Category: Books

Industrial decay: reflections on the ‘working class’ in England in 2014

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Pear Mill, Stockport, one of the last cotton spinning mills to be constructed, 1913

You have thought so much about poverty – it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different.  You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated.  You thought it would be terrible, it is merely squalid and boring.

George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

I don’t often write about where I am from, mostly because it depresses me, and the majority of my life has been spent in failed attempts to get away.  Recently however a renewed interest in the history of the town has made me appreciate it with new eyes, even if hasn’t contributed anything in making me want to stay.  Stockport is an old industrial town on the outskirts of Manchester which was formerly a centre of manufacture.  Although recorded as being in existence as early as 1170, Stockport is really a baby of the industrial revolution, the traces of which still form a large part of the landscape of the town today.  Terraced houses.  Cobblestones.  Mills.  Chimneys.  Rats.  Soot blackened red brick.  Canals.  Poverty.  Rain.

As the industrial revolution gathered momentum in the north of England, but especially in Manchester throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Stockport’s mills sprang up in earnest to take advantage of the roaring international trade in cotton.  Impoverished agricultural labourers and hand weavers who had been put of business by new machines flocked to towns to work in the factories, producing a quantity and quality and woven cotton that had not been possible before.  So far so good, I learnt all this in school without any particular interest . . . but then I picked up a copy of ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ by Friedrich Engels, and suddenly the industrial revolution has come back to haunt me.

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Meadow Mill, Stockport c.1880, cotton and wool spinning

Engels was born in Germany, and at the age of 22 in 1842 his parents sent him to Manchester to work in the ‘Ermen and Engels Victoria Mill’ in the hopes that it would encourage him to reconsider a career in business, as his father had intended.  Far from this, Engels began an in depth study of Manchester’s mills and slums, carefully considering the horrendous conditions of the working class and their station in society.  The outcome of his work was a call to revolution; ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ (which also prominently mentions Scotland, Wales, and Ireland).  It was a detailed and disparaging study, which surely would have scandalised the mill owning bourgeoisie had it been published in English (which didn’t happen until 1887, when a number of improvements had necessarily already been made).

He describes my hometown of Stockport in somewhat uncomplimentary terms, ‘There is Stockport too . . . [which] is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent.  But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town and valley bottom to the crest of the hill.  I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.’

Stockport in my opinion is still ‘excessively repellent’, and the recession has not been kind to the town centre; now containing a familiar financial downturn collection of payday loan shops, betting shops, £1 shops, charity shops, and of course the pre-requisite large number of empty premises.  The mills these days (where they are still standing) have been divided into units of furniture show rooms, museums, cafes etc. and are in various states of disrepair.  Several are now listed buildings, but the mills in general are so numerous and just so big that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain them all.  Some attempt has been made to convert them into luxury apartments, but I’m inclined to think they would probably make draughty homes, and wandering around the ones I visited today I would guess it probably takes a lot of work to convert them into something liveable.

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Meadow Mill

The cotton trade relied on slave labour on both sides of the Atlantic, from the slaves in America who picked it to the mill workers who wove it.  Engels suggests that the mill workers, ‘are worse slaves than the negroes in America, for they are more sharply watched, and yet it is demanded of them that they shall live like human beings, and shall think like free men . . . the bourgeoisie [exploit] the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones’.  While I wouldn’t like to make a comparison between the slaves and the mill ‘hands’, it is a cruel type of freedom that offers a choice between starvation in the streets or a short lifetime of toil, misery and boredom in the mills for barely subsistence wages.  What is obvious is that the success of both England and America, and perhaps every nation that has undergone/is undergoing industrialisation owes much of its development to human exploitation, ‘the destruction of their health, the social, physical, and mental decay of whole generations’.

This is particularly poignant when considering countries such as Bangladesh which have made headlines in the past year over working conditions, pay, and even the safety of the buildings.  Engels noted that Manchester had been constructed in such a way that the bourgeoisie could go about their business without ever having to enter a working class slum, and the same might be said of the west today.  We outsource manufacture to developing countries to exploit cheap labour, keeping the factories quietly tucked away in corners of the world we are unlikely to go to – saving us from being confronted by terrible conditions that capitalism has created.

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Room with a 19th century view, in the spinning room at Meadow Mill

The more I read of Engels, the more I was able to apply his descriptions directly to what I see happening in front of me in England today, and I have been reflecting on this more acutely since watching the controversial new Channel 4 series, ‘Benefits Street’.  This program, which documents the lives of benefit claimants and low paid workers on a street in Birmingham has clear parallels with many of the things that Engels discusses in ‘conditions of the working class’.  Although the clear difference is the government issued benefits, which outside of workhouse provision for the most desperate, did not exist in 1844.

