Sunday, 22 May 2016

A Serious Haircut

Monkey caught the hair dyeing bug a long time ago, and we have experimented with various brands and techniques over the years. A while ago she began toying with the idea of a serious cut, but, like me, is not fond of going to the hairdresser ... so we thought ... how hard can it be?
Quite hard as it turned out. 
We watched this very helpful video on Youtube provided by Free Salon Education, and the nice man made it look so straightforward. 
It might not look like it but she is sitting here voluntarily:
The weird colour layers are the result of a recent lightening and dyeing:
I had a few panic moments but the outcome was so much better than I anticipated:
The weird colours ended up looking kind of funky:

Monkey had 24 hours of panic as what she had done ... and then we soldiered on with the next stage. 
Bleaching in progress:
I liked the blonde, and she lived with this for 24 hours too:
Finally happy. The end result is the colour she has always aspired to but, without bleaching, has never been able to get quite this vibrant:
and the old colours in her hair have given it a fabulous multi-tone effect with hints of turquoise and purple:

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Hamlet: Shakespeare Part Three

Lawrence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet was in stark contrast to the other two we have watched this week, being a traditional rendering of the text, and it is the only Shakespeare to have won the best picture and best actor Oscars. It was interesting to find that though I had only the vaguest notion of the story (from minor references to it in Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters) I had little difficulty in following the language and the plot. I enjoyed spotting the many, many quotes that have become a ubiquitous part of english usage: lots of timeless advice, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" and "to thine own self be true" and a selection of  literary and film titles: 'Infinite Jest' and 'Undiscovered Country'. If you check this Wiki page Hamlet is pretty much the most mined of Shakespeare's plays for inspiration for other creators. If you are looking for a version to help you with academic studies you really need to go with the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version which is the only film using the full text, and running to four hours. Experts however seem to agree that the 1964 Russian film, with the text translated by Boris Pasternak, is the definitive performance.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Adventures in the Districts

I love being on leave, and alongside our attempts at experiencing a little Shakespeare there have been a couple of crazy outings.
Tuesday we invited Julie and the Babe, and in a nice little car from Salford Car Hire we tootled up to Keswick in the Lake District and paid a visit to The Puzzling Place: an emporium of visual delights, optical illusions and trickery, where nothing is quite what it seems and you learn that you really cannot trust your own senses (well worth a visit if you are in the area).



After lunch at a local eatery we drove up to the Castlerigg Stone Circle, build about 4,500 years ago. The stones are quite modest, compared to Stonehenge, or even Avebury or the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, but it is still humbling to imagine the lives and experiences of the people who built it. The Lakes really are the perfect antidote to living in the city.
The Babe was desperate to 'climb a really big hill' but by this time the rest of us were more thinking about tea and cake. However I spotted a suitable lay-by and we spent an hour picking our way up a picturesque little river valley ... and nobody fell in.
Wednesday morning Monkey and I drove the other direction, across town to the Peak District, to the National Trust's  Longshaw Estate and thence to the quarry at Bole Hill
We then walked across the heath land to a bunch of rocks, cos that's the wild kind of stuff you do when you are having an adventure. It did rain on us, as is traditional in the Peak, but as Monkey said it was either rain or trolls....
though as it turned out we had both.
We warmed up in the café and then drove on, intending to visit another nearby stone circle. However, we were completely distracted by signposts for Chatsworth. Unfortunately the Darcy's were not at home, but the housekeeper did give us a little tour.
After the wow effect of the entrance hall we spend much time in rooms so subdued by curtains that you could hardly make out the paintings.
After the extraordinarily ornate public rooms we finally reached something resembling domesticity, but even that was not on any normal scale; the living room:
and dining room:
Then the period feel was counterpointed by this striking piece of modern art: thousands of individually crafted ceramic tiles that represent the DNA of the resident family:
There were ostentatious displays of wealth that disgusted me, like this cheetah skin rug:
and others that were a delight, like these over-the-top curtain ties:
And because fibre crafts get everywhere, this naked spinning lady on the ceiling:
The gardens offers many delights, but we made a beeline for the maze:
and found the middle with only a little trouble:


Perfect.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Watergate and all that

I picked up 'may we be forgiven' by A.M. Homes at the library on the spur of the moment because I remembered that it won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2013 and remained the only one of the winners that I had not read.  I have to say, not that women writers are not entertaining, but that I think I laughed aloud at this book more often than I have done at any of the others. It was funny in that 'just how bad can things really be' kind of way, and because of the incredible actions and reactions of Harold; he really is the most unlikely of heroes. I was thinking about men writing women and women writing men, and when I looked again at the list of winners I was surprised to realise quite how many of them have male central characters.

