Sunday, 1 April 2007

Many-Headed Update

Life
J has now got her visa for England! It came through incredibly quickly and smoothly - I suspect they read the covering letter (literate, educated) looked at the passport photos (white) and the financial information (solvent) and let us through. Which is obviously great for us - we are still in a state of high excitement over it - but just means I'm not going to hail this as a victory for gay rights or anything.

Book
Now working on Chapter Three, which is the fun one, but I can't quite remember why I thought that boundary stones and telephones were the same thing: I may have to reread The Telephone Book. Jonathan Sterne's The Audible Past arrived in the post today - which was good timing, as this is the point in the book where I switch from inscriptive space to auditory space - and I'm excited about starting reading it.

Other Research
Someone emailed me to ask about Eurydice references in Buffy 6, where they bring her back from the dead: as far as I can see, there aren't any (they think she's in a hell dimension when she's actually in heaven, so there's no suggestion that anyone went into the Underworld to find her; they successfully bring her back; there's no deal with the Powers of the Underworld; there's no Orpheus/singer figure). Anyone have any advance on 'none'?

Crafts
Went to Spotlight with J's friends K&D (D is the one with the glorious white hair). Have learned to knit for the third time in my life, and to cast on for the second. Am knitting 'a scarf'. Am mildly worried about this because I've been working on the same craft project - a series of small sewn pictures which is actually going to be a present for K - for two years now and I'm usually a very focussed crafty-person, so I'm worried that introducing knitting into the equation is going to turn me from an obsessive one-project person into a chaotic never-finishing person with fifty projects on the go at once.

Cultural Productions: Audiovisual.
We got overexcited after watching Singin' In The Rain and decided to have a Gene Kelly festival, but the only other one we could find in the video shop was Brigadoon, which was terrible! Really terrible! Why would you hire Gene Kelly to sing and act and not let him dance? Why would you hire Cyd Charisse and then keep her in an ankle-length skirt throughout? And who decided that the whole 'one day passes in Brigadoon for every hundred years in the outside world' thing would work? That's a terrible way of protecting a village! 30 years in Brigadoon equals a million years in the outside world! What are the odds that Earth is even going to be habitable in a million years? Why didn't God just keep the witches away and then kill everyone in Brigadoon after one generation, which would come to the same thing? Worst. Premise. Ever. (For everything else that is wrong with Brigadoon, see this review of the DVD release.)

I did a quick search for Brigadoon fic set on the following day in Brigadoon - ie 2031 - but couldn't find any. Alas for the Internet's lack of imagination.

On the other hand, last night we started watching I, Claudius - the DVD was a bit wrecked so we had to skip a couple of chapters in the middle (bah), but we got up to Julia's exile. Julia is brilliant - I'm amazed that in 1976 they managed to create such a likeable, plausible woman out of what's little more than a stereotype of promiscuity in the historical record. Though I think there was a little window of Excellent Women in the BBC in the late 60s through to the mid-70s: I was watching some Doctor Who story a while back (one of a number that Una and Mr Una lent us, as part of J's education in Old Who) - a Fourth Doctor one, I think - about whom all I remember was that it had a fantastic female soldier in it, who managed to get through the whole story without being girled.

And then Livia... oh, look, the thing is that there are so many of those scheming, poisoning women in the (story of the) Julio-Claudian family that I just sort of fail to see the point. It's like when I open a fantasy novel and see three people with odd names going on a long journey through scenery, and my inner five-year-old just starts kicking his legs against the dining table and howling to be let down and allowed out to play. I can see the point of Sian Philips, however.