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Vernon Mill, Stockport, constructed 1881, cotton spinning

Last week’s episode featured a number of Romanian workers, Britain’s most recent influx of ill received migrant workers, who had arrived on the street.  Working exhaustive hours for low wages, living in cramped conditions and derided by their unforgiving British neighbours, the Romanians received a raw deal in their hopes for a better life in England or of saving enough money to send home.  Engels, too, discusses migrant workers, but in 1844 the majority were from an impoverished Ireland, and from 1845 onwards an impoverished Ireland starving in the grip of a potato famine.  Desperate families left Ireland, only to receive a predictably hostile reception in England and were bound to slave away in a squalor which Engels described as being synonymous with the Irish.  The very worst slums in Manchester (a quarter known as ‘Little Ireland’) were those inhabited by the immigrant workers;

‘The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by the Irishmen.  Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces . . . the Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he is accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working people’s quarters and poison the air . . . The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves is impossible to describe.  The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch . . . When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door posts, mouldings . . . finds its way up the chimney.  Moreover, why should he need such room?  At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England.  So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by Irish immigration.  And since the poor devil must have some enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself of the drinking of spirits.  Drink is the only thing which makes the irishman’s life worth having . . . so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness.’

The concerns of English workers at the time were much as they are now, that the immigrants would bring unwanted competition by agreeing to work for less money and in worse conditions, and so would undercut the natives and bring standards of living down; not to mention introducing an element of moral decay.  Descriptions of the poor treatment of Irish workers was slightly painful for me to read, given that this almost certainly would have applied to my own great grandfather (from a family of Irish immigrants working in the mills in the late 19th century).

Those who have seen ‘Benefits Street’ might recognise a few of the things described above; namely rubbish supposedly scattered by immigrants, overcrowding, and alcohol consumption as a means of escape.  With so much against the workers of the industrial revolution, I wonder how the members of the upper class could reasonably have expected the working class to better themselves?  It is easy to casually suggest (especially from a height) that if people work hard and ‘get on’ then they can clamber their way out of poverty, but I believe that unless you are made of exceptionally stoic and inexhaustible stuff, as well as having a little luck – then it is nearly impossible now, just as it was then.  Engels regrets the decline of social mobility as he sees it, ‘The disappearance of the lower middle class deprived the working man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself’ and this well applies to England today.

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Steps worn down by the clogs of the workers. Although I did go into the mills the interiors are very plain and I didn’t find much of interest to photograph on this trip. These were utilitarian buildings so nothing has been spent on interior decoration – the corridors and rooms are all plain brick as seen here.

I haven’t had the time to talk about many other things that Engels mentions; the health issues suffered by workers, child labour, widespread illiteracy, industrial action etc.  However, Engels was outraged by all that he saw, damning ‘the property holding class, when it is so blinded by its momentary profit that it no longer has eyes for the most conspicuous signs of the times’.  I think this is a sentiment well worth remembering.

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The ‘pear’ dome at Pear Mill

Photographs my own.  If you’re interested in ‘The condition of the working class in England in 1844’ then it is can be downloaded for free off the amazon, go check it out 🙂  And if you’re interested in unearthing a bit more of Stockport’s industrial past, than I highly recommend taking a look at some off road urban exploration of the town here.

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Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is Ok

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On the terrace by the lake the rain pours on a Saturday afternoon.  A cold glass of wine, condensation dripping down the outside.  Later when the rain stops we sit by the lake at sunset, mist rising off the water.  ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’.  You say.  But the city pulls us back on her tendrils, pulls us down into the vortex.  Parties that never end, wooden floors, echoes and ghosts.  Night bleeding into dawn already, but you have barely arrived.

Fleeting glances of yourself in the mirror, a reflection you hate so much.  A reflection you don’t recognise, pin prick pupils or a dark pool the covers your entire eyes.  Pale and shaky and cut adrift.  What happened?  What paths brought me here?

A reflection that you try to seduce.  When you look a certain way, when you smile, lower your eyes.  Change your hair.  Change your dress.  Try to find a combination that will make him want to fuck you.  That will make people like you.  That will make the city accept you.  But it’s all lost when you hate what you see.  Shake your head.  Shake your head.  Walk away.

At 4am on a U-bahn platform he tries to explain.  But we’ve heard it.  Before.  And –

Can’t take it now.

Tomorrow?

DROWN YOUR SORROWS

Berlin is not perfect, but a different form of not-perfect to the last thing.  Maybe a better form.  Maybe.  Nothing is ever quite perfect as our perceptions and expectations are in constant flux.  Always saving for tomorrow.  Accept the imperfect nature of things as they are.

