he would die.
 "Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in
harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode.
Guess this will be my last message.
Good-bye boys.
"
I had read lots beforehand but the exhibits brought it to life. A hundred years ago, upon hearing about a fire in the docks, everyone went to their windows to watch. (Just as we'd all do now.) When the fire reached the munitions store and the explosion happened (9.04am) the shattered windows across the city meant hundreds of people were blinded by the glass. As a result, the Halifax explosion led to changes in care for those with vision impairment across Canada. Details like that were new to me. It was also fascinating to see primary sources from the actual ship that Alf was on at the time - the Niobe. Actual photos for real. All so fascinating. And then of course there were the other people in the museum. 


My Dad and Mary. Their
Dads were on the Niobe.
My Dad got chatting to the man behind the desk (who was later spotted on the local news so he must be An Expert!) As my Dad told him about his Dad on the Niobe, a woman overhead, nearby. She took my Dad off to meet her mother who was further inside the exhibition. It turns out this woman's Dad was also on the Niobe and she'd come back to Halifax for the Centenary too. On the one hand, big deal. Two people met, whose Dads were on the same boat once. But then also, BIG DEAL! My Dad met a woman whose Dad might have once met or said hello to his Dad (that later died when he was seven) in another continent a hundred years ago. It was all a bit mind-blowing at times.
The Bond family contingent
as snapped by professionals!
 That and more photos here.
On the day of the anniversary, everyone assembled in Fort Needham Memorial Park at 8.45am. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. It was rammed. It was also throwing it down. We stood in the relentless rain waiting for the ceremony to start. The Mayor, Mike Savage shook hands along the row and came to us. My Dad told him his 'My Dad Was on the Niobe' story. Half an hour later we got a mention in his speech about how people have travelled from England to be there. It was us! Another woman that got a mention was nearby in a wheelchair. It turns out she was ten days old on 6th December 1917. I can't imagine, ten days after my 100th birthday, sitting in a wheelchair in the pouring rain for a couple of hours on a Wednesday morning, but she did it. She definitely deserved her mayoral shout out.


The bell from Alf's ship.
The minute's silence took place at 9.04am - the time of the explosion. To mark it, a ship's bell rang. It happened to be the bell from the Niobe. Another 'hair standing up on the back of your neck' moment. Alf would have heard that clang. A hundred years later, so had we.

There were many other highlights of the day. Hearing a poem from the parliamentary poet laureate - George Elliott Clarke; signing the Book of Remembrance that will be placed in a time capsule until 2067; realising with a weird pride that Alf would have spent his next few days in Halifax helping search for people in the rubble - possibly even saving some lives? Who knows? His diary is fairly blank until he leaves Halifax a week later. All the uninjured survivors - particularly those stationed on the boats - were tasked in starting the clean-up operation. I can't imagine it being anything other than horrific. 
Dad signing the
Book of Remembrance. 
Dad looking at the
waterfront. As predicted.
What I do know is that this trip was worth doing. Everyone who asked me how long I was in Halifax, seemed surprised it was only four days. And yes, four days isn't nearly long enough to spend in such a lovely place. (I didn't even scratch the surface of all the restaurants I wanted to try and the beers I wanted to sample.) I did loads though. Not a moment was wasted. In those four days, there were a hell of a lot of wow moments. And as predicted, my Dad did look at the waterfront for a bit, and we did find nice restaurants where we ate and drank lots. So I was right about that.

John from the Archives Office, 
with Mum and Dad. 
As for the diary? Well after nearly a hundred years of it being in Liverpool (in a drawer or box) it has moved house. It now resides in the Nova Scotia Archives building. My Dad signed it over to them when he arrived. It makes sense. We've all seen it, we've all read it, and now it is back where it started, a hundred years later. Nice one, Halifax. You really are a lovely place to spend a few days. Nice one, Alf. I feel like I know you a little bit better now. Thanks for surviving and thanks for the genes.

Have a lovely week, folks.



Monday, 4 December 2017

Keep the Chickpeas Coming...

Weight Watchers have tweaked their point system again. As a long time member, I have to say I greeted the news with plenty of eye rolls and snark. They 'tweak' it every couple of years. But unless they tell me I can have fourteen glasses of Prosecco and a chippy tea at least three times a week then it's hardly front page news. I remained my cynical self. But then... oh but then...

