Week F – Fall Favourites

 

 

60H

I love autumn. For me it’s the most sensual of seasons. In part, the winding down and drawing in gives cause for pondering. But also, it’s the season of so many of my favourite things.

Bright copper kettles… warm woollen mittens… crisp apple strudels, yes. But it doesn’t end there, Maria.

Putting on a winter coat for the first time to brace the increasingly crisp mornings is a marked occasion. Feeling snug inside, I sweep my boots through the first of fallen leaves in the most mature manner I can assume. The evenings draw in, increasingly sleepy day by day, approaching the inexplicable excitement that is the changing of clocks… Spring forward, fall back.

Then the smell of bonfires! pervading the air for a week or more. And more importantly, the smells of feasts and food. Autumn simply means comfort. It means pyjamas by seven, guilty fire-lighting, hot chocolates and puddings.

But suddenly it’s all over. Subdued leaves rest silently on the ground; autumn style gives way to a ridiculous number of winter layers; and daylight is only witnessed at weekends.

During spring, nature gradually blooms around us. All of a sudden, everyone’s arrived and it’s time for summer celebrations. During autumn, nature shies away. If we don’t stop and smell the roses admire the leaves while they last, there’s little left to savour. Of course winter is a beauty in its own right, but it’s a stark, cold one.

Here, poetry makes its debut into my blog, but what better to ignite the senses? This poem captures my feeling towards autumn: it is a fleeting brilliance, the leaves fall too fast, and the darkening days feel too brief. Frost asks only for more time to appreciate the season before the wild wind lays all the beauty to waste.

 

October – by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all.

The crows above the forest call;

Tomorrow they may form and go.

O hushed October morning mild,

Begin the hours of this day slow.

Make the day seem to us less brief.

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,

Beguile us in the way you know.

Release one leaf at break of day;

At noon release another leaf;

One from our trees, one far away.

Retard the sun with gentle mist;

Enchant the land with amethyst.

Slow, slow!

For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,

Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,

Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—

For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

 

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Week E – Endings

I know someone who read the first six Harry Potter books but not the last one. This same miscreant also chooses not to watch the final episode of a favourite TV series. Bizarre, yes? But there’s a reason: she doesn’t want it to end.

Not wanting your beloved series to end is understandable – it’s like saying a final goodbye to a friend. But after getting so far, refusing to complete the experience is an insult to all the hours invested already.

Choosing to not eat the final square of a chocolate bar doesn’t mean the chocolate bar-eating experience will never end. It just means that it ends sooner, and that there is some chocolate left un-enjoyed.

Not everybody hates endings to this extreme, but there is something poignant about closing a book’s covers for the final time. We are left at a loss, with a sense of emptiness. The world we have inhabited for days, weeks or months closes its doors to us, and we are sent back to reality.

Reality. That is what we are left with. Reality never ends. It changes, fades in and out of phase after phase, but never reaches a full stop.

A story will always reach its final full stop, but, like reality, can it ever really end?

The best fictional endings are, in essence, no ending at all. The Italian Job’s famous last line – “Hang on, lads. I’ve got a great idea” – as the choice between saving the gold and saving their necks hangs in the balance (literally), does not indicate an ending, but the beginning of a new venture: a new idea.

Those millions of us who have devoured the final tome of Harry’s adventures know how Rowling puts this particular tale to bed. Not where she ‘ends’ it, but where she lays it to rest.

The final chapter projects us forward in the lives of our three hero(in)es. We enjoy the nerdish satisfaction of seeing who ended up with whom and what they named their children. As Harry and Ginny and Ron and Hermione chivvy their children onto the Hogwarts Express, the full circle is completed: the technique that satisfies all audiences of classical music and comedy sketches alike. And as we absorb this cheerful conclusion, we ask ourselves what adventures lie ahead for these young witches and wizards. It is simultaneously an ending and a beginning.

But not everyone enjoyed this finale. Was it perhaps too happily-ever-after? Even JK Rowling admitted that partnering Ron and Hermione was ‘a form of wish fulfilment’ on her part. So although the final chapter implies a continuation to the wizarding world we have known for seven volumes, the final picture we get is unrealistically convenient.