And, very surprisingly, I am really loving Brian Blessed as Augustus. I wasn't expecting to: the Augustus in my head is a mad, neurotic, highly damaged, queeny sort of person, in love with Good Roman Manliness because he perceives a lack of it in himself,* and Robert Graves's Augustus is just simply a splendid fellow. But so much cleverer than he looks - in fact, him and Livia are an interesting role reversal in some ways, in that Livia has all the political machination and wheeling-and-dealing, and Augustus, by contrast, proceeds in a way which is often gendered as feminine: getting his own way by pretending to miss the point. Actually ::gets very excited:: he's a sort of Lina Lamont figure: you're just about to write him off as rather too simple-minded to be real, when all of a sudden he shows up in your office saying If you tell the papers about Cathy Selden, it would be detrimental and deleterious to my career and beaming adorably at you. (Lina Lamont is one of my butch role models.)

And obviously Derek Jacobi is a genius.

Cultural Productions: Textual
I just read Martine Murray's The Slightly True Story of Cedar B Hartley (Allen & Unwin, 2002) and it annoyed me so much I thought I'd post about it. It's in a very particular sort of whimsical, quirky-insightful, oh-so-charming, literary-Disney, voice: now I liked Amelie, and I love Bjork, and I'm fond of Francesca Lia Block, and I have Boys for Pele lined up on iTunes right now, so I have a high tolerance for whimsy and quirk; and I'm a dutiful, conventional reader in a lot of ways, so I have a tendency to get sucked in when a book is telling me very loudly that it's of High Literary Quality. But when you use charm to substitute for politics and high literary quality to cover over emotional wreckage (isn't bereavement charming!), I get annoyed.

So this book is about a twelve-year-old girl, Cedar B Hartley, who spends most of her time wandering around Brunswick (two suburbs away from us) having beautiful thoughts: sometimes she thinks about how shallow celebrities are and how the woman who runs the op shop is a much better person than some silly tennis player; sometimes she just decides, enchantingly, to name all the bugs she sees on the street. She has a brother who has run away from home, but he sends beautiful thoughts home on postcards from time to time, which you'd think would teach her that beautiful thoughts don't actually help with traumatic emotional situations like loss and missing and need, but it doesn't.

(We are supposed not to notice how saccharine this all is, by the way, because of the details of contemporary inner-suburban short-of-money life in the novel's setting, which signal its ambitions towards realism, however magical; if the main character is thinking beautiful thoughts in a house with a leaky sofa and a rat, while wearing trackie daks and runners, this must be a Literary Novel, and not Snow White).

Cedar B Hartley, she tells us on two or three occasions, is 'a feminist'. It is hard to know exactly what this means to her, as her take on life is too pure and uncorrupted for her to be able to understand 'economics and politics': we know this because she tells us so, after a conversation with her mum, who explains politics thusly:

Look, I'm not very political myself so I can't explain this very well, but basically, the Mr Bartons of this world believe that things work best if people are encouraged to make as much money as they can in whatever way they want. They think this money will create jobs and trickle down to the people who don't have enough. The problem is that the money may be made in ways that are harmful to both the environment and the spirit of society. And often it doesn't trickle down at all...

When Cedar asks her what 'the spirit of society' means, she replies:

I'm talking about happiness, real happiness, not the kind that comes from money and new cars or swimming pools. Real happiness comes from loving your family and friends, from caring for other people, or from communicating something to another person, or just from singing a song you like.

'Doesn't Mr Barton care for other people?' asks Cedar.

Of course he does. It's just that many big businesses are doing very uncaring things because it makes them a lot of money. Not all business is bad though. There are people who earn a good living through good businesses. Like that bakery in Brunswick where they make that organic sourdough bread we like.

Straightforward enough? It's all just too complicated for Cedar:

I wasn't sure I really understood it all. It seemed very complicated. I don't like economics or politics. It just seems to cause a lot of arguments.

As it happens, by the end of the book, it seems that Martine Murray's take on life might also be too pure and uncorrupted for her to understand economics, as Cedar's widowed mother's working long hours to provide for her children ends up being critiqued as a mistake in her mothering priorities:

Barn, honey, I feel like I've made some mistakes with you and Cedy. I want to explain. See, when your father died, I panicked about security. So I've been working long hours because I want us to get our own house one day... But lately I've been seeing how maybe it wasn't what you needed as much as just time, my time.