It's really rather marvellous. Sadly, chippy teas are still relegated to birthdays and holidays but it's not all bad. Instead of weighing and pointing eggs, lentils, chicken breast, fish and chickpeas, we can now all eat as much as we like... for 0 points. Yes! It means by shovelling plenty of those things into my week, I can save my points for actual nice things. Like naan bread, beer, wine and cheese. I can skimp less on the lovely stuff if I pad out my meals with the other stuff. It's fabulous. 

With that in mind, here is my current obsession. My version of several hacked-together curry recipes. Almost offensive in its inauthenticity, it uses loads of the 0 point stuff, so that my daily ration of 23 can be put to good use elsewhere. I have made two vats of this so far, so have a well-stocked freezer of individual portions. I imagine I will tire of it long before they are used up. But still. 

Here's an insight into what I'll be eating most weekdays until Christmas. As regular readers know, Nigella is one of my 'when I'm older I want to be her' women, so here's my attempt at all of that. Humour me.

Have a lovely week, folks.
     

Lovely, Lovely, Tasty Food in a Bowl 
AKA Generic Low Fat Curry
4ish portions

Ingredients
2 x onions
2 x peppers
1 x thumb of ginger
2 x garlic cloves
1 x packet of fresh coriander 
A good shake of ground cumin
 "      "     "      ground coriander
 "      "     "      garam masala
 "      "     "      turmeric
 "      "     "      hot chilli powder
a pinch of ground cinnamon
1 x chicken stock cube
1 x tin of tomatoes 
1 x tin of chickpeas

Optional
2 x chopped chicken breast
1/2 a tin of light coconut milk (8 smart points)

1. Add the chopped onion,
peppers, ginger and
garlic to the pan. Cook till soft.
 
2. Shake in all the dry spices
and coat the softened veg.
 
3. Add the chickpeas, the tinned 
tomatoes, a tinful of 
water and crumble in the
chicken stock cube.


4. Rinse the lentils and add to the pan. Stir
through the mixture.
5. Put the lid on and
simmer till the water
is reduced, and the curry is thicker.

6. Boom. A robust veggie
curry. For your
eating pleasure. 
OPTIONAL EXTRA 1
7. Add diced chicken breast
and simmer until cooked 

through.
  
OPTIONAL EXTRA 2
8. Add half a tin of low fat coconut 

milk. It's 8 points. So 2 per 
portion if you split into 
four. All done!




Monday, 27 November 2017

Childhood Idols and the Clothes They Wear...

Thirty years ago I was nine years old. I lived in a noisy, crowded house and wished I was older so I could leave home and surround myself with calm and quiet. I had a clear idea of what I would be like as a grown up. I would have pierced ears; ('If God had wanted you to have holes in your ears, he would have made you with holes in your ears'.) I would drink Coke even though it had caramel colour in it; (Caramel colour and a load of other artificial additives were banned at home.) And I would dress like Bananarama.


Bananarama were my style icons. Massive hair, head scarves, and leggings to the shin. They looked AMAZING. As a self-aware nine year old, I knew I couldn't dress like that for real outside. (Ya think?) Instead I'd play dress up when I was bored. I'd wrap bits of material around my head and use my Mum's clip on plastic earrings to aim for a similar effect. It never really worked. I assumed this was because I was a child. When I was an adult I'd be able to source actual black leggings for real, instead of fashioning my own from a pair of too-small stripy PJ bottoms. When I was a grown up I'd be able to go out with spiky gelled hair and a fluorescent head scarf everyday of the week, rather than do it 'just for fun' in my bedroom on a Sunday afternoon. I had big plans.

Obviously those plans came to nothing. Mostly because my personality lacked the flamboyance and inclination needed to 'work a look'. When I finally had the autonomy to pierce my ears, drink Coke and dress how I liked, it was the nineties. I wore jeans and t-shirts and felt all the more comfortable for it. (Albeit with pierced ears and a glass of caramel colour nearby.) My outer self remained as androgynous as a euphemistically curvy body can allow. I let my raa raa skirt dreams fade away to nothing.