Unrealistic convenience is what is objectionable with so many happily ‘ended’ stories. The story stops in a nice place, leaving little or no doubt as to what will happen beyond the final curtain. But even a perfectly resolved narrative is merely an impressively choreographed tying of loose ends.

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert

Week D – Downton Abbey

So many people told me that I’d “just love” Downton Abbey. That they’re surprised I don’t already watch it.  That it’s right up my street.

This is most likely because I’m an English graduate and many people assume that we spend our weekends huddled up with a much-thumbed copy of a Jane Austen novel and an “I love Mr Darcy” mug full of tea.

It would be a crime to deny affection for Miss Austen, but this does not mean I’m a sucker for any drama full of aristocrats, dowries and bonnets.

Austen is widely considered a symbol of the ‘period drama’ genre, but she is so unique.  Even the dramatizations of her work struggle to capture the Austen essence; her brilliance of wit and observation is so entwined with the words she chooses and the phrases she crafts.

The ambiance of the novels may be captured through impressive sets and costumes, but adaptations often favour sentimentality over the humour that characterises Austen.  In my opinion, the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice has notable success – with particular kudos going to Alison Steadman for her portrayal of the frantic and worrisome Mrs Bennett.

But I’m here to talk about Downton Abbey.

It’s set in a later period – 1912 to begin with – but it is period. Manifested in the beautiful estate, the concern for social structure and etiquette, and the ‘unwelcome heir’ plot theme, it clearly calls out to the period-drama-loving audiences. But it doesn’t work for me.

Some people consider period dramas insipid and event-less.  But their interest is in the subtle investigation of characters and how we are still able to empathise with people in a completely different era.

But I did find Downton dull.  Instead of a web of engrossing story lines concerning aristocrats and servants alike, I watched a general monotony interspersed with thimbles of interest.

For example, I sympathised with John Bates, the new valet, for being victimised because of his disability.  And this situation is perfect for welcoming the audience into the midst of Downton activity.  But the immediate attempts of Thomas, the jealous and ambitious footman, to oust him, seemed nothing if not immature and contrived.

Also, it turns out this Thomas character actually has more at stake with the Duke than we might have expected.  It seemed a little desperate to be throwing in a homosexual relationship in only episode one.  As a method of creating that sought-for connection between Now and Then, I found it clunky.

Yes, homosexuality is a much-discussed subject today; and yes, homosexual ‘scandals’ were common pre-WWI (Oscar Wilde, to name but one name).   But this thematic choice set it out of line with the period dramas to which I, perhaps naively, expected it to pay tribute.

It is aspects like these that transform the expected period drama into a serialised, historical soap opera.

But Downton doesn’t entirely renounce the traditions of period drama for melodramatic television soaps.  Casting Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess proves this.  With her firm history in the British film industry, including the award-winning A Room with a View (1985), she brings certain connotations, legitimacy, and a loyal following.

So my issue was: what am I watching?  Is it a period drama?  I’m not sure!

I’m not saying that modernizing a historical drama never works; that would entirely contradict my own dissertation!  Lost in Austen (mini-series, 2008) is a fantastic example of the fusion of history with the present in a television drama.  But the reason this works, in my view, is because of its humour.  It knows exactly what it is trying to be, and it doesn’t take itself seriously.

Perhaps in the context of Downton’s entirety this fusion works, but I’m not interested enough to find out.

I’ll admit, I’ve found it hard to pin down exactly what irks me about this drama.  It may be that I feel betrayed by the gap between the period drama I expected and the self-absorbed soap I see.  Maybe I haven’t watched enough of it to make a sufficiently informed judgement.  But one thing is true; I can’t be bothered with it!

Week C – Calories and Carbs

Calories and carbohydrates: two fearful C-words for anyone with the slightest interest in health and fitness. In this post I talk about the way in which many people today view health and exercise and what I think is wrong with popular perceptions.

Impossible to envisage, both calories and carbs seem like abstract, unwelcome entities that somehow find their way into our innocent and unsuspecting bodies.

C - Dessert

Few of us pretend to know the science behind these pests, and yet the common opinion is very negative.  Calories and carbohydrates are the artful enemies against which we must take drastic measures in order to triumph.

And to fight this battle, we have only two weapons to hand. Abstinence, yes, the forward planning (but unsustainable) approach. But more vitally… exercise.