But the swans and the willows by the canal on this perfect August afternoon.  Happiness is as fleeting as the image of it in your head.

Smoke that blows across the grass.

A goodbye party by candle-light.  Standing on the edge of the circle, skirting the fringes, the darkness at your back.  All the young, and talented, and beautiful, and drunk, and drugged, and lost.  And sad.  Sometimes.  Libations in the moonlight, but you’ve lost your tongue at dawn.

Warm sunlight non-judgemental

Walk alone by the canal

Turn the handle

High ceiling and wooden floor

Silence in the courtyard

Her sleeping back, bare and smooth

Another morning.

Another day.  Another night.

YESTERDAY WAS DRAMATIC – TODAY IS OK

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Peace in this empty Berlin altbau on an early autumn evening.  Low lights and houseplants, emails and wine.  Neukölln night progresses around you as the clock on the kitchen wall ticks.  Away.

Crying into coffee and scrambled eggs this morning.  ‘Write it out’, you said.  Draw out the poison.  Time melts when we are together.  Seconds and eternity hard to distinguish between.

Disclaimer:  This is raw from my notebook, so, yeah.

A film for Bloomsday

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Vienna after hours

Happy Bloomsday everyone!  As you know I went to university in Dublin, and today is a rather important date in Dublin’s calendar as 16th June 1904 was when the events of James Joyce’s most famous creation ‘Ulysses’ took place.  ‘Bloomsday’ gets it’s name from the protagonist of the novel, Leopold Bloom, who takes an epic journey around Dublin mimicking Homer’s Odyssey.  In real life 16th June was the day that James Joyce met his wife Nora Barnacle.  Unfortunately I’m not apt to give a great summary of Ulysses because I have not read it (!) and I’m not a huge fan of Joyce or modernism in general.  Unsurprisingly I had no particular wish to take a term long course on Ulysses where a chapter was painstakingly picked apart each week.  I’d consider that a slow death indeed, although plenty of people thought this was pretty much the pinnacle of their Dublin English degree experience.  Let’s just say my time for Joycean enjoyment has not yet arrived, maybe I’ll think Ulysses is the greatest thing ever in 20 years time.  Maybe.  In which case I’ll regret my time spent as a literature student in Dublin dilly dallying with other literary greats and  cringing every time an extract from Finnegan’s Wake or a story from Dubliner’s would appear on a reading list.  As an addendum to this I would like to add, incidentally, that I have read James Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle (or rather, I had them read to me by a significant other who thought this was highly romantic amusing) – and I can certainly vouch for their entertainment value, as much as they are in the literary gutter 😉

Anyway, I digress.  ‘Before Sunrise’ directed by Richard Linklater is a film which takes place on the 16th June, and it is peppered with references to Ulysses.  While on a train from Budapest American student Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on her way to Paris, and he talks her into getting off the train in Vienna to explore the city with him.  The pair wander around the city as it begins to get dark and have a series of encounters with the locals.  Over the course of the evening as the sun begins to set the pair get to know each other better and become close, gradually ending up in a park before they have to part at sunrise so that Jesse can catch his flight home.  They vow to meet again at the train station in six months time, but do not exchange phone numbers or contact details.  I was just about to watch this film again because I have been thinking a lot of my own summer travels.  I would like to say ‘impending’ summer travels, but they still seem so far away . . . in reality, 7 weeks, depending on my work situation (unstable).  I know that rationally speaking 7 weeks is nothing, but it might as well be 7 years – it seems like an eternity.  I am going to Berlin for the long term, but I am planning several weeks of pre-Berlin travel with an open schedule.  I would dearly love to go to Vienna, where this film is set, so it seemed like an appropriate teaser.  I will also probably be travelling by train, so again this is a good film for stirring my imagination.  Obviously ‘Before Sunrise’ is your ideal interrailing scenario.  Meet an attractive foreigner on the train, get off in an appropriately romantic European city in the summertime, and let the adventure begin.

It is pure coincidence that I have decided to watch this film today of all days, in a weird and tenuous way I feel like my past (Dublin) and imminent future (trains, Europe, Vienna?) have come together here.  Both stories involve exploring a city (Dublin/Vienna) over the 16th/17th of June.  Both involve visits to a graveyard.  Jesse’s real name is James and, like Joyce, he spent a long time wandering around Europe.  I suspect there may be a few more links, but as I haven’t read the book and I’ve just lifted these facts from IMDb – you’ll have to spot them on your own.

For those of you in Dublin, or otherwise Ulysses enthusiasts I hope you enjoyed your day and celebrated appropriately!

