Films and Books

Despite having a houseful of children for most of this past week, I have been able to partake in some cultural events as well, both inside and outside the house.

Pain and Glory – Almodovar’s latest film shows the master has mellowed in middle age. The story of a lonely middle-aged film director struggling with lost creativity and ill health is not new, but Antonio Banderas turns in a beautifully nuanced, subtle performance. The flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood are rich in colour and emotion, but what stayed with me most is how we select and package our memories to attempt a coherent narration of our lives… and yet the truth is always more complex than that.

Marriage Story – Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are believably flawed yet appealing as a couple struggling through divorce. It was a little too close to the battlegrounds I am currently experiencing myself, so I’m afraid embarrassed myself with tears. Filmed in a minimalist way, with close-ups of the actors’ faces engaged in monologues or dialogues, this had the feeling of an indie, mumblecore type of film. There was one particular scene I found all too familiar: where the attempt at having a conversation away from the lawyers descends into a screaming match, with all of the long-hidden resentments and accusations bursting out like an overflowing dam.

Lara – ice-cold in Berlin*. Another carefully observed film, full of significant details, but one where nearly all emotion has been drained. Lara is a domineering mother whose dreams of becoming a concert pianist were dashed in her youth and now feels proud yet nervous about her pianist son’s major concert which takes place on her 60th birthday. We never see the drama of what led to the estrangement between mother and son, but there are hints of bad behaviour and nervous breakdown. Emotions are very tightly held in check for the most part, yet there are unexpectedly candid (if frosty) conversations between Lara and the people she encounters on her birthday.

*As a child, I firmly believed that ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ was a film version of Berlin Alexanderplatz

Since I had a few hours to kill between the two films at the London Film Festival on Friday, I meandered down Charing Cross Road, mourned the loss of so many second-hand bookshops (when I first came to London, I remember it used to take my hours to go down that road, there were so many bookshops, now turned into cafes or clothes shops – boo!). Nevertheless, I did stop at the few remaining bookshops, at Foyles, then at Second Shelf (again!) and at Waterstones Piccadilly and emerged with the pile below.

7 books for £30 total, of which only one was a new one and cost £10.99

However, I had also been busy ordering some books online, especially while sitting around waiting for the Nobel Prize for Literature to be announced. I ordered a couple of Russians, especially since I thought Ludmila Ulitskaya might be a contender…

And two Orenda books arrived on cue for my #Orentober reading. I’ve already devoured Little Siberia, which is less slapstick than Tuomainen’s last two books (I absolutely loved the black comedy, don’t get me wrong!) but not quite as bleak as his earlier books. I think it would be fair to say that the set-up is ridiculous and richly comic: a suicidal racing car driver has a meteorite drop into his passenger seat. A pastor with experience of fighting in Afghanistan is guarding the local museum where nearly everyone wants to steal the precious piece of rock. He gets plenty of opportunity to question his own faith and choices in life, as well as being exposed to the venality and self-serving excuses of others.

Last but not least, I’ve also watched some TV. Helen Mirren is commanding yet deliciously vulnerable as Catherine the Great (and, although she is almost certainly too old for the part, I cannot help but rejoice that an older woman is shown as both powerful and intransigent, yet also having sexual fun on our screens). And, of course, I’m excited to see the new series of Engrenages (Spiral), the first in a long while without Anne Landois as show runner.

Literary Weeks Are the Best Weeks…

And bookish friends are the best friends… I had a rather lovely week filled with books and literary discussions, just what the doctor ordered: the perfect nourishment to keep my soul from unravelling.

On Tuesday I had another Skype session with my poetry mentor and it is amazing how excited I get about rewriting some poems that I’d set aside because I felt I’d revised them so much that I was sick of them. It took another poet to read them and ask me what I was trying to achieve to actually regain some of that original spark that gave birth to the poem.

Freddie Bruckstein and Susan Curtis, founder of Istros Books.

On Thursday I attended the book launch of The Trap, two novellas by Romanian Jewish author Ludovic Bruckstein, translated by Alastair Ian Blythe. The author’s son, who has been the driving force behind the publication of his father’s literary estate, was there and gave us a very moving account of his father’s life.