Earlier this year, Bananarama tour tickets went on sale. All the original members (Sara, Keren and Siobhan) were back and ready to gig. I wasn't going to bother at first. I was no longer desperate to leave home, I could drink as much Coke as I liked and at the last count, I had seven human-made holes in my body. Learning lyrics from Smash Hits and practising dance routines in my bedroom were no longer the key achievements of my weekend. (I actually achieve a lot less these days.) I thought I'd let this must-see gig pass. As the on-sale date approached, however, I thought again. After the untimely death of George Michael last year, I knew not to procrastinate in seeing my idols live. I sat in an online queue and eventually got a ticket


Last week I saw the gig. God, it was fab. I'd mentally berated myself on the way to Manchester, that I'd not had time to reacquaint myself with the music in the run up to seeing them. Ha. As soon as the first line of the first song was sung, it all came flooding back. As did the dance routines. I sang, danced and screamed like no one was watching. It was joyous.

There were several moments that made me smile. A woman arriving to sit next to me, sat down, fanned herself with her bag and said, 'I wonder how Bananarama cope with their hot flushes.' She was on her feet dancing away with everyone else though. Not even the menopause was going to stop her enjoying her night out. Then there was the point when I caught myself doing the synchronised 'swing from the elbow' arm movement during I Want You Back. I'm sure I wasn't the only one. And then there was the bit when Keren and Sara sang Stay With Me, the Shakespeare's Sister's song - the band that Siobhan left Bananarama for, back in the day. It was moving and lovely.

I don't think I've listened to Bananarama songs, seen Bananarama on the telly, or thought about about Bananarama much since I was at Primary School. I've certainly never fulfilled my childhood dream of dressing like them in every day adult life. But standing in the crowd at the Manchester Apollo and belting out Shy Boy along with everyone else, it was as if I were nine years old again. It was utterly wonderful. 


This doesn't count because
it was a fancy dress party. Plus,
the eye make up is less
Bananarama and more Brenda
 from Watching.

Have a lovely week, folks.





Monday, 20 November 2017

Ken and Agatha - Together at Last...


I've done that thing that I never do. The thing for which I pay a monthly fee so I can go as often as I like, but then never bother. I've done it twice this week too. Sorry, what's that? The gym? THE GYM?? Don't be so ridiculous. As if! No, you silly billy. It's the cinema, innit. 

My Cineworld Unlimited card doesn't know what's hit it recently. At around £17 a month, it's funded my viewing of four films in the past couple of years. A record! For a long time it was only Spotlight. But then Ghostbusters came out in 2016. This year it's been T2 Trainspotting, then Wonder Woman and now this. This week I've torn myself away from Netflix and Twitter to watch Murder on the Orient Express. Twice.

The marvellous thing is that MOTOE combines two of my favourite cultural loves. The dramatisation of Agatha Christie mysteries, and Kenneth Branagh. More of him in a moment. But ever since I began to read adult books (age 12ish) I've read Christie's novels. A host of memorable characters, delicious plot twists and an ending I can never guess. They are the perfect antidote to grim reality. Likewise, when Joan Hickson's Miss Marple used to be shown on the BBC in the 1980s, my weekends were made. I've seen all the Marple remakes too, and nothing is better than catching sight of a well-loved Poirot episode nestled away in the TV listings. I whack it on the planner, happily knowing my next hangover day/period pain day/day of getting over a cold with a lemsip, is absolutely sorted.

And then there is Sir Branagh. Some people lust after George Clooney or Brad Pitt. They are wrong. Just as Elf feels about smiling, I feel about Kenneth Branagh. Ever since 1993 when I saw Much Ado About Nothing, I was moist-eyed in the cinema thinking 'I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest'. Yeah, that's EXACTLY how it was. Defo. Except it wasn't of course. I just loved his film. I loved how he made me laugh a lot despite me having no clue what his actual words meant. I loved the look of it all. After that, I spent a lot time with a notebook, casting the film of the Merchant of Venice that myself and KB would one day co-direct - because that's how I roll when I have a crush. And so my love of all things Branagh remains to this day. I am thrilled by any new film that Ken makes. Thor aside (sooo not my genre) he takes a text and does it justice. Whether that is Shakespeare, Cinderella or now Christie. He is a solid storyteller and his films are often sumptuous romps that tick all my boxes. 

And so to Murder on the Orient Express. My mate suggested it. While happy to give her inner lust for Kenneth Branagh a wide berth, we do share a love of Agatha Christie. We rocked up after a Nando's (I think that makes us sound like millennials) and settled in...and it was fabulous.

Reader, I may be biased. However, I had a lot riding on this film. Since seeing it was in production a year ago, I've been following its progress. Friends online have sent me links to stills and the trailer as they've been released. The date it was coming out has been in my diary for ages. This film combines two of my greatest loves (cheese being a third) and the pressure was enormous. 