Our nation’s concern about the rise in obesity has given our minds a skewed outlook on exercise.  The emphasis on the importance of daily exercise has given this positive activity harmful connotations in terms of its relationship with the consumption of calories.  One exercises because one consumes.

To give a bit of a back-story, I joined a gym in January and I’m proud to say I’ve been going regularly!

I first decided to go because I felt like I wasn’t being active enough anymore.  I wanted to be generally fitter, but it’s also turned out to be a psychological health boost too.  Exercise is a great stress-relief; it’s refreshing to have a change of scenery and pace after a day in the office; and achieving goals is really satisfying.

There’s just one thing that vexes me.

Whenever I start a statement with ‘when I was in the gym the other day…’ or ‘I went past X on my run this morning’, I meet baffled responses like ‘why do you need to go to the gym’.

Now let’s get one fact straight. I’m not doing any of this exercise because I need to lose weight. In fact, I’m probably trying to do the opposite.  But why should I not go to the gym, just because I’m not in desperate need of it?!

I’m not pretending to be an expert, but this would definitely suggest a prevalent notion of an unhelpful exercise-weight relationship.

Unlike team sports such as football or solo activities like cycling, gym-going and road-running are seen as things that your average Joe or Joanna would only ever dream of doing if they were trying to lose weight.

For many, exercise is an important reaction against weight issues; that much is true.  But we would be wise to remember that proactive exercise has many more benefits.

Not only could regular exercise lead to excelling abilities and winning medals, but also you will feel happier, be more energetic, gain health benefits, and even sleep better at night.

Week B – Boredom

Three years of university, three whole years of that blissful combination of academic swotting and student comradeship have sadly passed me by.  It felt like being passed by a speeding car.  I watched it approach; I knew it was coming fast but it was always approaching, I was always anticipating. Then suddenly, WHOOSH. It had whipped past me in a second, leaving me somewhat flustered while I watch it gradually recede into the distance.

Despite efforts to remain in the South West, I have returned to my hometown to a ‘settled down’ state of going to work Monday to Friday, and seeing the still-student boyfriend as often as possible.  Compared to my hectic student life, my existence is now somewhat subdued. I’m looking forward to the next stage in my life, but right now feels like an interval. Or a pit stop.  But I’m not bored.

Some people argue boredom is just part of being human. Others think differently:

“Only boring people get bored.” – Robert Mailer Anderson

This view is a little harsh – I should hope Anderson is a damned interesting man to be going round saying things like that – and I’m not sure I agree.  To be a ‘boring person’ is based on the judgements of others; feeling ‘bored’ is a personal feeling or state of existence.

‘Mr Boring’ is far more likely to bore his friends than himself.  ‘Mr Boring’ could be quite contented in his own company, with his own hobbies, whatever they may be.

Tolstoy puts it better:

“Boredom: the desire for desires.” – Tolstoy

Personally, I only ever get bored when I can’t decide what I want to do with my time, when I’m feeling lost and listless.  So I see where Tolstoy is coming from.

If the mind desires nothing, then there is nothing that will satisfy it.  Boredom indicates the need to be satisfied by something, but with no interests and no desires, that’s no easy feat.

As I leave this post quite open-ended, I shall leave you with one last thought, along a similar vein:

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker

Please share your views!

Week A – Alice in Wonderland

It has been too long since my last post, so what better than a writing challenge to clear the blogger’s block and put my keyboard (read ‘ink well’) to good use.  I’ve decided on an A to Z theme, which isn’t particularly limiting, but provides an encouraging structure for a 6-month post-a-week challenge.  Twenty-six letters, twenty-six weeks, you do the maths.

So, welcome to Week A!

alice-flamingo

Alice in Wonderland (dir. Tim Burton) is a film I’ve intended to see since its 2010 release, but it wasn’t until I found out that a friend of mine stars as an extra that I actively sought out the DVD, by adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list.  Unfortunately I never identified my friend amongst the crowd of beige-clad guests at the garden party of the opening scenes, but I did discover a very enjoyable film.

Burton’s film is neither a remake of nor a sequel to the original film or book. He takes the characters created by Lewis Carroll and gives all of them – including the eponymous Alice – a new adventure.  He probably likes to think of it as an ‘improvement’, and I can’t say I disagree.

