Spring Has Sprung

It must have done. I’ve actually spent a few hours in the garden and uttered the immortal phrase, “There’s some real warmth in that sunshine.”

Before I got out of bed this morning I heard the first peeee-wit call of a lapwing. Then, hanging out the washing, a bumblebee flew past. Later, as I started clearing away the autumn leaf litter I uncovered ladybirds, baby slugs and a frog. Tree sparrows and blue tits are still fighting over control of the nestbox whilst elsewhere in the garden other species are already laying, incubating and raising their first broods of chicks. Activity around the bird feeding station always becomes frenzied at this time of year because it is an easy source of food for adult birds trying to keep energy levels high enough to go out hunting for fresh food for their babies.

Removing the leaf litter also uncovers the new growth beneath: horrors (weeds, snail crèche) and glories to come. The red, asparagus-like shoots of peonies pierce the earth alongside pale spears of flag iris, green sprays of cirsium rivulare (a raspberry-pink thistle popular at the Chelsea Flower show a few years ago) and everywhere self-seeded Lady’s Mantle. I love the acid-yellow plumes of this perennial and feel sorry for all the seedlings I end up removing. But otherwise the garden would be full of them and nothing else.

When we first moved in to our house in 2000 I planted half a dozen giant alliums and a good handful of allium christophii, along with five Alchemilla mollis. Removing the crisped, brown foliage of the alchemilla today I had to be careful not to cut into the pale green shoots of allium, but exposed them so that they could feel the effect of the sunshine and hopefully encourage stronger growth. The allium foliage is nondescript and benefits from the fan-like furled leaves of alchemilla, the flower spikes with their globes of purple, metallic stars towering above. The colour combination of purple with acid-yellow/lime green is a particular favourite of mine and I have it repeated elsewhere in the garden. 

Spring is sprung / The grass is ris / I wonder where the birdy is / Why there is is / Upon the wing / Ain’t that absurd? / I always thought the wing was on the bird. Anonymous, Spring In The Bronx

My late father-in-law loved this little rhyme and used to do it in an American accent pronouncing bird ‘boid’.

 

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Book Review: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

“A woman must have money and a room of one’s own if she is to write fiction.” A thought-provoking read on ‘Women and Fiction’ written in 1928 but posing many questions that are still relevant 85 years later, e.g. What effect has poverty on fiction? Why are women more interesting to men than men are to women?

It was interesting to read this immediately after The House of Mirth in which Miss Lily Bart’s future is entirely dependent on a legacy. Woolf writes about receiving an inheritance at the same time as female suffrage came into being and the money “seemed infinitely the more important.” She estimated that £500 a year (the equivalent of anything from £27,000 to £170,000 today – my grandparents 1930s semi cost them £350) could give a woman the freedom/space/choice to write. I wonder if that is still true today?

Woolf contrasts the lives of women in drama, fiction and poetry with those in histories where woman is virtually invisible, especially in the Elizabethan era (a topic dear to my heart and which I attempted to address in my BA thesis). I still me across it all the time when researching family history and wherever possible I try to rectify it, e.g. the lives of men are followed through to death and obituary but women’s are seldom covered after marriage. If they remain unmarried their histories are barely covered at all. I like to trace them through to the end. It is remarkable how many leave legacies to nieces and nephews, perhaps enabling some of them to take up writing!

“Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,

Are the accomplishments we should desire;

To write, or read, or think, or to enquire,

Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time…”             Virginia Woolf, quoting Lady Winchilsea’s (b.1661) poem

It almost exactly corresponds to a piece I read last week about the perils of online dating for women. Apparently, if women state in their profile that they are interested in reading books, watching TV and computing, then they are far less likely to attract dates. Plus ça change…

I was also intrigued by her lack of examples when searching for fiction in which two women are represented as friends. It would seem that in 1928 women were only seen in relation to men. Which made me wonder whether writers today paid attention to the Bechdel Test? It is usually applied to films but it would be interesting to see how many works of fiction pass.

Woolf damns with faint praise many of the great classic works of fiction written by women: 

“Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman.”

