Love Note – Watching Game of Thrones

WARNING: this Love Note contains spoilers for previous seasons of Game of Thrones

I am not the biggest Game of Thrones fan in the world: I am at least ten times more interested in Harry Potter and my love for The Lord of the Rings exceeds that boundlessly. Having said that, watching the show has been an absolute rollercoaster ride of enjoyable emotional chaos.

I am convinced that Game of Thrones is ultimately an allegory for climate change: a rallying call for human beings to transcend their materialistic squabbles and proud, vain, destructive tendencies to face the real, inescapable and devastating problem facing them and the world entire. It is the problem that has been gathering traction from the very first minutes of the first episode in the first season, with the first appearance of the White Walkers. Along with the climate change allegory, I have immensely enjoyed Game of Thrones’ numerous Greco-Roman mythical references: from the fact that Cersei Lannister is effectively named after one of the most famous manipulative witches in mythology (‘Circe’ in The Odyssey); to the story of Iphigenia, who was burnt at the stake as a sacrifice by her father Agamemnon to provide the necessary meteorological conditions to get his fleet moving (Shireen Baratheon, sound familiar? Bless her heart); to the stabbing of Jon Snow by a band of conspirators, very much in the manner of Julius Caesar. When I watched that scene unfold, shock and betrayal aside (Olly?!) I was convinced that he wasn’t going to stay dead for long: if Caesar came back as a ghost, there had to be some iteration of this in Snow’s character arc. Additionally, if Shireen’s death was going to follow a mythical/ancient framework, then I hoped this would too. Thankfully, I was proved right.

Game of Thrones has also provided the means for opening much-needed discussions about the representation of gender and race on screen, which at times in the series, has been shocking and problematic to say the least. I am still not OK with the way in which rape was used as background noise in many scenes where white men were conspiring amongst themselves, nor the way in which Daenerys Targaryen effectively became a white saviour figure for a lot of black and Middle Eastern people. Maintaining some critical thinking around these scenes and storylines is absolutely essential.

We have also been introduced to some truly incredible and memorable characters. Sansa has been a favourite of mine from very early on, and I adore Lyanna Mormont, Tormund, Olenna Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister. I didn’t think I’d hate anyone as much as Joffrey Baratheon, but then along came Ramsay Bolton who is perhaps one of my least favourite characters in anything I have ever read/watched/listened to.

The people and story of Game of Thrones aside, what I think I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years has been the weekly ritual of tuning into the show. In a world where we are effectively encouraged to binge-watch content (which I am absolutely guilty of, thanks Stranger Things) having a weekly show to tune into feels nostalgic, but oddly liberating. I have spent hours musing about the story and the characters, longing to get to the next chapter, much like reading a book. As such, I want to pay homage as much to the experience of watching Game Thrones, who I’ve watched it with and all the important food I’ve eaten whilst watching, as to the show itself.

Having said that, I was late to Game of Thrones and caught up with the first three seasons by binge-watching them in my bed. I was accompanied by chipsticks, sugar ring donuts and plates of rosti for hangover viewings. I was in the third year of my undergraduate degree, free from having handed in my Long Essay and finishing my exams, and Game of Thrones became an excellent and utterly addictive way to unwind.

I then spent season 4 watching Game of Thrones in Withington Flat #1, accompanied by good company, jelly babies and cans of Dr Pepper. This season was memorable for its slew of dramatic and gruesome deaths. It’s pretty much a cull from start to finish. This was the season that taught me that you shouldn’t start liking anyone in Game of Thrones too much because no one is safe. I acknowledge that this stage was set right at the beginning with Ned Stark’s execution, I should have known. But this season really crystallised that. Cue: lots of shrieking.

