Theatre review: A Monster Calls at The Old Vic

I’ve done a lot of crying over this story.

First on a train as I pulled into a local station, red-eyed, having feverishly rushed through the last few, devastating pages of the book on the way home. Then at the London Film Festival, where I can only assume that the last twenty minutes looked as beautiful as the rest because I was viewing it through some sort of blurry waterfall. So I have history with A Monster Calls.

Still, I had to wonder how the the creative team setting up shop at The Old Vic was going to cope with the mixture of mundane school settings and storytelling flights of fancy. Continue reading →

The Book Club: what I’ve read so far this year

I miss my old office book club. It quietly ground to a halt when three of the four or five remaining hardcore members (including the designated organiser) all left within weeks of each other, but we still occasionally meet up to discuss books, watch films or go to the theatre. Still, that regular monthly-or-so community event with its collective nerdery and copious red wine is something I miss.

I’m not going to suggest an online book club, because we all know what happens. Continue reading →

Book review: Mumboss – Vicki Psarias (Honest Mum)

I’m late writing about this. The reasons are many; some of them I can talk about (a flurry of minor family illness, busy work, social obligations) and others aren’t my story to tell so I will simply say… well… let’s go for personal drama. The effects have drained me of both time and mental availability, so I’m about 3 weeks later than I wanted to be to share my thoughts on this book, which was painstakingly and lovingly written by a friend of mine, Vicki of Honest Mum. (Yes, that Vicki.)  Continue reading →

Gladstone’s Library aka I took a holiday alone and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done that I’m thinking of right now

I am a work-out-of-home mother. This necessitates some sacrifice in the amount of time I can spend with my daughter, and that can be difficult. My employer is reasonably flexible, allowing regular work from home which means maximising before and after school time. Despite various weekend commitments Continue reading →

Canon Fodder

goblet of fiyah

Canon.

lumos maxima

Also canon.

Neither of these moments appears in the Harry Potter books but they are now, technically, film canon. (Alright, the first one does, but it’s specifically described as Dumbledore delivering the line “calmly“). How Harry can be almost expelled for flouting the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery while trying to prevent a disaster one summer and then, with nary a slap on the wrist, cause temporary retinal damage for no reason the next, who knows? But there it is, for anyone to Google.

The thing is, they make for good movie moments. As much as I have many conflicted feels about the way Michael Gambon interpreted a Dumbledore he never read, and the way David Yates directed him in that, the fact remains it was an interpretation. I was free to watch it or not watch it. Like it or not like it. There are three universes at play here: the books, the films and the one in my head. It is neither realistic nor desirable for those to all be identical (if nothing else, book and film are very different media; as sorry as I was to lose Hermione’s impassioned S.P.E.W. campaigning, I concede it would have made pretty dull viewing).

Now, enter a new galaxy. Along comes a play, based on an idea none of us have yet read, with the original author’s involvement, in which some characters make the leap (though only in a form vaguely similar to how we last saw them, briefly, in a train station, and not at all how we spent the most time with them). In this completely fresh creative effort, which – not actually being the next book or film in either existing series – has pretty much full freedom to stand alone, one character is a different race from her mainstream portrayals thus far (ie book covers and film casting). And in a virtuoso display of how quickly the commenters of the internet can race to the bottom, every single individual who cannot cope with their white-centric world view being nudged even a tiny bit turns to the text to prove that it’s not ‘canon’.

I am not going to argue the point over Hermione. How I feel is pretty much summed up in this one tweet; I also couldn’t face battling the hordes for tickets, so it’s going to be a long time before I get to see The Cursed Child (sob!) and whoever is in it by then I shall be very excited about it. But this canon malarkey has got to stop. This obsession with picking over the details – as if authors can’t be fallible! As if there are not inconsistencies within universes! As if art can’t just bloody change if we want it to! – is taking the very joy out of being an enormous nerd.

Look, I get the geekery, of course I do. Two nights ago, on the way home from town to see the Christmas lights, my husband got my full spiel – not for the first time, frankly – on the individual nature of each individual and group strand of the MCU so far, and why Captain America: The First Avenger gets away with being the world’s longest origin story while Iron Man dispenses with the practical bit in the first ten minutes. He got the Shakespearean Thor spiel, and my speculations about how the use of Spider-Man might be the bit that prevents Civil War coming across as an Avengers movie. The thing is this: it is enormously enjoyable to deconstruct and reconstruct, to Google original comic book references, to spot Easter eggs, to come up with elaborate theories and to be, frankly, a bit paranoid – the interlocking successes of the MCU surely rest in part on this irresistible urge to neatly link things together. But it is also nonsense. Because between the myriad comic book strands, the visions of Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios, the scriptwriters, the directors, the editors, the cinematographers and the interpretations by the talent (plus the audiences themselves) there can be no such real thing as canon. It’s simply impossible. There are too many people involved. Messy, messy people.

It is, of course, disappointing when something you see does not satisfactorily chime with the contents of your head – or when your favourite paper moment doesn’t make it to the screen. But it is not necessarily wrong. There are times, I think, when one can be critical – for example, I think Yates made a downright peculiar choice to have Bellatrix and Voldemort dissolve rather than be real dead bodies, as I thought the whole point of those battle scenes in the book was to show the brutal, damaged, evil but very real humanity of the man who was once Tom Riddle. But that was less to do with having it be exactly as I pictured it, and more to do with making that point as I had understood it; I didn’t want any hint that the pieces of Voldemort could be swept back into a pile and reanimated (as if Otto Chriek and his emergency blood had just teleported over from the Discworld). Or any re-affirmation of his belief in his own exceptionalism. And yet I understood that it made for a much more cinematic moment, and had to concede that even when we’re both staring the same source material right in the face, Yates and I might yet be reading it differently.