And she contends that of them all, only Jane Austen and Emily Brontë ‘held fast to their values’, the others presumably wrote “of herself, where she should write of her characters.” 

Nevertheless, she exhorts her female audience to write. And that surely is the best advice of all. Be it good, bad or indifferent… just write!

The Yorkshire High Wolds Landscape

Today I watched a pair of skylarks swooping low over beet fields then soaring high to sing. And I felt a tug at the heartstrings because we’re planning to move soon.

I can understand David Hockney’s obsession. We’ve been lucky enough to have this amazing landscape literally on our doorstep for the last 16 years and I feel the need to breathe it in on days like today.
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Book Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

Within seconds of finishing Someone Elses’s Skin I contacted Sarah Hilary to say there had to be a sequel. She replied that at that very moment she was in the middle of writing the follow-up. And here we are: No Other Darkness, the second in the DI Marnie Rome series.

Marnie Rome – the DI with a particularly troubled past. Unlike other fictional detectives she doesn’t have addiction problems or a complicated personal life. Far worse. Her parents were murdered by her foster-brother – a sub-plot which rippled throughout book one, plays a significant part in book two, and I suspect will be a theme throughout the entire series.

Within the first chapter it felt good to be back in the company of Rome and her DS Noah Jake. No Other Darkness has them on a cold case: the bodies of two children have been found in a Cold War bunker buried under a new housing estate. Potential suspects include a shady property developer, Doomsday preppers, travellers and a couple of soon-to-be-released child killers.

Marnie and Ed’s relationship has developed since Someone Elses’s Skin and we get a bit more of Noah’s back-story: he has a younger “jailbait brother”, Sol. Ex-boyfriend, now ‘sleazy journo’, Adam Fletcher provides extra background on Marnie’s rebellious youth. Fletcher is ostensibly following a storyline about travellers but he also has something to get off his chest.

Just a couple of days before I started No Other Darkness I’d read a Guardian article about Preppers, Doomers and Boomers and found it fascinating so I particularly liked all the stuff about preppers and panic rooms. Hilary is particularly good on the theme of post-partum psychosis (PPP) which is dealt with in some detail in No Other Darkness, and will ignite painful memories of the real-life case of Charlotte Bevan.

Douglas Cole – gutless Douglas – is a juicy character and I immediately visualised him played by Jason Watkins, the actor who won plaudits for his recent portrayal of Christopher Jefferies. (The TV rights to the Marnie Rome series have been sold so it’s not too much to hope for).

The language of violence imbues the early chapters: torches flood and burn and the floor is “bruised by damp.” Hilary’s clipped, staccato sentences move the plot along at rapid-fire pace but she can be sensitive too: I loved the image of a muffin pouting from its paper cup.

Despite figuring out key aspects of Alison and Esther quite early on there were still a few good twists to come. But I must admit that following all Alison’s doom-layered prophecies of “proper punishments” and “some things should never be forgiven” I expected a far worse outcome from the ending of this book. Given that Hilary provides follow-up details of Case #1 in No Other Darkness I wonder whether we will hear more of Alison in the future?

A minor quibble – and no disrespect to Sarah – but I felt the writing needed tidying up a little. Poor proofreading/editing means that torchlight burns twice in chapter two, as do Marnie’s eyes… As they do again in chapter 22, “Her gaze was steady, burning like one of the lamps.” I have been known to abandon books for lesser reasons. One historical novel ended up at the charity shop unread because everything and everybody started looming: buildings, people, fog… Quibble ends.

No Other Darkness is another page-turner and a fab follow-up to Someone Else’s Skin. Just remember:
“There’s no other darkness than this: what’s inside us.” Alison Oliver.

No Other Darkness is published by Headline on 23rd April 2015

Also reviewed on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24307356-no-other-darkness

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Man Versus Ex Machina

Warning: Contains plot spoilers

We went to see Ex Machina last week. I try not to read reviews before I go to see a movie but I’d seen the odd tweet – in particular from Gia Milinovich – and read Empire magazine’s summary. I was particularly excited that both had described it as a feminist sci-fi film because, let’s face it, there aren’t too many of those.