By far my favourite experiences watching Game of Thrones came with season 5. Whilst the previous four seasons had been brutal, things really took a turn with season 5. With two excellent friends on the world’s best sofa in Withington Flat #2, we saw the show turn from purely tit-for-tat murdering sessions, to deeper existential violence and chaos. It is still my favourite season of them all. Together, our little Game of Thrones club (that later turned into True Detective Season 2 club) witnessed Sansa being brutally tortured by Ramsay Bolton, collectively lost its shit at episode 8, sat gobsmacked at the sacrifice of a lovely little girl at the hands of her shit father, freaked out at the Sons of Harpy and watched in dismay as Cersei was forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing. Finally, we saw Jon Snow murdered à la Julius Caesar at the very end. So much incredulous, emotional yelling happened over the course of this season and it was amazing to share in the drama with my buddies. Accompanied by litres of peppermint tea, carrots, pitta bread and houmous, and an awful AWFUL lot of cake.

The intensity didn’t let up in season 6, as the viewing action moved to Manchester city centre and one of my favourite places to visit in the city. We ate gnocchi, homemade mushroom risotto, pizza and chilli (not all at once, but I wouldn’t have put it past us) and introduced ourselves to jalapeno grills. Jaw-dropping moments included HODOR, the claustrophobic and visceral ‘Battle of the Bastards’, one of the best battle scenes I have ever seen ever (Helm’s Deep being the ultimate, obviously), and the destruction and cull of the Sept of Baelor at the hands of, you guessed it, Cersei Lannister. God she is such an excellent character. Terrifying and horrible, but so very excellent. I drove to this flat every week in my beloved red Fiat Punto WMF and would spend the 15 minutes driving home down Princess Parkway back to West Didsbury mulling and stewing over all the action. Ditto for when we watched Pan’s Labyrinth together and The Shining after Game of Thrones finished. Really good times.

Season 7 was a more muted viewing affair for me, and I don’t actually think it was the best season I’d seen. I haven’t been a fan of Daenerys for a long time and the sight of her shacking up with Jon Snow was not at all sexy, and that’s in addition to the incest issue. I loved Grey Worm and Missandei getting together and lamented saying goodbye to Olenna, who executed her passing with typical sass and agency. I watched this series in my flat in West Didsbury, sometimes dragging my boyfriend into it (poor guy had no idea what was going on) but always savouring the ramping up of drama and tension. Sansa and Arya ganging up on Lord Baelish was delightful to watch: a word of warning folks, do not try and get between sisters. To accompany my viewing sessions, I ate vegan Mexican lasagne, Tex Mex potato salad and discovered the joys of avocado carbonara. Check it out.

Now, to coincide with the new season, I am in the middle of moving house and I am excited to create a new ritual for the last five episodes in my new place. As one adventure concludes, another one is beginning, and I am completely OK with how melodramatic that sounds. What I have found kind of curious is that I have managed to contain my impatience for the past two years waiting for the new season to start, but am now incapable of lasting the mere days between each new episode with grace. I am fully addicted. At this point, if Tormund and Brienne don’t make it through the war to have giant children together, I will be furious.

Love Note – Vincent Van Gogh

This is an anticipatory Love Note for when I get round to seeing a new film starring Willem Dafoe called At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh and charts the final years of his life in the South of France. I haven’t seen the film yet, so cannot possibly review or attest to how good the film is, but I am nevertheless excited to see one of my favourite painters depicted on screen. This is not the first time Van Gogh and his life has been depicted on screen: one of my favourite episodes of Dr Who brought Van Gogh to life through a very moving performance by Tom Curran.

vincent and the doctor

He was also represented in the visually stunning Loving Vincent, a truly extraordinary animated film that saw artists fluent in Van Gogh’s style paint frames telling the story of his final days. In both, Van Gogh was presented as tortured, immensely sensitive, almost living and breathing his wonderful art and terminally underappreciated and misunderstood.

loving vincent

I have loved Van Gogh for a very long time and I think what made him extraordinarily gifted was his capacity to paint both places and people. His style captures the nuance and intricacy of whatever it is he is looking at, and his paintings almost hum with vibrancy, no matter whether he’s painting a field scene or exploring the lines of a weathered and weary face. Additionally, he only ever painted or represented the world around him. He may have done this in an utterly original and inspired way, but it was always a reflection of what he could actually see. This put him at odds with his contemporary Paul Gaugin, who drew from his imagination to create people and figures in his paintings. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would never do this. This aesthetic and practical difference can be seen in Van Gogh’s Olive Grove and Gaugin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives:

