Love Note – Paris report

We’ll always have Paris.

I have just returned from seven days in Paris and, predictably and gratefully, had a wonderful time. Prior to the trip, I concocted a three page day-by-day itinerary filled with activities, but also consciously carved out some time for some more spontaneous and impulsive things too (anxious traveller, moi? Absolutement).

Sacre Coeur

August is a famously quiet time in the city because many of the locals go away on holiday. However, we found the first week in August to be a pretty excellent time to visit: our Eurostar tickets (booked in November) were £52 each for a return (less expensive than it is to get from Nottingham to London on the train…); certain museums in the city are free to enter on the first Sunday of the month and, because it was quieter, the queues were short (we managed the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay for free, but also available were The Louvre, the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou and many others); and going later in the summer meant that even with temperature highs of 29°C, we avoided the sweltering and sticky heats of June and July.

The benefit of spending a whole week in Paris is that we left barely any of the city unexplored. From our AirBnB base near the Place de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, a delightful intersection of four arrondissements and in close proximity to my all-time favourites Montmartre and Pigalle, the whole city was at our fingertips. I would like to share some of my favourite places and moments from the trip. These may be food for thought if you are or intend to go to Paris at any point in the future, or if you just want to while away an afternoon thinking about those cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and all the amazing food. Like I will be.

Vegan food

Virginia Woolf’s old adage ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’ is one that I take very personally, seriously and ecstatically live my life by. Therefore, first thing’s first: the food we ate. We did a lot of our own cooking to cut down costs, but we did have some fantastic vegan meals out:

Abattoir végétal

Abattoir Vegetal.jpg

This is a lovely restaurant in the 18th arrondissement with a neon sign outside, fresh-feeling interiors and lots of hanging plants. They specialise in seasonal dishes, organically sourced food and organic wines by the glass and bottle. We went a couple of times to this restaurant and sampled the Green Augustine Buddha bowl of legumes, raw and cooked vegetables, smoky tofu and fresh leaves in a smoky balsamic glaze; the Funky Burger made with beetroot, vegan cheddar, pickles and sweet potato fries on the side; and the Hot without Dog made with falafel, grated carrot, red cabbage, ketchup, mustard and sweet potato fries. For dessert we had chocolate cake, and drank our way through both meals with a bottle of organic red. I couldn’t deal with it then, I can’t deal with it now. So much yumminess.

SO NAT – Notre Dame de Lorette

SO NAT

If I went into this trip sceptical about the tastiness of Buddha bowls and their capacity to actually fill you up, I stand completely surprised and corrected. The large Buddha bowls at this cute little café in the 9th arrondissement, down from Pigalle and just before Opéra, were delicious, hearty and required no emergency snack afterwards. My Buddha bowl contained breaded aubergine, pomegranate seeds, lentil dahl, all sorts of colourful veggies and leaves, vegan sour cream and red quinoa. It was ridiculous. MW’s had ginger, rice, BBQ tofu and, again, veggies on veggies on veggies. It was all fresh, came in big portions, was so healthy and tasted rich and delicious.

Maoz

One of the many amazing things we encountered on our trip to New Zealand last year was the healthy fast food franchise Pita Pit: a Subway of sorts that features meat but also specialises in falafel. Add to that some humus, pitta bread and multiple veggie accompaniments (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, carrot, sweetcorn, jalapenos, olives etc.) and you have the beginnings of an addiction. We visited roughly 15 over the course of six weeks and have no regrets. We have found nothing to compare in Nottingham, so when we found Maoz, a falafel and pitta shop, in the Latin Quarter, we were stupidly excited. The novel difference here? The assortment of Middle Eastern fillings (pickles, fatoush, salads, onions etc.) was presented as self-service. We had a joyful time stuffing our own pita pockets full to bursting with fresh, perfectly seasoned toppings. Maoz is unmistakeably a delicious, quick vegan lunch option, right next to Notre Dame Cathedral and Shakespeare and Company.