He's probably telling
Laurence his plans to woo me
So, back to it's fabulousness. I think it gets it absolutely spot on. Fans of 'Classic Poirot' get all they need from it. It doesn't change the basics of the plot, it keeps the original era, most of the characters are the same (a name change or nationality switch here and there) and it looks simply stunning. Yet fans of modernity can get a lot from it too. Ken's Poirot is twinkly. He enjoys a giggle. Before the drama kicks in and he's sidetracked by finding a murderer, he makes jokes, laughs easily and shares happy moments with friends. He engaged me immediately, and leapt quite high in my Poirot league table. He's possibly top. (I'll have to mull it over.) Also, I forgot about his moustache almost at once. So that was good.

The rest of the cast look like they're having a whale of a time. Big name after big name mirror the casting of the 1974 film. Derek Jacobi takes the John Gielgud part. Daisy Ridley is the successor of Vanessa Redgrave. Penelope Cruz plays the role that was once Ingrid Bergman's, and Michelle Pfeiffer is the new Lauren Bacall. It's like spot the celeb. For theatre geeks amongst us, this was even more fun. The man who plays Bouc was in Harlequinade at the Garrick (London) in November 2015. The young police officer in the Wailing Wall scene was Pappa Essidu who played Hamlet in Stratford in 2016. I know there will have been loads more connections like that. Branagh seems to like working with people he knows. His troupe expands regularly but is always familiar. The fact that people return to work with him time and time again, reassures me he won't be linked to anything bad. You know the kind of thing I mean. *Eyerolls at the state of everything these days*

My friend loved it too. Her first comments when it ended were about the stunning scenery shots; the cityscapes when the train is passing through far-flung locations. She said it made her want to go on holiday. The cinematographer/CGI team are doing something right there. The second time I watched it (two days later because I'm ridiculous) I was seated near a man who didn't appear to know the plot. I assumed everyone in the world did, but clearly not. I heard gasps to my right, as key points were revealed. Yet the fact I knew exactly what was coming, didn't diminish my enjoyment one bit. 

Ken can do no wrong in my book. And Agatha Christie wrote a wealth of source material that can be enacted brilliantly when given the chance. Every so often something lovely rocks up and brightens the day. For me, this is that film. I imagine I'll see it more than twice before its run ends. 

Have a lovely week, folks.


I WILL KEN, I WILL.


And now - Dustin, drum roll! - to my Poirot League Table*

1. Kenneth Branagh (hot)
2. Peter Ustinov (avuncular)
3. Albert Finney (fair play)
4. David Suchet (serious)
5. Alfred Molina (u ok hun?)

*The adjudicator's decision is final. 

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Monday, 13 November 2017

Who Do I Think I Am? Part 2...

A few weeks ago I dangled a tantalising carrot. If you've forgotten, clearly my attempts at building suspense were rubbish. Or perhaps you've just blocked it out. If you want to reacquaint yourself, then read Who Do I Think I Am? Part 1. If you want a shorthand version, here goes... In three weeks time I am going to Canada to retrace the steps of my paternal Grandad who died twenty five years before I was born. I left you all hanging as to why.

Ok, so now we're all up to speed, let's press on with the story. Like I said a few weeks ago, it's a cracker. 

In 1990, my Dad was clearing out his Mum's house. She had recently moved into a nursing home and there were boxes to sort. Amidst the paperwork in her desk, there was a notebook belonging to his Dad. Apparently it'd always been there, but this was the first time he'd shown the rest of us. 

Alf in 1951.
For those that skipped re-reading the previous instalment, let's remind ourselves of the facts. My Dad's Dad died in 1953 at 58 years old. He was called Alf. In my Gran's house when I was a kid, there were perhaps two visible pictures of him, plus a certificate on the wall with his name on. I can't remember what for. He was a stranger to me, and I got the impression, almost a stranger to my Dad. 