Van Gogh Olive Groves

1200px-Gauguin-christ-in-garden

This is not to say that Gaugin’s work is inferior in any way to Van Gogh’s (I actually think his Christ looks remarkably like Van Gogh in this painting, which is interesting), but it demonstrates a very interesting dynamic at work in Van Gogh’s art. His commitment to reflecting the world around him accurately, but with his own unique insight, makes his work at once highly personal and imaginative but always grounded in what is physical and real. It is endearing and almost egoless to bring such consciousness and attention to what he saw, rather than to emphasise the world by applying a story to it. Through Van Gogh’s art, we learn that the world itself is a story to tell, we don’t need to apply grand narratives of religion or myth to elevate it as such.

I have been fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the paint at both the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and from the Davies collection at the National Museum of Wales. What I learnt and what absolutely stood out to me, more than the tragic circumstances of his depression and his death, was that he was a masterful and learned technician. Whilst a lot of emphasis has been placed in popular culture on his naiveté and the impressionistic and emotional ecstasy of his paintings, what I learned was that he had an almost academic approach to art. Van Gogh developed his technique out of dedicated and meticulous study and practice. He took lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague, studied colour theory through Charles Blanc’s colour wheel and through analysis of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings, explored pointillism and the un-mixing of colours through the work of Georges Sauret, experimented in a Japanese style through a study of Japanese woodcuts, and from his friendships with Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard learnt about the versatility and vibrancy of pastels. Passionate and zealous as he famously was with his impressions and interpretations of the world around him, Van Gogh was a learned and masterful technician. I don’t think this should be overshadowed by the turbulence of his relationships or his volatile mental health. He may have found inspiration in his pain and darkness, but his expression of it came from hours, days and years of practice and development.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of Van Gogh’s work:

Van gogh the harvest

The Harvest, June 1888 – The warmth of the sun radiates in this painting, everything that summer should be.

van gogh self portrait

Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, c.1887 – I have this painting on a postcard hanging up in my flat and I think it is beautiful. The sun-scorched orange of his beard complements the bright blue of his clothes and background, and the green tinges around his eyes and brow convey his deeper emotional sensitivity.

Vincent-van-Gogh-Vissersboten-op-het-strand-van-Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer-V006

Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888 – This is another painting on a postcard that I have hanging in my flat (courtesy of my boyfriend who loves this particular painting). It is reflective of Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art.

van-gogh-rain-auvers-1890

Rain – Auvers, 1890 – I saw this painting at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and it brought tears to my eyes. There is a battle going on here between the sunny warmth of the land and the deep, dark despair of the rain. It reminds me that no matter how depressed, anxious and afraid we may feel, the land needs to be watered to flourish; goodness, light and clarity come from embracing and moving through the dark and difficult times.

Love Note – Fantasia

Last week there was a Saturday matinee viewing of Disney’s Fantasia at Broadway cinema in Nottingham and I missed it. This was slightly devastating because Fantasia is a film that I have loved for a very long time and the prospect of seeing it on a big screen was very, very exciting. It is a stunning love letter to both the art of animation and classical music, which I’m sure were both sweeping in their scale on the big screen. And I bloody missed it.

It was through Fantasia, and the ingenuity of the art and story-telling teams that helped to create it, that my interest in classical music was sparked. As a child, and even now as a (more or less) adult, classical music has sometimes felt kind of ‘beyond’ me. When I was younger, it reeked of ‘posh’, of older people driving around in Volvo estates or wearing suits and nodding along knowingly to some movement of this piece by that dead guy. The classical music I enjoyed when I was little was music that explicitly told a story, for example Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (even though, interestingly, the grandfather and wolf parts both scared me shitless) or that I could dance to. Fantasia captured my imagination and, subsequently, each of the pieces of music brought to animated life now has a special place in my heart.