White Nights

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White night wonders (kudos to Lonely Planet)

There is always a danger when revisiting books you read a long time ago that they might not be as good as you remember.  This realisation can be such a terrible let down, you feel cheated that you carried around a certain idea of something for such a long time and then you wonder at your own lack of taste the first time around.  This feeling is exacerbated by the amount of time that has elapsed since you first read the book, one should exercise a certain caution then in re-reading something from childhood.  Of course sometimes that book is everything you remembered it to be, and it’s an absolute pleasure –

I read One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell a very long time ago.  It wasn’t quite a childhood read, if I had to estimate I would say I was about 12 – and undoubtably there was plenty in there that was not age appropriate.  Literature wise I got away with absolute murder when I was younger, the consequence of being surrounded by adults who don’t read is they they never check what you’re greedily getting stuck into.  Something about this book stuck with me though, the heady atmosphere of a foreign city in summer, a city undergoing massive upheaval, a city in all its moods, daydream, reality, insanity.

Years later I’m glad to say I found this book to be a marvellous rediscovery, whatever caught me the first time is still there in the same way that I remember.  I think now I’m a (sort of) adult what strikes me is that there is a lot in this book that is similar to the way I travel and experience places, or surrender to places, I can see myself reflected here which is why I like it so much.  When I was younger I couldn’t have known that, but must have picked up on the mood anyway.  I’m busy making my own plans to spend the summer in Berlin so I think re-reading One Hot Summer has been somewhat tantilising.  I can feel the essence of my old european summers in the pages; running through Prague in a thunder storm one night in July, forks of lightening illuminating the skyline.  Sunburn in Paris after a day at Versailles.  Endless nights in Berlin, drinking wine in the park, walking home at 9am.  And all the really awful stuff as well, when you want to cry for no reason, when you feel like a city is alluding you, when it all seems too intense, when you struggle to make a connection to it as a ‘real’ place.  I’ve found that almost inevitably wherever you are the best and worst part is always the people.  It’s almost time for summer on the continent again, but not quite, so reading this book was both satisfying and frustrating at the same time.  I just wanted to be in it, now.

‘Many times in life one may encounter someone who touches us with an adorable and perplexing charm, who cuts the ordinary day with a moment of magic, and almost at once the person has gone, been swept away, sucked back into the crowd.  When rarely, through force of circumstance or ingenuity or imagination or daring, one manages to arrest this transience, to jam the conveyor belt of passing events and say no, stop, yes, hullo, and retrieve that person from their fall into the pit of what might have been, and bring him or her forward into the real, the now, the light, your life, this is . . . important.  And it means still more in a place where one has little, nothing.  And this happened.  And as suddenly, it came to naught.  I thought this contact meant something.  Does anything mean anything here, or is it all fucking quicksand?  Is every gesture hollow?  How can a person be so full of it one day, and the next – nothing?  Is it possible to know someone in this town?’

– One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg

If you’re interested then here’s an interview with Duncan Fallowell: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/duncanfallowellinterviewed/

My love affair with Emile Zola

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The man himself as pained by Edouard Manet in 1868

I’m reading Germinal at the moment and I can’t get enough of it; it really is the most astonishing thing I’ve read in a long time.  It’s so good that I’m torn between wanting to read it all day, and yet also wanting to savour each word because I don’t want it to end.  I’m sure an extract would convey this better, so:

‘He was Bataille, the doyen of the mine, a white pony who had been ten years below ground.  For ten years he had lived in this hole and occupied the same corner of the stable, performing the same task along the black galleries without ever seeing daylight . . . Now, with advancing years, his cat-like eyes sometimes took on a far-away wistful look.  Perhaps in his misty dreams he could dimly see the mill near Marchiennes where he was born, by the banks of the Scarpe amidst broad, wind-swept meadows.  Something used to burn high up in the air, a sort of huge lamp, but his animal memory could not quite recollect what it was like.  And there he stood shakily on his old legs, vainly trying to remember the sun.’

Aw.

Zola has a way of making my soul bleed.

