Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Finding Comfort in TV Shows

Two weeks have passed since my last post and my life is settling back into a routine again, albeit one with a massive missing piece. It's an odd experience, trying to create a new normal. All you can do is take it all one day at a time and try not to think too much about times to come and who's going to be missing from those future events. I've made plans already to be with Mum over Christmas for a full two weeks; we both know it's going to be hard but hopefully being together will soften the ache the vacant chair is going to evoke. I'm also keeping myself busy with work, and with my at home activities. But I'm still making sure I take time to feel and mourn as needed; it's surprising how sneaky grief can be.

Over the weekend I watched the entire first season of Transparent on Amazon Prime. It is without a doubt one of the best TV shows I have seen in a long while. It was created and directed by Jill Soloway, probably best known for writing episodes of Six Feet Under. Challenging, funny, bittersweet, Transparent genuinely has it all. Sadly I know a lot of people will be put off or otherwise not give it a chance purely because of the subject matter and the mature nature of the programme. This is a show not embarrassed by the human body, and explores the nature of gender, being true to yourself and living your life for others sake, regardless of your own desires. It stars Jeffrey Tambor in career defining form as Mort Pfefferman, who has finally decided to live how he always wanted to; as a she. The impact this has on the family, along with flashbacks on his road to discovery, make up the first season.

With each episode only lasting for half an hour, quick-fire dialogue and outstanding performances from all, Transparent is a rare TV gem. It also made me cry horrendously. Not because of the content (though the whole family storyline did bring up feels) but due to the musical choices. A lot of it is the kind of music Dad always listened to. And then at the end of the ninth episode, they played one of the songs we had for Dad's funeral, Leonard Cohen's "That's No Way to Say Goodbye". I am not ashamed to admit I bawled like a baby. It was unexpected, but oddly was a great relief to get so much of the pain out. Because this is the thing about grief; it doesn't come when you want it to or in the way you expect. It builds up inside you without you being aware of it, like poison waiting to be drained. Then it hits you sideways and you just hope it won't be when you're in a room full of people.

If it weren't for TV box sets and streaming services I can guarantee all of this would be harder to deal with. So far I've finished Transparent, two Seasons of the Borgias (also amazing), Arrow Season 1 and a number of films. I've also been making time for writing every day and am finding that this too is a great cathartic experience. Not just getting words down and exploring a story, but feeling like even in the middle of this hurricane I'm in right now, that I'm still moving toward something. Watching inspiring things like Transparent only encourages me to keep going, in the hope that the something I'm moving toward is a story of my own that's half as good.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Observations on Grief

There are times when life tests us, when just getting through the day is a goal in and of itself. Trying not to block emotion, but at the same time trying to not let the tidal wave of feeling engulf us. I'm in that place right now and it is a strange, frustrating, educational and, at times, painful place to be. I'm making goals for myself, taking time to enjoy things, and giving myself permission to just feel what I need to feel without embarrassment or self-consciousness. This is what's been going on since my dad died two and half weeks ago from a heart attack.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Day I Saw George and Robin


For once I have a good excuse to be late with my blog post; I've got a lot of deadlines for stories and one of them is the 31st August. Cue much furious typing and trying to get the thing finished to submit. For only a 3000 word story it's been hard to make the time to write. I of course blame the day job (and not my own inclination to watch TV episode marathons) but things are looking good. I'm on track to have it finished, rewritten and edited before the due date.

The other thing that ate into my time, but was welcome to, was an event I went to last Tuesday evening; HarperVoyager UK presenting George R.R. Martin and Robin Hobb in conversation. As these are two of my favourite authors, and the event was happening about ten minutes walk from where I work, I couldn't say no. Tickets weren't cheap, at £45 each, but then again how often are you likely to see not one but two of your beloved authors in the same place, talking about their own work and asking each other questions? I can safely say it was worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury
1950
Paperback, 2013 edition

Ray Bradbury is one of the old guard of Science Fiction that I had never got around to reading. Deciding to remedy this situation I thought I'd give The Martian Chronicles a go, as it is consistently mentioned as a must-read of the science fiction genre. I was expecting an old fashioned science fiction story, considering it's from 1950. It turns out I massively underestimated how incredibly old fashioned it would be.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Remembrance

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. I haven't been following the news about it too closely, I'm ashamed to say, but I am planning on making a trip to the Tower of London to see the art installation there, where they are filling the moat with ceramic poppies. Part of the reason I'm not paying too much attention to all this is likely due to how it's making me feel about events at the moment. While the media flit from one disaster to the next, or attempt to terrify us with the threat of Ebola from Africa (thereby exploiting two of their favourite stereotypes, the deadly dark continent and a pandemic) I'm left still wondering about things they've moved on from. Specifically, the events in Ukraine. It feels as though the true lessons of WWI and WWII have still not been learnt.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