Pastoral symphony

The combination of high musical art with the low brow familiarity of cartoon animation, rooted as it is in child-friendly bright colours, humour and anthropomorphic animals, is highly effective. Bringing both forms into conversation with one another undoubtedly broadens the way in which we think about both. The mass production and appeal of cartoon animation offers a friendlier introduction to the obscure and privileged world of classical music. Similarly the drama of classical music, and the requirement of animation to creatively and accurately interpret inflections, time signatures and important ideas within the pieces’ structures, elevates the artistry and production of animation.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor EDIT 1

It’s hard to narrow down which segment of the Fantasia programme I like the most: I have a very soft spot for The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (I really wanted to make friends with a pink unicorn or a flying horse, and my sister and I used to shelter all our cuddly toys under blankets during the storm).[1] As I’ve grown older, I have a renewed appreciation for Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in B Minor, which I initially thought was slightly boring but now find completely captivating.  However, I think it is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that has been the most enduringly important piece of music that Fantasia introduced to me.

fantasia_pdvd_852

I remember listening to Deems Taylor’s introduction of the piece and referring to the music as originally written for a ballet, displaying ‘a simple series of tribal dances’. Listening and watching the unfolding animation had me begging desperately: How on earth could you do ballet to THIS?! My conception of ballet as a world of tutus, pointe shoes and graceful arabesques, incidentally seen elsewhere in Fantasia, was completely at odds with this frightening, stompy music. Music that helped to depict violent volcanic eruptions, a T-Rex fighting and killing a slow and considerably weaker stegosaurus, the eventual death march and extinction of all the dinosaurs, and an eerie eclipse hovering over this pockmarked, burnt out planet. The pained and wailing face of a diplodocus trapped in mud and burning in the heat is seared into my memory. No, this, whatever this was, was not conducive to ballet at all.

At the time, I had no idea that this type of music required an entirely different type of dancing, which I later explored at length in my Master’s dissertation. Indeed, I wouldn’t have written that dissertation at all if my interest hadn’t been piqued at such a young age. Fantasia rearranges the music of the original ballet quite significantly, but it is still an exceptional introduction to a truly staggering piece of music. I will no doubt bring The Rite of Spring to my blog at a later date, because it is such an important piece of music to me that has followed me around for many years. But for now, I want to appreciate just how wonderful Fantasia is and how grateful I am that, in spite of its limited commercial success in 1940, it has endured.

And I bloody missed it last week.

 

[1] I want to acknowledge here the problematic nature of Disney’s visualisation of The Pastoral Symphony in particular. This segment featured heavily racist stereotypes in the first production, which have since been edited out, and a beauty contest where the ‘pretty’ (read: not black) centaur women strut about and are picked one at a time by handsome centaur men to be their lovers. The racism and sexism is obviously unacceptable and makes for uncomfortable viewing.  

Love Note – The Vogue Colouring Book

I hate/love to sound like a two year old, but I was inspired to buy a colouring book after seeing my friend’s. She has a Harry Potter-themed one and had done a beautiful job of meticulously colouring in the scene of Harry and Ron flying Arthur Weasley’s Ford Anglia. Her shading was gorgeous. Where I would have coloured Harry and Ron in pink, she had expertly blended a combination of peach, yellow and cream to re-create the colour of white skin. I realised that good colouring requires a lot more skill than just picking a crayon and keeping between the lines. I had some arty things to learn.

When the Vogue colouring book was published I was all over it like it was a Selfridges sale (top tip you guys: Paige jeans. The best fitting jeans you will ever wear, will last forever if you wash them cold, ethically made in Los Angeles, £350 in real life but often reduced to £70 in the Selfridges sale. You can thank me later). As much as I would like to make clothing, I have never learnt how and it is unlikely to happen anytime soon. I tried my hand at designing clothing when I was in secondary school, have binged on multiple episodes of Project Runway and have taken a particular interest in fashion writing for many, many years, so the opportunity to colour in some glorious illustrations from the 1950s seemed like too much fun to miss. I nabbed a copy after visiting the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2016.

Ever since then, all of my fashion designing delusions of grandeur have been released in a healthy safe, way. I rarely follow the original description copy in the book, choosing to blaze my own (ridiculous) trail. With my box of crayons, I have tested my sartorial eye by colour clashing, at times imagining myself as Alessandro Michele, Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo, and even put Hubert de Givenchy to shame with a great replication of an LBD. Aside from colouring one woman’s arm in purple by accident, there have been no huge disasters.