Bike Rental

Holland Bikes

In a city like Paris, tours of all shapes and sizes are prolific. We would have loved to have done a tour: I had high ambitions for some form of a champagne booze cruise. Alas, this did not happen but we were very much content to explore on our own. Holland Bikes are a well-reviewed tour and rental service in the city and around France, so we decided to use the Pick and Go service to rent two Dutch bikes from the Arc de Triomphe depot. Renting a bike is so much fun and you can cover so much ground in a short space of time. Plus, Paris has excellent infrastructure for cyclists and e-scooter riders, so despite the heavy traffic in parts (we categorically avoided the wacky races of Place de la Concorde and Étoile de Charles de Gaulle) it felt very safe getting around. We cycled from the Arc de Triomphe down to and around the Bois de Boulogne, then back up and around to Trocadéro, the Champs de Mars, Invalides and along the Seine. We had so much fun.

Parc Monceau

Park Monceau.jpg

There are so many beautiful and shaded places to relax in Paris, which I am sure were absolutely essential during the 40°C+ heats the residents experienced this summer. The Place de Vosges in Le Marais came highly recommended, and we enjoyed the classic Tuileries gardens and Luxembourg gardens on the Left Bank. Whilst walking home on our last afternoon, we headed for the Parc Monceau which is in the 8th arrondissement, just off the Boulevard de Courcelles. Although the park has stylised elements like a little Venetian bridge, a Classical colonnade to emulate ruins and the most charming old carousel, there was something about more primeval about this park, compared to the more clipped and manicured lawns of the big jardins. We sat on a little green bench people-watching for a good long time in this prettyish wilderness.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

YSL Museum.jpg

Oh boy. Pour moi, a trip to Paris was never going to be complete without a slice and dice of fashion history. I plan to write a longer post about the YSL Museum, but it’ll summarise it briefly here for now. Yves Saint Laurent never used to be one of my favourite designers; perhaps controversially, I have been more of a fan of the edgier Saint Laurent incarnation of the brand under Hedi Slimane and Anthony Vaccarello. I was, however, aware that he is an inescapable part of fashion history, after being made head of Dior at the age of 26 and for the successful couture house he built in his own right. What became clear to me from the exhibits in the museum was that, like Christian Dior (you can read my analysis here), Saint Laurent’s prime aim in design was to make a woman feel her most confident and beautiful. I find this to be such a validating and comforting thing. Even though fashion is so much to do with comparison, beauty standards, perfectionism, ageism, white and able-washing, what I have noticed is that oftentimes at the centre of a brand is a sensitive, empathic and deeply creative person who just wants to make women feel good. I really appreciate that in Yves Saint Laurent and his contributions to fashion. Furthermore, he was famously one of the first designers to champion the use of non-white models, pioneered the trouser suit and established his Rive Gauche collection to make fashions accessible and affordable to ordinary people.[1]

Mondrian dresses.jpg

The building on the Avenue Marceau is home to his formidable archive, including the epoch-defining Mondrian dresses, the extensive jewellery collection and this absolutely perfect ensemble:

YSL dress

 

I was able to walk through a reconstruction of his study, watch films about his work and his partner Pierre Bergé and soak up the beautifully presented collection pieces. I must also add that the museum is wonderfully air conditioned, was relatively quiet and, all-in-all, a genius way of preserving Saint Laurent’s creative legacy.

Montmartre cemetery

Montmartre Cemetery.jpg

This was a go-to last time we came to Paris and, being so close to our apartment, was definitively on our itinerary again. Cemetery-visiting may seem like quite a morbid activity, but I believe that visiting cemeteries helps to really contextualise a place and the people in it. To really know and understand a city and its different people, to get an insight into what they value, treasure and, ultimately, to understand their approach to living life, a clue can be found in exploring how they treat their dead and the way they design and use their communal and private spaces of remembrance and reflection. Even if we have not visited Paris, many people are aware that it is a city associated most commonly with love, art and revolution. This, I would argue, is reflected in their cemeteries, which are uniquely Gothic and gorgeous. There is a joie de vivre and gravitas evident in the Parisian cemetery, and Montmartre in particular, which makes it a space in which life, family and creativity are celebrated and revered. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that it is only the wealthy and respectable who could have afforded such exuberant graves. Additionally, in no other cemetery have I felt that the burial of the dead is used to so confirm and validate the people left behind. It is in this capacity that I think gloom seeps into the cemetery: both in the potentiality that the wealthy dead were desperate to be remembered and that the living left behind were so desperate to build something in place of their lost loved ones.