Now, the Hartley family seem pretty poor even with her working long hours - Cedar's mum can't afford to lend a friend $500 (200 quid) to save the life of her beloved dog, and their house is constantly being described as broken-down, dingy, and poor - and at one point in the book the family next door gets evicted, because they don't own their own home. so it's unclear to me quite why this was such a bad 'choice' - and, indeed, what non-economic, non-political solution would have allowed Cedar's mum to work fewer hours.

(Or what's left of feminism when you take away economics and politics: the right to call other girls 'stupid' because they wear high heels, perhaps? [p.178])

The other thing which made me furious is that the plot and shape of the book is structured around Cedar finding out the truth about her dad's death: he died on the way home from a demonstration, trying to get to her side (she was in hospital as a very small child). She processes this information very quickly, to the extent that she is capable of performing in a physically demanding circus performance about half an hour after hearing the story.

But it's taught her something! It's taught her that you can't rely on anything; that unexpected things happen in life. That, as she puts it in the book's closing lines:

Kite [her love-interest] is standing right in front of me... and we smile, and we are standing very close to each other and I feel this enormous funny feeling, the funny feeling, and my skin is getting zapped by it and I am thinking, I know what is about to happen. I rock up onto my toes and a thought flies through me, just a red ribbon of thought going - Cedar, as soon as you think you know how life will go, life is liable to scribble a little detour right over the path you thought you were on, and lo and behold, there could be one hundred low flying albatrosses about to swoop in and take Kite flying away to Siberia with them, just when you think he is about to kiss you.

So I am quickly pretending I don't know what is about to happen.

And I am letting my eyes close and Kite is leaning down towards me and I am balancing on my toes and I don't see one single albatross for miles.


But the thing is, you see, that there could not be one hundred low-flying albatrosses about to swoop in and take Kite away to Siberia with them. That doesn't happen. We know this because the albatrosses have already appeared in the book, as the symbol of the mismatch between imagination and reality:

There's a long way between an idea and a real thing. Inside your mind there is a boundless view. You can imagine whatever you want. For example, you can... close your eyes and picture... a herd of wild wandering albatrosses, wearing new hats and recently returned all the way from Russia to tell you tales, waiting in your bathtub... And then... your mum yells out and you have to open your eyes...

So you open them, and lo and behold, there you are just lying on your back facing the cracked ceiling above you, which is blotchy with dirty yellow puddles as if someone peed on it. That's how it really is... And you can't get even one single albatross to wear a hat and tell you tales in the bath, no matter what you do. Some ideas just have to remain as ideas.


So the albatrosses have switched sides. Because what Cedar has in fact learned in the course of the book is that life can take a detour because people have accidents and acquire brain injuries, or die, or injure their spines and lose their jobs as acrobats and get dumped by their wives. But suddenly these brutal possibilities have disappeared, and the only thing that might happen is the pleasingly metaphorical 'one hundred low-flying albatrosses', dissolving the sheer physical reality of chance and accident and loss and shock - the exhausting labour of grief - and the economic and political dimension of them - the fact that Cedar's mum's 'choice' to work two jobs was not a free choice.

So, in conclusion, arrgh.

*This comes from reading the Augustus issue of The Sandman in sixth-form, while studying the Aeneid in Latin A-Level and Antony and Cleopatra in English A-Level: if anyone saw the RSC's recent A&C, with Patrick Stewart as Antony and Harriet Walter as Cleopatra, the Augustus in that was pretty much exactly spot-on for the way I see him.

2 comments:

Una said...

I wasn't sure I really understood it all. It seemed very complicated. I don't like economics or politics. It just seems to cause a lot of arguments.

"...and is much too difficult for my tiny girl's mind, which is full of kittens." Grr.

nixwilliams said...

yay for visas. nice one, matey.

thanks for playing with me, too!