It might all be a bit silly but I can safely say that I’ve had a whole lot of fun, expressed myself in a creative capacity when I’ve been bored and tempted to scroll through Instagram, and I’ve given myself a bit of styling education and practice. Here are some of my favourite exhibits and design notes:

Woman in beige

Kate Moss once said in conversation with Nick Knight that she would be loath to wear a beige suit, so I decided to try and make a beige suit look nice. I think it’s OK.

 

Woman in turqouise

This woman encapsulates all my turquoise-mermaid-dress-and-turban-combo ambitions. I love this look.

 

Woman who looks like Meryl Streep

This woman is spits of Meryl Streep. It’s ridiculous.

 

Woman in stripes

Beachwear that dreams are made of but I wish I’d done the glasses in tortoiseshell #hindsight #designerproblems

 

Woman done by Stanley

Sharing is caring and I let a little family member colour this woman in. I have to say, I’m liking the psychedelic vibes.

 

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Similarly with these women. My sister did some really quite expert shading for the woman on the left, whilst I went for statement (millenial?) pink on the right. I also did the dog.

 

Woman who looks fabulous

This dress was inspired by Jennifer Lawrence’s dress at the SAG Awards in 2014. I don’t know why I remember that dress so clearly, but I do. Textbook Raf Simons.

 

Woman with dog and absinthe

So many life goals right here: cute dog in hand, a glass of Absinthe, killer hat, sassy gloves and black lipstick done well.

 

Woman in red

This woman reminds me of the fabulous Jacquie ‘Tajah’ Murdock, who was cast in a Lanvin advertising campaign in 2012 at the age of 82. When I am an older woman, I hope to pull off a red jumpsuit with this much grace.

 

Woman who looks like a Hitchcock film

I feel like I created a Hitchcock heroine here and I am thrilled. I didn’t realise that skirt suits come great in a cool grey, a green veil is all I’ve ever dreamed of and that all seagulls should be pink.

 

Pink hair don't care

Pink hair don’t care (I would LOVE to give this a go one day.). And yes. The Balmain sweepy on the right makes me weepy. I need a moment like this in a dress like that in the future sometime (please sartorial gods).

Love Note: Skiing and Snowboarding

“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

I am fortunate enough to have spent many years learning how to ski and it is one of my favourite things on the planet. Esther Greenwood’s description of the sport in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (see above) is absolutely accurate and I couldn’t have put it better myself. I am aware that skiing is a leisure preserve of the middle class and is obscenely expensive; indeed I haven’t been on a skiing holiday in years because I can’t afford it. However, through skiing, I have had some life-changing experiences, met some amazing people and had a whole lot of fun:

Experiences like being five years old and falling off a drag lift and crying in despair (I thought I was lost forever). My instructor, Yannik, scooped me up, tucked me safely in front of him and got me safely up the mountain. There, he kneeled down next to me and pulled off his glove revealing that his right hand was missing. Seeing this shocked me into silence and he said warmly, ‘If I can ski with one hand, you can do anything’;

Bouncing through bumpy forest trails as part of a crocodile of squealing children, gasping with laughter, barely in control and skiing through the most magical wintry surroundings;

Having existential conversations with fellow ten year olds on chair lifts: kids I met and knew for a week, put the world to rights with and then never saw again. This included one British kid I met in Colorado who, after an extensive conversation about winning the lottery, turned out to be related to my P.E. teacher who had taken early retirement after winning the Lotto jackpot a mere two weeks before;

Battling my way down notorious slopes like ‘Sache’ in Val-D’Isère, ‘Shock’ in Breckenridge, ‘Creux Noir’ in Courchevel and ‘Ghengis Khan’ in Vail;

Experiencing the elements in a visceral way, whether it’s gliding around in brilliant sunshine and sparkling snow, or using your gloves as a makeshift mask when snow is hitting your face in sharp pellets;

Learning how to properly carve by an Australian called John who lived his best life teaching kids how to ski during the winter and working as a carpenter in the summer;

Witnessing and experiencing a multitude of mishaps and injuries, for example: falling off a chairlift due to a cacophony of communication errors; falling off a T-Bar with a friend due to a lot of bad luck (why am I always falling off things?!); watching my dad plough into a snow wall he couldn’t see because it was the same colour as the cloud we were skiing through (I almost wet myself laughing); chomping on my tongue during a fall and spitting blood for ten minutes; watching someone in my ski group snap a ligament in her leg and being tobogganed down the mountain; and, the worst, watching 18 year old Neal Valiton tumble to his death during the 2007 IFSA World Freeride Championship in Tignes.