Many famous people are buried in this city, and their resting places are free to visit and open for visitors to pay respects. Whilst Père Lachaise is one of the biggest and most famous- we saw the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Mauthausen Holocaust memorial- Montmartre cemetery is smaller and nestled into the Western corner of the village. Stretching underneath the Rue Caulincourt bridge, it is easily visible from the road and its fantastical rows of grand crypts and family sepulchres look like something from The Phantom of the Opera. We visited specifically to lay a rose at the grave of Vaslav Nijinksy, the lead dancer of the Ballets Russes, choreographer of The Rite of Spring and, I recently found out, a passionate vegetarian. I have mentioned here before that The Rite of Spring has been a very important piece of music and dance to me, and I wanted to show my gratitude to this extraordinary sensitive and surreally gifted man who helped collaborate on and create such an awe-inspiring piece of cultural history.

Nijinsky

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/yves-saint-laurent-models-couture [accessed 14:41, 13th August 2019].

Love Note – Chia Breakfast Pots

Whilst I am a huge advocate for Marmite and nutritional yeast on wholegrain toast as a weekday breakfast, multiple barbecues over the past few days and weeks, whilst fun, have left me slightly bloated and ick. I can normally eat bread until kingdom come, but with the current state of things, tummy says no. Coupled with the tropical heat that has descended, I find myself in need of foodstuffs that are and feel as fresh and light as possible. I want to feel full, but I don’t want to be weighed down from the very beginning of my day.

Enter: chia breakfast pots. This easy, yummy breakfast idea was spawned after a conversation with a dear friend who is currently doing a diploma in nutritional therapy, and because I have about a million GU ramekins that need to be put to use.

When I get asked about my health and nutrition by kindly concerned non-vegetarians, a lack of omega-3 and protein are the most common worries. Omega-3 is, of course, most commonly known to be found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel. However, chia seeds contain omega-3 in plant form (alpha linolenic acid, or ALA), providing the same kind of anti-inflammatory benefits and nutrients to facilitate a healthy brain and heart as the traditionally meat-derived omega-3.[1] Similarly, chia seeds are full of fibre and protein, and can be used in a number of absorbent ways (including sugar-free jam making, which is another excellent story). Jumbled up with oats, yoghurt, fresh fruit and a hint of almond and vanilla if you’re feeling cheeky, chia seeds are a great food to have in your light, fresh and healthy arsenal, particularly if you are vegetarian, vegan, or want to cut-down on meat.

Important – this is an overnight recipe, so make sure you prepare the night before you plan to eat

Ingredients (enough for six GU ramekins)

70g chia seeds

200g plain porridge oats

500 ml non-dairy milk (I used soy, but you can use oat, almond, rice milk, or cashew milk if you want it really creamy)

A healthy tablespoon-sized blob of yoghurt (I used Alpro almond yoghurt, but you can also use plain, vanilla or coconut)

A punnet of raspberries

Optional sweeteners: almonds, golden syrup or vanilla extract

 

Method

  1. Take a bowl out of your cupboard
  2. Combine chia seeds, oats and milk
  3. Leave to soak for about 5 minutes
  4. Put some raspberries into the bowl and stir
  5. Split mixture between ramekins
  6. Add a blob of yoghurt on top
  7. Add one last raspberry to garnish
  8. Cover up and pop into fridge
  9. Leave over night
  10. Retrieve in the morning
  11. Add a pinch of your optional sweetener
  12. Eat

 

Chia pot 2

 

 

[1] ‘The health benefits of chia seeds’ https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-chia-seeds [accessed 11:45, 24th July 2019].

Abyssal Cuteness

This essay was first written and published on Everyday Analysis in 2014.