I can't be the only one feeling like the remembrance of WWI is poignantly timed, considering what's happening in Eastern Europe and the Middle East right now. And while Israel will no doubt continue to shell schools, markets and whatever else it pleases in Gaza; while Hamas will no doubt continue to break ceasefires by killing Israeli soldiers and throwing rockets into civilian areas in Israel; there is something stirring in Ukraine that could swamp us all. It mimics too closely events prior to the first and second world wars. And it's made me realise that the Cold War never ended; it was just in a frozen state and is now beginning to thaw.

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.
The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

The truth of war is far worse than hell itself. The lives destroyed goes further than just those who die on or off the battlefield; it stabs into the hearts of the communities and families left behind. It scars the land and the psyche of people for generations. Nothing brought that home to me more than when I visited Stonehaven, Scotland last year. There is a memorial to the WWI and WWII dead on a hilltop there and it's a heartbreaking site. Stonehaven is a small fishing town, and was probably very similar to Irvine, the small seaside town my family are from in Scotland. Everyone would have known each other. And the list of dead in Stonehaven, particularly from WWI, is a long one. This site has the full list, along with those from WWII, and it's clear whole families were decimated. The inscription on the inside of the memorial reads: 

ONE BY ONE DEATH - CHALLENGED THEM - ONE BY ONE THEY - SMILED IN HIS - GRIM VISAGE - AND REFUSED - TO BE DISMAYED

The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

There doesn't seem any simple solution to the problems in the Middle East or in Ukraine, but there is surely a better path than one of conflict. Diplomacy, long term perspectives and negotiation with true resilience needs to be the driving force, rather than short-term gain. And for that it's going to take people, all people, to reject hatred, violence and blame. Some think that's a naive position, one built on hope and not reality. But South Africa showed how even the most divided nation can move on from atrocity. Even Ireland, despite the viciousness and long lasting hatred that had built up, is moving on. Because people rejected violence and condemned those who committed it, no matter whose side they were on, no matter in whose name they did it. They forgave, or at best learnt to live with their pain, and moved on. I truly hope all of us, including myself, can learn those lessons.

View from The Stonehaven and Dunnottar War Memorial. 2013.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Friends, Romans, Countrymen and Some Flash Fiction

Slowly but surely I'm getting back into the swing of things after my holiday. I always end up a bit off balance when I return from being away, especially when I really, really enjoyed myself and can only think about going back again. In this case I went to Rome, which was one of my "must-see-before-I-die" places. And it did not disappoint in the slightest. I got to see almost all of the cool ancient Roman stuff, and squeezed in the Vatican, the river Tiber and the Castel Sant'Angelo (I didn't know what it was either, apart from it being in Assassin's Creed games). There was even a top floor on my hotel to sunbathe on with a pool. Absolute heaven.

Rather than do a big old travelogue post I thought I'd write a short story inspired by that beautiful city and its crazy, wonderful inhabitants and the huge amount of history it has.



Proserpina

  Hurrying through the cobbled, narrow streets my eyes watch my feet, determined not to trip once again.
  Tourists wander past, their gazes drawn to the surrounding walls. All I feel is a sense of confinement, a desperation to escape these towering structures, their facades seeming to crumble before my eyes.
 Reaching the top of the Spanish Steps, a groan escapes my drawn lips. The crowds are thick and oblivious to others, soaking up the sun so the passage through is small and ever-shifting. Taking a deep breath of the hot air, the stench of humanity thick in it, I steel myself and dive into their depths, asking for forgiveness rather than permission as I hurry past them. Most barely notice me, but a few, mainly children, turn and stare as my thick skirts swish past them. Others do a double take, smiling before turning to their fellows to mention me. By the time they turn back I will be gone.
  The sun is high in the sky but I don't have much time. I have to reach the fountain before the sun starts to dip. Cars screech and honk when I run across the road, but no more than they always do in this loud, cacophonous place.
  Finally I reach the piazza, with the lone fountain spurting forth life itself. I slow my pace, a sudden reluctance making my feet drag. Here I am, in the bright light of day, about to give it all up again. But it is the price I must pay. That I will always pay.
  I step over the slack chain that lines the fountain edge and step into the blessedly cool water, glittering topaz and green. There suddenly seems to be few people around as I reach out with my left hand, the ring on my third finger glinting darkly, even in the bright of day. As always, I hesitate, wondering if there is a way. A way to not got back. The exact same thought I have every year before I come here and when I leave. But I know I could never give up that other place entirely, whatever my mother may tell herself; no matter what she tells me when I'm within earshot. Just as I know I can never entirely give up this place either, or the maternal figure always waiting for me.
  My fingers brush the carving of Romulus and Remus suckling on their mother's teats, her wolf's head staring deep into me. Another strong mother figure. Is there ever a way to fully escape them?
  A whirling of light and water surround me, almost drowning me and suddenly I am no longer in the daylight. There is no heat upon my shoulders, no smell of cars, sweat and dreams. Instead there is only blessed coolness, the scent of just fallen rain and the shadows.
  "My love, you have returned at last. I feared you would change your mind."
  The same words. The same words every year and yet my heart beats that little bit faster, and I close my eyes in anticipation as I turn around and open them to look upon my husband.
  "I will always return to you my dark one. Not even my mother can keep us apart forever."
  With the ritual words out of the way he embraces me, his hands cold against my back but his eyes glowing with a fire I could never resist. The same fire that made me leave with him all those many moons ago.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Can Art Be Separated From A Flawed Creator?