Harold is a Nixon scholar, giving rather lacklustre lectures at the local college and writing a book that he never seems to get around to finishing. At the family Thanksgiving dinner an affair begins between him and Jane, his brother's wife, and then a fatal car accident sets off a chain of tragic events that take over his life. However it was a life that he seemed to be drifting through rather aimlessly, and to begin with I found him a really hard character to bond with, but as he struggles to cope with the shit that life piles on him you begin to admire him, and his emerging tenacity and loyalty. It is as if you are watching someone quite literally build their life from scratch. He is abandoned by his wife and moves in to his brother's home to take care of the kids and pets. He had no idea what he is doing, having never taken care of so much as a houseplant before, but somehow he copes, and by the end of the year (that is encompassed by the book) he has drawn together a collection of waifs and strays and made a family. No one has ever asked anything of him before but once life starts to make serious demands he finds resources even he didn't know he had. He starts off very passive, things just happen to him, but as time passes he becomes the driving force in his own life, almost for the first time, and when he finally tells Amanda not to call again you are pretty confident it is going to be a lasting change. 

This is what his life is like early on:
"A minute after the minder is gone, I accidentally flip a massive clot of rich black dirt into my eye, blinding myself. I paw at my face, trying to clear it. I use my shirt, get up too fast, and step on the trowel, throwing myself off balance. I crash into the barbecue and rebound - mentally writing the headline: Idiot Kill Self in Garden Accident. It's Tessie who guides me to the stair, with me holding on to her collar, saying, "Cookie, cookie, lets go find a cookie." In the downstairs half-bath I let myself have it. "Shit face," I say, looking at myself in the mirror, thinking it really is possible that I didn't flip dirt into my eye but shit of some sort: Tessie shit, kitty shit, raccoon or deer shit - whatever it is has a funky smell, like a fancy cheese, cheese so rare and ripe that they keep it in its own cave and bring it out only for royal holidays. I have one eye open and am looking at myself in the mirror, giving myself a talking to, remembering another time when I looked in the mirror, I literally dissolved - the stroke." (p.179)

This is the same man a few hundred pages later:

"I am cooking, cleaning, and packing three enormous duffels with a month's supply of sheets, pillows, bug spray, stamps and stationary, shirts, shorts, and bathing suits, while having an identity crisis - one I'm too old to have - against the backdrop of a heat wave and three children who are leaving for camp this weekend. Ashley and I have a talk and 'relationships' away from home and reaffirm that there should be no trading of physical favours between adults and children - and she shouldn't fool around with anyone more than three years older or younger, and what she does should be limited to 'the soft arts', a phrase I coined for the occasion. Ricardo and I review the plan I've come up with in collaboration with a colleague of Dr Tuttle's to wean him off his medications and add a variety of supplements. Nate and I go over his summer reading and extra-credit projects." (p.436)

... and talking to the psychiatrist (getting an assessment for the social services to apply to foster) (for info: George is his brother):

""George is a paranoid bully who doesn't see what's good for him and looks at me as the enemy no matter what I do." I blurt it out, and then there's a very long silence.
"And Nixon?" Tuttle asks.
"I'm not sure Nixon could psychically afford to accept that he did anything wrong. He desperately needed to think of himself as decent."
"Do you think your book is good?"
"Sometime I think it is a brilliant, reinvigorating discussion not only about Nixon but about an entire era. Other times I wonder if it's just a cultural hairball that took years to cough up."" (p.448)

It is a book about personal transformation and redemption, and creating community by drawing people in and allowing them to become more important. There are some surreal scenes with the CIA and stuff about Nixon that I assume is invented (though his daughter is a real person; who knew that Nixon's daughter married Eisenhower's grandson) and the whole Bar mitzvah in South Africa was also very strange but you just find yourself carried along for the ride. Another writer I am definitely going to read some more from.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Story and Meta-story