One of the latest videos to go viral in recent weeks (note: this video was also published in 2014 and now has 42,195,765 views) centres around a young girl howling with despair at the thought of her baby sibling growing up, and her own fear of dying ‘at one hundred’. You can watch it here and by clicking on the image below:

Abyssal Cuteness

The general cyber consensus of this video is that this is a moment of undeniable ‘cuteness’, a claim that is perpetuated by saccharine blogging sites who share the video, for example ‘Hello Giggles’. ‘Cuteness’ may, perhaps, warrant its own analysis for its pervasive presence on the internet, with the innumerable animal/baby/animal and baby/ baby and animal and baby animal videos that continue to appear on social media. Here, however, I would make the case that the video captures an abyssal moment in this girl’s life where, like King Midas capturing Silenus the companion of Dionysus, we learn that ‘the very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing’.[1] She does not want her brother to grow up and stop being ‘little’, and she simultaneously bemoans her own inevitable aging that will ultimately lead to her death.

The terror and horror of her and her brother’s existence is conveyed not through her language but in a choking cry half way through and at the end of the video, which the subtitles describe as ‘inaudible’. She is audible, because we can hear that she makes noise, however the noise she makes in her terror is seemingly outside of language and also beyond our ability to articulate in language. The girl, therefore, embodies the Dionysian impulse where, as described by Nietzsche, ‘the whole excess of nature in pleasure, pain and knowledge resounded to the point of a piercing scream’.[2] Her panicked coughing moan is the expression of her pleasure at the baby’s ‘cute smiles’, her affection for him, which is repeatedly conveyed in her kissing his forehead, and her pained fright at her recently acquired knowledge that both she and him are aging and finite.

This expression of the Dionysian that sees the girl intoxicated by the truth of her existence and thrown into self-oblivion is, however, still engaged in a dialectical tension with its alter drive, the Apollonian, without which it could not emerge. Nietzsche describes the condition of the Apollonian as ‘an existence in which everything is deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil’.[3] Although in western culture we no longer exist with a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, I argue that an economic system of consumer capitalism sees every literal ‘thing’ similarly deified, spawning an exuberant culture of commodities which construct and offer identity. This is prefigured in the video in the princess dress that the girl wears, an item that enforces societal norms of gender and hierarchy which, therefore, enables a moderated self for the girl to be constructed. The Dionysian impulse that envelopes her destabilises this appearance of heteronormativity which appears to have structured her life.

With reference to Raphael’s painting Transfiguration, Nietzsche suggests that the Apollonian and Dionysian are reciprocal and depend upon each other. This is achieved because the Apollonian gives way to the Dionysian, which is redeemed with the reinstatement of the sublime Apollonian image. In this video, the re-establishment of the Apollonian, which has already been prefigured in the girl’s princess dress, comes in the way this video has been elevated to a position of ‘cuteness’, from the comments on YouTube to the chat shows that have had ‘exclusive’ interviews with the girl post-abyss. Whatever ‘cuteness’ may mean, the perpetuation of this word perhaps allows people, or more specifically adults, to semi-patronisingly reflect on this girl’s struggle with the chaotic state of her existence in this abyssal moment. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that ‘cute’ has also become a barrier for those whose lives are too structured by the Apollonian culture of ‘things’, and who resist the tormenting Dionysian impulse that, we have come to understand, is never too far away.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.27.

[2]Ibid, p.32.

[3] Ibid, p.27.

Love Note – Beach Books Reviews

Whilst on holiday, I managed to get through three books out of the stack of four that I took with me and, as you can probably imagine, I took great pleasure in spending the majority of my day reading. I was helped along by the books themselves, and what started off as me playing catch up with the most popular contemporary literature from the past few years became an interesting immersion in literary bingeing. Thanks to a combination of formal and linguistic trickery, the novels I read signalled to me that binge-culture has made one giant leap from television to literature. Of course, there have been many page-turners that people have read at record speeds, with many others being described as un-put-downable, I’m thinking Gone Girl, The Da Vinci Code, every murder mystery or thriller ever published. But, there is something to be said for the novels currently trending that have a swept-away-in-one-sitting quality to them that is immensely enjoyable, but also indicates that we are, perhaps, as bad as ever at taking our time to enjoy our media and entertainment, allowing the experience of enjoying them to mature and mellow over the course of days or weeks. This is not a criticism per se, but something I became quite aware of.