However, the plot itself is an age-old one: man builds machine/monster, machine/monster overthrows man. The only difference here is that the machine/monster happens to have been given female gender and sexuality (the latter for what turns out to be disturbing reasons).

In Ex Machina highly intelligent but self-destructive computer genius Nathan removes himself from society, literally withdrawing to the wilderness (there are some particularly beautiful aerial shots of the Norwegian landscape) in order to concentrate on building AI. And we all know what happens in the wilderness. People either find themselves or go mad.

Nathan’s Bluebook employee, ace coder Caleb, has been brought to Nathan’s home/research facility/Frankenstein’s laboratory to act as the human element of the Turing test, the other half being an AI named Ava (Eve?)

Halfway through the week of testing Caleb asks his employer why he built Ava. His answer is pretty much, “Why not?” or “Because I can.” Man has faced such moral dilemmas before: the A-bomb, cloning, etc. Stephen Hawking recently made a statement about the dangers of AI becoming self-aware to the extent that he could envisage them superseding humanity.

It would appear that Nathan has been creating AIs for his own satisfaction, sexual and otherwise. When drunk he mutters about the good deeds that men do benefitting themselves (Thomas Hobbes’ The Leviathan?) God-like, he has created Ava/Eve (and those who have gone before her) to be his companion-chef-waitress-dance partner-sex slave. There is a particularly shocking moment in the film when Caleb discovers footage of Nathan’s earlier prototypes and we realise it is Nathan who is the monster, keeping his creations captive, thereby echoing the recent horrific real-life cases of Fred West, Josef Fritzl, etc.

Ava uses her intelligence to outwit the men, recognising that by flirting with Caleb she can appeal to his basic goodness in order to coerce him into helping her escape. In so doing she makes herself more appealing (more human) to him: she puts on a dress and wig. This is what she would wear if she were to go on a date with him. Admittedly she has very few tools at her disposal in order to gain his cooperation but it could be argued that she is using her sexuality or at least her femininity in order to succeed.

Having escaped, Ava’s innocuous-sounding “Will you stay here?” to Caleb could be seen as a suggestion, a request or a veiled command. At this point Caleb has the opportunity to leave the facility but chooses to stay and watch (voyeuristically) as Ava transforms herself using the prototypes as her kit of parts. We the filmgoers are also voyeurs as we are shown the naked prototypes one by one. And at the end of the ‘transformation’ scene the camera lingers on Alicia Vikander’s (frankly pubescent) naked body as she admires what she has become. All of this nudity is unnecessary and actually detracts from the storyline: the rise of The Machine.

In addition, as Ava dons a replacement arm, flesh-toned skin and long lustrous locks she becomes… a typical all-American prom queen complete with short, lacy dress and impractical 5″ heels. Ugh. What a let-down. At the very least it would have been good to see an arm that didn’t quite fit or was a slightly different flesh tone. Or maybe she could have stuck to the short, cropped wig she wore during her interviews with Caleb?

Major quibbles aside, the central performances are all excellent. Vikander is elegant, understated and cool as only an AI could be and Domhnall Gleeson is convincing as the geek with a sentimental streak. But the standout performance for me was Oscar Isaac playing to the max the creepy IT genius you always suspected of doing dark deeds in the privacy of his own home, and boy, does he have some skeletons/prototypes in his closet.

Perhaps the real star of Ex Machina is the Turing Test, especially coming hot on the heels of The Imitation Game. Alan Turing’s question in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” was:

“Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the Imitation Game?”

And it was this theme that sparked the most debate when discussing the film later and thinking about it for many hours afterwards. It will also be interesting to compare Ex Machina with CHAPPiE (directed by Neill Blomkamp who also directed District 9) which was trailed before our showing.

As you may have gathered, this is not the feminist sci-fi film I had been led to expect. If you want to see a sci-fi film with a feminist PoV go watch Alien again. You won’t catch Ripley in a frock and high heels.

Book Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously prompted me to get round to reading Jane Eyre. Having done so I knew I had to read Wide Sargasso Sea, a book which had been on my #ReadWomen list since the middle of 2014.