Skiing is fun and some mistakes are unfortunate and unavoidable, but anyone who doesn’t take yours and their safety extremely seriously isn’t worth skiing with. The mountain is beautiful but it is not always your friend. In light of this, it can become an incredibly mindful sport: you plonk yourself on the side of a mountain and somehow you have to get down as safely as possible. For me, crazy as it sounds, what ensues is a very clear and concerted inner conversation with myself. I have to navigate my way through ice and moguls, through white outs with zero visibility and the chaos that are nursery slopes at the end of the day, deciding how big or short my turns have to be, how much speed I can afford to pick up and how the rest of my group are getting along. In the process I give myself pep talks, sometimes even sing to myself when I get a good rhythm, and the whole effect is ridiculously calming.

This was proved again last weekend when I had my first snowboarding lesson at the Tamworth Snow Dome. To begin with, it felt almost sacrilegious because I had abandoned skis and poles for extremely comfortable boots and a single plank with sharp edges. But, after a shaky start, which included screaming in the instructor’s face as he helped me to edge down the hill, I dropped down into that calm, mature inner place that doesn’t always make itself known on a day-to-day basis. It was clear and confident, and sounded like: ‘OK Harper, we’re here now, on a snowboard, slightly out of control, what are we going to do about it?’ I slowed down, becoming mindful of my body and it’s movements (including the limits of what I was currently able to do) and, in so doing, embraced this new and disorientating experience. I have realised that my work is to try and tap into this place a lot more often.

 

 

(Featured image is my photo of El Pas de la Casa resort in Andorra, 2015)

Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.

Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

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I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

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'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

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Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

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Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

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‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

Love Note – Having a cold

Here’s the situation: a stranger breathed into my face on Monday (I work a people-facing job) and now the harbingers of disease are waving their red flags in my body. My throat has seized up, I’m sneezing constantly, my nose is blocked, I’m fatigued and the creeping dread of infirmity has descended on me like a dark cloud. I pine for the days when I wasn’t ill, cursing the daily hubris of complacency that prevented me from truly appreciating my health now that I can’t breathe, my limbs ache and my sneezes trumpet forlornly into the gloomy, snotty night.

I am coming to believe, however, that amongst all of this bodily dysfunction, I am being presented with a number of opportunities here. I can rage and throw myself a big pity party for the duration, which I am so tempted to do, or I can heed my body’s calls to slow everything right down. I can ask myself a question that I don’t really ask enough: what do I really need right now?

What can freak us out about being ill is that slowing down on a physical level can mean getting stuck in our heads, which can be challenging places to be. We live such fast-paced and distracted lives: all looking ahead to the next goal, the next weekend, the next project, and using our downtime to scroll mindlessly and binge on television, films and YouTube videos. I don’t think we are used to nurturing ourselves properly in those quiet moments we have on a regular basis, in that we don’t give ourselves a proper chance to rest, to be present, to just be with ourselves. As a result, this can make times when we are ill, and have no choice but to slow down, very uncomfortable. My being ill in the past has made me feel quite anxious, where I have begun to wallow in negative thoughts, am hit by big fears and feel lost and listless.

So again: what is needed? On a physical level I need water, lots of water. Vitamin C is also my best friend: I had a smoothie this morning made from peaches, blueberries, banana and grapes. I have kiwis waiting for me when I get home. Lunch comprised of leftover chickpea and spinach curry (thank you MW), where I’m hoping the heat will work its pain-relieving qualities and get some movement through this bunged up nasal situation. I have found that ginger (raw or in tea) is miraculous at counteracting nausea and nothing is as comforting as a bowl of soup and a hot cup of tea.