This is the fourth book that I have read from the Rougon-Macquart series which follows the course of one family through Second Empire France.  I started with L’Assomoir, then Nana and The Masterpiece.  Up until now I think L’Assommoir was the most powerful.  Zola plumbs the depths of poverty and despair in a Parisienne slum.  Just as it seems like things might be about to improve some disaster befalls the family and they end up worse than they started.  This cycle is repeated and eventually they are all but living in the gutter pickled in absinth and cheap gin.  I read Nana immediately after this and the contrast was a bit of a shock.  Having somehow crawled her way out of slums Nana makes a meteoric rise from a two bit street whore to a decadent courtesan, fawned over by all the rich and powerful men of Paris.  Although Nana was good I identified a big flaw which became increasingly  apparent towards the end.  It felt as if Zola was struggling with his own conscience over the character he had created.  It was as if he realised that he had created a high class prostitute who was also a likeable character, and these two things could not be allowed to mutually exist.  In the final chapters he tried his best to turn Nana into a monster . . . but alas, I still liked her a lot.  Nana might be morally bankrupt but the extravagant luxury she lived in was infinitely better than the crippling poverty of her childhood in L’Assommoir, no matter how she acquired the money.  Now that I am reading Germinal Nana’s journey from rags to riches seems all the more poignant.  The miners in Germinal reflect on how they are trapped and oppressed by a wealthy class who lives off their misery and toil.  Nana managed to turn the tables for her own selfish gain, but I have a nasty feeling that her brother Etienne will not be able to save the weary masses in Germinal.

Germinal (1885) reminds me a lot of Hard Times by Charles Dickens.  Published as a series in 1854 Hard Times is the story of a northern industrial town and the struggle between mill workers ‘the Hands’ and the mill owners.  Although Zola was starting his career just as Dickens’s was ending, I often feel the need to compare the two.  I think there is much similarity in content, theme, social and political commentary etc. and most importantly, the desire to record contemporary life – especially the life of the lower classes.  I often find Dickens to be a little dull, the stories feel allegorical and preachy – like a manifesto thinly disguised as fiction.  Although Etienne’s socialist sympathies loom large in Germinal I still feel like the politics are secondary to the story.  Zola’s characters are first of all human beings, conjured up by beautifully rendered descriptions – not the puppets of social progress I always seem to find in Dickens.

Fun and Games

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Even growing up in relatively ‘normal’ household can be a psychological and emotional minefield, from which few can claim to have escaped unscathed (aren’t we all harbouring a few traumas and idiosyncrasies left over from childhood?)  For Alison Bechdel, author and illustrator of the autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home, these oddities are drawn out in a series of funny and often painful memories that punctuated her steps to adulthood.

Bechdel grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania where her father worked as both a high school English teacher and a funeral director.  He was also an ardent restoration enthusiast, painstakingly restoring their crumbling gothic revival mansion to its former glory.  This set up is both darkly amusing and faintly absurd, indeed Bechdel suggests that, ‘It was somewhere during those early years that I began confusing us with the Addams family . . . on warm summer nights, it was not unusual for a bat to swoop through our living room.’ 

The real story here, however, is how Bechdel’s identity and sexuality become entangled with the story of her father’s life and eventual suicide.  Poignantly Bechdel depicts the heady summer of 1972.  America is in the throes of the Watergate scandal, a teenage Alison gets her period and her father goes on trial for providing a minor (young male) with alcohol, with the other implications of this being hinted at but never specifically named.  Bechdel’s mother is also rehearsing for The Importance of Being Earnest; the play that received great success at the very time Oscar Wilde was put on trial for sodomy, an irony that is not lost on the adult Alison.  The message of this summer was clear: America was changing, in attitude, politics and ideals – there was going to be a generational shift away from the nuclear family and traditional American Dream.

Years later when Bechdel goes to college and comes out to her parents she reflects on her father and his own closeted sexuality.  Ultimately trying to conceal such a massive part of his identity has put a massive strain on his family and his own well being.

After reading Maus a few weeks ago and discussing it with a friend, he strongly suggested that Fun Home ought to be the next graphic novel I read (admittedly we’re just reading our way down the New York Times bestseller list here – but nothing wrong with that).  I was so sucked in by Fun Home that ended up polishing it off in just a single day, although I’ll be thinking about it for a lot longer, and will no doubt return to it.  The illustrations are top notch – apparently Bechdel used the painstaking process of photographing each pose to get the figures right, a technique that certainly pays off.  The colouring was also fantastic, something I really appreciate having read the monochromatic Maus and Persepolis so recently.  And of course the storytelling drew me in, Bechdel narrates in a meandering way, following a circular narrative that mirrors the way you would normally think or remember.  She begins a sketch, is distracted by another event and then returns to complete the sketch later.  This might sound a little confusing, but for an autobiography it works well.  Both of Bechdel’s parents were English teachers and Bechdel herself has a love of reading so this book is stuffed with literacy references from the misadventures of Scott and Zelda to Joycean meanderings; so if you’re a lit chick (like me) you’ll probably get a big kick out of this.  If not then you might miss a few jokes, but there are enough other things going on (the narrative, the illustrations) to keep you hooked.

Alison Bechdel also illustrates Dykes to Watch Out For which I’ll probably be looking into at some point.  Original artwork for Fun Home and some of her other books are also available to buy here.  Kind of wish I hadn’t seen that though because I obviously really want some but can nowhere near afford it!