Not many people born in that part of Europe can summarise their lives in simple terms. Their choices have been horribly affected by external events.

Freddie Bruckstein

Ludovic grew up in Sighet in North Maramures, just across the street from where Elie Wiesel used to live, but during the Second World War this thriving Jewish community was rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Ludovic discovered he was almost the sole survivor when he returned home after the war. For a while it seemed like he was going to be active and successful in the post-war writing community, with plays written in both Yiddish and Romanian, but he preferred a quieter life in the north of the country rather than becoming an establishment figure in Bucharest. Of course, he was duly expunged from Romanian literary history when he emigrated to Israel in 1972. But the poignant thing is he continued to write in Romanian for the Romanian community in Israel (most of his work was translated into Hebrew as well). I gave my copy of the book to my friend from Geneva days who came to visit me this weekend, and have promptly bought another one for myself. The brief reading we had from the book was absolutely brilliant and the stories really are a stark warning that passivity and political apathy often lead to the same consequences as deliberate malice.

On Friday my friend from Geneva came over to find me after work and we did non-stop literary things all weekend. First, we visited the Writing in Times of Conflict exhibition at Senate House and I discovered that my friend Jenny (a trained actress) had actually played Anne’s mother in a theatrical adaptation of the diaries, and toured with it around Europe.

I could listen to Kathleen Jamie forever…

We then went to the LRB Bookshop to see Kathleen Jamie in conversation with Philip Hoare, talking about her latest collection of essays entitled Surfacing. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a poetry masterclass with Kathleen and have always admired her sincerity and lack of pretension. She told us how she needed to write something to fill in those fallow periods in-between moments of poetic inspiration and for some reason she thought that essays would be easier and more lucrative than poetry (‘and boy, was I ever wrong!’). She also talked about her process, how she never starts out with a theme she can research, but just lets things accrue until she finally detects a pattern right at the end.

What I really appreciate about her writing is that she bears witness to a disappearing world, muses about the connections between past and present (and future) but refuses to romanticise the past or even nature. She doesn’t consider herself a pure nature writer, because it is the collision between humans and nature that she finds most interesting. Furthermore, because she is not as bound by science as archaelogists are, she can use her imagination much more freely to speculate about the lives and emotions of the people whose objects they are unearthing.

We spent a lazy Saturday in Oxford, talking non-stop about writing and reading, having pie and mash in the Covered Market, but unable to visit any of the colleges because of the graduation ceremonies taking place in the Sheldonian. Except Keble College, where I was overjoyed to see a quince tree against the ornate Victorian Gothic background. In the evening, we watched the rather depressing Marianne and Leonard documentary about Leonard Cohen’s Norwegian muse and their life together on the island of Hydra and wondered about the excuses and sacrifices we make for men who are considered geniuses (and not just them).

On Sunday we went to Henley Literary Festival and, although the weather prevented us from taking full advantage of riverside walks, we enjoyed seeing three indomitable women writers talk about why they find family dynamics so fascinating. The writers were:

  1. Harriet Evans, whose inspiration for her latest novel The Garden of Lost and Found came via a strong visual flash of children running down to the bottom of the garden when she heard someone sing the old song ‘The Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’
  2. Hannah Beckerman, who said she wrote 24 drafts for her novel If Only I Could Tell You, because the characters usually come to her to lie down on a therapy couch and gradually reveal their stories
  3. Janet Ellis, whose second novel How It Was I have on my Kindle but haven’t read yet, said she gets her inspiration when a voice starts plucking at her sleeve and demanding to be heard.
From left to right: Harriet Evans, Hannah Beckerman and Janet Ellis.

There was a great deal of warmth and humour in their interaction, they were almost interviewing each other, or rather, having a delightful literary conversation that we were allowed to witness. One thing that they said really stuck with me: how we assume that older women just fade and vanish from public life or literature, but maybe some of that is by choice. That it is such a relief not to be at the cutting edge anymore, constantly scrutinised, judged by appearance or have every choice analysed. And also what satisfaction it is to have survived things that if anyone had told us in our youth that we would have to endure, we would probably not have believed ourselves capable of enduring.