A remarkably short story of only 120 pages, Wide Sargasso Sea can be read in a single sitting. Told in three parts, this is Jean Rhys’s response to her reading of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1939. After writing in longhand, getting her husband to type up the manuscript, burning it (how apt) and tearing it up the finished story was eventually published in October 1966 when its author was 76 – a long gestation period for such a short creation.

But what a creation. Rhys draws on her childhood memories of Dominica, the Caribbean island where she lived until the age of sixteen and which she revisited for the first time in 1936. Indeed, to some extent Wide Sargasso Sea is a paean to the island itself: its landscape, flora, people and language.

Part One forms Antoinette Bertha Cosway’s story. Following the death of her dissolute, promiscuous father (there are hints of madness here too – “he die raving and cursing”) the Cosway estate at Coulibri is a paradise reverting back to wilderness; a Garden of Eden after The Fall. Antoinette’s mother – Annette – is a lonely woman (“marooned”) whom Mr Mason marries for her looks alone, for the family have been left impoverished. Indeed, it is Mason’s fortune that will eventually buy a husband for Antoinette.

Presaging Antoinette’s fate at Thornfield Hall, an arson attack on the house at Coulibri perpetrated by an angry mob forces the family to flee, brings about the death of her ailing brother Pierre and is the catalyst for her mother’s mental decline and eventual death. Antoinette receives a head injury and takes weeks to recover at her Aunt Cora’s house. When she eventually comes round it is to discover that she is as good as abandoned: her brother is dead, her mother put away and her stepfather “was often away for months.” Even her aunt returns to England and so the convent Antoinette is sent to becomes her refuge. The suspicion that Mr Mason is arranging her marriage is the root of a nightmare. Dressed in a white (bridal?) gown she is in an unfamiliar place: Thornfield Hall? (“in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees.”) When the nightmare wakes her she tells the nun who comes to comfort her that, “I dreamed I was in hell.”

Part Two is (an unnamed) Edward Rochester’s story. His father has arranged for him to marry Antoinette, thereby securing a fantastic dowry of £30,000. But the marriage seems doomed from the beginning: “I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever.” Antoinette has second thoughts and wants to call it off. And there are hints of the madness that is to come all around him. In Massacre The Young Bull tells him, “This a very wild place – not civilized. Why you come here?” and in an imagined letter home to his father Rochester thinks, “I have sold my soul or you have sold it…”

So it would appear that the devil is at work in the honeymoon setting of Granbois and in Christophine’s practice of Obeah or Voodoo. Esau/Daniel’s revelation of Antoinette’s family history of mental illness (her mother) and defectiveness (her brother) only confirm what Rochester already suspected. He calls her by her middle name, Bertha. After all, Antoinette sounds too much like Annette – a woman who threatened to kill her husband. Antoinette develops the same frown as her mother “deep as if it had been cut with a knife.” It is as if they have become the same person: Ann(toin)ette.

Edward’s tryst with Amélie within earshot of Antoinette finally sends her over the edge.  Granbois has been defiled and all places of safety and sanctuary have been lost: Coulibri, the convent and now Granbois. The cock crows, signifying betrayal, and imagery of malevolence is everywhere in the exotic flora of the unnamed island. The house at Granbois is close to the encroaching forest – echoing the fairytale cabin in a clearing or castle entangled in thorns – which is so dense that Rochester loses his way both physically and morally. Ominously “the dark forest always wins.”

There is a suggestion of sexual violence. Christophine says she has seen marks on Antoinette’s body on the morning after she uses the Obeah potion on Rochester. He has chosen to forget what has happened: “I remember putting out the candles on the table near the bed and that is all I remember. All I will remember of the night.” Edward Rochester has become a creature of the night (wasn’t the vampire in Twilight called Edward?): “I was longing for night and darkness and the time when the moonflowers open.” Unlike the vampire, Rochester is deprived of his youth. His destiny is to return to England a wealthy man but one with a huge secret: a mad wife locked up in the attic who can never be introduced into society.