Small frightened animals

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6 million is the figure that springs to mind first when I start thinking about the Holocaust, but try as I might I can’t seem to find exactly where this figure comes from.  Conservative estimates range from just under 6 million, right up to a staggering 26 million depending on your definition.  What’s fairly certain though is that these figures don’t include those who died indirectly as a result of the Holocaust years, or maybe even decades later.  The suicides.  The broken hearts.  Nor do these figures give any idea of the number of people who struggled with the fall out of the Holocaust to the end of their natural lives, often having an impact on their children and loved ones.

In 1992 American cartoonist Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel, Maus.  Spiegelman interviewed his father Vladek, a Polish Jew who survived Auschwitz, about his experiences with the aim of turning them into a graphic novel.  Tricky stuff this, the Holocaust doesn’t really lend itself easily as a subject for a cartoonist.  Spiegelman made the decision to portray the characters in the story as animals, the Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, and the Americans are dogs.  There is no human or sub-human here, just small animals helping or terrorizing each other arbitrarily.

What is fascinating about Maus is that is more than just the story of  Vladek’s experiences during the war.  Maus becomes the story of how the Holocaust continued to effect him even as an old man in America, and how this in turn had an impact on Art Spiegelman himself.  Vladek’s foibles are want to drive his young son insane, he is stubborn, tight fisted with money to the extent that Art complains his father fulfills the stereotype of the money grabbing old Jew.  Vladek is unable to see any little useless thing go to waste; picking up bits of wire off the street, trying to return opened boxes of cereal to the supermarket.  Added to all of that is the nightmares and the sadness, even after surviving Auschwitz and losing their first son in a ghetto liquidation Vladek’s wife Antje committed suicide in 1968.

Suddenly it becomes clear that the legacy of the Holocaust outlasts its original victims.  Art Spiegelman himself spent time in a mental institution, dealing with his own problems, but no doubt with those of his parents looming large.  Maus is more than just a graphic novel to entertain and educate, it’s a book that helps to get out the story of the children of the survivors, and for Art Spiegelman surely a form of therapy to deal with his troubled family history.

One for the Wallflowers

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Teen dream: Sam and Charlie

As a high school teenager I would have been prime audience for The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  More often than not I was that quiet kid in the corner with a book, and as I spent my adolescent years in Manchester obviously The Smiths featured heavily in the soundtrack to my teenage angst.

However, after reading the book I was underwhelmed.  I think this was partly because I had heard of the book a long time before I got the chance to read it, and it seems that The Perks of Being a Wallflower has attracted quite a cult following.  It was a good coming of age story.  I identified with Charlie and mostly approved of the books his English teacher gave him to read.  The playlists for Charlie’s mix tapes were probably the best bit.  And that was all.  So the book didn’t live up to expectations and I probably won’t read it again.  For me it falls into the same category as A Catcher in the Rye.  There are a lot of similarities as Charlie acts as a younger sort of modern day Holden Caulfield.  The books deal with a lot of the same themes, but for me neither of them reaches the standard that their cult followers would have you believe.

Bearing all this in mind then, why did I want to see the film?

Curiosity.  While I didn’t love the book, I didn’t hate it either and The Perks of Being a Wallflower is still going to do more for me as a teen movie than something like Mean Girls (am I still that shy teenager with a book after all).  I also wanted to see how Emma Watson performed outside the Harry Potter bubble, and I wasn’t disappointed.

As the film was directed, written and produced by Stephen Chbosky (author of TPBWF) it was faithful to the book.  I think there were some grumblings amongst the cult followers of the book when it was announced it was going to be made into a film, but surely they were reassured when they heard of Chbosky’s involvement.  Despite his involvement, or maybe because of it, the film failed to cast a spell on me.

I think the real star of the show was Ezra Miller as Patrick (he previously blew me away as a psychopathic teenager in We Need to Talk About Kevin).  He was charismatic, funny and brilliant, definitely my favourite character on screen bringing some well needed comic relief from otherwise quite heavy subject matter.  Emma Watson was cool and charming as Sam.  I stopped watching the Harry Potter films after the first few, so I’m comparing her performance to that of her childhood self and it seems heavy handed for me to suggest that she has ‘grown up’.  Instead I’ll say that it was a successful foray into something new, to my (English) ears her American accent didn’t sound too diabolical, and I’ll keep an eye on her in the future.  In any case she’s still a better actor than Daniel Radcliffe who is just enduringly terrible.  I don’t have much to say about Logan Lerman as Charlie, he was suitably quiet and awkward and intense.  I think it is quite difficult to concentrate attention on such a quiet character, and there was a risk of him being eclipsed by more exuberant, eccentric characters (Patrick, Mary Elizabeth) who are a lot more entertaining to watch.