Trigger warning: This post features links to accounts of sexual abuse and rape, though details in the actual post are minimal.

Here in Britain we're currently going through seemingly never ending discoveries of sexual abuse at the hands of people in powerful positions. Rolf Harris, the much loved presenter of Rolf's Cartoon Club and Animal Hospital, was convicted on twelve counts of indecent assault and sentenced to five years and nine months. Prior to that Max Clifford, was sentenced to eight years for a string of indecent assaults and it's common knowledge now what Jimmy Saville was up to, though without a trial his accusations will remain forever unproven.

Gathering less attention, but certainly something that seems fatefully timed, has been the revelations about the science fiction and fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley. There had been conjecture about her, and even certainty that she'd covered up her husband's crimes of rape and abuse of boys.  She admitted as much in her deposition in 1998, with the transcript leaving no room for doubt. But far more shocking, to me at least, is the heart wrenching account from her own daughter, Moira Greyland, revealing that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself was committing sexual assault, among other types of abuse, towards her throughout her childhood. And that there may be others. It isn't easy reading and I felt physically ill reading Greyland's poem, "Mother's Hands", but Greyland's words are incredibly moving and brave and deserve to be read.

So far I've never read any of Bradley's works. Interestingly she was never a writer my mum rated much, and as I experienced Science Fiction and Fantasy through my mum's collection it meant I wasn't really all that aware of her. There was a copy of Mists of Avalon on mum's shelf but I never got round to it. I have it on my wish list but I'm in no hurry to read it. I'm not in favour of blacklisting artwork even if it's created by a monster though. Sometimes even the most evil of people can create something of worth or meaning to others. I can't imagine what these revelations will do to those who loved Bradley's writing, who got started on the writing path because of reading her work or submitting stories to her anthologies. One has pledged to give all of her profits from the stories she got published that way to RAINN, America's largest anti-sexual violence charity. It's a wonderful way to handle the dichotomy of being proud of work you've done, even though it's connected to someone who has done such terrible things.

Australian councils are working to remove all Rolf Harris artwork from their buildings and in the local areas, and the price of his art has plummeted since his conviction. Likewise, I imagine less SF and Fantasy fans will be interested in reading Bradley's works. But I don't think what someone does in their life, no matter how horrendous, means their creations should be destroyed. If that were the case we wouldn't have a lot of the classical music, paintings or stories we have today. Then there's the question of the value you can get from art created by undesirables. My mum's response when I told her about all this was that she'd always felt there was something a bit "off" in Bradley's works, even though she fit the feminist, female, science fiction writer mould that my mum prefers. She couldn't put her finger on it, but said she wasn't entirely surprised by the revelations about Bradley.

It's often claimed that art can reveal far more of the artist than they intend, and for that reason alone I won't write off the chances of me reading a Bradley book one day. My interpretation of her works will be heavily influenced by what I know, just as reading Mein Kampf or looking at one of Hitler's paintings is impossible to separate from what he was responsible for. It's also a lot easier when the perpetrator is deceased; because no matter what you think of their art, at least you know they aren't benefiting from your purchase. At the same time though I can completely understand people never wanting material near them that was created by someone who committed terrible crimes or atrocities. Because even though art can exist on its own merits, it is always, inevitably, entwined with the person who created it.