I might do some journaling or dialoguing with some of the thoughts and worries that flare up, starting by asking myself why it stresses me out so much when I get ill, why slowing down is so draining for me. If I can sit with and move through that discomfort for a bit, then I might be able to find some clarity and lightness. Practising gratitude is also such a worthwhile thing to do. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I can take time to reflect on things big and small: like how bloody lucky I am to have such amazing people in my life, but also how much simple joy I get from a bright sunny day. Or doughnuts. What would I do without doughnuts?

I would be so tempted to spend all day binge watching Disney films or my beloved Real Housewives trash (and some room can definitely be made for one or two of these things), but binging in general is not a good idea. Instead, I could do a variety of nourishing things like reading, carving out time to meditate, preparing some writing for my blog, doing some colouring in my Vogue colouring book (a guaranteed way to unleash all my fashionable delusions of grandeur), taking a nice warm shower, having multiple naps if my body needs it and finally: fresh air. Obviously if you’re completely bed-ridden, this is nigh-on impossible: but I will always try and get some fresh air flowing by either going for the smallest of walks or making sure that a window is open.

Being ill is unpleasant, but it doesn’t have to be wasted time. In fact, it could be seen as an invitation to spend some better time with yourself. There are many things I know I can do to help relieve my symptoms and make sure that I attend to my emotional wellbeing in a healthy way. It’s easier said than done, but just trying to take these steps has got to be more productive than resorting to the old pity party.[1]

[1] Just an NB: a great friend often reminds me that unions fought for our rights to have paid sick leave. If you are ill, you have every single right to take whatever time you need to recover. It will mean you go back to work even fresher, you will be more present and your colleagues are not at risk of contracting your malady. Obviously if you’re really ill, get yourself to the bloody doctor.

Love Note – Avant gardish style (AKA anything but athleisure)

The fashion editor in me has been lying a little dormant for a while, but today, I feel like unleashing her a little. I’m sorry if this comes across a bit Blair Waldorf, but I’m sure this will be good for all of us.

I am well aware that fashion trends can envelope us one and all: I myself have been very open about my questionable adolescent boho phase, which attempted to walk in the shoes of Noughties Sienna Miller but ended up looking like a big old brown mess. I did not have the sartorial maturity to master both neutral, earthy hues and long hemlines. It taught me that just because something is in fashion, it doesn’t mean you should buy it and wear it. Especially if everyone else is buying it too. With this in mind, I am turning my critical fashion gaze to a trend that is beginning to get my goat: athleisure.

Everywhere I have been for the past couple of years, I have seen them: young people shuffling about in a combination of gym leggings, trainers, crop tops and enormous puffer jackets. I see them on university campuses, on the bus, going round Aldi, at the cinema, everywhere. I am not one to bash young people for their choices because being young is a lot more difficult than many older people remember. There is heaps of pressure to be successful, smart, have excellent socials whilst attempting to look after your mental health and a Brexit-ful future to look forward to. There is no doubt that being young in 2019 is hard. I understand that times are tough and we need every last inch of comfort and softness to get us through cold weather and political chaos, and I can see how athleisure helps in this. Why bother dressing properly to leave the house when everything else is going to shit? Having said that, this perpetual state of sartorial proto-gymming has to have an endpoint. Why would I want to wear clothes that remind me that: a) I should be in the gym doing exercise because I eat like a heifer and b) remind me of the horror of the exercise that punctures my week with a whole lot of sweating and my biceps and triceps being ripped to shreds? (Thanks Body Pump combined track).

Now, I am not suggesting that we all leg it to Comme de Garçons to snap up some silhouette-obscuring, proportional challenging Rei Kawakubo garb, even though that would be a whole lot of fun. But something has to be done about the on-going proliferation of athleisure. Yes, things are uncertain and shit at the moment but in times of existential discomfort, we are also given an invitation to grow and challenge old habits. Are we really going to approach this day, 24 hours we will never be given again, with the innumerate possibilities and opportunities it brings, in gym leggings? It’s like watching supermodels turn up for the Met Gala without having heeded the theme: lazy and atrocious.