My first reaction to the news that this revival of Alice was to be directed by the iconic Tim Burton was ‘but of course!’  Lewis Carroll, best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is famed for the depth, brilliancy and ridiculousness of his imagination. Similarly, Tim Burton is known for his quirky fantasy films, and so the match seems perfect.  In respect to the Carroll-Burton partnership, and with their shared peculiarities in mind, I particularly liked the film’s attitude towards ‘madness’:

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

It only seems natural that Burton should defend the eccentric style he has in common with Carroll.

The main difference in the treatment of this bizarre story, as identified by renowned critic Roger Ebert (who sadly passed away only last week), is that Burton brilliantly interprets Alice as an “adult hallucination”, rather than as a reality of pure nonsense.

In Burton’s film, Alice is no longer simply a little girl seeking to avoid boredom through her vivid imagination, but a young woman who accidentally falls into a world that she believes to be her recurring childhood dream.  When Alice arrives in ‘Underland’, she is unaware that she has ever been there before in reality and so is convinced she is dreaming again.

Burton’s approach blurs the line between imagination and reality in a way that has repercussions for other aspects of the film, as I shall return to later.  The renaming of Wonderland as ‘Underland’ underscores the persistence of Reality’s battle against Imagination throughout.  Wonderland is no longer a place simply of wondrous imagination, but a fantastical place with a harsh reality.

Part of this harsh reality – and what I believe to be one of the major strengths of the film – is Alice’s destined involvement in the overthrowing of the cruel Red Queen (played, of course, by Helena Bonham-Carter).  In Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s adventure in Wonderland is more or less a discovery of its peculiar inhabitants, whereas Burton structures his film with a plot that incorporates Carroll’s brilliant inventions.

By introducing a stronger narrative, the film produces a closer bond with the characters and an emotional investment in their welfare, which Burton has quoted his motives.  The ‘prophesy’ that identifies Alice’s important role in the politics of Underland, a world that has been thrown into darkness through the reign of a cruel but powerful woman, is a successful strategy, but unfortunately smacks a little too much of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

However, by giving Alice this new purpose, not only an adventure, Burton introduces the ever-touchy subject of gender roles.  From the very first scenes of the film, Alice is characterised as a young woman who hasn’t accepted the stifling manners and expectations forced upon her by society.  She refuses to wear a corset or stockings, much to the distress of her well-refined mother.

The reason Alice finds herself in Underland is that she is running away from an unwanted marriage proposal that everyone expects her to accept.  As many girls would appreciate, Alice feels disinclined to be forced into a loveless, purely ‘convenient’ marriage; she has witnessed the unfaithfulness of her sister’s husband, and shuns the prospect of being similarly abused as a woman and a wife.

In Underland, as in reality, Alice’s identity is called into question; Tweedledum and Tweedledee (two perfectly chubby portrayals by Matt Lucas) debate whether she is “the right Alice”.  The role of “the right Alice” is a stereotypically masculine role – she must act as champion for the good White Queen and slay the Jabberwocky, champion for the evil Red Queen.

Alice-in-Wonderland-001

By escaping reality just as she is proposed to, Alice enters a world where she is undefined by her femininity. As a consequence of the tension between reality and dreams in Underland, it is difficult to determine whether this gender-neutrality is being represented as a far-fetched ideal, or as a genuine possibility.

Either way, when Alice returns to the garden party from whence she came, she has found the courage to make her own decisions and not be pressured by the presumptions of society.  She kindly and confidently refuses the proposal of marriage, but I do wish the extent of her epiphanies ended there.  As she turned to members of her family and imparts some of her newfound ‘wisdom’, I suppressed a veritable cringe.

As I believe has been identified by many others, the proposal for Alice to become an apprentice of her late father’s company is somewhat anachronistic, considering the Victorian setting.  Alice’s masculine role within Underland is accepted on the basis of its unreality and also because Underland is a timeless place; its presence in ‘reality’ is only objectionable in terms of its historical inaccuracies.

Aside from a few such niggling instances in which my critical stance drew me out of the drama, I enjoyed the extent to which I was submersed in the plot that Burton fashions for his Alice.  Whilst I adore the wonderful and puzzling tales in Carroll’s original books, I can’t deny that Burton’s reworking is a successful one.