The teenagers in The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the most part deal with pretty normal teenage stuff; highschool, bullying, drugs, sexuality, relationship troubles.  Watching this stuff makes me feel both lethargic and comforted; I know this world, it all looks like familiar territory – and it still makes me feel better to watch this rearranged version of my teenage life at age 24.  However, all of these teens live in beautiful middle class houses, and somehow or other they will all probably make it to college.  Their problems occupy a small space, because ultimately weighing up their backgrounds and stable homes you know that it will all work out in the end.  The uncomfortable aspect to this film then isn’t the bullying or the relationship problems (Charlie’s awkward non-starter relationship with Mary Elizabeth for example) but the creepy undercurrents of domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and suicide.  The darker side of life in those beautiful middle class houses.  It is the way that Chbosky deals with these issues in particular which is perhaps why the book attracted such a cult following.  He delves into some dark depths where other teen films and books don’t go, and that’s why even though I didn’t fall in love with The Perks of Being a Wallflower I would still recommend it to others like me who are still troubled teens at heart.

Edinburgh Shenanigans

Hungover in the hills: my last visit to Edinburgh coincided with St. Patrick’s Day

This weekend I am off to Edinburgh, and by happy accident that means I am there for Burns night (25th January, birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns).  Being sort of poor and not particularly haggis inclined, I’m not sure that I’ll be making it to Burns Supper, however it is Friday night and I’m up for the party – so I’m sure good times will ensue.  As an English Literature graduate celebrating the life of poet is definitely the sort of festivity I can get behind.

To get in the mood for the weekend I have been doing some reading, so here are two poems by Robert Burns:

Epistle to a Young Friend, May 1786

I Lang hae thought, my youthfu’ friend,
A something to have sent you,
Tho’ it should serve nae ither end
Than just a kind memento:
But how the subject-theme may gang,
Let time and chance determine;
Perhaps it may turn out a sang:
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

Continue reading

In the House of Asterion

Labyrinths.  There’s something about labyrinths that I find endlessly (no pun intended) fascinating.  I think it must the element of danger or the excitement of the unknown.  Something beautiful, intricate, deadly – always alluring and yet sure to hold something nasty.

Maybe when you think of labyrinths you are transported first to ancient Greece.  On the island of Crete King Minos would periodically  chose seven boys and seven girls to be sent into his labyrinth.  Inside they would be hunted and eaten by ‘Asterion’ – the Minotaur, a mythical creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull.  So the legend goes, when the third sacrifice approached Theseus volunteered to slay the monster.  Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos fell madly in love with Theseus and offered him a ball of thread to help him to find his way out of the labyrinth.  Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and was able to lead the surviving youths out of the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne’s thread.

Skipping forward to more modern times the labyrinth has proved popular fodder for creative types.

Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges imagines the labyrinth at Knossos (Crete) from the point of view of the Minotaur.  Lonely and bored he plays games, imagines meeting another Minotaur and reflects on the labyrinth itself,

‘All parts of the house are repeated many times, any place is like another place.  There is no one pool, courtyard, drinking trough, manger; the mangers, drinking troughs, courtyards, pools are infinite in number.  The house is the same size as the world; or rather, it is the world.’          ~ The House of Asterion, 1947              

 

Another Argentinian writer, Ernesto Sabato drew upon the image of the labyrinth in his short story The Tunnel.  The Tunnel is a tale of the dark psychological distress of painter Juan Pablo Castel and his obsession and subsequent murder of Maria Iribarne.  Sabato uses the dark twisted pathways of the labyrinth to reflect the state of Castel’s mind.  The painter muses that;

‘And it was as if the two of us had been living in parallel passageways or tunnels, never knowing that we were moving side by side, like souls in like times, finally to meet at the end of those passageways before a scene I had painted as a kind of key meant for her alone, as a kind of secret sign that i was there ahead of her and that the passageways finally had joined and the hour for our meeting had come.’