Here are my reviews of the novels I managed to read, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Normal People

I enjoyed reading this novel more than I actually enjoyed the novel itself. The lack of speech marks is one of the most discussed and obviously experimental aspects of the novel and there are a number of reasons why I think Rooney opted for removing formal punctuation. Primarily, its absence helped to propel the pace along as quickly as possible. Speech, internal dialogue and description in the novel melt into one another seamlessly, and before I knew it I was flying through the novel at electric speed. The subtle mingling among and between Connell and Marianne’s internal and external worlds is compelling, and perhaps goes some way to perform the confusion and fluidity of their romantic entanglements. These were powerful, to an extent: Connell’s struggles with social status, class and privilege combined with Marianne’s abusive family trauma form a murky, disorientating bedrock to their sexual and emotional relationship. Yet, whilst they were immersive, these entanglements began to wear thin for me. Of course, culturally and artistically we are rarely given an insight into healthy, responsible relationships to aspire to, but Connell and Marianne’s story really did begin to feel like a rather prolonged game of kiss chase that could have been resolved with some honesty and proper communication. Whilst I enjoyed the fast pace, the story became increasingly frustrating.

The novel has been revered as a refreshing insight into modern relationships, yet all I saw was prolonged adolescence. The question that arose during my reading of it was: why don’t people talk to one another honestly about what they want, need and expect from a relationship? Of course, many people do not have the answers to these questions themselves, which is why the romantic landscape has always been a mass of tension, confusion and a channel for our own neuroses, precisely because the terrain is so horrifyingly vulnerable. I think I would like to see stories where people grapple more with the deeper core fears that relationships can elicit than indulge in surface-level dabbling. This is because for Connell and Marianne, like with everyone else, there is ample emotional material to explore. For example, it is heavily suggested that Marianne has an eating disorder, but there seemed to be no exploration of this, and I think with such a big, important and truly devastating area of mental health, vague allusions are irresponsible. Normal People is absolutely compelling formally, but the story and characters lacked the maturity and deep excavations of relationship politics that I may have come to the novel expecting.

Daisy Jones and The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones

Just as Sally Rooney fiddled with formal punctuation to create a sweeping, pacey narrative for Normal People, Taylor Jenkins Reid did away with conventional prose altogether to construct the mock-oral history that is Daisy Jones and The Six. The language is presented like a play or a screenplay, rapidly interchanging between characters, their opinions and their contrasting perceptions of how past events unfolded.  This, as with Normal People, makes for an extremely fast-paced and romping read, and I scoured my way through the drug-filled emotional and musical rollercoaster that is the rise and collapse of fictional rock band ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’. It does not surprise me at all that Reese Witherspoon picked this up for production so quickly: the screenplay layout of the novel lends itself to a visual medium so well, and the construction of authenticity and, almost, reality of this fictional band is begging for actors and musicians to literally flesh the whole thing out. Additionally, the novel harks back to the seventies and the loves, losses, betrayals and creative headiness of the Fleetwood Mac era; a band history integral to the fictional machinations and dalliances that we see unfold in the novel. It manages to effectively combine warm nostalgia, with, and rightly so, a thorough dissection of emotional pain, addictions and toxic relationships, and I think it is on the whole successful.

The novel follows Daisy Jones, the child of rich, famous and self-absorbed parents who do not seem to care about their only daughter. She seeks refuge in narcotics, drinking and a rock and roll groupie lifestyle on the Sunset Strip at the age of fourteen. Billy Dunne and his brother Graham hail from small town Pennsylvania; their father leaves them early on in their childhoods, and as teenagers, they found a band that goes on to be called ‘The Six’. Billy develops addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex with groupies, whilst his loyal, passionate and amazing wife Camila waits at home for him. In fact, Camila, for me, was the best character in the novel. Whilst Daisy is super beautiful, glamorous and an emotionally tortured Bambi, Karen Karen is a veritable badass, Graham is a sweetheart and Billy is an endearing and somewhat extremely self-righteous mess, Camila is an unwavering beacon of solidity and support whilst the people around her flail and crash about, high on concoctions of drugs, fame, creativity and self-hatred.