Back to 1990 and the notebook. It was very old, full of handwritten pencil and had been used as a diary. It's first entry was 6th December 1917. I don't think I got how huge this was in 1990 when I was twelve. It was just an old notebook with my dead Grandad's writing in. It's only now that it makes more sense. This was an honest-to-God historical source. The little my Dad did know about his father came from his Mum and sister, Marie. But they didn't know him in 1917. He married my Gran in 1932, and Marie was born three years later. The diary from 1917 was a whole life time before that. He was twenty-three and in the midst of the First World War. Reading it all those years later was pretty cool, even if I only realise it properly now. (I'm sure 'pretty cool' is official historian terminology) 

Hand model and photo
credits to my sister, Lucy.
Alf's diary!
My Dad started to type out the contents. The pencil was faint in places, plus the writing was old fashioned and loopy - hard to decipher at times. It took ages but eventually he had a typed, legible copy of the diary. Now, most of this was fairly dull. To me anyway. (Soz la). Alf was at sea throughout the war. Many of the days' entries are solely to do with arriving and leaving far flung ports. It's interesting to know where he was in the world and on what date but there are few details beyond that. Fascinating to marine historians perhaps, but not so much for me. But...but...but! All that is irrelevant when you read the first few pages. The opening entry of the diary is where all the detail is at. That is where it all happens. 

On 6th December 1917 Alf Bond was on a boat in the port of Halifax, Canada. That morning two other boats in the port crashed in to each other. The collision that resulted, caused the 'largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons'. Yeah, let that sink in for a second. The largest explosion before the atomic bomb! Page one of Alf's diary provides his eye witness account. 

A legit primary
source from 1917.
Also, my
Grandad's diary.
Of course in 1990 when I heard about this for the first time, I didn't really get it. Because this was BtI. (Before the Internet). Those hazy days when we didn't have Wikipedia. The first time I heard of this explosion was through the faded writing in the diary. I didn't know it was an actual thing. I didn't know, in the North-West of England in 1990, anything about the events that had happened on the East coast of Canada decades before. 

Now it is AtI. (After the Internet). I can find it all out. And honestly, the Halifax explosion is a big deal. There are loads and loads of resources online to read if you're interested, and in recent months I have. It wasn't just a collision you see. One of the boats was filled with munitions for France. When the boats crashed, it caused a fire. The fire grew until it got out of control and reached the stored munitions. Then it exploded. The upshot is, on 6th December 1917, the town of Halifax was decimated. Two thousand people were killed, nine thousand were injured, burning debris was thrown through the air, and wooden buildings were burnt to the ground. It sounds utterly horrific. And Alf was there. This is what he wrote about that day...

My Dad's 1990 typed up copy is now a digital version. This extract 
covers the first three pages of the handwritten account.
[Square brackets show my Dad's added notes]

The more I read and discover about the events of that day, the more incredible it is that Alf survived. But survive he did. He came home, met my Gran, had my Dad who then had me. Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the explosion. There are all sorts of events taking place to commemorate the tragedy. I'll be there for some of them, along with a few other family members including my Dad. 

It's a very odd feeling, having a connection to a place nearly three thousand miles away, because of the experience of a person you've never met. But there we have it. That's the story. That's why I'm going to Canada in a few weeks. 

Obviously, I'll report back when I've been. But for now, I am still concerned with finishing my Christmas shopping and finding non-unattractive thermal underwear for the trip. I am sure Alf had similar problems back in the day.

Have a lovely week, folks. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

Calling All Stattos...

(Before I even begin, I'm having a mental debate about the correct pluralisation of Statto. I've gone with Stattos because it's a name, but it still feels that Stattoes might not be wrong either. Happily, there's no call for a possessive or an omissive apostrophe, so that's good news.)

Anyhoo. Let's move on to the business in hand. It's one for the number nerds today. 

Please insert the missing
 S at your convenience.
I am not a fan of numbers. I realise that's a fairly broad statement to make but it's true. I don't allow anything I can't do on a calculator to trouble me. I am comfortable in knowing that someone mathsier than me will split the bill fairly - both metaphorically and literally. Yesterday with some siblings, we were chatting about how old I will be when my nephew turns eighteen. I know I am thirty-eight years older than him, and therefore I knew I needed do 38 + 18. But I just didn't. None of us did immediately. At one point, my brother said that we should message our littlest (brainest) brother to tell us the answer. We didn't (he was at work). But we wanted to.*

When it came to writing Carry the Beautiful I had no idea how long it should or would be until I got to the end. Only when the last full stop was added, did I pay attention to the final word count. The complete first draft was 75,000 words. (Rounded to the nearest thousand.) This seemed like the biggest number of words ever. Yet when Claire the Editor fed back to me, it appeared it was on the short side. She told me that for a novel in my genre, I needed to be aiming for 80,000-100,000 words. Her feedback also included suggested additional chapters to improve the story, (and some cuts too) so after I'd made the changes, I ended up with 82,000 words. 