I was planning not to buy any more books (I’d received quite a few in the post), not even if I could get them signed by the authors – although I was intrigued by the three of them and will certainly borrow their books from the library. But then Jenny took me into the Oxfam bookshop… and, in short, here is the week’s book haul. Alas.

5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.

2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.

3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house

The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!

4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’

5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.

Five Things to Laugh or Sing About

There are so many things in my life right now just waiting to be complained about, that I decided to thwart them all and take a page out of Meggy’s blog. For those of you who don’t know @choconwaffles blog, she has a Friday positivity wave post, in which she lists all the good things going on in her life, big or small. I can’t promise this will become a regular weekly feature, but it can’t hurt to remind myself of fun things from time to time.

  • After two weekends away, Zoe is incredibly grateful to have me back. Reading with her purring on me is the cosiest feeling ever!
  • After a gap of years, if not a decade, I finally went to see a live opera again. The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House. The prices are prohibitive for what was a vertigo-inducing and not at all comfortable seat. The production itself was a little frantic and over-acted at times (with the large cast of servants etc.), the orchestra’s horns seemed to have a dissonant mind of their own at times. But Joelle Harvey as Susanna was magnetic, especially in her duet with Julia Kleiter as the Countess, and her almost heartbreakingly wistful ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ aria in the fourth act. All eyes were on the countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as Cherubino – the traditional casting being a woman – but, I’ll be honest, I didn’t realise it was a man until afterwards.
View from my seat.
  • Mozart is good for the soul and quite possibly a rejuvenator. I was exhausted that evening, as the work week had been horrendous and I’d not been feeling well for several days. On my way back to the train station from Covent Garden, I had an unexpected experience – well, unexpected in this day and age, as it hasn’t happened to me for a good few years now. A man ran after me and tried the pathetic chat-up line: ‘You’ve got such a tremendous aura. You don’t seem to be walking, you are floating.’ Clearly, Mozart gives you wings!
  • My local friends and fellow mothers, who have been with me through thick and thin, banded together to get me a voucher to buy books at The Second Shelf for my birthday. It’s the first time anyone has ever given me a bookish gift voucher, so I was very touched and pleased! I finally got to visit The Second Shelf this week and came away with lesser-known works by two authors who meant the world to me when I was growing up.
  • Thank you to Eric (aka Lonesome Reader), who mentions in his latest Booktube an event at LRB bookshop in late August: Ali Smith and Nicola Barker in conversation about writing. I booked my ticket rightaway! In fact, this week I’ve started to commit to my writing again: attended a Write together/Feedback session with my local writing group after a long gap, received detailed notes on my poems from my mentor Rebecca Goss and arranged to attend a writing retreat in 2020 with the writing friends who inspired and supported me so much in the summer of 2016.

Theatres, universities and exhibitions: a busy week

Are you sure a week is only seven days long? This past week must have included at least ten or eleven days… I am completely exhausted, even though there have been quite a few pleasurable activities.

It all started off with a trip to the theatre. The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham is located in the converted local library (which I hope still exists somewhere, but has merely moved to another building). I saw a hugely energetic and entertaining production of Othello set in contemporary London. Not all ‘modernising of Shakespeare’ works well, but this one certainly did for me. You can find my review here.

The following day my older son and I set off for a mother/son road trip to visit universities in the north of England. He is planning to study Law and it certainly helps that Law Schools seem to be housed in spanking new, purpose-built shiny buildings, rather than the poky cellars or attics to which Anthropology or Modern Languages departments seem to be relegated. (She said not at all enviously). Leeds was vibrant and lively, but perhaps a little too much of a big city for my boy. At first, York was not a big hit with him: the original West Campus with the brutalist architecture of the 1960s disappointed him. However, then we went to the newer East Campus, where the Law School is located.