Whilst there are many excellent pearls of wisdom and sassy quips in the novel, exploding bullshit around sexism, music, friendship and love, one of her quotes stands out to me the most: ‘I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?’ She supports and believes wholeheartedly in the best versions of her loved ones when they’re at their absolute worst, even when that has meant she has suffered as a consequence of their actions. There are so many times when she could have chucked in the towel with her relationship with Billy, and some would argue that perhaps she should have. Camila, however, doesn’t tolerate terrible behaviour and she definitely does not stay in a relationship where red flags abound: she sets boundaries, expectations and trusts in her husband’s best self and ultimately propels him on his road to recovery. Sure, her story isn’t a romanticised and drug-addled one, which I think, despite a lot of its efforts, the novel still constructs for the enigma that is Daisy Jones, Camila is strong, knows herself and is the responsible adult we should strive to be. It is for this reason that the ending of the novel is incredibly bittersweet and I would love to discuss it here and with people at some point. Send me your thoughts please!

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe extract

This was hands-down my favourite out of the three books I read (and the only one I thought to take a holiday snap of!). It was heart-wrenching, magical, modern and yet felt beautifully and brilliantly in-keeping with the ancient framework from which it hailed. The story, whilst a reimagining, felt bedded in Homer’s mythology: all the key ancient rituals and practices were present, for example xenia, or guest-friendship, which is illustrated so beautifully in the novel as a dance of wits, manners, generosity and covert motive-seeking between host and visitor. It enlivened what the original treats as a societal staple, illuminating it with nuance and tension. We also got a crash course in the wars of the Titans, various mythological characters like Daedalus, Medea, Jason and Ariadne, alongside the predictable and anticipated arrival of Odysseus, and the very unpredictable arrival of Penelope and Telemachus (I loved this!). The novel was able to powerfully break apart some of the simplistic tropes that the character of Circe has carried with her for thousands of years. No longer does she carry the motiveless malignity of the original: the scheming nasty witch woman who seduces Odysseus and turns all of his men into pigs. She is sensitive, attuned to the natural world, desperate for approval she never gets, uses violent magic in self-defence, but isn’t immune to the fear and anger-based trappings of ego. Ultimately she becomes the source of her own very particular, self-cultivated power, and it is immensely joyful to read.

I did disagree, however, that Miller presented Circe as some two dimensional empowered ‘superwoman’, as reviewed by The Times.[1] This is a novel where the central protagonist constantly aches: she aches for belonging, she aches from the sweetness and loss of love, whether that’s with a partner, siblings or children, and she aches from the bullying and torture at the hands of her horrible family and the all-powerful, oftentimes selfish, meddling gods. This does not mean to say she is weak, but she is certainly not presented as some all-powerful, sassy superwoman. What strength Circe has is developed from her ability to endure, and what a whole host of trials she is forced to deal with. Whether it’s being confined to an island, acting as a midwife at the birthing of the Minotaur, living under the wrath of Athena, being manipulated by Hermes or being raped by sailors, this woman is put through the absolute wringer. She emerges all the more patient and trusting in herself and her capability of putting up with bullshit, but, again, not a superwoman, whatever that even means.

What I loved about this novel was that Miller actively redistributes the motiveless malignity accusation with which Circe has been cast around the hosts of horrors that is the supporting cast of gods, demigods and men, who act with violence, without fear of repercussion, because they can. She is repeatedly trapped and confined by the whims and desires of others and, of course, fate itself. Over the course of the novel, she learns that in spite of having magic, she is powerless to resist the power of the gods, the desires of the human heart, and the unrelenting changeability that characterises life, whether it’s defined by mortality or immortality. 300 years pass over the course of Circe’s story, making it perhaps one of the most comprehensive coming-of-age stories I have ever read, because it spans enough to time to develop that most important hallmarks of maturity: perspective. Maybe that’s why so many of us never get there.

I really could not have enjoyed this novel more and I am racing to get a copy of Miller’s early novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, which tracks the relationship between Achilles and his lover, Patroclus.

Song of Achilles

 

[1] ‘Circe by Madeline Miller – back as superwoman’, Siobhan Murphy https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/review-circe-by-madeline-miller-back-as-superwoman-37kctxgss [accessed 10th July 2019].

Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

Mulan with shan yu sword

Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

download

Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

Pocahontas lol

I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

Esmeralda featured image

Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali

Love Note – Beach Books

I love reading but, I am going to confess, I am pretty bad at investing in and dedicating time to contemporary literature. I have spent many years covering English and Russian classics from the nineteenth century, being swept away by Shakespeare and his (mostly male) contemporaries and reading novels, poetry and plays from the early twentieth century. Aside from the latest releases from Naomi Klein, Arandhati Roy and Margaret Atwood, I have tended to swerve away from contemporary literature for a long time and I don’t think this is particularly wise. I think reading amazing historical works of literature is always going to be important; but I don’t think this should be completely at the expense of what people are producing and writing right now.

Therefore, to accompany me on my beachy holiday (3 days and counting!) these are the contemporary novels I am packing with me:

Circe

Circe – Madeline Miller, 2018

Why I’m excited about it:

This is my get out of jail free card: Circe is a re-telling of the Greek myth of Circe, one of the most interesting and famous characters in Homer’s Odyssey. So yes, even though the subject matter here is veritably ancient, it promises to be a contemporary, new perspective of a controversial character. If you’re not in the know, in Homer’s work she turns Odysseus’s men into pigs, seduces Odysseus, puts him and his men up for a year and loses some of her power. I studied Classical Civilizations at A Level where we read the Odyssey in its entirety, and I was always healthily sceptical of Odysseus’s heroic credentials (I am more of an Aeneas fan, but to each their own). In particular, I think the way he gets off with women left right and centre whilst his poor wife Penelope stayed at home for twenty years fighting off suitors is pretty questionable (read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad for more). I am excited to see where Miller takes the Circe character and her story from Homer’s narrative: the whole single, powerful woman must be a witch thing needs a serious rethink.

Daisy Jones

Daisy Jones and the Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid, 2019

Why I’m excited about it:

Reese Witherspoon is a pretty good weather vane for anything pop culture-related (see her performance and production credits for Legally Blonde, Big Little Lies, Gone Girl and Wild). Now, she is set be an executive producer on a TV adaptation of this book, only published in March 2019, which she claimed to have read in one day. Additionally, the first time I actually heard about Daisy Jones and the Six was on Claudia Winkelman’s Sunday evening show on Radio 2, where she absolutely gushed over it for how immersive and compelling it apparently is. My interest: officially piqued. The novel purposes to follow the lives and loves of a fictional seventies rock band, which screams of Fleetwood Mac levels of intrigue. If there is any time to pop on some rose-tinted glasses and have a wallow in seventies rock and roll, it’s on a warm beach.

Normal People

Normal People – Sally Rooney, 2018

Why I’m excited about it:

This book was a bit of a sensation last year and I am curious about this bandwagon. The only bits of it I have seen have come from Zoe Kazan’s Twitter and apparently there are no speech marks. I find this disconcerting but I am willing to embrace the uncomfortable. I once took a crap version of James Joyce’s Ulysses on a Greek island holiday and failed to sufficiently commit to the challenge due to sea, sun and sand-induced lethargy. I am in no way comparing Normal People to Ulysses, but I am thinking it may, potentially, have the right amount of formal, linguistic and emotional difficulty to suit the serious lazing about I have planned. We’ll see what happens. I hear that Normal People is based in Ireland and that it follows a relationship between Connell and Marianne, both from the same rural town but from very different worlds. The novel promises a sweeping and refreshing love story about two people who can’t seem to escape each other or themselves. This excites me.

Americanah

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013

Why I’m excited about it:

Firstly, the cover of this book is beautiful and I like staring at it. Secondly, Adichie is a supremely articulate and intelligent woman. I loved her TED talk about the importance of feminism, the importance of teaching boys about gender equality and deconstructing toxic masculine stereotypes, and I encourage everyone to watch it. You can do so here. Even though this talk has been seen over 5 million times, Adichie is primarily a very successful writer of fiction. I have never read any of her novels or short stories before, and Americanah looks like a great place to start. The novel follows a Nigerian couple separated by war and dictatorship in their home country, who are forced to build new lives separately in the USA and UK. The novel tracks their separation, new experiences abroad, and their reunion. The novel explores the brilliance and pitfalls of globalization including, most specifically, the burden and barriers of race that Africans experience in the West, something these characters in particular don’t feel keenly in Nigeria. Americanah feels like it’s going to be an important, challenging read and I am ready for it.