Let me get things straight: of course I’m not saying that everyone should like every interpretation, neither that it’s necessarily wrong to argue it (it can be fun). But I think you do have to ask yourself why it’s bothering you and if your objection doesn’t come from the text, but an unexamined prejudice. And even when it does come from the text – does it really matter? When people argued that Jack Reacher, continually described in the books as being a huge dude, could not be embodied in not-quite-so-massive Tom Cruise, I did have a moment’s pause. But actually, it made little or no impact on the final result (in fact, it actually heightened the tension in scenes where gangs of rent-a-muscle thugs sneer at Reacher’s cast-iron self-confidence).

When it comes down to it, canon, despite being apparently pegged to the page or screen, none the less still lives entirely in the eye of the beholder – and the beholders of Hermione live in a world where whiteness is regularly the default. Our lenses are scuffed and blurred, and it sometimes takes someone making an unexpected choice to unfog them a little. Canon is a security blanket; reassuring, familiar, warm and comfortable – but if you look at it a little closer, frayed, full of holes and overdue for a wash. Sometimes adding a little embroidery or a patch can change it into something newer and more beautiful. And even if you run in desperation to Mama, you might not get the answer you want to hear.

 

Season’s Readings: win Pop Art – A Colourful History by Alastair Sooke

Admit it, your brain immediately re-titled that book as Hogwarts: A History didn’t it?

But look! Look at how gorgeous! The generous folks at Penguin Random House have given me a beautiful Christmas present of this delightful book – plus an extra one for me to give away. So here we are.

penguin present l.jpg

Pop Art – A Colourful History is a lovely little hardback, engagingly written (from the Viking imprint, if that kind of detail floats your boat), taking in – of course – Lichtenstein and Warhol but also delving into the lives and significant works of their less lastingly famous contemporaries, like Marisol Escobar and Rosalyn Drexler.

In a classic example of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the introduction opens with the idea that by the early 60s, the art world had become unshockable; that there was nothing “despicable enough”, in Lichtenstein’s words, that no one would hang it (and to think, this was before the heyday of Jeff Koons’ highly explicit works or the Chapman brothers’ deliberate grotesquerie). Sooke then takes the reader through the emerging landscape, the collision of media and the artistic period which might have had the greatest influence on the way we create art and content today.

So, fancy a copy? Then please comment below telling me one of your favourite ever pieces of art – any medium, any era. Let’s just talk lovely things.

Note: Please make sure you use a valid email address when you do so; it’s the only way I will have to contact the winner and will not be visible to anyone else or shared publicly, ever.

A few conditions:

  1. Only UK entries can be accepted. No purchase necessary.
  2. Entrants should be aged 18+.
  3. There is only one prize, and no alternative can be offered.
  4. Postage is standard UK first class delivery.
  5. The prize is one hardback copy of Pop Art: A Colourful History by Alastair Sooke.
  6. The closing date is 23:59 on 27th December 2015. The winner will be drawn at random using an online random number generator, and notified by email by the 31st of December 2015. The winner should provide their details within 3 days of being notified; should they not do so the prize may be re-drawn.

 

Disclosure: My copy of the book and the prize copy were both gifts from the Penguin Random House team.

Hairy Scary’s Bad Day: Squarehead returns!

EEK!

EEK!

One of my continually most popular posts – and this thrills me to bits – is my piece about I Am Squarehead, a simply delightful picture book about being oneself, written by Simon Frank and illustrated by Margit Mulder.

As I mentioned in that post, I came to Squarehead because I already knew Simon – and one of his business partners, Rochelle, is a good friend. Since then I’ve got to know Margit as well, and when I heard there was another Squarehead book on the horizon I was delighted. Better yet, Simon asked if there was any way I could lend a hand with some social media support around the launch; I agreed with practically unseemly haste.

LOOK AT THAT HUGGABLE FACE

LOOK AT THAT HUGGABLE FACE

Hairy Scary’s Bad Day picks up where I Am Squarehead left off, but this time focusses on the whuffling beastie Squarehead brought home with him. Hairy Scary is big, and gallumphing and looks pretty terrifying – but everyone knows he’s really an enormous sweetie who gives the best cuddles ever. So how on earth is he going to measure up against the scariest monsters in the world?

This week everyone’s been buzzing about Australian Instagram star Essena O’Neill, who suddenly obliterated her online presence – leaving behind a trail of genuine captions which give away the secrets behind each perfect ‘candid’ snap. I’m not sure that came as a surprise to anyone in her audience – especially not her young and very savvy followers – but the willingness to be honest about it was refreshing and more than a little painful. We are so very scared of not measuring up, all the time, and social media can be this constant reminder that everyone else is doing a little bit better than you – their lives a little cooler, more privileged, more beautiful. Of course it’s a carefully edited snapshot, and we know that really but we still, I think, don’t quite believe it somewhere in our fearful, competitive, paranoid lizard brains. It seems to me that the message of Hairy Scary’s Bad Day – that you can only be the best and happiest YOU you can be, regardless of the boxes others seem to tick – couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. Our kids are growing up at a time when it’s normal to have a very public record of everything you do; it needn’t be the complete story of who you are.

And yet of course it was Instagram I turned to when I discovered – completely by surprise – that I’d earned a mention in the acknowledgements for the book. My first ever, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to sit in the faintest glow of reflected light from this very special series.

Apparently Chinwag might star in the next one – dog lovers watch this space!

I Am Squarehead and Hairy Scary’s Bad Day are available now from www.iamsquarehead.com and Daunt Books. Toys and more coming soon…