University of York’s sustainable, edible and wildlife friendly campus utterly charmed me
In the foreground you can see the floating meeting room pods, where I could quite happily sit and write for hours…

Of course we spent some time in York itself, and I foolishly agreed to race my son up to the top of the tower of the York Minster. I’m still living with the breathless consequences of that!

Even half-dead, I could still admire the glorious view from the top!
And the view towards the Minster from the City Walls is just unforgettable – and so green!
This bird-like structure is Durham Law School. This was my son’s favourite from this trip.
Another beautiful city, another magnificent cathedral, but this time I was wise enough not to go up to the top of the tower.

Durham was the only proper Open Day that we attended – us and a few tens of thousands of other prospective students and pupils. It was busy and sunny and hot, but then quietened down considerably in the evening. I was somewhat annoyed that my son ‘chose’ his college by name alone (ironically, a prime example of 60s/70s architecture that he had pooh-pooed in York).

Last but not least, we stopped in Nottingham on the way back. Another beautifully green and calm campus, it went straight up into third place on my son’s wishlist of universities.

The famous Tower which is part of the University of Nottingham’s logo.

What about the mother/son bonding on the road trip? In terms of intellectual pursuits and rational questions, I really enjoyed discussing things with him. However, even though I’ve tried hard to emphasise heart as well as head, create a safe space to discuss and display emotions, there is not much going on in that department. Is it a boy thing? Is it a teenage thing? Is it a ‘boring old out of touch mother’ thing?

Back in the office, I not only encountered the deluge of emails and tasks to complete, but also one enjoyable appointment: the launch of the latest exhibition at Senate House Library. Writing in times of conflict will be open from the 15th of July to the 14th of December at the library (entrance is free). Small but perfectly formed for piquing your interest to explore further, it is divided into four main themes: Writing for Peace, Writing in Wartime, Writing from Exile and Writing in Protest. There is something for everyone here: starting from the League of Nations through to pacifists, a letter from Virginia Woolf describing the bombing of Sussex, pictures of bomb damage to Senate House itself (which was notoriously the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and inspire Orwell’s 1984), a short film about Anne Frank, the Greenham Common protesters, right up to the present day, including Extinction Rebellion flyers.

The Nazi Black Book for England includes over 3000 names of people deemed ‘dangerous’ by the Nazis, whom they would have imprisoned or exterminated at once if they’d invaded.
More recent protests such as the Occupy Movement or anti-Brexit and anti-Trump campaigns by the Left Unity group.

This was the week that was…

Despite a very busy week at work (this is going to be my refrain over the next month or so), I managed to cram in a few extracurricular activities. I took my older son (or should that be: he took me?) to the Manga exhibition at the British Museum and this time it was not quite as busy as when I went with the younger one, so I managed to take some pictures.

Pikachu and Pokemon is what most of us know in the West, but there was so much more on offer…
My boys are rather partial to Josuke from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures. He is so vain about his hair that he will pick a fight with anyone who comments about it.
Personally, I am more interested in exploring the Saint Young Men manga, which features Jesus Christ and Buddha as flatmates.
Scultpture made out of onomatopeia appearing in manga in Japanese katakana script

With more than 5000 manga artists active in Japan today, and with hundreds if not thousands of series appearing in weekly or monthly formats, it was impossible to cover all of my children’s favourites, so they were inevitably somewhat disappointed. However, as an exhibition exploring the origins of the manga (in the Heian scrolls, for instance) and showing the breadth of manga topics (from sports to adventure to love to classic novels or non-fiction), it was an excellent introduction to a Japanese art and literary form that has conquered the world.

After a short stop in Portsmouth for a conference…

The first time I saw the City Hall tower instead of the Spinnaker Tower…

… I warmed up for my birthday weekend with a trip to the theatre, to watch the charismatic Andrew Scott (aka Sexy Priest in Fleabag) in a Noel Coward play Present Laughter at the Old Vic. This was actually a preview performance, but the cast seemed to slip effortlessly into that blend of physical farce and caustic wit which is signature Coward. It is about an ageing matinee idol who seems unable to let go of his selfish ways and giant-sized ego. A stylish and very funny production, with one significant change to the original: a gender inversion, so that the main character Garry Essendine’s business partner is a woman and he finds himself having a one-night stand with her husband (in the original play the business partner is a man and he slips up with the wife). It felt quite natural and perhaps closer to what we know of Noel Coward and his entourage.