"Buttercup's mother hesitated, then put her stew spoon down. (This was after stew, but so is everything. When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew.)" (p.42)

Don't you just love it when the book really lives up to the film (and vice versa). Jacob bought Monkey a copy of The Princess Bride by William Goldman for Christmas and we just finished reading it, and having loved the film for many years it was wonderful to find it a very satisfying read. (For full disclosure I mainly love the film because of the presence of Fred Savage from The Wonder Years that I watched religiously when the children were small.) It is a very clever narrative, because it sucks you into the story of the book before it sucks you in to the story in the book. In an extensive and detailed 'introduction' Goldman tells us of his childhood link to the fictitious author S Morgenstern and his epic tale of (equally fictitious) Florin. The Princess Bride is a story he knows only second hand, it having been read aloud by his father, so it comes as a shock when, wanting to share it with his own son, he finds it is not the book he thought he knew. Throughout the book there are then numerous interjections by Goldman telling you about the edits he made to the story and the significance of certain aspects of the story to Florinese history. It is delightful to find that the story has all the humorous quirky characters and incidents almost exactly as they appear in the film, though you have the added interest of the back story of all the main characters, explaining how they came to be where they were for their involvement in this particular tale. 

The Sicilian, the Turk and the Spaniard kidnap Princess Buttercup to start war between Florin and Guilder, but hot on their tail is the man in black, also known as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and closely behind him are Prince Humperdinck and Count Rugen. The Fire Swamp, the Rodents Of Unusual Size, the pain machine, the Miracle pill and the holocaust cloak all take their anticipated part in the unfolding of the events, although people often appear far more dead than they turn out to be. Just as in the film there are also little 'aside' exchanges between William and his dad, reminding you again that this is a tale to be told, parent to child, a shared experience that travels down the generations. It reminds you that that is what stories are for, and that each child's understanding of a story is shaped by their parent. 

He takes the meta-story to a whole new level with an argument with Stephen King about who is going to edit the second story, Buttercup's Baby, the first chapter of which is included at the end. I did not like this inclusion as I have felt that such stories are best ended with the ride into the sunset, you are not supposed to worry about what happened next. As so often I find the story marred by its dearth of women characters and the way Buttercup is such a passive victim of events, but I'll try not to be a party pooper about it. Anyway, go read, enjoy.

""No one could be following us yet?" the Spaniard asked.
"No one," the Sicilian assured him. "It would be inconceivable."
"Absolutely inconceivable?"
"Absolutely, totally, and, in all other ways, inconceivable," the Sicilian reassured him. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason," the Spaniard replied. "It's only that I just happened to look back and something's there."
They all whirled.
Something was indeed there. Less than a mile behind them across the moonlight was another sailing boat, small, painted what looked like black, with a giant sail that billowed black in the night, and a single man at the tiller. A man in black." (p.98)

Orlando

Is it just me or is Virginia Woolf's profile some kind of cultural icon? I have struggled to get through Orlando; I loved Mrs Dalloway but drowned in The Waves and never managed To The Lighthouse (though it is still vaguely on the list). You have, I suppose, to remember that Woolf is all about the writing, and actually when I think about it, Orlando is about writing, being a writer. Orlando struggles to be a writer, for five hundred years. Decades seem to pass where s/he sits and contemplates the trees, and in some ways the gift of time seems so essential, and something that writers often struggle with the most. It is what Woolf also writes about in A Room of One's Own, both physical and psychological space being so necessary for writing.

"Of the two forces which alternately, and what is more confusing still, at the same moment, dominate out unfortunate numbskulls - brevity and diuturnity - Orlando was sometimes under the influence of the elephant-footed deity, then of the gnat-winged fly. Life seemed to him of prodigious length. Yet even so, it went like a flash. But even when it stretched longest and the moments swelled biggest and he seemed to wander alone in the deserts of vast eternity, there was not time for the smoothing out and deciphering of those thickly scored parchments which thirty years among men and women had rolled tight in his heart and brain." (p.60)

""I'll be blasted," he said, "if I ever write another word, or try to write another word, to please Nick Greene or the Muse. Bad, good or indifferent, I'll write, from this day forward, to please myself."; and here he made as if he were tearing  whole budget of papers across and tossing them in the face of that sneering loose-lipped man. Upon which, as cur ducks if you stoop to shy a stone at hime, Memory ducked her effigy of Nick Greene out of sight; and substituted for it - nothing whatever." (p.62-3)