But eventually Castel comes to realise that:

‘ . . . the whole story of the passageways was my own ridiculous invention, and that after all there was only one tunnel, dark and solitary: mine, the tunnel in which I had spent my childhood , my youth, my entire life.’                         ~The Tunnel, 1948

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth explores the idea of a mythical labyrinth as imagined by a little girl named Ofelia.  Despite appearances Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a suitable film for young children, the real life drama will give you nightmares if the mythical monsters don’t do the trick.  Ofelia is going through some tough times.  The story is set in Spain in 1944, and Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to live with Captain Vidal who is to be Ofelia’s new father.  It’s post civil war era and Captain Vidal is busy rooting out anti-Franco rebels and being generally unpleasant.  Ofelia finds a labyrinth in the woods nearby, and it here that she meets a faun who recognises her as the long lost Princess Moanna.  As things become more difficult at home, her mother is ill and Vidal reveals himself be bloodthirsty in his pursuit of the rebels; Ofelia increasingly escapes into the world of the faun, completing a number of tasks for him.  When everything really begins to fall apart at the end Ofelia runs into the woods and is drawn back to the labyrinth.

Only trying to help . . . honest!

Ofelia’s labyrinth is very much one that is linked to her emotions and her mind; a psychological retreat.  I’m never quite sure what to make of the faun, as at times he is creepy and cold and although he ultimately helps Ofelia I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a benign influence.  Interestingly enough the word ‘pan’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘all’ – like the all encompassing nature of the labyrinth perhaps?  Pan was the Greek god of the wild, and in Roman mythology appeared as a faun.

Ofelia and the eyeballs

If you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth then it’s definitely worth a look as it’s an incredibly beautiful piece of cinematography and actually deals with some very difficult themes.  (I also highly recommend The Orphanage, 2007, which del Toro worked on as executive producer).

I’m a long time fan of Neil Gaiman’s Death and Sandman, and they’re probably amongst a small pile of books that I’d describe as ‘comfort reading’.  Easily my favourite out of the lot is the seventh book in the series; Brief Lives.  Brooding and miserable after being ditched by his girlfriend, Dream is drawn into Delirium’s hunt for their missing brother Destruction while harbouring his own ulterior motives.  After a series of mishaps and arguments Delirium and Dream eventually decide to consult their brother Destiny for help in finding their missing sibling.  They decide to walk to the garden of Destiny, and there’s only one way there: through a labyrinth.

As Dream and Delirium walk through the labyrinth it twists and changes until they finally emerge into the Garden of Destiny.  It is interesting that this should be the route to Destiny and is a thoughtful reflection on the course of our lives.  No matter what paths we take are we always ‘destined’ to end up at the same place?  Are all paths really the same path?  I have mixed thoughts on the concept of ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ so my answer to this is that I just don’t know.

The indisputable beginning of my obsession with labyrinths was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of my all time favourite books.  This book is quite long and complex so I’m only going to give a very abbreviated summary.  An average American family moves into an average American house in what is supposed to be a dream move to the country.  Shortly after moving in the family discover that the house is larger on the inside than on the outside, something which the father – Will Navidson is determined to get to the bottom of.  One day a doorway appears in the living room, the doorway leads into a cold dark corridor that seems to extend impossibly beyond the dimensions of the house.  Navidson is eventually moved to assemble a team of professional explorers to plumb the depths of the labyrinth he has discovered.  The story has several different narrators, each calling into question the accuracy of the next.  The entire book is a semioticians dream – if you’re into that sort thing.  And if not, well it’s still pretty addictive.

The labyrinths in House of Leaves are varied and many.  First of all it is possible to get lost in the text itself which twists and turns according to the story:

The house is often linked to the mental state of those exploring it.  If they are frightened or lost then it expands, if they are sure of the way then they paths become shorter and easier to navigate.  All those who come into contact with the house are moved to explore the depths and pathways of own their mind, forcing them to reflect on the things that have shaped them and the things that are important.

The final labyrinth on my list is one that I have actually been to at The Salon zur Wilden Renate in Berlin.  This labyrinth is inside a very cool club, and for 10 euros you are given a gold coin and a message of welcome:

After waiting in the bar for a while I was blindfolded and taken to the entrance of labyrinth.  Once there I deposited my gold coin in the the door and entered.  Although I’d heard people talking about this place and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to explore a real labyrinth I have to say I was a little bit nervous – anything could have been inside.  What I actually discovered was a womb or heart like chamber with a number of ‘corridors’ leading off it.  Some of the corridors became crawlspaces, some were dead ends, and when I finally did want to leave pretty much all of them seemed to lead back to the same place!  The most terrifying part was a door that lead into a completely pitch black brick corridor.  However old you are there is always something terrifying about being unexpectedly alone in the pitch black in an unfamiliar place, and I could hear my heart beating.  As I felt my way along the corridor a bright light would flash every few seconds, and I am now reminded of Ernesto Sabato’s words, ‘My mind is dark as a labyrinth.  Sometimes there are flashes, like lightening, that illuminate some of the passageways . . .‘  When I finally did find the exit and was talking to my friend afterwards he suggested that it wasn’t scary in there unless you made it that way – what you find in there is yourself.