Word counts have been in my head recently. At the moment, I am nearing the end of the next book's first draft. It currently stands at just over 70,000. On the one hand, this sounds brilliant. I've still got around 10,000 words left to go before I reach the end of the story, so I am right on track to have a decent sized novel of 80,000ish words. Except. Except... this one is not from the contemporary fiction genre. This one is from the pre-teen, children's section genre. I worry that 80,000 words is going to leave even the most confident of readers running for the hills.
It's how long?


My new book is much in the vein of an Enid Blyton book. Not the same style of writing, plot or use of casual racism. More in the fact it's for pre-teens that like chapters. It's got meat. You can't read it all in one night. However, I don't want it to be so long it's off-putting. Editing is all part of the process, so I am sure there will be lots of waffle that gets backspaced immediately. There will also be strands of plot that just don't work and need to be cut. Even so, I feel like I need a guide to know exactly what I am aiming for. So I have turned to Google and done my research. Stand by for some Enid Blyton word counts.





It's got meaty
chapters!
My favourite
 Famous Five book.
If we take Enid as a guide, I'll need to shift around 15,000 words to get me comfortably in the 60,000s. But Enid is not the final word in children's fiction. Oh no. I also checked out the word count of some of Judy Blume's books too. I don't have any of these on my bookshelf, sadly. These were the books that I got from the library on a regular basis. They were American, much more honest and true to life. (You never heard any of the Famous Five wondering when they were going to get their period.) Blume's books are much more in line with the style of my new story. So, let's look at the stats...



Forever - 74,400

Hmmm. That isn't so helpful. The first two books books are aimed at exactly the age group I am writing for, but they're about half as long as my first draft will be. Forever is more like it, but as every pre-teen girl who read it knew, it wasn't really aimed at pre-teens at all. (*whispers* Because of all the S.E.X.) I bet if I flicked though it now, all 74,400 words would be overwhelmingly innocent. (Even Ralph!)

But I digress. All the examples so far, are of old books. Books I used to read back in the day. Let's look at more recent children's literature to get a modern day idea.

J.K. Rowling 

Mr. Stink - 69,440
David Walliams

Zoe Sugg

Well then. That muddies the waters even more. Thanks to Zoella, I now feel that my slightly more than 70,000 word count is nowhere near enough and I'll have to tack on a second ending that is even bigger than that first. Blimey. Her book is a mofo.

So what have I learnt from all that? Not much to be honest. Zoella aside, I think my finished rough draft will need to be shorter by the final edit. I reckon I should aim at the fifty to sixty thousand mark, as that seems to be fairly central. It is useful to see that there are no hard and fast rules. I wonder what the official guide lines are of 9-12 year-old fiction? Judging by my (not comprehensive in the slightest) research, it's that anything goes. 

I suppose it's like any book. If it grabs you on the first page, you'll read it to the end, no matter how long it is. For now, I'll just keep waffling on with any old rubbish, but spend the next six months making page 1 an absolute cracker. Or something.

Have a lovely week, folks.

* Put that pen and paper down - I'll be 56! Just call me Carol Vorderman. And yes, I did use my calculator.

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Monday, 30 October 2017

Mindhunter, I Hate to Love You...

I have no pictures of speeding
cars or sexy dads. Just
crisp-based meals.
There are times when doing something that isn't technically right, makes it all the more appealing. You know the kind of thing, nothing too dodgy, but not ideal behaviour either. Speeding on an empty motorway. Eating an evening meal that consists mostly of crisps. Having a crush on a mate's dad. We've all been there. We all know the thrill of the wrong. It can be intoxicating.

But let's pause proceedings for a moment for a quick history lesson. *Feminist klaxon sounds with gusto* Let's refresh our memories about the Bechdel test. You know you want to. 

In 1985 Alison Bechdel devised a handy guide about how to spot that a film or TV programme wasn't especially troubled by female representation. Let's play it now! Look at a TV programme or film's character list and ask yourself three questions...
  • Are there more than two female named characters? (i.e actual names, not simply Secretary, Murder Victim or Prostitute 3)
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • Do they talk about anything other then men?

If the answer to any of these questions is NO, then it does not pass the Bechdel test. It's likely it was written by men, about men, for men. More than likely commissioned by men anyway. Any female characters are there to back up the male story. The narrative is not concerned with their lives, motivations or experiences. To some that might be preferable, but for me, it's a bit wrong. I'm rarely interested and I find myself turning over. 

