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.


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. 


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
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.


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.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Baby, It's Cold Outside...

Nigel Slater writes in his Christmas Chronicles (2017) 'You either 'get' the cheer of winter or you don't.' I could not agree more. We have finally moved away from the time of year I found most oppressive. No more sneezing, sweating or slathering on sun cream because someone's invited you to sit in their garden, rather than utilise the far comfier seating of their lounge. I cannot stand the Summer. The happy news is, of course, that Summer is over. Hurrah and huzzah. 

The absolute dream.
I am now FULL of the cheer of winter. I know we're not strictly there yet. But since all the kids went back to school and the evenings got darker earlier, I find myself behaving in a winterly way. Little changes seep into my day, that when I stop to think about them, show me we've hit a new season and are counting down to Christmas. The Danish concept of hygge seems to be everywhere these days. I've always managed to prioritise cosy wellbeing whatever my age. (Yeah, I'm such a self-indulgent cow.) I just didn't know there was a name for it. 

Fifty Shades of Hair

The reality. With
added split ends.
The aim. 
I despair of my hair colour. Boring brown. You won't find that on a box of Garner Nutrisse. Historically I've tended to play about with my colour as the seasons change. Blonde bits for Summer, dark brown/black for Winter. In recent years though, the game has changed. I have to - as Davina's fake Mum on the advert says - 'cover my bit of grey.' So it's boring brown on a regular basis. And yet, still I can play. This winter, I'm aiming for Very Dark Brown with Copper Tips. Oh yes. It's Halloween orange juxtaposed with the black of night. Sorta. Check out my seasonal hair.

For the Love of mash

Yes, I've talked about mash potato before but it can't be repeated often enough. Mash and gravy, no need for anything else. Nothing says cosying up for the winter like a bowl of fluffy potatoes. My recent obsession with all things Scandinavian means I now add Swedish meatballs and lingonberry sauce. I know, get me. I'm so international these days. But still, as the Beatles should have sung, all you need is mash. Not love. Mash. Mash is all you need.

Twinkly Flickery Loveliness

Ikea tea lights and a
Kerastase candle I got for free.
Apparently, Danes burn more candles per head than anywhere in Europe. They haven't been to my house! (Boom, boom.) OK, I don't go that mad, but I do like a few tea lights dotted about when the evening gets dark. And even though I have a fireplace that flames real flames (albeit via a handy gas flue), I usually ditch that and just bung a few candles in there. The visual effect is the same but I don't have a overly-heated room to deal with. Either way, it's LOVELY. And that's all that matters.

Welcome back, excellent TV

Game Face. It's brill.
I cannot tell you what a relief it feels when the summer is finally over and the one-size-fits-all telly programming is pushed to the side. Once September hits, the quality programme makers get their chance again. In the last month or so I've watched Quacks and Back, started GameFace, returned to new series of Have I Got News For You, The Graham Norton Show and Dr Foster, and have several films on my 'To Watch' list that are out now or soon. (The Party, The Death of Stalin and Murder on the Orient Express.) The Autumn/Winter seems to kick start a whole new set of quality standards. This can only be a good thing.

Wonderful Words

Nigel Slater's Figs 
with Maple Syrup 
and Anise
An utter joy.
I am trying to read more at the moment. That's why I started the Reading List page on here - it'll encourage me to keep something on the go all the time. (I'm currently in the middle of Ben Elton's Time and Time Again. Not bad so far.) But yesterday something truly special arrived. I opened this post with a quote from it. Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater came out last Thursday. I have a lot of time for Nigel Slater. His book, Real Food taught me how to the cook basics well, when I began to fend for myself. (Although his method of opening a jacket potato by punching it, caused a long-term scar to my hand when burning potato was smashed into my skin. Ah, happy memories.) Still, the thing about Nigel Slater is that not only are his food suggestions decent, but his writing is off the scale brilliant too. Christmas Chronicles seems to be an absolute love letter to the Winter. I say 'seems' because I'm savouring every page and don't want to rush. Not just about the festive season itself, more like the Winter months in general, but what I have read so far has been utterly compelling. When I got to p30 there was a recipe for a hot boozy fig drink. Upon reading it, I drove straight to Tesco, got the ingredients, and now have a bottle put aside. As it simmered, the kitchen smelt of figs, cinnamon and maple syrup, as well as the heady fumes of wine and vodka. Even if I never drink it (oh, but I will) the Christmassy aroma of yesterday evening made everything feel better. 

Look, I know some of you hate the winter. The scraping of windscreens, the chapped lips and the constant rain. I understand. But please, let me wallow in all the darkness and cold. Let me find the wrapping of a wooly scarf around my neck as thrilling as you may find the feel of the sun's heat on your skin. Let me enjoy the lovely bleakness of it all. Your time will come. For now, let's layer up, drink hot toddies and twinkle under the fairy lights. 

Have a lovely week, folks.