Only in Part Three did I feel a little let down. This is where Wide Sargasso Sea intersects with Jane Eyre and it is perhaps because of the enormity of this requirement that it stumbles. It starts promisingly with Grace Poole explaining how she came to be Antoinette’s carer/keeper/gaoler. But it depends too much on exposition for my liking, with Grace reminding Antoinette of the events of the night of Richard Mason’s arrival. Here was an opportunity to explore ‘madness’. Instead, Rhys gives Antoinette a recurrent ‘dream’ about her death: “That was the third time I had my dream…” Of course the dream is a portent of her demise.

There is now a trend for writing sequels and prequels to classic novels (Death Comes to Pemberley, The House of Silk, etc.) Perhaps there is scope for another here? After all, we know that in between bringing Antoinette to Thornfield Hall and engaging Jane Eyre, Edward Rochester spends much of his time abroad, leading a dissolute life ending up with him becoming the guardian of his mistress’s child, Adèle Varens. Or perhaps we should have Adèle’s story?

Authors… you’re welcome!

When will black actors be cast in period (costume) drama?

3.15am. Woken by a daft dream (see this post) I tried my equivalent of counting sheep – casting War And Peace. Followers on Twitter and Facebook will know that, on New Year’s Day, I set myself the task of reading the 1300 page novel. I’m finding that, far from being a daunting, burdensome thing, it is actually very enjoyable and very readable.

However, there is a vast cast of characters and I keep having to refer to my handy bookmark (pictured) to remind myself who everyone is and how they’re related. The BBC is due to start filming an Andrew Davies adaptation this month. I checked out some of the cast and can now picture their faces as I read. That helps.

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

My handy War and Peace cast list bookmark

Prince Andrei (Andrew in my copy) will be played by James Norton, otherwise known both on Twitter and in our household as The Hot Vicar from Grantchester. Using him as a starting point I began to cast my version. Emilia Fox (at the age she was when she played Georgiana Darcy) would play his sister and maybe Ian Holm could be their overbearing father, Prince Nicholas Bolkónski? Paul Dano has already been cast as Pierre (Dano was the particularly nasty one in 12 Years A Slave) and I could envisage Michael Gambon as his father, Count Bezúkhov (not many lines for him though – perhaps he could have long naps on set). I was beginning to warm to my task and enjoying myself far too much to be able to get to sleep.

And then I thought, wouldn’t it be great to find parts for all my favourite actors? Well, I was off then… Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, David Tennant, Sophie Okonedo, Idris Elba… Whoa! Hang on a minute. Rewind. Go back a bit. When did that last happen? When did you last see a black actor in a period piece on TV or film? (At the time of writing I can only think of Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing). Yes, it happens on stage, with Shakespeare especially. But on screen, large or small?

And, half-asleep in bed at 4am I got indignant. And cross. And slightly ashamed of myself. It’s not as if this hadn’t occurred to me before but I’m afraid I was dismissive. Lenny Henry. On his soapbox. Basically just touting for work.  Wasn’t he? What must these men and women think when they hear that the BBC is casting a huge costume drama like War And Peace? Is it the equivalent of the “No Blacks” sign going up in the window? How awful. Yes, I know there is other work out there, contemporary pieces, especially in the US but basically, whenever a classic novel or play or anything written before 1930 is adapted that work is not available to them.

Why not? Why the hell not? Idris Elba would make a fantastic Captain Wentworth in Persuasion. I’d love to see David Oyelowo as Mr Darcy and George Knightley (Emma) played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. But I don’t just want quirky casting, or cameo roles or tokenism. I want to see these pieces populated by black faces as well as white.

Returning to my casting of War And Peace. Although I have only read a tenth of the novel so far and have not been introduced to all the characters, nevertheless I can see Sophie Okonedo as Countess Rostóva, Noel Clarke as the daredevil subordinate young officer Dólokov and David Harwood as Kutuzov.

It is the 21st century and we need to be colour-blind when it comes to casting. Of course I’d love to see a 2015 adaptation of War And Peace. But that’s the point, it is 2015. Time – long overdue – to raise the colour bar.