Now, first off, the Bechdel test is not science. It's just an interesting way to assess whether the gut feeling of 'this is a bit blokey' has any weight. And it's hardly a measure of equality. Seeking out two female characters isn't really 50/50 representation, unless you're watching Closer or Abigail's Party. All this does is provide an indication of a certain vibe. In my house, the phrase, 'Well this isn't very Bechdel' can oft be heard. It's a way of shorthanding the shortcomings of some TV.

And yet. Like crisp butty meals and your mate's sexy dad, something that 'isn't very Bechdel' can drag you in and hook you tight. Sometimes a TV programme comes along that doesn't tick any of the 'This Is A Fair Representation' boxes but it is compelling anyway. Something pops up on the telly and keeps you enthralled, regardless of the rightness of its make up. This week, that something is Mindhunter.

Oh Mindhunter! You are Netflix's latest big thing. You look good, you sound good, you have a gripping premise. But my God, you've decided to be as inverse to Bechdel as humanely possible. I hate you but I love you. I am so conflicted. Argggh. 

For those in the dark, Mindhunter tells the fictionalised story of two FBI agents in the '70s, who recognise the value in learning about serial killers by - wait for it - interviewing serial killers. It depicts the conception of the current understanding of criminal profiling, and shows how the FBI changed their views from, 'Let the evil monsters rot' to, 'Hmmm, we might learn something from these men and use it to stop others'. It makes for a good concept.

Grrr. The testosterone of it all.
Before you even think about the three Bechdel questions, however, it can be a tough watch. Routinely the murder victims are women. Grisly crime scene photos of tortured female corpses are bandied about, whilst rooms full of male cops and male FBI agents try to solve the seemingly unsolvable. The cast is overwhelmingly male. Early on, an interesting female character introduced. She even has a name. Debbie! She's not 'Victim', 'Whore' or 'Corpse'. Excitingly, Debbie is a Post Grad. sociology student, working towards her PhD, and happy to challenge the serious but boyish FBI agent she meets in a bar. Hurrah. Sadly for Debbie, the rest of her scenes throughout the series involve her being naked, or being in bed, or having sex, or talking to the FBI boyfriend about his cases. She becomes the sounding board for him at home, so the viewers get to hear what he is thinking away from the office. (A modern day Joyce Barnaby, if you will.) He has 'nice sex' with her so we can see he is not into 'bad sex' like the serial killers and rapists he is interviewing, even when he might act like them to get them to trust him. She serves a purpose for his story. 

There is one other female character that is a lot stronger, narratively. Dr. Wendy Carr. She is introduced in episode three and works on the cases along side the male characters. Even then the programme doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Dr Wendy Carr doesn't talk to another named female character about anything other than a man. It's infuriating.* 

But, but, but... as much these thoughts and irritations bounce around my head as I watch, I am utterly hooked. I haven't binged it because I want to make it last. So far I've done an episode a night for the past week. I don't want it it end and I'm nearly done. It's been great. Yet for all that, I hate that my latest TV obsession feels so backward - I know it's set in the '70s and things weren't so peachy for us gals back then - but even so. 

In a society that were truly equal, watching a classily-made-high-production-values-dramatic-retelling of a sexist time in history involving violence against women, wouldn't bother me. Not if it was done well. And I think Mindhunter is done well (except for the way Debbie's character got sidelined so quickly). But in a climate riddled with horrors like T***p and Weinstein, scary domestic abuse statistics and violent plots against women that try to make a difference, there feels something wrong in sitting back, chewing it over, but not pointing any of it out. I guess I'll just have to keep banging on about this shit for a while longer. Soz about that but bear with me. One day this might be the stuff of pure fiction, and then we can all enjoy it as such.

Have a lovely week, folks.

*OK, episode 5 has one scene with Wendy's girlfriend about her career choices. They mostly talk about her FBI colleagues though.

Stop Press: In the final episode, there is a scene between Dr. Wendy Carr and DA Esther Mayweather, about the way a child rapist should be prosecuted. Yes, it's about a man, but the conversation widens to discuss the impact the case will have on the work of the FBI. One Bechdel-friendly scene in ten hours. Slim pickings. And yet when series two drops, I'll be binging it once again. I'm so bloody conflicted.