From her position of immense privilege Orlando gets to observe the world, and Woolf uses her centuries of life to allow learning and much reflection on the human condition. Some things that I came across struck such a chord with modern politics:

"No passion is stronger in the breast of man than the desire to make other believe as he believes. Nothing so cuts at the root of his happiness and fills him with rage as the sense that another rates low what he prizes high. Whigs and Tories, Liberal party and Labour party - for what do they battle except their own prestige? It is not love of truth but desire to prevail that sets quarter against quarter and makes parish desire the downfall of parish. Each seeks peace of mind and subservience rather than the triumph of truth and the exaltation of virtue - but these moralities belong, and should be left to the historian, since they are as dull as ditchwater." (p.94)

As Orlando, now a woman, returns to England from Turkey she sits on the ship and begins to realise the implications of her transformation:

""And that's the last oath I shall ever be able to swear," she thought; "once I set foot on English soil. And I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw miswrote and run him through the body, or sit amongst my peers, or wear a coronet, or walk in a procession, or sentence a man to death, or lead an army, or prance down Whitehall on a charger, or wear seventy-two different medals on my breast. All I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea and ask my lords how they like it. D'you take sugar? D'you take cream?" And mincing  out the words, she was horrified to perceive how low an opinion she was forming of the other sex, the manly, to which it had once been her pride to belong." (p.100)

And a little further on, still thinking of her change from man to woman, but reflections that have some interesting insights into the whole transgender issue, clothes being somehow symbolic for how people present their gender to the outside world:

"The difference between the sexes is, happily, one of great profundity. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman's dress and of a woman's sex. And perhaps in this she was expressing rather more openly than usual - openness was indeed the soul of her nature - something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed. For here again, we come to a dilemma. Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above. Of the complications and confusions which thus result everyone has had experience; but here we leave the general question and note only the odd effect it had in the particular case of Orlando herself." (p.121)

Though not, I felt, specifically a feminist treatise she does dwell periodically on the lot of woman, and, here, on the impact of the now victorian age on the once wild and reckless Orlando:

"So she stood mournfully at the drawing-room window (Bartholomew had so christened the library) dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her  movements. No longer could she stride though the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw. The plumed hat tossed on the breeze. The thin shoes were quickly soaked and mud-caked. Her muscles had lost their pliancy. She became nervous lest there should be robbers behind the wainscot and afraid, for the first time in her life, of ghosts in the corridors. All these things inclined her, step by step, to submit to the new discovery, whether Queen Victoria's or another's, that each man and each woman has another allotted to it for life, whom it supports, by whom it is supported, till death do them part. It would be a comfort, she felt, to lean; to sit down; yes, to lie down; never, never, never to get up again." (p158-9)

Ok, I'm going to leave it there because the book has to go back to the library and I have in no way captured anything of the essence of Orlando. I read somewhere that it is supposed to be a love letter to Vita Sackville West; the photographs through the book are her. It is about a man who becomes a woman, so in one sense presents the different life experience of the genders, but as I began saying it is also about the struggles of a poet and a human being to get to grips with the big questions. A short book but dense with images and ideas, it could take a decade of serious study, and I'm sure someone out there is doing just that.

Much Ado: Shakespeare Part Two

I am on leave this week so, having bought tickets to see Twelfth Night, we decided to have a week of Shakespeare experiences. Monkey is a huge fan of Joss Whedon and thus we continued with his 2012 version of 'Much Ado About Nothing'. It sticks with the original language but the setting and style of filming does much to make the play very accessible to a 21st century audience; Shakespeare can often come across as people standing on the stage talking, whereas in this version the action feels much more naturalistic. It was filmed, apparently, at his home in California and as such feels something like Hollywood movie, rich people hangout out in their very beautiful home and agonising over who loves who, the sexual tension between Beatrice and Benedick muted somewhat by the use of words like 'woo' and 'thine'. In the same way as Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet this play counterpoints the language and atmosphere of Shakespeare with the modern setting, and yet it never feels incongruous. Maybe that just serves to remind us how universal and timeless are the stories that he tells.

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