I really don’t care what you do: whether you opt for layering, colour clashing, minimalism, extravagant knitwear, modest cuts, androgyny or a ball gown, and whether you experiment with the understated chicness of a classic T-shirt and jeans or the all-out geeky Renaissance flamboyance  of Gucci, handmade flowers and all, just make it interesting and make it personal.  Oh the joy of seeing someone who has committed themselves wholeheartedly to their aesthetic, no matter what their style. I just love it.

Finally, I ask you: are we really going to let history remember us for wearing cycling shorts? The pariah of the P.E. kit allegedly made cool because they were worn by a Kardashian? People, I challenge you, for your generation’s own good, to do yourselves a favour and leave the gym leggings in the bloody locker. This period of history is being defined by Trump and Brexit as it is: don’t let athleisure taint the 2010s even further.

Love Note – Grandma and all older people

This Love Note is dedicated to my Grandma, who is turning 93 today. 93! What a wonderful ripe old age, she absolutely blows my mind. Happy birthday Grandma x

There are many wonderful things that make my Grandma special, but what amazes me constantly is how well she has adapted to the constant changes that life brings. This woman, who was born in rural North Wales in 1926 now uses an iPad, sends emails and texts with aplomb (even if her use of capital letters sometimes gets excessive) and has worked out how to watch TV on catch-up. The world has changed unimaginably in the time that she has been alive: she lived through the Wall Street Crash, the Second World War, the establishment of the NHS, all the other ups and downs and advances of the 20th century and the dawn of the new millennium. It is so easy to see how older people could get disorientated and left behind by the inherent busy-ness of today’s society and I am beyond grateful that my Grandma still has her footing within it all.

Whilst everyone in society has something unique and wonderful to offer, older people are particularly valuable. Yet, they are routinely neglected, forgotten about or, worse, considered a waste of space and a drain on our resources. What fools we are to ignore the wisdom and experience that older people bring to our society: they have witnessed and experienced life’s numerous transitions and challenges on a personal level but have also seen the wider shifts and progressions in global terms. Where once we would have sat at the feet of our Elders, to listen to their stories, to learn how to approach life with courage and wisdom, we now keep our ears and our minds closed off.[1]

In the episode ‘2019: A Pubic Space Odyssey’ on Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s podcast ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’, the case is made exquisitely by Christophe Egret that public space should be developed (in the continental tradition of places, plazas and piazzas) to help young and old rub along together. By having squares and seating areas in urban areas, young and old become visible to one another and their places in public life are more respected and understood. It is a similar premise adopted by Channel 4’s fly-on-the-wall programme ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’: bringing young children into close contact with older people improves social awareness and feelings of belonging, not only for the children but for older people too. Indeed, young and old are perfect companions, at least according to Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam who wrote In Praise of Folly in 1509:

‘Old men love to be playing with children, and children delight as much in them, to verify the proverb, that Birds of a feather flock together. And indeed what difference can be discerned between them, but that the one is more furrowed with wrinkles, and has seen a little more of the world than the other? For otherwise their whitish hair, their want of teeth, their smallness of stature, their milk diet, their bald crowns, their prattling, their playing, their short memory, their heedlessness, and all their other endowments, exactly agree; and the more they advance in years, the nearer they come back to their cradle, till like children indeed, at last they depart the world, without any remorse at the loss of life, or sense of the pangs of death’.

Spending time with older people is precious and the thought of anyone lonely, isolated and sad is just horrible to me. If you are lucky enough to still have a grandparent, give them a ring every once in a while. It will absolutely brighten their day and most probably yours too. For now, I’m going to send this to my Grandma and thank her: for the trips to Woolworths for pick and mix; for introducing me to Little Women, The Swiss Family Robinson and Mary Poppins; for the trips to Baddesley Clinton, the butterfly farm in Stratford and even just the short walks to Dovehouse; for indulging my sister and mine’s obsession with Claire’s Accessories when we were younger; for the trips to Beatties to see the rocking horse; for the safe and warm home from home and, most importantly, I want to thank her profusely for the unconditional love she has always shown my sister and I.

[1] There was so much that could have been different from the EU referendum debate and result: but one of the biggest divisions and fault lines lay along age. Of the many things we have to learn from this whole experience is to speak to people who have different perspectives to us, and that might just have to begin with the older generations.