The play was written in 1939 and meant to provide a little light relief from the sombre storm clouds gathering over Europe. It went into rehearsals but the war broke out, so it wasn’t performed until 1942. At a time of not quite as severe uncertainty and gloom, it still provides a wonderful evening of escapist entertainment and belly laughs.

Andrew Scott proves himself a master of comic timing and exaggeration, but also imbues the character with a fundamental sense of loneliness. Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Evening Standard.

In terms of reading this week, I’ve been cracking on with my selection of American authors: David Vann’s Aquarium very nearly broke me (I just cannot cope with sad children). Cara Black’s Murder in Bel Air was suitably entertaining, although I think of it as more French than American. I am also currently reading Sam Shepard’s miniature pieces in Cruising Paradise, which is very Dakota -American Midwest. By way of contrast, I had a craving to reread Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley – where American penchant for action and the self-made man meet European lifestyle and indolence.

Busy Week of Events

Another very busy week, both at work and at home. I’ve decided to take things one week at a time, while still planning a little ahead, because otherwise I might get overwhelmed. However, it’s been a week full of pleasant events.

Nahnatchka Khan (director), Ali Wong, Randall Park (co-creators and main actors) and Keanu Reeves

I managed to see two fun films: The Favourite, on DVD from the library, because I’d missed in cinemas (it was only very briefly on, despite the Oscar win of Olivia Colman), and Always Be My Maybe on Netflix. The latter cheered me up no end: a rom com with a difference; hugely believable and charming cast (and I don’t mean just that hilarious Keanu Reeves cameo); plus, it made me realise that Asian families are more relatable to Romanian families (especially when they are immigrants) than American ones (like The Ice Storm or The Royal Tenenbaums).

The Favourite is an over-the-top All About Eve in period costume but written for a modern audience. It manages to be both funny and heartbreaking, as is Olivia Colman herself as a sickly, fearful Queen Anne, never quite sure that anyone loves her for herself rather than for her power. Rachel Weisz was majestic, imperious and domineering (but also vulnerable) as Sarah Churchill, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by Emma Stone, although perhaps her blank look was deliberate, to convey both initial innocence and subsequent manipulation.

What is really important about both these films is that they are educational while being entertaining: they show Asian stories and women without men stories can be just as powerful, exciting, witty and nuanced as the more monotone mainstream stories we have become accustomed to. And with shows like Fleabag, Killing Eve and Gentleman Jack on TV, I’m delighted that it’s becoming more visible. Is it just a niche fashion, while in real life racism and homophobia run rampant? Well, let me at least try to believe that is not so for a short period while I watch these.

Reading updates: I’ve embarked on my American authors binge. I’ve read Laura Kasischke’s disquieting slow-burning psychological thriller Be Mine, Jane Bowle’s wacky misfit of a novel Two Serious Ladies and Kent Haruf’s plainly-written but powerful Plainsong. Reviews will be coming up shortly.

This week was also my younger son’s birthday – he’s turned an amazingly mature 14 and all the usual ‘when did that happen’ squeals apply here. So, as a birthday treat, while older brother was revising for his final GCSE week, I took the no-longer-quite-so-little-one to London for the Manga Exhibition at the British Museum. I will write more about the Manga Exhibition on another occasion, because I will go back to see it a second time with the other son. But then we followed it up with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party at the Sanderson Hotel in Fitzrovia. The hotel is a very non-descript 1960s type block, but they’ve been very clever at creating a little oasis in the courtyard and serving an expensive but utterly delicious and spectacular afternoon tea inspired by Alice in Wonderland.

The courtyard cafe.
The amazing spread.
The choice of teas. We opted for Alice and Cheshire Cat.
An extra treat for the birthday boy, a nice little gesture from the cafe.
The tactic of leaving the best for last does not work when there is so much food…
My favourite thing were these cute little Drink Me smoothies.